Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker


Jonathan Baker, meet Jonathan Baker.

(2018) Documentary (Random)  Jonathan Baker, Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford, Faye Dunaway, Nicolas Cage, Adrian Lyne, John Badham. Directed by Neal Thibedeau

 

It goes without saying that it takes a certain amount of ego to be a successful Hollywood motion picture director. You need that ego to maintain focus on your vision and refuse to let compromise and collaboration dilute it or divert it. Without that ego, a director’s crew, his/her actors and financial backers will walk all over them like a linoleum runner on your mom’s best carpet.

Jonathan Baker is nothing if not ambitious. Not only does he want to direct movies, he wants to be really good at it – Oscar-winning good, name above the title good. He was getting ready to direct his first feature film – a suspense film from Lionsgate called Inconceivable with a stellar cast including Nicolas Cage, Faye Dunaway and Gina Gershon. Baker wisely figured out that he could avoid a lot of pitfalls by talking to other directors and finding out what their experiences were on their first films – and what advice they had for an aspiring director.

The interviews with such luminaries as Foster (Little Man Tate), Badham (Blue Thunder), Hackford (Ray) and Lyne (Fatal Attraction) are actually mega-informative and have some good advice for those who want to direct movies as a career – in fact much of their advice can be applied to leadership roles in other fields as well.

Baker is clearly passionate about film and filmmaking and I have no doubt that he wanted to make the best film he could. He talks about the interference and lack of faith from the studio, the bond holders and even his own crew. Often he felt that it was “me versus them alone on an island,” a comparison he uses more than once. Overcoming these sorts of hurtles and completing his film was a Herculean effort that is worth respecting.

But Baker is also extremely full of himself. Some might remember him from The Amazing Race 6 which he ran with his then-wife Victoria Fuller and became one of the most hated contestants in the history of the show, allegedly shoving his wife to the ground in anger after losing a foot race to the rest stop for one of the legs in Paris. While Baker maintained that he would never hit his wife (and the tape is inconclusive as to whether she lost her footing or if he shoved her), he certainly verbally abused her throughout the race. He seems a lot calmer now.

Getting back to the present, Baker drops names incessantly, particularly that of Warren Beatty whom he characterizes as his mentor – not once but at least a good half a dozen times during the film. He also mentions that he owns Beatty’s first house, which he claims that the legendary actor/director wouldn’t have sold to just anybody. We’ll just have to take your word on that one, Mr. Baker.

So much of the movie we’re made to watch Baker walking down streets, walking in parks, sitting in an editing bay…at times it is difficult to figure out whether this is meant to be an instructional documentary or a biographical one, omitting his stint on The Amazing Race which brought him notoriety and fame enough that likely opened a few doors for him.

Baker’s advice often comes off as a means of pumping himself up, to illustrate that he had the inner strength and purity of vision to withstand all of the obstacles and in honesty those obstacles were considerable. When he concentrates on the other directors and their experiences – even on his own experiences – the movie is at its best. When we hear the actors on his single feature film describe what it’s like to work with the Iconic (eventually) Jonathan Baker, or hear Baker talking about how talented and strong in character he is, well, it comes off more like a love letter to himself.

Director Neal Thibedeau doesn’t do himself any favors by inserting as many random issues that are sometimes only tangentially related to what’s being discussed onscreen as possible. He also managed to get a soundtrack which sounds like it belongs on a 1980s action film, preferably one based on G.I. Joe. The two elements together take a movie that needs all the help it can get and lets it drown in shallow water.

Not to discount Baker’s accomplishment in getting his film made, but it should be noted that Inconceivable carries with it a Rotten Tomatoes score of 31, not a number that speaks of a natural talent immediately making waves. Baker has a considerable distance to go before becoming iconic – even some of the directors interviewed here are experienced rather than iconic. That’s not to say that Baker one day won’t make amazing, insightful award-worthy films but in the meantime it might serve him well to remember that along with a healthy ego a good director needs humility as well.

REASONS TO GO: Hearing some of the stories by the likes of Foster, Hackford, Lyne and Badham is invaluable particularly to budding filmmakers but also budding leaders of other fields as well.
REASONS TO STAY: The name-dropping and self-promotion wears one down. This may come off a little bit as “Movie Directing 101” for first year film students. There are a lot of visual non-sequiturs and the soundtrack is inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Islam and the Future of Tolerance

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

New Releases for the Week of November 24, 2016


MoanaMOANA

(Disney) Starring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

A plucky teenage girl (are there any other kind at Disney?) sets out on a dangerous quest across the Pacific to save her people. Aiding her in her quest is the once-mighty demigod Maui who teaches her the way to become a master navigator. Together they’ll face mighty monsters, impossible odds and at times, each other. The one thing that Moana finds on the way to fulfilling her people’s prophecy is the one thing she most wanted to and never expected to – herself.

See the trailer, interviews, and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)

Allied

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan. An American spy during the Second World War meets a comely French Resistance fighter on a mission and the two eventually fall in love. Reunited in London after the mission is over, they marry and begin a family. That’s when the bombshell drops (and I don’t mean the Blitz) – his wife is suspected of being a Nazi double agent and he is given the order to take her out permanently.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: War Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence, some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use)

Bad Santa 2

(Broad Green/Miramax) Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Tony Cox, Christine Hendricks. Willie Soke, the worst Santa ever, is back and his evil elf sidekick Marcus has a scheme to rob a Chicago charity on Christmas Eve. Along for the ride is Thurman Merman, the irrepressibly optimistic and naive boy (now a young man) and Willie’s horror show of a mom who turns everything she touches to ca-ca. Not helping matters is Willie/s lust/love for the charity’s director, a curvaceous and prim lass with a libido that just won’t quit.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some graphic nudity)

Dear Zindagi

(Reliance) Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Tahir Raj Bhasin. A budding cinematographer looking to create the perfect life for herself encounters a free-thinking extrovert who teaches her to see life just a little differently – that the joy is in life’s imperfections.

See the trailer and promos here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Nocturnal Animals

(Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. A woman trying to put her life together after a dysfunctional marriage and a brutal divorce is sent a book by her ex-husband that is violent and graphic – and dedicated to her. Knowing that she did something terrible to her ex, she doesn’t know what lengths he’ll go to for his vengeance.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (opened Tuesday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for violence, menace, graphic nudity and language)

Rules Don’t Apply

(20th Century Fox) Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening. When Midwestern beauty queen Maria Mabrey comes to Hollywood in 1958 under contract to the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, she is met by his personal driver. Both devoutly religious, they of course fall instantly forever, threatening to break Hughes’ cardinal rule of his employees having no relationships whatsoever. When Hughes  begins to fall for the actress, both Mabrey and the driver are drawn increasingly into his bizarre world.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements and drug references)