Avanti!

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After watching Billy Wilder’s wonderfully sublime late period romantic comedy “Avanti”, I felt as if I just escaped to a wonderful paradise and left the worries of the world behind. That’s part of what magical Hollywood film making can do to us, they can lift us onto a different plain into a fantasy we sometimes hesitate to leave, even after the credits roll. I felt this way after watching “Avanti”, I was soaked into the wonderful world of Italy, humming the lovely theme music to myself afterwards, and having the kind of contentment only the best movies can put you in.

It’s almost as if the film knows the kind of person to attract, in the presence of the lead protagonist Wendell Armbrewster Jr, played here by Wilder regular Jack Lemmon. Armbrewster Jr. is an uptight American industrialist who is inconvenienced when he hears of his father Armbrewster Sr. has died in a car accident while visiting a small Island in Naples. For the past ten years, Armbrewster Sr had been going to this Island for one month out of the year, and staying at the same resort allegedly for the therapeutic mud baths for his bad back. It isn’t until Armbrewster Jr. comes to claim the body, that he discovers his old man had been carrying on a ten-year affair with another woman who died along with him in the same car. This puts a damper in Wendell’s plan to collect the body right away and deliver him to a funeral in Baltimore which will be a televised event as Armbrewster Sr. was a very important businessman in America.

Wendell must now go through a series of red tape to release the body, try to hide the fact that his father was a philanderer, as well as deal with Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), the British daughter of the deceased lover, who is there to collect her mother’s body at the same time. Being that this film works partly as a farce, things don’t go according to plan, as pretty soon, the two bodies are stolen by a local family looking to extort money from Wendell after their family vineyard was damaged by the car accident. There is also a bell boy, who was deported from America for criminal activities, but tries to bribe Wendell into giving him a passport after he passes along incriminating photos of his father and lover together. Meanwhile Pamela Piggott, a slightly plumpish woman concerned about her weight begins falling in love with the lovely Island of Naples just as her humble mother would have been, and soon enough Wendell falls for her charms.

Most romantic comedies can be considered predictable, especially when a man and woman meet, and at first they don’t like each other, it’s only a matter of time before they connect in some way. Here it’s when the hard-edged, rude American antics of Wendell are softened by the gentle, often sad and insecure Pamela. When the pairing happens it’s hard to resist. It’s to Jack Lemmon’s credit that he can come off as unlikable to the extreme, especially towards Pamela calling her a “fat ass” , along with being rude and impatient to the friendly locals, only to turn around and be able to find his humanity within the Italian paradise. Juliet Mills as Pamela is simply glowing in the film, in the way most movie stars should. Her character begins as lonely and sad, yet she has the right amount of sentiment that never feels forced, and it’s a revelation to see her come alive within the romance of the world, it’s easy to see Wendell fall in love with her.

The fact that “Avanti” never feels chaste like some lesser romantic comedies feel is a testament to the material. Sex is prevalent throughout the film, and being that this was released in 1972, Wilder didn’t have to succumb to the idea of suggestion like he had to with his classics like “Some Like it Hot” or “The Apartment”. Here we see Wendell and Pamela in bed together, swimming naked in the ocean, but none of it is for shock value, but rather a gesture to let go of ones inhibitions. Wilder still has playful ways to suggest sex, such as in the title itself. Avanti is the Italian word for “enter” or to “Come in”. It is a recurring phrase uttered in, of all places a hotel where servants ask to enter a room. It is uttered by Wendell when Pamela asks to enter his room, and then in a very sly, charming moment, Pamela says it to Wendell, when they consummate their relationship.

The use of this word could be thought of as a tip of the hat to Wilder’s mentor and contemporary Ernst Lubitsch, who basically invented the romantic comedy. Lubitsch had fun with sexual innuendo better than anyone particularly when it came to hotel rooms and key holes, all used as a rather bigger metaphor for what was going on beyond those doors. It’s safe to say, Wilder became Lubitsch’s heir to this kind of comedy, and oh how perfect it feels when he pulls it off.

“Avanti” was written by Wilder along with his constant collaborator I.A.L Diamond, as the two wrote exclusively together with every film since “Some Like it Hot”. As in all of their films, they are able to punch up terrific one liners, and create wonderful supporting characters, albeit not all that believable. One such character is Carlo Carlucci, the hotel manager played with comic gusto by character actor Clive Revill. Carlo becomes Lemmon’s sidekick, and guide throughout the Island, always able to help out when it comes to finding coffins for the dead bodies, and cleaning up a hotel room, when a chambermaid happens to shoot her lover when he threatens to walk out on her. Carlo is the type of guy Friday who adds to the film’s magic, along with a quip or two along the way.

But underneath all this romance and charm, there is a bit of an indictment by Wilder. He never finishes a film without a bite of cynicism, which finishes the film off as bittersweet. It’s safe to say with a European backdrop such as this, the people who come off the worst are the Americans. Although Wendell redeems himself in the end, he is almost a caricature at the beginning of how Americans are perceived in other countries. At one point Pamela calls out American behaviour as “childish, playing golf on the moon like you own the place.”

This criticism of American culture is brought to a head in the climax of the film when a representative of the U.S. State Department swoops in almost like a Deus ex machina to recover the body of Wendell’s father without any red tape, however it’s at this point, Wendell is not ready to leave just yet. The film was made in 1972 during Richard Nixon’s second term and right before Watergate. Nixon himself was a bit of a blowhard, who along with other dehumanizing policies, turned America in the world’s biggest eyesore. Today, we are bombarded with American foreign policies, rude, agitated, and impatient government talking heads, from the left and the right, it’s hard to escape from it. With “Avanti”, Wilder builds something that feels like an escape, and a reminder that in some places, America doesn’t rule the world, and there is pleasure in that. Wilder himself, was a European like most directors who Immigrated to Hollywood before the War in Germany. I have always valued an outsiders opinion of what America represents, it’s hardly ever gushing. But Wilder never dwells on this cynicism, especially when he’s preoccupied with making romance with his characters who are just looking for happiness. “Avanti” is like a vacation, you will not want to leave, but what’s beautiful about it is once it leaves you, it stays with you, as if you’ve just fallen in love.

 

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A Clockwork Orange

clockworkStanley Kubrick’s adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange” remains his most controversial film and probably his most polarizing. That says a lot considering Kubrick has pushed the envelope more than once with his films such as thesexual fantasy of “Eyes Wide Shut”, the end of the world satire “Dr. Strangelove” and nymphet obsession of Nabokov’s “Lolita”. But “A Clockwork Orange” trumps them all in the “raised eyebrow” department. The film is unapologetic in the depiction of its main character Alex DeLarge, a sexual deviant who throughout the film commits ruthless acts of violence, rape, and murder. Alex feels no remorse for his actions, that is until he is “cured” by the government.

The audacity of having the audience sympathize with such a deplorable main character is a clever conceit of the narrative to get to the film’s real idea: is it morally ethical to rid someone like Alex from his right to choose, or is it better to dehumanize him from that right in order for him to exist in society? This question has become probably more prevalent today when you consider Alex’s violent actions in the film, are aimed mostly towards women.

Let’s take the first ten minutes of the film where we see Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his fellow Droogs hanging around in that iconic milk bar. We have the famous moment of McDowell giving the signature Kubrick face of the downward head looking up into the camera. From there, the reverse dolly shot reveals the highly sexualized ambiance of the room with naked statues of women in various positions. Here Alex and his Droogs contemplate what sort of “ultraviolence” they will partake in tonight. This leads them assaulting and beating a homeless man to a pulp. Afterwhich, the gang force themselves into the home of a writer and his wife, as we watch them gleefully abuse the two of them while it is  juxtaposed to Alex casually singing “Singin in the Rain”. The scene ends, with the Droogs cutting up the wife’s clothing exposing her privates and while the film cuts away, it’s pretty obvious that she is raped.  I have to say the first time I attempted watching “A Clockwork Orange” as a teenager, I turned the movie off after this moment, I had not been so upset from a single scene in a film more than this before.

Later, we see Alex assaulting another women in her home, and even though she does put up a fight, she is killed when Alex smashes a giant phallic statue in her face, an image which perhaps has more implications today than it did in 1971. Alex is soon apprehended after this incident, but after spending time in jail, he is recruited for a new type of experiment which guarantees him early release. He is submitted to a medication and brainwashing treatment. In perhaps the film’s most notorious scene, we see Alex in a straight jacket, as his eyelids are clamped open as he watches disturbing images of violence on a film screen. The experiment strips Alex of his free will as he becomes sick from the idea of inflicting any type of violence again.

Alex tries to re-associate himself with his new found freedom, but he no longer feels free, as he must resist his initial impulses. He is less a human being, but more like a human lab rat who has been intellectually castrated. To add to this, Alex can no longer even enjoy his one cultural vice which was the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven, as it was playing in one of the films he watched as he was being conditioned.

This is a clever twist, Kubrick lays on the audience. After giving us so many disturbing images of Alex’s early exploits, he turns the table on us. By stripping him from what makes us all human, our right to choose, we now find empathizing with him. Alex is seen as an outcast, and shunned by his family and even fellow Droogs, he no longer fits anywhere. But here’s the rub, (Spoler Alert) Alex is cured by the end of the movie, he’s able to go back to his old impulses, and he’s even sponsored by the government after they rectify their mistake  by making him a PR poster boy. The finale of the film lands in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” message, which nulifys the more philosophical question the film raised. Granted, any film that poses questions such as these makes it more difficult to land a perfect ending. Here Kubrick doesn’t go for ambiguity as he did with his previous movie, “2001”, but he makes it more puck rock and nihilistic with a message that seems to be, every human being is no damn good anyway.

When “A Clockwork Orange” was first released in 1971, it was blamed for inciting violence in the streets of London, causing Kubrick to actually pull it from theatres in England, and banning it for over 30 years until his death. This was a startling act from Kubrick, perhaps even he thought he went too far with it. Despite the controversy, the film was still a big success and can be seen as a classic. It continues to shock and provoke in ways Kubrick wanted us to engage with it. However the moral ambiguity of the film is a bit problematic.

Our movie climate has changed drastically the almost 50 years “A Clockwork Orange” came out. The #Metoo movement has been a watershed moment in Hollywood where women are shouting “No more”. It’s difficult to imagine the Alex DeLarge mentality existing in popular films today, despite the satirical take on the character. Perhaps there is too much outrage right now to even have much empathy with him. But a guy like Alex simply won’t go away into the night, even how much we wish he would. Alex is perceived as a symptom of society, and a sickness that doesn’t have an easy answer. Should we condition him the way the film suggests? Or can we deal with him in a way that doesn’t dehumanize him or us? This is probably the secret brilliance behind ” A Clockwork Orange” and Stanley Kubrick as a director. Kubrick is probably the only director who is able to remind us of our humanity by stripping it away from us. “A Clockwork Orange” dares us to value humanity from the perspective of a sociopath. However Alex came to be, he is a part of the human race, for better or for worse.

 

 

Ready Player One

da9fa6c7c2c46e83-600x400Steven Spielberg is and probably will be the most successful filmmaker in history. It’s difficult to think of anyone coming around with the same amount of worldwide blockbusters as him, along with some of the most critically acclaimed films from the last 40 years.

Yet even a giant mogul like Spielberg is human, and the unique aspect of his filmography is the fact that even though they remain extremely popular, they can also be deeply personal. Take his latest dive into the blockbuster pool with “Ready Player One”.  On the surface It’s a film which is a celebration of 80s pop culture, something Spielberg himself is responsible for creating. The film is sprawling sci-fi adventure story with some exciting set pieces in the vein of classic Spielberg films from the Indiana Jones films to “Minority Report”. But beneath this celebration of nostalgia and nerd culture, we see a film about reflection and possible regret from an aging God of geekdom.

“Ready Player One” is set in the year 2045 where the real world has become too depressing to live in. As one character puts it, it’s where “People decided not to fix the world’s problems, and just tried to out live them.” As an escape from this dystopia lies The Oasis, a virtual world, where basically everything is possible and people can live their lives through the avatars of their choice.

When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the eccentric creator of The Oasis dies, he creates a game within The Oasis containing an Easter Egg, which once discovered grants the winner complete control to the entire virtual world. It’s up to spunky young man Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan) and his clan of gamers and pop culture enthusiasts to find this Easter Egg before the evil corporate overlords, lead by Sorrento (Ben Mendleson) find it.

For the most part, “Ready Player One” is a film Spielberg excelled at in his old Indiana Jones days featuring action set pieces galore, with an opening car chase, and a clever visit through Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” being standouts. That being said, The Oasis can be a bit much. It’s as if we are bombarded with so many sights and senses, the substance is sometimes lost. The pop culture references come so swiftly, I’m sure loyalists will have fun pausing on shots once the film becomes available on blu-ray to pinpoint all of their favorite movie or game characters.

Spielberg does slow down slightly in parts to give a bit of nuance, and wonderful imagery to the proceedings, such as when Wade is sharing a romantic dance in the air with his romantic interest/partner in crime Samantha (Olivia Cooke). But even these quiet character moments are interrupted too often with the speed and urgency of the plot. Maybe this is just me getting older, and wanting more out of movies than non-stop action, or it could be the problem of the film by having such cardboard cutouts of characters. The main actors aren’t given much chance to leave their stereotypical trappings, even though the cast is likable enough. The exception of this is Rylance as Halliday.

This brings us to the part which I found most interesting about “Ready Player One”, and perhaps the reason Spielberg chose to make this film which is the character of James Halliday himself. Although it is revealed at the beginning Halliday is dead, he does pop up within The Oasis usually as a memory bank containing clues on how to win the game. Portrayed by Rylance, we could see Halliday as an avatar for Spielberg himself, an aging mogul, who built a world of imagination for people to enjoy but coming at a price. You can see Halliday as someone who is happy at what he has created but also as someone who see he may have also created a monster. Spielberg shows this conflict within the character which draws parallels to his work as well.

Here we have a mogul who has created the modern blockbuster with “Jaws”, and giving people films to enjoy. But because of that, we are now at risk of losing smaller films in theatres to more tent-pole franchise fair. Could Spielberg feel responsible or am I just speculating.

I have always felt Steven Spielberg has been a filmmaker first, but can also be a shrewd businessman second. In one sense we have the Spielberg who owns his own movie studio and has his producer credit on every deplorable “Transformers” film, yet we also have the Spielberg who has been able to create deeply personal mainstream films from “E.T.” to “Schindler’s List”, not to mention the only man to have directed French New Wave master Francois Truffaut in a film. There has always been this duality in Spielberg that has made him such a fascinating figure.

But lately we have seen an aging Spielberg making films regarding his legacy. What was “Lincoln” but about a man concerned with leaving his mark on his country despite the odds. Even the small, gentle, children’s fable “The BFG” was an allegory of an elderly man passing on what he knows to a younger generation. Even the sexagenarian version of Indiana Jones in the much maligned “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” speaks to this legacy factor as well, and it continues with “Ready Player One”.

I can’t say “Ready Player One” is entirely successful, but it’s nice that a popular film such as this can be used as a platform for the most successful director of all time. It’s an interesting film to reflect on his legacy, something he may not be sure about.

 

 

Unsane

dims-9a95a704-4e4e-4c2c-96fc-711a8a2a7332What is it like to be a victim but have no one believe you. That’s what is explored in Steven Sodebergh’s wonderfully engrossing, and experimental new film “Unsane”. We begin with the voice of a creepy stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard) describing the woman he’s obsessed with Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). The screen is filled in a forest marked with shades of blue which is the color Sawyer was wearing when David first saw her. It is a purposefully distorted image even more so given the film’s unique use of an iPhone 7 plus.

From there we meet Sawyer, a hard as nails though somewhat neurotic ambitious career woman. We see her at work where she has to shoot down advances from her boss when he proposes to take her to a business conference for the weekend but it’s pretty evident he has something else on his mind. Later she goes on a tinder date and takes the guy to her apartment fully willing for a one night stand, until things get too intense and she recoils.

Sawyer is still traumatized by her stalker and decides to make an appointment with a therapist to tell her story. She is then asked to fill out some forms and just like that, she has voluntarily committed herself  for 24 hour observation. Sawyer doesn’t recall ever committing herself, but she is soon taken to a room where someone takes away her belongings and she is asked to strip to her underwear. This experience causes her to unwind and she tries to call the police, but they are so used to patients calls, they don’t take it seriously.

In a fit of frustration and defensiveness, Sawyer strikes an inmate, and accidentally punches an orderly in the face when he bears the striking resemblance of her stalker. Due to her violent nature, a week is added to her tenure, and as if that isn’t punishment enough Sawyer begins seeing her actual stalker David Strine as an orderly who is handing out medication, yet no one believes her when she tells them.

The most unsettling thing about “Unsane” is how everything in it feels frighteningly real, I left the theatre thinking this could actually happen which made my skin crawl. But what this film does so well is how it puts us in the head of Sawyer who is the real victim. Throughout the film she is convinced of what she is seeing, yet no one listens to her. You could draw a real parallel with the watershed moment happening now with the “#metoo movement where women who were not believed for years are now being listened to. For Sawyer it’s one horrific moment to see her stalker in front of her controlling her medication, it’s another for no one to believe her when it’s happening.

As Sawyer, Claire Foy is on edge throughout the whole film, she is magnificent as someone who is trying to keep her intense fear and pain in check as she is desperately trying move on. Also as David, Joshua Leonard is the most subtle of monsters, the way he moves, and speaks in such a quiet childlike tone had me look away more than once.

The rest of the cast glow as well including Jay Pharoh playing Sawyer’s only ally in the facility, and who may be more than he’s letting on himself. Amy Irving has a few brief scenes as Sawyer’s mother, the only one who seems to believe her and tries to help her on the outside, but it often shut down by bureaucrat.

The film isn’t very long, clocking in at a little over 90 minutes, which makes this story really tight and lean, meaning there is little levity. Unlike last year’s “Get Out” which was another socially conscious horror film and could pause with moments of dark humour, “Unsane” practically locks us in with the protagonist throughout, and we feel no relief in the film until she does.

This credit of keeping things tight can be given to Sodebergh but also the screenwriters Jonathon Bernstein and James Greer who have crafted a very smart script with very realistic situations. There may have been a couple of times, where I felt the realism of the film was lost, however without giving anything away, I felt the ending had a very satisfying conclusion. We are left with a final shot that felt like something right out of a 1970s paranoid thriller which is something I think Sodebergh was trying to invoke and even update with the iPhone shooting style.

Steven Sodebergh is a very special kind of director, he’s able to go in and out of Hollywood style genre films to more experimental fare such as this one. Looking back at his catalogue, one could also argue just how much of a liberal filmmaker he is. Even though he mostly works in different genres there is an underlying theme of rebellion against the status quo. It’s not a coincidence that one of the main villains in “Unsane” are the corporate healthcare administrators who are responsible for putting Sawyer in a place with her stalker is. They are also the ones who don’t listen to her, Sodebergh doesn’t shy away at how corrupt he thinks corporations can get, which is no wonder you can feel paranoid after you leave the film.

 

Favorite Films and Performances of 2017

Here it is everyone, my list of favorite films and performances I saw this year. I didn’t do any sort of ranking this year as I honestly have come to the realization that best films and performances are subjective. How could I compare a film like “Lucky” to a film like “John Wick Chapter Two” both of which I think were great for different reasons and both films I intend to re-watch depending on the mood I’m in. Therefore I’ve listed the films alphabetically. For the record, I unfortunately did not see “Call Me By your Name”. (Thanks Red Deer for showing it for only one time which was a time I couldn’t go see it). Nor did I catch “The Florida Project”, “The Darkest Hour”, “Good Time” or “The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, all of which were on my “must watch” and I still hope to catch them. But here are 20 films that to me were my favorites, and multiple performances which stood out for me for many different reasons.

Favorite Films of 2017

All the Money in the World

The Beguiled

The Big Sick

Blade Runner 2049

Get Out

A Ghost Story

It

I, Tonya

John Wick Chapter 2

Lady Bird

Logan

Logan Lucky

Lucky

Mudbound

Okja

Personal Shopper

Phantom Thread

The Post

Valarian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Wonder Woman

Favorite Lead Performances

Michelle Williams: All the Money in the World

Kumail Nanjiani: The Big Sick

Ryan Gosling: Blade Runner 2049

Daniel Kaluuya: Get Out

Margot Robbie: I, Tonya

Saoirse Ronan: Lady Bird

Harry Dean Stanton: Lucky

Kristen Stewart: Personal Shopper

Daniel Day Lewis: Phantom Thread

Vicky Krieps: Phantom Thread

Meryl Streep: The Post

Francis McDormand: Three Billboards…

Gal Gadot: Wonder Woman

Favorite Supporting Performances

Christopher Plummer: All the Money in the World

Nicole Kidman: The Beguiled

Holly Hunter: The Big Sick

Ray Romano: The Big Sick

Michael Fassbender: Alien: Covenant

Harrison Ford: Blade Runner 2049

LilRel Howery: Get Out

Catherine Keener: Get Out

Bradley Whitford: Get Out

Allison Williams: Get Out

Paul Walter Hauser: I, Tonya

Allison Janney: I, Tonya

Sebastian Stan: I, Tonya

Tracey Letts: Lady Bird

Laurie Metcalf: Lady Bird

Patrick Stewart: Logan

Daniel Craig: Logan Lucky

Adam Driver: Logan Lucky

David Lynch: Lucky

Garrett Hedlund: Mudbound

Rob Morgan: Mudbound

Carey Mulligan: Mudbound

Tilda Swinton: Okja

Lesley Manville: Phantom Thread

Bob Odenkirk: The Post

Sam Rockwell: Three Billboards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Trip to School

Beyond our backyard was a large wasteland of an open field; grassy patches with molds of mud hills popping out from the ground, too treacherous to walk on for fear of tripping on a blind spot and falling into a mushy substance. The trails to school were burned with red gravel that crackled and popped with the sound of bike wheels running over it; while clouds of red dust would waft through the air once you slammed on your brakes.

The playgrounds were built with strong oak wood, and consisted of tire swings that would hang from a bulky chain and twist tighter with each rotation, sending out a fast, fun release once it could no longer hold its constriction. The neighbourhoods were small and familiar with winding sidewalks, narrow roadways, and each house looking different but the same all at once.

The elementary school was a brown, rectangular shape with little tinted windows on the North and South sides peering into the different classrooms. At the front stood a wooden statue of a carved out Blackfoot Chief wearing a giant headdress which was the school’s insignia. There were two sets of red steel doors at the front and back of the school;  each home room had their own designated door to enter into. Inside were white, metal racks on the wall for exchanging your outdoor shoes for your indoors. As you traveled to home room the floor would change from white, smooth tiled, linoleum into brown, freshly vacuumed carpet. The walls in the hallways were pasty white but were but were decorated with old class photos dating back to when the school began.

Inside home room, you would find your own coat hanger at the back, screwed into a bright orange piece of plywood with a sticker of your favorite color and your name on it. The walls were usually full of different crafts from the students, and did not discriminate on talent, as the mantra in the classroom focused on participation, and encouragement, rather than talent or lack thereof. Filling in the gaps were pictures of cuddly cartoon animals,with thought bubbles about the importance of education. At the front wall, above the blackboards was a long strand of 26 poster papered piano keys, each one containing a letter from the alphabet. The blackboard was freshly wiped off and cleaned from the day before, which was thanks to the unsung hero known as the night janitor.

The teacher would be sitting at her desk, with her head down eating some fruit from a plastic container, and reading the day’s lesson plan waiting for class to begin. Sometimes a student would walk to her desk with a question or something to share with her which she was more than happy to oblige. Each desk in the classroom was brown with a large black drawer containing all of your basic needs. We were lined up in five rows, I positioned myself in the middle, so as not to associate myself with the eager front row, or the slackers at the back. Two desks down sat Lisa MacIssac, the girl of my dreams with blue overalls and a pinkish white New Kids on the Block t-shirt. Her hair was dark brown and her glasses matched. She had a funny curve to her smile that fit her face perfectly. As she passed a pencil to the person between us, our eyes met, and I scooted my seat to look forward. I fished out my notebook for class as well as my text-book which was always laid out on the far right corner. The clock would strike 8:20, the bell would ring, and class would begin.

Things I Saw in January

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1. Mudbound (2017) A wonderfully shot, heartbreaking period saga of two families in 1940s Mississippi, one white, one black. The film plays out like a novel more than any film I’ve seen this year, and I was riveted. One of the best ensembles of 2017. 4 stars out of 4

2. Okja (2017) South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s quirky film about a girl and her super pig. Probably the most effective film ever made on why people should turn vegetarian. This film is off the wall starting off as an “E.T.” like fable, to a social commentary on animal cruelty, but it always remains interesting and entertaining. 3.5 stars out of 4

3. Personal Shopper (2017) A supernatural film dealing with death, isolation, and alienation featuring a wonderful performance by Kirsten Stewart. Great film 4 stars out of 4

4. A Ghost Story (2017) Another unique supernatural film. Casey Affleck plays a man who dies and becomes a ghost in a sheet. As he haunts his former house and girlfriend, he is trapped with time passing over him. This is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. 4 stars out of 4

5. All the Money in the World (2017) Director Ridley Scott’s account of the  infamous kidnapping incident involving John Paul Getty the III and his stingy Grandfather who refused to pay the ransom. Scott brings some great storytelling to this, one of his best films. At the center is this great characterization of a real life Ebeneezer Scrooge John Paul Getty played magnificently by Christopher Plummer. 3.5 stars out of 4

6. Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Widely entertaining mystery yarn from director Kenneth Brannagh with an all star cast feels like a throwback to when these types of movies were made all the time. Brannagh is having fun here as is most of the cast, a very good time. 3.5 stars out of 4

7. The Post (2017) Steven Spielberg’s hugely entertaining and fast paced account of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post. Great performances by stars Tom Hanks and especially Meryl Streep along with a strong supporting cast lead by Bob Odenkirk. Spielberg again shows why he is such a master story-teller. 4 stars out of 4

8. Ken Burns: The Civil War (1990) A famous nine part documentary series about the Civil War is largely dense and informative, but always compelling. Kens Burns has a certain style to his films and this is probably his greatest calling card. 4 stars out of 4

9. Bullets or Ballots (1936) Edward G. Robinson stars in this gangster film of a police detective who goes undercover to fight racketeers. Great old fashioned entertainment, featuring Humphrey Bogart as a bad guy. 3 stars out of 4

10. City for Conquest (1940) Blistering melodrama with James Cagney as a man who goes into boxing to help out his artist brother and win the heart of the woman he loves. A little corny, but Cagney and cast are great. 3 stars out of 4

11. Each Dawn I Die (1939) Fine prison drama with James Cagney as a reporter who is framed for murder and is sent to a prison. George Raft plays a gangster he befriends. Cagney gives a great performance, the film isn’t as hard as it could be. 3 stars out of 4

12. G-Men (1935) Cagney plays a guy who joins the government agency for fighting the gangsters. Again Cagney is at his A-game and this film is an exciting gangster story. 3 stars out of 4

13. A Slight Case of Murder (1938) One of the best comedies I’ve seen in quite some time. A send up of gangster films stars Edward G. Robinson as a bootlegger who wants to go straight after prohibition has ended. The film turns into a wonderful farce with one incident coming after another with wonderful comic performances particularly by Robinson and the wonderful Ruth Donnelly as his wife. 4 stars out of 4

14. Black Legion (1937) A totally relevant and timely film made in the thirties. Humphrey Bogart plays a man who loses his job to a foreigner. Bitter and resentful he joins a group called the Black Legion who wear black hoods and commit crimes to undesirable foreigners in America. This is a scathing indictment of anti-Semitism, and racism at the time with the Black Legion being a not too subtle not to the KKK. This film holds nothing back and I was shocked at what was being said in this film can still be heard today. This was Humphrey Bogart’s first starring role. 4 stars out of 4

15. Brother Orchid (1940) Another gangster send-up with Edward G. Robinson. This time he’s another gangster who wants to go straight but loses all his money. After he is double crossed by his former gang, he hides out with a bunch of monks. This film is good but doesn’t hold a candle to “A Slight Case of Murder”. Ann Sothern is a stand-out as Robinson’s girlfriend and Ralph Bellamy is pretty funny as the rich cowboy who’s sweet on her. 3 stars out of 4

16. Lady Killer (1933) A comedy crime film has James Cagney starting off as a con man but then finds himself as a movie star. Cagney is one of the strongest actors ever and he makes this impossible plot work. It is nice to see him reunited with his “Public Enemy” co-star Mae Clarke. 3 stars out of 4

17. Picture Snatcher (1933) Cagney is an ex-con who gets crime photos for a tabloid newspaper. Interesting premise and the film doesn’t skimp on it’s sensationalism, it’s tightly paced and exciting. Ralph Bellamy adds great support as Cagney’s boss and friend. 3.5 stars out of 4

18. Smart Money (1931) The only film to co-star both Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Filmed soon after Robinson’s career defining role in “Little Caesar” and right before Cagney broke out with “Public Enemy”. It’s neat watching them share the screen together. Robinson is a barber who starts a gambling racket, Cagney is his best friend who helps him out. Great performances, even if the plot is a bit of a carbon copy. 3.5 stars out of 4

19. The Mayor of Hell (1933) Cagney is a gangster who becomes in charge of a reform school for boys. This is really good for a very long time until the end which wraps everything up a little too neatly. Still worth watching for Cagney’s magnetic performance. 3 stars out of 4

 

Some Favorites of 2017

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Well here we are in 2018, it is upon us. Who knows what this new year will bring. But it is customary to reflect on the past year, and what it brought us good and bad. For me, it was emotional of mostly good, and some bad moments. Part of my yearly tradition I started about two years ago with this blog was to look back at some of my favorite things I experienced in the past year which made it a little more memorable. I’ve listed these down in different categories, so enjoy.

Favorite Old Movie I saw for the First time in 2017: “Lions, Love (…and Lies)”: Agnes Varda’s experimental, fourth wall breaking, improvised account of three hippies living in California in the late 60s right before the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy is the type of film that doesn’t really get talked about. There’s something very beautiful about this film and how free it feels. Maybe it’s nostalgia for what the sixties meant for a lot of people, but it’s also the artistic freedom Varda makes with this film, you can tell it was something she made just for her own ambitions and no one else. We’re never quite sure what we’re seeing is real or made up on the spot by the actors. Reality is blurred especially when it invades the film in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination which happened while this movie was being filmed. They give the tragic incident context without exploiting it. The final moments of this film where a character looks directly into the camera and just breaths in and out calmly is one of my favorite closings of any film. Agnes Varda has been in the news lately thanks mostly to her new documentary “Faces Places” , which has been getting rave reviews, and she also received an honorary Academy Award for her work at the age of 89, where she charmingly danced on stage with Angelina Jolie. I have just gotten my first taste of Varda’s work, and I can’t wait to dig deeper into her filmography.

Other Great films I saw for the first time this year: “Paterson”, “Hi, Mom!”, “George Harrison: Living in a Material World” “Branded to Kill”, “Kiss Them for Me”, “The Virgin Suicides”, “Uncle Yanco”, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “Two For the Road”, “Pauline at the Beach”, “Blonde Venus”.

Favorite TV Season I saw this year: Twin Peaks Season 3: Probably number one on my most anticipated list this year was the return of “Twin Peaks” if only because it marked the return of David Lynch as a director after an 11 year hiatus. Lynch did not disappoint, reminding us why he is one of the most unique filmmakers of the last 40 years. At 75 Lynch still dares to push the limit of filmmaking, creating a great mixture of conventional storytelling and surrealism. You’re not meant to always understand what Lynch is throwing at you, but you are suppose to react to it, he makes you pay attention, and in “Twin Peaks” he has created his magnum opus, one that will no doubt be discussed for years.

Other Great TV I watched: “Bojack Horseman Seasons 1-4”,  “Glow Season 1”, “American Vandal Season 1”, “The Good Place Season 1”

Favorite Book: “The Razor’s Edge” By Somerset Maugham: The first book I read in the 2017 was also my favorite, and remains one of my favorite books I ever read. It’s the story of a War Veteran who returns home and becomes disillusioned with the material world of North America and decides to go on a spiritual journey to find some sort of happiness. Told through the narration by Maugham himself who puts himself in as one of the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s definitely the type of moral you can find yourself thinking of time and time again about how too many possessions and the constant distractions of the modern world can bring you down and even dehumanize you a bit. This was an idealistic book to say the least,  and the one that didn’t stray too far from my mind all year.

Other Great Books/Stories I read: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” By Flannery O’Connor, “The Yellow Wallpaper” By Charlotte  Perkins Gilman, “The Black Cat” By Edgar Allan Poe”, “Persepolis” By Marjane Satrapi,  “Love and Mercy” by Brian Wilson, “The Last Temptation” by Nikos Kazantzakis

Favorite Movie Moment of 2017 Tie: Harry Dean Stanton smiling into the camera in “Lucky” and the No Man’s Land scene in “Wonder Woman”: I couldn’t choose between these two moments as they probably filled me with the most emotion of any film I saw this year. In “Lucky” this moment is meant as an acknowledgment and an acceptance of death, but it is meant as something not to be feared. The fact that this gesture was done by Stanton who died soon after this film finished made it all the more poignant. In “Wonder Woman” it was the idea of what was behind this action scene that made it so special. So many super hero films rarely show us why these heroes are so super, it sometimes doesn’t have to do with their abilities but what they represent to the world. “Wonder Woman” is a wish fulfillment film full of heart and idealism. It’s the idea that love, and courage can conquer hatred. In the wrong hands, this sort of message could be overly sentimental, but Patty Jenkins sells us as to why heroes like Wonder Woman are still relevant today and why they should continue to be the source of inspiration for people young and old alike.

For my final favorite thing, I’ll leave with my favorite song, from my favorite album I purchased this year. “The Dark End of the Street” by The Flying Burrito Brothers from the Album “The Gilded Palace of Sin” from 1969.

Favorite Song I heard for the first time.

 

 

 

Things I Saw in December

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Lucky (2017): One of the best films of the year and a wonderful swan song for the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton who passed away mere weeks after this film was released. Stanton plays an aging man named Lucky who, after feeling faint, and taking a fall comes face to face with his own mortality. Lucky goes through a daily routine of staving off death such as doing yoga exercises and walking around everywhere he goes to maintain his health, but the moment hits him that death hits everyone. This isn’t as morbid as it sounds. The film is goes through the daily routine of Lucky’s life as he interacts with local townsfolk, arguing, and philosophizing with them. David Lynch has a memorable role as Lucky’s best friend, and gives the most heartfelt monologue about a turtles of all things. Directed by character actor John Carroll Lynch who is probably most notable as the suspected killer in “Zodiac”, or Norm Gundersson in “Fargo”. Stanton was a very special character actor appearing in bit parts from “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Godfather Part 2” to lead roles in cult films like “Paris, Texas”. He should be given more awards attention for this film, but maybe not enough people have seen it. For me I loved what it said, and how it said it, it’s pretty much perfect. 4 stars out of 4

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) The latest from writer/director Martin McDonagh, who’s “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” remain two of my favorite films of the past ten years. This film stars the great Francis McDormand in a powerful performance as a mother who rents out three billboard signs that blame the local police for the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. Like McDonagh’s past work, this film is not afraid to go to dark places, but is also able to bring some very dark and politically incorrect humour to the proceedings. This film is so full of anger, yet it tries to find a certain moral ground to these characters even the most despicable kinds such as the violent deputy portrayed by Sam Rockwell. Containing some of the strongest writing in a film this year, along with terrific performances by pretty much everyone. McDonagh remains an underrated director, here’s hoping this film brings him more to the mainstream. 3.5 stars out of 4

Twin Peaks Season 3: The triumphant return of one of the most groundbreaking television shows in history. 18 episodes directed by David Lynch, his first time behind the camera since “Inland Empire” in 2006. This is a direct follow-up to the premature cancelled cliffhanger that left the series stranded for 25 years. We now see Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McClaughlen) escape from the black lodge, while his evil Doppelganger (McClaughlen again) wreaks havoc in his place. It’s never a straight line when it comes to Lynch, and as the original series did so many years ago, this one isn’t afraid to go experimental. The 8th episode in particular, which is mostly silent and filmed in black and white is something that I don’t think has ever been attempted in television before. Conventions are thrown out the window, expectations are subverted, but the original show’s themes of good versus evil ring through leaving us wanting more but fulfilling everything we come to expect from David Lynch. 4 stars out of 4

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: The latest in the juggernaut blockbuster picks up where “The Force Awakens” left off. This bold installment to the “Star Wars” saga attempts to attack the themes and the characters we have held so dear for so long and flip them on its head. Writer/director Rian Johnson attempts to deconstruct the “Star Wars” mythos which was founded on conventional archetypes, fairly tale-like story telling, and Flash Gordon movie serials. Instead of going to that well which served the original trilogy so well, Johnson attempts to create a new foundation to build this new world on. I found this to be a fresh approach and something I wasn’t expecting. The film is strong especially when focusing on the character relationships of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The film isn’t perfect and sometimes meanders, but I couldn’t help but admire some of the choices it made. 3.5 stars out of 4

A Christmas Carol (1938) An atrocious version of the classic Charles Dickens tale. This sugared down, ultra sweet take on the Scrooge story takes out all of the danger, darkness, and redemptive powers that made the original story so timeless. Reginald Owen is very unmemorable as Scrooge and the rest of the cast make no great impression. MGM apparently didn’t want this film to be too scary in order to attract a family audience. It barely runs over an hour. Somebody somewhere decided to give this a “mild-classic” status but stay away from it and stick with Alistair Sim, Bill Murray, or The Muppets for your Scrooge of choice. 1 star out of 4

Arthur Christmas (2011) An animated gem from the studio that gave us “Wallace and Gromit”. I had heard of this film before, but I had never seen it. It’s a charming story of when Santa Claus forgets a Christmas present for a child, and it’s up to his Christmas Spirited son Arthur to save the day. The film has a very nice message about the modernization of Christmas taking away the heart and soul, it’s also very funny for all ages, worthy against any modern Disney or Pixar film. The ending got me a little misty eyed. 4 stars out of 4

Born to Be Bad (1934) A short quick early film which starred Cary Grant before he came into his own. This one deals with a con artist mother (Loretta Young) whose son is taken into a wealthy family, but once there, the mother tries to get the son to steal from them. Grant plays the wealthy man who eventually falls for Young’s character. This is a bit of a wishy-washy soap opera and this kind of story has been done better in other films, but the performances make it watchable. 3 stars out of 4

People Will Talk (1951) A very odd, and strange film. Cary Grant stars as a University medical doctor who meets a young girl. When the girl finds out she’s pregnant, she tries to kill herself since she doesn’t know who the father was and I guess feels disgraced. Grant tricks her into thinking she’s no longer pregnant and falls in love with her. While this is going on, Grant is also being investigated by his university for misconduct. He also has a strange old man following him around whose identity is revealed to be the key as to why Grant’s character is such a wonderful person. I didn’t really buy this film as a drama or a comedy it tries to be. Grant’s character seemed very unbelievable. This was the written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and was the follow-up to his Oscar-winning classic “All About Eve”, but I wouldn’t really put this in the same category. However I found this film so odd, it became almost enjoyable. 2.5 stars out of 4

Kiss Them For Me (1957) An effective World War II dark comedy. Taking place in 1944, the film stars Cary Grant as a soldier who takes a four-day leave to New York with his two buddies. Part of their excursion is also meant as a promotional tool since the three of them are seen as war heroes, however they want nothing to do with it, they mostly want to party fast, drink till their drunk and fall in love with beautiful women. What surprised me about this film is how it doesn’t shy away from the effects the was has on the soldiers, Grant’s character is obviously suffering from some sort of PTSD, and it isn’t afraid to address it without being heavy-handed. The film was directed by Stanley Donen who made the more light-hearted musical about soldiers on leave in New York called “On the Town”. Unlike that film, this was a box office bomb, but it’s no wonder, it feels like a hidden classic. There are many funny moments in this film, it almost feels like a precursor to MASH. The one glaring mark against this film is Grant’s leading lady played by Suzy Parker who isn’t much of an actress. Parker was mostly known as a model, and she just isn’t suited well for the moments she is asked to be dramatic. Other than that, this is a hidden gem. 3.5 stars out of 4

Hi, Mom! (1970) An avant-garde social satire film starring Robert De Niro in one of his earliest roles. Directed by Brian De Palma, De Niro plays a Vietnam veteran who pitches to a porn producer the idea of filming through his window of his apartment to his neighbour’s windows. This makes him want to seduce one of his neighbours while filming it. After that falls through, he then becomes interested in a black experience theatre group. For anyone who enjoys experimental filmmaking, especially from the 1970s, you should enjoy this. De Niro is very well cast as a disenchanted army veteran who is trying to find some meaning in his life. The scene where the black theatre group takes a group of white people into their black experience is one of the most darkly hilarious scenes ever with a very clever punchline. 4 stars out of 4

T-Men (1947) A wonderful film noir about a group of treasury department officers going undercover to expose a counterfeit money ring. The black and white cinematography in this film is some of the best I’ve ever seen making look very contemporary and exciting. The one drawback is the old-fashioned narration which plagues the film a little too much. However the hard-boiled performances, stylish direction, and dynamic cinematography make this a film not to be missed. 3.5 stars out of 4

The Best Sequels Ever…?

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With no motive behind this list, other than I recently read an article on the best sequels ever made so I wanted to give my two cents, and I was bored so here it goes…

1. The Godfather Part 2: I’m not going to go into the “is the sequel better than the original” debate. Suffice it to say, both “Godfather” films are masterpieces. The sequel can be deemed far more ambitious and experimental as it juxtaposes stories between young Don Vito Corleone with his son Michael. They pinpoint two different eras of the family. Vito’s rise to crime came out of necessity, while Michael is trapped within that legacy, becoming doomed and damning himself more and more . The acting is on point in this film as it is in the first one. Particular points should be given to Robert De Niro as the young Vito,  and John Cazale as the youngest brother Fredo. But after watching this again recently I was blown away by how good Al Pacino is in this as Michael. The transformation of Michael from idealistic war hero in the first film to the final frame in this one where he becomes more or less a walking zombie without a soul. A shadow of a man haunted by his misdeeds. The moment he closes the door on Diane Keaton’s Kay for the last time, I got the sense that all of his humanity was gone and it gave me the chills. If you haven’t in a while, I’d recommend you re watch the first two “Godfather” films if anything just to be reminded just how great they both are.

2. The Bride of Frankenstein: The original “Frankenstein” was a classic, I love the creation scene in it, with Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein orgasmically shouting “It’s Alive!”. Boris Karloff was the monster you could love and his scene next to the pond with the little girl is still unsettling. “Bride” had everything the original had but more. Production design was bigger with a tremendous score adding a grandiosity to the proceedings the original didn’t have. Karloff’s monster becomes more profound and tragic by adding a speaking voice. The dark humour is way ahead of its time and hilarious. Elsa Lanchester gives off a great impression as the hissing bride giving one of the great finales in film history.

3. Three Colors: Red: The final film in the interconnected trilogy of stories by Polish Filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski is the best in the series. The story of fate and second chances focusing on the relationship between a young woman and an old retired judge. The two may be strangers or they may have met in another life or another world. No other film focuses solely on the theme of connection such as this with Kieslowski cleverly linking the other two films of his trilogy at the end of this making it seem like one wonderful piece.

4. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Dare I say, without trying to sound contrarian that I sometimes think the Temple of Doom is the best Indiana Jones film. I have to say “Raiders of the Lost Ark” works so well as a full throttle, non-stop entertainment filled with child like glee and joy that doesn’t let up. “Temple of Doom” does that too, but with more audacity taking it to its full “heart-ripping” potential. I can watch “Raiders” from beginning to end basking in the old-fashioned adventure of it all. I watch “Temple of Doom” with that same elation but with trepidation and shock.

5. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: The last film in the famed “Dollars” trilogy with Clint Eastwood’ss iconic Man with No Name teaming up with Eli Wallach’s anti-hero Tuco to find some gold hidden in a graveyard as they are persued by Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes. All through this trilogy, director Sergio Leone was building up to this film. The first film “A Fistful of Dollars” was a modest homage to Akira Kurosawa, by the time he got to this one, he had found his full voice. The final showdown in this film is one for the ages. There is enough excitement and poignancy to fill five films.

6. Kill Bill Vol. 2: Some may argue that the “Kill Bill” films was one film released in two parts. Maybe, but there is such a difference in tone between the two films, I would suggest they work as individual pieces. At any rate, the entire “Kill Bill” saga remains my favorite thing Quentin Tarantino has ever done. Doing what he does best, Tarantino mixes and remixes genres in ways that suit him giving us an all time classic heroine in the process. Uma Thurman rips through these films with righteous fury you can’t help but root for her. Volume two enriches her story more, personalizing it with her moments with Bill and her extensive training under taskmaster Pai Mai. The scene where she breaks out of a coffin is one of the all time great epic moments in any action film.

7. Before Sunset: The second and best film in the Richard Linklater series with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meeting up in Paris nine years after their one night together which ended “Before Sunrise”. Taking place in real-time before Hawke’s character has to make a flight, the two rekindle their romance, and both look back on their one night together and departure thereafter as a missed opportunity. This film is all about that “what if” moment when you meet the love of your life again after letting them go, what would you do? The film glows with its Paris setting, Hawke and Delpy ease into their characters as if they have been playing them all of their lives, and Linklater has never made a better film.

8. The Empire Strikes Back: Probably the only reason this film isn’t higher on my list is I’m one of the few people who thinks the original Star Wars film is still the best one. That being said, I can’t deny the emotional depth of “Empire” as well as the introduction of new characters, particularly Yoda who says the most poetic lines in the entire series. The series does get darker with this, but never loses its sense of fun or old-fashioned excitement which was really what the original trilogy was all about. In the annals of history “Empire” will always be the “Star Wars” movie all others are judged upon. Many have tried to emulate it with their sequels, but its hard to think of anything coming close to it.

9. After the Thin Man: The second film in the “Thin Man” series is every bit as charming, witty, and sophisticated as the original. William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Norah Charles are one of the great couples ever to be put on film. Only they could make a gruesome thing like murder feel as lighthearted as a cocktail party. This film is also an added bonus in that it features Jimmy Stewart in a very early role in his career and completely killing it as someone you wouldn’t think he would ever play.

10. Mad Max: Fury Road: I went back and forth on this or “The Road Warrior” which at least deserves an honorable mention. But in the end “Fury Road” is just a juggernaut of visual storytelling. The “Mad Max” films are more or less chase movies, but it’s what director George Miller can convey in all that action that remains so compelling. Through “Fury Road” Miller is able to depict a story about the abuse of power, feminist empowerment, personal redemption, as well as creating an honest, truthful relationship between Max (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron) which grows from distrust, to a true understanding without hardly a sentence between the two of them.

A few honorable mentions would be “Back to the Future Part 2”, “Gremlins 2” “Stolen Kisses”, “The Curse of the Cat People”, “John Wick Chapter 2″,”Creed”, “Superman 2”, “Spiderman 2”, “Batman Returns”, “The Dark Knight”, “Sanjuro”, “From Russia With Love” , both “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King”, “and most recently “Blade Runner 2049”.

So did I miss anything? Am I way off on some? Do you flat-out disagree? Am I a pretentious snob for having a film by a Polish director on here? Please let me know and share with me your thoughts.