“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:


BADLAND (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Westerns are always a risky proposition for a filmmaker, but some are drawn to the genre and seem to thrive on the intricacies that fans have come to expect. Justin Lee is one such filmmaker. He wrote and directed this film and follows the familiar tropes: a quiet, proud protagonist; the strong, lonely woman; the corrupt gunslinger – maybe wearing a badge, maybe not; and of course, the battle of good versus evil.

Kevin Makely stars as Matthias Breecher, a Civil War veteran and now Pinkerton detective carrying out the orders of Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd, CANDY MAN, 1992). Senator Burke has pledged to track down war criminals and hold them accountable by administering justice. Breecher is the Senator’s hired hand who travels from town to town, serving warrants and dealing with those who refuse to abide

Mr. Lee’s film is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, “The General”, finds Breecher face-to-face with tough-talking General Corbin Dandridge (Trace Adkins). It’s here where Breecher first flashes his impressive gun skills, and it’s soon after where he crosses paths with Harlow (recent honorary Oscar recipient Wes Studi), a competitor in the “bounty-hunter” game. Chapter 2, “The Cooke’s” has Breecher tracking down Reginald Cooke (played for all it’s worth by a finger-wagging Bruce Dern), a sickly old man dying slowly from pneumonia and living with his daughter Sarah (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). Local bad guy Fred Quaid (James Russo) is trying to seize the Cooke’s land (apparently this is the possessive apostrophe in the chapter title). During this segment we get a nasty fist fight, an ugly shootout, and Breecher falling for Sarah and actually shushing his horse. Chapter 3, “The Sheriff”, brings us to the terrifically named town of “Knife’s Edge” where equally terrifically named evil guy Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey) wears a badge and rules the town with a reign of terror, and with Old West waterboarding. There is even a double-tap grave side shootout. It’s an old mining town and the citizens live in fear – especially the good-hearted barkeep Alice (Amanda Wyss). The segment ends with a ‘high noon’ duel in the dusty street.

Chapter 4, “Breecher”, acts as a finale for our hero, a man we are told was “born to violence.” His dreams of owning land may have faded, and soul-searching has him reckoning with the man he’s become. Mr. Makely reminds of actor Anson Mount in his ability to hold a scene, and we can’t help but think that in his younger years, Mr. Fahey could have easily played the Breecher role. Despite the out-of-place linguistic stylings, director Lee proves the lessons of the old west never get old, and it leaves us with the message … ‘Be still, young man.”

watch the trailer:


STUBER (2019)

July 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A wild and over-the-top chase-fight-shootout at the Staples Center is the action-packed opening sequence, leading us to believe we are about to spend 90 minutes watching a mountain-sized rogue-cop out for vengeance. And then, as soon as that He-Man cop squeezes into the front seat of an electric car Uber, everything changes. The seismic shift in tone transitions our movie into a throwback to the 1980’s buddy action-comedies, only with a few contemporary twists. Whether that’s an improvement will depend on your preferences.

As intense as that opening sequence is, we can’t help but chuckle as we see Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan, co-stars of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, reuniting on screen as police partners Vic Manning and Sara Morris. Their attempts to apprehend drug dealer Teijo (Iko Uwais, THE RAID: REDEMPTION) goes horribly wrong and sets Vic on his mission to track down Teijo as he strives to avenge the death of his partner. It’s this personal vendetta that has Vic prioritizing the job and his need for revenge over his relationship with his daughter Nicole (Nathalie Morales, BATTLE OF THE SEXES).

Vic inadvertently schedules his LASIK surgery on the same day as Nicole’s gallery showcase of her sculptures, and this decision leads to his being crunched up in the front seat of Stu’s UBER (“Stuber”, get it?). Kumail Nanjani (THE BIG SICK) stars as Stu, the timid, peace-loving guy who also has a lousy job at a retail sporting goods store, and makes bad financial decisions based on his WHEN HARRY MET SALLY situation with Becca (Betty Gilpin). Stuck in the friendzone, Stu’s unrequited love has him in the role of good guy to call whenever Becca gets dumped or needs money.

Director Michael Dowse and writer Tripper Clancy turn the film into a road trip around the L.A. area, with each new destination punctuated with another comedic exchange between the intimidating Vic and the ‘I just wanna be with Becca’ Stu. In supporting roles, we get Mira Sorvino as Vic’s police Captain McHenry, and Jimmy Tatro as Stu’s entitled and clueless store manager Richie.

Other than the frenetic opening sequence, most of the action scenes play second fiddle to the comedic interactions between opposites Vic and Stu. Unlike FREE FIRE where the comedy and action complemented each other, this film oddly allows some of the violent moments to double as punchlines … these end up failing as both action and comedy. The film is certainly at its best when Vic and Stu are riffing off of each other, especially in the cozy front seat. The eyesight gag is overplayed and gets old pretty fast, but Kumail again proves he’s a master of deadpan one-liners. The hulking Bautista more than holds his own (despite the incessant squinting), and the film touches on today’s man vs the traditional idea of a man’s man. It’s a bit of a throwback to such buddy films as 48 HOURS, MIDNIGHT RUN, and TANGO & CASH, but it also provides a contemporary take on rogue cops, romance and masculinity. It’s no LETHAL WEAPON, but the banter between Kumail and Bautista provide quite a few entertaining moments.

watch the trailer:


BENEATH THE LEAVES (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It doesn’t happen often, so it’s probably kind of fun for them when a father and daughter are able to appear in the same film. This is writer-director Adam Marino’s first feature film, and he cast Paul Sorvino and Mira Sorvino not as father-daughter, but as Police Captain and Detective. The script, co-written by Marino, Naman Barsoon, Daniel Wallner, and Mark Andrew Wilson treads familiar, yet usually interesting ground … a crime topic covered previously by numerous TV shows and movies.

The film opens with an abusive father (Don Swayze) doing despicable things to his young son and daughter, before the two of them take action against him. We then flash forward to a prison escape that occurred after a fire is set. One of the escapees is an especially demented psychopath with a trait that ties the story back into the opening sequence. What follows is a whodunit police procedural that focuses on Detective Erica Shotwell (Oscar winner Ms. Sorvino) and the four boys who survived their encounter with the twisted prison escapee some 15 years ago. Doug Jones plays James Whitley, the prison escapee returning to finish the job on the 4 that got away. Mr. Jones is best known for his fabulous “creature” work in THE SHAPE OF WATER and PAN’S LABRYNTH.

The four boys, now grown men, are played by Ser’Darius Blain, Christopher Backus, Christopher Masterson, and Kristopher Polaha, the latter of which is now Detective Shotwell’s partner … though, against his vociferous protests, is prohibited by the Chief from working the case that he is oh-so-close to. Also providing support work are Melora Walters, Jena Sims, and fingernails in general. Director Marino’s film is mostly B-level material, and actually much milder than what we see on many TV shows these days. It does, however, reinforce the notion that screwed up kids quite frequently grow into screwed up adults.

watch the trailer: