Thursday, June 30, 2016
Beautiful Thing was one of the first gay films I ever saw and to this day it ranks as my absolute favorite. Sure, there are others that rank up there but as a whole this one is my favorite. From it's tender love story to the colorful supporting characters to the soundtrack made up entirely of Cass Elliot songs, it's impossible to resist this film's many charms.
Jamie (played by Glen Berry) is a quiet and sensitive young man who lives with his single mother in a south-east London housing estate with his mother, Sandra (played by Linda Henry). They get along well enough but can butt heads from time to time. Sandra works as a bartender and is trying to land a chance to manage her own pub and hopefully create a better life for herself and Jamie, while also dating a hipster half her age, Tony (played by Ben Daniels). Next door lives Ste (played by Scott Neal), who lives with his abusive and alcoholic father and older brother who isn't much better. One night on her way home, Sandra finds a distressed Ste (which is short for Steven, by the way) and takes him home to stay at their place. With nowhere else to sleep, he winds up sharing a bed with Jamie. Even though the two had always been classmates and neighbors, the two begin to form a closer bond when they are alone together and as a result start falling for one another, even if Ste is hesitant to admit his feelings right away for fear of what his brother and father would think.
The film is written by Jonathan Harvey and based on his stage play of the same name. It's a fantastic piece of work with the lovely romance of Jamie and Ste played against the stark backdrop of lower class London. Both Glen Berry and Scott Neal do a great job as Jamie and Ste and watching their little romance blossom is simply sweet and maybe a little magical. There is a scene in the film I absolutely adore where Jamie and Ste are chasing each other through a park at night. Jamie gets tired and rests against a tree and Ste walks over and kisses him, all to the sounds of Cass Elliot's "Make Your Own Kind of Music." It's just perfection and wonderfully directed by Hettie Macdonald. I still can't listen to that song and not think of that scene, they're that perfectly matched.
The film is also filled with colorful characters, including the frequently intoxicated, Mama Cass Elliot loving Leah (played by Tameka Empson), who at times damn near steals the show. I also really appreciated the mother lion portrayal of Sandra. Linda Henry really lets that feeling shine through her portrayal. She may be a little rough around the edges, but you know she would do anything to protect her son.
There is just something about this film that I have always really loved. It's a sweet and endearing film that I just can't resist filled with a great cast of actors and a strong script to back it all up. It's my all time favorite LGBT film and one that I have seen many, many times over the years.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Ah, the woes of teenage angst. The litany of gay films is filled with coming out stories simply because that time period makes for great drama. The German film Summer Storm is one such entry in the genre but is unique in a couple ways. One, it tackles the topic of what if you're not only gay but hopelessly in love with your straight best friend and two, it has a rather unique setting in that it takes place at a Rowing Club retreat.
Tobi (played by Robert Stadlober) is secretly nursing a serious crush on his best friend Achim (played by Kostja Ullmann). Tobi and Achim are very close friends and Achim roughhousing and playful teasing have only encouraged Tobi that maybe, just maybe his friend feels the same way. The two of them are members of the local rowing team and about to depart on a weeklong rowing retreat that ends with a big regatta with several competing teams. Many of the teammates are anticipating their arrival as there is supposed to be an all girls team from Berlin there, but to their shock the girls team dropped out due to illness and was replaced by a team "Queerschlag", a team made up exclusively by gay boys. Tobi catches the eye of one of the boys from the gay team, the sensitive Leo (played by Marlon Kittel). Despite the affection shown to him by Leo, Tobi still has eyes only for Achim as both a literal and figurative storm is brewing amongst the rowers.
I really enjoyed Summer Storm when it was first released back in 2005. Despite the film being from another country and being in another language, the emotion of the piece still rings out. The agony that Tobi puts himself through trying to let Achim know how he feels is palpable throughout the film, as is the frustration when Tobi just won't let go even as it becomes clear it will never happen between him and Achim. It's a balancing act, but Robert Stadlober does a good job never making Tobi seem creepy, just lovesick and confused. As I watched it, I kept wishing that Tobi would just get over Achim and give poor Leo a chance, who seemed like a far more viable romantic candidate. But, alas, the heart wants what it wants and I get the feeling Tobi was pretty much oblivious to any outside opportunities.
The film was directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner from a script by him and Thomas Bahmann. They treat the story with sense of tenderness, letting the heartache of the situation ring through. The film is also punctuated with a couple of comedic interludes as the other gay rowers take great delight in messing with Tobi's homophobic teammate (because of course there has to be one). Not only are they not phased by his remarks, they take delight in messing with him at any chance, making for some humorous moments to break up the angst. The film is beautifully shot, taking place mostly at the rowing camp and captures the German countryside wonderfully.
Overall, Summer Storm is a tenderly told coming of age/coming out story that is wonderfully acted and breaks free from the usual offerings of this sub-genre to break free and be a little bit more unique as it mixes in the ever-relatable feelings of unrequited love. It was a film I enjoyed because to a certain point I could relate to it's main character (although, unlike Tobi, I can take a hint).
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
There are certain films that as soon as I heard about them I knew I had to seek them out and The Sum of Us was certainly one of them. Not only was it an early performance by Russell Crowe, but one in which he played a gay character. This I knew I needed to see. What I found was a thoroughly charming, if at times unconventional, film.
Harry Mitchell (played by Jack Thompson) is a widower living in Sydney, Australia with his grown son Jeff (played by Russell Crowe). They both work hard and have settled into a simple level of domesticity. But Harry hopes for more for Jeff, that he would find a nice bloke to settle down with and try to make a life for himself. He can be a bit overbearing in trying to make the guys Jeff brings home feel welcome, practically scaring off the latest one, Greg (played by John Polson). Jeff struggles with some insecurity issues and is striving to build a simple but successful life for himself. He works as a plumber and plays Rugby in his free time. He appreciates that his father cares so much and is so open minded, but also wishes he'd back off a little. Harry then decides to try and get out there himself and signs up for a dating service. Through that he meets Joyce (played by Deborah Kennedy) and the two hit it off right away. They go one a few more dates and things begin to get serious between the two. However, complications arise when Joyce finds out about Jeff's sexual orientation, doesn't approve of it nor Harry's nonchalant attitude towards it and feels like Harry deliberately kept it from her.
The film does a good job as a portrait of a father and son who have a close bond and accept one another and love one another unconditionally. They both want the other to be happy even if they don't always show it in the best way, but you can tell they mean well. Both Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe do well in their roles, even handling the film's semi-frequent moments where the characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience work reasonably well. It really is their story and they carry the film well.
The film was written by David Stevens and was based on his play of the same name. He and directors Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling do a good job of opening up the film and making sure it doesn't feel too "stagey". There is a rather cruel plot twist in the third act of the film that I won't spoil here but the film's tone does shift dramatically, but they manage to make it work within the film and makes a fairly seamless transition from light comedy to a more dramatic tone. It can be jarring for some viewers who aren't expecting it, but then again real life can be that way too so I figure it's fair.
