Archive for February 2015

Oscars 2015

February 23, 2015

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Possibly the cruellest thing you can do to someone who’s good at hosting stuff is to suggest repeatedly, after he’s nailed hosting this or that awards show, that he host the Oscars. So for the past few years, the refrain became familiar: “Neil Patrick Harris should host the Oscars.” “How hard would Neil Patrick Harris crush the Oscars?” And so on, until Neil Patrick Harris actually hosted the Oscars, and turned out to be … not bad, but not great. Oddly insecure, and ultimately unmemorable. NPH’s by-now-expected opening musical number traded on the old magic-of-movies trope until Jack Black blasted in and laid down some cynical truths. Jack Black should host the Oscars. How hard would Jack Black crush the Oscars…

Other than Patricia Arquette, whose call for equal pay for women was refreshingly political, Black was the only Richard Linklater confederate to get much satisfaction. Linklater’s Boyhood went home with little, while Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman owned the night … except for Michael Keaton, whose loss of a Best Actor trophy pained me, though I certainly didn’t begrudge Eddie Redmayne’s win. Really, Boyhood and Birdman struck me as the same movie in some ways — both are dramas by temperamentally independent directors, riding on something of a technical high-wire-act gimmick (Birdman seems to run in one continuous take, Boyhood was filmed bit by bit over a period of twelve years), and probably a little overpraised. Also, the odds of the average moviegoer having seen either of them before Oscar night — even on DVD, never mind finding a local theater playing them — were slim to none.

A few years back, the Academy decided not to restrict the Best Picture nominees to five, because a wider playing field might mean a better chance of a popular nominee. In this respect, only American Sniper qualified this year, and it went home with almost nothing, which probably annoyed its many patriotic fans. The Grand Budapest Hotel fared surprisingly well, winning a lot of the “what a pretty movie” awards other than cinematography. I was glad to see two longtime favorites, Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons, finally receiving their due. My feeling on Inarritu is that nothing he’s done has equalled his debut, the coruscating Amores Perros, though I’m also glad that the director of Amores Perros now has several Oscars.

As for the show itself, it didn’t drag itself out with pointless montages the way it used to. Lady Gaga nailed her Sound of Music tribute, and John Legend and Common’s rendition of “Glory” got an understandable standing-O. Harris had a mostly unfunny running gag about his Oscar predictions under lock and key (guarded by Octavia Butler, giving me to ponder once again that the actress who once played an irascible DMV clerk on The Big Bang Theory now has an Oscar). Eddie Murphy seemed more engaged as a presenter here than he did at last weekend’s SNL shindig. (There were no Cosby jokes or, really, any jokes at the expense of Hollywood, save for an Oprah joke I didn’t really get, and she didn’t either.) Harris steered the ship into port without hitting an iceberg — a metaphor I think I’ve used before with the Oscars, but it applies this year. Harris wasn’t as dazzling as he has been on smaller shows, but all that practice at least ensured a baseline of professionalism. At this point, though, a robot in a clown suit could host this thing and no one would care.

The robot in a clown suit should host the Oscars. How hard would the robot in the clown suit crush the Oscars…

Saturday Night Still Alive

February 16, 2015

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It was an irony of sorts, I guess, that the special program commemorating 40 years of Saturday Night Live aired on a Sunday night. (Also quite a few months premature; SNL actually debuted on October 11, 1975.) But for those of us in the northeast battered by relentless snow and cold, the show provided some respite, all three and a half hours of it (not including an hour-long “red carpet special” beforehand). If you want to know why the show went all out to mark its 40th instead of waiting for its 50th, it’s likely because many of the original talent might not be around by then. In 2025, show producer and creator Lorne Michaels will be 80. Dan Aykroyd will be 72. Bill Murray will be 74. Chevy Chase will be 81, and Generalissimo Francisco Franco will still be dead.

The show, I guess, is still alive. I don’t think I’ve watched it at all this season, or last, but then I’ve never been quite loyal to SNL. My college years were my (sporadic) SNL-watching years. So I missed a fair bit of what the 40th Anniversary Special served up as “greatest hits.” Did anyone ever laugh at the Californians, and did that deserve to be re-animated here along with Wayne and Garth, Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic, and Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer? I suppose it was a good excuse to get Kristen Wiig in there somehow, but by my lights she’s becoming more interesting as a comedic-dramatic actress than as the farceur she was on SNL.

I didn’t mind the special’s self-indulgent sprawl, though a lot of it smacked too much of white male baby-boomer self-congratulation. The ghosts of the original cast have haunted Studio 8H for at least 35 of the show’s 40 years, and a viewer’s estimation of SNL’s peak depends on when he or she started watching. (Even the now-revered comedy godhead Murray was once regarded as a poor replacement for Chevy Chase.) It was touching to see Emma Stone pay her respects to Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, and interesting to see that the character Melissa McCarthy felt worthy of emulation was Chris Farley’s bull-in-a-china-shop Matt Foley. I didn’t resent the newer performers for their attempts, but I did resent Death for taking Radner, Farley and too many other cast members too soon.

Belushi was the first to go, and his notoriously ironic short film “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (with Belushi as an old man reflecting on all his castmates who beat him to the cemetery) kicked off the special’s In Memoriam segment, which was about the only time we saw acknowledgment of any of the writers. (During a mildly funny q&a bit, Jerry Seinfeld explained that a tribute to the writers was tossed out in favor of “Randy Quaid saying something.”) Michael O’Donoghue appeared onscreen by virtue of his sharing the show’s first-ever sketch with Belushi (“I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines”), and of course Tina Fey got her share of stage time, but no other writers who weren’t also performers were deemed ready for prime time.

In brief, the special was overlong, flawed, riddled with weird choices (Kanye doing whatever that was; Eddie Murphy marking his return to the show after decades by saying not much of anything), and occasionally funny, which puts it one up on a lot of the actual SNL episodes that had all those qualities except for the funny. Mostly I sat through it and didn’t mind it: I didn’t mind Miley Cyrus’ cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (if nothing else it probably scandalized the baby boomers), I didn’t mind Martin Short doing his smarmy-show-biz specialty while Maya Rudolph’s Beyonce vamped, and I didn’t mind seeing old friends like Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks again. Lorne Michaels sat out the special until the very end, which could signal fatigue or modesty; let’s hope it’s the latter. However iffy my allegiance to SNL has been over the years, and even if I usually don’t make it to 11:35 most Saturday nights, it’s comforting to know that it, and Lorne, are still there.

Waves

February 8, 2015

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Anyone in the market for a romantic movie might want to forego Fifty Shades of Grey and look for the Philippines-set (but mostly English-speaking) independent film Waves. Some have likened the movie to Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a comparison that might hurt it among Malick acolytes and detractors alike; let’s say that Waves has its contemplative side, a healthy appreciation for luscious travelogue shots (most of the story unfolds on an island), and a leisurely pace, but none of Malick’s confounding narration or musings on Nature vs. Grace. It’s simply the story of two friends who become more than that.

Elegantly composed by director/cinematographer Don Gerardo Frasco, Waves sets up a meeting between a man, Ross (Baron Geisler), and a woman, Sofia (Ilona Struzik), who used to know each other back in New York. Sofia is a model now; Ross drinks alone a lot. Sofia needs to get back to New York, and her fiancé, for a modeling gig. Ross suggests she stick around a couple of days. After some thought, Sofia agrees, and before long they are sailing, swimming, and sleeping together on the aforementioned gorgeous island.

As such, the narrative is uncluttered. It focuses on the shifts of emotion between the two new lovers, flipping an old clichĂ© by making the man overly sensitive and the woman noncommittal — Ross wants more than a two-day fling, Sofia doesn’t know what she wants. Geisler, well-known in villainous roles in Filipino movies, and Struzik, an actual model, enact their conflict quietly, without overplaying. They seem like adults, which are in short supply in current mainstream cinema. Again, the drama and occasional comedy of two people dealing with their mutual attraction and its attendant complications are better handled here than in the contemporaneous callow spank-a-thon that is Hollywood’s idea of a Valentine’s Day event.

Occasionally the director indulges a bit much in jump cuts, and some of the shots are static enough that I got distracted trying to work out who was pictured on Ross’s t-shirt. By and large, though, Frasco has a satisfying respect for subtlety. He likes sunsets and underwater footage, but he also knows that the camera’s ultimate subject is what Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself. The picture-postcard images complement the romance rather than competing with it or symbolizing it.

Another sign of an adult sensibility in Waves is that it avoids a happy ending, which isn’t the same as saying it has a sad ending. It just has an ending, which seems to point towards events past the end credits. Will Ross and Sofia wind up together forever? Who knows? They don’t. The ending finds the lovers apart, but the movie suggests they’ll reunite, whereas most Hollywood romances end with the lovers together while we doubt they’ll stay that way for long. Do we care about Ross and Sofia’s future? We like them, and we like them together, and that’s just about the best that a movie which isn’t trying to be manipulative can do.