OSCARS 2019 recap

February 25, 2019

OSCARS 2019 recap

 The Academy missed their goal of a 3 hour presentation, but only by 17 minutes! Ratings were up (over last year) and diversity was on full display, so it seems most can agree that things went pretty smoothly without a host. Despite some recent bungled decision-making, followed by a social media outcry which resulted in decision reversals, the Academy deserves credit for a fine presentation that featured more diversity than ever before. The days of #OscarSoWhite seem to be over.

I trust you didn’t come here to read yet another rant about why a certain award proves how out of touch the Academy is. Nope, I like movies and prefer to view the Oscars as a celebration rather than a political statement. By the time the final envelope was opened, all 8 Best Picture nominees had won at least one Oscar. Additionally, two other excellent films, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK and FIRST MAN, also won awards (Best Supporting Actress and Visual Effects, respectively). Spreading the major award love over 10 different films speaks not just to the diversity, but also the deep lineup of quality filmmaking during 2018.

As always, the ceremony provided some fun talking/debating/arguing points. Queen opened the show with Adam Lambert proving how remarkable Freddie Mercury’s voice was, while Brian May showed us he still plays a mean guitar. Best Actor winner Rami Malek fell off the stage after giving his speech. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt. Melissa McCarthy (and a puppet) and Brian Tyree Henry fully and elaborately committed to their duties as co-presenters of Best Costume. Despite not being present, the omnipotent Oprah made an appearance – via the montage of 2018 films (from her bomb A WRINKLE IN TIME), and we saw a live quasi-reunion of WAYNE’S WORLD with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (sans wigs and head-bobbing). Spike Lee finally won an Oscar (Adapted Screenplay for BLACKKKLANSMAN), and then proceeded to bogart the microphone from his equally deserving co-writers, before throwing a tantrum when GREEN BOOK was announced as Best Picture.

 Of course, the most Tweeted about moment came when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga took the stage to sing their (now Oscar winning song) “Shallow” from A STAR IS BORN. It was a very intimate duet that, had there been one more verse, might have resulted in clothes being shed on stage. The aforementioned diversity resulted in the most presented Oscars for both African-Americans and Women, and with presenter Michael Keaton being the only white male to take the stage solo. Barbra Streisand (presenting BLACKKKLANSMAN rather than A STAR IS BORN) somehow escaped backlash after comparing herself to Spike Lee … see they are both from Brooklyn and like hats; although we aren’t sure if Babs greeted her superfan, nominee Richard E Grant. And poor Christian Bale – no way that room was ever going to vote for Dick Cheney, regardless of how remarkable his transformation and performance.

Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) won the Best Actress Oscar over Glenn Close (THE WIFE). This was Ms. Close’s 7th Oscar nomination without a win, keeping her one ahead of fellow nominee Amy Adams (VICE). However, neither of them gained ground on songwriter Diane Warren whose nomination for “I’ll Fight” (RBG) was her 10th without a win. It should also be noted that Ms. Colman’s acceptance speech was the funniest, most charming and most heartfelt of the evening. In contrast to Ms. Close, Ms. Adams and Ms. Warren, Regina King was thrilled to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her first ever nomination (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK).  In a show of ultimate class, Congressman John Lewis presented Best Picture nominee GREEN BOOK, and we could be certain a man with his perspective and role in history, would not partake in any tantrum throwing.

 Mahershala Ali (GREEN BOOK) won Best Supporting Actor for the second consecutive year, and Alfonso Cuaron won 3 Oscars (Best Director, Cinematographer, Best Foreign Language Film) for his autobiographical masterpiece ROMA. Also winning 3 Oscars on the night were BLACK PANTHER (Costumes, Production Design, Score) and GREEN BOOK; however, it was BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with 4 wins that walked away with the most statuettes. Even those who are upset by GREEN BOOK’s Best Picture win must agree that it was a much smoother end to the evening than last year’s debacle and mix-up.

***Note: although there were a few political barbs tossed in throughout the evening, President Trump’s name was never mentioned on the broadcast. This allowed the focus to remain mostly on the nominees and the films … and the plug for the under-construction Academy museum (opening someday). .

 

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THE MULE (2018)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a film is inspired by a true story detailed in a 2014 New York Times article entitled “The Sinoloa Cartel’s 90 Year Old Drug Mule” written by Sam Dolnick, we should expect a message delivered with a certain amount of tension. Unfortunately, tension is somehow lacking throughout, and the only real message delivered is the same of most every elderly person (even those who aren’t drug runners) – they regret not spending more time with family. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its moments (it does), but know going in that the terrific ensemble cast is given little to do in a script painted with such broad strokes that no other message or image ever emerges.

Clint Eastwood directs his second movie of the year (THE 15:17 TO PARIS being the other) and stars in his first acting role since TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE in 2012. Here he plays Earl Stone, a popular horticulturalist who admittedly devoted more time and love to his prize-winning daylilies than to his family. A flashback to 2005 shows us Earl in his element at a convention where he is treated as a celebrity, and as a man who would rather buy a round of drinks at the hotel bar than show up to his daughter’s wedding and walk her down the aisle. The family has grown weary of and accustomed to his no-shows, and Earl displays little remorse.

Pushing forward twelve years, we find Earl’s house and farm in foreclosure – and him blaming the internet (just one of many ‘good old days’ syndrome bits). When his appearance at his granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) engagement party causes turmoil with his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (the aptly named) Lilly (Alison Eastwood), he is approached by one of the attendees who tells him he can make money ‘just driving’.

Being hard up for cash, Earl takes the job driving his truck and dropping off his unknown cargo. In one of numerous convoluted moments we are supposed to accept, Earl is shocked when he discovers the cargo he’s been toting is bags of illegal drugs. Now mind you, this is a Korean War veteran who has spent his life on the road running his own business. The naivety is a bit too much for us to swallow. Comparisons are expected to Eastwood’s turn as Walt in GRAN TORINO (2008), but here his being an off-the-cuff racist is seemingly excused by his age and generation … plus it’s meant as comic relief quite often. Earl becomes a trusted mule for the cartel led by a kingpin played by Andy Garcia, and transports record amounts of drugs valued at millions. Still, Earl is a cranky old geezer who does things his own way, whether that’s stopping for the world’s best pulled pork sandwich or helping a stranded family change a tire. He’s also a 90 year old with the libido of a 28 year old gigolo (which given Eastwood’s real life track record, may or may not be fiction).

While Earl makes his commutes through the picturesque Midwest (including White Sands National Park) singing classic country songs and ballads, the Chicago DEA is busy tracking the cartel. Two partner agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) report to the Station Chief (Laurence Fishburne) and are under pressure for drug “busts”. It’s this segment that truly causes the story structure to crumble. Cooper, Pena and Fishburne are all excellent actors and it’s a bit embarrassing to see them with such limited and basic roles. Fishburne especially seems relegated to intricate dialogue such as “get it done” and “do it”. There is also a Waffle House scene shared by Cooper and Eastwood that so unreasonably requires us to suspend all disbelief that it ends up just being an eye-roller.

One’s expectation for the film should be tempered by the knowledge that Earl’s line, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything”, is really the crux of the film. An elderly drug runner’s life regrets and attempts to make amends and re-connect with his family somehow plays like a disjointed soap opera than a real life drama. That said, even at age 88, Mr. Eastwood still has a strong screen presence, and we can’t help but find it interesting that both he and Robert Redford (THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN) had roles this year as criminals with a certain appeal.

watch the trailer:


A STAR IS BORN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the 4th iteration I’ve seen of A STAR IS BORN. First there was writer/director William Wellman’s original version in 1937 which won the Oscar for Best Original Story, had 6 other Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March (he playing a veteran actor and she a starlet). Next came the 1954 remake with James Mason and the fabulous Judy Garland (he playing a veteran actor, she an upcoming singer/actress). Both were nominated for Oscars, and the film was directed by George Cukor (10 years later would win an Oscar for MY FAIR LADY). 1976 brought the second remake (third version), this one starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It won a Best Song Oscar for Paul Williams, and was directed by Frank Pierson, known best for writing the oft quoted line “What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate” from COOL HAND LUKE (he also won a Best Screenplay Oscar for DOG DAY AFTERNOON). So perhaps it’s understandable that 81 years after the original, Bradley Cooper chooses this familiar story for a generational update and his directorial debut.

When it’s announced that a new version of this story is being made, the obvious first question anyone asks is ‘Who did they cast?”  Many were surprised when it was learned that Bradley Cooper had cast himself, and that Lady Gaga would take on the female lead. Sure, we all know Bradley Cooper as an Oscar nominated actor from SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) … but can he SING?  And yes, many had seen Lady Gaga in TV’s “American Horror Story”, but could she possibly carry a major film – sans heavy make-up and gimmicky stage gadgetry?

The audience reactions are in. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga blow away the 1976 version, and where they rank versus the other two versions, comes down to personal preference. Mr. Cooper delivers an odd, yet effective, performance as the boozy, aimless rocker Jackson Maine. Not only does he mimic Sam Elliott’s speaking voice and cadence, his performance seems purposefully close to that of Kristofferson from 42 years ago. The great Sam Elliott does play Cooper’s (much) older brother, so the oratory choice makes some sense … it’s just a bit off-putting at first. Cooper is believable as the rocker thanks to his stage presence and charm. We never doubt Jackson Maine is a rock star.

The most stunning and pleasant surprise here is Lady Gaga as Ally. For anyone who still thinks of her in terms of raw meat fashion at industry events, prepare yourself for astonishment. Her beautiful and powerful voice is on full display throughout the film. In fact, her songs and singing are the highlights of what is a terrific film that should have wide appeal. The first song she sings, “La Vie en Rose” (made famous by Edit Piaf) is quite simply jaw-dropping in its beauty.

Ally is a pretty grounded woman from humble means. She works as a waitress and sings whenever she can … having been held back from pursuing her dreams by a well-meaning father (Andrew Dice Clay) who says she doesn’t have the looks to be a star. Ally has a Carole King “Tapestry” poster on her bedroom wall, and we soon learn she could probably sing most any song from that classic album and make it her own. When Jackson and Ally meet, a complex romance and professional partnership forms. We know those rarely end well. As Jackson shuns his protective brother, battles an ever-worsening hearing issue and a self-destructive drinking problem, Ally tries to remain loyal to the man she loves … even as her own career explodes down a path Jackson barely recognizes.

In addition to the aforementioned Dice Clay (surprisingly subtle here), there is a musical duet with Marlon Williams (in the Roy Orbison tribute) and Presley Cash, and surprising supporting characters played by Dave Chappelle and Eddie Griffin. Probably not as surprising, Jon Peters is listed as a Producer on the film. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Peters, he was once a hairstylist to celebrities and in the early 1970’s fell in love with Barbra Streisand. His first credit as Producer was for her film … you got it … A STAR IS BORN (1976).

Mr. Cooper does a nice job tackling such a large scale and familiar project for his first directing gig, and we are certainly appreciative of his avoiding inclusion of Streisand’s “Evergreen”, and instead showcasing the talents of Lady Gaga. It’s likely Lady Gaga will receive a bit more credit for her acting than is probably deserved (an Oscar nom is possible), but her impact on the movie cannot be understated. Bradley Cooper’s next project as actor/director has been announced as BERNSTEIN, where he will play the great composer Leonard Bernstein. Kudos to Cooper for dreaming big!

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JOY (2015)

December 26, 2015

joy Greetings again from the darkness. The movie is inspired by the true story of entrepreneur Joy Mangano (listed here as an Executive Producer) and her 1990 invention of the Miracle Mop. You should know that neither “Mangano” nor “Miracle Mop” is mentioned, and much of the story sprung from the mind of writer/director David O Russell. Also, if you have been a fan of Mr. Russell’s past few Oscar nominated films (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), you should be warned that even though there is a large cast of familiar supporting players, it doesn’t play like his usual ensemble piece, but rather as a true star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence (who plays Joy).

This is a working class Italian-American family, and the multi-generational aspect is in full play as Joy (a single, working mom) and her two kids share the house with Mimi (Joy’s grandmother played by Diane Ladd), Joy’s mom (Virginia Madsen) who is a recluse dressed in 60’s party attire and addicted to daytime soap operas, and Joy’s dad (Robert DeNiro) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who share the basement. Tony is the rare combination of slacker-Tom Jones impersonator. Also involved are Joy’s agitating and envious step-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) and Dad’s new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). This family makes The Royal Tenenbaums look suburban stale.

Flashbacks and dreams, along with the supportive words of Mimi, convince us that Joy is a creative genius, whose once promising abilities have been stifled by the harsh realities of raising kids, and overseeing a bunch of free-loaders who mostly never miss a chance to steal a bit of Joy’s light. All of that changes one day thanks to glass shards in her palm and the close proximity of crayons and drawing paper. Poof! Just like that, Joy has invented a revolutionary new kind of mop.

Given her family history and current situation, even when things go right for Joy, they never go all the way right. Having to borrow money from Trudy and depend on those who may or may not have her best interest at heart, makes for an endless chain of obstacles and challenges. But Joy is all about perseverance and self-actualization. The story emphasizes Joy’s stick-to-it-ness, and the process of learning about the legalities and pitfalls of starting and running one’s own business. Even those who should be supportive often ridicule and voice their doubts.

The film shifts when Joy meets Neal Walker (Bradley Cooper) who runs QVC. This was the time period when TV home shopping was in its infancy. Joan Rivers (played here by her daughter Melissa) was one of the early stars, and Joy’s Miracle Mop was one of the early successes. It’s a new world to Joy, but she’s a quick study and her tough-mindedness and sense of fairness and right come in to play on multiple occasions.

The above is much more story than I would typically describe, but it helps make the point that although Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove she is something quite special as an actress, the story is a bit of a mess and the pacing of the film is clumsy – slapstick blended with ultra-serious. It’s impossible to connect with this oddball group of folks, who mostly seem to be pulled right off of various TV sitcoms. Even using the soap opera (complete with Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and Laura Wright) as a parallel to Joy’s life never quite works.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance deserves to be ranked right with Joan Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce, but the different styles of the two movies results in only one being unforgettable. Director Russell mines the fractured family/group in many of his projects, and given his immense talent, we can be sure future projects will be more in line with the level of his recent past.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BURNT (2015)

October 30, 2015

burnt Greetings again from the darkness. This one is not just for all you foodies out there – though there is plenty to digest for those who fancy themselves as some hoity-toity chef to the rich and famous. Don’t go in expecting a “How to Cook” seminar. Instead, simmer down and prep yourself for a serving of massive ego topped with arrogance and a side of narcissism. Blend those ingredients into one character, and this chef somehow remains likable … when played by Bradley Cooper.

Enough with the cooking terms, but let’s heap more praise on Mr. Cooper. When first we meet his character Adam Jones, he is readying himself to bounce back after self-destructing his career as a two-star Michelin chef in Paris. He simply walks out the door of the Louisiana diner where he has been serving his self-imposed penance … shelling 1 million raw oysters, each one recorded in his pocket notebook. This provides our first glimpse into the obsessive-compulsive personality of Adam, and helps explain how he has managed to kick his drug, alcohol, and women addictions. Feeling refreshed and on a mission to garner that rarified third Michelin star, Adam begins assembling his team in London and encouraging his old co-worker Tony (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) to entrust him with his restaurant.

We can’t actually taste the magnificent food that’s served on screen, but the colors and textures are a kaleidoscope to our eyes. The movie is beautiful to look at. The restaurant dining rooms are showplaces, the kitchens are pristine, and the customers are mostly dressed like runway models. On top of that, Bradley Cooper and Alicia Vikander (in a small role) are two of the grand champions in the gene pool sweepstakes. All of that beauty is balanced out by the quest for perfection and lack of interpersonal skills displayed by Chef Adam. It’s not until his star pupil Helene (Sienna Miller) shows him another way, does Adam even start to resemble a human being.

Drug dealers, old flames, a therapist (Emma Thompson), an arch rival (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), an unrequited one-way love, a deceased mentor, a ridiculously cute kid (Lexi Benbow-Hart, sporting hair that would make Julia Roberts envious), and a wronged co-worker (Omar Sy) combine to add plenty of action. Even the quick cut shots in the kitchen manage to make grilling onions and carving a fish interesting.

Never digging too deep, director John Wells (August: Osage County) delivers an entertaining movie with wide appeal, and a message of teamwork and family. The story is from Michael Kalesniko and the script from Steven Knight (who also wrote last year’s Michelin star-centered The Hundred-Foot Journey). The dialogue is sharp enough to deliver some laughs, though the element of danger doesn’t really work, and a couple of times it teeters on gooey melodrama. It doesn’t reach the level of Mostly Martha (2002), and is a tick behind last year’s Chef (Jon Favreau), but it may offer the most creative lesson yet in how best to serve a dish of revenge. It’s a tasty enough treat for those in the mood for an entertaining movie and an endless stream of pretty things to look at.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ALOHA (2015)

May 30, 2015

aloha Greetings again from the darkness. Since I can usually find something of interest, it’s rare that I feel cheated after watching a movie. Of course, feeling disappointed happens more often, but feeling cheated is something altogether different and, unfortunately writer/director Cameron Crowe’s latest is the perfect reminder of that difference.

Three outstanding lead actors (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams), a terrific and deep supporting cast, and a beautiful filming location of Hawaii mean that the fault lies with Mr. Crowe’s script and direction. The film plays like the broad strokes of a screenplay idea, rather than a finished product. It’s as if we are watching filmed rehearsals as a group of writers scramble to connect the story dots … still trying to determine if this is a drama or comedy.

It seems the film was cast with a full-out comedy in mind, but then somewhere along the line, a narrative shift occurred with the hope of making a statement on the privatization of the military and space exploration. There is also an undercurrent of the mistreatment of native Hawaiians, as we are teased with cultural myths, legends and the distrust of the military. Trying to balance these topics with a more traditional romantic-comedy-three-way involving the main characters, results in a disjointed viewing experience that provides only a few chuckles, and a half-baked story of redemption.

The gradual connection of Cooper and Stone (cast as a Navy Fighter Pilot) offers some initial verbal sparring that had potential for comedy gold, but inevitably spun off down a bunny trail of Hawaiian lore or the magic found in the sky. The re-connection of Cooper’s and McAdams’ characters seemed to have continuity holes that might have been left on the editing room floor.  John Krasinski plays McAdams’ husband, and his non-verbal exchanges are the highlight of the film, though the later subtitled version seems lifted from that drawing board straight comedy mentioned earlier.

Bill Murray is cast as the duplicitous billionaire at the core of Cooper’s mission and chance at redemption, though mostly he just acts like Bill Murray with little explanation for his motives. Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin and Bill Camp have their moments, but much more should have been devoted to McAdams’ kids played by Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Danelle Rose Russell.

Cameron Crowe seems to have a driving need to examine interpersonal relationships and what causes some to work, while others falter. His film classics Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous are impressive, but also many years in the past. The last fifteen years have produced Crowe projects that teeter between optimism and outright sap. On the bright side, he always has a knack for music, and on that front, he comes through again … “Factory Girl” is blended with traditional Hawaiian songs and even Dylan and The Who. It’s because of this, that you won’t know for sure if your toe-tapping is due to the music or that gut feeling of being cheated.

watch the trailer:

 


AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

January 17, 2015

american sniper Greetings again from the darkness. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Shakespeare wrote those words for “Henry IV”, but director Clint Eastwood’s latest film depicts the sentiment for Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sharpshooter known as “Legend”. Screenwriter Jason Hall adapted the story from Kyle’s memoir (co-written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice).

You may not be aware of the sniper’s role during a war. In an early scene (used in the trailer) we experience the incredibly stressful moment of decision that Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) faces as a mother and young child enter the street … are they a threat to the platoon or not? The decision means killing a woman and child or risking the death of many U.S. soldiers. If he is wrong, he faces a jury and military shame.  Most of us lack the capacity for such decision-making.  As a flashback to Kyle’s childhood shows, most of us are either sheep or wolves. Only a very few are sheepdogs with the aggressiveness to protect the flock. Chris Kyle: sheepdog.

The story takes us through Chris’ aimless young adult years on the cowboy circuit. He’s a tough guy who likes to drink and party with his friends. September 11 acts as a call to action, a call to service. SEAL training is shown and the point is made that Chris is the old man in the group, but he displays a quiet leadership trait. We then witness his flirting with a snippy Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar counter as his SEAL buddies throw darts at each other’s bare backs (don’t try that at home, kids).  Soon enough Chris and Taya are married, and Chris is called to the front.

Back and forth we go through Chris Kyle’s four tours. His expertise in war is offset by his inability to adjust to family life. He has a compulsion to serve and to protect his fellow soldiers, but he is unable to fit into the suburban life of cell phones and grilled hamburgers. Not surprisingly, Taya struggles with his struggles. Bradley Cooper gets to be the legend, while Sienna Miller is the emotional mother who has seemingly lost her husband – not to death, but to an obsession to serve.

The film does little to explain why Chris Kyle is exponentially more productive than other snipers, and even less to explore his PTSD and mental anguish outside of the front. It’s Bradley Cooper’s acting that provides us what insight we do get, and he does a remarkable job capturing the hulking, uncommunicative giant who doesn’t really understand the “legend” title … he’s just doing his job and following his nature.

The tragic end is handled with grace by Eastwood, and it left my full-capacity movie theatre as quiet as a church during prayer. It’s possible to be a legend, but not a feel like a hero, and the movie makes no political statements regarding war or foreign policy. What it does show is that most of us are not sheepdogs.

watch the trailer: