Monday, October 13, 2014

Fright Night

How fun is the original Fright Night? What a terrific love letter to campy, late-night creature-feature cinema. You can practically feel the warmth and affection radiating off of this movie, which is smart, sexy, funny and gleefully disgusting. I saw Craig Gillespie's remake back in 2011 (in large part because I wanted to see David Tennant on the big screen) and it's a perfectly decent movie but it takes itself too seriously. I much prefer the humor and charm of Tom Holland's original version.

When high schooler Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) realizes his charming new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire he tries, in vain, to warn the people closest to him of the danger. Charley's mother (Dorothy Fielding), preoccupied with work, doesn't have time to indulge her son's fantastical imaginings; his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and his friend "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) both think Charley has lost his mind. The desperate young man finally reaches out to the one person he thinks will believe and help him: Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), legendary horror film star and host of Charley's favorite show, "Fright Night," a serialized showcase of B movies. It never occurs to Charley that Peter might not be as skilled at vanquishing the undead as his cinematic counterpart. In Charley's mind Peter Vincent is a fearless vampire slayer, not a burned-out, past his prime actor who's cash-strapped and desperate for work.

Like many of my favorite horror films, Fright Night holds up well, in large part, because its characters are memorable and appealing. There's an every-boy quality to William Ragsdale's Charley that makes him relatable and a bravery, along with an inherent sense of decency, that makes him admirable. The same could be said for Amanda Bearse, who's so fresh-faced, sweet and sassy that it's easy to see why Charley is crazy about her. Chris Sarandon is equal parts charming and oily as vampire-next-door Jerry and Roddy McDowall is absolute perfection as Peter Vincent. Like Charley, there's a sense of decency at the core of McDowall's character; it's heartening to see these two underdogs find their inner reserves of bravery and join forces to protect their community and the people they care about. And speaking of underdogs I have a particular soft spot for Charley's pal Evil Ed, a character who starts out as obnoxious (but effectively amusing) comic relief and becomes something much more unforgettable and tragic by the end of the movie. Stephen Geoffreys is adept at projecting Ed's false sense of bravado as well as his vulnerability. 

Another thing I love about this movie is the variety in the vampire death scenes. Just like The Lost Boys two years later, no two vampires go the same way in Fright Night. The effects during the blood-sucking bloodbath at the end of this movie are gory, goofy and wonderful. Vampires transform into wolves, bats and one of them, after being staked dissolves into a pile of green goo and, inexplicably, sand. Like everything else about Fright Night the ick factor is equal parts horror and humor. But the hijinks never come at the expense of the characters, who are the heart of this great movie.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Evil Dead

I enjoy all of the Evil Dead titles but Sami Raimi's original flick, about five college students vacationing at a cabin in the woods who unwittingly unleash a bunch of demons and get themselves possessed one by one, remains my favorite. It's frightening and it's fun. There's a gleeful, manic energy that permeates Raimi's debut feature and his filmmaking choices are incredibly creative and appropriate. The Evil Dead also introduced horror movie lovers to the brilliant Bruce Campbell and, even though it's the sequel that cemented Campbell's cult status, I have a soft spot for the more traditional "Final Girl" performance Campbell gives in this first film. And the fact that The Evil Dead was shot on location in my own back yard, in Morristown, is a tremendous source of pride for me as an East Tennessean.

There's very little that needs to be said about the plot of The Evil Dead; it's straight-forward and basic and, given all the imitators over the years, it's more or less become horror cliche at this point. Five Michigan State University students, siblings Ash and Cheryl Williams, Ash's girlfriend Linda, his friend Scotty and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly, venture into the remote backwoods of Tennessee for a little R&R at a rustic, isolated cabin. The friends discover a Book of the Dead in the cabin's basement, along with audio recordings of spells and incantations that, when played (unbeknownst to them), release the demonic forces within the forest. Once the recordings are played and the demons unleashed Cheryl, Shelly, Linda and Scotty become possessed one after the other by the evil entities, leaving Ash to fend them off and fight to survive the night with his life, and his soul, intact.

For a movie made thirty one years ago The Evil Dead holds up incredibly well. There's a creepy, unnerving quality to the location which is heightened by the camerawork, particularly the eerie tracking shots that race through the forest and are meant to represent to the demons' point of view. Shot for peanuts, the low-budget movie has a crafty, homemade quality that enhances both its horrifying nature and its charm. It's the etsy of the horror genre. Even the more outlandish and unbelievable effects towards the end of the movie, the stuff that looks like outtakes from an 80s-era Peter Gabriel video, still hold up because they are so wonderfully odd. And Bruce Campbell is truly delightful and lovable as Ash, the movie's very reluctant hero. His reaction shots throughout the story are hilarious. He seems less afraid and more repulsed and exasperated by each terrifying turn of events. But there's genuine warmth and affection in Campbell's performance as well, which keeps the character from backsliding into snarky, ironic parody. 

The small-scale, intimate nature of The Evil Dead makes the terror feel more real and immediate. It also makes this movie endlessly endearing. This one's a real gem.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ginger Snaps

I've seen Ginger Snaps more times than I care to remember. It's one of my horror stand-bys every October. The premise is simple but oh-so brilliant, the story so perfectly and enthusiastically executed and the performances so endearing that it's impossible not to fall in love all over again every time I watch it. It is everything I want in a horror movie. It's gory and a bit tongue-in-cheek but it's also intelligent and thoughtful. It's wildly entertaining but it doesn't pull punches. And it features characters I genuinely care about, which makes the inevitable tragedy of the movie's conclusion all the more heatbreaking. I like horror that scares me but also makes me feel something beyond terror. Ginger Snaps certainly fits that bill.

Ginger Snaps is the story of the close-knit, misfit Fitzgerald sisters. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) live in the suburban Canadian town of Bailey Downs, a place whose only defining characteristic seems to be its ordinariness. A recent rash of animal killings are, apparently, the only thing that breaks up the monotony and the townsfolk are all a-twitter over the unknown man or beast who is tearing their canine companions limb from limb under cover of darkness. I wondered why these folks didn't just bring their beloved pooches inside at night but maybe they're too dimb-witted and chipper to think that tragedy could strike in their own backyards. It's obvious from the outset that Brigitte and Ginger are fed up with this bland, insipid little community. When they're assigned the school project "Life in Bailey Downs" the girls do a photo shoot and stage pictures of each other commiting various forms of suicide. When they present their slide show to their class their teacher is appalled but the male students think that Ginger is hot. Brigitte and Ginger are bright and creative (and hardworking when they wanna be, cause that suicide project took some effort) but this is not a community that fosters their particular brand of creativity. They clash with their female classmates, who think the sisters are freaks. And while the boys may pine for Ginger she couldn't care less about any of them. The girls have made a pact to get out of Bailey Downs or end their lives and they constantly repeat their mantra "out by sixteen or dead in this scene." Even though they're death obsessed they don't seem to actually want to die. They just seem incredibly stifled and bored. Under different circumstances I'd like to think they'd have gotten out of town and made a new life for themselves in a community where they could feel more accepted. But this isn't that kind of movie.

The one person in town who supports the girls wholeheartedly is their mother, Pamela (Mimi Rogers). But, sadly, support doesn't always equal understanding. Pamela is the kind of woman who wears appliqu├ęd vests, hair bows and festive, dangling pumpkin earrings. She is relentlessly chipper. She comes across, initially, as the target demographic for Hobby Lobby but she's more accepting and open-minded than she first appears. Or maybe she just loves her girls so unconditionally that she overlooks their eccentricities. More than anything, Pamela is preoccupied with the fact that neither of her high-school aged daughters has gotten her first period. So when Ginger complains of pain in her lower back one night at dinner Pamela can barely contain her glee when she asks "Do you think it might be cramps?" There's a definite reluctance on the part of both girls to accept that this is something they're inevitably going to have to deal with. To them the transition to womanhood (ugh, what a Hallmark way of saying it but I couldn't think of anything else) is just another way of selling out and conforming. Sexual maturity is part of what makes their classmates into a bunch of idiotic airheads, as evidenced most clearly by the school's Queen Bee Trina (Danielle Hampton), a mean girl of the highest order who taunts and torments the Fitzgerald sisters during PE class but turns into a simpering pile of empty-headed goo after school when she sees the local drug dealer, and object of her unrequited affection, Jason (Jesse Moss). 

Nevertheless, Ginger does get her first period. Which happens to coincide with a full moon. So, while the girls are out looking for dead dog parts (to use in a prank they're planning for their nemesis, Trina) they are confronted by a werewolf, who attacks Ginger. The girls manage to outrun the beast (who is promptly dispatched by Jason and his minivan) and by the time Brigitte gets her sister home Ginger's wounds have already begun to heal. Post-attack, Ginger becomes increasingly volatile; she's hostile and combative towards Brigitte and she's suddenly got a voracious sexual appetite. But we still catch glimpses of the real Ginger and it's clear that she is a very frightened young woman. One who feels she is no longer in control of her emotions or her body and who is terrified of the damage she might do. It's up to Brigitte to find a cure before the next full moon transforms her beloved sister into a full-on lycanthrope.

I have a particular affinity for tragic female monsters. Angela Bettis's May Canady and Sissy Spacek's Carrie White always elicit my sympathies, even when their stories spiral into bloodbaths and their actions become impossible to condone. Katharine Isabelle's Ginger is cut from the same cloth. The thing that makes Ginger Snaps so special is the incredible bond between the Fitzgerald sisters. Even when every trace of Ginger's humanity is gone the beast she has become still recognizes Brigitte as her sister. And Brigitte is loyal to the end to Ginger. I usually feel bad for misfit characters because they're isolated and alone so the love and devotion these two outcast siblings feel for one another really resonated with me. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle have fantastic on-screen chemistry and create a bond that's entirely believable. At the outset Brigitte is surly and Ginger is mouthy but as the movie progresses you see the warmth and affection they have for one another and the underlying vulnerability they both feel after being thrust into an impossible, hellish situation. I thought the supporting players defied expectation in pleasant ways, too. Mimi Rogers is terrific as Pamela, whose perpetually perky demeanor belies the depth of her fierce maternal instincts. Jesse Moss's Jason, who initially seems like a cool guy looking out for his own interests, turns out to be sensitive and genuinely concerned for the sisters when he understands their plight. Even Danielle Hampton's Trina exhibits flashes of insecurity underneath her icy, hateful exterior.

Like Carrie, I wonder sometimes about the message Ginger Snaps is trying to convey. I think there's something empowering about Ginger owning her "curse" (in both senses of the word) but as things escalate and she's shown to be out of control I start to worry that the moral to the story is "women who own their sexuality, who feel empowered by it, are scary and need to be put in their place." I feel like that's surely not what the filmmakers wanted me to take away from this movie. Maybe it's meant more as a critique of society's view of strong women rather than a critique of the women themselves. Or, most likely, it's just a story about how awkward and crummy it is to be a teenager and feel like you don't belong. And once you hit puberty and your body starts betraying you things get even worse. I dunno. I'm probably overthinking it. I do know that this is a movie dominated by dynamic female characters and it features actresses who deliver compelling performances. That alone makes it worth checking out. The sharp, snarky dialogue, and the great special effects (sometimes a bit hoaky but mostly a great big practical gore win) are just icing on the cake. This one is definitely something special.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dale Watermulder

Last Thursday I attended a beautiful memorial service for Dale Watermulder, who died on May eighth at the age of 74. Dale was retired from the Knox County Public Library System, where he had served for over two decades as the head of the Audiovisual department at Lawson McGhee Library. I was fortunate enough to work with Dale in AV for a brief period of time (from 2000-2001) and I can honestly say it was the most satisfying and rewarding work experience I've ever had. It was my first job with the KCPLS and I will always be grateful to Dale for hiring me and rescuing me from retail hell (I'm sorry, Kohls: no matter how much I love shopping with you I was miserable working for you). More than that, though, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute in some small way to this awesome facet of our local library system. And I'm so glad that it gave me a chance to get to know Dale better. He was a wonderful, brilliant man and one I greatly admired and respected. He was one of my heroes.

I didn't really get to know Dale until I worked with him but I'd known who he was since I was a kid. My mom worked at a small junior college and she would check out movies from Lawson McGhee to show in her classes. When it was time to return them she would often pull up to the library entrance and send me inside while she made the block. "Take this upstairs to the second floor and tell Mr. Watermulder that it's a return from Dixie Hall at Draughons Junior College" she would tell me. And I would dutifully carry the film case upstairs and return it to Dale. Or Becky. Or Amy. All of whom I would work with years later. In some small way it felt like working with family, because they all remembered me from my days as a pint-sized courier. Plus, by the time I joined the department most of the staff had been working together for years so they acted like a family. There was a refreshing lack of pretense. None of us were really morning people and so, for the first hour or so each morning, we kept quiet and stayed out of each other's ways. Nobody minded if you weren't a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed ray of sunshine at the start of the day; if you just wanted to quietly go about your work until you thawed out that was alright. I assimilated quickly and felt comfortable and at home in that environment. I actually looked forward to work, which was an absolute revelation for me at the time.

Of course that had a lot to do with the nature of our work as well. As head of the department Dale cultivated and curated our collection of movies and music. We provided the public with what they wanted and all the most popular titles were readily available but we also provided materials that were more obscure, more offbeat and random. Dale's knowledge of cinema was vast and varied (and his knowledge of music - classical, in particular - was even more impressive) but he was never snobbish about it. And, this is something I loved so much about him, he wanted to know what we were interested in as well. He listened to our recommendations and suggestions and he took them seriously. Despite his enormous wealth of knowledge he was always keen to learn about new things. Working with him felt like a collaborative process with the single goal of getting the biggest, best assortment of material to the public that we possibly could. It felt great to be a part of something like that, even if it was only for such a short amount of time.

After Dale retired from the library system he would occasionally call me up and we would go to lunch. After we'd decided on a place to eat and exchanged pleasantries he'd always ask "So, what have you seen lately?" He'd get out his little notebook and write down most or all of the titles I'd mention to him. Then he'd tell me what he'd been watching. His recommendations were great. I began my love affair with Hayao Miyazaki after Dale talked him up. I watched The Lady Eve after he suggested it (and I adored it). When I made some remark about loving Hannibal Lecter Dale told me to watch Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer for contrast because it wasn't an entertaining movie (and maybe such gruesome subject matter shouldn't always be entertaining). He really liked Nicole Kidman and I did too so we talked about her work and her all-around fabulousness on more than one occasion. He was upfront about what he disliked as well. I adored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but he couldn't get past the amateurish singing. He adored Fred Astaire (Swing Time is a title I remember him bringing up several times) but didn't care for Gene Kelly's more robust, athletic style of dancing. I liked The Song of Bernadette but he thought Jennifer Jones was a great big bore. Even when we disagreed it just felt great to engage with someone who knew so much about movies. 

There are other little things that I remember. Insignificant things that I found so endearing. He would wear turtlenecks under cableknit sweaters, most of which were so well-worn that they'd started to unravel at the seams ("We're pretty casual around here" he told me during my orientation). He once told me, after I'd dropped to my knees to reshelve an item and then quickly stood back up, that I looked like Alice in Wonderland growing smaller and then larger by the minute. He never forgot anybody's birthday and brought in a nice cake for the department to share each and every time. He gave us cocoa at Christmas. There was never much fanfare but that made all the gestures seem even more genuine. 

I'll occasionally have this dumb daydream about how fun it would be to co-host a movie series on television with Dale, like Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore (or Rose McGowan before her) do on The Essentials on TCM. It's silly but I sort of wish I'd told him about it. I think he would've been amused. Though it had been a few years since our last lunch date I thought of Dale often. I imagine I'll continue to think of him often. I didn't know him very well for a very long period of time but he had an enormous impact on me. He was one of my very favorite people in the world and I am so, so sorry that Knoxville has lost such a vibrant, extraordinary presence. But we are better off for having benefitted from his kindness and his generosity for the years that he was with us.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dear Blake Berris,

It would've made more sense for me to write this letter last week, so I could give you a physical copy at this past weekend's fan event. I probably had it in my head that I'd be able to have an actual conversation with you this time - since it'd be the third time I'd be meeting you - and not just stammer and stare and go all red in the face like before. I would have the presence of mind to ask you about the Kubrick exhibit you saw at LACMA last year (and which my husband and I are hoping to see later this year in Toronto). I would finally remember to ask you what it was like to meet Werner Herzog, because it must have been incredible. But I'm not sure why I thought I'd be able to pull any of that off. Every time I'm anywhere near you my brain shuts down and my thoughts scatter away and hide from me. And I end up kicking myself afterwards for being such a silly, cliche fangirl. It was maybe kinda cute when I met you for the first time last August but, at this point, it's incredibly embarrassing.

But in the grand scheme of things it probably isn't all that big of a deal. I've been vocal on this blog and on various forms of social media about my affection for your alter ego, Nick Fallon, and my admiration for your work in the role but I'm hardly the only one who feels that way. Though it's still worth repeating that you've got a wicked talent, young man, and there's no doubt in my mind that you've got great things ahead for you. Which means that us fans have great things to look forward to as well and that makes me supremely happy.

But as much as I've written about and tweeted about your work on Days of Our Lives I always feel like I'm dancing around what I really want to say. I tend to stop short of explaining my affection for Nick by saying "I'm not really sure why I love the character so much, I just know that I do." But I think I do know, I think I've always known. It's because I see myself in him. Maybe not the parts of me that I like to acknowledge but parts that are there all the same. There's a hunger and a loneliness to that character that speaks so clearly to me. There are times when it damned near hurts to watch you in the role because it rings so true and it's so honest and raw. And I can't justify or condone most of Nick's actions but I can't bring myself to condemn him for his mistakes because who's to say I wouldn't act the same way as him in certain situations? The bitterness and the contempt he feels, the way he tries, against all odds, to get what he wants, those are qualities I can understand. I just want to say to him "I hear you Nick. Loud and clear."

This is why I get so upset with the show when I feel like they won't allow Nick to grow and change, just a little bit. We only ever see him at his worst but, even still, he's the most compelling and relatable character for me. Despite the fact that he's usually calm and calculating I think he's a man who's not fully in control of his emotions. I don't think he wants to do wrong, he just gets carried away. I still wish he could be given a chance at redemption, because if the show treats him as a throw-away villain it says to me that there's no place in the world for people like Nick. And that breaks my heart. 

