Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound


An endless array of sound.

(2019) Documentary (Dogwoof/Cinetic/MatsonBen Burtt, Walter Murch, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sofia Coppola, Ang Lee, Ryan Coogler, David Lynch, Gary Rydstrom, Christopher Nolan, Ai-Ling Lee, Pat Jackson, Alyson Dee Moore, Victoria Rose Sampson, Mike A. Mangini, Peter Weir, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Cecilia Hall. Directed by Midge Costin

 

Movies make memories and not all of them are visual. Who could forget the roar of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the shriek of the violins in Psycho, the explosions and gunfire in Saving Private Ryan? Even though film began as a strictly visual medium, today it is the marriage of two of our primary senses and both are at least as important to making a movie work.

Longtime sound editor and current professor at the University of Southern California Midge Costin has a passion for sound which shows through in her documentary. She loads up with clips that illustrate her point, one of which was that Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera in essence to give people something to look at while they were listening to his phonograph, which he invented more than a decade earlier. Due to the logistics of sound and light not moving at the same speed, we were stuck with silent films until 1927.

In any case, we get to hear from some of the giants of sound design, such as Murray Spivak, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt – hardly household names but all responsible for developments in sound that have shaped how we experience movies (and television) today.

Many of the advances in sound design were fought for by directors like Barbra Streisand, who fought with studio heads to bring stereo sound to A Star is Born – in fact, she was willing to spend a million dollars of her own money to do so, but the studio so loved the results that they footed the bill themselves. We hear how Orson Welles used techniques brought over from his time on radio to enhance films like Citizen Kane and how Murch was influenced by experimental musician John Cage when constructing the legendary scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone kills a rival mafioso and a corrupt cop in an Italian restaurant. You can almost hear, as Murch puts it, his neurons firing.

The professorial side of Costin comes in as she discusses the various components that go into the sound mix. You’ll discover what ADR stands for (Automated Dialogue Replacement; that refers to dialogue that is re-recorded in studio) or what Foley artists do (they create sound effects such as boots walking through snow, or glass breaking). Costin does bring some of the giants of the industry to talk about sound; visionaries like Lucas and Coppola whose drive to create better movie experiences led them to hire men like Murch and Burtt. We also hear from other directors who understand the nature of sound and its importance to film (like Peter Weir and Robert Redford) as well as from a parade of sound editors.

We also discover that despite the under-representation of women in general in Hollywood technical roles, sound design has always had women involved from Pat Jackson (who is interviewed extensively) on down to Ai-Ling Lee. She also utilizes graphic representations of sound waves to delineate various sections of the film, which is largely divided between chronological advances in sound before moving into the various elements of movie sound. These sections non-buffs might find a little bit dry.

The point is that sound and music often provide an emotional context that images alone cannot alone give us. The sound of a movie has often been underestimated, not only by the moviegoing audience but by studio executives and sometimes even those who make movies. That’s a shame and even though this can sometimes sink into dryness, it is nevertheless essential viewing for any cinema lover who wants to understand movies better and is certainly a must for any aspiring film student.

REASONS TO SEE: Absolutely essential for film buffs everywhere.
REASONS TO AVOID: Those with only a casual interest in film may find it dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although 1927’s The Jazz Singer was the first movie with sound, two years earlier Don Juan had a mechanically synchronized score
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Visions of Light
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Day 5 of Six Days of Darkness!

The Big Take


With Zoe Bell, axe and you will receive.

(2018) Crime Comedy (Archstone) Ebon Moss-Bachrach, James McCaffrey, Dan Hedaya, Oksana Lada, Bill Sage, Zoe Bell, Robert Forster, Slate Holmgren, Tara Westwood, John Enos III, Joslyn Jensen, Taylor Gildersleeve, Nick Daly, Matthew Kehoe, Sean David Morton, M.J. Rodriguez, Sandra Docherty, Sid O’Connell, Donna Mitchell. Directed by Justin Daly

 

It goes without saying that movies that go direct to video are generally of a lesser quality than those that do not. However there are exceptions and The Big Take, a crime comedy that is the first feature for writer-director Justin Daly, is one of those.

Faded movie star Douglas Brown (McCaffrey) is plotting his comeback, although a bitter divorce has led him to put all his assets into a bank in Panama to keep them from his vindictive ex. At an exclusive club in West Hollywood, he is accosted by barback Vic Venitos (Holmgren) who pushes a friend’s script called The Night of the Fire on the aging actor but Brown dismisses him in a manner that gives the impression that the movie star is quite the jerk.

Vic doctors one of Brown’s drinks and the actor is forced to make an exit but not before collapsing in a stairwell where an aggressive transgender (Rodriguez) apparently rapes him in a moment of transphobia that may cause those sensitive to such things to squirm (NB: although the incident is never shown, it is intimated that something sexual is happening and while it’s possible that the transgender in question was doing something else awful to Brown most audience members are going to think “rape”). Venitos then arranges to blackmail Brown into financing his film, but in typical neophyte fashion messes it up and writes the blackmail note on the back of the script which includes the writer’s name – Max O’Leary (Moss-Bachrach) – and address.

Brown’s hard-nosed agent Jack Girardi (Sage) puts ex-cop fixer Frank Manascalpo (Hedaya) on the case to retrieve the hard drive that Venitos stole from the club with the original security camera footage of Brown’s moment but the screenwriter’s Ukrainian wife Oksana (Lada) turns out to be pretty competent in hand-to-hand combat and gets the better of Manascalpo who then resorts to hiring nuclear deterrent Edie (Bell), who has a violent temper and a burning desire to be an astronaut and that’s when things get rapidly out of control.

I generally don’t have very high expectations for direct-to-video projects but the cast list should give you a clue as to the higher quality than normal of this one. I’m always happy to see Bell onscreen; not only is she a great action star, she also brings a certain sparkle to every role she inhabits. Forster is one of my favorite character actors as well and his world-weary cop here is a specialty of his. Hedaya is unfortunately far less visible than he was say 20 years ago but he still has the greasy screen presence he’s always had. Moss-Bachrach is essentially the star here; Max is blissfully ignorant of his producer’s machinations and doesn’t understand why his star is sending thugs to his house. Moss-Bachrach (who is credited here without the hyphen) has a bit of a nebbish quality to him but is likable enough to pull it off.

There is a bit of a noir-ish tone here but with a sly wink towards Robert Altman’s The Player and Elmore Leonard. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that this was based on a Leonard novel (it wasn’t) which is pretty high praise. One gets the sense that the same frustrations that Max and Vic feel are frustrations that Daly is no stranger to.

There are some missteps. The soundtrack is less than scintillating with an over-reliance on Trojan ska (Oksana’s character loves to gyrate to the island riddim) and worse industrial club fare which actually detracts from the film. It’s a given that a low-budget film isn’t going to be able to afford the best soundtrack but I’ve seen plenty of films of comparable budgets that have managed to fill their soundtrack with wonderful songs. It’s a shame they didn’t put more time and effort into finding some for this film. Also, these type of caper comedies need to move at a breakneck pace to be effective; this one is a bit too laid-back and as a result doesn’t have the energy it really needs to be truly memorable.

Nonetheless this is a reasonably entertaining crime comedy that doesn’t waste the viewer’s time and while there is some room for improvement, I was pleasantly surprised and can give this a solid recommendation. I could only find a couple of outlets where it’s currently available but Sony’s home video arm is behind it so I wouldn’t be surprised to find it all over the place in the near future. New York City readers can also catch it at the Cinema Village for a brief theatrical run as well but I would suggest you get out to see it quickly; it’s not likely to remain in theaters long.

Editor’s note: The style of music on the soundtrack was misidentified as reggae and has been corrected. Also, at the director’s request, it is pointed out that whatever violation of Douglas Brown occurs is not explicitly shown so that it is possible that the incident is something other than sexual assault.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is surprisingly entertaining. The cast does a strong job.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is more than a little weak. The energy is a little too low-key for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity, some brief drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daly is the grandson of the legendary Ingrid Bergman and nephew of Isabella Rossellini.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Shorty
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rampage

An L.A. Minute


Your life can change in an L.A. minute.

(2018) Comedy (Strand) Gabriel Byrne, Kiersey Clemons, Bob Balaban, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Renee, Ned Bellamy, Jane McNeill, Katherine Kendall, Craig Anton, Ash Adams, Kimberly Crandall, Brianna Baker, Brad Ashten, Patrick Donohue, J.R. Howell, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Jake Adams, Daniel Guttenberg, David Wood, Jasmine Flanders, Ashley Borders. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

Los Angeles is a dichotomy. Most people think about the glitz and the tinsel, the shining illusions of Hollywood that everyone in Los Angeles is either a gang-banger on the East side or a studio executive in Beverly Hills with a tendency more towards the latter than the former. What outsiders don’t realize is that Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis with as many faces as a city of tens of millions of people can muster. Los Angeles is in many ways inherently unknowable even by Angelenos. I grew up there and I can’t claim to know it; it changes aspects when you’re gone from town for a month let alone twenty years.

Ted Gold (Byrne) is a successful author which in L.A. terms means his books become movies. He lives in a Malibu mansion with his wife Susan (Renee) sleeping on the opposite side of a bed that could easily sleep ten and with a personal chef and maid who start off every morning by spitting in his breakfast. That gives you an idea of how highly Ted is regarded by those around him.

That would include his ditzy agent Shelly (Balaban), his beautiful publicist Tracy (Kendall) and his long-suffering wife Susan (Renee). Ted’s latest “masterpiece” is Kinky Cadavers which is about a homeless serial killer. He ventures out from his Malibu mansion to take meetings, do rounds of publicity on radio shows and talk shows, and have lunch with his agent.

When he accidentally loses a lucky medallion, he goes on a journey among the homeless of Los Angeles and discovers a young performance artist named Velocity (Clemons). He is entranced by her forthrightness, her intelligence and her passion. Under her tutelage he will undergo a journey that will transform his life – and hers.

According to the press notes, this script was written 20 years ago and it shows its age. The cliché of Los Angelinos being kale-chomping New Age douchenozzles is older than that still, and while there are a few who are like that it’s really not universally true. Most of the L.A. residents I know are actually pretty down-to-earth. These kinds of stereotypes and jokes aren’t going to resonate much with those who live in the City of Angels although they might give a few yucks to those who don’t.

Byrne is one of those actors who’s a consummate pro; he never turns in a subpar performance and while he’s appeared in a few clinkers in his time, he generally elevates any film he’s in but this is a rare exception and it’s mainly because it’s the way the character is written. There isn’t one sincere bone in Ted Gold’s body and even when he is confessing his urges to give up the crap he’s writing for something more meaningful, it feels fake and forced – some even see it as a ploy to get more books sold and I’d guess Ted is totally capable of it.

Clemons is actually the scene stealer here; as she was in such films as Hearts Beat Loud. What life there is in the movie mainly comes from Clemons character, who is a free spirit yes but who turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be. Even such cringe-inducing dialogue like “He lost his potency because he lost his purpose” is given a measure of respect in the way she says it which is no easy task, let me assure you.

There are some nice touches here, such as interludes between scenes set in the streets are young people dancing to rap songs, while those set in wealthy areas have sprightly pop music and scenes of SoCal splendor. They get points for filming in Skid Row with homeless extras, but they lose their points for doing that for essentially a woe-is-me rich person problems theme that deals with the problems of being famous. That’s pretty tone deaf if you ask me.

Essentially this movie is The Book of Job given a modern secular twist but as interesting an idea as that might be it relies too much on cliché humor, jokes that don’t hit the mark often and a kind of cynical view of “the industry” and those connected with it. There’s a lot of fertile material in taking on the star-making machine and our celebrity-obsessed society but the movie doesn’t reallyharvest any of it; instead the writers play it safe and that’s what we get here, a movie that feels like people (with the exception of Clemons and Byrne) are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck. This isn’t close to unwatchable but it is only barely recommendable

REASONS TO GO: Clemons is a breath of fresh air.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit (actually, a lot) on the pretentious side and full of L.A. clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mariel Hemingway was originally cast but dropped out just prior to filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 15/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Iron Brothers

Take My Nose…Please


Lisa Lampinelli reacts to finding Christmas displays up in March at Wal-Mart.

Lisa Lampinelli reacts to finding Christmas displays up in March at Wal-Mart.

(2016) Documentary (Parvenu Ventures) Emily Askin, Jackie Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Star Jones, Cher, Wanda Sykes, Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampinelli, Judy Gold, Stacey Eisner, Dr. Mark Constantion, Phyllis Diller, Dr. Vail C. Reese, Linda Wells, Rob Fuchs, Steve Smyth, Dr. Sherrell J. Aston, Dr. Paula J. Martin, Julie Halston, Virginia Postrel, Adrianne Tolsch. Directed by Joan Kron

miami-film-festival-2017

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning that the definition of beauty is subjective. That’s not quite true however. Women, particularly those in the entertainment industry, are held up to almost impossible standards of attractiveness – a svelte figure, soft skin, shiny hair, perfectly applied make-up – women spend a ridiculous amount of time “getting ready” and not because they all want to but because it is expected.

In general, women have been made to feel unattractive if they don’t look like a supermodel. They starve themselves to get into a size 2 dress and get surgery to augment their breasts because men like ‘em big. And as far as cosmetic surgery goes, women make up more than 90% of the patients. Some of it is vanity but how much is it really?

Take My Nose…Please follows two comediennes who are considering getting nose jobs. Emily Askin is fairly new to the business but she has been told point blank that in order to find success in the industry a smaller nose is a must. Jackie Hoffman is a veteran comic who believes herself to be ugly but has nonetheless had a pretty decent career. She regrets not getting a nose job when she was offered one early on in her career and has decided that now approaching middle age she wants to get one done now. We do follow them from the initial consultation to the final unveiling. It’s somewhat fascinating just from a “how does the process work” standpoint but it isn’t as interesting at least to me as the other part of the movie.

Kron also spends a lot of time looking at how cosmetic surgery is often not spoken about publicly although comediennes have been unusually open about it; Phyllis Diller was one of the first celebrities to discuss her own cosmetic surgery in interviews and in her own act. These days those women who get work done are not shy about admitting it as far as female stand-ups go but when it comes to mainstream actresses and non-entertainment industry celebrities, cosmetic surgery is often a dirty little secret. In fact, non-celebrity women who have “work done” often don’t tell anyone but close friends and family.

In fact, as much time as is spent with Askin, Hoffman and their surgeons, the real center of the movie is how women self-perceive and how society affects that. One of the things I found refreshing is that Kron doesn’t appear to have a problem with women who have cosmetic surgery; women who think their noses are too big, hook too much or have an unsightly bump just want to improve themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that. A person ought to look the way they want to and if they can afford to have the surgery, good for them. I think that’s a far better attitude than stigmatizing women who have a nip and/or tuck done, or a boob job or a nose job as vain peacocks who are all about surface things. I didn’t get that impression from either Hoffman or Askin. Their goal was to make their lives better but there is the cautionary tale of Totie Fields which the movie does explore.

Fields was one of the funniest women of her time (the 60s into the mid-70s). She went into have some work done and complications from that surgery led to blood clots which led to the amputation of one of her legs. Her career was never the same and two years later she died from more blood clots causing a pulmonary embolism. She discusses her health problems candidly on a talk show, footage of which is shown in the film. Her story is perhaps the most heartbreaking in the movie.

Considering this is a first film, the work here is impressive. There are plenty of interviews which can be fatal to a documentary but Kron makes sure that the interviewees are funny and have something important to add, so the reliance on them isn’t a problem. There are plenty of very funny segments and even a little bit of insight as to what women think of themselves. If there’s any issue I have with the movie it’s just that Kron might be attempting to do a little too much – there are segments that don’t really add much to the movie and detract from the focus. Otherwise this is quite an excellent documentary that takes a subject some might find innocuous and turns it into something marvelous. That’s no easy feat, let me tell you.

REASONS TO GO: The film makes some valid and insightful points about how women are viewed by our society. The comediennes keep things light-hearted and interesting. Although there are a lot of talking heads at least they’re not boring.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some occasional tangents that didn’t need to be there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kron, who has spent most of her career as a journalist (the last 25 years at Allure) is making her film directing debut at age 89.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Truth About Beauty
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lipstick Under My Burkha

La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

Rules Don’t Apply


Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

(2016) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Hart Bochner, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Chace Crawford, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Marshall Bell, Ron Perkins, Alec Baldwin, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Joshua Malina, Louise Linton. Directed by Warren Beatty

 

Most of us have to live within the rules. The rules after all are there for a reason. There are a fortunate few – or perhaps an unfortunate few – who for one reason or another are exceptions. The rules don’t really apply to them. It can be very liberating – and very lonely.

Marla Mabry (Collins) has come to Hollywood in sunny 1958 to make her fame and fortune as an actress. No less than Howard Hughes (Beatty) has put her under contract. She and her devout Baptist mother (Bening) are met at the airport by Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), a driver with ambitions of his own.

She discovers that she is one of 26 girls under contract to Hughes, all of whom he is insanely jealous towards. In fact, “insane” is a word that fits his behavior which has grown increasingly erratic as paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder have begun to take hold of his life like a dog with a bone. Forbes’ boss Levar (Broderick) shows Frank the ropes, but even though it’s forbidden he begins to have romantic feelings for Marla, feelings which are returned. In the meantime, Hughes begins to fall for the pretty, talented singer-songwriter-actress, but he is under siege as there are those who wish to declare him incompetent and take his company away from him. Those closest to him – including Frank – are determined not to let that happen.

First, this isn’t really a biography of the billionaire. Certainly some of the events depicted here actually happened, but Marla Mabry and Frank Forbes are entirely fictional; so is most of the rest of the cast in fact, although a few historical figures make appearances now and again. This is more of a fable of the Howard Hughes myth than anything else.

Beatty, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in 15 years or directed a film in 18, does a terrific job with Hughes keeping him from becoming a caricature of mental illness. Hughes feels like a living, breathing person here rather than an interpretation of an encyclopedia entry. Often when Hollywood brings real people to the screen, they feel more mythic than actual. I always appreciate films that utilize historical figures that feel like human beings rather than animatronic renditions of legends.

The cast is made up in equal parts of veteran actors, some of whom rarely appear onscreen these days (like Bergen and Coleman) and up-and-comers with huge potential (like Ehrenreich and Collins), with Beatty leaning towards the former in his casting decisions. It is certainly welcome watching some of these pros who are either semi-retired or fully retired plying their craft once more. Of particular note is Bergen as the matronly (and occasionally curmudgeonly) but ultimately kindly secretary/personal assistant to Hughes.

The issue here is that the movie is long and the plot bounces around from scene to scene with an almost manic quality, sometimes giving short shrift to subtlety and other times leading up blind alleys and locked doors. I get the sense that Beatty is trying to craft a parable about the nature of wealth and power and its corrupting influence. Hughes seems like a nice enough guy but his money and influence tends to corrupt everyone around him, including those who didn’t start off cynical. One of the characters gets out before any real harm is done to them; another gets sucked into the vortex.

While this is something of a passion project for Beatty (he’s been trying to get a film made about Hughes since the early 70s) it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a bit bloated and self-defeating, but there’s enough that is interesting going on to make it worth a look. It’s mostly out of the theaters by now – critical indifference and an audience that is attracted to movies about superheroes and aliens more than about those who shaped the world we live in (as Hughes surely did) have hurt the film’s box office receipts. What the movie lacks in spectacle though it makes up for in genuine affection for its subject and that’s something you can’t get with all the CGI in the world.

REASONS TO GO: It’s lovely to see some of these veteran actors in action here..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bo Goldman, who gets story credit on the film, also wrote Melvin and Howard about Hughes’ supposed encounter with Melvin Dummar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Café Society
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Monster

Cafe Society


On the Boardwalk.

On the Boardwalk.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Lionsgate) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Sari Lennick, Sheryl Lee, Paul Schackman, Richard Portnoy, Stephen Kunken, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Kat Edmonson, Tony Sirico, Paul Schneider, Don Stark, Gregg Binkley, Anthony DiMaria, Shae D’Lyn, Taylor Carr. Directed by Woody Allen

 

Finding love and a life you can live with are never easy propositions, even in Hollywood during the Golden Age. There are all sorts of detours and obstacles, not to mention the comfortable ruts we find ourselves in from time to time. There is also a question of timing – being in the right place at the right time. No, finding a place where you fit in and a person you fit in with is no easy task, no matter what the era.

Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) is a good Jewish boy from the Bronx. It is shortly after the war and America is in its ascendancy and Hollywood defines America. His uncle Phil (Carell) is a high-powered agent with such clients as Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou and studio chiefs kiss his butt to curry favor. Bobby heads out for Southern California to see if he can make a career out there; Phil isn’t enthusiastic about the idea but after some dithering finally gives his nephews a job.

He also enlists his personal assistant Vonnie (Stewart) to show him around town. The two hit it off but when Bobby is eager to take things further, Vonnie gently rebuffs him. However, his sweet charm wears her down and eventually she gives in and the two become something of an item. However, Vonnie has a secret that she’s been keeping from everybody and when it surfaces, it effectively ends their romance. Disheartened, Bobby returns to New York.

There he is given a job by his brother Ben (Stoll), a gangster, to run his tres chi chi nightclub known as Les Tropique. It becomes the place to be seen in Manhattan, with politicians, Broadway stars, sports heroes and gangsters all rubbing elbows. Bobby also meets Veronica (Lively) who charms him and eventually the two get married and have a child. Everything is going exactly the way Bobby envisioned it – until one night Vonnie walks into his joint…

Woody Allen is in many ways the embodiment of a niche filmmaker. His area of interests is fairly narrow compared to some, and he tends to stick with those subjects pretty much without exception. When he is at his best, there are few better. However in the last couple of decades, it has become evident that his best work is likely behind him and some of his worst much closer to 2016 than his best stuff, much of which was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He has had flashes of brilliance since then but perhaps his torrid pace – he generally churns out a new film every year – might well have hurt him quality-wise.

Still, Woody Allen’s worst is far better than most people’s best and this is far from his worst. While I found one of the romances a bit disingenuous, there is also one relationship that you almost root for. The problem I have with the movie is that I really ended up not caring about either Bobby or Vonnie. Bobby’s sweetness could get cloying and after awhile he reminded me of a slingshot that had been pulled back just a hair too far back and I was just waiting for him to snap. On the other hand, Vonnie is crazy shallow and despite all of her apparent aspirations towards depth, at the end of the day she chooses the easy path every time. Bobby and Vonnie are a couple far better together than they are individually so this is really a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Allen has always known how to make his movies look their best and that starts with hiring the best cinematographers in the business, from Gordon Willis to Darius Khondji to now Vittorio Storaro here. Storaro is one of the most gifted cinematographers in the business and he makes the Golden Age look golden, both in Los Angeles and New York. Like all Woody Allen movies, it is beautiful to look at in ways you wouldn’t think of for a film that is mostly set in a big city of one coast or another.

Mostly you’ll want to see this for the supporting cast, who are wonderful, from the luminescent Lively to Carell in one of his meatier roles, to Stoll as the good-natured gangster but especially Stott and Berlin as Bobby and Ben’s long-suffering parents. They are quite the hoot and supply a lot of the best comedic moments here.

The movie ends up being a little bit bittersweet and doesn’t really end the way you’d expect it to, but then again Woody Allen has never been in making the movies people expect him to make. He’s always been a bit of a maverick and done things the way he wanted to rather than the way the studios wanted him to do it. He doesn’t make blockbusters and I don’t think he’s ever really been interested in breaking the bank from that perspective, but he makes movies that as a body of work will be long-remembered when some of the box office hits of the last fifty years are long forgotten.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Woody Allen and you don’t miss an opportunity to see a master. Beautifully shot and captures the era perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic leads are two people you end up not caring about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexually suggestive content, a little bit of violence and a drug reference or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Allen has shot digitally. It’s also the first time in 29 years that Allen has narrated a film without appearing onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hail, Caesar!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ghost Team

Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story


There's nothing funny about The Graduate.

There’s nothing funny about The Graduate.

(2015) Documentary (Adama) Harold Michelson, Lillian Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Krohn, Rick Carter, Jim Bissell, Gene Allen, Gabriel Hardman, Richard Sylbert, Tom Walsh, Stuart Cornfeld, Norm Newberry, Tish Hicks (voice), Will Vought (voice), Anahid Nazarian, Marc Wanamaker, Patrick Mate. Directed by Daniel Raim

Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who kind of fell into the work after serving his country in World War II. He had met and fallen in love with Lillian, a penniless but beautiful orphan from Miami who was originally friends with his sister. Although they didn’t know each other well, Harold was smitten and brought her out to California where they eventually got married and started a family.

She had gone to school to become a librarian but ended up founding a research library which would become one of the most valuable in Hollywood. Wanted to know what undergarments Jewish girls wore in Russia in the last decade of the 19th century? The makers of Fiddler on the Roof did and Lillian found out for them. Want to know what a drug lord’s mansion would look like? The makers of Scarface did and Lillian found out for them.

They were never a power couple but as their close friend Danny DeVito put it, they were the beating heart of Hollywood. Respected and beloved, both Harold and Lillian were well known for mentoring young people who were hoping to do what they did someday. Both of them worked on some of the most iconic films in the history of movies, from West Side Story to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One of the most fascinating sequences in the movie looks at Harold’s storyboarding work on The Graduate. Harold wasn’t just someone who sketched drawings; he understood camera angles and creativity and often his ideas helped make films better, making him much sought after and after The Graduate even more so. Shots like Benjamin Braddock being framed by the crooked leg of Mrs. Robinson were Harold’s idea and many of the shots that we still remember today from that film came out of Harold’s mind.

In some ways, this is four movies for the price of one. We get the story of Harold and Lillian’s courtship, with lots of drawings (presumably by Harold) that depict them during this period. We also meet their family, including an autistic son who has since become a computer programmer. Second, we find out about Harold’s work, the films he worked on and how important his contributions were to some of the most classic films of the era. Third, we see Lillian’s development into the top research librarian in Hollywood and what her own contributions meant.

But it was the fourth part that’s magic. We get more of a sense of the relationship between the two and the love that exists between them, with all their own insecurities (and they both had plenty). The last is set to the strains of Claire de lune by Claude Debussy and a more perfect soundtrack they could not have asked for. The music means something to me personally (I used it to court my own wife) so in the interest of fairness I have to say that the emotional resonance for me was far more than perhaps it might have been for others.

But as informative as the middle two segments are, it is the last one that will stay with me. The couple stayed together for sixty years until Harold sadly passed away in 2006 – Lillian is still alive and living in the Motion Picture Retirement Home and is in her 80s, possibly 90s by now and still beautiful and vivacious and even though her husband has been gone nearly a decade, her love for him is still very much apparent.

The secret to their successful marriage is not just that they were a great team, although of course they were, but simply because they didn’t let anything get in the way of their love. Sure, they fought and sure, they had disagreements but they resolved things between themselves. I won’t say that they draw a roadmap to a successful relationship because every relationship is different, but there’s no doubt that their formula can be useful to anyone who wants to make their relationship last. One can only wish for a marriage and a love like theirs – it’s what most of us aspire to.

This is a beautiful film that is also an informative film and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many films I’ve seen that are both, and I’ve seen thousands of films, maybe tens  of thousands. This movie is going to stay with me for a very long time. It’s premiering at the NYDOCS festival tonight and then playing again tomorrow. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit this Winter and next Spring (which I think would be the perfect time to see it). Hopefully after that, a savvy distributor will give it a theatrical release or at least make it available for streaming or VOD. This is a movie that very much deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about the Hollywood process. Some wonderful anecdotes. The love story is beautiful and presented in a touching, heart-warming manner. Great use of music.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit of talking head syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The King and Queen in Shrek 2 are based on Harold and Lillian and even bear their names.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Home movies of people you adore
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Phoenix

Too Hip for the Room


Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

(2015) Drama (The Dreaming Tree) Kelly Monteith, Anthony Russell, Robert Dubac, Caroline Alexander, Jake Krickhan, Kip Addota, Franklyn Ajaye, Jay Brothers, Devin Dugan, Seamus O’Brien, Sam Kwasman, Isaiah Ervin, Donny Conn, Waylynn Pitts, Eugene Lebowitz, Nathan Hurd, Gregg Binkley, Evelyn Wu, Bridget McCarty, Briana Feehan. Directed by Oktay Oktabasi and Kelly Monteith

We make our beds in life through the choices we make. We choose a career that takes us away from our family and tell ourselves that we’re doing it for the family, only to discover that we’ve been away  so much we no longer have a family. Or we chase a dream so hard that it becomes an obsession, causing us to burn through family and friends along the way.

Jake Dietz (Monteith)  is a stand-up comedian who is on the downslide of his career; once a young Turk in the standup circuit and being considered for network sitcoms, he is reduced to taking rubber chicken corporate gigs in places like Moline, Illinois. He is struggling to make ends meet even though he drives a Mercedes, a remnant of better times.

Jake is divorced from Trish (Alexander) and together they have a son Patrick (Krickhan) who is autistic with the potential to be high-functioning except that his social skills are lacking. Patrick has a thing for fellow student Briana (Feehan) but doesn’t know how to approach her, which frustrates him. Jake wants to help but he’s also not exactly sure.

The school’s president, Dr. Hertzog (Brothers) is offering up a special program which seems perfectly suited for Jake, but the price is very high – fifteen grand to be exact. Wanting to give the best to his son, Jake starts looking in less desirable places for gigs, starting with his friend and a former standup himself, Stuart (Dubac) who has become an agent. In fact, Stuart got mutual friend Buzz (Dugan) a network sitcom that at one time Jake had been considered for until he turned it down because he thought it would be demeaning. Instead, it turned out to be a hit for Buzz and angry, Jake left Stuart’s agency and brought his best friend Art (Russell) with him.

But there is some hope. Stuart got Jake a small role on a TV show and another ex-comic friend, Danny (Conn) may have a slot on a corporate gig that would pay Jake the money he needs for the program. But despite another rage-fueled encounter with Stuart which may have derailed some of Jake’s hopes, something more promising lands in his lap after a really good gig that Jake does after a cancellation forces a local club owner to turn to Jake for help. However, taking that hope which might lead to Jake’s dreams finally being fulfilled would mean giving up the sure thing that would pay for his son’s treatment. What will Jake choose?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a big fan of Monteith’s since he was a young Turk on the standup circuit. In the intervening years he’s had a good deal of success, mostly in Britain (and yes, I’ve seen some of his BBC work in various outlets on the Internet and cable) but never quite made it to household name which I always thought was criminal; this is a very funny man and even though some might consider his style “old school” (which he comments upon in the movie) some of his standup sets here show that he hasn’t lost his touch.

There are also some of his fellow stand-ups of the late 80s and 90s like Addota and Ajaye who make brief appearances here which just reminds me that even funny young stand-ups become funny old stand-ups. Aging catches up with us all, even those who make us laugh. It’s still nice to see some comics I haven’t seen in more than a decade doing what they do best. I wouldn’t mind seeing them on a comedy nostalgia tour. Hey if New Wave bands can do it, why not stand-up comics?

Nostalgia aside, this feels a lot like it’s close to Monteith’s heart. The film doesn’t really focus on Patrick’s autism other than as an expense for Jake that he can’t afford, although the bond between Jake and his son is shown to be difficult but nonetheless strong. From my experience of families with autistic children, the relationship looks authentic and the movie gets points for that.

I liked the portrayal of the comedian’s life here; you watch them commiserating together, see the professional jealousies and regrets plainly and see them as people who have more of their career behind them than in front of them; Monteith as Jake puts it best when he says “I remember when too hip for the room wasn’t ironic” when describing his status among new hip comedians.

Monteith makes a compelling lead. He has a soft spot for family and friends but at times sacrifices either or both in pursuit of his dream of sitcom stardom. It isn’t always pretty and there are times when Jake is really not very likable, but at the end of the day he has a good heart that sometimes gets subverted by his baser instincts. Even when Jake isn’t likable, you still end up rooting for him and that’s crucial for a film like this to work.

I do have to say that there are times when the humor seems a little bit forced and some of the situations seem a little bit contrived. It feels like a few shortcuts were taken in the writing and it does detract a little bit from the genuineness you get from the rest of the film and does lower the rating of the film a little bit because it is somewhat noticeable; for example, the sequence in which a distraught Patrick runs away and is later found beaten up is unnecessary to the plot other than to artificially insert tension; the point that it seems to make – the urgency of getting Patrick enrolled in that socialization program – had already been made well enough.

Also the directors other than the opening sequence in which they employ handhelds to put yourself in Jake’s shoes tend to have fairly static camera placement. I actually find that somewhat refreshing, although most movie buffs I know are likely to be fussy about such things. Then again, this isn’t necessarily a movie for movie buffs per se.

The ending is a little bit predictable in that most experienced moviegoers will see it coming, but like the rest of the movie it packs a ton of heart. While this isn’t the most technically perfect movie you’ll see ever, this is a movie that clearly means a lot to the people in it and behind the cameras for it. Sometimes that’s enough for a movie to get by on, and in this case it’s very true. I actually think I enjoy the movie more now that I’ve had a chance to think about it than I did when I was first watching it and that is actually a pretty good feeling.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting look at the life of a comedian. Feels like a passion project. Monteith is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points seem a little contrived. Ending is a little bit predictable. Staging may be too “old school” for hipper cinephiles.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some drug use and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Monteith’s son Kyle and daughter Tierney cameo as passengers on the plane from Moline to Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny People
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Room