Archive for February 2019

Oscar Night 2019

February 25, 2019

spikeoscar Well, I guess I have to see Green Book now. It’s hard to remember the last time I hadn’t already seen a Best Picture winner before it won — it could’ve been The Last Emperor, those many decades ago. The Academy thought it might be fun to sport with us, lulling us with exciting early wins, letting us watch Black Panther or BlacKkKlansman or even If Beale Street Could Talk rack up some gold. In the end, though, Roma — tiresome, pompous Roma riding its water motif hard and putting it away wet — got a literal embarassment of riches. If I were Alfonso Cuaron (let’s pause to give thanks for Children of Men and Gravity and Y Tu Mama Tambien) I would’ve been too self-conscious to go up and accept that third award. You already gave the man a Best Director Oscar five years ago (for Gravity), you just gave him one for cinematography and one for Best Foreign Film — now you want to give him another Best Director Oscar?

But Oscar night is also always full of weird details and stats: Cuaron is now the rare director to win multiple Oscars for directing while the movies he directed were snubbed for Best Picture. (John Ford will probably hold the record forever: four Oscars for directing, only one of them — How Green Was My Valley — a Best Picture winner.) Meanwhile, Green Book is now the 27th Best Picture that apparently directed itself. Its director, Peter Farrelly, will have to be content with a shared Best Original Screenplay trophy, one that it wrested out of the deserving hands of Paul Schrader.

The Oscar theme this year appeared to be white Oscar making dorky, trembling attempts at awkward reconciliation with black Hollywood. If not for Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler might not now be historic Oscar winners. And Spike Lee finally won a competitive Oscar (he was given an honorary award in 2015, though you didn’t see it on the show), and both Supporting Acting awards went to African-Americans. Even Roma, which I guess it’s obvious I didn’t care for, is a movie about non-whites in a non-white country (but with political and class tensions of its own). And Rami Malek, slurping on his damn dentures in Bohemian Rhapsody — I didn’t think he was bad, he did what he could in a crap movie — is the son of Egyptian immigrants. In a lot of ways, #OscarSoWhite has become #OscarNotEntirelyWhite, anyway.

In the end, though, Oscar gave its ultimate imprimatur to a movie widely criticized for its soft-soap racial comfort. Green Book will probably get millions more eyes on it as a result of its Best Picture win, but its resurgence was fairly recent; it spent a while looking like a box-office non-entity whose reach for Oscar exceeded its grasp. I’m not qualified at the moment to speak on what it does or doesn’t do as a narrative. But based on what I’ve heard from supporters and detractors both, Green Book seems to be the kind of racial-unity movie in the form of an amiable buddy movie that Hollywood used to make. It’s a throwback that expresses yearning for a time when racism was simpler for well-meaning white people. Now that more diverse voices are emerging in American film, something like Green Book looks even more beside the point than it might have a few years ago. (When it won, people were already calling it the new Crash, after the gosh-we-mean-well 2006 Best Picture winner, of the forehead heavily creased in racial thought. It’s probably closer to the new Driving Miss Daisy, though.)

I’ll go into Green Book with an open mind, regardless. With that acting teamwork, it’s got to have at least something going for it. It’s just that a nostalgic view of a white guy and a black guy learning to like each other seems haplessly inadequate for harrowed times that demand the provocation of BlacKkKlansman or the daydream of an all-black Shangri-La in Black Panther or even, yes, the humanization of Mexicans (see, some of them are kind and devoted servants, and some are even rich, like white people!) in Roma. We can, I suppose, be mildly grateful on some level that this year’s prom king thinks that the races should be able to sit together, ride together, etc. Better than thinking they shouldn’t, or not thinking at all. But the time of giving people or movies credit for not being overtly morally grotesque should properly have been up a long time ago.

ADDENDUM:

Looking over my blabbering from last night, I see that I didn’t really mention how the Oscars were as a show, after all the foofarah.

It went like a shot but it was so dull — it was like any other awards show. There was none of the excess that really marks the Oscars. They’re supposed to be long and have embarrassing musical numbers and competent montages and a host whose hosting style we can analyze. The ratings were better than last year, most likely because there were more hits in which more viewers had a rooting interest.

Bring back my overlong, stupid, out of touch, laughable, lovable old Oscar show (but keep trying with the diversity in nominations and wins). Or as Greta Garbo supposedly said when watching Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, “Give me back my beast.”

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Life After Flash

February 17, 2019

lifeafterflash As a child of the ‘80s, I found one thing in particular (aside from the obvious two or three dozen) galling about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody: There was no mention of the band’s pop-transcendent score for Flash Gordon. It was the ideal meeting of hyperbolic sound and hyperbolic image. In Life After Flash, an otherwise run-of-the-mill documentary of the sort you might find as a special feature on a Blu-ray, we see Brian May talking about his and Freddie Mercury’s contributions to the soundtrack; then, sitting at his piano, he pecks out some notes from “Flash’s Theme,” and the whole campy, cocaine-dusty, LSD-colorful movie came rushing back at me on a silver surfboard of nostalgia. Flash! Aah-aaah! He’ll save every one of us!

I am not a big enough fan (of Flash Gordon or of most anything else) to be one of the people seen at conventions in Life After Flash waiting in line to get things signed by Sam J. Jones, who played Flash in the 1980 film and who serves here as the documentary’s sometime focus (and, let’s note, one of its producers). But the movie occupies a large, awkward part of my heart, and it’s warm in there. And I stand with these fans in spirit. They respond to the film’s lavish design, its straight-faced embrace of its own wide-eyed all-American-boy ethos, its loudness in all aspects. There’s something glittery and Studio Fifty-Foursy about its glamorous, De Mille-on-poppers aesthetic, and it takes a certain taste to be attuned to that. I can imagine some (not all) Star Wars fans, the humorless ones, considering Flash Gordon in its efflorescent peacock feathers “stupid” or “gay.”

Our nominal subject, Sam J. Jones, is seen getting up early in the morning to go to some convention or another. As an actor whose career flatlined in the early ‘90s, Jones went through a dark night of the soul, alluded to here (adultery, drugs), and came out the other side humbled and thankful to Jesus. (The movie presents Jones’ re-commitment to his faith as something that helped him, but it doesn’t feel like a recruitment film.) A former Marine and current CEO of a security company that helps VIPs safely across the border from the U.S. to Mexico, Jones has pretty solid authority in his voice, even when he’s fine-tuning his displays at conventions with volunteers. Famously, that voice was dubbed in Flash Gordon by another actor, but not because, as some (like me) thought, Jones’ line delivery was bad — it was because he got into it with the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis, who essentially kicked Jones off the movie before Jones could record his lines in ADR.

The documentary, though, never stays with Jones for very long; it keeps drifting off to talk to Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), or Richard O’Brien, or, predictably hilariously, Brian Blessed, as well as various fans or fans-turned-professionals. This is when the movie most feels like a special feature (perhaps on a 40th-anniversary Blu-ray next year). The frequent anecdotes about the film’s production make it seem that a better title would be Life During Flash, and a good deal of the talking heads seem to be filmed at conventions — many at the same convention, the Alamo City Comic Con. You can almost hear the camera people as they browse the semi-famous or geek-famous faces on the convention floor: “Hey, there’s Jason Mewes! Let’s see if we can get him to say anything about Flash Gordon!”

Ultimately, Life After Flash isn’t enough about Jones to pass muster as a portrait of him, and not enough about the production to be an engaging making-of film. I don’t begrudge the interviews with Anderson, Topol, or any of the other Flash Gordon participants (Max von Sydow would’ve been a great “get,” though) — perhaps the most freely entertaining footage is just Anderson (now a therapist specializing in trauma), Blessed, and Flash director Mike Hodges shooting the breeze and laughing. But their presence also steals Jones’ thunder in what structurally seems to want to be his movie. Then again, Jones talks a lot about humility and the importance of the it’s-not-all-about-you ethos, so maybe sharing the spotlight was his idea. He is, after all, just a man. With a man’s courage.

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

February 10, 2019

Richard Pryor - Live in Concert (1979)In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, the eponymous great comedian drops what has become euphemistically known as “the N-word” forty-two times. The word, in Pryor’s hands, becomes a rueful acknowledgment of fellowship, of shared indignity and terror and general craziness connected with being black in a racist white society. Occasionally he puts it in the mouth of a white person, but most often Pryor uses it interchangeably with “brother.” (As a man in the ‘70s, Pryor was not especially enlightened on matters of feminism — but that doesn’t mean he was unconcerned with women’s struggles, either.)

Eventually, in his later concert film Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor talked about his trip to Africa, and said “I ain’t gonna never call another black man a n——. You know, ‘cause we never was no n——s. That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness.” In the 1979 film, though, Pryor is (and would later remain) conversant with his own wretchedness — his embarrassing, screwed-up humanity, the ways in which he was down in the dirt with the rest of us. He was the first to call himself out, and he fashioned his foibles into poetry. Live in Concert is not art as filmmaking — director Jeff Margolis, who has helmed TV specials and awards shows for decades, basically just keeps Pryor in focus. It’s the text, the material, that I value as art, as literature, as hilarious and heartbreaking memoir.

Pryor flits from subject to subject, but the jewel in the crown of Live in Concert is his account of his heart attack, in which Pryor famously gives voice to himself and to his own aggrieved heart (“You thinkin’ about dyin’ now, ain’t you?” the organ growls as it goes into cardiac arrest; “You didn’t think about it when you was eatin’ all that pork”). Pryor will occasionally lapse into a truism — “The hospital ain’t no place to get well” — and then chase it with “You can die in there and nobody give a fuck,” something so bleak and blunt it forges its own hilarity. In reviewing Sunset Strip, Pauline Kael — a big fan of Pryor — somewhat uncharitably noted that his routine about his self-immolating suicide attempt (which he passed off then as an accident) couldn’t help but be a pale echo of the earlier heart-attack bit. But Pryor so often abused his own body, as if in twisted solidarity with his abusers from his childhood, that it was inevitable that he should work up comedy about his own physical self-disrespect.

When Pryor hops from being Pryor to being his heart to being an indifferent phone-operator angel in heaven, he’s firing on all cylinders and doing what he did better than anyone — breathing life into people and things, animate and inanimate, raising monkeys and dogs and deer and car tires to his own level of awareness — sharp, paranoid, lowdown and unsentimental. Pryor, especially here, doesn’t do anything so mundane as tell jokes. He embodies; he inhabits. Sometimes, not to get offensively voodoo-mystical about it, he seems to channel alien consciousness and reinterpret it through his own wounded yet tickled human experience.

Pryor creates for us an entire world, in seventy-some minutes, with just a microphone — a world of danger and rage, yes, but also one of mitigating ironies. “I woke up in an ambulance, right,” he says after his heart punks out on him. “And there wasn’t nothing but white people staring at me. I said, Ain’t this a bitch. I done died and wound up in the wrong motherfuckin’ heaven.” For Pryor, whose art and viewpoint were so snugly connected to his experience as a black man, ending up in white heaven (“Now I got to listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days”) would have been the ultimate indignity and joke. Pryor’s comedy draws on deep African and African-American traditions of folklore, storytelling, playing the dozens, anthropomorphism. He was an original, a visionary, a crowded house of voices — an American sangoma, healing with visions and laughter and empathy, divining by throwing his own bones.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

February 3, 2019

girl-in-the-spiders-web-trailer-claire-foy-lisabeth-salander-painted-mask It’s been almost a decade since I last saw the original Swedish trilogy of thrillers featuring Lisbeth Salander, but I don’t quite remember them being reheated James Bond, as The Girl in the Spider’s Web often is. This is based on the fourth book in the series, taken over by writer David Lagencrantz after Lisbeth’s creator, Stieg Larsson, permanently clocked out in 2004. I couldn’t tell you whether Larsson would have approved of what Lagencrantz has done with Larsson’s hero, though I wonder if Larsson’s plans for her included such pulpy touches as Lisbeth’s sociopathic twin sister emerging from the shadows to incinerate the world with the help of a vicious gang called the Spiders.

Handled differently, a plot development like that would nudge a movie into cult-favorite status to be ironically enjoyed. But director Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe, the Evil Dead remake) seems to be locked into the grim, dreary tone apparently required by producer Scott Rudin. Rudin also produced 2011’s American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which made a lot of money being grim and dreary, and so Spider’s Web is commanded to go and do likewise. When Álvarez can put an action scene together, he excels; the movie is full of chases and gunplay and strange torture, like the other films, but Álvarez brings something heavy and muscular to it. Towards the end, when a sniper takes out some bad guys, we feel the propulsive punch of those bullets.

A Lisbeth Salander movie is only as good as its Lisbeth, and Noomi Rapace, who fleshed out the hero in the Swedish films, leaves cavernous shoes to fill. Rooney Mara couldn’t manage it in 2011, but Claire Foy, who steps in here, is a different story. She nails the character’s essential spiky loneliness and skittishness. It shouldn’t look cool to be Lisbeth, whose lifetime of abuse from scummy men starting with her own father has mutilated her soul. Foy understands this — her Lisbeth looks more saddened than bad-ass. Her flickers of caring about others, like her friend and one-time lover, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), come across as vulnerability but also a kind of relieved reaching towards connection. Foy shows us a blunted humanity under the scabs and scars.

Put Foy up against Sylvia Hoeks (the frightening killer replicant in Blade Runner 2049) as Lisbeth’s anarchic sister Camilla and you should have an affair to remember. And in truth, it all leads to a scene between these formidable actresses that very nearly justifies the existence of the whole creaky movie. Lisbeth, it seems, ran away from home — and from her father’s sexual abuse — as a girl, leaving Camilla there to absorb his evil. Lisbeth grew up to be a brilliant hacker and remorseless avenger of abused women. This twist, though, recasts Lisbeth as a goth Clarice Starling, driven to save the lambs again and again because she failed to save one — her sister. The one who escaped is damaged enough, but the one who got left behind ended up morally diseased by years of proximity to evil. Camilla asks Lisbeth why she rescued everyone but her. It’s a fair question, and Lisbeth has no real answer.

The rest of Spider’s Web, though, feels inessential. Even though Stieg Larsson himself reportedly planned ten Lisbeth/Mikael novels, maybe the pained and rageful Lisbeth doesn’t and shouldn’t work as a franchise hero. Her whole M.O. is bringing the pain to deserving men, but here her ultimate adversary is a woman — and, of course, not just a woman. Whatever integrity this character has, it demands that she never really heal or grow, and it seems insensitive — even cruel — to keep re-animating her to face more devils and scum. (A fifth novel, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, was published in 2017.) Since Spider’s Web was a worldwide flop in comparison with its more heavily hyped predecessor, it appears likely that this latest cinematic go-round for Lisbeth will be her last; she’s a great character, but I think she’s earned retirement.