Gideon58's Reviews

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Bird Box
The post Apocalyptic drama gets an effective facelift in the 2018 Netflix original Bird Box which, despite solid direction and some strong performances, still falls short of what it should have been.

The film stars Sandra Bullock as Mallory, a pregnant woman on her way to see her doctor with her sister (Sarah Paulson) when she sees a report on TV about a terror in the USSR that is causing people to kill themselves. While in the hospital, Mallory pieces together that this terror/entity has reached America and while trying to escape, is shocked to watch the entity kill her sister. She manages to find refuge in a house full of strangers (including another pregnant woman) who have found safety indoors and realize they might be trapped inside this house forever.

The screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a novel by Josh Malerman, deliberately shields the viewer from quite a lot of what's going on, most specifically, what this entity is and why it affects different people in different ways, confusing the viewer and making it hard to keep their eye on the cinematic prize. It's confusing as to why the people in this house are so reluctant to help people still outside, though this does eventually become clear, even if it takes a little too long to do so. A lot of suspense in the story is also diluted because the story is told in flashback...we know at the beginning of the movie that Mallory and two children are making a blindfolded escape down a river and that they are alone, so we already know that all these other characters we've been introduced to are doomed. It's become so fashionable in film to tell stories in flashback but this was one case where I think it was a detriment.

There were other plot contrivances and conveniences that I had trouble with. It seemed a little contrived that this entity didn't affect everyone the same way, taking a lot of the logic out of the story. There are also unexplained plot elements introduced way too late in the story for the viewer to accept...was unable to get behind those scenes near the climax where Mallory gets separated from the children and those faux Mallory voices are telling the children it's OK to remove their blindfolds. It was too late in the story to be introducing a layer that thick to the audience.

On the positive side, Susanne Bier's imaginative and stylish direction is a big plus, aided by some first rate production values, with special nods to cinematography and sound. The cast is first rate too...Bullock has never been better and there is solid support from Trevonte Rhodes and the always watchable John Malkovich. It takes a minute to get going, but this one did have me on the edge of my chair for most of the running time, when I stopped trying to figure it out.

The Gazebo
One of the most underrated comedies of the 1950's, The Gazebo is an absolutely delicious black comedy that entertains from opening to closing credits thanks to a sharp screenplay and a wonderful cast.

The 1959 film stars Glenn Ford as Elliott Nash, a writer and director of a crime TV show whose wife, Nell (Debbie Reynolds) is a Broadway star. Elliott is being blackmailed by a guy who has incriminating photos of his wife and is doing whatever he can to try and meet the blackmailer's demands, even selling his house. After speaking to his police detective BFF Harlow (Carl Reiner), Elliott decides the only way to get out from under this blackmailer's thumb is to murder him and bury him under the new gazebo his wife has just had installed in the backyard.

To say anymore about what happens here would require major spoiling of the fun that follows. This is a clever comedy way ahead of its time. George Wells' screenplay, based on a stage play by Alex Coppel, is unusually complex for a 50's comedy, complex to the point where complete attention is required in order to stay abreast with what's going on, but not too complex that interest wanes. This movie provides major laughs throughout and, in a refreshing change of pace for films like this, answers almost all of the questions that it asks. There was one small plot point which I couldn't reconcile, but I let it go and decided to relish these offbeat proceedings.

Equally impressive was the way seemingly needless scenes near the beginning of the film turned out to strengthen plot further into the film. The story establishes the Elliott character as someone incapable of murder early on with a scene where he is in a cab that runs over a peigon, takes it home and nurses it back to health, naming it Herman. There is also five minutes early on devoted to a scene where Elliott complains to Nell about how much he hates the shower curtains that seems pointless at the time but turns out to be anything but.

George Marshall's intricate direction is a big plus and he gets surprising performances from his stars. Glenn Ford proves to be quite adept at physical comedy in a role that suggested Jack Lemmon. The scenes of him buying the tools for his plan and later sitting in the house waiting for the blackmailer to show up are hysterical. Debbie Reynolds effectively underplays bringing a nice texture to the role of the wife and Carl Reiner provides laughs as does John McGiver as a contractor. The year before this film was released, Ford and Reynolds appeared together in a film called It Started with a Kiss, which I'm now curious about, but I can't believe it's as good as this was. Bouquets all around.

Boy Erased
Joel Edgerton impressed as a director and writer with The Gift and has proved that film was no fluke with his latest feature, 2018's Boy Erased, an emotional roller coaster that it was hard to be objective about due to the very sensitive subject matter, sensitive to me anyway. I will try to review this fact-based drama without mounting any soap boxes and talk about the film strictly for its entertainment value.

Jared Eamons is the sensitive, gay teenage son of a Baptist minister who gets outed while he is in college and when confronted by his extremely conservative father, claims that he wants to change. After praying over the boy, it is decided that Jared is to be sent to a gay conversion program, ironically titled Love in Action, which is supposed to magically transform Jared into a heterosexual in 12 days.

Edgerton's screenplay, based on a book by the real Garrad Conley, is uncompromising in its depiction of a program about which there is little documented success but for some reason, a lot of people believe in or are at least willing to believe in. Love in Action has some similarities to Alcoholics Anonymous in that it is a God-based program but takes a disturbing step further stating that homosexuality is a sin from which someone can be deprogrammed.

The clients in this program are expertly cast, they are all ages, sizes, and colors, a positive message that this movie sends, that there is no such thing as "looking gay." The exercises these clients participate on somewhat on par with what happens in traditional rehab, but the often brutal treatment of clients here is sometimes hard to watch, though I did find the reveal that this program drives a client to suicide a little manipulative and melodramatic. The other thing that rang true for me is that as sincere as they might appear on the exterior, almost none of the clients in the program really wanted to be there.

Needless to say, personal feelings about homosexuality and the theory as to whether or not it is a choice is the foundation of a lot of what happens here. Strong opinions on this subject either way will definitely affect the way this story will move viewers and it seems like Edgerton is initially taking a very definite stand on the issue, which is revealed in the epilogue to be exactly the opposite of what is initially presented.

Edgerton's direction is intense and imaginative and works well with his cast. Lucas Hedges, nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, offers another Oscar-worthy turn as the tortured Jared and Russell Crowe continues his effortless transition from leading man to character actor as Jared's father. Nicole Kidman makes the most of her underwritten role as the mother and Edgerton himself scores as Victor Sykes, the head of the LIA program. The story isn't pretty, but it's pretty realistically told.

Critic's Choice
Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were two of Hollywood's greatest clowns who made several films together but 1963's Critic's Choice was one of their lesser efforts because, as they did in The Facts of Life, play three dimensional characters and aren't looking for the quick laugh, but these talented veterans still provide pretty consistent chuckles here.

Hope plays Parker Ballantine, a New York theater critic who is this film's John Simon...the one critic that every director and playwright pray they receive a glowing review. He has just written a scathing review of a play starring his ex-wife, Ivy London (Marilyn Maxwell), even though his wife, Angela (Ball) didn't think it was so bad. Though she enjoys a comfortable life as Mrs.Parker Ballantine, Angela is restless and unfulfilled and impulsively decides that she wants to write a play. Parker discourages and belittles her at every turn, but Angela manages to churn out a play and asks Parker to read it and, as expected, he tells her it's terrible and hopes that's the end of it. Unfortunately for Parker a producer manages to get hold of the play, reads it, likes it, and agrees to produce it.

Parker now finds himself in a moral dilemma because he's unsure as to whether or not he should review the play when it premieres. Angela likes the idea of Parker reviewing it at first but interference from the eccentric director working on Angela's play, Angela's mother (Jessie Royce Landis), and scheming ex-wife Ivy, she's not so sure as the out of town tryouts approach.

Jack Sher's screenplay is actually based on a play written by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby) that opened in 1960 with Henry Fonda playing Parker Ballantine. The story has definitely been tailored to suit the stars and Sher does an effective job of opening up the story so that it doesn't look like a photographed stage play. Opening the story up also allowed for more clowning by the stars, Hope in particular. Hope garners major chuckles during the father/son baseball game when his back keeps going out and during his drunken arrival at Angela's opening night. The real surprise here though was Ball, playing it relatively straight as Angela, a role that could have become silly and over the top, but Ball nicely underlays, aided by the smooth and slightly safe direction by Don Weis, and Ball has rarely been so appealing onscreen.

Weis also does a credible job of creating a New York theater atmosphere, though we never really buy that this film was actually shot in New York. Set direction is top-notch, the Ballantine home is beautiful and I loved Landis as Angela's mother and a very funny Rip Torn as the crazy director. Jim Backus, Jerome Cowan, and John Dehner offer fun bits along the way and, if you don't blink, you might even catch Soupy Sales playing a hotel desk clerk. It's no classic, but fans of the stars will not be disappointed.

Bewitched (2005)
The idea of rebooting the classic sitcom Bewitched was inspired, unfortunately, the final product just didn't work, the primary culprit being an overly complex screenplay that completely disrespects the original series and probably had Elizabeth Montgomery turning over in her grave.

This 2005 comedy stars Will Ferrell as Jack Wyatt, an obnoxious and self-absorbed actor whose career has stalled thanks to a bad movie and a bad marriage, who has just been cast as Darrin Stephens in a reboot of Bewitched. He meets a pretty girl named Isabel Bigelow, played by Nicole Kidman, falls for her instantly and decides that she would be the perfect Samantha. What Jack doesn't know is that Isabel REALLY is a witch who has recently decided that she wants to live life as a mortal, but is having a hard time of it.

When I first heard they were doing this movie, I just assumed Jim Carrey would be playing Darrin because of the uncanny resemblance between Carrey and Dick York. I was shocked to hear Will Ferrell had been cast, but when I heard what they were doing with the story, I figured it was acceptable but it's also the main problem with this movie. I don't understand why a competent writer like Nora Ephron would choose to over-complicate this story by having the actors playing actors playing Samantha and Darrin. This whole thing of throwing up an additional 4th wall to the story just didn't work for me, made all the more glaring by the scenes of Isabel and Jack watching clips from the original show.

The other big problem here is the performances and lack of chemistry with the stars. I will admit that Nicole Kidman would have been my first choice for the role of Samantha but she hasn't annoyed me this much onscreen since the remake of The Stepford Wives. Her inspiration for this Isabel character seems to be Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And Ferrell's Jack Wyatt just makes you want to shove a bottle of sedatives down his throat. The non-stop frenzy of this character is exhausting. On my list of worst onscreen chemistry, Kidman and Ferrell were #1 and this re-watch confirmed that choice.

Michael Caine is wasted as Isabel's warlock father, who spends the movie giving her lots of bad advice as is Shirley MacLaine as Iris, the actress playing Endora who has a secret of her own. Steve Carell brightens up the final 10 minutes of this movie as Uncle Arthur, but this movie is just wrong on all kinds of levels, what a shame.

Hans Christian Anderson
Producer Samuel Goldwyn pulled out all the stops for 1952's Hans Christian Anderson, a lavish musical extravaganza that people think is a biography of the famous children's storyteller, but is actually a fairy tale about a famous children's storyteller named Hans Christian Anderson. It also became a career-defining role for Danny Kaye.

The story begins in a tiny Danish village where Hans Christian Anderson is the village cobbler, but spends more time telling the village children fairy tales than he does fixing shoes. His apprentice Peter spirits him out of town before he is forced to leave and he and Peter embark on a journey to Copenhagen, where Hans comes between a beautiful and self-absorbed ballerina and her demanding choreographer/husband.