And, look, I know Nick isn't real and that you are not your character. Obviously, I know that. But I so appreciate you for bringing Nick to life, the way I appreciate Donna Tartt's writing or Robert Rauschenberg's passionate expressive works of art. It makes me wish I were talented enough to create something you could admire as much as I admire your work. I feel like I owe you that. But, for now at least, you'll have to settle for my admiration. And my gratitude, because, even though I'm just a flush-faced, tongue-tied fangirl when I'm in your presence, you are always so gracious and kind and generous. You, sir, are simply the best.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

50 Movies that Matter to Me

This post is inspired by my buddy Jake Mabe, who compiled his own list of movies back in January. Like Jake, I'm in no way suggesting that these are the fifty greatest movies ever made. They aren't even necessarily my fifty favorites, because there are a lot of titles I love and admire that aren't included here. The one common denominator is that each one has resonated with me at one point in my life or another (and I tried to include titles that I loved during as many different stages of my life as possible). I probably should've arranged them by the order in which I saw them but that seemed sort of complicated so I've just listed them chronologically by release date to avoid confusion.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) The movie that made me fall in love with Joseph Cotten. The dynamic between his wicked Uncle Charlie and Teresa Wright's little Charlie is dynamite.

Portrait of Jennie (1948) Haunting romantic fantasy about art and inspiration. 

The Red Shoes (1948) Powell and Pressburger's tragic fairy tale about the sacrifices an artist must make out of devotion to her craft. Ballerina Moira Shearer is beautiful and heartrending as the movie's doomed protagonist.

The Third Man (1949) Cinematic perfection. Mysterious, romantic, funny, beautifully written, filmed and acted. There's nothing else like it.

East of Eden (1955) James Dean's most feral, tender performance. It also boasts an excellent turn by the lovely Julie Harris. The Ferris wheel scene still leaves me breathless.

Vertigo (1958) My favorite from Hitchcock. I'm obsessive by nature so this one hits me on a personal level. Sexy, nightmarish and utterly spellbinding. Every time I watch it draws me in and won't let go. 

The Innocents (1961) Precocious children, a nanny with an overactive imagination and a large, lonely house in the country with a tragic history. A deeply intelligent, engaging and unsettling adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) A wonderful, cotton-candy colored French pop opera. Young Catherine Deneuve is blindingly radiant.

Belle de Jour (1967) When Catherine Deneuve and Luis Bunuel get together, great things happen. This one just happens to be especially great. 

The Graduate (1967) When I saw this movie for the first time in high school I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) There are people who describe this movie as a spiritual experience. I'm one of those people.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) My favorite Kubrick. A joyously mean-spirited and irreverent movie with an unrepentant scoundrel at its core. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) I currently consider this one to be my very favorite movie of all time. The hold it has over me never weakens no matter how many times I watch it.

Suspiria (1977) The most beautiful horror movie ever made. And the soundtrack kicks ass.

Ordinary People (1980) I have a weakness for domestic dramas where everybody yells at each other. Timothy Hutton's raw, nervy portrait of a damaged teenager is great and his scenes with Judd Hirsch are especially terrific.

The Shining (1980) This one scares me like no other. Filled with unforgettably haunting images. The sense of isolation and quiet dread throughout the movie is palpable and unnerving.

The Dark Crystal (1982) When I was a kid this movie was my everything. Jim Henson gave us so many wondrous creations over the course of his career but the characters and the world of The Dark Crystal will always be the most wondrous of all to me.

The Last Unicorn (1982) Another childhood favorite. It's Rankin and Bass and it features a unicorn as its protagonist. And an unrequited love story! How could I not adore it?

The Big Chill (1983) Makes me nostalgic for my college buddies and vacation day trips to Beaufort, South Carolina. I think the entire ensemble cast is stellar but William Hurt is especially memorable.

The Goonies (1985) I love a good underdog story and this one is perfect. And it features my favorite Cyndi Lauper song. 

The Lost Boys (1987) I can't count the number of times I've seen this movie. It was one of my great junior high era obsessions. To this day I'm not sure there's anything cooler than these sexy, beach-punk vampires.  

Heathers (1988) I love this movie for its smart, acidic screenplay, its arresting visuals and its charismatic hero and heroine. In the teen angst genre this one is definitely a standout.

Life is Sweet (1990) Heartbreaking and hilarious offering from Mike Leigh, one of our finest living directors.

Pump Up the Volume (1990) A favorite from my high school years. Provocative and moving. The soundtrack is killer (and it was my introduction to the great Leonard Cohen).

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) Always reminds me of my best bud, Sarah. All four of the female leads give outstanding performances. 

Candyman (1992) A thoughtful, sensitive, darkly romantic slasher flick anchored by an intelligent performance by Virginia Madsen and a captivating turn by Tony Todd as Candyman. The score by Philip Glass is heaven. 

Reservoir Dogs (1992) I love all of Tarantino's output but his first remains the one I love most. Crackling dialogue and unflinching brutality make it equal parts hilarious and horrifying. Michael Madsen has never been better as the sadistic but incredibly charismatic Mr. Blonde.

