CELEBRATING 10 YEARS!
By definition, a comedy is "intended to make an audience laugh". "Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig goes by a very similar standard, tweeting, "A comedy's a film whose #1 goal is to make people laugh. If that wasn't the filmmakers' top goal, it's not a comedy."
2015 didn't supply many pure comedies. The video game adventure "Pixels" and Feig's own "Spy", starring the Queen of the Modern Comedy, Melissa McCarthy, are essentially Action Comedies. Amy Schumer's "Trainwreck" also contained romantic, and even some dramatic, elements. "Pitch Perfect 2" and "Ricki and the Flash" benefited from music throughout to keep their light tones. "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" had a positive, light-hearted energy for the first two thirds but an emotional final act. Technically, it's a "dramedy".
The smartest "comedy" of the year was "The Intern", starring an excellent Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway at her career best. Similar in story and execution to "The Devil Wears Prada" ten years ago, "The Intern" didn't have a lot of laughs but the premise, situations and likable leads kept me smiling nearly the entire time. It's good-hearted and actually quite moving. But, if "The Best Comedy of the Year" Award needs to go to the film that provided the most laughs, it's clearly "Ted 2", which greatly exceeded my expectations. Runners-up include the updated remake of "Vacation" and Jack Black's "Goosebumps".
A film that certainly IS NOT a comedy is "The Martian". But because star Matt Damon makes a handful of wisecracks to the camera while he's stuck on Mars, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has accepted Ridley Scott's big-budget, blockbuster, all-star, sci-fi, space, action/adventure into the Best Comedy category for the Golden Globes. Traditionally it's not unusual for a touch of humor to be infused into more serious films to ease the dramatic tension. A few recent examples of this include "The Descendants", "Philomena" and "Saving Mr. Banks". "American Hustle" and "Silver Linings Playbook" are two other examples, and you may recall, the Golden Globes qualified them as comedies as well. And they're allowing "Joy", director David O. Russell's third collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, to also be considered a comedy, even though many who've already seen the late December release say it's clearly a drama. And J-Law's a lock for a nomination. Lily Tomlin's character in the 78-minute "Grandma" is a bit wacky, though the movie mostly doesn't try to make you laugh. Nonetheless, she and Lawrence will likely fill two of the five Lead Actress in a Comedy or Musical slots - taking positions away from the much more deserving Hathaway, McCarthy, Schumer and/or Streep.
One of the worst mistakes the HFPA ever made was with 2011's "My Week with Marilyn". While I'm glad Michelle Williams was recognized with a statue for her performance, watching the Marilyn Monroe character physically and psychologically suffer was NOT FUNNY. That movie was NOT a comedy in any possible way. Deciding which category films are submitted into has become a major game for studios and PR agencies, as they try to push their films and stars into the categories where they think they have the best chance of winning, not where they truly belong. You also see a lot of category abuse between the Best Actor/Supporting Actor categories. And no one is playing along with this charade more than the Globes, though the Critics Choice Movie Awards fell into the trap last year, naming "The Grand Budapest Hotel" the year's Best Comedy, over real members of the genre - "Birdman" (a legit dark comedy) and the highly entertaining "22 Jump Street".
One thing's for sure: when I fill out my Critics Choice ballot next week, "The Martian" won't be anywhere on it, whether it's considered to be a Comedy, Drama, Action, Sci-Fi/Horror, Foreign-Language, Documentary or Animated film.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino won an Oscar two years ago in the Best Foreign-Language category for "The Great Beauty", a phrase that also applies to his latest film, the unforgettable "Youth". Unlike anything I've seen (and likely will see) this year, "Youth" is bold, unique, powerful and deeply moving - the same words I used to describe my favorite film of 2014, "Birdman". Both works challenge you in a way that only great cinema can.
On the surface, "Youth" is the story of renowned, retired orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), who's been vacationing at the same Swiss hotel/spa for the past 20 years. Daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz at her career best) is also her father's assistant, so she's on hand to make sure he's healthy. Ballinger also re-connects with longtime friend and film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). He's staying at the hotel with his team of much younger writers, working on the script for his latest movie - "Life's Last Day", which is to be his "masterpiece". Also at the hotel is superstar actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who's preparing for his next role. He's fed-up with only being recognized by fans for playing the title robot in the commercial hit "Mr. Q", and not for any of his serious work. His new character, revealed late in "Youth", is just one of a number of jarring surprises Sorrentino hits us with. And there are dozens of other guests, including a world famous sports icon and the newly-crowned Miss Universe. Some are enjoying youth, while others are working hard to recapture it.
Sorrentino weaves all of these characters into a narrative that is very difficult to describe. And the last thing I want to do is give anything away. You've simply got to experience "Youth" for yourself, allowing the meaning of the images, relationships and messages to work on you.
Caine's Ballinger is best-known for his commercially successful "Simple Song" compositions, which play a significant role in this story. This title is in stark contrast to the complexities contained in what is one of the best screenplays of the year. Every scene, every conversation is not only meaningful by itself, but in connection with the story as a whole. Sorrentino is constantly making comparisons between the young and the old, without picking sides, and the script is packed with brutally honest dialogue dealing with family, life, the entertainment industry and how people think and reason. "Youth" is not without its mysteries, and while you may not fully understand everything you see, every single shot has a legitimate purpose.
Caine delivers a heartfelt performance, best on display when the seemingly in-control conductor is able to look back on his life. Keitel is present in practically every meaningful scene, carrying most of them, with a nomination-worthy performance. And in a much buzzed-about extended cameo, the legendary Jane Fonda plays iconic diva/actress Brenda Morel. Fonda's only on screen for about six minutes, and it's mainly one scene with Keitel. She gets to yell, throw F-bombs and blast away at her former director and friend. And her character is pivotal to the story. But the role is just not big enough to justify the Best Supporting Actress attention Fonda's been getting.
Books will be written about the symbolism, imagery and messages in "Youth". There are scenes that will stay with me for a long time, and there's no doubt that I'll be watching it again (and again). This is a visionary triumph that deserves to be seen. And if parts of "Youth" make you feel uncomfortable, sad, hopeless, uplifted, insignificant and more than a bit confused - don't worry. That may just be the point.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Youth" gets an A.
Dame Maggie Smith is approaching her 81st birthday, but age isn't slowing her down one bit. The veteran actress is in the midst of an impressive renaissance. She's been the quintessential player in the PBS drama "Downton Abbey" and has given great performances in both "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and its even better 2015 sequel. Smith plays "The Lady in the Van" in a quirky silver screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's memoir and play. Her performance isn't worthy of a third Academy Award or even an honorary-esque nomination, though her work here and this "mostly true" story are quite unique.
It's the mid-1970s and Smith's Mary Shepherd is homeless, living in her van, which she'll soon paint bright yellow. She travels up and down suburban London streets looking for a place to park her house on wheels. No one in the neighborhood wants her anywhere near their home. Shepherd attaches herself to Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), a local playwright and actor, and he allows her to keep the van in front of his house, and eventually, move it into his driveway.
Shepherd doesn't decipher much of her past, though clues indicate to Alan that she may be a possible subject to write about. He wonders, obviously, how she ended-up this way, learns she was once a nun, and can't understand why she is so bothered by music. Other mysteries arise as their time together grows. In an interesting cinematic device, Alan is presented as two people, because he is constantly in two frames of mind about Shepherd: the timid "care-taker" (his true persona) and the more confident writer. The screenplay, written by Bennett himself, does include some smart dialogue between his split personalities, but I wish this element didn't dominate so much of "The Lady in the Van". Having the two Alans constantly analyzing Shepherd is very distracting as we're trying to figure-out this old woman ourselves.
"The Lady in the Van" is much stronger in its dramatic moments than when it tries to be funny, though some sarcastic lines from Smith and others do hit the mark. A few subplots are decent, though it all leads to a rather clumsy/corny finale. Passed by an act of Parliament, the law requiring Jim Broadbent to appear in at least one scene in every British film, is in full force, as he has a small role as a bad guy (for a change). And both James Corden and Dominic Cooper have cameos. The highlights of Smith's performance are two scenes near the end, though they, like the entire film, fail to fully ignite our interest.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Lady in the Van" gets a C+.
"The Danish Girl" is director Tom Hooper's follow-up to his 2010 Best Picture Academy Award winner "The King's Speech" and equally impressive and innovative 2012 musical adaptation of "Les Miserables". In February, Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the revolutionary Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything". Redmayne has a legitimate chance to go two-for-two, becoming the first to do so since Tom Hanks in the mid-90s, with his defining work in "The Danish Girl". He and Alicia Vikander, who gave an understated and rich performance earlier this spring in the sci-fi thriller "Ex Machina", are one of the best cinematic pairs of the year.
Based on a book and accounts of its true-life subject matter, Redmayne and Vikander play Einar and Gerda Wegener, husband and wife painters living in Copenhagen in 1926. They are clearly, deeply in love, but efforts to have a child have not been successful. One day, when Gerda asks Einar to substitute for a woman she is painting by posing with a dress, stockings and ballet shoes, we see Einar perceiving his wife and her clothing differently. And soon she realizes that he enjoys dressing in women's clothing. Einar isn't fond of attending Gerda's social events, but she decides that Einar should go to an upcoming dance disguised as this new character they've concepted, Lili. However, Lili quickly becomes much more to Einar. It turns out that she is a real person, the real person he was meant to be, who he believes has been inside of him since birth.
Gerda is stunned at Einar's revelation as well as his thoughts and dreams of actually becoming a woman. But, amazingly, she doesn't treat her husband as insane (as most of the doctors they visit do) but wholeheartedly supports him and his decision to completely transform, mentally and physically, into Lili. Gerda's understanding of the tremendous complexities of her husband's situation is the heart of this story. In her performance Vikander personifies the kind of person we hope we all could be if put in a similar situation: imperfect and undeniably unsure but loyal and trusting in her heart.
"The Danish Girl" is a performance-driven film - a study of two, or rather, three individuals all looking to stay true to themselves and, ultimately, find happiness. Redmayne's work is daring, tranformative and heartbreaking. We see the emptiness and coldness of Einar's eyes that, in a flash, glitter with visions of opportunities and the future. His ability to bounce back and forth from his two personas, often in the same scene, is masterful. Hooper's direction is distinct, but, outside of focusing on his two leads, he doesn't add many interesting supporting elements to make this a truly incredible cinematic experience. I can absolutely see "The Danish Girl" as a bold, 90-minute stage play, but as a two-hour film, it goes at a slow, tepid pace, and is longer than it needs to be. It's certainly worth seeing for the two outstanding leads, who both should get their share of awards nominations. But unlike Hooper's two previous efforts, "The Danish Girl" simply isn't powerful enough for Best Picture consideration.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Danish Girl" gets a B.
Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo once said, "The only kind of love worth having is the kind that goes on living and laughing and fighting and loving." As a new biopic showcases, Trumbo loved to write, and he fought for his First Amendment rights for the freedom to express himself while holding beliefs that weren't shared by the masses. In "Trumbo", Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo, a man who was Blacklisted for being a Communist during the Cold War era of the 40s and 50s.
While Trumbo's crusade is emotionally charged, the first hour of this film is surprisingly sluggish. Trumbo and other writers who support the labor movement and fair wages for everyone in the movie industry (the "Hollywood Ten" as they would come to be known) are "outed" by colleagues and called to testify in front of Congress. When they refuse to cooperate they are sent to prison. Once released all the major studios refuse to hire them. So Trumbo devises a plan to get himself and his friends back to work. But fighting ther Holywood system will be difficult, and there will be a price to pay.
"Trumbo" kicks into gear in the second half, when this cat and mouse game between Trumbo and the studios kicks-in. Wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three children, including daughter Niki (Elle Fanning), provide his support system, but they become victims of the blacklisting campaign, and Trumbo's battle, as well.
When done well, movies about the making of movies, and Hollywood in general, can shine. Five recent examples: "The Artist", "Hitchcock", "Saving Mr. Banks", "Birdman" and "Argo", which featured Cranston and "Trumbo" co-star John Goodman. The true story elements involving Trumbo's work on the screenplays for "Roman Holiday", "The Brave One", "Spartacus" and "Exodus" add to the fun, as do real life characters John Wayne, Kurt Douglas and Edward G. Robinson.
Having actors playing famous actors on screen is always tricky. Director Jay Roach (whose film range includes the comedy hits "Meet the Parents" and the "Austin Powers" series to HBO's powerhouse political campaign drama "Game Change") handles it as best as possible. Actual clips of key Academy Awards ceremonies are nicely inserted. And Goodman, as Frank King, the head of the low-budget studio King Bros., has some terrific moments, including one particular scene that's a "home run". However, Louis C.K. is wildly miscast as one of the other blacklisted writers.
There was a wild fascination with the happenings of Hollywood during this time, and very few sources for information. Gossip columnist queen Hedda Hopper ruled the celebrity scene, using her power and influence to make and break careers. Helen Mirren gets to wear some divine dresses and head attire and plays a woman on top of the entertainment world, who, as it turns out, was also pretty evil. Mirren has some memorable lines, but her role is too small.
Cranston's performance grows as "Trumbo" progresses, particularly once Trumbo gets caught-up in the mayhem and becomes obsessed with churning-out script after script (under assumed names) and defeating the blacklist movement. If the first half was as good as the second, "Trumbo" could have easily been added to the "Movie About Movies" A-list. This uneven effort is worth a ticket, but not the red carpet treatment.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Trumbo" gets a B-.