31 December 2013

Reflections on My Recent Cinema Binge


I saw as many films in theaters in the past two months of 2013 as I did in the first ten months of the year. This is directly attributable to Hollywood timing the release of their best films to qualify for awards season and so that the films are fresh in the minds’ of award voters. What it means is that American cinema can generate barely two month’s worth of decent films a year.

Here are some reflections following my recent binge.

One of my favorite memories comes from my most recent trip to the cinema. I was in the ticket buyer line of Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. This line is in the lobby and roped off. Two women were outside the ropes checking the movie times. There was a very old man behind me (I think he worked in the Coolidge administration). With him was his equally old -- I wanna say -- wife although it could have been his partner or lover or paramour or even his sister. Anyhoo the old man suddenly barks at the two women: “get in line! get in line!” They were either oblivious to him or rightly ignored the old codger. His -- I’m going to go with -- wife scolded him saying “you can’t tell people what to do.” He insisted that he could in fact tell people what to do and she contradicted him again. This went on for a bit until they finally both ran out of steam. Was I looking into my own future?

Previews. Oh boy previews! Coming attractions! Trailers! Some theaters give you a taste of what’s coming others drown you with endless clips from endless movies and do so for -- I timed it once -- 27 minutes. Enough already. I saw the trailer -- the same exact one -- for something called August: Osage Country with an all star cast featuring Meryl Streep six times -- that I counted. I’ve got parts of the movie memorized. I didn’t want to see the damn thing after the first time I saw a preview now I hope this is the last time I ever have to think about it. Twice I saw a preview for a film called Lone Survivor. I can guarantee you this is bad cinema. Anytime you have the director talking about it and the man whose experiences the film is based on talking about it you know its not only not an art film but that its propaganda. One reviewer tweeted that it is a jingoistic snuff film.  The director most recently did Battleship which also tells you plenty. I twice watched (read: sat through) a trailer for a Jack Ryan film (he’s a spy character who’s to James Bond what Arby’s is to fine dining). Chris Pine (oh boy Chris Pine) plays a slick handsome spy. There’s a beautiful woman an evil villain a wise mentor explosions high rises and hand-to-hand combat. I bethcya it makes a bunch of assholes a lot of money.

What makes sitting through an abundance of trailers even worse is that they are often preceded by advertisements. I already paid to get into the damn theater I thought that bought me the privilege of avoiding commercials. Yeah I get it movie theaters couldn’t survive without them. Maybe if people starring in and producing films didn’t have to own five houses two yachts and a goddamned island we could be spared ads. Movies and sports are classic examples of how regular working folk are being gouged by the already rich. No wonder there’s a huge income gap in the US. Don’t get me started here....

I have the privilege of living walking distance from the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley where I can see reasonably priced films with no ads or trailers and no one eating popcorn or candy or sandwiches or three course meals at their seats. Do you see what people spend half their paycheck on at movie theaters? Huge tubs of artery clogging buttered pop corn and barrels of diet coke a substance which is just this side of battery acid. Small wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country. No food or drinks allowed in the PFA which means patrons are spared the sound of loud pop corn chewers or people rummaging through a grocery bag to find a sandwich the wrapper of which they have to rip off. Sometimes other people are the worst.

I saw The Wolf of Wall Street the day after Christmas in the middle of the afternoon in a multiplex and the theater was packed. Within my line of vision four different people got our their cell phones at one point or another during the film. It’s not as bad as talking but it still detracts from the movie going experience. But then being aware and considerate of others is so passé.

Fortunately amidst all this nonsense I saw some really good films. I am so particular about what I see that I rarely end up sitting through a film that I don’t end up liking. (The same can not be said of what I rent where the stakes aren't as high.) If I’m going to I shell out $8 or more for a movie I want to be damn sure I’ll like it. As noted in my annual top ten I especially enjoyed Nebraska Inside Llewyn David and Frances Ha (which I saw via Netflix instant). This was a very good year for very good films but not a great year for great films. Few are. Frankly there are already enough great films out there for me to discover or re-watch that I don’t desperately need more. That said I’m more than happy to see something to add to the pantheon of greats. Also it is often upon the second viewing of a very good film that I elevate to a loftier status. One can’t always know which film will really resonate after a second viewing. We spend so much of a first viewing dealing with what happens that we don’t always notice how its told or the subtler messages of the film. There are several from this year that I look forward to re-visiting.

The movie-going experience has changed significantly since I was a lad. You used to get a double feature in a theater with one huge screen. Ushers might help you find seats especially if the film was playing and it often was when you entered. People would come in during the middle of one feature -- you got two movies -- and watch the rest of it the other offerings (there were a few trailers cartoons and a short often in the form of a travelogue) the next film and when they reached the point in the film that was playing when they walked in they'd utter those oft repeated words:  "this is where we came in" or the variant in question form: "is this where we came in?" Looking back coming in the middle was not an ideal way to watch a film so I'm glad that died out. Everything has gone up so movies cost more but the increase is not out of line with inflation (the same can't be said for sports tickets which are ridiculously expensive).

Of course a lot of movie watching is done from the comfort of one's own home. When I was growing up and even into college if you wanted to watch The Maltese Falcon (1941) you had to wait until it showed up on TV and then watch it interrupted by commercials. Today you might own your own copy or rent it from Netflix or record it from TCM or watch it on your computer. But then you miss the experience of some centenarian barking commands. The guy was a hoot I tell ya....

28 December 2013

My Top Ten Films for 2013

1. Nebraska (Payne)
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens)
3. Frances Ha (Baumbach)
4. Blue Jasmine (Allen)
5. Kill Your Darlings (Krokidas)
6. La Grande Belleza (Sorrentino)
7. Her (Jonze)
8. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen)
9. Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche)
10. Reality (Garrone)

Honorable Mention: Gravity (Cuaron); American Hustle (Russell); The Way Way Back (Faxon/Rash); Blancanieves (Berger); Dallas Buyers Club (Vallee); The Wolf of Wall Street. (Scorsese).

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) With Nods to Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) and Amy Adams (American Hustle).
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) With nods to Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Joaquin Phoenix (Her).
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) With a nod to June Squibb (Nebraska).
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Foster (Kill Your Darlings) With a nod to Jonah Hill (Wolf of Wall Street).

27 December 2013

My Doctor's Appointment Yields Expected Non News and So I Write About it and Life

Yours truly...not recently.
"Actually we're going to use this room." The very short stout nurse directed me to one of the examining rooms in the urologist's office. I "actually" entered the room and sat down. Upon greeting me she'd asked "how are you today?" Now that she'd successfully  directed me to a room and seen that I "had a seat" she posed the question a second time "how are you today?" I gave the same response both times: "Fine." I wanted to be consistent lest she thinks that perhaps I was trying to deceive her. One supposes it's a clever way to trip a spy.

The very short stout nurse then took my blood pressure. No matter what you see a doctor for even if its just to settle a bill a nurse will take your blood pressure. I was then informed that the doctor would be in to see me in a moment. I settled in for the long wait that is customary when sitting in an examination room. The doctor (a urologist) broke with custom and entered within a minute.

The urologist greeted me warmly commenting on how nice it was to see me again after so long a time. I'd only been in his office once before and that four or five year ago so I had my doubts that he really remembered me. I didn't remember him.

I'd been referred because during my annual physical something seemed a little off during my prostrate exam. It was better safe than sorry and I shouldn't worry but let's have an expert check it out. I was 98% sure that my prostate was just fine. The urologist quickly informed me that the blood work taken after the physical had shown no signs of anything. Now I was 99% sure. We also went over the symptoms list and found that I had none. I knew that going in. This was all waste of a copay.

Despite the total lack of concern on anyone's part -- least of all mine -- I was to be probed. Down went my trousers and in went the doctor's finger. Into my own personal rectum. Let me say this with absolute certainty -- I received a thorough exam. That finger was twisting and turning and digging and poking. I think it made it half way up my stomach. If there was anything to find he'd have found it.

