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(Movies) Oscar Season

Entertainment 150Yesterday the Oscar nominations were released, signaling the beginning of the Academy Awards season! There’s a small subset of us who love this time of year; in the months leading up to it (beginning in December), my ears perk up to see what’s opening — especially in limited release — to get a bead on what studios hope to qualify for an award. I collect accolades from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors’ Guild, the Directors’ and Producers’ Guild of America, and best-of lists from major critics to see how the race is shaping up; it’s interesting watching movies rise and fall from the pack, and after a few weeks you hear the same actors, directors and films again and again.

Then, some magical early morning in late January, the nominations are released and we begin the breathless conjecture about the surprises and snubs, who will win and who should win, or why certain baffling choices were made. The Oscars are a big deal for cinephiles, is what I’m saying, and this year is shaping up to be really interesting based on the nominees alone.

The first big shock is the film that received the most nominations — The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro’s indie fantastic romance got 13 nods, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (for Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor AND Actress (Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer), Best Screenplay and a bevy of technical nominations. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a summer blockbuster I slept on earlier last year, came in second with 8 (including Picture, Director, and Score). An interesting fact! Christopher Nolan has NEVER been nominated for Best Director before, despite four nominations from the Directors’ Guild of America for previous work.

I did not see The Shape of Water coming. My understanding of the chatter was that del Toro would likely get in for Best Director and Sally Hawkins was a dark horse for Best Actress, but the amount of love the movie got on Tuesday morning was really something. I haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but great things — it’s definitely bumped up several notches on my ‘must-see’ list. It’s really cool to see a movie like this become a flag-bearer for quality cinema in 2017, and I’d like to think diversifying the voting body of the Academy had a lot to do with it.

Get Out, the ground-breaking horror film from Jordan Peele, was nominated for four Oscars — Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay. Peele is only the third person ever to have nominations for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay after their first movie, which is mind-blowing to think about. In fact, the whole Best Director field is a crazy one this year. Greta Gerwig is only the *fifth* woman to be nominated for the award (Lady Bird, which also has a Best Picture nomination); there’s Nolan and del Toro picking up his first nominations; and then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson with his second nomination for The Phantom Thread. It’s truly strange to have such an accomplished group of neophytes, especially where two white guys feel like underdogs.

Denzel Washington, the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, picked up his eighth nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. (who?) while Daniel Kaluuya picked up his first nomination for Get Out; this is the first time two black actors have been nominated in the category since 2001, when Denzel beat Will Smith (Ali) for his performance in Training Day.

Octavia Spencer is joined in the Best Supporting Actress race by none other than Mary J. Blige(!!!) for Mudbound, a Netflix film that serves as the streaming channel’s breakthrough to the big dance. Mudbound also boasts the first woman ever nominated for Best Cinematography (Rachel Morrison, who also filmed Dope, Fruitvale Station, and BLACK PANTHER), as well as the first black woman ever nominated for multiple awards in the same year — that’s right, Mary J. picked up another nomination for Best Original Song. Fun fact! Rachel Morrison, in addition to being my new favorite cinematographer, is in a same-sex family with her wife and son.

There are so many other nominations to be excited about. While The Big Sick only picked up one nomination, it netted a big one: Best Original Screenplay for Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. Gary Oldman might finally get his long-overdue award for his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour; Willem Dafoe has his third nomination for The Florida Project; Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf scored Best Supporting Actress noms with portrayals of difficult mothers; Logan(!!) picked up a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, making history as the first screenplay adapted from a comic book to do so.

I’m really looking forward to watching as many of the Oscar-nominated movies as I can, speculating on what will win, debating which movies I like best with my husband and friends, and hosting a party to watch the ceremony in just over six weeks. I’m deliriously happy that our activism for diversifying the Oscars — both the Academy membership AND the nominations and awards — is starting to pay off with exciting filmmakers being recognized for telling exciting, unique stories. There’s still a long way to go, mind — representation for Asian, Native American, LGBQT (ESPECIALLY trans people), and people with disabilities is still an issue that needs to be addressed. But this year the nominations aren’t a parade of period pieces or biographies; the Best Picture line-up of the last several years have really broadened to reflect the best (and even most popular) films of the year.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post thoughts about the Oscar race, especially as I see more and more films. I hope you don’t mind me geeking out about movies, because that’s what’s happening next.

 

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(Movies) My Last 3: Get Hard, The Martian, Quick Change

Entertainment 150Get Hard (2015)
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart had to manage a storm of controversy around the release of this film; a lot of people thought it was pretty blatantly racist at worst, and tone-deaf at best. Their response wasn’t the best — basically, they were telling racist jokes to make fun of the people who would think that way. While I’ve been a defender of comedic boundaries before, I couldn’t say that I liked the rationalization for it. You can make fun of the mindset of racist people without resorting to racially-insensitive comedy; yeah, it’s more difficult, but good comedy is hard, right?

I was inclined to give this a miss until Ryan recommended it to me, and I’m actually glad he did. Get Hard is without a doubt a problematic comedy, but it’s also an incredibly funny one. I hadn’t been exposed to Kevin Hart very much before this, but I have to say I’m a fan at this point. Will Ferrell continues to find ways to refine and develop his stock comedic character so that while you know what you’re getting with him, there are always a few pleasant surprises in store.

Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager who is completely oblivious to the class divide that he embodies; he has an immense house, a super-hot wife who’s addicted to power, and is prepared to ascend to the highest echelons of the financial community. The insane lifestyle of James King is one that he feels he’s earned; he’s great at his job, put in his time, and is now reaping the expected rewards.

Hart is a struggling family man who just wants enough money for a down payment on a modest house in a better school district so that his daughter won’t have to go to an elementary school with metal detectors outside the front door. When King gets popped for fraud and threatened with a fairly intense jail sentence, he hires Hart’s Darnell Lewis to teach him to get ready for prison because being a black guy he had to have served time right? And we’re off to the races.

Through the first act and about half of the second, you’re actually ready to buy the excuses of Ferrell and Hart; James King is an astonishingly assinine person oblivious to the struggles of the people all around him and living a life of extraordinary wealth and privilege. The scenes where he actually has to deal with people outside of his bubble provides some hilarious and pointed social commentary. Darnell’s problems are only slightly exaggerated for comedic effect, but Hart plays him as earnest and relatable. When James and Darnell team up, it’s legitimately magical.

Then we get to Darnell’s cousin, Russell (played by the rapper T.I.) and then we’re suddenly in a much less comfortable place with the comedy. Russell is a member of the Crenshaw Kings, and Darnell thinks he might be able to convince the gang to protect James in prison. The usual “hoodrat black guys react to the whitest of the white guys” hijinks ensue and while it’s surprisingly funny it also undercuts the point the film tried to make up front — most black people (and other minorities) aren’t the stereotypes we make them out to be. By populating the rest of the film mostly with these exact stereotypes, the message comes across as fairly hollow.

Despite that, it’s still really funny. Get Hard is one of those films that I wish weren’t so easily dismissed because it could open up an interesting and necessary conversation about the prejudices even well-meaning but disconnected white folks have about minorities, and how the film’s ultimately letting James off the hook (his greatest crime is outstanding ignorance and that’s about it) doesn’t take its message far enough. It could have been so much more than it was, but what it was is actually pretty good.

The Martian (2015)
This movie is effectively anti-Gravity. Matt Damon is the title character, Mark Watney. During a months-long mission to Mars, a rather intense storm forces the astronauts to abandon their station in a hurry. Watney is hit by a piece of debris and goes flying off into the dust-storm; his vitals read as flat. The mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to abandon him, but surprise! Watney has survived, and now must find a way to survive until he is discovered and a mission to rescue him is organized.

What follows is an intense struggle to survive for Watney, and a series of jumping hurdles for his colleagues at NASA as they figure out just how they can help him across such great distances. While The Martian certainly pulls no punches detailing the inhospitable nature of space and other planets, it ultimately makes the case that human ingenuity, collaboration and willpower can overcome any problem — known or spontaneous — that the great void can throw at us. Watney is an inherently fascinating character; even though he’s on the mission as its chief botanist, he quickly learns how to turn his faculties towards doing whatever it takes to hold on until he can be rescued.

Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor are equally arresting as the various NASA administrators and engineers trying to bring Watney home. They have to navigate very real issues of time and budget constraints, political realities and public relations issues to figure out the best course of action. While it would have been lovely to imagine that NASA would be given unlimited funding and time to bring Watney home with the unwavering support of the public at their back, that simply isn’t the case. Forcing everyone involved to make do with less, we see the pressure everyone is under to find creative (and dangerous) solutions to accomplish what seems impossible.

In a lot of ways, the story of The Martian is the story of Gravity — a single astronaut stranded in the unforgiving void of space after a cataclysmic event leaves them without the necessities for survival. But while Gravity tightens its focus on Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone to explore the existential question of what motivates us to soldier on in the face of extreme difficulty and lingering trauma, The Martian pulls back to examine how we as human beings pull together in times of crisis to do amazing things we never thought we could. I think both films are uplifting for different reasons; Gravity tells us that we as individuals are stronger than we could ever believe, while The Martian tells us that we as a tribe are even smarter, stronger and more resilient than that. It’s really exciting to think about, and actually makes you want to see us living up to that potential.

Matt Damon is immensely charismatic here, and he pulls off the trick of effectively being alone through much of the film’s run time. Watney’s crewmates — including Chastain, Michael Pena, Mara Rooney and others — are competent and compassionate people, and watching them deal with the realization they’ve left a man behind is just as engrossing.

Director Ridley Scott, coming off a pretty bad pair of movies in Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings, could have used a hit and I’m glad he’s found one here. Mars feels like a surprisingly interesting place under his lens — even though it’s foreboding and dangerous, it can also be beautiful in the sparse manner of, say, an Arizona desert. He keeps the action rolling forward, pausing for just long enough to get a sense of place here. I’m glad that we saw the movie in theatres; the landscape and sense of distance really tracks well on the big screen.

All in all, The Martian makes a good counterpoint to the steady stream of space disaster films we’ve been getting recently. Yeah, things go catastrophically wrong, but the triumph over adversity actually feels better than a successful mission that goes according to plan.

Quick Change (1990)
Between Ghostbusters II and Groundhog Day, Bill Murray starred in this overlooked gem of a movie that also starred Geena Davis (right before she was in Thelma and Louise) and Randy Quaid (one year out of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). There are small parts in the film from Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci and Kurtwood Smith (the dad on That 70s Show), and they’re all great. It also features quite possibly the greatest public bus driver in all of comedic film. And I’ve never heard of it until now.

Quick Change tells the story of a man named Grimm (Murray) so fed up with New York City that he decides to rob a bank to get out of town. The bank heist itself is pretty funny and twisty enough that I won’t say too much about it here, but the Grimm’s attempt to get away with his accomplices make up most of the film. The city itself seems to conspire against them, throwing its labyrinthine geography and endless supply of random kooks to keep them in town. Grimm and his compatriots keep getting pulled down into the murk of the city the closer they get to the airport.

Murray plays the jaded genius really well — no surprise there. His co-stars, Davis and Quaid, are pretty amazing too. Jason Robards is the crusty old police detective two days from retirement and charged with bringing them in. He’s jaded too, perhaps moreso than Grimm, but still believes enough in the rule of law to keep plugging away at an impossible, Sisyphean task.

The writing is whip-smart and surreal; the characters that Grimm and company come across own their scenes completely. From the taxi driver who doesn’t speak English to the bus driver with crippling OCD, to the random unhelpful sociopaths they meet in their travels, New York is populated with pretty amazing people all living their own stories. It’s both one of the best and worst things about pretty much any major city, and Quick Change captures it so well.

Another surprising thing about the movie is how prescient it is; one of the big reasons Murray wants to get out of the city is gentrification and development — new condos are going up on every block and pricing long-time residents out of the city. A huge plot point is the necessity of strapping the money to himself because terrorism has made airport security draconian and inconvenient. And the police are constantly missing their men because they’re getting caught up chasing down minorities.

The more I think about this film, the more I love it. Everyone’s at the top of their game; the story is surprising, engaging and actually driven by characters who are smart, funny and interesting; and this is one of the only movies actually directed by Murray himself. This is the first (and best) of three movies Murray collaborated on with his co-director and the writer of the film, Howard Franklin. If you’re a big Bill Murray fan who’s seen most of his Wes Anderson stuff, this is the movie for you.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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(Movies) My Last 3: The Pyramid, The Book Thief, The Sacrament

Entertainment 150The Pyramid (2014)
This is a minor found-footage horror movie that I had been interested in mainly because I thought (mistakenly) that it was directed by Alexandre Aja. He’s a horror director I’ve really come to like after watching High Tension, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Horns. It turns out he only produced it, which is a real shame. Under the hands of some better filmmakers, this could have been really good.

The Pyramid is a faux documentary set during the Egyptian uprising of 2013 about a group of archaeologists uncovering an ancient structure that appears to have been built and then buried underground. After unearthing the apex of the pyramid, they find a way inside — and a series of events lead them further and further into the byzantine hallways. It doesn’t take long before they discover a malevolent force trying to keep them there, and kill them one by one.

The set-up and a lot of the action is actually fairly well-done here. I was impressed by the plotting; in a lot of found-footage movies, the characters have to contort themselves to have a reason to keep filming, or to go deeper into a horrible situation. Here, I thought it was fairly well-handled if a bit obvious that they were expositing. Once the scientists make it inside the pyramid and the proceedings get underway, the atmosphere changes dramatically and the sense of peril mounts really well.

Still, a lot of the dialogue is just clunky, and Denis O’Hare (hi, Russell Edgington!) is the biggest name and best actor there but you wouldn’t know it. The ending and the revelations about the true nature of the pyramid might work or it might not, depending on your tolerance for warped Egyptian mythology and low-budget (for a feature film) CGI. Even though the archaeologists and documentary crew are really put through the ringer, it doesn’t quite feel like torture porn because there are clear stakes and a hope — however small — that these hapless men and women will survive.

If you’re a found-footage enthusiast (like me) and are looking for a decent B-grade horror movie that’s slightly left-of-center, you could do worse than The Pyramid. It’s not astonishing, but I thought it was solid enough.

The Book Thief (2013)
A little girl is given up for adoption to a poor but lively German couple, right around the time the Nazi party is coming to power. After her new father discovers she can’t read, he teaches her and through that process instills in her a love of books and stories. As Hitler’s grip on Germany tightens, their Jewish and progressive neighbors are rounded up and disappeared. The community changes. And the son of the father’s wartime friend (himself a Jew) comes to their door seeking sanctuary.
The Book Thief is an adaptation of an Australian novel written by Markus Zusak, and it’s pretty obviously one of those movies that come out during Oscar season as a prestige picture. The cinematography is beautiful, the direction is measured and restrained, and the acting has that stiff, important quality — for the most part.

Here, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse make up the family that binds together through the onset of World War II, and they actually do a pretty wonderful job. Rush is breezily amiable as the cool, engaged dad; Watson is unrecognizable as a muttering, severe house-frau. Nelisse is an effortless actress, moving through the story with whatever is required of her. It’s quite impressive to watch these three, especially as the hard exterior of Watson’s housewife cracks and you see the effect that the war and the political situation has on her.

And yet, the story itself doesn’t quite land with the weight it’s clearly trying to. It meanders from subject to subject with the expansive air of a biography but it doesn’t quite leave you with anything you can take with you. The framing narration — the voice of Death talks about the proceedings with a bemused, detached air that’s really grating — isn’t as clever or thought-provoking as it thinks it is. And honestly, the ending is a bit of a let-down in its obviousness. Instead of being emotionally affecting, it feels manipulative instead.

Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that explores the lives of ordinary Germans during the Nazi regime, and for that alone it’s worth a look. The performances are solid enough to keep you engaged even as you roll your eyes whenever the movie tries to prey on your sympathies. The only Oscar nomination it managed to earn was Best Score, and the music from John Williams is quite well done. I just wish that it was in service to a movie that had been more artful in what it wanted to do.

The Sacrament (2013)
More found-footage horror! This time, a documentary crew from Vice magazine travels to Bolivia after one of their fashion photographers receives a letter from his estrange sister inviting them to a religious commune that’s been started there. Upon arrival, they’re more than a little freaked out by the vibe they get from the followers of “Father”, and just when they’re about to shrug and say “different strokes for different folks” the movie takes its turn.

What follows is an updated and fictionalized account of Jonestown, one of the biggest mass suicides in American history. Directed by Ti West, this move maintains a great sense of tension throughout; he really knows how to mine the vague unease one would feel among an isolated group of fanatics. As events unfold and escalate, it becomes increasingly clear that the documentary crew are in over their heads, and that discovery is appropriately terrifying.

The main reporter, Sam, is distractingly stiff and unconvincing as the narrator of the documentary. As things unravel and it becomes harder to justify the decision to keep filming, the framing of the found-footage format begins to suffer; you’re not sure why the camerman would keep documenting an increasingly desperate situation. A lot of the dialogue rings hollow, especially the stuff surrounding Father — the actor portraying him has a off-beat charisma all his own, so he makes it work regardless.

Ultimately, this is a great movie for found-footage and Ti West fans, but I’m not sure it’s a must-see film. If you’re in the dark on a Friday night and are looking for something to get the blood pumping, this is certainly a good choice.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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My Last Three Movies: Final Destination 3, Tammy, Jersey Boys

Entertainment 150Final Destination 3 (2006)
If you’ve never seen a Final Destination movie, it pretty much goes like this: one person in a group of high-school/college students sees a horrifying calamity unfolding in their imagination right before it happens and freaks the hell out. They (and a number of friends and acquaintances) avoid the disaster, but Death — not one to be cheated — stalks after them one by one, making sure to correct the tapestry of fate before too long. It’s a really neat concept, especially since it’s a slasher film with an existential threat more than an actual killer.

Even still, the Final Destination series has always vaguely disappointed me because it flirts right up to the line of doing something really interesting or thought-provoking with the premise before retreating back into the safety of its Rube Goldberg devices (each character is killed in an increasingly complicated set of freak accidents) or sophomoric foreshadowing and discussions about death. Even the really good ones (like the first two) are fun, but leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Whether it’s fair or not, I always kind of want them to be more than they are.

The third movie doesn’t hold up as well as the first two, and it’s here where we start to see the seams of the formula showing. This time, the epic accident is a roller-coaster malfunction that’s fairly impressive but not nearly as harrowing as the plane crash or highway traffic accident that preceded it. The build-up to the set piece is stocked with groan-worthy dialogue, and it almost feels like the writers have gone out of their way to make these characters as unlikeable as possible.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim!) leads the cast here, and she does a pretty good job. Her love-interest co-lead (Ryan Merriman) is Wonder Bread bland, though, and it all goes downhill from there. The group of “lucky” students saved from Death by roller coaster only to be killed in arguably more gruesome ways later on are almost uniformly terrible, and it makes me feel mean to wish horrible things to happen to them only to see them suffer some pretty terrible fates.

Horror movies are at their most fun when they have engaging or fun characters to root for, an inventive premise that’s fun to explore, and a sense of inevitability that never lets the main characters off the hook (even though they’ve won…for now). With Final Destination 3, there’s really only the knowledge that everyone you’re seeing will suffer and die, and after three installments of it the whole affair feels a little sadistic. There needs to be something more to it; inventive and gory ways to kill supporting characters just aren’t enough at this point.

Still, if you’re a horror franchise completionist or like watching annoying characters die in terrible ways, pull up a chair and pop it in. The DVD has a “Choose Your Fate” feature that opens up a few alternate scenes that might actually be fun.
Tammy (2014)
This was a rare misfire from Melissa McCarthy, a sort of mumble-core comedy that no one really knew what to do with. It was loaded with talent (Alison Janney! Susan Sarandon! Kathy Bates! Sandra Oh! Dan Akroyd!) and had a potentially amazing premise, but for some reason it felt like a hybrid between a Duplass Bros. movie and an earnest Cameron Crowe road-trip film.

Tammy (McCarthy) is fired from her dead-end burger job after wrecking her car running into a deer (don’t worry though, the buck is fine) and comes home to discover her husband in an emotional affair with another woman. She runs next door to her mother’s house and threatens to leave — only to be pushed out the door by her grandmother (Sarandon), who insists on coming along. She is, after all, providing the car and the trip money.

A series of misadventures follows, of course. We see Tammy and her grandmother Pearl getting into all kinds of trouble, and it becomes increasingly clear that Pearl might actually be the hotter mess of the two. Both women learn a bit more about themselves than they bargained for, and stumble into potential relationships with a retiree and his son after Pearl has a one-night stand with the older gentleman.

The movie takes a few dark turns that feel oddly specific yet not-quite-jokey that makes it hard to navigate the emotional turns. Pearl is an alcoholic diabetic, which…we’re never quite sure how to feel about. She’s funny when she’s drunk, until she isn’t, and her diabetes is a potential problem, then maybe a huge one, then maybe not so much. It’s almost like the writers themselves aren’t quite sure what to do with their own characters.

Nevertheless, both McCarthy and Sarandon are great when the material allows them to be freely funny, and the beginning of the film is awesome enough to carry you through the uneven, emotionally-dissonant second act. Tammy gets increasingly dramedic as it goes on, smoothing down the jagged edges of its protagonists as if admitting it would be kind of exhausting watching them be as crazy as we know they could be for a whole two hours.

Still, it’s worth watching. There’s great stuff there, and the worst of the film is never bad enough to make you tap out. If you’re looking to put on a comedy, laugh hard for thirty minutes, then maybe fall asleep in front of your television, this is one for you.
Jersey Boys (2014)
Clint Eastwood produced and directed this movie adaptation of the jukebox musical, and you can tell that this was a fairly faithful conversion from stage to screen. A lot of the narrative tricks are there — actors breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience, smooth transitions from expository monologues to in media res action, even the way actors speak their lines point to a theatricality that was meant for another medium. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but I think I would rather have someone trying to take advantage of the fact that film provides them a certain amount of freedom they wouldn’t have had on stage.

I think your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your awareness of the catalogue of the Four Seasons and how much you like the unique vocal stylings of Frankie Valli. His signature sound is a high falsetto that lowers to a kind of nasally tenor(?), which isn’t for everyone but I find pretty nice. The story moves from the early days of Valli’s career in a rough New Jersey neighborhood, to the formation and dissolution of the Four Seasons, to his later solo career and family troubles. The music matures accordingly, from nascent 50s doo-wop and crooner covers to 70s pop standards that I was surprised were written so early. Valli’s songwriting partner, Bob Gaudio, is responsible for some legitimately great music.

The story, though…that’s something else. While it doesn’t fall into the standard musical biopic structure (earnest ingenue works hard from humble beginnings, breaks through to success, falls to excesses of drugs or affairs or general assholery, makes a comeback that ends the film), it does spend most of its time on the unhappy career of the Four Seasons. Tommy DeVito, the group’s de-facto leader and money manager, is portrayed as a selfish and irresponsible grand-stander who accrues a shocking amount of debt during the group’s success. His personality makes it difficult to enjoy the breakthrough of the Four Seasons, and he’s the single reason the group busts up.

Frankie Valli himself produced the movie in part, so I have to be a little suspicious of the narrative here. He had enough pull to appear on the credits, so he probably had enough pull to influence the story. Did DeVito really sink the Four Seasons? Is it really true that Valli’s post-Seasons career was almost entirely working whatever jobs he could find in order to pay back DeVito’s debt? It feels like he could have pushed that part of the narrative to justify his absence to his family; it’s clear that his wife and daughters were bitter about his not being there, and the movie suggests the only reason he was on the road so much was a misguided sacrifice of one type of family for another.

Still, the performances are solid, the direction is competent and the song arrangements are decent. It’s a reasonably good adaptation that will serve you well in place of a more immediate or energetic live-theatre show. If you’re really big into 50s doo-wop or jukebox musicals, or you want to see Christopher Walken as the world’s most paternal mob boss, give Jersey Boys a try.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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My Last Three Movies

Philomena (2013)
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a disgraced adviser for the British government trying to determine what he should do next. At a party, he was approached by a woman suggesting he write about her mother, an elderly Catholic who had been forced to give up her son for adoption while living in a convent. Though initially reluctant to do a “human interest” piece, he eventually agrees to meet the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Her story — uncovered in fits and starts despite opposition at nearly every turn — proves to be shocking, tragic and almost unbelievable. Of course, most of it is true.

This was a lovely surprise. It was on our radar mainly because it had been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Judi Dench had been nominated for Best Actress. Honestly, who can resist a great Judi Dench movie? She’s just amazing.

Here, she largely disappears into the role of Philomena, an old, slightly doddering woman who remains devout despite the failings of the Church she believes in so strongly. It’s impressive to see her so ordinary and simple, pulling out only hints of her natural gravitas when she needs to underscore a dramatic beat. It’s unlike almost any other role I’ve ever seen her in.

The movie is directed briskly by Stephen Frears, who guided another British treasure to a Best Actress Oscar (Helen Mirren for The Queen). The more we learn about Philomena’s past, the more sympathy we feel for her and the deeper our desire to know what happened to her son. The answers lie in Washington, DC, and they’re just as surprising. How the film handles each revelation, allowing just enough time for the shock to settle in before moving quickly through the fallout, is kind of a marvel of pacing. This is a film that knows what it’s about, and doesn’t waste time getting there.

Coogan is great as Sixsmith, the prickly journalist who bonds with Philomena through the search but never quite stops being himself. A final confrontation underscores the wide gulf between the reporter and his subject, and while you understand Sixsmith’s reaction (and probably share it), Philomena’s gives us much-needed grace and closure.

If you’re waiting for more episodes of Downton Abbey or Doctor Who, this is going to be your jam.
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Robert Towne wrote and directed this California crime film, which is pretty confusing. On one hand, he wrote the classic film Chinatown and here he is returning to the genre that made him. But on the other, maybe Roman Polanski deserves all the credit and visibility he gets for Chinatown; while that film’s many, many twists are managed quite nicely, this one feels inert — like we’re standing in one place, spinning in circles, and calling it entertainment.

Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Michelle Pfeiffer, JT Walsh and Raul Julia all star in this movie but it’s hard to care about that. Gibson is a former drug dealer who Russell’s detective believes is selling again. They’re at each other’s throats for a good bit of the movie, but it’s hard to care about that either. The dialogue sinks pretty much every exchange, aiming for crackling and witty and landing far short.

After an hour or so, when we see the seventeenth slow-burn conversation between two of the characters, I realized that I had no idea what was going on, why the characters knew what they did or why they were saying what they were saying to each other. Ryan and I turned it off without finishing it, which almost never happens. Life’s too short and there are too many great (or at least more interesting) movies to watch.

I can’t say I recommend this one, but if you want to see an early Mel Gibson movie where he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of an American accent or Kurt Russell looking like he’s auditioning for the part of Patrick Bateman, this is your movie.
Last Action Hero (1993)
The real star of this movie is Frank McRae as Lt. Dekker, the stereotypical shouting black police chief, but Schwartzenegger actually does pretty great work here as well. This is one of those movies that got buried by bad timing and kind of unfair press; it opened a week after Jurassic Park and held up poorly against Sleepless in Seattle later. By the end of the summer, everyone called it a bomb and to this day there’s not a lot of fondness the way there is for other overlooked classics like, say, UHF.

But the movie is a really solid concept held back just a bit by shaking execution. To be fair, it’s a bit of a high-wire act that had never been done before — Last Action Hero tries to straddle the line between a parody of action movies and an homage to them, while also being a parable about the value and nature of storytelling. It swings for the fences, and that earns it my respect, and it mostly succeeds. Everyone gives it their all, and it’s really enjoyable if not quite as emotionally effective as it tries to be.

Teenage movie-buff Danny Madigan finds himself transported into the world of his favorite action hero, Jack Slater, through a magic ticket handed down to him by the elderly projectionist of an old movie theatre that’s about to be torn down. His presence in the film shades the live-action cartoon enough that the stakes are changed, especially when the sub-boss Benedict (Charles Dance!) slips through to the real world and realizes that the rules of the cinema don’t apply. Benedict is a great villain — smart, amoral, calculating, and he makes a nice foil for Schwartenegger’s meathead protagonist, Jack Slater.

Not everything works here — the big scene introducing the magic ticket is pretty corny, and not every self-aware joke lands quite right — but Last Action Hero gets more right then it gets wrong. The action is at once silly and engaging, and the comic timing actually works well slipped in amongst the thrill beats. Schwartenegger is game for self-parody, and he’s a lot funnier than he’s given credit for.

It’s still a minor film in his filmography, but it’s good enough for me to say it’s overlooked. Then again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of Schwartenegger’s panned films; I thought Jingle All The Way is a legitimately-good Christmas movie, and Kindergarten Cop is not great, but fun. The same could be said for Last Action Hero, but I hold it up a little higher because of all it tries to do. It’s a mild success that could have been an unmitigated disaster, and that deserves at least a little love.

