Monday, June 12, 2017

May 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.  

    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.   

    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.  

   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 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.

     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.

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