Films I Neglected To Review: Hope-Less Romantics

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/24/20 07:14:20

Please enjoy short reviews of "Dreaming Grand Avenue," "Enola Holmes," "Jay Sebring. . . Cutting to the Truth," "Misbehaviour" and "Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood History."

In "Dreaming Grand Avenue," the extremely audacious second feature from writer-director Hugo Schulze, Jimmy (Jackson Rathbone) and Maggie (Andrea Londo) are two young people who live and work in Chicago--he as a struggling artist resisting pressure from his girlfriend (Bryce Gangel) to get a straight job and join the real world and she as a day care center worker who personally feels a sense of pain and horror whenever there is a report of a child being neglected or killed--but who have never actually met before. Nevertheless, they each find themselves turning up in each other's extremely vivid dreams night after night. While Maggie takes part in a dream research study to get to the bottom of what is going on in her head while she sleeps, Jimmy is taken under the wing of a self-professed "dream detective" (Tony Fitzpatrick), who sends him on a journey to confront his past, present and possible future. Their misadventures also include an appearance by none other than Walt Whitman (Troy West) himself, introduced here performing on Poetry Slam night at the famed Green Mill Lounge, and the presence of Andromeda (Wendy Robie), who appears to be the chief overseer of the entire dream world and who takes a special interest in the fate of Jimmy and Maggie.

With a premise as offbeat as this, there is an excellent chance that this film will simply not "work," as they say, for a number of viewers who may be perplexed by the combination of romantic fantasy, recognizable reality and the odd splashes of noir and horror elements scattered here and there. I can't really say that it all pulls together into a cohesive whole--with such diverse ingredients, how could it?--but I didn't actually mind. Stylistically, it reminded me a lot of the great films of the perpetually underrated filmmaker Alan Rudolph--especially "Choose Me" (1984), "Trouble in Mind" (1986), "Love at Large" (1990) and "Equinox" (1993)--and if Schulze is not quite as adept as a writer-director, he certainly is as ambitious and he ultimately hits more of his targets than he misses. The performances are quite good as well, with Londo and Fitzpatrick both being especially good at finding just the right approach to their characters to help them negotiate the sometimes strange waters. Additionally--and I recognize that this will probably not be a consideration for many of you reading this--it has been more than six months since I have actually set foot in Chicago and just to be able to see the sights once again (the city is practically a character itself in this story) was enough to make my heart swoon. As I said, "Dreaming Grand Avenue" is a strange duck of a film and your mileage with it may vary greatly from mine. However, if you do find yourself sharing its peculiar wavelength, there is an excellent chance that you will have a lot of fun with it.

As "Enola Holmes" opens, the titular tween (Millie Bobbie Brown) has learned that her mother Eudora (Helena Bonham Carter), a brilliant and independent woman who homeschooled her daughter with an emphasis on history and puzzle solving, has seemingly vanished without a trace. She is ready to find her on her own but when her older brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin)--yes, that Sherlock and Mycroft--she is shuttled off at the latter's insistence to a finishing school so that she can learn the importance of wearing a corset and landing a fella. She soon escapes and while heading to London to search for her mother, she crosses paths with the young Marquess Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), who is fleeing both his family and, it soon transpires, an assassin. This leads her to use her considerable skill set to navigate any number of pitfalls--complex clues, the mysterious killer and the everyday problems encountered by a young woman trying to maintain independence in a patriarchal society--with the political future of England at stake.

