Friday, January 14, 2022

Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST Is A Loosely Autobiographical Charmer

Opening today exclusively in the Triangle at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh:

BELFAST (Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2021)

Kenneth Branagh’s 19th film as Director, but only second as writer, is one of his best films.

Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1969, the story concerns life in the time of “The Troubles,” a long-running conflict that pitted the Catholics against the Protestants. The riots that result, as well as the reactions of the townspeople are seen through the eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9-year old who witnesses a violent mob infiltrating his neighborhood in the film’s opening sequence.

Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan), and Ma (Caitríona Balfe), have friction over whether they should relocate, as Pa commutes to England for work and wants his family with him. Ma doesn’t want to leave because she’s emotionally attached to her home since birth. More interesting is Buddy’s grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench), and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). Pop’s love advice to Buddy, harboring a crush on a classmate (Olive Tennant), oozes with wisdom and charm. I wish Dench were given more to do, but her dour appearance fits in authentically with the material.

Buddy falls into a bad crowd, well, mainly one member of a bad crowd really, Moira (Lara McDonnell) who tries to train him how to shoplift. This makes for an amusing scene in a local shop in which a frantic Buddy steals Turkish Delight, which he doesn’t even like. Dornan’s Pa has his neck breathed down heavily by the sinister Protestant rioter Billy Clanton (a perfectly cast, and effective Colin Morgan), who wants Pa (really, that’s how he’s credited) to join and be loyal to the cause.

Watching Buddy amble around his historically bleak environs may strike some as reminiscent of JOJO RABBIT, but, while there is a good deal of humor in BELFAST, it’s more grounded and less goofy. Completely different in its sentimental tone as well.

Although BELFAST is a black and white picture, it’s a nice touch that when the family goes to the movies, the scenes we see from CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, AND ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. are in color. There are other color moments as well.

The film is appropriately awash in mostly classic tracks by Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, including a new song, “Down to Joy.” The new tune is being talked about as a possible Oscar nominee, despite that it dates back to the early ‘70s. I guess because it was unreleased, re-recorded for the movie, and its title is slightly re-worded, it qualifies.

Even with feel-good contrivances such as how a confrontation with Clanton is thwarted, and Dornan’s rendition of the pop standard “Everlasting Love,” which I thought had to be someone else’s singing, but I was wrong), BELFAST is a modestly moving movie that’s optimistic about peace, families sticking together, and how childhood is a precursor to a complicated life. All of the cast are exceptional, but Hill as the conflicted kid in the middle of it all, puts in a convincing performance that provides the film with its heart. He's one to look out for.

Brangh, who considers this his most personal work, has produced a touching, loosely autobiographical period piece that ought to satisfy independent film audiences, and simply entertain whomever it happens upon. Expect BELFAST to get lots of awards season action (in fact, it already has).

More later...


Friday, January 07, 2022

The Drew Barrymore Movie That Riffed On Peter Bogdanovich’s Love Life

Sophisticated cinema connoisseur and dapper director Peter Bogdanavich, who passed away this week, inspired indie filmmakers, like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach; the many movie critics who dream and have dreamed of making movies themselves, and folks who want to wear a bandana around their neck like it’s an ascot.

But a 1984 rom com, IRRECONCIBLE DIFFERENCES, starring Ryan ‘O Neal, Shelly Long, and Drew Barrymore, then a hot commodity because of E.T., used more than an outline of Bogdanovich’s scandalous love life in the ‘70s to beef up the backgrounds of a fame-seeking married couple who are getting sued for divorce by their daughter.

Let’s start with ‘O Neal in the Bogdanovich role. This makes some sort of sense, as O’Neal starred in three of Bogdanovich films. O’Neal’s character, Albert Brodsky, earned a Doctorate of cinema at NYU, then had a thesis published which led to an offer for a professorship at UCLA. O’Neal, who plays the part perfectly with crack comic timing and a palpable on-point pathos, his Brodsky hits the road to Los Angeles to accept the job, and pursue his dream of becoming a director.


Bogdanovich also started in New York, working as a programmer of films at the Modern Museum of Art, and writing movie criticism for Esquire. In the mid ‘60s, Bogdanovich and his wife, Polly Platt (1939-2011), moved to LA to pursue his dream of becoming a director.

Both film historians Bogdanovich and Brodsky meet an influential grey-haired director/producer – in Bogdanovich’s case, cult legend Roger Corman; in Brodsky’s case, David Kessler (Sam Wanamaker) - through which they get their first big breaks.


Alongside Brodsky is Long as Lucy Van Patten, an aspiring children-books writer. While her husband is struggling with a screenplay, she works on getting her real estate license, but she quits that to help with screenplay and becomes its co-writer.


Except for the c0writing, Bogdanovich’s spouse, Platt, has little in common with her big screen counterpart. While a hitch-hiking Allen met Lucy on a muddy road out in the middle of Indiana, Peter met Polly in summer stock in New York, but they did drive across country together to the same destination. 


As Peter (I’ve decided to go with the principals’ first names from here on), learned the ropes as an auteur, Polly became a highly acclaimed production, and worked on four of her husband’s films. 


Which brings us to the filmographies of Albert and Peter. We’ll start with the fictional one, Albert. With the help of his wife, Albert’s debut, An American Romance, is a big hit, which puts him on the movie map, while Lucy is left out of the lime light. Their next film, Gabrielle, also connects with audiences, but signals the end of Albert and Lucy’s marriage when Albert falls for the actress cast in the lead. That would be Sharon Stone, in one of her first films, as the gold-digging damsel, Blake Chandler. 

Monday, January 03, 2022

Betty White: TV Legend, But Film Star? Not So Much

A few days ago, the world was saddened by the death of Betty White. The comedy icon, who had been dubbed “The First Lady of Television, passed just a few weeks before her 100th birthday leaving behind a rich body of work from her radio performances in the ‘40s to her numerous game show stints (she was on everything including The $25,000 Pyramid, Password, and Hollywood Squares), her own program, The Betty White Show, in the ‘50s (she also had a show by the same name in the ‘70s), and of course her classic roles as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on the seminal The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Rose Nyland on the popular ‘80s-‘90s sitcom, The Golden Girls, and beyond.

But what about her filmography? She’s been in a bunch of movies, but most were cameos or voice-overs. Why didn’t she ever breakthrough as a movie star? The obvious answer would be that she was too busy on the small screen, to take film acting seriously. Since everyone else paying tribute to her extensive television background, I thought we’d look at her less heralded movie history, and see what it tells me.


Alongside her tireless TV activity, White appeared in around three dozen movies. This may not be accurate as her career goes way back, and there is little information to be found about a lot of films those days.


White’s first film, TIME TO KILL was shot four years before her TV career was launched. She is credited as “Lou’s Girl” in the 1945 army training short, which is also notable because DeForest Kelley (McCoy from the original Star Trek), and George Reeves (‘50s Superman) have parts. White’s brief screen-time can be seen here, and you can find the full 2o minute and change pretty easily via Google.


According to Wikipedia, White was in a 1951 film called THE DARING MISS JONES aka WILD WOMEN. There’s not much I could deduce about this movie except that it’s about the uprising of a thousand virgin women. WHITE SIRENS OF AFRICA is yet another alternate title. White was most likely little more than an extra, as one would guess by hers being an uncredited role.

It was over a decade later that White returned to the big screen in a much more significant film than her previous film work, ADVISE AND CONSENT, a 1962 political drama based on a novel that won the Noble Prize. White played the fictional Senator Bessie Adams in a star-studded cast headed by Henry Fonda. It’s not available on any streaming service I know, but the last time I checked, the whole film is on YouTube, as is this clip of one of White’s scenes (maybe the only scene – I haven’t watched the whole thing).

Now get this, White’s next movie gig was 24 years later. I can’t tell if BIG CITY COMEDY (1986) is a showcase of sketch or stand-up comedy, I can just tell you that she was credited as “Self.” It’s listed as a documentary on IMDb so maybe it is stand-up. It hardly looks like a movie too, as it’s only an hour. I bet it’s an 80s cable special that maybe got some theatrical showings. I dunno. Let’s move on.

It was yet well over another decade before White went all cinematic again, and it was in an unexpected genre. The movie was HARD RAIN, an action heist thriller starring Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman. Most notable was that her Mary Tyler Moore co-star, Ed Asner, also appeared in the film, but I can’t remember if they have any scenes together.

It was received terribly by the critics, and it flopped harder than the rain, but White, whose part mostly consisted of bickering with her co-star Richard Dysart, got out unscathed especially since her scenes were the only ones that came close to working.


The next entry, DENNIS THE MENACE STRIKES AGAIN (1998), is a straight-to-video release so I won’t spend much time with it, but I’m most struck by the casting of White as Martha Wilson, wife of the forever put-upon grumpy old man George Wilson as portrayed by comedian legend Don Rickles, in his last film role no less.


1999’s LAKE PLACID had White again wading into unfamiliar water as it was a horror flick concerning a ginormous crocodile. It was a equipped with a capable B-list ensemble headed by Bill Pullman, but White herself could’ve been seen as B-list at the time. The movie was largely panned by critics, but it made enough to spawn five (!) made for TV sequels. I wonder if White was invited back to the franchise, but, I dunno, she may have been killed in the original.


Also that year, White was featured in Rob Reiner’s icky marriage-on-the-rocks rom com, THE STORY OF US, starring Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer. White played Lilian Jordan, the mother of Bruce Willis’s character. His father is played by Red Buttons, so here’s another case of pairing up old familiar comic farts.

Next up, White lent her voice to the live action Disney production, WHISPERS: AN ELEPHANT TALE. She voiced an elephant named Round, surrounded by yet another B-list crowd. No, I don’t mean you, Angela Bassett.

I’m going to skip over a few straight-to-video titles, and TV movies (TOM SAWYER, THE RETREIVERS, WILD THORNBERRIES), and head to a throwaway 2003 Steve Martin/Queen Latifah vehicle entitled BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE. Funnily enough, White’s character is credited as Mrs. Kline, Peter’s racist neighbor. I don’t remember her in it, or much else because this is one ultra-forgettable film. 


Even though I’m ignoring TV movies for the most part, I’ve got to mention White’s cameo in 2003’s RETURN TO THE BATCAVE: THE MISADVENTURES OF ADAM AND BURT. You can probably guess that the telefilm stars Adam West and Burt Ward as themselves in a wacky adventure that acted as a tribute to the Batman TV series of the ‘60s. There was a running gag on the show in which the caped crusaders are climbing by rope up the side of a tall building, an illusion created by the camera being turned to a 90 degree angle. During their climb, there would be a celebrity cameo in which stars like Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, Sammy Davis Jr., and Don Ho would pop their heads out of their windows to make some (often meta) wisecrack.

In RETURN TO THE BATCAVE, White fulfills the part of the brief guest starring role by opening here window to complain about Batman and Robin’s noisy ascent, then spouts out, “All night long, people going up and down the walls – it’s enough to drive you crazy!” Great writing, that ain’t. What's funnier than that is that White's credit is actually “Woman in Window During Batclimb Sequence.”


To show where she was in her career, in the 2000s she played three different Grandmothers – Grandma Sophie in THE WILD THORNBERRIES (2001), Grandma Annie in THE PROPOSAL (2009), and Grandma Bunny Byer in YOU AGAIN (also 2009).

Apart from her involvement in the animal activism (her biggest passion) documentaries YOUR MOMMY KILLS ANIMALS, IN SEARCH OF PUPPY LOVE, BETTY WHITE GOES WILD, and BETTY WHITE: CHAMPION FOR ANIMALS, the grand lady shined in a string of animated films. She contributed voice work to PONYO (2008), THE LORAX (2012), TOY STORY 4 (2019), and TROUBLE (2019), which was her final film role.

Looking over White’s filmography affirms the obvious: she was a television goddess; not a cinematic deity. Her movie roles were largely in forgettable films, many of which are unavailable or, at least, hard to find. With her brief insubstantial pop-ins in many of her film appearances, she didn’t get a chance to really strut her stuff. If only someone had written a movie vehicle for her talents. If only.

That’s okay. She left behind a vast array of quality work on the small screen that is, of course, her true legacy. She won seven Emmys, and countless other awards (including a Grammy!), so she’s not really lacking an Oscar. She probably didn’t care about that anyway. But whatever the medium, she appeared to be having a lot of fun.

My personal TV career favorite is her part as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her wicked delivery of sometimes racy, sometimes cruel, one-liners was delicious. I preferred Sue Ann to her performance as Rose on The Golden Girls. Sure, Rose was really funny, but I liked White better as a razor sharp, smart professional than as a ditz. 


If anyone has a favorite example of White on the silver screen, please speak up via the comments below. I doubt that there will be anyone speaking up though, we all know that in this business we call show, White was most at home on what used to be called “the boob tube.” Hell, she may have even coined that phrase.


More later...