Monday, December 31, 2018

Film and Book Tally 2018

Man, this year has been sporadic. I didn't watch or read much (in comparison to the past few years), was a contributor for Talk Film Society for a little over three months (before being politely let go; I'll admit I wasn't great with keeping deadlines), and submitted two guest posts over at The Film Experience. Anyway, my main objection for Defiant Success -- which, by the way, turns ten (!!!) this coming August -- is to keep it up to date with new reviews and the like, and I'll try to make it so in 2019. But enough of that: onwards to the media I've consumed this year!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The opening moments of Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? establishes the coarse nature of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), how her attitude results in her losing her job and alienating her from others. As she works on a long-gestating Fanny Brice biography, she finds a better way to earn some quick cash: writing and selling forgeries.

Like her previous film The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller chronicles the complicated complexities of the fair sex. But rather than the coming-of-age tale her debut told, she depicts how those in desperate measures will react to unlikely situations. And Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's script imbues the regular struggles a writer faces. (Granted, the path Israel went down is thankfully one rarely traveled.)

Indeed, the way some fiction depicts the "glamorous" life of writers is inaccurate. (Then again, most writers are, well, writers.) Though Can You Ever Forgive Me? acknowledges some of Israel's past successes, it shines more of a light on how she tries to surpass them (and doesn't quite succeed in doing so). Much like actresses, even writers can have a short shelf life (pun intended).

And in a way, the film's title could be recognized at McCarthy herself. A number of the films she was involved with between her Oscar-nominated work in Bridesmaids and Can You Ever Forgive Me? had some doubting her talents. (She was regularly on the verge of the same typecasting as Chris Farley -- "fatty falls down, everybody goes home happy" -- before her.) But thanks to her career-redeeming work here, we can, in fact, forgive McCarthy.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a brilliant work from everyone involved with it. (Hopefully, McCarthy will get more dramatic roles because of this.) As the credits begin to roll, you may wonder what kind of legacy Israel (who died in 2014) leaves behind: as a celebrity biographer or as a forger of their words.

My Rating: *****

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Doorway to Hell

Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres) has it made early on in Archie Mayo's The Doorway to Hell. Running a thriving bootlegging business, he also pulls the strings of the Chicago underworld. But at the height of his power, he decides to marry Doris (Dorothy Matthews) and retire to Florida, handing the reins over to right-hand man Steve Mileaway (James Cagney). But will Louie get tempted back into criminal behavior?

Being made before the Hays Code went into effect, The Doorway to Hell plays into this then-controversial era of filmmaking. (Its tagline -- "The picture Gangland defied Hollywood to make!" -- acknowledges the sensational nature they've accumulated.) But is it as shocking as it boasts?

In comparison to the other pre-Code gangster pictures, it's surprisingly tame. But the focus of The Doorway to Hell isn't so much on the violence as it is on Louie's morality. He's more than happy to give up crime for golf and writing his memoirs. But when his enemies launch an attack that hits too close to home, that's when Louie's ruthlessness comes to light.

Much like what he'd do with Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest a few years down the line, Mayo gives Cagney his big break in The Doorway to Hell. A year before his starring turn in The Public Enemy, it was clear that he would be commanding the show in no time. (He does plenty of that here.)

The Doorway to Hell may not pack the same punch as later gangster pictures but it's still good at times. Ayres might be viewed as miscast (why him instead of Cagney?) but again, it's more on Louie's morality rather than his toughness. And Ayres got that part down pat.

My Rating: ***1/2

Monday, November 19, 2018


What causes some people to behave in certain situations? Is it the result of bottled up emotions? Or is it from combined stressors happening in that very moment? It varies from person to person but there's no denying that everyone has a breaking point.

Wildlife displays this a few times throughout its story. Following Joe Brinson after his move to Montana with his parents Jerry and Jeanette, it depicts how small moments in this nondescript home life can lead to something volatile. (Generally speaking, the happy marriage is not a regularly deployed concept in fiction.)

"In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him." So begins Richard Ford's novel. Told from Joe's perspective, it shows how not so innocent the era was and how his new home is being torn apart.

Making his directing debut adapting Ford's novel, Paul Dano (along with co-writer Zoe Kazan) depicts a bygone time of changing mores. With the aid of Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould and Bill Camp, what's captured are microexpressions that Ford couldn't chronicle with only words. And Dano in turn -- having worked with a number of prolific directors over the years -- shows promise behind the camera just as well as he does in front of it.

So which is better: Ford's book or Dano's movie? Both emphasize the story's strengths and flaws but both have something that fiction seldom has on its audiences: the ability to leave its impact slowly sink in after completing it. (Not something you see regularly, that's for sure.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Phantom Thread

The opening score of Jonny Greenwood's score as we first hear it in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread implies a sense of unease to be expecting for the preceding film. Yes, much of the music is similar in tone to lounge music of the 1950s (when the film's set) but when the chords sharpen, pay attention.

Phantom Thread follows couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he finds a muse and model in waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds has a controlling personality and a near-obsessive demand for his routines, something Alma sees firsthand. But as their relationship deepens, so too does a want for dominance in Alma.

In contrast to some of Anderson's previous films, Phantom Thread is more genteel in nature. Having his earlier work set in the likes of Las Vegas (Hard Eight) and 1970s Los Angeles (Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice), 1950s Britain seems like a decided shift for the director. But with the principal actors involved (Day-Lewis, Krieps, Lesley Manville), that detail practically becomes a lesser one.

Day-Lewis may have gotten the majority of the film's acclaim but that's not to dissuade Krieps' work in Phantom Thread. A relative unknown prior to this, she holds her own against the screen veterans (by no means an easy feat when Day-Lewis is involved). And if we're lucky, we won't be seeing the last of the Luxembourgian actress soon.

Phantom Thread -- much like Anderson's earlier film The Master -- relies on that false feeling of trust. You think the people you've just met are upstanding citizens of the human race but as you get to know them more, you realize there's more to them (and not all of it's good). And that's exactly what happens to both Reynolds and Alma.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, October 25, 2018


The general mood of Cory Finley's Thoroughbreds is one that doesn't feel quite right. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) seem to be comfortable in their privileged home lives. But as the opening scene shows, there's an underlying darkness in both them and the story.

If anything, Thoroughbreds bears resemblance to last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer: upper-middle-class domesticity shattered by an unspecified mental disorder. (Amanda mentions at one point that her psychiatrist is basically guessing what she's afflicted with.) It's possible that this is how those from stable private lives doesn't always equate to stable frames of mind. (Just look at any serial killer; many of them appeared normal to others.)

Anyway, stories and accusations of "affluenza" have been circulating as of late so that might be what's happening in Thoroughbreds. (Amanda admits that she feels nothing when it comes to emotions.) Lily -- although she seems happy with her life -- is hiding behind a mask of her own so neither woman is of sound mind. But to what extent will their true selves become known?

Cooke and Taylor-Joy are great in Thoroughbreds but Anton Yelchin -- who died before the film's release -- is also someone of note here. (It's dedicated in his memory.) As with many of his roles when he was still alive, he showed promise of a long career ahead of him. Sadly, the events of that June day two years ago made that possibility fade away.

Thoroughbreds shows how some people can behave seemingly unprovoked. Much like Heathers before it, the film depicts how far one can go after being pushed for too long. And boy, the results can be messy.

My Rating: ****

Portrait of Jennie

Early in William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie, starving artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) manages to sell a sketch to sympathetic art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Soon after, he meets a peculiar girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones). Her ways spark a fountain of inspiration in Eben but what's the story on Jennie?

The last of four films starring Cotten and Jones (the other being Since You Went Away, Love Letters, and Duel in the Sun), Portrait of Jennie has a more ethereal ambiance than their previous collaborations. (Seeing as how Dieterle also made the likes of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Devil and Daniel Webster, such a story wasn't too much of a stretch for him.) And bear in mind that this wasn't a big hit upon its release (though it has been vindicated by the passage of time).

Anyway, both Cotten and Jones were big box-office draws at the time (with Jones having several Oscar nominations and a win to her name). And as mentioned before, they've worked together before so the studio (read: most likely David O. Selznick) saw lightning striking again. Though none of the principal players are around anymore, their work lives on.

But what can be said of Portrait of Jennie without giving anything away? Perhaps what could be mentioned is that it's different from the various romances of the decade. It's a gradual build-up with Eben and Jennie's relationship, not an immediate love at first sight scenario. How often did you see that in older films?