Howards End (1992) I've never met a Merchant Ivory adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel that I didn't like but this one takes the top spot for me. Forster's most ambitious novel becomes Merchant and Ivory's masterpiece. One of the most beautiful movies ever made. 

Dazed and Confused (1993) Completely, ridiculously hilarious from start to finish. Matthew McConaughey's Wooderson is especially inspired.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) An intense friendship between two bright, precocious young women has deadly consequences. Based on true events, Peter Jackson's manic, innovative movie makes two young murderesses compelling and sympathetic without shying away from the gory details of their heinous crime.

Boogie Nights (1997) Paul Thomas Anderson's look into a small, close-knit group of filmmakers and actors in the adult film industry is grim and gritty but also funny and big-hearted. Wonderfully engaging from start to finish, featuring fine filmmaking and stellar performances.

The Big Lebowski (1998) Brilliant bit of absurdity from the Coens. 

The Virgin Suicides (1999) Sofia Coppola's feature debut is a lovely, haunting adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's beautiful novel. Part fairy tale, part teen romance, part gothic mystery. Coppola creates an atmosphere that is both real and otherworldly, detached but also deeply personal.

Almost Famous (2000) Sometimes I feel like the only thing I'm really good at being is a fan so I really appreciate this sweet, funny, earnest story from Cameron Crowe about mid-level celebrities and the fans who love them.

Memento (2000) Very cool bit of neo-noir brilliance from Christopher Nolan. I like it when characters self-mythologize so it fascinates me to watch Guy Pierce's Leonard Shelby create his own reality throughout the course of this movie. 

Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) I'm unapologetically geeky about these movies. Jackson's attention to detail brings Middle Earth to vibrant life, creating a cinematic experience that is immersive and incredibly satisfying.

Mulholland Drive (2001) In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks David Lynch explored the dank, dark underbelly of small-town America. In Mulholland Drive he turns his focus to Hollywood and the result is a brutal but incredibly seductive movie. Naomi Watts is absolutely fearless as the story's protagonist, delivering one of the finest film performances I've ever seen.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson's films have become increasingly stylized and quirky, to the point where it's difficult, at times, for me to connect with his characters (even though I always enjoy his detail-oriented aesthetics). I think this one strikes the perfect balance between crafty artifice and genuine human emotion. The Tenebaum family is fantastical but also real and relatable. 

Moulin Rouge! (2001) The biggest, splashiest, most colorful and unapologetically mushy offering from Baz Luhrman, who has made a career out of creating big, splashy, colorful, mushy movies. Despite all the funhouse constructs the movie is, at its core, earnest and heartfelt. Everybody gives it their all and it's great fun to watch. And Nicole Kidman has never been more beautiful.

Morvern Callar (2002) Quiet, keenly-observed character study from the brilliant Lynne Ramsay. Samantha Morton gives an incredible performance as the titular protagonist. 

May (2002) A quirky, alienated young woman tries and fails to connect with the people around her, with devastating results. Odd, awkward, funny, gruesome and ultimately heartbreaking. Outstanding performance by Angela Bettis, who plays every beat of May's descent into madness to perfection.

Before Sunset (2004) Richard Linklater has, to date, devoted three movies to the saga of Jesse and Celine. I always like spending time with these characters but this bittersweet chapter in their story is easily my favorite. And that final scene is fantastic.

The Aviator (2004) I've been in love with Leonardo DiCaprio for two decades. Any time he makes a movie I consider it a cause for celebration but I love this one the most. His performance as Howard Hughes is a fascinating and compassionate portrait of deeply driven, deeply troubled individual. 

Grizzly Man (2005) Werner Herzog's unsentimental portrait of Timothy Treadwell is infuriating, tragic and fascinating.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro's dark fable does not shy away from real or imagined horrors but thanks to the resilient nature of its heroines it manages to be hopeful as well as harrowing.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) I love the cold, austere landscapes, the musical score (composed by the brilliant Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), the voiceover narration and the dynamic between Brad Pitt's volatile, world-weary Jesse James and Casey Affleck's pitiful, attention-seeking Robert Ford in this melancholy movie.

Into the Wild (2007) Chris McCandless's story speaks to the dissatisfied part of me that fantasizes, on occasion, about leaving humanity behind and seeking solace in the natural world. It's not something I would ever attempt realistically but I can certainly empathize with the impulse. 

Wall-E (2008) This dystopian love-story between two sentient robots warms my heart. It gets bonus points for the personable cockroach sidekick.

Antichrist (2009) A gorgeous nightmare of a movie. The tone and performances are relentlessly intense, creating a story that's difficult to watch but also undeniably cathartic. The cinematic equivalent of breaking glass to hear it shatter or screaming at the top of your lungs until you're hoarse.

