Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

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“The Iron Claw” Revisits Pro Wrestling’s Von Erich Family

Since  (Scott) Beck & (Bryan) Woods selected “The Iron Claw” to open their new Davenport (Iowa) theater, and it is doing well at the box office, while Jeremy Allen White is really gaining steam as a leading man, I went to see “The Iron Claw” here in Texas. Texas is definitely Von Erich territory, site of the Dallas Sportatorium where much of the wrestling matches of yesteryear took place. (“Please note: There will be spoilers.)

“The Iron Claw” recounts the mostly “true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach, the brothers seek larger-than-life immortality on the biggest stage in sports.” “The Iron Claw” is the mostly true story of a wrestling family whose real surname was Adkinsson. Their stage name in the wrestling world was Von Erich. Jack Barton Adkisson wrestled under the name Fritz Von Erich and then encouraged his sons, Kerry, Kevin, David and Michael, to follow him into the ring. (*Son Chris also wrestled, but less successfully than his brothers, and is not depicted in this film, for reasons that don’t seem to make sense.)

CAST

Written and directed by Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene” and TV’s “Dead Ringers”), “The Iron Claw” stars Zac Efron (“High School Musical 3:  Senior Year”); Jeremy Allen White, who first came to my attention as the character Lip (Philip) in the television series “Shameless;” and Maura Tierney of “The Affair.”  Holt McAllany (“Mindhunter,” “Fight Club”) was the standout for me, and when you check out his credits, that is not surprising. Lily James as Pam, Kevin’s wife, is also very good, and Bill Mercer as Michael J. Harney is also good in his part.

However, I came to see Jeremy Allen White, and for more than an hour, I thought I’d walked into the wrong movie.

Jeremy Allen White is hot, right now, as the star of the television series “The Bear.” He walked off with the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice awards in the past week. You really get the feeling that Jeremy is slated for great things dramatically. This film, unfortunately, doesn’t give him that much to do. He doesn’t have the physicality of Zac Efron, but, considering the lengths to which Zac Efron went, maybe that is a good thing. Jeremy admitted on the late night talk shows that he was a novice to the wrestling world. (He gave much credit to Chavo Guerrero, who both instructed the non-wrestlers in the cast and portrayed the character The Iron Sheikh.)

The two other brothers we see portrayed onscreen are David Von Erich (Harris Dickinson of “Beach Rats”) and Michael Von Erich (Stanley Simons, “Angelfish”).

FACTS NOT IN EVIDENCE

According to Wikipedia, Fritz and wife Doris had six sons: Jack Barton Jr. (September 21, 1952 – March 7, 1959), Kevin (born May 15, 1957), David (July 22, 1958 – February 10, 1984), Kerry (February 3, 1960 – February 18, 1993), Mike (March 2, 1964 – April 12, 1987) and Chris (September 30, 1969 – September 12, 1991). Of Adkisson’s six sons, Kevin was the only one still living by the time Adkisson died in 1997.

The couple later separated and Doris divorced her husband on July 21, 1992 after 42 years of marriage.” The movie didn’t make any mention of the exact manner in which the couple’s first child, Jack Jr., died, but Wikipedia says that it was an accidental electrocution and drowning when the child was just 7 years old. The movie also did not mention the youngest child, Chris, and the couple’s divorce after 42 years of marriage was also glossed over. (Adkisson died of lung and brain cancer just 5 years after the divorce.)

PLOT

Kevin Von Erich, the only surviving Von Erich brother.

The movie references the fact that the family is cursed.

As the plot unfolds, it seems to be more a case of the overbearing father’s parenting techniques than of a curse.  Kevin’s wife, Pamela says there is a belief in good or bad luck and then there is the belief that we make our own luck. It seems that the constant emphasis on being the best and being strong and winning drove three of his sons to kill themselves. The script repeatedly articulates this thought:“If we were the toughest,  the strongest, the most successful, nothing could ever hurt us.” That turns out to be bad advice, and the underlying message seems to be that men should be allowed to have a vulnerable, sensitive side.

There were some things in the film that were murky. For instance, did Daddy Fritz embezzle money, either from his hard-working sons or from the promoters who underwrote his wrestling emporium? Why did writer/director Sean Durkin decide to leave the youngest son, Chris—who also committed suicide at 21—out of the movie? Yes, I read that he thought 3 sons who killed themselves was just one too many, but Chris, the baby, had the most cause, as he didn’t have the physical gifts of his older brothers and was struggling to fit in. That would seem to have been a good plot point, as the four brothers who were better known were generally gifted athletes. In fact, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is only shown joining the family business after Jimmy Carter took the U.S. out of the 1982 Olympics and, therefore, destroyed Kerry’s hopes of going to the Olympics as a discus competitor.

For that matter, why didn’t he give Doris, portrayed by seasoned veteran Maura Tierney (“The Affair”) more dramatic eulogy scenes at any of the funerals for her sons? Maura Tierney could have hit that ball out of the park. Instead, she has a very pedestrian part that could have been so much more. Opportunity lost.

Was son Kerry’s motorcycle accident no more than that? The way it is portrayed in the film, it looks like that might also have been a suicidal gesture. And brother David’s (Harris Dickinson) insistence that he is “okay” when he is vomiting blood also seemed self-destructive and suicidal. (He dies in Japan from a ruptured intestine.)

I was surprised that Jeremy Allen White didn’t appear in the film until roughly an hour into the 2 hour 12 minute movie. Jeremy Allen White is white-hot right now, coming off his Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Emmy wins for his lead role in “The Bear.”

The actor who impressed me the most was not any of those who got top billing, but Holt McCallany who played the boys’ father. He was awesome. While everyone was impressed by how ripped Zac Efron appeared as Kevin Von Erich, at only 5’ 8” he looked too animalistic for my tastes. The other actors portraying the Von Erich brothers appeared more “normal” in appearance.

I also thought the “meeting in heaven” was odd. It’s nice to have a happy ending, but the failure to portray one dead brother (Chris) at all just made it seem weird, to me.

I was never much of a pro wrestling fan, but I enjoyed the film. Also a small shout-out to Aaron Dean Eisenberg, who portrayed Ric Flair with—-well, flair. He was a hoot.

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Random Thoughts on the Iowa Caucuses of January 15, 2024

With Monday’s Iowa caucuses scheduled to go forward despite wind chills that could be as low as -30 below zero, the last polls I saw put Trump ahead but DeSantis and Nikki Haley separated by only one percentage point.

The real test on Monday, January 15th, is going to be “Whose ground organization is strongest and can guarantee that the caucus-goers will actually trot out to caucus for their candidate?” Is Trump’s ground organization better (or at least equal to) DeSantis’? What about Haley’s?

I have actually attended the Iowa caucuses. It was winter and it was cold, but this time is going to be the coldest on record. The night I attended the caucuses in Des Moines in 2008 I was not an Iowa resident and, therefore, not there to actually line up behind a particular candidate. In fact, when they learned that I had been a teacher, they put me in charge of a random pack of children whose parents were actually voting. [That was fun for no one.]

When the Republicans caucus, they vote on paper ballots. The Democrats, however—who are not involved in this year’s caucus season in Iowa—did not use ballots. Instead, it was sheer un-orchestrated chaos with all kinds of voting and lobbying for viability and many other things that seem(ed) to belong in an elementary school election. Its refreshingly primitive. The cameramen from Sweden could not believe how basic the process was. Because the process is that basic, I would not be surprised if Iowa loses out on holding these things completely.  There have always been complaints that Iowa is too white-bread and not diverse enough. Then there was the complete SNAFU season. Then there is this year’s weather. I’m thinking that the caucuses in Iowa of either party may well go the way of the dodo bird in 2028.

I watched the Town Hall meetings that focused on DeSantis and Haley and the things covered there were much like the final debate that involved just those two candidates. Until the offhand remark from Haley about New Hampshire voters “correcting” Iowa’s missteps, she was surging. She seems sane and has a far less authoritarian demeanor than the two men with whom she is competing.

DeSantis

There is little I like about Ron DeSantis. The “Sixty Minutes” special that detailed how he screwed over immigrants in ferrying them to Martha’s Vineyard showed a despicable lack of human compassion and empathy. It’s one thing to give the northern states a little taste of what the border states like Texas are dealing with; it’s totally another to have glossy brochures made up that promise desperate immigrants jobs when they land in Martha’s Vineyard. Maybe this would be the point to say WWJD (What would Jesus do?) Certainly not that. The fight with Disney over their position on homosexuality. The “don’t wear masks” attitude during Covid that DeSantis displayed (with masked high school students in the background). The preening over how he “took on” the teachers’ unions (and George Soros), as though that were something to be proud of. The inability to smile like a normal human being, which has been commented on by every late-night host. Why do I dislike him? Let me count the ways. Or not. He’s easy to dislike on sight. (That’s a large part of his problem.)

Haley

Nikki Haley.

Nikki Haley comes off as more reasonable on the issue of abortion. She is a female, after all, and a mother.

Her position on supporting Ukraine is a good one. As the former Ambassador to the United Nations she understands and articulates well the basic fact that, right now, Ukraine is doing the fighting and dying in opposing Putin, who might well set his sights on other European nations. DeSantis (and other GOP leaders) want to tie support for Ukraine to better border control. That phrase about being against it before I was for it (or something close) applies more to DeSantis’ positions than those of Haley.

I was bothered by the fact that neither candidate would answer the question posed by Jake Tapper about whether Donald J. Trump has the moral character to be President. It was just about as bad as the Ivy League Presidents testifying before Congress who couldn’t answer easy questions about anti-Semitic behavior on their college campuses. (Both lost their jobs).We lost Chris Christie in the mix, and he seems to be the only one who had the guts to call out his former friend of 22 years. It  seems as though Christie—who helped prep Trump for the debates in 2020—is trying to make amends for his past misdeeds. I will miss Christie onstage calling out the obnoxious Vivek Ramaswamy as the most obnoxious blowhard in America. You don’t get truthful answers like that during political debates very often.

Border Control

Ron DeSantis.

The Big Issue that the Republicans will be trotting out in the months to come will be the border. The Democrats will be making just as much noise over the roll-back of Roe v. Wade. Nikki Haley offered a much more realistic and even-tempered attitude for the GOP to promulgate in a national election. Everyone agrees that the border is now (and has been for decades) a big problem that needs to be solved. But Congress needs to be involved in completely overhauling our immigration system. It looks, right now, as though the current  Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas is being set up to take the fall for what most Americans view as a failure at the border. Biden’s attempt to portray America as that shining beacon on the hill that both Reagan and Romney alluded to may (or may not) be the reason for the influx of illegal immigrants, but you can be sure that the GOP will portray him as practically the sole cause of our recent border crisis. It is true that the border situation needs to be solved. It may be true that Biden’s words made the influx worse.  (Trump’s separation of small children and infants from their parents and then losing them was not Great Policy, but that goes unremarked in Iowa.) However, totally blaming Biden for this unprecedented horde of immigrants ignores the many economic and political reasons that drive residents of Central and Latin America to risk death to come to this country. We need to be welcoming, but practical. Restructuring our immigrations policies and laws is necessary, just like we need to address gun control (which also hasn’t occurred) and we needed to overhaul health care (which hasn’t totally happened, but least the Affordable Care Act has survived, despite repeated GOP attempts to dismantle it) A physical wall, DJT’s solution, was never going to work without additional reforms of a more substantial sort. In regard to Mayorkas, it is fairly interesting that he has been notably absent from the Sunday morning talk shows and the Republicans now want to impeach him. Mayorkas seems to have missed out on the media training. He isn’t able to demonstrate progress on the border and he has the diplomatic skills of a basset hound. He neither looks nor acts the part he has been assigned to play.

Monday Predictions?

Until Nikki Haley’s misstep (verbally) in New Hampshire and the last debate, where she kept referring listeners to DeSantislies.com website (14 times by one talking head’s count), I thought she was going to top DeSantis on January 15th. She is currently focusing her efforts on suburban areas in the state of Iowa, while DeSantis did “the full Grassley,” visiting all 99 Iowa counties, and is counting on rural support. DeSantis also out-spent Ms. Haley and, until the final debate, was doing much less well during televised Q&A opportunities.

However, DeSantis has picked up his game on the occasion of the final debate (as well as the Town Hall that preceded it). I agree with David Axelrod who has said that the True Test of who Triumphs at the caucuses will be which team can actually mobilize its committed delegates to turn out in frigid sub-zero weather. Pollsters say it will be Trump’s MAGA hordes coming in first.

The second place finish in the last poll I saw was 11% for Haley and 12% for DeSantis. It could go either way. I’d like to see a woman President, so I’m pulling for Nikki Haley. There are things about her policies (she is very pro gun) that I disagree with, but she seems more reasonable about hot-button issues, and certainly has stood up well under pressure. Plus, she has a nice smile, which puts her head and shoulders above DeSantis. Haley has far more international experience. It seems unlikely that the GOP would nominate a woman for the top of the ticket; I am not happy that she has dodged the question of whether she would run with Trump. She and DeSantis have not exactly been straightforward in their responses to questions that are touchy. True of all politicians, it seems. Makes me think of the poem I wrote at the tender age of 16, which I shall print below these ramblings.

I would like to know if Vivek Ramaswamy is the “secret” VP pick that Trump has alluded to; he seems like a very “out there.” He has gone off on various conspiracy theories ad nauseum. Maybe Trump has promised the second spot on the GOP ticket to a female Governor who will probably be about as good a pick as Sarah Palin was (which means a very bad one).

My Poem “Words” (written in 1960, the year I campaigned for JFK):

If fewer words were spoken,

If fewer words were said.

If deeds, alone, were the mark of a man,

Not the “catch” of an eloquent pledge.

 

If fewer words were spoken,

If fewer words were said

If, for all the fake forensics,

There were simple words, instead.

 

And a man stated just what he started to state,

Without false fuss or further ado,

If you weren’t a politician

I’d probably listen to you

Best Films of 2023, For Me

The Golden Globes are now in the books and critics are critical of the host ( I thought he did okay).

I was not totally surprised that “Oppenheimer” had a sort of minor sweep going on in various areas. It was an important film and Christopher Nolan has been nominated six times and never won for Best Director, so perhaps it was “his” time.

I, however, feel that Martin Scorsese—given his prominence in the field and his iconic status—has also been passed over far too many times, especially in the category of Best Director at the Oscars. I think he has only won the Best Director award once (“The Departed”) and yet his films through the years are classics. He deserves better.

The films or television series that seemed to have mini runs were “Succession,” “Poor Things,” and “Oppenheimer,” but “Barbie” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” had  moments, as well.

The recipient that stays in my mind the most was the Best Supporting Actress (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) from “The Holdovers.” I was pleased that she won, but she almost fell out of her dress (cleavage) while accepting her award, and I’m pretty sure that she thanked the wrong organization, as the HFPA (Hollywood Foreign Press Association) fell from grace a year or so ago and the awards ceremony is now owned by Dick Clark Productions.

Seeing the nominated films and categories (they put in a new one for Box Office and a new one for stand-up comedians) made me compose  my own Top Ten Films of 2023.

Let me first preface this list by saying that it is not in any particular order, but simply the films I enjoyed the most this year. (I hated “May/December,” so….). It’s pretty much alphabetical.

I think my two favorite discoveries were “Dream Sequential” and “Poor Things” because they were so extraordinarily original (and off-the-wall.)

Here is my list, in alphabetical order:“Air”

  • “American Fiction”
  • “Barbie”
  • “Dream Sequential”
  • “The Holdovers”
  • “The Killer”
  • “Killers of the Flower Moon”
  • “Oppenheimer”
  • “Poor Things”
  • “Saltburn”

Director of “Dream Sequential.”

There is one documentary that I thoroughly enjoyed,  and that is “The Disappearance of  Shere Hite.” It isn’t a “movie” in the sense of the films on the list above, but it was quite well done and I enjoyed it a great deal. I also should explain that I alphabetized films that started with “The” by the important word (“Holdovers”).

I realize that there are other films that have made many lists, including “Maestro,” “May/December” and “Past Lives,” but no. Just no.

I have a few (I’m always late to the animated films) that I may wish to mention later, but I am giving you my list of the Ten Best or Ten Most Enjoyable. Most of them have reviews earlier on my blog, so enjoy.

“Poor Things:” Emma Stone’s Chance to Take Home the Oscar

Yorgos Lanthimos is known for helming movies that are bizarre and weird. Once you’ve seen Colin Farrell in “The Lobster” (2015) you get the idea that Lanthimos’s films will be far-out. That is certainly true of “Poor Things.”

Having said that, it is such a pleasure to have an original concept that is so well executed. This film (and Nicolas Cage’s “Dream Sequential”) are two of the most original films of the year 2023. In a world of Marvel comics and endless sequels, the originality of Lanthimos is refreshing; this film is truly entertaining, if you’re open to the weird. (I write this from Austin where the town motto is “Keep Austin weird.”)

This adaptation of Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s novel “Poor Things” was something that Lanthimos had been working on even before the author’s death in 2019. Poor Things (1992) discusses Scottish colonial history using a Frankenstein-like drama set in 19th-century Glasgow, where Gray spent his entire life. Godwin ‘God’ Baxter is a scientist (Willem Dafoe) who implants Bella Baxter with the brain of her own unborn child after Bella’s suicide.

“Poor Things” was Gray’s most commercially successful work.  The London Review of Books considered it his funniest novel. It won a Whitbread Novel Award and a Guardian Fiction Prize.  There is Oscar buzz for the adapted screenplay by Tony McNamara. And there should be, as he has done a fantastic job of creating just the right blend of language for the child-becoming-adult-female. Listening to the scripted lines reminded me of hearing your child “create” language of his (or her) very own. It’s amusing, until you think about the wisdom that the lines convey. At that point you realize that this script is perfect for the material (which doesn’t always happen) , just as your son’s “pasghetti” misstep is precious and somehow perfect.

The opening scene is a close-up of an embroidered satin blanket, which, in itself, is unusual. After that, we see Emma Stone jump off a bridge. Just as Gray’s work was compared to that of George Orwell and Franz Kafka, this off-beat novel is a logical fit for Yorgos Lanthimos (although some Scottish folk may not care for the director’s poetic license). The film put Willem Dafoe in a make-up chair for 6 hours as his character’s Frankenstein-like facial scars were applied for 4 hours and then removed at the end of the shoot, during an additional 2 hours.

With the plot concept of a fully-grown female’s body, but the brain of an infant, Emma Stone was given the role of a lifetime. Her childlike infatuation with life is conveyed through her sparse vocabulary (she is learning 15 new words a day) and her awkward, ungainly gate, is almost like a newborn deer.

Bella Baxter articulates thoughts like, “Bella nowhere girl.” (Kudos to McNamara,) Her fresh, unjaded perspective on life and society makes Bella yearn to experience everything.  She has been told by her guardian (Godwin “God” Baxter) that she should “push the boundaries of what is known. That is the only way to live.”

A pure-hearted admirer, Godwin’s assistant Max McAndles, played by Ramy Youssef, proposes to Bella, but she runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Their time together leads Bella to say, “What a confusing person you are, Duncan Wedderburn” and, ultimately to conclude, “I shall need a husband with a more forgiving personality.”

As for Duncan’s assessment of Bella after they travel the world engaging in “furious jumping” (a euphemism for non-stop fornicating), Duncan says, “You don’t know what bananas are and yet you know what empirically means.” Both Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe deserve praise for their Oscar-caliber trio. Ruffalo has already won for Best Actor at at least two film festivals, including the National Board of Review awards and the Santa Monica Film Festival.

Lines like “Your sad face makes me discover angry feelings for you,” “We are all cruel beasts,” and “Protect yourself with the truth” are fresh, original, timely, and display childlike wisdom. Watching Bella’s growth as an adventurous adult female is inspiring to other adult females;  each male she encounters seems to represent yet more ways of keeping the female of the species down and preventing Bella (as their representative) from reaching her full potential.

COSTUMES

At the beginning of the story, Bella dresses in more traditional clothing of the Victorian era. Following her transformation, begins to dress herself in more bizarre clothes or more corseted styles. Costume designer Holly Waddington should snag an Oscar nod, but she will have some competition from “Napoleon’s” costumes.

SETS

The set designs are also Oscar-worthy, with a pastel sci-fi steampunk fantasy look created by set designer Zsuzsa Mihalek. There are, literally, eleven other art direction folk credited, and they deserve accolades for the entrancing sets meant to represent a variety of cities that Bella and Duncan visit, including time spent on an ocean liner.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Principal photography took place in Hungary. It began in August 2021 at Origo Studios in Budapest. The film wrapped in December of 2021 having coped with preparation during the pandemic. According to cinematographer Robbie RyanFrancis Ford Coppola‘s Bram Stoker’s Dracula served as the main source of inspiration for many things in the film.

Poor Things had its world premiere at the 80th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2023, and was also screened at the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, the Busan International Film Festival, and the Sitges Film Festival.

CONCLUSION

The film is an over-the-top, creative criticism of how men try to keep women in their place. Even the good-hearted Max attempts to curb Bella’s adventurous spirit. Considering the message which we also saw in this year’s “Barbie” (and in last year’s “Women Talking”) this Oscar-worthy acting tour de force from Emma Stone is going to be tough to beat at Oscar-time this year, although I’d expect “Maestro’s” Cary Mulligan to be nominated, as well.

It’s such a hilarious romp and packs so much wisdom into the brilliant and amusing screenplay, but be warned if you’re squeamish about nudity and sex, because, during her adventure with Duncan, Bella works as a prostitute in a brothel. There is also a fair amount of gore, including surgery on dead bodies, as Willem Dafoe as a sort of mad scientist surgeon is constantly operating in his Frankenstein-ian lab.

But the film’s happy ending sees Bella returning to the terminally ill Godwin and preparing to marry Max McCandles. Does that work out? You’ll have to watch the film to the end to find out. It’s definitely one of the year’s Ten Best, so, for me, it was a pleasure.

“Ferrari” Fails to Find Its Footing

As a fan of Michael Mann’s work (“The Insider,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat”), I ventured out to see Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in the December 25th release “Ferrari.” Mann has long been well-acquainted with racing and with Ferrari. Mann was one of the executive producers of “Ford v Ferrari” (2019),  the superior film with Christian Bale and Matt Damon. The current Adam Driver movie is a long-time labor of love for the 80-year-old director. Christian Bale was attached as the lead at one point, and, after him, Hugh Jackman.

The budget for the Christmas day release is listed as  $95 million to $110 million. Sadly, it has earned less than 10% of that amount back since its recent release. It was #9 in domestic charts, well behind all 6 of the other domestic recent releases and was not doing that well on Netflix, either. One wonders if Mann’s proposed plans to release a sequel to “Heat” will suffer as a result of this misstep with “Ferrari.”

THE GOOD

I had heard that the racing scenes were good. Certainly the phenomenal crash that ended the Mile Miglia race forever in 1957 was impressively staged. Nine people died in that 1,000 mile race when driver Alfonso de Portago struck something in the roadway. The tire blew out, and the car crashed spectacularly, killing a total of 9 people, including the driver and onlookers, 5 of whom were children. The way it is staged in this film, the audience might well think  that it might have been sabotage. The crash spelled the end of the Mile Miglia race forever. A lengthy court case dragged on with manslaughter charges finally being dismissed by the courts in 1961.

 

The acting from such stalwarts as Adam Driver, Shailene Woodley, Penelope Cruz, Jack O’Connell and Patrick Dempsey is fine. One reviewer gave Cruz special praise for displaying fire in her role as Laura Ferrari, Enzo’s wife. To me, she seemed quite one-dimensional, presenting a sour and intense presence throughout, even when just walking along a city street.

Laura Ferrari had many reasons to be depressed and bitter. Her son, Dino, died of muscular dystrophy the year before the Mile Miglia race (1956) at the too-young age of 24. Laura also learns that her philandering husband has a second family, including a young son, midway through the movie.

 

Adam Driver

Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari. (Photo Credit: Lorenzo Sisti).

I was struck by the sheer physicality of Adam Driver. An ex-Marine, is 6 feet 2 and ½ inches tall. How tall was Enzo Ferrari? In photos of Driver with other cast members, he seems to definitely be the tallest one in the room. While Enzo Ferrari looks slightly taller and bulkier (in old photos) than the Italian males he is standing alongside, Driver just doesn’t seem like the ideal choice to portray an Italian male. My impression of European men, in general, (during my stint as a foreign exchange student abroad), is that they are not physically as large as their American counterparts.

Other than his sheer physical size, Driver seems very controlled and “stiff upper lip-ish” when onscreen. The catastrophic crash, the arguments with his wife over his mistress (and with his mistress over his wife), the scenes where he visits his son’s crypt: he is controlled throughout and doesn’t display much emotion. Troy Kennedy Martin wrote the script, based on the 1991 Brock Yates biography “Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine.” Is the script at fault for this impassive nearly one-dimensional presentation.

Staging the race scenes and the crash was a fantastic achievement. The countryside is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt.  Getting the period details (including the many  period cars) “right” must have been daunting. The music (Daniel Pemberton) is good; music is always key for Michael Mann.

Gabriel Leone

Newcomer Gabriel Leone as Alfonso de Portago. (Photo Credit: Lorenzo Sisti).

The young boy playing Ferrari’s illegitimate son (Guiseppi Festinesi) does a fine job. The actor portraying the doomed Alfonso de Portage, Gabriel Leone, bears a close resemblance to the actual driver, who was Spanish nobility and once competed with the Spanish bobsledding team at the Olympics.

In the film de Portage’s romance with actress Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon) is highlighted. She is said to have broken up with actor Tyrone Power to date the race car driver. One of the better lines in the script is Ferrari’s comment to the press, after laying down the law to his new race car driver that he must not have starlets joining him at the garage because the press then spends all of their time taking pictures of the actresses and not the cars. Says Enzo to the assembled press: “When we win, I can’t see my ass for starlets’ asses. When we lose, you’re a lynch mob.”

Other famous folk routinely frequented the Ferrari showroom. Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman are mentioned by the real-life son of Ferrari as frequent regular customers. Prince Bernard of the Netherlands was also a recurring customer and a close friend of Ferrari during life. Neither of these real-life facts makes it into the film, but the completely fabricated autograph request from Enzo’s young son does, repeatedly, even though it never happened (according to the now-grown younger son.)

THE BAD

“Ferrari” the film is dead on arrival. Most of the audience probably does not know the history of the Mile Maglia race. Whether they care is also up for debate. It is not made very clear that the accident that creates the film’s most spectacular (and very gory) scene means that the race will never be held again. The many Italian characters and race-car driver names come and go without much  impact; they are difficult to remember and/or understand and none has much of a part.

Shailene Woodley

Shailene Woodley as Lina Lardi. (Photo Credit: Lorenzo Sisti).

I’m still wondering what Shailene Woodley’s ethnicity is supposed to be, since she does not seem very Italian. Was Lina Lardi a local girl? Why is she so passive about Enzo’s dragging his feet on acknowledging her and, more importantly, acknowledging their son Piero (who now runs the company). Lina is definitely a constant presence in Enzo Ferrari’s life. After wife Laura’s death in 1979, the elder Ferrari could finally publicly acknowledge his surviving son. The couple were together until Ferrari’s death in 1988 at the age of 90. However, Enzo’s reputation as a philanderer was well-established before his first wife Laura learned about it.

Most of the audience probably doesn’t have the depth of knowledge about or interest in the Ferrari dynasty that Director Michael Mann has had for years. Somehow, the director needed to be able to convey this extensive information to the audience quickly and intelligibly. That doesn’t happen here. Many questions linger and the parade of various drivers (Jack O’Connell and Patrick Dempsey among them) that are mentioned and paraded out like pawns in a chess game get very little that makes any of them come to life, with the possible exception of the doomed Alfonso de Portago. (Gabriel Leone) who does get a racy bedroom scene with his girlfriend Linda Christian.

While the love triangle involving Enzo Ferrari’s two families is interesting, it doesn’t come off as very true-to-life. Real women put in the position of this secret love triangle might not be as reasonable nor as calm as Lina and Laura seem most of the time. The plot also conveniently fails to mention the numerous other women in Ferrari’s life.

CONCLUSION

Adam Driver conferring with Director Michael Mann on “Ferrari.” (Photo Credit by Lorenzo Sisti).

“We all know it is our deadly passion, a terrible joy.” (Line from the script).

If racing is your passion, you will enjoy this 2 hour and 10 minute film. The crash is great (if gory, be warned), and the examination of Ferrari’s love triangle, while unrealistic IRL, gives us knowledge about the man. But, overall, this time at bat was not a home run for Michael Mann, the esteemed four-time Oscar-nominated director.

Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon:” Go for the Battle Scenes; Skip the Scripted Humor

Ridley Scott’s 238 minute opus, “Napoleon,” is  a crash course in French history. But how accurate is it?

I always appreciate directors who try to “get it right.” I kept wondering, throughout the lengthy film, whether this or that really happened. Let me be clear right now that I have investigated  with the goal of finding out whether the film is substantially true or false. Read no further if you are saving the viewing of the film to learn the specifics of the plot.

THE GOOD

The costumes are wonderful—even the tri-cornered hat that Napoleon wears. By the way, the actual height of Napoleon was  five feet seven inches, which was not that short for the time.

The staging of the battles is amazing. There are many battles and they are all extremely well-done and riveting.

Most of the acting is fine, although the dialogue is often jejeune (to steal a French phrase, which seems appropriate).

THE BAD

The things I know to be false:

  • Napoleon was not present in the crowd that witnessed the beheading of Marie Antoinette.
  • Napoleon never met with the Duke of Wellington on a boat (the Bellerephon)
  • The time-line for Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine is not exactly right
  • Napoleon may well have been completely besotted with Josephine, but each of them had other affairs and Napoleon had several illegitimate children. Did newspaper headlines of the day say things like, “Napoleon’s Bony Old Bird Caught Out of the Nest Again”? Don’t know; can’t tell you.
  • One child that the movie dwells on is the heir apparent that Napoleon divorces Josephine to have with his wife, Mary Louise, the Arch Duchess of Austria, and great-niece of Marie Antoinette. We never see the child after Napoleon shows the newborn to Josephine in one scene, but the answer to “Whatever happened to Napoleon’s son?” Wikipedia tells us this:

“Napoleon and Marie Louise remained married until his death, though she did not join him in exile on Elba and thereafter never saw her husband again. The couple had one child, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles (1811–1832), known from birth as the King of Rome. He became Napoleon II in 1814 and reigned for only a fortnight. He was awarded the title the Duke of Reichstadt in 1818. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 21, with no heirs.”

You might wonder, as I did, whether the highly cinematic battle of Austerlitz (Aug. 2, 1805) involving cannons breaking the ice on which the advancing army is approaching, killing them in  vivid visual style, really happened that way. The answer is yes, there was a battle where the approaching army approached on ice; however,  the ice was evident to both sides. When an investigation of the body of water took place years later, there were only roughly 12 bodies buried beneath the surface.

Napoleon did not fire a cannon into a pyramid while in Egypt.

THE MEDIOCRE

To me, the worst thing about the film was the script, written by David Scarpa. The laughter of the audience, hearing some of the pot-boiler lines in this film, may be intentional. I found it jarring in the context of this epic.

Here are a few of those lines:

Napoleon:  (about the British, spoken very petulantly):  “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”

This was shouted with a childish tone, indicating that Napoleon was very annoyed by the British Navy. It may not be totally fair to blame the screenwriter, as one of the reasons it came off as humorous was the manner in which it was delivered. For that matter, the scene where Napoleon is shown stomping his foot like a horse in anticipation of sex with Josephine (who is reluctant because she has just had her hair done).  I’m being generous in calling it mediocre; it’s pretty bad.

Another such line, spoken by Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington, before he rides off to battle in the rain:  “I never get wet if I can help it.”  O……K…..

Just prior to uttering that line, we see Napoleon getting ready to lead his troops into battle. When he is asked, “What shall I tell the men? He responds, “Tell them to make the rain stop.”

During one state dinner, Napoleon shouts, “Destiny has brought me this lambchop.”

Yikes.

Again, the delivery of these bon mots is also part of the problem. While there were some lines that sounded as though they might have been spoken by Napoleon or taken from his letters and writing), there were way too many that were laughably bad.

The acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby was adequate, but they were given lines like the above examples. I don’t see any acting nominations coming out of this one, but she (Vanessa Kirby) was better than he was.

The music also  good at times and mediocre at times. When Napoleon mounts up and rides forth as the Prussians have arrived, the music was weird. It was inconsistent throughout, just as Joaquin’s acting is only as good as the lines he is given to say.

Here’s a line that does try to give us insight into the character of the one-time Emperor of France: ”The most difficult thing in life is accepting the failures of others.”

THE VERDICT

I enjoyed the film from 85-year-old Ridley Scott and was amazed at his staging of the battles. What an accomplishment! May he stage many more!

[I also noticed that the Stunt Department Coordinator was Natalie Wood. No. Not THAT Natalie Wood, but if only she were still alive and still with us.]

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff Nichols Receives Artistic Achievement Award at Closing Night of CIFF in Chicago

“The Bikeriders” screened as the closing film of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 22 at the Music Box Theater with a presentation of the Artistic Career Achievement Award to Writer/Director Jeff Nichols. The film was inspired by the 1967 iconic photographs and tape recordings of photographer Danny Lyon. Writer/Director Nichols gave great praise and credit to Lyon, saying, “He really was supportive, but without being prescriptive.”

“The Bikeriders” recounts the evolution of a Midwestern motorcycle club, called the Vandals in the film. (The Outlaws, originally). The photos drove the film. The interior of one bar was actually reconstructed from Danny Lyon’s photo.

The cast is top-notch, featuring Austin Butler, Oscar-nominated for “Elvis” as Benny and Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve,” “The Last Duel”) as Kathy. Tom Hardy (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant”) is Johnny, the leader of the motorcycle club, which originally existed for the members to race their choppers.

Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols at the screening of “The Bikeriders” on October 22, 2023 in Chicago. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

As Nichols (“Take Shelter,” 2011; “Mud,” 2012; “Loving,” 2016) told Jack Giroux 5 years ago, “And what I’m talking about making a movie about is its transition from this golden age of where it was less criminal and it was more just a place for outsiders to gather, but then how that kind of morphed and turned into somewhat more of a criminal organization.” He described the film as “A complete portrait of a subculture; maybe none of these guys needed to feel like outsiders, but they did.”

The cast is stellar, also featuring Michael Shannon—a close friend of Director Nichols who has made five films  with him—as Zipco. The breakout star of the “West Side Story” remake Mike Faist appeared as the photographer Danny Lyon.  Of Faist, Nichols said, “We were lucky to have him. I think he’s gonna’ have a great career.” Norman Reedus, from “The Walking Dead,” portrays Funny Sonny, and Boyd Holbrook (“Logan”) is Cal.

Nichols shared that the projectionist at the Music Box Theater in Chicago where the film screened was Danny Lyon’s daughter Rebecca. He also told the audience that he had only  learned last week that the characters Benny and Kathy, in real life, had a son who was present for this screening.

Jodie Comer’s character of Kathy is the central character telling the story of the rise and fall of the motorcycle group from 1965 to 1973. Saying “I used to be respectable” she details how the club went from a place where motorcycle enthusiasts could get together and talk about their choppers to something more sinister.

Comer has been mentioned for a potential Oscar nod; the struggle between Kathy and Johnny for Benny’s allegiance is a central conflict in the film. Describing some of the crazy things that Austin Butler’s character of Benny does, she says, “It can’t be love. It must just be stupidity.” Describing her time riding with Benny, she says of the Vandals, “The whole point of these guys is they can’t follow the rules, but as soon as they formed, they started making up rules.”

Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols in Chicago at the closing night of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 22, 2023. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jeff Nichols has a way of exploring the inner rage of a character, as with Michael Shannon’s star turn in “Take Shelter.”  (Shannon told me in 2017, when I asked him on the Red Carpet for “The Shape of Water,” that “Take Shelter” was his favorite role.) In the case of Austin Butler’s character, Benny, we are told “That kid’s f**ing crazy.”

He is also extremely handsome (Nichols says even more so, in person) and comes across as iconic in the book. Nichols said, “I didn’t know Austin Butler even existed when I wrote this. ‘Elvis’ hadn’t come out yet. There is calculus beyond me just thinking he’s pretty.” (laughter from the crowd). Nichols secured Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead”) after meeting him while serving on a jury at Cannes and is friends with Tom Hardy’s manager, Jack Whigham, who is the younger brother of actor Shea Whigham (“Take Shelter,” “Waco,” “Boardwalk Empire”).

At the beginning of the evening, commenting on his nervousness, he remarked, “I know this is Mike’s town,” referencing his close friendship with Chicago native Michael Shannon (to audience approval.)

Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon on October 13, 2023 at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.

 

Shannon, who heard Nichols talk about making a movie from “The Bikeriders” for years, once said, “You’ve been talking about that damn idea for so long. You’re never gonna make that s***.”

Nichols acknowledged that he had, indeed, been trying to make this film for a long time and described it as his “most ambitious” project. Five years ago he told interviewer Jack Giroux (Oct. 19, 2018), “There are just a lot of things that intimidate me about it, but I truly hope one day I’ll get my s*** together and do it.”

Well, he has, and “The Bikeriders” is very good. References to 1953’s Marlon Brando picture “The Wild One” to 1969’s “Easy Rider” to television’s “Sons of Anarchy” aside, this is an-depth look at the characters in a Midwestern motorcycle club. It is a 116-minute study of the outsiders who started the club.

Although Chicago is prominently featured, the actual shoot took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October of 2022, completing filming in December of 2022. It premiered at the 50th Telluride Film Festival on August 23rd.

It’s a totally compelling character study from Jeff Nichols, who has given us such great films as “Take Shelter,” “Mud,” “Loving,” and “Midnight Special.” A great addition to the motorcycle films that have gone before,  fictionalized somewhat, but founded on real-life research, which makes it even more relevant and enjoyable.

“Saltburn” Cements Emerald Fennell’s Reputation As A Visionary Filmmaker

 

“Saltburn” is Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” a film that garnered five Oscar nominations and won her the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2021. The movie is most like 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It is a baroque, dark, stylish sexy R-rated Gothic study which Fennell, present in person to receive the Visionary Award at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 19, 2023, said was best summed up tonally by the word “vampire.” Writer/Director Fennell recommended that the film’s heartthrob Felix (Jacob Elordi) read “Brideshead Revisited” before filming began on July 16, 2022 to get an idea of the film’s tone, although “Saltburn” is set in 2006. Filming ended on September 16, 2022.

“Saltburn” is the family estate of Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”). The palatial estate was represented by Drayton House, Northamptonshire, which had never been used as a film site previously. (It may never be used again, because part of the contract with the filmmakers was that the exact location and real owners were not to be revealed.) The estate, itself, is central to the film’s success, outshining television’s Downton Abbey sets.

The 127 minute film premiered at Telluride on August 23 and opened the 67th London Film Festival on October 4th. Its positive critical reception caused the release date to be moved up in the United States to November 17th. The somewhat cryptic synopsis for the film says: “A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.”

The plot takes us inside the world of wealth and privilege that Felix and his cousin, Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwa, “Midsommar”) occupy. Oliver can only marvel at the luxury of Saltburn, as he meets Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosalind Pike, “Gone Girl”), Felix’s father (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”) and Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, “Conversations with Friends”).

THEMES

Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell at the Music Box Theater in Chicago at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on october 20, 2023. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Fennell said, “I want to talk about our relationships to the things we want, and what we’ll do to get  them.”  She pointed out that Oliver wants to be exceptional and is particularly good at figuring out what others want and helping provide it.

This is also, prominently, the story of the haves and the have-nots. In “Promising Young Woman” Carrie Mulligan took on the good old boys’ network and the patriarchy that caused her best friend’s suicide; Carrie’s character in that film sought revenge. Here, the target is the British aristocracy and the class system in the U.K.

Oliver Quick is a loner, but he instantly keys in on the Golden Boy of Oxford, Felix Catton , a child of wealth and privilege. Not only is Felix a Catton, the wealthy family that owns Saltburn, he is 6’ 5” and gorgeous. Both girls and boys lust after Felix (Jacob Elordi, “Euphoria”). Director Fennell explained, “This film is all about detail. There are intimate close-ups. I wanted to be able to see stubble, rash, all of it.”  Oliver tells us immediately that he was not in love with Felix, although he does seem obsessed with him; Oliver will do anything to become Felix’s friend.

Is Oliver’s obsession with Felix rooted in emotion or something else?   

CAST

Four of the cast members have been Oscar-nominated (Grant, Keoghan, Mulligan, and Pike)

Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan.

Barry Keoghan, who had his breakthrough role as Dominic Kearney in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” plays Oliver Quick, one of the have-nots. Oliver is first seen as a scholarship student at Oxford who is being befriended by the class weirdo, Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell, “High Life.”)

All of the cast are excellent, including Alison Oliver in her film debut as Felix’s beautiful but disturbed sister Venetia. Rosamind Pike, Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Richard E. Grant, Archie Malekwe, Paul Rhys (as Duncan, the butler)—everyone is spot on. One part, however, seemed to have been crafted primarily as a favor to a friend. Carrie Mulligan’s role as Poor Dear Pamela, wearing a red wig and heavy make-up, renders her almost unrecognizable. Her character could easily have been omitted.

“Saltburn” is a story about deception and self-deception. It has a slow reveal that picks up speed during and after the road trip that Felix plans as a surprise for Oliver’s birthday. This is the true turning point of the plot. Fennell noted that it spoke to “how willing we are to be deceived.”

This salacious, darkly witty follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” demonstrates that Emerald Fennell is a talent with more than one tale to tell. Her second film is provocative and sure to set off discussions. Some might protest the uber- R-rated nature of a few controversial scenes. There is a fair amount of nudity, which Director Fennell told the Q&A audience was “about grief.” She also shared that she and Barry were completely in agreement on decisions in some of the more controversial scenes, saying, “He and I are completely together. If it feels right and true, Barry is in.”

There was a reference to Heathcliff’s grief at Cathy’s death in “Wuthering Heights” to offer a defense of one scene. Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” also contained an overall tone of darkness, foreboding and fatalism. It highlighted the intense emotions and passions that drive the characters in the story and was considered controversial when published in 1847. “Wuthering Heights” challenged Victorian morality of the day and the class system. It suggested that everyone has a bad side. Both Emerald Fennell and Rosamund Pike majored in English Literature at Oxford.

SET DESIGN & COSTUMING

The castle sets are magnificent. The party that the Cattons throw for Oliver’s birthday makes the similar celebration in  2013’s  “The Great Gatsby” look like a backyard barbecue. Not only are the grounds of the castle gorgeous, all of the attendees are in costume. The costume designer was Sophie Canale (“Kingsman, Secret Service”). This aspect of the film was outstanding, as was the cinematography by Linus Sandgren (“La La Land,” “American Hustle,” “Joy”) and the choice of music (Anthony Willis). Sandgren worked on “Babylon” (another great party scene film) and Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap, which also promoted “Promising Young Woman,” backed this movie.

Q&A

Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell accepting her Visionary Filmmaker award in Chicago. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

After the film’s screening at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, Emerald Fenner shared some insights into the making of “Saltburn,” including this: “If you’re making something so exotic, it is really about detail. It’s a billion-dollar house, but inside they’re watching ‘Superbad.’ Felix has the tattoo Carpe Diem. The room is lit by a karaoke machine.” When characters are shown reading a book, the book is “Harry Potter.” The references to Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII, as well as Oliver’s correction of the accurate author of a quotation, late in the movie, are far from incidental. The choice of the name Saltburn, itself, for the estate, can provoke more debate. It’s that kind of layered script with scrupulous attention to detail. Hence Ms. Fennell’s winning the Visionary Award from Chicago and also recently being named Filmmaker of the Year at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

When asked about three shocking scenes in the film (which may offend some) the writer/director said, “It was suggested that I cut away, but I wouldn’t and I won’t. It’s a funny, terrible scene. I won’t pull away.” While making this defiant statement, Fennell wore a red-and-white tee shirt from Giordino’s pizza, which proclaimed “I Got Stuffed in Chicago.” (Perfect!)

Look for this one to rack up nominations come Oscar season and to provoke discussions among movie audiences.  For me, it was a terrific follow-up to “Promising Young Woman.”

“May December” Screens at CIFF on October 18, 2023

May/December is a riff on the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau scandal of 1997, but that is where the similarities end. None of the information contained within this film can be taken as “true” in regards to the real couple who inspired the film. Todd Haynes directed and Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore star.

“May December”  is a weird film. The tone is serio-comic, with vacillation between the two. “I’m Not There”—Haynes’ 2007 film with different actors playing Bob Dylan—was also weird. Last year, he made “The Velvet Underground,” a good straight-forward documentary. May/December is not a straight-forward anything and most definitely not a documentary.

One of the producers on this film was Will Ferrell. What does that tell you? The tone at times reminded me of Ferrell’s ice-skating movie “Blades of Glory,” except that “Blades of Glory” was actually amusing. This one, for me, was just campy, schmaltzy, and cringe-worthy.

The opening barbecue scene, where Gracie remarks “we’re going to need more hot dogs” comes off as  funny only in a semi-sick way. The accompanying melodramatic music was part of the ill-advised plan to play half of this movie for laughs and half of it as serious.  I hoped the film might provide insights into why something like this true life 1997 Mary Kay Letourneau incident might have occurred.  The “framing device” for the film is that Natalie Portman as the character Elizabeth Berry has agreed to play Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a bio-pic; she is trying to “get inside” Gracie’s head and figure out what makes her tick.

NOT A DOCUMENTARY

The film is not a straightforward recitation (even with names changed to protect the guilty) of the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case, involving a 34-year-old teacher who began a sexual affair with her middle school student. In real life, Mary Kay’s sixth grade student was just shy of thirteen when the two began having sex.

The story collaborators apparently thought this real-life soap opera drama would be “funny.” It didn’t seem “funny” at the time to the public. It certainly didn’t seem humorous to the families affected by that May/December coupling. It doesn’t seem funny when Gracie was Joe’s teacher. We exist in a time that has seen an increase in child pedophilia. Maybe it’s the fact that I come from a long line of teachers, but I did not find the underlying premise of the movie to be a fountain of comic moments.

Of course, the real-life couple staunchly maintained that they were merely star-crossed lovers for 20 years. It is only late in the plot that Joe begins to articulate some doubts about whether the couple love each other as much as they have claimed through those years. In one scene, Joe (Charles Melton) actually says, “I didn’t know what a big deal it was—having kids.” A strange statement from a young man whom Julianne Moore’s Gracie describes as having been “an old soul” long before she decided to hire him as her assistant at a pet shop and have her way with him in the storage room. (Not, by the way, based on the Letourneau reality.)

REAL LIFE

For those who don’t remember the Mary Kay Letourneau case, Mary Kay spent 1998 to 2004 in prison as a result of being convicted of felony second degree rape of a child. She was forever listed as a sex offender.  The pair did not obey the judge’s order to have no further contact, conceived two children, and married in 2005, soon after Mary Kay was released from prison. (In real life, Mary Kay Letourneau had six children, four from her first marriage to Steve Letourneau and two with Vili Fualaau.) She and Vili remained married for 14 years, separating just one year before Mary Kay’s death at age 58 of stage four colon cancer on July 6, 2020.

Not surprisingly, Steve Letourneau, her first husband, moved to Alaska, remarried (and had more children) and refuses to even comment on Mary Kay. In this film, Steve Letourneau/Tom Atherton is well played by D.W. Moffett. The depiction of him is not favorable.

The letter that is read in the film by Natalie Portman (from Gracie to Joe) indicates that Gracie’s sex life in marriage number one left a lot to be desired. Once she tasted the forbidden fruit that Joe represented, she was loathe to go back to reality—or so the letter, read onscreen by Portman in a scene that made me cringe for her—seems to say.

The fact that the principals in this Romeo and Juliet doomed lovers set-up had a 22-year gap in age is  not the reason for censure. There are marriages that feature couples with a large difference in age. Two very senior citizens on the Hollywood scene, major movie stars, have very recently had offspring with their much-younger paramours. Twenty-two years difference in age doesn’t even seem that large when measured against such realities.

 So, the difference in age isn’t the issue. The issue is whether a minor (12 or 13) is really capable of making an informed decision when an authority figure in his or her life is suggesting a sexual relationship. Gracie/Mary Kay was put in a position of authority with her young charge and crossed the line, sexually. 

Joe is constantly depicted as trying to please, placate, or serve Gracie. She is still in control.  One line about Gracie, from a neighbor, is, “She always knows what she wants.” Gracie, as portrayed by Julianne Moore, has logical explanations for actions with her children, but those actions often seem very passive/aggressive. She seems very controlled and in command in the dinner parties and interactions depicted. But let some neighbors cancel their bakery order and Gracie descends into near-breakdown hysteria.

The real Mary Kay Letourneau was diagnosed with bipolar disease. She was told to take her medication and not see her young lover again. She obeyed neither of those orders from a judge, which is why she spent so long in prison. (She was sent back for disobeying the judge’s orders. Donald Trump: take note.”)

In this fictionalized case, the student is in 7th grade (not 6th) and is Korean, not Hawaiian. The pair does have children, who are about to graduate and go off to college. In real life, Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau were married for 14 years, until they separated in 2019.  They had only two children. In this film there are twins, a girl away at college, Mary at home, and what seems to be a large number of children, when her former offspring are factored in.

CAST

This film stars Julianne Moore, who won an Oscar in 2014 for playing a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, “Still Alice..” She has appeared in 107 films. She has made many, many wonderful films; the subject matter of many is often racy (“Boogie Nights” comes to mind.)  I felt sorry that she had to appear in this one, which, for me, fell flat.

Similarly, Oscar-winner (“The Black Swan”) Natalie Portman appears as an actress named Elizabeth Berry, a celebrity with a TV show about animals called “Nora’s Ark”, who has been hired to portray Julianne’s character of Gracie in the upcoming bio-pic. She wants to get close to the real Gracie. Gracie and Joe  allow her to come to their home. (And what a home it is, for a couple with a wife who only bakes for others and a husband who appears to perhaps be an X-ray technician. How do they afford this elegant home in Savannah, Georgia? How are they going to pay for at least four kids in college simultaneously?)

The young man who portrays Julianne’s young husband (22 years younger in the real Letourneau case) is Charles Melton as Joe Yoo. He does what he can with this part, as do the two experienced actresses.  Charles Melton is one of the few bright spots in the film, but he still provokes gales of laughter because the scripted things he is given to say are that bad.

MUSIC

From the moment we see a butterfly chrysalis onscreen (Joe is interested in helping re-populate the Monarch population) and the ponderous, schmaltzy music begins playing, you think, “What the f___?” Marcelo Zarvos wrote original music and adapted Michel LeGrand’s melodies from “The Go-Between.” The music is heavy-handed and melodramatic.

Later, in a café scene, we see one of Gracie’s children from her first marriage, Georgie (memorably played by Cory Michael Smith), singing. The lyrics “Oh, Baby, I love your ways” float over to us, before Georgie delivers the cringe-worthy line, “I’m a Phoenix rising from the ashes.” (Yikes! Who talks like that in real life?)

WORST SCENES

There are so many awkward, uncomfortable scenes that I hate to single out the back room of a pet shop, where the duo was supposedly caught in flagrante delecto, or the other questionable scenes, meant to be comic. Natalie Portman seemed to get more of the truly execrable scenes than Julianne, including one where she relives the storage room romance of the pet shop all by herself, writhing and moaning with wild bird noises in the background. And there’s the one where she faces the camera and has to deliver a bad monologue that was a letter Gracie wrote to Joe. There is also her inappropriate description of playing sex scenes, delivered to a high school class where Mary Atherton, Gracie’s daughter, is in the audience.

Nothing about the situation seemed “funny,” to me, especially since so many lives, including those of six children, were negatively impacted. There are actually two bad pet shop scenes, one involving a snake. Which is worse? You decide if you watch this on Netflix when it begins streaming on December 1st, or in a theater beginning November 17th.

BEST SCENES

One shot showed Joe looking through a wire fence at his graduating children. That one, with its symbolism, was interesting. But on the very day her children are graduating, we see Julianne Moore as Gracie, accompanied by two Russian wolfhounds, stalking the land while holding a rifle. (A WTF moment.) A fox is on one side of the field. Julianne and the fox exchange glances. Oh. My. God. (Just shoot me now, Julianne).

When Charles Melton asks his oldest son, Charlie Atherton-Yoo (Gabriel Chung), if he is sad that Charlie is soon going to be leaving for college, the young man says he is very happy to be leaving. [Can’t blame him there.]

The cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt (“Emma,” “Zodiac”) was good and the Savannah, Georgia area photographs beautifully. It is shot on 16-millimeter film.  Haynes’ usual cinematographer is Ed Lachmann (“Far From Heaven,” 2002; “Carol,” 2015).

UNDERLYING POV

The opening scenes of the film seem to promote a picture of Gracie as loving and committed to her marriage to the much younger Joe. However, her abandoned son, Georgie (from her first marriage) tells Natalie Portman, “Lady, she’s messed up in the head.” He relates  tales of early incest abuse by his mother’s older brothers, but we never know whether that is true or false.

Indeed, there is evidence that supports Gracie and Joe as loving parents, but the real Mary Kay Letourneau was diagnosed as bi-polar and essentially abandoned her husband four kids for a twelve-year-old. Not exactly comic fodder; who thought this would make for a good movie that is half comic and half serious?

GRACIE’S LESS MATERNAL MOMENTS

Mary Kay gifts her daughter who is going off to college with a scale. She implies to a younger sister Mary (Elizabeth Yu) that her arms are fat, as the daughter tries on dresses for graduation. Gracie also loses it over a canceled baking goods order. It seems that baking is what Gracie does well; Friends in the area order things from her out of good will. The comic/not that funny line  is, “How many pineapple upside-down cakes can a family eat?”

It also brings up the valid question, “So, is the community generally supportive of Joe and Gracie, as with the ordering of baked goods, or does she receive more packages of canine feces than orders for baked goods?” It’s also valid to ask, “How do they afford this big house with the small pool and the ocean view and also sending multiple children off to college at the same time? Where is the money coming from?”

Early on, a neighbor tells Natalie Portman as Elizabeth to “be kind” in her portrayal of Gracie. The film doesn’t seem to have made up its mind about whether or not the mis-matched couple has really been accepted, since Elizabeth, upon arrival, brings a package she found outside the house containing dog feces, only to learn that it is a routine occurrence for such packages to be left there.

This didn’t seem all that humorous, or all that accepting or forgiving on the part of the community.

CONCLUSION

I felt embarrassed for two such fine actresses to be appearing in this movie. It has nothing to do with disapproval of the theme. One of Julianne Moore’s All Time Best roles was in “Boogie Nights,” a classic about the pornographic film industry.This film is not a classic and whoever had the idea to make it half-funny/half-serious should rethink that decision. The tone is all over the place. The only people who seemed to be enjoying it were mocking the many cringe-worthy scenes or statements.

The only way to think you haven’t wasted your time sitting through this is if you mock it. I didn’t want to mock it. I respect the actresses in the lead roles too much. I just wish they had had a better script or at least one that picked a consistent tone that came through clearly. Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik wrote the story and Samy Burch scripted. Shame on them

I was very disappointed by this movie. However, this line from the film applies, “Keep your expectations low and you’ll never be disappointed.”

Unfortunately for me, I had higher expectations for something that might give us a bit of an idea what the real life of Mary Kay Letourneau might have been like after crossing society’s boundaries in 1997. I just felt sorry that these two talented performers somehow ended up in this, after all their good work throughout the years. The film screened at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 18, 2023.

The “best” part of the movie is the trailer. After that, it’s either laugh or cry.

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