AN ACTOR PREPARES (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does a kid ever lose hope that what was once a horrible/absentee parent might magically evolve into a dependable, caring parent – even as an adult? Is it ever too late for that parent to make amends? Director Steve Clark co-wrote this story with Thomas Moffett about a narcissistic actor (is there any other type?) and his feeling-slighted grown son being forced to take a road trip that likely won’t lead to bonding, but could result in their better understanding each other.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the Hollywood sign and the glittering lights below. It’s fitting since a big part of the story is the level of entitlement and garish ego proliferating the industry that put the town on the map. Legendary actor Atticus Smith is being presented a lifetime achievement award. We see that his career has been widely diverse with project titles ranging from the legitimate sounding “The Language of Men” to those with significantly more shock value like “Throwdown at Bitch River”. His speech is quite awkward, but it serves well as our introduction to the character which Jeremy Irons makes his own.

Mr. Irons goes over-the-top to play Atticus. His blustery mannerisms, ever-present scarf, and center-of-attention-seeking personality dominate much of the film and allow us to understand why his grown son Adam (Jack Huston) carries such a grudge for the man who never really tried to be his father, and who readily admits that the younger daughter (Mamie Gummer) is his favorite. It’s really the only empathy we can muster for Adam, since he early on establishes himself as a pretty unlikeable and quite annoying professor of film. In his first scene, he actually tries to lecture a class of female students on the real meaning of feminism (the class is “Cinema through a Feminist Lens”). The next time we see him, he’s being rude to his father Atticus, who has just suffered a heart attack. You know the type.

It’s that heart attack that puts these men together on the road – initially in a luxury tour bus, and later in a classic Plymouth Barracuda. Their destination is the daughter’s wedding, and the trip includes stops at the Chateau Marmont and The Drake Hotel in Chicago. Along the way, we see a bit more of a post-shower Atticus than we would prefer, watch one of the worst baseball scenes in movie history, and witness Atticus sneaking booze and porn on the bus, and then finally drugging his son.

The title of the film comes from a book by acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, which makes total sense once we realize these two men have been acting their way through life. Adam is terrified of becoming a parent like his father, keeps his own health issues a secret, and is apparently inept at documentary filmmaking, which he claims as his profession. On the trip, Atticus is prepping for his next role – he is to play God, which he seems to think is perfect casting … although the studio and his manager (Ben Schwartz) are quite concerned about his health.

Mr. Huston does finally bring his character along to the point where he seems more tolerable, and the film might surprise you on where it ends. There is some decent comedy and a yin and yang with father and son that adds enough entertainment value, as long as you can enjoy the flamboyant approach taken by the venerable Mr. Irons.

Watch the trailer:


RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015)

August 9, 2015

ricki Greetings again from the darkness. Having worshiped at the acting alter of Meryl Streep since 1977 (her brief appearance in Julia), this frequent movie-goer takes great delight in seeing her donning a leather jacket and bangles while strumming an electric guitar. Somehow she continues to expand on her already unmatched diverse resume of movie characters – this time as an aging leader of a cover band that plays to a small but loyal audience at a Tarzana bar.

Ricki is no rock star, though she clearly chased the dream. We learn of this when we see her working as a checker at the local supermarket, and then again when her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls her home to Indianapolis in a desperate attempt to pull their daughter Julie out of a suicidal depressive state brought on by her husband leaving for another woman. Julie is played by Ms. Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer, and their bond plays out well enough on screen.

The movie’s peak occurs with the family dinner scene, as Ricki is united with her three kids, including sons Josh (Sebastian Stan – known in the Marvel world as Bucky Barnes) and Adam (Nick Westrate). It doesn’t take long before true emotions are bubbling over causing much discomfort throughout the restaurant. See, Ricki left her family to chase her music dream, leaving Kline and his second wife Maureen to provide a sense of normal family life. Maureen is played by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who sadly doesn’t get to “flash” her famous singing voice in a movie that is comprised of songs for about half of its running time.

Director Jonathan Demme (an Oscar winner for Silence of the Lambs) and writer Diablo Cody (an Oscar winner for Juno) inexplicably drop the family drama soon after the dinner scene and we spend most of the second half watching Streep and Rick Springfield play out their dysfunctional relationship onstage. If you are unfamiliar with Springfield, he was a pop star in the 80’s and was the Dr. McDreamy predecessor while on “General Hospital”. Lately you may have seen him as the creepy plastic surgeon on “True Detective” … he looks much more normal here.

The band does a nice job with the familiar songs, and Streep is effective as the lead singer and audience favorite. However, even with Demme’s stellar track record with musical documentaries (Talking Heads, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen), it’s difficult to understand why so much time is devoted to the musical performances after the extensive family drama set-up. A perfect example is that once the final act hits, Julie is given no more dialogue. It’s a strange turn.

The script does make a couple of very interesting points. The first involves the repercussions of a mother in chasing her dream … Ricki compares herself and perception to that of Mick Jagger. The second involves addressing the “job” of parents to love their kids. Either of these could be the central theme of a very interesting film, but as with other topics, the surface is barely scratched in this film. Despite the odd choices made by writer and director, it’s clear Ms. Streep is loving her time on stage … her version of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” is alone worth the price of a ticket.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


CAKE (2014)

January 30, 2015

cake Greetings again from the darkness. This completes what I call the triumvirate of female film misery: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, and now Jennifer Aniston in Cake. Each film focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of a previously strong female character adjusting to life’s cruel obstacles.

Claire (Ms. Aniston) is a former attorney in constant chronic pain who appears to be on a mission to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The scars on her face make it obvious she has survived some trauma, and it’s also clear that there is an additional emotional loss that is contributing to her situation. However, director Daniel Baraz (Beastly) and writer Patrick Tobin tease us for awhile with exactly what tragedy Claire is working through. Further proof of her lack of charm comes when her support group (led by Felicity Huffman) boots her out after an especially uncaring rant.

Claire takes a bizarre interest in researching the suicide of one of the group’s members (Anna Kendrick). This leads to some uncomfortable interactions with the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and their young son, and even more bizarre interactions – through dreams and hallucinations – with the Kendrick character (yes, the dead one). Claire’s abusive persona comes through in these moments, just as it does with all other people who dare cross her path … especially that of her caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza, Babel).

Many have used the dreaded “snub” term to describe Aniston not receiving an Oscar nomination. My perspective is that she does a fine job in a role that is stunning in its variance from her typical fluffy rom-com roles. However, it is not a performance that I would favorable compare to Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard or Felicity Jones. To see America’s sweetheart go 90 minutes sans make-up and with unkempt hair is a welcome change, but the script contrivances and the choppiness of the presentation – a stream of big name actors make single scene appearances – do nothing to help the case for Aniston. In fact, I would still rate her work in The Good Girl as her best.

The trend of glam-downed actresses is welcome, though it’s important to remember that a full-bodied script is still necessary for a quality movie. Other than the language, this one felt like it was more in line with a Lifetime movie. However, it does provide hope that Ms. Aniston will devote more time to dramatic roles and indie films.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

February 11, 2013

side Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steven Soderbergh says this is it. His final film. At age 50, he says he is walking away from making movies. Over the years, he has provided some good and some not so good, but never has he bored us. Movie lovers will always be grateful to him for his 1989 Sex, Lies and Videotape, which single-handedly brought the spotlight back to indie film. While I am quite skeptical of his retirement claim, it’s noteworthy because the absence of one of today’s true auteur’s would be a loss for the art of cinema.

As for this “last” film, it begins as Hitchcock-esque, but concludes as more like Basic Instinct or Dressed to Kill. Put simply, the first half is mesmerizing while the second half devolves into a trashy pulp thrille … which, depending on your tastes, may or may not be a negative.

side2 The first half brought to mind the term pharmacological thriller. It seems as though Soderbergh and frequent writing collaborator Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) are making a statement about our current societal trend of seeking answers, and even cures, through medication … despite the risky side effects. We meet Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) as he is released from prison (insider trading) and she is falling back into her depressive ways. She is soon enough being treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a doctor who seems typical in his belief that finding the right pill cures most ills.

Since this is a suspense thriller filled with numerous twists and double, even triple-crossings, it’s impossible to go too deep into what happens without spoilers … something I won’t do here. What can be said is the pharmacological thriller shifts into legal drama and finally a who-done-what kind of conclusion. The solving of the mystery comes courtesy of another oft-used Hitchcock theme: the wronged man seeking vindication.

side3 Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent here and to whatever extent the story works for you, they deserve the credit along with Soderbergh. Ms. Mara was outstanding in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mr. Law continues his transition from lame rom-com’s to quality dramatic actor. The same shouldn’t be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Dr Victoria Seibert, Emily’s first psychiatrist. Every scene she shares and every line she speaks just screams “look at me”, not a desired quality for a supporting role.

Support work is provided by Polly Draper, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), Vinessa Shaw, Peter Friedman, Laila Robins, and Ann Dowd. Soderbergh does not disappoint from a technical aspect. His odd camera angles and unique shots are quite impressive and effective in sustaining the mood, even as the story spirals towards far-fetched. If it’s truly his swan song, it seems appropriate that we see both the highs and lows of director Soderbergh. Here’s hoping he returns very soon to the medium where his impact is needed.  If not, the side effects aren’t pretty.

**NOTE: If you look quick, there is an advertising poster featuring Julia Roberts. (Ms. Roberts is a Soderbergh favorite from films such as Erin Brokovich)

**NOTE: Soderbergh does have a TV project set to air later this year.  Behind the Candelabra is the story of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe it’s Steven Soderbergh’s final movie OR you enjoy a pulpy thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer psycho-thrillesr that avoid the slide towards trash-pulp

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEQDMFveSbQ