Saturday, April 28, 2018


(UK - 2017)

Gloria Grahame won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1952's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and while she was a big star from the late 1940s through the 1950s, she's been largely forgotten aside from well-schooled movie buffs and regular viewers of Turner Classic Movies. She lived a life ready-made for the tabloids, her most notable scandal being that her fourth husband Tony Ray was the son of her second husband, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE director Nicholas Ray. As the story goes, Nicholas Ray caught Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son (from his first marriage) and promptly filed for divorce. Grahame's marriage to the younger Ray several years later in 1960 effectively got her blackballed from Hollywood, appearing in just one film that entire decade, a supporting role in the 1966 Chuck Connors western RIDE BEYOND VENGEANCE. She resurfaced in the early 1970s, paying the bills mostly in drive-in exploitation fare like 1971's BLOOD AND LACE, 1974's MAMA'S DIRTY GIRLS, 1976's MANSION OF THE DOOMED, and her final film, 1981's THE NESTING. Grahame and Tony Ray divorced in 1974 and Grahame split her time between Hollywood, NYC, and the UK, where she stayed busy doing theater work in her final years when she was terminally ill with cancer and refused to even acknowledge her condition until it was far too late. She died in 1981 at just 57.

Based on Peter Turner's 1986 memoir detailing his relationship with Grahame, FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL concentrates on the actress' final years from 1979 to 1981, and doesn't really address the more tawdry elements of her life and never even mentions the declining quality of her film work (though she did manage to land small roles in a few reputable films like 1980's MELVIN AND HOWARD). In 1981, Gloria (Annette Bening) is doing a play at a small theater in Liverpool and collapses in her dressing room just before going on stage. She calls Peter (Jamie Bell) and asks to stay with him at home of his parents Bella (Julie Walters) and Joe (Kenneth Cranham). FILM STARS then cuts back and forth between the present in 1981 and 1979, when Gloria and Peter, nearly 30 years her junior, meet and begin a torrid romance. Director Paul McGuigan (LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN) and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (CONTROL, NOWHERE BOY) generally hit all the biopic bullet points and standard-issue melodrama of a kind-hearted but sometimes mercurial, past-her-prime star and a younger man falling head over heels. FILM STARS gets its biggest benefit from a wonderful performance by Bening, who displays only a passing physical resemblance to Grahame but really captures her spirit, demeanor, and especially her voice. The filmmakers allow her to bring some complexity to a sincere but troubled person--she genuinely loves Peter and doesn't treat him as some kind of boy-toy, she generally doesn't behave like a diva and is at the point where she prefers a quieter, simpler life--and we also get to spend some time with Peter's family, who welcome Gloria into their lives with open arms. The film glosses over some details, though a dinner scene with Gloria's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her bitter sister (Frances Barber) serves to inform Peter about Tony Ray without going into too many lurid specifics (when Grahame leaves the room, her mother implores Peter, "Don't marry Gloria"). Gloria's and Peter's arguments grow a bit repetitive and tiresome in the second half, but the always-great Bening is just superb throughout, and she was getting a push for awards season recognition before Sony pretty much gave up on the film, stalling its release on just 107 screens at its widest. (R, 106 mins)

(Denmark/Canada - 2018)

A24 replicates its bizarre LAST MOVIE STAR release strategy with BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS, which premiered on DirecTV a month before its Blu-ray/DVD release, followed by a limited theatrical rollout the Friday after. There's really no viable distribution option for this unbearably dull political thriller, which isn't helped at all by a title that sounds like a YA teen comedy or the kind of movie whose poster has the tag line "The con is on." It's based on the 2010 memoir of the same title by Michael Soussan, a UN diplomat and whistleblower who exposed rampant, systemic corruption in the UN's Oil for Food Program in 2003. When economic sanctions against Iraq led to the country's economy crashing and its people starving and dying under Saddam Hussein, the Oil for Food Program was developed to sell Iraqi oil vouchers in exchange for humanitarian aid. The scandal more or less got lost in the shuffle with the mainstream media amidst the extensive reporting on the Iraqi invasion in 2003, but as a film, the utterly lifeless BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS never even comes close to catching fire. Nothing works in its favor, especially the robotic, monotone Theo James (the DIVERGENT series) as Soussan surrogate "Michael Sullivan," here upgraded to the assistant to UN Under-Secretary-General Benon "Pasha" Sevan (Ben Kingsley). Pasha's palm-greasing, money-grubbing, and assorted wheelings-and-dealings are referenced and talked about but never really demonstrably shown. He spends a lot of time lecturing the idealistic "Sullivan" with sage advice like "We never lie, but we choose our facts or truths with utmost care," and "Information is currency...it's power!"

Everyone in BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS talks like this, whether it's one Baghdad-based UN office drone telling Sullivan "We're just pawns in a bigger game, you and me," or the UN's Baghdad field chief Christine Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) yelling "Everyone is grifting! Corruption grows like a cancer!" There's a lot of talk about Sullivan's predecessor in his job being killed in a hit and run that probably wasn't an accident, and a time-consuming subplot about Pasha trying to throw a Kurdish interpreter and Sullivan love interest (Belcim Bilgin) under the bus with trumped-up espionage charges, but BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS is an oppressively boring "thriller" that might've been something worthwhile in the hands of, say, Costa-Gavras. But under the watch of director/co-writer Per Fly, it's terribly written and acted, even by a profane Kingsley, who hams mercilessly and sports an accent that has him almost constantly shouting "Fack!" This is the kind of movie that opens with a shot of the NYC skyline, the Empire State Building in plain view, accompanied by the caption "New York." This is the kind of movie that spells "Morocco" two different ways on the same closing credits page. How bad is BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS? It's so bad that it actually ends with Sullivan reflecting on the scandal and telling a reporter "The truth isn't about the lies we told each other...it's about the lies we tell ourselves." Get the fuck outta here with that shitty writing. (R, 108 mins)


(US - 2018)

After 19 years, was anyone demanding a sequel to Renny Harlin's shark movie DEEP BLUE SEA? The original film, a moderate hit that's become a cable favorite to this day, has one of the all-time great shocks I've ever experienced in a crowded movie theater (if you've seen it, you know the scene) as well as one of the dumbest closing credits songs you'll ever hear, but the primitive CGI looked bad then and is utterly laughable now. It should come as no surprise that the CGI looks pretty much the same in this low-budget, DTV sequel that, for a while, throws some pretty crazy shit at the wall to see what sticks but eventually settles into being a by-the-numbers, de facto remake of its predecessor. The only reason this even exists is that it's a recognizable name that can belatedly hitch a ride on the SHARKNADO/ SHALLOWS/ 47 METERS DOWN bandwagon. Billionaire pharmaceutical CEO and standard-issue megalomaniac Carl Durant (Michael Beach as Samuel L. Jackson) is bankrolling an illegal, off-the-books research project at an underwater research facility off the coast of South Africa. He's pumped five aggressive bull sharks full of an experimental serum that's altered their genetic structure in an attempt to get to the core of creating a hyper-intelligence that he hopes to use on humans. He and his security chief Trent Slater (JOHN DIES AT THE END's Rob Mayes as Thomas Jane) can control the sharks via key fob, but a crew of scientists recruited by Durant, led by world-renowned marine conservationist Dr. Misty Calhoun (Danielle Savre as Saffron Burrows), are appalled at the lack of ethics. Of course, the sharks start to develop intelligence beyond anyone's control--first digging a tunnel under the electric fence at the perimeter of the base--and the main female shark (named "Ella") ends up having babies, which are born addicted to Durant's super-intelligent wonder drug that--wait for it--also increases their aggression and has them attacking as quickly and ferociously as small piranha. To make matters worse, Durant's gotten himself hooked on the drug himself and grows increasingly paranoid and as the situation gets worse, he has no problem sacrificing everyone else if it means preserving his research.

That's the set-up, and while it's no great shakes, it's surprisingly not terrible even if the actors are notch below what the 1999 film could corral (Savre has more than established her DTV bona fides after BRING IT ON: ALL OR NOTHING, BOOGEYMAN 2, and JARHEAD 2: FIELDS OF FIRE). It really makes no sense why this drug has to be tested on sharks, unless it's only because Durant had nothing else to do with a massive underwater research installation he owned as was just letting go to waste. But once Ella has her babies and the underwater facility starts flooding, it's strictly business as usual as the mostly non-descript cast is devoured one by one and the script seems to completely forget about Durant getting all fucked up on his superdrug. Director Darin Scott has been around for decades--he co-wrote 1987's THE OFFSPRING and 1995's TALES FROM THE HOOD, and in the '90s, produced Charles Burnett's TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, the rap comedy FEAR OF A BLACK HAT, and the great MENACE II SOCIETY (man...DEEP BLUE SEA 2, dude? I guess a job's a job)--and brings some bizarre items to table in the early going, like opening credits that look like they belong in a 007 movie. But there is one moment in DEEP BLUE SEA 2 that's so inspired, so hilarious, so brilliantly, off-the-charts ridiculous that it makes the whole thing impossible to simply dismiss: Durant is yelling at his flunky attorney, who's concerned about the legality of that they're doing and what will become of the sharks after the research is complete. Durant says he just needs the sharks until he gets the information he needs and then he'll simply kill them off. "Not so fast," thinks the super-smart Ella, lingering outside the porthole in Durant's quarters, glaring at him and reading his lips. OK, fine, DEEP BLUE SEA 2. You win. (R, 94 mins)

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