Tag Archives | 2016 movies

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.

Movie Review: The Founder

An interesting if unsatisfying character drama contains an original if unfulfilled theme in The Founder with Michael Keaton (Birdman) as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

What makes Kroc the founder, a debatable assertion by this account, is the movie’s focus. What leaves the meaning unclear is the way director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo) dodges and hedges. This is utimately why The Founder, which could have been a powerhouse 2016 movie, peters out. Yet what a promising start, with sunny skies and nothing but an ambitiously idealistic adult driven to make money—and a movie about an ‘overnight’ success who’s over the age of 50 (like Col. Sanders or Judi Dench) is long overdue. This is the blank canvas of The Founder, sketching an open market in which demand for fast, simple and delicious food meets the grit of a seasoned salesman from suburban Chicago. The insights in the first two-thirds of the film—about the exhaustive work of thinking about, finding, studying, funding and cultivating a good idea with steely, feisty enthusiasm—are penetrating. The Founder in these stretches is a near-complete depiction of the money-making man in action, from enduring the vacancy and sameness of a carhop joint in Chesterfield, Missouri, to tapping the vitality and excitement of an enterprise out West.

The film’s regionalism and realism are its finest attributes.

As with La La Land, Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel, powered by Keaton’s performance, let this business-themed movie capture the Southern California (and, broadly, Western) ethos of self-made Americanism matched by Midwestern work ethic. You’ll never think of San Bernardino, a poor area of metropolitan LA recently known for an Islamic terrorist attack by jihadists known to the FBI, the same way again. Depending on which competing version you believe in this back and forth dramatization of a business partnership gone bad, the story of McDonald’s and its rise to fast food success is at once sobering and invigorating. Saddled with a wife (Laura Dern, pointed as always) whose support is tepid, important and strictly secondhand, Keaton’s Kroc contemplates and extrapolates the McDonald brothers’ trial and error tale of tennis court choreography, which took them from New Hampshire through Columbia Pictures, the crash of 1929 and the San Gabriel Valley to a perfect process. The brothers see the San Bernardino hamburger stand as the end of the road.

Through the burgeoning positive thinking self-improvement movement stressing persistence and endless shots of Canadian Club whisky, milkshake machine vendor Kroc sees dollar signs in McDonald’s. Kroc pushes and pushes the homespun brothers McDonald all the way to Des Plaines, Illinois (incidentally, where I first tasted and occasionally ate at Kroc’s first McDonald’s). Kroc investigates, shapes and defines a business partnership they can’t refuse. When the contract goes to signatures, like the hustler in this week’s other take on capitalism, Gold, no one but Kroc thinks the fast food process can be properly balanced and scaled. And it’s important to note that they have legitimate gripes, concerns and grievances. Later, one person does see potential with equal vigor (Linda Cardellini as Joan) but Kroc’s own country club wife in Arlington Heights asks: “When’s enough going to be enough?”

Rather than respond with religious verses, slogans and bromides about charity and humility, Kroc thinks, pauses and replies: “Probably never.” Up go the golden arches and wide go Kroc’s tired, hardworking eyes when he sets his sights upon his sacred temple for the first time, looking upward through a windshield in the movie’s best scene—it is his vision by any honest account of what that means—and, with symbols such as covered wagons and Kroc drawing spiritual strength from Kazan’s On the Waterfront, big business McDonald’s is finally born. How it’s done, how it’s earned, how it’s built on whisky and ruthlessness, from Kroc’s cheerful “Let’s get to work, boys” to inclusive recruitment of blacks, Jews and women, is inspiring. The brothers may denounce what they call Kroc’s “crass commercialism”, and The Founder goes limp on Kroc’s character, portraying him as dishonest in spite of contradictions. Whatever his flaws, if name and title can be earned, and they can, Ray Kroc deserves the movie’s title. To a certain extent, The Founder, thanks to Michael Keaton, driving the movie with a spot-on portrayal of an unpretentiously self-made man, shows the businessman who made McDonald’s. Decide for yourself whether Kroc stole, seized or started this amazing enterprise, which revolutionized the business of food, up from scratch.

Movie Review: Gold (2016)

“We were a real business.” This line begins Gold starring Matthew McConaughey in an absorbing movie about getting what you want, preferably in gold. It’s an inviting opener that echoes that Stacy Keach-narrated cable show about cutthroat businessmen doing anything for a dollar (in fact, Keach (Truth) is in this movie, too). But it’s best to take this film (and that cable show) with a lot of doubt because, while the business depicted in Gold is rooted in something that’s real, the business was in Canada.

Where the incredible enterprise, known here as Washoe Mining, was located is distinctive to the plot of Gold. McConaughey’s speculator downs cigarettes with his Seagram’s and Pabst Blue Ribbon but he does it all in a quest to please and achieve the status of his dad (Craig T. Nelson), a larger than life businessman in Reno, Nevada, where the streets aren’t paved in gold but they’re named after McConaughey’s pap. As he did in similar roles in Mud and Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey grasps, captures and expresses his spiraling character’s tension and nerve to find, mine and scheme to get rich. In fast cuts and rarely without McConaughey’s boozy sweat, paunch and crooked teeth in sight, Gold asks ‘where are we going?’ broadly brushing any hint of ‘why?’ when it comes to the ways and means of making money.

Except for his loyal, live-in barmaid (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a fellow speculator (perfectly cast Edgar Ramirez) in South Asia, nobody really thinks that McConaughey’s con man has the goods until they find out he’s struck it rich, after all, and this makes everyone suspect and puts McConaughey’s tobacco-stained, Iron Maiden t-shirt clad slob, who goes from dancin’ in a jungle to dancin’ in a bar, under a kind of halo. As the rollicking ride by credit card financing racks up miles on his Cadillac, tempting or taunting him with a golddigger, the feds, a tiger, malaria and a military takeover, for a few wild scenes it seems like the con man with a heart of gold might wind up, and deserve to end up, on top of the world. With a con man in the White House, a new take on the case of D.B. Cooper and fast-talking hustlers everywhere you go, this forewarning tale of due diligence delivers more of a nifty trick than the clever wink at giving believers what they might have coming, and it’s easy to pick Gold apart, but, like a seedier variation on The Sting (1973), it’s fun to watch the final play, even if what’s “inspired by true events” is ultimately overplayed.

Movie Review: Collateral Beauty

For a thoughtful and embracing new Christmastime movie, see Collateral Beauty with Will Smith. This is probably the best new Christmas-themed movie since 2005’s The Family Stone and for many reasons—some the same, mostly for different reasons, though. What’s the same is that both movies have a major twist. Both pictures have an excellent ensemble cast. Both films deal with Christmas as a marker in time which, like life, is hard to move and change and yet it can light up the darkest corners.

Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness, Concussion) is capable of making bold choices in movie roles and this is one of them. Playing a man whose child has died is bold enough for one of Hollywood’s top movie stars, especially after portraying a doctor who challenged the football cartel and its millions of followers in Concussion, an outstanding motion picture which deserves more attention and credit than it gets. Playing a man who expresses emotions, too, is a risk, especially at Christmastime and undoubtedly in a season when you’re competing with another Star Wars movie and audiences seem to want more of the same mediocre sludge or are eager to be satisfied with an expensive thriller experience. Today’s mass audiences don’t want movies that make them think. They want movies that come pre-approved by others; movies that feel safe and have an aggregated review score, which merely attempts to quantify what others think. I suppose it makes them feel connected.

Collateral Beauty makes one feel connected by provoking the individual to think. It does this by setting up Smith’s character, Howard, with an enticing scene in which he plays a successful businessman with a specific philosophy that’s original, proprietary and utterly functional if not widely practiced and then threading that philosophy throughout the rest of a movie in which the hero stumbles three years later. The ad agency chief is despondent after the death of his child. That his spiral culminates during Christmas in New York City makes sense to anyone who’s had to face life after death—death of a loved one, death of a marriage, death of a child—and allows the filmmakers to lather the dreamlike Collateral Beauty with the holiday lights and city bustle that can, on blue and lonely days, become soft and soothing rhythms of life.

Written by Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, 21, Fox’s brief but interesting collaboration in 2008 with Lasse Hallstrom, New Amsterdam) and directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs), Collateral Beauty quickly nests Howard with a few sets of subsidiary characters. One set stems from a grief support group led by Naomie Harris (Moonlight). Another batch originates with three of Howard’s deeply concerned partners, friends and colleagues at the agency, played by Michael Pena (The Martian, Ant-Man), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs, Finding Neverland) and Edward Norton (The Painted Veil, The Grand Budapest Hotel). They, in turn, hire three actors to portray the three abstractions—in an elaborate bit of theater—to whom depressed Howard has written a letter: Death (Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey), Love (Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina) and Time (Jacob Latimore, Black Nativity).

As Howard bicycles and all but sleepwalks through his multi-million dollar company’s deteriorating market viability, with his friends and co-workers on the verge of being fired due in part to his self-negligence, he slowly settles his inner sadness, calls out Time, Love and Death (helped by Ann Dowd as an accomplice and private detective) and deepens his appreciation for friendship, family and work. Of course, it’s not that easy and there are at least a few twists, which, unlike a Shyamalan movie, are not shortcuts, cheats or tricks. Lessons in chasing love, facing death and living in time abound. The magic here is earned and, though it takes a while to let it in, this light yet somber fable is compatible with the rational audience and very rewarding for anyone with a whole sense of life.

What Collateral Beauty is not is overly sentimental. To the credit of New Line Cinema, cast, crew and filmmakers, including Warner Bros.’ new president Toby Emmerich (and, incidentally, President-elect Trump’s new secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin), who executive produced Collateral Beauty, and with uplifting and elegant performances from the cast, notably Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, Naomie Harris, Michael Pena, Edward Norton and Kate Winslet, what debuted in movie theaters this weekend is a movie to be proud of for everyone involved and much better than dark and bleak movies lacking spirit, soul or life. Life isn’t fair. Neither is what wins the box office. But I’m confident that enlightened audiences will discover Collateral Beauty in the future. Here’s wishing for such an audience—especially for the audience of one—a Christmas that comes neither too late nor too soon.

Movie Review: Fences

Playwright August Wilson adapts his Pittsburgh-based play of the same name, Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the late 1980s, as a movie for Paramount. The result, directed by actor Denzel Washington (Book of Eli, Philadelphia, Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Malcolm X), who co-stars with Viola Davis (Prisoners, Doubt, The Help), is affecting.

Fences is about the folks next door. I knew this when I saw it at the Pasadena Playhouse with Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Boyz N the Hood). It’s heavy drama about life’s give and take, energy expense and how daily living leaves you feeling spent. Fences‘ easy, natural rhythm in a Western Pennsylvania family’s ordinariness lulls the audience into making too little out of what comes on at first as a bit too strong.

Mr. Washington, whose acting in lesser moments tends to come on too strong, understands the dense material, which is not easily disposed to cinematic adaptation. He lets Wilson’s liberal use of the word nigger disarm the audience and grant a pass to see black people in their middle class, middle century, middle American urban enclave. All the trappings are here, if you think about it: the angry black man, the strong black woman, the young buck.

But Fences is not driven by race. In glances, meltdowns and gestures, Fences shows the toll that mixing tradition, religion and romanticism take on a man, a woman, a friend, a marriage and a family. Before hip hop, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan, at the dawn of the American exceptionalism of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, there was the uniquely post-war, pre-Civil Rights era of migratory black Americans in industrial cities such as Pittsburgh. Neatly framed Fences bundles this aspect with the onset of progress, unfulfilled lives, the shame of blended families and fathers that abandon children—and fathers that do not—and how the American Negro experience goes the way of becoming universal. Fences gets bleak, serious and sometimes depressing. But it borders and never crosses into maudlin territory.

Like its cultural cousin, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which is more pointed and powerful, Fences drags you down to impel you to pull yourself up.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an aspirational garbageman who was once a Negro league baseball player and has since become an ex-convict, husband, father, drunkard and motormouth. He’s a loud, extroverted physically powerful man in his early 50s. He’s sexually voracious and he spews and lusts for life. In speeches and backyard scenes where he aims to build a fancy fence made of the finest pinewood, it becomes clear that his undone athletic ability manifests in rage and anxiety. He chastises his sons, rails against mooches and thugs, demands that he be called “sir” and that his youngest son, Cory (perfectly cast Jovan Adepo, who is excellent), keep working at the A & P and forget about a sports scholarship. He groans about the city’s refusal to hire blacks as garbage truck drivers, tells his oldest son and best friend (outstanding Stephen Henderson, Tower Heist, Lincoln) while passing a bottle of gin that he was “scared of my daddy.”

Above all, he tells his wife Rose (Davis), and this is where things get complicated—in the sense that life is sometimes complicated—that he works hard, expends his best efforts and that “[t]hat’s all I got.” He means it. Whatever his flaws and mistakes, he’s telling the truth, if not the whole truth. His pal Bono presses Troy on this topic. Eventually, everyone pays the price of going beyond pre-set boundaries.

That family drama plays out in a modest home filled with crosses, pictures of Christ and The Last Supper and a cheerfully handicapped relative named Gabriel should not be taken literally. Troy bemoans religion and goes by his own thoughts, though he dares the Grim Reaper, invokes the Devil and has faith, not confidence, in himself, which leads to a lazy thinking that yields his greatest flaw—he confuses duty with love—which produces the film’s greatest tragedy.

Showing its stage play origins, Fences is too wordy and expository but the cast, especially the leads, reprising their 2010 Broadway roles, is rich and layered which more than compensates. As a director, Denzel Washington is deliberate and nostalgic, blurring the screen when it matters, adding flowers in the window, dropping a rose at the fence and working with August Wilson to thread the story’s painful codependency into the actors’ faces and performances. The talented Viola Davis and Mr. Washington as wife and husband have adult conversations depicting the impact of ideas—chiefly, selflessness—on the whole of an ordinary life and both give strong performances. Ultimately, Fences blends cautionary and fairy tale and conveys that life is a kind of duty. This philosophy may be 100 percent wrong (it is by my thinking) but here it is planted and pictured with forcefulness, humor, warmth and honesty.