I'd seen bits and pieces of this film as a child, but this was my first beginning to end watch of this completely captivating musical that had me riveted to the screen. Moss Hart's sophisticated screenplay (clearly inspired by The Red Shoes) quietly establishes Hans Christian Anderson as a man who is only able to communicate his true passions through stories that he has written and most of the time these stories are analogies to real events that sometimes Anderson doesn't even see himself. We think we're going to get a two hour film about a guy who does nothing but tell stories to children, but then we are dramatically thrust into an honest to God romantic triangle that we don't see coming at all. It's a little heartbreaking watching Anderson express his love for the ballerina through a story called "The Little Mermaid" and her not having a clue while her husband turns the story into a ballet for the clueless diva.

Another big plus here is the absolutely superb musical score supplied by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) that brings an added richness to the story that's pretty hard to resist. The songs include "Wonderful Copenhagen", "I'm Hans Christian Anderson", "Thumbelina", "Anywhere I Wonder", "The King's New Clothes", "The Ugly Duckling", "No Two People", and my personal favorite, "Inchworm." The film also features three elaborate ballets that allow prima ballerina Jeanmaire to shine, choreographed by her husband Roland Petit, who dances the lead in the "Little Mermaid" ballet. Loved when Hans was locked in the prop room before the premiere of his ballet and had to imagine what we were seeing.

Production values are first rate here, with special nods to art direction/set direction, sound, and some absolutely breathtaking costumes. Danny Kaye lights up the screen like he never has in the title role and anyone who doesn't fall in love with this Hans Christian Anderson is a heartless monster. I was also impressed by Farley Granger, charismatic as Jeanmaire's husband. Charles Vidor's direction is spirited and focused guiding us through an enchanted cinematic journey that consistently entertained.

Uncle Drew
2018's Uncle Drew is a forgettable look at street basketball that falls flat due to an illogical screenplay, lackluster direction, and some really oddball casting.

It's contemporary Harlem and Dax (Lil Rel Howery) is a street basketball hustler with his own team of losers who has lost everything trying to earn the entry fee for a basketball tournament when he accidentally runs into the title character (Kyrie Irving) while he's schooling a young punk on the court. Dax asks Uncle Drew to be on his team but he only agrees under the condition that it's his team and that he recruit his old former teammates to play with him. This springboards a road trip for Dax and Uncle Drew to find Drew's old teammates, including one who is pretty much blind and another who's confined to a wheelchair.

For some reason basketball has never really been a viewer friendly subject for movie comedies. Hoosiers was terrific, but that was a drama. Not too much is very convincing here, especially this central character who is supposed to evoke sympathy because we see him losing control of his life at the beginning of the film, including his girl (Tiffany Haddish) walking out on him, but as we watch his initial confrontation with Uncle Drew we realize why...this character is a self-absorbed jackass who thinks he knows everything about basketball but hasn't stepped on a court for years because many years ago, a crucial shot in a game he was about to win was blocked. It was hard to feel sorry for someone who let one blocked shot keep him off the court permanently.

Jay Longino's screenplay also forces us to accept some really stupid stuff in regards to this rag tag team of senior citizen hoofers. The last straw for me was when Drew gave Boots (Nate Robinson), the wheelchair-bound player, a pair of his old sneakers that Drew saved for 30 years and all of a sudden, the guy could walk. And the moves that these guys, whose average age was 70, were making on the court completely defied logic, not to mention their choreographed dance number on a nightclub dance floor.

Lil Rel Howery is allegedly a funny guy, who was actually given his own sitcom this season, but the guy has failed to make me laugh, either here or on TV. Kyrie Irving's performance in the title role was snore-inducing as was basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal as Big Fella. The only real laughs in this movie came from Nick Kroll, the rival hustler who blocked that crucial shot from Dax all those years ago. In a nutshell, this was one hour and 43 minutes of my life I'll never get back.

The Favourite
An intimate tale of lust, power, betrayal, and passion told on an impossibly lavish scale, the 2018 epic The Favourite is the period costume drama for people who hate period costume dramas. This is one of those films that breaks all the rules of its genre and never apologizes for it.

The setting is 18th century England and the country is at war with France. Queen Anne, the current ruler of Greta Britain has fallen ill and her good friend Lady Sarah Marlborough rushes to her side and ends up running the country in Anne's stead. A new skullery maid named Abigail arrives at the castle and endears herself to Sarah who allows Abigail to assist in the Queen's care, a situation that Abigail takes advantage of to the point that a very ugly romantic triangle begins to brew between the three women that not only affects their lives, but all of England as well.

Once again, this reviewer has found himself privy to an alleged piece of history that was news to him. Nevertheless, this breathtaking period piece was so completely intoxicating that whether or not it was factual became irrelevant pretty quickly. Granted, if it did happen, the cinematic presentation was a lot more uncompromising in the raw quality it brings to a sexually charged story where the bawdy debauchery is only partially disguised by elegant settings and amazing costumes. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara utilizes a plethora of contemporary adult language that I seriously doubt was part of 17th century language, but it was an advantageous storytelling tool that made this story a lot easier to understand and infinitely more entertaining. It even contained title cards for each chapter of the story like a Woody Allen movie!

Director Yorgos Lanthimos uses different kinds of symbolism to move story in ways that we almost don't notice. The scenes of Sarah and Abigail skeet shooting seemed to simultaneously recap and foreshadow what was going on in their relationship with the Queen. The extraordinary camerawork which featured a variation on the fish eye lens in several scenes with the Queen served as a perfect metaphor for the prison that the Queen felt her illness was trapping her in.

It is the Queen's illness and her battle with it that really becomes the heartbeat of this movie as we watch a woman unable to control the ravishment of her body and also unable to control her anger about it. This queen begins as funny and a little sad but as the story progresses, she becomes explosive and unpredictable, but her delight when she realizes that Sarah and Abigail are fighting over her is a joy to watch because it's the only joy the character really experiences in this story. Sadly, her joy envelops her to the point that we know there's no way it can last. It's equally compelling watching the slow burn of the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail, which reaches a level of ugly bitchiness that defies desctiption.

Director Lanthimos must also be credited for the lavish canvas he mounts this story in, taking a simple romantic triangle and promoting it to epic proportions. The expensive production values include Oscar worthy production design, set direction (the Queen's bedroom is glorious) and I'm pretty sure Sandy Powell will win a fourth Oscar for Outstanding Costume Design.

Lanthimos' best work though is the rich performances he pulled from his three leading ladies. Olivia Colman has already won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination for for her sad and delightfully unhinged Queen Anne, another post graduate acting course to be devoured by connoisseurs of the craft. Oscar winner Rachel Weicz could be a dark horse and win a second statue for her powerhouse Lady Sarah and Emma Stone finally delivers a performance worthy of an Oscar as the manipulative Abigail that earned her a nomination as well. Also loved Nicholas Hoult as Harley and the offbeat musical score which effectively frames the proceedings. A delicious piece of entertainment that entranced this reviewer from beginning to end.

Deception (1946)
The stars of the classic melodrama Now Voyager were reunited a few years later for another melodramatic sizzler called Deception that didn't provide the soap opera-ish aura that their previous film did, but did provide an air of tension that made the drama hard to resist, not to mention a trio of strong star performances.

Bette Davis stars as Christine Radcliffe, a piano teacher who is reunited with her lover, Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), who she thought had died in the war. Christine brings Karel home and convinces him to marry her right away, but their wedding is disrupted by the arrival of Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) who makes no bones about making sure that Karel knows that he and Christine had a relationship while Karel was away. It soon becomes clear that, despite the fact that Christine and Karel are now married, Hollenius has no intention of letting Christine go.

This film was actually based on a play by Louis Verneuil that premiered in Paris during the roaring 20's and went through an additional adaption before John Collier and Joseph Than crafted the rich screenplay for this drama, which features a couple of very complex characters in Christine and Hollenius whose agendas seem to change from scene to scene. If the truth be told, the Karel character is dumb as a box of rocks and his being manipulated by these other two characters wasn't much of a stretch in credibility.

The character of Christine was particularly interesting because we know almost immediately that she is hiding something from Karel, but we're never quite sure who she's protecting. Is she trying to protect her marriage or is she just trying to protect her own reputation? The Hollenius character makes moves that we don't see coming either...instead of getting directly in Karel's face and fighting Christine, he decides to catch his fly with honey by offering to help Karel advance his career and then going to Christine behind his back and telling Christine that he could pull the rug out from under Karel at anytime. The screenplay is a little fuzzy about how intimate Christine and Hollenius were, but we do know that he furnished the beautiful loft where Christine lives and we also know Hollenius knows something that Christine really wants kept Karel in the dark.

We kind of suspect where the story is going, because something has to give here and it eventually does and some nail biting tension is provided along the way, all framed by some gorgeous music...we have Karel's beautiful cello concerto (Henreid does not do his own playing), but the music of Shubert, Mozart, and Beethoven, not to mention a sublime dramatic score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that works beautifully. Davis provides a crisp and charismatic Christine and Rains is hammy but effective as Hollenius. One of the forgotten gems from the Bette Davis resume.

Killers (2010)
2010's Killers is an overblown, expensive and completely unbelievable action comedy that only provides selected laughs, enough car crashes and explosions for three movies, and nothing resembling logic.

Ashton Kutcher plays Spence, a professional hitman who, while on assignment in Nice, France, meets Jen (Katherine Heigl), a high-powered lady executive, recently dumped by her boyfriend and vacationing in Nice with her parents. They fall in love in about 20 minutes, return to the states and get married. Three years later, an attempt on Spence's life leads to the reveal that there is a $20,000,000 contract out on his life.

Actually, this movie started out rather promisingly...Kutcher was somewhat convincing as a hitman, the whirlwind romance with Heigl's Jen rang true, but once the contract is revealed and the couple have to go on the run, anything resembling logic and realism go out the window as we learn that just about everyone in Spence and Jen's lives have been planted in their lives in order to kill them. It's never really made clear why it takes three years for anyone to make a move on Spence. It's understandable that lulling Spence into a false sense of security was necessary, but why does that take three years?

This story alternately entertains and aggravates once the danger starts for our couple. The initial scenes of Jen acting girly and terrified when she sees a gun for the first time are kind of annoying. On the other hand, it was kind of fun watching Jen slowly coming to the realization that the danger was genuine and Spence was her only protection. There are multiple moments where Jen wants to walk away and can't or when Spence is in a real jam and she bails him out and you just know that despite all the ridiculous stuff happening, these two are going to be OK, it was just way too hard to believe that everyone in their lives were also contracted killers and they had no idea.

Director Robert Luketic (The Ugly Truth, Legally Blonde) was apparently given an unlimited budget here and all the money is on the screen. Solid production values including gorgeous French location photography and some first rate film editing as well as stunt coordination and some great fight choreography as well. Kutcher and Heigl work well together and Tom Selleck and Catherine O'Hara were fun as Heigl's parents, but the outrageous, hard to believe story made it hard to completely invest here. Fans of the 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith will have a head start here.

I'll Be Seeing You
Despite some dated story elements, the 1944 melodrama I'll Be Seeing You is still worth a look for the sensitive performances from the leads.

Ginger Rogers plays Mary Marshall, a woman serving a six year jail term for manslaughter who has been given a ten day furlough to spend Christmas with her family. She meets Sgt. Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotten) on the train. Morgan is immediately attracted to Mary and pretends that he is getting off the train at Mary's stop so that he can continue seeing her. Zach hides the fact that he has just been released from the hospital and still suffers from PTSD while Mary keeps her life as a prisoner a secret as well.

The screenplay suffers a bit due to this stigma that is attached to a person being in prison that makes a lot of what happens here hard to take. Not only does Mary keep it a secret, but she begs her Aunt Sarah(Spring Byington) to aid in keeping the secret as well. Upon arrival at the house, Mary has to deal with her teenage cousin, Barbara (Shirley Temple), with whom Mary is sharing a room and Barbara makes sure that none of her belongings touch anything that belongs to Mary. The stigma attached to being in prison in this movie is somewhat akin to the stigma attached to HIV today and it made a lot of what goes on here look kind of silly. The other irony here is that when we learn why Mary is in jail, today it would have been deemed self-defense and she wouldn't have gone to jail at all.

The film also takes every opportunity it can to remind us that there is a war going on, which is expected, but why do we need the constant reminders throughout the film when the lead character is a solder suffering from PTSD? Despite it's problems, the film is watchable thanks to another enchanting performance from Ginger Rogers as Mary and a charming turn from Joseph Cotten as the tortured Zach. Byington is a delight as Aunt Sarah and Temple steals every scene she's in. It's no classic, but Ginger fans will not be disappointed.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy received her second Oscar nomination for her powerhouse performance in 2018's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, an emotionally charged docudrama/character study with an often unsympathetic leading character that you want to wrap your arms around one scene and smack the hell out of the next.

The film is adapted from the memoir of an author named Lee Israel. Israel was a writer who first hit the literary scene in the 1970's and 80's writing biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Killgallen, the latter actually making it to the New York Times Bestsellers List. The story begins in 1991 with Israel prepping a biography of Fanny Brice but running into some serious writer's block while quietly going broke, getting ready to be evicted from her apartment, and worried about her sick cat. She stumbles onto the "art" of literary forgery, where she takes actual letters and diaries written by giants like Noel Coward and Killgallen, reproducing them on the same kind of typewriters they used and then selling them to bookstores/collectors, with the aid of her new gay BFF until the law catches up to her.

This film fascinates from jump primarily due to this unique take on the subject that is never worried about painting her in a flattering light, but she isn't portrayed as a monster either. In the opening scene we see her attending a party where she goes to the coat check and walks out with a coat that doesn't belong to her. Not long after that, we feel her when she takes her sick cat to the vet and they tell her that they can't treat the cat until she pays half of her outstanding balance. She's three months behind in her rent but still demands that the landlord send an exterminator to her apartment. The Lee Israel we meet in this movie is not a very nice person and makes no apologies for it. She is also desperately lonely and does her best to keep all humans at arm's length. There are also seems to be some issues with her sexual orientation that she is wrestling with. There is a lovely scene with a lady bookseller Lee has dinner with that bristles with sexual tension.

The Lee Israel presented in this movie is also a mass of contradictions throughout the film. She seems to suffer from "broken bird" syndrome, evidenced in her taking in of gay bestie Jack Hock, who is practically destitute when she first meets him and her cat, Jersey, who she later in the film claims is the only creature on earth who likes her. Director Marielle Heller utilizes the camera to maximum effect in showing us all the contradictions in this woman's coarse and unsympathetic behavior.

Heller's camera has an amazing subject here with an acting powerhouse like Melissa McCarthy, who finally erases all doubts that she is more than mugging and pratfalls. This is an actress of enormous intensity who effectively internalizes this performance and provides a jarring insight into Lee Israel that runs roughshod with the emotions, making the viewer constantly wonder if we're supposed to be liking this woman or not. The courtroom scene where she is given permission to make a statement that should reflect remorse and does anything but has us initially taken aback but not really surprised. McCarthy is perfectly complimented by Richard E. Grant's flamboyant performance as Jack, which earned him a Supporting Actor nomination. McCarthy's real life husband, Ben Falcone, also scores as one of Lee's bookselling victims. Shout out to a classy cameo by Anna Deveare Smith as a connection from Lee's past. Bouquets as well to Anne McCabe's film editing and Nate Heller's music. A bumpy cinematic journey that I implore McCarthy haters to check out.

The Farrelly Brothers have had questionable success with their overindulgent comedies rich with raunchy bathroom humor, but thanks to the performances of Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and Bill Murray, the 1996 comedy Kimgpin seems a lot better than it really is.

Harrelson plays Roy Munson, a former professional bowler whose career was cut short by an incident where he lost his hand, which involved fellow bowler, Ernie McCracken (Murray).
Many years later, a nearly destitute Roy may have found a way back to the top when he encounters an Amish guy named Ishmael (Quaid) who Roy thinks has the potential to go to the top and the road trip for the two of them that leads to a bowling tournament in Reno Nevada with a $1,000,000 first prize,

Peter and Bobby Farrelly have always been sort of the Taylor Hackford of movie comedies where I'm concerned. Their approach to cinematic storytelling is overly complex and self-indulgent, resulting in films that are usually about 30 minutes longer than they need to be and this film is no exception. The opening exposition introducing us to Roy and how he lost his hand definitely could have been tightened up, as well as the guys' encounter with the mobster whose girl (Vanessa Angel) runs off with the boys. They could have trimmed down these scenes, possibly freeing up more time for Roy pretending to be Amish in order to get Ishmael to hit the road with him or just beefing up Bill Murray's role.

Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan's screenplay doesn't contain as much of the kind of bathroom humor that we have come to expect from a Farrelly Brothers movie...there was only one real scene that I would file under "gross", but there is a whole lot of objectifying of women here as well as inferences about sex with farm animals, so if you have a problem with those sorts of things, you might want to give this one a pass. I can't imagine that the Amish were too thrilled at the way they are portrayed here either.

But what makes this movie worth sitting through is the inspired performances from the three leads. Harrelson creates one of his most tragic comic heroes here and Quaid matches him scene for scene, though I have to admit that while watching, I kept picturing these two switching roles. And, as always, Bill Murray had me on the floor, stealing every single scene he had as the smarmy McCracken. If scene stealing were an actual crime, Murray would be serving a life sentence. A movie that provides fairly consistent laughs thanks to a trio of actors who raise the bar on this one.

If Beale Street Could Talk
Director/writer screenwriter Barry Jenkins made Hollywood sit up and take notice when his 2016 film Moonlight won the 2016 Best Picture Oscar. Jenkins has proven that he is not a one-trick-pony, crafting another compelling drama called If Beale Street Could Talk that, like Moonlight, falls short of being the film it was meant to be, but offers rewards for the patient viewer who remembers the rewards our patience with Moonlight reaped.

Based on a novel by James Baldwin, it's 1970's Harlem where we meet Fonny and Tish. Fonny and Tish have been soulmates since they were children, they even used to bathe together. Fonny is now 22 and Tish is 19. As we meet them, Tish has just learned that she is pregnant with Fonny's child and that Fonny is in jail for rape. The drama layers out as we watch the couple's family simultaneously being torn apart by this bombshell and bonding together as they work together to get Fonny out of jail so that he can be with his family.

There are some football teams, off the top of my head, like the New Orleans Saints, who have been referred to as "second half teams"...they struggle during the first half and come alive during the second. I'm beginning to feel that Barry Jenkins is a second half director. Both this film and Moonlight start off a little slowly with the story moving at almost a deadening pace where interest begins to wane, and just when you're thinking about giving up or dozing off, Jenkins kicks the story into high gear for a powerhouse finish that leaves the viewer limp. That was how I saw Moonlight and reacted similarly to this often emotionally charged motion picture experience.

Like most director/screenwriters, I think Jenkins' direction is superior to his writing. He has a flawless ability for establishing a film's atmosphere. I mentioned earlier that the film was set in the 1970's and I know that not because it is printed at the bottom of the screen at some point, but because of Jenkins' attention to period detail...the look of the streets of Harlem in the 70's was on the money and if you don't believe me, check out films like Across 110th Street and tell me Jenkins doesn't nail it. There's also costumes, hair, selected dialogue (can't remember the last time in a movie I heard jail referred to as "the slammer), though sometimes I felt Tish' narration was, at times, overly sophisticated, it perfectly conveys the jumbled emotions of the character.

Jenkins also has a talent with the unexpected shock in a scene that the viewer never sees coming. There's a brilliant scene early on in the story where Tish' family invites Fonny's family over to the house to tell them about the pregnancy and Fonny's mother starts calling Tish every name in the book and we just know this woman is going to get slapped. The slap comes but it doesn't come from where we think and that's Jenkins directorial eye going into overdrive.

Jenkins has assembled a perfect cast for this story, not populated with a lot of stars, but actors who serve the characters and the story beautifully. Stephan James and KiKi Layne are lovely as Fonny and Tish and the amazing Regina King may finally get the Oscar she should have gotten for Jerry Maguire with her accustomed powerhouse performance as Tish' mother, who goes above and beyond duty to help her son-in-law. Her performance alone is reason enough enough to check this one out, but there's so much more going on here that, again, proves Barry Jenkins could become one of our greatest cinematic storytellers with a little more seasoning.

Three Little Words
MGM was very big on fictionalized film biographies on famous composers which were catered to their large stable of talent and one of the best of this select genre was a 1950 confection called Three Little Words, a surprisingly accurate look at one of Tin Pan Alley's most famous songwriting teams, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, whose names be unfamiliar, but their music is not.

In this story, Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) is a vaudeville hoofer and songwriter who is doing a very successful act with dancer Jessie Brown (Vera-Ellen), but has a secret passion for magic. Harry Ruby (Red Skelton) is a second rate song plugger who has a secret passion for professional baseball. A knee injury forces Bert to give up dancing which eventually leads to a meeting with Ruby, which results in their first collaboration, "My Sunny Tennessee". A new career as songwriters begins to blossom for the guys, until Bert has a reunion with Jessie, which might derail their new careers as a songwriting team, but Jessie recognizes this and is willing to get out of the guys' way in exchange for becoming Mrs. Bert Kalmar.

This story is not only a terrific backstage story about a great songwriting team, but an effective look at the power of friendship. These guys face several obstacles during the running time, but always have each other's backs. Bert manages to get Harry away from a flashy redhead who is cheating on him, while Harry convinces a Wall Street broker planning to invest in a terrible play that Bert has written to withdraw because he doesn't want the play to be a flop and Bert be destroyed. Sometimes these guys do the wrong things, but it's always for the right reasons and when the eventual split between the pair that always happens in a story like this, even the women in their lives know that these guys won't ever be happy until they reconcile. I also loved the running routine throughout the film of Harry having the melody for the title song and Bert being unable to come up with lyrics for it until the finale.

Director Richard Thorpe and screenwriter George Wells have mounted a lavish musical feast here, anchored by Kalmar and Ruby's amazing body of work. Musical highlights include Astaire and Vera-Ellen's opening duet "Where Did You Get That Girl?" with both of them clad in white tie and tails; Gloria De Haven's sultry interpretation of "Who's Sorry Now", "Thinking of You" which features an elegant pas de deux by Astaire and Vera-Ellen in the largest shipboard stateroom ever, and perhaps my favorite, "Nevertheless". Mention should also be made of a superb ballet danced by Astaire and Vera-Ellen called "Mr. & Mrs. Hoofer at Home."

Fred Astaire and Red Skelton prove to be a most engaging screen team, with Skelton getting a chance to show his future clown skills during the magic and baseball scenes. Vera-Ellen (her singing is dubbed by Anita Ellis) and Arlene Dahl are lovely leading ladies and there's also a delightful appearance from a very young Debbie Reynolds as Helen Kane performing "I Wanna Be Loved by You", with her singing voice dubbed by the real Helen Kane.

Of course, the MGM gloss is evident in the breathtaking sets and costumes employed here (even though I actually recognized recycled costumes from previous MGM musicals, but I forgive). One of the most deliciously entertaining entries from the studio with "more stars than the heavens" that entertained from opening number to closing number.

700 Sundays
Billy Crystal won a Tony Award in 2005 for 700 Sundays, a simultaneously roll-on-the floor-funny and lump- in-the-throat poignant one-man show that chronicles his life from the age of nine, providing plenty of laughs along the way. The production came to HBO in 2014.

