Wednesday, June 29, 2016

AFI Top 100: #27 "High Noon"

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952)

It's rare that a movie is able to make the promise of a compelling climax right in its very own title. In AFI's #27 film, the short and sweet High Noon, that's exactly what we get: the anticipation of a climax rounding out about noon, by the clock's estimation. All it has to do is deliver. Unassuming in its simplicity, this experimental western aims to, in real time, build tension around a determined protagonist who stands alone against a threat to his town—and his life.

Writer Carl Foreman made no secret of his film's true message, an allegory for his own fight against allegations of communist sympathies and his gray-listing in Hollywood by the House Un-American Committee. So while the hero's plight may well be obvious, it doesn't help that he all but drowns in his own self-righteousness.

Hadleyville is a small, dusty town in New Mexico, protected by long-time Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper). On the day of Kane's marriage to his youthful bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), he confidently hangs up his gun and his badge, handing the safety of the town over to his only deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), until the new Sheriff takes over. He and Amy have barely left the town limit before hearing news that a dangerous local criminal, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), has just been released from prison, and is on his way to Hadleyville to seek revenge on Kane, who put him behind bars—and he's set to arrive on the noon train. Unwilling to let the town fall victim to Miller, Kane hightails it back to town to deputize as many men as he can to stand with him against Frank and his gang. But when the townsfolk turn a blind eye, cowardly refusing to fight, Kane realizes that he must enter this showdown alone, or risk sleeping with one eye open for the rest of his life.

The film's structure is framed around the real-time run of events, playing out on screen in a steady build to its promise. And it does deliver. The sounding of the train whistle, the rising of coal smoke from the distance, as the clock strikes noon, does exactly what it's supposed to do. We experience the heightened nervousness that Kane does, and nearly all of the credit should be given to director Fred Zinnemann. Not only did he understand how to direct Cooper in such a gripping performance, but he knew to weave the building uncertainty about whether this was a fight worth fighting throughout the film from the very start. The consistent presence of the clocks, the visualization of time ticking away, effectively drive our attention towards the end game—it's simply a bonus that we get there so quickly, in under 90 minutes.

Gary Cooper's worn and ready demeanor suits Kane almost too perfectly. His creased face is tired and smudged with the dust of many years' worth of struggles to keep this lawless land lawful. And from the looks of it, he's been more or less successful, and his relief during the wedding ceremony is evident: he's alive, he's about to marry a woman way too young and good for him, and he's proud of everything he's accomplished. And when he hears the name "Frank Miller," watching all of that happiness drain away in an instance is crippling.

Cooper as Kane is ostracized, belittled, and emasculated. In a very un-Western way, he's a man with plenty of fear. Cooper is far older (50) than Kane was originally meant to be at 30 years old, but it's a common Hollywood oversight that ends up benefiting the film. The worry that nearly cripples Kane didn't build up overnight. The years he's witnessed injustice, murders, and vengeful criminals are evident on his face, as are the blood, sweat, and tears he's put into making something of this one tavern town. When all of that is threatened, there is no question that he'd turn around to defend it, even if it cost him his life.

The weight of obligation he feels, strangely, doesn't fall on anyone else. Even his new bride, Amy, can't bring herself to care much for the only home she's ever known. This is where the movie starts to falter. Kane's passion and dedication is evident, but the ambivalence (or fear, whatever you want to call it) of the rest of the town, who are unwilling to take beside him, is nonsensical. As Kane goes from man to man (to man to man to man), only to be met with derision, a brush-off, an assertion that "It's not his problem anymore"... it leaves us scratching our head in a curious Huh?? Writer Foreman does a feeble job giving anyone other than Kane a leg to stand on (much less a backbone), so as worthy a hero as he might be, there is no balance of side characters to keep him from devolving into a self-righteous, stubborn loner. No one will help him, so why should he stick his neck out for them? Well, because the script says so, and no one is more convincingly good than Gary Cooper.

In keeping with the continual theme of risk-taking Western favorites, it wouldn't be half as exciting if this film wasn't so controversial. Hated by a ream of folks who quite literally built the genre (John Wayne, John Ford), the lack of a flashy hero is only compounded by the so clearly defined battle of good vs. evil. The stakes are high, but there is something hollow about Hadleyville and those who inhabit it. Cooper's ability to keep us with him makes up for a lot, but the underlying metaphor of the underdog is hardly subtle. Add onto that the arguably underutilized side characters, particularly Kelly and Bridges despite how good they are, and you're looking at a divisive film.

But in the world of the AFI, what fun would it be to have a controversy-free movie on this countdown? The more to praise or deride, the more delight we all get in talking about them. High Noon is no different, and it's the team-up of Cooper and Zinnemann that lean this review towards the praise column.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next time for #26 on the list, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Music Mondays: Bo Burnham "Can't Handle This"

I actually shared this on my Facebook earlier today, and realized it would make a great entry for Music Mondays. Bo Burnham is a brilliant young comedian known for his musical comedy and enhanced theatrics, but in his most recent Netflix comedy special, Make Happy, he delivers his magnum opus with "Can't Handle This," otherwise known as his 'Kanye Rant.'

What starts out as an appropriately funny couple of verses laced with (surprisingly beautiful) auto-tune transforms into an unexpectedly emotional and resounding climax to his show. Watch it now (take note of the incredible lighting cues!), and check out his other comedy all over YouTube, including his first Netflix special, What. This guy is a genius. Enjoy, and happy Monday!

Artist: Bo Burnham
Song: "Can't Handle This"
Album/Show: Make Happy

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Movie Review: "Finding Dory" (2016)

© Pixar Animation Studios

Is this a whole week late? Maybe. Am I kinda embarrassed that I wrote 98% of this review at 1 AM after watching it opening night only to leave the last 2% until today? ... Yes. To say that I'd been anticipating this release with every last inch of my being would be an understatement; talking about it with refined thought and insight is a tall order, so prepare yourself for mediocrity here. From me, not the movie. Because the greatest film to come out of Pixar's masterwork factory, Finding Nemo, has finally gotten an unneeded but very welcome follow-up (despite the world already enduring multiple Cars off-shoots) with Finding Dory. Considering this role single-handedly revitalized the career of comedy genius, Ellen Degeneres, focusing the movie's events on the life and times of Dory the Blue Tang fish and her mysterious short-term memory loss was, in short, a no-brainer. What I didn't expect was just how all-encompassing the message of embracing differences would be.

A year after crossing the ocean to rescue a little clown fish named Nemo, Dory (Degeneres) has settled into a new life and routine on the reef with Nemo and his dear old dad, Marlon (Albert Brooks). Her lack of memory hasn't slowed her down one bit, until one day she's reminded that everyone has a family—which means her's must be out there somewhere. With only pieces to go on and the sudden realization she was separated from them as a young fishy, Dory enlists Marlon and Nemo to accompany her on a journey home.

Their adventure carries them across the sea once again, this time to Morro Bay, CA and the Marine Life Institute, a sanctuary containing diverse creatures housed for rescue, rehabilitation, and (hopefully) release. With the help of some incredibly talented new friends—including wannabe-captive octopus, Hank (Ed O'Neill), short-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), and sonar-deaf beluga Bailey (Ty Burrell)—Dory must infiltrate the Institute to find her parents and set them free. So long as she doesn't forget the reason she came there.

The first film deals with the concept of captivity versus freedom (something not completely lost here), and the enemy is unapologetically us. This time around, humans are hardly the problem, despite always seeming to get in the way of things (children are still, in fact, marine life's worst nightmare; glad to see some things never change.) The real challenges for these characters lie within—phobias, compulsions, disabilities mental and physical—all that must be overcome. And with that, the implications of this story—Dory's story, most notably—are demonstrably sad.

Nobody stole the show from Degeneres as Dory, try as they might. Not even the cutesy-cuddly sea otters, or even baby Dory (voiced by Sloane Murray), who may well be the most adorable animated character ever drawn up (with that little bird from Dory's pre-movie short, Piper, coming in a close second). This film utilizes flashbacks heavily, painting a picture of Dory's past to drive her motivation—and our investment. Marlon and Nemo may have an important role to play, but Marlon takes a back seat as Dory's newest curmudgeonly partner, the "septupus" Hank. He does more than just the heavy-lifting, scooping Dory up and carrying her around on her journey. He is, on the outside, the most capable creature this series has introduced—but even he suffers from debilitating fears and physical ailments. He, of course, wouldn't frame it that way, though.

Director Andrew Stanton dug through the "Best of TV's Comedic Timing" list to litter the newest cast members with "Modern Family" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" voice talent... but then there's the shoehorn of characters from the original that, to say the least, had no business being in this. Stanton and team had to realize that they'd struck solid gold with these new characters—they should have leaned into them more, without feeling the need to give old favorites Crush (voiced by Stanton) and Squirt a couple of minutes of forced screen time. It's a small complaint, particularly because this only affects the first 15 minutes and re-establishes this world that we met over twelve years ago—but it's a world we never forgot, given that Nemo may be Pixar's most perfect film. I hope that they're braver with separating themselves from the original for The Incredibles sequel than they did with this.

The incredible thing about Pixar, but particularly in Dory, is their ability and willingness to incorporate all manner of characters into their stories. Whether they're differently-abled or socially awkward or obsessive compulsive, all personalities are welcome. With one exception. My boyfriend pointed this out to me as we left the theater, and I couldn't believe I'd missed it. For characters with mental handicaps, this is not a friendly story. There's not one, but two, characters introduced that are slow mentally, and the movie couldn't try harder to make them the butt of every joke. I'm talking about Gerald the Sea Lion and Becky the Pacific Loon (apt, huh?). They're non-verbal, continuously compulse, and frequently derided by their peers for it. In a movie about embracing impairments, it's a wonder how these two managed to draw the short straws. It isn't offensive per se, but it is curious. It's hard not to think that their goofy-toothed grins or cock-eyed tweaks weren't added simply for the laugh, and there were a lot of laughs.

Despite some missteps in use of characters, I'm hard-pressed to find much wrong with the bones of this movie. Not only was it piercingly emotional, it was also hysterical. Credit can be given to Nemo for creating characters so rich with history—history that we get to finally relish in and explore—and they do their star the justice she deserves. Dory distinguishes itself from its predecessor, too, and gives spectacular dimension to Pixar's most beloved fish.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Thursday, June 16, 2016

AFI Top 100: #28 "All About Eve"

Anne Baxter & Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

Sometimes there's nothing better than two bad-ass bitches facing off while decked out in pearls. AFI's #28 film, All About Eve, may be the closest Old Hollywood ever got to a dragged-out library read, all thanks to perennial leading lady and the original movie Queen, Bette Davis. This popular and infamous gem hearkens back to one of my favorite lines from any Hollywood movie: "There's always somebody younger and hungrier coming down the stairs behind you."

Ah yes, thank you, Showgirls, for paying homage to this classic tale of stage ambition. You two are comparable in oh-so-many ways. Not the least of which is a cat-fight for the ages, and subversive backstage manipulations rivaled by none. Needless to say, though, it wasn't Showgirls that was nominated for 14 Oscars—a record that, to this day, has yet to be beat (only met). All About Eve has prevailed as perhaps more iconic and influential than it even deserves. But that's the beauty of cinema: there is no telling what will stay with audiences throughout the years. And Margo Channing certainly stuck.

Fresh off the train from the Mid-West, young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is enamored with the glamour of the Broadway stage—not to mention her growing fascination with its biggest star, the seasoned and temperamental Margo Channing (Davis). When Even is spotted for the umpteenth time outside the stage door for Margo's current production, the actress's close friend, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) takes Eve under her wing, bringing the girl into their inner circle of friends. Many take pity on Eve, particularly the men, including Karen's husband, playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's boyfriend and frequent director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and eccentric producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), all curiously noting her youth, naivete, and harmless obsession with Margo. Margo, however, begins to notice the girl's curious behavior as she manipulates her way into every crevice of their work—and their lives. Only Margo and her friend, critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), see Eve for what she is: a woman who will stop at nothing to be a success.

This is a delicious soap opera full of ferocious female talent (you'll even notice a young Marilyn Monroe appearing in a suitably cast role). I don't know that there's another way to describe it. The plot lines showcase the subversive nature of show business, particularly highlighting the women who find comfort in defining themselves as divas. Nobody embodies that like Bette Davis, and there is something perverse about watching someone try to knock her down permanently off that high horse. As viewers, we understand that Margo Channing may indeed be a performer in need of a reality check about her own greatness and importance, but that doesn't mean that we we're ready to see her go. That's what director Joseph L. Mankiewicz does so well, balancing our alliances by creating an underdog in Eve, only to reveal her as a frightening, an arch-browed devil.

The film doesn't try to deal an even deck between Margo and Eve—you are simply never on Eve's side, despite seeing the flaws in Margo. It doesn't take long before you realize that you're incapable of giving Eve the benefit of the doubt. Baxter is one committed broad, because this is one tough role to play. Eve is unapologetically destructive. She slithers into Margo's life and infects it like a cancer—benign though she might appear. It never even occurs to most of the Broadway veterans that this nobody farm-girl could be anything other than harmless. That's really why Baxter is so effective in this part, and why the development of her character is so unnerving. And it isn't subtle. At all. She's strange and creepy, hovering around Margo and staring with a glaze in her eyes—this is some serious Single White Female material, and Anne Baxter delivers a hair-raising performance.

Margo Channing and her pals are major #squadgoals. There's a fear that curdles inside you as Eve weaves her way into the hard-set mechanics of this close-knit group of friends and lovers—that somehow, she might indeed tear them all apart. One of my biggest "plot device" pet peeves is when problems between people—in this case, Margo and her friends—could easily be solved if they'd only talk to each other, but they never do, so everything disintegrates into chaos. All About Eve gets dangerously close to suffering from that... but then something magical happens. It doesn't.

The characters aren't as easily manipulated as they might seem, and there is a loyalty that rears up in defense of Margo that brings a glint of hope to your eye and a rally-cry of "Get that bitch!" to your lips. As heightened as the drama feels, it also is unflinchingly relatable. Everyone has had friendships tested by the influence of outside forces, or even new friends. The progression of their dismissals of Even to their united front against her touches on all those desires for personal justice we've ever craved to see.

There is nothing delicate about this film; no clear nuances that need to be rehashed and interpreted. The action plays out in clear black and white, and that is what makes All About Eve so easily (and frequently) emulated. This isn't to say that it's simplistic or juvenile in its execution—not in the least. In fact, Mankiewicz is a true master in his creation of an evergreen story. It's as seedy a tale as you may expect, which for me, keeps it just out of reach of perfection.

The movie is showy and over-dramatized, the characters continuously spouting poetically as if they are in their own little play. The definition of scenery chewing. Such exaggeration surely is magnificent to watch, particularly with a group of catty friends—but the roots of the story, Eve's long-game infiltration and the perpetual back-stabbing, are what make this film truly memorable and deserving of accolades.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © 20th Century Fox]

Check back next time for #27 on the list, High Noon — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Music Mondays: Fitz and the Tantrums "HandClap"

We're in need of something good right now. After a weekend full of unspeakable tragedy, it's easy to forget that June is a month dedicated to feeling PRIDE. I hope that in light of the sadness, you all found love, support, and happiness in your communities. And I also hope, if you were celebrating PRIDE across the country this weekend (or next, or the next), you found reason to dance. Today's Music Monday is dedicated to all those who refuse to slink into the shadows, and loudly proclaim their identities without fear. Find that joy and never let go.

Here is the new track from Fitz and the Tantrums, "HandClap," to lift you up and keep you dancing fiercely. ♥ 🌈

Artist: Fitz and the Tantrums
Song: "HandClap" | download
Album: Fitz and the Tantrums

Friday, June 10, 2016

Movie Review: "Now You See Me 2" (2016)

© Summit Entertainment

Is this movie called Now You See Me: The Second Act? I, um... the theater seemed to think so, but the opening movie credits didn't. Looks like the Marketing team changed their mind halfway through and decided new branding was in order. Wouldn't have helped, though—nothing could have. The movie's title is the least of its problems.

A year after the events of the original, and the Four Horsemen illusionists (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, with new horseman Lizzy Caplan) are ready to make their reappearance after being in hiding from the FBI, who are still hot on their trail. In hopes of revealing the secrets of a new computer chip that can hack any computer and information, the team's return to the stage is unexpectedly interrupted, and they find themselves in Macau, China, face to face with a new enemy, Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). With their leader and outed FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) forced to work with his [apparently] mortal enemy, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), to find them, the Horsemen are forced to plan their most intricate heist yet (not really): stealing the chip for Mabry to use as he sees fit. Naturally, there's more to the story, and only their trusty magic tricks can save them now.

This whole movie was awful. Just awful. It's shocking that so many incredible actors were convinced to say such stupid things. The reveals were mediocre and unimpressive, even more so (from what I can tell) than the original. Granted, I didn't see that one, but from the looks of it, it was at least unapologetically fun(?). But if the writing there is anything like here, then I won't be giving it a shot. The entire movie takes for granted that you've seen the first one, which I hadn't, and the introduction of characters is practically non-existent. Not bad for an involved sequel, but this one could have spared the time to round everyone out a bit for a new audience. This isn't Harry Potter. You don't have a rich world to re-establish; but a hint about why we should care wouldn't hurt.

Rather than creating an entirely new story, bringing in a new-ish villain with completely different goals, they simply regurgitate the same old revenge plot from the first with boring, hapless criminals and far less spectacle. Michael Caine comes off like a stumbling amateur, and Daniel Radcliffe's Geoffrey-style whining was only compounded by his predilection for walking across glass, fish-filled floors barefoot and not shaving. The set up for stealing this coveted computer chip is absurd, yet the heist itself is a complete joke. They don't even commit to the "planning montage" that ultimately ends up being the best part. Card flinging tricks are only cool if you're really doing it, not when it's been done cheaply in some post house. And don't even get me started on the finale. What a letdown.

Lizzy Caplan is one of my all-time favorites, but she's reduced to the token woman role without any apology from the writers thanks to Isla Fisher (the previous token female) opting out due to her pregnancy. If fact, the filmmakers kinda lean into the "only woman" concept way too much, and Caplan has to stomach saying lines like "You need a woman on the team!" or whatever nonsense they made her say to explain her presence. You're so much better than this, Lizzy! You all are so much better than this. Yes, even you, Jesse Eisenberg.

I did get some weird feelings I've never experienced towards Eisenberg in this, though, and the sudden experience made me what to take a shower to scrub out the thoughts. There's just a... you know what, never mind. I can't explain it, it was a lapse in attraction-judgment, it won't happen again. Maybe it was the haircut? I don't know!! But admittedly, the showman in him fits the concept for this role just right, but for all that showmanship, there really isn't much of a show.

Your options in the theater this weekend aren't that promising. I recommend seeing something again, like The Nice Guys (review for that coming soon!)

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars
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