Overall, The Sum of Us is a funny and heartwarming film focusing on the close bond between father and son as they try to navigate their lives, anchored by two strong performances from Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe (who right after this made his American film debut in the Sam Raimi western The Quick and the Dead). I've always enjoyed it myself, perhaps because it at times reminded me of a point in my life when it was just me and my Dad living by ourselves (although we were never quite as open with one another as Jeff and Harry are).
Monday, June 27, 2016
It's been 20 years since The Birdcage was released and while some things have changed since then, there are other elements of the film that feel just as current as ever. The film is an adaptation of the classic French farce La Cage Aux Folles and updates it wonderfully to American audiences with a top notch cast to match, a script by comedy legend Elaine Mays and directed by Mike Nichols. The result is one of my all time favorite comedies.
Armand (played by Robin Williams) and Albert (played by Nathan Lane) are a loving gay couple who own their own drag club in South Beach, Florida. Armand directs the shows and Albert is the star under the drag persona Starina. One night, Armand's son Val (played by Dan Futterman) returns home from college announcing to his father that he is getting married. It turns out the in-laws are ultra-right wing conservative Senator Kevin Keeley (played by Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (played by Dianne Wiest). Their daughter, Barbara (played by Calista Flockhart), afraid of her parents reactions spins a web of lies of how Val's parents are a cultural attache to Greece and a housewife. Meanwhile, Kevin finds himself in the middle of a political scandal when a Senator he co-founded the Coalition for Moral Order with suddenly dies in the bed of an underage, African-American prostitute. Louise convinces Kevin to let Barbara go through with the wedding in an attempt to restore a little of Kevin's public reputation. Agreeing to meet the in-laws (and escape the hordes of press camped outside their house, the Keeleys begin their road trip to South Beach to meet Val's parents.
Meanwhile, back in Florida, Val fills his father in on the web of lies Barbara has spun to her folks and begs his father to help him tone down the apartment for the impending dinner with his future in-laws, as well as send Albert away. Armand initially is resistant to the idea, perfectly comfortable with who he is. However, his love for his son wins out and the re-decoration of their flamboyant apartment commences. Armand also tries to convince Albert to go away for a few days, but Albert is resistant. When Albert discovers what is going on, he is emotionally distressed and leaves. Armand decides it would be better if Albert stays and begins coaching him on how to act more straight for the incoming in-laws. They also venture to Miami to try and convince Val's birth mother Katherine (played by Christine Baranski) to join them as Val's mother. Albert is less than thrilled but tries to play along to please Armand. However, when Katherine's arrival is delayed, Albert strolls in to meet the new in-laws decked out as the drag version of Barbara Bush to pose as Val's mother, setting up a chaotic and unpredictable night for both the Keeleys and Val and Armand.
The film was wonderfully updated for American audiences with a razor sharp script by Elaine May where everything is fair game and nothing is sacred. Mike Nichols likewise offers solid direction with flair starting off with an impressive tracking shot that starts over South Beach and goes all the way into the club (it's a combination of three shots but the cuts are barely noticeable. From the wonderfully choreographed musical numbers to the farcical chaos of the film, it's all staged well and works well.
Funny line after funny line are whipped out left right and center by a fantastic cast as the entire film becomes outright farce. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, the bickering and Albert's hysterics aside, make for a genuinely loving couple that shines through all the insanity. Gene Hackman more that holds his own with the comedic talents of both Williams and Lane, playing what at the time had to be a parody of the Right Wing conservatives, but these days seems rather accurate. I also enjoyed the little quirks of his character, like in times of stress Kevin doesn't start drinking rather he wants candy, specifically chocolates. Dianne Wiest plays the voice of reason of the Keeley household, trying to keep things calm in times of crisis. Even then she too has her own wonderful comedic moments. Hank Azaria is hysterical as Albert and Armand's housekeeper. He's a foreigner from some undetermined country (where his father was the shaman of his tribe and his mother was the high priestess, apparently). Damn near stealing every scene he is in, he is hysterical throughout the entire film. Dan Futterman has taken a lot of flack for his role as Val and that aspect is probably the most dated thing about the film, but his arc is nicely realized as he comes to love and respect, as well as stand up for, his parents, Armand and Albert, for who they are.
Overall, The Birdcage remains a fantastic comedy that has an all star cast behind it. The script by Elaine May is solid gold, with one fantastic line after another and plenty of funny comic set pieces, including a couple where you can tell the cast members are trying desperately not to laugh and ruin the take. It may be a bit dated at times, but it still remains one of my all time favorite comedies nonetheless.
Saturday, June 25, 2016
Psycho Beach Party is easily going to be the most obscure movie I review on this blog. It's a shamelessly campy spoof of both 60's surfer movies and 80's slasher flicks. The film juggles the two while effectively capturing the style and esthetics of both.
The film tells the story of Chicklet (played by Lauren Ambrose), who travels to the beach with two of her friends, Berdine (played by Danni Wheeler) and Marvel Ann (played by Amy Adams) and becomes enamored a group of surfer boys, including college psychology dropout Starkat (played by Nicholas Brendon). She desperately wants to learn how to surf. The group turns down teaching her, citing surfing as strictly a man's domain. Not accepting defeat, she seeks out their leader Kanaka (played by Thomas Gibson). The thing is Chicklet is suffering from her multiple personalities. The switch is triggered when she sees polka dots. One of the times this happens is in Kanaka's shack and he's exposed to her alter ego, Ann Bowman, who announces herself as, "Dominatrix, Empress of the Planet Earth!" Kanaka agrees to teach Chicklet to surf mainly because he's excited by her Ann Bowman personality.
While this is going on, there are a series of murders are happening with the only thing tying them together is all the victims had some sort of physical defect. Investigating the murders is Captain Monica Stark (played by Charles Busch), who has several run ins with the surfers since the murders seem to keep happening to people around or associated with their group. Meanwhile, Chicklet is freaking out over her blackouts and wondering if she's the one slaughtering everyone. She's also developing feelings for Starkat, who only views her as "one of the boys," preferring the company of Marvel Ann.
This film has a very distinct and very campy sense of humor that was infused into the film by screenwriter, and legendary drag performer, Charles Busch, based on his stage play of the same name. In the original run of the play, Busch played Chicklet, but once it came time for the film to be made it was quite clear he was far too old for the role and created the role of Monica Stark to play instead. He and Robert Lee King perfectly capture the spirit of the old 60's beach movies, complete with the incredibly fake rear projection effects of the actors "surfing". Then to add in the element of the 80's slasher films and the whodunit mystery associated with that makes for an amusing dichotomy between two radically different genres.
For a reasonably low budget film, this movie has a pretty impressive cast. Lauren Ambrose is fantastic as Chicklet, rocking each of her multiple personalities to great comic effect, while effortlessly transitioning from one to another. Nicholas Brendon does well as Starkat, but for the most part is playing the straight man to the madness around him. There's Nick Cornish and Andrew Levitas as Yo-Yo and Provoloney, two guys who it is obvious they are completely into each other to everyone else but them (they're not the brightest bulbs in the box). Charles Busch is great as Monica Stark, playing up the stereotypical 60's cop while trading barbs with former lover Kanaka. And then there is Thomas Gibson as Kanaka. I just want to show this movie to anyone who only knows Thomas Gibson as Hotchner on Criminal Minds and watch their brain slowly explode. He's hysterical as the cool beach cat Kanaka, frequently rhyming his words. When he finds out about Chicklet's alternate personality, Ann Bowman, he becomes obsessed with her and figuring out how to control bringing out this alternate personality.
