I went to see Zero Dark Thirty last night. It's a magnificent film that immediately leaped into my top ten list for 2012. Don't hold your breath waiting for the list though. I'm not putting it out until I feel comfortable saying that I've seen all I need to see from last year. Which could be Thanksgiving at this rate.
Katherine Bigelow not getting an Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty is mystifying. There were so many cheap bad ways this movie could have been made and she skipped them all. It is not a jingoistic ra-ra action flick. It is not political navel gazing. It does not preach at us. It simply tells the story of a real CIA agent. We don't know her name (she's called Maya in the movie and played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain) but she was tenacious in hunting down the courier who would be the key to finding Osama Bin Laden.
Bigelow, working from Mark Boal's script, gives us a movie that is as focused on Maya as she was in finding her quarry. The camera very rarely leaves her, usually only doing so to give other characters a chance to talk about her or to give us parts of the hunt she didn't personally witness. The only other time is to show us terrorist attacks, making sure we don't forget how serious this is.
That single minded attention to one character gives us an emotional attachment to a procedural story. There isn't any glamour to this kind of spy work. It's tedious drudgery for the most part. Except for the torture.
This is the part of the movie that is generating a bit of a backlash. We know that torture was used to try and get information about Al Qaeda from suspects. This is not amongst our country's prouder moments. It's downright embarrassing actually. But it happened and because it did, it belongs in this story. The charge against the movie is that is showing torture to be useful and effective.
We see a particular prisoner being tortured in a variety of ways. He doesn't offer up much of value. Another scene shows him throwing out random bits of information, clearly hoping that one of them is what the interrogator wants to hear. There is no indication that he is speaking real information, just a desperate attempt to make it stop. Eventually a useful nugget of information is obtained from this man, but only after they have changed tactics and stopped torturing him. So it's a bit murky on whether the torture produced any useful intelligence.
All of that doesn't mean a thing. The question is whether or not the movie presents a pro torture message. What I described simply depicts the events and not how a message is sold. For this movie to be pro torture it would have to have characters being in favor of torture or depict the torture in an exciting way. The torture scenes are grim and unpleasant to watch. Maya routinely appears highly uncomfortable during or immediately after torture scenes. Not once do you hear a character saying it would be a good idea to torture someone. The one time Maya attempts torture without her partner, she gets nothing at all. When she asks her partner if he wants to take a shot, he declines and then indicates that he can't take doing it anymore. Another scene shows agents talking in a conference room with a TV on in the background showing Obama insisting in an interview that the US does not use torture. The agents all turn to look with blank expressions and then return to their conversation without comment.
Over and over again, the movie skips opportunities to champion torture. And it takes plenty of opportunities to make you look at how awful this war is. The most positive viewpoint you can find is that the agents are willing to try torture in the hope that it will help. But there is no indication that it is their first choice or that they even think it's a good idea. The torture in this movie is there because it is part of what happened, right or wrong.
If you want to rail against the use of torture, have at it. I'll be right there with you. If you want to condemn the people who did it or pushed for it, I'm with you. If the depictions of torture in the movie made you uncomfortable, good. It was supposed to. But calling this movie pro torture because it depicts torture, that's just declaring that we can't even bring up the issue without being in favor of it. Being unwilling to talk about a subject doesn't show much confidence in the strength of your argument.
One of the things I love about this movie is its unflinching gaze. It insists on looking straight at every awful part of this war, forcing the viewer to think about it. People fighting against terrorism do unspeakable things. Damage is never confined just to the bad guys. There is collateral damage and you have to look at it. War is a miserable wretched thing to be avoided. Making people confront that is not a bad thing. And there's nothing wrong with enjoying a violent action movie. But it doesn't hurt to remind yourself of the realities of war, lest we start to think that it's like the movies, full of mayhem without consequences.
By the end of my day, which will probably be around 4AM, I'll be into the outlining stage of the script. That's the update for the day.
In the meantime, enjoy this interview with Quentin Tarantino. I enjoyed his brutal honesty about junket interviews and the interviewer's obvious discomfort with that honesty.
There are all sorts of weird holes in my movie knowledge. Certain directors, genres, actors or writers whose work I've never caught up with for some reason. I'm starting to close one of those holes this week and it's a bit of a startling one.
For reasons unknown to me, the iconic actress has managed to largely escape my attention until now. I use the word iconic based almost entirely on reputation. I had seen Some Like It Hot a couple times and the movie My Week With Marilyn, which was about her making the movie The Prince and the Showgirl. Not coincidentally, that is where I began correcting the oversight.
Over the years, I've noticed that when going back to look at the great movies, it can sometimes be hard to appreciate them. They tend to be influential, which means I've probably seen a dozen or more movies building off of those greats. And then the original won't feel original. Ironic, but true. There are, of course, movies so distinctive that no amount of time will rob of their luster. But sometimes it requires a bit of perspective to appreciate them.
None of that means a damn thing when talking about Marilyn Monroe. There is a reason she is an icon. The first couple scenes of The Prince and the Showgirl are deceptive in that she does little of note, simply existing as a pretty face. But then comes a rather lengthy and extraordinary scene in which she is invited to the Carpathian embassy in London to spend the evening with that country's regent (Laurence Olivier). At this point Monroe is unleashed, commanding the screen with a rather astounding performance that I was unprepared for.
Monroe's performance is a marvel for the subtle complexity of what on the surface is a dumb blonde act. There is nothing dumb about it though. She switches gears in the blink of an eye, going from ditzy to irritable to over the top sexy to mocking, all without ever allowing her character to seem conscious of it. Playing opposite the legendary Olivier, she reduces him to playing the sputtering straight man, just trying to hold on and keep up with her. There is no way to determine in this scene what her character is really after but there is no doubt she is in control.
This is not a woman just playing off her considerable sex appeal. It's much more than that. She is keenly aware of that appeal, using it not as a full frontal assault but as a leverage point for going in other directions. She's completely capable of turning her sexiness up to full volume and melting the brain of every man in sight. Instead she uses only a bit of it here and there to disarm and confuse, keeping Olivier's regent off balance and out of his element, even though he believes himself to be the one in a position of power. The guy who is supposed to rule an entire nation can't even rule the room with this woman around.
I have several more of her movies backlogged on the DVR but this one is enough to convince me that this woman deserves the status of a legend. Oddly enough, Some Like It Hot didn't convince me. It's often described as one of the greatest comedies of all time and I like it just fine. But it never made me laugh enough to belong amongst the greats. Which is odd, considering that all of that movie's principals convinced me of their greatness elsewhere.
A couple of side notes. Monroe is great but the movie is not. It's oddly paced and lacking much narrative tension to drive it along. Also, after watching it, I like My Week With Marilyn a bit less. The sad unstable woman that movie portrays doesn't seem to click with the sort of sharp mind needed to carry off a performance like this. Maybe that's wishful thinking on my part but it sure feels like they were selling her a bit short.
A couple nights ago I watched the documentary How to Survive a Plague. Immediately it moved on to my top ten list of the year's movies. It's that good.
The movie documents the organization ACT UP, which emerged in the 1980s as a response to the AIDS crisis. It was an act of self defense by the gay community, who felt the government, pharmaceutical companies and religious organizations were actively contributing to the spread of the disease. They protested, harangued, shamed and committed acts of performance art at anyone who stood in the way of stopping this epidemic.
Right off the bat, they had me. I love a good protest. I even enjoy bad protests. Anytime a group of people is so moved by something that they take to the streets and engage in civil disobedience to try and force change, I love it. Even if I don't agree with them. In the case of ACT UP, I whole heartedly endorse their actions. This was protest as an art form and it was a thrill to watch. But that makes it sounds like I'm trivializing what they were doing. Not at all. These were people who felt this was a matter of life and death. Protesting was a way to try and save lives. It's tough not to respect that.
I won't go into details but the movie is beautifully constructed. It isn't maudlin and it isn't an endless stream of talking head interviews. No, the ACT UP folks were so media savvy that they videotaped everything they did. Usually from multiple angles. This gives the documentary an almost electric energy because those cameras captured the raw anger and frustration of the protesters. It also captured their genuine fear. It is riveting.
I won't go into much detail on this because I don't want to ruin the film for you, but the construction of it is exquisite. For the last couple years, in service of my screenwriting, I've become obsessed with structure. The way How to Survive a Plague is put together makes it somehow better than the sum of its parts. What it chooses to show you and what it chooses to hold back make for an even better story. It is brutally honest, not just in thrashing horrendous people like Senator Jesse Helms, but in admitting the movement's mistakes. This gives the story a lot more weight by causing the tension to rise and fall as victories turn out to be failures and seeming follies turn into victories. I could go on forever but that would just take away your joy of discovery. The movie is on Netflix Watch Instant right now. See it. You won't regret it.
On a personal level, it made me reflect on the way I've evolved over the years on gay matters. The doc picks up in the mid 80s, when I was a dumb teenager. I know, that's redundant. I'm from upstate New York, growing up in a lily-white, largely conservative community. It's a bit less so today, but not radically different. It was a time when racist jokes were thrown around with glee. And it would be a lie to say I wasn't involved. My upbringing was pretty liberal, so there wasn't any hate in my telling of such jokes, I just never gave any thought to who they might hurt. And why would I? The people smeared by the jokes didn't seem to be amongst us.
The first time I can recall meeting an openly gay person was in college. In high school, this would have been considered supremely icky. In truth, apart from the openly gay part, this meeting wasn't notably different from any other I'd have in college. He was just this guy, you know?
College for me was an education in economics. This tilted my personal politics to the libertarian. As Penn Jillette likes to say, "Take a hard right on money, a hard left on sex and then it's straight on to paradise." It would take me the next couple decades to get an intellectual grip on this but the most important concept here was a deep love of liberty. Pretty much everything I care about gets filtered through that.
The other good thing about college was it led me to meet my wife. And she's an important part of this evolution because not long before I met her, she had lost an important member of her family to AIDS. This is where my feelings on gay people shifted from one of discomfort to some level of understanding and empathy. This was no longer an abstract idea that I hadn't had to deal with. It was now a real person, a warm loving human being cut down in his prime. Later, after we were married, we took a trip to Washington D.C. where the AIDS quilt was being displayed on the lawn of the national mall. That moment rattled me rather hard. First off, the sheer scale of the thing was deeply unnerving. But then on a smaller scale, seeing friends and family locating the square belonging to their loved one and being overcome, that was heartbreaking. And yes, when we located the square we were looking for, it was a profoundly sad moment.
In the last decade, as the fight over gay marriage became more public and heated, I took the last step. A small part of that step was going to see Brokeback Mountain. When Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal have their first sex scene, I felt a flash of that ickiness from the high school days. By the end of the movie I was crying. That was the end of that childish response. It never returned. Now I'll cheerfully watch movies about gay characters and never give it a second thought. I'm just embarrassed that it took me that long to get over it. Amusingly, I now roll my eyes at people who can't believe I went to see that movie. No, I have no reason to feel smug about that and my penance is to admit all this here.
The rest of the story wasn't a changing of my attitude but strongly asserting another one. As the debate over gay marriage began to rage, so did I. Without that stupid icky thinking clogging up my brain I saw the issue on a very simple but powerful level. Telling one group of people it was okay to get married while telling another group no was an offensive violation of liberty. Everyone in this country should have the exact same level of liberty. I've listened to all manner of arguments against gay marriage and not one of them holds any water for me. Giving a right to some people and denying to others is just wrong. Try and explain it away any way you like but it still comes down to favoring one group over another. Liberty doesn't work that way. Either everyone has the right or no one does. And if you try to argue otherwise, I promise to look down on you for it.
Probably my proudest moment politically was harassing my state senator, Steve Salland, to vote in favor of a law allowing gay marriage in New York. He had voted against such measures in the past and I let him have it for it. But that last time, he ended up casting the deciding vote in favor of gay marriage. I remember reading his comments in the newspaper the next day. They sounded eerily similar to what I kept writing to him. In no way do I think I was the one to convince him, but hearing him change his mind that way warmed my heart and gave me the only moment in my life when I felt the political process had worked properly.
That was pretty similar to the way How to Survive a Plague ends. Important changes have been made that make the world a better, safer place. They are by no means the end of the fight but it marks a big step in the right direction. Hopefully we can all keep going.
The Artist and Hugo tied for the most wins but most people will give the edge to The Artist because it won Best Picture. The biggest losers were War Horse and Moneyball which had six nominations each but brought home zero wins. The Moneyball losses bother me the most. It was one of my absolute favorites for the year.
