Top Ten Comedies

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In response to BBC Cultures 100 Greatest Comedies which was just recently released, I decided to add my two cents. I won’t do a full 100 but here are my top ten.

  1. Horse Feathers (1932)
  2. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  3. Our Hospitality (1926)
  4. The Circus (1927)
  5. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
  6. Roxanne (1987)
  7. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
  8. Good Morning (1959)
  9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  10. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
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Things I saw in August

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Branded to Kill (1967) A stylistic crime thriller about an assassin who becomes a marked man after a botched job. The film is obsessed with death in so many ways and gets under your skin. That being said this is an enjoyable psychedelic odyssey of a movie, and one that stays with you. 4 stars out of 4

The Glass Castle (2017) Based on a true story of a family who live like destitutes for most of their lives thanks mostly to their alcoholic, non-conformist father. Soon the children fend for themselves and escape on their own to New York. This is a well made family drama with great performances. 3 stars out of 4

Logan Lucky (2017) Steven Sodebergh’s return to feature filmmaking after a bit of a hiatus. He returns to the heist genre that he perfected so well with “Ocean’s 11” and “Out of Sight”. This one plays like a deadpan comedy taking place in the deep south. This turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for late summer escapism. 3.5 stars out of 4

The Defenders (2017) Netflix’s version of “The Avengers” with the teaming of their four Marvel shows in one big showdown. Being mainly only a fan of “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage”, this storyline which was lifted from the dreadful season 2 of “Daredevil doesn’t hold much water or stakes. Having never watched “Iron Fist” I was confused with what his stakes were all in this. Jessica and Luke who are the most down to earth heroes in this bring great gravitas in their scenes where they merely add some realism and comic relief to the situation. Forget all this nonsense and just wait for season 2 of “Jessica Jones” which is taking forever. 2 stars out of 4

Things I Saw in July

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1. Baby Driver (2017): Edgar Wright’s latest is a brilliant conceit of a car chase movie acting as a musical. The film is fused with a cool soundtrack and some very creative car chase choreography. In the end I was inspired to get in my car and hit the open road. However the film is not without its flaws, the entire third act runs into some over the top trouble that seems out of place, also overlong and convoluted. The film’s lead Ansel Elgort is rather bland compared to the outstanding supporting cast surrounding him, and to be honest this just isn’t as cinematic as some of Wright’s better efforts. That being said, this is a pretty good time at the movies. 3 stars out of 4

2. Spiderman Homecoming (2017): This is now the sixth big screen version of everyone’s favorite webslinger and the first now run by the juggernaut known as Marvel Studios. There hasn’t been a Spiderman movie I haven’t liked just a little bit, I would even defend some parts in “The Amazing Spiderman 2” which had me sobbing in the end. However this Spiderman is very fun and amusing, light on its feet and never getting dogged down with too much emotion. Tom Holland is very fun with his iteration of the character, and the supporting cast including Michael Keaton as the villain and an underused Marisa Tomei as Aunt Mae make it even more fun. This is the best Marvel film in a long time which had me ready to cheer. 3.5 stars out of 4

3. Moana (2016): This Disney film released last year about a young Polynesian Princess with the power of the Ocean on a quest to restore the heart of the ocean with the help of a wisecracking demagogue is quaint at best. The animation is rather impressive but the story as a whole doesn’t add up to much and the songs which were written by Lin Manuel Miranda are kinda forgettable. Despite one inspiring sequence involving a sinister crab (voiced by Jermaine Clement) this felt like a misfire. 2 stars out of 4

4. Dunkirk (2017): Christopher Nolan’s telling of the famous World War 2 story of British soldiers fleeing the beaches of Dunkirk is perhaps his most visually stunning film to date. The story remains lean and somewhat small concentrating on events happening on land, sea, and air. All of this culminates with an impressive finale. A lot of the imagery remains poetic and restrained, Nolan never tries to shock us with the usual violence shown in war movies which makes it unique. However the film left me cold for some reason. However Kudos to Nolan for bringing poetry to his imagery some of which are truly breathtaking. Perhaps I’ll feel differently about this film in time, like some of Nolan’s work it might grow on me. 3.5 stars out of 4

5. Valarian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Director Luc Besson is a polaraizing director, however I found his last film “Lucy” to be visually vibrant and stunning. “Valarian” finds him in the sci-fi mode yet again however this one is far more space operay. For those who think “Star Wars” has the monopoly on space opera, think again. “Valarian” is not a perfect film by any means, the main plot is rather meaningless but rather it’s a mcguffin to explore the visual feast that is in this film., and the final act becomes too predictable with too much exposition. More often it mostly focuses on the misadventures of Valarian (Dane DeHann) and his partner Lauraline (Cara Delevingne), as the two seem to keep on saving eachother from one mishap to another. Judging how the film has fared at the box office, chances are slim we’ll see another adventure from Valarian and Lauraline anytime soon and that’s a shame. This is fun, eccentric popcorn entertainment that doesn’t feel homogenized quite yet in studio sameness. 3.5 stars out of 4

6. The Beguiled (2017) Easily the best film I saw this month is Sophia Coppola’s stunning “The Beguiled” a civil war chamber piece where women from an all girls school take in a wounded yankee soldier. The tension starts off small and begins getting more and more disturbing as the young ladies start taking more of a liking to the soldier until the unthinkable happens. Coppola fuses the film in white light and soft focuses to make it feel dreamlike, no wonder there have been comparisons to her first feature “Virgin Suicides”. But this is more genre like than we have seen from her before and it is a treat to the senses along with great performances from Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. 4 stars out of 4

7. It Came From Outer Space (1953) Classic sci-fi film from the 50s from a story by Ray Bradbury finds a small town at odds with an alien spaceship which crash lands in the desert. Soon the alien beings take on the likeness of the people in the town even though their motives remain unclear. This is a rather optimistic view of  the aliens from another planet approach where most of these films contained certain social issues of the time, the aliens here feel more belevolent figures than mostly seen at the time. The film is fun for sci-fi/classic movie buffs such as myself. 3.5 stars out of 4

Best of the Year So Far…

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I can’t say I have seen a lot of films this year, at least ones that have kept my interest, however I have seen very few duds. I have decided only to do a top five since I haven’t seen enough to give you a top ten, however I could’ve easily added room for “Logan”, “Kong: Skull Island”, and “It Comes at Night” on this list, but this is definitely the best films I’ve seen so far this year.

1. John Wick: Chapter Two: Starting with an action packed and hilarious prologue (Thanks to “Fargo’s” Peter Storemare who skims through the first film’s plot in case you missed it), John Wick: Chapter Two adds to the world of assassins and intrigue as it did the first time and never fucking lets up. This is a film so lean, so clear on what it is, and so action packed and visually inventive, I literally don’t remember loving an action movie this much in a long time. Keanu Reeves has found a character that goes towards his strengths, John Wick is low-key, stone faced, and zen all at once. He adds humour even if he doesn’t know it. This time John Wick is called upon a job after taking a blood oath, even though all he wants is peace. He must now kill a whole heck of a lot of people to find that peace, but is that enough? For those of us who find these films utterly, and unapologetically kinetic fun for any action fan, I am excited to see this one of a kind dog lover on his next adventure.

2. Get Out: Unique horror/satire from the mind of Jordan Peele, is a clever, twisty, thriller playing on the ideas of race relations between white privilege and black identity. This movie has fun with subverting what our expectations are, and doesn’t forget to call on the horror movie tropes (It’s all there in the title for crying out loud). The film does a great job at setting up its world and building enough mystery and suspense to keep us intrigued. Peele adds a bit of surrealism into the mix which adds to the paranoia and strangeness going around.

3. The Big Sick: I’ve noticed lately that there have been a lot of indie comedies featuring stand-up comedians playing a version of themselves whilst incorporating the world of stand-up comedy to the plot. For some reason I get turned off by this idea so I’ve missed a lot of these films (I think “Funny People” soured me to the whole idea). However despite this, I found “The Big Sick” to be utterly charming, funny, and sweet. “The Big Sick”gives us Kumail Nanijiani (Who co-wrote the film with his wife) a comedian from Pakistan who falls in love with a white girl which is forbidden in his family, only to have that girl fall into a coma and he realizes how much he loves her. This is based on Nanigiani’s real life experience when he met his wife. The movie has that warm humor and heart that keeps you invested and makes you want the two leads to end up together. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter add great support, this is proof that the romantic comedy is not dead.

4. Wonder Woman: A refreshing take on the super hero genre in that the Amazon Princess doesn’t share the flaws and human traits of the usual brand of Marvel super heroes. What makes Wonder Woman so amazing to see is she is literally a super human knowing what is right and what is wrong, and knowing she has the power to stop it. Wonder Woman carries no shades of grey and this is something that hasn’t been seen since Christopher Reeve embodied so much goodness in “Superman”.  A definite crown-pleaser for the summer, “Wonder Woman” is an empowering, good time at the movies that might make you believe that good can conquer all.

