Friday, January 31, 2014

My Favorite Krzysztof Kieslowśki Movie

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski began his career as a documentary filmmaker, and when he moved into fictional features, his work was frequently characterized by a strong sense of realism and social commentary, particularly in his "Decalogue" project. However, he also had a strong spiritual side, which he explored in his later films using far more stylized, almost experimental visuals. The first of these was "The Double Life of Véronique," the story of two identical women, one Polish and one French, who have never met but share a mysterious bond with each other.

Irène Jacob plays both the Polish Weronika and the French Véronique. First the film follows Weronika, an aspiring soprano who sings with a choir. She has a boyfriend, a good relationship with her family members, and displays a liveliness of spirit that she attributes to a recent epiphany that she is not alone in the world. During a trip to Kraków she gets a brief glimpse of Véronique, who is visiting as a tourist. Shortly thereafter, the narrative switches to Véronique's POV. She is a music teacher who works with children, and pursues a romantic relationship with a children's book author, Alexandre (Philippe Volter). Though her situation is very different, parallels keep appearing with Weronika's life. Véronique is also aware of the strange connection to her double, though her reaction to this is more ambiguous.

With a highly subjective, free-flowing narrative and a heavy emphasis on metaphysical themes, "The Double Life of Véronique" often feels like a visual poem. Much depends on mood and atmosphere, and Kieślowski's use of imagery to evoke so many different emotions and states of being is exceptional. I especially love Weronika's section of the film, where she's frequently in this heightened state of joy and wonder - singing during a downpour, or viewing the passing landscape through a translucent rubber ball during a train ride. This behavior could become contrived very quickly, but Irène Jacob's performance is excellent, and her presence is magnetic. It's impossible to take your eyes off Weronika, or fail to be caught up in everythng she experiences.

And then we meet Véronique. Is she the same person as Weronika? Is the grief and doubt she feels connected to Weronika's joy? She also has her moments of experiencing wonder, watching a puppetry performance with a group of children, which provides the impetus for her storyline. However, Véronique's life is more complicated and her outlook more subdued. Story becomes more important in her section of the film, namely a mystery involving a casette tape that turns out quite differently from what she expected. Would Weronika have reacted differently? What was Véronique hoping to find?

Movies offer a different, altered way of looking at the world, and in many ways this is the central idea of "Véronique." The two versions of the heroine are different lenses through which we see similar events, emphasized by their own habit of gazing at things through looking glasses and mirrors. Perception has a great effect on their lives, though they aren't fully aware of it, similar to how the three different timelines in Kieślowski's earlier film "Blind Chance" are the result of a few minor choices made by the main character. It doesn't surprise me that multiple versions of "The Double Life of Véronique" were created, each emphasizing different aspects of the whole.

The pace here is slow and deliberate, creating a meditative story full of small wonders. The puppetry performance, for example is a rare delight, a little-seen, old-fashioned form the art where we see the puppeteer's hands manipulating the puppets. The rain storm at the beginning of the film comes out of nowhere, but Weronika's reaction to it is equally unexpected, resulting in one of the most beautiful images in the entire film. The film seems ot be full of symbols, though Kieślowski insists they were not intended as such. Perhaps it would be better to call them echoes of ideas and concepts that recur over and over throughout.

After "Véronique" Kieślowski would go on to make the "Three Colors" trilogy of similarly free-form, spiritual stories about people searching for meaning in their lives. "Véronique" often feels like a precursor to these films, especially the rich visuals that reflect the main characters' inner worlds. Though there is no emphasis on one particular color, as with "Blue," "White," and "Red," I always recall the film having a strong emphasis on golden and sepia tones, making everything feel slightly removed and unreal. Thus it is easier to accept the possibility of otherworldly, unnamed forces existing, affecting people on the most fundamental level.

And I appreciate that they remain an existential mystery, never to be explained. In Kieślowski's films, unseen connections, alternate realities, and doubles simply exist, and they are never questioned or really remarked upon. Perhaps Weronika and Véronique are actually separated twins, but that is entirely beside the point. Instead it is the intangible realm of feelings and instincts and the spirit that is explored, and Kieślowski's ability to bring that journey to the screen remains unparalleled.

What I've Seen - Krzysztof Kieslowśki

Blind Chance (1981)
The Decalogue (1988)
A Short Film About Killing (1988)
A Short Film About Love (1988)
The Double Life of Véronique (1991)
Blue (1993)
White (1994)
Red (1994)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Trailer Tiff

Have you become annoyed by the abundance of lengthy movie trailers that seem to spoil all the good stuff and marketing campaigns pushing movies so far ahead of their release dates that you lose track of when they're actually going to show up in theaters? Well, your complaints have not fallen on deaf ears. Well, sort of.

This week the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), a trade organization for movie theater owners, released a series of guidelines for the marketing materials for upcoming movies. The voluntary standards specify that trailers run no longer than two minutes, and run no more than 150 days before a movie actually opens, and other advertising such as aposters and standees displayed no more than 120 days prior. Potential loopholes involving third parties advertisers are also addressed. There would be some exceptions for special content such as behind-the-scenes featurettes, and each distributor gets two films a year that wouldn't be subject to these restrictions.

This would mean some drastic changes in the way marketing campaigns are run, which often release their earliest teasers over a year in advance of a film's release date. The date restrictions would mean that a summer tentpole opening on Memorial Day would have to wait until Christmas to start campaigning. Remember that great teaser for the upcoming Christopher Nolan movie "Interstellar" that was released back in December? Under the new rules, it would have to be kept under wraps until June. The "X-men: Days of Future Past" standees that have been in the front window of my local theater since mid-December would have had to be kept under wraps for another month at least.

Teasers are usually two minutes or less, but the later full-length trailers usually run at least two and a half minutes. Most of the reports I've seen about the guidelines make the assumption that the shorter length is meant to discourage spoilers, which there have been increased complaints about recently. However, I don't think that's the case. Thirty second television commercials are often the most spoiler-laden bits of advertising, and it would be as easy to divulge third act secrets in two minutes as it is in two-and-a-half. And while everyone seems to agree that the spoilers are annoying, they haven't really been affecting the theaters' bottom lines. However, shorter trailers mean that theaters can play more trailers or more pre-show advertisements, which they've become increasingly reliant on for revenue.

A year ago, we were getting reports that larger exhibitors were regularly charging studios to play certain trailers, because the advertising space in front of the features was becoming more and more valuable. Most theaters now run one or two trailers attached to a film for free, but the rest have to be paid for. And because more trailers bring in more revenue, over the past decade we've seen a steady rise in the number of trailers that play in front of a film. You'll notice that the new NATO guidelines don't address a common complaint of moviegoers these days, which is that there are too many ads and coming attractions in front of a film. It's not rare to find films that actually start twenty minutes after they've been scheduled because of all the previews.

The new guidelines would go into effect for movies opening after October 1st. They're voluntary, remember, but it's the theaters that decide which trailers play in front of which movies, and where to place the posters and standees, so if they're all onboard with the new rules, the studios may be out of luck. Sure, print, television, and online advertising are major alternatives to consider, but the trailers that play in theaters are special. It's an audience that the studios know will be the most receptive, that is paying attention, and can't change the channel. Trailers are considered part of the normal moviegoing experience, and some viewers still take pains to arrive early so they won't miss any.

And lest you think the theaters are being too stingy about this, remember that the studios have been the ones who have been cutting into theater owners' ticket revenues by shortening the amount of time that movies play in theaters exclusively. It's not uncommon to find new studio movies on disc a mere 90 days after their initial release dates, and there was talk recently of premium VOD cutting that number in half. The way that the theaters and studios split ticket sales, the longer the run of a film, the more money goes to the theaters. So you can hardly blame the theaters for pushing back and exercising their leverage over the studios' marketing campaigns.

As for us consumers, nothing much changes. Even if we get shorter trailers, we'll probably sit through more of them, and longer versions will still be released online. They'll be easier to avoid, at least. The fight is really between the theaters and the studios over money, and the preferences of the viewers make for good P.R., but they're really a secondary concern for both sides.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014's Movie Anniversaries

It's not always easy to find something media-related to write about - eventually this flood of movie reviews is going to run its course, and there's not much coming out in theaters for the next few months that I have much interest in. So, digging into the past is a common way to fill column inches and rack up pageviews. Over the past month I've noticed a significant uptick in stories about Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." And over on Reddit, suddenly there was a flurry of posts about the Jamaican bobsled movie "Cool Runnings." Why are these movies being discussed now? "Dr. Strangelove" was released in 1964 and is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. "Cool Runnings" was released in late 1993 and just celebrated its twentieth. Also, the current Jamaican bobsled team qualified for the Sochi Olympics, so that's a nice tie-in to current events.

Other 2014 film related anniversaries include the the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Charlie Chaplin's beloved Little Tramp character, and the 75th anniversary of MGM musical "The Wizard of Oz." The internet generation will be happily revisiting 1994, and I expect lots of chatter about "Forrest Gump" and "The Lion King" to come up as we move closer to summer blockbuster season, and to a lesser extent "The Mask," "Pulp Fiction," and "Speed." "Dumb and Dumber" is sure to get a boost from the imminent arrival of its new sequel, "Dumb and Dumber To." Older audiences may take more interest in some of the other films turning fifty: "My Fair Lady," "A Hard Day's Night," "A Fistful of Dollars," and two Connery era James Bond films, "From Russia With Love" and "Goldfinger." The top grosser of 1964 was "Mary Poppins," which is already enjoying a lot of press thanks to the recent release of "Saving Mr. Banks." And though "Oz" may be the perennial children's classic, there's another 1939 film that also retains a fervent fanbase to this day that is sure to generate some nostalgic attention: "Gone With the Wind."

These anniversaries may feel arbitrary and pointless, but I love them. I'll take any excuse to talk about the classics. Hollywood is often so fixated on the newest, shiniest baubles, that films as little as three years old feel like ancient history. If anniversary years divisible by five are the only times that the mainstream media gets to revisit and discuss a particular film, so be it. Personally, I find it vital to keep looking back at older films in order to have the proper context to form opinions about the ones in the present day. There are precious few satires as biting and effective as "Dr. Strangelove," or children's films as delightful and watchable as "Mary Poppins," even after fifty years. The most popular movies have shelf lives that span decades, and cultural clout that grows far greater than anyone could have anticipated.

The studios take full advantage of anniversaries too, of course. Many of the films I've listed will see special DVD and Blu-Ray rereleases in new packaging for the occasion. "The Wizard of Oz" already enjoyed an IMAX 3D rerelease last fall, had a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and this year will be the subject of an Oscar tribute at the upcoming 2014 ceremony. The "Oz" tie-in media have been coming fast and furious, including a new animated children's film and several "Oz" themed television projects in development. The merchandise, of course, has been everywhere. Poke around on Amazon, and you'll find books, calendars, toys, clothing, collectibles, jewelry, toiletries, and even a special edition of Monopoly with the 75th Anniversary branding on them.

Of course, while the big crowd-pleasing films get the bulk of the attention, smaller films also benefit from celebrating anniversaries. The aforementioned "Cool Runnings" is a fun little Disney sports movie that came and went quickly in 1993, but since it's popped up again in the pop culture consciousness this month, I've come across a couple of good critical pieces looking at how it subverted many conventions and had a fairly unusual narrative for a feel-good commercial Disney product. In the past, anniversaries have raised the profile of older films enough to get me to seek them out, and I expect the same thing will happen again for a few titles this year.

So my dear cineastes, start getting ready for the debates on how the twenty year-old "Pulp Fiction" changed Hollywood forever, and how well the fifty year-old "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" has held up. And maybe finally watch "The Pawnbroker" with Rod Steiger, which marked both the end of the strict Hollywood production code and the beginning of Morgan Freeman's film career half a century ago. It's a special occasion after all.

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Blue Jasmine" and "Rush"

Still working through the backlog.

It's hard not to assume that Cate Blanchett's much lauded performance in the 2008 revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" lead to her role in Woody Allen's modern-day retelling, "Blue Jasmine." Blanchett has confirmed in interviews, however, that Blanche DuBois never came up, and maybe that's why "Jasmine" works as well as it does.

Instead of a fading Southern belle in New Orleans, Jasmine Francis (Blanchett) is the ex-wife of a disgraced New York businessman, Hal (Alec Baldwin), who was shipped off to prison after various financial crimes. Jasmine, still clinging to the remnants of her life of wealth and privilege, goes to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger's fiancé Chili (Bobbly Cannavale). Jasmine hopes to get a fresh start, but has trouble adjusting to a working class lifestyle and keeps looking for a way to climb back up the social ladder - and wants Ginger to take the climb with her.

Woody Allen fans should take note that "Jasmine" falls in line with Allen's darker morality tales like "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point." The film is primarily a showcase for Blanchett's performance, and to a lesser extent Sally Hawkins, with some good assists by Cannavale, Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Skarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Louis C.K as their various suitors and ex-suitors. Jasmine is a wonderful creation, a self-deluded, status-obsessed snob whose ego overpowers good sense at every turn. And yet it's hard to dismiss her, especially as we see more and more of the fascinating contradictions that she maintains to allow her to keep behaving as she does. Blanchett's been getting raves and deserves them.

Though I wouldn't put it up there with the classics, this is definitely one of the better films Woody Allen has made in recent years, with a strong ensemble, timely material, and only occasional stylistic flourishes that can immediately be attributed to Allen. However, taken in the context of the past run of films he made in Europe, this feels like Allen returning to a post-financial crisis New York and trying to grapple with some of the resulting cultural shifts. Also, it's fascinating that the basic framework of "Streetcar" barely needs any updating or substitutions to be applied to modern characters. And I can't think of anyone who could have adapted it better.

And now, on to something completely different.

I still have my trepidations about sports films, and I've been pretty cool toward Ron Howard's work in general. "Rush," however, piqued my interest. It follows the rise and rivalry of two European Formula-1 racecar drivers, the English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and the cerebral Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), culminating in the exciting 1976 season where the championship came down to only one point and a nail-biting final race.

I don't know a thing about Formula-1 racing except that the culture around it is a fervent as it is for any other major sport, and there are significant barriers to entry for those who want to participate. Fortunately "Rush" provides a good primer, following both drivers from obscurity into the spotlight, showing how both of them managed to excel in the sport, taking different paths to the winners' circle. Initially it seems that Hunt will be our protagonist, and if you've seen much of hte marketing for "Rush," it's Chris Hemsworth's face on all the posters and Daniel Brühl has been credited as a supporting actor. However, Lauda quickly comes to share the narrative on equal terms with Hunt, and Hemsworth and Brühl are co-leads for all intents and purposes.

The racing sequences are wonderfully put together, often capturing the intensity and the peril through the drivers' POV shots. There are a lot of fancy cars on display and lots of beautiful recreations of famous races. However, the racing drama only has momentum because the performances are so good. Hemsworth demonstrates that he's perfectly capable of carrying a non-superhero film, putting his golden boy charm to very good use here. However, it's Brühl who really impresses, as the driven, prickly Niki Lauda. The examinations of the drivers' personal lives and their relationships don't detract from the larger story, and I was thrilled to discover that the biggest stakes in the film really don't hinge at all on who walks away with the championship title.

The real Niki Lauda, who is still with us, has commented that he was surprised at how little embellishment there was in "Rush," how Howard and his team resisted the urge to Hollywood-ize the story. I don't think that's entirely true, as "Rush" does qualify as a feel-good sports film by any measure. However, it does nicely avoid a lot of common cliches, and the narrative has a welcome complexity and grounding that is more concerned with the character studies than the races. And Lauda and Hunt are a pair of subjects who are fascinating enough to sustain it.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Considering "12 Years a Slave"

No movie this year has as much cultural baggage as "12 Years a Slave," arguably the first mainstream film to depict the American slave system from the point of view of an African-American, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Race relations are still such a thorny subject here that it took a black British filmmaker, Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor), and a mostly British cast to do it. This year "12 Years a Slave" has become an almost obligatory title, the Very Important Film that everyone should see, and thus the target of claims that it's just your usual Oscar bait.

This ignores that the film, regardless of its subject matter, is an intensely effective and moving piece of work with impressive artistic and technical chops. It's one of the best films I've seen this past year by any measure. It's not what I'd call entertaining, and I expect that it will be too much for some viewers, but it is an edifying, illuminating, and frequently fascinating look at a chapter of American history many would rather forget. If you know the other films of Steve McQueen, "Hunger" and "Shame," this doesn't come as much of a surprise, but the scope and ambition of this project is much greater than anything he's been associated with before.

Northrup was a free black man who lived in New York, and was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in Louisiana under the name Platt. He spends twelve years as a plantation laborer, first for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then the brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). Solomon becomes close to other slaves along the way, including Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and Epps' favorite, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). McQueen not only examines the struggle of one man under extreme oppression, but the ways in which the slave system operates and affects the entire society.

"12 Years a Slave" is being marketed as a prestige picture, but it's so far outside the realm of the usual polished, inspirational African-American biopics like "The Butler" or "Ray," it's hard to find points of comparison. McQueen is not a mainstream director, and has a refreshing disregard for his audience's comfort level. There are precious few moments of uplifting release, and though he does frame events in a way to spare us fro the most graphic moments of violence, it still conveys the full extent of his characters' suffering. There's much more emphasis on environment, on subtle behaviors and mannerisms. I found more in common with unsettling art house auteur work like "There Will Be Blood" or "The Master" than any of the race-themed pictures Hollywood has made in recent years.

There have been some concerns about the brutal content in the film, and yes, there are very uncomfortable scenes of whippings, hangings, dehumanizing nudity, and heavy usage of racial epithets. I didn't find any of these gratuitous, and they didn't rise to the level of being exploitative. The casualness of their usage, however, is shocking. In one of the most memorable scenes, McQueen demonstrates that lynchings and hangings are so common in this era that people barely pay attention to the sight of a man on the end of a rope. But often it is the simplest humiliation tactics that are the most disturbing, coupled with institutionalized power imbalances that allow the perpetrators to act with total impunity.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o have been getting the bulk of the attention for their performances as Solomon and Patsey, and there's no question that they are stellar. I'm particularly happy to see Ejiofor in the spotlight after years of strong, varied performances. However, it's some of the actors in smaller roles that made the biggest impression on me. Adepero Oduye as the tragic Eliza and Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw are two sides of the same coin. Michael Fassbender's terrifying Epps is instantly memorable, but then there's his venomous wife played by Sarah Paulson, whose equally monstrous temper is constrained by the rules placed on her gender.

My only issue is really with the ending, where Brad Pitt sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe that's because he strikes me as an echo of the typical white savior character who toplines far too many other period films about this subject matter, like "Glory" and "Amistad." However, Pitt's appearance is brief, and in in the end it's clear that it's really dumb luck that saves Solomon Northrup, not faith, not perseverance, not bravery, and not love. It's a tough, cynical, and very necessary point, and I'm glad to see it.

I don't expect "12 Years a Slave" is going to have many imitators, but it's enough that it exists and has sparked some good conversations. There's no doubt that this is a watershed picture based on the content alone. But the fact that this is an culturally "important" and long overdue film doesn't take away from its overall excellence.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rank 'Em: The "Harry Potter" Movies

I think we need a little break from the prestige pics, don't you?

It's now been roughly two-and-a-half years since the end of the "Harry Potter" film series, giving us the necessary distance to look back more critically at the whole set. I saw all but two of the movies in theaters, and count myself as a casual fan. I was in college when the first installment hit the big screen, so nostalgia never really colored my view of "Harry Potter," and I'm pretty confident in my assessment of the individual movies, enough to write this post anyway. So from the best, to the least, here's how I rank the "Harry Potter" films:

The Prisoner of Azkaban - Bringing on Alphonso Cuarón to direct the third installment was a vital course correction after the two Chris Columbus films that were a little too faithful and a little too safe. "Azkaban" is darker, gloomier, and you start getting a sense of the bigger and more forbidding challenges that lay ahead. The kids begin to assert themselves more as actors, and the we see some real depth to the characters at last. Best of all, this one actually works very well as a film, drastically cutting down the book to its essentials and making some notable departures.

The Deathly Hallows Part I - It's been argued that this is the installment that is the least necessary to the series, because the last book was unnecessarily split into two movies. Not much action happens here, with most of the running time devoted to tidying up plot threads and setting up the big finale. However, this is one of the few times that things slow down enough that you actually get some solid character development among the three leads. I also think that this is one of the best looking of the "Harry Potter" movies, with all the outdoors scenes set in these beautiful winter landscapes.

The Order of the Phoenix - The first of the "Harry Potter" films to be directed by David Yates, who would go on to helm the entire second half of the series. I rank this one so high because it's such a vast improvement over the unwieldy book in showing Harry's growing pains and gradual emergence as a leader. It also features one of my favorite villains in the series, Dolores Umbridge, as played by Imelda Staunton, and introduced its best comic relief, Evanna Lynch's Luna Lovegood. The ending was a little on the rough side - the big death doesn't work in any version - but satisfying.

The Chamber of Secrets - I seem to like this one more than most people, because while it may be relentlessly pandering to children and drenched in whimsy, it is a lot of fun. You have the sequences with the flying car and the giant spiders, which were a big step up in special effects from the downright shoddy CGI work in the first film. There's also Kenneth Branagh playing the pompous Gilderoy Lockhart and all the stuff with Dobby, which help to make up for some of the shortfalls in the plotting. It's a good reminder that there were far worse choices to handle these early movies than Chris Columbus.

The Deathly Hallows Part II - This one would probably be a little lower on the list if it weren't for the excellent work of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape. As fun as it was to watch a full scale battle at Hogwarts, there was always the feeling that it wasn't nearly as big or as epic as it could have been. So many familiar faces show up for only a second or two of screen time, and Voldemort is not nearly as menacing as he was in some of the previous films. Still, credit is due for sticking a tricky landing and ending the series in a much better place than were it began.

The Half Blood Prince - I haven't revisited this one since I first saw it, but I do recall how badly the big events of the ending got bungled and how that really undermined the rest of the film. Nonetheless, I liked the more melancholy atmosphere, especially the Draco sequences. Romance was never the strong suit of "Harry Potter," and it's a shame that it takes up so much of this movie. I wouldn't say Harry and Ginny's relationship is handled badly, but it feels inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, and not enough time is spent really ramping things up as we go into the finale.

The Sorcerer's Stone/The Philosopher's Stone - It's actually something of a shock to look at this film now and realize how mediocre it is. The effects are really very poor in places, especially anything involving the fantasy creatures. And it's almost off-putting how aggressively it pushes its fluffy fantasy aesthetic, with the oversaturated bright colors and bombastic John Williams score. Still, it does manage to present some lovely images, has a great sense of humor, and critically had all the right talent and casting in place to propel the series forward into much more ambitious territory.

The Goblet of Fire - Sorry Mike Newell, but I disliked "Goblet of Fire," which took a downright campy and goofy approach to a story that I thought was supposed to be another step toward darker and more grown-up material. This is the one where all the boys had long hair, a lot of time was wasted with a school dance, and we had what was possibly the worst acting by Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in all eight films. I was really worried about the series after this one, and it was a relief that none of the subsequent sequels got this wacky again.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Unleashing "The Wolf of Wall Street"

How old is Martin Scorsese again? Just when you thought that the venerable director's tastes had turned to handsome mainstream genre pictures like "Shutter Island" and "Hugo" for good, along comes "The Wolf of Wall Street," which finds him pushing the boundaries of good taste with material so gloriously depraved, you'd swear he never left the '70s. And Leonardo DiCaprio? It feels like he's playing a proper Scorsese anti-hero at last.

You may have heard of Jordan Belfort, the notorious Wall Street broker whose shady financial practices have already inspired one movie, "Boiler Room." This time around, Scorsese and DiCaprio take aim not just at Belfort, but at the entire system and culture that made a monster like him possible - and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. This probably doesn't say anything good about yours truly, but while many audience members have reacted with horror and dismay at the rampant sex and drug use depicted in the film, I loved every second of it, and viewed the most obscene moments with unfettered glee. Finally, after years of intense, scowling, leading men, DiCaprio has been given a role that requires him to be funny. Howlingly, absurdly, shockingly, despicably funny, several orders of magnitude greater than Calvin Candie of "Django Unchained," who now feels like a mere warm-up for this role. He may have been a great Gatsby, but he's a phenomenal Belfort.

The film follows Jordan Belfort from down-on-his-luck New York stock broker in the '80s to the founder of brokerage firm Stratton Oakmount, a fraud-riddled operation that made millions pushing penny stocks. Belfort and his chief cohort Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) are thoroughly corrupted by their wealth, indulging in sex, drugs, and hedonism around the clock. Belfort leaves his wife Teresa (Christin Milioti) for the more voracious blonde Naomi (Margot Robbie, who won't want for work after this). The FBI comes investigating, in the form of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and Belfort starts hiding his money overseas, with the help of a courier, Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal), and a Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin). But as Belfort's condition deteriorates, he finds it harder and harder to keep everything from collapsing.

I like to imagine that Martin Scorsese saw the visions of the American Dream run amok in "Spring Breakers" and "Pain & Gain" this year and figured that he could do it bigger and better. And boy did he ever. I have no doubt that it's thanks to Scorsese's involvement that "The Wolf of Wall Street" could be made in such epic fashion with top tier talents. And so we have Rob Reiner playing Jordan Belfort's father, who delivers expletive-filled rants at the drop of a hat. And Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's first boss on Wall Street, who extolls the virtues of prostitutes and cocaine. And the gorgeous, loving crane shots of the trading floor of the brokerage, crammed full of so many little details. And visions of Wall Street at the height of its 1990s decadence that are as indelible as the night clubs of "Goodfellas." And the film's massive three hour running time seems to fly by in no time at all.

Not everyone is happy about Scorsese plunging into this kind of material. The content, with its unapologetic raunch and record-setting profanity count, has been simply too much for some audiences to take. There have also been claims that Scorsese is making Jordan Belfort's lifestyle look too appealing, that he and DiCaprio are somehow excusing Belfort's horrendous behavior. I don't agree with this assessment at all. Sure, the brokerage bacchanalias are fun at first, and seeing DiCaprio and Hill cavorting with strippers has a high titillation factor, but the roof comes crashing down on them soon enough. The fact that their descent is really damn entertaining to watch, particularly the notorious Qualuude sequence, doesn't negate that.

I can't help comparing "Wolf of Wall Street" to "American Hustle," which in many ways pays homage to the Scorsese films of the '70s and '80s. But the difference between them is like night and day. Scorsese not only knows how to get great performances out of his actors, but he knows what to do with them. The movie is so beautifully constructed, the story perfectly coherent in spite of all the depicted chaos, and nails every theme and point and underlying message that it sets its sights on. Those who castigate the film for having no moral compass must have completely missed or misread the ending.

This is my favorite Scorsese movie in years, going back to "Casino" at least. And if you're a fan of his earlier work, this movie embodies the spirit of them for a new age like nothing else I've ever seen. Tread with caution, fellow moviegoers, but if this sounds like the kind of movie you might enjoy, go forth and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Faith and "Philomena"

"Philomena" looks like your typical British prestige project. There's a remarkable true story about a lost child at its center, dependable Judi Dench playing the little old Irish lady title character, and a good dose of humor and whimsy to lighten the pathos. The story is framed by the experiences of a reporter, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, who initially starts out as a cynic and a grump. He first dismisses Philomena's search for her son Anthony, who was forcibly separated from her and given to unknown foster parents by the nuns at a convent where she lived, as just a "human interest story." But after some further investigation and Odd Couple travels with Philomena, he comes away with a more agreeable worldview. Sounds like something perfect to take your parents to, doesn't it?

However, it's notable that the film was written by Coogan, a UK comedian with a long career in satirical programs, whose other big cinematic foray in 2013 was the "Alan Partridge" movie. Here he's put away the stings and barbs in the name of tackling more substantive, thoughtful material, but some of the sharper edged humor still gets through, and there is remarkably little sentiment, considering that so much of the story revolves around a missing child. One fascinating element that he does include is the discussion of faith. Philomena is a staunchly devout Catholic who doesn't blame the Church or the nuns for what happened to her, and Martin is an atheist with a far less forgiving nature. They clash throughout the film, often with very humorous results, and eventually learn to coexist. Dench and Coogan make for an entertaining pair, and keep the movie consistently watchable, even as the story treads on some very familiar territory.

The scope of the film is right. No grand monologues or weighty statements pass anyone's lips. The big dramatic moments are often fairly subdued. The larger fallout of the illegal adoptions is alluded to, but kept in the background. Instead of the lone woman against the monolithic Catholic Church narrative that we'd expect, events are kept very small and very personal, focusing on the relationship that develops between Martin and Philomena. Philomena herself is kept wonderfully human, full of conflicting doubts and worries every step of the way, but revealing great reserves of strength when necessary. She's one of the sweetest and most lovable characters I think Dench has ever gotten to play, but at no point is she overly idealized.

Coogan is an entertainer I've seen pop up in a variety of different projects over the years, but he's never made much of an impression on me, even where he's had major roles like in "The Trip." In "Philomena" he finally did, I think because there's an appealing self-critical streak in his portrayal of Martin Sixsmith, who is taken to task repeatedly for his caustic personality and alienating behavior. He also makes a good stand-in for the audience, who has probably sat through one too many of these uplifting issue pictures or quaint UK comedy-dramas over the years to be immediately receptive to Philomena's story. I hope that Coogan does this kind of material more often, because he's well suited for it.

A share of kudos should go to director Stephen Frears, who has a very eclectic filmography that ranges from thrillers like "The Grifters" and "Dirty Pretty Things" to romantic comedies like "High Fidelity" to prestige pics like "The Queen." His work on "Philomena" is quiet and restrained, distinguished by a few inventive touches like old home movie footage gradually filling in the details of Anthony's life as Martin and Philomena uncover more about him, and a title sequence where a young Philomena examines herself in a warped funhouse mirror. Most of the visuals are dominated by wintry landscapes and domestic interiors, with lot of subtle and not-so-subtle religious iconography peppered throughout.

There have been some criticisms of the film as being anti-Catholic, which strikes me as pretty absurd when the film has one of the most evenhanded approaches to faith and religion that I've seen in a while. A big part of Martin Sixsmith's arc is coming to the point where he respects Philomena's faith, even if he doesn't share in it himself. Moreover, there are all kinds of caveats and reminders that the crimes perpetrated against Philomena were only carried out by a few, and that the modern day Catholic Church is quite different from the old one.

There are few enough films that bother to acknowledge religion, let alone discuss it as frankly and and as candidly as Martin and Philomena do, as they get to know one another. And while the Church does play a big part in the film, the subject of "Philomena" remains the woman at its center, and her decisions in dealing with her private tragedies. And it's what makes it worth the watch.

Monday, January 20, 2014

“American Hustle” is a Bust

I didn’t know much about the controversial ABSCAM sting operation run by the FBI in the late ‘70s, and I made the mistake of assuming that “American Hustle” would clue me in on the important details. The movie has been billed as being about ABSCAM and the major players involved, but it’s not really interested in the scam itself. Rather, it’s a character study of con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are busted and then recruited by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him entrap a New Jersey mayor, Carmino Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is trying to raise the funds to rebuild Atlantic City. Rosenfeld’s plan involves a fake sheikh, a mobster played by Robert DeNiro, and the involvement of Rosenfeld’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who he’s been trying to figure out how to divorce without losing custody of his son. I’m not too clear on the details, because director David O’Russell doesn’t concern himself much with how the mechanics of the sting actually work. Instead, it’s all about watching all these big personalities clash, as played by a cast of familiar faces viewers might recognize from his previous films.

I suspect that if you liked O’Russell’s last two films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” you’ll probably like “American Hustle” more than I did. I’ve always found O’Russell hit-or-miss, and his emphasis on high-octane, improv-heavy performances has worked out well for some material but not so well for others. All the screaming and yelling in “The Fighter,” for example, was too shrill for me to take, but I thought the approach worked much better with a different set of actors and a different kind of story in “Silver Linings Playbook.” In the much more stylized ‘70s universe of “American Hustle,” with a mix of the cast from both movies, plus a few newbies like Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s hapless supervisor, I thought the final product split the difference. Individual scenes and smaller moments are wonderful, but it was difficult to track what is going on and what the stakes are in the story. Movies about con games usually depend heavily on the mechanics of the plot, and they’re almost totally missing here, instead putting the focus on the various relationships among these loopy characters. O’Russell’s directing, which felt so loose and free in “Silver Linings,” came across as kind of messy and obvious here, especially when it tried to pay homage to older films and other directors.

The film features some very good performances though, particularly from Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Adams in particular often feels like the voice of sanity in the picture, the one character who feels like a genuine human being in a sea of wackily costumed and coiffed caricatures. Christian Bale, for instance, sports an authentic pot-belly and an alarming comb-over that oversells Irving Rosenberg’s sleaziness. Fortunately, it’s an appealing sleaziness. Jennifer Lawrence is a lot of fun as Rosalyn, though her accent has a tendency to wander all over the place, and she’s a little too young for the role. Initially there are some bumps, but when Lawrence really gets going, she’s the most memorable thing onscreen. I could listen to her talk about her nail polish regimen all day, because she just sells it so well. Rosalyn could have easily just been another forgettable bimbo without Lawrence. Finishing off the main quartet is Bradley Cooper as DiMaso, who is trying as hard as everyone else to sell an image of himself that he feels he can’t quite live up to. I don’t think he manages as well as the others, thanks to a truly inexplicable FBI agent character whose motivations seem to boil down to being a little too eager to prove himself.

The big theme of “American Hustle” appears to be self-delusion, with all these characters chasing after big aspirations and working their own cons against each other, trying to figure out how to get what they really want without becoming a victim. The FBI sting just happens to be the biggest and most grandiose in conception. And from what I could decipher of what was going on, there was clearly the potential for a much more focused and biting piece of work here. There’s some satire that hits the mark, but most of the laughs in the film feel like they happened by accident, and any commentary on the hypocrisy of the law enforcement gets lost amid all the yelling and screaming. I know that David O’Russell’s capable of really black, biting satire, or at least he used to be before his films got taken over by over-the-top performances and big hair. Whatever happened to the guy who made “Three Kings”? I’d have loved to see that David O’Russell’s version of “American Hustle.”

This version? I found it occasionally entertaining, but a missed opportunity to do something much more substantive and interesting. And as good as this cast was, it pales in comparison with what I think they could have been capable of in a better movie.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

In Love With "Her"

It doesn't matter how ludicrous a premise is as long as the ideas behind it are strong the filmmakers are committed to it. And so it is with "Her," Spike Jonze's science-fiction fable about a quiet, depressed man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his new Siri-like operating system, or OS, named Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen). The film is frequently funny, but it takes the relationship between Theodore and Samantha absolutely seriously, and takes care to develop it like any other conventional romantic connection. The pair have their ups and downs, their problems and their issues. Theodore is still coming to terms with his separation with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), while Samantha's consciousness is still developing, and she has insecurities about her intangibility.

Because the relationship exists entirely in the conversations that the pair have, the film depends heavily on Phoenix and Johanssen, the later of whom is never seen onscreen. However, the dialogue is so strong and the actors are so committed, it works. Phoenix carries much of the film, often the only character onscreen, playing intimate scenes against nothing more than a voice in his ear. And then there's Johanssen, who manages to convey so much emotion and feeling through her monologues. I admit that I was skeptical when I heard that she was getting some awards attention for this performance, but after seeing the film it's not had to understand why. Samantha's believability as a sentient and vulnerable living being is what the whole relationship and the whole story hinges on, and she's easily one of the best artificial intelligence characters I've ever seen in film.

And around the couple, Spike Jonze creates a melancholy Los Angeles of the near-future, where human life is more intertwined with technology than ever. Creativity is still valued, though, and most of the characters we meet are artists of one kind or another. Theodore works as a writer of heartfelt personal letters. His best friend Amy (Amy Adams) is a documentarian. One of Samantha's many interests is in composing music. Instead of taking photographs to capture the moments between her and Theodore, she writes songs. The film has a unique, delicate atmosphere that is fiercely personal. Nearly everything we see is limited to Theodore's daily personal interactions, and the narrow scope is just right for the story. Larger issues about the ramifications of the OSs becoming part of society are hinted at, but "Her" is primarily concerned with being a love story, and brings up plenty of questions already.

The conversation surrounding "Her" has been fascinating to follow, because this is one of the first films to tackle this subject matter that is so sympathetic to the human that falls in love with the computer. Usually these stories have a dystopian bent, and getting too close to an AI is symptomatic of something wrong with the human partner or the relationship is supposed to be a metaphor for technology becoming too invasive. In "Her," Theodore is perfectly capable of romantic relationships with other women, as we learn from flashbacks to his marriage to Catherine and his efforts with a blind date, played by Olivia Wilde. In addition, Samantha may not be tangible, but it's the film's position that she's a real sentient being and the feelings between her and Theodore are real. So the problems that develop between them are no less valid than the problems faced by any other couple.

"Her" can be seen as a new take on the "My Fair Lady" story, where a romantic partner who is initially guided and defined by man eventually grows beyond his narrow conception of her and becomes something he couldn't anticipate. The commentary on life in the digital age also hits the mark. In a sense Samantha stands in for all technology, conceived of by well-meaning inventors to meet certain human needs, but that becomes an independent entity that takes on a life of its own, with unexpected consequences. I'd hesitate to call it a cautionary tale, though, because Theodore's relationship with Samantha is hardly more damaging than or unhealthy than one he might have had with a physical person.

This may be my favorite Spike Jonze film, because it's so personal and so idiosyncratic. Not that his earlier films weren't these things, particularly "Where the Wild Things Are," but none of them have been this unabashedly romantic. I love that it's not scared to be emotional and corny, and that Theodore is such a sensitive soul whose vulnerabilities are so easy to see. Phoenix's performance isn't very showy, but it's one of his best too. Freddie Quell from "The Master" was a lot of fun, but playing an ordinary man in love with someone that he never lays eyes on is something I don't think many other actors could have pulled off.

Considering the talent involved, I had pretty high expectations for "Her," but I didn't expect to be bowled over to this extent. "Her" is one of the best screen romances in recent memory, and one of the best science-fiction films too. It's easy to make fun of its silly premise, but "Her" makes the strong case that it may not be so silly after all.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Embracing the Second Window

I've gone on something of a movie theater binge over the last couple of days, thanks to a couple of gift cards I got for Christmas and an unusually strong Oscar season. Expect the flood of film reviews to continue over the next few weeks. However, there's also the very strong likelihood that this is the last Oscar season I'm going to be able to really be able to fully participate in for quite some time. You see, I've got a major life change coming my way this year that's going to mean my ability to go out to see movies in theaters is going to be drastically, drastically curtailed. I'm looking at my once-a-month habit going down to maybe one or two special trips to the theaters a year for the next couple of years.

This doesn't bother me too much, really. I've known it was coming for a long time now, and there really aren't all that many movies that I'm anticipating so much that I feel I have to see them in theaters. I've been going out less and less often anyway. Ticket prices have been going up in my area again, to the point where the cost of my usual morning matinees finally broke the $8 mark - that's a month of Netflix or Amazon Prime, remember. On the horizon, the next "Star Wars" movie in 2015 is probably the only title I'd seriously consider making an effort to see in a theater with a big audience. And in that case, thanks to Disney's content deal with Netflix, I expect it should show up on the usual streaming services no more than two years later, before the inevitable sequel comes down the pipeline.

