Movies: I am not Your Negro and 50 Shades Darker

 

I recognize that one couldn’t have two more opposite films than the Award winning and Oscar nominated “I am Not Your Negro” and the potentially Razzie Award -sweeping “50 Shades Darker” but that’s what I saw this week.  My only excuse is that I like variety in my film viewing and these two films couldn’t be more different!

I am Not Your Negro

“I am not Your Negro” is an Oscar nominated documentary that is based on a thirty-page unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin which focuses on his relationships with Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King and Malcom X.  The documentary, directed by Raoul Peck, explores not only Baldwin’s view of the world at the time in his written word (read eloquently by Samuel L. Jackson) but as articulated by the author in an interview on the Dick Cavett Show. Not only does Peck capture Baldwin’s views but he intersperses historical footage from the sixties with that of modern day Ferguson and the Black Lives Matters movement to provide a chronology of how American history has created the racial divisions so fundamental to our everyday existence.

Personally, I found the footage of Dick Cavett to be fascinating.  For those of us who remember the show, Cavett was the intellectual liberal of the talk show circuit at the time.  He invited many authors and scholars to dialog with him and to hear him asking Baldwin about “the Negro” was disturbing.  For those who are unfamiliar with Baldwin, he was a brilliant author and paragon of the Civil Rights movement in the sixties.  I read several of his works in high school along with many of the authors referenced in the film.  He was also gay as mentioned briefly by J. Edgar Hoover in the segment where we realized that the FBI was building quite a file on Baldwin.  While “I am not Your Negro” provides a short glimpse into his life, this film made me wish for a more comprehensive biography.

As American navigate through the serious racial divides in this country, “I am Not Your Negro” reinforces why despite Civil Rights gains and an African American President, the history of Black enslavement, suppression and racism can’t be forgotten nor minimized in the Black psyche.  The scenes of segregation and violence towards African Americans in this film won’t allow the viewer to think that it can. The film won’t let whites be oblivious to the history and focus only on their perceptions of racism in today’s world.  This history defines we are and every white American should watch it to help  understand the current environment.  It is timely and important.

50 Shades Darker

The original “50 Shades of Grey” wasn’t horrible.  It had a female Director (Sam Taylor-Johnson), a professional screenwriter who could work around the book’s dreadful dialogue and the emergence of a fresh new face (Dakota Johnson) who gave the lead character some unexpected gumption.  The end result, while dominating the Razzies, was that the film did well at the box office and maintained its credibility with book fans.  This occurred despite a distinct lack of chemistry between the two leads and one-sided nudity (all Johnson) and no orgasms which in a sex movie was more than peculiar.

None of that occurred with 50 Shades Darker.  The female Director was replaced with a male with an undistinguished set of credits.  The professional screen writer was replaced with author E.L. James’s real- life husband (not a professional screen writer) and Jamie Dornan was still in the film. Let’s talk a minute about Dornan.  In the first film, his Christian Grey was pretty much the same serial killer that he played in the TV show the Fall (which by the way, I thought he was really good in).  There was no chemistry between the two leads and Dornan, although boring, probably played Grey relatively closely to the book description.  In the 2nd film, Grey is smiling all the time, has day old facial hair and  seems totally relaxed.  This is in stark contrast with the character in the books who remains incredibly intense, dominating and would never laugh and smile let alone not shave in Book 2.

Bottom line, the movie is missing the only redeeming qualities of its predecessor and is boring with a weak script that goes nowhere in the middle of the film.  The leads continue to lack chemistry despite being clearly more at ease with each other and Dornan again has sex with most of his clothes on although this time with a ripped torso.   It is hard to believe a movie could win more Razzies than the original 50 Shades but this movie certainly deserves to.  Even for the most ardent book lovers, the film is going to be a disappointment.  Don’t think the third movie will be any better as it was filmed at the same time as this film with the same Director, Screenwriter and actors.  Run don’t walk away from this film that is running about 8% on Rotten Tomatoes.

 

 

 

 

Movies: 2017 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

2017 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

In many cities, including mine, audiences can see the 2017 Oscar nominated shorts (live action, documentary and animated).  In the time it normally takes to see a regular movie, you can see the 5 nominated films back to back.  It’s a great way to see these films.  I usually watch the Live Action Shorts and skip the others although I might try to get to the documentaries this year.  I found the Live Action Shorts to be more upbeat this go around than in previous years where it seemed like the first movie was like Manchester by the Sea and then got progressively more depressing!  I was pleasantly surprised by the 2017 group.  This year’s films:

Enemis Interieurs (French)

This film is very relevant to what is happening around the world right now.  A Muslim man (Hassam Ghancy) born in Algiers and raised in France is attempting to get French Citizenship.  He is in a dimly light immigration room which almost looks like an interrogation room.  His “interviewer” is at times aggressive, hostile and calm and watching the interplay between these two men as the conversation goes from cordial to hostile with the introduction of religion and terrorism into the discussion.

Despite the fact that both men are French and have spent their entire lives in that country (Algiers was a French Colony at the time of Ghancy’s birth), history and politics have created a gulf between them and one is now in control of the other’s fate.  You can’t help but watch this film and think about how there are likely similar interviews going on across America every hour of every day.  It is a sobering 30 minutes.

Sing (Hungary)

Sing is about a young girl coming to a new school that has a famous children’s choir.  The shy Zsofi loves to sing and joins the choir.  She also makes friends with another girl in the choir (Liza) who is extremely popular.  The film explores the themes of power and corruption in the apparently uber competitive world of elementary school choirs.  Sing has a nice twist at the end as the children deal with the choir’s dark secret of success in an innovative and creative way making the audience smile.  It is a story of the little guy standing up to oppression and the power of the underdog.  Along the way, there is some great singing and the two young girls who star in it are mesmerizing.

Silent Nights (Denmark)

Silent Nights explores another very relevant aspect of the immigration issue as Kwame, an immigrant from Ghana to Denmark tries to make a living in a land far removed from his home.  He has a family back in Ghana and struggles to get money to send home to them.  He meets a young woman at a homeless shelter where she volunteers and they begin a relationship that gets quite complicated very quickly.

Kwame is a complex character and he lies, steals and commits adultery with this young, naïve Danish woman.  I never bought their relationship.  I understand what the film maker was trying to achieve by asking the audience to have compassion for someone in a difficult situation.  The film might have potentially been able to achieve its goals had it been a full-length feature film where the characters could have been much better developed.  As it was, I just didn’t buy it and thought the ending was contrite even though the actors were quite good.

Timecode (Spain)

This is a very short (15 minute) film that captures two parking lot attendants at work.  One has the day shift and the other,  the night shift.  The two just give each other a cursory acknowledgement as they change shifts every twelve hours.  With cameras, everywhere and an immensely boring job monitoring them, the two workers begin communicating through dance videos done while on the job.  The story of two individuals performing rote jobs quickly turns into a romantic comedy and it is all contained in 15 minutes.  The Director is able to accomplish everything he needs to in this short amount of time.  The dancing is great, the idea cute and the movie ends on a bit of a high note which is always appreciated.

La Femme et la TGV (Switzerland)

Every day, Elise a widowed baker, opens her window and waves the Swiss flag to the TGV train as it passes by her home which sits a few feet from the train tracks.  One day, the Train Conductor, Bruno, drops a note to her out of appreciation and the two of them correspond each day until one day, the train does not come.  The route was changed for the train. Elise, clearly already a depressed individual who does not interact with anyone in the town shuts herself off even more until she finds that Bruno stopped by her home and left a good-bye note.  She enlists the help of a young man to drive her to Munich where Bruno is about to take a train home and catches up with him.  I won’t spoil the ending but it is bitter sweet and the actress playing the lead role is excellent.

Summary

I’d highly recommend seeing these films.  It’s hard to predict which one will win the Oscar  but several are worthy.  The critics seem to like the French interrogation film the best but the predictors think La Femme is probably the favorite.  I personally liked Sing the best followed by La Femme.  I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

Books: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World

 

Sisters in Law:  How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in Law is a bit of a misnomer as the reader discovers over the course of this book which chronicles how each woman achieves her respective Supreme Court seat.  The two women sat on the Supreme Court together and respected each other but weren’t particularly close. The author traces the history of each woman to the highest court in the land.  Sandra Day O’Conner graduated from law school to find that the only opportunity offered to her was a job as a legal secretary because no law firm believed that their clients would want a woman representing them.  She ultimately rose to become the first woman on the Supreme Court by being a master politician; first becoming a powerful state legislator and later a Federal judge.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a brilliant woman who faced a great deal of the same type of discrimination coming out of law school as O’Conner did.  She taught law at Rutgers and worked cases for the ACLU, making an impact on many gender discrimination cases slowly making her way up the legal hierarchy until she could obtain a judgeship and later became the second woman on the Supreme Court.  At every step along the way, both women faced discrimination in a male dominated profession.

For those who are interested in Supreme Court and/or modern American history, the book has a lot of fascinating legal cases and is certainly relevant given the current political environment. In fact, one of the cases talked about in detail (the Hobby Lobby case) is a case that the current Supreme Court nominee was involved with.   It must be said that Ms. Hirshman’s liberal political views transcend the pages and it is obvious she is a strong feminist and aligned with the judicial philosophy of Ginsberg.  She is not an advocate of most of O’Conner’s positions and gives almost begrudging support to the Justice.

Despite the author’s obvious biases, she is able to show how the two justices   respected and supported each other and when O’Conner retired, Ginsburg was lonely as the only female on the court.  Both women are depicted as strong individuals who broke one of the last great glass ceilings.  While the O’Connor’s and Ginsburg’s were not close friends outside of work, the Ginsburg’s and Scalia’s spent a great deal of time together – arguably the courts most liberal and conservative justices.  It would have been interesting for the author to explore why the bond with Scalia was so much stronger than with O’Conner.  If you are interested in these two female justices and their impact on history, you will likely enjoy this book despite some if it’s flaws.

 

Movies: 20th Century Women and The Salesman

 

20th Century Women

Annette Benning in 20th Century Women is fantastic and I am surprised she was shut out of an Oscar nomination.   The other actors, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann do a fine job as well.  Benning plays a single mother to 15-year-old Jamie (Zumann) and lives in an old Victorian house in 1979 Santa Barbara.  She has an eclectic array of boarders including Abbie (Gerwig) a young woman battling cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who is working on restoring the dilapidated mansion.  Fanning plays Julie, a young woman who is Jamie’s best friend and the object of his affection.

Dorthea feels the once close relationship with her son slipping away so enlists the help of the others to help Jamie grow up and become a good man.  This only stresses the various relationships but in the end, this group of people is a family and they all take care of each other.  20th Century Women is a slow burn.  It consists primarily of dialogue and you may feel like you are in the theater for more than the 2 hours running time.   The acting is nuanced and the story very real and it will really appeal to those of us who love revisiting the 1970s.  This is a movie about family and relationships and the performances are raw and perfect.  20th Century Women is a very good film and well worth seeing.

The Salesman

Perhaps you have heard about this Iranian film nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Film and its Director Asghar Farhadi who would have been unable to attend the Oscars due to the Immigration Ban.   He has subsequently said he won’t come even if he receives an exemption.  Aside from the political controversy, this is an excellent film by Farhadi who received the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar for the movie “The Separation”.  Unfortunately, we will not be able to see another powerful acceptance speech by this Director due to the political issues.

To fully appreciate this film, it is helpful (but certainly not necessary) to have knowledge of Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” as there are parallels in this story of an Iranian couple, Emad and Rana, (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) who have the lead roles in the play.  Some of the play’s themes are subtly  interwoven throughout the movie. Emad is a high school teacher and he and Rana are forced to find a new apartment when the building where they live collapses.  The former tenet of their new apartment was a hooker who had to leave under unknown circumstances.  One of her former clients comes to the apartment and attacks Rana who then struggles with how to keep on living.

Like in the movie “Elle”, the brutal attack is not reported to the police (again, for reasons unknown) but Emad goes on a mission to find the perpetrator.  The final third of the movie is as intense as anything you will see as he uncovers who was the attacker is and works through what should be done to avenge the violent act.  I won’t give away the ending but suffice it to say the suspenseful conclusion is brilliantly played out.  This film could well win the Oscar and I am totally on board with that happening! I will also go and check out “The Separation” which is supposed to be even more intense.

TV this Week: The Good Place, Riverdale, the Magicians, and Scandal

Winter TV Season coming on strong with lots of premiers and finales.  Here are a few:

Season Finale

The Good Place (NBC)

The Good Place ended its first season with a big twist that should serve it well in the future. SPOILER ALERT: Turns out the Good Place is really the Bad Place and some things that seemed strange all season finally make sense – particularly why two clearly flawed individuals landed up in the Good Place. Their soul mates were not quite the embodiment of perfection either which seemed to indicate a fatal flaw with the selection process. The other big twist is that there is a reset button. This often can be a bit cheesy but I can see how it might enable the show runners to get more seasons if they can keep erasing memories and start over. I suspect the major story arc will now be how these four people can remember as much as possible before their memories are erased.

I enjoyed this first season of the Good Place. It was light entertainment and provided some relief from all the craziness of the real life events for the last few months. Kristin Bell was very enjoyable as was Ted Danson and I’m looking forward to next year.

Series Premier

Riverdale (CW)

A revival of the Archie comic books with a dark side is not going to be for everyone but it is surprisingly  good. It definitely has the normal CW feel with a lot of very good-looking young people (in this case supposedly sophomores in high school which is a huge stretch) and will appeal to the teenage audience. Archie comic books have been around forever and this show keeps the characters honest  with the books but adds darkness and mysteries to life in Riverdale.

The show is well done and will absolutely appeal to the younger demo. If you aren’t in to teenage angst with a Twin Peaks touch, feel free to skip it. I am impressed that the CW has another solid show in its repertoire. Just 3 years ago, I had never watched a CW show and now I view quite a few.

Season Premier

The Magicians (SY FY)

If you read this blog with any regularity, you will know that the biggest TV disappointment for me last year was the Magicians. As a lover of the books, I was distraught over how bad the TV series was and the choices the show runners made to deviate significantly from the trilogy. The characters weren’t well developed and lesser characters in the book took more prominence. One major character had a name change for no good reason. At year-end I placed it on my “Worst Shows of 2016” list and swore I would never return.

Well, I returned. I so want this series to work and hoped that over the summer, somehow the writers might have course corrected. What is killing me is that the source material is so good and this could be a really great show.  Season 2 premiered Wednesday night and it gave me no reason for optimism. Julia’s story line goes in and out of the other character’s story arc with no rhyme or reason – gave me whiplash. The plot was confusing and I have read the books twice. The transitions were shaky and the writing as well. In short, there is no good reason to watch this show. If you haven’t read the books, run, don’t walk to your nearest library and forget the show.

P.s. I do have to call out Summer Bishil, my nieces’ future sister-in-law for a fine job as Margo (Janet in the books). She does a very solid job despite not so great writing and character development.

Scandal

Scandal is finally back after Kerry Washington’s childcare leave and it starts out with a literal bang and a murder. Olivia and crew are off to the races trying to figure out how to prove who the murderer is. Suffice it to say that the election results are somewhat muddled and everything seems to be in play, which is totally in sync with the show that Scandal is.  Could life be worse in DC with Cyrus potentially becoming the next President of the United States?  Does life imitate art?

Scandal has had less than satisfactory plot lines the last couple of years and I’m beginning to wonder if there is really much more story to tell. It will be interesting to see how the writers deal with a shortened season and whether they can get this show back on track and Olivia back in her grove. It hasn’t had the staying power of Grey’s Anatomy and the plots have gotten so outrageous that it isn’t really satisfying to keep watching yet for some reason, it is hard to walk away from Ms. Pope. Here’s to hoping that Olivia Pope can “fix” this!

 

Movies: Fences and a few quick thoughts on the Oscar nominations

Fences:

The acting in Fences is superb and all the accolades coming Denzel Washington and Viola Davis’s way are well deserved. They can get all the Oscars in the world as far as I’m concerned. The problem I had with the film is that it was a play up on the big screen. After awhile, this very long film (2 hours and 19 minutes) got to me with all the talking. At least on stage, there would have been an intermission to break it up. I am somewhat surprised that the screenwriters did not create more of a story as opposed to giving us what I assume was pretty much word for word the over 25,000 words of the play. I would have preferred that along with the important soliloquies and major dramatic moments of the play, that there had been some flashbacks or other techniques to engage us in the story.

That being said, there are so many powerful moments in this film that in conjunction with the acting makes it one of the better movies of the year. Viola Davis being able to cry and have snot coming from her nose at the same time is an Oscar winning performance if I ever saw one. I think it is difficult to take a play and make it work on the big screen and this one has its issues but along the way, there is some glorious dialogue and amazing acting.  It is well worth seeing.

A Few Quick Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations:

The Positives:

  • Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea – he is amazing
  • Much more diverse set of nominations which are all well deserved
  • By and large, the best films and performances are being honored

The Strange:

  • No Amy Adams for best actress? She has been nominated by every other major group and deserved a nod
  • Thought Hugh Grant would have received a nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. His performance was deserving and recognized by the other major groups
  • Deadpool clearly did not resonate with the old white Oscar voters – too bad
  • No Taraji P. Henson? Great job in Hidden Fences

My Wish list – Outside possibilities that I wished for

  • Viggo Mortensen got his Best Actor nomination but would have loved to see Captain Fantastic get a best picture nod
  • Would have loved for Sonny Pawar to have been nominated for “Lion”. He made the movie
  • Wasn’t going to happen but I thought Chris Pine was better than Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water
  • My favorite foreign films of the year both came from New Zealand and weren’t nominated – “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “The Dark Horse”

 

TV: Winter TV is Back: Sneaky Pete, the Young Pope, Victoria, Taboo, Colony and Bright Lights

 

The winter TV season has begun and it is coming fast and furiously! Here are some of the new arrivals with more coming in the next few weeks.

Series Premiers:

Sneaky Pete (Amazon)

Sneaky Pete is the story of a hustler (Marius) who gets out of prison and needs to hide from some gangsters led by Bryan Cranston out to get him. Marius takes on the identity of a man still in prison (Pete) and hides out in upstate NY at Pete’s grandparent’s house claiming to be their long lost grandson. They haven’t seen him for 20 years so are excited that he has come back into their lives although Grandma (played marvelously by Margo Martindale) is suspicious. Pete takes mysterious trips to NYC to try and settle some of his business scores while maintaining his secret life as Pete and helping out in the family’s bail bond business.

I’m not in love with this show but given my admiration of Bryan Cranston and Margo Martingale, I’ll give it a few more episodes to make me a fan.

The Young Pope (HBO)

I’ll watch Jude Law in anything and he is indeed excellent in this new HBO series about a young American Pope who mysteriously lands up in charge of the Catholic Church. His wry expressions, subtle humor and general shiftiness keep the audience guessing at to what his motivations and without an actor of Law’s caliber, I’m not sure this show would work. The series also stars Diane Keaton and James Cromwell although we don’t see them much in the first episode. This first episode is pretty strange including an opening scene where Law emerges from a pile of dead babies in a dream sequence. I’m not exactly what to make of this new mini-series as it jumps all around with moments of sarcastic humor but it makes for compelling television.

Perhaps living in Trumpland, I’m sensitive to how those in power use that power to lead and this show topping off a night in which I watched Homeland and Victoria seemed like entertainment became reality. I am anxious to see the next few episodes where James Cromwell apparently becomes focused on bringing down the new pope. Here’s to Coke Cherry Zero and the brilliance Law brings to the role. This may be the weirdest show I’m watching but I’m in for the ride.

Victoria (PBS)

Masterpiece Theater premiered a two-hour opening episode in its new series on Queen Victoria in the time slot formerly allocated to Downton Abby. I don’t think this will be as good as the Crown (or Downton Abby for that matter) but if you like history, British royalty, the Crown Jewels and lavish costumes, you should enjoy this new show. Rufus Sewell is engaging as Victoria’s mentor Lord Melbourne and Jenna Coleman in the lead role is fine but can’t compare to Claire Foy in the Crown. I’ll be watching in order to learn more about Victoria’s long reign. 

Taboo (FX)

FX is delivering some of the finest TV around (The American, OJ etc.) and getting the award nominations/wins to prove it. Taboo is the network’s latest project and premiered this past week with Tom Hardy playing a mysterious man named James Delaney. Delaney appears in early 1800’s London after the death of his father in order to claim a piece of land in the Pacific Northwest. The land apparently has some sort of mysterious power. There is also a sister who is married to a not very pleasant husband who needs the inheritance from their father. The tone is dark and sinister and reminds me of Peaky Blinders which I couldn’t get in to. There are clearly any number of secrets we aren’t privy to and I’m not sure how much of the supernatural is involved. The show is very weird, confusing and I’m not ready to commit to it yet but I’ll try another couple of episodes to see if there is anything to engage me.

Season Premiers:

Colony (SyFy)

To begin Season 2, Colony chose an interesting tactic. Instead of picking up where things ended last season with Will Bowman (Josh Holloway) escaping the “block” to try and find his son, we flashback to when the aliens first came and put up the wall around LA. We see life as it was before the invasion with the Bowman family. While interesting, it was not nearly as intriguing as Alan Snyder’s toiling away as a purchasing manager while embezzling money when representatives of the aliens (knowing all about him) come to recruit him for a job in the new order.  Turns out Snyder was not a provost at Stanford after all. Peter Jacobsen nails it as a rather shifty individual faced with a difficult choice.

We have a new character, Devon, who is introduced in Season 2 as Will’s possibly “dirty” FBI partner pre-arrival. She escaped the “block” as the wall comes down and is apparently the key to finding Charlie in the present. We also get a glimpse into why Katie joined the Resistance but we don’t make progress in the first episode towards an understanding of what the Factory is or other dangling plot points from last season. I like Colony and even though it isn’t the best show on TV by any means, the combination of Carleton Cuse and Josh Holloway from Lost gives me  hope that the show will continue to grow and get better.

Movies for TV: 

Bright Lights (HBO)

This documentary on Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher is everything you’d want it to be given their recent passing. No one could have predicted the tragic deaths within a day of each other after having shared so much of their lives together. It is Karma that their fans have access to the wonderful HBO documentary “Bright Lights” which depicts their lives together and apart in the last two to three years of their lives. The film, which was to be released later this year, was moved to January 7th and provides a fitting tribute to their amazing lives.

We see childhood pictures and home movies of Carrie and her brother with their parents. They seemed very happy although Carrie suggests otherwise in the film. Carrie is on stage singing early in life with an eerily foreshadowing of the future when she sings “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. The main focus of Bright Lights however, is the recent story of Debbie and Carrie living next to each other in Beverley Hills where they have a daily routine of visiting each other. The documentary begins in 2014 when Carrie is hysterically working with a trainer to get in shape for Star Wars. We also see Debbie Reynolds going strong in her late eighties by still appearing on stage. She is wonderful.

Bright Lights turns out to be a lasting homage to two wonderful and talented women who are gone too soon. It chronicles two fighters who bound themselves to each other after a period of estrangement and one can’t help but be sad about these two “Bright Lights” who have been snuffed out and what their family and friends have lost.