Sunday, July 26, 2015

20 THOUGHTS ON THE 20th ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF MY TWIN BROTHER GREG

The caricature I did of my brother Greg for his memorial service in 1995.

Today's blog post is going to be a very personal one. That's because today is the 20th anniversary of my twin brother Greg’s death. He died on July 26th, 1995 in the intensive care unit of Midway Hospital in Los Angeles, CA. The cause of death was pneumonia complicated by AIDS. If you were diagnosed with AIDS twenty years ago there wasn't a lot that could be done about it. The strides in medical advances today have made AIDS quite treatable, but back then few survived it. And my brother was one of its victims. 

Greg was beloved by many people, and had a lot of friends and colleagues who thought he was the cat's meow. He was a boisterous and vivid man, full of passions, energy and wit. If you met him once, you'd never forget him. He was larger-than-life, always present, always thinking, always dropping a hilarious barb about whatever was going on. 

My twin was employed as a costume designer for the soap opera THE YOUNG & THE RESTLESS, and he won an Emmy too. Greg was also my best friend. And the loss has taken an immeasurable toll on those who knew and loved him. I miss Greg every day. And I probably can't really measure just how much the loss of him in my life has taken on me. A little something is missing from me every day because he's not here.

Still, in a way I get to see him every time I look in the mirror as we were identical twins. We shared a lot of things in addition to genes: a talent for drawing, music, and the ability to mimic. (He did the best Lauren Bacall imitation imaginable. Pants-wettingly funny!) And we both had a passion for the entertainment industry. When I write this blog, I often wonder if Greg would have the same take on things as I do. Thus, today I am going to write about topics in the entertainment venue the past 20 years, particularly movies and TV, that I think would have made a definitive impression on him. Knowing Greg as I did, I know he would have had very strong opinions on these matters.

THE DECLINE OF MOVIES
Dustin Hoffman recently remarked that movies are the worst they’ve ever been. I certainly believe that to be true. And I know Greg would have thought so as well. In fact, it would probably have driven him nuts more than me since he made his living in Tinsel Town. He would’ve been particularly disappointed in how lazy studios have gotten with their countless remakes, reboots and regurgitation. Sure, as a gay man he’d probably have admired all the buff men in tight superhero costumes but I think he would’ve been bored silly by how many Marvel and DC projects studios continue to be jammed down our throats. (A third SPIDER-MAN actor in a little over a decade?) And I’ll bet Greg would have wanted to see more of Hugh Jackman cutting a rug on Broadway instead of slicing up more baddies on the big screen. How many more times can he play Wolverine, honestly?


THE RISE OF TV
Hoffman also stated that he believes the TV industry is at its all-time best high, and I know Greg would have agreed. He would have loved all there is to see in the medium’s new “Golden Age.” He’d have trouble keeping up with his DVR, in fact, and probably complain that there were too many incredible dramas, comedies and sketch comedy shows to watch. (I think he'd have loved KEY & PEELE.) 

I know he'd have been binging on a lot of series too. He’d probably have gotten angry with me as well that it took me four months to finally sit down and watch the first season of UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT  after it premiere on Netflix in March. He would have loved its star Ellie Kemper as much as I do too. (Greg had a thing for redheads. More about that later.) 

But I know he would’ve loathed the permeation of reality TV. I can’t see him having any time for most of Bravo’s fare other than INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO. He’d have had no use for cable news either, with the possible exception of Rachel Maddow. He leaned left but all the arguing and endless chatter on CNN, MSNBC and Fox would've driven him nuts. (I'm sure he wouldn't ever watch Fox.) 

AWARDS SHOW STUPIDITY
As many followers here know, I have been very unhappy with some of the choices that the American Film Institute has made for their Life Achievement Awards. True, they honor all deserving artists but some have simply been honored too soon. Tom Hanks received his award when he was in his mid-forties, for heavens sake! Greg would’ve been furious about such choices too. I don't think he'd have forgiven Hanks for accepting the award that soon. After all, he was pretty dismissive when he won the Best Actor Oscar for PHILADELPHIA. Greg thought it was less of a performance and more of a succession of “wigs and scabs.” Greg could be a bit strident that way. Hilarious, but strident. And, of course, how Hollywood treated that subject back them was a point of contention with Greg. 

He would’ve loved all the different awards show telecasts though. He adored awards shows for their glamour and the speeches. Greg would have a lot of affection for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as hosts of the Golden Globes. His sense of humor was a lot like theirs. And Greg would’ve probably despised how increasingly lame the Oscars had become year in and year out, both in their choices and the show itself. And he’d never have forgiven the Academy for choosing CRASH as Best Picture over BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.


MEAN GIRLS
I truly believe this coming-of-age comedy would have become one of Greg's favorite movies of the past 20 years. Like its writer Tina Fey, Greg loved and loathed high school simultaneously. He excelled at school and was a whiz at many extracurricular activities too, but he loathed the cast system that the movie skewers so. Greg would’ve loved Lizzy Caplan’s Janis Ian character in the film and probably related most to her and her endless smart-ass quips and epic eye rolls. And he would have been tickled that I managed to become good buddies with the talented actor (Dwayne Hill) who played Coach Carr in the movie. I cast Dwayne in a Blockbuster campaign my agency was working on back then, and we became fast friends immediately. Greg would've loved that. And he would have wanted to be friends with Dwayne too.

LINDSAY LOHAN
I’m sure Greg would’ve been very upset with Lindsay Lohan for throwing away her career the way she did after the zenith of MEAN GIRLS. He didn't like drugs, and never drank, so I'm sure her addictions would've depressed him. And he would not have liked her take on Elizabeth Taylor in that awful Lifetime TV movie either. I can imagine him engaging in that conversation at every Christmas get-together in Wisconsin with my mom too, as she was always a big Liz fan as well. 

FASHION POLICE
I think he’d have liked the idea of a bitchy "Who wore it best" show, and probably would have found Joan Rivers amusing, but I imagine he’d have despised all the others on the panel. He’d probably say, "I'm funnier and more insightful than than that Guiliana Rancic! I should be on the show!" And he'd have been right about that. 


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Interestingly, I don’t think Greg would have liked this movie. I think he would have found it too depressing, too heterosexual in its way, and maybe even homophobic, especially with the main character's constant put-downs of gay men. And I think Greg probably would’ve despised Jared Leto getting an Oscar for a cliched performance that he'd likely sum up as mostly a success of  costuming and makeup. Greg always thought that costumes should support the performance, not become them.

DANCING WITH THE STARS
Greg would’ve loved this show and all its glitz, costumes, and hoofing Hollywood has-beens. He’d love Derek Hough. He'd love Mark Ballas. And he probably would have loved Karina Smirnoff’s endless legs. I couldn’t argue with him there.

LISBETH SALANDER
Greg liked fierce women, so I’ll bet he would have taken a shine to author Stieg Larsson’s most famous character. He’d probably have placed 'the girl with the dragon tattoo' in the same class as Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND or Alexis Carrington Colby on DYNASTY. All three were women who kicked ass and took no prisoners, and Greg loved that kind of woman. Extra points for them for looking fabulous doing so. And he probably would have costumed a few of his female friends as Lisbeth for a Halloween party or two.


PROJECT RUNWAY
This show easily would have been one of his favorites. In fact, he probably would’ve tried to get on it as a contestant. And he’d have adored Tim Gunn and likely have mastered a spot-on impression of him upon first viewing. Then he’d trot out that imitation every chance he got to any and everyone.

THE HEMSWORTH BROTHERS
Kind of glad Greg never got to experience the hunks that are the Hemsworths. He would've gone on and on about them too.


AMY ADAMS
Greg had great taste and always liked actresses who were incredibly versatile. He probably would’ve loved Amy Adams for being able to play the innocent and the vamp with equal aplomb. He also had a thing for redheaded ingénues. (At Northwestern, the three acting students who were his best buds were redheads Marg Helgenberger, Margaret Nagle and Ellen Smith.) 

Greg would have adored the way Amy rocked that sparkly silver disco dress in AMERICAN HUSTLE too. I could see him scouring Ebay daily for it, waiting for it to go up for sale. And he probably would have given it to my wife Paige as one of his overly generous Christmas gifts. She favors the color red in her hair too, and has a similar body type as Adams. (Sadly, he never got to meet her as she didn't come into my life until after he passed away.)  

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
My brother’s favorite actors were always those who had strong, dominating presences. Yet, Hemsworth boy aside, Greg favored leads who were unconventional, quirky, even a bit eccentric. He would have loved a leading man like Benedict Cumberbatch. The man's diction, power and ability to play good and bad would've been catnip to Greg. I’d have told him he was a “Cumberboy” but he’d have corrected me and insisted on being called a “Cumberbitch”, I am sure.


THE ARTIST
This movie tickled my fancy so, and I'm sure Greg would have loved it as well. What a loving valentine to moviemaking it was. (The lead character was even named George Valentin!) I know Greg would have eaten this confection up with a spoon. And he’d have loved the costumes, the score, and the novelty of it all with a passion. He'd have wanted to pet Uggie too, along with Jean Dujardin as well.

THE RISE OF THE LGBT COMMUNITY
Greg would’ve been proud of the LGBT community and how Hollywood helped moved the cause forward with shows like WILL & GRACE, QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and TRANSPARENCY. I think Greg would’ve also been a great admirer of Caitlyn Jenner, though he would have likely had little use for Bruce when he was with the Kardashians. (He'd be floored that so much wealth and power started with Kim's boring sex tape. Ugh.)


THE COSTUMES IN MAD MEN
My brother probably would’ve been horrified to know that I was in a profession that could be so ruthless, but he’d have loved the show about the ad biz nonetheless. He'd have been particularly dazzled by the amazing 1960's period costumes and hairstyling. I'm sure he would've bought me a Don Draper-esque suit or two for Christmas as well. 

THE DECLINE OF THE SOAP OPERA
Greg took daytime drama and the craft it took to put on a show every weekday very seriously. Everyone on THE YOUNG & THE RESTLESS did. And it still is the top soap today, but it would’ve depressed Greg to see so many daytime serials not succeed and go by the wayside. Interestingly, he called it back in the early 90’s, stating that soaps were too big, too expensive and rifling through money. He felt they needed to streamline casts, location shoots and big budget ratings ploys. 

Whether he remained part of that world, or went onto other things, is moot at this point. However, if he had stayed with the genre, he’d have been very saddened by the inability of the three major networks to keep more than four soaps running. It would've greatly upset him.

WHAT'S UP DOC? was a movie made in 1972, but since Streisand was his favorite actress, I had to include a shot!
WOMEN IN COMEDY
Greg would be indignant at the argument in Hollywood over whether women were funny or not. He loved women and funny women, in particular. Heck, his favorite Barbra Streisand movie wasn’t FUNNY GIRL, it was WHAT’S UP, DOC! (Though he'd have hated her road trip movie with Seth Rogan.) Greg would’ve loved Amy Schumer, Ellen DeGenerese, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon...he'd probably even find Kathie Lee and Hoda hilarious. And I’ll bet he would’ve been tickled to see his old Northwestern classmate Julia Louis-Dreyfus thriving so on VEEP.

SOCIAL MEDIA
I think Greg would’ve loved social media and enjoyed following and bantering with his friends and colleagues on it, particularly those who didn’t live in LA. I’m sure he would’ve been contributing to the Facebook threads of old chums like George Dalzell and Sarah Partridge. He’d probably push Eric Larson and David Sobottka to be more active on it, and for girl friends Jennifer Johns and Ailey Smith to participate in it. And I’m sure he’d have some funny quips for Ron Fassler’s endless stream of old photos he trots out on most Throwback Thursday's. (If you're reading this, Ron, he'd probably love and hate that you don't age.)

I’ll bet he would’ve connected with a lot of old classmates from high school too, and probably have come around to see Lomira High School in a truly positive light. He would’ve been FB chatting with his best friend Terese Burns daily, I'm sure. And he would have loved all the clever thoughts and the beefcake photos from Ron Runde, one of our high school besties. He'd probably have even succeeded in getting my mom on social media, but I've failed for these past 20 years to even get her to buy a computer! 

Greg would’ve been resistant to texting though, even if he liked cellphones. Greg loved to chat but would've balked at doing so with his fingers. He’d think that texting was simply a far inferior form of communication. And his cellphone would have been used mostly for talking, not checking weather or asking Suri for directions.



A PARTNERSHIP WITH ME
Greg took me to the Y & R Christmas party at executive producer Bill Bell’s house the year before he was diagnosed with HIV. Bill was tickled to meet Greg’s doppelgänger and seriously talked about wanting to put us on the show. “We’ll be the first soap to actually have twins playing twins!” That would’ve been a ton of fun, but it all became moot when Greg got sick. After that, his life became a battle to survive, and talk of a career change became a non-topic. In a couple of short years, he would leave this world all too suddenly.

Greg and I were the kind of twins who did everyone together in high school. Even though we went to different colleges, they ended up both being in Chicago, and we got together to hang out every other weekend. We probably would have found some way to work together, in some capacity as our lives went on, THE YOUNG & THE RESTLESS star turns or not. Perhaps I would have moved out to LA as well to really give it a go with Greg. Who knows?


What I do know is that Greg's life was tragically cut short at only 34 years of age. I salute his memory today and all that he's missed these past 20 years. I miss him so much. And I wish I had seen all the subjects I wrote about here with him by my side.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

IS OSCAR ISAAC THE MOST INTERESTING ACTOR WORKING TODAY?

Original caricature of Oscar Isaac in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. (copyright 2015)

There are many amazing and versatile actors on the scene these days that are absolutely crushing it. Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Tom Hiddleston…even a few Americans, like the incredible Jake Gyllenhaal or the underrated, but invaluable to any project, Corey Stoll. I anxiously await anything that these formidable gentlemen appear in. One actor who should be mentioned in the same breath is Oscar Isaac. He’s not only scoring in role after role, but the way he approaches them is always amazing to watch. He’s hard to pin down and he never does the same thing twice.

He’s been getting a lot of attention the past few years, and in 2015 he got a lot of kudos for playing the inventor with a god complex in the big sci-fi hit EX MACHINA (My rave is here). Now he’s about to be seen in the high-profile HBO miniseries SHOW ME A HERO, as well as a little something at Christmas called STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. In other words, Oscar Isaac is about to become a household name. But before that happens, let me catalog why he’s such a formidable and exciting actor, and for my money, the most intriguing one to watch onscreen these days. 


HE’S AMERICAN AND EXOTIC

He was born Oscar Isaac Hernandez in Guatemala to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father. His maternal grandmother was French. And yet, he was raised in Miami, Florida. Because of his dark, brooding looks, he’s able to suggest almost any nationality. He could be Greek or Italian just to look at him. In fact, films have capitalized on his universality and cast him as a Hebrew in THE NATIVITY STORY, an Englishman in ROBIN HOOD, a Roman in AGORA, a Hispanic in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, and an American with no clear ethnicity in many films like THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. He’s one of the most handsome and distinct looking actors to come down the pike in some time, yet he’s really a character actor inside a leading man’s body. And he’s played leads and supporting roles, choosing good parts, and not relying on his looks to be a mere matinee idol. He can also play period and contemporary, so he’s a casting director’s dream.

Oscar Isaac looking dapper yet dangerous in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014).
HE CAN PLAY GOOD, BAD AND IN BETWEEN

Isaac has played incredibly smart characters (EX MACHINA, obviously) as well as dim losers (DRIVE). He can play the white hat (W.E.) and the black hat (THE BOURNE LEGACY) and somewhere in the middle (A MOST VIOLENT YEAR). What’s particularly fascinating about his screen presence is how he often instills his good guys with subtle menace, obstinacy, and even selfishness. In 2014’s A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, he played businessman Abel Morales with a stoic dignity that behooved his character’s attempts to stay above the fray of dirty money and corruption in 1981 New York, yet as Morales sunk into debt with shady business partners, Isaac’s eyes became darker and more dangerous. Could Morales stay incorruptible? Isaac kept us guessing by playing so close to both sides. 

Isaac does it via subtleties in the way he holds his face. Sometimes he gazes at another character a touch longer than expected and the tension becomes terrifying. Other times his jaw and mouth become slightly tighter as if they are literally chewing over the possibility of violent options. And when Morales chases after a hijacker down the streets of Brooklyn in the film, you're more worried about the driver than Morales because Isaac brought such intrepid intensity to the foot race. It’s the same kind of danger that Brando and Pacino had in their younger days. And now, Isaac picks up that mantle.

Isaac as the folk singer who protects the cat for the moment in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013).
HE WAS STILL SYMPATHETIC AFTER ABANDONING THE CAT 

His big breakthrough of course was 2013’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the movie that most people know him from. Any Coen Brothers movie gets a lot of attention, but Isaac’s first big lead was one of the more complex protagonists for the filmmakers and the actor. The character of Llewyn Davis is a talented yet unsuccessful New York City folk singer in the early 1960’s, and he’s awfully hard to like because he’s arrogant and self-sabotaging. Yet while Isaac aced the cold inside the character (sometimes he was as icy as the wintry landscape he trudged around in), he managed to still imbue him with sympathy and even likability. It was a performance that required droll comic timing and Isaac was great at just staring with a “Can you believe this is happening to me?” look that was as hilarious as it was poignant. Really, how many actors can be that funny while being morose?

He managed to keep the audience on his side too even when Davis does the most unforgivable. In the early part of the film, he blithely lets a friend’s cat escape the apartment where he’s crashed for the night. Luckily, Davis finds an orange tabby on the street and thinks it’s his friend’s pet, so he starts carrying it around with him until he can return it. It turns out not to be the right cat, yet Davis won’t part with it. (The cat is a metaphor for the lost soul that Davis himself is.) Then when he gets the chance at a big audition in Chicago, Davis packs up and takes the cat with him. But the driver runs off and leaves the car with no keys. Thus,Davis abandons the car and the cat in it in the middle of a sub-zero night. It’s a horrible moment, and Davis’ actions make the audience gasp at his cruel decision. True, John Goodman's bellicose music man is still in the car napping, but the cat is doomed because of Davis's selfishness. Nonetheless, Isaac managed to make the audience (and cat owners and lovers like me) understand the desperation of his singer’s situation.


HE’S A MUSICIAN, AND A  HELLUVA GOOD ONE

Isaac did all of his own singing and guitar playing as Llewyn Davis. And he’s truly terrific at it. Could he do musicals on Broadway if he wanted to? You bet. And he can even dance. Just watch him "tear up the f**kin' floor" in the cheeky clip above from EX MACHINA.

Oscar Isaac plays 1980's Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko in the upcoming HBO miniseries SHOW ME A HERO.

HE’S AN ACTOR WHO KNOWS THE BIZ AND ENJOYS IT

Isaac hasn’t become a superstar yet, though it’s likely going to happen sooner than later. And hopefully, he'll remain as down-to-earth and accessible as he is now. When he's interviewed, Isaac talks mostly about the film and others in it. He strikes me as the most modern of actors in that he not only can pontificate about his craft, but he’s a fan of other actors and the business itself, willing to talk them up while doing his due diligence on the promotion tour. 

The man can talk the talk about what’s going on in entertainment like someone who makes a point to get out to the Cineplex for more than just his own premieres. And if you’ve ever seen him on THE TODAY SHOW or GOOD MORNING AMERICA, he’s always very present at those early hours, and exceedingly cordial too. He knows how to keep a good conversation going.

Isaac doesn't consider himself too big for TV, and that's why he's doing HBO. (I know, I know...it's not TV, it's HBO.) He’s also not too big to be an active participant in things like ComicCon, where he appeared just last week as part of the STAR WARS panel, as well as the X-MEN APOCALYPSE panel. Isaac isn't one of those angry, suffering actors who recoil from fans or press. He's enjoying the ride.  

Oscar Isaac photographed on set of the new STAR WARS movie due this Christmas.
His character is the new STAR WARS movie is apparently that of an accomplished pilot for the Jedi forces. Of course it remains to be seen just how black, white or gray his character is. No matter though, Oscar Isaac will add nuance and complexity to the part. He’s committed, clever and always surprising to watch. Such qualities make him, for my money, the most interesting actor working today. 

IS ROSE BYRNE THE MOST INTERESTING ACTRESS WORKING TODAY?

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rose Byrne in SPY (copyright 2015)

Who’s the most versatile actress working today? Meryl Streep? Of course, one can make a very strong argument for her as she is the greatest actress of all time and is still giving amazing performances. Or maybe it's Amy Adams as she can do both comedy and drama with equal aplomb. And one could make a case for Glenn Close, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain. I'd choose an actress who’s not quite on everyone's A-list just yet. Nonetheless, she is exceedingly in demand and giving one stellar performance after another. She's also one of Hollywood's greatest chameleons. It's Rose Byrne.

Compare actresses working today and there's almost no one who has the range that she has. If you only know her from TV’s DAMAGES or the movie BRIDESMAIDS, you've barely scratched the surface of her talent. She looks like an ingenue and can play the pretty lead, but more often than not, she's a character actor acing role after variant role. 


