The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Directed by Lewis Milestone) English 8

Starring Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Judith Anderson, Roman Bohnen

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Surprising. Dramatic. Suspenseful.

How many classic Hollywood films can you say that you didn’t know where it was going by the end of the first scene? The Strange Love of Martha Ivers kept me guessing all the way through. Not because of any great mystery or some revelatory plot twist, but by its unique structure, its host of compelling characters, each flawed, and its blending of genres and styles. Part film noir, part melodrama, the film begins with its main characters as unhappy children. Martha is a young, orphaned girl raised by her cruel but wealthy Aunt Ivers (Anderson made a rich career out of perfecting these ice queen roles). Martha has a crush on the town delinquent, Sam Masterson, and asks him to take her away, far from their small, claustrophobic town lorded over by her Aunt. While Martha pines for Sam, another young boy, the meek Walter O’Neil pines for Martha. Loyal and infatuated, Walter covers for Martha as often is required. As the first act plays out, Walter’s loyalty is pushed to the limit but doesn’t break, as he witnesses Martha striking her Aunt, causing her to tumble down some stairs and die. Martha claims innocence, Walter corroborates, and Sam makes his way out of town by himself.

The film picks up some twenty years later. Sam, now played by Van Heflin, is a drifter and a gambler with an extensive criminal and war record; a classic antihero. Like the movie itself, Sam is capable of surprising you, whether that means rising to an occasion or letting you down. He arrives back in his hometown by accident and hopes to leave as soon as possible. Waiting on a car repair, he meets a troubled young woman, Toni Marachek (played by the film producer, Hal Wallis’ infatuation, Lizabeth Scott). She shows an interest in him, and Sam, being only human, reciprocates. Toni is gorgeous and is set up as the film’s femme fatale (trouble). She, too, has a criminal record and is soon hauled off to jail for violating parole. Sam finds out that old, meek Walter O’Neil (played by Kirk Douglas) is now the town’s D.A, and sets out to persuade his “old friend” to help. He also finds out that Walter ended up marrying Martha (played by Barbara Stanwyck). The rest of the drama unfolds in a surprising, bold, exclamatory fashion. The femme fatales, blackmail, murder, and antiheroes mark the film as noir, and the over-done performances, alcoholic tantrums, thunderous musical score, and family secrets point towards melodrama.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers works as a tribute to both styles. It’s also a big, elaborate production (A-list stars, director, and producer) as opposed to many of the noirs of its era. Its best quality, however, is its distinct characters, each tremendously flawed and inconsistent. Sam is a brute and a cad, Walter is insecure and a drunk, and as for the women, it’s best just to watch the movie and find out for yourself. Kirk Douglas makes his entrance into film with a bang, leaving the biggest impression out of the cast. Lizabeth Scott was a highly criticized actress in her day, and, to be fair, you could reasonably call her performances inanimate; wooden. I enjoy her presence and what she brings to the screen, especially in the role of “dream girl,” which she is usually given. It’s a fantasy, an unrealistic role in the first place, and her one-dimensional, distant performances make her presence seem out of place, out of time, and timeless. She doesn’t seem real, and I say it adds something to the roles. It’s a pleasure to watch rather than being awkward.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(400)

 

Crazy Rich Asians (2018, Directed by Jon M. Chu) English 7

Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Lisa Lu, Chris Pang, Nico Santos, Sonoya Mizuno

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(7-Very Good Film)

Superficial. Fun. Fairy-tale.

Not sure what to expect, American born Economics professor, Rachel Chu (Wu), is invited by her longtime boyfriend, Nicholas Young (Golding), to come meet his family in Singapore and attend his best friend’s wedding over Spring Break. To her great surprise, she enters a world of tremendous wealth: sports cars, designer clothes, stunning jewelry. Though they’ve dated for over a year, Nick never told her about his family’s legacy and downplayed the vast fortune waiting back home for him; so much so that Rachel’s single mother speculated that Nick must come from a poor family. He also never told her about the army of scheming, gold-digging women hoping to snag him, the heir to the Young family dynasty,  and who,  later, monitor Rachel’s every move as soon as she steps foot on the island. Rachel accepts the overwhelming situation heroically, hopeful to make a good impression on Nick’s mother, tough and cunning, Eleanor Sung-Young (Yeoh), as well as his Grandmother, Shang Su Yi (Lu), but it quickly becomes clear that she has few allies within the Young family, seemingly within all of Singapore. She has Nick, who loves her and who stands up to his family when they say she’s not in his class, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a charismatic friend from college, Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Chan), as kind as she is glamorous, although she’s facing problems of her own with a husband having an affair, and Oliver, another one of Nick’s cousins, who gives Rachel fashion advice. You’d be right in thinking that Crazy Rich Asians has all the makings of a daytime soap opera, or the setup of a conventional rom-com you watch once on an airplane flight and then never watch ever again. Yes, Crazy Rich Asians is a family melodrama and a romantic comedy, and yes, it’s typical in much of what it’s doing, and yet it’s better than most of the films of its kind. It’s funnier, more appealing, more spectacular, and more colorful than most. To hit all of its genre markers, while seeming fresh and funny, is an accomplishment, and a strong part of the film’s freshness lies in its cast of new stars and the glimpse at a different culture, a culture that’s thousands of miles away, and feels further. Much of entertainment is rooted in escapism, and Crazy Rich Asians is an easy diversion. No doubt, indebted to Jane Austen’s works, specifically Pride and Prejudice, the poor girl ending up with the rich Prince Charming trope will likely never die out. When you think that fairy tale’s been done to death, a film like Crazy Rich Asians proves that it still has juice.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(213)

Black Panther (2018, Directed by Ryan Coogler) English 6

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Forrest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke

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(6-Good Film)

Compelling. Over-hyped. Solid.

T’Chaka is dead, T’Challa (Boseman) is now king. Like any film, novel, or comic book will tell you, with being king, comes heavy responsibilities, and T’Challa is king of Wakanda, a country in the heart of Africa, abundant in resources, surrounded by suffering countries. As he struggles with setting the course Wakanda will take, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Jordan), an outsider, schemes to take over his rule and implement his own violent ideas. With the help of his former flame, Nakia (Nyong’o), his little sister Shuri (Wright), and Okoye (Gurira), leader of Wakandan special forces, T’Challa fights to preserve his people’s way of life, while deciding what to do to help the world around them.

More than just the story it tells on screen, Black Panther is truly an event, and what I can only hope is a turning point in Hollywood. You cannot talk about Marvel’s latest without considering how important it is culturally, how unprecedented it is, and how bizarre it is that something like this has never once happened before. A big budget film with a predominantly black cast. The closest equivalent would be Coming to America (1988) made for $39 million about thirty years ago with the biggest star at the time in Eddie Murphy. Not wanting to belittle how big that film was, I do, however, feel it necessary to point out the difference between a comedy vehicle for the biggest star in the world and a $200 million epic produced by a studio in Marvel that dominates global box-office and influences youth to a degree I’m not sure could be measured. There was a time-feels like just yesterday- that studio execs didn’t believe black people could sell a movie. Will Smith, I’ve read, talks about execs not wanting him to have a black love interest in Hitch because they didn’t think it’d sell. With Black Panther set to five-peat as box-office champ, and with over a billion dollars earned, I think they know now how absurd their thinking was because a billion dollars shows that it’s not just black people flocking to see it. A billion dollars means that everyone is going to see it. Preface aside though, my obligation in reviewing it remains to answer the question, is it good? I answer unhesitatingly, yes. Is it as good as its 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, 4 stars from reliable critic Peter Travers, 88% on Metacritic indicate? Cultural phenomenon aside, watershed moment aside, I say no. Black Panther is a strong film of ambition and intelligence but isn’t the transcendent superhero flick I’ve been waiting on from Marvel since their reign started with Iron Man (2008). Directed by the young and talented Ryan Coogler (Creed and Fruitvale Station), Black Panther digs deeper than most superhero fare, but not enough to be great.

