Tuesday, November 26, 2013

State of the Union

I just wanted to give you all an update on what's going on behind the scenes with this blog. 

For those of you who just want the executive summary:

There are going to be some changes, moving forward, and though I'm not yet sure how they will shake out, a few things are certain. I'm planning on cutting back on content and either eliminating or altering the regular weekly features in order to make them more easily manageable for me. Posts will likely no longer happen every day or for every movie I watch, and the format of those posts might be different than what we're used to. I will try to keep things going as best as I can, but we might be looking at more of a "when I can and want to" posting schedule.

If you want to hear a bit more about WHY these changes are happening, more (personal) details are under the cut.

Monday, November 25, 2013

FI: The To Do List

The To Do List
US, 2013
Written and directed by Maggie Carey

There are several things to admire about The To Do List. It's a coming-of-age/gross-out comedy (in the American Pie vein), written and directed by a woman and focusing on the experiences of a female character, hyper-organized overachiever Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), as she discovers her sexuality via a list of acts to try before college. All of these things are fairly uncommon even in today's post-Bridesmaids film industry, which still sidelines women on both sides of the camera and rarely allows them the same sexual or gross misadventures that males routinely get. The film never judges Brandy or pretends that the sexual acts on her titular "to do list" are somehow "wrong" for a woman, a refreshing stance to take when most media assumes it's sinful for women to experience sexual desire outside of monogamous relationships or the pursuit thereof. Neither does it pretend it needs some kind of reason to be gross—after all, its not as though male comedies do—or hide the fact that women are full human beings, with all of the good and bad things that entails, rather than objects existing solely on the madonna/whore dichotomy. This is all commendable, heartening stuff, all of which makes me wonder why my admiration didn't translate to warmer feelings towards the film itself.

Some of the problem stems from the film's '90s setting. The movie is loosely based on writer-director Carey's own teenage years during that time, but the era's signifiers like music or fashion feel like nostalgia signposts and aren't fully integrated with the film's story—unlike (and lord help me for positively invoking a Sandler movie) The Wedding Singer, whose '80s milieu seems more integral to the film in spite of its own abundant signposting. But this isn't an insurmountable problem, hardly the sort of thing to derail a film. Worse, perhaps, are some of the characterizations. On the whole, the cast is solid, and Plaza nails her role by mitigating her usual sardonic deadpan with notes of naivety and eager determination. It's also nice to see comedy favorites like Alia Shawkat and Donald Glover in supporting roles (along with Glover's Derrick Comedy pals DC Pierson and Domic Dierkes in cameos). Clark Gregg and Connie Britton are strong as Brandy's parents, and I'm glad they don't hit the standard parental beats regarding the film's sexual content, although the script goes to the well a little too often with Gregg's character's very dad-typical sexual hang-ups. But other characters, like Brandy's besotted lab partner (Johnny Simmons) and trendy older sister (Rachel Bilson) feel too broadly sketched.

This broadness hints at The To Do List's other major issue: a tonal mismatch between the broad, disgusting, cringey moments, and the more emotional, character-driven side of things. The film is at its best when it reverses expectations, like the subtle ways it plays with what, at first, seem like stock character types and default narrative beats, and I've only come to appreciate this aspect more over the days since I watched the movie. This is because these elements seem more at home in a dramedy or a film with more emotional resonance, while the gags involving poop, public lewdness, and the old "lost swimsuit" trope come from a very different, Porky's-style sex comedy. As such, the big gross laughs feel tacked on and don't hit as hard as the more character-based ones, while the places where grand emotional beats should fall instead feel a bit cheapened by the gross bits that preceded them. It's a difficult balance to attain, especially for a first-time writer-director, so it's hard to fault Carey given her obvious sincerity and all of the walls she's trying to break down here. For me, though, The To Do List doesn't quite iron out the divide between each of the films it's trying to be, and, as a result, never settles into being as funny or affecting as it could have been had it only bridged that gap.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Weekend Stream for 11/22/13

The Weekend Stream is a weekly feature curating content from the current selection on Netflix's US streaming service for you to watch each weekend. Just click the links or search for the bolded titles on your preferred Netflix-watching device, and you're in business! Since content can disappear from Netflix with little or no warning, there's always a chance a title will no longer be available by the time you read this, so you'd better act fast, see?!

Weekend Stream for 11/22/13

This week's titles aren't really related in any way, although two of them tie in with content that's premiering this week in theaters or on the TV. Let's get to it, shall we?

So this week's big theatrical film is, of course, Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games. But when the first film was released, many people compared its plot with Battle Royale (2000), a Japanese film based on a popular novel and its subsequent manga. In the movie, the country has decided to fight back against rebellious students by passing a law mandating a yearly contest-cum-punishment. A class is randomly chosen, drugged, and brought to an island where they are forced to fight each other to the death. If they refuse or run for it, an explosive collar will detonate and remove their head. There is no Katniss, here, only a bunch of kids acting like kids might in this situation (suicide, panic, weak alliances), and a few random psychopaths who seem born for the job. Similarly, the film's political statements are a bit more jejune than those of The Hunger Games, coming across more as an attempt to justify the story's lurid subject matter. Our lead is Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a shy boy recovering from a family tragedy, who nonetheless has hidden reserves of heart and guile that he calls on during the contest. Director Kinji Fukasaku doesn't shy away from showing gratuitous blood and outrageous child-on-child fight sequences. The whole thing might be a little too much, especially as concerns certain sensitive areas of the anatomy, but you may enjoy its provocative tone and grotesque sensibility.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

