Sunday, August 13, 2017

July 2017


DETROIT (2017)
     After making two unrelentingly visceral war pictures, veteran filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has taken up another war, the one fought in the streets of America’s inner-cities in the 1960s.
     One hundred years after the end of slavery, as Sidney Poitier won an Oscar, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Bill Russell were cheered nightly for their athletic prowess and a roster of black musicians, many from Detroit’s Motown label, filled pop music’s Top 10, black America was still a separate nation, tolerated as long as it collectively remained humble, soft spoken and patient for the day it could share white America’s financial, educational and social opportunities.
     Bigelow and journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal (who wrote and researched “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” for Bigelow) use the 1967 riots in Detroit and the killings at the Algiers Hotel that led to federal prosecution of three policemen to make their point.
    While the docudrama offers passing condemnation of the rioting and unprovoked violence, the filmmakers never waver from their central theme that deep-seated racism has both created and exploited the hot house atmosphere that led to this confrontations and others like it.
    There’s a long buildup introducing the main characters, which may seem a bit off-topic but turns out to be background that pays off once the film gets to its centerpiece: the Algiers Hotel. There, a group of black men and two white women visiting from Ohio are partying in some of the rooms when a fired starter pistol is mistaken for sniper fire, spurring local cops along with federal troops to storm the hotel.
    The young people in the hotel are put through an interrogation, led by a racist cop with a giant chip on his shoulder (a wild-eyed Will Poulter), more suited for terrorist suspects. The standoff, mostly set in a narrow hallway with the men and two women against the wall, goes on for what must be an hour of screen time, allowing the audience to feel the fear from both the victims and the unsteady police. The sequence is as intense as any frontline battle or POW encounter ever filmed.
         Much of the film is seen through the eyes of a part-time security guard Dismukes (John Boyega from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) who knows what he’s witnessing is wrong but doesn’t have the clout or fortitude to stand up to the white cops.
   The performance of the film is given by newcomer Algee Smith as Larry Reed, the lead singer of the R&B group The Dramatics (all of these characters are based on real people), who ends up in the middle of this after missing out on an important performance because of the riots. Through him, the psychological devastation to the black community is best expressed.
    Obviously this film is meant to echo contemporary problems in the inner city and the distrust between police and the black community. It also serves as a reminder of how progress in race relations has moved at a glaciers pace over the past 50 years. There will always be a problem when too many law enforcement officers see any African American as a threat, an enemy, before there’s any provocation.
    Ironically, this sometimes hard to watch film offers a best-case-scenario of the era: at least these cops were brought up on charges; in too many cases, abuse was just swept under the carpet by sympathetic departments.
     “Detroit” is a startling piece of filmmaking, a strong indictment of justice turning its head away from injustice occurring in the minority community. If this story had been told by filmmakers in the 1970s or ‘80s, it would have had the impact of “Do the Right Thing.” (It loses some juice for chronicling a 50-year-old event.)
    As for Bigelow, she’s gone from an overrated cult filmmaker, in the first half of her career, to one of the most skilled and committed American filmmakers, willing to tackle subjects that few of her contemporaries are willing to take on.     


OUT OF THE PAST (1947)
    In the never-settled debate to determine the greatest American film actor, the names most often considered remain consistent: Tracy, Cagney, Bogart, Grant, Stewart, Brando, Nicholson and De Niro. But Robert Mitchum, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 6, deserves to be part of that discussion.
    His offhanded coolness was part Tracy and Brando, while his tough-guy rage could match Cagney or Bogart. Most impressively, he brought a complex, inner turmoil to his acting that few beyond Stewart and Nicholson can touch.
    A reluctant star who never passed up a chance to belittle his profession or dismiss the idea of craft, Mitchum was probably the most underappreciated actor of the 20th Century.
     Working steadily during World War II (he served briefly after being drafted in 1945) in mostly B Westerns, he was 27 when he moved into the big time, earning an Oscar nomination for his moving performance as Lt. Walker in William Wellman’s “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945).
    After “G.I. Joe,” he established new benchmarks for under-acting, not quite a Brando mumble, but displaying how less can be more in four excellent crime films, “Crossfire” (1947), “Out of the Past” (1947), “The Big Steal” (1949) and “The Racket” (1951).
       While it’s hard to tell how much say an actor had in what roles he took in that era, Mitchum somehow landed some meaty, offbeat roles that other star-actors wouldn’t have touched: a cowboy in the rodeo picture “The Lusty Men” (1952), the strident hunter-son of isolated family in “Track of the Cat” (1954) and, his greatest performance, the menacing, deliciously evil religious conman Harry Powell in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955).
     He probably reached the apex of his movie stardom in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with the war romance “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957), the Southern family soap opera “Home from the Hill” (1960) and the Australian “Western” “The Sundowners” (1960).
      But he was more in his element as Max Cady, the vengeance-seeking ex-con in “Cape Fear” (1962). By then, the best directors in the world wanted Mitchum in their films; John Ford gave him the drunken sheriff role in his “Rio Bravo” remake “El Dorado” (1967), and David Lean cast him, daringly but successfully, as a timid, newly married teacher in the Irish epic “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970).
      While his acting contemporaries were mostly easing toward retirement, Mitchum was still scoring interesting roles, highlighted by two first-rate crime pictures, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973) and “Farewell My Lovely” (1975).    Then came “The Winds of War” (1983), the biggest miniseries of the 1980s (along with its sequel, “War and Remembrance”), offering the actor a taste of the kind of acclaim he’d rarely seen from his film roles.
       Nearly 70, he played Navy Commander “Pug” Henry, the central figure in this World War II soap opera based on the Herman Wouk novel, becoming the hottest actor on TV. Mitchum’s authoritative presence and long screen history made him the perfect choice to play Wouk’s hero, who, like the Forrest Gump of World War II, becomes intertwined in every important event of the war.
    In the 1990s, he starred in the TV series, “A Family for Joe” (1990) and “African Skies” (1992), had a small role in the remake of “Cape Fear” (1991), in which De Niro played his original role, and then found his way into the quirky Jim Jarmusch picture “Dead Man” (1996), a year before his death.
   Needless to say, there were a boatload of bad movies between these memorable ones and sometimes Bob’s effort wasn’t always (being charitable) 100 percent, but even in bad performances, without really trying, the actor dominated the screen.
     His Jeff Bailey (aka Markham) in “Out of the Past,” a film that turns 70 this year, etched the template for Mitchum’s approach to acting while also providing solid evidence as to why he was rarely recognized as a great film actor.
      Through the first hour of the film, Mitchum, despite looming over the other performers, does his best to disappear into the surroundings. He looks like he wishes he was back in a low-budget horse opera (Bogart was originally sought for this role), barely registering a personality.
     This could have been a megastar-making performance, earning him another Oscar nomination (criminally denied him for the rest of his career) and a string of big-budget pictures, but his soft-spoken, emotionless delivery—which works perfectly for the film—wasn’t going to get him noticed.  
     Hired by crime boss Whit (a too young Kirk Douglas) to find Kathie (cool and calculating Jane Greer), an angry girlfriend who took a shot at Whit and left with $40,000, private eye Jeff tracks her to Acapulco. But everything changes the minute he sees her. He falls senselessly in love and, defying Whit, they sneak off to San Francisco to live happily ever after.
     Not surprisingly, knowing we’re deep in film noir territory, nothing is as it seems and Jeff is forced into hiding, starting his life over, yet again, this time as a small-town gas station owner in Northern California. (The background of how he got there is told in flashback).
    Turns out Whit and Kathie aren’t done with him and that’s when the double and triple crosses really get crazy. As was true throughout his career, Mitchum is more believable as a cynical, quick-on-his-feet man-of-action, which emerges in the second half of this film, rather than a smooth-talking romantic. Even so, he’s definitely the great talent of the picture, yet Douglas (and others like Glenn Ford and Gregory Peck) became the era’s brightest stars, not Mitchum.       
    No doubt, his bad boy image (booze and pot) didn’t suit Hollywood and that cost him major roles early in his career—though being stuck in the B-movie land of RKO for nearly a decade didn’t help either. I think his second-class status also had to do with his refusal to play the Hollywood sport of self promotion; if you don’t seek the spotlight, you won’t get it. Mitchum was happy to deliver a performance, duck into a bar and move on to the next location.
      But that doesn’t diminish a career that ranks with the best of best and Mitchum’s ability that brought authentic truth to characters as different as Max Cady and Pug Henry. His cool demeanor and implied understanding of the dark side of human nature have secured him an essential place in cinema history.


