Greetings again from the darkness. Based on his work, arguments can be made on both sides. Director Adrian Lyne is either a staunch believer in monogamous marriages, or he enjoys mocking the concept altogether. Surprisingly, this is his first film in 20 years since UNFAITHFUL (2002). To refresh your memory, he’s also the force behind 9 ½ WEEKS (1986), FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1993). Co-writers Zach Helm and Sam Levinson have adapted the script from the 1957 novel by PatriciaHighsmith, who also wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train”.
“Do you know I love you?” When one spouse feels the need to ask about love rather than declare it, you know it’s an unusual marriage. And in the category of unusual marriages, you’d be hard-pressed to find an arrangement more bizarre than the one between Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda (Ana de Armas). Thanks to real life public drama for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, we all know that “open marriages” are a thing. But this with Vic and Melinda is neither fully “open” nor fully a marriage. Vic invented and sold a computer chip used in drones (mostly for warfare) and he’s so rich, that he’d rather watch his free-spirited wife drag home new boy-toys than give her an expensive divorce. But that’s as much explanation as we receive for what seems like a lose-lose-lose scenario. That third lose is for Melinda’s gentlemen friends who seem to mysteriously disappear once Vic becomes aware of them. One is gone before the movie even starts, and he’s followed by Jacob Elordi, Brandan Miller, and Finn Wittrock.
Perhaps the biggest mystery here is in deciding who displays more charisma, Affleck in this role or the snails that his character Vic breeds. We’ve joked about actors sleepwalking through roles before, but there are scenes here where that may actually be happening. Affleck mostly just dead-eyes Melinda and her men, though we are supposed to interpret his lack of expression as a combination of anger, jealousy, and lust. Fortunately, we have Ana de Armas to liven things up. She’s a full-grown party girl going through various stages of designer dress and un-dress. The supporting cast is comprised of Dash Mihok, Lil Rey Howery (who is in every movie these days), Kristen Connolly, Grace Jenkins as the smarter-than-parents kid to Vic and Melinda, and Tracy Letts as a curious novelist constantly side-eyeing Vic as research for a new book.
Is it cheesy? Yes. Is it sleazy? Yes. Despite twenty years of no movies, director Lyne delivers another high-gloss, play-pretend trashy erotic thriller that will fit perfectly in the streaming world. Affleck disappoints here after strong turns in THE TENDER BAR (2021) and THE WAY BACK (2020), and Ms. de Armas will next appear as Marilyn Monroe in BLONDE. Ben and Ana had their tabloid moment as a romantic couple after filming, but she is now the gone girl, and he has since reunited with JoLo. There are too many gaps in the story and characters for this to be considered a serious movie, but it’s sure to be entertaining enough for many.
Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 80 years since THE WIZARD OF OZ was released and 50 years since Judy Garland died. So why do we still care so much? Of course the obvious reason is that, for many generations, her adventures as Dorothy Gale from Kansas marked the first time many of us kids could put ourselves in the shoes (mine weren’t ruby sparkles) of a lead character in a movie. Her fantastical journey ignited our imaginations and whisked us away to fight witches and flying monkeys, while making wonderful friends in a corn patch and enchanted forest. Oh, and that voice! However, there is another side to this coin. Judy’s story is also an example of the dark and tarnished side of Hollywood … she pulled back more than one curtain.
Renee Zellweger (Oscar winner for COLD MOUNTAIN, 2003) stars as Judy Garland, and her performance will likely put her in line for her fourth Oscar nomination. The film basically covers the last year of Judy’s life, and director Rupert Goold (TRUE STORY, 2015) is working from a script by Tom Edge adapted from Peter Quilter’s stage play, “End of the Rainbow”. There is no Lollipop Guild here. Instead, the harsh realities of Judy’s life are explored. The film opens with Judy and her kids, Joe and Lorna, performing on stage … and then being unceremoniously denied a room at a nearby luxury hotel. See, Judy’s career is in a bad way (admittedly undependable and uninsurable) – as is her health. She is broke, has no home, and offers for roles or performances have dried up. She ends up at her ex-husband Sid Luft’s (Rufus Sewell) home, which after some former-spouse bickering, is where the kids stay.
With no other real prospective gigs, Judy accepts an offer from Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to perform at his Talk of the Town theatre in London. Most of the film covers her time in London, and the challenges for all involved. She’s 46 years old in the winter of 1968, and though her voice no longer carries the sublime purity of those early years, Judy still has incredible stage presence and an ability to connect with the audience. The challenges occur for her assigned assistant Rosalyn Wilder (who served as a consultant on the film, and is played here by rising star Jessie Buckley), as well as Judy herself. She misses her kids, and is battling loneliness and an addiction to pills – causing her to rarely eat or sleep. When her “friend” (and fifth husband) Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) shows up, Judy’s attitude perks up, but her already questionable dependability falters.
Flashbacks to Judy’s teenage years at MGM are used to portray how the studio and industry took control of her body, soul and career. Watching studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery) bully young Judy (played by newcomer Darci Shaw) by pretending to be a father figure while keeping her weight in line with a diet of cigarettes, diet pills, and soup, is just painful. These scenes, including those with young Judy’s frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, help us understand why she was in such a state by the time she hit London. Ms. Zellweger embodies the blend of frailty and determination and talent, as well as the insecurities that simultaneously drove Judy and held her back. Of course, few singers have ever possessed the vocal talent of Judy, but Zellweger admirably brings the appropriate strain and pain to the songs she sings for the movie, including “By Myself” and “The Trolley Song”.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm, Judy Garland first hit the stage at age 2, and never experienced a “normal” childhood or traditional relationship. Despite her immense talent, she was never able to find peace with the pressures of performing. Years of abuse led to an early death, not long after she finished her London run. The film never backs away from the tragic story, but also allows one of the brightest stars of an era to shine through. For those who only know Judy as that homesick girl from Kansas, or maybe also as the rosy-cheeked youngster on the Trolley in the holiday favorite MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli), there is likely a shock factor in seeing the broken icon in middle age. The film also deals with that always-present bond she had with her audience, especially with the gay community – although a certain sequence of the film involving a gay couple (both huge fans) seems quite improbable.
For a film like this to work (it was not sanctioned by Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli), it all rides on the lead performance. Renee Zellweger beautifully captures both the tragic essence and the stunning talent of the late 1960’s Judy Garland, an iconic and revered entertainment figure. The film allows us to understand the lifelong mistreatment and heartbreak of this woman, as well as the strength and joy she received while performing live. Balancing the “early” Judy with the “later” Judy was a brilliant way of bringing her life full circle. Ms. Zellweger’s performance goes so much deeper than singing on stage … she embodies the insecurity and frailties of a woman who was never afforded the opportunity to live her own life.
NOTE: There was a 2001 TV mini-series entitled “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”, based on daughter Lorna Luft’s memoir, in which Judy Davis (lip-synching to Ms. Garland’s songs) delivered an impressive and Emmy winning performance.
Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a nostalgic throwback to the movie musicals of Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire, or is it a contemporary film designed to revitalize the movie musical genre in an era dominated by superheroes and sci-fi? However you might choose to label writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash (2014), it’s clearly one of the best and most entertaining movies of the year.
While the opening credits are still rolling (“Presented in CinemaScope” being the first gag), the film kicks off with its only large scale (think Busby Berkeley on a L.A. freeway rather than in a swimming pool) musical production, “Another Day of Sun”. It’s also the first of 3 less-than-warm-and-fuzzy “meetings” between the two lead characters before they finally click.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen with the same incredible chemistry they displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love(2011). Mia (Ms. Stone) is a struggling actress-wannabe working behind the counter at the Warner Brothers studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Mr. Gosling) is a pianist committed to the traditions of jazz music … even as he toils in a club playing mainstream tunes for folks who aren’t even listening.
As their relationship develops, we are treated to a tap dance number in the Mulholland Drive moonlight. Soon, Sebastian (either a brooding Gene Kelly or a dancing James Dean) is forced to make a choice between finding a way to open his own jazz club or compromising his integrity by making lots of money joining a “hot” band (led by John Legend), while Mia is focusing on auditions and her writing (which leads to a disastrous one-woman show).
Director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren create a look in line with Singin’ in the Rain, but a tone more suited to A Star is Born. There is no shortage of romance and music, but it’s equally balanced with melancholy, foolish dreams, and shattered hopes. While it’s an homage to old Hollywood, Los Angeles and movie musicals, it seems to gracefully swing between past and present – and reality and fantasy.
Mia has a bedroom wall mural of Ingrid Bergman, while Sebastian treasures his piano stool that once belonged to Hoagy Carmichael … two more examples of past and present intertwined. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling possess solid (not exceptional) singing voices, which aids in having the songs tell their story. Ms. Stone is quite a talent, and especially stands out in her audition scenes … we feel her pouring her heart out to casting agents who may or may not even be paying attention. It’s remarkable work from her.
Supporting work is provided by Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister), JK Simmons (as a club owner and Sebastian’s boss), Finn Wittrock (as Mia’s boyfriend) and Damon Gupton. Also in supporting roles would be the Griffith Observatory (after a Rebel Without a Causeviewing), the Los Angeles scene, and the Warner Brothers lot.
The “What Could Have Been” ending sequence is top notch filmmaking in all aspects, and perfectly caps a movie that drips with nostalgia … while also being touching, funny, and downright fun. Watching this film is much like going through the ups and downs of a relationship, and rather than a fairy tale, it’s a painful jab at “the one who got away”. It deserves to be seen on the big screen – enjoy the full palette of colors and the full spectrum of emotions (love and heartbreak, frustration, anger, and utter joy). This is one to tell your friends about … don’t wait for them to tell you.
Greetings again from the darkness. Since there are so few subjects more hilarious than the 2008 financial crisis, let’s get the writer/director of Anchorman and Step Brothersto adapt the Michael Lewis best-selling book. OK, so it’s improbable that was the thought process, but kudos to whomever was responsible for bringing Adam McKay to the project. Before you go assuming it’s a poor fit, it should be noted that McKay is also one of the creative minds behind “Funny or Die”, a site filled with political and social satire. It’s that satirical approach that makes this explanation of what went wrong so accessible to the masses. Make no mistake … this is entertaining and educational and thought-provoking and nauseating and infuriating and funny and disheartening.
If the film were described as a tutorial on MBS (Mortgage-backed Securities), CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Credit Default Swaps, Tranches, Bond Ratings, and Sub-Prime ARMs, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they would keep skimming for showtimes of other new movie releases. In truth, it is those things – and so much more. This is the story of how the housing market collapsed leading the government to the massive bailout that saved some of our largest financial institutions … and how a small group of people recognized what was happening and literally bet against the U.S. economy. It follows the bread crumbs to re-assemble the slow process of spotting the fault in the analysis that lead to massive corruption that finally crossed over into systematic fraud … and does so by using creative presentation approaches like a Bond Rating game of Jenga, and celebrity snippets for definitions and examples.
Ryan Gosling stars as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a slick Deutsche Bank trader who acts as our guide through the muck of shorting securitized mortgages, while simultaneously working the system for his personal benefit. He works with Mark Baum (a character based on Steve Eisman, played by Steve Carell) who manages FrontPoint Partners, and Baum’s team played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (whom you might remember as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland). While this is going on, there are two other similar story lines we are following. The first is Christian Bale playing hedge fund manager and savant analyst Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Hedge Fund. Burry is often cited as the first to recognize the impending collapse and invest against the market. Finally, we have the “garage band” investment company based on Cornwall Capital run by (names changed) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) with a big boost from former trader Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt in a role based on Ben Hockett). The stellar cast is rounded out by Marisa Tomei as Baum’s concerned wife, Tracy Letts as the head of Scion, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen who play cocky and clueless subprime mortgage brokers, and Melissa Leo who plays a Standard & Poor’s employee.
It’s difficult to tell this story without casting blame, and few escape the wrath of Lewis, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Those absorbing shots to the bow include: the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Rating Agencies, big Banks and Investment firms, Fund Managers, Traders, Realtors, and Mortgage Brokers. Companies specifically named include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, WAMU, Option One, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and The Wall Street Journal. The point made is that the problem goes/went beyond greed, and is/was truly system-wide, with each segment protecting themselves and their turf. Somehow the name Barney Frank is not mentioned, and FNMA and FHLMC escape mostly unscathed, while CRA lending requirements are not discussed. It’s not politically correct (and not mentioned here) to question why so many borrowers who couldn’t pay their rent regularly accepted loans that they knowingly couldn’t afford to repay. But that’s a topic for another time.
With full disclosure, I will admit to having been in the mortgage business for 18 years. Though I was never involved with subprime loans, I will always disagree with the stance that the industry and institutions were not aware of the risk and impending collapse. It was common knowledge that “no doc” loans were absurd, and the adjustable rate schedules and prepayment penalties for subprime (and some conventional) loans were beyond impractical and more like homicidal (from a lending perspective). In the film, Baum interviews an exotic dancer who owns multiple homes … all loans made with minimal documentation due to the cash basis of her business. The terms of the loans set her, and other similar borrowers, up for financial ruin … right along with the housing sector and economy. The subprime mortgage brokers portrayed by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen may seem cartoonish, but Baum’s confusion with their “confession” versus “bragging” is spot on. There were many just like these two clowns who considered themselves “rock stars”, when in fact, there were really “bartenders who now own a boat”. These weren’t the type to question whether the loans made sense … only how many could they close to pad their 5 and 6 figure per month income levels. Of course, in defense of these morons, it was the banks and lenders who designed the loan programs to “feed the machine” with more and by necessity, higher risk loans … to the point where it was no longer possible to spread the risk wide enough for protection. Hence, the collapse.
By the end of the movie, you should expect to have a headache and feel quite cynical towards the system. Despite the humor interjected by quick-hit segments from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdoin, the seriousness of the topics is more than bubble baths, blackjack and fish stew. The film leaves us angry and nauseous from what happened in 2008, but more importantly questioning … Has anything changed? Have we learned anything? These answers are likely to cause a more sickening reaction than looking back seven years.
A recommended Economic Movie Marathon would include: Inside Job (2010 documentary from Charles Ferguson), Margin Call (2011, JC Chandor), The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), and 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)
Greetings again from the darkness. I’m a University of Texas alumnus and have vivid childhood memories of Freddie Steinmark the player, followed by Freddie Steinmark the tragedy, and finally Freddie Steinmark the inspiration. His legacy remains an active part of the Longhorns football program today via the stadium scoreboard dedication and the locker room tribute that is part of every game day in Austin. This is the directorial debut of Angelo Pizzo, who is known for writing two other inspirational sports movies: Hoosiers and Rudy.
It’s difficult not to cringe when the film opens in 2010 with a reporter interviewing legendary and elderly former coach Darrell Royal, who is dementia-stricken and forgetful … until he starts speaking of Freddie. The cringe-inducing part isn’t Coach Royal’s dementia (of which we fans were all aware), but rather the amateurish make-up applied to Aaron Eckhart in an attempt to age him into the 85 year old icon. Fortunately this segment is brief, and we are soon enough picking up a high school aged Freddie as he practices and works out ferociously with his dad in hopes of fulfilling his dream of playing football at Notre Dame.
Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”) plays Freddie, and captures the intensity, ambition and goodness of the young man who would galvanize the Longhorns program and end up making quite an impression on those Notre Dame coaches, but for much more than his play on the field. Burned into my memory (and that of anyone who witnessed it) is the shot of Freddie on crutches at the 1970 Cotton Bowl.
Director Pizzo offers some breath-taking aerial shots of Austin and Memorial Stadium (digitally altered to reflect the late 1960’s), and some impressive sequences of football practices and games. Football fans will have fun spotting former players making appearances including Case McCoy (as Razorback Bill Montgomery), Hays McEachern, Danny Lester, and Luke Poehlmann. You will also note Juston Street plays his father James (mimicking the game face), and Jordan Shipley plays my all-time favorite Longhorn receiver, Cotton Speyrer. Nostalgia flows as the game announcers call some of the greatest college players of the era: Ted Koy, Steve Worster, Jim Bertelsen, Steve Owens, and Chuck Dicus.
“The Game of the Century” is the centerpiece game of the movie, and we actually get a clip of President Richard Nixon arriving to the Texas-Arkansas game of 1969. It turned out to be Freddie’s final football game, but more aptly, a continuation of his influence. However, this is just as much the story of Freddie the individual as it is Freddie the football player. His determination, zest for life and incredible courage are the message here … not tackles and interceptions. Even his relationship with his high school and college sweetheart Linda (Sarah Bolger) seems the stuff of which dreams are made.
In addition to this film, there have been three books written about Steinmark: in 1971 Freddie worked with Blackie Sherrod on an autobiography called “I Play to Win”; in 2011, Jim Dent wrote “Courage Beyond the Game”; and just this year, the University of Texas published a new biography entitled “Freddie Steinmark: Faith, Family, Football” by Bower Yousse (a former friend and teammate). It should also be noted that Steinmark’s battle against cancer inspired Congress to pass the National Cancer Act of 1971, beginning the war on cancer and spurring a jump in cancer research that continues to this day.
It’s a football movie, but also a tearjerker. It’s a profile of an over-achiever, but also the story of a young man who inspired a team, a university and a nation. Every time you think the story is a bit corny, or that Freddie is too good to be true, just remind yourself that despite the cynicism permeating society today, Freddie Steinmark was flesh and blood, with a heart and soul and mentality that refused to surrender.
Greetings again from the darkness. Louis Zamperini was a true American hero and his life story is epic and legendary. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louie easily found trouble, and only the efforts of his older brother and a local police officer allowed him to discover inner strength through his talent for distance running. As a 19 year old, Louie ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and later enlisted in the Air Force and served as a bombardier during WWII. After a horrible plane crash, he spent a grueling 47 days adrift at sea in a life raft, until rescued/captured by the Japanese. Zamperini served as a Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to immense physical and psychological torture, until the war finally ended.
Zamperini’s story has long deserved to be made into a movie, and it has bounced around Hollywood since 1957. However, it wasn’t until Laura Hillenbrand’s biography on Zamperini became a best seller in 2010 that the film version was given the go-ahead. With screenplay credits for Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (the first Air Force battle sequence is breath-taking), and a score from Alexandre Desplat, it was a bit surprising when Angelina Jolie was named director. After all, she only had one previous credit as a director, and that film (In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011) was nowhere near the scope of this project.
Given the true life inspirational story and the truly heroic events of its featured character, the film can best be labeled a mild disappointment. It is extremely impressive to look at, but somehow lacking in emotion … despite some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments. The film strives for the level of historic epic, yet its conventional tone and approach leave us wondering what’s missing. The single most effective and emotional moment occurs in a short clip of the real Louis Zamperini running as an Olympic torch bearer at age 80 for the 1998 Olympics (in Japan!).
Jack O’Connell pours everything he has into capturing the spirit of Zamperini, and he is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. Japanese rock star Miyaki plays “The Bird” Watanabe, a sadistic POW camp commander who brutalized Zamperini, but Miyaki lacks the chops to pull off this crucial role – going a bit heavy on the posturing. The film uses the line “If you can take it, you can make it” as its rallying cry, but too many gaps are left for the audience to bridge as we watch Louie go from a punk kid to a war hero with almost mystical courage and perseverance. Other supporting work comes from Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and CJ Valleroy (as young Louie).
On paper, all the pieces are in place for an Oscar contender, and the film may very well play well with voters. My preference would have been to have the real life Louis Zamperini more involved … through either narration or interviews. He spent the second half of his life as a motivational speaker and story-teller, and would have added an incredible element to the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Zamperini (pictured left) died 4 months prior to the release of the film so he never saw the finished product. It’s likely he died knowing that his legacy is part of American history and that he did in fact “make it”.