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Seymour Movies Feels Wrinkled

 

 

wrinkle meg pic

 

 

THE MOVIE

Before she began directing films, Ava DuVernay publicized them – and was very good at her work. No surprise then that her adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time is, at the very least, a triumph of promotion. She was all-but-unavoidable on media outlets leading up to the movie’s release — and she’s still selling the movie even while it’s playing in front of you. The theatrical screening I saw opens with a message from DeVernay welcoming the audience, very much in the manner of Disney’s vintage TV anthology series Wonderful World of Color whose weekly offerings often began with Uncle Walt himself handling the introductions to whatever story or animated mélange would ensue over the next hour.

DuVernay’s Wrinkle In Time is a movie that continues to promote itself throughout. Almost every character in the movie is in the act of persuasion whether it’s Alex Murry (Chris Pine), the astrophysicist-dad obsessed with finding a means of “shaking hands with the universe” through psychic dimensional travel, his precocious young son Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe) who somehow seems to know where and how to find his dad who went missing somewhere in the cosmos and the trio of spectral women (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling) who are trying to convince Charles Wallace’s implacable, mercurial older sister Meg (Storm Reid) that they are best equipped to lead the way past the dark, insidiously transient cosmic evil – Camazotz– that threatens to swamp everything in dread and rage. The movie sidesteps the novel’s religious underpinnings to promote a broader, more secular means of transcendence: Be brave, be daring, be empathetic, be a “warrior” for peace, love and understanding. etc. The lyrics to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” just about cover it and the anthem’s forty-plus years of existence may account for its being kept off the movie’s pop-loaded soundtrack.

If the overall spirit of DuVernay’s movie intends to prod its audiences to buy into what its selling, then most of its critics thus far are like Meg: grouchy, withholding and not terribly happy with the terrain. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern characterized DuVernay’s Wrinkle as “a magical mystery tour minus the magic and mystery” while New York magazine’s David Edelstein found the movie’s gaudy visual effects suffused with earnest talk of self-fulfillment and uplift adding up to little more than “a transcendental guidance counselor’s movie.” Even some of the more positive reviews, all of which laud the movie’s big heart and open mind, were muted; Richard Brody of the New Yorker thought the movie captured the story’s “sense of exhilaration and wonder” while lamenting that the script “eliminates the most idiosyncratic aspects of the novel.”

Brody, by the way, is so taken with the novel after reading it as an adult that he wishes he’d come across it earlier in life. He’s not the only one.

 

 

 

 

WrinkleInTime book

 

 

THE BOOK

The copyright year is 1962. This would have placed me somewhere between nine and ten years old when A Wrinkle In Time was published. I might have been a shade too young, then, to easily connect with all the references made to tesseracts and other matters related to numbers and physics. I say “maybe” because in that year especially I was deeply invested in space travel and, by extension, in the possibilities of inter-dimensional travel.

Such interests, however, refused to keep pace with my affinity for what was then known as arithmetic. Both parents and teachers were at a loss to figure out how this disparity could be reconciled, especially in what was then known as junior high school. (Question for Further Study: Is boredom with school a requisite for underachievement? Discuss – and try to keep up with the rest of the class.)

Probably, then, not that year; but more likely the next couple of years when my solitary romance with time and space only intensified would have yielded more fertile ground for my fascination with Meg and her travels.

More likely, it would have been Meg’s travails that could have drawn me into the center of Madeleine L’Engle’s wheelhouse. By 1965, I would have been the same age as Meg and, thus, better able to relate to her as someone who, like me, had a head that was way too big for the rest of her body; someone who was also spectacularly uncoordinated, socially awkward and prone to wildly annoying behavior to overcompensate for low self-esteem.

The older person I am now reads L’Engle’s breakthrough novel far removed from the emotional cacophony of adolescence and assesses it as the hypothetical outcome of an Italo Calvino’s spin on an L. Frank Baum story idea as rewritten by Rod Serling – which is in no way a dismissal. In fact, one wishes Serling could have written as tautly as L’Engle does without shortchanging his patented sentiment.

Still, in the end, I don’t really know whether reading Wrinkle would have made much of a difference when I was Meg’s age because by that time, other fantasy authors with an older demographic (Bradbury, Sturgeon, Beaumont) were pulling me away from the YA label in libraries; so far away, by then, that it’s likely I would have thought the book too light and airy for the tougher, more lyrical things I was dipping into by Grade 7. But if the multi-cultural casting has done anything at all, it’s made me wonder how it would have affected my own adolescent conduct. Likely such questions would never have occurred to me if DuVernay hadn’t had a say in such casting.

That said…

 

 

 

 

Oprah Winfrey is Mrs. Which and Storm Reid is Meg Murry in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.

 

THE MOVIE, AGAIN

To sum up my own apprehensions going in: I thought it was the most amazing luck that Ava DuVernay decided not to direct Black Panther because I don’t think she’s as good as others believe/hope she is. I supported Selma  not because I thought it was great filmmaking (it wasn’t), but because it was necessary to have a movie that prominently placed its black characters as actors in their own deliverance as opposed to just about EVERYTHING of its kind made and distributed by Hollywood beforehand. I was also disappointed by The 13th because I thought it was more of a big fire-breathing billboard populated by talking heads than a documentary that made the necessary deep dives into the political intricacies behind crime bills & other initiatives that made “The New Jim Crow” possible.

She’s better here, but as with Selma the actors save her bacon, especially Ms. Reid, who holds together this thing pretty much on her own and is, I think, a real find; almost as good in her way as Mary Badham was in To Kill a Mockingbird. But Robert Mulligan was a more adroit director of kids than just about anybody who was a better director of movies than he was (if that makes any sense)  and, from the way she directs the other kids, DuVernay is no threat to that reputation. Directing McCabe’s Charles Wallace, especially, requires the kind of imaginative approach to human behavior that DuVernay does not have at her disposal. If she had, she’d have dodged the trouble she’d gotten into over her characterization of LBJ in Selma because she’d have better apprehended the full Brobdingnagian complexity of Lyndon B’s personality.

Also for all her engagement with special effects, she doesn’t seem to know how to travel with them. That whole set piece where the kids are riding on the transmogrified back of Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit (or was it Whosit? I lose track) goes nowhere except around the field as if Disney were already planning the ride for one of their theme parks.

Finally, I still can’t quite get over that introduction where DuVernay tells you not only what you’re going to see, but also how you’re supposed to feel at the end of it. This is altogether appropriate for a 50th anniversary of a restored classic. But this is neither an anniversary nor (really) a classic

AND YET…

For all my misgivings, I also understand that this movie isn’t made for me, but for every pre-teen who somehow feels ill at ease under their skins. Which is, last I checked, pretty much all of them. I am hearing of large groups of young people, most of them girls, who leave the movie with moist faces and glistening eyes. I may feel let down by this Wrinkle, but clearly they aren’t. If this is, for many of them, their first encounter with this species of science fantasy, then good on them and the grownups to take them to see it if it leads them to Bradbury, Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, even Phillip K. Dick, though if it were my pre-teen, I might tell her to wait just a little bit for that one.

AND SO…?

As of last weekend, Wrinkle in Time made up little more than half of its $103 million budget. This is leading some to say the “F” word (“flop” or “failure,” depending), though I think it’s still too early. There’s always the possibility that, as with most such movies with very tight close-ups stacked like cordwood, the smaller screen may be a hospitable place for DuVernay’s Wrinkle. Until that happens, let’s, shall we, stop comparing this to that other Disney-produced fantasy-adventure directed by an African-American. Neither Black Panther nor A Wrinkle In Time should be viewed as ultimate referenda on the economic efficacy of black American filmmaking. Things may have changed as much as Panther’s success indicates. But life goes on and memories are short. Unless, that is, you’re an impressionable 9-12-year-old whose horizons need raising. She can – and likely will – do far worse than take Wrinkle into her heart.

Seymour Movies Lies Back and Lets Oscars 2018 Happen

 

 

Three Billboards

 

 

lady-bird-film

 

 

phantom-thread

 

 

 

At some point, we’re going to have to decide which is more boring: Caring deeply about the Oscars or hearing incessantly from those who insist they don’t care at all. Both positions, in extremis, can be annoying and I have, at least at this precise hour, decided those in the latter camp to be the more obnoxious for the self-congratulatory transparency of their not-caring-but-really-caring-and-wishing-they-didn’t-but-insist-on-not-caring-anyway-and-believe-that-you’re-a-dork-for-doing-otherwise.

If that makes any sense; and if you really care what they think, because complaining about the Academy Awards is about as futile as bitching about the Electoral College. It’s likely we’d be better off without both, but no one can quite persuade enough folks that alternatives would work any better. They’re what we’re stuck with for now. Sometimes they work to our advantage; other times, we get a Gila monster in the West Wing or a Best Picture Oscar for Crash over Brokeback Mountain. (So you know: I liked Crash better than you do. And I was as pissed about this as you were.)

 

Lapses in judgment aside, the craft fair-indoor cookout must, as they say, go on. And at least this year there’s a delightful minimum of advance drama or orchestrated outrage over the nominations beyond the mundane free-style carping that ensues when the screeners pop out of the Blu-Ray players or the spectators rush through the mall parking lots to beat the traffic. After several years of white noise over real and imagined snubs, nobody seems overly incensed over the nominations. Guess we’re realizing that, for now, there’s a whole lot else going on beyond the bubble to get incensed at.

 

Speaking of which: The biggest reason for this relative dearth of whisper campaigns and polarized sneering may also be the biggest elephant in the Dolby Theater March 4: Harvey Weinstein’s conspicuous absence. The chattering classes still wonder how Jimmy Kimmel will (or wont) finesse the explosive disclosures of last fall and their ongoing reverberations. So far this awards season has, I think, done rather well walking/talking the walk/talk and I don’t expect Oscar Night to be any different, except that there will be even more #Time’sUp and #MeToo oratory, with perhaps another potential presidential candidate waiting in the wings for her apotheosis – though I doubt it.
Given how relatively wide-open most of the categories are this year (even at this late date) and how relatively diverse most of the nominations are, some of the advance chatter may congeal around who, or what, will, or wont, win. I’m not sure how to act in such circumstances, except that I’m going to try to keep things as simple as I can this year. So what do you say we all get in the pool together and see how long we can tread water? As usual, my predictions are in bold and, wherever appropriate, an FWIW comment (as in, “For Whatever It’s Worth”) will be pasted on.

 

 

Shape of Water
Picture:

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk-
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

For many reasons (some fairly obvious), it figured that some form of horror movie would be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year. But I would not have guessed even four months ago that you’d have both Get Out and Shape of Water in the running. If you wanted to, you could also add the two scary movies that deal with Great Britain’s stiffening upper lip against the marauding Third Reich. Right now, it’s the gothic period romance with the gooey sea monster that’s holding house money; though as last year’s chaotic conclusion proved, not even a twofer of Producers and Directors Guild awards assures a clear field – or a clear anything – on Oscar Night. Nevertheless, at this point, Shape of Water checks off more than a few squares: A love story? Check. Fairy tale with politics on its fringes? Check? Grandeur that threatens to spill over the top, but not too much to ruin an evening? Check. And you mean to tell me that the only allies the star-crossed lovers have are a lovelorn gay artist, a conflicted Russian spy and a no-nonsense black cleaning woman who constantly complains about her no-account husband? Check and double-check. Even with all that going for it, Shape of Water isn’t as easy to love as Lady Bird. But however bittersweet and laced with adolescent angst, Lady Bird comes across as comedy and it takes a lot for movie tradespeople to hand out their biggest party favor to a comedy. What about Get Out? Is it “comedy” as the Golden Globes would have it or a “documentary” as some of its advocates insist? Either way, it’s not getting a Best Picture Oscar because documentaries have about as much chance of winning as comedies.

