Thursday, August 9, 2018

ACHIEVEMENTS IN POPULAR FILM? SAY WHAT?



Last Wednesday, the Motion Picture Academy released a press briefing concerning some upcoming changes in their organization: first, Oscar telecasts would be held to a three hour time limit, with some awards being given during commercials with a highlight reel of those awards to be shown later in the broadcast.  This makes perfect sense: ratings for the show have been in decline for years, with many viewers complaining about the show's often four plus hour length.  And let's face it, many of the awards are given to people who worked on films that the vast majority of the viewing audience have never seen or heard of (like Best Live Action Short Subject), or for technical things that are difficult to understand (there are two separate awards for sound editing and sound mixing!).    While the people who worked on those films should win awards, cutting down the broadcast time given to their wins  should make the show more entertaining and accessible.
The second part of the press release is far more interesting, and potentially controversial.  A new award for “outstanding achievement in popular film” has now been announced, with details to be forthcoming. It would appear that this is an attempt to broaden the show's audience by giving a major award to a block buster.  In other words, the Academy is  trying to make a people's choice award, one that reflects the tastes of the main stream movie going public more than the supposedly elevated tastes of the Academy members.  This is not the first time that the Academy has made this kind of move: in 2009, when the box office hit THE DARK KNIGHT did not get nominated for Best Picture, the Academy expanded its Best Picture Nominees from five films to ten, making room for more hit movies.  This led to films like 2015's MAD MAX:FURY ROAD getting a Best Picture nomination, something that probably never would have happened if the nominees had been held to five.  Apparently, even that move wasn't seen as enough to placate the rabid fan boys who flock to the latest special effect explosion movies, and who feel disrespected by the Oscars.
But is this just pandering?  By implying that big money making movies are somehow in a different category than the ones that are usually nominated, they almost seem to be lowering popular films, saying that they are only worthy of winning in  a separate  category (although a film could be nominated for both an Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film award and Best Picture, like when Toy Story 3 was nominated for Best Animated Film and Best Picture).
Once upon a time, popular films were almost always at least nominated for Best Picture, but in recent years, mainstream Hollywood movies have mostly gotten louder and dumber.   Playing to the lowest common denominator, giving that all important young male demographic just what they want, while keeping stories simple to appeal to the ever growing world wide audience, has become Hollywood's stock in trade for some time now, and, to be fair, they have reaped enormous financial rewards from doing that.  But should that cynical, sequel and reboot driven style that turns the cinematic art form into the equivalent of Big Macs, really be given an award for artistic achievement?  Aren't the technical awards for things like special effects, editing and production design enough?  (Really, when you get down to it, it's those technical people behind the scenes who create those special effects that do the real work for so many blockbuster movies, as the screen writers cough up cliches and the actors stand in front of green screens).  
As an avid moviegoer who mostly avoids mainstream Hollywood films until the "Oscar bait" movies start getting released late in the year, I don't like the idea of this new award; let the popular films make money and the "good" ones win awards.  At the same time, I understand why the Academy chose to do this; generally speaking, when more popular movies are nominated, more people watch; they can point to high ratings for the  years when TITANIC,  THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING and AVATAR were nominated.  But it's been nine years since that AVATAR broadcast, and the viewing habits of the American public has changed.   This new award may do little to end what is a growing trend for most TV viewers, who prefer streaming formats that allow for more flexibility in their viewing habits.  (The fact that the Super Bowl and the Grammys have also seen their ratings drop in recent years reflects this.)   Sure, there's something exciting in watching events unfold live, but a lot of people would just rather watch the best parts on You Tube afterwards so they don't have to wade through the endless commercials and dull parts.  Adding a new award will probably not buck this trend, and in the long run, I think it cheapens the Academy by forcing it to reward things like super hero movies and inane comedies. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A DISTURBING TREND

Image result for hereditary

(There are spoilers for the movie HEREDITARY here, you've been warned)


