Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2013 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(I'm further behind than usual on my annual post-Oscar film roundup, a pre-blog tradition I'll be tweaking after this edition. But here's part one in the meantime.)

2013 was a good year for film. Fare for adults was plentiful and varied. The comic book movies and other would-be blockbusters were mostly decent yet unexceptional, but Gravity was a cut far above in terms of spectacle popcorn movies.

As usual, discriminating movie lovers watch the Oscars to cheer and boo, to see good work rewarded, and to marvel at those talented but sometimes clueless people who can deliver worthy films but also astounding bad taste.

As host, Ellen DeGeneres was… okay. After Seth McFarlane's rude and raunchy stint last year, the producers went with "nice" (although DeGeneres did have a weird dig early on that Liza Minnelli looked like a female impersonator that didn't play that well for the audience or Minnelli). I'm not a fan of extended "working the crowd" stuff, which with a Hollywood set veered toward self-satisfaction. As for the Oscar group pic – neat to crash Twitter. Meta and all that. I felt the goofiness outweighed any narcissism. Meanwhile, I wish the cheap seats had also gotten some pizza, but it's cool that the delivery man got a big tip. (For what it's worth, I liked Jon Stewart as host, and think Steve Martin might be my favorite – debonair and with a playful and savage wit. But chacun à son gout and all that.)

The presenters: The best moment was Robert DeNiro's intro for the writing awards – "The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day." The weirdest was undoubtedly John Travolta, who mangled Idina Menzel's name as "Adele Nazeem" and spawned a new meme. (It quickly had its own name generator. By the way, the Oscar telecast scripts – which are fed into the teleprompters – give phonetic spellings of every name to avoid exactly this kind or blunder. I don't know if Travolta is dyslexic or was drunk or just had a brain meltdown; accounts vary.)

Other moments: Pink has a much prettier singing voice than I realized, and did a lovely job overall on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (I agree with her critics that it's bad form to take a big breath in the middle of a word, though.) This year and last, a singer came on after the Montage of Death (as we call it), and I much prefer the approach from a few years back, when Queen Latifah sang gracefully during the "In Memoriam" segment. (Meanwhile, I correctly guessed that Kristen Bell was the "virgin sacrifice" this year presenting the technical awards; traditionally it's some gorgeous starlet surrounded by middle-aged white men.)

The speeches: I was glad to see the Oscars take a page from the Emmys' book and have a designated speaker or clear divvying of parts, so that no one was left stranded at the end (that always pained me). Jared Leto kicked off the night with a well-prepared, segmented speech that humbly thanked his mom and noted others' struggles. The rhyming acceptance speech for Best Original Song was charming. Cate Blanchett gave her fellow nominees some sweet shout-outs (and a weird dig at Julia Roberts, who loved it; obviously some inside joke). She also made a welcome point to Hollywood about how audiences will indeed watch a film with a middle-aged woman in the lead. Matthew McConaughey's speech was loopy, including a funny, affectionate bit about his deceased father but also an odd section about how his hero is himself in the future. I appreciated the sense that he doesn't like to rest on his laurels and wants to keep improving, but it came off as more egocentric than I imagine he intended. (He's grown from a decent but unexceptional pretty boy actor with some raw charisma into quite a fine performer.) The best speech for me was easily the effusive one from Lupita Nyong'o, who thanked the historical Patsey (her character), the entire cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave, and made a lovely distinction by not saying that 'your dreams can come true' but that "your dreams are valid."

For the most part, I thought the awards went to the right recipients or at least they were defensible. For instance, I was rooting for the extraordinary feature documentary The Act of Killing, but I've heard good things about the winner, 20 Feet from Stardom, and having one of its subjects break into song during the acceptance speech was one of the best moments of the night. Personally, I enjoyed Despicable Me 2 more than Frozen, but the latter film was immensely popular and well-crafted on its own terms. I was sorry that Iranian film The Past wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (it was knocked out during an earlier round of the process), but the eventual winner, The Great Beauty, is a gorgeous piece. I felt a bit bad for American Hustle, one of the best films of the year, which earned 10 nominations yet won zero awards. It was the victim of bad timing (similar to Peter O'Toole and his nominations), because all of the winners were deserving. Just consider – American Hustle had nominees in all four acting categories, and in the past four years, films directed by David O. Russell have garnered an impressive (and well-deserved) 11 acting nominations.

I enjoyed Gravity as a movie-going experience, and its craftsmanship will surely be studied in years to come, but I wouldn't rank it as Best Picture before 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle, so I was relatively pleased with how the night shaped up. Similarly, I was glad to see 12 Years a Slave and Her win the screenwriting awards, although I also would have been happy to see American Hustle win.

With the increasing importance of visual effects in genuinely good filmmaking, awards voters should ponder what constitutes directing and what constitutes cinematography versus visual effects. If the director is the person who mixes and coordinates everything, from performances to technical elements (which is usually the case), it makes sense that the talented Alfonso Cuarón won this year, just as Ang Lee won last year for Life of Pi for similar mastery. Ideally, technical expertise and the craft of filmmaking won't completely trump the art of eliciting a set of good performances, but that hasn't been the case in recent years (Tom Hooper won for the traditionally shot and superbly acted The King's Speech in 2010). Obviously, the elements don't need to be mutually exclusive, and in good filmmaking they frequently aren't.

The line is less clear between cinematography and visual effects, though, and it seems one must almost see the behind-the-scenes features to fairly judge the work. Many of the gorgeous shots that probably won Life of Pi the cinematography award last year were in fact visual effects shots (the film won for visual effects, too, justifiably). How much of the kinetic, acrobatic visual style of Gravity was due to Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki? How much was the visual effects team? How much was director Alfonso Cuarón? Given Lubezki's extraordinary past work (especially in Children of Men, the third film reviewed here), I was happy to see him win. Still, cinematography, editing, and the two sound categories (and to a lesser degree production design and costume design) can be poorly understood by Academy voters and the audience. (I'll make a plug again for the Academy explaining them better, as well as for promoting the short films.) I thought Gravity was a worthy recipient for its many awards in the more technical categories. However, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most lovely, exquisite soft-lighting jobs I can recall and its sound mix (featuring plenty of good folk music) is also superb; it's just that they're less flashy. I'm also reminded of David Watkin, who won the cinematography Oscar for Out of Africa and noted how much it was due to the work of the second unit (that traditionally does most of the landscape shots). All that said, good for Lubezki.

I was rooting for Amy Adams to win at last for her versatile, multilayered, keep-us-guessing performance in American Hustle. She's been consistently outstanding, it was her fifth nomination and all of the other nominees had already won (although in the supporting category for Blanchett and Dench). Still, Blanchett was superb in Blue Jasmine, and classily praised Adams and the other nominees from the stage. Personally, I might have given Best Actor to Chiwetel Ejiofor's powerful performance in 12 Years a Slave (and wonder how many more shots he'll have at the Oscar), but previous supporting actor nominee Matthew McConaughey was excellent in Dallas Buyers Club.

Finally, although I respect the intent behind the Independent Spirit Awards, I suspect they may need to be rethought next year. Currently, contending films must have a budget of 20 million or less, which is pretty cheap by Hollywood standards. The problem is that most of the nominated films, except in special categories, tend to be "mini-majors," semi-indies partially financed and backed by the bigger studios. This year, almost all the major categories were won by the same people and films that won the corresponding Oscars. That speaks well of the Academy recognizing good 2013 films, but it also leaves the Independent Spirit Awards looking less special, apart from providing a few more picks to the potential viewing list.

Update: Anyway, on to the reviews. I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I'm playing with some new spoiler coding this time, which seems to be working on the browsers and devices I've tested – just toggle the show/hide button. (As usual, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). Meanwhile, I've added the usual interview links (mostly audio). The other sections are:

"The Top Six"
"Noteworthy Films"
"The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)"

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here's a tune I've posted elsewhere, Makem and Clancy's rousing rendition of "The Rocky Road to Dublin":

(I posted the High Kings' excellent version last year.)

For the day, Digby posts a U2 classic.

Meanwhile, Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice has posted an open thread (and there are some other posts for occasion).

My archives: 2013 (A children's version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, plus the aforementioned tune), 2012 ("History of Ireland in 100 Excuses"), 2010 ("Four Green Fields" and "The Patriot Game," which I think pair well, and I've used a couple of times), 2009 ("Ar Eirinn Ni Neosainn Ce Hi," one of the prettiest songs I know) and 2007 ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley").

Finally, this has been making the rounds:

(Never let it be said that the Irish don't have a sense of humor about themselves.)

Feel free to link any favorite Irish songs, poems or what-not in the comments.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

CPAC 2014

Every year, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) yields an interesting look at the conservative/libertarian movement in America, from professional political figures trying out their latest (or well-worn) pitches on the faithful to more grassroots figures (often a little nutty, but more sincere).

Roy Edroso has written a series of a pieces that can be accessed through posts one, two and three. (As I wrote over at his place, I appreciate his kindness with the people who aren't, um, professionally evil.)

Media Matters: "This CPAC Panelist Thinks It's A "Liberal Lie" That A State Has Ever Banned Gay Marriage." That would be Michael Medved, who apparently has taken reactionary petulance to the level of braying ignorance.

John Hudak of The Brookings Institution tweeted up a storm, including this picture of a near-empty minority outreach panel.

TBogg: "Christine O’Donnell is waving, not drowning in a sea of obscurity" (there's also a Balloon Juice thread on the subject).

Also from TBogg: "Watch: Sarah Palin revises kid’s book “Green Eggs and Ham” for an enthralled CPAC crowd." (Word salad as political performance art. The audience ate it up.)

Jim Newell at The Guardian has written a series of posts, including "Perry and Norquist use CPAC to talk tough on appropriating liberal policies."

Dave Weigel's CPAC series includes Conservatism in America, 2014."

Digby has a few commentaries, including "The jawdropping, stunning, breathtaking chutzpah of Michele Bachmann" and "So much for the GOP's youth outreach."

Wonkette has a few posts, including "Reaganpalooza! A Children’s Treasury of Douches Near But Not Officially Part of CPAC."

Charles Pierce also has a CPAC series.

Balloon Juice posted and rounded up many other pieces on CPAC, in "Return of the CPAC," "Dueling Social Theories at CPAC," CPAC for Kooks" and "CPAC Roundup."

Finally, a NSFW piece on CPAC-related (and mostly gay) Craig's List casual encounter ads. (This happens every year, but some of the ads this time, are... creative.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Future Islands – "Seasons (Waiting On You)"

This song has been in rotation at KCRW, and you can hear/see the official video here. I went with the live version, though, because the band made their television debut on Letterman on Monday, and their frontman (Samuel T. Herring, apparently) is a theatrical goofball who goes for broke. Rock on, brother!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

On Obituaries and Everybody Dying

(Old Man in Armchair, by a follower of Rembrandt. National Gallery, London.)

There's been a rash of deaths in the performing arts these past few months, and it seems like all I'm writing these days are obituaries. I hope to get to other (long-simmering) pieces eventually. Still, if there's a time to take note of someone's life and career, their passing is it (in our culture and most others). I have limited time to write, so I'd at least like to pay homage to people whose work I've appreciated over the years. As Arthur Miller wrote (in a play Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in not long ago), attention must be paid.

Harold Ramis (1944–2014)

Harold Ramis has died at the age of 69. He directed two films dear to me, Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, and had a hand in many others I enjoyed. By all accounts, he was a selfless collaborator, and this is amply on display in Ghostbusters, which Ramis acted in and cowrote with Dan Aykroyd. Ramis plays Egon Spengler, the no-nonsense brains of the outfit, meaning he delivers some great lines deadpan, but mostly plays straight man to Bill Murray and Aykroyd – and let them have most of the funniest lines. (He also often showed sound judgment as a writer and director, as when he rejected a studio idea that the cause of Phil's Groundhog Day predicament should be a jilted ex soliciting a gypsy curse on him.) Some great tributes have been written to Ramis, but I wanted to take a look at Ramis' craft and artistry, especially since comedy often don't get no respect.

The difference between a decent comedy and great one is often just a few elements, and Ramis' successes demonstrate that well. Three aspects stand out for me – the ending, exploring the premises, and the human core of the story. (Obviously, in a good story, all of these will overlap.)

