Oscar, the hero

Oscar-statuette-001

The 86th annual Oscar nominations were revealed this week and it might comfort everyone to know that along with them was the announcement that the theme of this year’s show will be — MOVIE HEROES!  Hmm.  And I always thought it was excellence.  Silly me.

Of course, the Oscars have never been solely about excellence and those who are nominated and win awards in their categories are not necessarily THE best in the world at what they do – even though one or two can be.  In that way, they’re a lot like life.  Those who are paid the highest salaries, receive all the adulation and consistently seem to be the most in-demand are on top due to a lot more (and sometimes less) than great work.  So why would it be any different in, of all places, Hollywood?

Aside from skill and talent (Note: In order to be considered outstanding and award-winning by the status quo both are essential to posses in some form, though usually on a sliding scale of merely average to outstanding), there is also luck, timing, fate, ambition, single-minded focus and hard, very hard, and very, very hard labor involved.  Remove any one or more of these and the balance can be tipped for or against you not only on the most iconic awards stage in the world but in any other stage of life you find yourself playing in for all of eternity.

Like this girl... she never sleeps.

You know she never sleeps.

Anyone employed in an office where they’ve done a great job but find themselves now under-employed or denied the promotion they deserve by any objective standard, knows this to be true.    Well, the movie industry is no different than that office except with a lot better clothes, more money and an excess of fantasy-provoking public attention.

This is not to say your boss is an idiot and is being carried by you and the rest of the staff – though he or she can be.  And it also not to proclaim that Oscar nominees and winners are sorely undeserving of that recognition – though that can also be true.  It is simply to say that, as my father declared to me long ago and at the time I steadfastly refused to believe:

Life is not always fair.  And if you compare yourself to others – like award nominees or winners – you are sure to end your day in abject misery.

Note: To be fair, I think Dad simply said you’ll be unhappy. But as a writer, abject misery sounds so much better to me – which should be a lesson within itself.

Of course, knowing all of this intellectually doesn’t in any way prevent any of us, particularly me, from whining, moaning, complaining and being periodically or endlessly obsessed for at least a day about the injustice of the Oscar nominations this week.  As for other things in life – well, aside from Chris Christie – was there anything else really even going on?

Oh, don’t even try to deny it and DO NOT write in arguing with me about our mass reaction to the nominations because there are two reasons I know this is true.

1. Of all the photos I have ever posted on Facebook or have ever been posted about me on Facebook the only one that has EVER received over 500 likes and hits was that snapshot of myself and my partner in tuxedos at the Academy Awards two years ago posed in front of a large 10 foot tall fake Oscar.

The famous shot

The famous shot

This says everything about you and what you like out there and less about me.  Though, can you imagine if I were even nominated or had actually….won that night?  I would’ve long ago reached that 5000 Facebook friend limit and might have to start having my assistant return or not return your texts, emails or, perish the thought, phone calls.  Though I suppose I could simply take to Twitter so u can stay abreast with what I’m doing at random hours of the day or night. @Cher @EllenBarkin @MiaFarrow R U #Listening?

2. The most bizarre memory I have as a young person in Hollywood was being pressed up against 1948 best actress Oscar winner Loretta Young in a tiny elevator backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the early 1980s after covering my first Academy Awards as a reporter.  She had presented best picture, I was done phoning in stories to the desk at Variety, and the two of us plus 25 other very desperate people would have done a lot more to get out of there after four and a half hours in luxury hell.  Rammed against her sequined dress with my eyes almost touching her neck I found myself searching for plastic surgery scars out of sheer nervous boredom.  And, I’m happy to report, could find none.  And yes, I know this story says more about me than it does you but it still feels relevant to what one really remembers about the industry when all is said and done.

Okay – now that we’ve established my and your obsession with these awards, let’s examine (nee – take apart) this year’s just a little bit.

A. HEROES IS THE THEME? – I’d fully expect to see Batman walking hand in hand with Atticus Finch were Gregory Peck still alive and either Christian Bale, George Clooney or Michael Keaton were still willing to put on the suit outside of a studio soundstage.  (No, Ben Affleck doesn’t count – he’s not Batman – yet).   Since no portion of that can realistically happen, why oh why do we need a…. THEME?  This isn’t an amusement park or….. wait…. okay, it is a bit of an amusement park – point well taken.  Still, the show’s producers explained that “We wanted to unify the show with an entertaining and emotional theme.”  How odd to publicly admit that movies themselves have ceased to do this for audiences as a whole.  And how much do I want my personal movie hero, Mary Poppins, to make an appearance this year even though the film about her origins, Saving Mr. Banks, was totally ignored by the Oscars.

Don't drag me into this, Chairy.

Don’t drag me into this, Chairy.

B. HYPER REALITY – We seem more and more to live in either a virtual world or a fake version of reality so why shouldn’t the most popular movies of this year be reflective of that.  Consider all of the hyper texts of four of the films that will battle it out for best picture of 2013 – American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave and Wolf Of Wall Street.  They are adrenalin-fueled versions of the highest of the high and the lowest of the low moments in human existence.  They leave no room at all for anything small or basic or simple.  Clearly, that’s out of fashion.  And don’t tell me that there are five other movies competing– Philomena, Her, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips – that are smaller and more basic.  They have NO chance of winning and have none of the urgent buzz of the moment.  Mostly because they dare not to be as flashy.

Ahem... cough.. cough... Remember me?

Ahem… cough.. cough… Remember me?

C. NINE BEST PICTURES BUT FIVE BEST DIRECTORS? – Clearly, those four other nominated movies either directed themselves or don’t deserve to be singled out as the best.  OK, Let’s just admit it – it’s the latter.   When the Motion Picture Academy decided several years ago to broaden the amount of nominees in the best picture category from 5 to a possible 10 (depending on the number of votes each nominee gets) it felt a bit forced.  By whom I’m not sure but it certainly seems clear that the more movies that can slap an Oscar nominated Best Picture tag on its advertising the more chance it has to make money.  Not to mention the greater potential of better ratings for the broadcast of the Academy Awards since then there is a likelihood that with more nominees there will be more blockbuster films in contention that more members of the massive worldwide audience will watch.  This in turn translates into higher ad rates charged for the show and more money for everyone all around.  And you thought this was just about hero worship.

D.  FRUITVALE STATION and SHORT TERM 12These are two of my top ten movies this year.  Hell, they are two of the ten best movies this year by any measure (Note: if you disagree, you are just plain wrong).  Yet between both of them they have 0.0 Oscar nominations.  Now let’s see – what do they have in common?  Well, they are both very simple stories, unadorned by irony, over-the-top moments of stylized frenzy and technical effects or cutting edge cinematography and special effects.  What movie world are Academy members living in?  Has it really only been several years since Beasts of the Southern Wild and Precious were nominated in multiple categories?  When did more become…MORE.

E. OSCAR ISAAC – I was at the Motion Picture Academy screening of the Coen Bros. Inside Llewyn Davis last month and I could immediately tell from the confused and somewhat tepid reaction among the majority of the audience of people who I was even younger than – that the film’s Oscar chances were nill.

Well there's a performance we won't see on TV now..

Well there’s a performance we won’t see on TV now..

However, what I felt sure of was that the tour de force performance of Mr. Isaac as the title character – a brilliantly talented folksinger in 1961 Greenwich Village who offstage was consistently his own worst enemy –would be given Oscar love.  Isn’t it enough to command the screen in almost every scene, do all of your own singing quite brilliantly, and be charismatic enough to make even the most esoteric moments of a very unusual movie work in your first starring role?  As Amy Winehouse once sang: No, no, no.

F. BEST PERFORMER? – MSNBC pundit Krystal Ball (yes, that’s her real name) asked a guest on The Cycle on the day of the nominations if there wasn’t something a bit retro about the fact that the Academy Awards have separate categories for male and female actors.  Think about it – there is not a category for best female designer, editor, writer, producer or director?  Why are we still separating the sexes this way and what does it say about the rest of us that we don’t even question it?

I have to reluctantly admit that this has never occurred to me because, well, it’s just the way we do it – right?  Uh, well, that logic would then mean a marriage should be solely between a man and a woman and you KNOW that I don’t fall down on that side of the argument.

Yes, this is leftover from the star system and the old days where men were men (who sometimes acted like boys) and women were women (who seldom felt comfortable trying to acting as powerfully as the guys did).  Plus, the more star categories the more stars you get to turn out and the more general attention you get.

Well then – why not increase the categories but do it by film genre (eg, comedy, drama, sci-fi, blockbusters).  Oh fine, I can see you all rolling your eyes from here.  But ask yourself – why?

G. AMERICAN HUSTLE HAIR (NON) RAISER – I’m a fan of American Hustle and am happy that it led the field, along with Gravity, with 10 Oscar nominations.  However, it clearly should have stood alone with 11 nods because the one category it wasn’t nominated in was the one in which it was a sure contender – BEST HAIR!!!!!

Fine, maybe this is because the category is technically titled makeup and hairstyling.  But then how do you account for the two other nominees aside from the obvious Dallas Buyers Club?  Those would be two films we like to call:  Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger.

DO NOT tell me Bradley Cooper’s curlers, Christian Bale’s comb over and Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence’s use of hair spray alone don’t put AH at the top of this list.  Do NOT even go there because I will cut you…and where it counts.

Is there award out there for hardest working double-sided tape?

Is there award out there for hardest working double-sided tape?

H. GO FLY A KITE – This is the last time I will write it – Saving Mr. Banks is old-fashioned, corny and reduced me to tears all through the third act.  When a movie does that all subjective judgment gets shoved aside and I have to honestly report – I loved the film.  And, I guarantee you, I am not the only one in the entertainment industry, or among Oscar voters, who feels that way.

Don't worry Emma, you're still fab.

Don’t worry Emma, you’re still fab.

But here’s the issue – it’s not au currant or even publicly acceptable to just simply use emotion as the barometer for whether a movie is among those judged the best of the year.  I’m not sure why this is the case but it has been for more years than I can remember.

At the end of the day, I feel an obligation not to dismiss movies that are on the surface uncool but still manage to profoundly affect me for those two hours (more or less) I’m sitting in the theatre or at home.  I learned this decades ago as a film critic when in my heart of hearts I couldn’t give bad reviews to movies like Arthur Penn’s 1981 Four Friends – a film roundly criticized at the time for being old-fashioned and maudlin by most reviewers but one that I knew had affected me in profound ways despite its flaws.

Not so guilty pleasure

Not so guilty pleasure

In fact, when I close my eyes and think of the 1960s and 70s I can still hear Georgia on my Mind, the recurring theme song in that movie in honor of one of its lead character Georgia – the bohemian gal three high school age guys thought they were in love with.

I have no idea if Four Friends would affect you this way.  But what I do know is that it received 0.0 Oscar nominations, did not make much money at the box-office and has been largely forgotten.  But not by me.  Thirty-three years later it is one of the few films from that time that I have an immediate and profound emotional reaction to every time I see it.   That makes it a winner by any standard – Oscar nomination or not.  And clearly there are a lot more films in that category we might all want to remember as talk about the awards reach their inevitable frenzied pitch during the next few weeks

Write in and tell me yours.

The 2nd Annual Rockers!

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 1.06.20 PMThis is not a BEST OF  list.   It’s about impact, surprise and lingering effect.  As a lifelong culture vulture, creative person and relentless observer of waaay too much, I have the greatest respect for anything out there that stays with me – particularly in a good way.   Mostly because it’s so tough to break through all the noise these days.   Or perhaps it’s just that lately I have the attention span of a gnat.

Of course, starting any project with the goal of making a huge and lasting splash is a sure recipe for disaster.  Much as I hate to admit, this has happened to me several times over the years.  However, when people hunker down and “do their own thing” (as they used to say back in the day) the result can sometimes be, for lack of a better word – sublime.

sub·lime

1. Characterized by nobility; majestic.

2. a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth.

b. Not to be excelled; supreme.

3. Inspiring awe; impressive.

Did someone say Supreme?

Did someone say Supreme?

Any one of those could earn you a Rocker and, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to be awarded a photo of a red mid-century style chair.  (Note: Chair – Rocker, get it?).  Though perhaps using the term nobility is a bit much. Definition #3 – impressive, inspiring awe – isn’t that enough?  Yes, I think so.  And these, in no particular order other than the one that we chose, are my OUR awards.

BEST ROCKIN’ INDIE DARLINGS

Short Term 12; Fruitvale Station; The Spectacular Now

Indie, dahling

Indie, dahling

These three movies, all low budget independent films, have more to say in 5 minutes than do most of their budget-bloated major studio brethren manage to serve up in two three hours.  Of course, their combined box-office grosses are not equivalent to the opening weekend of, say – Ironman 3; Thor 2; or even Jack the Giant Slayer.

What this confirms once more is that fine dramatic storytelling is not the goal of the major studios anymore.  Though if it manages to happen on one of their releases amid a large profit and even larger chance to cash in via future ancillary markets and/or rights, they’ll take it.

Do not write in and call me a snob or say that this has been so in the film biz for one or two decades.  I, and even we, know that.  But it’s getting worse.  Can’t we retain even a small sliver?  Well, in their own awe-inspiring, impressive ways all three of the above did that and more.

Short Term 12:  Bravura performances all around in a deceptively multi-layered and tight original screenplay from first time writer-director Destin Cretton – whose next announced project is the film adaptation of the bestselling book The Glass Castle, starring Jennifer Lawrence.  If there is any justice Mr. Cretton will be Oscar and WGA nominated for his story of juvenile outcasts and the young people who try to help them at a “short term” facility – but there likely isn’t.  Still – now he’s got JLaw so it’s a win-win.

The Spectacular Now: A throwback to the small romantic dramas of decades ago where two mismatched, oddball young people fall in love in a most uncomfortable way.  It’s not perfect but it has so much heart that it wins you over.  This is in part due to actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller and to an even greater extent as a result of the adaptation of the book by 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, and the precise, sensitive work of director James Ponsoldt.  The script lingered for years before Ms. Woodley, a hot commodity after starring as George Clooney’s troubled daughter in The Descendants, became its champion.  Lesson here:  Create great roles for actors.

Fruitvale Station: Finally caught up with it last night at home and am still foaming at the mouth with rage at the murder six years ago of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old African American male who was finally about to get his life together for the sake of his daughter, his family and himself.  The choice of writer-director and USC film school grad Ryan Coogler to tell this real life story in an unembellished pseudo-documentary style is what’s most impressive here.  The film was developed through Sundance and won best dramatic feature.   Yes, there are those who like to dismiss Sundance these days as pretentious and elitist.  Watch this movie before you go there.   In fact, just don’t go there anymore.

STEFON’S FAREWELL!

Bill Hader left the cast of Saturday Night Live at the end of the season this year and along with that went the departure of Stefon – his beloved club kid correspondent for Weekend Update.  Since goodbyes are often an inevitable and dreaded part of life – especially when it comes to the mercurial television landscape – it was at least nice to see that he was sent off with love and style and his own sort of gay wedding.

What can you say about a segment that featured Furbies, the real DJ Baby Bok Choy and an Anderson Cooper-Seth Meyers fist fight?  Only that it was a perfect homage and finale to one of SNL’s most original and beloved characters.

(Note:  For everything you ever wanted to know about the 38 seasons of SNL check out the funny, brand new and exhaustively researched book, Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television’s Longest-Running ComedyThe author is Stephen Tropiano and he’s the Seth to my inner Stefon)

Note: Hader created Stefon with the very talented comedian-writer John Mulaney.  His standup act is hilarious and he is doing a new TV comedy for Fox next year in which he’ll star as the young, struggling comedian he once was.  Co-starring will be Martin Short.  Must see TV?  We think so.

ROCKIN’ NEWS MOMENT OF THE YEAR 

same-sex-marriage-decision_645x400

US Supreme Court Pro Gay Marriage Ruling.

Starring:  Rob Reiner, David Boies, Ted Olson, Edie Windsor, Kristin Perry & Sandra Stier, Paul Katami & Jeffrey Zarrillo – and President Barack Obama.

There has not been a film or television movie about it – yet.  But this year’s landmark US Supreme Court rulings that officially legalized gay marriage on a federal level is a landmark case that will have positive civil rights repercussions for generations.

Not to be partisan – but I will be – the reasoning behind this decision was foreshadowed in Pres. Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech where he talked about the journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”  Translation:  the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights are all one in the same and if the US stands for anything it means we progress towards freedoms for not some but all Americans.    Here is his exact quote:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

citizen_cane

Arguing the case were lawyers Boies and Olson – adversaries in another famous US Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, for the courageous LGBT defendants Windsor, Perry, Stier, Katami and Zarrillo.  Oh, and if you don’t think it takes courage to be the public face in a civil rights case in terms of time, attention and vociferous hate mail – try it some time.  Or better yet, just post a comment to any random website where you disagree with an extreme right wing position – as I did this weekend about A & E’s reversing its decision to reinstate Duck Dynasty’s hate-speaking Phil Robertson – and note the number of truly savage, hate-filled responses you get.  It ain’t pretty.

A meathead no more!

A meathead no more!

Finally, you can dislike whatever Rob Reiner films you choose to but you cannot be disagreeable about his overwhelming commitment of time and energy to both raise money and personally finance the fight for gay marriage through it’s case origins in California right up through to the US Supreme Court.  There are political activists in the industry but few with Mr. Reiner’s reach, fervor or unwavering determination.  And, uh – p.s. – he’s not even g-a-y.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

BREAKING BAD – THE FINALE SEASON

Tear.

Tear.

There are so few moments in pop culture that live up to the hype.  But the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad was one of them.  I was admittedly late to the game in catching up with all seven seasons but given the national cultural hysteria I finally gave in, knowing full well that I would inevitably be disappointed.

Okay, well, so I don’t know everything.

I chronicled my eight days of binge-watching all 52 BB episodes here in time to join the real world in real time for the finale.  It might make my life seem small and insignificant to note that it is one of the few experiences I will never forget – but only if you have never tuned in and checked out the show itself.

Why does it work?   There are so many obvious reasons – great writing, acting, directing and across-the-board terrific technical talents.  But it was also a perfect reflection of our times in telling the story of an extremely smart but downtrodden everyman – nee a financially struggling high school chemistry teacher who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer– who will do anything to provide not only for his family but for himself before he dies.  And anything means – A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. If you want to know more than that, borrow some DVDs or hack into someone else’s Netflix account.

Finales are tricky but this one proved every bit as powerful as each and every episode before it.  Sadly, this was not the case with another departing hit show fave of mine – Dexter.  Yes, endings are tough.   But ending well and going out the way you came in (Note:  Yes, that’s an unintentional quote from the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls) – that’s the toughest.

ROCKIN’ THE WOOL OVER THE AUDIENCE’S EYES  — IT’S A TIE!!!

HBO’S Behind the Candelabra  &  NBC’s The Sound of Music – LIVE

Help!

Help!

Popularity doesn’t mean you rock.  It just means you’re popular.  I mean, did Paris Hilton rock?  Does (or did?)  Kim Kardashian?  Or, to put it another way, did Crash deserve to win the best picture Oscar over Brokeback Mountain? (Note: Watch them again and then compare and report back).

What popularity does account for are bodies taking notice of you or your deeds or your product.  That does not mean you’re good or even well done.  It just means you are and that you got A LOT of attention.

Therefore, by any objective standards the Liberace movie called Behind the Candelabra and the NBC live three-hour broadcast of the beloved musical The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood were phenomenal hits.  But to my mind, not in a good way.  Carrie Underwood has a pleasant voice but cannot act.  I mean, I could’ve played a better Maria – especially if I got to do some of those lines next to Audra MacDonald.

As for story of closeted gay icon pianist Liberace – it was not the true story – that would have been far more salacious since Liberace’s real life lover Scott Thorson was 16 years old when they first met and couldn’t have been played by Matt Damon.  Had the real story been told – and not just the gay men as spectacle taleit would have had to be shown as the telefilm version of NBC’s To Catch A Predator.

In conclusion, and put it in high school terms – which often works in all things Hollywood – there is no way to argue with popularity.  It either is or it isn’t and you either are or you’re not.  But remember – the Emperor’s New Clothes were once popular, too.   Just sayin’.

ROCKIN’ SENTIMENTAL MOVIE OF THE YEAR

Saving Mr. Banks

Believe the hype.

Believe the hype.

No, I’m not going to defend myself.  I loved it — and not just because I loved Mary Poppins as a kid. The film is being sold as a comedy but it’s really about how writers (or any artists) try to survive the painful moments of childhood by weaving its high and low points into some sort of creative expression that can correct and/or save you or your loved ones from the situation.  As a writer who has done just that – and speaking for anyone else who hopes to do just that – you can keep all of your snide, snickering bah humbug remarks to yourself.

Plus – there’s Emma Thompson.  She’s not only sad, touching and irascibly funny in the movie, she gives the most hilarious press interviews you’ll ever want to see.  Case closed.

ROCKIN’ MALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Me-Ow

Me-Ow

The guy can act AND sing.  No, seriously – he can really, really sing.  You can’t fake that when you’re playing the lead role of a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village in a Coen Bros. movie and a good part of the film is you, in five feet of close-up, chirping unadorned for the entire international world to see.

Also when the moments that you are singing onstage are the only ones where the audience can truly sympathize with your character’s plight, it is an enormous acting challenge.  Therefore, it didn’t surprise me or anyone else to hear the filmmakers admit publicly on a panel after an early screening of their film that had Mr. Isaac not walked in and nailed his audition very late in the casting process they were not sure if they would be able to make their movie at all.

The film as a whole is to a taste.  Okay, it’s odd.  But it’s also a rare opportunity to watch someone you’ve probably never seen onscreen before totally morph into an unforgettable character you’re unlikely to see onscreen again at any time soon.  If ever.

ROCKIN’ FEMALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN TECH ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Oh, hiss and boo your own selves, as Bette Midler so aptly put it in her 1985 comedy album Mud Will Be Flung, Tonight!  I thought Sandy (yeah, that’s what everyone in the biz calls her) was pretty great in the movie….actually, quite great.

Fine – you try acting to nothing for most of your time on camera.  And when I say nothing I mean – nada.  There’s a green screen behind you.  You’re suspended in the air in a heavy faux astronaut’s uniform.  And you’re shooting on and off for years on end, trying to maintain some continuity of your character’s emotional state while the technical team behind your film tries over and over again to get the special effects just right.

Yeah, yeah, I know Cate Blanchett was terrific in Blue Jasmine.  But why does digging into the emotional life of a Ruth Madoff meets Blanche DuBois character have to trump the acting skill it takes to survive the contemporary vagaries of big major studio, SFX ridden contemporary Hollywood while simultaneously delivering an against-the-odds truly convincing performance that literally carries the film?  It doesn’t.  Sorry.  Sandy wins.

PS – Yes, her body looked good in those shorts.  So what??!!!

PPS – The movie was a huge leap in what we can do in SFX – not that you care!!

ROCKIN’ ACCLAIMED NOVEL I STARTED THREE TIMES BUT CAN’T YET CRACK: 

The Goldfinch By Donna Tart

This is thoroughly unfair but why can’t I read past pg. 20 of 761 pages no matter how many times I read those 20 pages over? I know the book is acclaimed but why, why, why is its prose so dry, dry, dry and leaving me so parched, parched, parched?  Too much TV?

tumblr_mea9wqzdbK1rl7213o1_500

(Note: Before judging me you should know I read every wet word of both Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections AND Freedom and always wanted more).

ROCKIN’ UNACCLAIMED MEMOIR I LIKE TO READ ESSAYS FROM:

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, By Chris Kluwe

Also.. best hair!

Also.. best hair!

Funny, snide, smart, scrappy, funny, fun, fun.

And it’s not only because he’s hot and spoke up for the gays.  And…personally answered one of my tweets.  On Twitter.  In a direct message.  Okay, maybe that’s part of it.  But it’s not…everything.

ROCKIN(EST) SCARY VERSION OF THE FUTURE THAT MIGHT ALREADY BE THE PRESENT:

Spike Jonze’s Her

Falling in love... no buffering

Falling in love… no buffering

This is a world where a lonely fella can fall in love with his operating system (OS).  Yes, the OS is voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson, who strangely enough gives what, oddly, is her best screen performance.  The sexy rasp and all…

Still, there is something significant happening here that goes well beyond Simone, the interesting but long forgotten 2002 film where a man concocts the ideal virtual female.  What’s going on is also significantly depressing if you think about it for too long or in the wrong way.  What is the right way to consider a world in the not so distant future where many of us are so incapable of relationships that we turn to our computers or mobile devices for our primary emotional attachments?  To admit that it is really happening right now?  Or to dismiss that notion as some sort of superficial movie industry take on New Media for Dummies?  Hmm, maybe neither.

None of this would work at all were it not for Joaquin Phoenix’s extremely committed performance.  But none of it would even be possible at all without the originality Spike Jonze brings to a subject matter so easy to present in a hackneyed way.

Wait – originality?  Yeah, I said it – you didn’t have to.  So, maybe 2013 leaves us with some hope after all?  Well, we can all rock to… this:

Ying/Yang: Katniss and Llewyn

Two hep "Cats"

Two hep “Cats”

In the last week I went to the U.S. premiere of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its very lavish after party, as well as to a screening of the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was followed by a panel where Ethan and Joel Coen, the soon to not-be-unknown actor in the title role, Oscar Isaac, his co-star and already known fellow actor John Goodman, as well as several others with the film, spoke.

So, how was all of this?  Well, um, equally dull and exciting; smart and dumb; provocative, entertaining and just plain cheesy.  In other words, they were pretty much representative of where the movies are today in that they are the extremes on either end of Hollywood’s taste level or lack thereof depending on what side of the taste barometer you choose to reside in (Major Note: These extremes should not be considered good and bad but, more accurately – blatantly commercial vs. purposefully obtuse and odd).

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

Before we get into any kind of judgments, or even observation, it is important to be clear at the outset on one general point:

Neither of these experiences makes me a VIP or represent in any way an achievement on my part.If you live and work in Los Angeles and in the entertainment industry in any form –or even know or are peripherally fascinated by those who do – you too will quickly gain access to these kinds of exclusive affairs.  In fact, even if you’re simply in town and make it your mission to be on the lookout for these events, chances are you will eventually rub shoulders with someone or something that can get you in.  On the latter point it is always important to remember that films are part of a multi-billion dollar industry called SHOW business.  This means that unless its puppet masters have enthusiastic people to whom they can show their wares to and spread the (good?) word, their piece of merchandise – or asset, as movies are now referred to by its many MBA schooled agents, producers and studio executives – will die an obscure and, more often than not, premature (at least in their own minds) death.

In a contemporary world where illusions are fast becoming reality – in part thanks to the myriad amount of misinformation in what is supposed to be the age of information, this is essential to remember.  Movies and anything having to do with them are in no way reality.  They are merely meant to be distractions from or reflections of reality.  Therefore, to measure one’s value on how included, or important or isolated one is to or from key cultural events like movie premieres or screenings would be akin to spending your time infuriated that you didn’t get invited to the seemingly fantastic dream your friend, co-worker or enemy told you they had last night.

Just kidding!

Just kidding!

Dreams are personal illusions that are only as real as their dreamers choose to make them to themselves and to you.  The same can be said for movies, movie premieres and screenings AND the people who attend and run them. Plus, just as there will always be another dream – and perhaps better dream of your own personal invention – there will forever and ever be another film (and, one hopes, better film) or film premiere, talkback, screening or some such occasion to which you too will be either invited or personally motivated enough to get into.  (Note: Or even crash… which, if you succeed, certainly counts in the scheme of things since it can make for an even better retelling of a dream you specifically retailored to yourself).

As for the films:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

HungerGames_Catching-Fire-catching-fire-movie-33836550-1280-673

Vogue.

Jennifer Lawrence has now become America’s fun sister, cool girlfriend, ideal daughter and best friend forever.  It also helps that she is immensely talented.  If you have your doubts, have someone record YOU, in close-ups, holding an oversized bow and arrow while you’re looking into a blank space and see how many real and true emotional expressions you can come up with.  It will be shocking if there is even one we can all believe.  Yet I’m still counting the emotions JLaw had me believing as she steadied her quiver and stared down me and everyone else among the many millions who watched her pull these and many other moves around the world onscreen this weekend.

If you want to make a somewhat silly tent pole studio movie that’s dramatic it helps if you can find someone with movie star qualities who can really act to hang it on.  Warner Bros. found this when they recruited Robert Downey, Jr. for Iron Man and Disney realized it, despite their initial reservations at his effete outrageousness, when they cast Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jennifer Lawrence holds this Hunger Games (and probably the upcoming third and fourth installments in the next two years), with these very same attributes, and does it equally well as the guys, if not better.

Oh, she knows it!

Oh, she knows it!

 Certainly, it helps that she is surrounded with a slew of Academy Award winners and nominees in supporting roles – including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and any number of other award contenders and just plain really good actors I’m leaving out.  But were it not for JLaw’s ability to hold the screen as the unlikely teen heroine Katniss Everdeen – a kind of tough talking, wild child pioneer girl thrust to reluctant prominence in a dystopic future only because she wants to save her beloved little sister – there would be nothing much of anything to watch here.

One of my students asked me if this film was better than the first HG.  I replied yes, but that I was the wrong person to ask since:

a. I am far, far beyond the target audience these films are intended for and

b. I didn’t read the books and was sort of lost during the first one.

ancient artifacts

ancient artifacts

When I watched the first HG I had no knowledge of anything about this world and couldn’t get past the fact that the wealthy elite running this society chose to dress in powdered wigs and clothes right out of the French Revolution at the time of colonial America.  I mean, if you had all of that money centuries from now wouldn’t you choose fine fabrics and comfort rather than the stiff, heavy armor of the 17th or 18th centuries?  Plus, being the liberal romantic I am I just couldn’t buy that everyone with money in this privileged society had devalued life to the point where they were rooting for large groups of young people to literally kill each other off live on television for entertainment.  Of course, I still can’t believe anyone in America takes Sarah Palin seriously, believes that Ronald Reagan was a great president when he helped usher in the age of AIDS and corporate deregulation, or that Rand Paul doesn’t wear a rug.  So perhaps I’m not the best critic in these types of scenarios.

Yes, HG2 has some clever moments, one in particular involving a Lenny Kravitz designed dress (that’s all you’re getting from me); another where JLaw demonstrates to the powers-that-be just how dangerous she can be with some rope and white plastic in the space of 30 seconds; and a third where Ms. Plummer gives us a few new and original sacred crazy moments she’s become known for throughout her career.

But ultimately, this is called H GAMES for a reason – to present yet another permutation of yet another game.  Oh no – here we go again.  Yup, that’s right.  Deadly stuff comin’ at ya from all directions, no time to rest and little food or drink to be had.  How much of this can we watch?  Well, how many fights did Rocky live to fight, or help fight?  That should give you a pretty good idea.  There are no adjectives – good or bad – to quantify the experience.  Only money.  And…sequels.  Two more at the very least. (Note:  Yes, I know they say there will be ONLY two but c’mon, get real).

As for the premiere itself:

Bad News:

  1. At least 90 minutes to get there and park (one’s own version of HG without death or lethal weapons, assuming you don’t use your car as the latter).
  2. You must surrender your cell phone on arrival because you must go through a metal detector to gain admission.
  3. Once inside and waiting for the film to begin, you have to listen to live commentaries on large projected screens being beamed online by Yahoo that are hosted by three good-looking young Yahoos holding microphones, asking inane questions and referring to JLaw as Katniss Everdeen when we all know she is, as I’ve said, America’s new sister/daughter/bff.

Good News:

Werk girl

Werk girl

  1. The stars are all there (no – I didn’t get to walk the red carpet with them) and ushered out onstage in front of you right before the film. (Note: JLaw wore a cool outfit that looked like a belted Danskin underneath of see-through light blue ball gown. Woody Harrelson, however, wore baggy 80s jeans, a rumpled old T-Shit under an overly long mismatched sport jacket, and a baseball cap).
  2. The food was plentiful and FANTASTIC afterwards.
  3. You walk into the after-party past two lines of men on either side of you who are systematically banging their own timpani drums to exactly the same beats you hear in the movie. It makes you feel like a HG contestant but with no (well, little) risk of getting killed.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s pronounced Lew-in Davis.  This drove me crazeeeee before seeing the film.  Why couldn’t I pronounce it?  Why did I care that I couldn’t pronounce it?  Why did the Coen Bros. choose to title their film with a word many people couldn’t pronounce and how were they smart and savvy enough to convince the studios and their marketing departments to allow them to do so?

The answer to the latter and many other questions concerning this movie and its makers is, in part, why they are THE Coen brothers and why their films are so strange, iconoclastic and uniquely their own.

Llewyn Davis is a guy we all know and have probably met.  He’s the one who’s brilliant at what he does but is his own worst enemy.  In creative terms, he is the singer/musician who is so hopelessly talented that he moves us less than a minute into his song and infuriates us in pretty much every other moment before or after he’s done singing.  He’s the kind of person who seems to get off on complications, who goes out of his way to sabotage himself and pretty much anyone or anything else he cares about, either accidentally or by design, and yet is also the one who stays in our minds long after he’s gone. He’s the type of guys women dream about being with or are with and the friend other men secretly wish they could be, at least for a day or week or two, for the sheer, unadulterated id of it all, whether they admit it or not.

This type of character is not limited to show business but is perhaps easiest to appreciate and exemplify in the creative arts.  That is because odd behavior is accepted in our world (odd being not so much deemed odd but original) and thus it makes Lew-in weirdly likable and appealing in this film even when he’s doing unappealing and downright strange things.

Well, what is normal anyway?  Especially in the 1961 Greenwich village folk music scene – the pre-Bob Dylan era where NY still had a bit of a small, hometown feel and the idea of being a revolutionary through your music seemed daring and risk taking.  In today’s world, one would actually have to BE a revolutionary – someone who blows things up or participates in real wars – in order to earn that real type of street cred.  Hmmm, perhaps that was the real, underlying appeal of the time period to the Coens, though it’s doubtful you could ever get them to admit to this or much of anything if you asked them.

This would be years before Betty's trip to the Village

This would be years before Betty’s trip to the Village

One has to admire filmmakers like the C Brothers who have managed to make so many unusual movies in the business parameters of today’s industry.  They’ve had Oscar favorites like No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Fargo, cult hits like The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink– all of which I very much enjoyed and/or appreciated to varying degrees.  They have also done movies so oblique or off-putting that they just drown in their own self-awareness – The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and Intolerable Cruelty come to mind for me.   They’re infuriating and invigorating all at the same time.  That they exist and that they manage to exist…and yet…that they continue to exist at all – is confounding.

Frick and Frack?

Frick and Frack?

It is then not surprising that watching the Coens answer interview questions about one of their movies for half an hour is no more enlightening about their creative process than the most obscure part of a scene in their strangest, most to difficult to grasp pieces of work (Note: You choose your most favorite, or unfavorite CB moment).

Q: Why did they write about the folk scene in 1961 pre-Bob Dylan’s arrival some years later?

Um, well.  We don’t do icons.  (Long silence).

Um, well, okay.

Q:  Their style of directing, or writing – the way they approach material?

Uh, lots of awkward silences and roundabout answers that I can’t recall because I’m not quite sure they were answers at all.  Perhaps they are Llewyn themselves or individually?  Well, not really because their kind of commercial and critical success would make Llewyn an icon and as they have clearly said – they don’t do icons.

Well, aren't you a special little snowflake?

Well, aren’t you a special little snowflake?

Perhaps it was the interviewer.  The questions to these guys were not the most incisive nor even prepared.  I mean, if you’re going to interview individuals who make this kind of material, wouldn’t you have 5, 10 or even 15 back-up questions just in case they tried to vague the daylights out of you?  This person did not.

On the other hand, there is a game to be played here and most directors, writers and actors in the industry these days play it.  It’s called showing up to screening events – talk backs as they’re called – and with good humor, cheer and some thought, letting people know how a bit more of how you were able to put onscreen what they’ve just seen.  It makes people feel appreciated and a bit more a part of your process and shows how you got there.   And in places like the Motion Picture Academy it gets them to perhaps nominate you for an Oscar – or even vote for you to win.  You make a deal to show up for the studio at the same time they make the deal that allows you to make and/or distribute their movie.

Well, at the very least the Coens did show up and perhaps that’s enough.  Or maybe it’s not.  I mean, what do awards mean anyway?  Okay, let’s not go there.

Well, they certainly don't hurt.

Well, they certainly don’t hurt.

What’s more important is perhaps learning about the process of filmmaking from people who are among the best at it.  Hmm, not sure that happened.  Though at some point they did admit that neither one of them were the best at talking about how they do what they do.  Which might have been the most revealing and honest moment of the interview.  Certainly, it was among the most memorable.

In this context – and granted I’m making this all up as I go – perhaps one could think of Llewyn Davis (the character) as a version of the Coens were they not as savvy in getting their work out to the powers that be and as fortunate to have ridden the wave of quirky and then broader commercial success.  One needs to possess talent, timing and some sense of respect and savvy to those in the business of show, especially when you’re starting out, in order to succeed.  Llewyn Davis possessed only one of these.  The Coens, in their own individual way, possess ALL of these.

About the film:

Good News:

  1. Oscar Isaac, who has up to this point only done supporting roles in movies, does a real star turn here.  He’s an excellent singer and riveting screen presence who is in practically every moment of the film.   It’s worth seeing for him alone.
  2. The look for the film – seemingly black and white but not, and the evocation of the time period – is sadly beautiful and thoroughly realistic in its stylized manner.  Get a bunch of contemporary films about the sixties and watch them and note the differences.  LD doesn’t pretend to be the sixties, it simply IS the sixties
  3. The film has an excellent sound track with original music composed and vintage music chosen by T-Bone Burnett.
  4. The running time is 105 minutes.  Few films should be over two hours.  Unless I choose to make one sometime in the future.

Bad News:

  1. There are few feel good moments (though perhaps this is good news) and you won’t leave singing a happy tune.
  2. Few big relationships or moments are played out to emotion satisfaction or, really, to completion.
  3. Cat lovers might get a bit nervous throughout, though in the crawl there is a statement by the Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.
NEXT STOP:  Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle… Stay tuned.