Or there are always rentals, which I've been depending on more these days. Netflix and Redbox discs have been a pretty good substitute for Blockbuster. Itunes and I have been getting along, though I still have some quibbles about their selection. Most mainstream films are available by disc in four to six months these days, though as always the indies and foreign films take much, much longer because of different release patterns. However, more and more I've seen the proliferation of VOD, the "second pay window" that lets you watch a relatively new film from home for roughly the same price as a theater ticket (the first pay window is the theatrical run). I expect that this is how I'm going to end up watching a lot of the movies that I usually go to see in theaters - PIXAR and Disney films, superhero movies, and science-fiction spectacles.

Initially, I didn't really understand the appeal of VOD, but it does provide a nice middle ground between going to the theater and waiting for rentals. It didn't make sense to me not to wait an extra few weeks for a movie to hit the rental shelves that I didn't care enough about to see in theaters. However, I've found that I do place a value on seeing certain films in a timely manner. Oscar season's no fun if you haven't seen a good chunk of the major contenders and have the knowledge to form your own opinions and argue them. There aren't many movies that become real cultural touchstones anymore like "Inception" or "Avatar," but when they do appear, they tend to get cycled through the media and people's conversations at a much faster rate these days. If theater trips are out for the foreseeable future, then VOD is the next best thing. Waiting three months for a VOD release isn't too bad of a delay, but six months? Everyone else has moved on, and extra vigilance is required to avoid spoilers people will assume are common knowledge already.

Am I even going to be able to stay at all current with the media landscape though? Is it worth it to try? Probably not. I'm not even sure I can continue this blog in its current form once the major life change happens. Updates are probably going to be drastically reduced and irregular for a few months, but I am determined to keep this blog going, if only to keep my writing skills up. I don't think there should be much of an impact on the content though - I don't review many new movies and shows to begin with, and older content is often much more rewarding to write about than the blockbuster of the week. I'm usually not current with the television posts anyway. The more general media gossip isn't hard to keep up with, and speculation requires fairly little context if you've got a solid idea of how the industry works.

So watch this space for more changes, and be assured that though your friendly neighborhood Miss Media Junkie has some real life to deal with, she is still going to be hanging around in some capacity.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Disneyfying "Mr. Banks"

After my little rant about the omission of director Robert Stevenson from "Saving Mr. Banks," I figured I had better go and actually watch the film to make sure I wasn't making a mountain out of a molehill. I think my point still stands, with a couple of caveats. Yes, the movie is limited to examining the two weeks of pre-production on "Mary Poppins" in 1961 that Stevenson had nothing to do with. And yes, plenty of other creatives who were vital to the film ended up on the cutting room floor, including writer Bill Walsh. Yet the events of "Saving Mr. Banks" as they played out were largely invented and very skewed. Walt Disney did greet P.L. Travers upon her arrival to California, and then promptly left town, so it still rankles that his presence looms so large in the film and he's been handed such an outsized share of the credit for the success of "Mary Poppins."

If you put all that aside and buy into the fictionalized version of events, though, how was the movie? Not bad. It's an entertaining watch, particularly if you're a fan of the 1964 "Mary Poppins" film, which I am. Emma Thompson plays the uptight, combatative P.L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" books, who has been cajoled by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for over two decades to sell him the rights to make a "Poppins" film. Financial necessity forces her to board a plane to sunny Southern California, to work on a film treatment with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman). As Travers battles for creative control, we also learn the origins of "Mary Poppins" through flashbacks to her troubled childhood in Australia, when she was a little girl named Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) with a loving, but unstable alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).

The film starts out well enough, with Emma Thompson's performance a major highlight. P.L. Travers is a career curmudgeon, who hates cartoons and musicals, rolls her eyes at whimsy and sentiment, and makes impossible demands that change from one day to the next. Nobody likes her, with the exception of her cheerful driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), and she doesn't care. However, thanks to Thompson she isn't unlikeable. The scenes that take place at the studio, where we get to see some of the painful adaptation process for "Mary Poppins," is easily the best stuff in the film. This is also the material that is truest to history, since there are audio recordings of many of the initial story meetings with Travers and the "Mr. Banks" crew had one of the people who was actually in the room, Richard Sherman, to consult with.

Things get iffier with the portrayal of Walt Disney. Tom Hanks turns in a nice performance, but he's not playing Walt Disney as he was, but very much the corporate image of Walt Disney that he projected to the world, with a couple of minor faults like enjoying alcohol and the occasional cigarette. We get a few glimpses of the shrewd businessman who built the Disney empire, but you have to look pretty hard beneath the charming veneer of Uncle Walt. What's worse is the totally invented notion that the "Mary Poppins" film somehow purged Travers of some of her childhood demons, that Disney magic and Walt's insight into her psyche, rather than money, triumphed over her cynicism. This is the kind of sugarcoating that Disney detractors have always despised, and I couldn't help feeling pretty frustrated on Travers' behalf.

The film is well-made and well-executed, a feel-good bit of corporate self-gilding that most audiences should eat right up. If I had known less about the production history of "Mary Poppins" and Walt Disney, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more. The only really problematic stuff is the flashback sequences, which are commendably darker and tackle heavier subject matter than the usual Disney film, but they take up too much time and are rarely well connected to the events taking place in 1961. I wasn't surprised to learn that "Saving Mr. Banks" originally devoted far more attention to Travers' personal life and history, and the dealings with Disney were only added much later.

So all in all, I have very mixed feelings about the film. Thompson's performance is definitely worth the watch, and Disney fans should be happy to get a chance to see "Mary Poppins" concept sketches from the archives and the Sherman brothers working out the compositions for those iconic songs. But making-of films about famous films rarely manage to impress me, because there's too much of a tendency to glamorize real-life events, and this is just the latest example. The filmmaking process is fascinating enough without having to graft these tired old redemption plots into the works. I'm glad I saw "Saving Mr. Banks," but I wouldn't watch it again.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

The 2014 Oscar Nominations

It's that time again. The nominations for the 2014 Oscars were announced this morning, and boy do I have a lot to say about them. Let's jump right in with the Best Picture nominees. No big out-of-left-field "Amour" level surprises, but "Philomena" and "Dallas Buyers Club" were relative long shots that I'm glad to see made it into contention. Meanwhile, "Saving Mr. Banks" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" not only didn't make the list, but failed to secure any major nominations. "Blue is the Warmest Color," "The Butler," "Rush," and "Fruitvale Station" were totally shut out.

Going by the Best Director nominations, the frontrunners here are "12 Years a Slave," "American Hustle," "Gravity," "Nebraska," and "The Wolf of Wall Street." That means that in spite of the controversy, Martin Scorsese's picture still won over a good chunk of the Academy, and "Captain Phillips" has lost most of its steam since October. "Nebraska" seems like a bit of an oddball because of its low profile, but the Academy has been very receptive to Alexander Payne's work, and we have to remember the older skewing age of the voters here. "12 Years a Slave" looks like the leader of the pack at the moment, and "American Hustle" is probably due for some backlash.

On to the acting categories, and what on earth is Christian Bale doing in the Best Actor category over Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips" and Robert Redford in "All is Lost"? Or Oscar Isaac for "Inside Llewyn Davis" or Joaquin Phoenix for "Her"? Considering how competitive the category is this year, Bale's nod is a weird one. It feels like a coattail nomination that only happened because of the outsized support for "American Hustle." In Best Actress, there is a lamentable lack of Emma Thompson, and honestly a few too many of the same faces. I was hoping to see Brie Larson, Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, or Adèle Exarchopoulos steal away a slot from Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock.

In supporting, I think I'd find Jonah Hill's second Academy Award nomination a more palatable prospect if it weren't for the fact that he probably bumped out Daniel Brühl for "Rush." Bradley Cooper also didn't add much to "American Hustle," making this an oddly weak category this year. On the Supporting Actress side, I can't say I'm too upset about the Oprah snub. Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine," the underdog, gave the better performance. The weak link here is Julia Roberts, who was perfectly fine in "August: Osage County," but there were lots of more interesting work to choose from - Sarah Paulson, Lea Seydoux, Margot Robbie, and Scarlett Johanssen, for instance.

The writing categories reveal some interesting alternates. There's "Before Midnight" in Adapted Screenplay and "Blue Jasmine" in Original Screenplay, with "Gravity" the odd one out. And then there's Editing, which is usually one of the major predictors of awards glory. Of the five frontrunners, "The Wolf of Wall Street" was called out for some dodgy editing choices and doesn't appear here. Neither does "Nebraska." Instead, "Captain Phillips" and "Dallas Buyers Club" got the nods. The Cinematography category features a lot of interesting choices: "Inside Llewyn Davis," "The Grandmaster," and "Prisoners" join frontrunners "Nebraska" and "Gravity," though I think you could have made a good case for "12 Years a Slave" and "Captain Phillips" too.

On to the smaller categories. The nominations for Best Animated Feature aren't a surprise to anyone who's been following the race for a while, but I think "Monster University" should have gotten a spot over "Despicable Me 2" and "The Croods." And despite being the most talked-about documentary of the year, "Blackfish" didn't show up this morning in Best Documentary Feature. The Foreign Language Film category came out looking pretty toothless - what happened to "The Grandmaster"? How did "Wadjda" and "The Past" not even make the shortlist? "Blue is the Warmest Color" and "Like Father Like Son" really should have been in the running, and it's a shame they weren't submitted.