He found nothing. 100%. But wait let's check the urine too. Pee in the cup time. I remember the first time I peed in a cup for a doctor was when I was a young lad. Unclear on the concept and needing to wizz anyway I filled said cup to the brim. I forget the nurse's subsequent comment but do recall she commented. This time I gave them just a wee bit -- pun not originally intended but having been observed approved of.

Nothing in my urine. I was already at 100%. Doc wanted me to come back in six months for another probing. I said sure thing though may just give it a miss. I'm the first to call a doctor when something is amiss and never miss my annual but I don't go in for doctor appointments because well maybe even though now there's nothing better be sure who knows what can happen.

I have enjoyed remarkable health all my life (physical that is my mental and emotional states have been rather a mess as anyone who reads this blog is no doubt aware). This is a matter of good genes good habits and most importantly extraordinary luck. My poor brother  -- who was twice the man I'll ever be -- had absolutely rotten luck and suffered mightily for years before dying too young.

My 27 odd years as a teacher (some have been very odd indeed) have caused me to suffer innumerable colds and occasional bouts of the flu but that's been about the size of it. Teaching has in the past caused some stress but that has manifested not in physical ailments but in long periods of stark raving lunacy. Okay I exaggerate....A little.

So anyway I'm a lucky bastard but one learns in life that luck can turn against you rather quickly. So far so good. I really got a sense of how lucky I am on Christmas Eve as I held at various times two baby boys each a grand nephew courtesy of my nieces. I also got to chase and be chased by my four year old grand niece. I was surrounded by my two daughters the wife the two aforementioned nieces and two nephews my sister-in-law and three significant others one of whom is a full fledged husband. And a really cool dog. We had a visit from a jolly fat man from northern Finland too. There was much good food laughter song story telling and general joviality. Gifts were exchanged the best of which was the company. This is how it should be.

I hear people complain constantly about their families and their dread of family gatherings. I honestly do not know what this is like. That is not to suggest that the family experience has been entirely smooth. To the contrary. As I've mentioned here before my dear old mom went off her rocker and abused alcohol in the bargain. It took decades of therapy but I'm over it. Not really but I'm about as square with the whole deal as a person can expect to be. I've actually forgiven the old dame and can think fondly of her.

So I've had some knocks and at this stage in my life I'm grateful for each one. I have a friend who claims to have had no crisis no major health problems no bad times. He is highly successful man with a wonderful family and I've little doubt that he has lived an idyllic life. How boring. He is a fine fellow but I can't but wonder how a person grows and comes to understand life without experiencing some powerful adversity. It's like a high school sports team that never loses. Kind of nice but at some point you need to experience the sting of defeat as part of your learning process. Dealing with defeat is essential to developing character (god I hope that didn't sound too hokey). After all it is not what life does to you but how you handle it -- good bad or ambiguous -- that is important.

So I don't have prostate cancer and never seriously thought I did. Maybe some day. Maybe something worse like the pancreatic cancer that felled a good friend. Maybe an accident. By definition they can happen to anyone. Maybe not. Maybe I'll grow really really old. I think I'll stick around and find out.

24 December 2013

Say Hey Have a Merry Christmas

Not only is Santa black, he's Willie Mays.

21 December 2013

Portrait of an Artist as An Angry Man - Inside Llewyn Davis

I grew up with an image of folk singers as kind hearted people wise and noble singing of peace this land being made for you and me and the eternal hope of love. Folk singers were Pete Seeger Peter Paul and Mary and Joan Baez. They were sweetie pies who strummed guitars and slept under huge comforters with wild flowers on them. They weren't rich but they weren't poor and performed for charity and stood for equal rights and an end to war (where have all the flowers gone?). None of em were a wit like the titular character of the Coen Brothers' latest film Inside Lleywn Davis. So thank you Joel and Ethan Coen for shattering another one dimensional stereotype.

