Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscars 2017: So, We're Doing This Again...

It's Oscar time again. Pardon my asterisks, but I am completely out of f***ks to give.

It's not that 2016 wasn't a fantastic year for films (It was!) or that the really great ones aren't up for any Oscars (Many of them are!).  It's just that ... I'm SO DONE with 2016 and I'm tired of celebrating anything to do with it.  Outside of the cinema, 2016 was a thoroughly crap year that I don't want to revisit - even through film clips and ESPECIALLY not through a weepy "In Memoriam" montage. (Frankly, just the experience of living through 2016 felt like being trapped in an "In Memoriam" montage that just kept rolling and getting sadder and sadder.)

Also, I'm REALLY TIRED of talking about La La Land. And I loved La La Land!  It was at the top of my list of the best films of 2016. But it doesn't merit the level of bickering and controversy it's generated. Seriously, everyone needs to chill out and rent The Young Girls of Rochefort this weekend. (Get a clue, people - it's not based just on Hollywood musicals!) Meanwhile, I will keep trying to get the melody of "City of Stars" out of my head, where it's been stuck for over three months now.

But... I'm a film blogger who writes about the Oscars every year, so I'm digging deep for the motivation to give you my annual "Good, Bad, Undeserving and Overlooked" assessment of this year's nominees. (Disclaimer: as of this moment, I still have not seen Lion, Nocturnal Animals or Elle. Watch this space for late-breaking updates, as I plan to finally see at least one of those in the next 48 hours...)

Before we begin, a word about this year's host: I have only the highest hopes for Jimmy Kimmel, who seems like the perfect choice to helm this year's ceremony.

Last year, at the height of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Chris Rock's edgy hosting gig, I predicted that "we can probably expect an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing white host in 2017." I fully expected that host to be Billy Crystal; even so, I wasn't entirely off the mark. Kimmel is the easiest to take of the network late-night hosts: funny but not too edgy, naughty but not smutty, topical but without the bite or sting of pointed satire.  He occupies a comfortable, enjoyable middle ground between the exuberant ass-kissery of Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight" show and the barbed political takedowns on Stephen Colbert's "Late Show."  Kimmel's emcee chops were developed over years of hosting  the American Music Awards and the Emmys. He'll be funny, and he'll keep the show humming along nicely, without too many Trump jokes. And despite the fact that I enjoy a good laugh at the President's expense, I'm actually looking forward to that.

And now, on to the nominees. Due to my overwhelming Oscar ennui, I'm keeping it to bare-bones predictions and shout-outs this year. No long-winded essays or cries of shock and outrage - just the facts, ma'am:

Best Supporting Actress
     Will Win:  Viola Davis for Fences
     Should Win: Viola Davis for Fences
     Overlooked: Julianne Moore for Maggie's Plan (Because she was so funny! After playing so               many silently suffering women, we forgot she had such wicked comedy chops.)

Best Supporting Actor
     Will Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Should Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Overlooked: Hugh Grant for Florence Foster Jenkins (best performance of his career), Alden             Ehrenreich for Hail Caesar! (he stole the film!), Ralph Fiennes for A Bigger Splash (his                       happy dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue" alone merits the nomination)

Best Actress
     Will Win: Emma Stone for La La Land
     Should Win:  Natalie Portman for Jackie
     Overlooked: Molly Shannon for Other People (she's come a looong way since SNL), Susan                  Sarandon for The Meddler (a lovely performance in a underseen, underrated film), Amy Adams        for Arrival (because how is she not on this list?)

Best Actor 
     Will Win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
     Should Win: Denzel Washington for Fences
     Overlooked: Tom Hanks for Sully (contrary to popular belief, he does NOT play every role the              same), Joel Edgerton for Loving (every bit as great as his nominated co-star).

Best Director 
     Will Win:  Damien Chazelle for La La Land
     Should Win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight OR Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
     Overlooked: Pablo Larrain for Jackie 

Best Picture
     Will Win: La La Land
     Should Win: Does it matter? La La Land is going to win and that's fine, although I'd also be               happy to see Moonlight take the top prize.
     Overlooked: Jackie and Allied.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Kangaroo at the Vatican and Other Surprises

So here's something that actually happened on last night's episode of The Young Pope: the Pope ordered a kangaroo to be let loose in the Vatican Gardens.

Not just any kangaroo, mind you, but the one sent to him by the good people of Australia as a congratulatory gift on his ascension to the papacy.  A kangaroo that whimpered and growled quietly inside his crate until Pope Pius XIII gently summoned him forward with a whisper of "C'mon, sweetie..." and a beckoning hand gesture not unlike that shown in pictures of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.

Is it wrong that I laughed out loud for a full 30 seconds during this scene? Or that I broke out in fresh peals of laughter all over again every time we saw someone walking or sitting in the gardens, thinking "Now'd be a GREAT time for that kangaroo to show up and kick those cardinals in the head with his giant kangaroo feet!"

HBO's advertising for its miniseries, The Young Pope, suggests scintillating prestige television drama. But the actual show suggests that writer-director Paolo Sorrentino dropped acid, then decided to make a mash-up of Angels and Demons and The Devils, but without the sex or Tom Hanks.  It's gorgeous, but not salacious, shocking not because it's dishing up prurient details, but because it ricochets from straight-faced seriousness to Cloud Cuckooland without warning. The titular young pope doesn't swear or screw around (although he does enjoy cigarettes), but he demands a Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and makes it clear that a regular Diet Coke simply won't do.  He gives his first address from his balcony at night and in silhouette so that no one can see his face and bellows like Ned Beatty in the "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature" scene from Network. Also, that kangaroo thing.

Another thing that actually happened in last night's episode: Diane Keaton - playing Sister Mary, the nun who raised Lenny in an orphanage and is summoned to Rome to be his personal assistant - gets a late-night visit in her room by the pope.  She opens the door, not wearing a prim, nun-like nightgown buttoned up to her neck as you might expect, but a flimsy robe over a T-shirt that announces in bold letters, "I'M A VIRGIN. THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT." (And, in case you're wondering, she retains that status when the scene is over. Like I said, nothing freaky going on here.)

Jude Law plays the former Lenny Belardo, now Pius XIII with a little bit of slippery charm and a whole lot of sociopathic menace. It's as if his Dickie Greenleaf character from The Talented Mr. Ripley was resurrected and swathed in papal robes, only now he's scarier. He's actually uncomfortable to watch; every minute feels like Pius XIII is about half an inch away from a full psychotic break.  I guess that's evidence that Law is great in the role, but ... yikes!

On the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to find a mini-series so visually sumptuous. Cuckoo-bird though he may be, Sorrentino has an unerring eye for shot composition and the dramatic use of color. The shots of St. Peter's Basilica are unbelievable - in some cases, literally so.  Those close-ups and overhead shots of the Pieta would be impossible in reality, since the Michaelangelo sculpture is kept behind bulletproof glass.  Are these CGI shots? (Because if so, they're much better than the God-awful-obvious CGI kangaroo.)

Sorrentino made the acclaimed 2013 film, The Great Beauty - a rambling, gorgeous meditation on modern Italy that opens with one of the greatest party scenes in movie history. Then he made the 2015 film Youth (also playing on HBO this month) which was also gorgeous and seemed to be about something, but finally had no discernible point whatsoever.  With just a couple episodes down, it's still too early to tell if The Young Pope has a viable through-line, or whether it, too, will be an accumulation of visually arresting absurdities with little ultimate meaning.

But I've decided that I'm in for the whole ride. The Young Pope won't be to everyone's taste, but for me, it's already headed towards my personal pantheon of exuberantly nutty Over-the-Topness - a collection which includes Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, those Cate Blanchett biopics of Elizabeth I, the opening scenes of Heaven's Gate and pretty much all of Ken Russell's career.

And I really hope the kangaroo is back next week.

Monday, January 16, 2017

These Might Be the Best Films of 2016

It' s that time of year again: the doldrums of mid-January, in which I finally get around to naming the best films of the previous year, mere weeks after the real critics have published their lists and moved on.

My list, as always, is preceded by a self-deprecating preamble where I explain that I saw only a fraction of the 2016 films that serious and/or professional critics took time to view. (A grand total of 77, as of this weekend.) Also, I remind you that the list of films I see is shaped both by my personal tastes and the rigors of my work schedule; as such, it generally excludes anything excessively violent, anything produced by the Marvel franchise, or anything that was in-and-out of theaters in two weeks or less, especially if those two weeks coincided with a looming work deadline.

On the other hand,  the fact that I'm not obligated to see the many, many crap movies released in a given year means that the ones I do see are carefully curated to ensure maximum viewing value.  So the list you're about to read might, in fact, be the best films of 2016. You've already seen almost all of these on 'real' critics' lists. There won't be many surprises here.

A couple of quick notes about eligibility:

To be on my "Best" list, the film must have been released in the Chicago area for the first time sometime during the 2016 calendar year, whether in theaters or via home streaming.  By this criteria, the following 2015 films were under consideration for this year's list: 45 Years, Anomolisa, The Revenant Son of Saul. (SPOILER: None of them made it.)  It also means that some films showing up on other "Best of 2016" lists will be considered for my 2017 list: Silence, Hidden Figures, Toni Erdmann, 20th Century Women, Neruda, PatersonThings to Come.

The other criterion for eligibility is, of course, that I had to actually see the film.  I ran out of time, opportunities, or (in a couple of cases) inclination to see all of the following: Loving, Elle, Arrival, Green Room, Nocturnal Animals, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden.

The good news?  There was a whole lot of great film to be enjoyed in 2016 - so much so that I decided to do a "Fifteen Best" list this year, rather than the traditional "Ten Best."

In ascending order of preference, those films are:

15. Everybody Wants Some! (Richard Linklater)

Linklater's easygoing campus comedy takes place over a late August weekend in 1980, following the members of a Texas college baseball team as they settle into a ramshackle shared house, party, chase girls, smoke weed and play ball.  It's atmospheric and meandering, rather than heavily plotted, but it captures the mood and spirit of the times damn near perfectly (as I can well attest, having been a college senior myself at that time). To my great shame, I have never seen Linklater's Dazed and Confused, so I can't make an intelligent comparison to his well-loved high school comedy.  But I greatly enjoyed this one on its own terms.

14. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)

When I first saw The Lobster in the theater, I was so overwhelmed by its bleakness and cruelty that I almost wished I'd never seen it.  But I couldn't get it out of my head. I've since watched it two more times via home streaming; the smaller screen (and access to a fast-forward button for one particular sequence of animal abuse) made the bleakness more bearable and enhanced the subtle brilliance of the deadpan, jet-black humor.  In this oddball dystopian tale, single people are rounded up and taken to a remote hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into a animal of their choosing. If you (like me) are a single person, you'll especially appreciate how Lanthimos finds the absurdities in society's disapproving take on the unattached and cranks them to a lunatic nth degree.

13. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)

A superbly crafted World War II romantic thriller that feels old-fashioned in all the right ways. It channels Casablanca and a little of Alfred Hitchcock, yet never feels entirely derivative.  The less you know about the plot and its twists going in, the better; it sweeps you up and away into its narrative with classic storytelling and gorgeous cinematography.  Rush to see this while you can still find it on a big screen. It's glowing, glamorous opening scenes set in wartime Casablanca won't be nearly as dazzling on your TV.

12. Little Sister (Zach Clark)

A bittersweet comedy of family heartache and healing with a few surprises.  A badly burn-scarred Iraqi war veteran returns home; his sister (a former Goth teenager turned Catholic nun) comes to visit and helps to bring him back to life.  Set in 2008 against the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the film's political themes are underdeveloped, but its unsentimental depiction of family quirks and conflicts is perfectly tuned. I especially liked that the young sister's religious devotion was depicted respectfully and without comment. As in his 2013 film, White Reindeer (which also made my "year's best" list), writer/director Zach Clark skillfully blends genuinely moving moments of human connection into the most outrageous scenes.

11. Hail Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen's love letter to early '50s studio filmmaking takes scattershot aim at a whole lot of targets (Communists, musicals, Biblical epics, studio meddling in the morals and private lives of its contracted actors) and culminates in a heartfelt, if barbed, appreciation of the magic that comes from it all.  Alden Ehrenreich steals the film as the young cowboy actor being uneasily shoehorned into a sophisticated comedy. An extended sequence of him on a date with an up-and-coming actress is a particularly sweet digression from the hi-jinks.

10. 13th (Ava DuVernay)

DuVernay's powerful, damning documentary examines a little-remembered qualifying clause in the 13th amendment and how it's been used to keep institutional racism alive.  She lays out a carefully assembled, multi-faceted case. (Hell, she even gets Newt Gingrich to make some of her points on camera.) An important film for anyone to see - and a particularly enlightening one for anyone who doesn't fully understand or believe in white privilege.

9.  Little Men (Ira Sachs)

Writer/director Ira Sachs continues to make intensely moving personal drama about New Yorkers at the mercy of their city's ever less affordable real estate market. (See also his 2014 film Love is Strange.) The close friendship between two  boys - one is a dressmaker's son, the other is the son of the dressmaker's landlord - is severely tested when the dressmaker's rent is raised higher than she can possibly afford.  It's gentle and sad, and not a single character is portrayed in black-and-white terms. Sachs, the most generous and sensitive of filmmakers, shows us neither villains nor tragic heroes - only flawed, decent humans struggling to make the best of a bad situation. Heartbreaking and sweet in just the right proportions, with the tiniest bit of satire just to keep things from sinking into bathos.

8.  Sing Street (John Carney)

No one captures the infectious joy of making music quite like John Carney (who previously brought us Once and Begin Again). In his best film yet, Carney focuses on aspiring young musicians in mid-1980's Ireland who write songs inspired by Duran Duran and meet after school to play and shoot videos.  It's a feel-good film with a healthy, leavening dose of reality, effectively capturing the excitement of a cultural moment as well as the economic desperation that led many young people to leave Ireland for England. There's a nicely played romance in the mix and, of course, lots of very enjoyable music.

7.  Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)

The story template is familiar: a long-absent recovering addict returns to the family fold for Thanksgiving, where's she's handled with everything from kid-gloves kindness to indifference to outright hostility.  What distinguishes this film is its uncanny way of putting us inside Krisha's head as she navigates a minefield of family conflict with ever-increasing anxiety.  Director Trey Edward Shults cast his real aunt Krisha in the title role, and himself and his relatives as her family members; they bring an unsettling naturalism to the proceedings.

6.  A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)

Like Guadagnino's previous film, I am Love, this is a decadent and sumptuous watch. It verges on being travel magazine porn with scenes of characters languishing around a pool and savoring freshly made cheeses and freshly stirred daquiris in an exotic island setting. I'm not immune to the charms of ogling beautiful people enjoying beautiful things; I'd watch this over and over just to see Ralph Fiennes' exuberant dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue"  on a lazy, sunny afternoon. But Guadagnino adds subtle layers to his remake of the equally decadent French film La Piscine by setting it on Panetelleria Island - off the coast of Sicily and within sight of Tunisia, smack in the path of refugees heading toward Europe.  Those refugees play a minor role around the edges of the gorgeous, privileged life depicted here, but their desperation casts a shadow over the beautiful people's story as it edges towards tragedy. As you would expect, Tilda Swinton - playing a rock star whose recent throat surgery has rendered her speechless - gives a stunning performance, even without words.

5. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

A no-fuss depiction of heroic action, with Tom Hanks rather brilliantly portraying Captain "Sully" Sullerson as a man who simply did what needed to be done in the moment. The highly fictionalized drama that Eastwood makes out of the investigations follwing the celebrated "Miracle on the Hudson," sometimes seems a bit forced.  But his minute-by-minute recreation of the crash and subsequent rescue is a breathtaking piece of cinema, the kind which literally keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you know how it's going to come out.

4. OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

This has the unusual distinction of making both this list and the number 2 spot on my "Best Binge Watches of 2016," since it was also shown on television.  As I said on that other list, it's "a masterful, nearly 8-hour documentary that exhaustively examines race and celebrity in America through the prism of O. J. Simpson's rise and fall. Simpson's story plays like Greek tragedy. Director Ezra Edelman shapes a mountain of material and interviews into riveting drama, the television equivalent of a great book that you can't bring yourself to put down.  Interestingly enough, this five-part TV series has landed on most critics list of the year's 10 best films, and is short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.  And deservedly so. I'm going to predict, here and now, that it will win that award."

3. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

Among the many things this film does to brilliant effect is to capture the fragmented mental state of a woman struggling to process her own trauma while taking care of business for her family and her country.  That's not to trivialize the horror or the historical impact of JFK's assassination itself, because Jackie certainly makes those things clear; in fact, it concurrently captures the fragmented and frightened state of the entire nation with equal brilliance. Natalie Portman's canny, finely calibrated performance gets at both the steeliness and the vulnerability beneath the First Lady's flawlessly composed patrician exterior. Larrain approaches a frequently depicted historical event from a fresh and original perspective and gives it renewed relevancy. (Some passages in which Mrs. Kennedy ponders the nature of truth and whether it is contained in the written words of a news story feels all too relevant to our current times.)That's no small achievement.

And then ... we skip to first place, which is a TIE, because... don't make me choose...

1. TIE - Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Two very different films: both are equally masterful, and both seem like the films we most needed in the tumultuous, contentious year just past.

Moonlight is a beautiful, poetic, emotionally shattering coming-of-age drama of a young, gay, black man growing up in the projects of South Florida.  It's a linear narrative, but one that communicates most powerfully through images and wordless sequences (the motion of water beneath and around the boy as he learns to swim, the sensation of his free hand digging into beach sand as he embraces and kisses another boy for the first time.)  These scenes have an intimacy and emotional resonance that nearly breaks your heart.

There's a welcome subtlety and an unforced impact to the revelations in Moonlight, particularly when its young protagonist realizes that the neighborhood man who's become a badly needed father figure to him is also the dealer supplying his crack-addled mother.  The moment is heart-stopping, yet we're left to let the process the significance of that for ourselves.

Given our current political climate, it's no stretch to worry that stories like Moonlight might be suppressed in the near future, but that's not the only reason to celebrate it. It is a stunning cinematic achievement in its own right - and would be so at any time.

La La Land is a bit of an escape, yet I would argue it is no less emotionally resonant and no less needed.  The recent backlash against its heralding as the second coming of the Hollywood musical was both predictable and misguided.  Make no mistake, La La Land makes many conscious references to the great musicals of the Vincent Minelli/Stanley Donen heyday, but let's not kid ourselves - that heyday is never truly coming back. It was a product of its own time, one that this film looks back on with admiration and longing but was never going to fully re-create. Besides, La La Land owes as much, if not more, to the bittersweet and modest charms of Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort as to the MGM masterworks.

I never minded that the song-and-dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were serviceable, but hardly dazzling; that's entirely in keeping with the Demy influence. (Although, truth be told, I did wish that someone had coached Stone on the proper technique for belting before she recorded her eleventh hour solo number. There's a bit more involved than just yelling the lyrics.)

Damien Chazelle infuses La La Land with a spectacular visual beauty that underscores its themes of yearnings for love, for times and art forms that are passing away, for success and artistic fulfillment. That the film builds to a bittersweet climax in no way dashes the hopefulness that drives its narrative.  And hope is something badly needed now.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016 in the Rearview: Reactions I Wasn't Supposed to Have

This is the first in a series of posts looking back at the films of 2016.

For many years now, I've had a film blog or one sort or another.  And along with my annual ten best list, I've always identified at least one film that "I Liked More Than I Was Supposed To" - the kind of film that no one in their right mind would put on a Ten Best List, but which I remembered fondly for providing a rollicking good time and little-to-no artistic merit. (The honorees have included Ted, 2012, Neighbors, and It's Complicated.)

There were a few contenders for this dubious accolade in 2016, but surprisingly there was also one film that begged to receive its Bizarro World equivalent: the "Film I Was Supposed to Like, But Didn't."

Every year has its share of overrated critical darlings, but Manchester by the Sea is an entirely different case. It's well made, impeccably acted and written with emotional authenticity and genuine human insight. It probably deserves every award nomination it gets. And it's just about unbearable.

Because it's one thing to tell a story about a man in deep emotional pain who repeatedly fails to overcome the traumatic events of his past. But it's quite another thing to make people watch that in excruciating, unrelenting detail for two-and-a-half hours: every awkward conversation, every painful confrontation with an estranged family member, every rejection of help or new relationships. And it doesn't help that director Kenneth Lonnergan underscores the film's most tragic scenes with bombastically mournful music, as if he couldn't trust the audience to have the correct reactions. There are occasional bits of attempted comic relief, but played so dryly they barely register. (One screwball-worthy scene with Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick seems to have been spliced in from another film altogether - until it, too, ends on a depressing note.) By the the two-thirds point, I wanted to escape the theater so badly, I was gripping the armrests to try to keep myself in my seat.

Manchester by the Sea is by no means a bad film. But its authenticity works against it. It feels like emotional torture porn.

After seeing it, I went home and popped in the Blu-Ray disc of the 2016 film I most liked (that I wasn't supposed to) as a corrective. And it worked. Which is kind of a miracle...

Because Bridget Jones's Baby is a film that no one was clamoring for, with a premise that makes no sense and a hackneyed plot contrivance that plays out almost exactly as you'd expect.

That it succeeds as a funny, cozy, heartwarming bit of entertainment is a testament to the one quality that covers a multitude of cinematic sins:  star power.  Or, more to the point, the enduring spark of chemistry between Colin Firth and Renee Zellwegger. Early in the film, there's a scene at a christening party where Firth's Mark Darcy looks on as Zellwegger's Bridget dances to "Gangnam Style" with a gaggle of children; between her bubbly good spirits and his adoring gaze, it's as sweet a depiction of a match made in heaven as I've seen on screen all year.  In the hands of these two most appealing actors, Bridget remains lovably and laughably flawed , while Mark Darcy retains his status as the most attractively repressed English male since, well, the original Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice."

Otherwise, nothing here makes much sense. No one who's followed the exploits of Helen Fielding's plucky, faux-pas-prone heroine - on the page or onscreen - would expect her to have reached the age of 43 without marrying Mark Darcy. (In fact, Fielding's own 2012 novel, "Mad About the Boy" gave us Bridget as the widowed mother of two young children, re-entering the dating world after Mark's tragic death.)  But Bridget's alternate history on film is hardly a drag; she's still upbeat, still plucky, still surrounded by funny, slightly ribald friends and co-workers who clearly love her, and her world is a sweet and friendly place to spend a couple of hours.

Oh, and Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey is on hand, too, as a dating website billionaire who could be Bridget's baby daddy.  But honestly, he's the least interesting thing on the menu. Next to the longing gaze of Colin Firth, he doesn't stand a chance.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Binge watches of 2016: Ranked

This post may lead you to believe that I have far too much time on my hands. But allow me to defend myself.

While most of you normal people were watching The Voice, Dancing with Stars, Madame Secretary, This is Us, or the final episodes of The Good Wife, I was watching the series listed below.  Unlike Homer here, I never spent an entire day on the couch surrounded by pizzas and chips with my weary eyeballs glued to episode after episode of a single show.  I have, however, watched 2-4 episodes of one series per night for enough nights in a row to finish a season (or, in some cases, the entire series.)

I'm a bit of a serial obsessive by nature, given to finite periods of intense enthusiasm for one particular filmmaker, actor, author, performer or genre. I sate myself on the work of one artist at a time and then move on.  I was born to binge-watch.

And as I noted in the preceding post, 2016 was a record year of binges for me.  I completed 11 major binges in 2016 and have another in progress this week.  The list below is strictly a reflection of my own personal tastes and preferences; there are no Marvel franchise shows here, no Stranger Things, no Goliath, no Sense8.  Even so, I think I covered a lot of ground.

Here are the shows I watched in ascending order of preference:

In progress now: Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United Statues (Netflix)

I'm just three episodes in, and Stone has already thoroughly excoriated Harry Truman, laying full blame for the Cold War at his feet, while suggesting that Joseph Stalin wasn't all that bad of a guy. Yes, it's every bit as provocative and controversial as you'd imagine, but Stone also delivers a good bit of compelling evidence for his claims. This series was first broadcast in 2012 on Showtime; I'm watching it with both an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism.

11. Crisis in Six Scenes (Amazon)

More evidence that Woody Allen has just about lost his comedic touch, albeit with a couple of bright spots.  First there's the wonderful Elaine May, lobbing some obvious but inspired improvisations at Allen that he just barely manages to keep afloat. (Allen plays a former ad man; May occasionally name checks the products for which he wrote copy, including 'orthopedic ice cream' and "Earl of Sussex frozen fish balls.") Also, the final episode has every character in the entire series descending on one house, and Allen's directorial/traffic control skills are kind of dazzling as he moves the actors from room to room and scene to scene.  Allen and May play a long-married couple looking for a little excitement and finding it by sheltering a hippie revolutionary on the lam (Miley Cyrus, who seems to be enjoying herself, but isn't remotely believable).  It feels like it a mildly amusing artifact from the 1960s rather than a contemporary film that is merely set in that era.  That's something I guess, but it's not enough.

10. Downton Abbey, Seasons 1-6 (Amazon)

Oh, Crawley family and your house full of servants, I just can't quit you!  So just days after the final Downton episode was broadcast on PBS, I started revisiting the series from the beginning, show by show, all the way to the resplendently happy ending.  Watching the shows on a daily basis for few weeks really brought home to me just how ritualized and regimented the upper class British life was (that daily gong when it was time to dress for dinner, the appointed time for children to be with their parents, and so on). Also, it reminded me that, once every season, Lord Grantham did something noble and beneficent for Mrs. Patmore that reduced her to quivering tears of working-class gratitude. It's not ranked this low because I didn't enjoy the binge; it's ranked this low because it's the only one I'm embarrassed to have done.

9.  One Mississippi (Amazon)

I really wanted to like this series more, but that would require Tig Notaro to develop an acting range extending beyond "deadpan." The low-key bemusement Notaro employs in her stand-up work is less effective when she's meant to be the emotional center of an often sad and painful story. This autobiographical dramedy has her returning to her Louisiana hometown after her mother's death, and it's well conceived and well written. But Notaro, is overshadowed by the other actors, particularly the very fine John Rothman as her emotionally constipated stepfather.

8.  Transparent, Season 3 (Amazon)

After an impressive debut and a flat-out brilliant second season, Transparent foundered and flailed this year and didn't always satisfy.  The third season had less to do with issues of gender identity than with the clueless white privilege and unbridled narcissism of the entire Pfeffernan clan, but it wasn't entirely without its moments of transcendence.  I just can't anymore with Sarah's repeated journeys up her own ass or Josh's trembling lower lip and watery eyes after yet another person walks away from his stupidity and selfishness, the fine performances of Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass notwithstanding. What I did like: Shelly's triumphant one-woman show (Judith Light for the Emmy!); Rabbi Raquel's balls-out, raging takedown of the insufferable Sarah (another reason to love Kathryn Hahn!); Cherry Jones' wild irascibility all season long. Also Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman, doing everything they do in every show. The plotlines may be all over the place, but the cast remains uniformly impeccable.

7.  Catastrophe, Season 2 (Amazon)

Bawdy, tender, raucous, foul-mouthed, romantic, cynical and very funny: Catastrophe is all of that, and sometimes all of that in the very same moment.  When last we saw Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, their wedding night was about to be interrupted by the arrival of a baby they conceived in their first weekend together.  Season two opens a year or so later, with a second baby on the way and the breakneck pace of their smart-ass-bickering-leading-to-hot-sex still intact.  With dizzying comic precision, Delaney and Horgan pile layers of escalating, R-rated screwball absurdity on top of sharply honed insights into marriage, work and parenthood. The season ends on a tantalizing cliffhanger that has me eagerly awaiting Season 3.  With just six episodes, each under 30 minutes,, Catastrophe is the closest thing to instant gratification that a binge watch can deliver.

6. Bojack Horseman, all 3 seasons (Netflix)

I would never have guessed that a cartoon series about a self-loathing, alcoholic former sitcom star (who also happens to be a horse) could be this engrossing or this deep.  Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has imagined a bizarre, funhouse-mirror image of Hollywood where animals and humans work together on both sides of the camera, and inter-species romantic connections are no big deal. (Even a cat and mouse find true love together at one point.) A rapid-fire blend of puns, cheap gags, showbiz satire, and inspired absurdities are seamlessly woven into some genuinely bleak and emotionally devastating storylines. Season three includes one nearly dialogue-free episode in which Bojack struggles to return a lost baby seahorse to its family; it's no exaggeration to call that episode Chaplinesque in both its comic invention and its pathos.  I stand in awe of the mind that conceived this show and I can't wait to see where it goes in season four.

5.  The Larry Sanders Show, all 6 seasons (HBO Now)

In fairness, this wasn't quite a binge watch for me; I worked my way through the series in random, rather than chronological, order over roughly a month's time, but I got it all in.  This groundbreaking series from the '90s wasn't available anywhere for years till HBO released it to their streaming app in September.  Twenty-four years after its debut, it remains brilliantly funny. The comic triumvirate of Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn remain peerless in their command of character-driven 'cringe' comedy. Together they milk more genuine belly laughs out of neurosis, arrogance, ego and showbiz insecurity than I'd have ever thought possible.

4.  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Season 1 (Hulu)

Let us now praise Rachel Bloom, the ridiculously talented star/co-creator of this wholly original and delightfully cartoony TV romcom. Bloom plays an unhappy lawyer who ditches a partnership in New York for the California hometown of her long-ago drama camp crush, where she slyly infiltrates his social circle in an effort to win him back.  Every episode includes inspired and insanely funny musical interludes - production numbers that deftly parody everything from Beyonce's Lemonade to The Music Man and Gypsy. Blooms sings like a Broadway diva and dances like an old-time hoofer, but her sensibilities and apologetically off-color humor are solidly rooted in contemporary sensibilities. Her show is so fast-paced and funny that you might not notice how it subversively explores, then overturns, all the standard tropes of romantic comedy. Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna invest even their goofiest characters and silliest set pieces with deceptively deep emotional truths.  In short, it's lots of fun, but also more than meets the eye. I'm now watching Season Two the old-fashioned way: one weekly broadcast episode at a time.

3.  Orange is the New Black, season 4 (Netlfix)

What is it about third seasons? Like Transparent, OITNB had a rocky, unsatisfying third season, but rebounded with a harrowing fourth year where Shit. Got. Real. The back stories for Suzanne, Flaca, Maria and Lolly were revealed, each one more sad and horrible than the last. Piper got knocked down to size in the cruelest of ways. Prison management was privatized, resulting in compromises that led directly to tragedy in the final chapters. After watching 13 episodes in four days time, I felt like I'd been rolled over by a truck: devastated, heartbroken and blown away as you can only be by the greatest human drama. Just writing this makes me want to go back and watch it all again.

2. OJ: Made in America (Hulu)

A masterful, nearly 8-hour documentary that exhaustively examines race and celebrity in America through the prism of O. J. Simpson's rise and fall. Simpson's story plays like Greek tragedy. Director Ezra Edelman shapes a mountain of material and interviews into riveting drama, the television equivalent of a great book that you can't bring yourself to put down.  Interestingly enough, this five-part TV series has landed on most critics list of the year's 10 best films, and is short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.  And deservedly so. I'm going to predict, here and now, that it will win that award.

1. The Crown, season 1 (Netflix)

With an apparently limitless production budget, a cast of fantastic actors and a script by that estimable chronicler of the British monarchy, Peter Morgan, this biographical series on Elizabeth II is a monumental achievement and brilliant ten hours of television.  The Crown has something for everyone: sumptuous sets, beautiful costumes, great performances, historical detail, political intrigue, pomp, circumstance, humor and heartache.  It's a veritable banquet of both eye candy and brain candy, laced with the illicit thrill of seeing how royals behave behind closed palace doors. Let's decide right now that the 2017 Emmy roster will absolutely include Best Supporting Actor nominations for John Lithgow (Winston Churchill), Jared Harris (King George VI) and Alex Jennings (the Duke of Windsor), plus a certain nod for Eileen Atkins as the formidable dowager Queen Mary.  But save a spot, too, for Claire Foy, who totally nails Elizabeth's reserve and restraint, but with sufficient nuance to save her from being stuffy or unsympathetic. The moment when Queen Mary in her black mourning veil first kneels in obeisance before her granddaughter may be the most spine-tingling moment of drama I've seen on any screen - big or small - all year long.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

2016: An Odd Year for this Cinephile

Here we are approaching the end of another year.  And not just any year, but a strange, contentious, brutal year, filled with stunning political developments both here and abroad, deep divisions between people within our own country and deeply felt losses in the world of entertainment and sports.  At such a time, writing about movies - or even caring much about them - seems to be entirely beside the point. And, at first glance, my paltry output here would seem to reflect that notion.

I launched this blog in January with the idea that I'd write occasionally, as the mood struck me, about films I liked, and the television, music or travel I experienced in between them.

Part-Time Cinephile was the title I chose for this blog, believing it to be eminently apt.  Turns out that a title like "Once-in-a-Great-While Cinephile" might have been more accurate.  To date, I have published exactly six posts (including this one), one of which was travel advice. I've come to believe that the only reasons I've had a blog in the last few years are to publish a ten best list in January and my Oscar predictions in February.

It was not always so.  For many years, I've been a devoted and serious follower of current film fare. But this year was different.  Instead of consistently staying abreast of the 2016 film scene, I did all of the following:

1. Pursued serial obsessions with various filmmakers, after watching documentaries about them

First it was Mike Nichols.  A PBS American Masters program on his career, followed closely by the HBO documentary Becoming Mike Nichols led to considerable time spent on You Tube watching Nichols and May comedy routines, which then led to streaming a number of his films (including The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal KnowledgePrimary Colors, The Birdcage). From all the time I spent going down this particular rabbit hole, I've decided that The Graduate is still Nichols' best film and that the interplay between Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson is really just an extended Nichols/Elaine May comedy routine with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft standing in for Mike and Elaine.

Then it was Nora Ephron, a fascination jump-started by watching her son's HBO documentary Everything is Copy. There was some overlap with the period of Mike Nichols obsession, which included re-watching Heartburn and Silkwood, as well as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. I concluded by realizing that - with the notable exception of Julie and Julia - I much preferred Ephron the essayist to Ephron the filmmaker. (But I had fun anyway.)

This fall, a Netflix documentary, One Day Since Yesterday, about the troubled history of Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed, paired with a friend's coincidental recommendation to read Cybill Shepherd's autobiography segued into me finding Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love in their entirety on You Tube. The irony of these events is that while I found Shepherd's book to be surprisingly and enjoyably well-written, I was also forced to acknowledge that that most egregious defects in those two films are her nails-on-chalkboard performances in them. (I also bought the DVD of They All Laughed, but have yet to get around to watching it.  My obsessions, however intense, tend to have well-defined shelf lives.)

There are at least a couple of other fleeting obsessions that I'm forgetting, but you get the idea. With all these deep-dives going on, there was just no time to see Batman vs Superman.

2. I watched the US Presidential campaign very closely and obsessively monitored the polls as Election Day approached.

And we all know how that turned out.

3. I succumbed to the lure of binge-watching TV, like never before.

Binge-watching is nothing new at my house.  I was doing it long before the term was invented.  Back in the '80s and '90s, one Indianapolis station broadcast Labor Day Weekend marathons of Star Trek, Twilight Zone, and other series.  I have very clear recollections of hanging with a friend, brewing multiple pots of coffee and powering through God-knows-how-many Twilight Zone episodes on a particularly drizzly/rainy Labor Day.  We'd never have guessed that we were ahead of our time!

But 21st century binge-watching is a whole other thing; with an entire season of one show landing on the same day, it becomes an exercise in exquisite restraint to dole the episodes out to yourself once a week, or even once a day. I failed over and over. Season 4 of Orange is the New Black was devoured in 4 days. All ten episodes of The Crown were viewed in glorious detail during the week of Thanksgiving  -a week when I was out of town and out of Netflix range for three days.

A post on my favorite binge watches is forthcoming.

4. Eventually, I reverted to my old, usual self.

Which means that, around the end of October 2016 - just as I've done every October in recent memory - I became super-motivated to catch up on all the films that I'd managed to miss earlier in the year.  My 'to watch' list is longer now than in most previous years, but I'm confident I'll be able to put up a respectable "Ten Best" post in early January.  And we'll see where it goes from there....

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Life in Between Movies: Travel Advice No One Else Will Give You

Well, I warned you....

It's been over five months since I last posted.  Quite simply, I have not seen a single film this year that has motivated me to write. Not one.

Over the past weekend, I streamed Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups, which is beautiful to look at, but laughably pretentious and frequently just plain nuts  I made it to exactly the three-quarter point before I tuned out, bored and baffled.  And this is much the same reaction I've had to other films this year.

About three months from now, I will start frantically binge-watching all the critically acclaimed 2016 movies I've managed to miss or avoid so far in an effort to come up with a respectable 10 Best List. That's just how I roll these days.  But for now, it's wanderlust - not cinephilia - that has me in its grip.

The other passion in my life, besides movies, is travel - especially foreign travel, and most especially travel to Europe.  This year I chose to remodel my kitchen and take a short trip to Branson, Missouri rather than go overseas.  It was a prudent choice in every respect, but now I find I am dreaming - nay, OBSESSING - about returning to Rome. Wandering its cobblestone streets. Eating gelato. Stopping in at churches to see the Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures within. Then stopping for a little more gelato. People-watching in the Piazza del Popolo... while eating gelato.

As a traveler, I am also a scrupulous planner who aspires to someday comfortably spend two weeks overseas with just a day bag and a carry-on bag, as travel guru Rick Steves recommends.  Haven't done it yet, but I periodically comb Pinterest travel boards in search of the magical packing hacks that will make this possible.

I'm equally obsessed with finding the perfect gizmos, gadgets or mantras to transform 8-to-9-hour transatlantic flights into restful, pleasant experiences  - and not the hell-in-a-flying-tin-can-packed-with-annoying-strangers that they too often seem to be.

I've read more travel advice than I've had hot breakfasts, and I'm not sure how much lasting wisdom I've culled from all that reading. But I've done enough traveling myself to develop some advice of my own. much of which flies in the face of received wisdom.  For everyone who may be planning a trip out of the country soon (or someday), here's a little honesty for you:

1. There's no foolproof way to get a good night's sleep on the flight over.

I have never once slept well on an flight headed out of the U.S. And believe me, I've tried every tip, suggestion and purported "miracle" product you can think of to make it happen: Ambien, Tylenol PM (washed down both with booze and without it), melatonin, lavender oil rubbed on my temples, sleep masks, earplugs, inflatable neck pillows, noise-cancelling earbuds.  I've stayed up really late and gotten up really early every day for the week before the trip. I've swigged many a cup of hot ginger tea in flight and chewed many a Bach's Rescue Remedy pastille. No results, not from any of it.

Go ahead and try any or all of these tricks yourself; one or more of them may work for you.  (Or book business or first class if you can afford it - your seat will fold out into a bed and you won't be fighting over the armrest with your slumping, snoring seatmate. Or so I have dreamed...) But if none of this helps you to fall asleep, don't stress over it.  You will be uncomfortable and tired for a day, but you'll get through it.

Even in the worst case scenario, you'll probably manage to get in a nap for an hour or two before they bring around the breakfast trays. That nap, plus your tiny carton of Yoplait yogurt, roll and coffee will give you enough energy to get through passport control and out to the taxi queue once you land.

When you get to your hotel, don't spend a lot of time unpacking, and whatever you do, DON'T take a nap.  Freshen up with a quick shower and a change of clothes,  then get out of your room and into your new destination as soon as you can. Walk around, get familiar with your surroundings.  Your excitement at being in your dreamed-of location is likely to override your fatigue for several hours.

Head to a cafe or restaurant for a hit of caffeine and some fresh food. Airport and airplane foods tend to be overly carb-tastic; I usually look for a salad and some fresh fruit when I first arrive; it helps me feel lighter and more energetic.  Find some good sightseeing close to where you're staying and just keep moving.

I find that if stay out till about 7:30 local time and postpone going to bed till around 9, I will wake up the next morning refreshed and rarin' to go.  Just don't push yourself too hard or try to pack too much in the very first day. I have slept through an entire concert at St. Martin of the Fields in London and an entire nighttime bus tour of Paris while adjusting to new time zones; I now wish I had postponed those experiences till later in the trip when I would have been fully awake to enjoy them.

2. There are worse things than looking like a tourist

All those ominous articles with titles like "Never Order This Dish in Rome!" or "10 Things to Never Do in France"? They're worth reading and following ... to a point.

You should know how to avoid being offensive, obnoxious or rude to your local hosts. Get a good guidebook before you go (Rick Steves' books are excellent) and read up on local customs for dining, tipping, and social niceties.  Learn to say "hello," "please," "thank you," and few other key phrases in their language.

But please don't sweat the small stuff.

If you slip up and order a cappucino after 11 am, you might momentarily irritate the barista, but you aren't going to start a national incident.

And yes, wearing a fanny pack and big, white sneakers will instantly identify you as a American tourist (and if you wear them, be alert to pickpockets and scam artists who will target you). But so will your tour company name badge or asking directions from a local in your halting, 8th grade Spanish. And believe me, when you're setting up that group photo at the Eiffel Tower, no one will be fooled into thinking you're a Parisian just because you're wearing European walking shoes and carrying a smart leather tote bag.

Some travel bloggers will try to scare you into believing there are dire consequences for those who don't blend in with the locals, but those locals have seen tourists before.  You can strike a comfortable balance between being a gracious guest in their country and still being true to your own needs and comfort. When I travel, I wear black leather flat shoes and more skirts than jeans. I make it a point to be soft-spoken and very polite, and to use as much of the local language as I can manage. But I also unashamedly drink diet sodas and cafe Americanos, and occasionally ask for ice in my drinks or even (horrors!) have a burger and fries for lunch. A waiter on a train in England once laughed and chided me for requesting a packet of artificial sweetener to put in my cup of tea ("That'll give you cancer!"), but that's as much controversy as I've ever caused.

3. You are allowed to 'waste' an afternoon sleeping or reading or relaxing. Not every minute must be packed with sightseeing and activity.

This advice is offered especially to my fellow introverts.

Travel is exciting and stimulating; it can be overstimulating for some of us. In cities, you're going to encounter lots of noise, crowds and busy streets.  Add to this the low-but-constant level of stress generated by navigating your way around an unfamiliar place with a language you may not speak, and you can get pretty overwhelmed even as you're having the time of your life.

Our vacations are short and there is a lot to see. Your fear of missing something important may conflict with your desire to chill out and take a break.

I'm here to tell you: you can take that break.

You can sit at that sidewalk cafe table for two hours, nursing a glass or wine or a pastry and espresso, and doodle in your travel journal. You can take a late afternoon nap in your hotel room.  You can even lay on a chaise by the hotel pool all morning, catching some sun and reading magazines. (A friend and I did this in Athens; our hotel's rooftop pool afforded us a clear and spectacular view of the Acropolis. Sure, you can lay by a pool at home, but you can't gaze on ancient Greek ruins while you do it.)

In other words, even your 'lazy' experiences can be enriching and memorable.

You can also seek out travel experiences that aren't necessarily on everyone's agenda, but give you a different window into the local culture.

As an avid film lover, I like seeing what people in other countries watch and what their filmgoing experience is like.  So when I need a change of pace, I might take myself to a movie.  Most major cities have at least a few Hollywood films available in English. I saw the 2014 remake of Godzilla in Munich, in a tiny, crowded theater near a university where my friend and I shared a huge bucket of half plain popcorn/half kettle corn and sipped enormous Diet Cokes. Workers came into clean the theater for the next showing before the closing credits were done, and they were brusque-bordering-on-rude in hurrying us out. On a sultry Sunday night in Paris, I saw the classic comedy Bringing Up Baby, subtitled in French, with a delighted audience who laughed uproariously from start to finish, proving that the appeal of truly great films is universal.  In London, I saw The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, a black comedy in which Katherine Hepburn hired a hit man played by Nick Nolte to euthanize her elderly friends - an odd, compelling film that was barely released in the US. These weren't typical tourist experiences, but they were memorable and unique.

Remember, your vacation is YOUR vacation.  It doesn't have to look like everyone else's and it doesn't have to be hectic. It only has to make you happy.

4. The trip home is worse than the trip there. Except, you will probably sleep.

My longest overseas trip to date has been just under two weeks; I'm not sure I ever want to stay longer. At the twelve-day point, I'm ready to re-enter a world where every TV show, magazine, newspaper and billboard is in English. I 'm ready to play with my kitty cat and sleep in my own bed.

The good news is that, while I never sleep on the flight to Europe, I nearly always get several hours of solid sleep on the way home.  Even so, the trip never goes fast enough. After 6 or 7 hours in the air, I am silently (but fervently) willing the plane to fly faster.

The bad news? Because you're gaining 5-8 hours flying west towards the US, you will have a very, very  l-o-o-o-o-n-g day. I live in the Chicago area, and by the time I hit the threshold of my home, I've usually been up for about 22 hours. And I've spent huge chunks of it waiting for things to happen: to get through security, to board the plane, for the plane to take off (don't know why, but I experience way more flight delays when I'm heading home from vacations than when I'm first setting out), for the plane to land, to clear customs, to get my ride home from the airport, to get Freakin' HOME ALREADY!

You can't avoid the stress or the time suck, so do what you can to eliminate unnecessary stress on the trip home.  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Check the weather report at home and be prepared.  I returned from sunny, 60-degree days in Rome last year to a freak storm that dumped nine inches of snow on Chicago. My final flight was delayed 3 hours due to the weather, so I was extra tired when I got home - but very glad I'd packed gloves and extra layers of clothing in my carry on bag so I could bundle up before dragging my suitcase through the snowdrifts on my front walk.

2. Pack the night before you leave and be sure you put your boarding pass, passport, and receipts from all your purchases in an easily accessible pocket or section of your purse. You'll need the receipts in customs when your return; it's a good idea to pack an envelope or Ziplock bag to stow them in. Also, be sure you know where your house key is stashed. (Seriously. I once had a minor panic attack when I couldn't recall what bag I'd put mine in.)

3. Buy edible souvenirs at the airport to help use up the last of your Euros. I like to bring back candy or cookies to the office, and it's easiest to pick that up at the last minute and throw it in my carry on. And buy yourself a treat when you hit a low point. You can get back on your sensible diet when you get home, but a little extra chocolate or a warm cookie will take the edge off an otherwise very trying day.

Above all ENJOY yourself!  It's a privilege - and, sometimes, a life-changing experience - to visit another country.  Don't worry that you won't do it right, just do it!