Sunday, March 22, 2015

"It Follows"



 3.5 / 5 

Horror may be the toughest of all genres to pull off.  What scares one person may bore another.  What gets under my skin may leave you shrugging.  So, ever since the slasher fad of the 1980s, horror films have pushed the limits ever further of what an audience can stomach, reasoning, I guess, that if an audience can't be scared, it can at least be revolted.

Suspense and fright has given way to shock and disgust, and horror filmmakers have relied increasingly on startling sound effects and grisly visuals to sell their wares.  (You may have noticed that the easiest way avoid being "scared" at a horror movie is to plug your ears; without the jolting sound cues, most horror films lose their power.)

But there's been a slow and welcome change of late, with movies like The Woman in Black, Insidious and The Conjuring taking glee in the re-discovery of taking their time to establish a story, then turning the screws ever tighter.  It Follows is a nice addition to the growing trend of intelligently, skillfully made horror movies.

It begins with the horror-film truism that came up in the early 1980s, that a smart, capable young woman should never sully her reputation with sexual intercourse, that sex equals death.  The latter axiom may only have been implied in movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween, but became a part of the real world around the same time, when HIV and AIDS were making headlines -- and frightening young people away from sex of any sort.

The characters of It Follows seem to live in a world perpetually stuck in about 1982.  Their cars look like the sort of hand-me-downs that a 1980s high-schooler would have driven.  Their homes have above-ground pools and 4:3 television sets with rabbit-ears.  The girls feather their hair, the boys are attired in hopelessly retro ways, and there's nary a cell phone in sight.  And yet, this isn't a period piece.  It's more a kind of horror-driven fairy tale set in this imagined world that never moved on from the latter years of the Cold War, the time before we knew about AIDS and the ways sex could kill you.

From its first shot, It Follows establishes the off-kilter sense of doom and dread that pervade it.  Director David Robert Mitchell knows how to create a mood, one that never lets up.  I can't think of a movie as strangely unsettling, in ways both big and small, since Philp Kaufman's masterful 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Acting, production design, photography, music and sound effects are all used to keep us off-balance.

It Follows opens with a scene we don't understand -- a barely dressed young woman staggers out of a suburban house and stumbles down the street.  It's hard to tell if she's running, and if she is we can't figure out from what.  She assures neighbors and her father that she is fine, but she's obviously not.  And then, the next morning, she's dead, in the movie's only overtly grisly scene.  (Fair warning: It is indeed a disturbing image.)

Seemingly unrelated, young college student Jay (Maika Monroe) is getting ready for a date with a boy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who may be too old for her.  They flirt a little.  They sit down to a movie ... and Hugh begins to freak out.  He can't see something sinister that Jay can see.  They forget about the incident, and continue their flirtation.  They have sex in the back of a car.

Then things get really, really weird, because the sex they have is, well, cursed.  I won't tell you how, I won't tell you why, but Hugh has "passed on" something to Jay without her knowledge or consent, and he needs her to be certain that she has been infected.  There's only one way to get rid of it -- to pass it on to someone else.

Yes, in the revisionist horror-movie world of It Follows, sex isn't an instant death sentence, not as long as you can go out and have sex with other people.  In the 1980s, the way to survive a horror movie was to be the virgin.  In It Follows, the only way you can reasonably be assured of living to the end of the movie is to become sexually prolific.  It's a sly subversion, one that Mitchell plays both for laughs and for shock.

It Follows is never less than fascinating, occasionally genuinely creepy and scary, and frequently downright bizarre.  It sets its own rules and then follows them carefully.  It hints at a "meta" cinematic world view, one that allows it to comment on itself ... but just barely, never going over the top in that sense the way the downright silly Cabin in the Woods did a few years ago.  It Follows doesn't want to be an homage to other horror movies -- it wants to be its own.

Though it has an odd sense of pacing and an ending that plays things a little too coy, it largely succeeds.  It Follows is, above all, a wonderfully effective little horror show that knows the best places to find horrors aren't necessarily in monsters that live in our imaginations -- but in the monsters that live inside our heads, the ones that emerge and grow once we've entered the world of adulthood.  They're the kinds of monsters that take hold and never let go, following us everywhere we go, with the ability to take the form of anyone, but especially the people we care about the most.  As the title says, once we decide we're going to be adults, it follows that some pretty ugly stuff decides to start following us around for the rest of our lives.

Once you get over the effective creepiness of It Follows and start thinking about what it all means, its subtle and cutting observations become all the more fascinating.

Viewed March 22, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Cinderella"



 4 / 5 

After its overblown Wizard of Oz prequel and an ill-advised revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty, there was reason to fear Cinderella.  After all, as the credits rather cynically put it, this is a live-action version of "Disney's Cinderella Properties" -- oh, and a fairy tale by some French guy.

So, what in the world is Kenneth Branagh, whose admirable abilities as a director of movies like Dead Again and Shakespeare's Henry V were so squandered on the first Thor movie, doing with such an overtly commercial project?  The doubter in me, well, doubted the outcome.

I was wrong to do so.  Branagh, it turns out, has brought class, wit, elegance and undeniable charm to a project that seemed so crassly designed to sell more princess gowns to little girls and Swarovski crystal shoes to their mothers.  Branagh's Cinderella suffers little from the synergistic visions of its producer, and instead casts an enchanting spell over the source material.

As he proved with his best Shakespearean films, if you're going to tell an old and classic story, tell it right and do it with grace and skill.  In Cinderella, he does just that, aided immeasurably by willing and generous actors, not to mention a screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) that knows precisely when to be honorable and when to wink and nod at the Disney source material.  (Perrault's original fairy tale is so slight and provides only the backbone -- it really is the 1950 animated film that's being remade here.)

It's the rare movie from the modern version of The Walt Disney Company that would have made its founder proud, rated PG for head-scratching reasons ("mild thematic elements") -- Cinderella is a film that will make the pulse of little girls beat faster, but also contains joy and satisfaction for childless adults.  It's a dazzler, lessened only by the modern over-reliance on computer-generated visual effects that feel overblown and under-imagined -- the moments that are the most eye-popping are not the majestic aerial shots of a digitally rendered kingdom or the slightly underwhelming transformation in the garden.  The best moments are the ones filled with the emotion we associate with the tale: romance, mythical love at first sight, and the longing Cinderella carries in her heart.

That longing is a little more fleshed out than Disney animators managed 65 years ago.  Back then, Cinderella (like so many on-screen heroines) wanted the prince because she needed a man.  Today, Cinderella wants the prince because in a first brief meeting they regard each other as equals; he does not know her, she does not know him, but he likes her unusual vision of life, and she admires his respect -- something she receives none of at home, as every child knows.

As Cinderella, actress Lily James pulls off the feat that Julie Andrews did so well in movies like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music: She's naive and wholesome without being cloying.  Her stepmother (a deliciously sinister Cate Blanchett, playing it all with perfect dastardliness) has relegated her to servant status not because Cinderella is a simpering footstool but, rather, because she isn't.  In this version, Cinderella has a real identity as a young woman suffering from grief and loss, but who has developed a worldview with a simple guiding philosophy: "Have courage and be kind."

Cinderella is kind, almost to a fault, because she wants to respect the dying wish of her mother.  But as the stepmother ("Madame will do," she suggests when Cinderella stammers to find the right name for her) heaps humiliation upon humiliation on the girl, Cinderella finally does reach her breaking point.  And this is where things get even more interesting, because the film suggests that only upon asserting herself and acknowledging the impossibility of being that perfect "Disney princess" will a fairy godmother appear to grant a wish -- in other words, get a backbone girls, and develop your own sense of self: Not bad lessons for youngsters to learn.

Helena Bonham-Carter's brief role as said godmother is amusing but not quite as grand as it might have been -- but that's because the movie is reserving the real heart of the movie for the prince's famous ball.  As he has done in most of the rest of the movie (the post-ball pumpkin-coach chase scene is the only real exception), Branagh showcases surprising reserve.  Cinderella is a movie made with some delightfully old-fashioned notions of how to shoot and frame scenes, and more than most modern directors, Branagh frequently lets the actors act without multiple cut-aways, and in a wonderful waltz sequence generally allows the camera to find and linger on the main characters.  I loved the way Cinderella was filmed and edited, with restraint and confidence.

That's not to say it's a perfect film.  The opening is so sticky-sweet you might feel a toothache coming on, while the climax can't quite get over the problem that will always be inherent in Cinderella: She can't be truly happy until she's got a rich man at her side.  Yet, Cinderella makes up for some of those deficiencies, particularly in a surprisingly unnerving scene toward the end when the movie suggests that if she doesn't find the prince, Cinderella may go slightly off her rocker.  (That makes it a bit of a relief, actually, when he slips that shoe on her foot.)

What does it matter, though, if Cinderella is flawed?  Flaws can make diamonds all the more interesting, and that's the case here, too.  Just when I was ready to write off Disney's strategy of remake after remake after remake, Cinderella comes along and wins my heart and suggests that, just maybe, there are still reasons to tell these classic stories in different ways.  Cinderella is traditional and straightforward, it's simple and its heartfelt.  It does exactly what Disney used to tell us is the only thing we have to do to get what we want: It believes.  And it makes us believe, too.

Cinderella is a lovely little thrill, a movie that wants to tell a story, and a story that wants to be a movie.

Viewed March 20, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Oscars ... Live from Sherman Oaks!



Back in 2012, I did a live blog from our sofa as we watched the Oscars and got fat on some terrible junk food that no single person filing in to the Dolby Theater would ever think of putting into their bodies.  Wait a second ... I've seen some of the nominees.  To a lot of them, what I eat would qualify as health food.

Anyway, the following year I got invited to actually attend the Oscars.  So, I reasoned, if it happened once, it could happen again.  Therefore, I'm getting situated in front of our TV screen, which affords me a better view of the action than anyone except perennial front-row-seated Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson are guaranteed.

(I discovered back in 2013 that the majority of people you see on camera at any given time are seat fillers, since the real action at the Oscars takes place in the lobby of the Dolby Theater, where several bars are prominently situated.  If you ever go to the Oscars, my recommendation is to bolt out of the theater at the first commercial break and hightail it to the orchestra-level bar area.  You'll get views you won't forget, but mostly everyone stands around like people at a corporate convention, smiling and waving to everyone else while mumbling under their breath what they really think.)

OK, now, before we get going, I have to finish up this batch of hot wings I'm making.  So, see you again around 5:30 p.m. PT.  Until then, have fun watching the pre-show!

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4:41 p.m. -- Chicken wings take a lot longer to make than you might think.  (Sorry, that had nothing to do with the Oscars.)

5:04 p.m. -- Emma Stone should just host the whole thing.  How does she manage to be glamorous yet normal?  She's great.  I didn't care for Birdman, but I'd sure be happy if Emma Stone won the Oscar.

5:06 p.m. -- Do you think Naomi Watts is just as confused as the rest of us about what the heck happened to her character in Birdman?  She just kind of disappeared from the movie.

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5:28 p.m. -- Chicken wings still baking.  That was as poorly timed as David Letterman's "Uma-Oprah" bit.

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5:30 p.m. -- Neil Patrick Harris already looks like a better host than any the Oscars have had in years.  He takes the stage like he owns it.

Nice way to get a plug in for "Clue: The Movie."

This is exactly what the last couple of years have lacked.  Great opening.

Hey, a Sondheim parody!  Exactly what gets everyone in Iowa all excited!  (But a great Sondheim parody, nonetheless.)

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5:40 p.m. -- Lupita Nyongo'o is one beautiful woman.  Let's assume she doesn't play Yoda.

Supporting Actor -- J.K. Simmons delivered the best performance of the year.  By anyone.

"So far, 100% predictable," says Jeff.

"Listen to them as long as they want to talk to you." That's a beautiful sentiment.  Great job in not thanking the agents, lawyers, publicists, etc.  How refreshing.

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5:49 p.m. -- Oh, that's right.  A long time ago, Liam Neeson used to be in serious movies!

5:51 p.m. -- Everyone's going, "What was Begin Again?"  I'm not sure I can help answer that question.

Begin Again starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.  What?  Who knew!

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5:57 p.m. -- Sign me up for the gift bags.

5:58 p.m. -- Costume Design: Milena Canonero for The Grand Budapest Hotel continues the 100% predictability trend.  But it's certainly a deserving win.

6 p.m. -- Makeup and Hairstyling -- Another win for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is really good because you shouldn't reward makeup for delivering a performance like it did in Foxcatcher.  And now I've already forgotten the third nominee.  Sorry to whomever it was.

Nice shout-out to Dick Smith, one of those names we all remember from the behind-the-scenes magazines growing up.

6:03 p.m. -- It's always fascinating to find out which actors can read Teleprompters and which can't.

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6:10 p.m. -- Foreign Language Film: Ida.  There goes my office pool.

This guys is awesome!  Why should you be forced off the stage for the sake of a broadcast?  Ha -- love how much he ignored the loudest music possible.  I wonder if they would have just had Shirley MacLaine come out and start her presentation even if he were still rambling on?

It's a shame that the studios submit their own "sizzle reels" to portray Best Picture nominees.  They just look like badly edited commercials.

Aha!  My seat-filler description was right on target, you see?

"Everything is Awesome" is a cute song, but it's no "Happy."

That's a pretty freaking awesome commercial for Lego.  I imagine every brand is thinking about how they could make their own film.  The Clorox Movie.  The Lysol Movie.  The Purina Movie.  I mean, that's a LOT of air time for a commercial!

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6:25 p.m. -- "The most well-adjusted former child actor in the room."  I was REALLY hoping it would be Kirk Cameron.  That would have been wild.

Live Action Short Film: The Phone Call.  Nope.  I'm not winning that office pool by any stretch.

Aw, there's always that one guy in a duo who never gets to speak.  I wonder how long they hold grudges?

Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.  Two movies about crisis hotlines.  I wonder if Academy voters are trying to send a hidden message.  Sounds like the industry might need something like this.  Business idea: Crisis Hotline: Academy Award WINNERS, press 1; Academy Award NOMINEES, press 2.

Well, someone shows some class, at least.  The word "suicide" got the orchestra to shut up.

"Takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that."  Well done.  My concerns based on that seat-filler gag that NPH couldn't think on his feet have been entirely dispelled.

Whoever recommended to David Oyelowo that he wear a red tuxedo should ... get their own Oscar!

"I'm Not Gonna Miss You" is also what McDonald's says to Gwyneth Paltrow.

NPH is really, really trying, but this is a really, really dull show so far, despite the Lego commercial.

We're an hour and 10 minutes into this thing, and so far only two major awards have been given out.

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6:25 p.m. -- Neil Patrick Harris shirtless.  He's certainly going for the gay audience.  (I'm not complaining.)  Artfully arranged tighty-whities, too.  That's all 100% natural!

It's kind of amazing that they'll still air the live-action short film category as part of the broadcast, but the technical achievements that directly affect what moviegoers see on screen aren't part of the awards ceremony.  There should be a way to provide more of that fascinating behind-the-scenes insight to the not-1-billion-people who are watching.

Sound Mixing -- Whiplash.  Well done.  Even though I'm someone who's still a little confused about the difference between the two sound categories, I do know that sound was more than 50% of the experience of Whiplash.  What a great, great movie that is.  If you haven't seen it yet, stop waiting.  Extraordinary.