 

 

FWIW: Here’s where I usually complain about how mediocre movies were the year before, especially when compared with the home streaming options. But some of my friends insisted that 2017 was kind of a “sneaky-good” year in film and that sounds right to me. There’s some interesting range displayed on this list, even if you didn’t altogether like the nominees. It wouldn’t ruin my life much if any of them ended up with the Big Prize. But I did believe The Florida Project deserved to be included and, upon reflection, so did I, Tonya – which despite my misgivings over some not-so-subtle condescension towards its working-class characters could also be viewed as the dark, antic Elmore Leonard masterwork he never wrote; not because he never got around to it, but because not even he could imagine mooks as pathetic as Jeff Gilhooley, Shaun Eckhart and their leg-breaking confederates. And speaking of crime: Two films I thought deserved further consideration were Ben and Josh Safdie’s Good Time, a fresh-as-a-midnight-subway-ride heist saga with a revelatory Robert Pattison performance and Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, a contemporary western whodunit with Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olson and the great Graham Greene as cops searching the snowy Wyoming badlands for a rapist-killer. (The latter was distributed by the Weinstein Company, which means exactly nobody wanted it anywhere near Oscar consideration this year.) Still, to make a gratuitous nod to the smaller screens, nothing I saw in the theaters in 2017 crawled under my skin, moved around the furniture in my head and just flat-out made me laugh as much as the riotously absurdist Twin Peaks: The Return. OK, so now we can move on….

 

(2/20) — Though I don’t place a whole lot of stock in the BAFTAs, their results indicate that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is still hanging around the front end of this field. In a way, I can see why. Both Water and Billboards speak to different forms of wish fulfillment; in the latter’s case (and I’ll be careful not to spoil too much), it addresses a collective desire, especially in the present political climate, to get beyond, if not altogether subdue our most inconsolable and irrational rages. I don’t think the movie is as cunning in going about its business as it thinks it is. But as I keep telling you guys, my personal taste is the next-to-last thing that matters in handicapping these party favors. I’m leaving my finger in Water, so to speak, because Hollywood also loves grand  melodramatic flourishes, no matter how preposterous the storyline. Either way, it feels like a neck-and-neck horse race in the final stretch. 

 

 

Director:
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Not all virtuosi are great artists, nor all great artists, virtuosi. But the favorite in this category has over the past couple decades proven to be a formidable genre-stretcher whose compassion is as bountiful as his technique. I’m not sure the same can be said for Dunkirk’s director, but I’m guessing that had it not been for Shape of Water, the arrows would be all pointed in his direction. Hard high-fives are in order for the two rookies on this list, Gerwig and Peele, for making the Final Five. But neither of their movies, whatever their respective graces, are considered “solemn” enough for Oscar.

 

 

FWIW: This leaves PTA, who may be the one great artist in this group who’s not (necessarily) a virtuoso. If he had more demonstrative ruffles and comfortable flourishes in his quiver, he’d have gotten his Oscar before now. (Maybe.) But since I have the floor, I’m asserting that, outside of Sofia Coppola, he’s the one American film director of his generation with the same willful drive, eccentric rhythms and instinctive sense of risk as the Hollywood rebels of the 1970s. Which means, of course, that it’ll be some time, if ever, before Oscar gets the point.

 

 

Darkest Hour

 

 

Lead Actor:
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

 

Oldman’s got the juice going in. He was nominated back in 2012 for his too-cool-for-school George Smiley while his mood-swinging, latex-laden blunderbuss of a Winston Churchill is much more to Oscar’s liking. As Meryl Streep proved in 2011 with The Iron Lady, you can never go wrong digging in as a bellicose Conservative British Prime Minister.
FWIW: Chalamet’s been campaigning with gusto in a category that’s not terribly deep or wide to begin with. His is a powerful screen performance and, relative youth aside, it’s not altogether implausible to imagine him picking Oldman’s pocket. Except…what if the voters take D-Day at his word that he’s calling it a career? He’s threatened to retire before and not everybody believes he means it this time either. But after last year’s climactic foofaraw, we’re now braced to expect the unexpected; to the extent, that is, that you can call unexpected any sentimental gestures at an Oscar ceremony.

 

Lead Actress:
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post
The widest-open race on the board, despite McDormand’s wins in both the SAG and Golden Globs (sic). My first instinct was to go along with those indicators and I will probably regret not following through. But any one of these woman is worthy of the prize; even the highly decorated Streep (this 21st nomination breaks the all-time record, in case, or as if, you didn’t already know), whose Katherine Graham is at once her most engaging and delicately nuanced star turn in many years. Ronan is the hot young comer in the group, though her movie seems to have lost some of its early momentum. Shape of Water’s momentum, however, is now strong enough to sweep Hawkins to the winner’s circle.

(2/20) — OK, so maybe Water’s momentum isn’t quite as powerful as I thought last week. Blame it on bad shrimp (not really) and the resulting delirium that made me forget that McDormand is almost as respected by her peers as the Unavoidable Fact of Streep and that when she’s working at an especially intense pitch as she is here, those peers are as wildly, madly enthralled in her presence as an arena full of Welsh grannies at a Tom Jones concert. Of COURSE it’s McDormand. 

 

Supporting Actor:
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Rockwell’s very good in this. He’s very good in everything he does. But he’s been better. And as with much else in Three Billboards, there’s something a little too pat and even mildly patronizing about his role of bigoted cop struck dumb(er) at life’s crossroads. Nevertheless, in this year and at this point in our history, it’s the kind of supporting turn that begs, even panders, for this kind of acknowledgement. I’d a whole lot rather see the guy playing Rockwell’s boss catch the ring here. Woody Harrelson persuasively playing a grown-up; who would have guessed he had it in him? (OK, I would have.) But the subtler graces between his performance and Rockwell’s are likely too subtle for Academy voters to parse.

 

Supporting Actress:
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

 

allison-janney-i-tonya
This one appears to be a Battle of the Moms with Janney’s – um — variation on Tough Love holding a widening lead over Metcalf’s. When actors Hollywood loves as much as Janney go Lon Chaney (e.g. grotesque and near-unrecognizable), that’s often enough to make them prohibitive favorites. Having a Golden Globe and a SAG statue in her swag bag might seal Janney’s deal, though I’m not as ready as others are to declare this one over just yet.
FWIW: The one I’d really like to see walk away with it is Manville, whose performance in Thread is polished to such a near-blinding metallic sheen that she damn near pilfers the movie away from its two leads; yes, even from D-Day. Also, since we’re here, I wish the Academy had followed the precedent set by my erstwhile New York Film Critics Circle colleagues and just nominated Tiffany Hadish for Girls’ Trip. Big breakouts like hers don’t grow on trees, or whatever cliché best applies.

 

Animated Feature:
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Coco
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent
There may be a year when a rough-and-tumble animated feature like, say, Ferdinand, sneaks up behind a phenomenally successful Disney-Pixar production and picks the inevitable Oscar from its back pocket. This is not that year.

Adapted Screenplay:

 

call me by your name
Call Me by Your Name
The Disaster Artist
Logan
Molly’s Game
Mudbound

 

No matter how you feel about the genre, it was a pleasant surprise to see Logan get Academy props for its post-apocalyptic western spin on the comic-book-superhero movie. It’s got my vote, if nobody else’s. One also wonders what Disaster Artist’s fate would be here and elsewhere if James Franco’s hadn’t skidded off the turnpike. I’m guessing a summer in Italy is where this is going.

 

Original Screenplay:
The Big Sick
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

Get Out
Here is where Gerwig and Peele are foregrounded in ways they’re not able to be in the directing categories. I can’t believe either of them could come away empty-handed given the good will they both engendered at the start of this awards season. So it comes down to Peele’s right-on-time ingenuity versus Gerwig’s wry compassion. Close call, but I’m going along with the Writers Guild on this.

 

Cinematography:
Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Mudbound
The Shape of Water

Roger Deakins is the Peter O’Toole of this category, having been nominated 13 times before now and coming away empty-handed. Some believe his time will finally come, though I’ve heard grumblings over how Blade Runner 2049’s use of green-screen technology all but disqualifies Deakins from this competition. I happen to think it’s the stuff he does in between that abets this undervalued movie’s grit and dread. But if I and the others in his corner are wrong, it’ll either be Shape of Water as part of a sweep, or even the fast-fading Dunkirk.

 

agnes_varda_efa
Documentary Feature
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places JR
Icarus
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island
Since I Called Him Morgan and Jane are inexplicably missing from this otherwise impressive list, I’m going to spin the wheel…and what do you know? It stops at the great Agnes Varda (above), who turns 90 years old in May and all but invented the modern feature-length documentary as we have come to know it. Does anybody really believe the Academy wouldn’t use this opportunity to give Varda the full-throated love that her incomparable body-of-work deserves? Anybody?

 

A-Fantastic-Woman_1-620x380

 

 

Foreign Language Film:
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)
Flying blind here because I haven’t been able to see most of these. The one I have seen has been getting the most advance buzz: In which a transgender woman (Daniela Vega), grieving for the death of her partner, is besieged by mortification and injustice.

(2/20) — In the last couple weeks leading to the vote, however, some lilting ear candy could be picked up on behalf of both The Insult and Loveless. Still think Chile wins the gold, but it’s not necessarily a wash.

 

 

Original Score:
Dunkirk
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi,
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
If I were voting, I would go for Jonny Greenwood’s music for Phantom Thread because I think the lead guitarist for Radiohead, besides showing impressive chops as an ace orchestrator, delicately enhances the movie’s spectral, slightly nutty glow. Then again…he’s the lead guitarist for Radiohead. And the voters in this category tend to shy away from rookies, no matter how impressive their turn at bat. They do, however, like to reward previous winners and since Alexandre Desplat finally broke his long drought three years ago with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a return to the podium seems almost inevitable.

 

 

Original Song:
“Mighty River” from Mudbound
“Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name
“Remember Me” from Coco
“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall
“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman
Mary J. Blige’s galvanizing performance in Mudbound will likely go unacknowledged beyond her well-deserved nomination. I doubt the same will happen to her song.

(2/20) — Then again, one should never underestimate the impact that a Disney movie can have on this category. Also, I’ve heard from some people who went to see that Hugh Jackman circus movie and walked out so happy that they wondered why the critics were so snippy. It’s because we have hearts of ice pumped with polyurethane, but you didn’t hear that from me. 

My Own Private Top-Ten or Wonder Women of 2017

To repeat: I don’t do Top-Ten lists of movies or television or even books, mostly because none of them need my help as much as jazz does. What I’ve done instead over the past few years is assemble potpourri of popular culture items that I’ve found especially meaningful, ennobling and distinctive over the previous 12 months. I chose this year’s theme for many reasons, some of which you may infer from recent headlines. But primarily because it’s been clear to me for some time now that women have achieved prominence and glory disproportionate to the overall respect, economic or otherwise, they receive from society-at-large. Besides: Women have been doing some remarkable stuff in The Culture this year, as you’ll see below. So yeah, we’re so doing this. Here and now. And I apologize in advance for anybody I may have forgotten about or omitted. There’s always next year, yes?

tracee ellis ross freeze ray

Blackish kitchen

1.) The women of black-ish – There are few things more satisfying to a couch potato emeritus than watching a sitcom hit full stride. By my own reckoning, black-ish, now in the middle of a how-can-they-possibly-top-this Season 4, is striding so confidently ahead of the analog TV pack that it’s hard to imagine anything else in the genre catching up to it, which is saying a lot given how strong that competition is, even on its own network (ABC). Creator-producer Kenya Barris, his collaborators and the whole cast deserve serial Emmys, most especially for its hyper-magnetic women. Begin with the routinely magnificent Tracee Ellis Ross (Bow) who, among her many comedic attributes, is the post-Millennial master of the “freeze-ray” stare deployed throughout sitcom history against bombastic, self-deluded husbands. (See Alice Kramden nod, scowling at Ralph.) It’s probably working since husband Dre (Anthony Anderson) has gotten less delusional over time, especially about his mother Ruby (the National Treasure that is Jenifer Lewis), at once the grand dame, caffeinated diva and galloping id of Family Johnson. I’ve missed the languid graces of big sister Zoey (Yara Shahidi) now that she’s in college most of the time. But kid sister Diane (Marsai Martin) more than makes up for her absence. She’s poker-faced anti-matter to terminally cute Rudy Huxtable, throwing shade on everybody else’s pretenses with a neurosurgeon’s icy precision. Of course, she’s my favorite – but don’t tell the rest of them. Everybody in this household is special in her (and his) own way.

 

 

greta-directing
2.) Greta Gerwig & Laurie Metcalf – All I’m going to mention about Lady Bird is one scene. Just one. Laurie Metcalf is alone in a car, driving around in a circle, saying nothing. That’s all that happens – or at least that’s all I’m disclosing here. Yet when you see it, you’ll realize once again how such moments make a small picture gigantic. Alone, that scene reveals three bankable, self-evident truths: You will be talking about this movie well past New Year’s, Laurie Metcalf will win an Oscar and Greta Gerwig has the potential to make a masterwork. This isn’t it, despite what you’ve heard. But it’s within her reach. Wait.

 

 

Tiffany Haddish
3.) Tiffany HaddishGirls Trip was the year’s springiest jack-in-the-box-office coup. Directed with unassuming charm by the habitually underrated Malcolm L. Lee, the movie carries a set-up that could have been too sudsy by half if it weren’t for its gently timed raunchiness and, most especially, Haddish’s explosive presence. Not since a young Michael Keaton ate Henry Winkler’s lunch, along with most of the scenery, in 1982’s Night Shift has anybody burst forward on the big screen with such lets-get-this-party-started swagger. The only thing that’s been more fun to watch than her performance (which has already won a New York Film Critics Circle Award) is the smart and jaunty manner with which she’s been carrying her triumph throughout the Global Village. Take ten minutes off from a hard day to listen as she tells tell Jimmy Kimmel how she took Mr. and Mrs. Fresh Prince on a road trip. Guaranteed, you will come away thinking: Now this is how you’re supposed to treat a power couple!

 

 

 

 

4.) Nicole Kidman

 

nicole kidman big little lies

 

With all the chatter over the last decade about J-Law, Emma Stone and other emerging young stars, we somehow forgot that Kidman was still very much in the game. We won’t make that mistake again any time soon. Being the droll, commanding backbone bracing Sofia Coppola’s gossamer remake of The Beguiled would have been enough to renew our curiosity. But what truly realigned Kidman with our over-extended attention spans was her riveting portrayal in HBO’s Big Little Lies of an affluent, formidable attorney who carries the ongoing trauma of her husband’s physical abuse with barely-sustained composure. I can’t say it any better than The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum who wrote, “While other actors specialize in transparency, Kidman has a different gift: She can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.”

 

 

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5.) Rhiannon Giddens – She gets slammed in some quarters as just another smarty-pants “dabbler” in Americana and, contrarily, by those who believe she taints her aspirations towards authenticity (or “authenticity”) by slipping some modern pop covers into her playbook. Sure, I wouldn’t mind seeing her exclusively with the Carolina Chocolate Drops because as a unit they schooled you as emphatically as they kicked ass. But I prefer to think she sees everything and anything she tries out as authentic and, in doing so, dares to reshape whatever we mean by the “traditional music” that defines our troubled, fractured land. In another better time than ours, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), released earlier this year, could have been one of those crossover albums that encourages, if not creates widespread cultural consensus. Also, I know I don’t get out much, but when I saw her live this year at WXPN’s World Café in Philadelphia, she made me dream again of retrieving lost or distant possibilities. When you hear her cover of “I Wont Back Down,” conceived originally by one of the souls who Went Home in 2017, you may know what I mean. Or not. Don’t care. Love her.

 

 

 

 

6.) Jemele Hill, Jessica Mendoza & Rachel Nichols on ESPN

 

Bristol, CT - April 20, 2017 - Studio X: Jemele Hill on the set of SC6 with Michael and Jemele (Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Sep 17, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; ESPN reporter Jessica Mendoza during the MLB game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports usp ORG XMIT: USATSI-169850 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

rachel nichols jumpThe Worldwide Leader in Sports has gone/is going through a rough patch, losing many of its best-known employees through layoffs, defections, retirement and overall attrition. What keeps me dropping by, mostly, are dauntless worker bees such as Nichols, a crafty veteran of the sports media wars who presides over the daily NBA forum, The Jump, with such easygoing authority and knowledgeable wit that the show’s become one of the major factors in luring me (almost) all the back to the Church of Professional Basketball. On the other hand, I’ve never left baseball and Mendoza’s game analysis on the Worldwide Leader’s Sunday Night Baseball is both bright AND smart without coming on too hard with attitude or being too soft on the players. With play-by-play stalwart Dan Shulman stepping away from the booth and tag-team partner Aaron Boone heading for the Yankees dugout to put his managerial presumptions to the ultimate test, Mendoza is now the Last One Sitting for the 2018 season. My choice for a partner would be the redoubtable Ron Darling (who admires her work), but that would break up the Gary-Keith-Ronnie rock-and-roll band that makes Mets fans like me smile through our tears and sorrow. Last, but by no means least is Hill, who’s shown both class and resilience during two high-profile dust-ups over inopportune (but to this reporter, not altogether inappropriate) tweeting. There’s not much she or anybody else can do about Donald Trump or Jerry Jones. Nor is there much to be done about varied harpers and carpers who don’t believe she and her co-host Michael Smith should helm the Worldwide Leader’s plum weekdays-at-6p.m. edition of SportsCenter. All she can do is what she’s been doing: Trading fours with Smith at the dinner hour the way Bird and Diz used to after midnight on 52nd Street during the Truman era and deploying her sportswriter’s street wisdom on every knotty sports-related controversy the Digital Age can set off.

 

Attica Locke Bluebird Bluebird

 

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7.) Danzy Senna & Attica Locke – It’s been another stellar year for women-of-color in the Lit Biz. Leading the parade, and not just in my opinion, is Jesmyn Ward’s haunting Sing, Unburied, Sing, which has already been short-listed for almost as many awards as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a year ago. I’m going to use this space, however, to celebrate two relatively unsung achievements: Senna’s New People, a rom-com about interracial love in 21st century New York City, which is, quoting brazenly from Newsday’s review, “a martini-dry, espresso-dark comedy of contemporary manners” with a “compound of caustic observations and shrewd characterizations [that] could only have emerged from a writer as finely tuned to her social milieu as [Jane] Austen was to hers.” Locke, who also writes scripts for Empire, has spent this decade ascending to the front rank of America’s crime novelists, many of whom have sung her praises for such novels as 2009’s Black Water Rising and 2015’s Pleasantville. This year’s Bluebird, Bluebird, about a black Texas Ranger who has to both tread delicately and act decisively in two racially-charged murder cases, displays leaner, tighter sinew in her storytelling and deeper, more controlled lyricism in her style. And are we all agreed that Locke has one of the coolest bylines ever, regardless of genre or place-of-origin?

8.) Maria Bamford —

 

 

I have not yet seen the new season of Lady Dynamite, but I think she belongs on this list anyway because she remains a galvanizing  inspiration to humanity, which quite likely doesn’t deserve her, just as it didn’t deserve Jonathan Winters in whose company among great stand-up surrealists she surely belongs. If I didn’t think it would slow her roll, I’d insist Duluth’s pride-and-joy (she gave the commencement this year at the University of Minnesota) take over regular hosting duties at Prairie Home Companion. This recent clip from the show suggests, at least to me, how prominently she stands out in this crowd.

9.) Gal Gadot 

Gal Godot

Yes, she was the best reason to see Wonder Woman and, really, the ONLY reason to see Justice League. If you miss her whenever she’s not on-screen, that opens up the working definition of a movie star and Gadot may well be the closest we’ve come in recent years to seeing somebody completely inhabit that enchanted aura. Not yet, though. We still need to see her prominently placed in something besides Diana Prince’s battle armor. Off-screen, she’s also thrown some superhuman muscle against Hollywood sex predators. But if there’s a single moment from last year that makes us thankful that she’s in our world, it didn’t come from her Saturday Night Live hosting gig or any of her talk-show appearances. It was this moment at San Diego Comic-Con where she connected most tenderly with a young fan. After seeing this, I didn’t want to hear from anybody with a real or imagined gripe against her. To borrow and bend a phrase associated with both Walter Brennan and Elliot Gould, she’s OK with me.

 

 

 

 

10.) President Laura Montez from HBO’s Veep – At concluding points of Veep’s last two seasons, Montez (Andrea Savage) came across mostly as a plot device, an immaculately coifed sharp stone jutting out in the spiraling trajectories of Selena Meyer’s (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) political career and self-esteem. But when she gets sustained on-camera time, Savage’s character displays hints of a powerful motor humming beneath her decorous surface. That engine roars during an Oval Office encounter with the clueless one-term congressman and “sentient enema” (not my phrase) Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) with whom the president wearily negotiates terms for settling a government shutdown almost as meaningless as the ones carried out in real-life. Watching this scene, you somehow find communion with Montez as she reacts to every stupid thing that spews out of Jonah’s mouth the way we’ve been reacting to whatever our — um — “real” president’s been tweeting and blustering about every morning. Even Veep can’t altogether compete with the actual absurdities of the Trump administration, which may be one of the reasons it’s set to close shop after next season. Right now, I would be up for a whole new series with Laura Montez’s White House struggling to clean up the messes left behind by its predecessors. Who’s with me on this? Don’t answer until you check The Real Donald Trump’s tweet page…wait! What did he do? What did he do NOW?

 

Roger Moore 1927-2017

Roger Moore – sorry, Sir Roger Moore – seemed to the end of his life to have been bemused at best by his happy, successful life. That Moore seemed to never take himself too seriously may in part account for why so many people believe him to have been the very best of the actors who played James Bond on-screen. I withhold such superlatives, but I understand where they come from: generations who never felt the frisson of seeing Sean Connery embody so impeccably the compound of cruelty, composure and wry sang-froid we who’d read the Ian Fleming novels had imagined 007 to be.

Moore also wore the tuxedo-and-Walther-PPK longer than any of the others who occupied the persona. (Seven movies in all.) So he was the Bond that more people grew up with and, because he was altogether so companionable and charming, grew to adore. Still, Connery remains the preference of Fleming purists and card-carrying boomers (like me).

But though I’m not willing to call Moore the best Bond, I believe he may be the most underrated, which is a far more competitive field when you consider such worthy possibilities as the perpetually-underrated-in-everything-he-does Pierce Brosnan and even George Lazenby, whose single post-Connery shot in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, doesn’t look nearly as bad now as many insisted on believing at the time. Even Lazenby’s co-star Diana Rigg, whose attitude towards Lazenby during filming was, let’s say, less than collegial, now says stuff like “Poor George” when looking back on the experience.

As always, I digress from my main point here – which is that history has already begun to consider Moore’s approach to Bond’s character – thicker on the wry, lighter on the hot stuff – as serving its own array of subtle graces. While he never took himself (or Bond) all that seriously, he brought just enough conviction to draw his audiences into buying even the most outlandish conceits of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, 1983’s Octopussy and all the others.

He was also intelligent enough to recognize early in the game just how absurd it was to sell the idea of someone as altogether conspicuous as James Bond to be a spy. It was almost as though Moore’s Bond resented throughout his tenure how the eponymous villain of Doctor No described Connery’s Bond as being little more than a “stupid policeman.” I may be a bloody policeman, Moore’s 007 seemed to say in all his turns at bat. But I’m not bloody stupid! And he wasn’t.

Here’s what’s odd, though: Sir Roger, though certainly not carrying Richard Burton’s gravitas or Michael Caine’s range in his quiver, had the stuff in him to be even spikier in the Bond role than he was. One example will do: Ffolkes, a 1979 action thriller in which Moore, sporting a “schweppervescent” beard and a chesty, blustery countenance, played a free-lance anti-terrorism expert recruited to dislodge a North Sea oil rig and its inhabitants from the clutches of mercenary kidnappers led by Anthony Perkins and (the also-recently-deceased) Michael Parks. Moore nailed down this cat-fancying grouch with no love for women or any other human being with such confidence that one wonders why he had few other opportunities to show his quirky side, unless you want to count the faultlessly suave self-parodying turn in 1984’s Cannonball Run II where he plays a deluded billionaire named (yeah I know) Seymour, who undergoes plastic surgery to make himself look like Roger Moore.

I’ve also wondered whether Moore’s Bond gig, whatever its assets to both him and the franchise, robbed the world of a great romantic comedy star (Cary Grant on pot, Hugh Grant on codeine). But all that would assume that the romantic comedy genre during Moore’s peak years as Bond would have been worthy of his time and energy. And anyway, it’s not as though the Bonds didn’t give Moore a chance to show some Cary Grant chops; a friend reminded me today of the scene in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun when he’s trying to keep Maud Adams from discovering Britt Eckland in the closet. His years in the TV vineyards as Simon Templar and “Cousin Beau” Maverick also left him with a faultless knack for the risqué one-liner. (From For Your Eyes Only: “You get your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream,” he informs someone too young to be in his bed.)

Now not even the action thrillers bother trying to be as witty as romantic comedies used to be. And romantic comedies are even less like what they used to be. It’s all about Getting Even and Getting Over — and you really need to wonder how things got to be the way they are now? If you weren’t bummed by Roger Moore’s passing before, think of where he’d fit in movies now. And keep on thinking until your head starts to hurt — along with your heart.

 

Roger Moore

Seymour Movies Checks for a Pulse in 2017 Oscar Picks

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Hidden Figures Trio

 

 

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By the time newspapers and magazines like this one tell you something is over, you know it’s already been over for some time. Indeed, newspapers and magazines have been telling themselves they’ve been over for so long that you wonder if it’s begun to occur to them yet that they may NOT be over after all. But that’s another subject for another time…

Anyway, even when I’d published my last movie review in Newsday in 2008, much of what Nick Bilton describes in Vanity Fair was already in motion, shredding Hollywood’s serenity so much that even some of its potentates were ready to declare their universe – and thus, civilization – dead.

Actually, it’s the circus that now looks deader than hell. And if anything’s to blame for that, it’s whatever’s left of Hollywood, meaning the stunt-heavy blockbusters and tent-pole franchises whose commensurate product can likely be laid end-to end along the Equator. While exhibitors are still feeling terminally, even mortally wounded by the changes wrought by digital technology, I’m pretty sure Fast and the Furious sequels will be around to soothe their nerves for a while. In fact, those things may become so self-referential and post-modern that everyone in the cast of The Devil Wears Prada will someday be asked to take part in a Very Special F&F movie…even La Streep herself. And you know she’ll kill it, even they give her a KIA to drive.

The Oscars are once again upon us, speaking of self-referential, post-modern rituals. They make everybody, especially the editors of newspapers and magazines, believe Hollywood as it used to be still matters. But as has been the case for decades now, it’s not the movies, but politics and culture that comprise the nimbus of advance buzz. Last year, if you can remember that far back, there was all this chatter about how host Chris Rock would deal with the #OscarSoWhite foofaraw. (Damned well, I thought, at least.)  This year, it’s how host Jimmy Kimmel will use his late-night chops to bring the hammer down on the House of Trump and Bannon…and how trolls on either side deal with it. I don’t remember Johnny Carson having to walk minefields like this, beyond the exemplary way he finessed his 1981 opening monologue with that day’s shooting of President Reagan.

 

What about movies? Well, what about them? They’re considered something to distract us from the news, which, as it happens, is how those aforementioned newspapers and magazines have always considered them. The real issue this year, and likely for years to come, is the degree to which the movies still reflect or affect their times. The best still try, as most of the nominees below attest. But do their efforts compel us to leave our homes for the evening, let the kids, pets and plants figure things out for a couple hours and sit in the dark to see what and who we are? Right now, I’d say no, though in the last few weeks, I know many people who took the trouble to see a movie about black women mathematicians struggling with their federal jobs. What the hell. In another week or so, we may hear that the efforts to declare Hollywood dead are also dead. Or we may hear the last death rattle in a year or so. Meanwhile, we watch the Oscars to distract us from the distractions from the distractions planted in our public life…Untie those knots and you’ll know what to expect in 2027, if not sooner.

 

 

For now, since you’re all still expecting me to drop these things this time of year, here are the picks. As always, predicted winners are in bold and, once again, I’m pulling out a For Whatever It’s Worth (FWIW) addendum whenever applicable.

 

Best Picture:
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

 

Who would have ever believed that in a field that includes a shape-shifting poem with homoerotic overtones about an at-risk man-child in the promised land and a furiously eccentric war movie directed by Mel F**king Gibson that this year’s most polarizing candidate for Best Picture is a candy-colored Jacques Demy homage? People either love La La Land without reservation or hate it with extreme prejudice. In at least two cases I know personally, the latter resentment comes from a an abiding and informed devotion to classic American musical comedy. I’ll yield to their passionate knowledge, but the movie still pushed all my happy buttons, even with its overly emphatic jazz-o-philia. (Wake me up when there’s a movie with a heroine obsessed with Albert Ayler or even This Guy.) What makes this a slam-dunk for La La Land has little to do with whether it is or isn’t a great musical. It’s because it’s a commercially successful product that makes its voters, whether they live in Hollywood or not, feel better about the profession they’re in and the dreams they’ve been peddling for generations. By such criteria, its closest competition is Hidden Figures, whose unexpected success and old-fashioned virtues make it a remote possibility, especially given the up-to-the-minute madness of the post-Obama regime. I’m guessing rapture wins out.

 

 

FWIW: I had pretty much written off 2016 as a kind of “meh” year for movies. If I had seen Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson or Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (see below) before New Year’s Eve, I might have changed my mind. Both in very different ways evince the abiding influence of John Cassavetes in their respective displays of intimacy and impulse. Along with Moonlight, they represent what will count in the very long run for cinema’s evolution over tent-pole corporate franchises and “prestige” product. It’ll take a while, as with every other change we’re waiting for.
Also, I kind of wish whoever floated the buzz about Deadpool’s being in this mix made good on the threat; not because I thought it was great or even very good, but because I like the idea of a rude, low-rent movie crashing a high-end party, especially when it had Leslie Uggams saying “Fuck you” on-screen to a white person instead of passive-aggressively spitting in somebody else’s cup.

(2/21) Still thinking this is how it’ll go, though there was a point early in the game when I thought the math sistahs were beginning to sneak up from behind. 

 

Best Director:
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

 

Chazelle’s already copped the DGA prize, so he’s a front-runner here. But there’s plenty of precedent for the Oscars to zag when the trade awards zig. And I have a feeling about this one, even though it wasn’t that long ago when pundits would have regarded Moonlight as too “arty” for serious consideration in either Best Picture or this category. I doubt the movie has enough commercial “heft” to win the first. But it seems to have reached the deepest into people’s hearts and if, as I suspect, Jenkins’ quiet assertion of will and insight propels him to become the first African American to win this prize, his victory could have a resounding, transformative impact on American film, and not (only) because of race. It may not bring back “cinema” as we once knew it, but it could be the first pebble tossed into a stagnant lake.

 

FWIW: We didn’t get a gratuitous Clint Eastwood nomination this year, which is too bad because for a change, I thought he deserved one for Sully, its stacked-deck attitude towards federal authority notwithstanding. He still wouldn’t have won, but it was still one of the leaner, sturdier products to come from his workshop bench.

 

 

Best Actor:
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

 

The SAG decision to go with D-Money here proves that Hollywood – or whatever’s left of it – would like nothing better than to reward its most formidable male box-office star with a third gold statue. I don’t think the performance is top-grade Denzel, which isn’t entirely his fault given he was also doing double-duty as the movie’s not-half-bad director. But just as the one he got for Training Day compensated for the one he didn’t get for The Hurricane, this one will nicely suffice as recompense for the one he deserved for Flight. (His crowning achievement, as I’ve said before.)

 

FWIW: Affleck’s performance is by far the best in the bunch and he would be lapping the field by now if it weren’t for a dark patch on his past that will not go away easily or quietly. Pretty sordid, but it still wouldn’t ruin my weekend if he ended up winning anyhow.

(2/21) ….though there hasn’t been all that much buzz in the air about Affleck’s past since the nominations were announced. (We’ve had too many other things buzzing in the air lately.) This could mean there’s still a chance he could overtake D. But I’m keeping my piece where it is.

 

 

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Best Actress:
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

 

If the front-runner for supporting actress were competing in her proper division (see below), this would be a runaway no-brainer, even with La Streep riding a high tide of good feeling over her State of the Union address at the Golden Globes. Given the rapacity overwhelming the government’s executive branch these days, I wouldn’t put it past the Academy to toss her another party favor to go with the three she already has, even though this title role of hers is, essentially, a supporting performance. (A reverse ringer, if you will.) People adore Stone, but despite her SAG prize, it doesn’t feel like her time yet. Negga was the best thing about her movie, which is too small a vessel to deliver her to the Promised Land. This leaves two of the most magnetic faces on the planet and while I think Portman’s performance here is much more deserving than the one for which she was previously honored, Huppert is the super glue holding together a movie with so much on its mind (and in its spleen) that it would all shatter in sharp fragments from all the attendant weight without her élan and sinew.

 

FWIW: Amy Adams deserved consideration here for carrying the smart, but slight Arrival than she did for making the best out of the overrated Nocturnal Animals. But the more egregious oversight was Annette Bening’s deeply moving, intricately detailed rendering of a middle-aged mom in 20th Century Women.

(2/21) People are still hyping Stone as the front-runner and I’m thinking that the reason everybody’s shortchanging Huppert is that movies-with-subtitles don’t have the presence they once enjoyed on these shores. Not all that long ago, however, a French actress did shock the system by beating out a very strong field in a foreign-language film . So there’s precedent here that doesn’t require going back to Sophia Loren or even Anna Magnani. 

 

Best Supporting Actor:
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

An exceptionally strong list this year. I’d be happy with any of them walking away with the prize. I’m also pretty sure that Moonlight’s all-but-ecumenical embrace will carry Ali to the podium. It’s his year – and it’s still only the beginning for him.

(2/21) In an earlier draft, I alluded to the dark arts of Harvey Weinstein that, when deployed in Oscar campaigns, can yield envelope-popping surprises. Given such history, it shouldn’t surprise anybody  that there have been tremors out there over the possibility of Dev Patel coming up on the backstretch. I still say Moonlight’s got a lot more power than people believe and Ali’s killer acceptance speech at the SAG Awards may have sealed his prize in dry ice.  

 

Best Supporting Actress:
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

fences
People much smarter than I have put forth my own theory as to how this happened: Someone near and dear to Viola Davis’ heart told her that though her turn in Fences is layered in gold, she shouldn’t have to once again undergo the pain of watching a grand, over-the-top Meryl Streep impersonation of an imperious British woman (Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady) bigfoot the lead-actress Oscar away from a can’t-miss Davis performance (that same year, in The Help). Hence, there’s no real harm in her campaigning in this category since she’s not necessarily top-billed, right? It wouldn’t surprise me if the person dropping this hint in Davis’ ear was her Fences director and co-star who has often said, given that he has both, that there’s no real difference between lead and supporting Oscars; they’re both for acting, they’re both the same height, weight and color, and what else needs to be said?

 

FWIW: Just this. Michelle Williams’ minutes in front of Manchester by the Sea’s cameras were the most meaningful, heart-rending minutes I’d seen from any actress last year beyond those of Davis herself. To these eyes, it’s unfair that Williams’ raw, resonant performance has to take a back seat to a larger, more sweeping one from someone who I now consider to be, indisputably, a goddess. Yes, I said it before and I’ll say it again: VIOLA DAVIS IS GOD…but Michelle Williams is pretty great, too, and deserves a clear, smooth ride to glory of her own someday.

 

Best Original Screenplay:
Hell or High Water,”
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women
Always a bad idea to bet against Kenneth Lonergan in this category, especially when he seems to have reached a new, fresh peak here.

FWIW: If Lonergan or his script weren’t on this list, I’d incline towards Hell or High Water, which wouldn’t have stood out so conspicuously if the movie had been made in 1980, or even 1970, instead of 2016.

(2/20) While we’re here, do you guys mind if I ramble a little about this notion, stubbornly persistent these days, that a movie is somehow handicapped for being a “downer”? First, who can tell me what the Greatest American Play ever written is? (Let’s not see the same hands…) Right. Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Oh, you thought it was Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire? Well, fine, but is there a “feel-good” number among that group? I thought not. O’Neill’s play comes in first for me because whenever I see a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night I may find the story it tells unbearably depressing. But I walk away from it invigorated by its artistry, its raw dynamism and, above all, its rich and humane sense of character. I’m not saying Manchester By The Sea is somehow equal to Long Day’s Journey…in achievement. But it is animated by the same insistence on taking people as they are and acknowledging life’s travails and defeats…and somehow staying alive anyway. It’s the artistry, not the content, that brings me up. And if the rest of us can only see movies in terms of how their stories make you “feel” at the end rather than how those stories are forged in the first place, then we’re in worse shape than I thought…with no end in sight. And THAT, in case you’re confused, is the real downer here.  

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
Lion”
Moonlight

This one’s tough; very competitive and perhaps subject to the caprice of the four winds. Still betting on the deep reserves of good will towards Moonlight, but never underestimate the dark arts of Harvey Weinstein to finagle something-or-other for Lion.

(2/20) See Supporting Actor above…

 

Best Foreign Language Film:
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
The Salesman
Tanna
Toni Erdmann

Donald Trump’s travel ban made this a cause-celebre, given Asghar Farhadi’s refusal to attend the ceremony. So I guess it’s a no brainer, though otherwise, as I indicated earlier, it’d have been Toni Erdmann’s to lose.

FWIW: All that said, The Salesman’s also a very good movie and deserves whatever it will get for whatever reason.

(2/20) Still hedging, though, just a little on Maren Ade’s behalf. People REALLY love goofy Toni. 

 

Best Cinematography:

Arrival
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Silence

 

Any of you guys know that Linus Sandgren was the DP on David O. Russell’s last two movies along with The Hundred Foot Journey? I was neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed with the latter, but I remember it looking a lot better than it actually was. His peers have already acknowledged him and they’ll continue to do so here.

 

 

Best Original Score:
Jackie
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight,
Passengers

 

The juggernaut rolls on – mainly because there’s no evidence here that it shouldn’t.

 

Best Animated Feature Film:
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle”
Zootopia

Zootopia

Outside of what many have declared the presumptive (and deserving winner), the only one of these I’ve seen is Kubo and it’s REALLY an amazing movie! Still for reasons having to do with The Way Our Lives Have Been Lately, a movie about inter-species travails in an urban setting is Right On Time, along with being surprisingly well wrought.

 

 

 

Best Documentary Feature:
Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life Animated
O.J.: Made in America
13th

 

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Let me tell you how old I am: Old enough to remember writing stories about how Ye Olde Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences wouldn’t give so much as a glance to any prospective nominee appearing on television first, no matter how many theaters exhibited it in the intervening months. Such prohibitions, to this reporter’s mind, cost two great performances – Linda Fiorentino’s in The Last Seduction (1994) and Gillian Anderson’s in The House of Mirth (2000) – the nominations and, at least in Fiorentino’s case, the win – they deserved. I know it’s a far different world now with streams, clouds and those other water-based delivery systems without which not even Meryl Streep can function. I’m still not sure how the rules accommodate those changes. But rather than grouse about past injustices, I can say that if any of these worthy nominees were somehow excluded from consideration for appearing on a small screen first or even second or third, I’d stop writing these things immediately and find a new hobby. (Pez dispensers, anyone? Anyone?) And what do you know? I’ve gone on so long about this issue that I no longer have enough space to explain why I think Ezra Erdman’s epochal inquiry into race in America is far more deserving than Ana Du Vernay’s. I can say that it’ll be far more attractive to Academy voters since the story it tells is, for them, a local story writ grand and lucid.

 

(2/20) I Am Not Your Negro, however, has made explosive headway through the marketplace since voting began. It may not gather enough steam to make a difference here, but keep your eyes and ears open…

 

Best Original Song:
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls
“City of Stars” from La La Land
“The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story
“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

 

I’ll catch hell from somebody for saying this, but I think “Audition” is at or very near the rare-air reaches of Carousel’s “Soliloquy” for a musical monologue, nailed down compellingly enough by Stone to, perhaps, make me the fool for dismissing her chances for Best Actress, as noted above. But “City of Stars” is something at which grey heads can imagine Sinatra taking a swing. And lest we forget, the Academy is still crowded with grey heads.

 

 

 

 

Ten Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t (Quite) a Total, Absolute Steaming Heap of Raw Sewage

Yes, I know. This happened within the last few days, followed closely by this and then, for God’s sake, this. I still say 2016 isn’t, as so many insist, The Worst Year Ever for high-profile deaths; not in my lifetime anyway.

I checked. Consider 1959, whose carnage all but commenced February 3 with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crushed and shredded by an Iowa plane crash. There followed the deaths, in no particular order, of Billie Holiday, Errol Flynn, Raymond Chandler, George Reeves, Mario Lanza, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lester Young, George C. Marshall, Carl “Alfafa” Switzer, Victor McLaglan, John Foster Dulles, Cecil B. DeMille, Bert Bell, Kay Kendall, Preston Sturges, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Boris Vian, Sidney Bechet, Lou Costello…

Some of these deaths were untimely and unexpected, others weren’t. And go sit in a corner if you even think of responding with something like, “Yeah, but these were all OLD people…”

I can easily pull other, similar examples out of my memory bank, especially Bobby Kennedy’s “very mean year” of 1961 (Ernest Hemingway, Patrice Lumumba, Gary Cooper, Booker Little, Barry Fitzgerald, Dag Hammarskjold, Sam Rayburn, Scott LaFaro, Ty Cobb, James Thurber, Maya Deren, Dashiell Hammett, Grandma Moses, Chico Marx, Jeff Chandler, George S. Kaufman, Carl Jung…) spilling right into the following year (Marilyn Monroe, William Faulkner, Ernie Kovacs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benny Paret, Niels Bohr, Isak Dinesen, Myron McCormick, Charles Laughton, Franz Kline, C. Wright Mills…) and onwards towards 1966 (Lenny Bruce, Walt Disney, Evelyn Waugh, Bud Powell, Montgomery Clift, Frank O’Hara, Bobby Fuller, Richard Fariña…) and 1974 (Duke Ellington, Earl Warren, Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead, Ivory Joe Hunter, Frank McGee, Cornelius Ryan, Darius Milhaud, Chet Huntley, Bobby Bloom, Frank Sutton, Cass Elliot, Joe Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, Nick Drake, Richard Long, Cyril Connolly, Gene Ammons, Otto Kruger, Jacqueline Susann, Amy Vanderbilt…)

And I could go on like this forever. Do you know why? BECAUSE SO DOES DEATH, PEOPLE. Once you stop thinking of your own era as being, like, so totally unique, it helps make everything around you less frightening.

Repeat after me and say it over and over at night to help you sleep: Years don’t make us better or worse. WE make years better or worse.

With that in mind, I’d like to submit my own random, totally subjective list of the things that made 2016 not suck quite as much as you might otherwise believe. For one thing, it was, despite the prevailing socio-political landscape, a terrific year for African American culture, as many of the attached items will attest. And that will be as true of 2016 ten years from now as it is now, no matter what state the United States will be in by then:

 

 

Wolfgang-Hahn-Preis Köln 2014 - Verleihung an Kerry James Marshall - 12.04.2014

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Kerry James Marshall – Along with Wrigley Field, the Billy Goat Tavern and the architectural river cruise, the best part of my late summer trip to Chicago was “Mastry,” a comprehensive exhibition of Marshall’s paintings and drawings at the Museum of Contemporary Art whose breadth and intensity of vision almost brought me to my knees. The exhibition later travelled to New York where it likewise riveted, astonished and inspired millions more. There were many who saw hope with the Cubs’ long-deferred triumph in this year’s World Series. I saw hope and much more in this living Chicago institution.

 

 

ATLANTA -- Pictured: (l-r) Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Atlanta – Donald Glover’s masterly FX series about hip-hop life along the edges validated my long-held suspicions that there was something about its eponymous city that transgresses laws – or at least customs – of time and space. It’s a city where Justin Bieber is magically transformed into the bratty young black man you suspect he’s always wanted to be and where every single plan that an ambitious brother like Glover’s Earn can conceive is chopped up and pureed into unrecognizable, perplexing anomalies. Though he was writing about DJ Shadow this past summer, Greil Marcus could have been talking about Earn and his milieu when he described “a sampler of bits and pieces of dislocation in modern life – finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and realizing you were born there – the textures can seem meretricious, accepting, as if there’s really nothing left to argue against…[But] [b]y its end, yes – you don’t know where you are.”

 

moonlight1 Ali

 

 

Ali in Luke Cage

 

 

 

Mahershala Ali – From Ali’s soon-to-conclude duty as Remy Danton, the lovelorn fixer-for-the-highest-bidder on House of Cards, one sensed coiled steel, contained explosiveness and intuitive graces that this actor could call upon for more daunting challenges. Didn’t take long for him to display these qualities when playing the year’s more conflicted criminals. As Juan, the neighborhood crack dealer in Moonlight, Ali lets you see both the smoldering menace with which he quietly asserts proprietorship over his network of mules and the deep, if enigmatic well of sympathy that allows him to connect with a bewildered, vulnerable boy bullied at home and at school for reasons he can’t fathom. For the smaller screen, Ali brought gray shadows and complex motivations to his portrayal of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Harlem crime kingpin and chief nemesis of the bulletproof hero-for-hire in Marvel-Netflix’s Luke Cage. He’s so persuasive at evoking a bad man convinced of his essential goodness that one felt a slow leak oozing out of the whole series after his departure. His dual triumphs make one yearn for more opportunities for Ali to play anti-heroes who can deal with the devil while doing God’s work.

 

 

OJ

 

 

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O.J.: Made in America & The People Vs. O.J. Simpson It doesn’t matter whether you preferred Ezra Edelman’s epochal, illuminating five-part documentary series for ESPN or the Scott Alexander-Larry Karaszewski dramatization which made heroes of erstwhile laughing stocks Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulsen) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) without in any way mitigating the scorched-earth genius of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); all of which actors, by the way, won much-deserved Emmys. What both these vastly different approaches to a reverberating crime have in common is what they imply about the glaring inadequacies of day-to-day news coverage. You could argue that all the nuances, subtleties and socio-historical contexts available now to screenwriters and documentarians weren’t as easily accessible to journalists as when the actual Simpson trial was unfolding 22 years ago. But as the last election cycle proved, the 24-hour news cycle, whether on cable or through the Internet, barely bothers even to try thinking such things through. All we’re left with, then and now, are the usual bromides e.g.: It’ll be years before we know what really happened; There’s always more to the story; There’s more here than meets the eye…Blah…Blah…Blah…Whimper.

 

 

CE Morgan Sport of Kings

 

 

 

The Sport of Kings – From the great, relatively forgotten, but still very much alive (at this writing) African American novelist William Melvin Kelley, I recently found out that the word “race” derives from the medieval Italian “razzo,” meaning “any given breed of horse.” I’m betting that C.E. Morgan, a intelligent, imaginative and startlingly perceptive daughter of the Bluegrass State, was aware of this arcane connection when she wrote this novel about a Kentucky horse breeder whose attitudes about race roughly parallel those of the odious John C. Calhoun. He has his reasons, of course, and Morgan’s too conscientious a novelist not to take their full measure, however petty they are and however grievous their impact on others’ lives. His venom afflicts two of those lives. One belongs to his spirited, magnetic daughter who shares his obsession with creating the next Secretariat; the other belongs to a black ex-convict from the mean streets of Cincinnati hired to help train this super horse. I’ve pressed and imposed this novel upon others and yet I’ve been struggling to figure out why. One possible answer just now came to me through David Ulin’s retrospective essay about Double Indemnity for the Library of America’s “Moviegoer” site when he cites a quote from the movie’s coscripter Raymond Chandler: “It doesn’t matter a damn what the novel is about…The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.” Self-serving, I suppose, since Chandler’s reputation while alive was that of an innovative genre writer. Morgan’s novel, aiming for higher ground, isn’t about “practically nothing,” but about many things at once. Yet as with great writers of American noir such as Chandler, Sport of Kings surges and leaps heedlessly into big emotions and grand melodrama, which Chandler believed “was the only kind of writing that I saw was relatively honest.” Ulin pushes these points further by defining them as “conventions of the hyper-real.” I haven’t the time or the space here to get into the specifics, but if you can imagine what base-level 20th century American melodrama, whether practiced by realists or “hyper-realists,” can bring to 21st century issues of race and class, then you will understand why I’ve been bullish on this particular horse opera. I didn’t read Sport of Kings so much as submit to its power and it’s been too long since any new novel did that to me. (I was one of the judges who singled Sport out for the Kirkus Book Prize for fiction. If you can call it up, our citation is quoted  here.)

 

 

 

 

Arab Future Panels

 

The Arab of the Future, Vol. 2 – Along with Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco and the late Harvey Pekar, cartoonist Riad Sattouf has helped establish the graphic memoir as the most innovative and affecting narrative art form to have emerged in the late 20th century. Given the relentlessly bleak news coming out of Syria in recent years, Sattouf, who once was a regular contributor to Charlie Hedbo, may be providing the most timely and poignant contribution with his autobiographical account of growing up between different cultures. In the first volume, avid, adorably fluffy-haired Riad is shuttled back and forth between France, where his mother Clementine is from, and the volatile Middle East of the 1980s where his Syrian father Abdel-Razek embraces the then-burgeoning Pan-Arab movement. In this second volume, covering 1984 and 1985, Riad’s family settle in his father’s hometown of Ter Maaleh as the country reinvents itself under the dictatorship of Hafez Al-Assad. The little boy must adjust to a new school with its fundamentalist dictates, corporal punishment and the usual highs and lows of socializing with other children, complete with bullying of an especially brutal and bigoted kind. In recounting these and other vicissitudes, Sattouf maintains his wit, balance and equanimity towards all his characters, even at their worst. This is especially true of his father, who is by turns insecure, pompous, clueless and frantic to fit into whatever future his homeland devises for himself and his family. As with its predecessor, the second volume of Arab of the Future makes you wonder how long it’ll be before Abdel-Razek’s dreams come crashing down. But even with that dire prospect, the warmth and wisdom seasoning his son’s rueful memories keep you hoping for the best for the Sattoufs while bracing for the worst.

 

 

 

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Weiner — It’s odd how some things can both become dated and gain added significance in only a few months. When I first saw Weiner in the theater, it was early summer, Huma Abedin’s mentor was still well-positioned to be the next president and I came away from the documentary thinking mostly about Abedin’s inscrutably slow-burning gazes at the movie’s main subject who, for all his energy and earnest impulses to do good, came across here as he did everywhere else in the last four years: As an incurable narcissist, stabbing himself, scorpion-like, with his own…um…wretched excesses. I saw the film again on Netflix a couple weeks ago and somehow all that tattle-and-buzz about a man, his penis and social media don’t seem all that important when compared with the brazen lies and mendacity we’ve already seen in play so far from the incoming administration. This time around, what was far more important to me were all those brown and black people occupying the periphery of the action who kept shouting at the TV cameras and their enablers to stop yammering about the man’s dickishness and concentrate on what needs to happen in their neighborhoods to make them better. Wouldn’t it be something if this documentary ended up signifying both the peak and decline of the Age of Gossip and Innuendo? As. If.

 

Beyonce Lemonade

 

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Lemonade & Daughters of the Dust – It now seems like forever and a day since Beyoncé dropped her “Formation” video into Super Bowl Week festivities the same way you imagine a visitor from the future, unrecognizable to present-day eyeballs, dropping in on the Iowa Caucus. The 24-hour news cycle chewed its immediate impact to tiny bits until there was little left to the astonishment but empty bluster and gaping bemusement. My own reaction was something akin to: Damn. It almost looks as if Julie Dash directed this badboy! Those of us who cherish Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, her gorgeous 1991 cinematic tone poem set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Georgia Sea Islands have spent the intervening years keeping track of her movements and looking for signs that the movie wasn’t forgotten. And while Dash didn’t direct the “Formation” video, or any of the others emerging from Bey’s daring, insurgent album, Lemonade, there were enough resonances from Daughters to summon a movement to get an enhanced edition of the film out and about to art houses throughout the country. Because Daughters occasioned the first four-star review I ever gave as a Newsday movie critic, this convergence of cultural forces was the happiest I can remember.

 

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Hell or High Water – As I’ve babbled to several people till I bored my own self, I wasn’t at all bullish on movies this year. (The worst of the summer blockbusters, in my opinion, gets its definitive raking-over  here by the ever-engaging critical thinkers over at HISHE, who once again outclass what they’re critiquing.) I suppose I’m an incurable aficionado of the mid-to-late-1970s wave of gritty American cinema. And while I think this badlands chase thriller from David Mackenzie wouldn’t necessarily stand out among the glorious products of 40-something years ago, it offered elemental pleasures similar to  those movies’: a taut-wire storyline that wastes no time; dry, cool dialogue that likewise goes about its business in real time and no-sweat laconic performances that play changes like a cool jazz combo. Coolest and driest of all is Jeff Bridges in his best performance in years as a Texas Ranger in pursuit of bank robbers aggrieved by the economic unpleasantness of recent years. I also quite liked Chris Pine as one of the robbers, though unlike some reviewers I don’t think he quite steals the movie from Bridges so much as shares the win in the end. If you’ve seen it already, you know there’s added implication in that previous sentence. If not, what the hell are you waiting for?

 

 

 

LMO 2016

 

LMO Time Life cover

 

 

The Liberation Music Orchestra Redux – It all keeps coming back to Chicago at whose jazz festival this year I saw Carla Bley leading the revived Liberation Music Orchestra founded almost a half-century ago by the late Charlie Haden. He’d spearheaded a restoration of the 12-piece band a few years back, but his failing health prevented him from pressing ahead. Bley, who’d been with the orchestra at its creation as both pianist and arranger, picked up the ball and carried on Haden’s dream of focusing the orchestra’s progressive agenda on ecological issues. The Chicago set included pieces from the album Time/Life (Impulse!) whose playlist includes Bley’s multi-textured tribute to Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring,” and Haden’s own “Song for the Whales.” The timing of their return is all-too auspicious and I have a sinking feeling that global warming may soon end up being among many things they’ll be compelled to make music about.

A Humble Bard of Our Better Nature

 

 

 

 

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Curtis Hanson, who died September 20 at age 71, was a decent man who made good and, quite often, better than good movies. It’s the sort of epitaph we’d pay several mortgages to own. Somehow it doesn’t say enough to compensate for a passing bereaving those of us who went to a movie theater in search of something more than distraction or anesthesia.

Carrie Rickey reminded me this morning of something Hanson once said about his own work: “I prefer stories of people who are, in a sense, trying to find better versions of themselves.” Hanson placed these personal quests front-and-center of his best work. Even with 1997’s L.A. Confidential’s pervasive squalor, layered betrayal and indiscriminate brutality competing for attention, you never wander far from the slow, painful education of dim, volatile LAPD detective Bud White (Russell Crowe’s star-making performance). You don’t share Hanson’s keen sympathy for him at the start, but before the end, you’re with them both.

 

WONDER BOYS, Michael Douglas, director Curtis Hanson, on set, 2000. (c)Paramount

 

 

American movies these days don’t work as hard as they once did to engage you in the lives of serial fuckups like Bud, or for that matter, Grady Tripp, the rakish, peripatetically stoned creative writer instructor from 2000’s Wonder Boys. As played by Michael Douglas, in his best performance (we can argue later), Grady’s “better version” of himself is stuck in neutral as he pokes away at the long-awaited follow-up to the novel that made him a cult hero. Among the things that distract him from finishing (besides his own bleary hubris) are his more gifted and troublesome students and the affair he’s been having with his boss’ wife (Frances McDormand).

 

In Her Shoes

 

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Not all of his fuckups were guys, if you count Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz), from 2005’s In Her Shoes, in which she cloaks her shame over her learning disabilities with heavy drinking, empty relationships and an inability to focus on anything. Nor were all of the protagonists necessarily fuckups, if you count Jimmy Smith Jr., Eminem’s semi-autobiographical alter ego from 2002’s 8 Mile, whose apparent gifts as a rap artist are constrained less by his own character flaws than by the formidable obstacles imposed by his outskirts-of-Detroit environment. He overcomes as impressively, and as credibly as Maggie, Grady and Bud.

 

 

Too Big to Fail -- Hurt

 

 

 

None of these films were made all that long ago. Yet they now seem very far away when you begin to wonder who, if anyone, now works to fashion such humane, intelligent and well-wrought stories for the big screen. Toward the end, even Hanson had to slide over to television, delivering his last notable work, 2011’s Too Big to Fail, to HBO. It’s possible to include this account of the 2008 financial crisis in Hanson’s thematic wheelhouse if you consider the whole banking system as a fuck-up and U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) the principal agent in retrieving some, if not all of the system’s better angels. Those who knew Hanson, or even met him (as I did) once could easily see Paulson as a surrogate for the director’s own easygoing competence and composure.

After Hanson, who? I’m still asking.

Seymour Movies: So What? That’s What.

 

 

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Soon, almost a month will have gone by since Miles Ahead was released and I’m still wondering whether it was worth making a movie that conceives of Miles Davis as a hip-limping, gun-toting, coke-snorting, jump-suit-wearing, jheri-curled amalgam of Han Solo and John Shaft.

Part of me wishes this summed up my complicated feelings about Don Cheadle’s dream (in more ways than one) project because I’m aware that what I just wrote seems to embed me among the jazz-snob coterie weighing in with sundry, often incendiary objections. Within that coterie, however, I lean towards those balancing our misgivings with resignation over what it takes these days to make, and sell, a movie. And with resignation comes qualified gratitude that Miles Ahead is somehow still making its way through the entertainment-industrial complex with so-far-not-catastrophic box-office returns and a mostly positive critical reception.

Still…

I mean, it’s not as if I could imagine, or even wanted an actual bio-pic with all the decorous solemnity and self-defeating finicky-ness too often accompanying the genre. (Even when such movies are careful with the facts, they still somehow ring false, which means John Ford’s often-regurgitated advice about “printing the legend” is more pragmatic than anything else.) To the extent that Cheadle’s near-hallucinatory pastiche of Davis’ self-imposed exile from the outside world during the late 1970s departs from this dubious norm, I think the movie is an intriguing heave into the cosmos. Too often, however, the blurriness seems less aesthetic calculation than technical difficulties. Some of the interior scenes are cluttered and awkwardly staged. Plus there’s an overall problem with “flow,” which I’m not using as rappers do, but with respect to transitions between scenes, whether flashbacks or in the movie’s present day. Cheadle, assuming he gets another shot at directing a feature (and I think he should), should acquire greater facility with this craft. But for now, as a filmmaker, he’s a hell of an actor – which, as you’ve heard, he proves throughout Miles Ahead.

The greatness of Cheadle’s performance isn’t just in the way he successfully appropriates Davis’ raspy voice, glowering intensity and physical tics. All those things, however impressive, isn’t acting so much as impressionism — which in a movie that leans heavily on impressions would blend with, if not thicken the surrounding goo. It’s Cheadle’s all-or-nothing engagement with Davis’ interior struggles that both evokes and epitomizes the intimacy of Davis’ art – and the abiding faith we kept in Miles through all his transitions and phases. It’s a performance that is most electrifying at those moments when Cheadle’s Miles is either in repose or contemplation; when he isn’t talking or looking at anything except his horn, which at times seems as unfamiliar or as vaguely threatening to him as the future. The tenderness and vulnerability Cheadle summons in his portrayal doesn’t surprise the already indoctrinated. But they are as immersed in its evocation as those whose first encounter with this mercurial personality may inspire them to probe the real deal’s recorded output.

 

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Certainly, it’s a greater inducement than the woozy exhortation delivered by Dave Braden  (Ewan MacGregor), the dissolute Rolling Stone “journalist” apparently coaxed into existence by studio executives who believed even the central presence of a black musical genius couldn’t guarantee a motion picture being made, much less distributed, without a White Guy to ride shotgun. “You got laid to this man’s music,” Braden scolds a bleary-eyed student drug dealer, “and you don’t even know who he is!” It’s not the first time a finished movie entered the marketplace still selling its premise. But it doesn’t make this boosting any less obnoxious.

MacGregor, to his credit, makes the best out of his otherwise thankless task. But his character is by no means the movie’s biggest problem. That comes during a physical altercation between Miles and his wife Francis Taylor (the stunning Emayatzy Corinealdi) that, as depicted in the movie, seems to have happened because Taylor goaded Davis into throwing the first punch. Whether this is what happened or not, I’m disquieted by the scene’s implication that Davis’ widely authenticated serial abuse of the women in his life was a.) brought upon themselves and b.) a relative anomaly in his behavior. That Miles Davis’ smoldering rage could often explode into violence against women is one of the many difficulties those of us who cherish his art struggle to acknowledge, if not accept. (Cognitive dissonance, folks: never easy and rarely pretty.) Since Cheadle did far more work than I did to realize the vision, I’m going to assume he knows this and, thus, knows what he’s doing here. It still chews at me.

I suppose, though, that part of what makes this Miles Ahead a conspicuous product of its subject’s legacy is the way it leaves you at the end: With more questions and implications to sort through than hard resolutions. It’s how Davis left things when he left the planet. It’s how so many of the albums he recorded from the mid-1960s to the bitter end lost listeners who couldn’t keep up with his own inquiries into form and function.

 

dark magus cover

 

 

pangaea cover

 

 

And with all my qualms about the movie, I can also say that the best thing it did for me once it was over was send me back to my bulging Miles Davis shelf; not to absorb myself yet again in Kind of Blue, Round About Midnight, Nefertiti or even Bitches Brew, but in the extended electronic performances from the early 1970s that, in toto, left me somewhat bewildered, even aggrieved over what I thought was overindulgence and even sloth on Davis’ part. Having re-acquainted myself with the vagaries of Dark Magus, Pangaea and Agharta, I now recognize many aspects to the amplified riffs and tempo flexing that given a present-day cutting edge patrolled by the likes of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar (with whom Miles, if he were still alive, aware and active today, would love to forge new sonic provocations) sound more prophetic than meandering. I should have known that somehow, someway, Miles Davis will always find a way of messing with your mind, calling bullshit on your home-made conventional wisdom. I may even change my mind about the movie someday. But not for a good while.

 

 

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Seymour Movies: #OscarsSoInevitable 2016

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InsideOut556500e6a2be0-2040.0Spotlight-Image-1

 

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The governors and voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should go into the streets, suburbs and strip malls of our great nation and thank every single angry black person they see. Start by going to the Smith family manse and apply a big, long, warm hug to Jada Pinkett Smith — and her husband, too, but only if he really needs one. Give Spike Lee another lifetime achievement award for something, anything else. And keep paying it forward, fulsomely and individually, from sea to shining sea.

Because if it hadn’t been for the #OscarSoWhite movement and all the attendant debate, acrimony and controversy it aroused among movie people all over the world, hardly anybody would give a bacon-wrapped, caramel-covered you-know-what about this year’s show.

Begin with the fact that ALL of this year’s top acting awards have been foregone conclusions for weeks. So barring the utterly, inexplicably unimaginable upset, (in other words, don’t count on it), there’s almost zero suspense accompanying the awards going out to the most recognizable people.

Some uncertainty clings to Best Picture, I guess. But that won’t be decided until the bitter end, at which point Chris Rock will (one hopes and trusts) have kept you engaged and amused with his strafing every glitzy square inch of pomposity and Caucasian self-importance within his reach.

And it wont matter whether he’s the only person-of-color who shows up because, as I’ve said since the boycott was announced, there’s little hope in changing things by absenting yourself from a frame from which your overall absence (or relative lack of presence) is already taken for granted. That’s as clear as I can or need to be on THAT topic. Except, I guess, for this. 

Let’s do this thing we do because we know you care – and we still can’t understand why. As in past installments, projected winners are in bold and there’s a “For Whatever It’s Worth” (FWIW) ancillary graph tacked onto each category listed.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

Revenant is heavily immersive, grandiosely “wow” moviemaking. Then again, this description more or less applies to at least two, maybe three other movies on this list, especially Fury Road, which many believed had the early lead. Big Short may still pull a Crash-like upset. And then there’s Spotlight, which in any other year would have been the public-spirited work collecting Oscars in the double figures. I’m betting on the One With The Big Bear.

FWIW: My own favorites from this list were Spotlight, Fury Road, The Martian and Bridge of Spies, whose U2 takedown scene was, outside of Leo & The Big Bear, the best set piece available in this crowd. (They’re kinda sorta alike if you think too much about it. So let’s not.) If a younger director put that aerial sequence together with the same blend of meticulousness and brio, she’d be hailed as a harbinger of greater things to come for the movie industry. Because it’s Spielberg, it was more like: Is that all you got for us? (At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.)

Best Director
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Go look it up. I did. The only two directors ever to win back-to-back Oscars were Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve) and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley). Mank…Pappy…Iñárritu?  It makes a kind of karmic sense: Birdman was a high-fallutin backstage soap in the All About Eve manner, only with dorkier phantasmagorical subtexts. And it’s plausible that if Ford were around today, a frontier epic such as Revenant would have been in his wheelhouse – presuming said wheelhouse was drained of Ford’s patented Irish-whiskey sentimentality. As for what I think of Iñárritu’s work…I think the category, “Less Than Meets the Eye,” that the late Andrew Sarris included in his groundbreaking auteurist survey, The American Cinema, was made for somebody like him. (Then again, to his everlasting credit, Andy wasn’t afraid to change his mind about any of his rankings along the way.)

FWIW: Ridley Scott’s omission must have been a really close call, though it’s hard to decide who would have had to go from this group to put him there. As relatively unassuming as McCarthy’s work on Spotlight appears, his seamless control of volatile material is a lot harder than it looks. The Big Short seems the only outlier in the band, if only because it’s both a muckraking j’accuse and a quirky docu-comedy. Given that this is a presidential election year, Short is also timelier than any of the nominated films and, for a time, that attribute seemed enough to vault McKay to a win. Time, so to speak, flies.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Going all the way back to This Boy’s Life and The Basketball Diaries, I can think of at least two DiCaprio performances more Oscar-worthy than this one. But, when going all the way back, I also remember that in those days he was considered more of an “actor” than a “movie star.” And when a movie star is seen at a certain point in his career putting himself through as much shit as Leo conspicuously does here, the convergence of forces is too powerful to ignore. In other words, it’s time to let him have it…

FWIW: …because, while I still think Cranston is in the conversation as Our Best Actor, his Dalton Trumbo was ham left in the oven a tad too long. Damon will Get His some other time as will Fassbender, who may have actually been the Best In Show here.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

It’s a given at this point. And it’s cool. She invests so much into this dark, slender story that her presence assumes total command of the enterprise. (Plus she looks exactly the way readers of the novel imagined.)

FWIW: Had Charlotte Rampling measured her words more carefully before weighing in on the minority/Academy set-to, there might have been some echo-chamber chatter about her illustrious career getting a much-deserved party favor. Thing is, she’s actually pretty excellent in this movie and it would have been altogether appropriate to give her the gold this time. It’s just…that is…well…you probably intended to say it differently, but…how to put this? Do you actually know any black Americans personally, madame?

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

I’m aware I said there’ll be no suspense at all with the acting awards. But I suppose there’s some suspense over whatever bleary thing will pop into Stallone’s head during his acceptance speech and whether he once again thanks the William Morris Agency twice while altogether forgetting to thank the black director and cast members of what some would-be-wit-iots insist on calling Rocky VII. The very least he can do is remind America – and maybe himself – that his “imaginary friend” Rocky Balboa would have never existed without Muhammad Ali as an inspiration. Google “Bayonne Bleeder” if you don’t know what I mean. On second thought, we’ll save you the trouble.

FWIW:  Rylance’s is the one great performance in this bunch and the most significant MIA here is, of course, SAG winner Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering whether Tom Hardy is our new Brando or our new Lee Marvin. Either option would work out just fine. M Squad: The Movie? I’m so there…

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

She’s really good, folks. And she’s had one of the best overall years of anybody on this docket. As much as she outclassed her co-star here, this picture, in some ways, was the least of it. In Ex Machina, she was the most alluringly scary of living dolls. She was also dryly funny beneath the dazzling threads she wears in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

FWIW: Still…Winslet was great in one of those never-saw-it-coming turns that, in many ways, was better than the one for which she won the lead-actress Oscar. (And remind me. Which one was that?) But I’m really rooting for JJL, who made the best out of one of the most thankless roles in motion picture history.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short
Brooklyn
Carol
The Martian
Room

Classy source material and an austere, near-classical design. What more could anybody ask for?

FWIW: Then again, Carol was pretty austere, too, which some people, though I’m not one of them, believed was its biggest problem. I’d be happier, though, if Big Short’s brasher tactics were rewarded here, if nowhere else.

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies,
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton

A really good list here and I’m sure I’m not the only lapsed newspaperman who roots for this one, no matter where it’s nominated.

FWIW: We may well be running out of opportunities to give one of these to a Pixar movie and my inner cartoonist secretly pulls for the one with the Ugly Imaginary Friend. Yet I’m all but positive it’s a shoo-in for…

Best Animated Feature Film
Anomalisa
Boy and the World
Inside/Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Centuries from now, assuming the smarter rats and bugs take up history, cinema studies and Freud as hobbies, the Disney-Pixar corpus will be pored over as keys to how civilization at the Second Millennium engaged with and critiqued its own imaginative autonomy. Inside/Out will be as crucial to this retrospective effort as all twelve films of the Toy Story saga. (I know, but give them time because you know that’s what The Mouse is ultimately after…)

FWIW: Sing along with me, everybody: “He’s Shaun the Sheep! / He’s Shaun the Sheep!/ He Even Mucks About With Those Who Cannot Bleat/Keep it in Mind/He’s One of a Kind/Oh!/Life’s a Treat/With Shaun the Sheep!!…” Let me repeat: It’s “SHAUN THE SHEEP”!!!!!

 

 

 

 

Best Cinematography
Carol
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario

Nobody does natural light like Emmanuel Lubezki, and this will be an unprecedented third consecutive time.

FWIW: I hope someday Oscar properly recognizes Edward Lachman’s ability to evoke not just the past, but how we remember the past, as he does in Carol.

Best Documentary – Feature
Amy
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Tossing the dice here, because this would be the Academy’s best opportunity to present SOMEthing to an African American. (Lisa Simone Kelly, the subject’s daughter, is co-executive producer.) Besides that, it’s as intense, riveting, distressing and, ultimately, heartrending as Simone was.

FWIW: The same words, in any order, could apply to the Amy Winehouse documentary, though the Simone film feels more urgent and timely. Either would be a worthy recipient – though I also wouldn’t mind if Joshua Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence took the Oscar as a kind of retroactive reward for its companion piece and immediate predecessor, The Act of Killing, which, to repeat, was THE film of 2013.

Best Foreign Language Film
Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent
France, Mustang
Hungary, Son of Saul
Jordan, Theeb
Denmark, A War

By a considerable distance, it’s the single most talked-about and all-but-unanimously praised film in this category. In past years, that still wasn’t enough to win. But the manner in which this Holocaust story keeps to the horrific conventions of its sub-genre while blowing them into unfamiliar shapes makes it hard to ignore, or dismiss.

FWIW: Among my favorite foreign films of 2015 was The Assassin; more thrilling than The Avengers and deeper than Room. I’m still OK with Son of Saul winning it all.

Best Original Score
Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies
Carter Burwell, Carol
Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario
John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Even people who hated Tarantino’s movie thought the score was its finest, most effective attribute. Plus, don’t you think Morricone deserves to have more than a lifetime-achievement Oscar while he’s still alive?

FWIW: Forgive me if I think a word or two needs to be said on Sicario’s behalf, and this is the place to do it since Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes much of the hard-driving, hairpin-turn qualities that made Lalo Schifrin a demigod at film scoring. (And BTW, where’s his lifetime-achievement Oscar?)

Best Original Song
“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey
“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction
“Simple Song #3,” Youth
‘Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground
“Writings on the Wall,” Spectre

The idea that a documentary could include a Best Song winner is, to me, a intriguing prospect. (Apparently, there have been four others from documentaries that have been nominated before this.) Also, her overshoot on the David Bowie Grammy tribute notwithstanding, Lady Gaga deserves the mic to once again dedicate an award to victims of campus rapes and their cover-ups.

FWIW: The only visual effect that would rival, if not eclipse that of Lady G’s triumphant podium walk, would be for The Weeknd’s hair to walk, or shimmy, away with the Oscar for “Earned It.”

My Own Private Top Ten of 2015

Here’s what I liked most about last year, period.  No added explanation necessary, though you’re going to get a LOT of it as we move along. So without further ado, in no particular order, etc…

Black “Black Comic” Novels

 

 

Sellout coverOreo I’m already on record declaring this to have been a banner year for African American writing, especially in this sub-genre. So I have only a few things to add: 1.) I wish I could have found a way to have included in my CNN piece God Loves Haiti, Dmitri Elias Leger’s cunning and deeply moving romantic roundelay set against the backdrop of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake though 2.) what I really wish for is a the chance to have met Fran Ross, author of Oreo, if only to reassure her, as others had before she died in 1985 at age 50, that she was neither alone nor wrong in her artistic foresight and socio-cultural insurgency. 3.) If Paul Beatty’s cheeky, incendiary and laugh-out-loud Sellout had gotten even half of the attention afforded Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, we’d all be a lot further along than we are now because 4.) these and many other novels, poems and memoirs are so far ahead of where everybody else is on race and culture, especially what used to be called “The Press,” that their authors don’t have the time or the patience to look behind them. It’s up to the rest of us to catch up…and I’m not feeling especially hopeful about those prospects as I write this, especially today.

Comic Book Superheroes on TV

 

 

MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES

MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES

 

 

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You could probably fashion some kind of algebraic formula out of this theory and make yourself quite obscure, in more ways than one: Something about the comic-book superhero genre diminishes whenever contemporary Hollywood seizes one of its properties and blows it up on for big screen while, on the other hand, the smaller the screen, the greater weight and dimension are allowed for these stories. It could just mean that there are better people writing for television than for movies; a thesis that may not need too complex an algorithm to prove. Whatever the reason, TV, with or without its water-based delivery systems (clouds, streams, etc.) has provided the only superhero “product” (I really need to slap myself stupid every time I use that word) with depth, breadth and, most especially, shadows. I’d previously thought the DC stable led the way by several lengths with Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and its latest sweet surprise, Supergirl. But with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, for all its on-the-fly tinkering, still seems as though it’s fumbling in its pockets for magic and momentum), the Marvel Universe caught up big-time by going urban-neo-noir on Netflix with both Daredevil and the remarkable Jessica Jones coming at you as if every Law and Order episode came down with a severe case of the DTs. (And yes, that is a MAJOR compliment!) The relative success of small-screen super-heroics evokes simpler times when the original TV Superman was charming and cheesy while the first TV Batman was campy and cheesy and both took themselves seriously without being too solemn. Maybe the Fantastic Four franchise, having whiffed in two multiplex-targeted incarnations, would be better off lowering its expectations and looking for a cloud, or stream, to carry it forward. Or not.

Carol

 

 

Rooney-Mara-Cate-Blanchett-Carol-Movie-Still

 

I suppose there was a small part of me that wished Todd Haynes had given in to his inner Douglas Sirk with as much abandon as he had in 2002’s Far From Heaven, his previous exploration of “forbidden love” in the 1950s. There were many critics, even those who otherwise praised this movie, who felt the same way. The more I think about it, however, the more I believe Haynes was correct in opting for a mood of smoldering insinuation and rectitude since those are qualities most associated with Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, from which the movie is adapted. She is a writer I will never love as much as I admire – and even then, from a shivery distance. If the movie leaves one cold, well, so did Highsmith. I’m not sure if anybody else could have done the material justice as well as or better than Haynes. Maybe the younger Kubrick since the movie at times evokes a colorized version of his 1962 take on Lolita; or, even better, the Alfred Hitchcock who made such gauzy dreams out of Vertigo or Marnie.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly (in the approximate, or relative context of Straight Outta Compton)

To Pimp a Butterfly

 

Straight Outta Compton

 

The overlap of Kendrick Lamar’s most variegated testament (thus far) with F. Gary Gray’s astonishingly successful biopic/infomercial about N.W.A. made one ponder how much things have changed, if at all, between “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model/To a kid lookin’ up at me/Life aint nothin’ but bitches and money” and “…[T]he world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you/But you think it’s all love/And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done.” The latter quote from Butterfly is, of course, more contemplative and lyrical than the more belligerent assertion of “the strength of street life” from the 1988 album that gives Gray’s movie its name (and, really, its reason to exist.) Yet both these statements, and the records they come from, are stalked, even haunted, by the vulnerability of black lives as framed within the seemingly impregnable “White Problem” in America. Their shared response, in so many words: This is who I am, mothafuckas!! Deal with it because you got to change before I do! Both Butterfly and Compton (the album) also share the imperative to sound like nothing else that came before them. And their respective makers have profited from that make-it-new impulse; though it’s clear from both the movie and the story it tells that N.W.A. has gotten over with its members’ sometimes harrowing practice of rugged individualism while Lamar’s still probing for something deeper and more messianic to carry himself and his listeners to a new, yet-to-be-defined phase of The Struggle. The real bridge between these two works is Lamar’s “Alright,” which stomps in with the “Gangsta Gangsta” swagger before morphing into an assertion of self-worth powerful enough to have made the song an anthem of the “Black Lives Matter” movement – and, potentially, of movements, or just “movement,” to come.

The Americans

 

 

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There were so many shattering revelations and shameful double-dealings in this series’ third, and best, season that one feels derelict in highlighting only one episode. But the season’s ninth episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” was one of the peaks of series television, not just of the year, but also of the century so far. Its main action takes place in a repair shop late at night where Elizabeth and Phil Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), Russia’s most stylish spy tandem, have taken a broken mail robot to dig out some needed Intel. An unexpected surprise materializes in the form of an elderly woman (the great Lois Smith) who was married to the shop’s original owner. She’s just as surprised to encounter the Jennings and her bewilderment gradually evolves to a weary acknowledgement that she will not survive the night. Her presumptive executioners share in the gnawing awfulness of the situation especially Elizabeth, who attempts to ease the woman’s impending fate with some intimate, reassuring conversation about family life and then with an excessive injection of drugs. It’s an interlude that makes the audience feel somewhat like intruders – and co-conspirators. Even in a golden age of cable television drama, no other series could pull off such an emotionally searing sequence. I can’t wait to see what the fourth season’s going to submit for our approval.

Blooming Again 

 

 

Bloom_County_2015-07-17

It took a while for me to cozy up to Bloom County in its original 1980s incarnation. At the time, it seemed as though Berkeley Breathed’s strip was trying too hard to conflate an assortment of influences from Peanuts to Pogo, from Lil’ Abner to Doonesbury (especially) without developing a clear identity of its own. I also thought the comedy was too schematic and not terribly interesting (i.e. aging frat boy Steve Dallas hurling brazenly sexist overtures to super hot feminist schoolteacher Bobbi Harlow. Quelle Topique!) By mid-decade, though, the strip established its own blend of down-home whimsy, magical realism and soft-boiled satire distinctive enough to win a steady, fervent following – and a Pulitzer Prize!

Of course, The Penguin had almost everything to do with it. Breathed knew this since Opus was, for a while, the only character who made it to two sequels following the strip’s closure in 1989. This past July, Breathed came out with a made-for-social-media revival of Bloom County with deeper shadows, broader effects and the same antic impulses. Smartass savant Milo Bloom and his irresolute, monster-haunted school chum Michael Binkley have barely aged beyond pre-adolescence while Steve Dallas is still a self-loathing dick and (thus) a Trump supporter. Binkley has fallen in unrequited love with an enchanting pint-sized yogi named Abby. Bill the Cat is still…Bill the Cat, only more so. And Opus is very much the sun around which the rest of the cast revolves, if not evolves. I didn’t know how much I missed having these guys in my life until I started catching up with them on Facebook. And when I say the shadows are deeper this time, I refer to a recent storyline involving a small boy with an apparently life-threatening illness to whose elaborate space-opera fantasies the Bloom County gang caters. Breathed says he has no intention of bring his troupe back to newspapers and I think it’s a wise move on his part.

 

 

 

 

Bloom County sick boy

 

 

 

I still wonder, though, whatever became of Ronald-Ann Smith from Breathed’s Outland sequel strip. Is she the same age as well? Or did she grow up to become a semiotics professor at a Midwest college? I’m in no hurry to find the answer. I’d rather invent my own.

 

 

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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution 

 

 

Black Panthers

 

My favorite documentary of the year may well be the most balanced, comprehensive and intensely felt history we’ll ever get of its oft-misunderstood topic. Director Stanley Nelson’s companion piece to his comparably thorough and illuminating Freedom Summer (2014) deftly weaves all the scattered, twisted fragments of Panther history from the group’s epoch-making, armed-to-the-teeth appearance at the California legislature (which resulted in then-governor Reagan signing the country’s first gun-control legislation) to its think-globally-act-locally agenda that both scared and thrilled the rest of America to its active harassment under the odious COINTELPRO scourge to its violent confrontations with police and the murder of Fred Hampton – who scared authorities, it’s clear here, more for having his political act together at a very young age than for any largely imaginary danger he posed to civilization. Nelson doesn’t shy away from the internal friction among the Panther hierarchy – and he’s taken some heat for doing so. But none of whatever happened between Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and others diminishes one’s abiding admiration for what this cadre tried to accomplish – or the persistence of what they challenged, against terrible odds, almost a half-century ago.

Kate McKinnon

 

 

When Kristen Wiig left Saturday Night Live in 2012, I almost did, too. She gave the show a jolt of danger reminiscent of John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and (yes, even) Adam Sandler. As these examples suggest, such bomb-throwers are rare and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come along that soon to provide a similar did-I-really-see-that buzz to the franchise. Then this ball-of-fire roars into 30 Rock’s fun house and once again, America’s on the edge of its seat wondering what this crazy person will do next. She had me, so to speak, at Justin Bieber. But her take on Hillary Clinton so thoroughly and scarily encompasses the aspects of Madame Secretary’s personality feared by millions that you feel your own worst imaginings being held at gunpoint. (And that they deserve to be, too.) Madame Secretary’s appearance on stage with her perversely avaricious doppelganger was one of the show’s highlights, as much for showing the real-life candidate’s impressive composure in not breaking character, or breaking-up during the routine; something that couldn’t be said for Ryan Gosling a couple shows later. Enjoy her while she’s there because, if past history is any guide, she’s going to get so huge that she’ll outgrow the fun house.

 

 

 

 

Philip Levine & James Tate

 

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James-Tate

 

 

 

Sunday’s New York Times reminded me that two of my favorite poets passed away during 2015. They seem utterly incompatible at a glance: Levine’s poems were engaged with the grit, heartbreak and elusive epiphanies of blue-collar life while Tate was a deadpan emperor of ice cream who revealed strangeness in familiar things while exalting familiarity in strangeness. Yet reading their poetry gave me frissons similar to the contact highs I used to get from seeing American and European movies more than forty years ago. As I emerged from the theaters of the 1970s, my immediate surroundings attained sharper definition and broader possibility. Good movies, great art and fine poetry induce such rapture and, with the latter especially, you are grateful for those bright flashes of grace and insight whether delivered by the cosmos or summoned from the sidewalk. You need both perspectives to function as a human being, otherwise what’s it all for? Don’t answer. Just listen to Levine working up the nerve to dive into a reverie by declaring: “I place my left hand, palm up before me/ and begin to count the little dry river beds/on the map of life” (“Blue and Blue” from 1994’s The Simple Truth). And dig Tate hard when in the title poem from his 1972 collection, Absences, he neatly sums up the autobiographical impulse: “A child plots his life to the end; and spends the rest of his days trying to remember the plot.” Whenever you lose a poet (or two), you gain renewed diligence to respect the things not readily seen, including all the poets who are still around to sharpen the landscape.