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