Let's begin with endings. They can be tricky, and it's not uncommon for a story to go for the big climatic scene and flop. The typical forced-versus-earned climax chooses spectacle over character, and loses sight of what made us invest in the story earlier. A forced climax in action and horror films tends to be a big-but-hollow CG spectacular. Comedies often build toward madcap mayhem, the ultimate chaos of the film – but in the forced versions, it all feels strained and artificial. In The Party, the forced climax is the all-too-predictable, everyone-in-the-pool-with-the-baby-elephant bit. (Some people love the film; I think Peter Sellers is brilliant and delivers some great moments, including a hilarious Gunga Din parody, but don't like the overall flick much.) In American Pie 2, it's the turn into the third act – the overamped-for-the-circumstances scene where the bros hear their other bro is distraught and has gone walking on the beach alone (oh noes!) so they must find him urgently, pull him out of the film's lowest moment (bro despair of little more than a minute or two) and then stride back to the beach house together, gorgeously lit as the music swells, bro-triumphant. (I only saw the first two films in the series, and they have their moments, but that sequence felt forced, unearned and reeked of filmmaker desperation.) I'm sure readers can come up with their own examples. But compare the misses with the finale of Ghostbusters. The extended showdown with the demon Gozer, who transforms into the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, is absolutely hilarious. The editing build-up of teases and reveal is perfect, Dan Aykroyd's lead-in is masterful, and the ensemble play off each other beautifully, with some classic lines. (Ramis: "I'm sorry Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.") The climatic parade mayhem scene Animal House is likewise actually funny. In a different tone, Groundhog Day's big celebratory party scene feels completely earned, as does the final morning wake-up scene. Ramis knew how to set up his partners for a topper, and at his best, he really stuck the landing.

Many films don't fully explore their own premises. It's a key frustration for viewers of a near miss, usually voiced something like, "They had a good idea, but they just didn't know what to do with it!" The better the core idea, the more maddening the whiff is. In the best films, that exploration has happened during the writing process, dozens of bad (or merely not as strong) ideas have been tried out and discarded, and the final script reflects all that thought and experimentation. The best scripts work through all the weak spots until the character(s) and the plot click together and are inseparable. Groundhog Day is one of those films for me, and I've praised it more times than I can remember on those grounds. I found it immensely satisfying when I first saw it, because every time I thought, "What about...? What if he tried..?" the filmmakers actually explored it. (Groundhog Day was originally written by Danny Rubin, but it was significantly reworked in collaboration with Harold Ramis, and both authors deserve some credit for the script's success.) Dumb characters are maddening to watch. Phil (Bill Murray) is certainly selfish, self-destructive or despairing at points in the movie, but he's not dumb. He tries everything – personal advantage, charity, suicide, conning Rita (Andie MacDowell), and many other approaches. The basic idea of being stuck in a particular place has been explored countless times in storytelling, and the idea of being stuck in a specific day or returning to the same spot has been done several times in sci-fi. (I've actually argued that Groundhog Day can be viewed as sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction – using an unusual situation to explore some facet of the human experience.) Groundhog Day covers similar ground to other "trapped" stories, and it's actually funny to boot (even moving). That's quite the feat.

On that point – Groundhog Day works so well because Phil not only amuses us, we begin to really care about him and his predicament. There's a human core to the story. (In Ghostbusters, that element isn't as strong or crucial, but we do grow to like the team.) Groundhog Day is one of Bill Murray's best performances, and the importance of that can't be underestimated. But the screenplay, cowritten by Ramis, creates the path, and Ramis' direction guides that performance and sets the story's pace and build. There's a great line in The Fisher King where Jack (Jeff Bridges), who's in genuine despair and feeling deserved guilt, says, "I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home." He wants an easy out rather than actually changing. One of the triumphs of the The Fisher King is that it fully explores that dynamic and what it takes for Jack to truly transform, and Groundhog Day pulls off something identical. After a lovely night with Rita, Phil tries to recreate the magic another night, but it's forced and artificial, and doesn't work. In a different vein, he tries to save the life of a homeless man, but nothing he tries succeeds. Both of those elements are pretty damn profound for something sold as a comedy. (The sequence of deaths is also masterfully assembled.) Death can't be cheated forever, and sometimes not even for day; true love is not a matter of tricks or following the um, perfect script, but of honestly, intimately connecting with a human being. Call it soul or heart, but we need to care about Phil for the film to resonate ultimately; Ramis and the rest of the team provide a recognizable human experience in the fantastical by grounding the proceedings in an emotional reality. ("Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.")

All of this is to say that Harold Ramis' best work shows a craftsmanship and artistry that's genuinely impressive. Here are a few scenes to demonstrate this. First, here's one of my all-time favorite comedy scenes:

Ramis deadpans his bit expertly, as does Ernie Hudson in his reaction. Notice all the exposition and setup in this scene hiding under the comedy? It starts with Ramis, Aykroyd builds on it, Murray mentions the EPA and asks about the grid, gets an update, and then the scene closes with a callback – "What about the twinkie?" We get several funny lines – all rooted in character – plus plot development, all in about 45 seconds! That's mighty efficient.

Here's the bridge scene, the most serious one from the same movie. Ramis isn't in it, but he and Aykroyd wrote it, and notice that only this combination of team members could have this discussion. The scene is actually pretty spooky for a comedy, and builds the stakes and tension:

Over to Groundhog Day. Murray's very good here, but this sequence also shows off how tightly written and edited the film is:

In this later clip, Phil tries to recreate the connection he felt with Rita building a snowman on a previous Groundhog Day. But Phil's trying to force things, and discovers that the magic doesn't work like that:

Well done.


Harold Ramis on the metaphor of Groundhog Day (video).

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The New York Times obituary.

The Chicago Tribune obituary .

The NPR obituary

The Variety obituary.

Rob Vaux's fine remembrance.

The io9 remembrance.

Ubiquitous character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, probably best known as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, has a great remembrance of Ramis.

The Wrap: "Harold Ramis, ‘Buddha of Comedy,’ Remembered By Rainn Wilson, Judd Apatow," "Harold Ramis and Bill Murray: Inside The ‘Groundhog Day’ Duo’s Decade-Long Feud" and "President Obama Makes ‘Caddyshack’ Joke in Tribute to Harold Ramis."

Esquire:"An Oral History of Ghostbusters."

Indiewire, 2013: "5 Things You Might Not Know About Groundhog Day."

The New Yorker, 2004: "Comedy First: How Harold Ramis’s movies have stayed funny for twenty-five years."

DVD Review, 1999: "Anatomy of a Comedian."

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Sid Caesar (1922–2014)

(The NY Times' neat photo compilation.)

The great Sid Caesar has died. I mainly knew him from countless viewings of the compilation film, 10 From Your Show of Shows, a great showcase for his immensely talented comedy troupe. I later caught additional sketches (all excellent), and learned about his dream team of writers, including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart. (Carl Reiner was both a writer and performer.) It's just staggering. Caesar himself was a stupendous comic actor, and had an immense talent for both pantomime and improvising in gibberish and fake foreign languages when required. (He called it "doubletalk." The brilliant Imogene Coca could perform it, but needed it written out, whereas Caesar would spout it off-the-cuff.)

The Wikipedia entry linked above is quite good and full of great quotations about Caesar. He's also appeared in fictionalized form, most notably in My Favorite Year (Mel Brooks was its uncredited executive producer) and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the stage play by Neil Simon. The Caesar portrayed in those was fairly true-to-life – extremely talented, passionate, driven, an addict and a bit of a personal mess, the occasional bout of temper, committed to excellence in the craft, and deep down, caring deeply about his team. (Although it should be mentioned that those who caught Caesar at a bad time, especially during his heavy addictions years, don't remember him fondly on a personal level.)

If you can find it, PBS aired a great reunion called Caesar's Writers. Meanwhile, here are some clips and links:

"Five Dollar Date," which he wrote, and shows off his versatility, verbal skills and energy:

"The German General," written by Mel Brooks, and one of Caesar's best double-talking performances:

"From Here to Obscurity," one of the many film parodies (and quite long by today's standards):

"This Is Your Story," supposedly one of Caesar's personal favorites:

Mel Brooks about Sid Caesar on Conan:

The Daily Beast has five more clips, including "The Clock" and "At the Movies."

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The New York Times obituary.

The NPR obituary.

The Hollywood Reporter obituary.

The Variety obituary.

The BBC obituary.

The PBS NewsHour obituary.

Billy Crystal's tribute: "Why Did I Become a Comic? He Inspired Me."

Ken Levine's thoughts on Sid Caesar (he didn't have a good experience interviewing him, but it's a classy piece).

The Orlando Sentinel appreciation.