Monday, September 26, 2016

Music Mondays: Lady Gaga "Perfect Illusion"

A return to Music Mondays with a metal celebration from one of my all-time favorites. In what I would consider the most traditional music video she's ever made, Lady Gaga introduces us to the first single off of her forth-coming fifth studio album, Joanne, with frantic, dirty desperation. "Perfect Illusion" is a simple, heart-bursting metal anthem (co-produced by Mark Ronson) that has improved with every listen. No experimentation, no moody intros or breakthrough bridges... just a girl belting and dancing with everything she's got.

If this song is any indicator, Joanne (out Oct. 21) is going to be a return to Gaga's fine form (let's just pretend the majority of Artpop didn't happen, okay?) Because I'm feeling the need for more Gaga music in my life. Happy Monday, all!


Artist: Lady Gaga | stream
Song: "Perfect Illusion" | download | stream
Album: Joanne
Directed by: Andrea Gelardin / Ruth Hogben

Monday, August 15, 2016

AFI Top 100: #25 "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Gregory Peck & Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Was this blog's radio silence deafening to anyone other than me? Probably not, but as I crawl back into the blogging driver's seat, I admit I must get my barrings. A month away may be enough to shake off the cobwebs and shoo away the crickets, or could very well make me forget how to form a thought. Let's give this the ol' college try, shall we? Or for this one, should I say 'high school'? Because was there a high school freshman in America not required to read this book by Harper Lee, feverishly digging through its themes with distracted desperation?

As we breach the last quarter of films on our AFI Top 100 countdown, it's almost surprising that we're already hitting the (too high?) #25 selection, To Kill a Mockingbird. The poetically idealistic exploration of racial injustice in the Depression-era South isn't only for school consumption, and should be remembered by the masses for more than introducing us to America's Favorite Dad. Like its source, this film is a storybook, hazy and imbued with the memories of early childhood.

It's the summer of 1933, and our narrator Scout Finch remembers the time fondly, herself a young girl of six (played by Mary Badham). The Depression has hit the quiet, dusty town of Maycomb, Alabama, but watching Scout and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), playing wistfully and without a care alongside their friend Dill (John Megna), you wouldn't know it. While Jem and Scout entertain Dill with scary stories about their reclusive neighbors, the Radleys, their father Atticus (Gregory Peck), a thoughtful widow and lawyer, becomes the subject of much anger when he agrees to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been falsely accused of rape. Over the next few years, as the charges fuel hatred and unmask the crippling racism ingrained in the white townspeople, Scout watches in wonder and reverence as Atticus fearlessly pursues justice for Tom during an emotional trial.

When most people talk about To Kill a Mockingbird, they're apt to mention Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch. Considered the #1 Film Hero by the American Film Institute, he is a character synonymous with goodness. He is the kind of father every little girl wanted and the kind of man she dreamt of finding once she'd grown. Peck's handsome looks weren't in competition with his competence as an actor, nor his ability to bring a poetic gravitas to the role of a lifetime.

Atticus' "perfection," as is clearly conveyed in Robert Mulligan's film, is part of what makes the film so memorable—and so hotly debated. There is an argument often made that this story and its characters (Atticus in particular) lack a necessary level of complexity—something it aims to earn by establishing a strong moral message at its core, but struggles to assert when Atticus takes his noble stand in defense of an innocent man with nary a misstep or vulnerability in sight. But I wholeheartedly disagree. Namely because this is a story told through the rose-colored glasses of a child; or rather, a grown woman who looks back on her time as a child with wonder and, dare I say, simplicity. This never was our story to interpret, but rather Scout's to dissect—a way to look at one of the most memorable moments in her life, and discover how it shaped who she's become.

Whatever marring in Atticus' character that would come to pass as Scout's worldview broadened with age doesn't appear to touch these memories—and there is beauty and hope in our never being exposed to it, either. Badham owns this story, incorporating into Scout an earnest curiosity with the grating irritation of a child who is too observant and obstinate for their own good. She's given not only the best material, but she also has the most interactions with the adult cast beyond Peck. Alford as Jem gives a fair performance, despite his having significantly less to work with, from personality to dialogue, but he is a key component in the film's initial playfulness and eventual serious shift—though despite it all, even Jem is powerfully hazy through Scout's recollection.

The strongest performance the film offers is likely also the most irritating. The alleged victim of the crime, Mayella Violet Ewell, is played with infuriating commitment by Collin Wilcox, and in the film's climactic trial sequence, Mayella proceeds to stammer and stutter and convulse with indignation through her testimony of the assault. The film handles her testimony in brilliant yet troubling fashion. For the sake of the film, and our interest in finding the truth to acquit Tom Robinson, she sputters exactly what we hope she will. Confused misinformation stemming from obvious lies about a rape that clearly couldn't have happened. In the eyes of the story, this is perfectly done. But in the eyes of a more modern audience? There is an element of victim-blaming, making Mayella, an alleged rape victim, out to be a liar—a pit in my stomach knotted up with some serious trigger language that simply wouldn't quit.

But then we remember: some people are liars, and the reason they lie is the meat behind the story's themes. Mayella's a victim, all right, and her accusations are as misguided and uneducated as her circumstances would suggest they'd be. Watching Wilcox twist Mayella into the frightened mouse she becomes is nothing short of compelling, and while Wilcox could be accused of overacting here, Mayella's recount of the events earns every second the scenery chewing.

I could acknowledge the faults in this film that others seem to find, but in the end, I couldn't disagree more that this story is too quaint or lacks dimension. In its very bones lies the affected memories of a young girl, conveniently missing important world events to focus on the trivialities of life, and more importantly, the people that had an impact—big and small.

All of my favorite part of a movie—characters and dialogue and music—come together here to tell an emotional story that is timeless despite its timely subject matter. That is nearly impossible to do, and we shouldn't ignore the accomplishment. The American Film Institute clearly hasn't.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal International Pictures]

Check back next time for #24 on the list, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016)

© Universal Pictures

You can't hold it against a movie studio for going after the low-hanging fruit. And there's nothing more low-hanging than pet videos. While there is a part of me that would have been happy had The Secret Life of Pets been just a series of Vine-like vignettes—basically the Pet Collective viral videos in animated form—for it to be touching in addition to funny, there had to be some plot thrown in the mix. But with that plot comes the hyper-awareness that none of this is breaking new ground, and that the incredible voice talent is what makes it all come together amid the constant peppering of animal jokes. And we start, as most animal love stories do, when Girl Meets Pup...

In the eyes of Max the Dog (Louis C.K.), he and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) have the perfect thing going living in Manhattan. That is until one day when Katie adopts a giant, unkempt pup named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), upending his spoiled life and special relationship with his human. Desperate to be rid of this unwanted intruder, Max cracks a plan to lose Duke during their walk while Katie is at work. But when they both separate from Max's group of friends at the dog park and get picked up by a the fuzz heading for the pound, they find themselves face-to-face with an angry white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his band of abandoned rebel pets. After Snowball sabotages the truck, he rescues the pair with the caveat that they be new recruits in his battle against domestication and the human race. Meanwhile, Max's friends—particularly pup princess Gidget (Jenny Slate)—notice he's missing and go on a mission through the city to bring him home.

There's a reason this kind of content is human cat-nip. There's nothing that brings strangers closer together than talking about their beloved pets; or whether dogs are better than cats; or how bird people are weird... As a result, the movie leans real hard on the comedy pandering to that pet-owner instinct to cry out "That is so [insert pet name here]." And hey, I'm not judging, because I'm not immune. I did it, too, at least a dozen times. I own two cats and a Miniature Dachshund, and watching Buddy the Dachshund (Hannibal Burress) give himself a belly rub with a stand mixer left me bent over with the lolz. And don't even get me started on how bitchy and familiar Chloe the Fat Cat (Lake Bell) is.

But that's kind of the problem with the movie, too, if you want to identify it as a "problem." The comedy never really grows any legs, and the jokes are a blunt but purposeful flash-in-the-pan. One bit about dogs delivery puppy-dog eyes begging for food is over and you're on to the next bit about cats always landing on their feet. And so on and so forth. In the end, there's something very obvious about it all.

Duke is a problem, and he never really stops being one. Sure, he's the Buzz and Max is the Woody in this scenario, but unlike Toy Story, where their coming together leaves us elated that they did, by the end of Pets... we still kinda hope Duke will find another human. Oh, you didn't feel that way? Well maybe I'm a monster then! Despite the film working so hard to bring the two together through peril and strife, they remain as at odds as where they started. The hate and paranoia has simply diminished. Perhaps it's the absurdly unrealistic way that he is animated (no other animals in this world are as ridiculously exaggerated as Duke, except maybe dat viper up dere) or Stonestreet's 'blah' voice work, but he doesn't feel right in this story, regardless of the attempts to give him depth.

Inversely, aside from Louis C.K. proving he can literally do no wrong, Jenny Slate as Gidget is a pure delight, and she steals the film from the comedians surrounding her. Slate gives that fluffy nugget a voice reminiscent of Patty Mayonnaise, and we learn that Gidget is driven by a significantly more relatable motivation in her love for Max than any of the other supporting characters. Her fearlessness is both adorable and unexpected, and it offers some of the smarter comedic moments, particularly when she embarks on her adventure and makes friends with Tiberius the Hawk (Albert Brooks). That dynamic between the two of them has more going for it than most of the other triter moments with Duke or Snowball's 'funny at first but then you're over it' crime lord toughness.

While we're likely left wanting more, there is also a lot to love. I love my pets more than anything, and watching pets love their humans and humans love their pets is always going to get me. The opening sequence is worth the price of admission, as Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" rings through an opening montage that will turn you into a happy puddle. For most people, none of the rest is going to matter, because Max loves Katie and Katie loves Max. Anything else is just filler.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

AFI Top 100: #26 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Claude Rains & James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The recent labored action in our Senate (and later in the month, the House) has reminded me just how moved I can be by the Democratic process. Idealism doesn't take you very far in this world (or so we're taught), and the older we get, we often lean towards thinking that's for the best. But something happens when you witness idealism shift from talk to action. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in all its questionably naive glory, represents that at its core. Director Frank Capra is known for finding the heartstrings and giving them a solid pluck—sometimes harder and longer than any reasonable person would ask for—but it goes to show how emotionally invested we all can get, despite ourselves.

The film stars frequent Capra collaborator and all-around "good guy" James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic young youth leader who finds himself with an unexpected United States Senate appointment after his controversial predecessor dies. Not knowing how in-over-his-head he is, Smith accepts his civic duty and turns to his late father's trusted friend, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), for mentorship. When Smith arrives in Washington D.C., he faces unrelenting resistance to his hopeful ideas, from members of the Senate to his politics-wise secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur).

Saunders takes it upon herself to wise-up the poor guy, rubbing the shine from his eyes by helping him write his first bill, one to create a government funded camp for Boys, and making sure he understands just how hard it's going to be. But as he pushes his plan forward, he is roadblocked by his friend, Senator Paine, who is under the thumb of James Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt political boss, who aims to discredit Smith and everything he's worked for. Unwilling to compromise his values, Smith takes to the Senate floor in an attempt to save his reputation and weed out the corruption that surrounds him.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Movie Review: "The Legend of Tarzan" (2016)

© Warner Brothers

The most appropriate sequel to a film that was never made. Then I remember that, of course it was, like a hundred times. With that, a true origin for this new Tarzan wasn't necessary, because what? Were you born under a rock? Yet something else happened, in this world of Zach Snyders and J.J. Abrams'... We weren't forced to endure some unnecessary, offensive re-imagining that made these beloved turn-of-the-century characters unrecognizable. Rather, The Legend of Tarzan from director David Yates (of the Harry Potter series' later films) is as straight-forward and clean a telling as you could imagine. On top of that? It is rife with pearl-clutching romance. And I couldn't disagree more with the critics about this one.

John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) has been living in peace in Victorian England with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), for the past ten years, having left behind his life in Africa, where he was known by another name: Tarzan. When King Leopold of Belgium's control of the mineral-rich Congo is threatened, he sends his malicious envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), to gain access to a mountain full of diamonds controlled by a vengeful Chief (Djimon Hounsou)—and Rom's passage can only be paid by delivering Tarzan, the King of the Apes, to the tribe. Unaware of this plot, John travels with Jane and an American soldier, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), to the Congo in search of evidence that local men are being unjustly enslaved—but when Jane's life is threatened, John must shed his lordly visage and embrace the animal inside that he'd tried so desperately to suppress.

The plot is uncomplicated and the motivations are crystal clear. Everyone has their own agendas, but nothing keeps the story from moving forward. This is an action/adventure cinema lesson in not getting sidetracked. Rather than "starting at the beginning," the film begins long after the origins of Tarzan, only giving us tastes of his upbringing among the animals sprinkled strategically throughout the film. John's introduction as a Lord is contradictory to our expectations, and it allows for an exciting build to his transformation back into Tarzan of the jungle. He is a man in control, but he is also driven by instinct, and the combination is unnerving to watch. At one point, Rom speaks with unexpected honesty to Jane, "Your husband's wildness disturbs me more than I can easily express." There is fear in him, but also jealousy, and even more subtly, arousal; it's a kind of envy he can't quite understand, but we understand it. Watching John become Tarzan is thrilling, in more ways than one. And Leon Rom feels it, too.

Skarsgård may have been an uninspired choice for the role of Tarzan, but it was without question the right one. It isn't a stretch for him, considering the years he spent on "True Blood" sniffing out blood like a sexy animal beast. But those are his obvious, out-of-the-box strengths. As Tarzan, his weaknesses also wind up landing in the 'plus' column. The underlying Swedish accent, normally a hurdle for him to overcome, adds to the slightly awkward spoken English that you'd expect someone raised by apes to develop.

On the other side, Margot Robbie's American English is never quite right, but her classic beauty is reminiscent of Old Hollywood—she's confident and strong, but perversely aware of her vulnerability in this aggressive world. She relies on Tarzan, which may not feel all that progressive, but for a movie like this with characters like these, it shouldn't. Visually and emotionally, she's complete perfection as Jane. And together, they'll give anyone the vapors.

In true summer movie fashion, the action is also impressive. It's simultaneously consistent and varied— the topography changes may have been occasionally dizzying, but the cinematography was soaring, though like many films intended for 3D, there are obvious trick-shots that are lost on 2D audiences, and even borderline silly. The supporting cast was wonderful, albeit lacking in dimension (Hounsou is never bad, but he wasn't given much here). Even with all the familiar faces, it didn't feel like desperate stunt casting. This is the movie that The Jungle Book failed miserably to be. The cherry on top, the piece that tied the entire epic together, was the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, particularly is sequences featuring vocals by Zoe Mthiyane. Parts of the composition were Gladiator good. From me, there isn't much higher praise.

Personally, I think that Yates' Tarzan screams for repeat viewings. I enjoyed it in the way that I did 1999's The Mummy, where something just keeps drawing me back. There are excusable imperfections that do nothing to inhibit the enjoyability of the movie overall. Even with the occasionally weak dialogue or rough CGI, the performances are strong and the sexual tension is exhilarating—it's simply a bonus that the story is familiar enough to avoid the weight of loaded exposition, allowing a more mature (though simple) plot to flesh itself out. A summer feast for the eyes and ears, just let the spirit of the jungle wash over you and enjoy the rest.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
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