Thursday, September 20, 2018

LOVE, GILDA Doesn’t Go Deep Enough, But Is Still Adorable

Starts today in the Triangle at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Raleigh:

LOVE GILDA (Dir. Lisa D’Apolito, 2018)

ormer actress Lisa D’Apolito’s full length feature debut is a fine primer to the life and career of comedy goddess Gilda Radner (1946-1989), who as we hear the voice of David Letterman say at the outset “was the very first chosen for the cast of Saturday Night Live.” But while it works as an overview for newcomers to Radner, folks who grew up with the woman’s work may find that it glosses over too many details to really be the thorough and essential portrait that she deserves.

Largely narrated by Radner herself via audiotapes she had recorded while writing her 1989 autobiography “It’s Always Something,” and various interviews; LOVE GILDA touchingly also features some of her many modern day disciples such as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and Melissa McCarthy reading from her diaries.

As images of Radner and her notebook handwriting animatedly fill the screen, we see her go from being a chubby kid living in Detroit that loved to play act (“I’d be glued to the television, and then I’d go act out things like it in the backyard”) to becoming a stage performer in Toronto getting her first major job in a 1972 production of the religious musical 
Godspell, the cast of which included Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, and Paul Shaffer.

After stints in the Second City improvisational troupe, and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Radner’s big break was, of course, joining the line-up of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in 1975. 

Her popular characters such as Weekend Update commentators, the confused, elderly Emily Litella (Radner: “I was the first one to ever say bitch on television, and the censors let me do it because they said it was a nice, sweet old lady saying it”), and the obnoxious, big-haired Roseanne Roseannadanna, along with Patti Smith-esque punk rocker Candy Slice, and Barbara Walters parody, Baba Wawa, made her famous and won her an Emmy.

Along the way we see that Gilda dated a lot – she once complained that it was hard to watch GHOSTBUSTERS because she had dated each of its three leads – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. She also had an on again/off again relationship with Martin Short in the pre-SNL days (Paul Shaffer: “They were some form of power couple, but it was comedy power”). Her brief first marriage to rock guitarist G.E. Smith goes by in a blur.

Montages of clips from her SNL appearances, merge with many photos of her from the era set to a bouncy disco beat as this was the glitzy late ‘70s entertainingly enough, but when the film comes to Radner’s one woman Broadway show it doesn’t give enough context. As many SNL folks were involved, the production was seen by many to be a competitive effort towards her fellow cast members Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers project to the point in which Paul Shaffer had to choose sides and lost out being in THE BLUES BROTHERS movie.

But this isn’t discussed in this biodoc, nor is that the resulting record and film, GILDA LIVE, flopped. Except for HANKY PANKY, the comic thriller that she made with later husband Gene Wilder in 1982, her film career isn’t given much space either. But in a 90 minute biodoc that’s understandable as her filmography wasn’t that stellar and ended on a sad note with her second collaboration with Wilder, HAUNTED HONEYMOON being a critically lambasted dud.

The last third of the film, dealing with Radner’s fight with ovarian cancer, is unsuprisingly quite sad. If hearing her on tape begging for her health, and bemoaning the loss of her hair doesn’t get you, the video she had made of one of her chemo sessions in which she is as chipper as she can be surely will. Even in the middle of such severe circumstances, Gilda could still come alive and light up a room on camera.

As it’s filled with so many pretty pictures, loving memories, and funny footage of Radner, there’s a lot to love in LOVE, GILDA even if it doesn’t go as deep as this comedy geek would’ve liked. I don’t know if I was hoping for the intense lengthy examination that Judd Apatow did for Garry Shandling (HBO’S THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING) or what *, but what the woman contributed to pop culture certainly could stand up to that sort of scrutiny.

But the takeaway from this film is that it finds Gilda to be forever adorable, and, despite the tragedy of her death at 42, D’Apolito’s biodoc offers ample evidence that she had a blast making people laugh throughout her all too short life.

*Radner’s last major appearance was actually on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1988.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

THE WIFE: The Great Woman Behind The Not So Great Man

Opening today at an art house near me:

THE WIFE (Dir. Björn Runge, 2018) 

Oscar speculation is high for Glenn Close in her role here as the wife of a famous writer who has just won the Noble Prize for Literature. Jonathan Pryce portrays her husband, the pretentious Professor Joe Castleman, who jumps up and down with his spouse, Joan, on their bed when he gets the news via a phone call in the middle of the night.

The couple fly to Stockholm for the awards ceremony, and on the flight are approached by a sly Christian Slater as journalist Nathaniel Bone, who is determined to be Joe’s biographer. Annoyed, Joe shoes him away, and even discourages him from talking to their son, David (Max Irons) as he returns to his seat.

Amid the parties and intense adulation for Joe, one can sense that something is off about their relationship – much in the way of Close’s subtle reactions to the attention her husband is receiving. David, an aspiring writer himself, feels like his work is largely dismissed by his father, and shows his discomfort at tagging along with his parents to this event.

Bit by juicy bit, we learn through flashbacks in which we see the young Joan, played by Annie Starke, as a writing student at Smith College. Her professor Joe (Harry Lloyd) recognizes Joan’s talent, and it’s obvious that she’s the one with the gift as he leaves his marriage for her, and she helps him complete his first novel or basically fixes it as she notes that his characters are wooden and his dialogue unconvincing.

