Friday, November 16, 2018

Requiem for a Curmudgeon: William Goldman (1931-2018)

William Goldman so mastered Hollywood's byzantine rules that he not only became known as its greatest screenwriter, he also saw through its charades and shenanigans -- and wasn't afraid to write that, too.

When his "Adventures in the Screen Trade" was published in  1983, he was riding as high as anyone could: winner of two Oscars (for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "All the President's Men"), highly-paid and sought after both for his own screenplays and as a script doctor for others', someone whose name alone could help get a project green-lit.

But he wrote honestly and acidly about the business of Hollywood in the book, including his own travails and butting of heads with giants like Robert Redford. Perhaps not coincidentally for a place known for the phrase "you'll never eat lunch in this town again," the next few years were a downtime for him. Even "The Princess Bride," based on his beloved own novel, was a middling hit in 1987. But he hit a second stride that lasted through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Bill has died at age 87. I'm proud to say I knew him, if only a little.

He and my father, Jim, were fast friends at Oberlin College and kept in touch over the years. When I was growing up my dad would make occasional references to knowing somebody in showbiz, which I largely ignored until I was a teenager and knew I wanted to write about movies. He would always call him "Bill," as in mentioning to my mother, "Just got off the phone with Bill Goldman." And so I will, too.

I first met Bill in 1990 when I transferred to New York University to join the Cinema Studies department -- not the much larger and more heralded Film department; we watched movies rather than make them for an education. By then he was divorced and his daughters grown, so he was living alone in an expansive apartment in a Manhattan hotel.

I remember it was raining a deluge that day; my parents and I all got soaked to the skin. So we decided to eat lunch in, wearing some of Bill's old sweatshirts. I got to hoist his Oscars, which he kept lackadaisically on an old bookshelf. Many people have commented how they're much heavier than they appear, which I found to be true.

My dad was a little nervous about leaving his only son alone in the big, mean city. He gave me the phone numbers of two friends in New York City I was supposed to call upon if I had any trouble, and one was Bill's. I kept it for many years without ever using it.

That first day we spent some hours talking movies -- I'm afraid to say I probably came across as a little snotty. My tastes still ran to visual spectacles in those days, before I'd learned that I needed to learn more. Bill was polite to his friend's son, declining to tell me what an ass I was. The only hint was the inscription he wrote in my copy of "Adventures," which reads: "To Chris Lloyd, You knew all this anyway, God Bless, Bill."

Luckily, we did not leave it there.

When email dawned, I reached out to Bill and was pleased to get a response. For many years we kept up a correspondence, generally about movies but also sharing personal news and thoughts. He was one of the first people I let know when my dad died six years ago; I still remember his warm remembrance fondly.

Bill was just as direct via email as he was in person or in his writings. If Bill thought the favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar that year was piece of shit, that's exactly what he would write. We occasionally argued, but in a good-natured way.

Interesting aside: in email, Bill mostly eschewed things like capitalization and punctuation. Sentences tended to be very short or run on. Perhaps someone so used to writing in the careful formatting of screenplays craved having a sphere where he could throw out all rules.

But he always signed them the same way: "God bless, Bill."

I knew he was ill in recent years, and the death of his daughter three years ago marked about the last time we spoke. I'm glad to see the various news services giving his passing  glowing coverage. His last produced screenplay was "Dreamcatcher" in 2003, based upon Stephen King's book, and it was a commercial flop. I remember some of the reviews at the time were quite vicious in mentioning Goldman's name.

Bill Goldman was a great writer who was also open about how painful the process of writing was for him. He talked of "going into my pit" upon embarking on a new project. He often felt cut off and alienated from others. The reputation of a curmudgeon eventually formed around his persona, especially as he got older.

But as everyone else spends this time talking about his achievements as a writer, I just wanted to pay my own meager tribute to the man. His most famous saying was "Nobody knows anything," but I'm one of many who can say that this was a man who knew a lot.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"

What an utterly imcomprehensible movie.

J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" spinoff, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," was a lackluster effort that showed that successful novelists don't always make for good screenwriters. It featured a drab, uninteresting protagonist, a retread of the Harry/Voldemort dynamic of good/handsome young wizard versus the evil/ugly old wizard, and a lot of hard-to-follow CGI. Even though it only came out two years ago, I barely have any solid memory of it.

The not-needed sequel, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald," is so nonsensical that I spent the entire 2¼-hour run time just trying to figure out who was who and what was what. I still didn't have it all properly sorted by the end.

You may recall that the end of the first film, magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, still stooping and mumbling his dialogue) had battled a member of the Ministry of Magic, which acts as the law enforcement for the parallel world of wizards and witches, who was revealed to be the nefarious Grindelwald. Like Voldemort, he believes that magic-users are destined to rule the world over the non-magical Muggles, especially those of pure blood.

He quickly escapes his confinement in a daring mid-air battle, and sets about leading his revolt. Professor Dumbledore (Jude Law), the most powerful wizard in the land, refuses to take on Grindelwald himself, and begs Newt to do so instead.

"You do not seek power or popularity," Dumbledore tells Newt as the pretext of why he should do battle in his place. Flashbacks, however, reveal a friendship of a... special nature from when he and and Grindelwald were young.

(Rowling still keep insisting, in a cheap bit of post-publication revision, that Dumbledore is gay, though as a screenwriter she hasn't yet seen fit to make it explicit.)

This sets off another round of international magic-hopping, face-offs, Newt being chased by the ministry "aurors," including his own brother, and the introduction of some new critters from Newt's briefcase menagerie, including one that looks like one of those Chinese parade dragons brought to life.

Several side characters return, without good purpose. There's Newt's Muggle friend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), and his witch lady love, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Credence (Ezra Miller), a disturbed wizard everyone refers to as "a boy" even though Miller looks to be pushing 30, acts as the Macguffin everyone is chasing after because he's the key to something.

(Things are always keys to something in the Harry Potter universe.)

Katherine Waterston returns as Tina, an auror who arrested Newt in the last movie and then fell in love with him, although no one actually says so because everyone's British. This movie literally has no idea what to do with her, so she's shunted off to the sides of the action and we largely forget about her. We're to believe that she's an expert investigator, but took at face value an erroneous wizard newspaper article claiming Newt was engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) rather than Newt's brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), thus hurting her feelings.

Johnny Depp is pretty much the only interesting thing in the movie, needling and coaxing like a mythical serpent, essentially colorless with a shock of platinum hair, death's-head pallor and mismatched eyes. As written he's merely a more charismatic version of Voldemort, but still, whenever he's onscreen you can't take your eyes off him.

The opposite can be said for Newt, who's just as bloodless and boring as the last time around. It often happens that the protagonist of a story, especially one with a fantastical backdrop, is made to be less interesting than the whiz-bang supporting characters and villains, acting as a familiar anchor for the audience to relate to.

But Redmayne's Newt is just a drip. The fact that he's caught in a raging storm of impossible-to-follow subplots and eye candy makes it understandable that he's swallowed by his own story.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: "Wildlife"

“Wildlife” features some truly wonderful actors plying their craft at the highest of levels. And I didn’t believe a one of them for a cold minute.

This drama set in 1960 stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a youngish couple whose marriage is fracturing. Ed Oxenbould plays their sensitive 14-year-old son, Joe, who is forced to sit a front row seat to the slow, raucous dissolution. The film is based on the novel by Richard Ford, unread by me.

In stories of this kind we’re used to a lot of repressed emotions and raised voices behind closed doors. In the Hollywood view of this period, America was a cloistered place where people didn’t like to publicly air their dirty laundry. Things like marital estrangement and infidelity were swept under rugs.

Here, the film takes things so far to the opposite end it strains credulity to the breaking point, and beyond.

Not only do Jeanette and Jerry Brinson (Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, respectively) make no effort to hide their growing war from Joe, they actually enlist him as a participant. He sits in on their arguments and is explicitly asked to offer an opinion or take sides.

Later, the grotesquerie will grow even more overt, and less believable.

The Brinsons move around a lot because Jerry is always chasing the next big thing. He was recruited to be a golf pro at the club in Great Falls, Montana, but soon loses the job because he’s too “familiar” with the guests. (Read: he gambles with them.) They quickly offer to take him back, but Jerry’s pride is hurt and he refuses. Soon he’s doing little more than lounging on the couch, listening to ball games on the radio and sipping an endless parade of beers.

Jeanette is outwardly supportive of her husband’s lackadaisical job search. She even takes work herself as a swim instructor, and Joe gives up football to work in a photo studio afternoons after school to help make ends meet. 

That changes when Jerry agrees to take a job fighting the fires that seem to rage every year in the vast Montana forests. It will take him away from the family for weeks on end, which Jeanette views as a betrayal of sorts. She imagines him dallying with women, and uses that as justification for stepping out on her own.

The target of her amorous energy is an unlikely one: Warren Miller, a much older man played by Bill Camp. Balding, portly, bespectacled and walking with a pronounced limp, Warren isn’t much to look at. But he owns a car dealership, so Jeanette views him as a trade up from Jerry.

This is the directorial debut of Paul Dano, a very offbeat and good character actor, who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with actress Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”).

The biggest problem with “Wildlife” is never giving Joe any kind of distinct identity. His role is to just be there and witness the turmoil. Many stories use a character of this sort to be the audience’s lens to look at the real subjects, in this case Jerry and Jeanette.

But Joe isn’t even much of a real character. He doesn’t seem to have any interests, or motivations, or thoughts, or personality. There’s a girl who takes an obvious interest in him, but Joe sort of shrugs her off and the movie forgets about her.

There’s one scene in “Wildlife” that’s make-or-break. Jeanette puts on her “desperation dress” and takes Joe with her to have dinner at Warren’s house while Jerry is away. It’s an exquisitely awkward event. Mulligan skillfully shows us Jeanette’s obvious intention: to throw herself at Warren. For his part, Warren doesn’t appear disturbed about initiating the affair in her son’s presence, even offering fatherly advice.

I can’t for the life of me fathom people who would act like this. The problem isn’t that the film presents characters who are beyond comprehension; it’s that it doesn’t even attempt to explain these people to themselves.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Video review: "Alpha"

One of my greatest pleasures as a critic is pointing people to wonderful films they may have missed. It’s cool to review the latest blockbuster, but nothing beats helping others find movies they might not have otherwise.

“Alpha” is a rousing prehistoric adventure tale that presumes to depict the first cooperation between humans and canines. It’s a gorgeous film with great production values, convincingly portraying Europe circa 20,000 years ago.

Kodi Smith-McPhee plays Keda, a youngster on the verge of manhood. He’s been picked by his father, the chief of their tribe, to participate in a buffalo hunt for the first time. It’s the unofficial rite of manhood, since it involves a long, arduous journey and a dangerous encounter that will determine whether they have enough food and furs to survive the coming winter.

When Keda is injured and separated from his people, he must find his way back on his own. After fighting off a pack of wolves, he nurses the one he stabbed with his knife back to health. He names the animal Alpha, and after some initial antagonism, together they begin the long trip home.

Director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt craft a story that is part spectacle, part coming-of-age tale. The humans speak in an ancient language with subtitles for our benefit. The movie almost doesn’t need them, because you can usually discern Keda’s thoughts without his speech. He communicates with Alpha through hand motions, whistles and eye contact.

It might be too intense for younger children, but “Alpha” is a great adventure story for the whole family.

Bonus features are quite good. The DVD has two making-of short documentary features: “The Wolf Behind Alpha” and “Boy & Wolf.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add two more: “Building the World” and “A Hero’s Journey.”

The Blu-ray also boasts a new director’s cut of the theatrical film, plus three deleted scenes with commentary by Hughes and an alternate opening and ending with commentary.



Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review: "The Grinch"

“The Grinch” is bright, joyful, goofy and largely misguided.

Personally I always liked the darker undertones of Dr. Seuss’ tales. The Grinch is literally green with envy, a nasty old crank who looks down on the perpetually happy denizens of Whoville, while obviously wishing he could join in their caroling and merry-making.

He has to find his bottom before he can grow -- three sizes, heart-wise.

This new animated version jettisons much of the nastiness of the book, 1966 television special and 2000 live-action version starring Jim Carrey. He’s sad rather than loathsome, more worthy of pity than scorn. I certainly can’t imagine someone writing a whole song about how mean he is.

Dratted, he’s even nice to his dog, Max. He still makes him pull the sleigh, but it’s not all that hard and he gives lots of praises. “You’re the best dog a Grinch could hope for,” he practically purrs.

There are lots of changes from the original story. (Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney directed by a screenplay adaptation by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow.) Instead of being an outcast, Grinch is a member of the community who occasionally drops into town to buy groceries. A flashback places him at the Whoville orphanage as a lad, and it’s possible he’s actually a Who himself. I noticed they all have furry faces, though not so hirsute as the Grinch’s bounteous neon body hair.

Though, in one of the better throwaway jokes, it’s suggested that Grinchy is going gray and the green is a dye job.

Grinch is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s proven himself to be a true vocal chameleon who can do both this and the dragon Smaug from the “Hobbit” movies. He lives in his vast mountain cave lair, getting about mostly by automatic chair. In his iteration he’s essentially a brilliant inventor throwing together contraptions to serve his whims.

Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), the adorable little girl who helps teach Grinch the spirit of Christmas, even gets a backstory as the daughter of a harried single mom (Rashida Jones). She hatches a scheme to capture Santa on Christmas Eve so she can ask him to help her mother out, recruiting her friends to rig cookie traps. I don’t think Cindy Lou thought this out very well.

There’s lots of boingy action and kiddie-friendly humor thrown in to pump up the entertainment quotient. For instance, there’s a mountain goat that just randomly screams instead of braying. And an apprentice reindeer, Fred, who’s immensely fat but willing.

“The Grinch” is one of those movies that comes along, entertains children and is soon forgotten by adults.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Review: "Boy Erased"

“Boy Erased” is a little too self-important for its own good, but it boasts emotive performances and a generally sensitive look at how some people struggle to reconcile their religious tenets with the reality of people who believe they were born gay. It’s essentially one belief system vying against another.

This is the second drama in the last few months about the controversial practice of “gay conversion therapy,” in which people attend intensive retreats administered by church groups to “cure” their same sex attraction through a mix of Bible teachings, pseudo-science therapy and even alleged psychological and physical abuse. Some minors have reported being held against their will, and there are instances of them committing suicide as a result of the practice.

It’s outlawed in 14 states and, as the end titles make explicit, the filmmakers would really like their movie to be a vehicle for banning it in the other 36.

I was put off by this sort of brazen electioneering, especially since the movie I had just seen took pains not to depict all people of faith as bizarre loons.

Writer/director Joel Edgerton adapted the story from the book by Garrard Conley, chronicling his own two weeks in the Love in Action conversion program as a teenager in 2004. Lucas Hedges, a surprise Oscar nominee a couple of years ago, cements his acting chops playing Jared Eamons, an All-American kid from Arkansas who struggles with his burgeoning homosexuality.

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe play the parents, Baptists who wear crosses and try to live by the literal word of the Bible. They seem to have a good life. They’re a close-knit trio, prospering under dad’s Ford dealership. He also preaches in their church. Mom wears a blonde bouffant and a perpetual smile, plays the role of dutiful wife and mother but clearly has a strong sense of self.

When they get a call from someone at Jared’s college outing him, his parents threaten to throw him out of their house and their lives unless he agrees to the therapy recommended by their pastor. It seems OK at first, a 9-to-5 set of workshops in which there’s lots of support and loving the sinner while hating the sin. The other attendees seem just as lost as Jared, but determined to “lean into” the therapy.

But cracks soon start to show. There is crying and browbeating glimpsed on the fringes. Jared’s personal items are confiscated each day, and pages of his journal torn out to be inspected for troublesome thoughts. Jared is especially jarred to learn the month-log program is just an assessment period; some people move in and stay for a year or more.

Edgerton himself plays Victor Sykes, the man running the program. He’s not an out-and-out villain, more a guy in over his head who thinks he’s a great coach but is steadily running the team into the ground. He has a system for breaking down gay kids in order to build them back up again, but he only seems to have thought out the breakdown part.

Truly terrifying is Brandon, a tattooed ex-con played by bassist Flea. He’s the “scared straight” portion of the program, though Brandon is clear in expressing that his problems did not extend to same sex attraction. His main job is to literally teach the male attendees to act manly, e.g. not crossing your legs and having a firm handshake. Triangles are the strongest shape, he instructs.

“Boy Erased” is best when it focuses on Jared’s increasingly extreme experiences at the therapy program and his fragile relationship with his parents, especially his dad. Flashbacks to his early gay encounters are fitted in rather awkwardly.

The movie also doesn’t make much of an attempt to illuminate the interior lives of Jared’s fellow attendees. He and Jon (a darkly charismatic Xavier Dolan) keep starting conversations that never really go anywhere. I kept expecting them to initiate a secret friendship or even a relationship, but the movie misplaces this dynamic.

It’s still a worthwhile film, one that doesn’t treat either gay kids or Christians as cartoon figures, all bright lines and easy answers.

Review: "The Happy Prince"

I sometimes imagine what Oscar Wilde would be like if he lived in our age. My guess is he would be the king of Twitter, dicing up issues of the day in devastating short poems, or host of a late-night talk show where he would bring on guests of a more intellectual bent than Stephen and the Jimmys, exchanging bon mots and some light flirting over martinis.

In the 1890s Wilde was the leading literary figure in England, dashing off popular plays, books and verse at a staggering pace. He was also a major star of what we would now call pop culture, a must-have on the upper crust social circuit.

That all came crashing down when was convicted of a crime for his more-or-less open homosexuality in 1895, especially an ongoing affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. He served two years of hard labor in prison, and endured a penurious existence without the benefit of fortune or fame until his death in 1900 at age 46.

It’s this period that “The Happy Prince” chronicles. It is written, directed and stars Rupert Everett, who I did not recognize throughout the course of the movie. It’s a devilishly charming and deeply tragic performance, a look at a genius laid low for the crime of being who he was.

Self-pitying, manipulative and self-centered, it’s a portrait of Wilde that tries to show both his enormous talents and evident flaws.

He shambles about Paris and Italy, living off the generosity of his few remaining friends, such as agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and actor Reggie Turner (Colin Firth), a meager allowance from his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson) and whatever he can beg or grift.

The story moves backward and forward in time, with glimpses of a vibrant Oscar at his prime, standing on stages before rapt audiences. We also see him immediately after getting out of prison, when he thought he was at his lowest, and also when he falls even lower. He does little writing, spending his time and meager funds on absinthe, cocaine and dallying with pretty boys.

Things grow tense when his former lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan) turns up and they rekindle their relationship. Oscar knows that he lost literally everything he cared about to Bosie’s family, but he can’t resist his pull. For his part, Bosie is a spoiled rich boy who enjoys being the most important person in the world to a great man.

The title comes from one of Wilde’s tales, which he used to tell to his young boys as a sad bedtime story. He writes letters to Constance begging her to take him back, though we suspect this has more to do with wanting to be in money again.

His affection for his estranged sons seems genuine, though, and he semi-adopts a pair of street urchin brothers as stand-ins. Ever a prisoner to his vices, though, he occasionally has sex with the teenage one.

The dialogue is beautiful and intricate, bits of actual Wilde writings intermixed with words that sound like something he would say. Everett issues much of this in a gravelly purr that is both evocative and often hard to understand.

“The Happy Prince” is the tale of the deeply unhappy last days of Oscar Wilde. He was a victim of his times, but also of his own avarice for pleasure and self-idolatry. One of our greatest talents was treated cruelly, especially by himself.