The People Garden


Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

(2016) Drama (FilmBuff) Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, Franҫois Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai Tatsuto West, Liane Balaban, Denis Akiyama, Geneviéve Brouillette, Donno Mitoma, Elina Miyake, Jaymee Weir. Directed by Nadia Litz

 

The forest is, in our psyche, a primal and frightening place. In the forests of our imagination, ghosts lurk and monsters dwell waiting to shred our flesh. While there are some who think they have the woods tamed, there are places that we cannot go without emerging from it completely changed for the rest of our lives.

Such is the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The Japanese consider it an unfriendly place; people have been going there to commit suicide for a very long time but only now has it become better known to Westerners largely due to the fact that three separate movies have been released this year with it as the setting; this is the third of them.

The somewhat bizarrely named Sweetpea (Hemingway) is traveling to Japan. When she arrives in customs, she’s asked the reason for her visit and she bluntly responds “To break up with my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend is Jamie (Arnaud), a rock star who has inexplicably chosen the Aokigahara as the setting for his latest music video.

Sweetpea is picked up by Mak (West), a young Japanese forestry worker who is told to “keep an eye on her” and then inexplicably leaves her at the edge of the forest with a crudely drawn map and police tape to help her find her way if she gets lost. Only with the help of a young schoolgirl who doesn’t speak a word of English – isn’t it convenient when a young schoolgirl wanders through when you’re lost in a forest – does she make it to the set.

When she arrives there, the director (Le Gros) and the producer (Brouillette) inform her that Jamie has disappeared, but nobody seems overly concerned. Sweetpea, who doesn’t yet know the nature of the forest (which everyone has apparently agreed not to inform her about) does some searching boyfriend but doesn’t find him.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has a relationship with Signe (Anderson), the aging 90s sex symbol who is co-starring in the video with him. It also becomes clear that something far more sinister is afoot than a rock star taking some personal time in the woods. Will Sweetpea find Jamie in time to break up with him?

I was of two minds of this movie. The story structure is a little bit vague; Sweetpea is an enigma, none of her backstory revealed. We have no idea why she wants to break up with Jamie, only that she does. Her past is shown in two segments in which she white-person dances with Jamie while they exchange soulful looks and private smiles. Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Papa, doesn’t have the screen presence yet to give the audience a reason to care with so little information offered.

Litz makes good use of the bucolic setting and thus we have a very pretty film to watch. She also keeps the atmosphere reasonably tense without letting the tension become the entire focus. There is an air of surreality here that adds to the overall feel that something isn’t quite right. Unlike the most well-known Aokigahara-set film, there is nothing supernatural here, at least not overtly so.

While the movie is only 80 minutes long, the pacing is slow enough that it feels almost stifling. The fact that Sweetpea is so dissolute and whose main expression is the 1,000 yard stare adds to the feeling of lethargy that sometimes takes over the film. It is only in the last 20 minutes of the movie that it feels like there’s any energy whatsoever and the movie could have sorely used more.

REASONS TO GO: The forest itself is intensely beautiful even in the creepiest moments. The subject is quite fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit dissolute in places and slow-paced throughout.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds here and there’s a bit of smoking as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  None of the forest scenes were filmed in Japan; instead, the forests of British Columbia subbed for this Canadian production.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hell or High Water

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My Week With Marilyn


Beauty personified.

Beauty personified.

(2011) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Zoe Wanamaker, Emma Watson, Toby Jones, Phillip Jackson, Geraldine Somerville, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Simon Russell Beale, Pip Torrens, Michael Kitchen, Miranda Raison, Karl Moffatt, Robert Portal. Directed by Simon Curtis

In 1957, American icon Marilyn Monroe flew to London to begin work on a movie directed by the legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier. With husband and playwright Arthur Miller in tow and an entourage that included acting coach Paula Strasberg, she made a sensation in England but her tardiness on-set, difficulty remembering her lines and feuds with Olivier and cameraman Jack Cardiff created a chaotic environment that has become legendary in Hollywood.

Colin Clark (Redmayne) remembers it differently however. Hired out of Eton College by Olivier (Branagh) at the insistence of Vivien Leigh (Ormond), then Olivier’s wife, he was Olivier’s on-set Boy Friday, impressing the great actor by not only procuring a house for the Americans to stay in during shooting but a second back-up house when the British press discovered the location of the first.

His view of Marilyn (Williams) was much kinder. He saw a woman tormented by the demands of fame, insecure about her abilities as an actress and humiliated by Miller’s (Scott) new play which seems to take some very personal jabs at her. With only Clark and actress Dame Sylvia Thorndike (Dench) in her corner, she finds going to work on the set to be nearly intolerable.

Her only solace comes from Colin, who squires her about England and with whom she develops a sort-of romantic relationship with, much to the chagrin of Lucy (Watson), a costume assistant whom he is dating. He is warned that she will break his heart but he is heedless; what man of that era wouldn’t want to be involved with Marilyn Monroe? However, those who surround her and who are vested in protecting her image may not necessarily be sanguine about his relationship with her.

This is what I call a quasi-true story. It is true that Monroe worked in London on The Princess and the Showgirl and had the difficulties spoken of earlier. However, this film is based on the diaries of Clark who did also work on the film but the depth of the relationship with Monroe that he claimed has never been corroborated. That aspect of the drama must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

However, there is nothing “quasi” about the performance of Michelle Williams as Monroe. Justifiably lauded with a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination, she captures the late icon’s sexiness, public vivaciousness, vulnerability, insecurities and innate sweetness that made a generation obsessed with her. It is easy to see in fact why we are still obsessed with her today. Williams has developed into one of the most compelling actresses in Hollywood and to my mind is the most likely bet to succeed Meryl Streep as the best actress in Hollywood. This performance is a good reason why I think so.

The good performances don’t end there. Branagh, a great actor in his own right, delivers one of his finest performances in a decade. Dench is always solid if not terrific; here she is the latter. Redmayne delivers a warmth in his character which while appealing isn’t enough to be the center of the film; it makes one wish for more concentration on Marilyn which sort of defeats the purpose – it’s not My Week with Colin after all.

Like many British films, this is exceedingly well-acted and well-written. While it doesn’t have the oomph or the fireworks to really attract an American audience, it is still one of those movies that gives a whole lot of enjoyment more than it does insight.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performance by Williams. Supporting cast superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clark, who is the center of the film, is much less interesting than Monroe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of foul language, some sexual situations and some suggested nudity..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The re-enactments of The Princess and the Showgirl were filmed on the very same soundstage where the original was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed. Sadly, Weinstein missed an opportunity to explore that period of Monroe’s life with a featurette – surely there was plenty of archival footage of Monroe in London during that period.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on a $10 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being Sellers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Elysium

Rock of Ages


Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough prepares for her next scene in the Broadway version of “There’s Something About Mary.”

(2012) Musical (New Line) Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige, Will Forte, T.J. Miller, Kevin Nash, Jeff Chase, Celina Beach, Dan Finnerty, Angelo Donato Valderrama. Directed by Adam Shankman

 

Maybe I’m a bit of a music snob – all right, there’s no “maybe” about it – but my idea of fun isn’t watching a cover band butcher the hits of classic rock. However, someone had to convince a Broadway producer and then a Hollywood studio that people would love to see it. Thus began a musical that has been a huge success on the Great White Way but would that success translate to the big screen?

Sherrie Christian (Hough) is a bright-eyed blonde travelling from Tulsa on a bus to make it to the bright lights and big city dreams of L.A. And of course the first thing that happens is she gets her suitcase stolen – the one with all her record albums in it, autographed of course. Sherrie is a rocker chick, a lacquer haired blonde who dreams of Night Ranger, Poison, Whitesnake and Journey. She lives for the hard stuff.

Her mugging is witnessed by Drew Boley (Boneta), a barback with dreams of rock stardom. He is a good-hearted sort and when he hears her story, he arranges with his boss Dennis (Baldwin), owner of the world famous Bourbon Club on the Strip, to give her a job as a cocktail waitress. She comes at a critical juncture for the Bourbon. The club is in financial chaos, owing a sizable tax bill. However, help is on the way – Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), the superstar front man of Arsenal, has brought his band to play their last show ever at the Bourbon before Stacee heads out on his own solo career.

Stacee’s oily manager Paul Gill (Giamatti) tells Stacee that he will be interviewed by a Rolling Stone reporter, one Constance Sack (Akerman), one who might have a bit of an agenda and one who isn’t overly awed by Stacee’s sexual attraction. In the meantime, the new mayor (Cranston) and his shrill wife (Jones) who may have a personal vendetta, are taking aim at the Bourbon and are out to shut it down so that the Strip can be cleaned up for rich developers to make a mint on.

Of course things don’t go as planned, everybody kind of goes their separate ways including Sherrie and Drew who have become a couple, but a misunderstanding tears them apart. Of course, this being a musical, we know that a happy ending is in sight and rock and roll will save the day.

I have a thing about Broadway musicals that take pre-written songs and plug them into a cookie cutter plot. Mamma Mia kinda got away with it because it was all the music of a single band and as such meshed together well. Hear, there are a bunch of different acts (with a lot of Poison songs, but also from such bands as the ones previously named as well as Starship, Twisted Sister and Bon Jovi.

The problem is that the songs are played pretty much without any passion. Rock requires it, and this has all the energy and passion of canned elevator music. It’s just loud guitars instead of soft strings. Most of the cast do their own singing and it’s probably better than we have a right to expect. In fact, the acting is pretty solid to but with two notable – and fatal – exceptions.

Hough is best known for her stint on “Dancing With the Stars” and she also has a surprisingly sweet voice (she’s done a country album to this point). However, her acting is not quite up to the same standards. Her Sherrie is kind of annoying, to be honest but at least that’s better than Boneta, veteran of Mexican telenovelas who is simply bland. His character isn’t particularly well-defined to begin with but Boneta adds nothing to him. His voice is pleasant enough but lacks the power to really deliver on his songs.

This is really a mess. It’s not the fault of Cruise who gives a performance that reminds me of his work in Tropical Thunder but without the clever dialogue. The leads are attractive but don’t really deliver any personality, something this project desperately needed. The plot is forgettable and while the songs are good, there really isn’t anything that distinguishes them in the musical numbers from the dancing to the settings. Hough, who is indeed a talented dancer, is even given a turn as an exotic dancer – and yet she almost never dances here. Talk about a wasted opportunity – in fact this whole movie really can be counted as one.

REASONS TO GO: Ummm…you like bar cover bands?

REASONS TO STAY: Some really wooden performances. Uninspiring musical performances. Just a mess in every sense.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of sexual innuendo including some fairly graphic kisses and making out. Lots of drinking – LOTS of it – and some implied drug use. Then there’s the foul language…not a ton but enough to be noticeable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set below the Hollywood sign were actually filmed in Pompano Beach, Florida in a landfill. The real Hollywood sign is fenced out and no public access is permitted.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are unaccountably mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mamma Mia!

’80s ROCK LOVERS: Several stars of rock in the 80s make appearances in the protesters-rockers confrontation near the end of the scene. Among those singing “We Built This City” are Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Debbie Gibson (yes, that one), Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, and Joel Hoekstra of Night Ranger.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: Lola Versus