Friday, June 1, 2018

AFI Top 100: #23 "The Grapes of Wrath"

Henry Fonda & Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Disappearing from the blogosphere certainly made it hard to come back. But recently, I've been peering around this space (lurking, if you will), thinking of the posts that have languished unfinished, and figured, why not dive back in? Lots of life happenings have kept me away (engagement, wedding, and pending new addition), but despite my lack of reviews, our AFI Movie Night tradition continued through the start of April last year, meaning I'm... welp, very behind in sharing my thoughts with you. But that's the rub: I want to share my thoughts. Even a year+ later. So with that, here we go!

Looking back now to #23 on the Top 100 list... like To Kill a Mockingbird, modern readers may have a compulsory reaction to this required-reading-turned-classic-film, be it positive or negative. While Mockingbird may elicit the feel-goods of father/daughter relationships and the fight for justice, The Grapes of Wrath may well make you feel like taking a shower to get all the dust out of your pores.

Adapted from the 1939 John Steinbeck novel of the same name (with heavy involvement from Steinbeck himself), we're quickly introduced to the Joad family, just as eldest son Tom (Henry Fonda) arrives, recently paroled, at their Oklahoma farm. To say that it's seen better days is an understatement. Drought has overrun the community, rocked by Dust Bowl storms and illness, and as the bank seizes the Joad home, there's barely enough time for a hug and hello before the family loads up a truck, tossing the kids & grandparents on the flatbed piled high with chairs and mattresses, to head West seeking a better life.

The journey is long, and they're certainly not alone. The dream of orange groves and lush farms glittering in the California sunlight has enticed many other families and travelers... not to mention, plenty of folks looking to take advantage of their desperation. Even now, imagining the paradise that awaited them (compared to where they'd departed)... I'm overcome with the smell the citrus zest. *sigh* It is through Tom Joad's [less naive] eyes, however, that we witness the excitement, suspicion, and eventual lost hope swirling around the travelers. Tom's experiences, perhaps jading him to the prospect of easy and profitable work (what's the catch?), have taught him that nothing good can come without a good fight.

The book itself can be a tough, albeit fascinating, pill to swallow; what with its propensity for poeticizing the culmination of dust every other chapter... but the beauty of cinema is how much you can say in a moment without any words at all. The desolation, the suffocating hopelessness, none of that is lost on the audience here. No need to belabor the point, the Joads need to get out, and anywhere—even the unknown of the too-good-to-be-true California coast—is better than here. Time to risk life and limb, if that's what it comes to (it does), and director, John Ford, condenses Steinbeck's dense novel into a taut, digestible snapshot of history through the trials of one close-knit family.

Henry Fonda, a man who could be a father or a lover without so much as a shift in facial expression, owns the role of Tom Joad. So much so that it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else standing in his place. Even the structure of his face—the furrowed brow, high cheekbones, perpetual scruff—installs him as both weathered and idealistic; a man whose humanity is so core to his makeup, it doesn't matter what crimes have littered his past.

Fonda offers the complexity that Tom Joad requires, and it's like he doesn't even have to try. Camera points, shoots, captures, and a protagonist is made. The rest of the cast, while offering strong support, never manage quite manage to pull focus from Fonda, even when they probably should—maybe with the exception of Jane Darwell. As Ma Joad, her earnestness is grounding and she brings such warmth to an otherwise disheartening tale. Fonda needs a counterpart like her, and the story benefits from the pairing.

Apart from the acting, the film's pacing, along with the editing, that create the framework are magnificent. Clear choices were made about what to include, and what to exclude, from the source material, and there is hardly a misstep throughout. The plot is tight, the conflicts are palpable, and the stakes remain high—all without sacrificing character arcs or pivotal events. For me, Wrath is wholly reminiscent, stylistically and in tone, of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang from 1932 (one of my absolute favorites, why isn't it on this list?!?!), particularly towards the end as Tom Joad comes to terms with what he must do to protect his family. It doesn't hurt that the screenplays share similar climactic lines that root thoroughly among the best in cinema.

On rare occasions, the film suffers from too many soaring oratory moments (which mutes the grit a bit), but it always finds the ground again. I would challenge any viewer to not be affected by the family and their plight; this is such a uniquely American tale, layered with political and economic commentary so attuned to the time, not only of the Great Depression, but of the Great "Okie" Migration that represented a tide of social disparity and injustice. The combination of Ford and Steinbeck was tailor-made to bring this story to the screen.

It's grim and it's troubling, but like the book's mandatory appearance on your high school curriculum, the film should be required American viewing.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © 20th Century Fox]

Check back next time for #22 on the list, Some Like It Hot — hopefully coming soon!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My 2018 Oscar Predictions!

It has certainly been a most eventful 2017, and there is plenty I can't wait to share eventually. But my favorite time of year has finally come around, marking the 20th anniversary of my Oscar Obsession (nothing can compare to 1998's Titanic sweep, sigh), and I couldn't let this week pass by without slipping quietly into the blogosphere and sharing my annual predictions! Now, sure, I missed posting last year entirely (and I mean... entirely), but 2018 is a time to start fresh, and there's certainly no better place to start shaking off the cobwebs.

2017 was filled with so many remarkable films, and in a total shocker, the Academy is actually honoring most of them (with the glaring exception of The Florida Project, what are you kidding me with this snub?!?!) But I digress.... the attention paid to Get Out, easily one of the standout movies of the year, makes me absolutely giddy, and while it may not be as socially relevant as some of the other movies honored with nominations, Lady Bird speaks to me (a 2004 high school graduate involved in drama from a Northern California suburb) on a deep, bone-marrow level.

But, gun to my head, it's all about The Shape of Water for me this time around, with my love of Del Toro knowing no bounds, and him finally getting the mainstream recognition he deserves. Fingers crossed it can overcome the flood of support Three Billboards (which I did enjoy from an acting perspective, but think has issues from a writing/directorial view) has garnered in recent months.

And so, with that, time to get to the predictions, and as usual...

 = My Prediction to Win
♥ = What I Wish Would Win [excluded if not enough opinion on the category]

Don't forget to submit your picks officially online, or share them in the comments below!

• Call Me by Your Name
• Darkest Hour
• Dunkirk
• Get Out
• Lady Bird
• Phantom Thread
• The Post
♥ The Shape of Water
 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

• Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan
• Get Out, Jordan Peele
• Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
• Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson
♥ The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro

• Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
• Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
♥ Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
 Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
• Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

♥ Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
 Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
• Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
• Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
• Meryl Streep, The Post

♥ Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
• Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
• Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
 Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
• Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

• Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
 Allison Janney, I, Tonya
• Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
♥ Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
• Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Music Mondays: Paramore "Fake Happy"

Whaaat, new music, new post, whaaaat??? I know. I almost have no right to even start sharing again after so long away from this blog, but you know? I FELT INSPIRED. Some songs just kinda click with your inner-being, particularly those moments when you're stressed and flying down an L.A. freeway alone and just scream-singing at the top of your lungs..... *inhale*slow exhale*

And this one's good. Belt-it-out-your-car-window good. My beloved Paramore finally released a new album for the first time in over 4 years, and I couldn't be more stoked about it. After Laughter isn't the romp their self-titled (2013) album was, but it's the self-proclaimed 'IDGAF/Don't ask me to smile' attitude laced throughout the whole record that the whole world needs right now. And "Fake Happy" is a teary ballad masquerading as a poppy rocker.

Have a listen, and while you're at it, check out it's equally middle-finger-to-the-haters sister track, Rose-Colored Boy, while you're at it. Consider it your Monday morning therapy. xx

Artist: Paramore
Song: "Fake Happy" | download | stream
Album: After Laugher

Friday, January 6, 2017

engagement: the story

It's probably been a year or more since I wrote about more personal happenings on this space, instead choosing to focus on cinematic musings. But this chica's life has experienced a sudden dose of excitement, and I can't resist posting a bit about it here, perhaps planting the seeds for like-sharing in the future. Especially with what this new year will hold.

Nearly three months ago, in front of my closest friends and family, my boyfriend John became my fiancee. And made me the happiest woman in the world.

Yes, this is the story of that proposal.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

AFI Top 100: #24 "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"

Henry Thomas and E.T. in E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

As behind as I've gotten on my AFI Top 100 reviews, I'm trying to find the fire to get my thoughts down on everything before they slip away, out of my brain forever (or at least until I see these flicks again). Because let's face it. The next 24 films really are some of the best of the best, and one viewing just isn't going to cut it. Still, a fair few haven't been watched since I popped them into my VHS player two decades ago—and that describes #24, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, to a T. Frequent viewings as a child led to an "I've seen it a hundred times!" reaction whenever anyone suggested it, culminating into too many years away from Elliott and his admittedly unsettling-looking alien friend, not to mention another of director Steven Spielberg's masterpieces.

When a curious alien gets left behind on Earth after a quiet botany expedition, the gentle creature finds his way into suburbia and—more specifically—the backyard of an equally gentle boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who discovers the strange being late one night. Initially terrified, Elliott quickly befriends the alien, whom he names E.T., hiding it in his bedroom and enlisting his big brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), to help him keep E.T.'s presence a secret from everyone, including their frazzled mom (Dee Wallace). As the siblings try desperately to learn more about where E.T. came from—and how to get him home—it starts to become clear that the small alien's connection to Elliott may run deeper than anyone could have predicted. It isn't until both spontaneously become sick that they learn the government is about to discover E.T.'s whereabouts, and it's up to them to protect their friend.

When I was a kid, I never thought about the symbiosis between Elliott and E.T. Never. Maybe it didn't make sense to me, that the health and emotions of one depended on the other, because I was a little kid and empathy was a weirdly foreign concept. But it makes sense now, and the impact nearly crippled me when I watched these two discover that bond this time around. The montage of feelings—physical and emotional—that overwhelm Elliott as he sits in his classroom has the benefit of being both hysterical and unexpectedly traumatic. What an incredible way to play to the audience. Children and adults can get so many different things from a scene like that, and it only lasts 5 minutes. But more than anything else in the story up to that point, it greatly informs the rest of the film.

The discovery of Thomas for the role of Elliott may just have been a gift from the movie gods. The tears, the vulnerability, the empathy... most adults can't bring that kind of performance on command, but Thomas, after only a couple TV movie roles by 1982, already had the makings of a seasoned pro. Elliott is a complicated character--he's actually jarringly relatable. Any kid who had a favorite pet and a creative spirit growing up could understand his eagerness and his plight, which is why Thomas doesn't appear to be faking anything. Whatever he's giving us, it is real down to his bones. And thankfully, he didn't have to ride this emotional roller coaster alone. Sure, MacNaughton's Michael transforms into the supportive and protective big brother every little kid should have, but he's a far steadier, less developed role. Little sister Gertie was probably supposed to be similarly 2-dimensional—but then they cast Drew Barrymore.

This isn't an expose, so I have little interest in discussing the rise and fall and rise again of Barrymore. But here? There's little doubt about the way she commands the screen, her noticeable lisp making her cheeks just that much more pinchable, her eyes just that much bigger and brighter. She probably didn't even need to be good at the 'emotions' part, but instead of riding on her cuteness alone, her range of feels knocks us over. She isn't given the meaty material that her onscreen brother is, but what she was given, she slays.

Paired with probably my favorite John Williams scores, Spielberg's vision for a film meant exploring a world (sort of Peanuts-style) from the point-of-view of the children, shooting from Elliott and E.T's eye-levels for what felt like 90% of the movie. Adults were there, but somehow more other-worldy than the titular friendly alien himself. The secrecy and tension and fear of discovery dictate the editing pace, and as the outside world closes in around the kids, their once small and quiet lives take on new meaning and importance. And the world—or rather, universe—gets so much bigger.

I'm one of those people that likes being an adult. It's rare, actually, that I ever wish to be a kid again. I know so much more now. I knew so little then. But then I watch E.T. and I realize what it is that's missing. The best parts of childhood when the world still let kids hop on their bikes at 9 AM with the only rule being they return by sundown—or dinner, whichever came first. Movies can't be about this anymore, because the world isn't like this anymore. It's why the Netflix series Stranger Things grips at the nostalgia that E.T. and its counterparts invented (Dungeons & Dragons sequences aside). A treasured part of our lives as kids we'll never be able to reclaim, and that desperate hope we all had that our make-believe would become tangible and real.

E.T. is a strong movie etched out of a silly premise, one that could easily have been forgettable had it not been for the sheer magnitude of effort put forth by Spielberg and the young actors, particularly Henry Thomas. It's hard not to think about Steven Spielberg's affinity for working with children, not to mention crafting a magical tale for young audiences, in particular (which is what infuriates me most about the stunning failure of this year's The BFG).

While there are directors who have created incredible, memorable films that root deeply into our childhoods (Chris Columbus comes to mind), there aren't many who do it with such unwavering confidence. This is cinema at its most hopeful—and magical.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next time for #23 on the list, The Grapes of Wrath — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!
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