Thursday, August 25, 2016

THE RESUME OF HUGH GRANT

Hugh Grant in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.
Michael Caine was once asked about all the schlocky films he starred in and he defended them by surmising that most actors probably only have five films that they’ll really be remembered for, and he felt confident that, despite the many duds, he had five great ones. He was wrong. He’s had a lot more than that. His classics would certainly include ALFIE, THE ITALIAN JOB, GET CARTER, SLEUTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, EDUCATING RITA, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE QUIET AMERICAN. Quite a resume, despite JAWS 4: THE REVENGE and BLAME IT ON RIO.

It’s a fun game to play as you consider the career of your favorite movie star. What are the five great films they’ll be remembered for? Or are there more? Some talents with decades less experience have just as many great films as the Cockney superstar does. (Tom Hanks certainly comes to mind.) And still other talents have a resume, chock full of terrific films, that we may not readily realize. One of those actors is Hugh Grant. He’s not only got five, he already has seven. And he’s been at it for almost 30 years less than Caine.

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
You know Grant’s list of six biggest critical and popular hits: FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, NOTTING HILL, BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY, ABOUT A BOY and LOVE, ACTUALLY. And his seventh just opened -  FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. It’s one of his best films, and it might just be his finest onscreen work ever.

Sure, Meryl Streep received most of the attention before FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS opened. After all, she has the title role and well, she’s Meryl Streep. And her performance as the infamous, tin-eared American socialite who fancied herself a great singer is a hoot and a half as she croons like a shivering cat in a wet alley. Streep will likely net her 20th Academy Award nomination for her larger-than-life performance in this comedic biopic. She’s funny, bawdy, brazen, and yet amazingly touching. And the way Streep completely loses herself once again in a character is a marvel to watch.

Still, the greater revelation in the movie is her costar Hugh Grant. Oscar buzz is heating up as strongly for him and it is very well-deserved. He plays St. Clair Bayfield, Florence’s husband, enabler and number one fan, and it’s the most complex part in the film, and he is extraordinary throughout. It’s also the lead role of the piece as he’s onscreen almost twice as much as Streep is. Plus, his character has the story’s true arc. He goes from a man who is doing all he can to help Florence realize her dream, and at the end realizes that it’s wholly his dream too. His devotion to her trumps all other things in his life outside of Florence that we see. His own apartment, friends, hobbies, extra-marital girlfriend…ultimately, none of it matters as much as his love and devotion to his wife. It’s a showcase role, and Grant aces the part.

Hugh Grant in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994).
Grant is not an actor like Streep who disappears in a part. We can always recognize Hugh Grant in there. And he’s cultivated a particular kind of role that is his stock and trade – that of the emotionally stunted man who stammers, blinks and clumsily wrestles with his feelings throughout the story. Think of his self-denial and comical torture as he grapples with his true feelings for Andie MacDowell’s character in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994). His Hugh Grant-ish persona reached its zenith in ABOUT A BOY (2002) as the rakish loner who struggled to connect and be a stand-in father to Nicholas Hoult’s needy youth. There are similar characteristics to be found here in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS as well, but the part of Bayfield stretches Grant’s skills farther than any role ever has before.

He’s more serious and grounded onscreen than he has been previously. And Grant shows an amazing maturity. He is older now (56 in September) and doesn’t shy away from showing his age and wrinkles. In fact, there’s a certain world-weariness to him in 2016 that makes him all the more fascinating to watch. He’s deeper and more nuanced and he also brings a natural gravitas to the work. When he’s onscreen in this film, even opposite a scene-stealer like Streep, you keep watching him.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a character study, of the two of them, a romantic comedy about these lost souls who found each other. Both were failed artists that clung to the periphery of the arts, serving as benefactors and enthusiastic fans. Yet both still itched to be onstage. Old habits die hard and their need to be loved pushes both of them in the story. Florence’s dreams are worn on her sleeve, but Bayfield’s are kept more hidden.

Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult in ABOUT A BOY (2002)
Florence thinks she’s a great talent but her lack of self-awareness is due to many past tragic circumstances. For starters, an unloving father disinherited her as a young woman until he reluctantly came around, but the damage was done. Then she found love with a man at 18 and married him, but he gave her syphilis on their wedding night. In those days, syphilis could kill. The fact that she lived 50 years with it was a miracle of genetics and chutzpah. But the disease took its toll on her all those decades. It ruined her dexterity. She had to give up the piano. It added bloat to her tiny frame. And it made walking difficult, as well as her mobility. She even lost all her hair to the vicious disease. (One of the most moving scenes in the film is when we discover that her perfectly coiffed locks are an expensive wig.)

Worst of all was the way that her incurable STD hindered her brain. She started to lose her mind and it likely kept her from certain self-realization, including her understanding that her vocals were too pitchy and very flat. Syphilis also prevented her from having children, and even enjoying a sex life with Bayfield, as she didn’t want to endanger his health by potentially passing it on to him. Yet, even with such inhibitors, the two had a full and loving marriage in many ways. Bayfield strove to make her happy, even if it meant paying off friends and critics to say nice things about her singing when she stepped out into the public arena to share her talents. He catered to her whims and delusions, helping her with singing lessons, recording a record, and setting up a concert for her at Carnegie Hall.

As Hugh Grant plays him, Bayfield becomes Florence’s Pied Piper in a way, leading others to her and convincing them of her worth. He gets everyone around her to love her and see her as he sees her. Those who discover Florence may start out snickering at her awful singing, but soon they realize that her passion for music is contagious and worth a public’s admiration. Bayfield’s POV of her helps everyone in the story see things differently, and the same happens with those of us watching in the audience. We fall in love with this ridiculous woman, despite ourselves. In fact, we fall in love with both her and her husband.


And it wouldn’t work without Grant’s delicate performance. Nicholas Martin has written an incredibly nuanced script, and veteran director Stephen Frears deftly directs it all as he always does, but it needed an actor to make his side of this outrageous story plausible and even admirable. Streep had the easier task in rendering a woman who is an island, but Grant has to be the boat that takes us to and fro such a place. Without his convincing us of Bayfield’s unabashed enthusiasms, we might dismiss both of them as caricatures of the elite. Instead, we see them as tragic figures. We may laugh, but ultimately we applaud them. And shed tears for them too.  

At the end of the film, as his arc comes to its close, Bayfield realizes that he may have never been the great actor he wanted to be. He never got to play Hamlet, though he still dabbles in his soliloquies for various audiences, but the greater role was that which he played opposite Florence. His actions gave her a wonderful life and opportunities to express her art, as compromised as it may have been. That ginormous role was enough for him. He was her scene partner, director, producer, and muse. Who needs the Bard when you can be all that?  

Grant himself has never played Hamlet. He’s not a classically trained Shakespearean actor, but rather one who has succeeded based on more naturalistic inclinations. (More of a Michael Caine than a Laurence Olivier, if you will.)  But Grant has proven himself to be one terrific film actor in many superb films that he has been listed above the title. In FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, he sets a new bar for himself. It’s his seventh great film, and who knows, he may even give Mr. Caine a run for his money.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

"STRANGER THINGS" IS HOLLYWOOD’S MOST AUDACIOUS ENTERTAINMENT IN 2016


There was very little hoopla and almost no fanfare before its debut. At best, it was getting buzz as a Winona Ryder comeback vehicle. But after Netflix dropped its 8-part series STRANGER THINGS on the American public on July 15th, it became a phenomenon. (Its ginormous success has created a desperate demand for a second season.) And in a summer when one tentpole after another disappointed at the Cineplex box office, this unassuming show became the escapist entertainment we were all truly hungering for. Amazingly, it snatched that mantel while thumbing its nose at three major conventions of Hollywood.

You see, according to those who run the studios, approve the scripts, or assume the role of all-knowing producer, period pieces are supposed to be a tough sell because modern audiences can’t relate to them, yet here is STRANGER THINGS taking place in a time period over three decades ago. And for genre pieces, like horror or sci-fi, the rule of thumb is to cast men as your heroes driving the narrative, all the better to appeal to the fanboy base, yet the three main female characters in STRANGER THINGS are the ones who take charge here. And anyone who’s been in Hollywood two minutes is supposed to know that you never have a lead in a project who’s an adolescent, unless it’s for a kid’s movie or a Disney property. Yet STRANGER THINGS had the audacity to center its story around three boys and one girl, all 12. So not only has the show become a huge hit, creating water cooler talk like few others in 2016, but it seems to be giving the finger to “Hollywood by-laws” at the same time. (Veteran screenwriter William Goldman was truly correct when he made the assertion that no one in Hollywood knows anything.)

Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo in STRANGER THINGS.
In particular, it’s amazing that a series like STRANGER THINGS has pre-teen leads because it is not aimed at that audience. This is adult fare, with big themes about parenting, conformity and even class warfare. And while it touches on youthful items like Dungeons and Dragons games and first crushes, it spends the majority of its time dealing with themes of death, divorce, and conspiracy. (The “Big Bad” here is a local science lab full of overreaching defense department types more than willing to sacrifice the citizenry in the name of the greater good of fighting the Big Red Scare.) STRANGER THINGS is definitely not kid’s stuff, despite the young boys and girl at the center of its story.

Maybe such unusual juxtaposition is why it has resonated so well with audiences. It’s familiar, yes, what with its 80’s nostalgia that cleverly references fashion, synthesizer music, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Eggo frozen waffles with relish. But more importantly, it serves all of what was known from that era with different and daring storytelling. Lead characters that are adolescent in an adult-themed horror tale? You can’t get much more novel than that. Stranger things, indeed.

The show takes place in 1983 in the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana. The sleepy burg suddenly becomes a hot bed of intrigue when 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing in the local woods. His mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) becomes frantic and the town police, including morose chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), start an investigation but have little to go on. Will’s best friends – Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson and Lucas Sinclair – start their own investigation and they make just as many inroads as the professionals. (The three boys are played by Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin, respectively, and they are all fantastic.)

Winona Ryder as Joyce in STRANGER THINGS.
Then they discover a strange girl loitering in those same woods. She’s dressed in a hospital gown, has short cropped hair (they think she has cancer!), and speaks very little. To them, she’s almost an alien, not only because these kids are not ready in any way to comprehend girls, but also because she can do things not of this world with her amazing ESP powers and ability to move things. Just how she came to be so unusual is suggested, without fully explained, but she escaped the treacherous science lab because they were trying to turn her into some sort of Commie-killing super soldier.  

The girl calls herself Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and informs them of her escape, and that the lab holds the key to Will’s whereabouts. In many ways, the government property is the haunted house in this story, as it holds all kinds of secrets with Eleven being just one of them. As she helps the boys realize that the lab is the key to this “otherworld” where she senses Will has been transported to, Eleven becomes their reluctant ally. Ultimately, she will become the most crucial character in the piece, bringing all the investigations together and solving the puzzle at the heart of the strange things going on in Hawkins.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in STRANGER THINGS.
Eleven is not only the best character in the show, but a valiant rebuke of female clichés that too often permeate Tinsel Town. She’s sullen, gawky, and decidedly boyish - hardly a Hanna Montana for a new generation. Indeed, she is very alien to those in the story as well as audiences watching anything that comes out of Hollywood. And as an ‘alien’ she is presented without the cuddle factor of an E.T. At one point, the boys even dress her up in a similar fashion as Spielberg’s most famous extra-terrestrial did when donning the blonde wig and dress. They think it will help disguise Eleven from the authorities looking for her, but what it really does is thumb its nose as Hollywood conformity. The blonde wig does nothing for her, and makes her even more ill at ease. Eleven will not play by society’s silly rules about what a girl should be. She doesn't wear it long and walks around the rest of the series in her dirty dress and Jean Seberg pixie. 

And just as bold is how Brown plays her. She never adopts even a smidge of coquettish behavior. Her face doesn’t play cute. Instead it shows every expression but that as it registers pain, concern, fear and contempt in ways that brush up to Maria Falconetti’s landmark silent movie performance in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC in 1928. (Is that intentional here? Could be.) The performance and character sends a great message to everyone watching, especially female viewers. It defies the grotesque and outdate girlie characters that Hollywood still throws at us en masse, and all but renders Margot Robbie’s gum-popping, bad girl Playmate performance in the SUICIDE SQUAD movie DOA before it’s even opened.

Natalia Dyer as Nancy in STRANGER THINGS.
Ultimately, Eleven becomes the true hero of this brat pack, saving them from vicious school bullies, and a few serious near-death scenarios too. STRANGER THINGS would be exceptional if she was the only female character in such a position, but the series assigns such authority and responsibility to its two other major female characters as well. Mom Joyce is like a dog with a bone throughout, pushing, prodding, and all but ordering the policemen to grow a pair and find her son. And then there’s Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Mike’s older teen sister. She starts out as a 16-year-old interested in cliques, trysting with her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), and being the cool girl in trendy cowl necks. But as her friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) goes missing as well, Nancy’s character arc kicks into high gear. She not only becomes a more serious and caring character, but she starts driving the third investigation at hand. Nancy joins forces with Joyce’s older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and even drags the reluctant Steve into the hunt.

How ironic that in a summer when the best bone that Hollywood movies has thrown female empowerment is a kick-ass WONDER WOMAN trailer, this “little series that could” shows how it should be done. Eleven, Joyce, and Nancy each lead their charge, and they triumph too. Ad none of them are in positions of authority. To be so strong and assertive in most Hollywood fare, such female characters would have to have a badge. Not here.

Matthew Modine and Millie Bobby Brown in STRANGER THINGS.

Like all good sci-fi and horror, genre always comment on current society, and more often than not, it portrays man as the true monster in the world. STRANGER THINGS is no exception to such commentary. Matthew Modine’s white-haired authoritarian figure running the lab represents many monsters – the macho need for war, government overreach, and a patriarchal society that steamrolls over anyone in its way. Heck, Eleven is even forced to call him “Poppa” during the experiments on her. With father figures like that, better we’re all orphans.
That might be the only truly obvious part of the series. But the rest of STRANGER THINGS is fresh, fun and distinctively daring. What could have been merely a good yarn about a monster that took place in the 80’s is given so much heft by the daring choices and depth that its brilliant creators Matt and Ross Duffer infuse it with at every turn. And all of that makes it the best entertainment this summer, as well as one of the highlights of 2016. Perhaps the show should really be called AUDACIOUS THINGS.  

Monday, July 18, 2016

FEMALES, FEMINISM AND FUN ON FILM IN 2016

Original caricature by Jeff York of the new GHOSTBUSTERS (copyright 2016)

Why is anyone still questioning if women are funny?

Or for that matter, why are any of us concerning ourselves with the petty gripes regarding such matters by sexist Internet trolls? For almost two years they’ve been foaming at the mouth over the thought that talented comedic actresses like Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig would dare pick up the mantel where Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray left off in the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise. The original 1984 movie may be a beloved classic, but giving it a ‘sex change’ is hardly worth all the anger and ink expressed over it. It’s laughable how vicious the hysteria over central casting has become.

So…you want to know what’s really funny?

The fact that the problem with the new GHOSTBUSTERS movie lies not in its cast of McCarthy, Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. It’s in its screenplay.

A rather tepid script is why this much-anticipated remake opened to just good reviews, and not great ones. And that’s more than likely the reason it came in second at the box office. (Although it did haul in an admirable $50 million in its first weekend.) The new take on Manhattan’s paranormal gunslingers isn’t anywhere near the dog that all those S.O.B.’s on the Internet predicted that it would be. Still, it’s not a homerun either. It may be frothy, summer fun, but it should have been a lot smarter and yes, a whole lot funnier too.  

As the saying goes, if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. And the page here is filled with all kinds of errors, from continuity issues to wide variances of tone. You may think that just because it’s escapist entertainment that one shouldn’t judge it too harshly, but even fluff needs to be whipped into a concoction that goes down smoothly. And this one doesn’t quite do so.

For starters, a movie that is a horror comedy should be scary. And frankly, there’s one good scare in it, in the first 10 minutes when the ghost is trying to escape in the museum. The original GHOSTBUSTERS had quite a few frights in it, what with Gozer and those demonic hounds growling during the climax, let alone the genuinely unsettling vision of the satanic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering maleficently through Times Square. I wish this one had more at stake with ghosts other than fear of being merely slimed with green goo. Who you gonna call? More like a good dry cleaner. 

Even a comedy needs decent character arcs too, and this one doesn’t really have any to speak of. Really, what’s at stake for Wiig and McCarthy’s lead characters here? Reconciling with each other after going their own ways? Well, that happens in the first 30 minutes. And after that? Not much. They beat the ghosts back to hell, but still…

Also, both of those women are essentially playing ‘straight’ here. Where’s the fun in that? Why are they both playing the wet blanket, the scold? McCarthy’s specialty is playing the wild card. She doesn’t impress in this confining role, and even Wiig has played prissy and put-upon better elsewhere, most notably that of her wonderful screen work in BRIDESMAIDS. The failure to really utilize either of these great comic talents is not a casting issue as much as it’s a screenwriting issue. If they had better written roles to play they, and the movie, would be more uproarious.

And then there’s the cartoonish miscalculations of the Kevin character, played by Chris Hemsworth. When needed to eke out laughs in the THOR movies, he’s got a light touch and is charming as hell. But here he’s playing the ridiculously caricatured himbo secretary working for the ghostbusters and every scene he’s in brings the movie to a screeching halt with how utterly dumb his character is written. He doesn’t know how to answer a phone? That’s funny? And to make matters worse, the worthless villain of the piece (not even worth going into) becomes a ghost and inhabits Kevin so we have to watch Hemsworth strain to be a vampy villain. He's directed to pummel every joke with more impact than Thor's hammer. Painful!

Kate McKinnon comes very close to playing a cartoon herself here, though one could argue she’s just exploiting a certain New Yorker kind of eccentricity. She’s amusing, lurking around the edges of the frame like the bastard child of Harpo Marx and a Manson girl, but more often than not she doesn’t seem to exist in the same world as her ghost hunting cohorts. Zany can be grounded, just look at Zach Galifianakis’ character in THE HANGOVER. He was odd and outrageous, but he still stayed tethered to the other players. Here, McKinnon struggles to define her character as a believable creature. 

And heavens, where are the quips? Bill Murray riffed through the first one like a modern Groucho Marx. He was playing the scene and making fun of it at the same time. No character gets that fun task here. As for any clever dialogue, forget it. A few scattershot lines register, seen in the trailer so there’s no surprise, and instead laziness seems to seep in far too often. When McCarthy has the invading ghost who's taken over her body EXORCIST-style slapped out of her by Jones, all she can say is, “Oooo, that’s going to leave a mark.” Really? That 's the line? That line that has been around for two decades? It was most memorably uttered, of course, by Chris Farley in 1995’s TOMMY BOY, but joke writing today shouldn't simply reboot old lines too. At least if you’re going to use that line, create a running gag where McCarthy’s face shows a mark and everyone asks about it. Instead, that opportunity dies on the vine too.

Did the studio interfere? Did director Paul Feig and fellow screenwriter Katie Dipold overreact to all the web complaining? They acknowledge it more than once in the film, so it would seem so. It’s unfortunate, as is the clumsy editing, not to mention the egregious continuity errors that none of Feig’s previous work ever suffered from. At one point the female characters in this one complain about being called ‘ghostbusters’ by the media and then as they go outside to their souped-up hearse, it’s emblazoned with a paint job that has the Ghostbusters logo on the side as well as the term “Ghostbusters” on the car door. Dumb.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick in MIKE & DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. (copyright 2016)
Two other talented actresses struggle to transcend their so-so material as well, this time Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza in MIKE & DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. Kendrick and Plaza are two of the sharpest and confident talents working in the entertainment business today, and in this dirty R-rated comedy they have a field day tallying up all kinds of debauchery: binge drinking, sexual trysts in the sauna, getting stoned and swearing like sailors. They’re as bad as the boys who are their doofus wedding dates (Adam Devine and Zac Efron). The girls are so hilarious here, they not only eclipse the guys in laughs, but you wish they were the stars of the movie instead.

The film seems to be content with letting them be as outrageous as their male counterparts, but the two talented actresses imbue their characters with sly layers of nuance that Devine and Efron just can’t manage in their creations. The actresses add a sense of hurt and self-awareness to their plight, as if they are doing all the things they do to run away from the boys who want them to be squeaky clean to take them home to mother. Is such pain informed by the difficulty of working in Tinsel Town where every actress is judged just as unfairly on their worth? Even here, these two women have to show off their bikini bods in slow motion, better for all the junior high boys who snuck into the theaters to ogle them, of course. No wonder Kendrick and Plaza paint bitterness around the edges of their characters. They know where they are coming from.

And how wonderful that their characters refuse to conform to those perfect ingénue types that Mike and Dave want them to be. It’s actually quite feminist in how the girls here stiff the boys, and do what they want, how they want, utterly unapologetic in their hedonism. Well, not until the end when the screenwriters insist on a Hollywood ending where everyone is happy of course. But up until those final moments, Kendrick and Plaza seem to be playing on a whole different playing field. And they're kind of giving the whole movie their middle finger. (I guess they're the ones picking up Bill Murray's vibe, commenting on the movie they're in while they're in it!)

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kate Beckinsale in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP.
It’s funny, but the best and most modern comedic portrayal of a woman in a movie so far this year concerns a woman from the 19th century. It’s the portrayal of Lady Susan Vernon in Whit Stillman’s sublime Jane Austen adaptation LOVE & FRIENDSHIP that is the true revelation. In the movie, Lady Susan finds herself a widow, and desperately in search of a new husband to keep her in the style she’s accustomed to. To keep up her status quo, she starts an elaborate scheme to get exactly what she wants, even if it requires pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. It’s her only recourse of course, as in those days the options for a widow were paper thin. Thus, she chooses to play their confining game with the intent of beating all the one-percent white males at this asinine and rigged game.

It all makes for a hilarious comedy of manners, as Lady Susan has only her brain and verbal dexterity as a weapon to fight society, but my what weapons they are. And use them she does, with the precision of a ninja, to cajole and convince everyone that her way is the best way and to get exactly what she feels she's due.

Kate Beckinsale has never been better on screen, clearly delighting in all of these verbal acrobatics, and she stays controlled and deliciously cool the whole time. (If there’s any justice in awards season, she’ll be remembered come winter.) We root for her to win, even though Lady Susan is actually quite monstrous. But this vampire, leeching off of the kindness and gullibility of the upper class, never bares her fangs. And Stallman keeps it all subtle and straight too as he refuses to let her show sideways glances or arch a knowing eyebrow. He instructs her to play it utterly straight, and Beckinsale does so perfectly. She may be pulling off a ginormous ruse, but Lady Susan never gives up her tell.

The closest Stillman comes to commenting on her villainy is in her costuming. She's almost always swathed in black. Sure, it’s ostensibly because she is a widow in mourning, but it’s really there to reveal the color of her soul. Even her outlandish hats are symbolic – they match the huge and outrageous scheme she’s concocting, one she wears upon her person wherever she goes.

She bests everyone throughout, and at the end, surprise surprise, she wins. And without anyone really becoming the wiser to her charade. She’s like a master magician in that, pulling off an incredible trick, yet a feat that no one can truly see how it is being accomplished.

How ironic that in the modern world of 2016, when the argument is still being waged about a woman’s worthiness as comedian or whether or not an actress can properly head up franchises and tentpoles, a 200-year-old comedy sets the best example of how it should be done. All it takes is the right script, a complex female character, and a well-cast, accomplished actress to create the perfect storm for film comedy. Let’s hope there are a few more hurricanes left this cinema season.  

Saturday, July 2, 2016

MY OFFICIAL MOVIE CRITIC DUTIES FOR EXAMINER.COM END AS THE NEWS SITE FOLDS


This week, the Examiner online, the venerable catch-all of news, opinion and every topic under the sun, sent out emails of notification to its “examiners” to let us know that it was ending. No more articles would be accepted and the entire website would fold on or around July 10th. My days as one of their Chicago film critics, and their main Chicago Horror Movie Examiner, are now over. No chance to even say “goodbye” to my followers there. Hence, I'm telling you here if you follow me in both venues.

It was great while it lasted. Truly. 

It was really fun writing for them. I was published practically every week and built up quite a following. The editors at the Examiner were terrific people and I had great interactions with them. And being able to be one of their venerable movie critics, one who outlasted a lot of his contemporaries over the years there, gave me a forum to put forth my take on movies, write about the trends and big themes in them, as well as Hollywood, and contribute to the awards season by publishing a year-end best list that was quoted and referenced on Twitter and other social media. All very fun, all very flattering. And it went on for five and a half years. It was a great privilege to be an Examiner. 

The gig also pushed me to see more movies than I probably would have normally, particularly on the horror front, and it was great to see all that was out there. Granted, being the Chicago Horror Examiner meant I often saw the bad and the ugly, along with the good, but it was fascinating to dig so deep into what scares people. And it was a pleasure to come into contact with many of the filmmakers and fans who loved the genre as much as I did. 

I met a lot of others too in my travels within the press world of the Examiner. I met a number of wonderful folks at the Chicago Film Festival. I was invited to be a member of the terrific new Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle by fellow Chicago Movie Examiner Don Shanahan, a great guy with his own movie blog too. (EveryMovieHasALesson.com). Plus, I developed quite a following of Twitter followers waiting for my reviews from the Examiner, as well as followers and friends on Facebook who did the same. 

What the Examiner contributed to the conversation online cannot be underestimated either. They were in so many cities, with so many niche Examiners covering all sorts of things, from local art scenes, high school sports, community colleges, various music venues, all sorts of cultural festivals, and every kind of eatery, bar and restaurant - it's a wonder that they're stopping. Who will cover so much after the Examiner is gone?  

Yet, they are about to shutter in the next week or so. In case you're interested, my Examiner reviews will be up on the site for the next week, but after that, they’ll likely be gone forever. You know, I got the gig because of this blog, and it was fun doing them in tandem for these past five and a half years. This blog will continue, having gotten better because of my time at the Examiner. I shall remain here, writing it in my spare time about the movie business and what captures my attention, and hoping that you will continue to follow me here. (And if anyone wants to offer me another critic gig somewhere, just holler!) 

Oh, and I’m still doing the movie review podcast series for the International Screenwriters Association too, and you can listen to “Page 2 Screen” at networkisa.org or on iTunes. They’re downloadable for free in both locations too. 


So, the only thing left to say really is, "Thank you, Examiner, for the great opportunity and experience and memories." It was a privilege and an honor, and I appreciate all those who read my thoughts and followed me so faithfully there. I hope you will follow me here as avidly. Indeed, The Establishing Shot will remain, but how very, very sad that the venerable and vast-reaching Examiner will soon be no more than a very fond memory.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

NO HORROR MOVIE WILL BE AS HORRIFYING THIS YEAR AS "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA"


Technically speaking, it’s a documentary, one that premiered on ESPN this past week, and played at the Tribeca Film Festival in May for Academy Award eligibility. However, no matter what you call this 7.5 hour work done for the network's 30 FOR 30 documentary program, it is one brilliant series, worthy of Emmys and Oscars. It’s also likely to stand as the greatest horror story on any screen this year. After all, horror doesn’t need ghosts or goblins to be terrifying. It only needs a monster of some kind. And there are many of them in O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA. 

The late, great screenwriting guru Blake Snyder wrote that every horror story has a “monster in the house.” JAWS had the Great White in its residence, PSYCHO had Norman Bates, and even FATAL ATTRACTION had Alex Forrest. Here, the main monster isn’t O. J. Simpson, the titular villain at the center of it all, but rather, America. Indeed, it is our nation that filmmaker Ezra Edelman is truly pointing his finger at in his new documentary. Our shameful racial divide, as well as our outlandish obsession with celebrity, is the dual-headed monster at present in this haunting tale. Simpson is part of it, of course, but it took a lot to create such a Frankenstein’s monster.

As everyone knows, former football great and Hollywood celebrity Simpson stood trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995, and that story is the focus here. Simpson is at the core of the narrative here, a Jekyll & Hyde figure both loathsome and pitiable, but he was also a product of American culture that for decades had allowed such a celebrated man to feel above the law. 

Edelman starts his narrative by concentrating on Simpson's escape from his broken home in San Francisco into the world of sports where he excelled as a football running back. His sense of entitlement started then as he was worshipped as an athletic god, one who created enormous pride and revenue for his college USC. Suddenly, he wasn't black, as Simpson once observed, he was O.J.  It was the start of the celebrity being on a first name basis with his adoring public.

Winning the Heisman Trophy, breaking all sort of college and NFL rushing records, being treated as an Adonis, it all pumped up Simpson's ego. Normal rules didn't apply to someone of his stature. And Edelman shows us how enablers of Simpson’s kept that narrative a reality for him at every turn for decades. His shenanigans were tolerated by all. Even when they turned into great sins or even crimes.

His friends, family and both his wives, by and large, ignored his numerous infidelities. His violent outbursts were suppressed by the same people, even the LAPD who should've arrested him when Nicole called them because she feared for her life. More and more, Simpson was demonstrating that he had become a very bad man, but because he was a celebrity, most were willing to look the other way.

That is, until the deaths of Brown and Goldman. When his wife divorced him, gained the upper hand, and moved on without him, Simpson couldn't take it. No one defied him in such a way. So he exploded, showing her that she wouldn't get away with it.

It didn’t help that his career at the time was also on the downswing, having failed to become the top sportscaster and/or actor he wanted to be when he retired from the gridiron. Indeed, one of the more interesting stories in the documentary is how Simpson desperately wanted to play the part of Coalhouse Walker in the movie version of E. L. Doctorow’s bestseller “Ragtime.” He was cocksure he'd secure the part, but failed to, and his pride took a big hit. That was the first of many ego bruises that Simpson suffered after he hung up his cleats. And many more tore down his ego along the way too, culminating with Nicole's rejection of him. It all set off the powder keg inside.

The documentary does a superb job of burrowing into Simpson’s psyche along the way. Perhaps the most shocking of all was how he embraced a “gangsta” lifestyle after losing the respect and goodwill of the public. The public trial and civil trial left him a pariah so Simpson found refuge in South Beach where he lived an ultra-hedonistic lifestyle filled with overindulgence, including drugs, strippers and dangerous friends. Even if they were the wrong kinds of people, they still worshipped O.J. and he needed it more than any drug. Celebrity was such for him that he needed to constantly be adored, even if it was for his sins.
  
Even with most of the focus of the series on Simpson, there are many other monsters at play here as well. His ex-agent Mike Gilbert admits he knew his client was guilty of the murders at the time, yet he still helped hide Simpson’s assets from the Goldman and Brown families. Another villain is Mark Fuhrman, the detective at the scene of the double homicide. He lied on the stand about using racist epithets and thereby doomed the prosecution’s case. He made it appear as if this was just another example of the LAPD having it in for an African-American. It's amazing to see the dead-eyed Fuhrman on camera here, bragging about himself and dismissing his slurs as mere language. 

The greatest monster that Edelman indicts is the LAPD and its history of racial profiling and abuse. For decades, the cops had acted insidiously and the two hours of the documentary covering their history is the most horrifying part of the show. From their trampling of civil rights, to the Watts riots, to the Rodney King beating in the early 90’s, justice for blacks was dealt out horribly wrong. No wonder the trial of Simpson became such a referendum on race.  
And even if you saw Sarah Paulson’s superb performance as DA Marcia Clark in FX Network’s brilliant scripted miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON this past spring, it is amazing to hear the real prosecutor give her take on things here. She’s very clear about the mistakes she made and her naiveté in assuming that the “mountain of evidence” would be enough to convict Simpson. Sadly, her co-counsel Christopher Darden declined to be interviewed for the series, and his presence is greatly missed. It would have been wonderful to hear insights from Simpson chief counsel Robert Shapiro too, but alas, he is not here except in old news footage. 

Edelman did get F. Lee Bailey to go before the cameras, however, as well as two of the jurors who are quite candid here about their takes on the prosecution and defense teams. Edelman also interviewed various civil rights leaders from Los Angeles, reporters, legal experts, and other key players from the time to add great context to it all. 

Most impressive is the ever-candid Fred Goldman who doesn’t mince one word about his feelings, even so many decades after. At times the lurid and outrageous story of the trial plays like some sort of Kabuki theater, but Goldman reminds us that people died, horribly, and one of them was his son Ron. 

Edelman also gets extraordinary candor from many others as well. Defense attorney Carl Douglas brags, without batting an eye, about changing the framed wall hangings in Simpson’s home from photos of him with dozens of white celebrities to more admirable pictures of his black family for the jury tour. Also, one of the black jurors admits that she voted to acquit Simpson as payback for the police officers who got off scot-free from beating up Rodney King. And Bailey gleefully brags about how he goaded Darden into getting Simpson to try on the gloves when he insulted the assistant D.A.'s manhood. One of the most revelatory testimonies is when Gilbert tells of how he and Simpson rigged the glove test when O.J. purposefully stopped taking his arthritis medication so his hands would swell. 

And some of the footage and pictures Edelman presents here are simply stunning finds. Outtakes of Simpson rehearsing for the cameras, home movie footage of him at Rockingham, and extensive video from the hotel cameras when he and his thugs stole the sports memorabilia that led to his current incarceration for 33 years - it's all here. And fascinating.

And then there are the explicit shots of the neck wounds that Brown and Goldman suffered, two pictures that up until now had always been presented with black bars over the wounds. This time the camera is unflinching as it forces us to see just how violent those murders truly were.   

In the final analysis, Edelman is suggesting that our society is both the villain of the piece, as well as its greatest victim. Our country's shameful racial history and out-of-control celebrity culture created such a toxic environment for Simpson and other participants to exist in. And Edelman makes us wonder if much has changed in the 21 years since the "trial of the century."

Yes, racial relations have improved in many respects, as the election of an African-American president twice in this nation will attest. Yet “birther-ism” and bigotry continue to plague that feat, and xenophobic citizens still chomp at the bit every chance they get to discredit the accomplishments of Barack Obama by suggesting he's not even American, or a secret Muslim, or worse. Some even end up being their political party's presumptive presidential nominee. 

Edelman asks if our justice system has gotten any better since O.J. Is the racial divide less? Are we still a nation of haves and have nots? Is the nation’s celebrity culture more obsessive than ever? Clearly, this documentarian believes that our tragic story continues, with the United States not being much wiser for having lived through it all. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA remains not only a great documentary, but ultimately a terrifying tale of horror. It's also quite a tragedy.