The low budget horror film HEREDITARY, written and directed by Ari Aster opened just last weekend and got a decidedly mixed reception: while critics highly praised the film (it rates an impressive 92% on the Tomato meter) audiences surveyed on the way out gave it a lowly D+ grade.  As someone who is sick of super hero movies and loves independent movies, whenever critics and the general public disagree, I'm usually with the critics, but not this time!  Putting it bluntly, I actively hated this film and almost walked out on it in the first half hour.  Now understand, I not someone who can't stand horror movies,  (I loved GET OUT from last year, and THE BABADOOK from 2014), no,  my problem with HEREDITARY stems  from one of the most difficult things to portray on a movie screen: violence against children.
Stories for children, have, of course, often featured children in dangerous situations in which they are threatened by evil adults, from THE WIZARD OF OZ to HARRY POTTER, but these stories have inevitable happy endings and are light hearted in tone despite the moments of danger.  And more serious, realistic examples of children being threatened can work when handled in the right way, as in the powerful scene in SCHINDLER'S LIST in which children hide in out houses to avoid being sent to a death camp.  No, what bothers me are recent  films like HEREDITARY that are made for adults and that consciously seem to be pushing the audience's tolerance level by amping up the violence against children.  Last year,  Darren Aronofsky's fever dream film MOTHER (which I had some admiration for) ended with a baby being eaten.  Another film, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, (which I also hated), showed two young children slowly wasting away from a hideous curse that eventually makes blood pour from their eyes.  
That brings us to HEREDITARY, in which, in a harrowing scene, a 13 year old girl suffering from an allergic reaction, sticks her head out of a careening car window and is literally decapitated.  The moment itself is over briefly, but in the aftermath, director Aster chooses to show a long, realistic, lingering shot of her severed head on the road, being eaten by ants. Why did he choose to do this?   That shot has no purpose in the plot, making its repulsiveness completely unnecessary. It's a terrible choice, in my opinion, and even though it lasts a few short seconds, it  casts a pall over the rest of the film. (In case you were wondering, this was the moment that almost made me walk out). 
Any time a director decides to put an image like that in my head, the movie needs to justify it, and this film falls far short of that in my opinion: although it starts out like a serious family drama, HEREDITARY eventually degenerates into a standard issue ghost/possession story with the usual scenes of people having crazy nightmares, stumbling into dark spooky rooms and choosing to do things that defy logic.  Sure, there are some good performances and well shot scenes, but nothing that compensates for that horrific image.  
There's been a lot of praise for the performance of Toni Collette as the long suffering mom in the film, and while I think she is very good, digging into big emotional moments with a ragged intensity,  it's a better performance than the film deserves.  In fact, the raw emotion she  brings to the dramatic parts of the film wind up seeming silly when contrasted with her character  doing things like floating in the air and speaking in a possessed voice.  In a serious dramatic film, her realistic performance would work perfectly, but here it just winds up seeming ridiculous.
I've already mentioned that I loved Jennifer Kent's THE BABADOOK, which was also about malevolent spirits and possession, and also had a child put in danger.  But in that film, the endangered child was  central to the plot, and Kent handled it effectively and tastefully.  And as for the aforementioned baby eating scene in Aranofsky's MOTHER,  that film had become so completely surreal and metaphorical at that point in the film, that the baby eating seemed like an inevitable part of the story. You see, it's not the threatening of children that I necessary object to, it's the context in which it is handled in the film, and I think Aster handled it terribly here.  There really is no context for me that justifies seeing a young girl's severed head being eaten by ants!


Thursday, April 5, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)



When Guillermo del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER won the Best Picture award for 2017, it was not a big surprise; del Toro's movie had been nominated for a whopping 13 awards, and had already won 3 (for del Toro's direction, its production design and its score).  On the other hand, there had never been a science fiction film that won Best Picture before (somewhat amazingly, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY was not even nominated for Best Picture!), and there was quite a bit of buzz about some of the other films nominated, like 3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI and GET OUT.  Still, the Academy resisted having another upset like they had had the year before when MOONLIGHT defeated LA LA LAND, and they awarded the expected winner this time.  Personally, while I find del Toro's film undeniably lovely to look out and well acted, I think it falls short of greatness, especially in its predictable screenplay.



In 1954's cult monster film classic THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, there's a striking moment when the film's lovely leading lady goes for a swim in the Amazon waters, and the film's titular creature (also known as the gill man) starts to swim below her.  But instead of attacking her, it follows her motions beneath her, without her knowing, copying her, clearly carrying out a sort of mating dance.  Up until then, the creature had only been shown as a fearsome beast, but in that moment, its awkward desire made it seem almost likable.  For a lot of adolescent boys just discovering girls but feeling too, well, monstrous, to act on their desires, it hit home.  One of those adolescent boys was Guillermo del Toro, who was a horror movie obsessed, monster loving kid, that would go on turn those childhood obsessions into movies.  Beginning with his first feature film, 1993's interesting vampire reimagining CRONOS to THE SHAPE OF WATER, every film he's directed has some kind of monster or ghost running through it.  He says he first got the idea for THE SHAPE OF WATER while talking to writer David Kraus in 2011, and he also considered directing a straight up remake of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for Universal (allegedly, the studio passed on his pitch for the film when he wanted to end it with the gill man and the female lead ending up together!).  Del Toro eventually wrote the film as a love story, and immediately wanted English actress Sally Hawkins (who had been so likable in 2008's Mike Leigh film HAPPY GO LUCKY) to play the lead.  Octavia Spencer, Micheal Shannon and Richard Jenkins, excellent actors all, were cast in supporting roles.  Del Toro finished the script with help from TV writer Vanessa Taylor and shot the film for a relatively low twenty million dollar budget in 2016.  Powered by word of mouth as much as Oscar nominations, the film would eventually gross around one hundred and ninety million dollars, making it one of the most financially successful Best Picture winners in recent years.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, it tells the story of Eliza (Hawkins), a mute, orphaned cleaning woman, who lives in a modest apartment building in which she has befriended her lonely, gay, recovering alcoholic neighbor Giles (Jenkins).  At work, she and her friend  Zelda (Spencer) are cleaning out a government lab in which a scaled, man sized fish creature has been housed by security manager Richard (Shannon).  Eliza finds herself drawn to the creature, despite the fact that it has bitten off two of Richard's fingers.  She starts to feed it, play music for it, and teach it sign language.  When she discovers that Richard plans to kill and dissect the creature, she sneaks him into her apartment with the reluctant help of Zelda and Giles.  Slowly, she finds herself falling in love with the creature, and they began to have an unusual sex life. Giles also finds himself drawn to the creature and he discovers that he has magical healing powers. Meanwhile, Richard, enraged at the creature's disappearance, eventually tracks him down on the same night that Eliza plans to release it into the sea.  Before she can, Richard shoots both her and the creature, but he resurrects himself and kills Richard.  Then he carries Eliza off into the water, both healing her and giving her the ability to breath under water.  The two of them swim off together.
From it's lovely opening tracking shot that glides through a watery apartment and ends on Eliza, reclining in the water like sleeping beauty, while Jenkins's character on the soundtrack refers to her as "a princess without a voice", de Toro establishes that this story is a modern, adult fairy tale, and throughout the film cinematographer Dan Lausten and production designer Paul D. Austerberry give the film a surreal green tinged look (even the food and the cars are green) while still realistically recreating Baltimore in the 1960's.  And that fairy tale quality is extended in both Alexandre Desplat's excellent score and the use of old jazz tunes on the soundtrack, which contrast with the odd squacking noises that the creature makes.  (Pat Friday singing "I know why" has never sounded so haunting!)  I love the slightly crazy scene in which Eliza imagines herself singing in an old black and white Astaire-Rogers style musical with the creature making an unlikely dance partner.  Since those movies were themselves often like fairy tales, it doesn't seem out of place and keeps with the overall tone of the film while giving de Toro a chance to put in an unexpected homage to old Hollywood.


