Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They’re not John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But their marvelous performances in La La Land will remind you of those famous teams as they bring to the screen something magical. The singing and dancing are terrific, but it’s La La Land’s love story that carries the film.
Stone’s Mia is an aspiring actress who spends her days as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot, handing out lattés to the stars. Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own place, but pays the rent as a restaurant pianist. Their situations are sure to resonate with millennials, many of whom are underemployed in hum-drum jobs while continuing to pursue their dreams. In that respect, the film delivers a positive message – hold onto those aspirations.
The film gets off to an exuberant start with an opening that channels Grease. Stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, motorists exit their cars onto the highway and dance (really dance, with flips, twirls, jumps and other acrobatic feats) while belting out a tribute to L.A., “Another Day of Sun.” Damien Chazelle, the film’s director, writer, and choreographer, shoots this dance number, and others throughout the film, in one long take, something we haven’t seen since the days of Astaire and Gene Kelly. Without taking breaks, the pressure is on the actors; Gosling and Stone rise to the occasion. Besides the dancing, Gosling’s skills on the piano (these segments are also shot without a break), are impressive. (Gosling learned to play jazz piano in a short space of time, much to the amazement of co-star John Legend.)
When those cars finally get moving, Sebastian honks at Mia and gets an obscene gesture in return. The second meeting is just as bad, but we know that sooner or later these two are destined to become a couple. Getting there is half the fun, with several dance numbers that are totally enjoyable while also advancing the story line.
Mia ditches dinner with her boyfriend, an arrogant corporate type, to join Sebastian at the theater. Together they watch Rebel with a Cause, one of several nods to classic Hollywood. The attraction between Mia and Sebastian builds slowly, lending a sweetness to their courtship, especially in their duet, “City of Stars.”
On the career side, we witness the frustrations for both Mia and Sebastian as the cards seem to be stacked against them. During one audition, Mia delivers a heartfelt performance, her eyes welling up, while the casting director takes calls and then quickly dismisses her. Sebastian is fired from his restaurant gig for playing jazz rather than traditional Christmas music. (The boss is played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Whiplash, also directed by Chazelle.)
Opportunities soon arrive, although not the ones Mia and Sebastian were expecting. Keith (Legend) taps Sebastian for his band. Despite Keith’s success, his choice of music, along with the band’s hectic touring schedule, creates a dilemma for Sebastian. Mia accuses him of selling out, abandoning his dream to settle for a well-paying job. She’s determined to pursue hers, renting out a theater to put on her one-woman play. Failing to fill the seats, she’s on the hook for the rental with nothing to show for her efforts – or so she thinks.
Stone’s expressive face is a joy to watch, particularly in one of the last scenes when she sings her way through an audition with “The Fools Who Dream.” She doesn’t have Barbra Streisand’s voice, but the emotion she shows in that performance reminded me of “My Man,” the final song in Funny Girl. It was a goose-bump movie moment. Gosling, too, is an irresistible presence on screen. He can, of course, act, as we’ve seen in so many of his past films. But watching him morph into a musical star is thrilling.
Will La La Land be an anomaly for Hollywood? Or will we see more original musicals? We can only hope.
Photo credit: Dale Robinette courtesy of Lionsgate
Mel Gibson is back with a vengeance, directing a World War II drama based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who goes into battle without a rifle and ends up saving the lives of 75 soldiers. Gibson, who won an Academy Award for directing Braveheart, has not directed a film since 2006’s Apocalypto. After a stellar career as both an actor and director, in 2010, Gibson suffered a series of public meltdowns. He was dropped by his talent agency and essentially treated as a persona non grata. Hollywood, however, loves a good comeback story and this film could help Gibson restart his career. While not rising to the level of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge is a riveting wartime drama that celebrates an unexpected and unconventional hero.
Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) served in World War I and emerged with a medal and a damaged psyche. After watching several of his friends die horrible deaths, he returned home and began drinking and abusing his wife. “You didn’t know him before the war,” his wife, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), says in his defense. When Tom threatens Bertha with a gun, their son, Des (Andrew Garfield), manages to take the weapon away and turn it on his father. That event becomes a tipping point in Des’s life, leading him to embrace his religion as a Seventh Day Adventist, eschew all forms of violence, and vow never again to touch a gun.
Teresa Palmer and Andrew Garfield
Des discovers his medical talent when he saves a man’s life by using his belt as a tourniquet. While at the hospital, he meets an attractive nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he vows to marry. Initially reluctant, Dorothy is won over by Des’s “aw-shucks” charm and his admirable adherence to his religious values.
After his brother, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists – over the objections of his father – Des feels obligated to do his part, signing on to become an Army medic. Des winds up in a boot camp where each recruit is required to carry a rifle and learn how to use it. While Army medics are tasked to treat those injured, they also carry weapons for protection. Des’s refusal to even touch a rifle is viewed as placing not only himself, but also his fellow soldiers at risk. An inflexible military system threatens him with a court martial. The way he escapes conviction is unusual, but, from the film’s point of view, satisfying.
Des’s Courtmartial Hearing
Des’s unit is sent to Okinawa, where a battle is raging on a rocky, desolate plateau dubbed Hacksaw Ridge. Taking the territory would allow the Allies to score an important victory against the Japanese, but the battle will be bloody and costly. Remember the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, showing Americans landing on the beaches in Normandy? That scene was mild compared with the relentless battlefield carnage we see in Hacksaw Ridge. Limbs are blown off, guts spilled, and Japanese soldiers incinerated with flame throwers. In the midst of this human destruction, Des continues his mission, treating and rescuing as many soldiers as he can. With each wounded soldier he finds, he does what he can, applying tourniquets to staunch bleeding, administering morphine to deal with pain. He drags each wounded soldier to the lip of the ridge and slowly lowers them to the ground below using a rope, that, while knotted improperly, still does the trick. Running on fumes, he returns again and again to find someone he might have missed, praying to God to give him strength to save “just one more.” Garfield’s performance is intense. While we know that he will survive (the real Des went on to become the only CO to receive the Medal of Honor), each time he risks going back to the battlefield, we fear for his safety.
The soldiers Des saves are transported to the camp’s medical facility. Des’s commanding officer, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), is shocked to see so many from his platoon alive and being treated. When he asks one soldier, Milt Zane, nicknamed “Hollywood” (Luke Pegler), how he got out, he credits Des. Others repeat the medic’s name. When the final tally comes in, Des has saved 75 soldiers. Someone once viewed as a coward for his reluctance to carry a weapon winds up being the hero of the battle.
There are memorable performances among the supporting cast. Vince Vaughn, in a departure from his comic roles, is effective as Sergeant Howell, who bullies Des, hoping he will drop out, but winds up being saved by the medic. Weaving’s Tom Doss is a tragic figure who redeems himself and repairs the relationship with his wife and family. Seen through a present-day lens, Tom has PTSD, and Weaving’s poignant performance allows us to see his suffering. As a soldier called “Smitty,” Luke Bracey has a touching scene with Garfield. Sharing a foxhole, Smitty, who was once Des’s nemesis, finds he has a lot in common with the CO, a surprising friendship formed in the midst of war.
Young people are drawn to a cause and radicalized. They build bombs, blow up buildings, and kill people. African-Americans are marching in the streets and are beaten by the police. Sounds like present time, but Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel focused on the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, college students protested the Vietnam War, militant elements staged violent acts to drive home their anger, and cities were torn apart in the battle for civil rights.
The themes in American Pastoral still resonate, and a film that’s able to bring to the screen the similarities between what happened in the past and what we see unfolding in our country now would certainly be a worthwhile project. Ewan McGregor, in his directing debut, puts in a game effort, but the result falls short.
McGregor plays a Jewish sports star, Seymour Levov, nicknamed Swede, in deference to his light hair and complexion. The story, which sticks closely to the book, is told through the eyes of Swede’s admirer, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a writer who has spent most of his life living abroad. That plot device becomes a clumsy vehicle for moving the story forward, with flashbacks that only serve to interrupt the narrative flow. Zuckerman returns to his New Jersey high school for a reunion and reconnects with Swede’s brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), hoping to hear stirring tales about the golden-haired athlete who married Dawn, a former Miss New Jersey (Jennifer Connelly). Nathan is dismayed, not only to hear that Swede has just died, but that the life of this promising young man took such a tragic turn.
Slowly the story unfolds. Jerry becomes a heart surgeon and Swede takes over the glove manufacturing business set up in the heart of Newark by his father, Lou Levov (Peter Riegert). While other businesses begin producing goods abroad to cut costs, Swede retains his work force made up mostly of African-Americans. When protesters burn down white-owned businesses in Newark, Swede, assisted by his loyal employee, Vicky (Uzo Aduba), saves the factory by hanging out a sign saying, “Negroes work here.”
Hannah Nordberg and Ewan McGregor
The riots in the street are mild compared to what Swede confronts at home with his daughter. Merry (played by Hannah Nordberg as a child and Dakota Fanning as a teen) suffers from a speech problem that causes her to stutter. As a child, Merry is close to both her parents and eager for their approval. But when she hits the teen years, she turns on both of them. In New York, she connects with radical elements and soon disturbing slogans are showing up on her bedroom walls. Swede empathizes with her need to influence opinion about the war and encourages her to make her voice heard in her community. Merry takes him up on that challenge, although not in any way he might have imagined. There’s an explosion at the local post office that kills the postmaster, a husband, father, and popular figure in the community. Neither Swede nor Dawn can accept that Merry is responsible for such a violent act. The postmaster’s wife doesn’t blame them, but she makes a prophetic comment: her family will heal, but the Levovs will never recover from what their daughter has done. Indeed, Swede will spend the rest of his life looking for his daughter, hoping against hope to prove that she was brainwashed and not responsible for her actions. Meanwhile, Dawn will suffer a nervous breakdown and blame her husband for everything wrong in her life.
While the casting cannot be faulted, the performances are not what we might expect from such experienced actors. McGregor seems wooden, his reactions not nuanced enough to reflect the various levels of hurt and outrage he must be feeling as his life begins to unravel. Connelly does her best with what she’s given, but her downward spiral is too abrupt and therefore not entirely believable. Similarly, Merry’s transformation from dutiful daughter to revolutionary happens in a nanosecond: one minute she’s happily flipping burgers in the family kitchen, the next she’s hurling them at her parents along with vitriolic words. The best performance belongs to Riegert, who perfectly captures Swede’s loyal father and Merry’s even more loyal grandfather.
Molly Parker plays Merry’s therapist, whose advice should have sent the Levovs rushing for the door. Yet, they continue family counseling, a decision that will place Merry in danger. Valorie Curry seems to be making a career out of playing creepy, fanatical groupies, most famously as Emma Hill in Fox TV’s The Following. Here, as Rita, a fellow revolutionary, she becomes the link between Merry and Swede. There’s a cringe-worthy scene where she tries to seduce him.
What the film does get right is how far a parent will go to protect a child, even one who has engaged in criminal activity. Swede can’t accept that his daughter, his flesh and blood, is responsible for killing people. He also can’t absolve himself of the guilt that somehow he’s to blame for the choices she made. These are tough questions, and the film doesn’t attempt to answer them.
American Pastoral opens nationwide October 21, 2016.
Photo credit: Richard Foreman courtesy of Lionsgate
When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010, it became the largest ecological disaster in U.S. history. Eleven men died, another 17 were injured, and after the rig burned and sank, millions of gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The damage to marine life and ecosystems is still being felt today. Directed by Peter Berg, Deepwater Horizon is the pulse-pounding retelling of the catastrophe. While the special effects are astounding, the human stories are what draw us in.
Mark Wahlberg, Kate Hudson, and Stella Allen
Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean, was being leased by BP to find and drill oil wells in the Gulf. That April the rig was positioned 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana above a well called the Macondo Prospect. When the film opens, we see Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) the chief electronics technician, having breakfast with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen), before heading off to spend 21 days on the platform. Sydney is obsessed with dinosaurs and her father’s job, helping to bring up the oil created by those prehistoric beasts. There’s a not so subtle preview of the tragedy. A soda can and straw that Sydney has put together to simulate drilling explodes.
Dylan O’Brien and Mark Wahlberg
Most of the actors play the real life characters who worked on the rig. The notable exception is John Malkovich’s character, Donald Vidrine, a BP official who becomes the story’s bad guy. The drilling is behind schedule and Vidrine pushes the Transocean crew captain, Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell), and other workers to speed things up, taking risks that will ultimately doom the operation.
Berg foreshadows the rig’s problems with shots showing what’s happening underwater. (To truly understand what went wrong, read the New York Times story that inspired the film.) Absorbing all the technical details isn’t essential; it soon becomes clear that the pipes won’t be able to hold all that pressure building up below. Soon mud starts to gush from the well, spraying nearby workers and covering the windows of the drill shack so those inside can’t see what’s happening. As dire as the situation appears, the crew had been trained for dealing with blowouts and there was still time to seal the well and prevent an explosion. Human error came into play, however. Technician Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), asks her supervisor about hitting the button that would seal the well. He orders her not to do so, saying they don’t have the authority to make that decision. By the time Mr. Jimmy arrives on the bridge, it’s too late.
Although there were many heroes who risked their lives saving others, the film focuses on Wahberg’s Williams. After finding Mr. Jimmy, who was in his room taking a shower when the explosion happened, Williams works to free another worker with a serious leg injury trapped under debris. Williams then convinces Fleytas to jump into the flaming ocean. They, along with many others, are pulled onto the nearby ship, the Bankston. Mr. Jimmy calls the roll and 11 men are not there to answer. Those who survived kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Kurt Russell and Ethan Suplee
Deepwater Horizon has much in common with another film about a true life disaster – Titanic. Like that luxury ocean liner, the floating drilling platform was a technological marvel. Both were behind schedule and tried to make up for lost time by speeding things up and taking risks. In the two situations, human error played a factor. Safety measures that might have prevented a disaster were not used. Improper training for a worst case scenario was lacking. There were not enough lifeboats in either situation and the ones that were there were not used properly.
What the Deepwater Horizon doesn’t show – and what would have made for dramatic footage – is the impact the spill had on marine life in the Gulf, all those exotic birds covered in crude oil. Six years later, scientists are still assessing the damage.
Deepwater Horizon opens nationwide September 30, 2016.
Every year, like clockwork, Woody Allen releases a new film. And it seems like the quality of his films keeps getting worse. Café Society brings in the usual: The big name stars, the idyllic setting, two people falling in love. These elements are usually enough to do the trick, but Allen has somehow run his creative streak into the ground. Simply put, Café Society is plagued by creative fatigue, dull characters, and side plots that take away from a film that is almost one big side plot in and of itself.
Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) comes from a Jewish New York City family. His mother, in her attempt to help get him a job, calls up her brother Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-time Hollywood agent. So Bobby packs his stuff and moves out to Los Angeles for a while. His uncle is constantly busy and doesn’t really make any time for him, but he eventually helps Bobby pick up a job. While working in his uncle’s office, Bobby meets Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and he’s immediately smitten. Vonnie tells him from the start that she can’t be involved with him beyond friendship because she has a boyfriend. What Bobby doesn’t know, however, is that Vonnie’s boyfriend turns out to be Phil. After finding out, Bobby moves back to New York City and decides to help his older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), run his nightclubs. Somehow, he manages not to get involved in his brother’s more illegal dealings. While at one of the clubs, he meets, courts, and quickly marries Veronica (Blake Lively), who just happens to share the same name as his former girlfriend. But will he ever move on from loving Vonnie?
To say Café Society lacks any true substance would be accurate. Allen continuously revives the same kinds of characters. Characters who are seeking something, or someone, they have never encountered, always in somewhat of a naive approach. The situations they’re in may be only slightly different, but this isn’t saying much because they’re always, always the same semi-pretentious, surface-level characters no matter the setting. Café Society is set in late 1930s Hollywood, with all the style and glamour that this world encompasses. Yet it feels empty, with Allen going for part cynical and part dreamy, and neither of the two working in the film’s favor. Are we supposed to have sympathy for these characters? It sure doesn’t feel that way. Every scene feels clipped and because there’s no pull toward any singular person, the film feels oddly long for a run time of only an hour and a half.
Allen’s biggest misstep is the narration. His voice carries throughout the film’s scenes, practically giving us a play-by-play of what is going on and what the characters are thinking. His narration is lackluster and is blatantly lazy writing. Instead of showing us and delving further into character development through interaction, Allen chooses to tell us. Through the narration, we also receive loads of information on things and characters that are rather useless to the plot and only serve to waste time. Café Society is filled with ridiculous and horribly cheesy lines that even all the film’s big-name actors can’t save.
Ultimately, Café Society is drab and filled with a lot of problems: Lackluster characters, bad dialogue, too many minor plots, and narration more concerned with telling and not showing. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who I’ve always found to have superb chemistry when they’re together onscreen, are particularly good. Steve Carell is the older man who gets the girl (like in many, many Woody Allen movies), but his character doesn’t bring much to the table. Far more surprising is Blake Lively’s character, who’s barely in the film and exists only to be married to Eisenberg. Together, they have an onscreen dynamic.
In the last fifteen years, Woody Allen has made a few memorable films, but the remainder have been terrible and agonizing to sit through. Unfortunately, Café Society is another addition to that very long list.
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate Top: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart