Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
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The concept and execution is very much of its time. (Other timely examples of comedy of manners include The Philadelphia Story and Trouble in Paradise.) The film featured all of MGM's biggest female stars: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Fontaine. The story focuses on Mary Haines (Shearer) a wealthy wife and mother who discovers that her husband is cheating on her with a perfume girl (Crawford). Mary then decides to divorce him, goes to Reno to get said divorce (since this is 1939), and the rest of the film features partner switching, infidelity, scandal, and intrigue as other female characters face the same issues as Mary and her daughter.
Though the casting gimmick makes for an interesting watch, and the film does focus on basic issues that women have, it's not revolutionary. The women all depend on men. Their issues all stem from men. Their livelihoods, interests, careers, and aspirations are constantly linked to the men around them, even though they are completely unseen. Even when the women are alone, men are their only obligation. Perhaps Clara Boothe Luce and screenwriter Anita Loos were trying to slipin some commentary about the lack of agency in women's lives. A more likely explanation is that executives thought a film solely about women wouldn't interest anyone unless it was solely about finding and keeping men.
The one scene that is supposedly solely intended just for women viewers is a fashion show, which is the only color section of the entire film. Director George Cukor hated it so much that he tried to have it cut from the film. It definitely feels forced and kind of patronizing, since the entire sequence is a lengthy 10 minutes, and it does nothing for the plot. It's as if the film doesn't trust women to be entertained by wit and humor, and decided we needed a palette cleanser, which is obviously ridiculous.
What the original has over all subsequent remakes is a sense of poise and sophistication. Norma Shearer wins because she is a woman of substance, who cannot be replaced by the sultry Joan Crawford. Shearer was clean and concise, and she was known as an actress for her historical roles up until the advent of Turner Classic Movies. Any remake is going to be subpar, because this is a film very much of its time, and we no longer possess the same views on sexuality, marriage, equality, or feminism that we did in the Depression era 1930s. Of course, this didn't stop the 2008 remake from happening.
Sick-lit has become a formidable genre of YA ever since the blockbuster success of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. It's spawned similar books, films, and television shows, and there's generally an element of romance attached. Some of these properties have been respectful of real diseases and disorders, but a lot have not been. I strongly feel that this may fall into the latter. I feel that books like this promote the idea that people with unique medical issues don't enjoy life as much, and their only option is either death or a flirtation with death. (This exact attitude made me throw my copy of Me Before You across the room). In the US every year, between 40-100 babies are diagnosed with SCID, which means that though this is a rare disorder, there are people out there living with it the best way they can, and they may not have the fancy equipment that our protagonist does. Using SCID for the purpose of melodrama is not only insensitive, but dangerous.
Putting aside my general disgust (which is overwhelming) it's just not a good story. Comparing again to The Fault in Our Stars, I can say this was not as interesting or candid. While Stars is also a story about being young and sick, and living life to the fullest, it's also honest. Gus is a character with issues, and those issues lend to succumbing and dying of cancer. John Green does not mess around. Instead of truly showing the effects and issues with SCID, this film blatantly twists the truth. This film posits that happiness stems from heath, romantic love, and freedom, three things that people with SCID will never have.
While I'm glad that this is an adaptation from a female penned book, directed by a woman of color, and starring a woman of color, I can't justify recommending this film. As much as I want to celebrate representation, I also don't want to promote exploitative melodrama. While I thought Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson did a lot with a little, and in the least they do try to explain SCID in an authentic way, it was not an enjoyable film. It was slow, overly ridiculous, and not really all that interesting. If you want something similar, again I tout Stars, as well as the Netflix film The Fundamentals of Caring, which centers on a paraplegic teenager who also wants to live life to the fullest. It doesn't pretend to understand human suffering, it's funny, and it has heart.
Heart is an undervalued commodity in filmmaking. Big films try to sneak it in, like they do humor and romance, but it always comes off as sloppy and insincere. In John Krasinski's second directorial effort The Hollars, heart is the base of this small yet thoughtful indie. Centering on a family coming together in the face of their mother's illness, the cast is quite talented, and up to the task of creating memorable and multifaceted characters.
Our main character is John (Krasinski) a stagnated graphic novelist who is called back home after his mother (Martindale) is found to have a brain tumor. He leaves behind his pregnant girlfriend (Kendrick) to find that his father's (Jenkins) business is close to bankruptcy, his brother (Copley) has lost his way with his ex-wife (Dyke) and kids, and John's ex-girlfriend (Winstead) wants him, while her husband (Day) hates his guts. It's a lot to take in and process, especially in a film with a short running time of 89 minutes. All these elements create a layered and intricate series of events that say a lot about John's character, a man who hides from his past, doesn't understand his future, and thinks he's failing everyone, including himself. The screenwriter is James C. Strouse, who also directed the highly entertaining People Places Things and The Incredible Jessica James. Strouse is great at melding the realism of family life, in all its complexities, and the humor of being a unique person thrown into unique circumstances.
Looking at the film critically, of course there are flaws. The film needs a lot more runtime to explain the backstories of the brothers, who leave a lot unsaid. The entire sequence with Mary Elizabeth Winstead could have been cut and we really wouldn't have lost anything. Having Anna Kendrick's character come from a rich family doesn't do anything for her character and doesn't truly move the story, except a single opportunity to show her morality. Other than that, she is two-dimensional and only serves to add to John's character arc. Other than these obvious points of contention, it's a sweet film that celebrates life, and hopefully Strouse will continue writing these films, because I will definitely keep watching them.
While Lorene Scafaria has only made one other film, she is one of my foremost favorite female and independent film directors. She writes relatable, funny, realistic characters who act on instinct and fellowship. Looking at the poster, I thought this was going to be a run-of-the-mill comedy about mothers and daughters not relating, a tired trope that often makes for ugly stereotypes and over-the-top acting (see The Guilt Trip). Through a beautiful cosmic set of circumstances the right people were cast, the story was told, and here we are with a radiant and relatable film.
While the poster suggests this story is all about mother-daughter relations, it actually centers on the mother, Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon). Marnie moves to Los Angeles from New York to be closer to her middle-aged daughter, Lori (Bryne) who finds her widowed mother to be meddling. When Lori has to go to the East Coast for work, Marnie has to find her own way, eventually becoming a powerful force in strangers' lives. Throughout the film Marnie is gracious and giving, though guilty about her large inheritance from her dead husband. Along the way she also learns to love again and that her energies can help any number of people. With a great supporting cast (including J.K. Simmons, Cecily Strong, and Jerrod Carmichael) this story is both perplexingly original and yet familiar, like the feel of a worn terrycloth robe.
Scafaria related in interviews that a lot of Marnie's character came from her own mother, a widow from New Jersey who has since followed her talented daughter on her press tours for this film. It makes sense that there is an authenticity to the character, because Marnie feels like all our mothers: a little judgmental, pretty outspoken, and loves and supports you in every single possible way. The only thing that detracts from the plot is the constant moving between both coasts. It somewhat confuses the story, lends to disambiguation about Lori's relationship with her ex, Jacob (Ritter), and slows the action. I know we switch so Marnie is confronted with what she has do to with her husband's ashes, and it lends to a better understanding of her life before she moved to LA, but the best parts of the story take place in LA. Otherwise, I thought this entire film was a wonderful surprise, and that Scafaria should continue making personal, entertaining films such as this.