Feb 26, 2013

Oscars 2013: The Morning After

As you must know by now, the ceremony was deemed sexist, racist and offensive by a lot of people.  For the most part, it was.
I’m loath to join the "can’t take a joke" bandwagon. What offends me the most is that Seth McFarlane’s humor was petty and mean spirited. It was vulgar, lowly TV humor, rather than something fit for the ocassion. He tried to be too Hollywood with snide, unfunny inside jokes. As Captain Kirk said, intending to be ironic, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler should host everything. Ain’t that the emess.
When you watch a ceremony live, you want to like what you are seeing. It takes a while for the smarm to sink in. That was the case with that stupid boob song. The more I think about it, the more inane and inappropriate it seems. That stupid bear talking shit about Jews was immediately appalling and really unfit for an audience of billions (who probably already believe in a Jewish conspiracy anyway). Using a little girl to joke about George Clooney's sex life, sleazy.  
There were some highlights. Mostly provided by women.
I know I have tirelessly campaigned for the excision of musical numbers from the show, but Shirley Bassey belting Goldfinger was one of the greatest highlights of all time.  So was the inimitable Babs singing  The Way We Were and looking younger by the minute. The evening got off to a lovely start with Charlize Theron expertly dancing with Channing Tatum a la Ginger and Fred. These were the only moments with class. The rest was humor devised and intended for that famous demographic so coveted by Hollywood, 15 year-old males. At least the suits got a taste of their own medicine.
For a four hour ceremony, there were too many irrelevant moments. I love William Shatner, but he is beyond irrelevant. The Oscars are not about TV, they are about the movies.  But we are in an age of small screens, so this is what we get. Smallness. 
Chicago? Whatever the fuck? Utterly irrelevant.
The singing cast of Les Miserables was a giant clusterfuck, just like that movie: a supernova of dreck.
The obits were the best part, as usual, but us Latinos are extremely pissed that Lupe Ontiveros, the quintessential Latina maid, was snubbed. We won’t forget.
There were some righteous wins. Anne Hathaway’s was not one of them. But Ang Lee’s was,  so was Tarantino’s, so was Amour, so was Jennifer Lawrence. The best supporting actor category was a tough one, and Waltz was as right to get it as any of his peers. Daniel Day Lewis once again comported himself like the King of Class. He happens to have a sense of humor, plus nobody wears a tux like him.  
If there was justice in the world, Beasts Of The Southern Wild was utterly ignored and so was Zero Dark Thirty. They are simply bad movies. Is Argo a Best Picture? No. That award should have gone to either Django Unchained or Amour, which is at another level of artistry altogether. But well crafted, competent Argo won because it is about Hollywood. They love nothing better than self-congratulation.
Jimmy Fallon would have been a delightful host. Michelle Obama dancing with Fallon to advocate against obesity, ultra cool. The White House getting in bed with Hollywood in such an overt fashion, reeks of starfucking from the Presidency and is totally tasteless, inappropriate and wrong. I’m secretly enjoying whatever fallout is happening in the White House over this ridiculous decision that got her, who has done no wrong so far, associated with a sexist, racist and offensive telecast. 
Dress-wise: Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence and Robin Roberts were stunning. Everybody else looked like a chandelier from Vegas crashed on top of them.
See you next year. 

Feb 19, 2013

Oscars: They're Like Bad Sex

The first Oscar Ceremony, 1929.

People get ready. Our Superbowl is near. I've come to the conclusion that the Oscars (which I think I have missed only twice since 1973), are like bad sex. There is a lot of anticipation, months of foreplay, lots of teasing, getting to a fever pitch... all leading up to mostly a huge anticlimax. The ceremony itself takes forever and then, if you are lucky, you can't really remember anything.
True, there are a couple of thrilling moments here and there, but by the end of the long, agonizing evening one feels dazed and exhausted, wondering if no sex at all is better than bad sex.
Of course, the answer to this question, as far as the Oscars are concerned, is always: no.
We can't wait to be disappointed.

Check out my musings on this year's nominations here.

Feb 11, 2013

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh's swan song is an interesting thriller that, as the Magnificent Arepa so tersely put it, is overwritten by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who wrote the very fine The Informant!, among other things). It's a byzantine plot; in short, a young woman, the excellent Rooney Mara, is prescribed a new anti-depressant. Then there's trouble. And then there are so many twists, some great, some cheesy, that your brain ends up feeling a bit like a pretzel. It works for about three fourths of the way and then it gets a bit sleazy, as it tries to tie all the loose ends while piling up twist after twist, as prescribed, it seems to me, by those screenwriting gurus who tell you how many twists there have to be per act. Instead of a movie, Side Effects feels like you are playing Twister™, to the detriment of some potentially interesting character issues.
The best thing about Side Effects is definitely Rooney Mara, who gets to do a whole bunch of acting with great restraint. She is convincingly depressed, as she is creepy and vulnerable, a shape shifting tabula rasa. She is very impressive. Jude Law is quite good as her psychiatrist, a well-meaning doctor with excellent bedside manner, who is pressured to increase his income by collaborating with pharma companies on drug trials and being an expert witness in trial cases (it gets muddy). In a fresh twist, he becomes a victim as he barely grapples with the issue of a doctor's responsibility when a prescription goes very wrong. But more could have been made of his reluctance to accept responsibility. Instead he becomes a classic hero searching for the truth, which is a bit of a cliche. And then there is Catherine Zeta-Jones, vamping it with relish as the sexiest shrink in history. So there is much to enjoy in the performers. Soderbergh has some good, classy moments. Problem is in the writing. The screenwriter is working harder in coming up with bizarre twists than in exploring some of his more interesting themes. For instance, the uneasy and borderline unethical way in which big pharma is in bed with doctors, among other things. This seems to be the main topic of the movie (Big Pharma is Evil) until it gets derailed by a potboiler twist that seems to belong to a completely different class of movie altogether (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom). The movie is driven by plot, not character, and it kind of falls off a cliff. It is not the best movie to cap a prolific, if uneven career, but it is quite entertaining and certainly better than Che.
Here are the best Soderbergh movies, in my opinion:

