First Man

Universal Pictures / DreamWorks
The love affair between movies and space has been around since, well, the beginning. One of the first movies ever made was Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), about a group of astronauts who travel to the moon. It seems man has always been fascinated with space flight and the history of cinema has reflected that curiosity, sense of adventure and wonder. Even though space movies have ventured much deeper into the void since 1902, the moon was and will always be our most intimately explored subject, as it is the closest to us, yet still far enough away to seem unreachable by any average person. So close, and, yet…so far.

Even this deep into humanity’s existence, space travel is reserved for the most daring, the most capable and the most dedicated. Only a noted few in history have ventured beyond our atmosphere, which, in the annals of human history, still counts as the rarest achievement. For a little perspective, up until 2010, 3,412 people have climbed Mt. Everest, the greatest achievement on this planet, whereas, as of 2013, only 536 people have ever been to space. And, of those 536, only 12 have ever walked on the face of the moon. Only 12 souls have ever set foot on an interplanetary object other than ours. I can’t imagine a story more made for the movies than that of the first person ever to do so.

So, when I heard that director Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, my favorite movie of 2016, was making a movie about Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and it starred Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, I was in. I was beyond excited for the possibilities with these artists working together to combine the adventure and beauty of space with the true story of an American legend. Well, the movie, First Man, is now out and I have finally seen it. And, sad to say, I was disappointed. For all it could have been—for all I was expecting and hoping it to be—it ended up being something quite different.

So close, and, yet, so far.

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A Star is Born

Warner Bros.
One of the many things I’ve learned about movies as I’ve gotten older is that, if you wait long enough, everything good will eventually get re-made. Sometimes, even things that weren’t good get re-made. In the case of A Star Is Born, it didn’t just get re-made once, but now, 81 years after the original, 64 after the first re-make and 42 years after the RE-re-make, we are given a fourth version of the same story. Is fourth time the charm? Well, that depends.

Something that is either a detriment or an advantage to me watching Bradley Cooper’s current version of A Star is Born is the fact that I have never seen any of the three previous movie incarnations of William A. Wellman and Robert Carson’s original story about a young singer and the aging, alcoholic rock star who propels her to stardom. The original, from 1937, starred Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. The first re-make, in 1954, starred Judy Garland and James Mason. And then in 1976 came the Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson version. And now, 2018’s A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. If it seems crazy, even in an industry where original thinking is as rare as Halley’s Comet, that the same story would continue to be re-done so many times, it will all make sense when you see it. A Star is Born is a story custom-made for Hollywood, made for the big screen, made for a world where the collision of music and movies is often box office gold. Many pop stars have starred in movies where they played some version of themselves….some worked (The Bodyguard, 8 Mile, The Rose, Purple Rain) and some didn’t (Glitter, Crossroads), but they have always been fascinating. And some pop stars look and feel more at home on the big screen than others. While I’ve never seen Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand’s takes on this character, I can’t imagine any of them inhabiting this story any better or with more bravura than Lady Gaga does. I only wish the rest of the movie could have risen up to meet her.

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The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Of all the movie combos I thought I’d never see, Cate Blanchett and Eli Roth could well have been at the top of the list. Two-time Oscar winner Blanchett is considered one of, if not the best actress in Hollywood, a go-to for everything from historical period pieces to modern-day dramas, she not only legitimizes any film she’s in, but she elevates and dignifies it as well. And then there’s Roth, the notorious king of gore, whose movies are so violent, disturbed and bloody that I can’t even watch the trailers. IMDB cites one of the trademarks of his movies as containing “explicit carnage…and female nudity.” Not exactly Blanchett territory.

But every director likes to expand their repertoire, and every actress wants to challenge themselves with something new and different. Where would Cate Blanchett and Eli Roth meet in the middle? Where would someone from the elevated heights of filmmaking meet the purveyor of low-brow horror? Where would they both look and feel a little out of place yet still be able to challenge their artistry? A PG-rated kid’s movie, of course!

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Crazy Rich Asians

photo of Crazy Rich Asians (Warner Bros)
Warner Bros

It’s hard to believe that we have been so incredibly lucky to have had Black Panther AND Crazy Rich Asians in the same year. Whether it’s a reaction to the toxic political climate we are in or just coincidence, the fact that two major Hollywood movies featuring almost exclusively non-white actors, directed by non-white directors and centered around non-European culture were made with big budgets by major Hollywood studios and became legit blockbusters in the same year aren’t even the craziest things about them. The craziest thing is that they even exist in the first place. In the same year of the first mainstream gay romantic comedy (Love, Simon), Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are firsts in so many ways. Black Panther is the first movie about a black superhero featuring an almost completely black cast and directed by a black director. And Crazy Rich Asians is—if you can believe it—the first Hollywood movie to feature a completely Asian cast in 25 years (Joy Luck Club in 1993) which is also directed by a director of Asian heritage. Hard to believe, but true. And the best thing about Crazy Rich Asians is similarly the best thing about Black Panther: it’s just a good movie. Yes, it breaks all kinds of barriers, but, at the end of the day, what matters is if it’s entertaining. And boy, is it.

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Operation Finale

You’d think, after all the movies I’ve seen about World War II, that I would have seen one about the capture of Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was the main architect of the Holocaust, and was the highest-ranking Nazi officer to escape Germany after the war. He fled to Argentina, but, in 1960, Israeli Mossad agents tracked him down, captured him, and returned him to face trial in Israel, where he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and hanged. Eichmann’s trial was watched worldwide and sparked a renewed interest in learning about the war and about the atrocities committed at the hands of the Nazis.

While Eichmann’s story itself is a significant one, the story of his capture and eventual trial would seem a gimme to be one laden with dramatic content and seemingly tailor-made for cinematic retelling. And yet, I have never seen a movie about Eichmann. Which is why I was so excited to see Operation Finale, a new movie starring Ben Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who brings him in. I was expecting/hoping it would be along the lines of the really good Steven Spielberg movie Munich (2005), which was about the Israeli agents who were tasked with hunting down the people behind the Palestinian terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich games. Unfortunately, Operation Finale is never able to achieve a compelling narrative and ends up being a massive disappointment.

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Sorry to Bother You

Photo: Annapurna
My thoughts on the new film Sorry to Bother You will feel like they are an addendum to my review of The Spy Who Dumped Me. Just as I was disappointed in that film but was pleased at the fact that more films written, directed and starring women are being made, I feel the same way about films by black artists. The prevailing notion for films made by women and/or by minorities is that they have to be really good because there are so few of them. White men have been making movies for decades and when a film directed by a white man fails or gets terrible reviews, they don’t suddenly say “well, see, this is why white men just shouldn’t make movies.” However, there is the fear that could happen for black or women filmmakers. We need to get to the same place where minority filmmakers can fail just as often as their white male counterparts and still have the chance to try again. With white male filmmakers, the opportunity to make a first film is called “let’s see your potential.” With minority filmmakers, it’s called “your one chance to impress us.”

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photo: Focus Features
Focus Features
We will never know for sure what sparked a noticeable increase in movies about the American black experience in recent years, but it might have had something to do with the fact that, in 2008, this country elected its first black president. Since then, some of the most powerful movies about race relations and black history have come out, most notably:

The Help (2011)
Django Unchained (2012)
Lincoln (2012)
12 Years A Slave (2013)
42 (2013)
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Selma (2014)
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Loving (2016)
Moonlight (2016)
Fences (2016)
Hidden Figures (2016)
Mudbound (2017)
Detroit (2017)
Dear White People (2017)

Black filmmakers have felt more empowered and more encouraged to tell their stories, and Hollywood and audiences have been welcoming. But, as with anything in the cultural and political sphere, for every time the pendulum swings one way, it always swings back, causing tonal shifts in our landscape. The massive swing towards inclusion and listening to the stories that were once lost is starting to swing back towards intolerance and bigotry, most likely similarly inspired by the current administration in the White House, which openly touts a return to the days before integration, equality and diversity. There is a fear that those new voices that were encouraged to be heard might be silenced again.

However, filmmaker Spike Lee has never been one to be silent. And he was never one to wait for any cultural acceptance or atmosphere of approval to make his voice heard. Lee was at the forefront of black cinema before it was ever in the mainstream.

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The Spy Who Dumped Me

photo: Lionsgate
Kate McKinnon as “Morgan” and Mila Kunis as “Aubrey” in THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME. Lionsgate
Name a big budget Hollywood comedy that is written or co-written by a woman, directed by a woman, and stars 2 women. The Spy Who Dumped Me is the first one I can think of that matches this description. It is directed by Susanna Fogel, co-written by Fogel (with David Iserson) and stars Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It cost $40 million to make, was produced by mega-producer Brian Grazer, and was released in 3,111 theatres on August 3. It is considered a major motion picture, so, by that fact alone, I celebrate it with gusto. There has been a spotlight recently on the fact that there are way too few movies directed by women, let alone written and directed by women, and even rarer to star women. So, yes, I am happy The Spy Who Dumped Me even got made.

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About Those Oscar Changes….

I should have seen this coming. I knew that last year’s Oscar telecast had the worst ratings in a long time—44 years, to be exact—so I knew the Academy would be falling all over itself to try to right the ship, but I had no idea they’d do THIS.

Today, on Twitter, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced:

“Change is coming to the #Oscars. Here’s what you need to know:
– A new category is being designed around achievement in popular film.
– We’ve set an earlier airdate for 2020: mark your calendars for February 9.
– We’re planning a more globally accessible, three-hour telecast.”

With that one tweet, the Academy caused a thousand film bloggers’ heads to explode, including this one. The tweet announces the first major changes to the Oscar telecast since the addition of the Best Animated Feature Film category in 2001 and the expansion of the number of Best Picture nominees in 2010. While those additions were welcome and widely applauded, the changes announced today are filling me with a massive sense of dread and disappointment. If the Academy decides to go through with these changes, the Oscars as we have known (and loved) them for 90 years will change forever. Worse than that, however, is the message the changes are sending, especially now.

Let’s go through them one by one.

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Hearts Beat Loud

photo: Gunpowder & Sky
Gunpowder & Sky
So here’s the thing about summer. Yes, it’s a time for the big blockbusters, the movies with merchandise tie-ins and numbers after their titles, but there’s a little-acknowledged joy about summer that has nothing to do with superheroes and sequels: it’s the perfect season for adult movies.

Normally, we equate summer movies with kids and big budgets, and it still is dominated by movies aimed at the restless youth and the overseas market, but the little-known secret of the movie industry is that summer is also the time for quality adult movies. The beginning of the year (Jan-April) is usually the dumping ground for movies that have come in below expectations and are not going to deliver much, from critics, awards or box office. The last part of the year (October-December) is reserved for awards consideration, where the best of the best compete, and only the strong survive. However, if a studio has a movie that they are really happy with, but they know it can’t compete with the big boys of Oscar season, for whatever reason (marketing budget, lack of stars, lack of pedigree), releasing it in the summer has proven to be a goldmine. A low budget, grown-up movie of quality can find a foothold in the summer because—guess what—most adults aren’t interested in the typical summer movie. Some good examples of adult movies that were released in the summer that made a splash (and lots of cash): The Big Sick, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mamma Mia and Bridesmaids. Not every adult movie released in the summer will make money, but it is still worthwhile to see what’s out there, in the land beyond the blockbusters, because there just may be a hidden gem or two.

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