“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:


BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018)

August 9, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adam Driver impersonating John David Washington or vice versa … either way is comical, except that it’s also based on a true story where their characters existed and this chain of events actually occurred. The source material is the memoir by Ron Stallworth and it’s possible, given today’s social climate, that only director Spike Lee could pull off a film that so blatantly uses racism for comedic effect, yet also reminds us of its inherent danger.

Mr. Washington (Denzel’s son) plays Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs’ first black rookie police officer. His job interview is quite awkward and, of course, features a reference to Jackie Robinson. Quickly growing tired of his records room duty, Stallworth’s first field assignment is to infiltrate a local black activist group and report back on a Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) event. This leads to a much bigger and riskier plan of going after the KKK. Yes that’s right, no need to re-read the part about him being the first black police officer. This is the incredible story of how an African-American (with the help of his white partner) worked his way into the KKK, even speaking with David Duke on a few occasions, and ultimately prevented an attack on local black activists.

The adapted screenplay was a collaborative effort from Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and director Spike Lee. The film is simultaneously laugh outloud funny and provocative. The outlandish plan involves Ron Stallworth (and his white voice) being the telephone connection, and partner (and non-practicing Jew) Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) being the “white face” of Ron Stallworth at KKK meetings. There is extreme tension during Zimmerman’s undercover scenes, and much of the humor occurs during Stallworth’s phone conversations. Topher Grace is extremely effective as David Duke, a thankless role to say the least.

Superb support work is widespread in this film that runs 2 hour and 15 minutes. Robert John Burke plays a no-nonsense Chief Bridges; Frederick Weller is racist jackass patrolman Andy Landers; Laura Harrier is Patrice, the Angela Davis lookalike activist and love interest; Jasper Paakkonen plays skeptical and high-strung Klansman Felix; Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA) is the comical and unnerving Ivanhoe; and even Harry Belafonte makes a surprise big screen appearance. Other notables include Alec Baldwin (in an opening that sets the stage), Nicholas Turturro, Damaris Lewis, Ryan Eggold, Isiah Whitlock Jr, and Arthur J Nascarella. It’s a terrific and deep cast and they walk the fine line between entertainment and enlightenment. There is no shortage of Hollywood family genes and blending thanks to: Washington, Baldwin, Turturro, Buscemi, and Weller (it plays like 2 degrees of separation).

A low-budget look to the film gives it an authenticity and 1970’s vibe, and cinematographer Chayse Irvin works wonders with the camera in a multitude of situations where our attention should be on the dialogue of the characters rather than the colorfulness of set pieces. Black Ron running the show from a telephone (and a white voice) and White Ron face-first in the muck both have their burdens to bear, and much of the time, Zimmerman’s is the more interesting of the two – although as a whole, it’s an astonishing story.

Perhaps Spike Lee set out to make the polar opposite of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 most controversial film THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and he has certainly crafted one of the most effective films of his oeuvre. He also nails a few jabs at Trump and the current political climate, while the music from Terrence Blanchard perfectly complements the tone. Mr. Lee interjects some historic moments as well as some fictional ones – none more powerful than the back and forth chants of “White Power” “Black Power”. At the conclusion, Lee serves up footage of Charlottesville, reminding us that the racism that caused us chuckles over the past couple of hours, remains prevalent today … only that’s not the least bit funny.

watch the trailer: