12/23/2020

Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Reviews: "Holiday Affair" (1949) and "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940)



"Holiday Affair" (1949) 

Fresh off starring in two 1948 westerns, the romantic "Rachel and the Stranger," and the noirish "Blood on the Moon," perhaps the last thing that Robert Mitchum wanted to do was make a Christmas romcom. But pushed into starring in "Holiday Affair" opposite Janet Leigh, after RKO head honcho Howard Hughes ordered him to make the picture following his arrest and jail sentence for marijuana possession one year earlier, Mitchum turned in a sly, shaggy dog performance so sexy that had Hughes thought it all the way through, he might've changed his mind about casting him altogether.

Fortunately for Mitchum fans, hindsight is 20/20. And although the film was a box office disaster when it was released – which might have had more to do with the confusingly noir-inspired ad campaign than anything else – "Holiday Affair" has since turned into a classic Christmas staple, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, which regularly airs director Don Hartman's film multiple times every winter. 


In the movie, Mitchum stars as Steve Mason, a veritable Kerouac-like beatnik ahead of his time. Selling toys in an upscale New York City department store to make enough money to pursue his passion for making and restoring boats on the coast, Steve loses his job after he fails to report Janet Leigh's comparison shopper Connie Ennis, a war widow and single mother of the sweetly mischievous young Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Falling for Connie, after Steve makes the grand gesture of buying her son the expensive toy train set he'd had his eye on, he complicates Connie's already slightly strained relationship with her loyal and kind no-sparks beau, Carl (played by Wendell Corey).

With screwball-worthy elements including a hilarious sequence that plays out in court and one of the steamiest holiday screen kisses in this or any year (in a moment that word is Janet Leigh didn't even know was coming), "Holiday Affair" is a winning, admittedly odd, yet adorable romantic comedy. Featuring a Lux Radio Theater production of the tale, which was based upon John D. Weaver's story "Christmas Gift" and adapted by screenwriter Isobel Lennart (who would write for Mitchum once again in both "The Sundowners" and "Two for the Seesaw"), this crisp transfer of the wintry black-and-white film has been newly released on Warner Archive Blu-ray.




"The Shop Around the Corner" (1940)

Though by now the plot device has been used so many times in romantic storytelling that it's spawned an entire subgenre of the trope titled "enemies to lovers" fiction, one of the most endearing early examples of this in screen romantic comedy can be found in director Ernst Lubitsch's bittersweet 1940 holiday classic "The Shop Around the Corner."

Based on the 1937 play "Parfumerie," by Hungarian writer Miklós László, which was adapted by longtime Lubitsch screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (in addition to an uncredited assist by Ben Hecht), the movie led to a number of high profile stage and screen remakes, including Broadway's "She Loves Me," as well as the films "In the Good Old Summertime," and "You've Got Mail" (which was also inspired by the classic enemies to lovers Jane Austen novel, "Pride and Prejudice").

Notable for its decision to leave politics out of the equation but pay tribute to its origins by setting the action in Hungary at a time when America was on the long on-ramp towards the second world war, "The Shop Around the Corner" takes place just before Christmastime in the small Budapest based Matuschek and Company leather goods shop. 

Getting to know a trio of its handful of workers intimately, the film primarily revolves around the store's kind boss in the midst of a personal crisis, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), as well as his loyal right-hand man Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), and the store's newest employee Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Pitted against one another in real life with their dueling sales practices and taste, the viewer soon discovers that Alfred and Klara are at the same time also falling in love on paper as anonymous correspondents, writing each other romantic love letters which are delivered to numbered post office boxes. 


With its trademark sophisticated Lubitsch wit, which boldly alternates from subtly sexy lines such as "I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there” and a startlingly sad subplot concerning Matuschek which takes the film into much darker territory, "The Shop Around the Corner" is that rarest of all holiday movies. Still incredibly modern in the way that it acknowledges both the romantic highs and lonely lows of the season, it's a refreshingly mature, grown-up work that makes today's overly beige, cookie-cutter, assembly line ready made-for-cable movies feel outdated and far too quaintly naive by comparison.

Though "The Shop Around the Corner" is a lovely romance all around, it's still undoubtedly Morgan's Matuschek that most tugs at the heartstrings both from an acting standpoint and when you watch the film in the devastation of 2020. Still, "Shop" generates most of its fire from the winning chemistry of Stewart and Sullavan as we find ourselves siding first with one lead followed by the other from one scene to the next. Enviably written and performed, despite how much I enjoyed both of its famous American remakes, this even-handed approach didn't translate nearly as well in "In the Good Old Summertime" or "You've Got Mail" since we're predominantly only drawn in by the female protagonists' plights throughout.

Beautifully shot by Lubitsch's frequent DP William H. Daniels, who's also well-known for being Greta Garbo's personal cinematographer, the film's lushly snowy black-and-white photography is given a glossy new shine in Warner Archive's new Blu-ray release of the film, which includes two radio broadcasts of "Shop" along with the bonus feature "A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound."


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

12/21/2020

Movie Review: Sylvie's Love (2020)



Filled with shiny, almost luridly bright colors and a razor-sharp eye for startling subtext, when master filmmaker Douglas Sirk described one of his philosophies behind such grand '50s melodramas as "All That Heaven Allows," "Magnificent Obsession," "Imitation of Life," and "Written on the Wind," he said, "you have to think with the heart."

It's this piece of advice as well as the stylistic choices made in those opulent films that we think of most when we watch the impressionistically Sirkian works produced by writer-directors Wong Kar-wai and Todd Haynes. Two of contemporary cinema's greatest filmmakers, in addition to Sirk's incredibly influential '50s output, both Wong's "In the Mood for Love" and Haynes' "Carol" feel like they were a major source of inspiration for writer-director Eugene Ashe's new, exquisitely lush period romance "Sylvie's Love," which bows this week on Amazon Prime. 


Set in the late 1950s through the early '60s, "Sylvie's Love" is a passionate celebration of jazz, art, fashion, and above all, swoon-worthy, damn the torpedoes romance. As such, it's a film that thinks with (and is dedicated to) the heart. A stunner for its aesthetic choices alone, "Sylvie's Love" feels like it was made with the same Haynes-like obsessive care that the auteur used to create "Far From Heaven" and "Carol." The result is a work that not only seems like it belongs in the period in which it is set but looks like a long-lost studio venture made in a bygone era as well. 

The type of film which, to use a very 2020 meme-worthy phrase, could be aptly described as "a mood," this sweepingly romantic work centers on two young aspiring creatives who meet and fall in love but take years to get the timing right.

Working in her father's record shop while dreaming of a future producing television, even at a time when such a pursuit seems impossible for a young Black woman, Tessa Thompson's elegant, ambitious Sylvie finds herself falling for her new coworker Robert (played by Nnamdi Asomugha). A gifted up-and-coming jazz tenor saxophonist who only took the job so he could get close to his crush, the chemistry shared by fiery leads Asomugha and Thompson is fiercely compelling. 

Complicating matters, although she's engaged to a man from a wealthy, highly respected family who is currently overseas in the military, Sylvie can't help but respond to the pull she feels to this man who sees her for who she is and admires her dreams for the future, as opposed to merely respecting her family's status or what she represents to him as an acquisition.


Though influenced by '50s era melodramas, "Sylvie's Love" frequently calls up the sights and sounds of Wong Kar-wai's most famous films. We see this first in a shot of Sylvie looking at Robert with longing from the backseat of a cab (which is a motif used throughout Wong's oeuvre) and once again in Ashe's usage of the song, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," which Wong weaponized to intoxicating effect in "In the Mood for Love." While the Nat King Cole version was played in Wong's film, here in "Sylvie's Love," the number is performed by a singer played by Eva Longoria.

A passion project for Ashe, who set out to honor his family's memories and photographs from the period, while the film's narrative arc underwhelms and its resolution is not only rushed but anticlimactic, it's easy to forgive "Sylvie's Love" its missteps because it's such an overwhelmingly gorgeous picture all around.

Shot by Mira Nair's legendary "Monsoon Wedding" cinematographer Declan Quinn, "Sylvie's" buttery visuals put a high gloss sheen on Phoenix Mellow's vintage costumes (which include regal Chanel couture for brand ambassador Tessa Thompson), as well as production designer Mayne Berke's '50s studio backlot built sets of New York City. 

Additionally boasting an enviably impressive score by Fabrice Lecomte, who both used strings similar to the way they work so well in Haynes' Sirkian pictures "Far From Heaven" and "Carol," and also composed all of the bebop numbers for Robert's fictional quartet, the film's handsome production specs will win over jazz fans and classic movie lovers alike.

Giving Black audiences a dizzying, long overdue '50s and '60s era romantic melodrama of their own (despite introducing but then quickly shying away from historical issues regarding race), "Sylvie's Love" is a sumptuously entertaining ode to Black love made by a skilled filmmaker who, just like Douglas Sirk, thinks with his heart.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

12/10/2020

Movie Review: I'm Your Woman (2020)


Now Available


Swanky, immaculate, and impractical, "I'm Your Woman" opens in the luxe '70s Pennsylvania home afforded to Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) by her husband's life of crime. Also given to Jean within the first five minutes of the movie is a new baby that her man Eddie (Bill Heck) delivers like a jumpsuit, string of pearls, or new stereo that might have fallen off the back of a truck in his vicinity over the years.

The only difference between this and the typical swag that the veteran thief brings home is that this property is not only hot but it's also a living and breathing thing and as such, it looks immediately out of place in this cold, catalog ready environment.

Sensing his wife's hesitation, Eddie promises Jean that it's all worked out. "He's our baby," he explains but then changes his wording later on. He's "your baby," Eddie says, correcting himself in a line of dialogue that's as much an important distinction as it is an eerie piece of foreshadowing for the film.

You see, mere moments after he says this, Eddie disappears from Jean's life. And no, that's not a spoiler, it's merely the set-up for this engaging piece of storytelling from "Miss Stevens" and "Fast Color" director Julia Hart, who wrote the film along with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz. 


A clever reinvention of '70s cinematic crime fiction, in "I'm Your Woman," Jean gains a baby and loses a husband, the first when one arrives home unexpectedly and the second when the other does not. Thus, one man or – to be more precise – one "he" replaces the other in Jean's life and our leading lady goes from being the woman and the whole world for one to the woman and the whole world for another when Eddie fails to return home following a job gone disastrously wrong.

What went wrong on the job remains a mystery for the better part of the movie but it's only interesting from a tangential perspective because it happens offscreen. Serving not as the movie's climax the way that most heists are utilized in crime movies centered on male protagonists, "Woman" is instead concerned with how one man's actions and decisions affect the woman at its core and the baby she's left to protect.

"Something happened tonight," one of Eddie's partners tells her and, handing her a bag with two hundred grand in it and instructions to take the kid and go with a man named Cal (Arinzé Kene), we discern that that is all we need to know. Rather than stay with the crooks and either go to the mattresses or Sicily with the men eluding capture as we did in "The Godfather," Hart and Horowitz instead opt to follow Diane Keaton's Kay instead, or rather, their Kay in the form of Jean.

A light flutter of wind you initially ignore until it builds into a tornado that no one – not even the weatherman sees coming – Jean goes from a meek, decorative glass figurine living in her husband's dollhouse to a frazzled yet determined woman trying to find and hold onto any semblance of control she has in her new, now suddenly uncertain life. Who Jean is, as not Eddie's woman but her own (and now baby Harry's as well) is the crux of Hart's picture. And in a messy, initially submissive turn that's light-years away from her performance on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," gifted producer-star Brosnahan is there, fully committed to exploring Jean's compelling evolution every step of the way, even when she occasionally but realistically goes backwards instead of forwards. 


Thrillingly original and long overdue, particularly for women (like yours truly) who, long obsessed with '70s crime movies, didn't realize just how much they wanted and needed a film focused on the characters that far too often get left behind in traditional white-male-centric fare, one of the wisest decisions that Hart made was not to simply turn Michael into Missy Corleone. Avoiding the pitfalls of over-correction that we sometimes see in revisionist genre efforts where, rather than accurately reflect the true setting and history of the period of the movie, filmmakers will just make the hero a woman instead of a man, Hart opts to embrace rather than escape femininity here. 

Jean isn't a crackerjack thief or a hitman, she is a crime syndicate wife who's never been on her own before and has no idea how to begin to move on, even temporarily, without a man. In addition to Harry, who is bringing out a new protective side in her, she gets a second man for a time in another figure that would ordinarily be a supporting character as well in the form of scene-stealer Kene's enigmatic Cal.

A Black former associate of Eddie's who he'd entrusted to look after Jean and the baby until either he, Cal, or Jean can figure something out, as a new stranger turned friend, he's at once a calming influence on both Jean and Harry and an armed guard you don't want to cross to everyone else. Yet Cal doesn't only serve to save Jean, even if this is his initial function at the beginning. As the film progresses, Jean finds that he might need to be saved right back. To do that, she'll need to join forces with another woman – Cal's woman, Terry (a masterful Marsha Stephanie Blake) – and one who, if Jean is being honest, is exactly the kind of woman she's always wanted to be herself.

Sharp, unfussy, character-driven filmmaking that has much more in common with the methodical, building block-based storytelling we so often saw in the 1970s as opposed to most modern movies where people frequently speak in expositional monologues, this is a film that tells us only what we need to know at any given moment. Respecting not only our intelligence but also the talents of the actors bringing their characters to life, Hart knows that we will come to better understand the people who populate her film in time. Therefore, she has no interest in giving us a cinematic version of Cliff's Notes to tell us what to think and refreshingly asks us to sit back, get lost in her world, and figure it all out for ourselves instead. 


Suspenseful and unpredictable in the way that it leads us down one path only to veer wildly down another moments later, "Woman" leads to a few truly exciting action set-pieces over the course of its running time. A unique hybrid of '70s and modern filmmaking with a lead character who feels like a descendant of Gena Rowlands in "Gloria," "I'm Your Woman" is first and foremost a celebration of genre storytelling.

One of those mid-range adult thrillers that – as the old adage goes – they just don't make that much anymore since normally, it would be broken down into six half-stuffed episodes of lukewarm prestige television instead of a feature film, "I'm Your Woman" plays best to those who understand its cinematic lineage. 

Wearing its influences like "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," "The Getaway," and other films from the era proudly in each frame, "I'm Your Woman" feels like a '70s movie released in 2020... if, you know, they actually made crime movies in the '70s that focused on what happens to the wives and girlfriends of a crook instead of just relegating them to the sidelines. The end result is a rousing film that plays like gangbusters. With first-rate production specs, including a dynamic soundtrack and crisp yet lived in cinematography from "Ingrid Goes West" DP Bryce Fortner, following this year's "Sound of Metal," "Small Axe" releases, "Vast of Night," and "Blow the Man Down," "I'm Your Woman" is proof that some of cinema's strongest new films are found on Amazon Prime. 

Immediately pulling us into Jean's orbit, we watch as she goes from being defined by one man to asking herself just what kind of woman she wants to be both for herself and her child now that she's been left out in the cold. Finding strength she didn't know she had, in a film about people left behind, we meet a woman who at long last, knows her worth. 



Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Movie Review: Wild Mountain Thyme (2020)



Now Available


While intellectually, I know that I saw several films in the theater before this one, for whatever reason, the movie-going memory that's seared into my brain as the first live-action feature that I ever saw is from 1987.

Following a busy morning running errands, as three generations of Italian-American women – a fact that would only become significant with time and understanding – I accompanied my mother and grandmother to a matinee screening of “Moonstruck” when I was six-years-old. Although it didn't mean that much to me as a first grader and my love for the film would grow exponentially over the years, I have a vivid memory of not only the uproarious laughter that filled the theater but also the overwhelming interest and focus that seemed to reach a fever pitch whenever the instantly magnetic Nicolas Cage hit the screen.

Years later, I jokingly began to blame the film, which has since become one of my favorites, for my obsession with character actors like Cage, and of course, my unrivaled love of epic monologues, like the ones which were penned in the film by the Oscar, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Patrick Shanley. Shanley, who had already written the terrifically underrated film “Five Corners” would follow up the smash hit “Moonstruck” with decades of unpredictable work for both the stage and screen, including two directorial efforts with the cult comedy “Joe Versus the Volcano” in 1990 and 2008's controversial conversation starter “Doubt,” which he adapted from his play.

Shanley's third time at bat as a filmmaker arrives this week with “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which, like “Doubt,” first got its start on the New York stage. Described by Shanley as the most pleasurable experience that he'd ever had as a writer, “Outside Mullingar,” was inspired by his own family's Irish roots following a life-changing trip to his ancestral home in Ireland as an adult. 


A love story about two lonely, eccentric thirty-somethings living next door to one another in the Irish countryside, “Thyme” introduces us to the headstrong Rosemary Muldoon (a divine Emily Blunt) who has spent more than twenty years pining for her sweet yet shy neighbor Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan). Hoping that when his father Tony (Christopher Walken) leaves the family farm to him that he'll finally get the courage to propose so that they can start their life together, after Tony announces his intent to sell the farm to his wealthy American nephew Adam (Jon Hamm), decades worth of family drama and pent up romantic frustration come to a head.

On the surface, of course, “Wild Mountain Thyme” finds Shanley back in his “Moonstruck” sweet spot spinning multigenerational, slightly mythic yarns about love, family, and the way that both can throw a wrench into your best-made plans. Unfortunately, however, that's where the similarities between the two romances end, at least in terms of their overall quality. As awkwardly cumbersome as “Moonstruck” was smooth and free-flowing, although “Thyme” is filled with his trademark memorable speeches and pithy lines, there is something utterly laborious and exhausting about the way that it is all presented.

Opening with a fast-paced flashback meant to establish Rosemary's love for Anthony that doesn't get the gravitas or the screentime it needs to truly invest us in her plight, “Thyme” further steamrolls viewers by launching us into the middle of a debate with huge stakes for the characters before we clearly understand just who exactly everyone is and what's really going on. A film that seems to begin in the middle and then back up and change course altogether when suddenly Jon Hamm arrives like a cool breeze from what feels like an entirely different movie, although “The Prince of Tides” and “Closer” cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt's lush photography of west Ireland's County Mayo is warm and inviting, there isn't a lot about “Thyme” that's worth recommending. 


Featuring another epic “Moonstruck” level moment of musical theater derived intertextuality as not the glorious opera “La Boheme” this time but the classical ballet “Swan Lake” becomes the touchstone for our feisty heroine, Emily Blunt is clearly up to the task of bringing one of Shanley's great, complicated, middle-aged women looking for love to life. And indeed, Blunt is “Thyme”'s great shining light to the point that scenes not featuring the actress tend to drag. Shockingly, we feel this most when the usually reliable Christopher Walken and Jamie Dornan try to generate our interest in a contentious but loving father-son dynamic that plays as though the film's most important scenes necessary to understanding their relationship have been left on the cutting room floor.

It's a major disappointment given the level of the talent involved and how much I was rooting for the film, especially since we have a noted deficit in modern filmmaking when it comes to sophisticated romcoms for adults. And while it works as a passably average travelogue of Ireland, complete with a few musical moments featuring Emily Blunt, as a film in its own right (and even without my cherished memory of “Moonstruck”) when compared to the rest of Shanley's oeuvre, “Wild Mountain Thyme” is wild to a fault but nowhere near as bright.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

12/04/2020

Blu-ray Review: Grace of My Heart (1996)


Now Available



Leveling with his former employee and protege, the singer-songwriter Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas), whom he'd professionally renamed Denise Waverly years earlier, Joel Millner (John Turturro) swoops in after a devastating heartbreak to give her a dose of tough love. Dissecting the way that he's watched from the sidelines as she's fallen into one impulsive, often misguided romantic relationship after another, he says, “Well, I know one thing, the only sense any of these jerks you've allowed to sidetrack you have had in common is belief in your talent, I know that.” 

Of course, by this point in Grace of My Heart, we realize that belief in Denise's extraordinary talent to turn the emotional truth of everyday life into musical poetry is something that Joel has in common with her lovers as well.

Having left behind her dream of becoming a singer when she was told that girls were no longer in vogue, Denise finds her calling as a hitmaker in the early 1960s, writing pop music chart-toppers that frequently address the issues faced by women and minorities in the real world. Yet her true gift is in the way that she's able to subtly weave her powerful message into an irresistibly melodic soundscape, a skill that eludes her first partner Howard (Eric Stoltz) who – as is often the case with men – prefers to spell out everything literally. Quickly, we deduce that confrontation and controversy seem to be Howard's favorite two words, because both allow him to get on his PR soapbox so that he becomes, in his own mind at least, as big as the song. 


Thus, it's only when Denise writes alone or teams up with Joel's other talented female songwriter Cheryl (Patsy Kensit) that she embraces her knack for subtext once again, deliriously and fittingly writing a love ballad called “My Secret Love” for a secretly gay Lesley Gore-like ingenue (played by Bridget Fonda). 

So then why, you might ask, does she first tie her creative and romantic fate to a suitor who prefers the end result of a Denise Waverly song but doesn't truly see the magic in what she does?

The first of three men to be seduced by her gift but are unable to fully understand who she is and where her craft comes from, it's only later in her hard-hitting confrontation with the mentor who knows her best that Denise's romantic Achilles heel suddenly makes sense. Following up his summation about her past lovers, Joel argues that Denise's talent is meaningful to the men but not herself. Or perhaps, sidetracked by love, life, and an upbringing as an heiress where she's repeatedly told she doesn't fit in, Joel posits that Denise hasn't treated her gift the same way.

Brought ferociously to life by an extraordinary Turturro and Douglas who match each other firey outburst for firey outburst, it's a mind-blowing scene and one that unexpectedly hit me much harder when I watched this – my favorite Allison Anders movie – for the first time in years, thanks to Kino Lorber's fantastic new release of the film on Blu-ray.

Able to at once hear Joel's words and understand Denise's feelings, it's a staggering sequence that Anders captures in one shot as her cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier slowly pushes in from an overhead crane until we are right in their personal space. It's here we realize that just like there is a difference between an opinion and a fact, understanding and respecting one's talent are two decidedly different concepts, especially when you need to figure out how to prioritize one's craft amid all of the demands that society places on women in both the 1960s and today. 


Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, and written and directed by the enormously talented filmmaker of Gas Food Lodging and Things Behind the Sun, 1996's Grace of My Heart is a film that speaks one way to men and one way to women, and another still to female creatives everywhere.

A historian of the era who sought inspiration in the artists of the '50s and '60s, including Carole King, Lesley Gore, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and others, from the songwriters of the famed Brill Building to the symphonic surf rock of California and beyond, Anders' film is a love letter to one of my favorite periods in American music.

Featuring instantly memorable songs like the wondrous “God Give Me Strength,” which was written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, although it can be treated as just a compelling overview of the time, Grace of My Heart is an unmistakably personal film for Anders and the affection she has for the people at its center spills over and makes us feel the same.

Breaking down something true and universal about the way we evolve from the role of daughter to friend, girlfriend, wife, and mother, while also trying to reconcile that with our work as an artist, as we watch Denise be drawn into one new love after another, we start to see that there is more than just a basic belief in her talent connecting how she relates to these men.

Each one of them – and this includes her platonic relationship with Joel – appreciates something different about her and sees a side of herself that she tries her best to hide. Howard can be somewhat excluded from this list since above all, we feel that the connective tissue between the two might just be lust, plus his hope to use her as a professional stepping stone (even if he'll never admit it to himself). Still, all of the other men in her life –  all three with names that start with the letter “J” –  play a vital part in Denise's journey to better understanding herself, her place, and her art.