Oscar Isaac with a Jewish sounding name plays the half Italian half Welsh Davis and so of course Isaac is half Cuban and half Guatemalan. Welcome to the United Nations of Coen. Isaac had a few roles of little or no note until channeling the fictional 1961 folk singer struggling to....To what? Be famous? Rich? Pay the bills? Practice his art? Make it from one day to the next? What does he want anyway and what exactly will he do with it when he gets it? Anyone's guess. He really doesn't really think of the future a point made to him in no uncertain terms by a "friend" Jean (Carey Mulligan). This is a friend he may or may not have impregnated but certainly boinked. It's odd to think that they were intimate because the foul mouthed Jean does little else then tear him up one side and down another. Maybe he deserves it. Jean lives and sings with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who plays it perfectly bland. Hats off and waving to Mulligan for taking such an unglamorous role and doing so well with it she may be a star but she's an actress first.

So this Davis fellow is --  as they say -- down on his luck. Way down. He's got no home no winter coat no money and no partner. His former partner having taken a swan dive off a bridge. Demise met. Oh yeah and he's stuck with a cat. Or cats. There is an issue with one and its scrotum or the lack thereof (hey no spoilers here). The cat(s) is no superfluous character(s). We have a scene on a moving subway train from the subjective point of view of the feline (thanks to Germano for reminding me) that few others besides the Coens would attempt let alone pull off.

This is the Coen brothers and there are no throw away characters including those that are fur bearing creatures. Minor characters are fully realized individuals vivid and interesting or grotesque or amusing or wonderful but never just attached to the furniture. Certainly not Roland Turner (John Goodman) a rotund...what the hell is he anyway? The beauty of a lot of Coen brothers films is that there are so many characters that defy easy description. You can't just stick a word to them. Like Turner and his driver and oh by the way their drive to Chicago with Llewyn -- whatta trip man! Not to mention Llewyn's trip right the hell back to New York and what a short strange trip it was. But the point started out being characters that have well characters and that my friends is part of the richness of this film.


But when it comes to characters Llewyn Davis is in every scene. He carries his despondency and bitterness and anger and hopefulness with him. He's always moving forward maybe from crashing in this pad or the other but he's not idle. He is the quintessential struggling young artist. One without a day job. They are all over the world and have been for decades. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of them. They have dreams of success and for many success is requisite because it will allow them to practice their art. The true artist wants room and space and time to create. To sing to write to direct to paint to act to joke to play. Making a living at it is not an end to itself but the vehicle to allow that creativity to bloom over and over again. Alas it's a cruel world the competition fierce and that fire that keeps you going can burn out so easily. Perseverance baby it's the key ingredient in talent. So watch Llewyn struggle with life and art simultaneously. (Maybe they're the same thing. I dunno.)

Of course he's dealing with anger. Why shouldn't he? Why not heckle and berate and be surly and cuss like a sailor which come to think of it a sort of day job for him. How do people deal with rejection and subterfuge and disappointment without getting unholy pissed off? Plus in a narrative structure it makes him more interesting than the scrubbed public images of folk singers.

The Coens are nothing if not meticulous. They created the early '60s here just as they create the '80s in No Country For Old Men (2007) the 70's in A Serious Man (2009) the 50's in The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) the Old West in True Grit (2010) and so yeah they're versatile too no two films alike. But by god they're good. Inside Llewyn Davis is a case in point. You remember that tired ole review cliche: "I laughed I cried it became a part of me." Yeah I do too....

I won't spoil the ending of Llewyn Davis because then I'd be spoiling the beginning and I don't know what that means but it all comes out to something and if you ever figure it out let me know.

Anyway I enjoyed the hell out of the movie.


17 December 2013

Way Way Back with Dallas Buyer's Big Parade in Nebraska -- Another Four Films I've Seen Recently One of Which is Quite Old

The Way Way Back. Caught this one via my friends at Netflix who keep sending me DVDs to watch. This film centers around a young teen and we are all familiar with how badly these types of movies can go. They are often riddled with cliches one dimensional stereotypes and toilet humor. TWWB manages to almost completely avoid all of these pitfalls. Duncan (Liam James) is a fairly typical 14 year old who is absent easy charm athletic ability or dashing good looks. His parents are divorced and he's off for a Summer with mom (Toni Collette) her obnoxious boyfriend (Steve Carrell) and boyfriend's older teen daughter (Zoe Levin). He's not thrilled about the excursion doesn't like the boyfriend and is disliked by the daughter. Duncan -- one could say --  is not a happy camper. There is a comely girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) who doesn't run with the usual crowd and is intrigued by the sullen Duncan. Eventually Duncan befriends a waterpark employee (Sam Rockwell) and gets a job at the park and matures and exposes the philandering boyfriend and befriends the girl and parities and wins mom's attention. There are a couple of plot contrivances and a few empty characters but there is much to admire in a film that neither over reaches nor settles for easy laughs. Rockwell makes every movie he's in better for his appearance and is a main selling point to a film that I can warmly recommend.

Dallas Buyers Club. We are now relieved of any doubts -- Matthew McConaughey is a terrific actor. He gives a transcendent performance as Ron Woodruff a hard partying good ole boy who contracts AIDS in 1985 when the disease is just becoming part of the public consciousness. He is like all his cronies a raging homophobe and faces immediate "accusations" from his "friends" about how he contracted the virus. Woodruff angrily fights back both against the questioning of his "manhood" and against the disease that a doctor tells him well end his life in 30 days. DBC is the true story of courage about one man's transformation and also about the evils of big pharmaceutical companies and their long time partner the US FDA. Jared Leto is also magnificent playing the cross dressing gay man who is in league with Woodruff's efforts to not just supply himself but other AIDS victims with the proper -- though non FDA approved -- meds. DBC is a powerful reminder of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the fear and homophobia it inspired along with the inept response of the government.

The Big Parade (1925).  Unlike the other films mentioned in my recent posts this one is not a recent release. I suppose in geological time it is being a mere 88 years old. It finally finally finally finally came out in DVD a few months ago and I finally got around to watching my copy yesterday. Masterpiece. King Vidor is one of the best directors many of you have never heard of and The Big Parade alone is proof. The Big Parade is an epic World War I love story which is like saying The Godfather is a gangster film. If I were to write a post listing my favorite all time film scenes the parting lovers scene from The Big Parade would certainly make the cut. The American soldier Jim (John Gilbert) along with the rest of the battalion has been called to the front. His French country girl lover Melisande (Renee Adoree) desperately searches for her Jim as the trucks roll down the road. They meet and their extended parting kisses bespeak all the longing fear and desperation that war brings crashing into romance. And there is always about them movement the forward march of the men and machinery of war. We see the long line of vehicles and troops making its way to battle and the lone figure of Melisande left behind so vulnerable and alone in the middle of the frame. Dropping at last to her knees. This is the central magic of a magnificent film.

Nebraska. The great middle of America. The flat lonesome plains. Small bars with sad men in tractor caps chugging long necked buds. Families in cheap old furniture staring numbly at TV screens trying to recall what sort of car Uncle Ray drives. Economic monotony trucks bad restaurants long highways and simple values. (Fittingly Nebraska was shot in black and white.) Not fertile ground for cinema unless a prehistoric monster emerges from a prairie dog's hole or a spaceship lands in Topeka. But director Alexander Payne combines dashes of the sensibilities of the Coen brothers Ingmar Bergman and Aki Kuarismaki to create one of the best films of the year. Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant a most senior citizen determined to go from his home in Billings Montana to Lincoln Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize that everyone else can see he has not really won. Will Forte was the inspired choice to play Woody's son David who gets sucked into his dad's quixotic journey. Best known for his tenure at Saturday Night Live Forte is just the right amount of dead pan and just the right amount of exasperated. But June Squibb as the long suffering wife is an absolute scene stealer. Nebraska is about aging its about family its about father-son relationships its about the heartland its about how we love or fail to. 

09 December 2013

The Great Frances 12 Years the Warmest Color -- Four New Films I've Seen Recently

La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty).  Garish blaring and color and richness and middle aged sensuality and decadence not so divine. Oh yes and Rome Rome Rome. The madness the sadness and the heavy duty gladness of good living. Paolo Sorrentino's film is full of stunning audacious visuals. It is full of ideas. It is full of nods to Fellini -- especially to La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963).  It is full. A rich parade of delights. Wild party nights. Watching this film is like bathing in chocolate while reading Camus. The protagonist is Jep (Toni Servillo) a 60 plus year old journalist who knows and is known by everyone. He is forever hosting parties or going to them. Great meals great dances great discussions and women always women. This is Fellini for the 21st century and the good news is that while it is an homage The Great Beauty is clearly its own film with its own vision -- whatta vision! -- and its own ideas. There's not much more one could ask for from a film. Also it is important to note that you should definitely make a point of staying for the closing credits which are accompanied by a beautiful boat ride. I suppose that's fitting because this is as much as journey as it is anything else. A journey it should be noted through Rome which is as much a star of the film as is Servillo.

12 Years a Slave. Slavery in North America is a difficult subject to wrap one's mind around. I know this from having taught it for many years and studied it for many more than that. It was a brutal utterly heartless savaging of human rights and amazingly it was carried out for the first eight decades of that grand experiment in democracy called the United States. 12 Years does an admirable job of shining a lot on this horror particularly in light of how Hollywood has steered clear of the subject. This film serves as an antidote to the odious sanitization of chattel slavery done by the likes of Gone With the Wind. Whippings rapes horrendous working conditions the selling of children from parents are all part of this story as they are to the story of slavery itself. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northrup a free and successful family man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. The movie is truth. It is a true story that tells some great truths about the peculiar institution and some peculiarities of the human condition. There is a horrible sadness pervasive throughout the film but the storytelling is so rich and powerful and the characters so fully realized that it is never depressing. Especially as one remembers that Northrup's servitude lasted the 12 years the title suggests.

Frances Ha. I loved this movie despite an overwhelming desire to call it quirky (films that rely solely on their quirkiness end up looking cheap or silly or both). Perhaps more than anything else it can be lauded  for its realism. Frances is 27 years old struggling with friendship romance career and paying the rent in modern day New York city. She is bright and at least moderately talented but makes questionable choices (don't we all?) as she bounces from one situation and one address to another. If Hollywood had had its way this would have been turned into a romantic comedy. It didn't  and it isn't. Noah Baumbach directed. According to IMDb he "shot the movie in black and white to 'boil it down to its barest bones' and create an immediate 'history' and 'a kind of instant nostalgia.'" Good choice well done. Greta Gerwig is Frances and she is in every scene. Suffice to say that Ms. Gerwig is fully capable of carrying a movie on her back if need be. There is an endearing quality to her that stems largely from her being so natural and interesting a person. Easy to root for and identify with. Frances Ha nimbly steers from the choppy waters of quirky and settles into a combination of charming and authentic.

Blue is the Warmest Color. Anyone with a passing interest in current cinema is no doubt aware that this provocative French film from Abdellatif Kechiche includes several graphic sex scenes between co stars Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. I am unambiguous about my appreciation for the comely nude female form. And yes of course I mean when presented tastefully. There is a risk that such scenes can be a distraction. Here they are not gratuitous. After all the two women are lovers for much of the film and showing them acting our their love is only fitting. I found myself admitting that the scenes were erotic and enjoyed them for themselves as well as how they helped the narration. Blue focuses on Adele who at the start of the film is but 16. She is struggling with sexual identity which is part of the mad brew of the late teen years. She meets the older more experienced Emma and it is virtually love -- not to mention passion -- at first sight. We follow Adele for several years through the ups and downs of this and other relationships. It is a rewarding journey with or without frolicking naked women.