Troy (2004)

Troy

Reviewed: 3/15/19

Combined Rating: 4/5

Frank’s Review:

The story of Troy is full of piss and vinegar, and poor decisions.  It is fitting, then, that the film, inspired by Homer’s “The Illiad,” doubles down to make that point.  What struck me most was how avoidable the incessant tragedy would have been had men’s egos not continued to write checks their bodies couldn’t cash…especially without direct intervention from their conspicuously absent Gods.  The likes of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, King Menelaus of Sparta, Achilles, and Odysseus justify continual war as if it’s a cure for boredom…but mostly so we’ll remember their names.  How juvenile.  The consensual secret abduction of Menelaus’s wife, Helen, by Paris of Troy, is only the latest pretext.   And yet, as the fantastical elements and grand scope of the cinematic presentation sweep us up, we roll pleasantly enough through the overt face mugging, the peck glistening, the speech-offs, the curiously overblown death screams, and the awkward philosophizing of the self-obsessed lost, broken up periodically by obligatory early 2000’s-era Arabic ballad-chanting.   BTW…Gladiator called, they want their dirge back.

The film looks so damn good, one can almost forgive the sheer ridiculousness of the dialogue.  These characters spend so much time pontificating their legendary status’ that their own imminent deaths seem to shock them, even when self-predicted…a pesky side note.  Brad Pitt as a stoic Achilles is the worst offender.  I’m tempted to call him the weakest link in the film, had he not some of the worst lines to contend with.   At one point his own mom gives him the most ineffectual “mother to son” pitch in the history of cinema to which Achilles responds by glinting off into the distance as if weighing the value of his inevitable decision to fight.  Cut to his Trireme approaching the beach of Troy, pre-attack, where he offers the suspect line, “Immortality, take it…it’s yours” to his loyal cadre of nameless, doomed soldiers who are probably left wondering in their last seconds how this war is different than all the rest.  It’s hard to root for a guy whose entire aura comes off so self-serving and manipulative.  But what can we really expect from a character who when confronted by a messenger boy with a reasonable observation about not wanting to face such an intimidating foe as Boagrius of Thessaly, shames him with the flippant, “That is why no one will remember your name.”  A true mentor.   Overall, the acting is surprisingly strong, especially from Brian Cox (Agamemnon), who seems to be the only actor who realizes he’s in a pretentiously self-aware toga party.  Eric Bana, as Hector, grounds the proceedings, serving as the lone voice of reason (to no avail), while Peter O’Toole as Trojan King Priam, channelling his Lawrence of Arabian glory days, does his best impersonation of sober.   I only wish there had been more of Sean Bean (Odysseus) who, sporting a dark tan and mullet, makes Boromir look uptight.

I honestly can’t tell if Troy attempts to glorify these infamous warriors, or send them up.  Maybe both.  It’s certainly easier to buy since the saga is mere legend.  Oh wait, they just found the lost city of Troy?  Damn.  But the film succeeds wildly at highlighting the fine line between honor and stupidity, and especially how one man’s obsession, regardless of whether it’s love (Paris), power (Agamemnon), or timelessness (Achilles), can so easily cause the destruction of thousands of regular families who just want to color-coordinate at the holiday office social.

PS…I’m told the 196 minute Director’s cut of the film fleshes out the characters, and spices up the violence and sex, if you’re motivated by such things.  I’m contemplating a viewing, but lacking the motivation of a hard core sword and sandal worshipper.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

Frank and I are on a Greek mythology kick (in preparation for going to Greece in person in May!) We’re also reading The Iliad together, and between the two of us we’ve consumed several other books and documentaries on the subject. “Troy” was my pick, as I knew the story more in soundbites than in actual plot: I knew Achilles got shot in the heel (hence the name of the tendon), but didn’t know how or by whom. I knew there was a Trojan horse involved, but didn’t know whose idea it was, or even whether it was constructed by the Trojans or the Greeks. I’m not sure how much of the 2004 film was embellished and how much was in the actual Iliad, since we’re not even a third of the way through it yet, but I am surprised about how little “screen time” the character of Achilles gets in the Iliad, compared to Brad Pitt’s starring role in “Troy.” (Most of The Iliad is just battle scenes, punctuated by insane amounts of backstory for characters we’ve never heard of and who are now dead, so we never will again. Editing had yet to be invented, evidently.)

“Troy” does manage to edit The Iliad for modern sensibilities, though. The demigod Achilles (a perpetually glistening Pitt), supposedly the best warrior who ever lived, technically fights on the side of Agamemnon (Brian Cox). But he’s motivated only by glory, and resents following orders. He’s therefore a loose cannon, yet his fellow soldiers practically worship him—further incensing Agamemnon. For his part, Agamemnon is a prehistoric Alexander the Great, uniting many kings under his banner, including the wily Odysseus (Sean Bean). All of them converge on the city of Troy, supposedly to recover Menelaus’s (Brendan Gleeson’s) stolen wife Helen (Diane Kruger). But really, Agamemnon just wants an excuse to widen his territory. Troy’s legendary fighter is Hector (Eric Bana), crown prince and older brother to Paris (Orlando Bloom), who stole Helen in the first place. You really root for Troy: they’re the underdog against the unified forces of Greece, their king Priam (Peter O’Toole) is a good guy, and Hector is an honorable man who loves his family and his nation. But he’s no match for the arrogant and unreasonable Achilles, who then won’t even allow him a proper burial. When Priam begs Achilles to release his son’s body, Achilles does grant the Trojans the customary twelve days of mourning. But during this time, it’s Odysseus who suggests the idea of making the Greeks a present of a Trojan horse. (Nevermind where they got the supplies to build an enormous horse, or how they got a bunch of soldiers inside of it, or why the Trojans found the thing on the beach, decided it was a present, and dragged it inside their city walls. Details.) Out creep the Greek soldiers after nightfall, opening the city gates from within, and Troy is sacked while the people slumber. As for Achilles, he finally receives that fateful arrow to the heel while rescuing the Trojan girl he loves, in an act that is both his redemption and his downfall.

While on one hand, the story is so over-the-top as to render it heckle-able, I still really liked it a lot. Something about the epic score and the fame of the story reminded me a little of Lord of the Rings, which is one of my all-time favorites. And while it’s a tragedy, really, and I generally hate tragedies, at least Odysseus lives to journey home to Ithaca in The Odyssey. He’s a peripheral character in “Troy,” but because he’s a main character in his own epic tale, it feels like at least somebody survives. I wouldn’t expect to feel cultured after a major Hollywood blockbuster, but I do know the story a whole lot better now!

**** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Giant turkey drumsticks smothered in BBQ sauce, Greek salad with lettuce, tomato, pepperoncini, and crumbled feta (I’d skip the olives), and a nice chilled Barefoot Riesling, in tribute to the late, great Peter O’Toole.

 

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JFK (1991)

JFK

Reviewed: 2/21/19

Combined Rating: 4.75/5

Frank’s Review:

After experiencing the whirlwind that is JFK, you’d swear the Kennedy assassination couldn’t have happened any other way…especially if you’re young and impressionable.  That’s how I felt after my first theatrical experience with the film as a fourteen year old in ’91, before I’d done any  (or was motivated to follow up with any) actual research on the topic.  I bought into the hype, because hey, conspiracy theories are fun and mysterious, especially when wrapped in lush cinematic packaging.  A few years later, after multiple viewings, I began to realize what an impressive masterwork of propaganda the film really is, and now find myself impressed, yet disturbed, at how successful one piece of art could be at steering and even re-directing cultural belief about a singular historical event that occurred not even thirty years before.  Ultimately, its points reverberate because it is such a tight, entertaining, and technically well-made film.

That Kennedy’s murder was a conspiracy among a host of organizations and parties with converging interests had long been embraced by skeptics and fringe theorists.  But seemingly overnight in 1991, it became mainstream thought, and more, was all anybody could talk about…birthing a bevy of made for TV documentaries, forensic analysis, and books that only fueled the fire.  The theory espoused by the film, and pounded home, is that JFK was the target of a right wing coup d’etat perpetrated by the CIA, the mafia, and the military industrial complex (i.e. the original deep state) and aimed at securing war in Vietnam.  Basically, the argument is that because he’d caused the Bay of Pigs invasion to fail and had prepped to deescalate the conflict in Southeast Asia, that he was secretly soft on Communism.  Oliver Stone’s leftward leanings are no secret, but his tale is so expertly weaved and the dialogue so frenetic, one has little time to even contemplate who his characters are, or their motives and actions within the grand scheme.  This may have been an intentional ploy to blow over or mask any glaring holes and contradictions, or perhaps Stone just had too much to say.   It becomes very difficult to ascertain what is documented and what is just plain made up.  Either way, his reverence to the source material (Jim Garrison’s “On the Trial of the Assassins”) is obvious.  Garrison himself remains the only attorney to ever successfully bring about a trial on the assassination.  Even though he failed to convict the defendant, Clay Shaw, for his role in a larger conspiracy, many argue he did successfully prove there at least WAS a conspiracy.   He’s a quirky yet persistent fellow flatly portrayed by Kevin Costner, in a drowning attempt to anchor an all-star cast.

I remain sympathetic to the idea of conspiracy for forensic reasons, but contrary to Stone’s assertion of Oswald being a sheer “patsy,” I believe old Lee Harvey was at least one of the trigger men.   Regardless, any work that spurs public debate is important, if the topic being debated is significant.  I believe this is true regardless of the agenda being pushed, because under a magnifying glass, the truth may still be more likely to emerge.  And few would argue that the Kennedy slaying isn’t one of the most interesting and deeply crucial episodes in the modern American experience.   Garrison valiantly utters after his trial loss, “May justice be done though the heavens fall.”  However, there’s a decent chance we’ll never know what actually happened, or why, and so we’re left only with Billy Joel’s more apropos…”JFK…blown away…what else do I have to say?”

**** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

Frank has been telling me about this one since we were dating — I’m surprised it took us this long to watch it together. It’s a conspiracy/propaganda piece from the political left(which in and of itself is a little strange for Frank)—but he said until he heard the counter-arguments, he was convinced that the film’s version of how and why Kennedy was murdered was correct. Director Oliver Stone does indeed present his version of events as fact, as told through the eyes of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), District Attorney of Louisiana. Garrison doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) could possibly have been the sole assassin and begins to investigate other possible conspirators, despite mounting public ridicule and a nagging wife (Sissy Spacek — she was suuuuper annoying).

Stone did convince me that Oswald at the very least could not have been the sole shooter, if indeed he was one of the shooters at all. The physics doesn’t work, Oswald was reputed to be a terrible shot, and many eyewitnesses also claimed to have seen other shooters. But he didn’t convince me that Kennedy’s murder came about as part of a Right-wing government conspiracy, motivated by his desire to pull out of Vietnam, which would therefore lose billions for the military-industrial complex. Still, it’s suspicious that security was exceptionally lax that day, and that Kennedy’s motorcade slowed to 11 mph where the shooting occurred—as if to make him an easier target. Also, government records relating to the investigation of the Kennedy murder won’t be released until 2029, long after everyone involved would be dead. Clearly *something* fishy was going on.

The film is excessively long, and at times a bit hard to follow if you’re not already familiar with the politics of the day. Frank kept having to pause and explain to me what was going on and why. But if you like conspiracy theories, this will definitely be up your alley. It’s quite the all-star cast, including Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, Joe Pesci (whose absurd and emotional monologues just begged to be turned into high school drama audition pieces), Walter Matthau, and the real Jim Garrison himself in a cameo. I also have to admit that it’s cinematically brilliant, with the number of insert shots with interviews narrating over the top of them. But, just be prepared for some disturbing actual footage of Kennedy’s murder, and real autopsy photos. While 1960s footage is too grainy to make out detail, the fact that they’re real makes them far more grotesque than anything fictional could ever be.

****

Meal pairing: It’s much too long to cook dinner beforehand, so probably order a pizza, and smoke eight packs of cigarettes.  Chase with a stiff Buffalo Trace Bourbon

 

 

Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

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Reviewed: 2/6/19

Combined Rating: 3/5

Frank’s Review:

There’s something off about this beloved kids movie.  Beneath a glossy, fantasy laden premise that appeals to every downtrodden dreamer lies a festering vat of creepy, reflective of a disillusioned era.  Willie Wonka, in a marketing ploy, hides rare golden tickets in his candy bars for the chance to win a lifetime supply of edible happiness.  Would winning somehow make the rest of our protagonist Charlie’s squalid existence more bearable?  But under the sugar coating, the elusive mastermind harbors a demented paranoia barely contained within the cutesy veneer portrayed to his clamoring public.  What really goes on behind the secret walls of his chocolate factory?  Is Wonka actually the cosmos’s incarnated check on child greed, or is he just plain off his gourd?  Five lucky kids get to find out on their whirlwind factory tour, and are quickly exposed to the psychedelic weirdness within the walls, and the mind, of Willie Wonka, eccentrically performed by Gene Wilder.

This film falls into a sub-category of ‘70’s flicks that are probably more entertaining whilst in a chemically altered state (see Apocalypse Now, Rocky Horror Picture Show).  I would never advocate drug use, but after multiple sober viewings, I believe one would have to be high to accept that grandpa can jump out of bed after 20+ years as an invalid and perform a musical number over the prospect of free candy.  I know, I know, he’s excited for Charlie finding a golden ticket, but still.  And then there’s the orange midgets Wonka employs to do his bidding.  Ostensibly, they “make the confections,” but if you break a rule during the tour or fail to read the fine print…look out.   Wonka’s story is that he “rescued” them from exploitation in Oompah-Loompah land, but they can’t help it if they also enjoy murdering greedy children in creative ways.  Wonka assures his fans that the children consumed by his factory during the tour have been eventually returned to normal and to their families, but we never actually see this happen.  So, we’re supposed to take his word for it, especially after a “boat ride from hell” sequence that makes Martin Sheen’s ride down the Mekong look pleasant.   This is not a stable person.  The capper is Wonka’s  unexplained retirement proclamation and subsequent bequeathment of his entire company to Charlie…the latter’s true prize!  Nevermind that Charlie is literally a back ally street urchin with a good heart who probably doesn’t know how to run a major corporation.  And this is his reward?  Given, it’s potentially better than unlimited chocolate bars, but only in proficient hands.

Basically, kids will be kids, and yet Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is kind of morally arguing that they should somehow all be better behaved across the board, irrespective of worldly circumstances.  I don’t know, seems kind of harsh.   Good thing we had our angel Charlie, or else the entire plot might have been rehashed, wrapped in deceptively tweaked Wonkalicious packaging and aimed at weeding out another cluster of brats.  And what do you think would come of that?  I don’t like the look of it.

***

Lauren’s Review:

I love kids’ films (maybe I’m simple, I don’t know—or naive, or something), and I’d never seen this one before, even though I’m almost certain I’ve read the book. But I had no desire to watch the Johnny Depp iteration, since even the previews gave me nightmares. Then again, I can’t honestly say that Gene Wilder’s was what you’d call “normal.” It’s a creepy character, and frankly kind of a weird story, even if there is also some whimsy to it in order to appeal to children.

The story follows Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), a poor but kind and respectful boy whose family all lives under a single roof: both sets of grandparents (all four of whom sleep in a single bed!), himself, and his mother, who apparently supports them all as a washer woman. Meanwhile, Willy Wonka (Wilder), the owner of a world famous chocolate factory, announces that he’s hidden five golden tickets inside some of his chocolate bars. The five people who find those tickets will win a tour of his factory, plus all the chocolate they can eat for life. Suddenly the whole world goes mad with obsession. Starry-eyed Charlie wants desperately to win, but of course the contest favors privileged children who can afford to purchase large quantities of chocolate to improve their chances. Sure enough, four of the five winners are very spoiled indeed—but at the last moment, Charlie finds the money to buy a bar and wins the fifth ticket. He has to attend with a guardian, so he takes his grandfather (who incidentally had been bedridden for the past 15 years but suddenly finds the strength to tap dance in his excitement.) From there, the story becomes a bit of a morality tale. Willy Wonka, apparently sociopathic, exposes the children and their guardians to innumerable dangers in his magical candy factory, which seems a bit like a real-life Candyland. Each of the other four flawed children comes face to face with a temptation tailor-made for them, including chocolate rivers, hens that lay real golden eggs, and magical bubble gum. Sure enough, each child gives in, and each gets his or her own “just desserts,” as it were (and the Oompa Loompas rejoice. They might have been the creepiest part of the whole film). Only Charlie successfully resists temptation, at which point (slight spoiler alert) we learn that Willy Wonka had been intentionally testing them all along. Charlie passes the test, and so Charlie wins a prize he can’t possibly use—but what the heck, we’re already suspending disbelief. Willy Wonka then undergoes a personality transplant in the last several minutes of the film, suddenly turning all warm and cuddly.

It sounds like I didn’t like the film. I did, kind of… it was just odd for a kid’s film. It was whimsical and imaginative, but I’ll probably never watch it again, and I’m certainly glad I never watched it as a child. If I’d seen the same film with Johnny Depp, I can’t even imagine.

***

Meal Pairing: eat dinner first, and have a banana split with this one: heavy on the hot fudge and sprinkles.

 

Rocky IV (1985)

rocky_iv_-_tt0089927_-_1985_-_us

Reviewed: 1/6/2019

Combined Rating: 3.5/5

Frank’s Review:

Posterity has awarded credit to Reagan and Gorbachev for ending the cold war.  But I like to think the two leaders might have been inspired by a secret viewing of Rocky IV at their ’86 Reykjavik summit…in which case, one could argue Sylvester Stallone deserves the real credit.  If you don’t feel patriotically pumped up, yet magnanimously moved toward love and reconciliation with all humankind at its exciting conclusion, you’re most likely a cold hearted bastard who deserves to have your face melted off in a nuclear blast.

Rocky IV plays kind of like Rocky’s greatest hits on steroids.  Minimal effort is made to break new ground in the overall saga, and yet it all feels new and urgent, as it embraces the dichotomy between both its nationalistic tendencies and transcendent humaneness, and argues for both.  It doesn’t offer any actual political solutions other than to posit that only a man of Rocky’s gravitas and heart can get nations to bridge their differences given ten seconds, a microphone, a captive audience, and the message, “If I can change, and you can change….everybody can change!”  It’s amazing how Russians are more inclined to root for the guy who just got punched in the face 800 times, over their own boy Ivan Drago (who trained with superior scientific technology and still lost).  Turns out Russians, like us, respect grit, perseverance, and not cheating.  Even the Politburo applauds.

It’s actually amazing how emotionally impacting the film is, considering how many montages it contains, which I quickly realized were merely platforms for yet another awesome Survivor-esque pop jam.  I used to work out to the soundtrack in college, which I’d argue is the only reason I managed more than ten squats in one session.  In scenes that aren’t part of a montage, we’re treated to basic American mores within poignant moments like the one where Rocky tells his young son, “Going one more round when you don’t think you can is what makes all the difference in your life.”  Truth.  We saw early on with Apollo Creed (who can’t even be bothered to train for his “exhibition” fight with Drago) that sheer bravado, even as a part of our core, does not always provide optimal results on its own, but instead should be tempered by the better, or at least more contemplative, angels of our nature.  Alternatively, Rocky’s measured response in avenging Apollo’s almost comical death shows us that even warriors can employ a more comprehensive array of qualities that are more likely to ensure ultimate victory.  Over-analyzing aside, we can absorb an epic barrage of one liners from Drago which are fun employing in every day conversations with a thick Russian accent, like “I must break you,”  and my personal fav, “If he dies, he dies,” which has been such a hit for me over the years, I bought the T-shirt.  For these reasons, Rocky IV has emerged as my favorite Rocky movie of all time…and is probably the default entry, if we’re only gonna watch one.  Don’t get me wrong, Rocky ’76 was great, if not a bit slow, but everything got bigger in the ’80’s, and rightly so.  I’m sure that was Reagan’s idea.

****

Lauren’s Review:

I was well prepared for this one. Frank has told me for years now that this was his favorite of the Rocky films because it would make me “proud to be an American.” But I couldn’t watch IV until I’d seen Rocky I and understood the story setup (which I can boil down to this: Rocky, underdog, trains to fight heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, and—***spoiler alert***—it ends in a draw). I haven’t seen the subsequent two Rocky films, but it really wasn’t necessary, as the intro to this film summarized them for me anyway: Rocky (Stallone) is now super famous, and he and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) are now besties. (Cut to montage of them playing in the waves in slo-mo, wearing very short shorts… the things you could get away with in the 80s without raising eyebrows, I tell you. Such innocence.)

But then, Russian challenger Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) comes to the states, claiming to be a human weapon, scientifically trained to perfection. He challenges Rocky, but Creed, who retired years ago, decides to come out of retirement and fight Drago instead, mostly to prove that “he’s still got it.” He thinks this is just a fight for show, but Drago takes it seriously and kills Creed in the ring. Rocky tells his very distraught wife Adrian (Talia Shire) that he now has to fight Drago, for Creed’s sake… and he’s going to do it on Drago’s home turf, in Russia. (Cut to a comical number of training montages… seriously, about a third of this film is montages.) Drago trains in a clinical fashion, with electrodes and scientists studying his every move, while Rocky does it old-school: climbing mountains, chopping wood, doing sit-ups while hanging from a pull-up bar in a barn. The two contenders are a very thinly veiled metaphor for the United States vs Russia during the Cold War, and Drago is a largely silent caricature of evil brute strength, summed up by his famous line: “I must break you.”

You can guess the rest, if you haven’t yet seen it. Since the story itself is so simple, and the montages were required to pad screen time, the fight at the end is expansive. It looks like Drago is going to win. But then Rocky rebounds. But then Drago pounds him to a pulp. This goes on and on for round after round, until finally (should I even bother to say spoiler alert?) Rocky prevails. But he doesn’t stop there: then he takes the opportunity to preach to the surrounding Russians about democracy and fair play, moving them to tears and a standing ovation. If only convincing others of our beliefs were always so simple! If the definition of “cheesy” is the overt attempt to manipulate the emotions of others, then Rocky IV is certainly cheesy… but it’s fun, nevertheless. I don’t mind emotional manipulation when it’s *that* obvious.

***

Meal Pairing:  Beef Stroganoff and a Tomato/Onion salad with Russian dressing.  Cap off with a Pineapple Mule with the vodka of your choice.

 

 

 

Dead Again (1991)

DeadAgain

Reviewed: 12/16/18

Combined Rating: 4/5

Frank’s Review:

Paying somebody back in another life for murdering you in this one is a delicious concept.   But what if you didn’t know you’d inherit the opportunity, or that fate had already scheduled it for you?   What if you didn’t even know that you’d been reincarnated, except only through fleeting glimpses of a perceived past life in unrelenting nightmares?

In Kenneth Branagh’s clever, neo-noir thriller, identity, more than the inevitability of fate, emerges as the biggest problem.  When Private Investigator Mike Church (Branagh) tries to help a mystery woman (Emma Thompson) remember who she is, he’s soon embroiled in his own metaphysical conundrum that, despite his harried efforts to resolve, works out only in its own good time.  Their falling in love is destined, resumed from another time and place.  But thanks to karma, there is an overwhelming sense that their story can only end one way.  As they replay their prior drama in a modern context, the players, ultimately, cannot effectively steer their course, even with the help of hypnotists who give them the benefit of past life cognizance.  Their confusion and lack of understanding of the inevitability of what is unfolding is what, ironically, drives them towards causing the pieces to come together the way they’re meant to.  This is the achievement, and brilliance, of the film.  The climactic result features two simple, yet effective twists nobody, on first viewing, sees coming.  One can only say that karma cuts deep!

On many occasions, Dead Again threatens to enter into melodrama.  I don’t know if Branagh (also directing) just gets caught up in the urgency the story rightly engenders, or if it’s all an intentional manifestation of his inherently theatrical Shakespearean proclivities.  But it does feel a little silly at times, aided by Patrick Doyle’s over the top score that overemphasizes cues that might have played better subtly.   I did, however, quite enjoy the visual contrast between the lush glitz of 1949 L.A. and its ‘90’s decadent counterpart.  All the jumping around between the past and present is actually helpful in establishing homicidal motives, but especially in fleshing out the backstory between the leads necessary to absorb their timeless connection.  The most interesting aspect, however, involves not the relationship between reincarnated characters, but between them and those still living from Mike and Amanda’s first incarnation forty plus years prior, and how those older characters inadvertently bring about their own just deserts within their original lifetimes.   An original in the vein of Hitchcock is in this way brought full circle, and yet remains worthy of multiple viewings.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

I’ve loved the Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh pairing ever since I saw them in “Much Ado About Nothing”—they have such fantastic on-screen chemistry. (Presumably that’s because they were married in real life at the time.) “Dead Again” is very different genre than Shakespeare, and the story is unique and compelling enough that it probably would have been good no matter who played the leading roles. But I think it was so much better because it was them.

The story follows private detective Mike Church (Branagh) and a woman with amnesia who initially can’t speak, except to scream in her nightmares. Mike dubs the woman “Grace” (Thompson). Mike agrees to call in a favor with a reporter, who runs Grace’s picture and story in the newspaper in hopes that her family or loved ones will come and get her. In the meantime, Grace stays with Mike at his home—and of course, he begins to develop feelings for her. A hypnotist sees the picture and approaches Mike, suggesting that hypnosis and eventually past life regression might help Grace remember who she is. In the process, Grace describes her former self, a woman named Margaret, who was murdered. Her husband Roman was convicted for the crime and put to death in the 1940s—and when they look up the case, they discover that Grace and Mike are the spitting image of Margaret and Roman (as they, too, are played by Branagh and Thompson). Mike also submits to past life regression after that, and he too “remembers” the story of Roman and Margaret. Grace becomes afraid of Mike, believing that history will repeat and that he will kill her again, just as Roman (supposedly) killed Margaret. But there are a few extra twists you won’t see coming. One of the twists I think is just weird and unnecessary, but the more important twist is pretty perfect.

The screenplay and acting were both terrific—there’s even a cameo from Robin Williams as an embittered psychotherapist-turned grocer to help guide Mike on his quest for truth. “Dead Again” follows the template of the murder mystery in many ways, but the dynamic between Mike and Grace adds an element of romantic suspense, and the past life angle really sets it apart. It’s a fun movie, but you definitely have to pay attention to this one.

**** 1/2

Meal pairing: chicken curry soup with some cilantro and parsley on top—maybe because we watched this one when it was cold, it seems like the kind of film that requires soup.

 

 

A Star is Born (2018)

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Reviewed 11/25/2018

Combined Rating 3.5/5

Frank’s Review:

How many times must a film be remade before the whole world knows how it ends?   Apparently, that has yet to be determined.   I know some folks who were not yet familiar with the tale.  Those folks shall remain nameless in the interest of charity to folks raised in caves.  Even still, I myself did not quite realize that A Star is Born had been unofficially slated for generational updates…offering a kind of quintessential  American lesson everyone should internalize because either it’s THAT important, or Hollywood is truly out of ideas.  In 2018, the fourth iteration of this bittersweet saga about the fleeting nature of fame hit the big screen, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, of all people.   And I have to say, despite the old hat, the clothes were new, and fit quite nicely.

Gaga inherited the Barbra Streisand role from the 1976 version (the poster for which, featuring assumed nudes of perm-clad Streisand and hippie-Jesus Kris Kristofferson in a staged embrace, may be one of the most disturbing images in filmdom).   Having said that, few could match Streisand’s pipes, making casting tricky.   Gaga, thankfully, is one of them, in her debut leading role.  Cooper, also directing, assumes the burden of our declining alcoholic rock star Jackson, who, despite serious flaws, manages to fall in love and motivate himself long enough to promote Ally’s gee-wiz talents, which initially find her performing in shady drag bars for 21st century flair.  He charms her in a mumbling kind of way, and rescues her from obscurity.  Queue Jack’s protective manager/brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) who must set a cinematic record for F-bombs matched only by Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.   The glint in Jackson’s eye is fading fast, as he clings to sobriety amidst a bevy of life-of-a-superstar snares and awkward family drama.  Even if we don’t predict his specific fate on the Thunderdome wheel, we sense this can only turn out one way for him.

What the film does well is explore the dichotomy of who we really are beneath the self-imposed mask of our public persona, and how difficult it is to manage expectations and even our true identity in the throes of disease that dampens it to fill a void.  Relationships seem impossible to maintain given self-imposed pressures within a rising sea of self-doubt, especially when the public is, by nature, unforgiving and fickle.  One scene symbolizes Jack’s public death in a severely cringe-inducing manner, at an award show honoring Ally’s official rise.  It’s the pinnacle moment where we know they’ve traded places…but to what end?  The inevitable fall of Jack is no surprise (again, to most), as we’re clued in throughout the proceedings with subtle harbingers and details that portend in retrospect.   We’re left hoping that Ally (or indeed Gaga in her own storied music career) doesn’t follow the same path, but we’ve seen too many times the temptations inherent in the business.  We can only console ourselves but for that brief crest of the wave and enjoy the fruits of their creative labor before it all potentially crashes down.  In the end, at least, it’s the music itself, sad, poetic, and ironically introspective, that lasts.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

What a lot of mixed emotions this one stirs up! I love the overall premise—it’s a Cinderella story, but with the music industry, and it most definitely is not a feel-good fairy tale. Ally (Lady Gaga) is an incredibly talented waitress by day, nightclub performer by night. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a jaded country superstar who stops by the club where Ally is performing on his way home after a concert, just because he ran out of alcohol and needs to keep his buzz going. It’s love at first sight, more or less, mostly because her talent blows him away. From that moment on, he practically stalks her to try to use his influence as a jump-start to her career. It works, and for a brief glorious moment in time, the two of them perform together, writing songs for one another and reveling in new love. But Jackson is an addict—Ally knows this from the beginning. As her star rises, he begins to self-destruct. Let me just say this: if you’re looking for a “happily ever after,” pass this one up. It’s suuuuper depressing.

But as much as I dislike sad stories, I’m also fascinated by the psychology of fame, and this film gives an inside look of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of adulation, as well as what it’s like to lose it. Jackson is a very sympathetic character, despite all the alcohol, the drugs, and the f-bombs (which became almost comical at certain parts of the film). What I loved most about him was that he wasn’t jealous of Ally’s success: he supported her every step of the way, and was proud of her, and continued to promote her even after it was obvious that she was far more popular than he was. But he also wanted her to stay true to her talent and identity, rather than “sell out”—changing her look and her sound to suit the public tastes. Ally does sell out, though (which I thought was particularly interesting, given the parallels between her character and Lady Gaga’s actual career: both are outrageously talented and capable of doing anything, and yet both reduced themselves to braindead lyrics with a catchy beat in order to cater to the masses. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Lady Gaga herself noticed the irony.) This is the other main source of tension between Jackson and herself, and perhaps part of what drives him further into substance abuse.

Ally, too, is a sympathetic character, though. I get why she sells out, especially since she resists it at first. All decisions in life are a cost/benefit analysis, ultimately—and the question becomes, is it worth it to you to compromise your values to achieve your dream? It’s not like the compromise is hurting anybody, and you’re greatly rewarded for it, so… why not? Also, how crazy would it be to have millions of people watching and weighing in on your every experience, good and bad? What must it be like to have normal human experiences, multiplied through the scrutiny of media attention? No wonder so many can’t handle it. So as much as I don’t care for sad films in general, and I certainly will never watch this one again, knowing how it ends—it’s definitely thought-provoking. (And also, the music is fantastic!)

*** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Since so much of the film revolves around alcohol, bar food seems appropriate: a burger, sweet potato fries, and local craft beer.

 

 

Cat People (1942)

cat-people-4

Reviewed: 10/31/2018

Combined Rating: 3/5

Frank’s Review:

Martin Scorsese once said that “Cat People was as important as Citizen Kane in the development of a more mature American cinema.”  John Carpenter lists the film’s pool sequence as one of the scenes that scared him most as a child.  To these lions and many others, the film has left an irrefutable lasting mark on the horror genre, signaling the rise of the power of suggestion and influencing countless filmmakers in their quest to more effectively utelize subtlety.  The man responsible for this transition is RKO producer Val Lewton, for whom Cat People was the first of seven attempts to pitch horror into the realm of analogy and psychoanalysis.  While there is no doubt the film oozes atmosphere and pathos, it is a crux aspect of the film’s premise I had the hardest time with.

I can accept the basic horror-esque cliché of a woman turning into a beast to purge her repressed sexual frustrations.  I can even accept that said woman (Simone Simon) has developed a personal discipline that keeps her urges at bay, preventing untold carnage.  But what I cannot believe is that any man would willingly agree to a marriage without intimacy, for any reason…especially if that reason is that his wife thinks she’s descended from an evil race of cat people.  Men just aren’t that charitable.  I give our lead protagonist Oliver (Kent Smith) credit for being a sympathetic guy, but deference only goes so far.   Are we to believe that Irena’s urges are that much stronger than Oliver’s?  We never once see him fidget, or drink, or look remotely anguished while not consummating his bond for months on end.  We only realize he’s experiencing a strange new sensation called “unhappiness” when he politely says so.  Given that he thinks his wife crazy for most of the film, it’s that much more of a wonder why he doesn’t say to hell with it earlier.  If any man truly loved a woman in the history of cinema, this is it.  I don’t know, maybe chalk it up to a performance issue, but wifey as roommate feels far too contrived to be believable, and serves only to delay the inevitable climax.  I did feel far worse for him, in the end, than for her, even though we’re supposed to pity her Serbian “otherness” as a hindrance to her adaptation to American culture. It eventually took a slightly pervy shrink (the perfectly slimy Tom Conway) to finally unleash the cat in Irena, when he forces an unwanted kiss at a pseudo-session, curiously negating the idea that lust is the central trigger for transformation,  suggesting it’s far more arbitrary.  Regardless, this is the moment where the folklore becomes reality, and things wrap up rather quickly after that.

I was happy to see that at least one character dies, assuaging my inherent desire for more overt fare.  But I do appreciate the great care Lewton took in risking the fledgling profits of an already teetering studio to create something new and artistic, in the vein of the great Orson Welles before him.   The Universal monsters had already entered redundancy, and Lewton correctly surmised that timing is everything in pushing the envelope, and the medium, forward.  Cat People was his most successful effort, and amidst a bevy of unsatisfied urges, remains notorious as one of those classic turning point films.

***

Lauren’s Review:

I went into this one super prepared: Frank gave me a mini-dissertation at dinner before we went to the film, and then one of the Loft film scholars waxed poetic for like fifteen minutes beforehand as well. I felt like I was back in one of my college lit classes, particularly because according to the Loft guy, the theme is all about sexual repression. (That was always the conclusion my professors drew, as well.) I have to say, though—this time, that conclusion is pretty inescapable. The other main point of interest I got out of that intro talk was that Cat People was the studio’s attempt to dig themselves out of dire financial straits after Citizen Kane, now revered as the greatest movie ever made (for reasons I don’t understand—sorry, Frank), but which flopped at the time and went way over-budget. Horror was considered to be a guaranteed money maker, so the studio told producer Val Lewton to reuse the sets from Citizen Kane, and create a film to go with the evocative title they chose. That’s all he had to work with, apparently—the plot was up to him. Here’s what he came up with.

The story follows Irena (Simone Simon), an immigrant who hails from a Serbian village rife with superstition and legends—particularly of villagers who turn into cats. She meets Oliver (Kent Smith), and they fall in love with all the rapidity of a 1940s film (films back then never really belabored the love story much) and get married. But Irena won’t so much as kiss Oliver, because she fears that something dreadful will happen to him if she does. We’re not directly told what it is she fears, but given her obsession with sketching panthers in the park, and the way house cats react to her with violent dislike, plus her story of the evil that follows those from her village, it’s not too hard to guess. She explains to him that in the story, the Cat People will turn into large cats when they are emotionally triggered, either in anger, passion, or jealousy. Her husband is patient for awhile, but eventually he grows weary of his wife’s cagey behavior, and lack of intimacy. Oliver convinces Irena to seek psychiatric help, which she does, but reluctantly. His work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) then professes her love for Oliver, which of course triggers Irena’s jealousy. And that’s all it takes to unleash the beast within.

To Lewton’s credit, he relies on subtlety and suggestion to carry his horrific theme. The imagination is more powerful I think than even a CGI monster (Frank thinks these are terrible anyway, but I’m actually pretty impressed by what technology can render these days). But it’s certainly more powerful than anything a cash-strapped studio could have come up with in the 1940s. I also enjoyed the film far more because of the context I had beforehand, I think. Aside from that, I’m not a horror fan, but this wasn’t really a horror to my mind. The theme was supposed to evoke that emotion, but it really didn’t for me. Then again, I always feel emotionally removed from any film created before the 1980s, so it’s hard for any of them to really have their intended effect. In the case of horror, I definitely consider this to be a good thing!

***

Meal Pairing: Get Eastern European with pljeskavicas (ground beef or pork patties) consommé (chicken soup with noodles/dumplings) some Torshi (pickled vegetables) and a nice rakija (fruit brandy).  You can probably get ahold of the ingredients, depending on the size of your city.