Sunday, December 31, 2017

Film and Book Tally 2017

Well, thank God another garbage year is done with. (Is it weird that it went by both too fast and too slow?) Anyway, I had a few bright spots in this otherwise crummy time: I had a job at a movie theater (which I left after four months because I got fed up with it), went to a few film festivals (my savings are now nigh depleted), and had my work pile up repeatedly. Oh wait, that last one isn't a good thing... (Some will be up presently, I promise.)

Anyway, you're all here to see what I saw and read this year but in comparison to the last few years, the lists are a bit shorter. (Oh, the joys of having depression: it always sucks out any motivation to see and/or do anything.) The lists start after the jump:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Molly's Game

Aaron Sorkin's Molly's Game opens with Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) going on a soliloquy about her sports career and how it ended harshly. "None of this has anything to do with poker. I'm only mentioning it because I wanted to say to whoever answered that the worst thing to happen in sports was fourth place at the Olympics: seriously? Fuck you."

This being a Sorkin-penned work, at least two-thirds of the dialogue in Molly's Game is breathless monologues, most of them Molly explaining the world of poker to her audience. Alternating between her rise in the underground poker empire and her public fall from grace, it follows how Molly establishes an acute business sense in lieu of law school. But soon various addictions and the mafia get involved, and things start to spiral downhill.

Much like The Social Network and Steve Jobs, Molly's Game has a lead whose goal is to get ahead in the world they're a part of. But instead something technology-based, Molly is more focused on going right for the bank balances of gamblers. But she's aware of the consequences from getting in too deep.

As is usually expected from Sorkin, he has solid work both for and from his actors. Alongside Chastain are the likes of Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera, just to name the more prolific faces in Molly's Game. But this is without question Chastain's show. It's only a matter of time before she (further) dominates Hollywood.

Molly's Game is certainly a change of pace for Sorkin. (If only he could move past his own sexism to make similar future projects.) Though it's clear in some scenes (occasionally painfully so) that this is his first time in the director's seat, Sorkin shows promise as more than just a writer. (What would be the likelihood of him working with someone else's script for a later project?)

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Battle of the Sexes

At first glance, one would assume that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Battle of the Sexes was solely focused on the famed tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). But in reality, the film focuses more on the players and those in their social circles.

Riggs is depicted as a washed-up tennis star with a nasty gambling habit. (His estranged wife mentions that she's the one footing the bills.) He's constantly showboating his skill, many times to his advantage to make a quick buck. (He wins a Rolls Royce at one point.) Of course such chauvinism will come back to bite him in the ass.

King, meanwhile, is captured as someone who will work as hard as she can whether it's on the tennis court or in other aspects of her life. But what's also on focus for King's arc is her affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). And while the relationship isn't oversexualized (seriously, Hollywood, girl-on-girl action isn't meant for lewd fantasies), it does oversimplify it. (Just Google "Billie Jean King palimony suit".)

And then there's the match itself. In preparing for it, the two take different approaches. King actually goes through training while Riggs -- overly confident that he'll win -- indulges himself in promotions. Just goes to show their methods or approach are on opposite ends of the same spectrum.

Battle of the Sexes is more than just the match; it's about the actual battle of the sexes of the era (which will probably never reach a final conclusion). Boasting a solid roster of actors, it provides great both for and from Carell (who's having a good year with this and Last Flag Flying) and Stone (in her best work to date). Here's hoping Dayton and Faris continue this streak.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Early into Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, its general ambience is established. Its sterile mood depicts a precise atmosphere for surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his family. But once Martin (Barry Keoghan) starts forcing himself into this comfortable life, trouble begins to boil over.

It isn't outright mentioned what kind of disorder Martin is afflicted with (though Steven alludes to it at one point) but it's clear he's not in the right frame of mind. Is it because of his father's death years before (he blames Steven for not saving him on the operating table) or has Martin always been like this? The ambiguity only makes the film all the more unnerving.

In contrast to Lanthimos' previous film The Lobster -- whose main theme was love -- The Killing of a Sacred Deer has hate as its motif. Similar to The Beguiled earlier this year (which also starred Farrell and Nicole Kidman), sympathetic hospitality gets abused and it isn't long until violence enters the picture. Sometimes the kindness of strangers results in the manipulation from others.

And as he depicted with his previous film, Lanthimos maintains an emotional detachment to everything happening throughout The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Many of the lines delivered have a matter-of-fact tone to them (almost to the point of sounding indifferent to the audience), and there's not much in the way of of visible emotions outside rage. Again, it may be deliberate on Lanthimos' part.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer doesn't quite reach the same levels as The Lobster but its lurid manner makes it stand out in some regards. Farrell continues to prove his worth as an actor while Keoghan -- in combination with Dunkirk earlier this year -- reminds casting directors to keep him in consideration for future projects. (This won't be the last we hear of the young Irish actor, that's for sure.)

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Pretty Poison

It's established early on in Noel Black's Pretty Poison that Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is not entirely there. (Well, he is on parole from a mental institution.) Soon he gets Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld) wrapped up in his "missions", and it doesn't take long for chaos to unfold.

This being Perkins' first post-Psycho Hollywood role (he had done several projects overseas), there are the obvious parallels between his famous role and Pretty Poison. But Black wanted to capture the Perkins previously seen in Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not the one that limited the actor's future career. (Perkins still got typecast after this.) That said, the two periods of his profession are entwined within Dennis.

That's not to disregard Perkins' work in Pretty Poison, far from it, He was an actor who captured a sense of naivete very well throughout his career. Though often in roles where he's a bundle of nerves within a lanky frame, he was still good at his job.

And then there's Weld. Surprisingly devoid of an Oscar nomination for her work in Pretty Poison, she plays Sue Ann as a classic femme fatale: attractive, seductive and very dangerous. (She certainly lives up to the film's title, that's for sure.)

Pretty Poison is part of that cinematic canon which marked a decided shift in Hollywood and its storytelling. Gone is the whole concept of playing it safe; now directors, writers and actors had less restrictions for the stories they wanted to make. And the results -- like what's seen here -- can be downright anarchic in comparison to the previous decade's contributions.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Blue Gardenia

Several minutes into Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia, and we watch Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) preparing a birthday dinner for herself. She had recently gotten a letter from her fiance from overseas (he's serving in the Korean War) so she's got a spring in her step. But her happiness is quickly deflated when the letter tells her he's leaving her for a nurse that treated him.

Devastated, Norah goes to drown her sorrows at the titular restaurant with womanizer Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). The next morning, she wakes up to a splitting headache, the events of the previous night a complete blank. And then news breaks of Harry's murder...

Lang was having a good year in 1953. As well as The Blue Gardenia, he also had The Big Heat released. And as he previously showed with M and Scarlet Street, noir was where he excelled. (Perhaps deploying some tricks he learned before leaving his native Vienna?)

And while she's known as the conniving titular character of All About Eve, Baxter was more than capable of playing vulnerable women. (After all, she won an Oscar for doing such a role in The Razor's Edge.) Her Norah is constantly on pins and needles following that night, fearing that she might be the one responsible for Harry's death. But is she?

The Blue Gardenia further the belief that Lang is one of several names synonymous with film noir. With ominous lighting and shadows doing the same, Lang also captures a public that's morbidly drawn to bloodshed and the kind of press it can conjure up. (The man sure knew how to make a picture, huh?)

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, November 6, 2017

Possessed

Curtis Bernhardt's Possessed opens with a woman wandering the streets of Los Angeles, searching for someone name David. Her behavior causes her to be hospitalized, and it's there she's identified as Louise Howell (Joan Crawford). But what's her story?

It turns out that "David" is David Sutton (Van Heflin), a former lover of Louise's who broke things off with her because she was too obsessed with him. Since she married a recent widower (and her former employer), things start to stabilize for once in Louise's world. But then David starts to show more interest in her stepdaughter...

Being made not long after her Oscar win for Mildred Pierce, it's clear as to why Crawford was chosen to star in Possessed (not to be confused with an earlier film of hers with the same title). And as she also showed previously with A Woman's Face, noir was where she excelled. (After all, all three of her Oscar-nominated performances were for roles in the genre.)

It's also worth mentioning that this was among several titles at the time that shined a light on the workings of the human mind. Like The Snake Pit the following year, it was a film that required immense research on the leading lady's part. And boy, does it pay off.

Possessed may be a lesser-seen work of Crawford's but it doesn't have to stay that way. It's as high-strung as her performance, something many imitators have tried to achieve (but only a handful have succeeded in). And if anything, it proves that Crawford was the face of noir. (Okay, next to Barbara Stanwyck.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Born to Be Bad

Many of the roles Joan Fontaine played throughout her career could be best described as mousy. Whether it's her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock or any of her films following them, it became a sort of typecasting for her. Granted, as is often the case with actors, sometimes there's a want for change.

Now Fontaine actually subverts her usual character type for Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad. Her Christabel Caine initially seems to be like the actress' former roles but her true colors emerge once she's settled in. She's not some shrinking violet; she's consumed by her status in society.

Being made the same year as Ray's more prolific noir In a Lonely Place, it's understandable as to why Born to Be Bad isn't as well-known. And admittedly it doesn't have the same quality as the more famous film but regardless of that fact, it's still intriguing to watch it unfold.

And Fontaine has a pretty solid lineup of co-stars for Born to Be Bad. It has the likes of Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan (no stranger to noir), and Mel Ferrer, showing that very common aspect with other titles of the 1950s: the star-studded feature. (And Ray himself would partake in that several times over.)

Born to Be Bad may not be top-tier Ray but as he showed with his debut They Live by Night the previous year, noir was where he excelled. And while Fontaine didn't regularly play such roles like Christabel, she's clearly having some fun vamping it up. (It would've been nice to see her in more parts like it.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Black Hand

"At the turn of the century, there were more Italians in New York than in Rome. Many had hurried here seeking fortune and freedom." So opens Richard Thorpe's Black Hand.

Years after his father's murder, Giovanni "Johnny" Columbo (Gene Kelly) seeks revenge from those responsible. A familiar premise within this genre, yes, but bear in mind both the leading man and the studio that made it. This wasn't common fare for either of them.

Similar to what Thorpe did with Night Must Fall thirteen years earlier, he lets an actor who's typecast get a chance to flesh out their resume. In this instance, Kelly -- who'd later show his worth as a serious actor the following decade with Inherit the Wind -- steps away from musicals to dabble in a more serious project. If only Kelly had more opportunities during his career.

And though Black Hand supposedly has the titular gang as the antagonist, it's actually the Italian mafia in that role designation. (The studio thought it'd be wiser -- and less death threat-inducing -- to have a dead organization as the villain than one that's thriving.) Still, that fact doesn't diminish the film too terribly.

Black Hand may not hold up to other titles of the decade but it still has its moments. As mentioned, Kelly proves he's more than a song and dance man. And like Night Must Fall, it can be absolutely fascinating to watch most of the time.

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 30, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens on the titular structures, decrepit after years of neglect. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) drives past them one day and she rents them out shortly after. Her purpose for them? To keep the investigation into her daughter's rape and murder alive.

Much like McDonagh's earlier works, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri features both a pitch black sense of humor and loads of bloodshed. But more often than not, the latter actually has some relevance to the plot. The reason? It embodies the internalized anger of the story's characters.

And boy, is it angry. Like many non-American directors before him, McDonagh doesn't shy away from the fact that the land of opportunity isn't as ideal as it likes to depict itself as. It's a country of skewed priorities, and the face that it has to be pointed out says everything right there.

Also like McDonagh's previous films, the cast of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a solid one. Alongside McDormand are the likes of Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Peter Dinklage. All are great (though Cornish is underused like she was in Seven Psychopaths) but this is McDormand's show easily.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is certainly not for everyone. The matters of race, police brutality and moral redemption zigzag enough times between being the main focus and as a B-plot to make your head spin. On a writing standpoint it's all over the place but (some of) the actors keep it grounded.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, October 29, 2017

In the Fade

Early on in Fatih Akin's In the Fade, it's established that Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) has a charmed home life. Her husband is a reformed drug dealer (they were married when he was in prison) and they're raising a son together. Nothing could go wrong in Katja's eyes.

And then it does. A bomb goes off in front of her husband's office, killing him and their son. In her grief, Katja sinks into a dark depression. (She attempts suicide at one point.) Will she be able to find both justice and peace of mind?

Sure, we've seen countless depictions of life after loss before In the Fade. But what Akin chronicles is decidedly much darker than, say, Manchester by the Sea. (Then again, it is a German production...)

Kruger -- best known to many from Inglourious Basterds and the National Treasure movies -- makes her German-language debut in In the Fade. While she has gotten acclaim for her work here (she won Best Actress at Cannes), admittedly it's for a role we've seen done many times before.

In the Fade takes itself a bit too seriously to stay watchable. There are some good elements, granted, but they don't always mesh together well. Kruger is good but hopefully she'll get a better leading role soon in a more deserving picture. (She's certainly earned it.)

My Rating: ***1/2

Down with Love

The very moment Peyton Reed's Down with Love begins, it's clear that it'll be a pastiche of the many romantic comedies of the 50s and early 60s. (It uses the 20th Century Fox logo from that time.) And that's only the start of it.

As Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) sparks a feminist revolt with her titular book, reporter Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) is convinced that Novak doesn't firmly believe in what the book presents. To prove it, he seeks out to seduce her. But plans like this often don't go without a hitch (so to speak).

Both Zellweger and McGregor had proven their bankability prior to Down with Love (she with Bridget Jones' Diary, he with the Star Wars prequels) so obviously this should work out. And boy, does it ever. (Hopefully the two actors will do another project like this.)

Also of note in Down with Love are supporting actors David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, who also have excellent chemistry together. Though both are more known for their Emmy-recognized work (he for Frasier, she for various Ryan Murphy productions) -- as other films they partook in can attest to -- they're always a welcoming presence in a movie. (And again, they should be in another project together.)

Down with Love is an utter delight, a rarity amongst today's regular features. The quartet of actors work off each other wonderfully, again alluding to similar titles of the era the film pays homage to. Basically if you needs the movie equivalent of an antidepressant, you'll more than likely find it here.

My Rating: *****

Saturday, October 28, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Leisure Seeker

Growing old is very seldom something one looks forward to. (As Roger Daltrey sang, "I hope I die before I get old.") The sense of independence starts to tapers off as their mental and physical facilities begin to falter. (Think of it as the aging process in reverse.)

Some try to make the most of what little time they have left by doing what they haven't had the chance to do before, more often than not due to family and/or financial matters. (Many times it can be something daring like bungee jumping or traveling.) It's once they've the means that they pursue them.

Michael Zadoorian's The Leisure Seeker follows such a story. With both of them feeling the effects of their age (he with Alzheimer's, she with cancer), John and Ella Robina go on a road trip in their titular RV for perhaps one last vacation. But what will stop them first: their concerned children, their shared deteriorating health or Ella's lack of patience?

Paolo Virzi's adaptation alters a number of the details from Zadoorian's novel but still maintains the general gist of the story. In the lead roles are Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren, both of whom have a charming chemistry together. However, it doesn't have that particular appeal the book had.

So which is better: Zadoorian's novel or Virzi's film? Both capture how the rebellious spirit has no age limit but Virzi makes the scenario more comedic in spots (though not always for the better). Either way, it's nice to have senior citizens depicted as more than doting grandparents. (It's a tiring thing to see after a while.)

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Cat Ballou

The opening moments of Elliot Silverstein's Cat Ballou pretty much establishes the general mood of it all, what with Nat King Cole (who died a few months before its release) and Stubby Kaye serving as a sort of Greek chorus. But boy, that doesn't even begin to describe it.

Starring Jane Fonda early in her career, Cat Ballou is a sort of send-up of the genre. (It's worth mentioning that her father was doing a number of westerns by this point in his own career.) It has a more slapstick approach to the subject matter, something not often seen in the otherwise somber field. (In fact, the source novel was a serious work. The comedy was added for the movie.)

Fonda may have been the star of Cat Ballou but the one responsible for stealing the show is Lee Marvin. (He didn't get that Oscar for nothing.) Playing dual roles as both Ballou's ally and enemy, he very obviously subverts his usual tough guy image. Now if only he had more opportunities to do comedy...

Similarly, Fonda is more known for serious fare but as she showed with Cat Ballou, she's good at comedy too. (Then again, Grace and Frankie might have reminded newer audiences to that fact.) And while she didn't enjoy making it, she still plays the straight woman role well.

Cat Ballou is a nice subversion of other films of the genre before it. Being released the same year as The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago, perhaps a less serious production was something the masses were looking for. (Hey, there was a lot going on then.)

My Rating: ****

Thursday, October 26, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

The private lives of public figures is something we find deeply engrossing. What are they like far away from the flashes of cameras? Are the smiles they wear for their audiences simply for show? Only those close to them know the real answer.

Which is why there's such an interest in memoirs and biographies. Through those we get the details that the media tend to speculate before they're confirmed or denied. But sometimes such accounts become more captivating when they're from someone close to the famous personality.

Peter Turner's Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool chronicles the final days of his former lover Gloria Grahame as she takes refuge in his family's home. Switching between (then-)present day and various points of their relationship, Turner depicts Grahame as a woman who was very much like the roles she often played: a no-nonsense kind of girl with a soft side.

A few tweaked details aside, Paul McGuigan's adaptation stays mostly true to Turner's memories of Grahame. (It shines more of a light on the cancer that would ultimately claim the actress' life.) Jaime Bell and Annette Bening (as Turner and Grahame, respectively) have strong chemistry. and the film has moments that are reminiscent of the Hollywood era when Grahame's fame was at its peak. That said, the latter doesn't always work.

So which is better: Turner's memoir or McGuigan's film? Both depict Grahame as more than just an Oscar-winning movie star and how pugnacious of a person she could be. (The last bit isn't generally a bad thing, mind you.) And the two works make one thing very clear: a famous person is still a person, far from immune to the usual failings found in the human race. (We're just prone to putting them on a pedestal.)

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I, Tonya

In 1994, O.J. Simpson became the prime suspect in the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. The ensuing trial may have resulted in an acquittal but his reputation was forever tarnished. But this wasn't the first instance (nor the last) from where a sports figure's career gave way to scandal.

Earlier that year, Tonya Harding tried to eliminate the competition by having Nancy Kerrigan injured before the Winter Olympics. (It didn't work.) The ensuing media frenzy resulted in Harding's career coming to an end. But what's the story behind it all?

Shot in a mockumentary style, Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya chronicles the many stormy events that resulted in Harding (Margot Robbie) lashing out at her supposed rival. It doesn't shy away from the various abusive relationships she endured -- from her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and her husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) in particular -- but they raise a question: did they lay the seeds for the attack on Kerrigan?

Admittedly the way I, Tonya handles the matter of domestic abuse won't rub people some people the right way (it's certainly not something to laugh at) but it does bring up a certain point. Harding's constantly trying to be the best at figure skating, the result of years of tough love from her mother. How much of her deep-rooted competitiveness affected her life?

I, Tonya has some spotty elements (handling of abuse, dodgy CGI) but there's one thing there's no denying about: how Harding is depicted. Gillespie doesn't capture her as some vindictive competition freak but rather as someone who got associated with the wrong people. (And she's the one who becomes the butt of the joke? That's double standard bullshit right there.) Basically she never should've been ostracized because of others' actions.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, October 23, 2017

Suburbicon

You'd think the people associated with George Clooney's Suburbicon would mean it's a good movie: directed by Clooney, a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Matt Damon and Julianne Moore as the stars...what could go wrong? Well...everything, really.

First off is that script by the Coens. Initially the premise of Suburbicon makes it sound like as though chaos is unleashed following a black family moving into the predominantly white titular suburbs. It happens but it quickly gets demoted to a B-plot. (That probably explains why they very seldom have non-white actors in their own films.)

Now Clooney has obviously proven his worth as a director with Good Night, and Good Luck but all his efforts since then have fallen short. Suburbicon only bolsters this claim. Hopefully Clooney will get out of this slump soon. (And knowing his status, he probably will.)

Back to the script's flaws for a moment. Being written after the Coens made their debut Blood Simple, it could be excused as them not having found their voice yet. That may be the case but that barely explains the very predictable events in the story. (If anything, it tries too hard to be like Double Indemnity.)

Suburbicon is clearly a low point for those involved. (Then again, its lone saving grace is Oscar Isaac's presence, and even then he's underused.) Obviously those involved will recover from this (the reason why is clear once you see the principal people involved) but still, it's not exactly an ideal film in actuality. (On paper, maybe.)

My Rating: ***

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)
WON
(1943, dir. Edmund Goulding)
Lost to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette

(More after the jump!)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Suspicion

Ah, the charming cad. A regular staple of many films from Hollywood's Golden Age. There's something about those characters that can provide a deep fascination.

And Johnnie Aysgrath (Cary Grant) of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion fits the bill for this character type. Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) becomes smitten by him but after she marries him, she finds out that he's got a nasty gambling habit and constantly in debt. And she starts fearing he's capable of darker deeds.

This being Hitchcock's first of four films with Grant, it's interesting to see the famed collaboration blossom. (After all, the director gave the actor some compelling roles to sink his teeth into.) And with Suspicion, Grant subverts his usual charming leading man role for something that can be truly menacing at times.

And what of Fontaine? Reuniting with Hitchcock after the success of Rebecca, she plays a role similar to hers in the earlier film. But Lina isn't like the second Mrs. de Winter; she actually has an inkling that her husband isn't who he claims to be.

Though often lost in the shadow of the previous Hitchcock/Fontaine collaboration, Suspicion still holds up all these years later. Sure, there's the occasional similarity to Rebecca (ironic, no?) but it's far from the Gothic romance the earlier film is. It's instead perhaps a more cautionary tale being careful with first impressions. (Such a notion can very well save your life.)

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Cluny Brown

"There was nothing important going on in London on a quiet Sunday afternoon in June 1938. The most exciting event of the day was Mr. Hilary Ames' cocktail party --- and even that was exciting only to Mr. Ames." So begins Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown. And it's at Ames' place where the titular character (Jennifer Jones) is introduced.

Many of the other characters find Cluny's behavior surprising (and not often in a good way) because she doesn't meet society's standards for being a lady (she's deeply interested in plumbing). Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), however, finds Cluny endearing. And from there, the hijinks ensue.

This being a Lubitsch film, Cluny Brown takes a lot of potshots at how class is perceived as a whole. A number of supporting characters don't deny that how they're viewed by others is crucial to their well-being. But with Cluny and Adam, that's not their main concern; they just want to lead happy lives.

Both Jones and Boyer have had their fair share of more serious works prior to Cluny Brown (she with The Song of Bernadette and Since You Went Away, he with Gaslight and Hold Back the Dawn) so it was an interesting move on Lubitsch's part. Though not the usual fare for the two actors, they have solid comedic timing and chemistry together.

Cluny Brown was a fine note for Lubitsch to go out on. (He passed away the following year.) Its two leads may not have done another film together after this one but their time together in this results in a one-of-a-kind treat. (Speaking of which, why didn't they reunite on screen? More than likely that Jones' future husband David O. Selznick might've had some part in that.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

There are those whose purpose in life is known early on. Some may be destined to further the field of medicine, other might display an interest towards the arts. In the case of Sammy Davis, Jr., his career path was simple: to be an entertainer.

Sam Pollard's Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me follows the path of Davis' career from his early days in vaudeville to being a member of the Rat Pack to making a name for himself by his lonesome. But being a black (and later Jewish) entertainer in the early days of the civil rights movement was a feat easier said than done.

The documentary focuses primarily on the professional hurdles Davis faced, the personal ones serving more as a footnote. (His romance with Kim Novak and then-controversial marriage to May Britt are briefly highlighted.) By many means did aspects of his life hamper the progress of his career but at the same time, said aspects had him breaking barriers.

Nevertheless, he persisted with his career ambitions. Pollard shows how there was hypocrisy within society and show business more than half a century ago. White performers could don blackface without a second thought but Davis was regularly talked out of doing his dead-on impressions of movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart. (Davis also wasn't allowed to attend John F. Kennedy's inauguration gala -- Kennedy's father didn't approve of Davis' then-engagement to Britt -- but Nat King Cole, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were.)

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me depicts a man who -- depending on the decade -- was either ahead of his time or painfully out of touch with it. But regardless of how the culture at the time perceived him, it was very hard to deny his talent. And that's still the case in the years since his death in 1990.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Two Weeks in Another Town

The opening moments of Vincente Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town shows Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) walking around the grounds of the sanitarium that's been his home for some time. Once a big movie star, now nobody would touch him with a ten-foot pole. Well, except for director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), and even that isn't without its own melodrama.

Temperamental actors, a movie going overbudget and way past schedule, snarled romances, and feuds on set and off. These are the things plaguing both Jack and Maurice in Two Weeks in Another Town. Jack's ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) -- who was responsible for landing him in the sanitarium -- tries to seduce him back while Maurice's wife Clara (Claire Trevor) spends most of her time screaming at her husband. No wonder they're the way that they are.

This isn't the first time Minnelli and Douglas tackled Hollywood; in the previous decade, they had made The Bad and the Beautiful. (Snippets of the earlier film are shown as a previous work of Jack's.) But in comparison with the two, Two Weeks in Another Town is decidedly less jaded in depicting behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

And seeing as how their last two films resulted in Oscar nominations for Douglas, it would make sense to see if the third time's the charm. But in contrast to The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life, it's not as focused on the story at hand. (Though Robinson and Trevor's scenes are an interesting reversal of their roles in Key Largo.)

Two Weeks in Another Town may not be quality Minnelli but it does have its good points. (Its running time is not one of them.) His films with Douglas are an underappreciated collaboration, making one wonder what it'd be like had it been a regular teaming...

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It Should Happen to You

Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) hasn't had the best day at the start of George Cukor's It Should Happen to You. She just lost her modelling job due to a slight shift in her measurements, and now she's despondent at losing her chance at becoming a somebody. Then she sees some available billboard space, and an idea pops into her head.

As she proved with her previous collaborations with Cukor, Holliday is the star of It Should Happen to You. Making the ditzy (not dumb) blonde her noted role, Holliday precedes Marilyn Monroe in making the character type her own. And no one could get the best of that character out of her than Cukor. (Just watch Adam's Rib or Born Yesterday.)

Also of note in It Should Happen to You is Jack Lemmon in his first major film role. As he would later show with his Billy Wilder collaborations, his Pete Sheppard keeps a can-do spirit despite being the universe's human punching bag. You just can't help but root for him.

In this day and age of people getting famous for the most menial of things, It Should Happen to You seems almost quaint. Of course those involved (Cukor, Holliday, Lemmon, Peter Lawford, et al.) aren't around to witness fiction becoming reality. (Lord only knows what it'd be like had they lived long enough to see the age of the internet.)

It Should Happen to You is deeply charming, which is something to be expected when Holliday and Lemmon are involved. Being released the same year as On the Waterfront and Rear Window (and Cukor's own A Star is Born), it's a nice breather from the heavier titles that year. (Is it ever wrong to go for Cukor as a pick-me-up?)

My Rating: ****

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Ghost Story

What is there after it's all over? It's been speculated for centuries what happened when someone dies, if there's anything in the hereafter. Does heaven actually exist or does reincarnation? Or is there nothing waiting for us in the end?

David Lowery's A Ghost Story explores what waits for us in the hereafter. Following the bedsheet-clad spirit of a man (Casey Affleck), we watch as he stands idly by in his home as his wife (Rooney Mara) tries to cope with the loss. But there's more to the story Lowery has presented.

