What is this blog all about?

Thanks for visiting! Of the tens of thousands of movie and TV choices that are available, how do you discover those gems worthy of your attention? That’s a great question.

I don’t know if there’s an easy answer. One thing I’ve noticed is that if you look at the message boards on the Internet Movie Database, for any given movie, there will be a post declaring that the movie in question is, ‘the worst movie ever’. For the same movie, there will also be a post declaring that the movie is someone’s all-time favourite. Maybe they are both right.

I think that one of the best things a movie viewer can be equipped with is a sense of adventure. Part of that is the willingness to take a chance on something that is unknown. That is the only way to discover something new.

My aim here is to document some of the movies and TV shows that have left an indelible impression on me for reasons that I’ll attempt to describe. Should you decide to explore some of these choices for yourself, I’m hoping that the experience will be an adventure, even if you think it’s ‘the worst movie ever’. You may even find a new favourite movie.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Black Christmas

When Halloween arrives each year, the first movie that springs to mind is John Carpenter’s all-time classic ‘Halloween’. There’s a good reason for this: it’s one of the best horror movies ever made, and stands up wonderfully to repeat viewings. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and it never fails to impress by spellbinding me with its unique feel and atmosphere. 
If you haven’t seen it...by all means, do it! It’s one of the staples of cinema, not just horror cinema. Perhaps I’ll do a full review in the future. It’s absolutely deserving of one, even though a lot has been written about it already.
The subject of this recommendation, however, is a lesser-known gem, the 1974 Canadian movie, ‘Black Christmas’. Like ‘Halloween’, it’s also one of the best horror movies ever made.
Right from the opening titles, ‘Black Christmas’ paints an ominous, unrelenting atmosphere that never lets up until the credits roll...and even after that (perhaps especially after that!) it never really lets the audience off the hook. Even during the movie’s lighter moments of comic relief, the foreboding atmosphere never lets up, always surrounding the viewer with a level of persistence that’s rarely felt in the horror genre.
The movie eschews gore almost entirely in favour of suspense and atmosphere, and many details about the movie’s characters and plot deliberately remain a little opaque. For example, the villian terrorises his victims through (sometimes very obscene) phone calls and switches between various persona. By piecing together the dialogue in the phone calls, the audience can form their own ideas about the killer’s history and background, however nothing concrete is ever spelled out. Visually, the same holds true: the audience never sees the killer, although careful viewers will catch a glimpse of something lurking in the shadows occasionally, somewhere in the background. 
This strategy is very effective because it gives the audience an entire story that they can virtually create for themselves; something they can imagine and churn over in their own minds. 37 years later, audiences are still discussing the possible identity, characteristics and motivation of the killer.
If the killer is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, then so too are the major characters in the story of ‘Black Christmas’. There’s a wonderful moment during which the main potential victim withholds vital information when questioned by the police that may end up jeopardising her own survival. This is exactly the kind of gripping story element missing from almost every horror movie, yet is a great example of why ‘Black Christmas’ endures as a classic.
There’s one scene in particular which is directed, photographed and edited with superb precision and economy. Describing it in detail would spoil one of the movie’s great pleasures, so I won’t do that, however, it’s the scene in which a character is searching for a cat and decides to check the attic. That’s all I’m going to say about it, apart from stating my opinion that any other way that this scene could possibly have been staged would be categorically less brilliant than what we get to experience here.
Finally, the ending of the movie is sheer perfection. It is courageous, spine-tingling and just downright creepy. It leaves me speechless and its effect is devastating each time I experience it. There are very few movies made that exhibit this level of confidence in themselves, that truly have the cojones to risk everything and give the audience this kind of ending, but the ones that do are the ones much more likely to last in the mind of the audience and truly stand the test of time.
Has ‘Black Christmas’ made an impression on you? If so, please leave me a comment below.

Friday, October 7, 2011


I enjoy seeing many movies a second or third time, because subsequent viewings often reveal details that I may have missed previously. There are also a handful of movies that I have revisited dozens of times, simply because I love them so much.
‘Dreamscape’ is one such movie. I watched it again today, and it continues to make me smile. I was delighted to have caught a fantastic joke for the first time that for some reason has eluded me until today’s viewing. I’m not sure how I missed it until now, but noticing it today reinforced my opinion of what a great sense of humour this movie has.
Not that it’s a comedy. It’s a mash-up of a whole slew of genres, however it is predominantly a science fiction piece. However, it also contains political/psychological thriller elements, as well as horror and a bit of action/adventure, and there’s even a romance angle for good measure.
I feel that the movie’s balancing of all these genres is one reason that it’s such a pleasure to watch, but what really makes it worth returning to for me time and again is the lightness of touch it has. It’s not just the dialogue which is funny - and it is funny - but it’s the fact that the entire movie successfully treads that fine line between being too silly on one hand and too serious on the other: it finds exactly the right tone for each scene to make the entire movie convincing and that’s a big part of what makes ‘Dreamscape’ the cult gem that it is.
There are many movies that I see today - such as the similar-in-concept ‘Inception’ - that are arguably fantastic, but they have a tendency to be overly serious in tone to me. I suspect that the filmmakers are weary of their movies seeming silly to their audience, so they go too far in the opposite direction in an effort to avoid any possibility of the movie seeming slight. This tactic may succeed therein, but I posit that in so doing, they are also robbing their movie of life. Jokes and humour are vital to...anything, in my opinion. Even Shakespearean plays and movies by Ingmar Bergman feature comic moments, so if it’s OK for the Bard and the Swedish master auteur to be funny, I’d be willing to say that a dash of humour probably won’t spoil your superhero movie or 80’s horror remake. ‘Dreamscape’, in my opinion, gets this aspect just about perfect and reminds us why taking the trouble to find this precarious balance is so important.
I love Maurice Jarre’s score for this movie, especially the main theme for saxophone. One of my favourite scenes in the movie has the main character Alex Gardner (played by Dennis Quaid) checking his answering machine messages after arriving home. As the messages play, he picks up his saxophone and plays the movie’s main theme. One message says, ‘Alex, this is Maggie. I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to talk to you - we’re through!’. The very next message says, ‘Alex, it’s Maggie...call me’.
The visuals are really impressive throughout ‘Dreamscape’, especially in terms of the use of colour and the stunning set design. There’s one dream sequence involving a child’s nightmare that always springs to mind when I think of this movie. The sets for this sequence use window frames and door frames with odd angles and there’s a seemingly endless, rickety staircase that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dr. Suess book or an early German expressionist film. The final showdown dream sequence is bathed in dark red and deep shadows which lends the climactic scene an urgent, dangerous feel.
Finally, ‘Dreamscape’ is a rare, successful fusion of several genres with a unique mood, atmosphere and feel. There’s really nothing else like it! Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Get Over It

‘Get Over It’ represents a big change of pace from my last two recommendations. It couldn’t be more different to ‘Welcome To The Rileys’ but I think it’s possible to enjoy both for different reasons. I’ve mentioned and encouraged the idea of being adventurous with movies and TV shows before, and I believe that a large component of this philosophy is the willingness to consider all types and genres. Sometimes I have to work hard to overcome my own movie genre bigotry, but if I uncover a gem in the process then the effort proves its worth.

So, what is ‘Get Over It’? It’s an modern update of Shakespeare’s, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ much in the same vein as the excellent ’10 Things I Hate About You’ and ‘She’s All That’. Those movies are justifiably well-known and well-loved. ‘Get Over It’, however, remains relatively obscure for reasons that I haven’t been able to grasp. Whenever I play it in the store, I feel like John Cusack’s character in ‘High Fidelity’: people will ask what’s playing and then almost certainly enjoy watching it when they get it home. This blog post will hopefully get the word out to at least 3 more people.
There’s something crucial to keep in mind when you’re about to embark on a viewing of ‘Get Over It’: it’s silly. In fact, it’s very silly. It’s important to set your expectations accordingly. This isn’t Shakespeare we’re talking about.
I think what makes this movie work for me is its unrelenting enthusiasm and positivity. It may be one of the most upbeat movies I’ve ever seen, and there’s a sense of innocence and purity to it, almost as though it were made in another era. By the time the end credits have rolled, you will have a huge smile on your face and a bounce in your step. Either that, or you’ve walked out halfway. There is no third option.
There are a couple of outstanding elements that come to mind when I think about ‘Get Over It’. One of them is the opening credit sequence. No discussion about this movie would be complete without mentioning it. After Berke Landers (played by Ben Foster) has been unceremoniously dumped by his longstanding girlfriend she literally sends him packing, marching him out her front door with nothing but a cardboard box (‘I’ve packed up most of your stuff...I thought it would be easier’). As he slowly shuffles away from her house, musicians emerge from her garage and follow him, singing along to Captain & Tenille’s song, ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’. As he continues to saunter down the street, he is followed by an ever-increasing number of dancers who join in on the parade, as if to torment his state of mind all the more. The truly impressive part is that all this is done within just one shot, with no editing at all - a truly virtuosic feat! It’s exactly this level of surrealism and insanity that imbues the entire movie.
The other thing that immediately springs to mind when thinking about this movie for me is the character played by Martin Short, Dr. Desmond Forrest Oates. He’s the high school drama director, and he’s one of those types who’s haughtiness is surpassed only by his lack of any genuine talent. Martin Short absolutely has a field day with this and portrays him masterfully with total maniacal glee. Speaking of ‘Glee’, if you took the worst aspects of the character of Sue Sylvester from that stupendous TV show and combined them with the ineptitude of Corky St. Clair from the masterpiece ‘Waiting For Guffman’ then you have something resembling Dr. Desmond Forrest Oates. He is truly a wonderful creation.
To sum up, this movie is an unstoppable force of nature that doesn’t know that ’11’ is the highest number that something can be turned up to and instead goes all the way to ’12’. I invite you to join the party and add your comments below.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Welcome To The Rileys

Sometimes so much can be said with so little, and ‘Welcome To The Rileys’ is a case in point. This movie demonstrates that powerful dramas can be made by paring back that which isn’t absolutely necessary. 
There are great paintings that feature a single brushstroke. So why have two? The second is not only superfluous to the painting’s success, but may actually detract from it and make it less powerful. 
Everything about ‘Welcome To The Rileys’ embraces this philosophy. The opening shot of the movie is a static shot of a burning car. A car accident complete with all the carnage could have been chosen instead, but the single shot of a burning car gets the point across with elegance and economy. 
The tone and feel of this movie reminded me a little of an early Wim Wenders movie, ‘Alice In the Cities’, which is high praise. It shares that film’s leisurely yet focused pace and attention to detail.
There’s one sequence that stands out as my favourite. Lois, played by Melissa Leo, is driving from her hometown in Indiana to Louisiana to meet her husband Doug, played by James Gandolfini. Along the way she stops at a diner and a strange man strikes up a conversation with her. He flirts with her and she’s flattered, but admits that she’s not used to talking with strangers. He assures her by mentioning that in his line of work, talking to strangers is par for the course. They part on good terms, and as she heads toward the exit, she pauses to notice a small group of young women at a table in the corner of the diner. 
Later in the movie, Lois has a conversation with Mallory - a teen runaway - played by Kirsten Stewart, that starts out in much the same way as the conversation she had with the man at the diner, but this time, Lois opens up more and the audience can derive a lot of substance and meaning from listening to the difference between the two conversations. I found that to be an incredible touch.
‘Welcome To The Rileys’ is one of the most emotionally honest movies I’ve come across lately. There is no reliance on visual gimmicks or a showboating acting style. It trusts its audience to invest in the story, and its calm, confident minimalism is refreshing. The cinematography is impressive and features a fantastic use of colour, especially in the New Orleans locations.
I look forward to more movies from director Jake Scott; his is a talent to watch in the future.
Have you had a chance to see ‘Welcome To The Rileys’? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Rocket Science

Rocket Science DVD
I’m going to make ‘Rocket Science’ my first movie entry in this blog. After watching it, I immediately had the urge to see it again. That doesn’t happen too often. I get the feeling that this movie will continue to reveal its riches with repeated viewings, which is always the mark of a great movie to me.
Watching it a second time turned out to be a good move, because once I knew how the movie ended I was able to view the beginning with a different perspective. It’s worth mentioning that ‘Rocket Science’ is set up with more efficiency than usual and the first 15 minutes covers a lot of ground. Everything you learn will come into play and have meaning later. The viewer making tea during the movie’s opening act will not get much from seeing the remainder of the movie. This is as it should be.
‘Rocket Science’ is written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, who also made the documentary, ‘Spellbound’. I think there’s a connection between these movies. They both deal with competition at a high school level, but ‘Rocket Science’ looks at it from the perspective of a kind soul who may not necessarily have been born with what it takes to rise to the top. With all the focus on trophy-bearers, what happens to those students who have the drive and intelligence but lack the physical gifts and the confidence it takes to succeed? This is a rare movie that dares to take that perspective.
I should mention that there are many movies that tread the path of ‘the underdog that overcomes impossible odds and succeeds’. We all like these stories. Some of them such as ‘The Karate Kid’ or ‘Rocky’ are certainly great movies, however this movie doesn’t tread that path in quite the way you’d expect. That takes true courage.
‘Rocket Science’ knows that life isn’t always victorious in grandstanding ways and that quieter, more personal victories are also possible.
A customer who returned this to the store recently mentioned that she was hoping for a more conventional outcome for this movie at first, but then remarked that it would then be just the same as every other movie and be wholly unremarkable. The way it actually turns out makes it distinctive and unique and it stays with you. Bravo! I think that says it perfectly.
Finally, the movie also features some truly excellent photographic compositions and some really noteworthy picture editing transitions as well. The drama is always understated and subtle and never burdens its viewer with mawkishness or sentimentality. Those are cheap, manipulative tricks and ‘Rocket Science’ is far better than that.
Did you enjoy ‘Rocket Science’? Please leave me a comment below and let me know what you think.