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on TV as in a new movie, and a bigger cause is that we simply know too much about them as people … the mystique has been replaced by (too many) personal details and divisive political influence.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.

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20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

January 12, 2017

20th-century Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Mike Mills has found a niche, and a form of therapy, by exploring and exposing his life in a most public manner … on the silver screen. Beginners (2010) brought us the story of his father’s (an Oscar winner for Christopher Plummer) late life pronouncement of homosexuality. This time, Mr. Mills turns his lens and his pen towards his mother, and he seems to understand her much better in retrospect than in the summer of 1979 when the film is set.

This can be viewed as the story of three women, masked as a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a chain-smoking single mother in her mid-50’s who seems to have surrendered to her own sadness and loneliness, while simultaneously trying to make sense of a changing world. One of her tenants is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and NYC punk scene drop-out, who is now battling cervical cancer. The third female is the seemingly always present Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous and borderline depressive 18 year old who values the platonic friendship she has with Dorothea’s 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman).

Factor in another tenant in the form of laid-back handyman and former hippie William (Billy Crudup), and we have a makeshift family in a communal setting that seems almost normal for 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea enlists the other two women to show Jamie their lives – the intent being to influence his growth in ways an older mother can’t. Of course, Jamie is at the age where exploring life isn’t necessarily best served by tagging along on a trip to the gynecologist with Abbie or having no-touch sleepovers with Julie.

Ms. Bening finds her groove as the story progresses and we feel her struggling to connect to each of the characters. When William plays a Black Flag song, her reaction is priceless: “They know they’re not good, right?” She doesn’t mean it as a put down, but rather her attempt to understand why her son is drawn to this. An even more emotionally naked moment occurs when Jamie is reading a passage from “The Feminine Mystique” to his mother. It’s a passage that captures what he thinks of her, as well as what she thinks of herself … a mostly invisible woman finding it difficult to be a parent while also maintaining a self.

Mills is not one to be nostalgic or glorify the past. His brilliant writing includes lines like “Wondering if you are happy is a great short cut to being depressed.” The movie can be slow moving at times, but it’s the best I’ve seen in awhile at expressing what makes us tick. The film is what Running with Scissors should have been. Real people are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sometimes annoying. Each of the characters here are all of the above (just like you and me).

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RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)

November 23, 2016

rules-dont-apply Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country (2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.

Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.

Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.

The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.

The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).

It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.

These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.

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DANNY COLLINS (2015)

April 5, 2015

danny collins Greetings again from the darkness. He who was once Michael Corleone is now Danny Collins. With a career spanning 40 plus years with 8 Oscar nominations, including a win for Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino must be considered Hollywood royalty. Upon closer analysis, that last nomination and win came more than 20 years ago, and he is now the go-to guy for a demonstrative, (more than a) few years past his prime type. So on paper, we get why Pacino was cast as Danny Collins (think modern day Neil Diamond).

The film begins with a very young Collins being interviewed by a rock journalist (Nick Offerman) after the release of his first album. Flash forward 40 years, and Collins has made a career of re-hashing the same songs to the same concert goers. He lives in a mansion, throws lavish parties, has a fiancé who could be his granddaughter, and absorbs coke and booze between flights on his private jet. It’s only now that Frank (Christopher Plummer), his agent and best friend, presents him with a long lost letter written to Collins by John Lennon after that interview so many years before. Cue the bells and whistles … it’s time for a redemption road trip.

It’s only at this point that we understand the cute “kind of based on a true story” tag at the opening credits. See, Lennon did write a letter in 1971 to British Folk Singer Steve Tilston, and the letter did take many years to find its way to him. However, Tilston never lost his creative vision the way that Danny Collins did (otherwise, there would be no movie).

What happens next is predictable and a bit formulaic. Colllins tracks down his adult son (Bobby Cannavale) from an early career backstage fling, and does all he is capable of doing to cannonball into his life, and that of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Expect the usual TV melodramatics as far as disease and suburban family challenges, and tie-in a flirty back-and-forth with the Hilton manager (Annette Benning), and you can pretty much fill in the blanks for the balance of the film.

Cannavale and Plummer certainly do everything they can to elevate the storyline. Cannavale’s emotions are all over the place as one would expect and he is the most believable of all characters. Plummer adds a sense of reality and humor to his interludes with Pacino – wisely controlling his movements against Pacino’s histrionics.

Stories involving a characters seeking redemption have one thing in common … a character who is not so likable. We never really buy him as the aging rock star, or even as the once promising songwriter, but we do buy him as the guy who was too busy for his family and is clumsy and unaware of the pain he causes, even while trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Dan Fogelman takes few risks in his first shot at directing. His past writing includes the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and the not so excellent Last Vegas (2013). His common theme seems to be the emotional struggle of men, and we definitely know that’s an unsolved mystery. His effort here may not be a bull’s-eye, but it’s not without some merit – despite the Pacino distraction.

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RUBY SPARKS (2012)

August 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well it took six years, but co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris finally deliver their follow-up to the smash hit Little Miss Sunshine. With a script from first time screenwriter Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan), we get an odd mash-up of would-be Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman, Stranger Than Fiction, and a “Twilight Zone” episode.

The story begins almost as a whimsical fantasy. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a blocked writer 10 years after writing the next great American novel, while he was still a teenager. The necessary comparisons to JD Salinger are made, and we witness Calvin as a socially-inept type who was never comfortable with his early success, and now can’t find a way to move on with life. Given a writing assignment by his shrink (Elliott Gould), Calvin discovers the true power of the written word is far beyond anything he had previously imagined.

 After a dream of meeting a lovely girl in the park, Calvin’s fingers tear through his manual typewriter and develop a story around his literal dream girl. And literal means literal. He runs into her downstairs. His creation has become his creation. Once he realizes they aren’t going to lock him away for insanity, Calvin and Ruby (also Zoe Kazan) begin a real relationship. Well as real as it can be with a girl who is not really real and whose actions can be changed simply by typing words on a page. If you think this sounds like a male fantasy, then you are in agreement with Calvin’s brother (Chris Messina).

 A trip to visit the brothers’ mothers (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas) adds some humorous scenes while also signaling the beginning of trouble for Ruby and Calvin. It turns out that bringing your invented dream girl into the real world doesn’t always work so well. Who would have thought? There is much humor in the film including Steve Coogan as Calvin’s mentor. Deborah Ann Woll (“True Blood”) has a scene as Calvin’s ex-girlfriend and it is probably the best written scene in the film. Really good insight into how two people’s view of the same relationship can vary greatly.

 The story can be looked at from different perspectives. It certainly serves as insight into how a writer’s mind can work. Many writers need a muse … but few get to create their own! More importantly, it makes a statement on how we (well, not me) often try to control and manipulate the other person in our relationships. This is a sterling reminder to be careful what you ask for … you just might get it.

**Note: on a side note, it is refreshing to see a love story between two actors who look rather “normal” rather than so perfectly beautiful they appear to be a genetic experiment

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy off-beat, quirky humor with an underlying message

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the last thing you wish to do is crawl inside the head of a Hollywood writer

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THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010)

August 5, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Laurel Canyon and High Art are two of director Lisa Cholodenko’s previous best films. She seems to have a knack for exploring interpersonal relationships and observing human emotions. Here she co-wrote a very good and insightful script with Stuart Blumberg.

The story centers around a married lesbian couple played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. They play the moms’ to Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabitha). Turns out, each of the ladies gave birth to these kids with help of the same sperm donor. The kids decide they want to meet the donor dad and it turns out he is uber-cool Mark Ruffalo: owner of an organic garden and restaurant, rider of awesome motorcycle, wearer of stylistic leather jacket, and master of hippie-type language that connects with teenagers. In other words, he is a parents’ worst nightmare.

The story examines real life issues such as marriage, family life, mid-life crisis and self-fulfillment. It wraps those things brilliantly around an unconventional family, each with recognizable personality types.

The weakness in the film is two-fold. An important storyline develops between Ruffalo and one of the moms that just seemed out of place to me. The point was made, but could have been made in a much more realistic way. Worse though is the performances of two wonderful actresses – Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. With a couple of exceptions, I thought they were both over-the-top in just about every scene. They were almost caricatures of their character types. My gut feeling is that one or both will receive Oscar nods because of the “risky” roles, but the histrionics should not be rewarded.

Interesting tidbit: daughters of Steven Spielberg, David Mamet and Michael Eisner all have roles in the film. Wow … that’s some parental firepower in Hollywood! This one is worth seeing for the script and for Ruffalo’s best performance, but it’s really not as funny as it tries to be. Probably would have worked better as a straight drama.