Thursday, February 2, 2017
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.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Well, the 2016 Oscar nominees are out, and while glancing over them, I can't say I see any surprises: LA LA LAND, which dominated at the Golden Globes (a record seven awards), racked up an impressive 14 nominations, putting it well into the lead for the Best Picture award. The film is a mostly upbeat, colorful, musical with likable, attractive stars that manages to both pay homage to old musicals while remaining modern. It's a hit with both critics and audiences, and it's Hollywood setting is something many Academy members can relate to. (How many of them haven't wanted to sing and dance their way out of a traffic jam?). All of this means that the Best Picture winner will probably be a lock for LA LA LAND, but then I also thought that about Hillary Clinton.
It also appears that the "Oscars so White" campaign of last year has not fallen on deaf ears, with 6 different African American actors being nominated from films like FENCES, HIDDEN FIGURES and MOONLIGHT, (not to mention South East Asian actor Dev Patel being nominated for LION) and those films all picked up other nominations for direction and screenplays. Political correctness aside, I think all three are fine films and I'm glad that the nominations will help them all find a bigger audience. And in many ways, the most relevant film of the year was African American director Ava Du Vernay's documentary 13th., which is up for Best Documentary and will hopefully win.
While studying the nominees overall, I think the Academy did a good job this time around, with no glaringly overrated films. I like that the nine Best Picture nominees included a good Science Fiction film (ARRIVAL) and a cop movie (HELL OR HIGH WATER), along with the usual prestige dramas.
My biggest disappointment is that neither Chan-Wook Park's THE HAND MAIDEN or Paul Verhoeven's ELLE were nominated for Best Foreign Film (Isabelle Huppert was given a nomination for her excellent role in ELLE). I also wish that Amy Adams, who gave two good performances this year in ARRIVAL and the oddball NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, had gotten a Best Actress nomination instead of Meryl Streep for her fun but fluffy performance in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. But I'm sure Adams, who's been nominated 5 times already, will win someday soon.
Despite my few reservations, it appears that the Academy is doing what it does best: showing that movies for grown ups still matter and making more audiences aware of lower budget films like MOONLIGHT and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. So, bring on the overblown musical numbers and inevitable president Trump bashing, the Oscars are coming!
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Saturday, October 8, 2016
Recently, I have been filled with anticipation over seeing the new movie BIRTH OF A NATION; the historical film took both the audience award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a triumph for first time director, screenwriter and star Nate Parker. The film just opened to a wide release yesterday.
But before it was released, a skeleton fell out of Parker's closet: in 1999, while a student at Penn State University, Parker and his friend Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of raping a drunken female student. The two men claimed that the sex had been consensual, but charges were filed. Although they were found not guilty, the charge still hangs over the heads of both men (Celestin co wrote the film with Parker). Even more disturbing, the accuser committed suicide in 2012. Gabrielle Union, a star of the film and herself a rape survivor, admits that she cannot take these allegations lightly.
So, should the film be boycotted? Personally, I still plan to see it, but I can understand other people having that reaction. I have always felt that art and the artist who created it are two separate things, and that terrible behavior by an artist outside of their works of art does not make their artwork worthless. People who have read my blog may have noticed that when I wrote about Best Picture winner ANNIE HALL(1977), I decided not to mention director Woody Allen's controversial marriage to his ex-girlfriend's much younger adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Partly, I did this because that relationship happened years after ANNIE HALL was released, but also because I felt that it had nothing to do with the film itself. To me, it is possible to both condemn Allen's personal life and still enjoy his films as something separate from that life.
And hey, why pick on Allen? Director Roman Polanski can't enter the US without being arrested for the rape of a 13 year old girl he committed back in the 70's. Does that make all the films he's made since then unwatchable? Obviously the Academy doesn't think so, since they awarded him a Best Director Oscar for the film THE PIANIST in 2002, even while he was in exile. And then there's Charlie Chaplin, hailed as one of the greatest movie stars ever, who while making the film THE GOLD RUSH in 1925, had to find a new leading lady because he impregnated original star Lita Grey; she was 16, he was 32.
Finally, there's the story of director Micheal Curtiz; while making the film NOAH'S ARK in 1928, he demanded that the film's inevitable flood scene dump hundreds of thousands of water on the people playing extras. (Initial camera man Hal Mohr quit the film rather than shoot it). When the resulting chaos wound up drowning three people and seriously injuring others, the studio was able to bury the story and Curiz, who at the very least should have been brought up on some kind of man slaughter charge, was able to continue his career like nothing had happened. He eventually went on to direct CASABLANCA in 1942, which happens to be one of my favorite movies. Is it wrong for me to love that movie, given that it's director was responsible for the drowning of three innocent people? I don't think so. Again, art and artist are two different things that can be held and judged separately. Which is why I'll still see BIRTH OF A NATION.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Recently I did a podcast with an old friend of mine debating the merits of the Howard Hawks 1951 classic version of THE THING versus the John Carpenter 1982 version. The result was over two hours (!) of analysis and corny jokes! Enjoy:
Monday, July 18, 2016
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit mannerI may be going off topic here, but with the new version of GHOSTBUSTERS coming out and facing some social media backlash because of its all female cast, I thought it might be interesting for me to write about the continual lack of good roles for women in main stream Hollywood films and my own personal theory as to why that happens.
In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a strip in which two female friends discuss the 3 rules one of them has for seeing a movie: 1. There has to be at least two women in it. 2. They have to meet and have a conversation. 3. The subject of that conversation has to be something other than men.
These rules have come to be known as the Bechdel test, and it's truly surprising how many movies come out every year and fail to meet its standards. I will sheepishly admit that many of my favorite movies don't make the cut, but that's not really surprising; even a cursory glance of the list of best picture winners down through the years reveal many films that also wouldn't pass. Even 2008's THE HURT LOCKER, the first best picture winning film to have a female director, had practically no women in it.
Simply put, the idea of the male hero heading out on some kind of quest seems ingrained into not only modern story telling but story telling in general. When Joseph Campbell published his now famous survey of comparative world mythologies, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, he found that most of the world's myths were created by men with male heroes.
When applied to tales of danger and adventure, this is not surprising; men being far more prone to violence than women also makes them more logical leads for stories about those topics (look at how many war films have virtually no women in them whatsoever). But it's not just violent films that men dominate, it's also comedies, dramas, bio pics, whatever. Part of this may also be that, along with being more violent, men also tend to take more risks than women do, which is often the basis for drama, even if it's not always such a good thing in real life.
But I think there is another issue, and that is the nature of empathy. Put simply, women on average experience empathy more easily and deeply than most men do. According to the journal of Neuroscience and Biobeheavioral Reviews, the difference in empathy between men and women begins at birth and increases with age. I think this difference translates into women being far more likely to be able to identify with and root for male characters than vice versa.
In my lifetime, I've met many women who have enjoyed films like 1982's THE THING and 1992's GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS, which have no female characters in them at all. But have I ever met a man who liked a movie with no male characters? Nope. In fact, even finding a movie with no male characters is tough (There's 1939's THE WOMEN, its 2008 remake, 2005's THE DESCENT, and, uh...).
The fact that there is the demeaning term chickflick aimed at any film that appeals to female audiences without any corresponding term for films aimed at male viewers seems to confirm this. So does box office analysis; the recent huge success, THE AVENGERS, a boy's adventure film if there was one, had an audience of around 40% women, whereas the SEX AND CITY films both had male attendance of around 10%. And it applies to children's films too: in 2010 Disney renamed RAPUNZEL to TANGLED and played up the role of the male character in the film's advertising to lure in boys. They did the same thing with FROZEN in 2013, creating ads that made the movie look more like a fun romp with a talking snow man than a princess themed story. Imagine the same studio playing down the roles of ALADDIN in his film or Simba in the LION KING.
|Note that the male lead ALADDIN had only one female character in the poster, whereas the female lead FROZEN still has more male characters|
So what do we do about this? Well, given that films are a business and young men continue to pay to see more movies than any other demographic, there's not a heck of a lot that can be done in mainstream films. Personally, I would encourage both men and women seeking out films with bigger and better roles for women to check out the latest foreign and independent films, where the roles for women both in front of and behind the camera tend to be more prominent. As an avid film goer myself I recently saw the French film THE INNOCENTS and the Japanese film OUR LITTLE SISTER, both of which have better parts for women than most films at the multiplex. Remember, the only way to really vote on the kind of movies studios make is by choosing to spend your money or not. Good movies with good roles for women can be found, it just may take some digging.
