Thursday, April 30, 2015

Helen Hunt Takes a RIDE

Filmmaker Helen Hunt proves to be a subtle revolutionary.  RIDE is a worthwhile new movie about love and letting go.  In it, she whacks Hollywood ageism and female body-shaming upside the head with a surfboard.  The Oscar-winning actress stars in, wrote and directed Ride.
Yes, I am one of the millions watched Mad About You, the 1990s NBC sitcom, because I loved Helen Hunt's smart comedy style.  She blended that comedy style with dramatic depth to fine effect in James L. Brook's As Good As It Gets co-starring Jack Nicholson and Greg Kinnear.  The effect was so fine that she won the Oscar for Best Actress of 1997.  Hunt directed a few episodes of Mad About You.  She made her feature film debut as a director with 2007's Then She Found Me, a comedy/drama about adoption and birth parents.  Perhaps that film was a bit on the Lifetime TV side, but I felt that Hunt got one of the best, most honest performances out of Bette Midler since her Oscar-nominated 1979 work in The Rose.  She got Midler to do less and be the character.  Helen Hunt's second outing as a director is called Ride.  She should be proud of herself.  It's good.  Like James L. Brooks has done, she directed the film and wrote the screenplay.   Like Shirley MacLaine's Aurora Greenway in Brooks' Terms of Endearment, Jackie is a loving, single mother in middle age who refuses to cut the umbilical cord.  For divorced Jackie, a book editor in Manhattan, the cord stretches coast to coast -- from New York City to Santa Monica, California.  Angelo, her handsome and agitated son, loves her but he needs distance.  He's a freshman at New York University but he drops out of NYU and flies to the beaches of L.A.  His father lives in L.A. with his new wife.  Angelo wants to be a writer.
Jackie secretly follows her son to Southern California, bringing her uptight, blunt New York City attitude with her to the laid-back and relentlessly sunny culture of the West Coast.  We don't see any luggage but we know she's got some emotional baggage.  We know this from the brisk, intellectual way that mother and son bicker.  We also see their closeness when they bond to watch Young Frankenstein on TV.  Why won't she let go?  Why does he get such a wounded puppy dog look on his face when she challenges his need for separation?  Her goal to follow the son not only takes her to Los Angeles but she goes as far as to put on a wetsuit and follow him into the Santa Monica surf.

Keep in mind that she dearly loves him.  And she expresses this in non-traditional mom ways such as saying to him, with deep affection in her eyes, "You are the least shitty person that I know."  She doesn't have a car.  Her driver, Ramón, becomes a constant companion who helps her at the beach.  He's a totally cool and respectful dude played perfectly by David Zayas, the handsome and huggable bear of a versatile actor who some may recognize as having been a cast member on HBO's prison drama series, Oz and Showtime's Dexter.  Like Jackie. Ramón is a single parent.



The chemistry between actress/director Helen Hunt and David Zayas is so good that I hope they reteam in another project.

Jackie, being a typical concrete jungle New Yorker, has that extra dose of confidence that makes her believe there's nothing on the West Coast that she can't handle and do better than Californians do.  That changes when she needs to learn how to surf.  This sets us up for that always fascinating moment when the know-it-all parent is smacked down to a child-like level of cluelessness and is forced to shut up, listen and learn.  She gets her share of aches and pains but the surf lessons from no-nonsense Ian, played smoothly by Luke Wilson, are quite the learning experience.  He says, "I'm 37."  She replies, "I'm...not."

Here' a trailer for Ride.  By the way, Helen Hunt is 51 years old.  Brava, Ms. Hunt.

I mentioned the brisk way mother and son have of bickering in this movie.  It's fast and sophisticated dialogue -- like the mother and daughter bickering in James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment.  Brooks directed Hunt to an Oscar victory in his As Good As It Gets.  I bet she learned from and was inspired by his writing and directing style.  Just like in those two movies, we're laughing at a mother's way of mothering while trying to get through her daily life.  Then a serious matter comes up.  Like the ocean water,  there's more than what you see on the surface.  Getting to that matter is a little choppy, writing-wise.  I think we needed a scene with Angelo's father.  But Hunt's final scene on the surfboard brings it all together.  She delivers a funny, moving, honest performance.  Her skills as a director have grown considerably since her first outing.  Is it a great film, a classic like Terms of Endearment?  No.  Is it an entertaining film?  Most definitely.

Jackie's scenes with Ian were a sweet revolt against Hollywood ageism.  Brenton Thwaites plays Angelo, the son.  Let's face it -- he's a nice, trim box of eye-candy.                
I was absolutely thrilled to see that his summer romance was not a skinny, light-headed beach babe.  He went out with the girl who had some meat on her bones and some brains in her head.  Thank you, Helen Hunt!
That's what I meant about filmmaker Hunt being a subtle revolutionary.

When Jackie asked Ian what he wanted of his mother when he was in his 20s, he answered "For her to want nothing of me."  Hunt wrote a beautiful line there that resonated with me.  Do not think this Ride story is so far-fetched.  I grew up in Los Angeles and longed to get away so I could find my own life and hear my own voice in my head more than I heard my mother's. I wanted an on-camera TV career in New York City.  I started my professional TV career in Milwaukee after graduating from a university there.  Can you guess who left L.A. and moved to Milwaukee where she repeatedly reminded me that I was meant to be a writer instead of an on-camera TV talent?  You're correct.  My mother.  Sometimes there's no wackier or funnier fiction than real life.

This new movie has three other stars but they weren't seen onscreen.  Excellent work came from editor William Yeh, cinematographer Jas Shelton and the late surf cameraman Sonny Miller.  Miller died of a heart attack last year after completing Ride.

Ride -- from actress, director and screenwriter Helen Hunt -- opens Friday, May 1st.










Monday, April 27, 2015

Miscast ADULT BEGINNERS

Back in the 1990s, after my three years as a daily network talent on VH1, an agent with the William Morris Agency in New York City took me on as a client.  I told him what kind work I wanted.  For film and TV acting, I felt I was perfect to be the wisecracking best friend to the handsome male lead.  Remember Sleepless in Seattle?  My former VH1 co-worker, Rosie O'Donnell, played the wisecracking best friend to Meg Ryan's female lead character.  I wanted the male equivalent of the Rosie role.  The agent submitted me to audition for a romantic comedy.  But he submitted me to play the handsome male lead, the guy the gorgeous girl falls for.  That was wrong.  I should've auditioned for the role of his funny best friend.  As Suzanne Vale says in Postcards from the Edge, "I'm built more for comedy."  Needless to say, I did not get a callback after that audition.

That brings me to the miscasting of actor Nick Kroll as the lead in ADULT BEGINNERS.              
He plays Jake, the first person we see and the leading man in the story.  He's the self-absorbed, hotshot entrepreneur in New York City who's pushing his new tech gadget onto the marketplace.  At the hipster launch party, he addresses the guests with "When I look around this room, I see so many people that I love.  For their money."  His guests laugh.  Soon, the laughter stops.  His high-tech headgear flops.  Nick later admits "I lost all my money and then some."  He also lost other people's money because guests at that party invested in his project.  Jake is flat broke and in a desperate situation.                                            
He turns to a sibling in New Rochelle, New York.  Relations are a tad strained between Jake and his sister, but they do love each other.  He asks if he can "stay for a few months and look after Teddy."  Teddy is her sweet toddler.  Rose Byrne plays Jake's sister.
When I had a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, one of my dearest friends was having a hard time and needed a place.  I took him in for a few months and he gladly slept on my sleeper sofa.  Jake's sister  is tentative about taking her brother in for just a few months.  It's not like she's in a one-bedroom apartment.  There's just her, her husband and 3 year old Teddy in a suburban house big enough for Maria, Captain von Trapp and all the von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music.  Jake, as you can expect, becomes sort of the uncle nanny to little Teddy.  While being a good man-nanny, he meets a gorgeous babe.

Instant sexual attraction and there's regular sexual gratification.  Or so the script would have you believe of this couple.  By the way, who plays Jake's brother-in-law and Teddy's papa?  Handsome, macho, magnetic Bobby Cannavale.

Here's a photo of Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne and Nick Kroll.  I do not mean this to be snarky.  I write this as someone who felt he was submitted to play the wrong part in a romantic comedy years ago.

Nick Kroll should've been cast as Teddy's dad.  Look at him in the photo and look at Cannavale.  Nick Kroll is not the lead male who attracts a hot babe.  He'd be the dorky blind date who'd say to his handsome best friend, "No.  She's never going out with me again.  She'd rather have Edward Scissorhands as her gynecologist than see me again."

Plus, Cannavale just has the big screen leading man charisma than Kroll does not.  Nick Kroll is popular on Comedy Central in sketches on his Kroll Show.  But he can't yet carry a feature film in which he's positioned as the sexy leading man who's funny and attracts a luscious young lady.  It especially doesn't work when he's opposite supporting player Bobby Cannavale as a suburban man who wishes his wife showed more sexual interest in him.  I don't blame Kroll.  The script needed work.  Adult Beginners is like a comedy we'd have gotten in the 1980s when "yuppies" were in season.  It would've been a better comedy starring someone like a young Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton,  Bill Murray or Robert Downey, Jr.

Cannavale, as the young dad who discovers he'll be a dad again, would've added needed juice and snap to this feature had he been cast as the Jake character.
We discover why there's been a bit of a rift between brother and sister.  Of course, being the uncle nanny will teach Jake that family is more important than tech gadget success in Manhattan.  Overall, how is the movie?  I sat through Adult Beginners so that you don't have to.  It's mediocre.  And miscast.    Also, exceptional actors are wasted in small parts that must have taken one afternoon to shoot.  Some of those actors are Jane Krakowski as the singing swimming instructor for adult beginners, Joel McHale (NBC's Community sitcom), Celia Weston (Cameron's "Mother Tucker" on Modern Family and Lillian Hemmings on American Horror Story) and Bobby Moynihan (Saturday Night Live).

For a much better comedy/drama about the importance of family and siblings repairing their relationship, rent The Skeleton Twins.  It's one of my favorite films released last year.  It's funny, touching and surprising.  You'll be moved and impressed by the dramatic work of the two leads -- Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, both formerly of Saturday Night Live.
He plays the gay brother emotionally healing from a suicide attempt and she's the unhappily married sister.  Beautiful performances.  Ty Burrell has a supporting role.   TV's Modern Family star gave his dramatic acting muscles a fine workout.  I felt the truth of this story and the performances.  I connected to Hader's character.

Because of the Great Recession, I was in a desperate situation and needed to be taken in by a married sibling in a big house in the suburbs.  But I couldn't really connect to characters in Adult Beginners even though Jake says "I just don't want to start over again."  I've been there.  But Adult Beginners skims the surface and really doesn't go into much depth.  The script needed more truth and more comedy.  And better casting.  The movie opened last Friday and it's available on VOD.











Reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Like many of you, I can probably recite from memory exact lines of dialogue from the 1962 movie classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  I love that film.  I cherish that film.  I wish one of the three senior networks -- ABC, CBS or NBC -- would air the film annually in prime time the way it does It's a Wonderful Life and The Ten Commandments.  I truly feel that seeing Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning performance as attorney Atticus Finch could be significant family viewing once a year nowadays.  We need films like this.
I had not read the Harper Lee novel in quite a long, long time.  This year, I've been reading again.  Wow.  It still packs one helluva punch.  Reportedly, Harper Lee based her novel on the injustice in the Emmett Till murder case.  Young Till was like the mockingbirds that Atticus speaks of in the film.  And in the book.  A chubby, funny and likable Chicago youth of 14, he was visiting relatives in Mississippi.  Emmett Till was accused of whistling at a white woman.  Two men kidnapped him, beat him beyond recognition, shot him, tied him up with barbed wire and dumped his body in a river.  There was a murder trial.  Till's 1955 lynching got national news attention.  Despite major evidence of their guilt, the two men were acquitted by the all white, all male jury.  In the early Civil Rights days, this murder case intensified the Civil Rights movement.  It's been written that Rosa Parks said she thought of Emmett Till when she refused to move to the back of the bus.

Harper Lee's novel was published in 1960.  On screen, we see Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, the black man unjustly accused of hitting and raping a young white woman raised by a racist, abusive father.

People in that small Southern town feel that Atticus is committing a crime by defending a black person and treating a black person as an equal.  He's called "nigger lover."  Atticus' children sit upstairs in the courthouse's segregated sections for black people and watch their father do a difficult and important task.  Think of it.  Segregation in a courtroom.

If you've seen the movie with its excellent and faithful screenplay adaptation by Horton Foote, you've seen the talented Brock Peters as Tom.  Tom Robinson has a disability -- besides that of being a poor black man in the Deep South.  This is from the novel's Chapter 18:  "His left arm was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side.  It ended in a small shriveled hand, and from as far away as the balcony, I could see that it was no use to him."

Scout is the narrator.  Reverend Sykes tells Jem and Scout that Tom Robinson got his arm caught in a cotton gin when he was a boy.  He almost bled to death.  We, the readers, know from this that Tom Robinson was child labor.  Child slave labor.
It's the end of Chapter 24 that made me gasp.  It made me gasp in this current age of the shooting death of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Eric Garner, the man in New York whose last words were "I can't breathe."  In today's national news, there's the Baltimore story of protests over the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in police custody.  The 25 year old Gray died of a severe spinal cord injury.  Tom Robinson, in custody for a crime he did not commit, tried to run for freedom and climb over a fence.  If he'd had two good arms, he may have made it over the fence.  The paragraph following Atticus' sad news announcement that "They shot him" makes you feel Harper Lee's novel could've been published early this year instead of 1960.  It spiritually marches with today's national protests declaring "Black Lives Matter."  Read Atticus' account of how physically disabled and innocent Tom Robinson died.

In that same Chapter 24, Miss Maudie states the help needed from the other people in the community like Atticus:  "The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord's kindness am I."

To Kill A Mockingbird, a story that takes place in 1935 in a small Southern town, is still relevant.  If you've never read the book, give it a chance this spring or summer.  There is humor and sentiment and tenderness in the novel.  There is also racial frankness, the stink and bile of bigotry and a plea for tolerance.  There are subsets, if you will, of racism.  Mr. Dolphus Raymond is a character in the novel who didn't make it into the screenplay.  He's a loner in the town who has bi-racial children.  Even if you look white, you're still discriminated against.  Because if you have one  drop of Negro blood in you, you were considered Negro.  There's also black-on-black anger.  In Chapter 12,  Calpurnia, the maid in the Finch household, causes friction when she brings Jem and Scout to her church.  Some black  folks feel that white children are not welcomed in their house of worship.  There's also religious bigotry.  It's mentioned that the Ku Klux Klan has gone after Catholics.  Keep in mind, this book was published in 1960.  In 1961, John F. Kennedy would be elected as America's first Catholic President of the United States.  Harper Lee's novel is challenging stuff.  It has grit.  In these modern times when issues of race and fairness and equality still need to be discussed, this story holds up.  That goes for the novel as well as the film.
This summer, we'll see the publication of a second novel by Harper Lee -- one, we've been told, that she wrote in the mid-1950s before her international best seller.  Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee hits bookstores on July 14th.  Actress Reese Witherspoon will read the audiobook.

"...The older you grow the more of it you'll see.  The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is the courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box..."  ~Atticus Finch to his children in Harper Lee's novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

John Travolta is THE FORGER

You get an art history lesson in THE FORGER, the new John Travolta drama.  "It's what a person does for you that counts," says a Boston grandfather to his teen grandson.  The father, played by Travolta, is fresh out of prison.  Granddad was a con man and a petty thief.  He's still got skills.  Dad is the forger, but he's more a good guy than a thug.
He'll become part of a plan to steal an original Monet from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts so he can get a bundle of money and take care of his son.  The kid has cancer.
The three live a real blue collar section of Boston.  When tough Ray Cutter (Travolta) gets out of prison and is picked up by a shady looking buddy for a ride home, you just know he'll be involved in a crime again -- because we've seen that scene in movies already.  That's the main criticism about The Forger.  You feel like seen it before as a movie or as an episode of a one-hour cop show TV series.  Even though the kid having cancer feels like a screenplay gimmick, it does allow for a different element in this kind of story.  And John Travolta does show that he's still a good actor.  The last two times I saw him in movies, he was the bad guy.  Travolta was the villain in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and then he was the crooked federal agent in Oliver Stone's bloody Savages.  He was very good in that bad Oliver Stone crime story.  Now he's the jailbird we root for because he's risking prison time again for the love of his child.

Travolta has some good moments.  About one hour into the action, Ray studies the extraordinary work and unique style of French Impressionist Claude Monet so that he can forge a classic Monet painting on display in Boston.  A friend of mine viewed a Monet in a Paris museum.  He told me that no photos were allowed to be taken of it and the atmosphere in the room in which the Monet hung was very reverential.  He himself was in awe of Monet's genius.  He said, "It was like he deconstructed light."  John Travolta was quite good as Ray trying to enter the mind and soul of Monet in order to capture and copy his painting style.  Ray's forgery is exceptional.  But if Ray's art forgery is known to be so exceptional, why did he hang with those low-level crooks?  Earlier in his life, why didn't he take his skills and upgrade his life doing artwork for a Boston ad agency, a noted area theatre company or a magazine?  I wonder if the screenwriter thought about that.
Travolta's scenes with Tye Sheridan as his ailing son were all heartfelt.  I wonder if the actor drew emotionally on his relationship his late son for truth in those scenes.  Screen veteran Christopher Plummer stars as the grandfather.  Captain von Trapp from The Sound of Music drops the F-bomb a few times in this movie.  As usual, Plummer is fun to watch although there's little for him to do but act crusty.  Father, son and grandfather bond when all three are involved in the Monet painting art heist.

That sequence tickled me a bit.  Christopher Plummer, cool dude that he is, turned 85 last year.  For the late night art heist scenes in the art museum, he's dressed all in black like he's in Ocean's Eleven.  Who brings an 80-something guy along to be part of a complicated art heist in a huge museum late at night?  Find a Monet?  Yeah, but first let him find a men's room so he can urinate frequently.  He's 80-something, for goodness sake!  And what if security guards enter and they have to run?  Heck, I'm surprised Granddad could even stay awake after 10pm to pull off that art museum job.

Here's a trailer from The Forger starring John Travolta and Christopher Plummer.
The son has three wishes -- one is to meet his mother.  Ray hasn't been the best father and he's painfully aware, because of his son's illness, that time is fleeting and it's also precious.  Travolta's performance is fine in this drama that just average.  The Forger opens April 24th nationally and can be viewed On Demand.

If you want to see one of the rare movies in which John Travolta plays a cop on a case, I've got a DVD rental tip for you.  He made a crime drama based on true life, notorious murder case. The film was never released nationally.  I don't know what happened.  It was made and screened at one arthouse movie theater in New York City for a week or two.  Travolta starred as a New York detective in the 1950s and his partner was played by James Gandolfini during his years of fame on The Sopranos. 
 In LONELY HEARTS, the two homicide detectives are on the trail of Martha Beck and her lover, Raymond Fernandez.  They were known as "The Lonely Hearts Killers" because they found their victims through personal ads.  The two serial killers were played in a 1969 black and white, low budget  indie movie that I highly recommend.  The Honeymoon Killers boasted a blazingly good performance from Shirley Stoler as Martha (Stoler was full-figured like Beck) and Tony Lo Bianco as Ray.
Salma Hayek isn't plus-sized like the real murderess, but she's so bat-shit crazy and sexually uninhibited as Martha in Lonely Hearts that she practically sets the screen on fire.  She's lovely and lethal.  Her con man lover is played by Jared Leto.  I thought he was really good as Ray.  Jared Leto now has an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (winning for 2013's Dallas Buyers Club).  Here's a Lonely Hearts trailer.
Lonely Hearts is worth a look and it's better than The Forger.  It's available on DVD.





Wednesday, April 22, 2015

He Gave Us TWO WOMEN

Here's a quick, brief post on Vittorio De Sica, a renowned foreign filmmaker whose work I have loved and been moved by for decades.  I've studied his work.  First of all, he was a dashing and talented film actor, one adept at both comedy and drama.
His gifts as a director were extraordinary and innovative.
Vittorio De Sica was one of the pioneers in Italy's neo-realism film style.  He directed The Bicycle Thief (1948), a true classic.  I dare you not to shed a tear watching this story of a poor single father in Italy who needs a bicycle to work and feed his little boy.  His bicycle is stolen.  I first saw this beautiful feature in one of my college film courses.  I've grown to love De Sica's classic even more since then. The Bicycle Thief is a perfect film to see on Father's Day -- because it's about a father's love and sacrifice.

There's another neo-realistic classic in his list of credits -- De Sica's poignant 1952 meditation on old age is called Umberto D.  An elderly man survives in Italy solely on his pension.  He faces eviction.  One of his closest companions is his little dog.
I absolutely love a tender little love story he directed.  It's one that doesn't get mentioned a lot but it's rich in its compassion and warmth.  1956's The Roof (Il Tetto) follows a poor newlywed couple that tries to put a roof over its head.  The bride and groom don't have a home.  She was so poor that she borrowed her wedding gown  They rely on the kindness of relatives to put them up after the wedding.  You'll love the bride and groom.
                   
They must outwit local authorities to get a place.  The newlyweds' dream of a humble, almost pitiful, little place with a roof in the low-rent section of town.  That place would be heaven on earth because they'd be together and starting a new life.  I love The Roof.
Earthy and working class characters in De Sica movies like The Roof, Two Women and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow always remind me of everyday people I saw and knew when I was growing up in South Central Los Angeles.  They were ordinary people with extraordinary resilience.

In my previous post, a piece on actress Sophia Loren, I wrote that Vittorio De Sica directed her to an Oscar victory.  He directed her in a number of films and seemed to draw the essence and best of her out more so than any other director.  He directed Two Women, for which Sophia Loren won the Oscar for Best Actress of 1961.
He directed Sophia in Marriage Italian Style  He also directed her in 1963's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow -- three stories in which Sophia plays three different women with her wonderful co-star and friend, Marcello Mastroianni.  It's three looks at moral attitudes.


De Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is the movie in which Sophia Loren does her celebrated stocking striptease.  Marcello's funny and she's yummy in that scene.
De Sica directed another drama now considered a classic -- the critically acclaimed foreign film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970).  A wealthy, intellectual Italian Jewish family lives a peaceful aristocratic life.  A Jewish man from a lower classic falls in love with one of the wealthy daughters.  He's treated like an outsider.  But it's the 1930s and Naziism is on its evil rise, devouring Europe and taking Jews of all classes as prisoners.

Vittorio De Sica directed landmark foreign films.  He gave us classics.  His films won Oscars.  But he was never nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.

He got one Oscar nomination in his remarkable film career and that was in the Best Supporting Actor category.  Vittorio De Sica, seen to the far left in the photo below, was one of the best things about the epic but lukewarm 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms.


Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones were the stars.  De Sica didn't direct it.  He just acted in it.  And he got the only Oscar nomination the big prestige film earned.  But De Sica had directed Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift in 1953's Indiscretion of an American Wife.

Vittorio De Sica never got an Oscar nomination for Best Director.  Hard to believe.


Notes from Alice Faye and Don Ameche

If you're a fan of the late, great queen of Broadway...that legendary belter, Ethel Merman, then be sure to watch Turner Classic Movies ...