Wednesday, December 8, 2021

On THE POWER OF THE DOG

 I clicked onto Netflix and started watching this film about ten minutes after midnight. Honestly, I thought I'd get sleepy and stop watching 30 minutes later. Wrong. I was rivetted to it right up to the stunning final scene. Jane Campion directed THE POWER OF THE DOG. It will be a crime if she does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director. The New Zealand filmmaker was previously nominated in that category for 1993's THE PIANO. That film brought Holly Hunter the Oscar for Best Actress, Anna Paquin the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and earned Campion an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. 

THE POWER OF THE DOG is based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. Campion wrote the screenplay. Her extraordinary film is a classic western. But not the kind of western like classics such as RED RIVER, HIGH NOON, SHANE or even BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. It has the ethos of a classic western with an electric psychological current that runs through it and provides some shocks with new looks at Old West type characters.       

This is a tale of family dynamics, family cruelty, love, images of manhood and toxic masculinity. We go to Montana in the 1920s. Think of Elizabeth Taylor as the young bride in George Stevens' 1956 film, GIANT. It was the 1920s. Taylor's character has married, left the verdant surroundings of her wealthy Maryland home to live in the huge home of her wealthier cattle rancher husband in an isolated, arid part of Texas. 

Kirsten Dunst is outstanding as Rose, the widow mother with a grown son. She remarries and is swallowed up by anxiety. She is shaken by the expectations she feels to be a perfect 1920s wife in the West. She has married a shy, sweet, lonely man whose brother is an intelligent brute of a cowboy. He's verbally abusive. We see this during a dinner scene before Rose remarries. She cooks and cleans in an establishment. Her son, Peter, acts as waiter. The son seems to be a delicate character. His goal is to study medicine and surgery in college. He has an artistic side. He makes beautiful paper flowers that his mother proudly displays as table decorations. Phil, the brutal brother, loudly ridicules the flowers and Peter, the waiter, as he and other ranch hands sit down to eat.

There's a dinner party scene where Phil verbally embarrasses his sister-in-law. We know that she feels like she's a paper flower. Not the real thing. An imitation forced to pose as the real thing.

I won't go into much more detail about the plot and action. I want you to experience it and feel those jolts of surprise that I did. Also, this excellent film is very subtle. It demands your attention. This is not a feature that one can live-tweet as it airs. To do so would take your attention away from very important visual moments. This could be the film that finally brings Kirsten Dunst an Oscar nomination. She's been delivering terrific performances ever since she was a little girl in 1994's INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. She's due -- and she's at her peak in Campion's film as the widow who remarries and falls into alcoholism. Her real-life partner, actor Jesse Plemons, plays the shy brother she marries. Benedict Cumberbatch seems a sure-thing for a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the brutal brother, Phil. Kodi Smit-McPhee is fascinating as the whip-smart, ridiculed son who endure hearing the word "faggot."  I predict a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  Here's a trailer.


I love how Jane Campion made great use of wide-open spaces in her visuals, visuals in which brown and earth tones dominate. The wide-open space accentuates the loneliness and alienation of characters. It reminded me a bit of scenes in George Stevens' GIANT and how director Fred Zinnemann shot some scenes in his 1955 adaptation of the Broadway musical OKLAHOMA! In that story, there's rivalry between the farmers and the cowhands. Yet, with all the wide-open space of Oklahoma, the rivalry seems silly because there's obviously room for everybody.

To me, the idea of Jane Campion directing a new version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! is pretty cool.

THE POWER OF THE DOG is currently on Netflix.  It runs about 2 hours and 5 minutes.


Tuesday, December 7, 2021

On HOUSE OF GUCCI

 You have to give it to Lady Gaga. Look at her evolution as a performer from her pop/rock music days when she wore outlandish costumes to her recent CBS music special in which looked absolutely chic singing standards from the great American songbook with the amazing Tony Bennett. In between, came a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in the 2018 remake of A STAR IS BORN. She took home an Oscar for co-writing "Shallow," the number in that remake voted Best Song from a 2018 film.

Last week, the New York Film Critics Circle voted Lady Gaga Best Actress for her dramatic performance in director Ridley Scott's HOUSE OF GUCCI. This is a tale of relentless ambition, wealth, family loyalty, family betrayal and death. It's the kind of movie that would've been ripe for director Douglas Sirk to make in the 1950s. In the 50s, Sirk gave us ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND and a remake of IMITATION OF LIFE. And Sirk could've done it in 2 hours or less. HOUSE OF GUCCI runs 2 hours and 38 minutes.

The film is well-produced and visually appealing. The soundtrack includes cuts by Donna Summer, George Michael, Eurythmics and Andy Williams. A trucking business office scene with Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani and Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci has the most memorable use of the "Libiamo" music from Verdi's LA TRAVIATA since Billy Wilder's THE LOST WEEKEND (1945). Other classical music selections in HOUSE OF GUCCI may get a slight giggle from baby boomer viewers because they're selections we first heard in some classic Bugs Bunny cartoons.

If you saw a recent edition of DATELINE NBC, you know that HOUSE OF GUCCI is about a Gucci knock-off. Maurizio Gucci was shot to death by a hired killer. NBC's prime time show had an edition this month called "Murder in the House of Gucci." Overall, this movie is like that DATELINE NBC show blended with LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS.

Lady Gaga is excellent in her role as the darkly ambitious outsider who marries into the famed Gucci family. She meets shy, unassuming Maurizio at a disco in the 1970s. He compliments her, telling her she looks like Elizabeth Taylor. She replies that she's more fun than Taylor. She's from a working-class family that runs a trucking business. When she realizes who Maurizio is, she's determined to date him. Eventually, they marry in a posh ceremony. No one from the Gucci family attends the wedding.

Maurizio seems to be content with the way things are. However, Patrizia wants more and more and more. She is still the outsider -- and she sees rivalries within the Gucci family. In order to assure herself that she will have wealth and power, she consults with a TV psychic named Pina. Pina is played by Salma Hayek

Patrizia seems to be playing a mental game of chess in her Gucci family relationships. One clunky chess piece is the whining, passive-aggressive, balding Paolo, terrifically played by Jared Leto. Paolo is a hot mess. Leto could be on his way to getting another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for this performance. Also in the film are Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino and Jack Huston. Like director Ridley Scott's ALIEN, THELMA & LOUISE and G.I. JANE, we follow a woman who -- good or bad -- has taken fierce control of her life and journey. Ridley Scott draws a powerful performance out of Lady Gage. Here's a trailer.


As much as I love Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, both in top form in this feature, I do feel the film is stolen by Jared Leto. HOUSE OF GUCCI is about 20 minutes too long, but Leto delivering some totally trash-with-flash dialogue helps to make you not mind the long running time. Here's the barely recognizable Leto as Paolo.


Paolo having lines such as "My bladder may be full but my dreams are even fuller," "Don't even look at me, you lying sack of potatoes," and "I've got to wash, If you could smell between my groins, you'd understand," gave me an urge to send two dozen roses to screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna.

Leto and Salma Hayek didn't have scenes together in HOUSE OF GUCCI, nevertheless this isn't the first time they appeared in a film together. There was an acclaimed 1970 indie film crime drama called THE HONEYMOONER KILLERS about a real-life pair of murderers who preyed up lonely single women. Salma Hayek and Jared Leto played the same two killers in the little-seen 2006 detective story, LONELY HEARTS. I recommend seeing it. Leto is very good as the guy who considers himself a smart stud but is controlled by the ultra-sexy and batshit crazy murderess he meets. Salma Hayek sizzles in LONELY HEARTS also starring John Travolta and James Gandolfini as the detectives.


 


Monday, December 6, 2021

Netflix Christmas Fun for Kids

 I love the classic animated Christmastime TV features. I love the simple, gleeful poignancy and poetry of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, the colorful wackiness of HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! narrated by Boris Karloff and the Rankin/Bass characters in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. They bring back warm, wonderful childhood memories and they continue to make me smile in my adult years.

If you get Netflix and you have kids under the age of 12, I have some animated holiday features to recommend. You may dig them too.

If you liked the animation and loopy fun of CHICKEN RUN (2000), you -- and the kids -- will enjoy SHAUN THE SHEEP: THE FLIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Shaun wants a bigger stocking for Christmas. The one he has is about the size of a Munchkin's sock. His misadventures take him to the town square for a tree lighting and then into a high-tech suburban home where a little girl mistakes the sheep for new Christmas toys.

This merriment is like a silent film from the 1920s. There's audio and characters make sounds, but there's no spoken word. However, the action is very easy to follow. Here's a trailer.


Come on, now. How often do you get to see sheep in sleigh at Christmastime? You will in this 2021 feature that runs only 30 minutes.

