Thursday, August 1, 2019

Ten years!



Would you believe that on this day a decade ago, I started this little blog?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Late Night

There's no denying that life isn't easy for women in the workplace. Sexism, bias, harassment, fewer benefits...just the tip of the iceberg in its many problems. But if a woman does manage to succeed at their job, you can bet -- at least in fiction -- someone is plotting to cut them down.

This is what both Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) and Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) face in Nisha Ganatra's Late Night. Katherine is a talk show host whose ratings have been in steady decline while Molly has recently been hired for the show's writing team. But they're viewed as adversaries by those who want to be in the positions they're in (read: by men). But will they persevere?

Far from the cutthroat world depicted in Network, Late Night still has its own sense of ruthlessness to it. Embracing the technological age we live in, it shows how social media and online journalism serve as harsher critics than phone-ins of the previous half-century. Have a woman as the target of said criticism, and they become far more brutal.

Similarly, you can tell a lot of the stand-up material featured in Late Night was most definitely not written by someone who's a regular on that circuit. (No offense to Kaling but honestly.) A bulk of the jokes that are deemed funny in the movie simply aren't in reality. (It's clear to distinguish acting laughter from genuine laughter and boy, does it get painfully obvious at times here.)

Anyway, Late Night still has a solid story even if it's sorely lacking in laughs. It has you realizing those articles boasting about a first-ever X on a TV show don't highlight why it took so long for them to get hired/exist in the first place. (Looking at you, Doctor Who.) Honestly, it's 2019; the lack of inclusivity shouldn't still be a problem.

My Rating: ****

The Old Dark House

How does someone like James Whale follow up a success like Frankenstein? Simple: do something within the same genre. A year after making his (loose) adaptation of Mary Shelley's magnum opus, Whale decided to make an adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel Benighted, now re-titled as The Old Dark House. But how does it fare in the shadow of Frankenstein?

Stuck amid terrible weather, Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) find refuge in a dilapidated manor in the Welsh countryside. Later joined by William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond), they find themselves trying to survive the night in this ethereal home. But will they?

Adding some comedic touches to the otherwise faithful script, The Old Dark House has some more levity compared to Universal's other horror films of the era. (Douglas gets the bulk of the one-liners.) It's from this light humor that the otherwise tense situation is alleviated. (Doesn't always work for the better, mind you.)

And The Old Dark House features a number of actors that either had worked with Whale before or would work with him again. Among them are Stuart (The Invisible Man), Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein), and Boris Karloff (needs no explanation, does it?) Granted, Stuart was under contract at Universal but the point still stands.

The Old Dark House may not have quite the scares it dished out in 1932 but that aside, it's still a solid picture nearly ninety (!) years later. Whale clearly had a knack for directing so knowing that his Hollywood career was a brief one (20 films in 11 years!) shows that the industry lost out on other Whale-helmed projects. Oh, what could have been...

My Rating: ****

The Hours and Times

In April 1963, John Lennon and his manager Brian Epstein embarked on a four-day holiday in Barcelona. Naturally, the rumor mill started spinning as to the meaning of this trip without the other Beatles. Neither man disclosed what happened in Spain so what did occur during those days?

Christopher Münch's The Hours and Times explores what might have happened during that trip. (It opens with a disclaimer stating that what's about to unfold only speculation, not fact.) By the time the film was released 1992, neither man could protest what was depicted (Epstein had died in 1967, Lennon in 1980) but again, it's merely a fictionalization of real-life events.

The purpose of the trip isn't outright stated in The Hours and Times but Brian (David Angus) cites it to John (Ian Hart, who'd play Lennon two more times in the years to come) as nothing more than a vacation. Sure, the Beatles had become wildly successful but why not bring the other members? (It's worth bringing up that Epstein was gay, and Barcelona was decidedly laxer about homosexuality than Liverpool, so draw your own conclusions.)

But Münch makes The Hours and Times about desire more than anything else. Similar to how Brian longs for male companionship, it's implied that John yearns to be unattached. (Shortly before he left, his son Julian was born.) He isn't comfortable talking about his home life to Brian, which suggests he doesn't want to be reminded of what waits for him back in England. But is there more to what John wants?

The Hours and Times is far more than a "what if?" situation of real-life events; it's a quiet film about how one's wants can be almost deafening to them. How can one  -- whose desires are frowned upon, no less -- find the happiness they ache for? Some achieve their quest while others aimlessly search for it their whole lives. And in the case of John and most definitely Brian, it may be more of the latter.

My Rating: ****

Monday, June 3, 2019

Goodbye Charlie

Bloodshed, gender-bending, Tony Curtis as the male lead, a curvy blonde as the female lead...no, this isn't a description of Some Like It Hot (though it could be) but rather a film from five years later: Vincente Minnelli's Goodbye Charlie. (Coincidentally, Billy Wilder was offered to direct this but flatly turned it down.) And Minnelli's picture is surprisingly...amusing in its execution.

The plot of Goodbye Charlie kicks off after the titular character gets gunned down by a jealous husband. His friend George Tracy (Curtis) flies in for a (rather pitifully attended) memorial service and afterwards, a dazed blonde (Debbie Reynolds) stumbles onto the doorstep of Charlie's home. Turns out this blonde is a reincarnated Charlie.

Similar to Some Like It Hot, Goodbye Charlie has the initially introduced male character slowly but fully embracing their new feminine identity. (Likewise, both films have Curtis' character very wary about the whole situation.) That said, the now-female Charlie can't quite break free from their old ways... (The fact those jokes got past the censors is staggering.)

This being a Minnelli picture, the sets have all the markings of some of his earlier films. Fully stocked liquor cabinets, bookshelves filled with hardcover titles, and enough vibrant colors to warrant the existence of Technicolor. And that's not even getting into the Helen Rose-designed wardrobe. (It's worth mentioning that before making this, Minnelli was lobbying hard to direct My Fair Lady but his salary demands were too high for the studio's liking. Could you imagine what that film would've been like had he gotten the gig instead of George Cukor? It's possible that what didn't go into the musical went into this.)

That all being said, there's not a lot to write home about Goodbye Charlie. Apart from Curtis' facial expressions and acting constantly on the verge of mental collapse (and Walter Matthau sporting the most ridiculous Italian accent imaginable), it follows the same formula as other sex farces of the era. Still, it has its moments; just...not a lot.

My Rating: ***1/2

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Mandy

Panos Cosmatos' Mandy starts off rather innocuous. Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) live a modest life within the Shadow Mountains. But after Mandy crosses paths with cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), chaos and all hell break loose.

As one watches Mandy unfold, they may wonder how many drugs Cosmatos was on during the making of it. (Alternatively, how many should be ingested before watching it.) That's not to say it's a bad film, far from it. If anything, the distorted imagery is required for the story that's being told.

Being a second-generation director (his father George's best-known film Tombstone was also how he broke into the industry), Cosmatos obviously knows the workings of film production. And even with Mandy being his second (!) endeavor, it's clear that he'll be in the business for a long time.

The same, alas, cannot be said for composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died before Mandy was released. As he proved with other films like The Theory of Everything and Arrival, his music captured the ambiance of the film in question. His contribution to Mandy very much does that, and then some. (And his absence will be profoundly felt.)

Mandy is just as insane as its poster implies, almost being the demented love child of David Cronenberg and David Lynch. (Personally speaking, it's best if you read nothing before seeing it...thus rendering this review null and void.) And it's about time Cage did something that didn't feel slapped together in a span of five minutes. (The perils of money woes, folks.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, January 25, 2019

Unsane

The opening moments of Steven Soderbergh's Unsane provides an unsettling narration, one that waxes poetic over how the narrator adores Sawyer Valenti (Claire Foy) with all their heart and soul. In a different context, this would be viewed as a grand declaration of love. But this declaration is coming from her stalker.

Now settled in a new city, Sawyer tries to restore the fragmented parts of her life. In doing so, she finds a place nearby to get therapy where she unwittingly consents to be hospitalized. What horrors await Sawyer in the psych ward?

Thankfully Soderbergh's plans for retirement fell to the wayside as quickly they were announced, and cinema would've suffered considerably from his absence. Since his debut with sex, lies and videotapes back in 1989, he's been a consistent storyteller through various genres. And if we're lucky, his actual retirement will not be for a long time.

Now Foy has yet to break it big in films (though she's had immense success starring on The Crown) but hopefully casting directors will remember her work in Unsane for future reference. In stark contrast to playing Queen Elizabeth II, her Sawyer is regularly on pins and needles in her effort to be in control. But will she be able to carry on a normal life?

Unsane has a sense of unease that's reminiscent of Shock Corridor (another psych ward-set film), where it feels like the protagonist may very well go mad before they're believed. Yet the viewer will find themselves rooting for the hero even if the latter isn't particularly likable (some might see Sawyer as such). And Soderbergh and Foy ensure such a reaction.

My Rating: ****1/2