Jan 30, 2014

Streaming: The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers

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.

Jan 17, 2014

Nomination Nation

In toto, they are quite expected. With the usual major snubs and undeserving celebration of overrated acting (Streep and Roberts, I'm looking at you). 
Here's an alternative, in order of my preference.

Key: snubs / • expected wins / Okay, but there are better choices

Best Picture
American Hustle
The Wolf of Wall Street
• 12 Years a Slave 
Inside Llewyn Davis
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
 Dallas Buyers Club         

How do extremely conventional movies like Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, which are decent, but no great shakes, get a nomination in lieu of original, ballsy, beautifullly crafted pieces like All Is Lost and Inside Llewyn Davis is anybody's sorry guess. 12 Years A Slave is a smart, important movie that deserves to be there, but it is not that great a movie. Gravity is a spectacular movie with a disappointing script, but it deserves to be there, and Captain Phillips is a well crafted spectacle with an interesting topic that deserves more balls than it got in the film (Americans are not the hot shit they used to be). The Wolf Of Wall Street is a big ass Scorsese movie, epic in its manic energy. American Hustle and Nebraska are the most realized and interesting ones, but I think the winner lies between 12 Years A Slave and Gravity, because of what they mean in the business. One for historic reasons, and the other one for pushing the envelope of cinematic possibilities, like Avatar, but much better.

Best Actor
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Christian Bale, American Hustle
• Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street  
Forest Whitaker, The Butler                
Christian Bale, Out Of The Furnace     
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis        
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave         

I know it is controversial to deny Ejiofor his due. He does a very good job, but the Solomon Northup character has little dimension. It is a portrait of almost passive, unremitting suffering, and thus, not as interesting as some of the more volatile characters in the list. Meanwhile, Forest Whitaker does a spectacular turn as a man whose vocation is to serve, proudly and blindly, and no one notices because it is too subtle. And Oscar Isaac does a mean feat of singing and playing guitar and being ornery and somehow lovable, but also too subtle for the more histrionic tastes of Academy voters. I'm just grateful they recognized the enormity of Bruce Dern's turn in Nebraska, to me, the undisputed winner.
The winner is a toss up between Dern (old Hollywood), McConaughey (losing 50 pounds always helps, but he is truly excellent) and Leo, who at this point deserves the love that has been denied him for so long.
Best Actress
• Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Judi Dench, Philomena
Sandra Bullock, Gravity  
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”  

A lot of people like to dismiss Sandra Bullock as a lightweight. She is excellent in Gravity, considering she was trapped in a box for months and basically acts only with her face. It's not her fault she was given corny dialogue. She gave it her all. Cate Blanchett's unhinged Jasmine deserves every accolade, in contrast to Meryl Streep's, unhinged hamming. Blanchett understands and respects the movie she is in and the actors playing alongside her. She stops one inch short of camp and caricature. It is scary to behold. Judi Dench is God, Amy Adams is very good, but I thought not as good as her costar Jennifer Lawrence, and so if I could get rid of Streep, whom I normally admire, I would remind people of Greta Gerwig's funny, breezy, touching performance in the title role.

Best Supporting Actor
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
• Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Matthew McConaughey, The Wolf Of Wall Street  
Paul Giamatti, 12 Years A Slave

Leto's is the showiest role and he was fantastic and will probably win, because actors with dramatic physical transformations always do, but Fassbender's character is a study in abject weakness. I found him to be psychologically credible, a messy horror of a human being; a drunk, a bully, a coward, a child, someone you could actually know. It is brave of an actor to inhabit such a character without fear and without redemption. Barkhad Abdi's nomination may seem like a gimmick, but he is so charismatic, self-assured and convincing that he steals the movie from under Tom Hanks' feet.  Bradley Cooper is the best he's ever been and so is Jonah Hill. McConaughey steals the show in The Wolf of Wall Street, even if it's only for minutes, and I thought Paul Giamatti was the very soul of uncaring market forces in 12 Years A Slave. Not evil, just doing business. He rocked.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine               
 Julia Roberts, August: Osage County             
Margo Martindale, August: Osage County  
Margot Robbie, The Wolf Of Wall Street     
Scarlett Johansson, Her   

Jennifer Lawrence is the best thing in a movie that has a lot of very good things. She is fierce, funny, lost, touching, out of her depth, and utterly fantastic in American Hustle. She somehow manages to rise above at least three other spectacular performances. It's not her fault that she won last year. She deserves to win again. Instead of Sally Hawkins, who is perfectly good, and Julia Roberts who has moments but wears one multipurpose scowl, I wish the Academy voters appreciated the truth in Margo Martindale's performance in August: Osage County, or the incredible big screen debut of Margot Robbie in WOWS, or even the excellent voice acting of ScarJo in Her. She's the best thing in the film.                            

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
• Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave 
J.C Chandor, All Is Lost 
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

This is a tough one, and everyone here is very deserving. To me, the one to me that did a less coherent job is Steve McQueen. The masters of tone are Russell, Payne (in particular) and Scorsese, but I think it's going to be between Cuarón and McQueen.
I find the snubbing of All Is Lost particularly galling in all the major categories. As for the Coens, the movie is too gloomy a love poem to artistic failure to be appreciated.

Adapted screenplay
The Wolf of Wall Street, Terence Winter
Before Midnight,
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke  
• 12 Years a Slave, John Ridley
Captain Phillips, Billy Ray
Philomena, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pierce

Say what you will about The Great Gatsby, despite Luhrmann's tackiness, the script is extremely faithful to the novel, and very well done. I fail to understand why the lovely Before Midnight is considered an adaptation. Anybody? Terence Winter's profane, vicious and funny script is probably far more interesting than the base material. I found Philomena oddly maladroit in tone, like it wants to be all things to all people.
I bet it's gonna be 12 Years A Slave, a solid adaptation of a challenging book.

Original screenplay
• American Hustle, Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Nebraska, Bob Nelson
Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen   
Her, Spike Jonze
Dallas Buyers Club, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack 
Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen
All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor        

The script for American Hustle is extremely ambitious and complex and it is a testament to David O. Russell that he delivered it with flair and clarity. It is a spectacular piece of writing, and so is the more subtle and understated Nebraska, my two favorites in this category. The rest of the nominees flummox me. Blue Jasmine is the best thing Woody Allen has done in years, but it is not as polished as some of its competitors. I have a real aversion to Her. I find the script lazy and the conceptual and dramatic possibilities unexplored. And Dallas Buyers Club is like a perfectly decent Movie of The Week. Then more original, evocative, imaginative work like Inside Lllewyn Davis and All Is Lost was excluded.                 

• Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki              
Inside Llewyn Davis, Bruno Delbonnel
Nebraska, Phedon Papamichael
Prisoners, Roger A. Deakins
The Grandmaster, Philippe Le Sourd  
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Stuart Dryburgh  
American Hustle, Linus Sandgren                           
All Is Lost, Frank G. DeMarco, Peter Zuccarini     

Now is the time for Lubezki to win, but incredibly, he may not if people consider that most of the movie was done in CGI. Still, he designed the lighting and you can see his sensitive touch on the breathtaking gorgeousness that is Gravity. If he doesn't win this time, all I can say is yikes. I was happy to see Roger Deakins' work on Prisoners, a movie that without his moody lighting would not be as good. I found the work in The Grandmaster uneven, the CGI sloppy and I pined for the arresting beauty of Christopher Doyle's work. 

Foreign language film
The Hunt, Denmark
• The Great Beauty, Italy
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium
The Missing Picture, Cambodia
Omar, Palestine      
The Past, France/Iran    

The Hunt is one of the best movies of the year in any language. The Great Beauty is a great treat. I haven't seen the Belgian nor the Cambodian films. Omar is a perfectly good movie, and its nomination is a welcome political statement, but it is not among the greatest foreign films of the year. A much better movie is Ashgar Farhadi's The Past.

Makeup and Hairstyling
American Hustle: biggest snub of all time

Actors who were not snubbed, despite protestations to the contrary:
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler. She was all over the place.
Robert Redford, All Is Lost. Best thing he's ever done, but that's not saying much.
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips. Best 3 minutes of his career at the end of the film, but only 3 minutes, if not less.

Jan 14, 2014

The 10 Best And All The Rest of 2013

My 10 Best Movies of 2013
Nebraska, Alexander Payne
The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg
La Grande Bellezza, Paolo Sorrentino
Inside Lllewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen
The Past, Asghar Farhadi
Like Father, Like Son, Hirokasu Kore-eda
American Hustle, David O. Russell
All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor
Before Midnight, Richard Linklater
20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville
Honorable mention:  
Club Sandwich, Fernando Eimbcke 

And all the rest:

The Wolf Of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese  
Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener
Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach
What Maisie Knew, David Siegel and Scott McGeehee
The Place Beyond The Pines, Derek Cianfrance
The Conjuring, James Wan
Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon
12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen 
In The House, François Ozon
Reality, Matteo Garrone
Anchorman 2, Adam McKay 
A Touch Of Sin, Jia Zhangke
Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat 
Alan Partridge, Declan Lowney
Camille Claudel 1915, Bruno Dumont
Nobody's Daughter Haewon, Hong San Soo
The Square, Jehane Noujaim

Philomena, Stephen Frears  
In A World, Lake Bell
Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallee
Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass
Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen
The East, Zal Batmanglij
Hannah Arendt, Margarethe Von Trotta
I'm so Excited!, Pedro Almodóvar
Koch, Neal Barsky
American Promise, Joe Brewster, Michele Stephenson
Gloria, Sebastián Lelio
Omar, Hany Abu-Assad 
The Bling Ring, Sophia Coppola
Four, Joshua Sanchez
The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki   
Crystal Fairy, Sebastian Silva
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Felix Van Groeningen

Blue is The Warmest Color, Adbdellatif Kechiche
Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón
Stranger By The Lake, Alain Guiraudie
The Butler, Lee Daniels
Mama, Andrés Muschietti
We Steal Secrets, Alex Gibney
August: Osage County, John Wells
Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller
Stray Dogs Hsai Ming Liang
The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg
Out Of The Furnace, Scott Cooper

Grossly Overrated
Her, Spike Jonze
The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai
Mud, Jeff Nichols
Upstream Color, Shane Carruth
Jealousy, Phillipe Garrel
Two Guns, Baltasar Kormakur

Special WTF Mention
Post Tenebras Lux, Carlos Reygadas

Lovelace, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman 
Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch
Jimmy P. Psychotherapy of A Plains Indian, Arnaud Desplechin

The Counselor, Ridley Scott
Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh
Real, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Star Trek Into Darkness, J. J. Abrams
Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine

Bottom of the Barrel
Bastards, Claire Denis