There were a few surprises for the night, which is always nice. Meryl Streep's win was startling, if for no other reason than we've come to expect that she'll be nominated almost every year and then lose. I saw a fair number of people coming down on her for false modesty in her speech. Have we become so cynical that's impossible to believe that someone can be genuinely moved to win? Just because she's famous and nominated repeatedly doesn't mean she can't appreciate the moment. There are a lot of huge egos in Hollywood but most of the time you'll find that the most talented and hardest working people are the most modest. Don't shit on her moment. She's earned it.
The other big surprises were in technical categories, so the average person probably didn't even notice. The editing win for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo left me gobsmacked. I had just bored my wife to tears with my dissertation on why Moneyball deserved it but wouldn't win, and why Thelma Schoonmaker was a legend but wouldn't win and why The Artist would win, and then the one I neither mentioned or even seriously considered got the win. She laughed long and hard as I sat there with my jaw hanging open. And then there was the win by Hugo for visual effects, which I picked but still have trouble believing won. Make no mistake, the VFX work in Hugo is magnificent, but it is mostly the sort that is so seamless, you might not have realized you were looking at effects. Compared to the flashy effects of the competition, Hugo might have seemed a serious underdog. But the Academy often gives the award to the movie that best integrates its effects into the story. Considering that, it's not such a huge shock.
As for the show itself, it was fine. The Cirque de Soleil thing was cool and weird, so that was appreciated. Billy Crystal was just fine, but thoroughly safe. Chris Rock's brief moment on stage had me hoping he'd come back to host, Sean Penn be damned. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifinakis had a nice little bit with the cymbals. Angelina Jolie made me giggle when she struck a pose and then the writers of The Descendants made me laugh more when they struck a pose. Emma Stone looked stoned but was funnier than just about anyone. The focus group film with Christopher Guest and his band of comedians was great. The show was a big improvement over last year's debacle but very safe. I'd really love to see them take more risks and try to be more about film and less of a stage show.
I picked the winner correctly 17 out of 24 categories. Not bad, but far from my best effort. Below are all the categories with my predictions and the winners.
Who Will/Did Win: The Artist
Who Will/Did Win: Jean Dujardin
Who Will Win: Viola Davis - The Help Who Did Win: Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Who Will/Did Win: Christopher Plummer -Beginners
Who Will/Did Win: Octavia Spencer - The Help
Animated Feature Film
Who Will/Did Win: Rango
Who Will/Did Win: Hugo
Who Will/Did Win: Hugo
Who Will Win: Hugo Who Did Win: The Artist
Who Will/Did Win: Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Who Will Win: Pina Who Did Win: Undefeated
Who Will/Did Win: Saving Face
Who Will Win: The Artist Who Did Win: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Foreign Language Film
Who Will/Did Win: A Separation
Who Will Win: Harry Potter 8 Who Did Win: The Iron Lady
Who Will/Did Win: The Artist
Who Will/Did Win: Man or Muppet from The Muppets
Short Film - Animated
Who Will/Did Win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Short Film - Live Action
Who Will Win: Raju Who Did Win: The Shore
Who Will/Did Win: Hugo
Who Will/Did Win: Hugo
Who Will/Did Win: Hugo
Who Will/Did Win: The Descendants
Who Will Win: The Artist Who Did Win: Midnight in Paris
I'm a big fan of the Oscars. I know it's cool to dump on the Academy Awards and complain about everything they do wrong. But for me, that's a lot of their charm. As movie fans, there is little we like more than debating and arguing about movies. And so the Academy's imperfect record makes for good debate. As for the ceremony itself, the goofier and more weird, the better. Again, the quirks and flaws add to their charm. We have an extra debate every year about how to fix the Oscars. To my eye, the better run the show, the less interesting it is to watch.
So lets get right to the picks.
Who Will Win: The Artist
Who Should Win: Hugo
There are nine nominees but realistically this is a three horse race between The Artist, The Descendants and Hugo. I saw The Artist back in October at a film festival and enjoyed it but wondered how well a modern silent black & white movie would play to general audiences. I still don't think we have an answer to that but it clearly plays well to purple who hand out awards. I don't expect the Oscars to be any different.
