Chuck Koplinski | Benning shines in 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'

Chuck Koplinski | Benning shines in 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'

Gloria Grahame was never as big of a movie star as she should have been.

Beautiful in an unconventional way, she had a sultry way about her, which was perfect for the film-noir genre that was in full bloom during her heyday. She was perfect as the femme fatale ("The Good Die Young") or the discarded moll ("The Big Heat") and actually managed to win an Oscar for her turn in "The Bad and the Beautiful."

To be sure, she had limited range ("Oklahoma" as an example) and had to contend with typecasting, and there were far too many similarly talented blondes in the 1950s for her to truly make her mark. Working periodically on stage and television in her later years, she would die in 1981 at the age of 57.

Paul McGuigan's "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" takes a look at Grahame's final two years, which found her traveling back and forth from New York City to Liverpool, where she appeared on stage and would come to meet a young actor by the name of Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). Starstruck, he would enter into a tumultuous romantic relationship with the actress, one that would result in the memoir upon which this film is based.

McGuigan begins the film with a striking sequence that obscures Grahame's features, the viewer getting brief glimpses of various parts of her face as she applies her make-up, lipstick and wig, a damaged woman hiding behind her glamorous facade.

This dichotomy is the foundation of the movie as the actress uses her star power to her advantage, never more so than when she tempts Turner. Much of the tension in the film comes when he must contend with the wreckage of Grahame's life, learning a piece at a time as to why she has been reduced to living in a trailer by the ocean and why her four children want nothing to do with her.

Screenwriter Matt Greenhaigh employs a repeating flashback structure that juxtaposes scenes of Grahame in which she is in full bloom with others that show her falling apart. This proves a powerful approach as it effectively underscores how far she has fallen and how much Turner must contend with. All of this is handled with nary a trace of melodrama, in what ultimately proves to be an effectively poignant exercise.

Bell is strong here, initially stunned that a star of Grahame's status would be interested in him, slowly coming to realize the burden he has taken on. However, in the end, this is a showcase for Annette Bening, who manages to disappear into the part. While she isn't a dead ringer for Grahame in adapting her kittenish, lilting voice, her slinky walk and affected mannerisms, she effectively channels her to marvelous effect, bringing to life the illusion of the star we know, making her disintegration all the more powerful.

McGuigan ends the film with a striking moment in which Grahame is being taken to the airport in a cab with film stock running behind her, flickering with occasional bursts of light, clicks and pops sounding before fading to black. A more fitting visual metaphor cannot be imagined for this star that burned so bright for such a short time only ultimately to be consumed by darkness.

'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave, Stephen Graham, Kenneth Cranham, Francis Barber, Leanne Best and Isabella Laughland.

Directed by Paul McGuigan; produced by Barbara Broccoli and Colin Vaines; screenplay by Matt Greenhaigh, based on the memoir by Peter Turner.

A Sony Classics release. 105 minutes. Rated R (language, some sexual content and brief nudity). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Death Wish" breaks no new ground (★★ out of four). Depending on which side of the gun-control debate you're on, Eli Roth's remake of "Death Wish" couldn't have come at a better or worse time.

Fresh on the heels of the Parkland, Fla., shooting tragedy, the film will play to viewers as either the ultimate justification for fewer regulations or a reason for a stricter crackdown where gun ownership is concerned. Of course, it hinges on where you land on the subject of vigilante justice and committing cold-blooded murder.

Bruce Willis steps into Charles Bronson's shoes as the shattered husband with a grudge, Paul Kersey. This time out, he happens to be a surgeon with a loving wife (Elizabeth Shue) who is about to get her doctorate and a teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) who has a promising future. That is, until their upper-middle-class Evanston home is invaded by thieves who leave mom dead and daughter in a coma.

What with slow, ineffectual police detectives on the case (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise), Kersey becomes impatient and takes matters into his own hands, deciding to clean up the mean streets of Chicago on his own. Sporting a hoodie and made famous on social media thanks to witness-made videos that are immediately posted to the internet, the vigilante becomes known as the Grim Reaper and sparks a debate over whether he's a righteous avenger or public menace among the good citizens of the Windy City.

There are no shadings of gray where director Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan are concerned, which relegates the film to being just another Hollywood action flick, albeit one the NRA could easily use to promote its agenda. (Note the scene in which the sexy saleswoman at a gun store dispenses with the paperwork to get a gun with a wave of her hand).

Kersey's motivation is beyond reproach, his revenge is just as he manages to luckily track down the criminals who destroyed his family and there are no loose ends or charges filed as the cops in charge, well, they just give him a wink and send him on his way.

This is a standard middle-age male fantasy as our hero's sense of ineffectualness and frustration is easily rectified with a gun, his confidence restored and his manhood intact. Roth can't be bothered with looking at the psychological effects Kersey's actions would have on himself while those voicing outrage over his vigilante methods are given short shrift.

Unlike last year's excellent "In the Fade," "Death Wish" isn't interested in looking at the long-term effects of a victim's grief or what embracing violence does to one's soul. No, this is an old-fashioned shoot 'em up that exists only to provide cathartic kicks for those viewers looking for an easy fix to a complex problem.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on ­Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

Topics (1):Film