Tag Archives: ShouldSee

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

[3.5 stars]

Before you dive into this semi-salacious documentary, be aware that if you want to protect the fantasy version of Hollywood sold by the magazines and interviews, don’t watch this film.

That said, this many years on you’ve probably hear the rumors and the whispers about the stars from the early and middle years of Hollywood. At the center of the truth for a lot them was Scotty Bowers. As a companion to his memoir, Full Service, this documentary looks at the man behind the stories in a frank and, at times, explicit way.

Scotty Bowers appears to have no boundaries and fewer regrets. The stories he relates are both fascinating and sad, both for him and for the people involved. It is a reminder of what happens in the world when people aren’t allowed to be themselves. It is also a reminder that the picture of the world a lot of people hold up as the ideal, that mythical perfect America of the 40s and 50s, is built of utter falsehoods and hypocrites.

This isn’t a typical docu. There isn’t a real thread holding it all together, except a tenuous one around Bowers’ life and motivations. It is more exposè than narrative. But it is an interesting story that peels back layer upon layer, often in uncompromising ways. Identifying how you feel about both Bowers’ life and the fact that he is revealing all, outing the dead, and at least one of the living (watch for that), is far from simple moral math.

Director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emporer) has captured glaringly honest, often shocking conversations with Bowers that, over the course of 90 minutes, provide answers, hope…or just simply some interesting yellow press, depending on who you are, what you know, and how you think. If you’re easily offended or don’t really want to know what your icons were up to, walk away and embrace the fantasy. If you’re at all curious about at least one aspect of the truth and why silence is never the answer, give it a spin. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is a fascinating one.

Boy Erased

[4 stars]

There are no breakout performances in this story, which is both its strength and its weakness. There aren’t breakouts because there are no forced moments and only a few intense ones. Much like life. I’m not suggesting this is easy to watch or not charged, but it doesn’t try to overly craft a climax or an epiphany. Boy Erased just lays out the events and lets them eat at you and, on occasion, shock you.

This is Lucas Hedges’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) film and journey. In some ways it expands on his recent Lady Bird turn, though that is a coincidence of releases rather than the intent. It is a quiet performance of personal struggle and is very tightly contained. At times it feels like it is too contained, but then the turmoil bubbles out, giving you a glimpse of the struggle.

Nicole Kidman (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) has the next most interesting character, as his mother. Her journey is probably the one that most gives us hope through the ordeal. But that doesn’t discount Russell Crowe’s (The Mummy) efforts as his father and local pastor who has his own struggles. It may sound strange to sound almost sympathetic toward him, but that is part of the impressive nature of this movie.

Joel Edgerton (Red Sparrow), as writer, director, and actor in this adaptation did an amazing job of presenting the tale, and doing so without demonizing people. There is a clear right and wrong, but generally people are doing what they do because they do believe and they do want to do the right thing. The fact that their world view is too twisted to see the truth is more of a tragedy than a plot. It would have been easier to make them look evil, but Edgerton chose to see them as people, however hateful they were (both of themselves and others). As a second time out directing, after The Gift, it is impressive. That said, he does bungle the penultimate moment of the film a little in an effort to maintain the energy levels he has created. It doesn’t fail, but it felt a bit off and it lost a little of its drive. The moment is still enough to propel us into the final sequence, so I won’t harp on it, but it is one of the main reasons this is a bit less than perfect.

Clearly this isn’t a “fun” film. It is the true story of a young man coming to terms with himself when the world around him is telling him he’s an aberration and damned. But, though this is obviously focused on a particularly frustrating issue, the lessons and message of this biopic apply to many aspects of life, making this pointed and general at the same time. It is an issue and story that everyone should see because it is, sadly, still a huge issue across this nation. And because, whether they admit it or not, we all have non-straight individuals in our circles and family. How you deal with that matters, and figuring out what is more important to you about those people (what you believe or who they are in your life) is a struggle for more people than we would ever like to admit.

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Bohemian Rhapsody

[4 stars]

I want to be clear before I go any further: I had a great time with this movie. I grew up with Queen. I saw them in concert. I still must stop everything and sing along with a good part of their music. The audience I saw it with even broke into spontaneous applause at the end. Bohemian Rhapsody is a beautiful fantasy, a love-letter to Queen and, more specifically, Freddie Mercury.

