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Archive for the ‘Movie Recommendations’ Category

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show (circa 1973), you may want to watch it before you read further as I will definitely be discussing plots points. Read on at your own risk.

 

I recently ran across two versions of that cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that I thought I would share with you. The first is a “re-imagining” (you can say “re-make”, I know I do) of the film starring Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank N. Furter. As a transgender woman, Cox brings a refreshing, feminine energy to the part. If Tim Curry has the moves like Jagger, then Cox has the moves like James Brown and Tina Turner. The made-for-TV 2016 version is also tighter paced and emphasizes the rock ‘n roll roots of the original.

While there is no shortage of name talent in the show, I’d like to single out relative newcomer Staz Nair for his portrayal of Rocky. Although Nair has songs and some speaking lines, it’s his nonverbal body language and facial expressions that make the show. Nair invests Rocky with both great comic timing and a touching sensitivity.

The casting of Cox as a more feminine Frank does change the subtext of the story somewhat. In the original, the big reveal was straight-laced Brad’s latent homosexuality. In this new version, Janet’s dalliance with Cox and then with Rocky (the Creature) confirms her bi-sexuality. Frank’s jealous rage at Janet after her affair with Rocky has definite “lesbians in bondage” undertones.

In the 1973 film, Frank’s death at Riff-Raff’s hands is justified by Dr. Scott as protecting society–although what society is being protected from is never clear. Is it sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll? Kids from Transylvania and their loud music? Fishnet stockings? In the 2016 version, Frank’s execution seems to be a reference to the high levels of violence directed against transgender men and women.

While the 1973 film is probably the version of Rocky Horror that most people are familiar with, the show was originally a stage production. As a theatrical show, it is still performed all around the world with many different actors assaying the role of Frank and the other characters.

The following (bless you, YouTube) is a 2015 London stage production of Rocky Horror done as a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Stephen Frye is one of the guest narrators as is the musical’s author/composer, Richard O’Brien.

If you’re familiar with Rocky Horror, you know that audience interaction is encouraged and that there are set things for the audience to call out at various points during the movie. In a live show that tradition continues and the audiences sometimes levels up by shouting out new things to the actors which occasionally plays havoc with their composure.

David Bedella plays Frank in this production and brings a wicked charm to the part that’s a lot of fun to watch. If you’re wondering (as I did) who Bedella is and why you haven’t heard of this awesome actor before, the short answer is that Bedella is an American making his name across the pond in the London musical scene. In 2004, he won an Olivier award (the British equivalent of the Tonys) for his role in Jerry Springer: The Opera. As he was filming this version of Rocky Horror, Bedella was also in rehearsals for In The Heights for which he won a second Olivier for Best Supporting Actor (2016).

Verdict: Watch both versions and enjoy!

 

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ghostbusters-ii

“We just gave a ghost a nuke. We should probably run.”

                                                                            –Abby (Ghostbusters 2016)

I have shamefully neglected this blog, friends, but I’m back now and ready to rumble.

Just spent an excellent couple of hours watching two really great sf/f movies with surprisingly feminist subtexts. Be forewarned: plot developments are discussed so if YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS, READ NO FURTHER.

First up is the new Ghostbusters movie which is probably most famous for receiving a large amount of misogynist and racist hate mail before and after its release. Having watched it, all I can say is that the haters must be evil spirits who want to wreak havoc upon the earth because this is a great movie and easily three times better than the original which was, let’s face it, a raunchy ’80s locker room comedy.

In this version, the focus is on the relationship between two estranged former friends–physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and paranormal investigator Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Erin is on the verge of her tenure review at Columbia when she is drawn back into Abby’s world of paranormal investigation by a desperate curator of a haunted mansion and a whole lot of ectoplasm. Out of work and on their own, Erin and her team must race against time to find out who or what is triggering a city-wide outbreak of ghostly activity. Kate McKinnon steals many scenes with her cool-yet-crazy turn as team engineer Holtzmann while Leslie Jones is local historian/subway worker-turned-ghostbuster Patty. Sprinkled through the movie are lots of great shoutouts to the first movie as well as cameos by the original cast.

What intrigued me the most, though, is the feminist thread that runs throughout the storyline. For example, a number of critics found the character of Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the handsome yet thick-as-a-plank receptionist to be unrealistic. I, on the other hand, found it completely realistic. Kevin is the type of lousy assistant that the Ghostbusters team has to tolerate because as women they don’t have the leverage to hire someone better. I flashed immediately to two male student assistants I was once asked to find work for. Both of them bungled the simple jobs they were asked to do and both seemed to resent being corrected or given orders by women. Needless to say, I got rid of them as soon as I could.

Throughout the film, the Ghostbusters team receives constant flack because they are female with pretty much every sector of society questioning their competence, their honesty, and their sanity. As Abby puts it, “we get dumped on all the time.”  One of the underlying themes of Paul Feig’s movies is the power of female friendships and this is what the team relies on to get them through, save the day, and New York City.

 

alice-through-the-looking-glass

“You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it.”

                                             —Time Himself (Through the Looking Glass)

Next up is Alice Through the Look Glass, another sequel that has unfairly received negative reviews. Again, I can’t understand it because this film is a beautiful, touching allegory. Bring your tissues because unless you have a clockwork heart, you will tear up.

When we last saw Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) at the end of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, she was sailing away on trading vessel bound for China, having chosen a life as a Company apprentice over marriage to the pompous Hamish. As Through the Looking Glass opens, three years later, we see Alice, now the captain of her father’s ship, returning triumphant to England.

But there’s no cheering crowd and congratulations for young Captain Kingsleigh. On the contrary, there’s trouble from every corner.  In the interval, old Lord Ascot, Alice’s father’s friend, has died and has been succeeded by the unpleasant Hamish who is out to exact vengeance on Alice for refusing him. Hamish has extorted Alice’s company shares from her mother, Helen Kingsleigh (Lindsay Duncan), and is now threatening to take the Kingsleigh family home unless Helen and Alice sign over her father’s ship.

Alice also receives a summons back to Wonderland where the Hatter’s wits seem to have finally turned: he insists that his family, the Hightop clan, is still alive despite them having all perished in the Red Queen’s coup. To save him, Alice must confront Time Himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and travel back into the past. In doing so, we learn more about both the Hatter’s family and the relationship between the sister queens, Mirana and Iracebeth.

Through the Looking Glass also has a feminist thread running throughout its storyline. Again and again, Alice must assert herself against the obstacles both English and Wonderland society put in her way in order to do the right thing and to live her life freely. Alice, closer to her idealistic, unconventional father, has always clashed with her more traditional mother, Helen. Without giving too much away, it’s a pleasure to see these two start to learn from and respect other.

 

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“We’re pandas. We don’t do stairs.” –Li, Po’s father, summoning an elevator

“I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear those words.” –Po

 

Me, too, Po, me, too. I’m also borrowing “panda asthma” as an excuse every time I have to catch my breath at the top of a flight of stairs.

Kung Fu Panda 3 continues the story of Po, the kung fu fanboy turned Dragon Warrior. Po is comfortable in his role as the village hero and fighting bad guys with his friends, the Furious Five, but Master Shifu feels that it is time for him to move to the next level and become a teacher himself. In order to do that, Po must learn the ways of the Force …er…master chi, the life force that flows through everything.

Complicating things is the return of two people long thought dead–Li, Po’s biological father, and Kai, a warlord returned from the Spirit Realm, bent on re-creating his former glory. We also learn a surprising amount about Master Oogway’s backstory including what set him on a path from warrior to monk.

The secondary plot concerns the competition between Po’s two dads–his panda father, Li, and his goose father, Ping–for Po’s affections. Ping, his adoptive father, is understandably worried when Li takes Po back to a hidden panda village (Pangri-La, perhaps?) to rediscover his pandahood.

The animation throughout the film is utterly exquisite. The movie is worth seeing just for the quality of the artwork alone. As a film, Kung Fu Panda 3 is closer in tone to the first movie of the series.

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Inside Llewyn Davis is much less plot driven than other Coen Brothers movies. Essentially a slice-of-life film, the movie follows struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he tries to make it as professional musician in New York circa 1961. A good singer and guitar player, Llewyn’s inability to catch a break is partly the fault of the decisions he makes and is partly the fault of Fate.

I first became aware of Oscar Isaac as an actor when he was cast as Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and I marked him then as an actor to watch. Since then, Isaac has gone from strong performance to strong performance, usually playing dark, brooding characters. Here Isaac is supported by an outstanding cast including Carey Mulligan as his lover, Jean, an unrecognizable Justin Timberlake as Jean’s husband, Jim,  and Force Awakens co-star, Adam Driver, as Al Cody, another aspiring folk singer. A special shout out to actor Stark Sands for his portrayal of G.I. Troy Nelson. Sands doesn’t seem to be playing Nelson as much as he seems to have time-traveled to the set from the 1960s.

If you enjoy the music heard in the film, you may be interested in Another Time, Another Place, a folk music concert put together by the film’s music producer, T Bone Burnett. Sadly, the concert doesn’t include my favorite song from the movie, “Please Mr. Kennedy (Don’t Shoot Me into Outer Space)”, a parody of ’60s novelty songs written especially for the film.

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Let’s cut directly to the chase: I found “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to be good, but not great. The storytelling seemed somewhat choppy and the whole film came off as underdeveloped–as if it was an outline of the action rather than a fully fleshed out story. That being said, there were enough potential interesting story directions to keep me thinking about the film for days afterwards.

What I liked:

  • Daisy Ridley as Rey. Ridley is both charismatic and compelling in the role of Rey, the young scavenger who finds herself caught up in the fight between the Republic and the First Order.
  • The graveyard of warships on Jakku.
  • The rendering of the inside of the wrecked ship that Rey explores.
  • Humanizing the Storm Troopers and turning them into Janissaries (the slave soldiers of the Ottoman Empire).
  • Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. Isaac is a gifted enough actor to give a lot of depth to his character.
  • Harrison Ford as Han Solo. The older Han, kicked around by life, is still one of the most interesting characters in the film.
  • BB-8. I realize that he’s just an R2-D2 knockoff, but for something that’s essentially just two rolling balls with no English dialogue, you really become attached to the character.

What I disliked:

  • The potential storylines that weren’t followed up on. The film only hints at Leia and Han’s tragic history and I would have liked to have seen that more developed.
  • The constant parade of brilliant actors who are being given next to nothing to do. Case in point, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).
  • Painting the antagonists as bad and the protagonists as good without any nuancing or shading. There has to be something compelling about the First Order that makes people join up and stay with the organization. What is it and what is the Republic not offering?
  • The lily-whiteness of the casting which is disturbing in this day and age. Tokenism isn’t progress, folks. All of the aliens seem to be in bars, very few seem to be either part of the First Order or the Republic Forces, and Finn seems to be the only black man in the galaxy.
  • The guys-only feel of the whole cast which again is disturbing in this day and age. What, they couldn’t have cast half the Republic pilots as women? And what’s wrong with making General Hux female? Or Poe Dameron?  I counted only four named female characters out of the entire cast and three of them–Leia, Maz, and Phasma–were in supporting roles. In many ways, Abrams’ interest in harking back to the original film also means harking back to outdated gender and racial constructs.
  • General failure to explore the “civil war” aspects of the story. Inherently, the Star Wars films are about the breakup of the old Republic into two groups who then conduct a wide-ranging war against one another. Civil wars are always messy, pitting friends and family members against one another, but the only family that seems to be affected by this dynamic is the Skywalkers.
  • Speaking of the Skywalkers, when are they going to be outed as enemies of the state? From Anakin on down, no member of that family seems to be able to have a personal crisis without wreaking destruction throughout the galaxy. Okay, okay, I realize that particular plot development isn’t going to happen, but couldn’t one of the other characters at least allude to it?
  • Princess Leia’s costumes. C’mon, guys, just because Carrie Fisher is an older actress doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have a flattering costume and hairstyle. The uniform and braids aren’t bad, but the dress and bun she wears at the end of the film are far too matronly for her.

All that being said, I’m looking forward to the next Star Wars film and seeing where Abrams is intent on taking the story.

 

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high-rise-poster

In High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into an apartment in a new, ’70s style apartment complex which looks rather like a gigantic heating vent, one of five such structures built around a lake. The architect of the ghastly concrete buildings, Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons), explains that structures are supposed to be fingers with the lake as the palm of a giant hand. The metaphor is meant to suggest that humanity is resting in the Hand of God, but, as the society within the tower devolves into anarchy, you can’t help but wonder if humanity isn’t being crushed by the Hand of Technology.

One of the questions I asked myself as a viewer is “why don’t the residents simply leave when things start to get bad?” I think that the answer must lie in author J.G. Ballard’s experiences as a young man. As a boy, Ballard was interned along with his family in a Japanese prison-of-war camp after the invasion of Shanghai in World War II. The surreality of the war zone and the sudden collapse of a well-ordered society is a recurring motif throughout his fiction.

Viewed through that prism, the high-rise of the title is a prison camp, one that people are confined to by society. Like prisoners, they can leave to work, but they return to their cells every night. Their lives are dominated by the dysfunctional realities of the camp. In the movie, it’s not clear why basic services begin to break down, but as they do, the prisoners are not able (or willing) to take any effective action to resolve the situation. The residents break into factions who then war against one another.

If there are any heroes in this picture, it is the women, perhaps because as women, they are not part of the power structure. It is the women who band together to take care of the children and help each other. By contrast, the men are either fending for themselves or conducting various acts of violence.

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