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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Starlet; Cloud Atlas


STARLET  (Three Stars)

U.S.: Sean Baker, 2013 (Music Box)

There’s ’at least one redeeming thing about the movies. Sometimes, they don’t really need hundreds of millions of dollars worth of superstars and special affects and expensive stuff to engage and move us.  Sometimes pretty much all they have to have is a small budget, and the right  people, a real setting, the right artists and a camera  to shoot it and equipment to record it. That’s about all director/co-writer Sean Baker has in his new movie Starlet — and it‘s more than enough.

Baker’s picture takes place in the San Fernando Valley (“The Valley” to many Angelenos) and it’s all about an attractive and somewhat childlike  young Valley woman named Jane (Dree Hemingway), her madly dysfunctional roommates,  her little dog Starlet, and an old woman named Sadie (Besedka Johnson), whom Jane meets under strange circumstances, and befriends, and with whom she shares an oddball adventure. This  tale of two Valley women  absorbs you and amuses you and maybe breaks your heart.

The milieu the movie reveals here, will be recognizable to some. Jane works in the movie industry or one seedy aspect of it, and so (in a way) do her hapless young friends. They’re an unsavory bunch and so are Jane’s employers. Jane however is likable and so, eventually is Sadie (Besedka Johnson) , a crabby old lady who takes some getting used to. Jane meets Sadie when she accidentally finds some money in a thermos Sadie sells her at a yard sale. Jane spends some of it, then feels guilty, then goes to Sadie’s house (a very reclusive, nondescript and unpleasant place) and offers the old lady her friendship, which Sadie is slow to accept. But things change.

That’s the movie, or as much of it as I want to mention here.  It’s  worth your time, and it’s much better than many movies that cost much more.  Starlet’s main idea — that life can be ridiculous and hurtful but is sometimes redeemed, a little,  by the humanity we put into it — is very well done. I was quite moved by the show, and you may be (or should be) as well.

Starlet reminded me some of the best of the other American cinematic realist-humanists, like Jon Jost, Henry Jaglom and the great John Cassavetes. They could seduce you into being entertained by the ordinary, and so can Baker. So can the actors, especially the leads. Dree Hemingway, the daughter of Mariel Hemingway, is excellent,  offbeat, sweet, and a little ditzy, as Jane — and  there’s not a moment in this film where she doesn’t seem real. Just as good, and even more moving, is Besedka Johnson as Sadie, giving a marvelous performance: one of the most affecting  portraits of the crochets and pains and bad times and redemptions of old age that I’ve seen in a movie. Ms. Johnson’s performance here is a thing of casual and convincing beauty. It got to me, even if Sadie occasionally  aggravates — as she would in real life.

A last word; This was the movie debut of Besedka Johnson, a professional astrologer, and it’s an astonishing one. I voted for Besedka  in my ballots for Best Supporting Actress last year, and though she didn’t win, I’m happy I gave her my votes. Besedka  died last April, at 87, something I didn’t know until now. Sad. But at least she was able to leave us with something precious and real. I don’t believe in astrology, but I’m sure Sadie, that crabby old lady,  was born under a good sign. Goodbye, Ms. Johnson.


CLOUD ATLAS (Four Stars)

 Germany-U.S.: Tom Tykwer-Lana Wachowski-Andy Wachowski, 2012 (Warner Home Video)

I loved it.  It’s a moviel, that can probably be watched repeatedly, and discussed endlessly. It’s divided the critics — some are fervently pro, some contemptuously con — in a way that usually  only the more interesting pictures  do. It’s long, it’s complex, and it violates about half the rules for a big-budget big-audience movie, while following (and triumphing in) about half the others.

Cloud Atlas is based on the well-reviewed, much-awarded (or short-listed) British novel by David Mitchell, a book that links together six stories, ranging in time and place from the Pacific Ocean in 1850, to Belgium in 1931, to California in 1975, to the United Kingdom right about now, to South Korea in the near future, to  an island somewhere in the ocean somewhen past the Apocalypse.

The movie has a huge cast — topped by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Brioadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugo Weaving , Jim Sturgess and others — and it’s made even huger by the fact that the main actors keep popping up in more than one film, playing different roles. In all but one case, that is: The role of whistle-blower Rufus Sixsmith is played in both Parts Two and Three by James D’Arcy. The makeup jobs are sometimes fabulous; you may be shocked, occasionally when you find out who’s playing who.

Mitchell arranged his novel in six parts, advancing chronologically, and those parts  kept breaking off in the middle to bring in part of the last chapter. Then he finished up with the resolution of all six stories, this time in reverse (or mirror) order. It’s a tricky structure, maybe not as tricky as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but ingeniously crafted enough. So, to lessen the confusion, I suggest you  read a long synopsis before seeing it.  It would be best to read the novel first, of course, but I realize that’s not an option for lots of us.  Later, maybe.

The movie takes those six genre-mashing stories and interweaves them, cutting back and forth —  as in Inception. Tykwer and the Wachowskis apparently wrote this infernally complex script together, and then split up for the shooting: Tykwer and his team taking Parts Two, Three and Four, and the Wachowski handling One, Five and Six. As mentioned, the actors take multiple roles, and that’s not a stunt. The galleries of roles reinforce Mitchell’s theme of reincarnation and of souls traveling from body to body. The movie, meanwhile, takes on  many forms itself. It’s full of romance and mystery and action and spectacle and humor, and the overall form reminds you of nothing so much as D. W. Griffith and his four interweaving stories in that other madly ambitious fugue of an epic, 1916’s Intolerance. (That got some awful reviews, too.)

Even if you despise it, you’ll have fun vivisecting it afterwards. It’s 164 minutes long, and, as Roger Ebert said, there’s not a boring second in it. Bewilder ing maybe. Bewitched or bothered perhaps. Boring no.

Exras: None. (The one disappointment,)



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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon