Monday, June 19, 2017


Mortality: the very thing most of us don't want to face. More often than not, we only start thinking about death once we've had a close brush with it. It's simply something we can't escape.

That's what the titular character (Harry Dean Stanton) experiences in John Carroll Lynch's Lucky after he falls in his house. Before that incident, he lives a rather nondescript life in a small town. He has his usual routines for his day, nothing completely out of the ordinary. But now he starts re-examining his life.

Stanton has been in Hollywood for decades now, having the kind of presence that's of the welcoming variety. Whether it's a supporting role or something on a smaller scale, he always delivers. And as he shows here, he has no trouble being the one in charge.

And since Stanton is the star and Lynch the director, it seems almost fitting that a litany of character actors round out Lucky. Each of the side characters have their own personalities, some of them mirroring their actors' traits. (The most telling one is with David Lynch's.) But as stated earlier, this is Stanton's show.

Lucky continues to prove that Stanton is a valuable performer. Here's someone who's been a regular presence for decades it's almost impossible to think of a film that wasn't improved by him being in it. There's nobody else like him, and there never will be either; he is simply one of a kind.

My Rating: ****1/2


As Gillian Robespierre showed with Obvious Child, there's nothing wrong with being imperfect. We're all expected to make mistakes and bad decisions, it's basic human nature. But boy, does Robespierre drive that point home with her latest Landline.

Landline follows the Jacobs family and their bumps in the road: mother Pat (Edie Falco) has a tendency to rule the household with an iron fist; eldest daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) gets cold feet as her wedding day approaches; and youngest daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) prefers partying over studying. As for father Alan (John Tuturro)? He's having an affair.

Yes, that does seem like a lot to put all in one movie but hey, Robespierre's last one was a comedy with abortion as its main theme. So having her follow-up have adultery as its focus isn't too much of a stretch. (And for the record, Landline is decidedly darker than Obvious Child.)

Seeing as how she was also in Robespierre's previous film, Slate stands out in Landline. Falco and Tuturro also provide much of the same. But it's newcomer Quinn that makes the biggest impression amongst the four leads. (Be sure to keep an eye on her.)

Landline doesn't reach the same levels as Obvious Child but it has its merits. Robespierre continues to show her worth as a director and writer, likewise with Slate as her muse. Of course, to say both of them are ones to keep an eye on would be redundant. (After all, they earned that distinction from their previous collaboration.)

My Rating: ****

Window Horses

How does animation manage to stay fresh? After years of those with songs that get stuck in your head for weeks afterwards, recycled characters, and sometimes similar animation styles, it's practically a miracle that the genre as a whole hasn't collapsed yet. But then again, the solution is simple: originality is crucial.

Ann Marie Fleming's Window Horses follows Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh), an aspiring Canadian poet. After her collection of poems is published, she gets invited to perform at a poetry festival in Iran. While she's there, she explores the country's rich history and tries to find answers about her father, who abandoned her family when she was young.

Window Horses goes beyond the mysteries of Rosie's past and explores the history of Middle Eastern poetry. Through different styles of animation, the film depicts how the art of the written word has an affect on those who encounter it, (Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.)

Also displayed in Window Horses is the clash of different cultures. Upon arriving in Iran, Rosie dons a chador rather than the traditional hijab. (Several people remark on it.) And one poem performed at the festival is met with disgust because its metaphor doesn't mesh with Iranian beliefs. Rather than being a punchline, these instances are treated as a chance for learning.

Window Horses provides a fascinating story to watch unfold. It's more than a tale of one's self-discovery; it's about their potential future as well. And Fleming tells a story that's as lively as its various animation styles. This isn't one that should be brushed off, not by a long shot.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, June 18, 2017

God's Own Country

Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) of Francis Lee's God's Own Country seems content if sometimes irritated with his uneventful life in Yorkshire. He helps out on his family's farm during the day, gets trashed at the pub at night, and squeezes in the occasional hookup here and there. It's when Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) enters the picture that things start to change for Johnny.

By no means is God's Own Country the first film to follow such a premise, regardless of the sexuality on display. But what Lee does with his debut is he captures an awakening for Johnny. He's so accustomed to making himself numb, the thought of something meaningful in his life practically scares him.

There are similarities to Brokeback Mountain in God's Own Country, the most telling being the first sexual encounter between Johnny and Gheorghe. (In fact, that scene and several later ones practically parallel Ang Lee's film.) But to compare the two films merely reduces the worth of both works; they need to be appreciated individually.

While Lee shows immense promise with his career, the same can most definitely be said for O'Connor as well. The actor -- a relative newcomer to the profession -- depict's Johnny's frustrations towards his dull routine. (It's once Gheorghe becomes a part of his life that Johnny becomes more open emotionally.) Safe to say we'll be seeing O'Connor more in the coming years.

God's Own Country is a deeply intimate story, something not often explored in similar works (straight, gay or otherwise). Usually lust is mistaken for romance but Lee makes sure not to make the blunder others have made before. And the result is one that's essential viewing.

My Rating: *****

The Strange Ones

Early on in Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein's The Strange Ones, it's clear something's afoot. Initially it seems that Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) and Nick (Alex Pettyfer) are en route to a camping trip. But it becomes clear from their behavior -- Nick's in particular -- that they're hiding something...

Admittedly what's following Sam and Nick is made clear early on (as well as the circumstances that led them to their current situation) but it's one that becomes obvious if you're familiar with such premises. (Though it's worth mentioning that this is an expansion of sorts of a short film by Radcliff and Wolkstein.)

But what of The Strange Ones in particular is worth mentioning? Indeed it focuses on the recesses of the mind but admittedly it isn't anything we haven't seen before. However, it does show our fascination with the dark places one can delve into.

In fact, that's something The Strange Ones excels at. What does drive someone to cross moral boundaries? Is it something as simple as greed or infidelity? Or could darker urges be the ones at fault? Regardless of the reason, we always are drawn to such stories.

The Strange Ones overall doesn't deliver the potential it alluded to at the beginning. Still, the work from Pettyfer and especially Freedson-Jackson make it worth a look but they can't salvage it completely. (Hey, win some, lose some.)

My Rating: ***

The Ring Thing

What are the dynamics of any given relationship? We often see how two people meet and start too become more comfortable with each other. But what about when the honeymoon phase starts to wear off? Are they still feeling the same way?

William Sullivan's The Ring Thing follows Sarah (Sarah Wharton) and Kristen (Nicole Pursell) after the former accidentally proposes to the latter. Sarah has a slight fear of commitment whereas Kristen was more than willing to accept the proposal. As a result, both take different methods to understand the possibility of marriage.

The whole accidental proposal trope is sometimes fodder for the occasional comedy but The Ring Thing is purely drama. Sullivan depicts how situations like these can be far from a laughing matter, perhaps causing a rift between the couple. (Hey, it can happen.)

Another thing explored in The Ring Thing is divorce among same-sex couples. (A supporting character is undergoing the task.) With Sarah being a child of divorced parents, her phobia of settling down becomes more understandable. But is it possible for her to overcome it with Kristen?

The Ring Thing is in some ways a lesbian equivalent of Blue Valentine. It alternates between past and present, chronicling the ups and downs of a relationship. The distinction between the two time periods does blur at times, causing some confusion. Still, Wharton and Pursell do make a cute couple.

My Rating: ****

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Beach Rats

Last year, Moonlight provided a portrait of how the perception of masculinity can be damaging to boys when they're subjected to it. They're expected to not openly display what they're feeling, maintain a tough demeanor, and always prove themselves as the alpha male. Of course, such thinking is not without its consequences.

Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats is the latest to focus on this. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) spends his days hanging out with his friends, finding ways to get high, and roaming the streets of Brooklyn. By night, however, he's in the sanctuary of his home cruising online.

It's clear Frankie has some doubts over his own identity. (He even has a girlfriend for a short while.) He feels like he needs to act and look like the average street smart teen. But as we saw with Chiron in Moonlight, that doesn't sum up one's entire personality. Just because you behave that way doesn't mean you are that way.

But to compare Beach Rats to Moonlight is unfair on both films' parts as it only generalizes their premises. With Hittman's film, she explores how being gay around certain people can be, especially if they think everyone falls under the many stereotypes directed towards the LGBT+ community.

Beach Rats chronicles the self-doubt those confronting their sexuality face in a more exposed way previous entries have tried to depict. The figurative and literal nakedness of Frankie throughout the film shows how vulnerable he really is despite his tough guy persona; he wants to be accepted for who he truly is.

My Rating: *****

The Trip to Spain

In the third installment of Michael Winterbottom's so-called trilogy, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are whisked away once again to explore the local culture and cuisine. During their week-long travels, they talk, joke around, and explore the country they're in. (Okay, that's a broad summary but an apt one.)

As the first two showed, The Trip to Spain follows the two Brits as they try (unsuccessfully) to leave their professional and private lives temporarily behind them. When they're together, it's clear they put on a facade. It's once both of them are by themselves -- Coogan in particular -- that their self-doubts emerge. (Even for a Winterbottom film, that's pretty dark.)

Of course one of the main focuses of The Trip to Spain is the constant ribbing between Coogan and Brydon. Whether it's towards their careers (the success of Philomena gets brought up a lot) or just what's happening in that moment ("You look like a tentative Nazi"), the bulk of the film's humor comes from these small moments.

But in comparison to the previous films, The Trip to Spain has a more poignant note to it. Amongst the celebrity impressions Coogan and Brydon do are ones of John Hurt and Roger Moore, both of whom -- though still alive during filming -- have passed away in recent months. (They also talk about David Bowie and his death for a scene.) Not often that comedy segues into more somber subjects in total seriousness and honesty.

The Trip to Spain is a welcome entry to this already thriving series. Coogan and Brydon continue to be a great comedic duo (do you think they'll venture beyond Winterbottom?), and of course one wonders where their next journey will take them. (If they make another one, that is.)

My Rating: ****1/2


You know how in some fiction, the setting plays as much of a role as the characters and plot? A number of Martin Scorsese's films have New York City as did Federico Fellini with Italian locales. And other times, it's small towns that get this treatment.

Kogonada's Columbus is set within the titular Indiana city, its many structures playing a role in the film as well. Using many static shots throughout (the camera only moves very rarely), it's one of those films where simplicity is on full display. But what is it about?

Columbus follows two people who find their bonds with their parents almost constricting. Because of his culture, Jin (John Cho) is expected to be by his ailing father's bedside. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), however, is happy to tend to her mother's needs even if it means putting her own ambitions on the back burner.

What Columbus shows is how the familial bonds differ from person to person. Some begin to fray as they get older while others grow stronger. But regardless of the connection's strength, tensions still remain for the parties involved. (It's simple human nature, no bones about it.)

Columbus provides a sort of contradiction of itself: thought-out but meandering, precise but pretentious. Still, Cho and Richardson continue to show their worth as actors, Richardson in particular. And Kogonada in turn shows promise in a career in directing feature films, having already made a name for himself in video essays. (Seriously, he should be a recurring presence in the years to come.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Mr. Roosevelt

At some point in our lives, we get that feeling of being stuck. We get the notion that by now we should have everything about us in order but we don't know how to achieve it. A daunting prospect, maybe, but it's normal to feel a little lost.

Noël Wells' Mr. Roosevelt has Emily Martin (Wells) realizing this harshly several times. She at first seems content with how she's living her life in Los Angeles but after a personal crisis beckons her back to Austin, she starts to re-evaluate her situation.

It's a familiar concept amongst independent features as of late, yes, but Wells shows how the sometimes serious premise can have its lighter moments. That said, however, Wells certainly doesn't shy away from how often Emily's at fault. (Since Wells wrote the script as well, perhaps she herself encountered this in her own life too.)

But that's not to say Mr. Roosevelt is solely Wells' show. Her script provides the supporting characters their own distinct personalities. And the actors in said roles make the most of them, Danielle Pineda especially.

Mr. Roosevelt shows promise in Wells as a creator and a performer (though Master of None might have proven the latter already). It has the usual conventions of comedy, yes, but it still equates to an entertaining end result. Hopefully this won't be the last time we hear of Wells.

My Rating: ****

Friday, June 16, 2017

Tom of Finland

In the underappreciated world of erotica, no name is more synonymous with the field than Touko Laaksonen, better known to many as Tom of Finland. His works grew in popularity as the world slowly became more accepting of same-sex relationships. (The key word here is "slowly".) But what's the story behind the provocative images he created?

Dome Karukoski's Tom of Finland focuses on Laaksonen's life from his time in World War II to the peak of the AIDS epidemic. In between these periods of his life, we see how Laaksonen's private life shifts drastically and how the world's opinion on male homosexuality gradually becomes more open-minded. (The latter only reminds how far we need to go for total acceptance.)

Karukoski doesn't shy away from the fact that Laaksonen's drawings could've earned him serious trouble had he been found out (hence the pseudonym). There were many repercussions towards gay and bisexual men during Laaksonen's time, something only relatively recently has been corrected by various governments throughout the world. How much longer until there's total worldwide equality?

Back to the film. Despite its subject matter, Tom of Finland is surprisingly tame in its execution. (Granted, it can only depict so much without becoming the very thing that made Laaksonen infamous.) Still, it would've been something had it been more candid about Laaksonen's private affairs.

Tom of Finland is good in chronicling Laaksonen's rise as a peddler of smut but when it comes to capturing his personal life, it falls into the usual conventions of the genre. Still, it's nice to see there was more to him than what he drew. (His sketches certainly brought new meaning to "a picture's worth a thousand words", that's for sure.)

My Rating: ****

Lady Macbeth

Within the opening scene of William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth, we get a faint sense of what to expect from Katherine (Florence Pugh). She seems rather disconnected during her wedding ceremony, indicating she's most definitely not marrying for love. (And the abuse she gets from her husband and father-in-law further solidifies that.)

It's once she gets the manor to herself that Katherine's true colors begin to surface. Gone is the passive demeanor she puts on for her husband and father-in-law; now in its place is a much more dominant personality, especially when she takes servant Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) to her martial bed. (Certainly puts the title into better context.)

What makes Lady Macbeth stand out from other costume dramas with female leads is how brazen Katherine becomes. After some time, she doesn't care who knows of her affair with Sebastian nor what they think of it. Is this what she's really like or is this what happens once she gets that taste of control?

And there's no denying that Lady Macbeth is a star-making turn for Pugh. Between her demure expression and her icy stare, her Katherine shows potential in the actress doing similar roles. (Because, honestly, a woman is much more multi-faceted than what male writers tend to depict them as.)

Lady Macbeth is as wicked as the title implies. Don't expect the genteel nature found in the work of Jane Austen but rather the tone of her commentaries from them. In fact, a line from William Shakespeare's own quill could best sum up Katherine: "Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it."

My Rating: ****1/2

Lane 1974

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the counterculture movement. Gone were the conventions society expected from its citizens, and in their place was a liberation of ideas, sexuality and beliefs. But that's not to say this era of peace, love and understanding was without its faults. (Charles Manson was practically the antithesis of the original concept.)

S.J. Chiro's Lane 1974 follows the latter situation. Lane (Sophia Mitri Schloss) is content with some aspects of her present situation. She gets to drift from place to place with her mother Hallelujah (Katherine Moennig) and younger siblings but she wants a sense of stability in her life as well. But will she be able to find it?

Chiro was also familiar with commune life, adding a touch of authenticity to Lane 1974. And boy, she does not glamorize the lifestyle. It was more than living freely and by your own rules. Chiro shows how it was more or less a struggle to get by with little money and sometimes less food.

And because of her performance in Lane 1974, there's certain potential for Schloss making herself known. Her Lane maintains a better sense of order for her siblings than her mother ever could but at the same time she yearns for her own sense of being. What does life expect of Lane?

Lane 1974 is a coming-of-age tale set in a time of perpetual movement. Through Chiro's vision and Schloss' execution, it proves to be a reversal of what the media is prone to depict the hippie movement as. And, more importantly, it shows how the children inevitably born in this time of free love were affected. (And boy, sometimes the results weren't pretty.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Brigsby Bear

It seems early on in Dave McCary's Brigsby Bear that James (Kyle Mooney) leads a rather unassuming if occasionally strange life. He lives in his own world while under the roof of his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), much of his time and energy going towards watching a children's show called Brigsby Bear Adventures. One tiny problem: everything he knows is a lie.

Turns out James was kidnapped from the hospital after he was born. Once he's reunited with his actual family, he finds it hard to adjust to the fact Brigsby Bear Adventures was made for him alone. His solution? Conclude the story by making a movie.

Admittedly such a premise sounds odd once you think about it but McCary provides something that Hollywood usually doesn't get all that often nowadays: originality. Because, honestly, one can stand the re-tread for only so long.

It's not outright stated in Brigsby Bear but James has some traits that would imply he's on the autistic spectrum. He's persistently focused on one thing (in this case, making the Brigsby Bear Adventures movie), he has difficulty connecting to the outside world and becomes overly excited when he's talking about things he's passionate about. It could be waved off as the result of his sheltered upbringing but it's something to keep in mind.

Brigsby Bear is a welcome original entry amid a slew of sequels and what have you. This is something Hollywood should be embracing more with their own works. Not everyone yearns to see the follow-up; many times the lone feature is more than enough. (Oh, and Hamill is a delight here.)

My Rating: ****

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Fear Strikes Out

There are always those actors who get typecast. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood will always be the hero gunslinger, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the quintessential action movie stars, and Cary Grant and Gary Cooper were the epitome of the leading man. Of course there are other examples beyond these.

Take for instance Anthony Perkins. In the years since his 1992 death, audiences tend to acknowledge him as Norman Bates from Psycho. While there's no denying the greatness of his performance in it, that doesn't mean the rest of his filmography is to be ignored for the sake of that one. (He was an Oscar nominee, people!)

Interestingly, three years before Alfred Hitchcock's film, Perkins had a role where his character was under the thumb of a domineering parent. The role in question was baseball player Jim Piersall (who passed away last week) in Robert Mulligan's Fear Strikes Out, and there are similarities in how Perkins plays the two parts. (Pay attention to Jim's body language when he feels threatened.)

Though Fear Strikes Out is marketed as a biopic on Piersall's career, it's much more of a depiction of his stormy relationship with his father (Karl Malden). He's pushed beyond his means mentally to be the best at the sport, and you can see in some scenes him starting to crack under pressure. (Can you at all blame him for what happens?)

Fear Strikes Out is one of several prominent roles of Perkins' that's forever lost in the shadow of his most prolific one. It may not have the same punch it might have had when it was first released but what stands out after all this time is how the long-term effects of emotional abuse can affect more than the person who bore the brunt of it. (It's definitely cause for immense concern if it continues.)

My Rating: ****

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Twelve O'Clock High

There's a moment early on in Henry King's Twelve O'Clock High that sets its mood. After a day in London, Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) heads to what at first appears to be a field in the English countryside. The camera follows him, and the music changes as it's revealed Stovall's at the now-derelict airfield where he served during World War II.

What follows in Twelve O'Clock High is how the soldiers of the 918th Bomb Group are treated by their commander. Upon succeeding Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), the aptly named Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) starts doling out strict rules to toughen them out. But how long until Savage starts to connect with them?

Early on in Twelve O'Clock High, Davenport makes remarks about the soldiers' frames of mind following their missions. The way he describes their ailments sounds a lot like post-traumatic stress disorder (then known as combat fatigue) so is it possible that this was the first fictional depiction of the condition? (Then again, The Best Years of Our Lives showed that three years prior.)

This being a film starring Peck, naturally he's the main draw acting-wise. Merrill, a year away from doing All About Eve, also stands out. But Jagger -- who won an Oscar for his work here -- especially holds his own.

Twelve O'Clock High is a now-underseen work from those involved, and it honestly shouldn't be. Being made after World War II, it's understandable as to why it isn't as known (there were many similar themed works in the years since V-J Day). But the work from its actors and King proves its own worth from other features. It's fascinating to watch.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, June 1, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: Their Finest Hour and a Half/Their Finest

There have been countless pieces of fiction set during wartime. Sometimes it's the creators recalling their own experiences, other times the setting's merely for the sake of adding drama. But what of those stories that don't take place on the battlefront?

Nine times out of ten, tales about life on the home front will feature women waiting anxiously for the men in their lives (be it family, friends or lovers) to return home alive and in one piece. Obviously some of those were written by men with a faint grasp on how the fair sex thinks and behaves; more often than not, there were women who wanted to contribute to the war effort any way they could.

Lissa Evans' Their Finest Hour and a Half focuses on a woman doing just that. Catrin Cole goes from working at an advertising agency to co-writing a movie based on real life (albeit loosely) to boost the country's morale. As the novel follows Catrin and other people associated with the film, Evans paints a portrait of a looming war and how it affects those living in that time.

Condensing the plot (and title) to something more manageable, Lone Scherfig's Their Finest resurrects a bygone era, something the director had done previously with An Education. Featuring an embarrassment of riches amongst the cast, it depicts how the passing of time affects some people and benefits others. (Though it does get a bit sentimental towards the end.)

So which is better: Evans' novel or Scherfig's film? While it's refreshing to see women beyond their expected domestic roles, was the romantic subplot that necessary? (It feels like it was put in to attract a bigger audience.) Because honestly, that's just another blatant way of saying someone's life isn't complete without a significant other. That said, it's nice to have a story set during a war that doesn't have women worrying for their men overseas as their sole purpose.

What's worth checking out?: Both.