31 Days of Oscar: The Letter (1940)

The Letter (1940)

Better Davis and William Wyler were a pretty dynamic duo when they joined forces, however, this is not the best that duo can do. The situation and complications the protagonist finds herself in are fascinating and he cast is brilliant but the resolution is slightly lacking and a bit anticlimactic, the twists make it work.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 7/0
Score: 7/10

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Mini-Review: Boy 7 (2015; Germany)

This film is based on a YA novel by Mirjam Bous. The book was so popular that it spawned adaptations in both the Netherlands and Germany in 2015. This is the German version.

The plot is one that starts in medias res as the protagonist cannot remember a thing about himself, then before he has time to think on it at all he realizes he’s being pursued by authorities, and has no choice but to frantically run out of sheer instinct.

Even seeing this much later than the Dutch version, it truly is impressive. It’s a prime example of trying to squeeze all of the narrative and visual potential from the source material versus rote, washed out, dystopia-by-numbers with a few wrinkles in the prior.

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Even some of its strengths are stronger than the highlights of the Dutch version. The electronic score pumps the tension and the endorphins as needed. David Kross, is an effective and more engaging lead, and it brings to fruition my wish/issue with the prior film, which is that it takes that extra fifteen minutes and makes tremendous use of them in creating ambience and developing character.

While the Dutch film was over-concerned with getting details in about how exactly the dystopia came to be but being tremendously broad (in a similar vein to The Purge), the German film treats the dystopia and the commingling of corporate and governmental law enforcement as givens, this allows for more identification with the characters, and basic suspense building.

Furthermore, the cinematography in this version is scintillating. It eschews clichéd desaturation and fluorescence and focuses instead on vibrant, saturated coloration, deep shadows, precise framing, and beautiful compositions that juxtapose the ugliness of the world they portray.

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Were this a story you were interested in seeing I would highly recommend this version of it over the Dutch.

Mini-Review: Son of God

As opposed to last month’s film, which featured dramas that can be presumed and inferred but are not in the Gospels Son of God deals solely with stories from the Bible, most of which are very well known.

I knew that in liking Son of God in spite of some of its sketchiness, incessant gravitas and occasional bouts of television (This film was spliced from a TV Mini-Series called The Bible), I would be in a minority.

Its tonality and casting of leading roles are among its strengths, namely Diogo Morgado, despite his occasional accent lapses; Adrian Schiller as Caiaphas, whose scenes are a persistent highlight of the film; and Greg Hicks who does great things in the thankless role of the sinfully noncommittal Pilate.

Son of God (2014, 20th Century Fox)

The film does try to be a bit too inclusive in the narrative and that creates some issues, but in covering the life of Jesus in a cradle-to-grave format you’re bound to have a tug-of-war between being too sparse or too packed. It’s an unenviable task the film deals with well. As for the aforementioned gravitas, with a tale of this nature that’s the better side of the equation to err on, however, it’s only somewhat lessened by that fact rather than ruined by it like some films can be

Back in 2014, when it was released, I included it in my blog’s year-end awards. It earned a BAM nomination for Best Art Direction. Son of God is available to stream on Netflix or to own on physical and digital media.

Mini-Review: The Young Messiah

Extracanonical tales might get the hackles of some more by-the-book faith-based film enthusiasts up, but as Stephen King has said of adaptations “free to take the original down from your bookshelf anytime you want. Nothing between the covers has changed a bit.” This is even more crucial when you also consider the fact that this film is based on a novel by Anne Rice, during her return to the Catholic Church, it should keep this duality of film and text further in focus.

As such, The Young Messiah succeeds tremendously on its own merits. It features a bombastic symphonic score by John Debney reminiscent of the earlier days of film. It also employs the convention of British accents representing people speaking in a foreign language, which is one of the oldest to film — and one that must continue to be accepted on occasion even in light of more intriguing alternatives that have been demonstrated.

What brings it home the most, however, is that it creates its drama through relatable challenges namely of how to speak to your child on difficult topics, the obvious difference being that there is a far more difficult topic Mary (Sara Lazzaro) and Joseph (Vincent Walsh) feel that they need to discuss with their young child in this film.

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While the Young Lord’s (Adam Greaves-Neal) true nature has not been discussed with Him, what is also a source of conflict is that he is seeing visions, many of them of a Demon (Rory Keenan), that create conflict and foreshadow the revelation of His nature. In Gospel terms these visions would foreshadow the temptation of Christ, and some other allusions are there to make for those who know the tales.

However, for those who may not know Gospels or the life of Jesus the crafting of a familiarly classical plot, without relying on the same old tropes, make it an experience young viewers could easily enjoy and get involved in. Furthermore, a tale of the story of Christ and his family as refugees cannot possibly be more topical at this date in time. This is highly recommended title and is available on both physical media and digitally.

Note: This review was first published in Glad Tidings! Volume IX, Issue 8, September 2016, St. David’s Episcopal Church, Wilmington, DE. Reprinted with Permission.

Mini-Review: Debra Paget, for Example

This film is available to stream on Fandor. For those of you who are not familiar with Fandor, it’s frequently referred to as Netflix for cinemaphile. In essence, what Netflix was and always should have been. Fandor is available for a free trial period and can be subscribed to on a discounted annual basis rather than a higher recurring monthly fee.

This Mark Rappaport documentary, as opposed to the previously reviewed Max & James & Danielle, is a bit longer and has one central focus: the intriguing career of Fox contract player Debra Paget.

At once it’s an interesting look into a C-list career and the common practice of not only keeping contract players but attempting to create homegrown stars out of them. Through this trip Rappaport not only indulges in a universal nostalgia for things and people experienced during childhood, which we can all agree to regardless of the details.

Once again there is some more speculation here with wondering if Paget ever really got her desire to play the bad girls Marilyn Monroe go to portray, and also imagined and interpreted voice over that is imagining Paget’s insights to pivotal moments as she was notoriously one who shunned the spotlight or retrospective interviews after her Hollywood days had passed her by.

Again there is some parenthetical fascination in this film, with this and Rappaport’s other recent short you’ll come away from this film fascinated, enlightened, and with a long list of movies to see.

Mini-Review: Max & James & Danielle

This film is available to stream on Fandor. For those of you who are not familiar with Fandor, it’s frequently referred to as Netflix for cinemaphile. In essence, what Netflix was and always should have been. Fandor is available for a free trial period and can be subscribed to on a discounted annual basis rather than a higher recurring monthly fee.

This is a video essay by director Mark Rappaport who has made a name for himself through his cinema-loving feature and short docs. The marvelous thing about this particular title is that there is a significant dalliance in speculative fantasy true paramours of film engage in but can only adequately explore via video and picture editing.

In this film Rappaport discusses the phases of the career of Max Ophüls. In particular it examines his work with James Mason in the United States, and another favorite, Danielle Darrieux in France. The speculation comes in wherein Rappaport imagines the three collaborating in an imagined film.

With both this imagined past, that reflects Ophüls imagined Golden Age Vienna, and Rappaport’s parenthetical narration style, this is an enjoyable quick doc that should be a decent primer on his style.

Poverty Row April: Tangled Destinies (1934)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

Tangled Destinies (1934)

If you’ve ever seen a murder mystery weekend episode of a sitcom, the gag is that invariably a real murder ends up occurring. This is the kind of tale that inspired that charade because for the most part it plays out like one of those tales, minus the subterfuge. The set-up is fantastic: an emergency landing of a small plane during a storm forces the passengers to seek refuge in a nearby empty house. The storm causes power surges and ample opportunity for the mysterious murderer/crook to strike.

There are some Pre-Code twists to it that will leave you guessing, and the occasional not-suitable-for-the-21st-Century comment, but the film does well to build and develop its mystery and buck expectations.

8/10

Poverty Row April: Mystery Train (1931)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

The Mystery Train (1931)

Here again you get another misnomer. This film is not so much a mystery, but what it does have enough of is sufficient levels of intrigue. Also, it has what few of these titles have had and that’s a clear and distinct structure that works very well in its running time. Prior to the inciting incident two set of circumstances are perfectly drawn, thus so are motivations. This propels the film through much of the second act.

Fate, and a climax that is not quite as thrilling as the start bring it down slightly, but the way it does end is interesting, but it is is a very entertaining film.

7/10

Poverty Row April: Sex Madness (a.k.a Human Wreckage)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

Sex Madness a.k.a. Human Wreckage (1938?)

This title opens up more of the idiosyncrasies that Poverty Row titles had. Extant copies of the film do not have all the titles in front of them, therefore the director and release year are left in some doubt. Next, many of these films would have entered the public domain by now anyway, though many others were never copyrighted. Lastly, I noticed that the distributor as per the IMDb is the company that handled States’ Rights Distribution. Essentially, these small production companies, in order to find more screens, would then have these distributors act as subcontractors to barter podunk screens in certain states for them. Long story short, it’s the wrong company.

Now, I had planned, when I had more grandiose goals for this theme, as I typically do when these things start; to see more exploitation films of this era. However, I got at least this one. In all honesty, two things happened: firstly, while shocking for its era the title still proves hyperbolic, which isn’t shocking. Second, though highly melodramatic, the film for the most part was much better than I could’ve expected. It’s a bit bald-faced but it does put its didacticism in story elements and disguises its PSA DNA pretty well. If it had just not broadcast one key point I could’ve passed it.

5/10

Poverty Row April: The Phantom Express (1932)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

The Phantom Express (1932)

As I read and downloaded titles I noted the proclivity for the word phantom in titles. It must’ve scored well in marketing research of the day, it gives an air of mystery and intrigue. Sadly, no film I saw with the word phantom in it had either featured a ghost or been any good. This one at least accomplished the latter and is a highly entertaining tale. It’s not a whodunit so much as a “howdunit” as the perpetrators are revealed early. The film concerns a man who derails a train attempting to make an emergency stop causing many fatalities. He claimed there was an oncoming train he wanted to avoid, there was no record of this supposed train so it was dubbed “The Phantom Express.” The investigation into the mystery, the repeated incidents, the reveal along with explicatory closing monologue are all great. The effects work, mainly miniatures, may look primitive now, but is well done for the time and budgetary constraints. It’s really captivating stuff.

10/10