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2021 Was a Great Year to Go Back to the Movies

27 Dec
Belfast movie scene

After a year and change of pandemic-related limitations, and fewer theatrical releases to choose from, moviegoing was back in 2021. No more did we have to settle for watching films at home, on our TVs or tablets, all by ourselves. With vaccines in our bodies, we could (mask up and) see them on a much bigger screen, with much better sound … with other people!

In short, it was pretty great. Joni Mitchell once said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and, while I never took movie theaters for granted, I sure came to appreciate them more when I couldn’t go to them.

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“Spider-Man: No Way Home” Is for the Fans. That’s Not a Good Thing

16 Dec

There’s not a whole lot you can say that won’t ruin Spider-Man: No Way Home, but here’s a non-spoiler: It’s a Christmas movie!

That’s right: Like Die HardBatman ReturnsGo, and many other films before it, the latest Spidey flick takes place during December’s holiday time, which — yes — qualifies it as a Christmas movie. 

It’s also a legitimate event. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the incessant drumbeat of promotion and buzz, which has made people feel like they have to see it — in a theater! — as soon as possible, before the film is spoiled. It’s one of those truly communal, shared cinematic experiences that are all too rare these days.

God bless it for that. 

But is the film worthy of all that hype? Well … It’s a Wonderful Multiverse this is not.

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My 2021 Soundtrack Reflects the Times (and Music) I Want to Remember

13 Dec

When directors make movies, they work with a music supervisor and a composer to create a soundscape for the film that will deliberately help drive the narrative, boost the desired emotional impact, and leave a distinct impression in the minds of viewers. When done well, hearing a particular song or musical motif included in the movie may trigger memories of that work.

In real life, the process happens somewhat in reverse: The “narrative” of our lives moves forward organically, and the music that triggers memories of certain times and events is not necessarily planned. And, rather than the music itself telling a story, it’s up to us to look at the collection of songs and pick out the themes from the soundtrack in hindsight. In this way, music serves to remind us of the times we’ve lived through, and the music that was playing while we lived — with this caveat: The soundtrack often reflects the times we want to remember. More importantly, it’s made up of the music we want to remember.

I listened to a lot of music in 2021, and my “Now” playlist was everchanging. But as noted, the soundtrack of my year — a.k.a. my 2021 Time Capsule Playlist — largely reflects what was good about these last 12 months.

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Remembering When the Lights First Went Up on Lin-Manuel Miranda

3 Jun

It was March of 2008. Barack Obama had not yet been elected President. No Country for Old Men had just won Best Picture at the Oscars. Among the most popular songs were “Low” by Flo Rida and T-Pain, “Love in This Club” by Usher, and “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. And around the country, many Americans were unable to identify the Founding Father whose name and face were on the $10 bills they used every day.

That month, after a successful and Drama Desk Award–winning run Off-Broadway, a new show moved uptown to the Great White Way, carrying with it the hopes of producers and investors that it would bring new, younger, and more diverse audiences to Broadway and fill the void left when Rent closed later that year. As successful as this production was, though, no one could have predicted that over the course of the next decade, its creator and star would break boundaries and revolutionize Broadway.

That show, of course, was In the Heights, and its creator and star was a young up-and-comer named Lin-Manuel Miranda — who, as if you need to be reminded, would go on to write the pop-culture phenomenon known as Hamilton.

In March 2008, Miranda was just 28 years old and still largely unknown. He’d traveled the world and performed as part of Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop improv group he co-founded, but Miranda surely wasn’t a household name yet. Nor was he the social media influencer he is today — though, at the time, he did have an amusing YouTube channel where he shared home-video clips of his younger self lip-syncing to songs like “King of Wishful Thinking” and freestyle-rapping about the heat with his friends.

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After More than 14 Months, Go Back to a Movie Theater and Enjoy the Silence of “A Quiet Place Part II”

26 May

There’s a scene in A Quiet Place Part II where the sound cuts out completely.

Regan Abbott, played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, has woken up alone and discovered her cochlear implant hearing aid is missing. So she scrambles to find it without making any noises that would alert nearby alien creatures that she’s there. The creatures, of course, respond to sound, and they’re quick moving, so any furniture pivot or accidentally dropped item could mean a sudden attack. And because Regan can’t hear, she wouldn’t have any warning.

Writer/director John Krasinski portrays the scene in total silence — which not only puts us right in Regan’s head, it puts the audience on edge. Yikes.

I was watching the movie in a movie theater earlier this week, and while this scene was unfolding, the place was completely silent — the half-full audience was apparently following the action closely.

And of course, it was right around that time that someone sitting near me decided to put his drink back in the cup holder, which made a just-audible-enough sound that probably would have sent the aliens running for us in an instant if we were on screen.

I may have jumped a little. But then I smiled.

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Movie Watching Just Wasn’t the Same This Year

29 Dec

Usually, around this time, I remark with amazement about how many of the year’s movies I’ve seen over the previous 12 months. Last year, for example, I saw 83 of them. In 2018, I saw 84. In 2017, I saw 85. You get the idea. I typically see a lot of movies every year. In the theater.

In 2020, as of this writing, I’ve only seen 33. And, because of the stupid pandemic, a good number of them had to be seen on my TV or my iPad, alone, at home, at lower volume so as not to disturb my neighbors, and with plenty of distractions from my upstairs neighbors, my phone, and the world outside my windows.

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The Times May Have Changed, But Borat Sure Hasn’t

21 Oct

Sup.

Think back to the time in the earlier part of this century when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Sagdiyev character wasn’t a household name. Sure, he’d appeared on Cohen’s Da Ali G Show. But with the release of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in 2006, the world saw a whole lot more of Borat’s bumbling, racist, Anti-Semitic journalist, and those not already in the know became much more familiar with Cohen’s immersive style of guerrilla comedy.

At the time, that movie held up a mirror, and its revelations were still a bit of a shock — that ordinary Americans, particularly those in Red States and those with conservative beliefs, can be a clueless, bigoted, misogynistic lot. Back then, it was actually funny. Very funny.

Fast-forward 14 years. Now we’re in the middle of a pandemic, our culture is politically charged, and our President* creates chaos on the daily, using his bully pulpit to enable hate groups and amplify conspiracy theories. Now we see misogyny, Anti-Semitism, and racism on full display, and ignorance is often encouraged or given a free pass. The things Borat discovered all those years ago have gone mainstream. In short: Reality just isn’t funny anymore. 

So here comes our favorite Kazakh journalist, back with another cinematic adventure, the full title of which is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — but let’s just call it Borat 2, okay? Can he make things any better? Ha!

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From Fly on the Wall to Instagram Activist

14 Sep

The Way I See It posterAfter the last week and a half of news — heck, the last four years of news — the arrival of the new film The Way I See It serves as a welcome reminder of how things used to be.

Not that we needed it, of course. But Dawn Porter’s documentary provides a bright and enjoyable look back at the Barack Obama presidency through the eyes of former Official White House Photographer Pete Souza. Like Souza’s active Instagram account, in which he trolls the current president* by sharing photos from his predecessor’s term, the film celebrates what we had and makes viewers long for a simpler time when our leader was a more noble sort of person. Continue reading

One of Those Infinite Time-Loop Situations You Might Have Heard About

13 Jul

Palm Springs movieFor more than four months now, it’s felt like we’re always waking up on the same day. We repeat the same routine, hear the same news, participate in the same Zoom hangouts, walk the same deserted routes, wait on the same lines to get into the same stores, and not much about our lives changes. Every day, it’s the same thing. Over and over again.

All of which makes Palm Springs the perfect movie for these unusual times we’re living in. Continue reading

Life, Loss, and a Few Laughs on Staten Island

8 Jun

King of Staten Island bannerWell, hasn’t this been an unusual year for the movies.

In mid-March, when the world suddenly shut down, the best movie I’d seen so far was probably The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach. And while I don’t say that to dismiss it (the film is legit good, and Affleck delivers an impressive performance), it’s hardly the kind of film that would be remembered later in the year if things were normal.

With most major releases now delayed till whenever, a few that were intended for the big screen have gone direct-to-digital. Fair to say none have been particularly memorable or must-see, and nearly all have been right at home on the small(er) screen. (Unlike, say, the new Bond or Wonder Woman flicks would have been.)

Which brings us to Judd Apatow’s latest, The King of Staten Island, starring Pete Davidson of Saturday Night Live, and Marissa Tomei, moving New York City boroughs from Queens, where she plays Aunt May in the MCU Spider-man movies. Continue reading

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