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Watching movies: "Moonlight"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 22, 2017

Politics not only seeps into pop culture, it seeps into how we view it. With the inauguration Friday and the marches Saturday, I was seeing a lot through a different filter than usual. I’ve mentioned “Deepwater Horizon” in a previous post. Then there was “Blue Bloods” on CBS on Friday, with a man dropping his police-officer girlfriend because he could not handle how tough she was on the job: the sort of sexism that may only get worse when we have a president who views wives mainly as ornaments. And there was “One Day at a Time” on Netflix, with a Latina as its main character, dealing with how people around her view immigrants, and what it’s like to be a veteran with shaky institutional support, and whose daughter is wondering in the seventh episode if she is gay. (The seventh, BTW, is as far as I have watched at this point.) What will become of people and families like this in the new national order?

And then there is “Moonlight,” the aching, grimly beautiful film from writer-director Barry Jenkins. It shows a world where being gay is, for too many, something to be ashamed of; where bullying is part of daily life from childhood on; where a single act of love can lead to years of disaster simply because the act is between two young men. This, too, may be a world that will become more common as the current American leadership goes forward (not only the president but the haters in Congress and statehouses), and we should weep even more over what the personal devastation “Moonlight” shows.

The film shows us three stages in the life of an African-American man, each stage including a pivotal point in his development, with resulting change. His name even changes in each stage: from Little (played by Alex Hibbert) as a child to Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as a teen to Black (Trevante Rhodes) as an adult. From an early age he is bullied and mocked by others who see his physical weakness and question his sexuality; he has only one friend, and he fits more comfortably in society. There’s not much help to be had. His stern mother has her own struggles, and the one man who tries to guide Little is also a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who has overlooked the guilt and shame in his task until, in one of the more wrenching scenes in the movie, Little makes him see what he has wrought.

Indeed, shame is the force that drives almost all the characters, although it is expressed in different ways, with actions that at times have horrible consequences. Attempts to bury that shame further push the action, especially for Little/Chiron/Black, but there is no hiding who people are, or ignoring what they do. As a man, Black is as emotionally imprisoned as Little, as unable to find real love because he cannot see how someone like him is ever going to have it.

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Watching movies: "Patriots Day"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 21, 2017

This weekend I watched “Deepwater Horizon” again. With its tale of greed and carelessness leading to the loss of life and environmental disaster, it seemed a good choice considering what is going on in this country – and what’s coming. It was also a chance to see a collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor-producer Mark Wahlberg which I had liked a great deal, to try to understand more why I did not love their more recent film, “Patriots Day.”

I expected “Patriots Day,” about the Boston Marathon bombing and the capture of the bombers, to be more painful, more powerful, since the events themselves had been so wrenching. And Berg has proven adept at making potent drama from real life (see not only “Deepwater” but “Lone Survivor,” also with Wahlberg, and “Friday Night Lights,” the movie and the TV pilot). There are even what have come to be Bergian touches in such films, such as showing the real versions of people being portrayed at film’s end, and potent scenes of prayer (“Friday Night Lights,” “Deepwater Horizon”).

"Patriots Day” has echoes of “Deepwater”; with both films, because we know what is to come, the domestic moments with which they begin especially ominous. Both films are not merely accounts of disasters but ones grappling with ideas – “Deepwater” with what happens when corners are cut, “Patriots” about the way terrorism may be inescapable even if our surveillance technology is now so massive that wrongdoers can be hunted down – after the fact. And both films are about regular folks confronted by chaos and destruction, and finding a way through.

But “Patriots Day” reaches wide in trying to tell its story, and in doing so loses dramatic focus. “Deepwater” was a contained tale, tightly bound by its location and its crisis, so the tension and characters operated within a controlled frame. (It also, I should add, had some excellent performances, especially from Kurt Russell.) The newer film “wants to cover a huge amount of geography and narrative, following victims of the bombing, the various elements of law enforcement trying to catch the bombers – and the bombers themselves. 

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ICYMI: "Girls" begins final season on HBO on Feb. 12

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 18, 2017

The official word:  Enjoying new success as a writer after participating in “The Moth,” Hannah gets an assignment that could change her life. Divorced from Desi, Marnie seeks to remain independent, but her self-absorption could undermine a budding relationship with Ray. New couple Jessa and Adam embark on a creative project that could become a source of contention. Shoshanna flourishes at a marketing agency, but realizes her friendships may be holding her back.
            In the final season of the Emmy®-winning HBO comedy series GIRLS, created by and starring Lena Dunham, these four familiar friends attempt to get closer to becoming the women they always envisioned – even as life sometimes gets in the way. Judd Apatow, Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham, Ilene S. Landress, Murray Miller and Bruce Eric Kaplan executive produce the show, which kicks off its ten-episode sixth season SUNDAY, FEB. 12 (10:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT), followed by other half-hour episodes subsequent Sundays at the same time.
            In addition to Dunham, who stars as Hannah, the cast includes Allison Williams as Marnie; Jemima Kirke as Jessa; Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna; Alex Karpovsky as Ray; Adam Driver as Adam; Andrew Rannells as Elijah; and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Desi.
            Returning guest stars on the sixth season of GIRLS include: Emmy® winner Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker as Hannah’s parents; Rita Wilson as Marnie’s mother; Jon Glaser as Laird; Colin Quinn as Hermie; and Corey Stoll as Dill. New guest stars this season include: Riz Ahmed (HBO’s “The Night Of”) as Paul-Louis; Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) as Chuck Palmer; and Tracey Ullman (HBO’s “Tracey Ullman’s Show”) as Ode.


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"Major Crimes" gets 13-episode sixth season

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 18, 2017

The winter portion of Season 5 begins on Feb, 22. The official word on the renewal and the winter plans:

Turner's TNT has picked up a sixth season of the hugely popular crime-drama Major Crimes, from Warner Bros. Television, which has consistently ranked as one of cable's most-watched drama series since its chart-topping debut in 2012. The show's stellar ensemble cast – including two-time Oscar® nominee Mary McDonnell, G.W. Bailey, Tony Denison, Michael Paul Chan, Raymond Cruz, Phillip P. Keene, Kearran Giovanni, Jonathan Del Arco and Graham Patrick Martin – will return for the 13-episode sixth season. Major Crimes will close out its fifth season with an eight-episode run that begins on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 9 p.m. (ET/PT).

This past summer, Major Crimes reached an average of 10 million viewers per episode across TNT's multiple platforms and finished the third quarter ranking as one of cable's Top 10 dramas with adults 18-49. Initially launched as a follow-up to TNT's long-running hit The Closer, Major Crimes quickly established itself as a must-see drama in its own right. In its first season, it ranked as cable's #1 new drama of 2012, and it has remained among the most-watched dramas on cable ever since.

Major Crimes centers on a special squad within the LAPD that deals with high-profile or particularly sensitive crimes. Led by Captain Sharon Raydor (McDonnell), the squad includes Lieutenant Provenza (Bailey), Lieutenant Andy Flynn (Denison), Lieutenant Michael Tao (Chan), Detective Julio Sanchez (Cruz), tech expert and reserve officer Buzz Watson (Keene) and Detective Amy Sykes (Giovanni). Collaborating on many of their cases is medical examiner Dr. Morales (Del Arco). The squad's work has also become a source of inspiration for Rusty (Martin), Sharon Raydor’s adopted son, who hopes one day to have a career as a lawyer.

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"Will & Grace" will make a 10-episode return next season

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 18, 2017

The official word:

Honey … What is this? What’s going on? What’s happening?”

NBC is officially bringing back television’s favorite foursome with a 10-episode limited run of “Will & Grace” during the 2017-18 season.

Stars Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally — each of whom received at least one Emmy Award for their respective performances throughout the series — will be back, and original series creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan will act as showrunners and executive producers. Legendary director James Burrows, who directed every episode of the show during its initial eight-year run, is on board to direct and executive produce.

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Watching "Hidden Figures"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 6, 2017

“Hidden Figures” is a lovely little movie, a chronicle of a group of African-American women who are educated, classy and ambitious – and who achieved a tremendous amount not only for the Space Program but for themselves and other women. Their story is told simply, with some dramatic embroidery but none that pushes it into overwrought melodrama, with considerable grace and quietly effective performances.
 Adapted by Theodore Melfi (who also directed) and Allison Schroeder from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” focuses on three women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) who were computers – that is, mathematicians assigned to do complicated computations for the engineers working on space flight at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. Shetterly estimates that close to one thousand women served in that capacity at Langley over the decades.
 Two of those were my mother and her sister. My father and my uncle, for that matter, were aerospace engineers at Langley. While the film used Atlanta locations, I still misted up a little at the sight of red brick buildings, signs and logos that reminded me of what it was like at Langley in my childhood.
What I don’t remember, though, is the presence of at least 50 black women who were “computers, mathematicians, engineers or scientists” at Langley over the years, says Shetterly, three of them were Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, played by Henson, Spencer and Monae respectively. They had remarkable careers, detailed even more in Shetterly’s book, but the film focuses on them in 1961 and 1962, during the height of the space race and climaxing with Ohio’s own John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) becoming the first American to orbit the earth.
While their skills were much needed before electronic computers took over much of their tasks, the black women in “Hidden Figures” still face a segregated state (some schools in Virginia had closed rather than integrate.) and workplace, with white-only and “colored” bathrooms a racial marker, and men dominating the decision-making at the expense of their able female co-workers.
The details differ from the film’s: Vaughan became head of the black computers’ unit a decade before the movie begins, but the gist is there; in real life, as indicated in the movie, Vaughan’s promotion was unnecessarily delayed for two years. The movie is especially significant in its understated portrayal of villains (among them Kirsten Dunst as the computers’ boss and Jim Parsons as an obstructive engineer) and of its heroes (besides the three main characters, those include John Glenn and the space-program leader played by Kevin Costner). The women are not only good at their jobs but at their lives – where they are wives, mothers, church-goers. They know when to speak up (and do), when to keep silent and how to find ways around roadblocks.
Still, the workplace obstructions fade for the most practical of reasons: the women are smart and inventive, and, especially after Russian Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, the emphasis was on results more than on racial tradition.
The performances, meanwhile, are excellent, as underplayed as the movie as a whole, and all the more effective for it. Henson, Spencer and Monae get that they are playing ‘60s women, that this is not the place for most aggressiveness and flash; instead, the uplift comes from seeing Henson working out a complex mathematical problem, or Spencer knowing she needs a new skill, and getting it. In the end, they and “Hidden Figures” move us because of what they know, what they do – and society’s finally discovering how much they are needed.

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Watching movies: "Fences"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 31, 2016

The best actors do not always make the best movies. Sometimes Denzel Washington simply lets his charisma get him through – “The Magnificent Seven” is one recent example – then in other movies reminds us why he ranks among our best actors/ The latter films include “Training Day,” “Flight” and now “Fences.". Even better in the case of “Fences,” he is perfectly matched by Viola Davis, an actress whose skills are as formidable as Washington’s.

“Fences,” which Washington also directed, is not a perfect film. Based on the play by August Wilson (credited as well with the screenplay), it never entirely makes the leap to screen, too often seeming as if we are watching something constrained by the sides of a theater set. For some, its bleakness will also be hard to take. (This has felt like a very bleak week in my own moviegoing, between this and “Manchester By the Sea.”) The failure hanging over the film’s characters is relentless. 

The main character is Washington’s, Troy Maxson, a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the late ‘50s. Once Troy was a promising baseball player, and he believes he could have succeeded in the major leagues. But racism in the form of baseball’s color line, age when the line was broken, and – we eventually learn – mistakes in Troy’s own life have kept him from the big chance he now longs for. His life should have its share of contentment – he has loyal wife, Rose (Davis); a good friend and co-worker named Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and a son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who holds the promise of a far better life than Troy had for himself.

But Troy is not content. Not even close. He is confrontational at work, where he sees the black garbage men denied privileges going to the white workers. He constantly jabs at his older, other son (Russell Hornsby), whom Troy sees as wasting his life. He is a brutal disciplinarian to Cory, trying to make him a better person but doing it in a way that denies the existence of love – and shuns chances for Cory because Troy is convinced they will lead to misery. And Troy does not seem to care enough about his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who needs extra help because of a wartime injury.

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A six-movie grab bag

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2016

Since school ended, I’ve been digging into movies that got past me in the previous months. Besides my two longer posts below (on “Manchester By the Sea” and “La La Land”), here are some briefs about other films, in alphabetical order.

“Doctor Strange.” A fine addition to the Marvel Universe, despite the obligatory Big Confrontation at the end, this benefited tremendously from the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, who is an acknowledged master at playing brilliant assholes. And Doctor Strange is very much that – pre-enlightenment Tony Stark to the nth power – nor does achieving great power diminish the arrogance. (On a side note, I fully understand the grievances against Tilda Swinton’s casting, even if she does not.) Fun talk, including some gibberish, about time, and a nifty post-credits scene pairing the Doctor with Thor.

“The Magnificent Seven.” OK, I usually like Denzel Washington, thought “Flight” could have earned him another Oscar and am looking forward to seeing “Fences” on Friday. But I LOVE the original “M7” (especially in a double feature with “The Great Escape”) and that cast is legendary (Bronson, Vaughn, Coburn, McQueen … perhaps not big names at the time – the star was Yul Brynner – but damn, they put on a show). Although the original has some dated elements, the new one is still just a rethinking of an old concept – I know, “Seven Samurai” before the westerns, just not as big on my radar – in a way that adds nothing to it. Scary villain, troubled heroes, big battle, OK. Still not something I would rush to see again, and I’d pause just about any time I came across the earlier version on TV.

“The Nice Guys.” Shane Black hit an action mother lode with the first “Lethal Weapon” and at times it has appeared that he has kept looking for another perfect buddy-action-comedy combo. (The Fox series version of “LW” is not it, BTW.) While this peculiar pairing of a grizzled old pro (Russell Crowe) and a young, slimy loser (Ryan Gosling) won’t make any forget Glover and Gibson, it has at least one merit: It is very funny. Much of the humor comes from Gosling and his character, who is not only moral flexible but far from the sharpest pencil in the pack. (A scene late in the film where he gets to be momentarily smart is one of the weaker bits.) Crowe plays along well enough, only much of the time there’s not much to play with: dangerous dames, nasty bad guys, a precocious child (Angourie Rice, very good), been there, seen that. Still, I enjoyed the two leads just enough to keep watching and laughing. I’d take it over “Suicide Squad” (see below) any time.

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More movies: "La La Land"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2016

With the first musical number in “La La Land” – a boisterous song and dance on a traffic-jammed freeway – I thought that I was in love. Unfortunately, as is the case with romance in the movie, holding onto that love was more difficult than I at first thought.

It’s not that I didn’t admire the film. I did, very often, and the performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are winning. In a movie with a publicly admitted debt to “Singin’ in the Rain” (and a significant nod to “New  York, New York”), they are indeed Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds (Stone so has her smart-girl-next-door quality), with Gosling channeling some of “NY NY’s” Robert DeNiro, too. The musical numbers work endearingly. The cinematography, sets and costumes are deliberately old-school fantasy in style; two people who are struggling nonetheless have plenty of snazzy duds, and Stone is highlighted by having her dressed more colorfully than the people around her.

The plot is vintage, too. Mia (Stone) is a barista who keeps trying to have an acting career. Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz musician whose purist approach to music keeps him from getting jobs with more commercially-minded performers. (Early on, he is fired from a restaurant job because he simply can’t stick to tinkling renditions of Christmas songs.) After crossing paths a couple of times in surly ways, they finally connect, and urge each other to pursue their dreams – although outside their own, tuneful world they have stalled careers.

Then careers change everything. Sebastian joins a band run by an old friend, Keith (John Legend), playing big, catchy, but not too inventive pop tunes. He likes the applause and the money, but Mia worries that he has given up on success on his own terms. Conflict follows, and then a change in her career prospects, and their love faces one more test.

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Watching movies: "Manchester by the Sea"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2016

Grief and guilt drive “Manchester by the Sea,” the new film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Every significant character is dealing with grief, guilt or, in many cases, both. Anyone who has felt the deep, unending pain from either will likely recognize the emotions at work in the film, and revisit the suffering that came with them. For that reason, “Manchester” is a tough movie to sit through; my mind kept drifting to the grief and guilt in my own life.

The center of “Manchester” is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an apartment handyman who resolutely refuses to make a decision for anyone, or to open himself up to others. His attempts at enclosing his own feelings are unsuccessful, though, and he is prone to bursts of rage, whether because he is being pressured or because of what he believes others are thinking. He has also abandoned Manchester, his home town, because of what it reminds him of.

What appears at first to be the best relationship in his life is with his brother’s son, Patrick (Ben O’Brien at first, then Lucas Hedges). But Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, and he has left Patrick in Lee’s charge, which is the last thing Lee wants. For one thing, it means he has to come back to Manchester. And the man who is revolted by responsibility has been handed a huge one – for reasons that are rooted in a ghastly tragedy in Lee’s life, the one that has led him to utter emotional isolation.

Making this even trickier is that Patrick is a teenager, confident and with a mind of his own, not to mention a lively romantic life. He is more than willing to talk back to Lee, or to explain how Joe would have wanted things (even if his explanations, we suspect, are sometimes self-serving BS). Even as Lee struggles to either pass Patrick to someone else or to figure out how he can do what’s asked of him, Patrick is working through his own grief, and a sense of loss that extends to his long-gone mother (Gretchen Mol), who has guilt of her own. Then there’s Lee’s ex (Michelle Williams), trying to make her own life better. But for so many of them, the old wounds are still open, the attempts at coping no match for the pain within them.

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