Tag Archives | 2015 movies

Updated Articles Archive

One of my resolutions this year is to add articles more often to my site’s backlog, so I’ve included, if not yet sorted, eight pieces to the Writings tab and checked that item off my list (read my new year’s post here on spring course offerings, fiction and other goals). The newly added articles appear on separate website pages, so they are not blog posts, with hyperlinks on headlines in bullet points included below. For various reasons, I may have to remove these articles at some point, so if you’re interested in any of these, read them sooner than later.

The oldest article went to press in 1999. It’s a roundup of then-newly printed works by Ayn Rand, anchored by two reviews of books published by the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) peppered with or consisting of essays or writings by Rand, whose birthday, incidentally, is tomorrow. I haven’t re-read my thoughts on those books in years. I think the reviewed versions may have been updated with new editions by the organization’s ARI Press. The reviews are generally favorable. A related article is among the most recent pieces: the first interview with ARI’s new CEO, who discussed seeing Rand lecture near Harvard, where he was enrolled in business studies, his favorite course by Leonard Peikoff and what being an Air Force commander adds to the challenge of leading an organization dedicated to advancing Objectivism.

Three other exclusive interviews appear. Composer Alexandre Desplat, nominated for an Oscar for scoring The Shape of Water, spoke with me from Paris about Charlie Hebdo, Islamic terrorism and his methodology in making music for movies, including predominantly his 2015 movie, Suffragette. That same year, Leonard Maltin, whom I’ve interviewed several times since we met, talked in depth about classic movies and the third edition of his Classic Movie Guide.

I had been asking him for years to do an extended interview in person and, finally, we did, at his home. The interview ended right on time as a TV crew came in for set-up and perhaps you’ll agree with me that it’s our most serious exchange. The third movie-related interview took place a year later with a historian who knows all about the slave rebellion depicted in a controversial film, The Birth of a Nation (2016), which opened to widespread praise in a film festival only to lose critical darling momentum when its writer and director was linked to a rape victim who later killed herself. This pre-Me, Too Hollywood derailment only made me more serious about judging the merits of the movie, distributed by Fox Searchlight, the studio responsible for the powerful 12 Years a Slave, so I’m glad I went to the young scholar who studied the facts which form the basis for the motion picture. The exchange amounts a history lesson on the truth about slavery in America.

A couple of articles report on interviews conducted by others for the annual classic film festival — the only movie festival I’ve consecutively covered — hosted by Turner Classic Movies in Hollywood. Read my account of Club TCM’s detailed tribute to Leonard Maltin, who got personal about his early career in book publishing, movie journalism and an affiliation with the Walt Disney Studios and my 2016 report on TCM’s rare and respectful one on one exchange with one of America’s last glamorous movie stars, Faye Dunaway, who talked about Network, Barfly and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Finally, I’ve added an article from a local edition of the Los Angeles Times which I conceived, researched and wrote on assignment. This is the tale of a mid-range shopping mall nestled in a prime location in the shadow and hum of LA’s newest freeways. The property would begin with publicity visits from movie stars and Olympic athletes amid concern about lost business in a neighboring suburb whose government was so frightened that they passed regulations to stop people from shopping there. Its decline began when two of the most feared Los Angeles serial killers stalked — and enticed, captured and murdered — children at the mall.

Newly added articles include:

Movie Review: Joy

David O. Russell’s movie Joy, which he co-wrote and directed, succeeds in its mission a bit too well for its own good. The title refers to the main character’s name, Joy, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games). She’s terribly put upon, creative and smart and she bears a burden by choice that she carries throughout her quest to retain her youthful idealism.

It’s a noble pursuit dramatized with the familiar method, writing and cast employed by Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), so Lawrence is joined again by Robert De Niro (New York, New York) as her father and Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) as her business affiliate. The cast shines and layered themes come into curious and creative play as Joy—a harried daughter, mother, granddaughter, ex-wife, airline agent and would-be inventor—attempts to remake herself as an entrepreneur. The catalyst is Joy’s faith; her belief in herself, her family and humanity.

This becomes Joy‘s problem, too.

JoyPosterThat’s because faith in oneself is not the same as confidence in oneself, which is in reality what Joy—a characterization based upon a real businesswoman—must possess in order to do what she does. What she does is amazing, all the more so because she’s up against so many complicating factors such as an ex-husband who is also her friend, parents who are both delusional in their own ways and a business plan that’s contingent upon an heiress (Isabella Rosellini getting feisty) who has more chutzpah than chops when it comes to backing up the business. Much of Joy is fun to watch and appreciate for its core truths about a host of cleverly conceived and implanted ideas—keeping one’s reason in a world gone mad, cleaning up other people’s messes, making and doing one’s own business—and the writing and performances give it a glow.

Joy’s confidence permits her to invent an innovative mop (inspired by cleaning others’ messes) that lets the cleaner keep clean. Joy fights for it from design, rights and manufacturing to sales and distribution, even confining herself to what she sees as the best funding sources and counsel. The concept makes sense, persuades in its proof of concept test, meets a demand and her grandmother (Diane Ladd) reaffirms her belief in Joy while her young daughter is a strong source of support, so Joy’s confidence is reinforced and well founded. With Joy’s flashbacks to a lost childhood amid bickering parents signalling a serious rediscovery of her ego, Joy sets the scene for the perfect cashing in. Cooper’s proto-capitalist, citing self-made Hollywood moguls and visionary theories about media as a means for mass commercialism—emphasizing quality, value and convenience with help from none other than Joan Rivers—ups the ante for a jackpot.

But appearing to make the case for confidence through capitalism comes at the expense of the picture’s theme, which is based on more ordinary ideas. The clues are peppered throughout Joy. An early flashback hints at the outcome. Joy keeps saying that she’s following what others tell her to do when things go wrong, though she never takes pride—she takes charge, she takes responsibility but she never really takes credit or pride—when things go right. A crucifix figures into an important scene. This absence of pride (and, yes, joy) leaves the residue of what can best be described as counterfeit egoism; a movie that purports to be about reclaiming oneself which depicts neither the reclamation nor the main character’s esteem of herself.

This accounts for the letdown when, in a crucial scene when the entrepreneurial dust settles, Joy, having expended the energy of meltdowns, shakedowns and staredowns, goes blank and decidedly joyless. Joy, it turns out, is selfless and, worse from my perspective, she chooses this path to fulfill some distorted childish notion that she needs to want no one. This after the best serious moneymaker makeover scene since Mike Nichols‘ 1988 triumphant love story of Wall Street, capitalism and man-woman equality, Working Girl.

By confusing and swapping faith and confidence as it figures into one’s ability to make money, Joy falters in achieving its apparently intended movie poster moment, with snowflakes, enlightenment and Christmastime. There’s plenty to appreciate, from a decent character role for Virginia Madsen as a neurotic mother to the fine nuances of depicting the ups and downs of a startup enterprise and the wonder of seeing Melissa Rivers as Joan Rivers at cable TV’s QVC as I think she was. Joy has its wonders and I think its implied theme that belief and sacrifice come at the expense of one’s enjoyment is true. But in doing so it dims the audience’s enjoyment, too.

Movie Review: Concussion

How the mind works, recalls and knows is the main theme of the alternately disturbing and stimulating Concussion starring Will Smith as the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the deadly condition caused by playing football. Sony‘s movie, which tries to bundle too much into the story, is imperfect. But it absorbingly depicts one man’s singular quest for knowledge and judgments which arguably ought to end football.


Buy the DVD

Concussion is anti-football strictly as facts allow. Smith’s Dr. Omalu, a pathologist in Pittsburgh, the industrial American city of champions in business, sports and medicine, eventually acknowledges what others regard as the beauty, grace and power of pigskin’s professional sport. But the film is about the effects of football, not an examination of what drives everyone to it.

The field play happens in game clips, conveying an essence of its brutal competition. But the characters play in Salvatore Totino’s gleaming photography, which captures Pittsburgh’s arenas, bridges, buildings, inclines and airplanes in the glory of glass and steel against green hills and gray skies.

Concussion‘s mind versus muscle clash in this ideal setting portrays a uniquely American contest—pitting the man who thinks against the man who refuses to think. Watching it is as gripping as watching a well done scoring drive.

In Will Smith’s characterization of coroner’s office neuropathologist Dr. Omalu, with fine supporting performances from Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks, Concussion delivers what one character rightly calls “an American hero” who at his core seeks to end the killing of an innocent man. He is practicably spiritual in an almost Greek sense, though he goes to church, hangs crosses and speaks of God. This self-made African doctor who earned both a master’s degree and a medical degree in addition to getting his MBA from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University is devoted to his chosen profession and reverential about practicing medicine in (pre-ObamaCare) America, which he tells another immigrant is the only nation where one is free to be the best.

Concussion‘s prolonged set-up begins with a patient zero, Pittsburgh Steelers‘ center Mike Webster (David Morse) the first of many tortured, diseased football players who are doomed to die from complications related to CTE, most by suicide. This figures uncomfortably and prominently into the forensics-driven plot, which dips and curves like the roads in Pittsburgh’s hills. When Omalu’s mentor, Cyril Wecht (Brooks in another excellent turn), backs Omalu’s investigation with the line that he never leaves a lead alone, adding that “that’s why people hate me”, it is both a piece of advice and a warning. Idiosyncratic Dr. Wecht encourages idiosyncratic Dr. Omalu to find romance, which blooms when a nurse (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) appears at church.

The good doctor embarks on the noble inquiry, based on a proprietary theory with the blessing of the seasoned sponsor, followed by a first dance and a first kiss in the doctor’s steady and messy pursuit of happiness. As he does, of course, having persuaded the best medical minds in Pittsburgh and that’s saying something, he faces the obstacle that Americans both fixate on and have faith in: football. The object of worship’s receptacle: the cartel—or is it monopoly—known as the National Football League (NFL). What Concussion does not show is the NFL’s affiliation with the shady sports press and other various conflicts of interest, but at least Concussion shows fans’ mindless complicity in the widely held gladiator spectacle—or is it slaughter—with pictures of people cheering as men pulverize one another. I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious. I used to do that, too.

Dr. Omalu, making his way to realizing the American Dream and blissfully single-minded about CTE after getting published and corroborating his theory to the point of missing that the Dream is barely alive, personifies that medicine is a serious, fact-based business which requires supreme autonomy—and, by contrast and implication, that football is the opposite. Players are used and discarded in a meat grinder that treats men as flesh made only of muscle, to hell with their minds. Dr. Omalu pushes on, explaining that man, unlike other animals, has no shock absorbers and cannot withstand the “unremitting storm of sub-concussive blows” without serious risk of injury.

Mike Webster received an estimated 70,000 of those blows. He ended up with the misery that’s peculiar to CTE. He was dead by the age of 50.

Concussion demands to know why. With writer and director Peter Landesman overusing closeups of eyes, heads and faces, this movie, which is based on a magazine article, expresses that to know is to live. The script and performances ardently add up to a powerful scene with Dr. Omalu standing before the players association as if he’s in a church—the church of pro football—experiencing something like a resurgence of man’s spirit. Concussion insists upon treating men as men and naming the consequences of either seeing the living as pawns in a game or as individuals with the right to life. None of this is obvious in the picture, which is neatly scored by James Newton Howard.

I grew up watching and playing football for fun and I was once a fan. I once waited for hours to meet the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers and get their autographs—I did and I’m glad I did—and I met the late Mike Webster and the late Dave Duerson (who is somewhat vilified here) and others depicted in Concussion. When chronic traumatic encephalopathy became known, the fun ended and I am no longer able to enjoy the sport. This was true long before this thoughtful movie was released. Despite having too much plot, religion and Sony’s requisite out of place product placement, Concussion does more than dramatize an argument against football. It dramatizes how to hold knowledge of existence—expressly for the advancement of man’s life on earth—above all fetishized and romanticized notions of sport, city and country. It never leaves facts alone. It asks the same of the audience.

The Year in Movies (2015)

Based upon the movies I’ve seen this year, and I have not seen the full slate of all 2015 movies released in the U.S., I think Steve Jobs is the best picture, though I can think of six other motion pictures that arguably deserve to be called the year’s best movie: Aloha, Carol, Cinderella, Spotlight, Brooklyn and The Walk. (Click or touch bold type movie titles, as ever on this blog, to read my reviews of each movie).

I’m categorizing this year’s movies, most of which I reviewed, in three sections: Excellent, good or very good and not good. Generally, as most readers know, I try to see pictures that I have reason to believe I might enjoy. I avoid films, though there are exceptions, that I have reason to think I might find repulsive, such as horror, Tarantino or mob/thug/gang movies. That said, here’s a breakdown of this year’s films.

Not Good

Macbeth-Poster-Michael-Fassbender-Character-PosterMacbeth is a curiosity driven more by an apparent desire to revise or reconfigure Shakespeare’s classic play. Monkey Kingdom has too little to do with monkeys. Avengers: Age of Ultron is obnoxious and overblown. Mad Max: Fury Road is blood pornography posing as meaningful. Tomorrowland bastardized Walt Disney’s Disneyland as The Peanuts Movie bastardized the comic strip by Charles M. Schulz and Mr. Holmes bastardized Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Inside Out is jumbled, manic and confused. I did find aspects about each of these movies to appreciate. But these are some of what I think are 2015’s worst films.

Good or Very Good

In the upper mid-range, and measurably better, are several movies, three of which I did not review. The taut Sicario is engrossing though it’s not my type of movie. Grandma feels revolutionary, and, even though it isn’t, it is an astute social commentary with strong performances and a radical idea at the center. Suffragette stands out for its depiction of woman as activist and touches of great storytelling in Abi Morgan’s screenplay, complemented by Alexandre Desplat‘s musical score. I thoroughly enjoyed Disney’s The Good Dinosaur and want to see it again. The Martian is every bit as gripping and life-affirming as has been advertised. Truth and Bridge of Spies are very well made and the former should not be dismissed while the latter must be judged more seriously for its omissions. The Intern with Robert De Niro is predictable and enjoyable, as predictable movies often are, and it’s a decent, wholesome movie which is also thoughtful, as Nancy Meyers movies usually are. McFarland USA with Kevin Costner is all over the map yet still positive. San Andreas is both thrilling and over the top and it is redeemed by its family-themed story of strength in the face of disaster. Love & Mercy is brilliant but dark. So is the expressive documentary Amy, which ought to be seen by anyone affected by addiction. Ant-Man is a pleasant and diversionary Marvel Entertainment surprise. She’s Funny That Way is a flawed but welcome return for filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whom I tried every which way to interview about the movie without success. No Escape with Owen Wilson is also flawed but it’s a thoroughly exciting and timely thriller about an American family caught in a foreign land under an attack by savages with hatred for Westerners. The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is perfectly fabulous documentary; audiences will learn and be entertained. Ex Machina, like Her, is a thoughtful examination in science fiction. And this weekend’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a nice piece of escapism.


AlohaposterAmong the year’s best pictures, Cameron Crowe’s maligned Aloha is insightful and simply not obvious. I found this movie, which needs no defense against mindless, baseless attacks, very moving and not in a Hollywood way. I like how Mr. Crowe integrates classic and modern ideas and pivots around each main character to create the central theme, which is conveyed in its title. This is a refreshing movie, yet it challenges the audience to think. The wistful, rational Aloha makes me want to see every Cameron Crowe movie all over again. Carol is also insightful amid its twists and subtle plot points. Both leading actresses are excellent and its lesbianism, its forbidden love, is universally themed in the hands of Todd Haynes, who depicts the script intelligently. This is an easy movie to notice for its production values and striking designs. But every shade of lipstick, every erotic shot, every fold of each costume serves a distinctive purpose to dramatize what it’s like to have to hide in modern times. Whether you’re a lesbian, but especially if you’re gay, unusual or some type of infidel, it’s like watching moving postcards from a subversive road map to happiness.

Until the fall and winter season, which Harvey Weinstein rightly observed is post-loaded with adult-themed films as awards bait, I couldn’t stop raving about Disney’s lush, romantic and glamorous Cinderella, which director Kenneth Branagh seemed to ditch and dismiss as light and unimportant in the wake of feminist controversy. Maybe it is light, and I think it’s sad that light and serious are considered incompatible, but some of the best movies are (see the 1940s) and this movie is striking, thanks also to the musical score. Also read my review of the movie’s Blu-Ray edition.

These last four films are 2015’s essentials. These and the forementioned make 2015 a year like 2005 and other outstanding years such as 1939, 1945 and 1967, that marks a great time in motion pictures. Spotlight is excellent because, while it is a movie about rationality expressed through a depiction of journalism, rather than romanticize today’s journalist, it judges, scolds and holds him accountable to the facts of reality. It is being praised by some in my quarters as though its reporters and editors are heroes and there’s a sense in which they are. But there’s a sense in which it is too late for them to be heroes; they are and chose to be complicit and awaken only when the boss, an outsider, simply asks them to do their jobs. Spotlight operates on a small scale, not on a grand scale, which puts its greatness in focused perspective.

On the other hand, Brooklyn and The Walk are unabasedly large, grand and distinctly American. That they both depict newcomers, too, specifically an Irishwoman and a Frenchman, who very matter-of-factly and selfishly wish to pursue happiness in New York City, is fitting for 2015’s best pictures. Brooklyn has a jarring middle if you think too much about it, which I did, though it’s probably less jarring than it was for me. But it is rooted in the character’s, and the 20th century immigrant’s, perspective and it powers the movie’s remarkably satisfying conclusion. The more I think about Brooklyn, and I do think about Brooklyn, the more I think its brilliance lies in its individualism with a woman, for a change, as the individualist. Whatever the title, whatever the romance, this picture skillfully dramatizes a person who is alone in every sense and comes to stand and walk mightily on her own.

So does The Walk, which is also for the individualist. I really can’t add more to my review but I will say that this movie is the most exhilarating cinematic experience I’ve ever had. In a nation which once stood for individualism, The Walk dares the audience to think, stand and walk alone, to risk everything for, in Kipling’s verse, one turn of pitch and toss, but only after exercising great thought and precision and with an aim to live large—larger than life itself. That it recreates the World Trade Center, and resurrects the world’s tallest skyline, makes The Walk more breathtaking.

SteveJobsPosterBut Steve Jobs is 2015’s best movie because it succeeds and thrills on every level and rises to match the intellect of its subject, who was a genius. In three powerful acts, this misunderstood movie, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, depicts the great mind in all its glory. Somehow, some people mistake this for showing a hero with feet of clay. I dissent. Part of its ingeniousness is in daring to show the whole man, as conceived by the filmmakers, not as conceived by the biographer whose book is the film’s basis, which requires a certain approach that telescopes his life and career. It’s a mistake to think that this precludes an admiring portrait of Steve Jobs (read what I wrote when he died here if you doubt my admiration) just because it doesn’t depict his happiest years. On the contrary, without spoiling the movie, it ends with an upward arc, with the new beginning, not the end. To place this man in the context of these three product introductions, with these three outcomes, and in the scope of this single life, is to grasp what it means to live in accordance with reality. Steve Jobs is an empowering movie because, like Steve Jobs, it represents man at his best; one who chooses to think for himself, fusing form with function and who, whatever his mistakes and messes, strives to see both sides and be whole while he never lets go.

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Buy the Movie

The new, heavily hyped and highly anticipated Star Wars movie is good if you like science fiction/fantasy/mythology stories. This entry in the series created by George Lucas, the first installment since the Walt Disney Studios bought his Lucasfilm, Ltd., is neither as overblown as the 1999-2005 trilogy nor as thrilling as the original 1977-1983 trilogy. Star Wars: The Force Awakens marks a solid return to form.

It’s far from the year’s best or worst picture and it is squarely in the better half, even better if this is your sort of movie. In retrospect, I have problems with the whole series but I can also take them as they are. The Phantom Menace pod racing was agonizing for me, like watching an aimless video game, and I disliked Jar Jar as much as anyone else who did, though I liked Darth Maul’s purposefulness and the strokes of anti-fascist romanticism in Attack of the Clones. I was excited as a youth for the original pictures. But Star Wars was always about Luke Skywalker to me, and I grew progressively less interested in (and more tired of) the dark, death-premised mysticism that climaxed with the last release, Revenge of the Sith. So, that’s my context.

Returning to the strong, idealistic protagonist, Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek) and written by Abrams with Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), establishes values at stake from the start. There’s a lot to like, and enough of the other to take notice, but this seventh Star Wars movie is primarily a good piece of escapism.

Retracing familiar ground, besides the returning cast members, the action follows two men and a lady, with a droid, various aliens and three main villains in the Dark Side’s hierarchy, just as in the 1977 original’s trio of the governor, Vader and the Emperor. A jaunty resistance pilot (Ex Machina‘s Oscar Isaac), a spirited scavenger (Daisy Ridley) and a rogue stormtrooper (John Boyega) form the new trio; one’s trying to save the galaxy, another’s trying to find new love, and the other’s trying to figure out the meaning of life, or something like that.

They are each appealing and affable, in a way, though each character is limited, too. The scrappy, self-made female, named Rey, reminds me of Keira Knightley and isn’t as sharp and sophisticated as Princess Leia. The man she’s paired with, Boyega’s character, Finn, breaks free from the bad guys but he’s not provided with much of an impetus, let alone a deeper motivation. Boyega mugs for the camera—at times, his performance seems entirely composed of facial expressions—and dominates The Force Awakens. Isaac’s secondary character is more interesting, but this is part of a series, so time will tell. As it is, however, I wanted to know why the stormtrooper breaks away from his “reconditioning” despite showing no signs of non-conformity.

At least Finn, like the scavenger character, has that original spirit of Star Wars‘ can-do Americanism. Gothic, youthful nihilism is represented by a baddie in a hoodie played by Adam Driver, who steals every scene in the most engaging performance as one of the series’ many masked villians. As the trio strives to rise up against the First Order—an Empire offshoot bent on galactic destruction—with the help of a rolling, adorable droid, Driver’s hooded menace taunts, teases and tromps around spreading his bad mood everywhere he goes. It won’t be hard to see what he’s got coming and Driver makes it stick.

Series regulars return one by one, including favorite machines and characters, with seamless plot progression amid implausible scenes, such as a pivotal getaway going too quickly and certain obvious contrivances. The action-packed fight and space battleship scenes are exciting, if nothing you haven’t already seen, and the desert/winter planet contrasts work well. It’s a fantasy, so things do get silly here and there, with a bald-headed supervillain (Andy Serkis) reminding me comically of the wizard of Oz, but anyone invested in Star Wars will want very much to know what happens. This includes subplots with Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a military general, Han (Harrison Ford) and his buddy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and, possibly, Luke Skywalker, though I don’t dare say more about him because apparently it’s supposed to be a big secret.

For all the changes—women are everywhere now, unlike in the originals—The Force Awakens is almost like a remake of the original Star Wars, which became A New Hope in Lucasfilm’s episodic parlance, and the action follows the same general trajectory. There are downtimes, scenes of wondering about one’s past, the guy not being ‘good enough’ for the girl, strange, surly aliens, bar scenes, and a heartwarming character apparently voiced by Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) whom I kept thinking of as a kind of younger, Mrs. Yoda but that’s probably just my inclination. But it’s easy to assess a movie that’s part of an iconic series in terms of this and that and lose sight of the whole movie and there is a point to The Force Awakens, even if it’s merely that the good can triumph only when good people believe that it’s possible.

The occasionally snappy line, the sweep, the sense of life—with any luck, if the writers keep up the Americanism, “I have an idea about that” may come to replace the old Han Solo saying—it’s all here, with the music, stars and landscapes. That and a timely nod to the evildoers’ fascism, neatly located in a Nazi-like setting that looks a lot like Bavaria, make it sort of fun to be in this domain again, and this probably owes, at least in major part, to the vision of Lucasfilm’s boss Kathleen Kennedy.

Audiences shouldn’t expect more than another serial about good versus evil with simple characters that cumulatively represent the underdog that’s always two steps behind. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a clever and pleasant diversion about having faith that the good is possible.