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Friday, July 28, 2017

Thoughts on Parents

I enjoyed going to the Film Society of Lincoln Center last week and seeing a weird horror comedy from 1989 directed by Bob Balaban called Parents, about a 1950s suburban family in which the sullen little boy suspects that his parents are cannibals. It was enjoyably messed up to watch, and Randy Quaid was excellent as the strict and unsettling father, he had this slow and measured way of speaking that always just barely hid a psychoticness below the surface. I also adored Sandy Dennis as the school social worker who was funny in a quirky way and had a more 70's hippie look in a 1950s-set film. The score by Angelo Badalamenti gave it that eerie vibe that he used in David Lynch films, of a creeping horror score set amongst ordinary suburban life.

Balaban did a Q&A after the film, and has a funny mix of a quiet voice with a dry sense of humor. The film was a heightened version of his own 1950s childhood, where family secrets were kept hidden from him until adulthood, where he didn't know what his parents' lives were like when he wasn't around, and he felt small and repressed in a environment where everything has to look perfect on the outside. He told a lot of interesting anecdotes about his career, like directing episodes of genre shows like Tales from the Darkside, Eerie, Indiana, and Amazing Stories. He surprisingly did not like directing My Boyfriend's Back (the next film showing after Parents) due to studio restraints, though he enjoyed working with the cast, including an eager and young Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was cast as a bullying jock, but assured Balaban that he could play any role and do it well. It was a good evening of seeing a really odd movie and listening to a pleasant chat with a renowned comedic actor and director.

Thoughts on Still/Born

Last week, I saw a pretty blah horror movie at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, called Still/Born, directed by Brandon Christensen. It is a 2017 Canadian horror film where a woman named Mary (Christie Burke) gives birth to twins, but one is stillborn. She suffers from postpartum depression while taking care of her son while her concerned husband Jack is away being a lawyer. She starts seeing weird visions of a demon that is trying to steal her baby, and begins losing her mind as the demon messes with her life in her empty giant house, and she looks crazy to everyone else.

This film had the potential to be a horror film where the demon is a metaphor for her postpartum depression, and that she battles the demon to save herself and her baby. Instead, it became a pretty formulaic film of predictable jump scares, the woman losing her shit all the time and freaking out her loved ones, the actress turning on the serious crazy eyes and overacting when she is trying to convince people about the demon, and the demon looking like a Samara ripoff from The Ring with a laughable "devil" voice. I thought that the Film Society would have better taste than to include this predictable crap in with their Scary Movies festival. It was pretty mediocre to watch, and a missed opportunity to make a good horror film about postpartum depression.

Thoughts on Girls Trip

I really liked Girls Trip, directed by Malcolm Lee. It was a fun movie with a lot of heart, and I liked watching a film about women's friendships and supporting one another and having fun at the Essence Festival in New Orleans.

As has been noted, Tiffany Haddish likely will be a breakout star from this. Her character was raw and hilarious, with a a sex-positive attitude and great loyalty towards her friends. I heard of her last year through The Carmichael Show and Keanu, and while I thought her character was poorly written on The Carmichael Show and acted hammy, she showed a lot more charisma and screen presence in Keanu, and I wanted to see more of her, and we likely will after this movie, since it came in second place this past weekend at the box office.

I mostly enjoyed the film, though I didn't like a few gross out gags, but it's just not my bag. I also thought that the film's subplot involving the husband of Regina Hall's character (played by Mike Holter, aka Luke Cage) went on for way too long, and I was getting tired of the relationship melodrama, even though it ultimately has a point.

How is it that Larenz Tate is likely 45 and still has youthful looks like from the 90's? I know, melanin, but still.

Because this film reunites Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith from Set it Off, I made a couple of Set it Off jokes in my head, and was elated when the film did their own knowing reference in one scene, I adored that.

The actresses (Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish) all had great chemistry with one another, and I felt happy watching the film and seeing all the female love and positivity onscreen, even whenever the characters were arguing with each other. So I am glad that I saw it this week.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Thoughts on Spider-Man: Homecoming

I really enjoyed Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was witty and well-paced, with interesting characters, and was a lot of fun to watch. I did think the battle in the finale was messily shot and was boring to watch, and I didn't want to see so much shaky cam and wanted to see Holland's acrobatic skills without CGI, but I don't have many complaints about the film. Tom Holland was likable as Peter Parker/Spider-Man (his awkward high voice and boyish enthusiasm reminded me a lot of a young Michael J. Fox), and Michael Keaton was great as the villain, he was really intimidating and menacing with just his acting alone, never mind any supervillain additions, just his voice alone was chilling.

I liked the street scenes in Queens, it felt homey to me, and I liked how Marisa Tomei was made up in large granny glasses and a 70's hippie look with long hair and high-waisted pants, and still looked hip and beautiful.

I also thought it was interesting how the Disney princess Zendaya was essentially characterized to be like Ally Sheedy's character from The Breakfast Club, as the screenwriters clearly seemed influenced by 1980s pop culture in some of the beats they hit with music and stylistic references.

Of this franchise, I have enjoyed Spider-Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man the most, but this is a fun addition, too.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Thoughts on The Sacrament

I watched The Sacrament, a found footage horror movie directed by Ti West. It is pretty much a recreation of the Jonestown massacre, with the names changed, and following a lot of the events from real life, replacing Congressman Ryan with Vice journalists, and having the journalists come to the cult, interview the leader (who looks just like Jim Jones), and the massacre happening when a few members tried to escape with the journalists.

There were some effectively disturbing parts of the film, and they really worked to capture why people were attracted to the cult, from feeling unappreciated in their lives, and how they were manipulated and brainwashed into believing this was their true family. The leader was very charismatic, and great at gaslighting people and sidestepping uncomfortable questions by twisting the conversation around in his favor.

But sometimes the film would break its own rules with the found footage genre, like switching to a dramatic narrative style with multiple cameras when it was convenient. It took me out of the movie when I would think, "If the journalists aren't in this scene, then who is filming this part now?" It was easy to forget that it was a found footage movie when moments like that would happen.

I like Ti West's throwback style, like with his indie horror film House of the Devil, which has a very early 80's Halloween-style to it, and a slow burn build to a devil possession story. I thought this was good, but really just recreated a famous and horrible event in history while claiming to be fictional with the disclaimer added that any resemblance to real people or events is "coincidental." I probably would have liked the film more if it had been more loosely inspired by the massacre, and told its own story of a tragedy.

Thoughts on Perfect Strangers

In May, I went to the newly reopened Quad Cinema for their weekend tribute to the cult genre director Larry Cohen. I had seen one of his films before, an 80's satirical horror comedy called The Stuff, where people become addicted to a trendy ice cream that, unknown to them, has a parasite in it that uses people as a host and eats them from the inside out. I liked the weirdness and dark comedy of it, as well as its social commentary on commercialism and consumerism, and was happy to watch another one of his films, 1984's Perfect Strangers.

The film is about a hitman named Johnny who has to murder a two-year old boy that witnessed Johnny's contract killing, and he dates the kid's mom to get close to him. It was a really intense thriller, made more so by the fact that the kid recognizes Johnny as the killer, but cannot speak, and there are some great scenes between them where Johnny is conflicted over not wanting to kill a child vs. being pressured by the mob to get rid of him. The boy was so young that his "acting" was more of compiled reaction shots by Cohen, as he explained in the post-film Q&A, and being guided by Cohen and his parents, who all hid behind furniture on set to get the boy to take direction. There were some great reaction shots by the kid timed with the editing and context of a scene, and I could suspend my disbelief that this kid was playing a kid who knew that his mom's boyfriend was a killer but was unable to speak or defend himself, it made it much more intense to watch from that young a perspective.

The film combined being a crime thriller with a surprisingly feminist bent, as the mom had left a bad marriage to an abusive man, was managing well as a single mom, and her friends were involved in feminist activism. There is a scene with a real-life Take Back the Night march, showing a slice of 80's feminist protest work, including protests against pornography, rape, and sexism. However, the actress playing the mom, Anne Carlisle, was really terrible. She had a very wooden and stiff delivery of her lines, and it was a drag to watch her scenes, despite that she was supposed to be the sympathetic heroine of the film.

I also thought she was way too trusting when meeting the guy, like allowing him to carry her son and come to her home a day after meeting him on the street. She knows that her son witnessed a murder, but doesn't know who did it. And while I wouldn't expect her to suspect her boyfriend, he had such a streetwise and seedy look to him that I thought she should have had hesitations about letting him so intimately in her life, since she really didn't know anything about his life, and he looked like he had a shady past. I just thought she was very dense when it came to trusting men in her personal life.

There were some really interesting side characters, like a private detective (hired by the ex-husband to track his ex-wife's boyfriend) who sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger and had a strange, lanky presence; and Ann Magnuson as the heroine's artsy feminist best friend, who was funny, quirky, and reminded me of Annie Potts' character from Pretty in Pink.