Overall, Psycho Beach Party isn't going to be for everyone but for the people who can get into it's campy and silly rhythm, it's going to be a fun time. It playfully spoofs two very different types of films while bringing them together to create something very unique and at times quite funny.
Friday, June 24, 2016
Were the World Mine is an ambitious movie made on a small budget that while rough around the edges and significantly less than subtle with it's overall message of tolerance and acceptance, it still manages to work on sheer charm alone.
Timothy (played by Tanner Cohen) is a bullied and demoralized gay student at an all boys school just trying to get through each day until graduation. He frequently escapes the drudgery of high school into lavish, musical fantasy, frequently featuring his rugby stud crush Jonathon (played by Nathaniel David Becker). When his eccentric drama teacher, Mrs. Tebbit (played by Wendy Robie), casts Timothy as Puck in A Midsummer's Night Dream, things begin to change. As he is practicing his lines one day, he unlocks a recipe to create the play's "Love in Idleness" flower, a purple pansy that contains a powerful love potion. He decides to use it on his crush Jonathon the next day at school and it works perfectly. When Jonathon's teammates react negatively to their newfound affection, Timothy proceeds to use it on the rest of the team, with each affected member falling instantly in love with another boy, with Mrs. Tebbit in the background knowing all the well what is going on and secretly making sure the first person each homophobic boy sees is another boy. He even doses the equally intolerant Rugby coach for good measure, determined to make those that tormented him walk in his shoes for awhile.
The film has a lot of ambition in what it wants to do on a limited indie movie budget, yet manages to pull it off, although not without some nitpicks. The film itself is wonderfully shot and directed by cinematographer Kira Kelly and director Tom Gustafson, especially the musical numbers themselves (and damn if this movie certainly knows who it's target audience is and caters to them wonderfully). The two lead roles are wonderfully played by Tanner Cohen and Wendy Robie. Nathaniel David Becker likewise did well as Timothy's love interest. The music of the film is fantastic as it takes lines directly from Shakespeare's play to make up the lyrics to many of the songs, especially the title song. They're very well captured and the choreography matches it wonderfully.
However, the film is not perfect. The writing in the film is fairly straight-forward and even at times predictable. It follows the usual beats a story of this type would, with a gay twist. The main character, Timothy, learns the hard way that making someone love you unconditionally doesn't work as well as one would think. I thought it was a nice touch that the drama teacher was his unwitting partner in crime though, setting the events of the film into motion. The biggest flaw of the film was that is keeps pounding in it's message of acceptance and tolerance repeatedly throughout the film in the most obvious and almost obnoxious way rather than let it work it's way through the story in a more organic way. Furthermore, aside from our main character Timothy, the characters are terribly one dimensional. Some are developed a little bit, like Timothy's mom and his two friends, but others like the rugby team that bully Timothy are very one note characters that only exist to be homophobic caricatures and never feel like actual characters. Even Jonathan, Timothy's love interest, is rather underdeveloped. Aside from being cute and being nicer to him than the others, why exactly is Timothy so taken with him? Who knows, maybe that's enough but I wish there was more to it so the payoff would be richer at the end.
Still, for what it is it works for me besides it's flaws. The music is great and the story is intriguing and holds your attention. There is a certain undeniable charm to the film and what they managed to pull off on a small budget. Tanner Cohen is great in the lead role as is Wendy Robie. I just wish they had given the script a couple more passes and added a little more finesse to it. Right now it's just good, but it could've been great.
Monday, June 20, 2016
I'm surprised how deeply hearing the passing of Anton Yelchin has impacted me, but yet at the same time I'm not. He was insanely talented with a unique screen presence that will never be duplicated. He often exuded a presence of kindness and perhaps an unexpected tenderness to his roles. Yet, underneath that was a wild and infectious energy that equally defined many of his film roles. I frequently throw around that I'm a fan of someone on this blog and while that is still true, it's even truer in this case. I was really a fan of Anton Yelchin.
Anton Yelchin had been acting since he was a young kid. He was the son of two Russian figure skaters who immigrated to the US when he was six months old. After discovering he was rubbish on the ice and other athletic aspirations didn't pan out, he tried acting, which seemed to fit him better. I remember first seeing him in the Steven Spielberg Mini-series Taken, which aired in the Sci-Fi channel in 2002 and wondering who this kid was, just being completely taken by his performance in it. Shortly after that, I saw him starring opposite Anthony Hopkins in the Stephen King adaptation, Hearts in Atlantis. From there, his career started to flourish with strong turns in films such as House of D and Fierce People. He really made an impression in the crime drama Alpha Dog as a young man, Zack, who is kidnapped by a drug dealer and his cronies in an attempt to recover a debt from his junkie brother. Poor Zack is too naive that he doesn't even realize he's been kidnapped until it's far too late, instead enjoying the edgy, cool new people he was hanging out with. Anton gave a fantastic performance in the film, showing the kind of tenderness and vulnerability that he would become known for.
It was his starring role as the titular character in Charlie Bartlett that was the next role for Anton and probably one that he is best known for. Playing a rebellious kid of a wealthy family, Charlie is enrolled in a local public school after being expelled from his private school. In no time, he finds himself as the school's resident therapist, even going so far to give out medications he manages to scam from a series of therapists he sees courtesy of his depressed and eccentric mother (played by Hope Davis). Naturally, this catches the attention of the school Principal (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and the attention only increases when Charlie starts dating the Principal's daughter (played by Kat Dennings). It was a great performance by Anton in the lead role as he showed how good he was as both a comedic and dramatic actor in a film that played out like a John Hughes film by way of Hal Ashby.
From there, we move into what I at the time jokingly referred to as the summer of Anton Yelchin as he wound up co-starring in not one but two big budget blockbusters, Star Trek and Terminator Salvation. The first one to be released was Star Trek, a flashier and more action packed reboot of the classic series of films. Anton took over the role of Ensign Pavel Chekov. The role was a natural fit for the Russian born actor and was a high point of the film (as well as my personal favorite, with Simon Pegg's Scotty a close second). He would go on to reprise the role two more times in Star Trek Into Darkness and this summer's Star Trek Beyond. What made him so great in the role was that he made it wholly his own, taking small things from what Walter Koenig brought to the role from the Original series and films, but also created something new that frankly was nothing short of adorable. The second film that summer was Terminator Salvation, where he played a young Kyle Reese, the character originally played by Michael Biehn in the original film. He was one of the bright spots in a rather uneven film, wonderfully capturing both the strength and vulnerability that Biehn so memorably played in the first film.
2011 was a big year for Anton with several very different movies coming out, each one very different and perfectly showing his versatility as an actor. First up was Like Crazy, where he played one half of a romantic couple trying to overcome some pretty big hurdles to stay together, the biggest being that his girlfriend in the film, Anna (played by Felicity Jones), is a British student in the U.S whose visa runs out and has to return to Great Britain. The film was largely improvised, following a basic outline of the plot which gave the film a very grounded and natural feeling that helped it resonate with audiences. The second film was the Jodie Foster directed The Beaver, a quirky drama starring Mel Gibson as a clinically depressed father who finds a unique way of expressing himself through the use of a beaver puppet. Yelchin played his son Porter in the film. The final big film for him in 2011 was the remake of Fright Night, which I have previously reviewed on this blog, where he plays a Las Vegas resident high school student turned vampire hunter when he discovers his new next door neighbor is a bloodsucker.
After that came his turn as the titular character in Odd Thomas. While the movie itself may be a little rough around the edges, I thoroughly enjoyed this one in a large part because of Anton's performance as Odd, a clairvoyant short order cook trying to save his town from evil forces. He gives the role just the right level of quirkiness but also plays the more heroic side of Odd quite well. It's an entertaining film that is well worth checking out.
The following year, Anton starred in the Joe Dante comedy-horror film Burying the Ex, playing a B-movie obsessed young man who works in a costume and horror themed shop who finds himself in a horror movie of his own when his ex-girlfriend returns from the dead thinking they're still a couple. Meanwhile, he has already moved on to a new girl whom he has far more in common with. The film itself wasn't perfect, but it's easy to see why it appealed to a cinephile like me, especially one with an interest in the horror and fantasy genres. Anton Yelchin had a lot in common with his character, a consummate film lover and this no doubt informed and strengthened his performance in the film. I also suspect he largely took on the film to work with the legendary Joe Dante and I could hardly blame him.
This brings us, more or less, to his most recent film, Green Room, a film I have reviewed on this blog as well. I know I skipped over a lot of films and they are ones that I somehow missed. Anton was quite prolific in his film roles from 2011 onward. So, I clearly have some backtracking and catching up to do. Anyway, Green Room was an incredibly well acted and directed horror/thriller from this past spring. One of the big reasons this film worked so well and was so intense was because the actors kept the film well grounded. Yelchin's character, Pat, finds himself trying to be the voice of reason in a very unreasonable standoff between his punk band and a group of Neo-Nazi's trying to get into the Green Room they have barricaded themselves into. He does a great job portraying Pat's panic and terror as he tries desperately to find a way out of the situation with his and his band's lives.
Throughout his career, Anton displayed incredible range as an actor as he turned in one memorable performance after another. Even if the film around him wasn't that great, he always was. I was devastated to find out that he had passed away yesterday in a freak automobile accident. But even beyond his acting, he always seemed like such a thoughtful, kind and soulful person. He brought such a unique presence to all his films that I always enjoyed seeing his latest one. Like I said before I was a big fan of his pretty much from the beginning. He left us with a large and diverse body of work and I would've loved to see what he did next as he continued to grow as an actor. My heart goes out to him, his family and his friends. He left us way, way too soon.
Rest in Peace, Anton.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Pride comes in a proud tradition of British comedy-drama films such as The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Calendar Girls, and Billy Elliot among others that so expertly combine both comedic and dramatic elements to create a thoroughly entertaining, moving and inspiring film.
Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer) is a young, gay, civil rights activist living in London circa 1984. Upon watching the news coverage of the beginning of the Coal Miners strike, he recognizes they have a common enemy in Margaret Thatcher and decides to start taking up donations to help the striking miners during the annual Gay Pride parade. He is able to recruit some of his friends to help. After collecting for the first day, they decide to form an official organization, L.G.S.M: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Other members include Mike Jackson (played by Joe Gilgun), Jonathan Blake (played by Dominic West) and his boyfriend Gethin Roberts (played by Andrew Scott) who own the gay bookshop who's backroom becomes the LGSM headquarters, the young and closeted Joe (played by George MacKay), Stella (played by Karina Fernandez) and Zoe (played by Jessie Cave). The group continues to gather donations throughout their London neighborhoods. When the National Union of Mineworkers turn down their donation due to public relations concerns, they decide to take their donations to Onllwyn, a small mining community in Wales. A representative for the Onllwyn miners, Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) comes to London to meet with the LGSM members and accept the donation. He is genuinely touched by their donation and invites them to Onllwyn to meet the people they are helping. They accept the offer and the resulting culture clash ultimately leads to an unlikely but strong friendship between the two groups as the small mining community come to embrace their unexpected new friends.
There is so much I loved about this film, it's hard to know where to start. The performances across the board are great. We have old pros like Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy as members of the mining community. Dominic West shines as the charming Jonathan Blake, whose dance routine in the Onllwyn union hall is both a show stopper and one leads to several of the miners secretly asking him for dance lessons. Andrew Scott is very touching as Gethin Roberts, who grew up in Wales but relocated to London when his family discovered he was gay and is feeling a bit uneasy being back. Jessica Gunning is impressive as Sian James, loving wife to one of the miner union leaders in Onllwyn who starts to find her own voice and confidence due to the influence of the LGSM members. I also have to single out Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton, the founder and leader of LGSM. He imbues Mark with so much life and charm. It really is a fantastic performance, one that impressed me even more when I found out Ben is actually an American (his British accent was flawless).
The film was written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, basing their film on a true story. The two do a great job balancing both the comedic and dramatic elements, shifting seamlessly between the two. There is an earnestness to the story that they achieve without being sappy or overly sentimental. It never feels like the movie is intentionally trying to be manipulative, but instead lets its characters tell the story and knows perfectly where to go for the laugh and when to be serious.
Overall, Pride is a thoroughly entertaining and at times quite moving film filled with great performances by a group of great actors. It's a film I've really liked ever since it came out in 2014 (and did not get anywhere near the attention it deserved here in the States) and is well worth checking out.
Before I begin this review, I want to state that my entire knowledge of the World of Warcraft franchise begins and ends with the South Park episode "Make Love Not Warcraft." So, yes I went into Warcraft a total noob, so be kind as I make my way through this review. Basically, a couple of my friends were going and I figured I enjoy fantasy movies, so why not? Besides, it has Dominic Cooper in it and that's always a selling point with me.
Draenor, the home world of the Orcs is dying due to the use of fel magic by Orc warlock Gul'dan (played by Daniel Wu). Fel magic is a dark and evil force that gains it's power by draining the life out of others. He uses a large quantity of this magic to open a portal between their world and the world of Azeroth with the intent on invading and conquering it as the new home for Orcs. Among the initial war party to go through the portal are Durotan (played by Toby Kebbell), a chieftan of the Frostwolf clan, his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin), and their friend Orgrim Doomhammer (played by Robert Kazinsky). Once there, the Orcs begin raiding nearby villages taking prisoners that Gul'dan intends to use to fuel his Fel magic so he can keep the portal open longer and the remaining Orcs can come through. Also among the Orcs is Garona Halforcen (played by Paula Patton), a half human, half orc woman who is not sure where she fits in.
Meanwhile, in the Azeroth kingdom of Stormwind, military commander Anduin Lothar (played by Travis Fimmel) is looking over some of the fallen soldiers when he discovers a trespassing mage, Khadgar (played by Ben Schnetzer). Khadgar explains he was there investigating the presence of traces of fel magic. Khadgar convinces King Llane Wrynn (played by Dominic Cooper) to consult Medivh (played by Ben Foster), the Guardian mage of the kingdom. King Wrynn sends Anduin and Khadgar to consult with Medivh in an attempt to offset the Orc invasion. Back at the Orc camp, Durotan has come to the realization that the reason their old world died was because of Gul'dan's continued use of the Fel magic and that the same thing will happen here unless he is stopped. Seeing the humans at the best chance to helping him accomplish this, he needs to figure out how to contact them and form an alliance, with Garona being the best possible person to help him do this.
I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Warcraft. Yes, I went in with rather low expectations, but I found a rather entertaining fantasy adventure. Yes, the characters are rather one dimensional and each fall into their designated fantasy archetype (Hero, Fearless leader, apprentice wizard, older, wiser wizard, assorted canon fodder that might as well have "Dead Meat" tattooed on their forehead, etc.), but this is a fantasy adventure film, not a character drama so I'm not complaining too much. Duncan Jones, who previously directed the sci-fi films Moon and Source Code, does a decent job managing all the different plot lines so things are at least reasonably coherent. I was able to follow along fine and I've never played the games. Then again, I have some experience with the "High Fantasy" genre, so that may have helped. If you're not a fan of the genre, this may not be the place to start.
The film is well cast, with the majority of the Orc actors performances being done through motion capture with the exception of Paula Patton. The performances are well captured and the actors behind the Orc characters were completely unrecognizable to me, which is all the more impressive. On the human side, the two characters that really stood out to me were the two mages. Casting Ben Foster as the older, wiser mage Medivh was an interesting choice. Typically in these types of movies that role goes to a much older actor, but instead contrasting the youthful good looks of Foster with the hidden pains of the character that Foster does a good job of portraying is something unique. He really shows how the character has aged internally and has grown weaker with age. Likewise, I really liked Ben Schnetzer as Khadgar, the young mage that at one point was destined to take over Medivh's role as Guardian but renounced his vows and left order that was teaching him. Of course, it may just be that I've been a fan of Schnetzer's since 2014's Pride (more on that one later) and seeing him in this type of role was fun for me. Travis Fimmel and Dominic Cooper do a decent job in their roles as well, but nothing that I haven't seen in these types of movies before. Likewise, Paula Patton does a good job with her role, letting her character's uncertainty about where she belongs play out well.
There are a couple nitpicks though. The first is that the plotting of the film seems very rushed from one scene to another with little time given to developing any of the characters as we move pretty much from one action sequence to another. I've heard reports that roughly 40 minutes was cut from the film to meet a required two hour runtime from the studio. I'd be curious to see a director's cut of the film to see if it improves the narrative any. The other thing that stems from this has to do with a larger trend among blockbuster films these days and is only getting worse. The film has a solid beginning and middle but it only has part of an ending before meandering out to leave the door wide open for a sequel. It's gotten to the point where this has become extremely annoying. I miss the days when a film came to a satisfying conclusion and was a complete film unto itself. Especially since it is likely there won't be a Warcraft 2 based on the box-office performance of the first film. My other nitpick is a more minor one in that the entire film is played so deadly serious. I'm not saying the film needs to The Princess Bride silly, but some lighter touches throughout the film could've helped make the film more entertaining overall.
Overall, Warcraft was a bit of a surprise for me. It's not a great movie by any means but it was a reasonably entertaining one with mostly decent effects, especially with the motion capture work on the Orcs. It's nothing groundbreaking but if you're a fan of the genre, you'll probably enjoy yourself.
Saturday, June 18, 2016
Throughout the Eighties and early Nineties there were a series of Merchant Ivory films that were quite popular here in America that included the likes of A Room With a View, Howard's End, and The Remains of the Day. My favorite of these films was Maurice, based on the novel by E.M Forster. The films had a reputation for being extremely posh and classy productions, but yet hiding under the surface of the film is one of genuine passion and romance that took me delightfully by surprise the first time I saw it.
Maurice Hall (played by James Wilby) comes from an upper-class upbringing and is attending Cambridge in early 20th century England. There he makes two new friends, Risley (played by Mark Tandy) and Clive Durham (played by Hugh Grant). Friendship turns to genuine affection between Maurice and Clive, however Clive insists it must remain platonic between the two of them and to go further would "diminish them both." Years pass as the two friends keep their feelings secret. However, when Risley is arrested by the police for soliciting sex from a male soldier and sentenced to six months hard labor, Clive panics and puts some distance between him and Maurice, breaking off their romance and stating they should be just friends. Clive, under pressure from his widowed mother, marries a naive rich girl named Anne (played by Phoebe Nicholls) and settles into a life of rural domesticity.
Devastated, Maurice turns to his family physician (played by Denholm Elliot) for assistance, telling him of his feelings "of the Oscar Wilde sort." His physician brushes him off, calling what he was saying rubbish. He then seeks the assistance of Dr. Lasker-Jones (played by Ben Kinglsey) to cure his homosexuality with hypnotism. When this doesn't seem to take, Dr. Lasker-Jones suggests Maurice relocate to another country, such as France or Italy where homosexuality is no longer criminalized. During this time, Maurice is making frequent trips to Clive's country estate in Pendersleigh. It's there that he catches the attention of under-gamekeeper Alec Scudder (played by Rupert Graves), with whom a far deeper and more passionate romance begins to bloom.
Filled with gorgeous cinematography and fantastic direction to match from James Ivory, the film is beautiful from the beginning scenes in Cambridge all the way to the end. It has a trifecta of three strong performances to match from James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves. Initially, I checked out this movie because the inclusion of Hugh Grant in the cast intrigued me since about seven years after making this movie he rose to fame for his work on Four Weddings and a Funeral and I was curious about his early work. He does well here as Clive and gives a strong performance as a man torn between what he wants and what he feels obligated to do. As the film goes on, you do get the sense that Clive comes to regret giving into societal pressure and his own fears and let Maurice go. James Wilby is fantastic in the lead role of Maurice Hall, who wonderfully portrays the outward charm of Maurice, but inside his thoughts are far away and conflicted. And while I may have initially viewed the film for Hugh Grant, I left it absolutely smitten with Rupert Graves as Alec Scudder. Graves gives Scudder an undeniable charm and confidence that makes it easy to see why Maurice would be taken with him. There is an undeniable class divide between the two though, which is also portrayed well by both James Wilby and Rupert Graves.
