These days, it seems all of our lives are lived on some sort of media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or good old-fashioned photos and video. When it comes to the lives of celebrities, you can add the mountain of unwelcome paparazzi footage and photos to any personal photos and videos there may be and you wonder how anyone has any privacy at all anymore. Which is why it’s not surprising to have not one but two incredibly revealing documentaries just this year about two of our most famous musicians who died young (both at age 27) be made up nearly entirely of found footage, a combination of personal and public videos and photographs. It not only creates a uniquely intimate portrait of the person, but a revealing picture of our times.
A couple of months ago, I saw the disturbing but fascinating Brett Morgen documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and last night I saw Asif Kapadia’s Amy, a revealing if slanted documentary of the life of British jazz/pop singer Amy Winehouse. Both Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse were musicians with incredible talents who skyrocketed to fame, were reluctant celebrities and seemed to escape their sudden fame by diving into addiction. Both died way too young at age 27, Cobain of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and Winehouse from alcohol abuse and bulimia. While Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck was a much more fantastical documentary than usual, animating Cobain’s diaries and drawings to speculate his state of mind, Amy is a much more straightforward film, using stock footage and photographs, combined with voiceover narration from those in her inner circle, to tell the all-too-short life story of a troubled artist whose music the world fell in love with.
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I so wanted to love Trainwreck, the new movie from director Judd Apatow, written by and starring Amy Schumer. I wanted to love it because I love Schumer and everything she does, from her standup to her brilliant Comedy Central television sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” which has been the glorious discovery of the year for me. Her style, her comedy, her show, everything about her professional persona is addictively awesome: she’s revealing, raunchy, self-deprecating and real, but without any bitterness or nastiness we’ve come to expect from raunchy female comics. There’s something about Amy Schumer’s comedy that’s open, honest and raw yet also charming. Disarming, even. Imagine a cross between Chelsea Handler and Ellen DeGeneres, with just a hint of Joan Rivers—set in a trashy strip club—and you’ve got Amy Schumer.
Which is why it was easy for Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s comedy Kingmaker (or Queenmaker, as the case may be) to see the potential in Schumer to be Hollywood’s next female comedy superstar. After all, he did it for Lena Dunham on television (Apatow executive produces “Girls” for HBO), and Melissa McCarthy in movies (he produced Bridesmaids)—almost anything he touches turns to gold. Only Judd Apatow could have convinced a major Hollywood studio (Universal) to let a first-time screenwriter and standup comic who’s never been in a movie before to write and star in their own movie—a woman, no less! This isn’t Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was based on a best-selling book, or Sex and the City, which had a successful TV series behind it, or even Bridesmaids, which at least had Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in it. Trainwreck is a romantic comedy—a raunchy comedy at that—starring someone nobody knows opposite a guy not many more people know. How did it get made? Because Judd Apatow believed in Amy Schumer.
That’s gutsy. And rare.
Which is why I SO wanted to love it.
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What can you really say about Minions? Anyone who saw the animated hit Despicable Me or its far lesser sequel, Despicable Me 2, knew that these little yellow, nonsensical pill-shaped charmers were the stars of the show and that Universal would find a way to give them a money-maker—I mean movie—of their own. The Minions are a marketers dream come true—instantly recognizable, appealing to all ages (especially children, the most passionate of consumers), and, because they literally speak a made-up language, the movie can play in any country using the original voiceover artists, which, I imagine, will help it considerably overseas. In this day and age, when box office numbers are relying more and more on foreign numbers for their profit margins, that is huge.
So, obviously, from a business standpoint, Minions was a no-brainer. From an audience standpoint, it seemed like a no-brainer as well. I mean, I had the choice last night to see Minions or Amy, the highly-touted and well-reviewed documentary about the life of the late singer Amy Winehouse, and I went with the adventures of the mindless little yellow creatures. I of course will see Amy soon, but, last night, I was in the mood to giggle and be amused because, I will admit, I find those silly little animated runts totally adorable.
I know, I’m a sucker.
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I am so sick of how Hugh Jackman can do anything: sing, dance, act, build muscle, be charming, carry a bad movie, etc. And how many of you knew that Seth MacFarlane, comedy writer, voiceover artist and creator/producer of several successful television shows (let’s not discuss his movies) can also croon like Frank Sinatra? I know, crazy, right?! Well, it’s true, movies and television are littered with sickeningly talented people who make us want to curl up under a blanket whenever we try to keep the beat to the latest dance craze or hold a key during karaoke. But, then again, the acting, singing and dancing thing is really an elite sport, isn’t it? If you’re really good at any of them, it’s kind of like being good at tennis or golf—you study at fancy places and then you spend your career performing in front of quiet cameras or rich crowds who give you polite, respectful applause. Broadway is the ultimate destination for triple-threat actors, not Hollywood, even though Hollywood is where they occasionally moonlight (read: slum) for financial sustenance. Theatre is where the real talent is.
Unless you’re Channing Tatum.
I would love to have seen his headshot/resume as he was trying to break into acting. Down in the “skills” section, I wonder if it just said “dancing” or if it actually said “exotic dancing” or even “stripper dancing,” the same way other actors claim “juggling” or “conversational Italian.” Because Tatum, currently an A-list movie star, thanks to star turns in hits such as Dear John, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike, does not—very much to his credit— shy away from the fact that he was a male dancer before he became famous. In fact, most actors who had the meteoric rise to fame that he has had would most likely try to put as much distance as possible between himself and his pre-fame background, especially when taking on recent dramatic roles in Oscar-nominated movies such as Foxcatcher. Instead, Tatum has embraced his past because—guess what—he’s not ashamed. Good for him. And he’s enormously talented. Good for us. Tatum may not be gifted in the particular brand of dancing that suits Broadway, but, thankfully, Hollywood has found a way to make use of just what brand he is good at in two movies, first in 2012’s Magic Mike and now in its sequel, Magic Mike XXL, which is an even bigger, bolder and talent-rich display of muscle tone and flexibility combined with rhythm and eroticism that may just make you reach for that blanket to curl under for entirely different reasons.
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Pixar movies have always been about unique points of view. Whether it’s toys (Toy Story and its sequels), monsters who live under the bed (Monsters, Inc.), a lost clownfish (Finding Nemo), an ant (A Bug’s Life), a solitary robot in the future (WALL-E), or so many others, the animation studio’s unique gift is to present stories from unusual point of views in such endearing, charming, funny and touching ways that we end up relating and caring about these characters as if they are a part of us, or even as if they are us. The artists at Pixar’s real talent is understanding the universality of human compassion and emotion, and it doesn’t matter what form or setting of the story, as long as it speaks to the heart.
Which is why only Pixar could have made Inside Out. It is such a thoroughly imaginative and high-concept, yet accessible and heart-warming film, it truly belongs in the Pixar catalog, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s one of my favorites from the studio. While it truly is the smartest and has the best concept of all Pixar’s movies, it has the weakest story, so, if you like high concept and are satisfied to spend an hour and a half being dazzled with ideas and truly magnificent follow-through of high-concept, philosophical jokes that you wonder how kids will ever get, Inside Out is a real wonder to behold. But I was left wishing there could have been a better plot from start to finish to bolster the superb foundation.
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I am the first to acknowledge that film is a visual medium. I am in the minority opinion on this, but the first thing I care about in a film is not the story, it’s the look. If I want to sink into a really involving, complex story, with layered characters, I can pick up a book. A movie is for taking me somewhere, getting me emotionally involved, riveting me, wowing me somehow with acting or cinematography or any of the other many tools at its disposal, like music, costumes, editing or special effects—and if a great story comes into play, for me, that’s icing on the cake.
However, all that being said, there is such a thing as cheapening the ideal.
I will always applaud a filmmaker who attempts greatness and fails, like Cloud Atlas. The Wachowski siblings made that film from the heart and even though it was a disaster, it was an honest attempt at visionary filmmaking. What I cannot applaud, however, is when a filmmaker puts out a film that has every potential to be a visionary concept film but ends up playing like a hollow corporate publicity reel instead.
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Summer Movie Season is usually a double-edged sword. I never know whether to be excited about the slickly-produced (read: expensive) escapist fare meant to entertain us or begrudge the assembly-line brainless noise designed to extract the largest sums from our wallets in the shortest amounts of time. Half of it is insulting to our intelligence (ok, more than half), but the studios actually save their biggest bottom-line salvos for the summer, which means that sometimes we, the audience, get the biggest bang for our buck and, once in a while, summer will deliver an experience or two in the movie theatre unlike anything or anywhere else—and that’s what keeps us coming back. Thanks a lot, Jaws.
Of course, last night, during the previews for the feature presentation of Mad Max: Fury Road, the first big summer movie of the year that I am seeing (I skipped Avengers: Age of Ultron—see first paragraph’s “brainless noise” assumption), I was disappointingly reminded of what summer movies have become these days. Two previews in particular were examples of the dumbing-and-numbing-down of the current action movie genre: Ant-Man and San Andreas. Well, whaddya know…a superhero movie and a disaster movie. How original. At the end of the San Andreas trailer, the audience I was in was actually laughing. Not a good reaction for a disaster movie about a giant earthquake that destroys Los Angeles. Maybe it hits too close to home. Or maybe—we’ve just had enough.
Which is why Mad Max: Fury Road is just the post-apocalyptic nightmare action movie to kick Hollywood and audiences out of their superhero/disaster movie coma and remind us that summer can be about spectacle, action, escapism, fantasy, special effects, fun AND creativity and originality. It’s been a long time since we could say that.
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It certainly is nothing new in Hollywood movies, especially science fiction, to anticipate and/or fictionalize a future world without humans. The question of how we get there and what that future would look like—and, more specifically, what the human replacement beings would look like—has filled many a movie, since movies began to capture our imagination.
The latest movie about artificial intelligence, or AI, from writer-director Alex Garland, is called Ex Machina, and it treads much of the same philosophical ground as we’ve seen before, but in a more specific, concise, personal and haunting way.
The premise starts out like a classic horror movie set-up: a computer programmer at the world’s largest internet search engine wins a contest to spend a week with the company’s CEO, a genius recluse who lives alone in a mountain estate in the middle of nowhere, where he does mysterious research. After the programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is dropped off by helicopter in the middle of a field, with instructions to “follow the river,” you get the feeling something is odd, but then he comes across this gorgeous house and finally meets CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who explains the need for the security is due to the ultra-sensitive research he’s been doing for the past few years. Nathan explains that he has brought Caleb there because he is on the verge of something monumental and he believes Caleb is the perfect person to bring in to test the viability of his project. The project? A fully interactive AI named Ava, who is able to react, respond and even emote. Nathan claims this is the most advanced AI ever created and could change the world and he needs Caleb to help test his hypothesis.
So, there’s the premise: two men, one possibly crazy, possibly a genius, the other possibly a genius, possibly very gullible, are alone a million miles from nowhere with possibly a sentient robot, possibly friendly, possibly not. Nope, nothing could go wrong there.
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Despite the fact that 2015 has started out so forgettably, there is much still to come that could make this year quite memorable. Here are the movies I’m most looking forward to and why—in no particular order (release date in parentheses):
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (August 14): I don’t know why, but I’ve always rooted for director Guy Ritchie to have a hit movie. This one could be fun. At the very least, we’ll get to see if Henry Cavill can act without the cape. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. trailer
CHILD 44 (April 17): The bad: an untested director (Daniel Espinosa) and an April release date. The good: Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace. I’ll give this Stalin-era Soviet Union thriller a chance, just to see these two work together. Child 44 Trailer
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (November 25): After the amazingly brilliant Take Shelter, I said whenever and wherever director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon reunited, I would be there.
SISTERS (December 18): Amy Poehler and Tina Fey movies have so far been a miserable failure (except for Mean Girls, which, really, doesn’t count), so I don’t have high hopes, but a December 18 release date looks promising…albeit a bit confusing.
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Harrison Ford’s recent plane crash reminded me of what a giant presence in my cinematic life experience this star has been. He is so much more than three of the most iconic characters in movie history (yes, one actor has played Han Solo, Indiana Jones and the true Jack Ryan)—he is arguably the ultimate movie star of my generation, and the slight panic I felt at losing him (which was eerily similar to the heartache I felt when we lost Robin Williams last year) has made me want to go back and look at his catalog and appreciate again all that he has given us over the years—-and will continue to give us for many years to come, I hope (including this December’s highly-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the planned Indiana Jones 5 and Blade Runner sequel).
First of all, let’s run down the titles of Ford’s movies, and I guarantee you’ll be astonished—you may have forgotten how prolific he actually is. He is so much more than Han Solo.
American Graffiti (1973)
The Conversation (1974)
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Force 10 from Navarone (1978)
Apocalypse Now (1978)
Hanover Street (1979)
The Frisco Kid (1979)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1979)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
Blade Runner (1981)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1982)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1983)
The Mosquito Coast (1985)
Working Girl (1988)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1988)
Presumed Innocent (1989)
Regarding Henry (1990)
Patriot Games (1991)
The Fugitive (1993)
Clear and Present Danger (1993)
The Devil’s Own (1995)
Air Force One (1997)
Six Days Seven Nights (1997)
Random Hearts (1998)
What Lies Beneath (1999)
K-19: The Widowmaker (2000)
Hollywood Homicide (2002)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2006)
Crossing Over (2008)
Extraordinary Measures (2009)
Morning Glory (2010)
Cowboys & Aliens (2010)
Ender’s Game (2013)
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)
The Expendables 3 (2013)
To choose my favorite Harrison Ford movie would be like trying to choose my favorite song: it depends on my mood. Off the top of my head, the basic cable Hall of Famers Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games and Air Force One always feed my need for the popcorn action flick—Ford is at his tough-but-vulnerable best, getting the suit dirty only when he has to, kicking butt to protect family and country. Then, of course, when I want the action (and my hero) not as clean-cut, but much cooler (and snarkier), the sure and obvious bets are Raiders of Lost Ark and any of the original Star Wars movies, which are not just in the basic cable Hall of Fame, but in the All-Time Cinema Hall of Fame. And as for the characters of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, I mean, come on. There was a time—long before anyone heard of James Cameron—that, between Star Wars and the Raiders movies, Harrison Ford starred in five of the top 10 grossing movies of all time. Now THAT’S a movie star.
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