FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2018)

January 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Old Hollywood glamour is merely something we read about or reminisce about these days. Part of the reason is that we are almost as likely to see a favorite star on TV as in a new movie, and a bigger cause is that we simply know too much about them as people … the mystique has been replaced by (too many) personal details and divisive political influence.

Classic movie lovers always have favorite performers, and there were certainly some great ones in the Golden Era: Bogart, Gable, Hepburn, Davis, etc; however, I’ve always felt there was one actress who time seems to have forgotten. Gloria Grahame never seemed to choose the easy route (either on screen or real life), and she turned in some terrific performances in the 1940’s and 50’s. You might only know her as Violet in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but she was also an Oscar winner for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), and had standout roles in OKLAHOMA! (1955), THE BIG HEAT (1953), and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). Her talent allowed her to fit as well for a musical or family film, as in the Noir Thrillers for which she seemed to thrive.

So why all the background on a mostly forgotten actress from a bygone era? Because Annette Bening magically channels the late actress in her role as Ms. Grahame in the final stages of her life. Director Paul McGuigan’s film is based on the memoir of Peter Turner, a young man who had a relationship with the actress in her later years. Turner is played here by Jamie Bell (BILLY ELLIOT) and he and Ms. Bening are so believable, that we are fully drawn in by their characters and their touching story.

Opening with the actress in her dressing room prepping for a dinner theatre version of “The Glass Menagerie”, the film conveys much in these few minutes. Clearly, this is an actress far removed from the Hollywood spotlight. We also sense her immense pride is still present, and the glass of milk is for relief from her discomfort … later self-diagnosed as “gas”.

We start in 1981 and flashback to 1979. Creative transitions between scenes and times add a stylish element to a story that is ultimately about human relationships, aging and loneliness. The need to be cared for when sick is as crucial as the importance of being a dependable caregiver for loved ones. The film’s script from Matt Greenhalgh allows for an empathetic look at these topics through the eyes of people we quickly care about.

Julie Walters (Bell’s dance teacher in BILLY ELLIOT) is exceptional as Turner’s mother and Ms. Grahame’s caregiver. Other supporting roles include Kenneth Cranham as Turner’s dad, Stephen Graham as his fiery brother, and Vanessa Redgrave as Ms. Grahame’s mother. We never get the back story on why Ms. Grahame feels so connected to the Turner family – only that the 28 year age difference between herself and Peter didn’t much matter to either of them.

There is a sexually-charged disco dance with Ms. Grahame and Peter in her hotel room that makes clear why any young man might fall for her, but it’s really in the quieter moments where the film and Ms. Bening and Mr. Bell shine. The emotions and pain are palpable, and yet neither her spirit nor his devotion will quit. The music from Jose Feliciano and Elvis Costello is terrific and comfortably fits a story of love and aging and illness, while also reminding us … once a starlet, always a starlet, even when the star has faded.

watch the trailer:

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Confession of a Movie Reviewer (January 2018)

January 25, 2018

 Over the years, I’ve been diligent in my efforts to keep my writing focused on the movies I watch, rather than the personalities and politics of the film industry. In a world that bombards us with daily (seemingly non-stop) irrational, illogical and downright inexplicable occurrences, I’ve attempted to maintain a sense of separation. I strive to consider each film as a self-contained work of art, irrespective of the collective noise and attention that might surround it.

It’s for this reason that I consistently turn down industry interview opportunities and press junkets.  It’s important to me that my viewing experience and analysis of a movie not be influenced by where the lead actor (or actress, or director, or writer) ranks on my personal scale of virtue … or even how tasty the pre-screening buffet and free drinks might be.

A movie should stand – or fall – on its own merits. Perhaps in these times, striving to assess a film as an unencumbered work of art is a near-impossible task. I could simply admit defeat and fall in formation with many who (often unwittingly) allow themselves to be influenced by outside (off-screen) factors. However, this would only rob myself of the one escape from reality I enjoy, and more significantly, would undermine the art form of cinema and what it contributes as societal commentary and pure entertainment.

This is my public confession of acceptance that no ‘bubble’ exists. Movies are made by good folks and bad – just like everything else in life. That’s not something that should be ignored in today’s environment of full disclosure and admirable and necessary movements toward a more civil industry.  However, a line of demarcation can be drawn. My movie reviews and comments will continue to focus on what we see on screen, even though the external noise sometimes deserves to be heard.  While I support the causes and movements towards industry improvements, I also believe that by periodically fighting through that noise, we can still find beauty and grace in the cinematic art form. And that’s a cause I also believe is important.

 

 


12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

watch the trailer:


FOREVER MY GIRL (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. To determine if this is your type of movie, you need only answer one question: Are you a Nicholas Sparks fan? Even though this is based on a novel by Heidi McLaughlin and not Nicholas Sparks, no normal person would be able to tell the difference, as the formula and story structure is very familiar (even the marketing campaign capitalizes on this). Perhaps that is the key to the success of movies like this – the stories are like a warm, comfy blanket to some folks.

Picturesque (and fictional) St Augustine, Louisiana is the setting for the love story of Liam and Josie. Things get off to a rocky start as the jilted bride is stranded on her wedding day. The film jumps ahead 8 years and we find that Liam (Alex Roe, THE 5TH WAVE) is now a country music superstar with a drinking problem and a duct-taped flip phone, while Josie (Jessica Rothe, HAPPY DEATH DAY) is a successful business owner and single mom. It’s at this point where you could most assuredly guess what happens next, as predictability and commitment to the formula are the mission.

Bethany Ashton Wolf is the writer/director and her film benefits from the presence of star-in-the-making Alex Roe and the precocious Abby Ryder Fortson as Josie’s daughter. Mr. Roe spends much of the movie in various stages of sweat (I guess that’s supposed to be sexy?), but the camera loves him and he has a unique approach that sets him apart from the endless line of pretty boy actors. Young Miss Fortson has already played the daughter of ANT-MAN and she has the ability to come off as normal kid, rather than an actress playing a kid.

John Benjamin Hickey (Liam’s dad), Gillian Vigman (publicist), Tyler Riggs (Josie’s brother), and Peter Cambor (Liam’s agent) fill the supporting roles, and it’s Travis Tritt who adds an all-too-brief touch of authenticity to the music and local saloon. The movie is exactly what it portends to be … nothing more, nothing less. If it’s to your taste, it’ll be that soft comforter that brings you serenity. If it’s not your style, it will likely be as itchy and scratchy as a new wool horse blanket.

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HAPPY END (2017)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has blessed us with, what I consider, at least five excellent movies (AMOUR, THE WHITE RIBBON, CACHE, FUNNY GAMES, THE PIANO TEACHER), and though it’s been 5 years since his last, there is always a welcome anticipation for his next project. Unfortunately, this latest is esoteric and disjointed even beyond his usual style. In fact, at face value, it just seems only to be an accusation lobbed at the wealthy, stating that their privilege and cluelessness brings nothing but misery and difficulty to themselves and the rest of society.

We open on an unknown kid’s secretive cell phone video filming of her mother getting ready for bed, followed by the mistreatment of a pet hamster as a lab rat, and finally video of her mother passed out on the sofa – just prior to an ambulance being called. Our attention is then turned to a family estate in Calais, which is inhabited by the octogenarian patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant), his doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), Anne’s malcontent son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), Thomas’ wife and infant son, and the Moroccan couple who are household servants. While her mother is being treated for an overdose, 13 year old Eve (Fantine Harduin), moves in to the estate (Thomas is her re-married father). It’s here that we learn the opening scenes were Eve’s video work … clearly establishing her as a damaged soul.

Initially, it seems as though we will see the family through Eve’s eye, but what follows instead is the peeling back of family layers exposing the darkness and menace that haunts each of these characters. Georges appears to be intent on finding a way out of the life that has imprisoned his body and is now slowly taking his mind through dementia. Thomas is carrying on an illicit affair through raunchy email exchanges. Anne is trying to protect the family construction business from the incompetence of her son Pierre, while also looking for love with solicitor Toby Jones. At times, we are empathetic towards Eve’s situation, but as soon as we let down our guard, her true colors emerge. The film is certainly at its best when Ms. Harduin’s Eve is front and center. Her scene with her grandfather Georges uncovers their respective motivators, and is chilling and easily the film’s finest moment.

The film was a Cannes Palme d’Or nominee, but we sense that was in respect to Mr. Haneke’s legacy, and not for this particular film. The disjointed pieces lack the necessary mortar, or even a linking thread necessary for a cohesive tale. What constitutes a happy end … or is one even possible? Perhaps that’s the theme, but the film leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness – or perhaps Haneke just gave up trying to find such an ending, and decided commentary on the “bourgeois bubble” was sufficient.

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THE MEMORY OF FISH (2018, doc)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nutritionists consistently advocate for the consumption of more salmon for a healthy diet … wild salmon, specifically. It’s one of the few dietary recommendations that hardly anyone bemoans. Most of us really enjoy a tasty grilled salmon, and the fact that it’s “good” for us puts it in the rare food category of ‘yummy and healthy’ (not an officially recognized category).  It’s what would be a perfect plan, were it not for the challenges in tracking down true wild salmon at the local supermarket. Salmon habitat and breeding grounds have been compromised and even destroyed through encroachment, and for the needs of the human race.

It’s exactly this situation, and the decades-long efforts of one man, that are the focus of this documentary from co-directors Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham. Dick Goin lives on the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, and he is especially connected to the Elhwa River. The film opens with his recorded voice from 1983 as he discusses his memories of the river packed with 50-60 pound salmon taking advantage of the gravel river bottom, and then how they basically disappeared when the two giant dams were built to supply power to the area.

Mr. Goin describes the river as being broken from 1911 through 2014 when the dams were in place. He emotionally describes his personal conflict at working for one of the mills being powered by the dams … even as he was fighting for their destruction in order to free the river. Working at the mill was a choice necessary for life – a difficult decision that required compromise. The dams, though engineering marvels, were the enemy of nature.

Clearly passionate, the elderly Mr. Goin speaks with humble respect and awe of the “madhouse” river. The underwater photography is effective, especially when blended with the archival footage from previous interviews Mr. Goin conducted. The video clips of the dams being destroyed are fascinating, but not nearly as gut-wrenching as the once vital Mr. Goin slowly and unsteadily makes his way back to the river, after the dam destruction, so he can personally witness the return of the salmon. As he describes the efforts of a struggling salmon as having done what she was here for … we can’t help but acknowledge the parallels with Mr. Goin’s own life.


PHANTOM THREAD (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is a certain feeling that envelops me while experiencing exquisite filmmaking. It’s a singular blend of peacefulness and excitement as an anticipation of greatness builds in those early scenes. That feeling has rarely swept over me as quickly as the opening moments of this new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a six-time Oscar nominee.

We need only watch Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) go through his morning ritual to understand that he is a fastidious individual to the point that could easily be described as obsessive-compulsive. It’s 1955 London, and this is the House of Woodcock. He lives and works in a home that serves as the canvas for his art, as well as a place to lay his head for sleep. His art is dressmaking. It’s also his obsession and purpose for living. This is the story of a man with transformative talent, who, despite his stated lack of need for those outside his solitary realm, is dragged into the humanity of love and caring.

This is an odd film about odd people. It’s about a dressmaker and it features people making beautiful clothes … yet it’s not a fashion movie. No, this is the study of a genius man and his muse – who is also his lover – and their unconventional saga of love. It’s also a consistently funny movie (and surprisingly so). Evidence that that 3 will always be a crowd, Woodcock’s devoted sister and buttoned-up business partner Cyril (a terrific Leslie Manville) runs a tight ship, while simultaneously using her near preternatural ability to read his moods and idiosyncrasies and respond accordingly. He refers to her as “my old so-and-so” in a way that reflects a lifelong bond unlikely to be broken.

The woman who prevents this from simply being a story of a reclusive genius is the aforementioned muse Alma (played by the effervescent Vicky Krieps). Is she his muse, a model, or his lover? Well, yes to all. And yet those labels fall short in describing the subtleties and nuances of their relationship. When does she play which role in order to maintain the balance so key to his work? Alma is often confused about the best approach in any moment, but she reaches him as none before. When she tells Woodcock that a certain client “doesn’t deserve your dress”, it strikes a chord with him that no one else has ever understood. It’s as close to ‘getting him’ as one can attain.

Ms. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes. He is simply the greatest living actor, and maybe the best ever at his profession. Her blushy cheeks and determined eye of observation bely an inner strength that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance. The twist in this “romance” is unlike any other love story from the big screen. While he is haunted by the memories of a cherished mother, Alma presents a more immediate force of reckoning. Is she his tender savior or a menace of danger? It’s fascinating to watch this unfold.

Most know by now that Daniel Day-Lewis has announced this will be his final acting role. We can only compare this to the retirements of Sandy Koufax or Jim Brown. We feel cheated by the void of greatness left by their departures, and if this is truly his final role, the DDL legacy is supremely secure. His meticulous performance shines not only through the quirky OCD moments, but even moreso in the seemingly spontaneous moments of bickering and annoyance … moments that come across ad-libbed instead of scripted – these sound (and feel) like real life arguments!

Supposedly, filmmaker Anderson based the character on Spanish-Basque designer Cristobal Balenciaga, and Day-Lewis research added other elements of authenticity. It’s their first movie together since the fantastic THERE WILL BE BLOOD ten years ago, and theirs seems to be a synchronicity that few actors and directors ever share. Mr. Anderson shot the movie himself, and his use of close-ups – faces, fingers, sewing needles – capture the delicacies as well as the power. The final piece of this glorious puzzle is the orchestral score provided by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s both prominent and intricate, with stunning piano work that stands on its own. This is a movie about greatness by those who are also great.

watch the trailer: