Auntie Mame, everybody’s favorite relative, was based on novelist Patrick Dennis’ real-life eccentric aunt who first came to the world’s attention in his 1955 bestselling novel, quickly followed by the 1956 Broadway smash hit starring Rosalind Russell and then the Oscar-nominated 1958 film that became the biggest box-office hit of 1959. Filmed in Technirama, a process in which the frame is twice as large as the frame in CinemaScope, the eye-popping colors were some of the loveliest ever put on film. Muted in past home video formats and TV broadcasts, the film has been restored to its original rich palate on Blu-ray with crystal clear sound picking up every nuance of the non-stop comedy.
The character would be revisited again with the incomparable Angela Lansbury taking over as a singing Mame on Broadway in 1966. Alas, Lansbury’s full-of-life performance was not transferred to the screen in the flop 1974 film version that starred a barely moving 62-year-old Lucille Ball. But, we still have the original with the fabulous Rosalind Russell at her peak, supported by a gallery of top-notch supporting players including Coral Browne as Vera Charles, Peggy Cass as Agnes Gooch, Jan Handzlik as the young Patrick, Roger Moore as the older Patrick, Forrest Tucker as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, Patric Knowles as Lindsay, Fred Clark as Babcock, Henry Brandon as Acacius Page, Robin Hughes as O’Banion, Joanna Barnes as Gloria, Pippa Scott as Pegeen, Willard Waterman and Lee Patrick as the Upsons, Connie Gilchrist as Norah Muldoon, and Yuki Shimoda as Ito. They’re all marvelous no matter how many times you see them.
Your Name., not to be confused with the current Call Me by Your Name, was the highest grossing film in Japan in 2016 and the fourth highest grossing film in Japanese history. Less successful in the U.S., the film earned the 2016 Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Animated Feature, and was released in the U.S. in an English-dubbed version this past summer.
Directed by Makoto Shinkai, the film is visually stunning but somewhat dramatically confusing as it weaves though country farms and city landscapes, much of it taking place on trains.
Though not the instantly relatable story the animated work of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki and his successors at Studio Ghibli have gotten us used to with such films as Spirited Away and When Marnie Was Here, it is nevertheless compelling. The story of a teenage boy and girl who switch personalities and then spend the next five years of their lives trying to find one another takes concentration, but ultimately proves rewarding. It is one of those films, however, that you might have to see a second time to get all its nuances.
Your Name. is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard contains a plethora of two things I loathe in modern movies, low comedy and CGI (computer generated imagery), yet it somehow works.
Ryan Reynolds, who is once again employing the self-deprecating humor that has sustained his career from at least 2002’s Buying the Cow through last year’s Deadpool, is the bodyguard of the title, a former protection agency owner who lost his business after the loss of a high-profile client, and now must take jobs he doesn’t really want. Samuel L. Jackson, who is once again finding himself in the realm of his 1994 Oscar-nominated explosive character in Pulp Fiction, albeit with a lighter touch, is the hitman Reynolds has been coerced to protect.
Jackson is the only witness in the trial of a ruthless dictator in the International Crimes Court in The Hague. Oscar hopeful Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) is the dictator whose henchmen will stop at nothing to prevent Jackson from testifying. The Court has agreed to set Jackson’s criminally-held wife free in exchange for his testimony. Salma Hayek plays the hot-tempered wife, who is the opposite of her morose character in this year’s Beatriz at Dinner. She’s very funny, whether she’s scaring the daylights out of everyone around her or uttering more rapid fire four-letter curse words than even Jackson can fit into one sentence.
Wind River is one of the year’s best films, a thriller about the murder of an 18-year-old Native American woman on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming east of Boulder Flats, an area as large as the state of Rhode Island policed by just one Indian Tribal Police chief and his six deputies.
Jeremy Renner has his best role since his Oscar-nominated performances in The Hurt Locker and The Town as the veteran tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Service whose job it is to hunt and kill predatory animals on the reservation. On one of his outings he comes across the body of the girl who it turns out was the best friend of his daughter who died under mysterious circumstances three years earlier. At the request of the Indian Tribal Police chief (Graham Greene), he agrees to escort the sole FBI agent assigned to the case, a sharp but naïve young woman from out of the Las Vegas office (Elizabeth Olsen).
The screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan, who also directed, is very much in the vein of his previously acclaimed Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter for which he received a well-earned Oscar nomination last year. Like those films, the narrative not only follows the intense police investigation into the crime, but takes us into the life of the protagonists, while at the same time examining the social context in which the drama unfolds.
The Glass Castle is based on Jeanette Walls’ best-selling 2005 memoir about growing up in a nomad family led by an alcoholic father and a delusional artist mother. The film version is co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton, who also directed. It’s his first film since his 2013 breakout hit Short Term 12, which starred Brie Larson, who plays Walls as a teenager and young woman in the new film.
The film is similar in theme to last year’s Captain Fantastic, except that Viggo Mortensen’s always involved father was the opposite of Woody Harrelson’s irresponsible one here. The title comes from Harrelson’s character’s lifelong promises of a dream house that he sketched, but never got around to building. At its best in depicting the travails of young Jeanette and her three siblings, an older sister, a younger brother, and two other sisters, the best performance is delivered by 12-year-old Ella Anderson as the younger Jeanette, the one who tries in vain to get her father to stop his drinking and acts as the real parent to her siblings.
Larson has several strong scenes as the successful, but emotionally damaged, older Jeanette, in a relationship with an investment banker (Max Greenfield), who would become her first husband. The weaving back and forth between the then-present and the past is expertly handled, except that the time is not specified. The then-present was the late 1980s, and the scenes from the past were set in the 1960s and 70s as the family moved back and forth across the U.S., finally settling down on family owned property in Welch, West Virginia, a hellhole presided over by Harrelson’s abusive mother (Robin Bartlett). Naomi Watts plays Jeanette’s ever physically present, but mostly emotionally absent mother. Her foibles are left mostly unchallenged, probably because the real-life woman is still alive and living with Jeanette and her second husband on their 205-acre farm outside Culpepper, Virginia.
Lady Macbeth is not based on Shakespeare’s famed Scottish play. It is an adaptation of an 1865 Russian novel called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, which in its day was compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Transferring the tale to Jane Austen’s England makes the dark goings-on seem out-of-place, though some critics have compared the film favorably to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
Like William Wyler’s famed 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights, William Oldroyd’s film of Lady Macbeth does not tell the whole story of the novel, but does cover its most interesting aspects. Unlike Wuthering Heights, however, the characters here are not very memorable. If you don’t like spoilers, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs.
Florence Pugh, barely out of her teens during filming, doesn’t have the dramatic heft to pull off such a vile character. Sold into marriage to a cold husband, Pugh is not allowed to leave his estate and is constantly under the watchful eye of either her husband or his nasty father. When her husband is off investigating a problem in his mill, she becomes sexually involved with a farm worker and poisons her father-in-law to get him out of the way. When the husband returns, she goads him into attacking her lover, so she can hit him over the head and kill him. After he is reported missing, an aristocratic older woman shows up with her grandson with papers proving he is Pugh’s ward. She claims the child was the husband’s illegitimate son. In the novel, the boy was the man’s nephew.
The Old Dark House is a film with a fascinating history. Newly restored and presented at the 2017 Venice and New York Film Festivals, the Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray release is taken from that 4K restoration.
Directed by James Whale between Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, top billing in the film’s original October 1932 release went to Boris Karloff whose role as a hulking, lecherous servant in the house of a bedridden 102-year-old man and his three nutty, elderly children, is a fun but underdeveloped supporting one. Melvyn Douglas, as one of the five visitors seeking shelter from a storm, shared star billing with Karloff, with Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Raymond Massey, billed below them in smaller print. The 1939 reissue gave over-the-title billing to Laughton, Massey, and Douglas in that order. The trailer for the current release gives star billing to Laughton, Stuart, Karloff, and Douglas in that order, although print ads listed Karloff, Douglas, Laughton, and Stuart in that order. I guess Raymond Massey, who is in all of Stuart’s scenes as her husband, is no longer relevant.
It was Stuart’s witty commentary on the early 1990s laserdisc that spurred James Cameron to seek her out for her Oscar-nominated comeback role in 1997’s Titanic. Her commentary was brought over to the 1998 Kino DVD release along with one by Whale biographer James Curtis. Both have been imported for the Cohen release as has a fascinating interview with director Curtis Harrington, Whale’s protégé, who was instrumental in locating the film’s long missing negative in 1968, leading to its 1972 restoration by the George Eastman House. The film could not be shown commercially because although Universal owned the film, rights to the property were sold to Columbia for an inferior 1963 remake.
Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts, is one of the better CGI superhero movies, featuring an engaging lead performance from Tom Holland (The Impossible), with nice support from Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, and other actors playing his high school classmates. Kudos to the filmmakers for leading the story in a different direction from the previous Spider-Man franchises, which were getting to be more than a little too repetitious. The problem is they haven’t replaced the original story-line with anything of substance. Major stars like Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, and Michael Keaton as a cardboard villain are given little to do, with the special effects taking up most of the film’s run time not dominated by Holland and his clever friends.
The film is a pleasant enough time-killer, but nothing extraordinary.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is available in several Blu-ray concoctions including 3-D, as well as standard DVD.
Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. The film, written and directed by Michael Almereyda, resembles nothing so much as Spike Jonze’s Her in which technology can be both a wonderful and a troublesome thing.
Baby Driver is a stylish thriller that I thoroughly enjoyed. Like this year’s other surprise critical and box-office hit, Get Out, it is a film that breathes new life into a tired genre. With Get Out, it was the horror film, with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, it’s the heist and chase film.
Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) is the baby-faced would-be musical producer who acts as a getaway driver for master criminal Kevin Spacey as a means of paying off a debt. Suffering from tinnitus since the auto accident that killed his parents when he was a child, he is constantly listening to music from his iPod to drown out the humming the tinnitus causes.
Forced to drive teams of three, the music in his ears also helps drown out the absurdities coming out of the mouths of the bad guys, which include the likes of Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm who he is forced to drive on bank robberies and eventually the robbery of a post office while making moves to protect the lives of several innocents. Along the way, he falls in love with waitress Lily James (Cinderella) who, like him, loves to burst into song at odd moments. His come mostly in his scenes with his wheelchair-bound foster father, lovingly played by deaf actor CJ Jones.
The chase scenes are up-to-the-minute state-of-the-art and very well done, but the story is old-fashioned and charming in the style of a 1930s crime movie in which the bad guys get their just desserts and everything turns out OK for the good guys. The superb soundtrack is also an asset.
Baby Driver is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The Book of Henry is one of the most unfairly maligned films of the year. Written by Gregg Hurwitz and directed by Colin Trevorrow, this character study of a three-person family comprised of a child genius, his impressionable younger brother and his fragile mother is an emotional tour-de-force even if the underlying plot leaves something to be desired.
Jaeden Lieberher, currently starring in the box-office hit It, adds his portrayal of title character Henry to the growing number of unforgettable child performances he has already given us in St. Vincent, Midnight Special, and The Confirmation. Jacob Tremblay proves that his startling performance in Room was no one-off, and Naomi Watts once again gives us a portrayal of motherly love equal to her Oscar-nominated work opposite Tom Holland in The Impossible.
Lieberher plays Henry as a normal kid who just happens to have an intellect that is superior to everyone else’s without making a big deal about it. For him it’s nothing to play the stock market so that his mother will have enough money to quit her job as a waitress in a diner to write the children’s books she’s always wanted to. When he observes the family’s police commissioner neighbor abusing his step-daughter, he calls child protective services, but they do nothing so he sets up an elaborate plan to take matters into his own hands. The problem is Henry is dying of a brain tumor and will not be able to carry out his plan, so he puts his detailed plan in a book that he gives to his little brother to give his mother after his death so she can put it into action.
The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke’s 2001 film from Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel, is his only film not based on an idea of his own. The story of a masochistic music professor looking for perfection in her student lover, while maintaining an untenable relationship with her mother, was also Haneke’s first commercial success.
Haneke’s controversial 1997 film, Funny Games, had made him famous, but it took the star name of Isabelle Huppert to sell his later film. Huppert had been his first choice to play the mother in Funny Games, but she turned it down because she didn’t think it would give her enough room with which to employ her actor’s imagination, whereas the many facets of the sexually repressed professor in The Piano Teacher gave her plenty of material with which to work.
Annie Girardot as her difficult mother, on screen since 1950, had her best role since 1960’s Rocco and His Brothers made her an international star. Benoit Magimel who plays Huppert’s student lover began his screen career in 1988, but for many years was best known as Juliette Binoche’s younger companion with whom he fathered a child in 1999. Huppert herself, who began her screen career in 1971, had already earned ten César nominations for Best Actress, winning once for 1996’s La Ceremonie. The Piano Teacher would bring her an eleventh nomination for the French equivalent of the Oscar. 2016’s Elle, for which she earned her sixteenth César nomination and second win, would be the first film in her long career for which she would be nominated for an Oscar.
Beggars of Life, not Wings, the first Oscar winner, was the film William Wellman always cited as his favorite among his silent films. It was the Oscar-winning writer-director’s last before turning to talkies, as well as the last Hollywood film made by Louise Brooks before she went to Germany to make the legendary Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl for G.W. Pabst.
Long considered a lost film, Beggars of Life resurfaced in the 1960s and gained cult status in the late 1980s after Brooks’ death. Kino Lorber has released a magnificent Blu-ray of the film, restored by the George Eastman Foundation, with two commentary tracks, one by William Wellman, Jr., and the other by Thomas Gladysz, founding director the Louise Brooks Society.
The film itself is a precursor of Wellman’s beloved 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road, as well as Preston Sturges’ 1942 masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels. All three films feature young girls riding the rails masquerading as boys. In this one, Brooks plays a girl on the run for killing her abusive guardian, with Richard Arlen as her protector. Wellman had given Arlen his first starring role in Wings and was at the time equally as popular as Brooks, but neither was as big a name as Wallace Beery who gets top billing for his supporting turn as Oklahoma Red, the king of the hobos. Beery, who would become an even bigger star in such early talkies as Min and Bill and The Champ, for which he won an Oscar, is a total delight as a heavy with a heart of gold. All three actors do their own stunts, although a double is used for Brooks’ several falls from the trains. It’s based on the memoir of real-life hobo Jim Tully, portrayed in the film by Arlen.
Beatriz at Dinner, which opened theatrically in June, was one of the most heavily promoted independent films of the year. The hilarious trailer made it seem like a modern-day version of Ruggles of Red Gap in which an English butler teaches a bunch of rubes what it means to be an American. Through much of the film, Salma Hayek’s holistic medicine practitioner is Ruggles infused with the old soul of Mrs. Moore from A Passage to India. John Lithgow’s money grubbing real estate mogul is no match for her wrath, just as she is no match for his cruelty. So far, so good. The film begins to feel like something of a minor masterpiece, but then begins to pile on too much political angst for its own good.
The film opens with Hayek’s character grieving for her pet goat, murdered by the man next door in her downtrodden L.A. neighborhood. Undaunted, she spends the day massaging cancer patients, some who will be cured, some who will soon die. Then she drives to swanky Newport Beach to give a private session to the mother of a former patient. It’s late and her old car won’t start. She’s invited to dinner by the patient (Connie Britton). The guests include Lithgow and his third wife, an up-and-coming state legislator and his wife (Chloe Sevigny), and Britton’s husband (Mark Duplass). The wordplay between the guests has an edge to it, but remains largely civil until Lithgow brags about his illegal game-hunting in Africa in which he killed a rhinoceros. This is the point at which the film begins to go downhill as Hayek equates Lithgow with the man who killed her goat as well as the real estate mogul who destroyed her hometown in Mexico years before. There will be no more clever lines, no more comedy. From here to the end of the film it’s all downhill for poor Hayek.
Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, was long disavowed by the director as “not a Hitchcock film”. That was because of his many disagreements with producer David O. Selznick, fresh from making Gone with the Wind. Time, though, sees it differently.
Although Selznick overruled Hitchcock’s many ideas to deviate from Daphne DuMaurier’s best-selling novel, the director nevertheless provided his trademark heart-in-the-throat suspense to both scenes taken directly from the novel and those imposed by the censors. His one key win over Selznick was in the casting of the film’s unnamed leading lady. Selznick wanted Nova Pilbeam, the star of Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, but Hitchcock wanted an American actress who would be an outsider in the otherwise mostly British cast. Many actresses were given screen tests, with the decision coming down to Margaret Sullavan and Anne Baxter, but Sullavan was vetoed as being too confident and Baxter for being difficult to photograph. Joan Fontaine, born of English parents in Japan but raised in the U.S., was a compromise candidate that almost no one was happy with. Her insecurity, perfect for the role, was undermined by Hitchcock who made her re-shoot scenes to the point of exhaustion and still had her re-record much of her dialogue. At one point, she complained that she was as English as anyone in the film, that her grandmother was the first lady of Guernsey, to which Hitchcock replied that that was like saying she was the first lady of Catalina.
My Cousin Rachel, like other famous films made from the works of the prolific Daphne DuMaurier, such as Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now, was first filmed immediately after the release of the printed work on which it was based.
The 2017 version, however, which has been newly released on Blu-ray and standard DVD, is the superior film. That said, the 1952 version was nothing to sneeze at. It received four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Richard Burton) and Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design. Burton was nominated as Best Newcomer at the Golden Globes and star Olivia de Havilland was nominated for Best Actress.
Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin have the de Havilland-Burton roles in the remake with Holliday Grainger and Iain Glen in the roles previously played by Audrey Dalton and Ronald Squire.
The story centers around the death of orphaned Philip Ashley’s benefactor, his cousin Ambrose, and Philip’s belief that he was murdered by Ambrose’s new wife who he sarcastically refers to as “my cousin Rachel” until he meets and is dazzled by her. Philip (Burton, Claflin), against the advice of his young friend (Dalton, Grainger) and her father (Squire, Glen) who is also his godfather, turns his fortune over to Rachel (de Havilland, Weisz).