What do I mean by transcendent? The superhero subgenre is in my eyes, supremely limited. Low on thoughtfulness, light on romance, often devoid of consequences, and pandering to a set crowd. I don’t consider myself the target audience for any superhero adventure. So I always go to these films hoping that this one would transcend my prejudices and have a strong appeal to me. That happened with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, happened early on with the first two Spider-Man entries, happened with a few of the X-Men films, especially Logan (2017). Hasn’t happened with a Marvel Studios film yet. They streamline their films, as if out of a factory at times, but I’ll enthusiastically declare that Black Panther avoids that fate. While not a great film in my book, it is an original, with a terrific cast and an outstanding villain. Chadwick Boseman makes a worthy hero, and he’s supported by women who threaten to steal the show. My problem with Marvel movies in the past has been their one-dimensional villains. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is a fully formed character. One who is empathetic even. That the film succeeds in being intelligent and thoughtful is due to its making both the hero and villain into intelligent and thoughtful characters. Their fight is more about ideology than some boring motive like, I don’t know, money. My main indictment of the film revolves around the lack of exciting action sequences. The tribal fighting is a fresh diversion from the usual mind-numbing explosions we’re given, but beyond that, there aren’t any memorable thrills. The ending is anti-climactic and a real let down as protagonist and antagonist go toe-to-toe. The visuals are colorful, at times imaginative, but for the next installment, I’d like to see the Coogler up the ante on his action scenes. So I repeat good movie, like Doctor Strange was a good movie, like Spider-Man: Homecoming was a good movie. You can pretty much count on Marvel’s two other releases this year (Avengers: Infinity War; Ant-man and the Wasp) to be good, but when is one of these films going to be great?

-Walter Howard-

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I, Tonya (2017, Directed by Craig Gillespie) English 7

Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Caitlin Carver

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(7- Very Good Film)

Fast. Smart. Funny.

In 1994, Olympic figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked, hit in the right leg by ex-con Shane Stant. It was later determined that Jeff Gillooly, husband of her rival, Tonya Harding, planned the attack and that Harding herself knew at least something about it. It’s not easy to admit, but considering that this act of violence took place in the posh world of women’s figure skating puts a humorous spin on the tragic event. This film understands that and turns the material into a superior tragicomedy.

Employing a unique framing device in which multiple narrators tell their side of the story, often contradicting each other, we start with Tonya as a child, the daughter of a rabbit hunter and a waitress, in Portland, Oregon. She quickly demonstrates a prodigious talent in skating, and, after her father leaves the house, her profane, chain-smoking mother (Janney) constantly pushes her into becoming a champion skater. Later, as a teenager, Tonya (now played by Robbie) is one of the most talented skaters in the country, but can’t get a fair chance with the judges due to her being labeled “white trash.” She meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Stan), who soon reveals himself to be an abusive boyfriend and then husband. All in all, it’s a tough life for Tonya, and her background goes a long way into making her a sympathetic figure.

The second half of the film, as Robbie admits, breaking the fourth wall, is what we’re all interested in. The “incident.” I, Tonya leaning on its unreliable narrator technique portrays Jeff as simply attempting to send empty death threats to Nancy Kerrigan, as a means of psychological warfare. Here, the film, evoking the spirit of Fargo (or any other great crime-dark comedy you can think of), shows Jeff’s simple plan devolve into his friend’s delusions of grandeur, and get out of hand quickly.

It’s compelling material, and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night, Million Dollar Arm) does a nice job with it. I, Tonya is consistently funny, well-acted, and fierce. However, I would argue it misses out on being truly poignant, and the fast-paced comedic tone drowns out much of, if not all, the sadness. Not that there aren’t sad moments, but I just found them overshadowed by the funnier moments.

Margot Robbie gets her first great star vehicle and she’s been reeling in the awards. Her comic timing is excellent, but she’s also able to change tones with the film seamlessly, making Tonya into a well-rounded, fascinating character. Janney steals all of her scenes as the monstrous mother (somehow she still invokes our empathy). I liked I, Tonya, but I didn’t love it.

-Walter Howard-

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Molly’s Game (2017, Directed by Aaron Sorkin) English 7

Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian D’Arcy James

Aaron Sorkin is one of the preeminent screenwriters of the past 25 years with works that include: A Few Good Men (1992), The West Wing (1999-2006), The Social Network (2010), Moneyball (2011), and The Newsroom (2012-2014). Here he is, with Molly’s Game starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, for the first time directing his own script, and, I will say, pulling it off skillfully.

Exploring extraordinary figures is something of a hallmark of his. In the past, that’s meant real life enigmas-Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bean- and created characters like President Bartlett as portrayed by Martin Sheen in the West Wing. Molly Blum, his newest protagonist, represents his first real foray into focusing on a strong female character. In the early 2000s, fresh out of undergrad and trying to make ends meet in L.A, Molly was recruited by a high-end club owner to help with a weekly night of underground poker.  Big name stars (allegedly DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, A-Rod, etc.) showed up every week to bet six figure dollars on games of poker, and all she was meant to do was look nice, serve drinks, and contact the people invited. Molly Blum was smart though, smart and bold, and soon she became the ringleader for the most high-profile poker games in the country, boasting A-list actors, sports heroes, and Wall Street whiz kids. Her rise to the top of the underground poker world is portrayed in rich, captivating detail, but, fitting in with another hallmark of Sorkin’s writing, so is her less action-packed upbringing. Sorkin strives to draw out the relatable and the everyday motivations behind his amazing characters. He’s helped tremendously by a soon-to-be awards laden performance by his star, Jessica Chastain. Her evolution from ambitious, just trying-to-make-it college girl to Queen of high-stakes poker squaring off with mobsters is convincing, and she keeps a strong hold on our attention even as the mounds of money threaten to steal the spotlight. Idris Elba is also compelling as her defense lawyer after her way of living implodes, and the government takes all her earnings. Costner does a fine job as her overbearing, distant father, but, inevitably, the poker scenes (between watching all the money and trying to guess which celebrities they’re talking about in real life) are far more interesting.

Overall, it’s a solid picture, but for a film about such an amazing, larger than life story, it’s not very surprising.

 

Coco (2017, Directed by Lee Unkrich) English 8

Voices of Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Anthony Gonzalez, Cheech Marin

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Moving. Imaginative. Wonderful.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is an incredibly lively and colorful event. It’s fascinating, and I was amazed that it wasn’t featured in more films. Sure, I saw it somewhere in the background of John Huston’s Under the Volcano, but it wasn’t until 2014’s Book of Life that the annual holiday was given a full film. Now the Day of the Dead is given the Pixar treatment which means tons of heart, humor, and glorious animation. While Book of Life was good, Coco will be the film best remembered and linked to Dia de Los Muertos. It’s another feather in Pixar’s cap. A wonderful movie.

Miguel Rivera (12 years old) was born into a family that loves each other but hates music. Long before he was born, his great-great-grandfather left his home, his wife and child, to pursue a career as a musician. His great-great-grandmother, left alone to raise a child, worked hard to overcome, but banned music from her life and the lives of her descendants. Miguel knows all of this but also knows that his destiny is to be a musician. He can sing and play the guitar just like his idol, Ernesto De La Cruz, but how can he follow his dreams without alienating his family? With that, he embarks on a journey through the Land of the Dead, where he meets his ancestors and an untrustworthy rogue named Hector on his way to finding his hero Ernesto.

There’s an entire history of American cinema borrowing elements from foreign cultures through half-baked representations. Coco gets it all right. The voice cast (all stellar) is Hispanic. The animators clearly and typically went to painful stakes to nail the small details. The writing conjures up a foreign culture lovingly and believably. The amazing thing is the film’s ability to show a separate culture but make it relatable to all. I loved the characters in this film, loved the family. I was impressed by the teamwork between animators and actors in creating them. The Day of the Dead offers a wealth of imagery for Pixar to play with, and they do their best work since Brave (which was technically brilliant, but weak story-wise).

When it comes to original, high-quality animation, Pixar is in a class of their own. There was a period when Pixar was doling out an original, creative, masterful animated film every year, culminating in Oscars and huge box office returns. Lately, like the film industry as a whole, they’ve turned to a number of sequels: Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 3. These efforts, though entertaining, beautifully animated, and well-crafted, failed to generate the same acclaim and excitement that Pixar was accustomed to. Coco is a return to form, in league with Inside Out, and Pixar’s early efforts.