The film is based on the novel by E.M Forster, which he wrote initially between 1913-1914, with further revisions later on in life. Himself a gay man who indeed attended Cambridge, he no doubt drew from his own life experiences as his wrote the novel. He wasn't bold enough to publish it in his lifetime though because he knew at that time the content would be quite controversial, especially since he was determined that the novel (and subsequently the film) have a happy ending. Subsequently the novel was published after his death in 1971. Upon Forster's death, the rights to his books wound up with the self-governing board of fellows with King's College at Cambridge. When Ismail Merchant and James Ivory approached them for the rights to make Maurice, they initially declined the offer, not because they objected to the content but rather they felt it was an inferior work. This bit of trivia always makes me laugh because that is such an academic response to such a request.
The film does a good job adapting the original novel though with a script by James Ivory and Kit Hesketh-Harvey. In fact, they strengthen the narrative in some places with the addition of Risley being arrested for the crime of homosexuality to make Clive's actions later more believable to the audience. Otherwise, the film is a rather faithful adaptation from the novel. Many have commented that they felt the romance between Maurice and Alec wouldn't last because of their class differences but I respectively disagree. They seemed to get on quite well when we see the two of them alone. Besides it is made clear several times in the narrative the Maurice had grown tired of the upper class and was perfectly content to chuck it all and live a regular life "without status."
Overall, Maurice is a sumptuous and romantic film with a unique and eye opening look and what it was like to be gay in Edwardian era England. There is a lot to love here as we follow Maurice on his long journey to finding true happiness and love. Filled with plenty of romance and passion, this film remains one of my favorites. At the moment though, it is a bit hard to find as the rights to it have changed hands and the current DVD is out of print, so apologies for that. It is worth seeking out though once it is re-released, as the current rights holders are in the process of re-mastering it for a long overdue Blu-ray release.
Friday, June 17, 2016
Trick is quite possibly one of the sweetest romantic comedies I have ever seen. With two appealing leads in Christian Campbell and John Paul Pitoc and a unique premise makes for a memorable and fun film.
Gabriel (played by Christian Campbell) is a quiet and reserved struggling playwright trying to make ends meet living in New York City. He works in an office during the day and shares a studio apartment with an obnoxious roommate Rich (played by Brad Beyer), who frequently kicks Gabriel out so he can spend some alone time with his girlfriend, of which he has more than one. He is struggling to finish a song for the musical he is writing when his friend Perry (played by Steve Hayes) suggests he get out more and perhaps in the process will find some inspiration. Gabriel takes him up on this suggestion and that night visits a Manhattan gay club where he encounters go-go boy Mark (played by John Paul Pitoc) dancing on the bar. Too shy to say anything and after a couple comically disastrous flirting attempts by other patrons to pick up Gabriel, he decides to leave.
Taking the subway home, he once again crosses paths with Mark. Still too shy to say anything, Gabriel gets off at his stop and is surprised when Mark gets off with him. Mark asks him if he lives nearby and after a little awkward conversation, the two are off to Gabriel's apartment. To their surprise the apartment is currently occupied by Gabriel's best friend, the quirky Katherine (played by Tori Spelling). Gabriel tries to suggest she needs to leave but she doesn't take a hint and stays to talk to the two boys. As soon as they finally get rid of her, Gabriel's roommate shows up with his girlfriend and one lost coin toss later, Mark and Gabriel are back on the street. This leads to a crazy night as the two try to find a place where they can be alone and in the process coming to know each other on a much deeper level than either had initially anticipated.
The charms of the film lie with the two leads, Christian Campbell and John Paul Pitoc. While the two are perhaps very different people, they do find a connection over the course of the night and the two leads perform their roles perfectly. Christian Campbell is absolutely endearing as the shy and reserved Gabriel who slowly comes out of his shell as the night wears on and he spends more and more time with the far more extroverted Mark. John Paul Pitoc is equally good as Mark, a guy who is looking for something more than just attention for his good looks. One of the great strokes of the script by Jason Schafer is a late in the film revelation that while Gabriel thought it was only a one night stand, Mark reveals he thought something more was happening between the two which is the reverse of what one would expect. The film is also populated by a slew of amusing secondary characters, including Katherine whose third act meltdown at an all night diner may be one of the funniest things in the film. There is also an extended cameo by famed drag queen Miss Coco Peru (played by Clinton Leupp) who makes a memorable appearance in the dance club Gabriel and Mark end up at one point. The film has a sure hand in director Jim Fall and writer Jason Schafer, who keep the story grounded well and never let things get too wild, with the humor coming from a very human and relatable place.
Overall, Trick is a sweet and endearing film with two charming actors at it's center makes for a memorable and fun romantic comedy. It's been one of my favorites ever since I first saw it, unashamed to admit I fell as soon as I saw Christian Campbell's smile and those cute dimples. A fun memory I have of the film was a few years back, it was the night before Anime Iowa, a convention I frequently go to with my friends Jessica Walsh, Brianna Lawrence and Chealsey Thomas. We were staying at Chealsey's house for the convention and that night we were looking for something to watch on T.V. Somehow I wound up with the remote and I saw this movie was on and decided my friends and I needed to watch it. Initially resistant, they were soon charmed by the film as I was as a chorus of "Awws" echoed through the room, which probably says something about this film.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
I first saw Rebel Without a Cause in my senior year of high school. It was Media Studies class, which was basically film class and this was the first film of the course the teacher showed us. It really struck a chord with me at the time despite the film being 44 years old at the time. Even if the time period was different, the sort of internal struggles the three main characters went through still resonated with me, especially with the two male characters played by James Dean and Sal Mineo, each in different ways. I watched it several more times as a teen and it remains a favorite of mine today, having owned it on VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray.
Jim Stark (played by James Dean) is a new kid in town and it's not long before he gets into trouble, being picked up by the police for public drunkenness. That same night, two other area teens are picked up and taken to the same police station, Judy (played by Natalie Wood) and John "Plato" Crawford (played by Sal Mineo). Unbeknownst to them at that moment, but their lives would become closely tied over the following 24 hour period. The following morning, Jim has his first day at his new school, where he once again crosses paths with both Judy and Plato. Judy tries to ignore him, preferring the regular hooligans she normally hangs out with, including lead tough Buzz (played by Corey Allen) and a very young Dennis Hopper. Plato on the other hand is immediately taken with Jim when he sees him in the school hallway. Later, on a class field trip to the Griffith Observatory, Jim manages to cross Buzz and his gang, leading to an altercation between the two with switchblades. When Jim gains the upper hand, Buzz suggests they reconvene that night and have themselves a "Chickie Run" on the bluff overlooking the ocean. The game is the two of them drive two stolen cars towards the end of the bluff and the first one to jump out of their car is a chicken. When this event ends tragically, Jim, Judy and Plato find themselves drawn together over the course of the rest of the night as they try to figure out where to go from there.
While Rebel Without a Cause is definitely a product of it's time, with a fair amount of melodramatic and overwrought acting in it's run time (Natalie Wood is probably the worst offender there), the overlying themes of the film still have power in them. I certainly responded to the film when I saw it far removed from it's own time period. There are just certain feelings and experiences during adolescence that are universal and this film captured it nicely. Add in some fantastic direction by Nicholas Ray and a dynamite script by Stewart Stern that certainly pushed the envelope further than one may initially think for a film made in 1955. The film also has three fantastic performances at it's center, with James Dean at his most iconic as the confused and angry Jim, Natalie Wood as the troubled Judy, and Sal Mineo as the very troubled and lonely Plato. Much of the film is focused on the friendship, and perhaps more, that grows between the three characters and more than anything that is what I responded to, especially with both the characters of Jim and Plato.
