Tag: romance

Festival Review: IFF Boston Screenings

Though my various work commitments kept me from experiencing the full festival, I was able to take in four films at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and they were all varying levels of good! I’m kind of behind on blogging so I decided to compile all my festival reviews together into one post, so they’ll be short.

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First up was my number one priority, Obvious Child. Based on the short of the same name, the film stars Jenny Slate as Donna, an aspiring stand-up comedian who loses her boyfriend and her job back-to-back. After wallowing for a bit she allows herself a one-night stand with a cute but fairly strait-laced boy named Max (Jake Lacey), whom she meets at the bar where she performs. A short time later she realizes she is pregnant, and decides to get an abortion as she is not ready (personally or financially) to be a parent. In the weeks before the procedure she renews contact with Max and they sort of think about dating, but she struggles with telling him about the results of their first night together.

Obvious Child is basically the kind of pro-choice romantic comedy I wanted it to be- it’s just a genuinely enjoyable, relatable film with a hilarious performance from Slate and a lot of ladycentric positivity. It did a good job of stretching the premise of the short to feature-length without overcomplicating the story. The script treats abortion as a regular thing, something many women experience (in fact, all three main women characters in this movie have had it), and it isn’t seeking to become an “issue” movie. It’s just part of the story. Essentially, it’s all a showcase for Slate, who is so so so so funny and I hope she has an amazing comedy career. A neat bit of trivia about this movie is I know someone who was an extra! They filmed one of the later scenes at the Planned Parenthood where my friend Sammy used to work, and she’s in the background of some shots. Cool, huh?

 

dear white people

Two nights later I caught my second-most priority film, Dear White People. Set at a fictional Ivy League school, the film tracks the events leading up to a so-called “riot” at an on-campus party through the eyes of four black students. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an aspiring filmmaker whose notorious radio “Dear White People” mocks contemporary race relations. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a quiet writer seeking a place to fit in- feeling cut off from both the gay and black communities but hoping to make friends at the school newspaper. Coco (Teyonah Paris), who doesn’t accept Sam’s aggressive stance, dreams of being a reality star, and works to create a persona to make herself more viable. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is a popular poli-sci major who wants to try comedy writing, but is pushed into more distinguished extracurricular activities by his father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of students. Their fates become intertwined at an ill-conceived party held by an elite house full of white assholes, technically “hip hop” themed but really just an excuse for white people to mimic black stereotypes and in some cases don blackface.

Biting in its satire and liberally sprinkled with both regular jokes and meta-jokes, Dear White People is a telling glimpse into race relations on American campuses while also being a fantastic film in general. It’s funny and fast-paced, a little bit cheesy at the right parts and subtle in its analysis of the many intersections of race, class, gender, history, and prejudice. The protagonists are navigating a tricky environment, trying to find where they feel comfortable while understanding the pre-conceived notions held by their peers as well as their elders. The film is about all those deep-seated assumptions we all carry with us, so deeply ingrained in our society we don’t always realize they’re there. Writer/director Justin Simien tackles these issues with wit and heart, and an interesting juxtaposition of under- and over-statement. I loved the cast (who are all insanely attractive), the script, and the style, and came out of it thinking about my own experiences in college and those of my friends of color. Ultimately I loved it, but recognized that I’m not really who this movie is for. Which is actually great.

ALSO! I have to mention how excited I was to see Malcolm Barrett in a supporting role. He is one of my (many) favorite things about Better Off Ted.

 

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I followed up Dear White People almost immediately with Ti West’s The Sacrament, a big shift in both tone and cast diversity since it’s mostly about white dudes. This found-footage thriller stars Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Kentucker Audley as VICE journalists investigating a mysterious cult that began in the United States but moved to an unknown jungle location (presumably in South America) to build a utopian commune. Their leader (Gene Jones), known only as “Father”, is an intelligent Southern gentleman who preaches tolerance, togetherness, and living off the land. Their world seems like a paradise- indeed, many of their inhabitants call it just that- but, as with all cults I guess, there’s a seedy underbelly waiting to be exposed.

Generally employing the found-footage angle well (except for one big misstep at the end that really bothered me), The Sacrament builds gradually into a really fucked up finish, which I guess is Ti West’s basic style of filmmaking. It’s interesting for its showing-but-not-telling kind of approach, dropping hints as to what is really going on in the commune but rarely coming and saying it. The supporting cast is excellent, with the creepy-charismatic Gene Jones and the incredibly versatile Amy Seimetz. I thought the main characters were all kind of boring though, like there’s nothing memorable about them. They’re just these regular kinda bro-y white dudes, and I wasn’t especially invested in their plight. But the story surrounding them is engaging enough that I would recommend the movie as a whole. The final sequence is some intense shit, my god.

 

mood-indigo

The closing film of the festival was Mood Indigo, Michel Gondry’s latest feature. Based on the novel by Boris Vian, the movie focuses on Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy layabout who coasts by on charm and magical realism. He meets and immediately falls for Chloé (Audrey Tatou), and they marry after six months together. They have a grand time living, hanging out with Colin’s multi-talented lawyer-chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) and other eccentric friends, but then Chloé contracts a mysterious illness and things take a turn. The film progresses steadily from a light-hearted romantic comedy into a hopeless tragedy, with the colors literally sapped away by the final scenes.

I’ve always loved Gondry’s visual sensibilities, his techniques and special effects and sheer imagination are just wonderful, so I’m always happy to see one of his narrative features on a big screen. Mood Indigo is whimsical as fuck, incorporating all kinds of weird cutesy effects- including stop motion animation, time lapse, forced perspective, and color shifts. I loved the bizarre lecture with enigmatic writer Partre, the animated food, the behind-the-scenes typists who wrote Colin’s story, the encroaching fungal growth that filled the house as Chloé’s illness worsened. I could tell its tonal switch didn’t work for a lot of the audience, who were surprised and confused by the totally downer ending. I had been warned it was a really sad movie so I was ready for it. I didn’t mind the shift so much, because to me it was an interesting experiment in style- we know how Gondry’s whimsical point of view can give us comedy and romance, but how does it reflect tragedy? How do these magical, saccharine elements work themselves into a sadder story? What did bother me was how shallow the whole affair felt, how little we actually know about these characters, and yet we’re supposedly meant to care about them and their problems by the end. It’s not like I hated it, but I enjoyed it almost purely on a visual level, recognizing that the story itself was barely there if you stripped away the stylish narrative techniques.

Movie Review: The Red Shoes (1948)

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Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

The great Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is revered for his elegant and moving ballet productions. He is so dedicated to staging perfect ballets, he views everyone around him merely as tools working towards his own illustrious goal. He has no patience for relationships, or emotional hangups, or anyone who doesn’t commit themselves fully. When he discovers young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), he believes he can mold her into a larger-than-life presence on his stage. At first she is completely dedicated to ballet, performing mind-boggling feats in an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Red Shoes.” But after traveling around Europe with Lermontov’s company for some time, she falls in love with his principal composer, Julian (Marius Goring). Upon learning of their relationship, Lermontov endeavors to prove that ballet is more important than romance, and forces Victoria to choose between her two passions.

Presenting the art of ballet as a mind-bending fever dream, The Red Shoes is ostensibly the story of a woman who loves to dance, but actually the driving force is the character of Lermontov, and his almost sociopathic obsession with perfection. For Lermontov, Vicky is not so much a pawn, but a symbol, representing all that he hopes to achieve. He is a fascinating character, a seemingly soulless genius who cannot empathize, cannot understand how any true artist like himself could fall in love or give themselves over to anything other than their craft. He is unwilling, even unable, to compromise, and Walbrook plays him with a constant derisive sneer and heavy dollops of charisma. Vicky is obsessive too, but she’s also much more humanized, and she recognizes that in real life sacrifices must be made, and everyone can’t go on living in Lermontov’s insular theatrical world. Her romance with Julian is barely shown, and indeed we only learn about it as Lermontov does, for as an audience we ourselves are trapped by his own limited view, where everything and everyone revolves around ballet.

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And really, I wanted nothing more than to live inside that world. The main narrative is essentially a pretty frame around the significant ballet sequences, with everything coming to a standstill for the jaw-dropping, surreal mania of the titular production. In the off-stage scenes, Moira Shearer plays it all demure and quiet for the most part, except for a few stress-fueled outbursts in rehearsals, and it’s all nice enough. And then she just DOMINATES during The Red Shoes sequence. She was cast because she could dance as well as act, but clearly her dancing is the key. She strides out gallantly, forever picking up speed to match the frantic rhythm of the music, bounding and twirling through sprawling sets that become more and more impossible. The film as a whole is seemingly set in the real world, but this ballet moves farther and farther into fantasy, so seamlessly that I never thought to question it. Of course Lermontov would somehow suspend the rules of reality, with the dancers floating in the air, shoes moving of their own accord, and settings taking up more space than the stage could allow. It just cements his hold on both Vicky and the viewers, enforcing the magical, entrancing quality of ballet as an artform. Without this context, the melodramatic ending- which sounds kind of ridiculous on paper- seems somehow justified.

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Ultimately I know the most enduring element of The Red Shoes, for me, will be its visuals. My god. The plentiful and over-saturated colors, experimental effects, surreal painted stage sets, flowing costumes, fierce make-up, temperamental close-ups: it’s all perfectly blended together through the direction of Powell and Pressburger. The result is a sumptuously beautiful film, both over-the-top in its storytelling and emotionally grounded in its characters. And unavoidably tragic, as I suppose much great art must be.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Naturally, my mind flashed to Black Swan more than once, as Aronofsky pulled some inspiration from The Red Shoes for his own tale of a ballet dancer sacrificing her peace of mind for the sake of her craft. Or for a more down-to-earth ballet classic there’s Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance.

Movie Review: Bound (1996)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

Trying their soon-to-be-totally-famous hands at the sexy noir thriller genre, Andy and Lana Wachowski made their directorial debut with Bound in 1996. Gina Gershon stars as Corky, a hardened ex-con recently released from prison, trying to keep her head down as she does some home improvement for an unseen employer. The apartment she’s working on happens to be adjacent to that of mob lackey Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and his girlfriend, Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Feeling an instant mutual attraction, the women soon begin a steamy affair, though Corky doesn’t think it’s anything lasting. Wanting to get away from her abusive criminal boyfriend, Violet enlists Corky in a scheme to steal millions in cash from him without spilling any blood. Their plan works at first, but over the course of one very intense evening it devolves into a homicidal mess that tests their newfound bond, and reveals Caesar’s true nature.

Situated primarily within the two neighboring apartments, Bound is a taut, serious bottle thriller, equally frank in its depictions of sex and violence. Contorting the typical straight man-woman-man love triangle by centering on two lesbians and one clueless heterosexual male, the story is compelling for its characters’ relationships as well as its sympathetic handling of queer themes. These ladies like to get naked together but they also like to get shit done, especially if that shit involves fucking over mobster assholes. Tilly and Gershon play their roles well, with the former blending vulnerability with iron resolution, and the latter affecting a convincing swagger to hide Corky’s deeper anxieties. Their own twisted morality shines like a beacon of truth amidst the brutality of their surroundings, the seemingly interchangeable male faces who work for the mob.

What is most impressive about this film is the use of space. 90% of the story takes place within these two apartments, one furnished and fancy, the other stripped-down and barren. Violet and Corky move quietly between these two disparate worlds, while the camera moves brazenly throughout each room, itself communicating action, tension, and fear. I could definitely see where some of The Matrix‘s distinctive visual style came from, as the Wachowskis’ camera creates a slick and thrilling atmosphere out of limited characters and settings. Because the film really distinguishes itself in its second half, when Violet and Corky’s plan is being carried out for better or worse effect, I felt the earlier portion of the film was weaker. There’s a little too much set-up, when this probably could have worked as a one-night story with a few flashbacks or something. It’s a really engaging film with some fun twists on the genre, but I probably would have liked it even better if the pacing or structure were handled differently.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: A classic film noir about screwing over a woman’s significant other for his money would suffice, something like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Movie Review: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

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Seen: In 35mm at the Somerville Theatre. Part of their Centennial Series.

When fresh-faced small-town radio personality Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) interviews a disheveled crooner in an Arkansas holding cell, she is convinced she’s discovered a new star. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is a charismatic-beyond-belief hooligan with a ratty guitar and a drinking problem, and the magical ability to get people to listen to him. Marcia gives him a radio show, and from there his career soars higher than anyone could have imagined, leading to multiple nationally-televised talk shows that primarily involve Lonesome effortlessly spewing his own brand of folk wisdom and political commentary. At the start he uses his newfound influence for good, or at least good-natured fun, sending packs of dogs to befuddle a power-hungry sheriff and brazenly bringing a recently-homeless black woman onscreen so he can call for donations for her new house. But as the years pass, he gains more and more pull with authority figures, eventually angling to move a specific candidate into the White House for him to control, and he becomes ever-more infatuated with the fabricated image of Lonesome Rhodes. Marcia sticks with him through it all, managing behind the scenes, but she gradually realizes the monster she’s created has to be stopped before the whole operation collapses in on itself.

I’m honestly not even sure where to start, except to say that A Face in the Crowd is amazing. It is one of the most prescient films I’ve seen, anticipating ways that mass media would alter American society while also predicting general political trends. Parallels to pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck are a snap to draw. Lonesome’s astonishing rise to the top is married to his manipulative aw-shucks demeanor and pointed maneuvering- we never know the man before he has a microphone, and so the line between his character and his persona is forever blurred. Marcia blames herself for encouraging him, but for all we know this was fated, unavoidable. I love how subtly scary this movie is, how many shots of Lonesome seemed framed to reveal his devious eye and hungry mouth as his maniacal laugh boomed out over the scene transitions. Griffith is funny, confident, and legitimately terrifying in the role, embodying this supposedly “regular Joe” who is given the opportunity to become larger than life, and takes full advantage of it. Great power, great responsibility, etc- this guy didn’t have any Uncle Ben, that’s for sure.

Somerville projectionist David Kornfeld introduced the film, and pointed out how open the film is about sex, which is surprising for a movie from 1957. It is indeed pretty frank. No boobs or anything (damn!) but very clear sexual interludes take place, many outside the bonds of matrimony (gasp!). Mostly I thought it was neat that Marcia seemed fairly open-minded about sex- like she didn’t condemn Lonesome for his affairs, and didn’t assume love and marriage must follow when she herself slept with him. Of course I myself was rooting for Walter Matthau’s ho-hum tv writer, who rightly fell in love with the whip-smart, quick-to-smile Marcia almost immediately. Plus you know his melodramatic eloquence will pay off eventually. And it really does.

This movie floored me. I don’t know what else I can say. It is at times shocking and unsettling, at others satirically funny and casually familiar. Its characters all twist and squirm within this self-sustaining media machine, with everyone nigh-unrecognizable to who they were when introduced. Elia Kazan’s dramatic camerawork and blocking underscores what is actually an utterly realistic narrative, making it all the more impressive to a modern-day viewer like myself, who feels the predictions of 1957 easily applying to today’s fuckery.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: This is an obvious precursor to Network, but honestly I think this is much better and more relevant to today. There are also some parallels to Citizen Kane. BUT I’m going to go a little kookier and suggest Little Shop of Horrors, because it also involves a dude who becomes power-hungry after semi-accidentally making it big. But with more singing. And also more homicide.

Movie Review: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

I haven’t seen enough Barbra Streisand movies, and it’s becoming a problem. I feel like I’ve skipped over this big cultural touchstone. Mostly I just really want to revisit Yentl. But last week I settled for What’s Up, Doc? because it looked supremely silly. And you know what? IT WAS. Ryan O’Neal stars as absent-minded musicologist Howard Bannister, who is traveling to a conference with his bossy, no-nonsense fiancee Eunice (Madeline Kahn). He is half-wooed, half-stalked by the mysterious and apparently penniless Judy Maxwell (Streisand), who manages to turn his entire life upside down within just a few days. Their personal escapades are made much more elaborate by two valuable suitcases, one containing jewels and the other secret government documents, which get confused with Howard’s and Judy’s own bags. A complicated set of mix-ups, switch-a-roos, and mistaken identities takes place, topped off with a joyfully manic car chase.

Calling back to the classic slapstick comedies of yesteryear, What’s Up, Doc? is a super fun and ridiculous movie, just goofy all around. It’s got all the things you need, from wacky misunderstandings and bumbling characters to over-the-top costume changes and high-concept brawls. The narrative is secondary to the jokes, obviously, and the many hilarious interactions between characters. Streisand is excellent as the brash, very New York Judy, who connives her way into Howard’s life through sheer force of will and quick thinking. What I liked most about her was her impressive talent for spewing off weird facts, she just came off as this somewhat delusional woman who happened to be extremely well-read. Her comrade, Ryan O’Neal, is unfortunately a mediocre partner. He’s cute and everything (I had no problem with the surprising amount of shirtlessness), but just didn’t seem fully committed to the role, so he comes off as a weak imitation of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (I mean, this whole movie is kind of Bringing Up Baby, really). His delivery isn’t very strong. They make a pretty adorable couple, though, once they start singing and sexing things up.

Of course, his inferiority is made more apparent as he is surrounded by a stunning supporting cast. It almost seems a mistake to have Madeline Kahn in this movie, because though it’s her first film role she absolutely steals the show away from her famous co-stars. She just dominates: through expression, through posture, through tone of voice. At first I was bummed when I saw she was playing this cold fish character who’d probably be the butt of every joke, but through her performance Eunice comes off as a takes-no-shit woman who is understandably fed up with Howard’s uselessness. The man can’t even tie his own tie for god’s sake. She’s just a wonder. Plus at the end SHE does the leaving, and it’s off to greener pastures. Kahn is joined by Kenneth Mars (soon to join her again in Young Frankenstein) sporting an incredibly silly hairstyle, an exaggerated accent, and a terrible personality, and it’s fantastic.

This movie is essentially super fun, but a little too derivative/familiar on the writing side of things for me to all-out love it. It just reminded me of too many other movies. That being said, the fantastic performances, wild fashions (omg Mrs Van Hoskins!), and good-natured comedy make it a great watch, while the climactic free-flying chase through the streets of San Francisco makes it truly memorable. Seriously skilled stunt driving, everybody. Funny AND exciting! It’s almost as if Hal Needham was there!

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Its (presumably intentional) similarity to Bringing Up Baby cannot be denied, and that would make for a romantically zany double feature. Alternatively, with multiple Mel Brooks actors showing up in supporting roles (Kahn, Mars, plus Liam Dunn!), this could easily go with any of his 70s films. Maybe especially Young Frankenstein.