MY OLD SCHOOL (2022, doc)

July 22, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The world can be divided into those who dream of going back to their glory days of high school, and those who fight off seizures over the thought. Documentarian Jono McLeod broaches this topic through the story of legendary Scottish conman ‘Brandon Lee.’ Since this dates back almost 30 years, you may not be familiar with the details, but even if you are, McLeod’s film will likely fill in the gaps while serving up firsthand recollections from those who were there.

An early twist is just the beginning of this oddity. Brandon Lee agreed to be interviewed for this documentary, but he refused to appear on camera. So, we hear his voice and his own words, but they are being lip-synched by actor Alan Cumming. The additional talking head interviews are the classmates who attended Bearsden Academy in Glasgow alongside Brandon Lee, as well as an administrator and teachers. The former students reminisce about Brandon’s first day at the school as a transfer in 1993. All agree he had an unusual look: gaunt, pale, funny hair, older looking … these are just some of the descriptions.

Equipped with a backstory, Brandon was exceptionally bright, while not quite fitting in. His goal was to attend medical school, and he informed others that he was from Canada and had been very close to his mother, a renowned opera singer who died in a car crash. Teachers were impressed with his knowledge, and he even excelled in the school’s musical production of “South Pacific”.

Rather than live action re-enactments, McLeod uses a significant amount of animation to visualize the moments and events discussed by these now-fully-grown former students. This adds to the comical feel of the story and works to distract us from what we really want – photos and video of Brandon in school. The animation even works as a bit of misdirection for how the final act plays out, and what happens when he finally comes clean with who he is and what he’s done.

The name is critical to the story. First of all, the name Brandon Lee was all over the news in 1993, as the actor and son of legendary Bruce Lee had only recently been accidentally killed on the set of his film, THE CROW. There is even speculation that he drew the name from Jason Priestley’s character on the hit TV show, “Beverly Hills, 90210”. And later, when his actual name is revealed, there is a connection that leads to further complications and confusion. Some of the theories tossed around are quite interesting, not the least of which is that Brandon possessed mind control skills and could actually hypnotize people. Whether this a crime of fraud, an elaborate prank, one man’s way to achieve his dream, or simply twisted morality, is something you’ll have to decide after hearing what Jono McLeod’s film has to say … and McLeod discloses that he was also a student Bearsden Academy.

In theaters on July 22, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


EVERYTHING I EVER WANTED TO TELL MY DAUGHTER ABOUT MEN (2021)

October 27, 2021

Austin Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I don’t know her inspiration for all of the relationships and events in the film – and I don’t need to. Lorien Haynes originally wrote this for the stage, and now her multiple movie shorts have been edited together for a feature film that feels like a gut punch. Her film is unusual for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that 20 directors are responsible for the various segments. Yep, twenty.

One of those 20 is Ms. Haynes herself, who also stars as “The Woman”. The film opens with her bruised and injured after an encounter with an abusive partner. It’s a visceral scene that leads us into the woman’s therapy sessions, where she recounts her various relationships over the years. As the title states, her objective is to protect her 16 year old daughter from making the same mistakes … a goal so many parents share.

Creative title cards give us “reasons to go to therapy” and “reasons not to go to therapy”, as well as general introductions to each segment/man. The woman goes back as far as “her first”, which also involves an unexpected pregnancy. For the younger period, Issy Knopfler (daughter of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler) plays The Woman, and does an excellent job of portraying someone trying to learn themselves while also understanding relationships.

The therapy sessions (led by an unseen Alan Cumming) form the structure of the story as The Woman walks us through the men in her life, and the impact that each had. Following her on this journey leads us through topics such as abortion, abuse, addiction, drugs, booze, blackouts, infidelity, panic attacks, friendships, and self-worth. The Woman covers a lot of ground, and leaves little doubt why she hopes to save her daughter from some of this pain. We even touch on the impact of her parents.

As you would expect, there are many actors involved here. Some you’ll likely recognize (Jason Isaacs, James Purefoy, Sullivan Stapleton) and some you won’t. Although it’s billed as a black comedy, the film left me feeling quite miserable – despite being commendable for the direct manner in which it addresses so many life challenges faced by women. It’s also remarkable in that the work of 20 directors (all female) can be stitched together to form a coherent cautionary tale.

WATCH THE TRAILER


BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least two generations are too young to have experienced the 1973 media circus that was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. However, what matters is that the impact and social changes that began in earnest that night at the Astrodome are still being felt and evolving today. It might seem incredulous that the 29 year old top-ranked women’s player emerging victorious against a 55 year old who played his last professional match 14 years prior would have an impact on anything other than TV rankings, but in fact, it caused a significant societal shift.

Real life married couple and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are well known for their collaborations on iconic music videos and TV commercials, and since joining the movie world have brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS. Their talent for visual presentation is on display here in both the tennis scenes and the more intimate character moments. And, oh my, there are some intimate moments thanks to the script from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). There is no shying away from Ms. King’s sexual confusion/awareness/preferences.

Emma Stone (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) stars as tennis legend Billie Jean King and manages to convey three different sides: the ultra-competitor, the champion for equal rights, and the married woman coming to grips with her sexual identity. Steve Carell captures the essence and mannerisms of Bobby Riggs, the former tennis champ, floundering in middle-age and always on the lookout for his next hustle or gambling opportunity. Surprisingly, only a minor portion of the film deals with the actual tennis match. Instead, the film dives into the personal lives of these two polar opposite personalities, each with their own challenges and issues.

Despite the fun and outrageousness that the Riggs character delivers, the film might have been better served focusing even more on Ms. King. While she needed the “villain”, it was really her dedication to the cause and strength amidst the backlash that made the difference … along with her court skills. Watching her stand tall in confrontations with the chauvinistic and powerful Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is something to behold. Again, those that weren’t around might not believe some of the outrageous claims by the men of the times.

Supporting work comes from Andrea Riseborough as the all-important Marilyn, who turns Billie Jean away from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Sarah Silverman as promoter Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as Rosie Casales, Alan Cumming as the colorful clothes designer, an underutilized Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, Fred Armisen as Rheo Blair – Riggs’ partner in the herbs and vitamins game, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s real life son) as Riggs’ son, Larry. We are even treated to a Bob Stephenson sighting as the Sugar Daddy PR guy at the match.

This was the era when the Vietnam War was winding down, the Watergate scandal was raging, outside “the norm” sexual preferences were kept in the closet, prize money for men’s tennis was 8-10 times that of women, and the overall respect for women and their sports was excruciatingly misguided. Listening to Howard Cosell speak so condescendingly during the national broadcast merely confirms the inequity. Of course, these same issues are discussed and debated even today, as society evolution is often slow, even when moving in the right direction. The film might not add much to today’s cause, but it reinforces the early legacy of Billie Jean King as a difference-maker.

watch the trailer:


BURLESQUE (2010)

November 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Attended a Tuesday screening and must admit that I was blown away by Christina Aguilera.  The film is first and foremost a showcase of her musical talent … and quite a talent she is!  Of course, you better be ready for the humor and visuals aimed at the audience attracted to an event featuring Cher and Christina.

Ali (Aguilera) is a bored, small town Iowa girl who heads off to find the bright lights of L.A.  She stumbles into a Burlesque club and is immediately enchanted by the songs, the dancers and the ambience.  The club is co-owned by Tess (Cher) and her ex-husband Vince (Peter Gallagher) and is on a steep slide towards financial disaster.  Local real estate developer Marcus (Eric Dane) rides in on his classic Porsche and fat wallet and offers to rescue Tess and Vince.  Of course, his plan for the club is anything but altruistic.

 Meanwhile, Marcus and Jack the bartender (Cam Gigandet) battle over Ali, though neither are very good at it.  While that battle is going on, Ali manages to leapfrog a burned out Nikki (Kristin Bell) for the spotlight on stage.  This is when the movie really takes off, musically speaking.

From a musical perspective, Cher belts out a couple of solos that easily convince that her pipes are still full strength.  Her two songs are definite highlights and it’s a pleasure to hear her in top form – at age 64!  Aguilera has so many numbers that I lost track.  Most are average songs at best, but her voice is so unique and powerful that the non-descript songs come off just fine.

 Must also mention Alan Cumming and especially Stanley Tucci.  Mr. Tucci is clearly the best actor in the movie, though he basically reprises a previous character (Devil Wears Prada).  Oh and there is the bonus of a very odd Tucci bedroom scene. 

There will be comparisons to Dreamgirls, Cabaret, Chicago and Moulin Rouge!  This is no litmus test for Ms. Aguilera’s acting ability, though she comes off infinitely better than Mariah Carey in the atrocious Glitter.  Writer and first time director Steve Antin pretty much stays out of the way of Cher and Christina, while delivering the expected and welcome product to his intended audience … not that there’s anything wrong with it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need an intro to Christina Aguilera’s singing ability OR you are a fan of Cher (like anything could keep you away!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: bump and grind dancing is not your cup of tea OR you can’t appreciate campy humor filmed for the enjoyment of the gay community

See the Burlesque trailer