Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Birdman or (Being Respected and Validated)

“Time is short and the water is rising.” 
             -Raymond Carver

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a triumph of direction, performance and audacity.   

Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu has essentially shot a film that feels as if it is a play.  Made up of a series of very long takes, the movie has the feel of playing out in just one continuous one.  You are watching a movie acted out like a play, in which the characters are often acting or rehearsing a play.  An adaptation of Raymond Carver's book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

I would say they make it look easy, but it looks as if it was a nightmare of logistics and choreography.  What it also is, is heartbreaking, dark, and funny.  

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who peaked in his career 20 years ago after deciding to not play a comic book superhero for a fourth time.  It is of course extra poignant that Keaton played Batman twice and turned down 20 million dollars to do the third movie.  Because as he says, "it sucked."  We would then see his career slowly fade into smaller roles, in fewer "big movies."     

But Keaton is not the only person who seems to be playing a version of himself.  Actually beyond the superficial, Keaton is playing a man nothing like himself.  Ed Norton, however, might be a different story.  Norton plays a brilliant actor that can be an egotistical pain in the ass to work with.  I am not sure how Gonzalez-Inarritu approached Norton with the part.  But his reputation proceeds him.   Keaton is getting early Oscar buzz and it is completely deserved.  Norton also deserves best supporting actor consideration.  He is excellent.  And also, in a smaller way than Keaton, reminds us that we have missed him too.  

Every performance is strong.  Also of note is Zach Galifianakis, playing against type.  Amy Ryan, (who I am fine with seeing in every movie from this point on)  is perfect as Keaton’s ex-wife.  Emma Stone plays Keaton’s at least semi estranged daughter, but who now works for him.  She has good chemistry with both Keaton and Norton.  Those gigantic eyes might have been cast for her last scene alone.

Ambition.  Ego.  Being respected.  Being relevant.    

As Emma Stone's Sam, tells Keaton’s Thomson:  (paraphrasing) “You don't matter....You don't even have a Facebook page.”

Every actor in the Carver play is insecure and selfish.  Every actor also has moments of likeability.

Riggan sees himself left bare (literally) for his craft.  He gives everything he can to make and perform his play successfully.  Does he succeed or not by the end of the movie?  It might be irrelevant. 

But Gonzalez-Inarritu, Lubezki (cinematographer), Keaton and company have made a piece of art worth celebrating.

I once got into a discussion with one of my best friends, after he mocked my describing a Terrence Malick movie as an "art film."

"How can it be an art film?  It has stars in it?"

I found this view particularly odd; but I think of it now as a discussion of, can certain famous actors make art?  Are they even allowed in some people's eyes?

The critic in Birdman would seem to say, no. "You're a celebrity, not an actor."

That Malick film we were talking about starred Ben Affleck.  The latest Batman.

Ignorance truly is virtuous when it comes to making a film like this.  A lot of things have to work all at once.  Gonzalez-Inarritu has indeed achieved something special here.  I might call it art.  If you don't see it as that?  Hopefully you see it as a darn entertaining film.  For me, the best movie of the year, by far.

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

(From Raymond Carver's gravestone)

Monday, September 15, 2014

The World's Most Hated Man

The Last of the Rock Stars
When Hip-Hop drove the big cars.
In the time when New Media.
Was the big idea.         -U2

U2 just released their 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence.  Through a partnership with Apple, the Album was given to people through Itunes, for Free.  Pretty cool, right?  Ha ha.  Just kidding.  Of course this makes them horrible people.

What seems to me to be a forward thinking way of doing business, has been criticized.  U2  is labelled with the term, "sell out," by GIVING AWAY THEIR ALBUM FOR FREE.

Of course the face of U2 is their iconic frontman, Bono.  Bono, he of 22 Grammy Awards; famous humanitarian, beloved father, friend, husband, musician, and one of the most hated men in the world. I can not think of a person who is more routinely criticized unjustly than Bono.

The latest criticism came in almost immediately.  Apple announced they would be offering the new U2 album to everyone.  But wait, you are devaluing music! As Bono pointed out as soon as the announcement, U2 actually got paid.  It was essentially a gift from Apple.  Which makes the exact point people want to criticize, a little confusing.

So the band gets paid, as they deserve to; the album is a free gift to fans, and they still are hated for it. But why, exactly?  Radiohead did a very similar thing in 2007 with In Rainbows.  They offered the album to people through their website.  "Pay what you want," and most people decided that 0.00 was the exact amount they desired to pay.  Later they offered the Album in a traditional format in stores and it became a hit.  As Radiohead stated at the time:  "We sell less records, but we make more money."

It is worth pointing out that Radiohead were hailed for this decision.  U2 are hailed by business experts, but by the public at large as well as some fellow musicians, the publicity is negative.

The Rolling Stones made a cereal commercial.  Pete Townsend sells The Who's music to anyone willing to pay.  Led Zeppelin's music can be heard in a current commercial for a video game.

MTV doesn't play music videos anymore.  If you want to promote your music, I have yet to see the problem (if done well) with the Apple connection.  U2 famously love new technology.  It makes sense they are Apple fans.  Their video for "Even Better Than The Real Thing," required the invention for a new kind of camera. That's just one example.  Many of the very people rolling their eyes at U2 for making this deal, will be first in line for the new IWatch.

U2 turned down 25 million dollars to sell their song, "Where The Streets Have No Name," to Nissan. They said no.  Would The Stones or The Who do that?  We know Bob Seger would not have.  Or Kid Rock.  And that's fine.  But where is the consistency?

Part of the problem is, Bono is not entirely easy to label.

Bono is a liberal rock star.  So conservatives don't care for him asking world leaders for money to fight AIDS in Africa.  It should be noted, since his efforts, things have improved.  Having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize no longer seems silly; it now seems silly that certain people who have accomplished far less, have won over him.

Bono also lauded George W. Bush, for seeing to it America gave an immense amount of money to help fight Aids in Africa.  (Far more than Obama currently has) Facts be damned, many liberals hate Bono for praising the despised former president.

He is also a business man.  Who happens to work in the music business.  How many bands of U2's longevity can you think of that have kept their original lineup, their entire career?  Part of that has to be that they decided from day one they wanted to be smart about the business end.  Which would in turn make them less likely to resent each other and break up over such matters like so many bands do.  They have generated so much money for Ireland that their was (and probably still is) an entire division in their version of the IRS, just devoted to their taxes.  When Ireland got even more oppressive with their tax laws, they very wisely moved some operations to another country.  Where they could keep more of their own money.  Money they earned.  This is not only legal, but smart.  The people that criticize Bono and the band over this decision are assuming Ireland knows better than all of their citizens how they should spend their own money.

"Aid is just a stop gap.  Commerce, Entrepreneurial Capitalism, takes more people out of poverty than aid.  Of course we know that."    -Bono

While very much a "give a man a fish," type of person.  Bono also has come to understand the power of the Biblical, "teach a man to fish."  He started a clothing line with his wife called "Edun".  The profits not only go to help Africa, but it provides jobs for Africans as well.  Production is sourced throughout the continent.

Which leads to one of the things people do not like the most.

Bono is also a Christian.  Many non-believers, don't like him for this.

Many believers also don't like him for this reason.  Because, he is not "Christian enough," in their minds.  

"We've found different ways of expressing it, and recognized the power of the media to manipulate such signs.  Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand.  It's there for people who are interested.  It shouldn't be there for people who aren't."  -Bono

A man who stated early on he is a Christian; to people's minds, must repeat this fact in every interview to make them happy.  He is also not in a "Christian Band," so he is criticized by standards of a preacher, that he never signed up for.

Is Bono a perfect Christian?  Of course not.  But here is the thing; that's kind of the point of Christianity.  There is only one worthy of any of it.  And the people that spend such time and effort condemning a man, that every member of Billy Graham's family seems to think is a good, Christian, man...well.  I am going to take the word of people who actually know him.

I will say this on a personal level.  I grew up going to concerts by Christian Bands.  I would sometimes feel God in the room.  I have also felt that, but more so at one specific U2 concert. (and no other rock show)  When Bono said, "I think God is in this building," I don't think he was wrong.  He might not show up to every U2 show, but I think He is at the very least a casual fan.

Which brings us to what should be the real love him or hate him point anyway; the music.  Do you hate U2 music?  Do you hate Bono's voice?  His lyrics?  If so, fine.  Dislike him all you want.  I have no issue with you.

But when it is based on something else.  And on such a visceral, personal level.  Either from a strange jealousy or some outdated, pretentious notion of how music should be packaged and sold.  I think that is not just unfair, but ridiculous.

Think if you can honestly say you would turn down the chance to get your art shared with the world. That you would turn down money for something you worked years on.

If you can, you should immediately go to the hospital to get that stick removed.  You have bigger issues than seeing a band you don't much care for, show up for free in your Itunes.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Both Things

In 2004, 10 years ago now, "The Passion of the Christ" was released.  It was a film that no major studio was willing to touch, despite the fact its director's previous effort ("Braveheart") was not only incredibly financially successful, but won 5 Academy Awards.  

People in Hollywood were so against the film, it felt as if negative thoughts about it were written well before these same people even saw the film (or whether they ever did at all). 

Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News called it "the most virulently antisemitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II."

Hypocritically, now Hollywood is trying to (still) jump on that bandwagon.  There are multiple movies being released this year based on biblical stories.  "Noah," even boasts an enormous budget. Most people would admit this is in direct correlation to the gigantic success of "The Passion."  

The fact that this film is so controversial is something I simply do not understand.  I cannot help but find people’s over the top criticism of it to be in large part dishonest. 

A defense and 4 star review by the late, esteemed critic Roger Ebert, stood out in large part for being in the minority of open-mindedness (Ebert was no fan of religion).  "My own feeling is that Gibson's film is not anti-Semitic, but reflects a range of behavior on the part of its Jewish characters, on balance favorably…. A reasonable person, I believe, will reflect that in this story set in a Jewish land, there are many characters with many motives, some good, some not, each one representing himself, none representing his religion."  -Roger Ebert 

What we had was a film that in this writer’s opinion, is a masterpiece of film-making.  From cinematography to score to acting and direction, this is a film that should be celebrated.  To many Christians, it was and is.  But awards would not be forthcoming and we need not wonder why.  

Then Gibson would be arrested for DUI and he would start down a life spiral that some (myself included) wondered if he would be able to pull out of.  For many critics of Gibson and his film, the horrible things said by Gibson were almost inconsequential.  It was more a celebratory sentiment and still is.  A “look we told you so.”  And while Hollywood loves a comeback and seems willing to forgive nearly anyone over anything, forgiving Gibson is still not in the cards.  Which makes a few of his public supporters all the more touching in their outward show of support for a man, they say, we do not know.

Actor Jim Caviezel was a kind of collateral damage casualty for playing Christ in Gibson’s movie.  In 2004 Caviezel was a star on the rise.  Having attained acclaim for his performances in “The Thin Red Line,” “Frequency” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” starring in one of the biggest money making films of all time would seem to be a good career move.  But until he showed up on television a few years ago in Person of Interest, Caviezel nearly disappeared. 

Gibson, for one, warned him.  Twenty minutes after offering him the role, Gibson tried to talk Caviezel out of taking it. 

"The next day, he said, 'I want you to be aware of what you are going to go through. You may never work again.'”

Distancing oneself from Gibson would have seemed solid career advice when things were at their worst.  But Caviezel brought up Gibson himself during this time, without being asked.

"Mel Gibson, he’s a horrible sinner, isn't he?  Mel Gibson doesn't need your judgment, he needs your prayers.”

Jodie Foster has been close to Gibson ever since they starred in “Maverick,” together. 

“I knew the minute I met him that I would love him the rest of my life.” 

While never excusing Gibson’s past behavior, Foster is staunch in her support for her friend. She has been criticized for it. 

Just one example is Salon.com writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, who wrote about Foster, “The movie icon continues to go to bat for her embattled friend. Maybe it's time to rethink the acclaimed actress."

Continually standing up for your friend while not excusing his behavior seems to me to be the epitome of a great friend.  Especially when few will do so publicly.

"He is kind and loyal and thoughtful.  And I can spend hours on the phone with him talking about life.”

“I know him in a very complex way.  He’s a real person; he’s not a cardboard cutout.  I know that he has troubles, and when you love somebody you don’t just walk away from them when they are struggling.”

Foster recently received the Cecille B Demille Award.  In receiving her award, Foster had Gibson as one of her guests at her table, along with her two sons.  In the closing remarks to her speech, Foster thanked, “And of course, Mel Gibson.  You know you saved me too.”

How Gibson might have saved the notoriously media shy Foster, we can only guess.  But the feeling is not Foster’s alone.

A few years back, Robert Downey Jr.’s career was struggling from his constant battles with addiction.  One of the people that helped get him work when his career was at its lowest point, was Mel Gibson.  Now Downey is about as big a star as there is in Hollywood.  Downey too, won a prestigious award due to this career resurgence.  In winning it he insisted Mel Gibson be the one that presented him with the award.  Downey then took his allotted speech time to talk solely about Gibson.  How Gibson helped him when he was at his worst.

"I humbly ask that you join me - unless you are completely without sin, and in which case you picked the wrong fucking industry - in forgiving my friend of his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and on-going contribution to our collective art without shame.”  -Robert Downey, Jr.

Speaking directly to industry people, Downey’s comments received a standing ovation.  A standing ovation from people who if they wanted to, could help revive the career of a man who was once one of the biggest stars in the world.  It seems few if any have called.

This took place in the same year "The Hangover 2," came out. A film in which Gibson was cast in a very small role.  The actors decided they did not want Gibson in their film.  That is their prerogative.  But to then have no issue acting alongside a convicted rapist in Mike Tyson, shows one example of the hypocrisy.

“I couldn't get hired and he cast me.  He said if I accepted responsibility-he called it hugging the cactus-long enough, my life would take meaning.  And if he helped me, I would help the next guy.  But it was not reasonable to assume the next guy would be him.”     -Robert Downey Jr.

Downey has not given up.  Just this year there are reports that he is using all his clout to convince the powers that be to cast Gibson in an “Iron Man” or “Avengers” film.  On that, we wait, while not holding our breath.  

During the Two And A Half Men, fiasco with Charlie Sheen, in which he was admittedly back on drugs and seemed to be acting like someone in his last days, he was asked where the best help had come during that time.  His answer: Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr.

“They just offered love to me.”

2003 Interview
DIANE SAWYER: "What does the evil side want?"

MEL GIBSON: "It wants you, it wants you. People are capable of horrors, of atrocities. We're also capable of wonderful things, of good things and we have the choice. What do we choose, you know. And often, many of us, at different times, choose both things."

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ten Fantastic Performances That Were Not Nominated For The Academy Award (Part 1)

Mel Gibson   "The Beaver"

To be fair, Mel Gibson could have given a performance that Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando would both come back from the dead to praise, and still no one would have wanted to give him any credit for it. The film was delayed while the latest backlash against him died down a bit.  In a weird way, knowing what we know about Gibson; that he is a very flawed, very complicated and talented man, makes this film more powerful.  It also caused many people to not even give it a chance.

One of Gibson's closest friends, is his co-star and director, Jodie Foster.  That she only thought of Gibson in this role, speaks volumes.

What Gibson gave her was a performance worthy of an Oscar Nomination.  If this was back when everyone loved Mel, he would have gotten that nomination.  Current Mel barely gets work that is not of his own making right now.  And I think only current Mel could have pulled this role off as well as he does.    

Gene Hackman  "Hoosiers"

When "Hoosiers" came out, Dennis Hopper got most of the acting accolades for his flashier role.  But I was also shocked to see Hackman did not get an Oscar Nomination for his role.  More than any actor playing a coach, Hackman as Norman Dale, feels the most natural, the most believable.  If he makes it look easy, that's also kind of the point.

In fact, Hackman was so good for so long, he was sometimes under-appreciated.  His performance in "The Conversation," has become at least semi-iconic.  No nomination for that one either.  

Natalie Portman  "The Professional"

Natalie Portman's first performance at age 12, was a pretty incredible debut.  In fact, all three main performances are pretty awesome.  The chemistry between Portman and Jean Reno helps elevate this film to one of the finest of its type.  This performance would not only fit right in as a nominee for that year's Oscars;  (Was Susan Sarandon in the nearly forgotten "The Client," really better than Portman that year?) it was good enough to deserve the award.

Gary Oldman  "Immortal Beloved"

Gary Oldman is one of the finest actors working in film, and has been for his entire career.  Just as Hackman IS a high school basketball coach, Oldman IS Beethoven to me.  For such an expressive actor, Oldman in this scene, makes simply putting his (best) ear to the piano, to feel the vibrations as he plays, both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Jim Caviezel   "The Thin Red Line"

The balance of underplaying with enough expressions to fill up a silent movie.  Caviezel is so strong as Private Witt, and develops such good chemistry with Sean Penn as 1st Sgt. Walsh, that Witt became the closest thing to a main character there is in the film.  Adrian Brody was supposed to be the main character, but for Malick, Caviezel was just too good.  This is even more impressive with the fact that Brody himself is no slouch; winning an Oscar a few years later.

This scene is one in which Caviezel essentially wrote himself.  Malick asked him what he thought of Sean Penn.  Caviezel replied, "One day he is your best friend and the next day you get nothing.  He is like a rock."
And when Penn would chide Caviezel on set for his faith, asking if he was still chasing the light, well Malick put that response in the script too.

Anthony Perkins   "Psycho"

Seriously?  One of the most iconic performances in the history of cinema.  One that made Perkins struggle with being typecast the rest of his career.

Perkins wasn't alone entirely.  That year's Oscars is more embarrassing than most, when you look back on it. "Psycho" was not nominated for best picture, not best score, not best screenplay.  

Christian Bale  "American Psycho"

This film seemed just a few years too soon to be appreciated properly.  A precursor to later films like "Fight Club."  Bale is one of our finest actors.  Don't forget the man almost never gets to use his own speaking voice.  He helps create a character in a film that at some times feels like a murderous Jim Carrey,  and in another moment tries to contain his inner rage and embarrassment in his business cards not being as nice as his colleagues.

Anthony Hopkins   "Shadowlands"

In 1993, Hopkins was so good, something had to give. For his role as C.S. Lewis in "Shadowlands," Hopkins won the coveted BAFTA award for Best Lead Actor. He also won the National Board of Review Award, the Los Angeles Film Association Award and the Southeastern Film Critics Association Award. But his Oscar Nomination that year was for his role in "Remains of the Day," leaving the better performance to not be voted on by the Academy. Tom Hanks would win for "Philadelphia." As good as Hanks was, Hopkins was better, twice.

Nicolas Cage   "Raising Arizona"

Nicolas Cage is such a curiosity.  To the extent the television show "Community," recently had a class at Greendale, that asked the question, "Nicolas Cage, Good or Bad?"  Some people think he overacts all the time, but I would argue he is one of our very finest over-actors.  In much of "Raising Arizona," as screwball a screwball comedy as the Coen Brothers will probably ever make, he is actually holding back much of the time.  This is to great effect as he plays off everyone around him, while still being able to vamp when necessary.  Every decision, every expression is spot on.  It is a great comedic performance.  And alongside the more Oscar ready, alcoholic role in "Leaving Las Vegas," his finest work.    

Gene Wilder   "Young Frankenstein"

We have probably seen all we will ever see of Gene Wilder on screen.  When he was in his prime, there was no better comedic actor.  Nominated for "The Producers," he was also not acknowledged for any of his other great performances.  "Young Frankenstein" is as much a success because of Wilder, as it is Mel Brooks.

Wilder co-wrote the script (the concept was also his idea) and gives not only a hilariously funny performance, but one with some inner rage too.  Maybe Wilder will get an Honorary Academy Award, like Steve Martin just did.  This seems to be the way great comedic performances get (eventually) recognized.

And if you think, wait, Al Pacino was in "The Godfather Part II" that year.  Jack Nicholson was in "Chinatown."  Dustin Hoffman was in "Lenny."  Yes. And Art Carney won the award for "Harry and Tonto." Surely Gene Wilder would have looked just fine in that list of nominees.        

Monday, February 3, 2014

Best Films of 2013

Honorable Mention

Before Midnight

What a satisfying trilogy.  After 2 very romantic films, our couple are part of one heck of a downer of a third film in many ways.  But how bold is that?  And realistic.  It's as if Buttercup and the Man in Black we find out years later, did not live happily ever after, and actually have a pretty volatile relationship; often treating each other horribly.  I so often hate trite predictable romantic films that always end all tied up in a bow.  Watching this I thought, "ok, I get those trite predictable romantic films, because this is kind of a bummer."  But also, its brave and unique and realistic and yet still romantic; and I respected this film in the morning.

Captain Phillips

A solid action film, despite the fact it seems its very much just "inspired" by true events.  Much of it might actually be a total lie.  But hey, its a movie.  And its a good movie.  The final scene is the strongest moment for Hanks.  What I loved was that the military doctor played in the film is played by an actual military doctor.  The woman was star struck in meeting Hanks (understandable) and the next thing she knew she was doing a scene with him.  Hanks essentially directed this scene himself as he calmed her down and they improvised, with him telling her to just do what she would normally do if someone with his "injuries" came onto the ship.  Excellent work Hanks.  Its good to have you back, doing good movies again. 

Warm Bodies

Aren't you tired of Zombies?  I kind of am.  But I never had seen a zombie date movie before.  Clever and sweet.


10.  Gravity

"Gravity" to me was essentially an action film.  Kind of a 3D "Die Hard" meets "Alien" meets "2001" if you will.  While some people take "action film" to be a put down, I do not mean it that way.  For one thing the original "Die Hard" is a great, classic film.  Action films, like any film, are not easy to do well.

"But wait, there is very little dialogue and at times people are just floating!"

Ok.  So it is the type of action film Alfonso Cuaron might make.   Technically, the film is very impressive.  But this is both a strength and a weakness.  It is understandable this is what most of the talk is about, but there is another element to the film that truly elevates it.

The 3D (and I am still not sold on 3D in most films) is one of the more effective uses of that effect I have seen.  At one point Sandra Bullock's character pushes forward towards us in a close up of tension and heavy breathing for the tragedy that has just occurred.  It is a heck of a good shot, unfortunately made even more effective by an effect that most people must wear glasses to see done this well.  There is a scene where we see her tears leave her face and float towards us.  This could have been overly melodramatic but I thought Cuaron found the correct balance.  These are some reasons that technically the film is a marvel to look at, but also why the film might not be technically remembered  years from now, unless 3D does finally become a true standard in a streaming on your laptop age of movies.  

But the best element of the film is Sandra Bullock.  I was thinking recently why I like Jennifer Lawrence as an actress so much.  Is it because she is simply a very strong actor?  I believe that is true and I have believed it since I saw her performance in "Winter's Bone."  But there are lots of great actors.  Why is Lawrence one of my favorites to watch on screen?  Is it because she is attractive?  She is, but so is Alyssa Milano.  So is Eva Mendes and so is Rosario Dawson.  I am not going to see a film based solely on any of them.  It has to be because she has a charisma, an IT factor that is hard to describe.  That certain je ne sais quoi that some artists simply have, and if we knew how or why, that might not make it so special anymore.

Sandra Bullock has that quality.  And I don't think everyone appreciates that.  When she seemed to do her first "serious" work in the film "Crash," I felt "oh, hey, she is doing a dramatic film and she isn't bad."  Bullock can play the comedic role or the action role or the sassy southern mother role.  And as she herself said, when winning her Oscar for "The Blind Side," did she win it so much for her performance or for wearing us down over the years?   Maybe winning us over, over the years.  It was a strong performance, but I think her performance in "Gravity" is better.

Bullock must carry a film that essentially has only 2 characters.  If she is weak, it is merely another well executed but shallow effects film.  Another one of my favorite actresses is Marisa Tomei. Surprisingly winning her Oscar years ago for a comedic role, the urban legend spread that the wrong name was read on Oscar night.  A disrespect she did not deserve.  Since that time, Tomei has been brilliant in so many roles, you know she deserves the phrase "Oscar Winner" before her name as much as anyone working.  While she won the award years ago, it took a few more to truly be an "Oscar winning actress."  Bullock, after "Gravity," to me is now truly an Oscar Winning actress.

9.  The Wolf of Wall Street

The reclusive Gene Wilder was recently tracked down for an interview and was asked his thoughts on actors today.  He mentioned how Leonardo Dicaprio started off his career so well in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," but has been wildly miscast in almost everything sense.

I agree.

I have found Scorsese's fondness of Dicaprio over the last decade or more, kind of perplexing.  Not because he is a bad actor.  He is not remotely, and the rare critic who seems to think this isn't seeing what Wilder does.

While you might applaud DiCaprio taking on such a role as Howard Hughes, it is mystifying to me why beyond box office appeal, he was ever given that role in the first place.  I almost always find myself thinking, "well, he was good considering."

His role in "The Wolf of Wall Street," while it might feel familiar, finally feels (by Scorsese) correctly cast.  This and his role in "Django Unchained," is his best work.  While this type of material is second nature for Scorsese, it is the best collaboration between the two (yes including "The Departed").  And while, like that film, it seems just a bit uneven and overly long; there are more scenes of greatness here.  The funniest scene in any film this year is not anything from "Anchorman 2," but is in seeing DiCaprio's, Jordan Belfort, try to get home in time (without the use of his legs or voice) to keep his business partner off a tapped phone.  "Get OFF the PHONE," has never been so well delivered.

8.  American Hustle

All 4 main performances are so good.  Lawrence is not seen enough.  She steals every scene she is in.  Amy Adams proves again, she is one of the best actors working.  Christian Bale does yet another great performance.  How often in his career has he been able to use his own accent?  I wonder if people are taking him for granted he is so good.  Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the FBI agent who is morally on the same level as the hustlers.  I find myself almost feeling this film is a bit overrated.  But it is just a lot of fun to watch these actors.

7.  To The Wonder

No director was more meant to be seen on the big screen than Malick.  The most divisive film on this list.


6.  Her

Part of the joy of watching "Her," is the amazement that it works as well as it does in the first place. This is an audacious concept.  It is as if Jonze challenged himself to writing something that seems the most ludicrous premise he could think of, and succeed in making it heartfelt and emotional and real.  For the vast majority of the film, he succeeds.

Did you ever really expect to see a love story about a man and his Operating System and hear people crying around you in the theater?  One group of young girls came out and I overheard "that was stupid."  I was 100% sure I had heard these same girls crying just moments before.

And how far fetched is this story really?  I do not believe it is very much.  As the great irony being that social media and technology help us become more isolated from one another and not less so.  This is a near future I believe could be quite accurate.  We are almost there as it is.  Will it take our computers to truly understand us on a broader level than people are capable?

With a few things, I caught myself predicting how a character might react.  Usually, Jonze's character did the exact opposite and I would immediately realize it was the correct decision on his part.  This is a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a predictably strong performance.  What is pleasantly surprising and kind of appropriate for this film, is that Scarlett Johansson, known as much for her attractiveness as anything, gives her best performance ever. And she is never seen.

5.  Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey gives one of the best performances I have ever seen on film.  He is that good.  An actor at the peak of his abilities; and it is a glorious thing to watch.

I don't know what clicked in McConaughey in the last few years.  He burst on the scene years ago as an actor with promise.  He then made a career out of making horrible to aspiring for mediocre romantic comedies.  "What a waste of talent," I often thought to myself.  But I had no idea how right I was.  Please continue on this path Matthew.  It is currently a lot of fun to witness.


4.  Inside Llewyn Davis

Does the cat symbolize Llewyn himself?  Or maybe its art, itself.  The struggle to hold on to your dream.

Is there really any good people in this film to root for?  Davis is kind of a sonofabitch.  But he refuses to compromise his art.  And for that, I'd call him a hero.    

The Coen Brothers are remarkably consistent, considering how also prolific they are.


3.   The Place Beyond The Pines

Ryan Gosling continues to be one of his generations best actors and Bradley Cooper continues to exceed my expectations.  I suppose I could nitpick some things with this film.  But it stayed with me.  More than almost any I have seen in the past year.

2.   The Act Of Killing

A documentary that focuses not on the victims of mass murders, but the murderers themselves.  People that dance and talk gleefully of the past and have grandchildren they love and dote on.

At least one that seems to become haunted in reliving what they did in their past.

A great film to reflect on the larger themes it evokes.  As one character says.  "War Crimes are defined by the winners.  I'm a winner, so I can make my own definition."

Contains one of the great film closing scenes.

1.  The Hunt
 A man works at a Kindergarten.  He cares for the children genuinely.  Though they are not his own, he shows them love.  Love and consideration, that at times, one child's own parents are too busy fighting to give.  He steps in when they do not do their job.  The child feels a closeness.  And then when he must hurt the child's feelings one day, she says something awful to get back at him.  Something she does not even probably completely understand, brought on by an act of someone else.

Then all Hell breaks loose.

Because "children don't lie," according to one adult.  Except sometimes they do.  But then the child tells adults, including her parents, she "just said something stupid.  Lucas did nothing wrong," that is when they choose to believe she is lying.  

The story might be simple enough.  But it is extremely well told, anchored by a incredible performance by Mads Mikkelson.  And one of the best child performances I have seen in some time by Annika Wedderkopp.    

What unfolds is a tale that evokes many feelings.

Original sin.

How we as "good" parents and people, do all in our power to protect our children, to the point of not caring about our fellow adults.

This is of course tricky material and at times very difficult to sit through.  But it is also a rewarding experience.  The best friend of Lucas is played by Thomas Bo Larsen.  At first he feels underused.  But eventually his character is fully formed, as we see his angst of dealing with seeing his best friend's life being destroyed, and not knowing whether he deserves it or not.

No matter the evidence or eventual outcome, some accusations you can not come back from.

Most Disappointing Films

Fruitvale Station

If this film had been true it would be one of the year's best.  "But its a movie it doesn't have to be true!  You just said that yourself about 'Captain Phillips!'"

No, in this case it kind of does.  Because the parts that are not true are pretty dang insincere to the point of the film.

Like "Lincoln," last year, I feel a great story was hinted at but never fully told.  But "Fruitvale Station" comes so much closer to being great.  To say more might be a spoiler, but feel free to talk to me about it in the comments or my email.

For me, it felt more like propaganda in the realm of a Michael Moore film.  So many things well done here, its unfortunate it wasn't what it could have been.  About 2 scenes bring down the entire thing.  A real shame.

The Family

Luc Besson is a very curious director.  He helmed one of my all time favorite films, "The Professional."  He has also since then, made some real duds.  This is probably the worst.  If he has made anything worse, I'd rather not see it.  The most frustrating part, is the last 20 minutes are outstanding.  Its just that the first hour and 20 minutes are brutal.

Only God Forgives

I loved "Drive," and this is by the same writer/director with the same leading man (Gosling).  Lightning did not strike twice.  In fact, it did not come anywhere close.

Upstream Color

Malick is considered an influence.  Shane Carruth can play the notes, but not the music.  I could not figure out what the film was even about.  Once I found out I was not any more impressed.  If there is supposed to be deeper meaning, I no longer care.


For starters I think its a decent to good film.  My problem and disappointment is that I believe it could make some great points without being almost 100% one sided propaganda. Whales being in pools just doesn't feel right.

There is one person who takes the other side; that SeaWorld does good things.  But he is shown at the very end and says about 3 sentences.  The entire rest of the film is "Seaworld is the devil and here is why."

SeaWorld at times has acted like the devil.  But there has also been some good things for these animals, that are a direct result of the work of SeaWorld.  To not mention that is disingenuous and too easy.  A debate about sacrificing a few for the greater good would have made for a far deeper film, spawning a much more interesting discussion.  But as many people involved are members of PETA, and recently sued SeaWorld for "slavery" on behalf of the whales, you can see that that more complex discussion was of no interest to them.

The ending, watching Killer Whales swim in the wild, is ruined by the obvious stunt of the filmmakers taking all the anti SeaWorld trainers out on a boat to see this. 

The humans get in the way and ruin it.     

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen has had an interesting career.  Yes he is an icon.  Yes he has made many very good films.  But with 42 films in 46 years, many of those films are also pretty weak.

This film has no heart.  Yes Blanchett's character is a wreck and I guess we should care.  I suppose he was saying something about picking the wrong people in our lives.  But I was never invested at all.

The Hollywood Reporter called it maybe Allen's "cruelest" film and I think that is probably true.  Jasmine is a flawed character, but she also doesn't deserve all she gets.  Is Allen saying she does?  Is this an anti-wealth morality tale?  Some of the supporting characters, though all well acted, seem just a hair above stereotypes.  Is Allen himself out of touch with working class people?  So which is it?

