Monday, October 30, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens on the titular structures, decrepit after years of neglect. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) drives past them one day and she rents them out shortly after. Her purpose for them? To keep the investigation into her daughter's rape and murder alive.

Much like McDonagh's earlier works, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri features both a pitch black sense of humor and loads of bloodshed. But more often than not, the latter actually has some relevance to the plot. The reason? It embodies the internalized anger of the story's characters.

And boy, is it angry. Like many non-American directors before him, McDonagh doesn't shy away from the fact that the land of opportunity isn't as ideal as it likes to depict itself as. It's a country of skewed priorities, and the face that it has to be pointed out says everything right there.

Also like McDonagh's previous films, the cast of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a solid one. Alongside McDormand are the likes of Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Peter Dinklage. All are great (though Cornish is underused like she was in Seven Psychopaths) but this is McDormand's show easily.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is certainly not for everyone. The matters of race, police brutality and moral redemption zigzag enough times between being the main focus and as a B-plot to make your head spin. On a writing standpoint it's all over the place but (some of) the actors keep it grounded.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, October 29, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: Call Me By Your Name

Romance and coming-of-age often go hand in hand, the reason being the simplest one: first love is incredibly potent. The exhilaration of feeling such a way for someone can be all-consuming, the desire of wanting the outside world to fade away as they're with their beloved. But no one ever stated that such a sensation would last.

But back to the topic at hand, usually these stories have a particular slant to them. Many times it's so younger audiences have something to relate to (though with movies, their ratings often omit such audiences from seeing them upon release). And sometimes such tales don't capture that euphoria of infatuation.

André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name especially expresses that hazy awareness. Set during a summer in Italy, its stream of consciousness narrative is told through the eyes of a professor's son as he becomes taken by one of his father's students. But will such feelings be reciprocated and if so, for how long?

With a script penned by James Ivory (whose film Maurice would make for a good companion piece), Luca Guadagnino's adaptation is as much of a dreamy sigh as what Aciman wrote. Bearing in mind the director's previous films, its lush elements are woven into a story that's as rich as it is sensual. The way body language is conveyed throughout is something most romances can only dream of achieving. (And oh, that final shot.)

So which is better: Aciman's novel or Guadagnino's film? Both depict the ache that comes from that sense of longing, that knowledge that you know what you want from your limited time on this earth. But as life itself proves time and time again, there's bound to be heartbreak amid those moments of happiness. (But it's always best to focus on the latter in times of trouble.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

In the Fade

Early on in Fatih Akin's In the Fade, it's established that Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) has a charmed home life. Her husband is a reformed drug dealer (they were married when he was in prison) and they're raising a son together. Nothing could go wrong in Katja's eyes.

And then it does. A bomb goes off in front of her husband's office, killing him and their son. In her grief, Katja sinks into a dark depression. (She attempts suicide at one point.) Will she be able to find both justice and peace of mind?

Sure, we've seen countless depictions of life after loss before In the Fade. But what Akin chronicles is decidedly much darker than, say, Manchester by the Sea. (Then again, it is a German production...)

Kruger -- best known to many from Inglourious Basterds and the National Treasure movies -- makes her German-language debut in In the Fade. While she has gotten acclaim for her work here (she won Best Actress at Cannes), admittedly it's for a role we've seen done many times before.

In the Fade takes itself a bit too seriously to stay watchable. There are some good elements, granted, but they don't always mesh together well. Kruger is good but hopefully she'll get a better leading role soon in a more deserving picture. (She's certainly earned it.)

My Rating: ***1/2

The Florida Project

Childhood is something that's often cherished. Many times, however, the ugliness of what happens in that short period of life doesn't get highlighted in fiction. (The nostalgia filter is often quite effective to some people.)

Sean Baker's The Florida Project is a recent depiction of this time in life. Following Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as she causes havoc, it's set at a hotel on the outskirts of Disney World. Her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) more or less lets her runs unsupervised with her friends. Both causes headaches for hotel manager Bobby Hicks (Willen Dafoe) but how long until reality sets in for them?

Like his previous film Tangerine, Bakers focuses on an overlooked section of society in The Florida Project with the aid of newcomers in the main roles. (Perhaps a recurring theme for his later works too?) Eschewing the glamour of the average film and its process, he's obviously more interested in those who've tried to achieve the American dream and failed.

And similar to Tangerine, The Florida Project has its ancillary characters have as much personality as the lead ones. (Only good writers make sure of doing that, and thankfully Baker is one such person.) This isn't just about Moonee and her antics; it's also about the people she encounters.

The Florida Project continues to prove Baker's worth as a director. With his two most recent films, he avoids any flashy elements usually found in your standard Hollywood picture in order to stay modest with his work and humble in his storytelling methods. Hopefully his career stays on this trajectory in the years to come. (It's not too much of a stretch to say Baker's shaping up to be the next John Cassavetes, is it?)

My Rating: ****1/2

Down with Love

The very moment Peyton Reed's Down with Love begins, it's clear that it'll be a pastiche of the many romantic comedies of the 50s and early 60s. (It uses the 20th Century Fox logo from that time.) And that's only the start of it.

As Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) sparks a feminist revolt with her titular book, reporter Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) is convinced that Novak doesn't firmly believe in what the book presents. To prove it, he seeks out to seduce her. But plans like this often don't go without a hitch (so to speak).

Both Zellweger and McGregor had proven their bankability prior to Down with Love (she with Bridget Jones' Diary, he with the Star Wars prequels) so obviously this should work out. And boy, does it ever. (Hopefully the two actors will do another project like this.)

Also of note in Down with Love are supporting actors David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, who also have excellent chemistry together. Though both are more known for their Emmy-recognized work (he for Frasier, she for various Ryan Murphy productions) -- as other films they partook in can attest to -- they're always a welcoming presence in a movie. (And again, they should be in another project together.)

Down with Love is an utter delight, a rarity amongst today's regular features. The quartet of actors work off each other wonderfully, again alluding to similar titles of the era the film pays homage to. Basically if you needs the movie equivalent of an antidepressant, you'll more than likely find it here.

My Rating: *****

Saturday, October 28, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Leisure Seeker

Growing old is very seldom something one looks forward to. (As Roger Daltrey sang, "I hope I die before I get old.") The sense of independence starts to tapers off as their mental and physical facilities begin to falter. (Think of it as the aging process in reverse.)

Some try to make the most of what little time they have left by doing what they haven't had the chance to do before, more often than not due to family and/or financial matters. (Many times it can be something daring like bungee jumping or traveling.) It's once they've the means that they pursue them.

Michael Zadoorian's The Leisure Seeker follows such a story. With both of them feeling the effects of their age (he with Alzheimer's, she with cancer), John and Ella Robina go on a road trip in their titular RV for perhaps one last vacation. But what will stop them first: their concerned children, their shared deteriorating health or Ella's lack of patience?

Paolo Virzi's adaptation alters a number of the details from Zadoorian's novel but still maintains the general gist of the story. In the lead roles are Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren, both of whom have a charming chemistry together. However, it doesn't have that particular appeal the book had.

So which is better: Zadoorian's novel or Virzi's film? Both capture how the rebellious spirit has no age limit but Virzi makes the scenario more comedic in spots (though not always for the better). Either way, it's nice to have senior citizens depicted as more than doting grandparents. (It's a tiring thing to see after a while.)

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Cat Ballou

The opening moments of Elliot Silverstein's Cat Ballou pretty much establishes the general mood of it all, what with Nat King Cole (who died a few months before its release) and Stubby Kaye serving as a sort of Greek chorus. But boy, that doesn't even begin to describe it.

Starring Jane Fonda early in her career, Cat Ballou is a sort of send-up of the genre. (It's worth mentioning that her father was doing a number of westerns by this point in his own career.) It has a more slapstick approach to the subject matter, something not often seen in the otherwise somber field. (In fact, the source novel was a serious work. The comedy was added for the movie.)

Fonda may have been the star of Cat Ballou but the one responsible for stealing the show is Lee Marvin. (He didn't get that Oscar for nothing.) Playing dual roles as both Ballou's ally and enemy, he very obviously subverts his usual tough guy image. Now if only he had more opportunities to do comedy...

Similarly, Fonda is more known for serious fare but as she showed with Cat Ballou, she's good at comedy too. (Then again, Grace and Frankie might have reminded newer audiences to that fact.) And while she didn't enjoy making it, she still plays the straight woman role well.

Cat Ballou is a nice subversion of other films of the genre before it. Being released the same year as The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago, perhaps a less serious production was something the masses were looking for. (Hey, there was a lot going on then.)

My Rating: ****

The Rape of Recy Taylor

Within the last few weeks, numerous women (and several men) in Hollywood have come forth after years of silence against the men who sexually assaulted them. Many of them stayed quiet out of fear that either no one would believe them or their attacker(s) would seek retribution. But the very courageous will report what happened to them immediately.

That's what Nancy Buirski tells in her documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor. After being assaulted by six white men on her way home from church, Taylor's family tries to help her get justice (her attackers get acquitted twice, some of them enlisting in the war afterward). As a result, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to help. And that's when history begins.

Buirski highlights in The Rape of Recy Taylor -- particularly towards the end -- who should be given credit for their presence in the civil rights movement. Not Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who regularly spoke out against the indignities colored people endured on a daily basis. No, Buirski has the numerous nameless who marched with King in such a role designation. And quite honestly, she's right.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own, "I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." (And yes, that's the actual quote.) How many women have made contributions to society that weren't recognized as such at the time? The truth may not be completely known but regardless, we have to respect the women in our lives, no matter what.

The Rape of Recy Taylor chronicles a forgotten name from a crucial time in American history, one responsible for shaping history itself. Taylor may not be in regular classroom discussions but she damn well should be. (And the same should be said for the many nameless victims of such ugly behavior.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Odds Against Tomorrow

The morality of people is something that can provide solid fodder if used properly. What can cause someone to betray both their beliefs and those close to them? And do they revert back to their old ways?

Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow has this as the main dilemma for Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte). A family man with gambling debts, he reluctantly agrees to help David Burke (Ed Begley) in a bank robbery upstate. But co-conspirator Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) balks at working with someone who's black.

Naturally the main focus of Odds Against Tomorrow is the robbery but after nearly sixty years, what stands out is the depiction of race. Being released before the civil rights movement's peak, the matter was (and still unfortunately is) a hot-button topic. After all, actors like Belafonte (read: black) were just beginning to move away from servant roles and other stereotypes.

Similarly, there's a point in Odds Against Tomorrow where Johnny finds his wife hosting a PTA meeting in their home. He's offended that she's trying to behave more white. Usually such disgust towards another race has someone who's Caucasian expressing it (at least as far as fiction goes). It's not that common for someone non-white behaving that way. (In real life, however....)

Odds Against Tomorrow proves that while Wise is more known for West Side Story and The Sound of Music (and to some Star Trek: The Motion Picture), he certainly knew what to do with more serious material. (Adding to the film's noir ambiance are Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame in supporting roles.) And man, Belafonte should've been a bigger name in Hollywood. (He was obviously a very talented man.)

