Monday, June 10, 2013

We've moved!

It's true. As I look forward to an upcoming year of academic job hunting, I've been doing some e-cleaning and e-housekeeping. First item on the list was finding a more professional-looking home for these musings of mine. The result is my brand new personal website where you'll be able to find all these posts (and soon many more, I hope!) at A Blog Next Door's new home. Hope to see you all around there!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Mondays with Manuel: Dishonored (1931)

Mondays with Manuel is a new ongoing series here at the blog wherein I am watching all the films referenced in Manuel Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair (1974). If the name sounds familiar, it is because Puig gave us that other Hollywood-obsessed book (turned film/turned play/turned musical) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). In his 1974 police novel, Puig opens every chapter with a snippet of dialogue from movies he adored, all of which star beautiful and iconic starlets from Old Hollywood from Dietrich to Garson. I'm working on Puig and the influence of these films on his prose for my dissertation, and this seemed like a good way of doing double duty (triple if I include the fact that I hadn't seen any of these films before!).


The Austro-Hungarian general: (in his bachelor’s den after the masked ball) Champagne?

Marlene Dietrich: (removes pistol from the spangles of her costume, aims it at him) No.

The Austro-Hungarian general: (suddenly realizing that the girl is a spy and has discovered the secret message contained in an insignificant cigarette holder) I guess the block is already surrounded by the police.

Marlene Dietrich: I’m sorry, it’s my job.

The Austro-Hungarian general: (sincere) What a charming evening we would have had, if I hadn’t been a traitor and you a spy.

Marlene Dietrich: (nostalgic and disenchanted) In that case we would have never met. 

(from Dishonored, Paramount Pictures)

The incomparable Dietrich stars in this Josef von Sternberg film as a prostitute turned spy dubbed X-27. Puig always mentioned this film as one the most influential on his work. Anyone familiar with von Sternberg's film and Puig's celebrated Kiss of the Spider Woman will likely find the reasons for this quite evident as X-27 is a precursor to Puig's own Molina. And just as Molina finds himself attracted to the guy he's supposed to be betraying, here Dietrich's X-27 is only weakened by the lurking attraction to an enemy general (who sadly costs her her life by the end of the picture).

For The Buenos Aires Affair though, Puig chooses an early scene that showcases the duality in Dietrich's character. In that "nostalgic and disenchanted" line reading, Puig isolates what is so striking and alluring about Dietrich's X-27. As a prostitute and later a spy, X-27 finds herself relegating her own sexuality for exploitation, hollowing out her own feelings. What ultimately leads to her "dishonorable" discharge and death, is the moment she lets her own feelings (ambiguous and ambivalent as they may be, given Dietrich's intentionally inscrutable performance) override her orders. It is fitting that Puig would isolate this scene as it showcases the underlying sense of romanticism the film presents in its ruthless spy-caper genre and one which vocalizes that very dissonance ("In that case we would have never met"): X-27's romanticism is as necessary as it is impossible, not that that stops her from acting on it once the right man comes along.

Mondays with Manuel Index:
Chapter I: Camille (1936)
Chapter II: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Chapter III: Humoresque (1946)
Chapter IV: The Shanghai Express (1932)
Chapter V: Red Dust (1932)
Chapter VI: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
Chapter VII: Marie Antoinette (1938)
Chapter VIII: Algiers (1938)
Chapter IX: I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Chapter X: Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Chapter XI: The Letter (1940)
Chapter XII: The Hamilton Woman (1941)
Chapter XIII: Dishonored (1931)
Chapter XIV: Tender Comrade (1943)
Chapter XV: Grand Hotel (1932)
Chapter XVI: Gilda (1946)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mondays with Manuel: Camille (1936)

As I continue trying to keep up with blogging while trying to write a dissertation, I decided to make a blogging project that could double up as dissertation work. One of my chapters is on Argentine writer Manuel Puig. You may recognize him as he wrote one of the best novels about what it feels like to be enamored with Old Hollywood: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). If you haven't read it, you should! In his earlier "police novel" titled The Buenos Aires Affair (1974) he opened each chapter with a snippet of dialogue from movies he adored, all of which star beautiful and iconic starlets from the 1930s and 1940s, from Dietrich to Leigh. I am making my way through all sixteen films that make up these epigraphs (none of which I had seen before embarking on this project!) I'm not following any order other than whichever ones I can find (if anyone has access to copies of Red Dust, Blossoms in the Dust and/or Tender Comrade let me know). That said, I wanted to kick of Mondays with Manuel (get it, because his name is Manuel as is mine?) with the film that opens book, the George Cukor film Camille (1936).


