Archive for March 2022

Oscar Night 2022

March 28, 2022


And here I thought I’d have very little to write about this year’s Oscars. At least it looked a bit more like a typical Oscar show, after last year’s weird COVID-deformed ceremony. There were the usual bumps and awkwardnesses, but there always are. I figured the big take-aways would be Troy Kotsur’s signed acceptance speech (which was amazing) and the much-cherished-on-social-media detail of Zack Snyder’s Justice League winning the Best Cheer Moment (or whatever) for “The Flash entering the Speed Force.” 

Then Will Smith entered the Speed Force and got upside Chris Rock’s head for cracking a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head (she has alopecia). I spent a while thinking it was just a bit.

Truthfully, I was almost expecting Smith, when he went up to collect his Best Actor Oscar, to chuckle and say “Y’all thought I really smacked Chris, didn’t you?” But the longer and weirder his speech got, the more I realized it wasn’t a bit. All that exchange getting muted on American TV should’ve tipped me off, though that could’ve been part of the bit. (When I caught the uncensored footage on Twitter from Japanese TV, that’s when I knew for sure.) 

Where do I fall on this? Rock was being a prick. Smith lost his shit. I don’t think either one deserves a parade for his actions. But when your life partner has been living with alopecia for years — often a painful and traumatizing illness to treat and deal with — and along comes some asshole to snark about their head … I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to condemn Smith. An offense had been rendered, and it needed to be answered. (It occurred to me during Smith’s harrowed “protector” speech that there may be something direr wrong with Pinkett Smith than just alopecia. We don’t know.) Wherever you fall on this, though, it was a powerfully strange moment, probably now part of the canon of “whoa” Oscar events already. 

As for the reason we were all supposedly there, eight of the categories were awarded before the show proper started, were taped, and were aired during the course of the night. Dune ended up with a good armful of technical awards — I guess I have to see it now. Jimmy Fallon will now have to introduce his bandleader as “Oscar winner Questlove.” The Power of the Dog may be the rare movie to win Best Director and nothing else. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t have to fret about not being there to complete his EGOT (his wife has COVID so he sent his regrets), since he lost Best Song to Billie Eilish, who now has a GO and just needs an E and a T. Prior to the Slap Heard ‘Round the World, the most emotionally fraught moment belonged to the puppy Jamie Lee Curtis was holding while memorializing Betty White. The puppy did not enjoy the lights and the noise one little bit and just wanted to quiver in his blankie. This might also describe Rami Malek.

The stuff the Academy thinks will pull in more or younger viewers — the fan-favorite “awards,” jettisoning almost a third of the awards from the live broadcast — are always beside the point. The Oscars are supposed to be overlong and clunky and corny, with lots of things to complain about. I would say it’s the rare Oscar-watcher indeed who watches the show with unconditional love and no roasting the outfits or the scripted presenter banter or the bathetic acceptance speeches or Sean Penn. Penn wasn’t even there, I don’t think, but earlier in the week he made a big show of announcing he’d smelt his Oscars if the show didn’t invite Volodymyr Zelensky to speak. Uh, Sean, I think the guy has two or three bigger fish to fry. 

The three hosts (Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall, Amy Schumer) were fine, and Schumer gracefully nodded at the elephant in the room — someone had to. The thing everyone will possibly still be talking about as you read this, though, will be a man defending his wife’s honor. Really it’s a classic movie moment. If you saw it in a movie you’d applaud Smith. But during this night about movies, about illusion and bullshit, came a moment that was very real. Approve of it or not, it was a clarifying belt across the chops, and a reminder that real, flawed humans make these films. Some wondered why the Academy didn’t disqualify Smith, or have him arrested. I didn’t wonder. That slap is the biggest thing to happen to this creaky-ass ceremony in years. The Academy better send Smith and Rock big fucking gift baskets. 


March 20, 2022

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The well-meaning CODA, which has unexpectedly pulled into the lead in the race for the Best Picture Oscar, seems designed to make skeptics feel like bullies. It’s about a family — mother, father, son, daughter — in which all but the daughter are deaf. The father (Troy Kotsur) and his kids Leo (Daniel Durant) and Ruby (Emilia Jones) go fishing for a living — the film is set in Gloucester — while the mother (Marlee Matlin), worried about bills, just seems to want to sell the boat. Looking for a gut elective her senior year of high school, Ruby drifts into choir, partly because singing is something she enjoys doing while flinging fish, partly because she’s crushing on choir kid Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). 

The presence of the Shaggs’ immortal record Philosophy of the World in Ruby’s room shouldn’t fool you. Ruby doesn’t seem to have a passion for music; the plot just dictates that she enter an art her family can’t share her experience of. (The script, by director Sian Heder, proposes a couple of ways deaf people can enjoy music, but still has the mother ask Ruby, “If I were blind, would you paint?” Well, Mom, for starters, visual art can also be tactile; and a movie about such a family developing ways to process their daughter’s expression sounds a lot more interesting than CODA is.) Eugenio Derbez, huge in Mexico and slowly penetrating American film for the last decade, gets to play the plum role of the choir teacher who’s a checklist of traits: impatient, arrogant, a terror to unserious students but a believer in Ruby’s talent. He tells her not to try to sing pretty. She sings pretty anyway.

An exercise in irony, CODA makes a big ally show of putting deaf characters on the screen, casting actual deaf actors, and establishing the parents as sex maniacs, which goes so far in the other direction from the standard depiction of disabled people as sexless that it’s kind of crude and campy — but the movie isn’t really about them. The movie shouts it out loud: Deaf people — it’s like they’re people or something! They get drunk and high, they boink, they get in barroom fights. The one thing they can’t do, apparently, is make a living without Ruby as their free interpreter. Intentionally or not — since it centers Ruby and her dilemmas — CODA ends up saying: Deaf people — what pains in the ass! Ruby’s loyalty to her family threatens to derail her destiny as a great singer (even though that destiny was unknown to her during the first 16 years of her life). Now, a lot of movies have set up the conflict of the talented kid who needs to get out of the small town, the house, the needs of his family. The family, though, usually isn’t three-quarters disabled. Having your young lead resist leaving home because she can’t abandon not one, not two, but three disabled family members is, I’m sorry, overkill. The deaf people in this movie are unavoidably plot obstacles on the cute abled kid’s path to glory.

The tone seems off: the family seems selfish for not wanting Ruby to go; Ruby seems selfish for wanting to go; then Ruby seems selfish for not wanting to go. The emotions of the story feel unresolved, almost ignored. Do the parents and the brother come up with some other way to have a hearing person on board? (According to the movie, they need ears aboard because the father and brother can’t be relied on to pay attention to the flashing alert lights on the boat. Deaf people: they get into such wacky mix-ups! Anyway, this is a dramatic distortion of a real 2003 case: google “Coast Guard Cites Deaf Boater.”) Does Ruby still want to leave for Boston when her sweetie won’t be going? And does anyone who’s seen a movie before doubt what the outcome of Ruby’s audition will be? The acting here is aces across the board, and it’s nice to see a majority-disabled family in a movie who’s also working-class. But the movie didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about Deaf culture (except for the mother delivering a brief speech, which Matlin sells beautifully, about how she’d wanted the newborn Ruby to be deaf — which flirts with emotional complexity far, far beyond this film). It’s a movie about a cute kid who wants to go off to Fancy School in the City. The deafness is very much incidental.

Licorice Pizza

March 6, 2022


When you Google Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Licorice Pizza, you get a list of questions people have asked about it. The first question, amusingly, is “What was the point of Licorice Pizza?” The point, since you may have been one of many who asked, is to ramble and stroll, sink into the vibe, tone, flavor. The movie is set in 1973, but is largely unlike Anderson’s ‘70s epic Boogie Nights. There’s no sex (though there’s some crude talk about it) and the porn is limited to a glancingly seen newspaper ad. In part, Licorice Pizza is an affectionate and fairly nonjudgmental study of attitudes and personalities that possibly could only have thrived in the early ‘70s. The more one thinks about it later, the larger and more enveloping Anderson’s vision comes to seem. 

On the most basic level, it’s a study of two young denizens of the Valley, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they learn how to navigate the adult world. Some adult world: most of the grown-ups in it are either cases of arrested development or people charged with serving them and enabling their childishness. Gary may be a minor but he’s already a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood hustle, dining out on his tiny acting resume and leaping for whatever get-rich-quick scheme lands in his view: selling waterbeds, opening a pinball joint. Alana goes along with him, hitching a ride on his ambitions, since she doesn’t seem to have any. The two bicker and hang out — it’s a classic hang-out movie. 

Licorice Pizza is structured as a tall tale of youth in the land of dreams; it’s loosely based on the memories of Gary Goetzman, who grew up to produce films by Jonathan Demme and then by Tom Hanks. The movie’s Gary has a lot of drive but is also still awfully immature. However old she is (maybe 25, maybe older), Alana is hardened in some ways but soft in others; she still lives with her parents and her sisters (all played by Haim’s real family; she and her sisters form the rock band HAIM). Gary seems pointed towards legitimacy by way of working for himself, while Alana drifts into volunteering for closeted politician Joel Wachs. Gary wants, and Alana, who doesn’t know what she wants, settles for being wanted. When they’re together, they breathe the same warm air and mingle spiritually, platonically.

Oh, but Anderson sets a lot of pieces moving around the central couple. The San Fernando Valley we see in Licorice Pizza is a mostly safe playpen for aging actors (Sean Penn as a macho-idiot actor based on William Holden), crazypants producers (Bradley Cooper personifying rich white privilege as superproducer Jon Peters), an oil embargo and the resulting crisis (gas at a whopping 55 cents a gallon! To be fair, that’d be $3.48 now), plus odd details like an atheist Jew attending a shabbat dinner, or the mysterious guy with the 12 shirt who turns up a couple of times. (A Google search will bring you various theories about the 12 guy.) Licorice Pizza at times seems like a spaghetti bowl of unfinished threads, though this isn’t the sort of movie that likes its sentences trimmed and brought to a halt. It’s a moment, an eternal summer, a slice of (licorice pizza) life.

Anderson isn’t Mark Twain; persons attempting to find a plot in this movie will not be shot, though they may be disappointed, even flummoxed. Movies are so expensive, and such a risk now, that we aren’t used to a film that just eases itself into a jacuzzi alongside its characters and digs their energy. But that’s generally been Anderson’s M.O. Shaggy movies like this and Inherent Vice are content to capture a mood, the conflict or harmony of personalities. Haim gives one of the great natural, nothin’-to-it performances, almost innocent in her transparency. Sometimes, actors who are primarily musicians (Courtney Love is another) just give the audience everything without coyness or reserve. Hoffman, who from some angles bears an eerie resemblance to his father Phillip Seymour Hoffman, embraces new experience with all senses open and alive. If you don’t agree early on that these two are worth following wherever they wander, maybe the movie isn’t your thing. I was happy to be in their company in a time and place where bad or worse things were going on unchecked (the casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the day) but random magic also wafted sweetly in the night breeze.