Sunday, August 27, 2017

An Elegy for Brian

Earlier this year, I read a graphic novel called The Fifth Beatle, which -- as its subtitle so clearly painted -- was about the band’s manager Brian Epstein. The words and images from Vivek J. Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker have stayed with me in the months since I first opened it. But what stood out the most for me was how Epstein was painted in tragic irony: he managed a band who regularly sang about love yet he himself couldn't express it.

Living in a country where being gay could land you in prison if you weren't careful -- something that the likes of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing have learned harshly before him -- Epstein was in a constant state of anxiety. It's particularly telling when he talks about an instance where he was beaten up by a man whom Epstein initially thought was interested in a dalliance:
All I could see was a haze of red. I thought I might die. For the next several weeks, I lived under a kind of cold fear. My life felt -- scripted. And all I could do was wait nervously for the episode to be revealed.
It had to have been frightening to be a part of that society, not being able to express what or whom you deeply desire. If I were to speak to Epstein at this very moment, I would tell him that he shouldn't be ashamed of who he is. If anyone is at fault, it's those who think such behavior is an abomination. And there's a quote from Epstein preceding the afterword that’s just heartbreaking:
I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will someday -- and someday, I might be too...
The reason I write all of this is because on this very day back in 1967 -- fifty years ago -- Epstein's pain and anxiety finally ended when he passed away from a drug overdose. (In a cruel twist, homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain just the previous month.) But the question remains: was it an accident or did he take those pills purposely? The truth went to the grave with him, leaving those he left behind to wonder what really happened in his final moments.

In his thirty-two years he was alive, Epstein had many personal highs and lows, and was a caring person to those around him. But in the end, he died alone and unloved…or so he thought. Because of his decision to turn four lads from Liverpool into international legends, he was -- and still is -- loved.

September 19, 1934 - August 27, 1967

Thursday, August 24, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: A Thousand Clowns

Family is often a subject matter explored in fiction. Whether it's the estrangement of its members or the reunion of them, it's something everyone experiences at some point in their lifetime. And its material can vary from work to work.

More often than not said material focuses on the men of the family. Many times it's because of the stigma towards the dominant sex showing their emotions. (Granted, the writers of those stories are often male themselves.) Sometimes it's from circumstances both seen and unseen, other things being more complicated.

Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns follows unemployed writer Murray Burns as he faces the possibility of losing custody of his nephew Nick. Murray's more than content with his current situation but everyone's insisting that he should find another job. And boy, he doles out some real zingers courtesy of Gardner and his typewriter. ("Oh God, I've been attacked by the Ladies' Home Journal.")

Recruiting many of the people associated with the original Broadway production (including the director), Fred Coe's adaptation expands on Gardner's three-act play and explores more of Murray's self-contained world. Coe uses New York City as Murray's personal playground, his escape from acting his own age. But man, does that come back to bite him on the ass time and time again.

So which is better: Gardner's play or Coe's film? Both maintain a dry wit to them, something you don't normally find in the average script nowadays. (Why aren't more theatrical works like this?) And it's interesting because plays don't always translate very well on a cinematic scale.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Too Much, Too Soon

There's a part in Art Napoleon's Too Much, Too Soon where John Barrymore (Errol Flynn) proclaims to his daughter Diana (Dorothy Malone) that alcoholism isn't genetic. As anyone who's familiar with that family's stormy history (or from simple psychology), they know that's far from the actual truth. And boy, does Diana learn that the hard way.

Based on her memoir, Too Much, Too Soon chronicles Diana's relationship with her famous father and how she inherited his bad habits instead of his acting abilities. (Her mother mentions that she'll only get famous because of her surname only.) And don't expect anything sugarcoated.

Being a recent Oscar winner for Written on the Wind, Malone follows the likes of Ray Milland and Susan Hayward in depicting problem drinking at its ugliest. She shows how low Diana is willing to scrape by (including doing lousy impressions at a seedy dive bar), looking for something to fill that emptiness in her life. And knowing that the real Diana died just two years later, it adds a tragic twist to the title.

The same can be said for Flynn, who died the following year. Here he is playing his former drinking buddy, and you have to wonder how much of his performance was merely himself. Now a bloated shadow of his former self, you can see the regrets of throwing it all away in his features. The line between these two lives is blurred greatly.

While Malone and Flynn's performances are solid, the same can't be said for the rest of Too Much, Too Soon. It does get overly dramatic after an hour (probably expected for a biopic on a Barrymore) and the ending's flimsy. Still, they tried their best (but not very well).

My Rating: ***1/2

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Beguiled

"Something wicked this way comes," proclaims one of the witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. And many times in the centuries since the play's first performance, that line resonates with other works. Whether it's with a lone character or the whole premise, we as an audience are fascinated by the dark recesses of our species.

More often than not, such depictions involve the supposed fair sex. Society has expected women to be reserved and composed, not letting one fraction of what they're really feeling to be shown on their face. But when that veneer of civility starts to wear away, that inner ugliness makes its presence known in the harshest ways.

Set during the Civil War, Thomas Cullinan's The Beguiled follows the remaining residents of a Southern boarding school as their usual routines change. As a wounded Union soldier takes refuge within their walls, their reactions are chronicled through the changing perspectives. But how long until the fibers of Southern hospitality begin to fray?

Compressing Cullinan's novel into a film eking past a ninety-minute runtime, Sofia Coppola's adaptation omits a few characters and amps up the sexual tension. (Having Colin Farrell as the lone male of the story makes the latter easy.) That said, however, does that excuse having a story set in the South during the Civil War feature no characters of color? Of course not.

So which is better: Cullinan's novel or Coppola's film? Cullinan is more descriptive in the mindsets of the women whereas Coppola explores their behavior under stress. Both are lurid stories featuring a battle of the sexes amid a far bloodier war. One, however, captures it all much though both have their merits.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Where the Wild Things Are

Childhood is something that comes and goes too quickly for one to appreciate. It's a time where one doesn't have to worry about everything around them, just the things that matter to them alone. But as is learned sooner or later, you have to grow up.

Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are has that as an overlying theme. Following Max (Max Records) as he escapes to his own imagination, he encounters the titular creatures and is crowned their king. At first Max revels in such an honor but the clashing personalities of the beasts cause a number of problems, many of them Max can't fix.

Based on Maurice Sendak's book of the same name, Jonze expands the 40-page story to explore more of Max's sense of creativity. And knowing Jonze's projects prior to this, it's interesting to see him tackle someone else's work (especially something more family friendly).

With his work often featuring fantastical elements, Jonze practically seems perfect to adapt Where the Wild Things Are. Granted, his previous films could be viewed as adult fairy tales (sometimes in every sense) but here he tones down his usual storytelling. And the result seeps with nostalgia.

Where the Wild Things Are is a decided change of pace for Jonze but it's an interesting one regardless. (What's the likelihood of him doing a similar project in the coming years?) He may be more known for mature (if sometimes crude) stories of whimsey but such familiarity with this type of tale greatly benefits him when doing a family-friendly one. (Oh, and you'll be missing James Gandolfini more as a result of watching this.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

There always seems to be an overlying sense of doubt towards comic book movie sequels. Very rarely do they tend to get held in the same or even higher regard as the first one. Really, the level of expectation that's set is often an absurd one to achieve.

That all said, how does James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fare? Much like its predecessor, its level seriousness varies from low to nonexistent. But at the same time, it's more grounded than the first one. (Strange but true.)

But how is that so? you may ask. Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has family as its main theme, something the average superhero movie usually doesn't focus on. And not family in the metaphorical sense (though it does focus on that as well), actual blood relations. How often do you see that in a superhero movie?

Of course the primary actors of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are good in reprising their roles. (Chris Pratt towards the end has the making of a potential legitimacy as an actor.) And in keeping with the movie's 80s nostalgia, Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone (who has a smaller role despite his name on the poster) seem like inspired inclusions.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a surprisingly mature entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As its predecessor also showed, its darker themes are masked by bright colors and crude humor (as some previous MCU titles have also done). But will further works in this franchise follow suit?

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Big Sick

We've been subjected to so many movies where romance is the main theme. Sometimes it works, other times it's unabashedly crammed down our throats. Either way, people will pay to see the passion blossom. (Let's be honest, such a plot was practically a requisite seventy years ago.)

Of course, these stories maintain a stronger sense of believability if they're real-life ones.Such is the case with Michael Showalter's The Big Sick but whose courtship provides the film's basis? The one between co-writers Kumail Nanjani and Emily V. Gordon, of course. But what's their story?

Kumail (Nanjani) is a fledgling stand-up comic whose culturally oriented family expects him to get into an arranged marriage. He meets Emily at one of his gigs and they have a brief relationship. After they break up, Emily falls ill and is hospitalized, and Kumail faces off with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

What's shown in The Big Sick is something most other romantic comedies tend to miss the mark on: total devotion. And not the "I'm hopelessly devoted to you" variety, the "I will stay truthful to you" type is what other try to achieve and fail. (Granted, Kumail isn't exactly forthcoming to Emily at first but he rectifies that.)

The Big Sick may result in your standards for future partners/spouses to reach an absurdly high level but that aside, it's a unique work. Nanjani has obviously been a standout in various projects in recent years; hopefully because of this he'll get more lucrative parts (and not as the token comic relief).

My Rating: ****1/2

Wonder Woman

There's something irritating about how most comic book adaptations don't have their female characters do much of anything outside of looking pretty for the camera and being worried for the superhero (if they know their alter ego, that is). Granted, male writers can be to blame for such a scenario but honestly, it's 2017. Must men be at the forefront for every comic book movie?

Thankfully, someone at Warner Bros. decided that a woman should be directing the long-overdue adaptation of Wonder Woman. And following the somewhat odd recent tradition of hiring directors with only small productions to their name, they hired Patty Jenkins, an interesting choice to say the least. (Her last film was about a real-life serial killer, for Christ's sake.) But was it a wise choice?

While it is nice to see a female comic book character actually have something to do, there's still some bumps in the road when it comes to the writing. There are moments in Wonder Woman where Diana's (Gal Gadot) general naiveté towards anything outside her own world provides some humor in some scenes but her headstrong attitude can be grating in others. Granted, some of that blame can be directed towards the character's writing.

Still, how often do we get to see women in the spotlight for action movies? Usually they play second fiddle to, well, pretty much everything so seeing them not linger in the background is refreshing. But still, there's a long way to go before all is right on the cinematic front.

Wonder Woman is accessible without being pandering to either side (though that bit of serious fan service on Chris Pine's part -- so to speak -- is clearly directed towards a particular demographic or two). Jenkins obviously should be more in-demand because of the two films she has contributed. She knows what she's doing.

My Rating: ****1/2

Baby Driver

Within the span of a decade, Edgar Wright has become one of the most popular directors working today. His spark of creativity has yet to either falter or disappoint (and hopefully never will). It's safe to say he has nowhere to go but up.

So how has he fare with his American debut Baby Driver? Being more action-based than his Cornetto Trilogy or his TV series Spaced, it has car chases that would make Steve McQueen proud, a soundtrack of variety, and a rather solid lineup of actors involved. (Again, it's a testament of how Wright works that gives the film industry a much-needed spark of originality.)

As he showed with his more British-oriented productions, Wright has the editing play just as crucial of a role as the script. Thanks to the work from editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos and sound editors Mary J. Ellis and James Peterson, what Wright had envisioned becomes reality. That said, it's not without its bumps in the road. (That wasn't intentional, honest.)

Wright doesn't exactly have the best track record with female characters, and Baby Driver only furthers that claim. (The only reason Spaced worked was because Jessica Hynes was both co-creator and co-writer of it.) Granted, Wright still has time to rectify this but when will it actually happen?

Baby Driver continues to prove Wright's worth as a writer-director. Yes, it has some flaws that were also found in his works with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost but in the long run, who cares? It's rad as hell.

My Rating: ****1/2