However, playing out like a fairy tale makes the plot  too simple at times for my taste; this was a truly a film where I could guess almost every beat of the story from just having seen the preview beforehand.  From Eliza bonding with the creature and sneaking it  out, to the killing of the evil Richard at the end before the inevitable happy ending, there are no plot twists in this film that could be called surprising (although I must admit that I did not foresee an actual Communist spy being part of the story, but I also found that subplot pointless).  Along with being a like a fairy tale, the movie also resembles a number of films that came out back in the 1980's (like ET, SPLASH and STAR MAN), in which innocent alien or magical creatures were threatened with horrible government experiments; at times I couldn't help but feel that I've seen this story before, right down to the creature's magic healing powers and resurrection abilities that resemble ET's.  There are also questions of plausibility in the story, with a human sized fish creature somehow getting around a crowded city without anyone noticing (he even takes a trip to a movie theater!).  Even fairy tales have to make sense.  And I would have like to know a little bit more about the creature, especially regarding whether there are any more like it out there. 
Still, this film is certainly never boring to look out, and that's especially true of the magnificent job done by the effect and makeup crew on the creature, turning the old gill man from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON into a modern marvel.  Del Toro has said designing him was one of the most difficult things he's worked on in all of his years of film making, and it shows.  It's a monster that can be both frightening and beautiful, threatening or pathetic.  And clearly they learned one of the important lessons of ET: audiences will care for an alien creature as long as it has big, soulful eyes.  Also, credit must be given to Doug Jones, the man in the suit, who has been working with de Toro since 1997's MIMIC; his years of playing monsters and training as a mime  pay off in the way that the creature's thoughts are often conveyed with a simple gesture or turn of the head. For a monster performance, it's often subtle.

As for the other performances, most of them are very good.  In Eliza, Giles and Zelda, we get a trio of lovable misfits, the kind of people who weren't always welcome in the era of the early 60's as the film often makes clear.  Sally Hawkins as Eliza is extremely endearing; with her simple beauty and broad, expressive eyes, she doesn't need to talk to carry the film; from the early moment when we see her kindly bringing breakfast to her neighbor Giles, to the way she taps her feet on the floor as she walks down the hall, mimicking the tap dance routine she just saw on TV, we're completely on her side.  One intriguing question arises concerning her character:  we hear that she was found alone and abandoned in the water as a baby, and she has a scar on her neck that resembles a fish's gill.  Therefore, one has to wonder,  is she herself half fish creature and half human?  That would explain why she's almost immediately drawn to the creature, even after she knows that it bit a man's fingers off.  The movie never says she is, but it's an interesting idea  Richard Jenkins as Giles is also very good as an unhappily closeted gay man;  I love the  wistful nature he has when he finds himself confessing to the creature that he feels alone too, and he's also often funny (at one point he asks of the creature "Now, is he a god? I dunno if he's a god. I mean he ate a cat, so I don't know!").  Octavia Spencer as Zelda is fine, but she really doesn't have a lot to do in the standard role of the African American faithful friend to the main character type.  Still, I do enjoy her reaction in the scene in which Eliza mimes out exactly how she and creature can have sex!
And then there's Micheal Shannon as the vile Richard; with his tall frame and harsh features, Shannon is usually typecast as a villain, so his casting here is no surprise.  But the script gives him no dimension whatsoever, he's just a sneering, leering horrid person in every scene; even when he's at home with his family or buying a cadillac he seems creepy.  Even worse,  I find his one note performance more and more grating as the film goes on and he gets more and more despicable. (There's even a scene involving him torturing someone for information; it's ugly and unnecessary, and I wish Hollywood would get over the need for such scenes in movies and TV shows)  I understand that fairy tales always have wicked characters, but it wouldn't have hurt to have given him a few moments of sympathy.  While I have enjoyed Shannon in other roles over the years, the best thing that I can say about this one is that he's not quite on screen enough to ruin the film, but he definitely damages it, in my opinion.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I think it's clear that I admire this film without loving it (it's not even my favorite Del Toro film, I enjoyed 1996's PAN'S LABYRINTH more).  I think that nominated films like Jordan Peele's GET OUT and  Martin McDonagh's THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI  were better, and films that weren't nominated like Dee Rees's excellent post war drama MUDBOUND,  Craig Gillespie's deliriously entertaining I TONYA and Lee Unkrich's and Adrian Molina's delightful COCO were also superior.  Still, De Toro is a likable Hollywood personality who's been making (mostly) good films for 20 years, so I'm not exactly upset about the Academy's choice.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

THE 2017 NOMINEES, FIRST IMPRESSIONS


The nominees for the Academy Awards for 2017 have just been announced, and there aren't a lot of surprises, the films that are up are mostly ones that have done well at The Golden Globes and won other awards.  Still, I personally did not expect that the leader in the number of nominations would be Guilllermo De Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER, with thirteen nominations.  Could this oddball romance become the first science fiction movie to win Best Picture?  We'll see.  I certainly am amused by the fact that a modern Oscar nominated film could be so heavily influenced by the 1954 B-movie THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON!
The controversial 3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI  is also up for an impressive seven awards, and while I imagine that the wonderful Frances McDormand will almost definitely win for Best Actress, I doubt the Academy will want to give a Best Picture award to a film that has inspired some pretty angry backlash about its racial politics.  Personally, I think one of the two World War 2 set prestige movies  (they would be DARKEST HOUR and DUNKIRK) have the best chances of winning, because one should never bet against any movie that bashes Nazis.  At the same time, Stephen Spielberg's THE POST is a film about the power of the press, and with the nation lead by a president who has referred to the non conservative news media as "enemies of the people", it might be a good way for the mostly progressive Academy to stick a finger in his eye.  Still, the fact that the film has only one other nomination (Meryl Streep is up for Best Actress, as usual) shows that there probably isn't much support for the film overall. The rest of the Best Picture nominees probably have little chance:  PT Anderson's PHANTOM THREAD is probably to strange for the Academy, despite another great performance by Best Actor nominee Daniel Day Lewis.  CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, the gay romance, is probably too arty for the Academy, while horror satire GET OUT is too dark.  And Greta Gerwig's LADYBIRD is a low budget, realistic look at a complicated relationship between a teenage girl and her mother, hardly the kind of movie that wins Best Picture, although I'm glad to see that Gerwig is up for Best Director. 
As for the films left out, I personally loved Craig Gillespie's I,TONYA, and I think it should have been nominated for Best Picture, but at least it got acting nominees for it's two female leads, (Margot Robbie and Allison Janey) so there's that.  I also would have liked to see Micheal Showalter's highly entertaining romantic comedy THE BIG SICK get a Best Picture nominee, but its great screenplay is up, so again, that's something.  Overall, this a good, interesting mix of films that spreads love to both big budget films and low budget indies.  So what will win?  Well, despite it's 13 nominations, I think THE SHAPE OF WATER will mostly win technical awards, and with 3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI being too hot right now, I'm thinking that DARKEST HOUR (which has 5 other nominations besides  Best Picture) has a good chance, seeing as how it's in similar territory as 2010's winner THE KING'S SPEECH.  But of course, I thought LA LA LAND was going to win last year, so what do I know?

Sunday, October 15, 2017

THE FALL OF HARVEY WEINSTEIN


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted on Saturday to oust Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.  It was just the latest indignity suffered by the man who had been one of moviedom's most powerful producers.  More importantly, he has  also been pushed out of his position as head of  his company, because of multiple charges that have been made of him  sexually harassing women in the industry for years.  Some of those charges extend to outright rape.  The Academy moved fast to protect its image; the story of the charges against Weinstein had only broken ten days earlier.
While being thrown out of the Academy is mostly just a symbolic gesture, it does show the changing attitude towards the harassment of women in Hollywood that is slowly taking place.  No better illustration of that can be seen than the fact that director Roman Polanski was allowed to remain in the Academy even after he pled guilty to having sex with a minor in 1974 and fled the US.  Even more amazing, Polanski won an Oscar for directing THE PIANIST in 2002!  I think it's safe to say that Weinstein will not be winning anymore awards.
Weinstein often held himself as an old style Hollywood producer, who was powerful, tough and demanding, but also one who could make quality films that won multiple awards.  (And ironically, were often aimed at female audiences).  Sadly, his sexual behavior also marks him as an old style movie mogul; a recent article in Slate magazine pointed out that the term "casting couch" was first used in Variety magazine way back in 1937. The stereotype of the lecherous producer exists for a reason: Harry Cohn, for example, was head of Columbia Pictures from 1920 up until the fifties, and he was legendary for demanding sexual favors from aspiring starlets.  The sad fact of the matter is that in Hollywood you have a continuing story of pretty young women dreaming of fame and powerful men who can make those dreams come true, but only if they get something in return.  Sexual harassment in that situation is almost inevitable; the good news is that now men like Weinstein will be called out for it (although it took far too long for him to fall, given that rumors about him have floated around for years), and with more and more women calling the shots at studios, things will hopefully improve.
And then let's not forget the Trump factor: although conservative media is trying to hype Weinstein's fall as an attack on liberal Hollywood, it should be pointed out that Weinstein's behavior is very similar to what Trump himself has been accused of by no less than twelve women, which didn't stop the Republican party from making him their nominee.  Let's face it, sexual predators exist on both sides of the political fence, as recent high profile resignations for similar charges from conservatives Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes prove.  The good news is that something that was once shrugged off as "men being men" has now become unacceptable in the workplace, and as more and more women reach positions of power in more and more fields of business, men will have to learn to adjust or get out.  If anything good has come from the election of Trump, it's that women, shocked at the victory of a man caught bragging about sexual assault, are standing up and going public about such deplorable behavior more and more.  In other words, Weinstein won't be the first Hollywood mogul to be called out.  You can count on it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

