Movie Review ~ Being the Ricardos 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Lucille Ball struggles in her personal life with husband Desi Arnaz amid cheating allegations, existing under the watchful eye of the FBI for being a potential communist threat, and much more. 

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale,  Jake Lacy, Alia Shawkat, Linda Lavin, Clark Gregg, Ronny Cox, John Rubinstein 

Director: Aaron Sorkin 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 125 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8/10) 

Review:  There was a time during one high school summer when I worked a job that ended at such a late hour that there was nothing much on television to watch but episodes of I Love Lucy.  Consequently, over the ensuing years I’ve found it comforting to fall asleep to the comedic stylings of Lucille Ball, be it on her landmark television program or her subsequent shows that didn’t feature her husband Desi Arnaz.  While I’m not an expert of all things Lucy, I know what I know so knew enough to realize that casting Nicole Kidman as the legendary comedienne was a big risk for writer/director Aaron Sorkin.  It was also a decision that sent fans reeling, wondering how the Aussie star could believably take on the New York Ball’s signature look and sound. 

As was the case with the woman she’s portraying, it’s wrong to underestimate Kidman, like, ever.  The Oscar-winner has proven time and time again that while she may not always pull off transformations on the physical side of the aisle, it’s not even necessary when you have the spirit of a person nailed to perfection.  You see, Kidman achieves something amazing in Sorkin’s new film Being the Ricardos: another carefully built performance by the actress from the inside out, reliant less on recreation & more on essence. It’s Lucille Ball, for sure, and precisely the razor sharp, vulnerable, very human star she certainly was.  

A trend recently with biopics, at least those bound by a feature-length run time, is not to take on the enormity of a life story because two hours is just not enough time to cover it all.  It certainly wouldn’t have been able to go into the kind of detail a Hollywood legend like Ball (or even Arnaz) would have deserved…I mean you’d need at least 45 minutes to discuss that disastrous 1974 movie version of the musical Mame alone!  I digress.  What Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) does is what he does quite well, find a point of time to focus on and then use that as the center with which to spring out the life events that helped get these people to this point.  And it works wonderfully here.

Maybe this is more well known but I had no idea there was a week of time in the early part of the run of I Love Lucy where Ball was under scrutiny by the McCarthy hearings and was accused of “being a Red” …and not just because of her hair.  The fallout from the first accusation and the potential for more over the ensuing week are played out while the cast rehearse a new script set to be taped in front of a live audience at the end of the week.  The stress of it all brings up once smoothed-over fissures in the Ricardos marriage, old rivalries between Lucy and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), and further ostracizes the writer’s room (made up of Jake Lacy, Rampage, Alia Shawkat, Green Room, and executive producer Tony Hale, American Ultra) from everyone.

I loved the behind the scenes view of I Love Lucy and the various contributors (all well-cast by Francine Maisler & Kathy Driscoll) to its success from creation onward. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) is strong as Desi, a most unenviable task for a persona often seen as the villain of the Desilu love story. Bardem and Kidman (Aquaman) don’t really look like their real-life counterparts, but it honestly doesn’t matter in the slightest.  If much time had been spent to achieve more of a resemblance, I think audiences would have focused too much on that and not on the acting both Oscar winners are doing.  Of all the actors Sorkin has brought together for his film, J.K. Simmons (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) and Arianda (Richard Jewell) are the closest to impression but are fantastic in the undertaking.  There are times when both are eerily similar to the William Frawley and Vivian Vance. It’s well-known the two didn’t get along in real life and if you didn’t know it before, you’ll know it after this movie.

Yes, you’ll see some famous scenes that have been recreated but they are part of a larger (good) idea Sorkin employs by showing viewers how Lucy would put together comic moments.  It’s always hard to gain access into the workings of a person’s “process” but Sorkin’s method has an appropriately cinematic flair that achieves its goal while also providing a nice jolt of nostalgic recognition.  Releasing in theaters before debuting on Amazon Prime in time for the holidays, Being the Ricardos is the kind of biopic I appreciate, one that doesn’t bite off more than it can chew yet remains satisfying. 

Movie Review ~ Richard Jewell

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist.

Stars: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  First off, let me say that I hope by the time I’m 89 years old I can remain as active and involved as Clint Eastwood has.  At a time when many of his contemporaries have taken their leave of Hollywood or reduced their profile, Eastwood is still going strong and managing to remain a prolific filmmaker.  Not only does he manage to keep making movies, but with a few minor exceptions they are often quite profitable at the box office.  So studios are clamoring for his time because he can do a lot with a little and actors want to work with him for his laid-back style and easy-going nature.  His time as an actor has made him a rather dependable director, even if he’s not always the most exciting or obvious choice.

Remember last year when The Mule was feared by so many awards pundits that saw it looming at the edges of the holiday release schedule?  Eastwood had been known before to swoop in at the last minute and upset a locked-in season…at least that’s what all these podcasters would have you believe.  That only happened once, with Million Dollar Baby and ever since then anytime an Eastwood movie quietly sneaks into theaters in late December without screening far in advance everyone gets worried it will be another scenario where the film will open and blow everything else out of the water.  It almost happened again with American Sniper, it definitely didn’t happen with The Mule (which was actually kind of interesting in a weird way), and it’s not likely to occur with Richard Jewell…though it’s already created a few waves.

I have to admit that while I was familiar with the name Richard Jewell, I had forgotten the actual details of the events and eventual outcome surrounding the 1996 bombing that occurred in Atlanta during their Summer Olympics.  I made a point not to refresh my memory before attending the screening so I could take the movie at narrative face value and look up the nitty gritty details later – otherwise I’d be spending the majority of my time noting the liberties screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) took with the facts of the case.  Based in part on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner with some material also culled from an investigative book, Ray appears to be simpatico with Eastwood in his desire to explore the breakdown of due process by the government and news media.

After struggling to maintain a position in local law enforcement, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) was working as a security guard in Centennial Park on July 27, 1996 when he saw a suspicious backpack left unattended.  Known for being an overzealous stickler that excites easily, his colleagues and police officers on duty don’t pay much attention until looking closer and finding Jewell’s hunch wasn’t off the mark.  An anonymous call into 911 warned of an impending detonation and though Jewell and others try to clear the area as best they can, the bomb goes off to devastating effect.

Hailed as a hero and becoming an overnight minor celebrity, the bright lights turn dark quickly for Jewell when a former employer notifies the FBI of his erratic behavior in the past.  When information on Jewell becoming a suspect is leaked by a top agent (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm) to a local news reporter (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) and she in turn runs the story on the front page, it soon becomes national news.  While his mother (Kathy Bates, A Home Of Our Own) watches helplessly, Jewell is vilified in the press and hounded by federal agents and it’s only when he calls on Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, Vice) that he starts to find some solid ground to fight back on.

You don’t have to dig too deep into Richard Jewell to see Eastwood passing down a condemnation on the clumsy way this was handled and it’s true that Jewell was done a great disservice.  All he ever wanted to do was be in law enforcement and it’s a bit of a cruel joke that he was railroaded with no real purpose.  More than anything, Eastwood comes down like a twenty ton anvil on the news media and, in particular, the sensationalist journalism that prints first and asks questions later.  It’s a huge problem for Richard Jewell the person and it’s become a huge problem for Richard Jewell the motion picture.

The issue stems from the portrayal of Wilde’s character, Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs.  Scruggs is shown to be a wildcat reporter that shows up for work looking hungover and mussed, dressed like Erin Brockovich.  Standing in stark contrast to the other mumsy women that work in the office she claims are jealous of her and the stories she gets, Scruggs is later shown trading sex for stories, something her co-workers and family object strongly to.  Ray even has her indicate she’s not that good of a writer, imploring a desk reporter to do the majority of the work for her.  While Wilde turns in her best performance in years as Scruggs, it’s unfortunate she’s doing it in such a fish eye-d lens of a male gazed upon character.  Scruggs was a real person and the various men she rubs up against are fictitious creations serving as stand-in amalgams for others, so it feels a bit shameful to denigrate her by name only, especially considering the real life Scruggs passed away in 2001 and isn’t here to defend herself.

That problematic slice of the film aside, I found myself oddly compelled by Richard Jewell and I think it’s largely due to the lead performances of Hauser and Rockwell.  Both are so invested in their roles that for one of the rare times this year I was able to set aside previous roles they’ve played and let them inhabit these characters here and now.  It’s easier for Hauser to do that because he’s had less roles but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing some complex work – while he’s done the simpleton act to perfection before there’s a graceful edge he gives Jewell that elevates this above those other roles.  Rockwell is getting good at playing fired up and Eastwood gives him a long leash to play, to often pleasing results.  Together, the two men share some well-worked scenes that have a real ring of truth.

As is the case with most Eastwood films, the supporting cast is a mixture of faces familiar and new.  I still want to go on record and say that Hamm is absolutely 100% in no way a movie star and he demonstrates here again why that is.  There’s just a limited range for him to play and even when given a role with some darker edges he can’t quite find the right shade.  The real buzz from the movie is with the performance of Bates and while I always like seeing her onscreen, like Laura Dern in Marriage Story this is one of those “It’s fine, I guess” turns that don’t seem that huge of stretch from an actress we already know can do wonders.  If anything, I liked Nina Arianda (Stan & Ollie) as Bryant’s no-nonsense secretary more than the rest.  Even saddled with a hideous wig and not much meaningful dialogue, she has a presence in every scene she turns up in.

I fully know I fell a bit under Eastwood’s “stick it to ‘em!” spell of an approach but I didn’t find myself filled with a lot of regret in the act.  Eastwood and I don’t agree on a lot of things but we seem to agree that Jewell was mightily wronged.  I can see this movie appealing to a particular crowd of folks and being considered complete troublemaking propaganda to another – but at least it creates a dialogue.  I’d rather have a movie like Richard Jewell come out with its clear message (whether you want to hear it or not) that gets people talking than something you see and forget about instantly.

Movie Review ~ Stan & Ollie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Laurel and Hardy, the world’s most famous comedy duo, attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song – a grueling theatre tour of post-war Britain.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston

Director: Jon S. Baird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: With a total of 107 movies to their name, the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy were kings of comedy in the late 1920’s through the late 1940’s, the golden age of Hollywood.  While both men had established careers apart from one another, it was only when they were paired up at the famed Hal Roach film studio that their stardom went through the roof and they became the stuff of legend.  Though they maybe aren’t remembered by name quite as much as the other comedic acts at the time like Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges, it only takes seeing an image of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and you instantly are familiar with their style of slapstick comedy.

It’s surprising to me that the story of these two men has taken so long to get to the screen and now that it has it’s arrived as a small but sturdy film focusing on the later lives of the pair as they attempt a comeback tour through England in 1953.  Far from their youth and out of practice with each other, the trip proves to be eye-opening in examining their personal and professional relationship and forces them to confront long-held grudges they’ve never really gotten over.

With a career as long and varied as the one Laurel & Hardy had, screenwriter Jeff Pope (Philomena) was wise in focusing in on just one chapter in their story.  The film buff in me would have loved a longer tale that showed us the early Hollywood years that led up to this comeback tour which proved to be the last time the two men would work together, but perhaps that’s too tall an order for a feature film and might find itself better suited as a series down the road.  Pope traces the two men as their tour starts out small but gathers steam as the has-been stars get their spark back and begin to pack in theaters throughout Britain at a time when the country needed a laugh.

Casting was crucial in pulling off this piece and director Jon S. Baird tapped the right people for the job.  As Stan Laurel, Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) has moments when he looks eerily like the gangly goofball with the flat face and slinking shoulders that stands in stark opposition to the somber fellow Laurel is painted as being offstage.  John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) plays his counterpart wearing a fat suit and convincingly real latex prosthetic to enhance his chin and jowls.  Though he doesn’t have the same ringer look that Coogan does, Reilly doesn’t let the make-up do the work for him (I’m talking to you Christian Bale in Vice) and brings the physicality of the rotund comedian out to strong results. The men are backed up by two ladies that often steal the movie right out from under them.  Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) is a hoot as Laurel’s brash Russian wife that hogs the spotlight and then there’s Shirley Henderson (Anna Karenina) showing quiet grace playing Hardy’s concerned wife.

At 97 minutes, the movie feels longer than it actually is because it’s ever so slightly on the slow side.  I hate to say it but it even devolves into a rather dull film around the halfway mark when it starts to fall into a familiar biopic formula where conflict is introduced in preparation for a reconciliation right before the credits roll.  The period settings are spot-on and if you’re a fan of the duo then you’re in for some delightful moments where portions or their act are nicely recreated by Coogan and Reilly.  I just wish the movie exuded the same kind of spritely spirit Laurel & Hardy were able to convey in their work.

Movie Review ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

florence_foster_jenkins

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s a play based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins I saw several years back called Souvenir.  A two-person drama set in a supper club where Jenkins performed with her pianist Cosmé McMoon, you knew in advance that she was regarded as a terrible singer and that’s what attracted me to it.  The lights go down and I spent the next twenty minutes waiting for the actress playing Jenkins to open her mouth and warble out an opera aria.  She did. I laughed.  Then I spent the next two hours waiting for it to be over, the frivolity having running its course by the time the third song began.

That’s what seeing the new film Florence Foster Jenkins feels like…waiting for the joke and then checking your watch to see when it will end.  Buoyed by strong performances but misguided by some plot distractions that laboriously pad the running length instead of graciously filling it, it’s not a bad film in the slightest, just a one-joke movie that has its moment in the sun before entering some rainy weather territory which seriously drags down the latter half of the picture.

Jenkins (Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady) was a spirited eccentric that actually believed she could sing and was surrounded by friends (some say hangers-on) that wouldn’t be honest with her.  Her common-law husband (nicely played by Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas) pays reporters for good write-ups and has a girlfriend on the side (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) while her new pianist (Simon Helberg) is aghast that someone so bad could be lauded so much.

Focused on the last year or so that Jenkins was alive, director Stephen Frears (Philomena) and writer Nicholas Martin have crafted a splendid looking period piece set in New York (but filmed in London) that hits most of the right notes even as their leading character runs afoul of her own musical keys.  Still, there’s a paint-by-the-numbers feeling to it which keeps it awkwardly grounded and merely content with going through the emotional moments.

Yet from the rapturous reception the film received at my screening, it’s clear this is an audience-pleasing picture.  I almost feel like I need to see it again since so many lines were lost to audiences roaring over a previous phrase (which I feel is actually a problem with overall editing…didn’t anyone involved screen this with a crowd first?).  Released at the tail end of summer when more discerning crowds have come in from the summer sun, it’s likely to be a well-timed alternative to the CGI heavy box office fodder that’s hogged many screens at your multiplex.

Streep is, as always, beyond reproach and you can pretty much count on her making another trip to the Kodak theater with another Oscar (and SAG and Golden Globe) nomination under belt.  There’s already a ton of press showing Streep singing well (like in Into the Woods) and praising her bravura bad singing here and it’s nice to find out she did the majority of the singing live.  It can’t have been easy for a trained singer to learn to sing so poorly…but Streep doesn’t merely sing off-key, she’s studied Jenkins and found out WHY she doesn’t sing well and used that to get the sound right.  Her Queen of the Night aria is alone worth the price of admission.

Supporting Streep is a dandy Grant who I hope will also get some Oscar recognition for his work.  A difficult role seeing that he’s a bit of a cad, Grant digs deep and shows that above all else the man he’s portraying truly loved Jenkins even though they couldn’t have the kind of life together that either planned.  Under some old age make-up, Grant remains charming in that aloof sort of way but over the years he’s grown as an actor to temper that aloofness with authenticity.

Aside from Streep and Grant, the other supporting players are a mixed bag.  Helberg’s performance is all overbite…literally.  Though Martin takes some time to flesh out Jenkins long-time pianist, Helberg plays him so slight and twee that I half expected him to fly away at any given moment.  He’s got good chemistry with Streep, though, and that’s all that really matters.  I’ve liked Ferguson and Nina Arianda in other movies but not much here…both play grating women in roles that easily could have been excised, especially Ferguson as Grant’s long-time mistress.

What makes Florence Foster Jenkins something I’d cautiously recommend is the stately way Frears, Martin, and Streep have presented this delusional socialite who performed her final concert to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.  Knowing the difference between a characterization that’s eccentric instead of goofy, Streep gives her the requisite dignity without letting her totally off the hook.  Like the overall film and the peculiar woman at its center, it’s an admirable close but no cigar.

The Silver Bullet ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

florence-foster-jenkins-movie-still

Synopsis: The story of New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Release Date:  May 6, 2016

Thoughts: We all know Meryl Streep can sing after turns in Mamma Mia, Into the Woods, and even Death Becomes Her…but how good can she sing badly?  This looks like a swell comedic turn for the Oscar winner, ditching her more serious fare for the kind of fun diversion she likes to take up between period dramas and new accents.  I know a little about the lady she’s portraying and if the film is half as clever as the Florence Foster Jenkins stage play Souvenir (this film is not based on that) we’ll be in for a good show that’s not as off-key as its subject.  Always nice to see Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) part of the mix, too.