Enjoy my ramblings? Check out my other blog here.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
After all the controversy about the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations of 2015, the show itself almost felt like an anti climax. Yes, Chris Rock's very funny and incisive hosting job was really what the show needed, but the awards themselves almost seemed besides the point, and sure enough, its TV ratings were the lowest in years. As the evening wore on, it appeared that George Miller's MAD MAX:FURY ROAD was winning all the technical awards and Alejandro Inarritu's THE REVENANT was winning the more prestigious awards, with Inarritu pulling off his second best director award in a row (after his win for the previous year's BIRDMAN). But then the best picture winner turned out to be Tom McCarthy's serious docu-drama SPOTLIGHT, which only won one other award, for its original screenplay. But then, was that really such a surprise? SPOTLIGHT is a solid, well made and acted film about a dark and important subject (the Catholic priest child abuse cover up) that celebrates the importance of good journalism. It's the kind of intelligent movie for adults that the Academy usually awards, and in my opinion, this time with good reason. It's an excellent film that will be studied years from now as a document of the discovery of a still unfolding scandal.
|Micheal Keaton and Mark Ruffalo|
Director Tom McCarthy began his career as a minor actor before moving into writing and directing highly regarded independent films like 2003's THE STATION AGENT and 2007's THE VISITOR. Working with TV writer Josh Singer, McCarthy finished the script for SPOTLIGHT in 2013; it sat on the shelf for a while, winding up on the 2013 Blacklist of best unproduced screenplays, before becoming a US and Canadian co production for four separate film studios. The quality and importance of the script brought some big name stars like Micheal Keaton, Mike Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams to the film, despite its relatively low budget. Shot mostly on location in Boston, the production put a lot of effort into getting the historic details of the story right, with cast and crew consulting the real people that were portrayed on screen. Rightly sensing the film's Award appeal, the studios released it in late November to almost universal acclaim; it was also a modest box office success, grossing around $40,000,000 in the US on a budget around $20,000,000.
Set in Boston in 2001, it tells the story of how the newspaper the Boston Globe, at the urging of new editor Marty Barron(Liev Schreiber ), investigates the story of a Catholic priest who was accused of child molestation better never tried. This single case grows into a handful of pedophile priests, and then gets even larger, encompassing around ninety priests in the Boston area, none of whom ever faced jail. The dogged research of reporters Robby Robertson (Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (McAdams) and Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) reveals that higher ups in the catholic church worked with lawyers and law enforcement to make sure that the cases were never seriously investigated. Despite the church's efforts to kill the story, it is eventually released, causing the paper's phone lines to be flooded by calls from other victims of priests.
The movie begins in Boston with a flashback all the way to 1976 when we see a priest at a police station, arrested for child molestation, being released by an uninterested police force and the district attorney. A young cop is stunned, while the officers around him shrug it off, like it's standard procedure. It's a chilling scene that immediately identifies the power and influence that the Catholic church had in the heavily Catholic Boston at that time. Without hitting the audience over the head, the film effectively shows the special exemption that religious organizations often get when dealing with legal issues, especially one as big as the Catholic church. As Mike Garabedian(Stanley Tucci), an attorney representing abused children puts it, "If it takes a village to raise a chld, then it takes a village to abuse one."
MccCarthy's directorial style in the film is straightforward and not flashy; he realizes that the strength of the performances and the drama of the story is compelling enough without filling it with pretty and slick images. The same goes for Howard Shore's strong but subtle piano based score, which is used sparingly; the scenes in which the adult survivors of abuse describe their horrible experiences, the most emotional moments of the film, effectively have no music playing underneath them to underline the emotion.
But the film is not just a screed against the Catholic church, it's more a celebration of the importance of investigative journalism rooting out corruption, wherever that corruption may lie. And the reporters are all portrayed as serious professionals with an important job to do, and we see them combing through files and micro films, doing tough interviews and having doors slammed in their faces. Except for one scene where Rezendes and Robertson argue over when to release the story, they are tight lipped and calm. For example, Liev Shreiber as chief editor Marty Barron never raises his voice once, but he still seems to radiate intellect in every scene he's in. He knows that this story will be huge, and he wants to be sure to get it right. The information they gather for their story has no single breaking moment, (although they are surprised to see just how many priests may be involved) instead it's about the discovery of one fact after another until an inevitable case is made. Even if all the legal in and outs of the story can get a bit confusing, we are always with the reporters as they doggedly work their way forward.
One of the most striking things about SPOTLIGHT is that it truly is an ensemble film about a determined group effort, with no single protagonist standing out, and therefore it's hard to hold one performance over all the others; the whole cast is excellent, right down to the actors playing adult survivors of abuse who have to give powerful performances in just a handful of scenes.
And it's to the film's credit that the Catholic church itself has not responded negatively to it, perhaps realizing that the facts of the film are true, and that complaining about it would just remind the public of the scandal itself. In any event, the film reaches that rare place in movies: a fictionalized account of real events that can be looked at as a historically accurate document. Like SHINDLER'S LIST, attention was put into the details of the film, making it feel like history come to life. On that level it's a complete success.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
I think it's obvious that I find that SPOTLIGHT was a fine choice for best picture. Although I enjoyed THE BIG SHORT, Adam McKay's crazy comic look at the 2008 economic crash, and INSIDE OUT, Pete Docter's wildly creative and entertaining animated film, more than it, it's still a solid movie that deserved all it's accolades, especially for it's find ensemble acting.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
The nominees for the 2015 Oscars were announced on Thursday January 14th., and they immediately caused some controversy; for the second year in a row, not a single African American was nominated in a major category. In fact, Latino Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, nominated for best director for the film THE REVENANT, is the only nonwhite person to make the list at all. Also, women were ignored in the directing category, although, really, that wasn't a huge surprise, given so few Hollywood movies are directed by women in general.
I think it's time to repeat what I said when the movie SELMA was mostly looked over last year; the over ninety percent white Academy needs to find ways to diversify its membership or cease to be relevant, and that would be a shame. Honestly, Oscar time is probably the only time of year that Hollywood releases films for grown ups anymore.
The big snubbed film this year was F Gary Gray's surprise hit STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, which received only one nomination, for its screenplay (and in a cruel bit of irony, all of the film's writers are white!). It really is disappointing that Gray's direction went unnoticed, especially considering that a haunting drive though a post riot LA in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON was one of the most memorable scenes of the year. Another overlooked performer was Samuel L Jackson, who so powerfully dominated Quentin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT.
As for the nominated films themselves, well, they are a mixed bag: while I was glad to see that Lenny Abrahamson's excellent low budget independent film ROOM was nominated for best picture, and I greatly enjoyed BROOKLYN, THE REVENANT, BRIDGE OF SPIES, SPOTLIGHT and THE BIG SHORT, I found MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, which got a whopping ten nominations, to be vastly overrated. Oh sure, the thunderous action scenes are fun, (although Tom Holkenborg's bombastic soundtrack is deafening) but Tom Hardy's performance in the title role is downright sonambulistic. Hardy even later apologized to director George Miller for his on set behavior, which clearly means he wasn't happy being there, and it showed in his performance; perhaps the Academy just wanted to reward Miller for having to put up with Hardy!
Perhaps the most intriguing question raised from the Oscars is whether or not director Iñárritu will pull off a second consecutive best picture win, for his revenge western THE REVENANT. (He won last year for BIRDMAN). If THE REVENANT does win, that will be the first time any director has pulled off such a feat (remember that while the Francis Ford Coppola films THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER II both won, there was a year between them). The fact that THE REVENANT leads the pack with twelve nominations may mean that an interesting precedent may be set, and even more interesting given the lack of diversity in the overall nominations, it may be set by a non white director.