Bright Star (2009) A vibrant, devastating star-crossed romance from Jane Campion. Ben Whishaw is excellent as the ill-fated John Keats but the movie belongs to Abbie Cornish's passionate, fashion-forward, headstrong Fanny Brawne.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

Almost every day since Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, over two weeks ago, I have considered writing about him here but I always managed to fall short of actually doing it. At this point almost everyone has weighed in, offering insights into his impressive body of work and opinions about his tragic, gone-before-his-time demise and I can't possibly hope to contribute anything new. But since I love movies and Hoffman was one of our very finest actors (and a personal favorite of mine) I feel like his passing cannot be overlooked on this blog. I only hope that I can convey, in some small, imperfect way, the impact that he had on me as a moviegoer.

The first Philip Seymour Hoffman performance I ever saw was in Scent of a Woman. He had a small but crucial role as a wealthy prep-school hooligan and his arrogance and sense of entitlement practically radiated off the screen. Every time I watched that movie my reaction to his George Willis, Jr. was one of visceral loathing. He would portray an older version of a similar character years later, as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, another spoiled and lazy child of privilege. The fact that Freddie was, to a degree, a heroic character did little to diffuse the fact that he was generally bombastic and unpleasant. That didn't stop Hoffman from being a truly compelling and memorable presence in both films, despite the fact that his screen time was so limited.

It would've been impressive enough if Hoffman had made a career out of being a scene-stealing jerk but the thing that made his body of work so incredible was its astonishing versatility. For every George Willis, Jr. and Freddie Miles in his repertoire there's also a Scotty J. and a Phil Parma. Hoffman could play creeps and bullies to perfection but he was equally adept at playing emotionally fragile and empathetic characters. His turn as the lovesick, tragically awkward Scotty J. in Boogie Nights is so raw and sad and pitiful that it's painful to watch. I'm not sure I've ever been more embarrassed for a character in a movie. It would be easier to loathe him because he's so pathetic but Hoffman forces us to connect with the character's loneliness and vulnerability in such a palpable way that it's impossible to look away. I not only found myself sympathizing with Scotty J. but identifying with him as well, despite how uncomfortable that made me feel. As Phil Parma, the hospice nurse in Magnolia, Hoffman is the self-sacrificing, compassionate center to a movie that is largely populated by incredibly angry, selfish and damaged people. His patience and kindness in the face of so much bitterness and hostility is truly heroic.

I don't know how I could ever choose a favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance but I certainly count his Oscar winning portrayal of Truman Capote among my favorites. In the hands of a less capable actor the titular Capote role could've easily come across as little more than parody. Capote's distinctive voice and mannerisms are immediately recognizable and could readily lend themselves to mindless mimicry. But not with Hoffman at the helm. It's true that he captures the voice and and the other superficial flourishes perfectly but he also conveys Capote's rich, complex interior struggle. The writer's brilliance, his arrogance, his selfishness, as well as his sensitivity and vulnerability are all on full display. It's a performance that encapsulates Hoffman's amazing range and versatility; his Truman Capote is multi-faceted, engrossing and fully alive. If there is one commonality amongst all his roles it's that Hoffman always created characters that felt fully alive.

I'm barely scratching at the surface of Hoffman's film career. I can't think of a single performance of his that I have seen that was forgettable. They are all memorable, for one reason or another. Even when he had minimal screen time he always made an impression. Every time Hoffman showed up in a movie I got excited because I knew he was going to give us something worth seeing. He always dug deep, forcing us to connect with his characters and feel what they were feeling even if what they were feeling was ugly or unpleasant or painful. As an artist he was truly fearless. And he never disappointed. I am so very sorry that I never had a chance to see him on the stage and I know my knowledge of his career will forever be incomplete because of that. And there are many Hoffman film performances that I have yet to see. I intend to get around to all of them, eventually, but I think I'll take my time. I like that I still have new work to look forward to from him and I dread the day when that will no longer be the case.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Flowers in the Attic (2014)

Like a lot of women my age, I went through a Flowers in the Attic phase during junior high school. And like a lot of women my age, I've never entirely been able to leave the attic behind me. I'm a sucker for personal nostalgia and the creepy, gothic V.C. Andrews best seller about children locked away in the attic by their greedy bitch of a mother and their cold, religious fanatic grandmother still holds a very strange and special place in my heart. I actually watched and fell in love with the movie version of Flowers in the Attic before I read the novel or any of its sequels. And despite the fact that the 1987 adaptation gets a lot wrong I still get a kick out of watching it (if I find it when I'm switching channels I'm usually hard-pressed to pass it up and I still have a decent portion of the dialogue committed to memory). I was at first curious and eventually deliriously excited about Lifetime's new made-for-tv adaptation of the story. The casting choices were solid and Lifetime promised that they'd "go there" with regards to the incest in the novel, as opposed to the earlier adaptation, which conveniently overlooked that rather essential plot point. I had pretty much convinced myself that this new Lifetime version was going to be exactly what I'd been waiting for since I was a pre-teen.

