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IT

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 12 September 2017 06:49 (A review of IT (2017))

To be incredibly pithy, you can call this Stand By IT or Nightmare on Goonies Street and find yourself in the neighborhood of what this movie is. I do not mean either of those descriptions as negatives, far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed and found its insistence on placing its tonal and emotional emphasis much harder on the ways childhood is made up of scars that last with us into the future and not on the scares was smart.

 

One of the most enjoyable things about this film is how the ensemble of young actors, uniformly strong and tasked with some tricky material to play, makes us believe in their friendship, root and care for them as a both a group and individuals. Any adaptation of IT lives or dies on its ability to make us invest emotional with these kids, and any weak-link would cause the entire thing to topple under its own weight.

 

Granted, there’s a major problem of underserving two of the kids from a narrative standpoint, but don’t fault the actors for that. The part that makes me squeamish about their relative lack of narrative import is the fact that they’re the Jewish and black kids. A large part of me wants to believe this merely a coincidence, but it becomes noticeable the further the film goes on (and it does go on at 2 hours and 15 minutes) that these two are not as developed or important to the narrative/group as the rest. Still, Chosen Jacobs and Wyatt Oleff are just as strong as the rest of the Losers Club.

 

That leaves us with the rest of the Losers Club to more intimately get to know and spend time with. Chief among them is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the older brother of Georgie, Pennywise’s first victim. Lieberher is fantastic as he navigates his character’s profound guilt and uses it as the driving force to investigate what was going on and make it all right. It makes a scene where Pennywise taunts him using Georgie as a marionette that decays and screams “you’ll float too” in a manner that transforms from playful to threatening to a call from the bellows of hell all the more disturbing and heartbreaking.

 

If Bill’s one of the primary forces pushing the group, then Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is the other. While IT doesn’t go into depth about her shame over being poor, it is indirectly hinted at, it does go deep into the abuse inflicted upon her and the ugly rumors that surround her. Lillis may be the best of the group, possibly even toppling Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise, and I hope this launches her into a very long career. Her major scare scene involving a bathroom sink vomiting up blood ends with her delivering a frantic, teary-eyed panic attack that lingers with you for its desperation.

 

The other three kids act as a chorus of wisecracking jokes (Finn Wolfhard’s Richie) or much-needed voices of caution (Jack Grazer’s Eddie) or expositional dumps (Jeremy Ray Taylor’s Ben). Primarily knowing Wolfhard as the “Bill” of Stranger Things, it’s a nice change of pace to see him dropping a mountain of f-bombs and dick jokes at a rapid clip. While Taylor’s Ben offers the movie a wounded soul that refuses to wilt in the faces of adversity or loneliness, and Grazer’s Eddie is a shrieking neurotic that gets a lot of laughs out of his miniature Woody Allen shtick.

 

I’ve described a lot of humor and heart in the movie, and it’s true, IT possess a lot of scenes where we watch these kids try to navigate growing up and the battle scars that we get while doing it. They are inevitably alone in this process, and it doesn’t help matters that they’re being stalked by a killer demonic shape-shifter. The removal of the adulthood sections doesn’t bother me as we must see where these battle scars come from before we reflect upon them. When the inevitable IT: Chapter Two is released, I hope that watching the films back-to-back will be in conversation with each other.

 

Of course we have to talk about the clown. Pennywise is an otherworldly entity that is a predator that gets tremendous joy from his cruelty and the hunt. In a scene with Eddie he taunts him, ramping up his fear and anxiety, and mentions that he loves doing this because the fear sweetens the meat. Bill Skarsgård is unrecognizable under layers of makeup, but he invests little choices into his character that only underscore just how strange and foreign this creature is. While Tim Curry’s Pennywise is justifiably well-liked and remembered from that godawful miniseries, he played his version with a touch of humanity that Skarsgård forsakes. They’re both valid readings on the character, but something about Skarsgård’s primordial hunter creeped me out that much more.

 

For all of its strengths, of which there are many, eventually the length and a sense of artificiality about the special-effects work begin to wear and tear. The length is punishing and IT cannot sustain its sense of dread, suspense, or terror for all of that time. The reoccurring scares begin to feel repetitive and routine. We know that Pennywise will divide-and-conquer the Losers, make them face their worst fears, or generally pop out of nowhere to scare the hell out of us/them. There are still plenty of disturbing sequences that work incredibly well, but certain ones deflate when they should pop. Although a scene of Jacobs’ Mike getting bullied only to catch a glimpse of Pennywise chewing on a child’s arm and wave maniacally with it is a small touch that stands out for its normalcy and lack of attention drawn to the moment. IT needed a few more moments like this.

 

IT ends with the blood pact of the Losers and an obvious open door for the sequel. I look forward to it. While this version of IT is not a perfect film, it is still a great one that I enjoyed immensely. I put the miniseries to shame, and it feels like Stephen King at his best. I’m not about to proclaim it as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the original Carrie or The Shining, but goddamn is it close. Maybe when we get the second half and we can view both films as one united work my opinion may change. Hell, another viewing of just this film may only strengthen my appreciation for this film as it stands. IT is just so damn good.



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A Single Man

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 12 September 2017 03:41 (A review of A Single Man)

Christopher Isherwood’s slim novel is an emotionally engaging, powerful, and heartbreaking examination of a man consumed by grief and loss trying desperately to find a tether to the rest of the world. Tom Ford’s directorial debut follows it, at times to the letter and at others with necessary embellishments, and visualizes it in a way that is vibrant and engrossing in its excesses. A Single Man is a knockout by any measure.

 

Much like the novel, we are placed firmly within George’s perspective, a gay English expatriate professor at a local college who is contemplating suicide after the death of his lover of sixteen years. He has no family to speak of, was blocked from attending his lover’s funeral, and his lone friend is fellow Brit Charley, who drinks too much, smokes just as much, and harbors deep resentment and sexual desire towards him. George is adrift and trying to find a connection, and he eventually finds it in the form of Kenny, a seductive twink that clearly has a thing for daddy types.

 

We follow George through a single day from the time he wakes up through the night he spends with Kenny. Throughout, he encounters many people and we glimpse fleeting moments of connection and engagement with life and the living. Will this be enough to prevent him from going through with his plan? This is a broken man looking for any reason to stay, and you root for him to find it, to heal from his tragedy. You understand where, why, and how he’s come to this low point in his life.

 

It isn’t just the script, which is as strong as the novel, that hammers this point home, but the acting from the quartet of leading performers. Colin Firth’s frequently naked performance, and not just in the sense of his surprisingly toned body, is a marvel of miniscule acting producing wonders. He must move through life with a carefully constructed exterior in order to keep speculation away from his homosexuality, but Firth reveals the screaming terror and panic going on beneath the surface in the ways he struggles to swallow or nervously smiles. The scene where he learns of his lover’s death on the phone is a moment of sustained acting for the camera that should be studied. He keeps his voice at an even clip, but there’s real pain and slow dawning realizations in his eyes and facial tics. If Jeff Bridges wasn’t “due” an Oscar for his role in Crazy Heart, it wouldn’t be hard to see Firth having walked away with this one.

 

His three main supporting players are Matthew Goode, Julianne Moore, and Nicholas Hoult. Moore has a limited amount of screen time, basically appearing briefly in two phone conversations and one extended scene late in the film, and she must co-create an entire relationship with Firth that has decades of history attached to it. They manage it, and their booze-fueled emotional lacerations come with an emotional shorthand that only longtime friends can have. Moore can sometimes go too broad, but she finds a nice balance here with her nervous, manic movements and emotional desperation that can swiftly turn into neediness or affected boredom. Goode is every bit as effective, and with comparably less time. He’s warm and open, playful and encouraging of George. It’s easy to believe that they would connect with each other in a profound way given how they contrast and balance each other out. And Nicholas Hoult exists as a dreamy confection of lithe sexual desire. He’s aggressive and seductive towards George, baring more than a bit of personality resemblances of Goode’s character, manifesting as a rebellious, often naked lust object. He’s good but the part doesn’t ask much of him beyond being the recipient of a gay male gaze.

 

Swirling around them is Ford’s visual embellishments and heavily stylized direction. Some have complained that it threatens to overpower the film, and I disagree vehemently. Film is inherently a visual medium, and we’re complaining about a film’s powerful and seductive visual ornateness? Strange complaint that. I find that the use of desaturated colors only to vibrantly, violently turn them back up underscores moments where George is reengaging with the world, where he feels a connection in some way to those around him. It’s not coincidental that all of the flashbacks between Firth and Goode are warmly lit and colorful, or that Kenny’s blue eyes are blinding in their scenes together. These flourishes act as underscores for the thematic material at play here.

 

A Single Man left me excited for where Tom Ford’s directing career would continue. It’s a gorgeously rendered and emotional hefty film about loss, grief, and struggling to find your emotional foothold again. I find the entire thing to be exquisite and gripping. There’s hope to be found in the darkness here, even if the ending leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth.  



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Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 10 September 2017 07:48 (A review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008))

At its worst moments, Star Wars: The Clone Wars was a series that provided mere fan-service action sequences in stories that didn’t enrich or develop the world or mythology of the mega-franchise in any meaningful way. At its best, it explored the concepts and ideas merely hinted at in the films and filled in the gaps with imagination and a daring to go in wild directions revealing just how elastic a Star Wars story could be. The film that launched the series is very much a case of the former with none of the latter.

 

It’s better than 2/3 of the prequel trilogy in that it manages to actually tell a coherent story with a clear emotional trajectory and goals in mind, with present villains and the tenants of story beats accounted for. This is admittedly not a huge compliment, but it’s not the worst thing with the words Star Wars slapped onto it. That honor is still held by Attack of the Clones.

 

Much like the show, there’s anywhere from two to three different stories going on at any given time that eventually tie together into one central plot. Some of it is more fascinating than the rest of it, and some of it is just downright embarrassing. Chiefly, Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s effeminate uncle that lisps and sasses like Truman Capote for no discernible reason. He’s not a very interesting antagonist, and more interesting characters like Asajj Ventress is shackled by being tied to Count Dooku as his apprentice. She’d go on to be a completely thrilling and engaging anti-heroine in the show, but that isn’t present at all here.

 

Reading up on the production of this thing, it’s no shock to learn that George Lucas decided that the animation on the series was good, and it would be cool to launch it with a film. It was an afterthought from the beginning, and this sense of inconsequentiality permeates throughout. Actually, the film feels like it’s been marinating in it, and the resulting 90-some minutes is more a shrugged out entry in the ever-expanding space opera. There are numerous four or five episode arcs in the series that put this film to shame.

 

The central relationship between Anakin and his apprentice, Ahsoka, is as grating here as it was in the earliest seasons of the show. Ahsoka would eventually become a more intriguing character when she dropped the know-it-all smugness and became an apostate of the Jedi order, but she’s squarely in whiny brat territory here. I said in my review of the show that you had to power through the first season to get to the really juicy stuff, well that carries over into the film that launched it all. All of the problems of the first season or so are writ large here, and then bolded and underlined. They hadn’t quite figured out what they wanted to do or use the template to tell about the wider mythology just yet.

 

There’s some great stuff attached to The Clone Wars, just not this particular story.



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Remixed & Revisited

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 7 September 2017 02:49 (A review of Remixed & Revisited)

After American Life failed to garner sales, critical acclaim, and a hit single, Madonna threw out this remix album to fulfill her contract with Maverick Records and generate more sales for the aforementioned album. It didn’t work, and the entire thing feels like a complete toss-off.

 

The choices feel slightly inexplicable here. Featuring remixes of the singles from American Life, including the title track and “Love Profusion,” makes sense, but was it necessary to throw in the infamous MTV VMA performance? Without the kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears, does anyone honestly care about the disparate vocal styles clashing in disharmony? Seriously, I get that this was supposed to be a passing of the torch moment, but Spears’ sexy baby vocals sound strained, while Christina Aguilera’s shouting eats the mix, and Madonna’s pitch is a bit all over the place.

 

Although the full-length version of the “Into the Groove”/“Hollywood” mashup for the GAP, complete with Missy Elliott cameo and audio obscuring to the big brand chain store, is a fun bit of kitsch. Elliott’s rap and the slightly altered beat to “Into the Groove” would make appearances during her Re-Invention Tour the following year. Despite being two great songs shoved together, it’s not a great song but it’s a ton of fun for its goofiness.

 

The lone ‘new’ song is actually an unreleased one from the Bedtime Stories sessions, “Your Honesty.” She couldn’t find an American Life discard to throw in its place? No matter, “Your Honesty” is a solid song. I guess this song occupies the ‘revisited’ portion of the title. Perhaps she adores Bedtime Stories more than its glaring absence in her live shows since its release would let on. Aside from “Secret” alternating in the Drowned World Tour, “Bedtime Story” acting as an interlude for Re-Invention Tour, and “Take a Bow” getting spotty treatment during the Rebel Heart Tour, she’s largely refused to perform much of that album’s stellar material.

 

I’m not even sure if Remixed & Revisited is for completists given the slightness of the material. The four remixes are fun, especially the two hard-rocking Headcleanr remixes, but it’s just not enough to buy the album. The whole thing is a bit of a lark, fun to listen to for free on YouTube, but don’t bother with much else.


