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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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— 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.
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 – 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?
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.
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Curtis Hanson, who died September 20 at age 71, was a decent man who made good and, quite often, better than good movies. It’s the sort of epitaph we’d pay several mortgages to own. Somehow it doesn’t say enough to compensate for a passing bereaving those of us who went to a movie theater in search of something more than distraction or anesthesia.
Carrie Rickey reminded me this morning of something Hanson once said about his own work: “I prefer stories of people who are, in a sense, trying to find better versions of themselves.” Hanson placed these personal quests front-and-center of his best work. Even with 1997’s L.A. Confidential’s pervasive squalor, layered betrayal and indiscriminate brutality competing for attention, you never wander far from the slow, painful education of dim, volatile LAPD detective Bud White (Russell Crowe’s star-making performance). You don’t share Hanson’s keen sympathy for him at the start, but before the end, you’re with them both.
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).
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.
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.
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Soon, almost a month will have gone by since Miles Ahead was released and I’m still wondering whether it was worth making a movie that conceives of Miles Davis as a hip-limping, gun-toting, coke-snorting, jump-suit-wearing, jheri-curled amalgam of Han Solo and John Shaft.
Part of me wishes this summed up my complicated feelings about Don Cheadle’s dream (in more ways than one) project because I’m aware that what I just wrote seems to embed me among the jazz-snob coterie weighing in with sundry, often incendiary objections. Within that coterie, however, I lean towards those balancing our misgivings with resignation over what it takes these days to make, and sell, a movie. And with resignation comes qualified gratitude that Miles Ahead is somehow still making its way through the entertainment-industrial complex with so-far-not-catastrophic box-office returns and a mostly positive critical reception.
I mean, it’s not as if I could imagine, or even wanted an actual bio-pic with all the decorous solemnity and self-defeating finicky-ness too often accompanying the genre. (Even when such movies are careful with the facts, they still somehow ring false, which means John Ford’s often-regurgitated advice about “printing the legend” is more pragmatic than anything else.) To the extent that Cheadle’s near-hallucinatory pastiche of Davis’ self-imposed exile from the outside world during the late 1970s departs from this dubious norm, I think the movie is an intriguing heave into the cosmos. Too often, however, the blurriness seems less aesthetic calculation than technical difficulties. Some of the interior scenes are cluttered and awkwardly staged. Plus there’s an overall problem with “flow,” which I’m not using as rappers do, but with respect to transitions between scenes, whether flashbacks or in the movie’s present day. Cheadle, assuming he gets another shot at directing a feature (and I think he should), should acquire greater facility with this craft. But for now, as a filmmaker, he’s a hell of an actor – which, as you’ve heard, he proves throughout Miles Ahead.
The greatness of Cheadle’s performance isn’t just in the way he successfully appropriates Davis’ raspy voice, glowering intensity and physical tics. All those things, however impressive, isn’t acting so much as impressionism — which in a movie that leans heavily on impressions would blend with, if not thicken the surrounding goo. It’s Cheadle’s all-or-nothing engagement with Davis’ interior struggles that both evokes and epitomizes the intimacy of Davis’ art – and the abiding faith we kept in Miles through all his transitions and phases. It’s a performance that is most electrifying at those moments when Cheadle’s Miles is either in repose or contemplation; when he isn’t talking or looking at anything except his horn, which at times seems as unfamiliar or as vaguely threatening to him as the future. The tenderness and vulnerability Cheadle summons in his portrayal doesn’t surprise the already indoctrinated. But they are as immersed in its evocation as those whose first encounter with this mercurial personality may inspire them to probe the real deal’s recorded output.
Certainly, it’s a greater inducement than the woozy exhortation delivered by Dave Braden (Ewan MacGregor), the dissolute Rolling Stone “journalist” apparently coaxed into existence by studio executives who believed even the central presence of a black musical genius couldn’t guarantee a motion picture being made, much less distributed, without a White Guy to ride shotgun. “You got laid to this man’s music,” Braden scolds a bleary-eyed student drug dealer, “and you don’t even know who he is!” It’s not the first time a finished movie entered the marketplace still selling its premise. But it doesn’t make this boosting any less obnoxious.
MacGregor, to his credit, makes the best out of his otherwise thankless task. But his character is by no means the movie’s biggest problem. That comes during a physical altercation between Miles and his wife Francis Taylor (the stunning Emayatzy Corinealdi) that, as depicted in the movie, seems to have happened because Taylor goaded Davis into throwing the first punch. Whether this is what happened or not, I’m disquieted by the scene’s implication that Davis’ widely authenticated serial abuse of the women in his life was a.) brought upon themselves and b.) a relative anomaly in his behavior. That Miles Davis’ smoldering rage could often explode into violence against women is one of the many difficulties those of us who cherish his art struggle to acknowledge, if not accept. (Cognitive dissonance, folks: never easy and rarely pretty.) Since Cheadle did far more work than I did to realize the vision, I’m going to assume he knows this and, thus, knows what he’s doing here. It still chews at me.
I suppose, though, that part of what makes this Miles Ahead a conspicuous product of its subject’s legacy is the way it leaves you at the end: With more questions and implications to sort through than hard resolutions. It’s how Davis left things when he left the planet. It’s how so many of the albums he recorded from the mid-1960s to the bitter end lost listeners who couldn’t keep up with his own inquiries into form and function.
And with all my qualms about the movie, I can also say that the best thing it did for me once it was over was send me back to my bulging Miles Davis shelf; not to absorb myself yet again in Kind of Blue, Round About Midnight, Nefertiti or even Bitches Brew, but in the extended electronic performances from the early 1970s that, in toto, left me somewhat bewildered, even aggrieved over what I thought was overindulgence and even sloth on Davis’ part. Having re-acquainted myself with the vagaries of Dark Magus, Pangaea and Agharta, I now recognize many aspects to the amplified riffs and tempo flexing that given a present-day cutting edge patrolled by the likes of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar (with whom Miles, if he were still alive, aware and active today, would love to forge new sonic provocations) sound more prophetic than meandering. I should have known that somehow, someway, Miles Davis will always find a way of messing with your mind, calling bullshit on your home-made conventional wisdom. I may even change my mind about the movie someday. But not for a good while.
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The governors and voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should go into the streets, suburbs and strip malls of our great nation and thank every single angry black person they see. Start by going to the Smith family manse and apply a big, long, warm hug to Jada Pinkett Smith — and her husband, too, but only if he really needs one. Give Spike Lee another lifetime achievement award for something, anything else. And keep paying it forward, fulsomely and individually, from sea to shining sea.
Because if it hadn’t been for the #OscarSoWhite movement and all the attendant debate, acrimony and controversy it aroused among movie people all over the world, hardly anybody would give a bacon-wrapped, caramel-covered you-know-what about this year’s show.
Begin with the fact that ALL of this year’s top acting awards have been foregone conclusions for weeks. So barring the utterly, inexplicably unimaginable upset, (in other words, don’t count on it), there’s almost zero suspense accompanying the awards going out to the most recognizable people.
Some uncertainty clings to Best Picture, I guess. But that won’t be decided until the bitter end, at which point Chris Rock will (one hopes and trusts) have kept you engaged and amused with his strafing every glitzy square inch of pomposity and Caucasian self-importance within his reach.
And it wont matter whether he’s the only person-of-color who shows up because, as I’ve said since the boycott was announced, there’s little hope in changing things by absenting yourself from a frame from which your overall absence (or relative lack of presence) is already taken for granted. That’s as clear as I can or need to be on THAT topic. Except, I guess, for this.
Let’s do this thing we do because we know you care – and we still can’t understand why. As in past installments, projected winners are in bold and there’s a “For Whatever It’s Worth” (FWIW) ancillary graph tacked onto each category listed.
