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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.

Ride Along

January 19, 2014

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Kevin Hart doing a stand-up routine about the making of Ride Along would probably be funnier than the movie itself. An excitable, insecure motormouth, Hart has peppered such specials as Laugh at My Pain with high-pitched ruminations on his physical stature (he stands five foot four) and insufficient gangsta skillz. His frightened but common-sense demeanor refutes what’s expected of Scary Black Men. He’s a great talker, and some of his more amusing bits in Ride Along, I’m guessing, were improvised. Hart will say something that sounds scripted, then natter on for a couple of extra beats, and the nattering is what makes his character seem like a real person, and what gets a laugh.

Hart plays Ben Barber, a school security guard (aside: only in these times would Ben’s job be sadly plausible) who hopes to make it through the police academy and become a true cop. This, Ben also hopes, will impress stoic rogue cop James Payton (Ice Cube), whose sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) Ben wants to marry. James has been looking out for Angela since they were both foster kids, and he disdains the flighty, videogame-addicted Ben. (Ben’s videogame fixation, gamers will be happy to learn, pays off later on several levels.) Ben asks James’ blessing to ask for Angela’s hand in marriage, and James proposes a challenge: Ben must accompany James on a ride-along to show how well or poorly he takes to police work.

This could allow for some mismatched-partner laughs, and it does; Ben’s panicky attempts to look like a hard man in front of James rub up against James’ complete lack of surprise that Ben is a soft man. Ice Cube was probably funnier in a small role in 21 Jump Street, but then again he didn’t have to watch his language there as much as he does in this PG-13 movie (he does get to drop one F-bomb). Unfortunately, Ride Along is shackled to a lazy plot involving a master criminal (Laurence Fishburne) James has spent three years trying to take down. It also involves crooked cops, the time-honored police captain who exists to tell the hero he Crossed the Line, and a scene where Angela ends up at gunpoint.

Predictability is the enemy of surprise, and surprise is the essence of comedy. I’m not talking here about well-known characters on sitcoms who behave amusingly predictably; I’m talking about a plot that cancels out any possibility of freshness or invention. The movie isn’t loose enough to let Kevin Hart run wild with sustained riffs; he’s trapped inside the stodgy, stifling structure. Ride Along doesn’t offer the randomness and digressions of the similar, superior The Other Guys, and once again I find myself wondering what the film might’ve been like if Hart and Ice Cube had swapped roles and played against their personae.

What else is there to say about such a lightweight thing? Well, given that it’s directed by and mostly starring African-Americans, it’s blandly post-racial; for the most part, white guys could’ve played the roles and it would shake out roughly the same. Is that progress or homogenization (and shrewd packaging for what the money guys call “the urban audience”)? Eddie Murphy’s early cop comedies were very aware that he was a black man in a largely hostile white world; they couldn’t have played the same if he were white, or, at least, Murphy made Beverly Hills Cop (originally a Stallone vehicle, I believe) a story about a specifically black man among the gilded and ivory. But such awareness would founder here, because the movie isn’t interested in how actual, specific people of any color would behave. There’s truly nothing to James’ character other than his protectiveness towards his sister and his mission to get the big bad guy; Kevin Hart takes over by default, filling the void with abbreviated patter. Like the comparably easily-frightened, anti-macho Richard Pryor, Hart might best be optimized alone onstage, weaving absurd mind-movies at a hundred miles an hour.

The Canyons

August 2, 2013

20130802-230443.jpgOn paper, the director Paul Schrader and the writer Bret Easton Ellis seem like a match made in frozen hell. The work of both men is cold around the heart, exploring violence and neurasthenic sexual deviance. It’s possibly no coincidence that the tombstone achievements for this pair are Taxi Driver (Schrader’s script) and American Psycho (Ellis’ novel). They have now collaborated on a microbudget indie film, The Canyons, which has gained some notoriety from the off-camera antics of its star, Lindsay Lohan, and the travails she caused the production. LiLo, in truth, isn’t the movie’s problem; she often seems like the only committed, professional performer onscreen, especially next to porn star James Deen (né Bryan Sevilla), who plays her movie-producer boyfriend.

Ellis likes complicated love/sex triangles, and so the central couple, Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen), regularly engage in casual swinger sex with people they find on the internet. Both have old flames; Tara used to be in love with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a struggling wannabe actor who has a part in Christian’s upcoming horror movie shooting in New Mexico. Christian doesn’t mind if Tara has sex with someone in front of him, but if she lies to him about seeing someone behind his back, that infuriates him. He’s a control freak and also a manipulative jerk, to say the least.

Ellis usually writes this sort of thing with deadpan wit, but Schrader approaches the material in his standard dour, puritanical setting. The Canyons offers plenty of sex and nudity, filmed by Schrader in the so-cold-it’s-meant-to-be-hot mode familiar from American Gigolo, Cat People and Auto Focus. But sex for Ellis isn’t an occasion for desolation and shame; it’s all a power game. In brief, Ellis and Schrader bring out the worst in each other, and this production simply doesn’t have the money to achieve the heartless dry-ice, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-undead look it really needs. A lot of it seems to have been shot in someone’s borrowed upscale L.A. home. What violence there is unfolds elsewhere: You can film here, guys, but don’t get blood on the tiles.

There’s a great deal of spying and stalking and message-checking. People look at their phones instead of at their conversation partners whenever they can. A skipped heartbeat of dread develops when Tara gets texts from someone she doesn’t know, who offers cryptic information; Ellis got a lot of chilling mileage out of that trope in Imperial Bedrooms, his belated sequel to Less Than Zero. But the texts just lead to a character who’s treated contemptuously, as an afterthought. The Canyons packs little of the extremity and shock that mark Ellis and Schrader at their most indelible. It feels like, and in fact was, an on-the-cheap project they entered into in haste when an earlier film — the intriguing-sounding class-warfare thriller Bait — fell through. The movie was financed partly on Kickstarter, and everyone worked for peanuts. I see very little passion, though, very little animating emotion to explain why the film had to be made, why the story needed to be told.

James Deen, I think, has more screen time than Lohan does, and Schrader uses him as a found object the same way Steven Soderbergh used Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Deen has porn-star swagger and an instinct toward domination — he moves comfortably, occupies other people’s space — but when he opens his mouth it’s strictly amateur hour. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s voice; he has the sound of, well, a performer in shot-on-videotape porno, flat and artificial. The other, lesser-known actors are competent but can’t do much with Ellis’ stylized, sometimes overexplicit dialogue. Lohan, meanwhile, throws off all sorts of morose, bitter energy that keeps us riveted to her but doesn’t always seem connected to the character she’s supposed to be playing. All of this happens in an off-Hollywood milieu that’s decently appointed but a little musty, more than a little depressing. Those hoping for something wild and crazy from the bad boys Ellis and Schrader, or even a good old hearty train wreck from Lohan a la her much-derided Liz and Dick from earlier this year, will look here in vain. A cult may form around it, but it’s bound to be a very tiny and cynical cult.

Roger Ebert

April 4, 2013

C200512-A-Life-in-the-Movies-01He knew. He had to have known. His last blog entry — posted two days before he died — had the tone of a fond goodbye, though, to comfort the rest of us, he wrote a lot about the plans he had for the future, the future I’m guessing he knew he didn’t have. He would leave workaday film reviewing to others, and concentrate on things that meant more to him. His Ebertfest. The forthcoming documentary about him, which will now  have a sad period at its conclusion that none of us wanted. His “Great Movies” column. Even if he didn’t consciously know, some part of him must have. The blog entry opens with “Thank you” — he was never one for burying the lede — and ends with “I’ll see you at the movies.”

Roger Ebert, as I’ve said elsewhere, made a whole lot of us want to see and think about and write about movies with greater precision and passion. Throughout the many health demons that plagued him in his final years, one constant remained: his voice. It was robbed from him physically, but it continued in print. We could still hear it in our heads as we read him. Now the voice is gone, though we can still call it up from any of his thousands of reviews, or watch him on YouTube if we literally need to hear that avuncular, sane, midwestern sound.

You don’t need to agree with everything someone believes in order to like them, and you don’t need to agree with everything a film critic writes in order to like their reviews. The entire point of Blue Velvet seemed to go whistling over Ebert’s head and far out to sea, but his thoughts on the film are valuable just the same. He was fond of quoting Robert Warshow’s maxim “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” In recent years I grew weary of people pointing out where Ebert got this or that fact wrong in a review. So what? He was dealing with far graver things in his life than some plot point in a forgettable Hollywood entertainment. His emotional responses were still sound, and those, really, are what a critic has to work with. Give me someone who responds openly and whole-heartedly to a film over someone who gets all the details right but doesn’t rise to the film with any soul.

I never met him, and now never will, but I felt I knew him, feel I know him. That was true even before I read his memoir Life Itself. Even when his reviews contained no autobiographical element, he revealed himself, as all good writers do and must. Years before he officially declared himself a recovering alcoholic, review after review of films dealing with addiction (even the bad films, especially the bad films) spoke of firsthand understanding of and compassion for the slave to a chemical.

Ebert has two entire books devoted to negative reviews, and yet he never struck me as mean. Even at his most splenetic, he came across as a guy who’d just drunk a glass of sour milk, when all he’d wanted was a good honest normal glass of milk, and had been assured it was a great glass of milk. He wanted you to know that, no, this milk is terrible; don’t drink it; I drank it so that you don’t have to. He seldom gave the impression that he was dumping on a movie for the sadistic pleasure of it. He’d wasted hours of his ever-decreasing life on the damn thing and now he had to make something out of it. Sometimes a little bitter glee did show. He was only human.

Ebert’s first review (more exactly, “just about the first movie review I ever wrote”) was of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Not a bad way to start. The final review he posted was of The Host — not the Korean kaiju film but the shitty Hollywood one based on the shitty Stephenie Meyer book. I’m hoping there’s something else on his desk somewhere. Some final fragments of thought about, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca or even Dark City. In Ebert’s career, in his life span, you go from Fellini to teen bullshit. You don’t want to dwell on that too much.¹

No, you want to think about a man who loved what he did and did what he loved, day in and day out, for decades. You want to think about a man who did what he could while he could to add to the conversation about art. You want to think about the work he championed, the work he accomplished, the work he left us, the work we can sure try like hell to continue in his honor. We can’t be Roger Ebert but we can try to be us with as much grace and wit and honesty as he was himself.

¹As it turns out, according to Jim Emerson, the final movie Ebert reviewed was Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which seems more appropriate.

The Annual Box-Office Lament, 2011 edition

December 18, 2011

We live in a country where:

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked made more money on its first day than A Dangerous Method has made in four weeks
  • Mars Needs Moms made more money than The Tree of Life (and I’m not a Malick fan, but c’mon)
  • I Don’t Know How She Does It made more money than Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  • Conan the Barbarian made more money than The Rum Diary
  • Sherlock Holmes 2: Sherlock Holmesier, or whatever the fuck it’s called, has made more money on its opening weekend than The Descendants has made so far in 33 days
  • Even Atlas Shrugged Part I made more money than Melancholia.

Of the top ten moneymakers, eight were sequels — straight-up, the top seven were sequels. The two exceptions were based on Marvel comic books. This is the list as it stands now, though latecomers like Mission Impossible 4: Mission Impossibler might supplant a few.

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
  4. The Hangover Part II
  5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  6. Fast Five
  7. Cars 2
  8. Thor
  9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  10. Captain America: The First Avenger

Now let’s take our annual look at the top ten from twenty years ago:

  1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  3. Beauty and the Beast
  4. The Silence of the Lambs
  5. City Slickers
  6. Hook
  7. The Addams Family
  8. Sleeping with the Enemy
  9. Father of the Bride
  10. The Naked Gun 2 1/2

There’s a good deal of family/kiddie/fanboy pap on there, yes. But at #4 is the year’s eventual Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs, recognized then and now as a modern classic. Not that it matters much, but how many times since then has a top-ten-of-the-year breadwinner also been a Best Picture winner? Exactly five times: Forrest Gump, Titanic, Gladiator, Chicago, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Which means we haven’t had a top ten Best Picture winner in eight years.

Let’s flip back ten years. 2001 looks like 2011 in a lot of ways. A Harry Potter film sits at #1, just as in 2011. There’s also a Michael Bay film (Pearl Harbor), a Joe Johnston film (Jurassic Park III), and a Planet of the Apes film. The rest of the list is clotted with kiddie flicks, sequels, and movies based on previously popular properties. Then there’s Ocean’s Eleven, which itself would become a franchise (and was also a remake, though higher in tone than most). Note the lack of comic-book films: even though the previous year’s X-Men had made the top ten, and Spider-Man would dominate a year later, Marvel and DC hadn’t quite gotten Hollywood in a stranglehold yet. Since 2000, there have been only two years when no comic-book flicks appeared on the year-end top-ten list at all: 2001 and 2009. (2009 was a relatively light year for the subgenre; the double-whammy success of The Dark Knight and Iron Man in ’08 led to a new boom in superhero films being greenlighted, but they wouldn’t actually hit theaters until 2010 and thereafter.)

So what films might make the list of 2012’s top-ten grossers? The Hunger Games might be the new Twilight. The old Twilight still has one more film to go. Comic books will rule again: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Jackson is revisiting Middle-Earth, and 3D isn’t going away. And possibly a few surprises. They still happen. The Help just missed a spot on the top ten, and Bridesmaids wasn’t far behind. And even the execrable Bad Teacher cracked $100 million. That means more non-rom-coms made for females who aren’t fourteen. It won’t happen in 2012, though; you’ll start seeing the Bridesmaids wannabes in 2013. That’s if we’re still here, of course. Remember, the world’s supposed to end December 12, 2012, just like Roland Emmerich said. This means the last big-budget movie you’ll ever see is Les Miserables with Hugh Jackman on December 7. As for The Hobbit (scheduled for release December 14) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (December 25), well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

“Geese, villain?”

May 24, 2011

I love the geese thing in Macbeth. I’m a big fan of the geese thing. What the hell am I talking about? Well, near the end of the play, Macbeth is all cocky and shit, swinging his big dick around the castle, because he knows nobody “of woman born” can hurt him. He’s basically being a TV wrestler, or Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day — “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!,” that sort of thing. Of course, we know two things about Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day: (1) King Kong does indeed have shit on him and (b) shit doesn’t end well for ol’ Denzel. Same with Macbeth, really. Dude is going insane — well, he’s already insane, but he’s going more insane trying to keep his mens from shitting their pants. Because even if the English can’t produce any test-tube-baby warriors in their ranks, that doesn’t keep everyone else from taking the pipe all around Macbeth.

In any event, either Macbeth believes all the shit he’s spouting, which is one kind of bad brain chemistry, or he’s just spouting it to make everyone feel better about their inevitable deaths, which is another kind. So Macbeth finishes up his tirade about how all y’all muthafuckas ain’t shit, and then a servant enters.

MACBETH
The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!
Where got’st thou that goose look?

SERVANT
There is ten thousand–

MACBETH
Geese, villain?

SERVANT
Soldiers, sir.

This cracked my shit up in high school. This was Shakespeare being Monty Python centuries before there was a Monty Python. At the time, I figured Macbeth was so far gone he actually thought the poor little scared dude had seen an army of ten thousand geese approaching.

But an actor could play this any number of ways. He could play up Macbeth’s rage at the servant for bringing fear into the mix just when Macbeth is trying to psych up his team. Or he could play it as a contemptuous joke, trying to make light of the servant’s fear. Or he could play it as if Macbeth actually believed the dude was about to say “ten thousand geese.”

So then Macbeth keeps verbally smacking the servant:

MACBETH
Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,
Thou lily-liver’d boy. What soldiers, patch?
Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine
Are counsellors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

SERVANT
The English force, so please you.

MACBETH
Take thy face hence.

Macbeth keeps making fun of the poor dude’s face — the face of fear. Probably the only honest face around. Within an hour the servant will most likely be dead, and he knows it. Which puts him one up on Macbeth, at least.

But anyway, the geese thing. It still makes me laugh, even with all the added possible interpretations.

How homeboy ends up.


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