Saturday, January 31, 2015

Disney Goes Latina

This minority report from the Mickey Mouse House got plenty of mention in my Twitter feed on Thursday.  Disney has its first Latina princess.  Excellent news!  She is Elena of Avalor.  I believe that she hails from Enchancia.  Enchancia is a fantasy kingdom "inspired by Latin cultures."  Here she is.
I have a question.  Princess Jasmine from Disney's 1992 hit, ALADDIN, do you now feel like you hail from a fantasy kingdom called WhaDaFukYall?
Look at Jasmine.
Look at Elena.
Is it just me or did Disney just draw some 1950s Rita Moreno pre-West Side Story movie costume on the Middle Eastern Jasmine and think we wouldn't notice?  Or do they simply look like twins?

And what does that mean "inspired by Latin cultures"?  Is Elena a Latina or not?  "Inspired by Latin cultures" sounds like Anderson Cooper when he was still single, dating and lived in the Chelsea section of New York City.  That was my neighborhood.  I used to see him with a different inspiration every week.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm thrilled that Disney wants to give attention to the Latino market.  It's about time.  And I hope that Elena doesn't do one big feature and then get a ticket to the Land of Obscuria to be neighbors with other ethnic Disney female leads like strong, brave Mulan...
...and it's first African-American princess, seen in The Princess and The Frog.
Last year, network TV showed us little black girls dressed up like the very popular, very high-profile Elsa from Frozen for Halloween.  It would've been nice to see a couple dressed up like the lovely Tiana from 2009's The Princess and The Frog.  Has she been incorporated into ABC/Disney's Once Upon a Time the way the Frozen blonde has?


Viva Diversity!," as we people inspired by Latin cultures would say.  But doesn't Elena look like Jasmine with hoop earrings and hair that has brown highlights?  Or is it just me?



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

He Gave Me WHIPLASH

Lord, have mercy!  Did you see J. K. Simmons burn up the movie screen in WHIPLASH?  What a vivid, intense performance.  First of all, you have to suspend your belief and give yourself over to the fact that this is a movie and not a documentary.  Simmons plays Fletcher, a physically and verbally abusive jazz instructor at a very upscale conservatory.  He slaps a student.  He throws objects at a student.  He makes fun of a chubby kid's weight.  He calls the students "faggots" and other inappropriate terms.  If I was a parent and if a music teacher had thrown something at my child's head and called him a "faggot," he'd need to see a proctologist to remove the clarinet I'd shove up his ass.
Whiplash is the name of a jazz piece the class has to perform.  This story touches on the obsession with art and how the artist's obsession can clash with a personal life -- like having a romance or a marriage.  This conflict is shown brilliantly in one of my all-time favorite classics, The Red Shoes.  Blood will be shed when the extraordinary ballerina must choose between the artistic life with stardom onstage and domestic married life offstage.  Blood will be shed by the shy young drummer in Whiplash.  He has potential.  Potential Fletcher could use in his band.
But Whiplash is not just about art vs. personal life.  It's about the current trend in our society to praise and reward mediocrity, the trend to advance sameness.  Fletcher hates mediocrity.  He hates a lack of originality.  That's what makes him a monster.  He's a toned, middle-aged monster in a tight T-shirt.  Just like Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.  This is not Mr. Holland's Opus.
Fletcher tells impressionable Andrew, the drummer, a story about Charlie Parker.  I don't know if that tale is true.  There's talk of famed drummer, the late Buddy Rich.  Rich -- damn, he was good.  When he and a new singer named Frank Sinatra were in the same 1940s big band, their tempers clashed so heatedly that they once threw punches at each other.  Later, they became friends.  I heard Rich tell that story on TV when I was a kid.

I'll explain Fletcher this way:  He would totally dig Judy Garland's thrilling, jazzy, bongo-driven rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine" that she did in her legendary Carnegie Hall concert.  Her rendition was different from Frank Sinatra's recording or Sarah Vaughan's.   Fletcher would hate every young female on American Idol or The Voice who sings "At Last" the same exact way Etta James did in her hit cover.  Etta's was an inspired interpretation of a song introduced in an early 1940s 20th Century Fox musical.  The Glenn Miller Orchestra with a vocalist did "At Last" in 1942's Orchestra Wives (available on DVD).  Etta covered it about 1960 with some R&B flavor.  Her version has been copied ever since.

One interesting thing about this film as that Fletcher does not fall in the "Those who can, do.  Those who can't, teach" category.  He's talented.  Like Boris Lermontov, Anton Walbrook's ballet impresario character in 1948's The Red Shoes, Fletcher can be polite and charming in addition to being a cold-hearted brute.  J.K. Simmons totally rocks this role.  I've been a fan of his for a long time.  I first noticed J.K. Simmons when he played the Aryan racist leader in the HBO prison drama series, Oz.  He was one vile, chilling convict on Oz.  By the way, the biggest crime during the 1997 to 2003 Oz run was that no cast member ever got an Emmy nomination.  Simmons, Chris Meloni, Lee Tergesen, BD Wong and the terrific Rita Moreno did some excellent work on that series.


Simmons could then flip it, like he did in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, and a make you laugh as a harried, fast-taking, big city newspaper editor with a His Girl Friday screwball comedy vibe.  And a hairpiece.  Then he could be the most lovable suburban dad in Juno opposite Ellen Page and be the perfect pitchman for those entertaining Farmers Insurance TV commercials.  He's a most versatile actor.

Miles Teller also hits just the right note as the shy, young musician who's more talented that he realizes.  Notice how Teller as Andrew is so shy that he has trouble making eye contact.  Andrew even admits he has that trouble.  There's an early scene in which Andrew gathers up the courage to ask a girl out on a date.  He knows an excellent pizza place.  They go.  It really isn't so excellent.  It's not a restaurant.  It's more like a mediocre, average deli with bland customers.  The guys at other tables are older.  One wears a bland sweater. The other could use a haircut.  They're not sophisticated and sharp like Fletcher.  Also, the music in this deli is a 1930s/40s big band cut.  Nice music but not a jam like something with Benny Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa or something by Duke Ellington.  Andrew can name the music cut.  Of course he can.  It's pleasantly bland.  So is he.
As he endures the tortuous classes, as a fire of arts originality and passion is slapped into him, he begins to make eye contact.  Andrew becomes direct.  He's not like his sweet but meek dad.  Notice Andrew's change in three scenes where food is served -- the pizza date, the family dinner scene and the diner scene again with the young lady from the pizza scene after he's grown into a stronger jazz musician in Fletcher's classes.
What's the story with Fletcher?  How far will he go?  How much can Andrew take?  If this was played for comedy back in the early 1970s, this would've been a Don Rickles vehicle to capitalize on his "The Merchant of Venom" stand-up comedy fame.  That's how insulting this teacher is.

Again, Fletcher is a monster who hates mediocrity.  This movie and the performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are far from mediocre.  See it if you can.  Whiplash  brought J.K. Simmons an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  The movie is in the running for Best Picture.  J.K. won a Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Award for his searing performance.  He got nominated for the Australian Oscar (Australian Film Institute Award) and the BAFTA (the British equivalent to the Oscars). He won the AAFCA Award (the African-American Film Critics Association).

Simmons will be guest host this coming weekend on Saturday Night Live.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sally Field and Movie Men

Before I talk about a couple of Oscar nominated actors, let me tell you about a new gig that 2-time Best Actress Oscar winner Sally Field has.  Come this March, she will be the new co-host of The Essentials on TCM Saturdays with Robert Osborne.  Although I would love to see some ethnic talent be added to the mix of Turner Classic Movies guest presenters, Sally Field is a terrific booking.  She's a strong actress who knows films and has appreciated classic films ever since she was a kid.  We both grew up in Southern California and watched many Hollywood classics on local KTTV/Ch. 11.  They were hosted in the afternoons by a friendly man named Ben Hunter.  Field mentioned Ben Hunter when she was a TCM Guest Programmer one weeknight.  The Oscar winner follows other actor co-hosts of The Essentials such as Alec Baldwin and Drew Barrymore.

Sally worked with top actors from Hollywood's Golden Age and has worked in some highly significant features.  After her ABC sitcom years as Gidget and The Flying Nun and before she wowed critics with her dramatic Oscar-winning chops in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart, she starred in ABC made-for-TV movies.  One starred Eleanor Parker and Jackie Cooper.  Sally played a runway teen and they played her parents in 1971's Maybe I'll Come Home In The Spring.  The other also starred Eleanor Parker along with Walter Brennan and Julie Harris.  (Harris and Field would both add the roles of Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, to their credits.)  Eleanor Parker and Sally Field were relatives again in 1972's Home For The Holidays, a most entertaining Christmastime murder mystery TV movie written by Joseph Stefano.  He should've received an Oscar nomination for writing one of Hollywood's best and most influential screenplays.  Stefano wrote 1960's Psycho, the Alfred Hitchcock classic.  Newcomer Sally held her own with Hollywood veterans like the floral-printed Eleanor Parker.

Sally's friend, Jane Fonda, turned down the script that brought Field her first Oscar.  Jill Clayburgh and Tuesday Weld also passed on the part.  Sally Field and I talked about this when she was a guest on my old VH1 celebrity talk show.  In Norma Rae, Sally Field was directed by Martin Ritt, the outstanding director who also gave us Hud, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Great White Hope and Sounder.

Sally Field, with her perseverance and fortitude in a most unorthodox career, has been a major inspiration to me in my career.  I'll be watching her on TCM.  And if Norma Rae is not one of The Essentials, it should be.  Field's three Oscar nominations came for 1979's Norma Rae (Best Actress win)....
....1984's Places In The Heart (Best Actress win)....

...and Steven Spielberg's 2012 biographical drama, Lincoln (Best Supporting Actress).
In my previous post, Still Life and Eastwood Action, I reviewed a tender new film about a British gent who gives dignity to the recently deceased and American Sniper, an Iraq war film directed by Clint Eastwood about a Marine who made over 100 people the recently deceased.  He had over 100 kills to his credit in his tours of duty.  The horrors of war were seen through the eyes of Bradley Cooper's character as he took deadly aim on foreign man, woman and child to protect his troops.  American Sniper is based on the real life story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.  Under Eastwood's direction, the gun is a like a large phallic symbol relentlessly shooting the spunk of post-9/11 U.S.A. ammo in your face.

I like Bradley Cooper.  He's a serious, committed young actor.  He bulked up to play this military role.  He's a Best Actor Oscar nominee for American Sniper.  A film critic buddy of mine commented that Cooper got nominated for "putting on 40 pounds."  I responded, "Then I should have 10 Oscar nominations to my credit.  And I should have a special Lifetime Achievement Oscar for my ass."  Bless his heart that American Sniper got him an Oscar nomination.  I was surprised.  I'd have tapped David Oyelowo for Selma, Ralph Fiennes for The Grand Bupadest Hotel, Chadwick Boseman as singer James Brown in Get On Up, Tom Hardy for Locke or Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler.  But The Academy digs it when a handsome actor puts on a lot of weight for a role.  Robert De Niro won an Oscar for Raging Bull.  George Clooney got one for Syriana.  Bradley Cooper is a bear with a bullet in this box office hit.
As a feature film, I didn't think American Sniper was one of Eastwood's best directorial efforts.  I didn't find the screenplay as fully realized as those in other war-related films such as Coming Home with Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern, Jarhead and The Hurt Locker.  It lacks the clarity and complexity of a classic such as 1966's The Battle of Algiers.  But it shows what an unpredictable organization The Academy is.  American Sniper got 6 nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor.  If it wins for Best Picture, Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper get Oscars because they were producers of the picture.  There can now be up to 10 nominees for Best Picture.  This month, we got 8.  Truly fine films like Wild with a wonderful performance from Reese Witherspoon and the British film, Pride, didn't make the cut to give us an even 10.  Why?!?!

Ed Norton, one of my favorite actors, is in the Best Supporting Actor Oscar category for Birdman.  He's the egotistical, annoying and talented young Broadway actor in Birdman.  (I think he's doing a slight riff on William Hurt in it.)  Norton was also excellent as the fast-talking police officer with the handlebar mustache in The Grand Bupadest Hotel.  


To see some of the other excellence and remarkable versatility of Ed Norton, watch him as the racist skinhead in American History X, see his musical comedy performance in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, follow that with Fight Club and then watch his outstanding work as the British doctor punishing his wife for her marital infidelity in The Painted Veil. She must leave posh London -- and her lover -- to accompany him on a medical trip to disease-infested and poverty-stricken China.  Norton and Naomi Watts were at their peak in this fine movie, previously made in the 1930s as a star vehicle for Greta Garbo.  The new adaptation was one of my Top Ten favorite films of 2006.  Top film critics loved it.  The Painted Veil didn't get one single Oscar nomination.  I still can't believe the Oscars overlooked it.  The Painted Veil has qualities of classics that directors William Wyler, David Lean and Fred Zinnemann gave us.

Ed Norton and Naomi Watts reteamed as a couple in Birdman.

From Hollywood's Golden Age, actors such as Joel McCrea, Myrna Loy, Edward G. Robinson, Ward Bond and Jack Carson -- people who did great work in some true Hollywood classics -- never got a single Oscar nomination in their long film careers.  Talented modern era actors such as Mia Farrow, Donald Sutherland, Richard Gere and Dennis Quaid have never received an Oscar nomination.  Gifted black and Latino performers such as Rita Moreno, Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Rosie Perez and Halle Berry have only one Oscar nomination to their credits.  Jennifer Lawrence, still in her 20s, has three Oscar nominations on her resumé and one Best Actress victory for Silver Linings Playbook.  That's the Academy.

I mentioned Tom Hardy's performance in Locke.  He's brilliant in that movie.  He's the only actor you see in it.  Everyone else is heard on a phone in his car.  It's the story of a flawed guy, a businessman and a family man in England, who takes responsibility for his mistakes on his road of life while he's in the car driving.  He's so good.  When I saw American Sniper, Hardy was in the coming attractions before the feature film.  He'll be our new Mad Max.  Here is my current favorite new trailer.

Now go watch some of the current or classic films that I've mentioned in this post.  And thanks for reading it.





Friday, January 23, 2015

STILL LIFE and Eastwood Action

Could there be a more blue collar, working class face than the one pinned on that fine actor, Eddie Marsan?  You may recognize this Brit from the Showtime TV series, Ray Donovan.  He plays the boxer stricken with Parkinson's disease on the series.

I first really noticed him when he played probably the most short-tempered driving instructor in England in a car with the most chipper and the steeliest optimist you'd ever want to meet.  In Mike Leigh's 2008 film, Happy-Go-Lucky, Sally Hawkins played Poppy, the woman whose bright outlook on life cannot be darkened.  Even as her instructor's temper explodes.

It's a wonderful film, worth renting.

Eddie Marsan gives a beauty of a performance playing a man who's the opposite of his Happy-Go-Lucky character.  If you're a fan of the 1959 British classic starring Alec Guinness, Last Holiday, I think you'll enjoy Marsan's new film.  There's a light touch of the Last Holiday about it.  STILL LIFE stars Eddie Marsan as a man who works to bring dignity to the deceased.  A simple and gentle man, dedicated to his job, he's a case worker who contacts relatives of the recently deceased and requests their involvement in funeral services.  The dead people died alone with no loved ones keeping in constant contact.  He himself is like the dead.  There is no loved one who keeps in touch with him.  He lives alone.  He eats alone.

At several church funeral services, this case worker is the only person in attendance.  Some of the surviving next-of-kin he contacts are real characters.
It appears to be a sterile, drab job -- much like his life.  There are no frills in the office.  There are no frills in his home life.  But he's not without passion.  He truly cares about providing some dignity for the dead.  He wants them to be remembered.  He sorts through personal effects of the deceased to find information on surviving relatives.  As he goes about his commitment to the deceased and contacts relatives, his life begins to change and take on some color.  Something sweet and unexpected comes into his life.

Still Life has a gentle, unassuming pace which matches the personality of its lead character.  That does not mean it's a dull movie.  Case worker John May is not a dull man.  Marsan is quite compelling in this role.  He brings nice layers to this ordinary, overlooked fellow.  It's a lovely and intelligent performance.  In a way, it's like you watch this sweet case worker come to life.  The end of the movie is one of the most poignant I've experienced in a long time.  I recommend Still Life, a warm British import directed by Uberto Pasolini.

The exact opposite of Still Life is AMERICAN SNIPER directed by Clint Eastwood.  Bradley Cooper's performance brought him an Oscar nomination this month for Best Actor.  The film is nominated for Best Picture.
When it first came out, I didn't know it's basically a biopic.  This is based on the real-life story of a Navy SEAL who did over 1000 days "in country," in the Iraqi war, and had over 100 kills to his military record.  This is a "war is hell" movie.  Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a Texan who enlisted for service and is deployed after the attacks of September 11th.  In the open of film, youngster Chris Kyle is at the dinner table with the family.  His country macho father tells his boys that there "sheep, wolves and sheepdogs."  He instructs them to take care of their own, protect their people from wolves.  Their sheepish mother wearing large eyeglasses says nothing at the table as the father talks, removes his belt and places it on the table so the boys will know that's what they'll get they don't follow his orders.  This early scene is not a well-written one nor is it well-directed.  It looks like it could've easily been lampooned on Saturday Night Live by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.  Chris wants be a cowboy when he grows up.  Years later, he is one decked out cowboy.  The  cowboy then becomes a Navy SEAL.  He followed his father's orders.

Kyle is family man.  Sienna Miller plays his wife.  They met in a country bar.  She was one tough customer, shooting down advances from guys who weren't sincere.  Chris turns out to be an absolute gentleman.  When she runs outside and pukes, he holds her hair while she does.  It's true love.
True love that carries on during a nightmarish war.  American Sniper is graphic in its war violence.  It's not just man-on-man war.  You see man, woman and child being taken down by the sniper's bullets.  There's a lot of gunfire in this film.  Kyle was nicknamed "The Legend" for being one of the U.S.A.'s most praised and most lethal snipers.  The gun, as Cooper's character takes aim in the open of the movie, is photographed like a long phallic symbol as Eastwood has the camera pan across it.  Through the story, the gun will be seen as a weapon, an object of father/son bonding in the woods, and a toy in a married couple's sexy role play.

I didn't find American Sniper as good as other films Eastwood directed -- films like the western, Unforgiven, his Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and his World War 2 films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.  This is no to disrespect Chris Kyle's military service.  But, as a feature with  this particular screenplay and direction,  American Sniper felt like a movie that would've starred Clint Eastwood in the 1970s, his Dirty Harry years, with Eastwood playing a Vietnam war vet.

Cooper does the best he can here with a war script that really doesn't have much dimension to it.  He looks like a big daddy bear whose job is to protect and serve.  His Kyle is stoic, loving and fierce when he's in battle.  The actor beefed up and grew a beard for the role.  I think modern war-related films like The Hurt Locker, Jarhead and The Messenger (a very good and overlooked 2009 film starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) and the documentary The Tillman Story (about NFL star Pat Tillman who enlisted after the Sept. 11th attacks and was killed in Afghanistan)  are better. Would I have picked Cooper to be in the Best Actor Oscar race?  Not for this one.  I would've gone with David Oyelowo for Selma or Ralph Fiennes for The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Those roles and those screenplays had more range and dimension.

We know Bradley Cooper can do comedy.  The Hangover was a bawdy, big box office comedy hit.  His dramatic work in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle earned him two Best Actor Oscar nominations.  The young actor got good notices for his lead work in the Broadway revival of The Elephant Man.  So good, in fact, that he and the cast take the show to London's West End in May.  As for screen veteran Ralph Fiennes,  his energetic screwball comedy turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel was a major revelation and a surprise after seeing him for years in deep-dish dramas like Schindler's List, The English Patient, Quiz Show, The Reader and The Constant Gardener.

At the very end of American Sniper, I wanted to blurt out "What the hell happened?!?!  What motivated that crime?!?!?"  That's all I'm going to tell you.  The point is, this military script left me feeling like it needed a major rewrite.  You know that there's truth in this movie from director Clint Eastwood.  There just needed to be more truth to make the script feel complete. But that's just me.  The Academy obviously loved the movie.