Category Archives: Celeb

Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara flail and fumble in ‘Hot Pursuit’

Hot PursuitSofía Vergara and Reese Witherspoon are two actresses who have charm and humor to spare. In their best work, they have proven themselves to be bright and capable comediennes. For some reason, together they seem to drain each other of their respective charms. In Anne Fletcher’s 2015 comedy Hot Pursuit, the two are paired for a strangely dour and unfunny comedy that feels as if it works to make the ladies as unlikable as possible.

Witherspoon stars Rose Cooper, a second-generation cop who is assigned to protect the widow of a drug boss (Vergara). It’s a formulaic buddy comedy that hopes to exploit the odd couple pairing of Vergara and Witherspoon. Witherspoon’s Rose Cooper is a priggish, uptight dummy. She’s pathologically by-the-book, and her obsessive attention is supposed to be funny, but it comes off sad, and then there’s Witherspoons Texas twang, which is broad and jokey.

Vergara, on the other hand, is tasked to play the comic foil to Witherspoon’s straight man, and she’s stranded by a terrible script and Fletcher’s lazy direction, which essentially results in Vergara playing a variation on Gloria Pritchett from Modern Family, but without her wit.

The convoluted plot has Rose thrown into a nutso caper in which she and Vergara’s Daniella are running away from members of a drug cartel as well as a band of crooked cops. On their way to Dallas, the two run into episodes of hilarity such as having a semi crash into their convertible setting off a mushroom cloud of cocaine, pretending to be lesbian lovers to distract Jim Gaffigan’s good ole boy, or commandeering a tour bus of seniors to escape from the assassins.

Like most buddy comedies, the energy from the story comes from the relationship between the two leads. And both Witherspoon and Vergara work hard, but because they aren’t reined in by their director, their performances devolve from simply broad mugging to lots of screaming. As the story chugs along, there are some predictable twists that are meant to be shocking, but because the screenplay feels like it’s been spit out of a machine, each turn feels ready made and cued.

Underneath the layers of mess, the script tries to make some point about dismissing women. Daniella is seen as an empty-headed trophy wife, but there are “layers” to her (but the shading of her character is so questionable, that one wonders if it wasn’t better to just maintain her as an empty-headed bimbo). And because Rose is short and pretty, she’s easily written off as a cute nothing. Both women prove to be more than just stereotypes, but they do so by the end of the movie, and at that point, it isn’t really clear if anyone will care.

Aside from the poor pacing and explosive mugging, there’s also questionable choices in the humor. We’re subject to lots of racist stereotypes of Latinx folks, there’s a shot of transphobic humor in the beginning, plus there’s a sprinkling of gay panic, too. In 1987, these jokes wouldn’t feel out of place, but in 2015, they contribute to the general staleness of the film.

The end of the movie has some bloopers – and to be honest, the loose playfulness of the costars on set is far funnier than anything that the two ladies did on screen. It’s too bad that we have to wait to the end of the movie to see Witherspoon and Vergara be funny.

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Eleanor Coppola stumbles with ‘Paris Can Wait’

Paris Can Wait Movie POSTER 27 x 40, Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin , A, MADE IN THE U.S.A.Eleanor Coppola is married Francis Ford Coppola and is the mother of Sofia Coppola. So one would think that she might have picked up some pointers from her family when helming her latest, the romantic comedy road film, Paris Can Wait. Well, one would be wrong. It’s shocking how amateurish and sloppy Paris Can Wait is. Coppola assembled a strong cast: Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin, and Arnaud Viard, who each does his/her best, but the actors are stranded with an awful plot and aimless direction. The film is remarkable in that there are no stakes or conflict to speak of, and viewers will only be distracted by the parallel beauty of France and Diane Lane.

Lane stars as Anne, the wife of Michael (Baldwin), a high-power film executive. Michael is busy and we know this because his phone is plastered to his face. When he’s called to Budapest to oversee an overzealous director, Anne begs off the trip and instead agrees to meet him in Paris. Instead of taking the train, she is joined by Michael’s business partner, Jacques (Viard). The two set off on a road trip through France, stopping repeatedly to indulge in decadent meals.

Coppola’s script is plodding and episodic, lurching from one skit to another. It makes the film – which is only an hour and a half long – feel interminable. Each time Jacques suggests a diversion from their drive, Anne rolls her eyes and acts exasperated – and viewers will sympathize as it only puts off Paris, and means the movie will continue. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was any chemistry shared between Lane and Viard, but there isn’t. Jacques isn’t a character so much as a collage of French clichés and stereotypes (right down to his lazy name).

Watching Paris Can Wait is a frustrating experience because the film wastes a wonderful leading lady. Diane Lane – a patron saint of gorgeous, middle-aged women in European county sides – is saddled with a thinly-written character, and does her mightiest to do something with the character, but she’s stranded by Coppola’s indifferent direction and writing, and is gives a performance that looks strained and full of effort. We’re supposed to believe that Anne is a frustrated artist and talented photographer, but her constant picture taking of her sumptuous meals makes her seem more like a boorish American addicted to social media than a soulful creative type in search of an outlet for her talent. And Lane carries with her performance a bit of her patented pensive soulfulness (no one can gaze out into a golden sunset like Diane Lane) Some viewers will think that this movie will revisit some of the charm and winsome loveliness of Lane’s 2003 vehicle Under the Tuscan Sun. But that film – while no where near a classic – is still miles away from stale junk like Paris Can Wait.

Aside from Lane, the other major selling point of the film is the French countryside. The film’s script meanders through the country, from Cannes to Lyon, and through some ridiculously picturesque visions of the French pastoral landscape. Even a filmmaker as inept as Coppola can’t mess up the awesome beauty of France. Unfortunately, the arresting images of France are interrupted by the pointless jabber of Coppola’s writing and the yeoman efforts of Lane and Viard.

Buried underneath the layers of mediocrity is the kernel of a good movie. Coppola’s script needs higher stakes and some conflict. When the ending finally comes and Anne and Jacques come to some sort of revelation, it feels unearned and abrupt. Perhaps worried about Kleenex-thin script, Coppola throws in some heavy tragedy that feels smashed in and is handled so clumsily that instead of being affecting or moving, it feels like incompetent manipulation (though Viard and Lane do their best and just almost manage to push through the awful script to convey some emotion).

Supposedly a comedy, Paris Can Wait is not funny or clever. Nor is it particularly moving or interesting. Instead, it’s a film about two people – who despite being Hollywood beautiful – aren’t all that remarkable. I didn’t care about what would happen to them, nor did I care about how the movie ended. I was just glad when it did.

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Liberals and the very real dangers of echo chambers

Kathy Griffin and Tyler Shields collaborated on a truly horrendous piece of work which depicted the comedienne holding the president’s decapitated head. It was disgusting, offensive, and stupid. Griffin quickly felt backlash not only from conservatives, but from liberals – including her fellow comics – and promptly apologized and took down the photograph. CNN slammed the photo and is considering firing her from its annual New Years television coverage. Griffin posted a contrite video, in which she admitted she went too far and appears chastised.

This story is depressing for a lot of reasons – one, I was always a fan and follower of Kathy Griffin’s, and enjoyed her specials, books, CDs, and her excellent reality show. I think that she’s smart and cutting and very witty. Which is why I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell was she thinking.

But Griffin’s act exposed something ugly in our culture that needs to be addressed: the dehumanization of public figures. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both dealt with the kind of ugly hate that Griffin and Shields exhibited with their work – both have been the subject of burning effigies, and in the context of this country’s awful history of lynching Black people, there have been memes, dolls, and mannequins depicting lynchings of President Obama. These examples of unbridled hate were disgusting and not enough people stood up to them.

And the same thing is happening with President Trump. Whether one agrees with his politics or his policies, we still have to agree that the president is a human being. Someone with family and friends. Think about Barron Trump, a child, who now will be able to see Shields’ photograph.

So how did we get to the point where a comic and a photographer both thought this monstrous show of disrespect would be okay?

Well, it’s a simple, thing really. It happened when they called the president King Cheeto, or President Cheeto (or any other variant on Cheeto). It happened when they reduced him to his hair, his tan, his body, his mannerisms. They slowly made him into a cartoon figure, a two-dimensional symbol of political frustration and political fear, and simply forgot – or chose to forget – that behind the memes, cartoons, and caricature, there was a human being.

I’m not defending Trump’s policies. My readers will know that I’m a liberal, who hoped that Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton would’ve won. And when Trump did win, I was scared and worried for our country’s future. I still am. And I know lots of other people are too – including Griffin and Shields.

But that doesn’t mean that we can suddenly take leave of our senses and become hateful monsters.

Some of Griffin’s critics opined that her act has damaged the credibility of liberals. I hate this thinking because again, the credibility of liberals doesn’t matter in this case. What matters is that someone did something unimaginable and awful. And worrying about how liberals will look is callous and unfeeling as well as self centered and selfish.

When Griffin apologized, she seemed genuine and sincere. And yet. She couched her apology as a response to the criticism and ensuing backlash. Her conscience didn’t prompt her to apologize, nor did her sense of fairness or decency. Instead, she apologized because she saw that many of her peers rejected her horrible act.

This is about more than just Kathy Griffin, though. This is about the steady degradation of a public figure, to the point where people forget that he’s a human being.

This fracas is also an opportunity for some introspection among many liberals, who, in their zeal and frustration, have become the bizarro version of the Westboro Baptist Church. How much did that echo chamber in which Griffin obviously existed, contributed to her myopia? If she, along with her fans, friends, and followers all provide a steady drumbeat of hate, does that naturally result in the kind of garbage that she and Shields created?

When there are instances of hate crimes, we ask that everyone look within themselves. And that’s important. We have to examine just what in our society creates Neo-Nazis, alt-right bigots, rapists, and queer bashers. It’s important because these people don’t just spring from thin air – they are a product, created.

But in the case of Griffin – and those who are still insisting that she’s done nothing wrong – we have to do the same kind of self-examination. Because she’s a product, too. She’s the result of months of constant slams, slights, and hatred that fooled Griffin into thinking that her space would be hospitable to a photograph like hers.

I’ve been thinking about the president a lot this past day or so after I saw the photograph. It made me sad and disturbed me. It was a spotlight on a kind of sheltered privilege that Griffin seemingly enjoys that protects her from understanding what it means to have a family member killed in such a way. Right now, there are organizations throughout the world who really do what Shields and Griffin only pretended to do. I thought about the president’s family and friends, all of whom love him, and had to see that awful image.

The photograph is an extreme example of just how base and awful political discourse has become in this country. Griffin and Shields wouldn’t have felt a picture like that would be okay, if the two didn’t see evidence of something similar. As I wrote earlier, we’ve seen Hillary Clinton effigies burned at rallies, and Barack Obama mannequins strung up on trees. We’ve also seen memes of Donald Trump pinatas, waiting to be pummeled. None of this funny. None of this is productive. And none of this is fair. But just because Clinton and Obama suffered these indignities doesn’t mean Trump deserves to, as well. No one does.

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Melissa McCarthy steals the show on her 5th ‘SNL’ hosting gig

HOST and MUSICAL GUEST Bumper PhotosMelissa McCarthy joined the Five-Timers Club, having hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time this year. She’s only the fifth woman to reach the milestone, and it’s clear that she’ll probably have the honor of hosting a few more times. McCarthy is the kind of guest host who would’ve been a cast member – she’s a strong physical comedienne and versatile actress. In her fifth hosting gig, she once again stole the show and dominated the sketches with her on point physical comedy and her ability to create fully-formed characters in the tiny five-minute sketches. Her episode was also helped tremendously by some above-average writing, as well (something that elevated last week’s Chris Pine episode, too).

As per usual, the cold open was a political sketch, with Alec Baldwin popping by to do his increasingly diminishing Donald Trump. At this point the writers have gotten lazy with the Trump sketches and are relying on simply lambasting the guy’s physicality and verbal tics. This week, Trump’s in the news because he fired James Comey, head of the FBI. This development provided SNL with some much-needed oomph, and as a result, though not a great sketch, it still shone brighter than the other Trump sketches because it actually had something to say.

McCarthy’s monologues are always delightful. Often the writers have her do a musical number or perform some kind of slapstick, but this time, it was a sweet bit in which she grabs a mom, Joan, from the audience, and takes her on a breakneck speed tour of the studio. On her way, the pair gets to meet Baldwin, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, musical guests HAIM, and some of the cast members. Joan’s a good sport and McCarthy gets to use her improv chops (she’s a Groundling alumna), and it makes for a sweet bit. I’m liking the “taking a tour of the studio” gimmick that is becoming more popular among the hosts (Jimmy Fallon did a sparking version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with a dance troupe around the studio).

The best of this episode combined great jokes and quality storytelling. Add to that McCarthy’s acting chops (Oscar nominated, no less), and you get what could be conceived as an ideal episode. The cold open was pretty toothless, but McCarthy’s return as Sean Spicer was great. Aidy Bryant cameoed as Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a supposedly even-keeled, thoughtful alternative to the blustery Spicer (though I think Huckabee Sanders is simply a slick oil saleswoman, as well). The sketch takes an unexpected turn when Spicer hears that he may be the latest in Trump’s administration to be given a pink slip. He plunges into self doubt as he jets away on his lectern-mobile to Trump’s golf course in New Jersey to confront the guy. The sketches loses some steam at the end (and yeah, the open-mouth kiss was predictable), but it was great to see McCarthy’s Spicer do his crazy, violent antics (and his demonstration of Comey’s firing by using Russian nesting dolls was great), but it was smart to fold in some more actor-y moments in which Spicer begins to doubt his importance within the Trump administration.

McCarthy also does wonder with her Gaye Fontaine, the wizened Hollywood vet who is on a film panel with her pal Debette Goldry (Kate McKinnon). Joining the two “legends” are Lupita Nyong’o (Sasheer Zamata, finally given something to do) and Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard. Often when a host joins a cast member in a recurring sketch, the writers create some weird twin of the recurring character, and the results are often kinda sad because a) the host is not as funny as the cast member and b) the “other” character is rarely as interesting. It’s smart then that in this sketch Gaye Fontaine is a character on her own, that relates to Debette because they both had to suffer through the same sexist indignities in Hollywood yesteryear. The implications behind these sketches is that actresses now don’t know how good they have it. And yeah, there is some of that, but there’s also a pointed critique in how long sexism has endured in the film industry. McCarthy does some great character work as Gaye, and whoever told her to play the lady as a stroke survivor was pretty aces.

But as great as McCarthy is at creating characters, she’s also a wonderful physical comic, so the game show sketch was predictably a highlight. The premise is so simply and hacky, it’s almost embarrassing – essentially it’s “how to get Melissa McCarthy to be repeatedly pied in the face.” And the actress takes it like a trouper, being pelted with pies repeatedly. It’s low brow, broad, and ridiculous, but McCarthy goes all in, recalling Lucille Ball at her best. The bravest comics are the ones who abandon all sense of vanity.

Even low key sketches in which McCarthy is merely featured – I’m thinking of the production logo sketch and the birthday sketch – benefit from the star’s presence. In the logo sketch, especially, she is given room to play, creating yet another one of her unlikable social misfits.

The Weekend Update sketch was okay, but it was Pete Davidson and Strong who made the sketch truly remarkable. Davidson appeared, essentially doing his stand-up act. He was candid and honest, talking about his sobriety – his delivery is idiosyncratic – some may be put off by his lazy manner, but I find it appealing. I also like how unsparing he was in talking about getting sober (and his story about going to horse therapy is hilarious, especially when shares how as a child he didn’t know he was allergic to horses because his family was too poor to ever be around them). Strong appeared as Cathy Anne, a politically-astute grotesque whose life is filled with drugs and tragedy, but she manages to soldier on, despite her demons. Cathy Anne initially was a recurring character that was about just how ugly and ridiculous Cecily Strong can be. As time went on though, she became a great voice for someone who is fed up with how ugly and ridiculous politics can be.

Though Saturday Night Live is ostensibly live, some of its highest moments are the pre-taped bits. In a beautifully filmed and acted piece, Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones are in a committed relationship – with an adorable moppet named Lorne – that is in trouble. Her rising star and career demands means that he’s feeling left out and neglected. What I love about this film is that the writers and the performers don’t fall into the racist and sexist trap of making it about how tiny, nebbish Mooney is in love with the tall and athletic Jones; instead, it’s treated pretty straight forward. The absurdity comes in Mooney’s besotted misery and Jones’ busy indifference. Jones has gotten a lot of flack for her live performances, because she often will fumble a line or miss a cue. These pre-taped sketches show audiences just what an asset she is to the show.

The other pre-taped sketch was also a winner – the Amazon Echo, which helps old people out. As with the pie sketch, it’s a threadbare conceit: old people are old! They like it to be hot in a room! They’re cranky! What makes this sketch work is the pure performances of the cast members. Again, Jones is an appealing presence as an old woman who eyes some neighborhood kids warily, while Kenan Thompson is a marvel as a befuddled grandpa who relies on his Amazon Echo to decipher just what he needs from it. Both the pie sketch and the Amazon Echo sketch prove that one doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to be funny – if we have to go back to cliches – which is sometimes unavoidable – doing a committed job with engaging actors can sometimes be enough.

Next week, the host will be fellow Five-Timer Dwayne Johnson (who will be hosting for the sixth time). Johnson, out promoting Baywatch, is a genial and funny presence himself. If the writing is as good next week, then we’re looking at a pretty strong streak for SNL.

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The Divas and the Bee Gees

In the 1970s, the Bee Gees could do no wrong. Alongside Donna Summer, the band dominated the pop charts with a string of hit single (24 of their singles hit the US top 20 and 26 hit the UK top 20) and multi-platinum albums, most notably the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

With the disco backlash, came an unfair revisionist assessment of the Bee Gees that lumped them with trashy disco artifacts like Disco Duck, Ethel Merman’s disco album, and the Brady Bunch variety show. That’s unfortunate because the Brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin, Maurice – were among the craftiest and most professional songwriters in pop music history. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the pillowy ballad “How Deep Is Your Love” and tell me you didn’t swoon.

But starting in the 1980s, the Bee Gees started to experience a decline in their commercial fortunes. But the Gibbs were ace songwriters so they were never in any danger of fading away. Even though pop radio lost interest in their music, they turned to producing other artists, and enjoyed a healthy second career in the 1980s as go-to songwriters. One of their biggest and most recognizable hits of the 80s was the classic Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream” (which appeared on Rogers’ 1983 Gibbs-written album Eyes That See in the Dark). 

The Brothers Gibb also found themselves working with three pop divas, revitalizing their careers and bringing them back to the top of the pop charts. Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick were the most successful female acts of the 1960s and for a large part of the 1970s. But by 1980, they started to feel a similar dip in their sales as the Bee Gees did. The trio of legends felt a jolt in their careers with their Gibbs-helmed records: Streisand’s Guilty, Ross’ Eaten Alive, and Warwick’s Heartbreaker.

GuiltyStreisand’s Guilty (1980) was the most successful of the three albums and one of the most successful albums in Streisand’s career (it went on to sell over 6 million copies). It went to number on the album charts in the US and the UK, and it spawned a string of hit singles, three of which found their way into the top 10. By 1980, Streisand had cemented herself as a crossover superstar, winning Oscars for her movie work and a bunch of Grammys. During the 1970s, she shifted away from her supperclub pop of the 60s, and became a soft-rock/adult contemporary star. Hooking up with gooey songwriters like Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Marvin Hamlish, and Michel Legrand, Streisand was the proto-Celine Dion, releasing albums of fillers larded with hit singles. Like a lot of mainstream pop singers, Streisand joined the disco craze and found success with some dance songs, including the monster duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer.

But by 1980, Streisand, though still massively popular, looked like she was in a rut. Enter Barry Gibb – that hairy-chested Adonis of pop who completed Streisand’s Malibu by way of Brooklyn transformation. Guilty is easily one of the most sublime and listenable pop albums of the last 40 years. Gibbs joined their longtime collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson to produce a light and frothy record that works as a breezy soundtrack to a casual jaunt down Rodeo Drive.

Guilty sounds like high-quality leftovers from Saturday Night Fever. The Gibb trademarks are all there: the shuffled percussion, the frothy synths, the simple chord transitions, airtight backup harmonies. Streisand does a great job in easing up on her famous histrionics, too. The danger of pairing a powerhouse like Streisand with a seeming lightweight like the Gibbs is that she has the potential to overwhelm the music and production (the audio version of a bull in a china shop). But Streisand’s heavy, gigantic belt is kept in check, as she ably reigns in her near-operatic voice, sounding like a credible fourth Bee Gee.

As a duet partner, Barry Gibb proves to be a capable counterpoint to Streisand. Their voices blend perfectly and seamlessly, as if they were blended in a recording studio Kitchen Aid Blender. Streisand never goes full disco, though “Promises” with its galloping gait comes very close as does the plastic faux funk of “Never Give Up,” that fails to be convincing but is an admirable failure.

No, people listen to Streisand to luxuriate in that brassy voice, and she sounds best on ballads. Good thing the Gibbs are great at building solid slow dance songs. They’re corny, sappy, but impeccably crafted. And Guilty would be one of the few times in her career when Streisand doesn’t sound totally lost jumping on current pop trends.

HeartbreakerEven though the Bee Gees were known for their funky music, let’s be honest, they were squares, which is why it makes sense that they were a match made in heaven for Streisand as well as Dionne Warwick, a singer of uncommon talent and tonality, but one that not necessarily the most soulful on the radio (despite being tangentially linked to soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, and Whitney Houston). Warwick’s early 1980s career was a strange animal. One of the leading hit makers of the 1960s, her 70s output slowed down, but then she hooked up with Clive Davis and Arista, and suddenly, she seemed somewhat relevant to pop radio again.

Like Streisand, Warwick found that hooking up with the Bee Gees would prove to be a commercial crafty thing to do as 1982’s Heartbreaker sold over 3 million copies. Its title track was one of Warwick’s biggest hit. Like Streisand, Warwick feels more at home in slower numbers, and so Heartbreaker is filled with romantic ballads. Unlike GuiltyHeartbreaker doesn’t feel quite as ambitious or well made. Nothing is wrong with the album per se, and the title song is infectious, but the album as a whole feels like a collection of songs that Streisand rejected for Guilty.

But like Streisand, Warwick’s voice is a perfect compliment for the slightly gauche production of the Brothers Gibb. She has a loud, husky voice that sounds at once affected and distant. Her phrasing is distinct and precise and there’s a chasteness in the way that she sings her love ballads. In the 1960s, she was paired with her musical kindred spirit Burt Bacharach, and he was the only musician who could make her dry delivery sound impassioned and urgent (“Don’t Make Me Over” is a gorgeous plea that Warwick sells beautifully). The Gibbs aren’t as successful and the result is that Warwick’s arch delivery sounds drained and mechanical. The whole affair feels drab and rote and the result is a parody of Adult Contemporary conventions (the songs – including a slick version of “Our Day Will Come) sound like something that would be played during the slow dance at cruise ship.

Eaten Alive (Expanded Edition)

Diana Ross is the only singer of the three had has the chops to do dance music. In fact some of her best solo work as been for the clubs. Like Streisand and Warwick, Ross also saw her audience shift as musical trends moved around. By 1985, when her Gibbs-produced LP Eaten Alive was relieved, Ross was in commercial limbo. She left Motown for RCA and her seemed to become merely an extension of her celebrity. She sold well, initially, but Eaten Alive came at a time when Ross was struggling to keep up with young pop divas like Madonna or Jody Watley. And unlike Streisand and Warwick, Ross always dove headfirst into pop trends, chasing them for pop success (she was rewarded for her foray into post-disco dance with the Chic-produced diana which sold four million copies and spit out a string of top 10 dance hits including the classics “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”)

Eaten Alive is the least successful of the three albums covered, both artistically and commercially. By 1985, it seems as if the Bee Gees had given their best work to other artists and struggled to find something good for Ross. The title track is interesting because it not only features work by the Bee Gees, but superstar Michael Jackson. His fingerprints are all over the angular dance track; in fact, his tight-fisted, clipped sound crowds  out the Bee Gees pretend-soul  (Jackson’s soulful growl ends up stealing the show at the song’s end, despite Barry Gibb’s caterwauling). The other dance number “Crimes of Passion” works a little better, but that’s because Ross’ impassioned performance makes the slight song seem better than it really is.

The ballads aren’t any better. Often the production overwhelms and buries Ross’ pretty croon, and she can sometimes sound muffled. This is never more true than in “Experience” a by-the-numbers love song with Ross sounding lost in the song’s mix (there’s a crazy echo that acts like a reverb, rending her nearly incomprehensible).

But there is one unequivocal triumph: “Chain Reaction,” a cracking number in which the Bee Gees do a beautiful job aping Holland-Dozier-Holland, and give Ross a stomping Motownesque number that sounds like a top shelf song she would’ve recording with the Supremes. The production is grand and dramatic, and Ross is engaged and fantastic. It’s nostalgia at its best, and its brilliance overshadows the rest of the songs on Eaten Alive (and is easily Ross’ best single post from the mid 1980s) and is the best and most innovative song from the trio of albums reviewed. It also went to number 1 on the UK charts.

As they continued with their own recording career, the Bee Gees continued writing and producing for other artists, but Diana Ross’ Eaten Alive was the last time that the band devoted its combined talents to update an iconic pop diva’s sound and career. Streisand, Warwick, and Ross moved on from their brief Bee Gee sojourns with varying success. Streisand, followed up Guilty was a long list of platinum albums and reunited with Barry Gibb on the sequel Guilty Pleasures (2005). Warwick’s career continued to coast with periodic blips of huge career success, peaking with 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For” a treacly ballad she recorded with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, which was a gigantic hit (the proceeds went to AIDS research). Ross had arguably the most fitful and frustrating career of the three. After the relative failure of Eaten Alive, she bounced back with the gold-selling Swept Away, which featured her last US top 10 hit “Missing You.” She then failed to ever regain her commercial fortunes in the US (though in the UK and Japan she was still a reliable hit maker scoring top 10 hits all the way into the 200os).

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Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon cinch Emmy nominations in the final ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

The last episode of the first season of Feud is suitably sad and free from the delicious camp that made the first few episodes so enjoyable. But that’s okay, because the end of Joan Crawford’s and Bette Davis’s stories is so sad. Since last week’s episode covering the filming of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Bette and Joan became estranged from each other. Both their careers took ignominious turns, with b-movies and cheapie “indies” in Europe. The final episode takes its title – “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?” – from Bette Davis’ final line in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. It takes place in 1969, when Joan Crawford is living a solitary existence in a tiny appointment in Manhattan. She just took a role in Trog, a notoriously bad horror flick about a scientist who tussles with the missing link.

The filming of Trog makes up a depressing sequence of scenes because the film is a shitshow of corner cutting. Crawford is years from her heyday as the Queen of MGM or Warner’s, but she still has her standards. And seeing Crawford humbled by the shoestring production – she has to change her clothes in a van and freshen up in a public toilet – is hard to watch. Her manager urges her to turn down Trog, but Crawford’s desperate enough that the tawdry film appears to be a viable comeback vehicle. Just a few years ago, Crawford was able to demand perks and salary hikes, but by 1969, she was past her prime.

Along with her career troubles, she’s also very sick. Jessica Lange is physically transformed into a wreck. Instead of the raven hair and Hollywood tan, she’s sporting chalk-white foundation and unflattering red hair, and later a fright wig of gray. And when she sees a terrible picture of herself in a newspaper, she vows to never appear in public again. As her health starts to fade, she takes stock of her life, and it’s all very depressing. She feels bruised because daughter Christina is about to publish Mommie Dearest, which accuses her of physical and emotional abuse. The show doesn’t take sides in this case: she’s a loving mother to Kathy and a tolerant grandmother to her children; but when a teary Joan broaches the subject of Christina, she doesn’t actually deny the abuse charges.

