Friday, December 25, 2020

Recasting 1998: "Primary Colors"

I had a little trouble at first deciding which film to choose from this year. Often I've had in my mind what roles I wish I'd seen Meryl do for some time, and they do tend to fall in line with ones that have been critically acclaimed or done well with industry awards. When I realized I'd overlooked one of my all-time favorite films, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought to myself, "Duh."

Mike Nichols's comedy-drama Primary Colors was adapted from the novel of the same name. It was originally published anonymously, until journalist Joe Klein took credit a few years later. The story follows the tumultuous presidential campaign of a Southern governor in the early 90s. Basically it's Bill and Hillary Clinton. 

I was definitely not a teenager who followed politics, other than what was probably sensationalized on TV. But I seem to remember seeing the cast of this film on an episode of Oprah around the time it was released. I don't know for sure if it was before or after I saw the film in the theater, but I do remember being rather interested in it and its characters. Perhaps it was that it de-glamorized politicians and leaders down to folks who didn't seem all that different from me and my family in rural Minnesota. 

Meryl didn't really do a lot of political stuff back then, at least in terms of roles. It wasn't until after George Bush had been in office for a while did we start to see her in things that seemed to have more of a message or commentary on U.S. politics. The Manchurian Candidate, Rendition, Lions for Lambs. She was going to do a Martha Mitchell biopic around 2007 with Ryan Murphy that never came to fruition, and she dropped out of 2006's All the King's Men, which starred Sean Penn. Tackling the role of Susan Stanton in Primary Colors would therefore have been a fun early step into the types of projects to which she more regularly attached herself. 

The movie is mostly from the point of view of a young African American political adviser (played by Adrian Lester) who joins Jack Stanton's campaign to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency. John Travolta plays Stanton, in a borderline parody of Bill Clinton as the governor. The great Emma Thompson of course originated the role of Susan. 

Writing about theses characters after 2016 has a bit of a somber feel to it. Susan, much like I expect Hillary Clinton was during her husband's political career, is often forced to convince herself that the political end always justifies the means. Even if it ends up damaging her marriage. Not that Susan is OK with Jack's philandering, but she's got an air pragmatism that Clinton herself seemed to demonstrate whenever faced with her own campaign woes. There was always a sense of "Do whatever you have to do. We'll ask forgiveness for any fallout after we win." Our current president isn't actually that different, other than that he never really seems to be concerned about the fallout either. 

I once saw an interviewer mention to Thompson that when she watched Emma's character on screen, she thought to herself, "The wrong person's running for president!" Oh the foreshadowing in that. The smartest one in the room is relegated to the supportive spouse role. But Susan to some extent is part of her own problem. She's a victim in regard to her husband's infidelity, but she wants the win. She wants and works for the position as much, if not harder than, Jack. Yes, yes, she wants it because she supports his vision and it matches her own of what is right for America, but she could also do that without being married to the guy. 

I know that's so much easier said than done. I cannot even imagine how challenging it would be to have your entire life under a microscope, with people just waiting for you to screw up so they can initiate the dogpile. I wish I could've found a video online of the scene where Susan finds out that Henry (Lester) went behind her back with another member of the campaign to conduct a secret amniocentesis on the Stantons' young babysitter, whom Jack is rumored to have impregnated. It's a devastating scene and brilliantly acted by Thompson. Some good stuff for Meryl to sink her teeth into here. 

Kathy Bates, however, really is the best thing about this film. Her character of Libby Holden is one of my all-time favorites on screen. The somewhat off-kilter "dust buster" of the campaign is a moral counterpart to the Stantons' "prevail at all costs" approach. 

The film was generally well-received by critics (81% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it had a disappointing box office run. Being it was released in March 1998, just a couple months into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, one has to wonder if that hurt its performance with audiences. The resemblance of Jack Stanton to Bill Clinton may have turned folks off to the idea of watching a movie about him at the time that made him out to be the good guy. On the other hand, during a scandal sometimes people can't get enough of it and it's possible it actually helped drive viewers to the theater. And maybe it's just that it wasn't that great of a movie. 

Regardless, I happen to love the film and have continued to revisit it over the years. Even if it's just for Kathy Bates's great delivery of Libby's wisecracks, it's definitely worth the watch. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Recasting 1997: "As Good as it Gets"

Coming off a string of films in this recasting project that are decidedly not comedic, it's nice to have something a tad lighter for this week's pick. James L. Brooks's romantic comedy is a fun choice for me. I'd considered including Terms of Endearment early on, but it just didn't seem the right fit. It was therefore a nice compromise when I remembered Brooks also directed one of my all-time favorite films of the 90s, As Good as it Gets. 

The film stars Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt as a sort of oddball pairing of love interests. He's got obsessive-compulsive disorder and can only be served by Hunt's character, Carol, who plays a waitress in Manhattan. Turns out Carol has a chronically sick son. When she doesn't show up at work one day because she has to take her son the ER, Nicholson's character (Melvin), who happens to be a successful romance novelist, pays for a private doctor to ensure Carol doesn't have to miss any future shifts. 

First off, let's talk about the age difference. I know it's "only a number" but Nicholson is nearly 30 years older than Hunt. Not that I care that the characters get together with such a spread between them, nor have I historically found it distracting in this film (for better or worse). The point is that Nicholson is perfectly cast in this movie, so I see little issue with casting someone older in Carol's role. Meryl, incidentally, is only fourteen years older than Hunt. "But Carol has a young child in this movie!" someone might argue. Yes, while I think it's a bit of a stretch for someone Streep's age at the time to have a seven year-old (Streep was in her late 40s at the time of filming), let's not forget about the project Meryl actually starred in back in 1997. 

...First Do No Harm was a television movie from 1997 where Meryl portrayed a mother fighting to find a treatment for her son's uncontrolled epilepsy. Interesting parallel between these two pictures. Another coincidence is that the young actor who plays her son in ...First Do No Harm is actually a month younger that the actor who played the son in As Good as it Gets. We had little trouble believing it in ...First Do No Harm, so I doubt we'd think much about it in the latter film. I know I'm probably getting into the weeds about this age thing, but I like to be able to realistically picture Meryl in the roles for which I'm recasting her--with as few changes to the original movie possible. 

One little snag might be Carol's mother, played hilariously by Shirley Knight. She's only thirteen years old than Meryl. But we've seen even narrower age gaps between onscreen parents and children in other high-profile films that pulled it off just fine (Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter comes to mind). Fun fact though: I've read that Betty White was originally offered the role of Carol's mom, but declined it due to how the dog was treated in the script. That would've been an amazingly fun paring to see with Meryl, and a much more realistic age difference (27 years). 

"Con-science?!" I enjoy that line. As much as I adore this film, I do tend to think Hunt is a bit extra at times, like she's going for laughs too obviously. I've never seen a single episode of Mad About You, so I don't know if this performance has ever been compared to her role in that sitcom, but I wouldn't be surprised. It's in areas like this that I feel Meryl would've been able to provide some more interesting nuance to the lines. 

I'd be remiss not to mention the great Greg Kinnear from this film. He of course plays Simon, who lives across the hall from Melvin and is out on his luck after getting badly injured in a robbery attack. Melvin begrudgingly agrees to drive Simon to his parents' to ask them for money. But not before he guilts Carol into joining them. It's on this misfit road trip that we get some of the best moments in the film. 

As awful as it is, my husband and I both laughed out loud when I played this clip and we hear the line, "Carol the waitress, Simon the fag." But it's absolutely fitting for Melvin, whom we get to see learn to be a "better man." There are times where one thinks, "why the hell is she even remotely interested in this guy." It really doesn't seem to be because of the money he had which helps out her son. His act in doing so, while completely selfish as far as its motivation for him, showed Carol a different side that we can actually see her growing affections as somewhat believable. That's a tricky thing to negotiate in this character I think. Melvin's such a nightmare at times and Carol doesn't seem to mess around. Or maybe it's just that she's barely had time for in the past several years, and she's not really sure who she is without having her son's medical emergencies run her life. 

