Coco Before Chanel (2009)

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Before Chanel no. 5 and the interlocking Cs, and before the iconic quilted bag and the classic Chanel suit there was Gabrielle Chanel, an orphan whose unorthodox fashion sense revolutionized the way we dress. And in the French film (with English subtitles) Coco Before Chanel we learn of Coco Chanel’s early years.

Gabrielle Chanel’s life began quite humbly. As the film commences, young Gabrielle Chanel, along with her sister, are left at a Catholic orphanage by their father. Though Gabrielle’s childhood seemed bleak, she did learn how to sew, and the simple austerity of the nun’s habits influences her design aesthetic. Years, later and now played by Audrey Tatou, Gabrielle is working as a seamstress at a dress shop and singing at a cabaret with her sister.

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While singing in the cabaret, Gabrielle meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a man of considerable wealth. They strike up a friendship and he bestows her with the nickname, Coco, the name of a song she and her sister often sing. Before long Coco becomes his erstwhile mistress. She thinks his wealth may be beneficial in improving her life. Before long she is living with Balsan at his country estate.

Coco isn’t in love with Balsan, yet she bristles when he calls her his “geisha” and doesn’t appreciate when he tries to keep her hidden in the kitchen when he’s entertaining guests. Coco is not the type of femme to be ignored, and she finally asserts herself and introduces herself to Balsan’s friends.

One of Balsan’s friends is an actress and former lover Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos). Emilienne grows fond of Coco, and is quite intrigued by her odd dress sense. At a time where women wore elaborate dresses and hats, overdone with lace, ribbons, plumes, flowers and other accessories, Coco’s simple, menswear-inspired designs were truly avant garde. But Emilienne grows to love Coco’s look, and begins to support Coco’s fashion endeavors.

At this time Coco also meets and falls in love with one of Balsan’s friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy English man. Boy adores Coco but he won’t marry her. He is betrothed to another. Not surprisingly, Coco is not happy with this news, and she makes sure Capel provides with enough money to set up her own dress shop. Coco may never share his last name, but she’ll be damned if she gets nothing out of the love affair.

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Throughout the film, we get brief flashes on Coco’s fashion influences. She cuts up Balsan’s ties, suits and shirts to fit her petite figure. She lounges around in men’s pajamas. While at the sea, she notices the fishermen’s striped jerseys, and soon they become part of her look. In another pivotal scene, we see Coco at a dress shop, administering instructions to the shopkeeper on the kind of dress she wants, black, and no corset underneath. Voila, the little black dress, the mainstay of every woman’s wardrobe, is created.

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It is these moments I wish Coco Before Chanel would have focused on. Only rarely do we get to see Coco become the Coco Chanel in scenes where she is draping and cutting of fabric, making hats and finding inspiration for her designs. I do wish the film focused more on the emerging designer, and not the romantic melodramatics among Coco, Balsan and Boy Capel. The romantic melodramatics stunted the film, and made it come across like another costume drama you might find on PBS. This narrative isn’t exactly original, and if Coco Chanel was anything it was original.

Though I’m sure Coco’s personal life was interesting, I wanted it in smaller doses. It was Coco’s ascent as a fashion designer and laser-focused work ethic on creating her clothing and her brand that I wanted to see. We do get a brief glimpse of this at the end when Coco presents one of her collections at her atelier in Paris. But these scenes are all too fleeting. Perhaps what is needed is a sequel, Coco After Chanel. Mais oui?

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No Impact Man (2009)

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We recycle. We carry our groceries in cloth bags. We shop local farmers’ markets. And we’ve even traded our traditional light bulbs for long-lasting, energy efficient spiral fluorescent bulbs. We do the best to reduce our carbon footprint and be more ecologically-sound. Still, we know we’re making an impact on our planet. Could we possibly make no impact?

Colin Beavan, a Manhattan-based writer, decided to become more “green” and lessen his family’s impact on the planet. In fact, he wanted to make no impact at all, thus becoming “No Impact Man.” Beavan began his experiment in 2006 and blogged about it soon gaining media attention from both the New York Times and Good Morning America. And his (and his very patient family) journey is captured in the Justin Schein and Laura Gabbert documentary No Impact Man.

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Beavan’s experiment went a bit further than most of us would be willing in the pursuit of making no impact. He and his family lived without electricity, public transportation, driving, television, toilet paper (yes, toilet paper) and new clothing other than the bare necessities. Beavan rode his bike everywhere, bought local produce at the farmers’ market, walked up countless stairs instead of taking the elevator and composted food scraps.

Along for the ride is Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, and their adorable toddler, Isabella. Not surprisingly, Michelle is less than thrilled with her husband’s grand scheme. She’s a writer for Business Week, and is a girl with a yen for Starbucks and retail therapy. But she loves her husband, and figures she can do this experiment for a year even as she goes through serious caffeine withdrawal, and expresses her desire for another child.

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Not quite sure what he’s getting into, Beavan embraces his experiment with giddy zeal. Using no toilet paper? How exciting! And it’s not long before his blog gets media attention. Though some people find his experiment intriguing and inspiring, many write him off as an affront to capitalism, abusive towards his family and a smug, humorless yuppie. Or as Michelle plainly puts it, “They’re calling us bourgeois fucks.”

Beyond the media attention, things don’t always run smoothly. Beavan and his wife bicker about having another child. Milk gets spoiled when the family relies on using two clay pots for refrigeration. And remember, no toilet paper, which makes them subjects for ridicule.

But still, the family soldiers on in their quest to lessen their impact on the environment. It’s not long before they find out that some things about their experiment are pretty cool. They enjoy spending time at the park and riding their bikes together. Even an old-school games of charades turns out to be more fun than a night in front of the boob tube watching reality TV.

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No Impact Man can at times be exasperating (no toilet paper), but you can’t help but come away with some more awareness. It helps that Beavan (and his family) is rather likable, frustrating, yet likable. Sure, Beavan can be a bit rigid, but he’s no finger-wagging scold. He knows what he’s doing is experimental. Sure, Michelle whines at times (that must be the caffeine withdrawal), but she’s no bitchy shrew. In the end, you see a family that truly loves and appreciates each other, and you also learn a few things. Shop at local farmers’ markets? Why yes. Stop using toilet paper? You’ll get my Charmin Double-Ply when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

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Blame It On Fidel (2006)

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It’s 1970s France, and little nine year old Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey) lives a charmed life. She resides in Paris with her journalist mother, Marie (Julie Depardieu), lawyer father, Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) and little brother, Francois (Benjamin Feuillet). She is adored by her grandparents who make their home in a grand estate in the French countryside. As Blame It On Fidel begins, we see Nina at a family wedding, outfitted in an immaculate frock, and schooling her lesser cousins on the proper way to cut a piece of fruit with a knife and fork.

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However, Nina’s life is about to get topsy-turvy. Her father, originally from Spain, takes in his sister and her daughter after his brother-in-law disappears under Franco’s fascist regime. Doing this alters Nina’s parents’ priorities. Fernando begins to focus his new radicalized politics on his law practice. Marie, stops writing superficial articles for Marie Claire, and begins to write articles about serious women’s issues, including the thorny topic of abortion.

Nina doesn’t care about any of these things. She just knows her life has been changed completely. And she doesn’t like it. Her beloved nanny, Filomena, is let go only to be replaced by a string of different nannies (including one who provides the title of the film). Her family moves from their huge home to a cramped apartment. Bearded, smoking radicals are always around taking up her parents’ time. And Nina is removed from her beloved religion class at school.

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The movie is seen mostly through Nina’s nine-year-old eyes. She doesn’t care about what’s going on in the world. She just wants things to go back to the way they were. Sure, she’s self-absorbed, but so are most children. They want security and stability. They don’t care about “sticking it to the Man.”

And what makes Blame It On Fidel most effective is how it is shot at a child’s eye level. This is most evident when little Nina is dragged along with her parents to take part in a political demonstration. All Nina can see are legs, arms and feet. She is too small to see the faces of the protesting adults. And when things get out of hand, and tear gas fills the streets, you feel Nina’s fear and confusion.

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Blame It On Fidel is superbly directed by Julie Gravras, herself the daughter of lefty movie director Costas-Gravras. This is a film that could easily be grim and one-dimensional  but a has wry humor and a bittersweet sentiment. Nina’s parents may want to change the world, but their love for her will never waver. And perhaps once Nina gets older, she will realize this.

All the performances are wonderfully acted. But Miss Kervel-Bey is astounding as young Nina, her serious face and intense eyes conveying so much. With a lesser talent, Nina might come across as bratty and spoiled, but Kervel-Bey gives this young character a heart and soul the movie so richly deserves.

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Blame It On Fidel is not rated, and is in French with English subtitles.

Guilty Pleasure Movies: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

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In 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Vince Lombardi High students love rock ‘n’ roll, but they don’t seem too interested in getting an education. The leader of these wayward students is Riff Randall played by PJ Soles (whatever happened to her?). Riff is a huge Ramones fan and would love for them to play at her school. Unfortunately, she has Principal Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) to deal with. Principal Togar hates rock music and vows to keep it out of the hallowed halls of Vince Lombardi High. After all, how can students concentrate on studying for finals when they’re too busy cranking up the Ramones to ear shattering decibels? Principal Togar recruits horrified parents to burn the offending records, which inspires Riff and the rest of the students take over the school. They are joined by the Ramones who are made honorary Vince Lombardi High students. Finally, the police are summoned and they demand the students evacuate the school, which leads to one hell of a finale. Hmm, my high school years certainly weren’t this explosive.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is loads of fun and boasts a kick ass soundtrack. It’s the perfect guilty pleasure flick for anyone who has wanted to stick it to the man, or in this case, the principal. When you wanna rock, reading, writing and ‘rithmetic can wait.

Saving Face (2004)

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In writer/director Alice Wu’s inter-generational family comedy Saving Face, Michelle Krusiec plays Wil (short for Wilhelmina), a medical resident without much time for a life let alone romance. The only social life Wil seems to have is at Chinese-American gatherings in Queens where people try to set her up available young Chinese-American men.

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However, Wil has a secret. She’s a lesbian. And at one of these gatherings she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), another lesbian who is also a dancer. Sparks fly between the two women, and slowly their flirtation turns into a romance. However, Wil isn’t quite ready to come out to her family so the romance has to remain a secret much to Vivian’s chagrin (and it doesn’t help that Vivian’s father is also Wil’s boss at the hospital).

In Saving Face, Wil’s mother (Joan Chen) also has a secret, but it won’t stay a secret for long. She’s in her forties, widowed, living with her parents…and pregnant. And she’s not exactly too forthcoming on the man who fathered her child.

Bringing shame onto the family name, Wil’s mother (known as Ma) is kicked out of her parent’s home. Knowing nowhere to turn, she ends up on Wil’s doorstep, and Wil takes her mother in, wondering how she’s going to keep her romance with Vivian a secret and deal with Ma’s impending late in life motherhood.

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As Ma’s belly grows, Wil learns more about her mother, seeing her more as a flesh and blood woman with her own desires and needs. However, this doesn’t exactly inspire Wil to come clean to her mother, and she tries furtively to keep her relationship with Vivian a secret. To be knocked up out of wedlock is one thing; to be a lesbian is quite another. What will the neighbors think? Actually, it’s one of Wil’s neighbors who tries to get her to face herself and Ma.

But will this happen soon enough? When Vivian announces she’s been offered a chance to dance in Paris, Wil realizes she needs to make a decision. Come clean, and admit her romance with Vivian, or remain closeted and let Vivian go. In other words, save face (yet lose someone she truly cares about).

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And Ma must also make some major decisions. One is opening up about who’s the father of her child, a man that superficially, might not seem suitable. And this decision must be made soon before Ma makes the disastrous mistake of marrying someone she doesn’t love just to give her unborn child a name.

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Saving Face examines how we balance the old world (when Wil is with her grandparents she speaks in Mandarin) with a “modern society” (unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality and careerism). And in like any other family, the families in Saving Face are flawed, yet loving. Saving Face may remind viewers of the sleeper hit My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. And though Saving Face is a bit predictable, its good performances and sweet charm make it worthwhile viewing.