Throughout the film, she becomes involved with a married man (Bruce Davison) who connects to her on an intellectual level, a virtuoso yet unstable musician (Matt Dillon) who sees the raw emotion behind her music and immediately relates to her soul, and of course, Joel, who knows she's cut out for bigger and better things altogether. 


Is she attracted to these men because they're able to articulate her talent in a way that society frowns upon when it's a woman doing the same for herself? Do they allow her to “try on” new sides of herself the way that Jane Fonda has admitted that from the '60s to the '90s, for example, she became an entirely different woman with each new partner? Is Denise drawn to them because they're the first cheerleaders she's ever had, and if so, do they really see her for who she is or who they want her to be?

Not blessed with that inherently male trait of solipsistic confidence – even without the goods to back it up – Grace of My Heart understands how many mixed messages women receive from men both romantically and in our art, even when they're our allies, lovers, or are otherwise unaware that they're sending them.

Through the film, Anders uses Denise to illustrate just how vital it is to make mistakes, to go through all of the love and pain that comes from living your life because that's the only way you have anything of value to offer anyone else. Knowing that you can't get everything from one person – man or woman – we see Denise's goodness starting out as a Philadelphia steel heiress who gives the expensive dress her mother ordered Denise for a music contest to a Black contestant (Jennifer Leigh Warren) whose vocal talent is unparalleled. 


The start of a friendship that lasts throughout the course of the movie, even though Denise has been taught to be fearful of other women trying to take her place in the professional world, when women have the courage to let down these walls and support one another, they make beautiful music together. We know this because – especially in the 5.1 Dolby soundtrack included on the Blu-ray – we can so clearly hear their harmony in Douglas' scenes with Kensit, Fonda, Warren, and scene-stealer Tracy Vilar.

The towering achievement of her career as an actress, Illeana Douglas is incredible here. Struggling to come into her own, first as a singer-songwriter before love, marriage, and children enter the picture, Denise's authentic vulnerability in the way she tries not to let the equally tender Matt Dillon see just how badly she's been hurt when she performs “God Give Me Strength” is a scene that immediately rings true. Lip-syncing the number, it's in both her nervous energy – acutely aware of being observed – and the way she struggles to reign in her emotions that makes it one of the most exquisitely compelling moments in the entire film and also one of the hardest ones to watch.

Knowing that her talent has gotten her to where she is today but trying hard to figure out just what that means in the scheme of things or where she really wants to go, her journey from song-to-song and “J” to “J” never fails to move me each time I press play on Grace of My Heart. Filled with passionate performances, historical touchstones, and autobiographical details that are the result of cathartic artistic sublimation by Anders, this film is more than just the story of a creative woman learning to both believe in herself and find her way in the world. In the end, it's about all of us, and through Denise, Allison Anders lets us know that as long as we have the strength, we'll get where we're going in time. 


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

12/03/2020

Movie Review: Billie (2019)



Now Available


The way that one interviewee in writer-director James Erskine's new documentary “Billie” tells it, when Ella Fitzgerald sings “My Man's Gone Now,” you think he's on a trip and is due back shortly, but when Billie Holiday does it, you know that man has packed his bags, he's already down the street, and he is never coming back.

Using her voice like a brass instrument to – with Holiday's singular, unorthodox lyrical phrasing, tell vivid, visceral, lived-in stories that cast a spell on her listeners – her friend and fellow jazz vocalist Sylvia Syms sums it up best. “Billie Holiday sang only truth, she knew nothing else.”

As both a word and an idea, “truth” is the quality that comes up most frequently in the film when people describe not just Holiday's voice but her life. And it's only fitting since just one spin of one Billie Holiday record leaves you with the impression that they are inexorably linked. Feeling the same way, in the late 1960s, feminist high school teacher turned freelance journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl embarked on a quest to write the definitive biography on her favorite singer. From Holiday's cousin John Fagan, who recalled her feisty early years to the jazz greats who became her friends, colleagues, and lovers before her untimely death at the age of forty-four in 1959, Kuehl recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with the people who knew the singer born Eleanora Fagan the best. 


In Erskine's documentary, these frequently jaw-dropping, often cited, but previously unheard original audio tapes bring Kuehl and her vital first-person sources back to life. They also give us the briefest of glimpses into what her biography of the artist might have looked like if she'd gotten the chance to finish it. Sadly, much like Holiday, whose career trajectory fascinated her just as much as her self-destructive streak, Kuehl's life was also cut short. Nearly a decade after she began working on the book, the young journalist was found dead on a Washington D.C. street in a mysterious event that her family believes was perhaps linked to this quest.

Wanting to accurately represent Billie Holiday as she was and not just pay tribute to her as a legend, while on the surface, a white, Jewish teacher from New York who wrote about women's issues for publications like “The Paris Review” seems like she would have little in common with Holiday, Kuehl's sister dispels this belief early on in the film. Telling viewers that Linda identified with the singer's pain and didn't like the way she'd been portrayed as a victim, Kuehl herself backs up this thesis later on in her manuscript, saying that although the sexually voracious Holiday was often in relationships with abusive men, in the end, it was she who chose these partners for one reason or another.

Keeping an objective approach, even when she interviews a pimp that Holiday tricked for when she was a young girl, much like Kuehl, Erskine's film and Holiday's friends paint a portrait of a woman who loved to live fast for all of its ups and downs. It seems perhaps that Holiday knew her time on Earth was short. Exploring all facets of her personality from her two favorite expletives to her bisexuality, even when friends tell horrific stories about the men who graduated her from pot to hard drugs or beat her senseless (and some openly question whether or not she was, in fact, a masochist), Erskine strives to follow in Kuehl's nonjudgmental footsteps. 


Despite this, of course, some of these testimonies are absolutely devastating. Chronicling the way that Holiday and other Black artists were subjected to the shocking racism of America during the Jim Crow laws, interviewees describe Holiday's experiences ranging from club owners making her “darken” up her face to an actual brawl that broke out with a racist, white sheriff in the south. Using the truth of her voice and her ability to tell a story in song, Holiday's response to these injustices was with the powerful anthem “Strange Fruit,” which sadly remains just as timely and moving as ever, more than eighty years after it was recorded.

An eye-opening and engrossing overview of Holiday's life that will hopefully make you seek out, as I did, more information about the events and figures referenced in the film, while it's largely very successful from a narrative standpoint, occasionally, "Billie" struggles with its chronological presentation of facts. Hopscotching around to add new details about pivotal moments in Holiday's life that we wish we would've known earlier, this rings a particularly false note when, late into the movie, we jump awkwardly from one interviewee's analysis of her abusive relationships to the sudden revelation that she might've been raped as a child. While reflective of the way that Kuehl would've heard these confessions at various times throughout her decade-long research, I question the decision to save something so major for near the end of "Billie," particularly when it would've added a crucial counterpoint to the predominantly male recollections of her youth turning tricks, including an ex-pimp's testimony that his girls loved getting a black eye. 


Still, knowing that Billie Holiday was Kuehl's raison d'être, particularly in her final years, Erskine’s film pays fine tribute to her beloved subject and Kuehl's journalistic legacy overall. Working in a few facts about Holiday's biographer here and there, Erskine is smart to keep Kuehl's private life off the table until very late into the documentary, when we hear that she had been divorced twice, was perhaps romantically linked to one legendary interviewee, and had started to receive threats regarding that relationship and her book.

Although we would like to know more about her life and work, in her relative anonymity, Erskine taps into the link that not only Kuehl and Holiday share but many women and men do with the singer as well. Instead of openly philosophizing, he lets Kuehl's interviewees try to articulate it aloud when they discuss what they respond to most in Holiday's life and music. And while obviously, their words add vivid color to the black and white photographs utilized throughout, the most unforgettable hue of all comes not from them but Billie Holiday herself. We hear it in the heartbreaking lyrics she sings, the words she means, and the way she uses her instrument inimitably, unreservedly, and unmistakably to tell the truth, even when it hurts. 


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.