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The “Fifty Shades” book trilogy could be called an embarrassment of riches. It sold like crazy, making a ton of money for author E.L. James and publisher Vintage Books (part of Random House), but they weren’t books most people displayed on their bookshelves. Likewise, the movie trilogy was savaged by critics, even as the series cumulatively grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Now, though, we have the best “Fifty Shades” movie of them all: Book Club.

An unusual creative duo made the film. Bill Holderman got his start as an assistant to the producer on 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, then moved up to producer with Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator. He’d co-written the screenplay for A Walk in The Woods, which starred Robert Redford. An associate producer on Woods, Erin Simms had mostly worked as an actress, though many of her roles are of the “Female Reporter” or “New York Hotel Clerk” ilk as listed on IMDb. She’d never written a screenplay before, and Holderman had never directed. But they came together to write and produce Book Club, with Holderman directing, and they’ve produce an assured and well-paced comedy.

They also recruited a truly stellar cast, beginning with their four leads: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen. Between them they’ve won 4 Oscars and 6 Emmys on top of numerous nominations. However, they’d never worked together before in their long careers. After seeing how well they play off of each other here, it’s a crime to think it took this long for them to be matched together.

The quartet play life-long friends who’ve met monthly to discuss a book for decades. Now in their later years, each is faced with a challenge. Diane (Keaton) is newly widowed, and her two daughters want her to leave California and move closer to them in Arizona. Then her life takes an unusual twist when she meets a handsome pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Vivian (Fonda), the hard-charging owner of a luxury hotel, reconnects with an old flame staying in her establishment (Don Johnson, a wonderful bit of meta-casting since his daughter, Dakota, starred in the Fifty Shades trilogy). Sharon (Bergen) is a federal judge who son and long-divorced husband (Ed Begley Jr.) are both now engaged to be married to women in their twenties. Carol (Steenburgen) is married to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but while they still love each other the flame of passion has died. Vivian lobs a grenade into their worlds when she chooses “Fifty Shades of Grey” as the next book for the club to read.

It is a pleasure to see fine actresses (and actors) dive into their roles with abandon. Bergen zings lines in a way that recalls the heyday of “Murphy Brown” while still carrying one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the film. She also ends up on two dates with diametrically-opposed actors – Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn. The other pairings are inspired, particularly Steenburgen and Nelson with a dance routine to a Meatloaf song. But the biggest pleasure is seeing fully fleshed-out roles written for mature women in contrast to the ageism usually seen in Hollywood. A 70 year-old guy could have a love live, but not a similarly-aged woman. Time for a reality check.

The showbiz maxim (ascribed to many though likely originating with actor Edmund Gwen) is, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Yet the cast of Book Club make it look natural, and Holderman and Simms have crafted a screenplay that is laugh-out-loud funny, so much so that you might miss some lines amidst the audience’s laughter. Kudos also to E.L. James for being a good sport to allow the film to use her book (she does get a thank you from the producers in the credits).

Even in a week dominated by Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club came in 3rd place in the box office, with a weekend gross of $13.6 million. Considering the budget was a lean $10 million, it’s already in the black. It’s not surprising that it’s received a middling response from critics – the film seeks to entertain and does a good job of it, but it’s the type of film that’s usually dismissed as lightweight. However, its CinemaScore among viewers is A-. Mixed in among the blockbusters of summer, there’s usually a couple films that either tug at your heartstrings or tickle your funny bone without a five-wide scroll of special effects credits that goes on for a minute or two. Book Club definitely is the one that tickles the funny bone.


Stormy Weather

Dean Devlin made his name trying to destroy the world. In partnership with Roland Emmerich, they made the huge hit Independence Day (after doing Universal Soldier and Stargate earlier in the 1990s). Their next collaborations – the painfully bad 1998 version of Godzilla and the ham-fisted Revolutionary War melodrama The Patriot – led each to go their own way. Devlin focused on TV, producing shows for TNT such as “Leverage” and “The Librarian” (both the 3 TV movies and the pluralized series), while Emmerich continued to destroy the world with mixed results, writing and directing both the decent cataclysmic weather movie The Day After Tomorrow and the deplorable 2012. They got back together again last year for the major misfire, Independence Day: Resurgence. Another sequel  was announced but after Resurgence crashed and burned at the box office that’s highly unlikely. Now Devlin has written and produced his own weather movie, Geostorm. While it’s not quite as bad I feared, it’s nowhere near as good as I hoped.

An opening title card informs you that, after a series of huge natural catastrophes in 2018, the world decided to come together and spend a ridiculous amount of money to construct a planetary satellite system run from a massive space station with an international crew and serviced by a huge new fleet of space shuttles, all focused on the control of the weather. Well, maybe not those exact words, but it’s implied. Right from the start you know this is a fantasy.

The system was designed by Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), a genius with the intelligence of Steve Jobs mixed with Thomas Edison, packed into a body with the physical prowess of…well, of Gerard Butler. One thing he has no ability to do is deal with Congress, and he winds up kicked off of the project and replaced by his brother, Max (Jim Sturgess). Three years later, a man on the space station sabotages one of the satellites, only to be eliminated by being stuck in a small compartment while its environmental seals are blown open. The sabotaged satellite turns the population of an Afghan village into mom-and-popsicles.

Max is now romantically involved with Sarah (Abbie Cornish), a Secret Service agent assigned to the Presidential Protection detail. The Afghan event is viewed as a malfunction, and the President (Andy Garcia) along with the Secretary of State (Ed Harris) want Max to find the best person to correct the problem – as if that’s going to be anyone except Jake. Max tracks down his brother to a trailer parked near the Florida spaceport where Jake spends his time retrofitting classic cars with electric engines. Max also arrives during Jake’s visitation time with his daughter, Hannah (Talitha Bateman), who’s a precocious but beautiful science nerd like her dad. Hannah could have been a treacly mess of a stereotype, but Bateman manages to pull it off without making you check your insulin level. Max prevails on Jake to return to space to fix the system, not knowing they’ll both be caught up in a conspiracy.

Geostorm is a mix of 1960s Sci-fi and political conspiracy films along with 1970s disaster flicks, done with 21st Century digital effects. Think Fantastic Voyage mixed with 7 Days in May with Earthquake stirred in for good measure. But it doesn’t do any of those genres well. The digital effects feel like they were recycled from footage that was rejected by The Day After Tomorrow, especially the super-freeze sequences. The science fiction doesn’t have any sense of wonder, and the disasters are so farfetched they’re not compelling. It comes closest to being a decent paranoid thriller, but Geostorm messes that up by ruining any element of surprise at who’s behind the conspiracy.

If you happen to be a pre-teen boy, you may think Geostorm is great, but it would be one of those pictures you’d watch on late-night TV 20 years later and wonder what you were thinking that you ever considered this mess to be good. Save yourself the embarrassment.

A Bad Case of Karma

In 1989, Kenneth Branagh’s first film, Henry V, invited comparisons between the wunderkind Branagh and the eminence grise of English theater, Lord Olivier.  Lord Larry had also acted and directed a film version of Shakespeare’s play forty years earlier, when he himself was a wunderkind.  When it came to Branagh’s sophomore acting/directing effort, he decided to do something completely different by making 1991’s metaphysical thriller Dead Again.

The script was written by Scott Frank, and was his second full-length screenplay to be produced.  Since then, Frank has made a solid reputation for himself by writing the screenplays for such movies as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report and Marley and Me.  He also did the script for the upcoming Marvel Superheroes reboot, The Wolverine.  Frank created a twisty thriller where the echoes of an earlier murder are played out in the present day.

Branagh chose to highlight the scenes from the late 1940s by filming them in black and white, while doing the present day scenes in color.  It’s been done before and since, but Director of Photography Matthew F. Leonetti did some of his best work ever in the B&W scenes.  After starting out doing TV movies in the 1970s, Leonetti had become a journeyman cinematographer, working on such projects as Eyewitness, Jagged Edge, and Dragnet.  In Dead Again, Leonetti mirrored 1940s film noir, but accomplished a deeper and clearer chiaroscuro effect on the screen.

Behind the credits, Branagh uses newspaper headlines to tell the story of the murder of Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson) and the conviction of her husband Roman (Branagh).  The reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), who wrote the stories seen in the credits, comes to interview Roman while he’s having his hair clipped before his execution.  Roman continues to deny killing Margaret, but as he’s leaving the cell he leans over and apparently whispers something to Baker.  Baker remains in the cell, stunned, until he notices the scissors the guard was using for trimming Roman’s hair are no longer there.  As Roman walks down the corridor, we see the scissors slip from inside his sleeve into his hand.  Then, at the end of the corridor, Margaret appears.  Roman raises the scissors as he says “These are for you,” and brings them down –

– and a woman (also played by Thompson) wakes up screaming from a nightmare in the middle of a thunderstorm.  The woman (who we later learn is named Grace) has shown up at a Catholic orphanage suffering from amnesia as well as being hysterically mute.  The orphanage happens to be located in what was once Roman Strauss’s mansion.  While the sisters in charge take her in, they can’t keep her there.  They turn to Father Timothy (Richard Easton), who calls in a favor from a former orphaned resident of the home.