Next is another Netflix presentation, this one spun from the popular ELF ON THE SHELF book. This one is called AN ELF'S STORY: THE ELF ON THE SHELF. Elf scouts want a promotion. They want to be embraced by family so theycan help Santa at Christmastime. One elf named Chippy has a tough task. He's found a 9-year old boy who doesn't believe in the magic of Christmas like his little twin sisters do. Chippy is on that family's shelf and he's determined to fill the boy with the spirit of Christmas. Here's a clip.

This 2011 feature is pretty traditional and has about 4 songs in its 24-minute running time.

Next is a 2020 Netflix production called ALIEN XMAS. This is a kooky, hip animated feature with characters that seemed designed to resemble the kind of animated characters we saw in the classic Rankin/Bass holiday features. You wouldn't think the story would work. But it does. 

Santa finishes reading a Christmas story to his appreciative elves. Then he has another one that he describes as "a crazy Christmas story." It's about a race of space aliens on a faraway planet. These aliens were greedy. As Santa says, "All they ever felt was greed. The more they had, the more they wanted." The greedier the aliens became, the more they lost their skin color. Finally, they were so greedy that they all became white.

They looted and stole from other planets. Then they set their sights on Earth. The plan is to install a weapon on earth that would destroy the planet's gravity. Once destroyed, the aliens would take everything. The weapon would be installed on the North Pole two days before Christmas. One of the greediest aliens is assigned to set it up. However, when he gets to Christmas Town, he accidentally falls onto the conveyor belt of a toy machine. He winds up with toys....and a puppy. The puppy starts to lick away his greediness. Color returns to the alien's white skin. He sees the kindness, generosity and great holiday food of the elves. 

But what about the anti-gravity weapon and the little girl who thinks the alien is a new Christmas toy? Here's a trailer.

ALIEN XMAS is a lot of fun with a running time of 42 minutes. And it was really great to see elves of color in leading roles. Merry Christmas.


 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

About COMING OUT COLTON

 Back in the early 90s, there was a cheesy yet popular late night syndicated TV game show called STUDS. It was taped in Los Angeles. Basically, it was THE DATING GAME with saltier questions and answers. A trio of bachelors vied for the attention of a young lady asking questions. STUDS spawned another cheesy yet popular late night relationship TV game show called BEDROOM BUDDIES. That one focused on couples answering salty questions. I was the host. Some of the STUDS crew members worked on my show. One fellow told me that it was amazing how many gay guys from in and around the West Hollywood area applied to be bachelors on STUDS. They weren't straight and they really weren't interested in dating a woman. But they were extremely interested in how the national TV exposure could juice up their careers.

I think of that nowadays when I watch THE BACHELOR and THE BACHELORETTE on ABC. 

Remember Colton Underwood? He got lots of attention as a bachelor in a season of the franchise. He dated a woman for while and displayed some rather erratic behavior that made big buzz on social media. He and the young lady broke up. Then he publicly came out as gay. His admission made entertainment news headlines. He made his big announcement on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA.

I do not mean this to be snarky, but when I saw Colton as the bachelor during the run of the reality series, I got a blip on my personal gaydar (gay radar). When he came out, I really wasn't shocked and surprised. Now he has a series on Netflix. The title is -- COMING OUT COLTON. I watched the first two episodes.

I must honestly write this up front: I feel that if Colton Underwood looked like actor Jack Black in BERNIE, a 2011 film in which Black played a shy gay man, he would not have that series. Colton is tall, muscular, boyishly handsome and white. That's how it is. Looks count.

As for the first episode, one thing baffled me. He comes out to his mother, his father, his brother and his high school football coach. (Colton plays football.) How could those folks be surprised at his admission if he was in national entertainment news after his revelation on network TV's GOOD MORNING AMERICA? Did they toss out their TVs and quit social media after he left THE BACHELOR? In my mind, in between the time the left the ABC reality series and came out with the news of the Netflix deal, there had to have been some sort of marketing or production deal. I'm sure he did not do THE BACHELOR for free. Like those guys on STUDS, he wasn't really interested in dating a woman. But there was something he wanted from the TV exposure.

The first episode takes us to Denver, Colorado. He says that he "lived a lie for 29 years" by keeping mum about his sexual reality. The episode kind of overdoes it with the "he's gay AND a jock" aspect. We get it. He played football. We met openly gay Olympic medalist, skier GUS KENWORTHY. Kenworthy was apparently one of the first folks Underwood could talk to about being gay. Kenworthy asks Colton what's his type, dating-wise. He sheepishly replies, "Daddies." Keep that in mind when, in Episode 2, he makes it a point of visiting his high school football coach. I think Colton wants a papa bear -- like Chris Meloni on NBC's LAW & ORDER: ORGANIZED CRIME.

He also talks about THE BACHELOR and mistakes he made after leaving the series. As far as being discriminated against for being gay, it doesn't seem that Colton Underwood experienced any intense drama. He was never beaten up, kicked out of his home, disowned by his parents or fired from a job. He's still a handsome, lucky gay white dude who hooked a second TV deal. You really cannot feel sorry for him as you watch the first episode. Here's a trailer.


The second episode is better. Colton has more of an air of maturity in it. The episode focuses on Colton coming out to his dad and on football. It's arranged for Colton to have lunch with three gay pro football players -- Michael Sam, Esera Tualolo and the absolutely fabulous and trailblazing Dave Kopay. The highlight of the Episode 2 is Dave Kopay. He's wonderful, now an LGBTQ senior who still has plenty to offer. Dave Kopay played for the San Francisco 49ers, for Washington and, in 1972, for the Green Bay Packers. He came out in 1975 and wrote his autobiography that was published in 1977.


 

I took Dave Kopay to dinner in 1984. It was the night before he was an in-studio guest on the live afternoon show I co-hosted for Milwaukee's ABC TV affiliate. Kopay is a big, brotherly, amiable man who went out of his way to help me when he learned that I'm also a member of the LGBTQ community. The studio audience, by the way, loved Kopay and many in the audience stayed after the show to get his autograph or just shake his hand. On my show, Kopay mentioned that he passionately wanted a network TV sports commentator job during football season. He'd have been perfect for such a job. He was never hired because he's openly gay.

Netflix should give us a half-hour with Dave KopayCOMING OUT COLTON is now available on Netflix. For a grade, I'd give what I've seen so far a C+. And that + is thanks to Dave Kopay.


Saturday, December 4, 2021

Sondheim in REDS

 1981. I saw this epic historical drama/love story, written and directed by and starring Warren Beatty, at a preview in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a film reviewer and entertainment contributor on the city's ABC affiliate, WISN TV. I was able to take a guest to the preview and invited a buddy to join me. At the film's intermission, we both gasped "Wow." REDS, also starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, had that great an impact on us. It was one of the best films I'd seen that year. In fact, I paid to see it again more than once during its theatrical release.

Diane Keaton won her Best Actress Oscar for her lead role in Woody Allen's classic screwball romantic comedy, ANNIE HALL (1977). But don't forget she also showed her impressive dramatic talent in films such as LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, Woody Allen's INTERIORS, SHOOT THE MOON and REDS which brought her another Best Actress Oscar nomination.

My dear Twitter friend and film historian, Andres Quiroga, recently posted my favorite scene from REDS. It's a train reunion scene. There's much gravity to the scene. Keaton has little dialogue but I am always devastated by all the emotions that wash over her face in it. The lilting and melancholy music in the background was composed by Stephen Sondheim. Here's the scene Andres posted. Keaton's character has endured a grueling journey from America to Russia in the early 1900s. She fears the American journalist she loves may have been killed in a revolt while trying to document the politics.


That hug. That scene. It puts tears in my eyes every single time. And I have seen this film several times thanks to cable TV. As for the Sondheim music, the song is called "Goodbye For Now." Here's a rendition of it with lyrics sung by Liz Callaway.


There will never, ever be another Stephen Sondheim. He was an American genius.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

A New Santa in Norway

December 1st, was World AIDS Day. I lost my partner of 18 months to AIDS in June of 1994. He was one of the kindest and funniest people I've ever known. I always giggled when he said, "You're snoring" when I awoke from a good nap. That was my first relationship -- and a surprise it was. We'd met six months before our first date. He was a very nice young man, introduced to me by a mutual friend, but I really didn't pay much attention to him. Not that I was looking for a romance at that time, We met in a business situation, so my mind was on business. When our mutual friend called me and said, "Remember Richard, the guy I introduced you to six months ago? He wants to ask you out." I had just started work as one of the original trio hosting a new local weekend morning news program. We were in our second month and word on the street predicted we'd be cancelled three months later. This was 1992. The show, by the way, became a hit. 

I did not want to go out with Richard because I was convinced I had to start taking meetings for possible new work on the West Coast. But, I had been stood up or otherwise rejected on several dates. I did not want to treat someone like that. I told him to have Richard call me and I'd politely explain why we should not go out. He called me. His absolute charm on the phone made me say "Yes." We had our first date, a brunch date on Sunday, October 11th, 1992. I was prepared to end our brunch around 2pm with "Well, I must go home and start working on our next show. It was nice to meet you" and leave. However, something happened. I stood on the corner in front of the cafe where we met for brunch. When he spotted me from across the street and happily waved, I had a strange and oddly radiant feeling when I looked at him. I'll put it in movie terms -- it was like that moment when Tony first sees Maria at the dance in 1961's WEST SIDE STORY. I said to myself, "He's going to change my life." And, indeed, he did.

We had brunch -- and I stayed with him until the day he died. To love, live with and take care of Richard made me a better man. In the following years, I was determined to put those qualities into a second relationship. I was romantically interested in a few fellows after I felt emotionally strong enough to date after Richard passed, However, the romantic interest was never mutual. I'll use another movie example -- I didn't have the luck Tom Hanks' widower character had in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.

I tell you all that to let you know why this foreign TV commercial for Norway's postal system put tears in my eyes:


 Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

More SEX AND THE CITY

 The highly-publicized SEX AND THE CITY reboot premieres on December 9th on HBO Max. By now, the ladies who lunched are older. One or more may have received a birthday greeting from AARP. The reboot is called AND JUST LIKE THAT... When, months ago, I first read that a reboot was in the works, my immediate thought was "I bet Carrie Bradshaw finally discovers that there are sophisticated Black and Latino people in Manhattan who are also worthy of a fancy lunch."

I watched SEX AND THE CITY when it was new on HBO. By the third season, my weekly devotion to it started to wane. First of all, in the 25 years I lived in New York, I had female friends who were newspaper or magazine columnists. There were several times when I got a call from one -- or more -- of them and heard "I need to reschedule our dinner for tonight, I'm on deadline and working on a story." I totally understood and we rescheduled. Did Carrie ever have that kind of typical New York City journalist occupational drama? Did she ever do more than one draft of an article she was writing?

I knew that my NYC gay membership card stood a good chance of being revoked but, when gay White buddies were raving about the most recent fabulous episode, I found myself asking "Do those ladies have parents? Siblings? Other relatives? If they do, why don't we hear about or see them?" 

Then came the big question I'd started to ask about WILL & GRACE, a sitcom set in a downtown New York City apartment. Will lived just a few blocks from my apartment. The question: "Do they have any Black or Brown friends? They're in New York City!" I encountered Black, Brown, Asian and White people every week of my Manhattan life just leaving my apartment building to go around the corner and grab a bite at the diner. Sitting in the diner, I saw more Black, Brown, Asian and White people.

Did you see the WILL & GRACE reboot? It was as racially diverse as the audience at a Janet Jackson concert.

We didn't see lots of Black and Brown New Yorkers as Carrie's buddies and upscale party guest dates on SEX AND THE CITY.  Here's a trailer for AND JUST LIKE THAT... starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis


A new -- and apparently colorful -- chapter begins December 9th on HBO MAX.

One last thing. Kim Cattrall, who played sexy and sex-loving Samantha in the original quartet of lead ladies, is not in the reboot. Cattrall went on to do some of the best acting of her career in a 2014 to 2016 HBO Canada series called SENSITIVE SKIN. Cattrall was fantastic showing her dramatic depth as the sophisticated, wry former model who is now dealing with being 50, a middle-aged wife and the mother of a grown son, Cattrall was such a revelation and so stunning in SENSITIVE SKIN that I felt for her to return to playing Samantha would be like asking Sally Field to appear in a reboot of GIDGET. She'd outgrown the role.

If you can find episodes of the mature, smart, well-written and racially inclusive SENSITIVE SKIN on Acorn TV (with Prime Video Channels) or on Amazon Prime Video, I enthusiastically urge you to watch Kim Cattrall at her best. Here's a trailer. Broadway Tony winner Joanna Gleason is terrific as the conservative sister to Cattrall's character.


SENSITIVE SKIN should have aired on HBO here in the U.S. What a shame it didn't.




On THE POWER OF THE DOG

 I clicked onto Netflix and started watching this film about ten minutes after midnight. Honestly, I thought I'd get sleepy and stop wat...