Friday, September 11, 2015

The Under-appreciated: The Frames "Fitzcarraldo"

Great bands have that epic song.  I guess I don't know how many bands have an epic song based on a movie the main songwriter liked.  But such is the case with The Frames and "Fitzcarraldo."

Glenn Hansard's career has taken a huge leap in the last few years.  But before he won an Oscar as one half of The Swell Season and the main actor in the hit movie, Once, he was mostly known only in his native Ireland.

Hansard dropped out of high school to busk on the streets of Dublin.  One of his teachers actually suggested he should.  He soon founded The Frames and would have huge regional success with them.  Success based mostly on touring.  For all The Frames good songs, they have never seemed to capture in a studio, what magic they can produce on stage.

"Fitzcarraldo" was and still is that special live song for The Frames.  That one that the fans usually consider the highlight of the show.  Hansard wrote it after watching the Werner Herzog film of the same name.  The film is about a man who loves opera.  And long story short, to fulfill his dream of opening an opera house, he must pull a boat over a mountain.

It is a wonderful image and metaphor.  As Hansard said once introducing the song, "I think a lot of us are pulling stuff over mountains."

And in approximately 6 to 9 minutes time, (depending on solos) The Frames accomplish more emotion, and capture the heart of that image, better than the actual movie itself.

Violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire is the song's secret weapon.  Building and building until Hansard sings quietly, "I shall eclipse you," the song then belongs to Iomaire.  And he takes it to places maybe no spoken word ever could.

Using loops to sound like 2 or 3 people at once, Iomare becomes the violinist version of David Gilmour at the end of "Comfortably Numb," or Jimi Hendrix at the end of "All Along The Watchtower."

It is something every fan of live music should be allowed to experience.

The Under-appreciated: Gillian Welch "Hard Times"

Back when Norah Jones was touring with her second album, her opening act for a few shows was Gillian Welch.  Gillian Welch is really the "band" name of Gillian and guitarist/co-writer and all around partner, Dave Rawlings.  During the show I saw, Norah herself came out to introduce the two of them, and ask the audience to be respectful and pay attention to them.

Most of the crowd did not listen to Norah's request.  But I was mesmerized by them.  A fan before, I became a much bigger fan after their performance.

There is not one single guitarist I enjoy watching perform more than Rawlings.  He must be a virtuoso, because he generally plays with his eyes closed.  And the chemistry between he and Welch is something others never obtain, no matter how many years together.

Their harmonies are as good as it gets in their genre.  As even Welch's own mother once pointed out, sometimes she can not distinguish between their two voices when they harmonize.  "So wholly of one voice," as critic Colin Maloy pointed out. 

Together since college, Welch and Rawlings make in my opinion, the best Folk/Bluegrass/Americana music in the business.  Hugely respected among their peers, they often watch the less talented win awards and sell far more albums.

Allison Krauss wins a Grammy every time she opens her mouth.  But she is not on their level as a songwriter.  Krauss has recorded songs written by Welch/Rawlings.

One song that stood out to me a couple years ago was "Hard Times."  "Hard Times," is a bit of a second or third cousin to "Hard Times Come Again No More,"  by Stephen Foster.

Brilliant in its simplicity and beautiful in its execution; "Hard Times" is a song that should have gotten Grammy nominations.  Instead, it got ignored by the mainstream music listeners and critics, as too much of their music does.

In my alternate universe, this song would have been battling it out all night for awards against Adele's, "Rolling In The Deep."  Instead, Adele battled it out against songs like Katy Perry's "Fireworks."

That is not a knock on Perry, who does what she does well enough; but the talent in the songwriting is miles apart.

"Hard Times," is for me one of those songs that is rewarded by repeated listens.  Not in the sense of studio produced elements.  There is no "Wall Of Sound" here.  But sometimes when I listen to it, I am moved by the sadness of it.  Other times I hear it and am uplifted by it.  Is it a happy or sad song?  I think it depends on the mood of the listener. 

Steve Martin once said that you can not write a sad song on banjo.  It is too happy an instrument.  I believe Gillian Welch might be the exception to the rule.

But also, I enjoy the writing and performance of this song so much, maybe Martin has a point after all. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Your Outrage Is A Lie. (Or you would be outraged every moment)

Bill Cosby is the greatest stand-up comedian of all-time.

I have believed that for a number of years.  I still do.

Judd Apatow would not like me saying this.  Because he can no longer admit any joke Cosby might have once made was, or is now, funny.  Because how can anyone laugh at what has been said by an evil man?

I say this is nonsense.

But let me explain.

The closet of skeletons opening up about this man, has felt like the death of an old friend to me.

Now before you drop your monocle with outrage:  I do not compare my feelings to those people he allegedly victimized.  Not even close.

But I do feel a loss.  It's undeniable.  When one of your heroes turns out to be quite possibly, a serial rapist, well, that's a lot to take in.

I remember seeing "Bill Cosby: Himself" the first time and being in awe of the man's talent.  As a child I recognized it.  I would purchase every Cosby comedy album (ok cassette tape) that I could find from that point on.  My younger brother and I would listen to them so often, we would have entire routines memorized, down to the beats and rhythms.

I can still recall them.  For someone who is constantly mocked for his horrible long term memory, these routines I can recall with no trouble at all.

"And I went out.  Lookin'... for Junior Barnes.  Junior  Barrrrrness.  You gunky.  Ohhh  Junior Barnes.  And I couldn't find him.  It was 7:30.  I have to get home before the monsters come out."  

"What was that?  A piece of paper?  Somebody threw a piece of paper on me!"

"Dad is great!  Gives us chocolate cake!"

My wife and I were able to go with my parents and see Cosby do stand-up a few years ago.  It was a family highlight.  All of us fans for years, we went hoping he still "had it."

It turned out to be one of the most rewarding shows of any kind I have ever seen.  One I wrote about on this site. One I am determined to still look at as a wonderful family moment.

And now here we are a few years later, and as Apatow and others have decided, even admitting you still consider Cosby a great entertainer can be met with great judgement. 

I've noticed a curious thing during all of this self righteous condemnation.

We only care, sometimes.

About certain people.

Which makes me think this concern for all of these women is frankly, all a big lie.

Where was that New York Magazine cover of Bill Clinton's alleged victims?

If you are saying, "who?"  Well that's partly my point.  Clinton was very credibly accused of rape by Juanita Broaddrick.  And less you claim I have political motivations for saying this; only someone with political motivations could excuse it.

What about the liberal minded Christopher Hitchens?  He laid out the case against Clinton very well, and years ago. And few noticed or cared.

It has been credibly reported that Hillary Clinton intimidated Broaddrick to stay quiet about it.

How's that for a feminist?

"But come on, an entertainer likely drugged someone and then raped her!"

Yes, and Roman Polanski still works and wins awards, in spite of it..  Still gets standing ovations. Though he hides from the law overseas, so he must witness them from a screen I suppose.  And people think either what he did was not a big deal.  (He drugged a 13 yr old and sodomized her) or say, "Hey, hiding out over there means he has suffered enough."

We like who we like.  And though I can still appreciate the brilliance of Cosby's "Noah" routine, or Polanski's Chinatown, those we condemn and those we do not, does not feel consistent.    

It is a dangerous thing to truly look at everyone closely.  I do not suggest it.

Gandhi was a racist.

He slept naked with very young girls.  He corresponded frequently with Hitler, and referred to him as a friend.

Martin Luther King was a philanderer and plagiarist.  Not great attributes in a minister.

Well, least we have Lincoln.  Oh dang.  About Lincoln.

"A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation, but as an immediate separation is impossible, the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together.  If white and black people never go together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas."
 -Abraham  Lincoln

I surmise you can find things you don't want to know about any of us.  If you can't find them, they are still out there, just better hidden,

This is not me excusing behavior.  Far from that.  I just think it is a heck of a slippery slope.  And yes, quite often, very disingenuous.

To me, I can not listen to your argument that you are a voice for the victims, when you were never a voice, or gave a damn about other victims.

If you are being completely honest, you might have to admit an agenda.  Hey we all have agendas. But rape is rape.  And if your argument is one or two victims versus many, well, that's kind of a messed up argument.

Recently we learned a dentist from Minnesota killed a popular lion in Africa.  Cecil the Lion was lured out of his habitat and shot with an arrow.  He then suffered for some time until they found him again and shot him.  This has rightly outraged many.

Jimmy Kimmel recently went on a self righteous rant about the man who killed Cecil.  Named him. Showed pictures of him and called him a scum bag and an asshole.

The dentist has received death threats and people hope not just himself, but his entire family "lose everything."  He has closed his business and gone into hiding

Mia Farrow tweeted out the hunter's business address.  I doubt so people would go send him copies of Hannah and her Sisters.

Is it too obvious where I'm going with this?

We care more about animals than humans.  Kimmel was in tears about Cecil.

Is he in tears about the actions of Planned Parenthood?  Does abortion make him weep?

Even for people that claim to be "pro-choice," I think the amount of life taken as a form of birth control should be upsetting.  Right?

What about other people in Zimbabwe?   How do they feel about this whole killed lion outrage?

"Why are the Americans more concerned than us?" said Joseph Mabuwa, a 33-year-old father-of-two cleaning his car in the center of the capital. "We never hear them speak out when villagers are killed by lions and elephants in Hwange."

Does Kimmel weep about Zimbabwe's 80% unemployment?

Now but WHY was this animal killed, someone may ask?

"Sport" and "Fun" seem to be words used as to why people do this kind of hunting of majestic, endangered animals.  Those words for killing seem unacceptable.

Yet we are far more efficient at killing human life, and justify it by "convenience."

Not caring about Cecil would be cruel.  Caring more about Cecil than human life; killed and limbs removed for sale; that is hard to fathom or comprehend.

So go ahead and tell me I can no longer laugh at the words said by a brilliant and probably awful man.

Who would want to think of a seemingly more innocent time, anyway?

Go deface a Confederate grave, when a few weeks ago you never would have given that a second thought.  And tell yourself what you just did, is not a hate crime.

Pretend by changing your Facebook picture to a rainbow background, that you have actually accomplished something.

Let us try our best, not to break our arms patting ourselves on the back, for the very least amount of caring or effort.

If you did a good deed and you did not let people know, did it count?

As I took a break from writing this article, I watched an episode of Seinfeld.  Most would say, probably accurately, that Jerry Seinfeld is one of the true "good guys," of Hollywood.

And he did date a 17 year old high school student, when he was just shy of 40.  Which most people would consider, at least, creepy.

After that I put on Lost in Translation.  Maybe my favorite Bill Murray movie.  Bill Murray is unquestionably the coolest, most chill guy on Earth.

Then I remembered his ex-wife accused him of infidelity, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as physically striking her.

Damn it.

But you see.  I'm gonna still enjoy Bill Murray the actor and Bill Murray that goofy guy that crashes random parties.

We are ALL pretty horrible people.

At least there's plenty of company here.

Listen to Cosby's comedy.  Go see a Polanski movie.

Or don't.

Either do it all or do none of it.  Because how do you decide in an honest moment, which sinner is ok?

We are all more or less the same.

Yes, I will never make the perfect comedy album or make a masterpiece of a movie or be the hero to an entire people or have books written about me.

But I am as great a sinner as just about anyone that's ever lived.  I'm one of the all time best.

I need salvation as much as anyone.  As much as Bill Cosby.

What would the New York Magazine cover look like of people I have hurt, throughout my life?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Under-appreciated: Jackie Brown

In 1997 Tarantino released the follow up to what many still consider his greatest work, Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction felt like something new and original, while of course acknowledging things that came before.  It is usually considered the most influential American film of the 90s.

So when Tarantino released its follow up, an Elmore Leonard novel adaptation, Jackie Brown; there was a lot of high anticipation. But anticipation for another Tarantino film.  What they got instead was as un-Tarantino as any film he has made, despite the obvious Tarantino trademarks.

We got the dialogue.  "My ass may be dumb.  But I ain't no dumb ass."

We got the great soundtrack.

We got multiple perspectives of the same moment.

We even got a scene with a car trunk and a firearm.

What we also got is maybe the last thing people expected; or wanted.  A paced (not all that violent) movie that lets us get to know two star crossed (would be) lovers. Jackie Brown actually contains a tragic, not to be love story.  Something no other film of his had to that point.  And its done pretty darn brilliantly.  

Max Cherry (an outstanding Robert Forster) is smitten immediately by Pam Grier's, Jackie Brown.

By the end of the movie, Cherry has helped Brown procure a large sum of money and only taken 10% as his fee.  Brown not only offers him more, but asks if he will come away with her.  Everything to this point tells us this is exactly what Cherry wants to do.  He told Brown he is going to sell his business.  He is in love with her.  So why doesn't he go with her?

There are two scenes that stood out the most to me, as to why Cherry stays in a job (and possibly a life) he does not enjoy, and lets Brown exit his life.

The first is when, late in the film, Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) comes to get his money from her, and Brown kills Ordell.  Now, no she never actually pulls a trigger.  She lets ATF agent, Ray Nicolette do that, after yelling "he's got a gun!"

It was not pointed at Brown and by all rationale, she was not in any immediate danger.

But if Ordell lived, he would talk.  And for Brown to be truly free, Ordell needed to never talk.  And you see a look from Brown, as she deals in her mind the decision she just made.

Then you see a look from Cherry.  And after being in the dark, the lights were literally just turned on.

 Cherry is not a helpless type.  He is a bail bondsman.  A man who explains how he stuns people to take them in to jail.  "That's the job."

But is there something else that keeps him from making that decision we want him to make?

Cherry holds his own with everyone he encounters in the film.  He never really seems scared of anything.  Ordell and he have various back and forths.  But one line now stands out that the first time I saw it, probably seemed like a throw away.  It is used as a verbal volley at Ordell, and it does connect in the moment.

"Is white guilt supposed to make me forget that I run a business?"

The fact Cherry is white and Jackie is black, seems to have no bearing on the movie.  It's never mentioned.  But of course its a fact.

With that line, Cherry shows he sees and acknowledges the difference in himself and almost everyone he deals with in the movie.

It's understated.

But is it possible this is another small reason for Cherry's decision?

The most subtle of racism on Max Cherry's part?

Tarantino might be the last person anyone would expect to make a well thought out, restrained but powerful look at race.

And definitely the last person who would get any credit for doing so.

Yes Max Cherry is a white man that helps a black woman.  But they are played as equals completely in the film.  Actually, Jackie Brown is intellectually superior to anyone else in the movie.  The Blind Side this is not.

This is about class systems and Jackie trying to do whatever she must do.

For a man known for his brilliant use of music, Tarantino's choices here might well be his best.

In the last scene we hear Bobby Womack's, "Across 110th Street," and see Brown sum up the entire movie by her look into the camera, and singing along with the words.

"Doing whatever I had to do to survive/ I'm not saying what I did was alright/Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight."

We hear the Delfonics a few times throughout the film.  Max heard them first from Jackie, and now can't seem to get enough.

It's also played for laughs during a tense moment right before a pivotal scene.

As for the supporting characters in the film.

No one has ever understood how to use Samuel L. Jackson, as effectively as Tarantino does time and again.

Deniro gives one of his most underrated performances. (Maybe the best putting down of a phone in film history)  His ex-con, Louis, goes from cuddly to scary, in slow convincing ways.

Whats gets him to the breaking point is Bridget Fonda's, Melanie. (Watching this movie again made me sad that Fonda quit acting so long ago)  She says his name with such drawn out contempt and mockery that well, you can nearly understand Louis's reaction.  Fonda is Deniro's equal in this film.

"I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with.  I'll be stuck with whatever I can get."  -Jackie

If this film was released today, this line, and even the casting of Grier, might be called "meta," a la Michael Keaton in Birdman.

Grier did not have too much of a career any more, when Quentin gave her this lead role without even asking her to audition.

Robert Forster was in even more dire straits.  He says in an interview that he had previously auditioned for Reservoir Dogs, felt he nailed the audition, but did not get a part.  He was sitting in a little cafe considering quitting acting, and trying to decide what else he could do for a living when Tarantino walked in and Forster invited him over.  Soon after he had a part in a movie that would keep him a working actor for as long as he wanted.      

One wonders if also the line above did not refer to Tarantino himself.  Once you are the toast of Hollywood, there is only one way you can go.  And its interesting that he at least seemed, for all its Tarantino-isms, to make a movie unlike the others.  Was this a new direction? What might we have seen from him if it had been more of a success?

Critic Nick Votto had a similar thought.

"In his attempt to kill the creature he created, this new narrative for this Tarantino-esque film culture was dismissed and probably is the reason Quentin Tarantino fell back on the crutch of using old genres as his sole purpose for creating a film."

I am not as critical as Votto on what he would do after Jackie Brown.  The Kill Bill movies are for me, about as re-watchable as anything I've ever seen. And different genres could as easily be viewed as a challenge.  Jackie Brown could more easily be referred to as his "blaxploitation film," as it could a crime thriller.  Outside the casting of Grier, no one seemed to realize what he was doing at the time.

But it is fair to wonder what movies Tarantino is directing somewhere in an alternate universe. One where Titanic, with its awful dialogue, did not win Best Picture that year; but Tarantino won multiple Oscars, for this wonderful and criminally underappreciated film.

Jackie Brown:  "The milk went bad when I was in jail."

Max Cherry:  "Black's fine"

Monday, March 2, 2015

What The Future May Hold

This article contains spoilers.  If you are not caught up on Downton Abbey, and plan to be.  Do not read.

When Downton Abbey premiered 5 seasons ago now, it was Bates that seemed to be the heart of the show from the very opening.  Bates, the slightly crippled old acquaintance of Lord Grantham, who would do anything at all, he was able to do.  Just seemed he was not always up to the task.

But our favorite Earl saw it otherwise and decided to give Bates a try regardless.  A break gone his way for once, and there would be many breaks to go against him soon enough.

Bates was kind of the unofficial star of the show.  Mary and Matthew might have had the sex appeal, but it was "FREE BATES" t-shirts fans were buying up in droves, when our man was wrongfully imprisoned.

We would of course follow every character.  But downstairs it seemed Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes and Daisy and Thomas and Mrs. Patmore and everyone else were just slightly off top billing, to what we wanted.  A great love story between Bates and Anna.  The younger and very attractive Anna; but hey if anyone deserved to marry above their station, that would be Bates.

But eventually, at least for this viewer, Julian Fellowes seemed to betray us just a bit.  Two things were going on at once downstairs.  For one, Bates and Anna were and are having so many problems, to the point I feel worn down.  But not in a good,  I care about all this so much kind of a way.  More of a, "jeesh, who is gonna get locked up next?  Their new puppy?"

Maybe there is a fine balance in portraying star crossed lovers.  And maybe that is what Bates and Anna truly are, and we will be redeemed by good writing in season six.  But while Fellowes made my eyes roll at another prison sentence, he has for a while now, been putting together one of the best and most real love stories in any television show.  And he has been doing it nearly right under our noses.

Season 4 was a bit of a let down.  I think the transition from Matthew's death and where to go next proved difficult for him.  Because for a slow plodding show that prides itself on being as fast paced as the times its set in, in season 4 pretty much nothing at all happened of significance.

Until the very last scene.

Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are walking out on the beach.  They walk towards the water together to keep the other steady.  Mrs. Hughes puts out her hand.

It is a more loving scene than just about anything you will see in any romantic comedy or Nicholas Sparks' film.

The two respective heads of all things downstairs.  Two people that always seem most comfortable in each others company.  Whether that is to be exasperated by one another, or agree on how to handle an outdoor luncheon.  You know simply being in each others company is preferred to the alternative.

And there is something here not often seen in television shows concerning a potential couple.  Not really.  Or at least not this well done.  And that is genuine respect.  Respect that we see Fellowes slowly let build into something more, by so many subtle but also hard to miss touches.

When someone needs to be hired, Carson rarely sounds overly enthusiastic about any prospect.  A good word from Mrs. Hughes and cut to the next time we are downstairs; do we need wonder who the new second footman is?

Carson happily singing to himself after a health scare for Mrs. Hughes turns out to be nothing.  Mrs. Hughes noticing and smiling.

The only thing that might be more romantic than the notion of growing old together, is the notion of already being there, when you finally find someone.

There are some rumblings that season 6 will be the last for Downton Abbey.  Though no one has confirmed that, so it is also likely the key people have not yet decided.  But however much time we have left with these characters, I hope they get the send off that they deserve.

That might not mean the send off that feels fair.  But life is not fair even for the well to do; a point Fellowes has made for a long time.  The season 5 finale seemed so joyful in part, because no one died.  Which means we should probably prepare for another season that rivals The Walking Dead, in about 10 months time.

But I hope more than any two characters, they give Carson and Mrs. Hughes what they deserve.  And while that may or may not be what we will call a happy ending, I hope it is what they seem to have earned.  In the background for those first few episodes, they quickly became the heart of the show.

No matter how attractive Mary and her new man look together, they will never match the chemistry between this butler and this head housekeeper.

Mr. Carson did not get down on one knee to propose.  He never referred to her by her first name.  He simply stated what he had been showing throughout much of season 5.  And in smaller ways all along.  That he wanted Mrs. Hughes to be in his future.  In her acceptance, Mrs. Hughes called him an "old booby."  Which might be my favorite way of saying yes I have ever heard.

Chemistry like that is not made over one season.

It is built throughout a series by strong actors and strong writing.

Please, Mr. Fellowes, keep this up just a little while longer.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Boyhood Remembrances

Boyhood is the nearly universally acclaimed film by Richard Linklater that is probably about to win a bunch of Oscars.  It is in a neck and neck race for best picture with Birdman.

And I can't figure out why anyone likes it.

Would losing the Oscar actually help its reputation?  I feel either film will show up on a future list of either "undeserving" or "deserved to win."  Pulp Fiction's reputation has not been hurt for losing the Best Picture Oscar to Forrest Gump.  Gump is the film that has diminished greatly in time, while Pulp Fiction's reputation has only increased.  So maybe hoping your favorite film will lose, is the best way of looking at it.

But back to Boyhood specifically.  And let me state to being a Linklater fan.  But is it possible this movie will become Crash or Gump or Gigi or some other film that people look back on in a few years and go, "Wait.  We got that one wrong."  I don't know.  It's supporters are great in number right now.  But this is why I feel a backlash might happen.  And the sooner the better.

1:  It's a gimmick without substance.

I know.  Some of you just broke your monocle with outrage.  But how many reviews have you read that have not fawned over the sheer way it was made?  "It took 12 years to make!"  Now just about any movie has a hook.  Pulp Fiction was told out of order.  Birdman gives the appearance of one continuous take.  But how many reviews of those films make it seem like groundbreaking movie making, the likes we have never before seen?

They don't.  But for Boyhood, the gimmick is everything.  Which I feel slowly people will come to realize, is also the only thing.  There is no big payoff.  It's look is unremarkable.  The main character you care less about as he gets older. If the film had been made in a more conventional way with different actors playing Mason, would anyone have even noticed this film?

2.  It's an hour too long

It will probably win the Oscar for best editing.  Yet, its way too long and the end especially just kind of meanders.  I have watched it twice now, assuming I must be missing something.  The first time was tough.  The second time was excruciating.

3.  It's characters are cliched and flat or stereotypical.

Even people who praise Boyhood often mention the exaggerated way her second husband is portrayed in the film.  Then there is the way a Republican is portrayed, when the children knock on his door carrying Obama signs.  Confederate flag.  Threatens to shoot the kids.  Its all very overdone and ridiculous.  Do these people exist?  Sure.  Just about any specific kind of nut job does.  But in the numbers Linklater would probably want you to believe?  No.  It's a ridiculous and offensive caricature.  Yosemite Sam playing a Confederate General in a Bugs Bunny cartoon feels less over the top.

Mason's step-grandparents give the children a bible and a gun as their first presents from them. Because they are conservative and that's what conservatives hand out; like grandmothers and hard candy.

We see one Hispanic character in the entire film.  This was pointed out by Jon Marcantoni, as a bit odd for a film set in Texas.  But when we do see our token character, he is a gardener who speaks broken English.  Arquette's Olivia says, "you're smart, you should go to school." And that is the extent of their interaction. The gardener then returns later in the film to be a manager of a restaurant, (who speaks perfect English) and it is all thanks to Olivia's inspiration.  (Also, I don't think Linklater has a clue that gardener is also often a better career than manager.)

The people that had a hard time with The Blind Side, should have heart palpitations over this one.  It usually takes a whole movie for the white character to rescue the poor minority.  Here it took about 35 seconds.

And I won't mention that just about the only black character with any screen time, is a co-worker of Olivia's who uses one of her four lines in the film to let a still very young Mason, know she'd like to sleep with him.  I'll own that maybe I'm reading too much into that.  But the other examples made it stand out.

4.  Child actors are not always strong adult actors.

Boyhood actually boxes itself in by having to hope Ellar Coltrane, a likeable child actor, will grow into a likeable young adult actor. Contrast young Mason conveying how he felt for getting his hair cut, with older Mason.  Older Mason is an artsy fartsy semi burnout who cares like, about stuff, ya know?  But also, not as much about stuff  Cuz its all the moment, man  Am I right?

And while that might be accurate for what some boys his age act like, it's also depressing and dull.

Oh and they make him a photographer because of course they did.

5.  Drugs. Man.

Call me a stick in the mud.  But too often filmmakers seem to rely on people getting high, to convey them feeling something deep.  We make fun of awkward flashbacks or montages, but its time we started giving this lazy technique the same reaction.

Then again, anything done well, gets a pass.  A better actor could look out at a beautiful moment in nature and convey what is necessary.  Linklater has Coltrane's Mason, get stoned right before his profound/not that profound last scene, because you know, deep thoughts.

Not a whole lot happens in Boyhood.   And that is not my problem with it.  Not much happens in many Linklater movies.  But whats on screen is still fun and interesting.


A better actor.  And a vastly better Linklater movie.  
Arguably just as profound.

So how will Boyhood be remembered?  Will it become Crash?  A movie highly regarded as one the critics got wrong?  Or will it grow in reputation over time?

Honestly, the best thing that could happen for it is to lose that Best Picture Oscar.  Let the supporters keep a chip on their shoulder and talk it up over the coming years.

For me, I am all for a Boyhood backlash,  And lets not wait.  Let it begin now.  If it takes winning that Oscar for people to come to their senses, so be it.

And the Oscar goes to....

Friday, January 2, 2015

Best Movies of 2014



It was a pretty good year for Sci-fi.  While Interstellar and Guardians of the Galaxy did well at the box office, some of the most effective sci-fi movies were the ones shot on low budgets.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson entertains me with his unique style, and yet I almost always leave wanting just a bit more.  I felt the same way with The Grand Budapest Hotel, but over time, I found myself still thinking highly of the film.  Actually maybe more highly than the day I watched it.  While he might have missed masterpiece status again, he might have also come closest yet with this funny and touching movie.  Add Ralph Fiennes to the list of unjustly overlooked performances.

Under The Skin

There are movies I like and movies I like, and would recommend.  Under The Skin is in that category where someone will ask if I liked it, and I am tempted to say, "yes, but don't see it."

If you like Lynch or Cronenberg, but think they are sometimes a little too easy to digest, then maybe you should check out Jonathan Glazer's, Under The Skin.

What did this mean?  What was the point of that?  It is also likely as simple as a Grimm's fairly tale. But just as unsettling.

Scarlett Johansson had a heck of a year.  Now, box office wise that was not always the case.  But I am impressed with how a person of her Hollywood standing, would do not just Lucy, but this movie as well.

Along with Lucy and Her (2013), she seems to have completed a sort of "what's it mean to be human," trilogy.  And when Her is the most audience friendly movie of the bunch, seems Johansson is due some risk taking props.

I can hear certain friends right this moment, wondering what is wrong with me for even giving a movie like this a look, much less some acclaim.  I get that.  I am all for pure entertainment as much as the next person.  (some of that below)

I'm not pretentious enough to say they are wrong.  I'm also pretentious enough to say neither am I.


Add Michael Fassbender to the list of performances that were unjustly overlooked.  He should have received more recognition, for the last scene alone.

But the biggest triumph of Frank, is to show mental illness in a creative person, and by the end of the film acknowledge it is not romantic, but in fact got in the way.  It is a simple truth not often so well stated.

Begin Again

John Carney struck gold in 2006.  The little known Irish director and former member of the Irish rock band, The Frames, decided to make a film about some musicians.  He recruited lead singer of The Frames, Glen Hansard, to write songs for the movie.  Then the lead actor dropped out. So Hansard reluctantly took his place.  He suggested his musician friend Marketa Irglova as the female lead.  What resulted was a simple movie that two non-actors carried on the strength of their chemistry and songs.  It won them both an Oscar for best original song and was even turned into a multiple Tony winning play.  It would be understandable for Carney to go back to the well again.

Begin Again is not a sequel to Once.  But in spirit, it kind of feels like one.  The faces are better known this time.  Keira Knightley is the female lead.  An actress playing a musician instead of the other way around.  While not having an overpowering voice, she does a fine job with the songs.  (kind of a semi Laura Veirs quality to her singing).

The standout of the film though, is Mark Ruffalo.  He hits every note just right of an alcoholic has-been record executive, who finds some joy again in discovering Knightley's character.  Actually joy is the proper word to describe this film.  Carney has a legitimate talent for conveying true joy in his movies.  I dare you to see this movie and not smile at some point.  And for at least the second time, he ends a movie perfectly.

Begin Again is not quite as special as Once, though I think your opinion on that would be influenced by which movie you saw first.  If this movie is not a home run, it is at least a stand up triple.  And if Scorsese can keep making gangster movies and be celebrated for it, might as well acknowledge Carney for making the best movies about musicians.            

Mistaken For Strangers

It's disguised as a music documentary about the band, The National.  Except it's not really that at all. It's a movie about what its like to have a brother who is vastly more successful, and how that manifests itself within a creative family.  The pressures to be creative, and become someone that matters.

You do not have to be a fan of the band to find the story touching and heartbreaking, frustrating, and funny.

American Sniper

Such a divisive film.  And why?  Conservatives were immediately defensive about the film and any critic who might bash it.  Before either critic or moviegoer could even see it.

Some liberals have gone as far to call the subject, Chris Kyle, a "serial killer."  And at least one critic gave it a horrible review while admitting he based his entire review on the trailer alone.  He never bothered to see the movie.

What the film is, in actuality, is neither right wing or left wing.  Its about a man with a gift for shooting a gun.  Who does a job almost none of us could, even if we had the mechanics to do so; and how he must deal with that.

What it is in actuality is one of Clint Eastwood's finest movies, an amazing 6 months after the release of what is generally considered one of his worst (Jersey Boys).

There are some minor quibbles.  An early flashback scene could have possibly been done better. Same with a late slow motion scene.  The fake baby, as has been mentioned ad nausea.  But 2 or 3 scenes out of many, just show how much the rest of it, hit me just right.

I once had a conversation with a soldier who was about to go back to Iraq for another tour.  While he was of course a patriotic enough person, he said that had nothing to do with why he kept going back. He kept going back because you make friends in the military and in war.  And you go back to be alongside and protect those friends.  That, more than any political agenda, is what I took from this film.

So might a few other people, if they are open minded enough to watch more than the trailer.

Above scene done in one take and without rehearsal


David Ayer is becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.  He has so far had a hit or miss career.  But between this and End of Watch, he is on a roll; making incredibly entertaining, violent action films.

It's not Ayer's style to be subtle, (let's show a person's face getting blown off, as opposed to not showing that) and most war films aren't subtle anyway.  But there were a few times, I actually thought he was in this film.

I could nitpick a few things.  The Grady (Jon Bernthal) character annoyed me almost too much (I realize this was the intent).  While he might have been too close to cliche dumb war character, I think when you spend years in a tank, it also takes a special breed of person.  What surprised me the most was Shia LaBeouf's performance. LaBeouf is a jackass.  To the point it can not be helping his career.  (I did not see this film earlier, simply because he was in it)  But when given the right role, he can excel.  This is a prime example.  Pitt gives perhaps my second favorite performance of his (after The Tree of Life).  And Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) also does another fine job, as the kid trained to type 60 words a minute, now thrust into real War.

What helps elevate Fury a bit, is a set piece between Pitt and Lerman and 2 German women.  Ayer allows this interaction to play out.  Maybe influenced by the (originally cut) dinner sequence in Apocalypse Now or even Tarantino's use of extending scenes.  It is not even a perfect scene, but it hints at something greater.  Ayer seems to be influenced by the right people.  Soon he might be the one people cite as an influence.

10.  The Homesman

This excellent work from director/actor Tommy Lee Jones, deserved more attention than it got.  Challenging, thought provoking, biblical.  The unsung performance of the year just might be Hillary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy.  A single 31 year old frontier woman no man seems to find good enough.  But who does tasks men are unwilling or unable to do.  In this case, bring three women who have gone mad for different reasons, to a far away church willing to care for them.

Though on closer look, no one in the film might be exactly sane.  Tommy Lee Jones is now two for two as a feature film director.  Having made two films (2006 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) that you think on, well after the credits.  Two films that deserved more recognition at the time of their release.  

9.  The Babadook

I generally do not care for straight "horror" movies.  But this film is a bit of a con.  It's dressed up as a straight horror film, while really being something a bit deeper.  To tell you more would be to explain why I liked it so much.  And that might spoil it just a bit.  But there is more to deal with in the world than the boogeyman.  An ending that I did not love in the moment.  Then a few hours later, had already increased in my mind quite a bit.

8.  Gone Girl

Another ending I did not love in the immediate aftermath.  But for such an outrageous movie, I soon realized it had to have an outrageous ending too.  The whole film is batshit crazy.  But that is also part of the appeal.  It is also from start to finish maybe the most entertaining movie of the year.

7.  Locke

To describe the plot of Locke might feel like saying too much.  Just let it unfold as it does.  But it is not really a spoiler I don't think, to say it is nearly a one man show.  You hear other voices, and those voice performances are also well done.  But you only see one face on screen for an hour and a half.  The film stands or falls on Tom Hardy's performance.  That and a darn good script.  Hardy is a great actor whose biggest role has been with his face covered and a robotic Darth Vader sounding voice, as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.  That seems like such a waste of a great actor when you realize how watchable he is.  Hardy is worthy of being a household name.  Maybe soon enough he will be.  I feel this film will be discovered by people for years to come.  Do yourself a favor and discover it now.       

6.  Blue Ruin

Revenge is usually not worth it.  Also, you might find your targets are not exactly the people you thought they were all along.  Even if they are bad people, what are you?

5.  The Immigrant 

One of the movies I was most disappointed by this year (The Skeleton Twins) was because of a surprising lack of depth in the main character.  The Immigrant has no such problem.  Half way through I thought it was a pleasant enough, well done film.  Then it became something more to me.  The most credit going to director James Gray and actor Joaquin Phoenix.  At the start of the film we think he (Phoenix) is one person.  Then very quickly we see him as something else.  Then he changes yet again to show us yet another side.  Depth of character like this is of course to the great credit of the writing and directing.  But Phoenix proves once again he is a fine actor.  And this ranks amongst his best performances.

 4.  Nightcrawler

It is a bit of a toss up which movie is more insane; Nightcrawler or Gone Girl.  But start to finish this is great entertainment anchored by another solid Jake Gyllenhaal performance.  Reminded me of Drive, one of my favorite films of a few years ago; but with more social commentary.

3.  Ida

A beautiful film.  Beautiful in its simplicity while still being profound.  Before taking her vows to be a nun, a woman raised in a convent is told to meet and spend time with her aunt.  The aunt tells her she is actually Jewish.  This starts the two on a journey that is road picture as well as coming of age and self discovery and buddy film.  All in about 78 minutes time.  

2.  The One I Love  

Nicolas Sparks meets Spike Jonze.  Your favorite romantic comedy meets Inception?  It's as crazy as it sounds and I understand totally if it doesn't work for you.  It worked for me, though.  In part, for its mere audacity.

From the moment I put this on my list, I assumed it would drop back a few spots.  But I found the opposite to be true.  It stayed with me more than almost any movie I saw in 2014.

1.  Birdman or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance)

"This is about being respected and validated, remember?  That's what you told me."

Often I go back and forth with what movie to put at #1 when I make these lists.  Often I double-guess the film I put here.  That won't happen this time.  See previous post for more if you like.

But to sum up:  For me, easily the best film of 2014.

Biggest Disappointments:

Boyhood:   Without a doubt the movie I came out of thinking, "what am I missing?"  What almost everyone is hailing as Linklater's masterpiece, I found to be one of the least enjoyable movies I saw all year. There is no payoff.  While I believe that was partly the point Linklater was making.  (All lives are simple but meaningful)  It doesn't make his movie any less boring.  Especially at almost 3 hours.

The mere fact of how he filmed this (over 12 years, same actors), seems to be clouding people's minds with what is actually on screen.  Gene Siskel said his criteria for liking a movie was if you could take these same actors and just listen to them talk to each other for 2 hours.  What would be more interesting?  I would be very interested in seeing a "making of," documentary on Boyhood.  I have no doubt that would be more intriguing and even much more emotional.  (The main actor literally grew up with these people.  How would it not be?)

But for people clouded by the mere hook of how the movie was done, let me suggest watching the 7 Up documentaires instead.  Can we go back and give that more awards, and let this Boyhood, be forgotten?

Noah:  This movie was a bit of a theological debate among some of my friends.  Should people of the Christian faith even see a movie, made by an atheist, about a central character of the bible?  I came down on the side of, "I need to see it before I can criticize it."  I saw it.  And while there were some things towards the end I could debate from a Christian point of view, what was the very easiest thing to say about this movie, was that it was kind of hokey and silly.  A strong beginning gave way to just a strange and even at times, boring movie.  Boring being the last thing Aronofsky usually is.

The Monuments Men:  Not a bad movie exactly, just a mediocre one.  And when you have this kind of talent on screen, it feels like such a letdown.  As a director, Clooney seems to be working in reverse.  Most of his best films coming early and his simplest and weakest movies coming later.

Unbroken:  To read or not to read?  The book, "Unbroken," is one of the best non-fiction works I have ever read.  While I knew the movie version would not have near the amount of detail, I figured the story is so great, how can they screw it up?

                I guess they didn't completely.  But also, Jolie rarely distinguishes herself here as a director.  It is a great uplifting story, but blandly told.

The best part of the film is the very end when the real Louis Zamperini is shown.  Reminding us the real man deserved more than this unimaginative re-telling.  

The Skeleton Twins:  This pains me to write more than any of the rest.  I like both Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.  I respect that Wiig seems to do what she wants in a lot of ways.  And there are good things about this movie.  Both of their performances to begin with.  But as different as this film wants to be, it can't help but feel like just another depressing indie minded movie we should all share our feelings about at our local coffee spot.

Hader and Wiig play brother and sister; both suicidal.  Hader's misery seems more thought out.  Wiig seems to be depressed because well, she is.  Which is actually even accurate to some degree, but then when her husband (Luke Wilson) is a nearly perfect human being, you don't really root for her in any way, once she treats him poorly.

Then they throw in dated movie stereotypes, like Hader (he is a gay man in this film) wearing a dress. Oh and when Wiig is at a depressed moment, Hader does a silly lip sync and dances around the living room, making everything better for just a moment.  That might have worked in a comedy skit or another film, but is totally misplaced here.  Just because your actors come from improv and can do something, doesn't mean you should make them.