Posted in Movie Reviews, Observations

Stranger Than

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It’s that time of year.

“10 Best” lists are proliferating, movies are hashed and rehashed and opinions are flown with abandon (“You moron!” How could you not mention X!”). One of the more interesting inclusions in this year’s set isn’t a movie in the traditional sense, but a five-part, eight-hour documentary—director Ezra Edelman’s marathon, “O.J.: Made in America” (not to be confused with the FX docudrama, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” starring Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Courtney B. Vance). The plaudits are well-earned.

What makes “O.J.: Made in America” a singular experience is the context in which Edelman has us view not just the details of Simpson’s trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, but the nature of his life and celebrity. What gives the documentary its depth is Edelman’s juxtaposition of Simpson’s privileged existence with the long history of police abuse suffered by the African-American community of Los Angeles. “O.J.: Made in America” examines every thread that still exists in the social and political tapestry of America—Race. Celebrity worship, but more accurately, jock worship. The entitlement granted to athletes. Domestic violence. Media irresponsibility. The advantages the rich possess in dealing with the justice system. Jury bias.

Race is the primary theme of the documentary and rightly so, given the subject and the setting. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Simpson’s story is that a man who seemingly moved heaven and earth to present himself as devoid of color (his watchword was “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”) became a symbol of black oppression to the African-American community. We see how carefully Simpson constructed his image, and the lengths to which corporate America further encouraged that image (As several interview subjects note, O.J. was always surrounded and cheered on by whites, not blacks, in the commercials he did for Hertz and other products). We also see how Simpson cultivated a social and professional circle that was predominantly white at a time when the African-American community of Los Angeles suffered one outrage after another at the hands of the LAPD. The contrast couldn’t be greater.

Edelman doesn’t flinch when presenting Simpson’s abuse of Nicole Brown, his second wife (his first marriage, to a black woman, remains largely unexamined). The number of interviewees who admit they knew what was going on will make your blood boil; if it doesn’t, Simpson’s sports show interview subsequent to his arrest for domestic violence certainly will. Simpson is so full of “It was New Year’s Eve—we both had too much to drink and things got out of hand. The press is making a mountain out of molehill,” while Roy Firestone, his interviewer, drips sympathy. Then you see the photos of Nicole’s damaged face, and hear a cop describe yet another occasion when a beaten Nicole summoned help. This officer actually arrested Simpson, but his superiors swept the entire incident under the rug because “Hey man, it’s O.J.!” You wonder how many free passes he actually received—and whether those who knew but excused Simpson’s behavior were able to sleep at night after Nicole’s murder.

There’s no doubt that the manner in which these victims died reflects how personal these crimes were to the killer. The savagery of the wounds inflicted and their number speak volumes (Warning: Photos of the victims and the murder scene are displayed at length in Episode 4 as Assistant Prosecutor Bill Hodgson describes the probable sequence of events in graphic detail). Contrary to the defense’s theory, it’s inconceivable that this was the work of a gang or a hired killer, both of whom kill far more efficiently—and quickly. No stranger would have created a blood trail that led directly from the murder scene to Simpson’s Ford Bronco to his front door and then to his bedroom. If you weren’t convinced before, “O.J.: Made in America” leaves you with little doubt that Simpson committed these crimes.

Edelman presents a straightforward account of Simpson’s trial for murder, and doesn’t hesitate to point fingers at Judge Lance Ito’s weakness in controlling the proceedings or the mistakes of the prosecution and law enforcement, of which there were many: District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s politically correct decision to try the case in Central Los Angeles, which virtually guaranteed a jury pool unsympathetic to the police and the prosecution; the late addition of Chris Darden to the prosecution team and his role in the trial, which made him Uncle Tom incarnate in the eyes of a predominantly black jury; Marcia Clark’s unshakeable belief that she had exceptional communication skills with female African-American jury members, despite a consultant’s findings to the contrary (The consensus of test panels? “Marcia Clark = bitch”); the infamous request to have Simpson try on those gloves, leading to Johnnie Cochran’s refrain to the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

However, Edelman also notes that the jury was not exactly free of bias. The prosecution’s jury consultant cites a high percentage of African-American women on his test panels who hated Nicole Brown and viewed her as a homewrecker, despite the fact that Simpson never for a moment remained faithful during his first marriage. Two of the Simpson jurors, both African-American women, are also interviewed; one firmly states: “Let me tell you something, I lose respect for a woman who takes an ass-whuppin’ when she doesn’t have to…Don’t stay in the water if it’s over your head. You’ll drown.” Add Mark Fuhrman’s racist remarks, errors in evidence-gathering at the crime scene, the long history between the LAPD and the black community, and the ungodly length of the trial for this sequestered jury, and the final result should not have been surprising.

The participants in “O.J.: Made in America” include some well-known faces: Gil Garcetti, Marcia Clark, F. Lee Bailey, Mark Fuhrman and friends and members of the Brown and Goldman families. However, far more interesting observations come from others. One stand-out is a childhood friend of Simpson who to this day believes in O.J.’s innocence, though every anecdote he relates only attests to how self-centered and slippery the man was, even as a young teenager. We also hear from Ron Shipp, a former football player turned cop and O.J.’s friend for many years, who, being thoroughly familiar with the extent of abuse inflicted on Nicole, ends up testifying for the prosecution. While the prosecution team more or less owns up to its mistakes, Edelman shrewdly lets the members of Simpson’s Dream Team of attorneys run on, thus allowing them to reveal themselves, and not always for the better. Carl E. Douglas boasts of more than one act of ethical flim-flammery, F. Lee Bailey (later disbarred, though Edelman doesn’t tell us that) unfurls his ego yet again, and Barry Scheck dodges and squirms when questioned about his trial conduct. And finally, Edelman pulls no punches when it comes to the press—there’s no doubt that their coverage, from the Ford Bronco chase to the acquittal, clearly shows the news establishment squandering whatever journalistic credibility it had only to end up as merely yet another vehicle for mass entertainment.

Simpson’s acquittal and the vociferous enthusiasm this met in the African-American community shocked white America. In retrospect neither is surprising given the racial history of this country. Those in the community who thought otherwise seem to have been pressured to keep silent. We hear from a black minister in Los Angeles who thought from the beginning that Simpson was guilty; his response when the verdict was announced? “I saw a rich guy get off.” Color trumped wealth in the eyes of many (“Now you know what it feels like,” says a community activist, even today), yet time has made some of the outspoken more thoughtful. The female juror quoted above, when asked how she feels about the verdict today, hesitates and her conflict is visible. She bails with “It was what it was,” but there’s no escaping that justice was denied for these victims.

Yet an acquittal does not an innocent person make, at least in the eyes of the public. It’s clear that Simpson evidently thought the verdict would reset the clock and he could return to his pre-trial life. Not so, and I’m not sure this was entirely due to race; one of F. Lee Bailey’s previous clients, Dr. Sam Sheppard, endured a similar professional and social decline following his ultimate acquittal. Having covered Simpson’s ascent, the documentary proceeds to cover his descent, culminating in his conviction and lengthy sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from a confrontation over stolen O.J. memorabilia.

Made in America indeed.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Some Like It Hot

Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)
Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)

The other day Turner Classic Movies caught me by surprise with a daytime showing of the 1959 classic, “Some Like It Hot.” Usually the cable channel reserves this for Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis festivals, so it was a terrific excuse to drop the thousand and one things I needed to get done, and instead watch for the umpteenth time a film I’ve been touting for decades as the funniest movie ever. In fact, “Some Like It Hot” has been acknowledged as such by the American Film Institute.

If for some unfathomable reason you haven’t seen it, the plot is a simple one: Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two down-on-their-luck musicians in 1929 Chicago, have the misfortune to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They get out of town by disguising themselves as Josephine and Daphne, members of the all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, on its way to Florida for a three-week gig. Among the band’s musicians is singer-ukelele player Sugar Kane Kowalcyk (Marilyn Monroe), who has a history of falling for saxophone players, which Joe is. A millionaire with a yacht, gangsters and hysteria ensue.

What makes this movie? For starters, it hasn’t aged a day. The comedy is as fresh as ever, perhaps more so now given the sexual politics of our time. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond never stops, which makes writing about “Some Like It Hot” a bit difficult—there’s an enormous temptation to leave analysis behind and just quote those terrific lines from the film. Nevertheless, few movies are blessed with so many other gifts. Among these are:

Its shrewd and economical take on gender and sexual fluidity. Unlike 1982’s “Tootsie,” which I do like, “Some Like It Hot” maintains a light touch. “Tootsie” uncomfortably lets us down with Dustin Hoffman’s too-earnest speech that being a woman has made him a better man. We’ve already seen him developing some awareness as Dorothy Michaels; telling rather than showing feels like overkill in such a finely played film. In contrast, “Some Like It Hot” takes a more effective approach via the succinct observation. After Daphne is pinched in the hotel elevator, Joe/Josephine notes: “Now you know how the other half lives.” Daphne protests “I’m not even pretty!” to which Josephine retorts “All it matters is that you’re wearing a skirt.” And as Joe, he/she should know. Point made.

The music. “Some Like It Hot” features a great tune selection from the 1920’s: “Running Wild” (“…lost control/Running wild/mighty bold”), “I’m Through With Love” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You” which interestingly is the only song with a 20’s style arrangement, notwithstanding Sugar’s ukelele—lots of staccato trumpets and cymbal chokes. “Stairway to the Stars,” used on the soundtrack during the Junior/Sugar scenes dates from 1934 (close enough), but this is memorably compensated for by “La Cumparsita,” (1916), as Osgood and Daphne tango the night away. Extra bonus: Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters actually look like a real orchestra—the violinists are properly bowing and fingering the strings with nary a moment of fake-looking “playing” in sight.

San Diego’s Victorian marvel, the Hotel Del Coronado, standing in for Miami’s Seminole Ritz (love the name). The atmosphere and palm trees couldn’t be better.

Joan Shawlee as Sweet Sue. She was one of the best character actors ever (among her other roles, she was tall Sandra in “From Here to Eternity,” towering over Frank Sinatra, and would later show up as the inimitable Sylvia in Wilder’s “The Apartment”). It’s hard to pick out her best moment (“Each and every one of my girls is a virtuoso—and I intend to keep it that way”), but my favorite is probably her expression of exquisite pain—and disbelief—at Josephine’s Lawrence Welk-style warbling on sax. She can’t yell for her manager enough—“Bienstock!”

For that matter, all the other actors in “Some Like It Hot,” from George Raft (Spats Columbo, with his bone breakers “lawyers”—“All Harvard men”), George E. Stone (Toothpick Charlie), Pat O’Brien (Detective Mulligan) and Nehemiah Persoff (Little Bonaparte) to Dave Barry (Bienstock) and Beverly Wills (Dolores, she of one-legged jockey joke fame). While I’m not a big fan, Marilyn Monroe manages to bring just the right amount of bruised innocence to Sugar, and Tony Curtis is best as Shell-Oil Junior. Pride of place, though, goes to Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding III, millionaire on the make, who loves a shapely ankle. He’s so wonderfully besotted with Daphne that he turns farce into a Cinderella tale. And who can forget the one and only Sig Poliakoff, played by Billy Gray? No, this isn’t the young actor from “Father Knows Best.” This Billy Gray (real name: William Victor Giventer) was a sometime actor, comic and owner of The Band Box, a comedy club in Los Angeles. In one of my favorite scenes from “Some Like It Hot,” Sig and Sweet Sue try to come up with replacements for the band’s saxophone and bass players, subtracted by elopement and pregnancy, respectively:

"Bessie let her hair grow, now she's playing with Stokowski." "Black Bottom Bessie?!?" "Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!"
“Bessie let her hair grow, now she’s playing with Stokowski.” “Black Bottom Bessie?!?” “Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!”

Jack Lemmon, who brings down the house as Daphne, intoxicated with his engagement to Osgood (“I’m engaged.” “Who’s the lucky girl?” “I am.”) Billy Wilder shrewdly anticipated how movie audiences would react—he supplied Lemmon with a pair of maracas so the responsive laughter would sound over their shaking instead of drowning out the actors’ lines. Lemmon seems to be having a ball in drag, unlike Tony Curtis, who is rather dour, though he is after all stuck with being Daphne’s straight man (later he has a lot more fun imitating Cary Grant). In the Chicago scenes we see Jerry continually put-upon by Joe; there’s a sense that creating and being Daphne has liberated his spirit, and he takes the audience right along with him. Watch his expression during Daphne’s first conversation with Osgood, at the hotel elevators. Osgood’s talking about his last wife, an acrobatic dancer who could smoke a cigarette held between her toes, though his mother ended the marriage. Why? “She doesn’t approve of girls who smoke.” Daphne, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips, mulls this over for a beat, then shows us her only thought without a word: “Is this guy for real?” It’s fleeting, but one of the funniest moments in the film.

"Well...nobody's perfect."
“Well…nobody’s perfect.”

No final line in any film has been so celebrated, and rightly so. Daphne may not be perfect, but “Some Like It Hot” comes awfully close. What a delight.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Up In The Air

 

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2009’s “Up in the Air,” currently making the rounds on cable channels, seems to be one of the most effortless movies ever made. It’s one of my favorites among recent films despite several plot inconsistencies. But the pluses so outweigh the minuses that the worth of the journey is never in dispute.

WARNING—SPOILERS FOLLOW

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a top gun with CTC, a consulting firm specializing in career transitions, i.e., its reps do the corporate lay-offs for their downsizing clients. Needless to say, this entails a lot of face-to-face blow-off from the newly unemployed, played here by both actors and recently laid-off civilians. But Ryan seems to love his work. He knows the best rib joint and hotel in every city in the country, and, as he proudly tells us in voice-over, he’s on the road, or more accurately, “up in the air,” 300 days of the year. It’s only when he touches the ground at his corporate home in Omaha that life, if you can call it that, becomes complicated. But the bubble Ryan lives in is shortly to be punctured by two different women: Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate nomad he meets in a hotel bar, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hot-shot Cornell Business School grad hired by the head of CTC (Jason Bateman) to revolutionize the company’s methods. When his boss insists he take Natalie on his next road trip to show her the nuts and bolts of the firm’s operations, Ryan’s reluctant compliance really gets the film underway.

Fortunately “Up in The Air” is more than just a take on the recent Depression recession. It has within its running time one of the subtlest, funniest and most charming movie scenes in recent memory. A bit of background: Natalie has just been dumped by her boyfriend via text message. Ryan and Alex try to comfort her, but a great deal more is going on. The scene provides us with a lovely moment of insight into each of these characters, courtesy of  wonderful writing by Jason Reitman (who also directed) and Sheldon Turner, and expert performances by all three actors. It’s not surprising that each of them received an Oscar nomination: Clooney for Best Actor and both women for Best Supporting Actress.

23 year-old Natalie begins her lament thusly: “When I was 16 I thought I’d be married by now, maybe have a kid, corner office by day, entertaining at night…”, followed by an itemization of how her now-ex “fit the bill,” ending her list of virtues with “a nice smile.” Sensing that Alex may think that needing a man in her life may be retro, she tries to regain ground with “I don’t want to sound anti-feminist. I mean, I really appreciate everything your generation’s done for me.” Alex’s smiling, non-sarcastic rejoinder, “It was our pleasure,” cracks me up every time. But what makes this scene so memorable is her response to Natalie’s question of what she–Alex–thinks the perfect man would be like. Vera Farmiga strikes exactly the right note—her expression and delivery are perfect as she shows us wistfulness combined with hard-earned wisdom: “You secretly pray that he’d be taller than you…not an asshole…enjoys my company…comes from a good family. You don’t think about that when you’re younger. Likes kids. Wants kids. Is healthy enough to play with his kids…And please, let him earn more money than I do…You may not understand that now, but believe me, you will one day. Otherwise that’s a recipe for disaster [Ryan chuckles in recognition]. That he have some hair on his head, though that’s not a deal breaker these days…And [smiling at Ryan] yeah, a nice smile. A nice smile just might do it.”

Natalie ends this reverie with “Wow, that’s depressing. I should just date women.” Watch George Clooney’s reactions to Alex’s quick response: “Tried it [He shoots her a look]. We’re no picnic ourselves” [His expression? Priceless]. But the payoff comes with Alex’s reply to Natalie’s “I just don’t want to settle.” Alex: “You’re young. Right now you see settling as some sort of a failure…By the time someone is right for you, it won’t feel like settling. And the only person left to judge you will be the 23 year-old girl with a target on your back.” It’s a wonderful moment. Vera Farmiga’s amusement never for an instant tips over into condescension. It’s as if she’s affectionately bucking up her younger self.

Emotional journeys are as much in play in “Up in The Air” as physical ones. Super-efficient Natalie, advocate of firing people via Skype in order to eliminate huge corporate travel budgets, loses some of that assurance when confronted with the end reality of what she does for a living. On her learning tour with Ryan, she’s left gasping in panic when the first employee she fires in person declines career counseling because “There’s a nice bridge near my house. I’m going to jump off it.” Being dumped by her fiancé provides another life lesson. Ultimately it’s satisfying to see Natalie practice what she preaches to Ryan as she heads for a job in San Francisco, her original employment destination before she followed the boyfriend to Omaha. Though we don’t learn who her new employer is, we hope it’s in a more humane business than CTC. Natalie’s earned it.

Ryan’s journey is something of a paradox. The man who won’t buy when he demands Natalie “Sell me marriage” during a debate on relationships steps up to do exactly that when his sister’s fiancé gets cold feet on their wedding day. The man who evidently lives on a diet of random hook-ups and encounters with an obliging neighbor finally wants to be with someone more than anything he’s valued in the past, whether it’s hitting that mark of 10 million air miles or speaking at the most exclusive motivational conference in the country. The scene in which Ryan and Alex have a phone conversation after he learns she’s got a husband and family should be required viewing for anyone who thinks George Clooney can’t act. He listens so quietly yet the sense of betrayal is enormous—it’s all in his eyes. For a man who makes his living essentially reading other people, that betrayal sounds on both personal and professional levels.

Despite its excellence, “Up in The Air” does have a few nagging faults. How did Ryan know where Alex lived? Did she give him her address? That’s pretty chancy, given her situation. And how does a married woman shake off spending a weekend with her husband and two kids to go away for a wedding as her boyfriend’s plus one? (She must be the breadwinner and he’s a stay-at-home dad, maybe? We never find out.)

Some clues to Alex may be found in the extras on the “Up in The Air” DVD. There’s some Ryan/Alex dialog that was cut which seems to indicate that Alex is not only falling for Ryan but is somewhat torn about it. It’s a shame this was excised, because it makes her later remark to Ryan,”You were a parenthesis” ice-cold indeed, and seemingly coming out of nowhere. But all things considered, a relatively minor issue in a film that’s one of the smartest in the last ten years.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Carol

carol-film
Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett: “Carol”

There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ “Carol” that could serve as a master class on film acting. Cate Blanchett, as the title character, and Sarah Paulson as Abby, her best friend and former lover, are sitting in a booth at a bar. They’re talking as friends do when they catch up, in this case discussing Carol’s infatuation with the younger Therese and her problems with her estranged husband Harge, and Abby’s crush on a Rita Hayworth-type redhead. But what’s so arresting about their conversation is not what they say, it’s how they relate to each other. With minimal effort, Blanchett and Paulson manage to convey the depth and length of their friendship and not just the love but the regard each has for the other. After the movie’s exceptionally slow beginning, this scene is so welcoming it’s ridiculous. It jumps right off the screen.

Too bad the rest of “Carol” isn’t as consistently engaging or as expertly done.

Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt,” “Carol,” with a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, is centered on the relationship of a soon-to-be-divorced woman (Blanchett) and the younger Therese (Rooney Mara), a budding photographer working in a department store to pay the bills. Set in 1952, it’s definitely “the love that dare not speak its name” territory. The crowded room across which the ladies first lock eyes is the toy department during Christmas shopping season. Therese sells Carol an expensive train set as a present for the latter’s four year-old daughter, Carol (accidentally?) leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese mails them to her, Carol invites her to lunch and….we’re off.

But not really, because this is the slowest film I’ve seen in a very long time. As in “Far From Heaven,” his earlier foray into the 1950’s, director Todd Haynes is obsessed with details of setting, props and decor. Unfortunately they’re not substitutes for pacing and story details (Though I will say I loved Carol’s tank of a car—I knew immediately it was a Packard—and recognized its ’50’s New Jersey license plate as the type my family’s Chevy once sported).

While I don’t think the film is the masterpiece some critics claim it to be, the framing of the story is beautifully realized. The movie begins as we follow a man from a train station to the dining room of a nearby hotel; he turns out to be a friend of Therese, who’s having tea with Carol. He invites her to a party and they depart; the film flashes back to the day Carol and Therese met and the story is then told chronologically until we’re once again at the hotel. Only this time the perspective is entirely different—we’re witness to Carol and Therese’s conversation and the nature of what’s at stake between them. Your realization that we’re back to where we were at the beginning is a mild shock, but an oddly enjoyable one.

What “Carol” does have going for it is some great acting. This is Rooney Mara’s film, hands down; it would not surprise me in the least if she takes the Oscar as Best Actress. The camera just loves her, and rightly so—there’s more than a suggestion of the young Audrey Hepburn and, if you know your ’50’s movies, Maggie McNamara (“Three Coins in the Fountain” is one of my guilty pleasures). Ms. Mara shows us there’s more to this young woman than what’s visible at first glance. She has enough strength to withstand her fiancé’s constant push that they marry and sail for France; she gives us the sense that she’s beginning to know what she wants out of life. Whatever Therese lacks she certainly acquires along the way. Her growth into a woman with some steel is readily apparent by the end of the film—that meeting of Therese and Carol over tea, post-breakup, is a wonderfully nuanced scene of emotional push/pull. It’s at that point you realize that these two could really be a worthy match for each other.

Maybe it’s the roles she’s been playing lately, but Cate Blanchett seems to be on the verge of becoming a Grand Lady, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. She’s more than a bit predatory at the beginning of “Carol,” and she’s not flattered by the ’50’s makeup which tended to make a woman look older than her years back in the day. While the character has a great many issues, there seems to be an awful lot of heavy lifting on Ms. Blanchett’s part, especially involving Carol’s relationship with her soon-to-be ex, Harge (Kyle Chandler is a wonderful actor, but he can’t seem to escape the stereotype of WASP-who-drinks here). Despite her love for Therese (and yes, the bedroom scene is hot), I really didn’t like the character all that much until she grew a backbone in the confrontation at the lawyer’s office. When she dictates her own custody terms as a “take it or leave it,” that’s when “Carol” finally blooms.

The ending is a wonderful pay-off. It reminds me a great deal of the scene in “Howards End” when Emma Thompson, after asking Anthony Hopkins for some time to consider his surprise marriage proposal, runs back up the stairs to kiss him. When I saw it at the local multiplex, the woman sitting behind me semi-whined “But we don’t know what she’ll answer.” To which her husband drily replied “She already did.”

At the end of “Carol,” Therese certainly does.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Too True

Spotlight
“Spotlight”: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery

Two new films based on true events are figuring prominently this holiday season though both are far removed from Christmas cheer. One is something of a disappointment; the other, however, may well win the Oscar.

Let’s start with the good news first. “Spotlight,” a wonderfully double-edged title referring to the name of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that threw a harsh light on the Catholic Church’s handling of its pedophile priests, is a taut story of investigative reporting. Given the subject matter, it’s a surprisingly quiet film–only Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes yells and bangs the table (in contrast, Stanley Tucci, as victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who should be among the noisiest, remains ruefully contained). While the acting ensemble is superb, what makes “Spotlight” so compelling is the manner in which the story is told (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy wrote the screenplay; Mr. McCarthy also directed).

Without being didactic the film carefully limns the how of the abuse and the Church’s cover-up. The film is rich in the details of corruption, from the priests who groomed their child victims, to their superiors who pressured the parents to keep things quiet “for the good of the church,” to the attorneys on both sides who profited from the tragedy, to the higher-ups in the diocese who moved child molester priests like chess pieces from parish to parish or put them on “sick leave.” We see the reporters interviewing several victims, now adults, and learn how the predatory priests used classic techniques of victim selection–targeting boys from broken homes, those with alcoholic or abusive parents and boys with effeminate traits scorned by their peers. In essence these priests traded attention and acceptance for sex. As one victim explains to a “Spotlight” reporter, it starts with a priest telling a dirty joke to a boy, then showing him a porno magazine; it’s only then, with rapport established, that the touching begins, culminating in sexual contact. Although “Spotlight” refers to the fact that girls were victims, too, we don’t see them. But we do see the resulting wreckage in the adult survivors—Patrick, now a heroin addict; Joe, a recovering alcoholic; Phil Saviano, now a victim’s advocate but at first glance a seemingly unhinged nut job.

Yet, as new Boston Globe Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) correctly insists, the real story is not just priestly pedophilia or Cardinal Law’s knowledge of it, but the Church as an institution that chose protection of these priests over the well-being of children and their families. In a city of such Catholic prominence, the Church almost callously played on the ties that bind community and family to ensure silence despite the enormity of this tragedy (The Globe’s “Spotlight” confirmed the Church’s reassignment of 78 abusive priests within the diocese). The film pulls no punches when it comes to how easily the status of clergy gave these men the authority to do what they did. As Attorney Garabedian notes, “You don’t question God.” So the excuses pile up: in Editor Baron’s introductory meeting with Cardinal Law and his attendance at a Catholic charities dinner, he’s continually reminded that the good the Church does should not be thrown away because of “a few bad apples” (“Spotlight” makes it clear that the Church’s apologists raised those damn apples so many times they practically had an orchard). But “Spotlight” also acknowledges that the Globe itself was at best a tarnished hero. It seems that at least five years before the magazine’s investigation got underway, two separate sources had approached Globe personnel who had either failed to grasp the extent of the abuse and the corruption that institutionalized its continuance, or perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the story.

The performances in “Spotlight” are first-rate; you never catch anyone acting. Michael Keaton as the magazine’s editor is astonishing; if you thought he was great in “Birdman,” wait until you see this. Liev Schreiber is memorably quiet in his character’s insistence; Rachel McAdams as the reporter who serves as conduit to the victims comes to mirror their pain as she begins to question her own faith. Stand-outs among the fine supporting cast include Paul Guilfoyle, the Church’s attorney who leans on Keaton to kill the story; Neal Huff as victims’ advocate Phil Saviano, Jamey Sheridan as another “It was my job!” Church attorney, and especially Billy Crudup as the smarmy victims’ attorney who in essence sold his clients out in favor of going along to get along.

This is one film I can’t wait to buy the DVD of.

Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)
Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)

As someone who’s long been interested in the Blacklist Era, I’d been waiting for the release of “Trumbo,” the story of a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1948. Ultimately I found the film somewhat disappointing; perhaps its biggest fault is that given the ground it covers, it should have been a short dramatic series on HBO or Showtime instead of a movie.

“Trumbo” spans about 16 years in the life of Dalton Trumbo, the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1940’s and an unapologetic Communist. Along with many others, he had found the appeal of the Party to his liking during the Great Depression of the Thirties; while his political beliefs remained unchanged, the national climate didn’t. In post-War America, with Eastern Europe coming under Communist sway, membership in the Communist Party, aka being a “Red,” though legal, was thought to be the hallmark of a Soviet agent. So HUAC, ostensibly investigating “Communist influence in Hollywood,” in essence conducted show trials over several years, ruining lives and careers. The Committee’s techniques and goals were of course later used by Senator Joseph McCarthy and various organizations that cleared politically “clean” talent to work on television. For a fee of course.

As you can see, this is a weighty subject spanning Trumbo’s long journey from success to jail (for contempt of Congress) to working under assumed names to reclaiming the fame and career that were rightfully his. Unfortunately “Trumbo” doesn’t rise to the occasion. While I realize this is a dramatic film and not a documentary, the filmmakers made some very strange choices. John Wayne and Hedda Hopper are singled out as Hollywood’s anti-Communist movers and shakers, though in reality most of the damage was done by the studio executives who joined together to fire and blacklist suspected Communists and fellow travelers, and numerous actors and other talent, including Ronald Reagan, Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, who became friendly witnesses for HUAC. It’s one big clinker for the film to suggest that Trumbo’s career came to a halt because Hedda Hopper threatened Louis B. Mayer with the public unmasking of his Russian-Jewish roots (not a secret anyway), though I’m glad we see the anti-Semitism that underscored the Red-baiting years. And though the film suggests otherwise, Trumbo wasn’t the entire Hollywood Ten. I have to confess I miss Ring Lardner, Jr.’s famous response to HUAC’s demand that he name names: “I would, but I’d hate myself in the morning.”

“Trumbo” does much better after the screenwriter gets out of jail. The scenes with his family, and especially his fanatically working seven days a week under a host of pseudonyms for the cut-rate King Brothers while writing two Oscar-winning screenplays (one fronted by another writer who was himself later blacklisted; the other under a pseudonym), are among the best in the film.

While “Trumbo” has its failings, the performances do not. Helen Mirren gives nastiness much style as the Woman You Love to Hate—Hedda Hopper, failed actress turned gossip columnist and arch conservative (By the way, Hedda’s Navy son who’s so frequently referred to was Bill Hopper, later famous as Paul Drake in the “Perry Mason” TV series). David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman are amusingly accurate as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, respectively. Louis C.K. is quite sympathetic as screenwriter Arlen Hird (an invented character), who despite lung cancer seems to hang in there for an incredible length of time, and as you would expect, John Goodman is refreshingly pure id as schlock producer Frank King. Bryan Cranston manages to use the constant exposure to his advantage as Dalton Trumbo, and Diane Lane miraculously avoids cliché as his wife.

But the best performance in the film belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, liberal Democrat and supporter of the Hollywood Ten. This is where we get some nuance after all the posturing. His sense of self-disgust after disowning his political position and naming names in front of HUAC is palpable as he sits awaiting clearance from John Wayne to be able to work again. I wish “Trumbo” had included more of this, for as the man himself acknowledged much later in life, to the fury of some members of the Hollywood Ten:

The blacklist was a time of evil…no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil…[Looking] back on this time…it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

Whose Opinion?

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Groucho on “Il Trovatore”: “Boogie, Boogie, Boogie”

Ever feel out of step, critic-wise? How frequently have you seen an acclaimed movie or play that makes you regret the time lost as you suffered through it? And what about that film the critics universally slammed which has you talking about for days?

Yeah, me too. The most recent works at issue? “Il Trovatore,” the first Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” telecast of the season, and the movie “Freeheld,” starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. The New York Times loved the first and hated the second; I, on the other hand, was disappointed at a certain level by the former but found a great deal to admire in the latter despite its flaws.

“Il Trovatore” starred Anna Netrebko, Yonghoon Lee, Dolora Zajick and, in his triumphal return in the midst of treatment for a brain tumor, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Vocal riches galore to be sure, and especially amazing since Mr. Hvorostovsky never sounded better as Count di Luna, or in any other role for that matter. But here’s the thing: I’ll sometimes take fewer vocal fireworks if a singer can really act the role. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but there’s more to “Il Trovatore” than its voices, despite Enrico Caruso’s oft-quoted view that all you need for a successful performance is the four greatest singers in the world. Actually that should be five anyway, because without a dynamic bass as Ferrando, the opera stalls getting off the blocks (Štefan Kocán, who also plays the amusingly sinister Sparafucile in the company’s production of “Rigoletto,” filled the bill quite nicely).

The Marx Brothers’ shenanigans in “A Night at the Opera” notwithstanding (and for years after seeing it I couldn’t hear any phrase from “Il Trovatore” without bursting into uncontrollable laughter), there’s a lot of great drama to be mined here. Yes, the plot is famously absurd and there’s more action taking place off-stage than on, but performers committed to acting the roles as well singing them will make all the difference. The last time I saw “Il Trovatore” at the Met, Patricia Racette was an incredibly nuanced, vulnerable Leonora. Although the role was not a great fit for her in vocal terms, I couldn’t have asked for a better dramatic performance. In the HD telecast only Yonghoon Lee’s “Ah, sì ben mio” rose to that level of sensitivity. This was a rare event indeed—usually you can see the wheels turning in the tenor’s head while he sings this aria because he’s already gearing up for “Di quella pira.” But Mr. Lee delivered both his best singing and acting of the afternoon in that moment.

I love Anna Netrebko. Her dark sound is amazing and though this isn’t apparent in an HD telecast which tends to homogenize singers’ volume, her voice is enormous. She’s a terrific actor—a tremendous Lady MacBeth and a helplessly vulnerable Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffman,” among other roles— but in “Il Trovatore” she gave a diva performance. Vocally she was thrilling. Dramatically she was so “take charge” you wondered why she needed Manrico—she could have disposed of di Luna with one hand tied behind her back. Much has been made of her desperately climbing the jail gate during the “Miserere.” To me this seemed a stunt on par with her ripping open des Grieux’s cassock during the seduction scene in “Manon” several seasons ago (the audience tittered at this maneuver during the performance I saw). While I would have liked more dramatic awareness from her Leonora, her singing was extraordinary—it made me long to hear her as Tosca. She’d burn the house down.

There are still some issues with the Met HD telecasts in general. The (lack of) sound quality really grated on me this time, no doubt because the level of vocal quality in this performance was so high. And there’s still too much emphasis on close-ups, to the extent I felt very claustrophobic while watching. The set for this opera is no disaster, so why rely so heavily on the “nostril shot” camera that rides the lip of the stage?

“Il Trovatore” in HD? It left me wanting something a bit more. Maybe it’s too much to ask for perfection?

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Julianne Moore and Ellen Page: “Freeheld”

As a New Jersey resident I clearly remember following the real events behind the film “Freeheld.” To summarize: Laurel Hester, a 23-year veteran police officer in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As legally required in 2005, she formally requested the county’s governing body, the Board of Freeholders, to grant her registered domestic partner, Stacee Andree, survivor benefits via a transfer of her pension, as her heterosexual married colleagues were entitled to without question. The Board, which by law had the discretion to grant her application, said no. And subsequently said it several times. It wasn’t until a boatload of bad publicity, centered on the freeholders’ sheer mean-spiritedness, especially in view of the quality and length of Ms. Hester’s service, was brought to bear that they finally reversed their position and granted her request. She died soon after, but her pension financially enabled her partner to remain in the house they had bought together and shared for several years, thus fulfilling the ultimate purpose of her fight.

Manohla Dargis, chief movie critic of the New York Times, called “Freeheld” a “television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong” and went on to slam it six ways to Sunday. Surprise, surprise—I liked it. While it certainly has its faults, they’re more than compensated for.

“Freeheld,” based on the Oscar-winning documentary of the same title, features excellent performances all around, though dramatically speaking it’s really Ellen Page’s movie. As the much younger partner of the dying Laurel Hester (a very moving Julianne Moore), she’s likely to get an Oscar nomination out of this—she’s beautifully subtle in how she conveys Stacee’s emotions. Fortunately the supporting actors are on a par with the two leading ladies. Michael Shannon is simply terrific as Dane Wells, Laurel’s police partner; one of the best scenes in the film is his unexpected drop-in on the closeted Laurel, finally learning after many years of working together that she’s a lesbian. He does a tremendous job depicting Wells’ anger and disappointment—not that she’s gay, but because she didn’t trust him enough to tell him about her life. As he did on “Boardwalk Empire,” he gets maximum mileage out of that unusual face of his. Steve Carell as Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, who becomes Laurel’s chief advocate, is a welcome presence–he’s like the dash of paprika that makes a dish interesting. And Josh Charles is excellent as the freeholder who questions the resounding “no” of his fellows on the board.

Are there problems with this film? Of course. In chronological order, I found the first few minutes covering Laurel’s involvement in a drug bust and subsequent cracking of a murder case somewhat confusing—I couldn’t tell the perps from the snitch, which had some bearing on a later scene when the filmmakers want to convey Laurel’s expertise at her job. More importantly, I wish scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner, who also authored the film “Philadelphia,” had given more context to how the state, in contrast to the intransigence of Ocean County, was beginning to recognize inequality in the treatment of its gay citizens. In 2005, as shown in the film, New Jersey had legally recognized domestic partnerships, but more than that, had seen the introduction of legislation that would afford more benefits via civil unions; the bill would be enacted a few months after Laurel Hester’s death. Same-sex marriage finally became law in New Jersey via court decision in 2013, following several years of failed legislation and a veto (you expected something different?) by Governor Christie.

Ultimately I was surprised that the film placed so much emphasis on the seeming secrecy that several freeholders were collecting two and perhaps three government pensions each while denying Laurel Hester’s request. Every newspaper in New Jersey has constantly been on the issue of double-dipping for as long as I can remember; a liberal paper like the Asbury Park Press, Ocean County’s home newspaper, would have featured this hypocrisy front and center. And if they didn’t, the film should have said so.

Unlike Ms. Dargis, I would have preferred more “didactic” context rather than less, particularly since people to tend to forget the early stages of social change. But “Freeheld” is definitely worth anyone’s time on the strength of its acting and the light it shines on what constitutes true equality. In this case “good intentions” do indeed carry the day.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Doctor…Psycho Blonde…Nurse…Nurse

ThatGal

One of the documentaries I’ve enjoyed most in the last several years is “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing.” Featuring a roster of actors whose faces you’ve seen so many times, but whose names usually escape you, it’s 79 minutes of entertaining yet eye-opening anecdotes about life as a working actor, which as it turns out, is a rarity in Hollywood.

Now Ian Roumain, the director of that film, has produced a natural follow-up, “That Gal…Who Was in That Thing,” highlighting the trials and tribulations of the female version of the actor species (The majority of the participants in “That Gal” prefer to be described as “actors,” not “actresses,” so I’ll gladly follow their lead). The documentary is available on Showtime and On Demand, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss.

Despite their extensive resumes, the participants in “That Gal” were more obscure for me than the men in “That Guy.” The only face I could put a name to immediately belonged to Roma Maffia, only because of her appearances on the “Law & Order” shows and “E.R.,” both of which I watched regularly. Actor L. Scott Caldwell mentions early on that people tend to know her voice but not her name, and in fact, I wracked my brain until she finally mentioned playing Regina King’s mother in “Southland.” And while I knew Jayne Atkinson’s name from her extensive New York theater career, it was a big “So THAT’S who she is” when she appeared on-screen.

These are actors that luckily can make a living but aren’t stars. A couple, like Roxanne Hart, whose first film was “The Verdict” (she played the sister/guardian of Paul Newman’s comatose client) might have made that breakthrough when they were younger, but as luck would have it, it just didn’t happen. So now they keep on going with TV roles, winning a slot on a series if they’re lucky, and character parts in film, while at least two have branched out to other fields—in Ms. Hart’s case, directing in theater, and in Ms. Maffia’s, obtaining her master’s degree.

But what makes “That Gal” stand out from its male counterpart is an extensive and frank discussion of how Hollywood views and treats female actors. One of the documentary’s participants is Donna Massetti, a talent agent, who along with the actors who appear, details at length the problems of their early aging (at least in the eyes of producers), weight, appearance, etc., that are endemic in the industry. It’s the old story—a craggy 60 year-old male actor is “interesting,” a female actor that age will be sidelined into playing a great-grandmother. The bigger issue, though, is one of sheer numbers. There are always more roles for men because it’s a male-driven industry. The majority of the creative talent is still male, and the men get to present their vision. Fortunately with the emergence of cable TV and the development of original internet programming, the ladies are beginning to have their day.

However, some issues may never go away. Most of the actors in “That Gal” are mothers, and their stories about having to hide their pregnancies for fear of losing out on a role give you pause. L. Scott Caldwell’s account of what it cost her to send her son to live with his father while she gave a Tony-winning performance on Broadway is heartbreaking. And while Paget Brewster is exceptionally funny in describing how female actors are routinely assessed by men in the industry, she’s dead serious about being sexually assaulted while filming a bed scene.

The women who appear in “That Gal” are proud of their craft. After seeing it, I can only hope that they will have the opportunity to continue in their chosen profession for years to come.

P.S.: The title of this post comes from an amusing sequence in “That Gal” when the actors list the types of roles in which they’re routinely stuck with cast.