Mike Church (Branagh) had served in the LAPD before becoming a private eye specializing in finding people.  Church is working a case, finding Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams), a psychologist who had his license revoked when he gave a bit too much comfort to his female patients.  Father Timothy prevails on Church to help discover who the woman is.  Through a newspaper contact (Wayne Knight), Church gets a picture of Grace into the paper, asking for help to identify her.  He’d planned to drop her off at the downtown psych ward, but after seeing the conditions there he changes his mind and brings her to his apartment.  The next day, after Grace’s picture has appeared in the paper, they’re visited by Franklyn Madison (Derek Jacobi), an antiques dealer who is also a hypnotist.  Through hypnotism, Madison takes Grace back to her previous life, and the mystery of what really happened to Margaret Strauss.

Branagh keeps the story racing along as it ping pongs between the 1940s and the 1990s.  Frank has written a beautiful twist midway through the movie, and there are sharp moments that shoot adrenalin through the audience’s veins, such as when Mike accidentally calls Grace Margaret.  The final reveal and confrontation are beautifully played out.

The lush theme music by Patrick Doyle helps build the atmosphere of the movie. Doyle has collaborated with Branagh on his directing projects from Henry V through Thor, as well as scoring other films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Pixar’s Brave. Doyle has also performed small roles in some of the films he’s scored. He’s the cop in the elevator when Church brings Grace to the psych ward.

The supporting cast Branagh assembled was excellent. Garcia’s Baker is a disheveled knight in a wrinkled white suit who has his own obsession with Margaret. When the audience meets him 40 years later, he’s become an effective anti-smoking advertisement. Campbell Scott has a brief but important scene in the film. That same year he did Dying Young with Julia Roberts, which let him come out from under the considerable shadow of his father, George C. Scott. Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun) plays Inga, Strauss’s devoted German housekeeper, while Gregor Hesse plays Inga’s speech-impaired son Frankie. Schygulla has remained busy acting in Germany, but Hesse stopped acting in films after a couple of TV episodes the next year and concentrated instead on music as a pianist and composer, which is interesting since that’s Strauss’s occupation in the film. Stage and screen actress Christine Ebersole has a cameo role as society reporter Lydia Larsen.

Both Branagh and Thompson have perfect American accents as Mike and Grace, while Thompson uses her normal English accent as Margaret and Branagh does a subtle German accent as Roman. It’s a joy to watch them play off each other. The two had met while doing an English miniseries, “Fortunes of War,” in 1987 and married 2 years later. There might have been echoes of Olivier and Vivian Leigh, as they worked together in Branagh’s first four films. But the marriage ended in 1994 and Thompson went on to carve out her own career as both an actress and an Oscar-winning screenwriter. She plays a supporting role as well as wrote the script for the movie Effe, to be released this May.

Jacobi had worked with Branagh on Henry V, serving as the Chorus who narrates the movie.  He’s excellent in Dead Again; Madison is wonderfully colorful, slightly larcenous and smooth of tongue but commanding at the same time.  Jacobi has continued to work ceaselessly through the years; recently he played the Archbishop of Canterbury in The King’s Speech and reunited with Branagh for My Week With Marilyn.  (He’s also working with Thompson again in Effe.)

After his divorce from Thompson, Branagh’s career dimmed.  His 1994 version of Frankenstein was a critical and financial failure.  He’d filmed a good version of Hamlet, doing the full four-hour play for the first time on the screen, but it was a marathon for moviegoers and didn’t earn back its investment.  Still, it did much better than his fourth adaptation of Shakespeare, Love’s Labor Lost, that he filmed as a 1930’s musical.  It was a major bomb, making only a couple hundred thousand dollars at the box office in the US (off a budget of around $13 million).  His nadir as an actor was his role as the legless Dr. Lovelace in The Wild Wild West.  He was memorable as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and also as Reinhard Heydrich in HBO’s Conspiracy.  Recently, though, he’s had a renaissance.  He was wonderful in My Week With Marilyn playing Laurence Olivier, and Branagh had his greatest financial success ever directing Thor.  Currently he’s working on the reboot of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, both directing the film and playing a supporting role.  It will be released this upcoming December.

While not a major movie, Dead Again is a solid effort and well worth a viewing.