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.

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.

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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.

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

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Sunshine Cleaning, which briefly graced the big screens a few years back, is the story of the Lorkowski sisters who eke out a living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Amy Adams plays Rose. Rose once ruled the school as the head cheerleader and she also dated the quarterback. Unfortunately, the years post-graduation haven’t been so kind. She toils as a house cleaner and struggles to raise her offbeat son as a single mom. She’s also having an affair with her now-married high school sweetheart who works as a cop.

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Emily Blunt plays Rose’s younger sister, Norah. Norah is the rebellious bad girl, with the tattoos, black eyeliner and shitty attitude to prove it. She parties all night and sleeps all day. And as the film begins she’s just been fired from her waitressing job, and has no other job prospects on the horizon.

On the advice of her ex-boyfriend, Rose begins a post-crime cleaning business and brings Norah on to help clean up scenes of murders, suicides and other deathly messes after the cops have finished their investigative work. It’s one thing clean up the homes of living people, but it’s quite different to clean up the blood, urine, feces, maggots and vomit of the deceased. But soon Rose and Norah learn there are very human stories among the gore.

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At one home, Norah finds a fanny pack filled with photographs of a young girl. This young girl is the daughter of the deceased, and she’s still living in town. Norah starts stalking the woman (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) and they end up forming an odd and awkward friendship. Rajskub’s character can’t quite figure out why Norah is so interested in her life, and during an embarrassing moment, she thinks Norah’s interest is sexual, and acts accordingly.

Meanwhile, Rose strikes up a friendship with the one-armed owner of an industrial cleaning products store named Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Winston takes a liking to Rose’s son and he helps the two out when they get into a bind. But despite some of the success Rose is having with the business she can’t help but feel like a big loser, especially when she comes in contact with some of her old classmates who are now living successful lives and living in fancy McMansions, some of which Rose has cleaned. At a baby shower, Rose tries to explain her life to her old classmates, and her shame is unmistakable. As is the thinly veiled smugness and condescension of her fellow high school grads.
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Rounding out the family is Rose and Norah’s father, a not always successful salesman, played by Alan Arkin. His love for his daughters never wavers, but it’s not always enough to keep things together. Especially, with a family secret about the girls’ mother that still haunts them as adults.

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Sunshine Cleaning is a sweet film that will probably bring comparisons to another indie flick, Little Miss Sunshine (and not just because of the appearance of Alan Arkin and sunshine in the title). There is not one bad performance in the film, but this is truly Blunt and Adams’ film. And Adams continues to impress me. I’ve loved her since her Oscar-nominated turn in June Bug. I just know she’ll get that big prize one day.

Sunshine Cleaning also proves that there is validity in every job, even those without a fancy title or a huge paycheck. There can be grace in the moments of grotesque. This is best explained by Rose when she tells her old high school friends, “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and sad, and we help. In some way, we help.”