Now, you're probably thinking, "This is all well and great Nate, but why are you reviewing this for Pride month?" Well, Rebel Without a Cause has a unique place in LGBT film history. The film contains what is widely considered the first gay teen in American cinema with the character of Plato. Of course, this being 1955 the film can't overtly say that lest it not be approved by the Hays Code, which was a precursor to today's ratings system, and ensured that all Hollywood films were suitable for audiences. But it's still there, plain as day in every scene Plato has with Jim. The first time he sees Jim at school, the way he perks up when Jim sits near him at the Planetarium, the way he gushes about Jim to Judy before the Chickie run and on and on. It was all deliberate too on the part of Nicholas Ray and Stewart Stern, with both later confirming that it was always the intention for Plato to be read as gay. James Dean even supported it as he at one point suggested Plato should look at him the way James would look at Natalie. All of those looks I immediately recognized and know I have made myself. So, that was a certain kinship I shared with the character and he's always been one I've really liked. Well, except maybe for some of the darker aspects of his character. For example, the reason he was arrested at the beginning was for shooting a neighbor's puppies. Thankfully, we don't see it but it's still really messed up. But yet, Plato remains one of the more complex characters in the film because even though he did this terrible thing, there is also a sweetness to him and yearning to be accepted that he finally finds with Jim and Judy. Yet, he also lashes out violently when he feels he's been abandoned and neglected, no doubt stemming from his odd home life.
The film is also very much a product of it's time and some of the conclusions it draws about it's characters are perhaps a little too easy. The conclusion that Jim's issues with masculinity and self esteem have to do with his overbearing mother and overly passive father or that Plato's mental issues, as well as his apparent homosexuality stem from absence of any parental figures and is only looked after by a rather powerless nanny seem extremely antiquated from today's perspective. Jim's suggestion that he would like to see his father knock his mother cold just once also makes me grimace. Likewise, the ending is a too cut and dry as everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow when it really shouldn't be and remains the film's biggest flaw to me.
Still, Rebel Without a Cause remains an absolute classic as it presents the definitive image of James Dean in the bright red jacket and white t-shirt, forever frozen in time. It was just a month or so before this film was released that James Dean tragically died in a car accident, leaving behind only three great films. It's interesting that it was this film, rather than East of Eden or Giant that most people seem to remember him from. I also can't help but wonder every time I see the film, or any of his for that matter, if he had lived where would his career have gone? What other films would he have done? It's an impossible question to answer of course. The film itself also broke new ground and transcended its intent to be a teen oriented B-movie on both the strength of it's acting, writing and directing to become a true classic.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
I first saw Blake Edwards' Victor Victoria on Turner Classic Movies maybe five or six years ago. I had wanted to see if for quite some time but didn't get around to it until then. I knew the basic premise of the film and that was about it. Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only was this a delightfully funny film, but also a wonderfully gay positive film as well, especially for a film coming out in 1982.
Victoria Grant (played by Julie Andrews) is a very down on her luck singer trying to catch a break in 1934 Paris. At the end of her rope and having lost another audition, she decides to get a meal at a local restaurant, intending to scam a free meal by planting a cockroach in her food. While there, she encounters the equally hard up Carole "Toddy" Todd (played by Robert Preston), who recognizes her from the audition and the two share a meal together. Victoria's plan winds up working, but not quite how she anticipated as the bug is discovered and the restaurant erupts into chaos, which allows Victoria and Toddy to escape into the pouring rain of the Paris night. They regroup and get warm at Toddy's apartment. When Victoria goes to gather her now dry clothes and return home, she discovers the cheap garments have dramatically shrunk and are no longer wearable. Toddy offers her a place to stay for the night and says she can wear a suit his ex-boyfriend Richard (played by Malcolm Jamieson) left behind home the next day. However, when he sees Victoria decked out in Richard's clothes a daring scheme occurs to him. He wants to pass Victoria off as a gay female impersonator named Victor and since she's really a woman, her impersonations would be flawless. He takes her to the top talent agent in Paris, Andre Cassell (played by John Rhys-Davies), who books Victor at one of the biggest nightclubs in Paris.
After six weeks of rehearsal, Victoria makes her big debut and is an instant hit with the audience, especially American nightclub owner King Marchand (played by James Garner), who is in attendance with his brassy dame of a girlfriend Norma (played by Lesley Ann Warren) and loyal bodyguard 'Squash' Bernstein (played by Alex Karras). King is quite taken with Victoria but is shocked when she "reveals" herself to be a man to the audience by removing her wig. He finds himself having trouble reconciling his feelings of attraction to someone he believes to be a man, even though he isn't a 100% convinced. As King's feelings for Victor seem to grow, a jealous Norma returns to Chicago to announce to King's gangster associates of what is going on, leading to all sorts of chaos for King and Victoria as the Mob doesn't take too well to gay people ("Kill him but mustn't kiss him," quips Toddy at one point).
There is so much to like about this film. The script and direction from Blake Edwards is sublime. There are several fantastic and classic moments of physical comedy, from an entire restaurant erupting into chaos (seen in a shot from outside the restaurant no less) to an extended comic sequence that has both King and Squash sneaking around Victoria and Toddy's new Hotel room trying to find out the truth about Victor while trying to avoid detection by either Victoria or Toddy. The performances are all great with Julie Andrews, Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren all getting nominations for their performances. James Garner is likewise great with some fantastic chemistry with Julie Andrews. Meanwhile, Alex Karras damn near steals the show as Squash, King's teddy bear of a bodyguard.
The music in the film is dynamite with both score and songs written by Henry Mancini. The film was created specifically to star Blake Edwards' wife Julie Andrews and he created a wonderful showcase for her with a several fantastic musical numbers, especially "Le Jazz Hot" and "The Shady Dame from Seville".
Since I'm doing this review for Pride month, I should probably touch on the gay themes that run throughout the piece. Now, there will be some spoilers in this section, so if you want to see the film and not be spoiled you should stop here and come back after viewing the film. Okay, first thing I have to say is how I loved that the film went to great pains to present its gay characters as fully developed characters that are never the butt of the joke. Even the minor gay characters, the chorus dancers we see admiring Victor in rehearsal, are treated decently by the script. For me that seems amazing for a PG rated movie released in 1982. On top of that, the movie presents us with different types of gay men, from the more flamboyant Toddy and the chorus dancers but we also have the more rough and tumble type in what is revealed as a delightful plot twist. Squash returns to his and King's hotel suite to find King in bed with Victoria. Completely misreading the situation, Squash proceeds to come out to King in a sweetly endearing scene. Again, while the scene is humorous the film is never making fun of Squash. The fact that Squash winds up in bed with Toddy later in the film is just icing on the cake.
