“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:


OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013)

March 25, 2013

olympus Greetings again from the darkness. Gerard Butler doesn’t always make wise decisions when picking his projects. In the right role, men admire him for being cool and tough, while women are enchanted with his charm. The role of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is just about perfect for Butler. He not only gets to be an action hero, but he also has a solid relationship (with Radha Mitchell) and is a role model for the President’s young son. Butler is so nearly perfect here, he should be cast in the next Old Spice commercial.

The movie starts out with the backstory on how Agent Mike Banning (Butler) fell out of grace with the President and was reassigned to a desk job at Treasury. Pushing paper is like Siberia for a man of Banning’s make-up. A terrorist invasion on the White House tosses Banning right smack in the middle of a violent and explosive act designed to leave the entire United States decimated. Circumstances being what they are, Banning is the only hope.

olympus2 Movies like this must have a quality bad guy. We get icy Rick Yune as Yang, a North Korean criminal mastermind. You might think this is extremely timely given the real world in North Korea, but Yune is certainly no Governmental official. The attack is very well planned and leaves Yune locked in the White House security bunker with the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense (a spunky Melissa Leo). At the Pentagon, this leaves the Secretary of State (Morgan Freeman) and a bombastic General (Robert Forster) jockeying for control. Angela Bassett is there to referee. As movie goers we are accustomed to seeing Morgan Freeman as God, as the President, and as the brains behind Batman.  Secretary of State seems a step backwards career-wise, so it’s a relief when he assumes Presidential control.  While this group of officials sits around looking anxious and worried, Agent Banning is a one man wrecking crew against the terrorists.

olympus3 The images of the White House being attacked will prove quite disturbing to any US citizen and the sequence comes off as something that could possibly occur. Let’s hope director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) performed sufficient research to know this attack couldn’t actually happen. Still, Aaron Eckhart is a believable President … in the Harrison Ford (Air Force One) mode, tough as nails but also intelligent.

There are of course similarities to Clint Eastwood’s 1993 film In The Line of Fire, and many are comparing it to the 1988 classic Die Hard. For me, the difference in Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning and Bruce Willis’ John McClane is that Butler is the right guy in a bad place, while McClane was a good guy in the wrong place. The action sequences in Olympus Has olympus4Fallen are even bigger than Die Hard, and it’s certainly clear there is much more at stake.

The cast also includes Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd. Without giving anything away, I’ll admit this is my favorite Ashley Judd role of all time. It will be interesting to see how this one compares to Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, which comes out in June. The story lines are almost identical with WHD starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Olympus Has Fallen is a very satisfactory action movie, with many traditional elements, and Butler has re-established himself as a real movie star. It’s doubtful Emmerich’s version will stand up against this one.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are an Action movie fan OR you want to see Gerard Butler in the perfect Gerard Butler role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching the White House get attacked is something you prefer not to see even if it’s only a movie

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwx1f0kyNwI

 


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)

August 31, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Brace for gushing. Upon attending a screening that included a fascinating Q&A with writer/director Stephen Chbosky, I was reminded of how personal and intimate and observant and incisive a well-made film can be. A well written script is so refreshing, and an exceptional script can be truly breath-taking. Mr. Chbosky takes the most unusual step of directing his own screenplay based on his own novel (a 1999 bestseller), and he left me stunned and enthralled, both onscreen and off.

The popularity of the novel would typically make the film version a disappointment for its fans. Not so this time. Mr. Chbosky remains true to the spirit despite the need to edit for the sake of pacing and brevity. The key characters spring to life thanks to the outstanding script and the four strong performances from young actors: Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson, The Three Muskateers) plays Charlie, Emma Watson (Harry Potter films) is Sam, Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, City Island) is Patrick, and Mae Whitman (“Arrested Development“) is Mary Elizabeth.

If you have read the book, you know the story … you know the characters … you know the themes. If you haven’t read the book, I will spoil nothing. The brilliance is recognized only as you get to know these characters and slowly uncover their stories. What we discover is that, regardless of our age, we recognize these characters from our high school days. We know the introverted, observant Charlie who so desperately needs a support system. We surely recognize the attention-starved, lacking in self-esteem Sam who is the epitome of “We accept the love we think we deserve“. And we all knew a Patrick … the flamboyant one who sheaths his pain with an over-the-top act of public confidence. What Chbosky does is shine the spotlight on these characters to ensure that we really SEE them this time.

The themes reminded me a bit of a darker John Hughes film (that’s a compliment). There were also pieces of two other really good films: Stand By Me and Almost Famous. The formative years of a writer determine the depths to which his or her work will reach later in life. Admittedly, the film is substantially autobiographical, so when Mr. Chbosky says it’s a personal story, we begin to understand the foundation of his remarkable writing style.  He even utilizes music to help us get a better feel for this period of time … especially “Asleep” by The Smiths and “Heroes” by David Bowie.  Watching the impact of the songs reminds us just what a powerful bookmark a particular song can be at a given moment in our life.

Welcome to the island of misfit toys.” When this line is spoken, we realize that most every high school kid has thought the same thing at some point. These are painful and difficult times and as Mr. Chbosky stated, we should encourage kids to fight through this stage and get on to the next … then work to find their true self. Clearly, the film made a strong impact on me. My favorite reaction to a movie is profound thought, and this one caused it in waves. The decision to release as PG-13 was wise. There is no excess of profanity or nudity to divert attention from what really matters … the characters. I can think of no finer compliment to a writer and filmmaker than to cite them as the cause of my internal discussions related to their film. My hope is that you have the same reaction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the book OR you believe that the high school years, in spite of how painful they might be, are formative years for helping us start the path to self-discovery

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer teen movies be doused in slapstick rather than reality

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5rh7O4IDc0


THE CAMPAIGN (2012)

August 18, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jay Roach seems to be the perfect guy to direct a political campaign parody during a Presidential election year. He has had plenty of low-brow comedy success with Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers. He then gained credibility with his political sharpness in Recount and Game Change, and he is co-founder of “Funny or Die”. Instead, the movie has the feel of being thrown together during a long weekend with his drinking buddies. Luckily for him, his buddies include Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

Revolving around a North Carolina Republican Congressional primary, we are first introduced to a smug Cam Brady (Ferrell), the four term incumbent who expects to run unopposed. Not long after, we learn local twit Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is entering the race … even though he freezes in front of the camera and has no apparent platform or special issue to support. Of course, that is the one thing both candidates share – the issues aren’t the focus of the movie or their campaign. Rather, this is meant to poke fun at what political campaigning has devolved into, and how we as voters continue to fall for the dirty game of politics.

 We soon learn that the billionaire Motch brothers are financing Marty’s campaign. Their single interest is making more money and they need an indebted politician to help them buy up cheap district land and re-sell it to the Chinese so that cheap labor can be “insourced”. Clearly the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) are meant to spoof the real life political power brokers, the Koch Brothers.

Clueless Marty gets help from intense campaign manager guru Tim Whattley (Dylan McDermott) who is there to make him not suck so much. First thing is to re-do Marty’s image … they remodel his house, right down to replacing the family pugs with two more popular breeds. As Marty gets caught up in the campaign fervor, we get the expected results: he drifts from his family, the dirty stuff includes real life political sojourns like drunk driving, sexting, infidelity, false accusations, religious hypocrisy and public embarrassment of the opponents.

The real statement here, if there is one, seems to be that we the voters have allowed political campaigning to turn into a contest of who connects with us and who seems to be like us, rather than a focus on issues present and future. Kissing our baby or attending our county fair shows the candidate is one of us, while in fact, gives no indication of whether the candidate has any true beliefs or understands the issues. There are plenty of laughs in the movie, though it’s not my particular favorite type of comedy (think Talladega Nights). I will especially tip my cap to Zach G for his willingness to do whatever is necessary for a laugh. He is a fearless comedian.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: if a lightweight parody of political campaigning is just the kind of escapism you are looking for OR you never miss anything from Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis, two of the funnier people on the planet.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a biting expose’ of political campaigning.  It’s not even as deep as HBO’s “Veep”.

watch the trailer (all the funny parts):