DOWNLOAD: “American Life (Headcleanr Rock Mix)”



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Something to Remember

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 6 September 2017 07:14 (A review of Something to Remember)

Well, this took some balls. A persistent criticism leveled against Madonna was that she was more image, controversy, and dominating personality than a strong singer. It is a fair criticism, to be quite honest, as her vocal range is limited, her tone can waver in live performance, and she can sound strained going for big glory notes at this point of her career. Yet pop music, the type of disco-ready grooves she traffics in, is heavily dependent on image, persona, and controversy, so it has always been, so it shall always be.

 

She was just smart enough to manipulate it to her advantage, and canny enough to seek out great collaborators to help her express her vision and develop her skills. She rewrote the pop rulebook to suit her needs, and nearly every female with a penchant for outrageous costuming and dance beats has followed her template. This still doesn’t mean the world needed a collection of her ballads.

 

Something to Remember is a pleasant if disposable collection of her material. Ballads have long been a hit-and-miss proposition from her. For every mind-blowingly gorgeous “Take a Bow” or nakedly emotional “Oh Father” there are songs that demonstrate the limits of her vocal abilities like “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” or maudlin “This Used to Be My Playground.” It levels out to making Something to Remember a slight but mostly enjoyable listen by sustaining a relaxed atmosphere of quiet grooves and restrained emotional outbursts.

 

Many of these songs were already easily available either through studio albums or prior compilations so it’s the new material that sticks out the most. I mean, not just the newly recorded material but the songs that make their first official appearance on something attributed directly to Madonna. “I’ll Remember” is a nice slice of feathery AOR while her Marvin Gaye cover is a hidden jewel in her vast catalog. “I Want You” was recorded with Massive Attack for a tribute album, and the collaboration creates a claustrophobic sonic atmosphere that creates glorious friction with her warm, passionate vocals. Never a great vocalist, she still manages to sing with tremendous soul and really sell the desperation in the lyrics.   

 

The two new songs with David Foster are strictly from his school of bombastic balladry. “You’ll See” is charmingly defiant and given a distinct flavor with its Spanish guitar and percussion. Ever the smart businesswoman, she knew a hard-left was necessary after the public nearly abandoned her completely with the sexual provocations and temper tantrums of Erotica and Bedtime Stories. “You’ll See” found her putting her clothes back on, bottling up the theatrics, and giving the world a solid piece of acoustic pop. She even recorded a Spanish language version, just to cover all her bases. Then there’s “One More Chance,” bittersweet and yearning but ultimately forgettable. Despite releasing it as a single, she couldn’t even be bothered to film a video for the song. Too busy running off to shoot Evita I suppose.

 

So why should you get this? Well, it beats me. In the age of iTunes it’d probably be better to just download a few of the songs offered here that aren’t available anywhere else. It works as an argument for Madonna’s artistry and strengths as an interpretive singer, but it somehow feels inconsequential. As if a piece of the personality has been shackled and quarantined away. Hell, swapping out “Something to Remember” for “Sooner or Later” would improve things dramatically. We’re missing her sass and quirks by and large.

 

DOWNLOAD: “I Want You”



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GHV2

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 6 September 2017 04:20 (A review of GHV2 (Greatest Hits Volume 2))

Where The Immaculate Collection culled material from her first four studio albums, threw in a few soundtrack gems, and two new songs, GHV2 repeats the process for her next four studio albums, a few soundtrack-only tracks, and completely skips out on any new material. The fact that there’s no new material to be found is not a complete tragedy, there’s no obligation to include any on a compilation, but it does signal a certain amount of indifference to the collection. This carries on into the random sequencing of the songs.

 

The Immaculate Collection traced Madonna’s increasingly canny ability to infuse her pop songs with headier subject matter and personal revelations. GHV2 could have repeated that trick if it had flowed in chronological order. Instead, it opens with two songs from Erotica, then two from Bedtime Stories, adds in “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” for some reason, then goes back to Bedtime Stories. It’s random and makes no logical sense. The same goes for the ending of the album which alternates between songs from Ray of Light and Music. (Although, there is a perverse hilarity in sticking “Erotica” and “Human Nature” back-to-back, as if it was some sort of call-and-response.)

 

There’s no rhyme or reason to the order, and it muddies the evolution and deepening of her eccentricities and musical explorations throughout the decade. A greatest hits should make an argument for an artist’s impact and legacy, and the best way to do it is to present them in chronological order as a demonstration of their increasingly thrown around heft and might. And for the life of me, I do not understand why “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” was included over more logical choices like “I’ll Remember” or “This Used to Be My Playground.” “Argentina” is one of her finest vocal performances, but if she wanted a song from Evita then why not include “You Must Love Me,” the song that won an Oscar.

 

Still, GHV2 does operate as a double-barreled middle-finger salute to the critics that proclaimed her a beautiful but disposable pop starlet at the start of her career. Not only can she populate a second greatest hits collection with legitimate hits, but some of these are the biggest and best of her career: “Music,” “Take a Bow,” “Ray of Light,” just to name a few. Hell, even the underappreciated gems like “Bedtime Story” and “Deeper and Deeper” have aged better and proven indispensable to her legacy.

 

The most shocking development around this time period was that Madonna finally learned that an album could be more than a few smash singles and some filler. She first learned this trick on Like a Prayer, but she reached her zenith on the maternal electronica of Ray of Light and the headphones-mandatory sonic glitches of Music. Taken outside of the context of their albums a few of the songs suffer, “What It Feels Like for a Girl” and “The Power of Goodbye” primarily. On its own, “The Power of Goodbye” sounds like a particularly strange song you’d hear while doing yoga. “Girl” meanwhile takes place on Music’s more confessional and folksy second-half, and wedged in-between the heavy electronics makes it wilt.

 

At the time, Madonna was criticized for taking herself too seriously. At times, this is a fair criticism, but it doesn’t explain the ebullience of “Beautiful Stranger,” the theme song for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It’s a deliriously silly blast of nostalgic psychedelic pop polished up with William Orbit’s analog synths and her warm vocal performance. It makes a welcome presence on an official album release from the singer and not buried away as a bonus track on some international edition of Music. It’s a pure sugar rush of good-time bubblegum pop that you’d be forgiven for thinking she forgot how to make.

 

In its own way, this is as essential in telling her story as The Immaculate Collection. If all you want are the hits, then you could just snap up those two discs and call it a day. Or invest in the double-disc version of Celebration, although that really isn’t the career spanning extravaganza it promises to be or should have been. If nothing else, the slightly frustrating omissions and choices made in Madonna’s subsequent greatest hits package only underline the argument for her as a dynamic force in pop music. We’ve never seen a career like hers before, and it makes it hard to properly document and solidify what exactly constitutes her “greatest” or “best” after a while. GHV2 is imperfect, but the music makes a solid argument for her continued relevance and domination as an iconic personality.  

 

DOWNLOAD: “Bedtime Story,” “Music,” “Beautiful Stranger”



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Duel in the Sun

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 5 September 2017 04:34 (A review of Duel in the Sun)

Super-producer David O. Selznick intended to follow-up his gargantuan success of Gone with the Wind with this epic horse opera. Much like that Oscar adorned production, Duel in the Sun lacks a strong directorial signature and instead is the product of Selznick’s outsized ambition and vision. Selznick intended to top that prior film with this one, and while he misses the mark on an artistic level, he still managed to create a film of pulpy, overheated allure and one that is far more fascinating for its vast strangeness and faintly ridiculous melodramatics.

 

Those may sound like criticisms, but I find them to be engaging strengths throughout Duel in the Sun. The main thrust of the story is a love triangle that throbs with repressed emotions and mutually assured destruction, and a bevy of subplots to try and expand the scope and make the main story more respectable (a character’s casual racism, a train being built) are anemic in comparison. Face it, it’s just more fun to watch Jennifer Jones whip herself into a frenzy and crawling over rocks in a climatic shootout.

 

The story is lurid from the beginning with Jones cast as a mixed-race young woman named Pearl. Her father murders her mother when he finds her in bed with another man, and he ends up sending her away to a former lover (Lillian Gish) and her family (Lionel Barrymore, Gregory Peck, and Joseph Cotten). While living with them, Pearl finds herself the object of scorn from Barrymore’s casual racism, kindness from Gish’s matriarch, and of lust between the good son (Cotten) and the bad one (Peck). We follow her as she tries to navigate the emotional and sexual terrain of this ranch, and the effect is like watching someone trying to gingerly walk across broken glass.

 

For all of the giddy chaos on display throughout Duel in the Sun, it’s the acting that tries to keep the center together. Jones had a strong run of roles throughout the 40’s having won an Oscar for her second film role in The Song of Bernadette, and following that up with three consecutive nominations (Since You Went Away, Love Letters, and this film). Yet no film quite captures or demonstrate just how wide her range was like this one. She plays the full gamut from innocent ingénue to robustly physical temptress and winding up as a feral avenger in the final moments. Jones thrust her full body into the part, and she frequently threatens to go full-on camp yet she emerges as a dangerous live-wire. It’s an essential piece of work for the actress.

 

Matching her every step of the way is Gregory Peck cast brilliantly against type as the lurid bad boy. We expect decency and a strongly held moral conviction from him, think of To Kill a Mockingbird or Gentleman’s Agreement, so it’s a bit shocking to see him play such a rascal. He’s clearly having fun playing the villain, and it’s an essential role for him for how fully he embodies and realizes this bastard. Joseph Cotten doesn’t get as much to do as the good boy, but the part launched him as a viable romantic lead where we’re so used to see him playing oily, think of Gaslight.

 

Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, and Walter Huston bring their finely honed sense of acting styles to their parts. Huston gets to play an amoral preacher who gets a little too happy watching Jones’ Pearl get down on her knees to repent, and the elder statesman plays it broadly but still with a core of honesty and truth. While Barrymore and Gish get many of the most dramatically valid scenes to play out. Gish’s final hour confrontation and death scene is a particular standout as she drapes her body and drags it slowly across the room like a ragdoll trying to gain sentience. She got her lone Oscar nomination for this film, which is a shocking bit of trivia for an actor of her stature and power but well-deserved for her emotional richness and commitment in the part.

 

Even when Duel in the Sun flirts with going off the rails, which is often, it contains more pure film-making and movie-making mythology in every frame than many of its more respectable contemporaries. There’s a vitality on display here, and the massive amount of creative talents circling behind-the-scenes create individual moments of heightened artistry that is indelible. For instance, Josef von Sternberg provided his mastery of lighting and craft to help with Jones’ numerous close-ups. Selznick wanted them to look more exotic and alluring, and who better to help with that then the man who crafted Marlene Dietrich’s most iconic looks?

 

Director King Vidor managed to keep several of the moments working and thoroughly engaging, even if he was driven off the project by Selznick penchant for memos and reshoots. He was replaced by William Dieterle and who knows who else. But Vidor’s essence as a film-maker energizes several moments, and the climatic shootout has to be one of them. The thing works, despite all odds and evidence that it should. Jones and Peck, having spent the better part of the movie alternating between fucking and fighting, finally confront each other. They unload not only their guns into each other but their long harbored resentments, and eventually crawl towards each other declaring their love and dying in each other’s arms. It is utterly preposterous, but exactly the kind of spectacle that makes going to the movies so worthwhile.



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The Witches

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 4 September 2017 06:44 (A review of The Witches)

Hollywood has never had the easiest time transitioning Roald Dahl’s words onto the screen, but a sublime fusion of creative talents makes The Witches one of the most successful tryouts. This isn’t so much a scary children’s film as it is a horror film built for children, this sounds like splitting hairs but it makes all the difference. We are lulled into a sense of placidity and fairy tale hardships in the beginning, no different than any of Disney’s canonized films or beloved stories like A Little Princess, before things just start getting increasingly weird, wild, and dark.

 

Dahl’s fiction is a blessed mixture of the seemingly mundane surrounded by the grotesque and horrific. Children are frequently blighted by monstrous evil and the adults in their life are often of little to no help, if they’re not already dead or abusive surrogate parents. The Witches may push this worldview to its darkest reaches yet as it argues that the titular creatures are not old crones riding brooms with pointed hats but everyday women you find in day-to-day life. Dahl argues that terror and violence is lurking around every corner waiting to strike, and you must arm yourself to combat it.

 

This film adaptation doesn’t shy away from that argument. In fact, it leans into it with an aggression that makes you wonder how and why they ever thought this was appropriate family viewing. I know I was, and continue to be, an eclectic person with an appetite for the macabre, so this was nirvana-like viewing for me as a child. I am not surprised to learn that it bombed at the box office. Parents frequently expect an invisible contract with these films stating that they may give the kids a minor shock, but the good guys will win, the bad guys will perish, and order will be restored. The Witches, by and large, does not offer such comforts to its audience.

 

That is until the audience tested ending which betrays Dahl’s material in a way. We get order restored and a happily ever after, but it feels somehow antithetic to the preceding story and tone. In fact, this ending is my lone complaint about the film, and the only thing keeping it from getting a perfect rating. Everything else is a masterpiece of imagination, dark energy, and fairy tale truth.

 

Tragedy makes its first mark early in the film when Luke (Jasen Fisher) loses his parents in a car accident. His loving and kindly grandmother (Mai Zetterling, giving the woman a core of steel) teaches him about the reality of witches, takes him in, and eventually the two of them find themselves vacationing on a beach resort hotel. Naturally, a convention of England’s witches is also staying in this hotel, and Luke overhears their master plan for killing all of England’s children.

 

A lot of this is an excuse for director Nicolas Roeg, producer Jim Henson, and star Anjelica Huston to go completely broad and big in playing and visualizing this material, and it works. We begin with a series of normal shots and everyday living, and Roeg’s typical audacious film-making is kept to a bare minimum. A scene of a young girl getting abducted in a story shared by Luke’s grandmother is a miniature horror epic, but Roeg goes full-on crazy during the witches’ convention. He tilts the camera into their faces so that they become distorted ghouls all bug-eyes or rotten teeth with faces ornamented with scabs, boils, and blemishes.

 

Then there’s Henson’s special effects and makeup, some of the most memorable creations in a storied and trailblazing career. Not only is the Grand High Witch a towering achievement of creature makeup, but the transformation scenes of various characters into mice are simply disgusting, terrifying, and mordantly hilarious. Crafting these images required real ambition and daring, and a willingness to scare and challenge his typical audience, and the results are magical. Charlie Potter’s mouse-head acting like a yo-yo to his body as he transforms is an image that thrilled and scared me as a child, and continues to stick with me for its sheer audacity.

 

And then there’s Anjelica Huston completely dominating everything that tries to share a frame with her. Huston is clearly enjoying playing such a sadistic and demented character. She bursts with unhinged sensuality, a severe haircut, and a glamorous tight black dress and heavy eye makeup. Even when the artifice of this look is revealed to contain a desiccated crone underneath, Huston never stops playing her character as a sensual and aggressive dominatrix. The results of this is an energy that strikes a perfect balance between the hilariously kitsch, the absolutely terrifying, and the monstrous. The same year she gave us this perfectly wicked witch, she also gave us the desperate and broken Lilly Dillon in The Grifters. Now that is range.

 

The Witches succeeds because it never shies away from the sinister lurking around every corner. It may not amount to a group of witches chasing you around a hotel property, but that certainty that danger is just waiting to jump out at you is fundamental to the best children’s stories. From Grimm’s fairy tales to Disney’s earliest features to Roald Dahl’s novels and Jim Henson’s 80’s films, we must believe that something may prevent the happily ever after, if one ever does come. The Witches is predominantly unafraid to be perverse, twisted, scary, and uncompromising in its vision. It’s a damn shame about the ending.



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Julia

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 3 September 2017 06:36 (A review of Julia (1977))

Quick – who is this movie actually about? If you answered anyone other than Lillian Hellman, then you clearly weren’t paying attention. It’s frustrating to watch this, yet it’s so well made, impeccably acted, and contains bits of brilliance that you’re kept enthralled throughout. But why are we focusing all of our time with Hellman and not Julia?

 

The answer is simple, Julia is based on a story in Pentimento, one of Hellman’s, shall we say, embellished pieces of autobiography. We never get an actual sense of Julia as a person, of what defined and forged her choices and ultimate fate. What we get is a character that exists more as an ideal and memory, a ghostly apparition of radical political ideology, personal freedom, and persistent danger.

 

The central friendship is hardly dealt with, as Julia is an abstraction to Lillian, a point of obsession. For Julia, Lillian is…a courier? There’s an imbalance of attention and detail going on here that undoes much of the dramatic tension and centrality of the narrative. It suffers from forcing us into Hellman’s perspective. We spend far more time watching her struggle to write plays, gain success and affluence, and spar with her longtime companion, Dashiell Hammett (a subtle and knockout turn from Jason Robards).

 

Yet Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Julia is hypnotic and ensnaring. She manages to play a character that’s borderline impossible with enough life, vitality, and strength that it’s impossible to not understand Lillian’s obsession with her. A reunion scene between the two women is a marvel of Redgrave and Jane Fonda’s tremendous talents on full display. Fonda must play the entire scene with a calm exterior as confusion and anxiety threaten to poke through the surface, while Redgrave holds an intense stare and keeps still. Her eyes look tired and doomed. She knows that this is one final desperate attempt at saving herself that may not work. Redgrave constantly reassures Fonda with quietly given instructions.

 

It is in this scene that we realize just how much the rest of the film is missing. More scenes with Fonda and Redgrave where they’ll allowed to create a believable chemistry as longtime friends, more moments where the two actresses can go toe-to-toe and bring out surprising choices with each other. But this sounds like a discredit to what Fonda is doing with her role as Lillian Hellman. She’s dynamite, and if this was a straight portrait of the writer, a woman who smoke, drank, and spat angry words out on her typewriter with equal amounts of passion and commitment, that would be one thing. But this is ostensibly about Julia, and Julia is a mere enigma.

 

There’s so many good things going on that Julia begins to feel overstuffed and splitting at the seams. There’s at least two or three different movies operating at any given time, and any one of them would be worth following to the end. What we get is several different films vying for our attention and muting each other out. Still, this is the peak years for Fonda, and she’s enough of a reason for watching this. Robards and Redgrave are another two, and despite its shapelessness, Julia is an engrossing piece of work.



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The Omen

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 3 September 2017 05:41 (A review of The Omen (1976))

Tale as old as time, the adopted son of an older American diplomat and his wife turns out to be the antichrist. It could honestly happen to just about anyone. The Omen is not some taunt, dread-filled masterpiece of horror. Too much of it plays out like kitsch, and some of it is just downright loopy in its overheated Catholicism and moral panic. Still, there’s some jewels of sustained horror, solid performances, and Jerry Goldsmith’s pulpy, overbearing score make The Omen more than worth the trip.

 

The Omen’s concept is at once audacious and steeped in the imagery and mythology of its Biblical inspiration/aspiration. Satan is here in the form of a toddler, and the entire narrative thrust is about the father possibly striking down the babe as if he’s Abraham binding Isaac. There’s also intervention to prevent the child-killing, but it’s less divine then from murkier and darker quarters. No angel hand to prevent the striking knife blow here, instead it’s a bullet from cops who think the ambassador has lost his damn mind.

 

And perhaps he has. The strongest parts of The Omen are when the incidents occur and we question their validity. Are these two merely struck with bad luck and the easiest explanation is to blame it on the newest member of the family? Or are there really demonic forces at play? The air of sustained dread and slow-burning doubt and terror is immediately evaporated by the presence of Mrs. Baylock and her gigantic Rottweiler, in effect acting as a protective hellhound for the demonic child.

 

Granted, Billie Whitelaw’s performance as Mrs. Baylock is effectively peculiar and sinister wrapped up in a polite-but-stern Irish nanny exterior, but the character is so clearly evil that she’s nearly cartoonish in comparison to the rest. There’s no shock when the depths of her derangement are revealed as there was when the first nanny hangs herself at the birthday party. Roles like this require a more subtle touch, think of Ruth Gordon’s warmly daffy neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby. She’s the last person you’d expect to act as a midwife for Satan’s progeny, whereas as Whitelaw plays like an anti-Mary Poppins that’s clearly up to no good.

 

Although Whitelaw and Lee Remick get to partake in one of the most bravura pieces of film-making in The Omen. Remick is in the hospital recovering from a fall when Whitelaw shows up in her room. Remick gets stuck in a white viel looking either like a virginal bride or a holy Madonna, and Whitelaw appears with a burning and intense gaze. It’s a quiet showdown punctured by the sight of Remick falling out of her window to her death. It’s shocking and horrific, and a point where The Omen shows its cards. The good guys may not win, and the devil may take dominion over the earth.

 

It is with the introduction of the more outrageous elements of the plot that the dialog and character actions take a turn from deeply rooted in reality towards gloriously zany pulp. The sight of Gregory Peck tearfully reciting an imaginary passage from the Book of Revelations after learning of his wife’s death is dangerously close to camp. And the sight of him and David Warner digging up an infant’s grave in an obviously artificial set standing in for some indeterminate European location is dangerously close to the hysterical.

 

None of this is to say that Peck is slumming it here, or that he’s giving a bad performance. He’s not. He successfully traces the line from happy nuclear family to crazed religious conspiracy theorist, and he manages to find pathos in the scene where he realizes it’s all true as he cuts his son’s hair to find the Mark of the Beast. Same goes for Remick as his wife, who manages genuine terror in a zoo trip gone wrong and gets another stellar set-piece where Damien lets her fall off of a ledge that’s filled with her maternal desperation and panic.

 

Harvey Stephens makes the biggest impression as Damien. His dialog amounts mainly to shrieks, giggles, and a few utterances of “mommy” or “no,” but Stephens is positively terrifying. Has evil ever so looked so banal as it does here? I don’t know what they did to get him to stare so intensely, but it unnerves and works. His sweet smile at the camera as the closing image is a gut punch of evil triumphant.

 

For all its silliness, of which there is ample amount, and gauzy cinematography to give it a veneer of period respectability, The Omen is still a well-made thriller. It’s best when it focuses on the psychological terrors and less so when it transitions into more conventional scares. But it also offers up the sight of Remick and Peck wrestling with a toddler that’s freaking out about going into a church. I think any parent can relate to their exasperation in that moment. Just beware of Irish nannies that show up with large breed dogs.



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