Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Film and Book Tally 2019

Man, this year has been one of varied ups and downs. On the one hand, my blog turned ten and I got to travel a bit (albeit staying on the east coast); on the other hand, I didn't have much mental energy to watch or read a lot of things, let alone write. That being said, I still managed to indulge in a few things this year. The (very short) list starts after the jump:

Monday, October 7, 2019


Have you ever envied someone's life? Sometimes it can be from the material goods that surround the envied person, other times it's because of how charmed their life appears. But to what extent would you be willing to go to achieve a similar life with less effort?

Bong Joon-ho's Parasite depicts such a situation. It opens with the Kim family just barely making enough to live on. An opportunity arises to help them but almost as quickly, they find ways to get more out of it. But how long can such a ploy go on?

Similar to Bong's earlier film Snowpiercer, Parasite shows a particular class struggle and how both parties behave. The wealthy seem practically oblivious to the fact that less fortunate people lust for what they have. Meanwhile, the latter is stuck in some truly atrocious living conditions so it's no wonder they're fighting (quite literally at times) for something better.

But to compare the two films is like comparing apples to oranges. Parasite is decidedly far more calculating than Snowpiercer. Bong -- knowing how to make a thriller with dashes of dark comedy -- applies this to his latest film and boy, does he succeed with flying colors.

Parasite is a wicked little picture in every sense of the word. It's one where going into it blind is best recommended (thus rendering this whole review null and void...). Anyway, be sure to see it before it gets spoiled for you; you won't be disappointed in the slightest.

My Rating: *****

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story opens with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) listing the many reasons why they love the other. But this isn't as heartwarming as it initially appears; they've written these reasons for the sake of marriage counseling. (Nicole then refuses to read them out loud out of embarrassment.) This kicks off the essence of the film.

That's not to say Charlie and Nicole's separation is a tumultuous one, far from it. They're still living under the same roof -- most likely for the sake of their son -- as they work out their differences. But after Nicole heads to Los Angeles to film a TV pilot (and hires a lawyer), that's when things get both complicated and ugly.

Par for the course of a Baumbach film, there are many moments that are just extremely uncomfortable to watch unfold. Granted, to see a marriage crumble follow suit by a bitter custody dispute is not something anyone wants to experience let alone witness. And what Baumbach captures is more emotionally devastating than what's found in his earlier work.

Both Driver and Johansson have been involved in bigger projects these last few years (he with Star Wars, she with the Marvel Cinematic Universe) so to have them in titles that rely more on substance than style is nice. (They've done others of the like as well but still.) Obviously those larger vehicles don't give them much of a chance to properly act so Marriage Story more than offers that opportunity (to Johansson especially).

Marriage Story certainly isn't date night material (much in the same vein as Gone Girl). With attention-grabbing supporting turns from the likes of Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Weaver, Baumbach also continues to show his worth as a storyteller. (Being written after his own divorce shows that yes, he knows exactly what he's talking about.)

My Rating: *****

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

One can never really know what goes on in someone's mind from first impressions. There are those whose personality remains impenetrable after knowing them for years and there are those who become an open book after spending very little time with them. But what group do you want someone to fall into?

This is something that Marianne (Noémie Merlant) encounters initially in Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Commissioned to discretely paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), she finds her subject aloof. But as more time passes between the two women, something deeper grows between them.

In contrast to other lesbian-themed films from recent years (Blue is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden, Disobedience), Portrait of a Lady on Fire is decidedly much better in depicting such relationships. The earlier films were adapted by straight men, the resulting sex scenes looking more like they were inspired by porn than the female-penned works they're based on. Meanwhile, Sciamma -- who was once romantically involved with Haenel -- prefers more of the sensuality from parting glances and brushes of fingers that her male contemporaries tend to eschew, something that directors like Dee Rees and Donna Deitch featured in their respective sapphic showpieces as well. (A good example of this is in a scene where Marianne and Héloïse point out the other's tics.)

Sciamma also plays with the use of color in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Like the Technicolor-drenched films of Powell and Pressburger, she and cinematographer Claire Mathon toy with various contrasts such as the broad colors of Marianne and Héloïse's dresses against the pale walls of the home or silhouettes against the dusk sky. (There's another striking example best left for one to see themselves.)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire continues Sciamma's streak as a director. As she did with her earlier films, it maintains a nuance to its storytelling, not needing those big blow-out moments. And just a warning: the last scene will destroy you.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Ten years!

Would you believe that on this day a decade ago, I started this little blog?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Late Night

There's no denying that life isn't easy for women in the workplace. Sexism, bias, harassment, fewer benefits...just the tip of the iceberg in its many problems. But if a woman does manage to succeed at their job, you can bet -- at least in fiction -- someone is plotting to cut them down.

This is what both Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) and Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) face in Nisha Ganatra's Late Night. Katherine is a talk show host whose ratings have been in steady decline while Molly has recently been hired for the show's writing team. But they're viewed as adversaries by those who want to be in the positions they're in (read: by men). But will they persevere?

Far from the cutthroat world depicted in Network, Late Night still has its own sense of ruthlessness to it. Embracing the technological age we live in, it shows how social media and online journalism serve as harsher critics than phone-ins of the previous half-century. Have a woman as the target of said criticism, and they become far more brutal.

Similarly, you can tell a lot of the stand-up material featured in Late Night was most definitely not written by someone who's a regular on that circuit. (No offense to Kaling but honestly.) A bulk of the jokes that are deemed funny in the movie simply aren't in reality. (It's clear to distinguish acting laughter from genuine laughter and boy, does it get painfully obvious at times here.)

Anyway, Late Night still has a solid story even if it's sorely lacking in laughs. It has you realizing those articles boasting about a first-ever X on a TV show don't highlight why it took so long for them to get hired/exist in the first place. (Looking at you, Doctor Who.) Honestly, it's 2019; the lack of inclusivity shouldn't still be a problem.

My Rating: ****

The Old Dark House

How does someone like James Whale follow up a success like Frankenstein? Simple: do something within the same genre. A year after making his (loose) adaptation of Mary Shelley's magnum opus, Whale decided to make an adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel Benighted, now re-titled as The Old Dark House. But how does it fare in the shadow of Frankenstein?

Stuck amid terrible weather, Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) find refuge in a dilapidated manor in the Welsh countryside. Later joined by William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond), they find themselves trying to survive the night in this ethereal home. But will they?

Adding some comedic touches to the otherwise faithful script, The Old Dark House has some more levity compared to Universal's other horror films of the era. (Douglas gets the bulk of the one-liners.) It's from this light humor that the otherwise tense situation is alleviated. (Doesn't always work for the better, mind you.)

And The Old Dark House features a number of actors that either had worked with Whale before or would work with him again. Among them are Stuart (The Invisible Man), Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein), and Boris Karloff (needs no explanation, does it?) Granted, Stuart was under contract at Universal but the point still stands.

The Old Dark House may not have quite the scares it dished out in 1932 but that aside, it's still a solid picture nearly ninety (!) years later. Whale clearly had a knack for directing so knowing that his Hollywood career was a brief one (20 films in 11 years!) shows that the industry lost out on other Whale-helmed projects. Oh, what could have been...

My Rating: ****

The Hours and Times

In April 1963, John Lennon and his manager Brian Epstein embarked on a four-day holiday in Barcelona. Naturally, the rumor mill started spinning as to the meaning of this trip without the other Beatles. Neither man disclosed what happened in Spain so what did occur during those days?

Christopher Münch's The Hours and Times explores what might have happened during that trip. (It opens with a disclaimer stating that what's about to unfold only speculation, not fact.) By the time the film was released 1992, neither man could protest what was depicted (Epstein had died in 1967, Lennon in 1980) but again, it's merely a fictionalization of real-life events.

The purpose of the trip isn't outright stated in The Hours and Times but Brian (David Angus) cites it to John (Ian Hart, who'd play Lennon two more times in the years to come) as nothing more than a vacation. Sure, the Beatles had become wildly successful but why not bring the other members? (It's worth bringing up that Epstein was gay, and Barcelona was decidedly laxer about homosexuality than Liverpool, so draw your own conclusions.)

But Münch makes The Hours and Times about desire more than anything else. Similar to how Brian longs for male companionship, it's implied that John yearns to be unattached. (Shortly before he left, his son Julian was born.) He isn't comfortable talking about his home life to Brian, which suggests he doesn't want to be reminded of what waits for him back in England. But is there more to what John wants?

The Hours and Times is far more than a "what if?" situation of real-life events; it's a quiet film about how one's wants can be almost deafening to them. How can one  -- whose desires are frowned upon, no less -- find the happiness they ache for? Some achieve their quest while others aimlessly search for it their whole lives. And in the case of John and most definitely Brian, it may be more of the latter.

My Rating: ****

Monday, June 3, 2019

Goodbye Charlie

Bloodshed, gender-bending, Tony Curtis as the male lead, a curvy blonde as the female lead...no, this isn't a description of Some Like It Hot (though it could be) but rather a film from five years later: Vincente Minnelli's Goodbye Charlie. (Coincidentally, Billy Wilder was offered to direct this but flatly turned it down.) And Minnelli's picture is surprisingly...amusing in its execution.

The plot of Goodbye Charlie kicks off after the titular character gets gunned down by a jealous husband. His friend George Tracy (Curtis) flies in for a (rather pitifully attended) memorial service and afterwards, a dazed blonde (Debbie Reynolds) stumbles onto the doorstep of Charlie's home. Turns out this blonde is a reincarnated Charlie.

Similar to Some Like It Hot, Goodbye Charlie has the initially introduced male character slowly but fully embracing their new feminine identity. (Likewise, both films have Curtis' character very wary about the whole situation.) That said, the now-female Charlie can't quite break free from their old ways... (The fact those jokes got past the censors is staggering.)

This being a Minnelli picture, the sets have all the markings of some of his earlier films. Fully stocked liquor cabinets, bookshelves filled with hardcover titles, and enough vibrant colors to warrant the existence of Technicolor. And that's not even getting into the Helen Rose-designed wardrobe. (It's worth mentioning that before making this, Minnelli was lobbying hard to direct My Fair Lady but his salary demands were too high for the studio's liking. Could you imagine what that film would've been like had he gotten the gig instead of George Cukor? It's possible that what didn't go into the musical went into this.)

That all being said, there's not a lot to write home about Goodbye Charlie. Apart from Curtis' facial expressions and acting constantly on the verge of mental collapse (and Walter Matthau sporting the most ridiculous Italian accent imaginable), it follows the same formula as other sex farces of the era. Still, it has its moments; just...not a lot.

My Rating: ***1/2

Saturday, January 26, 2019


Panos Cosmatos' Mandy starts off rather innocuous. Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) live a modest life within the Shadow Mountains. But after Mandy crosses paths with cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), chaos and all hell break loose.

As one watches Mandy unfold, they may wonder how many drugs Cosmatos was on during the making of it. (Alternatively, how many should be ingested before watching it.) That's not to say it's a bad film, far from it. If anything, the distorted imagery is required for the story that's being told.

Being a second-generation director (his father George's best-known film Tombstone was also how he broke into the industry), Cosmatos obviously knows the workings of film production. And even with Mandy being his second (!) endeavor, it's clear that he'll be in the business for a long time.

The same, alas, cannot be said for composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died before Mandy was released. As he proved with other films like The Theory of Everything and Arrival, his music captured the ambiance of the film in question. His contribution to Mandy very much does that, and then some. (And his absence will be profoundly felt.)

Mandy is just as insane as its poster implies, almost being the demented love child of David Cronenberg and David Lynch. (Personally speaking, it's best if you read nothing before seeing it...thus rendering this review null and void.) And it's about time Cage did something that didn't feel slapped together in a span of five minutes. (The perils of money woes, folks.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, January 25, 2019


The opening moments of Steven Soderbergh's Unsane provides an unsettling narration, one that waxes poetic over how the narrator adores Sawyer Valenti (Claire Foy) with all their heart and soul. In a different context, this would be viewed as a grand declaration of love. But this declaration is coming from her stalker.

Now settled in a new city, Sawyer tries to restore the fragmented parts of her life. In doing so, she finds a place nearby to get therapy where she unwittingly consents to be hospitalized. What horrors await Sawyer in the psych ward?

Thankfully Soderbergh's plans for retirement fell to the wayside as quickly they were announced, and cinema would've suffered considerably from his absence. Since his debut with sex, lies and videotapes back in 1989, he's been a consistent storyteller through various genres. And if we're lucky, his actual retirement will not be for a long time.

Now Foy has yet to break it big in films (though she's had immense success starring on The Crown) but hopefully casting directors will remember her work in Unsane for future reference. In stark contrast to playing Queen Elizabeth II, her Sawyer is regularly on pins and needles in her effort to be in control. But will she be able to carry on a normal life?

Unsane has a sense of unease that's reminiscent of Shock Corridor (another psych ward-set film), where it feels like the protagonist may very well go mad before they're believed. Yet the viewer will find themselves rooting for the hero even if the latter isn't particularly likable (some might see Sawyer as such). And Soderbergh and Foy ensure such a reaction.

My Rating: ****1/2