DUNKIRK (2017)
     By rescuing over 300,000 troops pinned down on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, after being driven from continent, England created its rally cry for the desperate times ahead in the fight against Nazi Germany.
     To properly chronicle the Channel rescue, which took place over a week in 1940, writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose time-shifting skills are second to none (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”) shows different parts of the operation out of sequence, then brings the air, the beach and the sea events together at film’s end.
    That concept didn’t work for me: at times it left me confused about what was happening and at some point, rather early in the film, I stopped trying to figure out the sequence, which, when you are talking about a rescue, is rather important. I know Nolan was trying to capture the intensity of each aspect of the escape, giving each part its due, yet I felt it slowed down what should have been a nonstop action film, losing needed energy and that edge-of-your-seat urgency. 
       Even more damning to the film, Nolan decides to ignore what every memorable war film has always done—make you care about individuals. In any war film, the audience is going to witness hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths, but what keeps us interested is getting to know a handful of these soldiers though a pre-battle introduction or because a well-known actor is cast in the role. Fionn Whitehead and pop star Harry Styles are not actors I know and Nolan does little to makes them distinguishable from the other soldiers.
    The closest to the old-style star performance comes from British film stalwart Kenneth Branagh as the ground commander and Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Revenant”) as the crack fighter pilot who saves hundreds of lives with his impressive dogfights against the Luftwaffe.  
    Even the brilliant stage and screen actor Mark Rylance, as a local fishing boat owner who bravely heads into the dangerous war zone, is given little to do except look resilient, even as he’s surrounded by tragedy and conflict.
       I never completely understood, whether it was Nolan’s jumbled narrative or the muddled British accents, why the Brits were standing on the beach as they awaited rescue, rather than huddled in the homes that lined the shore or at least in trenches. As it was to be a long wait for rescue, it seemed pure insanity to stand around waiting to be target practice for the German pilots.
    But I understand the movie’s appeal; there are some very impressive action sequences, beautifully realized by the director and his director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, mostly involving failed attempts to escape the beach and desperate soldiers struggling to avoid watery deaths. And the last 20 minutes of the film (Nolan is an absolute master of sweeping endings), nearly made me forget my reservations about the first 90 minutes. He brings everything together in an emotional tour de force that captures the resolve of this prelude to the existential battles that lay ahead for Britain and all of Western Civilization.


SAM SHEPARD (1943-2017)
   In the days since Sam Shepard died there have been numerous thoughtful, heartfelt tributes to the man and his talents, most notably Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty’s appraisal of Shepard’s place in theater history and Patti Smith’s remembrance of her longtime friend, published in the New Yorker.
      I weight in, not because I have much more to offer, but to hopefully make more people aware of this extraordinary artist who was the finest playwright of the last quarter of the 20th Century and one of Hollywood’s most reliable and busy character actors for almost 40 years. Not many have ever matched his resume.
     What I cherish about his sometimes hard to navigate plays—including “Buried Child,” “True West,” “Fool for Love,” “A Lie of the Mind”—was his ear for dialogue. He captured the cadence of working class middle-America, the sudden outbursts, the meaningful silence, the poetic profanity, knee-jerk sentimentality and the grasping for an understanding that rarely was reached, all without diminishing the character’s humanity.
      You can’t be a successful playwright without understand the nuances of acting, which certainly gave him a leg up on other “untrained” film stars, yet few who have succeed in another fields have had so much success on screen.
     In the first decade of his film career, starting when he was the dying Texas farmer in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” Shepard co-starred in a major film every year, including playing the love interest to Ellen Burstyn in “Resurrection,” Jessica Lange (starting a real-life relationship) in “Frances” and “Country,” Kim Basinger in his own “Fool for Love” and Diane Keaton in “Baby Boom.” Not a bad run for a previously unknown actor. I had actually forgotten how quickly he became a major Hollywood player.
     But it was his performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager, laconically commanding and coolly humble in “The Right Stuff” (1983) that forever etched Shepard as a memorable movie character. Though this memorable film directed by Philip Kaufman chronicles the beginning of the astronaut program (from Tom Wolfe’s book), Shepard’s Yeager is its soul, its rock, as the old-school pilot paves the way for the space age. 
    I’ve repeatedly lamented the lack of familiar faces in supporting roles in contemporary film; in the studio era and into the 1970s, even mediocre pictures were enlivened by well-known character actors in small but entertaining roles. Shepard is the modern exception: You don’t need a lot of exposition to know what his character is all about—like the great stars of the past, he brought a signature image (himself or a version of that) to his roles.
    And he wasn’t a dilettante when it came to acting: he’s appeared in at least one film every year since 1989. He’s given some of his best performances in recent years, including as Frank James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” (2007), a mysterious father figure in “Mud” (2012), the depressed matriarch in “August: Osage County” (2013) and a cult leader in “Midnight Special” (2016).
      In Wim Wender’s “Don’t Come Knocking” (2005), probably his best performance since “Right Stuff,” Shepard, who also wrote the script, plays a cowboy actor who rides off a movie set, heading to his hometown to visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint) and his messy past.
    Though his screenwriting work is mostly connected to his plays, he also contributed to the scripts of the 1970 counter-culture touchstone “Zabriskie Point” and Wender’s “Paris, Texas” (1984).
     All told, that’s an impressive collection of film work for a second career. With little fanfare, Sam Shepard’s uncompromising words and comforting presence have been an important part of the American culture for a generation. 


NAZI AGENT (1942)
     One of the most interesting World War II films I’ve seen recently was this low-budget vehicle for Conrad Veidt, made the same year he played the most notorious Gestapo agent in Hollywood history, Major Strasser in “Casablanca.” In this little known picture, he’s both a Nazi and a loyal American, playing twins with very different political beliefs.
      A star of early German silents (he played the somnambulist in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in 1920) Veidt escaped Hitler’s regime in 1933, first to England and then later to Hollywood, becoming the go-to German for starring and supporting roles. He co-starred opposite Vivien Leigh in “Dark Journey” (1937), headlined Michael Powell’s U-boat film “The Spy in Black” (1939), played Jaffar in Powell’s “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940) and yet another Nazi facing off with Humphrey Bogart in “All Through the Night” (1941).
     Just a few months after the release of “Casablanca,” the 50-year Veidt died of a heart attack while golfing.
    In “Nazi Agent,” he’s humble rare book store owner Otto Becker, living a quiet life in America before his twin, Baron Hugo von Detner, arrives to use Otto and his store as a front for Nazi activity. Veidt does a superb job of distinguishing the brothers, creating two very distinctive characters, while the camera work (a half century before digital), when they have scenes together, is seamless.
     The intensity kicks up a notch when Otto, fed up with being used by this enemy agent, kills his brother and takes over his identity.
     The film was the directing debut of Jules Dassin, who went on to  become one of the masters of film noir, helming such dark classics as “Brute Force” (1947), “The Naked City” (1948), “Night and the City” (1950) and “Rififi” (1955).   


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)
    How silly and inept do the 1960s-70s version of this apocalyptic franchise look now as this model reboot completes its first trilogy chronicling how apes became masters of the Earth?
    What has elevated this action series above others was the decision to place the audience on the side of the apes and placing at the center a nonhuman lead as memorable and sympathetic as Caesar, the ape raised by humans who comes to represent the best of what was once humanity.
     Director and co-writer Matt Reeves (who also directed 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) understands that even sci-fi films are about connecting characters to our own lives through human values, even if those characters are another kind of animal. Reeves’ work has earned him a shot at “The Batman,” with Ben Affleck.
    “War” opens as human troops make an assault on the ape compound deep in the Northern California forest. Caesar’s soldiers repel the attack and, though the prisoners they capture, learn of a colonel determined to eliminate Caesar. Plans are hatched to migrate inland, but not before a nighttime raid led by the colonel himself (Woody Harrelson) leaves Cesar’s wife and son dead.
    Unable to put those deaths aside, Caesar and three of his most devoted followers, including the baboon Maurice, seeks out the colonel while the community begins its long migration inland.
    Once they reach the colonel’s compound, they discover that he’s “out there operating without any decent restraint…totally beyond the pale…”—to quote a film this one owes a debt to, Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”—and other human troops are coming to take him out. The colonel turns out to be Kurtz-like, a bit less philosophical, but just as twisted. The filmmakers clearly follow the old axiom: If you’re going to appropriate ideas, steal from the best. Conrad and Coppola are a good place to start.
    Along the way, Caesar and friends are joined by a young mute girl and a comically coward monkey, creating a ragtag team just resourceful enough to save the ape world.
    While I don’t completely understand the performance-capture process, Andy Serkis certainly deserves some kind of special Oscar for his work animating Caesar.  As Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” he was memorably but irritating, but Caesar is one of the great movie heroes of the last 20 years, more “human” than any of those comic book mutants, bringing old-fashioned dignity and compassion to the role of leader.
    








Saturday, July 8, 2017

June 2107

 

BABY DRIVER (2017)
     Someone please remind me to never again trust movie critics—especially when they are writing about summer films.
       Professional reviewers face that interminable wait between the Oscar-bait of December and Memorial Day, when Hollywood restarts its engine and releases films it actually believes more than a handful of people want to watch. By June, critics are desperate to like something…anything; which brings us to “Baby Driver,” a pretentious, simple-minded attempt to make crime cool again.
     Ansel Elgort, an actor-musician-celebrity known to the under-25 crowd, plays Baby, (hip name, right?) a spectacular driver who rarely takes his ear buds out even as he’s recklessly evading authorities after a bank robbery. Baby’s participation in these criminal endeavors is excused as he owes the crime boss (Kevin Spacey) money, forcing him into his getaway-driver role.
      British writer-director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “The World’s End”) front-loads the sympathy factor for Baby—necessary since the youngster is helping facilitate robbery and murder—by making him the guardian of an elderly black man who is wheelchair-bound and deaf. Seriously. He probably also helps little old ladies across the street. This movie requires you to check expectations of seeing anything resembling real life at the theater door.
       Just in case you felt the film was short on clichés, Baby falls in love on first sight with a blonde, naïve waitress (a bland Lily James). But his real love seems  to be his tunes, an eclectic collection spanning the last 40 years of pop, which is both Baby’s and the movie’s soundtrack.
       The main crew working for Spacey is as skeptical of Baby as I was. Jamie Foxx plays the hot-tempered Bats, who trusts no one, especially the oddball Baby, while Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his much younger girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) are poor imitations of druggies fueling their habit. All are cold-blooded killers who take out police, civilians and each other without remorse (including a gun-runner played deliciously by 1970s legend, songwriter Paul Williams!).
    But as the bullets fly, Baby just keeps groovin’ to his tunes, blocking out reality for himself and the audience. 


GET OUT (2017)
     An inventive cocktail of racial stereotypes and gory horror has turned this goofy, over-the-top African-American nightmare into the most talked-about movie of 2017.
    Writer-director Jordan Peele leaves the message of the story ambivalent, easier for viewers to inject their own viewpoint onto the film. Is it a satire of black paranoia about white racism? A commentary on the real fears young black men face in America? An attack on black men who date white women? Or just a feature-length “SNL”-style skit parodying the inability of blacks and whites to relate?
    The film begins as an updated version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as Rose (Allison Williams) has invited Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), her new boyfriend, to her parents country home, insisting that they won’t care that he’s black.
      From the start, it’s clear to Chris, and the audience, that the parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are trying way too hard to be accepting. Yet never, for a second, do they stop making reference to his race.
     After even stranger encounters with the black nanny and a black handyman (coincidence? I think not….), Rose’s crazed brother and a very odd late night conversation with Rose’s mother, Chris knows he should get out. But, of course, he sticks around; it’s all just his imagination, his girlfriend convinces him.   
    The next day, the parents host their annual neighborhood gather, bringing dozens of wealthy white folks who all want to meet Chris. It’s not long before true motivations are exposed and the horror shifts from psychological to bloodletting.
     Kaluuya and Williams aren’t very convincing as the newly in-love couple, both actors lacking the ability to command a scene. Saving the movie is comedian LilRel Howery playing Rod, Chris’ best friend, a TSA agent, who, through a series of phone calls, keeps warning his friend about various conspiracies about whites. It’s one of the funniest “best friend” performances I’ve seen in years; he turns almost every line into a laugh-out-loud moment.
    Peele, previously a TV writer and actor, has impressed Hollywood with his directing debut, and the movie’s $200 million plus box office take. To me, he overplays his hand in the film’s second half, as the story dips into bad 1950s comedy-horror plotting and then resorts to the horror-film staple of turning a mild-mannered hero into a killing machine.
    But “Get Out” has clearly hit a nerve with filmgoers simply by looking at race relations through an unconventional lens. And, unlike in real life, the good guys get to win.


THE BEGUILED (2017)
     For over 40 years, the 1971 version of this Civil War tale of sexual politics has been regularly playing on television. Yet, writer-director Sofia Coppola, whose continuing career as a major filmmaker leaves me baffled, felt it deserved a new version, one that is more ambiguous, less fun and rather pointless.
     I’m not fan of the Don Siegel-directed 1971 film, which is remembered only because it stars Clint Eastwood, but it fit into the American cinema’s attempt, from the late 1960s through the ‘70s, to explore long-suppressed sexuality and the deep-seated connection between sex and violence.
     What Coppola had in mind with this remake is anyone’s guess—L.A. Times critic Justin Chang writes that she’s trying “to capture the tricky, elusive interplay of heterosexual longings in close quarters.” Well, right, but do we really need to repair back 150 years to enlighten audiences about sexual mores?
     The story begins when a young girl, living at a Virginia girls’ school not far from the front lines of the war, finds an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) and brings him back to the home. Headmaster Martha (a chilly Nicole Kidman) decides to let him stay until he’s healed, rather than turn him over to Southern troops.
    It doesn’t take long before he’s sweet talking all the girls, especially the needy Edwina (the always superb Kirsten Dunst), the school’s teacher; and flirty teen Alicia (Elle Fanning).
    The central plot turn doesn’t offer the malevolence that was quite clear in Siegel version of Thomas Cullinan’s novel, making the characters’ motivations in the last act of this new version confusing, at times arbitrary. 
     I have no idea why Coppola earned the best directing award at the Cannes Film Festival for this; the production is poorly paced and indifferently acted (Farrell doesn’t seem to have a clue as to who his character is), while the conclusion is drained of any potential drama. Somehow, Coppola failed to improve upon an unexceptional 70s film.    


THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943)
     We all complain about contemporary Hollywood’s obsession with remakes, but when this adaptation of British novelist Margaret Kennedy’s 1928 book was released, it was already the third film version of the story.
      Charles Boyer, one of the era’s top romantic figures, plays Lewis Dodd, an iconoclastic composer whose mentor (Montagu Love) has three daughters Lewis dotes on. But it’s the middle teen daughter, convincingly played by 26-year-old Joan Fontaine, who is seriously in love with the dashing, much older man.
     The relationship becomes complex when he marries her cousin (Alexis Smith) after the girls, left homeless when the father dies, are taken in by a rich, if inconsiderate uncle (Charles Coburn). 
       You can guess most of the plot after Dodd marries the cousin and Fontaine’s Tessa tries to hide her continuing devotion to him. But Fontaine never is anything less than touching in her portrayal of the love-sick girl. Nothing is quite as heartbreaking as unrequited love and this is one of the best depictions of it from a female point of view.
      The film is a first-rate Warner Bros. production, featuring superb acting by the entire cast, elegant directing by Edmund Goulding (“Grand Hotel,” “The Razor’s Edge”), a thoughtful screenplay by Kathryn Scola (“Baby Face,” “Female”) and a memorable score by legendary film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. There is something about a fabulously made studio film that more than compensates for story flaws or creaky ideals.
      Fontaine, one of the most striking and naturalistic actress of her time, was in the midst of her most successful run. In 1940, she was the second Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Rebecca,” then won the 1941 Oscar for her role opposite Cary Grant, again for Hitchcock, in “Suspicion.” The same year as “Constant Nymph,” she played the title role in “Jane Eyre.” Later in the decade, she starred in the romantic classic “Letter to an Unknown Woman.”
     After the 1940s, the good roles dried up for Fontaine and she spent most of the second part of her career in television, better known as bitter rival to her sister Olivia de Havilland (who recently celebrated her 101st birthday), than for her own career. But at her best, in the right role, she was her sister’s equal, and that was especially true during the 1940s.


THE LOVERS (2017)
    This film about a married couple hiding affairs is among the most half-baked, misguided and tin-eared attempts to examine middle age I’ve endured in a long time. About as authentic as a Pixar animation and acted with the kind of off-handed, stagy realism that seeps the energy and tension out of the story, the film can’t even be saved by the presence of Debra Winger.
    In her first major role (well, I guess it’s major) since 1995’s “Forget Paris,” the 62-year-old actress, once proclaimed the best of her generation, plays Mary, whose longtime marriage to Michael has hit the rocks awhile ago. Michael, played by stage actor Tracy Letts is having an affair with an emotional dance instructor (Melora Walters) while Mary has taken up with a serious novelist (Aiden Gillen). That they both have sought out artistic types must mean something, but I don’t know what.
     More depressing than this couple having lost interest in one another is that these ongoing affairs are not much more compelling. The script offers little to show that any of these relationships are either good or bad—neither Mary nor Michael exhibit enough personality to make you believe they were ever happy people or even would take the initiative to engage in an affair.
      Writer-director Azazel Jacobs (“Terri”) has confused tedious realism with insight and truth; the film plays like (but wasn’t) an overly earnest theater piece poorly translated to the screen.
     The big plot turn comes when the pair admit to the affairs and—who would have guessed—fall in love with one another. While love is not to be understood, neither are these characters; their silence speaks not volumes, but underwritten shallowness.
     Letts, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his play “August: Osage County,” could have used some of that script’s over-heated emotions, while Winger seemed at times lost, as if she was reading the lines for the first time. 
     

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)
    This film belongs to a very distinctive sub-set of coming-of-age pictures revolving around a dysfunctional family, such as “The Squid and the Whale,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Running with Scissors.”
    Writer-director Mike Mills, who earlier tapped his life story in “Beginners,” about his 75-year-old father coming out of the closet, chronicles a childhood defined by Dorothea, his free-spirited, outspoken mother
      The Mills stand-in, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is a 15-year-old adult who has little connection to contemporaries, pointedly shown when he tried to explain feminism to his teen mates.
        Struggling to survive as a single mom, Dorothea (Annette Bening, who has this type of woman down pat) fills their run-down Santa Barbara house with like-minded types: an ex-hippie, jack of all trades drop-out (Billy Crudup) and a purple-haired punker (Greta Gerwig, of course). Along with neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning), closer to Jamie’s age, who sneaks into his room each night to share (platonically) his bed, they shape the person Jamie will become.
       The problem with the film is that the characters are so aware of their “role” in the theme that I couldn’t buy them as real people. Everyone is working so hard to understand each other that I had to wonder what planet they arrived from. This certainly wasn’t the 1970s I remember.
      Mills also strains to tell us everything about everyone, muddying the focus. But he does create (or re-create) a great character in the mother, and has found the perfect actress to inhabit her. Bening’s Dorothea can be suffocating one minute and totally distracted the next. She’s the center of everything in this film. (But I really didn’t need to see her attempting to understand punk—a creaky cliché.)   
    Fanning is equally impressive as Julie, casually capturing the fragile, pseudo-confidence that defines so many teens. I actually thought this was Dakota while I was watching the movie; both sisters have the potential to be exceptional actresses. Hopefully they get along better than de Havilland and Fontaine (see above).
    While there is much to like about “20th Century Women,” the nonstop quirky events, fine on their own, become tiresome clichés as they pile up. Like most memoirists, Mills gives us more information than we need and lets his own sentiments clutter up a story that, in one way or another, everyone can relate to.

 
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)
    Maybe the only genre of movies that has improved in the past 15 years has been the high school film. For years, movies about teens were nothing more than exploitation pictures showing bad behavior and attractive youths.
     Recently, movies such as “Easy A,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” have elevated the genre. Suddenly Hollywood screenwriters are interested in the reality of high school kids.
   This film can be added to the list, mostly because of an exceptional performance by Hailee Steinfeld. Just seven years ago she broke out as a star playing the spunky Mattie in the Coen brothers remake of “True Grit.” Now 20, she plays Nadine, whose life takes a tailspin when her best (and only) friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) takes up with her seemingly perfect, popular older brother (Blake Jenner).
     Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, in her directing debut, clearly remembers the hormone-fueled emotions and bad decisions of those teen years, portraying them without sentiment or need to exaggerate. The modern world has filled those last two years of high school with adult-level stress as teens must make critical choices that will affected the rest of their life, while facing hard-to-ignore temptations and the expectation to get everything right; quite a plateful for so-called children. It sometimes seems like a miracle that most teens emerge from it sane.
      While the usual complications ensue in the movie—lunchtime drama, an unlikely boyfriend, pursuit of the cool guy, self realization—it doesn’t touch much on education. Nadine has little stress from academics and seems to have zero extra-curriculars; she seems headed for community college, even though she’s portrayed as more thoughtful and mature than her classmates.
      The only aspect of the film I didn’t like was the clichéd role of her mother (a scenery-chewing Kyra Sedgwick), who is so self-indulgent that she’s barely aware of her children (the father died of a heart attack when the children were small).
     For once, teachers aren’t portrayed as clueless bystanders. A perfectly cast Woody Harrelson plays Nadine’s favorite teacher, the sarcastic Mr. Bruner. She interrupts his lunches on a regular basis to rant about her tragic life (yes, I can relate) and he actually offers some good advice. Hey, we try.


CORRECTION—In one of my more embarrassing typos, I misspelled Warren Beatty’s name in my review of “Rules Don’t Apply.” I’m not sure if that quite matches his kerfuffle at the Oscars, but it is pretty close.
    


Monday, June 12, 2017

May 2017

 

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN (2017)
     I’ve always been reluctant to write about television series as I haven’t seen enough TV in the past 20 years to make sound judgments. Of this so-called “Golden Age,” which I’m constantly reading about, I have very little firsthand knowledge.
     I rarely watch more than two or three series a year, not counting the endless episodes of “Shark Tank” that serve as background view in our house. While I realize that I’m missing dozens of impressive shows, I remain devoted to feature films. Just watching a single TV series (even these modern limited-run shows) takes the time of watching six or seven movies. Not a good trade-off in my mind.
    But I couldn’t resist tuning in to FX’s “Bette and Joan,” a docudrama about the long-running rivalry between Golden Age (of movies) stars Davis and Crawford, who co-starred near the end of their careers in the 1962 gothic horror movie, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
     If even 50 percent of this story is true, these legends lived sad lives, wasted on bitter jealousy and petty hatred, fueled by a level of insecurity more typical of a high school freshman. It’s pitiful that these privileged stars, in an era when popular actors and actresses were society’s gods and the envy of millions of movie fans, were incapable of enjoying their success for more than fleeting moments.
      Of course, the difficulties between the two are legendary, along with their failings as mothers, but nothing I’ve read over the years quite prepared me for the ugly behavior—at least as portrayed in this series—of these giants of the silver screen.
    The low point comes when Crawford bullies young Academy Award nominees Anne Bancroft (for “The Miracle Worker”) and Lee Remick (for “Days of Wine and Roses”) to skip the ceremony and allow her to accept their Oscars if they were to win. Her goal? Steal the thunder from her co-star Davis, who was nominated for “Baby Jane,” while Crawford was left out. In addition, she and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, her longtime ally, lobby their Hollywood friends to vote for Bancroft over Davis. It works (like in a movie) and Joan become the “star” of the 1963 Oscar show while Bette is denies her third best actress trophy.
     Watching “Baby Jane” a few weeks after the series ended, for the first time in decades, made it more interesting having just seen all the backstage battles, but the picture never rises above a curiosity. Davis is convincing (when wasn’t she?) as the child star turned psychopath, but there is very little Crawford could have done with the sister role; it’s a flat, stock victim role (and, she’s made up, at her insistence, like she’s headed to a cocktail party). The film lacks any sense of directorial style and it’s shot in over-lit black-and-white like TV episodes of the time.
     The film was a huge box office success, but did little to resurrect the careers of Davis or Crawford, who at ages 54 and 56, had been tossed aside by the Hollywood studios. It did boost the directing career of Robert Aldrich, who five years later was the toast of the town with his oft-copied World War II adventure, “The Dirty Dozen” and went on to work steadily until his death in 1983.
    In the series, Alfred Molina plays Aldrich as a nervous, frustrated Hollywood veteran, capturing the confusing world faced by directors as the studio system began to crumble, but the era of ceding control to the filmmakers was a few years away. He does his best to keep the demanding actresses happy while enduring the barrage of insults and demands from Warner Bros chief Jack Warner (played with old-school élan by Stanley Tucci).
   But it’s the combination of unrelenting nastiness and obsessive need to be catered to evoked by Jessica Lange (as Joan) and Susan Sarandon (as Bette) that kept me watching through eight episodes.
     These impressive performers will no doubt be remembers when Emmy nominations came out (but wouldn’t it be perfect if Sarandon receives a nod and Lange gets snubbed, just like their characters?) In their one-on-one scenes, Sarandon’s Davis always comes off more believable as she goads Crawford into another hissy fit. Yet, Lange really shines in scenes with her longtime housekeeper/nanny who she calls Mamacita (a memorable Jackie Hoffman). If Crawford feels mistreated by the studios, she gives it back in triplicate to the devoted Mamacita.
    The attempt by the series, created Ryan Murphy, to blame the stars’ nastiness on the era’s dominance of male executives and filmmakers who look down on actresses, even encouraging the feud for the publicity, seems forced. The lack of basic human empathy, graciousness—especially when you have enjoyed more success than nearly everyone in your business--can only be laid at these individuals’ feet.
       But unquestionably, it was very difficult for middle-aged women to continue to work during the studio era. To make it, they had to be tougher, harder than any actress or actor today. A prime example is that Sarandon is 16 years older than Davis was in 1962 and Lange 11 years older than Crawford; though neither were ever the stars of the magnitude of these 20th Century actresses they are still cast in a high-profile roles and work steadily after qualifying for Medicare.  


ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
    Like the clean-cut family that dismisses all the signs—before it’s too late—that their new home is haunted, highly trained, resourceful astronauts continue to be lured into a world where boney, insect-like creatures tear apart their bodies and invade their spaceships.
     Director Ridley Scott, whose 1979 original “Alien” remains of one of the masterpieces of sci-fi, has re-entered this world, first with 2012’s prequel “Prometheus,” and now with that film’s sequel, “Alien: Covenant.” Central to the effectiveness of these films is the late FX specialist H.R. Giger’s slimy life forms, created nearly 40 years ago, that remain more nightmarishly real than almost any contemporary CGI monsters.
   The plot is standard issue: Plans to repopulate a friendly planet with humans go awry when the ship, Covenant, is jolted with some kind of atmospheric disturbance. Walter, the very human-looking android played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, is forced to awaken the crew early, resulting in a detour to a nearby planet. Separated parties, broken communication and a suspiciously gracious host, all tropes of horror, make appearances, along with the recent sci-fi film requirement of a feisty female protagonist.
     Daniels, played with steely calm by veteran British actress Katherine Waterston (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) serves as our eyes and ears after her partner and the crew’s chief dies while emerging from hyper-sleep. That sets up her close relationship with the android, which, along with the script’s detours into philosophy (creativity v. obedience; faith v. science; risk v. stability) keeps things interesting between the unstoppable carnage perpetrated by those repulsive carnivores.
      Scott remains one of the surest filmmakers working in Hollywood, having made some of the most entertaining films of the past 40 years. “Blade Runner” (1982), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000), “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “The Martian” (2015) are just the highlights. Not that doing another “Alien” film is a great challenge, but Scott delivers just the right blend of character development, scientific lingo and gory alien attacks to make this film stand out among the glut of movies in this genre.
     Fassbender, starring in two or three films a year, continues to impress with his versatility—from a sex addict (“Shame”) to a disturbed rock singer (“Frank”) to the Scottish king Macbeth to Steve Jobs and now two very different  androids (he plays both Walter and the older, less compliant model David)—and the low-key intensity he brings to his roles. He’s quickly becoming one of the cinemas best, and most adventurous, actors.   


THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)
    Stealing liberally from two of the best jungle adventure films ever made, “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” and “Apocalypse Now,” writer-director James Gray has fashioned a fascinating chronicle of one of the 20th Century’s most passionate explorers, Britain’s Percy Fawcett.
     Seeking to redeem his family’s name after his alcoholic father squandered his legacy, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, star of the TV show “Sons of Anarchy”), a career military man, accepts assignment to survey the border between Bolivia and Brazil, deep in the Amazon jungle in 1905. This begins a lifelong obsession with finding the mythical Lost City of the Amazon.
     Under the banner of the Royal Geographical Society, the esteemed elitist British organization that promoted exploration around the globe, Fawcett seeks to prove that civilization in these so-called savage areas were as develop as Europe was at the time, not a very popular idea among Western scholars. By the very force of his obsession, he convinces the Society to back him.
     Though the rigors of traversing the jungle and encounters with the natives are at the heart of the film, Gray (working from David Grann’s nonfiction account) also shows the human cost of a life spent far from home. He struggles to maintain a relationship with his children after being absent for years at a time. His wife (Sienna Miller) is portrayed as an enlightened modern woman who supports his obsession beyond any reasonable expectations. Along with his South American adventures, he and his men serve the crown on the front lines of World War I. (Gray clearly is offering the question: Who exactly are the savages?)
     Hunnam captures the life-change spirit that engulfs Fawcett when he enters the Amazon jungle. Also leaving an impression is Angus Macfadyen as a well-to-do member of the society who insists on joining Fawcett on one of his explorations, all but destroying it; and an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson as Fawcett’s loyal right-hand man Henry Costin.
    It’s not often that I think a film should be longer, but “The Lost City of Z” could have used another 30 minutes in the jungle to better project the tedious, grueling nature of Fawcett’s exploration—it felt too much like a highlight reel (one beautifully captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji), especially his first excursion into the South American forest.
    Gray, whose previous films have been gritty urban dramas—“Little Odessa,” “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant”—has made his best picture by capturing the dark and light of a world far from his comfort zone. But this film continues Gray’s fascination with how those thrown into a new environment adapt, survive and, ultimately, are enriched by the chances they take.  


TONI ERDMANN (2016)
   In today’s state of overly cautious filmmaking that dominates Hollywood, finding an unpredictably demented movie catches one off-guard, a bit perplexed as to how to process pure absurdity.
     This German comedy, the most critically acclaimed picture of 2016, follows an overly concerned father (Peter Simonischek, best known as a stage and TV actor in Germany) who travels to Bucharest to keep an eye on his fortysomething daughter, a rather reluctant executive.
      After the visit ends badly, he continues to stalk her—donning a shaggy wig and a comically outsized set of false teeth and calling himself “Toni Erdmann.” There is nothing normal about this man, except his concern for his daughter and his attempts to spice up her stressful, rather dismal life, as he keeps popping up at the most unexpected places. (Often, at spots where he would have no way of knowing that she would be there at the time.)
     More interesting than Toni’s embarrassingly inappropriate behavior is Ines’ (Sandra Hüller) reaction to it all; she has clearly experienced this absurdity all her life and is nearly unaffected by it. She just shrugs him off, even after moments that would have spurred most to explode in anger or worse. Hüller’s performance is something to behold as she displays a cool exterior despite her lack of social skills or much in the way of professional confidence.
    I can’t say I really enjoyed “Toni Erdmann,” despite some hilarious set pieces and outstanding acting. The father came off as more irritating bore than clever prankster to me and, after near three hours of his jackassery, I lost interest in the film’s broader messages.
     If you appreciate the brilliant social satires of Luis Bunuel—among his masterpieces are “The Exterminating Angel” (1962), “Belle de Jour” (1967), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)—you’ll find this film cut from the same absurdist cloth. Writer-director Maren Ade, in just her third feature film, shows a keen insight into the small, but biting indignities life keeps throwing at us and how important humor is in maintaining sanity. 
     Believe it or not, an American remake may be in the works with (drum roll please…) Jack Nicholson, who hasn’t appeared in a film in seven years, as the title character. I have grave doubts that the remake will ever actually happen, but it’d be the perfect role for Nicholson, even if he’s about 20 years too old.


LOGAN (2017)
     Needless to say, I’ve never been a fan of the “X-Men” movies. Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by the quality of actors this franchise has attracted over the past 18 years and 10 films.
   Though I’ve only seen the first one and the prequel film, “X-Men: First Class” it’s clear from what’s implied in “Logan” that things have not been going well for the mutant community.
    Logan (Hugh Jackman), née the Wolverine, now works as a limo driver living in a deserted desert outpost where he and Caliban (Stephen Merchant) care for the dying Professor X (Patrick Stewart). But this quiet hideaway is soon upended when government agents seeking a young mutant track Logan.
     The young girl they are after turns out to be one of the many who were created in an experimental lab using DNA from the original group. All this sends Logan, Stewart and the seeming mute girl (Dafne Keen) on the road with the murderous government thugs, led by a slimy Richard E. Grant, in pursuit.
     Keen is convincingly feral as an otherwise reserved, petite grade school girl who has the deadly powers of the Wolverine, as is Jackman, a modern version of the burned out old West gunman (at one point “Shane” is showing on TV) who has little left in the tank but becomes determined to protect the child.
   But the performance of the film belongs to Stewart, the wise, guiding light who bonds with the girl in his waning days. In his older years, he’s 76, Stewart has acquired a gravitas that has quietly enhanced his screen presence (on stage, he toured in 2013 with Ian McKellen in “Waiting for Godot”). In “Logan,” his performance reminded me of the great John Gielgud, who continued to act, convincingly, into his 90s. Stewart’s performances should be remembered come Oscar nomination time next February.
    I wasn’t totally shocked that “Logan” was more introspective than the usual comic book fare as it was directed by James Mangold. Beyond working with Jackman on “The Wolverine” (2013), he has made the intense coming-of-age film “Girl, Interrupted” (1999) and two smart, entertaining films about reluctant heroes, “Walk the Line” (2005) and “3:10 to Yuma” (2007). “Logan” joins that group.
  
    
THE FOUNDER  (2016)
    The story of Ray Kroc turning the McDonald brothers’ San Bernardino, Calif., hamburger stand into the most successful restaurant in the world overflows with dramatic possibilities.
    And I can’t think of an actor better suited to play the master marketer than the rubbery-faced, natural salesman Michael Keaton.
    Sadly, this film overcooks every aspect of the legendary tale, leaping from broad comedy to back-stabbing melodrama and domestic distress without warning. The film never finds its center, never figures out how it wants to portray Kroc: business genius, arrogant narcissist, unstoppable go-getter, heartless schemer, acolyte for American values. He seemed to be all of these to varying degrees.
      The shapeless, tin-eared script, Keaton’s scenery-chewy performance and too many scenes that drag on long after the point has been made turn “The Founder” into a rather joyless experience.
      The oft-told legend begins when Kroc, selling milkshake machines, visits the popular burger joint run by Dick and Mac McDonald. Not long after, he begins pushing them to franchise their innovative “fast food.”
      Over dinner, the brothers explain (and we see in flashback) how they devised their food process, the first in the film’s plodding scene that play like a promotion video rather than a feature film.
      After signing a very restrictive contract, Kroc starts building in the Chicago area, recruiting mostly ambitious, hungry young people, to run the different outlets. With success comes the inevitable conflicts with Dick and Mac, amusingly portrayed by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, whose cautiousness drives Kroc crazy.
       The film’s most awkward scenes are between Krok and his unhappy first wife Ethel (Laura Dern), featuring the most stilted dialogue and acting these two usually superb actors have ever delivered; they come off as complete strangers.
       The film’s biggest hole is its utter failure to properly explaining how Kroc goes from near bankruptcy (and losing his home) to suddenly having the money to buy the properties that the franchise stores sit on and then becoming a millionaire.
     Director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel want you to like Kroc…until they don’t. In the last 20 minutes of the film, “The Founder” makes the case that Kroc is the epitome of the callous backstabbing American businessman, who would thoughtless throw a partner, co-worker, wife aside to better his bottom line. I like that storyline but the director and Keaton never find a way to incorporate that trait into their Kroc even as they show him working various underhanded deals.
       Hancock tried to pull off a similar-themed idea with “Saving Mr. Banks” and a two-sided portrayal of Walt Disney; it worked because we saw the mogul through the eyes and ears of another character (writer P.L. Travers). The McDonald brothers serve that role in “The Founder,” but are always overshadowed by the charismatic Kroc/Keaton.
     Bottom line: Skip the movie and spend the money on a Big Mac and fries.


RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)
     In a few short minutes, Warren Beatty forever altered his legacy by hemming and hawing before handing to Faye Dunaway the card that should have shown the winner of 2016’s Best Picture Oscar.
    Everyone is familiar with the chaotic situation that followed and the aftermath that mostly absolved the 80-year-old movie legend. Yet if Beatty had acted like he’s been on the Oscar stage since he was 25 and not like a fresh-faced newcomer, he would have just turned to Jimmy Kimmel and asked for the correct envelope. Beatty has probably opened more than a dozen Oscar envelopes in the past 50 years (this was his third best picture presentation; in fact, has anyone given out more Oscars in Academy history?) Yet he acted more like the dementia-addled Howard Hughes than an award-show veteran.
    Just as clumsy as the Oscar presentation is Beatty latest, and long-delayed  Hughes film project, “Rules Don’t Apply.”
   The film popped up rather unceremoniously on the end-of-the-year calendar after a 15-year sabbatical that most fans assumed was retirement. His most recent appearance was in the flop “Town and Country,” which gave no indication that his creative juices were still flowing. And it had been 18 years since he directed the wild, original satire “Bulworth.”
      Beatty originally floated the idea of a Hughes bio-pic in the 1980s. But in the intervening years, both Hughes and Beatty have becomes forgotten figures to most of the movie audience. Yet the one-time movie star was clearly determined to complete the project.
    It’s not awful, but it’s a minor effort in a directing career that has produced “Heaven Can Wait, “Reds,” “Dick Tracy” and “Bulworth,” in addition to his star-producer efforts, “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Shampoo” and “Bugsy.”  While Beatty’s Hughes is a supporting character who doesn’t make an appearance until nearly halfway through the film, he’s the most believable character in the picture.
    Despite a pedestrian screenplay (by Beatty and Bo Goldman, who back in the 1980s wrote an excellent Howard Hughes film, “Melvin and Howard”), Beatty captures the social-inept, paranoid and downright cuckoo Hughes, along with the slivers of his genius that occasionally cut through the fog.
    Set in the 1950s, when Hughes ran RKO Pictures and was best known for collecting debutants in hopes of finding the next movie bombshell. (He was as obsessed with the construction of brassieres as he was with airplanes.)
   The main plot focuses on Marla (Lily Collins, daughter of pop star Phil Collins), a strict, Baptist girl just in from the Midwest (with her mother played by Beatty’s wife Annette Bening), sitting around waiting for her RKO screen test and her driver Frank (Adam Ehrenreich), who immediate falls for her.
      There’s nothing interesting about this part of the film, which dominates the first hour. It’s so lethargic that I felt like shouting at the screen to urge the actors on; it plays like a first reading. Like his Oscar appearance, director Beatty doesn’t seem capable of taking control.
    The last 40 minutes or so of the film focuses on Hughes helter skelter lifestyle as he moves from city to city to avoid what he perceives as a plot to have him institutionalized. This is somewhat more intriguing, as is Hughes’ inevitable relationship with Marla.
     I think Beatty could have delivered a first-rate performance under a strong director guidance—few actors in film history have exuded the on-screen charisma as Beatty; he’s not a great actor, never has been, but he’s been at the center of more great American films than almost anyone of his generation. Maybe if he had attempted this film 20 years ago, it would have been among his best. In 2016, it’s rather pointless.
     Though many movie fans will inevitable link Beatty with “La La Land” more than any of his own films, for those who treasure the cinema of the 1960s, 70s and, at least some of the 80s, he remains a Hollywood icon—one of its legendary lotharios and the rare actor to also make his mark as a producer and director.