In a way, A Ghost Story is similar to Affleck's previous film Manchester by the Sea in their depictions of life and its hardships. It's true that you can't expect everything to be either in your favor or to stay the same. Everything in life has to change, it's natural order. To expect routine is impossible.

Also explored in A Ghost Story is how you'll be remembered when you're gone. (In fact, there's a segment in the film that focuses on that very thing.) That's why so many people want to become famous in some way: to know that they're not forgotten.

A Ghost Story is a deeply meditating (and equally depressing) piece of work. It will linger in your mind long after it's over, making one contemplate their own worth and meaning in life. (But boy, you're going to be making -- and eating -- a lot of comfort food afterwards.)

My Rating: ****1/2

The Little Hours

A few lines into Jeff Baena's The Little Hours, and its general mood is quickly established. What initially is perceived as something along the lines of The Nun's Story turns into a raunchier version of The Devils. (No, seriously.)

Then again, when the likes of Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Dave Franco make up part of the cast for The Little Hours, the outcome is perhaps inevitable. Sure, we've seen a number of profanity-laden sex romps over the last few years but there's something here that makes it funny. (Maybe because it's primarily set at a convent?)

We've seen a number of films pertaining to pious folk throughout the years, their level of devotion varying from title to title. Whether they hold the Bible close to their chest or slowly break each of the Ten Commandments, it's women that are more scrutinized for their behavior. (Can you say "double standard"?)

Similarly, the matter of women's sexual urges is another theme explored in The Little Hours. It always seems to be when they're in a situation where acting on them would result in societal scolding that such desires are amplified. Is this something men commonly think how women honestly behave when they're frustrated in that sense? (If so, the concept of self-pleasure must be foreign to them...to an extent.)

The Little Hours is funny in spots but it's rather misogynistic as a whole. (Generally, if someone vows to serve God, wanting to get laid should be at the very end of their list.) But hey, apparently this is the path comedy is going down as of late. (Why that is, it's hard to properly explain.)

My Rating: ***1/2

Friday, September 1, 2017

Dunkirk

World War II is often a go-to source for media both fictional and factual. Sometimes those involved in these projects were also participants of the many battles, other times it's from those who did extensive research. Either way, there's been a barrage of them ever since the fighting's conclusion over seventy years ago.

With Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, he explores what happened after the Battle of France and the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the benches of the titular French commune. Using three perspectives of the events (and using his now-familiar non-linear storytelling), he depicts a non-glorified re-telling of history. But how well does he do it?

Nolan recruited only three of his regular actors (Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine) for Dunkirk, the rest of the cast being made up of established actors and relatively fresh faces. Was this aspect a deliberate decision on Nolan's part? Perhaps, but as his previous films showed, he's more interested in the story rather than those responsible for acting it out. (Okay, The Prestige possibly being the lone exception.)

But Dunkirk isn't only Nolan's shining achievement; many of the technical aspects make the film what it is. The combination of Hans Zimmer's score and Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography make for a claustrophobic pairing. (That's a good thing, mind you.) And like Saving Private Ryan before it, it'll take your breath away.

Dunkirk is probably Nolan's best film to date, showing that there's obviously more to him than star-studded CGI-heavy productions. It's perhaps the most human of his career, and hopefully he'll do more films of a similar nature. (But maybe on a smaller scale.)

My Rating: *****

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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: A Thousand Clowns

Family is often a subject matter explored in fiction. Whether it's the estrangement of its members or the reunion of them, it's something everyone experiences at some point in their lifetime. And its material can vary from work to work.

More often than not said material focuses on the men of the family. Many times it's because of the stigma towards the dominant sex showing their emotions. (Granted, the writers of those stories are often male themselves.) Sometimes it's from circumstances both seen and unseen, other things being more complicated.

Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns follows unemployed writer Murray Burns as he faces the possibility of losing custody of his nephew Nick. Murray's more than content with his current situation but everyone's insisting that he should find another job. And boy, he doles out some real zingers courtesy of Gardner and his typewriter. ("Oh God, I've been attacked by the Ladies' Home Journal.")

Recruiting many of the people associated with the original Broadway production (including the director), Fred Coe's adaptation expands on Gardner's three-act play and explores more of Murray's self-contained world. Coe uses New York City as Murray's personal playground, his escape from acting his own age. But man, does that come back to bite him on the ass time and time again.

So which is better: Gardner's play or Coe's film? Both maintain a dry wit to them, something you don't normally find in the average script nowadays. (Why aren't more theatrical works like this?) And it's interesting because plays don't always translate very well on a cinematic scale.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

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.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

There always seems to be an overlying sense of doubt towards comic book movie sequels. Very rarely do they tend to get held in the same or even higher regard as the first one. Really, the level of expectation that's set is often an absurd one to achieve.

That all said, how does James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fare? Much like its predecessor, its level seriousness varies from low to nonexistent. But at the same time, it's more grounded than the first one. (Strange but true.)

But how is that so? you may ask. Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has family as its main theme, something the average superhero movie usually doesn't focus on. And not family in the metaphorical sense (though it does focus on that as well), actual blood relations. How often do you see that in a superhero movie?

Of course the primary actors of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are good in reprising their roles. (Chris Pratt towards the end has the making of a potential legitimacy as an actor.) And in keeping with the movie's 80s nostalgia, Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone (who has a smaller role despite his name on the poster) seem like inspired inclusions.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a surprisingly mature entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As its predecessor also showed, its darker themes are masked by bright colors and crude humor (as some previous MCU titles have also done). But will further works in this franchise follow suit?

My Rating: ****1/2

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

Baby Driver

Within the span of a decade, Edgar Wright has become one of the most popular directors working today. His spark of creativity has yet to either falter or disappoint (and hopefully never will). It's safe to say he has nowhere to go but up.

So how has he fare with his American debut Baby Driver? Being more action-based than his Cornetto Trilogy or his TV series Spaced, it has car chases that would make Steve McQueen proud, a soundtrack of variety, and a rather solid lineup of actors involved. (Again, it's a testament of how Wright works that gives the film industry a much-needed spark of originality.)

As he showed with his more British-oriented productions, Wright has the editing play just as crucial of a role as the script. Thanks to the work from editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos and sound editors Mary J. Ellis and James Peterson, what Wright had envisioned becomes reality. That said, it's not without its bumps in the road. (That wasn't intentional, honest.)

Wright doesn't exactly have the best track record with female characters, and Baby Driver only furthers that claim. (The only reason Spaced worked was because Jessica Hynes was both co-creator and co-writer of it.) Granted, Wright still has time to rectify this but when will it actually happen?

Baby Driver continues to prove Wright's worth as a writer-director. Yes, it has some flaws that were also found in his works with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost but in the long run, who cares? It's rad as hell.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Hero

You know how some movies have roles that were written specifically for their actors? Sometimes it's after regular collaborations, other times it's who the writer aspire to see in that role. Most of the time the intended actors don't accept the role but there are those few exceptions.

It doesn't take much to see Brett Haley's The Hero has one of those exceptions. Going by some of the dialogue, the character of Lee Hayden was most definitely written for Sam Elliott and him alone. Between the allusions to his golden and distinct mustache to his background in westerns, it gets kind of blatant after a while. (They even cast real-life wife Katherine Ross as his ex.)

But what is The Hero about? It follows out-of-work Lee as he interacts with family and friends, tries to get a gig, and comes to terms with a cancer diagnosis. Admittedly it has many tropes we've seen countless times before (Lee's estranged from his daughter, has a fling with a younger woman) though Elliott more than makes up for them.

Much like what he did with Blythe Danner with his previous film I'll See You in My Dreams (where Elliott has a supporting role), Haley provides a solid role for Elliott to sink his teeth into. After decades as a character actor, it's nice to see his name first and foremost on the poster.

The Hero follows the usual conventions found in similar works but maintains solid material for its lead. As he did with his previous film, Haley has an actor of a certain age get their due as a performer. And as this and his previous film have proven, he'll be around for some time.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Stop Making Sense

Ever since his passing this April, the world of cinema has become a poorer place with Jonathan Demme's presence. Ever since Roger Corman took him under his wing all those years ago, it was clear that his work would endure. Whether it's Oscar-winning fare like The Silence of the Lambs or more undervalued projects like Rachel Getting Married, it was nigh impossible to not like what he offered.

But as well as feature films, Demme also dabbled with documentaries. Perhaps the most famous of the ones he did was Stop Making Sense. But it's far from the usual cut and dry filmed account. What the viewer is treated to instead is something for the ages.

By no means does one have to be a fan of Talking Heads to appreciate what Stop Making Sense has to offer. Sure, one may watch it solely for the music (not that's there anything wrong with that) but in Demme's hands, he makes it feel as though the viewer has front row seats to the band's three-night concert.

Also taking into account Demme's other works, Stop Making Sense plays out very much like your standard narrative. It doesn't rely on behind-the-scenes footage or shots of the audience (apart from during the last song); it's all about the show.

Stop Making Sense is perhaps the most essential music documentary ever made. Demme, just a few years away from achieving Oscar glory, solidifies his status in Hollywood. And as his later works showed showed, he wasn't going to be forgotten any time soon. (Let's hope it stays that way too.)

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Monty Python's Life of Brian

If there's anything that's absolute fodder for immediate controversy, it's any depiction of religion. Anything where the merit of such beliefs are questioned, there will be an uproar of some magnitude. (Even for those that only examine the subject very briefly.)

Once one has seen Terry Jones' Monty Python's Life of Brian, they may not be at all surprised that it was met with some scorn. (The last scene is probably the most audacious thing the comedy troupe had put on film.) But at the same time, it provides a surprisingly smart commentary on the hypocrisy within religion.

Much like the previous endeavors of the sextet, they provide many of the roles in Monty Python's Life of Brian and again have Graham (ironically) as the titular straight man amid the absurdity. That's not to dis the casting decision but it would've been interesting to see a change in their usual lineup. (John Cleese lobbied for the lead before the others convinced him to let Chapman play Brian.)

But let's muse on Chapman for a moment longer, shall we? What would've become of his career had he not died from cancer in 1989? Would he have continued with comedy or would he have ventured into more serious material? It's been almost thirty years since his passing but the questions still linger.

Anyway, Monty Python's Life of Brian still holds up nearly forty years later. It may be (somewhat) more serious than Monty Python and the Holy Grail but that's possibly because of the group's change in style. As any good comedy can prove, it has to be both progressive and accessible to the masses throughout the coming years. And the Pythons have done just that with their many contributions.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, July 14, 2017

Megan Leavey

Usually when war stories (be they fictional or factual) get the Hollywood treatment, they tend to boil down to these factors: innocence shattered by bloodshed, moments of high tension, and an inability to forget what was witnessed. But nine times out of ten, these tales of battle are led by men.

Sure, there are some with women as the focus in such narratives but very few of them have women behind the camera. Hence why Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Megan Leavey stands out. Based on real events, it follows the titular Marine (Kate Mara) as she serves her country. But that's not to say everything is as clean-cut as it sounds.

It's established early on that Megan feels out of place amid her surroundings. (There's also mentions that she has difficulty connecting with other people.) Sure, the "outsider in the military" trope is far from anything new though Cowperthwaite shows how women in this profession tend to be treated differently by their peers. (Sometimes not for the better as some reports can verify.)

Though it's her younger sister who's become more famous, Mara proves her own worth as an actress in Megan Leavey. Depicting the many plights her character faces both in and out of combat, she follows in the footsteps of many actors before her in capturing feeling perpetually out of the loop.

Megan Leavey doesn't have a lot to write home about but it's still good nonetheless. In the many years of military films with male leads, it's nice to see women at the helm. (It's not a long way since, say, Zero Dark Thirty but baby steps.)

My Rating: ****

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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman

Stuart Heisler's Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman opens at a hospital, focusing on a patient who's heavily bandaged and delirious. The patient is Angie Evans (Susan Hayward), a former nightclub singer. What led her to this situation?

The film goes back to when Angie was still working. After marrying rising singer Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), she becomes a stay-at-home mother as his career begins to skyrocket. But in her attempts to appear happy, she slips deeper and deeper into alcoholism.

There's an element of truth in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, it being loosely based on real events albeit with changed names. The character of Angie was inspired by Dixie Lee, the first wife of Bing Crosby. (Her own career came to a standstill as her husband's took off.) It's almost a miracle the studio didn't face a lawsuit from either Lee or Crosby.

As she would do a few years later with I'll Cry Tomorrow, Hayward shows a very ugly side to alcoholism. With The Lost Weekend still lingering in the minds of moviegoers, she further proved how the alcoholic character is far from the comic relief  commonly seen throughout the previous decade; it's a frightful ailment millions of people are afflicted with.

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman still packs a punch after seventy years, providing a wake-up call for those who indulge themselves in such a destructive craving. (And like any work that depicts the grotesque nature of addiction, it may make those who don't partake in it to stay far away from any such vice.)

My Rating: *****

Monday, June 19, 2017

Lucky

Mortality: the very thing most of us don't want to face. More often than not, we only start thinking about death once we've had a close brush with it. It's simply something we can't escape.

That's what the titular character (Harry Dean Stanton) experiences in John Carroll Lynch's Lucky after he falls in his house. Before that incident, he lives a rather nondescript life in a small town. He has his usual routines for his day, nothing completely out of the ordinary. But now he starts re-examining his life.

Stanton has been in Hollywood for decades now, having the kind of presence that's of the welcoming variety. Whether it's a supporting role or something on a smaller scale, he always delivers. And as he shows here, he has no trouble being the one in charge.

And since Stanton is the star and Lynch the director, it seems almost fitting that a litany of character actors round out Lucky. Each of the side characters have their own personalities, some of them mirroring their actors' traits. (The most telling one is with David Lynch's.) But as stated earlier, this is Stanton's show.

Lucky continues to prove that Stanton is a valuable performer. Here's someone who's been a regular presence for decades it's almost impossible to think of a film that wasn't improved by him being in it. There's nobody else like him, and there never will be either; he is simply one of a kind.

My Rating: ****1/2

Landline

As Gillian Robespierre showed with Obvious Child, there's nothing wrong with being imperfect. We're all expected to make mistakes and bad decisions, it's basic human nature. But boy, does Robespierre drive that point home with her latest Landline.

Landline follows the Jacobs family and their bumps in the road: mother Pat (Edie Falco) has a tendency to rule the household with an iron fist; eldest daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) gets cold feet as her wedding day approaches; and youngest daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) prefers partying over studying. As for father Alan (John Tuturro)? He's having an affair.

Yes, that does seem like a lot to put all in one movie but hey, Robespierre's last one was a comedy with abortion as its main theme. So having her follow-up have adultery as its focus isn't too much of a stretch. (And for the record, Landline is decidedly darker than Obvious Child.)

Seeing as how she was also in Robespierre's previous film, Slate stands out in Landline. Falco and Tuturro also provide much of the same. But it's newcomer Quinn that makes the biggest impression amongst the four leads. (Be sure to keep an eye on her.)

Landline doesn't reach the same levels as Obvious Child but it has its merits. Robespierre continues to show her worth as a director and writer, likewise with Slate as her muse. Of course, to say both of them are ones to keep an eye on would be redundant. (After all, they earned that distinction from their previous collaboration.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, June 18, 2017

God's Own Country

Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) of Francis Lee's God's Own Country seems content if sometimes irritated with his uneventful life in Yorkshire. He helps out on his family's farm during the day, gets trashed at the pub at night, and squeezes in the occasional hookup here and there. It's when Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) enters the picture that things start to change for Johnny.

By no means is God's Own Country the first film to follow such a premise, regardless of the sexuality on display. But what Lee does with his debut is he captures an awakening for Johnny. He's so accustomed to making himself numb, the thought of something meaningful in his life practically scares him.

There are similarities to Brokeback Mountain in God's Own Country, the most telling being the first sexual encounter between Johnny and Gheorghe. (In fact, that scene and several later ones practically parallel Ang Lee's film.) But to compare the two films merely reduces the worth of both works; they need to be appreciated individually.

While Lee shows immense promise with his career, the same can most definitely be said for O'Connor as well. The actor -- a relative newcomer to the profession -- depict's Johnny's frustrations towards his dull routine. (It's once Gheorghe becomes a part of his life that Johnny becomes more open emotionally.) Safe to say we'll be seeing O'Connor more in the coming years.

God's Own Country is a deeply intimate story, something not often explored in similar works (straight, gay or otherwise). Usually lust is mistaken for romance but Lee makes sure not to make the blunder others have made before. And the result is one that's essential viewing.

My Rating: *****