27 February 2012

My Belated Oscar Recap or More Flying Monkeys Please

In sum, they stunk.

I am, as my minions can testify, an odd sort. As a film connoisseur I hate the Oscars and all they represent but for the life of me I cannot turn away when they are on. Thankfully they come but once a year.

Oldest daughter made a big fuss over it this year, going so far to throw a mini Oscar party which basically meant she roped my darling wife into preparing treats. They had me at smoked salmon.

But I'm going to be brief here which is something that Oscar telecasts seem constitutionally incapable of.

As so many before me have observed, Billy Crystal looked like he'd been embalmed. And then had another round of botox. His jokes would have killed in the Catskills (try the veal). Calling in Crystal to sub for Eddie Murphy is like a baseball team bringing some old has been out of retirement to pitch game seven. Bombs away.

One of the highlights of the evening (there were some) was Chris Rock presenting an award. His presence and his humor had the effect of causing many of his to wonder why the hell he wasn't hosting the damn thing. Too funny? Too hip? Or perhaps too controversial (he's really quite black, you know). He was great as host as was Jon Stewart and as were the dynamic duo of Baldwin and Martin (that's Alec and Steve not Billy and Strother). You know the Oscar maxim, find a good thing then discard it.

Another high point was Emma Stone who was downright funny in a way that suggests that she'd be a welcome presence in our entertainment lives for many years to come. Please world, more Emma Stone, thanking you in advance I remain your humble servant, etc....

Of course perhaps the highest of the highs was the appearance of the Christopher Guest satire acting troupe. And as one would expect the highlight within this highlight was the irrepressible Fred Willard (who want to press him, anyway?).  Fred's character was spot on when he called for more movies with flying monkeys. Anything but another Adam Sandler disaster.

Speaking of Sandler (I shiver at the thought) what was he doing among the actors in the recorded reflections on movies. What, Rob Schneider not available? What that whole deal with the actors talking into a camera was about I'll never know.

But among the lowlights the lowest must have been having the best actor and actress presenters speak directly to the nominees just before announcing who gets the gilded gelding. How much sincerity could there possibly be in such a set up? Perhaps if the presenter were allowed to say to one of them: "frankly, Ed I thought you chewed up the scenery and are only nominated because you're probably going to die soon" then the whole deal would be genuine. As it is this silliiness is just terribly awkward.

As for the winners....Good for The Artist. Of the nominated films it was the best and Jean Dujardin was my actor of the year. I was also very happy to see Woody tipped for best original screenplay.

But all the who gets the Oscar and who doesn't is so much silliness (as the Best Picture Oscar for Crash once and for all proved). It's a night when Hollywood pats itself on the back and manages to gets a hernia. That's what such overt self congratulation deserves.

I hereby refuse to ever watch again. Until maybe next year.

26 February 2012

Love & Death & Life and Films and Woody, Always Woody

"We only begin to live when we conceive life as a tragedy."  - W.B. Yeats

Yesterday I learned that an acquaintance, Aaron, had died of a heroin overdose. He was 32 years old. Aaron had been in and out of AA, often serving in volunteer roles while in. But as he once said, "I love my heroin." The news of Aaron's passing was a punch in the gut, but at the same time not at all surprising. It is left to us who knew him to pass along Aaron's story. Sharing the soaring heights of life's experiences and the depressing lows enrich and inform our own experience and help us contextualize what it means to be here among the living. Thanks for being around Aaron and trying to clean up. Sorry I didn't know you better and really sorry that any chance to is permanently gone.

Last weekend I finished "catching up" with 2011 releases. I'll never make the mistake again to feel compelled to watch films out of a sense of obligation. I sat through Ides of March and  for which I should receive an award. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti played political operatives in roles made for them. They responded by uttering their lines and collecting fat paychecks. Some imaginative casting would have been nice here. George Clooney directed, or at least received screen credit for directing. He shot the script with the actors hitting their marks. I hope gofers supplied enough coffee for him to stay awake. Hard to believe this is the same bloke who directed the wonderful Good Night and Good Luck (2005). Clooney also appeared in the film. Appeared is the perfect word for his role. To say he acted would be a stretch. Clooney played the presidential candidate in this story of a pivotal Ohio Democratic primary. The star of the film was Ryan Gosling. Gosling is a major talent, who kept all that talent safely hidden away while Ides of March was filmed. A bigger problem than the "performances" in this "film" was that the story was told with something less than originality. A lot less than originality. Like none. The story itself hardly seemed worth telling. Up and coming young campaign media man's struggle to keep his position and get his candidate elected. There is a suicide in the story which is ironic considering this film pretty much killed itself.

I also saw 50/50 starring the intensely likable Joseph Gorden Leavitt. It is the true story of a young man who discovers he has cancer. Seth Rogen plays his best buddy. Rogen has enriched many films playing guys we are all familiar with. The happy stoner, good buddy and fun-loving prankster rolled into one. But this time he's mostly amazingly obnoxious and unpleasant. Several characters in the film strain credulity with how bloody thoughtless they are, like the doctor who delivers the initial bad news with shocking insensitivity. Maybe the screenwriter experienced such louts in this struggle with cancer but they don't translate into believable film characters. The story breaks no new ground nor is it told in an interesting way.For most 16 year olds 50/50 will seem like a deep and meaningful film with rich insights into the human condition. Okay, maybe not most 16 year olds, just the less sophisticated ones. 

The other day I overheard to "people" dissing Woody Allen. To hear such talk tends to drive me into a homicidal rage. However in this instance I distanced myself from the two yokels before blood was shed. Sadly, before I could leave the area I heard one of them opine that "all his movies are alike." Yes, of course. Match Point (2005) and Small Time Crooks (2000) are virtually the same film. As are Midnight in Paris (2011) and Cassandra's Dream (2007). So too are Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Another Woman (1988). Not to mention Sleepers (1973) and Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). I could sarcastically go on and on pairing Allen films that are nothing alike. It is true that there are certain themes and character types that appear regularly in Allen films. Just as there are in the films of Fellini, Bergman, Hitchcock and any other director who's made more than a handful of films. It's just depressing to share a planet with people who make such ridiculous generalizations and utter such preposterous mistruths. As we see every time a republican candidate opens his mouth.

On the bright side I've recently watched M (1931), Winter Light (1963) and Raging Bull (1980) and yesterday purchased my very own copy of L'Avventura (1960). So life, is after all, good.

15 February 2012

The Mill and Marilyn Drive -- Three Films, One Post

Caught up with three recent films this past week. The middle one on the big screen the other two courtesy of Netflix. Here are some impressions.

The Mill and the Cross or Barry Lyndon the Prequel. The melding of art and cinema is natural and it's a crime we don't see more of it. Stanley Kubrick created the best example with Barry Lyndon (1975), a film that is as much a series of painting as it is a motion picture. TMTC is set a few hundred years before Lyndon and is the study of Pieter Bruegel's 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. Polish director Lech Majewski did the honors and his bang up cast is led by Rutger Hauer as Bruegel, Michael York as his patron and Charlotte Rampling as the missus. This is one of those films in which actors must have a certain look and otherwise stay out of the camera's way as much as possible. They are part of the scenery and not keys to the action. Indeed the "action" here happens around and about everyone. The dialogue is at a bare minimum, mostly non existent for the first third of the film. Here is a powerful look at daily life in Flanders. The bareness of the existence, the music, the cruel raids of the Spanish, charged with the swift punishment of "heretics" (read non Catholics). The painting is a re-creation of a time and place and the film moves in and out of the painting and that world effortlessly. TMATC is an antidote to any action hero, explosions galore nonsense you may stumble upon. It is gorgeous, meditative and a great pleasure to surround one's intellect with. It is a film based on a painting and I'm ready for more of its like.

My Week With Marilyn or My Two Hours With Michelle. This is a perfectly delightful film chock full of first-rate acting performances. See Michelle Williams gamely trying to re-create the magic that was Marilyn Monroe. See Kenneth Brannagh do Sir Laurence Olivier to the proverbial tee. Also enjoy Dame Judi Dench who merely needs to utter a a few lines to demonstrate that she is one of the great acting presences of our time. See also Eddie Redmayne in the lead role, playing the young innocent delightfully, if not terribly originally. At its best MWWM is a showcase for some excellent performances and an inspiration to know and see more of the great Ms. Monroe. Those are strong selling points. But this kind of ground seems well trodden. Not the bit about Monroe in England making a picture with Olivier, but the idea of the youngster on the cum getting to spend time with the tippy top of a profession. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the film but nothing very special about it either.

Drive or Gosling Does O'Neal. It's so totally based on Walter Hill's The Driver (1978) starring Ryan O'Neal that its a veritable remake. Yet there is no acknowledgement of this in either the opening or closing credits. If I were Hill I don't know that I'd mind after having seen Drive. It's a decent enough film as an homage to the original, but its seriously flawed. The soundtrack is downright annoying, particularly the use of one song during a scene that is straight out of a romantic comedy. The driver and the love interest (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy have a carefree motor ride and the scene sticks out like a sore thumb. This is one instance where a studio bigwig should have the power to tell a director, in this case Nicholas Winding Refn, to cut a scene. I never mind violence in a film, but it seemed over the top in Drive. I hesitate to call it gratuitous but I suppose that fits. Gosling is the best thing about the film. Like O'Neal he plays the nameless driver as stoic and mysterious not to mention (no pun intended) driven -- though to what purpose we don't know. Drive simply lacks the style of the first film. It doesn't seem to have a reason for being. Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston played against type and were strong in supporting roles though the film they were supporting hardly warranted their and Gosling's excellent work. 

06 February 2012

The Poetry of Antonioni

“They were still in the happier stage of love. They were full of brave illusions about each other, tremendous illusions, so that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered. They both seemed to have arrived there with an extraordinary innocence as though a series of pure accidents had driven them together, so many accidents that at last they were forced to conclude that they were for each other. They had arrived with clean hands, or so it seemed, after no traffic with the merely curious and clandestine.” 
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

I'm reading Tender is the Night again. I never remember much about the plot after reading it and even while reading it I'll forget just exactly what's going on, who's who and where they are. I get lost, a lot, in Fitzgerald's worlds. I drown in the elegance and often must pause. Pause for what? I don't know. Trip, I guess. I'm on words, not acid. yeah, weird, but there I am.

So it is with films. Stories, plots, even some of the ideas and themes are just the window dressing of the moods and feelings created. Like the lyrics to songs you enjoy. The words can be cool, even meaningful. But the rhythm....

Michelangelo Antonioni is a director who understood the lyrical quality of films as well as anyone. In addition to such masterpieces as L'Eclisse (1962) and Red Desert (1964), he wrote a cinematic poem with his first film, which was of all things a noir, Story of a Love Affair (1950). As an Italian film it didn't suffer from what confined American Noir of the same period -- pre-destiny. The film could thus resolve itself of its own volition and without prescription from a prefabricated moral structure.

Story of a Love Affair was a preview of the visual masterpieces that Antonioni would later direct. It also features the type of morally ambiguous characters that would populate his later films. Without the distraction of a protagonist to root for, viewers can focus on mood, setting and where and how the camera trains its eye. Lovely.

It's always a plus that, while decadent or  banal, his characters are physically appealing. See Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni and in Story of a Love Affair, Lucia Bose and Massimo Girotti. They are, you see, an integral part of the scenery, taking up, as they do, so much screen time. By the end of L'Eclisse, Antonioni discarded them entirely. Vitti and Delon had served their purpose and the story could carry on without their presence. Dialogue? Please.

I love the snappy dialogue of certain films. The back and forth of characters. the deep thoughts, the verbal sparring, the philosophizing, ruminating and speechifying. I've dedicated many a post on this blog to my fondness for film quotes. But I love that some directors, like Antonioni, can dispense with chatter and tell a story through pictures. Things that are worth, the saying goes, a hundred words time ten. Sometimes endless chatter is the easy way out in story telling. Hell, Chaplin didn't need a lot of...words. Move your narrative through the flow of pictures, that's the thing.

There is so much talking today. Radios, TVs, even the Internet are blasting us with rapid fire verbiage. It is sensory overload and condemns us to drowning by minutiae. Often those words are accompanied by car crashes, gunfire, explosions and soaring superheroes. The 12 year old in us delights. The mind reels. Many suckle at the simple happiness of mind numbing stimuli. To each....

There is so much beauty in the world. So soft and gentle. So tempered by the angels that flit about our souls. We dance among the songs of our hearts and find joy in the visions of artists. Those who gave us light in dark moods.