Must See Movies of 2015

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I just came back from seeing the best or most important movie of the year, maybe the decade, The Big Short, go see it now. To borrow a line from the overrated flick, Network, when you walk out of the theatre, “You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!'”

If you want to know why so many people support Bernie Sanders and even Donald Trump, this movie helps explain where the anger and discontent, the distrust of all our institutions, comes from. It pulls back the top layers of our corruption, our avarice, our indifference to each other’s pain and our naivete.

Yes, Americans, we who inspired and trained ISIS through our wars in the Middle East, who developed the CDOs, Collateralized Debt Obligations, which destroyed the economies of whole communities, heck whole countries; and us, the folks who pay for and support  police murder while we eschew politics-we still pretend that we are exceptional, that we are  models to the world.

So, go see the Big Short. It is your obligation as a citizen of a country with this kind of power-to face up to what is really going on. If you want to “make American great again” that means you have to fight to bring back opportunity and some hope for equal justice under the law-to be that Tom Hanks character in The Bridge of Spies, an entertaining and true story which can remind us of our best selves.

I am a former history teacher. I taught American History to 8th graders, then Government to young adults. During the economic meltdown, I taught Economics for the first time including Credit Default Swaps and subprime mortgages. I learned along with my students as together we watched our economy rupture-parents lost their jobs and families lost their homes.

BTW, that institution, Adult Education, which had survived the Great Depression and world wars, did not survive the subprime meltdown so I no longer teach nor learn these things  along with my students. Our Republican Governor from Austria with help from the Democrats ended the funding for an institution which provided second chances to those who needed them the most.

Let me add the other best, most influential movie of the year, Straight Outta Compton. It’s a powerful film which is so relevant, it’s almost supernatural, coming out in the year of #Blacklivesmatter. The scene where NWA performs Fuck Tha Police at a huge concert in Detroit is the most powerful scene in a film I’ve seen this year. You gotta go see it. This is a film which demonstrates the best and the worst of the so-called American Dream.

It was a truly interesting year at the movies (I was tempted to write “in film” but that sounds pretentious, they’re just movies.)  I saw Trumbo and Spotlight, the Black Panthers:Vanguard of the Revolution, and Brooklyn and loved them all.

I found Amy affecting and Trainwreck had some very perceptive moments. Love & Mercy was weird but there wasn’t enough of the Beach Boys and too much of the crazy to make anybody want to live through Brian Wilson’s life if they didn’t have to.

On the flip side, I thought Ex Machina and the Clouds of Sils Maria were a waste of screen time. Star Wars:the Force Awakens ranged from cute and funny to boring and silly. Some of it parodied itself on purpose and some of it was clearly meant in earnest which rendered it all the flimsier a franchise. Adam Driver’s character as the bad son or the evil Jedi twin was more the lost hipster looking for that perfect flat by the Lake or Williamsburg, if you will. “What no hardwood floors-I will destroy the world!”

The movies I saw this year reminded me that we have been through dangerous times before; and if this year has taught us anything, we must acknowledge that we are entering them again. Spoiler Alert-I don’t actually know the ending of this tale. I can’t predict if we are heading towards facism or a period of righteous struggle. The only thing I know for sure is that we all have a part to play.

Artifical Intelligence and Film Critics or How to Imagine Better Movies

2015-05-04 11.04.28 From my review of Ex Machina on Rotten Tomatoes-

One reviewer suggests that when the lights come up, you might find yourself thinking about the true meaning of intelligence, yeah, but only as to whether all film criticism is the real answer to whether AI exists, that is, how to find meaning where none exists and no real character development has taken place, leaving the reviewer to conjure it artificially for the sake of his critique.

This movie had little plot, the twists were telegraphed-spoiler alert-you knew that young Caleb would not leave the lonely mountain range alive from the moment the helicopter landed there-and the music told you the rest. Thank god, because all the other stuff these reviewers imagined developed between these characters, the over achieving egoist, his pale techy antagonist and the cool and calculating female character, just didn’t happen.

The script leaped from one vague interaction to another with no connecting tissue, just some reviewer’s desire to find some kind of (well) hidden meaning in this otherwise useless exercise, ultimately,  in the difficulty of designing the perfect woman who can be controlled absolutely. Fortunately, the filmmaker failed there too.

Desperate for some escapism last week, I had seen the Age of Adaline which was mostly forgettable. There were a couple of things to draw the attention and displeasure of any viewer with a passing acquaintance of San Francisco in the way that they flubbed many of the identifying scenes-like the address on 18th Street which resembles no corner or view of that street in the Mission/Castro and the lions at the main library, a scene most probably filmed in Manhattan.

But, if you went just for the popcorn, you might have enjoyed a couple of moments watching the aging but still romantic countenance of Harrison Ford at his most vulnerable since Regarding Henry, an emotionally manipulative movie which I can’t help watching whenever it reappears on television.

Here’s hoping for a better movie-watching experience next week!

Mini Movie Critique, the 3 Hearts, with a side of the Last (Exotic) Marigold Hotel

Ah, French movies, so opposite of American jumpcut, blow’em up sagas. Actually, I rarely go to those but I do know that in an American family drama, in the scenes where the character has something difficult, tedious, or just confusing to accomplish, the director will relieve your angst, by jumping to the following scene where all that is done and we’ve moved on; whereas, the typical European flick will drag you through every tedious moment.

In this film, we have scene after scene in which the Jaws-like score makes you think something momentous is about to happen and then…it doesn’t. Ok, basic plot. Boy, albeit, wimpy, pudgy faced boy, meets boylike girl in a scene full of silly but sensitive dialogue and they bond….somehow. They make the predictable date that Pudgy Boy misses due to an anxiety attack, not as most reviewers wrote, a heart attack, and off Boylike Girl goes to the states full of sad-eyed regret to join her husband in the states.

So as strange things will happen, Pudgy-faced Boy (actually, a petty bureaucrat in an ill-fitting shirt) meets Boylike Girl’s crybaby sister and beds her. We get to repeatedly see his pasty-skinned back on top of Miss CryBaby. It invoked that feeling in me that people get when realizing their parents probably had sex with each other (and don’t tell me you never fantasized that you were adopted.)

Over the course of the next few hours, or at least it seemed that long, the Pudgy-faced Bureaucrat finally realizes that he is marrying Boylike Girl’s sister. Having not seen much evidence of their budding romance, you’re not sure why he can’t just tell Miss CryBaby and have a laugh about it since they now have a charming little boy with the square jaw and large eyes of Boylike Girl in a gender switching play on the old-whose-baby-did-she-have bit.

Finally, Miss Boylike Girl shows up and passion ensues, actually smoking ensues, and much of this romantic fantasy seems to revolve around it-a ubiquitous lighter becomes symbolic of all that was lost during the missed assignation. The director, who is said to long after the days of Douglas Serk films, full of primary colors and pointy bras, takes a lighter caressing scene to a new absurdity of underediting. And while we’re talking pointy bras, what’s with Boylike Girl and that sad little black bra that she wears under the same see-through linen shirt over the years (shades of Carrie Bradshaw’s bra etiquette?)

The new lovers at one point take off in a plane with the narrator-what, yeah, just plonks a narrator in there every once in a while-says they took off far and fast and then they came back, with a scene of a jet taking off and then a jet landing. I laughed and I still believe it was meant as a joke but no one else in the theater did so after the next heart-rendingly pathetic scene, I split.

My friend had already left because the Jaws score, deedeedeedee, made him too tense. But bottom line, I suspect it was the unlikability of the characters that made the ending so unimportant for both of us. Well, maybe unlikability is too strong, annoying might be better. All the protagonists were annoying and the biggest star, Deneuve, was underutilized, mostly eating, smoking and clearing the dishes. In the end, the little dog who hangs around Deneuve’s kitchen and the child were the only sympathetic characters in this lugubrious “country town,” as the sisters both named it.

One of the reasons I went to see this movie was that I was interested in the actors so it wasn’t a complete waste. Outside of the pudgy-faced bureaucrat, there was the senior Deneuve, thick of body like the rest of us, but with the same beautiful face (and hair style) in a flick with her and Marcello Mastroianni’s real life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, along with actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, who also has a theater family pedigree. These folks are very watchable even in this limited-range story, more’s the pity.

I loved the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I enjoyed all the actors, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, and Dev Patel so even though I knew the sequel might be less surprising and more formulaic, since Richard Gere had signed on and Dame Judi would be there with young Patel whom I had come to love on HBO’s Newsroom, I had to see it.

Well, the story is the usual, we’re putting on a show/building-another-hotel kinda theme. Poor Dev has to continue to put on his labored accent which, of course, we didn’t hear in Newsroom (he was born in London.) He has to continue to present as naive and childlike, where’ve we seen that kind of writing before?

The story line forces Mr. Patel into a phony mean-spiritedness where he must kiss up to the wrong person while pushing away his lovely bride in order to make his dream come true so that we soon cease to care about his goals and him. Poor Judi’s romance diddles along always on the verge of dying out like a lawn mower whose motor just won’t catch, and, of course, Richard, finally finds love. And, oh well, I think I aged during the movie cause I’d rather take a nap than see another one of these.

2013 Films in Review, an Oakland Experience, Part II

Please read Part 1 first!
Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela
Time and Hollywood marched on. In August I saw Blue Jasmine which I came to loathe while swearing once again that I would give up on Woody Allen; and then I saw Lake Bell’s In a World… which reminded me of what Woody once meant to me. See my blog, In a World Where Woody Still Made Good Movies. I won’t waste anymore time on that super silly flick-or Blanchett’s portrayal which I didn’t believe, but do catch In a World if you still can. Lake Bell is worth keeping an eye on.

Another interesting film came out in August, the Butler, or, as it came to be known, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. While watching this film, I was quite entertained and caught up in the period. It made me see those turbulent changes through a parent’s eyes, even though I was involved in much of it myself as a youth. Either this is a tribute to the film or my own age, not sure which.

I do know that given the choice to watch the series Eyes on the Prize again or this film, I would choose the series. I tend to prefer good docs, that take their time, to overstuffed fictional accounts. However, watching Winfrey exercise her chops might be worth the seat time again.

Another little thing happened in August which we should not forget. We, by that I mean, progressives, conservatives, and decline-to-identifys, stopped our country from going to war in Syria. We just said no, too many of us to ignore and the prez decided to lay the decision on Congress after he heard us. They decided not to do anything other than try to repeal Obamacare once again. Don’t for a moment think that we’re not as embroiled in Syria as we are in the rest of the Middle East but at least it’s not all out war.

I was reasonably entertained by Enough Said in September where Elaine awkwardly wooed, as only Seinfeld’s Elaine could do, Tony Soprano, or the mild-mannered guy who once played him, the recently deceased, James Gandolfini. It was enough for me to see this duo, another odd couple, goofing around for a couple of hours to give up some ducketts for my senior ticket.

October-Blockbuster-for-adults month! There was Gravity, Captain Phillips, Twelve Years a Slave, and Blue is the Warmest Color. I gotta admit here, I’ve still been too chicken to the see Slave, not sure I need to see that cruelty yet again to believe it-just seeing a child ripped from its mother is more than I, a mom with an overload of separation anxiety, can bare.

Gravity appears in my mind as alienating as I remember 1968’s 2001, A Space Odyssey being. With the fear of the Void I have, I can hardly drive past open fields without developing a longing for religion or beginning to worry that the neutron bomb (anybody remember that?) has dropped.

So there was Captain Phillips, which was a reasonable thriller. What I liked was that the Somali captain was depicted with as much humanity as the Tom Hanks character and some background information was thrown in to explain the pirates’ motivations. I do intend to see Blue is the Warmest Color as I enjoy love stories, especially sexy ones.

November’s best movie, interesting, entertaining, well acted, even enlightening was The Dallas Buyers’ Club. It’s hard to admit that an actor I saw as a lightweight, rom-com lead has turned into a real actor while literally losing the beefcake and becoming a light weight for that job.

I was at Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom on Christmas day and was inspired but like some of our local California cuisine, it didn’t stay with me. Though I loved watching Idris Elba and the cinematography was amazing, I longed to know more about Winnie, who she really is and how she became that. It seems she had a much tougher row to hoe than her husband. I ran across a Jennifer Hudson flick or a Lifetime movie version of Winnie’s life that was also made this year, but I would love to see Naomie Harris reprise the role from the Elba movie into a full length film.

During the holidays, I also took in American Hustle. I can’t tell you how much I related to that music, that period, that nightclub scene, uh oh, that’s TMI-it was a very entertaining if not a great movie. Most importantly it closed out the year with a film written around the female leads-the sexy, ditzy, crazy female characters played by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence at their best (is their any other kind with those two?) and no Carey Mulligan types littering up the set.

I mostly left out documentaries because I usually catch them later on PBS or Netflix. So don’t get me wrong, documentaries are some of my favorite watching. And, even though I haven’t mentioned the Oscars or the Golden Globes, which would mean I could throw in some TV watching. But let’s do-please add Scandal, Parenthood, and the lamented end of Treme, my favorite series of this year and last to the lists of must see stuff.

What else will I remember from this year besides the Sequester, except for business-class people trying to catch their planes, the incipient drought to end all droughts (we hope), the cravenness of Republicans and some Dems to strip poor people of basic necessities, not to mention the cravennesss of our BART board and the almost funny incompetence of BART managers?

Well, I’ll remember the minimum wage fights, the groundbreaking at our port/the former army base after decades of waiting, and the courage of low wage workers everywhere fighting for their right to human dignity. Can’t wait to see the movies, documentaries, musicals, comedies, and love stories to come out of that fight in the years to come.