Call me Chair, and I’ll Call You Oscar

Decades of working inside and outside, around and through the entertainment industry has taught me one thing:

NO ONE can reliably predict the Oscar winners each year.

Oh sure, the odd person can get lucky every once in a while and ace the whole thing, even the bonus questions in your local online poll. But maintaining that accuracy every year would mean there is some secret formula to understanding Hollywood.

Trust me, there isn’t.

The only secret is that, at the end of the day, there is no secret.

That’s because Hollywood is more of an idea than a location with an overriding opinion. And that’s coming from someone like me who actually lives IN Hollywood.

Oh.. and about my Oscar party

Oh there are lots of opinions here, too many, but there is no guiding principal to any one school of thinking when it comes to awards.

Not money, not artistic merit. Not dues-paying, good looks or familial connections.

Any one or two or three of those can help but they are no guarantee of anything.

Hollywood is more a state of mind in a particular moment where someone with power makes a decision based on – well – an opinion. Put 6000 or so of those together and what comes out are the annual list of Oscar winners – about as elusive of figuring in advance as receiving the shiny gold plated 8 ½ lb. statuette itself. (Note: And a mere 13.5 inches high. Though it does FEEL taller and HEAVIER in person).

Are you saying size doesn’t matter?

So, in that spirit, let’s get started on an online cheat sheet that can maybe help you gain an edge in the categories where you have doubts. (Note: The kind word for that is a consensus of informed opinions. The cynical one: guesswork). We’ll also include the Chair Choice (what we would vote for among the list of nominees) because…well….we want to and we can.

Best Picture

Who’s it gonna be?

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Winner: The Shape of Water

Chair Choice: Lady Bird

The toughest category this year. The Shape of Water is singularly the most original and yet the one that most reflects the best of the mainstream movie industry as it now stands in that it combines dazzling visual effects with an emotional story. A case can be made for Three Billboards but its odds are a bit lowered since it received no director nomination. Sadly, we haven’t gotten to the cultural moment where a gay love story like Call Me By Your Name, beautiful as it is, could win best film. Some think we will hit a different cultural moment with Get Out but I don’t think so – The Shape of Water is probably the safer genre choice – not to mention the better film. As for Chair Choice, try making a truly great coming-of-age movie (aka Lady Bird) in the age of cynicism and see how far you get.

 

Lead Actor

Elio… Oliver… Sigh

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name              

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out


Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Winner: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Chair Choice: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Yup, you read right. We’re going far out on a limb here because Gary Oldman is the odds-on favorite. But Chalamet’s performance was so unusual, raw and riveting for even those most cynical about his film, that it just feels like he could be rewarded. Also, there are three words in his favor – the crying scene. Yes, the Oldman/Churchill turn was hard to turn away from – for SO many reasons. And he did win the SAG Award, a good predictor here since the actors are the largest voting branch. It doesn’t matter. We’re NOT going with the favorite here. EVER.

 

Lead Actress

American Badass

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Meryl Streep, The Post

Winner: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards

Chair Choice: Saioirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Seriously, FM is gonna win. Though we prefer Saioirse Ronan’s feat of so many colors in Lady Bird the idea of hearing a McDormand acceptance speech televised LIVE internationally to tens of millions of people is just too tempting not to simultaneously root for.

 

Supporting Actor

No comment.

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water

Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World

Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Winner: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards

Chair Choice: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards

It’s Sam Rockwell’s year. He’s a character actor everyone in the industry respects and it’s the kind of emotionally showy performance that wins supporting acting awards. Many of us have issues with the film (ahem, the performances, the tone and even the writing), but there is something about Rockwell’s work here that ultimately rises above the naysaying. Perhaps…talent?

 

Supporting Actress

Lady (with a) Bird

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird


Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Winner: Allison Janney, I Tonya

Chair Choice: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

This will be the most UNJUST award of the evening. Allison Janney, an often brilliant actress, will win for an over-the-top turn in an over-the-top film despite Laurie Metcalf being nothing short of brilliant as the hate her/love her Mom in Lady Bird. There were literal scenes with that fictional mother that I actually recall living through as a teenager in 197___. Now how can that be????

 

Director

His time

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

Jordan Peele, Get Out

Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird

Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread


Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Winner & Chair Choice: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

He’s going to win. Del Toro was innovative, unusual and Hollywood. It’s not Nolan’s year. Give it up.

 

Animated Feature

No brainer

The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito

The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo

Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson

Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha

Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

Winner & Chair Choice: Coco

It’s a sure thing. Nothing to discuss.

 

Animated Short

Kobe’s got it

Dear Basketball, Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant

Garden Party, Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon

Lou, Dave Mullins, Dana Murray

Negative Space, Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata

Revolting Rhymes, Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

Winner: Dear Basketball

Chair Choice: Lou

I’ve actually seen all of these. Not being a sports fan, I guess I didn’t at all get Dear Basketball. But watching a drawing of a young would-be Kobe Bryant acting to the words spoken by the actual Kobe Bryant of what basketball meant to him in a film produced by the real Kobe Bryant has gotten to ALMOST everyone who wants to see the live Kobe Bryant accept an Oscar in the flesh. I myself prefer Pixar’s Lou, the story of how and why a young bully gets reformed because I guess I’m still working through my childhood issues.

 

Adapted Screenplay

Can I just say.. SIGH… again

Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory

The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

Logan, Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green

Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin

Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

Winner & Chair Choice: Call Me By Your Name, James Ivory

It’s the very definition of brilliant screen adaptation of a novel that was made into one of the most unique films of the year. Plus, it was written by the guy who directed and produced such classic movies as Howard’s End, Remains of The Day, and Maurice.   James Ivory has never won an Oscar, was robbed off it too many times to count and is now 89 years old. You do the math.

 

Original Screenplay

The Academy’s cup of tea

The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani

Get Out, Jordan Peele

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh

Winner: Get Out, Jordan Peele

Chair Choice: Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig

The idea for Get Out is brilliant, as is the script and film that everyone is writing about. Sadly, that’s not the film I saw – at an actual movie theatre early on – and not at a screening and not on DVD. But the screenplay for the movie that’s getting talked about is the one that I WANT to see. Still, who cares what I think? Certainly, not anyone in the Academy. So we’ll just sit home and sulk, knowing Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was the far more accomplished and nuanced achievement in storytelling.

 

Cinematography

Is it his time?

Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins

Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel

Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema

Mudbound, Rachel Morrison

The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen

Winner & Chair Choice: Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins

This is Roger Deakins’ FOURTEENTH nomination for best cinematography WITHOUT A WIN. While it is possible the brilliant work in Mudbound or The Shape of Water or Dunkirk could win, we won’t be responsible for it.

 

Best Documentary Feature

Heartbreaking

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman

Faces Places, JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda

Icarus, Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan

Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen

Strong Island, Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

Winner & Chair Choice: Last Men In Aleppo

It was near impossible to get through. Can you imagine making it? To do that you’d have to slog through thousands of dead bodies in Syria, side by side with the ordinary citizens of Syria, searching for survivors, and then relive it all again and again and again in the editing. For bringing the unendurable and unimaginable into the light, this one should and will win.

 

Best Documentary Short Subject

Edith+Eddie, Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel

Heroin(e), Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon

Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon

Traffic Stop, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Winner & Chair Choice: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel


I saw all of these. A lot of wonderful stories but nothing has stayed with me like Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405. You MUST watch this woman’s story. Then think about art. And what it means to survive. That’s all we’ll say.

 

Best Live Action Short Film

DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk

The Eleven O’Clock, Derin Seale, Josh Lawson

My Nephew Emmett, Kevin Wilson, Jr.

The Silent Child, Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton

Watu Wote/All of Us, Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Winner & Chair Choice: DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk

After watching these DeKalb Elementary left me speechless, even though I had read all about the real story it is based on right after it happened. And that was prior to the recent school shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, FL, which happened just prior to the date Academy’s final voting ballots were due.

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Oscar sparkle

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)

The Insult (Lebanon)

Loveless (Russia)

On Body and Soul (Hungary)

The Square (Sweden)

Winner & Chair Choice: A Fantastic Woman (Chile)

This is a guess based on speaking to people and the one film in the bunch I experienced. That film, A Fantastic Woman was a slow build around a trans actress who always appeared to be living, and not acting, a trans woman not unlike herself onscreen. It’s the likely winner.

 

Film Editing

Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss

Dunkirk, Lee Smith

I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel

The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jon Gregory

Winner: Dunkirk, Lee Smith


Chair Choice: Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss

It’s hard to understand how a movie that many of us couldn’t follow could win the Oscar for editing. Isn’t coherence part of good editing? Isn’t that common sense? Of course, in Oscar polls and award giving, sense is not always the ultimate deciding factor, common or not. And who are we to talk when we’re advocating for a movie starring Kevin Spacey?

 

Sound Editing

you guessed it

Baby Driver, Julian Slater

Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini, Theo Green

Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King

The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

Winner & Chair Choice: Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King


It’s the only thing I liked in the film. I don’t care what you think.

 

Sound Mixing

one more time!

Baby Driver, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin

Blade Runner 2049, Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill

Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo

The Shape of Water, Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michae l Semanick

Winner & Chair Choice: Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo


See above. And I still don’t care. At all.

 

Production Design

I preferred the fish man

Beauty and the Beast, Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer

Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola

Darkest Hour, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

Dunkirk, Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis

The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Winner: Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola


Chair Choice: The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

One of my dearest friends is a big time production designer and he says it’s Blade Runner. I, myself, loved the fish man, the marquee lights and the largest bathroom a tenement building has ever seen in The Shape of Water.

 

Original Score

Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer

Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood

The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell

Winner: The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat


Chair Choice: Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
 

The score for The Shape of Water was wonderful but The Phantom Thread score was brilliant and made it the movie it was. Either could win but the edge goes to the fish man.

 

Original Song

Tears

“Mighty River” from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige

“Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens

“Remember Me” from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez

“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall, Diane Warren, Common

“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Winner & Chair Choice: “Remember Me” from Coco

This song provided THE central motif of the movie. That’s what the best original song is supposed to do. Plus, it’s a good song. Okay, perhaps not as memorable as such other Oscar winners as “(The Theme from) Shaft” but you can’t have everything.

 

Makeup and Hair

Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick

Victoria and Abdul, Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard

Wonder, Arjen Tuiten

Winner: The Darkest Hour

Chair Choice: Either of the other two.

The latex, the bald cap and the insistence that this was a HISTORICAL CHARACTER and we have to get CHURCHILL right!! Lawd.

 

Costume Design

I see you

Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran

Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran

Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges

The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira

Victoria and Abdul, Consolata Boyle

Winner & Chair Choice: Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges

Phantom Thread is a movie about a CLOTHING DESIGNER and it received SIX nominations.   Get it? Not to take anything away from the accuracy and beauty of its costumes or some of the other nominees. But this is another sure thing.

 

Visual Effects

Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick

Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan

War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

Winner & Chair Choice: War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

Things have come a long way since the original Planet of the Apes – at least visual effects-wise. The CG apes, the real apes – who knew? Still, it’s a crime the Fish Man in Shape of Water will go unrecognized – and went un-nominated.

Best Original Songs 2000-2017 

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Motor City Mayhem

Detroit is a movie you won’t forget. Or at least I won’t. It is brilliantly infuriating, difficult to watch and necessary to experience. If we as a country – or really as a people – are to begin to figure out how to move forward with the remnants of 2017 life, it’s a starting point. Not the only one but a possible one.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are both white and yet have chosen to tell a historical story that can be read as part of the ongoing story of the White patriarchal repression of Blacks. This has already created a side controversy that one realizes, after seeing the film, provides endless intellectual fodder but is sort of beside the point.

More to the issue is that if the arts can play some small part in bridging the gap between where we were, where we are and where we hope to be, Detroit should become a potent and powerful conversation starter. It’s that unrelenting and uncompromising.

…. but this time, the hype is real

Watching the film at a Writers Guild screening of people of all sorts of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, it was clear the entire audience was emotionally gutted and awake. This was a Hollywood film made by whites where no white savior came in to save the day or even the score for the poor, put upon downtrodden.   We will never know what any other filmmaker of any other color would do with the same material – for better or worse – but at the moment Detroit is what we have of one hideous incident in one particularly hideous moment in our past.

This, by the way, is not meant to be congratulatory in any sort of way. There are no congratulations to be had in any discussion of this debacle.

Fifty years ago a racist patrolman in Detroit led a small group of law enforcers to alternately beat, torture and murder a small group of innocent Black men hanging out at the local Algiers Motel.

Detroit burns in July 1967

It was an explosive, ugly time of race riots and social injustice in big cities all across the country, but most especially in in the Motor City where an almost all White police force (93%) were tasked with holding the line on the residents of a fast-growing Black city (30%).

The unfolding story of the movie Detroit uses the ever-growing popular method of plopping its audience directly into the dramatic center of its narrative and trusting that in the age of web surfing, iPhone clicking and incessantly intense game-playing it will be able to play catch up.

Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do this and go for the big overall visceral reaction at the expense of individual character development and emotional nuance. Others like Atomic Blonde provide a couple of Irving the Explainer scenes of incoherent exposition and then have us settle down so we can watch the real entertainment – some larger than life extended violence where an unlikely hero/heroine (and who better than Charlize Theron) beats the crap out of everyone in slight we’d like to pulverize if were we six feet tall and had the benefit of hair, makeup and extensive martial arts training by stunt coordinator experts.

Charlize looking a little different from her Mad Max days  #oliviapopejacket

Detroit, however, is not about sensationalized hollow victories or a dramatic retelling of heroism under the thematic banner that War is Hell. It only starts out as a generalized expression of the Big Idea and a pastiche of characters one never gets to really know yet follows along into over-the-top battles. Its power is that it does all of this and then, at some unsuspecting point once this is all established, gets real specific, real fast. And stays there and unfolds for the essential body of the work – a kind of American horror movie gone wrong in a period motel hallway. And then goes on from there to show something about how we lived then. And ask the question if, at the end of the day, it’s really all that different than the way we live now – or is now just a cleaned up version?

Suffice it to say that at the end your visceral nerve endings are not only more than met but you also didn’t need chunks of exposition or violently musical YouTube-like video sequences to do it for you. There are actually real people to watch doing unfortunately all too human things that prompt all too human reactions that go on and on and on. As we say in screenwriting class, in science and in psychotherapy – cause and effect, real cause and effect. For every action is there is a reaction – one that is logical and one, in the movie Detroit, anyway, that you can follow.

… and countless other movies used for the exact opposite purpose

When asked the often-dreaded question of how he approached the material in a talkback afterwards, screenwriter Mark Boal said that he essentially saw this as a movie about an artist whose life was derailed. That, and a good deal of research, and talent, is probably a large part of the reason that the script for Detroit works so well. Call me old-fashioned but if you don’t know or care about the people (in this real-life case an aspiring young Motown-type singer) what do you really have? As a writer you need to find a way in. You can’t effectively write an issue or a historical event.

Sure, you can film it and use all sorts of technique, CGI and camera tricks to forge effective mass entertainment. But at the end of the day, what do you really have? What are you telling us that we didn’t already know, or need to be reminded of?

Certainly, movies can succeed solely on mass entertainment value, escapism, cheap thrills and recycled messages. Many of these films are highly watchable and superbly executed. But we’ve reached a point in the business where we have gotten used to the former and forgotten films like Detroit. Go see it and consider this a reminder.

But you can still go see Jon Hamm and this terrible haircut in Baby Driver #iunderstand

That might be a good way to end but it would be an oversight not to single out the mammoth filmmaking skills of Kathryn Bigelow here.   A two-year DGA study at the end of 2015 noted women account for 6.4% of film directors and just 3% of major box office films.  But let’s be kind and say the numbers have gone up slightly in the last year and a half. Still, that’s pretty piss poor.

When you watch Detroit you don’t so much ask yourself, how did she do that shot but in what world was she able to integrate all those disparate scenes and themes so convincingly, recreate an often botched decade of American history (the sixties) on film so convincingly and get those performances out of those actors so effortlessly? Heck if I know.

That girl #shesgotit #sheknowsit

It makes you wonder how many hundreds of other potential Kathryn Bigelows there are out there. Filmmakers who are female, or perhaps non-white, non-heterosexual or non gender binary, who might never get the chance. And how many of those stories are yet to be told. Not only through the entertainment industry but in any other American industry.

That would be one way to truly Make America Great again.

The Dramatics – “All Because of You” 

Chair in Space

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 3.37.37 PM

Almost two weeks ago I went to a screening of Interstellar at the Motion Picture Academy. About a day and a half later I had my first ever attack of sinus-related vertigo, which is a condition characterized by extreme dizziness, nausea and vomiting.   Were they related? I’m not quite sure.

Certainly, it is tempting to get on the bandwagon and blame Interstellar for all the ills of the world, including my own. Plus, I can’t for certain say that the film didn’t make me dizzy – both literally and figuratively. But what good does it do to complain about it? For as much as I am stuck with a lingering case of vertigo every time I move my head around a bit too fast, there is no escape from the cultural impact of a new film by a director as renowned and popular as Christopher Nolan.

Maybe I need to borrow his suit?

Maybe I need to borrow his suit?

The most that we all can do is deal with both illnesses – my vertigo and Nolan-mania – as best we can. Of course I, for one, have a sinus rinse, cortisone nose spray and antibiotics to counter the Big V and it’s slowly getting better.   But right now there is no known treatment for Nolan-mania or those determined to spread it around to the rest of us. Certainly, quarantine hasn’t seemed to work as a cure for other recent outbreaks, not to mention it’s mostly unpopular. And in this case, it’s counterintuitive. If we know anything Nolan, it’s that you don’t try to remedy the effects of him or his films with anything that is even vaguely unpopular.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown...

Heavy is the head that wears the crown…

Full confession upfront: there is nothing Interstellar offers to exactly hate but an absence of hate does not necessarily translate into a presence of love. It has its moments, though one would expect that in any movie with an almost three hour running time and a choice from among the best of what commercial Hollywood has the offer in terms of above and below-the-line talent. But what it has little of is sustained and coherent dramatic tension as well as a plot that is entirely discernable to those who have never studied astrophysics. Not to mention it has nothing truly original to say in the final analysis, that is unless that message was encoded and transmitted in a way that only people in another galaxy or time dimension could discern and then explain to us naysayers in simpler terms – which is certainly possible given the atmosphere Nolan-mania has us now living in and the literal lack of it we get in the film itself. And NOTE: No, these are NOT SPOILERS (not that you’d understand them if they were). NOR WILL THERE BE ANY!

Alright, Alright, Alright.... continue on

Alright, Alright, Alright…. continue on

The one indisputable piece of good news here is Interstellar is an attempt at taking chances and doing SOMETHING, even though a dizzy, cloudy-headed, middle-aged sinus sufferer like me didn’t quite get what that was or at least can’t recall it. And this is very much better than the choice to make NOT VERY MUCH NEW or NOTHING MUCH BUT MONEY that most big studio movies/filmmakers are opting for these days.   So one supposes sickies like us – meaning we who have somehow avoided the disease of Nolan-mania but are nevertheless still considered ill in the culture as we know it – should be grateful. And to answer your next question: Yes, it has truly come to that.

Yes. YES.   And – YES.

I happened to catch Interstellar with two other screenwriter friends – both of who went to film school – which I didn’t – and both of who have more major studio writing credits than myself. In my mind, this somehow means they were more likely to be bigger fans of the previous three hours but this didn’t turn out to be the case. One liked it a bit more and one a bit less than myself but we were all in the general ballpark of – huh??? Still, given what we’ve all experienced in Hollywood during the last decade we all agreed we were happy a movie that was trying something “different” – though none of us quite could verbalize what that was – was at least given the green light.

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

Given the fact that I can’t let a subject drop – as should be evident by now – I couldn’t help but then pose this imaginary scenario to my two friends:

If you had submitted this screenplay in any of your screenwriting classes, what would have happened?

One immediate answer was: “Oh please, it would’ve been ripped to shreds,” and the other was a non-verbal head shake which I translate to, “Are you kidding, even in my most neophyte writing days, this is nothing that I could ever do because I would never, ever write anything as pretentious as this.”

But more telling was the follow-up one of my Nolan-immune buddies posed:

“Suppose we each submitted this to our agents or managers?” Before I could even answer he jumped in. “I can tell you what would happen, they’d NEVER send it out. They’d throw it right back at you. But Nolan has earned the right to do whatever he wants.”

Yes, this is true. And well deserved because this is how the system we’ve all signed up for works. Yet as the Spiderman comics themselves at one time wrote, and the Spiderman movies decades later once offered:

With great power comes great responsibility.

(Note: Most sources credit Voltaire for first coining this phrase. Still, Stan Lee adapted it to modern times and who am I to argue with the one guy who has probably out-Nolan-ed Nolan?).

Ya damn right!

Ya damn right!

Another perspective on this is what that same writer friend, who also happens to be a parent, quickly added:

Sometimes it helps when there are people to tell you NO.

This speaks to the imagined nirvana for most of us doing creative work – a world where we can do whatever we want, a place where there are little if any “no”s, and a situation where we are both paid and given almost unlimited money in order to make our visions come true.

Hmm, be careful what you wish for or at least consider if you are always the best judge of what you are wanting.  Because above all else there is always one ultimate power – your audience.   No one can ever take away your artistic power to do anything what you want but a lack of audience disposes of the money and creative freedom in Hollywood as quickly as others think it seemingly came. This can be problematic once you get to a certain place if you’ve gotten used to the perks or enjoy making a sizeable living. Sure, it’s a high-class problem but then again – everything is relative. There are those back in your hometown who fantasize daily about living yours or my dingy little non-Nolan-like life – especially if it has anything to do with show business.

One of the oddities for me of Interstellar was how much its first act reminded me of… Michael Bay’s recent Transformers 4: Age of Extinction.

GASP!

GASP!

The same life-has-passed-him-by scientifically handy good ole boy Dad, the similar spunky daughter who has always been Dad’s favorite and is probably a tad too much like him, and the identical heartland Americana setting where the American flag is sacred but its citizens have somehow been betrayed by a government that has either disappointed them, betrayed them, or out and out lied to them. There are secrets, there are shadow corporate interests and there is the advancement of technology that might or might not destroy, betray or save the world.

Well, one supposes the way you make a tentpole film is to somehow tap into the mythic family and the Heartland (whether it be faux Nebraska or Texas), right? Hmmm, not necessarily. No one makes a blockbuster tentpole like James Cameron but not even Avatar or Titanic chose to delve in so obvious a territory. Not that those two films both didn’t have faults and employ archetypes but somehow it felt as if, well – they had a bit more coherence, emotion and well, dare I say it…honest humanity?

... and I just remembered they were blue

… and I just remembered they were blue

Part of Christopher Nolan’s appeal and originality is that his films are a bit colder and more brittle and that is certainly an admirable stance to take rather than to drown viewers in bathos. It’s what makes his take on the Batman films so compelling and how movies like The Prestige and even Inception – both of which have emotional characters making odd and sometimes even distancing choices – work as well as they do. It’s also part of what put him on the map to begin with in Memento – a movie that perfectly employed his high intellectuality with the very flawed and/or too perfect husbands or former lovers he likes to put at the center of his movies.

This, among many reasons, is why Interstellar is a head scratcher. It’s good that it’s not Transformers or Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film Nolan himself admits was an inspiration here) but – exactly WHAT IS IT???

The only thing I can come up with is an overly long studio film with technical Irving the Explainer speeches that feel as if they were written by the guys or gals who want to get paid to author books like Stephen Hawking for Dummies but are not quite yet masters of the craft. But Christopher Nolan is at his best a master of film. That’s why Interstellar is so confounding for so many of us, and why we can’t drink the Kool-Aid. To do so would be like saying we enjoyed a Big Gulp that has sat out in the sun for too long and lost its fizz.

Day of Reckoning

Just because you’re late to the party doesn’t mean your time there is irrelevant.  That’s what I thought when I finally caught up with “The Dark Knight Rises” this weekend and liked it much more than I’d decided I would.  The reason?  It’s a movie that embodies – or more closely swallows whole and spits right back at you – the year 2012.

The cliché one-liner, if I were still a movie critic as I was 30 years ago, would be “a cautionary tale for our times where the HAVE NOTS rise up against the HAVES.”  No wonder Rush Limbaugh was scared.  But as usual he got it wrong.  “Dark Knight Rises” isn’t at all about the villain being named Bane – the same sounding moniker as Bain Capital, the private equity company that is largely responsible for Mitt Romney’s quarter of a billion dollars worth of wealth.

ehh… not a good look.

In “DKR,” Bane is really a HAVE NOT on steroids – a sort of odd, anti-hero who is mad as hell after a lifetime of living in the margins and watching other people getting a chance to be happy and wealthy and so he decides to destroy everything to punish those who are living large and, well, larger.  It’s about the very small 1% of people who had every advantage that a stacked deck could buy (and then some) and made sure the rest of us didn’t.  If the filmmakers really wanted to make a Romney-Bane connection they would have made the villain a billionaire banker – not the crazy person wreaking havoc on them.

But really — that’s beside the point.  Since in this case the HAVE NOTS are much more evil because they feel nothing.  They are nihilistic because they have finally begun to recognize the almost insurmountable odds against anyone growing up in a prison (literally AND figuratively) of poverty; of hopelessness; and in an unsafe world they’re afraid will forever be against them.  Hopefully, this doesn’t sound familiar to you personally or professionally – but perhaps it does.

In any event, Bane announces to the citizens of Gotham (let’s be real: New York)– “We are liberators” who want to return control of the city “to the people.”  But really this is only to distract them until he can launch a nuclear bomb and destroy everything so the world can start anew.  That’s actually the master plan.  A total wipeout of stasis.  A do-over.  A chance to shake the Etch-A-Sketch screen clean.  Hmm.  Does that sound familiar?

Thanks internet!

Well, I’m at an age where I haven’t had any major ailments – yet.  But I do find myself fantasizing about the idea of trading this body in for a younger model.  This is thinking not unlike the supposed “villains” of “Dark Knight Rises,” instead they want to do it with all of society.  These are people who have waited and waited forever from the sidelines – biding their time until they can trade what’s becoming their unsavlageably messy world in for a younger, cleaner, newer one.  The thinking is – sometimes it gets to the point where things, bodies and/or societies are unfixable and there is no other choice – painful and unfair as it seems.

My analysis is my own, but it certainly explains a lot about the 2012 world to me.  You can feel the fevered pitch in the social and political landscapes.  The bubbling intolerance of the times.  Aside from income inequality, it’s also about the desire of some to go back to the social mores of the fifties – though it’s hard to tell if it’s the 1950s or 1850s – when men and women knew their place and there wasn’t so much, well, talked about publicly.

Yes, I’m talking about Mitt Romney and Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, the latter of whom in a television interview coined publicly anew the oxymoron “forcible rape” and more than implied a wacky fringe medical opinion that women who are indeed “forcibly” raped secrete some sort of secret lady potion that prevents them from getting pregnant.  The former has his own awkward reasoning for a 1950s view of women’s choice and a reason to turn the clock back on the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v Wade and assure no female has a choice to a abort a baby in any way, shape or form.

Akin’s report card: F in Biology

But lest anybody get confused, this POV is not solely about religious beliefs.  It’s bigger than that.  It is also about the politicization of that personal morality at a particularly dark time in American culture.  A time when it’s not enough to be able to believe what you believe – you also have to make sure everyone else believes it – or at least is forced to adhere to your doctrine.  As a child in the 60s and 70s, I was brought up to understand that living in the United States meant the opposite.  The whole point was that we were always at least working towards a “live and let live” doctrine that didn’t exist in almost any other country on the globe.  Sure, things weren’t perfect here – but the one virtue we operated on is that our ideal was that you could choose your own morality (well, within reason), find your tribe in some town or city in at least one of the 50 states and no one could really say or threaten to do anything about it.

Now we’re in a global crisis and globally-speaking, it doesn’t feel that way anymore.  And “The Dark Knight Rises” is simultaneously shedding a huge spotlight on it while cashing in on it, both in real life and on the screen.  In the movie perhaps there is an obviousness to the fat cat privileged characters doing charity benefits for the poor saps living well below them in Gotham City but superhero films are nothing if not, in many ways, archetypal.  And anyway, why not since those facts couldn’t be any more obvious in real life?  Turn on the TV, your computer or walk the streets of Manhattan – more than ever before you can feel the money and the lack therof depending where you are geographically.

Perhaps part of the lure of the more popular than ever fantasy movie land genre is the violence and the excess of archetypal behavior.  There certainly always was darkness to the comic book genre where humans have special “powers” that make them different as they focus outside and inside themselves and the fight between “good and evil.”  But Christopher Nolan has taken the “Batman” series to new depths of darkness and desperateness in 2012 Gotham.  Lucky him, he is doing it in a particularly dark and desperate time in the world.  Hmm, lucky him?  Well, maybe.  My students think so.  But with good fortune comes responsibility.  And given the fallout from the film, one could argue he isn’t solely lucky at all.

As I say to my students, you can’t plan where your film (or even television show) will fit in the zeitgeist.  All you can really do is write about what you feel and what you see, especially when it takes a couple of years at minimum from conception of a script to its release date.  Of course, some people have an innate ability to have their hand on the pulse of what is happening and what will be happening because, well, it’s part of their talent and them being who they are.   Madonna used to be like this.  Christopher Nolan still is.

Seeing the writing on the wall.

He has tapped so into the darkness – so much so that not only have his Batman films made a fortune, they have the distinction of having caught the attention of at least one very disturbed individual who appropriated its onscreen nihilism and took it one step further into real life.  This in NO WAY MEANS Nolan and Co. bear any responsibility for the Colorado shootings or that “Dark Knight Rises” should be censored one bit to soften the blow of what’s going on today.  The price of freedom/lack of censorship means that horrible stuff as well as good stuff can happen at any given moment and arise out of any random piece of action we do or art we create.   What it’s ultimately about (and certainly what “Dark Knight Rises” is about) is balance – or light and dark –  of good and evil, or corruption and honor.  And there’s a cost to each when we live in a world that willingly traffics in enough freedom to allow free market indulgences of both.

Which brings us to our financial system.  In the world of “Dark Knight Rises” the HAVE NOTS (meaning most of us) rally together to torture the rich because they know only one thing for certain – the game has been rigged against them.  It’s the ending of the great 1969 Jane Fonda film “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” where you find out the dance was fixed all along (sorry, spoilers here), or like watching Babe Ruth lose the World Series for the Yankees instead of becoming the hero he became.  Or even worse, watching a hero like Lance Armstrong, who emerges victorious over not only the powers-that-be but over a killer like cancer, give up when the authorities finally manage to prove their case against him.  Or perhaps the most succinct analogy, to borrow from another archetypal pop culture fantasy — it’s like watching as the curtain is pulled back and exposes the fact that the Wizard of Oz is not only not as powerful as was advertised but that, in the end, he really has no power at all.

Pay no attention…

Of course, that is only one side of a story that could be taken two different ways.  For despite its pseudo happy ending coda for the sake of the franchise and studio, Nolan’s final “Batman” film captures the rage and verve or our times perfectly.  Not only for the Have Nots, but — for THE HAVES.

I mean, to hear the haves tell it, there was a long period in our history when people made a lot of money and no one got to know how or how much.  And that was preferable, civil, even moral.  This was also a period when people didn’t do or say so many sexual things en masse for all the world to see and, if they did, all of their sex talk/actions certainly weren’t being publicly accepted by the large mass of the country.  An era where men were men, women were women and it was clear which was which and what the rules were.  And a time when certainly rules that ensured that when people deviated from such behavior that they were punished.  Or at least if not punished, certainly not accepted as engaging in an alternative (read publicly acceptable) lifestyle. (Because let’s face it – anything goes for any of us, but especially the 1%, if we are at least willing to have the courtesy to hide it behind closed doors where it belongs).

One has to feel a bit sorry for those who felt like they played by the rules and came out on the top 1% – rigged game though it might be.  In essence, they achieved quite a lot but in 2012 are forced to live in a world whose majority now pretty much hates them for being so clever.  This is harsh, I know, and truthfully it still doesn’t go against the idea that we 99% don’t hate the rich.  It’s not the rich we really hate.  It’s the system that got them there that we despise and the failure of many of them to recognize and/or admit publicly the corruption and do something about it rather than circling the wagon and protecting their young – as most human beings are want to do when times are hard – that we very much and particularly loathe.

But it is ok to hate Mr. Monopoly.. greedy bastard.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this – or if indeed there is one.  Like the movie business, the one thing we know is certain about society, aside from death and taxes, is change.  “Dark Knight Rises” is pretty bold about the change – literally in its computer graphics; creatively in its merger of larger than life comic book superheroes and believably tortured moral human drama; and publicly as a symbol for one of what is turning into a small handful of mass gunmen in America right now who have gone off the deep end.

As a writer I always ask myself and my students – why right now?  Or, more to the point, as a former teacher once commented to me when explaining any good Shakespearean play – “why this day?”  That’s the rule of thumb for fiction.  A story can start a million different ways, so why did it start here?  One can’t help but feel this should be the question we ask ourselves right now about real life in 2012.  In addition to what the ending should be.  As all good writers know, endings dictate beginnings and vice-versa.  So it is only in the understanding of both that we have any insights into what our true Act II struggles are really about.  And if we can begin to identify the real reasons behind out true struggles, perhaps we can begin to write the real ending – the happy ending – that we deserve.

A famous writer (okay, Socrates) once wrote – “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Liberal or conservative, religious or heathen, moviegoer or pop culture hater – it feels like a good time to take that advice and intelligently move forward.  While we are all still around to do it.

All this from “Dark Knight Rises?”  Perhaps there is some small hope for the movies after all.

Storykillers

Norman's next victim

Most of us like a really good story in real life and in the movies.  So why is it so tough these days to find a really good story in the movies while we are surrounded by too many good stories in real life?

Before we go any further let’s be clear – by good we’re not necessarily talking about cheery, happy or life affirming.  A GOOD story is a story that grabs you and doesn’t let go; that affects you emotionally and perhaps makes you cry; that makes you bust a gut laughing (no small feat) or perhaps merely amuses you in ways that make you pleased.  For example, The Arab Spring contained many, many good emotional and affecting stories while the output of a filmmaker like Michael Bay (because he’s so easy to pick on and rich and famous) doesn’t.  A screening of Adam Sandler’s performance in “Jack and Jill” has negative 24 belly laughs and doesn’t help tell a good story while watching Jon Stewart (yes, I know he isn’t a film or filmmaker but tough) skewer Sarah Palin’s recent performance on “Today” has more than a few chuckles and tells a very good but certainly not life-affirming story.

Click for full video

I suppose any or all of the stories or sub-stories contained in these films or a Jon Stewart monologue could ultimately be life affirming, cheery or happy.  But if there are only one of those and no more it is more than likely that by our (my?) definition, it is not a good story.

Confused?  Me too.  And so are today’s story makers.  There is a lot of disagreement in the ranks about what constitutes good storytelling in 2012, especially in film.  For example, I have actually heard more than a few filmmakers say recently that story is just one of many tools to be used in narrative film (their words, not mine) and that many good movies these days don’t really need much plot or story to work at all.  Really?  Go back in time and tell that to Charlie Chaplin, Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder or Francois Truffaut, just to name a few.  Or perhaps stay on this plane of humanity and ring up Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson and Chris Nolan, and have a talk with them about it.  Better yet (and because I doubt any of them has a hell mouth into the past or any of their phone numbers) – perhaps it would be worth it to sit down and watch some of their work and tell us – is there not a good story at work there?  I mean, even “Tree of Life” has a story (Yeah, it does) whether you liked it or not.  (And no, I am not going to endorse it, explain it or intensely dislike it so you can easily categorize me as the old-fashioned artistic philistine that I know you may be dying to do).

The fact is too many would be hipsters, especially in movies (and in life) today are overly interested in breaking the rules or taking advantage of the changing faces of technology in the digital age and not interested enough in truly understanding the very, very simple tenets of drama.  In figuring out what, if anything, they actually have to say that’s worth watching, or even listening to and executing it in a way that tells a really good story.

Almost dry.... sigh.

As a writing teacher, if I have to try to interpret one more fractured narrative from students who don’t want to think a story through ,I’m going to scream.  On the other hand – I greatly admire those who actually take the time to develop a story and a reason for telling a story out of order and will run right towards that project quicker than I run away from phony morning show hosts from small Alaskan towns who work in NY one year and brand it as the home of “lamestream” media the next.  But I digress.

And that IS the point.  Digression, that is.   Let’s get it out there –

There is nothing wrong with beginnings, middle and endings.  That means out of order, in order or somewhere in between.  There is also nothing to be ashamed of if you are a writer who likes a story where there is a main character, conflict and an ending of some kind, or maybe a group of main characters who each make their way through 3 or 4 or 5 smaller somethings.  Only – please —  take me somewhere.  Although not to Sofia Coppola’s last movie “Somewhere” because that truly was a movie to nowhere and exactly the kind of film I’m talking about. (Yes, I liked “Lost In Translation” and “Virgin Suicides”).  Sofia (and you)-  don’t hold my hand through a film – I’m over 13 (at least chronologically).  But when you bring me into a candy store and ply me with samples don’t tell me when I want to buy a few boxes of something that you’re out of chocolates.  I get really, really upset and likely will search the web for the latest episode of my guilty pleasure TV, play a round of my favorite video game (well, not me – but someone else will) or even consider reading a book or tablet or….wait for it…simply start talking to a person live in real time rather than giving anything else you have to say in the future another chance.

A still from "Somewhere." Or a picture of me watching it.

The obviousness of “300” or “The Hunger Games” is one thing.  But watching a plethora of the out of order scenes that were “J Edgar” last year made me wonder how the story of one of the most compelling and aberrant figures of 20th century America could be rendered so deadly dull and muddled.  There are many good stories to be told about his life but in trying to “hip up” the overall storytelling the filmmakers forgot one thing – the overall story.

At this point most of us don’t expect technologically driven films to get too deep and complicated.  But isn’t that too easy?  Why can’t “Avatar” have real three-dimensional characters with subtext in addition to images highlighted with endless backgrounds and foregrounds?  I don’t need Errol Flynn, Bruce Willis or even Sigourney Weaver to kill aliens.  But don’t make me watch a lazy film story like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and – when audience and critics bring up confusing plot holes or its lack of commitment to an ending or point of view – cop out by claiming that it’s all about what’s “not there” and that the story is open to interpretation.  Obviously, all good stories are open to interpretation – as is everything else in life.  That’s what we human beings (and chairs) do all day – interpret actions, reactions and as ourselves act accordingly.

Something's wrong with these glasses... I don't see anything.

If this feels like a diatribe, well – I suppose it is.  But as the modes of delivery of stories change so do the structure of the way most stories are told.  As they have through time.  Except, except — narrative stories are still about character and action and conflict.  There is nothing wrong with a story whose ending is open to interpretation (watch “Blow Up”) but there is something afoot when the entire story feels just as confusing as the ending and you finish it up not really knowing or caring about most anyone or anything you’ve just seen.   Yes, I’m talking to you “Hunger Games” and also to __________________  (fill in the blank with the disappointing films of your choice in the last few years).

A bit too in-sync.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m an indie film kind of chair.  When “Back to the Future” came out (and please don’t hate me for this) I was a young writer and unabashedly kept telling people that it just felt like “a bunch of scenes on index cards that were perfectly shuffled together.” (Needless to say, that didn’t win me many Hollywood friends in the eighties).  For me, it was “too perfect.”  But I do also want to occasionally be thrown a bone.  Film stories as diverse of Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards,” Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” have really, really strong characters and stories and gut busting humor (well, to me anyway), as well as unforgettable images.

Certainly, it’s unrealistic to expect every film to hit those storytelling heights.  But it would be nice to think that the storytellers are at least trying to do so.  And that audiences are vocal enough, with both their words and dollars, to demand it.