REVIEW: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

1 05 2017

Norman Lear is, to borrow a term used by the President to describe Frederick Douglass, being recognized more and more these days. But unlike the abolitionist hero, Lear is still alive! Luckily for us, his work and enormous contributions to shaping American society by revolutionizing the sitcom are receiving their proper due. Lear himself is not content to go gently into that good night, either; the nonagenarian just kicked off a podcast this month!

A few years ago, however, Lear penned a memoir, and documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady came along for the book tour. Their observations on the journey form the backbone of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” It’s definitely a puff piece, though the halo is dim enough that it falls short of hagiography. Their film lands somewhere in Sunday morning news magazine segment territory, just at a feature length, which is a fine place to reside.

Ewing and Grady assemble an impressive array of talking heads to interview, ranging from obvious contenders such as comedic peer Mel Brooks and famous showrunners like Lena Dunham and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) to some genuinely surprising faces like George Clooney. For those who want to understand Lear’s importance and don’t have the time to binge-watch “All in the Family,” this documentary will provide an important primer to his historical importance and continued relevance. Ewing and Grady aren’t pushing the documentary form like Lear stretched the TV sitcom, though that’s hardly an issue. B





REVIEW: Money Monster

16 05 2016

Money Monster“You don’t have a clue where your money is,” quips George Clooney’s Jim Kramer-esque TV pundit/entertainer Lee Gates at the start of “Money Monster.” He’s not wrong. His sarcasm-laced lecture on the process of making money virtually invisible in the name of faster trades and higher returns provides a simplified primer on the transformations in financial markets – money is, more than ever, just a holder of value that serves as a means to an end.

No wonder, then, that the American justice system has such a hard time prosecuting activity in the financial system. As money becomes even more fleeting, it gets harder to pin down wrongdoing with it. The crimes may be bloodless, but they are far from victimless.

The premise of “Money Monster” springs from an attempt to make that fact known. Jack O’Connell’s Kyle Budwell, a rough-hewn youngster, decides to hold up Gates’ television program to exact revenge on IBIS, a multinational corporation whose algorithmic hiccup depleted his life savings. The idea is interesting, combining residual post-recessional anxiety with a hijacking of the media-industrial complex. But the film’s problems derive from uncertainty over what to do after the logline.

Budwell is, to steal a phrase used to describe Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” a walking contradiction. On the one hand, he possesses the ideological resolve of 2016’s Twitter trolling Bernie Bros, fiercely committed to making a passionate case for justice. The media trial he holds against IBIS is a largely symbolic one; he demands not just the $60,000 he lost but also the entire $800 million that magically disappeared from the company’s coffers.

Yet Budwell is also a hair-brained firebrand who feels like an extra pulled from the background of a Southie-set Ben Affleck film. Once he bursts onto the set, he seems incapable of planning a strategic, intelligent next move. O’Connell’s performance, with its heavily laden accent and manic physicality, makes the character come across as more aloof than enlightened.

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REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!

8 02 2016

Hail CaesarThe kind of auteurism favored by most today places a high priority on repeated patterns and frameworks within a director’s body of work. I, however, tend to prefer filmmakers who can produce a consistency of mood, tone and experience without ever allowing themselves to be easily pinned down. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and editing duo who can bounce across genres and budget sizes without skipping a beat.

Audiences most recognize the Coen Brothers for their trademark deadpan wit, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the “dead” part. They may well hold court as America’s greatest living ironists. In fact, their gifts in this realm are so well established that just seeing their names on a film imbues the proceedings with dramatic irony. Anyone who knows the Coens and their tendencies likely recognizes that the journey of the characters will not be determined by their own actions so much as it will be guided by their cosmic fate.

The brothers’ latest outing, “Hail, Caesar!,” bears many of their hallmarks. The dry humor begins with protagonist Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) doing his best efforts at a confessional and scarcely lets up for an hour and 45 minutes. But underneath all the laughter, a very serious undercurrent of sacrifice, redemption and salvation runs resolutely. More than ever, the poker-faced Coen Brothers are tough to read. Mind you, these are the guys who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000 for turning Homer’s “The Odyssey” into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and have claimed for 15 years now that they have not read the source text.

Where a gag ends and profundity begins provides the primary friction in “Hail, Caesar!” Their very interconnected nature seems to be the point of the film itself, and finding that point of intersection proves to be a joyous puzzle. It begins in each episodic scene as Mannix, studio head at Capitol Pictures, puts out fire after fire on the backlot for his pampered stars. This structure allows the Coens to dabble in the Golden Age of westerns, sword-and-sandals epics and musicals in both the Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly style. To call these a love letter to post-WWII Hollywood feels a little strong, but to declare it a satire or lampooning of the era’s excesses hardly feels appropriate either.

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REVIEW: Tomorrowland

11 11 2015

TomorrowlandDisney’s expensive attempt at an experiment, “Tomorrowland,” begins with a rather preposterous proposition: the company has some kind of monopoly on optimism and innovation. The takeaway is, essentially, you’re an earth-hating pessimist unless you chant “It’s a Small World After All” in your sleep. (I’ll only make a parenthetical note here that the Futurist art movement inspired Benito Mussolini and the Fascists in Italy.)

The relentless attempts of co-writer/director Brad Bird, as well as his fellow scribes Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, to associate hope and positivity with the Disney brand makes the experience feel like enduring a two hour infomercial. Or like a feature-length entrance video at a Disney theme park. Fashionable thought it may be to bash the gloominess of the present day, such a simple-minded response to the challenges we face only makes those hurdles appear more imposing.

Even when putting this distressing ideology at bay, “Tomorrowland” still proves a dull, uninspiring experience. The two plus hours revolve around the teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) as a pin leads her on an adventure that takes her to a different dimension with George Clooney’s curmudgeonly inventor Frank Walker. This separate space, known as Tomorrowland, exists as a haven for intellectuals to escape the growing chaos of the world.

Naturally, a discussion of the merits and downfalls of Golden Age Thinking ensues, but it feels entirely unconvincing and disingenuous. This propaganda piece of shameless branding offers a Disney answer, not a real one. C2stars





REVIEW: The Monuments Men

6 11 2014

The Monuments Men

On paper, “The Monuments Men” sounds like a movie that could be not only exciting entertainment but also great intellectual resonance.  The premise of the film, following a ragtag band of brothers assigned to save Europe’s greatest artworks from Hitler’s grasp, promises all the action of a World War II flick and a potent reminder of the vast importance of art.

Yet somewhere between the concept and the screen, George Clooney’s film takes its eye off the prize.  What he pulls together is rather disappointing given all the impressive elements at his disposal.  “The Monuments Men” is not necessarily a bad movie; it’s just a shockingly unsubstantial one.

Nothing really seems to propel the film forwards, leaving it suspended in a state of sustained mediocrity.  Though Clooney assembles quite the prestige cast, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Bill Murray, he rarely lets them play off each other as an ensemble.  From the outset, they split up in pairs on separate missions, inhibiting attachment and fracturing the narrative.

Obviously, a film steeped in history should try to model its narrative based on the actual events (although that rarely stops movies these days).  But there had to be some way for Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov to spice up the script without deviating too far from the facts.

Honing the focus, like picking a central character to follow with dedication, might have been helpful.  “The Monuments Men” has no shortage of amusing supporting characters yet no driving leading force.  At times, the film just feels like a series of short films and amusing moments tied together into one bland, bloated two-hour feature.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Gravity

19 01 2014

The story of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is quite simple. Astronaut Ryan Stone’s spaceship is obliterated by Russian satellite debris, and she must find her way back down to Earth or float away until her oxygen runs out. Only Murphy’s Law propels the narrative – that is to say, everything that can go wrong with technology will go wrong.

In a sense, this bare-bones script suits the film’s visual bravura perfectly. There are no flashbacks, no cutaways, and only minimal reference to Stone’s past. With nothing to distract, we are trapped with Stone. We’re left to share in her panic, breathe her remaining air, and drift through the starry void.

Total immersion is the only way that “Gravity” should ever be consumed; it’s such a shame some viewers will have to watch it on a television, a laptop, or even a cell phone that perhaps the film should never be released for home viewing. I found myself legitimately worried that pieces of flying shuttle shrapnel were going to fly off the screen and harm me when I saw the film in 3D. For how extensively the film utilizes the technology, it only once resorts to gimmickry of tricks with space.

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LISTFUL THINKING: 10 Performers Who Will Win Oscars in the Next 10 Years

26 02 2013

Before it’s too late and no longer topical, I wanted to share a list that has been floating in my mind for a while.  On Sunday night, the Academy welcomed Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway into their club.  Now, they can join Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz in adding the phrase “Oscar Winner” before their name is mentioned.

But within the next 10 years, who will join them in the pantheon of acting?  I have a few suggestions…

Male

Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio
3 Oscar nominations
9 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
8 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  The question isn’t “if.”  It’s “when.”  And that could be as early as this year.

JGL

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
2 Golden Globe nominations
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  With the boy-next-door turning into a renaissance man as he heads behind the director’s chair, JGL is headed towards golden child status.  Now it’s just time for the Oscars to catch up.

Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling
1 Oscar nomination
4 Golden Globe nominations
2 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  I don’t really think I need to elaborate here as Gosling is one of the emerging Hollywood leading men.  The only thing keeping him from an Oscar, in my mind, is his eclectic role selection.

Brad Pitt in Moneyball

Brad Pitt
4 Oscar nominations (3 as actor)
5 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
5 SAG Award nominations, 1 win

COMMENTARY:  As one of the highest-wattage stars of the past decade moves into a slower, more retrospective phase of his career, the role that will land Brad Pitt his Oscar should materialize.

George Clooney

George Clooney
8 Oscar nominations (4 for acting), 2 wins (1 for acting)
12 Golden Globe nominations (8 for acting), 3 wins
13 SAG Award nominations, 4 wins

COMMENTARY:  Yes, Clooney has already won his Oscar(s).  But I am convinced he will win his trophy for a leading role as he is such a prominent leading man in Hollywood.

Female

Amy Adams

Amy Adams
4 Oscar nominations
4 Golden Globe nominations
5 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: 4 nominations in 7 years.  That’s impressive.  It’s going to happen, soon.  Perhaps the first time she gets a big leading role?

Linney

Laura Linney
3 Oscar nominations
6 Golden Globe nominations, 2 wins
4 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
4 Primetime Emmy nominations, 3 wins

COMMENTARY:  Though as of late Linney has been more television oriented, I still don’t think the cinematic community is done paying its dues to this talented actress.

Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right

Julianne Moore
4 Oscar nominations
7 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
10 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
1 Primetime Emmy win

COMMENTARY: If “Game Change” had been released in theaters and not on HBO, Moore would have her Oscar.  It’s been over a decade now since her last nomination, but I don’t think that means the impetus to give her award has disappeared.

10 for '10: Best Movies (The Challenge)

Emma Stone
1 Golden Globe nomination
1 SAG Award win

COMMENTARY: She’s a new Hollywood “It” girl.  Once she lands the big and flashy role, she will get an Oscar.  (Heck, they had her announce the nominations this year, something usually reserved for prior winners/nominees.)  She’s a beloved figure with all the charm and accessibility of Jennifer Lawrence with a little more polish and refinement.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams
3 Oscar nominations
3 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: Williams showed she had some serious range in “My Week with Marilyn.”  Not that her mopey characters weren’t good, but now we know she’s the real deal.

What do YOU think?  Who else is destined for Oscar glory in the next decade?