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31

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The thing is…I’m a fan. Of Rob Zombie. As a director, that is. I really know almost nothing about his music. But I tend to like what he’s created as a filmmaker. His instincts are strong, and I appreciate his aesthetic. It’s just that I never LOVE his stuff. He always someone just misses hitting the bullseye. For instance, parts of 2013’s “The Lords of Salem” proved to me that he’s someone to be reckoned with in the world of horror. But even there, in arguably his strongest work, he’d find a way to muck it up just a bit.

But still, I’m a fan. I like how a group of carny people get trapped in a maze-like building and are forced to fight for their lives against a variety of murderous protagonists called “Heads”. There is Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Death-Head, Schizo-Head, Sex-Head…and Doom-Head. And they are all kind of distinct, interesting, and uncompromising.. It’s cool that a trio of folks in powdered wigs and aristocratic clothing, are running the malevolent game, via hidden cameras. It’s awesome that Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Meg Foster are two of the carny people, and that Malcolm McDowell is the head aristocrat. And Sheri Moon Zombie keeps improving as an actress…plus she’s super hot.

However, Zombie could legitimately be accused, of a certain self-consciousness here. Some of “31” feels a bit forced, with allusions to better films like “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. I’m certain that it’s meant as homage, but certain choices don’t always stand on their own. But Zombie has the depravity thing down, and this movie is never less than entertainingly ugly and violent. This is a man who knows and respects the horror genre, even if he hasn’t quite mastered it yet as a creator. But keep trying, Rob. It’s always fascinating to experience the attempt, and I promise to keep on watching. Oh, and as Doom-Head, Richard Brake kicks ass.

Grade: B-

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Indignation

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They sort of snuck this one in late-summer, and no one paid much attention. A few critics did, and it garnered some solid reviews. James Schamus is an award-winning screenwriter, making his feature debut as a director here. Philip Roth is one of our finest novelists, of course, and “Indignation” is based on his novel of the same name. Films based on Roth’s books have been hit-or-miss, however. But, by that barometer, this adaptation is a pretty solid one. I’m not entirely certain that the narrative bookends to this story were necessary, but the one at the finale does add emotional weight. And gorgeous Sarah Gadon impresses mightily.

Marcus Messner (a strong Logan Lerman) is a working-class Jewish student, leaving his Newark, New Jersey roots, to attend college in Ohio. Strict Max is his kosher butcher dad (theatre legend, Danny Burstein) and Esther his observant mom (a very good Linda Edmond). But when Marcus meets Olivia (a superb Sarah Gadon) once away at school, he’s rapidly given a sexual and emotional awakening that he could never have imagined in Jersey. Then their relationship is touched with unforseen turmoil. When this affects Marcus academically, he intellectually spars with his college dean, Hawes Caudwell (excellent Tracy Letts), with Marcus desperately needing to stay in school, and avoid service in the Korean War.

This is a sexually frank film, that always feels real, and never exploitative. Canadian Ms. Gadon made her mark in a trio of David Cronenberg features, and is recently branching out successfully, into a variety of mainstream and independent fare. Logan Lerman comes of age impressively here, as he did high-school style, in 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. And Mr. Lerman’s argumentative discussions with Mr. Letts, is the amongst the most thrilling film scenes of last year. Unfortunately, only the fleshing out of Gadon’s Olivia character seems incomplete. Sarah works wonders with the characterization, but it feels underwritten. And that ultimately softens the final impact just a bit. But I liked “Indignation”, and I’m looking forward to the next time Mr. Schamus positions himself behind the camera.

Grade:  B

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Finding Dory

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Time for a little catch-up. Expect it all month-long. You see, things I saw weeks ago, took a back seat to Oscar for the first two months of 2017. If “Finding Dory” had actually scored an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, you can be certain that I would’ve reviewed it earlier. It didn’t…and you shouldn’t be all that surprised. Billion dollar worldwide box office? Yup. Sequel to Oscar-winning smash “Finding Nemo”? Check. Disney Pixar? ELLEN! Unbeatable ingredients, right? It’s also kinda safe, a little boring, plus it overstays its welcome. Lukewarm, inoffensive, by-the-numbers, family fare. “Zootopia” is flawed, but far better.

Yeah, so there’s not much enthusiasm I can raise for even writing about “Finding Dory”. Dory, a Regal blue tang, tries to overcome short-term memory loss, and find her missing parents. Okay. The colors are vibrant, the script is adequate, some set pieces are mildly exciting. Are you sensing the pattern here? No heavy trashing, but this one swims right down the middle. Great voice talent includes: Ms. DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kate McKinnon, Eugene Levy. Andrew Stanton also directed the vastly superior, “Finding Nemo”. What you’ll get from this sequel is exactly what you’d expect…and nothing more. Ho-hum.

Grade:  C+

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Hacksaw Ridge

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Well, look who’s back. Everyone’s favorite anti-Semitic, abusive, homophobe. Sitting there at the Oscars ceremony, all smug and smiling, happy to be part of the elite crowd again. Mel Gibson has returned. You see, this is why I couldn’t get all that worked up over Casey Affleck’s harassment allegations, that many thought would deny him the Best Actor Academy Award for “Manchester by the Sea” (it didn’t). Mel is proven scum, but there he was, with Best Picture nominee “Hacksaw Ridge”. Yeah, it’s a good film. I’m honest. That’s what sucks about the whole Gibson thing. He is talented. And we loved him.

Virginian Desmond Doss (a solid Andrew Garfield, in an Academy Award-nominated performance) realizes at an early age, that he absolutely abhors violence, and the idea of taking a human life. This feeling is accentuated, when he accidentally severely injures his brother Hal, during a childhood fight (Hal recovers). Maintaining a young adult life as a strict Seventh-day Adventist, Doss saves a man in a car crash, and then falls in love with the nurse he meets at the hospital (luminous Teresa Palmer as Dorothy). Then, to the chagrin of many, Desmond enlists in the army during WW II with the intention of serving as a medic, and refusing to carry a gun. But not everyone is accepting of his conscientious objector stance. And they let him know in a variety of ways.

Mel Gibson can be a skillful director, and all of his powers are evident here. The battle scenes are effective, and the transition of Doss from pariah to hero is presented in an entertaining and poignant manner. Yes, it does become a hagiography at a certain point. Yes, the screenplay fails to illuminate Doss, as anything other than a perfect person. But the story itself, and Doss’s acts of non-violent heroism, carry this beautifully. I believe a lot of credit for that belongs to Garfield. There is also a strong supporting cast that includes Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Vince Vaughn. “Hacksaw Ride” won Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

Grade:  B

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The Final Word on Oscars 2017

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I told you that “La La Land” would win Best Picture! Well, it did…briefly. I’ve been picking on “La La” a LOT…but I honestly felt bad for all involved during that debacle. Jordan Horowitz handled things with class…but c’mon! One of the most memorable moments in Oscar history is not a good one. “Moonlight” IS the better film, so I’m happy at that, and for Barry Jenkins. “Manchester by the Sea” and “Arrival” are better, and they each won something. In fact, in the case of “Manchester”, a couple of big ones. “Hidden Figures”, my least favorite of the Best Pic nominees, went home empty-handed. I love its story…I wish the film was better.

 “La La” officially took six awards, including Stone for Actress and Chazelle for Director. Nothing to sneeze at. But nowhere near the 10, 11, or even 12, that some had predicted. I didn’t think the recent “La La” backlash would be enough. It was. “Moonlight” took three biggies, with Pic, Supporting Actor, and Adapted Screenplay, plus its an all-black cast AND a LGBTQ film. And I’m happy that Casey Affleck won for his PERFORMANCE. Is he a sexual harassing a-hole, as some claim? Beats me. But as long as nothing is proven against him, I can’t support denying him based on allegations. Certainly not in a Hollywood that continues to prop up and shower Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski. I base my picks on the work. My feeling was Washington would win based on the controversy. But Denzel didn’t deserve this one. Casey did.

I’m so pleased for Kenneth Lonergan, because he is an exceptional writer. “Hacksaw Ridge” winning two Oscars? I’ve seen the film, I like it, and I’ll review it soon. But, y’know…Gibson. Where’s the outrage? Again, the technical stuff it won for (Editing & Sound Mixing), could be called Mel-free victories. But still. I didn’t like “Fences”, but I love Viola Davis in most things. Yay for her. On the other hand, “Suicide Squad” is now an Oscar winner. Viola is in that one too, but I don’t believe it was her Makeup and Hairstyling that pulled off the trick.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” won for Costume Design. I guess I have to watch a Harry Potter film now. “O.J: Made in America” won. I guess I have to watch an eight-hour documentary now. “The Salesman” won Foreign Film, the 2nd Oscar for an Asghar Farhadi film this decade (2011’s “A Separation”, was the other). Iran’s Mr. Farhadi refused to appear, because President Trump is a jackass. Asghar is okay in my book! “Zootopia”…no surprise. “The Jungle Book” for Visual Effects? Hell, yes.

Jimmy Kimmel was hit-or-miss. Oscar is a tough gig, I get it. Political jokes and statements were mostly hit. My Prince and Princess Leia got plenty of attention In Memoriam. It made Jennifer Aniston cry. I cried too. Bill Paxton got a mention…that was very nice. In honor of him…game over, man. The season is a wrap. Winner or nominee that I haven’t covered with a review yet? It’s coming, it’s coming. Congratulations, to all the nominees and winners! I went 6 for 8 with my picks. Or, 7 for 8…depending on how you look at it! 2016 was a strong film year. But now…March forward.

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KUBRICK @Feature #8: 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

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It’s probably a certainty that a better science fiction film will never be made. Certainly nothing smarter, more iconic, or more enigmatic. Yes, special effects will continue to improve over time. But, even for 1968, the stuff from “2001: A Space Odyssey” holds up remarkably well. The first moonwalk to the monolith is slightly unrealistic (their movement doesn’t properly represent zero gravity), but it’s not that horrible. And the ten-minute “ride” through the ‘Star Gate’ is still mesmerizing. No wonder some kooks continue to believe that Kubrick helped “fake” the moon landings. And no wonder that viewers in the late 1960’s would lie on the theater floor, while under the influence of drugs, to take “the ultimate trip” during the film’s finale.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve been obsessed with Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for over 30 years now. But, honestly that obsession didn’t begin until shortly after experiencing the Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel, “2010: The Year We Make Contact”. You see, I was nineteen at the time, and dating a girl who had studied the Kubrick original (Stanley had nothing to do with the sequel, of course) in a college film class. I informed her that I had only seen “2001” in bits and pieces on cable television throughout my teens, and that I found it pretty boring. Boy–did that quickly change! “2010” is a solid, admirable, unremarkable movie, that nevertheless will always hold a special place in my heart in that it provoked me to undertake a decades-long quest in unlocking the secrets of Kubrick’s eighth feature. Preparing for this piece, I watched it again just a few days ago. It continues to absolutely fascinate me. If not for the existence of Orson Welles, I would unhesitatingly call it my favorite film of all-time. Still–it just may be anyway.

Have I seen “2001” 15 times? Probably. More? Could be. Soon after seeing “2010”, I got the VHS version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as a gift. You know, I’m almost positive I’ve got that decades-old thing in a box in my basement somewhere. It had a flap that opened like the cover of a book, and that cardboard box had stills from the film, and the cast list displayed. In the 1990’s, I graduated to a widescreen VHS version. I used to pop those tapes in constantly. There was always something fascinating to ponder. The apes scene opening, with actor Daniel Richter as the centerpiece, as the ape-man dubbed “Moonwatcher” in the Arthur C. Clarke “2001” novel. The slow, deliberate, space scenes, first with William Sylvester (incredible work from him, as Dr. Heywood Floyd), and later with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood (as astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, respectively). It wasn’t boring to me for long. Kubrick was trying to represent space travel as it really was, and I appreciated his efforts now. I soon realized this guy was some kind of genius. And here we are today.

Have I ever written about how I nearly met Keir Dullea? I’ve certainly talked about it a number of times. It was 1986, probably late April. I was 20 years old, a young actor, and playing the role of Tom Stark in the play version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”. This was the premiere production of New Jersey’s “American Stage Company” in Teaneck. We played 20 performances, and it was a pretty big deal, with a good deal of media attention, and coverage in the New York Times. Paul Sorvino was our artistic director and star, in the role of Willie Stark–my “father”. We had a pretty renowned cast, and I remember meeting luminaries backstage, like Len Cariou and Sandy Duncan, after they attended and watched friends of theirs in the show. What a thrill this was. I had a brief conversation with Ms. Duncan that I’ll never forget. Anyway, an actor friend of mine informed me after a performance one night, “that actor from that space movie you like, is in the audience”. It took a few seconds to confirm that he was talking about “2001”. Then, I said, “Keir Dullea! Keir Dullea is here!”. Indeed, he was, as my friend pointed to his back, as Mr. Dullea was heading to the auditorium exit after the show. Here’s the problem: once he’s through that door, there’s three ways Keir can exit the theater. One to the left, one to the right, and one straight ahead. I jumped from the stage, and sprinted up the aisle to meet him. I chose the wrong egress, however, because when I got to the lobby, I couldn’t find him. DAMN! He was 49 at the time, and not that far removed from the release of “2010”, in which he portrayed Dave Bowman once more. So, I was thisclose. And yes, the temptation to yell, “Dave…stop.” was overwhelming.

In December of 2001, I finally got to see “2001” on a big screen in Manhattan. It was part of a city-to-city tour of a restored print, being presented in all its glory, in honor of the arrival of that actual calendar year. It was glorious. My most recent watch was a widescreen DVD copy that I purchased years ago. It’s a “deluxe” two-disc collection, similar to the one I own for “Eyes Wide Shut”. I imagine the upgrade to Blu-ray is imminent, but the DVD looked spectacular. I get a little excited each time I start to watch it. I’ll be forever enthralled. Douglas Rain’s voice as Hal is part of my cinematic comfort food (Mr. Rain, still with us, turns 89 next month!). What is the monolith? What does it represent? What power does it hold? Why does the film end in a hotel room? The “2001” sequel books and movie are far too literal with their explanations. I prefer the mystery and contemplation. If only, I was old enough to see it in 1968!

Grade: an A+ masterpiece

KUBRICK coming in March: the roll of seven has been cast, and the winner is 1956’s “The Killing”

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2017 Oscar Predictions

Okay…let’s cut to the chase. As I’ve already covered on various social media outlets, as well as in scores of cities nationally via “America Weekend with Ed Kalegi and Cara Di Falco”, my picks for the 89th Annual Academy Awards, in the top eight categories.

Best Picture: Duh. The winner will be La La Land. Yes, “Moonlight” has a small outside shot for the upset. But its win at the Indie Spirits yesterday, only confirmed its outsider/spoiler status for me. You already know how much I love “Manchester” and “Arrival”, but they don’t have a prayer. “Fences” and “Lion” both have their champions, but would be HUGE upsets. “Hidden Figures”, despite its odd popularity (and SAG victory) would also be a surprise. “Hacksaw” or “Hell or High”? Don’t make me laugh. Hollywood’s love affair with itself insures a La La victory.

Best Director: Duh. Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”. He’ll be the youngest winner of the award ever, plus his only real competition is Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight”–who will win elsewhere. Also, Chazelle grabbed the DGA…an almost certain sign. Honestly, even Villeneuve, Lonergan, and (especially) Gibson, realize that they aren’t standing up when this award is announced.

Best Actor: I’m going to go with Denzel Washington to grab his third Oscar for “Fences”. I don’t think he deserves it, despite the respect I have for him AND his achievement in bringing this stage work to the screen. But, make no mistake, if he actually edges out the astonishing Casey Affleck for this award, it’s due to the years-old sexual harassment claims against Mr. Affleck. And I’m not saying he did, or didn’t, do it. But he’s going to lose because of it, even though he gives the performance of the year. I’m not certain that’s just. I suppose we shouldn’t overlook the possibility of Gosling, especially in the light of La La love, but he’s received no pre-Oscar awards support. Mortensen is fine, and Garfield is solid…but no for both.

Best Actress: Emma Stone is oddly a lock at this point. Portman and Negga are extraordinary, but no one is even talking about them. I could see Huppert getting this if Amy Adams and Annette Bening were in the race (as they should be), and the overload of renowned American actresses canceled each other out. That would’ve worked in favor of the French legend pulling off the upset. Streep? She doesn’t even belong here. Stone will grab this easily.

Best Supporting Actor: Finally! Some “Moonlight” love! Mahershala Ali takes this for his amazingly, charismatic performance. I adore Bridges, Hedges, Patel, and Shannon, but I only see Patel as having any kind of outside chance. Ali it is.

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis for “Fences”. It’s not her best work, but she’s criminally overdue. I found Michelle Williams work in “Manchester” incredible, but it’s a much less substantial role. Davis is really a lead in “Fences”…it happens that way sometimes. Plus, Spencer and Kidman have won before, and Harris is just glad to be included in this mix. Davis is a lock.

Best Original Screenplay: It certainly appears that Kenneth Lonergan is going to eek this out for his superb “Manchester by the Sea” screenplay. That’s my prediction, but the rule for the night is: NEVER COUNT OUT “LA LA”. But Chazelle will win elsewhere, and Lonergan is so highly respected. The writers for “The Lobster” winning would be a MAJOR upset, and it’s one of my favorite films of the year. But I’m NOT crazy. Sorry also to Mr. Sheridan and Mr. Mills, but “Hell or High Water” and “20th Century Women”, respectively, will be shown no love this evening.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for “Moonlight”, are in perfect alignment for a win, in this rare “La La”-less category. Plus, it’s a deserving one, for one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. This is a sure thing. “Arrival”, “Hidden Figures”, and “Lion” really don’t even have the slightest chance. And August Wilson, the late, great playwright, isn’t about to be recognized by the Hollywood film community.

So, there you have it. As always, I’m very confident in going undefeated, but there’s excitement in an upstart rising to the top. I could’ve gone further in saying I believe “Zootopia” easily grabs Best Animated Feature, and that La La’s “City of Stars” conquers for Best Original Song. But just the “great eight” are represented here today. Enjoy the show!