5. The Beguiled: Sophia Coppola’s remake of the Don Seigel/Clint Eastwood film of the same name is a soft poetic chamber piece. Going back to the themes she first explored in her debut film “Virgin Suicides”, this deals with female repression towards sexual awakenings but told as a thriller, when an injured Yankee officer is taken to an all girl school to recuperate. His presence seems to have a different effect on all the girls there until he might be seen as a threat. Coppola (Who won best director at Cannes) has a light touch on the tension being built here, slowlywith little to no music and using the claustrophobic setting to her advantage. This is a very effective art house thriller with great performances particularly by Nicole Kidman as the head mistress, and Kirsten Dunst as the head school teacher.

 

The Long Goodbye

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Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” can be seen as an update of the film noir detective genre. He takes a very familiar character from 40s noir, Phillip Marlowe, who was portrayed by such film legends as Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Robert Montgomery among others and plants him right in the middle of 1970s counter-culture Los Angeles. The Marlowe seen in the earlier films was usually a white knight in a dark criminal world. He was incorruptible, and usually smarter than everyone else in the room. He was rarely fooled, and was always one step ahead of the criminal. But Altman shows us in the 1970s that his Marlowe is a man out of time, always one step behind the shades of grey characters he stumbles upon, sometimes bumbling onto scenarios he isn’t always in control of. However in the end he’s able to find a new moral code that may not fit so much with the old ways, but he’s still able to come out the hero.

“The Long Goodbye” was adapted from the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel of the same name and was written by Leigh Brackett who co-wrote that other Phillip Marlowe classic “The Big Sleep” which starred Humphrey Bogart as the titular character. Altman was known to play it loose with the script and was not afraid of having his actors improvise, however much of Brackett’s overall outline still lives on in the film, and she was reported to have been “satisfied” by it.

The new Marlowe for this strange world is played by Elliott Gould who to me feels like somewhat of a forgotten star of the 70s even though he made so many important films. We first see Gould’s Marlowe sleeping in his bed when he’s awoken by his hungry cat, for whom he goes to a 24 supermarket for in order to get its favorite cat food. It goes without saying Marlowe loves this cat and speaks to his character that he’s willing to go in the middle of the night in order that its fed.

It’s pretty soon after that Marlowe has to go to great lengths for another friend, this time a human named Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Terry wants Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana without much explanation other than a fight with his wife.  Marlowe hardly bats an eye, so being the dutiful friend obliges. The next morning, Marlowe is picked up by the police under suspicion of the murder of Lennox’s wife, then later he learns Lennox himself died from apparent suicide.

This doesn’t add up for Marlowe as the cops believe Lennox is the guilty party, but he constantly defends him. Pretty soon the labyrinth of a plot most accustomed to these types of movies begins to form. Marlowe is hired by the beautiful Mrs. Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her husband Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a boisterous alcoholic writer, who is drying out and is at the mercy of a corrupt medical doctor (Henry Gibson). What is their connection to Lennox? There is also a violent gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who Lennox owed money to and who thinks Marlowe knows where it is.

The mystery does all come together in the end, but the idea behind the film noir is really in how the story is told. There is the cliché of light and shadow during the old black and white days, while the detectives wore fedoras and trench coats with hazy cigarette smoke filling the screen. Altman plays with these tropes with Marlowe being the only one who is constantly smoking, while his neighbours, who are half-naked hippy girls, mostly meditate, eat hash brownies, and do yoga (this isn’t the time for the classic detective).

The film does have the hazy look which comes courtesy of the late great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who also shot Altman’s other genre-bender, the western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”. Zsigmond shoots Los Angeles like a smoky landscape, very dreamlike complementing Altman’s roaming camera, as it zooms in and out on the people and places all the time. There are moments that seem unreal such as a prominent scene where the camera zooms away from a conversation between two people to focus on a major character in the background running into the ocean about to commit suicide. There is another important cut of violence involving a coke bottle and woman’s face which seems to come out of nowhere making it all the more shocking. Altman was not known for being a very violent director, but when he uses it in his movies, they are like a wake-up call that there is more at stake here than originally meets the eye.

Then there’s the music by John Williams. This is early John Williams before he would become Spielberg’s personal composer and writing for intergalactic space operas. Williams score for this is a smooth jazzy feel which adds to the haziness of the film. Along with that is the recurring title song written by Williams and Johnny Mercer. The song is weaved into the story used with different orchestrations and singers. It compliments the film almost as a hypnotic reminder of how Marlowe is running around in circles unsure of himself, chasing something that isn’t there.

Yet in the peripheral of this story, Altman is using his murder mystery as a sort of  commentary of 1970s America. We aren’t taken too far away from what Altman (A counter-culture hero) thinks is wrong with his country. There’s a reason Marlowe is so confused and can’t keep up with what’s going on, it’s a world that doesn’t make sense to him, a world that is full of people you can’t trust, even those who are close to you. Altman taps into a certain paranoia not seen in the earlier Marlowe iterations. Gould’s Marlowe is so mixed up, at one point he becomes drunk raving at the police and losing his cool, that’s not something Bogart would ever do, yet that’s the point, the times they are a’changin. However despite these changes, Marlowe is still the moral compass, he’s the one you can count on to see what’s right, he’s just having trouble trying to adjust which direction he should go.

I never lived in the 70s, I was born in 1980 so I just missed it. I can’t exactly understand what it would’ve been like to live in that decade but in terms of cinema, I’d like to think Robert Altman was what the 70s really meant to some people. Altman was probably the greatest filmmaker of that defining decade with a prolific filmography which averaged about 1 a year, that’s pretty impressive. Most of his films during that period dealt with America in a lot of ways. Altman sometimes revised many film genres or deconstructed them in order to comment on what America was at the time.  There was never a filmmaker like him, and probably never will be again.

 

Things I Saw In June

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Bit of a slow month for me, I only saw four new movies, but all very good.

Wonder Woman (2017) One of the best super hero films I’ve seen in a long, long, time. Gal Godot’s Amazon Princess is as pure, as selfless, and as righteous as Christopher Reeve’s Superman and thank God. For a genre as homgenized as the Super hero genre, this one felt like a breath of fresh air. Wonder Woman isn’t a complex character and the thrill of this movie is watching her be heroic. Godot shares great chemistry between love interest Chris Pine, and most of the supporting cast is well drawn out. 3 1/2 stars out of 4

The Virgin Suicides (1999) Sophia Coppola’s debut film about a group of sisters who are repressed by their uptight, religious parents and the boys on their street who become obsessed with them. This is visually stunning film like all of Coppola’s films filled with melacholey, but also a dark sense of humour. Kiersten Dunst is a stand-out as the most promiscuous one of the sisters, this is a beautiful film. 3 1/2 stars out of 4

Alien: Covenant (2017) Ridley Scott’s sequel to “Prometheus” is a fairly successful update to the “Alien” franchise, as it continues Scott’s themes of creation, and metaphysics. This is “Prometheus” but with more fan service. We see the Xenomorph in all its glory although the CGI version feels less scary than the original, also I feel Scott isn’t that interested in it. What is interesting is the dual role of Michael Fassbender as android David from the first film and as an updated version of him named Walter. David is the real villain of the film and Fassbender makes him very interesting. The rest of the cast is game too particularly Katherine Waterson taking over the Ripley helm. This film has a lot to say, and the visuals are rich. 3 stars out of 4

It Comes At Night (2017) A great movie that I have no interest in seeing again. This is a grim, dark, film that basically bummed me out in the end, but it is so well made, you have to give it points. Taking place in the near future where some virus has wiped out most of humanity, it follows one family who have locked themselves up in a house fending for themselves, while another family comes into their lives to complicate matters. The film is mostly a thriller concerning itself on the basis on how can you trust someone, and the lengths you will go through to protect your family, and if it’s all worth it in the end. This is all interesting stuff to bring up, although the results are pretty hard to take. I can’t say I enjoyed myself, but the tension is felt throughout and is so well put together, I couldn’t help but admire it, it’s just not a good time. 3 1/2 stars out of 4

 

The Shop Around The Corner

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If I could name maybe one perfect movie, it might just be “The Shop Around The Corner”. Many names can be brought up on this argument, but I might just stick with this film being my answer.

Not many films can capture the delicate elegance this one can capture. It’s light on its feet but has a tinge of darkness to it. It’s full of organic gags that seem to come from thin air, that one can barely notice how they build the film’s structure. It can be funny as well as a bit sad. It’s romantic in a way very few movies are, and cracks open just enough sentimentality that you can swallow it without it becoming too sweet. It’s a charming fantasy romantic comedy that feels very down to earth. It’s all of these things which feel impossible to contain in one movie, yet it does and it’s glorious.

We are told in the opening scroll of the film that the story will focus on the employees of Matuschek and Company, a department store in Budapest. Mr. Matuchek (Frank Morgan) is a bit of a blowhard himself with a short temper but isn’t really a bad sort of guy. He’s seen as a respectable boss who the employees want to please. His lead salesman and surrogate son is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) a loyal and dependable worker whose opinion Mr. Matuchek values more than anyone else. This is perhaps because Kralik is the only one who can get away with being honest to Matuchek and stand up to him when his blow hardness gets out of hand.

Enter Klara (Margaret Sullivan) a poor sales girl who is out of work and wonders in Matuschek and Co. looking for a job. She pleads to Kralik first who sympathizes with her but frankly says they aren’t hiring at the moment. However she proves herself worthy by being able to sell an annoying music box which Kralik hates but Matuschtek likes, thus securing her a position at the store.

Later we find that Kralik and Klara are not really getting along well with each other as they find any way to bicker and fight. However, little do they know, they happen to be secret pen pals who have been writing to each other anonymously and at the same time falling in love. This would be a nice surprise for both of them if the suspicion of Kralik having an affair with Mr. Matuschek’s wife didn’t complicate matters.

“The Shop Around The Corner” feels very lived in as it focuses on its characters. They are painted as very relateable people who are concerned about everyday things like making a living or spending too much money. There are two separate scenes where the employees hang around the front of the store waiting for Mr. Matuschtek arrival to open the store. Here we see them shooting the breeze as co-workers would, about things that concern them. The dialogue speaks so much as to who they are but it remains playful and very light, for instance there is a bit of gossip about Mr.Matuchek’s wife and how she may have had her face lifted, or Kralik complaining of indigestion after he had too much goose liver at the boss’ house the night before. These moments are very mundane, but there is beauty in the way they are presented as a sort of observational comedy much in the same vein modern comedies have become.

But there is sadness and loneliness crept in these people as well. There is a bit of a quiet struggle within everyone to feel happiness and in that way it leads to a desperation in the love story between Kralik and Klara. They are two people who oppose each other, yet they yearn for the same thing: that feeling of connection one gets when you fall in love. They are both book-worms which might add to their feeling of romance and whimsy to their otherwise unremarkable existence. With Kralik and Klara we see what most of us want out of this world, that break of reality romance can give you. This unrealistic affection builds up this fantasy in their heads as to who their secret pen pal might be, and the film plays on this with pitch perfect aplomb for both parties.

Things start to come ahead when Kralik actually finds out first he’s been corresponding with Klara, and when he sees her in a cafe waiting for her Prince Charming, it ends up being one of the best dialogue scenes in all of cinema. Here we see Kralik sizing himself up with Klara figuring out if she might be someone he could fall in love with. It’s a wonderful two-handed bit of sincerity, flirtation, and contempt, but each one dodging their true feelings the other might have for one another. Stewart and Sullivan are evenly matched here and have never been so charming or sweet. Stewart is known for his “awe-shucks” persona and there is a bit of that here, yet he’s playing someone who is a bit more sophisticated than you might see in the films he made for Frank Capra. He makes Kralik into a bit of a neurotic who’s obsessive compulsive about his place in the department store, which hides away a real insecurity about himself.

Sullivan is one of those great forgotten actresses who sadly isn’t as well-remembered today, even though she starred in three other films with Stewart. Klara is probably her best known role today, and she gives off a wonderful grace with her whispery register to her lines. Klara is the real lonely heart in the film, she is able to convey such hopefulness and sorrow in her eyes, she can break your heart with a glance. As film critic David Thompson noted that the moment Klara looks in an empty mail box as she sees she has received no letter from her pen pal is one of the greatest shots in film history as Sullivan conveys so much heart ache, you just want to reach out to her.

There are so many of these moments, usually done with glances or reactions that draw up so much subtle emotion, despite the film being filled with so much wonderful dialogue. It is worth noting the film’s direction Ernst Lubitsch who is a legend. Lubitsch is known for inventing the modern romantic comedy and is probably as important to the genre as Hitchcock is to thrillers. Lubitsch started in silent films creating wonderful bedroom comedies that involved love triangles, and infidelity. Yet Lubitsch was never one to show too much in his films, rather he always hinted at something more devilish or naughty going on usually by implying it with bits of dialogue or a glance of an actor’s expression. There is a bit of that going on in “The Shop Around The Corner” particularly involving the affair sub-plot with Matuschtek ‘s wife, something that isn’t played so much for laughs as in Lubitsch’s earlier films, but is rather played with subtle pathos. This is the film where Lubitsch comes down to earth a little bit, although not entirely, he’s still able to bring lightness to what could have potentially be dark.

There is a love Lubitsch has for his characters here, and you could sense he was trying to go for something more authentic than he was in his more frivolous though brilliant high-class comedies. Above all he’s staying sophisticated, he never goes for the easy joke, but rather builds his jokes around the world he creates. The humour comes from the situations, the characters, and the tone of the film. Lubitsch never sacrifices the mood for a joke, he wants us to care about these people, not laugh at them, the fact that something funny might happen is part of its charm.

“The Shop Around the Corner” wasn’t that big of a success when it came out, which is a surprise considering Lubitsch was one of the most successful filmmakers at the time. I feel like when it came out, it may have looked like a bit of a modest film, nothing too spectacular about it, it’s a humble story about humble people who are looking for love, it doesn’t strive for anything more. But there is a truth to this film that has made it remain special, it speaks to that yearning in all of us, and that feeling of wanting to be loved and wanting to fall in love. It’s very easy to see ourselves in a film like “The Shop Around the Corner” maybe that’s why it remains so timeless, and so charming. Many films have tried to reach perfection this film has obtained, it’s the type of perfection that is invisible to the naked eye, it doesn’t try to impress us, it’s much to sophisticated for that. When they say “they don’t make em like they used to” you could relate it to “The Shop Around the Corner”, but I would alter it a bit by saying they can’t make em like they used to.

Things I Saw In May

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The Last Hurrah (1958) John Ford’s film of a political boss running for re-election but is losing touch with his constituency is prime Fordian values featuring a great performance by Spencer Tracy. The film slips in usual Fordian sentimentality of nostalgia and the way things used to be, and the ending doesn’t have the emotional impact it wants to have. Still you have to admire the film’s tenacity. 3 stars out of 4

Two Rode Together (1961) A strange film from John Ford, this one a western about the search for missing children who were kidnapped by Cherokee warriors. James Stewart and Richard Widmark lead the march to find the kidnapped children both knowing there isn’t much hope. The film doesn’t know what it wants to be, and goes in too many directions, even though the darker aspects of the film are fascinating. I wish I loved this more, but this was a misfire. 2 stars out of 4

The Big Combo (1955) Famous film noir about a police detective trying to bring down a notorious mob boss. Shot is stark black and white emphasizing light and shadow to full effect, the film’s plot feels secondary which now plays like a generic take on a cop show. That being said, the screen is filled with some great moments and characters 3 stars out of 4

The Razor’s Edge (1946) Based on a personal favorite book of mine by Somerset Maugham about a young man who comes home from the war and is no longer satisfied with the material world and instead sets off on a more spiritual journey to find out what life really is about. This feels like a somewhat sanitized version of the novel but comes off as an impressive Hollywood re-telling, if not quite as satisfying as one might hope. The film features a great cast including Tyrone Power in the lead, Herbert Marshall in a meta version of Maugham, and Anne Baxter who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a woman who loses her family in a car accident. Good just not great. 3 stars out of 4

Uncle Yanco/Black Panthers (1967-68) Two short documentaries by Agnes Varda that display a unique verve and energy. The first one is a personal documentary on Varda’s own bohemian Uncle while the other chronicles a protest of the Black Panther party after one of their founders was imprisoned. 3.5 stars out of 4

Lions, Love, (….and lies) (1969) Agnes Varda’s meta film about three hippies who live together in Los Angeles while a movie director crashes at their place is the type of post-modern film that is exciting to watch in that it feels so fresh and original. Varda plants us into this documentary like atmosphere where you’re not quite sure what is real and what is not. Much of it was improvised on the spot with real life events most significantly the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy influencing the plot. The final moments of this film are breathtaking. 4 stars out of 4

Mur Murs (1981) Varda’s documentary on mural makers in Los Angeles is an interesting take on fringe artists in the California community. Many of the artists come from different backgrounds but share the commonality that what they make is to them a form of art. Varda makes the point in showcasing these artists who are mostly anonymous with their paintings yet create canvases as big as Michelangelo. 3.5 stars out of 4

Documenteur (1981) A short film about a mother who lives alone in an apartment with her son. Throughout the film you feel it is going somewhere but without warning it suddenly ends as if unfinished which feels frustrating, however moments in time can feel like that. Much of the film feels like it’s just filled with moments, and Varda makes it all seem so real and important. 3 stars out of 4

Two For the Road (1967) Outstanding film chronicling a couple’s history by the many road trips they made together and how they ending up bitter and resentful at one another. Directed by Stanley Donen who creates clever time lines in the film and wonderful performances by Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, this is really a wonderful hidden gem for any movie lover. 4 stars out of 4

The Unforgiven (1960) John Huston’s bizarre western about a family who raise a girl who was taken from her first nations family and raised as white. The past comes back to haunt them and this film goes in all sorts of strange directions including an incestuous relationship with the girl and her adopted brother, who just happen to be played by Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. Huston seems to have something here for awhile, but the conclusion disappoints in more ways than one which makes this not quite the classic it could’ve been. 3 stars out of 4

The Fate of the Furious (2017) The latest in the Fast and the Furious franchise is big dumb silly fun but there was a slight disconnect with this one which didn’t make it feel fully formed. Still the set pieces are fun enough. Not as memorable as other entries, but not it delivers on most levels. 3 stars out of 4

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) Marvel movies have become like a drug, I keep going back for more even though the entertainment value never goes above pretty good. Marvel movies feel like great mediocrity most of the time, and this one is no exception although it has some pretty funny bits, I just can’t help but see everyone just doing a competent job but not going above what is expected of them. This is just fine and what the fans want. 3 stars out of 4

The Drunken Master (1978) Jackie Chan’s breakout role some might say is a great kung fu comedy that never takes itself too seriously but contains some very amusing, and impressive kung-fu action. This shows of Chan’s real talent the way no Hollywood movie ever gives him, I wonderful, funny, film. 3.5 stars out of 4

Bojack Horseman Season 3 (2016) The most recent season of Bojack Horseman contains some very inventive episode namely one that is mostly silent, while Bojack tries to get Oscar gold. This goes into darker territory most animated comedies don’t tread. I never feel good after a Bojack episode, but I do come away feeling impressed. 3.5 stars out of 4

Away From Her

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The thing that comes back to me as I think about a film like “Away from Her” is the snow. Snow feels like it’s flooding the film, almost covering it entirely, at times it’s all we see. There is a recurring scene with Fiona (Julie Christie), a woman who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s as she is trekking through the snow on cross-country skis. She is shown with her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsett), but also shown alone. Not much else fills the screen in these scenes other than Fiona. She is travelling on a blank slate, her mind is going, at one point she becomes lost and wanders into a forest. The camera goes from a bird’s-eye view and moves in as she lays down as if engulfed by her surroundings. This must be how it feels when your mind is going.

“Away From Her” deals with Alzheimer’s in a very straight forward way, it pulls no punches on the effects it has on the people who suffer from it, as well as the people who have to watch it happen. But this film is also a love story, and a very effective one at that. It deals with two people who have been married for 45 years and know each other inside and out. They share time together, cross-country ski near their cottage home ,and read books to eachother on their couch. It’s hard to imagine losing the memories of someone who could be that close to you, yet that is just what happens to their world.

We see almost right away Fiona acting a bit out of the ordinary as Grant catches her putting a frying pan in the freezer. Later she has problems remembering which drawers are for which utensils in the kitchen, she has to write notes on them to remember. Things progress during a dinner party,  when Fiona holds up a bottle of wine and can’t quite remember how to say the word “wine”. In this quietly devastating moment, she states that “(she) may be beginning to disappear”.

Grant is reluctant at first to accept that Fiona has Alzheimer’s as he believes she is still rather young to get it. Indeed she does look younger than most people whom one might associate that have the disease, but it becomes more clear to both of them that it is what she has. Not wanting Grant to become her caregiver as her condition worsens, Fiona sets her mind into moving to a care center called Meadow Brook. The catch that does not seem all that enticing to Grant is that once she is admitted to the facility, she is barred from any visitors for the first thirty days in order for a smoother transition.

After the thirty-day prohibition is lifted Grant visits Fiona to find that she has forgotten him completely and has now started a relationship with another resident named Aubrey (Michael Murphy).  Grant is helpless, but he is persistent continuing to visit her every day with the hope that maybe she might remember him.

It’s hard to believe that “Away From Her” could be anyone’s first film considering how assured it is, yet it was the first film by Canadian icon Sarah Polley. Polley started off as a child actress and moved on to be a staple of Canadian independent film. American audiences might know her best in her lead role in the horror remake of “Dawn of the Dead”, but she didn’t go the Hollywood route and instead stayed in her home country of Canada to become the highly respected filmmaker she is today.

Polley directs as if she belonged behind the camera all her life, making the film feel poetic, and dream like. Occasionally Polley cuts from the present to the past to show us Fiona as a young woman seen the way perhaps Grant remembers her. Memory and the past play an important part in the story as we find Grant wasn’t always the faithful husband he is now. It is revealed he did have an affair with a student while he was a university professor, something Fiona has not forgotten at the beginning of the film, and one that makes Grant riddled with guilt. When he first sees Fiona with Aubrey part of him believes it’s her way of punishing him.

Perhaps it is his way of punishing himself as he continues to visit Fiona as she carries on with this man right in front of him. It might also be away for him to make amends and put the past behind him. After Aubrey leaves Meadow Brook from his wife (Olymipa Dukakis), Grant pleads with her to bring him back so Fiona won’t be depressed.

Is Fiona playing mind games? It is never spells it out for us if she can remember, but there are hints of clarity as if she does know Grant, or at least has a vague recollection of who he might be. These scenes are even more tragic, but they are all the more human. What’s worse? To think the person you love might forget you all together or that you might seem familiar to them but they just can’t recall who you are? For some there might be some false hope in the latter, but as one character points out, their memory could come back at any time, but maybe only for a moment and then be gone again. For Grant perhaps he’s hoping for a glimmer or flicker of that memory.

“Away From Her” works as a very adult film, meaning Polley isn’t doing a movie of the week featuring a well-known disease in order to exploit our emotions. Polley is smart enough, and wise enough to know real life doesn’t work that way, and the feelings we might have as a loved one is slowly losing their minds might be more complex than anything we see on the surface.

Much time is taken in the film to explore these relationships, and we even get a wider look at the effects on loved ones as Polley shows us other patients. There is one very sad scene where Grant is sitting in the Meadow Brook dining lounge and sees a deaf daughter talk to her mother who knows sign language, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s  but still remembers to sign.  Polley shows us time passing to when the daughter has left and the mother sits at the table as if not knowing what to do. After day turns into night, she grabs her walker and is probably put to bed, not a life to envy. We later see the same daughter visiting her mother again but this time she has no idea who she is and another layer of tragedy is introduced when we are told the mother was the only one in the family who learned sign language in order to communicate with her daughter but now she can’t remember.

These moments are small, and quiet, we aren’t given any big dramatic scenes, Polley stays in the realm of realism. Pinsett is a pillar of quiet strength never raising his voice even when we see his anger, and resentment. He has one of the faces that gives us everything we need to know, we always see what he is thinking and what he is feeling, and he barely raises an eyebrow. The one time we do see him lash out in anger, it’s done in an even-tempered way, but it is full of emotion and heartache, it’s difficult not to be moved.

As Fiona Julie Christie has the opportunity to be more showy, that’s usually the benefit of being able to act with a disease. However she remains restrained and playing to the reality of her situation. We see the confusion come through her face, the sadness of not knowing who her husband is, and the depression as her faculties move further away from her.

In a very short time, Pinsett and Christie are able to show us the bond between these two characters, their habits, and their interactions, and how the choices, and mistakes they made have cemented their strong marriage and love for one another. I was touched by how they talked to each other, and how they feel for eachother, it isn’t often we have oder people having sex unless one of their partners is younger, but it goes towards the film’s realism that just because they are older doesn’t mean they are dead sexual or otherwise.  They are a couple who fought for their happiness and now have to fight again.

“Away from Her” came out ten years ago, it was well-regarded at the time earning Oscar nominations for Christie and Polley’s screenplay which is poetic, romantic, and endearing. Seeing it again, it has not lost its edge or beauty. It’s a film that builds on memory, what we want to remember, what we might not want to remember, and what happens when that choice is taken away from us. It’s a quiet film that aches your heart, and fills you with emotion. It fills our minds and our hearts, like the snow filling the screen.

Thing I Saw in April

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A bunch of obscure John Ford films and Will Arnett in great voice over work filled up my viewing time in April.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017): My lone trip to the theatre this month as I caught up with the Lego Batman Movie which was a fun breath of fresh air. Not since “Batman Returns” has Batman been this fun. This colorful riff on the caped crusader voiced with enthusiasm by Will Arnett is a lark with plenty of gags for fans of Batman and has fun playing with the character’s history. 3 stars out of 4

Bojack Horseman Season 2 (2015) Continuing on my run of Bojak Horseman a much more serious minded comedy about fame and depression in Hollywood than anyone gives it credit for. Bajack is never afraid to go to dark places as this season finds its voice and is more assured than season one. 3.5 stars out of 4

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) An gangster comedy directed by of all people John Ford. This one stars Edward G. Robinson in a duo role as a meek paperman who is mistaken for a murderous gangster. Robinson has fun sending up his gangster persona, and his meek personality hints at some cast against type roles he would find success in with “Scarlett Street” and “Woman in the Window”. Plus Jean Arthur is in this so this is just a delightful film. 3 stars out of 4

The Hurricane (1937) John Ford’s disaster drama of a coastal Island where the climax involves the storm in the title which is magnificent to see considering the special effects at the time. The central story deals with an Islander who is imprisoned wrongly for years trying to escape in order to be reunited with his wife and daughter whom he hasn’t seen. Once he does escape, the hurricane comes blowing. A wonderful little known golden aged spectacle. 3.5 stars out of 4

The Long Grey Line (1955) Ford’s biopic film of Irish Immigrant Marty Maher who spent over 50 years in west point. The film stars Tyrone Power who is quite good in the lead role. The film isn’t all that accurate and falls under one of Ford’s many tributes of Irish gumption. Still there are many touching and beautifully shot scenes to make this worthwhile. Maureen O’Hara is wonderful as Maher’s wife. 3 stars out of 4

Gideon’s Day (1958) Ford’s british film which follows the day in the life of Gideon who is chief inspector at Scotland yard. Jack Hawkins plays Gideon in a great Fordesque performance, and the film which was shot in parts of London and contains a British cast definitely has a different feel than most of Ford’s films. However it is entertaining and many of the crime stories are engrossing and compelling. 3 stars out of 4