The Invitation

A couple months ago, someone on Stardust asked me who my favorite female filmmaker was. And I had no answer. Sure, I could name ladies who made one or two movies I enjoyed, but I wanted to be able to name someone with a fairly long resume. The obvious answers are Sophia Coppola (respect, but not always my style), Kathryn Bigelow (too obvious and do I really know much about her work?), and Greta Gerwig (too green, also not my style). It killed me that I didn’t have a real answer and I’ve been trying to find one ever since.

A new challenger enters the ring: Karyn Kusama. I first heard her name a few weeks ago when she’d been tapped to direct a new Dracula movie. The main credit being listed in all the news was Jennifer’s Body. Okay, I can get behind this. Within a day or two of this news breaking, I sat mere feet away from her at Alamo Drafthouse when she introduced Near Dark. I even passed her in the hall after, but didn’t really have enough of an opinion on her to poke her for a selfie or pay her a compliment, and the event soon left my mind.

I posted about watching Girlfight the other day, which I really enjoyed. I’d remembered it was the directorial debut of a female director, so I looked her up. Karyn Kusama. Alrighty now, time to audition her as a potential favorite female filmmaker. I looked thru her credits. Destroyer. Also really good, and incidentally another time I stood merely feet away from her (because of that special screening my buddy and I stumbled into). She also made Aeonflux, which I hadn’t cared for at first, but I ordered the DVD to give it a second chance. If nothing else respect for the genre switch. And then there was this film that I saw was available on Netflix: The Invitation.

I don’t typically watch a lot of movies on Netflix, and even now I’m trying to focus on revisiting things on my movie wall. This warranted an exception, and when I saw that Logan Marshall-Green led the cast, it was a done deal.

Marshall-Green and his girlfriend are invited to the home of his ex-wife and her new boyfriend for a dinner party. No one has seen the couple in two years and this invitation is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Something just doesn’t feel right about it, and no one can put their finger on why.

That’s about all I daresay about the plot. It unfolds in a way that makes you question your own sanity. Is there something sinister going on? Is it all in Logan’s head? Surely, everything is okay right? No this can’t possibly be okay? But has anything bad actually happened yet? Is something bad going to happen? It’s a very slow burn, and a mostly satisfying one at that. I didn’t like how the actual story and motives of it played out, but I loved how it did.

Kusama proves herself as a filmmaker and a master of suspense. She uses very subtle foreshadowing to build the tension. Subtle enough to make you question if things mean what you think they mean or if you’re imagining things, and she prolongs it until the last possible moment. It’s unsettling and it’s masterful. I only wish the writing and the why’s behind it all were more satisfying. I will say the final thirty seconds were absolutely delicious (although I saw a few Stardust posts that disagreed with me on that point). So yes, I think we do have a legit contender for my favorite female filmmaker. At least I have someone I can answer now.

Winter’s Bone

This movie is pretty well known for being Jennifer Lawrence’s big break and first Oscar nomination, but I hadn’t realized it was up for a couple others including Best Picture. I’d barely remembered watching it the first time around.

J-Law is a teenager in the Ozarks who is left to take care of her family, including two small children and an ill mother. Without much money to their name, she scrapes by to provide for the household as best as she can. Her criminal father goes missing, and it’s up to her to locate him before his upcoming court date or they can lose their house.

It feels insensitive to refer to this film as fascinating, but it really is eye opening seeing the real struggle some people live through in this very country. Especially watching it during lockdown, where I’m doing relatively okay, seeing what it’s like for those who weren’t even okay to begin with, it’s heartbreaking. It’s a very real side of our society that I had no clue about (even having sorta watched the film before).

It’s no wonder that Jennifer Lawrence caught Hollywood’s attention because she really is fantastic here. Such strength and determination and she carried the film just like her character carries her family. Basically everything you saw in her Katniss, but much more raw and stoic. Yup, her career trajectory makes so much sense now.

Girlfight

When is an underdog sports movie not an underdog sports movie? If it doesn’t have that Hollywood sheen to it, does it count? What if it’s a scrappy little indie? That’s Girlfight. Sure, on the surface it’s about a girl who learns boxing, but it doesn’t hit on any of the cliches that would make it your classic Rocky-esque flick.

Michelle Rodriguez (in what I believe was her debut, but I’m too lazy to confirm) is a high school girl in Brooklyn. Prospects are low, self esteem is low, attitude is high. She begins training as a boxer, which ends up being more of a fight than the fights themselves. Girls don’t box. Girls don’t get trained as boxers. Girls don’t get fights. It doesn’t matter. This is the one thing she has and she’ll fight for it.

There’s no training montage, no dire need to win because a plot device depends on it, no inspirational coach, none of that crap. It’s simply a film about a girl fighting for her place in the world. Boxing happens to be the way she does that, and may hopefully be her ticket out. The film is more about her internal journey, and it’s strong in the way that a well done indie film can be.

Rodriguez is perfect. Yes, her acting ability and career choices may be questionable (which Billy Eichner hilariously illustrated in his “What does Michelle Rodriguez bring to the table” game that I can’t find a YouTube clip of), but this role is what she was born to play. It’s no wonder that she quickly moved up into higher profile roles. She’s got the attitude and determination and strength to carry this film and make us care about her character’s journey. Nothing else she’s ever done has ever compared.

The Station Agent

Remember some time back when I found that video store closing in Boston? And I dropped a couple hundred bucks over the course of a month or so and ended up with the sweetest stack of movies I’ve ever had? This was one of the movies I bought. I knew nothing about it, but saw Peter Dinklage on the cover. Peter Dinklage as a leading man for 2 bucks? Yes please. I watched it back then during my frenzied marathon, and I enjoyed it very much. And then I forgot everything about it. It grabbed my eye a couple times when glimpsing my movie wall for quarantine films, so I finally gave in. Excellent choice.

Dinklage plays a man who lives a solitary, quiet life. He has one friend in the world, whom he works with in a model train store. Trains are his one passion. When that friend dies, he leaves Dinklage some property alongside an old train station outside a tiny town. Dinklage moves in, hoping to continue his uneventful and existence, far from anyone and anything who would bother him. But as hard as he tries to be alone, he keeps bumping into Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Arquette, and other townsfolk who want nothing more than to make a connection and be his friend.

It’s a sweet and positive film, exactly what we need right now. I may not have the positivity rule in full force anymore, but it was a nice follow up to Prisoners earlier that day (yup the rule is out the window). The film is simple, but it’s just different enough to work and work really well. The cast is delightful (Cannavale in particular), and by the end I was wanting to hang out with them too. Especially love seeing Peter Dinklage as a leading man. If I remember right, the role was specifically written for him by a friend. It’s not a particularly showy role, but it’s endearing.

Besides filling the positivity void, it was an interesting one to watch during lockdown. I’ve always thought that I could never survive in a small town. Not the one where I grew up (which isn’t really that small but feels and acts like it) and certainly not the one in this film. I want to have options and things to do. But I’m thriving right now (again, existential dread aside) and may never leave my apartment again. I was happy when work said we’d be remote until tentatively July. I’m enjoying revisiting movies and doing crochet and reconnecting with my old yoga studio. I don’t need people as a whole. I’ve got a small core of friends I’m regularly connecting with weekly, and that’s enough. It’s not that different from the situation here in the film. Limited world that indulges his passion (trains for him, movies for me) and just the right friends to share it with. I never thought that would sound so pleasant.

A Bug’s Life

Cars went so well, I figured I’d dive into some of the other Pixar movies I haven’t seen in a bit. I couldn’t even remember the last time I saw A Bug’s Life, because frankly, I hadn’t cared to. It’s a good kiddie movie, but it’s nowhere near the level we come to expect from Pixar. Granted, it was an early entrant, but there’s a reason it’s not really remembered as fondly as the others.

Do you even remember the plot? A colony of ants have to provide food for some grasshopper bullies in addition to preparing their own store for the winter. It goes wrong, thanks to a well intentioned but clumsy ant named Flick, and now the ants are on the hook for a double quota in a short amount of time. In an attempt to round up some bigger bugs to help fight, he instead ends up with a troop of circus bugs. Maybe they can work together to fight off the grasshoppers?

It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s got a good message. But why doesn’t it live up to Pixar standards? There’s a joke about Pixar films and the ideas that inspire them: What if toys had feelings? What if cars had feelings? What if feelings had feelings?! These bugs have feelings, sure, but they don’t have FEELINGS like you typically get from this studio. The emotional aspect just isn’t that strong. It doesn’t bombard you with nostalgia or higher level truths about humanity. It’s just a nice and pleasant moral. Perfectly fine (and welcome!) in a kids film, but it was quickly surpassed by the bigger and better that would come from this beloved studio.

Oh and remember how Cars made me nostalgic for Disneyland and Carsland? A Bug’s Land recently closed. I don’t really miss it. Heimlech’s Chew Chew train was cute, but I only liked it for the cookie smell. I’d ride the Francis spinny mini teacup thing fairly often if I’d get over there too early for my Guardians of the Galaxy fast pass next door. I’ve ridden every single kiddie ride at Disneyland, and the only time I ever got any judgement from the ride attendant (ahem, cast member) was when I went on Flick’s Flyers (which has now been reskinned and moved to Pixar Pier as the Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind).

Anyways, my point being, I didn’t feel as nostalgic for that part of the park. Totally the right call that they’ve squished it so they can build up Avengers Campus instead.

3:10 to Yuma

I don’t like Westerns. I know I usually make the sweeping generalization that romances are the only genre I don’t like, but I also don’t care for Westerns. War movies are usually misses for me too. But as far as Westerns go, I’ve seen a varied sample of them and just couldn’t get into most of them. Genre mashup westerns, fine, but straight up cowboys and gunmen and tumbleweeds don’t do it for me. 3:10 to Yuma is the exception that proves the rule.

I’ve always held it in my head as the one western I liked. I’d only bothered with it in theaters because I was a HUGE Christian Bale fan (I still am, but it waned post Batman when he lost some of his obscure indie roots). Also a huge fan of Ben Foster. Enough love for both of them to balance out how much I didn’t like Russell Crowe at the time (I’m okay on him now, but he’s not a favorite).

I put it in the lockdown watch pile because it’s easily been over a decade since I last saw it, and I wanted to find out if this was still the one western I like. And why was it that this was it?

It took me a little while to get into it. I felt the familiar waning attention that these type of films typically bring on. But slowly I got pulled in. Bale is a rancher falling on hard times, made harder by his injury acquired in the war. He takes up an opportunity to provide for his family by agreeing to escort the baddest criminal in the west (Crowe) to the train that would transport him to prison. Foster and the rest of the posse of baddies are on their trail.

Bale’s character is one of those rare genuinely good people that you truly believe in and root for. He’s one part of why I care about this movie. He’s so steadfast in his morality, you want him to succeed. You want to see such conviction pay off. On the flip side, the other standout was Ben Foster. This is one of his best performances, up there with The Messenger and Hell or High Water. His Charlie Prince should be remembered among the greatest villains on film. A complete opposite and perfect foil to Bale, no moral code, no mercy, just a fierce loyalty and sense of his own justice.

The ending blew me away. No spoilers, but it was edge of your seat and tied up the competing ideals perfectly. One of the most powerful conclusions I’ve experienced among the myriad of films I’ve watched in this past month of lockdown.

So yes, this still stands as the one Western that not only do I like, I absolutely love

Mission To Mars

I owe more to my life path to Jerry O’Connell than I realize. In my effort to upgrade all my VHS tapes to DVD’s, I grabbed this one the other day. It was a favorite back in high school. One of the main reasons I watched it in the first place was that I was a huge fan of Jerry O’Connell, because of his role in Sliders. Sliders was my absolute favorite show for a very long time (I’ve actually been rewatching it recently as work background noise). That was my first big intro to sci-fi, a genre I’d mostly ignored up until that point, and couldn’t get enough of after.

So why was Jerry responsible for where I ended up? It’s because of movies like Mission to Mars that I wanted to go into aerospace engineering, which is why I went to MIT and where the big ball of destiny started rolling for me. Even if I didn’t actually end up in aero/astro. The dream job during that period was to work on Mission Control for NASA. Movies like this one suggested that maybe space itself wasn’t the safest place, but there were still ways I could be a part of it.

It’s easily well over a decade since I’ve seen this. So much of it came rushing back as I was watching. Lines of dialog I’d long forgotten rolled off my tongue in sync with the actors. That old crush on Jerry came back too, esp since his Phil was quite the science nerd (*swoon*). It’s a pretty formulaic everything-is-going-wrong space exploration movie, but as with most subgenres, the one you discover first tends to be the one you hold dearest.

So dear in fact that I forgot one key issue with the film: the ending is absolutely terrible. It makes no sense whatsoever and tries to make this whole epic statement that’s really just dumb. I get that’s the one thing that’s meant to differentiate it from the other films in the subgenre, but I’ll take the generic that’s only accentuated by good characters. Because I do like them (the cast also includes Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, and Don Cheadle). I guess it doesn’t really matter. Now that we have The Martian, there’s really no need to ever watch any other movie about Mars ever again.

Cars

As of writing, it’s been 70 days since my last trip to Disneyland. I typically go once or twice a month. I was there for the President’s Day long weekend. I should have gone at the end of February for Single Rider’s Day, but when the day came, I wasn’t feeling it. I wanted more couch time, which is what I refer to my introvert recharging time at home with nothing but movies, crochet, and cats (little did I know, although I am relishing the copious amounts I’m receiving). A week or two later a friend wanted to go for their birthday, but it was on an otherwise busy weekend, so I made alternate plans with him instead. Besides, March was wide open. I’d get in one last trip or two.