This show was originally mounted in 2004 at the La Jolla Playhouse before being moved on Broadway to the Broadhurst Theater in December of the same year. The production was revived in 2013 at the Imperial Theater for 54 performances and it was during this run that it was filmed by HBO.

Not even close to your typical evening of stand up comedy, this production opens with actual home movies, filmed by Crystal's father that the comedian utilizes to introduce us to his family. When I first heard about this show, the first thing that piqued my curiosity was what the title meant, which was totally unexpected, but warm and captivating. The special begins with the comedian talking about his hard-working father who reserved Sundays to be with his family. Losing his father at age 15, Crystal estimates that he spent around 700 Sundays with his dad before he was taken away from him.

Like any effective biopic, a lot of things were revealed about Crystal that were total news to me. Crystal's father owned a record shop and was a Jazz club emcee on the weekends. His uncle began a record label who was the only one willing to record Billie Holliday's iconic "Strange Fruit." Crystal actually tells a lovely story about Billie Holliday taking him to see his first movie ever, Shane, which featured his City Slickers co-star, the late Jack Palance.

Crystal offers beautifully detailed characterizations of several members of his family, providing a wonderful face for each relative, which proves why the jazz musicians who he grew up around nicknamed him "Face." His interpretation of his Aunt Sheila was particularly funny and I loved his description of his grandmother as being "so fat she was worth three electoral votes." It's easy to see why Crystal was so tight with the late Robin Williams...they have the same razor sharp minds that move 100 MPH, though Crystal's journey to the laugh is a little more deliberate.

Crystal produces big laughs during this show, but it is not his priority. The priority is telling his story, warts and tears where appropriate and never apologizes for it. The moment where he recreates learning about his father's death is heartbreaking and just when the fighting tears commences, Billy brings back the funny, magically sensing when it's time to do so. Crystal's writing is a little pretentious at times, but his delivery is so on the money that you almost don't notice. It's not your typical evening of stand up because it's not supposed to be, but if you're ready for a very special look at the life of a very special entertainer who loved his parents and loved to make them laugh, belly up.

The stylish and atmospheric direction of Henry Hathaway, some gorgeous location photography, and Marilyn Monroe at her steamiest are the primary attractions of 1953's Niagara, a tense thriller that earns originality points by locating it in what was once the #1 honeymoon location on the planet.

This is the story of two couples at Niagara falls whose marriages are in two very different places: Ray and Polly Cutler are a young couple who are arriving at the falls for their honeymoon but learn that the cabin that they reserved is still being occupied by Rose and George Loomis, a couple who seem to have been married for quite awhile but are not even in the neighborhood of happy. It comes to light that Rose is cheating on George and is plotting to get rid of him and somehow Polly becomes caught right in the middle of what's going on with Mr. & Mrs. Loomis which eventually gets her in a lot of danger.

The screenplay by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen is quite effective in setting up backstory for the Loomises without actually giving them a backstory. We learn things with Rose and George Loomis are not what they should be in their first moment onscreen where George comes in the room, Rose pretends to be asleep, and when George drifts off, she turns and shoots him a look of such ugly contempt that we don't know exactly what's going to happen, but we just know this can't end well.

Director Henry Hathaway displays an atmospheric directorial eye that fits this dark drama beautifully. There is a lot of shadowy photography that never makes you feel like you're missing something, it just adds to the slow burn of suspense that occurs here. I have to admit while watching this, there was a real Hitchcock sensibility to what Hathaway is doing here and also wondered what this film might have been like with Hitch directing. I always thought Hitchcock and Monroe would have been an interesting director/actor combination and this film would have been a perfect property for them. It's Hathaway's work that allows the viewer to forgive some implausible plot points.

But above all, this movie has the incredible Marilyn, more beautiful, more alluring, and more toxic than I have ever seen her. This Rose Loomis is one of cinema's most duplicitous movie heroines. With the aid of Hathaway, Monroe creates a character that commands the screen to the point where anytime she's not on screen, the film becomes a lot less interesting. That scene near the beginning in the bright red dress sitting on the steps at the party dreamily singing "Kiss" or that iconic walk to the bell tower in the tight black skirt are images that will be burned in my brain for eternity. Joseph Cotten makes a tragic George Loomis and Jean Peters holds her own as Polly Cutler, but this is Marilyn's movie and she never lets you forget it.

The Brave One
Despite an accustomed powerhouse performance from Jodie Foster, the 2007 crime thriller The Brave One suffers due to a somewhat contrived screenplay that is a little too protective of the heroine.

Foster plays Erica Bain, a radio personality whose life is changed forever when a brutal attack in Central Park puts her in a coma and her fiancee in the morgue. As Erica wakes up and unsuccessfully attempts to resume her normal life, she realizes that the only way to cope with what happened to her is to become a midnight to dawn vigilante because she no longer feels safe and ends up defending others in the city feeling unsafe as well. She befriends a sensitive police detective (Terrence Howard) who is working on another case with which Erica also becomes involved.

The screenplay by Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor begins promisingly as we watch a woman's life turned completely upside down by one tragic event. Erica's feelings about not feeling safe anymore are authentically presented, but her transformation into vigilante feels a little forced and unrealistic and parts of the transition are a little unsettling...I was particularly disturbed with how easy it was for Erica to purchase a gun on the streets of New York. I have a hard time believing it was that simple and was also bothered by the scene where she asks to come into the station and identify one of her attackers in a police lime-up. She lets him go in the line-up because she wants her own revenge and the detective realizes this and says nothing. Even though we understand Erica and sympathize, it's not realistic that she gets away with everything that she does. The story is just too protective of Erica and it would have been more realistic to see her suffer consequences beyond the death of her fiancee.

On the positive side, the film features some stylish direction by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) that provides an almost poetic sensibility to some of the uncompromising violence depicted here. Jordan creates some striking images early on when we see shots of Erica and her fiancee being treated in the emergency room are juxtaposed with shots of the last time Erica and her fiancee made love. Jordan's camera eye is in serious overdrive here, creating cinematic pictures that linger with the viewer. The effective way his camera follows Erica around her apartment when she gets home from the hospital and is afraid to leave is also quite compelling. Jordan's camera nails what Erica is feeling, even if it sometimes sacrifices the realities of what she's doing.

Despite the problematic screenplay, it's easy to forgive because Jodie Foster is so mesmerizing in the central role that it's very easy to forgive the contrivances of the screenplay. Terrence Howard is also extremely effective as one of the most sensitive police detectives I have ever seen in a movie. It's a nicely internalized performance that is a perfect contrast to the flashy dramatics of Foster. Naveen Andrews also made the most of his brief role as Erica's fiancee, as did Mary Steenburgen as Erica's boss. Production values are top-notch, with special nods to Tony Lawson's film editing and Dario Marianelli's music. With a screenplay that concentrated a little more on realism and a little less on melodrama, this could have been something really special.

Possibly the most overrated film of 2018, Roma is a flawless technical achievement that falls short as a complete and engaging motion picture experience, despite its earning 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Foreign Film and Best Picture of the Year.

The film chronicles a year in the life of a young maid named Cleo and the family that she cares for in Mexico during the 1970's. Allegedly this story is based on real life events in the life of writer/director/film editor Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity). The story focuses on young Cleo trying to deal with the fact that she has become pregnant by a cocky young soldier while the family that she works for are dealing with the fact that the father has run off to be another woman. Sadly, only the mother knows the truth, the children think their father is away on business.

Not sure why, but I had a feeling that I was going to be disappointed with this film when I learned that it was distributed by Netflix, a company that seems to be more obsessed with the bottom line than supporting creativity in its most appealing form. Don't get me wrong, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this film is a textbook on how to put a story on film. I will be shocked if it doesn't win the Oscar for cinematography because the film is absolutely gorgeous to look and white photography that enhanced the beauty of what was being presented. Cinematic photographs at every turn that produce vivid cinematic emotion inside the viewer.

Cuaron also scores in his casting of an unknown in the lead role, which heightened the authenticity of the story. I also loved the actress who played the mother and the nominations both actresses received are deserved. The idea of using a minimal music score is usually something that works in independent films, but this was a rare instance where the lack of music was a detriment to the story not an enhancement.

The utilization of visual motifs totally works here, this is a director who has an innate sense of the visual onscreen, like Boz Luhrman, who will sometimes let substance fall to the wayside in the name of the visual, but unlike Luhrman, I think Cuaron puts a little too much trust in his material here, because it never really engages the viewer the way it should. A must for filmmaking students, but as a cinematic experience, it definitely falls short.

Rent Live (2019)
FOX television strikes again with a live (almost) production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Rent, mounted by the same people who brought us the TV production of Grease with Julianne Hough and last year's Jesus Christ Superstar with John Legend.

This musical, actually based on the Puccini opera La Boheme, follows a group of friends navigating carefully through the Bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village that touches on subjects like homelessness, AIDS, and drug addiction. The principal characters include Mark, an aspiring documentary filmmaker who also serves as our host and narrator, who lives with Roger, an aspiring musician who contracted AIDS from his deceased girlfriend. Roger finds himself drawn to Mimi, an exotic dancer who lives downstairs who is a heroine addict and also has AIDS. Mark and Roger's best friend, Tom Collins, also an AIDS sufferer, finds himself falling for a free spirited drag queen named Angel who has AIDS as well. And let's not forget Maureen, Mark's ex-girlfriend, a loopy bisexual performance artist who is now in a relationship with a tightly wound lesbian lawyer named Joanne.

This show has a long and colorful history that climaxed with its premier on Broadway in 1996, where it ran for over 5000 performances and won the Tony for Best Musical. It came to the big screen in a somewhat abbreviated version in 2005 with most of the original cast reprising their roles.

I love this show and I think its primary attraction is its dazzling score by Jonathan Larson and the success of the piece lies in keeping this breathtaking score center stage at all times, unfortunately the co-director of this production, Michael Grief and Alex Rudzinski really weren't aware of this and just like he did with the TV version of Grease and Superstar, Rudzinski diluted a lot of the power of the piece by filming it in front of a live audience, mostly female, who spent the majority of the production screaming so loud that it was often hard to hear what was going on onstage (apparently filmed in the same theater where they did Superstar last year). The Angel character has one terrific number called "Today for You Tomorrow for Me" that actor James Levya put his heart and soul into but we television viewers were unable to hear one word of the song because of the obnoxious live audience screaming throughout the entire number.

I wish Rudzinski had put the care into respecting the property here that he did with Jesus Christ Superstar. Here, TPTB seem to be trying to bring something new to the show, but this is a show that really doesn't need any "help", in particular, a live audience that really didn't seem to understand a lot of what was going on. They just seemed to be interested in watching Mark and Roger gyrate in their tight pants and loving on Vanessa Hudgens.

The actors work very hard in recreating these roles even if the audience doesn't seem to notice. Vanessa Hudgens is spectacular as Maureen, far superior to her performance as Rizzo in Grease as was Tinashe as the flamboyant Mimi. Kudos as well to Brandon Victor Davis as Collins, who was electrifying last year as Judas in Superstar.

The music was expertly performed and staged with "Light My Candle", "Take Me or Leave Me", "Will I?", "La Vie Boheme", "The Tango Maureen", "Out Tonight", and of course, "Seasons of Love" the highlights. There was a reprise of "Seasons of Love" at the conclusion that featured original cast members that just felt like pandering. Sonya Teyah's striking choreography also deserves a shout out, I just wish the directors had preserved the integrity of the property by filming it without the annoying live audience. It wasn't as good as Superstar, but way better than Grease.