Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Saw the last of 2010's Oscar Haul....

I recently saw "Black Swan"(about 3 weeks ago, but it took me this long to getting to write about it) which means I’ve seen what I believe are the top 5 of 2010 by Oscar’s standards. I wish I could say for certain that "Inception" and not "The Fighter" would have made the short-list under a five picture system, so I’ll do the next best thing: Continue to refuse to see "The Fighter" and just call it as 5 for 6.

Why aren’t I watching "The Fighter"? I am highly uninterested in boxing movies. There have been too many boxing movies over the years with little variation and I’m not convinced I’ll be seeing anything remotely original. Even Mark Wahlberg admitted as much. Boxing is also just way too easy a venue for metaphors about the human spirit. He gets knocked down in the rink, like he gets knocked down in life, oohhhh, I can relate to that. It’s symbolism for second graders.

Now that I’ve seen each of the best picture contenders (the ones worth seeing), I feel I can comment on this race.

A quick summary: “The King’s Speech” is a crusty British film about the shenanigans of the royal family, which let’s admit: The British royal family has never been interesting. Largely removed from actual power, they’re function is mainly to smile and attend important functions, meet with important people and mug for the camera. I can’t be the first cultural commentator to notice that they’re parallel over here in the states is becoming Paris Hilton, the Khardashians, Lauren Conrad, etc.

Still, the British royal family is important in the cultural context of having grown up British. To them, the royal family is understandably important, and the dramatic arts community here has had a strong affinity for all things British, which is why such duds as “Cavalcade” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” “Billy Elliott” “The Queen” (arguably not that much of a dud), “The Madness of King George” “Shakespeare in Love” “Mrs. Miniver” and many, many more films have succeeded at the Oscars just because they had to do with something British.

The “Social Network” came along and said: Don’t vote for another stuffy British film again. Vote for a film about something hip and current, like the story of Facebook. “The King’s Speech” had the defense: Just because we’re a film about something very British, doesn’t mean we’re a stuffy British film or a bad film. Voters should still give us a chance.”In my opinion, both of these films were what they said they’d be. “Social Network” made a movie about something current and hip and could also qualify as artfully made. I had the reaction of admiring many of its elements: The editing, the score, Aaron Sorkin’s more restrained script, and the performance by Jesse Eisenberg (neither of the other two leads impressed me much at all) were all impressive. “King’s Speech” was about something stuffy but was less stuffy than I expected. I suppose that’s the best I can say about it. I won’t say the film didn’t succeed, but I’ve also largely forgotten about it by now, except for the particularly innovative performances of Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bohman Carter.

My reaction to “True Grit” on the other hand wasn’t intellectual like it was to the Social Network. I didn’t say to myself, “I’m impressed.” I just felt a sense of “wow, that was something.” It was a movie that moved me emotionally. This is very ironic when you consider that while the Coen Brothers have been referred to as “film scholars” and they’ve shown a somewhat perverted interest in copying genres and stripping them of the elements that have given them emotional resonance . “True Grit” has a sense of quirkiness to it, but it really cares about telling it’s story.

As for the other two films:
"Black Swan" is a film that is without a doubt the boldest, most experimental of the films. Aranofsky is a filmmaker with a distinctive style that’s adding something new to the conversation and for that he deserves reward. Even though I haven’t seen Wrestler (I hate wrestling films in addition to boxing films), I imagine that it’s the perfect marriage of the Wrestler’s profile of an artist with self-esteem issues plot motif with Requiem for a Dream’s general reality-bending trippiness. In some ways, I very much didn’t enjoy Black Swan, but it’s a shame it didn’t enter the conversation for Best Picture or Best Director. It also was very deserving of technical awards like editing and cinametography.

"Inception" was the best film of the year I saw. Whether it had too much exposition or not, it was endlessly fascinating and a highly intelligent piece of work. Like Black Swan, it broke from the norm and took viewers outside of their comfort zone. The cast also delivered pretty heavily. Everyone from Cillian Murphy to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt to Tom Hardy were all on the same page. Again, it's too bad it didn't enter the conversation as the race wore on.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bits of Movie Trivia-MASH, Almost Famous, Rio Bravo, etc.

Dove just discovered that every time I submit a trivia update on IMDB.com, it's recorded into an itemized history. This makes for a pretty easy blog entry. Here are some bits of trivia I've learned somewhere or other and contributed to the IMDB.com over the years.

Check out my 10-year retrospective on 2001 in film

Front Page (1974)- Billy Wilder felt that Chicago was the most exciting newspaper town in the country and as a result, this incarnation of The Front Page was the first to mention the city of Chicago by name and use actual Chicago newspapers.

X-Men (TV show)-Fox initially had a lot of resistance to the cartoon series before it became a success. They felt that the target audiences, kids under 10, wouldn't be interested in a romantic love triangle between Cyclops, Jean, and Wolverine. They also thought kids wouldn't keep up with a show that was serialized

Futurama (TV)-Billy West was inspired by Lou Jacobi's performance in the Diary of Anne Frank when he was creating the character of Zoidberg. He imagined Zoidberg to have Yiddish mannerisms because of the last name. He also said he was attracted to the idea of a doctor that was poor

Bullworth (1998)-1) Beatty was described by writing partner Jeremy Pikser and biographer Peter Biskind as so insecure about his script that he went to former collaborator Elaine May with the script. She told him it wasn't any good but Beatty suspected that because May was writing the script to a rival political satire, "Primary Colors," that she was looking out for her own interests.
2) Co-writer Jeremy Pikser described the experience of working with Beatty as frustrating. He was paid by the studio a lump sum per each draft produced and Beatty spent months working and reworking a single draft. Tired of being away from his family, Beatty's ego and the lack of pay, Pikser left the L.A. Office where he and Beatty were writing the script to return to his family in L.A. The two finished the rest of the process via telephone and fax.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)-The Boy Scouts of America did not allow their brand to be used from the film, so Jefferson Smith got changed from being a Boy Scout leader to being a "Boy Ranger" leader

Dogma (1999)-William Donahue of the Catholic League lambasted the film and publicly protested against it for months without actually seeing the film, after which his office called View Askew offices and said "Dr. Donohue requests a special screening of Dogma so that he can speak about it intelligently." Kevin's response was: "So what has he been doing the past six months?"

Seargent York (1941)-When the film was being made, America still had an isolationist position and Warner Brothers initially worried that the film would be condemned for being seen as too pro-war in attitude. Jesse Lasky went to great lengths to avoid marketing the film as a war picture. By the film's release, however, Hitler had conquered much of Europe and the public attitudes towards war changed greatly, helping Seargent York become one of the studio's biggest moneymakers on all time.

Rio Bravo (1959)-Hawks' instructions to Martin who showed up in an almost comical cowboy outfit on the first day of shooting were not to play a cowboy but just play a drunk.

MASH (1970)-The studio sent Robert Altman a memo in post-production that he found condescending and in retaliation he recorded the memo and played out over the movie
on one of the loudspeakers

Almost Famous (2000)-Cameron Crowe's mother appeared on the set for a cameo, and Crowe made every effort to keep her away from Frances McDormand, who was playing a character based on her, apart. This was so that McDormand's interpretation of the part wouldn't be swayed, but when he left the set for a few minutes on the first day
of shooting, he returned to find McDormand and his mom having lunch together.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)-
1) Sean Penn improvised during his takes and tried to find ways to aggravate the actor who played Mr. Hand, even off camera. He also did things to get genuine startled reactions from the extras who played his classmates through unexpected improvisations.
2) Nicholas Cage, 17 at the time, lied about his age so that he could get a part in the film.

Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)-Writers Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson named several of the places and crewmembers in the film spontaneously on things and people they saw around them at the Italian restuarant where they did a lot of their consolidation with each other for the film. Pescapada Island, for instance was named for one of the dishes on the menu. Some of the characters' names are named after waiters and patrons at the restuarant.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)-Charlie Wilson said in a USA Today article that he had no qualms about the film saying, "Anything I might have objected to was provable." He had just suffered from a heart attack but was able to make it to the red carpet premiere

Thunderball (1965)-When Ian Flemming wrote the novel, he had just suffered from a heart attack and was spending time in a health spa. This is most likely why the beginning of the film is set in a health spa

Lost in Translation (2003)-The redheaded lounge singer wasn't a professional actress, but rather the real-life lounge singer of the Hotel where the cast and crew were staying at, and they thought her performance of the Scarborough Fair fit the theme of the film so well, they asked her to be in the movie

Friday, May 13, 2011

My top 100 films of all-time 87-80

I just interviewed the Washington D.C. Filmmaker of the Month and we discussed films shot in D.C., opportunities for local actors and The West Wing. Click here

My top 100 continued. I don't entirely have it mapped it out (I might be guilty of forgetting a film or misplacing a film), but let's see how this goes:

87. Three Kings (1999) directed by David O Russell, Starring George “Please stop writing magazine articles about this guy” Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice-T, Nora Dunn

I was heavily debating between this and "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" and felt an urge not to over-Clooney my list*. The film certainly isn’t a conventional war film or even a particularly patriotic one. Like MASH, this is a film of people who are apathetic to the war around them. More significantly, they’re bored which explains why they initially go on their adventure. The film also deepens in unexpected ways. The film is very gritty visually and doesn’t shy away from gore (it even gets creative with shots of internal organs) but it’s not overly crude just for the sake of being edgy.

86. Cat Ballou (1965) directed by Henry Hathaway, Starring Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Dwayne Hickman, Nat King Cole

I’m not sure if I’m becoming guilty of overloading my list with goofy pictures of no technical value other than they just make me smile, because like “In Like Flint” this might fall into that category as well. It’s got some pretty heavy comedic leanings, but it’s a solid adventure that’s just as kinetic as the most fun Western you can imagine. The film really is a perfect fit for Jane Fonda too.

I did once review this film years ago on my blog, so that should cover it.

85. Fisher King (1991) directed by Terry Gilliam, Starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl

Sometimes Gilliam gets lost in his own imagination and the effect can be that the story gets diluted through cartoonish characters and deviations from the plot. This is a shame because some of his stories are really great. This is one such great plot idea and it helps here that these are probably the four best acting performances I’ve seen in a Gilliam film. It’s a great fusion of solid drama with the abstract stylings of Gilliam’s bizarreness.

84. Seabiscuit (2003) directed by Gary Ross, Starring Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, William H Macy, Elizabeth Banks

This is my one clichéd Disney story of an underdog entity winning against all the odds. I would rethink this corny period piece until I remember that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar so other people must have thought it was pretty good too. The production values are great, the source material is converted to cinematic effect, and the acting is tremendous (I remember thinking: man, that actress who plays the wife should get nominated for an Oscar. She didn’t but she was Elizabeth Banks and became famous later). Also, it does have some very bittersweet undertones despite being a film made for no other reason than to stir up inspirational feelings.

83. Rain Man (1998) directed and written by Barry Levinson, Starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman

I generally don’t think a film can be considered great solely on the basis of one performance. “Rain Man” comes close. Hoffman is a fascinating character but Tom Cruise doesn’t get enough credit for his role even though he acts like Tom Cruise for the first half of the movie. While it’s a story about two people with very rigid temperaments changing (one because he’s biologically incapable, and one because he’s “a prick” in his own words) for the better.

82. Goldfinger (1964) directed by Guy Hamilton, based on the book by Ian Flemming, starring Sean Connery, Gert Forbe, Harry Sakada, Honor Blackman, Los Maxwell, Shirley Eaton, Cec Linder, Bernard Lee

Embodies the best of everything that you associate with James Bond: Beautiful scenery, ornate lairs, diabolical villains, creative technology, sexy women, and a convoluted plan for world domination. There’s not much more to say. Last time a James Bond film came out pre-Daniel Craig era, I found it amusing to see the reviews because there really isn’t much to say about a Bond film. You basically just check off a list of elements because as complex as the stories are, it’s mostly an excuse for the elements.

81. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), dir. Rob Altman, starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjoinis, Keith Carradine, William DeVane

This film is basically a response to the other Westerns of its time. It’s not really a great film on its own, because you have to see at least a couple other classic Westerns to really appreciate the way that this film turns those conventions on their head. It’s definitely a film worth watching a second time, if only for the fact that you’re not going to get everything anyone’s saying. It’s also a piece with a lot of symbolism that sort of pieces together in a thinky kind of way.

80. Goodfellas (1990), Martin Scorsese, written by Nicholas Pileggi, starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco

I'd probably characterize my reaction to this film as a classic that I agree is worthy of being a classic. Other people call this the most influential film of the 1990’s or whatever. I won´t say that´s untrue but I have no idea why, so if anyone wants to correct me about that in the comments. Didn´t Scorsese make other mob films? I just see it as a very good film within an already existin genre.

On a recent poll of best supporting actor winners of all time, I ranked Pesci #1 (& Waltz #2). To me the film is most notable for Pesci's performance and the very organic character change from Henry Hill, the relatively morally straight teenager who admired the local hoodlums, to a ruthless man and almost entirely unsympathetic character.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Great films I just don't get-Starting with A Fish Called Wanda

Just saw A Fish Called Wanda for the second time. This film is considered a classic and I thought it was OK the first time I saw it several years ago, but I found the film really flawed on second viewing.

The film is a combination heist thriller and romantic comedy. The romance is between an entirely irredeemable woman (Jamie Lee Curtis, who I've personally never found very attractive) and pretty much every other member of the all-male ensemble who she seduces as a fall-black plan every time something goes wrong. Not only is Curtis' character unsympathetic, she's uninteresting.

Her main love interest is a British barrister (aka lawyer with a wig) played by John Cleese. She's playing him so that she can get the inside scoop on a case he's trying. Although there's sappy music playing in the background during their scenes together, any sediment here is unearned: Cleese's character loses all credibility by not seeing through a hot young woman (who just happens to be a defense witness) posing as a groupie who wants to discuss details of his upcoming depositions during their lovemaking. He's also irredeemable himself as he renegs on a gift from his wife and then leaves her (along with his daughter) for a woman who is obviously a fraud.

What's worse, even though the movie's clearly a dark comedy, I don't think the film's flimsy romantic subplot was intended in any ironic way either.

One of the other subplots involves another one of the baddies trying to kill off an old lady who's a witness. It's completely predictable that nothing will happen to her because she's really sweet and this particular guy (Michael Palin) is a softie, so those scenes are a waste of time.

The film does have a couple high points. Although he's a little too mean-spirited to be endearing, Kevin Kline creates a character that's certainly amusing to watch. He's Curtis' main lover and is passed off as Curtis' brother for some reason (so she can screw more people) and he has a good running gag of blowing up completely and ruining everything when someone calls him stupid. Michael Palin, as a stutterer who loves animals, also brings something enjoyable every time he's on screen.

The film has some great scenes but as a film, I think it falls apart.

Other films considered classics that I'm not a fan of:
The Incredibles-This Pixar film that parodies superhero conventions is something I saw five years earlier in "Mystery Men" and a year later in "Sky High." I'm sure there are other examples too that I just can't think of at the moment, but "Sky High" (even though it fits squarely in the teeny-bopper genre) and "Mystery Men" are just as astute as "Incredibles" to me.
For a studio that is considered a hallmark of originality, "Incredibles" really didn't bring that much new to the superhero parody genre.

Viva Zapata-Considered one of the better films of legendary director Elia Kazan, the film tells the story of Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata. The film isn't entirely inaccurate (from someone who was taking a grad level course on Latin American history at the time), but it's also oversimplified and hard to follow, so you likely won't even be able to develop much appreciation for the subject matter anyway. On the whole, I get the impression that Kazan doesn't care much about the Mexican revolution. The film's purpose, as far as I can tell, was to give Kazan's prize pupil, Marlon Brando, an opportunity to flex his acting with dramatic speeches on how he wants to freedom, and later how he doesn't want to fight anymore, or how he wants a pinata that matches his sombrero- I stopped caring after a while.

Annie Hall-Considered Woody Allen's best film. I've never seen a romantic comedy and thought "This is good but it needs more of a Momento-style fracturing of the storyline to make it great." The film attempts to be clever and it really just feels like a stream-of-consciousness first draft of a better film. Woody Allen did experiment a lot with the conventional love story and some of those results are very good. I suppose a few misses are aloud along with the hits and we each have different definitions for what hits are. I'm just surprised so many have gotten behind this one as "the hit."

All That Jazz, 8 1/2 and The Doors-Sympathetic portraits of rock stars who had more sex and fame than most of us will dream of who we're supposed to feel bad for? Films about highly successful artists should at least attempt to bring them down to Earth so we can relate to their struggles and I found myself not really caring about why they caused their self-inflicted reckless behavior. A good film in this genre ("Ray" or "Walk the Line" comes to mind) treats the character like they're interesting stories.

These three films reek of vanity: Be interested in their predictable problems, because they're famous people you know and love and want to know more about them. "8 1/2" reeks of vanity because it's autobiographical. "All that Jazz" is borrowed from the template of 8 1/2. It's probably the most promising of the three films (although 8 1/2 is the most praised): Roy Scheider does well in the part and it has a few interesting motifs.

Expecting me to like "The Doors" is pretty much the same as expecting me to subscribe to "Rolling Stone" magazine and worship rock stars like the magazine does. "The Doors" is even worse than those Oscar bait films about a guy with some disability who's limited in life, because this is a guy who's just inflicting his own wounds for the hell of it. It's the difference between the degree of sympathy we feel towards Charlie Sheen verse Temple Grandin.

The Graduate-Not a particularly bad film, but not a film that isn't great either. It's got great performances, no doubt, but it's just about a guy screwing his dad's friend's wife. It's a little bit of a stretch to say it's a big symbolic statement about the 60's. The filmmakers themselves said that the cross symbol at the Church scene was entirely by accident (I'll have to double-check but I believe that's the case)

Heaven can Wait and Shampoo-If Heaven can Wait is a best picture nominee, then I absolutely agree with Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes: Ghost Town (or "Heart and Soul" or "Ghost Dad", take your pick) got robbed of a best picture nomination too. It's just a lightweight relatively fun film.

"Shampoo" is really a film about nothing except how studly and charismatic Warren Beatty is and how his politics and problems are interesting. Oh, and it was written by Warren Beatty himself. Nothing against Beatty (he comes from my hometown) but the guy's overrated. He's basically got one go-to move as an actor: shrugging his shoulders like the world is too hard for him. I don't think the quality of his films would be damaged that much if Matt LeBlanc replaced Beatty in every role he played.

The Queen-David Spade, when he was the anchor of "The Showbiz Show" said it best: This was a film that boiled down to about whether to read a press release or not.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The "Pinky" Controversy and Race Theory

Thank you to all the new subscribers. I promised you all no more than 5 or 6 e-mails a month, but I'm just becoming more and more productive lately on the writing front. Click here for a Fun 10-Question Film Industry Quiz

I've read a couple books (Reel to Real by Bell Hooks and Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks by Donald Bogle) that examine movies from an African-American perspective and they spend the book finding a reason to criticize every single movie and be critical of absolutely everything.

According to one book, Whoopi Goldberg did a lot for the image of black people by showing strong empowered characters on screen, but oh no, she was usually not romantically paired with anyone in films, which sends the message that empowered African-Americans can't find love. The other book doesn't take exception to whether Goldberg's characters were paired romantically, but said the opposite of the first: Whoopi Goldberg bowed to white expectations by infusing too much colloquial dialogue into her films. And I kid you not: another book says that the dance scene between Goldberg and Demi Moore being switched for Patrick Swayzee in "Ghost" was a crack at how uncomfortable whites are at depicting blacks in lesbian relationships.

I absolutely applaud looking at films from a racially critical perspective, but a lot of these African-American critics are so damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't with anything, that why even try to make a racially conscious film if you're not Spike Lee?

I look at this great Elia Kazan film I just recently watched from a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don't perspective. The film features the trials and tribulations of a light-skinned half-black woman (known as Patricia in the North and Pinky back home) as she goes back to her only surviving relative (her black grandmother) after graduating from nursing school in the North.

Complaints about the movie center around the fact that Pinky is played by an entirely white woman and that the filmmakers were too cowardly to cast a woman of color.

I choose to applaud the fact that the film was more progressive than films of its era.
By Jeannie Crain playing the part of the white character, it helped make the film marketable to white audiences. White people would see the film because Jeannie Crain was starring in it and the message would be spread to them whether they liked it or not. There were plenty of films showing black people being abused and they never reached mainstream white America, and I think the subset of the population that would have been enlightened by seeing the film, is also the same subset of the population that wouldn't bother seeing the film if it just starred Ethel Walters and Lena Horne. Why go through all that expense to make a socially conscious film if you're just preaching to the choir?

I also think seeing Jeannie Crain as a black person really drives the point home about how inane racism is. As Julian Bond, NAACP president once said race is a political construct, you often have more in common with someone of a different race genetically than you do of someone in your own race. I've already seen movies of black people being abused, but I've never seen a film of a person of Jeannie Crain's color being abused like a black person.

I admit, I wish they put her in a tanning salon or made some effort to make her a little bit darker, but there are probably some half-black people of her level of pigmentation out there. Putting in an actual mulatto woman who wasn't as famous as Jeannie Crain and couldn't draw in as many people would have been counter-productive, don't you think?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Passage to India Review

David Lean’s films are epics, which I would define as at least a half hour longer than they need to be. The plot and storyline meanders but if it’s a good plot, you’re in for a grand adventure. It’s like National Geographic meets Shakespeare. The films tell dramatic stories while taking you on a journey to an exotic place, whether it’s the deserts of Arabia, the jungles of Southeast Asia, or the frigid winters of Russia on the eve of revolution.

In this case of “A Passage to India,” it’s a story about the grandeur of India (circa 1928) and the racial prejudice, national loyalty and sexual repression that lurks underneath. At the start of the film, the plot centers on the bonding between the fiancée and the mother (known only as Mrs. Moore) of a stuffy colonial magistrate as they form similar anti-establishment attitudes. They both want to “see the real India” and they don’t approve of the insular attitudes of the whites towards the natives. A college professor is sympathetic to their cause and arranges a luncheon with an Indian colleague (Alec Guinness in brown face) of his as well as a local doctor. The doctor proposes they go on a trip to the caves where trouble happens. The doctor and the betrothed Mrs. Quested get separated from the group where something happens in the cave (we’re not shown what) and the doctor is accused of rape.

The interesting thing about Lean’s films are that they’re too big for any one character. By the third act, the film isn’t even really about Mrs. Moore, Mrs. Quested, or the stuffy magistrate but rather the bonds of trust between the doctor and the college professor trying to see that justice is served to him.

The “what happened in the cave” mystery is one of those “Was the top spinning or not?” moments that makes the audience engage with the material and ask questions. It points the way to some complex symbolism (I’ve gotten a whole new appreciation for the film after seeing explanations from various message boards) and shows the film really has a lot to say and wonderfully subtle ways of expressing them.

If I can level one criticism, there were characters in the film who were boorish and apathetic to the British-Indian inequality and a very few liberal-minded people and almost nothing in between. If Mrs. Moore had the ability to look at the situation and see this is wrong, why was her own son (you'd think they'd share some of the same values) so distanced from that viewpoint that he couldn't even fathom it? If Fielding had a rational awareness of racism, he seemed to be the only one in the club. When society got progressive enough to realize slavery was wrong, even the ones who owned slaves could fathom the other side's argument. It felt like in this film, Fielding and his two friends were just living amongst zombies.