Blind Spot 61: SELENA (1997)

As a film critic I watch at least a movie almost every single day. And yet somehow there are films that still slip through the cracks and I haven’t seen despite them being quite popular and even iconic. This is the whole purpose behind this blind spot series. Well, a couple of months ago I was talking to my friend Larry and he was shocked I haven’t seen the musical biopic Selena. This is a favorite film of his (see his review above) so I knew I must put it on my blind spot picks for 2021.

Selena tells the story of Tejano singing star Selena Quintanilla-Perez who shot up into fame on the Mexican charts (even winning a grammy in the category) before being tragically killed by an employee at the age of 23.

Jennifer Lopez shines playing Selena. First of all, she looks so much like her that there really was nobody else who could have played the role. Also the film lives and dies in the staging of the musical sequences. Some of the more dramatic sequences feel a little weak in the acting departments but the film knows this and gets quickly back to the music. We get to see Selena’s charisma on the stage and how she could truly captivate an entire stadium.

Director Gregory Nava smartly frames the film around her final breakthrough show at the Houston Astrodome. With a story with such a sad ending it gives her a moment of triumph which helps it feel rewarding while also of course being still sad. We at least know she got her moment.

The script also gives most of the meatier dialogue to veterans like Edward James Olmos who plays Selena’s father Abraham Quintanilla. I particularly liked a speech he gives about the Catch-22 of being a Mexican American:

“We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting”

Some may complain that Selena doesn’t drift far away from the music bio-pic formula. However, perhaps because Selena is so young we are spared many of the scenes of rebellion with drugs and partying we typically get in these kind of films. About the worst we get is her wearing revealing clothing, wanting to get married and her band-mates messing up a hotel room. Pretty tame in the musical bio-pic world.

Mostly we get to know a sweet young woman with a beautiful voice who’s life was cut far too short. The film decides to leave the shooting off screen, which perhaps was best since it was all so fresh (she died in 1995 and the film was released in 1997). Still, I wish we could have gotten one more scene with Yolanda to try and understand why she did what she did. It all feels a little rushed at the end.

Nevertheless, I am glad I finally saw Selena. I can understand why it is a favorite of Larry and many others. It captures the appeal of Selena singing and Lopez is fantastic in those scenes. Olmos backs her up with a great performance as her father and the whole experience is respectful and uplifting. If you haven’t seen it I’d say it is worth checking out.

I’ve heard from all of my friends that the new Netflix series is not good. Here is my friend Kristen’s review:

I give the 1997 film Selena

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

My 2021 Blind Spot Picks

Hi friends! It’s that time of year again! It is time for me to make my picks for my blind spot series for 2021. This series is designed as a way for me to check much heralded and praised films off of my to be watched list. This will be my 5th year of blind spot picks and I always try to make it a mixture of critically praised and audience favorites as well as some cult classics along the way.

So here goes. My 2021 Blind Spot Picks!:

January

Selena

This pick goes out to my friend Larry who was aghast to find out I have never seen this musical biopic. I’m not sure how it slipped under my radar but it needs to be seen!

February

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I have a lot of blind spots from 2004 as it was the year I served a full-time mission for my church. Eternal Sunshine is one of those films. I missed it when it came out and have never caught up with it. I’m told it is a tragic love story with Jim Carrey trying to forget Kate Winslet? Either way I always try to pick a romance for February so this should be good.

March

Highlander

March seems like as good a time as any to finally get caught up in the fantasy action-adventure from the 80s: Highlander. This battle between the immortal warriors looks like a lot of fun.

April

Two for the Road

I’m a big Audrey Hepburn fan but haven’t seen this zany road trip movie she is in with Albert Finney. They play a married couple traveling to France and it looks like something right up my alley. It is also directed by Stanley Donen who did films like Singing in the Rain so it should be fun!

