Saturday, February 29, 2020

THE UP SERIES (1964-2019, GREAT BRITAIN)

Given me a child when he is seven and I will give you the man.-Jesuit proverb

The featured players of the Up series
at different life stages

In 1964, Granada television in Britain chose fourteen seven-year-old subjects for a television special about what it was like to be that age. This original film was directed by Paul Diamond and was originally supposed to be a one and off special. The subjects of the film were chosen by a young researcher named Michael Apted, who saw the potential for something really special here. Apted took over as director of the project and filmed the children again at age fourteen in 1970. He then filmed all the subjects in the film every seven years (all that would participate) all the way until 63 Up in 2019.

I had heard about this series over the years, but never watched it. We got the 56 Up! DVD at the library a couple of years ago, but really wanted to see the films from the beginning. In recent weeks, I noticed Britbox had all the episodes and my wife and I decided to plunge in and watch them.

I don't binge watch shows often, but The Up Series is definitely one I'd recommend going that route with. I feel like I just met these seven-year-old kids a couple of weeks ago and watching a show a night, they quickly are all reaching retirement age. It acts like an only slightly less speedy Picture of Dorian Gray with the featured kids.

We see the participants make schooling decisions, marriage decisions, career decisions and family decisions. Through the episodes, the extended family of the participants become players in this drama as well. Other participants keep their family out of it entirely. We also see past shows cleverly edited into each new show to give the viewer perspective.

One of the elements in the choosing of the original subjects is class. You have the prep school boys, seemingly born with silver spoons in their mouth and poorer East End kids that have to struggle for everything. The truth is of course much more complicated than that.

Here are the subjects for the film:

John, Andrew and Charles on the couch
in 14 Up

The Three Prep School Boys on the Couch
John Brisby, one of the upper class kids, was seemingly on the path to being a barrister from age seven. He likes to point out in later episodes that he had to struggle a lot more than what is portrayed in the earlier films.

Andrew Brackfield was one of the funniest of the seven year old kids, going on about he read The Financial Times on a daily basis. He later became a solicitor, but seems to spend a lot of time in his garden as the years go on. He appears to have one of the happier marriages and families in the film.

Charles Furneaux is the third of the Prep School boys. Charles didn't participate in any films after 21 Up, despite later becoming a documentary filmmaker himself!

Jackie, Lynn and Sue on the slide at age seven

The Three Working Class Girls on the Couch
Jackie Bassett is one of the three girls in the film that are usually filmed together. Her life has had her ups and downs with marriages, kids, work and health. She often seems to have a love/hate relationship with director Apted. I find her one of the most interesting subjects in the film.

Lynn Johnson was one of Jackie's friends who definitely had her ups and downs. She married young and had a family early, but kept her marriage together throughout her life. I certainly like the fact that she worked at libraries and a bookmobile for many years. She had many health issues over the years which she talks about in many episodes. She died in 2013 at the age of 57.

Sue Davis is the third of the three girls filmed together in episode one. She had her ups and downs with marriage and divorce over the years. She also had a potential singing career that she points out she was never able to follow through with. In later years, she is seen as being happily engaged to the same man for 21 years!

The Charity Boarding School Classmates
Symon Basterfield was the only participant of mixed race in this film. He worked at various jobs over the years which the viewer gets to experience vicariously (There's Symon on the fork lift again!). He married and had five kids only to divorce. His second wife was a strong presence in 49 Up and 56 Up.

Paul Kliegerman was also one of the funniest of the kids at seven. The clip that they show about his fear of marriage because his wife might serve him greens makes me laugh every time they show it. In actuality, Paul has had the same wife since 21 Up, and we see many of their travels through the outback and raising of their family over the years. One of the most likable participants in the film, we see Paul reunited with his classmate Symon in 49 Up (or was that 42 Up?)

The entire group together at 21 Up

The Academics
Bruce Balden may be the person I identify the most with in the film. Always concerned about social issues and injustice early on, he becomes a teacher in the inner city and in Bangla Desh for awhile. It didn't seem like he would ever get married, but did in 35 Up in a ceremony conducted by fellow Up participant Neil Hughes.

Nick Hitchon started out on a farm and went to boarding school before going to Oxford and eventually becoming a professor specializing in Nuclear Fusion at the University of Wisconsin. Nick's first marriage is documented in 28 Up, but that didn't last and seems happy with his second wife in later episodes. 

I just want to promote me band!
Peter Davies was a Liverpudlian youth who in 21 Up said some negative things about the Thatcher Administration which he got some criticism for and decided not to participate in the series again until 56 Up to promote his folk band!

This is pointless and silly!
Suzy Lusk had a most interesting evolution on the show. She went from being one of the rich kids in the beginning to being from a broken home and deciding the project was "pointless and silly" by the age of 14. At 21, she was an angry chain-smoking young lady who would never want to have kids and was mad at the world. By 28, she married someone who seemed to change her worldview for the better and has appeared to have a happy life (with kids!).

Tony Walker at 7 Up and 56 Up
The breakout stars
Tony Walker-"I want to be a jockey when I grow up. I want to be a jockey when I grow up!" I always quote Tony's seven-year-old aspirations to my wife before we start a new episode. Tony is one of the lower East Side kids who did indeed become a jockey for awhile before becoming a taxi driver among other things. The fast talking Tony seems to be one of those people who can probably get away with a lot just by talking his way out of things. Married at 28, his wife was featured in all the subsequent episodes and they are not afraid to speak openly about the highs and lows of their relationship.

Neil Hughes at 56 Up and 7 Up

Neil Hughes was the Liverpool youth who had aspirations, yet never seemed to find his way. He was often depicted throughout the run of the show as homeless or suffering from a form of mental illness-yet always finding a way to survive. He later became a local councilman and even a preacher (performing the marriage ceremony for Bruce Balden).

I think for the most part the participants haven been shown in a positive light. I mean there aren't any villains in this piece (Maybe Charles, only because he wouldn't participate after 21 Up) and I hope the lives of all of them continue to improve through 63 Up, 70 Up, 77 Up...

Thursday, February 27, 2020

THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH (1989), TRUST (1990)

 Adrienne Shelly and Robert Burke
seek out The Unbelievable Truth


Director Hal Hartley's three decade (so far) career as an indie film director began with his 1989 film The Unbelievable Truth in 1989. It's a story about a mechanic named Josh (Robert Burke) who returns to his hometown after a stretch in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed. He gets involved with Audry (Adrienne Shelly), the daughter of the owner of the garage where he lands a job. It's a nice little film with interesting plot twists and characters and I really have to give credit to any film with a budget of $75,000 (even in 1989 dollars).

Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan 
learn to Trust each other

Trust is Hal Hartley's low-budget romance about a pregnant high schooler named Maria that accidentally kills her dad, gets banished by her mother, dumped by her boyfriend, survives an attempted rape in a store...before hooking up with a electronics repairman named Matthew whose main character flaw is that he is too ethical to hold a job. Matthew has parental problems of his own with his oddly controlling father. The characters of Maria and Matthew grew on me after awhile (especially Adrienne Shelly as the girl) and the film has some nice touches of dark humor and some poignancy as well.

Leading lady Adrienne Shelly later became a director in her own right (Waitress), but her promising career was cut short by her tragic death in 2006 at the age of 40.


Adrienne Shelly in Waitress

Monday, February 24, 2020

A QUESTION OF SILENCE (1982), CAROL (2015)

Three women converge of the shop owner
in A Question of Silence

A Question of Silence is a story of three women. One is a seemingly happy, plump middle aged waitress. But is she really happy? She's alone and perhaps she isn't really as contented as she seems. Another is an attractive office assistant. Her boss relies on her to run the office, but seems to have little respect for her ideas. The third is a housewife with a family. The three women don't know each other but find themselves at a dress shop one day. The housewife attempts to steal a garment and is approached by the owner. The three women converge of him and...well, they beat him to death.

The women are in custody and are interviewed by a female criminal psychiatrist named Janine. Janine tries to understand them at first and actually comes to sympathize with them as time goes on.

A feminist parable to be sure. What is the director/writer Gorris trying to say? And should a man watch this with a different eye than a woman? I'm not sure, but I don't think anyone watches A Question of Silence and says, "Wow, that was entertaining!" Of course, it wasn't meant to be.




Carol (Cate Blanchette) meets Therese (Rooney Mara)
in Carol

We recently read the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith for my book club. It is the story of a young lady named Therese who slowly becomes enamored by an older married woman named Carol. It is a book that really delves into Therese's thoughts and somehow makes intricate details and mundane thoughts interesting. I actually liked this book more than some of the women in my book group who thought she relied on this detail too much and neglected getting on with the story.

Having read the book makes the praised film adaptation Carol interesting. I've seen it before, but looking at it right after reading the book makes it seem somehow less than when I first saw it. Granted, film is a different medium and taken as a stand alone without knowing about the book, it is a pretty good study of these two women. It also recreates the time well and Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara are good in the lead roles.

Overall, the story is about a clear love between two women that can not be expressed because of the time and the situation they are in. But the end surprisingly does give them and the reader (or viewer) hope that they can both ultimately be happy.

The Price of Salt
(listed under Highsmith's alias
Claire Morgan)

Friday, February 21, 2020

ECSTASY (1933, CZECHOSLOVOKIA), SAMSON AND DELILAH (1948), BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (2017)

Hedy Kielser naked and afraid
 in Ecstasy

The Czech film Ecstasy is a somewhat puzzling film to watch. It is about a bride named Eva who is on her honeymoon with her older husband named Emil and suddenly realizes she doesn't love him and leaves him to go back to the comfort of her family. While swimming and chasing a horse before she is able to get her clothes on she meets a builder who eventually becomes her lover. Emil eventually comes back to try to reconcile with Eva and complications ensue.

Ecstasy director Gustav Machaty and his cinematographer definitely have some cinematic skill with their often offbeat camera angles and slow pacing. The film itself often plays like a silent, with minutes between dialogue even though sound had been around for several years when this film was shot! It's not a bad film now that I think about it, but there's really only one reason it's remembered today.

Heddy Lamar: Eva is played by Austrian Hedy Kiesler, who later became famous in America under the name of Heddy Lamar. Her scene when she is running after her horse in the nude was considered quite scandalous at the time, but it did give her some attention which later led to her emigration to the United States and becoming a star for MGM studios in the 40's.

Heddy Lamar using her body 
in Sampson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah was one of the biggest hits MGM and director Cecil B. Demille had during the 1940's.
Heddy Lamar played the seductive temptress Delilah and she did indeed have looks to kill for...or at least get your haircut for. I actually liked this film more than I thought I would (I think I'm just growing soft for old movies). The final destruction of the temple as well as other action scenes (such as Samson kicking ass with the jawbone of an ass) makes for a pretty good spectacle and Lamar's co-star Victor Mature is able as the mighty Samson. We also have on hand a young Angela Lansbury as Delilah's sister and the always wonderful (to me) George Sanders as the Saran.

 
Heddy Lamar using her brain
in Bombshell: The Heddy Lamar Story


The last film of my Heddy Lamar triple feature is the documentary Bombshell: The Heddy Lamar Story. This film shows Heddy's rise from a Czech ingenue to a major Hollywood star, her many marriages and the many peaks and valleys of her career before becoming a recluse later in life. 

One of the noted aspects of this documentary is showing Heddy's...brain. She is credited (or maybe not credited enough) with the development of "frequency hopping"to prevent enemy subs and such for picking up on messages delivered to allies during World War II. She and George Antheil were awarded a patent on this in 1942 and was used as a valuable tool in keeping transmissions secret in subsequent years (and wars.)


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

DIVA (1981, FRANCE), SABOTEUR (1942)

Jules the postman (Frederic Andrei) 
shares his love of the Diva with a friend

Diva is the story of a young Parisian postman who literally bumps into a prostitute with an incriminating cassette tape that she hides in Jules's moped. The prostitute is killed and Jules finds he is quickly in over his head in a situation not of his choosing. The plot of the film also involves Jules's obsession with an classical singer named Cynthia Hawkins who never lets herself be recorded. Ah! But Jules has a bootleg recording of her, which he listens to constantly. So essentially Jules has one recording he loves and another one that he wants no part of.

This engaging French thriller reminds me a great deal of some of Alfred Hitchcock's movies that feature an everyman that gets involved in a situation way over his head, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much. That film also had a similar musical tie-in in the plot.

Diva Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) 
sings live...so don't record her!

I wanted to team Diva up with a Hitchcock film that I hadn't seen before, so I chose Saboteur, a 1942 film which also features an average guy that gets involved in a situation over his head.

Aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Bob Cummings) is an average Joe that is falsely accused of setting a fire at the factory that killed a friend of his. He is sought by police and ends up on the run, but has a clue about the identity of the real culprit, a man named Fry (Norman Lloyd). The acts of sabotage turn out to be much bigger than just Fry, which Barry discovers a little bit at a time. He also picks up a blonde (Priscilla Lane) along the way who wants to turn him in at first, but of course later becomes an ally.

The film culminates with a memorable scene with Fry dangling from the Statue of Liberty with Barry unsuccessfully trying to save him.

Saboteur isn't top twenty Hitchcock, but it's not bad either. It does seem like a bit of a test film in retrospect for Hitch's later North by Northwest. Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane aren't Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, but they're likable and effective enough. And the conclusion on top of the Statue of Liberty is good, just not as good as the Mount Rushmore finale of North by Northwest.

Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane have issues
in Saboteur

As in many Hitchcock films, we do have many memorable supporting players. I especially like the truck driver looking for excitement that helps Barry escape from the police. Otto Kruger plays a sophisticated villain here...Otto seemed to played a sophisticated villain a lot. Also on hand are Vaughan Glaser as a blind man that also helps Barry and a train full of circus performers who debate between themselves whether or not to turn in our fugitives.

My favorite of all of the supporting players is Norman Lloyd as Fry. Norman became a frequent Hitchcock collaborator throughout his career. I know him best in later years as Dr. Auschlander from St. Elsewhere. Norman provided insights on the commentary track of Saboteur and he mentioned that Hitchcock felt it was a mistake to have the bad guy in peril at the end of the movie because the audience isn't really invested as much on whether or not he falls as they would be if it were the hero. This is another improvement the director made in North by Northwest.

As of this writing, Norman Lloyd is still alive at age 105 and comes across in his commentary as an extremely charming guy.

Norman Lloyd hanging on to the Statue of Liberty
for the moment is Saboteur

Norman Lloyd as Dr. Auschlander
in St. Elsewhere

Saturday, February 15, 2020

CEDDO (1977, SENEGAL), MANILA: IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT (1975, PHILIPPINES)

Ceddo

From the CIA World Factbook
Senegal
Granted independence 1960
Population 15 million
95% Muslim 5% Christian
Official language: French
Interesting export item: Fish, Groundnuts
Imports: Fuels

The only Senegalese movies in any edition of the 1001 book are two movies directed by Osuman Sembene (Moolade, about female genital mutilation and Ceddo). Ceddo is about what goes on in a local village when the coming of the slave trade occurs, as well as attempts to convert the people to Christianity and later Islam. Neither of the outside factors are portrayed sympathetically, which is a good thing. I'm interested in movies that come from a different perspective than I'm used to and Ceddo is a good fit into this category of film.

Manila: In the Claws of Light

From the CIA World Factbook
Philippines
Became a self-governing commonwealth in 1935
Population  105 million
80% Roman Catholic, 8% protestant
Official languages: Filipino, English
Interesting Export Item: Coconut Oil
Interesting Import Item: Plastic

The only film from the Philippines in the 1001 book is Manila: In the Claws of Light. It is about a young villager named Julio who comes to the big city of Manila to find out what happened to his girlfriend, Ligaya. He has to toil in a construction job for almost no pay and later even considers being a male escort to make ends meet. After being in Manila for over a year, he finally encounters Ligaya, who has been caught up in a sexual slavery ring during most of this time. Her life is further complicated by her giving birth and being blackmailed by her pimp into not running away.

Not unlike some other dramas of the type, this one is once again interesting in coming from the point of view of a Filipino filmmaker who is not afraid to show many of the problems inherent in his society, including the exploitation of male construction workers and girls taken into forced prostitution.

You have to admire both of these directors, who have made films that their respective governments could not have been enthusiastic about the citizens of their respective countries seeing.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

RED PSALM (1972, HUNGARY), THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME (1989, SOVIET UNION)

Circle of unity in Red Psalm

Well, comrades. I must say Red Psalm depicts a lot of solidarity amongst the peasant workers being put down by the business interests and using the army as an instrument to fight against them. They do this through a lot of singing "Long live the workers! Long live the rights of workers society! Let's dance and celebrate the cannon of the liberator!" The camera is always moving and there are many effective scenes of the people moving one way hand in hand while the camera goes in the opposite direction. The scene where the army opens fire is enhanced by the lack of blood depicted. The people fall down, but fall down as one.You hear me brothers and sisters?

And remember comrades, don't be distracted by our sisters occasionally taking their clothes off!


Random trumpet blowing in The Asthenic Syndrome

Okay, comrades. I wish I got more out of The Asthenic Syndrome. The black and white section of the story shows a woman who has lost her husband and is going through grief. The larger color second half shows a teacher who suffers from the titular affliction of falling asleep at inappropriate times. The story isn't presented in an easy to fathom narrative most of the time. At least it's not too capitalist.

Both of these films might gain from repeated viewings. Red Psalm may bring you to its camp by sucking you into it's rhythm. The Asthenic Syndrome may be more palatable with a context of what to look for established in your mind before diving back in.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

THE OSCAR (1966)


What better way to get into the mood for tonight's Academy Awards presentation than watching the 1966 film The Oscar? Okay, there may have been better ways to tell you the truth, but this is the path I have chosen! I knew the reputation of this film was not a good one ever since I had my old copy of The Golden Turkey Awards where Tony Bennett was given the Golden Turkey for Worst Performance by a Popular Singer performance in a movie. More on him in a minute.

The plot of the movie involves a (for lack of a better word) asshole named Frankie Fain (played by Stephen Boyd) who tries to make ends meet in strip clubs and such with his girl (Jill St. John) and loyal sidekick Hymie (Tony Bennett). At one point, they get taken in on a trumped up prostitution charge which they eventually get out of, but Frankie's girl breaks up with him and Frankie heads out on his own.

Frankie gets involved with a fashion designer named Kay (Elke Sommer) and is discovered to really have some star appeal by a talent scout (Eleanor Parker). Yadda yadda yadda, Frankie becomes a big movie star, but never seems to quit being a prick. His career takes a downward turn until he nabs an elusive Oscar nomination. He plants a story in the paper (with the help of an unsavory detective played by Ernest Borgnine) about the old prostitution rap. You see, people will think one of the other nominees planted that story and Frankie will get the sympathy vote, right? That Best Actor Oscar will put Frankie's career back on the right track...if he wins....

It's Oscar night. The Best names are read out. And the winner is....Frank...
As the name is read, Frankie stands up before presenter Merle Oberon finishes reading out the name...Sinatra! The real Frank Sinatra is actually there to pick up the Best Actor Oscar he never won in real life as the picture ends with a stunned Frankie Fain unconvincingly trying to put on a brave face. For all the flaws in the film, I did like this gotcha ending very much.

But let's face it, The Oscar is basically a soap opera in the Sidney Sheldon/Jacqueline Susann school with extremely broad performances and a pretty over-the-top rags to riches story. I would say it doesn't date well, but it was pretty much panned in 1966, too.

Stephen Boyd tries to reason with
Tony Bennett in The Oscar

Unpacking the Oscars from The Oscar:
Surprisingly, the film itself was nominated for two Oscars: Best Production design (losing out to Fantastic Voyage, which also starred Stephen Boyd) and Best Costume Design (Losing out to A Man for All Seasons). Edith Head was the costume designer for The Oscar and also appears as herself in the movie. Edith won eight Oscars in her career, including five in the six years between 1950-1955.

Stephen Boyd was never nominated for an Oscar, not even for his most famous performance as Massala in Ben-Hur.

In 1955, Frank Sinatra (cameo in The Oscar) was nominated for Best Actor in The Man With the Golden Arm but lost out that year to Ernest Borgnine (the private investigator in The Oscar) for Marty. Sinatra's co-star in that film was Eleanor Parker (who played the talent scout in The Oscar). According to Sinatra's biography, he didn't take the loss well. Sinatra did win Best Supporting Actor in 1953 for From Here to Eternity.

It's also interesting that Peter Lawford has a small role here as a washed-up actor turned maitre'D a couple of years after he was kicked out of Sinatra's Rat Pack.

Other Oscar winners with small parts or cameos in the film include: Broderick Crawford, Ed Begley Sr., Walter Brennan and Joan Crawford.

Bob Hope appears as himself as the Oscar master of ceremonies.

Not surprisingly, Milton Berle's dramatic turn as Frankie's agent didn't get him an Oscar nod or many other dramatic roles in the future.

Columnist Hedda Hopper appears as herself. She passed away the year the film was released.

#TheOscarSoWhite: About the only person of color in the whole film is Jack Soo as Fain's servant. I did like Jack in the little he got to do here.

Harlan Ellison? I was shocked when I saw acerbic writer Harlan Ellison's name on the screenplay credits.
Harlan's quote about the film: "I knew my film career was over the night I saw The Oscar. I practically wept!"

Anthony Dominick Bennedetto: Tony Bennett is widely recognized as one of the great singers of the twentieth century. And I'm not here to rag on Tony Bennett's performance in The Oscar. He is obviously trying so hard in the emotional scenes at the end of the film! Trying so damn hard! A for effort...like I said, a legendary singer.


Saturday, February 8, 2020

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), 1917 (2019)


In the trenches in All Quiet on the Western Front

There is a lot of criticism of a lot of the early Best Picture Academy Award choices, but the 1930 Best Picture choice of All Quiet on the Western Front is a decision that has stood the test of time. Even prickly alternative Oscar writer Danny Peary thinks the Academy got this one right.

The film is of course based on the anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque and depicts a group of young soldiers excitedly joining the German army during World War I only to find their dreams of heroism brings them mostly horror and death. I don't think that there were any war films like this in the early talkie era and one can only imagine the impact the sounds of warfare had on audiences of the time.

Read the book...see the movie.. then.go do something to make the world a better place.


Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) tries to get a message
 to the front in 1917

All Quiet on the Western front was only ten years removed from the end of World War I and this year we have another Oscar contender one-hundred years removed from the event. The film is 1917 and is director Sam Mendes's recount of stories passed down from his grandfather Alfred Mendes about the Great War.

The story depicts about soldiers in the British Army who have to get a message to company commanders to cancel an attack that aerial surveillance has discovered to be a set-up from the enemy. 1917 follows these soldiers (Schofield and Blake) as they try to make it to the front in time. The film is noted for being shot in one take and that is a most impressive technical trick. The set design is really stunning. I may watch this whole film again and just try to catch everything that is going on in the background! There has been some criticism that the movie is made for the video game generation. Maybe a little. I can see 1917 on Nintendo being a thing...But  it's still an impressive work and the latest Awards Watch post has 1917 as winning Best Director and Best Picture. Roger Deakins should be a shoo-in for the Cinematography Award and the picture may clean up on many other technical award categories. Except editing, of course. We'll see on February 9th.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

2019 DOCUMENTARIES

2019 Documentary Films

For Sama


For Sama is the story documented by director Waad Al-Kateeb about her marriage and the birth of her son under the unimaginably horrific circumstances of the uprisng in Aleppo, Syria during the last few years. It's a first person view of the consequences of war with children often the innocent victims. For Sama was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar for 2019.

The Edge of Democracy

Another type of first person documentary shows what has happened to Brazil over the last couple of decades. The country has gone from a spirited democracy to basically being taken over by what is basically a Fascist regime. Petra Costa, daughter of prominent political activists, is the recorder of the unfolding story here. The Edge of Democracy was nominated for Best Documentary for 2019. .


Honeyland

Honeyland depicts a small community in North Macedonia whose villagers depend on honeycombs and beekeeping to earn a living. The film focuses especially on one woman and her elderly mother. Honeyland definitely shows a world that I've never seen before as only a good documentary can.
Honeyland is nominated for Best Documentary and Best International Film for 2019.

Apollo 11

Apollo 11 is a documentary using only archival footage of the first trip to the moon. It was listed as one of the Oscar favorites going in, but didn't even get nominated. Speculation is that it may have been seen more as a triumph of editing rather than as a documentary in the traditional sense.

American Factory

American Factory shows what happens when a large Chinese car glass manufacturer takes over a previously shut down plant in Ohio. It is fascinating to watch the culture clashes, the work ethic and the fight over unionization. I didn't realize the film was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama until the closing credits. American Factory was nominated for Best Documentary Oscar for 2019. 

Knock Down the House

Knock Down the House is the inspirational (at least to me) of four Justice Democrats who ran for congress during the 2018 election. The odds were against them as they didn't take corporate donations and had the establishment fighting them all the way. I like all the women here, though the breakout star of this vehicle is clearly future president* Alexadria Ocasio-Cortez. The film won a prize at the Sundance film festival, but did not get an Oscar nomination.

*On a 2009 entry on this blog I said (jokingly!!) that Donald Trump was going to one day be the President. Let's see if I can prognosticate someone more positive for the future on this entry!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

LITTLE WOMEN (2019), LADY BIRD (2017)


Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird

Nice coming of age film that I've actually seen twice now-and it does gain through a second viewing. Saoirse Ronan got a well deserved Oscar nomination for her role as the titular Lady Bird and it might be my favorite performance of all the nominees (from two years ago). This is director Greta Gerwig's first major motion picture as a director. But is she going to be a one-hit wonder???


Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy),
Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth)
are Little Women

The answer to that is obviously no. Gerwig's new adaptation of Little Women has been been praised greatly and many think it is the best film adaptation yet of Louisa May Alcott's famous novel. I did go with a friend who is an expert on all things Little Women and though she liked it, she still didn't like it as much as the 90's version with Wyonna Ryder.

I haven't read the book in awhile and did find the jumping around with the timeline a bit confusing at times. I did like the meta take in that the character of Jo is actually trying to write the book Little Women about their lives!

Gerwig did bring back a couple of her Lady Bird stars to be in Little Women: Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Timothee Chalamet (Laurie).

Random Little Women question: Of the sisters, Jo is clearly the star, Amy is the one with all the emotional problems and Beth is the tragic figure. But what about Meg? I can't figure out her deal exactly. Is she basically the Zeppo of the Little Women quartet?

Little Women has been nominated for six Oscars, including: Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Gerwig did not get a nomination for Best Director.


Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan
in Lady Bird


Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet
in Little Women


Saturday, February 1, 2020

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014), HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), JOJO RABBIT (2019)

The vampire crew in What We Do in the Shadows

New Zealand director Taika Waititi's cult film What We Do in the Shadows is a most amusing mockumentary about vampires. These vampires aren't particularly menacing, in fact, the vamps in the film are living together and mostly have to do humdrum thing like doing the dishes or deciding what to cook for dinner. They also experience difficulty with getting into clubs because vampires can't go into places unless they are asked and have trouble dressing because they can't see themselves in a mirror! It's a fun film.


Sam Neill and Julian Dennison
 in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Another Waititi film that is quite charming is Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The film begins with an older couple, Bella and Hector Faulkner (Sam Neill, Rima Te Diata) who live near the bush in New Zealand that adopt a largely unwanted 13-year-old orphan named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). Things seem to be just starting to work with the three of them when Bella suddenly drops dead. Hector tells Ricky that it was Bella and not him that wanted to adopt him and this leads to Ricky running away into the bush. Hector goes after him, but the their journey into the bush becomes quite an adventure when they get lost and Hector is suspected of kidnapping Ricky. They meet several interesting creatures and people in the woods, my favorite of which is a woodsman named Psycho Sam. This is a very charming and likable film. Two for two so far.

Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis
in Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit is Waititi's first film to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The black comedy is about a young boy named Jojo in World War II Germany who learns to be a good Nazi by having the imaginary presence of Hitler encouraging him along the way. Jojo's Nazi ways are challenged by the fact that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is a collaborator with the enemy who keeps a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden in their house. Jojo comes to like the girl and the film has a lot of moving moments, as well as some pretty funny ones.

Jojo Rabbit has been nominated for six Oscars, including: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay.

Taika Waiti the Actor

Waititi plays the leader of the vampire house
in What We Do in the Shadows

Waititi has one scene as the minister in 
Hunt for the Wilderpeople

And finally, Waititi cast himself as the menacing
and more than a bit goofy imaginary version
of Hitler in Jojo Rabbit

Thursday, January 30, 2020

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), MARRIAGE STORY (2019)

 Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney at counseling
in The Squid and the Whale

Noah Bambauch's The Squid and the Whale tells the story of Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Joan (Laura Linney), a couple going through a divorce in 1986 Brooklyn. The Berkman's are an academically minded couple, with Bernard being a writer and professor and Joan being an aspiring novelist. They both love their kids, Walt and Frank, but express this love in odd ways at times exacerbated by the fact that they are now living in different houses. 

This is an interesting character study of all four of the main leads. Bernard is a bit of a stuffy academic, who looks down on people like Ivan (William Baldwin), the local tennis pro, who he refers to as a philistine. Joan's disconnect with Bernard led to her having affairs (including Ivan) which is explored here also. Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) admires his dad-He has a poster of one of his dad's favorite films, The Mother and the Whore on his wall for Heaven's sake! Walt seems to blame his mom for their troubles more than dad. He has trouble finding a girl that he considers good enough and openly plagiarizes Pink Floyd at the school talent show. The younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) is starting to have troubles of his own involving his own relationships and experimentation with drinking and masturbation...the latter of which wouldn't be a problem if he wasn't doing it in the library!

This is an intellectual and fascinating story of the dissolution of a marriage and family. 

Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline in
The Squid and The Whale

Didn't every 80's kid have a poster of  Jean Eustache's
The Mother and the Whore on their wall?

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver
in Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach goes to the broken family well again in 2019's much praised Marriage Story. I was at first a little taken aback by the fact that the couple are both in show business, but this is later an important plot point in that Charlie directs plays in New York and Nicole has moved to Los Angles to further her professional career in television. Their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) is caught in the middle. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is legally. Divorce isn't cheap, financially or emotionally. Nicole finds a lawyer (Laura Dern) that takes no prisoners. Charlie finds a older but caring lawyer (Alan Alda) at first, but then realizes he's got to get his own "asshole" lawyer (Ray Liotta).

The film is very well acted and is a strong emotional piece. Adam Driver is especially solid and his performance of the song Being Alive at the end of the film is a fitting catharsis to the film.

Noah Baumbach and his wife Greta Gerwig (Little Women) both have films nominated for Best Picture this year...I hope that doesn't cause them any problems at home...

Marriage Story has been nominated for six Oscars, including: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay.


Lawyering up...Alan Alda assists Adam Driver
in Marriage Story

Lawyering up...Laura Dern advocates for
Scarlett Johannson in Marriage Story