Best Picture The Big Short Bridge of Spies Brooklyn Mad Max: Fury Road The Martian The Revenant Room Spotlight
Revenant is heavily immersive, grandiosely “wow” moviemaking. Then again, this description more or less applies to at least two, maybe three other movies on this list, especially Fury Road, which many believed had the early lead. Big Short may still pull a Crash-like upset. And then there’s Spotlight, which in any other year would have been the public-spirited work collecting Oscars in the double figures. I’m betting on the One With The Big Bear.
FWIW: My own favorites from this list were Spotlight,Fury Road, The Martian and Bridge of Spies, whose U2 takedown scene was, outside of Leo & The Big Bear, the best set piece available in this crowd. (They’re kinda sorta alike if you think too much about it. So let’s not.) If a younger director put that aerial sequence together with the same blend of meticulousness and brio, she’d be hailed as a harbinger of greater things to come for the movie industry. Because it’s Spielberg, it was more like: Is that all you got for us? (At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.)
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Go look it up. I did. The only two directors ever to win back-to-back Oscars were Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve) and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley). Mank…Pappy…Iñárritu? It makes a kind of karmic sense: Birdman was a high-fallutin backstage soap in the All About Eve manner, only with dorkier phantasmagorical subtexts. And it’s plausible that if Ford were around today, a frontier epic such as Revenant would have been in his wheelhouse – presuming said wheelhouse was drained of Ford’s patented Irish-whiskey sentimentality. As for what I think of Iñárritu’s work…I think the category, “Less Than Meets the Eye,” that the late Andrew Sarris included in his groundbreaking auteurist survey, The American Cinema, was made for somebody like him. (Then again, to his everlasting credit, Andy wasn’t afraid to change his mind about any of his rankings along the way.)
FWIW: Ridley Scott’s omission must have been a really close call, though it’s hard to decide who would have had to go from this group to put him there. As relatively unassuming as McCarthy’s work on Spotlight appears, his seamless control of volatile material is a lot harder than it looks. The Big Short seems the only outlier in the band, if only because it’s both a muckraking j’accuse and a quirky docu-comedy. Given that this is a presidential election year, Short is also timelier than any of the nominated films and, for a time, that attribute seemed enough to vault McKay to a win. Time, so to speak, flies.
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Going all the way back to This Boy’s Life and The Basketball Diaries, I can think of at least two DiCaprio performances more Oscar-worthy than this one. But, when going all the way back, I also remember that in those days he was considered more of an “actor” than a “movie star.” And when a movie star is seen at a certain point in his career putting himself through as much shit as Leo conspicuously does here, the convergence of forces is too powerful to ignore. In other words, it’s time to let him have it…
FWIW: …because, while I still think Cranston is in the conversation as Our Best Actor, his Dalton Trumbo was ham left in the oven a tad too long. Damon will Get His some other time as will Fassbender, who may have actually been the Best In Show here.
Cate Blanchett, Carol Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
It’s a given at this point. And it’s cool. She invests so much into this dark, slender story that her presence assumes total command of the enterprise. (Plus she looks exactly the way readers of the novel imagined.)
FWIW: Had Charlotte Rampling measured her words more carefully before weighing in on the minority/Academy set-to, there might have been some echo-chamber chatter about her illustrious career getting a much-deserved party favor. Thing is, she’s actually pretty excellent in this movie and it would have been altogether appropriate to give her the gold this time. It’s just…that is…well…you probably intended to say it differently, but…how to put this? Do you actually know any black Americans personally, madame?
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies Sylvester Stallone, Creed
I’m aware I said there’ll be no suspense at all with the acting awards. But I suppose there’s some suspense over whatever bleary thing will pop into Stallone’s head during his acceptance speech and whether he once again thanks the William Morris Agency twice while altogether forgetting to thank the black director and cast members of what some would-be-wit-iots insist on calling Rocky VII. The very least he can do is remind America – and maybe himself – that his “imaginary friend” Rocky Balboa would have never existed without Muhammad Ali as an inspiration. Google “Bayonne Bleeder” if you don’t know what I mean. On second thought, we’ll save you the trouble.
FWIW: Rylance’s is the one great performance in this bunch and the most significant MIA here is, of course, SAG winner Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering whether Tom Hardy is our new Brando or our new Lee Marvin. Either option would work out just fine. M Squad: The Movie? I’m so there…
Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
She’s really good, folks. And she’s had one of the best overall years of anybody on this docket. As much as she outclassed her co-star here, this picture, in some ways, was the least of it. In Ex Machina, she was the most alluringly scary of living dolls. She was also dryly funny beneath the dazzling threads she wears in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
FWIW: Still…Winslet was great in one of those never-saw-it-coming turns that, in many ways, was better than the one for which she won the lead-actress Oscar. (And remind me. Which one was that?) But I’m really rooting for JJL, who made the best out of one of the most thankless roles in motion picture history.
Best Adapted Screenplay The Big Short Brooklyn Carol The Martian Room
Classy source material and an austere, near-classical design. What more could anybody ask for?
FWIW: Then again, Carol was pretty austere, too, which some people, though I’m not one of them, believed was its biggest problem. I’d be happier, though, if Big Short’s brasher tactics were rewarded here, if nowhere else.
Best Original Screenplay Bridge of Spies, Ex Machina Inside Out Spotlight Straight Outta Compton
A really good list here and I’m sure I’m not the only lapsed newspaperman who roots for this one, no matter where it’s nominated.
FWIW: We may well be running out of opportunities to give one of these to a Pixar movie and my inner cartoonist secretly pulls for the one with the Ugly Imaginary Friend. Yet I’m all but positive it’s a shoo-in for…
Best Animated Feature Film Anomalisa Boy and the World Inside/Out Shaun the Sheep Movie When Marnie Was There
Centuries from now, assuming the smarter rats and bugs take up history, cinema studies and Freud as hobbies, the Disney-Pixar corpus will be pored over as keys to how civilization at the Second Millennium engaged with and critiqued its own imaginative autonomy. Inside/Out will be as crucial to this retrospective effort as all twelve films of the Toy Story saga. (I know, but give them time because you know that’s what The Mouse is ultimately after…)
FWIW: Sing along with me, everybody: “He’s Shaun the Sheep! / He’s Shaun the Sheep!/ He Even Mucks About With Those Who Cannot Bleat/Keep it in Mind/He’s One of a Kind/Oh!/Life’s a Treat/With Shaun the Sheep!!…” Let me repeat: It’s “SHAUN THE SHEEP”!!!!!
Best Cinematography Carol The Hateful Eight Mad Max: Fury Road The Revenant Sicario
Nobody does natural light like Emmanuel Lubezki, and this will be an unprecedented third consecutive time.
FWIW: I hope someday Oscar properly recognizes Edward Lachman’s ability to evoke not just the past, but how we remember the past, as he does in Carol.
Best Documentary – Feature Amy Cartel Land The Look of Silence What Happened, Miss Simone? Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Tossing the dice here, because this would be the Academy’s best opportunity to present SOMEthing to an African American. (Lisa Simone Kelly, the subject’s daughter, is co-executive producer.) Besides that, it’s as intense, riveting, distressing and, ultimately, heartrending as Simone was.
FWIW: The same words, in any order, could apply to the Amy Winehouse documentary, though the Simone film feels more urgent and timely. Either would be a worthy recipient – though I also wouldn’t mind if Joshua Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence took the Oscar as a kind of retroactive reward for its companion piece and immediate predecessor, The Act of Killing, which, to repeat, was THE film of 2013.
Best Foreign Language Film
Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent
France, Mustang Hungary, Son of Saul
Denmark, A War
By a considerable distance, it’s the single most talked-about and all-but-unanimously praised film in this category. In past years, that still wasn’t enough to win. But the manner in which this Holocaust story keeps to the horrific conventions of its sub-genre while blowing them into unfamiliar shapes makes it hard to ignore, or dismiss.
FWIW: Among my favorite foreign films of 2015 was The Assassin; more thrilling than The Avengers and deeper than Room. I’m still OK with Son of Saul winning it all.
Best Original Score
Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies
Carter Burwell, Carol Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario
John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Even people who hated Tarantino’s movie thought the score was its finest, most effective attribute. Plus, don’t you think Morricone deserves to have more than a lifetime-achievement Oscar while he’s still alive?
FWIW: Forgive me if I think a word or two needs to be said on Sicario’s behalf, and this is the place to do it since Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes much of the hard-driving, hairpin-turn qualities that made Lalo Schifrin a demigod at film scoring. (And BTW, where’s his lifetime-achievement Oscar?)
Best Original Song
“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey
“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction
“Simple Song #3,” Youth ‘Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground
“Writings on the Wall,” Spectre
The idea that a documentary could include a Best Song winner is, to me, a intriguing prospect. (Apparently, there have been four others from documentaries that have been nominated before this.) Also, her overshoot on the David Bowie Grammy tribute notwithstanding, Lady Gaga deserves the mic to once again dedicate an award to victims of campus rapes and their cover-ups.
FWIW: The only visual effect that would rival, if not eclipse that of Lady G’s triumphant podium walk, would be for The Weeknd’s hair to walk, or shimmy, away with the Oscar for “Earned It.”
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Here’s what I liked most about last year, period. No added explanation necessary, though you’re going to get a LOT of it as we move along. So without further ado, in no particular order, etc…
Black “Black Comic” Novels
I’m already on record declaring this to have been a banner year for African American writing, especially in this sub-genre. So I have only a few things to add: 1.) I wish I could have found a way to have included in my CNN piece God Loves Haiti, Dmitri Elias Leger’s cunning and deeply moving romantic roundelay set against the backdrop of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake though 2.) what I really wish for is a the chance to have met Fran Ross, author of Oreo, if only to reassure her, as others had before she died in 1985 at age 50, that she was neither alone nor wrong in her artistic foresight and socio-cultural insurgency. 3.) If Paul Beatty’s cheeky, incendiary and laugh-out-loud Sellout had gotten even half of the attention afforded Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, we’d all be a lot further along than we are now because 4.) these and many other novels, poems and memoirs are so far ahead of where everybody else is on race and culture, especially what used to be called “The Press,” that their authors don’t have the time or the patience to look behind them. It’s up to the rest of us to catch up…and I’m not feeling especially hopeful about those prospects as I write this, especially today.
Comic Book Superheroes on TV
MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES
You could probably fashion some kind of algebraic formula out of this theory and make yourself quite obscure, in more ways than one: Something about the comic-book superhero genre diminishes whenever contemporary Hollywood seizes one of its properties and blows it up on for big screen while, on the other hand, the smaller the screen, the greater weight and dimension are allowed for these stories. It could just mean that there are better people writing for television than for movies; a thesis that may not need too complex an algorithm to prove. Whatever the reason, TV, with or without its water-based delivery systems (clouds, streams, etc.) has provided the only superhero “product” (I really need to slap myself stupid every time I use that word) with depth, breadth and, most especially, shadows. I’d previously thought the DC stable led the way by several lengths with Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and its latest sweet surprise, Supergirl. But with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, for all its on-the-fly tinkering, still seems as though it’s fumbling in its pockets for magic and momentum), the Marvel Universe caught up big-time by going urban-neo-noir on Netflix with both Daredevil and the remarkable Jessica Jones coming at you as if every Law and Order episode came down with a severe case of the DTs. (And yes, that is a MAJOR compliment!) The relative success of small-screen super-heroics evokes simpler times when the original TV Superman was charming and cheesy while the first TV Batman was campy and cheesy and both took themselves seriously without being too solemn. Maybe the Fantastic Four franchise, having whiffed in two multiplex-targeted incarnations, would be better off lowering its expectations and looking for a cloud, or stream, to carry it forward. Or not.
I suppose there was a small part of me that wished Todd Haynes had given in to his inner Douglas Sirk with as much abandon as he had in 2002’s Far From Heaven, his previous exploration of “forbidden love” in the 1950s. There were many critics, even those who otherwise praised this movie, who felt the same way. The more I think about it, however, the more I believe Haynes was correct in opting for a mood of smoldering insinuation and rectitude since those are qualities most associated with Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, from which the movie is adapted. She is a writer I will never love as much as I admire – and even then, from a shivery distance. If the movie leaves one cold, well, so did Highsmith. I’m not sure if anybody else could have done the material justice as well as or better than Haynes. Maybe the younger Kubrick since the movie at times evokes a colorized version of his 1962 take on Lolita; or, even better, the Alfred Hitchcock who made such gauzy dreams out of Vertigo or Marnie.
To Pimp a Butterfly(in the approximate, or relative context of Straight Outta Compton) –
The overlap of Kendrick Lamar’s most variegated testament (thus far) with F. Gary Gray’s astonishingly successful biopic/infomercial about N.W.A. made one ponder how much things have changed, if at all, between “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model/To a kid lookin’ up at me/Life aint nothin’ but bitches and money” and “…[T]he world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you/But you think it’s all love/And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done.” The latter quote from Butterfly is, of course, more contemplative and lyrical than the more belligerent assertion of “the strength of street life” from the 1988 album that gives Gray’s movie its name (and, really, its reason to exist.) Yet both these statements, and the records they come from, are stalked, even haunted, by the vulnerability of black lives as framed within the seemingly impregnable “White Problem” in America. Their shared response, in so many words: This is who I am, mothafuckas!! Deal with it because you got to change before I do! Both Butterfly and Compton (the album) also share the imperative to sound like nothing else that came before them. And their respective makers have profited from that make-it-new impulse; though it’s clear from both the movie and the story it tells that N.W.A. has gotten over with its members’ sometimes harrowing practice of rugged individualism while Lamar’s still probing for something deeper and more messianic to carry himself and his listeners to a new, yet-to-be-defined phase of The Struggle. The real bridge between these two works is Lamar’s “Alright,” which stomps in with the “Gangsta Gangsta” swagger before morphing into an assertion of self-worth powerful enough to have made the song an anthem of the “Black Lives Matter” movement – and, potentially, of movements, or just “movement,” to come.
There were so many shattering revelations and shameful double-dealings in this series’ third, and best, season that one feels derelict in highlighting only one episode. But the season’s ninth episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” was one of the peaks of series television, not just of the year, but also of the century so far. Its main action takes place in a repair shop late at night where Elizabeth and Phil Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), Russia’s most stylish spy tandem, have taken a broken mail robot to dig out some needed Intel. An unexpected surprise materializes in the form of an elderly woman (the great Lois Smith) who was married to the shop’s original owner. She’s just as surprised to encounter the Jennings and her bewilderment gradually evolves to a weary acknowledgement that she will not survive the night. Her presumptive executioners share in the gnawing awfulness of the situation especially Elizabeth, who attempts to ease the woman’s impending fate with some intimate, reassuring conversation about family life and then with an excessive injection of drugs. It’s an interlude that makes the audience feel somewhat like intruders – and co-conspirators. Even in a golden age of cable television drama, no other series could pull off such an emotionally searing sequence. I can’t wait to see what the fourth season’s going to submit for our approval.
It took a while for me to cozy up to Bloom County in its original 1980s incarnation. At the time, it seemed as though Berkeley Breathed’s strip was trying too hard to conflate an assortment of influences from Peanuts to Pogo, from Lil’ Abner to Doonesbury (especially) without developing a clear identity of its own. I also thought the comedy was too schematic and not terribly interesting (i.e. aging frat boy Steve Dallas hurling brazenly sexist overtures to super hot feminist schoolteacher Bobbi Harlow. Quelle Topique!) By mid-decade, though, the strip established its own blend of down-home whimsy, magical realism and soft-boiled satire distinctive enough to win a steady, fervent following – and a Pulitzer Prize!
Of course, The Penguin had almost everything to do with it. Breathed knew this since Opus was, for a while, the only character who made it to two sequels following the strip’s closure in 1989. This past July, Breathed came out with a made-for-social-media revival of Bloom County with deeper shadows, broader effects and the same antic impulses. Smartass savant Milo Bloom and his irresolute, monster-haunted school chum Michael Binkley have barely aged beyond pre-adolescence while Steve Dallas is still a self-loathing dick and (thus) a Trump supporter. Binkley has fallen in unrequited love with an enchanting pint-sized yogi named Abby. Bill the Cat is still…Bill the Cat, only more so. And Opus is very much the sun around which the rest of the cast revolves, if not evolves. I didn’t know how much I missed having these guys in my life until I started catching up with them on Facebook. And when I say the shadows are deeper this time, I refer to a recent storyline involving a small boy with an apparently life-threatening illness to whose elaborate space-opera fantasies the Bloom County gang caters. Breathed says he has no intention of bring his troupe back to newspapers and I think it’s a wise move on his part.
I still wonder, though, whatever became of Ronald-Ann Smith from Breathed’s Outland sequel strip. Is she the same age as well? Or did she grow up to become a semiotics professor at a Midwest college? I’m in no hurry to find the answer. I’d rather invent my own.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
My favorite documentary of the year may well be the most balanced, comprehensive and intensely felt history we’ll ever get of its oft-misunderstood topic. Director Stanley Nelson’s companion piece to his comparably thorough and illuminating Freedom Summer (2014) deftly weaves all the scattered, twisted fragments of Panther history from the group’s epoch-making, armed-to-the-teeth appearance at the California legislature (which resulted in then-governor Reagan signing the country’s first gun-control legislation) to its think-globally-act-locally agenda that both scared and thrilled the rest of America to its active harassment under the odious COINTELPRO scourge to its violent confrontations with police and the murder of Fred Hampton – who scared authorities, it’s clear here, more for having his political act together at a very young age than for any largely imaginary danger he posed to civilization. Nelson doesn’t shy away from the internal friction among the Panther hierarchy – and he’s taken some heat for doing so. But none of whatever happened between Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and others diminishes one’s abiding admiration for what this cadre tried to accomplish – or the persistence of what they challenged, against terrible odds, almost a half-century ago.
When Kristen Wiig left Saturday Night Live in 2012, I almost did, too. She gave the show a jolt of danger reminiscent of John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and (yes, even) Adam Sandler. As these examples suggest, such bomb-throwers are rare and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come along that soon to provide a similar did-I-really-see-that buzz to the franchise. Then this ball-of-fire roars into 30 Rock’s fun house and once again, America’s on the edge of its seat wondering what this crazy person will do next. She had me, so to speak, at Justin Bieber. But her take on Hillary Clinton so thoroughly and scarily encompasses the aspects of Madame Secretary’s personality feared by millions that you feel your own worst imaginings being held at gunpoint. (And that they deserve to be, too.) Madame Secretary’s appearance on stage with her perversely avaricious doppelganger was one of the show’s highlights, as much for showing the real-life candidate’s impressive composure in not breaking character, or breaking-up during the routine; something that couldn’t be said for Ryan Gosling a couple shows later. Enjoy her while she’s there because, if past history is any guide, she’s going to get so huge that she’ll outgrow the fun house.
Philip Levine & James Tate
Sunday’s New York Times reminded me that two of my favorite poets passed away during 2015. They seem utterly incompatible at a glance: Levine’s poems were engaged with the grit, heartbreak and elusive epiphanies of blue-collar life while Tate was a deadpan emperor of ice cream who revealed strangeness in familiar things while exalting familiarity in strangeness. Yet reading their poetry gave me frissons similar to the contact highs I used to get from seeing American and European movies more than forty years ago. As I emerged from the theaters of the 1970s, my immediate surroundings attained sharper definition and broader possibility. Good movies, great art and fine poetry induce such rapture and, with the latter especially, you are grateful for those bright flashes of grace and insight whether delivered by the cosmos or summoned from the sidewalk. You need both perspectives to function as a human being, otherwise what’s it all for? Don’t answer. Just listen to Levine working up the nerve to dive into a reverie by declaring: “I place my left hand, palm up before me/ and begin to count the little dry river beds/on the map of life” (“Blue and Blue” from 1994’s The Simple Truth). And dig Tate hard when in the title poem from his 1972 collection, Absences, he neatly sums up the autobiographical impulse: “A child plots his life to the end; and spends the rest of his days trying to remember the plot.” Whenever you lose a poet (or two), you gain renewed diligence to respect the things not readily seen, including all the poets who are still around to sharpen the landscape.
If this weekend’s most touted opener is a Noah Baumbach movie, then I guess we can close the books on the summer movie season. I’m not using this space to assess the grosses and trends. Better you should read this guy, who’s so much smarter about these things than I am.
Also be warned this makes no claims of being comprehensive: I’m saving my remarks on Straight Outta Compton for a separate occasion. There are a few movies from this summer that I wanted to get around to, but couldn’t. (Shaun the Sheep, come baaaack!!) There also are those I may still get around to before long (Trainwreck) and others (Jurassic World) that are on my prohibitive life-is-short list. So here, in no particular order, is most of what I saw in the dark since Memorial Day.
Mad Max: Fury Road – As with almost everybody else, I admired its eccentric (yet austere) design, the proto-feminist tweaking of heroic prototypes and its masterly narrative drive. George Miller may be the best in the world right now at such tension-release dynamism. And yet…as was the case with just about every action film I saw this season, even a movie as accomplished and engrossing as this, Fury Road seemed to have its way with me as I was watching it and then, as soon as it ended, was all done with me.
Tomorrowland– Was this summer’s prototype of Big Fat Bust until Not-So-Fantastic-Four (see below). I liked it better than most others and totally bought what it was selling despite its flaws because I, too, was a credulous, New Frontier-besotted 12-year-old in 1965 who thought a visit to the New York World’s Fair was the Best Day of His Whole Life up to that point. Maybe it would have been at least a more interesting movie if its focus had been on the Hugh Laurie character that questioned (as I often do) whether we truly deserve to have a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.
Dope – As of now, I no longer care how much it resembles Risky Business. But I still care, after so many other movies over so many weeks, about the cool jerks at this story’s core along with the bullies, thugs and airheads who make trouble for them. Say it with me: It’s not the concept. It’s the characters (stupid)!
Inside Out — So great that even kids loved it. But I’m betting they loved Minions more.
Ant-Man– Or, “What Would Have Happened If Leo McCarey directed The Incredible Shrinking Man With a Bigger Budget.” And does the hero really have to become an Avenger? Speaking of which…
The Avengers: Age of Ultron– I still snicker over Captain America saying how even he can’t afford to move back to Brooklyn, where he’d last lived in the 1940s. I can’t remember anything else that happened. Speaking of which…
(Not So) Fantastic Four –.We could ourselves be heroes if we found something to like about it, so let’s see…Kate Mara’s teeny little segue into a fake Balkan accent was adorable and Michael B. Jordan’s brash side deserves a movie all to itself. But paraphrasing the great Theodore Sturgeon’s observation about science fiction in general, ninety percent of everything is shit, especially this. And when the even the movie’s director agrees, what’s the point of being “contrary to received wisdom” at all?
Mr. Holmes– Fragment of a conversation, somewhere in London, 1893. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: You know, James, my good friend Watson seems to believe you and I have much in common. HENRY JAMES: Indeed! And how might that be? CONSULTING DETECTIVE: He is of the opinion, and I respect his instincts on such matters better than those of any man, that you and I are of a rare species of humankind that takes absolutely nothing for granted. Naturally, despite my disinclination towards reading fiction, I had to see if he was right and as I evaluate the available evidence, it’s quite clear you possess gifts for observing comparable to mine and for using such observations to assess the full range of human temperament with depth and felicity that exist nowhere else in our shared language. HENRY JAMES: (staring at his interlocutor, smiling) I am greatly honored, even mildly flabbergasted, by your remarks, sir. But…with respect to your Mister…. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: Doctor… HENRY JAMES: Yes, of course. My apologies…Doctor Watson…I fear he labors under a misperception about our respective capacities. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: But, my dear fellow, I have become quite familiar with your work… HENRY JAMES: …And I with yours, Mister Holmes, for you are now quite possibly the most famous man in Britain. But…if I may speak frankly…. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: Please. HENRY JAMES: There is, in fact, quite a lot that you take for granted…Not much is lost on you, I will concede, but… CONSULTING DETECTIVE: (Back stiffened, peevish) And what precisely would these…omissions comprise? HENRY JAMES: (beginning to speak, then stops, pauses) Precision is difficult, even evasive, on such matters. I think it best that you find out for yourself…And eventually, I suspect that you will.
Love and Mercy – You see Paul Dano in the lead role and you think, “He’s Brain Wilson!” You see John Cusack in the lead role and you think, “What an astute and sensitively observed commentary John Cusack is making on Brian Wilson’s life!” This distinction in no way impairs your appreciation of either the movie or, most especially, Elizabeth Banks. But you’re aware of the distinction nonetheless.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Forget that set piece with the plane. That’s over and done before the opening credits, which will always be the best part of these movies because Lalo Schifrin is, if not God, at least the god of theme songs. (I’d see any movie version of Mannix as long as its theme comes along.) The best stunts in this movie are performed by its star’s vanity, which will outlast this franchise the way roaches will survive Nuclear Armageddon .
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – It didn’t try as hard the one directly above to achieve its effects and that’s why it doesn’t matter whether you remember the original series or not. Still wondering if it’ll get the chance to do a sequel because it deserves one. Henry Cavill, judging from the Dawn of Justice trailers, could use something else to do with his time and so, for different reasons, could Hugh Grant.
Phoenix – Nina Hoss could have been a superstar in the Silent Era, which is the supreme compliment you could make towards any living motion picture actor. I saw this on the day of TCM’s daylong tribute to Garbo and Hoss has the same magnetism, especially in stillness. If she were embedded in ice, she would continue to emit vibrations
Listen to Me, Marlon – Suppose, just suppose, that back in the early 1960s, instead of wasting everybody’s time and money with a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty that nobody wanted or needed, somebody had managed to secure the rights to Henderson the Rain King and convinced Brando to play the title role. We’d have had a better movie – or at least, a more interesting failure – and Brando’s slide off the rails, however inevitable, may not have been as precipitous. Or…maybe nothing would have helped. In any case, what he says towards the end about his a-hole father applies to him as well: He did the best he could.
Amy – Thomas Pynchon said it best: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before but there is nothing to compare it to now…It is too late…”
The Best of Enemies – Preening, pompous, patrician peacocks peck, poke, prod and prick pretentiously without profundity or pertinence.
The End of the Tour – Maybe the only movie on this list that doesn’t leave you tossed aside at the end as you begin forgetting what you just saw. It’s a little movie that keeps your head (and heart) toying with very big questions long after it’s over. Also it makes you curious to read a difficult book that it’s not based on – which is so much cooler than another metal object exploding in mid-air
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Suppose – just suppose – Orson Welles had made The Magnificent Ambersons in 1941 and followed it with Citizen Kane in 1942 instead of the other way around? A Booth Tarkington tale about Midwestern gentry at the hinge of the 19th and 20th centuries may have lacked the without-a-net audacity of an epic inspired by the life of a powerful media lord. But one guesses that Ambersons would have been just as innovative and, over time, just as influential as Kane turned out to be.
Welles still might have gotten into the same amount of trouble with William Randolph Hearst and his friends over Kane. But maybe Ambersons, assuming it was successful enough, would have smoothed the director-impresario-genius’ path at the outset, making smear campaigns or other potentially nasty dustups less damaging over the long haul.
Think of what an empowered, professionally secure Welles could have done throughout the subsequent decades…
Of course, such “might-have- beens” and “should-have- beens” are littered all over Welles’ life story. (I still think Welles, who by that time had little else going on, should have run in his native Wisconsin against “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy for the U.S. Senate in 1946. Talk about a real might-have-been…)
Anyway, here’s what really happened: Welles’ control of The Magnificent Ambersons‘ final cut was taken out of his hands by the same RKO Studios that had all but given him the keys to the castle a few years before. The movie’s original 2 1/2-hour and 12-minute running time had been whittled down to 88 minutes. (The whole time this surgery was taking place, Welles was spending a lot of time in Brazil directing the visual potpourri whose surviving fragments would surface in theaters decades later as It’s All True.) When the dust settled, The Magnificent Ambersons, which many, including Welles, have contended to be an even greater movie than Kane, was regarded as a noble fiasco and marked the beginning of Welles’ wilderness years.
If you’ve never seen the movie before, prepare to discover, one of the most hauntingly
beautiful American films ever made. It transfigures elements of Tarkington’s novel into a vision of lost time. It tells of dreams literally squirming away from the grasp of its well-heeled characters.
There is, first and foremost, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), an auto tycoon who returns to his Hoosier hometown with his vivacious daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), partly to win the heart of Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello), whom he’d loved and lost as a younger man. With her husband’s death, Isabel seems poised to fulfill Eugene’s long-withheld yearnings – except that her son, George (Tim Holt), a spoiled, insolent brat, stands in Eugene’s way. Forced to choose between Eugene’s promise of love and financial security and George’s petulant, inchoate neediness, Isabel opts for the latter, with dire consequences.
As you watch this film, you’re so enraptured by its visual sweep, narrative detail and resonance that you wonder what its lost 44 minutes could have added. Or is one’s knowledge of irretrievable scenes and dialogue part of what adds to The Magnificent Ambersons aura? I’m still trying to figure it out.
But there are some things I do know for sure: for instance, the scene of Eugene and Lucy stepping out of a winter’s night into a luminous, festive parlor that seems to swallow us all in a welter of gaiety and promise. Generations of filmmakers would break their necks trying to match that set piece, and few have even approached its magic.
And then there are the actors. Holt, whose only other movie role of lasting consequence came in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, has been viewed as a surrogate for Welles himself as George, but the director wisely thought it would be best if he sit this one out. He couldn’t have done better than Holt. Cotton is grave, sad and unassumingly noble as Eugene, while Baxter shows precocious control of her character’s unsettled temperament. Most of all, there’s Agnes Moorehead as George’s Aunt Fanny, who may well be the most romantic dreamer of the family and feels the most pain from forsaken hope.
As with Kane, one is always aware of what Ambersons is transmitting, through the code of the subconscious, about its director’s personality and long-range future. The “comeuppance” that townspeople are awaiting for George Minifer looms larger with every rash act of hubris. And when it comes, hardly anyone is around to notice or appreciate it.
If you know anything at all about what happened to Welles after this film was made, this is the kind of detail poignant enough to sting your eyes.
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Why am I handicapping the Oscars yet again? Because I still can’t afford to buy live ammo, live trout and a barrel thick enough to withstand the former and big enough to carry the latter.
That’s how easy this game is, despite mass media’s insistence on playing it over and over and over, year after year after bloody year. It’s gotten so that even when there’s the prospect of suspense, as there was a year ago, the evening itself ends up being about as suspenseful as a congressional Electoral College vote. Even the things I was wrong about last year, didn’t surprise me; notably “12 Years a Slave” winning Best Picture, though I was mildly surprised to have been right about its screenwriter, John Ridley, winning one.
Anyway, since I think this year’s crop is even easier to forecast than usual, I’m going to do to try making things interesting (at least, for me) by adding a For Whatever It’s Worth (FWIW) section beneath sundry categories. Mostly, I’m going to suggest missing contenders. Otherwise it’ll just be whatever pops into my jejune lil’ head.
Oh, and my projected winners, as usual, are in bold.
Best Picture American Sniper Birdman Boyhood The Grand Budapest Hotel The Imitation Game Selma The Theory of Everything Whiplash
Boyhood seemed ahead by many lengths at the start of this season; not so much, now, even though some still believe its BAFTA prize keeps it in the game. They’re wrong – and this says as much as (and far better than) I could as to why this is now a foregone conclusion. The only thing I might add to Mark’s diagnosis is that Hollywood narcissism is as much a device for denial as it is for self-congratulation. Editors and pundits, especially those who have no idea what movies are about, believe that controversy and buzz are all a movie needs to become anointed Best Picture. You’d think that, by now, they’d know that’s the LAST thing the Academy Awards want unless – and only unless – they can somehow exalt themselves by recognizing the controversy and embracing it. But all the money American Sniper‘s raking in isn’t going to make these people any braver about such things. Not in this century, folk. At least not yet.
FWIW – Overall, a good-but-not-great list appropriate for a good-but-not-great year. Only Lovers Left Alive, for those who keep asking, was my number one movie of last year and, similar to what one of its characters says about Detroit (where it’s set), it is the one 2014 movie I think is best equipped to endure and ultimately prevail through 2064.
Alejandro Innaritu, Birdman Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
For reasons already mentioned, I’m less sure about this one than I was several months ago, though Best Picture/Best Director splits have at least since the century’s turn gone from being a rarity to a semi-regular occurrence. Innaritu’s winning the DGA prize boosts his standing, though it doesn’t necessarily make him inevitable. I’m still inclined towards Linklater because just his investment of time and effort is too impressive to ignore, no matter how you may feel about the result.
FWIW – The omission of Selma’s Ava DuVernay from this category caused an outcry of such breadth that it came across like the pop-cultural equivalent of Ferguson/”I Can’t Breathe.” In terms of racial profiling (as in raising of profiles as opposed to diminishing races), I don’t think things are as bad in Hollywood as they once were, say, fifty, thirty, even ten years ago. But as this shortsightedness proves, they could still be a lot better. And the movies better recognize that on this and many other matters, TV is way out in front. The Unbearable Whiteness of this year’s Oscars will, I think, end up as an anomaly, but can we talk sometime about Dear White People’s complete absence, too?
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
It’s essentially a race between the last two names on this list and as impressed as Hollywood can be with actors who go through the kind of physical transformations Redmayne does here, it’s the larger, deeper transformations embedded in Keaton’s weathered visage that will make more of a difference with voters.
FWIW – Lots of MIAs here; notably Timothy Spall in the title role of Mr. Turner and Ralph Fiennes’ embattled concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The first is something you’ve never seen before while the second is a polished exemplar of Mannered Screwball reminiscent of movies made in the decade its movie purports to chronicle. Though Philip Seymour Hoffman wouldn’t have won for A Most Wanted Man, a posthumous nomination would have been a nice gesture. And while I wasn’t a huge fan of Gone Girl, I was sure Ben Affleck’s wry, limber rendering of sad sap Nick Dunne would get a nomination, especially given his previous snub for a Best Director nod two years back for Argo. He wouldn’t have won here either. But his absence points to the kind of harder-than-it-looks acting style that the Academy routinely overlooks in favor of the Big Bravura Effect.
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Done deal. And she deserves it…
FWIW – …but Cotillard, the most compelling film actress in the world, deserves it more for a performance that is (once again) too subtle and contained to satisfy the Academy’s inclination towards the aforementioned Big Bravura Effect (hereafter known as BBE). Here’s a little irony to put in your tea: Seven years ago, Cotillard’s grand, eerily detailed rendering of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose won this award over the favored Julie Christie, whose performance as an Alzheimer victim in Away From Her that year was a much rawer depiction of the disease’s ravages than Moore’s, which, as noted, has unsettling graces of its own.
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
As with Christopher Plummer a couple years back, he’s so inevitable that he’s already sweeping up the foam packing peanuts that came with the statuette’s advance delivery to his home. But as long as we’re here, let’s idly speculate. What if Simmons’ performance had been placed where it properly belongs: In the lead actor category? Would he have been as decisive a shoo-in as he is here? Let’s go even crazier. Since Denzel Washington is the only living actor who could have matched Simmons volt for volt in this role, would HE have been given a lead actor nod because of his relative professional standing? Or would he have likewise been nominated for supporting actor? Keep in mind that my comparison with Denzel doesn’t shortchange but, if anything, amplifies the dimensions of Simmons’ work here and I can only hope that the good vibes continue for him well beyond awards season.
FWIW – Some people consider Norton the runner-up while I think Hawke’s work in Boyhood is every bit as committed and resonant as that of the woman who’s a lock for Best Supporting Actress. (See below.) The guy who got screwed here is Josh Brolin, whose gonzo LAPD cop in Inherent Vice, was inspired, magnetic daffy-duckiness.
Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
As with Moore and Simmons, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this doesn’t happen. And Arquette’s pitch-perfect evocation of a smart, decent woman seemingly condemned to making foolish choices in life partners stood out in her movie even more than its twilit reveries.
FWIW – I’ve already mentioned Affleck’s understated comedic turn in Gone Girl, whose one great performance belonged to Carrie Coon. As Nick’s sister, she was the beating, breaking heart of that movie. She didn’t get a nomination, but she’s now got my attention, and deserves yours.
Best Adapted Screenplay American Sniper The Imitation Game Inherent Vice The Theory of Everything Whiplash
I could imagine any of these walking away with the statuette, but I can’t imagine Harvey Weinstein’s typically robust campaign on behalf of his leading entry coming away from this thing empty-handed.
FWIW – Any script that would even try to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen, even one as relatively accessible as Inherent Vice, is worthy of a party favor, even if the result bemused as many people as it amused.
Best Original Screenplay Birdman Boyhood Foxcatcher The Grand Budapest Hotel Nightcrawler
Birdman is Wes Anderson’s only worry here. That’s more of a director’s movie. Which is to say Wes Anderson has nothing to worry about.
FWIW – There were some who believed Whiplash belonged here and would have won easily if it had been in its rightful category. Simply put, yes and no.
Best Animated Feature Big Hero 6 The Boxtrolls How to Train Your Dragon 2 Song of the Sea The Tale of Princess Kaguya
This has already won an “Annie” in this category and nothing else here seems to have the legs to beat it.
FWIW – Always easier to handicap when Pixar has an entry. Except they don’t this year. (Whaaaat?)
Best Documentary Feature Citizenfour Finding Vivian Maier Last Days in Vietnam The Salt of the Earth Virunga
You ignore currency and/or vitality in this category at your peril, as recent winners have proved. Nothing else in this year’s group has both in such quantity.
FWIW – Still, I was beguiled by Vivian Maier’s one-of-a-kind story and wish there was still room for such quirky, gnomish movies to finish with the gold. We – most of us, anyway – don’t live in a quirky, gnomish world.
Best Foreign Language Film Ida Leviathan Tangerines Timbuktu Wild Tales
Ida has swept most of the critics’ awards and will likely continue its run here. It’s an austere, beautiful piece that mostly lives up to its hype.
FWIW – But, I dunno, I preferred Leviathan’s overall weight and power; the kind that usually mugs austerity in Oscar’s back alleys. Wouldn’t be an upset if it won here.
Best Cinematography Birdman The Grand Budapest Hotel Ida Mr. Turner Unbroken
Any of these would be a legitimate winner, but I’m guessing the voters will prefer the one that makes sure you can see an almost-naked man walking through Times Square.
FWIW – Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr Turner (If I say it often enough, will they come to their senses? I’m pressing on, anyway!), Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner…..
Best Original Score The Grand Budapest Hotel The Imitation Game Interstellar Mr. Turner The Theory of Everything
Alexandre Desplat finally wins one. But for which one? Competing against yourself in the same category seems a formula for canceling yourself out. But Budapest’s music is far more striking than Imitation Game. So Desplat beats Desplat here by a length.
FWIW – I, too, would have liked seeing Antonio Sanchez’s trap-set dynamics for Birdman in this group. But there’s no way Hollywood tradespeople give props to a lone musician inventing a score as he goes along. The Oscars go to…people who help make more work (and money) for everybody in the industry, whether in ensembles or orchestras.
Best Original Song
“Everything is Awesome,” The Lego Movie “Glory,” Selma
“Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
“I’m Not Going to Miss You,” Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” Begin Again
No one, not Joe Califano, not Harvey Weinstein, not Maureen Dowd, is going to stand in this one’s way…
FWIW — …though “Everything is Awesome” may yet become the anthem of the next collectivist revolution. (As if.)
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Every damn year we go through some overheated foofaraw over whether a movie up for an Academy Award is somehow — how to put this — LYING about history, or History. This year’s chew toy is Selma; mostly, so far, over whether Lyndon Johnson is fairly, accurately depicted as a roadblock to Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign against voting restrictions. Just for starters: Couldn’t such time be better spent assessing and attacking those now responsible for dismantling what King and others (including, dammit, LBJ himself) fought for a half-century before instead of showing off our erudition and/or grievances? Seems to me that’s a far more urgent matter and a FAR more productive use of one’s time than being aggrieved over who gets dissed in a dark room that smells like melted butter.
Well, the counterargument goes, for the great masses of people, movies ARE historical fact; becoming fairly or not the means through which all our history gets filtered and then hardened into something jocularly known as Collective Wisdom. At the risk of boring those who’ve heard me say such things before. especially me, I counter the counterargument for what I hope, in vain, will be the last time: If you really think that something as loose, baggy and relatively undernourished in nuance as a fictional feature film based on true stories is a plausible substitute for History itself, then you not only get the History you deserve, but the government and culture you deserve, too.
Nevertheless, as we are now less than 24 hours away from this year’s Academy Awards nominations being announced, I’m almost 99.9 percent certain than someone’s going to ask me to write about this and other similar controversies over this year’s crop of Big Movies That People Will Forget By Summer as well as those of the past. I don’t expect what I’m about to post will in any way innoculate me from such assignments. Nonetheless, since I bring this movie up every time the matter rises from the muck, I figured now was the time to make a pre-emptive strike.
So here’s something I wrote some years back on one of my favorite westerns, included in a journal listing the greatest of the genre. It says just about everything I have to say about fidelity to facts in historical movies — and how little it matters in the very long run.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)
Director: John Ford
Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature. Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond, Cathy Downs, John Ireland.
Even the least conscientious historian can get the bends accounting for the historical inaccuracies in My Darling Clementine. And you don’t have to get very deep into John Ford’s version of events leading to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral to find them. The movie opens with the Earp brothers herding cattle to Tombstone, Arizona in 1882 when the youngest brother James is shot dead (in the back, of course) by the rustling Clanton family.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Let’s see:
1.) James was the eldest of the Earps, not the youngest,
2.) The Earp brothers never had any cattle either heading towards or ensconced within Tombstone’s city limits and …
3.) Though James death is depicted as the spark that eventually led to the Earps’ confrontation with the Clantons at the OK Corral, that famous gunfight actually occurred in 1881 – if you’re scoring, that’s one year earlier.
We could go on and on and on, cataloguing Ford’s blatant manipulation of fact throughout this movie, which credits Stuart N. Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall, published two years after Earp’s death in 1929, as its principal source. But fact never mattered much to Ford, whose attitudes towards historical veracity were pithily summarized by a journalist in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “This is the West, sir! When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” This gnomish sentiment both tickles and irritates the American psyche: We know something’s wrong with it, but how much do we care?
In the case of My Darling Clementine, probably not much, because the movie has over time proven more resonant and more powerful than any other about the Wyatt Earp story, no matter how historically faithful those films are.
Begin with its visual graces. Few black-and-white movies have ever conveyed such stark contrasts between the illuminated prairie landscape and the twilit corners of so-called civilization where savagery is ready to swallow innocence whole. Within this panorama, Ford orchestrates not a factual account, but his own mythic vision of history. His set pieces are adhesives to a movie lover’s memory: the town dance in an unfinished church, the woozy Shakespearean recitation sharpened by Mature’s tubercular Doc Holiday (looking as if he’s perpetually staring at his own wake) and Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in varied states of wary repose, whether in a barber’s chair or rocking jauntily in front of the “Mansion House” as Darnell’s Chihuahua hectors him.
Indeed, Fonda’s insouciant balancing act hints at mischief burrowed beneath Ford’s decorousness. It doesn’t emerge often enough to qualify as irony, but you have to wonder (as generations have) about this “say what” exchange that takes place between Earp and the saloon’s barkeep.
WYATT: Mac, you ever been in love?
MAC: No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.
At moments like this, one remembers that My Darling Clementine was made after Ford, Fonda, and co-screenwriter Winston Miller had returned from World War II military service. Comparing Fonda’s depiction of a ramrod American icon in this film with that of 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln (also directed by Ford), one detects a serrated edge applied to the solitude and resolve in the pre-war portrayal of Lincoln. With Fonda and Ford, wartime experiences inspired in both a need for traditional American values of community, honor, and law and a lingering perception that traditions were ready for tweaking, even bending here and there.
Put another way, it is possible to claim that My Darling Clementine provides a definitive model for the standard Western film while it discloses clues to undermining that model. The willful disregard for fact is arguably part of the subversion. OK, whatever. In the end, the best way to watch this movie is just to embrace its evocative dream of a past that never was.
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Because I don’t have to, I’m not going to bother with a Top-Ten movie list this year. This is also because there wasn’t a whole lot I saw at the multiplexes in 2014 that got me as wound up as the stuff I’m listing below. And if I bothered to enumerate the movies that did, I’d likely end up with a list that more or less looks like everybody else’s, which precisely none of us wants.
Instead, I’m going to pull together a rag basket of items that for various reasons made the most resounding connections with my frontal lobes through the prevailing media din of weapons-grade white noise and free-styling schaudenfreude. Most came out this year; some didn’t, but I got around to them for the first time this year, so they count. (My list, my rules.)
Quite likely, I’m forgetting, or blocking some stuff. It’s been that kind of year. And there were some things I couldn’t bring myself to include, whatever my absorption level. Scandal, to take one example, remains for many people I trust an irresistible sack of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. But outside of Joe Morton’s righteously Shatner-esque scenery chewing and the mad electricity vibrating in Kerry Washington’s eyeballs, I’ve found that its live-action anime antics can go on without me for at least a couple weeks at a time.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks –Brooks made his name mythologizing the walking-dead (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide). But he proves himself just as conscientious in rendering factually grounded savagery in this fire-breathing graphic (in every sense) novel about the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that roared out of Harlem to fight in World War I, the hinge between post-Reconstruction’s legally-sanctioned terrorism of African Americans and the gathering pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. Though the Hellfighters’ passage from raw, often humiliated recruits to take-neither-prisoners-or-shit-from-anybody warriors is rousing, the visual depictions of squalor, disease and violence (thanks to the classic-war-comics élan of illustrator Canaan White) deepen the many ironies layered onto this saga; not the least of which was that it was only through the horrific, demeaning process of war that black men could begin proving their worthiness as American citizens – and even that wasn’t enough. To establish its own validity as historical fiction, Brooks’ account brings in such real-life badasses as James Reese Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Henri Gouraud for colorful cameos. Of course, a movie is planned. Good luck trying to top this
Scarlett Johansson –I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the commanding way she works the alien-enigmatic in the polarizing Under the Skin. By contrast, the art-house crowd showed relatively little-to-no-interest in Lucy in which she played a hapless, sponge-faced drug mule accidently injected with a drug transmuting her into a time-distorting, matter-altering, ass-kicking wonder woman. But Luc Besson’s acrylic pulp fantasy proved that few, if any movie actresses today are as cavalierly brilliant at throwing down wire-to-wire magnetism in such nutty eye candy. Manny Farber would have wallowed in the termite splendor of it all. Even her by-now borderline-gratuitous Black Widow turn in support of yet another Marvel money machine (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) retained enough droll slinkiness to make one suspect that giving the Widow her own vehicle might be a bit of a let-down. Then again, Ms. Scarlett never let me down once this year, so why dwell upon the purely speculative?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot By David Shafer – This novel took me by surprise as it did several other critics this past summer. Up till that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the legacies of both Richard Condon and Ross Thomas could, or even should be filled. Nevertheless, anyone whose familiarity with these authors’ works extends beyond Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate or Thomas’ The Fools In Town Are On Our Side will recognize Shafer’s sardonic humor, crafty plotting and humane characterizations as reminiscent of both authors – which is another way of saying these qualities aren’t what readers of contemporary techno-thrillers are used to. Also, much like Condon, Shafer knows, or strongly suspects, what we’re all afraid of, deep down, and finds a surrogate for this fear that’s both outrageous and plausible; in this case, a sinister cabal of one-percenters planning to seize total control of storing and transmitting information worldwide, thereby making recent abuses by the NSA, or whoever has it in for Sony Pictures, seem like benign neglect. This premise scrapes somewhat against territory controlled by what used to be called the “Cyberpunk School” as well as Thomas Pynchon, except that Shafer’s three 30-ish hero-protagonists are at once unlikely and recognizably human: an Iranian-American NCO operative who stumbles into the conspiracy so haphazardly she’s not sure what it is until it goes after her family, a self-loathing self-help guru in debt to his eyeballs who’s recruited by the cabal to be its “chief storyteller” and his estranged childhood friend, a substance-abusing misfit with a trust fund as thick as his psychiatric case file. They are all swept into an underground movement called “Dear Diary” which knows what the cabal is up to and is deploying its own secret network to bring it down. Social comedy, political melodrama and digital menace don’t always blend as well as they do here. And this is only Shafer’s first novel, meaning, as with the other masters cited above, he can only get better at this stuff from here on.
Get On Up & Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown– The former is a feature biopic; the latter an HBO-exhibited documentary. Both told me things I didn’t know about their shared subject – or, maybe more to the point, framing what I already knew about James Brown’s story in a manner that showed him as far more than an unholy force-of-nature. If I lean more towards the documentary, it’s because the revelations are more striking (not just the spectacular “what” of Brown’s showmanship, but the painstaking “how” of its components along with its savvy adjustments over time). And its testimonies are altogether more enlightening (Mick Jagger, who co-produced both, sets the record straight on how the “T.A.M.I. Show” sequence of acts really went down) I loved listening to band members let loose on what they really thought of their sometimes thoughtless boss as well as what second-generation Fabulous Flames as Bootsy Collins learned on and off the road from Brown. Tate Taylor’s biopic has a different agenda, but it strives to be just as faithful, if not always to the facts, to the facets of Brown’s fiery, hair-trigger temperament. Maybe it tried too hard. (As far as B.O. was concerned, Get On Up…didn’t.) But Chadwick Boseman’s, conscientious rendering of Brown’s tics and turbulence is almost as breathtaking to watch as one of the Godfather’s actual Soul Train appearances. Now that Boseman’s successfully portrayed two historic icons, I remain anxious to see what he can do with a Regular Guy role sometime between now and Marvel’s Black Panther movie.
FX– The third, and best, season of Veep; the harrowing, jaw-dropping single-take night scene in True Detective; Billy Crystal’s astute, heartwarming 700 Sundays; Girls and its discontents; the sheer how-can-it-possibly top-itself-again-and-again momentum of Game of Thrones…There was so much to love about HBO this year that I feel like an ingrate for professing my affection for a rival, even though there are things in both FX and HBO that I’ve neglected (American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire) or shortchanged (The Strain, The Leftovers). Nonetheless anyplace I can find Louie, Archer, The Americans and (for me, especially) Justified is a cozy, stimulating home for my mind. Add to this the deep-dish pleasures of Fargo, whose greatness sneaked up on me the way Billy Bob Thornton’s meatiest, slimiest character since Bad Santa slithered through the frozen tundra, and of The Bridge, whose shrewd and nervy evolution from its first, somewhat derivative season went mostly unnoticed by the professional spectator classes and I’m not sure FX doesn’t have a deeper bench, pound for pound, than its bigger rivals., I prefer a lean, mean FX that takes so many worthy, edgy chances that it can be forgiven for something as lame and sad as Partners. (Never heard of it? Good. We shall speak no more.)
The Oxford American “Summer Music Issue” – I, along with many of my friends, have lots of reasons for being mad at the once-and-future Republic of Texas. But I still love its literary heritage and, most especially, its thick, spicy blend of home-grown music, which takes up C&W, R&B, Tex-Mex, swing, funk, hip-hop and even some avant-garde jazz courtesy of native son Ornette Coleman. They’re all represented on a disc accompanying a special edition of this always mind-expanding quarterly. Compiled by Rick Clark, this CD provides the kind of kicks your smarter buds used to slap together on cassette as a stocking stuffer. Besides the aforementioned Ornette (“Ramblin’”), there’s some solo Buddy Holly (“You’re the One”), early Freddy Fender (“Paloma Querida”), priceless Ray Price (“A Girl in the Night”) and the unavoidable Kinky Friedman (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”). The left-field surprises include an especially noir-ish take of Waylon Jennings doing his signature “Just To Satisfy You,” a deep-blue rendition of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by none other than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Ruthie Foster’s espresso-laden performance of “Death Came a-Knockin’” and Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and The Holding Company on a “Bye, Bye, Baby” that swings as sweet as Julio Franco once did. I don’t want to shortchange the actual magazine, which includes James Bigboy Medlin’s reminiscences of working with Doug Sahm, Tamara Saviano’s portrait of Guy Clark and Joe Nick Patoski’s story about Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer. It doesn’t beat a spring-break bar tour of Austin, but it’ll do until I get a real one someday.
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