Thursday, December 31, 2020

Film And Book Tally 2020

Well, this year started off promising...and then coronavirus happened. But I try to stay positive in light of such situations; for instance, I got some reading in because of the quarantine but even then, it fell short of my goal. Still, take what you get, y'know? Anyway, my year-end list (a bit shorter than I would like) starts after the jump:

Monday, September 28, 2020

City Streets

Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney) of Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets leads a charmed life. Her racketeer father ensures a comfortable life for her and she gets involved with circus sharpshooter The Kid (Gary Cooper). But then she gets sent to jail for being an accessory to murder, and Nan wants nothing to do with the criminal life...which is a problem because The Kid has since gotten into the business.

In contrast to Mamoulian's more lavish productions like Queen Christina and Blood and Sand, City Streets is more bare-bones to the director's other works. That's not to disregard it, far from it. If anything, we get to see glimpses of what would become fixtures in his later career.

Similar to what Mamoulian would do with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he depicts the duality of both Nan and The Kid's personalities in the life of crime. She seems fine with a sense of normalcy after her prison stint whereas he fully embraces the thrill of criminal behavior after first balking it. But what will this shift in attitudes mean for the couple?

Also on display in City Streets is a sort of misogyny that becomes more prevalent in later films in the genre. A moll becomes blind with jealousy as her man blatantly makes passes at Nan (who isn't interested) but her anger is directed solely at the other woman. Frustratingly, she's the only other female character of note in the film. Still, better than Nan being the token woman in a male-dominated film.

City Streets is surprisingly seedier than other genre titles of the era. In comparison to those starring James Cagney, there's an obvious emptiness in the opulence on display. (Material goods to make up for emotional vacancy?) And Mamoulian would feature that in later works too.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Love Letters

The tone of William Dieterle's Love Letters is established in its first scene as Alan Quinton (Joseph Cotten) writes a letter for his friend Roger Morland (Robert Sully). Alan loathes the idea of writing love letters to a girl neither man has met, feeling that she'll fall in love with the letters than the actual man. It's particularly jarring since the film is written by Ayn Rand. (Yes, you read that right.)

If that sounds familiar, that's because it should. Rand had deviated from the source novel in favor of making Love Letters more of a modern-day telling of Cyrano de Bergerac. But in stark contrast to the events of Edmond Rostand's play, the aftermath of Alan writing in Roger's name has far dire consequences than anyone could've imagined that's darker than what usually came out of Hollywood at the time.

Similar to Portrait of Jennie -- the next collaboration between Dieterle, Cotten, and Jennifer Jones -- it has Jones' character having an otherworldly nature to her. Her Singleton has no memory of her past, only faint glimmers of what has transpired. It's when we learn of her history that we learn how dark her past is.

But in contrast to Portrait of Jennie, Love Letters is decidedly more cynical in nature. Being a survivor of war, Alan is just tired of what the world is capable of inflicting. It's when he meets Singleton that he finds a light in this dark time in his life.

Love Letters is more pessimistic than other romance titles of the era but at the same time, it's somehow more realistic. Love is far from being a panacea (as Hollywood likes to claim) but with enough compassion and empathy towards the right person, the weight of some of your problems lightens. (Still seek out proper treatment regardless.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Raw Deal

The narration from Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) in Anthony Mann's Raw Deal shows an undying loyalty to Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) as she helps him escape from prison. But when his caseworker Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) becomes a begrudging accomplice (they need another getaway car), it then drips with jealousy as Pat fears the presence of the other woman.

If anything, Raw Deal is less about a criminal on the run as it is about the people they've encountered. Be it the women that love him or the men that betrayed him, the film shows how those that encounter Joe invariably have their lives changed. And more often than not, it isn't for the better.

Along with westerns, film noir was the genre where Mann thrived. As he would do with Side Street soon after, he shows a keen eye towards the darkness within humanity. Some become resigned to the fact that illegal activity is how they'll survive in the world while others fully embrace this new life.

And boy, does Raw Deal live up to its title. Its morality is a murky gray at best, neither black nor white. John Alton's cinematography exemplifies this atmosphere, the shadows playing as much of a role as the actors. (The fact that Alton was recognized only once by AMPAS -- though thankfully won -- is something of an insult when it comes to cinematography.)

Raw Deal marked a decided change in how Hollywood told stories. Titles in the years to come had a streak of danger to them, their way of seeing how far they can push the envelope. And Mann was the one who instigated this shift. (Just look at the westerns he made with James Stewart a few years later.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Mortal Storm

Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm begins innocuously enough. The family and students of professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) celebrate his birthday. During a small gathering that evening, his student Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) announces his engagement to Viktor's daughter Freya (Magaret Sullavan). And Adolf Hitler is sworn in as chancellor of Germany.

Like a switch, the tone of The Mortal Storm gets darker. The respect for Professor Roth turns into contempt as his peers and students fully embrace Germany's new rule. Freya breaks off her engagement to Fritz, preferring the company of family friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart). And the small town they reside in begins to strain amid political tensions.

To no surprise, The Mortal Storm resulted in MGM's entire library being banned in Germany despite the studio making it vague about where the film is actually set. That being said, it was certainly daring to tackle the political atmosphere of the time. You certainly don't see anyone do something that daring nowadays.

In contrast to his earlier film Three Comrades, Borzage keeps the political message of the source novel in The Mortal Storm. Again, to make this during that time period was brazen to say the least. As Casablanca would do three years later, it effectively showed that Nazis were (and frustratingly still are) nothing more than fearmongering bullies.

The Mortal Storm is unnerving to watch eighty years later knowing that such attitudes still exist in some people. To judge someone on aspects they have no say in (i.e., race, gender, heritage) is far from the best way for society to run. What would future generations think of such backward thinking?

My Rating: ****

My Name Is Julia Ross

The titular character (Nina Foch) of Joseph H. Lewis' My Name Is Julia Ross starts the film searching for a job in London. She finds a plumb offering from an agency's newspaper ad and she's accepted on the spot. The next thing she knows, two days have passed and she's on a seaside estate in Cornwall...and she's being addressed as Marion Hughes.

Almost instantly My Name Is Julia Ross grabs the viewer by the throat and doesn't let go for its 64-minute runtime. Why is Julia being subjected to this kind of psychological warfare? Who are the people that so eagerly hired her? And what do they have planned for her?

Often lost in the shadow of Lewis' more famous title Gun Crazy, My Name Is Julia Ross established his role in the noir genre. He grasped the darkness lurking within humanity with both hands, showing how one can wear a mask for the world. But sometimes it doesn't take much for that mask to slip.

Mostly a forgotten name nowadays (most would recognize her as Gene Kelly's sponsor in An American in Paris), Foch shines in My Name Is Julia Ross. She captures the character's determination in finding out the truth as to why she's in this mental prison. And as soon as she's introduced, you're immediately rooting for her.

My Name Is Julia Ross is one of those titles that stays in your mind long after it's over. In its short duration, you get well-fleshed characters, a gripping plot, and one hell of a finale. This is one of those noir titles that is an imperative one to seek out.

My Rating: *****

Merrily We Go to Hell

When heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) first meets reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) at the start of Dorothy Arzner's Merrily We Go to Hell, she's instantly smitten. They soon get engaged but Joan finds out that Jerry has a drinking problem. Through thick and thin, she stays loyal to him but how far will her devotion go?

Its title makes Merrily We Go to Hell sound like it'll be one of the scandalous pre-Codes of the era. In reality, however, it's more of how codependency isn't the foundation of a strong marriage (Joan bases her role as Jerry's wife on his happiness and little else). And that's not even getting into Jerry's relationship woes before (and since) marrying Joan.

Of course, being a pre-Code, the film neither condones nor condemns Jerry's actions but rather acknowledges that he could stand to change his ways a bit. Joan herself also gets this treatment when she starts to emulate Jerry but -- due to her health -- this phase of hedonism is short-lived. Sometimes a destructive lifestyle harms more than the person imbibing it.

As she would also show with Dance, Girl, Dance, Arzner shows how life can be unfair for women, some begrudgingly making sacrifices to achieve their dreams. In contrast to what Judy O'Brien went through in the later title, what Joan endures is far more demeaning. To watch your husband being flaunted by his lover and have to behave like it doesn't bother doesn't get much crueler than that.

Merrily We Go to Hell is just proof that Arzner should be held in the same regard as her male contemporaries. (Just because she's a woman doesn't lessen her worth.) Her work was rediscovered shortly before her death in 1979; it's high time it gets another one.

My Rating: *****

What Price Hollywood?

We've all seen the standard trope: girl hopes to be a big name, gets a lucky break, and then is confronted with the pitfalls of fame soon after. The more famous example of this is found in A Star is Born with four versions being made over the years. But five years before the Fredric March and Janet Gaynor version, the one that started it all was released.

George Cukor's What Price Hollywood? has Brown Derby waitress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) making a beeline for director Maximillan Carey (Lowell Sherman) when he stumbles into the restaurant one night. With some determination, she becomes a star but he slips deeper into alcoholism. What fates await them?

In contrast to Cukor's take on A Star is Born, What Price Hollywood? -- as its title implies -- has a far more suffocating depiction of stardom than the more famous title. (Being a pre-Code also adds to it.) Tabloids and newspapers serve as the film's segues for the characters' conflicts, how the public eye pries into their private lives. That can inflict more damage than anything else, especially if you're someone of note.

There's also a meta-humor with What Price Hollywood? in casting Sherman and Gregory Ratoff -- both directors in their own right -- as figures in movie production. Likewise, Bennett (whose sister Joan had a longer career herself) had her career become less in-demand by the 1940s. Ah, life imitating art imitating life.

What Price Hollywood? still has bite all these years later, perhaps not a surprise seeing as it's a Cukor title. If anything, it downplays what actresses endured in Hollywood then as Judy Garland was sad testament to. (Cukor meanwhile lapped up the Hollywood lifestyle.) And how strange how very little has changed since then...

My Rating: *****

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Act of Violence

Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence opens with a man limping to his apartment and retrieving a gun. He gets on a bus to Santa Lisa, checks into a hotel, and circles the name "Frank Enley" in the phone book. What is this story?

It turns out that the man -- Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) -- served in the war with Frank (Van Heflin) and both men were prisoners of war. It was Frank's actions while they were prisoners that has Joe seeking revenge. But will Frank manage to get out of this unscathed?

Being one of many post-war film noirs, Act of Violence displays a scarred attitude towards humanity. Similar to his follow-up film The Men, Zinnemann shows the battle a soldier faces upon returning home and how it can be more challenging than the war itself. And like The Search -- released the same year -- it shows that man is capable of some truly unspeakable things.

Both Heflin and Ryan are more or less synonymous with the noir genre. (They earned Oscar nominations for their roles in such titles after all.) And both are ideal in their characters' shifting moral roles. As Act of Violence goes on, you're not quite certain as to who's the hero and who's the villain in this tale. All that's clear is that it won't end well for one of them.

Act of Violence depicts the horrors of war without showing the actual war, something other directors have tried to capture with varied success. Similar to The Best Years of Our Lives before it, every soldier's experience upon returning home is different but the commonality between them all is that nagging feeling that you can't go home again; the person that their families and friends know was lost overseas.

My Rating: ****1/2

You and Me

The opening moments of Fritz Lang's You and Me shows the employees of a department store interacting with their customers. The behavior of some of them raises a few eyebrows. It turns out -- at the insistence of the store's owner -- the employees are parolees.

Two of the employees -- Joe Dennis (George Raft) and Helen Roberts (Sylvia Sidney) -- decide to get married and for a while, they seem happy. But Joe's criminal past is always close behind, and Helen isn't exactly forthright about her own past. What will happen to the newlyweds?

Now a premise like that makes You and Me sound like it's on par with Lang's noir titles like The Big Heat and The Blue Gardenia. In fact, there's a surprising levity to this that one may not associate with it with Lang's work. Thanks to Virginia Van Upp's script, it's a charming oddity in the director's oeuvre.

Lang himself wasn't proud of the finished product but that doesn't mean that it should be disregarded. You and Me was his third film with Sidney so he certainly knew what her strengths were by this point. Likewise, this was a subversion of the tough guy roles that made Raft famous. So all in all, it isn't as lackluster as Lang claims.

You and Me loses steam in its final third but Raft and Sidney keep it going nonetheless. In comparison to Lang's more famous titles, it's more of a breather amid his darker ones. So if you ever come across it in the near future, be sure to check it out.

My Rating: ***1/2

Three on a Match

Mervyn LeRoy's Three on a Match opens with three schoolgirls going their separate ways after graduating from public school. Mary (Joan Blondell) ends up in reform school and becomes a showgirl. Ruth (Bette Davis) opts for business school and becomes a stenographer. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) marries into a comfortable life but finds herself bored with it.

Soon after they reunite -- and the titular superstition is invoked -- Vivian runs off with another man with her young son in tow. And the luck of the three women shifts following Vivian's decision, some good and some bad. But what will befall them after all of them?

There's just that certain spark to pre-Code titles that Hollywood has tried to replicate countless times in the years since that brief era to varying success. And boy, does Three on a Match have that spark in spades. (There's a promotional still of Blondell that perhaps best exemplifies this period in Hollywood.) Just goes to show that there's no Hollywood era quite like the pre-Code one.

LeRoy -- a man whose career dipped its toe in various genres throughout the years -- shows a sharp eye towards the melodramatic nature of Three on a Match. As he would do with Waterloo Bridge and Random Harvest the following decade, he doesn't demonize the leads for their wrongdoings as they try to survive in the world they're a part of. Some are simply put on the wrong path beyond their control.

Three on a Match shows that Hollywood just doesn't make movies like they used to nearly a century ago. Very seldom do you see character morality get tested nowadays as was commonplace for the pre-Code era, let alone complicated female characters. And boy, is that ending a doozy.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

When Tomorrow Comes

When waitress Helen Lawrence (Irene Dunne) meets Philip Chagal (Charles Boyer) in John M. Stahl's When Tomorrow Comes, she gets along with him very well. He in turn is instantly smitten. Their casual acquaintance blossoms into a romance but something (or someone) is holding them back...

Released the same year as Love Affair (another romantic melodrama starring Dunne and Boyer), When Tomorrow Comes isn't quite as romantic as its premise makes it out to be. Despite the best efforts of Dunne's besotted expressions and Boyer's purr of a French accent, it doesn't very much live up to its potential. And there's very much a reason for it.

That reason being how When Tomorrow Comes tries to somewhat justify Helen and Philip's ultimately adulterous liaison: his wife isn't of sound mind. In a half-baked attempt to rehash Jane Eyre of sorts, it only stigmatizes mental illness to explain away why Helen and Philip should be together at all (though Philip remains dutiful to his wife). It's not a great message to be shown in all honesty.

Anyway, being one of three Stahl films later remade by Douglas Sirk, it's a stark contrast to his more famous title Leave Her to Heaven. But at the same time, there's a similarity in that both films feature a possessive wife (though the later film has a much more malicious example). Still, to compare the two is an instance of apples and oranges.

When Tomorrow Comes isn't on par with the other weepies of '39 like Dark Victory and Wuthering Heights but the leads' shared charisma can only go so far. But hey: you got Stahl adapting a James M. Cain story...even though Cain would end up suing Universal.

My Rating: ***1/2

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Outsider

There's been a decided shift over the decades with how Indigenous peoples have been depicted in Hollywood. The days of brownface have since been eradicated (for the most part) in favor of actually casting Indigenous actors in roles beyond the bloodthirsty savage stereotype. Still, there's a strange fascination in seeing earlier titles.

Now Delbert Mann's The Outsider has Tony Curtis as Iwo Jima flag raiser Ira Hayes. Having a Hungarian-American Jew from the Bronx play a Pima Native American wouldn't fly today (the only real similarity both men have is that they served in World War II, albeit different branches) but that's not to disregard Curtis' work here, far from it. Being more of a physical actor (as in more aware of body language), he conveys the discomfort Ira experiences from being in the public eye.

Speaking of which, The Outsider provides more of a depiction of how one buckles under the pressure from being put on a pedestal. Instead of offering him help as he slips into alcoholism, those that Ira encounters look down on him for not being the example of an American hero he should be. How much of that is true is hard to say but one thing's certain: had Hayes gotten help, he probably would've lived longer than 32.

Mann however can't quite break free from his television past, and it shows from time to time in The Outsider. Most of the actors feel confined in their actions and deliveries, almost as if they weren't allowed to be relaxed. It's jarring in comparison to Marty's easy nature.

The Outsider is far from great but Curtis' performance makes it bearable. Being made before knowledge of PTSD was better known, it probably explains the film's ham-fisted approach on the matter. Still, it's not a complete slog.

My Rating: ***1/2

Friday, August 7, 2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Early on in Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we assume that Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is just going through the usual teenage angst. Then we later find out she's pregnant, and that's when the tone changes completely.

Similarly to Obvious Child a few years earlier, Never Rarely Sometimes Always maintains a very sympathetic perspective towards the subject of abortion. (Yes, there are a few characters that are decidedly pro-life but they aren't so in your face about it.) Imagine if this had been released during the height of the anti-abortion movement over a quarter-century ago.

Speaking of which, we've come a long way since the days of Roe v. Wade. Yes, there are still those that object to the ruling from nearly half a century ago but again, why should someone make moral decisions for someone else they possibly don't even know? After all, it's not their body they're fretting over.

Anyway, as Hittman also showed with her previous film Beach Rats, she shows how those living an unassuming life invariably have a story to tell beyond their initial appearance. Many of us put up an invisible wall around those we don't know if we can trust. It's once familiarity sets in that -- as Hittman shows -- the wall starts to come down, brick by brick.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always shows how much society has changed since that January day in 1973 but also how there's still a way to go. Abortion isn't a word met with shock and horror (as much) anymore but not many are willing to view it as simply a medical procedure, potentially a life-saving one; they need to understand it's not their decision that's being made.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, August 6, 2020

BOOK VS MOVIE: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune/Frankie and Johnny

Relationships are a fickle thing. Sometimes they're like a symphony but other times they're like nails on a chalkboard. It really depends on the people involved but more than anything, communication is crucial in these situations.

But what of those where one's ready for this but the other isn't? This isn't an uncommon situation for one to face but again, it's something that can be helped with communication. Even then, however, it can be an uphill battle for one or both parties.

Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune has this with short-order cook Johnny and waitress Frankie, who have just gone to bed together after knowing each other for six weeks. He wants to commit to something more, she's reluctant to do so. Through stream of consciousness conversation, they try to find a commonality between them.

Fleshing out the story (and shortening the title), Garry Marshall's Frankie and Johnny explores more of the lonely state of humanity. With McNally serving as the film's screenwriter, he adds dimensional supporting characters and has New York City playing a bigger role than in his original play. And though there's a noticeable age difference between them, Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino have great chemistry together.

So which is better: McNally's play or Marshall's film? Both have their own charms, a lot of them owing to McNally at the typewriter. But Marshall adds a little something extra to the story. (It's a shame we lost both Marshall and McNally in recent memory but their works live on.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.


Antonia Bird's Ravenous opens with John Boyd (Guy Pearce) earning a promotion for his contribution in the Mexican-American War. But we later find out that sad contribution -- infiltrating enemy lines by playing dead -- was not a stroke of genius but rather an act of cowardice. It's because of this that Boyd gets exiled to a remote military post.

Shortly afterwards, a frostbitten man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) shows up. He tells the garrison how his wagon train -- in the grips of starvation -- were reduced to cannibalism and ultimately murder in order to survive. And that's when the real horror begins.

There's a very dark sense of humor running through Ravenous. ("It's lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.") And even then it doesn't feel out of place from the film's overall tone. After all, wouldn't you be cracking tasteless jokes in order to ease some of the tension?

On a somewhat frustrating note, this was only one of four feature films Bird made during her career. (After making Ravenous, she shifted her focus back to television, where she remained until her death in 2013.) Did Bird find filmmaking not as rewarding as revision? Or did she endure what many female filmmakers before and since Bird have faced?

Anyway, Ravenous is similar to Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark in that sometimes a woman's touch is what's needed to an already dark story. (Perhaps coincidentally, Bird was a replacement for original director Milcho Manchevski on the recommendation of Carlyle.) After all, why should men have all the fun? Women can embrace darkness too; just look at Jennifer's Body.

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

BOOK VS MOVIE: A Simple Plan

The bag of money. The one plot device that is a surefire way to create conflict. Be it a comedy figuring out how to spend it all or a thriller where greed runs through its blood, it's been around as long as fiction itself. If used properly, it can provide a good story.

Such is the case with A Simple Plan. After finding a duffel bag full of money in a plane wreckage, two brothers and their friend find themselves at odds at what to do with it and how to keep it a secret from others. But almost immediately, problems arise...and bodies start to drop.

Scott Smith's novel starts off as a slow burn with this premise but ends as a raging inferno. Told from the perspective of one of the brothers, Smith maintains a very matter-of-fact nature to telling the events as they unfold. It's this detail that makes the story all the more chilling.

With Smith serving as its screenwriter, Sam Raimi's adaptation is actually less dark than its source. Despite that and a few tweaks, it's still a solid story to be told. (Not only that but it'll make you miss Bill Paxton's presence and wonder what Bridget Fonda has been up to.)

So which is better: Smith's book or Raimi's movie? Both grasp the darkness that lurks within humanity only the truly lost will embrace. But of the two works, Raimi's moves at an almost frantic pace in comparison to Smith's. Still, the choice is clear in the long run.

What's worth checking out?: Both.


Devoting one's self to a particular cause is not as easy as some assume. Many times it involves having one's beliefs being both challenged and questioned. But how far is one willing to go for such devotion?

Maggie Betts' Novitiate follows Cathleen (Magaret Qualley) as she goes down the path to become a nun. With the film set as Vatican II goes into effect, the disciplines enforced by Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair (Melissa Leo) are being challenged. But how will this change within the Catholic Church affect not just these two women but the others in the convent?

In a way, Novitiate bears some semblance to The Nun's Story, which is fitting seeing as Fred Zinnemann's film gets name-dropped at one point. But Betts' film is far darker than Zinnemann's. What Cathleen and the other novices endure at the hands of Mother Superior borders on outright abuse. (An early scene of this is absolutely chilling.) How often did this occur in real life?

Again, the price of one's devotion is brought up regularly in Novitiate. Cathleen adheres to the rules of the church quickly but the few times her mother Nora (the perpetually underrated Julianne Nicholson) visits her, Nora feels as if she's losing her daughter. It's more than likely that this happened in real life too.

Novitiate is a fascinating delve into how religion affects one's life, both good and bad. What's depicted is not far from that of a cult setting (though both are very different in the long run, let's get that out of the way). And again, the cost of such devotion can be immeasurable to some.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Perfect Furlough

Blake Edwards' The Perfect Furlough introduces Lt. Vicki Loren (Janet Leigh) in a way that's par for the course for films of the era: legs first. Shortly thereafter, we witness the arctic base Loren's team of psychiatrists is assigned to look after slowly going insane from the isolation, pin-ups on nearly every wall. As expected for an Edwards comedy, libido is the picture's driving force.

But what's this "perfect furlough" in question? The men at the base suggest being in Paris with movie star Sandra Roca (Linda Cristal). With a bit of scheming, Cpl. Paul Hodges (Tony Curtis) is the one that goes on furlough but thanks to his "record", Loren has to look after him. But what will ensue once in Paris?

With a script by Stanley Shapiro (who'd write the next Edwards and Curtis picture Operation Petticoat), there's a boatload of lines that just skirt past the censors of the day. (Having Elaine Stritch amongst the cast helps too.) Playing with Edwards' penance for visual gags, they make a strong combination. (It's a shame they didn't collaborate more.)

Being a picture starring real-life couple Curtis and Leigh (the fourth of five, and one of two from 1958), it's patently obvious that they'll end up together before the credits roll. But even with that in mind, it's interesting to see their screen personas interact. She's strait-laced to his freewheeling but as they spend more time together, she relaxes and he calms down. (One wonders if their marriage was similar; probably not, seeing as they divorced four years later.)

The Perfect Furlough is top-tier Edwards (the final third is where it loses steam) but it still holds up today. If there's one thing to take away from this, it's that you see Edwards making his bones in traits that are more prevalent with his comedies in the coming decade. (Mind you, they're more restrained than what was to come.)

My Rating: ****

Friday, July 10, 2020

Normal Life

The opening moments of John McNaughton's Normal Life take the viewer through the average American small town. Suburbs, strip malls, the like. Then we see Chris (Luke Perry) and Pam Anderson (Ashley Judd) get swarmed by police cars, and that's when the mayhem unfolds.

We then cut back two years to when Chris and Pam first met. Almost immediately, the quiet Chris is drawn to the volatile Pam but it quickly becomes clear that Pam is nigh-unpredictable, which causes concern to those close to Chris. But their happiness (and finances) quickly dwindle after getting married, and Chris takes drastic measures to fix this.

Being based on real events (albeit with changed names), Normal Life was a stark contrast to what audiences knew Perry from. (Test audiences were expecting something more like Beverly Hills, 90210 but got something else entirely; what else would you expect from the man responsible for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer?) And Perry more than proved himself beyond his Dylan McKay image. It's a shame he passed away last year; he had more to offer.

Similarly, it's frustrating to watch Judd here with the knowledge that her career would suffer a setback "thanks" to Harvey Weinstein (the following year, no less!). But even with that in mind, she's dynamite in this. Like she would in Bug the following decade, she's unafraid to take on such a role.

Normal Life is a damn good picture, the kind you don't really see made much nowadays. (What has McNaughton been up to lately?) Sure, it might've gotten lost in the shadow of Wild Things two years later but that shouldn't discourage you from seeking this out.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Cat People

There's something that's fascinating about fiction focusing on sexual matters that's made before talking about them was socially acceptable. The innuendos may have skirted past the censors of the day but perhaps not its audiences. And boy, they can still pack a punch.

Jacques Tourneur's Cat People in particular has this under the guise of a horror noir. The marriage of Irena (Simone Simon) and Oliver (Kent Smith) seems to be strained almost immediately, stemming from the fact it hasn't been consummated. Irena has an almost crippling fear of sexuality and she cites folklore from her home country as the reason. But are Irena's fears warranted?

As Tourneur would do several years later with Out of the Past, the way shadows are used in Cat People play just as much of a role as the story itself. Similarly, in contrast to Jane Greer's first appearance in all white in the later film, Irena has an all-black wardrobe, signifying -- per Hollywood symbolism -- there's more to her than she's letting on...

Being the first collaboration between Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, both had an interest in the psychological elements of storytelling, which is all over the place in Cat People. With the world at war yet again, it was only a matter of years before the rest of Hollywood followed suit. And as various titles over the coming decades showed, they were onto something.

Cat People is a different breed of horror film, no denying that. Rather than outright scares, it prefers having its audience get a creeping feeling of unease like its characters. (Is it any wonder that Lewton inspired elements of Kirk Douglas' character in The Bad and the Beautiful?)

My Rating: *****

Eddie the Eagle

In this time of constant strife, one's always looking for a means of escape. They're looking for something to feel good about, a light amid this darkness. And sometimes, it's in the form of an underdog story, especially a real-life one.

Dexter Fletcher's Eddie the Eagle is such an example as it tells the hardships Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Taron Egerton) faced as he worked to the fullest in getting to the Winter Olympics. Most think Eddie's wasting his time in pursuing such an endeavor but he carries on nonetheless. But will Eddie manage to win his doubters over?

There's a certain undercurrent of classism throughout Eddie the Eagle. Those that sneer at Eddie's ambitions tend to sport the upper-class accents which make the derision towards him all the more biting. They believe that being from a place of better privilege entitles them to have all the better perks in life, not some bloke from a working-class household. (Annoyingly, it's still the case today...)

Within the past few years, Egerton has more than proven his worth as a performer, and Eddie the Eagle is more than a fine example of such. He has an easy charm, the kind that has you being supportive of him almost immediately. It just makes all the hard blows (both physically and emotionally) Eddie endures all the tougher.

Eddie the Eagle may not have all the facts of real life on display but it's charming nonetheless. Sure, there's the standard cliches found in sports movies (most tellingly the former pro turned disgruntled alcoholic) but that's minimal in the long run. And both Fletcher and Egerton have strong careers ahead of them should this streak continue.

My Rating: ****

Monday, June 22, 2020

BOOK VS MOVIE: Black Klansman/BlacKkKlansman

In this current political climate, it's hard trying to immerse one's self in something besides the news. On the one hand, staying informed of what's happening in the world is important. But on the other hand, so much information can be taxing on anyone and a break is appreciated as well as recommended.

Sometimes reading or watching works pertaining to current events can help. One could draw parallels to how the events in work compare to real life, especially if said work is from or set at least half a century ago. You can see either how things have changed or seldom shifted at all. Either way, the result can be interesting to uncover.

Ron Stallworth's memoir Black Klansman in particular chronicles his days at the Colorado Springs Police Department as the first Black detective on its force. Several years into his tenure, he does something that raises more than a few eyebrows: he joins the Ku Klux Klan (to infiltrate it with a white officer as his cover). And Stallworth remains very matter-of-fact in his writing, seeing no need to embellish what happened. That said, he's rightly pissed off when faced with racism.

If Stallworth shied away from mentioning racism he might've faced on a day-to-day basis, then Spike Lee sure as hell tackles it head-on. Tweaking several details from the memoir, Lee's adaptation shows how Black people are still dealing with this bullshit decades later. He also shows that this current wave of social justice isn't a new occurrence; this has been happening for years.

So which is better: Stallworth's memoir or Lee's film? Both have their own strengths though they seem firm in their belief that law enforcement is who to rely on for change in society. If the past few weeks have proven anything, it's that the mass population has a much louder voice than those with authority. After all, to quote Rosa Parks, it is better to protest than to accept injustice.

What's worth checking out?: The movie.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Irishman

For decades, Martin Scorsese has been practically synonymous with the gangster movie. Whether it's his big break Mean Streets or his Best Picture winner The Departed, audiences will regularly get their money's worth from them. So how does his latest The Irishman fare?

Indeed, the film does feature other Scorsese gangster movie figures like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci (in a complete 180 of his other Scorsese roles), and Harvey Keitel as well as being the director's first time working with Al Pacino. But to reduce both the film and the five aforementioned men's careers to this niche genre wouldn't do either of them justice. If anything, both focus on life and its flaws.

Don't expect The Irishman to be filled with guns a-blazin' and geysers of blood as you would with Goodfellas and Casino. (Granted, it does have those but not on the same scale as the earlier films.) This entry in Scorsese's oeuvre is more driven by conversation, much like his contemporary Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. But like with his gangster pictures from the 1990s, the passage of time is crucial to the story as well.

For some shrewd reason, there's been a lot of pieces on both the lack of lines for Anna Paquin (three lines consisting of seven words) and the overall small offering of female characters in Scorsese's films. The former makes sense if you pay attention to Peggy's character arc; she's witnessed firsthand what her's father capable of so her persistent silence speaks more volumes than any dialogue could. As for the latter, such thoughts were clearly written by those who haven't seen what Sandra Bernhard, Teri Garr, and Joanna Lumley had to offer in The King of Comedy, After Hours, and The Wolf of Wall Street respectively.

The sense of finality in The Irishman implies that this may be the last time we see Scorsese make something of this scale. That same sense during the third act seems more poignant with its aging leads. If this were to be Scorsese's last -- be it with gangster movies or his entire career -- it'd be a fitting swan song.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

There's a sense of serendipity in that the same year Wonder Woman finally got the big-screen treatment with her own movie, the story behind her creation also got within Hollywood's grasp. But don't expect the standard clean-cut biopic execution. No, her backstory is much more...sexually driven.

Angela Robinson's Professor Marston and the Wonder Women chronicles the path of studious William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his brash wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their research assistant Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as their relationship goes from professional to romantic. But how many risks are they taking with this ménage à trois?

What Robinson depicts in her film is a keen awareness of the change in social mores. Obviously, the relationship between the Marstons and Byrne brought scandal upon its discovery (at least as far as the film shows), and the sexual overtones and bondage themes in the early Wonder Woman comics William wrote met much of the same. Nowadays, attitudes towards such matters have softened considerably. (In short, our protagonists were ahead of their time.)

Anyway, the lead trio of actors very much hold their own, be it by themselves or when sharing the screen with each other. (Perhaps coincidentally, Hollywood never really seemed to know what to do with Evans and -- save for Christine the year before -- Hall prior to this.) Hopefully, we'll be seeing more of the like from them in the near future.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women focuses on mostly forgotten but seminal figures of the comic book world, yes, but Robinson shows that they were so much more than that. They were people with their own strengths and flaws, not ones who were infallible as you'd normally see with lesser works in the same genre. Quite simply, they were as human as anyone else who'd lived.

My Rating: ****1/2