DID YOU KNOW SHE’S AUSTRALIAN?

The 35-year-old actress hails from Sydney, Australia. That may come as a bit of a surprise because she usually plays Americans on film and she can do flawless American accents.  Byrne's been acting since she was 13, yet she still admits to being a typically insecure actress who finds watching herself on film to be “confronting." Byrne fears she’s not going to like what she sees and become convinced she cannot act. The reality couldn't be farther from the truth. And her broad range should scare other actresses who watch her onscreen. 

Byrne in the horror movie INSIDIOUS (2010)
WHAT KIND OF PART CAN’T SHE PLAY?

After 41 movies and counting, it is extraordinary to see the range of roles she’s played. Byrne has done drama (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES), comedy (BRIDESMAIDS), horror (INSIDIOUS and 28 DAYS LATER), musicals (ANNIE), love stories (ADAM), indies (ADULT BEGINNERS), action adventure (X-MEN FIRST CLASS), sci fi (SUNSHINE), and farce (GET HIM TO THE GREEK). She’s not only versatile, but she can play the lead (NEIGHBORS) or take a good supporting role (THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU). Clearly, Byrne wants to be associated with worthy works and her ego doesn't seem to be as much at play as with some actresses who only take "above the line" roles, or won't stray from their comfort zone. Byrne should be at the top of Hollywood's "It" list as she is capable of anything. Heck, she even can sing and dance like one of Broadway's best.  


SHE IS UTTERLY HILARIOUS

A lot of the Twitter-sphere this year has given way to a pointless argument about whether women are funny are not. (They are. End of argument.) For those still unconvinced, look at Byrne in her stand-out comedic roles. In GET HIM TO THE GREEK, she plays Russell Brand’s rock star girlfriend Jackie Q and she is 100 miles from refined. Jackie’s a drug-addled, vulgar floozy with a slurring Cockney accent and the body language of an open bottle of gin. And Byrne gets to showcase her character in a parody video from the film where Jackie Q combines the best and worst of every music diva from the last 30 years. (See the video above.) Byrne is totally convincing as the rocker and she gets a laugh with every line she utters in the film.

In NEIGHBORS, the wife role was originally going to be the voice of reason to Seth Rogan's immature husband, but when the actor/writer approached Byrne about playing it, she asked that the part be rewritten to be more of a match to his character's naughty, childish schlub. Her reasoning was that she'd marry someone similar, not an exact opposite. By pushing back, and pushing the material, Byrne helped turn a decent comedy script into a truly memorable movie. She's just as raucous, raunchy, and uncouth as Rogan is in the story, and together as “partners in crime", they make their antics hilarious and even sexy. Byrne and Rogan had great chemistry together. It probably made James Franco green with envy. 

Byrne, with Kristen Wiig in the notorious bridal salon scene in BRIDESMAIDS (2011)
And don't forget how crucial Byrne is to the success of BRIDESMAIDS. Her "straight man" to Kristen Wiig's clown would have turned out fine if Byrne had played the role of rich prig Helen as nothing more than that. Instead, her comic inventiveness turns the stiff into a mean girl with a hilarious sense of malice. Watch how Byrne's Helen fakes wide-eyed innocence to push Wiig's Annie to eat that candied almond when she's on the verge of hurling. She's vicious, malicious and hilarious. Melissa McCarthy may have gotten the best supporting actress nomination at the Oscars that year, but the best ally the movie had was Byrne. She took a rather obvious country club villain and turned her into a truly funny and fascinating foil. 

Rose Byrne with Glenn Close on FX's TV series DAMAGES (2007-2012)
MOVE OVER MERYL, BYRNE CAN DO ACCENTS TOO

Many actors have tried and failed to do American accents. (Laurence Olivier, despite his pedigree and accomplishments, couldn’t Lord it over the American rhythms of speech.) But Byrne does American accents so well, and is asked to do it so often in movies, that she might be the best at it of any actor. Plus, it’s never that flat accent that so many foreign thespians end up doing when they attempt to talk like middle America types. Byrne's are varied and spot on.

Byrne can also do a terrific British accent as well and has been called upon to do that a number of times (28 WEEKS LATER). She has a great ear and can play posh or lower stations too. Sometimes she blends them together with hilarious results, like her turn as the elegant but gauche villain in this summer's hit comedy SPY. 


SHE’S GORGEOUS, BUT RARELY FLAUNTS IT

Byrne isn’t just beautiful; she is gorgeous. She’s got cheekbones you could cut your hand on, wide and expressive doe eyes that can melt your heart, legs for days, and a trim little figure that could be showcased on the cover of every Shape magazine. Byrne could be a model, but interestingly, she's always up for looking unattractive on camera. She can expertly downplay her physical beauty, and she does it without the crutch of showy makeup or prosthetics like some actresses do who show their willingness to slum.

In this past spring’s indie comedy ADULT BEGINNERS, she played Justine, a modest mother with another child on the way. She graciously takes in her wayward brother Jake (Nick Kroll) who's financially ruined, and his agitated presence challenges her complacent marriage and her modest sense of self. Justine is tired and overwhelmed by most of her life and Byrne let herself look unkempt through the whole film. Motherhood has exhausted Justine, and Byrne ensures it goes beyond her ratty hair and rumpled clothing. Her gait is meek, her posture more than a little stooped, and you can see the lack of sleep in every move Byrne makes.  
Byrne with Nick Kroll in ADULT BEGINNERS (2015)
Yet, Byrne’s character nonetheless comes to life around her brother. She enjoys mixing it up with him and you can see the quicksilver wit of the law student Justine used to be when she banters with Jake. Byrne can play normal so well, and still create a person just as compelling as a character who's larger-than-life. ADULT BEGINNERS is a small film, but it's a major accomplishment in Byrne’s oeuvre.

Byrne played alongside James Earl Jones in Broadway's 2014-2015 season in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.
Maybe too many of Byrne’s films have been smaller pictures like that and that's why she hasn't become a superstar just yet. Or perhaps some of the clunkers along the way haven't helped elevate her game. (Despite acing the singing and dancing in the remake of ANNIE last year, the revamped movie musical did Byrne few favors.) Or maybe it’s just that this incredible talent is willing to take smaller roles in good movies even if it keeps her as a supporting player in the minds of some Hollywood filmmakers. She works constantly though, so I believe it's just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up with what a lot of us already know. Rose Byrne is the most interesting actress in Hollywood today. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

COMING OF AGE IN THE YEAR 2015


We’re in the middle of 2015 and one of the main accomplishments of Hollywood so far this year has been to give the venerable “coming of age” trope a fresh spin. Its' all the more remarkable of an accomplishment considering so much of the output from Tinsel Town this year has been uninspired remakes, reboots and rehashes. Still, five productions managed to dazzle and tell the coming-of-age story in exciting new ways. 

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

The most obvious of 2015’s coming-of-age stories is this indie that won both the critic’s and audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter. The title of Jesse Anderson's original book and the movie both tell you exactly what it’s all about, perfectly capturing the glib approach to life by the story's narrator Greg (Thomas Mann). He doesn’t believe in much of anything, least of all himself. And he certainly doesn’t believe in joining the pity party that his mom wants him to sign up for when she orders him to go visit a classmate battling leukemia. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is no saint herself as she is handling her illness with almost the same glumness as Greg deals with everything. But together with his too-cool-for-school friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II), these three develop a forced friendship that leads them to appreciate the little things in life. And interestingly, Greg never becomes a very likable character even with the growth he's learned by thinking outside himself. It gives the film a unique toughness helping it avoid many cliches of this type of film, most notably that which is maudlin.


LOVE & MERCY

This unique movie bio about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson illustrates how one doesn’t have to be 25 or younger to come of age. In this unflinching and intimate character study, Wilson is a man-child, a genius at music, but a mess as a responsible adult. Bad parenting will do a number on you, and boy, did Wilson have an awful dad. We see Wilson, played in his twenties by Paul Dano, struggle to nourish his art under the brutal thumb of his manager dad (Bill Camp). Wilson spins hit record after hit record, but his dysfunctional relationship with his pop spins his life out of control. By his 40’s, when the role is taken over by John Cusack, he’s a depressed, drug-addled shell of his former self. And compounding the problem is the new patriarchal figure taking over his life. Psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamati) was hired to help Wilson adjust to adulthood, and the doctor means well, but he ends up being just as much of a tyrant as Wilson's father. Thus, Wilson is kept a boy beholden to stronger men running and ruining his life. Finally, he comes to stand up for himself, with the help of a strong woman (Elizabeth Banks), and by kicking all the drugs Landy is putting in his blood. Wilson learns to assume responsibility for more than his art. He finally gets the tempo for clean living and self-sufficiency down pat. Wilson came of age late in life, but he made it nonetheless. 


INSIDE OUT

Yes, this film is about the five emotions in 11-year-old Riley’s brain, but nonetheless, they are all a side of this little girl who comes of age. And the most incredible thing about Disney/Pixar’s latest and greatest is not how intellectual it is, especially heady for young children, but how daring it is in clearly stating that children should not be shielded from sadness. Joy (Amy Poehler) is great, but a person needs the other end of the spectrum as well to truly grow. Even at 11. And ultimately, it's Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) that gives Riley her depth of feeling to truly understand how life works, and that children need to deal with all emotions, good and bad. In this day and age, where every kid seems to get a trophy fore merely participating in this event or that, INSIDE OUT resoundingly tells us that learning to lose is as important as basking in winning.


UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT

This Netflix series about a woman rescued from a doomsday cult and given a chance to start her life over in New York City hardly seems like sitcom fodder. Still, it most resoundingly is, both hilarious and heartfelt. Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (30 ROCK), this show stars the incomparable Ellie Kemper as the naïve Kimmy. She was held in captivity in an underground prison, along with three other women, by a religious zealot for 15 years. Now, at 29, she is found, released, and told that the world didn't come to an end. The apocalypse was a lie, and now her world is truly just beginning. This is one of the most unconventional coming-of-age stories ever. All Kimmy knows of the world was what she knew at 14 and what she was told for the last generation by her captor. With such an awful set of circumstances, you'd think that the Big Apple and all the cynics inhabiting it would swallow her up whole. Instead, it's the reborn Kimmy who conquers them all and makes the big city a little more like a friendly small town. Her pluck and enthusiasm brings everyone into her orbit of positive, and they're forced to reconsider their worlds. From her struggling actor roommate (Titus Burgess) to her snooty rich employer (Jane Krakowski) to her world-weary landlord (Carol Kane), they all come of age too, proving it's never too late to change. Or grow. Or be unbroken, no matter what life throws at you. 


DAREDEVIL

For anyone who loathed the 2003 movie, this new reimagining of the Marvel comic should cleanse their palate. What makes this work where the film didn't? A number of things - the right casting, a deeper sense of purpose, and enough time to tell a proper story. This version is much more about character too. Most TV is, and it would behoove film to follow suit. Just look at how this one-hour drama over the course of 13 episodes expands on how blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) evolves into the do-gooder/avenger known in NYC as Daredevil. And that story is told brilliantly with numerous flashbacks showing how is childhood made him the man he is today. And what makes this show extra special is that it does the same with its antagonist as well. Wilson Fisk (AKA “Kingpin”) is played to perfection by veteran character actor Vincent D’Onofrio. He too is a man forged in childhood. And extended flashbacks of his youth show a child battling everything from obesity to a bullying stepfather. Two coming-of-age stories for the price of one is part of what makes this Netflix series so amazing.  And it shows week in and week out that neither man is all good or all evil, but they have definitely been shaped by all of their past. And both leads are still discovering how much so, as they battle for control of Hell’s Kitchen. It's truly super.


Some of the other 2015 films with clear coming-of-age stories included KINGSMEN: THE SECRET SERVICE, McFARLAND USA, CINDERELLA and INSURGENT, but they tended to be traditionally told in most respects. The five listed above though truly pushed the boundaries of such tried-and-true themes found in these types of stories. And by offering up such unique perspectives, the mediums of film and television grew and matured a little more too. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

THE BEST OF 2015 MOVIES...SO FAR


The first half of the 2015 movie season concludes this week, so what kind of movie year has it been so far? It’s been surprisingly good, albeit mostly in small pockets here and there. Perhaps the big, over-produced spectacle of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON or JURASSIC WORLD check your summer entertainment boxes, but I prefer something more original or certainly with less CGI filling every frame. True, more frivolous fare is trotted out during the hotter months, but it's good to remember that the big movie that started the whole summer movie trope was a smart, character-driven picture that returned to the theaters last week to celebrate its premiere 40 years ago. JAWS was and is still tons better than those poseurs, or most films for that matter. And, part of its success is due to its more human elements. The mechanical shark was fine, but it’s the story of the three men that gives the film its weight and classic status.

Still, there is plenty today to be lauding, so without further ado, here are the 10 highlights of the first six months IMHO:


EX MACHINA
The best movie of the year so far was this exquisitely sinister mind f**k. That’s not only what happens to the lead Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he tries to figure out whether he’s testing the humanity levels of the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander, in a star-making performance) or he himself is being tested by her inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The answer is both, and the audience is tested too as the story plays with our loyalties to the lead and we end up shifting alliances from man to machine. Alex Garland wrote and directed this amazing achievement and filled it with a sly, sensual menace rare in most films these days. At times, it almost could be a heady play in the National Theater in England. And like all great science fiction, this film is not only exciting and challenging, but it's also a stinging commentary on today's dependence upon machines, an obsessive predilection for voyeurism,  and our inability as human beings to connect properly with our fellow man. 


LOVE & MERCY
The second best movie of the first six months is this film about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Unfortunately, this superior character study is dying at the office. It’s a shame that summer audiences cannot find room for the best biopic in ages, but I guess Cineplex patrons are mostly interested in remakes and rehashes. This portrait of an artist explains both the inspiration and madness that often goes hand-in-hand with genius. And as played by Paul Dano as the younger Wilson, and John Cusack as the burnt-out middle-aged version, Wilson is given a comprehensive portrayal, warts and all. Both actors deliver performances that should be remembered at Oscar time, no matter what the box office.


INSIDE OUT
Pixar’s latest critical and box office juggernaut is amazing not only for being ostensibly a kids movie about the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s brain, but in its daring for stating that one’s sadness is not only as valid an emotion as joy but may be even more valuable in how one copes, adult or child. All five of the emotions on display here (Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Fear and Anger) are validated in one of the wittiest and truly moving animated films ever. It’s an instant classic, right up there with Pixar's best like TOY STORY, THE INCREDIBLES and WALL-E. And the movie has as  much visual eye candy as it does prophetic thought. I don't know if kids get it all, but for anyone over 15, it is a film you'll want to see at least twice.


MAD MAX FURY ROAD
Filmmaker George Miller gave us a fourth movie in his Mad Max series and he proved that the return was well worth the trip. This adventure is quite the reimagining of the franchise in many ways as it turns Max into more of a supporting character to the real action heroes of the piece - the female characters on the run for their freedom from a crippling, male run hierarchy in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Sure, it's got some of the best action and editing anywhere, but what really makes this one rise above Ultron or T-Rex's is its characters. Specifically, those daring women, and in particular, their leader Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron, pictured above). Miller is a cinematic genius still, creating eye-popping visuals and fueling all of it with an adrenaline unmatched onscreen in eons. But his greatest trick is baiting us with Max's madness and switching the real heart of the film over to Furiosa's fierceness.  


IT FOLLOWS
Not only was this indie film a critical and box office hit, but it was simultaneously a VOD hit too. (More and more releases are going to launch that way.) So often, the horror genre is filled with schlock – gratuitous gore, unnecessary nudity and dumb shocks – but this little miracle avoids all those mistakes. Instead, it's a disquietly terrifying character study of a young woman that is trying to outrun an entity that comes after her, wanting to take her life. It's triggered after she's had casual sex with a date, and while it's a rather obvious STD metaphor, most everything else in the film has nuance and subtlety. It also has a palpable sense of dread from almost its first frame and that is an amazing achievement. This is easily the best horror movie so far in 2015, and it may very well staking that claim on December 31 too. 

Special kudos as well to distributor Radius-TWC for meeting the demands for this sleeper hit so quickly and opening it wide on 1200 screens just two weeks after its modest opening on only a handful of them. 

And while we're on the subject of horror, honorable mention must go to do other frighteners that made excellent impressions in the first half of the year: The Iran horror film A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. It was arthouse and grindhouse, all in the same movie, and it’s also one of the year’s best frighteners. And INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3, the second sequel in that franchise, and one that gave it's lead over to 71-year-old Lin Shay who makes for one of the most unique ghostbusters ever in cinema. And she totally holds the film in the palm of her hand. Bravo!


WOMEN-FRONTED SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS
What a great six month for female empowerment at the Cineplex! Melissa McCarthy continues to prove to the idiot naysayers out there that not only are women as funny as men, but they can open films too. And they can do so without being a size 2. Her big budgeted comedy SPY has proved to be a huge hit. It took #1 the  weekend it opened, and it still continues to show up in the top 5 box office performers, week in and week out, a month after its release. 

Then there's the fact that the three leads in INSIDE OUT are all female. (That would be Joy, Anger, and the girl whose brain they live in - Riley.) Not to mention that horror has had a lot of leads this year, like in STARRY EYES, the aforementioned IT FOLLOWS and INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3. We've already discussed Theron in MAD MAX. And while it was unfortunate that director Michele McLaren felt the need to part ways with DC Comics over her vision on the WONDER WOMAN movie, at least another female director was hired to replace her. That would be Patty Jenkins, who directed Theron to an Oscar in MONSTER. Wondrous women, all!


OSCAR ISAAC
The most exciting actor working in film today is Oscar Isaac. (I'll have even more about him in a stand alone blog post next week.) Isaac can play good, bad, lead, supporting, serious and funny. Oh, and he can play a mean guitar and sing too, as he did fronting INSIDE LLEYWN DAVIS two years ago. His character of Nathan in EX MACHINA was full of so many shadings and Isaac does as much with his eyes and he does with script lines. His turn as the mercurial inventor pulling all the strings in EX MACHINA makes him the frontrunner for 2015’s Best Supporting Actor at this juncture. And in case you didn't think he was having a spectacular run, what DRIVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and EX MACHINA, in December he's starring in the new STAR WARS movie. Not only is the world his oyster right now, but it appears the galaxy might be his as well.


ROSE BYRNE
The most exciting actress working in film today is Rose Byrne. (Yes, I'll be writing more about her in a week too.) Like Oscar Isaac, she is a multi-talent who can do it all. And she’s Australian, but you'd never know it from her superb American accents she's often called upon to conjure for various roles.  She can play straight (INSIDIOUS) and broad (GET HIM TO THE GREEK). She can sing and dance (ANNIE), and she is one of the most gorgeous ingenues to come down the pike in some time too. This year already, she's appeared in two movies that show off her colossal talents. She played big and broad as the Euro-trash villain in SPY. Then she played utterly normal as a beleaguered wife and mom in the indie dramedy ADULT BEGINNERS. It’s great that Hollywood is casting her constantly, but now she needs to be getting leads. Talent this great needs to take center stage. 


ELIZABETH BANKS
She, like Rose Byrne is amazingly adroit at playing comedy, drama, horror, adventure, and farce. Banks also proved this year that she can be one hell of a director. Her helming of PITCH PERFECT 2 topped the original in many ways, and she even lent the film another one of her hilarious supporting turns. She's currently garnering awards talk for her stunning supporting turn in LOVE & MERCY. She is long overdue for trunk loads of awards. And this year, perhaps the odds will be forever in her favor. (Oh, that's right, she's starring in the final HUNGER GAMES movie this fall as well.) 


ACADEMY DIVERSITY

To hopefully produce an Oscar ballot come 2016 that looks younger, smarter, more varied, and less safe, the Motion Picture Academy has invited a slew of artists who are much more active in the business than a lot of those septuagenarian voters, if not also a group of invitees who resemble a better cross section of diversity.  Newer stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Stone were asked to join. As were minority actors like Kevin Hart and Dev Patel. And JK Simmons was invited too. He's not only last year’s Best Supporting Actor but the veteran character actor works all the time and knows what's going on in the industry to say the least.

The Academy invited a large bunch of others too that toil behind the camera as well. Included were director Bong Joon-ho (SNOWPIERCER), costumer Jany Temime (SKYFALL) and Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, GONE GIRL). The fact that Reznor and Ross have Oscars but had yet to be invited speaks volumes about how tin-earred the Academy is too often. But with this list, there's great hope. Now, if the Academy would just get that Best Picture category back down to only five nominees. 

We'll see what the second half of 2015 brings us, but there are very good signs of great things to come. Todd Haynes' CAROL took Cannes by storm and gets released in the fall nationwide. Guillermo del Toro has a big new horror movie opening starring Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. And yes, the return of the STAR WARS franchise has the kid in everyone getting very, very excited. May the force be with it, as well as the rest of this movie year.