Friday, May 19, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Lost City of Z

The thrill of adventure. We've read numerous books and watched countless movies over the years that capitalize such a feeling. And some of those fictional adventures were inspired by real-life ones.

Take for instance Percy Fawcett, During the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, he had a burning desire to discover new lands and the treasures they contain, But such an expedition he led into the Amazon in 1925 resulted in Fawcett and his companions -- his son Jack and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimell -- disappearing from the face of the earth, never to be seen or heard from again. What has the Amazon been hiding for over ninety years?

David Grann's novel The Lost City of Z chronicles both Fawcett's feats of exploring and his own attempt to uncover what happened to the famed adventurer. (Grann was far from the only person to undertake such an endeavor; he's just one of the few to come back from it.) And he also writes about the obsession that followed Fawcett throughout both his life and in the decades following his disappearance.

Altering a few details aside (omitting Rimell from the narrative entirely, for instance), James Gray's adaptation follows what happened during Fawcett's many expeditions truthfully. But what Gray shows with his film is more than just a standard biopic or adventure flick; instead, it's a portrait on the depths of Fawcett's being. (And can someone cast Charlie Hunnam in more roles like this?)

So what's better: Grann's novel or Gray's film? Both works show the highs and lows of Fawcett's excursions, how his constant traveling began to affect his home life. But they also show that he was very much a human being, warts and all. (Not a very common aspect on stories about real people.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Zookeeper's Wife

There's no way in denying the lengths a society will go to keep their world "pure". The most egregious example from history is the Holocaust. Millions of innocent lives either destroyed or cut short, all for the appalling sake of ethnic cleansing. But even amid those atrocities, there were those who weren't going to let defenseless people suffer.

The most famous of these saviors amid slaughter was Oskar Schindler but there are those who, outside their native countries, aren't as prominent. Take for instance Jan and Antonia Żabiński. After their native Poland was invaded by German forces -- the catalyst for World War II -- they used their home and bombed-out zoo to help those escape from Nazi persecution. As a result, they saved nearly 300 people from certain death.

Diane Ackerman's novel The Zookeeper's Wife chronicles the Żabińskis lived their lives as the German army occupied Warsaw. In their many ways to conceal those in hiding, they had to be discreet about the extra people within their home while at the same time fighting and aiding the enemy. (They had to stay on their toes for a long time.)

As well as using Antonia's diaries for further details, Niki Caro's adaptation follows Ackerman's novel to the letter. That said, there are a few details clearly fabricated for the film. (The most glaring one are the scenes of supposed intimacy between Daniel Brühl -- who should probably invest in a different agent -- and Jessica Chastain.) Still, Caro tightens the reins on those as well.

Does Ackerman's account of the Żabińskis' heroics reign supreme or does Caro's claim the title? Both shines a light on names forgotten by history as well as the hypocrisy of the Nazi Party's actions. However, one of them doesn't get overly softhearted for the sake of reaching a wider audience.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A United Kingdom

It's an unfortunate aspect of life that one's worth is proved by the color of their skin. Not their intelligence nor their personality, the very thing they have no ability to change. It's an ugly blight on humankind, and it's something that should be rectified immediately.

Of course racism is regularly a focus in fiction as it is in real life. Many creators -- regardless of their respective races -- have covered the subject and its effects extensively throughout the years. But sometimes the more compelling stories are the real-life ones.

Amma Asante's A United Kingdom depicts the romance between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), one that was met with immense controversy when they wed. (This was after World War II, mind you.) With Seretse being an heir to the throne in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), their marriage causes an even bigger strife amongst his people.

As she showed with her previous film Belle, Asante depicts a political angle on race. With a then-controversial relationship, she chronicles the extent of the scorn Seretse and Ruth faced. But at the same time, Asante becomes a little too interested in the politics of the story (which -- coincidence or not -- is what also befell Belle.)

That quibble aside, A United Kingdom is very good. Asante continues to have audiences keep an eye on her career path, and hopefully it won't be much longer before she gets that project that firmly puts her amongst the greats. (Seriously, not many female directors -- let alone ones of color -- have made a big impact from their first two films alone.)

My Rating: ****

Get Out

From the opening scene, it's clear that Jordan Peele's Get Out will stand out. Sure, the premise resembles more along the lines of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for the modern age. But as stated before, there's more to it than that.

This being released during a time of continuing racial strife, Get Out seems almost timely. And Peele -- someone much more associated with comedy -- sinks his teeth into the genre's polar opposite. (Seeing as this is his debut as a director, it's safe to say he's someone to keep an eye on.)

But how does Get Out hold its own? It may be marketed as a horror film, yes, but there's so much more to it than a simple category placement. It shows a certain depravity most horror titles merely flirt with; it takes real guts to actually depict it.

That's the hard thing about reviewing horror films, isn't it? Trying to talk about them without spoiling any details. (Granted, it's a problem with reviewing any film but it's especially hard with this genre.) As could be applied to titles of this type, it'd be wise to go into Get Out completely blind. (thus rendering this whole review null and void...)

Anyway, Get Out shows immense promise for both Peele and star Daniel Kaluuya. In a time where symbolism is quickly becoming a maligned form of storytelling, Peele knows how to be subtle with it all (which warrants potential re-watches to pick up on them). We need more movies like this during these times.

My Rating: *****

Colossal

If there's one thing fiction is sorely lacking, it's a regular depiction of flawed women. More often than not, Hollywood shows the fair sex as pure beings with every aspect of their lives in perfect order. Obviously, that's bullshit. (And a load of it, too.)

This is why Gloria (Anne Hathaway) from Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal is very much a welcoming entry. When we're first introduced to her, she's unemployed and has a bit of a drinking problem. And to top it all off, her boyfriend Tom (Dan Stevens) has broken things off between them. Can her life get any worse? (Spoiler alert: it does.)

In examination of its first half, Colossal bears resemblance to the likes of The World's End. (The most telling comparison is in Gloria's drunken escapades.) But it's because of these escapades that make them frightening in the second half. (Heavy drinking is no laughing matter, folks.)

Speaking of the second half, it could be viewed as an unflinching portrait of abusive relationships and how to deal with them. Gloria and Tim don't get along very well following their breakup, especially with him constantly being at the end of his rope with her. (Surely he could've helped her get out of the hole she was in?) But boy, that's nothing compared to what Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) doles out.

Colossal continues to prove that there are, in fact, original works out there. (Sometimes all one needs to do is pay attention.) And while she had been getting hate for the last few years (for reasons unknown), hopefully this will regain respect for Hathaway.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hidden Figures

There are always those events that probably never would've happened had it not been for certain people and their involvement. The Beatles probably never would've become the music legends they are today had Brian Epstein not discover them in an underground bar in Liverpool, nor if Paul McCartney and John Lennon had never met. But what of those names that history has the tendency of overshadowing?

That is precisely what Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures -- as the title so implies -- shines a light on. Its subject is on three African-American women -- Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) -- as they try to prove their worth at NASA in 1961. As they continually face adversity, they become involved in a mission that changes the course of history.

While it is refreshing to see black women in the spotlight, one of the faults of Hidden Figures is the fact its director is neither black nor a woman. The fact that some of said spotlight focuses a good chunk of the time on some of the supporting white characters -- including making one of them responsible for certain changes. Honestly, that's just a cheap ploy to make the film more accessible.

Still, Hidden Figures makes up for that blight by having solid work from its three leads. Henson and Spencer have both proven their worth as actors (both being recognized by AMPAS, for instance), and Monáe (also a standout in Moonlight) shows promise with her acting career. Hopefully the three of them will continue to get consistently strong roles.

Hidden Figures was just one tweak or two away from being great but it's an important film nonetheless. History books constantly overlook the accomplishments of those not white, straight and/or male. It's high time for those stories to be told.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Cobweb

Ah, the star-studded productions of the 1950s. Basically the easiest way for studios to re-coup the budget and earn a tidy profit. And sometimes said production doesn't always need the best of scripts for its actors.

And boy, is that last detail on full display in Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb. More than once the actors' dialogue sounds either stiff or overwrought, admittedly not an unheard of fault in some films from the same time. Still, at least some of the many big names of the film rein it in towards the overall flimsy script.

But whom is amongst the cast of The Cobweb? An enviable roster of performers, that's for sure: Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. But of the names that stand out amid a rather forgetful project is John Kerr. (Also of note is Oscar Levant -- himself a victim of his own neuroses -- in an inspired bit of casting.)

With a Best Picture winner (and a failed marriage to Judy Garland) under his belt, one would think Minnelli would be able to salvage The Cobweb, especially considering the film's primary location. But even with the various ups and downs in the director's personal life, perhaps his lack of conveying them into the film only adds to the production's faults. (Maybe Douglas Sirk would've been a better fit at the helm?)

The Cobweb could've been a continuation of Minnelli's transition into more serious fare but the shaky script prevented that from even remotely becoming a reality. (At least he had more luck the following year with Lust for Life.) The cast does try their damnedest to make it work to little avail. (Similarly, at least some of them were more successful with later projects.)

My Rating: ***

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Battleground

How does one depict an event that they themselves were a witness to? Sure, there's the occasional embellishment here and there but overall it's more or less a recollection of what they saw. And an often common setting for those stories involve war.

William Wellman's Battleground is such an example. Written by Robert Pirosh (who witnessed the Battle of the Bulge firsthand), it's a story about the weariness of war. (Having several of its actors having served in World War II and the actual 101st Airborne Division as extras certainly adds to it.) But how does it compare to other World War II-based works of the time?

In comparison to other war pictures both past and future, Battleground doesn't boast an all-star cast. (While some of the actors would go on to make names for themselves, the more famous of the cast was Van Johnson.) That's not to say such a detail is a fault of on the film's part. In fact, it could make the viewer feel sympathy for the whole infantry rather than just a small handful of recognizable faces.

There's a speech delivered towards the end of Battleground that still rings relevant nearly seventy years later. In an attempt to rally the weary troops, a chaplain gives a sermon condemning the actions of the enemy. ("We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race...or a super-idea, or super-anything...become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world.") In light of recent events in the United States, they continue to repeat history because they've failed it. ("We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning...to put out the fire before it starts spreading.")

Battleground may have been released amid other similar works but it's Wellman's direction that makes it remembered all these years later. Many films depict how war is absolute hell; only a select few show how it affect those fighting it.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, March 2, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

There are several worrying notes throughout Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, especially in light of the last few years. Using clips from the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the words from James Baldwin become painfully relevant in the years following his 1987 death. But how so?

Peck provides a juxtaposition between Baldwin's words from the past and events from within the last decade. (There's also a dissonance with its music choices; it cuts from clips from Doris Day movies to photos of lynching, its cheery music still playing.) Yeah, it's that kind of documentary.

Narrating as Baldwin is Samuel L. Jackson. The way Jackson reads Baldwin's letter adds to the author's weariness towards the senseless violence aimed at the black community, how exhausted Baldwin has become towards police brutality. He'd be spinning in his grave if he had any clue what the country was like now.

Baldwin also notes how movies have the tendency to mangle one's personal beliefs, how audiences are fine with westerns where Native Americans are slaughtered but not so much with Sidney Poitier as a sex symbol or viable leading man. (Clips from five of Poitier's films -- A Raisin in the Sun, No Way Out, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night -- are shown. See a theme?) To say things have changed since Baldwin's time would be a lie.

I Am Not Your Negro shows that those who fail history are very much doomed to repeat it. (How many times must we as a society be forced to endure the mistakes of our past?) There's no denying that much still needs to be done since Baldwin's time but we as a society can make that a potential reality, and the time to do so is now.

My Rating: *****

Friday, February 24, 2017

The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Actress

Ah, awards season: that wonderfully annoying stretch of months that everyone (okay, most everyone) over-analyzes to the point where avoiding social media as a whole is the best solution. Usually I try not to partake in this but with the LAMB rebooting its Oscar coverage, I felt like chipping my two cents. Hey, I've covered it twice before and both times my predictions were right. Let's see if the third time’s the charm.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Husbands

We're only young once in our short lives. It's once it's all over that we realize that there's not much time left on this planet. And boy, do mid-life crises make for excellent fodder when it comes to fiction.

That certainly comes to a head in John Cassavetes' Husbands. Following the sudden death of their friend, Gus (Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) try to go on with their lives. But too much of their confined world reminds them of their late pal so they figure traveling could help clear their heads. But does it?

In the way of how the story's told, Husbands bears strong resemblance to Cassavetes' previous film Faces. It's less of a film than it is a voluntary glimpse into one's life. But as is often the case with Cassavetes' directorial contributions, it sure as hell isn't a glamorous one.

But in contrast to later films of his, Husbands doesn't have the same flow as Cassavetes' collaborations with wife Gena Rowlands. (Though -- as mentioned before -- from a storytelling perspective, this bears some resemblance to their previous film Faces.) Granted, perhaps Cassavetes was still trying to shake off his bad experience directing within studio regulations a few years prior. (There's definitely that air of defiance both here and in his later work.)

Husbands may not rank amongst his best work but it did show that Cassavetes was more than willing to break a few of the expected conventions in Hollywood at the time. After all, this was a time when the studio system was beginning to break down, and fresh blood was crucial to stay relevant with changing times. And guess who was waiting for that last pillar to collapse?

My Rating: ****

Silver Streak

For years, filmmakers have been paying tribute to the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Even when the director was still alive and well, there were works being made with his influence all over them. And they're still being doled out today.

Arthur Hiller's Silver Streak (coincidentally released the same year as Hitchcock's swan song Family Plot) borrows part of its story from North by Northwest. Sure, there have been other imitations since the first film's 1959 release but there's something that Hiller brings to his film that makes it work.

Perhaps that something is -- like Hitchcock before him -- Hiller using an actor that's adept with comedy. Similar with Cary Grant, Gene Wilder has had his fair share of serious and silly roles prior to Silver Streak. And it's because of that detail the later film works as well as it does.

But Silver Streak isn't solely Wilder's show. Alongside him are the likes of Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Ned Beatty and Patrick McGoohan, just to name a few. They all hold their own, certainly, but it's Wilder's who carries the whole picture away by himself. (Okay, Pryor definitely has his moments as well.)

Silver Streak is further testament of Wilder's ability as a performer. (His collaborations with Mel Brooks during the previous decade merely acknowledged the masses to it.) He was one of those rare comedic actors that added a certain kindness to whatever he was in (which perhaps explains his role in Willy Wonka a few years before this). And that's on full display here, especially his scenes with Clayburgh.

My Rating: ****

Love and Death on Long Island

A matter of days after turning seventy-seven, the world of film lost John Hurt. A performer whose presence was always welcome, he could go from leading man to character actor with complete ease. The quality of the project didn't always matter; you could always guarantee Hurt will deliver.

And he does just that in Richard Kwietniowski's Love and Death on Long Island. As the reclusive Giles De'Ath (note the name), Hurt shows an awakening of sorts during the film's duration. And it all starts by going into the wrong movie at the cinema.

He had paid to see an E.M. Forster adaptation but Giles mistakenly ends up seeing a raunchy teen comedy. Just as he's about to leave, he lays eyes on Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), one of the movie's young actors. What ensues for Giles is a slowly unraveling obsession.

In a way, Love and Death on Long Island is an update of Death in Venice: a man past the prime of his life yearns for one who's in the peak of his. It's something often seen throughout fiction, that futile grasp at feeling desired when in old age. Many times it's something that merely adds insult to injury for the elder subject but regardless of what one's age might be, it's merely a need found in most of the human race.

Love and Death on Long Island is merely further testament that Hurt was one of the finest actors of his generation. His passing will leave a hole in the world of cinema, one that will tried to be filled but never will be. He was honestly a one-of-a-kind presence, and he will be missed dearly.

My Rating: ****

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Rains Came

At a formal dinner early on in Clarence Brown's The Rains Came, former lovers Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) and Tom Ransome (George Brent) reunite. He very much wants to rekindle their affair while she has her sights set on Hindu doctor Maj. Rama Safti (Tyrone Power). She admits she's trying to seduce Rama out of boredom but will it result in something else?

Released the same year as other big screen spectacles like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, The Rains Came is mostly forgotten to today's audiences. But there's one aspect of the film that stands out: the special effects. It doesn't take much to see how it won the Oscar over the two previously alluded titles.

Being made within the Hays Code, Edwina's flirtations are treated with scorn by nearly everyone she encounters. How dare a woman go behind her husband's back (especially if he knows of them) for her own personal urges? After all, women are supposed to only be wives and mothers, nothing else. (At least that's what the most conceited of people would think.)

But Edwina develops a sense to redeem herself after spending more time with Rama. (If you're familiar with other fiction following this premise, you may know the outcome.) Admittedly such a conclusion might seem like cheap writing but bear in mind this was a time when women had very little standing outside a domestic setting; they had to break free somehow.

The Rains Came may follow the conventions of storytelling at the time but the work from its three leads warrant a look at least. (It also showed Power's underused talent.) It has that balance of adventure and romance, a common trait of films from that era, but one that only works a scant number of times. (This, of course, is one such example.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, February 5, 2017

20th Century Women

As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. That could be best sum up Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is Mike Mills' 20th Century Women. The woman in question is his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), and what Mills presents is an ode to the women in his life.

Dorothea is of course a representation of Mills' own mother but she's not the only member of the fair sex on display in 20th Century Women. There's also Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring photographer with a creative mind (perhaps partly based on Mills' wife Miranda July?); and Julie (Elle Fanning), a rebellious friend of Jamie's. And they all try to help Jamie prepare for the world ahead of him.

Like what he did with his previous film Beginners, Mills provides solid work for his actors. Bening gives the best work of her career, Gerwig and Fanning continue to show their potential in Hollywood, and Zumann also shows immense promise with his career. (Boy, Mills sure knows how to pick 'em.)

Similarly, Bening's performance shows that there are in fact roles out there for actresses of a certain age. (It's just that writers are the ones that need to create them.) Just because leading ladies have a limited shelf life in the eyes of Hollywood executives, that doesn't mean their careers have to end in that exact moment.

20th Century Women continues to shows Mills' worth in Hollywood. (Honestly, not every film needs its protagonist to be the default white male.) As the past few years have shown, it's those who are willing to break free from the norms of Hollywood that stand out from the crowd. (Seriously, different is good.)

My Rating: *****

La La Land

If there's one thing that's a guaranteed escape from the ugliness of reality, it's a musical. From Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly, to Vincente Minnelli and Bob Fosse, it's a genre people find themselves coming back to time and time again. (And yes, even those who claim they're not big on musicals.)

Damien Chazelle's La La Land is a tribute to the musicals of decades passed, its allusions ranging from Jacques Demy (the use of color) to those churned out by MGM's peak (the costume design and choreography). And like what he showed with his previous film Whiplash, Chazelle shows that the music is key to its story. (A possible recurring theme within future titles?)

Starring in La La Land are Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, apparently another cue from Hollywood's past (using those considered triple threats; added points if they're extremely photogenic). That's not to disregard what the two bring to the film. However, it'd be a more believable premise had the leads been played by actors of color.

Think about it: La La Land (as its title alludes to) focuses on two people -- one an actress, the other a pianist -- struggling to have their dreams become realities. Knowing the kind of business Hollywood is, it's hard to believe that two white people in their twenties and thirties would be in that situation. (And just imagine had this been set in the fifties or sixties!)

That small quibble aside, La La Land is deeply charming. You don't need to be well-versed in classic musicals to appreciate it (though it certainly doesn't hurt). And as he showed with Whiplash, Chazelle has definitely proven his potential.

My Rating: ****1/2

Manchester by the Sea

The opening scenes of Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea focus on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) going about with his day. He seems content with the usual routine he goes through. It's when he gets a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is hospitalized that things start to change.

As Lonergan showed previously with You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea doesn't need a fantastical premise to make it work. It just follows the day-to-day life of someone with flaws and those close to them. Lonergan finds a form of art from life itself.

Being a work that depicts grief and the emotional baggage that can come with it, Manchester by the Sea does come across as manipulative in that regard. (Honestly, any montage set to Albinoni's "Adagio in G Minor" is just asking for the waterworks to be unleashed.) That said, however, the emotions within one person aren't always the same as those in someone else (which, coincidentally, is a theme of the film).

Now onto the performances of note in Manchester by the Sea. While aspects of his private life have come to light recently (and almost overshadowed the film as a whole), Affleck's work shows his talents as an actor. Though not in the film very much, Chandler and Michelle Williams are also good. But special mention goes to Lucas Hedges, who very much has a promising career ahead of him.

Manchester by the Sea is a quiet and somber piece on carrying on after loss. One may feel completely hopeless within the aftermath but as the saying goes, time heals all wounds. But what's also crucial in the healing process is patience, and that's not always the easy part.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, January 27, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: Silence

What causes one's personal beliefs to change? Most times it's because their way of thinking changes, be it through maturity or the presentation of new information. But sometimes it could be something as possibly insignificant as where they're situated.

Set in 17th century Japan, Silence chronicles those of the Christian faith in a time where the religion was banned throughout the country. It's a dangerous passion for those who hold the Bible near and dear to their heart. And those caught embracing it face cruel punishment.

Shūsaku Endō's novel is told through changing perspectives but its grasp on the concept of belief doesn't let go for a second. Even when it's questioned, the devotion outweighs the doubt immensely. Endō shows with his words how when under complete duress, one's opinions can shift for the sake of saving their life.

And who else than Martin Scorsese to adapt a novel about religion? There's something about the combination of Endō's words and Scorsese's vision that makes for a stunning result. (Rodrigo Pietro's cinematography adds to this combination.) Though why white actors were cast as the three Portuguese leads just shows how skewed Hollywood's priorities continue to be (though Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson were good).

So what's better: Endō's novel or Scorsese's film? Both depict how religion has always been a controversial subject throughout history but the film -- perhaps because Scorsese's at the helm -- shows how it can be the center of one's life. Still, both creators tell a story of personal conflict amid dangerous times.

What's worth checking out?: The book.