The handsome young man: You’re killing yourself.

Greta Garbo: (feverish, trying to hide her fatigue) f I am you’re the only one who objects, now why don’t you go back and dance with one of those pretty girls. Come, I’ll go with you, what a child you are (she gives him her hand).

The handsome man: Your hand’s so hot.

Greta Garbo: (ironic) Is that why you put tears on it, to cool it?

The handsome young man: I know I don’t mean anything to you, I don’t count. But someone ought to look after you, and I could… if you let me.

Greta Garbo: Too much wine has made you sentimental.

The handsome young man: It wasn’t wine that made me come here every day, for months, to find out how you were.

Greta Garbo: No, that couldn’t have been the wine. So you’d really like to take care of me?

The handsome young man: Yes.

Greta Garbo: All day… every day?

The handsome young man: All day… every day, why not?

Greta Garbo: Why should you care for a woman like me, I’m always nervous or sick… sad… or too gay.

(from Camille, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Camille, based on the Dumas' book The Lady of the Camelias, opens with Marguerite trying to fund her expensive lifestyle in the only way she knows how: by luring a rich Baron. This simple setup is complicated by Marguerite's fondness (and later love) for the "young handsome man" in the epigraph. The entire film vacillates between Marguerite wanting to forsake it all for the love of Armand (Robert Taylor) or trying to repay her debts by staying with the Baron (Henry Daniell) and at times feels like a comedy of errors trapped in a melodrama. Much like what Puig suggests, we are here for Garbo alone who makes Marguerite's ambivalence (and slowly worsening TB) more believable than the script around her would suggest. Having arrived at Camille via a movie-obsessed writer, I wasn't too surprised to find that Satine's mistaken attraction to Christian in Moulin Rouge! is merely the first of the many ways in which Luhrmann's movie musical riffs on Dumas's novel and Cukor's treatment of it here, all the way to the sad fate that befalls these star-crossed lovers.

I love that Puig's epigraphs make the film sound like a star vehicle (which it was), populated by unnamed co-stars (note how Taylor is reduced to "The handsome young man"). Tellingly, he spotlights the moment where Taylor's Armand confesses his love for Garbo's Marguerite. The scene revolves around the very issues of loving actresses that the book's epigraphs perform themselves. Much like the "handsome young man," Puig will take care of these actresses all day every day despite them being always nervous, sick, sad, or too gay. In fact, much like Armand, Puig implicitly confesses to having followed Garbo long before professing his love (it's well known that Puig was so obsessed with Garbo, that his friends said that after hearing his impersonation of the beautiful Swede, Garbo's voice thereafter sounded like a second-rate version of Puig's). Also, by denying them their character's names (we have "Greta Garbo" speaking these lines, not "Marguerite"), Puig is intent on underlining the way these female stars could exceed and embody both their star personas and the nervous, sick, sad, gay characters they play. Puig (like many before him) is noting that there's no way to not love Garbo (the image of her at least); it can't just be the wine making us sentimental.

Mondays with Manuel Index:
Chapter I: Camille (1936)
Chapter II: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Chapter III: Humoresque (1946)
Chapter IV: The Shanghai Express (1932)
Chapter V: Red Dust (1932)
Chapter VI: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
Chapter VII: Marie Antoinette (1938)
Chapter VIII: Algiers (1938)
Chapter IX: I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Chapter X: Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Chapter XI: The Letter (1940)
Chapter XII: The Hamilton Woman (1941)
Chapter XIII: Dishonored (1931)
Chapter XIV: Tender Comrade (1943)
Chapter XV: Grand Hotel (1932)
Chapter XVI: Gilda (1946)

Monday, February 25, 2013

No blinking, or How Nicole submits herself for processing

This is in response to Nat's The Master Blu-Ray/DVD giveaway contest. Some would say I'm pandering, but this is literally the first thing that came up when I decided to submit something.

