Monday, July 18, 2016

A QUESTION OF EMPATHY?

EMPATHY:

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 manner

I 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

SPOTLIGHT (2015)



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

A LOOK AT THE 2015 NOMINEES


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.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)





BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

(DIR: ALEJANDRO G. INARRITU) (SCR: INARRITU, NICOLAS GIACOBONE, ALEXANDER DINELARIS, ARMANDO BO, WITH ADDITIONAL EXCERPTS FROM RAYMOND CARVER'S WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE)


After all the controversy about the films SELMA and AMERICAN SNIPER, (which I wrote about here and here), the Academy finally decided to award Alejandro G Inarritu's BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) as best picture of 2014.  While it's an odd, openly surreal film full of in jokes about it's star and Hollywood in general, it's victory was not that big a surprise given the recent trend of the Academy to award films that deal with film making itself in some way or another (like 2011's THE ARTIST).  Looked at in a simple way, the Academy, like most audiences, enjoys movies that have characters that they can relate to. In any event, although I don't think BIRDMAN was the best film of 2014, I do think it's a wild, creative and enjoyable satire that rewards repeat viewings.  It also shows the continuing influence of Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece  8 1/2, still the best film about film making ever.

The idea for the film first came to Mexican born director Inarritu when he decided that he wanted to do a comedy after making heavy dramas like 2010's BIUTIFUL, and conceived of a film that dealt with the backstage drama of producing a play. He consulted screen writers Nicolas Glacobone and Armando Bo, along with playwright Alexander Dinelaris for backstage experience.   Right from the start, he wanted to shoot the movie in what would appear to be one continuous take, even though his co writers were dubious about this idea (and he himself would later admit he his own misgivings about it).  The script was worked on for two years, with Inarritu feeling that only former BATMAN star Micheal Keaton could play the lead role of former superhero star Riggan Thomson, and, fortunately for them, Keaton agreed.  The rest of the cast filled in quickly, with Ed Norton also making fun of his image as a difficult star by playing pompous stage actor Mike Shiner.
Meanwhile, Inarritu was still working on trying to set up a single take film; although this wasn't a completely original idea, Alfred Hitchcock shot the film ROPE in 1948 in just 10 takes with carefully placed fades to give the illusion of seamlessness, while 2002's RUSSIAN ARK pulled off a single shot 99 minute movie, those films were set in enclosed places where camera placement and movement could be tightly controlled.  But BIRDMAN was to be set in and around a Broadway theater in New York City, and feature many different characters and settings.  To shoot this difficult film, Inarritu hired cinematographer Immanuel Lubezki, and the two first started to shoot a practice version of the film to see if it was technically possible.  They quickly realized that a real Broadway theater would be needed for all the backstage locations, so  actual Broadway theater the St James was used for most of the film.  Even using modern digital cameras, the two month shoot was difficult, with each movement of both the camera and the actors having to be carefully choreographed.  In the end, there are sixteen visible cuts in the film, but most of them are easy to miss. (The lack of multiple takes meant that the film was edited in a mere two weeks!).  Not surprisingly, both Inarritu and Lubezki were given Oscars for their ambitious work.  And the film, while not a huge hit,  made over forty two million dollars in the US alone, on a relatively low budget of sixteen and a half million.

Micheal Keaton and Ed Norton


It tells the story of Riggan Thomson(Keaton), a one time Hollywood star who played the superhero character Birdman in two movies before walking away, a decision he's not sure was the right one.  Now he's making his debut on Broadway, starring and directing in a play version of the Raymond Carver story WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE.  As opening night approaches, he is plagued by doubt, difficult actors, and his even more difficult family.  More and more he imagines his Birdman persona coming to life and goading him, perhaps pushing him towards suicide.

