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, December 19, 2017

Never Say Goodbye

The opening moments of James V. Kern's Never Say Goodbye shows Ellen (Eleanor Parker) and Phil Gayley (Errol Flynn) both separately buying a coat for their daughter Flip (Patti Brady). She buys a modest coat for Flip while he gets a flashier one. This establishes who the two of them are as parents.

Oh, and it's worth mentioning that Ellen and Phil are divorced. (The reason as to why their marriage ended isn't specified though Phil's wandering eye might have something to do with it.) As part of their settlement, Flip lives with Phil for half of the year and then with Ellen for the other half. This isn't an ideal situation for Flip so she tries to get her parents back together. But will she succeed?

By this point in Flynn's career, his film union with Olivia de Havilland had ended five years earlier, he tried to expand his screen image (with varying success), and then there were his legal woes. Obviously, he needed some serious PR, and Never Say Goodbye certainly helped a bit. (Was there anyone who oozed more charm than Flynn? Probably not.)

Something that's brought up throughout Never Say Goodbye is the effects of divorce on a child. Ellen mentions that Flip needs to accept that her parents will never get back together, obviously not taking into account how shuffling from household to household isn't the best scenario for her young daughter. (Bear in mind this was released the same year Benjamin Spock made a name for himself in similar matters.)

Never Say Goodbye is predictable in spots but as Flynn showed previously with Four's a Crowd, he was just adept at comedy as he was with swashbuckler pictures. (Parker, in turn, serves as a sort of straight woman to the film's antics.) It's not the usual fare for its leads but they're enjoyable nonetheless.

My Rating: ****

Monday, December 18, 2017

Bell, Book and Candle

In 1958, James Stewart and Kim Novak teamed up for Vertigo, With his traditional ways and her allure, they made for an ideal pairing for Alfred Hitchcock. But did you know that the two actors were in another film that year?

That film for the record was Richard Quine's Bell, Book and Candle, and their roles here were actually similar to those in Hitchcock's. Stewart's Shep Henderson is your average Joe: good-paying job, quiet life, plans to get married. All of that goes right out the window when he crosses paths with the (literally) bewitching Gillian Holroyd (Novak).

Obviously, Bell, Book and Candle and Vertigo are two completely different films (the former a supernatural comedy, the latter a thriller). But aside from their lead stars, there are some similarities between the projects, the most telling being Stewart getting drawn to Novak's aloof nature.

Alongside Stewart and Novak in Bell, Book and Candle are the likes of Elsa Lanchester and Jack Lemmon, both as members of Gillian's family (she as her aunt, he as her brother). Obviously it's interesting casting (Lemmon in particular sports one hell of a manic grin most of the time) but of course this show belongs to Stewart and Novak.

Bell, Book and Candle may have gotten lost in the shadow of Vertigo but it has its own charms (so to speak). Stewart and Novak work wonderfully together, and Lanchester and Lemmon do much of the same. And with this being Stewart's last foray as a romantic lead (even the leading man can be affected by age), it provides one final glimpse of the performer from his prime. (It also serves as a reminder for the changing of the guard when it came to Hollywood's stars.)

My Rating: ****

Holiday Affair

It's made clear early on in Don Hartman's Holiday Affair that Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) has a lot on her plate. A war widow with a young son, her longtime suitor Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) has recently proposed to her. But things get more complicated when Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) enters her life.

Admittedly lighthearted fare like Holiday Affair was typical for Leigh at this early stage of her career. But this was decidedly a change of pace for Mitchum, having recently been released from jail for marijuana possession. (His casting was a deliberate move on RKO head Howard Hughes' part.) And it was a good opportunity for Mitchum to move beyond his usual "baby, I don't care" image.

Indeed, a number of Steve's scenes has Mitchum playing a caring figure, not something one would expect from the actor in either Crossfire or Out of the Past. But as later roles like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Grass is Greener showed, he could be as compassionate as any of his male contemporaries. (Does anyone know if Mitchum did similar work beyond the mentioned titles?)

Upon its release, Holiday Affair wasn't much of a hit (though subsequent showings on TV have vindicated it in later years). But why wasn't it successful? It was released at a good time (read: the holiday season), its leads were generally bankable (though more in the years to come for Leigh), and the premise was easy to follow. Maybe it wasn't promoted properly but we may not know for sure.

Anyway, Holiday Affair is an enjoyable little yarn despite its overall predictability. Leigh and Mitchum connect very well in their scenes, almost making one wish they had done another project together. With her at the start of her career and him being a recent Oscar nominee, there was nowhere to go but up for the both of them.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Man Who Came to Dinner

The minute radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) opens his mouth in William Keighley's The Man Who Came to Dinner, his disdain for, well, everything knows no bounds. And after he breaks his hip, his caustic tongue doesn't take it easy like the rest of him. God help those who cross both him and his path.

Alongside this misanthropic figure is his ever-patient assistant Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), who serves as a sort of translator for those unfamiliar with Sheridan's barbs. (Amusingly, Davis of all people has only one line with an ounce of venom in it.) This being her follow-up to The Little Foxes, she was drawn to the original play's light ambiance. (She succeeded in convincing Jack Warner to buy the rights but not as lucky in getting John Barrymore as her leading man.)

Throughout The Man Who Came to Dinner, there are traits that were also seen in farcical comedies of the time: jabs at the upper class, a vamp who's constantly on the prowl, Billie Burke as the ditzy society know, the usual specs. (Hey, give the people what they want.)

Now Keighley had various ups and downs as a director prior to making The Man Who Came to Dinner. (He worked at Warner Bros. so he had worked with the likes of Davis, James Cagney, and Errol Flynn.) It's more than likely that the higher-ups had some doubts on the director as a whole (film critic David Thomson certainly thinks so) but that doesn't reduce the worth of his many films.

The Man Who Came to Dinner is a breezy comedy of manners, its release being at perhaps an ideal time. (The attack on Pearl Harbor was only the month before.) If the following years proved anything, Woolley was more than warmly welcomed to Hollywood as a result of his work here.

My Rating: ****

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

In the opening moments of Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, the titular character tries unsuccessfully again to escape from her domineering aunt (Judith Anderson). Shortly after being returned home, she gets into a scuffle that results in the aunt falling down the stairs to her death. And she manages to get away with least at the time.

Years pass and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) has married Walter O'Neil (Kirk Douglas), who had witnessed the aunt's death. She runs the one-sided marriage with steely precision, her demeanor unflappable. But she starts to let her guard down when Sam Masterson (Van Helfin) -- who Martha tried to run away with that fateful night -- returns to town.

Boy, the names attached to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. All four leads (Stanwyck, Douglas, Heflin, Martha Scott) are familiar faces of film noir, both before and since this. And they're in roles that are par for the course with the genre: the tough broad (Stanwyck), the alcoholic (Douglas), the gambler (Heflin), and the convict (Scott).

This being Douglas' film debut, it seems strange now to see him in a role where he's constantly viewed as weak. Here's an actor who's practically synonymous with passionate acting style so to see him as a pushover is disconcerting, to say the least. Still, it's good that Hollywood realized Douglas was a star in the making.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers isn't particularly top-tier noir (at least in comparison to other ones starring Stanwyck) but boy, does it drip with post-war cynicism. The quartet of its lead actors shows why they're practically synonymous with the genre, Stanwyck and Scott in particular. (Certainly a change of pace for the director of All Quiet on the Western Front, that's for sure.)

My Rating: ****

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


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: ****


In contrast to Douglas Sirk's films from the 1950s, his film Lured is in a class of its own. (In fairness, it is a remake of a film by Robert Siodmak, he himself a familiar figure of noir.) But what is the film about?

A serial killer is on the loose in London, taunting Scotland Yard with poems about the victims. After her friend goes missing, taxi dancer Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) agrees to help the police find the culprit. But will she find who's responsible or become the next victim?

Sirk may be synonymous with melodramas nowadays but as he showed here with Lured (and The Tarnished Angels the following decade), he could also handle more sober material. That said, there are a few traits here that are also on display in his more famous works.

Similarly, before she became synonymous with comedy within a matter of years, Ball was also adept at the genre's polar opposite. As she showed previously with Dance, Girl, Dance and The Dark Corner (released the year before), she often played the street-smart gal with the thick New York accent (not an uncommon role for most actresses then). In other words, Ball could do projects with a jaded atmosphere to it and her characters.

Lured is certainly not the kind of picture you'd see Sirk making but it pays off in the end. (Imagine if he had made a melodrama noir.) It seems that the German director had a somewhat wearied view on the American concept of achieving either fame or fortune (as his later films would depict) as well as seeing life as a very fickle thing. And that's all on display here.

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: ****

Experiment in Terror

The name Blake Edwards is usually synonymous with comedy. The Pink Panther series, Victor/Victoria, Operation Petticoat, The Great Race...apart from the occasional romance, this was how his legacy was shaped. But in 1962, he had two San Francisco-set films starring Lee Remick that were most definitely not comedies.

The most famous of the two is Days of Wine and Roses, which got Remick her lone Oscar nomination. The other was Experiment in Terror, which is decidedly more diabolical than Edwards' other works. (Seeing that it opens with Remick's Kelly Sherwood being threatened by a shadowy figure in close-up, that explains everything right there.)

Alongside Remick is Glenn Ford, a regular amongst film noir. As FBI agent John Ripley, he does a role similar to The Big Heat in that he'll seek justice by any means possible. (Okay, not in the same ruthless ways as Dave Bannion.) But will Ripley succeed in capturing the raspy-voiced sociopath?

In very stark contrast to Edwards' other films, Experiment in Terror is not interested in the sake of laughs. (Same with his other 1962 release.) It's an anxious picture, borrowing cues from the likes of noirs past. (It's also one hell of a follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany's, that's for sure.)

Experiment in Terror may not be Edwards' usual fare but boy, he certainly knows what he's doing. (Apparently, his output from that year convinced him to focus more on the sillier side of life afterward.) And with it being released in a very stacked year for movies, it's clear as to why it's not as known as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Miracle Worker. But should that fact lessen one's curiosity towards it? Of course not.

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

BOOK VS MOVIE: Call Me By Your Name

Romance and coming-of-age often go hand in hand, the reason being the simplest one: first love is incredibly potent. The exhilaration of feeling such a way for someone can be all-consuming, the desire of wanting the outside world to fade away as they're with their beloved. But no one ever stated that such a sensation would last.

But back to the topic at hand, usually these stories have a particular slant to them. Many times it's so younger audiences have something to relate to (though with movies, their ratings often omit such audiences from seeing them upon release). And sometimes such tales don't capture that euphoria of infatuation.

André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name especially expresses that hazy awareness. Set during a summer in Italy, its stream of consciousness narrative is told through the eyes of a professor's son as he becomes taken by one of his father's students. But will such feelings be reciprocated and if so, for how long?

With a script penned by James Ivory (whose film Maurice would make for a good companion piece), Luca Guadagnino's adaptation is as much of a dreamy sigh as what Aciman wrote. Bearing in mind the director's previous films, its lush elements are woven into a story that's as rich as it is sensual. The way body language is conveyed throughout is something most romances can only dream of achieving. (And oh, that final shot.)

So which is better: Aciman's novel or Guadagnino's film? Both depict the ache that comes from that sense of longing, that knowledge that you know what you want from your limited time on this earth. But as life itself proves time and time again, there's bound to be heartbreak amid those moments of happiness. (But it's always best to focus on the latter in times of trouble.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

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

The Florida Project

Childhood is something that's often cherished. Many times, however, the ugliness of what happens in that short period of life doesn't get highlighted in fiction. (The nostalgia filter is often quite effective to some people.)

Sean Baker's The Florida Project is a recent depiction of this time in life. Following Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as she causes havoc, it's set at a hotel on the outskirts of Disney World. Her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) more or less lets her runs unsupervised with her friends. Both causes headaches for hotel manager Bobby Hicks (Willen Dafoe) but how long until reality sets in for them?

Like his previous film Tangerine, Bakers focuses on an overlooked section of society in The Florida Project with the aid of newcomers in the main roles. (Perhaps a recurring theme for his later works too?) Eschewing the glamour of the average film and its process, he's obviously more interested in those who've tried to achieve the American dream and failed.

And similar to Tangerine, The Florida Project has its ancillary characters have as much personality as the lead ones. (Only good writers make sure of doing that, and thankfully Baker is one such person.) This isn't just about Moonee and her antics; it's also about the people she encounters.

The Florida Project continues to prove Baker's worth as a director. With his two most recent films, he avoids any flashy elements usually found in your standard Hollywood picture in order to stay modest with his work and humble in his storytelling methods. Hopefully his career stays on this trajectory in the years to come. (It's not too much of a stretch to say Baker's shaping up to be the next John Cassavetes, is 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: ****

The Rape of Recy Taylor

Within the last few weeks, numerous women (and several men) in Hollywood have come forth after years of silence against the men who sexually assaulted them. Many of them stayed quiet out of fear that either no one would believe them or their attacker(s) would seek retribution. But the very courageous will report what happened to them immediately.

That's what Nancy Buirski tells in her documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor. After being assaulted by six white men on her way home from church, Taylor's family tries to help her get justice (her attackers get acquitted twice, some of them enlisting in the war afterward). As a result, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to help. And that's when history begins.

Buirski highlights in The Rape of Recy Taylor -- particularly towards the end -- who should be given credit for their presence in the civil rights movement. Not Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who regularly spoke out against the indignities colored people endured on a daily basis. No, Buirski has the numerous nameless who marched with King in such a role designation. And quite honestly, she's right.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own, "I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." (And yes, that's the actual quote.) How many women have made contributions to society that weren't recognized as such at the time? The truth may not be completely known but regardless, we have to respect the women in our lives, no matter what.

The Rape of Recy Taylor chronicles a forgotten name from a crucial time in American history, one responsible for shaping history itself. Taylor may not be in regular classroom discussions but she damn well should be. (And the same should be said for the many nameless victims of such ugly behavior.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Odds Against Tomorrow

The morality of people is something that can provide solid fodder if used properly. What can cause someone to betray both their beliefs and those close to them? And do they revert back to their old ways?

Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow has this as the main dilemma for Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte). A family man with gambling debts, he reluctantly agrees to help David Burke (Ed Begley) in a bank robbery upstate. But co-conspirator Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) balks at working with someone who's black.

Naturally the main focus of Odds Against Tomorrow is the robbery but after nearly sixty years, what stands out is the depiction of race. Being released before the civil rights movement's peak, the matter was (and still unfortunately is) a hot-button topic. After all, actors like Belafonte (read: black) were just beginning to move away from servant roles and other stereotypes.

Similarly, there's a point in Odds Against Tomorrow where Johnny finds his wife hosting a PTA meeting in their home. He's offended that she's trying to behave more white. Usually such disgust towards another race has someone who's Caucasian expressing it (at least as far as fiction goes). It's not that common for someone non-white behaving that way. (In real life, however....)

Odds Against Tomorrow proves that while Wise is more known for West Side Story and The Sound of Music (and to some Star Trek: The Motion Picture), he certainly knew what to do with more serious material. (Adding to the film's noir ambiance are Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame in supporting roles.) And man, Belafonte should've been a bigger name in Hollywood. (He was obviously a very talented man.)

My Rating: ****

Friday, October 27, 2017

Happy End

It's very clear how to distinguish a film by Michael Haneke from any other. Many times his works cross a certain line, other times they do a merry jig on said line. And boy, his latest film Happy End does the latter many times over.

A sort of sequel to Haneke's earlier film Amour, Happy End depicts a deeply dysfunctional family: a patriarch who attempts suicide repeatedly, a fractured mother-son relationship, a son with a wandering eye, and an emotionally distant granddaughter. And that's just the half of it.

As he showed with Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, Haneke makes it clear he's morbidly fascinated by what makes a person tick. (The opening sequence of Happy End grimly verifies that claim.) Why do some people behave the way that they do? Haneke doesn't provide a clear answer but no matter. Just enjoy the mayhem as it unfolds.

But much like Code Unknown, Happy End is more of just depicting life as it happens. It's not something that's always fair to some people nor is it full of the expected routines. More often than not, it regularly deals out some hard knocks to most of the people in the world. (Hey, just watch the news.)

Happy End is most definitely a Haneke film. With a dark interest towards human behavior, he explores society in an emotionally numbing manner -- as he is one to do -- to the point where wants to look away but can't bring themselves to do so. And it's probably safe to say that the last scene is the most audacious thing Haneke captured in any of his works.

My Rating: ****

The Ballad of Lefty Brown

An excerpt from Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis opens Jared Moshe's The Ballad of Lefty Brown: "The frontier environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish." And that's the very thing the titular character (Bill Pullman) encounters.

For years, Lefty Brown has been under the shadow of Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda), who has recently given up the Montana frontier for Washington D.C. (he was recently voted as the state's senator). But early into his journey, Eddie is murdered. And Lefty vows to bring Eddie's killer to justice.

In a way, one could view The Ballad of Lefty Brown as if Walter Brennan was the star of the show instead of John Wayne. Here's a role that's often viewed as the sole comic relief amid gunfights so to see them getting a day in the spotlight is a nice touch. And who better than Pullman in such a role?

No stranger to the supporting roster, Pullman gets that starring vehicle most character actors dream of getting one day. And as Lefty, he faces ruthless killers, corrupt figures, and accusations that he's responsible for Eddie's death. But will Lefty find the guilty party before they get to him?

The Ballad of Lefty Brown has the usual tropes of the genre but Moshe still provides and entertaining picture. Pullman is great (as he so often is), offering his own worth as a leading man. And hopefully this won't be the only time we see him in such a distinction.

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.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

The HIV/AIDS crisis was a pivotal moment for both the LGBT+ community and the medical world. Here was a disease that was practically a death sentence for those who contracted it, and people fought vigorously for proper treatment (both medically and emotionally). But such fighting tends to get glossed over.

Robin Campillo's BPM (Beats Per Minute) follows such fights against a backdrop of 1990s Paris. Revolving around a group of ACT UP activists, it follows their attempts to get more people to know what's slowing killing some of them. Their actions are aggressive (but not violent), many times to garner some publicity.

Also on display in BPM (Beats Per Minute) is the budding romance between fellow activists Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois). What Campillo shows with this is that love knows no bounds (Sean is HIV-positive, Nathan isn't). The two only have a pair of sex scenes (the second being the most emotionally erotic example you'll ever see) but that's not important to this situation. What matters is how sex -- especially in this context -- isn't viewed as shameful.

Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot were both involved in ACT UP so they drew on personal experience for BPM (Beats Per Minute). They depict the organization as one not aiming to be a martyr but instead wanting to stop seeing friends and loved ones as statistics for the death toll. (And different from similar works, women play just crucial a role as the men.)

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a far cry from other AIDS-themed works like Longtime Companion and Philadelphia. Its afflicted characters don't just lay down and die following such a diagnosis; they fight back with the sort of ferocity usually reserved for war movies. In short, seek this out.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Last Flag Flying

In the years since the 1973 release of The Last Detail, there have been a number of other works pertaining to those in the military. Some with soldiers in battle, other with them back on the homefront. Regardless of the location, the effects of the fighting can have lasting impressions.

Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying serves as a sort of sequel to The Last Detail (names are changed), that sense of disillusionment still lingering after all those years. And certain wounds are re-opened as Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) asks for help from fellow Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) in retrieving and burying his son, who was killed in Iraq.

There's an amusing element to the lead actors of Last Flag Flying. All three were nominated for playing real-life figures who were famous for the wrong reasons (Carell Foxcatcher, Cranston Trumbo, Fishburne What's Love Got to Do With It) so seeing them as more human characters might seem odd to some. (Then again, considering Carell and Cranston's more famous TV roles...)

All three actors are great in Last Flag Flying but special mention goes to Carell. Here's an actor who made a name for himself starting as a correspondent on The Daily Show and later on with The Office so having him in a role that doesn't have him as loud and boisterous is a pleasant touch. (Then again, he did such a role in Little Miss Sunshine but that was before Carell made it big.)

Last Flag Flying shows that Linklater is more than capable of working with someone else's work. (He co-wrote it with Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote the source novel.) In contrast to the more lax attitudes in some of his other films, Linklater proves he can handle the somber stuff. (Only time will tell if he continues with similar projects.)

My Rating: ****1/2

The Last Detail

With the arrival of New Hollywood generation, a sense of cynicism became prevalent in the works from this time. It makes sense actually; with a senseless war raging on, the economy wasn't generally in the best of shape, and politics being like-minded with other events, it's no wonder such attitudes were channeled.

And Hal Ashby's The Last Detail particularly captures such a sensation. Being a post-Watergate release, it shows a disillusionment towards various establishments. And this was when baby boomers were beginning to rebel the previous generation's ideals so this just seemed like good timing for it.

Like what he did with Coming Home five years later, Ashby depicts an America just trying to carry on in life despite what's happening around them. They eat, they sleep, they have sex...just the general basics some people have and do on a regular basis. (It may not be much but it's how some stay connected to the world.)

Being made just a few years after Robert Altman found success with M*A*S*H, it's possible Ashby wanted to repeat those results with The Last Detail. After all, both are dark comedies with an ongoing war as its backdrop so it's not too much of a stretch. (The difference, of course, being which war was ensuing and where the military men were situated.)

Anyway, The Last Detail serves as a sort of timepiece for the era it hails from. This was a time where one's guard was generally lowered on a daily basis, again perhaps because of the collective embitterment from everyday life. And that's what stands out the most nearly forty-five years later: how the small joys in life aren't enough to combat reality.

My Rating: ****

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

A Fantastic Woman

When trans people actually get recognized in fiction, two infuriating things tend to happen within a majority of them: either the extent of their storyline is about the fact they're trans (rather than them living their lives) and/or they're played by cis actors. Is it that hard to tell their stories?

Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman is a welcoming entry for such a subject. Marina (Daniela Vega) goes through a great ordeal following the sudden death of her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). She barely has time to grieve before the police suspect the death was possibly foul play. And Orlando's family -- save for his brother -- view Marina as an abomination.

The story Leilo presents in A Fantastic Woman is not about Marina's transition but rather just Marina. It's not interested in her past but instead her future. Will she find peace after Orlando's death? (In short, this is a film about life itself.)

And Vega herself lives up to the film's title. Even when faced with brutal transphobia, she maintains an unwavering display of dignity. That's what makes her stand out among other trans performances; she flat-out refuses to be ashamed of who she is.

A Fantastic Woman can be a hard watch at times (no one regardless of how they identify should ever go through what Marina endured) but Leilo provides an engrossing story. As he did with his previous film Gloria, he captures a woman at a certain point in her life, how she embraces it, and vice versa. And hopefully, Vega will have a lasting career full of in-depth roles like Marina.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Wound

Usually with various foreign films, American viewers get more of a glimpse into the cultures of these countries. There's obviously more to those stories than the stereotypes Hollywood tends to present. (It's true, and you all know it.)

John Trengrove's The Wound is a particular example of this. Revolving around an initiation ritual in Xhosa culture, it follows factory worker Xolani (Nakhane Touré) as he serves as a mentor for pampered rich kid Kwanda (Niza Jay). But while Xolani is supposed to stay focused on his duties, he resumes his affair with Vija (Bongile Mantsai). But will the two men be found out?

Mind you, homosexuality is no longer considered an illegal act where The Wound takes place. (Other parts of Africa, however, aren't so lucky) so Xolani and Vija's affair isn't as daring as some might think. (Vija, however, is a married man with kids, hence his reluctance with being open emotionally with Xolani.) And the presence of Kwanda merely complicates things further.

But like many queer films from years passed, the weight of shame in one's identity weighs heavily in The Wound. Neither Xolani or Kwanda are ashamed of who they are but Vija is a different matter. That internalized homophobia is by no means an unfamiliar aspect to works like this but in this day and age, haven't we seen it enough?

Anyway, The Wound falls victim to the standard tropes regularly found in queer fiction but it excels in depicting an initiation that's unknown to much of the outside world. We've seen other rites of passage before (bar/bat mitzvahs, baptisms, graduations) so this is a decided change of pace. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of Trengrove's work in the near future.

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 23, 2017


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: ***

The Square

If Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure is anything to go by, it's that one shouldn't expect anything remotely resembling normal. Its absurd dark humor proves to be a stark contrast to the work of fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman. But how does his follow-up The Square manage?

Serving as a satire on the modern art world, The Square follows museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) as he prepares for the opening of a new exhibition. But on his way to work one day, he gets robbed. In his efforts to find out who did it, aspects of his life start to crumble around him.

Similar to Force Majeure, The Square depicts masculinity as something that's deeply skewed. Here it pertains to Christian and how he's perceived by those he encounters. He's a manager, a fund-raiser, a lover, and a father; all of these roles are wrapped up in the belief that he can handle anything thrown at him. (Boy, are they wrong.)

And The Square certainly takes potshots at what's considered art. One exhibit at the museum gets partially vacuumed by a custodian by accident. Another goes horribly wrong at a dinner hosted by the museum. But man, those all pale in comparison to how the titular exhibition is promoted.

The Square could be seen as patronizing to some viewers or flat-out bizarre to others but overall it shows that satire is a subgenre that won't be going out of style anytime soon. (It seems that countries that aren't the United States -- in more ways than one -- have a better grasp on the matter.) Hopefully Östlund will continue this streak.

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

(More after the jump!)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Constant Nymph

Infatuation is a fickle thing. Many tend to mistake it for actual love and boy, Hollywood is no exception. It can be applied to a number of genres, all with varying results. But it's particularly prevalent when the Hays Code was still in effect.

Take for instance Edmund Goulding's The Constant Nymph. Tessa Sanger (Joan Fontaine) is deeply smitten with struggling composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer). In many close-ups of Tessa, we how bright her features become when she's talking about Lewis or when he's talking to her. But she has to put on a brave face when he marries her cousin Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith).

Admittedly the idea of Fontaine (who turned twenty-six in 1943) playing a fourteen-year-old is a bit of a stretch but she's very good as the besotted Tessa. In fact, what she does in The Constant Nymph is very similar to what she'd do in Letter from an Unknown Woman five years later. (It wouldn't be surprising if Max Ophüls cast her in his film because of this one.)

Goulding is no stranger to melodrama. Having previously made Dark Victory, he's familiar with capturing the mercurial nature of life. (He would later do the same with The Razor's Edge.) Tessa watches from afar as Lewis lives a comfortable life with Florence. But (perhaps) unbeknownst to her, it's not a happy union. Will she find her own happiness?

The Constant Nymph is the usual fluff of the era but it's enjoyable fluff. Fontaine and Boyer (as the latter is prone to do in most of his work) connect very well in their scenes amid some solid supporting players. (Peter Lorre!) If only they had done another project together.

My Rating: ****

Diary of a Mad Housewife

The first exchanges in Frank Perry's Diary of a Mad Housewife make it clear that Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress) isn't living the American dream. Her husband Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) treats her like garbage (their daughters aren't any better) and she never gets the support she deserves. Frustrated, she starts an affair with writer George Prager (Frank Langella). And even that's no walk in the park.

From a time when women were starting to be viewed as actual human beings, it seems strange that Diary of a Mad Housewife was released then. For once since who knows when women could lead liberating lives without (for the most part) getting berated. So to see an educated woman allow herself to be verbally degraded regularly is discomforting, to say the least.

And bear in mind that by this point in Hollywood, women were having their voices heard more behind both the typewriter and the camera. (Released the same year as Diary of a Mad Housewife was Wanda, Barbara Loden's lone foray as a director.) With the likes of Elaine May and Barbara Kopple on the cusp of their own fame, again it feels strange to watch this with that in mind.

But what's more likely is that Diary of a Mad Housewife is told from Tina's point of view. She's the only character in the film that's basically in every scene so it's hard to say if that's actually how she's treated. (More telling since Sue Kaufman's source novel was adapted by Perry's then-wife Eleanor -- whom he divorced the following year -- so who knows?)

Anyway, Diary of a Mad Housewife may seem tame by today's standards (and in comparison to other films of the decade) but back in 1970, it must've caused a stir upon its release. (Groucho Marx was certainly not a fan of it.) Either way, it captured an ignored woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, October 19, 2017


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: ****

The Tin Star

Early on in Anthony Mann's The Tin Star, bounty hunter Morg Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives in a small town hoping to get a claim on a wanted man. His first impression of sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) isn't a good one; he finds the younger man fumbling with his pistols. ("Just getting the feel of these guns.") This sets up the characterization of the two men.

And the casting of these two actors amplifies the circumstances of The Tin Star. Fonda is the more experienced actor, his Morg having a world weary attitude about him. Perkins -- having been in only four films prior to this -- has a green streak about him, much like Ben. And these are traits that would persist in their roles for the next decade.

Back to The Tin Star itself. Mann is certainly no stranger to this genre as his collaborations with James Stewart earlier in the decade can attest to. This was the genre that ensured Mann would not be forgotten years after his death in 1967. (Well, film noir too.)

Unsurprisingly, The Tin Star shares many elements with other westerns of the era: Morg romancing the widow, Ben's wife being concerned for her husband's safety, Lee Van Cleef as the know, the usual. (But hey, if the audience likes these tropes, give them what they want.)

The Tin Star is an enjoyable yarn from a year filled with heavier-themed films. (Fonda and Perkins also had 12 Angry Men and Fear Strikes Out that year.) Being released the same year as other westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, it's understandable as to why it's not as known. But that shouldn't stop one from seeking it out.

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 16, 2017

Arthur Miller: Writer

There's a certain way that people are perceived by others. Some are viewed by their personalities while others know them for how they behaved behind closed doors. But one thing that tends to persist is how one person is portrayed by their own family.

Rebecca Miller's Arthur Miller: Writer depicts the famed playwright as how he was in the comfort of his own home. Using footage from previous attempts at making a documentary, Miller captures her father not as someone filled with anger (like many of his plays are) but rather as a human being.

Miller chronicles her father's early life of privilege (before the Great Depression struck), showing how such an upbringing actually kept him humble in later life. Of course moments where he's thrown into the public eye (the House Un-American Activities Committee and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe) put a strain on his otherwise private lifestyle. Regardless of the circumstances he was in, he remained modest.

But that's not to say he was perfect, far from it. Despite his initial success with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, his plays (The Crucible and A View from the Bridge aside) never really seemed to connect with their audiences. (The critical reaction to After the Fall was beyond scathing.) But apparently to him, positive reception to his work wasn't of immense interest to him; he just wanted to have his voice heard.

Arthur Miller: Writer shows the dramatist as the very thing his works' main theme was: human. Miller encapsulates her father not as one of the most acclaimed writers of the last century but instead as the average American citizen. Sure, there's a sentimentality to the project but hey, it is essentially a daughter remembering a departed family member.

My Rating: ****1/2