Monthly Archives: November 2017

Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was the first lawyer working for the NAACP to defend people falsely accused of a crime because of their race. You may know him as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, and this is one of the career-defining cases that set him upon that path.

The (true) story: Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing appeared on a highway in Westchester County, New York, soaked, beaten, and scared one night in December 1940. She claimed her chauffeur had raped her four times, kidnapped her, forced MV5BMmE5MTMwNTUtYTlhMS00YzlhLTk3MTgtMmI3YTA5ODc2NjM0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_her to write a ransom note for $5,000 and then threw her off a bridge. Papers called her accused assailant the “Negro chauffeur” or “colored servant” but his name was Joseph Spell, and he claimed he was innocent. Lucky for him, his case caught the attention of the NAACP and Marshall was dispatched to try his case. Only he couldn’t; the racist judge wouldn’t let him on the grounds that he was “from out of town” so Marshall had to team with another lawyer and somehow stay silent through the infuriating trial.

Thurgood Marshall probably deserves a legitimate biopic, but this isn’t it. Its narrative is tight, keeping its eye on this single court case. The rest of his accomplishments are relegated to title cards at the end. That’s not really a complaint, but it does somewhat reduce a great man to a courtroom drama. But his greatness is communicated well by a self-possessed and commanding Chadwick Boseman in the lead role. He’s starred in a number of impressive biopics – what does this guy have to do to break through? Josh Gad plays the lawyer assisting him, Dan Stevens opposing counsel, James Cromwell the judge, and Kate Hudson as the woman pressing charges. And most interestingly, it’s Sterling K. Brown as the man who stands accused. Audiences will know him from This is Us, or else The People Vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Even if Spell is innocent, Brown’s still playing against type, and it’s a great move.

All the pieces fall into place and it’s a perfectly solid movie. But for bearing the simple title ‘Marshall’ I expected it to be a little wider in scope – and having been baited with this little bit, I’m disappointed it wasn’t.

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Jim & Andy

The official title of the documentary is Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton and it’s ‘about’ how Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman in order to portray him in the 1999 movie Man in the Moon.

Andy Kaufman was a comedian who defied definition. There wasn’t and hasn’t been anyone like him before or since; Kaufman existed outside the normal conception of stand-up comedy. For a lot of people he was simply too much – so who better to play him than this generation’s over the top comedian, Jim Carrey?

Having watched the documentary, it’s hard to decide who’s crazier. Maybe Andy MV5BMjM3OTY1OTAxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI0MTUxNDM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Kaufman just didn’t give a fuck – but Jim? The documentary has a tonne of footage from the set of the movie, which was filmed 20 years ago. A documentary was planned at the time (shot by an old girlfriend of Andy’s) but Universal pulled the plug, for fear that the public would discover their beloved Jim Carrey to be an asshole. Cut to 2017 and the cat’s pretty much out of the bag. And maybe asshole’s not even the right word, but there is no one right word: he’s a space cadet, a depressive, a nonsensical philosopher. And those things are all apparent in the documentary, which also features an interview with him present day. And it’s hard to know who to detest and pity more: the Jim Carrey on the set of Man on the Moon was was never Jim Carrey at all because he was so deep in the character Jim never showed up to work, or the Jim Carrey today who at times seems downright bewildered even in his own skin. He talks about fugue states and telepathy, but bottom line, he believes that the spirit of Kaufman inhabited his body during filming. When director Milos Forman or colleagues like Danny De Vito or Paul Giamatti tried to address Jim on the set, “Andy” would be angry and\or defensive. “Andy” was always on, and always creating a ruckus. You can see how that would wear thin. The real Jim Carrey, whoever that is, has recently claimed to have had a spiritual awakening, and depending how woke you are yourself, what he spouts is either enlightened or crazy.

Either way, it’s hard to watch. And while it starts out to be fascinating in a voyeuristic, train wreck kind of way, my tolerance for it eroded before the 94 run time was up. And I’m a little uncomfortable eavesdropping on the scattered thoughts of a man who is perhaps not mentally at his best. Having battled depression for years, he has lately taken to ascribing meaninglessness to everything, coming off loopy in red carpet interviews. And he’s still staring down the barrel of a wrongful death lawsuit, accused by his dead girlfriend’s mother and estranged husband of having introduced her to hard drugs, prostitute, and at least 3 STIs. Carrey maintains the the lawsuit is simply a shakedown. I don’t know who’s right, but I do know that the whole method acting thing was nutty to begin with and is downright unhinged the way he does it. Maybe it’s the counsellor in me talking, but watching this just made me think: this man needs help.

 

Daddy’s Home 2: A Bad Dads Christmas

I made up the subtitle to this film, but the sentiment stands. Just like A Bad Moms Christmas, Daddy’s Home 2 takes a middling comedy and churns out a sequel that nobody wanted or deserved, and sets it during the holidays just to ruin one more thing while they’re at it.

MV5BZmZiNjE1YWMtNzZhNy00OTdkLTk4MWQtNTUxM2U5OWJhNjdhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjA4MDAzNTg@._V1_Brad and Dusty are in a pretty healthy place since we left them in the last movie. They’re successfully co-parenting their collective brood. But when the kids complain that two Christmases tend to halve the joy rather than double it, they plan a “together” Christmas that will likely be the death of them all – especially because their dads get in on it too.

Will Ferrell’s dad is played by John Lithgow and Mark Wahlberg’s dad is played by Mel Gibson and together they got one single laugh out of me, and spoiler alert: it’s the same exact laugh from the trailer. There’s just the one in the whole damn movie. The fact that the other audience members laughed at all made me wonder if they weren’t all ringers, plants Paramount to trick me into thinking this was a slightly better film than the piece of complete crap it is. I’d rather get coal in my stocking than this movie on Blu-Ray.

 

Home Again

If I have anything akin to weakness, and I’m not saying I do, but if I did it would be Reese Witherspoon. Is it because her name reminds me of my favourite candy? Or just because she’s nearly too cute and blonde and perfect to be a real human woman? Or because she’s a goddamn clothes horse who always looks stylish and flawlessly put together but isn’t trying too hard? Or because she’s a self-confessed perfectionist who run her own business like a boss? At any rate, I am not accustomed to missing her movies because I lurv  her, but this time, I did. Now, in my defense, Home Again was released in September, somewhere between the Venice Film Festival and TIFF, which means I saw about 50 movies in 12 days and none of them were Home Again. Sorry, Reese.

Legendary producer Nancy Meyers is responsible for putting this script in Witherspoon’s hands, but it’s her daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who writes and directs. The movie follows Alice (Reese), newly separated from Austen (Michael home-again-20170006Sheen) and newly single mother to two girls who are having a hard time with their transition to L.A. Their adjustment period gets both better and worse when Alice brings home not one but three very young men on the occasion of her 40th birthday (it’s not nearly as slutty as it sounds). Aspiring film makers, they’re thrilled to crash on her couch while they take “meetings” about their “project” but even more psyched when they find out the house belonged to her father, a famous movie director, and that her mother (Candice Bergen), muse and movie star, often hangs around to make them breakfast.

And of course you don’t put the rom in rom-com until the estranged husband shows up to find three beef cakes vying for his wife’s attentions. To be honest, this isn’t really a great movie. The story won’t surprise you and isn’t really trying to; it’s got some moments of wit and charm, plus that little fireball Reese, and that’s good enough, right? That is, if you can overlook the privilege, which, let’s face it, takes some doing. White privilege, it goes without saying, considering the monochromicity of the cast. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an old pair of slippers, but if you’re a fan of Witherspoon’s, you might just find it passable – or better yet, enjoyable.

Dreaming of A Jewish Christmas

Earlier this week we learned about the man who invented Christmas with a little novel he wrote called A Christmas Carol. This time we’re learning about the men and women who helped give it a distinct sound: Jews who wrote Christmas carols. It might seem like an odd pairing, but Jewish songwriters wrote about everything, so why not the biggest holiday of the year? Sure it’s a Christian day, but if you didn’t need to be in love to write a great love song, what’s stopping you?

Irving Berlin, a Russian Jew, was perhaps the greatest song writer who ever lived. He made a living out of writing songs, so to ignore popular holidays was just bad business. He wrote White Christmas; Bing Crosby’s version went on to be the best-MV5BYWExOWMzOGYtY2Q1OS00NjE2LWIyM2UtMjhlNmU5N2E3OTljXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTYzMTcyNTg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_selling single of all time. It also served to “de-Christ Christmas”, restyling the birth of Jesus into a holiday about snow that also evokes nostalgia for home and for childhood, concepts we can all relate to.

To further illustrate the point, the film maker uses another Jewish Christmas tradition, the Chinese restaurant, to bring the greatest hits alive. As the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in America, they had an understanding of what it took to get through a holiday they didn’t really participate in, and they redefined it for each other.

Winter Wonderland

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

Silver Bells

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

Sleigh Ride

Let It Snow

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Rockin Around The Christmas Tree

Do You Hear What I Hear

Once Irving Berlin had broken the mould, many Jewish song writers made contributions to the Christmas cannon. And the thing about any song that makes its way into pop culture is that it’s kind of universal. These songs, departing from mangers and baby messiahs, created a new mythology, one of snowmen and red-nosed reindeer – a version of Christmas we could all share in. This documentary explores the hidden stories behind many of these oft-recorded, beloved songs and gives them a context I (and likely many of us) have never considered.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure

Anna and Elsa ring the bell to mark the beginning of Arendelle’s yuletide season, their first since the gates have reopened, but then the crowds disperse, leaving the Frozen ladies to contemplate their lack of holiday traditions. Moved, their good buddy and everyone’s favourite snowman, Olaf, goes off in search of other people’s customs in order to find the right ones to adopt.

Originally Disney planned for this to be a televised episode but as production continued they felt it was too “cinematic” and deserved to be on the big screen, which is how it wound up in front of Pixar’s Coco. It’s only the second time that a MV5BMTg0MDc1ODY2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODg3MTE2MjI@._V1_CR0,60,640,360_AL_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_.jpgnon-Pixar short is in front of a Pixar film (the first time, for Toy Story, was the Roger Rabbit short, Roller Coaster Rabbit) but like any blended family, the Disney-Pixar merger has now been solidified, and when better to spend time together than the holidays? In fact, the two do seem to be appropriate companions since they’re both about appreciating different cultures. However, audiences in Mexico were less than thrilled with the “short” (it’s 21 minutes!); impatient to get to the movie that pays homage to their country, they rebelled until theaters dumped the short altogether.

Like Frozen Fever that came before it, the ladies seem to be confronted yet again with emotional loose ends, as it were, which means this short serves as a bridge to the inevitable sequel. And Olaf is evolving too. A kid favourite, the child-like snowman with a sense of wonder has always entertained, but in this short, he’s becoming more thoughtful and self-aware. He’s not just a side-kick anymore. And at 21 minutes, this short has time for 4 new original songs; That Time of Year is a particular stand out, and I was tickled by the mental comparison between Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad) knocking on villager’s doors, and Gad doing door to door with the ding-dong song Hello from Book of Mormon.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is fun in a giddy kind of way and fans of Frozen will be glad to revisit their old friends – though I do wonder if the fans aren’t sort of ageing out of the Princess phase by now. But Elsa and Anna still have a long way to go before their healing’s complete, so there are plenty more ways for Olaf to save them, and he’s always going to be enchanting as heck while he does it.

Mudbound

Two soldiers, equally scarred by the war, return to their homes in the South, and to their families who await them. Their shared experience bonds them but the colour of their skin keeps them wholly separate. Rural Mississippi sucks the big one.

Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) goes home to stay with his brother Henry (Jason Clarke) and his new wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who he basically saved from spinsterhood, because that’s what we call 30 year old unmarried women in the 1940s. The marriage is not exactly a romantic one, but she bears his children and lives in a hovel raising them while putting up with disgustingly judgy side looks from her creepy father in law (Jonathan Banks).

Meanwhile, just down the road, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes back to the shack where his family is eking out a living helping out the McAllans. It’s hard to really 170123-stern-mudbound-embed1_wdoplhdistinguish between different levels of abject poverty, but there’s no question that the white McAllan family will always be in a better position than the black Jacksons (yeah, I feel weird writing that, so go ahead and feel weird reading it). Ronsel is having trouble adjusting to this country that demands that he risk his life defending it but then will spit in his eye the moment he’s back on American soil. Tough blow.

And Jamie’s only doing nominally better because his budding friendship with Ronsel is particularly irksome to his daddy, who’s a clansman. So yeah, shit gets real. This is not a pretty movie. I didn’t have much of an opinion of Hedlund before this but I found Mudbound to be well-acted: Mulligan, Mitchell, and Mary J. Blige as Mitchell’s mother are stand-outs of course, and Jonathan Banks made me want to spit nails. Into his eyeballs. Or nutsack. Or both. Rusty ones.

This movie says a lot about race and inequality but is largely unsentimental. The setting is sparse but the characters are rich, with great performances fleshing out mudbound existence. Director Dee Rees paints a stark portrait, accurate but not antiquated.

Coco

First, if you haven’t read my piece about John Lasseter, please do. It feels like an important piece of the conversation.

On to the movie. Coco is Pixar’s latest offering about a little boy named Miguel. Miguel comes from a long line of shoe makers and he knows that’s his destiny even if it isn’t his passion. He lives and works with his parents, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother, who all have the same very strict rule: absolutely no music. So guess what Miguel’s true passion is? That’s right: it’s music. He idolizes Mexico’s most popular singer, Ernesto De La Cruz. And on the day of the dead, he’d love nothing more than to participate in the town’s talent show, but not only is this forbidden by his relatives, he must honour the dead at the family altar instead – every single one of them, except for his great-grandmother’s father, who left his young family to pursue music, which is the whole reason behind the curse.

coco-movie-01Of course, this being a movie and all, things do not go smoothly. Miguel’s pursuit of his passion means he accidentally crosses into the land of the dead himself, and he needs the help of his dead ancestors (possibly including that cur, his great, great-grandfather) in order to return home.

Pixar does not miss the opportunity to splash the screen with colour. It’s a riot, and constantly just beautiful to look at. Sean and I love and visit Mexico frequently, and it’s clear the animators do too. There’s something about the juxtaposition of smiling skeletons and vivid colours that just captures the imagination. But the film treats every day Mexico just as lovingly. The opening scene is done through papel picado – those brightly coloured tissue paper banners with intricately cut-out designs. It’s distinctive and impressive Mexican folk art that really establishes the scene for us early on. Coco is a buffet of visual delight, but it also tells a very compelling story. Yes, the following your dreams thing has been done to death (pun intended) but Coco is also a meditation on family, forgiveness, memory, and love. It takes a kids movie about death to truly speak to the joy and the pain of being alive.

And I’m glad Pixar has finally given us a non-white character in the lead role. It’s about time. I feel like the whole movie reads like a love letter to Mexico and its culture and traditions, but Pixar hasn’t acquitted itself entirely honourably during the film’s production. Pixar has a history of distinguishing itself from Disney movies by not really doing musicals. This isn’t technically a musical either, but it’s got musical numbers, so it seems like a missed opportunity, and in fact a bit of an embarrassing blunder, to have not used a Mexican composer. We have to tread a coco-moviefine line between paying tribute to another culture, and appropriating it. Coco was originally set to be titled Dia de los Muertos, and of course Disney tried to copyright that name. You can imagine the uproar this caused – so much so that Pixar belatedly brought some Mexican ‘consultants’ on board just to make sure they didn’t step in any more shit, and as you can tell, they quickly made a name change. At any rate, the movie felt quite respectful to me, but I’m not really the one who gets final say on that. I will say that it feels like a nice offering by an American studio in the age of Donald Trump and his egregious wall.

And a note to parents: Coco has a running time of 1 hour, 49 minutes. There’s also a 21 minute “short” before it (Olaf’s Frozen Adventure), and when you factor in previews on top of that, you’re looking at nearly two and a half hours. The kids in our screening were quite well behaved, but the middle-aged man who felt entitled to sit in the middle of the row despite his flimsy bladder, got up no less than 3 times. So be prepared.

Coco is Pixar’s best since Inside Out. It’s so layered with detail that it begs to be rewatched. It’s charming and lively and yes, it made me cry.

 

 

 

 

If you can’t get enough of Coco, check out my own Day of the Dead makeover.

The Trouble With Pixar

A word about Pixar. For years it has been helmed by John Lasseter. He left the company this week – a “temporary leave of absence”, they called it, but with whiffs of sexual misconduct about, I’m thinking it’s likely a permanent and somewhat shocking move. John Lasseter IS Pixar, and I think we’re only beginning to understand why that is in fact a bad thing. First: we know that Pixar studios is a boy’s club. It doesn’t nourish and nurture female talent the way it has their male counterparts. Between its 19 films to date, there were 34 director credits and only one of them was female.

Brenda Chapman trained on The Little Mermaid, was an artist on Beauty and the Beast and became the first female head of story for The Lion King. She was the MV5BMzgwODk3ODA1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU3NjQ0Nw@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio with a personal favourite of mine, The Prince of Egypt. She came aboard Pixar in 2003. There were NO women at all in the story department and they needed her to fix the one-dimentionality of the female characters in Cars (they were too far along in production for her to have much impact). Next, she conceived Brave and directed the project until they replaced her because of “creative differences.” Since they still had to give her co-director credit, she became the first woman to win an Oscar for (co) directing an animated film. She left Pixar and went on to LucasFilm and back to Dreamworks. Of her exit, she has said “I made the right decision to leave and firmly closed that door. I have no desire to go back there. The atmosphere and the leadership doesn’t fit well with me.” And I can’t help but read that “me” as “women” generally. “This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.”

Of Pixar’s 19 films, only 3 have females as their lead protagonists (Brave, Inside Out, Finding Dory). That’s a really dismal number. Even worse: Miguel, from Coco, is its first non-white protagonist (although Up has an Asian boyscout sidekick – possibly). And Pixar has been head and shoulders above its competitors, leading the way in top-notch animation and story-telling, which means millions are exposed to movies that refuse to give an equal voice to girls, women, minorities, and other cultures. Rashida Jones (along with collaborator Will McCormack) had been brought on board by Pixar to pen the script for Toy Story 4. She has since left the project: “We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences. There is so much talent at Pixar, and we remain enormous fans of their films. However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.” Out of 109 writing credits on its films, only 11 were women or people of colour. That’s eleven women OR people of colour, and 98 freaking white men.

So now we know why there is such a lack of female talent at Pixar: John Lasseter, proud president of the boy’s club, is a perv. Female employees had to develop a move they named “The Lasseter” just to keep him from running his hands up their legs. And though he paid lip service in 2015 to the lack of diversity in his studios, there are no female directors or writers attached to their upcoming films either.

John Lasseter won a Special Achievement Oscar for his ground-breaking work on Toy Story, but he has done so by overstepping women, and at the expense of diversity of thought and talent. He has spent his career groping women and refusing to promote them, creating a void of basic respect and decency – and he was the CCO (and when Disney bought Pixar in 2006, he took over leadership there as well). I don’t deny that Pixar has created some great films, but after shutting out diverse voices for over 20 years, it’s time to dump this loser and let someone else do some ground breaking for a change.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

My bosom is glowing. That’s what we used to call boobies when I was little: bosoms. Pronounced bazooms, of course. My grandmother told us that eating our sandwich crusts would result in big bazooms and I gobbled mine up greedily, and those of my sisters, if they left them.

Is it a digression if I lead with it? Back to my glowing bosom, which is a line I lifted from the movie itself. It’s the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. He’d gotten a taste of success with Oliver Twist and was determined to live 58dd47c10c48e-e2i2h1u1qk5henceforth like a gentleman, but his next three attempts were flops – poorly reviewed, scarcely read. He was really under the gun to write his next best-seller and you know what pressure does to a writer: it blocks him. He pitched a vague idea for a Christmas ghost story to publisher and was laughed right out of the office, Christmas being a “minor” holiday and all. He determined to self-publish and gave himself the daunting deadline of just 6 weeks hence – a release just barely in time for Christmas. The only problem aside from funding was that not a word had been written.

The film follows Dickens (Dan Stevens) on his frantic quest to write a wildly popular novel without the merest hint of a concrete idea. He agonizes over the creation of characters and then is haunted by them, literally. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) mocks his attempts and grumbles when he isn’t given enough lines, or enough good lines. Dicken’s father (Jonathan Pryce) is visiting and provides constant distraction. If you have even a passing knowledge of A Christmas Carol, it’s kind of fascinating to watch its author draw inspiration from his own life and everything around him, turning ordinary things into ideas that have permeated our culture and helped to define how we celebrate our holidays. While director Bharat Nalluri of course takes some dramatic license, the spirit of the thing is largely accurate. 

Dan Stevens is well-cast as Dickens, and it gives me great pains to send any praise his way because I’ve always held a grudge for how he treated Lady Mary when he left Downton Abbey the way he did. But in The Man Who Invented Christmas, he brings Dickens alive, a man for whom his characters were more alive to him than his own loved ones, and though Scrooge et al literally do speak to him (and offer criticism), his genius and vivid imagination are not to be discounted. But if the film merely existed to give us Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, that alone would be enough. About to celebrate his 88th birthday, the man still has performance in his bones. He won his first Oscar at the age of 82 for Beginners, and it is possibly not his last – he’s got 4 movies in various phases of production, including his hasty replacement of Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s All The Money in the World. This movie is a perfect example of why Plummer is still in demand. He turns an invented character into a real, flesh and blood man.