And speaking of, Rami Malek’s (Mr Robot) Freddie Mercury is  a wonder to behold. He so captures the movements and look as to make you think you’re seeing the real thing. In fact, the casting generally was astounding in terms of matching people. Gwilym Lee (Isle of Dogs), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Joseph Mazzello (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) also did wonderful jobs matching the iconic group.

The casting continued into the supporting cast. Surrounding the band, Lucy Boynton (Sing Street), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Allen Leech (Bellevue), Aaron McCusker (Fortitude), and Tom Hollander (Tulip Fever) were all wonderful. Only Mike Myers felt out of place, simply because he was there as a nose-thumbing joke even if he did the part well.

But here’s the thing. Sure it was entertaining. Yes, the music is amazing, but it always was. The music was used brilliantly to support the story too. If you loved Queen going in, you are sure to love the movie. But it isn’t a good film, no matter how well it works.

Director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse) crammed it with cheap moments and huge assumptions about what you knew.  The narrative is confused and meandering. Writers Anthony McCarten (The Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (The Crown) made it difficult to follow the timeline and presented Queen’s rise and their artistic creation look absurdly simple. Like I said initially, a wonderful fantasy but hardly a honest biopic or look at the effort involved.

[If you think I’m being harsh, check out this much blunter and, frankly, not far off the mark commentary.]

There is a journey for Mercury in the final cut. It is sort of him finding and accepting himself (again, this ends up oversimplified and weirdly easy despite the ending). The final result is oddly triumphant amid the tragedy that was the end of Freddie’s life. Who would have thought you’d get a foot-tapping crowd-pleaser of a man dying of AIDS?

So, should you see this? If you love Queen’s music, absolutely. See it on the big screen. Get lost in the fantasy that you are given. Cheer the ending. Just don’t think you got the real or full story. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

Tig

[3.5 stars]

Tig Notaro (In a World…) is a comic with a unique delivery and an even more unique story. I know I’m late to discovering this one, but I was impressed enough with the docu to recommend it to those who also may have missed it up till now.

Notaro was a rising star when events conspired, in an avalanche, to try and derail her. What followed those events was a study in perseverance and, yes I’ll say it, moxy. She took tragedy and coped with it by turning into something of value. Not immediately and not easily, but she did it. That is one portion of this docu.

The other aspect of this documentary is a smaller portion, but adds an interesting layer. You get to watch the evolution of a routine and the honing of a joke. I was reminded strongly of the ongoing edit sequence of the comedian’s efforts in All That Jazz till it was perfect. It is a lesson and a wonder to watch the choices and the subtlety of the effort (not to mention the bravery of a stand-up trying out work to see what’s ready or bombing).

I will admit that while I very much enjoyed this Tig installment, her more recent 2018 special Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here is less solid. I don’t fault her for that, and it makes a fascinating companion piece to see what three years and life changes offered her comedy. I imagine that will continue to evolve because, if nothing else, this docu and her specials prove she is a comedienne through and through, and one to be reckoned with who will continue to surprise as life offers her material.  And, regardless of your interest in comedy, Notaro’s story is ultimately an empowering and positive one.

Old Man & the Gun

[4 stars]

Whether or not this is Robert Redford’s (The Discovery) final film, as he claims, it would be a solid one to go out on in performance and message. Redford is in full charm offensive and as wonderfully subtle as ever in his acting. Though he has Danny Glover (Proud Mary) and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as his partners-in-crime, his gang and this story is really a cult of personality: his.

And from the fringes and the pews, Redford brings along a motley group of additional folks. Primarily he pulls Sissy Spacek (A Home at the End of the World) into his orbit, who is every bit Redford’s equal in performance. Along with Spacek was an understated but effective Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story) as a disaffected cop looking for justice and what’s “right,” even when the choices aren’t easy or obvious. And, in a smaller role supporting Affleck, Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) is magnetic.

Writer/director David Lowery gathered Redford and Affleck from his previous efforts to pull off this rather impressive film: Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story respectively. What makes Old Man & The Gun so good is that Lowery gets us to gets us to react just like the people Tucker robbed. We cheer for Forrest Tucker and don’t feel bad about doing it. Lowery leaves us feeling both great about Tucker and about our own possibilities.

Lowery also did some clever work with the film to make it feel like the early 80s; from shaky credits, to washed out color, to the choice of fonts, a sense of appropriate nostalgia and current action was established. Amusingly, it was also screened for me on an old, reflective screen at an aging theater, which added an unintended layer to Lowery’s efforts that was wholly appropriate.

While this isn’t a big screen must, it is a wonderfully entertaining and, ultimately, positive film. It will be part of the awards buzz this year, so see it now rather than wait. And it doesn’t hurt to remind studios and distributors that there is a big market out there for just good film. Not everything has to flash, buzz, or blow-up to keep our attention. Though I certainly don’t mind that occasionally either, I like variety in my entertainment diet.

A Star is Born (2018)

[4 stars]

The bones may be old on this fifth remake of the 1937 classic, but Bradley Cooper (JoyGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) put fresh flesh on them in the roles of director, co-writer, and even co-star.

Cooper brought his own life to bear on the tale, enriching it with a sense of reality not to mention driving passion and real romance. While he did this for his own reasons, he also recognized he had an opportunity. Once in every generation or so a performer comes around who has the presence, charm, and ability to take on this role.

In 2018, it is Lady Gaga (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, American Horror Story), a woman of incredible talent. I’m not a huge fan of her music, but I respect her abilities both musically and in business (much as I did Madonna’s in the 80s). She has both the chops and the confidence to be part of something rather than having to dominate it. Because while A Star is Born is clearly her story, it is also very much Cooper’s. If she simply took it all over, there wouldn’t have been a film worth seeing. And the story is a heartrendingly beautiful one, danced by these two performers. Along with Sam Elliott (Grandma), and a surprise performance by Andrew Dice Clay, their lives unfold and their pasts exert their inevitable influence.

Cooper gets great performances out of everyone, including himself. Choosing to record all the music live adds a sense of reality and credibility to the entire endeavor as well. And though the story has been updated and made his own, he manages to hold onto a sense of nostalgia thanks to his choices in color timing the film to give it a slightly washed-out feel. The third act of the story drags a bit, but the overall impact is only slightly diminished for that drop in urgency. This isn’t a car chase movie, it is a paced tale of love, art, and family. For a first time director, it is also a major triumph. This is sure Oscar-bait, and it even has a chance at securing a statuette or two come next year’s ceremony.

Grab some popcorn and, maybe, even a few tissues and take someone you really care about to this for a date night. The movie is worth your time and it reminds you of what is important in your life in many expected and unexpected ways.

A Star Is Born

Imitation Girl

[3.5 stars]

Alien arrives on Earth and takes the guise of an adult movie star. Salacious, right? Possibly even puerile? You’d be wrong. It isn’t even more on the trippy side like Liquid Sky. Imitation Girl is a decidedly personal tale of a woman coming to terms with her life and her choices. It is anything but forcefully sexy, though it is certainly intimate.

Lauren Ashley Carter (Premium Rush) pulls off both main roles with an understated assurance that leaves you forgetting it is the same person. She is the movie, not to mention that she learned Farsi along the way. I look forward to seeing her in more roles at some point to see what more she can do. The rest of the cast are all fine, but they fall away as it all comes together. And, frankly, that is a good thing as they aren’t the focus.

The ending is sort of a non-ending, or it is hugely metaphorical. Though, to be fair, the entire story is metaphorical. But the end is also rather expected and, because of that, a tad of a let down after such an interesting ride. But this is a film that shows real talent on the part of the director/writer, Natasha Kermani. To navigate the world she created and to sell these characters without resorting to cheap and expected moments took a good eye and discipline. She is definitely a creator to watch for down the road.

Imitation Girl

Brooklyn Castle

[4 stars]

Nine years ago, when this was primarily filmed, we were in the heart of the Great Recession and NY public school IS 318 was struggling to keep its funding. The story was one of struggle and unexpected excellence; a reminder that circumstances do not make the person, but can certainly affect their lives. But that is the undercurrent. The real story is watching these young mental athletes find their footing and ability as they try to make their way in the world, and it is riveting.

I expect that the school and documentarian Katie Dellamaggiore never envisioned the attack on education, and particularly for the poor, would remain under such siege in the heart of the recovery these 9 years later. And yet, here we are with a movie that resonates in very interesting ways long after its completion.

Brooklyn Castle