The movie a huge box-office success. It raked in $314 million against a budget of only $50 million. Critics hailed it as one of the best of the year as well. It currently holds an 85% "fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes.  and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Hunt and Nicholson both won Lead Acting Oscars, as well as at the Golden Globes. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

No Ledbetter for Streep

I had posted back in February that Meryl was announced as a co-producer of Rachel Feldman's movie, Lilly. It's to be a biopic of Lilly Ledbetter, who's fight for equal pay was passed as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. At the time, I found it strange that Meryl was announced as co-producing, but not that she would be starring. Seemed to be up her ally in regard to baity roles. 

Cut to a couple days ago, where an interview was released with Feldman and producer J. Todd Harris about the film's status. There was a specific question for Feldman about how Meryl ended up getting involved, and Feldman's response made it clear about Meryl's potential participation as Lilly: 

I wrote her (Meryl) an old-fashioned letter, in her mailbox, simply saying that I had written a screenplay about Lilly Ledbetter and asked if she would consider reading it. In a beautiful email, she wrote back saying she was well aware of how important Lilly's story was. She wanted to read the script but made it clear that she would not want to play the role. She read LILLY and loved it. She told me that she was 100% behind me and asked how she could help. What a remarkable woman!

So I guess that's that. I'd be curious to know why Meryl was so sure about whether or not she'd portray Lilly prior to even reading the script, which she apparently loved. Based on Feldman's response, it seems that was the case (that Meryl declined taking the role before reading it). 

I read this Friday and thought to myself, "Oh shoot. It would've been nice to hear confirmation of a lead role for Meryl."  I'd been thinking about her current filming of Don't Look Up, where by all accounts her role will be supporting. We don't have real confirmation of her involvement in Damien Chazelle's Babylon at this point, but that too would be supporting. I'd thought for a second, "We haven't seen her in a lead role since The Post in 2017." I had to laugh then, as I realized that that very evening I'd be watching Meryl in a new lead role for the second consecutive day. I felt a little less disappointed then. 

Either way, I'll be interested to see the full extent of Meryl's involvement in Lilly. It's an important story and I hope it does end up getting filmed. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Film review: "The Prom" (2020)

Two lead Meryl roles in two days! After yet another long day of work behind a mask and face shield, I was able to plop in front of the tube with my husband and a glass of wine to enjoy the fun of The Prom. 

Director Ryan Murphy's Netflix adaptation of the Broadway musical stayed very true to its theater roots. There was a song about every two minutes. Not that I necessarily mind--musicals are one of my favorite genres. I was a little worried I would think it was too cheesy and exceedingly low brow. Turns out it was cheesy and low brow. But I had no need to worry, as I really enjoyed it nonetheless. 

The film starts off with Indiana teenager, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman in her film debut), faced with being unable to bring her girlfriend to her high school prom. Enter fading Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), who bemoan the awful reviews of their new musical, "Eleanor." It was already here where I felt the story jumped ahead faster than I would expect, with Dee Dee and Barry teaming up with fellow actors Tom and Angie (Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman, respectively) to find a cause célèbre to bring publicity to their careers. They of course choose Emma and her Twitter-trending plight of homophobia. 

The New Yorkers who descend on Indiana to "help" Emma, are met with some hostility from the PTA, as well as from students who are pissed their prom has to be cancelled because of her. Keegan-Michael Key does a really nice job as the school's principle. He just happens to be a big fan of Dee Dee Allen as well, and the two spark a tentative romance. Meryl's scenes with Key are some of may favorite. They had really sweet chemistry and Meryl's "The Lady's Improving" number is one of the highlights for me. But the real showstopper is without a doubt "It's Not About Me," performed fairly early in the film, where Meryl belts out a hilarious, if insincere, tango-like call to action on Emma's behalf. 

I have to admit I laughed out loud when she calls the townspeople "bigoted monsters."  I don't think Meryl has ever sounded better, and she looks beautiful and like she having a blast. 

The film did feel like it dragged a bit at times. And with all the musical numbers and focus on the Broadway characters, both Joe and I agreed that we tended to forget a bit about Emma. She's really supposed to be the main event here, but she's so easily overshadowed by the larger-than-life older characters. Not that I minded. I honestly found Jo Ellen Pellman uncompelling in the role. I was far more interested when Ariana DeBose, her onscreen girlfriend, was in scenes with her. 

There's been a lot of chatter in the Twitterverse about James Corden and what some are calling a bad example of "gay face." While I'm not an advocate of perpetuating stereotypes, I was not bothered at all by his characterization. His performance is nothing particularly special, but I think the outrage over his casting is hyperbolic, and frankly smacks a bit of gay self-loathing and anti-effeminacy. 

I hope I'm not rambling too much in this post. Writing a film review is probably my least favorite thing to do on this blog. I feel like I just end up writing a brief synopsis followed by more of a reaction without really reviewing the film for what it is as complete work. I'm so bad at that. I'm not good at being objective about filmmaking when I'm so interested in the characters and how I generally feel when I'm watching it. Maybe I should wait to write reviews after I can watch the film a few times or after several weeks have passed. 

What I can say is that I had a good time watching this movie. Joe and I were humming and singing the tunes before it even ended, and have watched clips and played songs from the soundtrack already today. The cinematography is gorgeous and, as is Ryan Murphy's wont, extremely colorful. How are my eyes not sick of pink and purple by this point?

Is the film a masterpiece? Far from it. It's not a brainy musical like something you'd get from Sondheim. It's not as bad as the worst of Glee (a show I've seen every episode of btw), but it definitely had that EVERYBODY IS REPRESENTED VERY ON PURPOSE kind of feel. That's a good thing, I suppose, even if it's a bit heavy handed. 

Meryl's a shoe-in for a Golden Globe nod for Musical or Comedy. It seems a role tailor-made for a win, but I truly truly believe that awards bodies are very averse to giving her the top prize these days. It's too eyebrow-raising to snub her for something like this, but I'm more expecting Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman or Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit. If Meryl happens to win the Globe or snag a SAG nom, there's a small window for an Oscar nomination. I never would've guessed a few months ago. I assumed and continue to assume it won't go much beyond the Globes, but it'll be a fun awards season regardless, as we watch and wait to see what happens with both this movie, and Let Them All Talk.  

Friday, December 11, 2020

Film Review: "Let Them All Talk" (2020)

It's the first of two consecutive nights we get to stream Meryl in leading roles for a feature film. First up: Steven Soderbergh's Let Them All Talk. 

HBO Max does the honors for this evening. The movie centers on fictional Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Hughes, as she makes "a crossing" (Alice "can't fly) from New York to Southampton aboard the Queen Mary 2 to accept a literary prize. Along with her she takes her nephew Tyler (played by Lucas Hedges) and her former college buddies, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest). 

I watched the move tonight with my husband, Joe, and we were both giggling from the start. Mostly at Candice Bergen's character, a golddigger convinced that Alice has ruined her life by using her for the main character in one of her successful books. Then at Meryl's pompous deliveries of a self-absorbed but not necessarily self-aware writer. Wiest perhaps has the best one-liners, and is the only one seemingly level-headed enough to try to build bridges amongst the trio of friends. Gemma Chan rounds out the main cast as Alice's literary agent, who quietly joins the ship in hope of unearthing her client's latest manuscript prospects. Old grudges are brought to the service and a budding romance develops, as the liner makes its way across the Atlantic. I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just give some more general reactions. 

We know by now that a lot of the dialogue of the film was improvised. The cast was told where a scene would need to end, but a lot of the middle of it was made up as they went along. There was a bit of that sense during the film, with Joe and I commenting on which parts we felt had to have part of the original screenplay, and which we felt were likely improvised. 

Meryl, not surprisingly, is a joy to watch. She's convincing as a successful novelist, someone who considers herself an intellectual, and assumes that anything on which she happens to opine is worthy of great attention. I'm sure many reviewers are commenting on how it's one of her more subtle performances in recent years, and they'd be right. It's a quiet movie, where the cast really is just left to talk.


It's true that there's not a lot of obvious conflict until the second half of the movie. Things are hinted at throughout, and that's a pretty effective burn for folks who aren't spoiled by only ever consuming thrillers or Marvel movies. I wouldn't have minded if we'd seen more fireworks between Alice and Roberta early on, or if Susan had thrown down a little earlier.

The film is ripe with unsolved mystery and surprise. I honestly was not expecting it to end the way it did, but it offered one more little dramatic hit that brings the viewer out of the polite, but clever banter to which we become accustomed. 

The cinematography is lovely. I've historically been averse to the idea of ever being on a cruise, and this movie has not changed my mind--unless I can ride on the ship with a maximum of five other friends. 

What do we think about awards recognition for this movie?! It's a tricky one. The film is unlike any other I've ever seen...filmed in ten days, three 70-plus actresses in the main roles, not much of a score. It's going to go Comedy for the Globes, and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if Meryl got double nommed for this and The Prom (one day sight unseen). But I think it's likely too low-key for voters to pull that first-place-vote trigger at Oscar. 

I'll have more to say on that topic after tomorrow night. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Streep talks "Don't Look Up"

After a pretty quiet year in terms of Meryl news, it seems she's all of a sudden in everything. She joined Stephen Colbert on The Late Show to talk about, among other things, her upcoming film by director Adam McKay, Don't Look Up.

Filming has been underway in Boston for a couple weeks at this point. Sort of a strange way to have to go about it the way Meryl describes the process here.

I acquired access to the film's script, but at this point have only skimmed certain parts. I'll probably get around to it and provide a few thoughts on what I think the movie will look like (no spoilers) and what we might be able to expect from Meryl's performance/character. And of course, awards chances. 

Until then, I cannot wait to have two consecutive nights of new Meryl movies starting in two days!

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Recasting 1996: "Dead Man Walking"

Dead Man Walking rounds out the third and final film for my recasting that was originally released in 1995. Being that it was filmed only six months prior to its release, it's the best fit to be pushed to '96. I dithered a bit on the possibilities for this year. Fargo is a great role for Frances McDormand, and it even takes place in my home state. But I never even saw it until a couple years ago, and for a long time I was sort of put off by how strange everyone's accents in the film seemed to me. Brenda Blethyn for Secrets and Lies, an incredibly well-received film and performance, also came to mind. 

Ultimately, however, Susan Sarandon's Oscar-winning role of Sister Helen Prejean won out, and I'm happy with the choice (as I still really wanted to somehow be able to include Copycat and Dolores Claiborne from the same year).

There are a few main items that make this role appealing to me. Having already seen Meryl as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, we'd get to see a pretty sharp contrast in what I consider to be good and bad nuns. Not that Sister Aloysius is evil, but she sort or represents the stupid and bad stuff about Catholicism (with the exception of her drive to rid the school of what she thinks is a pedophile). She's a bastion of archaic values and adheres to rigid doctrine. Meanwhile, Helen Prejean, to me, represents what sadly seems to be the forgotten aspect of Christianity: acting like Jesus. I don't personally believe the dude was a god, but by what we know of what he preached in the Bible, there's some pretty good stuff in there. 

