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2011

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The subject of free soloing (climbing sheer face of rock with no rope) is compelling, more so for me because I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw this movie.  You travel with Alex Sonnold as he attempts the greatest climb of his life, the 900 meter El Capitan in Yellowstone, which seems particularly reckless in that he’s just weeks off a sprained ankle.

The climb is gripping. The psychological portrait of the climber less so. He appears to be a bit disassociative, almost numb, which lessens your investment in him.  For example, he has the cutest damn girlfriend you’ve ever seen, and she’s clearly crazy about him. As such, his risks in the face of such riches would seem casually cruel if he weren’t a bit of a deadened weirdo.

Indeed, the film is about Alex doing something that may well kill him (free soloists die pretty regularly) and voluntarily having it filmed.   The pre-bout navel-gazing (his family never hugged or used the word “love”) and awkward, searching exchanges with his documentarians feel like artificial injections to elicit empathy. They are only so effective.

Would this be tolerable if he was more human, more flesh and bone?  Should that matter?  Should I feel bad that the movie feels long when it has offered me a “he lives or he dies” finale?

My ethical quandaries aside,  watch this on the biggest TV you have.  The visuals are stunning and the achievement monumental.

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Finally got a chance to see this. It’s bad. Green Book bad.

It starts as a mildly amusing, slick sit-comish comedy structured on a ridiculous premise – in the 1970s, a black Colorado cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) calls the KKK to join up and they are eager to have him, so he has to use his white partner (Adam Driver) for face-to-face meetings, which creates unnecessarily close shaves. Why not have Driver simply make the calls and handle the meets?

The answer is – wacky hijinx!  And there’s plenty of that.

Eventually, the funny gets less funny and the picture lapses into an absurdist procedural punctuated by overt, earnest philosophical discussions that would make kids in an Oberlin coffee house roll their eyes.  

Perhaps sensing the lightness of the fare and his own elapsing clock, Lee goes heavy at the end, utilizing actual footage from the Nazi rally in Charlottesville.  It’s like appending pictures of James Meredith’s shooting at the end of a poignant Different Strokes.

It’s a cheap ploy that seeks to elevate the zany caper that preceded it to serious statement.  Worse, as pointed out by Boots Riley, director of the infinitely better Sorry to Bother You, Lee’s film is based on a true story, and a less convenient aspect of that story might be that the real Stallworth was infiltrating black organizations to their detriment.

Ah well.  

You gotta’ give it to Lee, though. He knows his audience and he oversauced this goose good. Heck, he almost pulled it off. 

Alas, Oscar found another cheezy race fable to take home the gold. 

Curses!
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When Spike Lee acted like a petulant fool after BlackKKlansman lost Best Picture to Green Book, it seemed silly, and given the mediocrity of his own picture, a sad stunt.  But I get it Spike. I apologize.

The story of classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahersheela Ali) who enlists Italian bouncer Tony Lip from New Yawk (Viggo Mortenson) for a Southern swing of concerts in 1962 is so chock full of cliche’, it borders on spoof.  Ten minutes in, you know that the hotheaded Tony will hit a cracker cop, the cultured Shirley will play boogie woogie in a honkey tonk, and they will teach each other, oh, so many things.

Sadly, it is not a spoof.

This picture is atrocious. Simplistic, repetitive, nonsensical, and boring.  It has no idea what it wants to be. A civil rights era Odd Couple?  A moral tract about role reversal and rejection by one’s own race?  A road movie?  It does none of it well.

But it has a white guy teaching a black guy the joys of fried chicken, so, there’s that.

The characters lack any consistency. When black men perform repairs at his apartment, Tony throws away the glasses the men drink water from, such is the viral nature of their cooties. But in the blink of an eye, he is driving a black man around, comfortable not only with his boss’s skin color, but his homosexuality.

’Cause he’s been around nightclubs, and tings, day get, complicated. Mangia, manigot, caprese, spumoni, to da’ moon, Sbarro!

And while Shirley is supposedly working the southern swing in solidarity with Nat King Cole, who was beaten years earlier for playing white music, he also inexplicably plays private affairs at the homes of cartoon bigots. For what, I don’t know. Cash?  Self flagellation?  And when rich Southerners have a cultured pianist perform at their homes and eat dinner at their table, he is still sent to the wooden outhouse to pee.  Jesus, even in The Help, the bathroom had plumbing.

Making matters worse, Viggo Mortenson’s tough guy driver from da’ Bronx is so broad, so exaggerated, you can’t believe what you’re seeing. He’s half Joey from Friends, half The Fonz. He actually says Ba Fongool.  Or Ba Fon Goo. Or whatever they say in Chef Boyardee commercials.  He’s brutal to watch, yet, a thing to behold.

It ends sweet and there is charm in its insouciance as to its own plausibility or depth, but that gets you exactly one star.

Oscar?  Fuggedaboutit!!!

I just read this Grantland oral history on Tom Cruise’s turn as Les Grossman, and it got me to thinking:  what are the funniest supporting performances in film?

For your consideration–

Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, Tropic Thunder: It’s hard to even recognize Cruise, he is so transformed as a profane hairy-armed Hollywood studio exec, but he steals a film graced by scads of very good comedic performances.  My favorite Grossman scene is when he meets the film’s Vietnam veteran writer.

Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder.  Downey caught some flak for his use of the term “retard” and on that sin alone, he should be honored, but his role as an Aussie actor so “method” he changes the pigment of his skin is nothing short of genius.  And yes, his best scene is when he schools Ben Stiller on the perils of playing a disabled character in Hollywood.

Adam Scott as Derek, Step Brothers.  Scott’s domineering, obnoxious older brother reflects what most people hate about older brothers, especially overgrown adolescents digging on the “bro'” culture and categorizing success as $$$ and having a family who can harmonize a shitty song.

Fred Willard as Buck Laughlin, Best in Show.  This is what you get when you hand color commentary duty for a dog show to a bowling announcer on ESPN’s “The Ocho.”

Sydney Pollack as George Fields, Tootsie.  Pollack has two bravura scenes.  First, when he explains why his difficult actor client Dustin Hoffman doesn’t get any work and then, when Hoffman approaches him at lunch in drag.  They’re both top notch, but Pollack (who was more the director than actor in his career)  exudes such memorable terror in the second scene, I have to give it the nod.

Ted Knight as Judge Smales, Caddyshack.  Knight basically moved Ted Baxter from the role of anchorman to judge, but his turn as the country club snob is still the funniest thing in what is an otherwise okay comedy.  He is at his best when he tries to be “helpful.”

Hank Azaria as Agador, The Birdcage.  Physical comedy gold from the super fey “butler” who isn’t used to wearing shoes.

Jane Lynch as Sweeny, Role Models.  Her desperate to be “in-the-know” community service director steals every scene she is in, in this, my favorite of the Judd Apatow type comedies which strangely, does not have a connection to Apatow .

John C. Reilly as Cal Naughton, Jr., Talladega Nights.  Reilly’s goofy sidekick to Will Ferrell is so earnest and open, you actually feel for him as he steals Ricky’s position, family and dignity.  His thoughts on what Jesus means to him are priceless.

Vince Vaughn as Trent, Swingers.  As Vaughn drowns weekly in season 2 of HBO’s True Detective (I can think of few actors less suited to Nic Pizzolatto’s increasingly ridiculous take on hard-boiled patter, but to be fair, nobody could really convincingly deliver lines such as, “It’s like blue balls of the heart”), it is fair to remember his frenetic, cheerful best friend to Jon Favreau.  His dating advice to Favreau is spot on.

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The tone of this film is one of continual dread, which makes it exhausting. The themes are insecurity, delusion and eventual madness, which makes it an even harder slog. The three characters – Olympians Channing Tatum and his older brother Mark Ruffalo and their rich patron Steve Carell (playing wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and heir John DuPont) – do not develop so much as wearily trudge forward to their unsurprising and dispiriting end. The script is unnecessarily overt, verbalizing explicitly what has already been well communicated visually, making the film longer than it has to be. This is just a big bummer of a flick, and despite nice performances by all three leads and some beautiful visuals by director Benedict Miller (Capote), it doesn’t have much to say about anything and what is does say is pedestrian, cold and repetitive.


There is trouble in the North Pole. Santa (Jim Broadbent) is listless and bored, barely phoning it in.  His oldest son and heir (Hugh Laurie) has digitized and corporatized Christmas, while his predecessor (Bill Nighy), retired, undermines him at every turn, dreaming of a return to glory.  His youngest son (James MacAvoy) has the spirit but lacks any discernible skill. When a gift from Santa goes undelivered, the fissures of this dysfunctional royal family emerge.

The computer animation is expert, the story enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and it’s even slyly subversive.  Santa Nighy is a misogynist, Laurie’s male elf assistant appears to have a crush on him, and the elves who man the North Pole have a denizen-of-Jonestown quality (so much so that the film threatens a mass elf suicide at the end).

I avoided this film because of an aversion to dramas about viruses and plagues and because I was still shellshocked at the total crappiness of the 1995 Dustin Hoffman vehicle Outbreak (guess what?  The military did it!).  Unless the eventual outcome of a filmic plague is zombies, 21 Days Later-esque “rage” victims or altered humans ala’ The Omega Man, count me out.

But you’ll watch most anything in a hotel, and Contagion had three extra things going for it – it was the $4.99 special, a few friends recommended the picture and it was directed by Stephen Soderbergh.  Despite my reticence, I was treated to an engrossing, intelligent and moving drama about what a 1918-like worldwide plague (where the entire world lost 1% of its population) would look like today.  The answer through Soderbergh’s eyes is — not pretty, but not hopeless.

The films starts with poor Gwyneth Paltrow, who is the second carrier of an infection transmitted by touch.  Once she is identified as Patient 1 (a Chinese cook is actually Patient 0 – he touched the pig who ate the bat got that started this whole mess, and then he shook Paltrow’s hand), we follow her from China through Chicago and to Minneapolis, where she has touched at least a dozen people  And an epidemic starts.

Soon, the government (Laurence Fishburne at the CDC, Bryan Cranston at Homeland Security) swings into action, regular CDC folk (Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle) act heroically, an internet crackpot become a messiah (Jude Law), and Paltrow’s husband and many other regular folk have to deal with a paralyzed world.  Lawlessness increases because law enforcement is sparse; fear runs rampant; trash piles up in the street; and people hole up waiting for aid and/or a vaccine.

This is a gripping, sober thriller, thankfully bereft of the normal tropes of the genre.   The government did not create the virus for military purposes; almost every character is doing the best they can under difficult circumstances; and while society does break down, it also holds up.

All the actors are very good and very believeable.  Special kudos to Matt Damon, who continues to be the least-appreciated American actor of his generation.  He had the misfortune of being outshined by Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed.  They got the nominations and Damon, who carries both films with decidedly more difficult roles, got squat.  Here, he serves as the father who has lost a wife and son and seeks to ensure his surviving daughter is not affected while at the same time giving her some life of normalcy. The scene where he is told his wife is dead is particularly moving.

Final note:  Gwyneth Paltrow gets the Lifetime Achievement Award for Actress Who Allows Herself to Be De-Glamorized to Best Serve the Role (you’ll know what I mean when you see it).