Monday, August 29, 2016

RIP GENE WILDER, A TRUE ONE-OF-A-KIND TALENT

Original caricature by Jeff York of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (copyright 2011)

Come with me
And you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look
And you'll see
Into your imagination

We'll begin
With a spin
Traveling in
The world of my creation
What we'll see
Will defy
Explanation

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it

There is no
Life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there
You'll be free
If you truly wish to be

If you want to see magic lands
Close your eyes and you will see one
Want to be a dreamer, be one
Anytime you please and please save me one

Come with me
And you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look
And you'll see
Into your imagination

There is no
Place to go
To compare with your imagination
So go there
To be free
If you truly wish to be

Living there
You'll be free
If you truly wish to be

Those are the lyrics from Gene Wilder's big number "Pure Imagination" in the 1971 movie WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. He sang it softly, with bits of melancholy sprinkled around the edges, like all those chocolate daffodils surrounding him in the scene. It became a classic song almost immediately. (Thank you, Mr. Wilder, as well as the brilliant composing team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.) And today, on the date of Wilder's death, that song, and those words, becomes a fitting tribute to him in any and all obituaries.

Gene Wilder died today at 83, suffering a long time from complications due to Alzheimer's Disease. It's a horrible and cruel disease, and such an ironic way to go for a man whose intensity of manic comedy and heart-on-its-sleeve emotion practically vibrated off the big screen. He was as unique as any comedian's ever placed up there. Wilder was also a savvy writer of comedy and prose, a gifted director, a humanitarian, and so much more.

But make no mistake, Wilder's vivid life will be how we remember him. There is so much I could write here to pay tribute, but I've already done it about him, so I shall simply share that with you here, my friends and followers.

At that time in 2011, in the infancy of this movie blog, I was choosing my favorite male and female performances on film, and Wilder was my pick for the best comedic performance ever. His turn as the eccentric Willy Wonka in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is one I think about almost daily. Suffice it to say, it made quite an impression on me. Here's what I said then in 2011: http://bit.ly/2bxewZV

Gene Wilder was a giant. And his loss today is ginormous. 

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 clich├ęs 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.