Must See Movies of 2015

straight-outta-compton-album-cover-r (600x600)

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.

Tis the Season or Was It?

I would like to propose a new holiday for this wintertime solstice period we are about to enter. It would involve cheery singing, wonderful gatherings full of fattening food, charitable giving, small but thoughtful gifts for those of us with already bulging closets, and time off to share with far flung family and friends.

Some of us are very tired, broke, and a little gassy after this current holiday they call Christmas is over on or about December 12th. What, you say, Christmas is on December 25th? The evidence is all around you that that old holiday was long ago abandoned.

No, I’m not talking about the commercialism. After all as the director of a retail district, many of our shops, little and large make their livings and hirings, staying open cause we all shop for the months leading up to this early December holiday.

But if you have noticed, and I know you have, that the ads on TV show an SUV or other shiny new car-depending on the cost of gas-driving through the snow to Grandma’s house starting in October or arriving at your grandiose circular driveway with a bow on the top by All Saints Day . Not sure what that bow signifies on the day after Halloween but there you have it…..As the commercials jam the airwaves with lists of expensive stuff that no one needs, so do the paper ads line our sidewalks full of tales of super discounts that can’t be beat.

So now, people who still buy semi-live trees, which as you know, are cut down in September, drive home with them the day after Thanksgiving and put them up in November. Those same trees will litter the sidewalks by December 26th or maybe sooner since they are are already a pathetic and parched gray green by the second week in December.

If you, like me, love to watch the “holiday” films even the real cheesy ones in which, say the perky blonde with cheating-husband-karma finds true love in the elevator of the building where she just lost her job as she clutches her divorce papers in one pale hand and the list of gifts she can’t buy for her asthmatic kid in the other, and he turns out to have a wealthy family who thinks she’s great, so down-to-earth-you-know. Phew, sorry for that run-on paragraph.

Anyway, those films-including the ones which are well made like the original Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life-are all over by the 12th and replaced with low grade horror films by mid December.

[As an aside, check out the two classics I mentioned if you haven’t seen them since you were 21, they are not just sentimental romps, but contain layers of darkness and important social commentary within them-themes like how the mentally ill are treated, bouts of cynical political maneuvering, the predations of our banking system, and great character actors. The stylized acting, which was typical of the era, is what gives them the stain of melodrama, but still very moving.]

All the “holiday” parties are going on now and will be over by next weekend. Even my own district, Lakeshore, will hold its celebrations on the 11th and 12th this year. By Monday the 14th it’s all over, but the thing is, most of our family members won’t get here till the 22nd or the 24 or even gasp, the 25th.

So let’s just call it Solstice Gathering Time since Christmas is already taken.

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.

2013 Films in Review, an Oakland Experience, Part 1

Fruitvale Station poster/bus shelter shattered

Fruitvale Station poster/bus shelter shattered

The first thing I hate about those year-end top 10 movie lists is that about half of them were not actually available to most viewers until after the first of the year so my list is based on what the average moviegoer was able to see during this year.

For me, thinking about films that affect me requires connecting them to the culture, the times they take place in, and my part in those times. I suspect that affects lots of reviewers but that they rarely reference those concerns. So I’m going to review the year that was as well as the films I saw and how they affected me.

Here we go:
Last January, after the winter rains stopped dead here in Northern California-Zero Dark Thirty, actually showed up in many theaters where us regular folk could see it. The Promised Land also made its wider if much briefer debut. I missed them both, Zero Dark Thirty, because I felt I already knew more than I wanted to about our torturing tendencies here in the land of the free and home of the rugged, mean-spirited individualist; and the Promised Land because it vanished so quickly. While I know that ZDT is still an important film, I probably won’t see it.

I did finally get to catch the Promised Land with Matt Damon and John Krassinski and was disappointed, it’s true. However, really, compared to most of the schlock like the Batman movies, anything with Melissa McCarthy (ok, yeah, she can make you laugh just before you throw up) or Carey Mulligan, it wasn’t terrible; but for a Damon message movie, it was a bit lame.

In February I saw No about the Chilean referendum in 1988 that ended Pinochet’s reign of terror with Gael Garcia Bernal. What I learned again is that a good soundbite is poetry in politics, pop culture is important, and sometimes the good guys win. Plus, you know, Bernal is always watchable.

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh, still a cinematic darling to those of us who remember his old indie films, seems to have lost his knack. I just went back and reread the plot, sounds great-corporate malfeasance, betraying lovers, massive plot twists and turns-but lots went wrong or just got annoying. The Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 84% rating, calling it a smart, clever thriller, but it was just too clever by half for my ticket. Don’t even bother to catch it on HBO.

Also that month we got a new pope. I say we, but I don’t know why. I’m barely a Christian and never more wedded to church than a Philadelphia Quaker can be. I tried not to follow the whole media blitz, but couldn’t help noticing that he was being called a Latino even though he is on the decidedly White side of that equation, as the son of Italian immigrants. Since then, despite the fact that Catholic orthodoxy has changed little under his rule, I have come to appreciate his candor on issues that real people must face in a world of heightening inequality.

But, by the end of February I found myself focused on the horror of an innocent teen who had been murdered in Florida. Things went from bad to worse over the next few months as we all witnessed the murderer go free, but I was heartened by the nationwide reaction against this injustice. I am sure we will see some of the news clips from that outrage and our response to it in future films depicting our times.

In March I saw the Sapphires, which is a movie I could see over and over, if only American cable channels would play it. It was based on the true story of young Australian Aboriginal girls who broke into showbiz while playing for the troops in Vietnam. Well, they only made it on the stage of the theater of war, but it was realistic about that war and the racism they experienced-while being joyously in love with its talented cast.

I waited impatiently for On the Road and then waited just as impatiently for it to be over. Thinking of all the friends I’ve been on road trips with, I exited relieved that it wasn’t with any of these guys. Some of the driving scenes even left me a bit nauseous, and the way women were treated despite, all the talk about freedom and experimentation, was downright depressing. How different are the Tea party misogynists from these guys?

Then came Patriot’s Day in Boston. I had just returned from a walk when my son who was living along the marathon runners’ route inexplicably called me in the middle of the day (if you have a grown son, you know what I mean) and told me he was okay. “What do you mean?” I responded. Then I turned on the TV and found out that the Boston Marathon had been bombed while he was attempting to walk home amid the terror and confusion.

He had been staying at a friends and had just left when he heard the explosions or what he thought might have been crashes. Confused about what he was doing when the bombs blew up, I asked if he had gone out to see what had happened-to which my biracial son replied, “Mom I’m only half White.” I laughed in relief but we both worried about him being on the street with a suitcase, suspicious looking as a man his color is assumed to be, of course.

The next day I flew to LA to join my daughter at a music biz function as we closely monitored the dragnet, manhunt and all out militarization of an American city on cable TV. I’ll admit I don’t remember much about movies that month, too much TV watching. I did see MUD but couldn’t really identify as a 14-year-old boy,a failing I routinely struggle against, given Hollywood’s penchant for their stories.

In May, I was excited to go see the latest of the Before, After and In-Between Midnights and, finally, a movie written by and about a woman’s point of view (Before Midnight). Maybe it just proves what we knew all along-romance is fun and kinda glamorous- relationships, marriage, and raising families are hard and sometimes not very pretty. I’m not sure I’ll go to the next one After the Early Bird Special. There was also The Great Gatsby with Leonardo Di Caprio, watchable in his beautiful shirts, and Carey Mulligan who’s not or did I mention that already?

One of the movies that touched me the most, though I didn’t expect it was, the East. Even though I border on elderly, I will never forget the years of hitch hiking, living off the land, on the cheap, experimentation with every aspect of our lives, and the accompanying moments combined with freedom/repression and exhilaration/despair. There’s a new generation going through those experiences but with electronics and in dark economic times, not those of post war affluence, yet they seem remarkably like us.

They are working hard to remake the world yet again; and I applaud them while wishing with all my brain that they could learn from our mistakes. The East wasn’t epic, but it was thoughtful and connected to the times in a way I really needed to see.

I haven’t seen The Act of killing, hadn’t even heard of it till recently, though it came out in July; but I do plan on seeing it to begin to understand the intersection of pop culture with the another important human invention, genocide.

One Friday night in July I was attending our Congresswoman, Barbara Lee’s birthday party with a couple hundred of her friends and admirers. The party had just gotten started when my daughter called me on my cell. She told me that the jury in Florida had just reached a verdict on the Trayvon Martin murder case. I could tell by her voice that the worst had happened-George Zimmerman would go free. I told the mayor and our congresswoman what had happened and felt the shock travel through the room. Congresswoman Lee made the announcement to an audience-prepared for the worst but still hoping for justice…somehow.

As it happened, it was opening night for Fruitvale Station at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland that Friday. My friends and I had bought tickets, even knowing the verdict was near, better to be among our own kind in a place that reminded us of what held us together more than what pulled us apart. Our tears held us together that night even as subsequent nights began to pull us apart.

Perhaps it was not a blockbuster film, but it was one that told the story more truly than any Hollywood epic ever could of the real lives of struggling working families, and of young men who know that they live on the edge of the American justice system-a cliff over which they may be plunged at any moment.

I believed Michael B. Jordan, as Oscar Grant, when he promised his sister that he would find a way to help her with the rent, even though he had lost his job, and I truly believed Octavia Spencer when she walked down that hospital hallway one last time. I can’t separate my own feelings as an Oaklander and parent of young Black children, now grown, who grew up afraid to attend parties lest gunfire break out. Turns out, it often did-a fact from which they shielded me until recently.

And I can’t separate that night of horror and sadness with the camaraderie I felt sitting with so many Oaklanders who took this film to their hearts. For all those reasons, Fruitvale Station will be tops on my list of important movies this year.

If you want to read the rest of my Oakland year/movies in review, please see the next post-I can’t imagine anyone would read that long a blog (but this is flu season so some folks are bed-ridden). Kripes, this one is too long by half but it contains my impression of the effect Frutivale Station had on many of us Oaklanders, so maybe will you!

In a World …..Where Woody Still Made Good Movies

I’m not a movie critic. Those guys seem to notice all the arcane details of how, what and who makes a movie with multiple references to genre and camera work. They call them films, but I prefer being entertained, occasionally seeing real life reflected, and sometimes even educated or enlightened.

I’ve been telling myself, and everybody else who’ll listen, that I’m never going to another Woody Allen movie. “To Rome with Love” should’ve been the last straw, but I kept reading that Cate Blanchett was not to be missed in “Blue Jasmine”-the title should have been enough to warn me off-so I went.

My movie-going podna-as the young folk say-was taken aback by the ending. “That’s it?” she said. Yep, that was it. The supposed remake of “Streetcar” left us cold and a bit empty with Cate’s overacting getting on my nerves as much as Bobby Cannavale’s gesticulating. I saw homes and views in San Francisco that I have never seen before, and I’m not sure they actually exist. Ok, I take that back, somebody lives on the edge of the City/Marin somewhere and has those beautiful if cliched views (if views can be cliched) of the Golden Gate Bridge.

If her acting had been all that Oscar-worthy as folks are saying, Blanchett would have been lying comatose in SF General, as many pills as she popped, by the middle of that opus. Did she demonstrate layers of emotion and vulnerability? She was vulnerable alright but since she was a character completely without depth, she could not show what was clearly not there. Come’on, people.

And then there was Sally Hawkins, Brit comedy star, playing the Salt of the Earth mom who on a grocery store cashier’s wage lives in a large, sunny flat somewhere in the Mission? Really?

I read a review that said that it was a welcome change from Woody’s constant chronicling of the 1% of the 1% to see him toast the working class. On the contrary, it is just the other side of the same coin to pretend to laud the noble working class when you can’t remember having met any of them since, maybe your 20’s, while glorifying their pureness of heart with your silly stereotypes.

But we who loved Woody must admit that a big reason for watching him flutter through his best films, was because of his arrogance and his witty put-downs of regular people-people who seemed happy, therefore, shallow. In those days he was good at promoting the struggling artists, comics, and lovers who couldn’t quite fit in because fitting in meant you had given up and given in. Now, all his leads are sad sacks who want to go back to some rosy era where they fought the good fight and won because, he made us think that misfits deserved to win or at least get the girl. More on that later.

After suffering through Blue Jasmine, I went, without much investment, to see Lake Bell, in her very own writing, directorial, and acting debut in the new film (oops there I go), “In a World.”

It reminded me most of the old Woody Allen-in the days when he made cute, somewhat nonsensical movies that made you laugh while identifying with the main characters, and sometimes made you think a little bit but just a little bit. “In a World” has all the sophisticated put-downs that literate underdogs make against the unconscious but conventionally attractive and, one assumes, conventionally successful, blonde American heroes.

The ending is a bit too pat in which family values win re “Hannah and her Sisters.” But like the old Woody,it’s full of a million little asides that are funnier than anything you’ve heard since, say, Sleeper, although it is not a fantasy like that one.

While the tone of all the characters’ dialogue is similar to that of the writer/director’s speaking style that’s as you would expect. But when you watch Woody’s movies with new, younger and much more attractive leads, you tire of them all sounding and looking just like Woody. They stutter, they flutter, they stammer and cast their eyes downward. That only worked with Woody because it was true to his nebbishy self.

What was never believable was his easy way with very attractive women but since he was making the movies, hey, that was his right. In Woody’s world, no one seemed ever to work either, much less consider how they’d pay rent on their beautiful and spacious apartments. Well realism was never his strong suit. I guess I can believe Woody with Diane Keaton who is just neurotic enough to have fallen in love with him.

But here’s the other thing. Woody gets big kudos for offering grown women starring roles, never mind that most of his women are either ball breakers or neurotic beyond basic-survival-believability or just stupid/naive, waiting for him to show them how to live; worse yet, everyone since Diane sounds like her. And please don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s noticed that.

So here’s Lake Bell, her own, nervous, flip-floppy self, but I believed her. The fact that she makes herself look conventionally unattractive when she has the big-jawed, broad-shouldered look that is currently considered very attractive, makes her all the more loveable-kinda like the old schlimielly (word?) guy Woody almost was, almost.

The best part is that she takes the subject of male-domination in the entertainment field, that of voice-overs-a field that has less excuse than most of being male-dominated-and skewers it. In the end she sort of wins out in a way that is just bittersweet enough to be satisfying without being silly.

So, ok, it’s a first film and has some sore spots, some useless vignettes, and a little too much general hand waving. Had it been made by Woody though, it would’ve been called a masterpiece as many of his recent ones have been called, except for “to Rome with Love” which most critics could barely bring themselves to review. “Midnight in Paris, a nice little movie, was called a comeback (the latest of many) to that level of film making. No, sorry, it was very cute but no “Annie Hall.” I liked it- then I forgot it.

Yeah, “In a World” will not stay with me for much longer but I was still moved by the struggling, funny, smart woman who was beginning to make her way in life and love. Sorry, I am no longer moved by Woody’s bitchy/greedy or conversely pure-minded but lost heroines anymore than I am by his phony class stereotypes.

And by the way, Blue Moon was the song playing when Jasmine aka Jeanette and Alec Baldwin met? Every time she said that I felt my head spinning so much that I got a crick in my neck. So I checked the internets, true to Woody’s nostalgia for the good ole, old days, it was written in 1934. The version I remember was made in 1961, but he just had to get that in, didn’t he? Couldn’t someone tell him that his Dixieland riffs and 30’s nostalgia music has become tedious and even jarring?

So, yeah, this time I really mean it, no more Woody shuffling around with the .5 percenters and occasionally slumming it in a $2500 a month apartment on the “bad” side of town. I look forward to female leads who are slightly goofy, with an edge of arrogance mixed with insecurity and, most of all, entertaining-if Lake Bell continues to make movies, that is, movies but maybe not films.