FI: Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century
US, 1934
Directed by Howard Hawks

When I wrote last week's regular TCM Tuesday post, I had not seen any of the week's screwball movies. Though I couldn't speak from experience, I said I would begin with Twentieth Century, Howard Hawks's fast-paced comedy-of-egos set in the over-the-top world of the theater—and, thanks to WatchTCM, I was able to do just that. The film shows us the evolution of Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), a lingerie model who theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) insists is going to be the next big thing on Broadway. Against the advice of his confidants, fussbudget accountant Oliver (Walter Connolly) and affable tippler Owen (Roscoe Karns), Jaffe brutally teaches the hopeless-seeming Mildred the ropes, rechristening her "Lily Garland" and making her a huge star—and his paramour—in the process. But his histrionic, jealous, over-protective ways drive Lily away, and her departure and subsequent success in Hollywood ruin his creative powers.

From there, the majority of the film takes place on the 20th Century Limited train from Chicago to New York, as Jaffe attempts to flee a flop's financial disaster while, unbeknownst to him, Lily is on board as well. Soon, the aging showman employs every trick he can think of in an attempt to reunite with his protégée and salvage his career. Confining the lead characters' egos within the cramped quarters of a train's compartments and corridors raises the film's energy to farcical levels. Screenwriters Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (with uncredited contributions from Preston Sturges and Gene Fowler) pack the script with quick dialog and lots of dramatic irony that allows the audience to see a joke's impact just before it hits. The train set also lends itself to physical comedy, eavesdropping, and even a chase of sorts involving a funny little escaped mental patient (Etienne Girardot) with a penchant for placing stickers on anything and everything.

Though I appreciate the film's place in screwball comedy history, I found myself liking the film less than I'd hoped. Some of this comes from its leads' broad characterizations and overuse of theater clichés. Their performances as hammy actors haven't aged well, and having them both be unpleasant egomaniacs—one born that way, the other driven to it—makes it hard to have a rooting interest, even if Lily is a slightly more sympathetic monster. The film attempts to redeem its lead characters' bad behavior by appealing to the mystery of the "creative process" and capital-A Art, and the resulting jokes will feel fresh for anyone who has been involved in theater. Their bigness almost seems to be a remnant from the script's origins as a play (though neither of the film's leads were in it then) and contrasts with the subtler work done by Connolly and Karns, with Karns's dry-witted sot working as the prime scene-stealer. Still, the importance of Twentieth Century can't be denied, as this is really the film that made Lombard's name in comedy, opening the door for her career as the queen of screwball films.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

FI: Buchanan Rides Alone

Buchanan Rides Alone
US, 1958
Directed by Budd Boetticher

Growing up, I was never much of a Western fan, though I have come to appreciate them more as I've gotten older. So, not being as well-versed in the genre, I really have to thank my friend Kerry for getting me into Budd Boetticher and the seven films he made with Randolph Scott in the '50s. Commonly called the Ranown Cycle (after Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown's production company, though the name doesn't technically apply to all of the pictures), the films are trim and economical, depicting a version of the West where morality is more complicated than White Hats and Black Hats. While Randolph Scott is usually at least a mostly good guy, the characters he plays often have some darkness, and there is also usually a morally-grey, somewhat sympathetic figure opposing him. While the films' cheapness, similar plots, and short production time make them B-movies, they helped "modernize" the Western via their philosophical complexity as well as Boetticher's knack for imbuing action scenes with emotion and real character stakes.

In Buchanan Rides Alone, Scott's character (the titular Buchanan) is a hired gun and mercenary, attempting to return from war in Mexico with enough money to buy a ranch in his West Texas home country. Though he "rides alone," he's a mostly genial fellow who just wants to be left to his business. But when he stops in Agry Town, a crooked California border village run by the three Agry brothers, he finds himself caught up in the family's petty squabbles, with his life and future livelihood at risk. All of the Agrys are villains, to some extent: Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) and his posse of thugs are quick to abuse the law, searching travelers for money they can steal. Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery), the town's de facto ruler, turns a blind eye to his brother's corruption so he can pay lip service to "justice"—though he is just as swayed by money as Lew—in the hopes of winning a senate seat. And Innkeeper Amos Agry (Peter Whitney) is a witless, out-of-shape buffoon, always spreading gossip and trying to curry favor with whichever brother he thinks will offer him the best deal. Buchanan isn't a hero and doesn't set out to clean up the town, but he is a fair-minded person. This leads to his conflict with the Agrys, but puts him on a pretty similar wavelength to the Judge's main hired gun, Carbo (Craig Stevens), whose instinct seems to be to find a way to split the difference between justice and profit.

Though the script—credited to Charles Lang, but, according to Wikipedia, written by Ranown regular Burt Kennedy—is a little more complicated and repetitive than the film's running time can accommodate, the story still surprises in how it all plays out. It also has plenty of humor—giving Scott a number of funny, "tough guy" moments without making him some invulnerable badass—and solid characterization for all the villains. Boetticher's framing and composition are as well-handled as ever, his camera charting the spatial geography of Agry Town such that it becomes a real, lived-in place. The only drawback to this film, as opposed to other Ranown pictures like The Tall T or Seven Men From Now, is that Buchanan is an unconcerned outsider rather than some wronged, vengeance-seeking man. That means the emotional stakes are lower than in the best Boetticher/Scott collaborations. Still, Buchanan's desire to make a new home (and new start) is strong enough to carry some of that weight, and Buchanan Rides Alone is fun enough to make up the difference.