So it should come as no surprise that the new Flowers in the Attic did not live up to my expectations. That's not to say I disliked it. I liked it quite a bit. It improves upon the original adaptation in several ways. But it makes some missteps as well. For one thing, it feels very rushed. The Dollanganger children are locked away from the world for years but the passage of time never sunk in for me because the pace seemed so brisk. I was messaging with a friend during commercial breaks and she remarked that we should've created a Flowers in the Attic edition of BINGO to keep up with all the crucial plot points from the book as they popped up in the movie. It made me realize that there was something very perfunctory about the way this new version was unfolding. It's far more faithful to the source material but in a very paint-by-numbers kind of way. Almost as if the filmmakers made a checklist of things they were determined to get right since the first version got them wrong. So, yes, in this new version the older children are closer to the ages they were in the book. And yes, the mouse is correctly named Mickey rather than Fred and Cory dies after eating poisoned donuts rather than poisoned cookies. And, of course, Corrine does not die on her wedding day at the end of this one. She just takes off and leaves her kids for dead and then they escape with very little fanfare, just like they do in the book. The problem for me is that, for the most part, things just happened one after the other and the scenes and characters weren't given much breathing room or a chance to really develop. The plot unfolds like a power point presentation. With the exception of a handful of intense moments it's kind of lifeless.

Maybe it will be better if I watch a second time and skip commercials. I felt like every time the story started to become emotionally charged it was cut short by a commercial break. It was jarring. And, I know this is a Lifetime movie but I needed it to not feel so much like a Lifetime movie. For all that the original version gets wrong I did love its creepy gothic aesthetic and haunting baby-doll musical score. This new version was too bright and shiny and the score was too upbeat. Visually it felt very generic to me. The one place where this version absolutely excels over the other is in its casting choices and its characterizations. Kiernan Shipka is a wonderful Cathy - strong and stubborn and full of life and anger but still so naive and innocent. Mason Dye is equally strong as Christopher. He may come across as kind of wooden at times but that's correct. Christopher is entirely hung up on the lies his mother feeds him and the story she spins and the image he thinks he ought to project and preserve to make her happy. It should come as no surprise that his mannerisms seem, at times, like play-acting. As he becomes more disenchanted with his mother that facade starts to crumble and he goes to a darker place. By the time he and Cathy admit that they're attracted to one another and consummate their forbidden relationship he's become a much more imposing and unstable presence. And, yes, the movie "goes there" with the incest but in the most conservative, least disturbing way that it could. Shipka and Dye do the best they can but they're restricted because of the glossy way in which that aspect of the story is presented.

Like Dye's Christopher, Heather Graham's Corrine is also wooden and overly theatrical at times. I found it distracting at first but, like Christopher, Corrine is a woman who is entirely swept up in the image she is supposed to be projecting. Graham's wide-eyed China doll shtick is really quite perfect for a character like this. She lies to win over her father, she lies to win over her new husband, she lies to all her parents' rich friends who come to Foxworth Hall for lavish parties and she lies, cruelly, over and over again to her poor children. Even before her husband is killed she's a bit frosty and dismissive as a mother. She believes she was only ever cut out to be an ornament to a successful man. She's a trophy. A beautiful construct that is almost entirely devoid of human warmth and compassion. She cares for nothing outside of her own comfort. She liked her children well enough when it was convenient for her but she has no qualms about getting rid of them when they become an obstacle to her efforts to secure her father's fortune. She is one of the most infuriatingly narcissistic characters I've ever encountered. Graham is to be commended for making her as vile as she ought to be. 

But Flowers in the Attic's greatest strength is Ellen Burstyn's amazing turn as Olivia, the grandmother. When I was young I was fascinated and terrified by Louise Fletcher's version of this character, which is basically a riff on her Nurse Ratched performance from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fletcher is certainly a commanding and imposing presence but there really isn't anything to the character beyond that. Burstyn's Grandmother is every bit as frightening but she's also allowed to show flashes of compassion and humanity. She's even allowed, at times, to be vulnerable. Like the book, the movie suggests that Olivia's hatred for her grandchildren does not come easily to her. Her antagonistic relationship with her own daughter forces her to regard her grandchildren with cold indifference even though, at times, this appears to be extremely difficult for her. She's certainly no better than Corrine and the children suffer because of both women but I felt like I could understand Olivia's point of view and, at times, muster a bit of pity for her. The relationships in the story are richer and more nuanced because this fearsome presence has been rendered a little less frightening and a little more accessible.

I'm pleased that this new version of Flowers in the Attic exists. It's still not quite the adaptation that I wanted but it was a noble effort. The performances definitely make it a worthwhile viewing experience. Maybe someone will try again in another couple of decades to create a more faithful version of this cult classic. Third time's the charm, right?