Beatty’s return to the silver screen is as eccentric as his subject

By Richard Ades

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first appearance in front of a camera since 2001’s Town & Country—and his first appearance behind a camera since 1998’s Bulworth. That probably explains why the flick is filled with so many familiar faces.

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, left) listens as Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) testifies before Congress in Rules Don’t Apply.
Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, left) listens as Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) testifies before Congress in Rules Don’t Apply.

Paul Sorvino, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, Dabney Coleman and Annette Bening (aka Mrs. Beatty) are among the veteran A-listers who apparently were eager to take part in the actor/director’s return to the silver screen. That makes it ironic that two of the younger cast members emerge as the best reasons to see a tale based on a late chapter in the life of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich have appealing chemistry as two people in Hughes’s employ: Marla Mabrey, a would-be starlet, and Frank Forbes, a driver who’s assigned to chauffer her around. Because both Marla and Frank are devout Christians—and more particularly because Hughes forbids them to have anything but a professional relationship—that chemistry has plenty of time to percolate as the two are forced to sublimate their growing attraction for each other.

Beyond this budding romance, the film offers Beatty fans the pleasure of seeing the ex-matinee idol’s take on the secretive and exceedingly bizarre Hughes. But beyond that, it offers very little.

Set primarily in Hollywood in 1959, Rules Don’t Apply reveals Hughes’s odd penchant for signing contracts with young actresses who are given sumptuous housing but little opportunity to launch a film career. When Marla arrives along with her equally Christian mom (Bening), she’s said to be one of perhaps 26 such women who wait around for an opportunity that almost never comes.

It’s a fascinating situation, whether or not it’s entirely accurate. (The movie begins with a Hughes quotation advising us to “Never check an interesting fact.”) But the film built around that situation is frankly a mess. Early scenes end so abruptly and pointlessly that you have to wonder what the editors were thinking. Later, after Hughes emerges from the shadows, the film takes a long detour into his chaotic life that is as frustrating for us as it seems to be for the underlings who are forced to share it.

Lily Collins as aspiring movie star Marla Mabrey
Lily Collins as aspiring movie star Marla Mabrey

Throughout, consistent tone is conspicuously absent. Early developments and sumptuous visuals, including fleets of shiny vintage cars, help to establish a mood of affectionate nostalgia. But the script (co-written by Beatty) has no qualms about switching to broad comedy when chauffer Frank finally lets Marla take the wheel, only to watch her morph from a cautious and conservative young woman to a highway terror.

Collins’s character undergoes another transformation for the sake of a later plot point. Though a demure teetotaler, Marla turns into a booze-guzzling vamp the first time alcohol passes her lips. Despite being every parent’s worst nightmare, the scene just doesn’t ring true.

Like his many co-stars, Beatty’s fans will no doubt be glad to see him back after so many years of absence. But they might wish he’d taken a refresher course in filmmaking before attempting his return.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Rules Don’t Apply (PG-13) opens Wednesday (Nov. 23) at theaters nationwide.

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Like a less curmudgeonly, more Scandinavian version of Doc Martin

Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove
Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove

By Richard Ades

Fans of the British TV series Doc Martin know grumpy heroes can be both endearing and entertaining. Now we have a Swedish movie, A Man Called Ove, that aims to prove they can be just as endearing and entertaining in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road.

If the flick doesn’t succeed quite as brilliantly, it’s because director/screenwriter Hannes Holm doesn’t have the series’ knack for tickling us with quirky comedy before surprising us with heart-stopping suspense or heartwarming drama. The film, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel, takes a more direct route to our emotions.

We first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgard) when he’s haggling with a store clerk over the price of a bouquet of flowers. He comes off as an unreasonable, disagreeable curmudgeon. Then, in the next scene, we realize he bought the flowers to take to his late wife’s grave. Oops. I guess we should give the old guy a break.

Another reason for pitying him arrives when his young bosses call him into their office and pretend they’re doing him a favor by laying him off from the company where he’s worked for 43 years. Little wonder that Ove—wifeless, friendless and now jobless—is soon attempting suicide. The only thing that stops him is the arrival of a new family of neighbors led by Parvanah (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Iranian immigrant who immediately begins inserting herself into Ove’s lonely existence.

From this point on, the film revolves on the question of whether the friendly Parvanah will succeed in renewing Ove’s interest in the world and those who share it. Though he continues trying to join his wife in the great beyond, the film gives us little reason for pessimism. For one thing, Parvanah is such a bubbly force of nature that it’s impossible to believe he can resist her for long. For another, numerous episodes reveal that Ove is far less misanthropic than he pretends to be.

One such incident involves another Doc Martin parallel: Just as Martin is bedeviled by a homeless dog that refuses to leave him alone, Ove is bedeviled by a fluffy homeless cat. Yet as soon as the cat is threatened, he comes to its rescue.

Other scenes depict Ove as downright heroic. At times, when he alone steps forward to prevent a tragedy, he appears to be the only heroic person in Sweden.

Through much of the film, incidents from Ove’s current life are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood and young adulthood. The most charming of these depict how he met Sonja (Ida Engvoll), the outgoing woman who became his wife. The most puzzling involves an encounter with one of the dictatorial officials he refers to as “whiteshirts.”

The flashbacks show the developments that helped to turn Ove into the sad individual he’s become, but in the process they give the film an episodic structure. They also reinforce the flick’s tendency toward heavy-handed melodrama.

Though flawed, A Man Called Ove paints a warm portrait of an aging individual who’s given a well-deserved second chance at life. As a popular example of modern Swedish cinema—it’s the country’s nominee for a Foreign Language Film Oscar—it may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the dour works of Ingmar Bergman.

As for fans of Doc Martin who are looking for an emergency dose of curmudgeonhood, they’ll probably be less satisfied. Fortunately for them, an eighth (and supposedly last) season is set to air next year.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

A Man Called Ove, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Oct. 21) at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St., Bexley.

Love of cartoons opens door to boy’s closed mind

Owen Suskind, whose struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.
Owen Suskind’s struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.

By Richard Ades

The first time we meet Owen Suskind, it’s in home movies that show him as a young boy playing with his father and brother and watching Mickey Mouse on TV. The second time we meet him, he’s a 20-something man muttering to himself in cartoon-like voices.

The connection between the child and the man is explained in Life, Animated, a documentary that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Directed by 2010 Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence), it’s about a family’s struggle to connect with a son afflicted by severe autism.

According to Owen’s father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the first signs of trouble arose after his son turned 3. Though Owen had been developing as expected until then, he suddenly stopped communicating or learning new language, and he regularly had trouble sleeping.

Ron said he and his wife, Cornelia, tried to find out why, but it was like “looking for clues to a kidnapping.” The Owen they knew seemed to have disappeared.

The only bright spot in young Owen’s life was that he appeared to love watching the family’s VHS collection of Disney animated films. But it wasn’t until Ron made an astonishing discovery that this proved to be the key that would unlock the door to his son’s private world.

One day, in a desperate attempt to reopen communications with Owen, Ron greeted him with a squawking impersonation of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. To his surprise, Owen responded with lines from the movie. The father soon realized that Owen had memorized not just Aladdin but all the Disney flicks, a fact he used to open up more channels of communication.

Though Life, Animated is about a man mesmerized by Disney tales, don’t expect it to follow a simple path to a Disney-like happy ending. The documentary frankly shows the ups and downs Owen encounters as his family tries to push him toward leading a full, independent adult life.

Romance is a particularly difficult problem. Even though Owen begins hanging out with a young woman he considers his girlfriend, he has no idea what a romantic relationship entails. “Disney doesn’t help with sex,” notes his concerned brother, ironically named Walt.

The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.
The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.

Helping director Williams tell this fascinating story are animators Mathieu Batard and Olivier Lescot and animation producer Philippe Sonrier, who bring to life the cartoon characters and dramas Owen imagines on his own. A couple of celebrity voice actors also show up in a surprise visit to a class Owen organizes for people who share his challenges.

If the movie has one element that may rub some the wrong way, it’s that the background music is occasionally on the manipulative side. Mostly, though, it’s as on target as the rest of this unique and heartwarming film.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Life, Animated (rated PG) opens Friday (July 29) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For tickets and show times, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.

Reopened theater hosts revisited sitcom characters

Patsy (Joanna Lumley, left) and Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) toast what they hope is their good fortune in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Patsy (Joanna Lumley, left) and Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) toast what they hope is their good fortune in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

By Richard Ades

Absolutely fabulous. That’s the only way to describe Bexley’s renovated Drexel Theatre.

New décor. New seats. Best of all, new restrooms that are finally worthy of the well-heeled suburb where the landmark cinema sits. Their rundown predecessors were scarier than the average horror flick, but the new ones are so gorgeous that patrons will be tempted to gulp down a super-sized soda just so they’ll have an excuse to visit them.

Overall, the recently reopened Drexel is so posh that Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone would feel right at home there.

Wait. Who?

For those who don’t recognize those names, Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) are the anti-heroines of both a film that opens at the Drexel this weekend and the classic British sitcom that spawned it. Both the series and the film are called Absolutely Fabulous.

Whether you think the film lives up to that name may depend on whether you were a fan of the series. Directed by Mandie Fletcher and written (like the TV show) by Saunders, the comedy jumps into Eddy and Patsy’s gaudy, glitzy world so abruptly that “Ab Fab” neophytes will have trouble getting their bearings.

In case you fit into this category, here’s a head start:

Officially, Eddy is in public relations and Patsy is a fashion editor, but they actually spend most of their time partying, getting high and trying desperately to hang onto their youth. Among the many people who share their world are:

▪ Eddy’s mother (June Whitfield)
▪ Eddy’s divorced daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha)
▪ Saffron’s teenage daughter, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness)
▪ Eddy’s bizarrely dressed personal assistant, Bubble (Jane Horrocks)

The far-fetched plot involves real-life model Kate Moss, whom Eddy desperately wants as a client. Eddy enlists Patsy and Lola in a scheme to meet Moss at a party, but all goes tragically wrong when the model falls off a balcony and into the Thames, where she’s lost and presumably drowned.

Suspected of pushing Moss to her death, Eddy ends up fleeing to the south of France with her lifelong friend. There they face the sobering fact that they’ll soon be destitute unless one of them finds a meal ticket, and fast. The result is a subterfuge that involves a fake mustache and a lonely, gullible billionaire.

Along its way to a finale that intentionally calls to mind Some Like It Hot, Absolutely Fabulous hopscotches its way through lots of beautiful scenery, lots of colorfully grotesque characters, and lots and lots of cameos (though few of them involve celebs familiar to Americans). Through it all, Eddy and Patsy remain as self-centered and immature as they’ve been since the series debuted in 1992.

Ab Fab newbies may get a few chuckles out of this meandering comedy, once they’re gotten past the unfamiliar accents and characters. As for longtime fans, they may get a few more—heck, they started laughing as soon as Eddy and Patsy made their first appearance at the screening I attended. But I suspect even they will admit the film’s real draw is the chance to see their favorite scamps one more time.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5) for Ab Fab newbies, 3½ for Ab Fab fans

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (rated R) opens Friday (July 22) at the Drexel Theatre and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

‘Spotlight’ shines in 14th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

Central Ohio’s film critics have voted on their favorite films and performances of 2015. I’m happy to report that my favorite 2015 release, Spotlight, won some of the top awards. The press release is below:

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James (from left) play journalists investigating pedophile priests in Spotlight (Open Road Films)
Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James (from left) play journalists investigating pedophile priests in Spotlight (Open Road Films)

(Columbus, Jan. 7, 2016) Tom McCarthy’s investigative drama Spotlight has been named Best Film in the Central Ohio Film Critics Association’s 14th annual awards, which recognize excellence in the film industry for 2015. The film also claimed three other awards. McCarthy was honored as Best Director. The cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, was named Best Ensemble. And Josh Singer and McCarthy won for Best Original Screenplay.

Columbus-area critics lauded Alicia Vikander with three awards: Best Supporting Actress (Ex Machina); Actor of the Year for her exemplary body of work in Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son and Testament of Youth; and Breakthrough Film Artist. Other individual screen performers commended for their achievements include Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), who previously was named COFCA’s Best Actor in 2006 for The Departed; Best Actress Brie Larson (Room); and Best Supporting Actor Benicio Del Toro (Sicario).

The Revenant’s Emmanuel Lubezki won Best Cinematography. COFCA members also tabbed him for Best Cinematography in 2011 for The Tree of Life and in 2013 for Gravity. Other winners include: Mad Max: Fury Road’s Margaret Sixel for Best Film Editing; The Big Short’s Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for Best Adapted Screenplay; The Hateful Eight’s Ennio Morricone for Best Score; Best Documentary The Look of Silence; Best Foreign Language Film Phoenix; Best Animated Film Inside Out; and The Tribe (Plemya) as Best Overlooked Film.

Founded in 2002, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association is composed of film critics based in Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding areas. Its membership consists of 21 print, radio, television and Internet critics. COFCA’s official website at www.cofca.org contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on Jan. 7.

Complete list of awards:

Best Film
1. Spotlight
2. Inside Out
3. Room
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
5. Ex Machina
6. Sicario
7. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
8. The Revenant
9. The Big Short
10. The Martian

Best Director
-Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
-Runner-up: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actor
-Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
-Runner-up: Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Best Actress
-Brie Larson, Room
-Runners-up: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn; and Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Supporting Actor
-Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
-Runner-up: Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

Best Supporting Actress
-Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
-Runner-up: Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Best Ensemble
Spotlight
-Runner-up: The Hateful Eight

Alicia Vikander as an advanced robot named Ava in Ex Machina
Alicia Vikander as an advanced robot named Ava in Ex Machina

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Alicia Vikander, Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from
U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son and Testament of Youth
-Runner-up: Domhnall Gleeson, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, The Revenant and Star
Wars: Episode VII -The Force Awakens

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Alicia Vikander, Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from
U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son and Testament of Youth (for acting)
-Runner-up: Sean Baker, Tangerine (for producing, directing, screenwriting, film editing, cinematography, camera operation and casting)

Best Cinematography
-Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
-Runner-up: John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Film Editing
-Margaret Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road
-Runner-up: Joe Walker, Sicario

Best Adapted Screenplay
-Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, The Big Short
-Runner-up: Emma Donoghue, Room

Best Original Screenplay
-Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
-Runner-up: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, Inside Out

Best Score
-Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
-Runner-up: Junkie XL, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Documentary
The Look of Silence
-Runner-up: Amy

Best Foreign Language Film
Phoenix
-Runner-up: Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)

Best Animated Film
Inside Out
-Runner-up: Anomalisa

Best Overlooked Film
The Tribe (Plemya)
-Runner-up: The Gift

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

One man’s quest to fly under the gaydar

Director David Thorpe (center) and friends in Do I Sound Gay?
Director David Thorpe (center) and friends in Do I Sound Gay?

By Richard Ades

David Thorpe likes being gay. He just doesn’t like broadcasting his sexual orientation every time he opens his mouth.

Thorpe’s attempt to avoid that is the subject of his new documentary, Do I Sound Gay?

The flick’s theme is bound to raise questions right off the bat. For starters: Why would an openly gay man want to disguise his gayness, especially in an era when society finally seems to be becoming more open-minded about homosexuality?

Thorpe has trouble answering this question, noting only that he’s in his 40s, still single and lacks confidence—all of which “might be why I’m obsessed with sounding gay,” the first-time director says.

But if Thorpe has trouble explaining why he wants to get rid of his gay voice, at least he does a good job of explaining what a stereotypical gay voice is. While careful to note that not all gay men sound gay—and, conversely, not all men who sound gay really are gay—he has a speech therapist lay out its components. They include nasality, high pitch, careful enunciation and a tendency to prolong vowels and “s’s.”

With the therapist’s help, Thorpe works to expunge any such qualities from his speech patterns. At the same time, he talks to friends about their own attitudes toward “sounding gay.”

Also interviewed on the subject are gay celebs such as sex columnist David Savage, Project Runway’s Tim Gunn and Star Trek alum George Takei. Most say it really doesn’t matter what one sounds like, but David Sedaris reveals mixed feelings about his own high-pitched voice. The writer admits that he sometimes worries it will turn off other gay men and the world in general.

Other gay men? The film points out that gay porn invariably features actors with deep, manly voices. Sounding gay is fine in the living room, it suggests, but a no-no in the bedroom. Hmm, maybe we’re getting to the root of Thorpe’s motivation.

The film covers lots of other territory, including the long history of stereotypically gay characters in Hollywood movies.

In one of the more serious segments, it also acknowledges that sounding and acting gay can be dangerous, even in our supposedly enlightened era. The proof is Zach, a flamboyant teen who proudly labels himself a diva but is secretly traumatized by the backlash he receives from classmates.

Thorpe is familiar with such backlash, recalling that, as a youngster, he toned down his own flamboyant tendencies to avoid being bullied by classmates. It wasn’t until much later, he learns from a cousin, that he reclaimed his gay mannerisms.

Given the director’s closeness to the topic, it’s not surprising that Do I Sound Gay falls short of being a great documentary. After more or less stumbling into the controversial subject and attacking it from every possible angle, Thorpe walks a tightrope at the end, trying to wrap things up in a way that placates anyone he might have offended.

Even so, give him credit for tackling the prickly topic in the first place and for examining it in a way that’s entertaining and sometimes even enlightening.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Do I Sound Gay? (unrated) opened Aug. 7 at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St. For information, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.

Beware of ex-classmates bearing fish

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)
Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)

By Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Gift, rated R, opens Friday (Aug. 7) at theaters nationwide.