For Your Consideration: June 6, 2014

In case you missed it: earlier this week, New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd traveled to Denver in order to try the newly legal temptation of a marijuana candy bar. The reputed result for the first-time user was…well, not exactly mellow. Dowd’s piece on the regulation issues faced by marijuana legalization may have set Twitter ablaze, but here at the Best Films of Our Lives it got us thinking about some other bad trips – ones that don’t require flying to Colorado. Here are three films that might help you dare to just say no.

– Ethan

“Dumbo” (1941)

Voice Cast: Edward Brophy, Cliff Edwards, Verna Felton, Sterling Holloway

Now streaming on Netflix (get it before it goes back in the vault!), or for rent from Amazon Instant, iTunes

The most famous—and effective—scene from “Dumbo” is when our beloved baby elephant goes to see his imprisoned mother at her cell, and she rocks him with her trunk through the bars. But it’s the scene immediately following that one that interests us here, when Dumbo and his companion, Timothy Q. Mouse, drink from a bucket of water that, unbeknownst to them, is laced with “champagne.” This leads to a terrifying sequence of hallucinations, including pyramids, pink elephants playing their trunks as trumpets, and a monster mega-elephant made up of multicolored elephant heads. It’s an impressive, if disturbing, piece of animation, but perhaps we should focus on some more important questions: why does champagne make you see those things, and why do Timothy and Dumbo have the same hallucination? Maybe Maureen Dowd would know.

– Elaine

“Easy Rider” (1969)

Cast: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

Available streaming on Netflix, for purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes

It’s the defining film of the 60s/70s counterculture for a reason – “Easy Rider” is heavy on recreational drug use and low on respect for the man. In this case, though, the man wasn’t just a straight-edged 1950’s father figure, but an entire generation of classical Hollywood studio filmmaking; Hopper’s rough-and-tumble, New Wave-inspired shooting and editing style provided fuel to the growing “New Hollywood” fire dominated by Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Bogdanovich, De Palma, Peckinpah, Cimino and others. On a freewheeling road trip to get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras, hippie outliers Wyatt (Hopper) and Billy (Fonda) encounter a strange slice of Southern life – perhaps most memorably, Nicholson’s endearing, wayward drunk. But their increasingly unwelcoming journey doesn’t end exactly how they planned, with a horrifying psychedelic LSD trip in a New Orleans cemetery foreshadowing the pair’s harsh fate.

– Ethan

“A Scanner Darkly” (2006)

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane

Available to rent streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, on disc from Netflix

If you’re talking drug-abuse-enduced paranoia, no one was more concerned with the bleak collision of altered states and authoritarian power than Philip K. Dick, one of the masters of 20th century sci-fi. Richard Linklater brought Dick’s dystopian novel to terrifying life in this under-appreciated, off-the-wall mind-bender, a unique blend of indie drama and experimental animation. Using digital rotoscoping techniques, Linklater casually blends recognizable actors and a familiar suburban Los Angeles setting with disquieting hallucinations, brought on by the addiction of his protagonist, undercover police agent Bob Arctor (Reeves), to the mysterious and powerful “Substance D.” A harrowing and haunting story that goes beyond the self-destruction of drug culture into the existential dread of surveillance and split identity, “A Scanner Darkly” stays true to the idiosyncratic vision of its source.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: May 30, 2014

This weekend, Disney looks to give one of its classic properties a “Wicked” revision. Merging the fairy tale origins of Sleeping Beauty with the current spat of gothic action/fantasies, “Maleficent” will have to try awfully hard to prove it’s much more than a cash-grab revival. It might not matter either way at the box office – Disney’s had this particular corner of the film market locked down for oh, getting on towards 80 years now. But it’s not like others haven’t tried to mine similar material. So for your consideration, this week we’re recommending three fairy tale films that don’t hail from the House of Mouse.

– Ethan

“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926)

Available on disc from Netflix; purchasable on DVD or Blu-Ray from Amazon (it’s worth it)

No matter what Disney tells you, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was NOT the first animated feature film. That title should go to one of two silent films by Argentinian animator Quirino Cristiani, but unfortunately neither survives today; but we do have “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 adaptation of elements from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Reiniger’s silhouette animation style (made from cardboard cutouts, manipulated frame-by-frame) is fabulously striking, an eerie callback to the shadow puppet shows that prefigured early cinema. Jagged, exaggerated, and haunting, “Prince Achmed” is more Murnau than Disney; an expressionist take on the Arabian fairy tale that fits right into German folkloric traditions.

– Ethan

“The Red Shoes” (1948)

Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Léonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina, Robert Helpmann, Esmond Knight

Available to rent from iTunes and Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix

As a child, I found “The Red Shoes” the most perplexing and disturbing of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. For years I lived in fear of each pair of new shoes that came my way, and spent many a night wondering if I too could be carried off to an unfortunate fate by frenzied footwear.

That is, until I saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes.” This luminous film transform the classic fairytale into an allegory about art, sacrifice, and the relentless pursuit of perfection. For Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), the purpose of life is not to live, but to dance. Under the guidance of charismatic ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), she becomes a great dancer, dedicated solely to her art—a choice that becomes increasingly untenable as she falls in love with a young composer. A love triangle of sorts, “The Red Shoes” elevates and universalizes the fairytale, and is also a visual and cinematographic feast. Not only does it feature a 15-minute ballet sequence, but the film—recently restored by Martin Scorsese—is renowned for its bold, vibrant colors (due to a rare technicolor technique) that transform a story about art into a work of art.

– Elaine

“The Frog Prince” (1986)

Cast: Aileen Quinn, Helen Hunt, John Paragon, Clive Revill

Available for the moment via not-so-official-looking channels on YouTube.

“The Frog Prince” is an unlikely candidate for a feature film, since the story basically consists of a spoiled girl kissing an amphibian. Recognizing the problem, the filmmakers changed the story to a time-honored coming-of-age tale featuring a young princess, awkward and lonely, who befriends a frog. Secretly a prince, the frog teaches her how to become a true princess, from maintaining good posture to embracing her heart of gold. The music, mostly sung by Aileen Quinn (of “Annie” fame), is enough to make this movie worth your while. The costumes are absurdly ‘80s, a young Helen Hunt shows up now and again to strut angrily, and there are some fantastic one-liners. Embracing its own campiness, this “Frog Prince” is not about kissing your way to prince charming, but about the heartwarming power of friendship.

– Elaine

Trailers of the Week: No, You’re Not on Drugs, Jared Leto is Back

Dallas Buyers Club

“Dallas Buyers Clubs” has been lurking on the circuit for a while, as critics and viewers waited to see whether the film would be just another notch in Matthew McConaughey’s continued career resurrection or a complete package. Rave reviews out of Toronto has everyone leaning towards the latter, with everyone insisting that the true-life tale of homophobe-turned-HIV-patient-turned-drug-smuggler Ron Woodroof is not just a baity performance piece but a genuinely touching account of redemption and survival. McConaughey’s scary physical transformation sure seems to be matched by an emotional dedication to the character – it seems like the whole key to his sudden rebirth has been that he’s started picking out roles that he can genuinely invest in, and good for him. This season’s Best Actor race is a tight field already, but factor in all the good vibes for his career turn-around and a nomination’s all but assured.

We don’t get to see as much as him, but I should think Jared Leto’s also a pretty safe bet. I don’t see how the Academy resists an actor playing an HIV-positive transgender woman (see: Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica,” Jaye Davidson in “The Crying Game”). The film itself sure looks to tug at the heartstrings – but as is always the question with these prestige pics, can it do so without feeling manipulative?

Mr. Nobody

Speaking of resurrections, apparently we’ve decided to give this whole “Jared Leto acting” thing another shot. Although, the circumstances behind “Mr. Nobody” are a bit odd –  it debuted in 2009 at the Venice and Toronto festivals to overwhelmingly favorable reviews (and even some raves) and earned a release in Europe, but for no discernible reason didn’t get American distribution until this year. Considering its level of acclaim and fair share of recognizable Hollywood actors, that’s really inexplicable. But no matter – “Mr. Nobody” looks to satisfy those who were frustrated by the bombast of “Cloud Atlas” with a smaller-scale sci-fi investigation of the way our choices resonate across our lifetimes (devoted readers might recall that I thought the pure bombast was actually the only thing keeping “Cloud Atlas” afloat, but sure, let’s try again).

Kill Your Darlings

The trailer for this Sundance favorite is a bit disjointed, but somewhere in there’s a moody depiction of Beatnik-era New York – and the plethora of intriguing young acting talent is certainly enough to keep an eye on this one. Daniel Radcliffe is on a mission to leave his Harry Potter days behind him, and he might just do it – I’m actually starting to think he might end up with the best career of that whole bunch, although Emma Watson was pretty spectacular in “The Bling Ring”. But he certainly seems to challenge himself with his roles more than Watson does – there’s no real consistent through-line from Harry Potter to “Equus” to Broadway musicals to young Allen Ginsburg, but there he goes. Meanwhile, Dane DeHaan was basically the best part of Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” – keep an eye on this guy. Ben Foster I’m always happy to see, and he should have plenty of fun with the eccentric William S. Burroughs. Jack Huston (as Jack Kerouac), Michael C. Hall, Elizabeth Olsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh – a tremendous cast all around and a fascinating true story that I personally know nothing about.

The Double

I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about Richard Ayoade’s debut film “Submarine” – an odd little coming-of-age film that felt like Wes Anderson filtered through Mike Leigh. But I love love love this brief but very atmospheric look at his follow-up feature, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s short story with pitch-perfect casting on paper. Jesse Eisenberg plays the dual lead role of a nebbishy office worker who starts to be replaced by a charismatic, asshole doppelganger that no one seems to notice looks exactly like him. That’s basically an ideal personality split for Eisenberg, who combined both halves so well in “The Social Network.” Mia Wasikowska also strikes me as a great fit for one of Dostoevsky’s idealized, sweet but distant romantic objects. The film has gotten solid reviews out of Toronto, but as a Russian literature lover this one will be a priority for me.

Escape from Tomorrow

So this one needs some explanation. “Escape from Tomorrow” was filmed, astoundingly, almost entirely on location inside both Disney World and Disneyland. And director Randy Moore did it all without the company’s permission. As you can imagine, it’s unlikely that Disney Studios would be too thrilled about a fantasy-horror flick criticizing the soul-sucking insanity of its own ubiquitous entertainment, so the entire production was cloaked in secrecy, right up until the film’s furtive debut at Sundance. Critics found the film uneven in execution (rather unsurprising, considering the technical limits of such guerilla filmmaking) but obviously fascinating if only as an artifact – this is a movie that really shouldn’t exist. And most people assumed that would be the end of that; surely Disney would never let the movie actual secure distribution and see the light of day.

Yet here it is, with a limited release slated for Oct. 11, and still Disney’s lawyers sit silently. Considering the company’s history of tightly controlling the image of its copyrighted material, this is staggering. Do they think Moore’s film would hold up as critical commentary under the fair use exception of copyright law? What about trademark infringement? Or the violation of Disneyland’s clear terms of use, which prohibits filming?

It’s possible that they think, in fact, that legal action would just bring unwanted attention to the film, and would prefer to just let it fade away in limited release. So pass the word around – I want everyone to start talking about this movie, if only to see what the hell Disney does next. Should make for fascinating discussion in my copyright class.