Entries Tagged 'movie reviews' ↓

Seymour Movies: How Batman Cartoons Are Better For You Than Batman Movies

 

 

 

The best thing about Joker, as far as I’m concerned, is that it makes Batman: The Killing Joke look far better in retrospect, if only because the latter animated feature from 2016 doesn’t try so hard to be anything other than a longer and more-risqué-than-usual Batman cartoon.

Given all the noise and clatter preceding and following Joker ‘s premiere, the controversy accompanying Killing Joke ‘s release three years ago sounds relatively quaint. It, too, presented a Joker origin story as first conceived by nonpareil comics writer Alan Moore in a 1988 graphic novel. As some of you may recall, the Joker was, as with the guy in the new movie, a struggling comedian. Only here, he’s got a pregnant wife and no prospects. So in desperate search for scratch, he agrees to aid and abet an attempted heist at a chemical plant only to be disfigured and, thus, deranged from falling into a huge vat of  toxic glop.

 

 

Which turned out to nowhere near as interesting as what happened in the same movie to Batgirl, who ends up shot and paralyzed for life by the Joker, but not before a separate subplot during which she and Batman…Oh boy, do I want to spoil it for you! (Maybe I already have.) But some shocks to the system are most productively sustained in direct encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, fan boys and fan girls of all ages were scandalized, screeching, “How dare you heartless pigs do all this to Barbara Gordon?” They were likely remembering all the good times they had back in the nineties when the original Batman animated series was humming along as (since I have the floor and whether anybody cares to argue with me or not) the finest iteration of these characters on ANY sized screen.

There were also many critics who wondered whether the world really needed an R-rated animated action feature. But even if Killing Joke’s animation wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, the film was about as pure a noir product as any black-and-white early 1950s thriller with Lisabeth Scott and/or Glenn Ford. The storytelling was lean and measured, the dialogue was crisp and juicy and the vocal work was superb, most especially by Mark Hamill, whose rasping and cackling as the Joker over three decades of Batman cartoons showed more engagement, invention and audacity than anything he’s done as a on-screen actor.

 

 

 

 

Better than Joaquin Phoenix? Yeah. Maybe. And so here we go…

 

 

Yes, Phoenix is brilliant in Joker, a bony wraith with hooded eyes and a heart so broken that its fragments seem to poke out of his spine. But it’s a lot of trouble to go to for a character we have no reason to connect with emotionally. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was no better, the movie’s defenders insist. But Robert De Niro’s Travis had just enough charm at the outset to at least make Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker agree to a date, even if that date was a fiasco. The movie gives neither Phoenix nor us any escape valve, any outlet for irony, wit or joy save for a few precious seconds when Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck joins an audience of entitled swells in laughing at Chapin’s blindfolded roller skating in Modern Times, a glimmer of footage evoking almost everything the movie either forgot or omitted.

Joker isn’t a movie so much as a giant boulder in the middle of Culture Gulch that’s too big to move or ignore. I suppose that’s why there’s been something about the Joker in every New York Times arts section over the last week and a half, at least. This morning’s paper had an article contending the Joker was a case study in thwarted white privilege. Sure. Fine. Whatever. Let’s by all means pump up the rhetoric about Joker being both metaphor and rallying cry for the dispossessed who would rather watch the world burn than engage in any rational effort to save it. The conceit lasts for as long as one forgets how yellow and frayed comic book pages can get over time and how fragile a vehicle they are, ultimately, for the most complex of societal dilemmas.

Still, there’s one aspect of Trump-ism I found in Joker that I haven’t yet found in any review or analysis, though it’s possible I may have missed it. The Gotham City depicted in the film looks most like a doppelganger for the New York City of the seventies with its graffiti-covered subway cars, its rampant street crime, its grimy, cluttered and combustible architecture. It has always struck me that at the core of so much of the president’s rhetoric and, for that matter, the Fox News Channel patter that both feeds and feeds off it is a perverse nostalgia for those Drop-Dead years of the Imperial City, when the hopes and dreams of reformers literally went up in smoke, white flight was at its peak and stigmatizing people-of-color for being the sole agents of their own desperate circumstances was used as fuel for a slow-building mad-as-hell conservative resurgence in the eighties. The Trumpeteers may not have dug the seventies — except for the way those years of squalor and decline made it so much easier for them to hate the sixties.

I realize that by bringing all this up that I’m adding to the same overestimation of Joker’s significance that I’m criticizing. My pallid excuse is that I’m only going along with the rest of the culture – and with the movie itself. I need to stop it here before it gets worse.

 

 

 

So I’m going to end this the way Killing Joke ends: with both Batman and Joker, mortal enemies and mirror images of each other’s obsessed, damaged souls, laughing together at the same dumb joke. It may not have the grandeur and oomph of Joker’s windup. But as with much else about that full-length Batman cartoon, it makes for a much more satisfying and logical conclusion – or do I mean punch line?

 

Seymour Movies Thinks Oscar Needs A Time Out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popular culture, show-biz, whatever you want to call it has been in a dank, sullen funk for at least the last 24 months and the only time it seems to feel better about things is when an Obama pops up unannounced at a party. It’s not unprecedented for one to appear at an Academy Awards show and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one Sunday night, maybe sitting quietly in a chair onstage while Clint Eastwood rasps incoherently. But if the lead-up to this year’s ceremonies is any indication, I’m not sure even an Obama will sweeten these sour spirits.

This has been an especially…what’s the word…eccentric awards season, beginning with the basics. One day, they have a host, then they don’t, then they can’t find a replacement and then they decide they’re not going to have a host at all. My two cents: The Academy could have barely done worse by giving David Letterman another shot. Given the mood he and for that matter everybody else is in these days, he’d have said, “Nah! The hell with it!” And we’re left with whatever’s in store for us. Be afraid. This edition didn’t have a host either.

It’s been constant: Only a few days ago, the Academy decided to hand out cinematography and editing awards during commercial breaks and then, after predictable and justified fury from its membership, hit the “Delete” button on that idea. This has led to handwringing from ABC network affiliates over running times on the east coast. My two cents: Deal with it, toddlers! The Oscars are not now, have never been and never will be an efficient or well-wrought broadcast. You want broadcast television efficiency? Download some Wheel of Fortune episodes. You’ll get twice the effusions and embarrassments in less than a third of the time.

Besides which, you may see some actual suspense on this year’s broadcast. Part of the wooliness coursing through awards season has come from the unusually wide swath of winners among the trade awards, BAFTA, the Golden Globes and various and sundry critics’ circles. With less than a week left before the swag is handed out, there may be one – and only one – major award that’s a sure thing in advance. The other sure thing going in is that this will be the year I get a lot more of these things wrong than right. Good. Maybe that means I get to concentrate on things I actually liked from 2018 – though there aren’t many of those on this list either.

As I say: Eccentric. At best. Let’s be real careful making our way through this together, shall we?

(As always, projected winners’ names are in bold and whenever appropriate, For Whatever Its Worth (FWIW) notes will be applied.)

 

Best Picture

BlacKkKlansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

So let’s get the weirdness started right away by predicting a win here for a story about a Mexican housekeeper, filmed in black-and-white,  produced and distributed by Netflix with English subtitles. In any other time and in any other era, pundits and voters would render all these factors as instant disqualifiers. Cineastes are especially aggrieved over the Netflix part. They argue that once the Academy has opened the door to let the streams in, it hastens the death of cinema, or at least the romance of moviemaking and movie-going; all for the sake of feeding high-end product to stay-at-homes and smart-phones. But O my brothers and sisters, all that you cherish about whatever golden age you choose to embrace began its slow death many moons before now. And it’s a little late in the day for all of us, no matter how we feel about the digital universe, to kvetch about Mammon’s pact with the Muses over the ultimate destiny of moving pictures.

What’s ironic about the purists’ complaints is that there are whole passages in Roma that remind you – or, at least, me – of why we fell in love with movies in the first place, whether you see it on the big or small screen. It’s not just the film’s deployment of light and shadow, its deep focus sequences or its period verisimilitude. It’s a movie that respects you enough to make you do the work of connecting the narrative and of letting its characters’ contradictions come to you.

But we now have generations of moviegoers who not only expect, but demand to have everything explained to them along the way. They think Roma is boring and there may be enough of these folks to shoo it away. Whether these generations dominate Academy voting or not, I sense that there’s something about Roma’s blend of the intimate and the sweeping that will be difficult to resist. To repeat: I’m flying blind here and I’m probably giving the Academy too much credit (which I never do). But Roma isn’t going to go down quietly, anywhere on this list.

FWIW: When the Screen Actors Guild gave its best movie ensemble award to Black Panther after the Producers Guild gave its top prize to Green Book, it was the first sign that this was not going to be an easy Oscars to handicap. Panther’s actors were all quite fine. But not even Wakanda’s most credulous fellow travelers would think of the movie primarily as an actors’ showcase. Meanwhile, various and sundry complaints have curbed Green Book’s apparent early lead. Two primary factors are in play with Best Picture winners, neither of which have anything much to do with whether the movie’s any damn good or not. The first is how the movie will raise or transform Hollywood’s business profile and the second is the best possible face Hollywood wants to wear on its collective visage. Panther’s stunning, transformative global success seems to gratify the first impulse while Green Book’s good intentions likely fulfills the second imperative. At this writing, I don’t think either will win, though a Panther coup would surprise me less here than a Green Book one. The others have wildly diverging odds and while either Bohemian Rhapsody or The Favourite has enough weight-to-power ratio to plausibly leap over everything else, Black KkKlansman is the real wild card here, in more ways than one.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Adam McKay (Vice)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

The Directors Guild of America has already anointed Cuaron, who’s won one of these before. The others haven’t and of those four, Lee and Lanthimos have the best chance of taking it from him. Hollywood has been waiting for a chance to let Spike have it, so to speak, and this could be his best chance. I still think it’s Cuaron’s to lose.

FWIW: In this year more than any other I can remember, you could make the case for several people to fill Adam McKay’s spot on this ticket; beginning foremost with Bradley Cooper, whose first-at-bat with A Star is Born was far more impressive overall than Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning directorial debut – and his Dances With Wolves beat out Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (fer cryin’ out loud). Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk may not have been the stunner that Moonlight was. But he too deserved consideration. And if Hollywood were as serious as it claims to be about raising women’s professional stature in non-acting categories, then it’s blown a great opportunity by omitting or ignoring Marelle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) and Tamara Jenkins (Private Life).  Just so you know, I’ve nothing in particular against Adam McKay or with political cartoons, of which Vice for all its investigatory fervor was an especially overinflated example.

 

 

 

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

On the face of it, this appears to be a cut-and-dried example of Oscar finally granting a perennial also-ran her long-overdue reward. And that knockout acceptance speech Close gave at the Golden Globes drew enough tears and cheers to seal the deal way in advance. Those who haven’t seen her movie would likely wonder whether she’s as much of a shoo-in as others believe. I say to them: Never underestimate the power of a DVD screener to push a performer over the moon with Academy voters. The Wife is one such movie and the wire-to-wire intensity and masterly control of Close’s performance is such that even a “career” Oscar given this time around would hardly be a gratuity for services rendered. Oscar doesn’t often go for subtlety and intelligence. This time, it should.

FWIW: Still, everybody loves them some Olivia Colman as dowdy, dotty Queen Anne, even the ones who’ll vote for Close anyway. Some think Lady G’s sparkly Grammy turn is enough to make her a front-runner again, but I don’t.

 

 

 

Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Of all the stories of this weird season, perhaps the most mystifying is how A Star Is Born broke fast out of the gate last fall only to begin slow-fading by New Year’s Day. The counter-narrative to that story is how a Freddie Mercury biopic, though arriving in the national multiplex dragging controversy and advance barbs, somehow seduced so many viewers into embracing it as a kind of anti-Star Is Born. Not all of its elements have withstood closer scrutiny, but Malek dominates Bohemian Rhapsody by grandly evoking so much of Mercury’s flamboyance, audacity and pathos. To indulge once more in second-guessing the Academy voting demographic, the Gen-X contingent of 30-to-40-somethings may feel a personal investment in honoring a hero-martyr of their youth. It certainly got him the love from SAG, BAFTA and the Globes and there’s little-to-no-evidence that he wont get it here.

FWIW: I’ll be brief: Ethan Hawke gave the single best movie performance last year in First Reformed as a Presbyterian minister in deep spiritual conflict. I might also have given Denzel another shot at this one for single-handedly raising Equalizer 2 above its action-genre conventions. But that’s (literally) just me.

 

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams (Vice)
Marina de Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Hollywood’s already shown its affection for King with a couple of Emmys and as she provides much of the gravitas and whatever hope one can find in Beale Street, she seems pre-fit for this one.

FWIW: Weisz has the edge over Stone among Favourite’s muck-rasslin’ ladies-in-waiting. But she already has one of these and only King’s absence from this slate would have guaranteed another.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Even with sentiment in the air for the redoubtable, always reliable Elliot, it’s going to come down to either Ali or Grant. With Ali turning in incredible work on this season’s run of HBO’s True Detective, my initial instinct was to think back to the probable boost Matthew McConaughey‘s career-defining Detective performance four years ago gave his Best Actor chances that same season. But Grant is especially beloved in Hollywood for, among other things, turning his life around from being the kind of dissolute character he plays in this movie and my hunch is that this may be enough to nip Ali at the finish line. Plus, as with Weisz, Ali already has one of these.

Best Original Screenplay
The Favourite (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Green Book (Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
Vice (Adam McKay)

With the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) winner, Eighth Grade, not in the running, this seems as wide-open as any category on the board. My choice would be Schrader. But when in doubt go for the one with the bitchier lines and the more opulent costumes.

Best Adapted Screenplay
A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters and Eric Roth)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty)

Either BlacKkKlansman or Beale Street could get the customary consolation prize this award has traditionally represented. For now, I’m playing it safe by siding with the WGA. Besides which, it’s a terrific script.

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

This one’s tough; one of those “Do you vote your fears or your hopes?” dilemmas for voters. Minding the Gap is one of the more ruthlessly candid chronicles of families, cultures and dreams under siege in the American rust belt. As great as the movie is, voters may not be in the mood to reward its devastating timeliness. On the other hand, I can easily see them cheering on Alex Honnold’s death-defying clamber up a steep rock face. It’s a feel-good, guilt-free and well-made documentary whose only other competition here celebrates the tiny, unstoppable force of nature holding up her end of the Supreme Court.

FWIW: If write-ins were permitted, “Wont You Be My Neighbor?” could have Wendell Willkie-ed its way to the winner’s circle here. Its omission remains one of the myriad perplexities of this peculiar season.

 

 

 

 

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

This is often the easiest call to make and so it is for this year. But usually it’s a Pixar film that’s the clear favorite and this time, it’s the most “meta” artistic achievement of any movie in any category.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

An especially strong field this year and it’s possible that any of them could stem the Roma tide. I doubt it, though.

Best Cinematography
The Favourite (Robbie Ryan)
Never Look Away (Caleb Deschanel)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
A Star Is Born (Matty Libatique)
Cold War (Lukasz Zal)

This is the sixth nomination for Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Natural, Fly Away Home, etc.) and I would be in a very good mood if his work on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterly epic finally put him over the top. His visual design is almost as breathtaking as Cuaron’s and I think it’s going to be a close call.

Best Original Score
Black Panther (Ludwig Goransson)
BlacKkKlansman (Terence Blanchard)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
Isle of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat)
Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman)

I’m giving in to personal bias just this once. But I also have a gut feeling that Hollywood’s musical community respects Blanchard’s work over the last couple decades enough to make his first-ever nomination a first-time win.

FWIW: If my gut is messing with me (wouldn’t be the first time, wont be the last), Goransson will take it home.

Best Original Song
“All the Stars” (Black Panther, written by Kendrick Lamar, Al Shux, Sounwave, SZA and Anthony Tiffith)
Performed by Kendrick Lamar and SZA
“I’ll Fight” (RBG, written by Diane Warren)
Performed by Jennifer Hudson
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman)
Performed by Emily Blunt
“Shallow” (A Star Is Born, written by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt)
Performed by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, written by Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch)
Performed by Tim Blake Nelson and Willie Watson

Mostly because I still find it hard to believe that this movie could get totally skunked by Oscar, though the idea of Kendrick Lamar getting one of these things to go along with his Pulitzer appeals mightily to the Imp Within.

My Own Private Top-Ten of 2018: The Paradigms Do Shift

2018 was, as I’ve recently written elsewhere, a year of boundary-busting black achievement in the arts and  much of what follows below will re-emphasize this point. But it was also a year when you needed black storytellers to step up, lean in and heave grenades at whatever retro-reactionary politics are throwing their weight around the country.

And you also needed these stories to reinforce something you wont hear on Meet the Press or anywhere else on daytime TV: whatever the “alt-right” or its enablers believe they’re trying to defeat has already triumphed. We have become, in pop-cultural terms, so diverse, multi-ethnic and blended together that even using the “multicultural” term so despised by Fox News and its minions is redundant and likely no longer the point. I’m aware that stuff keeps happening to innocent, unarmed people-of-color that mitigates this impact. But whether anybody in positions of power cares to acknowledge it or not, the “culture wars” they’ve been fretting about since at least before the century started have been all but won – and those of us on the winning side should start acting like it no matter what the legacy news organizations say.

It’ll take more time for this news to sink in – and part of acknowledging victory is accepting the fact that there will always be a hard, prickly core of humanity that will never accept the results. But what James Baldwin published sixty-five years ago is truer now – and, for many, harder to accept: “The world is white no longer and it will never be white again.”

My totally subjective, utterly random list of whatever moved or grooved me in 2018 is not totally white or black or pink or yellow. I’m not sure where on the prism it is and I like it that way. As usual – and I cannot stress this enough – these are all in no particular order:

 

 

 

Killing Eve – The wiggiest British TV spy series since a fat white blob immobilized Patrick McGoohan a half-century ago was also the year’s most irresistible dish of nuts: eat one and all the rest are instant history. Nutty is the ideal word to characterize this continent-spanning cat-and-mouse game between a frowsy, doggedly inquisitive MI-5 analyst (Sandra Oh) and a button-cute sociopath (Jodie Comer) who can’t help showing off when she’s murdering people in secret. The story, awash in sultry inference and disorienting menace, carries more double- and triple-crosses per episode than a John Le Carré novel. And creator-producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s variations on Luke Jennings’ “Villanelle” series of short-form thrillers are jolting and darkly witty enough to make you feel throughout as though you’re watching Patricia Highsmith convulse on laughing gas. Among the show’s myriad satisfactions is seeing Oh thrive in the deep-dish central role her brilliant career has merited and in beholding the relatively lesser-known Comer, a hoot-and-a-half as an angel-of-death who is as good at her work as she is poignantly flawed. We await a second season with these damaged souls wondering how they and their respective handlers, enablers and hangers-on can possibly continue, much less surpass, the craziness they – and we – have already undergone.

 

 

 

Lorraine Hansbury: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart – The year was so crowded with turmoil and exasperation on a day-to-day basis that it was easy to forget that Tracy Heather Strain’s illuminating documentary had aired way back in January on PBS’s American Masters series. Remembering it now renews one’s profound gratitude for not only restoring the author of A Raisin in the Sun to contemporary consciousness, but in bringing forth the complete person in all her complexities, contradictions and, above all, courage, whether in living out her precociously uncompromising radical politics, confronting Bobby Kennedy over his brother’s foot-drag on civil rights and coping with love and life as a closeted lesbian. It felt bracing and, above all, timely to have her back among us, even if her most significant work of art never went away.

 

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – If you abhor comic-book movies, I’m not going to judge, or dismiss your qualms about seeing this one. As much as I loved Marvel Comics in my protracted adolescence, I now find in the whole superhero movie corpus a distressingly anti-democratic strain that implicitly encourages its devotees to abandon their individual agency and submit to those with greater, higher powers. (It remains my principal misgiving towards Black Panther and the accompanying “Wakanda Forever” phenomenon, however much I enjoyed the movie and endorsed its salutary impact on global movie markets.) But the giddily “meta” nature of this iteration of the web-slinging wonder both opens up the genre to fresh appreciation and brings its inflated pretenses and aspirations for personal transcendence to something resembling ground-level; actually more like street-level in the case of Miles Morales, brown-skinned schoolboy prodigy resisting the isolation of his nascent genius as he finds himself bitten by the same radioactive spider that juiced Peter Parker’s metabolism to near-invincibility. The Peter Parker in Miles’ world has been killed, but a tear in the cosmos caused by…oh, never mind…results in a riot of multiverses from which a handful of other similarly bitten boys, girls, men, women and even cartoon pigs spill into Miles’ Brooklyn all capable of walking on walls, shooting out web fluid and pounding evildoers three times their respective sizes. The narrative is persistently clever and the animation is surprisingly evocative. Which brings me to another of my biases towards comic-book movies: that a pair of feature-length animated Batman movies are far better realized than all their live-action counterparts and that no Superman movie, not even those with the late, lamented Christopher Reeve resides as deeply in my devotion as the Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s. The lesson being that maybe, just maybe, the best comic book movies are those that look most like a damn comic book.

 

 

 

 

 

Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce – Don’t get me wrong. I’m as charmed by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season as I was with its predecessor. And yet, as was the case last year, the show’s sheer momentum threatens to exhaust me before I’m halfway through its run. It seems to start from a point way above my head and just keeps rocketing skyward on hyper-thrusts of spritz. More often than not, I kept wondering whether Rachel Brosnahan walks that fast in real life and if so, how much carbo-loading does it take for her to get through an average day. It’s only when Luke Kirby’s Lenny Bruce materializes from the shadows that Mrs. Maisel takes a knee, along with a deep breath, to retrieve its bearings. At first Kirby’s dead-solid rendering of Bruce’s mannerisms, vocal tics and stage swagger seemed little more than a plot device, a sharkskin Jiminy Cricket, or Obi-Wan Kenobi in thin lapels popping up to remind Midge of Her One True Way. This season, there was something more haunting and maybe a shade more ominous in Lenny’s once-insouciant temperament; faint traces, even as far back as 1960, of blue meanies closing in on his incendiary shtick. Back then, as some of us are old enough to remember, the straights went after Lenny for speaking the unspeakable. It’s a good thing we’ve evolved to the free-and-open cultural dialogue of our own time, isn’t it? That little qualifier at the end should make watching Kirby’s Lenny an even more unsettling interlude to the wacky-pack chronicles of Miriam Maisel’s midcentury coming-of-age.

 

 

 

 

Brian Tyree Henry as Everyman I’m not alone in believing that the second “robbin’” season of Donald Glover’s masterly Atlanta saw the ascension of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles to the series’ center stage. As the eternally grumpy, enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle rap-star-in-the-making, Brian Tyree Henry himself became a rising star as he made his working-class-stoner persona bend and react to the narrative’s quasi-surrealist tropes and to the increasingly dubious rewards of Paper Boi’s cult stardom. Henry’s own presence has, like Al’s, been spreading throughout the cultural mainstream from a vocal role in the aforementioned Spider-Verse to a Tony-nominated performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero to a wide range of movie roles, including the political kingpin in Widows and an ex-convict in If Beale Street Could Talk. Though he isn’t in the latter movie for very long, Henry’s presence during a sad, tense conversation with the movie’s star-crossed lovers (Stephan James and KiKi Layne) crystalizes the legal system’s devastation upon black men’s lives and the oblivion that swallows their dreams. At that moment, Beale Street becomes something larger and more all encompassing than even the intense love story at its core and Brian Tyree Henry is transformed into every friend we ever had whose life was unjustly ruined by casual systemic racism.

 

 

 

The Sisters Brothers – The year’s most talked-about western movie was the Coen Brothers’ cheeky, rusty-dusty Netflix pastiche The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I liked it, too (most of it anyway). But I very much preferred Jacques Audiard’s statelier, more traditionally mounted genre piece that was unfairly gunned down in cold blood at the box office. It was in its way as quirky as the Coens’ mash-up, but its satisfactions were deeper, more redolent of what those of us who grew up with westerns (like, say, me and Audiard) remembered best; their measured pacing, ritualized stoicism and gritty characters. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the eponymous outlaw brothers offered familiar personality contrasts with Phoenix, not surprisingly, throwing off wayward sparks and Reilly, maybe more surprisingly, evoking enough gravitas to carry the movie’s moral core. That some critics dismissed the story’s rambling manner said less about the movie’s shortcomings than the collective amnesia of contemporary audiences towards the kind of discursive storytelling that moviegoers took for granted in the days when Ford, Hawks, Mann, Boetticher and Peckinpah rode directors’ chairs on desert sound stages.

 

 

Heads of the Colored People – Among the auspicious debut story collections published in 2018 by African American writers, this one remains my favorite for the stealthy wit and acerbic observation sustained in a variety of settings. “Belles Lettres,” for instance, is presented in the form of increasingly snarky notes planted by black “bourgie” moms in their daughters’ backpacks. The title story is a darkly comic and ultimately tragic tale of an encounter outside a comic book convention between a “cos”-wearing fan and a street entrepreneur. Then there’s the inventive and similarly harrowing/funny “Suicide, Watch” [sic] in which a young woman uses social media to determine how, or if, she should do away with herself. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a talent large enough to propel her towards a novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does. An honest-to-goodness African American variation on Catcher in the Rye? It’s certainly within her grasp, but I dunno: I really like what she does within the tighter corners of the short story

 

 

Equalizer 2 – What throws you a little when watching Antoine Fuqua’s pared-to-the-bone franchise sequel isn’t how much Denzel Washington has aged. (His character is called “Pops” by one of the preppie predators he’s about to break into several gratifying pieces.) It’s how beautiful he remains to watch in stillness, even though his eyes at times betray a compound of world-weariness and cumulative horror over what his sixty-something vigilante-bibliophile has witnessed in a gloomy, bloody life. Washington has achieved more than a veteran’s smooth grace in front of the cameras. He’s made watchfulness into a movie star trademark and is carrying this stripped-down persona into what promises to be a golden age of elder statesman roles, only without the implied stiffness and solemnity. Artist-craftsmen who casually wear their gifts are easily taken for granted; a mistake that has not and should never be made in Denzel Washington’s case.

 

 

Random Acts of Flyness — “RACE IS A SYNONYM FOR WHITE SUPREMACY” is one of the flash cards whizzing by in the fifth and penultimate episode of this HBO series which along with
Sorry To Bother You was the year’s most emphatic and adventurous expression of black-bohemian-futurist consciousness. I’ve already had my say about Boots Riley’s impudent phantasm of a feature film. But I’m still sorting through my reactions to Terence Nance’s mash-up of sketch comedy, animated shorts, ideological infomercial and time-warped romance. It’s been called “Key & Peele on Acid” and “Monty Python for Woke People,” though I think the whole notion of “woke”-ness is among the many present-day rhetorical motifs Nance and his collective of artists, actors and insurgents are interrogating. In that same episode (to my mind the best and most intensely realized), the “woke” concept is countered with the idea that sometimes sleep may be good for you and I’m still not sure, after many weeks of “sleeping” on this show that it’s being in any way sarcastic; it even implies that sleep, or at least, rest (e.g. contemplation) isn’t an evasion or a denial of “woke”-ness, but a means of protecting one’s own autonomy over one’s – whadyacall? – soul? If that drive-by notion can plunge the unwary into a deep, broad pool of thought, you can imagine how the myriad content of the other five episodes seeps into your head; “imagining “being both the method and the meaning behind Flyness – which has been given at least another season to snap at your comfort levels.

 

 

 

 

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965-2016 – It has all come down, or risen up to this: The largest, most expansive exhibit the Museum of Modern Art has ever staged for a living artist. For the first half of 2018, MoMa’s whole sixth floor was occupied with drawings, photographs, videos, cards, signage and whole rooms of Piper’s variegated output over six decades as performance artist, minimalist, creator of “happenings” and insurgent Kantian philosopher. The sheer heft and breadth of her oeuvre  taunt anyone’s efforts to express its essence, but Thomas Chatterton Williams, in an New York Times Magazine article as illuminating and frustratingly complex as his subject, came as close as anybody could when he wrote that Piper “has been quietly conducting, from that vexed and ever-expanding blot on the American fabric where white and black bleed into each other, one of the smartest, funniest and most profound interrogations of the racial madness that governs and stifles our national life that I had ever encountered.” Whether it’s a “humming room” whose guards encourage everybody entering it to hum a melody, any melody; or the mercurial self-portraits that play approach-avoidance games with her African American heritage; the “space-time-infinity” pieces tearing and nibbling at the perceptions of useable space on a geometric plane; the famous, or infamous calling cards that tweak unsuspecting strangers for casual or unwitting racism and sexism…All of it breathtaking, intimidating and provocative at once. Piper now lives a near-monastic existence in Germany and has, as of four years before, “retired” from being black, issuing this announcement in yet another irony-infused self-portrait in which she darkened her pale brown skin. All this and she can still dance her ass off. I remember wandering from the exhibit dazed, bemused and utterly refreshed. (Two words flashed in my frontal lobes: Trickster Goddess.) The last century didn’t quite know what to make of her. Maybe this one will..

 

 

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.

 

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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?

 

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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?

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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 who, as Mama Doc Rainbow, 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.

 

 

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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

 

oj_made_in_america_screenshot_h_2016

 

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 Ava 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

1_2016_KerryJM_Untitled_studio

 

 

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

 

 

PEOPLE-VS-OJ-SIMPSON-BEST-PERFORMANCES-list

 

 

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.

 

 

 

weiner-ifc-films

 

 

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

 

daughters of the dust

 

 

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.

 

HELL-OR-HIGH-WATER-4-1200x899

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

rip-curtis-hanson

 

 

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

 

curtis-hanson-eminem

 

 

 

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.