Peaks and Valleys

Here is what you try not to think about over a long holiday weekend:

  • It was a record 108 degrees in Los Angeles on Saturday but clearly “man-made climate change is not primarily responsible for it,” say any number of those now in power to do something about it in Washington, DC.

Me, right now

  • Massive flooding in Houston occurred some days earlier leaving more than 50 dead and counting, many thousands of others homeless and a cost for full rebuilding over the next decade estimated into the billions (that’s with a “B”).
  • ELECTORAL POTUS has NOW decided to do away with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), thus requiring the MASS DEPORTATION of close to ONE MILLION people brought here as immigrant CHILDREN by parents who came to this country illegally.   They key world is children, or even toddlers – meaning many of these kids don’t even speak the native language of the country they will be deported back to over the next year.

I can’t…

Well, I did. For a bit. But finally it grew too much.

So I did what I usually do – escaped into media.

Just kidding… this is me, right now

There was the Twin Peaks two-hour finale on Showtime; a binge of the entire two seasons of the half-hour Netflix comedy-drama Love; and a screening of the much lauded Sundance indie flick with a confused gay, model-looking hunk protagonist called Beach Rats.

There was also food. A lot of it. A bit of frolic. And yeah, some worrying.

But what about the MEDIA????

Netflix’s Love

Talk nerdy to me

Judd Apatow co-created and produces the show but truly it is the brainchild of its male lead Paul Rust and his wife Lesley Arfin, who write many of the episodes. The reason and resonance is clear – it is loosely based on their relationship.

Of course, what writer of comedy-drama doesn’t base their work on past relationships? The correct answer is NO ONE – no matter how much they deny it in protest.  In this case, it is a twist on the archetypal nerdy, awkward but funny-smart guy in glasses and the hip, wild, partying hot girl with an even sicker sense of humor than he has. Will they get together and make it work? Or won’t they?

You may think you’ve seen it before, as I initially did, but you haven’t. One suspects that’s because the entire series is grounded in the realities that Rust and Arfin experienced themselves. No, not literally. It’s not as if what happened in Annie Hall four decades prior onscreen exactly mirrored the Diane Keaton-Woody Allen relationship or even recreated it. But there’s a reason why certain contemporary rom-com stories are great and addictive and usually it’s because they are real – at least thematically.

Realistically — I bet that sandwich was that good.

Love is all of this and more. Give it a chance and don’t roll your eyes at the initial tropes, which I did – only to then get quickly addicted for 22 episodes in less than a week. God, I love a good binge – of so many things.

Beach Rats 

Where to begin…

Beach Rats centers on a working class teenager struggling with his attraction to men – particularly middle aged men he meets online – but it might as well be set in 1957 instead of 2017. Masquerading as real and unflinching it is instead a skewed portrait of working class life that so tilts the deck towards gay panic and hopelessness that one almost expects its characters to be sporting ducktails and cigarettes rolled up in t-shirt sleeves rather than lean muscled bodies, random tattoos and endless thirsts to get high.

Like a modern day Kenickie! #exceptnot

Of course, they do share “smokes” and often speak like something out of an old Nicholas Ray film or a low budget indie Sundance version of Rumble Fish if those movies contained too many lingering shots of fireworks, arcade games and indecipherable male torsos.

It is certainly fine to depict a group of homophobic or homo-indifferent teenagers in contemporary life. What is not fine (nor real) is to so isolate them and every gay man depicted in the film into clichés last seen in films like Frank Sinatra’s The Detective – that movie from 1968 where a self loathing homosexual hits a lover over the head with a candle or ashtray or something heavy and kills him because he can’t bear the idea of not being straight.

Kind of like what I wish I did instead of watching Beach Rats

If we are to believe director-writer Eliza Hittman’s entire narrative we also have to buy it all leads to a ludicrous third act where an out, smart Manhattan boy drives to Brooklyn after meeting the film’s sexy leading teen-man online and does something TWICE no gay man even vaguely close to the character depicted would do. EVER. Let’s leave it at that unless you’re tempted to find out what happens some snowy night by the Brooklyn version of the Village docks circa 1968. But don’t say I didn’t warn you before you get into your time tunnel and then try to throw it at your screen of choice.

Not content to leave it there, the film also paints lonely pathetic lives for all the homosexual males we meet over the age of 40 –desperate creatures prowling online for boys they can have in the bushes or in seedy motels without having shaved, showered, deodorized or, no doubt, even brushed their teeth. Though somehow our sexy leading teen/man always manages to do so for his sex dates with them. But of course he’s young and not totally gay. Yet. Hmm, what or whom to root for?

At this point I would have preferred this old gay stereotype

Sadly, there is a stinking, rotting quality to everything here – perhaps on purpose for “mood” – but ultimately landing with the great weight of phony pretension. Still, the director seems to have gotten away with this pose in the eyes of films festivals and critics galore. Check out the reviews from Sundance or this one from The New Yorker.

As a kid from the boroughs myself, who grew up loving the fireworks, arcade games and bumper cars depicted in Beach Rats, I began to dread each lingering faux magical shot of the milieu as its endless minutes marched into what seemed like many endless hours. Repetitive visual imagery is no substitute for depth of story and character, no matter how many random lights in the sky or ocean waves one’s camera relentlessly aims to capture.

The Beach Rats audience

There is a great movie to be made on exactly this subject but that’s about the only thing most gay people will feel once this film comes to its retro torturous end – other than anger.

And NO, I didn’t like it. No one bit.

Twin Peaks: The Return 

Paging Agent Cooper…

It’s like the person you dated in college or in your twenties who was a glorious irresistible mess and yet you couldn’t get enough of them. Smart, confounding, funny without trying to be so, obtuse and more than a handful of times just downright f-ckg brilliant.

Often you don’t officially break up with this person. Something circumstantial happens or an unexpected situational event occurs that inevitably puts an end to the whole thing. But it’s never totally voluntary on your part no matter how many times your friends, family or even you feel like you were f-ckd over. This is because there truly was something so unique, so individual about the experience that can never be duplicated and you wouldn’t give that up for the world despite how much turmoil it might have put you through.

When’s the honeymoon?

Ironically enough, David Lynch and Mark Frost did put us through the Twin Peaks wringer again 25 years later thanks to Showtime and those of us who stayed are all the better for it. We got some hope for the saga of Laura Palmer, time traveled back to the 1950s, tried to learn some new, never heard before languages and began to realize that a good deal of the key wisdom of the world can be learned via a giant tea kettle, barren potato head tree or discovered in a Tilt-A-Whirl room with comfortable green velvet chairs.

You know I’m not gonna pass up posting a pop culture chair #takeaseat

OK, some of it made no sense at all, but have you checked the news lately? Nothing in this Twin Peaks was literal but, then again, Lynch and co. were bold enough to linger on so many scenes in real time elongated minutes that perhaps everything was. Twin Peaks is the opposite of anything pretentious – it is filmmaking/TV making (Note: Just what is the difference anymore?) with a purpose. And that purpose is to take us to a place we can believe in despite how extreme, absurd or hateful it is. It is and always has been what the books tell us great storytelling is – a seamless dream.

And with that – good night.

Muddy Magnolias – “American Woman (Slowed David Lynch version)

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Motor City Mayhem

Detroit is a movie you won’t forget. Or at least I won’t. It is brilliantly infuriating, difficult to watch and necessary to experience. If we as a country – or really as a people – are to begin to figure out how to move forward with the remnants of 2017 life, it’s a starting point. Not the only one but a possible one.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are both white and yet have chosen to tell a historical story that can be read as part of the ongoing story of the White patriarchal repression of Blacks. This has already created a side controversy that one realizes, after seeing the film, provides endless intellectual fodder but is sort of beside the point.

More to the issue is that if the arts can play some small part in bridging the gap between where we were, where we are and where we hope to be, Detroit should become a potent and powerful conversation starter. It’s that unrelenting and uncompromising.

…. but this time, the hype is real

Watching the film at a Writers Guild screening of people of all sorts of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, it was clear the entire audience was emotionally gutted and awake. This was a Hollywood film made by whites where no white savior came in to save the day or even the score for the poor, put upon downtrodden.   We will never know what any other filmmaker of any other color would do with the same material – for better or worse – but at the moment Detroit is what we have of one hideous incident in one particularly hideous moment in our past.

This, by the way, is not meant to be congratulatory in any sort of way. There are no congratulations to be had in any discussion of this debacle.

Fifty years ago a racist patrolman in Detroit led a small group of law enforcers to alternately beat, torture and murder a small group of innocent Black men hanging out at the local Algiers Motel.

Detroit burns in July 1967

It was an explosive, ugly time of race riots and social injustice in big cities all across the country, but most especially in in the Motor City where an almost all White police force (93%) were tasked with holding the line on the residents of a fast-growing Black city (30%).

The unfolding story of the movie Detroit uses the ever-growing popular method of plopping its audience directly into the dramatic center of its narrative and trusting that in the age of web surfing, iPhone clicking and incessantly intense game-playing it will be able to play catch up.

Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do this and go for the big overall visceral reaction at the expense of individual character development and emotional nuance. Others like Atomic Blonde provide a couple of Irving the Explainer scenes of incoherent exposition and then have us settle down so we can watch the real entertainment – some larger than life extended violence where an unlikely hero/heroine (and who better than Charlize Theron) beats the crap out of everyone in slight we’d like to pulverize if were we six feet tall and had the benefit of hair, makeup and extensive martial arts training by stunt coordinator experts.

Charlize looking a little different from her Mad Max days  #oliviapopejacket

Detroit, however, is not about sensationalized hollow victories or a dramatic retelling of heroism under the thematic banner that War is Hell. It only starts out as a generalized expression of the Big Idea and a pastiche of characters one never gets to really know yet follows along into over-the-top battles. Its power is that it does all of this and then, at some unsuspecting point once this is all established, gets real specific, real fast. And stays there and unfolds for the essential body of the work – a kind of American horror movie gone wrong in a period motel hallway. And then goes on from there to show something about how we lived then. And ask the question if, at the end of the day, it’s really all that different than the way we live now – or is now just a cleaned up version?

Suffice it to say that at the end your visceral nerve endings are not only more than met but you also didn’t need chunks of exposition or violently musical YouTube-like video sequences to do it for you. There are actually real people to watch doing unfortunately all too human things that prompt all too human reactions that go on and on and on. As we say in screenwriting class, in science and in psychotherapy – cause and effect, real cause and effect. For every action is there is a reaction – one that is logical and one, in the movie Detroit, anyway, that you can follow.

… and countless other movies used for the exact opposite purpose

When asked the often-dreaded question of how he approached the material in a talkback afterwards, screenwriter Mark Boal said that he essentially saw this as a movie about an artist whose life was derailed. That, and a good deal of research, and talent, is probably a large part of the reason that the script for Detroit works so well. Call me old-fashioned but if you don’t know or care about the people (in this real-life case an aspiring young Motown-type singer) what do you really have? As a writer you need to find a way in. You can’t effectively write an issue or a historical event.

Sure, you can film it and use all sorts of technique, CGI and camera tricks to forge effective mass entertainment. But at the end of the day, what do you really have? What are you telling us that we didn’t already know, or need to be reminded of?

Certainly, movies can succeed solely on mass entertainment value, escapism, cheap thrills and recycled messages. Many of these films are highly watchable and superbly executed. But we’ve reached a point in the business where we have gotten used to the former and forgotten films like Detroit. Go see it and consider this a reminder.

But you can still go see Jon Hamm and this terrible haircut in Baby Driver #iunderstand

That might be a good way to end but it would be an oversight not to single out the mammoth filmmaking skills of Kathryn Bigelow here.   A two-year DGA study at the end of 2015 noted women account for 6.4% of film directors and just 3% of major box office films.  But let’s be kind and say the numbers have gone up slightly in the last year and a half. Still, that’s pretty piss poor.

When you watch Detroit you don’t so much ask yourself, how did she do that shot but in what world was she able to integrate all those disparate scenes and themes so convincingly, recreate an often botched decade of American history (the sixties) on film so convincingly and get those performances out of those actors so effortlessly? Heck if I know.

That girl #shesgotit #sheknowsit

It makes you wonder how many hundreds of other potential Kathryn Bigelows there are out there. Filmmakers who are female, or perhaps non-white, non-heterosexual or non gender binary, who might never get the chance. And how many of those stories are yet to be told. Not only through the entertainment industry but in any other American industry.

That would be one way to truly Make America Great again.

The Dramatics – “All Because of You” 

OOOOHH BABY (DRIVER)!

Baby Driver is the sleeper box-office hit of the summer and a movie not without its charms.

It has pretty much redefined movie music for the future by creating a title character so enmeshed in what’s coming through his headphones that the song choices become not only an essential part of the narrative but, at times, the narrative itself.

It also creates a space for its lead, Ansel Elgort, to step forward and assume true movie star status – not merely in box-office dollars but in presence. It’s hard to imagine any other young actor with the charisma, dramatic heft and self-effacing charm to anchor the mind-boggling acts of passion going on around him done in the name of money, speed and most importantly, love.

Meanwhile… “What’s an Ansel Elgort?”

But chiefly, it arrives at a time where as a country – and world – we all need two hours of escape from reality through an imaginary city where, in the end, justice is served in an untraditional yet somewhat believable fashion given the context of what’s come before.

The latter is key in both a positive and negative way. For although Baby Driver delivers on so many levels it also falls short in several key departments – realism. And…realism.

Wait.. people aren’t this good looking in real life?

Of course, reality these days feels a bit unreal so perhaps that isn’t necessarily a fault. Unless, of course, one attends movies to see some reflection of life as one has experienced it, or even hopes to experience it.

It’s hard these days to be an audience member who prefers the more human musings of 2017 cinema like The Book of Henry and Dean. That statement in itself might feel oxymoronic since one of those films takes place in a pushed reality fantasy and the other follows the angsty life of a Brooklyn cartoonist whose drawings push the narrative at least one third of its 87 minute running time.

Still, neither of those films depends on relentless violence and over-the-top action sequences. Nor do their stories throw human logic out the window and halfway through turn into a Road Runner cartoon, a comic book or a horror fantasy.

Plus.. this Jon Hamm haircut #youareforgiven

I mention the last three examples because if one looks at movies in terms of box-office returns/deliverable profits it’s easy to see the issue with people like myself – those of us who wish Francois Truffaut were still alive and active on the film scene, or that at least Paul Thomas Anderson and Kimberly Pierce made more movies.

WWFTD?

Here are the top 10 top grossing 2017 films domestically:

  1. Beauty and the Beast – $503,940,432
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – $384,949,006
  3. Wonder Woman – $361,591,191
  4. Logan – $226, 275, 826
  5. Fate of the Furious – $225,587,340
  6. The Lego Batman Movie – $175,750,384
  7. Get Out – $175,484,140
  8. The Boss Baby – $173,782,946
  9. Kong Skull Island – $168,052, 812
  10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Vol. 623 – $167,980,297

Oh, and the list is almost exactly the same for worldwide grosses, except Get Out and Pirates move down to the top 20 and Transformers: The Last Knight and Fifty Shades Darker move up from #15 and #14 to #9 and #10.

More like FIFTY SHADES MORE BORING #nochemistry  #snooooze

Not to mention — the worldwide box-office grosses for the top 10 range from $1,259,744,572 (that’s Billion, with a B), down to a measly $378.8 million.

Obviously realism, or as I call it in my more bitter moviegoer moods – basic logic – doesn’t count for very much anymore.

I can’t even go there

What is logical in a capitalistic society – especially in business – is profit. Money. Though the type of movies at the tops of the chart on the whole cost a lot more than the smaller ones down towards the bottom, their international markets and ancillary revenue streams have increased so much that studios need merely one or two massive tentpoles every few years in order to justify all of the other risks.

That is, if this is merely a numbers game.

… and some numbers are not so great #sorrytommy

Having begun my career as a bit of a reluctant box-office guru when I was a reporter at Daily Variety in 1979, I can’t help but feel disheartened. I started the weekly national box-office story at the paper then out of sheer confusion over the scattershot press releases we would receive about how “outstanding” every big film opening was doing.   Decades later it’s turned into pretty much almost anything anyone in the movie business – and that includes too many movie fans – thinks about. And in the case of most every decision maker at the studios, cares about.

Not to say it was not always mostly this way for the studio suits in the old days or recent past. But at least there was a bit more of a balance.

As evidenced by Feud’s Jack Warner #ohhediditagain #moneytalks

The Hurt Locker was released in June. Forrest Gump (not my fave, but still…) came out in July. Heck, even All the President’s Men first appeared in April.

Where are their 2017 equivalents?

Don’t write in with a list of foreign films, limited releases, bomb studio 2017 movies or tell me to stream Netflix, Amazon or _____________. I get it and I do. We’re talking Movies here.

That said, the new Spiderman (Homecoming) has soared past $100,000,000 domestically in its 3-day opening this weekend.

As John Oliver would say, “Good work, Spider Twerp”

That’s the sixth Spiderman film in 15 years even though this one is considered to be NEW – meaning it’s a SECOND reboot of the franchise with a new director and star.

I haven’t seen it yet but I do know when it comes to 2017 realities one could do a lot worse.

Though seriously, that’s a pretty lame excuse. Isn’t it?

Boga – “Nowhere to Run”

Truth! Justice! and the American Way?

As a very little boy I remember watching black and white Superman reruns on syndicated TV where each week a booming male voice announced over the credits that a muscly hunk in tights would fight for truth, justice and the American way.

Like many little boys I became obsessed with Superman, tied a towel around my neck and ran around the house imagining I could fly out the window and…

Just imagine a Judy Miller sketch #gilda4ever

Well, I’m not quite sure what I wanted to do. Certainly, it wasn’t to fight – for justice or anything else. It was more about the journey, the outfit and the power of a muscly hunk via the deep male voice.

Feel free to fill in the rest of the blanks about me from there if you haven’t already – or if indeed there are any. But don’t for a moment imagine for one millisecond the vast array of the rest of us are much different than the slightly fey mini-me.

Don’t hate me ’cause you ain’t me!

In the last year America has clearly chosen fantasy, muscular masculinity over truth. Time will tell whether in the end we will indeed choose justice or instead continue running around our homes in imagined worlds where we truly believe items like towels and TV dialogue will guide us to a better world.

And don’t forget those nosy, listening microwaves!

A pop culture shift in the last week signals a scintilla of hope. Wonder Woman has emerged as THE #1 movie blockbuster of 2017- marking not only the first breakout FEMALE MOVIE superhero but the first time a female director (Patty Jenkins) is at the helm of a major studio tentpole film achieving blockbuster status.

At more than $200 million domestically and $350 million worldwide (in less than two weeks), Ms. Jenkins and her movie have broken a long-standing glass ceiling.

SLAY GIRL SLAY!

Six months ago Hillary Clinton’s campaign rented New York’s Javits Center hoping to literally demolish its glass ceiling in victory but instead found itself unimaginably conceding the following day to an inexperienced male who sold the trappings of masculinity in order to prove he could make America great again.

The electoral college public went for the salesmanship and words rather than deep-seated personal beliefs about us all being part of one fabric of world humanity that is united by doing all the good you can, for all the people you can, for as long as you can.

That message, and Stronger Together, were the key mantras of the Clinton campaign and are offshoots of the Methodist faith she was raised in. For the record, the real quote is:

“Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.’”

One could easily read the Methodist faith and the Clinton mantra into the psyche of Diana/Wonder Woman through not only the way she was raised by the other Amazonian women but by her guiding principles in every decision she makes and each action she takes.

When she finds herself enmeshed behind WWI’s western front and sees the years long death and suffering of the innocent villagers all around her she is appalled and can only simply and boldly ask Why isn’t anyone doing anything? 

Damn right!

Her cohorts argue quite forcefully that they need to ignore the carnage and keep going for the greater good of the big victory and to leave these people as simple casualties of war.   But that doesn’t fit her core principles so instead she climbs out of her foxhole, weaponizes her superpowers and smashes through enemy lines where, eventually, even her doubters aid her in vanquishing the enemy and saving this small, but in her eyes, more than worthy swath of townspeople.

In an even more climactic third act moment later on, when the notion is raised that mass humanity might not deserve to be saved, she has an even simpler retort:

It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe! And I believe in love. 

Cue my best Oprah empowerment ugly cry

Now see, taken out of context this might seem….well, conclude what you will, once again. No one ever accused comic books or movie superheroes of speaking Edward Albee-esque dialogue. Yet within the context of what we’re watching, it has all the best resonance of the Hillary campaign’s aspirational message and of Methodism.

  • We have an obligation to help each other – even strangers.
  • One always first errs on the side of love and compassion rather than indifference, hate and fear.
  • There is no greater good. There is only doing good. That will result in the greater good.

If this doesn’t sound Trumpian – well, it isn’t. It’s exactly the opposite

America’s unique place in the world has always been as an experimental, imperfect democracy. There is a reason why for centuries we’ve been lauded as a nation of immigrants where everything seems possible even if – in reality – it’s not.

In the actual world, one can’t achieve everything. But what is also true is that one will achieve nothing unless they believe what they’re trying to achieve is possible.

JUST KIDDING! REACH FOR THE STARS!

To have no overriding principle other than the betterment of one’s self or one’s immediate family to the detriment of all others is a recipe for perhaps temporary success but ultimate abject failure.

This is exactly the opposite message of Wonder Woman’s more compassionate one and that is why it is currently cleaning up at the global box-office and leaving all the naysaying, mummified macho men in the dust.

IF ONLY!

It is the 360-degree counter to Make America Great Again – which is fast being recognized as nothing more than a bloated, synthetic phantom cudgel through which to reject multiculturalism, the global community and social change.

Or, to put it in more movie specific terms we might all understand —

No superpower EVER emerges victorious unless they’re fighting for the greater good.

Think about it.

Florence + The Machine – “Kiss with a Fist”

Darlings in Dystopia

The first masterful piece of mass entertainment reflecting the Trump era is here and, strangely enough, it’s based on a novel from 32 years ago. Thanks Hulu, or more correctly, damn you, Hulu – for your new series The Handmaid’s Tale.

Set in a dystopian future where women have no rights and the country has undergone a cultural/religious revolution brought on by terrorism and perhaps limited (!) nuclear war, The Handmaid’s Tale is simultaneously riveting and extremely difficult to watch. Much like an accident. Or Sean Spicer’s daily White House press briefings when not given by Melissa McCarthy.

…and not nearly as delicious/campy/tragic/gorgeous as FX’s Feud #ohmamacita

Of course, to reduce the retelling of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, which she wrote decades ago in Germany when the Berlin Wall was coming down, as merely an allegory for Trumpism would be selling it short. Not to mention it would be giving the Electoral College POTUS too much credit. (Note: The mere mention of his name is too much credit for me, but that’s another story, and not a particularly funny or readable one. So I will #resist the temptation).

The brilliance of Atwood’s story is that her dystopian world adapts to easily reflect the post-modern apocalyptic realities from any number of time periods in which we currently reside. Though perhaps this series just makes it look that way. More correctly, it’s probably a little bit of both.

Imagine a world where women are not in control of their reproductive rights or being gay is seen as “gender treachery” and appropriately punished.   Then revisit Trump’s sound bite at a town hall event with Republican voters in Wisconsin last year where he publicly stated that if abortion becomes illegal women should face “some form of punishment.

Or simply read about the well-documented death and torture of gay men now occurring in numerous “detention centers” in pro-Russia Chechnya.

Unless this is where you’d rather live #keepinitreal

In the Hulu/Atwood world of terrorism, contemporary women, who only hours before were annoyed that their Uber driver was late, now find all their digital imprints frozen and assets seized. It’s for their own safety, say the authorities. Terrorists. Nuclear war. Centralize power and control for PROTECTION.

When mass sterility (due to environmental poisoning) sets in only a few years later it’s not hard to see that the few females that are still somehow able to reproduce become a treasured governmental commodity. I mean, what price is the continuation of the WORLD, right?

Well.. don’t get ahead of yourself Ms. Knowles

The fact that this is a world now dominated primarily by wealthy WHITE men, helped along by a few female counterparts not quite as powerful as they are, is not really questioned. And the fact that it’s not really questioned by the masses is one of the few differences it has from the basic world order in 2017.

Right after the inauguration of Donald Trump 3.2 million people took to the streets in a march for women’s rights. Which in turn became a growing resistance to emerging authoritarian rule that promised to roll back the rights of numerous other minorities – of color, of race, of national origin, of sexual persuasion, you name it – by an authoritarian voted in by a PLURALITY of voters. The idea, to save the country going down the tubes by making it GREAT again, was not sitting particularly well with its masses.

Pretty much sums it up

So given what I saw as one of those 3.2 million masses marching back in January it was not too difficult, and more than a little scary, for me to make the leap this Hulu series asks. Especially since the three black hooded corpses of a priest, a doctor and a gay man hanging on ropes high from the walls of what used to be a former library were really only incidental backdrops. That’s how I often feel now as a gay man in Trump country and Trump logic.   An annoying incidental to the main story.

Which in some ways is a better place to be than enduring the indignities many females are facing in Trump America. Certainly, it’s better than what the lead women in the Hulu show were about to endure. Though even here I hate to sell the latter short.

We’re not in Stars Hollow anymore, Rory.

It’s hard to tell where any of this is going or whether fiction will for sure prove worse than fact. As a wise psychiatrist once told me, you can only operate from “what is.” And what we do know in the real world is that an estimated 13,000 women are now planning to run for office across the country and a group called Emerge America recently held training classes for 25 female Democratic candidates for Congress, state senate, city council, etc. in 18 states.

Their numbers are up 87% since the election, which seems reasonable. So do comments from the female candidates on a recent NBC news report where one admitted needing practice in the best ways to do things like “asking for money” and “connecting with voters.” Those skills don’t always come naturally for those not born into power positions. But what do they say – Necessity is the mother of invention? Actually, it was not they but the Greek philosopher Plato and yes, I had to look it up. (Note: And yes, he was a man, as far as we know. Which doesn’t make it any less true).

well, that too. #wink

As far as the series is concerned, I take some solace in the casting of Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss in the key lead role of Offred/June, our birth machine/handmaid heroine. Watching Ms. Moss personify the slow empowerment of the 1960s woman as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson – who goes from mousy, intelligent and intimidated to smart, savvy and, yes, empowered, gave hope to many of us hopeless incidentals. And to any of us who have ever felt, or will feel this way.

How I will always remember you girl #peggyforever

It’s one of the best gifts a truly gifted actor can give us. So in the bleak but all too truly allegorical world of The Handmaid’s Tale we can’t help but feel safe in her hands.

One wishes the same could be said about the leading player, or players, in our 2017 reality.

 

The Chair’s Oscar Crystal Ball

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-9-31-12-am

Full confession: I’m an average Oscar prognosticator. This means in some years I’m above 90% and in others it’s the 70% range.   This gives me a median grade of “B” – a mere average GPA where I grew up. And you wonder why I call myself The Chair.

Still, I feel particularly lucky this year because it seems inevitable that this is the year for my favorite film of 2016 – La La Land. Oh yeah, hiss and boo your own selves as Bette Midler once retorted to her audience in her priceless eighties comedy album Mud Will Be Flung Tonight (“and into the faces of some of your favorites”). And you wonder why I love Bette Midler.

Though perhaps you didn’t.

In any event, I will not allow my love of all things La La Land to influence my predictions. After all, there are pools to be won, money to be made and schadenfreude to be enjoyed post ceremonies – hopefully by me. Though it might be better to direct one’s anger at The Darth Vader of the White House (Note: So many to choose from there) rather than at a movie that only asks you to let go and allow yourself to be transported for a couple of hours. Translation to the haters: Stop being such a tight ass, Ingrid, it’s only a movie.

Okay, here goes:

Best Picture

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Arrival

Fences

Hacksaw Ridge

Hell or High Water

Hidden Figures

La La Land

Lion

Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

WINNER: La La Land

Best is certainly a relative word and you won’t get any argument here that La La Land is certainly the least dramatic of the bunch. Which doesn’t make it the least timely or important. In the age of – well, the age we’re in – I often have to remind myself it all starts with a dream.

Lead Actor

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Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge

Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington, Fences

WINNER: Denzel Washington, Fences

It could certainly go to Casey Affleck as many are saying. But there is something about the way he breathed new life into such a difficult character, coupled with the unfortunate age we’re living in, that seems to make it Denzel Washington’s here. It also helps that he was the surprise winner of this year’s SAG trophy in that category, the single largest voting block in the Motion Picture Academy.

Lead Actress

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Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Ruth Negga, Loving

Natalie Portman, Jackie

Emma Stone, La La Land

Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

WINNER: Emma Stone, La La Land

She’s the heart and soul of the film. She puts a face on the enthusiasm and sadness and superficiality and disillusionment and triumph of a life lived in L.A.   Yes, that’s a compliment. And she sings just fine.   Watch how she does the Academy nominated song Audition again. And then, hiss and boo your own selves.

Supporting Actor

No contest.

No contest.

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

Dev Patel, Lion

Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

WINNER: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

I turned to my husband when Ali was onscreen and said this guy is the most real actor I have ever seen. He deserves an Oscar for this. And who the hell is he??? It’s not that the other performances weren’t great in their own ways. It’ s just if there has to be a best, he’s it and the majority of the Academy will be smart enough to know it.

Supporting Actress:

NO ONE cries as good as Viola. NO. ONE. #allthefeels

NO ONE cries as good as Viola. NO. ONE. #allthefeels

Viola Davis, Fences

Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Nicole Kidman, Lion

Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

WINNER: Viola Davis, Fences

Let’s not spend a lot of time on this. She’s won all the other honors and EVERYONE wants to hear her speech. ‘Enuf said.

Best Director:

Phenom?

Phenom?

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

WINNER: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

There are so many reasons Damien Chazelle deserves to win this award whether his film is your cuppa or not. Imagine making a love letter to Los Angeles that is adored around the world ($250,000,000 plus worldwide gross and counting). Consider the chances of getting exactly the right chemistry in what is essentially a two-person film and then creating enough visual imagery to not only compliment them and the story but also dazzle us without breaking the fourth wall of our dreams? Then add to it that he’s only 32 years old and was already nominated once in this category for Whiplash. And several weeks ago won in this category for La La Land. You’re still not convinced? ….Bitter, table for one….

Animated Feature:

Sly fox

Sly fox

Kubo and the Two Strings, Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner

Moana, John Musker, Ron Clements and Osnat Shurer

My Life as a Zucchini, Claude Barras and Max Karli

The Red Turtle, Michael Dudok de Wit and Toshio Suzuki

Zootopia, Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Clark Spencer

WINNER: Zootopia

This year is all about marginalization on a MASSIVE scale. So it’s Zooptopia all the way. Not to mention, using animals make it easier for us to think about such things are less outwardly political and therefore more than acceptable as the winner in the animation category.

 Adapted Screenplay

Get the engraver ready

Get the engraver ready

Eric Heisserer, Arrival

August Wilson, Fences

Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures

Luke Davies, Lion

Barry Jenkins; Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight

WINNER: Barry Jenkins; Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight

The most unusual and innovative script in the category and the Academy WANTS to honor a film so unlikely to emerge into the national consciousness.  There will be tumultuous applause for this win – and deservedly so. The deceptive simplicity in the storytelling is the movie’s principle strength.

Original Screenplay

The writing in this scene alone. #ohboy #willdestroyyou

The writing in this scene alone. #ohboy #willdestroyyou

Mike Mills, 20th Century Women

Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster

Kenneth Longergan, Manchester by the Sea

WINNER: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

This is tricky but it’s doubtful the Academy will send something so sadly powerful and original home without something. That said, a significant group loves Hell or High Water and there could be a La La Land sweep. In the end, however, Manchester is exactly the type of movie industry voters go for in terms of writing. 

Cinematography

Meet you on the pier in 5 minutes. #Ryguy

Meet you on the pier in 5 minutes. #Ryguy

Bradford Young, Arrival

Linus Sandgren, La La Land

Greig Fraser, Lion

James Laxton, Moonlight

Rodrigo Prieto, Silence

WINNER: Linus Sandgren, La La Land

It will come down to a race between Arrival and La La Land. Both brought you into brilliantly invented and compelling visual landscapes. But how do you vote against floating into the sky in the Griffith Park Observatory?

Best Documentary Feature

This time with less Sarah Paulson.

This time with less Sarah Paulson.

13th, Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish

Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo

I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck, Remi Grellety and Hebert Peck

Life, Animated, Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman

O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow

WINNER: O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow

It’s not so much about O.J. but telling the story of race in America through his life. I really resisted being in the guy’s presence for nine hours more but there is a reason this work has been so lauded and why after a few minutes you can’t take your eyes away from the Shakespearean tragedy of it all.

Best Documentary Short Subject

Powerful stuff

Powerful stuff

4.1 Miles, Daphne Matziaraki

Extremis, Dan Krauss

Joe’s Violin, Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen

Watani: My Homeland, Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis

The White Helmets, Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

WINNER: The White Helmets, Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Any other year the sentiments in Joe’s Violin, which manages to give us a story about Holocaust remembrance we’ve never seen before, would win out. But given the currently charged political NOW, the shocking tragedies of Syrian genocide won’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

Best Live Action Short Film

The official pool killing category

The official pool killing category

Ennemis Interieurs, Selim Azzazi

La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff

Silent Nights, Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson

Sing, Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy

Timecode, Juanjo Gimenez

WINNER: Ennemis Interieurs, Selim Azzazi

Immigration, fascism, France and the next anticipated sweep of white nationalism. This should be the winner unless voters use this one category to opt out for the more fanciful Timecode and the bullying themes of Sing. Yes, I saw all five of these. Don’t act so surprised.

Best Animated Short

Pixar does it again

Pixar does it again

Blind Vaysha, Theodore Ushev

Borrowed Time, Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj

Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Robert Valley and Cara Speller

Pearl, Patrick Osborne

Piper, Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer

WINNER: Piper, Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer

After numerous recent losses in this category it’s Pixar’s year. And I seldom bet against some of the best storytellers in the biz. Yeah, you read that right.

Best Foreign Language Film

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A Man Called Ove, Sweden

Land of Mine, Denmark

Tanna, Australia

The Salesman, Iran

Toni Erdmann, Germany

WINNER: The Salesman, Iran

An excellent group that makes you wish there were more American movies that tackled this many diverse and difficult subjects. But the real life attempt of the current White House to question the freedom of people like the Iranian director of The Salesman – Asghar Farhadi – to visit the US will push him over the top. That said, I LOVED A Man Called Ove. So go see that one too.

Film Editing

le sigh

le sigh

Joe Walker, Arrival

John Gilbert, Hacksaw Ridge

Jake Roberts, Hell or High Water

Tom Cross, La La Land

Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon, Moonlight

WINNER: Tom Cross, La La Land

How the guy managed to put together the disparate tones of La La Land together and have it make any sense at all, much less be so continuously charming in its telling of the ultimate seamless dream, is just one of many reasons. Don’t vote against it despite the upset others may be predicting.

Production Design

They call me mellow yellow

They call me mellow yellow

Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte, Arrival

Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh, Hail, Caesar!

David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land

Guy Hendrix Dyas, Gene Serdena, Passengers

WINNER: David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land

If it were just the designers voting it might be Passengers or Arrival. But it takes equal if not more talent to make L.A. dreamy, superficial AND yet seductively believable – at least to us masses.

Original Score:

Mica Levi, Jackie

Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka, Lion

Nicholas Britell, Moonlight

Thomas Newman, Passengers

WINNER: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Score means music and it’s a MUSICAL that is going to be the best picture of 2016. So don’t argue on this one.

Original Song

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

“Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Trolls— Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster

“City of Stars,” La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

“The Empty Chair,” Jim: The James Foley Story — Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting

“How Far I’ll Go,” Moana — Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

WINNER: “City of Stars,” La La Land, Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Everyone wants Lin-Manuel to win his EGOT and he will – but not this year. The soundtrack to La La Land has been playing continuously in my car for the last two months and I listen to it at the gym. So maybe I’m not the one to ask in this category. Or perhaps I am. And yes, they can sing. It’s called ACT(s)ING.

Makeup and Hair

I'll bet on the Jennifer Lawrence alien one

I’ll bet on the Jennifer Lawrence alien one

A Man Called Ove, Eva von Bahr and Love Larson

Star Trek Beyond, Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo

Suicide Squad, Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson

WINNER: Star Trek Beyond, Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo,

I have NO idea but everyone says Star Trek so let’s go with that.

Costume Design

Get it girls!

Get it girls!

Allied, Joanna Johnston

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Colleen Atwood

Florence Foster Jenkins, Consolata Boyle

Jackie, Madeline Fontaine

La La Land, Mary Zophre

WINNER: La La Land, Mary Zophre

I want Ryan Gosling’s wardrobe. Or perhaps it’s just Ryan Gosling. And Emma Stone managed to look luminous without emanating fake glamour. It was dreamy and real all at once. Can these guys design something for me and my best girlfriend HUSBAND when we film our romantic fantasy?

Visual Effects

A pretty safe bet

A pretty safe bet

Deepwater Horizon, Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton

Doctor Strange, Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould

The Jungle Book, Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon

Kubo and the Two Strings, Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

WINNER: The Jungle Book, Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould,

Not a clue because I didn’t see any of them but EVERYONE says The Jungle Book.

Sound Editing

In lieu of anything Mel Gibson related, here's a fine pic of Jon Hamm

In lieu of anything Mel Gibson related, here’s a fine pic of Jon Hamm

Arrival, Sylvain Bellemare

Deep Water Horizon, Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli

Hacksaw Ridge, Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright

La La Land, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan

Sully, Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

WINNER: Hacksaw Ridge, Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright 

I know little about sound editing and will never see another Mel Gibson movie again so don’t trust me here. But war movies are hard to beat in this category and all the smart money says that the anti-war, war film makes you feel like you’re there.

I wouldn’t know.

Sound Mixing

Play me a song, Piano Man

Play me a song, Piano Man

Arrival, Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye

Hacksaw Ridge, Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace

La La Land, Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth, Greg P. Russell (read about that scandal here)

WINNER: La La Land, Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow

Because nothing is music to the ears of the most people than the sound of La La Land and the ovations it will receive on Oscar night. There, I said it. Again.

The Film of 2016

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More than half the country’s voters (by 2.8 million and counting) are bemoaning the year 2016 and can’t wait for it to come to an end. Certainly, I am one of them. I mean, not only did a lunatic become president-elect but Florence Henderson died. One wonders – how much worse can it get???

OH C'MON! #effthisyear

OH C’MON! #effthisyear

And yet, this year did offer one very significant piece of filmic art. A work that provides a road map for our futures and could possibly inspire generations to come.

It is the most important film of the year.

And just might be the most significant motion picture of the next four years.

A movie that thinkers and dreamers will return to time and again as we forage our way through the hell of our futures —

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Wait a minute…

This is not to say it is the best film of the year. I will leave that for others to determine. It is not even to say that it will be in your top 10. Perhaps you don’t like musicals. Maybe you hate L.A. Or perhaps (and maybe) you have no patience for the dreamers among us. Certainly, that attitude is popular these days. Lord knows what it will be in two, three or twelve months from now.

oh hey 2017!

oh hey 2017!

Still, there is a timely importance to La La Land whether it’s to your taste or not. Whether you love it, hate it, or if it wins any Oscars or Razzies at all.

La La Land offers a road map on how to proceed. It shows us methods to cope. And it eventually delivers a desirable if not bittersweet future which, given the current circumstances of our real lives, is a terribly tempting reality for which to strive for in the next 48 months. And awfully clever for a fantasy film.

No, I am not overstating this. And note: there will be no spoilers here.

You can trust the chair #kisskiss

You can trust the chair #kisskiss

Granted, as a show biz aspirant who arrived in Hollywood decades ago with my own version of stars in my eyes, perhaps I’m a bit partial. But I don’t think so. What’s the old adage – “everyone has two businesses, their business and show business?”

You don’t think that’s true? Go back to your hometown anywhere in the U.S. and, despite how they voted, see what happens when you tell them you work in film or television.

#lifegoals

#lifegoals

The plot isn’t much. A guy and a gal in their twenties each trying to make a big dream in their lives come true in a world that keeps saying:

No, not on my watch. What you want is impossible and you don’t have the karma or smarts or talent to bring off what you choose to do.

Being young and in their twenties – and yes, looking like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (Note: Remember this is a metaphor & okay maybe he’s in his thirties but who cares), they keep fighting. And failing. And failing yet again. Then they figure out other ways to get their dreams that seem like they’ll work but sadly, do not.

Along the way they find each other and that’s nice.

But something still doesn’t feel quite right. They are not living up to who they are and what they believe deep down in their souls. And if you can’t do that, well, it’ll only be a matter of time before everything else in your life and world will turn to shit. (Okay, I’m inserting my own philosophies here but that’s their general point. Or, well, at least mine here).

Bonus points: You do still get to look like this #hellloooryan

Bonus points: You do still get to look like this #hellloooryan

In any event, what these dreamers believe in more than anything is that acting on their core beliefs – nee using their true talents – will not only benefit them but in some small way can bring some relief to other people’s lives. If only just for a few random moments. And what this story proposes to us is that when one of them (or us) gives up, the other one forces them to go on. And when the other one of them (or us) gives up, the other one of…Well, you get the picture.

More than the power of positive thinking it’s the mutual power of faith and hope in each other that is really what La La Land is about.   Of what can be achieved when you fulfill what you know is right, and how you can be helped along on this road even when you begin to doubt yourself.   Okay, I’m beginning to have déjà vu right about now re:the whole faith and hope thing, but even still, that doesn’t mean this way of thinking is wrong.

We're with you girl

We’re with you girl

Survival means imagining against all odds and acting on it.

Dreaming the big (or small) dream and doing something about it.

Proceeding when others say no and call you names and threaten to do a lot worse to you.

And then do a lot worse. And A LOT more than that.

In order to counteract what’s coming we ALL need INSPIRATION from everywhere. What popular culture can do is produce art that INSPIRES us to fight. Or to continue the fight. Or simply just be and act on WHO WE ARE continuously and to maximum effect.

... EVERYBODY NOW!

… EVERYBODY NOW!

Naysayers can make you cry, infuriate you, and make you want to beat the crap out of them or yourself. But only you can decide when THEY win. THEY don’t get to marginalize you – only you can do that to you. If this sounds a little precious – well, maybe. So is the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, The Constitution and The Gettysburg Address when you read them. And we all should read them, again or for the first time, sometime.  And then perhaps get a copy of the text of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and critique that for purple prose. But not before we take in the true meaning behind those words.

One of the screenwriting books I use for teaching says a good movie is like “a seamless dream.” Well, that’s about as great a description as I’ve ever heard.   And makes it even important to remember that without dreams we wouldn’t have innovation. Or innovators – aka – the people who change things.

Now i just have to work on waking up in full hair and make up #cinderellawho

Now i just have to work on waking up in full hair and make up #cinderellawho

Not everyone can inspire or change stuff on a massive scale. But any number of us working together to support each other’s dreams and/or innovation – yes, it just may take a village – can do so. And if you doubt that, right about now you might want to remember that Steve Jobs’ estranged father was a Syrian refugee.

There are real life heroes and movie heroes. None of them are flawless and none of them do it alone.

See you in the trenches. And in our dreams.