Sex, Lies and Videotape
The Informant!
The Limey
Out Of Sight
King Of The Hill
Ocean's Eleven

Feb 8, 2013

Caesar Must Die!

This extraordinary film from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani may be the greatest screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and is one of the most magnificent films of their storied career.
There are no marquee names in this movie, no elaborate sets or costumes. The actors happen to be inmates of a maximum security prison in Italy. Some of them are members of organized crime, others are murderers, drug pushers, hardened criminals. The prison has a drama program and the Tavianis use the opportunity to tell a complex and movingly human story about pariahs who are considered inhumane. But Caesar Must Die is not a documentary. It is about the overpowering truth of art intersecting with the overpowering truth of reality. It is about truthfulness in fiction, and the freeing, humanizing power of art; it is about the genius of Shakespeare too, who has understood human nature through the ages like no one else. One keeps peeling layer after layer of meaning long after watching the film.
At the beginning, we see the end of the live performance of the play, the audience's applause, the elation of the actors after the performance. Then the Tavianis go back and introduce the players, their jail sentences written on the screen. At the casting call, Fabio Cavalli, the director of the play (who cowrote the script with the Tavianis) asks the inmates to state their names, the name of their father and where they are from, in two different ways. One, as if saying goodbye to their wives, and the other, angrily. He's trying to find out who has natural acting chops (surprisingly, at least among hardened criminals, many do).
Some of the aspiring actors are immediately transfixing, naturally at home with performing. Some are enormous hams, bursting with pizzazz. Just having to utter their names, where they are from and who their father is, puts these men in a highly emotional state. One inmate, reminded of these essential facts of life, cries so hard he can't even say his name. The director casts his Julius Caesar, his Brutus, his Cassius and other characters. Then the inmates go back to their cells. The opportunity to do the play has given these men a sense of freedom and possibility, but then they are reminded that they are not in imperial Rome and they are still locked up.
So far it looks like a documentary. But once the camera is allowed into the men's cells, we realize that this is much more staged than we thought. The directors use crisp black and white to show the rehearsals and their own staging of the play as a movie, whose backdrop is this jail. But they use color to record the live performance of the play.
Teasing our sense of reality, they also stage scenes with the actors that are not part of the play. The man who plays Brutus, a gifted thespian, is consumed with learning his lines correctly. He asks his cellmate to help him play a scene. This is evidently staged, as are other scenes where the men marvel at Shakespeare's ability to know their hearts intimately. These scenes are slightly jarring, for when the inmates are asked to play themselves, they seem much more self-conscious than when they are performing Shakespeare. There are scenes where the play reminds the men of the terrible deeds they have done, and they can't handle it. In some scenes, the cell doors are left open, further inviting the question of freedom into our minds. The choice of Julius Caesar is inspired: it takes place in ancient Italy, which the men can relate to, and it is about the capo di tutti capi, about a man abusing his extraordinary power. Murder, loyalty and revenge are topics that these men know too well. They are understandably blown away by Shakespeare, and they feel his words as their own.
In terms of filmmaking, the film is just magnificent. The cinematography is crisp and sharp and uses the prison as an epic, existential backdrop. The editing is masterful. The actors are extremely well directed and though the actual play is shortened and adapted, the Tavianis get to the marrow of the play. The inmates are more alive and compelling (in particular Brutus and Julius Caesar) than some professionals who can do Shakespeare in their sleep. It is their story. It's almost as if they don't need to pretend.
There is yet another fascinating layer to this movie, which is the social reality of the inmates. This transformational program is emotionally tough for the men, but it gives them something to excel at and it gives them dignity. A friend of mine was saying that this movie should be used to teach the play to high school students, which is the best idea ever. But I wonder if the drama program itself is something that could be applied in jails all over the world. It might seem to the merciless like it coddles criminals with artsy pieties, but in fact this role playing challenges the men emotionally and psychologically to face their own demons, while giving them back a sliver of humanity. It is profoundly healing, as evidenced by a postscript that lists the fates of the inmates and their progress after participating.
But it is the unwavering empathy, the profound wisdom of the Taviani brothers that makes this film a masterpiece. These two gentlemen, making such a brilliant gem at this stage in their lives, give me hope that as long as somebody uses the art of cinema to make films like this, movies will not have been been totally debased, and will be around to move us and change us forever.