My immediate reaction to the film is that Inarritu's bold decision to use long tracking shots pays off wonderfully, as we see the camera prowl through every corridor and cranny of the theater it adds to the authenticity of the story.  And, since this a backstage story, having actors perform in long, live theater like takes seems appropriate.  And there is a raw directness to all the acting and often brutally honest dialogue throughout.  Even if Keaton and Norton are playing characters based on their own images as celebrities, they never become parodies or wink at the audience.  Every performance rings true in the film, even the small ones like Lindsay Duncan as the New York Times Broadway critic who plans to destroy Riggan's play before she's even seen it ("You're no actor, you're a celebrity").
It's really surprising that the film won best picture and that Keaton did not win for best actor, he really dominates the film, and pulls off scenes where he rages against the Birdman voice in his head or apologizes to his wife Sylvia(Amy Ryan) daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and girlfriend  Laura(Andrea Riseborough) with ease.  He also  plays the role with out a trace of vanity.  Although he has said in interviews that Riggan is nothing like him, the character clearly reflects  how much of the public probably think that Keaton's life must be like now: a washed up movie star who walked away from the lucrative BATMAN franchise to mostly fade out and always be known as the guy who played Batman for two movies.  As if that weren't enough, it becomes a running joke in the film that nearly every other character verbally assaults him in the harshest possible terms at some point. Keaton also allows the camera to catch every wrinkle and flab in his aging body and, in a now famous scene, he finds himself trapped in nothing but his underwear in Times Square and must sprint back inside the theater to not miss his cue.  Not only is this scene hilarious, it also wonderfully shows the high wire nature of live theater, where there are no retakes and actors have to keep going, even if they're running onto the stage in no clothes!

Micheal Keaton

Ed Norton is just as good as the egotistical Mike Shiner;  I love the way that the first time we see him, he's standing on the edge of the stage, wearing a perfect hat and scarf, extolling the history of the theater to Riggan, every inch the serious, intense actor.  I also enjoy the way he jumps into a rehearsal of the play right away, and then pauses to dissect Riggan's delivery of a single line.  Or the way that he  literally flexes his naked body in the mirror during a costume fitting and  insists that he drink real gin on stage like his character during a preview of the play.  Another nice touch in the performance is that he loses his pompous actor pose twice, when he talks to Riggan's daughter Sam  on the theater's rooftop (when he's both not in the theater and not talking to a fellow actor).
To me, the biggest flaw of the film is that Norton's great character mostly fades from the latter part of the film as we get more and scenes of Riggan retreating into his own world.  Although an inevitable scene at the end in which Riggan actually comes in contact with the Birdman character flying around him, before taking flight himself has some nice special effects and well placed jabs at Hollywood's current infatuation with super hero movies ("Give the people what they want."  Birdman yells, "Old fashioned apocalyptic porn!"), it goes on far too long and takes away some of the dramatic momentum of what the film should be building to: the all important opening night of Riggan's play.  Even worse, the film mostly ignores the fact that Riggan becomes aware that Mike is making romantic moves on his daughter; this should be a major conflict between them, but instead it's never really dealt with.
One nice touch in the film is that we see the final scene in Riggan's play, which features his character wielding a gun at his unfaithful wife and lover (played by Mike) before shooting himself, being performed three times, and each time the context and emphasis is different.  The most dramatic version comes at the end, when a seemingly despondent Riggan brings a real loaded gun on stage; for a moment he appears ready to shoot Mike before he turns the gun on himself and fires.  But the movie throws a last twist at the audience:  instead of dying, Riggan survives the gunshot (which blows his nose off) and, as his friend and lawyer Jake (Zack Galifianiakis)  tells him in his hospital room, the resulting media attention over his "accident" appears to have revived his career.  Riggan takes the news silently, and then, alone, he walks over to his hospital bathroom to look at his new, larger nose (which now resembles, yes, a beak), sees Birdman next to him one last time and then walks over to his hospital window to jump out.  In an incredibly ambiguous last shot, Sam walks in, looks out the window, and looks upwards and smiles at....what?  Has Riggan actually become Birdman?  Throughout the film, we see Riggan using telekinetic powers, but only when he's alone, and, it's clearly implied, those powers are all in his head.  But this ending now seems to show that he really had  Birdman powers all along.  Or is it possible that he did commit suicide and his daughter just hasn't seen his body yet?  Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?  Clearly there's no easy answer here, and I'm glad that the Academy decided to award a film that had such an unconventional ending, given their usual penchant for neat story telling and uplift.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I've already mentioned that I don't think BIRDMAN was the best film of the year, and there are basically three films that I enjoyed more: Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL which was the most entertaining film of the year, Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD which was the most innovative, and Ava DuVernay"s SELMA which was the most moving.  Still, BIRDMAN is certainly a well made and acted film, and I enjoyed it more than other stodgy films that were nominated like THE IMITATION GAME, so, overall, it's certainly not a bad choice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE AMERICAN SNIPER CONTROVERSY

