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About armchaircinema

My name is Jerry. My world is movies. So let's talk about something.

Discovering ‘Citizen Kane’: a film-lover reluctantly indulges The Greatest Movie Ever Made.

Image result for Rosebud the sled

Here’s a shameful confession: I am new to Citizen Kane.  Here I am in my late 40s, I’ve spent a lifetime bathing in the cinema, and yet I have circumvented Orson Welles most famous artistic expression out of fear that I wasn’t going to understand what made it so great.  Oh, I’ve seen it several times.  It’s just that until recently, I haven’t been able to see the greatness that film scholars fawn over.

In the last couple of weeks, I have spent more time in the company of Citizen Kane then I probably ever have at any point in my life.  As my two-year-old podcast neared its monumental 100th episode, my co-host Doug Heller and I decided to mark the occasion with what is considered to be the greatest film ever made.  That meant that I was going to have to spend more time with the movie than I had ever had before.  Admittedly, I was not looking forward to it.

Maybe I’m like most people.  When something gets tagged as The Greatest Film Ever Made, I tend to back away.  That’s a height that most films cannot reach.  Is there a greatest film ever made?  No, not really.  The idea of The Greatest Film Ever Made is more of a marketing tagline, as with the work ‘masterpiece’ it has been diluted into a standard that most people associate with words like ‘pretentious’ or ‘priggish’.

Also I’m not an expert.  I have felt that the great mysteries of Orson Welles magnum opus have been lost on me.  Am I not smart enough to see greatness?  Am I missing something?  Is there an element that is lost on me?  Running up to the film in researching it for the podcast, I was not confident that I could ever see the film’s greatness.  I saw a great film that had a hole in the middle.  Something about it left me cold.

I’ll admit, this is largely because I haven’t spent a lot of time in the company of Citizen Kane.  I saw it back in the 80s when I was in high school and I can say that I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t hate it, Heavens no, but there was something distant about it, something not quite satisfying.  I don’t know, I can’t explain it.  When it was over, I never felt that I had arrived at the end of the film but nothing I would call a conclusion.

It was only watching the film again recently that I came to realize that this is the whole point.  It’s not telling you anything new to report that Citizen Kane is a box labeled with question marks and inside we only find more boxes with more question marks.  For the average viewer, this is frustrating.  For the stubborn viewer, this is an obsession.  The mystery of Citizen Kane is the grand mystery of human identity.  How well can anyone ever know another human being?  What are the building blocks that form the person that someone will grow up to be?  Can they really be understood by another person?  Who are we at the end of life, and what is left behind that tells our survivors the story of the person that we are?

In contemplating the mystery of Citizen Kane over the last few days, I have come to a strange and rather bitter conclusion about the nature of life itself.  We’re all going to die someday – hopefully later than sooner, and the time after our death will eventually fade the identity of the person that we were.  In time, all the people that we knew in life will die too and so that identity will fade further and further until we are merely a name on a headstone.  Depressing notion?  Yes.  But it’s not debatable.  The story of Charles Foster Kane is a reminder that this is the fate of even the most famous man on the planet.

Orson Welles paints Kane through the seasons of his tenure on Earth told not by Kane himself but by those who apparently knew him best.  The history of the man’s life is seen in square details at the film’s opening.  Following his lonely and alarmingly cryptic final moment on Earth, the viewer is taken through a whirl-wind of information about the man’s life from his birth, through his troubling formative years, the idealism of his years as a young man, the corruption of his soul in later years and the tragic loneliness of his old age.  The information given to us on the News on the March newsreel is the official record of Charles Foster Kane’s life but it never paints a complete picture.  Who was the man?  Again, who was the man?  Did Rosebud mean anything to anyone but Kane himself?  Can it tell you anything about him as a person?

The mystery of Kane is found in a narrative structure that, for the thoughtful viewer, is really kind of fun.  The journalist Mr. Thompson digs deep for the mystery of Charles Foster Kane by searching for the meaning of his final word through interviews with those who knew him best . . . oh! knew him well.

The movie is told in seven layers that peel back the mystery of this man through several different points of view.  First is the News on the March newsreel which gives us a picture of Kane’s life that will probably not be much deeper than what any biographer would ever write about him.

Second is Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s legal guardian, whose memoirs recall the early years.  Third is Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s avuncular business partner who recalls Kane’s rise and then Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), Kane’s best friend, who recalls his downfall.  Fourth is Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s second wife, who recalls their personal life.  Fifth is Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane’s butler who recalls the deterioration of Charles and Susan’s marriage.

The final layer is Thompson himself.  Standing in the vast castle that was once Kane’s Xanadu, he has a picture of a man but never found what he was looking for.  For him, the results of his search are no different then the newsreel that set him on this quest to begin with.  Plus, in a fun bit of visual trickery, he mourns his fruitless efforts by cascading a handful of puzzle pieces into a box.

Ironically, he unknowingly stands thirty-feet away from the answer to his question.  Just over there, among the rows of boxes and personal effects lies Rosebud, a sled, an object of Kane’s childhood.  But in a devious and cold-blooded twist, it tells us something and nothing at the same time.  Thompson’s search for the word has an answer, but would tell him nothing.

As a viewer I find that I arrive at the answer to the question only a few steps further than Thompson.  I bore witness to Kane’s last moments, and I know something that Kane took to the grave – the identity of Rosebud.  But what is it?  Why was this sled so important to him?  Was it the last gift that he received from his mother?  Was it, as many scholars conclude, the symbol of the loss of family values as he is taken away to be raised by an affectionless banker?  All may be true but and untrue, depending on who you ask.

So here I am, having finally indulged in the great mystery of Citizen Kane wiser about the film but no wiser about the mysteries that it imparts.  The effect that this viewing at on me was a much deeper contemplation about the mystery of human identity.  When we shuffle off this mortal coil we will inevitably take a great many things with us.  There are those who will have been witness to our journey on Earth and, like Kane, will have many different perspectives.  But none will ever grab the Rosebud at the center of our being.

 
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Posted by on 06/05/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Bowing Out: Tim Conway (1933-2019)

Image result for tim conway on the carol burnett show

Tim Conway, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 85, was one of the funniest people who ever lived, and I absolutely mean that.  He was a gifted physical comedian, on par with Chaplin, Keaton and The Three Stooges.  His comedy was effortless, unpredictable and explosively funny.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the term “rolling in the aisles” was invented in reference to Tim Conway.  At his best, he didn’t simply make people laugh, he made people hurt themselves laughing.  They were rolling.  If proof is needed watch any of his best moments from The Carol Burnett Show and listen to that studio audience.  That’s not regular laughter, that’s the genuine sound of an audience brought to it knees.  Very few comedians could do that.

He spent 60 years in showbusiness and made his way through every medium imaginable from Ensign Parker on “McHale’s Navy” to this work on “The Steve Allen Show” and even the ill-fated “Turn-on”, a misfire from “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter that the network thought was so bad that they cancelled it while the premiere episode was airing.  There were the movies with Don Knotts: The Prize Fighter and The Private Eyes.  There were the Disney pictures of my childhood like The Apple Dumpling GangThe Shaggy D.A. and Gus.

Conway was always best as part of an ensemble – which is possibly why his own shows never really worked.  He tried a sitcom “Rango” in 1967 which flopped.  As did his comedy variety show “The Tim Conway Hour” in 1970.  After “The Carol Burnett Show”, he would try again with “The Tim Conway Show” in 1980, a show that mirrored Burnett’s show probably too closely and died in a year.  Even when he was the lead in a movie, he had trouble as evidenced by the godawful Billiion Dollar Hobo in which he plays a bumbling dope who stands to rake in his uncle’s inheritance if he can spend a year riding the rails as a penniless hobo.

He was best when he had someone the play off of.  That’s why “The Carol Burnett Show” will be his legacy – he won three Emmy Awards for it.  That show, which ran eleven years from 1967 to 1978 was part of CBS’s legendary Saturday Night line-up called “Murderer’s Row” that also included “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” – and was called such because it killed the ratings of whatever shows were running concurrently on NBC and ABC.

Of all of those CBS shows, “The Carol Burnett Show” is the one that has had the least staying power.  Watch any random episode on a given night and you can clearly see that it hasn’t aged well.  Like “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” it is best viewed in a “Best of” format that cherry-picks the best skits, and most often they are dominated by skits involving Conway.  His best bits were the physical ones, whether is was Mr. Tudball, the flappable boss with the Scandinavian accent and unfortunate toupee that inevitably ended up in his face, or artillery captain in the French army who attempts to load a cannon but ends up dropping the ball down his pants.  Or even Mr. Bunny, the rabbit lawyer who tries to keep his professional composure while constantly giving in to his rabbit tendencies.

Yes, Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner made up a company of sketch comedians that cannot be beat, but for my money it was Conway that made it great.  He had an innate ability to not only draw raucous laughs but to also to create those perfect moments when he broke up his co-stars, angling their timing and their professionalism into fits of sweating and stifled laughs.  There was always a moment when Burnett, Waggoner, Lawrence or Korman knew that Conway was trying to get them.  You could see it in their eyes.

One of my favorites was a sketch called “The Interrogator” in which Waggoner played an American POW being interrogated by Conway who was playing a Nazi.  Trapped in a two-shot, Waggoner does a valiant job of keeping his composure as Conway baits him, but when he produced a rosy-cheeked hand puppet of Adolph Hitler from his coat, Waggoner knows all is lost.  When puppet-Fuhrer launches into a squeaky-voiced rendition of “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dina”, you can see that even Conway is trying not to laugh.

Conway’s ability to trap his castmates in stifled laughter fell hardest on Harvey Korman, most evident in a brilliant sketch in which Conway plays a dentist who accidentally stabs himself with a needle full of novacane, first in the hand and then in the leg.  Korman, as the patient, is trapped in the chair and has nowhere to go.  The sketch is funny all by itself but the spice is added by Korman’s failed attempt to keep his composure.

But then it all came back.  Conway’s ability to keep his castmates in stitches finally came back around in a sketch of “The Family” in which his character Mickey recalls the story of two Siamese elephants at a freak show.  True to Conway’s nature, the story gets more and more absurd as Burnett sits just to his left sweating and hiding her face while the studio audience rolls in uncontrollable laughter.  Vicki Lawrence finally breaks the moment by asking “are you sure that asshole’s through yet?”  Conway is a goner.  Does that kind of laughter exist anymore?

Judd Apatow, hearing the news of Conway’s passing had the most fitting tribute, “Tim Conway was pure comedy.”  There is no reading-between-the-lines with that statement because if you know Conway’s work than you know what that means.  He wanted to make you laugh, and to keep you laughing.  You got caught up in his shenanigans and he kept you rolling in the aisles.

 
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Posted by on 05/14/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Bowing Out: Doris Day (1922-2019)

It is difficult to look at Doris Day’s three-foot smile and middle-American pretty face and reflect that here was a woman that was just as vilified as she was glorified.  There are millions who love her for her work in film, television and in her music career, but just as many who despise her for her radical activism on behalf of the ethical treatment of animals.  However, you feel about her, there is no doubt about the impact that she leaves behind.

Doris Day’s activism is a point of contention, but what I am going to take with me are the songs and the films, the declaration of a frilly pink world of chaste sex, designer gowns, Burt Bacharach albums and the full co-ax of apartments designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Those are the memories that I have, and the ones that I treasure.

Admittedly, I am not the first person to run to a Doris Day movie, but I can observe that if you watch enough, you start to notice something underneath, a subtext that makes her film work more than just silly romantic programmers.  There was something going on underneath her romantic fantasies, something sexy that the credo of Hollywood could only push so far.  Movies of the 60s were a strange ironic conundrum, especially romantic comedies.  America, at the time, was in the middle of the free love movement, but Hollywood was still in the chastity of the 1950s.  The difference was that you could suggest it heavily but you couldn’t show it.

In a lot of ways Doris Day, who died Monday at the age of 97, patented an on-screen image that was so perfectly indicative of the free love generation that it was almost deceptive.  She is so fixed in our minds as the perfect white, cornfed middle-American girl of the 1960s that it is almost a tease that her characters seemed to live a life of sexual frivolity that was abundantly evident, but took place exclusively off-screen.  In her romantic comedies, she defied the convention of television that required women to be the homemaker and housewife and lived her own version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Manifesto.  She loved men, was attracted to them, wanted them, and probably got them.

Day made three films with Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back(1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964) and in all three you never had a single doubt that her characters had sex – or at least were perfectly schooled in what that word meant.  She had a libido, she knew it, and she was very aware of the level that it was vibrating on.  But it was always under the surface; the production code was still in force during her heyday on screen in the 1960s but the times being what they were, she could suggest everything and show nothing.  Maybe that’s what made her comedies so tasty – they were a tease rather than a show.

If subtext was the norm, my personal favorite was Calamity Jane (1953), a musical fantasy in which she plays a tomboy version of the famous wild west sharpshooter who develops a loving relationship with Wild Bill Hickock.  But it’s the not-so-well disguised lesbian suggestions that make the film a great deal of fun, particularly when she a showgirl up and down and declares “You’re the purdiest thing I ever seen.” Then looking too close at the fullness of her bosom questions “How do you hold that dress up there.”  Added to that, the Academy Award winning song “Secret Love” and you’ve got a lesbian perennial for the ages.

No matter what she sang, there was something much deeper in the performance that just a glorious voice belting out Top 40 songs.  Doris Day is that rare singer who could embody a character through song in a way that few could.  Sinatra could do this.  Judy Garland too.  But from Doris, there was something of an embodying quality to her contralto voice that took us inside of the soul of the song.  One of my favorites is her version of “When I Fall in Love,” a rapturous and hopeful ode to the promise of true love, she sings with great delight the inevitability that she will find love, but listen carefully and just underneath you’ll hear a sense of melancholy that true love hasn’t happened yet.  Another is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” in which I am never sure if she has fallen in love with someone or if it is a faraway crush.  Whatever the case, listen to the tambour of her voice and you can feel the emotions of someone whose mind is completely enraptured by the person that she has fallen in love with.

I could write a thousand more words on what a great star she was.  I know that she was one of those performers whose entire body became part of the act.  She was bright, sunny and cheery.  The kind of person that you gravitate to.  You saw her name in print and you immediately conjured up a feeling of sunshine and happiness with a sense that underneath it all lay a person whose heart was an open book.  How many people give you that?  I’ll never see anyone like her again.

Que sera sera.

 
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Posted by on 05/13/2019 in Uncategorized

 

And the winner is . . . Green Book?!?

Image result for 91st annual academy awards

The season of Oscar has come to a close and in the midst of an already bizarre and sometimes embarrassing ride that included a defunct popular category, a choice to go hostless and that stupid suggestion about giving out awards during the commercials, the 91st Annual Academy Awards landed on a Best Picture winner that is, to be perfectly honest, a weak and predictable crowd-pleaser that proves nothing.

Green Book, the story of a white racist bouncer in 1962 who is hired to drive a world-renowned black musician on an eight-week tour through the Midwest and into the deep south, went into the competition a wounded competitor.  With its questionable racial politics and gross historical inaccuracies (most of which were addressed by Doctor Shirley’s family), the movie seemed to have lost its footing since the nominations were announced last month.  Yet, in a Hollywood striving to make changes, and embrace diversity and tell stories about the social tapestry of the last century of American history, it is questionable whether this now beknighted film was really the story to do that.

Frankly, in my opinion, it wasn’t.  Nested in a Best Picture category that included much more current and hard-hitting movies about African-American history and culture like BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, it seems odd that the voters would settle on a simplistic, easy-to-swallow audience pleaser that shaves points by undercutting and dramatizing the meat of our racial problems by reformatting them into a simple-minded heroes and villains narrative that can be easily sold to a mass audience not wishing to be challenged.

Think of it this way.  One can easily understand the Academy’s blunder with the Popular category and the stupid suggestion of giving out awards during the commercials, but Green Book speaks to the voters who have risen up to challenge the academy to recognize diversity and equality.  Does the victory of a weak reformatting of Driving Miss Daisy mean that changes will come gradually?  In the face of rewarding a beautiful film like Moonlight, are they reverting back to their old habits?  It’s hard to say.

The 91st Annual Academy Awards seemed a night of wavering degrees of good and bad rewards.  Between the beloved Black Panther, which picked up three awards for its score, costumes and production design and the very troubled (and critically hated) Bohemian Rhapsody which picked up four awards for its sound editing, sound mixing and film editing, plus an expected Best Actor award for Rami Malek, there seemed to be something in the air.  No one could really nail down what would win the final award (I myself thought it would be Roma) but as the night drew to a close, something seemed to be closing in between Green Book and Roma.  Alfonso Cauron’s film had already won Best Foreign Language Film

Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody was just about the only universally loved thing about that movie.  Perhaps it was his tenacity that brought him through a dead script, a troubled production (director Bryan Singer walked out) and a rather unwieldy set of prosthetic teeth.  Either way, it says something of him as a performer that he could pull out a remarkable performance despite the issues present.

The night seemed, for a while, predictable.  The early predictions fell into place until it was time to announce Best Actress.  It seemed written in the stars that seven-time nominee, and seven-time Oscar bridesmaid Glenn Close would win Best Actress.  But . . . that didn’t happen.  The winner was Olivia Colman for playing the ailing and temperamental Queen Ann in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite.  A clearly befuddled Colman didn’t know what to say at the microphone and called the moment “genuinely quite stressful.  Then the camera caught Glenn Close giving her second best performance of the year, that of an actress trying to pretend not to be stressed in the face of losing for the seventh time.

Less stress was finally given to Spike Lee who, after 30 years in the business, finally picked up a long-overdue Oscar for his script of BlacKkklansman.  Yet in losing the Best Picture race to Green Book, the director couldn’t help remembering back to 1990 when Driving Miss Daisy won the top award while his passion project Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated.  Backstage he addressed the similarity of the two films “Every time somebody drives somebody, I lose.”

Alfonso Cauron won two awards for Cinematography and for Editing his most personal film (and the best film of the year) Roma.  In addressing the film, Cauron casually and indirectly made a statement to the President of the United States and his policies and attitudes toward foreigners and indigenous peoples and encouraged us to embrace people of other cultures and not simply to look away.

Mahershala Ali picked up his second award in two years – he previously won for Moonlight – thanked Doctor Shirley who he played in the film.  And Regina King, the sole recipient of an award for Barry Jenkins beautiful If Beale Street Could Talk and called herself “an example of what it looks like when support and love is poured into someone.”

The 91st Academy Awards were an example of something else, however.  The question of what the show would look like without a host will certainly draw gnashings and curious head-twitches.  But, when the smoke is cleared, it may be possible to look on this award show has having had the cleaning run-through in years.  Without a host, it felt somewhat more streamlined.  The opening Queen medly with Adam Lambert was, expectedly, less-than-dynamic, and then came Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poeler to give a five-minute monologue that was perhaps funnier than anything that has been written for the Oscar show since the days of Billy Crystal.

It is odd to say, but without a singular host junking up the proceedings with silly gimmicks, the show took on a different tone this year.  There was a spirit to this year’s awards that was . . . mature.  Maybe even streamlined.  Few may agree with this assessment but there was almost a more sophisticated tone to this year’s awards, a feeling of the Oscars that I remember as a kid.  The celebrities, both presenters and winners made silly jokes and award show banter but there wasn’t an established set of entertainment gimmicks.  This year it all seemed to be about the awards, about the diversity of film and about the magic of movies.  In a troubling but also satisfying year for Oscar, it can be said that at least they seemed to get the show right.  At least that’s something.

 
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Posted by on 02/25/2019 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Nominees: Vice

The 91st Annual Academy Awards arrive tomorrow.  Let’s take a look at the last of this year’s Best Picture nominees.

So, here’s a question that’s probably not all that hard-hitting.  Would you be surprised by a story about two men who form a personal and professional bond with the intension of spending the next decade working their way through the political system, making alliances and re-establishing the format of how government is run all with the intension of establishing the kind of government that they want when they reach the highest office in the land?  Would you be at all surprised?  Even a little bit?

If your resounding answer is ‘no’ then you were very likely as frustrated by Adam McKay’s Vice as I was.  You already know that this kind of political restructuring is not only possible but has taken place through our history going all the way back to the revolution.  What is the movie telling you that you don’t already know?  How, in the 21st century, with our 24-hour media and social media could anyone be surprised by this?  This is the kind of insider bombshell that might have been surprising in, say, 1932.

Vice is a movie in which writer/director Adam McKay not only states and restates the obvious, but he tries and fails to be funny and clever about the alliance of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (with a bold emphasis on the latter).  Even aside from that Cheney, let’s be honest, just isn’t all that interesting a subject for a movie.  Christian Bale does disappear inside the role of Cheney but there’s something muted about this portrayal, some key element that’s missing that should make us either glorify or vilify him.  He’s so silent and so stoic at all times that you wait for some revelation, some element to his character to rise to the top to tell us something about him that we don’t already know.

What is far more interesting is the film’s other key player Donald Rumsfeld, played in a brilliant performance by Steve Carrell.  He plays the former Secretary of Defense with the passion and aura of a giddy snake charmer.  There’s a lot of fun and bluster to his performance and that’s where the central focus should have been.

 

 
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Posted by on 02/23/2019 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Nominees: A Star is Born

The 91st Annual Academy Awards are just 5 days away and celebrate I am taking a look at all eight of the year’s selections for Best Picture nominees.  Are they any good?  Let’s take a look:


I have to admit that my expectations ran hot and cold with the prospect of a fourth – FOURTH!! – film version of A Star is Born.  It is hard not to be cynical but I admit that I am a sucker for this premise: a once beloved show business superstar whose career is on the way down meets an ingenue with untapped talent whose career is on the way up.  That’s the oldest show business story in the world and that’s the reason that it has been retold every 30 or 40 years since 1937.

Yet, there is something wonderfully enticing about this idea.  In the first place, it is universal enough that it can be retooled for a new generation and still feel new.  In the second place, it’s an unapologetically sentimental old love story that is really hard to screw up.  And yet, going into Bradley Cooper’s modern remake, I had a few reservations.  I like Cooper, he’s a wonderful actor, but the prospect of having him serve as director, producer, co-writer (with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) as well as the star just screamed vanity project.  And, yes . . . it is!  But the movie is made with a lot of passion and heart and it shows.

The best thing about this version of A Star is Born is that Cooper places the relationship between the lovers first.  Since we know the story so well, he is smart enough to offset our expectations by building characters rather than lining up plot points.  Oh, the plot points are there, but they never seem to overshadow the humanity.  He also pulls off the neat trick of balancing the equality of the performances of the two leads.  He gives Lady Gaga enough time to let her character breathe, to grow, to make us understand how and why she rose to the top.  Yet, the trickier part is that he has given himself a plum role without making it seem like vanity.

Cooper has managed to direct himself to his best single performance.  In doing so, he reminded me just a bit of Paul Newman, who could say volumes without ever saying a word (Cooper’s final scene chillingly good).  Jackson Maine is a character that could have become a bore, a paper trope whose actions you could mentally drive through without a map.  Yet, we feel a real person there, an alt-Country superstar who has all-too-quickly moved from star to legend.  He still plays to sold out shows, singing the same hit songs that have become so popular that the audience sings them back to him. But the passion for the music seems to have dried up long ago.

Into that hemisphere comes a young ingenue whose talent is unbound.  What is amazing is that she’s played by Lady Gaga in a way that convinces us that she is a kid on the way up.  Judy Garland and especially Barbra Streisand had to struggle to convince us that they were at the beginning of their careers (Janet Gaynor really never did).  Yet, Lady Gaga, bereft of her usual crazy costumes and theatrics gives us a convincing portrait of a wide-eyed youth whose talent is unbound but whose age is clearly pushing to the point at which it is threatening to slip away.

The connection between these two is real because Cooper allows the story to let them get to build a relationship bred from their connection with their music.  You can feel what is between them and you and feel how he inspires her.  That’s the crux of this story, much more than the careers that they build.  This version of the story works because it believes in the romance that is blooming so that devastation of how it falls apart is all the more real.

 
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Posted by on 02/22/2019 in Uncategorized

 

My Annual (and confidently accurate) Oscar Predictions

Image result for 2019 Oscar nomineesThe bumpy road getting to the Oscars, with issues like the Popular Film category, the hosting issue and that mess about winners announced during the commercials, has overshadowed the fact that this year’s crop of nominees is some of the best in recent years.

You know the drill.  Here we go:

Image result for roma 2018

Best Picture
• BlacKkKlansman
• Black Panther
• Bohemian Rhapsody
• The Favorite
• Green Book
• Roma
• A Star is Born
• Vice


Since January 22nd when the nominees were announced, I have been standing of emotional thumbtacks fearing that Green Book might be the movie to win Best Picture.  That movie – based on a true story about a white bouncer in 1962 who is hired to drive a black classical musician on his tour through the mid-west and into the deep south – so solidly and unapologetically deals with race relations in a way that might have seemed fresh and new in about 1959.  Fortunately, times have changed and recent controversy of the film over its racial politics and its accuracy have tainted it’s chances for the gold.

Times have changed, the love of Green Book has faded and with it has gone and in its place now stands Alonso Cuarón’s gorgeous epic Roma, the best film of the year and the best film that this eclectic director has ever made.  The story of a housekeeper for an upper-class family in Mexico City in the 1970s plays less like a story and more like a collection of memories that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.  This would make history because no foreign-language film has ever won an Oscar for Best Picture before.

A dark horse?  This year’s nominees are so far and wide that you could possibly make a case for any of them.  I’m cheering for Roma but I wouldn’t complain if Black Panther or The Favorite ended up the winner as well.

Image result for Alfonso Cuaron directing

Best Director
• Alfonso Cuarón for Roma
• Yorgos Lathimos for The Favourite
• Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman
• Adam McKay for Vice
• Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War


While I desperately want Spike Lee’s first nominations for Best Director to be his first win for Best Director, I am not convinced that he will be able to pull out ahead of Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeous epic Roma embodies everything that the cinematic style stands for.  Cuarón is a brilliant director who moves in so many different directions in films as wide-ranging as Gravity and Harry Pottyand Children of Men and the road epic Y Tu Mama Tambien.  But this film is his most personal, his most cinematic and the best of his career.  In short, the Oscar is his for the taking.

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Best Actor
• Christian Bale in Vice
• Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born
• Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
• Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
• Viggo Mortensen in Green Book


If there is anything that I can reasonably forecast for the 91st Annual Academy Awards it is that this year the races aren’t a lot of fun as far as predicting the acting categories go.  It starts with Best Actor because almost from the beginning, the Oscar seemed to be headed in Rami Malek’s direction.  His performance as Freddie Mercury had to overcome a badly constructed film, an unwieldy set of prosthetic teeth and a nervous production history in which the director Bryan Singer left the production halfway through.  Still Malek managed to pull off an amazing performance.  The recreation of Queen’s performance at Live Aid could have won a short film Oscar all by itself.

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Best Actress
• Yalitza Aparicio in Roma
• Glenn Close in The Wife
• Olivia Colman in The Favorite
• Lady Gaga in A Star is Born
• Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?


I would actually be delighted to see any of the five nominees win the Oscar this year, but the safe bet is Glenn Close who after more than forty years and seven Oscar nominations is finally going to earn her a long-awaited first win.  Her story is all too timely, The Wife is the portrait of a woman who has stood behind her husband, a celebrated writer, for four decades while her own ambitions have remained hidden and unappreciated.  It is a powerful story of a woman finding the power of her own words and her own talent.

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Best Supporting Actor
• Mahershala Ali in Green Book
• Adam Driver in BlacKkKlansman
• Sam Elliott in A Star is Born
• Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
• Sam Rockwell in Vice


If Green Book has to win anything it might as well be for Mahershala Ali‘s performance.  While I and the rest of the western world seem to have problems with its racial politics and its history, few are complaining about Ali’s portrait of a black man in 1962 who’s very being is a defiance of the conditions under which he is expected to live.  It is to Ali’s credit that he rises above a pedestrian story and gives yet another great performance.

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Best Supporting Actress
• Amy Adams in Vice
• Marina de Tavira in Roma
• Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
• Emma Stone in The Favourite
• Rachel Weisz in The Favourite


The Screen Actor’s Guild Awards made the race for Best Supporting Actress a difficult call for pundits like yours truly.  The winner for that award, Emily Blunt, was not nominated for the Oscar for A Quiet Place.  And on the other hand, expected winner Regina King was not nominated at SAG for If Beale Street Could Talk.  Does that kill her chances here?  I don’t think so.  Her performance as a mother trying to facilitate the release of her daughter’s fiancé from prison is heartbreaking and brilliant.

Darkhorse?  It is possible because this category loves surprises.  If King doesn’t secure the win, then I see it coming down between Emma Stone and Amy Adams.  Yet, Stone already has an Oscar (for La La Land) and Adams is now a six-time nominee and six-time loser so she might be the upset.

Best Original Screenplay
The Favourite | First Reformed | Green Book | Roma | Vice


I am fond of the theory that Green Book is a nominee whose time came and went three months ago.  Now it not only seems to have become old news, but it’s reputation since the Golden Globes has not been rosy.  With charges of historical inaccuracy and, again, racial politics the movie has everything riding against it and that seems to have sapped it’s chances to win the award for Best Original Screenplay.  In its place, I have every confidence that Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara will win the Oscar for their unusually fun script for The Favourite chronicling two cousins vying for the affections of the ailing Queen Ann.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs | BlacKkKlansman | Can You Ever Forgive Me? | If Beale Street Could Talk | A Star is Born


While I could make the case for any one of these nominees winning the Oscar, I think we can safely shave this one down to two.  If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the book by James Baldwin tells the story of a black couple Fonny and Tish in the 1970s pulled apart by false allegations that land Fonny in prison.  And BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s take on the true story of the first black police officer in the history of Colorado Spring, Colorado whose first assignment is to infiltration the local chapter of the KKK.  Both films deal in timely subject matter but can imagine that Lee has to have a competitive Oscar in his hand at some point (he’s already been given an honorary award) and I couldn’t think of a better occasion than his best film in years.

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Best Foreign Language Film
Capernaum | Cold War | Never Look Away | Roma | Shoplifters


This one is tricky since I have now declared that Roma will win Best Picture and I don’t think its likely to win both.  In its place, I predict Cold War, a beautiful romance taking place in the 1950s about a music director who falls in love with a beautiful singer and tries to persuade to leave communist-run Poland for the more liberated terrain of France.

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2 | Isle of Dogs | Mirai | Ralph Breaks the Internet | Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


The Oscar in my heart gives this one to Wes Anderson’s brilliant Isle of Dogs, but my common sense says that the winner will be Spider-Man: Into the Spider–Verse.  It is not only a stunningly good film but it joins with Black Panther in proving that deep and culturally significant superhero stories can grab audiences too.

Best Original Song
“All the Stars” from Black Panther | “Ill Fight” from RGB | “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns | “Shallow” from A Star is Born | “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


My choice here would be the fun cowboy ditty “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (it has been in my head since I saw the film) but since I have a strong feeling that all of the Best Picture nominees will win something, somewhere on Sunday night, this award goes to “Shallow” from A Star is Born.  The song won the Golden Globe and picked up a nice bucket of Grammy nominations.  I think Oscar will follow.

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Best Original Score
BlacKkKlansman | Black Panther | If Beale Street Could Talk | Isle of DogsMary Poppins Returns


Again, my heart rests with Isle of Dogs and the category’s only veteran Alexander Desplat who uses a variety of different Japanese influences.  But the momentum for BlacKkKlansman overrides everything else.  It’s a heck of a good score from Terence Blanchard who mixes jazz and R&B styles into a score that is not only great but runs as a Greek chorus to the story.

Best Art Direction/Production Design
Black Panther | The Favourite | Roma | First Man | Mary Poppins Returns


This is pretty much a competition in two different directions: the past and the future.  Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton’s feel for the early 18th century in The Favourite is not just a pretty backdrop but plays to the emotional chessmatch between the characters (note that the floor looks like a chess board).  On the other side is Hannah Beachler and Jay R. Hart’s inventive creation of tribal Africa mixed with future-tech.  Since Panther  is likely to clean up the tech awards, I see this one going to The Favourite.

Best Cinematography
Cold War | The Favourite | Never Look Away | Roma |  A Star is Born 


Alfonso Cuarónis definitely the man of the hour this year.  Not only has he directed his best film Roma but he photographed it too – and it’s his debut in a feature!.

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Best Costume Design
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs | Black Panther | The Favourite | Mary Queen of Scots | Mary Poppins Returns


You could grouse all day about the quality of some of these nominees as filmsbut no one can fault the quality of the work done by the costume designers.  This is some of the best and most varied work in this categories in many years.  Three-time nominee Sandy Powell is competing against herself for the depression-era of Mary Poppins Returns and the 18th century royal court in The Favourite.  My favorite is Mary Zophres for the western wear of Buster Scruggs but I think the gold goes to three-time nominee Ruth E. Carter for the glorious costumes of Black Panther.

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling
Border | Mary Queen of Scots | Vice


The Swedish film Border gave us trolls and Mary Queen of Scots gave us Queen Elizabeth small pox.  But Vice transformed young and handsome Christian Bale into aged and pudgy Dick Cheney thanks to the work of Greg Cannom Kate Biscoe and Patrice Da-Haney-Le May.

Best Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favorite | Green Book | Vice


This year’s nominees for Film Editing present a particular challenge.  Normally the winner here is the winner for Best Picture, but since Roma isn’t nominated, where do we go from here?  My prediction is that is that Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ work in The Favourite is incredible as he moves back and forth between three players in a love triangle, seeing each for who they are and where they are in the stages of the game.

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Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War | Christopher Robin | First Man | Ready Player OneSolo: A Star Wars Story


Depending on how many films are submitted for Visual Effects, the number of nominees can vary.  Normally there are only three, but this year’s bumper crop filled out the category to five.  Even still there are only two possibilities here.  First Man was a stunning recreation of the Apollo 11 but since the award here usually goes to the film that made the most money, I’ll declare the winners to be Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl and Daniel Sudick for Avengers: Infinity War.

Best Sound Editing
Black Panther | Bohemian Rhapsody | First Man | A Quiet Place | Roma


There is a measure of irony in the fact that A Quiet Place is in this category and, yes, I would like to see Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl win.  But the ear-splitting test flights and rumbling rockets of First Man, thanks to Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou, are likely to get that film its first win.

Best Sound Mixing
Black Panther | Bohemian Rhapsody | First Man | Roma | A Star is Born


Bohemian Rhapsody and First Man were terrific showcases of the IMAX experience, while RomaA Star is Born and Black Panther have been lauded as being the best showcase of the new Dolby Atmos.  Both were beneficial to each film’s effect but no better than First Man where the soundscape was crucial to creating the sound of those early rocket tests and the first flight to the moon.

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Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo | Hale County, This Morning, This Evening | Minding the Gap | Of Fathers and Sons | RGB


The biggest news about the Documentary Feature nominees this year was the exclusion of the wildly sentimental and wildly popular Mr. Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  In it’s place came an aggressive campaign by NatGeo for Free Solo, the story of how Alex Honnold became the first person to free climb El Capitan.  The film, which is just as much about Honnold’s personal insecurities as it is about his achivement, is a nail-biting visual experience.  Possibly the only dark horse is RGB which chronicles the career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  The Supreme Court is the hero of the left right now and that may be a pull in the movie’s favor.

Best Documentary Short
Black Sheep | End Game | Lifeboat | A Night at the Garden | Period.  End of Sentence


Netflix’s determination to make a presence at the awards will earn them gold here with End Game, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s cinema verite look into the practices of surgeons at a San Francisco hospital

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Best Live Action Short
Marguerite | Fauve | Skin | Mother | Detainment


What a sad lot this year.  Fauve is about two boys who get into trouble when playing a power game near an open pit mine.  Skin is about a race war that begins when a black man smiles at a 10 year-old boy in a supermarket.  Mother is about a woman’s nightmare when her son disappears.  And Detainment is about two boys who are detained on suspicion of murder.  Luckily Marguerite has something more uplifting to offer, the story of an elderly woman who finally feels comfortable talking about her long repressed feelings when she finds out that her Hospice nurse is a lesbian.

Best Animated Short
Animal Behavior | Bao | Late Afternoon | One Small Step | Weekends


Pixar fires back into the fold with Bao a touching, but admittedly baffling story, of motherly love in a Chinese household.  It’s the first short film in Pixar’s illustrious cannon to be directed by a woman, Chinese-Canadian artist Domnee Shi and her work makes the Oscar hers for the taking.

 
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Posted by on 02/20/2019 in Uncategorized

 

The Trouble with the Bechdel Test

Image result for Room Brie Larson Image result for Gravity 2013 Image result for three billboards outside ebbing missouri
The Bechdel Test.  Sounds like a measuring tool for a geologist, right?

If you haven’t heard of it, chances are that now, in the age of #metoo and #timesup, you’re going to hear a LOT about it in the near-future.  Let me stress, a LOT!!  The Bechdel Test was inspired by a 1985 edition of Alison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” which factors three things in a movie to note with regards to women in a movie:
1.) There must be two women in the scene.
2.) They must be engaged in conversation.
3.) They have to discuss something other than men.

The point, apparently is to measure the effectiveness of female characters in movies away from the need to pursue or think about their role with regards to the men in their lives.  In practice, this admittedly problematic scale

is generally a facilitation of the idea that a woman cannot function without a man on the brain, that women are written into movies outside of being an individual.  And, it might seem easy to wave off, but if you really dig into some of the greatest movies and/or most popular movies of all time – Casablanca, Star Wars, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Lord of the Rings, and nearly every Disney movie – you find that The Bechdel Test either doesn’t equal or, in many cases, simply doesn’t matter.  While it could be used as an effective eye-opener – a scale on which to illustrate how women have been sidelined and misrepresented throughout the 123 year lifespan of the cinema – its use as a logical measuring tool is faulty, at best.

First of all, movies are not an absolute because you cannot cull them into a collective.  It is hard to measure any one thing.  There are around 250 major releases in a given year and then factor in the mass of smaller independent films, documentaries and foreign films.  The figures for the number of releases every year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, fluctuate but they estimate around 600 movies created each year.  And, just to be fair, we must factor in the mass of movies dropping on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc.  You’re looking at about 700 to 800 movies created within a calendar year.

So where are the statistics coming from?  If you engage the Bechdel Test, what are your criteria?  Are you sticking by the 250 major releases every year or are you taking into account the full mass of movies created for the entire year?  It would seem a fallacy not to, but who sees all 700+ movies in a given year?  Even the most dedicated of critics admit that their schedule forces them to miss certain movies.  And even if you do, how could anyone be exected to keep up with that many movies in a 12-month cycle.  That would be exhausting.

Plus, there is a problem in that The Bechdel Test generally ignores the individual performance.  Consider this: of the five nominees for Best Actress this year – Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep – none of them pass the Bechdel test, but it isn’t because of an oversight, it is because the nature of their roles doesn’t fit into the test’s parameters.  How is the test administered with films like The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri wherein strong, individual women are surrounded by male co-stars given a situation of women dealing with difficult circumstances while wading in toxic masculinity?  Frances McDormand plays a woman dealing with a male-dominated township that has ignored and dragged its feet over her daughter’s murder.  There are no scenes of sitting down to coffee, she’s a mother eagle fighting for the justice of her child against a male-dominated populace.  This performance stands apart from the Bechdel Test because she rarely, if ever, has a female character to converse with.  That’s not a flaw in the screenwriting, it is just a reasonable outcome of the progression of the story.

Here is another individual performance – Sandra Bullock in Gravity.  She plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer marooned in space who spends 95% of the movie alone, floating around and trying to figure out how to get back to Earth.  She has no love interest and no co-star to converse with other than George Clooney who disappears early in the film.  Given that, Gravity fails the Bechdel Test right out of the gate.

Let’s look at another example, the Best Actress winner from two years ago, Brie Larson.  Larson won the Oscar for Room, a movie about a woman held captive for seven years in a small toolshed who eventually escapes with her son.  The only people that she really communicates with are her captor, her son and eventually her mother.  The nature of the role, and the circumstances of the character render the qualifications of the Bechdel test irrelevant.

These are only a couple of examples, but the basic point is that while women have been side-lined and misrepresented, whittling equality down to a scale or test is faulty and irresponsible.  A scale like this brings to light to misrepresentation but putting it to the test against much of what is being made right now is faulty and short-sighted.  It dismisses context and meaning and representation.  If two women are talking about a man, then why are they talking about men?  Does the test adhere to women talking about their fathers or brothers or cousins or their platonic friends?  Are they discussing marriage?  Divorce?  Couples counseling?  Having children?

Given this, The Bechdel Test would seem to assume that in order to validate any female character, then they would have to relieve themselves of all male-centric conversation.  That’s silly, its short-sighted and it’s irrelevant; as is any scale that tries to measure movies.  As I said, movies are not a collective, they are wide-spread in their intention and their goals.  Something like The Bechdel test is, ultimately, irrelevant.

 
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Posted by on 04/24/2018 in Uncategorized

 

The Pod Bay Doors, Episode #39: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (2018) and The Case for Christ (2017)


In this very special episode, Jerry and Doug cross the dimensional rift and re-enter PureFlix Land with a discussion on the most recent offerings from the studio: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness and The Case for Christ. Don’t kid yourself, these are just as awful as God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2, covered on Episode 16.

 
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Posted by on 04/06/2018 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Winners: The Shape of Water (2017)

It would have been irresponsible for me to end this Best Picture journey with Moonlight.  So, here is a bonus – the newest entry in Oscar’s top-prize scrapbook . . .

The Best Picture winners, in many cases, have a way of signaling the times in which they were made.  That’s no less applicable for The Shape of Water which joins the list of Oscar’s big winners at a moment in history when the beacon call for diversity was sounded with furious anger over those who attempted to shut them out.  Here was a movie that gave sanction to those who felt themselves shut out of the world.  And signalling to those who had been made to feel like outcasts, it is oddly fitting that the movie comes wrapped in the guise of a monster movie.

Yes, The Shape of Water is technically a monster movie, albeit closer to Beauty and the Beast than Godzilla.  It has an aquatic creature who has human dimensions but the at the same time the anatomical characteristics of something that crawled from the sea (basically, its The Creature from the Black Lagoon).  And yet, here is a strange movie that upends the trope of the creature trying to kidnap or kill the heroine and has the two entering into a strange and kind-of touching love affair.  If it came from any other director, you might find this concept puzzling, but since this is a fairy tale that comes from Guillermo del Toro, the oddity of this story isn’t all that surprising.

You also know that del Toro is a director who is not going to rest his film on only one level.  The subtext is what gives the film its juice.  The movie is set in 1962 and the fishman isn’t the only unwanted creature in the room.  For one, there is a woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who is mute.  Her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a black woman.  And Elisa next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged gay man.  In a dozen or more ways, this is a movie about oddities and outcasts pressed into a time in which social restrictions and Cold War paranoia were helping to keep them “in their place.”  Does the treatment of the aquatic gill man represent the treatment of the blacks, gays and the handicapped at the time?  Perhaps.

The Shape of Water is a movie about loneliness, no matter what your shape or affliction or orientation, pushed upon those who, at the time, society would rather not deal with.  This is 1962, when the space race, the Cold War and the rising tide of racial revolution are in the air.  Elisa and Zelda are cogs in the government machine, functionary custodians at a Baltimore government installation called OCCAM (get it?)  Their job is to keep their head down, and their eyes on their mop, but something strange is banging around in one of the labs.  It is – SPOILER ALERT – the fishman, which has been caught and is being treated like a rabid animal.  Elisa bonds with the creature, falls in love with it and eventually . . . yeah.  That happens.  The message, I suppose, is the exposition of love unhooked from bonded commonalities.  Elisa and the fishman bond in their mutual silence – a touch, a look, a feeling.  There is something genuine between the two.

That, at least, the film’s lovely fairy tale first half.  The second half is not as pliable and, for me, becomes an extended retread of E.T.  That doesn’t make the film bad, but it does kind of take the full-blooded spirit of the film’s first half and falls into a standard rescue while the bad guys attempt to recapture the creature and return him to his chains.  While I appreciate the love story that develops, I am left to wonder in what wild directions the film might have gone in its third act.  For that, I’m left with a very good film, not a great one.

 

 
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Posted by on 03/06/2018 in Uncategorized