FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2018)

January 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Old Hollywood glamour is merely something we read about or reminisce about these days. Part of the reason is that we are almost as likely to see a favorite star on TV as in a new movie, and a bigger cause is that we simply know too much about them as people … the mystique has been replaced by (too many) personal details and divisive political influence.

Classic movie lovers always have favorite performers, and there were certainly some great ones in the Golden Era: Bogart, Gable, Hepburn, Davis, etc; however, I’ve always felt there was one actress who time seems to have forgotten. Gloria Grahame never seemed to choose the easy route (either on screen or real life), and she turned in some terrific performances in the 1940’s and 50’s. You might only know her as Violet in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but she was also an Oscar winner for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), and had standout roles in OKLAHOMA! (1955), THE BIG HEAT (1953), and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). Her talent allowed her to fit as well for a musical or family film, as in the Noir Thrillers for which she seemed to thrive.

So why all the background on a mostly forgotten actress from a bygone era? Because Annette Bening magically channels the late actress in her role as Ms. Grahame in the final stages of her life. Director Paul McGuigan’s film is based on the memoir of Peter Turner, a young man who had a relationship with the actress in her later years. Turner is played here by Jamie Bell (BILLY ELLIOT) and he and Ms. Bening are so believable, that we are fully drawn in by their characters and their touching story.

Opening with the actress in her dressing room prepping for a dinner theatre version of “The Glass Menagerie”, the film conveys much in these few minutes. Clearly, this is an actress far removed from the Hollywood spotlight. We also sense her immense pride is still present, and the glass of milk is for relief from her discomfort … later self-diagnosed as “gas”.

We start in 1981 and flashback to 1979. Creative transitions between scenes and times add a stylish element to a story that is ultimately about human relationships, aging and loneliness. The need to be cared for when sick is as crucial as the importance of being a dependable caregiver for loved ones. The film’s script from Matt Greenhalgh allows for an empathetic look at these topics through the eyes of people we quickly care about.

Julie Walters (Bell’s dance teacher in BILLY ELLIOT) is exceptional as Turner’s mother and Ms. Grahame’s caregiver. Other supporting roles include Kenneth Cranham as Turner’s dad, Stephen Graham as his fiery brother, and Vanessa Redgrave as Ms. Grahame’s mother. We never get the back story on why Ms. Grahame feels so connected to the Turner family – only that the 28 year age difference between herself and Peter didn’t much matter to either of them.

There is a sexually-charged disco dance with Ms. Grahame and Peter in her hotel room that makes clear why any young man might fall for her, but it’s really in the quieter moments where the film and Ms. Bening and Mr. Bell shine. The emotions and pain are palpable, and yet neither her spirit nor his devotion will quit. The music from Jose Feliciano and Elvis Costello is terrific and comfortably fits a story of love and aging and illness, while also reminding us … once a starlet, always a starlet, even when the star has faded.

watch the trailer:

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015)

November 24, 2015

victor frankenstein Greetings again from the darkness. If a filmmaker is going to mess with the classics, there are two paths of creativity from which to choose: stay true to the original, or put a new spin on it. In this case, the classics in question are the nearly 200 year old novel from Mary Shelley (1818) and the nearly 85 year old movie from James Whale (1931). The filmmakers doing the messing are director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John). The spin they chose was (in theory) to tell the story from the perspective of Igor, the loyal assistant to Dr. Frankenstein.

It’s an interesting approach, but one that immediately presents a problem … since the title they chose was not “Igor”, but rather Victor Frankenstein. The film does begin with Igor’s backstory in the circus as a hunchbacked clown/amateur doctor, and the character does provide some early and late narration. The conundrum stems from the fact that pretty much everything else in the movie is centered on the mad scientist, rather than the skilled apprentice/partner.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor and James McAvoy plays Victor Frankenstein (not Fron-kin-steen, in a nod to Mel Brooks), and both actors seem to be doing everything possible to bring energy and enthusiasm to a movie that can’t seem to decide if it’s a reboot or a reimagination or simply an origin story. Radcliffe effectively uses his physicality as the circus clown who is so mistreated and misunderstood, and McAvoy is such a hyper-active mad scientist that I’m sure his fellow actors many times were inclined to advise “say it, don’t spray it”.  McAvoy does seem to be having a grand old time playing the brilliant yet unhinged young doctor-to-be, and to his credit takes a much different approach than Colin Clive when he gets to the infamous line “It’s ALIVE!”

The best parts of the movie are the intricate and amazing sets, the monster himself (albeit too brief), and the expert use of classical music and film score. The circus sets are colorful and active, while Frankenstein’s soap factory home/laboratory is fascinating and creative, and the final Scotland castle on a cliff is breath-taking. Pulleys, chains and cranks are everywhere … as is an incredible amount of body parts, organs and fluids.

After a very well done circus opening, we are jarred with a seemingly out of place action sequence involving a slo-motion chase and fight scene that seems to be attempting to mimic some of the recent Sherlock Holmes movie stunts. Here they are unwelcome and ruin the flow. Another aspect that seems forced and unnecessary is a romantic interlude between Igor and a trapeze artist (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). It feels like an add-on to remind us that it’s supposed to be Igor’s story. Additionally, Andrew Scott plays an intriguing Scotland Yard Inspector who is every bit as obsessed with his faith-based beliefs as Victor is with his science-has-no-bounds stance. A story told from the Inspector’s perspective might have worked, but instead it comes across as another add-on. Another add-on is the filthy rich and very devious fellow med student (played by Freddie Fox) who agrees to fund the experiments, but mostly the character is an after-thought necessary to move the plot along. Wasted is the always menacing Charles Dance, who has but one scene as Victor’s strongly disapproving daddy.

A combination of the romance, minimal role of Igor in the grand finale, the medical school bumbling, the clunky Inspector involvement, and the all too brief monster appearance makes the film all but impossible for viewers to connect. They tell us twice “You know the story … a crack of lightning, a mad genius, and an unholy creation”, but the reality is, the fact that we know the story, makes this one all the more disappointing. It’s fun to look at, but is lacking the depth and soul that has allowed Shelley’s book to stand up over two centuries.

watch the trailer: