AWARDS SEASON CENTRAL '16-'17
CRITICS CHOICE * GOLDEN GLOBES * SAG AWARDS * BAFTAS * OSCARS®
A bit of a change of tune: I'm spotlighting one of the biggest music superstars in the world.
Whether it's on TV (in particular awards shows), the radio (with hit after hit), in the tabloids (eight confirmed boyfriends - most recently actor Tom Hiddleston), on social media (81 million Twitter followers - 3rd most popular, only behind Katy Perry and Justin Bieber) or even in the movies ("Valentine's Day", "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax", "The Giver"), no one dominates the entertainment scene quite like Taylor Swift.
One of my platforms - FLY 92.3 - is the No. 1 hit music station in the Albany, NY market. Over the years I have heard A LOT of Taylor Swift songs not only played on FLY, but other stations, as well as on iHeartRadio and other online and digital services. Therefore, I feel qualified to release my picks for Taylor Swift's five best songs:
1. "HIGHWAY DON'T CARE" - I know, it's technically not her song, but it's, arguably, one of the best music collaborations of the decade. Swift joined country superstars Tim McGraw and Keith Urban to record this emotional tune, with an accompanying, effective music video. And when all three performed it live for the first time, on the 2013 ACM Awards, it was the country music equivalent of the epic "Les Miserables" performance at the Oscars less than two months earlier.
2. "MEAN" - When it comes to having a clear, deep message (about being who you are and overcoming the bullies in life), this is Swift's defining song.
3. "SWEETER THAN FICTION" - One of Swift's two Golden Globe nominations was for this song from the little-seen true-story music biopic "One Chance", starring "Late Late Show" host James Corden as opera singer, and "Britain's Got Talent" champion, Paul Potts. It lives-up to its name and is packed with meaning.
4. "RED" - It's one of her most "colorful" songs (and likely helped Maserati sales). The live acoustic version at the 2013 CMA Awards, featuring Vince Gill and Alison Krauss, was a classic.
5. "SAFE AND SOUND" - "The Hunger Games" franchise earned a Best Original Song Globe nomination for the first three of its four movies. The original "HG" featured Swift's "Safe and Sound" during the closing credits. A collaboration with the band, The Civil Wars, it's simple but memorable, with the perfect tone for the dark, gloomy atmosphere of the film.
"LOVE STORY" - Her take on a modern "Romeo & Juliet" romance was one of the songs that put Swift on the map and, deservedly, shot her to stardom.
"SHAKE IT OFF" - This gets stuck in your head from the moment you hear it begin, but it's extremely catchy and quickly became a pop culture anthem.
With her bold fashion statements and immense popularity, it's surprising that we continue to hear more of Swift in the movies than see her. "Welcome to New York" (which accompanies the opening scene of "The Secret Life of Pets"), is her latest soundtrack contribution.
Rarely does a movie make me cry. On the few occasions it's happened, it was at the end of the film. "Christine" not only brought me to tears during the climax, but on two other occasions earlier in the movie, as I watched Rebecca Hall give a painfully resonant and hauntingly brilliant performance as 1970s TV news reporter, Christine Chubbuck.
You may recognize the name and know a little about the story of Chubbuck, a one-time Sarasota, Florida on-air TV personality. If so, chances are it's how she died that you're familiar with. "Christine" brilliantly portrays Chubbuck's final months, the events that led to her infamous act of pulling-out a handgun and committing suicide live on the air during a newscast.
Every scene and line of dialogue is designed to get us to this staggering event. You know it's coming, and yet, the moment is still incredibly jarring. The shooting (which forever changed television, and inspired the iconic film, "Network"), may leave the biggest impression, but it's just one of more than a dozen gripping, heartbreaking and poignant moments throughout "Christine".
Hall embodies Chubbuck, who was 29 years old in 1974 and into her second year at ABC affiliate WXLT (in "Christine" the call letters are changed to WZRB). Her socially awkward attributes were difficult to ignore. She was brilliant, overly-sensitive and very good at her job, but also extremely insecure, especially in dealing with criticism from News Director/Station Manager Michael (played by Tracy Letts). Their interactions are especially insightful. Chubbuck was also dealing with depression. Several times there are references to Christine's past problems "in Boston", though they are not spelled-out specifically, adding to the mystery of this very complicated and troubled woman.
The early 70s was the time when local TV news was becoming sensationalized, and Michael starts pushing for juicier crime stories ("If it Bleeds, it Leads"), urging Christine to get away from the interviews with chicken farmers and stories on the local strawberry festival. But this is the kind of reporting Christine loved.
Her spirits are tested further when the station owner comes to town. He's looking to see which on-air and production talent he can pluck from this small station for his new station in Baltimore, which was a Top 30 market (and still is today). Christine becomes obsessed with getting that new job. Hall's mesmirizing performance, as complications arise that prevent Christine from achieving her goals - how she reacts as, piece by piece, her professional and personal life begins to crumble around her, is heartbreaking. Her weird and strained relationship with her roommate (who also happens to be her mother) only makes her more of a ticking time bomb.
I could write pages dissecting every scene in "Christine": a very uncomfortable interaction Chubbuck has with a young couple at a restaurant celebrating their three-year anniversary. The "date" Christine has with news anchor George Ryan (played masterfully by Michael C. Hall) that goes in completely unexpected and devastating directions. A "Yes, But..." group therapy session scene that will tie your stomach in knots. And each of the three puppet shows Christine performs at a hospital for special-needs children. The way she incorporates the troubles of her life into these sessions intended for kids will leave you breathless.
"Christine" is 33-year old director Antonio Campos's third feature film (he was a producer on "Martha Marcy May Marlene"). He and writer Craig Shilowich completely capture the atmosphere and look of local TV news in the 70s, from the set design, to the clothes, to the spot-on dialogue. You feel the pressure that Christine and, to a lesser extent, her colleagues were dealing with: the pressure to get higher ratings; the pressure to get a promotion; the pressure on the women in the newsroom to succeed in a male-dominated field and, for everyone, especially Christine: the pressure to be loved. The ensemble cast is outstanding and the creepy, "click-clack" score, at times reminiscent of ticking clocks on classic game shows, adds to the drama.
Tonight's Top Story: "'Christine' is One of The Best Movies of 2016". It's also one of the most important, largely thanks to Hall, who represents everyone, especially those in the media business, whose goal it is to matter. If there are five better Lead Actress performances this year I will be stunned. Hall is impossible to ignore.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Christine" gets an A.
"Christine" opens in Limited Release on October 14th.
Many thoughts were swirling around my head as I was watching "Storks". The opening montage reminded me of the stork delivering baby Dumbo to Mrs. Jumbo in that Disney classic. Hearing Kelsey Grammer as the voice of the stork delivery company boss made me think of his role on the TV drama, "Boss". I enjoyed Ty Burrell's voice work as a dad who's a realtor because he plays realtor Phil Dunphy on "Modern Family".
When a pigeon broke-out into song with "How You Like Me Now?", I thought of how much I dislike random, completely unnecessary musical numbers that pop-up in the middle of stories (maybe that's why I never got into "Glee"). And as a rogue stork and bumbling human girl were taking part in their quest of delivering a new baby to her parents, I realized that the crime "Endangering the Welfare of a Child" has never applied more to an animated film than it does with "Storks". This movie is also guilty of "Endangering the Sanity of an Audience".
Such frenetic, scatterbrained thinking is exactly what went into the creation and execution of "Storks", which can be summed-up in two words: Sensory Overload.
The concept is cute and had SO MUCH potential. At the start of the film we learn that the traditional stork baby delivery service ended 18 years ago (I must have been one of the last stork deliveries) and was converted into the package delivery business. So storks now ship cell phones, books, etc. all purchased on the website, Cornerstore.com. A couple things worth noting: There is an actual Cornerstore.com, though it, interestingly, has no ties to "Storks" whatsoever. And - in case you were concerned - a form of the U.S. Postal Service still exists in the movie, though UPS and FedEx do not.
A boy named Nate writes a letter to the Storks asking for a baby brother. His parents, a workaholic real estate team voiced by Burrell and Jennifer Aniston, don't want to tell him that babies don't come from storks (anymore). When the letter arrives, one of the head storks, Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg, with simply his normal, Andy Samberg voice) and a human orphan girl, Tulip (Katie Crown) see it get processed into the old factory system. Once the baby is "born", Junior and Tulip make it their task to deliver the infant to her new family without anyone else finding out. Of course, keeping a new baby a secret is impossible to do.
In true Warner Bros. tradition "Storks" is looney. Not only is it extremely fast-paced and frantic, but it's very reminiscent of WB's classic "Looney Tunes" in pace and energy. That iconic cast of characters, writers and animators made that style work - in small doses. It doesn't work at all in "Storks". My head was spinning after the first five minutes, and there's hardly any let-up over the next 85.
Director Nicholas Stoller, of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Neighbors", also incorporates way too many ridiculous references and forced ad-lib dialogue, with characters constantly yelling over each other, while, at the same time, flying, running and smashing into things. And, if that's not enough zaniness, Key & Peele voice the leaders of wolfpack that transforms itself into a bridge, submarine and minivan. Just bizarre. And there's that pigeon mentioned earlier qualifies as the most obnoxious animated movie character of 2016.
Also - a small point: Nate asks for a brother, and the baby "produced" from his letter is a girl. Maybe this was commentary on how real delivery services sometimes screw-up orders? Or, it was just sloppy filmmaking.
If there's an ideal audience for "Storks", you'd think it'd be young kids. But parents - be warned: With so much going on, they'll be overwhelmed rather than entertained. I was mostly frustrated. There are a few well-handled, quiet scenes that prevent "Storks" from being a total disaster. But, overall, the wild, uncontrolled style engulfs the core concept, resulting in a package that, frankly, you'd be better-off not opening.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Storks" gets a D+.
When done right, modern attempts at the Western can rise above ordinary standards. A couple recent examples: 2010's “True Grit” and last year’s “The Revenant”.
Director Antoine Fuqua’s remake / re-imagining / re-do / re-shoot-em-up of 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven” has the feel and flavor of a “classic” Western, maybe more so than any other film in the genre in recent memory. I give Fuqua a lot of credit for the spot-on set-design, appropriate score, slick cinematography and staging an extended, half-hour-long climactic shoot-out.
But being SO true to the formula is also what prevents “The Magnificent Seven” from living-up to its title. There are no surprises in the story and very little suspense. The only element worth placing a bet on is how many of the Seven “good guys” (though plenty more join the core group) will survive the epic showdown.
Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisolm - who’s Part lawman/part bounty hunter - enters “The Magnificent Seven” by walking into a saloon (complete with plenty of dirty-faced, poker-playing cowboys and their female “companions”) dressed in all-black. The residents think he’s trouble, but Sam assures them he’s there to help.
Soon, Josh (played by Chris Pratt) joins Sam on a quest to save a small town from being taken over by maniacal, gold-obsessed land-grabber Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Five others join the group, including Legendary sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux. Ethan Hawke gives the best performance of the ensemble as the only interesting character in the movie.
“The Magnificent Seven” is 2 hours and 10 minutes - and - like a long ride on a hard saddle - you feel it. As with most Westerns, it’s dominated by set-up. Every character talks - a lot - especially Pratt’s Josh. His sarcasm shtick is getting old and really doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. And even though Fuqua has now made three movies with Washington, he doesn’t provide his star with one “magnificent” acting scene.
I wish “The Magnificent Seven” wasn’t so by-the-book. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the original, chances are you know exactly how this saga is going to play out before the first frame. I’m never impressed by films that are satisfied with only meeting an audience’s bare-minimum expectations.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Magnificent Seven” gets what it deserves - a C.
I could thoroughly describe how the low-budget drama, "Mr. Church", is basically a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that sugar-coats numerous serious issues and situations, including terminal cancer, divorce, single parenthood, both alcohol and child abuse, drunk driving and neglect. It's also an extremely simple Circle of Life story that packs-in way too many coincidences and too much symbolism.
But instead, I'm going to devote the remainder of this review to the actor who portrays the title character in "Mr. Church", Mr. Eddie Murphy. If you thought Murphy had left the entertainment industry for good here's some great news: This small film proves that he's still got it - and that dramas are now where he belongs.
Murphy hasn't starred in a film since 2012's disaster, "A Thousand Words", and he hasn't received mass, critical praise for a performance since his Oscar-nominated work in 2006's "Dreamgirls" - a role that was extremely showy. Here's what's incredible about what Murphy is able to accomplish in "Mr. Church": Without a fat suit, flashy costumes, a wacky voice or outrageous makeup, not relying on punchlines or big laughs, and without a partner to play-off of, he delivers one of the standout performances of his career.
The role of Henry Church, who becomes the house cook to a sick mother and her young daughter in 1970s Los Angeles, is as sincere and substantial as they come. Church is a genuine, mutli-layered character, who eventually becomes the life mentor to Charlotte (played by "Tomorrowland"'s Britt Robertson). Murphy himself has been credited for being a mentor and inspiration to many comedians and actors working in the business today.
As Mr. Church, Murphy stays low-key, rarely raising his voice, and he really does cook on screen (though, unlike what alter ego Donkey would've suggested, Murphy never makes waffles). But he is not without emotion, often conveyed in quiet moments and silent glances. As the film unravels, we get bits and pieces of what eventually adds-up to the complete extent of Church's situation in life. There are scenes in which Murphy portrays Church as intoxicated, but never does it come-off as over-the-top (or something pulled from one of his "SNL" sketches from decades ago).
"Mr. Church" spans 15 years, and Murphy successfully pulls-off the range, both in appearance and performance, something most films struggle with. The script provides showcase moments in each act, with each of his co-stars, and Murphy nails them all.
Since it's what I do, I have to give "Mr. Church" a grade. So, On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mr. Church" gets a C. But, in this case, the grade of the film is not what's important. Obviously, "Mr. Church" isn't a great movie, but Murphy's performance makes it worthy of attention - the kind of attention that matters more than earning gold statues. It's the kind of attention that earns respect and, hopefully, shows Hollywood that Eddie Murphy is still one of the most talented actors of our day.