Archive for February 2012

Oscar Night 2012

February 27, 2012

oscars2012Boy, this was the best Oscar show of 1991. Billy Crystal came back to host (for the umpteenth time) after eight years away, and he pulled out all the old reliable shtick: the opening musical number, the “what are they thinking” skit. After trying something different last year with Anne Hathaway and James Franco (I didn’t think they were that bad), and coming close to an Eddie Murphy-hosted evening, the Academy fell back on the tried and true. Crystal was Crystal: amiable, relaxed, professional. You knew he was going to steer this ship without hitting an iceberg. You also knew he wouldn’t do anything much worth talking about the next day.

The lack of surprise infested the whole evening, though Hugo did win more awards than I expected it to, throwing a couple of spanners in the works of the Artist Oscar juggernaut machine. Nobody who follows these things doubted that The Artist, which seems tailor-made for self-regarding Hollywood insiders to vote for and feel good about themselves, would go the distance. The theme of the evening appeared to be looking back fondly on cinema experiences that, while not dead yet, have definitely seen better days. The question is whether The Artist star (and new Best Actor winner) Jean Dujardin will parlay the wins into a Hollywood career. Like Roberto Benigni, he might be the foreigner who has his day in the American sun and then retreats to his home country, seldom to be seen on these shores again.

Something occurred to me as Cirque du Soleil were performing their death-defying acrobatics and the show cut away to a lingering shot of George Clooney watching them: Clooney may be the new Jack Nicholson, comfortably seated in front and enjoying the many tributes paid to him. He didn’t win anything, but the night seemed to revolve around him and his amused humility. Among the presenters, Robert Downey Jr. got a laugh out of me with his documentary shtick, and Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis clashing their cymbals at least kept me awake. Towards the end, just when I thought we might get out of there in under three hours, the presenters for Best Actor and Actress (last year’s winners Natalie Portman and Colin Firth) had to stop and say nice things about each of the nominees, as if Natalie Portman had seen A Better Life and was qualified to talk about Demian Bichir’s performance.

Possibly I’m forgetting something, but nothing in the show struck me as tacky or incomprehensible this year, which removes half the fun of post-Oscar analysis. Even the standard “in memoriam” segment was tasteful; lately they’ve been telling the audience not to applaud, whereas before you’d get “Joe Schmoe, sound mixer” and there’d be a polite golf clap and then Beloved Film Star would get a loud response. They always leave out a ton of people, but this year they found room for oddball backyard filmmaker George Kuchar, and there was a nod to “Steve Jobs, executive,” who was there because he co-founded Pixar. (Who won nothing; Pixar had an off-year with Cars 2.)

Other than perhaps The Help, did any of the nominated films engender any rooting interest among the normals — the non-film-geeks? Nine films nominated for Best Picture and they didn’t have space for Bridesmaids. One odd, bright detail: Jim Rash, better known as the weirdo dean on Community, now has an Oscar for screenwriting (The Descendants), and he did some funny vamping onstage while cowriter Alexander Payne delivered a gracious speech. And Meryl Streep may sense that people think she’s won enough Oscars, but she hadn’t actually won one since thirty years ago — she’s just been nominated a ton of times. Also, as usual, I heard “Scorsese” pronounced two different ways: “scor-SAY-see” and “scor-SEZ-ee.” For the record, the man himself says it the latter way. Y’know, if you ever meet him.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

February 19, 2012

A Ghost Rider film directed by the lunatics who gave us the Crank movies promises grindhouse greatness. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who always bill themselves as “Neveldine/Taylor,” exploded the action genre with Crank and Crank: High Voltage, and the pair of films shake out as merrily absurdist guilty pleasures. But they were also rated R, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance — the second film featuring Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), who turns into a motorcycle-riding demon with a flaming skull for a head — slinks into theaters with a family-friendly PG-13. Here and there the filmmakers sneak in something prankishly daft — like a shot of Ghost Rider pissing fire, which Neveldine/Taylor apparently enjoyed so much it’s repeated. But this isn’t nearly the Ghost Rider trash masterpiece I’d expected from these guys. It’s fitfully diverting, and sort of just there.

Nicolas Cage does his bit, continuing to channel the gonzo spirit of legendary cult actor Timothy Carey. In an interrogation scene, Cage’s Johnny grabs hold of some scruffy lowlife and demands answers, assuring the scum that he’s trying real hard to hold down the demon who wants to bust out and torch the dude’s face. Cage hams it up hardcore there, but he understands that there’s really only one way you can play a guy whose head turns into a flaming skull. In another scene, we get to watch him transform, and Cage plays it as a king-hell nihilistic wa-hoooo epiphany. Johnny hates laboring under the curse that makes him Ghost Rider, but the change itself seems to unleash his id in a way that eluded both Hulk films. In these scenes, it feels as though we’re watching an actor (and noted comic-book fan, which is why Cage has done two of these) having a ball turning into a cool visual. It’d be nice if Cage could kick some of his paycheck for this film towards Gary Friedrich, who created Ghost Rider for Marvel Comics, tried to sue them for a share of the profits from the movies, and has now ended up owing the conglomerate $17,000.

Lamentably, there’s not much to Ghost Rider but the cool visual. His quest here is to rescue a boy from the devil, the same devil who cursed Johnny. This amounts to a lot of running from place to place in “Eastern Europe,” with occasional pauses so that Ghost Rider can break out his flaming chain and turn various gun-toting nobodies into cinders. The main villain, aside from the devil, is a mercenary trying to kidnap the boy; the devil turns him into a creature who can decay anything with his touch. In a reasonable joke, we see this creature going through various foods — an apple, etc. — which decay instantly in his hand, and then settling on a Twinkie, which refuses to decay. I also laughed at a quick bit involving an upside-down Idris Elba, who plays some sort of ass-kicking member of a religious order tasked to protect the boy. Every time we see him, he’s swigging some booze or another; when he shares a bottle of vintage wine with Johnny, our hero takes a pull and mutters, “That’d taste good on a salad.”

Like the earlier Ghost Rider (2007), this one would be happier with no expectations whatsoever attached — you’d probably want to land on it randomly on TV on a slow Sunday afternoon. Visually it has considerably more oomph than its bland Mark Steven Johnson-directed predecessor, but if you decide to sit out its 3D theatrical engagement you will be missing, I promise you, very little. Like many another recent 3D presentation, it was not shot in 3D but converted later, unlike Cage’s previous mean-motorscooter epic last year, Drive Angry. (Ghost Rider is, I guess, Drive Angrier.) All things being equal, I would rather have seen Crank 3D. That would have been insane and excessive and probably banned in several counties across America. What we have here — well, it’d taste good on a salad.

The Artist

February 12, 2012

The silent-film valentine The Artist, currently steamrolling towards a Best Picture win at the Oscars in a few weeks, is an enjoyable lollipop of a film. I don’t know that it’s the best of the year, but then I don’t know that the other eight nominees are, either. Away from the hype and the awards, it tells the simple story of a silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who faces a dark night of the soul when talkies encroach. The French do love these fables of obsolescence: the animated film The Illusionist, Oscar-nominated last year, considered the pain of an elderly magician at sea in a world of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps the Academy loves these fables, too (Martin Scorsese’s birth-of-cinema fantasia Hugo is also nominated). The powerful love to pity themselves when the powerless — the plebes, the audience — reject them for the next new thing.

For about the first 45 minutes, Jean Dujardin has a toothy grin of self-satisfaction bisecting his face. It becomes a little annoying, more so maybe because we realize George is being set up for a humbling fall. A young actress who got a walk-on (or dance-on) in one of his films, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), is rising fast in the new world of talkies. She pities him, I guess, and tries to help him out, but he’s too proud. His long-suffering wife (Penelope Ann Miller) kicks him out of their mansion. He moves to a schlubby apartment, accompanied by his loyal dog and his equally loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell), who refuses to leave even though he hasn’t been paid in a year. I was thinking: Dude, I don’t care if you can’t pay your driver — he can get another job — but your dog can’t get another job, and you’d better be putting some food in his dish.

Ah, but none of this is supposed to be taken literally or even seriously, I know. It is, as I said, a fable. The talkies made many stars but destroyed many others, many of whom just couldn’t tone down their effects — their “mugging” — or had terrible voices, like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain (still, by the way, the movie to beat on the subject of Hollywood’s silent-to-talkies transition). This all coincided with the Great Depression (as we see here), and despair was all too common. Nobody wants to see a movie about Marie Prevost, the silent-film star who was found dead in a hotel room at 38, with bites on her legs from her dachshund trying to wake her up. That kind of story doesn’t win Oscars or get embraced by art-house audiences looking for comfort food. But it was the reality for a lot of people like George Valentin.

I’m not saying I wanted The Artist to be that kind of story, either. But writer-director Michel Hazanavicius toys with despair only to gloss over it. The ending seems a bit neutral: we’re not sure if George is indeed going to have a comeback or if he should just be happy being in front of a camera again with the woman he loves. Or does he? George and Peppy hardly spend any time together, and it seems like more of a mentor-student relationship, as in The Illusionist. There’s not a lot of personality to go around (though James Cromwell speaks volumes with a few subtle expressions, and John Goodman provides some fun as a producer); even the dog only has his one trick (play dead), repeated without variation. The dog is adorable, like everyone else here, but adorability only takes you so far.


February 4, 2012

Found-footage movies are hot, and superhero movies are hot, so I imagine Chronicle — a found-footage superhero movie — being an easy pitch to the studio. The surprise is how serious and emotionally true the film turns out to be. Chronicle follows three high-school boys who stumble upon some sort of glowing object down a deep, dark hole; their proximity to it gives them telekinetic powers. The events are videotaped by Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a mopey kid with a miserable home life. Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan) at first have fun with their newfound abilities, making things — and eventually themselves — float around. But things get dark fast. This amazing power has been delivered into the hands of three basically good kids, which is fortunate for us all, but Andrew is beginning to crack.

Spurred on by rage, grief and panic, Andrew begins to do dumb, destructive things. Many in the audience may question why he doesn’t do this or that. In response I can only quote a nifty line from Stephen Hunter’s novel Dirty White Boys, describing a scared guy who freezes at a bad moment: “His mind was full of spiders and firecrackers.” Andrew is dealing with an alcoholic dad — a firefighter on disability — and a dying mom, whose much-needed pain meds his dad can’t begin to afford. This is stark stuff for a teenage superhero movie. It explains Andrew’s gradual transformation into a supervillain, and the good-hearted Matt and Steve, who have less complicated lives, try and fail to pull him back from his worst instincts. Why should Andrew try to do good — or try not to do evil — in this world? All it’s ever given him is pain.

Chronicle was made for $15 million by two 26-year-old newcomers — director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of “Master of Horror” John Landis), who concocted the story together. It’s a fine calling card, with echoes of Akira as well as standard superhero-origin tales. Set in Seattle (but filmed primarily in Vancouver), the film looks glum and realistic — workable and believable soil out of which the fantastic can flower. The young actors swing from exuberance to fear with ease. After a while, Andrew’s camera is held aloft telekinetically so that we can see more; I wasn’t always convinced that the camera would be catching certain events so clearly, but by the climax, where the action becomes both exhilarating and terrifying, I didn’t much care.

The finale, indeed, makes a lot of what we’ve seen in much more expensive superhero films look stupid. Again, it’s all grounded in identifiable and intense emotions, with untold collateral damage that reminded me of the horrific destruction in an infamous issue of Alan Moore’s Miracleman comic. (If you’re familiar with it, you know what I mean; if not, don’t worry about it.) It’s the first movie since maybe Superman II that made me feel how frightening it might be to get caught between two gods in battle. Andrew, stooped over and burned and wearing a hospital gown, looks like an evil mutant, while Matt is Superman in jeans. The very end is a little facile, and points too eagerly towards a sequel, but that doesn’t seriously lessen the impact of a film that may well give this summer’s The Avengers — whose trailer before this movie already looks so been-there-done-that — a run for its (big) money.