Friday, August 7, 2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Early on in Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we assume that Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is just going through the usual teenage angst. Then we later find out she's pregnant, and that's when the tone changes completely.

Similarly to Obvious Child a few years earlier, Never Rarely Sometimes Always maintains a very sympathetic perspective towards the subject of abortion. (Yes, there are a few characters that are decidedly pro-life but they aren't so in your face about it.) Imagine if this had been released during the height of the anti-abortion movement over a quarter-century ago.

Speaking of which, we've come a long way since the days of Roe v. Wade. Yes, there are still those that object to the ruling from nearly half a century ago but again, why should someone make moral decisions for someone else they possibly don't even know? After all, it's not their body they're fretting over.

Anyway, as Hittman also showed with her previous film Beach Rats, she shows how those living an unassuming life invariably have a story to tell beyond their initial appearance. Many of us put up an invisible wall around those we don't know if we can trust. It's once familiarity sets in that -- as Hittman shows -- the wall starts to come down, brick by brick.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always shows how much society has changed since that January day in 1973 but also how there's still a way to go. Abortion isn't a word met with shock and horror (as much) anymore but not many are willing to view it as simply a medical procedure, potentially a life-saving one; they need to understand it's not their decision that's being made.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, August 6, 2020

BOOK VS MOVIE: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune/Frankie and Johnny

Relationships are a fickle thing. Sometimes they're like a symphony but other times they're like nails on a chalkboard. It really depends on the people involved but more than anything, communication is crucial in these situations.

But what of those where one's ready for this but the other isn't? This isn't an uncommon situation for one to face but again, it's something that can be helped with communication. Even then, however, it can be an uphill battle for one or both parties.

Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune has this with short-order cook Johnny and waitress Frankie, who have just gone to bed together after knowing each other for six weeks. He wants to commit to something more, she's reluctant to do so. Through stream of consciousness conversation, they try to find a commonality between them.

Fleshing out the story (and shortening the title), Garry Marshall's Frankie and Johnny explores more of the lonely state of humanity. With McNally serving as the film's screenwriter, he adds dimensional supporting characters and has New York City playing a bigger role than in his original play. And though there's a noticeable age difference between them, Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino have great chemistry together.

So which is better: McNally's play or Marshall's film? Both have their own charms, a lot of them owing to McNally at the typewriter. But Marshall adds a little something extra to the story. (It's a shame we lost both Marshall and McNally in recent memory but their works live on.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Ravenous

Antonia Bird's Ravenous opens with John Boyd (Guy Pearce) earning a promotion for his contribution in the Mexican-American War. But we later find out that sad contribution -- infiltrating enemy lines by playing dead -- was not a stroke of genius but rather an act of cowardice. It's because of this that Boyd gets exiled to a remote military post.

Shortly afterwards, a frostbitten man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) shows up. He tells the garrison how his wagon train -- in the grips of starvation -- were reduced to cannibalism and ultimately murder in order to survive. And that's when the real horror begins.

There's a very dark sense of humor running through Ravenous. ("It's lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.") And even then it doesn't feel out of place from the film's overall tone. After all, wouldn't you be cracking tasteless jokes in order to ease some of the tension?

On a somewhat frustrating note, this was only one of four feature films Bird made during her career. (After making Ravenous, she shifted her focus back to television, where she remained until her death in 2013.) Did Bird find filmmaking not as rewarding as revision? Or did she endure what many female filmmakers before and since Bird have faced?

Anyway, Ravenous is similar to Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark in that sometimes a woman's touch is what's needed to an already dark story. (Perhaps coincidentally, Bird was a replacement for original director Milcho Manchevski on the recommendation of Carlyle.) After all, why should men have all the fun? Women can embrace darkness too; just look at Jennifer's Body.

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

BOOK VS MOVIE: A Simple Plan

The bag of money. The one plot device that is a surefire way to create conflict. Be it a comedy figuring out how to spend it all or a thriller where greed runs through its blood, it's been around as long as fiction itself. If used properly, it can provide a good story.

Such is the case with A Simple Plan. After finding a duffel bag full of money in a plane wreckage, two brothers and their friend find themselves at odds at what to do with it and how to keep it a secret from others. But almost immediately, problems arise...and bodies start to drop.

Scott Smith's novel starts off as a slow burn with this premise but ends as a raging inferno. Told from the perspective of one of the brothers, Smith maintains a very matter-of-fact nature to telling the events as they unfold. It's this detail that makes the story all the more chilling.

With Smith serving as its screenwriter, Sam Raimi's adaptation is actually less dark than its source. Despite that and a few tweaks, it's still a solid story to be told. (Not only that but it'll make you miss Bill Paxton's presence and wonder what Bridget Fonda has been up to.)

So which is better: Smith's book or Raimi's movie? Both grasp the darkness that lurks within humanity only the truly lost will embrace. But of the two works, Raimi's moves at an almost frantic pace in comparison to Smith's. Still, the choice is clear in the long run.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Novitiate

Devoting one's self to a particular cause is not as easy as some assume. Many times it involves having one's beliefs being both challenged and questioned. But how far is one willing to go for such devotion?

Maggie Betts' Novitiate follows Cathleen (Magaret Qualley) as she goes down the path to become a nun. With the film set as Vatican II goes into effect, the disciplines enforced by Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair (Melissa Leo) are being challenged. But how will this change within the Catholic Church affect not just these two women but the others in the convent?

In a way, Novitiate bears some semblance to The Nun's Story, which is fitting seeing as Fred Zinnemann's film gets name-dropped at one point. But Betts' film is far darker than Zinnemann's. What Cathleen and the other novices endure at the hands of Mother Superior borders on outright abuse. (An early scene of this is absolutely chilling.) How often did this occur in real life?

Again, the price of one's devotion is brought up regularly in Novitiate. Cathleen adheres to the rules of the church quickly but the few times her mother Nora (the perpetually underrated Julianne Nicholson) visits her, Nora feels as if she's losing her daughter. It's more than likely that this happened in real life too.

Novitiate is a fascinating delve into how religion affects one's life, both good and bad. What's depicted is not far from that of a cult setting (though both are very different in the long run, let's get that out of the way). And again, the cost of such devotion can be immeasurable to some.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Perfect Furlough

Blake Edwards' The Perfect Furlough introduces Lt. Vicki Loren (Janet Leigh) in a way that's par for the course for films of the era: legs first. Shortly thereafter, we witness the arctic base Loren's team of psychiatrists is assigned to look after slowly going insane from the isolation, pin-ups on nearly every wall. As expected for an Edwards comedy, libido is the picture's driving force.

But what's this "perfect furlough" in question? The men at the base suggest being in Paris with movie star Sandra Roca (Linda Cristal). With a bit of scheming, Cpl. Paul Hodges (Tony Curtis) is the one that goes on furlough but thanks to his "record", Loren has to look after him. But what will ensue once in Paris?

With a script by Stanley Shapiro (who'd write the next Edwards and Curtis picture Operation Petticoat), there's a boatload of lines that just skirt past the censors of the day. (Having Elaine Stritch amongst the cast helps too.) Playing with Edwards' penance for visual gags, they make a strong combination. (It's a shame they didn't collaborate more.)

Being a picture starring real-life couple Curtis and Leigh (the fourth of five, and one of two from 1958), it's patently obvious that they'll end up together before the credits roll. But even with that in mind, it's interesting to see their screen personas interact. She's strait-laced to his freewheeling but as they spend more time together, she relaxes and he calms down. (One wonders if their marriage was similar; probably not, seeing as they divorced four years later.)

The Perfect Furlough is top-tier Edwards (the final third is where it loses steam) but it still holds up today. If there's one thing to take away from this, it's that you see Edwards making his bones in traits that are more prevalent with his comedies in the coming decade. (Mind you, they're more restrained than what was to come.)

My Rating: ****

Friday, July 10, 2020

Normal Life

The opening moments of John McNaughton's Normal Life take the viewer through the average American small town. Suburbs, strip malls, the like. Then we see Chris (Luke Perry) and Pam Anderson (Ashley Judd) get swarmed by police cars, and that's when the mayhem unfolds.

We then cut back two years to when Chris and Pam first met. Almost immediately, the quiet Chris is drawn to the volatile Pam but it quickly becomes clear that Pam is nigh-unpredictable, which causes concern to those close to Chris. But their happiness (and finances) quickly dwindle after getting married, and Chris takes drastic measures to fix this.

Being based on real events (albeit with changed names), Normal Life was a stark contrast to what audiences knew Perry from. (Test audiences were expecting something more like Beverly Hills, 90210 but got something else entirely; what else would you expect from the man responsible for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer?) And Perry more than proved himself beyond his Dylan McKay image. It's a shame he passed away last year; he had more to offer.

Similarly, it's frustrating to watch Judd here with the knowledge that her career would suffer a setback "thanks" to Harvey Weinstein (the following year, no less!). But even with that in mind, she's dynamite in this. Like she would in Bug the following decade, she's unafraid to take on such a role.

Normal Life is a damn good picture, the kind you don't really see made much nowadays. (What has McNaughton been up to lately?) Sure, it might've gotten lost in the shadow of Wild Things two years later but that shouldn't discourage you from seeking this out.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Cat People

There's something that's fascinating about fiction focusing on sexual matters that's made before talking about them was socially acceptable. The innuendos may have skirted past the censors of the day but perhaps not its audiences. And boy, they can still pack a punch.

Jacques Tourneur's Cat People in particular has this under the guise of a horror noir. The marriage of Irena (Simone Simon) and Oliver (Kent Smith) seems to be strained almost immediately, stemming from the fact it hasn't been consummated. Irena has an almost crippling fear of sexuality and she cites folklore from her home country as the reason. But are Irena's fears warranted?

As Tourneur would do several years later with Out of the Past, the way shadows are used in Cat People play just as much of a role as the story itself. Similarly, in contrast to Jane Greer's first appearance in all white in the later film, Irena has an all-black wardrobe, signifying -- per Hollywood symbolism -- there's more to her than she's letting on...

Being the first collaboration between Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, both had an interest in the psychological elements of storytelling, which is all over the place in Cat People. With the world at war yet again, it was only a matter of years before the rest of Hollywood followed suit. And as various titles over the coming decades showed, they were onto something.

Cat People is a different breed of horror film, no denying that. Rather than outright scares, it prefers having its audience get a creeping feeling of unease like its characters. (Is it any wonder that Lewton inspired elements of Kirk Douglas' character in The Bad and the Beautiful?)

My Rating: *****

Eddie the Eagle

In this time of constant strife, one's always looking for a means of escape. They're looking for something to feel good about, a light amid this darkness. And sometimes, it's in the form of an underdog story, especially a real-life one.

Dexter Fletcher's Eddie the Eagle is such an example as it tells the hardships Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Taron Egerton) faced as he worked to the fullest in getting to the Winter Olympics. Most think Eddie's wasting his time in pursuing such an endeavor but he carries on nonetheless. But will Eddie manage to win his doubters over?

There's a certain undercurrent of classism throughout Eddie the Eagle. Those that sneer at Eddie's ambitions tend to sport the upper-class accents which make the derision towards him all the more biting. They believe that being from a place of better privilege entitles them to have all the better perks in life, not some bloke from a working-class household. (Annoyingly, it's still the case today...)

Within the past few years, Egerton has more than proven his worth as a performer, and Eddie the Eagle is more than a fine example of such. He has an easy charm, the kind that has you being supportive of him almost immediately. It just makes all the hard blows (both physically and emotionally) Eddie endures all the tougher.

Eddie the Eagle may not have all the facts of real life on display but it's charming nonetheless. Sure, there's the standard cliches found in sports movies (most tellingly the former pro turned disgruntled alcoholic) but that's minimal in the long run. And both Fletcher and Egerton have strong careers ahead of them should this streak continue.

My Rating: ****

Monday, June 22, 2020

BOOK VS MOVIE: Black Klansman/BlacKkKlansman

In this current political climate, it's hard trying to immerse one's self in something besides the news. On the one hand, staying informed of what's happening in the world is important. But on the other hand, so much information can be taxing on anyone and a break is appreciated as well as recommended.

Sometimes reading or watching works pertaining to current events can help. One could draw parallels to how the events in work compare to real life, especially if said work is from or set at least half a century ago. You can see either how things have changed or seldom shifted at all. Either way, the result can be interesting to uncover.

Ron Stallworth's memoir Black Klansman in particular chronicles his days at the Colorado Springs Police Department as the first Black detective on its force. Several years into his tenure, he does something that raises more than a few eyebrows: he joins the Ku Klux Klan (to infiltrate it with a white officer as his cover). And Stallworth remains very matter-of-fact in his writing, seeing no need to embellish what happened. That said, he's rightly pissed off when faced with racism.

If Stallworth shied away from mentioning racism he might've faced on a day-to-day basis, then Spike Lee sure as hell tackles it head-on. Tweaking several details from the memoir, Lee's adaptation shows how Black people are still dealing with this bullshit decades later. He also shows that this current wave of social justice isn't a new occurrence; this has been happening for years.

So which is better: Stallworth's memoir or Lee's film? Both have their own strengths though they seem firm in their belief that law enforcement is who to rely on for change in society. If the past few weeks have proven anything, it's that the mass population has a much louder voice than those with authority. After all, to quote Rosa Parks, it is better to protest than to accept injustice.

What's worth checking out?: The movie.