Sunday, June 9, 2019

May 2019

ROCKETMAN (2019) and FOSSE/VERDON (2019, TV)
    The roster of talented artists who have struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, leaving a trail of broken relationships and bad behavior, is longer than any list of gold records, Oscars or Emmys. Few have been more willing to air their self-destructive lifestyle than rock ‘n’ roll legend Elton John and choreographer-director Bob Fosse.
     I didn’t make the connection until about halfway through “Rocketman,” a musical-fantasy that seems to hold little back in chronicling Elton’s abusive early life. As the pop superstar keeps finding more ways to screw up his growing fame and fortune, I thought of Fosse’s self-critical “All That Jazz,” the last musical to deal with an artist’s dark side. Parts of that brilliant movie were recreated in the recent FX miniseries that traces the career and relationship between Fosse and his wife, dancer-actress Gwen Verdon.
     I’ve been a devoted fan of Fosse since I was blown away by “All That Jazz,” watching it two nights in a row, virtually alone, in a small movie theater in 1979. (He even inspired my facial hairstyle). His unprecedented success on both Broadway (“Sweet Charity,” “Chicago”) and as a filmmaker (“Cabaret,” “Lenny”), and his innovative choreography style, which still permeates music videos long after his death, along with his distinctive personality, made him one of the most interesting entertainment figures of the era.
     Needless to say, I had high hopes for this miniseries. But it didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know about the couple and its fractured approach to storytelling was more distracting and confusing than stylish. In fact, the most distinctive scenes in the eight-part series were those that all but copied Fosse’s choreography from his films.
    I’m not sure who the audience for this miniseries was: the number of 2019 TV viewers who even know who Bob Fosse or Gwen Verdon were couldn’t fill Dodger Stadium. But Sam Rockwell, as the hard-living, womanizing Fosse, and Michelle Williams as Verdon, his supportive but equally ambitious wife (later ex-wife), give extraordinary performances, capturing both the mannerisms and the brilliant dancing skills of these showbiz legends.   
     “Rocketman” is much more revealing, as the pianist’s journey to fame is told in both dramatic scenes and traditional musical sequences, where singing and dancing burst forth unexpectedly, and are used to explore the character’s inner thoughts. British actor turned director Dexter Fletcher, who took over for Bryan Singer on last year’s less successful rock bio “Bohemian Rhapsody,” has created a fast-paced, thoroughly entertaining musical, with great assist supplied by the memorable hits of John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. Veteran screenwriter Lee Hall (“Billy Ellliot,” “War Horse”) provides a sad, thoughtful look at the singer’s decent into self-destructive, decadent behavior.
      Like Fosse, John deserves credit for putting the low points of his life on film (he approved the project and has promoted it on his current farewell tour) and embracing the dark side of his personality, even as he has become a well-regarded world citizen in the past 25 years.
     Taron Egerton, best known for the “Kingsman” series, gives a breakthrough performance as Elton, echoing the singer’s charismatic personality and distinctive vocal style without turning it into a cheap Vegas imitation. Also memorable are Jamie Bell as Taupin, who sticks with his writing partner through thick and thin, and the wonderful Gemma Jones as Elton’s grandmother, his only supportive family member.

     Even as a moviegoer who finds the entire Marvel/DC universe childish, shallow, rather boring diversions, I must acknowledge the incredible accomplishment of this final, incredibly complex machinery of entertainment. Working on a scale rarely attempted, the filmmakers embrace its clich├ęd plotlines, cringe-worthy humor, naked sentimentality and the impossibly chaotic and endless superhero battles with all the seriousness of earnest indie auteurs.
     Clearly, it has been the interplay between the superheroes that has made this series of films so popular, creating a generation of devoted fans, who retain every nugget of information parsed out in the films. This is their Valhalla. In “Endgame,” directors Anthony and Joe Russo seem determined to settle all scores, dramatically conclude everyone’s story and save the universe with one epic tale. It is unrelenting, sensory-overload moviemaking.
     But I wouldn’t recommend watching the film without having seen “Avengers: Infinity War;” it will make this final chapter that much more compelling (and comprehensible).
     The bad guy, Thanos, played by a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon version of Josh Brolin, managed to collect all six of the infinity stones, giving him god-like powers, unstoppable even by the Avengers. Unfortunately for most of the universe, he believes that only an apocalyptic solution can save humanity from destroying itself.
        The first 40 minutes of “Endgame” involves bringing all the Avengers together and then devising a plan, courtesy of genius inventor Tony Stark (aka Iron Man, aka Robert Downey Jr.), who has perfected a time machine. I know what you’re thinking—seriously, a time machine? Even the other Avengers make fun of it, rattling off a list of time travel movies and all the ramifications of messing with time. But the situation is too dire for nitpicking.
     There is no describing the mammoth battles against Thanos and his minions, but it involves everyone in the Marvel Universe, except Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who says she’s busy saving other planets. (Who hasn’t heard that excuse?) It turns out that she probably could have cleaned up this catastrophe in about 15 minutes, but that might not have been a good thing at the box office.
     What’s most impressive is how the brothers Russo, who also directed “Infinity War” and a couple of “Captain America” movies, along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, manage to find time for all the Avengers while keeping the plot on track. Squeezing all these characters, all with a litany of emotional issues, into a single film goes against every rule of screenwriting, but it somehow works as every superhero is given their due and their future course is set.
     For this Marvel novice, the matching of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who, in the face of “Infinity War” failure, has turned into an out-of-shape beer guzzler, and Rocket Raccoon (Thor calls him “rabbit”), was the highlight, similar but even funnier than the combo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) from “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.”
     The ending, for fans of Marvel, must be a powerful cinematic experience, having become devoted to these characters through the previous 21 films. Not surprisingly, there are casualties of war. Even I was moved, having only a passing acquaintance with these comic-book heroes.
     In some ways, “Endgame” is more like the final episode of a long-running TV series, in which all the loose ends are tied, the inevitable reckoning delivered.
      Needless to say, there’s way too much CGI and way too many superpowers on display to create any sense of reality in the battle scenes. And all the macho posing and long-standing rivalries have been around since movies began.
     But with that understood, “Endgame” displays filmmaking execution and emotional impact that I never expected to find in a comic-book movie.

    There’s a scene in this shattering John Huston film when Geoffrey Firmin, the recently retired British diplomat living in Cuernavaca, Mexico on the eve of World War II, shows a spark of hopefulness as he reacts to his ex-wife’s suggestion that they reunite and move north to some remote, seaside area of America. But soon, as he drinks manically from a bottle of Tequila, he slips into a jealous rant about her past infidelity and the impossibility of happiness.
    “I choose hell,” Geoffrey mumbles, his face contorting as the alcohol takes effect. “Hell is my natural habitat.” Albert Finney, in the performance of his life, finds just the right balance of nastiness and humanity, ridiculousness and sadness in novelist Malcolm Lowry’s doomed, self-hating, alcoholic consul. 
     Finney, whose long, iconoclastic film and television career, from 1956 to 2012, included virtually every genre and a diversity of roles that ranged from roguish playboys and comic book legends to Pope John Paul II and Winston Churchill, died in February. He was 82.
    At 20, Finney joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in a class with Alan Bates and Peter O’Toole, which led him to the Royal Shakespeare Company. He never completely left the stage; in the 1960s he was on Broadway, in the 1970s he played “Hamlet” in Britain, in the 1990s he was in a Steppenwolf production.
    But the world took notice of his angry young man character in the sexually adventurous 1960 film “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” a self-centered, thoughtless man who treats women badly, At 27, Finney became a movie star as the title character in “Tom Jones” (1963), about a carefree, high-spirited youth who takes a ribald romp through 18th Century England. The film was a hit, winning the Oscar for best picture and earning Finney his first of five acting nominations.
    Though he never became a star of the stature of fellow UK actors Richard Burton or Michael Caine, but by the 1970s, he was regarded as one of the best actors working in film.
     Finney played a comedian turned detective in the quirky comedy “Gumshoe” (1971) and then scored a second Oscar nomination as Agatha Christie’s quietly brilliant detective Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974). But it was the 1980s that the actor gave his greatest screen performances, starting with “Shoot the Moon” (1982), an intense domestic drama costarring Diane Keaton; followed by “The Dresser” (1983), as a demanding Shakespearean actor doing “King Lear;” in “Under the Volcano,” the decade’s definitive screen performance; and in the bizarre “Orphans” (1987), as a talkative mobster trying to out fox his kidnappers.
   The 1990s found Finney, now in his late 50s, tackling some classic literary roles, in  remakes of  “The Browning Version” (1994), playing a British school teacher who faces the end of his career, and “Washington Square” (1997), as the narrow-minded father who ruins his daughter’s life. But his most interesting work was in two experimental 1996 British TV series written by acclaimed screenwriter and novelist Dennis Potter, best known for “Pennies From Heaven.”
      “Karaoke,” about a writer struggling with the concepts of fiction and reality, and “Cold Lazarus,” a sci-fi story about memory experiments in which Finney plays a disembodied head of a dead writer, were Potter’s final works, as cutting edge as “Twin Peaks” was during in this country.
     Finney kicked off the new century, with an Oscar nomination for “Erin Brockovich” (2000), playing a veteran lawyer who helps Julie Robert’s activist. Good roles kept coming, including Churchill in the TV film “The Gathering Storm” (2002), the dying teller of tall tales in “The Big Fish” (2003), in two “Bourne” films playing the creator of the CIA’s assassination squad, and as the jewelry store owner whose two sons are a constant source of disappointment in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007).   
   Looking through his lengthy filmography is to recognize Finney’s impressive range along with his talent in finding good roles. He could take the most familiar of roles—Dicken’s Scrooge, the best I’ve ever seen; Annie’s Daddy Warbucks; the unrepentant alcoholic—and make them his own. He had the innate ability to enable viewers to connect emotionally to his character, grounding every story with believability and honesty. That, I fear, isn’t easily replaced.

