Movie Review: Wilson

Based on a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer), Wilson purports to have, in the words of its title character (Woody Harrelson) the “courage to go your own way.”

With a cute dog and Harrelson—appearing with talented The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio co-star Laura Dern (Wild, The Founder, Jurassic Park) as his ex-wife—perfectly cast as a rambling type of angry white male that’s commonly ridiculed and rarely depicted with any depth, let alone with good humor, Wilson might have scored. Unfortunately, the movie based on the works of Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, draws a blank.

As that guy, i.e., an unfiltered, unhinged and apparently unemployed man who’s a case of arrested development, Harrelson plays to type in what should be an outstanding role for him. He’s suited to this sort of quirky film character. As his junkie ex-spouse, Dern feeds him plenty of set-ups. They reunite after a long introduction in which Wilson appears to have no means of financial support, except perhaps for a dying father who doesn’t love him, though whether he leaves Wilson any money is unclear. In the sort of scene that could have been a springboard to thematic coherence and isn’t, Dern’s waitress and nomadic Wilson hide behind mannequins while stalking the kid she gave up for adoption.

Stand alone jokes earning a chuckle every 15 minutes and an eventually obvious reason for Wilson’s inappropriateness aside, Wilson putters along like a series of situational skits without a point, most of which are not funny. Actress Judy Greer (Ant-Man, TV’s Archer, Grandma) as the dogsitting love interest does add value but it’s not enough. All the wandering, stalking, joking and rambling adds up to an Apatow-style vulgarity message about procreation as the purpose of one’s life, with an emphasis on blood and carrying on your own DNA, not exactly a humanistic or interesting notion. Like the manic, raunchy movies in which the sleaze is rationalized because everyone decides to settle down, settle for less and just make more babies and conform, Wilson is purely an exercise in bland traditionalism in the final analysis, which makes Wilson a middling trip into one man’s damaged psyche.

At one point, Wilson watches icicles melt. It’s the kind of scene that might play well in a cartoon strip, as a wry, knowing look at middle-aged man’s lament. But, when one character deadpans that “this is gonna be fun,” you’re already in on the fact that it isn’t, which makes Wilson flatter than it already is.

Music Review: Divide by Ed Sheeran

For clear, powerful pop music, and I am an admitted fan of pop music, Ed Sheeran’s new album, Divide, adds, multiplies and satisfies. From the first listening to the most recent, its lyrics, melodies and ranging styles sound better and better.

Beginning with a lament about his early pop fame, “Eraser”, Sheeran sings about “friends and family filled with envy when they should be filled with pride.” Then, he croons what I regard as a songwriting masterpiece, “Castle on a Hill”. This propulsive tune contrasts various pauses, pleas, percussion and steady repetition of guitar playing with an easygoing but deceptively shrewd, wry and progressive observation about earning one’s wisdom. Sheeran spins it into an exultant if exhausted embrace of the facts of reality.

Buy Ed Sheeran’s “Divide” (deluxe version CD)

In “Dive”, Ed Sheeran (who co-wrote the songs) delivers a polished paean to lovesickness with the right blend of vulnerability and affirmation. The lustful, sexually themed “Shape of You” applies an irresistible lyric to undulating rhythm in electronic soul. With a scratchy, old recording sound as prelude, his love song “Perfect” is truly perfect. With Sheeran’s clear vocals lavishing its rhyming lyrics with sincerity, with seriousness fueling the soul of his talent, as with the best of England’s new wave of soul singers—James Blunt, Adele, Sam Smith, all of whom are evoked in the brightest sense on this exceptional album—in a song you’d expect to hear on oldies radio. “Galway Girl” is a jaunty mix of hip hop and regional music that stands on its own. “Happier” is the most haunting heartbreak song since Blunt’s “Beautiful” or Adele’s “Hello”.

“New Man” offers another modern beat, with a nod to social media and digs at kale, overspending and plucked eyebrows. All of Sheeran’s 16 songs are meticulously created and recorded, with memorable, piano laden melodies. This is especially true of the lullaby “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and a few other favorites, including Sheeran’s ironic upbeat ode to his brand of self-made music “What Do I Know”. “How Would You Feel” is lovely, too.

Sheeran saves the best for the deluxe album’s last five songs, though “Castle on a Hill” remains sensational. How sad that it has to be considered refreshing to hear a man sing a simple proclamation of love for his mother in “Supermarket Flowers”. “Barcelona”, which neatly evokes a summer night along Las Ramblas in that Spanish city, and “Bibia Be Ye Ye”, tease and dare you to not want to dance. Ed Sheeran’s tribute to his parents’ love, “Nancy Mulligan”, toasts the best of one’s legacy in values. Finally, the reflective and prayerful “Save Myself” plays like young, successful and rich Ed Sheeran’s egoistic answer to his album Divide’s first song, “Eraser”—intentionally or not—promising with a solemn vow to remember that, before he loves someone else, he’s “got to love myself.”

Clarity, melody and sincerity unify the elements of Ed Sheeran’s intimate and triumphal Divide.

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

A new adaptation of King Kong, a Warner Bros. picture titled Kong: Skull Island which debuts in theaters this week, is better than expected.

That’s not saying much. The 1933 original was spellbinding to me as a kid when I first saw it on TV, but I think it’s overestimated at the expense of other great adventure-themed classic movies, such as Wings, Red Dust and Gunga Din. The effects-heavy 1976 film is mediocre. The Peter Jackson version, which included characters running with dinosaurs (years before the godawful Jurassic World), is one of the worst movies I’ve seen. To be clear, Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie.

That is its best asset. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a story by John Gatins (Coach Carter) with a script by a few writers including writers partly responsible for a Godzilla movie and that godawful Jurassic film, shrewdly downplays everything that Peter Jackson overplayed, such as the giant gorilla’s affection for the human female, in favor of a wider and deeper cultural framework. This keeps Kong from getting too campy, though camp comes with the package. Still, while it is not as clever as its makers apparently think, Kong works several angles—America’s slide toward military statism, hollowing out from the irrational Vietnam War, the fall of man—into its loss recovery theme that mind trumps muscle.

After a prelude in the South Pacific in 1944, the journey starts in Washington and Da Nang, South Vietnam in 1973, as Kong leads with exotic voyage pitchman John Goodman (The Artist) and his more rational right-hand man (Corey Hawkins) to sell a key politician on funding the trip to a “place where myth and science meet”. First, they tap a military leader played by Samuel L. Jackson (overacting and no stranger to fighting ferocious jungle apes as he recently did in The Legend of Tarzan). Jackson’s gung-ho type mulls over war medals with a Budweiser within reach.

Rain falls, things get slippery and, passing a sign that warns to “Think Safety”, it’s off to Saigon where Tom Hiddleston (outstanding in I Saw the Light and Thor‘s Loki no more) is hired as the rogue to lead the way. In Bangkok, Brie Larson (Room) comes on board for the modernized Fay Wray role, happily neither as a hyper-butch kickboxer like most female characters in action movies nor as a hyper-feminized vixen like many of today’s female characters—she’s a competent war or, as she puts it in one of the better exchanges, anti-war, photographer—and the cast is capable, notably leads Larson and Hiddleston but also actors in smaller roles such as John Ortiz (A Dog’s Purpose) as a quiet soldier and John C. Reilly (Chicago) as a lost soldier. Add period songs including a David Bowie ditty, crisp lines of dialogue and excellent graphics, sound and visual effects and clarity in exposition and Kong, sufficiently scored by Henry Jackman, keeps the plot moving.

Kong looks as realistic as one can expect from a computerized depiction of a gigantic gorilla.

With references to John Wayne, Chicago’s Cubs and a classic Forties tune hinting (with an after-credits scene) at a series, the director seems to be striving for American cultural commentary. With noble savages in a habitat hailed as being free from “crime and personal property” (except apparently for treasured private property such as a camera, cigarette lighter and a soldier’s wartime letter to his faraway child) and an overly arranged multiracial cast, results are mixed. Certain parts are too broad or obvious, such as 1973 Vietnam War soldiers posing for pictures like they’re on Facebook in 2013, a dragonfly shot with a helicopter, a Nixon bobblehead, Apocalypse Now imagery and a killing field, all of which are exaggerated but not as poorly as a near-drowning which exceeds plausibility. But Kong, amid other plus-sized island monsters, convincingly beats his chest, saves the girl and reaches down like his is the hand of God, which makes his breaking of chains in favor of using his brains an interesting proposition and, in any case, entertaining enough for a matinee monster movie. Comparable to The Hunchback of Notre Dame this is not, but don’t be surprised if you notice who is more like a monster and who is more like a man.

Robert Osborne

Though I had known he was ill and he hadn’t been hosting Turner Classic Movies (TCM), yesterday’s news that Robert Osborne died hit me hard. I read the sad news in an e-mail subject line from TCM as the screening room lights went down before opening credits rolled for a new Warner Bros. movie, an irony I think he would have appreciated (Warner Bros. and TCM are owned by the same company).

Robert Osborne

We met years ago when I started writing about film and Robert O., as he called himself on TCM, encouraged me to cover classic movies, which I did. Over the years, I interviewed him about several TCM programs, movie stars and topics. We talked about his work, career and life, mostly for this blog and for other sites, too. Those are fond memories. Of course, we talked about Hollywood’s Golden Age—read transcripts of our interviews about Lizabeth Scott, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—and we talked about Ernest Borgnine, Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford. We celebrated Barbara Stanwyck during an event he hosted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—I interviewed him about Stanwyck for the centenary of her birth, which I plan to publish—and we talked about Hollywood, New York, Atlanta, TCM, the motion picture press and the Hollywood Reporter, Ayn Rand and the Oscars. I always found him to be candid and unpretentious.

Robert Osborne was a treasure. Readers often asked what he was like and I always answered with the truth; that he was exactly like he is on Turner Classic Movies. He didn’t self-censor, conceal or soften his thoughts as so many people do. He had a command of the facts about movies and he knew it. He spoke and acted like he knew it, too. This, more than anything else, including his work as an actor and as a journalist, explains his success as host of Ted Turner’s channel for uncut and commercial-free classic movies. The man who was a seasoned reporter, actor and confidante to the stars, including Olivia de Havilland and Lucille Ball, was foremost one who loved movies and knew that life is and ought to be as it is in the movies. This I know firsthand.

Passion did not scare him as it scares so many working these days in journalism, especially movie journalism, movies and television. Passion stirred and invigorated him. He wrote that way, strong, clear and simple, every month in TCM’s Now Playing and in books about the Oscars. Robert Osborne had studied and mastered facts about movies since he was a farm boy in the Pacific Northwest. He nourished that knowledge as a young man. He fed and kept it active and never let it go until, when TCM debuted in 1994, he traded on a lifetime of insights and introduced TCM’s first motion picture, Gone With the Wind—which he embraced without equivocation—the 1939 epic based upon Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant novel, a deep, serious movie which was revered by TCM’s creator, a larger than life figure himself, a capitalist who’d once bought billboards emblazoned with black letters on white space asking “Who is John Galt?”, founded CNN, married a movie star and lived on a ranch in the West.

Robert Osborne had a connection to that movie, too; he was friends with the actress who’d played Melanie. But being well connected alone wasn’t what gave Robert O. the confidence, command and mastery that viewers noticed and relished for 20 years. Nor is his ability merely a byproduct of the sum of his movie knowledge. He was much more than a charming ex-actor who ingratiated himself to Hollywood legends, more than a man with vast knowledge. He spoke as if he was as in love with the movies as you are. Robert Osborne’s mastery of TCM’s archive was richer than stately charm through an assuring voice, manner and gray hair conveying a grasp of facts. Robert Osborne mastered TCM with an enduring series of short, sharply crafted words enticing viewers before pictures because he had been the child who dreams. He had been the kid who works in the movie theater—the college student who stays in the library—the actor who studies his lines—the writer who thinks before he writes—the observer who dares to make the objective observation—and, above all, Robert O. was the gentleman who insists on living large and with glamor—just like life in classic movies.

This is what Robert Osborne brought to each introduction or interview—the ability to identify the movie’s ideal and a sense that one should bridge the real and romantic and realize the dream—and this is what he added to Ted Turner’s showcase for classic movies. It’s the greatest compliment I can give: that Robert O. affirmed the sense that wanting your life to be grand, larger than life and sublime is perfectly natural and fabulous. By framing each film with an upward glance, not a downward tone, by stressing the essential as the to-be-expected, the host made what happens in movies look wonderful, important and easy—and fully accessible to you.

As one who had the privilege of knowing Robert Osborne, I know that he lived with grace, passion and vitality. He was a marvelous host and, like one of his favorite movies, he left the audience satiated, enticed and wanting more. I hope for his sake and for those he leaves behind that his was a happy ending.

Oscars So Blank

For years now, I’ve maintained that the Academy Awards are overdone, overplayed and overestimated as a commercial or cultural barometer. Last night, host Jimmy Kimmel summed up the fading luster in a single line after the show’s worst display of ineptitude in Oscar’s history. After the wrong winner was announced, Kimmel jokingly blamed the host of another TV awards telecast—known for announcing the wrong winner at a beauty pageant—as the Oscars ended in confusion, not exactly celebration. Despite gracious statements and commentary by various filmmakers and TV hosts, the fiasco capped the Oscars’ increasing irrelevance, which represents the growing American cultural disunity. First-time host Kimmel’s comment comparing the once grand and glamorous Academy Awards to a beauty pageant striving to retain an audience miniaturized an already minimized Academy Awards.

The bigger they’ve become in coverage—with a red carpet that’s wider than ever—the smaller the Oscars became. The culture is saturated with awards and chatter about awards and, while movies that get nominated and win Oscars see a spike in box office receipts, the Oscars barely have relevance to most people’s daily lives, even in the most superficial sense. This is unfortunate, as far as I’m concerned, because movies are getting deeper, more interesting and better in some respects and people need both glamorous, larger-than-life escapism and thought-provoking films more than ever, especially as the middle class is decimated and vanishes. Dropping candy and other tricks, such as duping tourists and taking so-called selfies, only underscores the smallness of the ceremonies.

The real cause of the Oscars blankout is its creeping egalitarianism. Audiences used to tune into masters of ceremonies Bob Hope, Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal in Santa Monica, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Hollywood to see movie stars with elegance and ability at their best in a night of galas and celebration of the world’s finest movies. The Academy Awards were an unabashed toast to the best in motion pictures. But they were predicated on the idea that there could, in fact, be a best picture. Today’s Academy Awards are led by a president who instituted a discriminatory new system to impose a certain type of pre-ordained “diversity”, an idea based on multiculturalism, a notion that all cultures are equal. This egalitarian ideal sets the standard as the color of one’s skin, or sex or sexual orientation, as against the quality of the movie, performance or direction. So, no one should be surprised that the Cheryl Boone Isaacs “diversity” campaign against old and white Academy members has sparked an annual accounting of nominees and winners primarily on the basis of race, sex and sexual orientation.

This is not to say that irrational discrimination against blacks, women and gays does not exist in Hollywood. These are loaded, complicated and difficult problems to address. They are not solved by contests between works of art or manipulations of membership based on age, race, sex, sexuality or other factors. They are solved, as the inspiring Hidden Figures and the thoughtful and Oscar-ignored Sully, Loving and Snowden dramatize, through activism, discourse, challenging the status quo and, above all, as each of those movies demonstrates, by being one’s best.

By replacing the Oscars as a selection by members of the best works in movies with the most diverse works in movies, the Isaacs-era Academy and its orthodoxy make the Academy Awards less enjoyable. It’s not just that heavy-handed speeches by millionaires to the masses amid perpetual insider jokes and self-centered congratulations wear thin at a time of post-2008 discord, economic hardship and disunity over complex, confusing flashpoints such as unisex toilets, denunciations of police and whether health care is a right and everyone should be forced by the government to “buy” health insurance at rates and terms dictated by the state. For a moviegoing public beleaguered by nonstop Islamic terrorist attacks—in Tennessee, Texas, Florida, California, Massachusetts—and a radically restructured government now controlling the people with mass, indiscriminate surveillance and mandatory health plans and travel restrictions, the fixation on race and sex during the Oscars telecast—whether scrutiny on those grounds is warranted or not—takes some of the fun out of the Academy Awards. This fatigue, in turn, may lead to vulgar Oscar shows fixated on women’s breasts and other displays of political incorrectness.

So, I think it’s a cycle that spirals downward; the worse the culture, the more churchy the Oscars become and the reverse is true, too. Fatigue sets in for everyone and, I suspect, what almost everyone loves about the Oscars—the glamor and grandeur in toasting the best in movies—slowly, sadly whimpers to an end. Though last night’s show featured outstanding moments, including an eloquent and passionate argument for art by Oscar winner Viola Davis (Fences) and Sara Bareilles’ flawless and moving rendition of “Both Sides Now” in memoriam for those who’ve died, the Oscar fiasco exemplifies the cycle and fatigue. Whichever movie you wanted to win—the romantic, realistic homage to making your life a work of art La La Land or the bleak, stylized warning that life grants one brief moment under Moonlight—announcing the wrong Best Picture winner (Moonlight is the winner, according to the Academy) brought the cycle, fatigue and self-congrats to an abrupt and muddled conclusion. Through no fault of Moonlight‘s or La La Lands or presenters Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway, last night’s awards show ended in apology, confusion and comparison to a beauty contest. That the Academy left the question of whose picture is best to its presenter, host and false and true winners to figure out is an example of what happens when being the best—and getting who’s best right—matters less than which favored collective gets more power in reaching that outcome.