The film broke twice while playing, and it was funny, just because it felt like an experience of watching a B-movie in a cheap theatre where films would break mid-reel. Cohen was cracking jokes from the back of the theater when it happened, going "Intermission time!" He was a lot of fun to listen to when he told stories about the making of the film, with a scratchy New Yorker accent of decades past and a salt of the earth sense of humor. I am happy that I got to see this film and see him speak about it, and I would definitely check out more of his films.

Thoughts on Antibirth

I watched Antibirth in May, a horror movie starring Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevingy, where Lyonne plays a hardcore addict who mysteriously becomes pregnant without having sex, and has a lot of bizarre side effects. I really liked it a lot. Lyonne gave a really good performance as someone who was messed up on drugs and alcohol every day, living in a messy house, working sporadically, but was still a funny and charming person, it felt like she was being herself with her scratchy Jersey accent. The film was totally bonkers, and I liked how it made pregnancy into this exaggerated horror, with her increasingly expanding belly, her swollen feet, and was totally taken over by this unknown creature.

I would watch this film again to further understand its weirdness, plus I just really liked Lyonne's character and would want to revisit her again.

Thoughts on Thief

I joined a film meetup group that are into genre films, cult films, and offbeat stuff, and in May, we saw the 1981 film Thief at the Moving Image museum, a noir thriller directed by Michael Mann and starring James Caan as a jewel thief who has spent most of his life in the system and pulling off big heists, and gets into one last big score before he's done for good. It was really intense to watch, and I was fascinated by Caan's performance, in how he had this New Yorker street smart hustler attitude with a nervous energy in his physicality, frequently shifting a lot when trying to act relaxed. Caan brought a lot of vulnerability to this role as a man who grew up state-raised, in prison for eleven years, and was romanticizing the ideal family life for himself while still getting pulled back into his criminal life.

I loved the 80's dirty city noir vibe that Mann brought, as well as the Tangerine Dream synth soundtrack that complemented the images. It was just a really personal and fascinating film to watch.

Thoughts on Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns

When I watched Batman Returns as a kid, I was enthralled by Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. It wasn't even just finding Catwoman alluring, it was more that I was into her performance as Selina, and her transformation from meek secretary to being reborn and confident (even though I know she had a head injury from surviving a high fall and is mentally ill). She was intriguing the whole way through, how she maintained a sense of humor even when her life was bland, and relishing the chance for a renewed life and standing up to authority figures with confidence and assurance.

I watched the movie again as an adult, and I thought aside from Pfeiffer's performance, the rest of the movie was awful, with terrible villains, a boring plot, and an uninteresting Batman. But this Vulture article is a great analysis of why Pfeiffer was so great in the film, and how her performance and the character writing made Selina Kyle/Catwoman a complex and interesting character.

Thoughts on The Big Sick

I wanted to really like The Big Sick, but I was mixed on it. I do like Kumail Nanjiani's comedy, I liked Michael Showalter's previous films he directed (The Baxter and We Came Together), it had a good balance of big laughs and tense dramatic moments, and there were strong acting performances overall.

But despite that I knew that the film was based on the real-life courtship of Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, and they wrote it, I still felt like it was a white, Westerner's perspective on Pakistani culture vs. white American culture, and it bugged me that the film would present the Pakistani women who his parents wanted him to marry as being in traditional dress with home accents, like being too foreign and old-fashioned, while his ideal choice is a skinny white American woman who acts very girlish and talks like an American millennial. It would sending a message that the white girl was his true love, and while I got that he didn't want to be in an arranged marriage, it still was disappointing that he never tried to get to know any of the women, just tossing their pictures in a box, which sparks a fight with his girlfriend later for hiding this from her.

I didn't find either lead particularly likable, though I appreciated that the film wasn't afraid to make them messy and flawed people. They weren't bad people, and the real people are likely more interesting, but I didn't feel as emotionally connected to their movie counterparts. Nanjiani's film counterpart came off as very immature and self-centered, while Emily's counterpart could be childish and not willing to understand his family's culture. So even though I knew the ending, I wasn't really rooting for them to stay together, I would have been fine if they had amicably broke up at the end.

So I didn't hate the movie, as I appreciated the talented performances from Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, and the actors playing Nanjiani's parents, the more realistic approach to a romantic comedy and a complicated relationship, and the even balance of comedy and drama. But I was thinking about what kind of message the film was sending about arranged marriages vs. love marriages, and how the Western perspective was influencing the film overall.