Olympia (2018)


A true American original.

(2018) Biographical Documentary (AbramoramaOlympia Dukakis, Louis Zorich, Rocco Sisto, Armistead Maupin, Alan Poul, Edward Asner, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Dukakis, Austin Pendleton, Laura Linney, Norman Jewison, Lainie Kazan, Diane Ladd, Christina Zorich, Apollo Dukakis, Thomas Kean, Peter Zorich, Lynn Cohen, Stefan Zorich, Alexandra Dukakis, Bonnie Low Kramen . Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

 

Many casual filmgoers of a certain age group will know Olympia Dukakis only for her Oscar-winning role as Cher’s mother in Moonstruck. Some will remember her for her role as transgender Anna Madrigal in the groundbreaking Tales from the City PBS miniseries back in 1993. Theatergoers in the Northeast and in particular New Jersey may even be aware that she founded her own theater group – the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, NJ back in 1973 – because she was tired of being passed over for roles because of her ethnicity.

This documentary takes a fairly comprehensive look at her career and personal life and the first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that Dukakis embodies the truism “what you see is what you get.” The feistiness, brashness, outspokenness of her film roles are very much part of who Dukakis is offscreen. She is salty, outspoken about her opinions, sometimes crudely expressed (“When you get to a certain age you realize how much you take a good hard prick for granted” she confesses).

Amidst the celebrity testimonials from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney and Diane Ladd (which are strangely devoid of any personal connection to Dukakis; they could have easily been talking about any other actress), we hear some candid, occasionally vulnerable confessions about her sexuality, her drug abuse, suicidal feelings, her failings as a mother, her sometimes rocky relationship with her own mother. Dukakis is forthcoming but sometimes you get the sense if she wonders she shared too much.

We see Dukakis hard at work, not only practicing her craft but teaching it as well. We also meet her husband Louis Zorich, a fellow actor (who sadly passed away in 2018, shortly before the film first started screening on the festival circuit) who was her better half for a half century. Before that, she says glibly, “I was the queen of one-night stands.”

The movie isn’t edited well, unfortunately. Some sequences seem to be too brief to make an impression, while we see others that extend for a long time without really being very informative at all. We see Dukakis in a grocery store getting recognized by fans but this smacks of being staged, even though I get the sense that Dukakis herself is above such shenanigans.

Dukakis is without doubt an American original. She is entertaining both on and off-screen, and spending time with her is an absolute joy. I just wish the director had given the movie a smoother flow and spent more time letting Dukakis tell her own story, rather than listening to empty testimonials or take part in scenes that don’t add anything to her story. I almost would have preferred a two-hour one-on-one interview with Dukakis and an expert interviewer. That would have been just as entertaining if not more so.

REASONS TO SEE: Dukakis is an American treasure. he
REASONS TO AVOID: Some odd decisions in the editing bay.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some smoking, a few drug and sexual references as well
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis is her cousin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Battle Angel: Alita

The Night Listener


The Night Listener

Sometimes Robin William's ad-libs get on Toni Collette's nerves so much she wants to strangle him.

(Miramax) Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Joe Morton, Rory Culkin, Bobby Cannavale, John Cullum, Lisa Emery, Ed Jewett, Becky Ann Baker, Joel Marsh Garland. Directed by Patrick Stettner.

Our view of reality is really made up of a series of perceptions, not all of them ours. Very often we believe something to be merely because somebody told us that it was, be it the media, a friend or a loved one. Just because we are told something is so doesn’t necessarily make it so, no matter how much we may want it to be.

Gabriel Noone (Williams) is a radio personality on NPR, and one of the most popular on the airwaves. His late night show “Noone at Night” mainly consists of Noone telling tales about his life, concentrating on the eight-year struggle of his partner Jess (Cannavale) with AIDS. As a result, he has become a hero to the gay community and a well-respected raconteur everywhere else, a kind of gay Garrison Keillor.

As successful as he is, he is having all sorts of problems at home. His relationship with Jess is disintegrating, and it’s tearing him apart. Unable to get past his grief and pain, he is unable to do his show. Ashe (Morton), a friend of his in the publishing industry, in an effort to cheer him up hands him an unpublished manuscript of a book that his publishing house is about to put out, about a courageous young boy named Pete (Culkin). Pete grew up in a household of abusers who put him through the worst kind of tortures imaginable. Little more than a sex toy, he was eventually rescued and later adopted by a sympathetic social worker named Donna Logand (Collette), but by this time the boy had contracted AIDS.

It turns out that Pete is a big fan of Noone’s radio show, and the two strike up a series of conversations. Noone comes to admire the boy’s courage and spirit. He is in the final stages of the disease now, in the hospital more often than he is at home. The boy’s fight slowly brings Noone out of his shell of despair.

However, something is not quite right. When Jess finally gets to talk to both Pete and Donna, he notices that their voices sound alike. Upon further examination, it turns out that nobody has ever seen Pete—only Donna. Gabriel’s research assistant Anna (Oh) does some digging and can find no records anywhere of a situation even remotely resembling that of Pete Logand. When Gabriel talks to Donna about his misgivings, she has an explanation for everything. Still, the misgivings persist and the publisher eventually decides to delay publication until they can get to the bottom of things.

Gabriel is torn. He wants to believe that Pete exists, but he has doubts and yet if he is real, then he just helped kill the dream of a dying boy. Wracked by guilt, Gabriel decides to go to Wisconsin to ascertain the truth for himself.

The novel that this movie was made from was in turn based on the story of Anthony Godby Johnson, the “author” of the book “Rock and a Hard Place” and who victimized such people as Oprah Winfrey, Mister Rogers, Keith Olbermann and novelist Armistead Maupin, author of The Night Listener. I thought it interesting that Maupin gave his lead character the name of Noone—or no one. Clever, don’t you think?

Williams, who it now can safely be said is one of the more gifted actors working, takes on the role of a gay man riding an emotional roller coaster. There is a great deal of sadness in him but also a good deal of resolve. He isn’t a typical hero for a thriller, clearly conflicted about his own doubts. He really needs to believe, but can’t quite bring himself to.

Ever since she first came to my attention in The Sixth Sense Toni Collette has continued to impress me more and more. She is taking on roles that challenge her and stretch her nearly every time out and she has the ability to take a role that has little substance and make it something better. She is given a lot more to work with here, and she is magnificent.

Director Stettner, on only his second feature film (The Business of Strangers was his first) shows a sure hand. The pacing is steady and unrelenting. There is not a bit of wasted business. He also makes some intriguing choices. For example, he shows Donna early on in the movie to be well dressed, good looking, competent and confident. When Gabriel finally meets her she is frumpy, plain and unpredictable. The idealized Donna is what Gabriel imagined her to be; the reality turns out to be a bit different.

This is a well-written, well-acted drama…er, thriller…ok both. I was pleased to see the gay characters portrayed as people whose sexuality happens to be of that orientation. Too often gay characters in the movie are flamboyant queens (and Williams bears some responsibility for this here) who can’t really be taken seriously. Gabriel Noone is a serious character, flawed and over-emotional sometimes yes, but with a heart as big as a buffalo and a mind to be reckoned with. Maybe that will be what The Night Listener is remembered for in the long run.

WHY RENT THIS: A competently executed thriller/drama whose main characters are gay men whose sexuality is merely a part of their personality. Williams and Collette give solid, grounded performances. There are a lot of subtleties in the movie that are delightful upon further reflection.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Noone behaves inconsistently from time to time which while making him a more realistic character can sometimes be annoying to the viewer.

FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual content, as well as some fairly rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real-life husband of writer Armistead Maupin plays Jess’s friend Lucien, whom Noone refers to as “Lucifer.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sukiyaki Western Django