Movie Review ~ Let Them All Talk

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Daniel Algrant, John Douglas Thompson

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If there’s one thing to be said about veteran filmmakers, it’s that they can get a movie put together quickly.  I kind of marvel at the endless gestation periods franchise pictures need to make their way to their release date (it’s not all about how long the special effects takes, trust me) or how particular directors struggle with the fine-tuning part of their oversight that keeps a project from getting in front of the viewer.  Then you have your Spielbergs, Eastwoods, and Soderberghs who can churn out movies, and often good ones, with such ease it feels like they just woke up and decided to make a movie that day.  There’s more to the planning of it of course but when you have as much experience as they do this process starts to come naturally.  At the tail end of 2020, a number of people were taken a bit off guard when Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk was announced as complete and ready for release…how did this Meryl Streep led serio-comic film on the high seas get this close to us with no one taking notice?

Many a film fan got weepy when Oscar-winning director Soderbergh put out a very public statement that he was retiring.  The vanguard director that led the ‘80s independent film wave in Hollywood had accumulated an impressive list of box office successes and critical hits during his time in the business, earning respect from colleagues and admiration from celebrities who knew him to be an actors director.  Showing a knack for casting down to even the most minor role, for a while Soderbergh couldn’t lose…until he began to take a “one for them, one for me” approach and his ratio of winners to losers started to shrink.  Too many bombs and experimental failures followed before a last gasp strange run of oddball efforts between 2008 and 2013 (including Magic Mike and Side Effects) that led to his retreat into television and his supposed retirement.

He didn’t stay put for long.  Making a somewhat stealth return with 2017’s pleasing Logan Lucky (written by his wife, who felt the strange need to use a pseudonym), Soderbergh has been trying something a bit new with each project.  His high concept TV effort Mosaic for HBO started as an interactive app that aided audiences in solving a murder mystery, 2018’s Unsane was filmed completely with an iPhone, and 2019’s The Laundromat did the unthinkable – it found an accent and make-up that Meryl Streep couldn’t convincingly pull off.  For a man several years into retirement, he’s certainly keeping busy with his previous job.

Streep and Soderbergh are teaming up again with Let Them All Talk for HBO Max and it brings a screenplay by humorist and noted short story author Deborah Eisenberg to life and for better or worse, it’s a big improvement over the last time the star and director worked together.  For one, it’s not based on real life events, something that tended to stymie The Laundromat and bound the filmmakers to certain limitations.  It also spreads the wealth nicely among co-stars, with Streep often graciously exiting stage left in favor of her other highly respected co-stars to have their moment in the spotlight.  Soderbergh is no dummy, though, and he trots his star out for the less strong members of the cast or when the mostly improvised dialogue starts to stall out.

Everyone is waiting for the next novel from Pulitzer-winner Alice Hughes (Streep, Hope Springs) who has been struggling with completing her latest manuscript, rumored to be a sequel to her most famous book.  Recently moved to new agent Karen (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) that she’s not totally comfortable with, Alice prefers to work at her own pace and doesn’t like to be rushed in her process.  Karen’s under pressure from their publisher, though, and isn’t as much of a friendly shoulder pushover like her predecessor.  With Alice set to receive an esteemed award in London that’s rarely given out, Karen seizes the opportunity to get Alice focused on the work and raise her profile a bit in the process.  There’s one problem, though, NY based Alice doesn’t like to fly.  But this is New York, darling…so through Karen’s connections it’s off to London on the Queen Mary II with Alice and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased) acting as her assistant of sorts.

Also invited along are two of Alice’s oldest friends she hasn’t seen in quite some time.  Though Alice doesn’t know it, Roberta (Candice Bergen, Book Club) is more frenemy than anything, holding a long grudge against her friend through an unproven theory that she took secret information told in confidence and used it as the basis for her bestselling novel.  She’s spent the ensuing decades blaming her for the shambles her life has become as a result. The peace-keeper of the bunch is free-spirited Susan (Dianne Wiest, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) who has come on the trip for all the right reasons in wanting to reconnect with her old friends and help the other two mend a fence long broken.  When Karen hops on board and starts to work in secret with Tyler to get more information on his aunt, it creates another side relationship the movie has to juggle throughout it’s two hour run time.

Acting once again as his cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), there’s not a lot Soderbergh isn’t involved with here and you can feel it.  Much of the movie was improvised and that’s why for every dymanic scene there are two are three insignificant ones of mundane goings on that Soderbergh feels drawn to.  From the obvious improvisation in many scenes (most evident with Chan and Hedges who tend to commit the kiss of boring death in making their improvised dialogue far too specific, serious, and detailed) to the hand-held filming, it has all the calling cards the director is known for.  What it also has is a sort of deep sadness to it as well and while that provides good space for seasoned actors like the three leads to play in, it winds up making you feel bad for everyone.  Sad that friends can’t be honest, sad that family can’t be more vulnerable, sad that too much goes unsaid until too late.