Slater’s Nathaniel suspects this, and over drinks with Joan, tests out his theory. We also learn of Joe’s affairs over their 40-year relationship, and how Joan looked the other way.

Close’s performance is stoic yet layered as Joan maneuvers through her husband’s world of critical praise as the Noble ceremonies go on, and her discomfort is palpable when she listens to Joe’s acceptance speech in which he says “Without this woman, I am nothing” and attempts to paint a picture of her as his most valued muse. This disgusts her and she leaves the building with her bemused husband following, hoping to get her to come back.

It’s a “behind every great man, there’s a woman” scenario, but the man here, portrayed by Pryce in one of his finest roles, is far from great. The premise involving the long suffering lady being the real one responsible with the work that has given her lover great acclaim has been explored before in such films as IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES, BARTON FINK, and, more recently, BIG EYES, but THE WIFE doesn’t tread over the same ground as it has its own 
elegant, thoughtful, and at times an acidic approach, one that makes for absorbing emotional drama. 

Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 book of the same name, Jane Anderson’s sharp screenplay tells a tale of resentment lurking under a highly cultivated facade, and Close plays every note with poise, grace, and an inner, yet detectable, sense of what Joan has gone through in her life, and how she finally needs to confront it.

Close definitely deserves the Best Actress Oscar this time; it’s hard to believe she’s been previously nominated six times and has never won (that’s more noms without a win than any other actor). Her performance as Joan Castleman here is so masterful that it’ll be impossible for the Academy to ignore.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Of Puppets And Puzzles

These two vastly different movies open today at multiplexes (and some art houses in PUZZLE’s case) near us all:


(Dir. Brian Henson, 2018) 

This movie, directed by a son of Jim Henson no less, about felt getting filthy, is getting savaged by critics but it’s not really that bad. It’s a premise that’s not exactly new – i.e. underneath the warm and fuzzy front is the sleazy, foul mouthed, and raunchy side of show biz * – but it has its moments largely due to its cast made up of Melissa McCarthy, puppeteer Bill Barretta, Joel McCale, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks.

The plot revolves around the serial killings of a ‘80s TV show, The Happytime Gang, which Barretta voicing the burnt out private detective Phil Phillips is partnered with McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards to investigate.

Now it’s a pretty standard film noir-ish scenario which isn’t very interesting on its own, but it moves along briskly aided by a bunch of crude sight gags and tossed off one-liners. 

There are good some good ideas batted about such as the bigotry that puppets face from humans but it really doesnt do much with that, and I wish the material was more inspired than jokes like the “asshole says ‘what?’” running gag that was old when it was used in WAYNE’S WORLD two decades ago, but for a throwaway comedy in these dog days of summer, I’ve seen a lot worse.

* Some folks are crying that this movie is a rip-off of Peter Jasckson’s MEET THE FEEBLES, which incidentally is on YouTube in its entirety right now. You
’re welcome.

And now for something completely different:

PUZZLE (Dir. Marc Turtletaub, 2018) 

Kelly Macdonald (TRAINSPOTTING, GOSFORD PARK, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Boardwalk Empire, among numerous other notable credits) is superb in this story of a lonely woman finding her niche by putting together jigsaw puzzles with an eccentric Indian inventor (Irrfan Khan *).

Macdonald portrays Agnes, an awkward Connecticut housewife, with two college aged sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams), and a mechanic husband (David Denham, best known as Roy, Pam’s ex-fiancé on The Office US), who is given a 1000-piece puzzle of a world map for her birthday, and finds that she has a skill for putting it together quickly.

Agnes visits a puzzle shop in New York to buy more puzzles and sees a flier that says “Champion desperately seeking puzzle partner.” She takes home the number in one of the film’s most charming moments she texts “Hi. My name is Agnes. I think I might be good at this. Puzzles I mean.” Her nervousness is priceless here as it’s her first text ever as she was just given an iPhone by her son for her birthday.

Agnes soon meets up with Robert (Khan), who lives in a spacious apartment in the city, and they pull their puzzle-making talents together for a shot in a competition. Agnes keeps that she’s going to work on puzzles with Robert secret from her husband, telling him she’s going to help her Aunt who broke her leg a few times a week. As one might guess, a romance develops between Agnes and Robert, whose poetic philosophy regarding puzzles makes Agnes swoon (hey, it won me over too), but it’s handled with such poignant precision that nothing cringe-worthy happens.

PUZZLE is a quiet, lovely film with a gentle, thoughtful screenplay by Oren Moverman (JESUS’ SON, I’M NOT THERE, LOVE AND MERCY). Macdonald, who should really be a household name, puts is a highly affecting performance in service of an ultimately uplifting story in which all the pieces fit together perfectly (the movie is called PUZZLE so, of course, I’m gonna work in a line like that).

So the bottom line on these two new movies is that unless you’re looking for cheap laughs, skip the filthy puppets and seek out PUZZLE. I bet you’ll be glad you did.

* Khan is also an actor who should be a household name - he's done many films for Bollywood, Britain, and Hollywood including roles in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, LIFE OF PI, and JURASSIC WORLD. A film that I highly recommend of his is THE LUNCHBOX (read my review).

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