Friday, February 24, 2017

The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Actress

Ah, awards season: that wonderfully annoying stretch of months that everyone (okay, most everyone) over-analyzes to the point where avoiding social media as a whole is the best solution. Usually I try not to partake in this but with the LAMB rebooting its Oscar coverage, I felt like chipping my two cents. Hey, I've covered it twice before and both times my predictions were right. Let's see if the third time’s the charm.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


We're only young once in our short lives. It's once it's all over that we realize that there's not much time left on this planet. And boy, do mid-life crises make for excellent fodder when it comes to fiction.

That certainly comes to a head in John Cassavetes' Husbands. Following the sudden death of their friend, Gus (Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) try to go on with their lives. But too much of their confined world reminds them of their late pal so they figure traveling could help clear their heads. But does it?

In the way of how the story's told, Husbands bears strong resemblance to Cassavetes' previous film Faces. It's less of a film than it is a voluntary glimpse into one's life. But as is often the case with Cassavetes' directorial contributions, it sure as hell isn't a glamorous one.

But in contrast to later films of his, Husbands doesn't have the same flow as Cassavetes' collaborations with wife Gena Rowlands. (Though -- as mentioned before -- from a storytelling perspective, this bears some resemblance to their previous film Faces.) Granted, perhaps Cassavetes was still trying to shake off his bad experience directing within studio regulations a few years prior. (There's definitely that air of defiance both here and in his later work.)

Husbands may not rank amongst his best work but it did show that Cassavetes was more than willing to break a few of the expected conventions in Hollywood at the time. After all, this was a time when the studio system was beginning to break down, and fresh blood was crucial to stay relevant with changing times. And guess who was waiting for that last pillar to collapse?

My Rating: ****

Silver Streak

For years, filmmakers have been paying tribute to the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Even when the director was still alive and well, there were works being made with his influence all over them. And they're still being doled out today.

Arthur Hiller's Silver Streak (coincidentally released the same year as Hitchcock's swan song Family Plot) borrows part of its story from North by Northwest. Sure, there have been other imitations since the first film's 1959 release but there's something that Hiller brings to his film that makes it work.

Perhaps that something is -- like Hitchcock before him -- Hiller using an actor that's adept with comedy. Similar with Cary Grant, Gene Wilder has had his fair share of serious and silly roles prior to Silver Streak. And it's because of that detail the later film works as well as it does.

But Silver Streak isn't solely Wilder's show. Alongside him are the likes of Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Ned Beatty and Patrick McGoohan, just to name a few. They all hold their own, certainly, but it's Wilder's who carries the whole picture away by himself. (Okay, Pryor definitely has his moments as well.)

Silver Streak is further testament of Wilder's ability as a performer. (His collaborations with Mel Brooks during the previous decade merely acknowledged the masses to it.) He was one of those rare comedic actors that added a certain kindness to whatever he was in (which perhaps explains his role in Willy Wonka a few years before this). And that's on full display here, especially his scenes with Clayburgh.

My Rating: ****

Love and Death on Long Island

A matter of days after turning seventy-seven, the world of film lost John Hurt. A performer whose presence was always welcome, he could go from leading man to character actor with complete ease. The quality of the project didn't always matter; you could always guarantee Hurt will deliver.

And he does just that in Richard Kwietniowski's Love and Death on Long Island. As the reclusive Giles De'Ath (note the name), Hurt shows an awakening of sorts during the film's duration. And it all starts by going into the wrong movie at the cinema.

He had paid to see an E.M. Forster adaptation but Giles mistakenly ends up seeing a raunchy teen comedy. Just as he's about to leave, he lays eyes on Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), one of the movie's young actors. What ensues for Giles is a slowly unraveling obsession.

In a way, Love and Death on Long Island is an update of Death in Venice: a man past the prime of his life yearns for one who's in the peak of his. It's something often seen throughout fiction, that futile grasp at feeling desired when in old age. Many times it's something that merely adds insult to injury for the elder subject but regardless of what one's age might be, it's merely a need found in most of the human race.

Love and Death on Long Island is merely further testament that Hurt was one of the finest actors of his generation. His passing will leave a hole in the world of cinema, one that will tried to be filled but never will be. He was honestly a one-of-a-kind presence, and he will be missed dearly.

My Rating: ****

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Rains Came

At a formal dinner early on in Clarence Brown's The Rains Came, former lovers Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) and Tom Ransome (George Brent) reunite. He very much wants to rekindle their affair while she has her sights set on Hindu doctor Maj. Rama Safti (Tyrone Power). She admits she's trying to seduce Rama out of boredom but will it result in something else?

Released the same year as other big screen spectacles like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, The Rains Came is mostly forgotten to today's audiences. But there's one aspect of the film that stands out: the special effects. It doesn't take much to see how it won the Oscar over the two previously alluded titles.

Being made within the Hays Code, Edwina's flirtations are treated with scorn by nearly everyone she encounters. How dare a woman go behind her husband's back (especially if he knows of them) for her own personal urges? After all, women are supposed to only be wives and mothers, nothing else. (At least that's what the most conceited of people would think.)

But Edwina develops a sense to redeem herself after spending more time with Rama. (If you're familiar with other fiction following this premise, you may know the outcome.) Admittedly such a conclusion might seem like cheap writing but bear in mind this was a time when women had very little standing outside a domestic setting; they had to break free somehow.

The Rains Came may follow the conventions of storytelling at the time but the work from its three leads warrant a look at least. (It also showed Power's underused talent.) It has that balance of adventure and romance, a common trait of films from that era, but one that only works a scant number of times. (This, of course, is one such example.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, February 5, 2017

20th Century Women

As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. That could be best sum up Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is Mike Mills' 20th Century Women. The woman in question is his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), and what Mills presents is an ode to the women in his life.

Dorothea is of course a representation of Mills' own mother but she's not the only member of the fair sex on display in 20th Century Women. There's also Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring photographer with a creative mind (perhaps partly based on Mills' wife Miranda July?); and Julie (Elle Fanning), a rebellious friend of Jamie's. And they all try to help Jamie prepare for the world ahead of him.

Like what he did with his previous film Beginners, Mills provides solid work for his actors. Bening gives the best work of her career, Gerwig and Fanning continue to show their potential in Hollywood, and Zumann also shows immense promise with his career. (Boy, Mills sure knows how to pick 'em.)

Similarly, Bening's performance shows that there are in fact roles out there for actresses of a certain age. (It's just that writers are the ones that need to create them.) Just because leading ladies have a limited shelf life in the eyes of Hollywood executives, that doesn't mean their careers have to end in that exact moment.

20th Century Women continues to shows Mills' worth in Hollywood. (Honestly, not every film needs its protagonist to be the default white male.) As the past few years have shown, it's those who are willing to break free from the norms of Hollywood that stand out from the crowd. (Seriously, different is good.)

My Rating: *****

La La Land

If there's one thing that's a guaranteed escape from the ugliness of reality, it's a musical. From Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly, to Vincente Minnelli and Bob Fosse, it's a genre people find themselves coming back to time and time again. (And yes, even those who claim they're not big on musicals.)

Damien Chazelle's La La Land is a tribute to the musicals of decades passed, its allusions ranging from Jacques Demy (the use of color) to those churned out by MGM's peak (the costume design and choreography). And like what he showed with his previous film Whiplash, Chazelle shows that the music is key to its story. (A possible recurring theme within future titles?)

Starring in La La Land are Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, apparently another cue from Hollywood's past (using those considered triple threats; added points if they're extremely photogenic). That's not to disregard what the two bring to the film. However, it'd be a more believable premise had the leads been played by actors of color.

Think about it: La La Land (as its title alludes to) focuses on two people -- one an actress, the other a pianist -- struggling to have their dreams become realities. Knowing the kind of business Hollywood is, it's hard to believe that two white people in their twenties and thirties would be in that situation. (And just imagine had this been set in the fifties or sixties!)

That small quibble aside, La La Land is deeply charming. You don't need to be well-versed in classic musicals to appreciate it (though it certainly doesn't hurt). And as he showed with Whiplash, Chazelle has definitely proven his potential.

My Rating: ****1/2

Manchester by the Sea

The opening scenes of Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea focus on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) going about with his day. He seems content with the usual routine he goes through. It's when he gets a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is hospitalized that things start to change.

As Lonergan showed previously with You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea doesn't need a fantastical premise to make it work. It just follows the day-to-day life of someone with flaws and those close to them. Lonergan finds a form of art from life itself.

Being a work that depicts grief and the emotional baggage that can come with it, Manchester by the Sea does come across as manipulative in that regard. (Honestly, any montage set to Albinoni's "Adagio in G Minor" is just asking for the waterworks to be unleashed.) That said, however, the emotions within one person aren't always the same as those in someone else (which, coincidentally, is a theme of the film).

Now onto the performances of note in Manchester by the Sea. While aspects of his private life have come to light recently (and almost overshadowed the film as a whole), Affleck's work shows his talents as an actor. Though not in the film very much, Chandler and Michelle Williams are also good. But special mention goes to Lucas Hedges, who very much has a promising career ahead of him.

Manchester by the Sea is a quiet and somber piece on carrying on after loss. One may feel completely hopeless within the aftermath but as the saying goes, time heals all wounds. But what's also crucial in the healing process is patience, and that's not always the easy part.

My Rating: ****1/2