Thursday, December 31, 2015

Film and Book Tally 2015

Man, where the hell did this year go? Felt like it just started. Anyway, I managed to stay true to my word about watching more movies and reading more books. (Not so much in regards with getting a job.) The lists start after the jump. (Believe me, I saw and read a lot this year.) Oh, and also resolutions for 2016.


Sometimes you don't need big-name stars or an overly complex plot to make a compelling film. Many times all that's needed are the right people for the job. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't.

In regards with Sean Baker's Tangerine, it thankfully falls into the former category. Yes, its premise is a familiar one (a woman finds out her boyfriend's been unfaithful) but that's not what makes Tangerine stand out. What makes the film stand out is its two stars.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, two trans actresses with no prior experience in Hollywood, show immense promise because of their work in Tangerine. As is sometimes the case with various acting debuts, it's obvious (sometimes painfully so) that the actor is a newcomer. That's not the case with either Rodriguez and Taylor.

It's also worth mentioning that Rodriguez and Taylor's involvement in Tangerine could be the next step in Hollywood's progression. Recently television has become more progressive when it comes to trans characters (read: having them played by trans actors and actresses). Will this open more doors for other aspiring trans actors?

Tangerine is a fascinating watch. It doesn't resort to cheap stereotypes to further the story. It just relies on that stellar script. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of Baker, Rodriguez and Taylor over the coming years. (Oh, and that last scene is close to perfection.)

My Rating: *****

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Price of Salt/Carol

Love is a sensation unlike any other. It's a feeling that you only encounter once or twice in your lifetime but it's one that can be all-consuming. It's a feeling that's completely original, one that's indescribable.

And there have been countless works revolving around that very subject. Books, movies, plays, poetry,'s basically the most popular topic around. Of course when the word gets thrown around a lot, it starts to lose its meaning. Thankfully there are those who make sure that the word doesn't lose its impact.

Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt focuses on a young woman's budding relationship with an older woman. This being a book published during the early 1950s, it caused somewhat of a shock during this wholesome era. (Originally using the nom de plume Claire Morgan, Highsmith didn't associate herself with her second novel until later in life.) But like what E.M. Forster did with Maurice, Highsmith shows that love has no boundaries.

Todd Haynes' film Carol alters several details of Highsmith's novel but it maintains the forbidden romance of its day. (Haynes also shines a light on a subject that he only gave a faint interest towards in Far from Heaven.) With its meticulous costume and set designs, the film displays a sharp defiance beneath the composed dispositions. (Not to mention that heteronormativity is the worst.)

Between Highsmith's novel and Haynes' film, both show a lifestyle hidden beneath the glitz and glamour of the 1950s. But both works on their own stand out so deciding which is better is hard to say. Then again, there is another option...

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Monday, December 28, 2015


As we get older, we begin to realize certain things. What we've accomplished in our lives, the opportunities we've missed, the people we've known, the things we have yet to do. We're only on this earth for a short time so we must make the most of it.

Paolo Sorrentino's Youth is one of the latest films to focus on this topic. Set at a Swiss resort, it depicts those who come at a crossroads with their lives. Personal woes, professional plights...these are what they try to resolve (or at least come to terms with).

As the film wears on, it becomes clear that Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 provided some influence on Youth. Several scenes from Sorrentino's film easily parallel to those found in Fellini's film. (Thankfully not to a point where 8 1/2 is being blatantly ripped off.)

Indeed, the lead characters of Youth share of number of traits with Guido Anselmi. Despite his disinterest, composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) faces pressure from the powers that be. Director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) has a complicated connection with the women that have entered his life, especially frequent leading lady Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). And actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is struggling in preparing for his next role.

Youth is good though it might reserved only for a select few. It's far from an easily accessible film but it's certainly one that'll be appreciated if viewed by an admirer of Fellini. It's not for everyone but it will be liked by a select few.

My Rating: ****

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Danish Girl

The transgender community over the years has been far from treated properly. Though as of late, they've been represented much better throughout the media. Several TV shows and films feature trans women as actual people rather than a cheap plot twist or an even cruder punchline. It helps even more to have trans actresses to play those roles. (See Orange is the New Black, Sense8 and Tangerine as recent examples.)

However, there have also been cis actors playing trans women more frequently. (See Dallas Buyers Club and Transparent as recent examples.) There's a level of political correctness in such a depiction. Is it because Hollywood is still too afraid to advance with the times? Regardless, the printed word has been more sensible with matters like this.

David Ebershoff's novel The Danish Girl is a fictionalized account of Lili Elbe (when she was still known as Einar Wegener) and her marriage to Gerda Gottlieb (Greta Waud in the book). Ebershoff depicts this brief union not as a conflicted one because of Lili's so-called "perversion" but as one of deep understanding. (Whether it was entirely like that in real life is hard to say.)

Tom Hooper's adaptation makes Ebershoff's novel more melodramatic than it needs to be. (If anything, it cheapens the story.) Yes, Alexandre Desplat's score and Danny Cohen's cinematography make a gorgeous combination but they alone can't salvage Lucinda Coxon's thin script and Hooper's occasionally sporadic direction. (Same can be said in regards with Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander's performances.)

It's easy to see which of the two is better. Ebershoff's novel is a quiet depiction of marriage and devotion. Hooper's film meanwhile reduces it to a looming scandal, a shocking story from the previous century. Both also decidedly proved which is more with the times.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows

It's pretty obvious early on in Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows that it's going to be something hilarious. Shot like a documentary (think The Office), the film chronicles the everyday lives of several citizens of Wellington, New Zealand...who happen to be vampires.

Very seldom does the mockumentary work well. (That is, unless your name is Christopher Guest.) But What We Do in the Shadows is one of those few exceptions. The reason? Well, if you've seen Flight of the Concords, you'll know why.

And What We Do in the Shadows doesn't pride in taking itself too seriously. (It surely wouldn't have been as funny if it did.) Though in all honesty, that's the whole point of comedy. If a comedic work takes itself either too seriously or not seriously enough, then it won't be as easy to enjoy.

Back to the film itself. What We Do in the Shadows is one of several films in recent years that has vampires as its main focus, and thankfully it moves far away from the whole Twilight frenzy. The lead characters are far from the usual sexy vampires (though they would probably suggest otherwise). It's nice to see that after that dreck of a franchise. (Then again, Only Lovers Left Alive started that trend.)

What We Do in the Shadows is a very funny film, one that we don't frequently get nowadays. It's proof that a good comedy doesn't need an absurd amount of crude humor to be funny. It just needs well-timed jokes (and the right actors to deliver said jokes).

My Rating: *****

Friday, December 25, 2015

Monsieur Verdoux

When we're first introduced to the titular character of Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, it's clear that he's a far cry from Chaplin's famous Tramp character. Yes, he does do a number of pratfalls and double takes normally found in Chaplin's silent films but it's certainly a new role for the comedian. Obviously so since Henri Verdoux is based on a real-life serial killer.

As if that couldn't tarnish Chaplin's previous image enough, Monsieur Verdoux was released when his career was beginning to dwindle. The was after his paternity suit, which put a sizable dent on his public image. Then to immediately follow it up with a film like Monsieur Verdoux? It's a miracle his career didn't end right then and there.

Much like The Great Dictator several years earlier, Monsieur Verdoux came under scrutiny because Chaplin expressed some of his political views in the film. After all, both films were released during a time in history where certain beliefs could ruin one's personal life. Chaplin was no exception. (The same year Monsieur Verdoux was released, Chaplin was subpoenaed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. And just five years later, he was denied re-entry into the United States.)

Another noticeable difference between the Tramp and Henri Verdoux is how they view and treat women. The Tramp practically worships any woman he comes across; Verdoux meanwhile has an almost misogynistic nature to him. No wonder Monsieur Verdoux wasn't so well-received upon its release.

That said, however, all of this information doesn't reduce Monsieur Verdoux to an unwatchable dreck. It's a nice departure from Chaplin's more optimistic films. It would be some time before his best film Limelight would be released but one has to wonder: what would his career during that time be like had Hollywood not kicked him out?

My Rating: ****1/2

The Bishop's Wife

Henry Koster's The Bishop's Wife opens with Dudley (Cary Grant) walking among the many Christmas shoppers, committing small good deeds as he passes them. Then he notices Julia Brougham (Loretta Young) gazing at a shop widow, and later on in the film they're introduced properly.

It turns out (as the title implies) that Julia's husband Henry (David Niven) is a bishop and he's trying to raise funds for a new cathedral. Henry prays for spiritual guidance, and enter Dudley. Why him? He's a guardian angel, that's why.

Released the same year as Miracle on 34th Street (and the year after It's a Wonderful Life), The Bishop's Wife is easily one of those films that you could get comfortable with during the the Christmas season. You know, the one you can watch either by yourself or with the family once the frenzy of the holiday season starts to die down. (And honestly, there's no better remedy for the holiday woes than a movie.)

The trio of Grant, Young and Niven is what makes The Bishop's Wife work so well. (To think the original cast would've featured the likes of Niven, Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews.) The charm of the actors are brought out to the fullest. (What else would you expect from the future director of Harvey?)

Anyway, The Bishop's Wife is deeply endearing, exactly the kind of film one needs during the holiday season. It's gotten lost in the shadow of It's a Wonderful Life and it deserves a re-discovery. Honestly, it does.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

When you watch the trailer for George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, you figure it's nothing more than an overblown reboot of his earlier film, one chock full of adrenaline and massive explosions. But what about the film itself? Thankfully there's so much more to it.

"Like what?" you might be asking. Well, you know how films of this nature tend to be brimming with testosterone and toxic masculinity? Yes, the film does feature the latter in copious amounts but thankfully it's only reduced to the antagonists. (Surely this would've been a thoroughly obnoxious film to watch had it been all of the male characters.)

And though his name is in the title, Mad Max: Fury Road isn't just about Max Rockantansky (a grumbly Tom Hardy). No, this film shows that this desolate wasteland isn't just a man's world. There are women out here that know how to kick ass and take names.

And one such woman is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Frequently we're treated to various female characters who can hold their own alongside their male co-stars when it comes to kicking ass. Annoyingly they tend to get reduced to romantic interests for said male co-stars. (*cough* Black Widow *cough*) Miraculously, that doesn't happen to Furiosa. (Thank you, Miller, for that.)

Mad Max: Fury Road is, simply put, friggin' awesome but the hype surrounding it is somewhat overselling the film. Yes, it has well-developed female characters. Yes, it has well-executed practical effects. But overall, it's another action film that has fallen victim to the Hollywood hype machine. (Bear in mind this is the critique of someone who much prefers more subdued works.)

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Burning Man

It's established early on in Jonathan Teplitzky's Burning Man that Tom (Matthew Goode) is living a chaotic life. He's a man with a stormy attitude, an unstable family life, and everything else about him is falling to pieces. As the film wears on, we see why Tom's life is the way it is.

Like 21 Grams the previous decade, Burning Man is told through a non-linear narrative. We see in fragments Tom's life before and after it started to fall apart. It's a storyline frequently told throughout fiction, one that only a few choice names can do well.

Like his follow-up film The Railway Man, Teplitzky shows how the events of one's past can linger in the present. Granted, what Tom went through is nothing compared to Eric Lomax's ordeal but what Tom endured can be just as traumatic. (Life can be cruel sometimes.)

A main theme throughout Burning Man is the slow path to recovery, something that we'll encounter at some point in our lifetime. Life in of itself  is far from ideal but that's something we have to accept. We may feel as though the pain will never disappear but sometimes all it takes is that one person to help you end that dark chapter and start anew. (Sometimes that person can be you yourself.)

Burning Man is good but nothing too groundbreaking. Goode continues to prove that he's a vastly underrated (and underused) actor. (Then again, Stoker also proved that a mere two years later.) That said, Burning Man is worth a look.

My Rating: ****

Monday, December 21, 2015


The human race is far from perfect. We're a society that frequently falls victim to the numerous sins and vices around us. Even if we manage to resist temptation, our guard may be broken down and we succumb to our dark desires.

And in our twisted thinking, some believe the best solution to getting what we want is murder. Clear a debt with someone? A better way to getting rid of a spouse than divorce? Keeping a secret hidden longer? Taking a life is a temporary reprieve from personal problems, and fiction adores using this as a means of conflict. (And unfortunately, it's something that happens in real life as well.)

William Shakespeare's Macbeth is basically the archetype for this plot. A tale of ruthless persuasion and manipulation, it shows the lengths one will go to get what they want. But these actions have their consequences as well.

Justin Kurzel's adaptation manages to convey the general mood of Shakespeare's play though the driving force for the two leads (keenly played by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard) seems somewhat altered. They appear to be slowly going mad from grief (and eventually guilt). That doesn't alter the general mood of the film too much.

So is Shakespeare's play the superior choice or does Kurzel's film hold that honor? Kurzel's adaptation is basked in frigid blues and warm oranges, which contrasts the story's dark tone. And while Shakespeare can be hard for some to get into, his words still fascinate us centuries after his death.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

From the moment you hear that familiar theme in J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you know you're in for a treat. The feeling of nostalgia courses through you as you watch that famous opening scroll. But how does the rest of the film fare?

Of course Abrams' contributions to the Star Trek reboots have been meet with mixed reception (the first one positive, the second one...not so much). So what about his involvement in an even bigger science fiction pop culture sensation? Much like the revival series of Doctor Who, having someone who grew up with this sci-fi phenomenon at the helm certainly helps a great deal.

How so? They know what the other fans like, which famous scenes and lines resonate with them. And Abrams does pay homage to the original trilogy throughout Star Wars: The Force Awakens but in a nice, subtle way. (They work even if you haven't seen the original trilogy.)

But how does Star Wars: The Force Awakens compare to the trilogy helmed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand? Well, it's noticeably more diverse when it comes to both its characters and cast. (Could you imagine the reaction had they tried that back in '77?) And Abrams certainly makes up for the somewhat sexist nature of his Star Trek films.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is entertaining through and through. Like the original films, it has the right balance of laughs, adventure and wonder. Oh, and that final scene will both make the Star Wars fan in you grin with delight and leave you aching for the next installment.

My Rating: *****

Monday, December 14, 2015

BOOK VS MOVIE: In the Heart of the Sea

The sea is a cruel face of nature. It can claim many victims whether from the many creatures living within it or from the violent storms it plays host to. Point being many tales have been told about the perils of the sea.

One of the most famous stories is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. A tale of adventure and obsession, it's a story that has captivated readers for well over a century. But did you know that the story of Captain Ahab and the Pequod was based on real events?

Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea chronicles the voyage that would inspire Melville's magnum opus. It depicts the various plights the crew of the whaleship Essex endured during its last expedition. The novel also examines other maritime incidents, a condensed history of whaling, and grim details of what the crew endured. (And "grim" is an understatement.)

Ron Howard's adaptation does manage to capture many of the action scenes but it seems more reliant on the events being an inspiration for Melville. Certain details are toned down so as to not to horrify the viewer and others are modified for the sake of drama. (That said, there are some shots from Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography that would make J.M.W. Turner proud.)

So what's worth checking out more: Philbrick's novel or Howard's film? On the one hand, Philbrick's novel provides great detail on one of history's forgotten maritime tragedies. But on the other hand, Howard's film depicts the horrors the Essex crew faced quite well. Though it's fairly obvious which of the two is more successful.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

A Christmas Story

Ah, the holiday season. That wonderful time of year where we eat more than usual, exhaust our wallets and bank accounts, and have to deal with family more than usual. And when you manage to duck away from yet another family gathering, there's no better remedy than a movie apt for that time of year.

And what can be better than Bob Clark's A Christmas Story? After all, enduring the holidays can be draining; seeing someone else go through the same thing can be hilarious. (Schadenfreude at its finest.)

But there's more to A Christmas Story than the title implies. It's not just about Christmas; it's also about the innocence of childhood, how everything seemed possible. Including getting that one present for Christmas that you practically begged for.

The film also shows the innocence of a time passed, how parents let their kids run free without a second thought. Of course now that's not something that would happen on a regular basis but it shows how safe everyone felt during that time in history. Of course this was before the world was once again plunged into chaos...

A Christmas Story is a delight to watch whether by yourself or with a group of people. Though it does show its age in spots, that doesn't hinder its quality too much. Not to mention it's unbelievably quotable. ("You'll shoot your eye out, kid!")

My Rating: ****

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Stella Dallas

Barbara Stanwyck nowadays is known for playing the quick-talking dame who isn't afraid to speak her mind. Stanwyck of course was a consummate professional, dabbling in a variety of genres throughout her career. As a result, she's known as one of the greats of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Her work in King Vidor's Stella Dallas proves that. As the self-sacrificing titular character, Stanwyck plays a woman who first wants the best for herself but her intentions soon shift to her daughter. A story familiar in both fiction and real life, certainly, but an effective one if done properly.

This was released at a time where studios were regularly churning out melodramas. So how does Stella Dallas stand out? Having a big name like Stanwyck certainly helps but there's another aspect to the film that also helps it. It shows the differences in the classes of society, how one person's dressed up could be another person's gaudy.

Back to Stanwyck for a moment. As mentioned earlier, she's held in high regard for the impact her career had. And her work in Stella Dallas proves that she was capable of more than just playing the street smart dame from the Big Apple. She could also play the caring matriarch with ease.

Stella Dallas isn't high amongst Stanwyck's best-known films but it's certainly one that's worth a look. It proves that you don't need a sappy script to make an effective melodrama. It shows its age occasionally, yes, but that shouldn't stop you from seeing it.

My Rating: ****

To Catch a Thief

Boy, when it comes to old school glamour, no one can top Cary Grant. The man wore a well-tailored suit with ease and his natural charm made him irresistible. There have been many imitators but there will only be one Cary Grant.

And nobody captured Grant's suave nature better than Alfred Hitchcock. (Their four-film collaboration proved that effortlessly.) Their third collaboration To Catch a Thief, set against the backdrop of the French Riviera, is easily the most chic. (A whole eight years before Charade too!)

And like Charade, Grant is alongside an actress who's better known as a style icon. But instead of Audrey Hepburn, here he has Grace Kelly as a co-star. And the glamour from both of them just radiates on screen. (Certainly doesn't hurt that both of them are Hitchcock regulars.)

A plot device regularly found in your average Hitchcock picture is the accused innocent. Such films to feature that include the likes of The 39 Steps and (more obviously) The Wrong Man. To Catch a Thief has this plot, a whole four years before Hitchcock and Grant would do it with North by Northwest.

To Catch a Thief is good but compared to the other films Hitchcock did with Grant and Kelly, it pales in comparison. It relies more on the romance between the two stars than on the thrills. Still, at least it's pretty to look at. (Robert Burks didn't win an Oscar for nothing.)

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


In the society we're a part of, it's hard to find something original to enjoy. Television shows based on movies, books being adapted into movies and television's almost as if we've run out of ideas. However, exceptions can be made for matters like this.

Remakes and reboots primarily can only work if a new angle to the original story is there. So how has Ryan Coogler's Creed fared? Taking elements from the six Rocky films, Creed both adds to the franchise's legacy and stands out as its own film.

In sharp contrast to his previous film Fruitvale Station, Coogler takes on a film with more aggression and violence. (Well, it is about boxing.) But Coogler also explores similar themes from his first film, such as doing what's right and making a better future. (Will these be recurring themes in Coogler's future films? Time will only tell.)

And the performances Coogler got out of his actors are great. Michael B. Jordan (who also starred in Fruitvale Station) continues to prove he's an actor to an eye on. Tessa Thompson (who's also great in Dear White People) does much of the same thing. And then there's Sylvester Stallone. This is a role he first did thirty-nine years ago and his work here proves he's still got it.

Creed is one of those films that you think would just be all right but it turns out there's much more to it. Thanks to the work from Coogler, Jordan, Thompson and especially Stallone, this is proof that we're witnessing a new film revolution. (That last scene in particular is proof that Coogler is going to have a long and fruitful career.)

My Rating: *****


Ah, behind the scenes drama. Just a match made in fictional heaven, isn't it? Unsurprisingly many of them are set within the years following World War II, a supposedly wholesome era of churchgoing and high morals. But as is often the case, there are more tantalizing stories from behind closed doors.

And the more tantalizing stories are the real-life ones. Lana Turner on trial for the murder of her gangster boyfriend, Robert Mitchum jailed for marijuana possession, Elizabeth Taylor's active love life...these are the stories that the masses just devour. But sometimes such scandals involve those whose faces are never seen on camera.

Jay Roach's Trumbo (if the title wasn't obvious enough) focuses on the life of Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played here by the frequently infallible Bryan Cranston) during his time as one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of people who were refused employment because of their involvement and/or sympathies with the Communist Party. Nowadays political opinions aren't as career-threatening but bear in mind this was the early years of the Cold War. Everyone was paranoid. (It wasn't called the Red Scare for nothing.)

Trumbo also highlights the various political changes the United States went through during the 1950s. From the Rosenbergs' executions to the early years of the civil rights movement, it shows how the country's attitudes shifted from high-strung to more accepting. (Though it appears to be a repeating cycle with every passing decade...)

All in all, Trumbo is good but the story gets muddled too frequently. Still, the work from the various actors (particularly Cranston) is solid enough to keep the film moderately watchable. That all said though, this is something you can wait to see.

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Hard Day's Night

Everyone knows how Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night opens. A throng of screaming fans are chasing the Beatles as they try to get to their train. Given this was made during the height of the band's fame (it was made shortly after their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), it wasn't too hard to find extras to do the task. But there's so much more to the film than the opening sequence.

From an era with ever-changing opinions on next to everything, A Hard Day's Night is a testament to its era. This was a time in history where its target audience were the baby boomers, a generation more liberated than the previous one. This was a generation seeking its own identity and what better form of identity is there than music?

As you watch the Fab Four on screen, you can't help but be surprised that A Hard Day's Night had a script. (An Oscar-nominated one too!) Of course the quartet are playing exaggerated versions of themselves but does that matter in the end? Of course not. But to choose which of the four steals the show, that honor easily goes to John Lennon. ("I now declare this!")

That said, there are a few elements in A Hard Day's Night that wouldn't go by as easily as they did in 1964. At one point in the film, Ringo Starr temporarily leaves the band which he would do several years later. (And then there's the manager repeatedly threatening to kill Lennon...) That said though, the looming shadows of those events don't hinder the film's quality.

A Hard Day's Night is a deeply entertaining film, one that can be enjoyed if you're a fan of the Beatles or not. (Though to be honest, how could you not be a fan of the Beatles?) It's just one of those films that you need to see.

My Rating: *****

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The "Try It, You'll Like It!" Blogathon

Fritzi of Movies Silently and Janet of Sister Celluloid are hosting another blogathon, and this one just seemed right up my alley. How so? Well, the main objective, in Fritzi's words, is "where we write about 'gateway films' that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold!" So what to choose? Something accessible to the masses, something that still resonates long after many (if not all) of its stars have passed on. My film of choice?

(1952, dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dial M for Murder

Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder opens with Margot Mary Wendice (Grace Kelly) reuniting with her lover Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). She tells him that she's being blackmailed over their affair. In the following scene, it's revealed that her husband Tony (Ray Milland) is the one blackmailing her. And he has something planned for her: murder.

Similar to Hitchcock's Rope several years earlier, Dial M for Murder focuses on the planning and execution of the so-called perfect murder. But as shown in both films, the arrogance and overconfidence of the perpetrators result in them overlooking the most glaring of details. (The true trait of a narcissist: they think they're smarter than everyone else.)

And similar to Hitchcock's Rear Window released that same year, it sees Kelly thrown into the middle of criminal activity. But the roles between both films are completely different. Rear Window has Kelly trying to solve a possible murder; Dial M for Murder has her as the potential victim. (Either way, she's in the role of the Hitchcock blonde in peril.)

But that doesn't mean Dial M for Murder doesn't hold its own among Hitchcock's films. Like several of his other films, it's based on another work (in this instance, Frederick Knott's play of the same name) and Hitchcock makes it into something of his own. Only a few directors are capable of this task; Hitchcock was most certainly one of them.

Dial M for Murder isn't frequently held in the same regard as some of Hitchcock's other films. (Why that is, it's hard to say.) Thanks to the work from Milland and Kelly, it's one of those films that you kind of have to see.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sorry, Wrong Number

Anatole Litvak's Sorry, Wrong Number opens with invalid heiress Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) trying to get in contact with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster). She overhears a conversation between two men plotting a murder over the line. Panicked, she tries to find answers.

Based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher (she also wrote the screenplay), Sorry, Wrong Number isn't Stanwyck's usual fare. Yes, she's dabbled in her fair share of film noirs but she's far from her usual role of the femme fatale. Very far from it.

Also a familiar face to noir is Lancaster. Bear in mind Sorry, Wrong Number came only a few years after his debut in The Killers so Hollywood didn't particularly know what to do with him just yet. That said, however, it's clear early on that Lancaster knew how to make his presence known.

So what about the film itself? Set in almost exact time, Sorry, Wrong Number shows how a reduced production can be damn effective. (It's primarily set in Leona's bedroom.) Yes, some scenes stray away from the bedroom but does that lessen the film's quality? Not in the slightest.

Anyway, Sorry, Wrong Number is a damn fine film noir. Stanwyck is great throughout though that comes as no surprise if you're familiar with her work. (It's a shame that she was the bridesmaid four times and never the bride...unless you count that Honorary Oscar.) So make sure that Sorry, Wrong Number is on your to-watch list.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, November 27, 2015

Kiss of Death

Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death opens with a department store jeweler getting robbed. It's a quick operation for hoodlum Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) but he gets caught. He refuses to snitch in exchange for a lighter sentence but after his personal life starts to crumble, he reconsiders.

As a result, he gets paroled and a new lease on life. Then Bianco is recruited to get information on another hoodlum running loose in New York City. Unfortunately for Bianco, that hoodlum is Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a ruthless gangster with the grin of a killer. And Udo doesn't like snitches.

Kiss of Death, like several noirs in the years to come, shows domesticity amid the danger. It shows how Bianco mainly committed his various crimes for the sake of his family. (In fact, the opening robbery is one such example.) Not very often you see that.

Also, Bianco's portrayal as a family man is a nice foil to Udo's vicious attitude. The caring against the heartless, the sensible against the brutal. Foils are common throughout noir, but Kiss of Death has a prime example.

Kiss of Death is a very well done film noir, especially Widmark's performance. (That's one hell of a way to kickstart a career in Hollywood.) Being a post-war noir, it shows the discourse within the home front. And boy, what discourse it is.

My Rating: ****


Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour opens with piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) lamenting over the end of his relationship with singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him for a shot at Hollywood. Now he's hitch-hiking to California but as he gets closer to being with Sue again, trouble crosses his path. And then Vera (Ann Savage) enters his life.

Indeed many elements of Detour just scream B-movie but does that matter in the long run? Not particularly because Ulmer manages to make a film that, despite its cheap appearance, is quite effective. (Hey, looks can be deceiving, you know.)

Speaking of which, that could easily describe Vera. She at first glance looks like a girl that you'd pass by on the street without a second thought. But the moment she locks eyes with and speaks to you, it's clear she's anything but. With her fiery glare and brassy voice, she's not someone you want to get on the bad side of. (And she's rarely in a pleasant mood.)

There's also a shift in gender roles between Al and Vera. Usually with noirs, men are the vicious ones while the women just stay in the background looking pretty. Not in Detour. Al just goes along with Vera's bossy attitude, even when his tolerance towards her starts to dwindle. (Just pointing this out, this was released the same year as Scarlet Street.)

Detour shows that an effective film noir can be possible with a small budget and a short production schedule. That said, there are some flaws within the final result. (The somewhat choppy editing, for starters.) Still, Detour is worth a look.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Side Street

Anthony Mann's Side Street opens with the narration of police officer Walter Anderson (Paul Kelly), talking about the many lives within the confines of New York City. He muses how the vast city's inhabitants will pass each other by without a second thought, how they carry on with their routine lives. Then we're introduced to Joe Norson (Farley Granger).

With his wife expecting, Joe is tightly strapped for cash. (His part-time job as a mail carrier isn't helping much.) During one of his routes, he steals what he thinks is $200 from a lawyer's office. He then finds out he actually stole $30,000. What follows has Joe ensnared with criminals and murder.

Like any good film noir, the city plays just as big a part as any of the actors. And it's all crisply captured by Joseph Ruttenberg, who was certainly no slouch when it came to his job. (He didn't get four Oscars and six additional nominations for nothing.) The hustle and bustle of this restless town is keenly shot by his and Mann's watchful eyes. God, to live in that world...

Granger, far from an unfamiliar face to films of a criminal nature (Rope, They Live by Night, Strangers on a Train), is great here. With his frantic dark eyes, he captures Joe's tense disposition. Surely Granger must've known how others might see the film even if he didn't think much of it. (From his autobiography: "For its time, Side Street was a good-looking, well-made film that was not able to rise above the banality of its story.")

Side Street is a really, really damn good noir, one that for some reason hasn't earned the recognition it deserves. (Then again, this could apply to most of Granger's filmography outside of his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.) So be sure to find this and watch it.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Glass Key

1942 saw the release of two film noirs starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. The first was This Gun for Hire, which firmly put Ladd and Lake amongst the greats of noir. (It's also the best-known of their seven-film collaboration.) The second one got lost amongst the other titles of 1942 but stands out on its own.

That film is Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key. Based on Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name. it's a tale of political corruption and murder. And like The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon (also adaptations of Hammett's work), it's a perplexing whodunnit.

In comparison to The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key is noticeably more violent in nature.At one point in the film, Ladd's face is beaten to a pulpy mess (well, as pulpy as the Hays Code can allow) by a goon. Even for a film released during the height of World War II, it's pretty vicious.

Plot-wise, you have to pay close attention to what's unfolding. Much like The Big Sleep in the years to come, there's a menagerie of characters ranging from those that lurk in the background to those only around for a handful of scenes. (A list of who's who might be necessary.)

Though not on the same level of greatness as The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key holds its own. Thanks to Ladd's natural charisma, he has a comfortable mood as he faces off against tough guys and even tougher dames (Lake included). It's a lesser-known title amongst the numerous film noirs but that doesn't mean it's one you should ignore.

My Rating: ****

Monday, November 23, 2015

Leave Her to Heaven

John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven appears to be your usual run of the mill melodrama from Hollywood's Golden Age, complete with Technicolor-drenched cinematography from Leon Shamroy. (Eat your heart out, Douglas Sirk.) But as the viewer gets to know Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) more, it's clear that something's not right about her.

How so? When she first lays eyes on Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), she remarks how much he resembles her recently deceased father. (For several scenes afterwards, she talks about her father in an almost obsessive manner.) They get married soon afterwards but Richard soon finds out that his wife's obsessions have shifted to him.

By this time, Hollywood was regularly churning out film noirs. But Leave Her to Heaven was one of the first noirs to be shot in Technicolor, and the results can be stunning. (No surprise how Shamroy got an Oscar for his work.) From Tierney's wardrobe to the sky at dusk, it adds a sort of dissonance to the film's story.

And as is the case with film noir, the performances are solid. The main draw is clearly Tierney, who earned her only Oscar nomination for her work in this. Her porcelain features are mystifying, distracting enough make one not notice her unbalanced behavior.

Leave Her to Heaven is frequently among the ranks of the greats though certain elements make the film show its age. That said, Tierney's performance and Shamroy's cinematography are stunning and timeless. (In all honesty, these are the main and only draws for Leave Her to Heaven.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Human perseverance is an amazing thing. The willpower to survive is something unlike anything else. It's what separates us from other creatures in the animal kingdom.

There have been numerous stories throughout the media about such cases, many of them perpetrated by the monsters that walk among us. What happened to the victims is something that no one should either endure or inflict. But seldom do we hear about the survivors once the media frenzy calms down. (Then again, it's also respecting their privacy.)

Emma Donoghue's novel Room chronicles such a story. Told through the perspective of a five-year-old boy, it focuses on his and his mother's lives as they're sheltered in the titular room. With the story being told from his point of view, the novel takes on a dark tone as Jack watches the world he knows drastically change. (It's heartbreaking to read as he witnesses the abuse his mother endures from their captor.)

Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation maintains the dark ambiance of Donoghue's novel to the fullest. (Not to mention it's a stark contrast from Abrahamson's previous film.) The work from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay is fantastic (not often you see a child performance this effective), and Donoghue's script is as well. And despite its bleak mood, the film has some moments that'll leave a smile on your face.

So which of the two is better? Donoghue's novel is deeply haunting while Abrahamson's film perks up the mood as it wears on. Though the general feel for both of them is different, they both are resilient pieces of work in their own rights.

What's worth checking out?: Both.


All the President's Men. The Insider. Almost Famous. These are a few of the prominent films that focus on the world of journalism. Between and since their releases, there have been other films of a similar nature with varying degrees of success. Though there have been a few that managed to stand out.

So where does Tom McCarthy's Spotlight rank? Chronicling the coverage of a vast sex abuse scandal in Boston, the film strays away from being gentle about the subject matter. (If it did, you could easily see the film's quality dwindle.)

There's a certain detail throughout Spotlight that adds to the film's impact. Being about a scandal through the Catholic Church, its presence is known within various scenes. How so? Throughout various exterior shots, a church can be seen within the background. A nice touch from McCarthy.

And the actors McCarthy got for his film...good God. Every single one of them never waste a single moment when they're on screen whether it's one of the stars or an actor with one scene. It's not that often you see a film use all of its actors effectively.

Spotlight is one of those rare well-crafted films where all of its elements sing like a symphony. Every note of it works wonders, something that has to be done with fine precision. And everyone involved is at the top of their game here.

My Rating: *****

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Criterion Blogathon

So get this. Aaron of Criterion Blues, Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings decided to team up and do a blogathon together. Basically the objective is to talk about any film or topic so long as the Criterion Collection is involved. Sounds simple, right? Feeling bored, I figured I'd throw my two cents in for a Criterion release. But which one? Titles were being claimed left and right, so I opted for this one:

(1985, dir. Nicholas Roeg)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Gene Tierney 95th Birthday Blogathon

Simoa of The Ellie Badge is hosting a blogathon where the subject is Academy Award-nominated actress Gene Tierney. Admittedly I'm not deeply familiar with her work (I've only seen two of her films) but I felt like chipping my two cents. My film of choice?

(1946, dir. Edmund Goulding)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Labyrinth of Lies

There have been many horrors throughout history. Many of said horrors were perpetrated by people who were the epitome of evil. And in many of these instances, these monsters looked like they could be next door to you.

This point becomes the driving force once Giulio Ricciarelli's Labyrinth of Lies takes off. Set in the years following the end of World War II, it chronicles the journey to bring those responsible for the atrocities the Nazi Party committed. A task easier said than done.

As proven throughout history, there are those ashamed of their past actions. As shown throughout Labyrinth of Lies, the Germans of an older generation would best like to forget the war they lost. This further complicates matters for our protagonist (a composite of three lawyers from the real-life trial) but it doesn't stop him. Even if it alienates him from those around him, he still wants justice for the innocents.

And as Labyrinth of Lies wears on, it takes on a more paranoid nature. Makes sense because for our protagonist, he only has a small group of allies. How many of them can he actually trust? Knowing the world he's a part of, it leaves you wondering.

Labyrinth of Lies focuses on a country's misdeeds in a (mostly) unflinching light. (Apart from testimony from those who survived, what happened to the many victims of the Holocaust isn't shown or mentioned.) Ricciarelli does prove that one's actions can come with consequences and while not on the same scale as Judgment at Nuremberg, the film does add a new perspective on a dark spot in history.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, November 14, 2015


We as a society are constantly changing. What was once taboo is now part of everyday life (and vice versa). Our opinions shift as the years pass but even then there are some things that remain unchanged.

When it comes to human psychology, we're always fascinated by various studies from the field whether it's because of the subject matter or the controversy that followed suit. Michael Almereyda's Experimenter focuses on the various studies conducted by Stanley Milgram. And all these years later, we're still fascinated by the results.

Much like how Kinsey and Masters of Sex highlighted how their respective researchers changed how the world viewed sexual behavior, Experimenter highlights how Milgram's infamous study still resonates decades later. It's a study that examines human behavior under the control of others, one that asks the question, what are the limits for a human?

Unlike your standard "based on real events" film, Experimenter plays with different formats of storytelling. The fourth wall is regularly broken, some set designs appear more like they're from a many means this was Almereyda's decision to experiment with his film (and he frequently does with his other work). It just adds to the film's nature.

Experimenter is a curious film in many regards. It neither celebrates nor condemns Milgram's actions, and it does mention the long-term effects of his work. Peter Sarsgaard's performance as Milgram also showcases that the actor is one of the best working today. And the film itself is most definitely one that you should seek out.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, November 9, 2015


You'd think by now as we approach the end of 2015 that we as a society would more equal. Alas, the steps towards total equality have been laden with pitfalls of varying degrees. Unfortunately the world we are a part of is still rampantly racist, sexist, homophobic and heavily bigoted.

Sarah Gavron's Suffragette shows how slow the progress  has been over the last century. (Towards the end of the film, there's an appallingly small list featuring when countries gave women the right to vote, the most recent year being 2015.) But even with the few results we get, they've been effective. (After all, this past summer the United States legalized same-sex marriage.)

Abi Morgan's script is one clearly brimming with anger. She writes about how unfair life as a woman was in the previous century, how they reduced to nothing more than servants or objects to men. Both she and Gavron show how women both then and now are not the dainty figures we appear to be.

And as proven by other works penned by Morgan, Suffragette features a strong roster of actors. Featuring the likes of Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai (even Meryl Streep in a lone scene), it shows how tantalizing a good script is to the right actors. (Though it would've been nice on both Gavron and Morgan's parts to have some actors of color amongst the cast.)

Suffragette is a very gripping film and it shows there was more to the story than what the history books tell you. Though the plot loses its way from time to time, the work from the various women involved proves that it's a film that should be acknowledged.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, November 6, 2015

Steve Jobs

Whenever a prominent name gets the biopic treatment, it usually involves the writer(s) cleaning up certain details of the subject's life to make the film a little more...presentable. (*cough* Saving Mr. Banks *cough*) Obviously this is a way to appease both moviegoers and the censors but sometimes the more appealing details of the subject's life are the ones omitted.

So how does Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs fare? It may sound cheap to focus on a subject who passed away recently (not to mention if the new biopic is one of several projects on the subject). But if said project is effective, the cheap feeling dwindles down to nothing. But does Steve Jobs manage to be effective?

It's Aaron Sorkin's script that makes Steve Jobs excel to the highest level. In contrast to his work for The Social Network, Sorkin has a more acerbic tone throughout. (In comparison to The Social Network, Sorkin depicts Jobs as a headstrong thinker who has more enemies than allies because of his demeanor.) It's also proof that Sorkin is one of the best writers working today.

And the performances in Steve Jobs make the film excel even further. The work from Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg and Jeff Daniels in particular are very well done but this show belongs to Michael Fassbender, who has certainly proven in recent years that he's one of the best actors working today. ("I'm poorly made.")

Steve Jobs is one of those films where you're half-expecting it to fall apart at some point but miraculously it never happens. Every element works wonders. (Warning for those with epilepsy: the last scene has a long sequence featuring various flashing lights.)

My Rating: *****

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon

Joey of Wolffian Classic Movies Digest is hosting a blogathon where the objective is to cover the films of either Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier or both of them. Being the easily bored blogger that I am, I decided to throw in my two cents on some of their films. I opted to focus on some less talked about performances from both of them. No Gone with the Wind, no A Streetcar Named Desire, no Wuthering Heights, no Rebecca. So what did I pick?

(1960, dir. Tony Richardson)
(1967, dir. Stanley Kramer)
Why these particular films? Well, I'm frequently fascinated with later works of prominent actors. (See also Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City and Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross.) And these are two performances that, if you watch carefully, you can see glimmers of their younger selves.

(More after the jump.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

BOOK VS MOVIE: Ship of Fools

All the lonely people, where do they all come from? / All the lonely people, where to they all belong? So the song goes. Many pieces of fiction revolve around the lonely people of this big, bad world. If done poorly, it could be nothing more than cheap melodrama. Done properly, and it can make for quality drama.

So where does Ship of Fools fall? Focusing on the first-class passengers on a ship from Mexico to Europe, it chronicles their stormy pasts and uncertain futures. Set in the years before the start of World War II, it foreshadows the chaos that would consume the world with hate and violence.

Katherine Anne Porter's novel also focuses on other matters like racial and religious differences. A number of characters voice their opinions on the various ethnicities on board (read: they're openly racist) but this was written during a time of social change so Porter gets an exception in this regard. (Hey, literature gets away with a lot of things.)

Being made during the last few years of the Hays Code's existence, Stanley Kramer's adaptation is decidedly more cleaned up in comparison to Porter's novel. (At least with race and religion; it focuses way more on sex.) Boasting an all-star cast (including Vivien Leigh in her last film role), it's sort of like Grand Hotel set at sea. (An odd combination, perhaps, but it's true.)

Which is better? On the one hand, Porter explores the various complex lives of the passengers. (She also writes about prejudice without getting preachy.) But on the other hand, Kramer's film is decidedly easier to follow. (It also has more happier resolves than what Porter wrote.) Both have their triumphs and flaws so it appears there's one possible solution.

What's worth checking out?: The movie.

Scarlet Street

It's clear early on in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street that Edward G. Robinson is in a different type of role than his usual tough guy fare. His character of Christopher Cross is decidedly more sensible than the likes of Rico or Johnny Rocco. Then he crosses paths with Kitty March (Joan Bennett).

Despite being married (albeit unhappily), Cross becomes smitten with Kitty. Unbeknownst to him, Kitty already has a beau: low-life Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea). And it isn't long before Kitty starts playing Cross for all he's worth. (Rule of thumb for film noirs: never trust dames in tight dresses.)

Lang has contributed his fair share of films to the noir genre. (Other titles include M and The Big Heat.) So how does Scarlet Street compare to his more famous titles? Being a post-war noir, it explores more on the matters of sexual desire and moral ambiguity. It also shows how you shouldn't believe everything you're told.

And the performances from Robinson and Bennett are fantastic, providing a nice foil for each other. His meek to her brash, his feeble to her loud. (In fact, a later scene between them is reminiscent of a similar interaction from Of Human Bondage.) You see such foils frequently but seldom with the woman in the crasser role.

Scarlet Street is definitely one of the more underseen titles of both Lang's career and the film noir genre as a whole. Thanks to the work from Robinson and Bennett, it's the kind of film that's one hell of a character study. Also, the ending's one of the finer examples of cruel, cruel irony.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Birds

Can anyone do suspense better than Alfred Hitchcock? (Answer: no.) Yes, there have been many imitators over the years (both during and after Hitchcock's time), but there can only be one master.

With The Birds, Hitchcock takes the work of an author he's adapted before (he had previously adapted Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn and Rebecca) and makes it into something of her own. Many noted trademarks of Hitchcock's are present (the looming mother figure, the blonde damsel in distress) but at the same time, it feels different from his usual fare.

It starts off with a plot more likely to be found in your average Douglas Sirk production. It's not until about an hour in that the blood-thirsty birds become the main focus. Does that hinder the film's quality? Absolutely not. (On a different note, it's amusing to re-watch Psycho and noting the bird motifs knowing that The Birds would be Hitchcock's next project.)

Also, for a film made back in 1963, the special effects are quite good. Sure, there's the occasional shot that shows its age but for a film over fifty years old, you don't normally see special effects this, well, effective. (Honestly, you try finding something from the same time period with special effects that don't look like they cost a grand total of fifteen dollars.)

Stiff acting and dialogue aside, The Birds has some damn good scares. (Again, it's Hitchcock. No surprise there.)  Also, the lack of music so helps with the creepiness. Not a bad follow-up from Psycho.

My Rating: ****

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is unlike most other films you'll see this autumn. It's a film that has an atmosphere unlike what you normally see at the cineplex. (Then again, this is something from the mind of del Toro, so it's not too much of a shock.)

At first glance, Crimson Peak appears to have the decorum of Jane Eyre (fitting considering one of the stars) and the ambiance of Hammer Films-produced titles. But as the film unfolds, it's clear there's so much more to it.

Indeed, many elements of Crimson Peak pay homage to numerous films of a similar nature. (Rebecca and The Shining come to mind.) del Toro makes various references to horror films from throughout the years. (Come on, the main character's surname is Cushing.) Many other films of this nature resort to blatant spoofs of famous works; Crimson Peak, however, prefers the subtle approach.

And it's not just the homages that make Crimson Peak work wonders. The production design gives the viewer a glimpse into del Toro's imagination. (The decrepit walls of Allerdale Hall would make Edgar Allan Poe proud.) The combination of Dan Laustsen's cinematography and Fernando Velázquez's score turn the film into a dreamy nightmare. And the performances from Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and especially Jessica Chastain would make the likes of Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier very happy.

Crimson Peak is a very effective film. It has the right amount of scares, nothing overdone. Its many details result in something that's not only a tribute to Gothic romance but also a gorgeous piece of cinema. So many beautiful details....

My Rating: *****