Prejean helps convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (brilliantly portrayed by Sean Penn) with his last chance of appeal. Without judgement, she serves as his spiritual advisor and ultimately helps him admit and take responsibility for the death of a young man and the rape of a young woman. The families of the victims are abhorred by her connection with Poncelet. It's here where I think Meryl would be particularly attracted to such a role. It's a tricky scenario and difficult thing to defend--communicating with a killer much less helping him commute his sentence. 

I don't think I'd have much trouble saying "Ciao" to anyone who murdered a loved one of mine and was sentenced to death. There probably really are people who are just plain evil in the world. But I also can understand someone like Matthew Poncelet, or anyone else who had an abusive, wretched childhood, and goes down a dangerous spiral into crime. And while there's no excuse for killing an innocent person, I admire folks who somehow find the strength and maturity to forgive someone who owns up to brutal wrongs they've done. 

Sarandon is wonderful in this role and I really enjoy the chemistry between her and Penn. I watched the movie for just the second time a few weeks back and I was surprised how touched I was by the emotion from both actors, as well as those who portray the victims' families and Poncelet's. The two leads' penultimate scene before the execution is particularly tense. 

There's probably something wrong with me, but does anyone else feel a little bit of erotic tension between them? The facial expressions and the manner of speech from Sarandon borderline on romantic longing in some phrases. I don't expect that was intended, and the scene is still magnificent in spite of my own dumb distraction. 

I think it would've been pretty tough for Meryl to land this role. After all, it was Sarandon's partner Tim Robbins who directed it and cast her in the lead role. The film and both her and Penn's performances were highly praised by critics. It sits at a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 80 on Metacritic. 

Despite Sarandon's probably overdue status for an Oscar by the time 1995 rolled around, I'm convinced that the only reason Meryl didn't win for The Bridges of Madison County was the simple fact that she'd won twice already. I don't begrudge Sarandon her award--it was a lovely performance. But it was a year, along with Jodie Foster's win in 1988 and Sandra Bullock's in 2010, where a brilliant and possibly more deserving Streep performance came up short with the Academy. 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Promising first reviews for "Let Them All Talk"

My cup runneth over with Meryl having two films being released to streaming services next week! Numbers are dropping just a tad for The Prom, but first reviews for Steven Soderbergh's Let Them All Talk look very good. 

With ten reviews in on Metacritic, the film sits at 72, indicating "generally favorable reviews." Over on Rotten Tomatoes, while there aren't a lot more reviews there (thirteen), it's at 100%! 

Meryl's again getting good ink here, but it's a more subdued performance. More of the commentary is on Soderbergh's cinematography and the supporting performance by Candice Bergen. There's even a little Oscar buzz going around now for Bergin. While early December would normally be far too late to expect somebody to join the race, this is a special year. Globe and SAG nods won't even be announced until late February. 

So excited to watch both films next week!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Reviews rolling in for "The Prom"

The media embargo for official film reviews was lifted for The Prom yesterday. At the time of this post, the film stands at 54 on Metacritic (fifteen reviews), and 75% on Rotten Tomatoes (41 reviews). Metacritic of course is more the "prestigious" of scores, as it's a weighted average of fewer, more prominent sources. Rotten Tomatoes is a bit more low brow, and tends to run higher than Metacritic. 

There will be many more reviews of course, but so far, I'd say this is decent for a Ryan Murphy feature. Unsurprisingly, a lot of reviewers are comparing it to Glee. But a fair number are offering very favorable takes in the movie, generally praising it as a feel-good romp and something joyous that theater-starved audiences desperately need right now. 

More important is that Meryl is getting pretty good ink here. She's given props for "having fun" and really "sinking her teeth into" the part. And her singing is being widely praised as well. A clip of her performance of "It's Not about Me" leaked in Twitter earlier, which I happened to catch. I have to agree she sounds amazing. Possibly the best I've ever heard her. The full soundtrack will be released digitally on December 4.  

At this point, she's looking very good for a Globe nod, and may even possibly contend for the win. 

The Prom will be streamed on Netflix starting next Friday, December 11.