As far as Blanchett goes, there are of course elements of a great performance here.  The accent, the crying.  I think the great acting checklist is fooling people into thinking this is the best performance by an actress of the year.  It is not.  Because ultimately I felt next to nothing FOR this character. Hey shes crazy, shes broke, she gets cheated on, her son disowns her.  On and on and yet I'm not sure what or how I'm supposed to feel about her.  I'm worn down by her.  And so ultimately...I just don't feel anything.  Its not that its a BAD performance.  Its just not the fantastic thing we are told it is.  And really that's Allen's fault, not Blanchett's. But she will win the Oscar for this, most likely.

It feels like we have been tricked into thinking there is more here than there is.

That might be true of Allen's career on the whole.

If you are thinking of watching "Blue Jasmine," go watch "Match Point."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

U2's 50 Greatest Songs

Recently Adam Clayton gave a rather innocuous interview for a mental illness charity he was supporting.  During it he mentioned how U2 have had a long career and are gonna do "one more."

He could have meant, "well yeah this one more, as well as 1 or 2 more after," probably.

But there might be reason to believe this is the beginning of the end.

The rumored new album title is "MANhattan."  While it could all well be a hoax; (Bono was once rumored to have a solo album called "Boyo") if true, using the word MAN seems like a logical closing title after debuting with "BOY."  So how about a look back as we soon look forward again.  Here are, to me, U2's 50 greatest songs.  Based on personal preference, how well they have aged, live performences, etc.

50 should be easy.  It's actually not.  I have to leave out a lot of songs

"Numb", "Discoteaque," "Hawkmoon 289," "Yahweh," "Van Diemen's Land."  Sorry guys.

If you look at my list and say "how did you leave off  ________??!!"    I probably hated that I did.

This is my list as of today:  It will be different tomorrow.   Sorry  "Heartland."  You are #52 this day.  Boy has aged remarkebly well.  But "An Cat Dubh" and "Into The Heart," just miss.  Even "I Will Follow."  Where do you agree and disagee?

50.  Zoo Station

49.  White As Snow    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2009/feb/13/u2-white-as-snow

48.  October

47.  Angel of Harlem 

46.  If You Wear That Velvet Dress

45.  Tryin To Throw your Arms Around The World

44.  The Playboy Mansion

43.  Desire

42.  Zooropa

41.  So Cruel

40.  Please    

39.  Ultra Violet (Light My Way)

38.  The Electric Co

37.  Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of

36.  The First Time

35.  Breathe "We are people born of sound/ The songs are in our eyes/ Gonna wear them like a crown."

34.  Tomorrow

33.  Window In The Skies      If this video came out in the 80s or even 90s it would have been huge.  But videos are kind of irrelehvant these days.  Which is kind of ironic in this advanced age.  Rick Rubin produced and apparently I'm the only person who wanted more Rubin produced U2.  Love this song.

32.  In God's Country

31.  Walk On

30.  11 O' Clock, Tick Tock

29.  "40"

28.  Acrobat

27.  The Fly  "The Fly is Blues and Gospel, Heaven and Hell. The Fly can see both sides but he isn't quite sure which one he's on."  -Bono

26.  Pride (In The Name of Love)  Why not closer to #1?  It is a great song.  An all-time great song.  But I have a hard time putting it above anything that follows.  At least today.

25.  Mother's Of The Disappeared

24.  Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me:   Awesome lyrics.  Great riff.  Just a great rock song.  They probably should have just put it on Zooropa like it almost was.  Maybe it wasn't finished.

23.  Mysterious Ways:  Typical U2 in that the lyrics are much deeper than at first glance.  Holy Spirit as female.  Cool stuff here.  And much better than that lame book, The Shack.  (The Holy Spirit is a female in that book.  That's what I just did there)

22.  Love Is Blindness

21.  Even Better Than The Real Thing

20.  Lemon   "Midnight is where the day begins."  You know... he's right!!

19.  Out of Control  The Boy album has aged very well.  This is still a great rock song live.

18.  One Tree Hill
17.  When Love Comes To Town   "You're mighty young to be writing such heavy lyrics."   -BB King

16.  Vertigo   Uno, dos, tres, catorce!  There is a theory that Bono was directing listeners to The Bible: 1st Testament, 2nd Book, 3rd Chapter, 14th verse - "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you."   I'm not sure I buy any of that, but it wouldn't be the first time Bono has done something similar. 

Regardless, it is one heck of a good rock song.

15.  Mofo    "I'm still a child.  No one tells me no."

14.  Magnificent   Comical how Rolling Stone's 5 Star Review of NLOTH seemed to have no clue this was a praise song.  It seems about as obvious as a Robin Mark song to me. "I give you back my voice.  From the womb.  My first cry; it was a joyful noise!"

13.  Stay (Faraway So Close!)

12.  I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

11.  All I Want Is You

10.  Running to Stand Still

 9.  With or Without You

8.  New Year's Day

7. Moment of Surrender    "It was the most magical experience I've ever had in a studio." - Brian Eno

6.  One

5.  Bullet The Blue Sky

4.  Until The End of the World

3.  Sunday Bloody Sunday

2. Bad

1. Where The Streets Have No Name 

According to Brian Eno, half of the time spent making The Joshua Tree, was spent on this one song.  He even wanted it deleted at one point.  One story goes that an intern saved it from being thrown away.  If you can pick one defining moment for The Edge, this would be it.  A highlight live since it debuted.  U2 at its U2eyest. 

(2:50 mark)


1.  Achtung Baby                     
2.  The Joshua Tree                     
3.  War                               
4.  Zooropa                                      
5.  POP                                      
6.  No Line On The Horizon     
7.  Rattle & Hum                       
8.  Boy                                       
9.  The Unforgettable Fire   
10.  All That You Can't Leave Behind               
11.  How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb   
12.  October                                                   

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Just Play Another Chord/ If You Feel You're Getting Bored

It sounds crazy to say any U2 song is under-appreciated.  After all,  they have more Grammy Awards than any band in history, have sold LOTS of albums (CDs, what have you).  Their last tour was the highest grossing of any music tour in history.  Basically, they are successful.  And appreciated.

But there are TWO U2's.  

There is the emotional, spilling its heart out on the stage U2 of Sunday Bloody Sunday and With or Without You.   I like that U2.  And it is the one most people prefer.

But there is also another U2.  A funkier, risk taking, just weirder U2 that can be quite a blast to witness.  And this U2 can be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  And its often this U2 that has, in different ways, turned them from a very good band to a great one.

Below is a list of songs from U2 that are somehow, even though by the "Biggest Band In The World," have flown under the radar.  Hidden gems that are rewarding listens.

I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight (Live Version)

It is not unheard of that U2 improve their songs by the time they get to the stage.  "Ill Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight." is a good song on a better album (No Line On The Horizon).  The song is good but not great.  But eventually, below is what the song became live.  Which was a highlight of the 360 tour set-list.  U2 used to own a dance club in Ireland.  They could have proudly played this one any night.  An example of U2 being exactly what a casual fan would never expect.  And successfully getting a crowd into a frenzy in the process.


Elvis Ate America

Passengers was U2's excuse to do weird stuff and get away with it.  They knew a casual fan would not be down with an album of movie theme songs, especially when most of the films were just in their own imagination.  "Elvis Ate America," is based on a poem Bono wrote of the same name.  His Elvis obsession is long and well documented.  The song is a hoot.  A backhanded tribute if there ever was one.



The entire POP album could be listed.  But I will try to limit myself.  "Miami" is a Trip Hop tribute that beat  poet Allen Ginsberg dug.  If if it had been released right after "The Joshua Tree," it would have had teenage girls crying and running away in confusion and anger and denial, as if they just heard Bono had been shot.  And that's kind of why I like it so much. 

Your Blue Room
Another Passengers entry, but completely a U2 song.  They played this for the first time live on their last tour (360).  People were surely like "what is this?"  But again, it was a gamble that payed off as it was another highlight of that tour.  Fans of NASA; Bono and Edge got to link in with the Space Station, at least once live.  Bono also let Sinead O' Conner sing the falsetto part he had done on the studio version. 


Bono's mother died suddenly when he was 14.  He claims to have almost no memories of her, even though at 14, he was well old enough that he should have.  You might argue he has mommy issues. "Mofo," would say that you are right.  To me this is one of their highest achievements.  "Dance" songs are not meant to be this deep.  Lyrically, this is one of Bono's greatest moments. A fun line followed by a deep line, time and again:

"Got the swing got the sway, got my straw in lemonade/ Still looking for the face I had before the world was made."

"It was as if my whole life was in that song...It is a device you can imagine in theatre or cinema but you rarely see in songwriting, where you stop time and the character turns to the camera and explains himself. It is Hamlet's soliloquy but I never saw any ghosts. I'm looking forward to meeting my mother. I'm fully expecting to, in the proper place and time." 

11 O' Clock, Tick Tock

So a bit of a cheat on this one as it is one of the earliest examples of that first kind of U2. 

The song pre-dates their debut Album, written when they were still teenagers.  I have seen it live once, and it came as a bit of a shock when they started playing it.  Friends left asking me, "What was that 11 O' Clock song?  I really liked that one."  (It's only been played 12 times since 1985)

Don't wait until the 11th hour.  That Bono kid was just starting to get all biblical on us.


God Part II

This is somewhere in-between the 2 kinds of U2.  Edge was playing funkier, bluesier stuff during the Love Town tour for "Rattle and Hum."  It is among my favorite U2 songs, but I think its proper to call it a "hidden gem" as it does not get much attention.  I think wrongly.  It is also Bono at the height of his powers vocally.

A response to John Lennon's "God" 

Dirty Day

Another song addressing parental relations.  This time his father.  Tucked away on the Zooropa album, "Dirty Day," was a highlight of that tour.  And yet they simply don't play it now.  A shame.


Sounds like one of the best songs on "The Unforgettable Fire," except it wasn't written until many years later, for "No Line On The Horizon."  Was a last moment cut from the U.S. release, as the Album was deemed too long by including it.   Like much of The Unforgethtable Fire" and NLOTH, it growns on you with some repeated listens.

Looking back at their music recently, I find "No Line On The Horizon" to be a legitimate high point for the band; holding up much better than "All That You Can't Leave Behind," for example. 

I'm Not Your Baby

The top of the list of Adam Clayton's favorite U2 songs.  Again, they throw a bone to Sinead O' Conner, who has burned many bridges in the industry.  She did with U2 as well for a time. 

This appeared on a soundtrack for a Wim Wenders' film.  Which means, it is about as hidden as a U2 song can get.  Experimental U2 at its finest. 

Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle of Milk/Korova 1

In 1990, Bono and Edge (with some help from Adam) were asked to do the music for a play version of "A Clockwork Orange 2004."  The music involved samples of Beethoven's 5th, Hip Hop, and in general music that according to Edge, you would never have a clue U2 had anything to do with.  Most of it has never been released to the public; but this song, the most U2ey sounding one apparently, made an appearance as the B Side for "The Fly." 

It might be hard to think of a time when these 2 songs would not have been somewhat shocking coming from this band.  But in 1991, it absolutely was.  If, as Bono has stated, "The Fly," and Achtung Baby in general, is the sound of U2 chopping down "The Joshua Tree," then this obscure but catchy companion, written first; might be them cranking up the chainsaw.