Movie Review ~ Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool


The Facts
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Synopsis: A romance sparks between a young actor and a Hollywood leading lady.

Stars: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave, Stephen Graham, Leanne Best

Director: Paul McGuigan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Though not for lack of trying, it’s getting harder and harder for Annette Bening to get that Oscar she’s been deserving for quite some time now. Turning in stellar performances (and, yes, the occasional clunky one) for nearly thirty years now, Bening (Girl Most Likely) picks the right projects that somehow continue to wind up being lost in the shuffle of higher profile releases. Such is the case with her lovely turn as Oscar winner (oh the irony…) Gloria Graeme in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, her latest close but no Oscar nom performance.

By the time Peter Turner (Jamie Bell, Man on a Ledge) meets Gloria Graeme in a boarding house in the late ‘70s, her days of headlining the silver screen are long behind her. Playing classic roles in regional theaters, she’s heralded for her craft but just as easily forgotten when the show closes. Inviting Turner into her room for an impromptu disco dance, the two connect in that special way that goes beyond getting down with the boogie woogie. Their first date is to (where else?) the movies to see Alien, a movie which Turner squirms through and Graeme gets a royal kick out of. They couldn’t be more different but the bond that forms between them is convincing in an oddball fashion, like a less bleak version of Harold and Maude.

Told in flashbacks by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh who adapted Turner’s memoir, the film has an interesting structure that finds scenes from the past blending with the present. Director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) never tries to hide that we’re watching a movie and that didn’t bother me as much because the cinematography from Urszula Pontikosis so heightened and gossamer. Pontikosis frames each shot like an old time postcard, even Turner’s humble family home is filmed with care. Visuals don’t get more inviting than the do when arriving in Los Angeles for a reunion with Graeme, Turner stares out from her secluded home on wheels to the ocean and a rich amber skyline that’s clearly shot in a studio.

While the movie is centrally focused on Graeme and Turner’s romance, Greenhalgh and McGuigan make sure to open the picture up to include supporting characters. Julie Walters (Paddington) is solid as a rock as Turner’s wise mother, understanding enough to see the troubles in store for the relationship but loving enough to care deeply for her son and his lover. There’s also a dandy of a scene with Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) as Graeme’s mother, another faded actress, and her sister (Frances Barber) in which they give some chilling advice to Turner.

Though he’s come a long way since his breakout role in Billy Elliot (also starring Walters), Bell moves into true leading man territory here. Complimenting Bening in all the right ways while finding moments to shine on his own, Bell is well-cast and it’s not hard to see why Graeme’s vulnerable soul would find a kindred spirit in Turner’s sensitive young man. The film belongs to Bening, though, and darn it if she isn’t dang good as a faded starlet coming to grips with accepting her own mortality. She lilts her voice and sways her hips in true Graeme fashion and eventually totally disappears into the role. McGuigan even makes the bold decision to feature film clips of the actual Graeme and while Bening doesn’t really resemble her, seeing the real person shows you how well studied Bening was in getting her mannerisms down.

While it’s a shame this one is flying so far under the radar it’s practically walking into cinemas, this will be a fun one for people to discover down the road…hopefully when Bening has won her Oscar for a performance equally as well constructed.

31 Days to Scare ~ In Dreams

The Facts:

Synopsis: A suburban housewife learns that she has psychic connections to a serial killer, and can predict this person’s motives through her dreams.

Stars: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Robert Downey Jr., Paul Guilfoyle, Margo Martindale

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I wanted to say right off the bat that I’m giving In Dreams a higher score than it probably deserves…or even has rightly earned despite some good intentions. While the overall movie feels like a bit of a clunker by the time is gets to its overblown third act, leading up to it there are some interesting ideas and certainly some intriguing performances.

Based on the novel Doll’s Eyes by Bari Wood (but supposedly wildly different in plot) this one comes to us via Neil Jordan, the writer/director of The Crying Game and screenwriter Bruce Robinson (Jennifer 8). Jordan takes a page from his cult favorite The Company of Wolves and frames In Dreams as part fairy tale, part horror show. Starting strong with visuals of a town that was flooded to make way for a reservoir that’s now the dumping ground for a psychotic killer, Jordan spends the first 45 minutes slowly building the tension but loses his grip when the line between dreams and reality get too blurred.

In the same year she’d go on to receive an Oscar nomination for American Beauty, Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) is kinda a mess as a wife and mother who discovers she has a psychic link to the person that’s been abducting little girls and leaving their bodies underwater. Bening has grown into such a dependable presence on screen, especially in these last 10 years, but In Dreams was released when she hadn’t quite found her zone yet. She’s either cool and collected, purring her lines to her befuddled husband (Aidan Quinn, Blink) and skeptical shrink (Stephen Rea who should never, ever, attempt the New Yahk accent he tries out here) or she’s totally unhinged, laugh-crying her way through Robinson and Jordan’s chuckle inducing dialogue.

Her performance isn’t even the most bizarre one on display. No, that would be Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) as the serial killer toying with Bening and her family. With his hair dyed red and peering at us from behind green contacts, Downey Jr. nails the creepy part of his role but can’t make head or tails of what else he should be doing. This was long before Downey Jr. had his Marvel renaissance and the actor seems fairly adrift here.

There’s some decent atmosphere created, scenes shot in the town underwater and a sinister apple orchard are nice showcases for Darius Khondji’s (Magic in the Moonlight) cinematography and Bening’s visions are nicely done. There’s even an ominous staging of Snow White in the forest starring the actress playing Bening’s daughter and about a three dozen other cherubs. It all adds up to a movie that looks great and has some spooky moments but one that eventually makes absolutely no sense at all…especially a poorly thought out finale that feels like it was reshot late in the game. In reality, In Dreams is a bust but there’s so many good people involved it’s worth watching at least once.