The September Issue (2009)

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To a lot of us, fashion seems like a fluffy and superficial profession. But to countless fashion insiders everywhere it is a deadly serious business. This is a business where people know the difference between puce and plum, and where hemlines and necklines are of utmost importance. And that cute handbag you just bought from Target? Quite likely it’s a knock-off of a pricier designer handbag a fashion editor claimed was the “must have” of the season.

And there is probably no more important fashion magazine than American Vogue. At the helm is the British ex-pat Anna Wintour and Vogue is the bible to fashionistas everywhere. And no issue of Vogue is more important than the mammoth September issue, chock full of fashion and beauty layouts, articles, celebrity profiles and yes, lots and lots of advertisements.

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Documentarian RJ Cutler (The War Room, which focused on the 1992 Clinton presidential campain) turns his unblinking camera lens to the creation of the 2007 September issue of Vogue in the documentary The September Issue. The September Issue follows Wintour and crew as the September Issue begins with some nuggets of ideas to a fully-formed magazine on the newsstand.

The September Issue begins with Wintour reflecting on the power of fashion and how it can make some people nervous. Known mostly for her whippet-thin figure, swingy bob and dark sunglasses, it was a bit jarring to hear Wintour speak. Sure, she’s not warm and fuzzy, but there is a reflective side to her that makes her quite human.

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During the film we see Wintour meeting with staff to discuss the issue. We see her jetting off to London, Paris and Rome to attend fashion shows and meet with designers. Wintour can make or break a designer with one raised eyebrow so I wouldn’t be surprised if even established designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld felt a bit nervous about meeting her. But when Wintour likes a designer she is behind that person 110%. Wintour was an early supporter of Thakoon (one of Michelle Obama’s fave designers). Her support of him, dare I say it, is almost sweet.

Wintour is also the editor that put celebrities on the covers of Vogue over models, and the chosen celebrity for this September issue is British actress Sienna Miller. Sienna comes to the Vogue offices and is outfitted in beautiful couture gowns, many which will end up in the magazine. However, the staff is flummoxed by Miller’s hair, which is growing out awkwardly, and not quite up to the magazine’s standards. Later, Wintour is not happy with Sienna’s photo layout shot by legendary photographer, Mario Testino, and the design staff scrambles to make a viable cover.

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Though Wintour is at the top of the Vogue heap, she is not alone in making Vogue what it is. In September Issue, we get to meet editor-at-large (literally) Andre Leon Talley, the cape wearing and Vuitton-loving male Auntie Mame who seems to be employed to kiss Wintour’s skinny ass. I can’t imagine what Talley actually does for the magazine, but he definitely added a fun element to the movie. If he didn’t exist, a Hollywood  would have to create him.

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And then there is the brilliant creative director Grace Coddington. Coddington started out as a fashion model in the swinging sixties. But after suffering a horrific car crash, Coddington turned her talents to fashioned a role behind the camera. Coddington is the yang to Wintour’s yin. If Wintour is all about commerce and wondering if it will sell, Coddington is all about art and creating beautiful and over-the-top fashion layouts that are all fantasy.

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Not surprisingly, Wintour and Coddington don’t always see eye to eye. As the issue is being put together, Coddington is creating a 1920s Parisian cafe society fashion layout inspired by the designer Galianos. Coddington’s vision is pure magic, yet Wintour is not pleased with one of the photos, and wants it deleted. Coddington is not happy. This layout is her baby. Yet, I could see both their points. The shot is gorgeous, yet it doesn’t quite work with the rest of the photographs. The offending photo is cut.

However, Coddington does get to make one final decision. During a last minute photo shoot for another layout, Coddington taps the documentary’s cinematographer, Bob Richman, to join the model in a photo. He happily obliges. Wintour takes a look at the resulting photo and wants to airbrush Richman’s slight pot belly. Coddington nixes the idea, saying, “Everybody isn’t perfect in this world.” Richman’s belly stays in the picture. Finally, after months of preparation, the September 2007 issue of Vogue is released. It weighs over four pounds and is over 800 pages, the largest issue in Vogue history.

RJ Cutler’s “fly on the wall” film making style is what helps make this movie so interesting. You get to see everyone in their element without film maker commentary. I was stunned to see the staff look at the mock ups on a huge wall where pictures and layout can be moved by hand rather than doing it on a computer. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how un-Botoxed and unmade-up the staff was even though most of them, like their leader, is very, very thin. Also, I was surprised how plain the Vogue offices are. I was expecting something ostentatious and grand, but the offices are quite non-descript.

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But most of all, I was surprised how much I didn’t despise Anna Wintour. Sure, she isn’t at Vogue to make friends, but she isn’t the vicious harpy the media makes her out to be. Yes, she’s reserved and exacting but so are a lot of people in any cut throat business. And I doubt any negativity thrown Wintour’s way would be applied to a successful man. But still, Wintour does show some vulnerability as when she talks about her siblings, all of them in more serious professions, who are quite “amused” by her career.

September Issue is a fascinating look at both a legendary magazine and the talented people who make it happen. It is the “must have” for both fashion and film lovers.

I Watch It So You Don’t Have To: Intern (2000)*

 

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If any industry seems perfect for satire and parody it’s fashion, especially the rarefied world of fashion magazines. Fashion doyennes decide where our hemlines will be this season with the same seriousness as preparing military readiness in the Middle East. Bulimia and anorexia are considered virtues. And Botox is as necessary as air and water. Ugly Betty was a successful television sitcom immersed in the world of fashion, and The Devil Wears Prada was a huge smash, so I had big hopes for the indie movie Intern. Sadly, Intern turned out to be as big of a Glamour fashion don’t as see-through jeans and pretty much every outfit you see on the Kardashians.

Dominique Swain plays Jocelyn Bennett, an intern at the fashion magazine Skirt. Jocelyn is apparently a photographer, though you never once see her take a picture, and she is fan of Skirt’s innovative layouts and photography. Sadly, in the brief moments we get to see Skirt, the actual magazine, you wonder if the layout was done by a third-grader on Power Point back in 1998. Yes, I know this movie was low budget, but you think someone could have tried a bit harder.

When Jocelyn isn’t making copies, faxing, running errands and cleaning up Skirt staffers’ desks, she’s pining away for the magazine’s art director, Paul Rochester (Ben Pullen). Paul is a fashion magazine rarity, a straight man. And he’s also allegedly related to Prince Charles. Paul is very fond of Jocelyn but at the moment he is involved with a bitch-on-heels fashion model named Resin (Leilani Bishop).

As Intern begins we find out a Skirt insider has been selling Skirt’s secrets to rival magazine. Jocelyn figures finding out who this insider is just might make her a hero at the magazine, and she goes about trying to find out which fashionista has betrayed Skirt. This also gives her a chance to get closer to Paul. Of course, mayhem ensues, blah, blah, blah. But by the time the movie reaches its dénouement, we really aren’t that invested.

I should have known this movie was going to be crap when it began with a cringe-worthy musical number. Most of the observances of the fashion industry, like when an editor makes herself vomit after finding out the milk in her coffee is 2%, not skim, fall flat. The dialogue is clunky, and when Paul tells Jocelyn that she has the whole world inside of her I audibly groaned. A majority of the performances are wooden; only Kathy Griffin as Cornelia managed to get a laugh out of me.

A lot of blame also belongs on Swain whose acting in Intern is amateurish. At times she rushes through her lines and she has no comedic skills. Her Jocelyn is supposed to be the heroine but in the end you don’t care about her and her future at Skirt. Plus, if Jocelyn is supposed to be so much in fashion why does she dress like such a frump?

A lot of fashion designers and other fashion insiders make cameos playing themselves, and I have to admit that I did have fun naming them. “Hey, there’s Diane von Furstenberg!” “Hey, is that Simon Doonan?” And Vogue editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley seems to have the ability to poke fun at himself.

Sadly, those cameos can’t make up for a dimwitted film. Intern was written by Caroline Doyle and Jill Kopelman, two women who claimed to have worked at fashion magazines. Buddhist monks could have written a better script. If you want to watch the fashion magazine industry skewered to great effect, you are better off staying home and binge watching Ugly Betty.

*Not to be confused with the 2015 movie The Intern starring Ann Hathaway and Robert DeNiro.

To Die For (1995)

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Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, with a script by Buck Henry, and directed by Gus Van Zant, To Die For combines dark comedy, traditional drama and “mockumentary” interviews to very entertaining results.

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Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne Stone, a local cable weather girl with huge dreams of finding fame and fortune as the next Barbara Walters. What Suzanne lacks in talent and intelligence, she makes up for in manipulation and ruthlessness, and nothing, including her marriage, will get in her way.

The movie commences with Suzanne marrying Larry Moretto (Matt Dillon), the biggest catch in Little Hope, New Hampshire. It’s not certain why Suzanne falls for Larry other than she thinks his close Italian-American family has mob connections, which can help her achieve her goals. Larry is lovable, albeit a bit dim, and completely clueless to Suzanne’s calculating ways. All Larry wants to do is settle down in Little Hope, run the family restaurant and makes lots of babies with Suzanne.

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Of course, Suzanne has different plans. Despite her lack of journalistic and television experience she’s able to charm a local cable TV manager in giving her a gofer job. She parlays this lowly position into a regular stint as a weather girl. It’s not long before she recruits some local teens in producing a subpar TV special called “Teens Speak Out.” Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Russell (Casey Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland) are the hardly the type-A achievers you’d expect on a teen-oriented TV show. They’re inarticulate and not good students, but apparently being in awe of Suzanne is the only job requirement necessary.

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Larry gets a bit fed up with Suzanne’s ambitions and tells her it’s time to get busy with making babies. But Suzanne will have none of this. She tells her mother-in-law that being pregnant on TV is a career killer. Oh, if only Suzanne had waited a decade or so. Today, baby bumps and stupidly named off-spring are the “must have” for any celebrity. You can even become famous for simply having kids.

Suzanne realizes Larry, and his meddling family, is getting in her way of achieving TV success. There is only one thing she can do, recruit Jimmy, Russell and Lydia in bumping off her husband. Now having an affair with the devious, yet seductive Suzanne, Jimmy does the deadly deed. This local murder becomes national news making Suzanne the “star” she always desired and she revels in her tabloid notoriety. Not surprisingly, the hapless Jimmy is not so lucky.

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However, Larry’s family is very wise to Suzanne’s scheming ways and they make sure Suzanne gets her comeuppance. The mousy Lydia, who Suzanne disdained as “white trash,” tells her story in a television interview and becomes famous in her own right.

Every performance in To Die For is near perfection. Matt Dillon is very good as a man who’s happy to have the prettiest girl in town but really wants the homebound hausfrau. Illeana Douglas as Larry’s sister Janice is dryly sarcastic and figures out Suzanne’s BS early on in the game. Both Phoenix and Affleck show a great deal of promise early in their careers in their respective roles.

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But To Die For is truly Nicole Kidman’s film. With Kidman’s acting chops, Suzanne Stone is hugely self-absorbed but not very self-aware. Her calculation and cunning is as transparent as a plate of glass, but her telegenic beauty and media-savvy charm succeeds in drawing you closer. Despite ourselves, we want Suzanne Stone to be in front of the camera. Kidman won a very deserved Golden Globe for her portrayal of Suzanne Stone. She is simply a bewitching mix of evil and charisma, and Suzanne Stone is a person we recognize in everything from reality TV to national politics (ahem, or both).

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Both the film and the novel were inspired by Pamela Smart, a teacher and wannabe TV personality who convinced a young man to kill her husband. But instead of telling this story straight, the film takes a very satirical look at our obsession with celebrity, fame and notoriety. Merely entertaining when it was released over ten years ago, in our celebrity-entrenched culture, To Die For is a pointed take on a very interesting phenomenon, the desperate need for fame at any cost.

The Spotlight

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***There is a good chance there will be a writers’ strike via the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) according to Variety Magazine.*** (H/T Tari Jordan)

Move ticket prices are getting higher, and Hollywood Reporter tells us why.

Summer of 2017 movie preview courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.

Women directed films that are must-sees in 2017!

Geena Davis celebrates the 25th anniversary of A League of Their Own’s release.

Salma Hayek’s Beatriz at Dinner sounds like my kind of film, one that connects with my “Power to the People” mindset.

Talent agent Sandy Gallin dead at 76.

New documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent celebrates the eminent chef and his connection to California cuisine and the renowned restaurant Chez Panisse.

Will Netflix end its mail order DVD service in the age of streaming?

Director John Waters new summer camp for adults, Camp John Waters.

 

 

 

 

The Soloist (2009)

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The Soloist portrays the importance of the printed word in the time of the decline of major newspapers. It also tells the story of the power of music and friendship.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While on a break from work, he hears the beautiful sounds of a violin. He looks for the source of the music, finding Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man and musical virtuoso whose two-stringed violin is his one comfort in the world as he plays it under a statue of Beethoven, his favorite composer. Though a bit hesitant about talking to a clearly mentally-unstable man, the reporter in Lopez sees a story. And soon he begins to write a column about Ayers.

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It turns out Ayers was a musical genius as a child, and later studied at Julliard. But it was at Julliard where the darkness of schizophrenia took a hold of Ayers, and before long he was on the mean streets of Los Angeles, pushing his belongings in a rickety shopping cart, trying to survive, music his only friend.

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Lopez’s columns soon make Ayers a celebrity among his readers. And in one pivotal scene, a reader sends a cello to the newspaper office for Lopez to give to Ayers. Ayers, who studied the cello in his younger years, is overcome with gratitude over this simple act of kindness.

Lopez’s relationship soon goes far beyond his byline, and he wants to help Ayers, not just write about him. Of course, wanting to help and actually helping do not always work out easily. Lopez tries to get Ayers involved in Lamp Community, a skid row homeless shelter for the mentally ill. The scenes at Lamp Community are about as far from the glitz and glamour of LA as one can get. The Soloist does not shy away from the ugliness of mental illness. The drug use and violence are very much on display. But The Soloist also gives these people their dignity, often letting them speak in their own words. And Nelsan Ellis, as the Lamp Community’s social worker, David Carter, is very convincing in his role. He is both realistic and compassionate when it comes to the people he is helping at Lamp Community.

Beyond getting Ayers help at the Lamp Community, Lopez also tries to get him medication and an apartment. He also acquires Ayers cello lessons with a local musician, and gets him into a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal at Disney Hall. But not surprisingly, things don’t always go so smoothly. Ayers isn’t too happy about the apartment, feeling more comfortable on open streets of LA. Perhaps, the four walls of the apartment would only remind Ayers of the time he was in his New York apartment as a young man when the tormenting voices of schizophrenia took over his mind. And when Lopez sets up a recital for Ayers to entertain music patrons Ayers becomes overwhelmed and breaks down. Lopez becomes frustrated with Ayers need for him, and at the same time, his tendency to push him away. Yet, Lopez knows he can’t give up on Ayers.

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Both Downey and Foxx are tremendous in their roles. Downey is subtle, the straight man in the relationship. The reporter side of him is curious, but the human side of him is both patient and exasperated with Ayers. Foxx, as Ayers, is at turns paranoid, talkative, angry and fearful. His eyes and body language convey the terror of mental illness, and he often talks in a slipstream of jumbled words that seem to make sense only to him.

At times The Soloist falters like when it uses a light show to show how music affects Ayers. The light show looked right out of a middle school dance circa 1978 and cheapened the experience. I also didn’t like the liberties the movie took with Lopez’s personal life. In the movie, Lopez is divorced from his wife (played by Catherine Keener) who is also his boss, Mary. In real life, Lopez is still very much married to his wife. I have no idea why the screenwriter, Susannah Grant, had to do this. Maybe she did it to bring more drama to the film.

But The Soloist doesn’t need any extra drama. The relationship between Lopez and Ayers is strong enough. The Soloist never gets preachy or wrap things up with a treacly happy ending. Ayers will always be mentally ill, and Lopez will always have to find a story. And just a warning, if you do watch The Soloist, you might want to have some tissues nearby. You’ll find yourself shedding some tears.