Monday, September 25, 2023

Grace Quigley: A Review (Review #1754)



When one thinks of Katharine Hepburn's filmography, Grace Quigley is not the first or perhaps even last film that comes to mind. It is an important film in Hepburn's career in that it was the last theatrical film she made where she was the star (Love Affair being more of a glorified cameo). There is a film desperately trying to claw its way out of Grace Quigley, but bad performances and mismatched creatives all around sink it into ending up a poor television movie.

Senior citizen Grace Quigley (Hepburn) is struggling financially, especially with the rent collected by odious landlord Mr. Argo (Harris Laskawy). She wishes people like Mr. Argo would be eliminated. Unexpectedly, her wish is granted when she sees Mr. Argo shot in his car. 

Circumstances bring her in contact with the hitman, whom she finds is Seymour Flint (Nick Nolte). She blackmails Seymour into, as she phrases it, giving someone the rub. The person the contract is for is none other than Grace Quigley. Finding life miserable and lonely, she asks that he kill her, negotiating the contract to $1,000. Unfortunately, she could not have found a worse hitman than Flint. It is not that Flint is an incompetent hitman. It's that he's a highly neurotic one, who sees a psychiatrist (Chip Zien) and gets nosebleeds and headaches as a result of his neuroses. 

To Flint's horror, Grace now gets other seniors into a package deal. One of them, Harvey Jenkins (William Duell) requests to die quickly but painlessly. His request is granted, albeit accidentally, when Flint's hooker girlfriend Muriel (Kit Le Fever) calls on Jenkins, causing a heart attack. Finding the dispatching of oldsters looking for their final exit a surprisingly lucrative and invigorating business, Seymour and Grace join forces in their newly-formed enterprise, Ultimate Solutions.

Things appear to be going well for everyone. Grace has a new lease on life and Seymour & Muriel get married. Then, Grace meets up with a nasty cabbie who took her shoe. Now she wants to do "pest control", and even a hitman has his limits. Will Grace manage to get Seymour to see things her way? Will both end up in the slammer?

Grace Quigley thinks of itself as a black comedy, but the thing is that it is not funny. Almost everyone involved is visibly wrong for the goings-on in the film. 

At the top of the list is Nolte. Grace Quigley may be his worst performance and one of the worst castings in cinematic history. Throughout the film Nolte looks more angry than puzzled or flummoxed by the situations no matter which one Flint is involved with. He spouts his dialogue, never changing his facial expression. Worse, his efforts to be neurotic are cringe-inducing. As he attempts to be flabbergasted by becoming the Angel of Happy Deaths to the old folks at home, Nolte looks irritated by everything and everyone.

It is Nick Nolte, more than anyone else in Grace Quigley, that sinks this project into the awfulness of it all. 

Hepburn does herself no favors either. She seems to have an almost perpetual difficulty in playing comedy with some exceptions (The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby). It is as if Hepburn knows she is too smart for all this, which makes the character Grace Quigley unbelievable. 

Take the scene between Grace and Muriel when they first meet. She asks Muriel what she does for a living. After a reluctant beat, Muriel replies, "I turn tricks". Smiling and chuckling slightly, Grace replies, "I used to do tricks myself when I was younger". While it is clear that Grace does not understand what Muriel is saying, one also senses that Hepburn knows that she is too smart to play this dumb. This and other lines are meant to sound funny, but they never come off as funny. 

I put things to Hepburn's manner, one where she tries to force the humor but either can't muster the enthusiasm for it or knows it is not funny and makes a stab to fake it until she makes it. 

In his small role as the psychiatrist, Chip Zien is barely able to say the words, let alone bring any sense of conviction to them. Only Elizabeth Wilson as Emily Watkins, the woman so determined to be executed that she chased down "Mr. Killer" in a hearse, appears to be invested in the film. Even here though we see how poor Grace Quigley is.