ONE MOTHER! OF A MOVIE


While I normally only write about Oscar related movie news on this site, I feel that I need to write about Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER!, because watching it was such an overwhelming and draining experience that I feel I need a place to process it.  And I'll be spilling spoilers because I don't know how the hell else to talk about it!
As of this writing, MOTHER! is tanking at the box office and there's little chance that it will ever earn a profit, even though it's budget is a modest (by Hollywood standards) thirty million dollars.  Not even three well known stars (Ed Harris, Michelle Pefiffer and Javier Bardem) and one big star (Jennifer Lawrence) can expand it's audience.  Even more amazing, it has the rare distinction of being one of only ten films to get an "F" rating from audience polls.  Critics, on the other hand, have been kinder, giving it a healthy 67% on the Tomatometer.
One thing is certain, MOTHER! is one crazy, intense movie that starts off like an queasy thriller and then takes a left turn into the openly surreal, and highly symbolic, until visual metaphor overwhelms the screen.  The last half hour of the film can not be taken literally in any way, with one wild and disturbing image following another, their meaning often obscure and vague. Eventually, any kind of conventional linear plotting is almost completely abandoned, until the film ends with one last ambiguous image.  None of this is anything the average American moviegoer is interested in; pointing that Aronofsky was clearly influenced by Spanish director Luis Bunuel is not going to move a country mostly bored by foreign films!  The ad campaign for the film clearly played down the surreal nature of the film's ending and made it look like it was far more conventional, which may explain the audience's exasperation with it.  Its opening seems normal enough at first, with Lawrence's young house wife (no character names are used in the film) married to an older famous poet (Bardem) in a lovely home that she herself rebuilt after the original house, the one that Bardem grew up in, had burned down.   Their tranquility is broken when a doctor (Harris) and his wife (Peffifer) come to stay unannounced, with a secret agenda of their own.  Somewhat inevitably, they bring violence with them.  At first, Laurence's character reminded me of the Natalie Portman character from Aronofsky's  2010 film BLACK SWAN; again, we have a story told from the point of view of a young woman in a stressful situation who veers on the edge of insanity, and for whom reality and fantasy overlap.  (I've already mentioned the influence of Bunuel, certainly Roman Polanski's classic horror film ROSEMARY'S BABY is another touchstone for this film).  And for a while, Aronofsky sticks to a BLACK SWAN like story, but, slowly but surely, hints are released implying that both Laurence and Bardem are clearly meant to be something other than human.  

Aronofsky's has challenged audiences before, especially with 2000's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM,  but this is time he seems to have pushed too far, by putting Laurence, one's of Hollywood's most popular and well liked stars, into a grueling role that sees her veer from being humiliated and ignored to being beaten and tortured, often while pregnant.   And no matter how surreal and symbolic those torture scenes are, they're still hard to sit through.  And what is the only way to test an audience's endurance more than endangering a pregnant woman?  That's right, endangering a baby, which Aronosky also promptly does in gut churning fashion.
So just what is the film about?  The script was written by Aronosfsky in a mere five days, and he himself has called it a fever dream.  And yet, his intentions sometimes are clear; like Bunuel, who's films were often condemned by the Catholic church, Aronofsky's target seems to be religion.   The  Bardem character is clearly supposed to be God (he even says "I am I" at one point, a direct quote of God from the bible), and he's a selfish and vain one at that; he can't seem to resist opening his home to his adoring followers, even as it becomes dangerously overcrowded.  And when those followers start to fight with each other, eventually leading to what appears to be a large bloody war, he does nothing to stop them, just as many religious groups have fought and killed over the "right" way to worship God.  Such a depiction of God is not exactly something that a religious country like the US wants to see!  Although Aronofsky has been a bit withholding about his own spiritual beliefs, it would seem clear that his Jewish upbringing played a role in his writing a God character that is far more old testament than new.
But what are we to make of the Lawrence character?  My gut reaction, once I got over the stunning images I'd just seen, was that she was a damned soul trapped in a hell of her own making (notice that she never leaves the house).  But as I thought about it more, I felt that she was more like a modern Virgin Mary, impregnated by God, and then forced to watch her son die horribly and then be eaten like Christ is symbolically ever Sunday.  Another interpretation is that she is the literal embodiment of Mother Nature, who's beautiful creation (the house)is slowly destroyed and corrupted, by the ever imposing and growing human race, who even go so far as to kill her newborn baby.  (Significantly, Aronofsky is an environmental activist).    The fact that such a shocking movie ends with what seems to be an upbeat note, with things reverting to back to normal and the story starting all over again, ties in with the fact that Aronofsky's last film before this was 2014's NOAH, another story of destruction and renewal.
But the most intriguing question about this film is just how it got made in the first place.  In an era of remakes, reboots and franchise films, how did a major film studio like Paramount not only green light this film but then also put America's sweetheart in the lead role and give it a wide release in over 2,000 theaters, including multiplexes?  I don't know just how, but I'm glad that they did, even though I left the theater shell shocked after viewing it!  It's so rare to see a mainstream film that really sticks with you and makes you think about it for days afterward, and kudos to Lawrence for agreeing to star in such an offbeat film (and she really carries the movie, despite all the craziness).  So what I'm saying is, if you're not squeamish and are open to an openly surreal style of storytelling, you might want to try this film out.  For the rest of you, I'm sure there's a TRANSFORMERS movie playing somewhere.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

IS WONDER WOMAN ALL ABOUT TIMING?


The comic book movie WONDER WOMAN opened recently to strong box office and mostly positive reviews; the relevancy of this is that it's the biggest budgeted movie ever directed solely by a woman(Patty Jenkins), featuring the first big screen solo appearance of a beloved character who's been around for decades but has somehow never had a movie of her own.  (Over the years there have been several attempts at getting a  Wonder Woman movie off the ground, but they all fell apart). Somewhat amazingly, the character of Ant Man got his own movie before her, which shows what a boy's club Hollywood sees super hero movies as being.
Super hero characters seem to hold the same prominence now that western heroes did back in the 1950's and 1960's, with westerns appearing all over both big screens and TV screens back then.  And like westerns, super hero movies give us broad, simple stories with clearly defined good guys and bad guys and plenty of action, with both kinds of films inevitable climaxing with a battle royal between the hero (or heroes) and the villain (or villains).  Personally, I find the predictability of both genres (and I think super hero movies have become their own genre) to be their weakness; just as westerns often end with the white hatted hero outdrawing the black hatted villain yet again, the last half hour of nearly any super hero movies ends with cgi characters smashing through buildings in absurd orgies of destruction that are essentially meaningless; cities are destroyed, billions of dollars of damage is done, but the good guys won, so who cares?  And are we really supposed to be worried about our heroes losing that final battle?  How could we when we know the characters are all signed for another ten films!
Still, since I like to support women directors in Hollywood, so I went to see the film (in 3-D Imax, to get the full effect).  While I enjoyed it more than other recent super hero movies I've seen, I still found it just OK; it's often self serious and ponderous (I couldn't help laughing at the odd accents the Amazon women all have), and yes, the final battle at the end is as tedious and predictable as any other final battle in a super hero movie.  And often the style of the film often feels locked in to what previous directors in this series have done, with a lot of the heavy handed slow motion action scenes that series director Zack Synder seems so fond of.
So I wasn't too crazy about WONDER WOMAN.  So what?  Well, the thing I have found interesting is the number of downright rapturous reviews and essays I've read from women who saw the film, with writers like Gwen Ihnat and Esther Zuckerman freely admitting that they were in tears during the film.  Part of this may have been that they have been waiting patiently for years for a Wonder Woman movie, and the fact that one has finally arrived, directed by a woman, makes it all the better.  But I think there may be something else going on here.  I think the movie's arrival is helping us through tough times: I think the Trump era has made the country hungrier for a female super hero.

Last year we saw a woman who was qualified and experienced lose in an election to a man accused of sexually assaulting no less than ten different woman, and who was caught on tape bragging about that very kind of assault. Could there be any more demoralizing blow to the feminist movement than that? As we all know, art is something that can help us all get through troubled times, and for  women depressed by the Trump presidency, watching Wonder Woman pummeling bad guys on screen seems to providing a catharsis.  Even if the film was green lit years ago, and the creators probably thought that it would be released when Hillary Clinton would be in the White House, it couldn't be more timelier as a potent image of feminine power.   So if  Wonder Woman and other female characters like her can inspire women to get out and punch a certain misogynistic president out of office, than I'm all for it, even if I wasn't too fond of the film aesthetically.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

MOONLIGHT (2016)



MOONLIGHT (DIR: BARRY JENKINS) (SCR: JENKINS & TARELL ALVIN MCRANEY, BASED ON THE PLAY "IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE" BY MCRANEY)

If you saw the Oscar 2016 awards telecast, then you saw what was one of the craziest upsets in Oscar history: when Damien Chazelle's  Hollywood musical LA LA LAND was nominated for a whopping fourteen Oscars, it's ultimate victory for Best Picture seemed  assured. And as the evening progressed and Chazelle's film racked up six awards, it seemed inevitable.  So when presenter Faye Dunaway wrongly announced that it had won the Best Picture award, nobody seemed surprised.  Nobody, that is, except for the vote counters at Price Waterhouse Cooper, who were forced to swoop in, mid victory speech no less, and tell the producers of LA LA LAND that a mistake had been made*.  And so it was that a moderately budgeted sleeper hit with two well known stars was beaten out by a very low budget intensely personal independent film.  The win for MOONLIGHT bears out a trend that has been going on for some time now in movies: the best films are mostly being made independently with  lower budgets allowing for more interesting and personal films, or in other countries altogether. And MOONLIGHT is an excellent film, with a script full of quiet, thoughtful moments and sad, emotionally removed characters.  While a cynic might say that it won because it filled out a politically correct check list (with its gay, African American, impoverished lead character), it's simply a strong, melancholy story about a boy who grows into manhood without ever feeling that he fits in.