Sound Editing -- American Sniper.  Well, maybe I still have a chance at that office pool after all.

Clint Eastwood looks more and more badass every year.  Still, though, it's odd to see the chair beside him actually occupied.

Prom Night 1985 called and asked Jared Leto for his tux back.

Supporting Actress -- I still think there could be a surprise here.  But I'm not holding my breath.  I sure hope they get to take home those Lego Oscars.

Patricia Arquette.  Nope, I guess no surprises.

Oh, hey!  There's a huge surprise!  It suddenly started pouring rain outside.  That's the most exciting moment of the evening so far.

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7 p.m. -- Beyond the Lights.  Begin Again.  Both Oscar nominees, which is more than most movies can say.  You remember Beyond the Lights, don't you?  No, really.  It came out last year.  I swear.

Apparently this musical performance is why Jared Leto was wearing that tux.  All we need now are Molly Ringwald and Michael Schoeffling.

Visual Effects -- Interstellar.  Interesting.  It wasn't the front-runner.

Holy crap, DirecTV just lost sound.  And the awards show might be better this way!

Sound is back, just in time for another scintillating acceptance speech.

Ooh.  The theme from Dirty Dancing.  Continuing the 1980s prom theme!

Animated Short Film - No, Kevin Hart, theses are not what you called cartoons.  These are much different than that.  Feast.  It was certainly cute.  I have to admit I was disappointed Glen Keane's Duet wasn't nominated.

Animated Feature Film -- I've got my fingers crossed for Hiccup and friends.  Suddenly the tension ratchets up for me.  I sure hope this is one category where there are no surprises.  Big Hero 6.  Oh, man.  Oh, man.  Oh, man.  That was indeed a surprise.  It's going to be a hard day at work tomorrow.  So much for it being a night of no surprises.

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7:22 p.m. -- Production Design -- The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Why couldn't this have been the category that surprised?

The bellhop kid from The Grand Budapest Hotel should have put on his little mustache.  The way the camera keeps cutting to him, I think we're going to be seeing more of him in the future -- he's adorable.

They should have played the 007 theme for Idris Elba.  Just for fun.

Cinematography -- Birdman.  But if you're confused, it's because I don't think they actually said the name of the film.  Interesting that it's the only Birdman award of the night so far, which I'd love to think could herald a come-from-behind win for The Grand Budapest Hotel (not a film I loved, but I liked it a lot more than Birdman), but again, I'm not holding my breath.  Though after that loss for How to Train Your Dragon 2, I guess anything is possible.  I'm still reeling from that one.  Even if weren't a little personally involved in that race, I would have still been surprised.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 really is a fine, fine film.

Two hours after it began, the show still has almost all the major categories left to go.  I wonder if half the country isn't actually in bed by now?

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7:31 p.m. -- Morbidly, this is always the most fascinating part of the evening, the In Memoriam.  Lovely combination of Meryl Streep and Marvin Hamlisch's haunting Sophie's Choice theme.  So very odd to see Robin Williams' name on that screen.

The somber theme sure fits after that Animated Feature category.  Was that really 20 minutes ago already?

While I'm not a particularly big party-goer, I find it very hard to believe that Good Morning America has the ultimate Oscar "after-party."  I imagine there are some slightly better festivities going on tonight in L.A.

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7:43 p.m. -- What's a film editor?

Film Editing -- Whiplash.  That falls into the "surprise" category, too.  Could Oscar voters be showing their love for Whiplash?  Three wins each so far for Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash, but one for Birdman.  Could those awards be potent signals?

I'm mildly worried for Terrence Howard right now.  Strange.

Is Neil Patrick Harris pronouncing David Oyelowo's name correctly?  Or have I been pronouncing it incorrectly?  Hmmm.

Documentary Feature -- Citizenfour.  I'm curious to see this film.  It's been surprisingly difficult to find documentaries in L.A. recently.  Or maybe I'm not looking hard enough.

I've never seen anyone look more bored than Reese Witherspoon just did.

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8:02 p.m. -- Good performance of a good song from an incredibly undervalued movie.  Selma is a fine, fine film.  David Oyelowo just had the most human reaction of any Oscar attendee.

Hey!  It's Adele Dazeem and Liberace!

Best Song -- Huh?  Danielle Brisbois? "Glory" from Selma.  Very nice to see the Academy members acknowledging that they did wrong by this film.  This win wasn't unexpected, but it's nice to see the movie recognized somehow.

"There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850."  That's a stunning statement.  Great speech.

I think they use "Pure Imagination" as a musical cue every year.  You won't hear any complaining from me!  One of the best movie songs ever written (and performed).

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8:13 p.m. -- I'm not sure 11:13 p.m. Eastern time is the best time to stop the show for a retrospective on an individual move, no matter how much I love The Sound of Music.  And I love me some Sound of Music!  But I also would love to think this whole thing will be over in less than four hours.

Lady Gaga doing The Sound of Music.  I take it back.  Let's watch.

If she's really, truly doing that -- live or taped -- I think we have just found our new Maria.  That's impressive.  Though I'm not sure how Mother Superior would feel about those tattoos.

Will Gaga end this medley with "Clang Clang Clang Went the Trolley" like the Sweeney Sisters.

Note to Oscar producers: Have Neil Patrick Harris give out all the awards and Lady Gaga do all the songs next year.  You'll cut down the show by three hours and you'll have a better show.

It's a shame that had to happen at the THREE. HOUR. MARK.

Best Original Score: My money's on The Theory of Everything, but at this rate, who knows? And the Oscar goes to ... The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Well, the hotel certainly seems to be the place to stay this evening.  It's a movie I enjoyed very munch, but my mind was often elsewhere the night I saw it, as beautiful Edward died the next day.  I may have to see it again!  I'm not a big Wes Anderson fan, but this was certainly one of his most purely enjoyable, fully accessible films.  If not his very best to date.

Deadline.com is calling this year's show a "yawn-fest instead of the usual snorefest."  Well, despite the length, they are keeping it interesting ... for the relatively small numbers of people who saw the films that are dominating so far.  For the record, the longest Oscar ceremony was in 2002, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, which lasted 4 hours, 23 minutes.  This one might not be far behind.  (The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings won Best Picture that year.)

Best Original Screenplay -- Birdman.  There it is.  The key indicator, probably.  Unless it's Birdman's major recognition?  I don't know anymore.  I just don't know.

Fun fact: During commercial breaks, people come around and hand out snacks to the attendees.

Best Adapted Screenplay -- The Imitation Game.  That's a genuine surprise; I had expected this to be a lock for Whiplash.  Great to see a first-time writer win.

Another wonderful speech that used the moment to say something, not just to thank agents.  Terrific!

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8:38 p.m. -- Three hours, 8 minutes.  Einstein's theory of relativity in action.

(Side note: Once Upon a Time is still on the air?)

Best Director -- Birdman.  OK, so there it really is.  I'm wondering when it will dawn on Hollywood that Birdman is this year's Crash.  Birdman was certainly an accomplishment, but it left me completely cold.

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8:49 p.m. -- I wasn't bowled over by Foxcatcher, but doesn't Steve Carell just seem like a cool guy?

The first Hollywood-type interview I wrote and got paid for it: Michael Keaton.

Best Actor -- Eddie Redmayne.  I mean, come on ... that performance.  The work he did was just incredible.  The movie wasn't as good as his performance, but he was absolutely amazing.

Funny how they don't strike up the band for these particular acceptance speeches!

Matthew McConaughey didn't come out driving a Lincoln?  What's that about?

Best Actress -- Julianne Moore.  Well, since she got a clip that was twice as long as everyone else's, I guess it was a given.  But definitely deserved.  Harrowing, absorbing movie.  And what a backstory -- had no idea one of the directors has ALS.

Rosamund Pike does the whole "I'm-so-happy-for-her" thing very well.

NPH is rocking the purple velvet very well.  He needs a chocolate-brown top hat.

But that Oscar prediction gag sure fell flat.

9:03 p.m. -- OK, here we go.  Is it Birdman that will take flight, will Boyhood be all grown up?  Or will it be a surprise?

Let's see ...

Birdman.

Meh.

OK, that's it.  Let's all come back next year.






Favorite Films: "The Color Purple"


Today is Oscar day, and it seems appropriate to remember The Color Purple, the movie that got nominated for 11 Academy Awards but failed to win a single statue, and whose director, a fellow named Steven Spielberg, was shut out of the Oscar race altogether.

It may be 30 years old, but The Color Purple feels as fresh and bold today as it did then, perhaps more so, now that time has passed and the surprise of a white Jewish director taking on a seminal story of African-American self-worth has passed.  What we're left with is the film itself, not the manufactured controversy of whether Spielberg was the right person to make this movie: He was.

The Color Purple is, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial a few years before it, the story of an outsider, a heroine whose heart has been torn apart and who needs an unexpected visitor to provide her the courage and strength she needs to find her own place.  It is every bit as much about growing up and coming in to the world as Spielberg's movies about American suburbia, and even more affecting because Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) doesn't physically look like the boys and men who had been Spielberg's favorite subjects until then.

She is a poor black woman in the American South who, in the first few minutes of the movie, gives birth to a child conceived when she was raped by her father.  She is placed into a life of servitude to a man (Danny Glover) who despises her, and loses what shreds of self-confidence she has when her incestuous, abusive father tells her, "You've got the ugliest smile this side of creation."  The rape, the abuse, the physical pain was one thing; it's those nine words that haunt her the rest of her life.

Celie is played as a woman by Goldberg, but for the first 45 minutes of the film, she's portrayed with extraordinary clarity by Desreta Jackson, who has the unenviable task of setting the parameters of this soul-shattered person.  Her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia), has managed to keep her strength of self, and resolves to be with Celie always and forever.  But when she dares to resist an attempted rape by Celie's husband, she is thrown from the house physically and spiritually in one of the most unforgettable scenes in all of Spielberg's work.

Nettie's forced exile demonstrates all of Spielberg's remarkable abilities as a filmmaker -- he elicits fearless work from the actors, knows exactly what makes the raw and painful emotion of the scene work, and films it all with a fluid beauty that observes the scene in full and from an arm's length.  It's a moment that today would be filled with a dozen different angles from shaky, hand-held cameras, but Spielberg captures a scene of intense anguish with the same long tracking shots he might previously have reserved for a moment of majesty and wonder in a movie like Close Encounters.  If the imagery weren't so brutal, the scene would be pretty.

The moment is the heart of The Color Purple, and it's also why the film was frequently criticized.  Spielberg isn't afraid to make his movie beautiful, when ugly would have been such an easier way to go.  But Spielberg knows (or, at least, back then, knew) that we go to the movies to see a heightened reality, to see the world presented theatrically.  Celie and Nettie's separation defines The Color Purple as a Spielberg film -- and as a special film -- because of its sentimentality.

The rest of the movie is like that, too.  Although it's a little disjointed and rambling in its latter half, it's always a ravishingly good-looking movie, with cinematography by Alan Daviau, whose work also helped define such Spielberg movies as Empire of the Sun, E.T. and the Spielberg segment of The Twilight Zone (not to mention one of my other favorite movies, Defending Your Life).  His clean, sharp images are accompanied by a beautiful score by Quincy Jones (this is the only Spielberg film not scored by John Williams) and indelible performances by Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey.  They come together in a sort of cinematic alchemy.

The Color Purple may make Celie's experience look too pretty -- but doesn't a character like Celie deserve that?  What her painful, impossible life lacks in inner beauty, The Color Purple balances by always showing the outward beauty that surrounds her, the beauty her anguish and turmoil never let her see until the majestic, stirring final scene in which it all, at long last, reveals itself to her eyes and to her heart.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Oscars: My Guesses ... and My Choices

Post-Oscars update: My score this year was only 58%.  Don't count on me for help with your office Oscar pool next year, I'm afraid!


Will I watch the Academy Awards next Sunday?

Of course.

Will I approve of the winners?

This year, more than ever, the answer is: Of course not.

I can't think of a year in which the outcome of key races seemed less sure, but when the front-runners in some key categories like Best Picture, are really disappointing to me.  But, hey, with Neil Patrick Harris hosting, at least it should be a good show.

Here are my marginally educated guesses of who will take home Oscar gold ... and who I wish would:

  Best Picture  
WILL WIN: Birdman
SHOULD WIN: Whiplash
WHY? Birdman certainly has its admirers.  I'm not one of them.  I found it a flawed, overreaching movie, and while overreaching is generally something to be lauded, in Birdman's case the result was confusing, confused and more than a little smug about it all.  It's too proud of itself and unable or unwilling to acknowledge its flaws.  Whiplash, meanwhile, has the opposite problem: It hardly seems to take notice of its effortless greatness.  It's a movie so consumed with examining whether excellence is earned or bestowed, whether perfection is really achievable (and, if so, whether it's worthwhile) that it doesn't comment on its own excellence or near perfection.  And it is a nearly perfect film.  It's just not flashy enough.  Boyhood is a close second in this race, in my book -- it's a beautiful, genius movie, conceived and created with care and compassion.  It's so wonderful, though, I think the Academy will deem it a bit too twee.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is a little too frothy, Selma too overlooked, and American Sniper too successful, while the British biopics (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything) are just too pat and feel like they belong in a different decade -- and probably cancel each other out, anyway.

 Best Director 
 WILL WIN Richard Linklater
 SHOULD WIN Richard Linklater
 WHY?  Even those who found the film too slow and meandering can't deny what Richard Linklater has accomplished with Boyhood.  The sheer audacity of conceiving a movie that could only be shot over the course of 12 years is exactly the kind of "risk above all" that Birdman claims in its advertisements to contain.  Linklater has built a career on making great movies, which only adds to the inclination to honor him.

 Best Supporting Actor  
 WILL WIN J.K. Simmons
 SHOULD WIN J.K. Simmons
 WHY?  His performance is unforgettable, and you can't say that about any of the other actors in this category.  They're all fine -- more than fine, every one of them delivers a memorable performance.  But memorable is different than unforgettable.  And Simmons is the only performance people will still remember 50 years from now.

 Best Supporting Actress  
 WILL WIN Emma Stone
 SHOULD WIN Laura Dern
 WHY?  The acting block of the Academy, the single biggest voting group, loves Birdman because it focuses on, well, them.  Simmons (see above) can't be overlooked, but the other four actresses in this category ostensibly could be in order to favor Birdman.  And Stone, there's no doubt, delivers a terrific performance.  But Dern's task was vastly more difficult and more compelling: She has to haunt the entire movie.  Her character's death is the catalyst for the entire film, so in her relatively brief screen time, she has to convey the life-force, the love, the power, the memory of a woman whose loss could be so grievous it leaves a gaping whole that can't be filled.  Dern manages just that.  It's a delicate, pitch-perfect performance, but the film is generally thought of (incorrectly) to be a one-woman show.

 Best Actor  
 WILL WIN Eddie Redmayne
 SHOULD WIN Eddie Redmayne
 WHY?  While there's a mighty good chance Michael Keaton will walk home with the gold for a performance that held Birdman together and resuscitated an entire career, Redmayne wowed with the physicality of his performance.  As Stephen Hawking, he portrayed the arc of (almost) an entire life, and though seemingly trapped by the physical immobility of the role, pushed through a remarkable humor, spirit and personality.  It's Oscar bait -- but it's also savagely good work.

