I AM WOMAN (2020)

September 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does penning and recording a feminist anthem warrant a film biopic? Well, when the singer is Helen Reddy and the song is “I Am Woman”, the answer is a resounding yes. This is director Unjoo Moon’s first narrative feature film, and she is working with a script from Emma Jensen (MARY SHELLEY, 2017). As with any biopic, its effectiveness comes down to the lead performance. Here, Tilda Cobham-Hervey is both strong and invincible as Ms. Reddy.

We first see a wide-eyed Helen Reddy walking through New York City clutching the hand of her very young daughter Traci after arriving from Australia in 1966. She’s in pursuit of a recording contract, but instead ends up singing at a mostly empty nightclub and living in a roach-infested rundown hotel. It takes almost no time for her to experience multiple instances of sexism and chauvinism. With no prospects for a better life, Helen meets up with fellow ex-pat Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, PATTI CAKE$, 2017), a journalist who shows her the town and offers her friendship.

Lilian throws a party for Helen, and after locking eyes across the room, Helen meets Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story”), an up and coming agent at William Morris. By 1968, Wald has convinced Helen that Los Angeles is the place to kick off her singing career, and along with Traci, they move into a beautiful home and fill it with typical California dreaming. Jeff’s managing career starts to build, and Helen gets frustrated at his lack of attention to her career. There are some funny comparisons of Deep Purple, Tiny Tim, and Helen’s singing styles, but finally Capitol Records gives her a shot at recording a single.

Helen’s career takes off, as does her friend Lilian’s, who becomes the ‘Mother of Rock’ with her Rock ‘n Roll Encyclopedia, and subsequent reviews and articles. In fact, Ms. Roxon deserves a biopic or documentary highlighting her influence on rock journalism. As Helen puts out hit records, her husband Jeff is managing many successful acts. Money is pouring in (and out) and in contrast to Helen’s common sense manner, Jeff partakes of drugs and alcohol to extremes. Of course, the key component of Helen’s career and the movie is in regards to her writing the title song … a song that the skeptical executives of Capitol Records said made her sound “too angry”.

It was Lilian who introduced the women’s movement to Helen, but Helen was inherently ambitious and strong-willed … it ended up being the perfect match. Reddy supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), even as Phyllis Schlafly fought hard against it. Helen’s 1972 song “I Am Woman” became a huge hit, and later the anthem for a movement. But Helen Reddy’s story isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, and despite a dose of clichés, and some overacting on the part of Peters, the movie does an admirable job showing how she reacted to the challenges.

Director Moon’s husband Dion Beebe (Oscar winner for MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, 2005) is the cinematographer, and he does nice work with the stage performances, as well as the more intimate moments. However, it’s Ms. Cobham-Hervey who stands out. I’ve only previously seen her in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018), and she captures the determination and charisma of Helen Reddy. We see her strength as she instills life lessons in her kids, and goes toe-to-toe with her husband. It’s an impressive performance.

The movie shows us Helen’s 1982 Las Vegas act, and we hear most, if not all, of her hits, “Delta Dawn”, “Leave Me Alone” (actually a pretty annoying song), “You and Me Against the World”, “Angie Baby”, and obviously, “I Am Woman”. Later, in 1989, we see a grown up Traci talk her retired mother into performing her most famous song at the Washington DC rally of the National Organization of Women. It’s quite a moment that encapsulates the empowerment that Helen Reddy devoted her life to. The movie doesn’t go there, but it’s unfortunate that Ms. Reddy has been afflicted with dementia since 2015. Like all great artists, her work will survive her.

In select theaters and VOD on September 11, 2020

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ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

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THE LAZARUS EFFECT (2015)

February 26, 2015

lazarus Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of direct-to-video and movie streaming, it’s a bit surprising that one like this secures a theatrical release. But then it does have a solid cast and a producer who has a proven track record of profitable box office success with low budget horror. The other thing it has going for it is the time of year – there is not much being released right now that can draw the weekend teenage groups, the audience this is clearly aimed at.

Horror movies can be fun, and with a cast that includes Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover and Evan Peters, this one has the foundation to develop a following. However, what starts out like a new age “religion vs science” battle, ends up as a schlocky pseudo-intellectual gore fest. It teases us by mentioning the big questions: What happens when we die? Is it possible to bring back the dead? Should we even try? There are philosophical and ethical questions that are just as relevant as the religious ones.  Unfortunately, the teases offer no payoff and instead we are left with cheesy special effects and a demonic presence that is not so interesting.

When a movie disappoints like this, comparing it to better pictures seems unfair; however, there are elements of Flatliners (1990), Pet Sematary (1989), and of course James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). We even get an “IT’S ALIVE” reference, tongue-in-cheek though it is. The biggest difference is that all three of those films knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish, whereas this first feature film from director David Gelb is a mish-mash of genres and styles.

The basic premise is that lovers, and co-researchers at a Catholic university, Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde), along with their assistants Clay (Peters), Niko (Glover) and Eva (Sarah Bolger, one of the sisters from the great IN AMERICA from 2002), began by looking for a way to extend brain activity in comatose patients. Their work evolved into attempting to bring the dead back to life. It’s no surprise – and included in the trailer – that one of the group dies and the experimental serum is used to reanimate that person. You probably won’t be surprised at this … things don’t go well.

There are some interesting moments and elements – the recurring dream sequence plays out well, but most of the good stuff is quickly dropped in favor of jolts of shock and awe. Jump-scares abound and that will go over well with the Friday night teenagers, but few others will find much to like here. Producer Jason Blum has a real feel for this genre and has turned 50 cents into mega-millions with such movies as the Paranormal Activity franchise, The Purge, and Ouija among others. Mr. Blum has 21 projects in the works for 2015 alone, making him one of the most prolific producers working today. He will learn that it’s sometimes better to let dead dogs lie.

watch the trailer: