Friday, January 23, 2015

Film Reviews: Just 45 Minutes From Broadway & In the Shadow of the Stars

"Just 45 Minutes From Broadway"  ** (out of ****)

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women mere players"
William Shakespeare - As You Like It

That quote by William Shakespeare from his play "As You Like It" may have inspired American indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom and his movie "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" (2012), an adaptation of his own play, of the same title.

Like most of Mr. Jaglom's movies, "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" deals with the lives of actors. In this movie's case, a theatrical family about to meet the fiance of their oldest daughter, the only one in the family that has not chosen acting as a profession.

One question to ask though is, is it true? Is all the world a stage? Can actors ever stop performing? Or do they see the world as one giant play or movie and they are acting their part? It could be the basis for an interesting, if not quirky, comedy. At least good sit-com material if all else fails. But, in the case of "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" you have the wrong script, the wrong director and the wrong cast.

That is unfortunate. Mr. Jaglom, who made his directorial debut with "A Safe Place" (1971) starring Tuesday Weld, has mainly worked outside the Hollywood system. It gives him more freedom to make the movies he wants to make. Since that time he has directed 19 feature films. His movies often feel like "family gatherings" (Mr. Jaglom is not above casting family members and friends), a bunch of friends that have gotten together to put on a big show in the barn! As with anything in life, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When a movie by Mr. Jaglom works, they are charming, breezy pieces of entertainment with a collection of eccentric characters. When they don't work, it is a tiresome, boring experience.

The reason Mr. Jaglom is the wrong director and has written the wrong script is because the movie has nothing to say about actors. The movie is little more than a cliche presenting actors as emotional train wrecks. They are free spirits. They let their emotions fly. They are in constant need of attention. And, they are always performing. Always trying to manipulate "their audience" by presenting themselves in a particular light, masking their true feelings and identity.

That may all very well be true but is any of that original? I absolutely agree people (whether they are actors or not) do try to present themselves to people in the most positive light often hiding their negative traits and only allow a select few to ever have the opportunity to truly know them. And, even then, they still may be hiding something from those people.

If the counterargument is Mr. Jaglom never intended to make an in-depth movie about the lives of actors, all he wanted to do was make an uninspired, predictable, cliche ridden, funny, lighthearted movie, I'll accept that as an answer. Now the problem is, "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" is not funny. No matter how you want to argue it, the movie doesn't work as a whole. You can slice it any way you want but you can't avoid the movie's flaws.

Jack Heller and Diane Salinger star as George and Vivien Isaacs, the heads of a dysfunctional acting family. Their youngest daughter, Pandora (Tanna Frederick) has moved back in with her parents, at the age of 30, after a romantic relationship has ended. She is now emotionally distraught. Also living in the house is Vivien's brother, Larry (David Proval) and his wife Sharon (Mary Crosby, Bing Crosby's daughter).

George and Vivien are expecting their oldest daughter, Betsy (Julie Davis) to introduce the family to her fiance, James (Judd Nelson). Betsy is the only one in the family that has not gotten biten by the acting bug. She is embarrassed of her family and tries to keep a distance from them. She says she cannot deal with their chaotic lifestyle. She needs stability, which is what attracts her to James, who works in real estate.

And so the stage is set for a clash of lifestyles as the actors vs the non-actors, or "civilians" as they are referred to in the movie, sister vs sister and actor vs actor, as George and Larry argue over acting technique.

The best performances in the movie are given by Jack Heller and David Proval, though Mr. Heller, in the beginning moments of the movie, has a tendency to give a very theatrical performance, however, that is the downfall of the entire cast. Everyone in the movie is acting as if they are on the stage. They are acting for the seats in the balconies. Nearly all the performances are loud and gregarious, except Proval, who at one point in the movie gives a speech citing he feels his acting career has not gone as he planned. He feels he has been looked overlooked by comparisons to actors such as Robert De Niro.

This speech is actually one of the best moments in the movie. The scene plays like a confession, not just of the character but Mr. Proval himself. Proval may be best known for his role in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973). He has done a lot of acting since then in both movies and television but never accomplished what De Niro, Pacino or Nicholson did. That's what makes the scene so powerful. I bet deep down Mr. Proval feels that way about his career. He must have, at one time in his life, had this internal dialogue. Why didn't he become a bigger name? For all I know, the scene was improvised. Mr. Jaglom's films sometimes have improvised moments.

Ms. Frederick, whom I am usually critical of, shows more restraint than is normal for her. In the three prior movies she has collaborated with Mr. Jaglom on, her performances have tended to fall on the more whiny side. She doesn't know how to express frustration, anger, or despair. What she does instead is say how she is feeling but doesn't act it. Or, if she does try to act it, the gestures are too exaggerated and lacks believability. To her credit, she tones it down, a bit. She is still the acting weakling in the cast but it is a small improvement.

Mr. Nelson on the other hand appears too constricted. There isn't enough for him to do. His performance lacks life. He looks detached. He isn't playing a fleshed out character but rather a plot device.

Another strange component of the movie is Mr. Jaglom's attempt to have the movie appear to be a stage play on film. We see stage curtains close at the end of an "act". In the beginning of the movie we see a stage set. At the end of the movie we see a camera crew film the actors. The movie ends on a self-referential note. Probably an attempt to suggest all of life is a stage and the blurry line actors walk between reality and fantasy. But it is poorly done and raises more questions than answers. What have we been watching? What was real? What was an act of the imagination?

In the end "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" is too predictable, filled with too many cliches, poorly staged and not funny. It is a middle of the road picture. Not something a maverick independent filmmaker wants to hear.

For a better Henry Jaglom movie dealing with the trial and tribulations of an acting family watch "Last Summer in the Hamptons" (1996).

"In the Shadow of the Stars"  *** (out of ****)

Who are they? They are nothing more that stage fillers. No one knows their names. No one will remember who they are at the end of the performance. The spotlight is never on them. But in the Academy Award winning documentary "In the Shadow of the Stars" (1991) they get to tell their story.

"They" are the members of the San Francisco Opera chorus. They stand in the background. They watch the major opera soloist, as the rest of us do, and marvel at their voices and talents. But, for the chorus it doesn't end there. They want to achieve fame. They want people to know their names.

Like "45 Minutes From Broadway", "In the Shadow of the Stars" tells us about the lives of artists, but, "In the Shadow of the Stars" does more than that. It tells us about the struggles artist must endure. It tells us how the arts can be inspirational. And the sacrifices one must make in order to succeed in this business.

While most documentaries may focus on famous people, here is a documentary that tells us everyone has a story. What makes the chorus of the San Francisco Opera interesting, or anyone in their position interesting is, these people have talent. They have been acknowledge as having talent or they wouldn't be working at an opera house. They are getting paid to do what they love but only to an extent. They want more. In fact they feel they deserve more. They love opera. They love to sing. In their minds they are just as good as the stars they must remain in the shadows of. So why haven't they gotten their break?

It is an interesting question but "In the Shadow of the Stars" doesn't have the answer. What could possibly be a good answer anyway? But it is enjoyable listening to these performers offer their explanations. It is interesting to hear them speak about their love of opera. Their desire to be heard and engage in creative activities.

This documentary was directed by Allie Light and Irving Saraf, whom at the time were married. It doesn't strike me as Academy Award winning quality but you can see why it would win. It deals with artist. It is the story of the underdog. Performers waiting for the big break. Following their dream. Why wouldn't Hollywood like such a story?

This is a lighthearted and truthful look at the life of an artist. It is a valentine to every performer still waiting for their big break.