James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
James Clay // Film Critic
GRACE OF MY HEART
One of the great joys of reviewing blu rays from boutique labels is the sense of discovery watching sleepers from decades past. Many of these movies are forgotten, or never found their audience and were resigned to cable. GRACE OF MY HEART is only a movie I’d personally barely had heard of despite its recognizable cast and the notary signature given to a film when Martin Scorsese serves as producer.
The 1996 musical drama directed by Allison Anders (FOUR ROOMS) and starring Illeana Douglas, Matt Dillon, John Turturro is a fairly inventive film that takes the A STAR IS BORN template and funnels it through woman’s perspective. But for real Bradley Cooper lifted some inspiration from many of the beats and one specific character for his version. GRACE OF MY HEART is made with passion and intellect that speaks to the audience through nostalgia, dreaming, but most importantly finding your own voice.
Heiress Edna Buxton is a talented singer in the late 1950s Philadelphia who wants to escape the trappings of a controlling mother sets out on her own to make a name for herself in an industry that’s just not hiring any women singers because male groups are what’s on the top of the pops at the moment. She runs into two-bit producer Joel (an endearing John Tuturro) and he gives her a gig writing songs and a zippy new name. Now known as Denise Waverly, Edna starts to discover who she is through life, love with two men (Stoltz and Dillon) and many mistakes that never can break her stride.
GRACE OF MY HEART is a beautiful story that shows respect for the creative process, friendships between women in a male dominated field would rather have them competing than coming together. Anders directs the film with a vision that’s traditional, but not cheesy despite the doo-wop music that’s admittedly pretty grating for a good portion of the film. Douglas carries the film with an easy confidence that’s smooth and welcoming. This is the kind of period piece that feels authentic from soup to nuts, from he technical aspects and costumes, to the earnest tone employed by Anders. GRACE OF MY HEART hits the high note where many schmaltzy musicals fall off key.
RENT OR BUY: Well this release doesn’t come with a O-shaped slipcover that make some of the Studio Classics line an instant buy, but GRACE OF MY HEART is just that good. Plus, the special features and accompanying documentary provides context to what Anders and Douglas are trying to create. Give it a shot, you’re heart won’t regret it.
Audio Commentary by Director/Writer Allison Anders | The Idea Becomes a Movie: Making-of Doc | Deleted Scenes | Theatrical Trailer | 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Lossless Audio | Dual-Layered BD50 Disc | Optional English Subtitles
THE LOST WEEKEND
Billy Wilder is one of the greats, and part of the reason he had such a long career as a film director were the scripts were good, the themes were poignant and he was able to relate to his audience while subverting expectations. A true artist of classic Hollywood, many great things have been said about the director and this review of his Oscar Best Picture winning film THE LOST WEEKEND won’t be any exception. This drama starring Ray Milland (DIAL “M” FOR MURDER) is an opening into the mind of a writer with a healthy drinking problem and the pitiful wit to talk his enablers to keep the tab open.
THE LOST WEEKEND kind of reminds me of many modern day independent dramas that work as an artistic statement, yet work on a populist level and attract awards campaigns, think movies like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, or SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. But really THE LOST WEEKEND has more in common with Steve McQueen’s 2011 brutally honest portrayal of sex addiction SHAME, each of these films by master filmmakers dissect American excess with an incisive attitude towards potions that are used to make us feel “good.” Both are tough sits, yet supremely rewarding.
Milland plays Don Birnam, a failed writer in his mid 30s that doesn’t feel like he’s lived up to his potential; the American dream has let him down numerous times and even a victory over the Axis in WW2 can’t save his ego. To quote Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS “he’s hammering in nails half way.”
He’s enabled by his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and has been serious with Helen (Jane Wyman) for over three years. It’s his ego that has led him to this point and it looks like he’s past the point of saving. To quote Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS “he’s hammering in nails half way.”
Wilder’s film holds up remarkably well with dry wit, and authenticity that puts the audience in lock step with a sad sack’s state of mind. It’s not a fun place to be, but it sure is enlightening.
RENT OR BUY: THE LOST WEEKEND Is no doubt an excellent movie it’s just not one I can imagine many people will want to rewatch over and over. If you’re having an addiction film festival pair it with TRAINSPOTTING, or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, just makes sure once it’s over to get a dose of serotonin if possible. This release from Kino Lorber is worth a purchase and has a great commentary track I checked out for a bit.
Brand New 4K Master | Audio Commentary by Film Historian Joseph McBride | Radio Adaptation | TRAILERS FROM HELL with Mark Pellington | Theatrical Trailer | Dual-Layered BD50 Disc | Optional English Subtitles
MAD MAX started as just another film within the (now legendary) Australian New Wave directed by a part-time ER doctor before morphing into a phenomenon that completely revolutionized modern movies forever. The grimy post-apocalyptic tale is more than a revved engine and revenge. It’s a story about how trauma can affect society. The things we see stilt our worldview, and the heinous things that happen under the surface will haunt us forever…also, it’s just a great car chase movie with precise direction.
The 1979 film made (for better or worse) Australian actor Mel Gibson into an international star the world over and is still celebrated with a crisp 4K disc being released this month.
The world is starting to crumble, and the only thing standing in the way of lethal motorcycle gangs taking over the Aussie Outback are the Main Force Police (MFP) and their secret weapon Max Rockatansky (Gibson). The film opens with a pulsing 12 minutes long cold open when a supercharged black muscle car house by the Nightrider barrels through a small town, wreaking havoc and nearly killing a child. The incredible scene showcases what Miller would be known for, culminating with MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. The endless dusty days patrolling the highway have worn down Max who wants nothing more than to settle down with his wife and their little child, only known as “Sprog.” However, Max’s insatiable appetite to protect the world he once loved drives him to be known as the one and only Mad Max.
Miller’s directorial debut isn’t just known for its car chases and Gibson; the director made a film filled with a signature visual language and villains that are flat out terrifying. His creation and collaboration with actor Hugh Keays-Byrne as the ravenously charismatic Toecutter and horrifying Immortan Joe (FURY ROAD) became low-key, just as iconic as the action the series has been known for the past 40 years.
RENT OR BUY: MAD MAX was worthy of the 4K treatment, and upon comparison, the transfer is a stark upgrade from the blu ray version. Filled with colors and crisp images, the viewing experience has never been so immersive. Plus, there are some retro special features on the blu ray disc that make for some good throwback viewing. The real highlight of the special features slate is a comprehensive 30-minute interview with director George Miller that was filmed just for this release. Additionally, the artwork and slip cover makes for some fantastic shelf jewelry (to quote my editor Preston Barta) for any fan of the series.
All of the films discussed here are available now via Kino Lorber and major online retailers.