My one nitpick with the film, and this is one that even Blake Edwards copped to, is that King doesn't profess his love to Victoria until he's found out for sure she's a woman. Originally, he wasn't supposed to find out until after he's told "Victor" that he loves him and "doesn't care if he's a man" but Blake admitted he chickened out and added the scene of King sneaking around Victoria and Toddy's hotel room. It would have worked better as originally planned though, especially as 'Victor' challenges King's ideas of what makes a real man throughout their courtship. But, I'm willing to give him a pass on this because one, the added sequence was quite funny in the classic Blake Edwards fashion and two he realized his mistake and fixed it for the stage show.
That's a small nitpick though in a highly entertaining farcical comedy filled with memorable comic bits and witty zingers galore, most courtesy of the delightfully bitchy Robert Preston. It is a very funny comedy that I have watched many time since and has quickly become one of my absolute favorites.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
The original film, The Conjuring, was one of my all time great scary movie experiences in the theater. It just had me utterly engrossed from beginning to end with the increasing tension and genuine scares. I had no idea where it was going and was just along for the ride. So, with the release of The Conjuring 2 I couldn't help but wonder if they would be able to so completely freak me out a second time. The short answer is no, they did not. But at the same time I think I may have liked this movie even more than the first.
The film opens with Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), along with assorted others, investigating the infamous Amityville haunting in Long Island, NY. During a seance, Lorraine has a sort of out of body experience as she goes around the house, experiencing first hand the murder of each member of the DeFeo family, ending with her coming face to face with the demon that apparently forced Ronnie DeFeo to murder his family. Along with it comes a premonition of Ed dying horribly and soon. This spurns Lorraine to ask Ed that they not take on any new cases for awhile and focus on the lectures they give instead. Ed hesitantly agrees.
Meanwhile, across the pond in London a family of four children and a single mother begin experiencing some intense paranormal activity. Much of the activity seems to be focused on the youngest daughter, Janet (played by Madison Wolfe). As the incidents increase in intensity, the mother Peggy (played by Frances O'Connor) is at a loss as to what to do and eventually consents to let a local T.V crew try and document some of the activity in an attempt to try and find some help. This attracts the attention of the Catholic Church, who reach out to Ed and Lorraine to go to London and try to confirm if this is an actual incident or a hoax. The church is hesitant to get involved after the publicity of the Amityville case left much of the public thinking it was an elaborate hoax. They hesitantly agree and fly off to London to try and assist the family plagued by the haunting.
I approached this film, much like I did with the original film, as a work of fiction loosely inspired by an allegedly true haunting. Within that context, this film is quite an effective scary movie. James Wan returned to direct the sequel and is quite good at creating an effective mood and tension throughout the story. At the same time, the film develops it's characters nicely so that you actually come to care about them. There are some light moments in the film, such as Ed trying to lighten the mood of the house and the family by playing a guitar and singing Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love". I think it was these moments more than anything that really had an effect on me as well as the scenes where Ed and Lorraine reaffirm that they are partners in their paranormal investigations because they believe in each other. I know it sounds hokey, but Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make these scenes work beautifully and add some real emotional weight to the film.
My biggest nitpick with the movie is the fact that they broached the Amityville case at all. My reason for this is because it is so well known and so famous, but also widely presumed to be either a complete hoax or at least extremely exaggerated. It is a case I know quite well and have done a lot of reading about it. Therefore I have a healthy amount of skepticism about it as well. Even when I decided to watch it in the context of a fictional film, my brain was still nitpicking how they got the layout of the Amityville house wrong, etc. So, perhaps it's just me having an issue with it and those less familiar with it wouldn't have as much of a problem with it. The only reason I had an issue with it is it brought out my inner skeptic at the forefront and took me out of the movie at the beginning. I was able to get back into it and enjoy the movie on the basis of the direction, performances and the strength of the writing but I suspect this may be part of the reason this one didn't impact me as much as the first one.
Still, The Conjuring 2 is a worthy follow-up, continuing the adventures of The Warrens and their battling the forces of darkness. The film has a suitably creepy atmosphere with some really strong performances behind it and some strong direction from James Wan. If you're looking for a good scare, this would be a good place to find it.
Friday, June 10, 2016
We may only be three weeks into the month of May, but I'm pretty sure I've already seen my favorite movie of the summer. Anchored by three fantastic performances and a cracking script and direction by Shane Black perfectly balancing thrilling action and hysterical comedy, The Nice Guys is superior action entertainment.
Holland March (played by Ryan Gosling) is a down on his luck private eye trying to make ends meet while raising his teenage daughter Holly (played by Angourie Rice). He is hired by an older woman by the name of Mrs. Glenn (played by Lois Smith), who claims she recently saw her deceased niece, the porn star Misty Mountains (played by Murielle Telio), and hires him to find her. Initially hesitant, he agrees to take the job when he sees a connection between Misty and another missing girl Amelia Kutner (played by Margaret Qualley). However, Amelia does not want to be found and hires enforcer Jackson Healy (played by Russell Crowe) to intimidate Holland into dropping the case. Shortly after, Jackson is intimidated by two thugs who want to know where Amelia is. Jackson is able to get the upper hand and chases them off with a shotgun. Not knowing where to find Amelia himself and realizing she's in real danger, he teams up with a hesitant Holland to try and find Amelia before the thugs and the mobsters they work for do.
The film is written and directed by Shane Black with all the wonderful little plot twists and sparkling dialogue he has become famous for. The man has a knack with these kinds of films and a real love for noir tales, having previously spun tales about the adventures of Private Detectives in such outings as The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This one adds the wonderful flavor of the late 1970s Los Angeles to the mix as well and is recaptured quite well from the smog to the long lines at gas stations and all the other assorted small touches. The film also nicely develops it's three main characters, Holland, Jackson and Holland's daughter Holly. The interplay and bickering between Jackson and Holland is classic Shane Black while the relationship between father and daughter with Holland and Holly is well done as well as Holland is trying to bring his daughter up right while working in a profession that can be notoriously seedy. You get the sense he's trying his best to create a better life for her, especially since it's heavily inferred her mother recently died. There are little moments, like when he tries to break her bad speech habits even at inopportune times, such as when he finds her stowing away in the car as he and Jackson attend a party at a known pornographer's house ("Honey, don't say "and stuff". Just say "Dad, there are whores here."). It's those little things that add depth to the film amid all the action and chaos, of which there is plenty. Likewise, Jackson Healy is a bit of a lost character, wanting more out of his life and trying to find joy in it when he can. He aspires to be a private detective like Holland, but found himself sliding sideways into the enforcer business instead. You also get the sense he's a bit of a lonely guy and that the partnership with Holland will ultimately be a good one for him.
Overall, The Nice Guys is classic Shane Black fun with a witty script, exciting action that is frequently and surprisingly subverted by Black and anchored by three fantastic performances from Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe and Angourie Rice. It's got thrills and laughs aplenty and also makes a nice antidote to the overblown CGI that is otherwise overwhelming cinema screens today. Every once and awhile it's nice to see an action movie that values plot and character over finding a new way to show the end of the world for the umpteenth time. If you're looking for that as well, this may be the film for you. And stuff.