Finally some odds and ends. "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" picked up three nods in the Sound and Visual Effects categories. The much maligned "The Lone Ranger" picked up two for Makeup and Hairstyling and Visual Effects. "The Great Gatsby" got two for Production Design and Costume Design. Current box office champ "Lone Survivor" appears in both of the Sound categories. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is oddly missing from Best Song, despite getting so much love for its soundtrack, though it did pick up a nomination for Sound Mixing. I had to look up one of the other Song nominees, "Alone Yet Not Alone," which is is a super obscure Christian evangelist indie.

And scoring one nomination apiece are "Saving Mr. Banks," (Score) "All is Lost," (Sound Editing) "The Invisible Woman," (Costume) "The Book Thief," (Score) "Mandela Long Walk to Freedom," (Song), "Iron Man 3," (Effects) "Star Trek Into Darkness (Effects)

... and "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" for Makeup and Hairstyling. Heh.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

At "Fruitvale Station"

I was living in Oakland at the time the events depicted in this movie took place, but I wasn't living in the same Oakland as Oscar Grant was. Sure, I had a pretty up-close look at the aftermath of some of the rioting downtown in 2009, but it hardly made any impact on me. I commuted across the bay to San Francisco every work day and spent most of my time there. On the weekends I did my shopping in Chinatown and the more affluent areas around Lake Merrit. I was on the BART train nearly every day, but I certainly never had the same experience as a rider that Oscar Grant did.

Grant was African-American. He was from a lower-income background, had a record, and seemed to be a guy who everything was stacked against from the start. If he looked and talked like me, there's no question that he wouldn't have been singled out by the BART police in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009. And he wouldn't have become the victim of one of the most awful instances of police misconduct in recent memory. "Fruitvale Station" dramatizes the last day of Oscar's life, where we get to see the version of Oakland that he knew and experienced, leading up to that last ride on the BART train.

It would have been easy for filmmaker Ryan Coogler to idealize his protagonist and blame society for all his woes, and the screen version of Oscar has been called out for being too good to be true for some critics' tastes. However, I found Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan, a nicely humanized mixture of good and bad impulses. He's recently out of jail and trying to get his life back in order, spending time with a girlfriend, Sophina (Melanie Diaz), his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). A big portion of his last day is taken up with running errands for a birthday dinner for his mother, Wanda (Octavia B. Spencer). Oscar has a lot of potential, but he's also got an aggressive, angry streak. No one needs to explain that he brings a lot of the pain upon himself.

I also liked the portrayal of Oakland, which tends to get a bad rap in the Bay Area. It certainly has its problems, but in "Fruitvale" it's not the poverty-stricken, violence-plagued ghetto that it's often portrayed as. Instead, it's a realistic mix of people from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds across the spectrum. More importantly, none of the people Oscar meets comes across as anything other than an individual, even the police officers. There's a scene where he's in a grocery store, trying to reason with a former employer who fired him. The boss is reasonable, stays calm, and is entirely polite and sympathetic while Oscar is the one who loses his temper and comes off looking like a troublemaker.

Where the film runs into trouble is that the sequence of events feels entirely too contrived. There are too many chance meetings, too many coincidences, and too many points where you can tell that the filmmakers are trying to convey a point subtly, but end up hitting you over the head with a piece of symbolism or a line of dialogue. Frankly, too much happens to Oscar, requiring him to demonstrate multiple sides of himself in a way that is far too calculated. This is Coogler's first film, so some of these bumps are not unexpected, but because of his inexperience he does occasionally lose the nice sense of verisimilitude that sets this film apart from the more typical, polished studio issue films like "The Butler."

Fortunately the performances are good enough to carry the weaker material, and get us to the intense finale, where the shooting of Oscar Grant is recreated. We see events largely from the point of view of Sophina and Wanda, and it's here that Octavia Spencer really gets her chance to shine. I think I would have preferred the film if it had dropped the earlier sections of the story with Oscar making his rounds in the East Bay and focused solely on the shooting and aftermath, because there's more than enough going on in these sequences to sustain a full film.

But then we wouldn't have that great performance from Michael B. Jordan. And we wouldn't have some genuinely moving moments that help to set up that memorable finale. Ultimately, getting know Oscar Grant and the city of Oakland makes an impact, makes the shooting feel more real and immediate. I had some of the necessary context going into the film, but not all of it, and most viewers wouldn't be familiar with the community at all. So I'm glad the filmmakers took the approach that they did, and "Frutivale Station" was about more than just a shooting.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"Orphan Black," Year One

I want to get into some spoilers for the first season of this show, but since this is my first post about "Orphan Black," I'll write up a spoiler-free review first. The spoiler section will be clearly marked below.

It's been a while since I've really been hooked on a good genre show, and "Orphan Black" pushes all my buttons. It's a very tightly written, plot-intensive mystery serial where as soon as it looks like there's a status quo, events barrel forward that throw everything into uncertainty again. The characters are very, very strong, particularly the main character, Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany.

The early episodes follow Sarah, a young con-artist and thief, who sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide one night. Sarah seizes the opportunity and the woman's purse, and slips into her identity to empty her bank accounts. She then gets herself thoroughly entangled in the life of Beth Childs, who it turns out is a troubled police detective in the middle of a messy internal affairs investigation. Sarah has to fool both Beth's boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) and her police partner Art (Kevin Hanchard), but she's hoping to scam enough money to start a new life for herself and her seven year-old daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), currently under the care of Sarah's former foster mother, Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Sarah's only real ally is her gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), who is doing his best to keep Sarah's scumbag drug dealer ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) from stumbling across the scheme.

"Orphan Black" is a science-fiction show, but one that keeps the genre elements fairly light until well into the show's second half. This is not a very high-budget production, so it's not very flashy and relies heavily on character and story to deliver the thrills, and deliver it does. The writing is smart, the plotting is well-balanced, and it's a joy to watch Sarah finagle her way out of one bad situation after another, relying mainly on her wits. She's a great character, smart and sympathetic, but also very much a crook at the outset, prone to making selfish and shortsighted decisions. I'd have been happy if "Orphan Black" was just a con artist show, but as we learn more about Sarah and Beth, there's this whole, rich series mythology that gets introduced, a little at a time. At the end of the first season, there's still a lot more to uncover.

Tatiana Maslany is the backbone of "Orphan Black," and here's where I get into spoilers, because it's impossible to talk about her contributions to the show without getting into its secrets. So I urge you stop reading now if you haven't finished the first season yet.


I was initially worried that there were only two credited actresses in the main titles, but of course Maslany ends up playing seven different characters, and three of them can be counted as major protagonists by the last episode. It is absolutely astonishing the way that she differentiates the clones. It would have been so easy to rely on the different accents, or to pigeonhole Allison as the soccer mom or Cosima as the nerd, but these are fully fleshed out personalities who change and grow and have big, big arcs. It's especially apparent in the scenes where the clones are passing themselves off as each other - Allison trying to be Sarah, or Helena trying to be Beth. I often forgot that Maslany was playing multiple parts in many of these scenes.

The big conspiracy elements are fairly typical science-fiction stuff. Evil corporations and religious cults are familiar antagonists. So while I was glad to see the clones' origins being explored, it helps immeasurably that the show has set up all these other conflicts that are playing out at the same time. We have Art and the police investigation, Mrs. S. and Kira's part of the puzzle, and the subplots being developed for Cosima and Allison. The rate that revelations and information sharing happens is fanastic, so it always feels like thing are in motion. I'm sorry we lost Helena so soon, because she was one of my favorites, but then it would have been too easy for her to outstay her welcome.

There were a couple of things that didn't work as well as they could have. Vic was fun at first, but they're seriously going to have to rework him if he's still going to be a regular next year. Paul was initially my least favorite part of the show, but he got a good boost around the midpoint when he brought out the mercenary training. His future success really depends on how they use him though, because I'm not really sold on him as a love interest yet. The lack of romance has been one of the strengths of "Orphan Black." Far more successful were characters like Felix and Cosima's new girlfriend who grew on me as time went on.

Looking forward to year two, coming in April.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Don Jon" vs. Rom-Com

People have been complaining about the state of romantic comedies for years, me included, so it's nice to see one come along that happily subverts the status quo while still being, unarguably, a romantic comedy. Written, directed, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular ladies man, this film has been billed in some circles as a more realistic story about relationships from the point of view of a typical guy. The main character, Jon Martello, is a modernized version of the famous lover, a nightclub-hopping ladies' man who never gets emotionally involved with his conquests and admits that pornography is better at sexually gratifying him than his flings with actual women. There's a "Jersey Shore" vibe too, since Jon is Italian-American and from what appears to be the New York area. In short, this isn't your typical rom-com hero.

But then into his life comes the girl, the "dime," as Jon refers to her, a rare winner of the top score on the 1-10 scale that he and his buddies use to rate potential hookups. This is Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen), whose sex appeal is so high that she gets Jon to break many of his rules in order to win her over. He finds himself getting into a real relationship with her, and willing to meet her demands, including going back to school. The only real sticking point is Jon's consumption of internet porn, which Barbara has no tolerance for, and Jon finds difficult to give up. Does the real girl win out over the digital ones? Well, it's not as simple as that, and Jon discovers that he's got a few other issues that he needs to work out regarding his love life.

I'm not surprised that this film has gotten some mixed reactions, especially from audiences who traditionally enjoy romantic-comedies. "Don Jon" is so much raunchier and testosterone driven than your typical romance, initially it comes as something of a shock. We see R-rated, but still fairly graphic examples of the porn Jon prefers, and he describes his masturbation practices for us without a hint of shame. He uses pick-up-artist techniques and discusses women as disposable objects without hesitation. Jon is charming enough to get away with it, of course, but it's also clear that he is not bad person. He does nothing out of line with any of the women we see him with, but he's got certain notions about relations with the opposite gender that are troubling.

"Don Jon" offers some interesting commentary on the differing versions of ideal love connections that modern day men and women often subscribe to. Jon may have bought into the player culture to a potentially damaging degree, but Barbara has been similarly conditioned to expect the fairy-tale romance. Of course, she's a fan of more typical romantic comedies. Where did Jon's ideas about gender relations come from? Well, there's his family, headed by his hyper-masculine father, played with delightful brashness by Tony Danza. And then there are Jon's weekly trips to the church confessional, where all his myriad transgressions are easily confessed and absolved.

Jon doesn't interact with women who aren't family or don't score high on his rating scale, so the most important relationship he develops in the film isn't with Barbara, but with an older woman he happens to meet and become friends with at college, Esther (Julianne Moore). Most of the discussions of "Don Jon" I've read don't talk about her much, probably because her role involves a lot of spoilers. That's a shame, because she is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is the one driving the film, of course, but many of his better scenes are with Moore. I'm sorry to say that Scarlett Johanssen feels a little wasted. She looks great, but there's really not much to her character.

As for Gordon-Levitt as a director, this is certainly a promising first film, nice and light without feeling flippant, stylized without feeling overworked. Moreover, I find it encouraging that this is the kind of material he chose to tackle for his debut, a friendly tweak on a masculine ideal that fits right in with Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" and Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street." And he got to play a role that I don't think anybody would have thought to cast him as - mind you, I hope this isn't indicative of the role that Gordon-Levitt wants to play from now on. One movie with him as The Situation's stand-in was fun, but it could get old real quick.

"Don Jon" skews more guy-friendly, but I certainly enjoyed it and appreciated its aims. It should be an entertaining watch for anyone that doesn't mind a little smut and knows what they're getting themselves into. And for those of us tired of the usual rom-com formulas, it's a welcome change of pace.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Golden Globes Liveblog , Part II

6:27 PM: Hi Emma Thompson. And Emma Thompson's heels. Here comes Best Screenplay. Spike Jonze wins for "Her"! Well deserved too.

6:30 PM: Wow, Laura Dern is a redhead. She's doing the intro for her dad's movie "Nebraska." Can't wait to see this one.

6:32 PM: Best Actor in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy. They nominated Michael J. Fox for "The Michael J. Fox Show"? Really? Adam Sandberg wins for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"! Yay! Eat it Sheldon! Hey, most of the "Nine-Nine" cast is here. This is great.

6:37 PM: Okay, I wasn't going to comment on any of the commercials, but the ad campaign for "Muppets Most Wanted" with the fake Internet commenters is fantastic.

6:40 PM: Best Foreign Language Film. At least "The Wind Rises" got a nomination here after getting booted from the Best Animated Film category. "The Great Beauty" wins. I've seen it, and confess that it went right over my head. I don't think I know enough about modern Italian culture.

6:42 PM: Here's Tina and Amy still ragging on Julia Louis Dreyfuss. Please let this become a running joke. They're introducing Jimmy Fallon and Melissa McCarthy who are doing a bit where McCarthy thinks she's Matt Damon. It doesn't really work.

6:45 PM: Okay, Best Actor in a Mini-Series or TV Movie goes to Michael Douglas for "Behind the Candelabra" again. And if you're confused about that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" win the announcer referenced, he wasn't in it. He was a producer. Douglas is actually talking about the project's origins now, which not enough of these actors do.

6:52 PM: Best Animated Feature Film. Boring nominees, and I can' believe "Monsters Inc." lost out a spot to "Croods" and "Despicable Me 2." "Frozen" wins! If you've seen the box office totals, you know it doesn't need the awards boost.

6:54 PM: Colin Farrell introduces "Inside Llewyn Davis."

6:55 PM: Best Actress in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy time! Amy Poehler's getting a back rub from Bono. And she wins! And she's macking on Bono! I love this. Poehler and "Parks and Rec" never get enough credit. Smile, Rob Lowe!

7:01 PM: Here comes the Cecil B. DeMille award going to Woody Allen. No, he's not here tonight. I here it conflicted with his weekly jazz gig, as usual. I love this clip montage. It's giving me all the happy thoughts.

7:06 PM: Here's Diane Keaton to accept on Woody's behalf. It's so good to see her.

7:14 PM: He Liam Neeson to intro "Gravity." I have no idea what you have to do with "Gravity," but it's good to see you.

7:15 PM: Ben Affleck has arrived to present Best Director. No, he's not the new Redford. Redford is a much better actor, guys. And the award goes to Alfonso Cuaron! I don't think anybody predicted that one, but it bodes well for "Gravity" and its chances as the season rolls on.

7:19 PM: Aw, Tina Fey is ragging on Michael Bay. That's so sweet. Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy goes to "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Yay for the newbies! And damn right, you're getting renewed!

7:26 PM: Jennifer Lawrence is back to present Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy. Leonardo DiCaprio takes it! No guarantee that this means he's even getting nominated for the Oscar though. It's a really tough year. Enjoy that speech and get those thank yous out while you can, Leo.

7:29 PM: I like Reese Witherspoon as much anyone, but introducing "12 Years a Slave"? You couldn't find anyone more thematically appropriate?

7:35 PM: Good grief, it's Niki Lauda. He and Chris Hemsworth are here to introduce "Rush," which deserves the kudos it's been getting.

7:37 PM: Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy goes to "American Hustle." Found this one a little disappointing honestly, but at this point it's inevitable that it's going to be a frontrunner at the Oscars. Fellow Annapurna picture "Her" would've been my pick.

7:44 PM: Okay Leo, finish up here. Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama goes to Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine." Haven't seen most of the nominees here, but Blanchett was great as the neo-Blanche DuBois. Aw, I love the shoutout to Diane Wiest. And she's giving her own tribute to Woody Allen. Wow, she closed that one well. Looking forward to seeing her at the Oscars.

7:48 PM: Hi Jessica Chastain. After that great year she had, she seems to have disappeared for a while, which isn't a bad thing. Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama goes to Matthew McConaughey. Holy moly. I have no idea who is winning Best Motion Picture, Drama at this point.

7:55 PM: And Golden Globes favorite Johnny Depp is here to present the last award of the evening. My guess is "Gravity" for this crowd, but who knows at this point. "12 Years a Slave"! Wow. Since it missed out on all the other awards, I thought it was out of the running. Steve McQueen still gets his chance in front of the microphone. Go Steve!

And we're done. Need some time to process, but there were some nice surprises and nearly every film and show I was really rooting for walked away with something. Ceremony was nice and brisk, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler nailed it as usual. Good evening all around.

'Night folks!

Golden Globes Liveblog , Part I

This is my first liveblog in a while. Haven't seen nearly all the nominees yet, but I've done enough catching up this week that I've got a decently well informed opinion.

5PM PST: Here we go.... Hi ladies! Tina and Amy, good to have you back.

5:04 PM: No selfies with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Got it.

5:06 PM: I really need to see "The Wolf of Wall Street."

5:08 PM: This monologue wins Best Use of Martin Scorsese.

5:12 PM: Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture time. Jennifer Lawrence wins! I was rooting for Lupita Nyong'o, but I love it when Jennifer Lawrence wins anything.

5:14 PM: Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-Series or TV Movie. Jacqueline Bisset wins. Haven't seen any of the nominees, but in a category this crazy, who has?

5:15 PM: Bisset is clearly totally unprepared, but she's recovering wonderfully. Oh, and there's the first censor mute of the evening.

5:21 PM: Best TV Movie or Mini-Series already? Of course it goes to "Behind the Candelabra." How could it not?

5:25 PM: Best Actress in a Mini-Series or TV Movie goes to Elizabeth Moss. YAY! First major award win for Moss and "Top of the Lake," which needs the attention. And that's a great dress.

5:27 PM: Hi Matt Damon. He's getting funnier as he gets older. Why is he introducing "Captain Phillips"? I have no idea, but there it is.

5:33 PM: Tina and Amy are making fun of the HFPA. Nice. The president's speech is nice and brief though.

5:35 PM: Ooh, teleprompter snafu. I've heard good things about Margot Robbie, and this is not the best introduction. Oh well. They intro "Wolf of Wall Street."

5:38 PM: Best Actor in a TV Series, Drama. No clips? Aww, too bad. Bryan Cranston wins, because how could they give it to anyone else this year?

5:40 PM: Good grief, it's weird seeing Cranston with hair on his head and no beard. He looks like Hal from "Malcolm in the Middle" again.

5:42 PM: Best TV Series, Drama. Why is "Downton Abbey" the only one that lists a season? Must be some sort of submission requirement thing because their seasons run so short. "Breaking Bad: wins. Here comes Vince Gilligan.

5:43 PM: And we got Aaron Paul's "Yeah bitch!" unbleeped.

5:47 PM: Only reason why they would have Philomena Lee here with Steve Coogan. Yup, intro for "Philomena."

5:49 PM: Kate Beckinsale, Sean Combs, and Usher? This is an interesting trio. They're here for Best Score. Mostly films that aren't major contenders. Alex Ebert wins for "All is Lost" wins. The man's hair is amazing.

5:54 PM: And now Best Song. Bono wins for "Ordinary Love" from the "Mandela" movie. I thought "Please Mr. Kennedy" or "Let it Go" had this one. Mandela effect, maybe?

6:01 PM: Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Mini-Series or TV Movie, Did I miss an intro? Who are these presenters? Anyway, Jon Voight wins for "Ray Donovan" out of left field. At least they nominated Corey Stoll, which they Emmys didn't get right.

6:04 PM: Olivia Wilde here to intro "Her."

6:09 PM: Hi Robert Downey Jr. If this acting thing goes south, he's got a great career in standup waiting for him. Best Actress In A Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy. Please let him present an actress category every year, Golden Globes. Amy Adams wins. "American Hustle" is on a roll today. I've actually seen every performance in this category and Adams wouldn't be my pick, but I understand why she won. She's way overdue.

6:14 PM: Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon's daughter is Miss Golden Globes this year. And... Amy Poehler's in drag as Tina Fey's fake adult son, Mr. Golden Globes. Best Actress in a TV Series, Drama. Go Tatiana! Why is Taylor Schilling in this category again? Robin Wright wins for "House of Cards" and good for her. No speech, but she's killing it anyway.

6:18 PM: Hi Jim Carrey! Where have you been? It feels like it's been ages since I've seen him out for one of these things. Anyway, he's doing the intro for "American Hustle."

6:20 PM: And here's Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, because he's probably the only one they could get to pronounce Daniel Brühl correctly. Jaren Leto wins for "Dallas Buyers Club"! I was rooting for Fassbender, but it's hard to argue with this one.

We're hitting the halfway mark, so it's time to start a new post. To be continued...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Top Ten '90s "Simpsons" Episodes

I resisted doing a "Simpsons" list for a long time for the usual reasons. It's been too long since I've seen many of the episodes. I quit watching regularly around the ninth or tenth season (though it seems like nearly everyone else did too). And my picks are heavily influenced by nostalgia since I saw most of the early seasons in junior high. However, I don't hesitate to call myself a "Simpsons" fan and we've got history together. So I'm adding the caveat that these are my favorite episodes of "The Simpsons" from the '90s. The 1999-2000 season is when Maude Flanders died and Apu had octuplets, to give you an idea of where the cutoff point is.

As usual, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate.

"The Way We Was" - The story of how Marge and Homer got together is one of the absolute essentials, the bedrock on which so much of their relationship and the show has been built. In the early years "The Simpsons" was still very much about the family's dynamics, and even though it spoofed on the tropes of suburban life sitcoms, it was still part of the category itself. The episode is simple, straightforward, and still mighty heartwarming. It didn't hit me how much until the Carpenters' callback in "The Simpsons Movie," really the only thing I liked about that film.

"Kamp Krusty" - There's always that one episode of a syndicated show that you love, but they only seem to play very rarely. For me it was "Kamp Krusty," the wonderfully twisted tale of Bart and Lisa being sent off to Kamp Krusty, which turns out to be full of death traps and forced labor. I always loved when "The Simpsons" got twisted and outrageous with nostalgic childhood activities, and "Kamp Krusty" is so lovingly detailed in its catalog of horrors that it's still one of my favorites. This was the fourth season premiere, which is by far its greatest year and the most well-represented here.

"A Streetcar Named Marge" - Where do we even start? The "A Streetcar Named Desire" musical with a melancholy solo for Apu as the paperboy? Marge as Blanche DuBois? Ned Flanders as the world's sweetest Stanley Kowalksi? The musical director played by Jonn Lovitz? The Maggie subplot at the Ayn Rand School for Tots? I bought the "Simpsons" album that had all the songs from this episode and can still sing most of them to this day. And I'm willing to bet that most of the former kids of my generation only know "A Streetcar from Desire" because of this episode.

"Marge vs. The Monorail" - The town of Springfield has become as important to the chemistry of "The Simpsons" as the Simpsons family. Mob mentality isn't just a phenomenon here, but practically a way of life. By the time this episode came around we had already seen the town's casual corruption and willingness to embrace the bizarre, but "Monorail" took it to new, wonderful extremes. Also note that while everyone remembers the extended parody of "The Music Man," but this was also the episode that started out with "The Simpsons'" take on the opening of "The Flintstones."

"Selma's Choice" - I honestly felt for Selma and her plight, but it's Duff Gardens that I love this episode for. The theme park experience was spoofed more thoroughly in "Itchy and Scratchy Land," but I thought Duff Gardens did it better with the beer-themed mascots and their alcohol-shilling version of "It's a Small World." Better yet, it gives a much more grounded version of a day at a theme park gone wrong with Bart on a malfunctioning ride and Lisa the Lizard Queen. This also contains one of the greatest "Simpsons" gags ever, Homer's epic relationship with a spoiled hoagie.

"Homer's Barbershop Quartet" - It would have been easy for the show to do a "Behind the Music" style parody, but by specifically mirroring the ups and downs of The Be Sharps on The Beatles gave it so many more dimensions and cultural resonance. In addition the the obvious references like Barney's conceptual artist Japanese girlfriend and the rooftop reunion, the installment is chock full of little details that any Beatlemaniac would appreciate. And then of course, there's "Baby on Board," a legitimately catchy earworm sung in part by Disneyland's Dapper Dans.

"Cape Feare" - The best of the Sideshow Bob episodes, and one of the last to be written by the show's original writing team. Now I've never seen either version of "Cape Fear," but Sideshow Bob makes such a great villain, I found him legitimately threatening (and terribly funny) enough for the plot to work. The show's gags never got better, defusing a lot of the tension with a lot of "Looney Tunes" silliness, including the beloved stepping-on-rakes bit. And the "Pirates of Penzance" ending is one of the most absolutely brilliant moments of time-stalling nonsense I've ever seen.

"Treehouse of Horror V" - Like many viewers, I tuned in for the yearly "Simpsons" Halloween specials long after I stopped watching the other episodes. My favorite of them was the fifth one, which contained "The Shinning," "Time and Punishment," and "Nightmare Cafeteria." So that's a parody of my favorite Stanley Kubrick film, a parody of a short story from one of my favorite science-fiction writers, and possibly the sickest and most gruesome concept the "Simpsons" writers ever came up with. Throw in the running gag with Groundskeeper Willie, and it's a classic.

"And Maggie Makes Three" - "The Simpsons" may be prized for its comedy, but it could also deliver moments of real warmth and poignancy. And even though the creators joked that Homer got dumber year after year, he was often at the center of the show's most heart-tugging episodes. In another of the great "Simpsons" flashback episodes, we get a look at the kind of life that Homer wanted, and learn about the sacrifices that he makes for his kids. It's not an especially funny episode, though I love all the stuff with Mr. Burns, but it's without question one of the very best.

"El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)" - You gotta love a "Simpsons" episode that is essentially one long drug trip, though one brought on by Guatemalan insanity peppers instead of the more traditional mind-altering substances. This has some of the show's most wild and wonderful animation, as Homer journeys through beautifully surreal desert landscapes on a spirit quest. The Space Coyote he meets is voiced by Johnny Cash, of course. "The Simpsons" rarely got so wildly experimental, so it was great to see them really cut loose and break a lot of rules.

Honorable Mentions go to: "Bart the General," "Krusty Gets Busted," "Bart Gets an F," "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish," "Bart the Daredevil," "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," "Brush with Greatness," "Flaming Moe's," "Radio Bart," "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," "Lisa's First Word," "I Love Lisa," "Whacking Day," "Lemon of Troy," "Bart Sells His Soul," "Treehouse of Horror VI," and "Homer's Enemy."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Oh, Armond

Awards season was going so well. Oh sure there have been the usual little controversies - Harvey Weinstein's underhanded marketing tactics and grumbles over the state of the Best Foreign Film shortlist again - but it's been a good year overall. There' no shortage of possible contenders, and no real consensus about anyone leading the pack. The various regional critics' circles have been putting forth a variety of different picks. The New York Film Critics Circle picked "American Hustle" for Best Film, but the Best Director award went to Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave." And then came the awards ceremony a few days ago, where McQueen's acceptance speech was heckled by one of the critics and his associates. That critic? Armond White.

If you've been around film culture much you already know who Armond White is, the famously contrarian and provocative film critic currently writing for CityArts, and previously for the New York Press. He's chaired the New York Critics Circle multiple times and there have been other abusive outbursts before, most memorably toward documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. I've read several of White's reviews over the years and heard him speak on podcasts and other venues. I don't always agree with him, and I'm pretty sure that some of his positions are designed to be controversial (he claimed 2009's "Precious" was worse than Eddie Murphy's notorious "Norbit," and compared "Jack and Jill" to the Greek classics for example), but he's no slouch as a critic. I agree with many of his points and I like that he keeps the critical conversation interesting.

I'm fully behind White's CityArts review of "12 Years a Slave," for example, where he took McQueen to task for the use of extreme content in his depictions of slavery, which he felt sensationalized and detracted from the portrayal of the African-American experience. There's been overwhelming praise for the film that has positioned it as a major awards contender, and it was important to see a dissenting opinion, especially from an African-American film critic who was perhaps in the best position to deliver it. Were the comparisons to torture porn like "Human Centipede" a bit much? Sure, but it got the point across. And he's certainly not alone is his opinion - Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, has called "12 Years a Slave" "slavery porn" and Slant magazine's Ed Gonzales accused it of "artistic posturing."

But heckling McQueen at an awards dinner? Throwing F-bombs and comparisons to garbage men around to follow up a great presenter speech by Harry Belafonte? Good grief, it's hard to take Armond White seriously after this. There were other ways of showing disapproval for the society's pick for Best Director. White could have refused to attend the ceremony, refrained from clapping, or stayed seated during the standing ovation that Belafonte received. People would have gotten the message loud and clear. Shouting obscenities makes him look like a spotlight hog and a bully. Moreover, the controversy really does nothing to help his position or the wider discussion of the film. Only the gossip sites are happy about this incident.

What really gets me is that now McQueen is trying to deny he heckled anyone, in spite of a roomful of his colleagues being present at the event. It's not just one source who identified Armond White as the heckler, but a dozen of them, and mostly critics with a lot more credibility than he has. The New York Film Critics Circle has already delivered an apology to McQueen and is taking action to possibly oust White from their ranks - an unprecedented move. I knew an apology from Armond White wasn't likely, but denying his actions really makes me lose a lot of respect for him. We need critics like Armond White around to keep everyone on their toes, but what can his opinion really count for after this?

Part of me wonders if this isn't all an elaborate bit of reverse-psychology, perpetrated by White to improve the Oscar chances of "12 Years a Slave," which is facing a lot of stiff competition. McQueen has a lot of momentum on his side, but he's been a bit awkward in public appearances and the film itself is a notoriously difficult watch. White has now brought more attention to the film and its director, and has set up a great opportunity for Belafonte and McQueen to get a second chance to do things right on a much larger stage.

Anyway, right now matters are still unfolding. Now that he's in the spotlight, Armond White is far from done talking. We're still awaiting a decision from the New York Film Critics Circle regarding disciplinary action. Rumors are still flying about who actually said what, and who actually heard what.

And it's still early in awards season yet.