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.

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.

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!”.

Cold War(s), Worm Heart

Shakespeare’s noted for the Hamlet proverb, ‘brevity is the soul of wit,” and Cold War, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski is certainly a film of which The Bard would be proud. Briskly paced at 90 minutes, we’re taken on a European musical escapade through starkly frigid Poland, austere Yugoslavia and comparatively freewheeling Paris.

Shot in black and white, star crossed lovers Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are genuine and tortured by the confines of post-World War 2 communism. The monochrome film adds not only to the nostalgia of lost love, but also to the bleak surroundings. The cinematography moves like a stately photo album filled with clips; the couple’s cloaked embraces, a wind-swept field tiff, and raucous bar gyrations.

Much like many Shakespearean plays, characters Zula and Wiktor do not live happily ever after, or do they? Depending on your level of faith and ability to identify with unrequited love, may determine your adoration or lack thereof for Cold War. If nothing else, the film is tremendous eye and ear candy with conversational inspiration about the nature and duration of true love.

Perhaps our modern day’s frenetic speed has me craving more constructive and redemptive stories since in total Cold War did not impress me and wasn’t what the media had my ‘hype’ it would be.

The Mule: Love for Clint, but What Gruel!

Addendum to my previous confessional blog:
For the record, I’ve seen my share of classics. So probably like Tebow, I’ve “dated” plenty of film circa 1965, my favorites being: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Double Indemnity, The Thin Man Series, and Philadelphia Story (Hepburn, Stewart and Grant of course). So Ive been around the classics block so to speak. And still (!) Citizen Kane stands out.

Now empathy first for Mr. Eastwood. I love the man! Not only is he hot (yes I said it and mean it! He can make my day any day.) at 88, he’s obviously still a force with whom to be reckoned. And his acting was spot on for what the story of The Mule was…but there’s the trouble: the ‘writers’ Sam Dolnick should stick to newspaper journalism because he (and fellow ‘writer’ Nick Schenk) only wrapped up one story and certainly decided to air on the side of what, where, when, why.

The first half of the film which I saw with my Dad was intriguing and it was probably a joy for my Dad to see an 88 year old guy dance (and much more suggested) around with bikini clad gals a quarter of his age. I also enjoyed watching Clint sing along to the oldies while driving a fancy Cadillac truck and say silly things that older people some times do in not keeping up with the current p.c. lingo.

HOWEVER, once Dianne Wiest, who I normally adore, utters her first hiccup, the movie takes a giant swan dive into corn and just ludicrously written dialogue. More than three times I did the rolling hand gesture to get on with it, only to have the ‘on with it’ be a giant thud.

So, while I hand it to Clint for continuing his career, he needs to choose better writers to achieve and maintain his theatrical reputation.

Top Ten Modern Films

I had an interesting conversation the other day when a friend who popped out with his top 7 songs and movies…this was a person who I was trying to get to know, but seemed elusive. And because I’m a bit of a chameleon I, too, tend to clam up when with another clam.

Anyway, I thought it was pretty important, being a film blogger that I have a top 10 list of modern films. And why not have 7 songs as well?

So here goes my films, not in any order of importance, they’re just all darn good.

Moon
Whiplash
Saving Private Ryan
Drive
Revolutionary Road
Adaptation
Magnolia
The Constant Gardner
Another Earth
Roma

And because I do so many foreign films I am going to add 2 of those:
Toni Erdmann and Avalanche

Songs:
This Song For You Ray Charles (and every great voice)
An elusive track by Kurt Elling that I’ve only heard him do live
Be Good Gregory Porter
Please Forgive Me David Gray
For the Love of You Whitney Houston
Beautiful Ones Prince
Express Yourself Madonna
You’re Too Early Kenny Loggins
Sweet Reunion Kenny Loggins
Whenever I Call Your Friend Loggins/Nicks

Eye Eye Captain; First Man

Tongue in Cheek: Sure Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, but I may be the first to discover there are at least two different movie watching personality types that coincide with five astrological signs. Sagitarius, Virgo, Scorpio and Aquarius folks are intense movie watchers…we don’t talk, and stare at the screen GLADLY for the full movie. Whereas Leo’s are restless types, needing to look at their company, for reassurance perhaps, or in my Dad’s case even inquire, “what did they say?” or my friend last night who needed to comment on an average of once every five minutes. One small primal scream for man, one giant yelp for man kind.

But back to the movie…Damien Chazelle is credited (by me) for one of my favorite seven modern films of all time (Whiplash– see my next blog post for the full list) and one of my most frustrating (LaLaLand). This time with First Man, I’m in the middle, or a little to the right. I didn’t LOVE it, but it certainly satisfied.

Chazelle focuses much of his camera work on close ups, way way close, with a lot of eye concentration on Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy (who definitely should get a best supporting actress nod). For Ryan/Neil, eye work makes sense since through his helmet, that’s the the only facial target. But even out of his suit and with his wife, played as I just mentioned expertly by Claire Foy, the eyes have it as it were.

The story (screenplay by Josh Singer is good, but perhaps a tad too long). I do fully appreciate the fact they (the book’s author and subsequently Singer) wanted to show the full sacrifice and missteps along the way, as well as increase the suspense. I mean after all the accidents, who the hell would think a tin can could actually make it to the moon? That’s faith or bravado or a hell a lot of both. I also loved the inner workings of the Armstrong marriage and the honest approach of Neil, who struggled with his daughter’s death and his need to be a workaholic. In his defense, this was the oppressed 50’s and 60’s when men didn’t cry or were shamed into being stoic and thus, manly.

Other supporting actors had minimal coverage, but I will say Jason Clarke (Chappaquiddick) and Corey Stoll (I know him from Girls) were solid and stood out as Neil’s co-astronauts.

Chazelle’s directorial work seems to lean toward Terrence Malick and that’s ok for me (and probably my fellow Sagitarians). We hear the odd noises of the rocket, we ‘feel’ the jittery, dizzying shakes, and the frantic pushing of buttons. Chazelle bucks the trend of having everything be neat and pretty and instead, also uses silence, space and different types and lengths of scenes to make a meaningful collage.