The birthday event ended up getting cancelled, but some friends went to hang out anyways. I got serious FOMO watching their Insta. But it was okay. I was planning to go the following weekend. Rumors were starting to circle about things closing due to the Coronavirus, but at first Disneyland was exempt from some of those initial regs. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea, but I did wanna get one last trip in. I’d also been thinking it might finally be time to wake up early and try to get in the queue for Rise of the Resistance. So that was the plan. Go for Rise, and stay just as long as it took to get on there. The only other things I needed to do were buy a birthday present for a family friend and check out the Food and Wine Fest. By the time we got to Thursday of that week, things were starting to shut down. Word came in later that day that starting Saturday, Disney would be closed. Well shit.

I was bummed about not getting in that last trip (esp since I’m apparently the only one who hasn’t gone on Rise yet) but I was fine. I haven’t really missed the place. Maybe it’s cause I don’t miss the $100+ a month payment, plus how much I spend while there. Or at least I hadn’t missed it until I watched Cars the other day.

I mentioned in a previous post that the wrong movie can put me in the wrong mood. I’d made a few wrong choices in a row, so I had to bring in the big guns: Disney. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw Cars, so that made it a good choice for the day. Mood lifted, but with a bittersweetness to it.

This is a movie that never should have worked. The characters are all Cars? How exactly does that work? We’re supposed to form an emotional bond with a motor and wheels? Leave it to Pixar. The cars are absolutely adorable characters, due in no small part to their fantastic voice cast (Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, and a vast array of others). What should be a simple story (a racecar gets stuck in a small town and has to learn some humility before returning in time for the big race) is packed with more heart than can fit on all of Route 66.

The animation is also beautiful. Gorgeous desert views with cute automotive gags. That’s where the bittersweet started to come in. Carsland takes up a big footprint at Disney California Adventure. It’s made to really feel like you’re in the movie. But it had been so long since I’d seen the movie, that Radiator Springs is now associated with the park more than the film. Watching the movie now, it felt like I was at Disneyland. All the shops were in the right place, with the right details. I felt like I was walking those streets more than I have with any other movie. And that made me really miss the Mouse in a way I hadn’t yet (in a way that I really haven’t missed too much yet).

There’s another layer to the bittersweet for me. One car, Doc Hudson, is voiced by Paul Newman. I associate Newman with Cool Hand Luke, which I associate with my Daddy (he never said as much, but I’m pretty sure it was his favorite movie) so therefore I associate Newman with my Daddy. Especially since Doc takes on a mentor role with Lightning McQueen, it brought back a lot of the Dad feels. But as with all Pixar emotions, it’s an uplifting kind of nostalgic feel. I wasn’t dragged down by it, but able to acknowledge that yes things might not be great, but there’s pockets of light and hope. That’s the magic of Disney.

JFK

I’m trying to spread out my weekly chores between my three days of weekend I now have, hoping to spend the entire afternoon and evening just watching movies on the couch (with a yoga or walk break in between). Last Sunday, I finished off my list pretty early, and had ample time to make my way thru the stack of movies I’d pulled. One movie I pulled was 3.5 hours long. It seemed like a good time.

I’d watched this once before but didn’t pay attention. Those are the types of movies that I’m trying to tackle in lockdown. But I discovered something this weekend. While there’ve been a few of those that have been gems to revisit, there’s others that I zoned out on for a reason. Movies have been what’s keeping me going without even feeling like I’ve been cooped up for over a month. But if I’m watching a boring movie, that’s when I start to feel it.

This movie’s not about what you think it’s about. Well okay, it’s just high enough in the movie pantheon that you prolly know what it’s about. But it’s not quite to the level of movie royalty, so maybe not. Yes it’s about JFK, but not really. He’s only seen in stock video. The film is about the investigation into the cover up conspiracy around his death, led by Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison.

This film is dense. So much information being thrown at you non stop. I was watching the director’s cut no less, so even more info flying at you. Here’s the thing though. It’s all information coming to the same conclusion, with only slight variations in it. You don’t need to watch more than a few minutes to know what their point is. But if you stick thru the whole thing, it’ll get hammered home so dang many times.

I would categorize this as a prestige picture. High Rotten Tomatoes ranking, some awards love, and INSANE cast (most of whom are just there to be able to say “hey look, that person’s in this”). But to me it’s one of those pretentious prestige pictures. It’s trying to feel like it’s so important, and I don’t think it really backs itself up well enough. It’s good, but it’s a slog.

As I alluded to earlier in the post, I did have trouble getting into it. And suddenly the crochet that had been so interesting was also now boring to me. It was early afternoon on Sun and I was officially bored. For one of the first times in this month of quarantine. But a couple hours later, I was watching something I did enjoy, finishing up the same crochet doll, and I was content again. I was happy to tackle my movie stack. So while I did want to make sure I completed this movie, I’m giving myself permission to give up on any others I’m just not that into. Life’s too short to watch boring movies, especially when movies are all I got right now

Roar

I really am enjoying this solitary life at home (while fully acknowledging that the circumstances suck and the existential dread is real). I’m settled into a routine full of movies and yoga and cats and crochet and work I guess. I see my friends for our weekly trivia game and keep in touch on socials. The only thing I’m really bummed I’m missing out on is going to the movies, Alamo Drafthouse in particular. We’ve already passed all the Alamo events I had tickets for, and I’m sure there are others I’d have squeezed in by now. That’s really the one void I’m feeling.

Enter Alamo At Home. They’ve set up a way to access VOD content that supports the theater and their causes, and has lots of their little touches. A lot of it is kinda obscure content, but one thing they’re doing is trying to keep up with their Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays (which was a lot of obscure content to begin with). I don’t typically like VOD content (the Roku at least took care of being able to watch on tv, but if I’m gonna pay I’d prefer either a theater or a physical copy I can keep) so I was holding out for a title I was really interested in. In the wake of all the Tiger King hype, Alamo offered a Weird Wednesday that fit right in: Roar.

This movie had actually been on my radar for some time. I’d seen a trailer for it at one of the indie theaters in Boston I occasionally visited. What stuck with me was the tagline: No animals were harmed in the making of this film, but over 70 members of the cast and crew were. Color me intrigued. Not sure why I couldn’t go to the screening then, but I’ve kept an eye out for it since. I gladly paid my ten bucks and hooked up Vimeo to my Roku and sat down on the couch with my own little cats nearby.

Before getting into the movie itself, one regret is that I didn’t take full advantage of turning this into a total Drafthouse experience. Not just because I haven’t made the buffalo cauliflower yet, but because I didn’t notice the bonus content until after I watched the film. I had a vague memory that they’d mentioned a filmmaker Q&A, but I wasn’t too interested (although I did end up playing it in the background for a bit while writing this up). What I didn’t know was that it also included a filmmaker intro and, even better, a preshow!

I love the preshows at Alamo. They’re a big part of why I get there early (well that and not wanting to be denied entry) and I don’t even mind sitting thru the trailers because I know I’ll see some weird and funny stuff first that goes with the feature. The preshow package didn’t disappoint AND it even included trailers for their upcoming at homes AND one of their No Talking/Texting PSA’s that of course was appropriately chosen to fit the film. I wish I had known to play that on my screen before the movie cause I’d have been in a better mood for it. Turns out, the movie itself wasn’t worth all I’d hyped it up to be over the past few years.

Right what exactly is this movie anyway? Where do I even begin. Actress Tippi Hedren (yes, from The Birds) and her then husband Noel Marshall were inspired by a house they saw in Africa that was overrun by lions to build a movie around that. And they’d make it a familiar affair, using themselves and their children (including Melanie Griffith) as the cast. They spent the next few years acquiring a multitude of lions, a few tigers, and some other assorted wildlife. Oh this isn’t even the movie yet, this is just the backstory. As you can imagine with untrained wildlife, there were many um setbacks and injuries and delays that plagued this film that would come to be known as the most expensive home movie ever made, and one of the most dangerous films as well.

The movie itself doesn’t really have a whole lot of plot. Dude lives in a big house with big cats. His family is coming to visit. There’s a miscommunication and they end up there alone. And the cats have their way.

Basically what they did was just let the cats run around the set and play with the actors and they filmed it. It’s billed as an “adventure, comedy, thriller”. Not sure where the comedy is, but it mostly plays out like a thriller as the family is running for their lives. Again, the animals were untrained, so they basically did what they wanted. A lot of the attacks that are seen on screen are real. Pretty much every person involved had some type of major injury as a result.

The thing is, the story of the film is far better than the film itself. Because there’s no plot or real direction to it, it’s hard to stick with. It basically feels like watching a car crash. You’re not necessarily enjoying it, but you can’t look away because you know something insane is going to happen. It’s just so bizarre and a perfect Weird Wednesday choice.

I’m glad I got to finally see it and satisfy that curiosity, but I don’t know how worthwhile it is to actually watch it. The story around it is so much better than anything that actually happens in the film itself. It can’t help but be a bit of a letdown.