When and where exactly did the onslaught toward men in power who inappropriately conducted themselves toward women, and men in the case of Kevin Spacey, start? Friends and I have talked and it must have been last year when Americans elected a man married a few times had acted this way to many women over the course of his seventy-plus years. Outside of the many women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein, Al Francken, Garrison Keillor and Charlie Rose among others, thousands of women are also running for public office across the country. One theory is since the president is protected by many laws, many other men are not immune to finally getting their comeuppance. Remember, many of these situations happened years ago, and many have stayed silent, and for once the timing is not used to deflect away from what's important. Anyone who's seen the great documentary The Hunting Ground knows all about it. Something tells me we'll also know much more in this "Who's Next?" scenario for months if not years to come.
Reading Derek Thompson's Hit Makers: the Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, this bright author has such a thirst for knowledge it's infectious. Then there's a quote toward the end that sticks out: "The art of film is film, but the business of movies is everywhere." The insight was provided by Kay Kamen, one of Walt Disney's great associates back in the thirties and forties. Even in down economic times such as The Great Depression, Disney did extraordinarily well, somehow making films such as Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937, appeal worldwide.
You always wonder what's going to make a global impact through film. Blockbusters such as Wonder Woman seem good enough, but are they lasting? In this case, yes, if only because it's the first female to have a superhero movie all to herself in a long time. That's good, and we sense better is out there for this sub-genre.
You know, maybe the biggest loss of Scaramucci, the seventh high-profile administration official to step down or be fired from the Trump cabinet, is that the only emerging storyline, and this is a gradual one, is that our president cannot decide how to navigate or steer this office. There is no other really clear story here. The villains, you can choose for various reasons, and they are the most important and often the most interesting characters. The heroes, take your pick. There are plenty of supporting characters, who are indeed shapeshifters.
It's also hard to think of a political film that would resonate today. Wag the Dog now looks tame compared to this arena. That made Seven Days in May or The Manchurian Candidate (the original) look tenable, even possible. I suppose we could look to Dr. Strangelove, but that may be too close, and remember, rumor had it that Stanley Kubrick, the director, didn't tell Slim Pickens, that wild-eyed actor, it was a comedy.
When Jonathan Demme passed away at 73 on April 26th, he'd had quite a prolific career on and off the mainstream radar. I remember seeing him interviewed by MTV right after Stop Making Sense, accurately deemed the ultimate concert film, was released. The interviewer said Demme used to be a rock critic before becoming a filmmaker. Demme seemed down to earth, reasonable, in his head, processing how to best answer the questions posed to him. His breakout film was Melvin and Howard, released in late 1980 and garnering two Oscars. Four years later Stop Making Sense made its way across the country, and I remember well in April 1985, with eighth grade winding down, going to the Bijou and seeing it with a good friend. He and I didn't know the band Talking Heads too well, but boy what a way to bring a band and music to life. That movie presented a band and director in control of the material, without a false move, from start to finish. Not sure if I'd say it was revolutionary as much as it was evolutionary, keeping cameras trained on the stage and musicians. I believe many audience members forgot about the cameras because the editing was so seamless and in step with the music and what we were thinking while we watched.
Another friend soon thereafter hooked up his VCR to his TV. He taped the entire movie, and we played it long after it was out of theaters. Demme balanced light and dark forces with Something Wild, one of the first times Jeff Daniels was front-and-center with another budding star, Melanie Griffith, with a juicy supporting turn by Ray Liotta (His role came to mind when De Niro and Scorsese were banding about ideas for casting Goodfellas). The disappointing, flimsy Married to the Mob was a slight misstep though not a disaster in tone. Then came The Silence of the Lambs in the spring of 1991. That's endured ever since. It's been studied, doesn't grow old for many, and swept the Oscars, beating out Bugsy and JFK for Best Picture. Philadelphia was solid, and I recall the director sidestepping criticisms of how it portrayed the gay community, saying he wouldn't let that phase him.
He had an incomprehensible misstep with the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), a watered-down version of the classic. Beloved (1998) was liked by critics and not many others. In the end, he had his aces and his misgivings, which is why many follow directors. They are human, and that's why their movies, and careers, matter.
Anyone who's followed the Oscars knows a little, but not much, and probably not enough of what and who makes up the Academy's voting members. Michael Schulman's article in The New Yorker chronicles the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' battle with diversity, voter purges, and how its president, Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, has handled the voting makeup of the Academy. Then there's the show itself, battling stigmas to keep it fresh, starting with its length. I expect the star turnout to be pretty low tonight. People will watch to see how diverse the votes turn out, especially in our political climate over the last five weeks. But will it have an impact on your average watcher? That's where people have to vote with their feet, see what they want to see, in the theater and nowhere else over the course of a year. So the Oscars are really a snapshot, but a poignant one, and the prestige seems to last. Many remember The Hurt Locker's parade through film festivals seven years ago. Slumdog Millionaire's stands out as one of its kind in North America, and The Artist was a triumphant throwback. So these winners endure, and matter to us.
When it comes to awards season, the coveted Oscars just around the corner, many outside the industry seem not sure how much weight to give the ceremony. In the words of one friend, millionaires give awards to millionaires, salaries go up, campaigns have been waged, and...this year actually, where La La Land remains the favorite to win, might lose because of a pattern. You know what that is: Hilary was predicted the presidential election by everyone, including the dependable Nate Silver. The Atlanta Falcons were up 28-3 in the third quarter of the Super Bowl and managed to lose. If Moonlight wins, it would fit. It's also the movie that pertains to a specific American experience, and that of an individual surrounded by real characters, who embody real people.
That said, the top movies that mattered the most in 2016 were:
1. A Man Called Ove. Rarely have I seen a film pull emotions in so many ways, describe and show humanity and community and daily life on so many levels and employing all the cinematic techniques.
2. Moonlight. This movie took an often-shown place and characters and made them completely original, and the story memorable. The movie never stepped wrong, didn't overstay its welcome, and left so much up for interpretation from such a straight-forward story. The performances, the emotions they displayed and evoked, live on long past you experienced them.
3. Sing. The best animated film of the year was on a high-wire and never looked down, or around. It combined everything, and mostly it conveyed a message in a special way. Art has to continue despite everything, and will.
4. Hidden Figures. Sometimes you think it takes a particular leader, or president, to set things in motion. I'd sure like to think that this long-ignored story, released in 2016, will inspire many. It works on so many levels, with just-right performances, writing, acting, and directing, that it will stand the test of time. It already has.
5. Cafe Society. The year's best comedy showed that after eighty, Woody Allen is still rummaging around in the trunk of romance, pulling out threads that all people feel. He chose a particular time and place for his style, and never fails to make these particular characters human. The man still knows what makes us tick.
Though I have yet to see the film, Damien Chazelle's La La Land looks likely to win Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes tonight. Why? It's a feel-good movie that takes people away. It shows resurrection. It uplifts. For Drama, I'm thinking either Manchester by the Sea or Fences. Serious issues such as family and race, of struggles between generations, if done well, have awards written all over them. Then there are the awards themselves. In this era of economic disparity, in the words of one friend, we watch millionaires give awards to other millionaires. At the end of the day, though, these movies mater for the aforementioned reasons. All three take us away an appear to be very specific in all their storytelling choices, which is why they matter to many.
I still remember nineteen years ago to this day seeing one of the great satires of our time. Barry Levinson's Wag The Dog had big buzz and opened to much fanfare on January 2, 1998. I saw it on a rainy Sunday afternoon on this exact date at The Neptune in Seattle. The crowd seemed thirty and up, most were casually dressed, and there was a hum and few snickers as the opening statements appeared on the screen. That was just it: they were unattributed quotes, telling us a metaphor about the world we live in. Then the movie started with a political ad before introducing us to Conrad Breen, "Mr. Fix-it," as he enters the White House.
Re-watching this film for the third time this weekend, how specific the choices are in this film, along with how efficient it is, never ceases to amaze me. There are little asides that are consistent, as when we pull up to Stanly Moss's mansion and the White House operative says, "This is bigger than the White House." The plot moves along, as when the Albanian footage is staged, the CIA tracks our little crusaders down, and so on. There's not a wasted shot or line in the film, and still holds true today. Does it ever.
We all left the theater, thoroughly enjoyed and fulfilled after a mere ninety-five minutes. This film was for the sophisticated, but there are levels to it. There are things in the background you miss the first time, such as the immigration/immigrant theme. I thought about these things long after the movie, when I bought a CD, went home and cranked it, and considered what an achievement I'd seen. We all want a Conrad Breen or Stanley Moss in our lives, especially in tough times when we want to say, "This is nothing." I still do.
I don't know how many forecasted a Trump victory, but it happened. I'm not sure why people don't vote, but it happens. What do all those people in Florida and other key states instead of voting anyway? Regardless, the underdog won, cue the protests, and the little-mentioned fact that the Democratic presidential candidate has won the popular vote in the last seven elections. I remember Bill Clinton garnering 43% to Bush's 38% in '92 and that was broadcast as a landslide. It wasn't, and this one has angered many people, or allowed them to simply unleash it. There's a new article in Rolling Stone about why the protests matter. It's like the side story that emerges. The outcome of these protests is really what matters.
In the third presidential debate, Donald Trump strongly suggested he would not concede defeat if he lost the election. He said he would look at the results and keep us in suspense. A strange answer, and maybe a brilliant one: he effectively cast himself as the victim of a corrupt system. Many feel that way. Otherwise, I cannot see enduring reasons for his recent spike in polls in states such as Florida and Ohio. He even campaigned in Wisconsin. Iowa went from supporting Hilary to leaning Trump in the last two weeks. All this is according to Nate Silver's Project 538 site.
So...did Donald know what he was doing in that third debate? You know, the third one he lost in a row? Maybe, because it, or something else he's done, has bolstered his ratings, which puzzles me. Do we really want someone who plays victim to lead, or a person who has endured over time and not whined? I guess the sympathy card for people, even when it comes to people with more money than most by far.
I saw the trailer for The Accountant a few months ago and was immediately intrigued. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, based on a worldwide bestselling series, looked poised to take us away to a different world altogether. The Girl on the Train looked like a sassy thriller and starred the reliable Emily Blunt. All three of these movies have not hit homeruns with critics. Why? People see the trailer, take half an afternoon or an evening, pay a fair amount and see them in the theater. They don't leave singing songs, but by and large are fairly satisfied, I guess. So, the trailers do succeed. Which ties back to short films. this takes to pictures that say a thousand words, even if a two-hour movie doesn't.
Movie previews, in the theater, on TV, a computer, or phone, are supposed to get you in the theater. They have to be memorable, and for that to happen they have to be familiar yet unfamiliar. I'm in the thick of reading The Girl on the Train and the movie has opened to generally bad reviews. The preview itself shows a combination of Rear Window and Fatal Attraction. The story reflects what many of us experience on our morning and evening commutes: we wonder about others greet briefly before moving on. So the premise is strong enough and should appeal to a wide variety of people who do the same thing as part of a routine no matter how many work from home or remotely. The story is also circular, gradually encroaching on a climax we sense coming but remains elusive. This is all fine and dandy. The director, Tate Taylor, did the splendid The Help and Get On Up. This may be a case of The Devil's Candy, when Julie Salomon followed Brian De Palma in making The Bonfire of the Vanities, where a studio influences a production start to finish. There a director gradually lost control. I don't know, but somewhere the story, in trying to appeal to its wide audience, lost its specificity, which will alienate its wide audience. The book is particular and creates admirable, flawed humans who soldier on in trying times no matter the point of view. That's why the book matters, the movie may not.
We've seen Sully do solidly in three weeks of release. Apparently it takes the hero story an unexpected direction, especially for those who saw the story in the news. Kudos to the filmmakers, then. One of the most anticipated fall releases, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children did not so well, but the quality is not news. Tim Burton has lacked story principles and depth for his three-plus decade career as a director. Beetlejuice, the first Batman, and Edward Scissorhands all came out within three years of each other. They are memorable for their images and worlds, and Edward as an idea for a characcter. Now Miss Peregrine takes us to another world and...that's about it. In an interview with Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis, Rona was quick to answer that characters are what separate great from good movies. The preview had me excited, but the movie looked packed. This may be good for Burton, if Miss Peregrine crashes with a ready-set audience. He could make something along the lines of Ed Wood. Or spend a boatload of time creating people.
This summer didn't see much in terms of lasting films. Streaming shows such as Bloodline, Jessica Jones, and Netflix's recently discovered Stranger Things were hotter topics. Two animated films made big impressions, with The Secret Life of Pets announcing a sequel in two years. The animators filled the frame, gave us a more memorable environment in which characters could flourish, than any other film. Woody Allen's Cafe Society was the strongest adult fare, and Hell or High Water revisited and reinvented those movies certain adults are suckers for. That movie proved less is more. So this summer was for kids or adults, and not much in between. You also have to remember good stories will transcend age. I saw Psycho at the age of thirteen and view it about once a decade. The same cannot probably be said for the Ghostbusters reboot, The Legend of Tarzan, or Suicide Squad.
I believe it was David Remnick who once wrote in The New Yorker that Hollywood makes movies it can sell versus those people want to see. That's a key difference, and if executives are thinking, they're already applying that difference to next summer. James Andrew Miller's book Powerhouse showed that residuals and long-term investment rules TV. This can return to the big screen again with durable stories.
At the upcoming Future of Story conference which will be streamed on Facebook, various storytellers of all walks will gather and discuss where we are at with stories. We all know they extend across national borders, cultures, gender, you name it. We're wired for them, never tire of listening to them. Some get old, yes. We sometimes don't make or take the time to hear or witness them. But what makes a good story varies so much and has such a symbiotic relationship with the storytelling elements, we keep returning to events like this. Or at least the ideas.
The players we know, for the most part, and all we need now is the script and the key co-principal. Next week is the Republican National Convention and we have our star, Donald Trump, though he is probably the most polarizing leading man a storyteller could think of. Who he picks as his running mate is up in the air and certainly under vast secrecy until The Big Reveal comes some time over the next six days.
Also at the end of the day, I think many are curious just to see how this thing goes over in Cleveland, an economically repressed city whose downtown with its old buildings and central square are a great stage for a huge event. How many protesters will there indeed be? What will Trump say in his speech? What will pundits think and say who attend? What will they say later in a few books waiting to be written, or are being written now?
We're entering Act Three of this presidential race and we're braced for the rabbit to be pulled out of the hat. The running mate has to be someone well known, can garner the votes Donald can't, and probably most importantly, share the spotlight with Donald momentarily before giving way. This is the stuff mysteries are made of, or classics, or both.
Upon reading this article on 1986 which was a parade of cinematic badness, this article missed the breakthrough movie that appeared mid-July. After Under the Cherry Moon, American Anthem (by the director of Purple Rain), Big Trouble in Little China (looked upon favorably now, reviled at the time), Stallone's Cobra, Shanghai Surprise, and the much-vaunted Howard the Duck, the first film to have posters a year in advance. Amidst all this, one film literally blew everything out of the water with critics and at the box office.
James Cameron's Aliens arrived seven years after Ridley Scott's Alien. I was fifteen, and that was the longest time between an original and sequel I'd ever known. The fact that it was so different from the original made the movie stand on its own. Cameron only had his name attached to The Terminator at the time. We wondered, who was this guy? How could he be so new and so good? Can directors really start right out of the gate like this? This was the first time I noticed structure in an action movie. We were never confused, and had an Oscar-nominated performance by Sigourney Weaver, playing off the marines and the little girl Newt. She also played off the Alien. This was by far the most complete film of the summer.
Ruthless People ran second. That comedy by the Zucker brothers, after Airplaine! and Top Secret, used Danny DeVito and Better Middler to their best and fullest as comic actors. These two movies worked; not much else did, save Ferris Bueller's Day Off, still quoted today by some. These three movies declared themselves, were honest, and stood their ground.
Now, can this happen today? In this climate of a barrage of summer movies with several opening weekly? I'm not so sure, though it takes dreck for something good to rise out of it.
This clip with Will Smith says so much, and continues what I tend to believe, that less is more. He puts it so nicely though, that stories give us something, help us lead better lives. As William Goldman, the subject of an upcoming documentary said, "We need stories. They help us get through the night." Smith takes it one step further.
The story within the story is the new documentary, De Palma. Brian De Palma is a person I've been fascinated with for twenty-nine years, and after that amount of time, something is indeed going on. A good friend said what makes this person so fascinating is he has greatness in him. I think I replied, and you don't know if his stories will work. Another friend added, "Or if!" He has, however, amassed quite the career arc, working his way into the Hollywood system, and then, after having enormous success, working outside of it. The man is now seventy-five, and when you see him, has razor-sharp intellect. So he's also a role model, been able to do what he set out to do all his life. We look up to him no matter what. That does help us lead better lives.
I praised the performances in The Nice Guys, which are first rate by the principles, and that extends across the board to all the supporting players. Especially with the kids. Shane Black, as a director, feels more sure-footed this time with his actors - how much to convey and suppress while suggesting what boils just beneath the emotional surface. For plotting, when a character appears out of nowhere, we still know why he/she is there, what they're after, and have a feeling how they might go about trying to achieve what they want.
I mentioned L.A. as a setting. There are the shootout locations where the director has worked before, and yet look at how he sets up the irony, perhaps deep-seated for some, in contrasting the car industry with...well, you'll see.
We all know the big superhero movie will clean up at the box office by now. This holds for one if not two weeks, and already Batman Vs. Superman seems like a thing of the past. It also doesn't seem difficult for Captain America: Civil War to stay number one. Some releases, like the new Melissa McCarthy comedy, The Boss, drops to tenth and might have done better in the summer, but then that depends on the market. Some sequels such as The Huntsman: Winter's War will fade away.
What's more interesting is the big pickup by STX, the long-rumoured Martin Scorsese movie The Irishman. Having read Charles Brandt's book on this it's based, this is rich material, and expansive for the great director with his cast of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. STX bought the international rights while Paramount retains domestic. Some might think, what is Adam Fogelson and co. at STX thinking? It's an easy sell, and more to the point, it's what people want to see. This has worldwide appeal out of the gate. As William Goldman said in his seminal book, "It's all in the casting." If made well, people will watch this movie for years if not decades. Also worthy of quoting, Fogelson says, "Only make a film you already know how to sell." Which ties back to what will sell, again and again, or what sells itself, or what the market demands, what people want, which ties to why they want it over and over again. If you wonder, ask why there were twenty-five-year celebrations of Goodfellas and forty-year-notations of Taxi Driver? I think you know.
Having just seen Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! and seeing some very articulate eighteen year-olds, I thought back to Roy Scheider's character in Sorcerer. Scheider was an interesting actor. He always came across as real, yet we didn't know his characters too well. We knew enough, saw how they reacted, when they didn't. There are times in Jaws and Marathon Man and The French Connection where he stops and thinks instead of immediately acting. We're curious what awakens inside him when he's thrust into the middle of a situation, sometimes when they develop right on the spot. How would we react? We're almost always in his shoes. He was the everyman, which ties back to my interview with John Badham, who with Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss cast these guys, in their late thirties and forties, as heroes. We identified with them, cheered for them, even if we didn't really know them. That's an accomplishment right there.
At this year's UW-Madison Writer's Institute, the first sentence of each winner was read. That's where the whole story, the central issue, the character's mission start, don't they? It creates the atmosphere, orients, and disorients, the reader. One speaker, Chris Chambers, said reading is interactive, and he is right. We're witnesses to a story, but not passive, and the greats make us feel as if we're looking over someone's shoulder as events and emotions unfold. Looking at a screen can be passive, with a static or moving camera. Last year's Time Out of Mind frequently had a moving camera yet never quite took off. That is, in a sense, okay, because it did create a world, though we couldn't interact with it. With reading we always interact. And it's on our own terms, or is it?
Emphasis on the Whenever. I purposely held off starting House of Cards Seasons three and four to coincide with what can only be described as a heated, unusual presidential race. After just over seven years in office, the misery index is the lowest it's been since before our current president took office. Unemployment has dropped, in real and under-employment terms. By various reports health insurance costs have tapered. Yet some people, out there, in the double-digits, are angry, and are drawn to candidates' rhetoric. In the aforementioned series, President Underwood is trying to wrap, tie, and seal things up, feeling the heat with over a year-and-a-half left in office. He feels pressure everywhere, and not the right emotional pressure from his wife, who of course has her own agenda. That's why we watch this first couple, these two people, at the top of the heap. They still have feelings and agendas, no matter how much of the show is accurate. It still galvanizes, linking reality with a strong and true-feeling viewing experience. You bet it matters.
Or should I say, the franchise blockbuster that opens when nothing else comes near it in terms of size and, what I gather, noise. I actually considered seeing Batman Vs. Superman, though I wondered how they would pull off two heroes fighting each other with Lex Luthor thrown in the mix. No one who has seen it, though, has commented on a part they liked or what relates to the story, let alone how they felt when they walked out of it. At 151 minutes, I hear the action, or activity, the screen filled with images, is much, but character, story, and anything related to a theme are largely absent. This is the tough tightrope to walk, and you wonder how many of these superhero movies will be remembered in five or ten years. Not many remember the first reboots of Planet of the Apes, but some people made money and ah, one might argue, that leveraged the making of other films. Maybe. But these big franchise pictures don't improve us much, in this time and in this landscape. How would or do I know? Remember Peter Drucker's quote, that what is not said is most important. If people don't talk about Man of Steel much today, there you are.
As in, that post-Oscar aura hangs in the air albeit briefly and people rush to the theater to see what won and why. Hopefully they see Spotlight, the little movie that could last year. It's also increasingly a slight lull in spring between the awards and the big summer blockbusters, which now open in March. Batman Vs. Superman opens a week from Friday, at the end of spring break for some, right before Easter. It'll do great, but what about all the shows streaming and instantly available that popped up the last two weeks? Ah, feature film producers might say, people want to get out of the house come spring time. Maybe. It depends on the content, and action films, since about '96, are still year-round. After all, in light of whatever, many went to see Deadpool.