Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Molly's Game

Aaron Sorkin's Molly's Game opens with Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) going on a soliloquy about her sports career and how it ended harshly. "None of this has anything to do with poker. I'm only mentioning it because I wanted to say to whoever answered that the worst thing to happen in sports was fourth place at the Olympics: seriously? Fuck you."

This being a Sorkin-penned work, at least two-thirds of the dialogue in Molly's Game is breathless monologues, most of them Molly explaining the world of poker to her audience. Alternating between her rise in the underground poker empire and her public fall from grace, it follows how Molly establishes an acute business sense in lieu of law school. But soon various addictions and the mafia get involved, and things start to spiral downhill.

Much like The Social Network and Steve Jobs, Molly's Game has a lead whose goal is to get ahead in the world they're a part of. But instead something technology-based, Molly is more focused on going right for the bank balances of gamblers. But she's aware of the consequences from getting in too deep.

As is usually expected from Sorkin, he has solid work both for and from his actors. Alongside Chastain are the likes of Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera, just to name the more prolific faces in Molly's Game. But this is without question Chastain's show. It's only a matter of time before she (further) dominates Hollywood.

Molly's Game is certainly a change of pace for Sorkin. (If only he could move past his own sexism to make similar future projects.) Though it's clear in some scenes (occasionally painfully so) that this is his first time in the director's seat, Sorkin shows promise as more than just a writer. (What would be the likelihood of him working with someone else's script for a later project?)

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Battle of the Sexes

At first glance, one would assume that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Battle of the Sexes was solely focused on the famed tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). But in reality, the film focuses more on the players and those in their social circles.

Riggs is depicted as a washed-up tennis star with a nasty gambling habit. (His estranged wife mentions that she's the one footing the bills.) He's constantly showboating his skill, many times to his advantage to make a quick buck. (He wins a Rolls Royce at one point.) Of course such chauvinism will come back to bite him in the ass.

King, meanwhile, is captured as someone who will work as hard as she can whether it's on the tennis court or in other aspects of her life. But what's also on focus for King's arc is her affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). And while the relationship isn't oversexualized (seriously, Hollywood, girl-on-girl action isn't meant for lewd fantasies), it does oversimplify it. (Just Google "Billie Jean King palimony suit".)

And then there's the match itself. In preparing for it, the two take different approaches. King actually goes through training while Riggs -- overly confident that he'll win -- indulges himself in promotions. Just goes to show their methods or approach are on opposite ends of the same spectrum.

Battle of the Sexes is more than just the match; it's about the actual battle of the sexes of the era (which will probably never reach a final conclusion). Boasting a solid roster of actors, it provides great both for and from Carell (who's having a good year with this and Last Flag Flying) and Stone (in her best work to date). Here's hoping Dayton and Faris continue this streak.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Early into Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, its general ambience is established. Its sterile mood depicts a precise atmosphere for surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his family. But once Martin (Barry Keoghan) starts forcing himself into this comfortable life, trouble begins to boil over.

It isn't outright mentioned what kind of disorder Martin is afflicted with (though Steven alludes to it at one point) but it's clear he's not in the right frame of mind. Is it because of his father's death years before (he blames Steven for not saving him on the operating table) or has Martin always been like this? The ambiguity only makes the film all the more unnerving.

In contrast to Lanthimos' previous film The Lobster -- whose main theme was love -- The Killing of a Sacred Deer has hate as its motif. Similar to The Beguiled earlier this year (which also starred Farrell and Nicole Kidman), sympathetic hospitality gets abused and it isn't long until violence enters the picture. Sometimes the kindness of strangers results in the manipulation from others.

And as he depicted with his previous film, Lanthimos maintains an emotional detachment to everything happening throughout The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Many of the lines delivered have a matter-of-fact tone to them (almost to the point of sounding indifferent to the audience), and there's not much in the way of of visible emotions outside rage. Again, it may be deliberate on Lanthimos' part.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer doesn't quite reach the same levels as The Lobster but its lurid manner makes it stand out in some regards. Farrell continues to prove his worth as an actor while Keoghan -- in combination with Dunkirk earlier this year -- reminds casting directors to keep him in consideration for future projects. (This won't be the last we hear of the young Irish actor, that's for sure.)

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Pretty Poison

It's established early on in Noel Black's Pretty Poison that Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is not entirely there. (Well, he is on parole from a mental institution.) Soon he gets Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld) wrapped up in his "missions", and it doesn't take long for chaos to unfold.

This being Perkins' first post-Psycho Hollywood role (he had done several projects overseas), there are the obvious parallels between his famous role and Pretty Poison. But Black wanted to capture the Perkins previously seen in Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not the one that limited the actor's future career. (Perkins still got typecast after this.) That said, the two periods of his profession are entwined within Dennis.

That's not to disregard Perkins' work in Pretty Poison, far from it, He was an actor who captured a sense of naivete very well throughout his career. Though often in roles where he's a bundle of nerves within a lanky frame, he was still good at his job.

And then there's Weld. Surprisingly devoid of an Oscar nomination for her work in Pretty Poison, she plays Sue Ann as a classic femme fatale: attractive, seductive and very dangerous. (She certainly lives up to the film's title, that's for sure.)

Pretty Poison is part of that cinematic canon which marked a decided shift in Hollywood and its storytelling. Gone is the whole concept of playing it safe; now directors, writers and actors had less restrictions for the stories they wanted to make. And the results -- like what's seen here -- can be downright anarchic in comparison to the previous decade's contributions.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

In the opening moments of Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, the titular character tries unsuccessfully again to escape from her domineering aunt (Judith Anderson). Shortly after being returned home, she gets into a scuffle that results in the aunt falling down the stairs to her death. And she manages to get away with it...at least at the time.

Years pass and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) has married Walter O'Neil (Kirk Douglas), who had witnessed the aunt's death. She runs the one-sided marriage with steely precision, her demeanor unflappable. But she starts to let her guard down when Sam Masterson (Van Helfin) -- who Martha tried to run away with that fateful night -- returns to town.

Boy, the names attached to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. All four leads (Stanwyck, Douglas, Heflin, Martha Scott) are familiar faces of film noir, both before and since this. And they're in roles that are par for the course with the genre: the tough broad (Stanwyck), the alcoholic (Douglas), the gambler (Heflin), and the convict (Scott).

This being Douglas' film debut, it seems strange now to see him in a role where he's constantly viewed as weak. Here's an actor who's practically synonymous with passionate acting style so to see him as a pushover is disconcerting, to say the least. Still, it's good that Hollywood realized Douglas was a star in the making.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers isn't particularly top-tier noir (at least in comparison to other ones starring Stanwyck) but boy, does it drip with post-war cynicism. The quartet of its lead actors shows why they're practically synonymous with the genre, Stanwyck and Scott in particular. (Certainly a change of pace for the director of All Quiet on the Western Front, that's for sure.)

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Blue Gardenia

Several minutes into Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia, and we watch Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) preparing a birthday dinner for herself. She had recently gotten a letter from her fiance from overseas (he's serving in the Korean War) so she's got a spring in her step. But her happiness is quickly deflated when the letter tells her he's leaving her for a nurse that treated him.

Devastated, Norah goes to drown her sorrows at the titular restaurant with womanizer Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). The next morning, she wakes up to a splitting headache, the events of the previous night a complete blank. And then news breaks of Harry's murder...

Lang was having a good year in 1953. As well as The Blue Gardenia, he also had The Big Heat released. And as he previously showed with M and Scarlet Street, noir was where he excelled. (Perhaps deploying some tricks he learned before leaving his native Vienna?)

And while she's known as the conniving titular character of All About Eve, Baxter was more than capable of playing vulnerable women. (After all, she won an Oscar for doing such a role in The Razor's Edge.) Her Norah is constantly on pins and needles following that night, fearing that she might be the one responsible for Harry's death. But is she?

The Blue Gardenia further the belief that Lang is one of several names synonymous with film noir. With ominous lighting and shadows doing the same, Lang also captures a public that's morbidly drawn to bloodshed and the kind of press it can conjure up. (The man sure knew how to make a picture, huh?)

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, November 6, 2017


Curtis Bernhardt's Possessed opens with a woman wandering the streets of Los Angeles, searching for someone name David. Her behavior causes her to be hospitalized, and it's there she's identified as Louise Howell (Joan Crawford). But what's her story?

It turns out that "David" is David Sutton (Van Heflin), a former lover of Louise's who broke things off with her because she was too obsessed with him. Since she married a recent widower (and her former employer), things start to stabilize for once in Louise's world. But then David starts to show more interest in her stepdaughter...

Being made not long after her Oscar win for Mildred Pierce, it's clear as to why Crawford was chosen to star in Possessed (not to be confused with an earlier film of hers with the same title). And as she also showed previously with A Woman's Face, noir was where she excelled. (After all, all three of her Oscar-nominated performances were for roles in the genre.)

It's also worth mentioning that this was among several titles at the time that shined a light on the workings of the human mind. Like The Snake Pit the following year, it was a film that required immense research on the leading lady's part. And boy, does it pay off.

Possessed may be a lesser-seen work of Crawford's but it doesn't have to stay that way. It's as high-strung as her performance, something many imitators have tried to achieve (but only a handful have succeeded in). And if anything, it proves that Crawford was the face of noir. (Okay, next to Barbara Stanwyck.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Born to Be Bad

Many of the roles Joan Fontaine played throughout her career could be best described as mousy. Whether it's her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock or any of her films following them, it became a sort of typecasting for her. Granted, as is often the case with actors, sometimes there's a want for change.

Now Fontaine actually subverts her usual character type for Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad. Her Christabel Caine initially seems to be like the actress' former roles but her true colors emerge once she's settled in. She's not some shrinking violet; she's consumed by her status in society.

Being made the same year as Ray's more prolific noir In a Lonely Place, it's understandable as to why Born to Be Bad isn't as well-known. And admittedly it doesn't have the same quality as the more famous film but regardless of that fact, it's still intriguing to watch it unfold.

And Fontaine has a pretty solid lineup of co-stars for Born to Be Bad. It has the likes of Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan (no stranger to noir), and Mel Ferrer, showing that very common aspect with other titles of the 1950s: the star-studded feature. (And Ray himself would partake in that several times over.)

Born to Be Bad may not be top-tier Ray but as he showed with his debut They Live by Night the previous year, noir was where he excelled. And while Fontaine didn't regularly play such roles like Christabel, she's clearly having some fun vamping it up. (It would've been nice to see her in more parts like it.)

My Rating: ****


In contrast to Douglas Sirk's films from the 1950s, his film Lured is in a class of its own. (In fairness, it is a remake of a film by Robert Siodmak, he himself a familiar figure of noir.) But what is the film about?

A serial killer is on the loose in London, taunting Scotland Yard with poems about the victims. After her friend goes missing, taxi dancer Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) agrees to help the police find the culprit. But will she find who's responsible or become the next victim?

Sirk may be synonymous with melodramas nowadays but as he showed here with Lured (and The Tarnished Angels the following decade), he could also handle more sober material. That said, there are a few traits here that are also on display in his more famous works.

Similarly, before she became synonymous with comedy within a matter of years, Ball was also adept at the genre's polar opposite. As she showed previously with Dance, Girl, Dance and The Dark Corner (released the year before), she often played the street-smart gal with the thick New York accent (not an uncommon role for most actresses then). In other words, Ball could do projects with a jaded atmosphere to it and her characters.

Lured is certainly not the kind of picture you'd see Sirk making but it pays off in the end. (Imagine if he had made a melodrama noir.) It seems that the German director had a somewhat wearied view on the American concept of achieving either fame or fortune (as his later films would depict) as well as seeing life as a very fickle thing. And that's all on display here.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Black Hand

"At the turn of the century, there were more Italians in New York than in Rome. Many had hurried here seeking fortune and freedom." So opens Richard Thorpe's Black Hand.

Years after his father's murder, Giovanni "Johnny" Columbo (Gene Kelly) seeks revenge from those responsible. A familiar premise within this genre, yes, but bear in mind both the leading man and the studio that made it. This wasn't common fare for either of them.

Similar to what Thorpe did with Night Must Fall thirteen years earlier, he lets an actor who's typecast get a chance to flesh out their resume. In this instance, Kelly -- who'd later show his worth as a serious actor the following decade with Inherit the Wind -- steps away from musicals to dabble in a more serious project. If only Kelly had more opportunities during his career.

And though Black Hand supposedly has the titular gang as the antagonist, it's actually the Italian mafia in that role designation. (The studio thought it'd be wiser -- and less death threat-inducing -- to have a dead organization as the villain than one that's thriving.) Still, that fact doesn't diminish the film too terribly.

Black Hand may not hold up to other titles of the decade but it still has its moments. As mentioned, Kelly proves he's more than a song and dance man. And like Night Must Fall, it can be absolutely fascinating to watch most of the time.

My Rating: ****

Experiment in Terror

The name Blake Edwards is usually synonymous with comedy. The Pink Panther series, Victor/Victoria, Operation Petticoat, The Great Race...apart from the occasional romance, this was how his legacy was shaped. But in 1962, he had two San Francisco-set films starring Lee Remick that were most definitely not comedies.

The most famous of the two is Days of Wine and Roses, which got Remick her lone Oscar nomination. The other was Experiment in Terror, which is decidedly more diabolical than Edwards' other works. (Seeing that it opens with Remick's Kelly Sherwood being threatened by a shadowy figure in close-up, that explains everything right there.)

Alongside Remick is Glenn Ford, a regular amongst film noir. As FBI agent John Ripley, he does a role similar to The Big Heat in that he'll seek justice by any means possible. (Okay, not in the same ruthless ways as Dave Bannion.) But will Ripley succeed in capturing the raspy-voiced sociopath?

In very stark contrast to Edwards' other films, Experiment in Terror is not interested in the sake of laughs. (Same with his other 1962 release.) It's an anxious picture, borrowing cues from the likes of noirs past. (It's also one hell of a follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany's, that's for sure.)

Experiment in Terror may not be Edwards' usual fare but boy, he certainly knows what he's doing. (Apparently, his output from that year convinced him to focus more on the sillier side of life afterward.) And with it being released in a very stacked year for movies, it's clear as to why it's not as known as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Miracle Worker. But should that fact lessen one's curiosity towards it? Of course not.

My Rating: ****