The rules?

To enter the contest you must submit yourself to processing.

I'm clearly taking a page out of Nat's suggestions that we can do so in character.

Are you thoughtless in your remarks?
NO. Biting and truthful maybe. Never thoughtless.

Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?
NO. I prefer train stations. They help me pass the hours.

Do your muscles spasm for no reason?
NO. I need some good verbal foreplay for that.

Do your past failures in life bother you?
NO. They make me stronger and more adventurous.

Is your behavior erratic?
YES. I can go from being a wilting flower, to being bright and bubbly or a smoldering temptress in seconds!

Do you find interest in other people?
YES. I love knowing what haunts their thoughts.

Are you scientific in your thoughts?
YES. But only when it comes to matters of national security.

Do you often think about how inconsequential you are?
NO. I'm on TV, and thus worthwhile.

Do you believe that God will save you from your own ridiculousness?
NO. I hope not! ::wrinkles nose::

Have you ever had intercourse with someone inside your family?
NO... that's not to say I haven't skirted with sexual taboos.

Have you killed anyone?
YES. But only to protect them.

If you were locked in a room for the rest of your life who would be there with you?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lincoln, or How Kushner's drawing room talky is riveting

And so it comes to an end. See all the rest of the nominated films reviewed here or by following the tag. I am excitedly baking, preparing for my annual Oscar-themed cupcake party, so despite my allergy to everything Seth McFarlane, I am hoping it will be a good night. If nothing else, we'll have Adele singing "Skyfall" and maybe a nail-biter of a night in key categories which always makes for a fun and exciting ceremony. See you on the other side!

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee-Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader & John Hawkes.

Oscar Nominations: 12 (Nominations leader!)
Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner), Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Director (Steven Spielberg) & Best Picture.

The subject matter (and even its marketing) suggested Spielberg's Lincoln would be stuffy, if exhaustively researched, history lesson on the passing on the thirteenth amendment. That's not really fair nor very accurate. Kushner's script manages to make Lincoln's attempts at abolishing slavery, ending the Civil War, draft a course for reconstruction, maintain some sort of familial stability (not necessarily in that order) while ideologically trying to keep a spirit of bipartisanship that upholds the even then dusty and ambiguously worded constitutional principles, a terse and at times electrifying film. This is obviously due to the assembled cast with Daniel Day-Lewis as the eponymous president whose Lincoln may not be quite the thespian achievement that Daniel Plainview was (though boy do these two performances make for quite an Americana double-bill!) but it is nonetheless a triumph in the way it humanizes Lincoln without losing the albeit hagiographic portrait the film paints. In his hands, Kushner's dramaturg soliloquies feel less stilted and stagey than they should.

The backdoor politics that make the central plot are quite gripping and timely, and it is only as the film enters its third act that a certain Spielbergian treacly ending (sprinkled with a necessary if overblown sense of embodied American exceptionalism) that it lags, though Jones's final pleas and tender final scene light up this purposefully dusty chamber piece. A-

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Predictions, or How here goes!

Presented without commentary because, well, other than a couple of hunches and/or hopeful hunches (Zero Dark Thirty in Original Screenplay, Frankenweenie in Animated Feature) these mostly are the usual suspects. We'll check tomorrow to compare scores:

Friday, February 22, 2013

Life of Pi, or How Lee's Poetic Fable is a Beauty

Life of Pi
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: David Magee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan & Rafe Spall.

Oscar Nominations:
Best Original Song ("Pi's Lullaby"), Best Original Score (Mychael Danna), Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay (David Magee), Best Director (Ang Lee) & Best Picture.

Having directed a broody Hulk blockbuster, a literary costume drama, a lustful period piece, a dazzlingly choreographed martial arts epic and a tender cowboy love story, Ang Lee has never met a cinematic challenge he hasn't tackled. That's not to say all of those have been home runs, but if anyone was going to tackle the heady challenge of bringing Yann Martel's spiritual tale of a boy stranded at sea with a tiger, you need not have looked further than Lee. The result is a visual wonder -- not only do Lee and his DP (Claudio Miranda) give you enough tableau-ready shots that take your breath away in their gorgeous simplicity, but they manage to find a kinetic energy to several sequences that nicely break away from what could very well have been a static and dull series of shots of a boy in the middle of the ocean. The film opens with an old man telling a young writer about his improbable story of survival: after his father decides to sell his zoo and move to Canada, a shipwreck leaves (Pi, short for Piscine) stranded in a lifeboat with a tiger, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. What follows is Pi's fantastical journey. If you're already groaning at the setup, then clearly Lee's seafaring film is not for you, especially as the last scene in the film will offer a more grounded, if much less satisfying, version of what you've witnessed.

The framing device, here deployed much less successfully than in the book drags the narrative and character momentum that Lee brings to the set pieces aboard the lifeboat, yanking us out of the action in order to offer some platitude about survival via voice-over or a Sorkin-type walk-and-talk somewhere in Canada. Nevertheless, Lee's film is visually stunning and a technical marvel (the tiger Richard Parker alone is enough to warrant a viewing) that makes what otherwise be an insufferable spiritual parable into a compelling film. B/B+

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Les Miserables, or How no, I don't even want to hear the people sing

Les Miserables
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by:
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham-Carter & Samantha Barks.

Oscar Nominations: 8
Best Original Song ("Suddenly"), Best Sound Mixing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Make-Up & Hairstyling, Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Best Actor (Hugh Jackman) & Best Picture.

I have already aired some of my larger problems with the film and thus won't rehearse those here. Instead I'll just say that, as directed by Hooper, Les Mis attempts to zero in on the emotional intimacy of the piece at the expense of the very epic nature of its source material. Uneven in its casting (for every Anne Hathaway nailing an iconic "I Dreamed a Dream" there is a Russell Crowe mostly underwhelming in a dull "Stars") and incapable of letting the material (or its actors) breathe, the film suffocates its strongest moments in an otherwise overblown production. C-

Monday, February 18, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook, or How the romantic comedy gets the runaround

Silver Linings Playbook
Written & Directed by: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Robert DeNiro & Jacki Weaver.

Oscar Nominations: The Big 8!
Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay (David O. Russell), Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Director (David O. Russell) & Best Picture.

In David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, he has concocted a searing attack on romantic comedies. Or, at the very least, an indictment of both the characters they usually portray and the audiences that flock to them. How else to explain the fact that he makes the leads in this contemporary screwball comedy a pair of -- not to trip over words -- mentally ill characters? While I wonder if there's an interesting argument to be made about medication and mental healthcare in the film -- that aspect seems to disappear inexplicably halfway through the film -- I do think Russell has something to say about what usually see in a romantic comedy. Namely, people who don't function within socially-agreeable and -agreed-upon parameters. Isn't that the suspension of disbelief all romantic comedies require of us? That a lead character (and his audience) believes that if he just gets his shit together he will get his wife back regardless of what he did in a climactic third act (usually something big enough to warrant her scorn if not her outright disgust). Of course, this is where Russell's film begins. We are introduced to Pat Solitano (Cooper) as he attempts to return to 'normalcy' after a stint in a mental institution. He's thinner now than he was before when he assaulted his wife's lover upon finding them sharing a shower, but he's convinced he's better and wants nothing else than to patch up his marriage and find the silver lining in all of this that the title promises. Pat's delusions are presented precisely as that, even as the structure of romantic comedies dictate that he should overcome outward perceptions to win her back (an ending Russell's own film toys with, not without irony, of course).

But Russell's film is more interested in finding for Pat a calming presence (another trope in romantic comedies) and it makes sense that Tiffany (Lawrence) would be just as much of a mess as he is. David noting the Hepburn connection is pretty astute, especially as it betrays the very tropes the film wants to play with: Tiffany is not only a modern screwball protagonist, she is its limit-case. The trick comes when the upended tropes become necessary for the film to move forward. It's no surprise that the third act is as inevitable as it is blandly enjoyable. Ultimately, Russell's game cast can't lift what is a rather (intentionally?) messy film that straightens itself out only to end up where we all knew it eventually would, without much of a payoff. Unless of course, what we're supposed to draw from all of it is that romance is its own kind of anti-depressant? B

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Argo, or How Hollywood can save the day AND be entertaining while doing so

Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston & Kyle Chandler.

Oscar Nominations: 7
Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio), Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin), Best Picture.

If nothing else, Ben Affleck's lively film about the preposterous (and yet true!) CIA plan to extract six Americans from Iran during the 1979 embassy hostage crisis through a so-crazy-it-works plan to pose as a film crew, has by far the best catch-phrase of all the Best Picture nominees. Say what you will about Arkin and Goodman (both playing versions of their own personas to varying degrees of success), but their recurring joke of "Argofuckyourself" is unmatched in an otherwise sober lineup (give or take a Russell dramedy).

What Argo definitely is is an entertaining film. Much of this is due to the brisk screenplay by Terrio and Affleck's ensemble. From the old-school Warner Bros. logo that greets the screen during the opening credits (yes, the same one used by Soderbergh's similarly throw-back stripper drama), Affleck places us squarely not only in the 1970s of the film, but in the 70s-style feel of the mainstream adult-dramas that the decade produced. This isn't surprising as Argo -- much like last year's Oscar winner The Artist -- is enchanted by Hollywood. Billing itself as "based on a declassified story," the film follows a CIA agent (Affleck) concocting a so-crazy-it-might-just-work plan to retrieve a group of six hostages being safe-guarded by the American embassy in Tehran by posing as a film crew. For this he enlists the help of a has-been producer (Arkin), a make-up artist (Goodman) and the three proceed to try and muster funding for the awfully camptastic sounding "Argo." Whether they'll be able to pull this off is the ticking clock suspense that fuels the entire film, and Affleck does a good job of keeping us entertained, ably grounding the pulse-pounding thriller elements of the film with a bevy of seasoned character actors (Garber, Donovan, Cranston, Ivanek, Chandler, Pill, Vand). It is obviously a foregone conclusion where the film is headed, but it's quite a thrill-ride getting there, from the zippy dialogue between Arkin and Goodman to the tender moments in the ambassador's house and the nail-biting scenes at the airport at the end. A-

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Motifs in Cinema (2012), or How films worked it last year

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across 22 film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilised by different artists.

I'll be looking at Work & the Workplace in four films released in 2012.

A strip joint. A bedroom. An arcade game. An undisclosed CIA

If these don't seem like run of the mill workplaces, it is because since TV has strengthened it's stronghold on hospitals, courtrooms, police headquarters and even ad agencies, it seems Hollywood has stretched its reach to explore a wider variety of workplaces. While I could wax on about the political board rooms of Washington in Lincoln, the high-stakes financial world of Arbitrage, the covert lair of spies of Skyfall or even the futuristic & dangerous gig of the loopers in, well, Looper, I opted to look instead at four films that gave us instances where characters found themselves at once defined by but also strengthened by their work, however ambiguously their relationship to it was. Of the four films I picked, I found a good enough cross-section of decidedly American visions of work and the workplace: from the deterministic world of Wreck-it Ralph (you are your job), to seeing a job as a means to an end (Mike who imagines a world where he needn't be "Magic" all the time).

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)Was there any mainstream movie more insidiously interested in the ways the economic meltdown affected small town business than Soderbergh's stripper flick? Following the eponymous Mike (Channing Tatum), Soderbergh's film eschews the gratuitous take on strippers that its marketing suggested to construct instead a look into the bleak -- though arguably skintastic -- world of Florida male strippers. Mike's desire to leave the lucrative world of stripping is pit against the greed of both his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and his young protege Adam "the Kid" (Alex Pettyfer), both of whom represent a vision of the Xquisite bar as less of a workplace and more of a soul-crushing lifestyle -- though Soderbergh's lens doesn't quite come down as hard on it as my sentence suggests. Indeed, while the film begins with images of backstage camaraderie, we are quickly presented with a world that values bodies and workers as solely money-bringers with expiration dates. While Dallas imagines a future that continuously recycles itself, never changing anything more than the bodies and venues around him, Mike's entrepreneurial (and industriously artistic) vision is presented as ideal yet delusional (the bank scene dashes any hopes of our hero making good on his promising clothed career). Soderbergh's film is an attempt to show how hard it is to work it when all you're asked to do is flaunt it to get it.

The Sessions (Ben Lewin)There are many things I loved about this summery comedy focusing on the sexual blossoming of Mark (John Hawkes), a man living in an iron lung. That the bedroom is both Mark's "workplace" (wherein he writes with a pencil in his mouth the article that would in turn inspire the film we're watching) and Cheryl's (Hunt's sex surrogate character), is a subtle one I noticed only when I started thinking about it for this piece. Indeed, of the four films I chose to focus on, I believe it is the one that more sensitively treats the ways our personal lives can be enriched (and, of course, hampered) by our jobs. As I noted in my review, while the film skirts with the idea of pairing Cheryl and Mark as romantic foils, it never wants to diminish what Cheryl does as a sex surrogate. Her integrity is what eventually leads her to walk away (almost without getting her full payment for services rendered) even after the public/private, work/intimacy lines have been blurred. If nothing else, The Sessions's depiction of Cheryl's work as a sex-surrogate, treated with such compassion and candor, makes the film worth watching despite the preconceived notions of what the film is about. As Cheryl reminds us early on, she's not a hooker, though it does seem she has a heart of gold.

Wreck-it Ralph (Rich Moore)
When you think of Disney's zany animated feature, you'd be hard pressed to not realize that despite its individualistic and seemingly self-asserting motto (Ralph, the villain of the Fix-it Felix game, learns to cope with the lesson that "I am bad, and that is good. I will never be good, and that's not bad"), the film creates a pseudo-Marxian, if not outright Marxist, call to understand one's work (in this case, arcade game villainy) as not only pre-determined but deservedly so. Belonging to a different Disney film, Lumiere's "Life is so unnerving, For a servant who's not serving" kept ringing through my ears as we saw Ralph wanting to break out of his mold, only to learn that his wrecking is necessary for the world of Fix-It Felix and the Nicelanders to continue prospering. Unwittingly, the film presents Ralph's work and workplace as part and parcel of his personality. He has been, quite literally, programmed to wreck. If seeing an animated film as an allegory for the type of capitalism that wishes to keep unskilled workers in their status quo is a stretch, well, then I don't know what else I'm supposed to get out of a film that so clearly delineates its characters by what they do rather than who they are. Wherever he is, he's gonna wreck it!

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Hands down one of my favorite films this past year, Bigelow's film is obsessively
constructs in Maya (Jessica Chastain) a cipher of a character whose behavior (if not outright personality) is so heavily tied to her work, that Boal, Bigelow and Chastain offer us little to no information about her life outside of her work hunting Bin Laden at the CIA. The critical last lines of the film ("Where do you want to go?") are decidedly left unanswered. Maya exudes and is her job, yet the film doesn't present this as an unabashedly positive ideal, nor does it condemn it. Boal's script invites and creates these grey areas, so that while one of the characters suggests that Maya should be more social, we understand why she wouldn't. Maya's first line already speaks to the thorny negotiations that her work and workplace brings up. "You can help yourself by being truthful" shows her acknowledging and immediately shunning the motherly type her gender unnecessarily elicits in the people around her, while showcasing the way her impassiveness is not merely a pose. Thus, it is not surprising that Maya never wields her gender as a necessary weapon or a shield during the scenes of unashamed sexism scattered throughout the film. She is after all, not only (or just) a woman, but "the motherfucker" who found him.

All in all, these films, I hope, have shown that American filmmakers are interested in tackling the ever-vexing question of "Are you defined by your job?" in plenty of interesting ways, never wishing to see it as a foregone conclusion, nor letting a resounding "Yes" seem anything less than a reasonable answer. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Amour, or How a tender-hearted story gets refracted through Haneke's cruel lens

Written and Directed by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant & Isabelle Huppert.

Oscar Nominations: 5
Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva), Best Director (Michael Haneke) & Best Picture.

Despite the movie's title, I'd be hard-pressed to argue that "love" is indeed what is at the heart of this clinical dissection of the toils of aging seen through a Parisian couple. That is not to say that the couple at the center of the film (played heartbreakingly by Riva and Tritingnant) do not love one another. On the contrary, it is George's love for Anne which leads him to take care of her as she unravels into a near-vegetative state. Yet, at Haneke's hand, the film feels like a surgical look into the heart; cutting, exacting, accurate yet all too lethal (both to its characters and viewers). Love, the film argues, is not as glamorous as one imagines, but it is both painfully mundane and mundanely painful. It comes as no surprise that Haneke's touch thankfully doesn't let his two-hander fall into treacly territory. The first half hour is intent on establishing a sense of routine before the onset of the inevitable downward spiral that arrives alongside Anne's multiple strokes. The film is admirable in that it doesn't create in Anne a victim or a saint -- one of my favorite scenes in the film has to do with a former piano student of hers visiting, where she's forced to confront his dull condescension, only to be followed by a dispiriting realization of how she's being perceived.

Anne's disintegration is hard to watch, especially given Riva's presence which imbues her with a tender fragility that frustrates rather than ingratiates her to her husband and ourselves. The claustrophobia and complacency of the stolid Parisian apartment serves the film well as it unravels into its third act with a rather ambiguous denouement. The final moments of the film -- epitomizing the film as a whole -- vacillate between the sentimentality the set-up implies and the cruelty which Haneke infuses into his mise-en-scene, leaving us aghast and astray once the end credits roll. A

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Oscar Travesties, or How Grantland's bracket is as fratty as it sounds

Have you checked this Oscar Travesties bracket happening over at Grantland? It bills itself as "A tournament to determine the worst Academy Award moment in modern history" which is a pretty nifty (if tired) premise, especially when they run the gamut from "On the wrong side of history" -- Rocky beating an impressive line-up of now-classics -- to "In-show shenanigans" -- Jame's Franco's hosting.

Here's the full bracket:

It was only when I started digging further into their "arbitrary" (their words, not mine) choices that I began to see what can only be labelled as a fanboy (if not merely "male") sensibility running throughout. Take for example the fact that Kathryn Bigelow (for her Zero Dark Thirty), Angelina Jolie (for kissing her brother) and Björk (for her swan dress*) are the only women singled out. According to the bracket, Bill Murray, John Travolta, Denzel Washington, John Cazale, Spike Lee, Al Pacino & Samuel L. Jackson losses (or shut outs) all deserve space in this bracket while no actresses are singled out for similar scenarios. Couldn't we argue that Lauren Bacall's loss, Streisand's "snub," Cate Blanchett's nom for Elizabeth II: Reigning Harder, or Zellweger's win are all in line with the type of moments being spotlit by the bracket?

* Why put Björk but leave out something like Trey & Parker's J-Lo/Paltrow stunt for example? is a question that seems rhetorical until you realize the former is actually an extension of the Swedish singer's persona while the latter is a har-har fratty joke. To be fair, I don't see how either would rank among "egregious" Oscar travesties, but the comparison seems apt to drive the point home.

That is to say nothing of the types of films that are implicitly (and uncritically) celebrated by the bracket. Does Pulp Fiction really need to hog two spots? Does Scorcese? Do we really need to specify "Kramer vs Kramer over Apocalypse Now" but not acknowledge that the travesty wasn't Crash winning per se, but Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain? Are Shakespeare in Love and American Beauty such travesties? This is not to knock on the Coppola flick, or Marty's losing streak, or to blindingly champion the Shakespeare rom-com or Mendes' debut, but you gotta admit that the movies being favored skew not only to male-driven but also to those championed by college freshmen dorm walls everywhere.

Throw in the fact that "Best Song" and "Every dance number ever" are there and you start seeing a trend. The inclusion of the Rob Lowe/Snow White moment seems more than necessary, but to throw under the bus an entire category (which has given us plenty of iconic Oscar moments) while dismissing "dance numbers" seems sloppy and borderline offensive: would we want to live in a world where we're deprived the tender performance of "Falling Slowly," the showmanship of a Hugh Jackman opening number or the live-wire act that was Beyonce performing all the nominated songs? (On second thought, I'd probably have added that last one up on the bracket myself). If we really want to focus on the below-the-line categories, why not focus on the changing rules and regulations of the Best Original Song, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Score and Best Documentary categories? Or (this year's Skyfall's) Roger Deakins, Greg P. Russell, and Thomas Newman's losing streaks? And if we want to throw stones at a staple of the televised ceremony, do we really think "every dance number ever" trumps in terms of egregiousness the sometimes great/oftentimes boring tribute montages? It somehow seems easier to target singing and dancing. No need to spell why of course as it is such a hobby horse as of late -- I'm surprised Chicago didn't make the list!

Maybe I'm being overdramatic, but at the end of the day, all this shows us is something we sadly know very well: women and actresses continue to be sidelined, while fanboy fantasies continue to be nurtured. And really, isn't that the most egregious (Oscar) travesty of them all?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty, or How Bigelow & Chastain kick ass

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton & Chriss Pratt.

Oscar Nominations: 5
Best Sound Editing, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Best Actress (Jessica Chastain) & Best Picture.

Bigelow's follow-up to her Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker is a chilling look into the ten year search that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Seen through the eyes of Maya (Chastain as a cipher of a woman single-mindedly intent on finishing the job), the film is a fascinating clinical take on post-9/11 counter-terrorism. Eschewing the very jingoistic fervor that fueled and financed the entire operation (including the grueling enhanced interrogation scenes which open the film), Bigelow and Boal aim instead for a cerebral procedural with a hell of an action sequence at Bin Laden's compound. That the film prefers to pause on the red tape and bureaucratic systems of the operation rather than on hollow cheers of success when the most wanted man in the United States is at last shot dead already signals to any potential political message this explosive film may hold.

Armed with an impressive ensemble cast (Ehle's Jessica and Clarke's Dan nicely play off of Chastain's Maya), this is by far my favorite film in the Oscar Best Picture conversation. It is thrilling, unflinching, obsessive (almost to a fault some may say), and ambivalent towards both its subjects and its subject matter, making its opening moments -- real-life phone calls to 911 from people in the towers right before they went down -- that much more powerful. A+

Monday, February 11, 2013

85 Years of Golden Men, or How Olly Moss's commemorative poster is gorgeous

Did you see the official 85 Years of Oscar poster by Olly Moss?

The poster offers 85 takes on the most famous Naked Golden Man of all inspired by all former Best Picture winners. He gets to be a hobbit, impersonate Meryl, Diane, Vivien, Tom, dance like he's a Shark & even be the King of the World! It's a great and simple concept that nevertheless makes for a gorgeous poster. Below I've zoomed in on six of my favorites:

 I love seeing Oscar in drag, especially when he shows a bit of leg to hitch a ride and one-up Clark Gable.

Spaghetti anyone? I love this simple image that nevertheless takes you back to Billy Wilder's eponymous apartment.

La-dee-da, la-dee-da -- Oscar looks great in Annie's signature look.

Never one to pass up a good chianti, Oscar sometimes needs to be tied down. 

Who do you think Oscar is trying to seduce in this Mendes-directed fantasy sequence?

It makes sense Oscar would want to shield himself from bombs (critical or otherwise), even if in doing so he covers his best assets.

Which ones do you love?