The film's production began when play write Alvin McCraney wrote a play entitled IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE in 2003.  The play was never produced.  Years later film director Barry Jenkins was looking for a followup film to his 2008 debut MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY when the play's script came to him.  Considering that, like McCraney, Jenkins grew up in the Liberty City projects and had a mother who struggled with crack cocaine addiction, he was drawn to the material, and he and McCraney began to collaborate on a film script that contained elements of both of their childhoods.  The film was eventually produced by the  A24 independent film company on a budget of around one point five million dollars, and it was shot in around twenty five days with a mostly unknown cast (interestingly, stars Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali would both get career boosts when the highly entertaining hit film HIDDEN FIGURES would open up shortly after this one).  Most of the film's shooting was done on the actual locations it was set in.  Released in October of 2016 to glowing reviews, the film made around twenty-seven million dollars in America, and around another thirty million overseas, returning  on it's small budget many times over!
It tells the story of  Chiron in three separate times: when he is a boy (played by Alex Hibbert), then a teenager (Ashton Sanders) , and finally a young man(Trevante Rhodes).  He grows up in the tough inner city neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with a crack addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris).  As a child, he finds himself making a father figure out of his mother's drug dealer,  Juan (Mahershala Ali), while also beginning to realize that he is gay.  As a teenager, he is picked on mercilessly, and has his first sexual experience with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).  After lashing out at a bully, he spends time in juvenile hall.  As an adult, Chiron is now a drug dealer.  He reaches out to Kevin, who has become a  chef.  When the two meet, Chiron reluctantly admits that he has never been intimate with anyone other than Kevin.

Mahershala Ali & Alex Hibbert

So let's get this out of the way, MOONLIGHT is a groundbreaking Best Picture winner for a number of reasons: it's the first to feature only African American actors in speaking parts, to have a gay protagonist, and to be openly autobiographical.  Also, if you adjust for inflation, it has the lowest budget of any Best Picture winner too.  But again, I don't want to praise this film just because it fills out some quotas.
One of the striking things about the film is that it's original theatrical origin is apparent in its small cast, its dialogue heavy script and  in the fact that it consists of mostly long, dramatic scenes played out slowly.  But this is to the film's advantage: like in a good play, it's often the honest emotion of the dialogue, and the nuances of the long pauses in between the dialogue, that make the deepest impression on the audience.
And despite the film's low budget, it looks great: Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton fill the movie with jagged, white and yellow exteriors and cool blue interiors.  And the camera keeps moving, whipping around the often harsh locations.   Jenkins is well aware  that a build up to an emotional moment is as important as the moment itself; like when a sadistic high school bully is about to make his move and the camera swings around  him as he paces in a circle, ratcheting up the tension, or when the adult Chiron slowly walks towards the workplace of a man he hasn't seen in almost ten years and the camera follows him all the way, underlining the importance of the moment for him.  Also, the film's repeated visual theme of the cleansing, purifying nature of water is wonderfully displayed, whether it's in the tender, almost baptismal way that Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, to the heartbreaking moment  when the teenage Chiron tries to wash away his facial scars after a particularly harsh beat down.  And the original soundtrack by Nicholas Britell, which features what he calls  "chopped and screwed" classical music, is moving and almost mournful, with tender piano and violin.  Appropriately, the softer classical music of the film's first two parts turns to hip hop for Chiron's adulthood to better reflect his more confident stance.

