Category Archives: Movies

2016 Oscars Recap: Chris Rocked

Triumph

He nailed it. As I say every year, hosting the Oscars is a thankless job. Not only did Chris Rock triumph, delivering one of the best opening monologues in Oscar History, but he did so with a topic which – let’s face it – is tough. Taking on the topic of racism in Hollywood in a way that’s funny, makes the point, yet doesn’t completely alienate the audience? The man virtually split the atom.

chris rock oscarsShow-And-Tell
As usual, the Oscars were long. The tickertape of names at the bottom didn’t help. The text callouts describing the hosts didn’t help either. The biggest improvement from last year was a conscious and mostly effective effort to explain the category being presented. Example 1: Cate Blanchett walking among costumes. Example 2: playing sound from the movies when introducing the sound categories – great idea! Example 3 (my fave): showing Andy Serkis recording his iconic parts in Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes – prior to his introducing the Visual Effects category.

Memorable Moments
Louis CK’s introduction to the Documentary Short Subject category was hilarious. Lady Gaga performed a moving tribute alongside survivors of sexual abuse. My favorite part was when Ennio Morricone won Original Score for “The Hateful Eight.” The legendary composer of the iconic Sergio Leone scores finally won. What a wonderful capstone.

Upsets!
The Oscars were less predictable than usual, yay. Mark Rylance scored an upset for Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies. Mad Max won 6 Oscars which was unexpected and enjoyable. Best of all, I loved that Spotlight – a quiet, extraordinary film – won Best Picture. The showy, art-housey Revenant-like pictures almost always win. Not this year!

Back to Chris
Most of his bits worked. Loved the “Black History Month” homage to – Jack Black! Girl Scouts selling cookies to the glitterati? Sure. Favorite part other than the monolog was the “man on the street” interviews with African Americans outside the Multiplex about the fact that – guess what? – no one had heard of let alone seen most of the nominated films.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Which brings me to a short treatise on the State of the Industry and this whole lack of diversity brouhaha. Why is it that the movies biz remain mostly all white and largely all male? That no African-Americans were nominated this year isn’t surprising given that most movies are marketed squarely at young white males. So why is there so much diversity in the world of music and TV? I think it’s All About Distribution. 400 scripted TV shows were released last year, according to the New York Times. There are an ever-growing number of distribution venues, from network TV, to cable, to Amazon. When it comes to music, anyone can upload to YouTube. Movies, in contrast, are released at the (corporate-owned) multiplex, with usually no more than 20 playing at any one time. They are financed by a handful of deeply risk-averse (corporate-owned) studios. And because of this, movies are not diverse. Many of them are also not very good. I’m not an expert in the economics of making and distributing movies, but something’s gotta give. Movie-lovers – in all our fabulous, glorious, diversity – deserve better.

Oscars 2015: Snoozefest

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The Ceremony

It is not Neal Patrick Harris’ fault that the Oscars were terrible. He tried. It is an impossible job. Here are the problems with this year’s Oscars:

  1. Few people had seen the movies. When big budget pictures (Lord of the Rings, The Blind Side) are in the mix, there is more interest.
  2. Everything was overproduced. The production numbers extended an already dull broadcast (see point 1). Example: every year, famous movie people who have passed away over the past year are honored. Meryl Streep provided a moving intro, followed by the customary photo montage.  All good. But then, the tribute was extended when Jennifer Hudson sang a post-tribute-tribute. They lost me for good when Lady Gaga performed a The Sound of Music Although to her credit Lady Gaga did a nice job, it’s hard to imagine two more incongruous singers than Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews, who gamely appeared to awkwardly thank Lady Gaga.  The Lego Movie song “Everything is Awesome” should have been performed by, well, Legos. It started off this way, then live people got involved and the whole thing jumped the shark.
  3. Incongruous songs (“The Look of Love,” “Endless Love,” “Moon River”) were played each time presenters appeared. I kept thinking, what does this song have to do with these presenters? Then I figured it out – nothing. The producers were again trying to musicalize the Oscars, to bizarre effect.

Here is what I liked about this year’s Oscar ceremony:

  1. The opening production number.  Bravo.
  2. The riff about Octavia Spencer guarding Neal Patrick Harris’ predictions, which I initially thought was awkward and pointless, was fun in the end when the predictions commented on the (relatively) interesting points in the ceremony (i.e. Terrence Howard was strangely emotional, John Travolta touched Idina Menzel’s face).
  3. The guy who accepted for Ida (foreign language film) kept at it, doggedly finishing his lengthy speech even as the orchestra tried to play him off. That this was a high point indicates a snoozefest of a ceremony.

The Movies

Were good, not great.  The Grand Budapest Hotel was my favorite film of those nominated but I am a Wes Anderson fan and I get that he is not everybody’s cup of tea. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything were similar movies, historically based films that were good, if somewhat plodding at times. Boyhood was really cool but let’s face it – it had no plot. And the fact that Birdman won Best Picture is the epitome of Hollywood naval gazing – let’s give an Oscar to a movie about actors! The movie had fantastic camera work and good performances, particularly by Edward Norton. But it made no sense.   I can’t wait to see Whiplash, which was made in a month for a song and has great buzz.   Still Alice is a Hallmark movie but Julianne Moore’s performance is incredible. Gone Girl should have been nominated for Best Picture, as it was very well done, but the Academy doesn’t view thrillers as award-worthy.

Why I am No Longer Going to Write About the Clothes

I have decided to hang up my hat on this topic. The Internet has enough haters. I am all over the campaign #askhermore, which is all about asking actresses about their work, and not their clothes. Actresses have legions of fashion and beauty professionals on hand to make sure they look fantastic, and for the most part succeed. Let’s stop carping about how they look. As Emily Nussbaum points out in her fantastic piece on Joan Rivers, Joan was a trailblazer, true, but a key part of her schtick involved tearing down other women. In 2012-2013 (the latest years for which this information is available) about 30% of all-on screen speaking characters in the top 100 films were women.   And when it comes to directors, the story is much worse. Woman directors are a rarity in Hollywood despite some female studio heads. Read New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis’ excellent 3 part series on the topic.

As Neal Patrick Harris noted in the beginning of the ceremony, “moving pictures shape who we are.” And what they currently show is that it’s a man’s world. Think about movies like Django Unchained, in which there is a slew of great roles for men, and then there’s Kerry Washington, who’s stuck playing The Girl. Let’s work to change that by focusing on actresses’ work, instead of their looks.

I’ll Take Diane

As my friends and family know, I am hard to beat in an Oscar poll.  The reason for this is after years and years of watching Oscar-nominated films, I’ve learned a thing or two.  Mostly that the films that get honored are big, splashy, historical dramas.  OK Lincoln didn’t win this year.  But it should have.  Mental illness is also popular.

Comedies get short shrift.  If you look at Oscar winners for Best Picture (here is the list:  http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/legacy/best-pictures.html) you have to go back to 1977 to find a comedy that won.  There were films that had elements of comedy (Shakespeare in Love, Chicago, and The Artist) but straight comedy?  The last Best Picture Winner was Annie Hall.  Which, in a somewhat circuitous fashion, brings me to the topic of this post, Diane Keaton.

Comedy Don’t Get No Respect.  What gets respect is drama.  Meryl Streep is amazing, for sure, but which performance was better – Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, or Meryl in “It’s Complicated?”  I’ll take Diane.  Herewith, I’d like to pat Diane Keaton on the back for 30+ years of great comedic performances.

Diane Keaton is a gifted comic.  She is an adorable, vulnerable, loveable klutz.  She is beautiful, relateable, and (along with Meryl) one of the few older actresses that have eschewed plastic surgery and facial fillers.  I should note here that unlike Meryl who is deft in both comedy and drama, Diane’s dramatic performances are, to be kind, a mixed bag.  Here is an example of Diane’s terrible acting from Godfather 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_g9RI0GgRIQ

Diane Keaton started working in 1970 and has amassed 62 acting credits and counting.  She’s hilarious.  She’s prolific.  She’s a gem.  Below, my five favorite Diane Keaton movies:

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  1. Something’s Gotta Give:  Diane has had a long and fruitful relationship with Nancy Myers.  Something’s Gotta Give is a completely enjoyable, satisfying romantic comedy.  We have Diane, plus Jack Nicholson, plus a surprisingly hot Keanu Reeves.  There’s also house porn.  What’s not to love?                                                   Image
  2. The First Wives Club.  Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler are delightful in this comedy about spurned wives seeking revenge on their ex-husbands.  A movie that proved that an audience will pay to see Actresses of a Certain Age.  Although this has been demonstrated again and again, Hollywood studio executives always seem to forget this and greenlight big budget action movies instead.  Wait, that’s another blog post.  Image
  3. Baby Boom.  In Diane Keaton’s first pairing with Nancy Myers, she plays “Tiger Lady” JC Wiatt, a workaholic who, after inheriting a baby after a distant relative dies, buys an old farmhouse in Vermont and starts an organic babyfood company.  Sam Shepherd is adorable as her love interest, a vet.Image
  4. Annie Hall.  I saw this movie with my friend Donna several months ago in the magnificent Michigan Theater.  Little known fact – the movie was initially supposed to be about Alvy (the Woody Allen comic character) but the film editor encouraged Woody Allen to recut it and make the movie about Annie.  He did, and a classic was born.                                                                          Image
  5. Sleeper. Early Woody Allen.  Diane is a ditzy self-absorbed poet from the future who finds herself on the run with Woody Allen.  Slapstick, silly, ridiculous, laugh-out-loud funny.

So thank you Diane, for your contribution to film.  You are loved.

Blue Jasmine

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Class Dismissed

Cate Blanchett is a great actress.  But Blue Jasmine is not a great movie.  In my humble opinion, it’s not even a good one.

This is an unpopular view.  Blue Jasmine received great reviews, and is considered one of the best Woody Allen movies in years.  Having recently seen Annie Hall (more on that topic on a separate blog post) nothing compares to old Woody Allen films.  Even the middle period has some gems (I am a particular fan of Bullets Over Broadway, in which Chazz Palminteri kills Jennifer Tilly for being a bad actress).  Some of Woodoy’s recent movies, including Midnight in Paris, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), are fun and worth seeing.

And the funny thing about Blue Jasmine was I couldn’t figure out what I didn’t like about it.  (I’d never make it as a real critic, don’t quit your day job Alice).  Cate Blanchett’s performance is wonderful. Even the way she clutches yet caresses her Birkin handbag is somehow Oscar-worthy. Alec Baldwin is great as Jasmine’s Shyster husband.

My brother Richard figured it out.  He said, “Woody Allen can’t write working class characters.”  And that is the problem.  The story is about a  Madoff–like wife who has lost her husband as well as tremendous wealth due to Ponzi fraud.  She is forced to move in with her sister, a working class woman in San Francisco.  All the working class characters (Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, and even much-loved Louis C.K.) are stilted.  They’re not funny, they’re not believable. and their scenes drag.  And without giving away the story, the arc of the movie is frustrating.

Woody Allen shines depicting educated, affluent, neurotic New Yorkers.  In the past several years, his movies have featured these kinds of characters located in European cities for budgetary reasons.   When Woody writes what he knows, it works.  Blue Jasmine falters when Woody Allen steps out of his comfort zone.

Rating:  ** (out of ****)

Being Barbra

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The Guilt Trip

OK so it isn’t one of her best.  It’s still Barbra.  And even at 71 (!), Barbra has still got it.  I’m kind of surprised that Barbra agreed to star in The Guilt Trip given its so-so script, but she did, and I have to admit I enjoyed the movie.

Be warned:  It’s not a great film, or even a good one.  The Guilt Trip is about an overprotective widow and her oppressive relationship with her son (Seth Rogan, looking mildly put upon throughout the whole movie).  They drive across the country together.  The movie, like the road trip itself, starts out badly but improves. The Guilt Trip is watchable, several scenes are downright enjoyable, and the end is poignant.

One thing that often goes unacknowledged when it comes to Barbra Streisand is that she is a good actress.  The character she plays in this movie is not just the stereotypical Jewish mother – there’s some of that, sure, but Joyce is a little frail, sometimes scared, yet excited to try new things.  I think Barbra’s actually better when she isn’t directing herself.  In The Prince of Tides, for example, her character was always perfectly lit, dressed impeccably, perfectly manicured, etc. etc.  Lowenstein was a little much.  One of my favorite Barbra movies is What’s Up Doc (if you haven’t seen this movie, rent it immediately).  The dinner gets my vote for Funniest Movie Scene Of All Time.

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There’s apparently a great play out in New York about a fan’s love of Barbra, which I would love to see (Jonathan Tolins’s “Buyer and Cellar).  We are a strange bunch, Barbra fans.   When we think of Barbra, we usually think of That Voice.  A gift to be sure – but so are many of her films.

The Guilt Trip ** (out of ****)

What’s Up Doc **** (out of ****)

Putting Baby – and Carrie Bradshaw – in a Corner

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To quote Broadcast News, I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.  I’m tired of the sexism in the movie industry.  A recent issue of Entertainment Weekly lists the 100 best movies of all time.  Dirty Dancing and movies of its ilk (Clueless, etc.) are not on the list.  Goldfinger, however is.  Boy fantasies are critical darlings.  Girl fantasies are not.

Dirty Dancing is a girl fantasy.  It is actually a specific kind of girl fantasy.  Summarizing the plot of this film may not be necessary given that everybody who doesn’t live under a rock has seen the movie.  In any event, for those of you who live under a rock the plot is thus:  smart, outspoken Jewish girl meets hunky dancer from wrong side of the tracks in a Catskills resort in the early 1960s. Patrick Swayze is smokin’ hot.  Romance ensues along with, well, dirty dancing.

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You may think – what does Sex and the City have to do with Dirty Dancing?  Well, in the same Entertainment Weekly issue, there is a rating of the 100 best TV shows of all time.  The Sopranos is #5.  Mad Men is #9.  Sex and the City is #58.  As the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum notes in a recent amazing article, Sex and the City is viewed as a “guilty pleasure:” a frothy combination of prurience and fashion.  Although yes there is lots of sex and lots of fashion, can we pause to consider … the writing?  The writing is excellent.  Although each episode sticks to a prescribed formula (Diner scene, Carrie voiceover, et. al.) this is the case with many shows, including the award-winning Modern FamilySex and the City is about femaleness – female characters, female friendships, female flaws.  And although critics want nothing but to dissect the flaws and complexities of Tony Soprano and Don Draper, nobody gives Carrie Bradshaw and her cohorts the time of day.

Carrie and Baby are both stuck in a corner.   To be fair, part of this is due to the money-grab on the part of the Sex and the City Powers That Be, making two lackluster feature film sequels.  The first was mediocre, the second horrendous as well as morally offensive.  So in the purple haze of sex, fashion, and bad movies, it was somehow forgotten that Sex and the City was an excellent show with top notch writing, stellar acting, and nuanced characters.

I am actually a fan of Mad Men and The Sopranos.  It’s noteworthy that both shows are notable for what isn’t said.  Don Draper and Tony Soprano are (were) inscrutable; part of the fun is putting together the puzzle pieces.  In Sex and the City, everything is stated in exhaustive detail.  Isn’t that sort of like men and women – men not communicating, and women over-communicating?  So why are artistic works lacking communication considered superior?

So listen up.  I’m tired of reading (male) critics praise shows created by (male) showrunners starring (male) leads.  Part of the reason they get away with this is that we let them.  So my challenge to you, faithful readers, is to speak up. The Gilmore Girls.  Pitch Perfect.  Bridesmaids.  Scandal.  Let us now praise female-driven entertainment.

Before Midnight

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Scenes from a Marriage

So now I get to blog about a second movie by one of my favorite directors, Richard Linklater (here’s the first (https://amorganresearch.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/bernie/).  For those unfamiliar with this talky trilogy, in Before Sunrise Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train in Europe and spend the day together.  In Before Sunset they reunite years later and Jesse debates whether to leave his wife and child for Celine.  Before Midnight again fasts forwards some years, and now Jesse and Celine are together living in Europe, have children, and are on vacation in Greece.  In my opinion, Before Midnight is easily the best film of the series.  Here’s why.

As the great film columnist A.O. Scott notes in the New York Times, (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/movies/the-hard-work-in-before-midnight-amour-and-other-films-and-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)  there is a reason why most romantic films end when the marriage begins.  After boy gets girls, what’s to watch?  Anyone who has been married for a long time knows that marriage isn’t glamorous.  Often, it is petty and mundane.  Before Midnight exposes the long slog.

As with Before Sunset, Hawke, Delpy and Linklater wrote the screenplay.  They were nominated for an Academy Award for Before Sunset and I hope they are nominated again since the writing is fantastic.  The Greek setting is idyllic.  Both Delpy and Hawke are tremendous  The directing style is patient.  Most of the movie consists of long takes of Jesse and Celine talking.  Other movies are chock full of fast takes, numerous characters, and lots of action.  Before Sunset respects its characters and its audience.

Jesse and Celine each have long-standing issues.  He feels guilty that he seldom sees his son from his first marriage and she feel conflicted about her career and resentful about having to do most of the childrearing.  As the layers of their marriage are peeled back, we go from friendly flirtation to full-on war.  Although this is not an enjoyable film to watch, it is a worthwhile film, and it made me think about marriage in general, and my marriage in particular.  Rare is the film that induces this kind of introspection.  Bravo to Linklater, Delpy and Hawke.

Rating:  **** (out of ****)

Mr. Mom

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The Importance of Good Casting

I’m sorry to say I missed Mr. Mom when it came out.  This despite the fact that 1) 80s comedies are my thing and 2) 80s comedies WRITTEN AND/OR DIRECTED BY JOHN HUGHES are particularly my thing.  (BTW, one of the great things about this blog is I learn a bit about film luminaries.  John Hughes is certainly one and he is from… Lansing!  No wonder all of his movies always had a Midwestern bent.)  In any event, despite its incredibly dated comedic premise, Mr. Mom holds up.

The incredibly dated comedic premise:  Dad stays home with kids, Mom goes to work.  Hilarious!  But it actually is.  Part of the reason the film still works is the casting.  Both Michael Keaton, as the Dad who loses his job in an auto downsizing, and Terri Garr, as the Mom who goes back to work, are great.  The jokes may be stereotypical but they are funny (Dad doesn’t know how to do laundry, gets hooked on soap operas, plays Bridge with the girls, while Mom goes to work in power suits with floppy bow ties).  Jeffrey Tambor has a bit part as an oily car guy, the kids are appealing, and … get this … the movie was actually filmed in Detroit!  (this film was made before favorable tax credits reduced the practice of shooting on location).   For a good time check out Mr. Mom.

Since I am now officially out of feedback about Mr. Mom, I wish to briefly ruminate on the topic of why some comedies remain funny over time while other movies that were hilarious when they came out seem impossibly dated 10 years later.  I’ve long thought that comedies that are set in a prior time/genre (Animal House, Blazing Saddles, Some Like It Hot) hold up.  But Mr. Mom is unabashedly dated.  There are lots and lots of families nowadays in which the Mom works and the Dad stays home.  This has ceased to be a sufficiently amusing premise to warrant an entire film.  So why is it still funny to watch a vacuum manhandle Michael Keaton?  I don’t know.  Such is the alchemy of the movies.

Rating:  *** (out of ****)

Frances Ha

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If A Reviewer Falls Asleep During a Movie…

So here’s the question given that I’m new to this blogging gig:  if I fall asleep during a movie, can I still write a review?  First, some backstory.  I went to Frances Ha when my 12 year old son was at an appointment, then the Y, and then jazz band – all in downtown Ann Arbor.  He could WALK between activities ON HIS OWN.  No driving was needed.  It is difficult to adequately explain how unusual this is.  A perfect 2 1/2 hour window miraculously appeared.

I saw the movie at the historic Michigan Theater (http://www.michtheater.org/), and enjoyed live organ music, popcorn with REAL BUTTER, and – get this – a beer!  Never have I had a beer during a movie – and inside the movie theater, no less.  The Michigan Theater recently acquired some strange license permitting this (you pay a one-time fee of $5 for a “Simple Access” Membership).

I enjoyed the beer, popcorn, and live organ music far more than the movie, which I suppose I should now discuss.  Frances Ha was directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who stars.  Although I like some of Noah Baumbach’s work, particularly The Squid and the Whale, he specializes in films about privileged, nebbishy characters (Greenberg being the most noted example.)  In Frances Ha Gerwig plays Frances, a 27 year old college graduate who is foundering.  The movie follows Frances for about a year as she flails (she is an aspiring dancer) and fails.

I’m not sure what made the movie so sleep-inducing.  I always have a harder time describing why films don’t work then why they do. Frances is annoying.  Her friends, who like Frances are privileged 20-something New Yorkers, are annoying as well.  The plot, like Frances herself, meanders.   Given that I was asleep for a good part of the movie I obviously can’t speak to what I missed.

In the end, the movie didn’t matter.  Sitting in the gilded glory of the Michigan Theater with old-school organ music, popcorn, and beer, was bliss.  Sometimes, it’s all about the wait.

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Stranger Than Fiction

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On My Top Ten List

My 15 year old son had never seen Stranger Than Fiction.  So last night we watched it.   Over the years I have seen this movie many times.  It is one of my all time favorites.  Here’s why.

Amazing Acting.  All the performances are first rate.  Will Ferrell plays a straight man (in fact, the ultimate straight man – an IRS tax collector) who unwittingly becomes the main character in a novel.  Other actors include Emma Thompson as the writer of the novel with a major case of writer’s block, Queen Latifah as her assistant, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a tax-averse baker, and Dustin Hoffman as an English professor/occasional lifeguard.  All are a joy to watch.  Truly.

Wonderful Writing.  The movie is all about art, life, and the intersection of the two.  The story is creative, unusual and thought-provoking.  Unlike most films, the ending is extremely strong.

Surreal Soundtrack.  The quirky soundtrack helps set the tone of this odd, wonderful film.

My son asked me whether this movie received any critical acknowledgement when it came out in 2006.  My understanding is that it was fairly under-the-radar but over the years has garnered support.  With this post, I am attempting to add to the buzz (hey I may be a little late but it’s my blog!)  See Stranger Than Fiction.

Rating:  **** (out of ****)