Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Oh, You Girls Keep Me Young. I Love Ya So Much...

Hard as it may be to believe, but fetch has been trying to happen for 10 years now. (And part of me thinks that Gretchen Wieners still won't let it go.) But even though Cady Heron and the Plastics have only been in the cultural lexicon for a decade, it's kinda hard for me to imagine a time that Mean Girls wasn't apart of my everyday life. After being skeptical about seeing it in the theater, my friends and I became a little obsessed with it. My friend bought a bootleg copy of it from a guy on the subway and we watched it almost once a day. (We had just graduated college and had a lot of free time on our hands...) And re-watching it last night for the umpteenth time, I found it as funny as ever and still infinitely quotable. So in celebration of the film, Nathaniel at The Film Experience has chosen it as this week's film for Hit Me With Your Best Shot. So get in loser, we're going 'Shot-ing'.

Regina George is flawless. We all know that. And Rachel McAdams' portrayal of the Queen Bee is pretty amazing. But the film is filled with high quality comedic work from every single one of the supporting cast. Tina Fey being...Liz Lemon Tina Fey. (Okay, so she doesn't have a lot of range, but she's still damn funny.) Lizzy Caplan almost unrecognizable as Janis Ian. Amanda Seyfried as the dumbest girl you'll ever meet, Karen Smith is a ditzy delight. And now that she does such serious work, I wish she could do another film that shows off her comedic chops. (No, A Million Ways To Die In the West this summer does not count. I have a feeling Seth MacFarlane will be too busy trying to impress us with his wit to allow anyone else to be funny.) It's also fascinating that of all the young actresses from the film, Seyfried is arguably the one having the best career. McAdams never seemed to live up to her potential and let's not even start with Lindsay...But the character I seemed to focus on the most during last night's viewing was Amy Poehler as Regina's "cool" mom.

From the moment we see her in her pink Juicy Couture velour sweatsuit and her Chihuahua in a feather boa, we already familiar with this Paris Hilton-wannabe. Predating the Real Housewives by a couple years, she is the prototype of every single one of those catty bitches. And make sure you check out her boob job–they're hard as rocks:

But for all her liberal supplies of condoms and alcohol to minors, my favorite thing about Mrs. George is the way she's always trying to upstage Regina. Sure, she loves her daughter. But if she had it her way, she would be the young, beautiful one in the spotlight. Like during the Holiday Talent Show:

And in my choice for Best Shot when she sneaks her way into Regina's Spring Fling photo:

I love that with that backdrop, purple lighting, and awkward pose this already has the authentic feel of every high school dance picture that's been taken in gymnasiums since 1983. But with Regina in her spinal brace decorated with flowers, it almost takes on a macabre, Diane Arbus feel to it. 

But it's Poehler clamoring for attention in the background that nail it for me. I had almost forgotten about this part of the film and literally LOL'd when I saw it as if it had been the first time. Poehler just knows this character. She was probably the most popular girl in high school, just like Regina, but that's when she hit her peak and everyday is a scramble to relive that former glory. And now she can through her daughter. It would all be tragically pathetic if Amy Poehler weren't so effortlessly hilarious. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Great Beauty of Pocahontas

The Walt Disney Animation Studio has certainly created some memorable characters over the years. From the iconic Mickey Mouse ("It all started with a mouse") to the recent creation of that icy Queen with magical powers, the limits of what can be achieved in the art form exist only within the imagination of its animators. So it may be surprising when I say that for me, one of the studio's best comes from a film that is far from universally loved. But, without a doubt, there is perhaps no better example of how the beauty of hand-drawn animation is able to mimic the look and movement of reality while still maintaining a stylized elegance than with Glen Keane's work on the character of Pocahontas. The character and the film she appears in are this week's choice for Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience. So, wingapo, let's take a look at Keane's under-appreciated artistic achievement.

Let me just clarify that it's the character of Pocahontas and not the film itself that I admire. Cause let's be honest, that movie's got some issues. While it was being made, the animators at Disney were divided into two teams, one working on The Lion King and the other on this film. At the time, everyone wanted to be assigned to the Pocahontas team because the project was viewed with more prestige. It was a chance to create a dramatic film that was in many ways more adult than anything the studio had done before. After considering an animated version of Romeo and Juliet (I am soooo curious about how that would have turned out. Would they have used Shakespeare's language? Would the lovers actually have died in the end?), the studio decided to tell the tale of the historic Native American and her encounter with the English explorer John Smith instead. Aging the character (the real-life Pocahontas would have only been about 11 or 13 when the English arrived in Virginia) and inventing a love story to fit their theme of the clash of cultures, there was definite potential in the material.

But where they faltered was in not embracing the adult elements more. I think Disney is afraid to change their formula and truly create a film that can be seen solely as an artistic endeavor. With millions to be made in merchandise and other promotional tie-ins, a film that does't appeal to all ages is too risky. But in trying to appeal to all, it dilutes the possibility of ever being taken seriously as art. (The studio later did it again when they scrapped plans to make an epic film about the Incas called The Kingdom of the Sun and turned it into the childish–but I'll admit, pretty hilarious–Emperor's New Groove.) Every time the antics of the animal sidekicks come into play in Pocahontas, the film screeches to a halt and turns aways from what it wants so badly to be. (Although it could have been worse, the animals were originally supposed to talk and Pocahontas' main sidekick was to have been a turkey named Redfeather voiced by John Candy.)

What saves the film from being a complete miss is the stunning artwork. The gorgeous backgrounds of pastel-hued forests, blazing sunsets, and cool, misty waterfalls create a bucolic atmosphere so lush that you do feel a hurt when the settlers begin to destroy it. I remember my aunt remarked after seeing the film that it was how she imagined heaven would look. But it's Supervising Animator Glen Keane (who was also responsible for Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, and Tarzan among others) and his work on Pocahontas that remain the film's crowning achievement.

Let's start with the hair. Has any other element in a Disney film ever been so mesmerizing? Constantly in motion as if Pocahontas has one of Beyoncé's music video wind machines on her at all times, it whips about, it glides, it flows and practically becomes a character onto itself. Symbolizing her restless spirit, her blue-black mane entwines with the wind bringing her closer to nature and her mother (Powhatan says early on in the film that he feels her presence whenever the wind blows through the trees). And Keane's manipulation of it makes it seductively come alive. But it's his attention to detail, the way he effortlessly and elegantly treats it–the way she runs her hand through it when she goes to see Grandmother Willow, how she tucks it behind her ear while pondering Smith's outstretched hand, how she nervously begins to braid it while thinking about these strange new feelings inside her–that shows what a master of the form he is.

Since the earlier days of animation, the philosophy seemed to be the bigger and broader the better. But what Keane does with Pocahontas, trusting in the stillness and the power of a slight gesture, gives her a complexity and humanity rarely found in animation. The best scene of the film has to be when John Smith sees her for the first time at the waterfall as she silently looks at him. There's a power in her eyes, as if there are thoughts behind them. We're no longer looking at moving drawings, but being moved by the drawings.

The shot that I ultimately decided as my best embraces the fact that this is still an art form. Despite achieving a level of realness with the character what ultimately makes traditional hand-drawn animation what it is, is incorporating those elements that can't be achieved in any other medium. During her lesson to John Smith about embracing nature, Pocahontas asks John him if he can paint with all the colors of the wind and for a brief moment she turns into a impressionist painting composed of vivid streaks of color. Taking Keane's charcoal drawings and transforming them on screen, Pocahontas becomes the work of art that the film so desperately wanted to be. If only the film as a whole was worthy of such beauty.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

With All My Heart, I Still Love Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Leave it to Bette Davis, an actress who made a career of bringing compassion to prickly women, to make a murderess, adulteress, and, let's face it, a bit of a racist as someone worthy of sympathy. Even making her likable. It's her trick as an actress. Playing Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a wealthy rubber plantation owner that shoots her lover cold blank one moonlit night in William Wyler's The Letter (1940), Davis achieves just that–Luring us in with her tales and lies and somehow making us empathetic as we begin to understand her motives. And so we find Bette and Leslie at the center of scandal and, more importantly, the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

And those tales that Leslie tells are not only the center of the film's plot, but what I've chosen to discuss as my best shot(s). After the tranquility of the Malayan night is disrupted by Leslie's gunshots as she empties a revolver into a faceless man, her husband, her lawyer, and the doctor are assembled in the house to get to the bottom of what happened. Leslie, lying down on the couch, holding her husband's hand, begins to relive the events of the evening. Hammond, a friend that knew both Leslie and her husband Robert, came to see her...only to profuse his love for her and try to force himself upon her. But as she continues to recount the night's incident, she stands up and like an actress on the stage begins to reenact the situation. The camera does something almost unheard of for a film with such a huge star as Bette Davis, it lingers for minutes as her back is turned toward the camera. This is an actress whose eyes alone inspired a hit pop song decades after her reign as Hollywood royalty had faded. To not show her face for so long seems crazy. And yet, as she begins to weave the fabric of her story she draws us in with just her voice and back.

"I got up from that chair there. And I stood in front of the table here. He rose and came around the table and stood in front of me. I held out my hand. 'Good Night,' I said. But he didn't move. He just stood there looking at me. His eyes were all funny. 'I'm not going,' he said. Then I began to lose my temper. 'Poor fool, don't you know I've never loved anyone but Robert? And even if I didn't love him, you'd be the last man in the world that I should care for.' 'Robert's away,' he said. Well, that was the last straw. I wasn't the least bit frightened–just angry."
Best Shot:

As she continues, the camera pulls away from the rest of the men in the room, to focus on Leslie. We're transported to earlier in the night when it was just Leslie and Hammond alone in the house. And as she continues to speak the phantom of Hammond appears before our eyes in that door frame. Although Hammond's face is never revealed once in the entire film, just looking at the above shot, I swear I can see him. We are witnessing a flashback–that cinematic devious utilized so often in film–occur in the present without leaving the scene.
" 'If you don't leave immediately,' I said, 'I shall call the boys and have you thrown out.' When I walked past him to the veranda to call the boys, he took hold of my arm and swung me back. I tried to scream, but he flung his arms around me and began to kiss me. I struggled to tear myself away from him. He seemed like a mad man! He kept talking and talking, saying he loved me...it's horrible. I can't go on..."
But go on with the story she does, but now the action of the story builds and Wyler uses yet another ingenious technique to tell the tale. Without even relying on any part of the actors bodies at all now and abandoning the earlier stillness, we begin to see the action unfold. This time the camera swoops and glides about as if the tussle is still taking place right before our eyes. After establishing tension with just the back of a head and empty space, Wyler builds excitement with the camera as it darts about the room. It seems to be moving with as much energy as a handheld found-footage horror film of today would. Jostling about as we follow the two to the climax.

"He lifted me in his arms and started carrying me. Somehow he stumbled on those steps. 

We fell and I got away from him. Suddenly I remembered, Robert's revolver in the drawer of that chest. 
He got up and ran after me, but I reached it before he could catch me. I seized the gun as he came toward me. I heard a report and saw him lurch toward the door. 
It was all instinctive–I didn't even know I fired. Then I followed him out to the veranda. He staggered across the porch, grabbed the railing, but it slipped through his hand and he fell down the steps.
 I don't remember. Just the reports, one after another, til there was a funny little click and the revolver was empty. It was only then that I knew what I'd done."

Although we've already seen the body of Hammond lying in this exact spot earlier, the image of the dirty ground with his imprint seems more ominous than if we were still looking at his bullet-riddled body. It's as if her words have resurrected his body to only shoot it down a second time for our benefit.

We later learn through the titular letter that the events Leslie just described really didn't take place in that way at all. It was she that invited Hammond and when he refused her advances because of his marriage to a Eurasian woman (whom Leslie hates as much for her foreignness as she does her marital status), she did the only thing she thought plausible and shot him dead. If she can't have him, no one can. But her story is so convincing and Bette and Wyler tell it so compellingly that I'm willing to buy this early lie. As the film progresses, Leslie tells her husband that she's never loved him and, more poignantly, that with all her heart she still loves the man she killed. With as much passion as she put into her previous story, I'm willing to believe her. After all this is a woman that, like a magician, is able to conjure men out of thin air.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Very Graphic Village People

So, um...yeah. There was...huh. Guys, I just can't think of anything to say. I'm at a lose for words regarding this week's film for Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience. The film that's left me so stupefied happens to be the first film to have the honor(?) of receiving the very first Razzie for Worst Picture. No argument there. Can't Stop the Music, the hard-hitting drama about a young girl discovering how music has the power to soothe her soul in a concentration camp...nah, just kidding, its about the Village People. And for 2 hours I literally could not stop the music, but mainly I just wondered what the hell it was that I had gotten myself into. Let's try to make sense of it all...

So, this much is true: Steve Guttenberg, The Gutt, stars as a non-village person. He's a roller-skating DJ, but he's really a composer that wants to bring his funky beats to the masses. Luckily his ex-model roommate (I'm not entirely sure he is the roommate. Does he pay rent? He may just be her plant waterer? But judging how men in Native American headdresses just make appearances in her apartment without much notice, I'm guessing she's not aware of a lot of the goings-on in her home.) has connections in the music industry to get him started. That's code for, she slept around with the right people.

Since they're too poor/cheap to pay professional musicians, The Gutt and The Model assemble a gaggle of gays to record the music. The group is made up of every gay porn scenario known since the beginning of time. There is the Cop, Leather Stud, Army Man, Cowboy, Construction Worker, and, of course, that old gay cliché, Indian. This was the very un-PC times of 1980, so, yes, he was an Indian and not a Native American. I'm actually pretty sure he was Puerto Rican anyway.

Along the way Bruce Jenner, post-Olympic fame, pre-Kardashian, reality TV infamy, shows up for reasons I'm still not entirely certain of. Oh yeah, Model needs to get laid. But it's a little questionable when he dresses like this:

Yep, nothing says I'm a heterosexual looking to romance the ladies like a belly shirt and ball-hugging never-nudes. No. Seriously. That's what they wore in 1980.

For my Best Shot I toyed with the idea of going highbrow and comparing the shot of Model flashing her leg to catch a cab to that of Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night and showing the evolution of the Romantic Comedy throughout the years. But that didn't seem true to the spirit of this film. So I went another direction and just decided to go Gay, Gay, Gay! And where else but at the YMCA!

Things get a little homoerotic and NSFWish from here on out...