Friday, August 24, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

Society as of late has been turning into a textbook example of social Darwinism. Obviously, the survival of the fittest is in play but it's also the survival of the smartest; only those cunning enough will endure in this ever-changing world. But if this world is too tough to adapt to, what then?

Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You may be a satire of such a situation but boy, he doesn't pull any punches. Following Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he works a nondescript job as a telemarketer, he learns a technique in how to succeed in business without really trying. But will he be able to handle what his job expects of him?

It may have been written during the Obama administration but Sorry to Bother You has all the markings of what's wrong with this current one. Similar to Get Out and Dear White People (both of which also featured Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, respectively), the matter of race is explored too -- or rather, how those who aren't white are essentially screwed over time and time again. (Boy, how that happens to Cassius repeatedly here.)

And there's the matter of Sorry to Bother You's third act. Without giving anything away, all that can be said is that it turns the preceding two acts on their heads. Suffice to say that the events of the third act won't be forgotten after you see them unfold.

Sorry to Bother You shows immense promise from Riley as a film director and storyteller. All of the names attached to the film's cast feel right at home in their roles (Armie Hammer in particular), no one feels out of place. And to reiterate the previous paragraph, you won't forget that third act after you see it.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, August 6, 2018

Hester Street

Stories of beginning a new life are by no means an uncommon occurrence in either fiction of real life. Many of these tales hail from those emigrating to America, hoping to thrive in the land of opportunity. Of course, these streets paved with gold may end up looking a bit tarnished to some.

Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street provides two such perspectives from someone who's made themself at home within American culture and someone who has a harder time in doing so. The former applies to Yankel (Steven Keats) -- who has rechristened himself "Jake" -- and the latter is his wife Gitl (Carol Kane), who has recently arrived from Russia with their son. But he's gotten a mistress during their few years apart...

Silver was moved by Hester Street's source novel -- Abraham Cahan's Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto -- because her parents were Russian Jews, prompting her to tell this story. (As well as changing the title, she changed the story's point of view from Jake to Gitl.) She felt it served as an ode to her heritage, and that's why Silver wanted this story to be told.

Their names aside, there are noted differences between Jake and Gitl. He has all but discredited his faith in favor of living the American way whereas she holds the one thing from the old world close to her heart. Were it not for their son, their relationship would have been over long before their emigration took place.

Hester Street is very much Silver's sonnet to where she came from, yes, but it's also a story of those who strive for a new life. Whether it's the past century or this current one, many of us have that desire to begin anew. But very seldom do we all achieve that possibility, especially one with a happy resolution.

My Rating: ****

Star 80

On August 14, 1980, Playboy model and rising actress Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider, who committed suicide after doing the deed. This being one of the more prolific "if I can't have you, no one can" murders, it still carries a shock over thirty years later. But what provoked this violent act?

Three years after the murder-suicide, Bob Fosse made Star 80, a reference to Snider's vanity plate on his Mercedes Benz. Fosse was no stranger in depicting the cost of fame, be it fictional (Cabaret), factual (Lenny) or semiautobiographical (All That Jazz). But when it's a story that ends in bloodshed, that's where comparisons to his work end.

The film may be based on real events but several names and details were changed, some of them for legal purposes. A number of Stratten's real-life acting jobs were re-titled but the most telling tweak is that Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees) is clearly Peter Bogdonavich, whom Stratten was having an affair with at the time of her murder. (Bogdonavich himself -- who called the film inaccurate -- didn't want Fosse to tell this story because Fosse didn't know the full extent of it.)

Mariel Hemingway may be (pardon the expression) the star attraction of Star 80 but Eric Roberts is the real main draw. By many accounts, Snider was as much of a hustler in real life as he's depicted here. And boy, Roberts really knows how to sleaze it up. (Hugh Hefner even said Roberts was dead-on in his portrayal.)

Star 80 has that lingering sadness to it, knowing that Stratten's successes are tarnished by her ultimate fate. If anything, it serves as a how-to for identifying relationship red flags. Had Stratten known them early on in her courtship with Snider, she might be alive today...

My Rating: ****1/2

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Ralph Nelson's Requiem for a Heavyweight opens with a tracking shot fo bar patrons watching a boxing match on an unseen TV with immense interest. It then cuts to the mayhem of the fight as seen from the perspective of Luis "Mountain" Rivera (Anthony Quinn). It's this fight (up against Cassius Clay, no less!) that Rivera needs to call it quits if wants to stay alive.

With the help of his trainer Army (Mickey Rooney), Rivera tries to find some steady work outside the ring. His manager Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason), however, has a number of debts to some bookies so he wants to Rivera to keep fighting. But what does the fighter's future hold?

There's a weariness to Requiem for a Heavyweight that shows an empathy to Rivera's situation. With a script penned by Rod Serling, that tiredness and cynicism make all the more sense. (Just watch The Twilight Zone or Seven Days in May.) The film's not in the mood for bullshit.

Now this version of Requiem for a Heavyweight has some noted changes from its original teleplay. (The lead character's named Harlan McClintock, for starters.) And the conclusion for the film is decidedly more depressing on many fronts. (But again, with Serling at the typewriter, that's not a surprise.)

Requiem for a Heavyweight is definitely not the kind of uplifting picture most boxing films were the previous decade. With Serling's shrewd views on full display, the film shines a sad light on those in Rivera's small circle. And as some episodes of The Twilight Zone showed, not everyone gets the happy ending they seek.

My Rating: ****

Friday, June 22, 2018

BOOK VS MOVIE: On Chesil Beach

What are the extents of one's love? What limits does someone have towards their significant other? Every love is different mich in the same way that every person is different. and don't expect societal views to help in any way.

On Chesil Beach follows that particular element to a T as it follows Edward and Florence on their honeymoon. Certainly, they have the typical newlywed jitters but with many things left unsaid, is this a union fated to end before it even begins?

"They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." So opens Ian McEwan's novel before exploring how Edward and Florence ended up in that hotel room. Neither halves led ideal upbringings but how much of that affected their later lives?

Dominic Cooke's adaptation stays generally true to McEwan's original story (certainly helped with McEwan himself writing the screenplay). Starring Saoirse Ronan (no stranger to McEwan's work) and Billy Howle, it doesn't quite capture the nuances of the novel but Cooke's theater background adds a particular flair to his feature film debut.

So which is better: McEwan's book or Cooke's movie? While both follow the same story, their approaches to the conclusion differ. (The film ends on a somewhat happier note than the novel.) But while how they conclude aren't generally the same, they capture to devastating effect how the era Edward and Florence are a part of isn't as liberating as they once thought.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

The Great Lie

Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is in a tight spot at the start of Edmund Goulding's The Great Lie. His marriage to pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) isn't valid -- her divorce from her previous husband wasn't finalized -- so instead of going through that again, he marries old flame Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis). And for a while, everything seems right.

But then Peter's plane goes missing when he goes away on business and he's presumed dead. Before he had left the country, Sandra confided in Maggie that she's pregnant with Peter's child. And after Peter disappears, Maggie offers to help Sandra during her pregnancy on the condition that she gets to have the child. But will this situation work for both women?

Davis took on the role of Maggie after some fans wrote hoping she would play a nice character. (She also picked Astor to play Sandra.) Both women conspired together to downplay the melodramatic aspects of The Great Lie in order to flesh their characters. Does it work? Absolutely.

Indeed Davis in the rare pleasant role (which she likened to her real-life personality) is something of note in The Great Lie but boy, does Astor make up for Davis' lack of bitchiness with her own. With this being released the same year as her famous role in The Maltese Falcon, it's understandable as to why it's not as known (even though she won an Oscar for it).

The Great Lie has its melodramatic moments, yes (probably to be expected from the director of Dark Victory and The Constant Nymph), but Davis and Astor ensure that the film doesn't firmly stay in that genre. (Thank goodness for that.) And like several of Goulding's other works, it has a particular preference for the characters and their personalities.

My Rating: ****

Friday, June 15, 2018

BOOK VS MOVIE: Disobedience

There's always something so tantalizing about the forbidden romance, the story of the star-crossed lovers. We root for them to see if in fact that love can conquer all. Very seldom do they receive the happiness they ache for in the end (same-sex couples are the more glaring examples) but the few that do get exactly what (and who) they want.

Disobedience is a more recent example of this oft-told tale. After receiving news that her father -- a well-respected rabbi in London -- has died, Ronit returns to the home she left behind years before. But as she reacquaints herself to the Orthodox Jewish community she was raised in, she discovers that her former lover Esti has married Ronit's cousin Dovid. Is the past truly in the past for both women or will sparks be re-ignited?

Naomi Alderman's novel focuses greatly on the workings of Judaism, each chapter opening with an examination of particular beliefs within the religion (that also happen to summarize their respective sections). Switching between perspectives (and fonts) from the third person and Ronit, we see how complex the society is to its devotees.

Sebasti├ín Lelio's adaptation eschews most of the novel's focus on grief and faith in favor of Ronit and Esti's relationship. (There is way more sexual tension here than what Alderman originally wrote.) Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams have strong chemistry (it'd be unfortunate if they didn't) but the shift in the story's central themes feels outputting at times.

So which is better: Alderman's book or Leilo's movie? Both have different characterizations for both plotline and leads. (How Dovid is portrayed, for instance, differs between the works.) Still, they both make one thing certain: one's feelings may not change after many years have passed.

What's worth checking out?: The book.