I’ll See You in…

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“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – or so says an 11th century proverb. But does that mean there is no value at all to erring on the side of positivism and kindness? Hell, if I know.

What I think, as a former movie critic and perennial critique-er of all things pop… well, let’s just say ALL things – is that we all carp way too much and should or could be a hell of a lot nicer. Still, what fun is that???

GURLLLLL please!

GURLLLLL please!

Competitions, contests and best of trophies date back to ancient times when Roman warriors really did fight to the death – and for what? The thrill of the crowd? The spectacle of macho-ness? Under order of their Emperor? Well, perhaps it was all three. At the very least they must have gotten a cool trophy and some cash prizes. Or so one hopes.

Actually, as it turns out Roman Gladiators who were victorious did receive money for each win. As well as something called a laurel crown. And guess what, they also got saluted in public!

You know... Laurel crowns... those things hipster brides wear on Pinterest

You know… Laurel crowns… those things hipster brides wear on Pinterest

Of course, the top award, which was not given all the time, was a wooden sword. This meant a permanent pass discharging them from the obligation of fighting. Yes, that’s right. Back then competition was required. You couldn’t actually sit it out if you thought awards or the powers that be in your industry were dumb, stupid or both.

Question: Is that any different than today?

You did realize we were speaking about the Oscars, right? Because you might have thought we meant the presidential race, which no one seems to be sitting out – at least on the Republican side.

C'mon Chair... the wound is still raw!

Even the Chair forgot about me

Well, let’s leave politics alone for the moment and stick with show biz since the Oscars are little more than a week away and the results far less costly for the rest of us.

Of course, the Oscars are only the largest and most regal example of entertainment award-giving and therefore the easiest example. In actuality, this applies for everything from the Razzies to the Golden Globes, back to the Saturns, down to each and every DGA, WGA, SAG, CSA citation and on through a variety of earned or faux career/life honors that seems to occur at this time of year at each “A,” “B” or “C” list film festival across the country.

If you think awards are not a marketing tool then you either had the same childhood as I did — where you spent too much time staring at a screen and dreaming of holding one of those shiny objects in your hand, or at least wearing some sort of crown or tiara in front of the mirror – or you work for one of these organizations. This is not to say that any of these honors are absolutely unearned. Only that it’s no coincidence that they occur in clumps and often around either the release time or Oscar window for each recipient’s individual star bid that same year.

Are the Oscars nothing more than a contemporary version of a laurel crown? Sort of, yes. Not to mention, they do carry a cash prize. Ask any agent in town and they will tell you a nominee or winner’s asking price and in-demand quotient often doubles, triples or more in the immediate aftermath. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the awards, nominees, recipients or entire process deserves our unyielding criticism. In some ways, it’s just the opposite.

Or in some cases, they still get paid less. #PreachJLaw

Or in some cases, they still get paid less. #PreachJLaw

In gearing up for the annual notesfromachair Oscar predictions next week I began going over the list of nominated movies and reflecting on several other films I’ve seen in the past week. I’ve found fault with a lot of them but in all honestly – are any of them just, well…AWFUL?

I’ve snidely noted that Todd Haynes’ Carol was like watching paint dry over the same scene in a two-hour loop. I’ve also told people The Revenant had story holes and believability issues so big they could rival any speech or even small statement given by The Republican Apprentice (aka our likely 2016 Republican presidential nominee).

No comment

No comment

Today I wondered: Chair, who are you to judge? And why? You of all people know how unlikely it is to even be in a position to make either of those types of films – not to mention how rare to have them emerge with a few memorable scenes that elevate them to high profile status.

Then I began to ponder: Am I just getting soft in the fast-advancing global warming age?

Well, perhaps it’s a little bit of both.

I still stand by my recent comments to anyone who would listen about the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar, when I referred to them as the most withholding filmmakers of all time. This was for a narratively flawed movie that was so intent at denying any audience satisfaction or slight emotion that they couldn’t even give Channing Tatum a big finish to an otherwise fantastic MGM-styled musical dance number.

Not to mention that hair... #why

Not to mention that hair… #ohgawd

However, a far more intelligent friend of mine recently pointed out that maybe that IS their point – a critique of melodrama and emotionalism in American movies. Sure, it’s not my thing but, well, perhaps it’s yours. Or…someone’s? (Note: Okay, yes, that’s the best I can do right now).

Then this week I watched a really solid satisfying film written by another friend of mine about the rescued Chilean miners called The 33. It had been pulled so quickly from local theatres this fall that I missed it yet viewing it now I couldn’t help but wonder – why not more love at the time of its release? It’s action-packed, emotional and well told. Certainly more than anything Michael Bay’s done of late. Or ever.

hehe

hehe

Oops, there I go again. See how insidious this all is?

I guess the bottom line is you can be harsh and bitchy all you want but that doesn’t mean you’re 100% correct. You might actually only be 75% right. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to sit through Transformers 4 again anytime soon. But I will consider the possibility that Mr. Bay could indeed one day make a movie that I might not hate. Sort of. Which would be a huge leap of faith for me.

Ditto goes for this year’s Oscar contenders. Let’s all go on record that all eight films nominated for best picture aren’t garbage. In fact, all have elements that make them good enough to be there. Except…..   Yeah, even that one, I can see on the list.

I'll leave you to your imagination....

I’ll leave you to your imagination….

Though don’t take that to imply that I support the Republican Apprentice to be on any list except one of insanity. Actually, I take that back. I have been insane myself and know a few insane people I like very much – and I don’t care to insult them. True, I might be softening but that doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on all of my core values.

 

SUBSCRIBE CHAIR

Watching the Gross

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I thought I’d grown used to the movies I like grossing very little money but it’s sobering. Still, this shouldn’t be surprising. I can now get into films as a senior citizen in some places. I know, I’m shocked too.   When I went to see the Steve “Jobs” movie a few weeks ago I almost passed out. But still paid full price.

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Clearly, I’ve permanently strayed from the “youth” demographic Hollywood covets no matter how many times my peers say 50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 80 is the new 20 and death is something that happens to OTHER people. That’s scary enough. But to realize that not one of my favorite films is among the 50 top grossing movies of the year – well, that’s positively un-American. It’s like my entire country has turned on me when I wasn’t looking. And in more ways than one. On the other hand, it’s not the first time. I lived through the eighties, Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump winning the Oscar yet I am still here whining about it all as our first African American-president completes his second term of office and Birdman was last year’s best picture winner. Inevitably, these types of things, as well as life, do run in cycles.

And yet…

Hard as it is to recognize I have come to understand that like many Americans the movies are my touchstone. Each year at least a handful reflect what myself and our culture were thinking or feeling en masse and, when they worked really well, even showed us alternative ways to cope. Did Michael Keaton really go out the window at the end of Birdman? Who cares – it raised the question of just what are the alternatives we all face when trying to survive as an artist of any kind. And if one believes, as I do, that anything you attempt to do well in life does indeed have some sort of artistic element to it, it is essential we continue to consider these questions. And spend less time pondering how high of a gilded wall we can build around ourselves to keep out those who are different. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country built on a melting pot of difference should be faced with the 2015 Shakespearean question of how we engineer and preserve our current gene pool to exclude as many others as possible.

There’s a reason why, at its essence, drama hasn’t really changed very much since the Elizabethan period or even as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Still works!

Still works!

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to The MOVIES, 2015.

If you’re a member of a Hollywood guild each year you’re fortunate enough to receive DVDs of many of this year’s movies so you don’t have to move your privileged ass off the couch and make the effort to go to the movie theatre if you so prefer not to. (Note: Well, you wouldn’t either if you didn’t have to and had a decent TV setup at home – give me a break)

So being the lazybones (nee whore) that I am I decided that after gorging myself on turkey I’d continue gorging myself on some of the movies I got in the mail and have not yet seen. I also decided to go out to the movie theatres and pay for a few others as well as attend several industry screenings (Note: Yes, for free – I’m not only getting lazy in my old age but also cheap). And what continued to amaze me is that without exception the films that I really enjoyed continue to make very, very little money at the box office. How long before these types of films are not made at all? I fear, not very long.

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I'll ask Matt Damon)

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I’ll ask Matt Damon)

Now before you go saying I’m part of the problem because I’m not going out to see my films enough – you’re only partly right. Like all of you, I should venture out and support my local theatres more than I do. But also know that part of the marketing budgets of all production companies include sending out free DVDs to guild members not to be kind but to get us to VOTE for said film in an enormous array of awards competitions that the industry will use to promote the winners and get you/us – the audience – into the theatres to see or into the stores to buy or into our heads to stream. For better or worse that’s the way the system works. Bottom line dollars.

I suppose this explains why as a Writers Guild member two of the early DVDs I received were for Furious 7 ($353 million domestic box-office gross) and Jurassic World ($652 million). Did anyone really think these would win any writing awards? (Note: That question was rhetorical). No, it was about spreading the word. Well, fyi, I’ve previously seen both a Furious AND a Jurassic movie before and was entertained. I tried briefly with both of these. Oh God. I might be old but I’m not brain dead. Yet. Which is why I turned them off.

As for some of the others – well, here I am to do the job that I was sent to do by the studio overlords – spreading the word. (Note: As if I wouldn’t give my opinion anyway).

TRUMBO

He is Spartacus?

He is Spartacus?

This is the story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and how his intellectual liberal leanings sent him to jail for a year in the 1950s merely for being subversively un-American as a member of the Communist party. (Note: Think of him as a Muslim under a future Trump administration).

More interesting is the tale it tells of how Trumbo, once out of a jail, worked secretly writing tacky low-budget movies under assumed names and got his other unemployable writer friends jobs doing the same via a hidden writer’s clearing house he ran out of his house. With the help of his wife and children. Who answered five different telephone lines and served as their script couriers.

As played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, this Trumbo is a witty, erudite crusader, family man who takes advantage of the people around him while at the same time loving them and his country in the most unorthodox of ways. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that will surely get him an Oscar nomination. The movie takes a long time to get going and in the first half especially feels a bit like a choppy, TV movie biopic from the 1970s. But ultimately it’s smart, breezy, clever and not without some meaning. And slickly made by director Jay Roach.

AND — It’s made less than a $1 million after three weeks of limited release.

Verdict: Watch it.

TRUTH

Would you... Rather?

Would you… Rather?

I was where most of you probably are on this. Robert Redford playing Dan Rather in a movie that shows us how Rather got pushed out of the anchor chair at CBS because of a 60 Minutes story he did on George W. Bush’s questionable military record of service? A story where sources recanted their original claims but nevertheless a story that was never proven factually inaccurate?

#1 – I don’t want to hear any more about Dubya. #2 – Redford is about as similar to Dan Rather as I am. #3 – It’s my private time, I want to be entertained by a film not forced to think about unpleasant stuff I was forced to live through all too recently.

Well, the film is not really about Dubya at all but about how the news you see on TV is put together and just how influential political dynasties can be “behind the scenes.” More importantly, Redford might not look anything like Rather but he’s got his speaking cadence down pat and is ultimately absolutely believable as the veteran Texas newsman – in fact it’s the best he’s been in a movie in many years. Who knew? Not any of us because no one is going to see it. Since it’s release in October it’s grossed about $2.5 million.

Oh, and then there’s Cate Blanchett starring as Rather’s real-life producer Mary Mapes, a tough-talking Texan she gets exactly right because she doesn’t slather on the accent but instead accentuates her intelligence. The whole film is smart. And –

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING.

SICARIO

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

My students will hate me for this because they seem to love this movie. Why? I have zero idea. Emily Blunt is as good as she can be as an FBI agent drawn into the web of breaking up a Mexican drug cartel by her CIA overlords as well as by others. But…it’s a labyrinth of action with character development and logic so spare as to be almost non-existent. And after a while it simply becomes preposterous. And a bore.

I’ve experienced first-hand as a writer notes on the strategy of throwing audiences right into the world of a movie without much of a convincing setup and allowing the viewer to play catch up. This sometimes works – as it did in the first season of True Detective. And it often times fails, as it does here. But then again, it depends what you mean by failure. Sicario has grossed $49 million in the U.S. alone and another $34 million overseas so far. That makes it a bit more than a modest success in the world of the balance sheet of a film with no above the title movie star or director. It’s also a world where logic and dialogue don’t matter as much the various kinds of actions that are ultimately delivered.

Verdict: SKIP IT. Though you could do worse (Note: See Furious AND Jurassic).

CAROL

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner... what can ya say?

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner… what can ya say?

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two seemingly mismatched women falling in love in the repressive 1950s under the direction of Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). This movie was MADE for me!! You’d think.

It’s beautiful to look at. Cate Blanchett’s mink coat and shimmering blonde hair and red lipstick are breathtaking. As is every single room, piece of jewelry and choice of scenery and period motor vehicle and hotel room and tacky apartment and cheap motel room. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s a movie in love with artifice – and itself. The drama is real and sometimes palpable but as someone is said to have once said, “it’s like watching paint dry.” The same emotional beats are played over and over. Time and again.   It’s based on the seminal lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.   But never for one moment do you feel as if you’re watching anything other than a book unspooling in movie time without any of the nuanced language that made it so special.

The two actresses are wonderful. Everything is pretty. And it does show us how much a great deal of the world has changed. But…well….

Verdict: PASS – which is not to say there is not a great deal of skill and intelligence here. Would I watch it before Jurassic and Furious again? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I should just force myself to get all the way through the latter two for the first time. Though Carol needs the money more. It’s grossed about $500,000 in 10 days of limited release. And I doubt there’s a ton more to come. DVD/streaming sales? Maybe. But…OK, I’ll stop now.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

A Spielberg movie written by.... The Coen Brothers?

A Spielberg movie written by…. The Coen Brothers? 

I popped the DVD to this in and had low expectations. I mean, it’s the tale of the reluctant negotiator spy type American hero of the 1950s as played by Tom Hanks and directed by Steve Spielberg that somehow you believe deep down in your soul you’ve seen before…. but directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman or by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Except it’s not any of those. Or really that much like them.

Tom Hanks is very good, very believable and very likeable – in an authentic, throwback Americana way. It’s a tough act to pull off an insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator in period clothes but somehow you buy it all. At this point it’d be shocking if Mr. Spielberg did not direct an infinitely watchable movie. And this one is pretty darn watchable – thanks also in great part to Mark Rylance’s brilliantly understated performance in a role you need to see rather than read about from me. He anchors the film. And if you think that’s easy when you’re not a movie star, you’re wrong.

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING. It won’t change your life but it’s engaging. Though at a $67 million box-office gross it’s the equivalent of Trumbo or Truth in dollars for a Spielberg pic. That may not be fair but it’s the way the industry thinks. And for our future films bodes a bit ominous.

Feel free to agree – or disagree. But just know the top five grossing films of 2015 are Jurassic World ($652 million); Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 million); Inside Out ($356 million); Furious 7 ($353 million) and Minions ($336 million). And that’s just in the U.S. alone. Films that are more adult – nee a bit more complicated or intellectually challenging – are in trouble. And need our support. At theatres, on DVD, or yes, even for free. It’s who we are. Or were. Our choice.

Oh you'll be adding me to that list pretty soon....

Oh you’ll be adding me to that list pretty soon….

P.S. Note #1: I did very much enjoy Inside Out but it’s an animated film and they’re in a category of their own. This is not a snob thing but everyone likes at least one animated movie a year except a dear friend of mine who I still can’t convince to embrace Aladdin – the gayest animated movie that’s ever been made. I’ll work on him, though.

P.S. Note #2 – Just got home from a screening of The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne and his co-star, the Swedish film actress Alicia Vikander, will both receive Oscar nominations. As will others behind the scenes. It’s mainstream yet unusual. Thought-provoking though not too complicated. And timely in that it follows one of the first medical cases of gender reassignment. Verdict: See it. People actually speak in full sentences, and often more than one sentence at a time. Plus, nothing blows up.

At least that’s something.