Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Timmons Collection - a List of Movies For the Reluctant Movie Watcher, Or Don't Listen To Reamer Because Her Ideas Are Wack

First off, an explanation of the title.  A colleague of mine, Helen Timmons, is unusually deficient in the movies she has watched over the course of her lifetime.  Most notably, she has never seen Forrest Gump, a fact that makes me tilt my head from side-to-side like the dog listening to his master's voice for the first time over a phonograph.  The concept is so foreign to me that I can barely fathom the condition.

Shortly before school ended, she asked for suggestions on what movies she should watch in an effort to get caught up.  Immediately, the junior member of our team, Melissa Reamer, started spouting off a list of the most ridiculous tripe, selections that ranged from the banal to the oh-my-God-that's-awful category.  It was at that moment that I knew I had to step in and save my colleague and the brain cells she was about to lose simply by listening to that list.

I could simply provide links to a list.  I mean, the AFI has compiled numerous lists of the best movies in various genres.  All I need do is make the links.  And, I think I will do just that, but I thought a more personalized approach was in order.  To that end, I decided for no specific reason to go by decade, starting with the 1950s, and list five movies I think Helen will enjoy or at least should have seen at this point in her life.

So here goes...

The Timmons Collection

1950s
Sunset Boulevard
12 Angry Men
The Bridge On the River Kwai
On the Water Front
Roman Holiday

1960s
The Apartment
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Graduate
Breakfast At Tiffany's
To Kill a Mockingbird

1970s
The French Connection
The Exorcist
Jaws
MASH
The Godfather

1980s
E.T.
The Color Purple
Tootsie
Raging Bull
Moonstruck

1990s
Goodfellas
Forrest Gump
Pulp Fiction
Schindler's List
L.A. Confidential

2000s
Traffic
Million Dollar Baby
No Country For Old Men
Sideways
Little Miss Sunshine

2010s (so far...)
Life of Pi
Gravity
Boyhood
The Help
Silver Linings Playbook

Many of these are available on Netflix streaming and all are available on DVD.  Helen, suck it up and add DVD delivery to your Netflix account.

Also, check out these AFI lists:
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies
AFI's 10 Top 10 (per genre)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Copycat (1995)

When Copycat was first released in theaters, I was in college at the University of Delaware.  I remember going to see it with some college friends and most of us thinking it was pretty good.  Then I saw it reviewed on the campus TV network by some pseudo-intellectual, elitist student "critics" who were more concerned about nitpicking the film to prove their superiority and coming up with yet another sarcastic quip.

One of the reviewers pointed out a scene in which it appears Holly Hunter's character, Inspector Monahan, picks a hair from her partner's jacket and seemingly drops it into a crime scene, hopelessly contaminating it, according to the reviewer.  This was pointed out in an effort to show how ridiculous the movie was since it didn't adhere to the strict CSI guidelines with which this reviewer was apparently well acquainted.

Never mind the obvious detail that it was a dead crime scene, that the CSI had already worked on the scene and were obviously packing up their equipment.  Never mind that Monahan let the hair fly off in the wind away from the crime scene.  And, never mind that this was a movie making larger points than the minuscule details with which this reviewer appeared to be so obsessed.

No, the movie was trash because of one flying hair.

Although I am not a film critic, I have learned something about film criticism from years of reading film reviews: if you don't attempt to hold a movie accountable by the standards it sets for itself, you will always be disappointed and miss something crucial about the film in the process.

For instance, this reviewer failed to see that Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver are interestingly cast against type in this film.  Holly Hunter as the tough, no-nonsense detective with crackshot aim, and Sigourney Weaver as the reserved and intellectual psychologist, Dr. Helen Hudson, who suffers from agoraphobia.  There was also no mention of how their characters' strengths and weaknesses are craftily accentuated in their scenes together: Weaver is always sitting while Hunter is often standing, poised and composed - the two are never shot together standing side-by-side, mainly because Weaver (at six feet tall) towers over the diminutive Hunter, and the physical difference would have ruined the effect.

There is also the fact that in casting women as the protagonists trying to take down a depraved serial killer, the film in effect is empowering the typical victims of serial killers to fight back against those who would prey upon them.  Instead of some macho male cop charging in at the last minute to save his ladylove, Copycat gives us two vastly different female characters working together to outsmart a lunatic and stop his killing spree.

Of particular note is Holly Hunter's performance as Inspector Monahan.  In a movie that is basically a crime procedural, Hunter finds moments to flesh out Monahan and suggest a long history for the character.  Take her first major scene.  Monahan is walking through a house in which a murder has been committed, taking in the details of the scene, all while putting on a chipper smile and speaking with a gentle mother-like whisper whenever she comes across one of her fellow officers.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent that her gentle demeanor masks a tough interior as she gently interrogates the officer who first arrived on the scene.  She picks up on the fact that he is withholding information through his subtle word choice and keeps questioning him until she finds out what she wants to know.

I don't know if this moment was part of the script or something Hunter came up with while developing the character, but what is apparent is that it is a choice made by the character for a reason.  Maybe as a female detective she has learned that this is the best approach for coaxing information out of people.  Maybe as a confident individual who has earned the respect of her peers, she doesn't feel the need to waltz into a crime scene and start busting balls.

Both of these could be true along with a few other possibilities.  The important thing is that a scene that could have been just a routine exercise in exposition becomes a small character study.  It is moments like these that make Copycat a cut above the rest.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Hugo (2011)

The recent news about Asa Butterfield being a lead contender for the role of Spider-man got me thinking about the first movie I noticed him in: Martin Scorsese's Hugo.  He plays the title character, a young orphan living in the clockworks of a Paris train station.  As he maintains the station's clocks, pilfering food where he can, Hugo searches for mechanical pieces to repair an automaton he and his father had been working on at the time of his father's death.  Notes made about the automaton by Hugo's father were kept in a notebook, which Hugo protects like a precious heirloom.

Most of the pieces he needs he steals from a crotchety toymaker, who has a booth in the station.  When Hugo is inevitably caught by the toymaker, he loses his notebook to him and is forced into servitude to pay for the stolen pieces and hopefully have his father's notebook returned.

Of course, Hugo and the toymaker begin to bond.  And, of course, this leads to Hugo gaining a new family through various trials and tribulations.  The plot of the film offers nothing new for the audience, but few film plots do.  What it does offer is a lot of charm, visual imagination, and a great love for the history of cinema.

The theatrical release of the film offered showings in 3D.  And, unlike most movies in which 3D is a cheap gimmick, Scorsese uses it to advance the story and accentuate the experiences of the characters.  When I first saw it in the theater, I marvelled at the visual feast I was taking in and got completely lost in this re-imagined Paris landscape.

Hugo is a wonderful family film in the truest sense of the term.  It has something for every member of the family from the youngest to the oldest.  You won't be disappointed.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Housebound (2014)

There has always been an unlikely marriage between comedy and horror.  Some people experience the same level of hilarity watching a horror film as they do a comedy.  And most horror films do employ comedic devices to ease tension and set the audience up for a scare.  But, I've never really seen one that blends horror and comedy evenly throughout.  It is that delicate balance which elevates Housebound beyond a standard horror film.

The film follows the experiences of Kylie, a drug addict, who isn't above seriously breaking the law to get her next fix.  The opening scene sets the comedic tone as she and a partner attempt to rob an ATM machine.  Kylie is caught and sentenced to 8-months house arrest at the home of her estranged family.

When she begins her house arrest, Kylie has to deal with her negative feelings towards her mother, an incessantly cheery woman who seems to have no idea how to deal with her addict daughter.  Soon Kylie learns that her mother believes the house is haunted.  Kylie wastes no time in letting her mother know how ridiculous she thinks the idea is.

Kylie's attitude about the unusual occurrences around the house is what brings a lot of the humor into the film.  She is tough-as-nails and world-weary and has no time for creaky floors and sudden chills.  Her response to a door that repeatedly opens all by itself: take the door off the hinges.

However, the strange occurrences keep happening, and slowly Kylie begins to realize that she is trapped in a house with something that appears to be out to get her.  No one believes her, and attempts to leave are met with derision and incredulity by the authorities.  The only person who does believe her is her mother.

There is a mystery about the house that Kylie begins to uncover.  What she finds out is, at first, pretty routine ghost-story stuff: the house has a secret past that might predispose it to being haunting.  However, in undertaking the investigation as a way of saving herself and her family, Kylie finds renewed purpose and a feeling of self worth, and she's finally able to use her considerable wiliness for something positive.

And, all along, there are moments of inexplicable humor, which lends a charm to the characters and makes their situation seem more dire.  I don't know how the director, Gerard Johnstone, managed to pull off this tug-o-war between humor and horror, but I do know it works and had me invested in the characters and the story.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Firestar's Lasso of Flame - Imagination and Memory

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” --- William Faulkner, A Light In August

"Memories are meant to fade. They're designed that way for a reason." --- James Cameron, Strange Days

I have a memory in my head that feels so real. It was present in my childhood, and I would have sworn up and down that it actually happened, that I actually experienced it. But, now I am not so sure it happened, particularly since the context in which I place the memory doesn't fit. And, if I concentrate on it too hard, it becomes a thorny, pervasive itch in my brain.

The memory goes like this: I am a small child and watching television, a cartoon. In the cartoon, a skeletal figure in a top hat rises comically into the air from a pumpkin patch and starts to dance and float around in the night sky.


That's the whole memory.

Now the context I place it in may surprise (or even amuse) some of you. When I was a child, I was certain that that was the first scene in which the Great Pumpkin appears in the Charlie Brown Halloween special. One year it came on, I remember watching the special, eagerly anticipating the scene in which the dancing figure appears and Linus finally sees the Great Pumpkin. I just knew it was going to happen.

Obviously, it didn't happen. And so, to this day, I still have no idea from where that single memory originated.

Flash forward to the present day, and I am perusing Netflix, looking for nothing in particular to watch. I find the entire series of Spider-man and His Amazing Friends available for streaming, and so I begin watching a few episodes for nostalgia's sake

As I re-watch this rather inane Saturday morning cartoon, in the back of my head I have an image I'm expecting to see. A scene in which Firestar, the female main character of the show, uses her heat-based powers to create a lasso of flame in order to subdue an opponent. It's an image that has stuck with for over thirty years because I remember thinking even as a dull-minded kid just how ludicrous and impractical it was to make a lasso out of flame. How could it hold someone without severely burning them? Assuming, of course, that the fire is solid enough to even sustain the shape of a lasso, which it isn't and something that hadn't been seen in the series up to that point.
But, as I watch episode after episode, I see no scene with Firestar's lasso of flame. I didn't see it in the episode I was expecting it to be in: "The Quest of the Red Skull." And, so my casual viewing becomes an obsessive hunt to find this scene because I KNOW it exists. It is NOT going to be like the dancing skeleton memory and taunt me for the rest of my days.

I conduct a few internet searches. Nothing. I quickly scan through all twenty-four episodes of the series. No flaming lasso. Finally, I e-mail the caretaker of a now-defunct website (spider-friends.com) and ask him for his help. He, the alleged expert on the series, doesn't recall the scene and even says that Standards and Practices for cartoon series of that time probably wouldn't have allowed for such a scene anyway.

He even tries to Scully me with an overly rationalized explanation that another scene from the series inspired my memory.

Lying bastard!

I want to write back to him and say: "Don't try that crap with me, you lazy piece of filth!" Because I know the memory is real and not some confused manifestation of a child's imagination. I mean, my childhood imagination wasn't so lame as to come up with a hero who can do long distance assaults in the form of intense, fiery blasts but chooses to use a flaming lasso to fight an adversary. This image was foisted on me by hack writing. It had to be.

My vigor renewed to keep searching, I go back to the episode in which my memory places that scene.  And, I watch it again, sound off, carefully examining every moment to make sure I didn't miss a second.

Proof I am not crazy
And, suddenly, somewhere in the mid-section of the episode, I see it. Firestar uses a flame lasso to stop Hiawatha Smith, a character created for the series who was only slightly less a racial stereotype than Apache Chief. Smith uses his natural acrobatic skills to easily flip out of the lasso's reach, although he could have just put it out by spitting on it - it was that feeble looking.

How could I have missed it before? Was I expecting it to be more obvious? Did I simply blink? Turn away at that moment? Or, go to the bathroom?

Regardless, I found and thus saved myself from yet another brain-scratching memory to obsess over from time to time. I had remembered it correctly, and it did exist. Mystery solved.

On a more serious note, this mental exercise/obsession did cause me to ponder the substance of memory. I have nothing profound or even particularly new to say on the matter, but I am fascinated with how memories develop and change over time, how we polish and freshen the happy memories and tarnish the bad ones. A great concert you attend was never as good as how you remember it. And a moment of devastating hurt was never as bad as when you replay it in your mind. Our imaginations always mingle with the remembered facts of an experience, adding and subtracting to the emotional strength of the memory.

Time and new experiences dull the effect of most past memories. I believe that is how we are able to move through grief and loss. Maybe we don't actually heal from our past hurts and regrets - we simply gather new material to process, and past pain becomes blurrier, like a boat moving away towards the horizon.

If that is the case, that is all the more reason to get up and get out into life whenever you're facing a new pain. Allow yourself some new happiness to start counteracting the anger or sadness or depression. Give your mind some new memories to start processing, making them richer and better.
I know. Not exactly an innovative thought. And one that perhaps oversimplifies the process we need to go through when dealing with a loss. But, I do feel this is an important component in escaping the renewed pain brought on by memories and the sadistic way our minds will obsess over them. Like that dancing skeleton from my childhood memories, remembered pain can mock us with its insistence and lack of closure. And, the only thing I've ever known to help is the building of new memories of happiness, something to not only make us feel better but free us from the obsessive chains of hurt and grief.

I mean, did I really need to obsess over and waste time searching for validation of my memory regarding Starfire's lasso? Not in the slightest. Perhaps the time would have been better spent finishing the book I'm reading or doing laundry or talking to a friend. Looking back, the moment of satisfaction at finding the scene was so brief and even now, new memories of laughing with my co-workers, of an energizing cardio workout this morning, of the pretty view of the harbor I have as I sit at the hotel desk, make the memory of satisfaction seem remote and unimportant. Maybe it wasn't worth it after all. Then again, maybe I wouldn't have come to that realization had I not gone through that momentary spurt of insanity.

Still...I was right - Firestar did use a flame lasso.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Undertow (2004)

I have a true love for southern gothic literature.  A genre of storytelling that makes poetic and lyrical individuals and circumstances that would seem the least likely to possess such traits.   It's why I dig on Faulkner and O'Connor and (in certain ways) Morrison.  And that love has transferred to films, although rarely does a film capture those qualities the way prose does.

As such I marvel at the films of David Gordon Green because one after the other is straight-up pure southern gothic at its grittiest and most melodramatic (obvious exceptions, like his mainstream ventures, excluded, of course).

A standout among his films in this vein is Undertow.  It tells the story of a poor, backwoods family (a widower and two sons) living a secluded life somewhere in rural Georgia.  The father, John, crippled from the heartbreak of losing his wife years earlier, struggles to raise his sons.  The oldest one, Chris, is in constant trouble with the law, and the youngest, Tim, apparently suffers from pica, a disorder that makes him want to ingest non-food items, like paint and dirt.

The tenuous family structure is shaken up by the arrival of Deel, John's estranged brother.  Deel has just been released from prison for committing some unspecified crime, and he brings with him old rivalries and resentments.  The tension between the adult brothers grows and culminates in an act of violence that sends the two boys running away on a cross-country trek with Deel in hot pursuit.

The hows and whys of what happens while the boys are on the run are the magical moments that really make this film something remarkable.  The deep southern setting, under Green's keen eye, becomes an enchanting locale filled with wonder and creeping danger.  The characters, limited and at times pathetic, are given a dignity through this mythical quality that their lives don't provide.  When all is said and done, the viewer feels a strange kinship to these characters, characters who wouldn't normally elicit a second glance in real life.


Oh...Bother (Or No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

I can't say what kind of face I have, but it must be one that invites total strangers to engage in random conversation.  It happens to...