As is often the case with Soderbergh, he runs the film on its rims several miles longer than necessary.  It was pretty disappointing to come out of the movie dovetailing from a quite touching ending to a pointlessly overlong coda that was of no benefit.  By that point, we’d already filled our cup with the impressive showings of Bergen, Wiest, and Streep.  Anytime Streep is onscreen you can’t help but be drawn to her magnetic aura but Soderbergh has found a way to harness that by sandwiching her between two other actresses of her generation that also possess the same sort of power to command a screen.  They have presence and in different ways.  Bergen is playing right into the type we want her to be and that’s good, though I wish the script had provided her one more establishing scene with Streep earlier in the film, it would make a later bedroom scene work that much better.  How wonderful to see Wiest knock it out of the park here playing a kind of extension of her worldly but not perfect character from Parenthood.  Her wry revelations to Bergen over their daily parlor games by the ocean are a riot and a lovely speech summing up the journey up is the film’s true high point.

If Soderbergh is going to continue to skate that line of retirement, I hope he stays with this kind of dour material because he seems to have found a nice, if imperfect fit with his own interests.  This is bound to draw comparisons to the films of Woody Allen and I can’t imagine this didn’t cross the minds of everyone involved at one time or another.  It’s got the same arch rhythm, conversations about nothing that are about everything, and that wistful longing for the joy of travel but not the pain of separation. Let Them All Talk is not going to rank high on the Best-Of list for any of the cast or crew when all is said and done but it’s one of the more interesting experiments mad scientist Soderbergh has concocted.  And who wouldn’t want to sail across the Ocean with at least one of these three stellar stars?

Movie Review ~ Book Club


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four lifelong friends have their lives forever changed after reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their monthly book club.

Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley Jr.

Director: Bill Holderman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There are some that would say a comedy featuring four multi-award winning actresses of a certain age humorously discovering that “the next chapter is always the best” would be a no-brainer. Turns out they were spot on…Book Club has no brains to speak of. Here’s an aggressively dull, pandering movie that manages to do a disservice to its distinguished actors and an intended audience already woefully underserved. With its tin ear for realistic dialogue and a baffling cluelessness to how humans behave, no clichéd stone is left unturned.

Friends since college, Vivian (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Home Again), Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood), and Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes) meet for their monthly book club in one of their pristine dwellings. Starting with Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and recently coming off of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, vampy Vivian introduces the ladies to E.L. James’ famous smut tome Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s the first red flag that pops up in the script from Erin Simms (Pete’s Dragon) and director Bill Holderman (A Walk in the Woods). As poorly written as it was, James’ book was a phenomenon and you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of it or seen the movies adapted from her trilogy of novels. Aside from Vivian, none of the ladies seems to know much about it and are shocked to discover its titillating scenes of bondage and explicit couplings.

All four ladies are, naturally, having trouble in the romance department and find that the book not so much ignites a newfound lust for life as it influences their choices. Hotelier and notoriously single Vivian runs into a long-lost paramour (Don Johnson, Django Unchained) who might have been the one that got away while federal judge Sharon, still bruised from her divorce, signs up for a dating service and winds up attracting the attention of Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Wallace Shawn (Admission). Carol is finding it difficult to connect with her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in and out of the bedroom and widowed Diane ventures into a new relationship with a swarthy pilot (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) while her children pressure her to move closer to them.

What laughs there are to be had (and trust me, there aren’t many) come, surprisingly, from Bergen who I’ve always found to be a little aloof in films. Here she seems to be having a ball as a high-strung intellectual embarrassed she has to resort to finding a date online. Sadly, the film doesn’t give her a full arc so by the time we’ve gotten into her rhythm with Dreyfuss he’s disappeared, never to be heard from again. There’s even less time spent with Shawn who pops up in for a well-timed cameo but doesn’t get much chance to make an impression.

For my money, far too much time is spent with Fonda’s storyline, which is the most ham-fisted of the bunch. Wearing an awful wig and decked out in one gaudy outfit after another, it’s not hard to see where things are headed for the woman who likes to sleep with men but doesn’t like to “sleep” with them after. Always an underrated commodity in film and television, Steenburgen has nice moments here and there and while her thread is likely the most relatable, by the time the film has her tap dancing to a Meat Loaf song at a talent show you can literally see her working hard to keep up with things.

Then there’s Keaton who, to me, seems like the most natural fit for this type of froth. Sadly, Holderman and Simms make her character such a doormat and allow her children (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to take her for granted far too long. (It’s also a mystery to me why there are two daughters when the film only needed one) Keaton coasts through much of the movie on fumes and only comes alive when there’s some physical comedy to execute, if only Holderman and Simms had given her character dimension of any kind.

What kind of message is the movie ultimately sending? A detriment to the film’s credibility is its stupefying lack of diversity. Taking place in present-day Los Angeles (and made on the cheap with a ton of questionable green screen and downright lousy Photoshop), there’s nary a person of color to be seen aside from a few random service workers. Purporting the myth of the white woman fantasy so grossly admired in Nancy Meyers movies with its affluent rich white ladies, Book Club feels completely out of touch and out of step with our society. Even worse, when you get right down to it, every woman in the film needs to be defined by the men they are with.  There’s something uncomfortable about watching that unfold before you.

Book Club is for easy readers only.

Movie Review ~ Home Again

The Facts:

Synopsis: Life for a single mom in Los Angeles takes an unexpected turn when she allows three young guys to move in with her.

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Pico Alexander, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Lake Bell

Director: Hallie Meyers-Shyer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Reese Witherspoon looks like ‘meh’ on the poster for Home Again and after seeing it you may understand why. Maybe it’s the fact that this A-lister is stuck in a B-movie with C-list stars. Perhaps it’s because the direction from first-timer Hallie Meyers-Shyer is as amateurish as her script. Or it could be that the movie is just pure white-washed piffle, meant to go down easy and float from your consciousness the moment you get to your car. Whatever the reason may be, this is one you can easily take a pass on.

At 97 minutes, Home Again has the look, feel, and structure of three episodes of a Netflix series that Witherspoon somehow wandered into. Filmed mostly on one set (Witherspoon’s homey California dwelling) under lights so bright you can often see make-up lines on the actors faces, it feels lo-fi and out of place on the big screen. Aside from Witherspoon and Candice Bergen as her movie-star mom, none of the supporting cast feels like they’re ready for this undertaking and that makes the entire production continually strain to prove its purpose for existing.

Separated from her music mogul husband who has remained on the East Coast, Alice (Witherspoon, Hot Pursuit) is a mom to two girls adjusting to life as a 40-year-old back at the Los Angeles manse of her late father. A famous film director, her pop must have left her quite a fortune because the house sports furnishings straight out of a Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware catalog. Out to celebrate her birthday with friends she winds up taking young Harry (Pico Alexander, A Most Violent Year) home for a night cut short by his sour stomach. The next morning she finds that not only did Harry come home with her but so did his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff, Paper Towns) and their friend George (Jon Rudnitsky).

Surprisingly, Bergen comes up with the idea of her daughter providing lodging for the cash-strapped trio who are in CA to pitch a film to a famous producer. Soon the guys are bonding with Alice’s tykes while Harry and Alice awkwardly maneuver around their growing fondness for one another. When Alice’s estranged husband Austin (Michael Sheen, Passengers) shows up ready to re-join his family it throws the newly found harmony out of sych. There’s also a barely there B-story of Alice working for a high-strung socialite (Lake Bell, Million Dollar Arm, wearing an array of loony mumus) that provides Witherspoon the opportunity to flex her comedic muscles when she gets sloshed and tells off her nightmare boss.

That Meyers-Shyer wrote and directed a movie like this isn’t entirely unexpected, after all she’s the daughter of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers who together and separately have given us films like Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, It’s Complicated, The Holiday, The Intern, and Something’s Gotta Give. It’s that the movie is such a pale imitation of what her parents have all but perfected (much to my chagrin)…the white-woman fantasy. I’ve said it about films from Nancy Meyers in the past and I’m going to say it here for Home Again…how this movie could be made with barely any minorities is kinda atrocious. There are scenes in set in Los Angeles clubs, restaurants, and offices yet aside from one horribly stereotypical Indian motel worker there are zero people of color who have speaking roles, let alone appear in the movie at all. Alice doesn’t have any black friends? Her kids don’t attend school with any observed minorities? The movie is soaked in white privilege at its most yuck-o and I find it a bit embarrassing Witherspoon didn’t notice it.

Speaking of Witherspoon, watching the movie you’ll wonder how this Oscar-winning actress who has shown a keen knack for choosing the right properties for herself in the past few years wound up in this backwards facing vehicle. She labors almost victoriously with some inane dialogue and nearly convinces us she’s falling for the charmless Alexander as her young beau. Alexander, for his part, is completely miscast here and watching him in scenes with Witherspoon or Bergen is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Rudnitsky has some appeal in a goofy way yet the movie explore his possible fondness for Alice and subsequent jealously of Harry while Wolff instigates the most audience pleasing moment of the film.

I don’t think I’m that off base feeling that Home Again would seem like a better fit as a streaming series. There are enough subplots to cover several episodes and the basic premise could have some legs had Meyers-Shyer sharpened her script, developed her characters, and surrounded Witherspoon with a better ensemble. As presented, Home Again is a movie free of consequence for everyone and absent a rounded conclusion.

The Silver Bullet ~ Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s

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Synopsis: A documentary on the Manhattan department store with interviews from an array of fashion designers, style icons, and celebrities.

Release Date:  May 3, 2013

Thoughts: Every now and then, it’s nice to take a breather from the onslaught of the political/financial/wartime documentaries and just soak in something with a bit more levity.  Like The September Issue (about the inner workings of Vogue Magazine), Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s outfits itself with a lighter touch as it lets us go inside and behind the scenes of the hallowed walls at NYC’s famed store.  With interviews from a clothing rack full of celebs and designers, I’m not expecting this to be an Oscar nominee next year but am looking forward to a documentary that isn’t quite so heavy-handed.