May

Bonnie and Clyde

A landmark film of its era Bonnie and Clyde has been on my bucket list for some time. I remember Roger Ebert particularly liked it and it was one of the movies that convinced him to become a critic. It should be really good!

June

Beverly Hills Cop

I always try to include a popular comedy I haven’t seen and Beverly Hills Cop fits that bill. Eddie Murphy scored a massive hit with this first film of the franchise but the screenplay was even nominated for Best Original Screenplay. A lot of comedies from the 80s don’t hold up well so it will be fun to see how this one does.

July

The Wild Bunch

I tend to not think of myself as much of a Western fan, but I’ve enjoyed most of the films of the genre I’ve watched for the blindspot series including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence which was fantastic. Now we have The Wild Bunch from 1969 about an ‘aging outlaw gang on the Mexican border in 1913. It stars William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and is a long 145 minutes. Perfect for blind spot!

August

Godzilla 1954

A definite blind spot of mine is I have only seen modern Godzilla films. The earliest I’ve seen is the terrible one from Roland Emmerich in 1998. From what I’ve read this version from 1954 is the best and it looks like a lot of fun. I enjoy creature scares and monster movies when they are done right so hopefully this one will be.

September

Her Blue Sky

I always try to include some anime in my blind spot list but I’m running out of most of the big names. Her Blue Sky is a film I’ve heard a lot of good things about. The story about a young girl and time travel sounds intriguing and I love the writer Mari Okada so it will hopefully be a win!

October

Frankenstein 1931

Another big gap in my film knowledge is the Universal Monster movies. I’ve seen hardly any of them, and that needs to change. First up will be Frankenstein from 1931 starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive as Frankenstein’s monster and the man himself respectively. It should be a great choice for Halloween!

November

The Gold Rush

I’ve seen a lot of Charlie Chaplin but never seen The Gold Rush for some reason. In this film the Little Tramp heads north to join in the Klondike Gold Rush and all kinds of shenanigans ensue. It looks like a lot of fun and I look forward to watching it

December

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes

I had never heard of this holiday film until this year while watching the TCM special they had on holiday films. Margaret O’Brien was talking about Meet Me in St Louis (which I adore) and she mentioned also appearing in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. I’ve seen most of the holiday classics so I immediately added it to my blind spot list!

So there you have it! My blind spot picks for 2021. What do you think of them? Have you seen any of them? Let me know what you think!

Happy movie watching 2021

Blind Spot 58: ‘Halloween’ (1978)

Part of the reason why I do this blind spot series is to push me out of my comfort zone. As a film critic I want to be able to review any film, with the exception of outright pornography, that an outlet assigns me. That said I’m still a human being with preferences that come into play when watching films. However, by reviewing classics outside of my preferred genres for blind spots it helps me get out of my comfort zone with hopefully well made classic films. This is an effective way of pushing myself rather than watching a new film, which may or may not be a good example of the genre.

Horror, particularly slasher movies, is a genre I especially struggle with. Ever since I was a little girl I never liked the feeling of being scared and it’s still not my favorite; although I have grown a lot over the last few years. This year trying to push myself even further I decided to watch the classic slasher film Halloween from 1978 for this month’s blind spot.

Halloween is directed by John Carpenter who wrote the film with producer Debra Hill and the entire thing was made on a shoestring budget of only $300k. Carpenter also wrote the very memorable score that does a lot of the heavy lifting to bring tension into simple scenes.

Even though Halloween is outside of my comfort zone, I can totally see why it’s a classic and a favorite of horror fans. It is very well directed by Carpenter with leering cinematography by Dean Cundey. Even when characters are doing mundane things like talking on the phone or watching television there is a sense they are being watched and they should be more careful than they are being. We as an audience know the deranged Michael Myers is out there but the characters don’t. This makes us anxious for them and the violence, when it does happen, very effective.