The Real Chris Kyle


I've been avoiding seeing Clint Eastwood's AMERICAN SNIPER for a number of reasons: although I've been a fan of some of Eastwood's films, as a progressive I intended to boycott everything  he did after his embarrassing (and infamous) interview with an empty chair  at the 2012 Republican convention.  And then the controversy about the film also turned me off, as it's enormous box office success (the biggest grossing R rated film since, somewhat appropriately, Mel Gibson's equally controversial THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) led to inevitable debates about its message, even as it was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture and Actor. And, in a real low point in American culture, fans of the film  took to twitter to make offensive statements such as: "Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are, vermin scum intent on destroying us."  Those stupid tweets have probably cost the film a Best Picture Oscar, with the Academy not wanting to reward a film that inspired such racist bile.

But all the debate couldn't help but pique my interest, and I'm enough of a film geek that I like to watch all the Best Picture nominees before the awards are given.  So I went.  My first reaction is that the film is undeniably well made and well acted; Eastwood clearly knows how to stage an action scene, and he avoids the quick cutting and jerky camera angles that mar so many modern action scenes (a shoot out in a dust storm towards the end is particularly exciting).  It also clearly wants to portray for the audience the sacrifices and struggles that American soldiers have and continue to make, which is certainly a noble enough purpose. But the film's black and white view of the war makes it at times a tough watch.

Part of the film's problem is the history of its production: the film's hero, Chris Kyle, published the book AMERICAN SNIPER: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE MOST LETHAL SNIPER IN US MILITARY HISTORY (co written with Scott McEwen and Jim De Felice) in 2013, and actor Bradley Cooper expressed an interest in adapting it.  At first, he wanted just to produce the film, but Warner Brothers eventually convinced him to also star.  He briefly contacted Kyle before Kyle was tragically killed by another Iraq war vet at a gun range in February of 2013.  Kyle's tragic death inevitably meant that the film would stand as a tribute to him, and unfortunately that means that the character is portrayed as absurdly noble and brave; Cooper's a fine actor and does what he can with the role, but this is a character without depth of nuance, and the film's script even has friends and family members telling Kyle how great a hero and father he is.  The real life Kyle was prone to exaggeration, saying that he once killed a car jacker and looters in New Orleans after Katrina (there's no evidence for either claim).  He even once said the he beat up former governor (and Navy SEAL) Jesse Ventura, a charge that Ventura successfully sued him over in court.   Not surprisingly, that side of his character is never shown in the film.

Interestingly, David O Russell and Steven Spielberg both considered directing the film before Eastwood came aboard, and it's tantalizing to think what kind of movie they would have made.  In defense of the film, Eastwood has said that it had "the biggest anti-war statement that any film can make."  With all due respect to Eastwood, if that was his intention the film is a failure: early in the film, we see Kyle and his wife respond to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on TV, and shortly thereafter Kyle deploys to Iraq.  The fact that the Iraq invasion was not a direct response to those attacks is left unspoken in the film, as is the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that were ostensibly the rational for the war in the first place.  More than once Kyle contends that the war is about defending Americans back home, an argument that goes uncontested.

One of my least favorite films of all time is 1985's Sylvester Stallone film RAMBO:FIRST BLOOD II, in which  Viet Nam vet John Rambo returns to Viet Nam and singlehandedly rewages and wins the war with his trusty explosive arrows.  The film absurdly gave audiences a cathartic happy ending to a war that had none.  Although AMERICAN SNIPER is a far better film, it often tips closely towards that film's simplistic reduction.  One of the through lines in AMERICAN SNIPER is that there is a rival Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (unnamed in the book, but based on a real person) that Kyle pursues before inevitably gunning him down in his final tour of duty; giving our hero a villain to chase and kill at the end gives the film the same kind of simplistic rah-rah ending that RAMBO did, avoiding the realities of both real life conflicts for easy uplift.  In the real world, Kyle believed that Mustafa was probably killed by someone else,  but he was never sure, an ambiguity the film avoids.

Slyvester Stallone blows away subtlety 


Equally troubling is the film's depiction of the Iraqi people, who are continually referred to as "savages" by the film's hero.  Except for one Iraqi man who briefly considers helping the Americans, all of the Iraqis in the film are enemies of America. While I would hope that Eastwood (and screenwriter Jason Hall) don't agree with the horrible sentiments of those aforementioned anti Arab tweets about the film, you can see why the film inspired them. While one can't expect a film named AMERICAN SNIPER to have a balanced view of the war, at least some appreciation for the people of the country the US invaded wouldn't hurt.   But then, that lack of appreciation may be the key to the film's box office success; while other films about the Iraq war have not made much money (even 2009's THE HURT LOCKER, which won best picture, was only a moderate hit), this one is setting records by turning a controversial war that most Americans came to see as a mistake into an exciting action film with a noble hero and evil bad guys.  Personally, I can't look at that war in that way, and I hope history won't record it that way either.  In many ways, Clint Eastwood's career has paralleled that of Hollywood legend John Wayne, and unfortunately AMERICAN SNIPER feels like his version of Wayne's  pro-war Viet Nam film THE GREEN BERETS, which is far from high praise in my book.

Monday, January 26, 2015

THE SELMA SNUB

Actor Chis Pine and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the best director nominees


The nominations for the 87th. Academy Awards have caused a stir of controversy for a simple, straightforward resason: every nomination in the acting categories is white.  The critically acclaimed SELMA, directed by Ava DuVernay was nominated for best picture and best original song, but was completely shut out otherwise.  This stung most hard for DuVernay who was expected to be the first African American woman to every be nominated for best director.
It would appear that one year after awarding 12 YEARS A SLAVE the best picture award, (which many Academy voters admitted they didn't even see) the Academy has gotten back to its usual business of giving awards to mostly white men.  And is that such a surprise?  According to a recent New York Times article, the Academy is over 90% white and over 70% male; sadly, as our society gets more diverse, the Academy remains monolithic.  And in a perfect world, they wouldn't be playing catch up: while it was good to see Kathryn Bigelow become the first female director to win for 2008's THE HURT LOCKER, why weren't others worthy female directors like Nora Ephron (who was never even nominated for best director), Julie Taymor (who's striking 1999 film TITUS was sadly underrated) and Kasi Lemmons (1997's EVE'S BAYOU and 2007's TALK TO ME are also underrated)winning before her?  And why was  Bigelow herself not nominated again for 2013's ZERO DARK THIRTY?  Sadly, it appears that the Academy voters will break precedence once, pat themselves on the back, and then go back to rewarding white male directors  and consider the matter done.
But politically correct quotas aside, was DuVernay really wrongfully overlooked?  In my opinion she absolutely was.  Let me give an example: one of the best director nominees this year is for Morton Tyldum, who helmed THE IMITATION GAME.  While that film was reasonably well made, there were no particularly striking visuals in it; his direction was workman like and competent.  In SELMA on the other hand, there is a truly stunning and memorable scene of state troopers attacking civil rights protestors on a bridge, featuring billowing fogs of tear gas and slow motion shots of men on horse back with clubs; it's the kind of powerful movie moment that is hard to forget.  On the strength of that scene alone, I think DuVernay topped Tyldum and deserved a nomination, and I think her cinematographer Bradford Young and her editor Spencer Averick should have been nominated too.

And unlike Tyldum's film, which is mostly a simple history lesson, DuVernay wisely comments on modern times through her story: in one of the film's early scenes,  African American woman Annie Lee Cooper tries to vote and is stopped by a racist poll worker who gives her an impossible to pass poll test.  The fact that the Cooper character is played by Oprah Winfrey, one of the most famous and successful women in the world, lets us dwell on the fact that the country has progressed.  At the same time, the poll test is a harsh reminder of the current trend of voter ID laws that conservatives are trying to pass, proving that maybe we haven't come so far after all!

David Oyelowo,  the man who would be King

As for the performances in SELMA, well, actor David Oyelowo was attached to this film years ago, determined to play Dr. Martin Luther King, and he held on as different directors passed on it and other cast members dropped out; giving him a nomination would have been a nice reward for his determination. That aside, its a terrific performance, with Oyelowo emulating one of the most famous speakers of the twentieth century without just imitating him.  I also think that Andre' Holland as civil rights worker Andrew Young was a real stand out in a fine cast, and should have been nominated for best supporting actor.
Now there has been some anger in some quarters about the film's portrayal of former president Lydon Johnson, with people who knew the man saying that he was a more enthusiastic supporter of the civil rights movement than the film portrays.  Political commentator and former Johnson aid Bill Moyers,  praised the film overall, but felt that it overstepped when it implied that Johnson was behind the FBI's decision to send an incriminating recording of King having sex with another women to King's wife Coretta.  I must say that I agree with him on that point, but I don't think it hurts the film overall.  DuVernay has said in interviews that she didn't want the film to be about a noble white man coming in and saving black people, and I admire her for that. As always, historical films always have to play with the truth for dramatic purposes, and the fact that the aforementioned  historical best picture nominee THE IMITATION GAME  has also been accused of playing with the facts while still getting a best director nomination for Tyldum shows that criticisms of DuVernay's portrayal of Johnson should not have cost her a director nomination.
In conclusion I want to mention another statistic about the Academy that is notable: the average member is 63 years old.  It appears inevitable that as time goes on and new generations of voters begin to join their ranks, the club of Oscar nominated directors will become less and less dominated by white men, until someday there won't be anymore controversies about films like SELMA.  Like the Republican party, the sands of time will slowly bring change to the Academy, or it will lose its relevance.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Your Blog host holds a real Oscar!



Yep, that's a real Oscar that I'm holding.  At the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont California, they have the real honorary Oscar that Western star Bronco Billy Anderson was given in 1957.  The museum commemorates the Essanay studio that used to reside there, where Anderson and (briefly) Charlie Chaplin made silent films over a hundred years ago.  If you reside in California or are an old film fan just passing through, it's worth a stop.  Their website's here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)


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12 YEARS A SLAVE (DIR: STEVE MCQUEEN)(SCR: JOHN RIDLEY, BASED ON THE BOOK OF THE SAME NAME BY SOLOMON NORTHUP)

In the closing of her opening monologue for the Oscar awards broadcast of 2014, host Ellen Degeneres got off her best line of the night: "Possibility number one, 12 YEARS A SLAVE wins best picture.  Possibility number two, you're all racists."  Behind the laughter the joke raised lots of questions.  Would Oscar voters award director Steve McQueen's historical drama because it seemed like the right thing to do?  Was it really the best film of the year, or just one that people felt good about supporting?  These feelings were underlined when some voters anonymously admitted after the awards that they voted for the film without actually seeing it, admitting that it felt good to vote for it, while citing the film's violent  nature as their reason for not watching.  It does seem that there was a perfect kind of symmetry at work, as the Academy awarded the first film directed by a black director a best picture honor seventy five years after awarding GONE WITH THE WIND, an unabashedly romanticized look at the antebellum south. All political correctness aside, I personally think that 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a great movie, with wonderful performances and an excellent, unblinking look at  a brutal past injustice; of all the films I saw in 2013, it was the only one that moved me and stuck with me long after I saw it.  It reminded me, in some ways, of Steven Speilberg's SHINDLER'S LIST, another powerful historical movie; both films are often violent and brutal, but they were also accurately recording past events.  If they didn't show that violence and brutality, they would be downplaying history and doing a disservice to the people who suffered under these terrible events.
Before it was a film, it was a narrative published in 1853 in which Solomon Northup related the horrifying story of how he, a free man living in New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Released just a short time after Harriet Beecher Stowe's equally anti slavery book, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, 12 YEARS A SLAVE became a best seller and a galvanizing force in the anti slavery movement.  Unlike Stowe's book, however, Northup's tome was mostly forgotten, although it was reprinted twice in the 60's and was turned into a PBS television movie directed by Gordon Parks in 1984.  In 2008, England born black director Steve McQueen met writer John Ridley during a screening of  McQueen's first feature film, HUNGER.  The two decided to work together on a movie set in America during the time of slavery, but had trouble finding the right outlook until McQueen's longtime girlfriend Bianca Stigler gave him a copy of the book, which he found "stunning" and he made it his mission to bring the film to the screen.  Eventually, movie star Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Productions funded the film for around $20,000,000.  McQueen and Ridley worked with historical scholars to make sure the film was accurate, and although some liberties may have been, the film was mostly praised for its realism.  Chewetel Ejiofor was cast in the lead, while Micheal Fassbinder, who had worked with McQueen on his first two films, was brought it to play the brutal slave owner Edwin Epps.  And in a surprise bit of casting that worked out beautifully, mostly unknown Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o was brought in to play the extremely difficult role of the horribly abused slave Patsey.  After training the actors with a dialogue coach to make sure they sounded right for the time, McQueen went into production. The film was mostly shot on actual historic plantations in Louisiana near where the actual Northup was held.  The film finished on time and on budget, and with overwhelmingly positive reviews, it would go on to gross around $56,000,000 in the US, and make around another $100,000,000 world wide.

Chewetel Ejiofor


It tells the tale of Solomon Northup(Ejifor), a free man and violin player living in New York with his wife and two children.  After offering him a job in Washington DC, two men drug him and sell him into slavery.  Living in Lousiana and moving from one plantation to another, Northup eventually winds up at the plantation of Edwin Epps (Fassbinder), who treats the slaves brutally while raping one of them, Patsey (Nyong'o) repeatedly.  Eventually, Northup is able to appeal to Canadian worker Bass (Brad Pitt) to bring to New York a letter about his kidnapping.  He does so, which leads to Northup being reunited with his family.

From Hans Zimmer's dramatic percussive score to the beautiful but foreboding swampland locations, to the long, bravura tracking shots, McQueen directs this film for maximum effect.  Nearly every horrific aspect of the slave trade is depicted: from Solomon being shoved into a ship's hold in chains to a slave auction in which people are presented like cattle and families are torn apart, along with the casual brutality, the beatings, the back breaking work and the sadistic plantation owners who rape any female slave they desire.  Yes, MCQueen pulls no punches, but he also shows the camaraderie that can form between people caught in a terrible situation, as when Solomon and his fellow slaves bury an older slave who died in a cotton field.

My favorite moment in the film is an impressive shot which  starts with the newly shackled Solomon screaming as realizes his situation, and then the camera pulls back and goes upward, to show that he is being held a short distance away from the White House.  It's the kind of shot that is open to a number of interpretations, from the irony of a beacon of freedom being so close to someone in chains, to a reminder of the race of the current White House occupant.

Chewetel Ejiofor was at first reluctant to play Northup when McQueen first asked him, but then he went into the role whole heartedly, studying the Louisiana plantation culture and learning how to play the violin.  He's great in role, with his good looks and immediate likabilty making him a compelling screen character even in the flashback scenes before tragedy befalls him. Often Ejiofor expresses himself only through his eyes, showing not only the pain his character is going through but also the internal calculations he has to make whenever he speaks to the plantations owners, fully realizing that these people have complete control over him and could kill him at any given moment.

Lupita Nyong'o


In a nice success story Lupita Nyong'o went from unknown actress to Oscar winning (for best supporting actress) start practically overnight, and it's totally deserved. As the lovely, tragic Patsey, Nyong'o is truly heartbreaking.  Like Ejiofor, she does much of her acting through her eyes, but unlike him, she isn't afraid to show plantation owner  Epps just how much contempt she has for him without saying a word.  In a memorable scene, he tries to have sex with her in a tender way, and she responds with silent indifference, fully aware of how enraged that makes him.

As for Micheal Fassbinder, he had worked with McQueen twice before and his comfort with the director is obvious in his completely fearless performance.  His Epps is a truly repulsive character, a drunken sadist who loves the control he has over his slaves and who pathetically thinks that he can make Patsey care for him as repeatedly rapes her. He sees being a slave owner as his god given right (he quotes the bible to justify his brutality) and can't even understand the unjust nature of what he's doing, raging that a "Man does what he pleases with his property" during a particularly savage beating.

If the film has a flaw, it's in the entrance of the Brad Pitt character Bass; although Pitt isn't bad in the role, it's distracting in such a realistic film to have one of the world's biggest stars  show up in a small role.  It also shows producer Pitt's ego by giving himself the most sympathetic white role in the film, with his character not only risking his own life to save Solomon, but also giving lofty, unnecessary speeches about the horrors of slavery to Epps (that said, I do like the way Fassbinder plays offs him in their scenes together).  Still, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise great film.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I think it's obvious that I love this film, and that while fine films like Richard Linklater's BEFORE MIDNIGHT and David O Russel's AMERICAN HUSTLE were also released in 2013, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is clearly the year's most powerful and best film.  In this case, the politically correct choice was also the right one.


Friday, December 27, 2013

ARE THE OSCARS STILL RELEVANT?



