CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite her regular role in all 7 seasons of “Gilmore Girls” and her co-lead role in the 6 season run of “Mike and Molly”, it was her raunchy turn in 2011’s BRIDESMAIDS that turned Melissa McCarthy into a star. Since then, she has been the lead in a string of comedies written specifically for her: IDENTITY THIEF, THE HEAT, TAMMY, SPY, THE BOSS, and GHOSTBUSTERS: ANSWER THE CALL. Mixed in was an overlooked little film called ST. VINCENT, a Bill Murray vehicle in which Ms. McCarthy first flashed some dramatic chops. With this latest, she shows that she’s no one-trick pony, but the character is a bit too narrow, and the material a bit too bland to convince us whether she is up to becoming an Oscar-caliber dramatic lead.

That’s not to say her performance isn’t noteworthy, because it is. She plays Lee Israel, a real life writer who had success as a celebrity biographer in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then turned to a life of crime as a forger of collectible letters. This (mostly) true story of Ms. Israel features Ms. McCarthy in a poorly cut wig, very little make-up and the frumpiest of frumpy clothes. She’s also an aggressively bitter person who, in the film’s opening scene, get fired from her job in 1991 for drinking scotch at her desk and telling a co-worker to “F-off”. Classy, she’s not. Her actions and this firing are our indoctrination into her caustic personality.

Director Marielle Heller is no stranger to examining the life of someone who is not so happy, as she is best known as the writer/director of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015). Her latest is adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID, 2013) and Jeff Whitty. After her firing, Ms. Israel hits desperate times. Her publisher (an always terrific Jane Curtain) tells her that a Fanny Brice biography has no market, and that no one wants to work with Israel anymore … she has burned every bridge. Fanny Brice and Tom Clancy both take some shots here as Israel tries to defend herself by dragging down others … a personality trait not uncommon among those who are so miserable in life.

As we watch this alcoholic, slovenly, abrasive person muddle through days – only showing any affection for her pet cat – there is quite a clever scene that could seem like filler were it not for what happens soon afterwards. Ms. Israel is at home watching THE LITTLE FOXES on TV and we see her perfectly mimicking Bette Davis. This ability to imitate others leads her into a career path of forging and selling personal letters “from” the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. It also finds her crossing paths with miscreant Jack Hock (a flamboyant and energetic Richard E Grant). The two misfits form an odd friendship and partnership that begins to cash flow.

A sequence between independent bookstore owner Anna (a talented and under-utilized Dolly Wells) and Lee Israel teases us with the idea of a love interest, but Ms. McCarthy is unable to convince us that Lee’s vulnerability is genuine, and the potential relationship soon fizzles thanks to Lee’s crankiness and criminal path. While watching, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being manipulated into feeling sympathy towards Lee Israel, simply because she is a lonely female criminal. Typically male criminals in movies are social outcasts to be despised and/or feared, so this trickery is a bit unsettling. Personally, I find it difficult to muster sympathy towards any criminal, no matter their gender or how pathetic their life and personality might be.

The best film to date about a forger, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, worked because of the cat and mouse between good and bad, and the criminal at the center was overflowing with personality. Here, we are stuck with a curmudgeon who uses multiple typewriters to create fake letters … all in the confines of a dirty apartment she shares with her cat. Were it not for Ms. McCarthy’s expertise at delivering caustic one-liners or Mr. Grant’s impeccable comic timing, this drama would fall flat. If we ever doubted the manipulation, be prepared for two kitty cat scenes designed to elicit “aww” from the audience.

Director Heller does a nice job of presenting an early 1990’s feel for New York, including the gay bar Julius’, which is evidently still in existence today. There is also an interesting point made about how collectors want to believe, so the authentication process is crucial to the industry – though we can’t help but wonder about potential fraud. On the downside, there is really nothing dryer than watching a writer write … even someone as miserable as Lee Israel, and even on collectible typewriters. Additionally, the score and soundtrack were much too loud for the film, and proved quite distracting in certain scenes. A Paul Simon song near the end seems like a plea for Oscar consideration, but by then, we are just relieved that the bad guy got caught. But that kitty … aww.

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DAUGHTERS OF THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE DALLAS COWBOYS CHEERLEADERS (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The story kicks off (at least according to legend), at a 1967 Dallas Cowboys home game, with adult entertainer Bubbles Cash walking down the aisle holding her cotton candy and catching the eye of many at the game … including team president Tex Schramm. This was a mere 4 years after the assassination of President Kennedy made Dallas the most hated city in America. Ever the opportunistic salesman and promoter, Schramm took note and decided a shift from high school and college cheerleaders might prove beneficial.

Director Dana Adam Shapiro was nominated for an Oscar for his 2005 documentary MURDERBALL, and here he provides a multi-faceted film: a biopic of Suzanne Mitchell, a forum for former cheerleaders to tell their story, and a socio-political look at a bygone era – one with some connective tissue to the modern day world.

Suzanne Mitchell was Tex Schramm’s secretary, and the director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC) from 1976-1989. She has been described as a den mother and dictator, one who ran a tight (almost militaristic) ship and also cared very much for the ladies in her organization. Although she has passed away, we get many clips of her interviews over the years. By the end, we believe we know just who this woman was and what she stood for. She was committed to making sure the DCC were proper ambassadors for the Dallas Cowboys organization, while also making sure they were on the right path as people.

This was the ultimate blend of sex appeal and feminism. Every former cheerleader interviewed here makes it clear they were proud of their time with DCC, and that the team and Ms. Mitchell had been a positive influence on their lives. What makes this so fascinating is we are also provided recollections of the pushback the team received from religious groups (it is the bible belt after all) and feminists … claiming exploitation and degradation. It’s not so different than today where so many try to thrust their opinions and beliefs on others – jumping to conclusions about what harm is being done either to the individual or society as a whole.

In addition to the interviews with Ms. Mitchell and the cheerleaders, two knowledgeable writers provide more insight: Mary Candace Evans, author of “A Decade of Dreams: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and Joe Nick Patoski, author of “The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America”. These two share much of the research for their books, and also provide perspective on the era, and just what an impact DCC had on the team, the league and TV entertainment in general. Also interviewed is long time local sportscaster and former Dallas Cowboys announcer Dale Hansen. He provides the local flavor, as well as a personal story about crossing Ms. Mitchell, known as “The Iron Butterfly”.

We learn that CBS made the conscious decision to feature the cheerleaders during the Super Bowl X telecast, and the infamous on screen “wink” is credited with creating the explosion of interest in DCC. What followed were TV appearances (including “The Love Boat”), charity events, other promotional events, USO tours, and many hospital visits to the bedsides of sick children. All of this occurred under the burden of numerous rules created and enforced by Ms. Mitchell. She and Tex Schramm were committed to ensuring this was an inclusive and diverse organization for women of all backgrounds and race. At the same time, the rules regarding weight and body shape were tough and challenging, and the pay was minimal.

TV shows, magazine covers, posters, and calendars all contributed to the mystique and popularity of the cheerleaders – the perfect mixture of innocence and sex appeal. Perfect that is, until the organization was exploited by the porn industry (DEBBIE DOES DALLAS) and Playboy magazine. Lawsuits became prevalent.

Ms. Mitchell’s ability to hold steadfast to her beliefs and standards for what the DCC represent is quite impressive and easy to respect … a respect that grows even stronger when we learn she walked out only 4 months after Jerry Jones bought the team. A new culture arrived and it was one she, and a number of cheerleaders, refused to be a part of. You may think you know the story … you may think you know the cheerleader “types” … but director Shapiro’s film is likely to teach you a few things. But whatever you do, don’t chew gum!

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Film nerds unite! Most of us who (proudly) wear that label have known that filmmaker Orson Welles left a few unfinished projects when he died in 1985. The most famous – or infamous – of these was THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. It was to be the comeback film for Mr. Welles, who had slipped from the artistic throne with his run of TV projects, shorts, and unsuccessful features during the 1960’s. Known as a perfectionist, and as someone more dedicated to the filmmaking part more than the “finishing” part, Welles filmed scenes for the movie from 1970-1976, and then picked it back up in the early 1980’s to begin the editing process … a process he never finished.

Best known for his all-time classics CITIZEN KANE (1941) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), Welles left mountains of copious production notes, and almost 100 hours of footage in multiple formats, and in both color and black and white stock, on this project that, even today, might best be described as experimental. Over the past 30 years there have been numerous attempts to raise the money required to finish the film, but all fell short until this one spearheaded by Peter Bogdanovich and Beatrice Welles (Orson’s daughter).

In what we can only interpret as semi-autobiographical, what we see on screen is the making of a documentary on a legendary director’s comeback film (his poke at artsy filmmakers). Clips of the unfinished film are shown throughout, while an industry party plays out, and numerous documentary filmmakers capture the scene from various angles with their always-present cameras. Got that?  Don’t worry, it takes at least a few minutes as a viewer to get the rhythm and layers of what’s unfolding before our eyes.

John Huston (himself an industry legend with 2 Oscars and 15 nominations) plays director Jake Hannaford, who is walking the fine line between Hollywood power and has-been. It’s his 70th birthday party, and Hannaford is compared to Hemingway (a description that better fit Huston than Welles), silently endures insinuations of his closeted homosexuality, desperately seeks funding to finish his film, and skulks around his own party winding through the hangers-on and those waiting for the final curtain.

Hannaford’s artsy film within a film, at least the clips we see, feature an inordinate amount of nudity from the leading lady (played by Welles 4th wife and the film’s co-writer Oja Kodar), and some ultra-coolness from the lead actor John Dale (played by Robert Random). Part of Hannaford’s desperation (both professional and persona) stems from a James Dean-type Dale walking off the set mid-picture.

Guests at the party include Peter Bogdanovich as director Brooks Otterlake, a young director once mentored by Hannaford. It’s an example of the student becoming the teacher. Susan Strasberg (daughter of famed acting coach Lee Strasberg) plays film critic Juliet Riche, a thinly-veiled portrait of Welles nemesis Pauline Kael. Other familiar faces in the cast include: Lilli Palmer, Mercedes McCambridge (Oscar winner), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar winner), Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart (from CITIZEN KANE), Tonio Selwart, Geoffrey Land, Norman Foster, Dennis Hopper (2 Oscar noms), Claude Chabrol, Stafford Repp (Sgt O’Hara from “Batman” series), plus Cameron Crowe (Oscar winner), William Katt, Frank Marshall (5 Oscar noms), Rich Little, Leslie Moonves (recently fired in disgrace CBS President), and Paul Mazursky (5 Oscar noms). It’s fascinating to see so many we recognize from more than 40 years ago. Of course, it’s Huston, with his face that’s made for black and white film, who is the dominating figure (his scenes were filmed prior to his work on CHINATOWN).

It’s easily viewed as a satire on the film industry, and it’s quite a fun, messy-by-design, now retro look at a fragile industry – and the even more fragile people who make movies. Welles’ love/hate relationship with the industry takes on an art form. He shows what’s good and what’s deplorable. Is it an experimental movie commenting on the post-studio world of independent filmmaking, or is it an iconic filmmaker, glory days behind him, in the midst of self-reflection. Perhaps it’s both. In addition to Welles’ early editing efforts, Oscar winning editor Bob Murawski (THE HURT LOCKER) was brought in to finish up what can now be described as a master class in film editing. It’s a wild ride for us film nerds. Are you ready to join us?

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BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. That VOICE! During my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of rock’s greatest bands live in concert, including: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Each of these bands are amazing, but no other concert combined the energy, showmanship and musicianship as Queen (two different tours). And certainly no other lead singer donned a Harlequin leotard … only Freddie Mercury could make that look seem natural.

This is such an odd movie, and one that is somewhat difficult to discuss. It’s billed as an “inspiring story”, though one wonders how self-destructive living, an acrimonious band break-up, and dying young of AIDS could be considered inspiring. It’s not supposed to be a biopic, but the vast majority of the screen time is devoted to Freddie Mercury. And to really confound us, the film kind of drags (pun possibly intended) during the personal story times … and then explodes with greatness during the band and live performance segments.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, and he perfectly captures the swagger and strut of one of rock’s greatest theatrical showmen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsari in Zanzibar, and the film shows us his conservative family and time spent working as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Of course, things change quickly once he joins up with guitarist Brian May (played here by Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, MARY SHELLEY). When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added, Queen is born.

With a story and script from two Oscar nominated writers, Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, ironically) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), it’s surprising that much of the film is downright slow – especially the bits with frenemy Paul (Allen Leach). Perhaps this is more a factor of the issues with the director’s chair, where Bryan Singer is credited despite being fired during production. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filled in until Dexter Fletcher (next year’s Elton John biopic ROCKETMAN) was hired to complete the film. Lucy Boynton (so good in SING STREET) holds her own as Mercury’s wife and friend Mary Austin, and Mike Myers plays producer Ray Foster (with a tip of the cap to WAYNE’S WORLD). Other supporting work comes courtesy of Dickie Beau as influential DJ Kenny Everett, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Aaron McCusker.

The 20th Century Fox opening fanfare has its own Queen version, and is not to be missed as the film begins. Of course, it’s the infamous 1985 Live Aid performance that is the film’s highlight and one that will leave every audience member pumped up, smiling, and singing along. It’s a stunning sequence on a custom built Wembley Stadium stage, and it helps erase much of the tedium of the film’s non-band scenes. Erasing any doubt as to whether the film is worth the price of addition … hearing that VOICE at full volume on today’s theatrical sound systems. Killer Queen.

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BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is absolutely nothing that compares to being a parent. Sorry, pet lovers, it’s not even close. And I’m not referring to the romantic notion of having one’s DNA live on as legacy. Rather, nothing compares to the weight of never-a-break responsibility felt in keeping a helpless newborn alive and properly nourished. And later, teaching the right life lessons so that it’s not your kid who bullies others in school, or steals, or damages the property of others. Someone’s kid is going to do those things, and most of us try our darndest to prevent it from being our kid. The reality is, that even the most attentive and best-intentioned parents can sometimes fall victim to a force beyond their control. Such is the situation in writer-director Felix Van Groeningen’s film (co-written with Luke Davis) based on the two memoirs penned by father and son David and Nic Sheff.

We open on David (Steve Carell) disclosing to a physician (Timothy Hutton) that his son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) is addicted to crystal meth, and asking two questions: 1. What is it doing to him? 2. What can I do to help him? The quiet desperation and pain is plainly evident on David’s face. We know immediately that this Steve Carell movie won’t be packed with laughs.

What follows is the harsh reality of drug addiction. Rehab – Relapse – Repeat. Much of the story is dedicated to David’s struggle and devotion to helping his son Nic in any way possible. He’s a helpless father who refuses to give up on his son, despite the constant desperation and frustration. Every glimmer of hope is soon crushed by yet another lie and more drugs. The film is such a downer that it makes LEAVING LAS VEGAS look like an old Disney classic.

Bouncing between timelines is a device that works for many stories, but here it seems to take away some of the poignancy and depth of some scenes. Just as we are being absorbed into a crucial moment, the film often breaks away to an earlier or later time. This is effective in getting the point across about the never-ending struggles, but we lose momentum on particular segments.

Supporting work comes courtesy of 4 talented actresses: Amy Ryan (as Nic’s mother and David’s ex-wife), Maury Tierney (as David’s current wife), Kaitlyn Dever (Nic’s girlfriend), and LisaGay Hamilton (involved in rehab). It’s a bit odd to see the mini-reunion of Ms. Ryan and Mr. Carell from their time on “The Office”, but mostly the on screen time is pretty limited for all four women. The reason this film works is the devastating work of two fine actors – Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet. We never doubt dad’s commitment, just as we never doubt son’s helplessness in getting clean.

The soundtrack acts as a boost to the dialogue with such songs (perhaps a bit too convenient and obvious) as John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, and Perry Como’s “Sunrise, Sunset”. It’s debatable whether it’s possible for a movie to look “too good”, but it’s a bit off-putting to admire the camera work while someone is struggling on screen with drug addiction. The downward spiral of drug addiction feeds on the misery, and while we all enjoy beautiful cinematography, this is the rare time that it’s distracting – possibly preventing viewers from going all in. The inherent lesson here is that we can’t always save people from themselves. Knowing what to do isn’t always possible, and sometimes there is simply no right answer … even with “Everything”.

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WHAT THEY HAD (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Til death do us part.” Only far too often, long term marriages are not broken by death, but instead by memories being cruelly erased through disease. Alzheimer’s and Dementia are dreadful diseases, even in the early stages. Writer-Director Elizabeth Chomko uses her feature film debut not to analyze the specifics of these diseases, but instead to focus on the incredibly personal and emotional fallout they produce.

At first glance, Bridget (Hilary Swank) seems to have figured things out in life. She’s a California career woman married to a successful man (Josh Lucas), and their daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) is a college student. Slowly, the truth is unfurled – much of it after she receives a frantic call from her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) back home in Chicago. Their mother (Blythe Danner) is missing, having wandered out into a snow storm wearing her pajamas. Bridget and her daughter Emma hop on a plane and land in the middle of a huge family ordeal. See, Nick is exhausted from being the caregiver, and believes the best thing for their mother (and for him) is to move her into an extended care facility. Dad (Robert Forster) is adamant that she remain home with him, where she (and he) are most comfortable.

Of course, the turmoil doesn’t end there. Bridget is in a loveless marriage. Emma has been evicted from her dorm for drinking. Nick’s long-time girlfriend has booted him to the backroom of the bar he owns. Bert, the father, is unwilling to accept or even discuss surrendering the life he’s known for decades. Ruth, the mom, is as apt to make a move on her son as to remember her daughter’s name. Contrasting personalities abound in this house. Despite having power of attorney, Bridget is still intimidated by her bullying father, and seems to have no empathy for the burden carried by Nick. It’s all very messy – just like a real family, and filmmaker Chomko revels in it.

It’s so wonderful to see Robert Forster in such a hefty role. These days, he’s typically relegated to a tertiary character where he mostly frowns and grunts. Not this time. He is at once a bullying force within the family, and an elderly man treading on fragile ground. He belittles his grown kids by calling his bar owner son a “bartender”, and having coerced his daughter into marrying a man for security. Mr. Forster nails the role, as does Michael Shannon as his irksome son. Shannon is one of the best actors working today and he is mesmerizing with his snap backs – sometimes funny, sometimes mean, sometimes both.

There is some horrible relationship advice served up. The family philosophy is “pick somebody you can stand, and make a commitment”, as there’s no such thing as “bells and whistles”. It’s not the romantic chatter most movies provide, but it plays to the complicated bond between parents and kids (of all ages). Director Chomko brilliantly and accurately handles the gut-wrenching effects of Alzheimer’s. She embraces laughter as a coping mechanism, and reminds us to enjoy the rare moments of clarity – those times a parent can remember who you are. There are a few cringe-inducing moments of mushy melodrama, but for the most part, Ms. Chomko delivers.

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THE GUILTY (Den Skyldige, 2018, Denmark)

October 25, 2018

Dallas International Film Festival 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some people prefer their movies to be light-hearted escapes from the real world – two hours of mindless entertainment that distract from real life responsibilities. Then there are the rest of us: the movie-goers who thrive on having our emotions and nerves mangled and twisted, leaving us drained and strained as we stumble from the theater after the closing credits. For those in the second group, meet Danish writer/director Gustav Moller.

It’s a remarkable first feature film, and Mr. Moller shares screenwriting credit with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, and it’s what we might call a one-room or confined-space thriller. Others in this claustrophobic category would include the classic 12 ANGRY MEN (1957) and more recent films like BURIED (2010), the underrated LOCKE (2013), and the Oscar nominated ROOM (2015). Most, if not all, of the action in these films takes place in a single setting, and the filmmakers creatively use that limited space in a way that elevates the story and tension.

Jakob Cedergren is stunning as Asger Holm, an officer frustratingly on “desk duty” at the emergency dispatch center. Asger has been so assigned due to an unspecified internal investigation, and he takes out some of his irritation on callers he quickly judges to be responsible for their own situation – drunken brawlers and those looking to exchange commerce for companionship (wink-wink). However, a breathy call from a woman who claims to be kidnapped immediately ignites Asger’s instincts and street smarts.

Iben (the voice of Jessica Dinnage) informs Asger, through a series of yes-no questions that her ex-husband has kidnapped her, stranding her two young children home alone. Asger cleverly uncovers that Iben is being transported via white van on a major highway. It’s at this point that he remains calm and reassuring to Iben, while expertly juggling other phone calls for assistance: dispatch, highway patrol, even his somewhat intoxicated and disinterested former partner. Rather than route this call per protocol, Asger takes control with technology, experience and instincts as his only tools … likely sensing both the need for urgency and his shot at redemption.

The film is mostly just a series of phone conversations, yet somehow my stomach was tied up in knots! The isolation and desperation is evident on both ends of the line between Asger and Iben, and some outstanding sound design with ambient noise provides our only other link outside the barren walls of the call center. Cinematographer Jasper Spanning makes creative use of cameras to enhance the claustrophobic setting and story – often using tight shots and close-ups of Asger’s remarkable face. Every viewer is likely to jump to conclusions without having full details, emphasizing human nature’s quick trigger for assumptions. Still, in only 85 minutes, we experience a tension-packed, nerve-wracking, yet artistic presentation … one that leaves us in awe of Jakob Cedergren’s performance and Gustav Moller’s future.

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