The Lure (2017)

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This film is a pretty fun one to explain to your friends: a Polish, horror-comedy musical about Mermaids by a first time, female director. There’s a lot going on in that description and, coincidentally, there is a lot going on in this film. While the modern-day fairy tale explores some very interesting themes and imagery, it has some inconsistencies with tone that remind you that this is the work of a first-time director.

Mermaids Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) come ashore during a bizarre family picnic between Krysia (Kinga Preis), Perkusista (Andrzej Konopka), and Mietek (Jakub Gierszal). After almost luring the men into the water, the family brings the mermaids ashore and to the strip club where they perform as musical entertainment. The owner of the club is excited to have real live, actual mermaids who can perform in the show, and quickly hires them- although their pay goes to the family that has taken them in.

The film is, like most modern stories about mermaids, an exploration of female sexuality, particularly in youth. The film’s obvious parallels to The Little Mermaid closely reflect the Hans Christian Anderson original, but also spend time refuting the Disney animated classic of the same name. The two mermaids are what adds to the conversation- now instead of the “little mermaid” acting in a vacuum, there is a conversation going on between two girls who are in the same situation.

(I hate to use this qualifier but, spoilers ahead.)

On the one hand, we have Silver, who is obviously interested in a conventional, sexual relationship with Mietek. She quickly kisses him, flirts with him, plays the part of the innocent girl who wants to be “taken” by a masculine figure. Time after time she goes out of her way to make herself into what she believes he wants and expects from her. And, if we pay attention to our fairy tales, we can anticipate how well that is going to go for her. Golden, on the other hand, is concerned with two things- herself and her sister. When she is hungry for human flesh, she eats it. She explores her own sexuality and does what she things is fun. She is worried about her sister and always trying to steer her in the right direction. The strength of this character is only highlighted by the incredible performance by Michalina Olszanska, an actress who I will be going out of my way to see more of.

At the end of the film there is a crucial choice that Silver has to make, and one that Golden has repeatedly expressed her feelings on. And when the time comes to make that choice, and Silver chooses Mietek over her sister, Golden is horrified. The film ends with her retreating, alone, to the sea, to see her sister punished for doing exactly what she thought was the right thing. It could not be much clearer that this film is making a commentary on the way women are expected to behave, and how harmful this is to women and girls in a community. In expressing these views, I found the film quite successful.

There are elements in the film that are quite lacking. The character Krysia is a surprising non-entity, when I believe that a stronger presence from her could have brought some glue to the film. The screenplay left a lot to be desired, and there is a strong disparity between the two halves. I will admit to feeling like I was watching tow different movies, and I’m not confident that that is a good or exciting thing. However, I found the music engaging, the performances spectacular, and the consistency of the mermaid lore refreshing. There is not enough use of mermaid symbology in films, and it was wonderful to see someone who took the rules of their world seriously and used the symbols to their full potential.

The Lure is exactly what I wanted and was expecting in that it was bizarre. But it was not the most cohesive film. However, its disparate elements were not enough to cloud my enjoyment of the journey.

The Fits (2016)

the-fits-interview-feature.jpgThe Fits is a movie that has been on a lot of top 10 lists in 2016, and is readily accessible if you have Amazon Prime (it’s been streaming for several months now). Now that the Oscars are on the horizon and the pressure is really on to finish a top 10 for 2016, I’ve been knocking out films from earlier in the year that critics and bloggers that I admire have been high lighting in their yearly wrap ups, and I thought I would check out this film.

There are magical things about The Fits, the coming of age drama by director Anna Rose Holmer. Holmer has previously worked in several different departments in the film industry, and directed a documentary in 2010 called 12 Ways to Sunday. The film is portrait of young tomboy Toni, in a SPECTACULAR performance from child actor Royalty Hightower, as she makes her way through her first year on the dance team at her local community center.While trying to become a better dancer and make a name apart from her successful boxer brother, the other girls on the team start experiencing seizure-like trances called “The Fits.”

This film was not really what I expected, and it took me a while to adjust my expectations. But I don’t know that the film really decides whether or not it is a story about Toni finding herself, or a movie about the strange thing that is happening to this group of dancers. While some girls are hoping for The Fit to happen to them, Toni maintains that she doesn’t want to get it. But while asserting her own identity, she also is trying to do her best to be a part of this dance team collective. And instead of feeling like she is trying to maintain individuality in a collective, it seems like she is contradicting herself.

I’m going to break the professional tone that I usually strive for while writing reviews for this site just to say- I really have no clue what the Fits are. The easiest possibility is that this strange phenomenon is a representation of womanhood, that the Fits are a stand in for menstrual periods, which can pull young girls apart in the years when some friends may be having periods and some friends may not. But the analogy isn’t perfect in this film. It could be commentary on conformity, or on the difficulty of finding yourself, and when you finally feel comfortable in your own skin you have this strange, physical experience. But none of these really line up, and it leaves you thinking after the film. Whether or not this thought is engaging with the thematic content of the film, or simply trying to figure out what that thematic content might be, will depend on the viewer.

The film was funded entirely by grants, features a real drill team, and has dozens and dozens of child actor. This small production size could have resulted in something that feels thrown together or too small, but in this film, it gives us this tremendous authenticity. Since the girls are all on a dance team together in real life, their chemistry on screen is infectious. The young performers bring a lively energy and curiosity that elevates the film.

But there are downsides. When the film doesn’t have this infectious energy, it has a pace so slow as to make a 75-minute film feel like it drags. Toni’s contemplation and frequent silence are sometimes compelling and sometimes tedious. The score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, often leaves these moments of contemplation feeling sinister, as if Toni shouldn’t be thinking so much about the world around her. And the film’s final dream sequence, a perfect visualization of who she wishes to be, left this reviewer feeling like she was looking for something more than there may have been on the screen.

The Fits is an interesting film and I will certainly be looking for the work of the crew and cast in the future. And while it is a flawed picture, it is worth the watch if you’re interested in a different perspective or type of filmmaking. Be prepared to actively engage with this piece, and let yourself ask the questions.

Moonlight (2016)

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One of the most talked about films of this Oscar season has made a return to theaters after it’s original release, which gave me the opportunity to go see it! I was so excited to be in the theater to get in on the conversation about this film, and there is so much to talk about. Moonlight is a tender, unique film with it’s roots in cinema’s rich international history and is one of a vivid portrait of a single place-Liberty City, the neighborhood in which it was filmed. And amidst all of this, it is a fully fleshed story of a person.

The film is a coming of age tale about Chiron, a young black man growing up in the Miami Neighborhood that is Liberty City. His mother, brought to life with a beautifully harsh performance by Naomi Harris, is addicted to crack cocaine but loves her son and struggles to show him that love. His main role models are a local drug dealer and his wife; the drug dealer, Juan, played by Mahershala Ali and his wife, Teresa, played by Janelle Monae. Ali is attracting a particular amount of buzz for his performance, and rightly so- he plays Juan with tenderness, and occupies the strange middle-of-the-ground morality as the only positive role model in this young man’s life while also being a drug dealer. The cinematography by James Laxton is reminiscent of classic French New Wave films like Breathless, but feels somehow more confident. The music, by Nicholas Britell, is so ingrained in the film that I have a hard time remembering any of the score as I write this piece. It called no attention to itself and served only to illustrate Chiron’s journey. The story, a beautiful and raw tale based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is brought to life with a steady hand by director Barry Jenkins. And all of it comes together to tell a simple story: the story of Chiron.

One of the first things I said after coming out of this movie was: I love Chiron. The main character of the film has many different names and is played by three different people:  Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. These three performers are amazing in their performances, truly bringing this character to life. He felt like an authentic, layered human with complex needs and desires. There is something in the eyes of these three men that brings them together, it feels almost like Boyhood in the way we watch Chiron grow up. Of course, not enough praise can be heaped on Jenkins, who created this character with his actor. I cannot imagine the tender hand that it must have taken to coach the non-actors populating this film to give such a rich performance. You fall in love with this character over the course of the film.

The strength of this performance, and other performances given by the stellar supporting cast, is so crucial because it saves Moonlight from being an “issues” movie. A film about a young man who is black, who is also gay, whose mother is an addict, who lives in a poor part of the country, could have very easily slipped and slid down the slope of preachy and dry. But the film does not focus on any of those particular issues, and isn’t even really about them. In fact, if the film tackles any “issue,” it is an idea of a pervasive and toxic image of masculinity that is forced on each of our young, male characters. The film does is not truly about any of those issues. Instead, it is about a person who could use those words to describe himself. The mother is not another plot device thrown in Chiron’s way- she is his mother, a fully formed person who he loves but is scared of and angry with. His sexuality isn’t just a piece of the salad, it is something that weighs on him, something that he has to consider or consciously ignore. And we have to think about these things with him, and framed through his experiences and choices.

Moonlight is pretty brilliant. It has the right amount of art house, the right amount of mainstream, the right amount of mind, and the right amount of heart. It’s a small story and it means a lot. It has everything to say and doesn’t even shout- much like it’s beautiful, complicated main character.

All About My Mother (1999)

allab03hThere are two Spanish filmmakers who have made the largest impact on international cinema, who could be considered the most “recognizable”. The first is the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who made a vast number of films including Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Viridiana. The other name is Almodóvar. Pedro Almodóvar has caught attention from international film critics and film goers alike since the 198o’s saw the release of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Almodovar’s other credits include High Heels, Volver, The Skin I Live In, and Talk To Her, the final film being one of the rare foreign-language films to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

All About My Mother is Almodóvar’s 1999 feature, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature. The film chronicles the experiences of Manuela (masterfully portrayed by Cecilia Roth) and her experiences in Barcelona after the death of her son. His perception of her colors film, giving the film it’s title, as we learn all of the elements of Manuela’s youth that she kept from her son. Almodóvar weaves us a lush tapestry of characters that explores the many facets of womanhood: Rosa, the troubled nun (Penelope Cruz), an actress in the middle of a run as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (Marisa Paredes), and a vibrant transsexual sex worker Agrado (Antonia San Juan). We explore the way these women perform the certain aspects of their life that believe they need to stay alive.

The performances of the women vary from physical alterations to secret keeping. The stars of Streetcar perform their roles in the play, along with the facade of a healthy, fulfilling romantic relationship. Agrado gives a delightful monologue about the amount of plastic surgery she has undergone to become truly “authentic.” It should be no surprise that it is Manuela who performs the most complex and wide array of roles: the first as a surrogate mother to Rosa, and the second (and more relevant) as a woman grappling with supreme loss by caring for whatever lost soul she can find.

Manuela is a strong a central character as it is possible to find. It is almost without choice that she leaves Madrid for Barcelona after the loss of her son, under the guise of telling his estranged father what happened to him. At first, it seems like she is running away from her troubles, from the memory of her son. But the more time she spends in Barcelona, the more we see that she isn’t moving away- she’s moving on. The few moments when she breaks down don’t seem like a moment of weakness, but a moment of relief. Cecilia Roth brings life and energy to the role, elevating an already great film to, as my sister’s boyfriend called it, a “remarkable” one.

One of my favorite things about Almodóvar’s body of work (at least the films of his that I have seen) is his use of other works of art in his films. In Talk To Her, the themes of the film are all laid out to us in the opening moments of the film with a dance choreographed by Pina Bausch. In All About My Mother, there are two works of art that Almodóvar piggy-backs off of to create a rich backdrop of thematic content- the film All About Eve, and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. His use of these two works not only elevates his own film, but the other two. By commenting on the way that these two works of art can effect people (especially women) he is able to add more layers to both of them. He’s not lazily referencing the works as a way to more easily discuss his themes: instead, he uses them to make a much more complex film.

The film ends with a heartfelt dedication “To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all the people who want to be mothers… to my mother.” Each group mentioned in the dedication is seen in one of the vibrant characters in the film, each of them treated with nothing but love from their director. People make mistakes, people hurt one another, but there are no monsters in All About My Mother. At it’s core, this is a film about personal strength- the strength to move on, the strength to be yourself, the strength to forgive those who have hurt us.

La La Land (2016)

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Everyone is talking about this movie. Everyone is trying to see this movie. It’s the musical sensation that is sweeping the nation. I tried to see this movie several of times before I actually got in to a sold-out showtime. When we left the theater, there was a line at the door of people waiting to get into the next one. This movie is capturing the hearts and minds of movie audiences unlike any non-Star Wars movie that’s come out in my lifetime. So what is it about this movie that is so… wonderful?

The short answer is- not everything. I did not fall immediately in love with La La Land, the musical romance directed by Damien Chazelle. To be completely honest, during most of the first act I was a little bit concerned that I was going to be one of the outliers to not lose my marbles over this film. But at some point- and I don’t even know at which point this was- I was hypnotized. At some point I just fell, utterly and completely, into the story and the characters, and completely without noticing.  The film, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a delightful adventure through a strange, uncynical version of Los Angeles. The movie speaks to modern sensibilities while calling back to the classical form of movie musicals. It brings something very, very old to the table and makes us ask ourselves, why can’t it be new again?

I’m sure there isn’t much I can say about this film that hasn’t already been said. I can go on and on and on about Emma Stone’s performance. The life that she brings to Mia, the struggling actress that she portrays, is quite unlike any other performance I’ve seen. She blends emotions that I’ve never seen combined, plays her role with vulnerability and passion and excitement. This is a stellar performance from Stone, proving (if there was anyone left with any doubts about her talent) that she belongs on the screen. I can talk about how wonderful it was to see Ryan Gosling put his crooning, casual voice to work telling his lovesick story as an aspiring jazz musician. I can sing the praises of the wonderful songs and score, composed by Justin Hurwitz, that provide the backbone of the story. These three elements, essentially the three main characters of the story, are complete expressions of youth, dreams, and real, true love, the core themes and subjects of La La Land.

Many of the musicals that are being produced today qualify as musicals because the characters break into spontaneous song. But dancing is a magical cinematic expression that was, for some crazy reason, abandoned in the Golden Age. I’ve never seen characters truly use dance to express their emotions and force the audience to suspend their disbelief, like the characters do in “Another Day of Sun” or “A Lovely Night.” And I’ve never, never, ever experienced something quite like the final montage of this film, a love letter to dance through dance, the perfect ending that this film deserves. There are truly not words to describe it, because it is only about movement, dance, and wordless expression of emotion. It is also incredible that the ending doesn’t feel like a gimmick- some final homage to inspirations An American in Paris (1951) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

I loved this film, that’s for sure, but I do want to say: don’t go into this film worrying that it won’t “live up to the hype.” How your experience with the film measures up to those who have seen it before you doesn’t have to be what’s going through your mind while Mia and Sebastian go on their first “date” to a Jazz Club, or have their big (and incredibly authentic) fight over a home cooked meal. The only thing you should have in your head while watching this film is just that-this film. Let yourself fall into it. Give it some of your trust and suspend some of your disbelief. You’ll, more likely than not, get something truly magical out of the experience.

Old and French: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

I’ll be doing my best for this review not to just compare this film to Jaques Demy’s earlier musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, (1964), which is a much more famous but, in my opinion, a much less sophisticated film. Where The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has many of it’s roots in the tradition of melodrama and Opera, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) has roots in musical theater. The film is a much more intricate, much more fun, and much more energetic entry into Demy’s informal romantic trilogy (Lola [1961], Umbrellas, and this final entry).

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The film centers on a pair of twins, Delphine and Solange (played by real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac), who live in the small town of Rochefort. Solange, a composer, and Delphine, a dancer, yearn of Paris, and decide that at the end of the week they will set out for the big city. We are also introduced to their Mother (Danielle Darrieux) who runs a French Fry restaurant in the city, a sailor and painter who yearns for the Feminine ideal (Jaques Perrin), a music shop owner with an unfortunately silly last name (Michel Piccoli), and two young, charming traveling performers who have come into town for the weekend (George Chakiris and Grover Dale). They’re all brought together by a wonderful score and soundtrack, with music by Michel Legrand and lyrics by director Demy.

The sheer number of characters gives the film a lot of breathing room. Every character has their own song, their own moment to define who they are, so none of the characters feel superfluous or shallow. They all have something to add to the theme of the piece, which is simply, “Isn’t it magical to meet someone and instantly be in love?” Every person goes on a distinct journey, but I would wager to say that most of the characters are the same person at the end that they are at the beginning. The problem that most of them face is not internal, but rather external. The major problem of their life is that they haven’t met that right person yet.

The movie is something of a sing-through musical, and the scenes that are not set to music have rhyming dialogue (including a particularly impressive dinner scene at the middle of the second act). The characters effectively show their emotions through song and dance, and the combined use of the two- or lack-thereof- creates a unique emotional language for the film. During songs where characters express longing or regret, their is no accompanying dance. When characters are happy with their lives or are engaged in flirtatious discourse, there is a mix of song and dance. And when, finally, a person meets The One, there are no words that could possibly express their emotions. Their only possible way of expressing themselves is through dance. It’s only natural that the American Visitor of the film is played by Gene Kelly, who graces the screen with that joy of dance that he always brings to the table.

There is almost no way that this film could have had a sad ending. The world that the film inhabits it truly magical, and if the characters don’t meet the true love of their life, they still occupy this magical space, full of music and dance and, most importantly, color. The colors of this film are absolutely spectacular. The vibrant dyes of the wardrobe not only makes the huge cast of characters easily differentiated, but also shows us the different shades in the personalities of the characters. The costumes are not the only source of the color, the world also provides a lush array of tones that makes the whole world complete, and a joy to spend time in.

Young Girls of Rochefort brings the escapist element that we can expect from musical cinema. The brilliant score and songs will become a part of your musical theater playlist. The imagery will stick with you. Your heart will be warmed to the core, as it should be when the characters burst into song.

Christmas Movie Countdown

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The best thing about Christmas is undoubtably the movies- whether you’re a fan of the cheesy classics that bring back nostalgic memories of childhood, the newly discovered favorites that are used as a palate cleanser, or movies that take place at Christmas that aren’t really about Christmas, there’s a movie with a Red Santa Hat out there for you.

If You’re Looking for a Forgotten Classic: White Christmas (1954) is the film Chevy Chase is talking about when he says “We’re going to have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with…” well, you remember the rest. This heartwarming musical doesn’t have a lot of Christmas classics as the music, but the story, about two veterans-turned-successful showmen hosting a holiday performance at the inn of their former general, is full of Christmas fun. It also stars George Clooney’s Aunt, Rosemary Clooney, as Bing Crosby’s love interest.

If You’re Looking for a Cartoon: Olive the Other Reindeer (1999)This is not the obvious choice, and I could go on and on about the Rankin Bass stop-motion classics that defined my experience with Christmas growing up (Don’t get me started on Santa Claus is Coming to Town). But a little known cartoon that has just as much Christmas Cheer is Olive the Other Reindeer, about a precocious pup (played by Drew Berrymore) who mishears Santa on the radio and thinks that Santa needs her to come to the North Pole and pull his sleigh with the reindeer team. Add a mail man villain who hates the holiday season because of the havoc it wreaks on his back, and you’ve got a should-be classic on your hands.

If You’re Looking for Christmas Sequel: The Santa Claus 2 (2002). When I was a kid, I would set up shop on one of the windowsills of my living room and pretend to be one of the elves in the control room of this movie. Santa has to find a wife to keep his job, and ends up going back home and reconnecting with his son. A lot of people don’t like this movie- to them I say, how can you not like a movie that features teenagers using rock-climbing equipment to spray paint the walls of their school gymnasium?

If You’re Looking For Something as Cheerful as You are: Elf (2003). How can you beat the warm smiles of Buddy the Elf? Every line of dialogue in this film is a quote that can be used the whole year long. Will Ferrell is delightful. Zooey Deschanel is blonde! Santa is a little bit grumpy and that’s pretty cool! There’s not a lot to say about Elf other than- you should watch it.

If You’re Looking for A Christmas Carol Adaptation: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). As much of a Christmas fanatic as I am, I do not know Christmas Carol adaptations very well and I am sure there are dozens of classic versions that could be on this list. But my personal favorite version was brought to life by the Jim Henson company. This version has a fantastic soundtrack, a marvelous performance by Michael Caine as Scrooge, and the comforting and warm presence of the Muppets. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a role model for all.

If You’re Looking for Something that Barely Counts: Die Hard (1988) and The Shane Black Christmas Movies (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang [2005] and Iron Man 3 [2013])There are lots of movies that take place at Christmas time, and we can debate whether or not they are Christmas movies later, but sometimes you need something that doesn’t really have anything to do with Christmas to get you through the season. For these, there are perfect action movies that you can use as palate cleansers. Die Hard is a perfect, macho adventure that makes you thankful you’re wearing shoes this Christmas. Shane Black frequently sets his films during Christmastime, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the PERFECT blend of his dark humor and Christmas cheer. And for Marvel Fanatics, Iron Man 3 has the most holiday cheer.

If You’re Looking for Something to Remind you How Wonderful Life is: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). What could me more heartwarming than to watch someone learn that all the sacrifices he made along the way were worth it? We’ve all seen it, and it’s a million years long, but I encourage all of you to take the time this Holiday season to watch this movie. It’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it believes in you. We could all use something genuinely heartwarming at the end of the year.

If None of Those Are Your Style: My personal favorite Christmas Movie is A Christmas Story (1983), but I didn’t want this list to be too-obvious “Camille’s favorite movie” propaganda. Gremlins (1984) is another great holiday movie, with a hint of 80’s campy-scary. Christmas Vacation (1989) can make any holiday mishap look like a breeze. And there are the classics I haven’t personally seen: Home Alone (1990), and Jingle All the Way (1996). 

So, whatever your favorite Christmas movie, have an excellent holiday! And if Christmas isn’t your thing, watch some good movies this December 25th, just because Movies are the Best.