Tag Archives: Mary Steenburgen

Fairy Tale Ending

Book Club: The Next Chapter

by Hope Madden

I understand and respect that there is an audience for Book Club: The Next Chapter. I see the draw in watching characters in their Seventies – vital, beautiful, rich women, who have men that adore them exactly as they are, and healthy, supportive friends who are always ready for an adventure. May we all have such a third act.

It’s a lovely fantasy. But it’s a bad movie.

Back in 2018, director Bill Holderman introduced us to a quartet of lifelong friends whose monthly book club turned a little ribald when Viv (Jane Fonda) recommended 50 Shades of Grey. Everybody got horny, one marriage was saved, and four remarkable talents got to spend 90 harmless if uninspired minutes onscreen together.

Fast forward five years and one Covid lockdown and the besties are finally able to host their monthly meetup in person again. Just in time, too, because Viv is engaged! So Carol (Mary Steenburgen), Diane (Diane Keaton) and Sharon (Candice Bergen) decide a bachelorette trip to Italy is in order. Madcap!

The stakes are low and the wine is flowing, the police stations and jail cells are remarkably clean and free from riffraff, the comedy is broad and the life lessons are frequent but not too painful. Consequences are entirely nonexistent, but that’s because this is a fantasy. It’s a geriatric Sex and the City episode.

Holderman, writing again with Erin Simms, mercifully avoids jokes made at the expense of the characters. We laugh with them more often than we laugh at them. Holderman and his film respect these mature characters, which is a nice change of pace.

And, of course, Keaton, Bergen, Steenburgen and Fonda can act. They’re not asked to for this particular film, but we’re aware that they have the capacity. Fonda has two Oscars, Steenburgen and Keaton have one apiece, and bringing up the rear, Bergen has a nomination. And the best Book Club: The Next Chapter can think to do with them is have them model wedding dresses.

At least they’re not in a wing eating competition, I guess. And that’s actually where Holderman deserves praise, because he’s not making a great movie. He’s not even making a very good movie. But he’s making a movie for a target audience, and it’s a group of people who’ve lived through enough drama and trauma, cynicism and tragedy. That’s not what they want. They want a fantasy where there are no money issues, no health issues, all their friends are alive and well and still with them, and romance abounds.

Holderman has a club for that.

Pride Before the Fall

Nightmare Alley

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Step right up, folks, and witness a master of the macabre! See Guillermo Del Toro twist the familiar tale of ambition run amuck! Gasp at the lurid, gorgeous, vulgar world of Nightmare Alley!

Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, good lookin’ kid on the skids taken in by Clem (Willem Dafoe, creepy as ever) to carny for a traveling show. Stan picks up some tricks from mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner Pete (David Strathairn), then lures pretty Molly (Rooney Mara) to the big city to set up their own mind-reading racket.

Things are going swell, too, until Stan gets mixed up with psychiatrist Lillith (Cate Blanchett) whose patient list includes some high rollers with large bank accounts ripe for the picking.

That’s already one hell of an ensemble, but wait there’s more! Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and Tim Blake Nelson all add immeasurably to the sketchy world Stan orbits.

What Del Toro brings to the tale, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel (a solid slice of noir with Tyrone Power in the lead) dulled the edges of any seediness. Even Tod Browning’s Freaks – maligned as it was – found the unsettling carny life mainly wholesome.

Cinematographer Dan Lausten and composer Nathan Johnson create a delicious playground for Del Toro’s carnival to call home, one where even the most likable members of the family turn a blind eye to something genuinely sickening and cruel happening in their midst. The filmmaker plumbs that underlying horror, complicating Stan’s arc and allowing the film’s climax to leave a more lasting mark.

As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Cooper, Stan’s journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

And Blanchett – shocker – is gloriously vampy. She swims elegantly through the sea of noir-ish light and framing that Del Toro bathes her in, as Lillith casts a spell that renders Stan’s helplessness a fait accompli.

Nearly every aspect of the screenplay (co-written by Del Toro and Kim Morgan) creates a richer level of storytelling than the ’47 original. The dialog is more sharply insightful, the finale more dangerously tense and the characters – especially Mara’s stronger-willed Molly – more fully developed. All contribute greatly toward the film rebounding from a slightly sluggish first act to render the two and a half hour running time unconcerning.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply.

So as much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

Don’t believe me? See it with your own eyes, step right up!

Gray Matters

Book Club

by George Wolf

Book Club offers up a boatload of veteran Oscar winners and nominees, but limps to its final chapter as a ninety minute catch-22. So many roles for senior stars: good! What this movie makes of those roles: not so much.

Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen are Diane, Vivian, Sharon, and Carol, lifelong friends who began a monthly book club back in the 70s with the scandalous Fear of Flying.

With all four friends now comfortable in their golden years, the randy Vivian chooses Fifty Shades of Grey as the group’s next assignment. The girls are a bit hesitant at first but right on cue, Christian and Anna’s naughty romps reignite some fires down below.

Laughing at older people being sexual is beyond lazy, it’s ignorant. Thankfully director/co-writer Bill Holderman, in his debut feature, does seem actually interested in laughing more with his stars than at them.

But too many of those laughs are leftovers from every episode of Three’s Company, when Mr. Roper overhears Jack and Chrissy in the bedroom saying something like “It’s not big enough!” while we know they were just trying to hang a curtain rod the whole time! Ribaldry!

While the ladies juggle possible boyfriends (Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson) and a disinterested husband (Craig T. Nelson), contrived antics and double entendres go straight to the unfunny bone.

If you were checking off boxes, all the rich, white characters and romantic fantasies would seem like Nancy Meyers material. But Book Club can’t dig any more than surface deep, and even with all this talent, it never shows the confidence in character that elevates Meyers’s best (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give).

And then, a surprisingly subtle metaphor built around the comeback of vinyl albums gives you reason to believe Holderman’s heart is in the right place here, he’s just in over his head.

Song Sung Blue

Song One

By George Wolf

Song One is a lot like the indie folk music that permeates it: pleasant, well-intentioned, and a bit bland.

Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, an anthropology student working overseas who must rush back home to New York after a family tragedy. Her brother Henry, an aspiring musician, is struck by a cab while walking in traffic, and Franny returns to find him in a coma, fighting for his life.

Searching Henry’s apartment for familiar items that might help revive him, Franny finds concert tickets to see a folkie named James Forester (Johnny Flynn). She attends the show, and waits in the autograph line to tell Forester about her brother’s admiration for him. The conversation sparks a sweet friendship, and James is soon visiting Henry and hanging out with Franny and her ex-hippie mom (Mary Steenburgen).

Will friendship turn to romance? Will James find inspiration to cure his songwriter’s block? Bet you can guess.

It’s the debut feature for writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland, and predictability is not what ultimately keeps Song One from resonating. Yes, the terrain is plenty familiar, but this love letter to the power of music suffers most from contrivance and precious few powerful moments.

Flynn’s performance is tender but tentative, and though is he obviously a talented musician, the original songs elicit little more than the nod you give that guy at a party who suddenly finds a guitar. He’s in way over his head alongside Hathaway, who dials it down but can’t keep her natural talent from casting a big shadow over her co star.

There is some promise here. The film is well shot and Barker-Froyland often seems to sense how thin the drama is, pumping it up with enough good intentions to keep any eye-rolling at bay. When her storytelling talent catches up with her technical skills, then she may have a hit on her hands.