Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Half of It, How to Build a Girl, plus suggestions for TCM cable offerings and other cinematic topics

Teenage Girls: Focus on Today or Tomorrow?

Reviews by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) when they’re supportive or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) when they go negative.
                          The Half of It (Alice Wu)   rated PG-13
                How to Build a Girl (Coky Giedroyc)   rated R

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Given some closer similarities in the movies reviewed this week than even the conniving cons (Bad Education) and disgraceful CIA-black-ops (The Report) presented in semi-parallel-fashion in my previous posting, I’ll attempt something I haven’t done for awhile which is to blend the comments in our spotlight into one flow, noting their rich similarities (and notable differences) rather than separating them into individual commentaries.  Only because one movie addresses a more-limited-situation in terms of environment and events, I’ll begin with The Half of It below, then weave in How to Build a Girl as circumstances dictate.  The Half … takes place in a fictional Washington state town where 3 high-school seniors end up in an interesting romantic triangle none of them anticipated working out the way it did when the story starts.  Ellie Chu, in the U.S. from China since she was 5, sees little option for her life, assuming she’ll attend local college in order to keep helping her widowed father (Mom died when Ellie was 13, both still miss her terribly), but a fumble-mouthed-jock recruits her to help him woo the most desirable girl at Squahamish High, although he doesn’t realize Ellie (a quiet lesbian) has her eyes on Aster as well.  Meanwhile, in How to Build a Girl, downscale, mid-country England in the 1990s another self-defeated-teenage-girl surprisingly gets a chance to make something of herself as a band critic for a London rock magazine, which results in a changed personality (not for the better but considerably more outgoing) stirring up unneeded-negativity toward her subjects just to honor the publication’s cynical intentions.  Both of these movies are quite delightful, honest about the difficulties young people face in trying to fit into their cultures, easy to find with the former on Netflix streaming, the latter available on Amazon Prime for $5.99.  In the Short Takes section this week I’ll offer my usual suggestions for some worthwhile choices on the Turner Classic Movies channel (but too much text for full-line-justified-layout like this, at least to be done by this burned-out-BlogSpot-posting-guy—tedious software!) along with my usual dose of industry-related-trivia, so let us begin.

Here are the trailers:
                   (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate 
                   that same button or use the “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: As with those reviews of Bad Education and The Report, I’ll begin with the smaller-context-story because The Half of It is localized to the fictitious town of Squahamish, somewhere out in Washington state (seemingly the less-trendy eastern half [sorry, residents, I’m following stereotypes here about Seattle-area vs. everything else, just as the movie does] given our characters’ sense of isolation) while How to Build a Girl begins in the equally-maligned-midlands of England, far from metropolitan London, but then takes on a larger scope as our protagonist becomes a nationally-known-entity by writing for a music magazine.  So, onward to Squahamish, where 17-year-oild Ellie Chu’s (Leah Lewis) nearing high-school-graduation with seemingly no friends, no life beyond the classroom and watching movies (Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942], City Lights [Charlie Chaplin, 1931], His Girl Friday [Howard Hawks, 1940]) on TV with her father, Edwin Chu (Collin Chou), who immigrated with his (now-deceased) wife and daughter from China to the U.S. when Ellie was very young, has settled for a mediocre job regulating trains running through town on a daily basis (despite having a Ph.D. in engineering [no, not driving  a train], but he couldn’t use his skills in this country because his English is poor [he and Ellie often converse in Mandarin]), leaving Ellie deciding to stay home after high-school, attend the local college rather than apply to rigorous, prestigious Grinnell in Iowa (despite encouragement from both Dad and English teacher Mrs. Geselschap [Becky Ann Baker]), assuming she needs to care for reclusive Edwin, as well as feeling love is useless, life is irrational (learned from reading Camus).  Constantly teased by idiotic classmates (who call her “Chugga Chugga Chu Chu”), Ellie does her best to recede into the background—although she’s the pianist up in the choir loft at her local church (Catholic, it seems to me, based on my former years of experience)—with the main connection to others in the school being her willingness to write essays for them at a certain price per page.  Her life changes, though, when local-minor-league-jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) asks for her help in writing would-be-love-letters to dream-girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), despite her already being involved with self-assured quarterback Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz), who takes their connection for granted.  The hidden complication here is Ellie’s a closeted-lesbian who also has the hots for Aster but, given everything else she already has to deal with (there seem to be no other Asians of any nationality in this town) she’s not about to go public with that secret.  Ellie’s talent as a writer comes through easily to Aster (who’s quite well-read, interested in the arts herself), even leads to the 2 girls painting messages on a public wall (Aster thinking her correspondent is Paul), but when the indirect communication finally leads to a date she’s surprised as how tongue-tied, largely oblivious he seems to be.  Ellie assumes her deal with Paul is done (although she charged him only for the first letter to get the $50 needed to pay the family electric bill), but when he defends her against some school bullies she agrees to keep working with him, essentially becoming a friend in the process (Paul can easily talk with Ellie, feeling no pressure, rambles on about his family's sausage business).

 Meanwhile—OK, I admit, we not only have to cross the Atlantic to get to Johanna Morrigan’s (Beanie Feldstein) story but we also have to drop back to the 1990s because her much-more-public-adventure’s adapted from screenwriter Caitlin Moran's semi-autobiographical-novel, also named How to Build a Girl,* about her teenage years, which somewhat parallel what we see in this movie (Moran’s now based in London, writes for The Times, has won numerous awards) with its location in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, England.  Unlike Moran, though, who has 4 sisters and 3 brothers, Johanna’s siblings are all boys; one, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), she sort of shares a bedroom with (a wall’s been built to divide it), the others are all quite young, including baby twins who keep Mom Angie (Sarah Solemen) in an exhausted state while Dad Pat (Paddy Considine) doesn’t do much except reminisce about his days as a rock drummer.  Johanna’s shy (like Ellie—or maybe we could say our Washington girl's just withdrawn, frustrated with the world), doesn’t see much future for herself even at a mere 16, generally gets advice from the huge photo-collage on her wall of people she admires who come alive in her mind (Sigmund Freud [Michael Sheen], Sylvia Plath [Lucy Punch], Julia Andrews [Gemma Arterton] as Maria von Trapp, Elizabeth Taylor [Lily Allen], the Brontë sisters Emily [Sue Perkins] and Charlotte [Mel Giedroyc], Karl Marx [Alexei Sayle] among others), but they don’t really help her all that much break out of her self-restrained-existence (unlike Dad, who never seems to have met a challenge he couldn’t handle … except by taking actual action), although her dreams of being a writer do lead to being a finalist in a regional poetry competition where she's required to read her work on live TV; it goes badly, though, due to her nervousness (her low self-image, just like Ellie’s, comes back to haunt her at this point because she has little to show for her life thus far—unlike Ellie’s consistent academic success, even if it gains her no respect from her peers; likewise, Johanna gets no encouragement from anyone except old Dad).

*I initially had some qualms about referring to Ellie, Johanna, or any females in their age group as “girls” because a feminist academic colleague once told me that when a girl begins menstruation she becomes a woman.  I can see an ideological/sociological/maybe even biological argument for this position, but as an old man (72 and counting) I still find nothing so bad about calling a female teenager a “girl” (or a male teen a "boy"), especially after many of my 18-23ish Mills College students referred to themselves that way, as does Moran regarding Johanna in her screenplay regarding how this precocious teen abruptly transformed her persona before reaching potential-college-age (Moran herself’s had little formal education, yet at age 37 [2012] she became a Fellow of the University of Aberystwyth, Wales, based on her many, varied media-accomplishments]).  By the way, The Half ...'s also inspired by real-life-events, the childhood/teenage years of screenwriter-director Wu—as gay as her main character—although she grew up in my San Francisco Bay area (born in 1970 in San Jose where I lived in the mid-‘80s), not in some rural location like in her movie.

 Not only is Johanna’s performance quite flat as she reads her own work, she also turns her jitters into goofy behavior, in the process noting the poem’s about her dog, Bianca, a border collie, admitting Dad’s got a black-market-business in raising/selling such pups, a violation of being on the government dole so officials soon come to their home to confiscate the TV.  Johanna and Ellie are both about to make an impact as writers, though, the former by submitting a review to a London music magazine holding a competition for a new critic, the latter by rescuing Paul on his second, heading-again-for-disaster date with Aster as she watches them through the window of a booth in a diner where she makes contact with him via texting to the cell phone in his lap.  Ellie’s quickly to the rescue with some witty banter to Aster’s phone, which leaves the impression the text came from Paul so she texts back.  (To illustrate how desperately out of time and fashion I am, I can’t even imagine going on a date with a live phone in my lap, let alone carry on a conversation using such devices with a person I’m sitting across from, about 3 feet away [decades prior to coronavirus-social-distancing]; however, times change, this seems to be a norm now—at least at the age of these kids—so they take it all in stride with Aster still a bit unsatisfied with how little Paul knows about literature or art even as she’s taken with “his” personality, so she continues to share letters/texts with him as this story progresses. [I’ll also admit I’m impressed teens this young today would even consider writing actual letters to each other instead of just texting/Instagraming/etc., but it’s nice to see it, even just as a fictional practice in this movie; I’ll also admit my complete lack of knowledge about how texting works because if Ellie’s sending messages to Aster as if she’s Paul, then Aster’s replying directly to him, I don’t get how Ellie’s using/reading Paul’s account, but I’ll again accept this as a viable option in modern technology—although it seems dangerous to me if such usages can actually occur—or at least as an efficient, effective plot device]).*  That night Paul and Aster kiss even though he has little hope of prying her away from Trig; later, there’s a school talent show where Trig and Aster are a bit hit but Ellie surprises everyone by singing a sad, original song, accompanying herself on guitar, with a nice response from the audience (How to … also features an important sad song; we’ll get to that just below as Johanna’s story moves forward a bit).

*Within this diner scene the soundtrack nicely uses Gordon Lightfoot’s "If You Could Read My Mind" (on his 1970 Sit Down Young Stranger album, inspired at the time by his recent divorce), which I considering for my Musical Metaphor for The Half …, but then other options came to me, discussed during closure of my Bottom Line Final Comments section farther down in this posting.

 Ellie’s story will take a significant turn beginning the night of the talent show, but for now let’s traipse back in time, changing locations again as brother Krissi tells mortified Johanna about an option of both pursuing her writing dreams and salvaging her standing with the family by entering another contest, this one by a London-based music magazine, D&ME, to join the staff as a rock critic, so she gives it a try (however, despite Dad’s supposed-influence, she knows next-to-nothing about these types of tunes so—as the old-encouragement-chestnut goes—she writes what she knows, a review of Annie, hoping her own “sun will come out tomorrow.”She waits for awhile with no response, then summons her courage to take a train into the big city, finds the magazine’s headquarters, goes in to ask what’s become of her entry, is told they didn’t respond because they thought she sent it as a joke given it has no connection to what their content’s about.  At first she leaves, humiliated again, goes into a fetal position under the sinks in a restroom, too ashamed to know what to do next when suddenly she gets inspiration from a wall poster talking to her so she storms back into the office, makes a pushy pitch for herself, gets a chance to review a regional-punk-rock-band in Birmingham, Manic Street Preachers.  Dad drives her to the gig in their rickety van; she’s truly enthusiastic about the music; her review’s published; now she wants to do a feature interview so (after a dubious moment when editor Tony Rich [Frank Dillane] tells her to sit on his leg, so she does but bounces up and down with enough fake enthusiasm he’d never try that again) she’s sent off to Dublin for a session with John Kite (Alfie Allen), a guy with a decent level of fame singing sad songs who’s so impressed with her naivety (also declines his offer of cigarettes and booze, although her wardrobe’s become a bit more sexy) he shows her around the city, notes her at his concert, says privately these songs emerge from a lingering melancholy over his mother’s death.

 She’s immediately besotted with him, writes a gushy interview which the magazine easily rejects although his poster-image encourages her, walks her home that night.  Between her focus on this new, struggling career (writing as Dolly Wilde) and an increasing interest in the music scene her schoolwork suffers, so she decides she needs a change, follows the magazine’s attitude of being cynical about most performers so only about 20 get any praise, leading to her snide reviews becoming popular, bringing some income home for the family; this leads to Dad selling the van to finance his own long-delayed-record, but when it’s part of the staff's new-releases-evaluations they all hate it so much they have Johanna destroy it as if it were a clay “pigeon” in a skeet shoot.  From this point her career continues upward as she leaves school, starts downing any stimulant she can find, becomes a sex addict, turns hostile toward her parents as being beneath her new fame (when the magazine gives her its Arshhole of the Year award at a huge event, then a regular staff position).

 Johanna sees John Kite again, admits her love, but when he doesn’t reciprocate she writes a nasty exposé of his personal revelations.  From this public-high/personal-low point for her, let’s shift back to Ellie.  Unlike Johanna, who went on a binge of ingesting everything she could get her hands (or vagina) on, Ellie (like earlier Johanna, a non-drinker) only needed one night as Paul’s guest at the talent-show-after-party to get wasted, pass out, so he takes her to his home, puts her in his bed in the basement to sleep it off.  Next morning, Aster comes to see Paul, finds Ellie instead (indicating Paul had no intention of molesting his unconscious friend, just as—I assume—he took her to his house rather than her home so Dad wouldn’t see her like this [besides, Paul and Edwin have bonded over sausages, especially the kid’s love of sausage tacos], reminding me of Johanna spending the night with Kite, her in his bed, him on the couch).  So the girls chat, meet later with Aster’s suggestion they go to the woods where they float in the lake, talk intimately.  ⇒At this point, though, everything unravels because after Paul has had a great night at a football game when he inadvertently gets the ball, shockingly scores a touchdown (his school’s first points in 15 years!), he realizes his attraction for Ellie.  Paul kisses her, Aster sees them and walks away, hurt; yet, as Ellie rejects Paul he realizes she’s attracted to Aster, which he says is a sin (Ellie counters with not believing in God, despite her participation at mass); next thing you know, they’re all at a church service presided over by Aster’s father, Deacon Flores (Enrique Murciano)—another clue this is a Catholic congregation because as priestly vocations fall off (or priests are carted off for violating young parishioners) deacons have taken on some clerical duties when no priest is in residence—where Trig proposes to Aster to the attendees’ general delight until Paul and Ellie each speak up, destroying the moment, with Aster realizing Ellie wrote Paul’s letters so she leaves in a huff.  As it all wraps up, Ellie’s off to Grinnell, apologizes to Aster for the deception; Aster admits she may be attracted to Ellie but she’s going to art school; Ellie kisses her, says they’ll meet up in a couple of years; Paul comes with Ellie to the station, chases after her train, to Ellie’s amusement, as it’s “chugga chugga choo-chooing” away (Ellie told us via voiceover at the start “This not a love story where everyone gets what they want”).  Back in England over 20 years ago Johanna has a change of heart when she’s at a magazine party, overhears her “colleagues” say, despite her successful vicious streak, she’s still just some chubby hick from the sticks they can easily laugh at.  I’d say her new transformation’s a bit hasty (although, time’s running out on this 102 min. movie), but she goes into overdrive to make up for past sins (after an accident sends her to the hospital where she bonds with her family again), calling all 133 bands she wrote negative reviews about, apologizing to each one, followed by an application to another London publication where she’s hired by editor Amanda Watson (Emma Thompson) for a column, with a final direct apology to John Kite who forgives her, says he wants to be friends as she gives him a chunk from her dyed-red-hair as a peace offering.⇐

So What? While I’m now decades away from high-school (thank heavens; despite having many good memories of my senior year I do wonder sometimes how anyone truly survives the mandatory trauma of that period of our lives), can only get a sense of what that must be like today (with vast differences, of course, for everyone, depending on the various geographic/demographic/economic characteristics of where any school’s located), as I observed the younger college students I worked with at Mills (Oakland, CA) during the more recent of my decades, I can assume from The Half of It that certain things don’t change much (although director Wu’s direct experiences are in the past also, in the mid-1990s [about when Johanna’s story takes place], so maybe she’s speculating a bit as well about the current scene), but I’ll bet the shy/ridiculed kids, the egotistical/self-assured jocks/faction leaders, the love-struck-but-socially-clumsy-goofballs, and the desirable-yet-mostly-unattainable-lust-objects haven’t changed much over the years, so what we get in The Half … still feels very relatable to me in many ways but not nearly as much as for an Asian-American lesbian (neither realm can I claim any experience with) so it’s nice to watch a response (10:03) by Christina Xing, another Chinese girl growing up in an almost-all-White-school who watched a lot of movies for escape, exploring why she sees this movie as “a[n] underrated masterpiece that made me cry a lot,” with great attention to details, challenges to the Model Minority Myths about Asian-Americans.

 It also sets out to explore an ancient Greek myth cited by Wu in her animated opening (see the second item about this movie in the Related Links section farther below)—enhanced throughout by a collection of philosophers’ quotes—where humans were first created with 4 arms, 4 legs, 2 faces all on 1 body with such inner satisfaction the gods were concerned about losing our attention so they split us in half, putting us into an eternal quest for reuniting with our lost selves, part of the allusion of the title, along with the phrase “You don’t know the half of it,” referring to how someone’s situation/concerns/needs can rarely be fully understood by anyone else, but Wu does want us to understand her inspiration to become a screenwriter/filmmaker from an English teacher, Mrs. Geselschap, at Los Altos High (who died in 2006 but comes back in fictional form here).  Johanna Morrigan, avatar of Caitlin Moran, was more determined than Ellie to put her writing skills to work as a strategy of transcending her own working-class-environment, but her unlikely success as a teenager determining the careers of (aspiring, at least) professional musicians would have seemed a fictional stretch for me (although still useful within its morality-tale-context) had I not read up some on Moran’s actual accomplishments as well as being aware of another teen-turned-critic, Cameron Crowe, whose fictionalized exploits on the road with rock bands in the early ‘70s for Rolling Stone were well-rendered in his Almost Famous (2000), Patrick Fugit as alter-ego-William Miller trying to maintain objectivity while being seduced by the hedonistic life of fame and personal attachments to musicians.  With these encouragements I can now more fully appreciate How to … as Johanna struggles with these issues about fitting into a culture she’s fascinated by, not yet fully prepared for.

Bottom Line Final Comments: While The Half of It is available for streaming on Netflix (still offering a 30-day-free-trial, which I encourage you to consider because a good number of decent offerings have emerged there in these past few weeks when my review choices have been on a TV screen rather than in a theater), How to Build a Girl actually played in 6 domestic (U,S.-Canada) venues last weekend taking in total box-office-returns of $13,201 (I imagine it would prove quite popular in the U.K. given Moran’s fame there [among other achievements, in 2014 she was named by the BBC as one of Britain’s most influential women], but apparently there’s been no theatrical release yet outside of North America); it’s more available on Amazon Prime for $5.99 (not one of their films available for a 30-day-free-trial), a dollar cheaper than on some other platforms.  I found both of these movies to be quite delightful, although not at a level above 3½ stars (Nina disagrees with me on How to Build a Girl, liking it even more, so it could well be it might appeal to either females more than [at least some of us] males or maybe a younger audience than we are, considering the pounding musical styles of much of what we get to sample in this movie, except for Kite’s quiet, soulful song at that performance Johanna attended in Dublin, apparently written by Alfie Allen according to the second item connected to this title in the Related Links section—that might have been a consideration for a Musical Metaphor for this movie [just like Lightfoot’s song for The Half …], but I’m happy enough with what I did choose, elaborated for you just below).  The CCAL is quite enthusiastic about The Half of It, with Rotten Tomatoes analysts giving a whopping 96% trove of positive reviews although the folks at Metacritic could muster only a 73% average score (pretty much in the normal range for their positive numbers of cinematic offerings both they and I have rated of 2020 releases) while the enthusiasm for How to Build a Girl was also supportive but for slightly-less-impact with RT at 80% positive reviews, MC a 70% average score.  (So my 3½ of 5 [70%] is right in line with the Metacrtics for both of these films, which has frequently been the case so far this year as my stars ratings have often been lower than RT’s binary “yes/no” decision as even a lot of marginal support pushes their numbers into the 80-90% realm with my 3-to-4 stars-decisions not gathering such a high percentage, but when your numbers are based on “why” rather than a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice [somewhat arbitrary by the RT staff in some cases based on what I’ve read in the actual reviews] it’s often difficult for something I’m quite pleased with [therefore, 4 stars or 80%] to get into those higher RT realms because I firmly hold back my prized 4½-or-5 stars-prizes for those select few groundbreaking achievements, which you can see the scarce results of at our Summary of Two Guys reviews; however, if you just want more details on how these particular movies from this posting were explored by the RT and/or MC critics you’ll find specifics for both in Related Links as you scroll down [our Reviews Summary's always there too].)

 Now to that long-awaited Musical Metaphor chosen to bring closure to this elongated analysis (my usual tactic for all reviews, just to give you a bit of an aural-enhancement to whatever else has transpired in my [breathtaking?] prose); this time, given the 2 movies were swirled into 1 review I’ll offer just 1 official Metaphor (but, stay tuned for enhancements to the enhancement), Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (from his superb 1966 Blonde on Blonde album) at https://www., an epic tune (11:22, all of disc 2, side 2 of the original vinyl release; this video has the lyrics also, below Bob's picture) which clearly was written for new-wife Sara Lownds (they married 3 months prior to the recording/release of the song) but, to me, also has resonances for the 2 protagonists under consideration here.  In reference to Ellie, I see connections (metaphorical as they might be) in lyrics such as With your mercury mouth in the missionary times And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes Oh, who among them do they think could bury you? With your pockets well protected at last And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass Who among them do they think could carry you? Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes”; of course, in her case, Ellie was waiting for no man,” but the mood and tempo of this song clearly relate to her melancholy sense of self, her assumption Aster would never even consider being her dream girl, probably no one would put their “warehouse eyes [and] Arabian drums […] by [her] gate,” because “sad-eyed lady,” they’ll just “wait” forever.  Yes, she perks up as the story unfolds, but up until this point in her lonely 17 years she’s mostly just felt like a “deck of cards missing the jack and the ace.”  Then we come to Johanna who needs to totally reinvent  herself to be able to shake such personal insecurities (despite the pep-talks from the collage of photos on her wall) as her wide-eyed-innocence is holding her back from finding traction in a cynical world: “And your gentleness now, which you just can't help but show Who among them do you think would employ you? Now you stand with your thief, you're on his parole With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you? Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes.” (For Johanna, though, plenty of men “cameas she was building herself into a snotty slut, but ultimately she re-evaluated herself as she began to understand that even though with her “cowboy mouth and [her] curfew plugs Who among them do you think could resist you?” she wasn’t being fulfilled by this grim life of negative-excess.)

 Both of our young protagonists will keep moving on to older versions of young adulthood where neither will need anyone to “show [them] the dead angels that they used to hide,” but for now they also find peace that neither of them no longer needs anyone to “ever, ever persuade you” of what to desire, how viable it may be to achieve it, how even with big-city/more-prestigious dreams they can still find present value in their far-from-trendiness-hometowns before moving on, never (hopefully) again needing to be “sad-eyed-ladies of the lowlands”* wherever they may next choose to habitate.
*Some (even Bob in 1966), say this is Dylan’s best song, to which I often agree (although his recent Internet release, "Murder Most Foul" [17:00; lyrics on the video] inspired by the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the following years into the present is hard to put in second place), but another contender for me, also on Blonde on Blonde, is “Visions of Johanna,” a constant standard of pop-poetic-excellence for both me and my wife, Nina, if for no other reason than the line “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face” (Nina would likely listen to this song a dozen times in a row just to keep hearing that—OK, I would too), so I’ll return to this landmark album to honor this week’s protagonists once more with, obviously "Visions ..." (again, lyrics below the video screen) dedicated to Ms. Morrigan, whose media presence was once quite compelling but has been transformed in the public eye: “And Madonna, she still has not showed We see this empty cage now corrode Where her cape of the stage once had flowed  […] The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.”  But, let’s not forget Ellie, who also deserves a final recognition from Blonde …, which I’ll make a bit more upbeat in order to acknowledge her inner desires which don’t get to be publicized like Johanna’s rock-critic-career, with "I Want You" (of course, lyrics beneath Bob's photo), a song almost screaming compared to Ellie’s mutterings about unbridled passion, even if it’s yet to be reciprocated, generally in this context about Ellie’s desire for Aster but also Aster’s even-more-restrained (at first) response toward Elle (as Miss Popularity begins to re-examine her own priorities [certainly, Paul’s interest in both Aster and Ellie factors into these lyrics as well if you need to maintain the male voice of the original singer; however, I’m much more interested in hearing it from the girls’ perspective, so the “she” could be either Ellie or Aster]): “She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her She is good to me And there’s Nothing she doesn’t see She knows where I’d like to be But it doesn’t matter I want you, I want you I want you so bad Honey, I want you.”  At some point, about something or someone, we all have felt that want; when fate falls in the right direction “to open up the gate” we celebrate; until then, though, with the sad-eyed-ladies (and men) we “wait,” hoping for better days.
Suggestions for TCM cablecasts
At least until the pandemic subsides Two Guys also want to encourage you to consider movies you might be interested in that don’t require subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, similar Internet platforms (we may well be stuck inside for longer than those 30-day free initial offers), or premium-tier-cable-TV-fees.  While there are a good number of video networks offering movies of various sorts (mostly broken up by commercials), one dependable source of fine cinematic programming is Turner Classic Movies (available in lots of basic-cable-packages) so I’ll be offering suggestions of possible choices for you running from Thursday afternoon of the current week (given that I usually get this blog posted by early Thursday mornings) on through Thursday morning of the following week.  All times are U.S. Eastern Daylight so if you see something of interest please verify actual show time in your area for the day listed.  These recommendations are particular favorites (no matter what time they’re on, although some early-day-ones might need to be recorded, watched later), but there’s considerably more to pick from on TCM; feel free to peruse their entire schedule.

Friday, May 15, 2020

9:45 AM Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962) Based on the famous/infamous novel by Vladimir Nabokov this adaptation walks a careful line for its release time concerning the obsession of a middle-aged man (James Mason) for a teenager (Sue Lyon) to the point of marrying her mother (Shelly Winters) just to be near the girl, while an even-more nefarious guy (Peter Sellers) lurks in the shadows.  Sellers provides useful comic relief, Kubrick dodges the censors.

2:30 PM A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954) James Mason again, this time as alcoholic fading movie star Norman Maine serving as a mentor for aspiring star Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) who rises to fame even as Norman’s career and life sink further.  For me, this is the best of the 4 versions of this story (1937 one wasn’t a musical) with Garland’s great rendition of “The Man That Got Away.”

5:30 PM North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) One of Hitchcock’s top achievements (that’s saying a lot) about a case of mistaken-identity gone terribly wrong as ad executive Roger Thornhill (Gary Grant) is thought to be a U.S. spy, hunted by thugs working for a foreign agent (evil James Mason this time).  A marvelous collage of great scenes including the crop-duster-in-the-cornfield; also stars Eve Marie Saint, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau.

10:00 PM Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) Robert Mitchum’s a rapist/ex-con on the hunt for the lawyer (Gregory Peck) responsible for sending him away with threats to his wife (Polly Bergen) and daughter (Lori Martin) in the process, more rape and murder as the story develops (intense for its time of release).  Martin Balsam and Telly Savalis round out the main names in the cast.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

8:00 PM The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1927) Considered by film historians as one of the greatest of silent films (no worries, soundtrack and intertitles included) with Keaton as a Confederate railroad engineer during the Civil War when his prized train, The General, is stolen by Union forces so he gives chase.  With our contemporary special effects unavailable when a bridge collapses, destroying a train, that’s all grandly-authentic.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

8:00 PM The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985) For those not boycotting Allen’s films over his personal life, this is one of his best, a sort of pop-metaphysical-tale contrasting the grim reality of 1935 Depression and a woman (Mia Farrow) with a lousy husband (Danny Aiello), losing herself in the glamour of watching movies until one day a character (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen to romance her, creating an existential crisis for everyone involved.

 Monday, May 18, 2020

10:00 AM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulin, 1932) Early talkie version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel with Frederick March as both the doctor who experiments with releasing his evil persona and the resulting human-demon he liberates, followed by the horrors this emergent personality wreaks on his life (the 1941 version’s more overtly Freudian).  March and Wallace Berry (The Champ) both won Best Actor Oscars that year, only tie in that category ever.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

9:15 AM Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) Creepy psychological horror tale about the physical/mental torments a long-ago child star (Bette Davis), now a mentally-ill alcoholic, inflicts on her older, paraplegic sister (Joan Crawford) who was once on her way to a more successful career.  Screen icons at their bitchy best, Oscar for B&W Costume Design, shades of Sunset Boulevard and Psycho, so be warned.

3:30 PM Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948) Masterful but slimmed-down version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece (still runs 155 min.—only Kenneth Branagh included the entire play [1996], his version running 242 min.), Oscar winner for Best Picture, Actor (Olivier), B&W Art Direction-Set Decoration, B&W Costume Design. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” for sure so what’s our conflicted prince going to do about it (you might repeatedly ask)?

If you’d like to have a PDF of ratings/summaries of this week's reviews, suggestions for TCM cablecasts, links to Two Guys info click this link to access then save, print, or whatever you need.

Other Cinema-Related Stuff: In quick fashion, here are some other items you might be interested in: (1) Will Christopher Nolan's Tenet be able to revive theater attendance if it does open on July 17, 2020?; (2) AMC Theaters stock soars on speculation of being acquired by Amazon; (3) UK Theaters won't open before July 4, 2020 (also contains list of domestic theater chains still closed); (4) In late May/early June some major film festivals including Cannes and Sundance will stream some of their films for free.  As usual for now I’ll close out these TCM Suggestions and Other Cinema-Related Stuff sections with Joni Mitchell’s song, "Big Yellow Taxi" (from her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon album)—because “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”—and a reminder you can search streaming/rental/purchase movie options at JustWatch.  

Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about The Half of It: (10:09 exploration of the movie’s opening sequence of foundational concepts and animation by writer-director Alice Wu) 

Here’s more information on How to Build a Girl (21:07 interview with director Coky Giedroyc actors, Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, screenwriter Caitlin Moran, and producers Alison Owen, Bonnie-Chance Roberts)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game" offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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