As attempts to spin off Arthur Conan Doyle's legacy to a younger generation go, "Enola Holmes" certainly beats the atrocious "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985)--it is handsomely mounted, contains a nice performance from Brown as Enola and a surprisingly effective turn by Cavill as Holmes, who is presented here in slightly more humanistic terms than usual without sacrificing his typically oddball behavior. The trouble with the film is that in their efforts to bring the YA book series by Nancy Springer to the screen and launch a new franchise for Netflix, screenwriter Jack Thorne and director Harry Bradbeer wind up losing the plot a bit along the way. While I have no doubt about Enola's abilities to juggle two mysteries at the same time, the same cannot be said for Thorne and Bradbeer and as the film goes on (eventually clocking in at over two hours for no real reason), it just gets too convoluted for its own good as key plot points (such as the impending vote on 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act) are not explained in a coherent enough manner for viewers to understand why they have been included. Another aspect that might be problematic for some viewers is that while the premise may make it seem ideal for younger viewers, it has a few moments of serious-minded violence that might prove to be too much for some of them. And yet, while it is a little too bloated and disorganized for its own good, most of the pieces for a good movie are there. Perhaps when they get around to do a second one, the filmmakers can shake off the weight of being an origin story, develop a more streamlined narrative and become the winning and satisfying entertainment that it should have been the first time around.

Throughout the Sixties, Jay Sebring made a name for himself in the emerging world of men's hairstying--he worked with most of the top male celebrities of the era, he created the signature cuts sported by Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus," Steve McQueen in "Bullitt" and Jim Morrisson when he burst onto the scene and developed an empire that would include franchised salons throughout America and Europe and products for home use. However, if he is remembered at all today, it is as one of the "others" who was brutally murdered alongside Sharon Tate by members of the Manson Family on August 8, 1969. His nephew, Anthony DiMaria, has been determined to reclaim his uncle’s legacy to remind people that he was more than just the answer to a grisly trivia question. The result is "Jay Sebring...Cutting to the Truth," a ne documentary that spends about half its running time recounting his life and work with the aid of archival footage (including an intriguing instructional film made for his salons that serves as a sort of connective tissue) and new interviews with family and friends evidently shot over a period of years (since several of the commentators have themselves passed on, including Dennis Hopper, Vic Damone and Dominick Dunne) and the other half correcting rumors and falsehoods that have sprung up about him over the years, thanks mostly to a borderline slanderous (and oddly uncredited) Time Magazine article and the Vincent Bugliosi bestseller "Helter Skelter."

The resulting work is of such a deeply personal nature that I almost hesitated to give it a formal review--critiquing it would feel like criticizing someone's home movie or a video tribute shown at a funeral. The film is at its best when DiMaria sticks to reminding viewers of who Sebring was and how visionary his notion of a men's haircare empire would prove to be over time, even if he wasn't around to see the industry that he helped to create from virtually nothing explode into one eventually worth billions of dollars--the archival footage is fascinating and interviews help to flesh him out and give us a fuller sense of who Sebring was, even though the amount of now-deceased subjects offering commentary does get a bit distracting. When it comes to dealing with Sebring's murder and the way that his death was exploited from all ends while he went forgotten, things get a lot shakier. He rails against filmmakers and authors who have exploited his uncle's tragic end for their own means but at the same time, he includes an interview with Quentin Tarantino in which he promises to present him as a full character in "Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood," which once again ended up regaling him to the sidelines. He also properly castigates the media for sensationalizing the story with lurid claims that were spread around without any proof but attempts to do the same thing himself with a would-be bombshell revelation in the final minutes--one slightly undercut by the person making it not only admitting that he has now proof but blanking on the name "Polanski" as well. Not surprisingly, Polanski doesn't come off well here but some of the elements DiMaria uses to plead his case in this regard--a recording of a police interview the still-shocked filmmaker gave after returning to America following his notification of the murders and his decision not to do a new interview--are not entirely convincing either. "Jay Sebring. . . Cutting to the Truth" is not without interest but in the end, the only people who will find it of genuine interest are those who already know about the man and his accomplishments in the first place.

Based on a true story--several, in fact--"Misbehaviour" centers around the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant, held that year in London, and shows what happened when the sexist fantasies that it projected to the outside world collided with the rising voices of the emerging women's liberation movement, a brewing conflict that wound up exploding in front of the eyes of millions thanks to no less a figure than Bob Hope himself. Keira Knightley stars as Sally Alexander, a burgeoning feminist and single mother trying to make it as a history student in the face of casual sexism at school and an old-fashioned mother (Phyllis Logan) who wishes she would just stay home and be a proper lady and homemaker. She soon falls in with an activist group led by the rebellious Jo Robinson (Jesse Buckley) and they hit upon the idea of infiltrating the audience of the upcoming Miss World pageant and disrupting its live broadcast to protest its sexist and retrograde attitudes. As it turns out, among the contestants are two women of color--Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) from Grenada and Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison), chosen as a second representative from South Africa in a cynical ploy to head off anti-apartheid protesters--and while even they realize on some level that the whole thing is hokum, they also known that a win by someone who looks like them could be an inspiration to countless young girls around the world that they could achieve the seemingly unthinkable as well. Hovering on the sidelines through all this is Hope (Greg Kinnear), who is there basically to grab a quick paycheck for ogling pretty women and trotting out an array of stale, sexist jokes that, to put it mildly, do not go over quite as expected this time around.

With its undeniably interesting story and strong cast of actors, "Misbehaviour" seems like a can’t-miss proposition—sort of a real-life version of Michael Ritchie's brilliant beauty pageant-inspired satire "Smile" (1975)--so it is more than a little frustrating to watch it never quite hit its marks. With one exception--we'll get to that in a bit--there is nothing about it that is especially awful but it pulls together into the film that it might have been. One big problem is that while the screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe contains any number of intriguing narrative threads, they have elected to put much of the focus on the least interesting of the bunch, the gradual radicalization of Sally Alexander in the face of opposition from her mother and fellow students that is driven by her determination to improve things for her own daughter. This is okay--I could have lived without the bit where the stick-in-the-mud grandmother has a last-minute change of heart--but it is the kind of thing we have seen many times before--meanwhile, the infinitely more interesting stories involving Janssen and Hosten (who would, Spoiler Alert, go on to become the first black winner of the competition) are, ironically, given nothing more than a surface treatment. The performances from Knightley, Buckley and Mbatha-Raw (not to mention Loreece Harrison as Janssen) are all good--Mbatha-Raw is the best of the bunch--but nothing that they do here is especially memorable or revelatory. The performance that is memorable, for all the wrong reasons, is the frankly terrible work done by Kinnear as Bob Hope. Granted, playing someone as famous and recognizable as Hope is always a gamble but his take is just as hacky and unconvincing as the material Hope was delivering at that point in his career--considering how well Kinnear managed to assume the persona of Bob Crane in "Auto Focus," it is disconcerting to see just how badly he whiffs it here. During the where-are-they-now? title cards running before the end credits, we discover that most of the key participants in this saga are still alive and you can’t help but think that "Misbehaviour" might have made for a stronger and more effective recounting of the story if it had just been done as a documentary in the first place.

Based on the book by Mollie Gregory, "Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood History" is a well-meaning but okay-at-best documentary on a subject that frankly deserves a more dynamic treatment than it has received here. After offering a brief recounting of the past history of female stunt performers (we learn that the industry was a lot more open-minded about women doing stunts in the early days until they realized it was a money-making business and chose to let sexism take over by casting female performers aside in favor of stuntmen in wigs and dresses), the heart of the film is dominated by conversations between pioneering female stuntwomen like Jadie David and Jeannie Pepper (who filled in, respectively, for Pam Grier in "Foxy Brown" and Lynda Carter on "Wonder Woman") and current-day experts like Debbie Evans (who did the driving for Carrie-Anne Moss during the chase in "The Matrix Reloaded") and Heidi Moneymaker (who has stepped in for Scarlett Johansson for the intricate Black Widow fight scenes in numerous MCU films). These scenes are the best and it is a lot of fun to see the younger players listening in awe at the things their predecessors did to create an illusion. (David and Pepper are so engaging and have such great stories to tell they could easily be the focus of their own individual documentaries.) The problem with the film is that director April Wright presents the material in an energetic but occasionally scattershot manner and never quite manages to give a compelling presentation of the actual nuts-and-bolts of what goes into preparing and executing the stunts that the performers here undertake at what is, despite all the precautions, considerable personal risk. "Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood History" is a pretty good basic introduction to the craft and the people who pursue it, albeit one that will leave most viewers wishing that it had contained a little more substance in the end.

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