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.

Movie Review ~ Foxcatcher

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The greatest Olympic Wrestling Champion brother team joins Team Foxcatcher lead by multimillionaire sponsor John E. du Pont as they train for the 1988 games in Seoul – a union that leads to unlikely circumstances.

Stars: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Bennett Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Delayed by nearly a year when Sony Pictures Classics decided to pull its release to avoid going up against a late 2013 onslaught of award-worthy films, Foxcatcher finally arrived in 2014 and proved that SPC was right to wait and that the wait was most certainly worth it.  True crime dramas don’t get much better than this impressive examination of personal and professional obsession.

I knew next to nothing about the crime at the center of Foxcatcher’s tale and for the sake of my spoiler-free nature I’m going to assume you don’t either and will keep the various turns concealed for you to discover on your own.  In short, the film follows the late 80s relationship of Olympic wrestlers David and Mark Schultz with their eccentric sponsor John du Pont.

Driven by a desire to win and acquire a celebrated status based more in fantasy than reality, du Pont (Steve Carell, Hope Springs, capped with a putty nose from the Nicole Kidman/Virgina Woolf collection) first engages the more impressionable and equally desperate Mark (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) before bringing the more accomplished brother (Mark Ruffalo, Thanks for Sharing) into his inner sanctum.  These three men form a triangle that becomes more problematic as time goes by; brother is pitted against brother and du Pont is at the apex of it all.

Though free from the sordid feel of a tell-all crime tale, there’s a sinister edge lurking around every corner in Bennett Miller’s film.  The script from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye doesn’t shy away from awkward moments that turn into real nail-biters, without ever showing their hand as to what lies in store.

In only his third film as a director, Miller has once again achieved a high bar of accomplishment.  In Capote and Moneyball he guided actors to Oscar nominations (and one win) and the same seems likely here.  Carell looked like an early front-runner for taking home Best Actor and while his performance is an austere departure from his comedic ways, the buzz seems to have faded a bit.  I personally felt Tatum was the important performance of note with the actor showing heretofore unseen depths in his work but the tide seems to be turning for Ruffalo to bag a nomination.

Creepy seems like a bit too simple of a term to put on the film but that’s exactly what it is…creepy.  That overall sense of something not being right seeps through the proceedings but doesn’t make it bottom-heavy to the point of being slushy.  It hums with the fear of what’s to come and the pot boils over at precisely the right moment, though a rather perfunctory climax lessens the impact a bit.

The strong performances would be worth a recommendation alone, but the skilled deployment of story coupled with a compelling structure make it very worthy of your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ Foxcatcher

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler whose relationship with mentor John du Pont and brother Dave Schultz would lead to unlikely circumstances.

Release Date: November 14, 2014

Thoughts: It came as somewhat of a shock that this film was moved from its late 2013 release to almost a year later thanks in no small part to crowded fall slate of Oscar contenders. Who knows what impressive films 2014 will bring but this first look at Foxcatcher leads me to believe Sony made the right call. Building on good buzz for Steve Carell (The Way Way Back) and featuring a formidable supporting cast with the likes of Channing Tatum (Side Effects), Mark Ruffalo (), and Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) this looks like a compelling piece of filmmaking. One of the movies I’m most looking forward to this year.

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.