 Best Actress  
 WILL WIN : Julianne Moore
 SHOULD WIN Julianne Moore
 WHY?  I'm torn on this one, and the Academy might be, too, because Reese Witherspoon is the heart and the catharsis of Wild, and there's a small chance she could steal the Oscar, which would make me happy indeed.  But as much as I love Wild (I thought it was the year's single best movie), Julianne Moore rises to a seemingly impossible task in Still Alice, balancing fine technical knowledge of the progression of Alzheimer's disease (and what it looks like to the outside world) with a finely wrought fear and anxiety: She plays a woman who feels her own mind slipping away and is helpless to do a thing about it.  She has to watch herself disappear, and as good as the film itself is (and it's very good), Moore is even better.

 Best Adapted Screenplay  
 WILL WIN The Theory of Everything
 SHOULD WIN Whiplash
 WHY?  Voters won't be able to resist the epic sweep and endearing love at the heart of The Theory of Everything (and enough voters left with a foul taste in their mouths over American Sniper will likely hamper its chances here).  But Whiplash took the sketched-out ideas of a short film (on which it's based) and expanded them into a kinetic, furiously observed meditation on the nature of dedication and perfection.  It's the movie that should win this category and most of the categories in which it's nominated, if you ask me -- but, then, no one did.  And The Theory of Everything is just too well put-together to be overlooked.

 Best Original Screenplay  
 WILL WIN Birdman
 SHOULD WIN Boyhood
 WHY? The people who love Birdman are being very vocal about it, aided by a seemingly limitless budget for advertisements and screenings.  Birdman will win in every category in which it has even a minor opening, and it has a major opening here -- the other nominees don't have the resonance of either Birdman or Boyhood (Nightcrawler was just too off-putting for many, but it is a stellar screenplay, even if I thought the movie was a little cold and distant).  Boyhood certainly deserves this honor in my book, though; it's a story that plays through from beginning to end with the rhythms and uncertainties of real life, and Linklater had quite a task to figure out how to structure it all.  The biggest problem for it: Many reports that say Linklater and the actors worked together to determine what the film should be, undermining (wrongly) the notion so many people have that a screenwriter sits in a room and writes out everything start to finish, and that only "those" kinds of writers should be rewarded.

 Best Animated Film  
WILL WINHow to Train Your Dragon 2
 SHOULD WIN How to Train Your Dragon 2
 WHY?  Academy voters may have been very satisfied with Baymax's care, but I'll go out on a little bit of a limb here and say that the sheer technical accomplishment of How to Train Your Dragon 2 will wow one set of voters, while the movie's deep and resonant story will attract others.  This is the first year in a long time that there hasn't been a clear-cut winner in the category, and though Dragon is perceived to be at a little bit of a disadvantage because it wasn't the knockout success of the first, without The Lego Movie in the race, it seems to be the favorite.  I'd agree with that (though, admittedly, I haven't seen the other three, which is a shame I do not bear lightly), and I also found it a rich, satisfying, beautiful movie fully deserving of the accolade.

 Additional Categories  
Trust me, I could very well keep going on and on about these categories, even ones in which I haven't seen the nominees.  There's been no shortage of Oscar handicapping on the Internet, and I've been doing my best to keep up.  But rather than bore you with what are often (perhaps incorrectly, given their importance to movies) considered "the other" categories, here's a quick set of my guesses in each:

Best Foreign Language Film: Leviathan (Russia) -- and, nope, I haven't seen a single one of these, but I sure would like to see them all, and hopefully will soon!

Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour

Best Documentary Short SubjectCrisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Film Editing: Boyhood

Best CinematographyBirdman

Best Makeup/Hair Styling: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Score: Jóhann Jóhannson, The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song: Glory

Best Sound Editing: American Sniper

Best Sound Mixing: Birdman

Best Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Animated Short Film: Feast

Best Live Action Short Film: Parvaneh

So, let's see next Sunday night how I do.  Perhaps I'll beat last year's 79% accuracy rate!


"Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine"



 5 / 5 

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine isn't the movie you might imagine, the one you might resist or even fear.

Yes, it delves into the specifics of the horrifying beating death of the 21-year-old Wyoming college student, whose murder galvanized the nation and sped along much of the progress the gay-rights movement has seen in the past decade and a half.  But that’s only a part of it.  Up front, its director makes it clear that she wants to ensure that Shepard is remembered not simply for his name but for the life he led that was brutally cut short.  It turns out that this is more than just a noble cause, because for a 21-year-old kid from Wyoming, Shepard lived an unexpectedly rich and fascinating life. 

Has it really been 17 years since Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked and left to die while tied to a fence in the middle of the lonely Wyoming prairie.  Josue makes the time melt away, both poignantly and painfully. For her, his death still feels impossibly near.  For any filmmaker, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine would be an impressive work; for a first-time director, it’s a remarkable accomplishment.

From interviews with his friends and family that are presented in mostly chronological order, Josue begins with what seem to be mundane and wholesome pieces that are woven together to create an increasingly fascinating tapestry of a boy who was bright, ambitious, self-aware and promising -- until an unexpected turn of events that, ultimately, directly lead to the night in Laramie, Wyo., when Shepard’s path crosses with two men he mistakes as friends.

Even those who are familiar with the details of Shepard’s death may be surprised to learn what happened years before, and how one awful night far from home began a string of events that inexorably led to his death.  Considering that the movie begins as a rather standard talking-head documentary, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine settles in to a story as compelling as any fictional film.
Until the last few minutes, when it feels just a tad too much like an infomercial for the foundation created in Shepard’s name, Josue avoids the temptation to make this into a movie about hate crimes, about the coming-out process or about gay rights.  It’s a specific story about a specific person, and all the better for that narrow focus.

Though documentarians often fail when they bring too much of themselves to their movies, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine manages the opposite feat – its emotionally raw high point comes when Josue spends time with a priest who knew Shepard and who talks about the emptiness and tragedy that Shepard’s murder left behind.

The priest led Shepard's funeral.  Later, he tried to console Shepard's killers.  Josue asks him why he would do that.  The priest explains why, offering an extraordinary, heart-stopping exploration of suffering, loss and acceptance. It’s a riveting, harrowing scene.


It's one reason, but far from the only, that  Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is the furthest thing possible from the tedious movie I expected (and, yes, feared) it to be.  Though it's only February, I find it hard to conceive that the year ahead will yield a more heartbreaking, of a more fulfilling, movie -- documentary or otherwise.

Viewed Feb. 15, 2015 -- Laemmle North Hollywood

1730

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Favorite Films: "Slumdog Millionaire"


The game show is called "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and the title is a bit of a tease, because who doesn't want to be a millionaire?  If that's true anywhere in the world, it's even more true in India, where people live in squalid hantytowns that can't even be called slums, that word is too charitable.  Yet, they survive and they manage to laugh and dream.

One of the residents is a little boy named Jamal Malik, whose mother is murdered right before his eyes by rioting religious zealots.  As an orphan, his exploits would make Charles Dickens do a double-take.  Jamal comes to live a life filled with violence, misfortune, and unsavory men who enslave the bodies and souls of unfortunate children.  Amid this suffering, though, Jamal finds a chaste, pure love embodied by a little girl named Latika.

They meet in a rainstorm on the day that Jamal's mother has been killed.  His brother, Salim, wants him to turn Latika away, but even as a boy Jamal senses that this girl will play a role in his life.  It isn't long before they're separated again, but Jamal is determined that the world will not keep them apart.

So, the little irony is that when a grown up Jamal (played by Dev Patel) appears on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," he's doing it for one reason, and the reason isn't because he wants to be a millionaire.

Jamal has seen what money does to people.  It tears them apart, turns them vicious -- that's what happened to his brother, who works for one of the biggest gangsters in Mumbai and who tried to steal Latika away.  He got her body, but not her heart.  And Jamal knows that Latika (played by Freida Pinto when she's older) watches "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" every day.  "It's an escape into another life," she tells him during an all-too-brief reunion.

Jamil knows the answer to all the questions.  It's not necessarily that he's smart -- he's no more educated than a boy from the slums would be.  But every one of the questions seems to relate back to his unpredictable, unbelievable life, and Slumdog Millionaire darts back and forth in time as Jamil reflects back on his past to find the answers to innocuous trivia questions.

The movie covers a lot of ground, shows the vast sweep and scope of this seemingly little life.  Jamil may just be an office boy at a call center for a cell phone company, but one of the many beauties of Slumdog Millionaire is how it shows that no life is small, and every moment is, in its way, an adventure.

Director Danny Boyle has always made kinetic, sometimes hyperactive, movies.  They haven't always connected with me emotionally, but in Slumdog Millionaire he's aided by co-director Loveleen Tandan, an Indian woman whose name rightly should have been called alongside Boyle's when he deservedly won the Oscar in 2009 -- and when the film won Best Picture.  The movie works largely because of the ways it so effortlessly weaves Hindi dialogue alongside English, captures the pulsating spirit of the slums and makes them feel alive and vital, not depressing and pitiful.

Slumdog Millionaire is a movie that understands the strangeness of joy; it is, after all, the other side of despair, and while it's possible for deep sadness to exist without great happiness, Slumdog Millionaire knows elation must have its match in sorrow.  The two emotions together combine to create the ineffable magic that infuses the film: a sense of destiny.

The movie ends with scenes that have been parodied hundreds of times, but almost never captured effectively on film: Two lovers, kept apart for too long, finally see each other again and run to be reunited.  To do this right requires a perfect mix of finely balanced emotions that lead the viewer to tear up without crying, to be mesmerized without swooning, and, most of all, to smile without laughing.  Get it even the slightest bit wrong, and the audience will titter at the most inopportune moment, or the big emotion will dissipate.  It's almost impossible to pull off, so most films don't try.

Slumdog Millionaire doesn't just try -- it gets everything perfectly right, and winds up being the kind of film that can mend a broken heart, heal a deep wound, and calm an anxious soul.

Slumdog Millionaire doesn't want us to feel good just because a boy rises out of the slums and wins million dollars.  It wants us to feel good because he has shown that life can be magical and wonderful and beautiful.  Are there better reasons to fall in love with a movie the way I did when Slumdog Millionaire was first released seven years ago, and the way I do every time I watch it again?

If there are, don't tell me.  That's an answer I don't want to know.  Because Slumdog Millionaire is a movie I prefer to stay in love with, if only for the way it makes me smile.