Category Archives: Movies

Best of 2016: Movie Edition, Part 2

Most of my top 5 movies have an element of magic, whether it be through talking animals or the unreality of musicals. I guess this year called beautiful things with a bit of escapism. Enjoy the loveliness!

5. Zootopia

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I watched Zootopia with a few friends, and we were completely delighted by it. Judy Hopps is the Leslie Knope of animation, a bunny determined to be the first non-predator police officer in Zootopia. While fighting stereotypes, Judy teams up with Nick Wilde, a fox who embraces his sneaky reputation. The filmmakers were incredibly creative in designing a city for animals of all sizes with neighborhoods for different climates. Lastly, the voice talent is stacked with Jason Bateman as the wily fox and Idris Elba as the fed-up police chief.

4. Amélie

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You may ask, how had I never seen Amélie until this year? I have no excuse, except that my teenage self was preoccupied with the Brits over the French. In the end, I adored this story of a young woman creating miraculous occurrences in the lives of people around her. Amélie isn’t just quirky; she’s a lonely girl alienated by her own shyness. Everything about the movie made me smile, from the specificity of the characters’ interests to stealing her father’s gnome for a worldwide tour. And most of all: Nino, the discarded-photo-collecting man of Amélie’s dreams.

3. La La Land

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Set in an ambiguously timeless version of Los Angeles, La La Land is a movie to make you smile with Classic Hollywood nostalgia. Doesn’t hurt to cast two of the most beloved actors of our generation either. Ryan Gosling is at his adorable best, and Emma Stone brings the moxie and the pipes. It’s a film for and about dreamers, these two trying to make it in Los Angeles and also everyone watching. I was singing the haunting “City of Stars” for days after seeing it. Do you want humor, romance, lovely songs, and gorgeous costumes? La La Land has it all!

2. All About Eve

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This year I fell in love with Bette Davis, and All About Eve is her knockout role. I mean, no one can take a sassy bite of celery like her. It’s a film about the business of being female. As Margo Channing, Davis says, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not. Being a woman.” This film enacts the struggle of a successful woman who sees her value falling while a younger woman’s is on the rise. Instead of simply pitting the women against each other, it’s sensitive and self-aware. (You can read my full review here.)

1. Room

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Besides being one of the best novel adaptations I’ve ever seen, Room is an incredible film in its own right. Everything hinges on Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack, who are fiercely loving and imperfect. They both nail their characters, and the relationship between them feels natural. The set design and cinematography capture Jack’s magical feelings about Room, as well as the reality of their confinement. Although I saw Room early in the year, nothing could top it. It went straight to my heart. (You can read my full review here.)

Tomorrow we pick up the books!

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Best of 2016: Movie Edition, Part 1

This year I found myself interested in more new movies than usual. Aside from the blockbusters and awards flicks, I went the classic route with Bette Davis and Billy Wilder. Here are my best movies seen in 2016, numbers 10 through 6!

10. Arrival

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As a science-fiction movie, Arrival could have gone either way for me, but it had enough of an emotional undercurrent to keep me interested. The lead actors had a lot to do with that. I love Amy Adams in general, and I have a soft spot for Jeremy Renner because of his performance in The Town. The sparse set design lends the film more dignity than the average alien flick. Although the plot twist probably caused some eye rolls, I thought the artistry made it easier to accept.

9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Given the nostalgia factor, I’m biased in favor of all things Harry Potter, and that probably makes me the target audience for this film. Fantastic Beasts has the added advantage of being set in 1920s New York, a goldmine for beautiful sets and costumes. My mom and I loved the new characters, who definitely had that Rowling flair to them. In particular, Eddie Redmayne’s off-kilter looks and mannerisms fit wonderfully into the wizarding world. If there were more magical creature action sequences than I would like, I’m prepared to overlook that.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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I’m a very casual Star Wars fan, and because of that, it was easy to enjoy the new movie without worrying too much about changes made. I loved the new trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe. This installment brings back a sense of playfulness and a gritty backdrop, both of which (I propose) are a big part of what people love about the original trilogy—and glaringly absent from the prequels. This pick is made bittersweet with the passing of Carrie Fisher, who was a totally badass lady.

7. The Apartment

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I never thought Jack Lemmon could break my heart, but as Bud Baxter in The Apartment, he does just that. A darkly comedic script by Billy Wilder is performed to perfection by Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. I also love Fred MacMurray playing against type as a callous business executive. For anyone who enjoys the intertwining of comedy and drama, this film is essential viewing. (You can read a longer discussion of Billy Wilder and The Apartment here.)

6. Brooklyn

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A period drama set in 1950s New York and the Irish countryside? If the filmmakers were trying to bait me, they could have hardly done any better. Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish girl working in Brooklyn who finds herself torn between home and the possibilities of her new life. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson give adorably understated performances as her love interests. Seriously—my heart! I also spent the entire movie swooning over Ronan’s wardrobe.

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Billy Wilder

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Very few directors have as many iconic films to their name as Billy Wilder. When the American Film Institute named its 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998, four of Wilder’s films made the cut, three in the top 50. Over the past few years I’ve seen those four movies, plus a fifth. In fact, Double Indemnity (1944) was the subject of my very first Craving Classic Hollywood post and continues to be my idea of film noir perfection. Most recently I watched The Apartment (1960).

I always had the impression that The Apartment was a rather zany comedy, perhaps associating it with Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). And yes, the premise has zany written all over it. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, is a low-level businessman who hopes to advance his career by letting executives use his apartment for trysts. Scheduling conflicts and awkward encounters with the neighbors naturally ensue. Baxter also hopes to woo spunky elevator operator Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. While both are fantastic comedians, there’s a deep sadness to each of their characters. Baxter is profoundly isolated, waiting in the cold for married men and their mistresses to vacate his apartment, and Fran happens to be in love with one of those married men.

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The dark side of The Apartment is actually mentioned in the first season of Mad Men. Joan is upset with Roger after seeing it because of the way Shirley MacLaine is “passed around” by the men. Watching the movie myself, I could easily imagine how it would feel a little too realistic for Joan’s character. Not only is Fran deceived by both of the men in her life, but the affair distresses her to the point that she tries to commit suicide. Looking back at the Wilder movies that I’ve seen, there are two other occasions when women attempt suicide over men. That’s what we in the world of feminist critique would call problematic.

Wilder often wrote about women wreaking havoc on the lives of men, such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is former silent-film star who is clearly mentally ill, so her attempted suicide is at least quite plausible. Fran Kubelik, on the other hand, seems self-possessed, if a bit glum. The most perplexing example is found in Sabrina (1954), which involves a suicide note played for laughs. None of the women succeed, and with the exception of Sabrina, the attempts are treated seriously. However, the fact that none of them succeed also frames it as an attention-seeking act. Not a particularly enlightened view of women, Billy.

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Underneath the veneer of comedy or glamour, there’s a cynicism to much of Wilder’s work. He takes on the Hollywood star machine in Sunset Boulevard and acknowledges the ugliness behind the womanizing businessman in The Apartment. Actors deliver great performances in his movies, and some credit must be given to his writing and direction. Setting aside the aforementioned problematic elements, Shirley MacLaine brings depth to a character who could have become a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In one monologue she describes kidding herself about dating a married man until “it all begins to look so ugly.” Lemmon’s performance has the physical comedy and nervous energy you would expect, but he also taps into Baxter’s loneliness in subtle and heartbreaking ways.

Although I’ve now seen the Billy Wilder Greatest Hits, there are many lesser classics if I really wanted to delve into his career. The Apartment fit perfectly into my 1960s reading and viewing theme of late. Despite his shortcomings, I would have to say that Wilder is among my favorite Classic Hollywood directors, perhaps second only to Hitchcock. It might be because he writes as well as directs, or because women wreaking havoc is not my least favorite thing to watch.

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The Girl on the Train, Page and Screen

I was late to the party, but The Girl on the Train is one of the most entertaining thrillers that I’ve read this year. My mom and I both waited impatiently for it to be released in paperback, and last weekend we saw the movie together. As you may have gathered from the previews of disgruntled Emily Blunt demanding to know WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, it’s about an alcoholic woman trying to piece together her involvement in another woman’s disappearance.

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What makes the novel so interesting is also what makes it difficult to adapt to film. Paula Hawkins tells the story from three women’s perspectives and uses a nonlinear structure. The narrators are Rachel, the titular “girl on the train”; Anna, her ex-husband’s new wife; and Megan, the woman who disappears. Like Gone Girl before it, an easy criticism of this novel is that none of the characters are particularly likable. I happen to love Gillian Flynn’s penchant for deeply flawed women, and I feel the same about Paula Hawkins. Also similar to the experience of reading Gone Girl, I find my sympathies evolving as the book reveals more about each character. I wouldn’t want every book I read to have characters like this, but I enjoy it under the right circumstances.

Nonlinear story structure is usually an exciting device in fiction, especially for mystery writers. It can add to a sense of unease or confusion while also necessitating that the reader be engaged with the details of the mystery in order to follow along. However, visually indicating shifts in time can feel awkward on screen. The Girl on the Train attempts to do this with time and narrator shifts, which felt clumsy to me as a viewer. I also spent the first 20 minutes confused about why almost everyone in suburban London had an American accent, only to realize that the film switched the setting to New York and the Hudson River Valley. Except Rachel is still British and Anna has a slight Scandinavian accent. Paula Hawkins has pointed out that the story could take place in any commuter town, but I certainly missed the British-ness of the novel.

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The three female perspectives are my favorite part of the novel. At first they seem quite different, but the reader begins to see commonalities in their experiences. On the other hand, the film is shot from a very male perspective. This is particularly apparent with Megan, who is frequently half-dressed and being ravaged by her husband with a bored look on her face. An aggressive sexuality is part of her character, but the film makes her an object rather than an agent. There’s also a certain meekness to Anna that isn’t present on the page. For a story that delves into three women’s psyches, a detached and sexually voyeuristic mood feels incongruous. Rachel suffers the least in this respect, both from getting the most screen time and Emily Blunt’s committed performance.

As is often the case with adaptation, I might like The Girl on the Train better with a second viewing, but for now I’ll stick to the book.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: All About Eve

Bette Davis, where have you been all my life? What kind of a fool was I that I had never watched one of your films until this weekend? Forgive me, Anne Helen Petersen, for I have sinned. It’s been two days since I watched All About Eve.

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Rather than a Cinderella story, I would call this a Snow White story. All About Eve (1950) follows the rise of aspiring actress Eve Harrington. We know that she will rise because the first scene shows her winning an award for distinguished achievement in the theater, but we don’t yet know how she will accomplish it. Then the film flashes back to the beginning of her acquaintance with Margo Channing, a stage star played by the indomitable Bette Davis. Outside the theater of Margo’s current play, Eve approaches the playwright’s wife and confesses that she’s attended every performance. If that doesn’t scream “Beware of this crazy,” I don’t know what does, but Karen decides to introduce her to Margo instead. Anne Baxter plays Eve with enough quiet intensity to quietly creep me out.

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And where to begin with Bette Davis? You would never call her pretty, both because she isn’t and because it’s too common of a word for her. All of her features are striking with a voice to match. Next to Bette Davis, Anne Baxter’s beauty looks absolutely commonplace. Eve is introduced to Margo mid-banter with her friends, and the classic one-liners and monologues continue throughout the film. At the beginning of the film, Margo is often shown in physically vulnerable states, such as removing her wig and makeup backstage or being woken up by the telephone. However, her confidence outweighs her vulnerability in those moments. As the film progresses, we see more of her glamorous side, but she also reveals her insecurities and volatile temper.

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Now we arrive at Snow White. The conflict between Margo and Eve is that of a mature woman feeling threatened by a younger woman who shares her ambitions. Margo even refers to Eve as “so young and so fair” while accusing her boyfriend of admiring Eve too much. Or perhaps, who’s the fairest of them all? This conflict plays out again and again in our books and film. For example, an increasingly important plot point on Game of Thrones is Cersei’s fear of the prophecy that she will be replaced by another queen, “younger and more beautiful.” But does anyone really need a prophecy to tell them this? Every human is destined to grow older and watch the younger generations that come after them. Yet in the stories we tell ourselves, aging comes more quickly and mercilessly for women, whether you’re the Evil Queen or Margo Channing.

Apparently 1950 was the year that Hollywood wanted to come to terms with the fact that its stars would eventually fade. Sunset Boulevard, released in the same year, depicts a silent film star going bonkers in obscurity. Thankfully Margo Channing is spared that fate. All About Eve is brilliant in its script and performances, but also in its acknowledgement of what I stated above: the conflict between Margo and Eve will be repeated with Eve and the next generation of ambitious young ladies.

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The Erasure of Angie Gennaro

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I first watched Gone, Baby, Gone in 2012, at the height of my enthusiasm for Ben Affleck. At that time I hadn’t read the novel upon which it was based, or any of Dennis Lehane’s work, and Ben hadn’t tainted his career renaissance with the scandal surrounding his separation from Jennifer Garner. In short, it was a simpler time. Becoming familiar with the source material, as well as two articles by Anne Helen Petersen , affected my second viewing in unexpected ways. Back in March, Petersen wrote a pair of articles about the evolution of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner‘s public images. But what do Jen and Angie have in common?

Since reading and loving Mystic River last summer, I’ve read three more Dennis Lehane novels. Two of them are part of a series that follows Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, private investigators in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Gone, Baby, Gone is actually the fourth installment, although it’s not essential to read the books in order. Normally I don’t condone such things, but I got impatient in this particular instance. And of course, reading the book required a revisiting of the movie. In doing so, I was alerted to a great injustice in film adaptation: the erasure of Angie Gennaro.

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Lehane’s novels are narrated by Patrick, but Angie is his partner in every way. To put it bluntly, she’s a total badass. She knows how to defend herself, both physically and verbally, and is a better shot than Patrick. Their partnership is one of the best things about the books. So imagine my distress at seeing her role diminished to a typical Hollywood female supporting character. Michelle Monaghan would certainly not be my go-to actress for this role, but she’s also not given much to work with. In general Affleck follows the trend begun by Clint Eastwood of going wildly off-book when casting a Lehane adaptation. Changing a character’s appearance is one thing, but Affleck’s casting choices actually make some of the characters less interesting. For instance, the detectives who work closely with Patrick and Angie have very distinctive personalities in the novel, while the film turns them into generic cop characters.

Since she should be the other lead role, the flattening of Angie’s character is the most egregious. The film cuts her out of one key action sequence entirely. Even when she is present, she serves as a passive observer who needs Patrick to protect her from unsavory characters. In fact, she’s usually so peripheral to the action that it’s a bit confusing when she does speaks. While Casey Affleck waves a gun around, she watches the scene in mild distress. Angie of the novels would be right there with him, verbally sparring and saving his neck if necessary. Affleck’s screenplay turns her into a stock female character whose only role is to provide support for the male hero and give a “sensitive” perspective about the missing child. Angie of the book continues to obsessively review the case, and Angie of the film cries when she thinks Patrick isn’t home.

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The erasure of Angie gave me surprising flashbacks to Anne Helen Petersen’s article about Jennifer Garner. The article is a great read, but to summarize: Garner was an action star on Alias and poised to become a romantic comedy star with the success of 13 Going on 30. After she married Ben Affleck, her public image was mainly used to make him more likable. Obviously Affleck isn’t to blame for the existence of Hollywood character tropes, but he and co-writer Aaron Stockard did nothing to combat them either. Art imitated life in a way that was only recognizable years later. The greatest irony of all is that the Jennifer Garner of yore could have played Angie Gennaro with ease, but instead she’s starring in movies about cats and children miraculously recovering from diseases.

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Rebecca, Page and Screen

Rebecca Cover

Rebecca is a classic suspense novel, and since I’ve become interested in that genre in recent years, it seemed only right that I read it. It doesn’t hurt that Alfred Hitchcock directed a film adaptation in 1940. Upon reading the novel, I found that it also bears some similarities to a more recent suspense classic: Gone Girl.

It’s no surprise that Hitchcock took to Daphne du Maurier’s work, as Rebecca is perhaps the Hitchcock-iest novel ever. The narrator is an unnamed young woman who marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. When the couple returns to Manderly, his family estate, she finds the house haunted by the memory of his first wife Rebecca. The first Mrs. de Winter left behind a formidable legacy, as well as a housekeeper who is still frighteningly loyal to her departed mistress. Manderly itself is almost a character, serving as a living reminder of Rebecca and the privileged world where the narrator feels out of place.

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This story is a Hitchcock goldmine for themes of female identity. Think of Vertigo and Scottie’s attempts to recreate the woman he loved and lost. Think of Notorious and Alicia paying for the sins of her father by playing the spy. The second Mrs. de Winter is so overshadowed by the memory of Rebecca that she isn’t even given a name of her own, while Rebecca’s name is the title. But as Scottie found out after her, flesh and blood can never live up to memories biased by love, and memories can be a lie. Although her timidity could be exhausting at times, I felt for the narrator in her insecurities and awkwardness.

A quick search reveals that I’m not the first person to draw the Gone Girl comparison. Both stories contain an absent figure wreaking havoc through the perception of herself left behind. Rebecca is described as able to charm anyone and adapt to any situation, and Gone Girl’s Amy takes pride in being a personality chameleon. On the one hand, we could take these characters as an indictment of female duplicity, with Rebecca’s modest narrator serving as the model for appropriate femininity. Hollywood and Hitchcock take the critique further in that direction, but both of these novels are written by women who understand that identity is a performance. One could argue that their female characters just know how to perform to their advantage.

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Apart from the suspenseful story line, the visual elements of Rebecca make it primed for adaptation. First and foremost, there’s Manderly, which can be presented as beautiful or foreboding. Within Manderly we have the tangible reminders of Rebecca, particularly her bedroom suite in the west wing. The west wing faces the sea (wild, untamed, potentially dangerous), while the second Mrs. de Winter’s bedroom faces the rose garden (safe, controlled, domestic). There’s also visual delineation to be made between the bright, artificial world of Monte Carlo, where Maxim meets his second wife, and the gothic world of Manderly. And really, contrast is a filmmaker’s best friend.

Rebecca is a classic for many reasons. It can be read in the tradition of the gothic novels that came before it or as a precursor to the psychological thrillers of today. As for me, I’m glad to have another suspenseful lady to add to my list.

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