Mar 3, 2014
Plus ça change. Funny how the Oscars always manage to be long, boring and predictable, even when one hopes against all reason that something alive and interesting could potentially happen in those four hours of tedium.
The long could be solved with more ruthless discipline and less stupid montages. The boring, ditto. The predictable is more complicated because in order to fix this, the Oscars would have to be the first awards of the season. By the time they roll around, in what is now the most exhausting foreplay in history, all the major contenders have already won all the other awards and are thus positioned to win this one as well. This is the major anti-climax of this show. That it has mushroomed out of control in terms of media coverage does not help it. It makes everything a foregone conclusion.
Ellen started out in good form, but as time seemed to get all Proustian on her, the jokes lost focus. The selfie thing was inspired (and so were the memes right after), but the pizza was not. And the getting money from the audience was icky.
If the idea of Ellen's humor was to make the audience believe that movie stars are regular people, the selfie was the only instance in which it worked. Even Angelina Jolie looked like she was having fun. The rest was a bit strained.
The people who write this show have a really antiquated notion of show business (and this is coming from someone who thinks they don't make anything like they used to).
It is not aging well and it is not glamorous. A perfect example of this desperately wanting to be young and hip and not knowing how to do so is bringing Pink to sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Even worse is the decision to bring out the now tragically ghoulish Kim Novak to give an award for animation. What are these people thinking? The sadness of the plastic surgery nightmares (an almost unrecognizable Goldie Hawn) made me wonder how much better Kim Novak would look with her natural wrinkles. She would probably be still beautiful and alluring, not a freak from planet Hell. Apparently, and note to self, plastic surgery only looks good on the young.
But I digress. Poor Ellen, or anybody else who tries to host this schizophrenic old/young thing is caught between a rock and a hard place. Someone like Jimmy Fallon has a better idea of what is entertaining to people living in the current century, but I think he is indentured to NBC and they won't loan him. :(
Actors tend to be notoriously bad speech givers. Jared Leto mentioned almost every calamity on Earth and his lovely Mom, and learned the lesson of not just talking about his waxing problems, but methinks that trying to become Albert Schweitzer while picking up an acting prize is a tall order.
I love me Matthew McConaughey as an actor and as a Texan accent, and thus was quite disappointed by his enthusiasm for God. If you noticed, very few winners mentioned the Guy, opting to gush on their real creators, their Moms.
Progress -1, Religion - 0.
My favorite part of Cate Blanchett's extended maelstrom of self-absorption masquerading as inclusiveness was when she mentioned each fellow nominee.
About Meryl Streep's atrocious performance she could only muster: "What can I say?". Indeed. She sounded genuine about liking Amy Adams' work; the rest was just hot air. And by the way, Dame Judi Dench does not just have a career. She is God. God doesn't have careers.
I did like Blanchett's dressing down of Hollywood's refusal to make movies with and about women. She was also right, and had no choice but to thank "Woody", (awkward moment!), but I thought her shilling her own theater company was a bit crass. I didn't hear her thanking any agents. This year either everybody seemed to have gotten the memo or I was drinking too heavily to notice, but that was an improvement.
Lupita Nyong'o's speech was the most lovely, spontaneous, graceful, intelligent and moving of the entire night. This girl is a real, bona fide star. Period.
I am extremely happy and relieved that cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki very deservedly and finally won on his sixth nomination. Next year, it's Roger Deakins or bust! (12 noms, no wins and he is the master of masters).
I'm also very happy for Alfonso Cuarón, who did do a better job than Steve McQueen, in my h. opinion. Payne, Russell and Scorsese were also very deserving, but Cuarón shepherded a seemingly quixotic project, and the movie is visually stunning.
Let me now unleash my fury at last night's montages. Someone with nary a creative thought in their brain decided that this was the year to celebrate heroes. As if Hollywood doesn't foist us with heroes up the wazoo enough. They had not one, but two montages about heroes. So out come the parades of mostly guys, as usual, trying to impress their dads and save the world from "evil". This makes me extremely tired. Nikki Finke tweeted that this was the only way in which they could include the tentpole spectacles about men in tights that keep the billions of dollars rolling in. Maybe. I think it's sadder than that. Americans really believe in heroes. They genuinely think that's the way the world works. In foreign films, heroes are people who deal with enormous issues in their apartments, without a cape or an explosion in sight (cf. Amour). America likes their heroes supersized. Hence, most big Hollywood movies tell the same story. I don't understand how people don't get tired.
Notice, however, that in most of the best picture nominees this year (except for Captain Phillips, Philomena and Gravity) the protagonists are anti-heroes. This is what makes these movies exciting.
Anywho. I'm trying to figure out if there is a structural, revolutionary way to make the Oscars less tedious and less of an utterly meaningless timesuck. I'll let you know.
Until next year...
Feb 28, 2014
Due to popular demand (two people), and despite the fact that you must already be fed up, exhausted and the damn thing has not even begun yet, here are my predictions to aid you in your Oscar office pool.
This year there are several worthy and justly heralded contenders in all the main categories, so it may be a bit more nail-biting fun than usual (don't quote me on this).
For Best Picture, I believe it is a toss up between Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. Gravity is a classic Hollywood entertainment with two of the biggest stars on Earth, it has made a shitload of money and it is not at all challenging or controversial, which the Academy loves. But 12 Years A Slave is The Important Message Movie that makes Hollywood feel good about itself, so there. In my view, neither one deserves the prize. My favorite is Nebraska. I also loved American Hustle and much enjoyed The Wolf Of Wall Street.
Here then, are my predictions/favorites. For Oscar Pool, vote with your cynical head, not with your heart. Don't blame me if you lose.
Will Win: Toss up between 12 Years A Slave and Gravity. They should declare a tie.
Inching towards Gravity. 12 Years a Slave is too grim, which rarely wins Oscars.
Should Win: Nebraska
Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón
Should Win: David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese and Cuarón
Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Should Win: McConaughey, Bruce Dern
Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Should Win: Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock
Will Win: Jared Leto
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Will Win: Her
Should Win: Nebraska
Will Win: 12 Years A Slave
Should Win: The Wolf Of Wall Street
Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki
Should Win: Emmanuel Lubezki
Will Win: The Great Beauty
Should Win: The Great Beauty, The Hunt
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: American Hustle
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Will Win: 12 Years A Slave
Should Win: The Great Gatsby, American Hustle
Makeup and Styling
Will Win: Dallas Buyers Club
Should Win: Dallas Buyers Club
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity, Inside Lllewyn Davis
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity, All Is Lost
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Nebraska, which is not on the list.
Will Win: Happy
Should Win: No one
Animated Feature (I haven't seen most of them. Winging it here)
Will Win: Frozen
Should Win: The Wind Rises. Stands a chance, it's Miyazaki's last film.
Animated Short (winging it). Like betting on horses, I go by the name.
Will Win: Mr. Hublot
Will Win: 20 Feet From Stardom
Should Win: 20 Feet From Stardom
Documentary Short (winging it)
Will Win: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Live Action Short (winging it)
Will Win: Helium
May justice prevail.
Feb 21, 2014
This engrossing and bitterly entertaining Romanian film (winner of the Golden Bear at last year's Berlinale) by Calin Peter Netzer is the farthest thing from the yoga pose suggested by its title.
It is a nerve-wracking excursion into the soul of a possessive, controlling, manipulative mother, played by the extraordinary Luminita Gheorghiu, and the fallout of her all consuming motherly love for her only son. Cornelia is a wealthy Romanian woman, an architect, who lives a life of privilege in Bucharest. She is a wannabe sophisticate. Her ringtone is ostentatiously Bach, she has artistic friends, and as a successful professional woman in a fucked up country, she bears her entitlement regally. We get to meet her as we listen in on a conversation in which she complains about her son's estrangement from her. He won't invite her over, he's with "that woman", he won't read the books she gives him, etc. Her sister counsels her to stop meddling. Evidently, this is impossible. This is a woman so controlling, her own wimpy husband calls her Controlia. Then her son is involved in a car accident and she reacts like a one-woman SWAT team ready to rescue him.
To hear her speak of her son, you'd think he was a young, clueless teen: the "poor boy", her "baby". So it comes as a shock when we first see him at the police station, a fully grown man, looking spineless. Cornelia barges in, without even blinking at the grieving family of the victim, and having placed some strategic calls to friends in high places, starts conducting the intricate operation to save her boy from prosecution. She's from the city, these are the outskirts, and the police seem to know the drill. They try to conduct a proper investigation, but influence has been wielded, as inexorably as the march of time, to judge from the looks of the officers' weary faces. Anybody who comes from a country where corruption is the oil that greases society's wheels will recognize with a chill the inevitability of Cornelia's efforts; the despairing certitude of impunity.
Child's Pose is the story of a mother who has alienated and emasculated her son by loving him too much. It is also about power and influence, in a personal sphere and in the bigger scheme of things. Cornelia's tactics are reminiscent of the secret police in a tyrannical regime. She uses the help as informants, sneaks into the son's house and rifles through his things, decides everyone's fate without batting an eye. Nothing fazes her. She is unmoved by people begging her to stop. It is her duty as a mother to save her son. She goes through whatever she has to do: paying off witnesses, finding a friendly doctor to conduct the police lab tests, trying to get a sympathetic court expert, cheating the law with ruthless efficiency; with hauteur, even. She acts without the slightest sense of compunction. Worse, she shows no trace of empathy for the bereaved family and their unspeakable tragedy. She only feels for her son.
All the actors are fantastic, but Gheorghiu happens to be one of the greatest actresses alive today. Without a shred of self-indulgence, she embodies a woman for whom it is natural to be in the right all the time. She acts by conviction, not emotion, which is why her performance is so powerful. This makes Cornelia hateful but understandable. Cornelia is purposefully oblivious to her own toxicity, because it comes, in theory, from a good place. It comes from love. Gheorghiu underplays her manipulations to such extent that she is both an object of revulsion and pity. She is a fascinating anti-hero. Now compare this master class in performing a mother from hell with Meryl Streep's garish carnival of emotion in August: Osage County. Gheorghiu doesn't pander and she doesn't reach; she doesn't play for laughs, even though the character would seem to beg it. She doesn't insult the audience with cheap emotion. She understands to her steely core Cornelia's totalitarian devotion.
Cornelia schemes and orchestrates without the slightest ruffle in her cap, but then she has to start confronting the consequences of her own meddling. This movie has some bitter ironies in store for her, even though she refuses to accept them. Carmen, her daughter in law, punishes Cornelia by granting one of her most fervent desires: the wish to know everything about her son. I was amazed by Carmen's composure during the course of their devastating conversation. I would have thrown Cornelia out of the house by the hair, but Carmen knows better. She gets her where it hurts.
Then her son obliterates her with a simple request that, for a controlling person, has got to be the ninth circle of hell: "Don't call me. Let me call you".
Cornelia soldiers on, apparently undiminished. We wonder when, if ever, is she going to change (her son has prophesied never). She finally reaches a catharsis, within which she is still calculating to the very end. You hate her, but you have to admire her. You have to pity her. She is to blame, but who could blame her?
Feb 11, 2014
Spunky, adorable Shirley Temple, a great actress and the most luminous of child stars. She managed to grow up into a dignified woman, in great contrast to the lurid stories of child actors of later years. Hopefully, the children of today will discover her movies.
Jan 30, 2014
After the collapse of Wall Street, the mortgage crisis, Bernie Madoff, the advent of the 1%, there is a rising concern in the public consciousness that something has gone deeply wrong in America. Off the top of my head, here are some recent movies that in some way or another all deal with the ways in which the American dream, that euphemism for rampant capitalism, pretty much decimates everything: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, Blue Jasmine, Nebraska. Even 12 Years A Slave makes very clear that Solomon Northup's tribulations were the product of a totally legal economic system, and that American slavery was simply capitalism at its most extreme.
Sophia Coppola's The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers both touch on the same theme: the loss of a moral compass in the frenzied pursuit of happiness.
In the case of The Bling Ring, which is based on a true story, a bunch of entitled high school girls and a guy from Los Angeles easily rob famous celebrities' houses. They get the addresses on Google and let themselves in. It is hard to believe that Paris Hilton would leave her keys under the doormat (well, maybe not so hard), or that minor stars leave their Hollywood Hills sliding doors unlocked, but these kids stole millions of dollars worth of stuff. As in Spring Breakers, there is the barest outline of a plot. Coppola is interested in the excess wealth, in the addictive behavior triggered by doing something bad and getting away with it, and in our unhinged obsession with celebrity.
The gang gets into Paris Hilton's tacky abode (apparently her actual home -- this woman is the greatest publicity whore of all time). Coppola trains her camera on the mountains of handbags, shoes, jewelry, clothes, cosmetics, perfumes with her usual sharp eye for the surrounding detail: bling engulfs the screen. The kids salivate over the Louboutins and all the luxury brand hoarding going on. Yet theirs is not only an obsession with material things, but with the material things owned by celebrities, demi-gods who live in their own back yard; so close and yet so far.
What is the point of robbing the unknown rich when you can swipe a pair of shoes worn by Demi Lovato (whoever that is?). Coppola regards this insufferable clique with their annoying upturned intonations and their almost psychopathic social detachment with a calm, acerbic eye.
At first we see Laurie (Leslie Mann) giving an inspirational morning pep talk to her horrid teens, Nicki (the excellent Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) about being good human beings, an exhortation that obviously goes in one ear and out the other. Laurie is a believer in the philosophy of The Secret. These people are so vapid that they can't even muster belief in a real religion. But at a dinner scene she kvells at the prospect of Nicki attending modeling auditions. Nicki announces she has a meeting with a manager in the middle of the night and Laurie is utterly pleased. I thought of the real mother who left her daughter in the care of Roman Polanski at the house of Jack Nicholson, in the middle of the seventies, with no adult supervision. Laurie covets celebrity just as much as her daughters, which is apparent once they are on TV for the wrong reasons. Instead of feeling shame, Nicki seems to have a ball, and uses her notoriety to advance her "celebrity".
The gang's transgressions seem mild, mainly comprising lots of smoking bongs, inhaling lots of bumps, underage drinking and stealing from the rich, the movie is chaste. Nothing is more feverishly lusted after than a Hermés Birkin bag. However, Coppola builds up to a quiet outrage. This is not a case of the poor robbing the rich. A bunch of perfectly fortunate, affluent young people steal from others who have more, not to screw the 1%, but to be more like them. A subtle queasiness sets in as Coppola shows how the inseparable "friends" quickly betray each other once the jig is up. Nicki, a media savvy bitch on wheels, feigns interest in charity work in Africa and gets a reduced sentence and her own blog. The Bling Ring is an elegant indictment of our national obsession with nothingness.
In contrast, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is a stomach-turning ode to the new American outlaw. Forget about Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde. Apparently, we have lost all class. There is nothing subtle about Spring Breakers, which somehow glorifies antisocial behavior from a similar group of girls from the wrong side of the tracks. These are a quartet of college girls who live somewhere in or near Florida. None of them looks like she has the brains to graduate to a single-cell organism, let alone go to college, but they do live in a wasteland of strip malls and evangelical churches. Their one goal in life is to catch spring break, that American orgy of mindless intoxication where girls shake their tits and their asses across the southeastern seaboard, while guzzling alcohol from hoses. Our heroines are so bright that they can't put together more than 375 bucks between the four of them in one year (though they seem to have money for plenty of drugs). So three of them decide to hold up a diner with a toy gun. They are naturally vicious, and they enjoy torturing people.
Korine trains his voyeuristic camera on the tits and asses and the tanned bodies of that communal marathon of puking that American college students confuse with fun. He is not interested in spring break as a social phenomenon, he is not interested in character, he wants to create a metaphor. This is everything that is wrong with America concentrated to the nth degree: a lust for guns, a lust for money, a lust for anything that smacks of prohibition, be it booze or drugs or sex. Only Faith (very subtle name), the one churchgoer in the group (Selena Gomez, quite good), is delusional enough to think of spring break as an opportunity to see the world, to meet new people. The way she talks about it, you'd think she's enlisted in the Peace Corps. She calls her grandma, describing her experience of that ninth circle of hell on the beach as an innocent trip, full of wonder. That a bus trip to St. Pete is these girls' lifelong dream is beyond sad, considering they are citizens in the most powerful country on Earth. They probably don't even know there is a Europe.
The movie, beautifully shot by Benoit Debie, captures the Dantesque horror of spring break in slow motion, on the beach, in trashed hotel rooms, over and over and over. A movie about excess cannot be demure by nature, but Korine extends a flimsy plot into 90 minutes of repetitive dialog and imagery. Perhaps he was aiming for an incantatory, hallucinatory experience, but this soon dissolves into boredom.
Even though everything in this world is extreme, not much happens. The girls are arrested at a party that the authorities randomly decide is just too much, and they spend the night in jail. Luckily for the girls, Alien, a rapper, drug dealer, and self-proclaimed rotten guy, (James Franco, sporting gang tattoos, cornrows and grills on his teeth, having the time of his life), decides to bail them out. Faith takes one look at him and his very bad friends and cries sensibly that she wants to go home. You root for her, because she comes up with the best idea anyone has had so far. But the other three girls are mesmerized by the rough crowd, by the freedom conferred by an underground life of crime, and they stick with Alien. Like the gang of The Bling Ring, Alien is also obsessed with the accumulation of material possessions. His lair is not unlike Paris Hilton's: he displays guns on his walls as if they were works of art, he has loads of cash lying around; instead of Louboutins, he collects weapons.
The movie is a leaden, humorless satire on everything that is wrong with this country, yet Korine seems to get his rocks off on the meaningless badassness, and on the young female bodies that never wear anything but bikinis. The camera swirls endlessly around the baddies, but never once alights on their victims, on normal citizens that have to deal with the disgusting chaos that is spring break in the name of "open for business".
The movie becomes more and more sleazy, more deliberately shocking, and over the top ridiculous. One of the girls gets shot in the arm in a fracas, so she bails out. The two remaining dumb blondes, now wearing hot pink balaclavas and fully turned into gangstas, fellate Alien with one of his own (real, loaded) guns in an obvious, pornographic metaphor for America's lust for firearms. I would have admired them more if they turned the tables on him and brazenly absconded with his guns and his loot, but they decide to be his groupies instead. Korine's deliberate casting of young stars like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, who were stars in more innocent entertainments, smacks of exploitation. Whatever its more pretentious intentions, Spring Breakers is a masturbatory fantasy.
However, these two films are worth watching for a more accurate zeitgeist version of the real state of the union.