The Silver Bullet ~ 20th Century Women

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Synopsis: The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: If Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) were to write an autobiography at this point in her career (which is far from it’s expiration date, btw) she might think about titling it “Always an Oscar Bridesmaid” because she’s been runner-up four times now.  Looking over who she’s lost to (Whoopi Goldberg, Hilary Swank {twice!}, Natalie Portman), I feel the right person always won…but it’s gotta be Bening’s time sometime…right?  Her latest bid arrives (with already good buzz for her nomination chances) with 20th Century Women, a 70s set drama about a trio of women and how they affect a young boy growing up in California.  Director Mike Mills guided Christopher Plummer to an Oscar win for Beginners — might he work the same magic for Bening?  Hope so.

Movie Review ~ Girl Most Likely

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A failed New York playwright awkwardly navigates the transition from Next Big Thing to Last Year’s News.

Stars: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Christopher Fitzgerald, Darren Criss

Director: Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy.  This is a rough review to write because I’m such a fan of Kristen Wiig but Girl Most Likely is pretty dreadful.  This misguided comedy that wants to masquerade its significant shortcomings by hiding under the guise of offbeat humor is a major step down the wrong path for its star who is so much better than this soggy material.

Making a name for herself on Saturday Night Live and then getting an Oscar nomination for writing Bridesmaids, Wiig has kept a fairly low profile for herself turning up for a supporting roles in Despicable Me 2 and Friends with Kids.  So in her first true starring role I expected a lot more than the painful to watch Girl Most Likely had to offer.  It’s no secret the movie has sat on the shelf for a while as it awaited a distributor and though Roadside Attractions has tried to spiff this one up with a decent poster and engaging trailer, it was all smoke and mirrors to distract the audience that the film is a dog.

The movie reminded me a lot of 2011’s Young Adult which found Charlize Theron’s not-very-nice semi-successful novelist returning to her home town with her eyes on making off with her high school sweetheart.  She reacquaints herself with old friends and family and though she gets a taste of her own medicine she winds up realizing the person she’s become…and making the choice not to change.  In Girl Most Likely, Wiig is a failed NYC playwright still pining for her ex who, after a faked suicide attempt, winds up living in Atlantic City with her mother (Annette Bening, The Grifters), her brother (Christopher Fitzgerald) and two new men in her life.  The first is her mom’s loopy beau (Matt Dillon, In & Out) who claims to be in the CIA and the other is a performer at a local hob-knob casino renting out her old room (Darren Criss).  As expected, everyone living under the same roof creates some sparks…none of them producing anything resembling laughs or excitement.

Theater guy Fitzgerald comes out the best from this mess playing the kind of role that could easily be grating but is instead instilled with some heart and charm the rest of the people, places, and situations Girl Most Likely is sadly missing.  Dillon and Bening go through the motions, though one wonders how they ended up paired together because their lack of chemistry is readily apparent.  Speaking of no-chemistry, though Criss and Wiig aren’t exactly a part of the May-December romance club there’s something terribly off about the relationship they are forced into just because the script from Michelle Morgan says so.  Criss should be thankful for what Glee hath wrought because there’s no way he’ll be able to carry the weight of a full picture based on his weak and unconvincing performance here.

The movie reeks of low-budget not only in the incredibly uneven supporting performances but in the overall look of the film.  Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini manage to make both New York City and Atlantic City look like ugly, tacky, dreary places to live thanks to poor lighting and boring scene set-ups.  Add to that an ending that seems to have been edited in from a totally different film and you have a movie most likely to make you want your money back.

As the movie wears on your patience will wear thin as Wiig can’t manage to do anything with this role to get the audience anywhere near her side.  There’s something to be said about making a character that’s unlikable relatable but there’s no meat to the character for Wiig to sink her talented teeth into…so what’s left is a battered carcass that’s not very nice to look at.  Skip it and rent Young Adult instead.

The Silver Bullet ~ Girl Most Likely

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Synopsis: A failed New York playwright awkwardly navigates the transition from Next Big Thing to Last Year’s News.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: Is anyone else getting a little Postcards from the Edge feeling while watching the trailer for this indie dramedy starring Kristen Wiig (Friends with Kids) and Annette Bening (The Grifters and who just so happens to have been in Postcards from the Edge)?  It’s hard to argue that there are parallels with that earlier film but in the hands of Wiig and Bening we may just have a sleeper hit on our hands.  Though originally intended to be released in 2012, the movie has been pushed back a few times which doesn’t necessarily bode well for the confidence its studio has in it.  Still, I’d probably follow Wiig into a movie about toenail clipping so it’s highly likely I’ll be seeking this one out in late July.

Mid-Day Mini ~ The Grifters

The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time conman has torn loyalties between his estranged mother and new girlfriend–both of whom are high-stakes grifters with their own angles to play.

Stars: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  In 1990 Angelica Huston played two very bad women.  In The Witches, Huston was delightfully over the top as the Grand High Witch that can’t stand children and while she doesn’t play a witch in The Grifters, her lack of a moral compass is just as chilling.  The performance rightfully earned her an Oscar nomination alongside Best Supporting Actress nominee Annette Bening in the movie that really put her on the map.  They are the mother and girlfriend of a two-bit con artist played well by John Cusack in this dark comedy noir by UK director Stephen Frears.  The three actors work some interesting cons along the way, with Bening in particular using her considerable assets to almost walk away with the movie.  Still, anytime Huston is on screen she rules the roost with her platinum hair and scheming plans.  With Donald E. Westlake adapting the slick film from a novel by Jim Thompson, this is a treasure chest of double crosses, dead bodies, and one very scary sack of oranges.