Monday, December 31, 2018

Film and Book Tally 2018

Man, this year has been sporadic. I didn't watch or read much (in comparison to the past few years), was a contributor for Talk Film Society for a little over three months (before being politely let go; I'll admit I wasn't great with keeping deadlines), and submitted two guest posts over at The Film Experience. Anyway, my main objection for Defiant Success -- which, by the way, turns ten (!!!) this coming August -- is to keep it up to date with new reviews and the like, and I'll try to make it so in 2019. But enough of that: onwards to the media I've consumed this year!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The opening moments of Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? establishes the coarse nature of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), how her attitude results in her losing her job and alienating her from others. As she works on a long-gestating Fanny Brice biography, she finds a better way to earn some quick cash: writing and selling forgeries.

Like her previous film The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller chronicles the complicated complexities of the fair sex. But rather than the coming-of-age tale her debut told, she depicts how those in desperate measures will react to unlikely situations. And Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's script imbues the regular struggles a writer faces. (Granted, the path Israel went down is thankfully one rarely traveled.)

Indeed, the way some fiction depicts the "glamorous" life of writers is inaccurate. (Then again, most writers are, well, writers.) Though Can You Ever Forgive Me? acknowledges some of Israel's past successes, it shines more of a light on how she tries to surpass them (and doesn't quite succeed in doing so). Much like actresses, even writers can have a short shelf life (pun intended).

And in a way, the film's title could be recognized at McCarthy herself. A number of the films she was involved with between her Oscar-nominated work in Bridesmaids and Can You Ever Forgive Me? had some doubting her talents. (She was regularly on the verge of the same typecasting as Chris Farley -- "fatty falls down, everybody goes home happy" -- before her.) But thanks to her career-redeeming work here, we can, in fact, forgive McCarthy.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a brilliant work from everyone involved with it. (Hopefully, McCarthy will get more dramatic roles because of this.) As the credits begin to roll, you may wonder what kind of legacy Israel (who died in 2014) leaves behind: as a celebrity biographer or as a forger of their words.

My Rating: *****

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Doorway to Hell

Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres) has it made early on in Archie Mayo's The Doorway to Hell. Running a thriving bootlegging business, he also pulls the strings of the Chicago underworld. But at the height of his power, he decides to marry Doris (Dorothy Matthews) and retire to Florida, handing the reins over to right-hand man Steve Mileaway (James Cagney). But will Louie get tempted back into criminal behavior?

Being made before the Hays Code went into effect, The Doorway to Hell plays into this then-controversial era of filmmaking. (Its tagline -- "The picture Gangland defied Hollywood to make!" -- acknowledges the sensational nature they've accumulated.) But is it as shocking as it boasts?

In comparison to the other pre-Code gangster pictures, it's surprisingly tame. But the focus of The Doorway to Hell isn't so much on the violence as it is on Louie's morality. He's more than happy to give up crime for golf and writing his memoirs. But when his enemies launch an attack that hits too close to home, that's when Louie's ruthlessness comes to light.

Much like what he'd do with Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest a few years down the line, Mayo gives Cagney his big break in The Doorway to Hell. A year before his starring turn in The Public Enemy, it was clear that he would be commanding the show in no time. (He does plenty of that here.)

The Doorway to Hell may not pack the same punch as later gangster pictures but it's still good at times. Ayres might be viewed as miscast (why him instead of Cagney?) but again, it's more on Louie's morality rather than his toughness. And Ayres got that part down pat.

My Rating: ***1/2

Monday, November 19, 2018


What causes some people to behave in certain situations? Is it the result of bottled up emotions? Or is it from combined stressors happening in that very moment? It varies from person to person but there's no denying that everyone has a breaking point.

Wildlife displays this a few times throughout its story. Following Joe Brinson after his move to Montana with his parents Jerry and Jeanette, it depicts how small moments in this nondescript home life can lead to something volatile. (Generally speaking, the happy marriage is not a regularly deployed concept in fiction.)

"In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him." So begins Richard Ford's novel. Told from Joe's perspective, it shows how not so innocent the era was and how his new home is being torn apart.

Making his directing debut adapting Ford's novel, Paul Dano (along with co-writer Zoe Kazan) depicts a bygone time of changing mores. With the aid of Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould and Bill Camp, what's captured are microexpressions that Ford couldn't chronicle with only words. And Dano in turn -- having worked with a number of prolific directors over the years -- shows promise behind the camera just as well as he does in front of it.

So which is better: Ford's book or Dano's movie? Both emphasize the story's strengths and flaws but both have something that fiction seldom has on its audiences: the ability to leave its impact slowly sink in after completing it. (Not something you see regularly, that's for sure.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Phantom Thread

The opening score of Jonny Greenwood's score as we first hear it in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread implies a sense of unease to be expecting for the preceding film. Yes, much of the music is similar in tone to lounge music of the 1950s (when the film's set) but when the chords sharpen, pay attention.

Phantom Thread follows couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he finds a muse and model in waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds has a controlling personality and a near-obsessive demand for his routines, something Alma sees firsthand. But as their relationship deepens, so too does a want for dominance in Alma.

In contrast to some of Anderson's previous films, Phantom Thread is more genteel in nature. Having his earlier work set in the likes of Las Vegas (Hard Eight) and 1970s Los Angeles (Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice), 1950s Britain seems like a decided shift for the director. But with the principal actors involved (Day-Lewis, Krieps, Lesley Manville), that detail practically becomes a lesser one.

Day-Lewis may have gotten the majority of the film's acclaim but that's not to dissuade Krieps' work in Phantom Thread. A relative unknown prior to this, she holds her own against the screen veterans (by no means an easy feat when Day-Lewis is involved). And if we're lucky, we won't be seeing the last of the Luxembourgian actress soon.

Phantom Thread -- much like Anderson's earlier film The Master -- relies on that false feeling of trust. You think the people you've just met are upstanding citizens of the human race but as you get to know them more, you realize there's more to them (and not all of it's good). And that's exactly what happens to both Reynolds and Alma.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, October 25, 2018


The general mood of Cory Finley's Thoroughbreds is one that doesn't feel quite right. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) seem to be comfortable in their privileged home lives. But as the opening scene shows, there's an underlying darkness in both them and the story.

If anything, Thoroughbreds bears resemblance to last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer: upper-middle-class domesticity shattered by an unspecified mental disorder. (Amanda mentions at one point that her psychiatrist is basically guessing what she's afflicted with.) It's possible that this is how those from stable private lives doesn't always equate to stable frames of mind. (Just look at any serial killer; many of them appeared normal to others.)

Anyway, stories and accusations of "affluenza" have been circulating as of late so that might be what's happening in Thoroughbreds. (Amanda admits that she feels nothing when it comes to emotions.) Lily -- although she seems happy with her life -- is hiding behind a mask of her own so neither woman is of sound mind. But to what extent will their true selves become known?

Cooke and Taylor-Joy are great in Thoroughbreds but Anton Yelchin -- who died before the film's release -- is also someone of note here. (It's dedicated in his memory.) As with many of his roles when he was still alive, he showed promise of a long career ahead of him. Sadly, the events of that June day two years ago made that possibility fade away.

Thoroughbreds shows how some people can behave seemingly unprovoked. Much like Heathers before it, the film depicts how far one can go after being pushed for too long. And boy, the results can be messy.

My Rating: ****

Portrait of Jennie

Early in William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie, starving artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) manages to sell a sketch to sympathetic art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Soon after, he meets a peculiar girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones). Her ways spark a fountain of inspiration in Eben but what's the story on Jennie?

The last of four films starring Cotten and Jones (the other being Since You Went Away, Love Letters, and Duel in the Sun), Portrait of Jennie has a more ethereal ambiance than their previous collaborations. (Seeing as how Dieterle also made the likes of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Devil and Daniel Webster, such a story wasn't too much of a stretch for him.) And bear in mind that this wasn't a big hit upon its release (though it has been vindicated by the passage of time).

Anyway, both Cotten and Jones were big box-office draws at the time (with Jones having several Oscar nominations and a win to her name). And as mentioned before, they've worked together before so the studio (read: most likely David O. Selznick) saw lightning striking again. Though none of the principal players are around anymore, their work lives on.

But what can be said of Portrait of Jennie without giving anything away? Perhaps what could be mentioned is that it's different from the various romances of the decade. It's a gradual build-up with Eben and Jennie's relationship, not an immediate love at first sight scenario. How often did you see that in older films?

Portrait of Jennie was very different from the many films of the era, and its originality makes it stand out among them. A slew of them are generally one-sided with romance but Dieterle makes sure not to do the same. (Doesn't always work but he at least tries.)

My Rating: ****