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Oscar Night 2017

February 27, 2017

oopsThe most enduring image of last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony will not be that of a tearful, grateful recipient of the golden bald man. Nor will it be clips from any of the winning films. No, the picture that will persist for many years, haunting the nightmares of every future producer of the Oscars show, will of course be the shot of a card held aloft — a card pronouncing Moonlight the Best Picture winner instead of the erroneously announced La La Land. This was, globally, perhaps not a significant moment, but in the context of Oscar Night it was seismic. People from La La Land had time to get up onstage and begin their acceptance speeches, for fuck’s sake, before the error was clarified and made known. Even a Moonlight booster and La La Land detractor like myself couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for the hard-working creatives whose dream had been so decisively and publicly ripped away.

Well, drama and excitement were things the Oscars had been missing for too many years, and here were drama and excitement, all right. It was nice to see that the ceremony was still capable of surprise, albeit accidental. After all, La La Land was considered the favorite to sweep, the flagbearer for the Magic of Movies and the Beauty of Artistic Dreams. The irony is that while La La Land paid fawning lip service to those qualities, Moonlight actually embodied them, finding poetry in despair. That it not only won but literally wrested victory from the jaws of defeat will only add luster to the narrative of the little movie that could.

Aside from all that (and the lesser-known goof listing The Piano producer Jan Chapman among the dead in the In Memoriam segment instead of costume designer Janet Patterson), it was a competent enough evening. Jimmy Kimmel had some decent barbs in his pocket, and as usual he got considerable mileage out of his faux feud with Matt Damon. (I can imagine baffled Oscar-night viewers unfamiliar with the Kimmel-Damon beef that’s been going on for over a decade on Kimmel’s late-night show. “Why is he being so mean to Matt Damon?” they might have said.) Kimmel’s Mean Tweets were amusing as always, the bit with the bus tour maybe not so much.

The thing about Moonlight’s win — sorry, but this was the night’s big story — is that it garnered a Screenplay (adapted) award, while La La Land, over in Original Screenplay, lost to Manchester by the Sea. Hindsight is always 20/20, but La La Land not winning a writing trophy may not have been a positive sign for its Best Picture win. A Best Picture not winning a Screenplay award is not unprecedented — it isn’t even that rare (The Artist was the last film to do so) — but it doesn’t exactly help. In the end, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins had to be content with his shared Screenplay Oscar and the knowledge that he’d helmed the big winner, while La La Land director Damien Chazelle settled for Best Director and the five other Oscars it won.

One last thing. Many fans of Bill Paxton, who died right before the Oscar ceremony, grumbled that he wasn’t included in the In Memoriam piece. The reason is simple: the montage is created weeks in advance, and generally covers the period from February 1 of the previous year to January 31 of the current year. This is also why Alan Rickman and David Bowie weren’t acknowledged this year — because they were included last year. Paxton will, one hopes, be remembered during Oscar Night 2018. Know what else will be remembered next year? That card being held up, declaring La La Land’s brief reign as Best Picture winner as dead as Paxton.

I Am Not Your Negro

January 22, 2017

iamnotyournegro520x300A recurring image in I Am Not Your Negro, a wounded but finally hopeful documentary, is of forward movement — street lights or palm trees passing by from the POV of a car’s passenger, and so on. It expresses, I think, the state of mind of its wounded but finally hopeful subject, the writer James Baldwin. In 1980, Baldwin signed a contract to write a book, Remember This House, about his friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, all martyrs to the civil-rights cause. In 1987, Baldwin died, having completed just thirty pages. I Am Not Your Negro uses that text, and others from Baldwin’s public and private writing, to construct the story of a man’s soul under lifelong pressure from living in a racist society.

Despite its forward motion, the movie flits back and forth in time, making the point that Baldwin’s concerns in the ‘50s and ‘60s are, if anything, more relevant today. Things have changed in some ways, not in others. Baldwin refused black responsibility for “the race problem” — he thought that the “problem” was created by white people and that they needed to own it. To the extent that whites have failed to assume responsibility for the systemic racism that benefits them, much of the tension prevalent in Baldwin’s prime is still very much with us.

In an intimate voice approaching a whisper, narrator Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s diamond-sharp words. A multiple outcast, Baldwin was gay as well as black. Conceivably, he could find himself among fellow black men who would condemn his sexuality, and find himself among fellow gay men who hated his race. It’s no wonder, then, that Baldwin often wore what I would call a sad yet sardonic expression. His consciousness was unavoidably ironic and also informed, or warped, by the highly combustible tropes of the Hollywood movies of his youth. The movie takes the opportunity to interrogate Hollywood’s culpability in American racism, leading up to what I considered the single discordant element: cutting directly from footage of Doris Day emoting to a stark photo of a lynching victim. It’s mean and uncalled-for; it grates aesthetically and morally. Yes, Baldwin did call Day and Gary Cooper “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen,” but I mean, c’mon.

Otherwise, the film’s critique of American culture and society, following Baldwin’s lead, is more than fair (including Baldwin’s revulsion at such cinematic Uncle Toms as Stepin Fetchit — although that performer has since been re-evaluated). The Haitian director Raoul Peck stitches the timelines and footage together smoothly — the result is an engaging riff on Baldwin’s themes. It’s the opposite of dry and academic; the style is jazzy and allusive, with a strong mix of movie clips. Baldwin’s point about Hollywood is that one of the ways you learn a society’s nature is by looking at the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

So what story does I Am Not Your Negro tell? It’s not strictly a biographical piece; Peck assumes you know who Baldwin was and why he managed to rub elbows with so many African-Americans of note, serving as a “witness” more than taking direct action. It’s not a balm in frightening times; it endorses Baldwin’s thesis that the American problem must be faced. It brings some lesser-known Baldwinisms to a larger audience, and may lead people to his books and essays. (Maybe begin with The Fire Next Time, a true classic that influenced Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me among others.) It begins with the concept Baldwin had of a book about Evers, King and Malcolm, and ends up irising outward to take in the world that formed them, held them aloft for a while, and then took them.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 7, 2016

amnd2Sixteen years ago, the Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin made his feature debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now he comes full circle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Griffin had wanted to make for years. Artists as diverse as Peter Brook and Neil Gaiman have tackled this supernaturally-tinged romantic comedy, and Griffin, who usually leans dark whether he’s dealing with horror or comedy, lightens up and opens his palette. He and his frequent cinematographer Jill Poisson are like little kids with a big bucket of Crayolas; everything is bold, vividly colorful, magic seen at magic hour.

The play itself I have mixed feelings about. We needn’t go into them. What matters is what an adapter does with it, and Griffin makes high entertainment out of it. He isn’t in the least intimidated by Shakespeare, perhaps because he started out making one of the Bard’s less prestigious plays. (“I knew you when, buddy,” Griffin might be saying to Shakespeare; “I was there when you were hacking off hands and feeding people their own children.”) And he’s comfortable with the story’s otherworldly aspects; he builds an atmosphere where people — whether regular humans or faeries — can be theatrical, stylized. Nobody here goes small. Johnny Sederquist, for instance, creates a Puck in anarchy shirt and rave-club makeup, endlessly amused by what fools these mortals be.       

There’s an element of cruelty in the premise, in which faeries use magic to turn hapless mortals into romantic puppets. The faeries, of course, are romantic love itself, the most simple and baffling of emotions, turning people into animals, or a literal donkey. Almost subliminally, in a matter-of-fact way, the openly gay Griffin turns Midsummer Night’s Dream into a queer-friendly, inclusive ode to l’amour fou. The play toys with gender to begin with; Griffin recasts “rude mechanical” Peter Quince as Rita Quince, who in the person of Christin Goff kept reminding me of Elizabeth Warren.

Griffin’s casts are always eager and robust — his joie de cinema rubs off on them — and the standout here is Ashley Harmon, whose Hermia is vulnerable, rageful, driven to frustrated dementia by her near-complete lack of agency. Harmon grounds Hermia’s suffering, and the play itself, in something real. Without Hermia you don’t have the darkness that the light of the play is designed to dispel; she might be the play’s backbone, its unsung hero. The rest of the cast bathes in Griffin’s and Poisson’s creamy Argento/Bava colors, having a grand old time and sharing it with us, but Harmon comes at things more sharply, speaking for the common woman (who isn’t so common).

A lot of foolishness unfolds under the dappled purple sky, a lot of poetry in the charged night air. Griffin sets the movie in “Athens, Massachusetts, 1754,” but the spirit feels modern, playful. (The occasional anachronistic gag is sprinkled into the mix, giving weight to the idea that the play’s concerns straddle the centuries.) As usual, Griffin manages to make a movie that looks — and also sounds, thanks to Daniel Hildreth’s lush score — as though it cost about a thousand times more than it did. As before, he brings the Bard to the screen with no fuss or pomp. If you’ve heard me go on about Griffin before, but you were too bashful for his naughtier films and too squeamish for his gorier efforts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as fine an introduction as any to his raffish charms.

War Dogs

August 21, 2016

ARMS AND THE DUDESThe wrong guy narrates War Dogs, a wannabe-wild comedy-drama about two guys who do well by doing bad — buying weapons and selling them to the U.S. military. The guy we’re interested in is Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bullshit artist who has started his own gunrunning company. Efraim surfs into the movie on a wave of bad-boy stubble, hair gel, and Beastie Boys beats; he wants to be a Jewish Scarface, and Jonah Hill plays him as an irrepressible sleazeball smitten with the lifestyle. Unfortunately, our putative hero is Efraim’s old yeshiva buddy David Parkouz (Miles Teller), whose mopey, bewildered voice tells the tale on the soundtrack.

The way the movie tells it, Efraim offers David a 30% partnership in his company because David is financially desperate: his girlfriend Iz (Ana da Armas) is pregnant, and he can’t support a family on what he makes as a Miami Beach massage therapist. Soon enough, anti-war David is helping Efraim close gun deals with officers, while poor, deluded Iz thinks David is selling high-thread-count bedsheets to the Army. Iz is a thankless role in a mostly very male movie; she and the baby are there solely to explain why David leaps at the chance to make big bucks. Damn it, men wouldn’t have to profit off of death if you chicks didn’t keep popping out sprogs!

War Dogs is pretty much as jejune as that last sentence indicates, despite the efforts of its director, Todd Phillips (of the Hangover trilogy), to follow in the farce-to-true-life-dramedy footsteps of, say, Adam McKay (The Big Short). Phillips’ idea of making a roughhouse testosterone morality tale is to pile on the anachronistic needle-drops (the budget for the soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, must’ve been enormous) and ape Scorsese by way of David O. Russell — so War Dogs is faux Scorsese twice removed.

Miles Teller is a fine enough actor (my respect for his craft goes back to Rabbit Hole), but he’s no Ray Liotta, nor is David anywhere near Henry Hill. David never does get any illicit charge out of what he does. He’s in it only for the money, whereas Efraim is an appetitive Id who wants to be an American bad-ass. As antically funny as Jonah Hill is in the role, his coruscating work in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street dwarfs this; he simply doesn’t have the script (or the director) to let his freak flag fly, nor does he have any drop-dead-funny lines to touch Wolf’s “Smoke some crack with me, bro” or the one that never fails to make me lose it, “I’m never eating at Benihana again, I don’t care whose birthday it is.” In the end, Efraim is a tired dark mirror on David, who doesn’t have the personality to make us care whether he gains the world or loses his soul.

Of the movies to walk down the mean streets of war profiteering (including William Friedkin’s Deal of the Century and Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War), the most resonant one, to me, was the John Cusack-meets-Naomi-Klein satire War Inc., which saw war as a ludicrous but horrid mash-up of empty pop culture and opportunistic scorpions. I wish more people would go back and look at that film. War Dogs isn’t nearly as radical. It has no point of view about the war (Iraq/Afghanistan) or about gunrunning. In what amounts to an extended cameo, Bradley Cooper turns up in a few scenes as a glowering, stubbled rock star of a gunrunner whose presence on a terrorist watchlist has reduced him to being a middle man. Cooper’s suave professionalism is welcome. It shows one committed path the movie could have taken, one in which the stakes were larger than whether a friendship-by-convenience will survive the rigors of scamming armies the world over.

Knight of Cups

June 19, 2016

knightofcupsAnd so we enter that rarefied realm again, the world of reclusive writer/director — or poet/director — or poet/poet — Terrence Malick. This confounding auteur once spent twenty years between films, but of late the 72-year-old daydreamer appears to be obeying the exhortations of Thomas Carlyle, who advised us to “produce! produce!” because “the night cometh, wherein no man can work.” So in the wake of the universe-straddling The Tree of Life (2011) and the ode to romantic love and difficulty To the Wonder (2012), we now bear witness to Knight of Cups, which, for those of you who thrilled to the voice-over musings and lamentations of To the Wonder, provides more of the same.

I used to razz Malick for his ontological excesses — the mere thought of his 1998 The Thin Red Line makes me break out in hives. But as he and I have gotten older, Malick has stubbornly borne down on his woolgathering style, drifting farther away from standard narrative, while I have grown tired of standard narrative, especially as Hollywood practices it these days. So Knight of Cups, which peripatetically follows L.A. screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) as he shuffles his deck of memories of past women, doesn’t make me want to tear my own face off the way it might once have done. Perhaps it’s just capitulating to the experience: Malick gotta Malick. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Malick gotta wander around in exquisite imagery — a painter lost in a gallery of his own paintings — while women twirl and throw their hands in the air, and men mope around weighed down by the eternal struggle between Nature and Grace.

I can say that the style here seems jumpier, odder, less becalmed than that of Tree of Life or To the Wonder. Rick seems to be Malick’s object lesson in how not to comport oneself as an artist and a human. He fritters away his life on empty pursuits, breaking hearts along the way. He searches, but the crass milieu of Los Angeles has blunted his perception. Rick also thinks about his dead brother, as well as his still-living brother (Wes Bentley), one of those saturnine, bitterly witty black sheep so many movie families have. Now and again, Rick’s religious father (Brian Dennehy) heaves his bulk into view; Dennehy, in his seventies, still has the most Brobdingnagian shoulders you’ve ever seen, and still looks as though he could just shrug you into the next life. Knight of Cups must be the artiest movie Dennehy has been in since Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect many moons ago.

It would probably take a hermetic band of analysts a year to unpack all the symbology in Knight of Cups, starting with its Tarot-inspired title and chapter headings. In the Tarot, the Knight of Cups card signifies love and joy; however, the same card when drawn upside down means the reverse, and the movie’s poster features Bale upside down on a card. There are also Malick’s usual favorite habitats: the beach at magic hour; water, water everywhere, though not cleansing or baptismal but weirdly isolating. Los Angeles from Malick’s viewpoint is spiritually adrift, no country for thoughtful men. Yet even such places as a nightclub or a strip club are artfully abstracted.

The interior monologues more or less take over; what few direct dialogue exchanges we see are often muted or blanketed by music. The largely improvised scenes have the tone of actors restlessly prowling a stage in some Off-Off-Off-Broadway experimental play; Emmanuel Lubezki’s mostly hand-held cinematography adds to the restlessness. There’s something insecure and almost frightened in the emulsion of the film; it seems to be making itself, finding its way in a dark room. Readily ripe for parody, Knight of Cups exists in a world of great sincerity. Snark is too easy a response to it. Reverence probably is, too. So: this is more of Malick doing more of what Malick does. He’s the only one doing work of such curiosity on this scale and this budget level. When he dies, his entire unique microgenre of filmmaking will die with him. You may be grateful for that when it happens, but I won’t be joining you, not during a period when idiosyncrasy and art are to be valued more than ever.

Ghostbusters (1984)

June 5, 2016

ghostbusters-1984-harold-ramis-dan-aykroyd-bill-murray-ernie-hudson-e1446269406109As we approach the dawn of the Ghostbusters reboot, the original film seems to have assumed the status of a sacred text, an inviolable classic, so it’s good that the thing itself is getting a brief re-release in theaters nationwide. That way, we can be reminded that the movie is … good. Often very good. But great? There is a collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis that does achieve greatness, and that’s Groundhog Day. But Ghostbusters? It’s fine, funny, painless entertainment, and it benefits from co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s soulful sincerity on the subject of metaphysics. It’s also formulaic and made out of a bunch of older parts — which, I suppose, one could also say about Raiders of the Lost Ark,  except that Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on his best day can’t come near Steven Spielberg on his worst.

For all its wit and snark and baggy-pants-Lovecraftian mash-up, Ghostbusters is very much an ‘80s film, and not just because of the pop music on the soundtrack (even Air Supply pokes their heads in, and Reitman buries their smarm as best he can). It’s a bit thoughtless politically; it has the same slobs-against-snobs structure as earlier Ramis efforts like Animal House and Caddyshack, but here the stakes are much bigger, so the snobs are represented by the Environmental Protection Agency, as obvious a Reagan-era straw man as any (Reagan and his advisors loved the film). The Ghostbusters begin as a trio (Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis) and then bring in an African-American (Ernie Hudson) who seems a sop to tokenism even though he’s more likely meant to be a regular-guy avatar for the many non-techies in the audience. (Which means the black guy gets to have metascientific concepts whitesplained to him.) Women are receptionists or bimbos or victims of the uncanny; even Gozer, the plot’s evil entity from another dimension, is played by foxy Serbian model Slavitza Jovan (“prehistoric bitch,” “nimble minx,” etc.).

Most of this, though, is mitigated by a surfeit of personality. It’s tempting to say that Murray, Ramis and especially Aykroyd were ideally cast at that point in their careers — the more I see the film the more the enthusiastic, emotional, uncool Aykroyd shines through as the movie’s true hero by right of sheer likability. Sigourney Weaver wrote herself a second career as a screen comedian (she’d been funny onstage for years by 1984, often in plays by Christopher Durang) and also got to be empoweringly erotic in a way that trumped Leia in the previous year’s Return of the Jedi. Rick Moranis’ Louis, the single-minded accountant, is a fresh and gently satirical creation, and William Atherton contributes the first of his ‘80s triptych of assholes (continued with Real Genius and Die Hard) with that aforementioned EPA agent. Reagan-friendly as that villainous character is, he has a point, and it’s only his arrogant manner that truly marks him as deserving of ridicule and Stay-Puft glop.

The movie is ‘80s-slick, with the typical soundtrack selected to shift units — Ray Parker Jr. had his one hit with the theme song and was seldom heard from again — and a certain flashy, bluish-purple look courtesy of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The lighting has that big-movie John Badham nighttime sheen to it, wedded to Elmer Bernstein’s usual semi-parodic instrumental score he specialized in for various comedies (in, again, the ‘80s) involving SNL alumni. The human beats in the story are small (the biggest arc is Bill Murray’s as he becomes less of a pig to deserve Sigourney Weaver’s hand), but the scale is vast — though not as wild as Aykroyd originally envisioned, apparently. That’s the true conflict of the movie, between shlubby humanity and filmmaking gigantism.

And yet, despite the flaws I’ve dwelled on here, I feel real affection for Ghostbusters. How could you not? It’s goofy, funny, homey — it’s genuine comfort food. It’s just that I don’t see a great difference, qualitatively or thematically, between it and Caddyshack or Stripes or Meatballs; it just has massive effects by Richard Edlund and company. It’s probably the most kid-friendly of those four Murray vehicles (if you ignore a quick PG-rated blowjob joke), and thus it has endured as a horror-comedy alongside such peers as Gremlins and Beetlejuice. (A case could be made that Ghostbusters was a Tim Burton film a year or two early.) Its jocular DNA persists in blockbusters ranging from Men in Black to Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was one of the movies “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind. And its honor is now being defended against the girl cooties of the reboot by aghast baby sexists from sea to shining sea. The anti-establishment supernatural farce has become, finally and inevitably, establishment.

Hitler’s Folly

May 29, 2016

bill-plympton-hitlers-folly

At only 67 minutes, Hitler’s Folly is mercifully brief, but I nearly noped out of it at the 45-minute mark. The conceit of this mockumentary, a puerile effort written and directed by the animator Bill Plympton (The Tune, Cheatin’), is that Hitler’s grand ambition was not world domination but a cartoon version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. In one of the film’s many unconvincingly faked “vintage” bits of footage, we see a man being interviewed, identified as an inmate at a concentration camp. The man wants us to know that the camps were misunderstood: They were workplaces for people who were laboring on Hitler’s epic cartoon, and they were so named because everyone had to concentrate very hard on their work. That’s when I almost found something better to do.

But I stuck it out, not that it improved much. There was one joke that almost got a faint chuckle out of me, when Hitler, after the war, finds a job at an ad agency and invents telemarketing. But for the most part the “satire” is terribly tired when it isn’t tone-deaf. We know, of course, that Hitler was a frustrated artist; this was the subject of a little-seen drama called Max, from 2002. Plympton has extrapolated this factoid into an oafish alternate history in which everything Hitler did was on behalf of his big artistic attempt starring his beloved character Downy Duck. There might be a whiff of satire in reimagining Hitler as a monomaniacal Disney, but very little of it has real-world resonance. We don’t, for instance, find many parallels between the two men.

If you want an alternate-history mockumentary about film, it’s hard to outdo Forgotten Silver, the brilliant little jape co-directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes that was so pristinely crafted it fooled the majority of its New Zealand TV audience. Hitler’s Folly isn’t nearly as ingenious; sometimes one suspects that the joke is actually how poorly the photo trickery is faked. At their best, mockumentaries — even if you recognize the actors in them, as with Christopher Guest’s films — have a grain of realism, a veneer of truth, that lulls one into acceptance of their reality. Plympton’s film, though, is too broad — too cartoonish, you could say — to be taken on any level other than a schoolboy riff on the theme of Hitler as artist.

The joke about harmless concentration camps may stick in your craw in a world where Holocaust deniers exist, and likewise, a film that gentles Hitler into a misunderstood cartoonist tends to trivialize the victims and survivors of the Nazi atrocities that Plympton passes off as a mission to bring a Wagner cartoon starring a duck to the world. In general, Plympton doesn’t earn the right to play with Nazi imagery this way, nor does he redeem his audacity with humor, much less wit. The Holocaust, I know, is not untouchable as a subject for dark comedy — the gold standard in this regard remains Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. That film, however (appropriately) unpalatable, had a point and a point of view. Hitler’s Folly doesn’t. It’s a bad idea someone should’ve talked Plympton out of; it’s Plympton’s Folly.

The idea is that we’re seeing secret footage collected by an historian and entrusted to a documentary filmmaker (well-played by Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook, who deserves better). A hidden locked box contains old video as well as brittle old Hitler sketches and priceless comic books, including the first issue of Captain America, with the famous cover of Cap punching out Hitler. Leaving aside the questions of whether Hitler would have kept artwork that disrespected him — and why Captain America is fighting Hitler in the first place, since in the film’s context all Hitler does is work on a movie — I wondered what the issue’s Jewish co-creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both of whom also served in World War II, would have said about Plympton’s little jest. Streaming for free on Plympton’s website starting this week, Hitler’s Folly, I guess, is his Memorial Day gift to a demoralized nation. Gee, thanks, Bill.