I often have a cynical take on the annual Academy Awards broadcast, finding myself comparing it to the super bowl: both have absurd amounts of hype and analysis, culminating in a broadcast that goes on for far too long, has lousy musical numbers at the half way point, and tries to wring suspense out of which extremely well paid group of people will beat out another extremely well paid group of people.  Really, do we need to heap even more fame and adulation on movie stars who already are wallowing in it?
And yet, if you think that cinema is an art form with an enormous potential to entertain and enlighten, as I do, then the idea of the Oscars is not a bad one.  For most of the year, coverage of movies in the media is all about which films are making money and which ones aren't, with movies being seen more as a product than an art form. But the Oscars at least allows Hollywood, for one night a year, to admit that while movie making is a money driven business like any other, it is also about creating art.  Even with the reality of studios aggressively marketing for nominations, there is still a sense that the awards are about praising the best movies, even if they don't make a lot of money.  When SHINDLER'S LIST won best picture in 1993, for example, it made less money at the box office than movies like MRS DOUBTFIRE and THE PELICAN BRIEF, but it's a film that will be looked back on decades later while those lesser films are long forgotten, so it's victory was perfectly logical.  And more importantly, Oscar glory can shine attention on unknown films and make them more popular, leading to Hollywood having more incentive to make films like those.  I remember that back in 1996 there was some surprise that four out of the five best picture nominations were independent movies (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, SECRETS AND LIES, SHINE, FARGO) with only one big budget star vehicle represented (JERRY MAGUIRE), but I say, so what?  If independently produced films, (with their smaller budgets and more challenging stories) were making better films than the big studios that year, (and I think they were) isn't it right for the Academy to represent that?  And putting it simply, if it weren't for the Oscars, the big studios would almost never make interesting and challenging films at all.  Why?  It's simply a question of changing audience demographics.
To fully understand this, it's best to go back to the beginning; when the Academy was first formed way back in 1927, movies were a popular but much maligned art form, with many people looking down on them or seeing them as indecent.  By rewarding what they felt were the best films of the year, Hollywood hoped to make movies more acceptable.  This explains why many best picture winners from the 1930's, (like say, 1937's THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA or 1933's CAVALCADE)   are forgotten today; they were seen as "important" and "relevant" at the time, the kind of movies that Hollywood felt it should be making, but they seem dull and stuffy now.  Meanwhile, more enduring films from that era that were also popular in their day, like 1933's KING KONG, 1931's FRANKENSTEIN, or  the Astaire Rogers films, were never given best picture awards, and they were rarely even nominated.  But, with the enforcement of the movie production code, which limited what could and could not be shown on screen, and the growing acceptance of films as a respectable art form, the Academy started awarding more popular entertainments, culminating in 1939's  enormously successful GONE WITH THE WIND also winning best picture.


Admit it, you're probably drawing a blank on these two

For years after that the Academy would often reward financially successful films with Oscar glory; discerning between "art" and "popularity" wasn't necessary.  But that all began to change in the 1950's with the rise of television.  It's hard to believe today, but TV was once seen as the enemy of Hollywood, so much so that some believed that movies themselves would die out.  The studios responded to the challenge by  luring audiences with gimmicks like 3-D and Cinemascope.  But something else happened; Hollywood discovered that while parents were more likely to stay home and watch TV at night, their teenage sons and daughters were more likely to go out to see movies on dates.  That meant that for the first time ever, films could be made explicitly for the teenage audience and still make money.  For years, few films were ever made about teenagers, and those that were, (like the Mickey Rooney starring ANDY HARDY movies) made sure that the parents in the film were wise  and thoughtful and that the teens were, at worst, misguided, and not severely troubled. That all changed in the 50's; now James Dean in 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE could get involved in actual crimes (like knife fights), while his ineffectual parents were now part of the problem instead of the solution.  The rise of rock and roll added to wave of films that catered to younger audiences, and not surprisingly,  the older Oscar voters began to reward films that were clearly for grown ups and not necessarily box office hits. While a best picture win could certainly give a boost to a film's box office, films that were already popular before the awards were often ignored.
That trend continues to this day, and may even be more dramatic now; the simple fact of the matter is that the demographic who go to the most movies in the theater today are young men and teenage boys, so, generally speaking, most mainstream films need to play to their interests.  And, in my opinion, young men and teenage boys usually have pretty lousy taste, preferring loud, dumb special effect movies where lots of things go boom, or loud, dumb comedies where grown men act like obnoxious bratty children.  I'm not saying I hate all mainstream films (for a while there, the Pixar studio showed that a film could have broad appeal, box office success, and still be excellent), it's just that the pattern  recently has been that for the first ten months of the year, Hollywood tends to release mostly dire mainstream movies, followed by two months of Oscar contenders rolling into theaters like a breath of fresh air, welcoming audiences interested in something more original or challenging.  Without the Oscars, it's likely that the only kind of movies that get made are ones for that young adult male audience who flock to see the TRANSFORMERS movies, and that would really be a shame.  So, I guess what I'm saying is that I'll take the Oscar broadcast, as long and overblown as it is, as long as I get to see films like 12 YEARS A SLAVE.