Monday, June 30, 2014

Image = Comedians Doing Something Dramatically Different



It is fascinating to me when performers are known for one thing and then they do something totally different very effectively.

Ricky Gervais is best known for his toxic persona and skewering everyone in the room as two-time host of the Golden Globes.  And now he has created a lovely series like Derek.  He is wonderfully affecting as a seemingly mentally challenged man who works as a caretaker in a nursing home.  This mockumentary style show has so much heart and compassion that all I could think was - how is this the same person?  Is his persona just a persona?  Or is this poignant stuff just a bunch of bunk?

Now, I’ve seen other comedians do drama very well – Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Will Farrell – but this is something different.  Derek is a different kind of comedy – or dramedy if you will – and there’s also an element of social commentary on Derek – about caring for the elderly and the bureaucracy of institutionalized care.  It took me completely by surprise and moved me to tears.  Derek is simply wonderful and everyone should watch it.    

Saying that, I definitely would not call myself a Ricky Gervais fan.  I hated what he did on the Golden Globes.  What’s the point of hiring a host to tear apart Hollywood at an event meant to honor Hollywood excellence?  And I can’t stand The Office – British or American.  However, The Invention of Lying (which Gervais also wrote) was ingenious and he was great in Ghost Town.  After two seasons of Derek, I am now definitely more inclined to seek out other projects Ricky is involved in from now on.

{An aside - It’s interesting that Netflix is getting so much acclaim for Orange is the New Black & House of Cards and no one is talking about Derek, also a Netflix original series}. 

One more thing about comedians crossing over.  I am intrigued by Steve Carell, who displayed some non funny chops last summer in The Way Way Back.  Since Cannes, there is Oscar buzz for his portrayal of a paranoid schizophrenic murderer in the film Foxcatcher.  I definitely would call myself a Steve Carell fan and I would love to be forced to call him “Academy Award winner Steve Carell” for the rest of my life. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Image = Indie or what?



What is going on with indie film these days?  In the past few years there have been some truly great independent films.  Ruby Sparks, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Any Day Now, In a World…,  Enough Said and Nebraska - just to name a few.
Me with Lake Bell - Writer/Director of In a World...
I have been blown away by many films with a unique take on storytelling, a great effort by a first time writer/director and emotionally impacting characters and plots.  Lately though, I feel like every indie I see has a fatal flaw – like killing off a main character for no apparent reason.  Or – starting off as one genre, then becoming a totally different one and then changing back again.  WTF? 

I felt this way about everything I saw this year at Tribeca and the trend continues at subsequent screenings.  I just saw Words and Pictures which started off strong with many redeeming qualities.  Great script and powerful performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, but it was at least 15 minutes too long.  And the story - which starts off with an English teacher and an art teacher arguing the merits of words versus pictures (great concept!), became a dark, melodramatic love story based on the old chestnut of two characters who hate each other falling in love.  I would think that above all - indies would be much more economical with their exposition.  The budgets are small and the shooting days are limited.  Feeling that an indie is too long is absurd.  I come from the school that I don’t care how long a movie is – just as long as it doesn’t feel that way.  When it feels that way – and it wasn’t worth the wait – there’s a problem.


The other thing I don't understand is why are festivals like Tribeca showing films that already have distribution and/or major celebrity involvement?  There are so many tiny films that desperately need exposure, so why does Courtney Cox need to show her film at festivals? And what sense does it make that Jon Favreau, one of the biggest directors in Hollywood wins $25,000 (although Chef is absolutely wonderful and I heard Favreau donated the money to charity but that's beside the point) for his film when other unknown filmmakers are much more in need of financing?  The line between indie and mainstream is very vague these days and it makes me very sad.          
     

Friday, May 9, 2014

Image = Meet Your Heroes!



This post is not about movies but my other lifelong passion – Broadway.  Going to Broadway shows was an integral part of my life being raised in NYC and to me there is nothing like seeing a Broadway show on Broadway.  The energy and magic of live performance – I am always blown away by how Broadway performers can do what they do eight times a week.  The Tony Award nominations were announced last week so ‘tis the season to celebrate The Great White Way! 

I studied dance for many years and to me dancers are the most astounding performers.  My all time favorites are Gene Kelly, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chita Rivera, Gene Anthony Ray and Gregory Hines.  At a recent gala for Amas Musical Theater , I met a Broadway dancer who inspired me from a very young age.  His name is Hinton Battle and Amas honored the 3 time Tony winner for his phenomenal career on Broadway and beyond. 

My mother took me to my first Broadway show, The Wiz when I was 5 years old and it was also Hinton’s first show, playing The Scarecrow at age 18.  Mr. Battle went on to star in Dancin’, Sophisticated Ladies and Dreamgirls on Broadway – all of which I was too young to see at the time. Then I saw The Tap Dance Kid while I was singing & dancing at the High School of the Arts and Hinton was the star of that show too.  The Tap Dance Kid was a powerhouse of dance and earned Hinton his second Tony award.  I will never forget it.

At the beginning of the gala, I said hello to Mr. Battle and told him it was an honor to meet him and expected that to be that.  But as the evening progressed, I had the opportunity to spend more time with Hinton who was incredibly gracious and interested to meet a fellow dancer and Broadway baby.  Later, when an original signed poster from The Tap Dance Kid was unclaimed at the auction, I saw another opportunity to have a permanent souvenir of an incredible event – and so I grabbed it.  Then I had a great photo opportunity with Mr. Battle that I will cherish, with my collector's item poster, forever.         


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Image = Havana Film Festival

Alina Rodriguez & Armando Valdes Freire
In the last few years I have noticed that it's more difficult to see foreign films in the US - even for a cinephile like me.  Maybe it has something to do with the shrinking of the world economy and limited distribution - I don't know.  Regardless - it is always a treat to see something outstanding from another country to remind me that the world of film extends far beyond Hollywood.  

On the red carpet at HFFNY
I recently attended the opening night of the 15th Havana Film Festival in New York.  In addition to a great deal of Cuban pride in the air and a lively party at the Copacabana, I got to see the US premiere of an exceptional film called Conducta (Behavior) from Cuba.  Conducta is a coming of age story of a troubled young boy who has a close relationship with his teacher, who fights for him when no one else will.  It is a bold commentary, with a phenomenal script, about  on challenging the status quo.  The performances are also extremely powerful - helmed by veteran actress Alina Rodriguez and newcomer Armando Valdes Freire.  Without seeing any other narrative films in the festival, I was not at all surprised when Conducta won HFFNY's awards for both Best Picture and Best Actress.  It is one of those rare films that makes an indelible impression by inspiring you to think, making you laugh and tugging at your heart strings in an unapologetic way.  Those - I believe - are the qualities of a great work of art.    



  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Image = Indie Oscar Gold



Everyone has been asking me for my take on the Oscars and although I wasn’t planning to blog post-Oscar, I decided I would give the people what they want.  I don’t have a lot to say because astonishingly everyone and everything I wanted to win actually won.  This by the way has never happened before - ever. 
 

It is quite amazing that all four acting awards and Best Picture went to independent films.  That is definitely an optimistic statement for the present and near future of film making.  There is a contingent of the industry that is still dominated by big budget studio blockbusters with little artistic substance.  However – there’s a current wave of smaller films made possible by wealthy and powerful individuals who believe in the projects and the filmmakers.  In 2013, these people included Brad Pitt (12 Years a Slave), Megan Ellison (Her & American Hustle) and visionary producers like Cassian Elwes, who took a risk on a project like Dallas Buyers Club after it had been passed on dozens of times.   

Also - I find it wonderfully ironic that Matthew McConaughey received the highest honor in the industry for probably the smallest paycheck of his career.  Dallas Buyers Club was made for 5 million dollars so nobody made a lot of money up front.  But its critical success and 3 Oscars will help it earn a lot more in DVD sales and beyond. 

I am glad that the days of one movie sweeping the Oscars seem to be behind us.  Now it’s about the work and spreading the wealth – and that’s a very good thing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Image = Oscar Nominations Best & Worst

It is finally time to talk about The Oscars!  The good, the bad and the absurd.  Here's my take on the nominees – who & what deserves the acknowledgment and who doesn’t – and who did not make the cut.


THE BEST:

12 Years a Slave – This is simply the best film of the year and my pick for Best Picture.  Great script, wonderful performances, visually stunning and a period piece about a subject of great social significance.  I will be holding my breath to hear the name “Lupita Nyong’o” announced early in the evening because she is the Best Supporting Actress this year.  Also - Michael Fassbender's performance as a sadistic slave owner is one that I will remember forever.  If I was an Academy voter, it would be challenging for me to choose between Fassbender & Jared Leto.   

Philomena – I love everything about this movie.  Compelling true story, wonderful script and inspired performances by both Judy Dench and the incredibly underrated Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the screenplay).  I am rooting for this film for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

Nebraska –  I love that the Academy is finally honoring small indie films like this.  Nebraska is a totally original and heartwarming film about a family dealing with a crisis in an unusual way.  On the journey, there is both great drama and delightful comedy, featuring two seasoned thespians - Bruce Dern & June Squibb.  It is also great to see Will Forte do something completely different and do it so well.             

Gravity – This film is visually stunning and technically groundbreaking, but I was not impressed with the script or Sandra Bullock.  Gravity deserves every technical award it is nominated for and Alfonso Cuaron deserves credit for helming such a revolutionary film. 

Cate Blanchett – It is about time for this exceptional actress to have a Best Actress statuette and I’m thrilled that Woody is the one to make it happen for her.  Period. 

Dallas Buyers Club – Some reviews of this film said that McConaughey & Leto are great but not the film.  I completely disagree. This is a great independent film about AIDS, which still plagues American society 30 years later.  It also raises critical questions about how much the government harms us under the guise of protection.  Its anti-establishment tone may be why Dallas Buyers Club is not nominated for Best Picture.  And yes - Jared Leto deserves the Oscar because his performance as Rayon is heartbreaking and wonderful.

Matthew McConaughey – It is his year.  Period.  For more on this – see my recent blogpost and this great article from The New Yorker about Matthew's McConaissance: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2014/0/the-mcconaissance.html


THE OVERRATED:

American Hustle – For the second year in a row a David O. Russell film is totally overrated and getting an absurd amount of acclaim.  Last year, Silver Linings Playbook was shoved down our throats and now once again there is outrageous hype over a not that special movie.  The only phenomenal thing about American Hustle is Christian Bale, who completely transforms himself, as usual.  The rest of the movie is all over the place.  It’s mostly serious but with moments of farce that border on ridiculous. The story gets very convoluted in the third act and the movie is at least 20 minutes too long.    

Jennifer Lawrence – How did this idol worship of Jennifer Lawrence happen?  It was intriguing when she was nominated in 2010 for Winter’s Bone.  No one had heard of her and it’s always fun to have a dark horse in the race.  But now – after she won the Oscar last year (which she did NOT deserve) she is a huge movie star and regaled as this brilliant actress and it’s all too much too soon.  She is only 23 for goodness sake.

Amy Adams – Please take a year off, Amy.  You were so amazing in Junebug, Enchanted and even Julie & Julia and since then, you have been churning out films every year and getting nominated over and over and losing over and over.  You are definitely talented but maybe be a little more selective in your career choices and maybe - oh I don’t know – change your hair and your voice every once in a while (your “English” accent in American Hustle does not count).  It seems as if you get nominated for simply making a movie every year and that’s just not what this is all about.

The Wolf of Wall Street – I really hated this movie.  To me, it is one note storytelling with a one note leading performance and it is entirely too long.  There is nothing redeeming about these debauched characters and after a short while the unabashed gluttony is exhausting.  The only shining light is a great breakthrough performance from the gorgeous and talented Margot Robbie.
   
Leonardo DiCaprio – I LOVE Leo, who has definitely been robbed in the past for Oscars (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Aviator) but I truly hope the Academy does not give him an owed award.  I hate when they do that.
*Note to Leo – Please take a break from working with Scorsese and maybe consider playing an original but fictional character just for a change of pace.  I think you are in a Marty/real life character rut.

Jonah Hill – WTF?  No one mentioned his name all season and then he gets an Oscar nod out of nowhere?  It’s fishy.     

August: Osage County – What a downer!  This movie was more depressing than 12 Years a Slave!  Wonderful ensemble cast (so great to see the great Chris Cooper again!) but once again I feel like its nominations are based upon hype versus substance.  Julia Roberts is good but not great and Meryl the great is good but a little too much of a caricature.  I enjoyed the Broadway play much more and the Tony Award winning Deanna Dunagan was a powerhouse because I really believed that she was that bitter and evil.  In terms of supporting players, I would have loved to see Margo Martindale honored for her performance.

THE FORGOTTEN:

Saving Mr. Banks – It boggles my mind that this amazing movie got so outrageously overlooked.  Emma Thompson is sensational and Colin Farrell is heartbreakingly wonderful.  It has everything – great script, wonderful supporting cast and the compelling story of a woman healing her childhood wounds through the creation of a beloved children’s book which becomes a huge Hollywood film.  And Tom Hanks is in it too.  What more does the Academy want?  In this stellar year for film, couldn’t they go ahead and make the Best Picture nominations an even ten?

Lee Daniels’ The Butler – This movie has Oscar written all over it.  It’s a slice of American history with a huge ensemble cast (and some ingenious casting) about the civil rights movement with a remarkable performance by Forest Whitaker.  And David Oyelowo deserves some recognition as well.  Maybe it was just released too early in the year?  It’s interesting that Harvey Weinstein didn’t push this one harder for Oscar glory.

All is Lost – This is a completely unique film in every way and Robert Redford kept me engaged throughout despite barely saying a word. Redford is the real deal and it is crazy that he doesn't have an Oscar for acting yet.

Oscar Isaac – I could not take my eyes off the screen when he was on it in Inside Llewyn Davis.  It is one of my favorite performances of the year.  Isaac is captivating in a critically acclaimed film and it is strange that the Oscars did not follow the trend of the enormous amount of praise this film has received all season.   

Who would you like to see take home Academy Awards on March 2?