Friday, February 27, 2015



Is there anything more disappointing than sampling flat champagne at a festive party?  Maybe the situation could be saved if the host were more sparkling.

Alas, neither was the case at the fizz-free Oscars on Sunday night.  Some of us were ready to bail until John Legend and Common perked things up with a smok’n rendition of GLORY.  The artists were backed by a large choir and huge video of the bridge from Selma to Montgomery which became the iconic crossover that delivered angry and unarmed black citizens into the guns and batons of the police.

Suppressed voting rights was the issue.

What made the live stage production so chilling is that we, the audience, became the police.  The vocal thunder of this musical protest was a plea to stop the oppression that continues 50 years later.  Many of us struggled to hold tight even as the emotional dam leaked and tears flowed.

Will we never learn to stop discriminating against neighbors and strangers based upon the color of their skin?  GLORY was a stunning coup de théâtre that resonated deeply.

Political sparks were woven into acceptance speeches.  There were comments from celebrities about immigration, ALA, women’s wages, Alzheimer’s, freedom of expression (Hackers threatening Sony because of THE INTERVIEW and the tragic deaths surrounding CHARLIE HEBDO).

Patrick Harris missed the Birdman joke by standing before us wearing only his tighty whities.  In the film Michael Keaton got us to cringe in comic embarrassment doing the same while plowing through a Manhattan crowd.  Harris just stood before us awkwardly looking buffed.  So? 

Although I could cheer about the accuracy of my predictions it seems pointless to comment about the various winners which I’m sure everyone knows by now.   The real takeaway, at least for me, was the stunning comment that John Legend made:  “There are more black men under correctional control than there were under slavery in 1850.”

Although this is hardly the most uplifting thought to leave us with toward the end of a lackluster entertainment show, it is surely the most impactful.

I’m unable to sympathize with criticism that the Oscars are losing touch by featuring films that a majority of the public has not seen.  Sure, if the ceremony were viewed as an expensive commercial for Tide or Toyota then low-ticket sales would panic a CEO.   But film is not a manufactured product to be used. 

Rather, it is essentially a storytelling product that interacts between writers, actors, directors and audiences.  Sometimes the results are funny, sad or provocative.  Sometimes boring.  Sometimes tons of people attend and other times very few. 

The cost of making a commercial film has increased substantially.  The backer or corporation only seems to focus on whether their investment is going to make a profit.  If money is lost then the film is deemed a failure by the money crowd.

However, this year’s Oscar finalists were not governed by that driving sensibility.  The top films under consideration were of an impressively high caliber.  But most made little money. That means many people did not see them.  Alas.

But what a memorable year to go to the movies –THE IMITATION GAME, WHIPLASH,  FOXCATCHER,  STILL ALICE, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, UNBROKEN,  INTO THE WOODS,  BOYHOOD,  MR. TURNER,  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.   It was the Oscar event itself that was out of touch rather than the Academy and voters who erred in not putting forward films that drew bigger crowds and bigger bucks.

Want to know something?  This is the year to turn off your computer, get off your sofa and discover the joy of going to a movie you may have missed.  I had a fine time.  I’m sure you will too!


Thursday, February 19, 2015

The OSCAR Buzz

It is questionable if the money and labor spent on creating Oscar excitement generates increased ticket sales here and abroad.  More importantly, are the awards centered upon artistic excellence or more likely delivered from personal and professional agendas that are buried in the hoopla?

Best to shout out one’s choices and not fret if they align with the final tally.  I am not an Oscar forecaster.  Others have spent months sorting out the odds for who or what wins best film, director and actor.  I just have opinions.

At this point, all I can do is tip my hat to BIRDMAN and Director Alejandro Inarritu for hottest film and best director.  Early in the season my vote would have gone to BOYHOOD and Richard Linklater.  But upon reflection Linklater’s risky choice of filming the growth of a 6-year-old boy during a 12-year period was ballsy, particularly since the lad would be performing with professional actors playing his parents in a make believe story.  This is a killer idea.  But the actual directing and technical skills evidenced in scene-by-scene coverage are neither innovative nor distinctive. 

Inarritu, on the other hand took enormous directing chances as he worked on creating a Hollywood send-up that looks as if it unfolds in one endless take.  Fictional reality never looked more real.  Nor more witty. 

Considering the buzz, I would not be surprised if Alejandro Inarritu wins for Best Director and BOYHOOD for Best Film. Nevertheless it is disappointing that SELMA was completely overlooked.  No nomination for the brilliant director Ava DuVernay, nor best picture nor mention of the classic work of David Oyelowo who played Martin Luther King Jr.

Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) and Michael Keaton seem to be in lockstep for Best Actor.  I saw Redmayne in RED, his Broadway debut, at age 29.  He knocked me out.  His career has blossomed 4 years later and he deserves his Oscar nomination. 

Then again, Keaton’s career has bloomed and crashed since the 80’s.  It’s now on the rise with his transforming performance in BIRDMAN.  He plays an actor wanting to make a comeback, which clearly echoes what is happening to Keaton’s career in real life.  It’s an irresistible story that will hand him the Oscar. 

I sense that Julianne Moore will win Best Actress and Patricia Arquette for Best Supporting Actress (although I loved Emma Stone’s work in BIRDMAN).

J.K Simmons in WHIPLASH plays a sociopathic music schoolteacher whose passion for his students to excel is frightening, misguided and yet laced with humor.  He inhales the duality of this character to perfection and deserves the Oscar for BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR.

That’s it.  Enjoy the show. The films and performers up for awards have not been seen in wide release nor made big dents in box office revenue.  But the quality of the nominations mercifully does not include the comic book financial blockbusters. Pray that producers and studios keep taking chances on great stories rather than on making big bucks.

The Oscars will air on Sunday, February 22, 2015.



A comet flames toward earth on its way to burnout.  Or maybe it will crash in a fiery explosion.  But what a stunning cinematic opening to foreshadow the unpredictable and exhilarating trajectory of BIRDMAN.

Director Alejandro Inarritu and his screenwriting team craft a riotous black comedy about a stale but fondly remembered flying movie star-superhero, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton).  He is determined to relight his career.  Hey, why not move from film to theater? 

Using his own money he brings a play to Broadway.  It’s title?  “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.  Riggan casts himself as the leading man and becomes his own director.  Ouch.  Is it possible a madcap farce based upon desperation is about to unfold?

Indeed. The high jinks and self-sabotage that foils Riggan’s comeback is not only wacky but also hallucinogenic.  The latter is inspired by an inner monologue coming from his fictional Birdman character.  That character hungers to reappear on screen.  Riggan resists.  However, he can’t prevent imagining he has telekinetic power to move objects in his dressing room.  And he can surely use his superhero power to fly high and wide above New York City.  After all, his star still soars brightly.  Right? 

But reality sinks in.  The celebrity whore within Riggan presses prematurely for previews to begin.  However, tickets are not selling.  A bankable stage actor, Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) is hired which excites theater gossips.  Ticket sales surge.  Narcissistic Mike manages to argue, demand rewrites and challenge director/star Riggan at every turn.  Sometimes even during a performance.  Backstage tensions build.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki gives us seemingly unedited long shots that yank us into backstage hallways and dressing rooms and pull us deeper into the painful drama which is slammed against explosive comedy. 

Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s young daughter fresh out of rehab who is hired to be his production assistant.  She is spot on – addled yet sexy.  Lindsay Duncan nails her role as the salty New York Times theater critic who vows to destroy Riggan’s vanity production sight unseen because she hates Hollywood entitled actors. 

Unnerved, Riggan inadvertently locks himself out of the theater and marches with blind determination through a gawking crowd to get back on stage through the front door.  He seems oblivious to the fact that he is naked except for his underpants.  It is a tour de force of comic chagrin and character revelation flawlessly edited to appear to occur in a single take.  Breathless reality is the result. 

Resolved to dominate his Broadway opening night, Riggan puts a real gun to his head and pulls the trigger.  At least he will end his career with a bang (sorry).  Alas, Riggan’s flameout death eludes him. 

He shoots his nose off. 

Samantha comes into Riggan’s private hospital room.  The bed is empty.  She goes to the window.  It is wide open.  Has her father jumped out?  Or did Birdman leap upward and fly high?  

We are left smiling.    

Saturday, February 7, 2015


The uplift that SELMA delivers is preceded by the real and painful memories of what happened to sear this southern city into our easily trampled Pledge of Allegiance which concludes “. . . with liberty and justice for all.”

Director Ava DuVernay brilliantly faced numerous challenges to recreate the polarizing battle between whites vs. blacks 50 years ago.

What gives her film its contemporary impact is that it documents a high risk protest, Martin Luther King’s involvement and the brutality of local police.  These are powerful emotional and political punches that yank us into the present.

It also reminds us that we are still stuck.

The push-pull of our own racial DNA remains alive and unwell.  DuVernay’s film distills our 200 plus years of black/white disharmony by focusing on a 3-month regional uprising in 1965.  The results are clearly viewed as a reminder that there was not just a single hero or villain who fueled Selma which ultimately caused President Johnson and Congress to enact new voting rights legislation.

DuVernay skillfully allows us to alternately identify with the oppressed rioters and infuriated  suppressors. We are put on edge.  Can order be restored or will civil disgust lead to civil war?

Today, consider those not charged with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson or the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York.

Should we take to the streets?  Or not?  The Times They Aren’t a-Changin’.



An eccentric Cambridge mathematician, Alan Turing, played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, struggled to break the Enigma Code.  Before and during WW II the Nazi’s used this secret code to plan their devastating invasion plans in hopes of winning the war. 

Turing’s efforts were constantly challenged by the military as an expensive waste of time and money while citizens and military personnel were dying by the thousands. British ships and planes were also succumbing to the German onslaught.

The Universal Turing Machine endlessly spun code-breaking solutions that numbered into the quadrillions. Nothing worked. Nerves were frayed. But Turing held firm. Suddenly, in a riveting sequence, the spinning wheels froze. A solution was imminent. Turing’s calculations broke the code. The war ended 2 years latter (1945) with a welcome Nazi defeat. It is claimed that the victory saved as many as 20 million lives. Turing and his Universal machine, a precursor to the modern computer, were given substantial credit. 

In 1952 Turing reported a robbery. Police investigated and stumbled upon evidence that he was homosexual. Under questioning Turing pleaded guilty to ‘gross indecency’ and was given the choice of a prison sentence or the requirement that he receive hormone estrogen treatments which decreased libido and was known to cause impotency. The side effects were little understood. He chose the latter punishment. Turing grew despondent. In 1954 he was found dead, a likely suicide, at age 41. 

Because of a signed governmental confidentiality agreement, Turing’s work was suppressed for over 50 years. He lived a brilliant but haunted existence. Benedict Cumberbatch brings Turing to life with such authenticity that he gives us an indelible and lasting impression of an enigmatic genius. That Cumberbatch’s fans also think of him as enigmatic surely validates Norwegian director Morten Tyldum casting choice in this, his first English-language film. 

That goes for his selection of Keira Knightley as well, who inhabits Joan Clarke, another math genius whose deep admiration of Turing provokes a romance that painfully could not bloom. 

A note about Turing’s death. The Guardian reported that “he was found dead by his housekeeper, a half-eaten apple by his bedside . . . a postmortem concluded that cyanide poisoning was the cause of his death, though the apple was not tested.” 

Director Tyldum suggests that Turing was early for a meeting and went to a village cinema that was screening Disney’s SNOW WHITE. “So he popped in, fell in love with the movie and almost became obsessed with it. I think this gave Turing the idea of the suicide apple, and perhaps led him to actually kill himself”. 

Then again, Turing’s mother had cautioned her son to be more careful with how he stored chemicals – she didn’t want him to accidentally poison himself.