Portrait of Jennie was very different from the many films of the era, and its originality makes it stand out among them. A slew of them are generally one-sided with romance but Dieterle makes sure not to do the same. (Doesn't always work but he at least tries.)

My Rating: ****

Friday, August 24, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

Society as of late has been turning into a textbook example of social Darwinism. Obviously, the survival of the fittest is in play but it's also the survival of the smartest; only those cunning enough will endure in this ever-changing world. But if this world is too tough to adapt to, what then?

Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You may be a satire of such a situation but boy, he doesn't pull any punches. Following Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he works a nondescript job as a telemarketer, he learns a technique in how to succeed in business without really trying. But will he be able to handle what his job expects of him?

It may have been written during the Obama administration but Sorry to Bother You has all the markings of what's wrong with this current one. Similar to Get Out and Dear White People (both of which also featured Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, respectively), the matter of race is explored too -- or rather, how those who aren't white are essentially screwed over time and time again. (Boy, how that happens to Cassius repeatedly here.)

And there's the matter of Sorry to Bother You's third act. Without giving anything away, all that can be said is that it turns the preceding two acts on their heads. Suffice to say that the events of the third act won't be forgotten after you see them unfold.

Sorry to Bother You shows immense promise from Riley as a film director and storyteller. All of the names attached to the film's cast feel right at home in their roles (Armie Hammer in particular), no one feels out of place. And to reiterate the previous paragraph, you won't forget that third act after you see it.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, August 6, 2018

Hester Street

Stories of beginning a new life are by no means an uncommon occurrence in either fiction of real life. Many of these tales hail from those emigrating to America, hoping to thrive in the land of opportunity. Of course, these streets paved with gold may end up looking a bit tarnished to some.

Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street provides two such perspectives from someone who's made themself at home within American culture and someone who has a harder time in doing so. The former applies to Yankel (Steven Keats) -- who has rechristened himself "Jake" -- and the latter is his wife Gitl (Carol Kane), who has recently arrived from Russia with their son. But he's gotten a mistress during their few years apart...

Silver was moved by Hester Street's source novel -- Abraham Cahan's Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto -- because her parents were Russian Jews, prompting her to tell this story. (As well as changing the title, she changed the story's point of view from Jake to Gitl.) She felt it served as an ode to her heritage, and that's why Silver wanted this story to be told.

Their names aside, there are noted differences between Jake and Gitl. He has all but discredited his faith in favor of living the American way whereas she holds the one thing from the old world close to her heart. Were it not for their son, their relationship would have been over long before their emigration took place.

Hester Street is very much Silver's sonnet to where she came from, yes, but it's also a story of those who strive for a new life. Whether it's the past century or this current one, many of us have that desire to begin anew. But very seldom do we all achieve that possibility, especially one with a happy resolution.

My Rating: ****

Star 80

On August 14, 1980, Playboy model and rising actress Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider, who committed suicide after doing the deed. This being one of the more prolific "if I can't have you, no one can" murders, it still carries a shock over thirty years later. But what provoked this violent act?

Three years after the murder-suicide, Bob Fosse made Star 80, a reference to Snider's vanity plate on his Mercedes Benz. Fosse was no stranger in depicting the cost of fame, be it fictional (Cabaret), factual (Lenny) or semiautobiographical (All That Jazz). But when it's a story that ends in bloodshed, that's where comparisons to his work end.

The film may be based on real events but several names and details were changed, some of them for legal purposes. A number of Stratten's real-life acting jobs were re-titled but the most telling tweak is that Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees) is clearly Peter Bogdonavich, whom Stratten was having an affair with at the time of her murder. (Bogdonavich himself -- who called the film inaccurate -- didn't want Fosse to tell this story because Fosse didn't know the full extent of it.)

Mariel Hemingway may be (pardon the expression) the star attraction of Star 80 but Eric Roberts is the real main draw. By many accounts, Snider was as much of a hustler in real life as he's depicted here. And boy, Roberts really knows how to sleaze it up. (Hugh Hefner even said Roberts was dead-on in his portrayal.)

Star 80 has that lingering sadness to it, knowing that Stratten's successes are tarnished by her ultimate fate. If anything, it serves as a how-to for identifying relationship red flags. Had Stratten known them early on in her courtship with Snider, she might be alive today...

My Rating: ****1/2

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Ralph Nelson's Requiem for a Heavyweight opens with a tracking shot fo bar patrons watching a boxing match on an unseen TV with immense interest. It then cuts to the mayhem of the fight as seen from the perspective of Luis "Mountain" Rivera (Anthony Quinn). It's this fight (up against Cassius Clay, no less!) that Rivera needs to call it quits if wants to stay alive.

With the help of his trainer Army (Mickey Rooney), Rivera tries to find some steady work outside the ring. His manager Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason), however, has a number of debts to some bookies so he wants to Rivera to keep fighting. But what does the fighter's future hold?

There's a weariness to Requiem for a Heavyweight that shows an empathy to Rivera's situation. With a script penned by Rod Serling, that tiredness and cynicism make all the more sense. (Just watch The Twilight Zone or Seven Days in May.) The film's not in the mood for bullshit.

Now this version of Requiem for a Heavyweight has some noted changes from its original teleplay. (The lead character's named Harlan McClintock, for starters.) And the conclusion for the film is decidedly more depressing on many fronts. (But again, with Serling at the typewriter, that's not a surprise.)

Requiem for a Heavyweight is definitely not the kind of uplifting picture most boxing films were the previous decade. With Serling's shrewd views on full display, the film shines a sad light on those in Rivera's small circle. And as some episodes of The Twilight Zone showed, not everyone gets the happy ending they seek.

My Rating: ****

Friday, June 22, 2018

BOOK VS MOVIE: On Chesil Beach

What are the extents of one's love? What limits does someone have towards their significant other? Every love is different mich in the same way that every person is different. and don't expect societal views to help in any way.

On Chesil Beach follows that particular element to a T as it follows Edward and Florence on their honeymoon. Certainly, they have the typical newlywed jitters but with many things left unsaid, is this a union fated to end before it even begins?

"They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." So opens Ian McEwan's novel before exploring how Edward and Florence ended up in that hotel room. Neither halves led ideal upbringings but how much of that affected their later lives?

Dominic Cooke's adaptation stays generally true to McEwan's original story (certainly helped with McEwan himself writing the screenplay). Starring Saoirse Ronan (no stranger to McEwan's work) and Billy Howle, it doesn't quite capture the nuances of the novel but Cooke's theater background adds a particular flair to his feature film debut.

So which is better: McEwan's book or Cooke's movie? While both follow the same story, their approaches to the conclusion differ. (The film ends on a somewhat happier note than the novel.) But while how they conclude aren't generally the same, they capture to devastating effect how the era Edward and Florence are a part of isn't as liberating as they once thought.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

The Great Lie

Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is in a tight spot at the start of Edmund Goulding's The Great Lie. His marriage to pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) isn't valid -- her divorce from her previous husband wasn't finalized -- so instead of going through that again, he marries old flame Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis). And for a while, everything seems right.

But then Peter's plane goes missing when he goes away on business and he's presumed dead. Before he had left the country, Sandra confided in Maggie that she's pregnant with Peter's child. And after Peter disappears, Maggie offers to help Sandra during her pregnancy on the condition that she gets to have the child. But will this situation work for both women?

Davis took on the role of Maggie after some fans wrote hoping she would play a nice character. (She also picked Astor to play Sandra.) Both women conspired together to downplay the melodramatic aspects of The Great Lie in order to flesh their characters. Does it work? Absolutely.

Indeed Davis in the rare pleasant role (which she likened to her real-life personality) is something of note in The Great Lie but boy, does Astor make up for Davis' lack of bitchiness with her own. With this being released the same year as her famous role in The Maltese Falcon, it's understandable as to why it's not as known (even though she won an Oscar for it).

The Great Lie has its melodramatic moments, yes (probably to be expected from the director of Dark Victory and The Constant Nymph), but Davis and Astor ensure that the film doesn't firmly stay in that genre. (Thank goodness for that.) And like several of Goulding's other works, it has a particular preference for the characters and their personalities.

My Rating: ****

Friday, June 15, 2018

BOOK VS MOVIE: Disobedience

There's always something so tantalizing about the forbidden romance, the story of the star-crossed lovers. We root for them to see if in fact that love can conquer all. Very seldom do they receive the happiness they ache for in the end (same-sex couples are the more glaring examples) but the few that do get exactly what (and who) they want.

Disobedience is a more recent example of this oft-told tale. After receiving news that her father -- a well-respected rabbi in London -- has died, Ronit returns to the home she left behind years before. But as she reacquaints herself to the Orthodox Jewish community she was raised in, she discovers that her former lover Esti has married Ronit's cousin Dovid. Is the past truly in the past for both women or will sparks be re-ignited?

Naomi Alderman's novel focuses greatly on the workings of Judaism, each chapter opening with an examination of particular beliefs within the religion (that also happen to summarize their respective sections). Switching between perspectives (and fonts) from the third person and Ronit, we see how complex the society is to its devotees.

Sebastián Lelio's adaptation eschews most of the novel's focus on grief and faith in favor of Ronit and Esti's relationship. (There is way more sexual tension here than what Alderman originally wrote.) Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams have strong chemistry (it'd be unfortunate if they didn't) but the shift in the story's central themes feels outputting at times.

So which is better: Alderman's book or Leilo's movie? Both have different characterizations for both plotline and leads. (How Dovid is portrayed, for instance, differs between the works.) Still, they both make one thing certain: one's feelings may not change after many years have passed.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

First Reformed

The journal kept by Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) in Paul Schrader's First Reformed doesn't seem to be serving as a recollection of his day's events. Instead, its purpose appears to be the release of a troubled man's musings. And as the film progresses, we see just how unhinged Toller is.

As many of Schrader's previous films have shown, First Reformed has a particularly jaded perspective from Rev. Toller. He had tried to vainly to maintain an idealistic view on the world but with his health failing and his faith being tested, he finds it nearly impossible to be the man of the cloth he appears to be. What is his limit?

Parallels to Taxi Driver are hard to ignore as one watches First Reformed. (One shot in the later film is practically an allusion to the earlier one.) But it bears more resemblance to Bringing Out the Dead in their shared weariness in the protagonists. They've seen the horrors of the world they're a part of and are now numb to everything around them.

Hawke has been delivering a number of solid performances these last few years but First Reformed is easily the best of his career. His Rev. Toller is a complicated figure (a staple in Schrader's works), haunted by his past mistakes and uncertain of what his future holds for him. It's when a concerned parishioner steps forward that his fate is ultimately sealed. And Hawke tackles the role brilliantly.

First Reformed firmly solidifies Schrader's status as a writer in Hollywood. (Just in case his previous work didn't already prove that.) He provides an unflinching commentary on humanity itself, how it's cruel to those who aren't willing to conform to it. And the end result will stay in your mind long after it finishes.

My Rating: *****

The Rider

It's established early in Chloé Zhao's The Rider that Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is recovering from a debilitating rodeo accident. Because of his injuries, everyone around him figures that his days in the rodeo circuit are over. (One of his friends became permanently disabled from a similar accident.) But Brady is the stubborn type.

In many ways, The Rider is more of an ode to the westerns of decades passed. It focuses on the hardscrabble life of those in rustic locales, how the horse trade is how they eke out a living. Granted, things have changed since the days of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood but the point still stands.

Wonder why The Rider feels so authentic? That's because it's based on Jandreau's own life. (Hell, his own sister and father are alongside him.) Zhao had met him when she was making Songs My Brother Taught Me and what later happened to Jandreau compelled her to dramatize his story. And boy, does it work

Also of note in The Rider is the cinematography from Joshua James Richards. Gorgeously capturing the South Dakota Badlands, he has the outdoors play as much of a role as Jandreau himself. Very rarely does the scenery tell the story in a similar vein to the screenplay but Richards does just that.

The Rider is a very human story, one about those trying to achieve the American dream with varying success. Sometimes they get to the point where they want to be, other times life throws them a curveball (or several). Still, more often than not, they manage to find a way to make everything work for themselves. And that's where we find Brady as the film wears on.

My Rating: ****1/2

Let the Sunshine In

Claire Denis' Let the Sunshine In opens with Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) having sex with her married lover Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). He comes off as rather brutish during the act, even asking if she's this way with other men. (This earns him a slap in the face.) It's this scene that sets the precedent for what Isabelle goes through in the film.

And what's established in Let the Sunshine In is that Isabelle is looking for love in all the wrong places. (She's divorced with a daughter.) The men she encounters tend to meet her emotional needs initially but not so much in the long run. (Vincent, in particular, won't leave his wife for Isabelle.) Hey, no one ever said life would work out for everyone.

A common theme in various women-directed films is a better grasp of the female psyche. (Takes one to know one.) They're more likely to explore how women behave beyond the usual Freudian explanations. Sometimes it's something that happened when they were young (again, not pertaining to their family), other times it could be an event from their recent past. Either way, these depictions differ greatly from those by male directors.

Binoche has always been a radiant presence in cinema, and Let the Sunshine In is no exception. Her Isabelle may have a stormy personal life but when it comes to her career, she's thriving. She's emotionally clingy but otherwise very put together. Again, this is something more commonly found in works made by women.

Let the Sunshine In serves as more of a commentary towards the general dating scene and how convoluted it can towards some people. But with Denis' touch, it has a beating heart to it. And it's in the form of Binoche.

My Rating: ****

Friday, May 18, 2018

BOOK VS MOVIE: Lean on Pete

Many times in fiction we often see adolescents dealing with the brunt of everyday life beyond high school and puberty. Sometimes they lose a close family member, often by unnatural means. Other times their responsibilities in life increase greatly. But what differs from these depictions is how the teens handle their new situations.

With Lean on Pete, it follows Charley Thompson after his supposedly comfortable home life slips through his fingers. He decides to find his aunt but there's one problem: he's in Oregon, she lives in Wyoming (at least that's where he remember where she lives), and he has no means of getting there. With the titular ailing racehorse as his companion, he ventures out to find a place he can call home.

Willy Vlautin's novel is simplistic in its writing (it's told from Charley's point of view) but its storytelling speaks volumes in the narrative. In a style reminiscent of John Steinbeck's work, the matter-of-fact perspective from Charley shows innocence becoming aware of the hardscrabble nature of everyday life. (No one ever said life itself would be forgiving.)

Andrew Haigh's adaptation condenses Vlautin's novel to a certain degree but otherwise stays true to the source material. As his earlier films Weekend and 45 Years showed, he prefers depicting the small things that happen in one's day and Lean on Pete is no exception. And like his previous entries, Haigh shows how the little things can lead to something big.

So which is better: Vlautin's book or Haigh's movie? Both capture the modesty of everyday life, how one's usual routine can be a change of pace for another. And they also depict something else, something most fiction rarely chronicles and often eschews: the world we're a part of is both fascinating and frightening.

What's worth checking out?: Both.


July 18, 1969. That was the evening that left permanent damage on the career of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. That was the night that cost an innocent woman her life. That was the night of the Chappaquiddick incident.

Now nearly fifty years since the accident, John Curran dramatizes the days following the death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) with his film Chappaquiddick, What he depicts is how after the accident, Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his legal team tried their damnedest to save both his own and his family's reputations. But often lost in this scramble of public relations is the fact a woman died involuntarily by his hand.

Throughout Chappaquiddick, Kennedy is depicted as someone who's more concerned about his image than the people he's supposed to be representing. Now obviously this can be viewed as far from the truth (Kennedy was haunted by Kopechne's death until his dying day forty years later) or an attempt to depict politicians -- real or fictional -- as arrogant. (His wearing an unnecessary neck brace to Kopechne's funeral certainly did not help his mounting troubles.)

The depiction of the aftermath may be on shaky ground but Clarke's portrayal of Kennedy is particularly noteworthy. He plays the late senator as a man under the weight of expectation from both his father and his country. (The shadows of his brothers loom over him throughout Chappaquiddick.) Now if this was also true in real life is hard to say but Clarke is excellent.

Chappaquiddick ends up raising more questions than answering them. What caused Kennedy to drive off the bridge? Was it really an accident or was it deliberate? Was was the extent of his connection with Kopechne? The real answers went to the grave with Kopechne and Kennedy, so we may never know the truth.

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Married to the Mob

Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) should be happy about her initial situation in Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob. She lives in absolute luxury thanks to her husband Frank's (Alec Baldwin) line of work: organized crime. But he gets whacked by his boss "Tony the Tiger" Russo (Dean Stockwell) -- who's desperate to get Angela as his mistress -- so she and her son go into hiding...which is much easier said than done.

In stark contrast to some of her work earlier in the decade (hell, she did Dangerous Liaisons the same year), Married to the Mob allows Pfeiffer to be in a lighter role and expand on her comedic abilities. (Worth mentioning that Demme's follow-up film to this was The Silence of the Lambs, again another decided career change-up.)

By this point in American history, the public was more than aware of the mafia's existence. (John Gotti as the head of the Gambino family really did not help the other four families in keeping a low profile.) There were a number of films during the 1980s alone that either made a mockery of or enforced the status of the Italian mob. Regardless of the depiction, people were fascinated by this organization.

Pfeiffer may headline the film but she's not the only actor of note in Married to the Mob. Stockwell and Mercedes Ruehl (she plays Tony's easily jealous wife Connie) steals scenes left and right. It's no wonder that they were the more recognized performers of the film come awards season (with Stockwell earning a long-overdue Oscar nomination).

Married to the Mob is further testament to Demme's worth as a filmmaker. (Being one of Roger Corman's protégés clear had some perks.) His death last year marked the end of an esteemed career of varying genres, and it's unlikely that we'll see another storyteller like him.

My Rating: ****

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Death of Stalin

If there's one thing Armando Iannucci will be forever associated with, it's the political satire. Having found immense success with The Thick of It and Veep, he serves as a polar opposite to what Aaron Sorkin did with The West Wing. (But in light of recent events, the need for such depictions has waned significantly.)

That said, his latest film The Death of Stalin still remains welcome amid these trying times. (It's nice to see something politically focused and actually laugh about it.) And surprisingly, amid the frustrated swearing and constant backstabbing, it's pretty accurate historically. (See? Truth can be stranger than fiction.)

Now because of the political world during the last two years, one would shy away from such stories in fear of ruining their day. (Hell, some of them make websites like The Onion redundant.) But Iannucci makes sure with The Death of Stalin that concerns for the current state of things are forgotten in favor of his film. (Those who say movies aren't a good escape from life clearly haven't seen any.)

Anyway, there's one thing very much proven in The Death of Stalin: have your matters in order when you shuffle off this mortal coil lest you want pandemonium to follow suit once you're in the ground. And this being an Iannucci work, there's anxiety everywhere. (No wonder they're all at each other's throats.)

The Death of Stalin may make one's head spin trying to keep up with who's betraying who but that aside, Iannucci provides an anecdote to today's political woes. Instead of dreading the outcome of the politicians' impulsivity, we can actually laugh at them in the knowledge that they're long-dead. But as George Santayana wrote, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My Rating: ****1/2

BOOK VS MOVIE: You Were Never Really Here

There's a real ugliness to humanity, no question about it. Some people are more than willing to throw others under the bus for their own selfish needs. But how far will these figures go as they slip further into immoral depravity?

When fiction depicts such corruption, more often than not police officers and politicians are the ones put under the microscope. But that's not to say the average person is immune from such a sensation, far from it. What seems to be the case is that the allure of money and power is too strong for them to resist, falling prey to that for control soon after. (Maybe John Dalberg-Acton was onto something...)

Jonathan Ames' You Were Never Really Here depicts a man trying to hide from such a dehumanizing society, both figuratively and literally. Having endured numerous traumas in his life, Joe now serves as a hired gun tasked with saving girls forced into sex work. But with his latest assignment, he delves into a world darker than his own demons.

Lynne Ramsay's adaptation tweaks the details of Ames' novella considerably but that in itself provides a new perspective. Joaquin Phoenix is great (as he so often is) but special mention goes to the sound mixing and Jonny Greenwood's score. That combination captures the damaged frame of mind Joe deals with every waking moment. (Hopefully awards voters will remember them by year's end.)

So which is better: Ames' take on the story or Ramsay's? The author maintains a more visceral perspective for You Were Never Really Here while the director focuses more on Joe's fractured mental state. They obviously take different approaches to the same story but that's not generally a bad thing. If anything, it shows there are two sides to every story.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Isle of Dogs

Within the last twenty-plus years, Wes Anderson has established himself as a unique presence in the world of film. (He's certainly doing something right if Martin Scorsese's praising him.) With all but one of his films being original works (with Fantastic Mr. Fox being the lone exception), it's no wonder that he's prone to stand out amongst bloated sequels and big-budget spectacles.

So where does his latest film Isle of Dogs stand? His second foray into animation (again, the first being Fantastic Mr. Fox), it bolsters the expected mix of Anderson regulars and some surprising inclusions (Yoko Ono!) as well as that display of eccentricity. But some might be crying foul at the predominately white roster of actors amid the film's setting.

But let's focus on that, shall we? For those concerned, no, there aren't any white actors voicing Japanese characters (Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson have dealt with the brunt of those previous casting decisions enough for several lifetimes.) Most of them voice the titular dogs, and the beginning of the film specifies that the Japanese dialogue remains untranslated save for a few scenes. So no stereotypes here, right? Well, not quite.

Some might view Greta Gerwig's character bordering on white savior (she sort of does) and what many perceive as Japanese culture is on display throughout Isle of Dogs. If anything, it's not so much racially insensitive as it is more along the lines of cultural tourism on Anderson's part. (Hopefully he'll learn from his mistakes here so as not to affect later works.)

Anyway, Isle of Dogs continues to show Anderson's worth as a storyteller. A few bumps towards Japanese culture aside, he possesses an imagination unlike anyone before him. Will he surpass his current cinematic streak? Only time will tell.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


Life in itself often isn't fair to most people. Sure, there can be periods of good fortune but those are usually achieved by sheer coincidence. What's more likely to happen are moments of self-awakening, knowing that your existence won't go off without a hitch.

Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta in particular follows this belief. The titular character (Emma Suárez) is haunted by her past actions, wanting to understand why her daughter abandoned her all those years ago. To do so, she needs to delve into key moments she endured when she was younger. Will Julieta find the answers she's looking for?

As Almodóvar has shown before, he's compelled by complicated women of a certain age. (If only Hollywood felt the same.) He doesn't deny that we're a flawed species, how our emotions tend to get the better of us. And more often than not, those emotions are brought on by what life throws at us.

It isn't much of a surprise that Almodóvar had Suárez and Adriana Ugarte (who plays a younger Julieta) read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking to better understand the story of Julieta. (He also had Suárez watch Elevator to the Gallows and The Hours for preparation.) It's those works that can best capture how women in difficult circumstances behave, be it for better or for worse in the long run. (As Frank Sinatra once sang, that's life.)

Julieta continues to prove that Almodóvar is the Douglas Sirk of the new century. The matter of melodrama can be rather fickle in general, and only a few properly capture its essence. And as the Spanish-born director has proven since his debut in 1980, he is one of those select few.

My Rating: ****

Hold Back the Dawn

Mitchell Leisen's Hold Back the Dawn opens with a bit of fourth wall breakage, perhaps not a surprise with Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder as the film's writers. In an attempt to earn some quick money, Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) tries to sell his story to film director Dwight Saxon (Leisen). But what is his story?

Stuck in a Mexican hotel full of fellow immigrants, Georges waits impatiently for the paperwork needed to get into the United States legally. He learns from his former dancing partner Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) that she found a quicker solution; she simply married and quickly divorced an American to citizenship. Inspired by this, he finds a potential mark in visiting schoolteacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland). Will he succeed?

This being a work penned by Brackett and Wilder, there is cynicism all over the place in Hold Back the Dawn. (Certainly a stark contrast to some of Leisen's previous films.) Like their later works The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, the only reason their embittered protagonist is still existing is that of an idealistic woman in their life.

And much like what she would later do for Leisen with To Each His Own, de Havilland enters into an atmosphere that would test her usual bright-eyed image. Having her in a project that makes her character fully aware the world she's a part of isn't made for someone like her shows audiences that there's more to de Havilland than being swept up by Errol Flynn's roguish charm. (Thankfully the years to come would continue to bolster this.)

Hold Back the Dawn is one of the overlooked titles from the 1940s, which says a lot since the decade is chock full of noted films. The trio of leads are solid (has Goddard done similar roles?), and Leisen is one of the more underappreciated directors of Hollywood's Golden Age. (Only a matter of time before he gets his due.)

My Rating: ****1/2