Amazing Grace: Everything and Desire for More

Amazing Grace was a labor of love that Sydney Pollack was never able to pull off alive. He was always too busy according to IMDB, to finish syncing voice to video. Instead, before he died of cancer, he handed off the project to Alan Elliott (whose IMDB bio does not glean much info, besides a personal blog link to a spooky place that hasn’t been touched since the early aughts. Sure, Alan has done a lot of composing, but this is his first directorial production.

My guess is he’s a man of few words. The only narrative contained were the four to five captions that started the film. Perfection for a music purist. Just let the girl (and marvelous choir and studio band) sing and play. Allow the audience the vicarious awe and joy as the church onlookers dance, cry and shout out passionate spiritual yelps.

Yet, I was still hungry for story….what was happening behind the scenes? What was Aretha like as a woman? Why didn’t she want this made until after she passed away?

Story implied in the footage was that her dad was adoring and proud, and I loved the paternal moment where he wiped her face of sweat as she began another feverish number.

I guess it’s that I’m/we’re so use to knowing every intimate detail (and then some) these days of documentary subjects that I felt like I was missing something. Perhaps what I really miss are days like these in 1971 when things were simpler and people were afforded privacy. No one in Aretha’s audience was caught looking zombie like into phones or surreptitiously trying to capture an image on such nuisance contraptions.

So really, Amazing Grace was everything you’d want it to be. And in the words of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, perhaps it’s time for us to stop trying to be progressive to the point of ruination and actually reach back to what worked in the past. I loved the 70’s. And so did Aretha. And boy did I also love gorgeous Aretha and the 70’s did, too.

Diane…Realism Personified

Kent Jones (known most for his documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut) wrote and directed Diane, the second of what I call noble films I’ve seen this week (For those who don’t read my every critique; Saturday was The Public by Emilio Estevez).

Diane was noble in taking on the true true reality that none of us get out of here (Earth) alive. Mary Kay Place (who I envied as an adolescent ogling over her sexy character Loretta on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman) does a tremendous job as the lead character, who like a Timex watch that keeps on ticking even after being dented again and again.

Her dings come in the form of an abusive drug addicted son (a supporting actor worthy performance by Jake Lacy), a cervical cancer stricken cousin, and other family members who both support and deride each other.

Also pinged by the cold winter of New England, Diane shops, enables her son by doing his laundry and grocery shopping, and works at a low income food co-op. She gives so much of herself, that she has no self left to nourish. Added to her plight is a painful secret (or maybe two) that haunts her and a true love that got away.

The dichotomy of mystery and symbolism (we are in the car with her viewing the winding road at several points) of the journey capture what our real lives truly are. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring (mystery), but we must keep driving the journey (symbolism) to discover. The flip the story takes where instead of mother badgering son, son badgers mother is beautifully portrayed and shows the evolution most of us face in being the givers and subsequent receivers of care.

A tiny bit wonky in parts and a little confusing as far as Diane’s own experimentation and denouement, Diane reminded me of a lesser First Reformed, yet totally worth viewing this thought provoking story.

The Public: Important Conceptually; But Cinematically? Well….

Dear Emilio,

First, let me say you should have been nominated for best screenplay, director AND actor for The Way. You’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for that poignant father son film. On the lighter side, I enjoyed your work in The Stakeout, as sweet as the Bubble Yum gum I devoured in my youth.

Now, dodging rain drops in Asheville, North Carolina, I gladly took in your newest film The Public. I mean, you’re such a humble man with good intentions and the homeless using public libraries must be an issue in many cities, my hometown of Sarasota (shout out to the Selby Library!) included. And due to the aforementioned films, I had high hopes especially with two of my other favorite actors also in the film; Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater.

But boy, did I wish wish wish after the fact that I could have been a script doctor or more apt, let me shelve alphabetically what character contradictions I would have excised:

A for Alec; how can a person specializing in conflict resolution then lead a charge of storm troopers?
C for Christian Slater: he goes from prosecutor/bully to acting with the authority of chief of police? Christian threw his weight around more than a WWE Wrestler. He also sued on behalf of a homeless man’s rights being denied at the library (who paid for his service?) yet called them bums and basically wanted them taken down in the coup so that he could go watch The Tonight Show? Did we go back in time to the Johnny Carson days when The Tonight Show was a one time event? Now you can watch clips in any cab in NYC days later.
D is for dialogue: much too snappy and choreographed…there were times when I was waiting for this to be a musical and then sure enough, it became one! A mixture of Hair and The Full Monty!
E for Emilio Estevez: your character defended the privacy of the public within the library, but you were pumping (see Groucho Marx and his wiggling cigar say, “in more ways than one”) your cute Apartment manager for the dirt on other tenants?
G for girlfriend: her mood swings were bigger than Mariah Carey’s; one minute she’s supportive the next she’s lecturing, wait, that’s actually realistic of most women…add that to the positives…

Segue…for the positives: the movie held my suspense, I really didn’t know where it was going, sort of like what it must feel like to lose your brakes on Lombard Street.
I did believe the chemistry between you and the Apartment Manager. I did believe some of the homeless people and the crazy antics that must happen in libraries every day. I also appreciated your attempt to see the rift between the haves and the have nots.

Your resolution, while Hollywood in bright lights was cute, and Emilio, so are you! And see me for future script help, I’ll work for peanuts (make that almonds, I need calcium:)

Yours Respectfully and Truly,

Roxanne Baker

Making of Montgomery Clift: A Timely and Worthy Mission

With a busy life, I was able to score two Sarasota Film Fest Tickets.

My first film was a new documentary by Rob Clift, Montgomery Clift’s nephew, Making of Montgomery Clift .

First and foremost, bless Rob Clift for caring enough about his Uncle’s reputation (and indirectly his Dad who ripped Clift’s biographer for warping his life story) to try to establish facts. My friend Barry Rothman, author of Mary Ann or Ginger?, a film aficionado, basically told me the side of the story he (and most of the general public) was fed.

Unfortunately Barry did not see the film and now I must burst his bubble, taking the torch of Rob Clift in informing him that Montgomery was not losing his mind during Judgment at Nuremberg, but tormented with rewriting the script (proof show in the doc) to make his role more believable. In fact Montgomery did this with almost every script, carving it into his own language. Thus, he was not only an accomplished actor, but a script doctor as well.

He was also NOT miserable after his car accident and actually thought his refurbished face had more character for acting.

Probably addicted to pain killers and quite the drinker, he did die very young from a heart attack. But women and men alike who loved him, knew he was engaged with life.

In this post fact world, where the loudest and most repetitive propagandist voices are the ones given credibility, Rob Clift stands up to try to set the record straight. May we all be blessed with such a noble relative. Or how about this goldenish rule, unless you know what you are saying or writing is absolutely factual about another person’s life, shut the heck up.

And one nostalgic post script: I was tickled pink to see the man who played Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson) in Super Man interviewed. Who know he was still alive?

Three is a Magic Number, Man and a Woman Had a Little: Aftermath

You remember School House Rock cartoons from the ’70’s, right? The one about the number 3; “man and woman had a little baby, they had three-ee-ee in the family.” I loved that cartoon and was reminded of trinity significance after seeing the critic maligned movie The Aftermath written and directed by James Kent.

First, let’s talk about the triumvirate of actors: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard and Jason Clarke who commanded the movie each with a particular set of respective skills: welling believable tears, pained, but not annoying countenances, and polite European rage. Their love triangle is plausible and moving. While I don’t know Skarsgard as well (wasn’t a True Blood fan, mainly due to middle class HBO-less wages), I’ve loved and hated Knightley (loved: Atonement, eye rolled: Laggies) and thought Clarke nailed Kennedy (well technically Mary Jo, ok bad joke) in Chappaquiddick.

In The Aftermath, the love triangle doesn’t take long to build, but this is war torn Germany where wives are often alone and some men happen to be widowed. What worked best is some snappy Double Indemnityesque dialogue: Skarsgard, “I was going to apologize (for kissing you),” Knightley: “Why?” as well as other witticisms from the invaded Germans, “They’re making themselves at home”, “yeh, just like maggots in the bacon”.

An additional bonus saving this film from being a stuffy period piece is characters experiencing joy (Skarsgard and Knightley frolic in the snow and have some hot cabin sex). Hence, kudos to the other terrific trio (James Kent had help writing the screenplay from Joe shrapnel (great war writer name) and Anna Waterhouse). Bless all three of you for writing a script that had light as well as dark; and for having layers of stories, the teenage daughter of Skarsgard naively falling for the malevolent German boy also was credible.

To finish my troika analogy and commendation, watching The Aftermath had the delicious combination of a mudslide (Kahlua, Baileys, Cream aka the actors) with Napoletana pizza (Tomato sauce, achiovies, crust aka the writers) without the cheese. Unfortunately, all the cheese was in the trailer which probably dissuades some from seeing this impressive film.

The Mustang: They Punch Horses, Don’t They?

As usual, I was glad for Gus Mollasis‘s film class to force me to eat the proverbial film equivalent of spinach. I’m not a prison movie fan, yes, even Shawshank Redemption is not something I’m going to seek out, but The Mustang, written and directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre was definitely worth getting in the saddle for.

First it included one of my old man crushes, Bruce Dern. Truth be told, I had a crush on this actor young, The King of Marvin Gardens, continuing into his ‘experienced’ years, Nebraska. In this, he plays a crusty horse wrangler, perfect for his wagon wheel house.

Second, the writer/director Cleremont-Tonnerre, starred in one of my favorite movies of all time The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

The real star of the film, Matthias Scheonaerts, plays a violent inmate with boiling rage. In a perfect parallel, he is placed to tame wild mustangs. He’s been in a few of my favorite films as well, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Bigger Splash.

What I loved about this film were the many co-existing symbols: Schoenaerts (his character’s name is Roman) being told not to look the horse in the eye, the prison visiting room camera man who tells Roman and his daughter not look in the lens (eye) rather look at his finger. The fact that “Roman’s” daughter will not allow her father to be close to her, correlated to the mustang not trusting Roman in the pen.

Connie Britton, the prison psychologist does a magnificent job as the understated no nonsense anger management counselor. I first became a fan of hers in the film Beatriz at Dinner. And while I could only take one episode of the soap operatic Dirty John, appreciated her role.

Best of all, The Mustang taught me information: First, 100,000 wild mustangs roam the northwest and occasionally some are rounded up, tamed and trained to be auctioned off to police agencies. Second: the movie made me realize (once again) how tragic prisoners’ lives are, in the most profound group counseling scenes, Britton asks the men how long the pre-meditation of their crimes was, to which many of them answered mere minutes, contrasted to the decades duration of their sentences (and rightly so for the most part considering death and destruction caused). Having a cousin who spent time in Attica for a violent crime, when his upbringing was abusive and lacking to say the least, re-broke, for lack of a better word, my heart again for his trajectory.

I certainly could have done without the violence and yet it was not gratuitous, just sad realism. Great story writing and tremendous acting!

Gloria Bell, Julianne or Paulina: Who Wore it (the screenplay) Better?

Oy, I thought up so many titles for this blog:

Americans Can Sure ‘F’ Up a Screenplay
Gloria Bell: At Least I Liked the Soundtrack
What a (Bad) Difference Five Years Can Make

Can you tell my opinion? Ok, I saw the original Gloria back in 2013 written and directed by Sebastion Lelio and after I’m done here I’ll search and see if it’s in my blog history. I know, for a fact, that I liked the movie a lot and remember telling my son to even go see it.

And after seeing such an empowering female lead last week in Woman at War, I couldn’t help but walk out of the ‘new’ Gloria Bell defeated. Not exactly the attitude you want going into happy hour on a Friday. Was it Alice Johnson Boher’s butchering (my perjorative verb) of Sebastian’s screenplay? Was it Julianne Moore playing the role much too understated? Was it that we can forgive and appreciate passion in Spanish culture and not American? Was John Turturro‘s character simply too sympathetic? Probably a combo of all these factors.

Or simply I’m tired of the extremes our culture has gone to rectify Me, Too to the point where abusive females are cheered instead of taken to task. Can we all agree putting someone’s cell phone in soup is immature and rude under any circumstances? Or when taking a significant other to a family celebration to which the S.O. is clearly an outsider and has even forewarned you that he/she is not comfortable with functional families and then is summarily ignored that the said hostess/host who ignored the S.O. is at fault. Perhaps I relate too closely to this scenario having happened to me at Thanksgiving (the straw breaking the camel’s back was the hostess saying, “Well, maybe we’ll see you next year and maybe *** will be back with his ex-girlfriend”). And while I didn’t do a full Turturro, I made it to the hallway ready to get an Uber back to my hotel.

Back to my “Me, Too Much” rant, can we also agree that women are responsible for their own actions, whether they’ve been hurt emotionally or physically, the help or action you take after is up to the individual? If you feel like punishing yourself further by getting drunk and hooking up with more dirt bags, get some help because that’s on you. But in Gloria Bell, Julianne does just that. She smokes a bag of unknown weed from a suicidal man who lives in the apartment above her—stupid and then goes on a drinking binge after Turturro leaves her in Vegas. Dumb. How about going to see a movie or a show or, I know, getting on a plane and going home?

In fairness to Gloria Bell, I do believe the male lead in the original Gloria was more of a cad, which made the Paulina Garcia less pathetic. Here, Turturro is simply a mixed up guy who should be left until he finds some therapy, not pummeled by Julianne Moore.

And on a positive, I did love the soundtrack. The music of the seventies sparked joy on one side (Earth Wind and Fire) and sang of pathos on the other (Air Supply). I wish we could back to feeling things in 2019 rather than celebrate vengeance and bad behavior.

My Favorite “The Godfather” Scene

The year 2019 has been a bell ringer year for my film experience. Having considered myself pretty adept as far as breadth of viewing (50’s goodies like Double Indemnity, 70’s dark humor obscurities Death Watch 2000, Harld and Maude to modern gems both foreign The Square, Toni Erdmann and domestic Sean Baker’s Tangerine), I had not seen some of the top ten of AFI’s best movies.

So after checking off Citizen Kane, I watched The Godfather.I know, I know, I had always considered this a man’s movie all the while being mighty fine with other masculine films like Drive, Revenant and Die Hard. So I realize I’m a walking cinema contradiction.

Let’s get one thing straight: Citizen Kane is more profound than The Godfather. I’d even go so far and say that McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Shining were both on par with The Godfather. That being said, I totally understand that The Godfather was the first epic (in length and production) Italian mafia motion picture.

I fully realize that seeing it almost five decades after its debut is nothing like seeing it in 1972, but hey, I was 9! But I can’t imagine, seeing the bedroom horse head scene on the big screen without any spoilers and not jumping out of my skin.

My favorite scene was the hospital scene, when Pacino goes in to the creepy night to see his father, only to find the reception desk empty, waiting room empty, heels echoing off the walls, Christmas record eerily skipping…now that’s tension!

Ditto the beauty and pathos of Marlon Brando playing with his grandson, then suffering a heart attack in the tomato garden…genius film making.

And Talia Shire was a wonder as the abused and emotionally ballistic darling sister.

So while I feel one step further toward movie expertise, I know I have a long and fun way to go!!

Captain Marvel Schmarvel, Meet Woman at War

Winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes this year, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War certainly has it charms.

Erlingsson and Olafur Eglisson’s screenwriting is tried and true 101 stuff, meaning the film provides repetition of unique and endearing items: a three piece band, a trio of traditional singers, and a recurring vacationer on a bike.

So while part of me enjoyed these items, like I do occasionally watching Kramer slide sock feet into Seinfeld’s apartment, I think the movie would have been more moving with more of a back story on the main character Halla (and her twin sister Asa) played by Halldora Geirharosdottir. I understand caring about the environment and feeling passionate about a topic (mine is child abuse), yet I could have used more information on her reason d’etre to fully be moved.

On the other hand, these Icelandic writers put our American formulaic, overly violent and pointless action movie plots to shame. Halla doesn’t need any super powers, she merely needs a crossbow, sturdy saw and some great hiking shoes.

The movie also has the best ending of 2019; thus far, I realize its early. And while i can’t give it away, I certainly felt gender empowerment as I left the theater, a strong feminine, “I Got This!”.

The Invisibles: Better Title, A New Term Perhaps: Tenacitators

Tenacitators might be a strange term, but something about the title The Invisibles makes this film sound like a new Marvel movie or animated deal. And when I think of the four principle characters, real humans who survived hiding during Hitler’s last desperate days, invisible is the furthest word from my mind, rather they are tenacious people who just kept moving until rescue finally came via the Russian and American troops.

In this post Oscar movie drought, how did director Claus Rafle know that I was fatigued with both historical reenactment films and also straight documentaries? Yet here was his film, miraculously braiding the two genres into a moving piece about, can I use my new word? The Tenacitators. Ok, does the tator suffix make it sound too tater totty? (yet another new phrase)

In all seriousness, The Invisibles made a poignant case for those brave enough to resist the Nazis; in one case a brave man typing up letters to send business mail in rallying people to rise up at the risk of his and his family’s life. In the most moving case of the movie, a man thanks the woman who saved him by hiding him and thus forsaking herself.

Claus Rafle is co-credited with Alejandro Lopez for the screenplay which also included well edited stock film footage of bombed out Germany. So perfectly woven, I was never confused going between the three threads: doc, film and real film. The four actors: Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee and Aaron Altaras, while not ‘big stars’, were serious and believable.

Looking back, the film was strongest in these candid interviews of the two women and two men who lived to tell. Each beautiful in their own right, not preaching or whining, but simply grateful for the literal ‘it takes a village’ salvation. Reading Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles the same day as seeing The Invisibles, I couldn’t help but notice a similar theme in that our ‘family’ ends up being those who care for us daily. Fleeting relationships or those we are lucky enough to see endure are equally important in keeping us alive and well.