If you want to see Schwartenegger poking fun at his oiled-up machismo or the role that probably got Dance the part of Tywin Lannister, I’d recommend this one. It’s a great one to pop in on a Friday night where you just need to decompress.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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The Last Three Movies

Entertainment 150I miss posting movie reviews! And I would also like to learn how to be more efficient with my writing. So I thought I’d try to kill two birds with one stone by offering some short reviews of movies I’ve seen, three at a time. If something really warrants a bigger conversation, I might spin it off into future blog posts. But for now, here are the last three movies I’ve seen.

Reds (1981)
Warren Beatty co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in this epic film detailing the life and career of John Reed, a journalist who became one of the organizers of the Communist Party in America during and after the Russian Revolution. Diane Keaton co-stars as his lover and partner, Louise Bryant, and Jack Nicholson gives a solid supporting performance as the playwright Eugene O’Neill.

This is one of the movies that feels like it’s dangerously close to being lost to history, and if that happens it would be a real shame. The film details the very beginnings of the American bohemian’s flirtation with communist politics, as well as the protracted revolution from Russia’s side of things. It’s fascinating to watch this small community of writers and artists being pulled into the orbit of socialism, and Reed in particular becomes absolutely swallowed by it. Through the course of the film, he goes from being intrepid observer to the beating heart of American communism.

The movie is packed with tremendous performances from Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman. Scene after scene simply blows you away, with the writing sharp enough to cut through the core of the characters involved. The acting is pitch-perfect, with Keaton especially handling really difficult scenes like they’re no big thing. For a movie that’s over three hours long, it feels like an efficient machine using its own momentum to pull itself along.

For an epic movie, it also feels remarkably grounded. These are exceptional people with passionate minds and big ideals, but they’re meeting in crappy little living rooms or the basements of public buildings. Even when Reed and Bryant go to Russia during the Revolution, the headquarters of the new governments seem stripped bare of any opulence. This makes the movie feel intimate and personal, even as it deals with political upheaval that shaped the world for most of the 20th century.

You have to see this movie. No other American movie details this period of Russia’s history (or the American reaction to it) in quite this way, and the unique perspective is buoyed by the fact that it fires on all cylinders. This is perfect for a Sunday afternoon indoors, with a dinnertime discussion right afterwards.

Rating: 5/5.
These Final Hours (2013)
A meteor has slammed into the northern Atlantic, causing tsunamis and a global firestorm that will reach the coast of western Australia in twelve hours. A young man named James (Nathan Phillips) leaves a woman in her beachside home to head inland and meet the end with a party to end all parties, completely smashed out of his mind. “It’s going to hurt,” he says, “and I don’t want to feel it. I don’t want to feel a thing.”

Of course things don’t go according to plan. He saves a little girl (Angourie Rice) from being brutalized by two men, and finds himself protecting her for the rest of the world’s existence. Along the way, he learns how to face his life just in time for it (and all life on Earth) to end. This sounds like one of those typical indie “realization” stories about the lonely white male protagonist who wakes up to life when a woman enters his life and he falls in love, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.

It’s particularly well-done, though, and the fact that Rose (James’ young charge) is a pre-teen with no possible chance of sexual tension really helps. Instead of James learning how great or enjoyable life is, he’s actually forced to step outside of his own head for a minute and think about the safety and happiness of someone else. The scene where their time together comes to an end is the best in the entire movie, an understated, quiet moment of connection between two people.

I love pre-apocalyptic movies that focus on the ways people fall apart once the artifice of society is no longer there to keep them together. The great Last Night remains my favorite, but this is a solid contender — moody, quiet, but filled with loud and frightening personalities. The ending provides a fitting close and an indelible final image. This is a perfect movie to watch on a hot summer’s day, just so you can go out and appreciate the world around you once it’s over.

Rating: 3/5.

The Great Gatsby (2013)
Baz Luhrmann co-wrote and directed this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novels, and it certainly shows. When you see the wild revelries at Gatsby’s estate, you totally understand what drew him to the material — it’s really a chance for him to release his famously overblown aesthetic all over celluloid, and when has Luhrmann been one to turn away from a good time?

There’s also a painfully romantic story beating beneath the excess that Luhrmann has a little more trouble mining. Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) has moved to New York to work on Wall Street, and he quickly falls into the orbit of the upper crust there — through his neighbor, the mysterious and generous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio); and through his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Once he’s pulled into their web it gets increasingly complex, and of course, tragic.

One of the things that makes the novel so great is its florid, poetic writing, and that’s something difficult to translate to film. Luhrmann gives it his best shot, though, by using a framing device that allows Nick to write directly about his time with Gatsby. It hints at the genius of Fitzgerald’s prose, but doesn’t quite get there.

Everyone’s so earnest, though, that it’s clear that they’re doing their best with the material — especially Luhrmann. You get the feeling he really, really wanted this to work. There are dazzling visuals, to be sure, and a lot of the heart-sickness within the characters is put across well, but ultimately Gatsby comes across more as an obsessive stalker than a lovestruck suitor. DiCaprio has become great at playing great men, but there’s something a little hard about him; he can’t bring Gatsby’s vulnerability forward nearly as easily as Fitzgerald does in his novel, and the story suffers for it. If Maguire had played him instead…

Still, even though the movie doesn’t quite capture Fitzgerald’s story, there’s a lot of other things to like about it. Luhrmann certainly has an eye for color and style, and the 20s fashions are pitch-perfect. He does wonders with the setting, depicting a New York that’s more a patchwork of neighborhoods than a cohesive city. The nouveau-riche village of West Egg is separated from old-money East End by a bridge and a valley of ashes, where the waste of the coal that powers the city is dumped. The physical distance emphasizes the emotional and social differences in every group you see so, so well.

Even failures can be worth watching, and Luhrmann’s ode to 20s excess is only a near-miss. I recommend it for those times where you feel you need more excitement in your life and need to remember drama does not equal happiness.

Rating: 3/5.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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Why I Loved “Boyhood”

Entertainment 150The 87th annual Academy Awards were last night, and it was a big night for Birdman. Alejandro Inarritu won Best Director for what was admittedly an incredible movie that seemed like one long take over most of its two-hour running time, and the movie itself won Best Picture. A cynic might say that of course Hollywood loves movies that reflect itself more than anything, but that would be diminishing Inarritu’s achievement. Birdman is a tightrope-walk of a movie; it stays with its actors through long, complicated scenes; it dips between natural, honest dialogue and winking meta-text and hilarious slap-stick set pieces and surreal flights of fancy without taking a breath. It really is something, and I see why it’s getting the recognition it did.

That being said, I have to admit that I’m bummed Boyhood didn’t win Best Picture last night. Taking nothing away from Birdman, I would have loved to see Linklater get rewarded for another, different feat in film-making. He rounded up a number of game actors (and children) for a grand experiment in long-form storytelling, the likes of which we may never see again. While it’s true that there are other movies that allow us to see people growing up right before our eyes (hello, the Harry Potter series! I see you, Michael Apted’s Up series!), the episodic nature of Boyhood‘s narrative allows us to look at the process of childhood and parenthood from a bird’s eye view. It shows us simultaneously what it was like to grow up in the 2000s and the timeless challenges that face families across generations.

The more I think about Best Picture winners, the more I want them to serve as something of a time capsule. The Best Picture winners that really stand out are the ones that either serve as a timeless example of its form, or give us a snapshot of what life was like during a particular time frame. That’s why I’m content with say, The Hurt Locker winning in 2010; it was a great snapshot of a particularly thorny time in our country’s history and helps us remember the incredible emotional toll that war can take on a man. I’m not sure too many Best Picture winners do that — offer something timely or timeless.

I love Boyhood because I think it does both. Linklater ties Mason’s arc to a very specific point in time, anchoring us to a place where the idea of family is morphing into something else; in addition to the people who’ve given birth to us, there are all sorts of people who enter our orbit, affecting us strongly for a time. Sometimes they stay with us, and sometimes they leave our orbit and go elsewhere, but the connection changes us just the same. Mason’s contact with two stepfathers (who turn out to be difficult, overbearing men) encourages him towards the more erratic but lighter touch of his biological father and infuses him with a deep distrust of authority figures later on in life. Things that mean an awful lot to us in the moment are consciously forgotten but spin us in different directions, while the constant, mundane contact of those who we’re closest to either encourage those diversions or gently, steadily course-correct us back to who we are. It’s fascinating to see all of Mason’s major experiences lead him to the next thing; the things he sees and observes burrow deep, and sprout later on in the film once he’s able to own the lessons he’s learned.

The broken family, the difficulties his mother faces as she tries to find love and career satisfaction, the earnest and misguided attempts at parenting from a father who’s still maturing speak to something that’s very much happening now. The boundaries of the family and community are expanding and blending and more than ever I think children are seeing their parents not as people who have their shit together, but fragile, frightened human beings who are just doing the best they can. I think it’s important to capture that, to immortalize the nebulous shape of our most fundamental relationships.

At the same time, we see Mason go from a (sort of) blank slate to a young man, with all the ego of youth and the inklings of who he’ll grow to be over the next decade. It’s fascinating to watch him grow up, and it’s fascinating to watch his mother struggle to find her place while she’s trying to provide her children with good and stable lives. While these issues have been shaded by the complexity of our times, they’re still the same issues every parent and child have faced for so long.

Linklater takes these universal problems and expresses them in ways that are thoroughly modern. At the same time, he doesn’t cast judgement on any of the characters throughout their lives; he merely allows them to express themselves as naturally and realistically as they can. At the end of Boyhood, I felt content, compassionate, connected to my fellow man in ways that generally only happen with great stories. While Birdman is a great film, it didn’t quite give me that feeling. Both are great movies; but I think Boyhood is the one that I’d love for people to remember ten years from now.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen either Boyhood or Birdman, please go see both! But…see Boyhood first.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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