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