Monday, November 6, 2017

Born to Be Bad

Many of the roles Joan Fontaine played throughout her career could be best described as mousy. Whether it's her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock or any of her films following them, it became a sort of typecasting for her. Granted, as is often the case with actors, sometimes there's a want for change.

Now Fontaine actually subverts her usual character type for Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad. Her Christabel Caine initially seems to be like the actress' former roles but her true colors emerge once she's settled in. She's not some shrinking violet; she's consumed by her status in society.

Being made the same year as Ray's more prolific noir In a Lonely Place, it's understandable as to why Born to Be Bad isn't as well-known. And admittedly it doesn't have the same quality as the more famous film but regardless of that fact, it's still intriguing to watch it unfold.

And Fontaine has a pretty solid lineup of co-stars for Born to Be Bad. It has the likes of Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan (no stranger to noir), and Mel Ferrer, showing that very common aspect with other titles of the 1950s: the star-studded feature. (And Ray himself would partake in that several times over.)

Born to Be Bad may not be top-tier Ray but as he showed with his debut They Live by Night the previous year, noir was where he excelled. And while Fontaine didn't regularly play such roles like Christabel, she's clearly having some fun vamping it up. (It would've been nice to see her in more parts like it.)

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 23, 2017

Suburbicon

You'd think the people associated with George Clooney's Suburbicon would mean it's a good movie: directed by Clooney, a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Matt Damon and Julianne Moore as the stars...what could go wrong? Well...everything, really.

First off is that script by the Coens. Initially the premise of Suburbicon makes it sound like as though chaos is unleashed following a black family moving into the predominantly white titular suburbs. It happens but it quickly gets demoted to a B-plot. (That probably explains why they very seldom have non-white actors in their own films.)

Now Clooney has obviously proven his worth as a director with Good Night, and Good Luck but all his efforts since then have fallen short. Suburbicon only bolsters this claim. Hopefully Clooney will get out of this slump soon. (And knowing his status, he probably will.)

Back to the script's flaws for a moment. Being written after the Coens made their debut Blood Simple, it could be excused as them not having found their voice yet. That may be the case but that barely explains the very predictable events in the story. (If anything, it tries too hard to be like Double Indemnity.)

Suburbicon is clearly a low point for those involved. (Then again, its lone saving grace is Oscar Isaac's presence, and even then he's underused.) Obviously those involved will recover from this (the reason why is clear once you see the principal people involved) but still, it's not exactly an ideal film in actuality. (On paper, maybe.)

My Rating: ***

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon


Had she been as lucky as older sister Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine would've been turning 100 today. (She passed away in December 2013, not that long ago.) To celebrate, Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema are hosting a blogathon on the late actress. Surprise, surprise, I decided to join in and cover her Oscar-nominated roles. Those movies (and whom she lost to) are:

(1940, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Lost to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle
(1941, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
WON
(1943, dir. Edmund Goulding)
Lost to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette

(More after the jump!)

Friday, September 1, 2017

Dunkirk

World War II is often a go-to source for media both fictional and factual. Sometimes those involved in these projects were also participants of the many battles, other times it's from those who did extensive research. Either way, there's been a barrage of them ever since the fighting's conclusion over seventy years ago.

With Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, he explores what happened after the Battle of France and the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the benches of the titular French commune. Using three perspectives of the events (and using his now-familiar non-linear storytelling), he depicts a non-glorified re-telling of history. But how well does he do it?

Nolan recruited only three of his regular actors (Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine) for Dunkirk, the rest of the cast being made up of established actors and relatively fresh faces. Was this aspect a deliberate decision on Nolan's part? Perhaps, but as his previous films showed, he's more interested in the story rather than those responsible for acting it out. (Okay, The Prestige possibly being the lone exception.)

But Dunkirk isn't only Nolan's shining achievement; many of the technical aspects make the film what it is. The combination of Hans Zimmer's score and Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography make for a claustrophobic pairing. (That's a good thing, mind you.) And like Saving Private Ryan before it, it'll take your breath away.

Dunkirk is probably Nolan's best film to date, showing that there's obviously more to him than star-studded CGI-heavy productions. It's perhaps the most human of his career, and hopefully he'll do more films of a similar nature. (But maybe on a smaller scale.)

My Rating: *****

Sunday, August 27, 2017

An Elegy for Brian

Earlier this year, I read a graphic novel called The Fifth Beatle, which -- as its subtitle so clearly painted -- was about the band’s manager Brian Epstein. The words and images from Vivek J. Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker have stayed with me in the months since I first opened it. But what stood out the most for me was how Epstein was painted in tragic irony: he managed a band who regularly sang about love yet he himself couldn't express it.

Living in a country where being gay could land you in prison if you weren't careful -- something that the likes of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing have learned harshly before him -- Epstein was in a constant state of anxiety. It's particularly telling when he talks about an instance where he was beaten up by a man whom Epstein initially thought was interested in a dalliance:
All I could see was a haze of red. I thought I might die. For the next several weeks, I lived under a kind of cold fear. My life felt -- scripted. And all I could do was wait nervously for the episode to be revealed.
It had to have been frightening to be a part of that society, not being able to express what or whom you deeply desire. If I were to speak to Epstein at this very moment, I would tell him that he shouldn't be ashamed of who he is. If anyone is at fault, it's those who think such behavior is an abomination. And there's a quote from Epstein preceding the afterword that’s just heartbreaking:
I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will someday -- and someday, I might be too...
The reason I write all of this is because on this very day back in 1967 -- fifty years ago -- Epstein's pain and anxiety finally ended when he passed away from a drug overdose. (In a cruel twist, homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain just the previous month.) But the question remains: was it an accident or did he take those pills purposely? The truth went to the grave with him, leaving those he left behind to wonder what really happened in his final moments.

In his thirty-two years he was alive, Epstein had many personal highs and lows, and was a caring person to those around him. But in the end, he died alone and unloved…or so he thought. Because of his decision to turn four lads from Liverpool into international legends, he was -- and still is -- loved.

September 19, 1934 - August 27, 1967

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Too Much, Too Soon

There's a part in Art Napoleon's Too Much, Too Soon where John Barrymore (Errol Flynn) proclaims to his daughter Diana (Dorothy Malone) that alcoholism isn't genetic. As anyone who's familiar with that family's stormy history (or from simple psychology), they know that's far from the actual truth. And boy, does Diana learn that the hard way.

Based on her memoir, Too Much, Too Soon chronicles Diana's relationship with her famous father and how she inherited his bad habits instead of his acting abilities. (Her mother mentions that she'll only get famous because of her surname only.) And don't expect anything sugarcoated.

Being a recent Oscar winner for Written on the Wind, Malone follows the likes of Ray Milland and Susan Hayward in depicting problem drinking at its ugliest. She shows how low Diana is willing to scrape by (including doing lousy impressions at a seedy dive bar), looking for something to fill that emptiness in her life. And knowing that the real Diana died just two years later, it adds a tragic twist to the title.

The same can be said for Flynn, who died the following year. Here he is playing his former drinking buddy, and you have to wonder how much of his performance was merely himself. Now a bloated shadow of his former self, you can see the regrets of throwing it all away in his features. The line between these two lives is blurred greatly.

While Malone and Flynn's performances are solid, the same can't be said for the rest of Too Much, Too Soon. It does get overly dramatic after an hour (probably expected for a biopic on a Barrymore) and the ending's flimsy. Still, they tried their best (but not very well).

My Rating: ***1/2

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Beguiled

"Something wicked this way comes," proclaims one of the witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. And many times in the centuries since the play's first performance, that line resonates with other works. Whether it's with a lone character or the whole premise, we as an audience are fascinated by the dark recesses of our species.

More often than not, such depictions involve the supposed fair sex. Society has expected women to be reserved and composed, not letting one fraction of what they're really feeling to be shown on their face. But when that veneer of civility starts to wear away, that inner ugliness makes its presence known in the harshest ways.

Set during the Civil War, Thomas Cullinan's The Beguiled follows the remaining residents of a Southern boarding school as their usual routines change. As a wounded Union soldier takes refuge within their walls, their reactions are chronicled through the changing perspectives. But how long until the fibers of Southern hospitality begin to fray?

Compressing Cullinan's novel into a film eking past a ninety-minute runtime, Sofia Coppola's adaptation omits a few characters and amps up the sexual tension. (Having Colin Farrell as the lone male of the story makes the latter easy.) That said, however, does that excuse having a story set in the South during the Civil War feature no characters of color? Of course not.

So which is better: Cullinan's novel or Coppola's film? Cullinan is more descriptive in the mindsets of the women whereas Coppola explores their behavior under stress. Both are lurid stories featuring a battle of the sexes amid a far bloodier war. One, however, captures it all much though both have their merits.

What's worth checking out?: The book.