Surprisingly, Halloween is not a very bloody film. It’s violent and there is carnage but most of the movie is about anticipating the kills rather than luxuriating in them. I also appreciate the film doesn’t try to explain away Michael Myers or give him some complicated backstory. We see from the opening that he is the personification of evil and that’s all we need to know. Sometimes evil exists and the devil is a real force so I appreciated that approach.

There is also an ambiguity to Michael Myers as a character that makes him scary. I am sure they elaborate on his nature in the sequels but I like here how he might be human or an alien or something else. We don’t know. Dr Loomis (played very well by Donald Pleasence) tells us he is evil from the start of the picture and we see him as a child murderer and that’s all we need to know to be scared.

Jamie Lee Curtis is definitely the best of the 3 young actresses in Halloween. She’s skeptical when you need her to be and smart when faced with a threat. So many of these ‘final girls’ in horror movies are needlessly stupid (including the 2 other girls) that it’s refreshing to see Laurie as played by Curtis as a character who uses her head.

Halloween is not a movie I am likely to watch again. It’s just not my thing, but I can recognize good filmmaking and that’s what we have here. It’s very well done and I’m glad I finally checked it off my list.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 57: ‘Apocalypse Now’

 

I’ll be honest when I put Apocalypse Now on my blind spot for 2020 I did so with hesitation. I knew it was a hard R rating and a long war film so it didn’t sound like something I would love. As we got closer to the watch in September my hesitancy increased as it seemed like a big downer to watch in quarantine.

Well yesterday I had terrible insomnia so decided to finally watch it and to my surprise I found it quite exhilarating.  To be sure it is long (I watched the theatrical cut) and brutal but the characters are so well realized and the story so surprising that it really worked well. I see why it is considered one of the great films of the 1970s.

If you didn’t know Apocalypse Now is directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Martin Sheen as an army captain given a secret mission in the Vietnam War to go into Cambodia and kill a rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). He is given assistance along the way by a PBR or river patrol boat which includes an assortment of characters such as Chef (Frederic Forrest), The Chief (Albert Hall), and Lance B Johnson (Sam Bottoms. He is a professional surfer in the movie).

They also meet people like a hippy journalist played by Dennis Hopper and an insane war-hungry Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duvall). His character is a morally repugnant man who cares more for surfing and the wins of war than human life but it’s such a big performance I found myself transfixed by it. Of course, he has the iconic line of the film ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’. And the crazy thing is he actually does love it. That’s nuts but also compelling.

The movie takes a long time to get to Colonel Kurtz but the wait is worthwhile. Brando was evidently quite the diva by this time in the 70s but somehow that aloofness and pride works well for the character. The final scene with the butchering of the water buffalo and the assault on Kurtz is riveting and tense.

It probably goes without saying but the production values of Apocalypse Now are absolutely outstanding. The sound design alone by Walter Murch was a game changer. The editing is great. The spectacle of the battles and use of color throughout the cinematography is incredible. All the acting is top notch.

As far as flaws there is a moral ambiguity about war which some might question. These days we want everything to make a statement but Apocalypse Now could easily be criticized as being both pro and anti war. This no doubt reflected the divided nature of the country in 1979 (what it must have been like to watch the film in 1979 is incredible to think about). I kind of like that it is open to interpretation but some may see it as a cop-out.

This might be a weird comparison but Apocalypse Now reminded me of another epic Lawrence of Arabia. Different time periods obviously but they both have large scale spectacle filmmaking mixed with unique characters that transfixed me. I love Lawrence of Arabia more but still both movies lived up to their respective hypes in my opinion.

What do you think about Apocalypse Now? Please put your thoughts in the comment section.

The horror! The horror!

9.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 56: ‘The House of Flying Daggers’ Review

I’ll be honest with the glut of films to watch this week I almost forgot about the blind spot for August. Last year I loved Shadow by director Yimou Zhang and it made me curious to see more of his films. This is why I selected his film The House of Flying Daggers when making this year’s blind spot list. I like more grounded martial arts films such as Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee or Rumble in the Bronx and Drunken Master with Jackie Chan. However, I do not like more fanciful films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I know everyone else loves it but it was not for me. I particularly disliked the flying as it took me out of the movie and interrupted the action every time.

Watching Flying Daggers made me realize I don’t think I am a fan of the wuxia style of martial arts films. These are films that involve fantasy and supernatural elements including flying and magic. They are pretty but I find it hard to get into the movies when the problems can be solved with magic or simply flying away. Flying Daggers is in that style (where Shadow was more grounded) and I really did not enjoy watching it.

First of all I will concede Flying Daggers is a beautiful film with stunning cinematography and production design. I also enjoyed some fight sequences like one where they are bouncing off of trees almost like Tarzan swings through trees.

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The problem was this horrible love story where two men Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) over the love of a blind woman named Xiao Mei (Ziyi Zhang). I found all 3 of these people to be extremely unlikable especially Leo who we are supposed to be rooting for. There was no chemistry between Mei and either men and at one point Leo tries to rape her and is only stopped by her superior Nia who throws a magical dagger into his back. There are so many scenes of Mei and Leo awkwardly kissing or finally making love, and I hated every one of them. As a confirmed romantic it did not work for me at all.

Like I said, the action can be quite good but the magic of the daggers wasn’t interesting and the sequences feel repetitive and dull. It reminded me of a Chinese version of Twilight to be honest with this horrible love triangle. I was thoroughly bored by it, which I know might be shocking to some but it’s true. It wasn’t interesting, charming or exciting just lots of meaningful staring and then fighting with magical daggers. No thanks.

It’s hard to know what score to give The House of Flying Daggers because this style of movie doesn’t seem made for me but I know many enjoy them. If it seems like your kind of thing than give it a watch but I certainly won’t be revisiting it any time soon.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Blind Spot 55: ‘Private Benjamin’ or I Like the Army Parts

 

This month for blind spot I thought it would be fun to tackle a comedy with a little bit of patriotism and 1980’s Private Benjamin seemed like the perfect choice. It’s a film I have heard about for years but never gotten around to seeing. It is written by Nancy Meyers who would go on to write and direct many films including The Parent Trap remake, The Holiday and more. A lot of people put her on the same level as Nora Ephron but I disagree. Her films have cute moments but nowhere near the wit and charm of Ephron’s writing.

In Private Benjamin Goldie Hawn plays a woman named Judy Benjamin who is tricked into joining the army when her husband dies on their wedding night. As a pampered heiress she isn’t used to the rigors of the army and the film rings a lot of comedy out of her being a fish out of water in this environment. Hawn does a good job of making the diva-like Judy likable and much like Cher in Clueless we are rooting for her despite her popular girl trappings.

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Unfortunately this time in the army is only a small part of the film. The last chunk of the Private Benjamin devotes itself to Judy getting engaged to a french man named Henri (Armand Assante). The movie lost all of its bite and wit in these rather tedious sections. I did not care about this relationship and was itching for her to get back to the army where she was growing and becoming a better person. It really bummed me out that the movie took such a turn.

I also was not a big fan of the rated R material in Private Benjamin. I feel like it almost never made anything funnier and came off as gratuitous in certain scenes. In addition, a plot thread with Judy’s officer attempting to rape her felt like it belonged in a different movie. It’s like the film couldn’t decide if it was going to be a grounded story of women in the army or a silly romantic comedy with runaway brides and slapstick antics. Either is fine but you can’t pull off both.

For whatever reason I have found a lot of the comedies from the 80s don’t transfer well. I’m sure there is a piece that could be written about this but Private Benjamin was at best a mixed bag. I enjoyed the boot camp scenes but pretty much everything else fell flat. Evidently a remake with Rebel Wilson is in the works and that might be interesting. Hopefully it will be more successful than the recent remake of Hawn’s other iconic 80s film Overboard. We’ll see.

4 out of 10

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Blind Spot 54: ‘Wolf Children’ Review

In the world of anime fans it’s actually kind of a scandal that I haven’t seen Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece Wolf Children. I love Hosoda so I’m not sure why I put off seeing it but now that I have I’m delighted to tell you all that it lives up to the hype. It’s not a loud movie but it is one of the most beautiful depictions of motherhood I’ve seen.

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Wolf Children tells the story of a woman named Hana who falls in love with a mysterious man while in attending college. Eventually she finds out the man is a wolfman, but not the man-eating variety we see in horror movies. Hanna and the man end up having 2 children, Yuki and Ame who share the wolfman traits of their father.

When the man dies Hana must figure out how to not only be a young single Mother of 2 but also raise 2 children that are of a different species from her own- one that she and everyone around her is entirely unfamiliar with. She ends up moving to the country to keep them safe and learning how to farm and teach her children how to manage both sides of themselves.

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What’s also interesting is the different trajectories of the children. Yuki wants to live as a human being. She goes to school, makes friends, and is able to hold her wolf side in with the help of a little song her Mom made up. On the other hand, Ame is drawn to the wolf side especially after he becomes friends with a wolf named Sohei.

If you are watching Wolf Children looking for a big narrative or strong action you will be disappointed. It’s a simple film about the every day life of our 3 lead characters. We get to know them and become invested in their journeys. The animation is absolutely stunning- right up there with the best of Studio Ghibli. The sound design is also very impressive with the lushness of nature coming to life before our eyes. It really helps us become immersed in the story.

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But mostly Wolf Children is a beautiful story about the power of a Mother’s love to save her children. Even if they are of different species that love is powerful and that says a lot. I don’t think you have to be a big anime fan to enjoy this film. If you have a mother, are a mother or long to be a mother you will be moved by this touching story. I highly recommend it.

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Blind Spot 53: ‘Lethal Weapon’ Review

I try to have a variety when I am setting up this blind spot series every year and since I did a trilogy of arthouse films in April with the 3 Colors Trilogy I decided to check off a blockbuster classic off of my list for May. This month I finally saw the 80s buddy cop film Lethal Weapon.

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Lethal Weapon was directed by Richard Donner of Superman: the Movie fame and is written by Shane Black who would go on to write and/or direct many popular films such as Predator, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. It stars Danny Glover as the world-weary cop who is paired with the mostly insane young cop played by Mel Gibson.

Obviously there are strengths to Lethal Weapon. It would not have made such an impact on its genre of films if it didn’t do some things right. Its biggest asset is the chemistry between Glover and Gibson. Their relationship isn’t easy but you believe their evolution as friends or at least trustworthy partners.

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I also enjoyed all the Christmas themes as it created a nice contrast between the darkness of the investigation and the brightness of the holidays. Shane Black also sets Iron Man 3 at Christmas so perhaps it’s a thing of his?

Unfortunately, my problem with Lethal Weapon is I did not love the script or the action. I haven’t enjoyed any of Shane Black’s scripts so maybe he is just not for me? The machismo in his writing is a turn-off and there’s a cynicism with how his characters treat each-other, which I do not connect with or find appealing. Other people seem to think it’s hilarious but again it’s not for me.

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As for the action I found it often dark, with strange lighting making it hard to see who was fighting who and what they were doing. Also the violence didn’t seem to do anything for the story, which made it feel gratuitous. In particular, an extended sequence where Murtaugh and Riggs are tortured didn’t help the narrative much and was mostly only there for shock value.

You also have to put on your 80s cap when watching Lethal Weapon because we have such a different attitude about police brutality and violence in 2020. Riggs spends most of the movie trying to convince Murtaugh that his method of killing the bad guys is the way to go. Today we’d certainly take a step back from that line of thinking!

Basically with Lethal Weapon you probably already know if you like it. I enjoyed the chemistry between Glover and Gibson and the Christmas setting was fun; however, the action and script didn’t do it for me. Take that for what you will.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Blind Spot 51: ‘Goodfellas’

When I set up my 2020 Blind Spot list I knew immediately I wanted to include something from director Martin Scorsese. He not only caused a lot of ruckus with his ridiculous and out of touch comments about superhero movies not being ‘cinema’ last year but then he achieved great critical acclaim with his film The Irishman.  I famously did not care for this Oscar nominated film, and I also hated his film before that Silence, so I began to wonder if maybe the famous director and I simply don’t mix very well (I did like Hugo and The Aviator so there’s that)?

Anyway, I knew I wanted to give his other mobster movie, Goodfellas, a shot this year to see what I thought. Now I have seen it, and I’m happy to say I liked it. It’s not a top-tier film for me but definitely entertaining and far better than The Irishman in every way. I still prefer the gravitas and messaging of The Godfather over this film but I can see why it has its ardent fans.

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Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill a real life mobster in 70s and 80s who works and serves the family despite not being a full-Italian ‘made’ member. We start out the film with Henry as a teenager dazzled by the lifestyle and family-connection of organized crime. He gets taken under the wing by a caporegime named Paulie played by Paul Servino. Joe Pesci plays a violent and erratic man named Tommy Devito and Robert De Niro plays a leader of the group named Jimmy Conway.

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The reason I liked this so much better than The Irishman is the characters are all more dynamic. My problem with Robert De Niro’s character in The Irishman is his come to Jesus moments come too late in the narrative. For 80% of the movie he is perfectly happy being a soldier for the mafia and someone who simply follows orders isn’t interesting for a film, especially a long film.

In contrast, Henry has many moments where he bucks against the system, especially in the 2nd half where it becomes more of a heist movie than a mafia film. He even challenges orders in his personal life with wife Karen and mistress Janice/Sandy. This makes him an interesting character. We want to root for him because he is our protagonist, but he’s such a sleazy guy that it becomes difficult. Such conflict is cinematic and entertaining. It also doesn’t hurt that Ray Liotta does a very good job playing Henry so you both want to hang out with and smack him at the same time.

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Unlike The Godfather, Goodfellas doesn’t attempt to teach us lessons through the insular society of the mob. It’s not an allegory to society at large or a treatise on group behavior and loyalty. It’s just Henry’s story- a biopic if you will, with all the highs and lows we expect from that genre. It is greatly aided by witty and engaging dialogue by screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. It clips along and stays free from both exposition or over-narration.

As far as flaws it still feels self-indulgent at times. Scenes are stretched out longer than they need to be and certain sequences are repeated that provide no real addition to the plot. For example, we see multiple scenes with them laughing it up at the comedy club in the beginning of the film. One scene is fine and establishes the juvenile nature of these men; however, I didn’t need to see it again and again. Same with scenes with the drug-trade later in the movie. We get the idea the first time. We don’t need scene after scene of them getting blow. It’s almost like Scorsese lacks confidence in his scenes so he has to repeat them again. (Come to think of it one of the things I hated in Silence was the repeated torture. He would literally show a scene of torture and show that exact same scene again in case we didn’t get it the first time. No thank you!).

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Goodfellas is also very well edited and the production values are all top rate. It doesn’t feel dated in any way. It could be released now and hold up (honestly better than The Irishman with its distracting special effects). I also enjoyed the cinematography and music choices throughout.

If you can handle a hard R rated film for violence and language I recommend giving Goodfellas a watch. If you do, you will find a well-told story about a complex character in the form of Henry Hill. It’s got a sharp script and good performances all around, which makes it very entertaining. I can definitely see why it is a favorite of those who love the gangster genre.

What do you think of Goodfellas? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section

7.5 out of 10

smile worthy

On another note I can see why so many compared Hustlers to Goodfellas. They have a very similar structure especially in the last half of the film and have the same type of repetition and character beats.