Jan 13, 2017

Review--Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

I first heard of Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds when a local theater invited me to a free screening of the documentary in mid-December. Though I was not able to attend, the film is now showing on HBO and available on the channel's streaming service. Now that I have seen it, I've thought a lot about how differently it would have affected me if I'd caught that screening. The film focuses a great deal on Reynold's failing health and Fisher's fear for her well-being, a sad reversal of what would play out in the year after its filming.

In this documentary of perhaps the most famous mother/daughter actresses in modern history, you are presented with a loosely organized series of incidents in the lives of these two remarkable women. There's no great effort to dig deep into their lives or find any coherence in all of it. You are simply invited to observe: sometimes there is a great revelation, and bits of their history bounce around, but for the most part it simply offers the privilege of spending time with these women and the people who love them.

You see them interacting with their fans. Reynolds is shown giving her last performances in Las Vegas, barely able to walk, gingerly singing her classic songs and yet enveloping her audience in irresistible warmth and charm. Fisher attends a fan convention to sell autographs and photo ops, something which she initially found distasteful, but seems to have accepted as she carefully praises her fans for their devotion.

These public performances are juxtaposed with their private banter at the large compound where both women have homes. Their interactions in these scenes feel both like well-worn comic shtick played to the cameras and a demonstration of the genuine warmth and constant conflict bubbling between them, which is more playful now than it was in the past. As Fisher packs a bag for Reynolds, her mama cheekily reminds her not to turn her bum to the camera. In another moment Fisher barks at her mother about brother Todd, "what does he get in the will and what do I get?" It's all hilarious and deadly serious at the same time.

This affectionate push and pull is essentially what Fisher and Reynolds are willing to reveal about their relationship, though when Carrie quips to a reporter, "we are always on the red carpet," you wonder if there is much more to see. There's a busy, chaotic flow to their interactions: they will be quiet and intimate one moment, then suddenly break into song together and follow the reverie with an argument. They're both clearly a lot to handle and they enjoy dealing with each other.

Before Reynolds and Fisher devastated their fans with their abrupt deaths, they had endured plenty of heartbreak themselves. As much as they try to face life with humor, it is clear the entire family is hurt deeply by things like the lack of support for a Hollywood Museum to house Reynold's massive costume and prop collection. Todd tears up while talking about the eventual auction of the increasingly expensive-to-maintain artifacts, well aware that parting with these items broke his mother's heart.

It is also difficult to watch Fisher manage her varied relationships with her aging parents. In a 2010 clip, she is shown with her dying father, the singer Eddie Fisher, finally connecting with him as she has wished to her entire life, making the heartbreaking confession that she tried to be funny as a child so he would want to be with her more often. Where her mother is concerned, she struggles because of their lifelong closeness, anticipating the inevitable result of her declining health. Watching her collapse in tears because she fears for her mother's well-being and dignity as she accepts a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actor's Guild, the acid-tongued superstar becomes painfully relatable and you see how much strain remains behind the scenes in show business.

Those moments of vulnerability are in great contrast to Fisher's wise-cracking, foul-mouthed persona. Her wildly decorated house, which features an impressively-endowed lion's rear end sticking out of a wall, joke signs on every surface, and even the massive image of a Prozac pill embedded in the kitchen floor, begin to seem like a defense against the pain she has faced and an expression of her own exhaustion with her intense personality.

Reynolds also allows the cameras to glimpse her at low moments. Though she seems hardwired to keep on smiling, she isn't afraid to admit to her grief, like when she barely holds off tears while presenting items in her memorabilia collection that are for sale. Though her body is giving out on her, she insists on living the life that her spirit craves, and as she shoots across a Vegas casino floor in her Little Rascal, a determined look on her face, you can't help but be impressed by the power she finds in sheer will.

It was often difficult to watch Bright Lights. I'm still getting used to the idea of these two being gone. It is heartbreaking to see the family and friends who love them and know the loss they would be experiencing a year later. But what a gift it is to have this film to remind us of why we love them.

Jan 11, 2017

In Theaters: La La Land (2016)

La La Land deserves awards, perhaps not all the awards, but it is worthy of praise. As a classic movie fan, it's amazing to be able to see a nicely-executed new musical with a passion for the productions of the past, filmed on 35mm, splashed across the screen in a theater. With a score reminiscent of the wistful and dreamy music Michel Legrand wrote for Jacques Demy films like The Young Girls of Roquefort (1967) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and the colorful production design of MGM and Fox musical classics, it does scratch that nostalgic itch to a great degree.

It is a love story, starring the charismatic if not sizzling duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. She is Mia, an aspiring actress slogging through disappointing auditions for small parts in cop shows and cheesy dramas. He is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club, though he currently pays the bills playing Christmas carols in a restaurant. They meet ugly in a brief moment of road rage, but after several more encounters, they give in to their respective charms and become deeply smitten with each other. They love deeply, but struggle to keep their relationship strong as they pursue their dreams.

Mia and Sebastian live in a pretty LA, free of garbage and sidewalk encampments. Gosling dances down a sparkling clean pier, remarkably free of bird droppings. It's all bathed in soothing shades of blue, green and pink. No one is supposed to have money, but everyone is impeccably dressed. It is the setting of one of those strange, but peaceful dreams you might have before waking.

I didn't go into La La Land expecting Gosling and Stone to perform at the level of the artists in classic Hollywood musicals, but it was hard not to feel let down nevertheless. While I realize the golden age of musicals has passed, are there really no triple threats out there anymore? It is possible to act your way through a song though, even with vocal limitations, and that is what these two have done to satisfying effect.

Dancing is trickier, and it is here where Gosling and Stone are weakest. Watching them, I was reminded of a fantasy sequence in Pal Joey (1957) where Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth are dancing side-by-side. The identical choreography makes the difference in their skill levels clear. Novak executes all the moves and stays on the beat, but there's no artistry. On the other hand, trained dancer Hayworth writhes with sensual fluidity, feeling the dance as much as she is following choreography. This is where our leads fall short: you can hear them counting in their heads, doing their best to simply pull it off. There's no extension of the arms, no emotion within the movement; they don't have the posture or bearing of dancers. There's just no faking the work that goes into that kind of technique.

La La Land is tidy and precise to an almost excessive extent. There's never a true sense of peril; no feeling that if these characters don't find their way, they are finished. You always see they have a wide safety net, and at the very least they will end up okay. Living their dreams isn't a matter of life or death for them. Their quarrels even seem to glide along familiar, near reassuring rails. Even the glossiest of classic musicals had that passion of do or die.

As a fan of classic Hollywood it is impossible to ignore these shortcomings. Despite them, in many ways I felt La La Land spoke my language. There's the posters of Ingrid Bergman looming over Mia in her apartment, the first date at a repertory theater to see Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and the progression of that meeting to the observatory that was featured in the film. Getting lost in it is pleasurable, particularly for those moments that speak to lovers of the classics.

Ultimately, I succumbed to the beauty La La Land had to offer. The music is lovely; the production design is colorful and sensuously appealing and Gosling and Stone give their characters more depth and emotion than is on the page. To enjoy it, you essentially have to give yourself up to it and accept it on its own terms. Then the romance blooms, and the world it creates becomes a place to live the dream of the perfect artistic life. I found it to be a lovely escape, though I admit that when I went home and bought the soundtrack, I also purchased a few tunes from Michel Legrand's score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.