“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:


A KID LIKE JAKE (2018)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hot societal topics often become fodder for new movies, and this usually results in a slew of similar stories – some good, others not so good. Currently, discussions of gender identity is second only to Trump-bashing in terms of media attention, and so we can expect Hollywood to rush-to-production in order to capitalize. This latest from director Silas Howard had a timing advantage as it was adapted by writer Daniel Pearle from his own play.

The titular Jake is a 4 year old (his 5th birthday party plays a role) who enjoys fairy tales and dressing like a princess. His stay-at-home mom (Claire Danes as Alex Wheeler) and psychologist father (Jim Parsons as Greg Wheeler) are aware of Jake’s preferences, but as with most things in their marriage, what minimal conversation occurs is of the over-the-top arguing type. The “issue” is painfully and awkwardly brought to the forefront as the parenting couple subject themselves to the Private Pre-School application process.

The challenges of parenthood, including judgmental friends and relatives, and the competitive nature of comparisons, are beyond obvious in most every scene of Act 1. Even Alex’s (probably not coincidental that her name is gender-neutral) mother (Ann Dowd) is passive-aggressive in her judgments of Alex quitting her job as a lawyer to stay home with her son. Octavia Spencer co-stars as Jake’s teacher and counselor to the Wheelers during the application process, and even her role has a twist designed to elicit more judgment and discrimination.

There is really nothing convincing throughout the film. It’s barely Lifetime Channel material, with a simplified emphasis on the difficulties of raising a non-conforming child. The incessant arguing amongst parents, family members, and friends makes each successive scene more annoying than the previous. The film should have been entitled “Parents Like Jake’s” because Jake has almost no screen time, while Ms. Danes flashes her “Carrie cry-face” (for “Homeland” fans) incessantly.

Certainly the topic of gender identity and non-conformity is worthy of discussion and analysis, as it has entered mainstream conscience in less than one generation. Anxiety and confusion exists, and even well-meaning conversation can take a wrong turn quickly. We just need – and deserve – better guidance than this film provides.

watch the trailer:


HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

December 21, 2016

hidden-figures Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history of which most of us knew nothing.

Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program

We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monae). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.

Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.

There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to take the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we note how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.

The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.

The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!). It even deploys some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


HOME (animated, 2015)

March 26, 2015

home Greetings again from the darkness. Depending upon your expectations for animated films, you will either find this latest from DreamWorks to be nice entertainment for kids, or a bit too simplistic for adults. Twenty years ago Pixar ushered in a golden age of animation with the first Toy Story, and the grading curve was forever changed. If you can accept that not every animated film need be an instant classic, the odds are good that kids will find this to be a very enjoyable hour and a half.

Oh (yes, that’s his name) is the friendliest and most energetic of all the Boovs, a society of technologically advanced aliens who change color based on emotions (similar to a mood ring). The Boovs also excel at running from adversity – especially when their enemy Gorg is chasing. When Captain Smek decides his Boovs will take over earth, he orders the banishment of all humans to Australia (kind of funny when you think about the history of that continent). Left behind is one youngster named Tip (short for Gratuity Tucci, one of the oddest ever screen names for a kid) and her pet, Pig the Cat. It turns out both Oh and Tip are misfits in their own world, and are forced to team up so that Oh can redeem himself and Tip can be reunited with her mother.

The main (and obvious) themes are: stay true to yourself, accept others for what they are (even if they are different from you), and family is important and worth fighting for. Tip is kind of a confusing character because she knows how to drive a car, but admits to being a 7th grader originally from Barbados. Oh has no Boov friends because he is so darned personable and he is always making mistakes – usually due to his desire to connect with others. Captain Smek’s false confidence catapults him into a leadership position, based mostly on his ability to retreat from the difficult decisions. Even the villain Gorg (who looks/dresses like Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) is simply misunderstood.

As you would expect, there is humor throughout … most of it at a level that those under age 11 will appreciate (that’s not a bad thing). These laughs come courtesy of bubble wrap, a cookbook, awkward dancing, and a hover car that runs on fast food staples like Nacho Mama, Busta Lime frozen drinks, and Burrito Torpedoes. There is a recurring gag showing clumps of earthly items deemed unnecessary by the Boovs, and this gives adults in the audience something to track.

Crucial to the film’s success is the voice acting. Oh is voiced by Jim Parsons as an E.T. version of Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”. His twisted version of the English language (“sad-mad”) is good for a few chuckles, but mostly his eagerness and openness make Oh a character kids will care about. Rihanna voices Tip, and has at least 3 songs on the soundtrack. She does well in capturing the strength and vulnerability of this character who is on a mission to find her mother. Also fun is hearing Matt Jones as Kyle, the ‘is he or is he not’ friend of Oh. Fans of “Breaking Bad” will recognize Mr. Jones as Badger from that series. Not quite as effective are Jennifer Lopez as Tip’s mother and Steve Martin as Captain Smek. Mr. Martin especially could have brought more spark and color to his role.

Director Tim Johnson (Over the Hedge, Antz) took the source material from Adam Rex’s book “The True Meaning of Smekday” and delivered an animated film with a refreshing approach – it doesn’t feature violence, inappropriate humor or a smart-ass kid that disrespects adults. It’s a shame that the unique color palette is quashed by the 3-D technology … and what’s up with the awful title? … but overall, this is one the kids can enjoy (especially if they are struggling to fit in).

watch the trailer: