MANK (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Just a writer.” The line made me laugh. How many times have writers not received the recognition they deserved, or were underestimated, only to have their words create a lasting impact? Hollywood often likes to portray writers as socially-awkward, loner types who rarely contribute much during conversations. Not this time. The subject is Oscar winning screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, who was as quick with a dinner table zinger as he was writing the script to CITIZEN KANE (1941) while bedridden.

More than 20 years in the works, this is director David Fincher’s first film since GONE GIRL (2014), and it’s based on a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher. Dad receives sole writing credit here, though David and producer Eric Roth (Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994) admit to some polishing. It’s a film seemingly designed for us film nerds, but likely entertaining and interesting enough for expanded appeal. CITIZEN KANE is often regarded as the “best” movie of all-time, though the origin of the film is much debated. We do know that struggling RKO Pictures gave 24 year old wunderkind Orson Welles free reign over his first film, and the result was something quite special. Director Fincher’s film offers up three distinct aspects here: a look at Mankiewicz’s writing process for ‘Kane’, some background on Mankiewicz’s career, and a somewhat fictionalized dissection of 1930s Hollywood politics.

Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) stars as Herman J “Mank” Mankiewicz, an international correspondent-turned NYC cultural critic-turned playwright-turned screenwriter. Herman was the older brother of Joseph L Mankiewicz, a four time Oscar winning writer-director (ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950), and grandfather to Ben Mankiewicz, a well-known host of Turner Classic Movies. Herman was also renowned as a boozer and gambler, and in 1940 (where this movie begins), he was a bedridden mess recovering from a car accident. Herman was part of the sphere of the infamous Algonquin Round Table, and in most of this film, he talks like he’s still at one of those gatherings.

Mank is taken to a desolate ranch house in Victorville, California, along with his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his nurse (Monika Gossman) and his handler John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has given Mank 60 days to finish the script, and his only guidance seems to be “write what you know”, and don’t drink. The result was a controversial, yet brilliant script that Welles and his crew (Oscar winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland, Editor Robert Wise, a 4-time Oscar winner) turned into a classic film that still holds up 80 years later.

We immediately start seeing flashbacks, as noted by old style on-screen typing. Ten years prior, Mank was the Head Writer at Paramount, where his staff included Ben Hecht, George S Kaufman, and Charles Lederer … writers whose work would later include NOTORIOUS (1946), multiple Marx Brothers movies, and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), respectively. Lederer was also the nephew of starlet Marion Davies (played here by Amanda Seyfried), who was the long time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Are you starting to see how this wicked web all fits together? Of course, Hearst was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ classic movie, while Ms. Davies was supposedly the inspiration for Kane’s wife, Susan. Other key players in these flashbacks are Producer David O Selznick (Toby Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Oscar winner Ben), MGM founder Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), Mank’s brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Mank’s wife “Poor” Sarah (Tuppence Middleton).

Director Fincher’s masterful film features a couple of standout sequences. The first involves the initial meeting between Mank and Hearst, while Marion Davies is filming a scene on the grounds of San Simeon (Xanadu in CITIZEN KANE). Rapid fire dialogue, multiple characters, and terrific editing with Mank keeping pace as Hearst overlooks the filming. Much later there is a scene following Mank and Marion as they stroll through the manicured gardens with the nearby exotic animals on display. The scene is fascinating to watch, while also reinforcing the kindred spirits of Mank and Marion – both talented, yet not quite allowed in the “club”. Beyond those two sequences, we also get a quite funny segment where Mank and his Paramount writers are improvising a pitch to Selznick and director Josef von Sternberg, plus a telegram sent by Mank to Lederer that states, “Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots” (a sentiment some believe still holds true today).

Quite a bit of the film is focused on Hollywood politics of the 1930s, both in the studios and nationally. In particular, the 1934 Governor’s race focuses on the campaign of writer and socialist Upton Sinclair (played by Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and the concerted efforts by Hearst and studio capitalists to prevent Sinclair from being elected. The symmetry and contrasts of modern day Hollywood and politics cannot be overlooked. Also made abundantly clear is the disconnect between studio heads, directors, and writers – quite the mishmash of disrespect.

The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it can be relished from multiple perspectives. Is Mank attempting to salvage a near-dead career or is he settling a grudge against Hearst? Did Welles intend to hold firm to Mank’s contract and prevent him from receiving a screenwriting credit? And then there is the filmmaking side. Superb performances from Oldman and Seyfried highlight the terrific cast. It’s filmed in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”), but not the razor-sharp images we are accustomed to these days, rather soft and hazy in keeping with the look of the times. The production design from Donald Graham Burt takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate, and the music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is spot on, as usual. Even the opening credits provide nostalgia, as does the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony, which neither Mank nor Welles attended. Netflix delivers another winner, and one likely to receive awards consideration.

watch the trailer

 


SYNCHRONIC (2020)

October 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Innovative filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are frequent collaborators, as evidenced by such films as SPRING (2014) and THE ENDLESS (2017). Their films teeter between science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and personal drama, and this latest easily slides into the mind-bending and time-warping space they excel in … and all without the mega-budget we’ve come to expect from such films (I’m looking at you INCEPTION).

The film opens on a couple sharing a motel room and what appears to be an acid trip. Strange hallucinations hit them both. We soon flip to an emergency call performed by best buddy New Orleans paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan). Their overdose victim is located in a setting where something is just a bit off, and “Time is a lie” is written on the wall. When Steve and Dennis are called to the motel of the first scene, we all start to understand something bizarre is happening.

Dennis is married to his wife Tara (Katie Aselton), who has recently given birth, and their headstrong 18 year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) lives with them. Steve’s days consist of one-night stands, more booze than any person should ingest, and time with his loyal dog Hawking (an obvious reference to the elements of time at play here). Dennis is bored and Steve is a mess, and things get worse when Steve is diagnosed with a brain tumor by his pineal gland, and Dennis’s daughter Brianna disappears.

A clue to the increasingly bizarre overdose and death scenes that Steve and Dennis run into is the “Synchronic” packaging. It’s a synthetic/designer drug that has dramatic and lethal effects, and a packet was found where Brianna was last seen. Steve decides to test the drug in an effort to “bring back” his friend’s daughter. As Steve videos his 7 minute trips to the past, and then kindly spells out everything he discovers, we viewers are spoon fed the details that would typically require some effort. Beyond the reference to Stephen Hawking, we also get plugs for French composer Claude Debussy and a rare James Bond- Charlie Sheen joke.

Time travel has long been a fun topic for movies, and the ideas behind this one are quite promising. The only downsides are that it too obviously guides us through what’s happening, and the trips back in time aren’t as structured or interesting as we would hope … although the idea of having the past be in the identical spot as the future is terrific. Benson and Moorhead are ambitious and creative filmmakers, and their shot at appealing to mainstream audiences is appreciated, as is the atmosphere and camera work. However, many of us would rather a bit more be left to our imagination.

watch the trailer


THE GLORIAS (2020)

October 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who hasn’t dreamt of having a conversation with their younger self in hopes of instilling some wisdom to improve the forthcoming life decisions? Writer-director Julie Taymor (FRIDA, 2002) and co-writer Sarah Ruhl have adapted Gloria Steinem’s autobiography, “My Life on the Road”, and use cross-country bus trips as a vehicle allowing Ms. Steinem to chat with herself at four different stages of life.

The feminist icon and activist is played by four actors: Oscar winner Julianne Moore, Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson (“The Haunting of Hill House”), and Ryan Kiera Armstrong as the youngest Gloria. Childhood is called the formative years for a reason, and we do get a taste of how Gloria’s nomadic hustler of a father Leo (Timothy Hutton), and her mother Ruth (Enid Graham) influence the woman she became. Her father (referring to himself as Steinomite) explained that travel is the best education, while her mother struggled with mental instability after being forced to give up her writing career.

Bucking the male-dominated world began in the era portrayed by Ms. Vikander, and it takes up most of the first half of the film. Discrimination and harassment were commonplace as she fought to be taken seriously as a journalist and writer. This portion includes her trip to India, where she was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, we see Gloria’s time as a (undercover) Playboy bunny, and the reactions that her corresponding article caused.

Ms. Moore is on screen much of the second half, including the founding of “Ms.” magazine, and her affiliation with other activists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, “Seinfeld”), and of course, Bella Abzug (Bette Midler). There’s a moment on the bus when Ms. Moore’s Gloria tells her younger self, Ms. Vikander’s Gloria, “Speaking your mind will get you into trouble.” It sounds like a warning, but in fact, it’s motivation for what’s to come.

Ms. Taymor’s film cuts between periods of Steinem’s life with the multiple Glorias in action. The bus rides are an interesting choice as looking out the windows we (and Gloria) sees the streets of New York, the palette of India, miles of nature, and even her own father on the road in his car. Outside is filled with the colors of life, while inside the bus, the colors are muted, often black and white. We see actual clips of the 1963 March on Washington DC, including Mahalia Jackson, and the 1977 National Women’s Conference. It just feels like something’s missing here – like the movie doesn’t have the heft Ms. Steinem deserves.

Sometimes Ms. Taymor’s approach is a bit too artsy for the story, and there is only a brief mention of Ms. Steinem’s nemesis, Phyllis Schlafly … despite much attention to abortion and women’s rights. Gloria’s passion for issues is clear, and we note her motivation to transform an environment that stifled her mother. The film’s music comes from Oscar winner Eric Goldenthal, and the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto, frequent collaborator of Martin Scorsese and other elite directors. The timing is spot on for the film given contemporary issues, including the opening on the Supreme Court created by the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite this, the film might just be a bit too nice, or too lightweight given the history, accomplishments and impact of Gloria Steinem (who has a cameo appearance on the bus).

watch the trailer

 
 

I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

September 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We should never look to Charlie Kaufman to pull us out of the pandemic doldrums, although he is an absurdly talented writer who specializes in unusual plots and oddball characters. Mr. Kaufman is also an over-thinker and a non-stop thinker – I would imagine his brain rarely goes quiet. This time out, he directs his own adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, and the result is a mind and time bending existential crisis that leaves us feeling a bit down. Yet, as always, Kaufman’s work keeps our minds racing.

Jessie Buckley, who was so terrific in WILD ROSE (2019), stars as The Young Woman going on a blizzardy road trip with Jake (Jesse Plemons, THE IRISHMAN, 2019), her boyfriend of the last six weeks or so. They are headed to visit Jake’s parents who live in a “farmy” and remote area. Act 1 is spent in the car as the wipers flap, and the woman and Jake hold awkward conversation. We, as the audience, listen to her inner thoughts, including, “I’m thinking of ending things.” She is truly an outstanding actress, and carries much of the weight with this one.

The woman is not really unnamed, in fact, throughout the movie, she has multiple names including Lucy and Louisa. And character names aren’t the only fluid piece of Kaufman’s puzzle. She is variously labeled as studying Quantum Physics, a writer of poetry, and an artist. Are you confused yet?  If not, you will be.

Act 2 takes place at the farm house where Jake’s parents live, and it shifts the film from awkward to bizarre. Toni Collette (HEREDITARY, 2018) and David Thewlis (“Fargo”) play his mother and father, both excited for the visit, but unconventional, to say the least, in their social graces. Ms. Collette over-laughs just beyond the point of perplexing and nudges the beginning of downright weird. She and Thewlis are exceptional in their ability to keep Lucy off-balance, and Jake hyper-annoyed. We aren’t sure what to make of what we are seeing … and neither is Lucy. While none of these folks takes a single bite of the dinner spread, the tone turns to surreal. Overlapping time lines of past, present, and future become haunting and hypnotic.

The film itself is disorienting, and Act 3 does little to help us regain our equilibrium. Jake and Lucy finally start their drive back, as the snow begins falling even harder. Throughout the production, Kaufman includes references to William Wordsworth, Pauline Kael, Andrew Wyeth, Mussolini, and more. He also inserts clips of a high school janitor (played by Gus Boyd) as he goes about his duties. This janitor is part of a finale featuring an animated pig and a dance number … both of which occur after Jake and Lucy have debated the importance of Cassevetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, and the performance of Gena Rowlands.

Oklahoma plays a role as both a setting and a reference musical, and a stop for ice cream at Tulsey Town, adds to the oddity and the feeling of dread that encompasses us for much of the movie (when we aren’t chuckling at the absurdities). Kaufman mixes genres with glee – horror, comedy, and psychological thriller all lead us to a dance scene and many unanswered questions about what is real and what is only in Lucy’s mind. We never see what attracted these two to each other, but we do wallow in their misery and discomfort. Charlie Kaufman’s previous screenplays include such brilliance as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and ADAPTATION, although this one may have more in common with his SYNECHDOCE, NEW YORK – a film that can wrestle with this one over which is his least accessible. An existential film where past, present, and future mingle and bizarre observations are made on aging and memory, can only fit into Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre. It will surely make you think, though it may end with you asking ‘why?’

Netflix September 4

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THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (2020)

August 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. One need not be a Dickens expert to enjoy this re-imagining of his “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)”. Yes, that’s the novel’s actual title, so there is little wonder it’s typically referred to by only the main character’s name.

The film opens with David Copperfield (Dev Patel, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) reading his autobiography to a mesmerized audience in a beautiful theatre. Yes, we hear the iconic opening line, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life …”, and then Copperfield turns and walks into the backdrop which comes alive as he, in fact, steps into his own life. The film is episodic in structure as we are presented with segments of Copperfield’s life that shaped his writing – from his birth at The Rookery, to his inquisitive nature as a young boy, through his cruel banishment to factory work, on to his life living with his eccentric aunt and his time at boarding school, and finally, with his time as a proctor, courting Dora, and focusing on writing. It’s a fascinating life, with many elements pulled (or enhanced) from Dickens’ own.

Director Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, creator of “Veep”) and co-writer Simon Blackwell are frequent collaborators renowned for their expertise in satire. Iannucci is an admitted fan and student of Dickens, and he’s assembled quite a sterling cast for his take on the classic story. In addition to Patel as the older Copperfield, we have Jairaj Varsani in his first film as young David, rising star Morfydd Clark (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2015) in dual roles including the enchanting Dora Spenlow, Hugh Laurie as the King Charles (and his head) obsessed Mr. Dick, Aneurin Barnard (DUNKIRK) as David’s friend Steerforth, Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie as the wicked Murdstones, Peter Capaldi (“Doctor Who”) as the dodgy Mr. Micawber, Daisy May Cooper as trusted handmaid Peggotty, Nikki Amuka-Bird as the concerned Mrs. Steerforth, Benedict Wong as the sherry-loving Mr. Wickfield, and Ben Whishaw is a standout as conniving Uriah Heep. And if somehow that’s not enough, the brilliant and eclectic Tilda Swinton shines as Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

Each of the segments brings something different to the party – some of it bleak, and some of it cheery. Of course the dialogue has dashes of humor, but much of the comedy comes courtesy of the talented cast. It’s been said of writers that they should write what they know, and David Copperfield literally writes what he lives … through piles of scraps of paper, each holding a moment of life or the essence of a character. Watching this is a bit like camping out in a writer’s head and twisting through their thoughts … Mr. Dickens would be proud.

Opens wide in theaters on August 28, 2020

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THE SECRET GARDEN (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the years since Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel was first published in 1911, “The Secret Garden” has become one of the most popular and oft-read children’s books. Previous film adaptations include the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and Dean Stockwell, and the 1993 version with Kate Maberly and Maggie Smith. Additionally, the novel has been adapted numerous times for the stage and television. Director Marc Munden is working with the screenplay adapted by Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017), and the two had previously collaborated on the BBC series “National Treasure”. Readers of the beloved novel will certainly recognize the changes and differences within this version, both in characters and theme.

As the film begins, we are told it’s “the eve of Partition”, which was the 1947 division of British India into two separate states: India and Pakistan. This timing is, of course, quite a bit later than Ms. Burnett’s setting, but the effect is the same – young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned when her parents die, and left alone when the servants desert her. She is shipped off to live with an uncle (Oscar winner Colin Firth) she doesn’t know. Accompanied to massive Misselthwaite Manor by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), Mary quickly understands that Uncle Archibald Craven is a grieving widow (his wife was Mary’s mother’s sister) who is not to be disturbed, and his hunchback is not to be stared upon. Mary soon learns that her spoiled brat manner will not be tolerated, though her natural spunk will prove advantageous. The young girl is one who is accustomed to be waited on, while also wanting to prove her independence.

Mary’s imagination is extraordinary and she often asks, “Do you want to hear a story?” CGI effects allow us to see what she has envisioned, whether it’s the wallpaper coming to life, or her mother and aunt frolicking through the halls or swinging in the garden. Mary soon befriends Martha the maid (Isis Davis), and then happens upon “Jemima” the dog while wandering the estate grounds. It’s here where the fantastical and supernatural meet reality, and a helpful Robin leads Mary to the key that unlocks the gates of the gardens that have been locked away since Uncle’s wife died. Mary and her new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson) go on adventures through the garden – a garden which has mystical powers.

One evening Mary hears cries echoing in the halls of Misselthwaite. Despite being forbidden from exploring, she discovers her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) locked away in a far off bedroom. Colin is a sickly child, supposedly stricken with a spinal problem that keeps him from going outside. Mary continues to visit Colin, and soon she and Dickon are sneaking Colin into the secret garden, where the magical healing powers begin to take hold. The titular garden doesn’t make an appearance until about one hour in, but its beauty and wonder are on full display.

This is a story about the power of loss and grief and depression, and it offers the life lesson that the things we care for blossom and grow and thrive. This version has some elements of such classics as “Peter Pan” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” in that fantasy and magic play a much larger role than in the novel. Director Munden employs a darker approach and seems to emphasize self-discovery. Young actress Dixie Egerickx was a standout in the recently watched SUMMERLAND, and she is terrific here – despite the changes to the story that some fans might not embrace. The film seems a bit disjointed at times, but it’s always a feast for the eyes, and offers up one of the year’s best scores, courtesy of Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (ATONEMENT, 2007).

Available Video on Demand August 7, 2020

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CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer:


ELVIS FROM OUTER SPACE (2020)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. All you Elvis Presley fans out there can relax. This is not a documentary. In fact, trying to put a label on the film co-written and co-directed by Marv Z Silverman and Tracy Wuischpard would be pointless … unless we can just agree on “Midnight Movie Madness”, and leave it at that.

Not that I would ever encourage such activity, but some have declared that the best ‘midnight movies’ are most enjoyed whilst a sufficiently mind-altered state is achieved, and one is unnaturally influenced by beverage or ‘other’. Now that’s a category this film easily and happily (and likely by design) fits in. There is no reason to start this film while thinking clearly, and actually, thinking is best avoided for the entire 90 minute runtime.

The story kicks off with the narrator explaining that Elvis has spent the last 30 years or so with the aliens of Alpha Centauri. He has been playing music for the community of ETs proving “music is the universal language.” ’But now Elvis is homesick for Earth and wants to see his daughter, Linda Bess Truman. The aliens contact the CIA and arrangements are made for the drop in Area 51. Some quick math places the story sometime around 2010 or a couple years prior.

There is no way I will risk spoiling the zaniness that occurs, but Elvis, now codename John “JB” Burrows, finds himself in the 1970’s Elvis World Crown Competition at the Desert Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You may have heard about the time that Charlie Chaplin lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, but here, JB brings down the house as an Elvis impersonator. He’s so good the other contestants (quite a motley crew) question his identity. One of those is “Big M” who is also the film’s narrator. All of this drama is broadcast via “Barry Live”, a TMZ type show delivers laughs along with the daily scoop.

George Thomas plays JB/Elvis, and he seems at ease in the jumpsuits, although those fake sideburns are a punchline by themselves. David Heavener is Big M and the narrator, and his initial role as rival shifts as the story progresses. Diane Yang Kirk plays CIA Agent Messina, who is on JB’s side, and Lauren-Elaine Powell is Jackie, the earthly love interest. Barry Ratcliffe nearly steals the show as the TV host of “Barry Live”, and I believe TJ Myers plays daughter Linda, while Martin Kove (you’ll recognize as bad guy Kreese from THE KARATE KID, 1984) is the State Trooper. Alexander Butterfield is CIA Chairman Townsend, and in real life, Mr. Butterfield served as Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon, and was the one who revealed the existence of the Oval Office recording system during the Watergate investigation. Best of all, Sonny West appears as himself. Sonny was part of Elvis’ “Memphis Mafia” back in the day. Sonny and his cousin Red West died within a couple of months of each other in 2017.

Hopefully you’ve picked up that this move is so far outside of mainstream that a traditional review is simply not possible. Animation is used for the aliens and spaceships and the rest of it must be seen to be … well, seen. It appears to be a re-boot of Mr. Silverman’s 2011 project entitled MEMPHIS RISING: ELVIS RETURNS, making most of the footage almost 10 years old. Still, a passion project is the heartfelt pursuit of a filmmaker, whether it’s SCHINDLER’S LIST or Elvis being held captive in ‘Area 52’.

watch the trailer:


SHIRLEY (2020)

June 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Thrillingly awful”. That’s how Rose describes the feeling she had from reading Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery.” It’s also a likely reaction many will have to watching director Josephine Decker’s (MADELINE’S MADELINE, 2018) mostly fictionalized biography of the author known for her widely diverse novels, short stories and articles. The film is uncomfortable to watch and challenging to process, yet thanks to the performances and fascinating interactions, we remain enthralled the entire time.

As the film opens, Rose (Odessa Young, ASSASINATION NATION, 2018) is on the train reading Jackson’s divisive story. We gain some insight into her personality as she allows a sly grin to cross her face, and then gets frisky with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) in a train cabin. Soon they arrive at the home of Ms. Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and literary critic. Shirley is suffering through a bout of depression brought on by writer’s block, and though she’s initially against the young couple staying with them, she slowly finds a use for Rose. It doesn’t take long for us to realize everyone here wants something from the others. Stanley is worried about Shirley’s mental stability, so he convinces Rose to take on the domestic chores. Fred hopes Stanley will bless his thesis so that Bennington College will hire him. Stanley seizes on Fred’s ambition by having him take over some of his teaching load. Rose endures some harshness from Shirley, but the two ladies end up with an awkward bond which has Rose serving as a quasi-muse for Shirley’s new novel.

The new novel is “Hangsaman”, which Shirley actually wrote years before this story is set. It’s about the disappearance of a college student named Paula, and it’s at this point where the visions and/or projections begin. Things get a bit hazy for us … and for Rose. At times, Shirley is downright creepy. Are we watching something supernatural?  Is she a good with or a bad witch … or something else altogether? At times, Shirley appears to be unraveling – and possibly bringing Rose down with her. But then we hear another of the razor sharp verbal sparring matches between Shirley and Stanley. These are works of art. Stanley needling her just enough to inspire more writing. Shirley fires off cutting remarks as brutal as any wounds a knife fight might cause. It’s an advanced course in the creative mind vs the pompous academic. Stanley understands that allowing her to become unhinged is all part of the process, and will likely lead to her best work.

Multiple dynamics between characters creates chaos for viewers. Shirley and Stanley have their gamesmanship, while Shirley and Rose are going down an entirely different twisted path. And then there is odd relationship between pregnant Rose and husband Fred, and again between Fred and Stanley. And we haven’t even gotten to what the outside world thinks of Shirley, and how Stanley’s disclosed infidelities keep a fire burning inside Shirley, despite her humiliation. There is a lot to take in – domestic life in the era of “little wifey”, the strains of starting and maintaining a career, and the inner-demons of the creative mind. One of the key elements that sticks out is how each character is striving desperately to establish their own identity, and given the times, this should be much easier for the men.

Sarah Gubbins’ first feature film screenplay is based on the 2014 novel “Shirley” by Susan Scarf Merrell. Again, this is mostly fiction, albeit with nuggets of Shirley Jackson’s real life mixed in. Of course Shirley’s and Stanley’s four kids are nowhere to be found, allowing for more focus on the contrasting featured couples. In fact, Ms. Young’s Rose is the perfect “opposite” for Ms. Moss’ Shirley, both in looks and demeanor. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between this and director Mike Nichols’ classic WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That one had more yelling, but this one cuts just as deeply. One of the best ever onscreen jabs occurs when Stanley sourly describes Fred’s thesis as “terrifically competent”, and then adds in a disgusted tone, “There’s no excuse for that.”

Special notice should be made for the music and cinematography. Composer Tamar-kali (MUDBOUND, 2017) pierces us with music often limited to plucks of cello and/or piano, adding a near-horror element to the frightening interactions we are watching. And with most of the film taking place in the creaky, book-filled house, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen (WENDY, 2020 and VICTORIA, 2015) expertly captures the harrowing glares of Shirley and the bemused smirks of Stanley in close quarters. The camera work adds to the constant immediacy of each moment.

Shirley Jackson’s most famous full-length work was “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959), which was adapted into director Robert Wise’s 1963 film THE HAUNTING, as well as another version in 1999. Most recently, it was the source material for the very popular Netflix limited series in 2018. Ms. Jackson did suffer with anxiety issues and agoraphobia, and her writing influenced many who came along later. While Mr. Lerman is a bit short-changed, the other three leads are superb in this film that likely will have very little appeal to the masses … you know … those people who can’t find pleasure in almost two hours of misery and a head-scratching ending. The end result is a story about Shirley written in a manner that we can envision it as one of Shirley’s own.

Neon will release SHIRLEY on Hulu, VOD, Virtual Cinemas and participating Drive-Ins June 5th, 2020

watch the trailer:

 


“Hollywood” (Netflix limited series, 2020)

May 1, 2020

Netflix limited series premiering May 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I want to go to Dreamland.” One might assume that phrase is related to Hollywood being the place where dreams can come true, but co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan take us down a much different path. The two have collaborated on the TV series “Glee”, “Scream Queens”, and “The Politician”, and here they offer up a revisionist history on the post- WWII Golden Age of Hollywood, in the vein of what Quentin Tarantino did in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Brennan seemingly focused on idealistically imagining a film industry where one’s race, ethnicity, or sexual preference made little difference. In doing so, they devote significant time to racism and homophobia.

While the series mixes fact and fiction in such a way that the lines are often blurred, there are two main storylines that provide the backbone of the series: the actual suicide of 24 year old actress Peg Entwistle, which occurred in 1932 when she jumped from atop the Hollywoodland sign; and the mostly fictional crossing paths of a handful of aspiring actors, writers and filmmakers as they navigate the treacherous film industry waters. We see the new generation clashing with the establishment – a tale as old as time.

The 7 episodes cover approximately 7 hours, but it was somewhat challenging to make it through the first three. However, I’m so glad I stuck with it. The series starts off with what seems like a concerted effort to push every boundary possible in regards to sex and racism, with an emphasis on the proliferation of homosexuality within the industry. The characters that are new to town are trying desperately to survive as cling to the dream of their big break.

The series elevates significantly in Episode 4 when the attention turns to filmmaking and acting and running a studio. There is a terrific sequence where we bounce back and forth between two pairs of actors rehearsing for their auditions. We feel the pressure that actors endure during the audition process, and note the fine line … almost an indiscernible line … between success and failure. In addition to the newcomers trying to secure roles, we follow a gay, black first time screenwriter and a half-Filipino first time director. As a bonus, Eleanor Roosevelt is portrayed as preaching the social importance of a studio breaking from the industry norm.

“What if you could re-write the story?” is the tagline, and it applies not only to the screenplay of “Peg” (the movie within the movie), but also to Murphy and Brennan as they show how the industry should be, well except for the illicit sex, marital affairs, and mob interventions. Hypocrisy and double-standards are part of the fabric of the movie industry, but what if that gay, black screenwriter didn’t have his work defined by those labels, or the half-Filipino director wasn’t selected because he could pass as white, or if the talented black actress wasn’t relegated to playing domestic help? Those are the core issues at play here, and each of the characters has hopes of changing things in Hollywood.

As you would imagine, the cast here is deep and crucial to whether the project works or not. There are some acting veterans mixed with some regulars from Murphy’s previous projects. The newcomers in town are actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet), actor Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), and screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope). These newcomers intermingle with industry types such as super-agent Harry Wilson (Jim Parsons, who gets the best dialogue in the series), Ace Studios owner Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), his wife Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone), their daughter wannabe actress Claire (Samara Weaving), Ace’s mistress actress Jeanne Crandall (Mira Sorvino), Ace casting director Ellen Kinkaid (Holland Taylor), studio producer Dick (Joe Mantello), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris). Dylan McDermott shines as Ernie, the owner of Gold Tip Service Station, where customers come for the special service offered with the code word ‘dreamland’.

There is an underlying theme where most everyone here is acting – pretending to be something they aren’t. It begs the question, how much of yourself would you surrender for fame or money, or simply to avoid discrimination and hardship? There seems to a lust for fame, and a lust for just about everything except dignity. Three real life actors are noted for how they were marginalized as people and/or professionals based on either their race or sexual preference. The stories of Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), and Hattie McDaniel offer up real life proof of the injustice that was prevalent during this era.

Movie history buffs will enjoy the name dropping, such as George Cukor’s party, and Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, and Vivian Leigh. There is also fun to be had with industry terminology, but the purpose of the project has higher meaning. The dreams of those who arrive versus the power of those already there is on full display. The internal struggles and fallout that occurs when folks are trying to fit an image rather than stay true to themselves – that message is delivered. Dylan McDermott’s Ernie is meant to represent the reality of broken dreams that happen right down the street from where dreams come true.

Stylistically, the series is beautiful to look at. Even the opening credits have a surreal quality. The set/production design is top notch, from the studio lot to the sound stages to the small apartments decorated to the era … and the cars are spectacular. Black and White images are used sparingly, but effectively to stay true to his period in cinema, and the music/soundtrack is perfectly used and could be a top seller as a standalone. Watching the great Patti Lupone is reward enough, but seeing Dylan McDermott and Jim Parsons deliver their best ever work is really something to behold. The debate of Money versus Art versus Social Responsibility could fill many textbooks, and Murphy and Brennan succeed in getting us to think. For those that can fight through the first three episodes, the payoff is there (OK, the ending is a bit hokey), and as Hattie McDaniel tells us, “the most important thing is being in the room.”

watch the trailer: