Episode 221: A League of Their Own

We return from a brief break before the end of the month to deliver the Patron-chosen March Donor Pick episode. Timing couldn’t be better because while we’re crying over the loss of what would have been baseball’s opening weekend, we can instead discuss a movie that celebrates the sport and the women who once upon a time played it professionally. Penny Marshall’s comedy is a fan-favorite and we have a great time chatting about what makes it special.

A League of Their Own – 0:04:06

The Connecting Point – 1:02:20

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Way Back

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 48 minutes

Director Gavin O’Connor is a master of the sports drama, previously hitting home runs with films about both MMA and ice hockey. Like in those films, his newest is a story that uses the backdrop of athletic competition for a character study. Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a blue-collar worker and alcoholic, separated from his wife, and drinking his way through life one beer at a time. One day, Jack receives a call from his alma mater, a Catholic High School where Jack was once a basketball star destined for collegiate glory, asking him to come in for a chat. It’s then that Jack is offered the head basketball coaching position for the rest of the season, where he will take over while the current coach recovers from illness. Jack, who has never coached before, reluctantly accepts and must find a way to connect with and teach the young undisciplined and under-talented players of the team, all the while still struggling with his addiction and a haunting past. 

In “The Way Back”, Jack’s alcohol use is front and center much more so than basketball. He always has a beer or a fifth of vodka in his hand, to the point where it might almost seem indulgent on the filmmaker’s part. But what Gavin O’Connor does is never let us forget that alcohol is a part of Jack’s life at all times. Jack is seemingly a good person, not one of the usual physically violent alcoholics we are used to seeing in the movies. His addiction is shown for what it is, a disease that can’t be controlled without intentional steps and help. A disease that finds a person drinking on the job, drinking on the drive to the bar after work, and then carrying a beer can into the shower because having a drink in hand has literally become a physical part of who the person is. Jack, like all alcoholics, drinks for a reason. Jack is angry about his past, something he can’t escape, and like so many who struggle with alcoholism, it has him in a dangerous downward spiral that is ruining his life.

Most films in this genre drive toward a final “big game” in which the sports team or individual must compete at the highest level, overcoming whatever obstacles were in their path to get there and earning redemption along the way. “The Way Back” is slightly different, instead alternating more often than expected between the excitement of Jack’s coaching up his team during the basketball season and the dramatic revelations about pieces of his past that have come to define him and lead to his current relationship with alcohol. O’Connor certainly still gives us time with the team. We get to know the various kids, their strengths and challenges, and a few of them are developed in meaningful (though fairly cliche) ways. But their stories are never the focus of the film. It’s always about Jack, and his life mirrors that of a real one, with ups and downs, wins and losses, belief that things have gotten better and devastating mistakes. It’s a relatable and smooth-transitioning narrative, one that never stopped being compelling.

Affleck’s performance is right there with the best he’s ever given. It’s an emotionally affecting, and clearly very personal, one that rarely goes over-the-top but has power in its subtlety. Coach Cunningham’s journey with the team is inspiring, even as we see his character flaws gradually revealed. It’s easy to have empathy for and root for his redemption, something I craved even more than seeing the team have success. Credit should also go to O’Connor and cinematographer Eduard Grau, whose outstanding use of beautiful close-ups really draws the viewer into some very vulnerable moments, both on Affleck alone and in deeply affecting scenes between him and his estranged wife Angie (Janina Gavankar). The film’s score by Rob Simonsen is absolutely gorgeous and almost ever-present, strings and piano keys nudging our hearts in various directions as Jack’s journey is made.

“The Way Back” is not without its typical sports cliches in the personalities and stories of the basketball team players, but it is also a film that completely subverts them when it comes to its overall primary character arc and ending. It’s an addiction drama about how we cannot change the past, but how we can affect the future, one step at a time, and of the impactful part relationships and passions play in that process. It is simultaneously a feel-good basketball story with a dose of exciting in-game action, some hearty laughs, and plenty of sincere feels.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 218: Moonlight

For this month’s Donor Pick Episode we’re going back into Barry Jenkins’ filmography to talk about his Oscar-winning picture from 2016. Though already covered by Aaron and a guest when Patrick was out of town, we take this opportunity to discuss it together and give the film our new format treatment where we have a deep conversation about its emotional impact on us, and what we think others can take away from the unique perspective Jenkins shares with us.

Moonlight – 0:02:26

The Connecting Point – 1:02:16

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Episode 217: If Beale Street Could Talk

We are joined by two very special guests to discuss a film they consider to be one of the best of its decade. This Barry Jenkins masterful imagining of James Baldwin’s novel is a gorgeous depiction of love in early 1970s Harlem, and the painful racial and economic struggles that love must endure through. Barry Jenkins makes movies you feel, and our discussion is an emotional and powerful one in response.

If Beale Street Could Talk – 0:01:28

The Connecting Point – 1:04:48

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Call Of The Wild

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 40 minutes

“The Call Of The Wild” is the rugged frontiersman cousin that wants to liken itself to the live-action remake of “The Lion King” but without the capability to throw down plenty of coin on photorealistic visuals. Disney’s influence being stitched into the fabric of this film is no surprise given that our director Chris Sanders was the writer behind some of the more widely known Disney cinematic treasures. It is very understandable that most of the production budget went to retaining the services of Harrison Ford but plenty of resources were needed to make this CGI something more than unfinished. Each of the animals shown in the film has the glossy finish of a new car which makes it very distracting to see given they are traversing over many lands filled with snow, dirt, and other environmental elements. The dramatic element of this film is lost and never takes off due to how cartoonishly the animals look and move around. The funny irony is that without this lackluster VFX, this film would be a plain dreadful experience cinematically. This adaption tale leans into family-friendly aspirations, trucking down a distant highway from Jack London’s original adventure novel in more ways than one.

Buck, our leading canine, is taken from the relatively easy-going lifestyle he enjoys in California under the graces of a loving family and thrown into the harsh circumstances of being a sled dog stationed in the Alaskan Yukon during the last vestige of the 19th century. After some time, he gets used to the high-paced activity of mail passage and starts to find a place for himself in this untamed world that celebrates grit and strength. Buck feels crafted from the hands of Zeus given all the superheroic qualities he possesses; they include the ability to jump like Mario the Plumber, the strength of a T-800, capacity to not feel pain, running like the speed of sound, and the wondrous flexibility of an Olympic gymnast. If you are going to have your animals depicted like a Looney Tunes cartoon or reminiscent of Scooby-Doo, then take the animation route and be comfortable in that space.

The story drips itself into so many occasions of forceful and cringe-inducing “tugging at your heartstrings” moments that it’s very easy to smell the cheese emanating from the silver screen. Human characters spend so much time talking to the animals that I was waiting for the moment when one of them would start talking back. One scene involves a lead conductor from the sled team telling Buck that they not only carry mail but also memories, stories, and lives, then you get a slow-motion montage of Buck roaming through a town seeing different people from different walks of life looking at envelopes. It is very formulaic in the different narrative beats that it presents and easily foreseeable how it will resolve itself.

Harrison Ford is an undisputed all-time great having delivered some of the more memorable performances and moments we have seen in cinematic history. As a fan, even I was able to tell that he settled for crumbs taking this role. Never during the whole journey do we understand his characterization or inner pain that lead him to exile himself in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere. We get that he lost his son and that the pain put too much of a strain on his marriage, but that’s it as far as development. He is only good enough to be a narrator, an exposition factoid spewing machine, or to pop up out of nowhere to serve as a deus ex machina for Buck when he deals with mistreatment. The draw of this film will be for people (most likely little children) who want to see weirdly designed and unstoppable forces of animals, but coming on the promise of a Hollywood star like Ford is an unfulfilling and hollow expenditure. As a matter of fact, most of the human characters are just window dressing which works horribly for a live-action but would be more welcomed in the animation realm.

If you want to be a good parent and you can stomach a 100-minute draggy and generic piece of fantasy adventure, then take your children because they will have a ball with these dogs and the excitement of certain action sequences. Otherwise, “The Call Of The Wild” puts all of its cards on the table and draws nothing but blanks in the game of film relevancy.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Photograph

Rating: PG-13 / Runtime: 1 hour and 46 minutes

Romance films are at their best when they come across as a believable depiction of two people sharing a strong connection. The two lead characters need to have a level of chemistry and intimacy that is hot to the touch but also deep in tenderness, striking at the core of a viewer’s soft spot. It is very easy for an experience in this genre to recycle the same “love at first sight” or “happily ever after” tropes that can be found center stage in a Fabio paperback novel; not that there is anything problematic with that intended message, but it doesn’t carry any of the intoxicating and soulful energy that love can strike in one’s physical and mental makeup. “The Photograph” combines all of the ingredients that make for an enchanting and earnest portrayal of African American romance, harkening back to well-known past features such as “Love Jones” and “Brown Sugar”. Director Stella Meghie carries the genre forward from surface level trappings and produces a flavor-filled tale of affection that is enchanting to the heart.

Micheal (Lakeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae) operate as two vibrant professionals who are enjoying success in their respective careers while living in the concrete jungle known as New York City. Michael is working on a story profiling a female photographer that has left behind a bunch of questions and mystery which leads to a chance acquaintance with her daughter (Mae). That quickly turns into a hot and steamy courtship. Over time, the link between the past and the present becomes clearer as Mae starts to uncover secrets about the mother she thought she knew while coming to grips with the vulnerability and affection she feels with Michael. Stanfield displays new sensibilities as a romantic lead, building on his quirkiness and the “it factor” that has turned a lot of eyes his way as an entertainer. The very talented Issa Rae exudes radiant beauty and the right level of comedic timing that keeps your attention on her at all times. What helps generate a fascination with this couple and their journey is the feeling that both of the characters feel like natural beings living a young and ambitious lifestyle. It is always a breath of fresh air for black characters to be depicted in a style that scoffs away harmful and simple-minded depictions. Lil Rey Howery is such a hoot as the brother of Michael filled with an unstoppable arsenal of one-liners that will make your side hurt, and Lee Morgan, always a consummate professional, continues to make his case as one of the more underappreciated actors currently working.

Meghie not only shares her vision of modern-day relationships as a filmmaker but also through a mostly organic zest in the screenwriting arena. The conversations shared between characters provide an anchor for the audience to connect with the diverse personalities populating the screen. The balancing act of the two narratives that eventually divulge into one handles well in cross-cutting between past and present, but I did want to see more significance in the journey of Mae’s mother. There were some missed opportunities to show why the mother had a hard time with parenthood and her harboring of unresolved issues internally that kept her from being able to open herself to the full power of untamed love. The focus and likeability of the film mostly come from Stanfield and Issa lighting up the screen, and the film bogs down a little when the two of them are not around.

The fabulous soundtrack plays the best of R&B from the past few decades and felt curated specifically to the major vibes the story wanted to emit and Robert Glapser creates a wonderful companion musical composition that recognizes jazz as the singular choice music for depicting blossoming romance. It is full of clean piano notes, trumpets that speak feeling without the use of words, and beautiful saxophone additions. This a must-own soundtrack that carries a lot of memorable moments that will ring heavy on the head for the foreseeable future. The cinematography is filled with the gorgeous use of wide shots that gives characters bigger than life presence and top-notch lighting that renders locations with passion and sleekness,

Take your significant other, a friend, family member, or anyone who is a fan of arresting romance to this realistically portrayed and charming feature. Not only do you see a side of love that pays great attention to the vulnerability of companionship but also the idea of not being afraid to have someone in your life only for fear of losing them. The strength of the film is in its great performances, production design efficiency, excellent curated soundtrack, and attention to the ins and outs of longing attachment. Even for someone who may not be a usual fan of films dealing with love, this breaks the genre’s stale mold and brings something familiar to the table in a new way.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

A Criterion Adventure (2019)


SETTING THE STAGE


For film enthusiasts everywhere, especially those, myself included, who live for the underappreciated masters and the nooks and crannies of cinema history, November 29, 2018 was a dark day, the day FilmStruck died. FilmStruck had been the all-too-short-lived streaming home for the revered Criterion Collection and their streaming partners, notably Janus Films. FilmStruck had also recently partnered with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) to provide access to an abundance of classic American cinema. Altogether, in addition to offering a large selection of films released on the Criterion label, the service had also provided its subscriber base with a wealth of ever-shifting selections, both foreign and domestic, from across the many decades of film history.

FilmStruck ad post-TCM partnership

After having experienced the Criterion Collection in past years as merely happenstance as I explored various acclaimed films that happened to be on their discs, 2018 marked a shift of intentionality as I purposely began seeking out films associated with the label, especially once I finally made the decision to dive into FilmStruck. Fortunately, I’m a huge proponent of physical media, especially Blu-ray, and so that already represented the majority of my watching, but I quickly discovered many titles on the channel didn’t have Blu-ray releases. Nevertheless, come January 1, the start of my 2019 adventure with the label, discs were now pretty much my only source when it came to anything Criterion-related. That’s not to say I didn’t stop making astonishing, thrilling, and awe-inspiring discoveries on disc. In fact, the majority of my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries in 2019 were from discs in the Collection. But there’s a lot to be said for the convenience and depth of streaming.

Fortunately, the darkness and despair was short lived, as soon after FlimStruck closed, it came to light that Criterion itself would be providing a streaming service. Finally, after much anticipation, on April 8, the Criterion Channel launched, and I began to discover just how deep the rabbit hole would go. The channel’s extensive partnerships would enable them to provide an even more diverse array of films than FilmStruck had. Right off the bat, I experienced one of the new channel’s most ingenious means of helping its viewers to discover films we may never have otherwise seen. Curated collections. 

columbia noir
Criterion Channel home page on launch day

Day one, the first major collection was right there on top of the screen, Columbia Noir. If this was the launching point, a whole group of compelling Columbia Studios films, the vast majority of which had no Criterion ownership, along with a whole host of other films, in and out of the Collection, I knew I was in good hands.  So now, with a full arsenal of available Criterion Collection Blu-ray releases and Criterion Channel possibilities I was ready to dive into all sorts of new territory. By the end of 2019, I had experienced 134 of them for the very first time with representation from every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s. 

Here’s the full list of Criterion-related titles I watched in chronological order by release date.

 


CRITERION COLLECTIONS


I wish I could tell you about all the great films I watched throughout 2019, but instead I’ll have to stick to the highlights. Without going into detail, I am particularly happy with 3 box sets I began and will finish in 2020, not a bad film in the bunch and two genuine masterpieces–The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Playtime. Those sets features the talents of filmmakers Jacques Demy, Jacques Tati, and the collaborations of Marlene Dietrich and her frequent director Josef Von Sternberg. Along the same lines, many of my channel experiences came via the aforementioned curated collections, which focus on either a specific filmmaker, actor, creative theme or a combination of those. The one and only collection I completed beginning to end, though not for lack of trying, was Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck, in which she played a wide variety of characters, from a long-suffering mother to promiscuous lover to faith healer to a mail order bride fighting for the love of her husband. That last character is found in The Purchase Price, one of the least appreciated films in the collection that was in fact my favorite of the group. 

Rosalind Russell & John Boles in Craig’s Wife (1936), dir. Dorothy Arzner

There was plenty I enjoyed from the other collections I partook from, whether I saw many as in the launch day Columbia Noir collection or merely a couple as in the Fred and Ginger grouping that featured who else but Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a pair that can’t help but put a smile on your face with their chemistry, dancing talent, and synchronicity. The noir set gave me the opportunity to finally discover Fritz Lang’s genre masterpiece The Big Heat as well as his also outstanding, though underrated Human Desire. I was additionally grateful for the opportunity to explore the contributions of women in early cinema through a trio of Dorothy Arzner films, one of the pioneering women directors, headlined by Craig’s Wife, as well as a pair of George Cukor films that put a spotlight on his complex, unforgettable heroines. Both The Women, which features the unique casting of 130 female speaking parts and not one male on camera, and A Woman’s Face made for rich and heartfelt viewing.

My other big push came at the very end of the year as I simultaneously gobbled down soon-to-be-expired entries from the Val Lewton and MGM Musicals collections wherein I found some fun, some thrills, and three new favorites, from an ultra dark classic horror mystery featuring Satan worshipers and suicide, to emotional romantic drama in musical form provided by the likes of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, to a film of pure joy, silliness, and dreams of romance with the sunny Debbie Reynolds being pursued by the awkwardly charming Donald O’Connor. Those films are The 7th Victim, For Me and My Gal, and I Love Melvin, in that order.

Yasujirō Ozu

About mid-year, after having seeing there were a massive number of Yasujirō Ozu films on the channel, a master director I had discovered the previous year and whose work intrigued me, I was inspired to try something truly ambitious, my biggest film-watching project to date. I would begin a chronological deep dive through every Ozu film I could access. By year’s end, I had journeyed through his first 10 films, though a couple only exist in part. It’s been an immensely rewarding experience watching them in order to see the growth of his film-making skills, the types of stories he tells, and to see his style progress over time. In the few short years these first films have covered, I’ve been able to pick up on subtle shifts in direction such as his heavily Hollywood influenced beginnings to him starting to develop his own distinct style. My favorite of these early years, Tokyo Chorus, is a deeply emotional family drama where a man loses his job trying to stand up for a coworker, which throws his family into hardship. Those who look ahead know emotional family drama would become a mainstay in Ozu’s work.

 


TOP 10 CRITERION DISCOVERIES


Now we come to the main event, the best of the best, where I highlight my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries of 2019, plus an honorable mention. These were the films that grabbed the whole of my heart, mind, and spirit, showcasing complete package film making, from script to cinematography to acting to direction to music.

Note, these titles were extracted from my overall list of my top 20 first-time watches during 2019.


Honorable Mention:
La Jetée

Year: 1962
Director: Chris Marker
Genre: Short, Drama, Romance
Cast: Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, André Heinrich, Jacques Branchu, Pierre Joffroy, Étienne Becker, Philbert von Lifchitz, Ligia Branice

A 28-minute genius work of art. The time travel plot, as mind bending as it is, is simply window dressing to the meditation on love, memory, and the attempt to attain the unattainable or regain what is forever lost that lies beneath. Rarely has so much been accomplished with so little. Through [almost] nothing but a set of still pictures and narration, Marker sets our imaginations alight, and we ourselves become captivated with this entrancing woman once frozen in a snapshot of memory.

Upon the prisoner’s re-entering the past, the juxtaposition of music and image creates a transportive experience that makes you want nothing but to rest in those peacetime moments indefinitely all the while knowing the apocalypse is just around the corner. Likewise when the time-traveling prisoner and the woman he was seeking are together. There is so much life in the still images that you can almost sense them moving but in the way that life moves when you’re sitting quietly with someone you adore simply adoring their presence, and time just fades away. And then comes a look. Just briefly, but one that you will never forget. But these moments are fleeting, and time in fact does go on and that moment is forever gone.

 


#10 – Arsenic and Old Lace

Year: 1944
Director: Frank Capra
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Thriller
Cast: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton Peter Lorre, James Gleason, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander, Grant Mitchell

Who knew a movie featuring serial killer sisters that’s directed by the guy who made such moving slices of melodrama like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington could be so freaking funny? Cary Grant kills it as the just-married and utterly flummoxed Mortimer Brewster who is simply trying to get ready for his honeymoon at his family home when he stumbles across a corpse upon which his aunts happily reveal to him that they’ve been killing lonely bachelors as a service to them. As if this wasn’t wild enough, Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and his other brother, Jonathan is himself a murderer on the run with his own dark intentions. But murder turns to farce as the comedy of errors and miscommunication pile up. The plot is beautifully orchestrated, but the sheer incredulity alone that Grant hilariously shows at the ever increasing madness around him is alone worth the price of admission.

 


#9 – Solaris

Year: 1972
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-fi
Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Georgiy Teykh, Sos Sargsyan, Olga Barnet

Even more than the main character Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) and despite her not showing up for some time, Solaris thrives on Natalya Bondarchuk’s magnetic portrayal of Hari, Kelvin’s long-dead wife who has suddenly appeared again… and again… and again. Kelvin himself represents a relatable everyman, and it is through him we are transported from what remained of his life and relationships on Earth into a surreal, contemplative, and ever more disturbing experience on a nearly empty space station in growing disarray. The station is hovering over an alien ocean world full of fog and mystery. Through Kelvin, our attention is ever drawn to Hari, and it is the intimacy her present manifestation shares with him, an intimacy defined by their past relationship, through which Tarkovsky provides the core of his exploration into what it means to be human.

Clearly, human individuals are unique in a way that other creatures are not, a distinct nature that even a carbon copy cannot emulate, try as they might. Another side of our humanity is our attachment to one another, none more so than in that unifying relationship of marriage, where two become one flesh. The longing that comes from the loss of that relationship can be so intense that perhaps one would consider a carbon copy substitute, even knowing it’s not the same person?

 


#8 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Year: 1943
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Cast: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Adolf Wohlbrück, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Arthur Wontner, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, John Laurie, Harry Welchman, Robert Harris

An epic rivaling the indomitable Lawrence of Arabia that gives flesh and meaning to what had seemed a mere caricature of a man. The viewer is faced with such human complexity in this study of the fictitious General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) that he is himself forced to contemplate the whole of his own past, how it has affected his present, and what the impact will be on his future and the future of those who will come after him.

The depth and weight Powell and Pressburger were able to instill into the film is even more profound when one considers it having been made in wartime, when the fate of the world was yet unknown. They also demonstrate an attempt to understand the nature of that present war and how it came to be that all of Britain (and the world) was fighting for its very existence against the disastrous threat of Nazism. The acting is chock full of so many delightful subtleties and the dialogue is incredibly well written, detailed with emotion and color and memory. I also must give special attention to Deborah Kerr’s extraordinary multi-role performance, no doubt helped by the costuming and makeup talent.

 


#7 – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Year: 1964
Director: Jacques Demy
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Mireille Perrey, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Jean Champion, Pierre Caden, Jean-Pierre Dorat, Bernard Fradet, Michel Benoist

Jacques Demy is a master manipulator of the heartstrings and intimately familiar with the intense passions and longing that come with young love. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg left me with bittersweet tears and a tight ball of conflicted emotions as sadness and joy fought against one another within my soul. But it’s not only emotions Demy demonstrates artistry over. The frame throughout explodes with bright, bold colors and he collaborates with composer Michel Legrand to provide a soul-stirring musical score with powerful songs. Though this is no Hollywood musical as every word of dialogue is sung, often in a subdued, melancholy manner due to the ever-present conflict even amidst joy, which plays in subtle ways against the colorful backdrops.

While Catherine Deneuve’s character Geneviève takes center stage through much of the film, every romantic relationship and desire, whether given short or significant attention, is fueled with earnest intention and truthfulness. There is absolutely nothing casual about any of the romance. But speaking of Deneuve, the pained longing and desperation expressed in her face and eyes broke me. Through her and Guy’s (Nino Castelnuovo) forced separation, we are made to feel the misery of the not knowing and the consequences of the impossible choices that life and our own actions force us to make when we’re desperate not to have to make them.

 


#6 – Wild Strawberries

Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Genre: Drama, Romance
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gunnar Sjöberg, Max von Sydow, Åke Fridell, Ann-Marie Wiman, Gunnel Broström

A deeply introspective tone makes Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries immensely relatable, despite the often surreal quality of the film and the vast age difference between 78-year old doctor and widower Isak Borg and the average viewer, especially when we discover he and his much younger estranged son Evald suffer from a similar darkness of the soul that has brought each to their own crisis point. Victor Sjöström plays Isak with such sensitivity that he makes us care about his inner turmoil all the while he’s showing himself to have become an insensitive and grumpy old man to those he should be closest to.

The film opens with a surreal nightmare, which sets Isak face to face with the immediacy of his mortality with vivid symbolism. This begins a literal and figurative journey, the former a shared road trip with his pregnant daughter-in-law battling her own demons and with those they pick up along the way, including a girl named Sara, played by Bibi Andersson, who reminds him of the Sara he thought he would marry as a young man (also played by Bibi Andersson). These encounters on his literal journey propel Isak into a deep inner journey of sentiment, regret, and hope that serves to change how he sees himself and the world around him.

 


#5 – The Big Heat

Year: 1953
Director: Fritz Lang
Genre: Crime, Film-Noir, Thriller
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, Willis Bouchey, Robert Burton, Adam Williams, Carolyn Jones

Never has so much tension been wrought out of a boiling pot of coffee and rarely does a final line land with such foreboding potency. WIth a screenplay written by actual former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat unleashed upon the world one of the most brutal film noirs of the classic era. With no holds barred, Lang unhesitatingly reveals the world as a place that feels cold, hopeless, vicious, and full of infidelity. It’s a world populated by the mafia, dirty cops, and promiscuous women, and by making it clear that no one is safe, good or bad alike or anywhere in between, Lang establishes an environment loaded with tension, both for physical danger as well as moral compromise.

Glenn Ford is ideally cast as the good guy homicide detective Sergeant Bannion who starts out a positive well-intentioned family man but soon finds himself caught up in mob brutality while trying to solve a case. In his anger and frustration, the cracks in his good-guy persona quickly develop and he starts to look and more like the criminals he’s pursuing. Gloria Grahame is also outstanding as Debby Marsh, girlfriend to Vince Stone, second-in-command to the local mob boss. Despite the company she keeps, she demonstrates an awareness and intelligence and an appreciation of moral uprightness in Bannion when he stands up to a nightclub singer who Vince abuses. It seems to be the spark she needs to seek a way out of the only lifestyle she’s known. So while one character is on the descent, the other is rising up.

 


#4 – The Elephant Man

Year: 1980
Director: David Lynch
Genre: Biography, Drama
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing, Dexter Fletcher

Carrying on the torch of early 20th century filmmakers like Tod Browning (Freaks) who want to inspire us to care for those society has rejected and abused, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man eschews the distortion of surrealism for the distortion of humanity and a trumpets a desperate call for empathy and kindness. Lynch’s most important choice is to unmask John Merrick (the eponymous character’s real name) early on. The more he shows us John’s (John Hurt) intelligence, faith, ability to create and appreciate beauty, and his longing for human connection, the more monstrous those who would be cruel and take advantage of him appear. By the point he’s crying out that he’s a human being, not an animal, he’s the only one present who isn’t acting like one.

Hurt’s performance is one for the ages, both in physically presenting himself as this horribly disfigured man as well as from the soul that pours out of his eyes. Anthony Hopkins is likewise terrific as Dr. Treves. We sense his deep compassion for John and yet he’s hardly perfect as he comes to realize about himself. Despite his good intentions, he realizes he and his hospital staff are treating John with the same lack of humanity as John had endured in the circus. I loved seeing the pure care and affection that Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) had for John. She is wholly unaffected by his outward appearance, seeing straight into the soulful kindness and goodness of the man’s heart. And she’s proud to show him honor in public as well. What an inspiration!

 


#3 – Autumn Sonata

Year: 1978
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Genre: Drama, Music
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk, Marianne Aminoff, Arne Bang-Hansen, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Linn Ullmann

After several previous attempts to fully appreciate the morally, philosophically, and artistically dense films of Ingmar Bergman, this one was the key to finally unlocking my ability to love one of them. I adore movies that make me feel, and let’s just say that if you ever wanted to know what the emotional equivalent of going 12 rounds with a prize fighter would be, my suggestion would be to watch the pulse-pounding bout herein between Bergman regular, Liv Ullmann and the incomparable Ingrid Bergman, who play a daughter and her estranged mother respectively. That daughter, named Eva, is the troubled wife of the village pastor, and her mother Charlotte is a highly accomplished and well-traveled pianist. Both have to face the disappointment and frustration that has come with choices that were long ago made, especially those due to Charlotte’s career pursuits.

If we’re honest, emotional baggage is always going to be a factor between mothers and their daughters. Ingmar takes advantage of this reality by heaping insult onto injury and creating deeply complex individuals whose fully fleshed out characters and rich histories bear scars that run incredibly deep. Reconciliation is the unstated desire, but as long-held secrets, selfish desires, and bottled up trauma are dredged up even the possibility of achieving that reconciliation is going to unleash all kinds of misery, frustration, rage, and despair. For 90 minutes, Ingrid and Liv are this mother daughter pair. With exacting performances that never once cross the line into overacting, they are taken to the limit as emotion pours out of each of them in a mesmerizing, soul-crushing plea for understanding and appreciation. By the end, the viewer feels as exhausted as the couple on the screen.

 


#2 – Barry Lyndon

Year: 1975
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Körner, Gay Hamilton, Frank Middlemass, Arthur O’Sullivan, Godfrey Quigley, Leonard Rossiter, Philip Stone

It amazes me how Kubrick could seemingly take any genre and make a masterpiece out of it. This is his take on a 1700s period film. The sumptuous beauty of the cinematography presents an experience akin to a relaxing stroll through a gallery of richly detailed paintings, complete with narration and a gorgeous classical music compositions, except in the rare moment when the calm is unceremoniously broken and even the camera is set loose in the ensuing chaos. In contrast to the beauty of the camerawork is the only sometimes sympathetic man at its center, Redmond Barry, played to subtle perfection by Ryan O’Neal.

Barry is repeatedly given opportunities to put his past bad choices behind him and start anew, often in even better shape than he was before, but he keeps failing to overcome the lusts that drive him leading him to spurn those opportunities. He finds pleasures for a time, but those pleasures, those choices to act evilly towards not only strangers but eventually even his own wife and stepchild come at a severe cost. The defining duel of the film is masterfully filmed with immaculate detail and taking what had been a mostly relaxing viewing up to that point and ever so slowly infusing ounce upon ounce of suspense, creating intense discomfort for the characters on screen and the viewer alike.

 


And my #1 favorite Criterion discovery of 2019 is…

 

Bicycle Thieves

Year: 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Genre: Drama
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari, Elena Altieri, Carlo Jachino, Michele Sakara, Fausto Guerzoni

Such a simple premise–a man’s search for his stolen bicycle through the streets of post World War II Rome, an ancient, endlessly fascinating city of contrasts. Shot on location (no sets) with only untrained actors (though you’d never know it), this prime example of Italian neorealist cinema blurs the line between fly-on-the-wall documentary and fictional narrative. Director Vittorio De Sica demonstrates how such an event that would seem a mere inconvenience to many feels like a life and death predicament to the impoverished Antonio Ricci and his family. Through Antonio’s desperate urgency, he being played by the remarkable Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker by trade, we understand that failure is not an option. He must recover his bike, or he won’t be able to work, and his family will starve. Along for the search comes his son Bruno played by Enzo Staiola, equally photogenic and adept at showing a range of emotion as he watches his father’s growing desperation.

De Sica expertly fuels our empathy for the Riccis right away as the film opens with a bit of tragic irony. Antonio, desperate for work is informed there’s a job available for him. The catch, he must have a bicycle. The irony is he had one and had to pawn it to put food on the table. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes charge and decides they can live without their bedsheets and pawns them–because there’s nothing else of significance left to pawn–to get Antonio his bicycle back. With such a precious possession back in hand, we are in suspense every moment the bicycle is not under Antonio’s watchful eye. Later, at times as the needle-in-a-haystack search continues, we are further enlightened to Antonio’s miserable condition as he is surrounded by hordes of bicycles, the very thing he needs, but not one is his. We also see how Antonio’s desperate condition and the decisions it leads him to make affect young Bruno.


Jacob Neff is a film enthusiast living east of Sacramento. In addition to his contributions as an admin of the Feelin’ Film Facebook group and website, he is an active participant in the Letterboxd community, where his film reviews can be found. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with his latest thoughts and shared content.

MOVIE REVIEW: Birds of Prey

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 49 minutes

As sold by its marketing, “Birds of Prey” is a total blast of glittery, violent, girl power from start to finish. Picking up soon’ish after the events of “Suicide Squad” (though you have no need to see that film in order to follow this one), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has had it with her Puddin’, a.k.a. The Joker, and is ready to end their relationship for good because she’s tired of being taken for granted. This presents a major problem for Harley, though, because without the fear that Joker strikes in her enemies as protection, a whole host of people she has wronged are about to come calling. Among these are crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Black Mask and Gotham City PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Montoya is a cop who has been passed over despite her accomplishments in police work while her male co-workers take the credit and advance ahead of her. To her, bringing in Harley is part of a bigger case she’s been chasing, and this woman takes law and order seriously. Sionis is just another rich, eccentric, nasty, evil underlord, flanked by his loyal servant/muscle Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), who wants to own everything and everyone in town, Harley included.

The overall script is honestly pretty silly and all over the place. In less than two hours it tries to focus on Harley’s life of independence, Renee’s frustration with lack of support from the police chief, and Sionis chasing down a diamond that has been inadvertently stolen by a young orphan street thief named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), as well as introducing us to the superheroines Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) a.k.a. Black Canary and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a.k.a. The Huntress. It’s in these backstories where the film falters most, as its structure takes the approach of using flashbacks frequently to tell us who these people are once we’ve already been introduced to them. The same thing happens a couple of times with Harley and in every single instance, it robs the film of precious momentum. It also should be noted that while this film is called “Birds of Prey”, this is really the Harley Quinn show, and there is much, much less attention given to the other characters for most of its running time. That’s okay, though, because Robbie’s performance as Harley is as nuanced as ever, really outpacing the rest of the cast, and she does a great job of taking the character through new emotional ranges while never ceasing to provide the clever, hilarious dialogue and unpredictable decisionmaking we expect. If there is an MVP among the supporting cast, it’s definitely McGregor. The veteran actor is clearly enjoying himself and having a blast going full comic book with his performance. It works great in the context of the film, although if he’s supposed to be more powerful or scary as his alter ego Black Mask, that was not conveyed well at all and rendered any time his supervillain identity was used a pretty big letdown.

Director Cathy Yan reached out to Chad Stahelski, director of the “John Wick” series and founder of the renowned stunt work studio 87Eleven, to help with vision for the film’s action scenes, and it definitely shows. The action choreography is awesome and shot beautifully by acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique. The color palette being mostly muted with the exception of big, bold splashes makes the film visually striking. It always looks great, and seeing it in IMAX was a treat. The soundtrack kicks major ass and like the frequent kinetic action, it is almost always on. This is a rock and roll concert of a comic book film that is unlike any you’ve ever seen, but that does remind in many ways of movies that came before like “Tank Girl”.

“Birds of Prey” is not shy about its empowerment message and all of the characters here have suffered abuse of some kind by men. These women are all about taking their lives into their own hands and making their own way, a strong and positive thought. It’s fun to see a film get to go wild with his idea and serve as a catharsis for many women in audiences who will likely relate to what those on-screen have gone through. I did, however, find the film’s lack of balance to bring it down just a notch. There is not one single male character in the film who isn’t in opposition or causing harm to the ladies in some way (be it physical, emotional, or even just a small act of betrayal). Not one. It paints an unrealistically cruel world in which every male is a villain and that is going to be tough for some viewers to watch. For those willing to reflect on how that makes them feel and why, I think there can be value, but on the surface, it was a choice that somewhat lessens the ability for the movie’s message to translate into real life.

Despite some nitpicks and its big structural flaw, “Birds of Prey” is an incredibly funny and exciting film to watch in the vein of Marvel’s fourth-wall-breaking “Deadpool” series. It serves as yet another unique entry into the DC comic book universe that provides a stylistic experience and delivers its story from a perspective that we haven’t seen before. There may not be a ton of depth worth mining in this ultra-violent (yet somehow not super gory) comedic affair, but “Birds of Prey” is one helluva badass female-led blockbuster that is a great addition to superhero cinema.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 215: 5 Centimeters Per Second

For our fourth and final week of Makoto Shinkai Director Month, we discuss his 2007 episodic film about longing for love across the years. As we note, it’s a beautiful bridge between earlier Shinkai works and his eventual feature film “Your name.” and (in what should be no surprise) another powerful emotional viewing experience.

5 Centimeters Per Second Review – 0:01:36

The Connecting Point – 0:56:19

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MOVIE REVIEW: What Love Looks Like

Rating: None / Running Time: 1 hour and 28 minutes

The experience of love can take on so many dimensions that it is hard to boil it down to a simple explanation. A phenomenon that has baffled scientists, philosophers, and common individuals throughout human history, it can go from being akin to an addictive drug to being a source of destruction for an unlucky heart. Opportunities for stories that deal with the concept of companionship are a gold mine when they hit the right emotional notes. “What Love Looks Like” sadly comes off as the complete opposite, barely scratching the surface of a deep exploration on romance, instead carrying the ethos of an ABC Family teenage show that lacks the thematic seriousness to stray free from a melting pot of underdeveloped characters, overbearing cliches, and dry acting.

The story suffers from attempting to handle too many narratives centered on different themes of love in the social media age. One story centering on the damaging effects of cell phone addiction in relationships would have worked very well on its own center stage. Themes and messages of online dating, love lost, and awkward first dates work much better having the starting spot in their own film instead of being jumbled in amongst each other. The conversations between characters carry a stench of staleness and bad body language; unpolished and dry line readings given by actors make it feel as tedious as the sight of a cardboard box. For a feature to be centered on the powerful subject of love, the screenplay feels as though its inspiration was gathered from the front page of Hallmark gift cards, and that doesn’t represent the real and raw complications of wanting to share an affectionate connection with another human. The music of this film is a smorgasbord of acoustic guitars and bubblegum pop music that forcefully interrupts conversations and negatively affects the tone of many dramatic scenes. Instead of letting the actors show you through conversation how much they want to be with each other, the gleeful and cheery soundtrack ruins any chance of obtaining a sense of realism. The film operates as a whimsical fantasy instead of a romance film that has something new to say on how love affects everyone in a different manner.

“What Love Looks Like” has promise but jettisons that golden path for a superficial take on Millennial romance. The glamour and excitement of romance is replaced with the weariness of overused tropes and half-baked cheerfulness that stunts any chance it had of being successful emotional entertainment. A good film lies underneath its potential, but sadly that remains unearthed.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.