Thursday, February 25, 2021

I Care A Lot . . . About Seniors in the Movies

As a woman of a certain age, I’m starting to become sensitive to the way older folks are portrayed on screen. I’m annoyed when ageing baby boomers are depicted as “cute,” or (worse yet) pathetically out of touch. I appreciate the fact that Liam Neeson, at 68, regularly kicks butt in his flicks. And I love the on-screen moral and intellectual strength shown by such actresses as 75-year-old Helen Mirren, 71-year-old Meryl Streep, and 86-year-old Judi Dench. 

 Which leaves me of two minds about a new movie on Netflix, I Care A Lot. The film is intended as a thrill ride, in which viewers are never quite certain on which side to be, and in that respect (despite some pretty large plot-holes) it certainly measures up. One curious thing: both writer/director J Blakeson and star Rosamund Pike are British, so I’m not quite sure why the setting of the story and the nationality of its cold-as-ice main character are made distinctly American. Is it a Brit’s comment on American naïveté, or the depths of American chicanery? Or is the film showcasing, perhaps, the failure of American social institutions to protect themselves against unscrupulous con artists?

 In any case, the opening of the film will strike fear in the heart of anyone old enough to qualify for an over-65 COVID vaccine. It seems that Pike’s character, the attractive and well-kempt Marla Grayson, knows just how to find seniors with money and no intrusive family connections. With the help of an unprincipled doctor, a blindsided judge, and several others in on the scheme, she proclaims a medical emergency, gets herself appointed her target’s legal guardian, and has the victim hustled off to a “convalescent home.” While her numerous charges waste away behind locked doors, plied into compliance with heavy-duty meds, she sells their houses and empties their safe deposit boxes, all in the name of providing funds for their ongoing medical care.

 The drama heightens, of course, when she picks the wrong victim, Jennifer Peterson (played by the always appealing Dianne Wiest). Jennifer is by no means helpless—she’s a successful businesswoman in her early seventies who owns a charming home and has a full slate of activities—but within minutes Marla has presented an emergency court order and whisked her off to a facility that quickly relieves her of her cellphone and other ties to the outside world. She seems beyond help. But wait! Jennifer has a secret personal connection that will not tolerate her disappearance, and has the muscle to do something about it.

 From there the story twists and turns, reveling in lurid dramatic clichés. Maniacal lesbians! Blood-thirsty members of the Russian mafia! Peter Dinklage throwing giant-sized temper tantrums! Several important characters get left for dead, but recover completely (this is definitely a gang that can’t shoot straight). I didn’t buy a lot of it, but there’s no question this story is entertaining, if you like mayhem and deceit. Particularly strong is what happens between Marla and her #1 foe, who bury the hatchet in a way that I didn’t see coming.

 And yet . . . I deplore watching Dianne Wiest in the role of an ageing but still vigorous woman who needs to be rescued by men. Aren’t we long past The Perils of Pauline? It’s progressive, I guess, to show a woman who’s capable of being a kingpin and a villain, but why can’t another woman—an older woman—be the one to trip her up? Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a thriller in which a seventy-year-old female kicks butt?


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Woody Allen: An Everymensch Steps to the Front

These are not easy times for Woody Allen. This month’s release of a four-part TV documentary, Allen v. Farrow, casts his behavior toward his then-seven-year-old adoptive daughter Dylan in the worst possible light. The series was made by the much-honored documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who have both earned a reputation for getting ugly things right. I’m hardly a Mia Farrow enthusiast, and some of her son Ronan Farrow’s journalistic crusades strike me as grandstanding. But the story of Allen’s troubling behavior toward Dylan—which he continues to hotly deny—leaves little question that Woody Allen’s once brilliant filmmaking career is essentially over.

 For someone who loves Annie Hall, delights in the goofy pleasures of the early Allen canon (Sleeper, Bananas, Take the Money and Run), and respects the moral complexities of later films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s sad indeed to see a professional reputation destroyed by personal bad behavior.  Allen’s case is hardly unique, though: plenty of great artistic talents were heinous individuals. What complicates Allen’s situation, though, is that he can’t easily be divorced from his work. When we look at a brilliant Gauguin painting, we don’t need to focus on the fact that during his romantic Tahitian sojourn Gauguin apparently spread syphilis throughout the islands. But to watch a Woody Allen film is to watch Allen himself, in the fairly unchanging role of a lovable nebbish, one who’s shrewd but not wise, who frequently screws up but is still able to retain our sympathy. In other words, an everymensch.

 Those thoughts crossed my mind as I watched Allen’s performance in the rare Allen film he did not write or direct. The Front is a 1979 movie that takes us back to 1953, that unfortunate time when—thanks to the dark machinations of some power players in Washington DC—lives were destroyed because of past beliefs and associations. During what we now call the McCarthy Era, Hollywood was especially hard hit. Actors, directors, and particularly screenwriters were banned from pursuing their craft, or lived in fear that they’d be denounced in front of a congressional committee. Two and a half decades later, the late Walter Bernstein wrote The Front, and Martin Ritt directed it. Both had been blacklisted back in the day, as had featured actor Zero Mostel and several of the others taking part. And the script contains such grim true-to-life incidents as a beloved but suddenly unemployable performer hounded into suicide.

 In the midst of this disastrous situation, Allen plays a ne’er-do-well cashier (and sometimes bookie) who’s a longtime pal of a blacklisted TV writer. For a 10% cut, he agrees to put his name on his friend’s brilliant new pilot. Suddenly, he’s the hottest scribe in the industry, especially after two more blacklist victims beg him to front for them as well. All this attention means he’s expected to show up at meetings and generally air his genius. It’s a fascinating role for Allen: as a man living (and profiting hugely from) a lie, he’s trying to wiggle his way through a moral dilemma without giving up too much of his newfound creature comforts, which include a politically idealistic TV-exec girlfriend.

  Woody Allen in The Front gets to call upon a lot of his trademark Woody-isms: the thick glasses, the hapless air, the stammer. He’s not the real Allen (he says at one point he can hardly write even a grocery list) but he sure looks and sounds like the Allen we know and love. Or do we really know him? Regarding who he really is, will we ever be sure?


Friday, February 19, 2021

The Brothers Mankiewicz: From “Horse Feathers” to “Sleuth”

As a film buff, I knew that more than one Mankiewicz had made his mark in show biz. Apart from younger generations (one the late president of National Public Radio, one currently a host on Turner Classic Movies), there were two patriarchs who dated back to the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. One of them, Herman J. Mankiewicz (1897-1953) worked with the Marx Brothers and won an Oscar in 1942 for the screenplay of Citizen Kane. His younger brother, Joe (1909-1993) kept so busy as both a writer and a director that it’s hard to keep track of his diverse accomplishments. Suffice it to say here that he both wrote and directed a backstage classic, 1950’s All About Eve.

 One Mankiewicz has been in the spotlight lately because a new film about him, Mank, has been scooping up Golden Globe nominations and other prizes. This ambitious work by director David Fincher, working from a long-gestating screenplay by his father Jack, focuses in on curmudgeonly Herman—his leg encased in plaster following an auto accident—lying in bed at an out-of-the-way Palm Springs bungalow. While trying half-heartedly to stay off the sauce (he’s a legendary alcoholic), he’s struggling to concoct the beginnings of the Citizen Kane screenplay, while John Houseman runs interference between Mank and boy wonder Orson Welles. Emulating the elaborate flashback structure of Welles’ famous debut film, Fincher hops between Mank on his sickbed and his memories of past madcap dinners at San Simeon with William Randolph Hearst (who was to become the model for Charles Foster Kane) and his spirited sweetheart, Marion Davies. It’s a bold idea, and one that lends itself to gorgeous black and white cinematography along the lines of Gregg Toland’s legendary work on Kane. But Fincher muddles matters by digressing into MGM studio politics and Louis B. Mayer’s sabotaging of Upton Sinclair’s run for the California governorship, issues almost wholly peripheral to the story of Mank and Citizen Kane (which was made by RKO).

 I’d much rather get my Mankiewicz family history from a smart new biography by my colleague, Sydney Ladensohn Stern. Her The Brothers Mankiewicz puts the brothers’ lives in context, exploring their German-Jewish immigrant roots and the impact of their strong-minded father on their own life choices. There’s plenty of Citizen Kane lore to be found between these pages. I learned that Herman’s loss of a childhood bike probably led directly to Kane’s famous sled. Also, that the moment when Kane finishes up Jed Leland’s scathing review of Mrs. Kane’s operatic debut as Leland himself would have written it probably evolved from Mank’s own early newspaper career, when his editor at the New York Times took over the review of a vanity project he himself was too soused to complete.

 But much of Stern’s book belongs to the long-lived Joe Mankiewicz, who became a film director almost despite himself. Blessed with the family wit, he was doing well as a screenwriter when he was drafted into the director’s chair, first at Fox and later for other studios. He’s perhaps not better known for his directorial skills because he’s hardly an auteur type: his films run the gamut from social comedy (A Letter to Three Wives) to tense racial drama (No Way Out), from Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) to Broadway musicals (Guys and Dolls). Doubtless  All About Eve (which won six Oscars, two of them for him) was his best experience. The worst was surely the 1963 behemoth Cleopatra, which was wracked by budget problems, logistical nightmares, an unfinished script, and (of course) a love affair that filled the tabloids.