LONG SHOT (2019)
    Bad behavior, embarrassing situations and inappropriate language have become the cornerstones of American comedy this century. To some extent, it always has been; but, at least in the past, actors kept their pants on.  
    Most of these comedy hits, led by producer-director Judd Apatow (“40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” “Bridesmaids”) have little else to offer. But “Long Shot,” written and directed Jonathan Levine, who has scored in this “genre” before with “Snatched” and “The Night Before,” offers a toxic mix of true-to-life, likable characters, political satire and raunchy behavior that won me over.
    Leading the viewer into this world is crusading journalist, Fred Flarsky (we’re supposed to laugh at that), played by Seth Rogan, the king of this type of comedy who started with Apatow on the 1999 TV show “Freaks and Geeks.” Jobless, he runs into his childhood babysitter, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who just happens to be the U.S. secretary of state and considering a run for the presidency. Though he acts like an overgrown child, not someone to be taken seriously by political operatives, she admires his smarts and honesty and hires his as a speechwriter.
    The script steals liberally from the fish-out-of-water trope and the Pinocchio story—he is her Jiminy Cricket, guiding her toward the kind of altruistic decisions he knows are in her heart. But more importantly, the political and relationship journey they take is hilarious scripted as this elegant (at least on the surface), stunningly beautiful international diplomat grows closer to this blunt, scruffy writer.
    The final act may lose some viewers, as Levine does his best to out-Apatow with a crude plot twist. Yet by the time you get there, Rogen and Theron have become real people who are cool enough to deal with the situation without acting like embarrassed children.
     Rogen, whose acting is so casual and offhanded that he often seems like a civilian who drifted onto the set, is perfect as this idealist who cares about issues, not what others think of him. For the underrated Theron, this is yet another in a string of offbeat, against-type roles that she’s captured beautifully, following “Young Adult” (2011), “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) and “Tully” (2018).
    In addition to the stars, first-rate supporting work is supplied by Ravi Patel and June Diane Raphael, as Charlotte’s fussy assistants; Bob Odenkirk (of “Better Call Saul” fame) as the clueless president who wants to be a movie star; and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube’s son) as Fred’s more successful but equally fun-loving buddy who has a political secret himself.
    But for all its 2019 hipness, “Long Shot,” is as sexist as a 1950s Doris Day film. It still assumes that audiences will find amusing the idea that a beautiful woman is attracted to an uncouth, poorly dressed dude in bad need of a shave. I can’t imagine anyone is working on a comedy in which a good-looking man dates a plain, poorly groomed woman. Even I’d be offended.
    And then there’s the relative position of power: this (slightly) older cabinet official and presidential candidate becomes involved with a member of her election campaign. It might not work if the genders are reversed. Hollywood faces a bumpy future in dealing with sexual politics; for now, “Long Shot” handles it pretty well.  

DIANE (2019)
     There’s a scene midway through this insightful rendering of life as a senior citizen, in which Diane (veteran scene-stealer Mary Kay Place), frustrated by the burdens she’s shouldering, gets drunk at a local tavern.
    After one too many cocktails, she picks out some tunes on the jukebox and, losing all inhibitions, starts rocking out to an old Leon Russell song (“Out in the Wood”) in front of the juke box. I laughed out loud, but I also felt like it was too personal a moment to be watching. It typifies the almost documentary reality that this skilled actress brings to Diane and the film, which refuses to look away from reality. It’s hilarious and sad, dramatic and boring, life affirming and painful.
      Diane is a widow who never stops visiting: her sick cousin in the hospital (a brilliant Deirdre O’Connell), her best friend Bobbie (Andrea Martin) usually for lunch and, heartbreakingly, her adult son (Jake Lacy) who has a PCP habit and wants nothing to do with her.
    Emphasizing her journeys that are so essential to her life, writer-director Kent Jones (a film critic, director of the New York Film Festival and a few documentaries) uses POV scene of her driving the winding roads of rural Massachusetts as she goes from one visit to another. In addition to capturing the sometimes inane, occasionally wise conversations of senior citizens, he also brings the look and feeling of living in a small East Coast town.
      At times I could have sworn this film was shot in the various Western Pennsylvania burgs I grew up around. And, certainly, I recognized all these people and the conversations, the empathy of small-town community and the underling hopelessness.
       This is the crowning achievement of an underrated actress who has been giving mostly comic supporting performances since the mid-90s. While Place had been part of the celebrated ensemble of “The Big Chill” (1983), I first took note of her acting in the cult hit “Manny & Lo” (1996), in which she’s a kidnap victim. After that, she’d liven up nearly every film she appeared in, usually as the mother or mother-figure of the main character.     
      Among her fine, unrecognized performance were as the pro-lifer in “Citizen Ruth” (1996), a poor victim of corporate malfeasance in “The Rainmaker” (1997), a sympathetic nurse in “My First Mister” (2001), Reese Witherspoon’s mother in “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002) and, most memorably, as Casey Affleck’s put-upon mother in “Lonesome Jim” (2005), a pitch-perfect portrayal of parenthood that should have earned her an Oscar nomination.
      It’s fitting that this 71-year-old finally was giving a shot at being the center of a story—not surprisingly by a film critic making his first feature.
    The film isn’t about much—just aging and death and friendship and finding love in this often sad, trouble-filled world.

   I have a rule concerning historical movies: If I feel the need to Google the event after the movie to determine what went on, the film has, on a very basic level, failed.
    Mike Leigh’s telling of the government slaughter of citizens taking part in a peaceful rally in Manchester in 1819—known as the Peterloo Massacre because it took place in St. Peter’s Field and it came a few years after the Battle of Waterloo--goes to great lengths to portray all the key players and the circumstances leading up to the center event. Yet it plays like a pageant rather than a film, lacking the context and a sympathetic protagonist to guide audience through this unfamiliar territory.
     Essentially, the citizens of Manchester demand representation in Parliament, as they face food shortages and poverty. The problem with Leigh’s approach is that without some previous knowledge of these events and the state of English in the post-Napoleon world, it is very hard to comprehend the arguments from either side.
     There is much speechifying that too often plays like historical recreations rather than plot developments. And, honestly, I struggled to remember who was who, as virtually none of these actors were recognizable to me.
    There’s an extensive side plot of in-fighting among the protest movement that at times seems to be as important—at least in Leigh’s film—as the group’s purpose. I never could figure out the resentment against Henry Hall (Rory Kinnear), the most prominent orator for the working-class plight.
    Karl Johnson, a veteran of English cinema who recently played The Fool to Anthony Hopkins’ King Lear in an Amazon film, is delightfully evil as the Home Secretary determined to squash this dissent. The idea of these kind of people having the vote is simply repulsive to him and his crowd.
    It’s easy to overlook the film’s shortcomings as the re-enactment of the rally and the government blunt response (not unlike Tiananmen Square) is a remarkable achievement, a brutal depiction of oppressive government at its worse, even in a so-called democracy. 
    But then, in the aftermath of this bloody catastrophe, the film falls short, exiting too early without explaining the results of the incident and what it achieved. (Actually, not much.) I wanted more, even at two and a half hours.
    The 76-year-old Leigh, one of the greatest living writer-directors, is at his best when he’s examining the dysfunctional relationships of families (“Life Is Sweet,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake,” “Another Year”). His two previous forays into historical material, “Topsy-Turvy,” about Gilbert and Sullivan, and “Mr. Turner,” about the eccentric British painter, were beautifully mounted productions but didn’t retain the emotional bite that has become Leigh’s trademark.
    Not that every film Leigh makes needs to fit into a box, but David Lean he’s not. As a Manchester native, “Peterloo” is clearly a very personal project for the director, so it’s hard to be too harsh about the results. I’m sure he’ll soon return to his heartbreaking kitchen-sink histrionics.

     Even the most mediocre detective yard can hold my attention. Recently, PBS has been showing “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” a charming, witty series based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels about a sexy, fearlessly Melbourne amateur detective of the 1920s who solves crimes while wearing tiaras and sometimes bedding her clients.
     Yet when the genre is done poorly it’s not pretty. A perfect example is this almost laughable adaption of this superb Raymond Chandler story, recently aired on TCM’s Noir Alley. It’s in the running for the worst of the genre.
     Starring and directed by Robert Montgomery (“Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “They Were Expendable”), the movie is shot almost completely from the point of view of the actor’s Philip Marlowe. The only time the audience sees Marlowe is when he faces a mirror (which are excruciatingly awkward); the rest of the action is show through his eyes.
     Not only is this gimmick handled clumsily and distractingly, it results in some of the sorriest acting your likely to witness in a 1940s film.
    Montgomery, usually a reliable actor, is undercut by his own filmmaking decisions, pointlessly turning Marlowe into a snarling, arrogant, unlikable cad who made me cheer when the bad guys hit in the head with a sap.
   As the femme fatale, Audrey Totter--she was later excellent as Robert Ryan’s wife in “The Set-Up”—looks and acts in every scene as if she’s surprised it’s her turn to speak. You can almost see what she’s thinking: “Bob, you are ruining this film!”  
   As a veteran of bad films, Lloyd Nolan, as the cop on the case, comes off best. Though, a wide-eyed, jittery Jayne Meadows, long before she became a TV personality as Steve Allen’s wife, has a couple of memorable scenes.
    Chandler received better representation the year before with Howard Hawks’ masterful “The Big Sleep,” not to mention the two versions (1944, 1975) of “Farewell My Lovely,” “Marlowe’ (1969, from “The Little Sister”) and Robert Altman’s unorthodox “The Long Goodbye” (1973). 

COLD WAR (2018)
      Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s black-and-white study of an unorthodox relationship in post-World War II Europe is more sketch than fully developed painting, lovely to look at but offering little depth.
     After “Ida,” his compelling film about a Polish nun seeking the truth about her identity that won the 2014 Oscar for best foreign picture, “Cold War” was much anticipated, boosted by an artfully edited trailer that played for months in Los Angeles theaters. No end-of-the-year film was more disappointing; the on-and-off love affair between a music director (Tomasz Kot) and one of his choral charges (Joanna Kulig)—a group created to promote Communist ideals—plays like a secondary plot. Yet it’s the entire movie. The director clearly expects the audience to be swept away by the couple’s romanticism (even as she’s more tease than lover), but I wasn’t.
    The difficulties of living behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s and ‘60s are touched on, but, again, with light strokes that never linger. Only the cinematography by Lukasz Zal is memorable in “Cold War,” and he scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
    The real question is why did this minor work earn Pawlikowski a best director nomination? Among the directors left out were Paul Schrader for “First Reformed” and Bradley Cooper for “A Star Is Born.” Baffling. The voters saw something I missed in this gorgeous, but dull art-house picture.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Best of 2018


  1  A Private War
  2  First Reformed
  3  A Star Is Born
  4  Vice
  5  First Man
  6  The Rider
  7  At Eternity’s Gate
  8  The Hate U Give
  9  The Wife
10  Tully

11  Mary Queen of Scots
12  Sicario: Day of the Soldado
13  The Sisters Brothers
14  The Death of Stalin
15  BlacKkKlansman
16  Eighth Grade
17  You Were Never Really Here
18  American Animals
19  The Equalizer 2
20  Colette

  1  Tom Heineman, A Private War
  2  Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
  3  Paul Schrader, First Reformed
  4  Chloe Zhao, The Rider
  5  Adam McKay, Vice

  1  Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
  2  Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
  3  Christian Bale, Vice
  4  Benito Del Toro, Sicario: Day of the Soldado
  5  Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

  1  Glenn Close, The Wife
  2  Rosamund Pike, A Private War
  3  Olivia Colman, The Favourite
  4  Charlize Theron, Tully
  5  Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

  Supporting Actors
  1  Sam Elliott, The Star Is Born
  2  Russell Hornsby, The Hate U Give
  3  Steve Carell, Vice
  4  Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther
  5  Sam Rockwell, Vice

  Supporting Actresses
  1  Claire Foy, First Man
  2  Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
  3  Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians
  4  Millicent Simmonds, A Quiet Place
  5  Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots

  1  Paul Schrader, First Reformed
  2  Tom Heineman, A Private War
  3  Audrey Wells, The Hate U Give
  4  Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters, A Star Is Born
  5  Diablo Cody, Tully

  1  Lukasz Zal, Cold War
  2  Robert Richardson, A Private War
  3  Joshua James Richards, The Rider
  4  Matty Libatique, A Star Is Born
  5  Robbie Ryan, The Favourite