GLORIA BELL (2019)

March 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously mentioned my general annoyance at the frequency of which the ‘Americanization’ of World Cinema projects occur, I was initially dismayed to hear about the remake of the excellent Chilean film GLORIA. That 2013 featured a terrific performance from Paulina Garcia, and provided a grounded look at life of a single woman of a certain age. However, when it was announced that the American version would be directed by Sebastian Lelio, who also directed the earlier version, and that it would star Julianne Moore in the lead role, the idea became much more palatable.

Oscar winner (and 4 time nominee) Julianne Moore has been one of our more interesting actors since she jumped off the screen (in a supporting role) in 1992’s THE HAND THAT ROCKED THE CRADLE. She’s now approaching 60 years of age, and is a true master at capturing the essence of a character. She brings Gloria Bell to life in the most believable and grounded manner possible. Rather than a movie caricature, Gloria is a real woman. She plugs away at her daily work in the insurance business. She belts out the songs on the radio as she drives her car. She gets annoyed at the stray cat who sneaks into her apartment. She smokes and drinks. She tries to be part of her adult kids’ lives. She tries to ignore, but ultimately reports the loud noises from her upstairs neighbor to her landlord. She loves dancing in clubs with men she doesn’t know, or even alone. In conclusion, Gloria lives her life.

Much of the film focuses on the odd developing relationship Gloria has with Arnold (John Turturro). Their eyes meet across the dance floor, spend some time chit-chatting, and soon, his Velcro-back brace is being ripped off. As with many folks, Arnold’s baggage is more burden than history. He seems to be in an unhealthy marriage with ultra-dependent grown daughters and a wife who can’t get through a day without his help. The cell phone ring becomes a running gag … one Gloria finds little humor in.

Supporting work is provided by Sean Astin (a Las Vegas mistake), Brad Garrett (Gloria’s ex), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Garrett’s new wife), and Holland Taylor (Gloria’s mom). Each of these characters get a brief sub-story, as do Gloria’s grown kids, played by Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius. With the son’s marriage in shambles, and the daughter heading to Sweden to live with a man, Gloria experiences the trials and tribulations of life while still looking for meaning and companionship … each a search worth pursuing.

Alice Johnson Boher adapted the screenplay for this version from the original by director Sebastian Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. She refrains from the usual American melodrama or corniness, and instead delivers something to which the actors and viewers can easily relate. The fine line between independence and loneliness is in a delicate balance, and one that’s deftly handled here. And of course, there are scenes that are elevated thanks to the brilliance of Julianne Moore’s performance. All in all, fans of GLORIA will not be disappointed … just lay off the post-yoga cigarette.

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WONDERSTRUCK (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you know an adolescent who is ready to step up from comic book movies, this would be a terrific introduction to more emotionally dramatic and narrative-driven cinema. That’s certainly not meant to imply that director Todd Haynes’ latest is only for kids, or even that it’s aimed at that demographic. Instead, it’s the rare opportunity to follow two intersecting story lines over two different time periods with kids as the main focus, and have some very interesting post-movie discussions related to characters, eras, and filmmaking techniques.

We follow the stories of two kids who are separated by 50 years. Although the time boundary exists, the similarities between their journeys are many. Each is running away from home in search of their roots and identity. They are both hearing-impaired and living in less than ideal family environments. Additionally, their footsteps cross many of the same places in New York City as two museums play key roles.

Ben (Oakes Fegley, PETE’S DRAGON) is a 12 year old living in Gunflint, Minnesota. It’s 1977 when his mother (Michelle Williams) dies unexpectedly and a freak accident takes his hearing. Convinced an odd bookmark is a clue to finding the father he’s never met, Ben sets off for New York City. Rose (remarkable first time actress Millicent Simmonds) lives in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey and is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore in a dual role). Rose is an artistic child whose domineering dad has little time for her, so she hops aboard the ferry and heads to the big city to track down an idol – who may be more closely tied than we first imagine.

Brian Selznick adapted the screenplay from his own novel (he also wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, which was the basis for Scorcese’s HUGO), and some may find the two story lines muddled or difficult to follow. However, for those who connect with the characters and their adventures, it’s a fascinating and entertaining ride. Director Todd Haynes (FAR FROM HEAVEN, CAROL) has established his expertise in visual stylings, and here he gets to present two distinct looks for the separate eras. Ben’s 1977 world is filled with the polyester and neon colors of that era and it’s even given the washed-out look of 1970’s cinema. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rose’s 1927 world is presented in black and white as a silent movie. The lack of dialogue allows us to focus on her facial expressions and body language, which tell us what we need to know.

The American Museum of Natural History plays a significant role in both stories, and the Queens Museum is central to the finale which ties up the two pieces for us. The contrasts of the two eras are as vital as the similarities. Along the way, each of the kids gets a bit of help. Ben befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose connection to the museum and the city provides Ben a boost, while Rose’s much older brother Walter (Cory Michael Smith) also has a connection to the museum and helps put Rose on the right track. The distinct photographic styles help us easily switch between eras, and much credit goes to cinematographer (and frequent Haynes collaborator) Edward Lachman and editor Affonso Goncalves.

Oscar Wilde’s quote, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, takes its shot as the theme for the two stories, and really it’s a heartfelt film with interesting storytelling and unusual cinematic effects. The set design is terrific throughout, and especially vital during the silent movie segments of Rose’s story. Carter Burwell’s prominent score also effectively shifts styles between stories and eras. The ties that bind us – a core need to understand our roots – do so regardless of age and time period. This is a nifty little film that provides much to discuss and consider.

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MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016)

June 2, 2016

maggies plan Greetings again from the darkness. A significant portion of Woody Allen’s film career has been projects that seem designed to appeal to (sometimes only) the New York intellectual sub-culture. You know the type … those who thrive on talking (incessantly) about all the things they know, often without really accomplishing anything themselves. They are the kind of people we usually laugh at, rather than with. Filmmaker Rebecca Miller appears ready to accept the passing of the Woody Allen baton, and at a minimum, her latest is heavily influenced by his comedic-brain food.

Ms. Miller casts perfectly for her first film in six plus years (The Secret Life of Pippa Lee, 2009). Greta Gerwig plays Maggie, whose ever-evolving “plan” is both the title and focus of the film. Ethan Hawke plays John, the middle-aged crisis guy who wants desperately to be showered with attention. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, John’s slightly odd and brilliant wife, and mother to their two kids. Other key players include Travis Fimmel as Guy, a pickle entrepreneur and the center piece to Maggie’s master plan; Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends and confidants of Maggie; and Wallace Shawn, always a treat on screen.

The story starts out pretty simple, and then gets complicated, and then kind of loses focus before ending just right. Perpetually whining Maggie has admittedly given up on ever finding the kind of true love that results in a happy family. Because of this, she has recruited former schoolmate and math whiz and pickle dude Guy to supply the missing link for her artificial insemination. This leads to one of film’s rare cheap laughs and one that not even the quirky Gerwig can pull off. A payroll mishap brings Maggie and aspiring novelist John (a ‘ficto-critical anthropologist’ by trade) together, and her willingness to read his writing and offer some support, is all it takes to finish off John’s slowly disintegrating marriage to Georgette (Ms. Moore dusting off the Euro accent she used in The Big Lebowski).

Writer/director Miller is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Death of a Salesman and was once married to Marilyn Monroe (after Joe DiMaggio). She also directed The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which starred her husband, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Much of her latest film feels contrived and over-written … as if every scene carries the burden of generating a laugh out loud moment. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the ultra talented Julianne Moore creates the most interesting character, though unfortunately, she has the least amount of screen time among the three leads. It’s good for a few laughs, as well as some cringing … and an ending that actually works.

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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.

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OSCARS recap (2015)

February 23, 2015

oscars6 Greetings again from the darkness. “Stay weird and stay different” is the main takeaway from this year’s Oscars presentation. Not only was that the heartfelt and emotional plea to kids made by Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore (The Imitation Game), but it also describes Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The Academy seems to suffer from a multiple personality disorder in trying to decide what to do with the ceremony. Is it a formal and dignified event to honor the nominees? Is it a celebration of the artistic and historic sides of cinema? Is it an opportunity to entertain the tens of millions of TV viewers who tune in each year? Not knowing the objective makes it very difficult to be successful, which leads to a too-long mish-mash of all three approaches further muddled by the 30-second political statements offered up by millionaires whose words probably carry less weight than they believe, but more than they should.

As a movie lover, what draws me to the telecast is the celebration of cinema, so my favorite segments included: the brilliant opening number entitled “Moving Pictures” as performed by emcee Neil Patrick Harris, with an assist from Anna Kendrick, Jack Black, numerous costumed dancers, some terrific special effects, and clips from many iconic movies; the beautifully sung melody by Lady Gaga as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music – with an appearance from Julie Andrews; and the first time ever that each movie nominated for Best Picture (all 8 of them) went home with at least one Oscar.

Of course there were also segments which I did not enjoy so much: an ultra-creepy John Travolta pawing at Idina Menzel’s face a year after butchering her name on stage; a lackluster Birdman parody by Neil Patrick Harris that paled in comparison to the recent work of Fred Armisen (Indie Spirit Awards) and Sesame Street (with Big Bird); the cut away shots to Michael Keaton chomping his chewing gum like a junior high kid; and the multitude of lame jokes (and absurd pre-show predictions) by Mr Harris that could have been excused if not for the poorly timed zinger directed at the dress choice of an award winner who had just moments before disclosed the suicide of her child.

Emotions always run high in a room full of artists, and the live performance of “Glory” from Best Picture nominee Selma was quite impressive … from the infamous bridge setting, to the vocals of Common and John Legend, to the dozens of folks who joined them onstage (Note: they were given much more time than the other live performances of nominated songs). Also registering high on the emotional meter were: Patricia Arquette’s call for pay equality, Eddie Redmayne’s pure joy at winning Best Actor, and the excitement, pride and perspective shown by Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski  towards his home country of Poland.  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, how does it make sense that sourpuss Sean Penn tries to crack wise with an ill-timed joke, while “comedian” Eddie Murphy reads the list of nominees like he is checking inventory at Home Depot?

On a personal note, my favorite film of the year was Boyhood, and while I am not upset that my second favorite film of the year won Best Picture, I do wish director Richard Linklater had received more accolades for his unique and extraordinary project. It was nice to see two screen veterans and professionals like Julianne Moore and JK Simmons take home their first Oscars, and I was ecstatic to see so many awards go to Wes Anderson’s beautiful The Grand Budapest Hotel and the frenetic Whiplash. We should all welcome the notice given to international talents like Emmanuel Lubezki, Alexandre Desplat and the previously mentioned Eddie Redmayne.

Alejandro Inarritu was the big winner of the night for his ground-breaking work on Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and on one of his trips to the stage he articulated a point of which I fully agree. He talked about how in the world of art, “works can’t be compared”, and when he has completed a project, it is that moment when he feels like he has succeeded. That is the heart of why the Academy remains confused about how to treat this event. The work of one actor cannot be objectively compared to that of another. No movie can fairly be determined superior to another. By their nature, works of creativity and art impact each of us differently, and the real test is … were we moved? Were we touched? Did the work cause us to think? Each of these things is more important than a shiny statuette … unless it’s one of those Lego Oscars, which, regardless what was contained in the $160,000 swag bags, were the absolute coolest item given away at the Dolby Theatre!

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SEVENTH SON (2014)

February 5, 2015

seventh son Greetings again from the darkness. Fantasy adventure films based on popular novels have certainly posted a track record of box office success … sometimes in record-setting style. However, not every entry into this genre need be a Goliath like the “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings” franchises. There is always room for simpler and still-creative movie-making like The NeverEnding Story or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Based on Joseph Delancey’s “The Wardstone Chronicles” (17 novels), this latest from Russian director Sergey Bodrov strives to be something special. Though it falls short of such a lofty goal, it still provides an entertaining onslaught to the senses.

A release date delayed by two years is rarely a good sign for a movie, though the official word blames it on legal issues between studio and distributor. No matter to us viewers, as what we care about is seeing something new and exciting. The steady stream of 3D special effects have their moments, but it’s impossible not to notice the out-of-focus issues that abound in post-production 3D. Still the swooping camera work through the mountains, Grand Canyon, bodies of water, and very cool looking temples and walled cities, provide the “epic” look a film like this must offer. An extremely heavy dose of CGI must have kept quite a few programmers employed, and the effects bounce between quite impressive and totally flat. Personally, I never get tired of seeing angry dragons … even if it happens 3 or 4 times in the same movie.

Let’s talk about Jeff Bridges as Master Gregory, the town spook (creature hunter). Evidently Mr Bridges only accepts roles these days that don’t require a haircut … or even a shower. But what’s with that voice? The first time Master Gregory opens his mouth, I immediately thought it sounded like his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit taking a big swig of bourbon and, before swallowing, delivering his lines of dialogue. This voice is a creative choice that crashes and burns. Dialogue is of little use if the audience can’t understand. As challenging as it was for me, it’s expected that most of the target market will be totally lost in Gregory’s exchanges with his apprentice or his sidekick or any of the wicked witches.

The obvious attempt to set up a franchise, or at least a sequel, suffers from another fatal error. Asking Ben Barnes (playing apprentice Tom Ward) to carry the torch is just not reasonable. His wooden approach in The Chronicles of Narnia reminded of Orlando Bloom (that’s not a compliment), and this outing just reinforces that original impression. The hulking sidekick Tusk is played by John DeSantis, and rather than stress his loyalty, we get a few lame jokes at his expense. Julianne Moore takes on the role of the powerful witch Mother Malkin, and though she gives it a shot, the role is simply underwritten and fizzles rather than sizzles. Other support work comes from Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as a young witch smitten with the apprentice, Olivia Williams as the mother-with-a-secret to the apprentice, while Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou each play talented, other worldly creatures.

It’s a bit surprising that the story isn’t more complex and the characters better developed given the screen writing team of Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke, “Peaky Blinders“). We just never get a chance to understand the legacy of Master Gregory and his spurned girlfriend-witch Mother Malkin. We also are expected to take a huge leap of faith when the apprentice can’t accurately throw a knife in one scene, and shortly he is battling assassins, witches and other creatures. Perhaps the only explanation needed is that he is a “son of a witch”.

Fans of The Big Lebowski will get a kick out of seeing Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore reunited on screen, even if we wish their battles were fiercer. And while it’s nice to learn that four arms can really improve one’s swordplay, it’s a bit disappointing to miss out on the true power of a Blood Moon. Enjoy the visuals, duck from the dragons, and strain to understand the words coming out of the mouth of Master Gregory … there is some entertainment value here.

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STILL ALICE (2014)

January 29, 2015

 

 

still alice Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never understood the phrase “cruel disease”. Are there diseases that aren’t cruel? One could say the level of cruelty is determined by how the disease affects you and your loved ones, but a stunning performance by Julianne Moore provides a glimpse of what Alzheimer’s does to those afflicted. She shows us what it’s like when we are robbed of what makes us who we are.  And yes, it’s very cruel.

Most “disease” movies spend a significant amount of effort demonstrating how this will affect the victim’s family and friends, but co-directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland have adapted Lisa Genova’s novel to focus on Alice (Ms. Moore) … her family is mostly trotted out to help the viewer understand how the disease has progressed. We first meet Alice on her 50th birthday, and soon learn she is a brilliant Linguistics Professor at Columbia and has 3 brilliant kids (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish) and a brilliant husband (Alec Baldwin). These are brilliant, successful and beautiful people. And that’s one of the points here … Alzheimer’s doesn’t pick on the poor, the slow or the weak. It doesn’t discriminate at all (other than a slightly higher rate amongst women).

Julianne Moore somehow is equally effective as the energetic, very confident professor and the shell of a person with vacant eyes who only periodically recognizes the face in the mirror or the faces at the family meal. This is a movie and a performance about moments … moments of panic, isolation, and one particular moment of unleashed emotion when Alice comes clean to her husband early on. We hear the fading of her verbal skills (in her speeches) and we witness the slow fail of her body (she was once a runner). It’s torturous to hear and see.

There have been other movies that touched on Alzheimer’s: The Notebook (2004), The Savages (2007), and Away From Her (2007), but Julianne Moore is the first to take us inside, to force us to feel the slow loss of self. It’s painful, and yes it’s cruel.

**NOTE: that is Julianne Moore’s son (with director Bart Freundlich) playing guitar on the park bench near the end of the movie

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a personal portrayal of Alzheimer’s rather than reading a brochure OR you want to see the likely Oscar winner for Best Actress

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you and your family have been touched by Alzheimer’s and you need no reminder

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