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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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Have yourself an original-music Christmas

By Rich Heldenfels Published: November 29, 2016

The bride and I were riding back from Thanksgiving in Virginia with the Sirius XM Christmas- music channel playing away when the bride noted that there were very few new, original songs being heard. Most of what was played was a cover of an oldie, or the oldie itself.

One reason for that -- besides people liking the oldies -- is that even current holiday albums tend to load up with the warhorses, with maybe one new song included so the artist can make some extra money via the copyright. But the folks who broadcast the Christmas tunes also bear some of the blame, since they focus on the more familiari work so new Christmas tunes don't get heard.

Now. this not to fault the classics. As you know, Malcolm X Abram and I have made a habit over the years of offering up lists of great holiday tunes in various classifications. Still, there are originals to be found, even if you narrow the field to the last 10 years.

In that time, artists with original Christmas material have included Carly Ray Jepsen, the Bieber, Coldplay, Train (all featured on the Now "Today's Christmas" collection in 2012), Kelly Clarkson (some excellent newbies), Nick Lowe, Annie Lennox, Alex Bevan, Tracey Thorn, Carole King, Colbie Caillat, Elizabeth Chan, Christina Perri, the Brooklyn Tabernacle and Taylor Swift -- unearthed from my music archive, and obviously just a sample. So I'm putting you to the test: What's a really good ORIGINAL NOT A COVER Christmas song from the last 10 years? And is it good enough to be included in your playlist along with oldies?

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Tough days for music lovers

By Rich Heldenfels Published: November 21, 2016

I know, tough days for a lot of people, considering what is going on in politics. But in music, good grief, I keep losing peopleon my all-time loved list. That includes Sharon Jones, whose "100 Days,100 Nights" is an eternal keeper; bluesy jazzman Mose Allison, musician-producer-writer Leon Russell and poet-songwriter-brooder Leonard Cohen.

Where to start? Jones is the most recent on my loved list, and for that reason her passing was the most shocking. She was retro in a great way, invoking classic soul but with a power that went beyond imitation. Her cult was significant -- she's been the subject of a documentary -- but definitely deserved.


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A lovely bit from "SNL"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: November 13, 2016

Why I liked "Arrival"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: November 12, 2016

I am susceptible to sci-fi, and have my weak spots when it comes to big action epics -- not only the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" movies but the likes of the original "Independence Day." Do not talk to me about the dreadful sequel. But those movies only intermittently appeal to the intellect, or try to move audiences in the way that, say, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" did. And that explains why "Arrival" was such a remarkable piece, at once a cerebral and emotional epic which I am still thinking about days after seeing it.

The movie begins with an "ID4"-ish premise: a dozen gigantic vessels have appeared, poised over a range of locations (though ones whose selection is a mystery) and awaiting -- what? There's no evident threat, although people around the world -- who apparently have seen way too many alien-invasion movies -- are in many cases panicked by the arrivals, and someone has to figure out why these visitors have come to Earth. 

And how does one figure that out if the creatures in the vessels are neither humanoid nor understanding of human speech, while the people of Earth speak languages unknown to the creatures? The American government seeks answers from a team of scientists and another of language experts, the latter headed by a woman (Amy Adams) haunted by a personal tragedy. Still, she is deliberate about her task,methodically working on ways to talk to these alien visitors.

And that is one of the ways "Arrival" fascinates, patiently taking us through Adams's process, and in doing so it makes us think about our own language and what matters when we communicate with each other. As geopolitics make the need for understanding more urgent, especially as fear rises, Adams is at once forced more and more to figure out these visitors even as events in her own life at once provide clues -- and make her revisit her pain.

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Discs of interest: rock, Roth, another view of Cleveland and more

By Rich Heldenfels Published: November 12, 2016

Yes, I'm back and I hope to be back more. I've needed more time to adjust to some life changes than I expected, keeping up the mailbag and continuing my teaching duties, but neglecting this space. So let's talk again about ...

.... some items coming to DVD, Blu-ray or both. And let's start with "The Land," the crime drama which was shot in Cleveland in 2015 and had showings here a couple of months ago. It's on DVD from IFC Films on Nov. 22. And you can read my interview with its maker, Steven Caple Jr., here. The DVD also includes a trailer and the featurette "A Cleveland Tale."

Back in August I wrote about "Indignation," the screen adaptation of Philip Roth's 2008 novel, and you can read my rather grumpy reaction in an earlier blog post here. It came to DVD and  Blu-ray on Nov. 8, from Lionsgate, with the addition of two featurettes.

Looking at some vintage releases, let's start with the Blu-ray combo of performance specials "The TAMI Show" and "The Big TNT Show" from Shout!Factory on Dec. 2. "TAMI" has been on DVD before, but "TNT" has not made it to disc until now; "TNT" will also be released as a stand-alone DVD on Dec. 2.

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Stuff I've been thinking about: Of "Good Girls," Playboy, Hef and Trump

By Rich Heldenfels Published: October 19, 2016

I have been watching "Good Girls Revolt," a drama coming to Amazon on Oct. 28, inspired by the 1970 class-action lawsuit against Newsweek magazine over its discrimination against women employees. (The magazine hired women as "researchers," men as writers, even when the women were far more qualified than the men.)
I'll say more about the series later. But, in tandem with it, I am reading "The Good Girls Revolt," the nonfiction version of the Newsweek uprising, by Lynn Povich, who was one of the participants.
The book, published in 2012, begins with an account of 21st-century sexism at Newsweek and other organizations, and it will all sound far too familiar to far too many women in the business, including my former colleagues. 
As for "Good Girls Revolt," one of the things that struck me about both the TV and print accounts is that the old sexism is alive and well in Trumpworld, where the old Playboy philosophy still reigns. It echoed partly in the book's reference to Susan Braudy's battle with Playboy in 1970 when she wrote a freelance piece on modern feminism, and Hugh Hefner was not pleased. I have linked to Braudy's account below. But before that, consider this excerpt from a memo Hefner wrote about Braudy's story:
"Doing a rather neutral piece on the pros and cons of feminism strikes me as being rather pointless for PLAYBOY. What I’m interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie trend that feminism has taken. These chicks are our natural enemy — and there is, incidentally, nothing that we can say in the pages of PLAYBOY that will convince them that we are not."
Sure reminds me of a high-profile Republican. So do Povich's stories of sexual harassment, sleazy come-ons, "eighth-grade boys' locker room" conversation at a mostly-male story meeting, and a rejected man reacting in such a nasty and vulgar way that woman ended up quitting. 
And all we've gotten of late is men being given license to keep doing it. 
Braudy's story of her battle with Playboy is here. Povich's book also mentions Sheryl Sandberg's thoughts on women and ambition, so I went to read more on that, and decided to add these two quotes:

“Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less." -- Sheryl Sandberg


"What is really going on, as peer reviewed studies continually find, is that high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine. As descriptions like “Ice Queen,” and “Ballbuster” can attest, we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful women. In fact, we often don’t really like them." Marianne Cooper, lead researcher for Sandberg's book "Lean In"

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