Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon

Had she been as lucky as older sister Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine would've been turning 100 today. (She passed away in December 2013, not that long ago.) To celebrate, Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema are hosting a blogathon on the late actress. Surprise, surprise, I decided to join in and cover her Oscar-nominated roles. Those movies (and whom she lost to) are:

(1940, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Lost to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle
(1941, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
(1943, dir. Edmund Goulding)
Lost to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette

(More after the jump!)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

An Elegy for Brian

Earlier this year, I read a graphic novel called The Fifth Beatle, which -- as its subtitle so clearly painted -- was about the band’s manager Brian Epstein. The words and images from Vivek J. Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker have stayed with me in the months since I first opened it. But what stood out the most for me was how Epstein was painted in tragic irony: he managed a band who regularly sang about love yet he himself couldn't express it.

Living in a country where being gay could land you in prison if you weren't careful -- something that the likes of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing have learned harshly before him -- Epstein was in a constant state of anxiety. It's particularly telling when he talks about an instance where he was beaten up by a man whom Epstein initially thought was interested in a dalliance:
All I could see was a haze of red. I thought I might die. For the next several weeks, I lived under a kind of cold fear. My life felt -- scripted. And all I could do was wait nervously for the episode to be revealed.
It had to have been frightening to be a part of that society, not being able to express what or whom you deeply desire. If I were to speak to Epstein at this very moment, I would tell him that he shouldn't be ashamed of who he is. If anyone is at fault, it's those who think such behavior is an abomination. And there's a quote from Epstein preceding the afterword that’s just heartbreaking:
I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will someday -- and someday, I might be too...
The reason I write all of this is because on this very day back in 1967 -- fifty years ago -- Epstein's pain and anxiety finally ended when he passed away from a drug overdose. (In a cruel twist, homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain just the previous month.) But the question remains: was it an accident or did he take those pills purposely? The truth went to the grave with him, leaving those he left behind to wonder what really happened in his final moments.

In his thirty-two years he was alive, Epstein had many personal highs and lows, and was a caring person to those around him. But in the end, he died alone and unloved…or so he thought. Because of his decision to turn four lads from Liverpool into international legends, he was -- and still is -- loved.

September 19, 1934 - August 27, 1967

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Too Much, Too Soon

There's a part in Art Napoleon's Too Much, Too Soon where John Barrymore (Errol Flynn) proclaims to his daughter Diana (Dorothy Malone) that alcoholism isn't genetic. As anyone who's familiar with that family's stormy history (or from simple psychology), they know that's far from the actual truth. And boy, does Diana learn that the hard way.

Based on her memoir, Too Much, Too Soon chronicles Diana's relationship with her famous father and how she inherited his bad habits instead of his acting abilities. (Her mother mentions that she'll only get famous because of her surname only.) And don't expect anything sugarcoated.

Being a recent Oscar winner for Written on the Wind, Malone follows the likes of Ray Milland and Susan Hayward in depicting problem drinking at its ugliest. She shows how low Diana is willing to scrape by (including doing lousy impressions at a seedy dive bar), looking for something to fill that emptiness in her life. And knowing that the real Diana died just two years later, it adds a tragic twist to the title.

The same can be said for Flynn, who died the following year. Here he is playing his former drinking buddy, and you have to wonder how much of his performance was merely himself. Now a bloated shadow of his former self, you can see the regrets of throwing it all away in his features. The line between these two lives is blurred greatly.

While Malone and Flynn's performances are solid, the same can't be said for the rest of Too Much, Too Soon. It does get overly dramatic after an hour (probably expected for a biopic on a Barrymore) and the ending's flimsy. Still, they tried their best (but not very well).

My Rating: ***1/2

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Beguiled

"Something wicked this way comes," proclaims one of the witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. And many times in the centuries since the play's first performance, that line resonates with other works. Whether it's with a lone character or the whole premise, we as an audience are fascinated by the dark recesses of our species.

More often than not, such depictions involve the supposed fair sex. Society has expected women to be reserved and composed, not letting one fraction of what they're really feeling to be shown on their face. But when that veneer of civility starts to wear away, that inner ugliness makes its presence known in the harshest ways.

Set during the Civil War, Thomas Cullinan's The Beguiled follows the remaining residents of a Southern boarding school as their usual routines change. As a wounded Union soldier takes refuge within their walls, their reactions are chronicled through the changing perspectives. But how long until the fibers of Southern hospitality begin to fray?

Compressing Cullinan's novel into a film eking past a ninety-minute runtime, Sofia Coppola's adaptation omits a few characters and amps up the sexual tension. (Having Colin Farrell as the lone male of the story makes the latter easy.) That said, however, does that excuse having a story set in the South during the Civil War feature no characters of color? Of course not.

So which is better: Cullinan's novel or Coppola's film? Cullinan is more descriptive in the mindsets of the women whereas Coppola explores their behavior under stress. Both are lurid stories featuring a battle of the sexes amid a far bloodier war. One, however, captures it all much though both have their merits.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Big Sick

We've been subjected to so many movies where romance is the main theme. Sometimes it works, other times it's unabashedly crammed down our throats. Either way, people will pay to see the passion blossom. (Let's be honest, such a plot was practically a requisite seventy years ago.)

Of course, these stories maintain a stronger sense of believability if they're real-life ones.Such is the case with Michael Showalter's The Big Sick but whose courtship provides the film's basis? The one between co-writers Kumail Nanjani and Emily V. Gordon, of course. But what's their story?

Kumail (Nanjani) is a fledgling stand-up comic whose culturally oriented family expects him to get into an arranged marriage. He meets Emily at one of his gigs and they have a brief relationship. After they break up, Emily falls ill and is hospitalized, and Kumail faces off with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

What's shown in The Big Sick is something most other romantic comedies tend to miss the mark on: total devotion. And not the "I'm hopelessly devoted to you" variety, the "I will stay truthful to you" type is what other try to achieve and fail. (Granted, Kumail isn't exactly forthcoming to Emily at first but he rectifies that.)

The Big Sick may result in your standards for future partners/spouses to reach an absurdly high level but that aside, it's a unique work. Nanjani has obviously been a standout in various projects in recent years; hopefully because of this he'll get more lucrative parts (and not as the token comic relief).

My Rating: ****1/2

Wonder Woman

There's something irritating about how most comic book adaptations don't have their female characters do much of anything outside of looking pretty for the camera and being worried for the superhero (if they know their alter ego, that is). Granted, male writers can be to blame for such a scenario but honestly, it's 2017. Must men be at the forefront for every comic book movie?

Thankfully, someone at Warner Bros. decided that a woman should be directing the long-overdue adaptation of Wonder Woman. And following the somewhat odd recent tradition of hiring directors with only small productions to their name, they hired Patty Jenkins, an interesting choice to say the least. (Her last film was about a real-life serial killer, for Christ's sake.) But was it a wise choice?

While it is nice to see a female comic book character actually have something to do, there's still some bumps in the road when it comes to the writing. There are moments in Wonder Woman where Diana's (Gal Gadot) general naiveté towards anything outside her own world provides some humor in some scenes but her headstrong attitude can be grating in others. Granted, some of that blame can be directed towards the character's writing.

Still, how often do we get to see women in the spotlight for action movies? Usually they play second fiddle to, well, pretty much everything so seeing them not linger in the background is refreshing. But still, there's a long way to go before all is right on the cinematic front.

Wonder Woman is accessible without being pandering to either side (though that bit of serious fan service on Chris Pine's part -- so to speak -- is clearly directed towards a particular demographic or two). Jenkins obviously should be more in-demand because of the two films she has contributed. She knows what she's doing.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, July 14, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne du Maurier may not be a familiar name to most people but mention some of of her works and then they'll recognize her (more so if they've seen the adaptations of them). Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, The Birds, Don't Look Now...if you want to find thrills from a female author, du Maurier is your best bet.

But even then, her works have the tendency to be classified as romantic works. (Perhaps in a similar vein to the Brontës' novels?) The Gothic element there's no denying, and there is passion amid the suspense. However, don't expect it to follow the usual conventions.

Her novel My Cousin Rachel in particular is an example. Following him in the aftermath of his guardian Ambrose's sudden death, Philip Ashley grows deeply suspicious of his widow Rachel. But once he meets and gets to know her, Philip's doubts about Rachel's character morphs into infatuation.

Roger Michell's adaptation maintains a more ambiguous tone than du Maurier's novel or Henry Koster's telling of the tale from 1952. Is there merit to Philip's suspicions or is something else unfolding before his eyes? In the lead roles are Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin, both of whom have had eclectic careers over the last few years. (And boy, Claflin certainly has the jawline for the male lead in a Victorian thriller.)

So which is better: du Maurier's novel or Michell's film? Both provide a feminist slant towards Victorian customs, showing a certain hypocrisy of the times. Though one actually manages to maintain a better sense of paranoia while the other showcases more of the story's opulent details. (Then again, it varies within both of them.)

What's worth checking out?: The book.