My Rating: ****

Friday, October 27, 2017

Happy End

It's very clear how to distinguish a film by Michael Haneke from any other. Many times his works cross a certain line, other times they do a merry jig on said line. And boy, his latest film Happy End does the latter many times over.

A sort of sequel to Haneke's earlier film Amour, Happy End depicts a deeply dysfunctional family: a patriarch who attempts suicide repeatedly, a fractured mother-son relationship, a son with a wandering eye, and an emotionally distant granddaughter. And that's just the half of it.

As he showed with Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, Haneke makes it clear he's morbidly fascinated by what makes a person tick. (The opening sequence of Happy End grimly verifies that claim.) Why do some people behave the way that they do? Haneke doesn't provide a clear answer but no matter. Just enjoy the mayhem as it unfolds.

But much like Code Unknown, Happy End is more of just depicting life as it happens. It's not something that's always fair to some people nor is it full of the expected routines. More often than not, it regularly deals out some hard knocks to most of the people in the world. (Hey, just watch the news.)

Happy End is most definitely a Haneke film. With a dark interest towards human behavior, he explores society in an emotionally numbing manner -- as he is one to do -- to the point where wants to look away but can't bring themselves to do so. And it's probably safe to say that the last scene is the most audacious thing Haneke captured in any of his works.

My Rating: ****

The Ballad of Lefty Brown

An excerpt from Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis opens Jared Moshe's The Ballad of Lefty Brown: "The frontier environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish." And that's the very thing the titular character (Bill Pullman) encounters.

For years, Lefty Brown has been under the shadow of Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda), who has recently given up the Montana frontier for Washington D.C. (he was recently voted as the state's senator). But early into his journey, Eddie is murdered. And Lefty vows to bring Eddie's killer to justice.

In a way, one could view The Ballad of Lefty Brown as if Walter Brennan was the star of the show instead of John Wayne. Here's a role that's often viewed as the sole comic relief amid gunfights so to see them getting a day in the spotlight is a nice touch. And who better than Pullman in such a role?

No stranger to the supporting roster, Pullman gets that starring vehicle most character actors dream of getting one day. And as Lefty, he faces ruthless killers, corrupt figures, and accusations that he's responsible for Eddie's death. But will Lefty find the guilty party before they get to him?

The Ballad of Lefty Brown has the usual tropes of the genre but Moshe still provides and entertaining picture. Pullman is great (as he so often is), offering his own worth as a leading man. And hopefully this won't be the only time we see him in such a distinction.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, October 26, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

The private lives of public figures is something we find deeply engrossing. What are they like far away from the flashes of cameras? Are the smiles they wear for their audiences simply for show? Only those close to them know the real answer.

Which is why there's such an interest in memoirs and biographies. Through those we get the details that the media tend to speculate before they're confirmed or denied. But sometimes such accounts become more captivating when they're from someone close to the famous personality.

Peter Turner's Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool chronicles the final days of his former lover Gloria Grahame as she takes refuge in his family's home. Switching between (then-)present day and various points of their relationship, Turner depicts Grahame as a woman who was very much like the roles she often played: a no-nonsense kind of girl with a soft side.

A few tweaked details aside, Paul McGuigan's adaptation stays mostly true to Turner's memories of Grahame. (It shines more of a light on the cancer that would ultimately claim the actress' life.) Jaime Bell and Annette Bening (as Turner and Grahame, respectively) have strong chemistry. and the film has moments that are reminiscent of the Hollywood era when Grahame's fame was at its peak. That said, the latter doesn't always work.

So which is better: Turner's memoir or McGuigan's film? Both depict Grahame as more than just an Oscar-winning movie star and how pugnacious of a person she could be. (The last bit isn't generally a bad thing, mind you.) And the two works make one thing very clear: a famous person is still a person, far from immune to the usual failings found in the human race. (We're just prone to putting them on a pedestal.)

What's worth checking out?: The book.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

The HIV/AIDS crisis was a pivotal moment for both the LGBT+ community and the medical world. Here was a disease that was practically a death sentence for those who contracted it, and people fought vigorously for proper treatment (both medically and emotionally). But such fighting tends to get glossed over.

Robin Campillo's BPM (Beats Per Minute) follows such fights against a backdrop of 1990s Paris. Revolving around a group of ACT UP activists, it follows their attempts to get more people to know what's slowing killing some of them. Their actions are aggressive (but not violent), many times to garner some publicity.

Also on display in BPM (Beats Per Minute) is the budding romance between fellow activists Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois). What Campillo shows with this is that love knows no bounds (Sean is HIV-positive, Nathan isn't). The two only have a pair of sex scenes (the second being the most emotionally erotic example you'll ever see) but that's not important to this situation. What matters is how sex -- especially in this context -- isn't viewed as shameful.

Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot were both involved in ACT UP so they drew on personal experience for BPM (Beats Per Minute). They depict the organization as one not aiming to be a martyr but instead wanting to stop seeing friends and loved ones as statistics for the death toll. (And different from similar works, women play just crucial a role as the men.)

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a far cry from other AIDS-themed works like Longtime Companion and Philadelphia. Its afflicted characters don't just lay down and die following such a diagnosis; they fight back with the sort of ferocity usually reserved for war movies. In short, seek this out.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Last Flag Flying

In the years since the 1973 release of The Last Detail, there have been a number of other works pertaining to those in the military. Some with soldiers in battle, other with them back on the homefront. Regardless of the location, the effects of the fighting can have lasting impressions.

Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying serves as a sort of sequel to The Last Detail (names are changed), that sense of disillusionment still lingering after all those years. And certain wounds are re-opened as Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) asks for help from fellow Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) in retrieving and burying his son, who was killed in Iraq.

There's an amusing element to the lead actors of Last Flag Flying. All three were nominated for playing real-life figures who were famous for the wrong reasons (Carell Foxcatcher, Cranston Trumbo, Fishburne What's Love Got to Do With It) so seeing them as more human characters might seem odd to some. (Then again, considering Carell and Cranston's more famous TV roles...)

All three actors are great in Last Flag Flying but special mention goes to Carell. Here's an actor who made a name for himself starting as a correspondent on The Daily Show and later on with The Office so having him in a role that doesn't have him as loud and boisterous is a pleasant touch. (Then again, he did such a role in Little Miss Sunshine but that was before Carell made it big.)

Last Flag Flying shows that Linklater is more than capable of working with someone else's work. (He co-wrote it with Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote the source novel.) In contrast to the more lax attitudes in some of his other films, Linklater proves he can handle the somber stuff. (Only time will tell if he continues with similar projects.)

My Rating: ****1/2

The Last Detail

With the arrival of New Hollywood generation, a sense of cynicism became prevalent in the works from this time. It makes sense actually; with a senseless war raging on, the economy wasn't generally in the best of shape, and politics being like-minded with other events, it's no wonder such attitudes were channeled.

And Hal Ashby's The Last Detail particularly captures such a sensation. Being a post-Watergate release, it shows a disillusionment towards various establishments. And this was when baby boomers were beginning to rebel the previous generation's ideals so this just seemed like good timing for it.

Like what he did with Coming Home five years later, Ashby depicts an America just trying to carry on in life despite what's happening around them. They eat, they sleep, they have sex...just the general basics some people have and do on a regular basis. (It may not be much but it's how some stay connected to the world.)

Being made just a few years after Robert Altman found success with M*A*S*H, it's possible Ashby wanted to repeat those results with The Last Detail. After all, both are dark comedies with an ongoing war as its backdrop so it's not too much of a stretch. (The difference, of course, being which war was ensuing and where the military men were situated.)

Anyway, The Last Detail serves as a sort of timepiece for the era it hails from. This was a time where one's guard was generally lowered on a daily basis, again perhaps because of the collective embitterment from everyday life. And that's what stands out the most nearly forty-five years later: how the small joys in life aren't enough to combat reality.

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I, Tonya

In 1994, O.J. Simpson became the prime suspect in the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. The ensuing trial may have resulted in an acquittal but his reputation was forever tarnished. But this wasn't the first instance (nor the last) from where a sports figure's career gave way to scandal.

Earlier that year, Tonya Harding tried to eliminate the competition by having Nancy Kerrigan injured before the Winter Olympics. (It didn't work.) The ensuing media frenzy resulted in Harding's career coming to an end. But what's the story behind it all?

Shot in a mockumentary style, Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya chronicles the many stormy events that resulted in Harding (Margot Robbie) lashing out at her supposed rival. It doesn't shy away from the various abusive relationships she endured -- from her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and her husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) in particular -- but they raise a question: did they lay the seeds for the attack on Kerrigan?

Admittedly the way I, Tonya handles the matter of domestic abuse won't rub people some people the right way (it's certainly not something to laugh at) but it does bring up a certain point. Harding's constantly trying to be the best at figure skating, the result of years of tough love from her mother. How much of her deep-rooted competitiveness affected her life?

I, Tonya has some spotty elements (handling of abuse, dodgy CGI) but there's one thing there's no denying about: how Harding is depicted. Gillespie doesn't capture her as some vindictive competition freak but rather as someone who got associated with the wrong people. (And she's the one who becomes the butt of the joke? That's double standard bullshit right there.) Basically she never should've been ostracized because of others' actions.

My Rating: ****1/2

A Fantastic Woman

When trans people actually get recognized in fiction, two infuriating things tend to happen within a majority of them: either the extent of their storyline is about the fact they're trans (rather than them living their lives) and/or they're played by cis actors. Is it that hard to tell their stories?

Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman is a welcoming entry for such a subject. Marina (Daniela Vega) goes through a great ordeal following the sudden death of her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). She barely has time to grieve before the police suspect the death was possibly foul play. And Orlando's family -- save for his brother -- view Marina as an abomination.

The story Leilo presents in A Fantastic Woman is not about Marina's transition but rather just Marina. It's not interested in her past but instead her future. Will she find peace after Orlando's death? (In short, this is a film about life itself.)

And Vega herself lives up to the film's title. Even when faced with brutal transphobia, she maintains an unwavering display of dignity. That's what makes her stand out among other trans performances; she flat-out refuses to be ashamed of who she is.

A Fantastic Woman can be a hard watch at times (no one regardless of how they identify should ever go through what Marina endured) but Leilo provides an engrossing story. As he did with his previous film Gloria, he captures a woman at a certain point in her life, how she embraces it, and vice versa. And hopefully, Vega will have a lasting career full of in-depth roles like Marina.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Wound

Usually with various foreign films, American viewers get more of a glimpse into the cultures of these countries. There's obviously more to those stories than the stereotypes Hollywood tends to present. (It's true, and you all know it.)

John Trengrove's The Wound is a particular example of this. Revolving around an initiation ritual in Xhosa culture, it follows factory worker Xolani (Nakhane Touré) as he serves as a mentor for pampered rich kid Kwanda (Niza Jay). But while Xolani is supposed to stay focused on his duties, he resumes his affair with Vija (Bongile Mantsai). But will the two men be found out?

Mind you, homosexuality is no longer considered an illegal act where The Wound takes place. (Other parts of Africa, however, aren't so lucky) so Xolani and Vija's affair isn't as daring as some might think. (Vija, however, is a married man with kids, hence his reluctance with being open emotionally with Xolani.) And the presence of Kwanda merely complicates things further.

But like many queer films from years passed, the weight of shame in one's identity weighs heavily in The Wound. Neither Xolani or Kwanda are ashamed of who they are but Vija is a different matter. That internalized homophobia is by no means an unfamiliar aspect to works like this but in this day and age, haven't we seen it enough?

Anyway, The Wound falls victim to the standard tropes regularly found in queer fiction but it excels in depicting an initiation that's unknown to much of the outside world. We've seen other rites of passage before (bar/bat mitzvahs, baptisms, graduations) so this is a decided change of pace. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of Trengrove's work in the near future.

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 23, 2017


You'd think the people associated with George Clooney's Suburbicon would mean it's a good movie: directed by Clooney, a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Matt Damon and Julianne Moore as the stars...what could go wrong? Well...everything, really.

First off is that script by the Coens. Initially the premise of Suburbicon makes it sound like as though chaos is unleashed following a black family moving into the predominantly white titular suburbs. It happens but it quickly gets demoted to a B-plot. (That probably explains why they very seldom have non-white actors in their own films.)

Now Clooney has obviously proven his worth as a director with Good Night, and Good Luck but all his efforts since then have fallen short. Suburbicon only bolsters this claim. Hopefully Clooney will get out of this slump soon. (And knowing his status, he probably will.)

Back to the script's flaws for a moment. Being written after the Coens made their debut Blood Simple, it could be excused as them not having found their voice yet. That may be the case but that barely explains the very predictable events in the story. (If anything, it tries too hard to be like Double Indemnity.)

Suburbicon is clearly a low point for those involved. (Then again, its lone saving grace is Oscar Isaac's presence, and even then he's underused.) Obviously those involved will recover from this (the reason why is clear once you see the principal people involved) but still, it's not exactly an ideal film in actuality. (On paper, maybe.)

My Rating: ***

The Square

If Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure is anything to go by, it's that one shouldn't expect anything remotely resembling normal. Its absurd dark humor proves to be a stark contrast to the work of fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman. But how does his follow-up The Square manage?

Serving as a satire on the modern art world, The Square follows museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) as he prepares for the opening of a new exhibition. But on his way to work one day, he gets robbed. In his efforts to find out who did it, aspects of his life start to crumble around him.

Similar to Force Majeure, The Square depicts masculinity as something that's deeply skewed. Here it pertains to Christian and how he's perceived by those he encounters. He's a manager, a fund-raiser, a lover, and a father; all of these roles are wrapped up in the belief that he can handle anything thrown at him. (Boy, are they wrong.)

And The Square certainly takes potshots at what's considered art. One exhibit at the museum gets partially vacuumed by a custodian by accident. Another goes horribly wrong at a dinner hosted by the museum. But man, those all pale in comparison to how the titular exhibition is promoted.

The Square could be seen as patronizing to some viewers or flat-out bizarre to others but overall it shows that satire is a subgenre that won't be going out of style anytime soon. (It seems that countries that aren't the United States -- in more ways than one -- have a better grasp on the matter.) Hopefully Östlund will continue this streak.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon

Had she been as lucky as older sister Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine would've been turning 100 today. (She passed away in December 2013, not that long ago.) To celebrate, Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema are hosting a blogathon on the late actress. Surprise, surprise, I decided to join in and cover her Oscar-nominated roles. Those movies (and whom she lost to) are:

(1940, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Lost to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle
(1941, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
(1943, dir. Edmund Goulding)
Lost to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette

(More after the jump!)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Constant Nymph

Infatuation is a fickle thing. Many tend to mistake it for actual love and boy, Hollywood is no exception. It can be applied to a number of genres, all with varying results. But it's particularly prevalent when the Hays Code was still in effect.

Take for instance Edmund Goulding's The Constant Nymph. Tessa Sanger (Joan Fontaine) is deeply smitten with struggling composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer). In many close-ups of Tessa, we how bright her features become when she's talking about Lewis or when he's talking to her. But she has to put on a brave face when he marries her cousin Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith).

Admittedly the idea of Fontaine (who turned twenty-six in 1943) playing a fourteen-year-old is a bit of a stretch but she's very good as the besotted Tessa. In fact, what she does in The Constant Nymph is very similar to what she'd do in Letter from an Unknown Woman five years later. (It wouldn't be surprising if Max Ophüls cast her in his film because of this one.)

Goulding is no stranger to melodrama. Having previously made Dark Victory, he's familiar with capturing the mercurial nature of life. (He would later do the same with The Razor's Edge.) Tessa watches from afar as Lewis lives a comfortable life with Florence. But (perhaps) unbeknownst to her, it's not a happy union. Will she find her own happiness?

The Constant Nymph is the usual fluff of the era but it's enjoyable fluff. Fontaine and Boyer (as the latter is prone to do in most of his work) connect very well in their scenes amid some solid supporting players. (Peter Lorre!) If only they had done another project together.

My Rating: ****

Diary of a Mad Housewife

The first exchanges in Frank Perry's Diary of a Mad Housewife make it clear that Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress) isn't living the American dream. Her husband Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) treats her like garbage (their daughters aren't any better) and she never gets the support she deserves. Frustrated, she starts an affair with writer George Prager (Frank Langella). And even that's no walk in the park.

From a time when women were starting to be viewed as actual human beings, it seems strange that Diary of a Mad Housewife was released then. For once since who knows when women could lead liberating lives without (for the most part) getting berated. So to see an educated woman allow herself to be verbally degraded regularly is discomforting, to say the least.

And bear in mind that by this point in Hollywood, women were having their voices heard more behind both the typewriter and the camera. (Released the same year as Diary of a Mad Housewife was Wanda, Barbara Loden's lone foray as a director.) With the likes of Elaine May and Barbara Kopple on the cusp of their own fame, again it feels strange to watch this with that in mind.

But what's more likely is that Diary of a Mad Housewife is told from Tina's point of view. She's the only character in the film that's basically in every scene so it's hard to say if that's actually how she's treated. (More telling since Sue Kaufman's source novel was adapted by Perry's then-wife Eleanor -- whom he divorced the following year -- so who knows?)

Anyway, Diary of a Mad Housewife may seem tame by today's standards (and in comparison to other films of the decade) but back in 1970, it must've caused a stir upon its release. (Groucho Marx was certainly not a fan of it.) Either way, it captured an ignored woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Ah, the charming cad. A regular staple of many films from Hollywood's Golden Age. There's something about those characters that can provide a deep fascination.

And Johnnie Aysgrath (Cary Grant) of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion fits the bill for this character type. Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) becomes smitten by him but after she marries him, she finds out that he's got a nasty gambling habit and constantly in debt. And she starts fearing he's capable of darker deeds.

This being Hitchcock's first of four films with Grant, it's interesting to see the famed collaboration blossom. (After all, the director gave the actor some compelling roles to sink his teeth into.) And with Suspicion, Grant subverts his usual charming leading man role for something that can be truly menacing at times.

And what of Fontaine? Reuniting with Hitchcock after the success of Rebecca, she plays a role similar to hers in the earlier film. But Lina isn't like the second Mrs. de Winter; she actually has an inkling that her husband isn't who he claims to be.

Though often lost in the shadow of the previous Hitchcock/Fontaine collaboration, Suspicion still holds up all these years later. Sure, there's the occasional similarity to Rebecca (ironic, no?) but it's far from the Gothic romance the earlier film is. It's instead perhaps a more cautionary tale being careful with first impressions. (Such a notion can very well save your life.)

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Cluny Brown

"There was nothing important going on in London on a quiet Sunday afternoon in June 1938. The most exciting event of the day was Mr. Hilary Ames' cocktail party --- and even that was exciting only to Mr. Ames." So begins Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown. And it's at Ames' place where the titular character (Jennifer Jones) is introduced.

Many of the other characters find Cluny's behavior surprising (and not often in a good way) because she doesn't meet society's standards for being a lady (she's deeply interested in plumbing). Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), however, finds Cluny endearing. And from there, the hijinks ensue.

This being a Lubitsch film, Cluny Brown takes a lot of potshots at how class is perceived as a whole. A number of supporting characters don't deny that how they're viewed by others is crucial to their well-being. But with Cluny and Adam, that's not their main concern; they just want to lead happy lives.

Both Jones and Boyer have had their fair share of more serious works prior to Cluny Brown (she with The Song of Bernadette and Since You Went Away, he with Gaslight and Hold Back the Dawn) so it was an interesting move on Lubitsch's part. Though not the usual fare for the two actors, they have solid comedic timing and chemistry together.

Cluny Brown was a fine note for Lubitsch to go out on. (He passed away the following year.) Its two leads may not have done another film together after this one but their time together in this results in a one-of-a-kind treat. (Speaking of which, why didn't they reunite on screen? More than likely that Jones' future husband David O. Selznick might've had some part in that.)

My Rating: ****

The Tin Star

Early on in Anthony Mann's The Tin Star, bounty hunter Morg Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives in a small town hoping to get a claim on a wanted man. His first impression of sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) isn't a good one; he finds the younger man fumbling with his pistols. ("Just getting the feel of these guns.") This sets up the characterization of the two men.

And the casting of these two actors amplifies the circumstances of The Tin Star. Fonda is the more experienced actor, his Morg having a world weary attitude about him. Perkins -- having been in only four films prior to this -- has a green streak about him, much like Ben. And these are traits that would persist in their roles for the next decade.

Back to The Tin Star itself. Mann is certainly no stranger to this genre as his collaborations with James Stewart earlier in the decade can attest to. This was the genre that ensured Mann would not be forgotten years after his death in 1967. (Well, film noir too.)

Unsurprisingly, The Tin Star shares many elements with other westerns of the era: Morg romancing the widow, Ben's wife being concerned for her husband's safety, Lee Van Cleef as the know, the usual. (But hey, if the audience likes these tropes, give them what they want.)

The Tin Star is an enjoyable yarn from a year filled with heavier-themed films. (Fonda and Perkins also had 12 Angry Men and Fear Strikes Out that year.) Being released the same year as other westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, it's understandable as to why it's not as known. But that shouldn't stop one from seeking it out.

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 16, 2017

Arthur Miller: Writer

There's a certain way that people are perceived by others. Some are viewed by their personalities while others know them for how they behaved behind closed doors. But one thing that tends to persist is how one person is portrayed by their own family.

Rebecca Miller's Arthur Miller: Writer depicts the famed playwright as how he was in the comfort of his own home. Using footage from previous attempts at making a documentary, Miller captures her father not as someone filled with anger (like many of his plays are) but rather as a human being.

Miller chronicles her father's early life of privilege (before the Great Depression struck), showing how such an upbringing actually kept him humble in later life. Of course moments where he's thrown into the public eye (the House Un-American Activities Committee and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe) put a strain on his otherwise private lifestyle. Regardless of the circumstances he was in, he remained modest.

But that's not to say he was perfect, far from it. Despite his initial success with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, his plays (The Crucible and A View from the Bridge aside) never really seemed to connect with their audiences. (The critical reaction to After the Fall was beyond scathing.) But apparently to him, positive reception to his work wasn't of immense interest to him; he just wanted to have his voice heard.

Arthur Miller: Writer shows the dramatist as the very thing his works' main theme was: human. Miller encapsulates her father not as one of the most acclaimed writers of the last century but instead as the average American citizen. Sure, there's a sentimentality to the project but hey, it is essentially a daughter remembering a departed family member.

My Rating: ****1/2


Sexuality and gender identity have many facets but fiction often focuses on the basic ones. The ones that often get the spotlight are gay (usually white men) and trans (again, usually white), and they almost always are focused on young adults. Very rarely are such stories revolved around either a different identity or age demographic.

Which is why Anahita Ghazvinizadeh's They provides an entry for both categories. Taking within a three-day period, it follows J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) as they go through their usual routines. Under the supervision of their sister and her fiance, they try to figure out who they are.

What makes They different from other queer films involving children is how welcoming it is towards J. Sure, there's the rare pronoun slip-up but they're rectified as quickly as they're uttered. How often do you see such acceptance towards one's identity in fiction?

What also makes They stand out is that J's whole arc isn't solely focused on their identity. (They're asked to make a decision about their potential transition at the start of the film.) Their being is more than where they fall on the gender spectrum; the film's more than content with depicting how they live.

They puts the spotlight on an identity the media more often than not tends to ignore. (Maybe it's out of graciousness for those not familiar with it?) Ghazvinizadeh keeps a non-discriminating air about the whole project, which in all honesty should be on display more in queer fiction if its creator is cis and/or straight; they don't generally need to understand such identities but accepting them is crucial.

My Rating: ****

The Light of the Moon

It's an unfortunate aspect of reality that sexual assault is an always lurking danger. Very rarely does the victim of such violence come forward with what happened to them out of fear for their attacker to seek retribution. And then there's the matter of rape culture...

Jessica M. Thompson's The Light of the Moon focuses on the aftermath of such viciousness when it happens to Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz). She tells those close to her that she was mugged -- only the police and her boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David) know the truth -- possibly out of worry for how she'll be seen as afterwards. But will she be able to move on with her life?

In a similar vein to what Ida Lupino did with Outrage nearly seventy years ago, Thompson maintains sympathy towards the lead character. But in contrast to what Lupino did, she doesn't have Bonnie constantly looking over her shoulder following her assault. That's not to say it didn't affect her; reminders from either concerned friends or therapy cause her to retreat emotionally.

But this isn't just Bonnie's story. The Light of the Moon shows how those close to her change afterwards, particularly Matt. He starts treating Bonnie like royalty: cooking more, constantly checking in on her, things like that. But she calls out that he never treated her like this before the incident, and that's what causes more tension than the actual attack.

The Light of the Moon is (perhaps unfortunately) the kind of film we need in this day and age. It's not where rape is used as cheap exploitation not as something gratuitous added to an already weak script; Thompson instead shines a light on the emotional toll that follows such cruelty. If anything, this should serve as a reminder for those who think the victims were "asking for it"; they most certainly were not.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

There are those whose purpose in life is known early on. Some may be destined to further the field of medicine, other might display an interest towards the arts. In the case of Sammy Davis, Jr., his career path was simple: to be an entertainer.

Sam Pollard's Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me follows the path of Davis' career from his early days in vaudeville to being a member of the Rat Pack to making a name for himself by his lonesome. But being a black (and later Jewish) entertainer in the early days of the civil rights movement was a feat easier said than done.

The documentary focuses primarily on the professional hurdles Davis faced, the personal ones serving more as a footnote. (His romance with Kim Novak and then-controversial marriage to May Britt are briefly highlighted.) By many means did aspects of his life hamper the progress of his career but at the same time, said aspects had him breaking barriers.

Nevertheless, he persisted with his career ambitions. Pollard shows how there was hypocrisy within society and show business more than half a century ago. White performers could don blackface without a second thought but Davis was regularly talked out of doing his dead-on impressions of movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart. (Davis also wasn't allowed to attend John F. Kennedy's inauguration gala -- Kennedy's father didn't approve of Davis' then-engagement to Britt -- but Nat King Cole, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were.)

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me depicts a man who -- depending on the decade -- was either ahead of his time or painfully out of touch with it. But regardless of how the culture at the time perceived him, it was very hard to deny his talent. And that's still the case in the years since his death in 1990.

My Rating: ****1/2

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

There's no denying the fact that women often get the short end of the stick (so to speak) in many aspects of life. Granted, within the last thirty years or so, (some) changes have been made towards the course of gender equality. But that doesn't rectify the past entirely.

In fact, there are numerous examples throughout history where a woman's contributions were either disregarded or flat-out ignored altogether. Mary Anning was a crucial figure in the field of paleontology but wasn't recognized as such until after her death. The same can be said for Rosalind Franklin and Cecilia Payne, both of whom made scientific discoveries that others (read: men) took credit for. And what can be said of Hedy Lamarr?

Many associate her as the gorgeous leading lady from Hollywood's Golden Age (or the inspiration for a running gag in Blazing Saddles). But as Alexandra Dean's Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story shows, there was so much more to Lamarr than her looks. She was a deeply complex woman, one whose mind was constantly in overdrive. But how overshadowed by history was she?

Fittingly because what she had created, nowadays people are aware of Lamarr creating the basis for WiFi and Bluetooth during World War II. (She didn't get proper credit until shortly before her death in 2000.) For years since co-patenting such an invention, she didn't know that she could renew said patent after it expired (she found out years after the fact). Still, at least she didn't go to her grave feeling she achieved nothing outside of making movies.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story shows there was much more to the movie star than her stunning (and oft-copied) beauty. She was a woman who was unfortunately born into a time of rampant sexism (and anti-Semitism) but thankfully such respect was restored to her and nearly two decades since her passing, it looks to be staying put. (And rightfully so, too.)

My Rating: *****

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

How much of one's life and their work can be told? There are the dark periods that they would prefer to avoid, and there are the happier times they've revisited in later years. Regardless of what they've encountered, everyone has a story waiting to be told.

Take for instance Joan Didion. Here's someone who rose to prominence as the world's many facets began to change, and she was right in the center of it all. From the rise of the counterculture movement to the Manson trial to the shift in political power, it would require someone who knows Didion closely to capture her life's accomplishments. And who better to do such a task than her own nephew?

Griffin Dunne's Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold focuses on the writer's work and existence, how she captured the changing world she's a part of. He captures his aunt as someone who saw society constantly on the verge of destroying itself. (She's not wrong.)

Also on focus in Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is the subject of loss, something both Didion and Dunne are all too familiar with. With her losing her husband and adopted daughter in a matter of two years (and he losing his sister back in 1982), the wounds of the past still linger for both of them. (Time doesn't always heal all wounds.)

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is more than just a portrait of her as a writer; it's a portrait of her. She's a woman whose social circle and influence have a wide reach amongst both the famous and the anonymous. Here's someone who has an opinion on the world and if anyone didn't like it, to hell with them.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, October 13, 2017


Life is full of ups and downs, regardless of the person involved. One's luck could be another's misery, and so it goes. But even then such luck is fleeting.

The titular character (Lena Hall) of Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell's Becks goes through this repeatedly. After a nasty breakup, she moves back in with her devout mother Ann (Christine Lahti). As she settles back into small-town life, she offers guitar lessons to make some money and she gets close to her student Elyse (Mena Suvari).

Similar to Desert Hearts decades earlier, Becks depicts lesbian relationships not as something that's carefree (or for the sake of male viewership) but rather as ones that are just as complicated as straight ones. Infidelity, personal hangups, how society perceives them...none of these liaisons are without their flaws.

Now what Becks and Elyse go through is a little more complicated than what we've seen before. How so? Well, Elyse is a married woman, for starters. (Becks meanwhile has something of a drinking problem, a flaw her mother strongly disapproves of.) But as the end of Some Like It Hot claims, nobody's perfect.

Becks follows similar tropes found in similar works but Hall and Suvari (who had more or less disappeared after American Beauty) surely make up for those slight faults. In this time of homophobia regularly cropping up in daily life, it's nice to see those (albeit fictional) works where the characters are unashamed of who they are. This is something we should be seeing more often, both in fiction and in real life.

My Rating: ****

Friday, October 6, 2017


It's not easy to run a household by yourself. Society expects two people to maintain it: one to run it, the other to keep it running. But what if someone feels confident that they don't need a hand in such matters?

Joshua Z. Weinstein's Menashe follows the titular character (Menashe Lustig), who is somewhat of a pariah amongst his colleagues. He doesn't adhere to some of the traditions within the Hasidic Jewish community (such as the hat and coat the men often wear), the most glaring being not re-marrying after his wife's death. But he's determined to make a good life for his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) by himself.

In contrast to other works revolving around Jewish characters, Menashe is more in-depth with the general culture of the religion. It's not presented as "oh, this character's Jewish" but rather as something important to said character. (And not as a punchline either.)

Also on display in Menashe is the attempts at single parenthood. (Rieven is under the care of the family of his uncle, his mother's brother.) Similar to Kramer vs. Kramer before it, trying to balance raising a child and surviving on a meager paycheck is far from the ideal situation. (Of course, it's single mothers that get focused more because what woman would willingly abandon their own flesh and blood?)

Menashe provides an unbiased glimpse into both a religion and domesticity. With his film, Weinstein captures the slightly chaotic life of one person as they try to restore order (with varying success on their part). And one can hope that this won't be the only time we see Weinstein at work.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Village of the Damned

Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned starts off normally. The residents of Midwich go about with their day, expecting nothing out of the ordinary. But at the stroke of eleven o'clock, they all go unconscious. Nearly four hours later, they wake up unharmed...or are they?

A few months pass and several of the village's women have given birth to blonde-haired children.(The news of these simultaneous pregnancies sparked some rumors throughout town.) These children develop faster, much to the amazement of Prof. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), whose "son" David (Martin Stephens) is amongst this group. But soon things take a dark turn...

Usually when people think of British horror films, more often than not their first thoughts are towards those made by Hammer Film Productions and/or ones where Christopher Lee is involved. But with Village of the Damned, it has an Oscar winner as its lead. (And in a bit of playing against type too!)

Speaking of which, this was clearly a change of pace for Sanders. Here's a performer whose roles usually consisted of his character his utter disdain for humanity, so to see Sanders as a more kindly figure is something of a shock. But surprisingly, it's a casting decision that's an inspired one.

Village of the Damned was amongst the coming decade's many films wrought with paranoia. (Hey, it was during the Cold War.) It may not have the blood and gore usually found in the horror genre but this is the kind of picture even the squeamish can enjoy. (Oh, and it predates Rosemary's Baby in convincing the viewer to never have children ever.)

My Rating: ****