The centerpiece of the Joan Crawford scenes is a dinner party scene that takes place in Crawford’s fevered imagination. Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner, young and untouched by time, are trading quips and playing cards. Crawford, looking awful, in a billowy nightgown and her bedraggled gray hair, shuffles to the table, instantly transformed to her prime, glamorous in a gorgeous red gown. Bette Davis joins the party, too, also Hollywood glossy.

The conversation is far more honest and piercing than anything these characters have said to each other before. Because it’s all in Crawford’s head, the exchange works to figure out why Crawford’s life and career has been marked by pain and anger. Warner sums it up as movie people are looking to make up for their insecurities by gaining the approval of their audiences. It’s a little clichéd and too pat. But once the imaginary Hedda and Jack leave the table, it’s just Bette and Joan. For much of the episode, Sarandon is a reduced presence (more on her later), but when the two divas have a tete-a-tete alone, it’s a rallying moment of beauty. Crawford’s neediness creates a scene in which both admit that they would like to be closer friends. It’s painful to watch just how kind Davis is to Crawford, and when the latter leaps up in joy, you almost believe this is actually happening, until Mamacita interrupts the scene and we’re back to a scraggly, sick Joan Crawford, sitting alone in her living room.

This episode will cement Jessica Lange’s chances of an Emmy nod. She’s masterful in this episode. It’s difficult to pinpoint which moment she’s strongest, but when she dissolves into grateful tears after Kathy insists that she was a good mother, she packs a wallop. Susan Sarandon is every bit Lange’s equal, though, because Bette Davis had a far more even keeled approach to life, her story is less tragic and operatic. But the finale does put Davis through her paces, too – especially when it comes to B.D. (Kiernan Shipka), who, like Christian Crawford, has a jaundiced view of her childhood.

Like Crawford, Davis is going through a career valley. Unlike Crawford, she’s able to maintain a semblance of dignity because at the end of the day, Davis is a workhorse, who can still fall back on her talent. Because Crawford’s major draw was her beauty, she felt that once it fades, she’s at a disadvantage. Though Davis is piqued by her career misfortunes, she knows that she can still deliver fantastic performances (and she’d pull out of her career dumps in the late 1970s with a string of well-received TV movies).

But it’s hard.

It’s hard because by 1969, Bette Davis is no longer a vibrant movie queen, but an ossified legend. She’s not seen as a vital actress, but one who had an iconic past. She’s frustrated that her repeated attempts at TV pilots have all failed, and is looking at Katharine Hepburn as her new rival. Unlike Davis, Hepburn managed to maintain a consistent film career. When Hepburn refuses to pose for a Life magazine cover with Davis, Sarandon does a great job in conveying the hurt and humiliation that Davis must’ve felt (and the hurt and humiliation that Crawford must’ve felt). It’s a telling moment that shows that even though Davis sees herself as the efficient, “together” one, she is full of insecurities, too.

And that’s what Feud is all about: insecurities. Both Davis and Crawford nursed some serious feelings of doubt about their place in their industry. Sexism and misogyny factored largely in the obstacles the two women had to overcome, but much of what they battled – aside from each other – was their own feelings of self-worth. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was filmed, both Davis and Crawford were on the precipice of the end of their career; unfortunately, Crawford wasn’t able to capitalize on the film’s success nor was she able to use the success to find personal happiness. Davis, on the other hand, may have pulled off a second career with Baby Jane, but like Crawford, her personal life was still sad and unsatisfied.

Throughout the show’s 10 episodes, critics were praising Jessica Lange’s performance, insisting that she should make some room on her groaning mantle for another award. I think Lange’s work on Feud has been superb, some of the best work she’s ever done. But Susan Sarandon shouldn’t be ignored, either. Her role was harder because Ryan Murphy and company had envisioned Feud to be really Joan Crawford’s story. Crawford is the character who changes the most and has to suffer the most – all of this giving Lange a wide range of emotions to sell. Bette Davis could have been a caricature, but Sarandon seemed to shy away from the famous mannerisms and speech patterns until the last few episodes. Also, Feud depicts Davis’ life as much more stable and Crawford is much more tragic. Speaking of award-worthy performances, it would be remiss if Stanley Tucci, Alfred Molina, Jackie Hoffman, and Judy Davis were all shut own – each was wonderful, holding his/her own against the titular titans. Kiernan Shipka and Kathy Bates were great, but their presence was far too brief, while Catherine Zeta-Jones was just weird in the choices she made as Olivia de Havilland (though Feud could do a spin-off in the third season and have it be Feud: Olivia and Joan (Fontaine). The writers – for the most part – did a masterful job in creating a compelling drama and not just a by-the-numbers biopic.

The ending of Feud: Bette and Joan show the two divas laughing right before filming starts – right before all of the backstabbing, sniping, fighting. Crawford extends an olive branch of sorts and hopes the two can become friends. Davis takes a beat and concurs. It’s a shame that these two ladies never got on, and it’s a shame that their industry thrived on pitting women against each other; by only offering a few choice roles to women, the film industry made natural enemies of people who should be colleagues. As fun and campy as Feud got, it also was a serious social critique on misogyny and sexism and the havoc it can wreak.

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‘Veep’ predicts the horror that was the 2016 presidential election in its 5th season

Veep‘s 5th season aired from April to June in 2016, three months before the horrifying election day that turned our political landscape into one long, unending Saturday Night Live sketch. In its fifth season, Veep managed to survive the departure of its showrunner, creator Armando Iannucci, intact and deliver 10 satisfying and hilarious episodes. Watching the show after the election takes on added irony, poignancy, and just sheer feelings of the uncanny and just how prescient the show would prove to be.

In the fourth season, President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) found herself in a strange situation on election night. She was tied with her rival (though she won the popular vote – the Electoral College screws over pioneering female presidential candidates even in fiction), which set forth an obscure and arcane set of rules that meant congress would vote for the next president of the United States. Much of season five concerns itself with Selina’s campaign in wooing members of congress to back her.

Throughout the season, Selina is not only trying to hold on to her position as president, she’s also trying to enact legislation that would leave a legacy (she even wants to push forward talks between Tibet and China in hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize). The problem is, as always, Selina and her band of misfits are incapable of not screwing up. In the reality of Veep, a narcissistic nincompoop like Selina Meyer can be president, which is a hilarious conceit. While she has drive and ambition, she’s also lazy, distracted, and extremely self-serving. And it doesn’t help that she’s assembled what is probably the most inefficient team in presidential history. While all of this politicking is going on, Selina’s daughter Catherine is filming Selina’s annus horribilis for a student film.

While Selina’s story takes center stage,  supporting characters have minor arcs, as well. Mike (Matt Walsh) is in the process of adopting a baby from China; Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott) are going through a will-they/won’t they; and Jonah (Timothy Simons, brilliant and deserving of some serious Emmy love) runs for congress. These stories provide background and often act as white noise for the main plot, which focuses on Selina’s desperate and oft-foiled fight to stay president.

I imagine that the writers of Veep had a field day creating outlandish and ridiculous scenarios to put their characters in – whether it’s in Camp David, where Selina tricks Catherine into thinking they’re sharing a family Christmas (when really, she’s hosting the Chinese president); or in a hospital bed, cheering over her mother’s deathbed because she got good news about her campaign – but watching Veep now feels scary in its accuracy. Selina is not meant to be president and doesn’t want the position out of patriotism or sense of duty. She sees it as a source of power, influence, and wealth. None of that would be so terrible if Selina was good at her job, but she’s a series of blunders and fuck ups, one more catastrophic than the next. And like any seasoned politician, Selina lacks empathy and self-awareness and cannot acknowledge her role in her downfall.

But despite her many flaws and faults, Selina remains a compelling anti-heroine that viewers will want to watch (though I’m not sure how many would root for her). She’s not a stupid woman, nor is she without any political instinct or know how. The problem is she doesn’t have an internal filter – she merely works off her id. And when her blunders result in some devastating loss or setback, her instinct isn’t to have a postmortem to figure out where she went wrong; instead, she lashes out at those around her.

Part of what makes Selina so interesting and fascinating to watch is the furious comedic energy Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings to the role. Veep is a wonderful opportunity for the comedienne to show off not only her genius for savage one liners, but also her estimable skills as a physical comic. Selina Meyer is a monster and there’s something subversive and awesome in watching a female sitcom lead not be likable or adorable. Even in moments when we are naturally drawn toward sympathy, like during the moments when Selina’s mother is dying, Selina still manages to reward our momentary lapses of judgement by doing something heinous and awful, thereby restoring order.

The sixth season started with Selina humbled and bruised. She’s a mere private citizen now, being buried underneath the shadow of the second female president of the United States, Laura Montez, who quickly swallowed up any lasting imprint that Selina left in Washington. The show has taken on unintended shading, given the state of world politics at the moment. It’s satire, but it’s satire that hits uncomfortably close to home. Veep has evolved over its six seasons into a gallows, whistling past the graveyard kind of show. It’s no longer just funny ha-ha, but also funny OhMyGodWhatIsGoingOn. And right now, we could all use some laughs.

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