Who Will/Should Win: Jean Dujardin
This one seems to come down Jean Dujardin and George Clooney. Clooney is probably about as well liked guy as there is in Hollywood, which makes it feel like folks are just looking for an excuse to give him an award. But that won't be enough to hold off Dujardin. His showy performance is the linchpin for a silent film that likely goes down in flames without him. Dujardin doesn't merely succeed, he shines in the role.
Who Will/Should Win: Viola Davis - The Help
This is a tough deep category this year. When Tilda Swinton's amazing performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin can be left out, the rest of the field is formidable. I can easily see Michelle Williams, Meryl Streep or Viola Davis walking away with it. Normally I'd favor the young pretty starlet, in this case Williams playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, because that's the tendency of the Academy voters, but the winds don't seem to be blowing that way this year. Streep has a lot of heat this year, playing British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but the 17 time nominee has to overcome a lack of love for the movie The Iron Lady. Davis, on the other hand is in the crowd pleasing film The Help, and serves as its emotional core.
Who Will/Should Win: Christopher Plummer -Beginners
There are plenty of excellent performances in this category but the heavy favorite is Christopher Plummer for Beginners. His biggest competitor was the guy who wasn't even nominated, Albert Brooks in Drive.
Who Will/Should Win: Octavia Spencer - The Help
This is another category with a strong favorite. Octavia Spencer was a force of nature in The Help and won't be easily overlooked.
Animated Feature Film
Who Will/Should Win: Rango
The biggest surprise here is the lack of an entry from Pixar. Cars 2 wasn't a hit with critics but Pixar laughs all the way to the bank on that one. It will pay for the next few movies all by itself in merchandising. As for the actual nominees, this is a strange mix. Puss In Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2 are both fine films but not the sort that are remembered for the ages. A Cat In Paris and Chico & Rita are almost entirely unknown to American audiences at this point. We just don't know anything about them. That pretty much leaves Rango. Which is just fine with me since I declared it the favorite for the award when it first came out. It's a fun weird movie with something to say.
Who Will/Should Win: Hugo
I was tempted to pick The Artist for the simple reason that it seems to have a hell of a head of steam going. But I went with Hugo for the rather astounding attention to detail of the movie, not just in this area, but pretty much every element. If you learn anything about the making of this movie, it's just about impossible not to be in awe of the work done in it. I'm going with my heart a bit here, which is usually where I get pasted in picking, but it feels right.
Who Will/Should Win: Hugo
This category is a brute to predict. There is some exemplary work in all of these films. I could make a strong case for the photography of any of them. But I'm going to go with Hugo. For one thing it looks gorgeous. For another the camera moves in fascinating ways that will make you scratch your head in confusion if you stop to think about how they must have been shot. And finally, it uses stereo imaging and makes it work well. I am not a fan of the 3D craze and this is probably the first movie I've seen in 3D where I felt like it was adding something to the film and not just being a gimmick.
And let's make it three in a row for Hugo because it just rocks all these elements.
Who Should Win: Martin Scorsese - Hugo
Who Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Hugo is a movie that grows on me the more I think about it and the more I learn about how it was made. It just seems like this bottomless well of fascinating choices and information. I really love what Scorsese did by pulling together all these craftspeople to build the delightful world of Hugo. Scorsese's deep love of film history and his campaigning for film preservation come together here in a way that just tickles me to no end. So he is my unequivocable choice for this award. He won't get it. Michel Hazanavicius made something that seems to have tickled Hollywood just a little bit more. It's a fine film and he has my respect for it. I hope he enjoys the win. He just wouldn't be my choice.
Who Will Win: Pina
I haven't seen any of these so I have no direct opinion of them. I'll be rooting for Danfung Dennis and Hell And Back Again because he shot it on a Canon 5D and that's pretty cool. But I'm guessing Pina will win for the very simple reason that it's the only one I've heard people talking about. That must mean something.
I'm sorry to say I haven't seen any of these either. Generally, this category goes to the most "important" topic so I'm going to guess the winner will be Saving Face because scarring women with acid is just wrong.
Who Should Win: Moneyball
Who Will Win: The Artist
If you ask me which movie has the best editing I'll answer Moneyball without hesitation. It was a tough task to pull that movie together and it was pulled off with style and grace. But it won't win. More likely it goes to The Artist or Hugo. I'm giving the edge to The Artist simply because I'm calling it for Best Picture as well. But don't be surprised if legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker takes the prize.
Foreign Language Film
I'm picking A Separation because I hear people talking about it a lot and speaking very highly of it. But I haven't seen it or any of the competitors so it's purely a guess.
Old age makeup is tough to get right and by all accounts The Iron Lady accomplishes the job effectively. But I suspect the award goes to Harry Potter 8 for being flashier and because it needs to win something.
John Williams is nominated twice here, for Warhorse and The Adventures of Tintin, so he'll probably cancel himself out. Not that it matters because the easy choice here is The Artist. It's a silent film. There's no dialog to drive the story, leaving the score to do all that work. And since it works well, that inescapable score stands out much more than any other film.
Man or Muppet from The Muppets. Duh.
Short Film - Animated
I've seen only one of these, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. And based on that diverse knowledge, I'll pick it to win.
Short Film - Live Action
Who Should Win: Time Freak
Who Will Win: Raju
For the first time ever, I've seen all of these before the ceremony. And instead of randomly picking one, I actually have to think about this. My favorite is Time Freak, mostly because it made me laugh the most. Pentecost is funny too but slight. Actually, all but one of these are comedies. Raju is serious and has a social conscience, making it a serious contender. The Shore is sweetly funny and has lovely acting, but it feels lacking in weight to me. Tuba Atlantic is a nice mix of laughs and sadness which could make it the best crowd pleaser. I'm going to go with Raju though. It has an emotional weight the other four can't match and wrestles with some tough moral quandaries.
Who Should Win: Drive
Who Will Win: Hugo
At this point in my predictions, it's starting to feel like Hugo will run wild through the technical awards. I'm pulling for Drive just so it can win something though.
Who Should Win: Moneyball
Who Will Win: Hugo
I really loved the work in Moneyball but as I said, Hugo is on a rampage.
Who Should Win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Who Will Win: Hugo
I'm going out on a limb on this one thanks to this guy. My gut is loudly screaming that he's wrong and Rise will get its richly deserved win. But man do I want to be on the right side of an upset win, so here's the stab at that.
Who Should Win: Moneyball
Who Will Win: The Descendants
In case you haven't noticed by now, I loved the hell out of Moneyball. Considering that it took a book about sabremetrics, an area of baseball even a dedicated fan like myself can't get interested in, and made it into a great movie, that's some genius work right there. But every time I pick what I think is the best script, I get it wrong. So let's go with The Descendants. It's a fine film and I'm a big fan of Alexander Payne. I suspect a lot of Academy voters feel the same way.
Who Will Win: The Artist
Who Should Win: Midnight in Paris
The Artist is great work, particularly when hampered by the lack of dialogue, and it deserves a lot of praise. It will win. But I would personally go with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris which is utterly charming and smart as hell. And I'm not even much of an Allen fan, so that's high praise. The dark horse is Bridesmaids which represented a bit of a tidal shift in Hollywood regarding how it thinks women should be treated as material and served as an audience. But Hollywood only tends to get that sort of thing a few years down the road, so it's probably way too soon for an award this year.
Conservatively guessing, I probably watched Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome a dozen times in the eighties. I saw it when it came out and watched it over and over again on cable later. I was aware that there were earlier films but didn't actually make any attempt to see them. I was a teenager, the nearest rental store was three miles away and I didn't have a car. My movie watching in the eighties was strictly whatever came on HBO or Showtime and whatever I could hitch a ride to see in a theater. My dad did all the VHS tape renting and his taste was awful, so I took what I could get when I could get it.
A couple years ago I finally got around to watching The Road Warrior, thanks to Netflix. Good stuff. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It lacked the polish and grandeur of Thunderdome but it was batshit crazy and dripping adrenaline. And it helped fill in the world of Mad Max for me a bit. I was pleased.
Now I've finally watched the original Mad Max, and I hate to say it but I didn't much care for it. This isn't really meant as criticism of the film. I did something director George Miller never could have expected when he made it. I came into the series backwards. As such, the plot of Mad Max is predictable. And I spent most of the movie thinking that the world looked to be in much better shape than it could have. The second two movies sell the post apocalyptic angle a lot harder, so much so that the original doesn't even feel like the world had come crashing down. So combine my confusion over the setting with being ten steps ahead of the plot at all times and then layer on an over the top score. It almost began to play as a comedy.
Keep in mind, I'm not trashing Mad Max. It was shot for next to nothing and discovered a genuine star in the making in Mel Gibson. For what it was, they did a great job. The fault is mine for watching in reverse order. So don't yell at me for putting down Mad Max. If you have to bitch at me, do it for my poor sense of chronology.
But holy shit did that movie not work for me.
Like every year, I spent a five day chunk of my life immersed in a film festival, FilmColumbia to be specific. It's a great festival and a truly surprising one considering it takes place in small town upstate New York. You know, that mythical part of the state north of "The City."
It was a great time and over five days I saw 18 feature films and a half dozen shorts. If you follow this blog you'll notice I wrote a ton on the movies the first couple days and then stopped. This is normal. After that the number of films starts to become overwhelming and the lack of sleep starts to get to me and I just stop writing. I did mostly keep going on Twitter though.
I would recommend pretty much everything to some degree but of course there are stand outs. Anonymous opens this week and is worth a watch, even if it's just for the shock value of watching Roland Emmerich not blow up the world in a movie. I fell madly in love with Downtown Express, but at this point it doesn't have distributor, so finding it may be tough. If you like a slow burn, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth your time. If you want to be greatly unsettled, We Need to Talk About Kevin should be on your to do list. The Descendants is another great offering from Alexander Payne. Coriolanus can simultaneously scratch your action movie and Shakespeare itches. And finally, My Week With Marilyn is immensely charming and beautifully shot.
But for me, the highlight will be the screenwriting panel on Sunday morning. Writers bring in a piece of their script and real working actors perform it live for an audience. I brought in a section of the short script No Big Deal that I've been working on since the summer. I was a nervous wreck during the whole event. Until someone else looks at my material, I don't really know what I have. All I know is that the idea interested me enough to write and that I've done my best to write it. There were some really strong entries and my script was the last to be read. By the time they got to mine, I had convinced myself that I had written utter crap and it would be booed off the stage.
This did not happen. The actors were Anna Acciani, Gian Murray-Gianino, Kevin Craig West, Lily Balsan, Glen Heroy and Parker Posey. They knocked it out of the park. I couldn't be more delighted with their performances, particularly Heroy and Posey who found a style and rhythm to an older couple in the story that I never imagined. And what they did was more interesting than what was in my head when I wrote it. Always leave space in your writing for the actors to work in. If they're at all talented, they'll elevate your material if you don't put them in a straight jacket.
After the reading there was discussion and the reaction was easily the best I've had at one of these events. People were fascinated with the idea and my plan for making it. After it was over I was able to talk to most of the actors and pick their brains about producing this short. To say it was informative is a huge understatement. And after the whole thing was over I actually had people in the audience stop me on the street to talk about it. If you're writing scripts, get them read out loud, you won't be disappointed.
So that's it. The fun is over and now it's time to go back to reality. And that first day back is pure drudgery. After a high like Sunday, Monday at the regular job is a big let down. No offense to my co-workers, who are lovely people, it's just not the same.
I'm writing this out of great selfishness. Downtown Express does not have a distributor at this point, which means that an album of the film's music is not available for sale. And I want that album badly. So I'm going to write about the movie in the hope that it will get more attention and get a distributor so I can get that album. C'mon, somebody pick it up. I'm standing here with cash in hand, ready to give it to anyone who takes a chance on it.
Downtown Express is the story of Sasha (Philippe Quint), a Russian immigrant brought here by his father Vadim (Michael Cumpsty) to study music at Julliard. Sasha is a gifted violinist, trained since the age of three by his cellist father. Sasha is working hard with his teacher Marie (Carolyne McCormick) to prepare for a recital which will launch his career. Vadim's passion for music is off the scale and he often barges into the lessons to correct Marie's interpretation of Tchaikovsky. Sasha is a bit more broad minded about music. We see him walking the streets of New York, thrilling to variety of street musicians he finds along his way. He goes to see the band Downtown Express play at a bar and is so taken with them, and particularly their singer Ramona (Nellie McKay), that he asks to join the band.
What follows is a lot of musical brilliance as Sasha tries to meld his classical violin with a modern alternative style band. The movie's story isn't anything new. The son clashes with the traditional ways of the father but earns his grudging respect by excelling in his own way. But the way that story unfolds, fueled by some truly gifted and charismatic musicians, takes this from something ordinary into something transcendent. Yes, I'm outright gushing here. I'm a guy who has struggled his whole life to put aside other people's expectations to pursue my own artistic creations. The phrase "But artists don't make any money" has haunted me over the years, as well meaning parents tried to push me into more lucrative careers. Money doesn't mean a damn thing to me if I'm miserable earning it. Pursuing art of my own is something I'd do for free. Learning to be okay with that has taken me my entire adult life. This movie is exactly about that struggle. There is a moment when Sasha is rehearsing with the band as they try to perfect their sound on the way to an important gig that literally brought tears to my eyes. This wasn't actors pretending to be musically brilliant as they evolve before our eyes. They really did it. And it is a beautiful thing to behold. Writer/director David Grubin has made something truly magical here.
I can't say enough about Philippe Quint as the lead. He is a monstrously charismatic fellow who backs it up with electrifying violin playing. He's a musician who learned to act for this movie and it's a spectacular debut. He has great chemistry with Nellie McKay, who has acted before but is also a wonderful musician. Cumpsty and McCormick are veteran actors who add a great layer to the movie with their sweetly developing romance. And in the smaller roles, I liked the band members and Sasha's cousin a lot too. It's just a great cast.
So, again, somebody pick this up for distribution. I'm ready to put cash down on a movie ticket, album and DVD right now. Please, take my money.
Despite swearing off being a film critic, going to a film festival brings it right back out of me. And since I'm spending pretty much all week at FilmColumbia, you'll forgive me a few critical indulgences.
Lars Von Trier is a provocateur, plain and simple. And he is very good at it. I have a strong reaction to every film of his that I see, mostly negative. Melancholia is a bit tougher to place than his previous work but it still managed to wind me up. The movie starts with a long section of surreal slow motion shots, mostly featuring Kirsten Dunst staring moodily into the camera while something bizarre occurs, like birds falling from the sky or electricity rising from her fingers. And then the segment concludes with an impressive shot of a rogue planet slamming into the Earth and destroying it. Then the movie backs up and starts over at the wedding of Justine (Dunst).
I found this part of the movie fairly maddening. It has moments of great charm and great humor. But it also has moments of pure acid rancor and self-destructive behavior. By the end of the wedding, I know with great certainty that Justine is someone I don't want to spend time with. Clearly she's suffering great mental pain, but because the style of the film is to jump into the middle of Justine's story, I couldn't find a place to get a grip on her. Similarly, her family is tough to figure out and I needed more than half the movie to make sense of them. This isn't me complaining about not being able to sympathize with the characters. I don't need that. I don't even need to like them. I do need to find a way to get a handle on them though. Something I can sink my teeth in, a point to build from. I've read a few reviews of the movie and from them I learn that Von Trier has suffered from severe depression and that fueled his previous film Antichrist and this one. With that in mind, Justine starts to make a lot more sense to me. Without it, I spent much of the movie wondering what the hell was wrong with her. Her character was opaque to me.
The second half of the movie switches the focus to Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). This part worked a lot better for me but at the same time I found it much less engaging. Justine was intriguing, even if I couldn't understand her while Claire was much easier to understand and subsequently less interesting. This section has a lot more to do with the rogue planet and has some interesting stuff about how people process disasters and the inevitability of death. But this is also where Von Trier started to get under my skin. There is an unpleasant nihilist streak running through it that I find it impossible to relate to. He's taking such a polar opposite to my own world view that he might as well just show a photo of himself flipping me off. Same effect. I'm going to avoid discussing this in detail, because you should discover it for yourself, but there is a scene that feels like Von Trier giving us his view of things that turned me off completely.
Von Trier knows exactly what he's doing here. This is a filmmaker in complete control of his medium and from a technical view, I can admire the hell out of that. I can and do disagree with some of his choices, most notably the handheld camera style, but I'm not putting his work down, merely voicing a difference in taste. What strikes me as most odd is that last night I watched Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, made entirely without world ending vfx, and tonight I watched Von Trier make prominent use of world ending vfx. The world has gone mad.