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Movie Recommendation- Late Marriage

29 May

LATE MARRIAGE (2001)
On its face, Dover Kosashvili’s Late Marriage concerns issues that may seem quite alien to you and me. It’s the story of a 31-year-old Israeli man named Zaza (Lior Ashkenazi, recently seen in Footnote) whose very traditional parents are attempting to arrange a marriage for him. The prospective brides include girls who have not yet graduated high school. However, Zaza’s lack of interest stems not from moral disgust but from the fact that he already has a girlfriend. He has been dating a 35-year-old divorced woman named Judith (Ronit Elkabetz) who has a daughter. To Zaza’s family, this is unacceptable and outrageous. Understandably, Zaza is devastated and torn. In addition to the intellectual sympathy we feel, Kosashvili gets us emotionally wrapped up in the film’s proceedings. He does so first by achieving immediacy through naturalism, most notably in the film’s somewhat famous sex scene. The intimacy we witness between Zaza and Judith is relaxed, casual and funny but also conspicuously less sexy than our cinematically trained eyes are accustomed to expect. This is a sexual encounter between two people for whom such activities are common. They have become unselfconscious and comfortable with each other’s bodies and their own. We may not recognize this scene from other movies but we more than likely recognize it from our own lives. In a broader sense, though, Kosashvili makes things relatable by locating the universal root in the tale. As foreign to us as Zaza’s family is, the existence of grown men who are still too scared of their parents’ disapproval to live their own lives is prevalent in our culture and others. As such, Late Marriage is both an intense look into another world and one that is strikingly close to home.

Movie Recommendation- In The Cut

23 May

IN THE CUT (2003)
Generally, I use these occasional Movie Recommendation posts to highlight a film I think you may have missed because it’s obscure or it flew under the radar on its initial release. However with this one (as well as the next one I’ll do, whenever that may be), I’ll instead make the case for a movie you may have skipped because of negative reviews and bad word of mouth. From those things, one would get the impression that Jane Campion’s In the Cut is a film that is somehow both overheated and undercooked; its central mystery is all blood and no bite, never really grabbing hold of the viewer. Frankly, it’s hard to argue against that characterization. What that doesn’t get across, though, is how darkly beautiful a parade of gloomy symbolism the film is. Meg Ryan, whose outsize energy and charm has always obscured her meek frame, is here made small and vulnerable. Her male costars (with the exception of Kevin Bacon as a notably pathetic metrosexual ex-boyfriend) tower over her, making palpable the susceptibility of a woman on her own. Near the end, when Ryan dons a deep red dress with a high neckline that makes it appear as though her throat has been slit, it seems that Campion is saying that a female must first embrace her natural state of victimhood in order to come out the other side of it. It’s a potentially controversial point of view but it’s eloquently and gorgeously stated.

Movie Recommendation- Justice League: Doom, by Aaron Pinkston

1 May

This weekend opens one of the biggest superhero movies ever made. The Avengers features super team consisting of a bunch of characters not used to sharing the screen with anyone. But it’s not the only superhero team with a new film out.

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Movie Recommendation- Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

7 Mar

The story behind Paul Schrader’s prequel to The Excorcist, helpfully titled and subtitled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist , is complex and interesting enough to make for its own movie. It was originally to have been directed by the legendary John Frankenheimer, who left the project due to illness before production began and died a month later. After that, Morgan Creek replaced Frankenheimer with the heady and provocative writer/director Schrader (The Last Temptation of Christ, Auto Focus). Upon seeing that Schrader had gone ahead and made a heady and provocative film, they shelved it and brought on successful genre hack Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) to reshoot a more conventional telling of the story with the same cast and locations. I’ve never seen Harlin’s version but I understand that the basic story is the same. Stellan Skarsgård plays Father Lankester Merrin, the role inhabited by Max von Sydow in the first two Exorcist films. Merrin has left Holland during the Second World War and relocated to East Africa. During the unearthing of an ancient, buried church, he faces off against a literal demon while internally combating the figurative ones of his past. Dominion has not been well-received and it’s true that the limited budget shows, especially when the visual effects appear, but its critics seem to overlook what makes it both great in its own right and unique within the franchise. Schrader, as in Last Temptation, is concerned first and foremost not with the horrific spectacle of the supernaturally evil but with the immediate and everyday evil done by human beings. What Merrin witnessed in Holland at the hands of an SS officer is just at terrifying and unsettling – perhaps more so – than what he endures in the presence of the demon Pazuzu. This heavily empirical exploration of malevolence mixed with the director’s tendency toward spiritual angst among mortals makes this film something that will appeal to Schrader fans and David Cronenberg fans alike. What more could you want? Unless, I suppose, you’re a Renny Harlin fan.

Movie Recommendation- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

13 Feb

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (2004)
There is an argument to be made for style over substance.  While I usually like my movies to plumb the depths of human experience and emotion, sometimes it’s just enough to be able to sit back and watch- mouth agape- as a director dazzles me.  Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow makes no real attempt to comment on society or the human condition.  It just wants to give us a fun time at the movies.  And, for me, it really delivers.  Using many modern special effects that usually causes to roll our eyes, Sky Captain director Kerry Conran creates a world that is both past and future.  In this world, we get plucky reporters and cocksure fighter pilots bantering back and forth just before an army of giant robots attacks the city.  This film is a nice throwback to the science fiction movies of the 1950s, with more than a little 1920s German Expressionism mixed in for good measure.  Conran clearly loves film and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a love letter to the movies of his childhood; the Saturday afternoon serials that have long been forgotten.  So forgotten, in fact, that Sky Captain was a financial failure.  The public simply didn’t know what to make of it.  And so it, too, has been forgotten.  And Kerry Conran has not made a feature film since.  That is truly sad, because Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow deserves to be remembered.

Movie Recommendation- The Loved One

12 Feb

THE LOVED ONE (1965)
The sixties were a weird time for American film – while the studio system was falling apart, a few brave, engaged filmmakers found ways to sneak some truly subversive material across the border of distribution. Tony Richardson’s 1965 film The Loved One, billed as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone!”, is certainly in the class. Starring Robert Morse (now known as Bert Cooper on Mad Men) stars as a Brit who sort of stumbles onto American shores and into, of all things, the mortuary industry in Los Angeles. Along the way, he encounters the likes of Roddy McDowell, Rod Steiger (as an embalmer named “Mr. Joyboy”), Paul Williams, Tab Hunter, Dana Andrews, Liberace (as a coffin salesman!), Milton Berle, James Coburn, and in an incredible dual role, Jonathan Winters. Based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh (and based, in turn, on his own experience in Los Angeles as an outsider), and adapted by Christopher Isherwood(!) and Terry Southern(!!), The Loved One is satire as sharp as Network with the surrealist insanity of a classic issue of MAD Magazine. Any movie that contains the line, “there must be some way to get these stiffs off my property” would be an easy recommend, but truth be told, that’s only the beginning of the joys to be found within.

Movie Recommendation- The Last September

9 Feb

THE LAST SEPTEMBER (1999)
The Last September was the film debut for theatrical director Deborah Warner. She chose to adapt Elizabeth Bowen’s 1929 novel which tells the story of a wealthy family living in County Cork, Ireland in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. Though this family thinks of itself as Irish, the guerrillas combating the British government presence in their homeland don’t feel the same way. In a strict sense, however, all this is really just the backdrop to familial drama and romance. In a more abstract way, though, it’s all the film is about. The unease, which occasionally spills over into dread, informs everything that goes on. Some characters are more passionate because of it; others just try harder to be nonchalant. These people and more are inhabited by a stellar cast. Michael Gambon, Richard Roxburgh, Maggie Smith, Lambert Wilson and Fiona Shaw are all present. In addition, this film was my first exposure to the wonderful David Tennant. Still, the real star of the film is that atmosphere and, with the talented cinematographer Slawomir Idziak  (Blue, Black Hawk Down) behind the camera, the very air is heavy with dread and the fear that comes with being at the inevitable end of a time for which you already know you’ll be nostalgic. After thirteen years, I’m still eagerly awaiting Warner’s second film.

Movie Recommendation- The Pledge

6 Feb

THE PLEDGE (2001)
Sean Penn’s The Pledge seems like it could be a very conventional story.  It is about a retiring detective who becomes obsessed with his last cast, which he is convinced was not properly solved.  Played by no less a reassuring screen presence than Jack Nicholson, we get a strong sense of control and confidence from our protagonist, but he slowly begins to lose himself in a case that seemingly never ends.  By bringing his usual intensity to the story- and a willingness to go deeper into the protagonist’s psychosis- Sean Penn manages to craft a tale that is both engaging and very frustrating.  It is a film that explores what we have come to expect from movies.  “A  good man commits his life to catching a killer and eventually he does, and we all go home nice and satisfied.”  But, like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, The Pledge isn’t interested in wrapping things up in a nice bow.  It toys with our expectations of an easy ending and finally commits to the fact that obsession can get very ugly; even if it is well-meaning.

Movie Recommendation- Lantana

27 Jan

LANTANA (2001)
The exhausting “tapestry-of-intersecting-bourgeois-lives” genre sometimes seems like it only continues to exist because its purveyors are in a game of one-upmanship to see who can include the most characters. The recent, tepid Answers to Nothing may be the current titleholder. There are two main things that set Ray Lawrence’s Lantana apart from the pack. First, it has relatively few characters compared to these other films. Second, it is Australian. That means it’s one of the few chances you’ll get to see Anthony LaPaglia performing in his native accent. LaPaglia has never truly gotten the recognition he deserves stateside but he’s phenomenal here. Also in the sturdy cast are Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush. Though Lawrence’s camera is in unanchored and fluid, the story manages to remain grounded due to the conclusion of a central narrative thread. The film begins with the image of a woman’s dead body, tangled in and obscured by a lantana bush. The investigation into this woman and how she came to die brings the film’s second half together compellingly. But it’s because of that first image that we are able to figure out who she is before the characters do, which casts events in a sad and sickeningly ironic light. By the time the whole thing’s over, you may or may not be considering the idea of love in a darker and more complex way. But you definitely will have seen Anthony LaPaglia cry and that’s worth it on its own.

Movie Recommendation- Superstar

6 Jan

SUPERSTAR (1999)
Tyler and I recently discussed on the podcast how often most film critics don’t connect with fringe comedies like Wet Hot American Summer. Despite being released by a major studio and being based on one of the more popular characters from a long-running network show, Bruce McCulloch’s Superstar does, in many ways, exist on the fringe, which might explain its 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. First off, take the name that I just mentioned. Bruce McCulloch was one of the members of the groundbreaking sketch comedy troupe, The Kids in the Hall. Known to the layperson chiefly for donning women’s clothing, they were actually committed to hilariously bizarre conceits – like an old, rich man who has a basement full of monkeys and of whom the entire town is terrified because he is always threatening to let the monkeys out – as well as odd and grotesque characters – such as the chicken lady, a lady who is also a chicken and who is both exhaustingly obnoxious and pitifully lonely. Not only is McCulloch driving this strange contraption but the second lead is played by Will Ferrell (this film can almost be seen as an early prototype of the anti-narrative comedies Ferrell would later star in, like Anchorman and Step Brothers). Yes, in his early thirties, Ferrell is playing the high school heartthrob while still looking like Will Ferrell in his early thirties. Oh and Ferrell also plays Jesus as a genial stoner who, upon visiting the lead character in her bedroom, glances around and remarks, “Is that a CD player? We don’t have those.”  At last, though, it all comes down to that lead character herself. Molly Shannon throws herself into the role of Mary Katherine Gallagher and carries the film along with her exuberance. Whether she’s practicing kissing on a tree trunk or shrilly arguing with her grandmother (an argument that consists of her screaming, “You’re horrible” pretty much endlessly), she is a fascinatingly dedicated and talented performer. And if all that doesn’t sell you on Superstar, it’s probably the only place you’ll get to see people die violently by being Riverdanced on.