As Flint and Grace involve themselves in a chase to The Pretenders' Bad Boys Get Spanked, there is almost an unhappiness and forced manner to it all. Playing like a bad television movie than a genuine feature film, Hepburn's quip when Emily crashes her car into the river sums up what is wrong with Grace Quigley.

"Looks like Emily has got a freebie," she remarks in a disinterested deadpan manner while Nolte looks on blankly. It is meant to sound funny. It just isn't. 

The third person responsible for this debacle is director Anthony Harvey. The British director best known for a previous collaboration with Hepburn, The Lion in Winter, seems to think of 1980s New York as a thoroughly alien world. Amidst the poor, elderly Americans, Harvey seems to barely be acquainted with how they live or are. They do not behave or act like people. Among kings and nobles, Harvey excels. Among working class retirees, Harvey almost thinks of them as unreal.

I do not fault screenwriter A. Martin Zweiback for Grace Quigley's misfire. The subject matter is a bit gruesome to suggest that the elderly lead desperate lives of loneliness and despair for whom suicide is the best answer. Comedy could come from a hitman and an old woman joining forces to help others die happily. However, it was the execution of things that sunk Grace Quigley. So much looked and sounded forced and obvious.

Harvey's direction was listless and dull. The performances, especially from Nick Nolte, were appalling. Grace Quigley is disorganized and unhappy, even for a film about suicides and the hitmen who help them. 


Thursday, September 21, 2023

Grey Gardens: The 2009 Television Movie



I am one of the few people who find the Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens tawdry rather than inspirational. The sight of these two old women, with what appears to be a thin grasp of reality, making public spectacles of themselves has always been ghoulish to me. However, the aunt and first cousin to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are more than the 95 minutes where they showcased their opulent poverty. Grey Gardens delves into their pre-infamy lives. A tragic portrait of stifling love and of living in the past, Grey Gardens has two strong performances at its troubled heart.

Flowing from between 1936 and 1973, Grey Gardens revolves around the posh Beale family. There is the matriarch, Edith (Jessica Lange), an old money grande dame who enjoys the glamorous life much to the financial and emotional exasperation of her husband Phelan (Ken Howard). Their daughter, also named Edith (Drew Barrymore) wants her own glamorous life as a singer and actress in New York. Phelan eventually tires of his extravagant wife and divorces her. He also manages to get his daughter to come to New York.

Edith Sr., better known as Big Edie, is convinced Edith, Jr. or Little Edie would be better suited to be with her at the family summer home of Grey Gardens. Little Edie, however, won't be denied. She also won't deny herself an affair with Julius "Cap" Krug (Daniel Baldwin), a married man. "Married men will always break your heart", Big Edie warns, but Little Edie learns too late that in this case, Mother knows best.

After Phelan's death, Edith's sons try to convince their mother to sell Grey Gardens and economize. Big Edie flatly refuses to do either. Despite her thirst for freedom, Little Edie can't or won't move out and on. Grey Gardens soon reflects this mother-daughter duo: fallen on hard times, in squalor and in such wrack and ruin that the Suffolk County Department of Health threatens to condemn the property and evict these two old recluses. Once the inspectors get the warrants and force their way in, they are horrified at the living conditions: cats and their feces everywhere, piles of garbage all around, the building held up only by sheer will.

Also horrified is Mrs. Beale's niece Jackie (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Gagging on entering her aunt and cousin's home, she eventually sees Aunt Edie as carrying on her own sense of upper-crust nobility. Not as horrified are Albert and David Maysles (Arye Grosse and Justin Louis). Originally contracted by Jacqueline's sister Lee to make a documentary about her family's early life, the Maysles find an excellent subject in these two society doyennes wandering in the fog of their self-enclosed world. Grey Gardens the documentary premieres, and Little Edie at last has her own moment of glory all her own. 

I watch both Grey Gardens and the Maysles' follow-up The Beales of Grey Gardens with more horror than pity at these two old women, locked in this strange netherworld of their own making. The 2009 Grey Gardens went past the garish freak show of the Maysles' to present the women before they faded into notoriety. Edith Beale Sr. and Jr. were women who loved life but who also loved poorly. Proud, headstrong, perhaps even staunch to use their own terms, Grey Gardens delivers a well-acted drama of flawed figures.

Both leads deliver strong performances. Barrymore captures Little Edie's patrician tones where it is less mimicry and more genuine speaking. She also makes Little Edie into a young woman pulled between her own desires and those strong pulls to mother, even father. She wants to be a good daughter, but she also wants to carry on doomed romances. The heartbreak when Cap ends their affair clearly breaks Little Edie. Barrymore also gives us Little Edie's haughtiness, even cruelty due to her inability to free herself from her rotting gilded cage.

Lange is more than her equal as Big Edie. Mrs. Beale is fun-loving, even a bit gaudy, but also excessively possessive. She is clearly desirous to have someone stay with her so as to not be alone, but we do see that in her own way, Big Edie did want to do right by her daughter. After Little Edie has something of a psychotic break over starting to lose her hair, Big Edie comforts her. "You have to go on in life, even when you've lost your song", she tells Little Edie. 

As they sink into their own demimonde, they do function to a certain degree. A curious scene is when they listen to President Kennedy's funeral over the radio. In a nod to the seriousness of the situation, they dress in black while sitting up in bed. It is their way of sharing the grief that their niece and cousin Jacqueline must be enduring. They may not have attended in person, but their hearts and what were left of their minds were with her.

Grey Gardens, to my mind, shows the Maysles in a less-than-flattering light, a curious turn given that Albert served as a consultant. As part of their pitch for the documentary, one of them tells them it will be "Artists just making a movie about artists", a clear play at the Beales' delusional ideas about themselves. They give each other knowing glances as Little Edie waxes rhapsodic about her ensemble of blouses as skirts. It is as if we see the brothers as taking advantage of their diminishing capacity, knowing their decaying states and estate will be a gold mine to them. Granted, that may be my own takeaway, but that is an element that makes Grey Gardens work so well. 

Grey Gardens also has strong work from others in the cast. Howard does well as the forever frustrated Phelan, enduring two madwomen whom he loves but can't tolerate. Daniel Baldwin does well as the adulterous Cap, showing surprising tenderness while dumping his mistress. In a smaller role, Malcolm Gets stands out as Gould, Little Edie's vocal and piano teacher who may or may not be Big Edie's lover. The television film is clear that she wants him sexually. It is not clear whether he reciprocated those feelings, was oblivious to them, or was actually gay. Even in the third possibility, it is unclear if he is using Big Edie as a sugar mama or feels genuine affection for this bon vivant. 

Director and cowriter Michael Sucsy (writing with Patricia Rozema) have strong moments which show how the pair are more similar than either would admit or recognize. As Little Edie goes joyfully to New York, Gould attempts to lighten the mood by playing songs that fit the situation. Both of them go along with this until both snap. One yells "Stop it!" and the other yells "Cut it out!" simultaneously, revealing their similar mindset.

The script also has great moments of irony. A clearly irritated Phelan for example arrives home to a party, his oblivious wife belting out Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine when she clearly does not. As Little Edie leaves for New York, she begs her mother, "Please say goodbye". When she is forced to return after her affair with Cap is discovered, it is Phelan that asks, "Edie, please say goodbye". The circle is complete. The ending, where Little Edie gets to perform a muddled rendition of Tea for Two before a rapt cabaret audience, reflects this Grey Gardens altogether. One gawks in wonder, perhaps amusement, perhaps horror, at this woman's self-delusions, feels a bit of sadness for her ineptness and obliviousness, but also realizes she has entertained, however it was taken.

The final on-screen quote, "My mother gave me a completely priceless life", says it all. 

Grey Gardens is a television film about acceptance and regret, of knowing how, perhaps too late, things went wrong but can still make for a somewhat happy end. It is a tragic but sympathetic portrait of these two perhaps demented, perhaps free-spirited women. It did for me what the legendary documentary did not. 

It made me like, even respect, the elder and younger Edith Beale.

Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie): 1895-1977
Edith Beale (Little Edie): 1917-2002


Monday, September 18, 2023

Blue Beetle: A Review



Alas, Jaime Reyes. Your debut into the DC Extended Universe was crushed by a greater villain than the ones you faced in Blue Beetle. The villain is a mix of public indifference and exhaustion. Blue Beetle is an entertaining, enjoyable romp, one that had it been released even earlier this year might have done better. Alas, Jaime Reyes.

Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) has returned to Palmera City after graduating college to find that things at home are hard. The family business is going under, they are close to losing their home and his father recently suffered a heart attack. Determined to help his family, Jaime gets a job cleaning homes with his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo). Unfortunately, his defense of Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), niece of Kord Industries head Victoria (Susan Sarandon) costs him his job. Jenny offers to help him find something at Kord Industries as compensation.

Dutifully showing up the next day, Jaime gets caught up in Jenny's industrial sabotage. That involves a seemingly innocuous meal box which ends up containing an alien scarab. That scarab, which Victoria hopes to use for the OMAC (One Man Army Corps) super-soldier project, attaches itself to Jaime much to everyone's horror. Jenny, along with Jaime's Uncle Rudy (George Lopez), break into Kord Industries to find a device to help them enter her late father's home. That leads to an encounter with Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), Victoria's henchman and OMAC prototype.

The trio discover Jenny's father's secret Blue Beetle past, while Victoria discovers Jaime. Whisked away to a secret lair, Victoria is determined to get the scarab back. Whether this Mexican kid gets killed is irrelevant. It will take all the Reyeses, along with Jenny, to rescue the Blue Beetle, though not without losses.

In many ways, Blue Beetle is a perfect superhero movie, but therein lies the problem. It is by no means a bad film, especially compared to such 2023 superhero film horrors as Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash. It is just that by now, with the genre so tired out, Blue Beetle had almost no fighting chance regardless of its quality. 

With 2023 being swamped with bad superhero movies after what seems years of bad superhero movies, Blue Beetle cannot fight against audiences exhausted by the genre. It cannot fight against the diminishing returns of the genre. Worse, it cannot fight against the obscurity of the character. Blue Beetle does a good, albeit perhaps rushed, job of introducing Jaime Reyes and his alter-ego, but because he is obscure, few people will by now give either a glance.  

That is a terrible shame, for Blue Beetle is something that many of these continuing episodes for grandiose comic book films have not been for a while: fun. A good way to describe Blue Beetle is that it is a romp, where we can have some admittedly cringe moments but on the whole having a bit of lightness in the proceedings. For example, the scarab's voice (Becky G.) early on says of Jaime, "Host overreacting" to Jaime's frantic and frenetic yelling. It is not that Blue Beetle is playing as a comedy. It is that Blue Beetle allows for funny moments to pop up without winking and mugging for the camera.

Those come courtesy of Xolo Maridueña, who does a fine job as Jaime Reyes/Blue Beetle. A bit like Tom Holland's Peter Parker from the MCU, Jaime is thrown for a wild loop when made into the Blue Beetle. Unlike Holland's take however, Jaime is nowhere near the blithering idiot that the MCU Peter Parker is. Jaime does his best under wild circumstances, but he also is loyal and loving with his family. He also has a surprising take on a potential love interest: he is genuinely interested. Jaime is simultaneously aroused and clumsy around Jenny, giving it a mix of humor and heart. Again, credit to Maridueña's performance.

Blue Beetle has been touted for its predominately Hispanic cast, and perhaps as a Hispanic myself, I am too close to things. However, I think the focus is more on the positive aspects of Hispanic culture, such as the strong family bonds. Unlike past superheroes from various studios, Jaime is from a surprisingly close-knit family. There is no angst or emotional crisis going on. Instead, Blue Beetle portrays the Reyes family as committed, caring, if at times taking too much away from Jaime himself.

I think there is merit in the criticism that Blue Beetle at times undercuts Jaime by shifting attention to his relatives, particularly his Nana or Grandmother (Adriana Barraza). To be fair, I have relatives that resemble some of the Reyeses, so I cannot fault the film too much for showcasing the relatives. I think writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer and director Angel Manuel Soto were trying to make the Reyes family more involved in things. They may have gone overboard, but nothing horrendous save for one thing.

Near the end, Nana is expertly handing alien weapons while shouting, "DOWN WITH THE IMPERIALISTS!". I was highly puzzled by this. Did Nana fight with Pancho Villa? If she is Mexican, what was all that "imperialist" talk? Was she maybe Cuban? It seems a strange thing to throw in for this character. To be fair, I did enjoy her humorous take on Nana.

There is also George Lopez's controversial "Batman is a fascist!" line. In the context of the film, I think it is meant to portray Uncle Rudy as a bit of a nutter, not anything overtly political. That is reserved for when Blue Beetle and Carapax destroy a statue of Christopher Columbus during their first battle. It is not as if Blue Beetle does not have elements of messaging, such as Caparax's tragic past with the School of the Americas. 

In retrospect, there is one point that did bother me. It was when the Kord goons were swooping down onto the Reyes' home. Uncle Rudy says something about how they could be harassed about their "documents", which I interpret as their citizenship proof. That's a bit too much and unnecessary, but not totally horrendous for me.

On the whole, though, that is perhaps overthinking things. 

A lot of Blue Beetle is standard, but I again don't have a problem with that. The positive message of the supportive family is a good one. Marquezine's Jenny balances being a strong woman while still being increasingly interested in Jaime. I can concede that Sarandon was a bit overdoing things as the villain, but somehow I was not bothered by this. The effects were good if not remarkable and the music worked within the film.

Blue Beetle does not break the mold. It is standard superhero fare: introduction of characters, section where superhero discovers his powers (and is a bit inept with them), couple of battles and our new superhero now more confident and competent can be ready for a new adventure. As such, I cannot fault the film for meeting its goals. Sadly, this may be a case of "too little, too late". Blue Beetle would have done better if DC had opted to focus on building him up than asking him to pick up the pieces from the disasters that were Shazam and the Scarlet Speedster. 

Alas, Jaime Reyes...

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Sound of Freedom: A Review (Review #1752)



It is a strange world indeed when a film about the evils of child sex trafficking can be considered in some circles crazed right-wing propaganda. Sound of Freedom may not be subtle and perhaps longer than it should be. However, it is also quietly effective and moving, drawing light on an important topic.

Homeland Security agent Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel) tracks and captures those involved in child sex trafficking and child pornography. While he does his job well, he also knows that this solves part of the problem. The pedophiles and predators are captured, but the children are not rescued. This hits him especially hard after he manages to save one child, a little Honduran boy named Miguel (Lucas Avila). Miguel and his sister Rocio (Cristal Aparicio) had been lured away from their father through offers of talent contracts by Katy (Yessica Borroto), a former beauty queen now working as bait for this sordid business.

While Miguel and his father are thankful to Ballard for the rescue and reunification, Ballard is still haunted by Rocio's disappearance. Miguel's childlike faith in Tim, down to giving him the St. Timothy medal that Rocio in turn had given Miguel to protect him, pushes him to expand his efforts from capturing the criminals to rescuing the children.

With the very reluctant blessings of HS, Ballard goes to Cartagena to begin his efforts. He is helped by expat Vampiro (Bill Camp), a former cartel financier who now seeks redemption by buying children and surreptitiously freeing them. Creating a cover story that Ballard is a Jeffrey Epstein-like figure who wants to create a selective hideaway for child sex slaves and their clientele, Ballard and Vampiro get help from the local police and a wealthy man named Paul (Sound of Freedom producer Eduardo Verastegui) to front the operation. While many children are rescued and the traffickers are arrested, Rocio is still missing.

It is discovered that Rocio was sold to Columbian rebels, so Tim goes into the jungles posing as a medic providing vaccinations to locals. Will his rouse work or will he be discovered before he finds Rocio?

I find the controversy surrounding Sound of Freedom very puzzling and troubling. To suggest that rescuing children from a horrific fate is somehow political is strange to my mind. The controversy is also, in my opinion, distracting from the actual film itself. Sound of Freedom runs a little over two hours long including the Special Message attached to the end of the film. 

As a side note, I wish this system of having a countdown clock appear before we get new footage would be used by the MCU folks so that we would know when or if we get a post-credit scene, but I digress.

Perhaps that Special Message where Caviezel tells us how Sound of Freedom was made five years ago but was all but shelved and encourages viewers to download a QR Code to pay for others to see it put some people off. I found it sincere and effective: more than one person whipped out their phone to get the code. 

It may be that earnestness both in the Special Message and Sound of Freedom that so bothered so many. It may be that Sound of Freedom has a vaguely religious bent that also bothered so many. I say "vaguely" because I did not see anything overt to suggest that Sound of Freedom was driven by any desire to convert people to faith be it evangelical Christianity or Ballard's Mormonism. Any furor about messaging in Sound of Freedom may be the viewer seeing things that they want to see versus what was there. 

In terms of the film itself I found one or two flaws. First is how it does seem to take a while to build up. At one point I did wonder if the child abductions and Ballard's early sting operations could have been trimmed or moved along faster. Same with the third act of Rocio's rescue from the jungle. It may have been as it was, but it did feel a bit like the story was being stretched.

The second was in Caviezel's performance. At times, he seemed too stoic and slightly removed from things. In a crucial scene where one of the pedophiles wants to take a young boy on the island, Caviezel's Ballard is striking some fierce indignation. While there is genuine anger from Caviezel as Ballard, director and cowriter Alejandro Monteverde (writing with Rod Barr) might have done well to show other emotions, such as fear.

However, what weaknesses Sound of Freedom has are made up for by other elements. Monteverde bookended Sound of Freedom by moving in to Rocio's room and then ending by moving out of it, a strong way to signify her horrific journey going full circle. The film should also be congratulated for taking a very serious and delicate subject and not sensationalize it in any way. When we get to Rocio's first rape, we get just enough to understand what will happen to her, then show her in a bathtub, obviously traumatized by the monstrous acts done. The audience understands what happened without having to go into grotesque detail. 

Monteverde also drew strong performances from the child cast, which is difficult to do. Both Avila and Aparicio did strong work as Miguel and Rocio. The film successfully resisted making the kids cute or sweet. Instead, they were innocent children put through horrific circumstances who still managed to survive and return to some form of normalcy.

Sound of Freedom also has an exceptional performance from Bill Camp as Vampiro. Camp does not make Vampiro into a saint. He drinks, he smokes, he wears boorish clothes. He is also shrewd and driven by guilt. In a beautiful monologue to Ballard, Vampiro recounts how he came to find himself as a de facto underground railroad conductor for the enslaved children. It is one that will break your heart. Camp's Vampiro is a haunted man, realizing the evil he unwittingly did and doing what he can to make amends. Far from perfect, Vampiro is relatable, and it is credit to Camp's skill that we are drawn more to him than the stoic Ballard. He gives the film its title when he encourages Ballard to hear the joyful noise of the liberated children despite not having Rocio be in that group. That sound Vampiro tells Ballard, is "the sound of freedom". 

It is unfortunate that Mira Sorvino was in a blink-and-you-miss it performance, which I think was a mistake. I also wondered why Verastegui did not play a larger part in the film. It almost seemed a cameo.

These are minor points (no pun intended). On the whole, Sound of Freedom is a sincere, well-acted film about an underreported subject. Based on the audience reaction, where I saw many people sobbing, the film succeeded in telling its story effectively. Would that all children bound in these terrible circumstances soon hear that sound of freedom.