Ashton Sanders

At one point in the film Chiron's friend Jack, after not seeing him for almost ten years, says to him "You still can't say more than three words at a time."  It's a telling moment that says so much about the character; in all three stages of his life, Chiron feels like someone out of place, and who realizes that because he is different than the other boys and men around him, the more he says, the more likely he will be picked on for being different.  (In the childhood and teenage scenes of the film, it painfully nails the casual cruelty that children often display.)  To have such a soft spoken character as the lead of a film shows the importance of casting, and Jenkins did a great job.  Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner who play the childhood and teenage Chirons respectively, both seem to exude thoughtfulness and sensitively while saying very little.  We immediately like the childhood Chiron, which is important because we then understand why Juan goes out of his way to check up on him,  even while he says nothing.  (In a very moving moment,  Chiron can't bring himself to say goodbye to Juan when he's leaving, but he clearly is saddened by it).  Given that the child  Chiron says so little, when he does speak it carries enormous weight: the scene in which he asks Juan and his girlfriend "What's a faggot?" is so well acted, so matter of fact in it's depiction, and so quietly effective in Juan's response ("You can be gay, but you don't have to let nobody call you a faggot.") that it's probably the film's most moving moment.
Mahershala Ali won a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Juan, and it's clearly deserved; he is completely believable as he goes from being a tough guy drug dealer checking on one of his corner boys to a being a well meaning adult who just can't watch a kid being bullied without helping him.  The gentleness of the swim lesson he gives Chiron shows his inner decency, even if he is a drug dealer.  And the whole cast is excellent: Naomie Harris, as Chiron's mother Paula, has only a few scenes to portray a woman slowly coming apart from drug use, and she's great in all of them, especially when she desperately demands money from the teenage Chiron.  She also has a great moment when she accuses Juan of trying to raise Chiron, to which he responds "Are you going to raise him?" "Are you going to keep selling me rocks?" She spits back, embracing the cruel irony of their situation.  And as the adult Chiron, Trevante Rhodes is also very good; I love the way that he goes from putting up a tough front as a mid level drug dealer who messes with one of his younger dealers just to anger him, to letting that front melt away when Kevin calls him on the phone.  Or the way that he obviously wants to say so much to Kevin, but can't bring himself to (his mildly shocked reaction to Kevin showing him a picture of his son is telling), until he finally spills out in the film's great last line "You're the only man that's ever touched me.  I haven't really touched anyone since."

 If the film has a flaw, I would say that I don't find the adult Chiron as interesting a character as his younger incarnations, perhaps because his inner turmoil is less apparent.  Also, the fact that Juan does not appear in this section of the movie is disappointing, although understandable given that Chiron has grown beyond the need for a father figure.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's obvious that I love this movie, and while I also loved Paul Verhoeven's ELLE, Chan-wook Park's THE HANDMAIDEN and Ava DuVernay's 13th, foreign films and documentaries rarely get Best Picture nominations, so I'm perfectly happy with MOONLIGHT's victory.

*On a side note, I feel what happened is not only a victory for MOONLIGHT, but also a vindication for Marisa Tomei.  Ever since she won the Best Supporting Actress award for the film MY COUSIN VINNY in 1992, rumors have persisted that the envelope had been read incorrectly by presenter Jack Palance, and that she hadn't actually won the award.  We now know that Price Waterhouse Cooper would not let such a mistake stand.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

CANCEL THE OSCARS?



The spheres  of art and entertainment and politics have collided recently in an unprecedented way: as the whole world knows, President Donald Trump on January 27th. signed an executive order banning all immigrants to the US from seven mostly  Muslim countries.  The effect of this has been chaotic, with protests erupting at airports nation wide.  It has also hit the Academy Awards: among this year's nominees are Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and several Syrian people who appeared in the short documentary film WHITE HELMETS.  Under the Trump order they are all barred from entering the country, a chilling example of political overreach; the notion that Farhadi, who had already attended the awards ceremony in 2012 when his excellent  film A SEPARATION won best foreign film, is in some way a threat to the country is absurd and offensive. Although there has been some talk of giving special consideration to Farhadi and the Syrians, that just underlines the  danger of the whole order: why should they be allowed to go to a ceremony, but many people fleeing for their very lives are not being allowed in? Farhadi recently told the New York Times that he will not attend the ceremony either way, which I think is the right move.  But it raises a larger question: should the Academy ban the Oscar ceremony entirely?
In the course of its history, the Oscars have been postponed several times: because of a flood in 1938, because of the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and because of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981.  But outright cancelled?  The idea was probably first floated in an article in VOX magazine yesterday, and was later picked up in the AV CLUB website today.  The issue is sure to spread and be widely debated.
Now on the one hand, cancelling the Oscars would certainly send a message and create awareness about what our new president has done; the cancelling of a major awards show would let the world know that Hollywood and millions of other Americans do not want Trump's actions to speak for all us.  Although he has tried to compare his order to past orders made by presidents Bush and Obama, there has never been one as far reaching or openly discriminatory, with some people left in limbo and families being separated.  Getting rid of the show would remind the country that the man we have elected is not a normal politician, but an unexperienced one who ran on a platform of bigotry; it would help prevent the normalization of a highly divisive figure, perhaps the most divisive president ever.  It would acknowledge that now is not the time for frivolous star watching and "best dressed" lists.
On the other hand, because the Academy Awards is routinely one of the most watched TV events of the year, it could give a format to outspoken members of Hollywood to air their anger at the Trump administration, and perhaps hit inside that middle American Fox News bubble.  Political speeches are nothing new at the Academy Awards, and they range from the odd moment when Marlon Brando sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to pick up his Oscar for THE GODFATHER in 1973 and lecture the audience about negative portrayals of Native Americans, to Micheal Moore being booed in 2003 for criticizing the Iraq war while winning for his documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.  Surely Trump's recent actions will bring more political speeches to the fore, and perhaps the entire show will take a more serious tone, which might be a good thing considering the troubled times we now live in.
Finally, there is the financial angle to consider; the ad revenue that would be lost from the show's cancellation would number in the millions.  I imagine the pressure from the ABC network on the Academy to keep the show is huge, which, in the end, will probably be the deciding factor in still putting on the show, even if the Academy won't admit it!  Personally, I can understand both arguments, but I lean towards calling it off to let the world know that business as usual is not going to be standard with a demagogue like Trump in the White House.