FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN (2019, doc)

June 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood is known for taking a real life person or event, embellishing the details, twisting the facts, and creating a fictionalized version meant to shock … or at least entertain. John DeLorean lived a life that made it almost too easy for Hollywood, yet numerous attempts at a biopic have stalled over the years. Co-directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce were there to pick up the pieces and deliver a documentary with dramatized reenactments of actual (and hypothetical) moments. Co-writers Dan Greeney and Alexandra Orton assist with a cinematic version likely to cause those who recall actual events to marvel at the full story, and those too young to remember will likely find it difficult to believe … or perhaps, sadly, all too believable!

The film provides the backstory where John DeLorean was a talented engineer at General Motors and became a star on the rise within what at the time was the world’s largest corporation. Turning around GM’s flailing Pontiac division by introducing the GTO as a muscle car, DeLorean’s success was a mixture of technical knowledge, marketing savvy, risk-taking, swagger, and ambition. Despite his actions leading directly to higher profits and large executive bonus checks, the stodgy old school regime forced him out in 1973. DeLorean, seen as a swashbuckling rebel, started his own company, De Lorean Motor Company, with the unusual stated goal of mass producing exotic sports cars made of stainless steel.

The dramatizations and reenactments involve Alec Baldwin as DeLorean, Morena Baccarin as his (third) wife, supermodel Cristina Ferrare, and Josh Charles as Bill Collins, the chief engineer he ‘stole’ from GM. We even get a behind the scenes look as Baldwin discusses the role from the makeup chair, and Ms. Baccarin is interviewed on how she viewed Ms. Ferrare.  These dramatizations cover possible conversations between DeLorean and Collins, as well as home life with Ms. Ferrare and the kids, and are more distraction than help.

More effective than these “what if” segments, are the actual interviews with the real Bill Collins, as well as others who were involved at the time. Unfortunately, we only see the actual Ms. Ferrare in clips, as she understandably wouldn’t want to be relive this part of her life. However, their kids, Zach and Kathryn, are interviewed on camera. Both are quite forthcoming with their thoughts, recollections, and the impact of growing up as DeLoreans’ kids. Zach carries his hostility on his sleeve, while Kathryn offers a bit more reticence. Both reactions are understandable, and ‘the car vs the dad’ discussions are fascinating … and these interviews are the film’s high points.

Opening with FBI footage of DeLorean’s lie detector test administered in 1983, possibly the most interesting aspect from an overall perspective is the contrast between his trial for drug trafficking and his later trial for embezzlement. Despite his being a truly desperate man when he agreed to the drug deal, it seems quite obvious – as the jury found – that DeLorean was a victim of FBI entrapment (possibly the first time many of us had heard the word). In the aftermath of what was a media circus not dissimilar to OJ’s trial, we do hear from both defense attorney Howard Weitzman and prosecutor Robert Perry as to how each viewed the case. However, the shell company in Geneva and the aspects to his embezzlement lead us to believe DeLorean’s character was truly compromised – or possibly revealed.

From a business viewpoint, it was quite interesting to learn that DMC (De Lorean Motor Company) ended up being based in Belfast, Northern Ireland (a great trivia question) due to 30% unemployment and the large government subsidies meant to stimulate an economy in the dumps. The lack of infrastructure and a workforce with no automobile experience led to quality issues that were simply too great to overcome …especially when combined with other issues on Planet DeLorean.

John DeLorean led a flamboyant life and experienced a very public fall from grace. Screenwriter Bob Gale explains how the DeLorean car was chosen for the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy, and how a letter from DeLorean showed how much he still enjoyed the spotlight. Was DeLorean a renegade visionary or a con man? Was he a victim or a cut-throat businessman? Whatever your thoughts, he’s a textbook example of how the American Dream can come true, and still be followed by one’s worst nightmare. Sometimes there is no need to print the legend … fact will do just fine.

watch the trailer:

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NORMAN (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With the subtitle, ‘The Moderate Rise and Rapid Fall of a New York Fixer’, writer/director Joseph Cedar removes one layer of the mystery that otherwise envelops the lead character Norman Oppenheimer. We find ourselves somewhat sympathetic for the obviously lonely guy, while also accepting this as Cedar’s commentary on today’s real world obsession with networking. “It’s who you know” is the call of the business world, and few stake claim to more contacts that Norman.

Richard Gere stars as Norman, and we immediately notice his usual on screen air of superiority is missing, replaced instead by a fast-talking sense of desperation … in fact, Norman reeks of desperation. Cedar divides the film into four Acts: A Foot in the Door, The Right Horse, The Anonymous Donor, and The Price of Peace. These acts begin with Norman stalking/meeting an Israeli Deputy Minister after a conference, buying him an $1100 pair of Lanvin shoes, and then tracking their relationship over the next few years as Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) ultimately becomes Prime Minister of Israel, and is embroiled in a scandal that directly impacts Norman.

It’s a terrific script with exceptional performances from both Mr. Gere and Mr. Ashkenazi (who also starred in director Cedar’s excellent Oscar nominated Footnote, 2011). Their awkward initial connection seems grounded in reality – despite the expensive gift. These are two men who dream big, but go about things in quite different ways. Other terrific actors show up throughout, including: Michael Sheen as Norman’s lawyer nephew; Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi; Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin and Josh Charles as businessmen; Isaach De Bankole as the shoe salesman; Hank Azaria as Norman’s mirror-image from the streets; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a disconcertingly quiet and calm Israeli investigator.

There are many interesting elements in the film – some are small details, while others are quite impactful. Examples of these include the whimsical music from Japanese composer Jun Miyake, Norman’s questionable diet, the emphasis on “Unnamed US businessman”, the twist on a simple question “What do you need?”, the recurring shot of the shoes, and the creative use of split screen montage during multiple phone calls.

Most hustlers don’t generate a great deal of success, and Norman is often an annoying, even an unwelcome presence. However, it seems clear he is well-intentioned, and despite a proclivity for fabricating facts, his sincerity makes him a somewhat sympathetic figure … one that by the film’s end, has accomplished quite a few favors that should have delivered the recognition and influence he so craved. Norman’s “art of the deal” may not be textbook, but it makes for entertaining viewing.

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I SMILE BACK (2015)

October 23, 2015

I smile back Greetings again from the darkness. The combination of Sarah Silverman in the lead role and the word “smile” in the title sets the stage for some shell-shocked movie goers who walk into this one expecting the side-splitting laughs this talented comedienne usually delivers. Drama seems an insufficient description for what director Adam Salky serves up, and Ms. Silverman is fully engaged with the bleak tone. It’s a Hollywood rite of passage that every comedic actor must go full bore drama before they are taken seriously as an actor. Welcome to the club, Sarah.

The opening sequence plops us right into Laney’s (Silverman) depressed state. We soon learn that she is far beyond the stereotypical disillusioned suburban housewife. She lives in a stunning McMansion with her wonderful husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and their cute kids. Unable to find joy in her life, Laney seeks answers in alcohol, pills, cocaine, and by trysting with her friend’s husband (Thomas Sadoski). We’ve seen it all before, but never by through the work of a fearless Sarah Silverman.

It’s not that we dislike Laney. It’s more that we feel helpless and somewhat disgusted watching her. We have seen the parents who put their career ahead of family, but it’s even more painful to watch such self-destructive emotional behavior. And when Laney finds release through her daughter’s teddy bear, it pushes us as viewers to accept just how near the edge she teeters.

Laney’s vacuous eyes are the obvious sign that she is simply unable to find any joy in the daily routine of family life. It’s not surprising when we learn of the childhood baggage she carries, and her attempts to confront the past provides a spark of hope for her recovery … as does the rehab stay. However, the script from Paige Dylan (wife of Jakob Dylan) and Amy Koppelman confirms that sometimes there is no redemption. The abrupt ending is both a kick in the gut and relief that our time with Laney is done … and also recognition that Sarah Silverman has arrived as a dramatic acting force.

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FREEHELD (2015)

October 2, 2015

freeheld Greetings again from the darkness. A touching story based on the struggles of two people in love … that description fits, but leaves out the crucial details that make the saga of Laurel and Stacie so poignant and important. Laurel Hester was an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who, like most non-heterosexual people of the era, went to extremes to conceal that part of her life for fear of personal and professional reprisals.

We catch up with Laurel (Julianne Moore) and her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) while on a drug bust in 2002. This scene is meant to quickly establish that Laurel is an excellent cop who is fully trusted by other cops. Soon after, we find Laurel and her god-awful volleyball skills flirting with Stacie (Ellen Page), a much younger auto mechanic. The two strike up a romance that leads to buying a house and jumping through the legal hoops required under the Domestic Partnership Act.

When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, the battle for her pension benefits begins as she goes up against the Freeholders who control Ocean County. While Stacie holds out hope for a cure and full recovery, Gay activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) swoops in to generate media attention through protests and chants against the County. His cause is Gay marriage, while Laurel simply wants equality. It’s an odd differentiation that the movie dwells on, but never quite explains.

A significant social issue, a stroll on the beach, a pet dog, and a terminal illness … this sounds like the TV Guide synopsis of the latest Lifetime Channel movie. Perhaps that was the goal of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, 1993), whose next movie is a sex-change love story. Fortunately, the extremely talented cast elevates the material to an emotional level that allows viewers to connect. Those opposed to the issue include the macho cops from Laurel’s own squad room, and the ultra-conservative faction on the County board – who predictably runs and hides when the conflict reaches its peak.

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page do outstanding work in allowing us to accept a romance that at times looks more like a mother/daughter relationship due to the age difference. Humor is injected with a rare drywall joke and possibly the first ever on screen tire-rotation contest.  However, this isn’t a story for laughs.  Rather, director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 2008) shows one of the many personal stories that have led to the legal authorization of gay marriage and rights. We view this acceptance through the eyes of Laurel’s partner Dane, and Michael Shannon’s low key performance prevents the role from being too clichéd. The film suffers a bit with Steve Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of the over-the-top Goldstein, but it does ring true in that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Certainly the film suffers from technical and script issues, yet the true story and the emotional subject matter, along with the fine performances, provide a clear look and reminder of some of the obstacles faced by good people over the years. Be sure to watch the closing credits for photographs of the real Laurel, Stacie, Dane and Goldstein – each (except Laurel, of course) have cameos in the film.

watch the trailer: