Friday, May 19, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Lost City of Z

The thrill of adventure. We've read numerous books and watched countless movies over the years that capitalize such a feeling. And some of those fictional adventures were inspired by real-life ones.

Take for instance Percy Fawcett, During the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, he had a burning desire to discover new lands and the treasures they contain, But such an expedition he led into the Amazon in 1925 resulted in Fawcett and his companions -- his son Jack and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimell -- disappearing from the face of the earth, never to be seen or heard from again. What has the Amazon been hiding for over ninety years?

David Grann's novel The Lost City of Z chronicles both Fawcett's feats of exploring and his own attempt to uncover what happened to the famed adventurer. (Grann was far from the only person to undertake such an endeavor; he's just one of the few to come back from it.) And he also writes about the obsession that followed Fawcett throughout both his life and in the decades following his disappearance.

Altering a few details aside (omitting Rimell from the narrative entirely, for instance), James Gray's adaptation follows what happened during Fawcett's many expeditions truthfully. But what Gray shows with his film is more than just a standard biopic or adventure flick; instead, it's a portrait on the depths of Fawcett's being. (And can someone cast Charlie Hunnam in more roles like this?)

So what's better: Grann's novel or Gray's film? Both works show the highs and lows of Fawcett's excursions, how his constant traveling began to affect his home life. But they also show that he was very much a human being, warts and all. (Not a very common aspect on stories about real people.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Zookeeper's Wife

There's no way in denying the lengths a society will go to keep their world "pure". The most egregious example from history is the Holocaust. Millions of innocent lives either destroyed or cut short, all for the appalling sake of ethnic cleansing. But even amid those atrocities, there were those who weren't going to let defenseless people suffer.

The most famous of these saviors amid slaughter was Oskar Schindler but there are those who, outside their native countries, aren't as prominent. Take for instance Jan and Antonia Żabiński. After their native Poland was invaded by German forces -- the catalyst for World War II -- they used their home and bombed-out zoo to help those escape from Nazi persecution. As a result, they saved nearly 300 people from certain death.

Diane Ackerman's novel The Zookeeper's Wife chronicles the Żabińskis lived their lives as the German army occupied Warsaw. In their many ways to conceal those in hiding, they had to be discreet about the extra people within their home while at the same time fighting and aiding the enemy. (They had to stay on their toes for a long time.)

As well as using Antonia's diaries for further details, Niki Caro's adaptation follows Ackerman's novel to the letter. That said, there are a few details clearly fabricated for the film. (The most glaring one are the scenes of supposed intimacy between Daniel Brühl -- who should probably invest in a different agent -- and Jessica Chastain.) Still, Caro tightens the reins on those as well.

Does Ackerman's account of the Żabińskis' heroics reign supreme or does Caro's claim the title? Both shines a light on names forgotten by history as well as the hypocrisy of the Nazi Party's actions. However, one of them doesn't get overly softhearted for the sake of reaching a wider audience.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A United Kingdom

It's an unfortunate aspect of life that one's worth is proved by the color of their skin. Not their intelligence nor their personality, the very thing they have no ability to change. It's an ugly blight on humankind, and it's something that should be rectified immediately.

Of course racism is regularly a focus in fiction as it is in real life. Many creators -- regardless of their respective races -- have covered the subject and its effects extensively throughout the years. But sometimes the more compelling stories are the real-life ones.

Amma Asante's A United Kingdom depicts the romance between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), one that was met with immense controversy when they wed. (This was after World War II, mind you.) With Seretse being an heir to the throne in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), their marriage causes an even bigger strife amongst his people.

As she showed with her previous film Belle, Asante depicts a political angle on race. With a then-controversial relationship, she chronicles the extent of the scorn Seretse and Ruth faced. But at the same time, Asante becomes a little too interested in the politics of the story (which -- coincidence or not -- is what also befell Belle.)

That quibble aside, A United Kingdom is very good. Asante continues to have audiences keep an eye on her career path, and hopefully it won't be much longer before she gets that project that firmly puts her amongst the greats. (Seriously, not many female directors -- let alone ones of color -- have made a big impact from their first two films alone.)

My Rating: ****

Get Out

From the opening scene, it's clear that Jordan Peele's Get Out will stand out. Sure, the premise resembles more along the lines of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for the modern age. But as stated before, there's more to it than that.

This being released during a time of continuing racial strife, Get Out seems almost timely. And Peele -- someone much more associated with comedy -- sinks his teeth into the genre's polar opposite. (Seeing as this is his debut as a director, it's safe to say he's someone to keep an eye on.)

But how does Get Out hold its own? It may be marketed as a horror film, yes, but there's so much more to it than a simple category placement. It shows a certain depravity most horror titles merely flirt with; it takes real guts to actually depict it.

That's the hard thing about reviewing horror films, isn't it? Trying to talk about them without spoiling any details. (Granted, it's a problem with reviewing any film but it's especially hard with this genre.) As could be applied to titles of this type, it'd be wise to go into Get Out completely blind. (thus rendering this whole review null and void...)

Anyway, Get Out shows immense promise for both Peele and star Daniel Kaluuya. In a time where symbolism is quickly becoming a maligned form of storytelling, Peele knows how to be subtle with it all (which warrants potential re-watches to pick up on them). We need more movies like this during these times.

My Rating: *****

Colossal

If there's one thing fiction is sorely lacking, it's a regular depiction of flawed women. More often than not, Hollywood shows the fair sex as pure beings with every aspect of their lives in perfect order. Obviously, that's bullshit. (And a load of it, too.)

This is why Gloria (Anne Hathaway) from Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal is very much a welcoming entry. When we're first introduced to her, she's unemployed and has a bit of a drinking problem. And to top it all off, her boyfriend Tom (Dan Stevens) has broken things off between them. Can her life get any worse? (Spoiler alert: it does.)

In examination of its first half, Colossal bears resemblance to the likes of The World's End. (The most telling comparison is in Gloria's drunken escapades.) But it's because of these escapades that make them frightening in the second half. (Heavy drinking is no laughing matter, folks.)

Speaking of the second half, it could be viewed as an unflinching portrait of abusive relationships and how to deal with them. Gloria and Tim don't get along very well following their breakup, especially with him constantly being at the end of his rope with her. (Surely he could've helped her get out of the hole she was in?) But boy, that's nothing compared to what Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) doles out.

Colossal continues to prove that there are, in fact, original works out there. (Sometimes all one needs to do is pay attention.) And while she had been getting hate for the last few years (for reasons unknown), hopefully this will regain respect for Hathaway.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hidden Figures

There are always those events that probably never would've happened had it not been for certain people and their involvement. The Beatles probably never would've become the music legends they are today had Brian Epstein not discover them in an underground bar in Liverpool, nor if Paul McCartney and John Lennon had never met. But what of those names that history has the tendency of overshadowing?

That is precisely what Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures -- as the title so implies -- shines a light on. Its subject is on three African-American women -- Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) -- as they try to prove their worth at NASA in 1961. As they continually face adversity, they become involved in a mission that changes the course of history.

While it is refreshing to see black women in the spotlight, one of the faults of Hidden Figures is the fact its director is neither black nor a woman. The fact that some of said spotlight focuses a good chunk of the time on some of the supporting white characters -- including making one of them responsible for certain changes. Honestly, that's just a cheap ploy to make the film more accessible.

Still, Hidden Figures makes up for that blight by having solid work from its three leads. Henson and Spencer have both proven their worth as actors (both being recognized by AMPAS, for instance), and Monáe (also a standout in Moonlight) shows promise with her acting career. Hopefully the three of them will continue to get consistently strong roles.

Hidden Figures was just one tweak or two away from being great but it's an important film nonetheless. History books constantly overlook the accomplishments of those not white, straight and/or male. It's high time for those stories to be told.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Cobweb

Ah, the star-studded productions of the 1950s. Basically the easiest way for studios to re-coup the budget and earn a tidy profit. And sometimes said production doesn't always need the best of scripts for its actors.

And boy, is that last detail on full display in Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb. More than once the actors' dialogue sounds either stiff or overwrought, admittedly not an unheard of fault in some films from the same time. Still, at least some of the many big names of the film rein it in towards the overall flimsy script.

But whom is amongst the cast of The Cobweb? An enviable roster of performers, that's for sure: Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. But of the names that stand out amid a rather forgetful project is John Kerr. (Also of note is Oscar Levant -- himself a victim of his own neuroses -- in an inspired bit of casting.)

With a Best Picture winner (and a failed marriage to Judy Garland) under his belt, one would think Minnelli would be able to salvage The Cobweb, especially considering the film's primary location. But even with the various ups and downs in the director's personal life, perhaps his lack of conveying them into the film only adds to the production's faults. (Maybe Douglas Sirk would've been a better fit at the helm?)

The Cobweb could've been a continuation of Minnelli's transition into more serious fare but the shaky script prevented that from even remotely becoming a reality. (At least he had more luck the following year with Lust for Life.) The cast does try their damnedest to make it work to little avail. (Similarly, at least some of them were more successful with later projects.)

My Rating: ***