Monday, February 3, 2014

January 2014


     What most amused me about this year’s Academy Award nominations wasn’t the voters’ selections, which, with a few exceptions, were solid, but the reaction by the press. The voting body had somehow become hipper, more cutting-edge by leaving Tom Hanks and Robert Redford off their best actor ballots and including little know (and minority) candidates Barkhad Abdi and Lupita Nyong’o in the supporting categories.

      What a crock. Every name on the list of Oscar nominations had been written about extensively and their nomination anticipated for the past three months. That Hanks and Redford, who gave overrated, personality driven performances, lost out to Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey is hardly a reason to certify the Academy voters as hardcore cinephiles. Did anyone notice that the same 15 or so films—the ones every casual moviegoer in America saw in 2013—received nearly all the nominations?

     These voters are about as cutting edge as your Aunt Gertrude; Oscar voters’ movie world seems to be growing smaller and smaller. Only Abdi of “Captain Phillips” received a supporting nomination without having the film’s star capture a leading role nod. And, every acting nomination except the pair from “Blue Jasmine” and two from “August: Osage County” is from the list of best picture nominees. When the voters start honoring performances (especially in the supporting categories) from lesser-known pictures—Sam Rockwell in “The Way Way Back,” Ben Mendelsohn in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Rooney Mara in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” or Marcia Gay Harden in “Parkland”—or include a film such as “Fruitvale Station” among the best picture picks—then I’ll give the Academy a cheer.

    They continue to vote for nearly every actor or filmmaker who shows up in the Los Angeles Times’ weekly listing of Oscar favorites; that was the only surprise about Hanks and Redford since most writers had “expected” their nominations. If these voters actually see more than two dozen pictures (they should be required to see at least 100), I’ve seen no evidence of it.

       I’m still trying to figure out how these new and improved Oscar voters ignored “Mud,” last summer’s most entertaining film and one of the best of the year. McConaughey deserved a supporting actor nod and writer-director Jeff Nichols should have been among the original screenplay nominees.

       I was also disappointed that “Inside Llewyn Davis” didn’t receive a best picture nod, but I can’t disagree with the best actor selections; Oscar Isaac was first rate as the grumpy folk singer but this was a banner year for actors. This may be the first time in decades that I have agreed with all five best actor selections.

      The worst nominations were from “August: Osage County” (see below for more detail); Meryl Streep (for the eighteenth time) and Julie Roberts should be too embarrassed to show up the ceremony. I understand the voters’ frustration in the best actress category—there probably weren’t eight legitimate lead performance by actresses in 2013—but every new film I saw this year (about 50) had a better supporting performance than the one Roberts offered. It is simply awful, and now it’s memorialized forever.

     Also, I am usually pleased to see Woody Allen add to his record total of writing nominations (“Blue Jasmine” makes it 16), but this one was underserved. The film is worth seeing only for Cate Blanchett’s extraordinary performance.

     Predicting the winners seems so easy in January, but I’m rarely 100 percent correct. But I keep trying: Leonardo DiCaprio, Blanchett, Jared Leto and Nyong’o in the acting categories; Alfonso Cuarón as best director for “Gravity” and “American Hustle” inexplicably taking home the best picture Oscar.

     Next month, I’ll bore you with my entire rundown of the year’s best, but, for now, here’s my (quite predictable and still tentative) Top 10:

 1  Gravity  (Alfonso Cuarón)
 2  Nebraska  (Alexander Payne)
 3  12 Years a Slave  (Steve McQueen)
 4  The Wolf of Wall Street  (Martin Scorsese)
 5  Dallas Buyers Club  (Jean-Marc Vallée)
 6  Mud  (Jeff Nichols)
 7  Fruitvale Station  (Ryan Coogler)
 8  Inside Llewyn Davis  (Joel and Ethan Coen)
 9  Her  (Spike Jonze)
10 The Way Way Back   (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)

     The title alone would have marked this dark comedy as memorable, but, of course, it’s much more: among the most sarcastic, ridiculously truthful and scary movies ever made. At age 50, the picture remains just as powerful and just as hilarious.

      “Dr. Strangelove,” along with his next two films, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), would establish Stanley Kubrick as the great directing talent of his generation and one of the true visionaries in cinema history. After making two masterful genre pictures in the 1950s, the noir heist film “The Killing” and the ultimate anti-war statement “Paths of Glory,” Kubrick turned his back on Hollywood, moving to the British countryside in 1961. His relatively productive period latest through 1975; after that he released just three pictures, all controversial cinematic events, “The Shining” (1980), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and “Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Kubrick was 70 when he died of a heart attack just before the release of his final film.

     But no picture in his impressively diverse and adventurous filmography would ever match what he accomplished in “Dr. Strangelove.” The movie started making news before it was even released. While the film was still in production, Kubrick and “Red Alert” novelist Terry George sued the producers of “Fail Safe,” a film with an almost identical plot as theirs, but done seriously. The dispute resulted in delaying the release of “Fail Safe,” which opened eight months after Dr. Strangelove,” ensuring Kubrick the first crack at the scenario. But, after all these years, what makes “Dr. Strangelove” so much better than “Fail Safe”—a darn good movie itself, rigorously directed by Sidney Lumet—is Kubrick’s daringly buffoonish characters and mocking tone; his insistence that those with their fingers on the nuclear button were either idiots or madmen.

     The performances are impeccable: Peter Sellers, in a three-role tour de force, plays the cool President Muffley, the confused but resourceful Group Captain Mandrake and the bizarre title character, a combination of Henry Kissinger and Baron Frankenstein; George C. Scott plays the cartoonish, blustering Gen. Buck Turgidson as an excitable teenager; and Sterling Hayden embodies the psychotic, terrifying Gen. Jack D. Ripper, whose concern about his “precious bodily fluids” sets off this nuclear mistake. Kubrick perfectly balances the story between Ripper’s Air Force base, the Pentagon war room and Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) and his bombing crew flying into the Soviet Union armed with nukes.

    The script is among the finest ever penned. Based on George’s “Red Alert,” Kubrick, George and screenwriter Terry Southern manage use some of the funniest lines ever written to tell the story of everyone’s worst nightmare. Among the best moments in this masterpiece:

     Turgidson trying to explain to President Muffley that this is just the opportunity they need to take out the “Russkies.” With bulging eyes and nervously chewing gum, Scott proudly pronounces: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million people killed, tops—depending on the breaks.”

    Later, Muffley reaches the Soviet premiere on the phone to tell him about the impending nuclear attack: “Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri? Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello? Of course, I like to speak to you. Of course, I like to say hello. Not now but anytime, Dmitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened.”

     And then there’s Hayden’s Ripper, who, when his base comes under attack from American forces, pulls a machine gun out of his golf bag and begins firing out the window. As nutty as the scene inside his office is, with Mandrake reluctantly helping Ripper in his last stand, Kubrick shoots the outside scenes as if it’s a war documentary, with jiggling camera and grainy, out-of-focus photography. In other words, as hilarious as this might seem, this is our reality.

       The distinctive black and white photography, by Gilbert Taylor, can’t be underestimated as part of the film’s staying power; if this was shot in the glossy color of the early 1960s, it would look cheap and overly broad. The grays make it real, give subtlety to the craziness.

       Originally, the director was going to end the film with an epic, Marx Brothers-inspired, cream pie fight among the generals in the war room. Instead, it’s these men of power acting like school boys, dreaming of post-apocalyptic sexual fantasies while admiring the Soviets for creating a Doomsday machine. Either scenario is as true today as it was 50 years ago; the same school yard mentality prevails in Washington, either making us laugh or turn away in disgust.

         “Dr. Strangelove” belongs in any discussion of the best English-language films ever made—it’s as funny as any comedy, as insightful as any drama, as wildly unpredictable as any film ever made.


HER  (2013)
   Despite his two startlingly original movies, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” both written by Charlie Kaufman, I still think of Spike Jonze as primarily a video director (best known for the “Jackass” series). In the last 10 years, he’s made just two features, the indulgently simplistic, but critically acclaimed “Where the Wild Things Are” and this new film.

     While “Her” doesn’t match his inventive collaborations with Kaufman, it shows that Jonze, as both a writer and director, has something interesting to say. This leisurely paced, quietly observant look at relationships in the age of instant communication and ubiquitous smart devices is among 2013’s best films, an entertaining, offbeat study of the most baffling of human conditions, love.

      Joaquin Phoenix proves himself to be the perfect actor to play Theodore Twombly, an indecisive, nerdy writer of love letters (crafting them for clients of who is going through a divorce. He keeps avoiding finalize the divorce because he still loves his wife (an ethereal Rooney Mara). But he’s jut delaying the inevitable, indulging in the memories of their life together rather than moving on.

     That’s when the latest, interactive version of an internet operating system enters his life. The hottest gadget of this slightly futuristic society (where there’s a noticeable lack of belted pants) allows users to communicate directly with the system through a human-like voice with unlimited artificial intelligence, including the ability to learn and respond emotionally.

      Soon Theodore’s operating system, Samantha, is doing more than just cleaning up his email account and proof reading his letters at work; like the rest of society, Theodore wears a small ear bud to keep in constant contact with his electronic life and she becomes his constant companion. It doesn’t hurt that Samantha is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, giving one of her best performances with just her voice. Samantha turns out to be everything he ever dreamed of in a woman and they fall in love.

     This film would work well as a double feature with another 2013 picture, “Don Jon,” which chronicles a young man’s obsession with online pornography (and also features Johansson as an object of desire). Both try to understand what constitutes a “healthy” relationship as computer interaction becomes a greater part of our lives and the ideal woman (or man), without the messiness of reality, can be conjured up with the click of a mouse. Where we find love has always been a moving target; now that mysterious search includes the cyber world.

      One of the best aspects of Jonze’s screenplay is that he shows Theodore’s and Samantha’s relationship as being completely accepted by others—they go on a double date with his goofy co-worker; and his best friend (Amy Adams, as good or better than she was in “American Hustle”) also develops an attachment to her operating system voice. The optimistic Jonze sees a very tolerant future.

     Phoenix plays Theodore as a love-sick puppy, a child in man’s clothing—another point the film shares with “Don Jon”: the lingering immaturity of young adult men, at least according to 20th Century norms.

      Like the belts in “Her,” the ways of love is subject to changing fashion. Yet the bottom line remains the same: Finding the who or what, or whatever, that offers us a bit of happiness is essential, no matter what anyone else thinks. 


      As much as I enjoyed this second act of Suzanna Collins’ mega-popular trilogy, it’s hard to label it a successful movie. Much like the second film in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the first part of the final “Harry Potter” chapter, “Catching Fire” assumes that viewers saw the first film, or, at least, are familiar with the characters and the key relationships and are committed to seeing the “Mockingjay” conclusion (which itself will be a two parter).

        While the journey is thoroughly compelling, this bridge of a film essentially ends in the middle of the story. But despite the story’s inherent limitations, Jennifer Lawrence elevates the film with her intense commitment to her character, Katniss Everdeen, a generation-defining figure, not unlike Michael Corleone, Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter.

     Virtually joyless, Katniss, similar to the “Dark Knight” version of Batman, is a reluctant hero who hates everything about the position she has attained in society and, like a character out of Greek mythology, seems headed for martyrdom. (I haven’t and don’t plan to read books two and three.) “Catching Fire” features another fearless, laser-focused performance by Lawrence, the most talent actor to yet emerge from her generation. With her memorable performance in the little-seen 2009 film “The Burning Plain,” it was clear she was something special. Since then she’s earned three Oscar nominations, winning for 2012’s “Silver Lings Playbook,” and achieved superstardom through the “Hunger Games” franchise. She has become the first actress to earn three Academy Awards nominations by age 23.

     Her Katniss, having won the most recent Hunger Games contest, now lives with her mother and sister in the nicest part of the District, across from Peeta (a colorless Josh Hutcherson), her co-winner, and his family. She has also become enemy Number One of Panem leader Snow (the enduring Donald Sutherland) because of the manner in which she avoided killing, or being killed by, Peeta, stirring up the common folks.

    To solve his Katniss problem, Snow and his new games maker (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) cook up a 75th anniversary survival game that pits previous winners.

      Just as she did in the first games, Katniss’ basic human kindness wins her key alliances that greatly enhance her chances in the games. Yet in “Catching Fire,” it’s not the games that are central, but the stirring rebellion that is spreading through the nation, seen in the film as Katniss and Peeta, along with alcoholic Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and pretentious Effie (Elizabeth Banks), take a victory tour of the district. As the military becomes more heavy handed, Katniss becomes a reluctant symbol of the growing defiance.

       Austrian director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who also made “I Am Legend” and “Water for Elephants,” hits all the marks in “Catching Fire,” but mostly keeps the camera pointed at his star actress. He will also helm the two-part finale.

      The abrupt ending caught me my surprise, which, I guess, is a good thing because it shows how involved I was in the story up to that point. It’s a great set up, which requires nothing short of a great film to conclude the series. I have no doubt that Lawrence/Katniss are up to it.

LURED (1947) and SHOCKPROOF (1949) 
   Detlef Hans Sierck was among the leading German stage and movie directors of the 1930s, but after marrying a Jewish woman and feeling the pressure because of his left-leaning political stands, he left Nazi Germany in 1937, finally arriving in Hollywood in 1941.

    Renaming himself Douglas Sirk, he toiled in relative obscurity for the first decade of his American career, making interesting, superbly crafted B-movies, before his commercial breakthrough with the sweeping melodrama of "Magnificent Obsession" (1954). That lush, intensely emotional style of filmmaking made him one of the most important filmmakers of the 1950s, with films such as "All That Heaven Allows" (1955), "Written on the Wind" (1956), "The Tarnished Angels" (1957) and "Imitation of Life" (1959). 

    But his early, low-budget films are, in some cases, better than the overheated Technicolor romances of the 1950s. 

    Two of his best are "Lured" and "Shockproof."

    "Lured" is an intriguing crime film set in London (but filmed in a Hollywood studio) featuring Lucille Ball in one of her most convincing movie roles before she became an icon of the small screen. A serial killer is on the loose in London, killing women he meets through the classified ads and then sending poems about them to the police. Ball’s Sandra agrees to be used as bait by Scotland Yard after a friend and fellow dancer is discovered to be the killer’s latest victim.

     Ball is convincing as a plucky American who is scared out of her wits but is still willing to do her bit to help catch the murderer. Character actor supreme Charles Coburn plays the police inspector working with Sandra, while Boris Karloff, George Sanders and Cedric Hardwicke are among the suspects. 

    The film is filled with tense, "lurid" scenes as Sandra goes out with a collection of oddballs who may or may not have murder on their mind. 

     "Shockproof," though set in sunny California, is more of a classic film noir, as it tells the story of Jenny (Patricia Knight), a female ex-con who can't stay away from her boyfriend and former crime partner (John Baragray), who actually did the crime she did time for.

     Her parole officer (the always unconvincing Cornel Wilde), a dull straight-laced character named Griff eventually allows her to stay at his house with his mother and younger brother. As if that isn't bad enough, he also falls in love with her.

     Eventually, the film and Griff go off the deep end in a less-than-believable ending yet it stays true to the film noir code that men will ultimately do something very stupid if they think it will win them the love of a woman. Come to think of it, that may be one of life's ultimate truths.

     The film is best known as an early screenplay of Sam Fuller, who went on to become one of the most influential and important filmmakers of the post-war era. It also marks the first appearance of Griff, a character name that shows up in nearly every Fuller picture. It is a tribute to Fuller's buddy who was injured during World War II.

     Sirk, never comfortable with the Hollywood lifestyle, moved to Switzerland after his biggest success "Imitation of Life" (1959), essentially abandoning filmmaking (except for a few German shorts he made through the years) at the pinnacle of success.  He died in 1987, almost 30 years after his retirement. The intervening years have been kind to Sirk’s reputation; he’s gone from being perceived as a maker of glossy junk to one of the premier stylists of his era.

    Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, this star-studded new movie opens with a quiet, moving scene in which a man (Sam Shepard) is sitting in his cluttered office drinking whisky while interviewing a woman for the job of caretaker to his sick wife. Of course, he’s really talking to us, revealing the sad, pointless relationship he and his wife have developed; he drinks, she takes pills, both escaping life’s pain in their own way.

     The wife (Meryl Streep) slowly emerges from the shadows of the stairway, hair shorn, apparently from chemo, and begins a delirious, hate-filled rant--quiet desperation broken by angry bitterness. It feels like the start of one of Shepard’s own plays. 

     In a few days, Beverly (Shepard) takes his own life and the family (three daughters and other assorted relations) arrive for the funeral and a dissection of this especially dysfunctional family. But this moody, well-structured setup is quickly stomped upon by the screeching white noise of the insults, profanity and, worst of all, clichés of family drama that simply becomes exhausting by film’s end.

     Streep’s Violet and her oldest daughter Barbara (a horribly miscast Julia Roberts) go at it like WWF rivals, leaving no one unscarred and turning the film into a full-family “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” sans the brilliant writing, insight and acting. I won’t bore you with descriptions of the various emotional and psychological damaged characters this film is loaded with, other than to note that the only response I had to these people was pity and/or disgust. These are characters defined by their worst traits. Why the Oscar voters thought Streep and Roberts worthy of acting nominations is a real mystery, especially Roberts, who delivers her vulgar, profanity-laced dialogue less convincingly than most teenage girls.

      I cannot imagine how Tracy Letts’ stage version of this story was so much better than this drivel that it earned the coveted Pulitzer, but there is no doubt that vein-popping histrionics and one-dimensional characters work much better on stage than on screen.

      Amid the ranting, a few actors come out mostly unscathed: Chris Cooper as the sincere, no-nonsense brother-in-law who is equally offended by his wife (an especially scary Margo Martindale) and his sister-in-law Violet; and Julianne Nicholson as the fragile middle sister who, like Laura in “The Glass Menagerie,” has hid her life behind the cover of her mother’s needs and is finally ready to venture out into the world.

       “August: Osage County,” directed by TV veteran John Wells, plays out as if the author was determined to present the most unpleasant, messed up family in the history of drama, but instead created one long, dull mud-wrestling contest that does nothing but make a mess.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I watched Dr, Strangelove a few years ago for the first time in ages and was finally able to fully appreciate it. It truly does belong in the list of greatest movies ever made. Not just best; greatest.

Anyone who casts Scarlett Johansen in a movie and uses only her voice deserves to have his ass kicked.