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on TV as in a new movie, and a bigger cause is that we simply know too much about them as people … the mystique has been replaced by (too many) personal details and divisive political influence.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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FOXCATCHER (2014)

November 30, 2014

 

foxcatcher Greetings again from the darkness. The 1996 newscast remains vivid in my mind. It was captivating due to the bizarre circumstances and the tragedy involving an athlete whose Olympic career I had followed closely. Initially, I had trouble reconciling the story of this popular world class athlete and the mentally troubled billionaire who was part of one of America’s richest and most iconic families. This movie fills in some of the gaps.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) is a meticulous filmmaker and is never in a hurry as a story teller. He allows the characters to develop on screen at their own pace … and this time the pace is excruciatingly slow – in a brilliant, yet painful to watch manner. The lead characters are a diverse trio of men. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) won Olympic Gold in 1984, but he is shy and withdrawn to the point of being socially awkward and unable to capitalize on his victory. His older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) also won a Gold Medal in 1984, and is very engaging family man who helped raise Mark, while building endorsements and job opportunities for himself. The triumvirate is completed by the incredibly odd billionaire John duPont (Steve Carell), who proclaims himself a wrestling coach after building a state of the art training facility on his family estate. The ultra rich can do such things.

John duPont was never able to live up to his mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave) standards. She even paid the chauffeur’s son to be John’s friend as they were growing up. With Mark always in the shadow of his more popular brother, duPont seizes the opportunity to capitalize on Mark’s vulnerability and invite him to lead his Foxcatcher wrestling team (named after the family estate which is near Valley Forge). duPont’s ultimate goal is to also have Dave join them, but it’s a tougher sell for various reasons.

The mommy issues and brother issues drive the need for validation and are at the core of story here, as are ego, “patriotism”, and ultimately delusion. Steve Carell sports a nose apparatus that captures the reason DuPont nicknamed himself the “eagle”. He also kicks his head back, while slumping his shoulders, in physically capturing duPont’s unorthodox movements. But that’s nothing compared to the eerie aura he puts off whenever he must deal with another person. He sends up red flags to anyone even minimally aware of their surroundings, but to a lost soul like Mark, he becomes a father figure and “coach”.

A wrestling movie would figure to be male dominated, but even with that, Sienna Miller (as Dave’s wife) and Vanessa Redgrave (as Jean duPont) are almost non-existent as the only female characters. Anthony Michael Hall has a brief supporting role, and it’s nice to see Guy Boyd back on screen as well. However, most every scene is some mixture of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, and they each deliver. It’s a side of Carell we have never before seen (many of the greatest comics have a dark side), and Tatum is spot on as the hulking, sulking Mark, while Ruffalo captures the easy charm and sensitivity of Dave.

The story offers further proof that life can be stranger than fiction … especially when it involves an insecure and mentally unstable billionaire who envisions himself as a leader of men.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are familiar with the 1996 story OR you want a lesson in how not to act once you become a billionaire

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a typically comedic Steve Carell performance (he is creepy in a not-funny way)

watch the trailer:

 


Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013)

August 22, 2013

butler1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a film about multiple personalities.  Rather it is a film WITH multiple personalities! Yes, there are a staggering number of characters played by a who’s who of actors, but it’s the movie itself that flashes the most personalities. It is quite a mixture of historical events, the Civil Rights movement, family drama, generational differences, Presidential evolution, emotional wrangling, and Oscar posturing.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the man who worked his way up from being a child slave on a Georgia plantation  to the highest level of butler within The White House … a gig that spanned 34 years and eight Presidents. The story is based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat to dramatic historical events and major social changes … all while wearing white gloves and tuxedo. The movie bears a resemblance to the popular movie The Help, but while that one focused on individual racism, this one is more concerned with systematic or institutional racism.

butler2 While the movie has plenty of emotional moments, in my opinion it could have been even stronger had it committed more time to either Cecil’s long run in The White House or the father-son generational struggles between Cecil and his desperate-for-change son played with fire by David Oyelowo (from Freedom Rider to Black Panther). Instead there is much wasted time on superficial Presidential interactions and a needless side story of adultery involving Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his friend (Terrence Howard).

Director Lee Daniels obviously has many friends who wanted to be part of this one. The incredible cast includes Mariah Carey (still seeking redemption for Glitter), Alex Pettyfer (as a brutal slave owner), Vanessa Redgrave (Cecil’s first serving trainer), Clarence Williams III (Cecil’s ultra cool mentor), Nelson Ellis as Martin Luther King, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (as fellow White House butlers). The most blatant slap in the face of Conservatives comes from the casting of extreme Democrat John Cusack playing Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Other Presidents are played by Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhauer), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan). The constant game of “spot the star” is a bit distracting at times, but not as much as one might guess. It’s just a shame that most get very little story or screen time.

butler3 As for Oprah Winfrey, she is getting much love for her performance, including some Oscar chatter. What I saw was a performance that was solid, yet distracting due to the lack of aging in comparison to her husband (Whitaker). She changes very little (except for costumes) from the beginning until the very end when she definitely goes into heavy make-up for the Obama election. On a personal note, watching 1970’s era Oprah shaking her booty to “Soul Train” was an image I neither needed nor enjoyed.

Again, my favorite scenes were the ones between father and son … Whitaker and Oyelowo. Seeing these two generations struggle so much to understand each other and interpret the world in such different ways proved quite powerful. It’s always painful and embarrassing to re-live the horrible manner in which African-Americans were treated, but even moreso when it’s tied to a father-son relationship.

**NOTE: the ridiculous movie title is the resulting settlement brought on by Warner Bros who was concerned that a title of “The Butler” would cause confusion and conflict with their own 1916 short film of that title.  Yes, 1916.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an entertaining movie loaded with stars and a story that delivers some emotional tugs.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting insight into the inner-workings of The White House OR watching Oprah get her groove on could possibly burn your eyeballs as it did mine.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ4xDTz8Avc


ANONYMOUS

October 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it is clear that writer John Orloff and director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) believe that Edward De Vere, The Earl of Oxford, and not Will Shakespeare, wrote the infamous and iconic plays we have celebrated for 400 years, my advice is to watch this as a Hollywood movie and not a docu-drama. Hollywood is at its best when exaggerating, twisting and dramatizing historic events and figures .. .and presenting the lot as fact.

You may be an expert on Shakespeare and even Elizabethan history, but whether you are or whether you are not, my guess is that you will find this to be interesting and thought-provoking. You may agree with the idea that Shakespeare was not the prolific and talented author, but this movie provides only one possible alternative … with no scientific proof or actual documentation. We see Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower portray Edward De Vere as the older and younger version respectively. Both capture his passion for writing and frustration at being unable to live the life for which he was born.

 Vanessa Redgrave and her real life daughter Joely Richardson portray Queen Elizabeth at the older and younger stages, and we certainly get a distinctive impression of how “the Virgin Queen” may have been mis-labeled as much as any figure in history. Many lovers and illegitimate children are mentioned and the web of secrecy would have been exhausting, given the vast responsibilities of her position.

 Rafe Spall portrays Will Shakespeare as what one might call The Village Idiot. The buffoonery we see from this man is an extreme that weakens the case for De Vere, rather than strengthen it. Though talented writer Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) was De Vere’s first choice, the lack of morals by the illiterate actor Shakespeare allows him to seize a capitalistic opportunity and soak up the audience love.

The best part of the film is the realistic look and feel of the streets, the Globe Theater and costumes. Rhys Ifans is exceptional in the role of De Vere, and the story itself plays out much like one of Shakespeare’s plays. The downside is, I believe most will find the multitude of characters and time-lines and sub-plots to be quite confusing at times. Don’t take a bathroom break or you’ll miss new babies being born and royal overthows being planned.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Shakespeare buff OR you subscribe to the theory that the Bard has been mis-identified for 4 centuries

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to need a note pad to keep up with the players and plots

watch the trailer:

 


THE WHISTLEBLOWER

September 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Emotional exhaustion swept over me as this film came to an end. Based on the true experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, we see what a true hero is. She absolutely refused to turn away from the despicable actions of her co-workers and government officials.

Rachel Weisz delivers what is far and away her best performance yet. She captures the emotional complexity and strength that Ms. Bolkovac displayed. Some have stated she was conflicted, but I never saw that. I saw the character of a woman who had a clear understanding of right and wrong … and would settle for nothing less than “right”.

 Kathryn, a Nebraska cop, accepts a UN peacekeeping job in post-war Bosnia. Her spirit and strength is recognized, and rewarded with promotion, by Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave) who is director of the Human Rights Commission. It is in this job where she slowly uncovers the corruption and cover-up of sex trafficking of underage girls. Even more sickening is that this most profitable business is being run by the peacekeepers and law officers being paid to protect these citizens.

 It turns out that though Ms. Bolkovac was fighting for these human rights of these girls, she was also working diligently to expose the corruption of the private contractors hired to supply personnel in all aspects of recovery in countries such as Bosnia and Serbia. In her situation, the private contractor was DynCorp and she had no problem pulling back the curtain on the lack of training and control exhibited by this and other contractors.

Combine that with the frustrations in dealing with bureaucrats such as Monica Bellucci‘s character, it often feels as if Ms. Bolkovac is fighting a one woman crusade (with a little help from David Strathairn‘s character). When red tape (such as no passport for the abused girls) and diplomatic immunity become major players in fending off her efforts, we get the wonderful line “immunity not impunity”. That explains a great deal.

The film is directed by first timer Larysa Kondracki. Setting and tone are well captured, but the editing of many scenes left me somewhat distracted, but not to the point of annoyance. There is so much tension and exposure to despicable actions in this film that I found it difficult to relax afterward. The strength and courage of this woman will restore your faith in humanity and remind us we should never turn away from doing the right thing.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you agree the “true story” element elevates the tension in a thriller OR you prefer your heroes to be real people rather than the comic book type

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have a weak constitution for the horrific actions of a few OR you are looking for light-hearted fare

watch the trailer:


LETTERS TO JULIET (2010)

May 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, for me there is a fine line between an acceptable chick flick and one that is pure fluff. Oddly enough, this one brings a few fine moments to the screen despite its simplistic predictability and overall lack of creativity.  It easily could have been titled “Where for art thou, Lorenzo?”.

Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia) stars as Sophie, a wannabe writer who stumbles on a 50 year old letter at the wall of Juliet in Verona. She then tracks down the Secretaries of Juliet who let her answer the letter. Poof! Just like that, the author of the original letter (a radiant Vanessa Redgrave as Claire) shows up in Verona to meet Sophie and track down Lorenzo, the lost love of her life (the reason for the letter).

There are absolutely no twists or surprises in the movie. We recognize immediately that Sophie and her fiancé (a miscast Gael Garcia Bernal) are all wrong for each other. How this will end is very clear when Claire’s grandson (Heath Ledger clone Christopher Egan as Charlie) first confronts Sophie in cliched rude Brit manner.

The road trip to find lost love Lorenzo is of course a road of discovery for not just Claire, but also Sophie and Charlie. I am struggling to avoid typing yada, yada, yada. The coolest part of the film is when Claire finds her Lorenzo … a dashing Franco Nero on a galloping steed, who also happens to own the vineyard for Claire’s favorite wine (insert eye roll here).

Anyway, the Tuscan scenery is staggeringly beautiful. And watching real-life couple Redgrave and Nero walk hand in hand is very heart-warming. These two first fell in love during the mid-60’s while filming Camelot. This cost Ms. Redgrave her first marriage (famed director Tony Richardson), but the lovers did not marry until 2006. It’s never a good sign when real life is more interesting than the movie.

If you are cool with an obvious and uncomplicated story line (similar to Amy Adams’ Leap Year) set in the gorgeous Tuscan wine country, then the film will be fine for you. On the other hand, director Gary Winick was also responsible for Bride Wars, so the least he can do is turn in his director’s card and move into a second career dealing with pure maple syrup.