-Walter Howard-

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Eight Things I Liked About Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Directed by Taika Waititi) English 6

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor returns for his third solo outing and fifth Marvel film altogether. I could not have cared less. That is, until I saw the trailer, and thought, this looks different. The first Thor movie (2011) was bad. One of my least favorite Marvel films, and Thor himself, was boring. He’s indestructible, devoid of a real personality, and trapped in an unappealing romance with Jane Porter, played by Natalie Portman (I don’t care how attractive the actors are, their relationship was dumb). Then the second film came along, The Dark World (2013), and managed to be even worse. Somehow, fans hung in, and thanks to them, we get this third adventure, directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Unfamiliar with his work before seeing the Thor trailer, I have since seen a number of his comedies, and been impressed. They’re funny, and beyond all of the special effects, CGI, and technical brilliance Thor: Ragnarok boasts, it, too, is very funny. Here are the ten things I liked about Marvel’s latest that make it worth seeing:

  1. Thor: Ragnarok is an oddball comedy-There is a lot going for this picture, which I will proceed to list out, but it all comes back to the director’s comedic sensibility. Every scene features some humorous detail or punchline. From the start, to the end, making this a fun picture.
  2. Death of Stoicism-Stoic heroes can be good when a film warrants being taken seriously, or if you have a solid comic foil. Neither of those reasons pertained to the Thor franchise. This time around, they got it right. Gone is the humorless protagonist from previous movies. Hemsworth has even commented, saying he was, “a bit bored” with his character. He, after being the only source of light in the Ghostbusters reboot, proves once again to have comedic chops, and despite the colorful supporting cast, he owns this movie.
  3. Stakes is High-The plot mainly concerns a long lost sister named Hela (played by Blanchett) who returns to Asgard seeking destruction and revenge. When attempting to stand up to her, Thor is defeated easily and his hammer destroyed. This happens at the film’s outset and allows for actual stakes, as we wonder how Thor will be able to stop her. Thor’s still a god, but not as invulnerable.
  4. Thor and Hulk bromance- Thor gets reunited with his old Avengers teammate on the planet Sakaar where the two are forced to fight it out Gladiator style. This sets the tone for their relationship in this movie, a very antagonistic rivalry. Much humor is derived from their arguments over who is stronger, but Thor knows he needs the Hulk if he’s going to stand a chance at Hela.
  5. Jeff Goldblum- He plays Grandmaster, a hedonistic leader of Sakaar, where most of the film takes place, and he almost steals the show. Goldblum was allowed to ad-lib and his humor fits right in with the director’s. I hope they work together more.
  6. Taking Cues from Guardians of the Galaxy-Guardians of the Galaxy hit big by mixing the superhero genre with comedy, huge amounts of color, and an eclectic soundtrack. Thor does that formula better than either Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Standouts from the soundtrack are, of course, Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin and Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
  7. Korg-Voiced and played through Motion Capture by the director, this new character Thor encounters while enslaved as a gladiator is a new favorite. Huge and fearsome looking, his soft-spoken demeanor comes as a wonderful surprise. Marvel even considered some sort of spinoff featuring the character, but have opted for a reappearance in some other Marvel property.
  8. Fresh Love Interest-As mentioned the Jane Porter romance was going nowhere. This entry features a jaded Valkyrie warrior played by Tessa Thompson. More Thor’s equal in fighting, and given a real personality right off the back as she stumbles drunkenly from her ship (she’s the one who captures him, leading to his stint as a gladiator). Interested to see where the Thor-Valkyrie relationship goes.

To wrap it up, Thor was a good deal of fun and a step in the right direction for the franchise. Marvel has given us two strong offerings this year with this and Spiderman: Homecoming which I give the slight edge. My main drawback was the villain, which is a common complaint I feel for the Marvel movies. They do not give as much thought to making their villains compelling as they do everything else. I like that Hela is stronger than Thor as I’ve stated but besides that, she’s not unique. I guess they thought by getting a great actress to play the role, the work was finished. Also, I wish there was more done with the gladiator fighting. I love the idea of fight to the death tournaments (Gladiator, Bloodsport, Enter the Dragon, The Quick and the Dead). It’s a very entertaining premise. All in all, an excellent action-comedy adventure.

-Walter Howard-