Before and After

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No – this is not one of those postings where you are going to hear about how I remade my body, my house or my mind in six weeks or less.  Though admittedly any of those could be worthy of a little freshening up, if not a total and complete reboot. Yet who but a few close contemporary frenemies has the money, dedication or time?  Well, the latter in that list is a total lie, isn’t it?  Yeah, it is.

It’s a lie because I found the time to spend what felt like 17 and a half hours of my life this weekend seeing the current #1 grossing movie in the world– Transformers 4: Age of Extinction – which in case you didn’t know has made a third of a billion dollars worldwide so far in mere weeks of release, a third of which came from just the US alone in a mere handful of days.  Relax, I didn’t contribute to any of the total – I went to a screening.  As if that will buy me those hours back.

I also found the time to see four other films in an attempt to not only cleanse my palette but to conduct my own very unscientific social experiment to answer this very unscientific question nagging at me: What has changed – the movies or me (nee) us?  Is it all just a giant misunderstanding of unfulfilled expectations or have Hollywood movie studios, led by the tent pole that is Transformers, alienated (get it?) us (nee) me, from the thrill of seeing the hot new movie on opening weekend or even beyond – forever?

is this over?

is this over?

This is the age of binge…everything.  Where there is no time like the present to indulge ourselves with whatever we want because, well, we can.  For instance, though we might be unable to take a week or two for the vacation of our dreams on the spur of the moment we can immediately stuff ourselves with pretty much any TV show we want that will take us there, or watch something online that will give us the vicarious thrill of being there.

That seems to be what the economically challenged (for most us) 2014s are about.  It used to be a very American thing to charge what we wanted on plastic or even quit our jobs and/or indulge, then worry about the results later.  I mean, look at the seventh season of Mad Men and tell me you don’t want to travel back to late 1960s Los Angeles?

Movies were invented for this very reason.  To help us get away and live in a world we could never be a part of were it not for Hollywood and the larger than life people and stories they brought to us.  I grew up that way, as did many of my friends, and it’s what made us want to become a part of the entertainment industry.  That, and the requisite dysfunctional childhoods that by today’s standards seem quite normal and, very certainly, typically American despite what films (and then television) showed us.  How’s that for irony?

My family portrait?

My family portrait?

Still, none of this was on my mind at all when it occurred to me this week that I hadn’t been out at a movie theatre to see a film other than Malefecent – which was a screening a friend took me to that I could have cared less about seeing so it doesn’t count – in about six weeks.   Well, two months if you count the two-week trip to Italy in May (Note:  That accounted for only heavenly bliss on an unearthly plane, hence the omission).  Yet I find time to binge watch TV and keep up with Orphan Black, The Rachel Maddow Show, Love It Or List It, Cold Case reruns and even the new season of The Next Food Network Star daily, weekly and, most certainly, religiously – in the summer – when most TV shows are on hiatus. Forget that I’m leaving out all the time reading, watching and posting mostly meaningless stuff on Facebook, Twitter and God knows where else (Note: This blog excused).

What’s happened?  Is it age or have the movies gotten as bad as the Academy Award hosting duties of Seth MacFarlane more than implied several years ago?

I guess the Chair didn't see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

I guess the Chair didn’t see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

Well, like a newly invigorated Oscar host (Note:  I have no suggestions of anyone better but perhaps, say, Nikke Finke, to re-invigorate them), I was determined to find out if the movies could once again hook me like a bad/good or good/bad TV show or even as effectively as the latest dumb feature/news story or Facebook posting.

Was everything awful I decided in advance about the current state of films the reason why I wasn’t leaving my house for my local multiplex?  Or would it merely take an attitude adjustment on my part – something my parents found more challenging than their own divorce to ever make happen – to cause the difference?

5 Movies/3 ½ Days.   Here is my report.

Thursday Night:

The Obvious Child

Not just Marcel the Shell

Potty mouth?

Expectations:  Some.  Good reviews of a very low budget film calling actress/comedian Jenny Slater the new Sarah Silverman by way of Woody Allen.  And besides, who can resist an original rom-com about…abortion!

Venue: Landmark Theatres, West L.A

Outcome:  Thoroughly enjoyable, touching and wickedly funny at parts.  It’s extremely low budget so don’t go in expecting much in the way of escape.  But it reminded me that despite all of my previous ranting escape is not what movies are entirely about – at least not for me.

It always bugged the crap out of me that films liked Knocked Up dismissed the idea of a young women these days getting an abortion as something out of hand and just, well, not a real serious option.  Even Juno, which certainly presented a convincing portrait of why a teenager would not choose to terminate a pregnancy, never quite convinced me of its heroine’s decision.

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Oh, of course no woman enjoys having an abortion or even making the decision to do so.  But it’s a choice MANY choose and will continue to choose whether the people who call themselves right-to-life (Note: Meaning those who are pro choice are anti-life?) like it or not.  So why hasn’t it been addressed in any movie in any real way since what seems like the 1970s.

The above is for far greater minds than myself to address.  What The Obvious Child does so brilliantly is not make abortion an issue but tell the story of a young female comic in her twenties making choices as she tries to understand both herself and love.  Yeah, there’s a cute guy involved – isn’t there always?  And it’s funny.  And it rings true.  If this were two decades or ago and it was possible for more than one or two really small films per year to break through into the zeitgeist, we all would’ve gone to it sooner.  But it’s not and this is the new movie-going normal.  If you’re interested you have to look around and make the effort.  If it’s your kind of film and makes a bit of money, it might be easier to spot the next time.

Friday Night:

Ida

The gray lady

The gray lady

Expectations:  Promising but a bit like medicine that I realize will be good for me in the end.

Venue: Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

Outcome: Haunting, provocative and thoughtful.  It makes you think and impresses you with simplicity without ever trying to.  It also makes an extremely convincing case for artistic brevity and international cinema – two items that shouldn’t ever need to be reinforced but will, unfortunately seem to always have to be.

If I’m not the audience for a black and white Polish language film set in 1962 about two strong Jewish women with echoes of the Holocaust, then who is?  So why did I only go to see Ida because a good friend recommended it to me in particular, and then only because it was screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre at a convenient time (Note: Which still technically counts as leaving your house)?  Lazy and complacent, that’s why.

Is this all it takes?

Is this all it takes?

All films are irrefutably artistic in some form because each and every one of them is an example of the art form.  But is there good art and bad art, high art and low art?  Who knows?  The only thing I’m sure of is that at 83 minutes Ida’s director, Pawel Pawlikowski, a former documentarian, has made a true work of art.

The film is the definition of spare in the best possible ways.  Imagine Ingmar Bergman making an Italian neo-Realist film by way of Mike Leigh and Terrence Malick and you might begin to get a picture.  Or perhaps it is none of those and simply – uh – original.

At it’s core this is a coming-of-age film about a woman who is about to be a nun and then learns she is Jewish.  It’s about family, history, love and what impact one chooses to make on the world and how.  And why.  It is also about the past and probably leaves more questions than it answers.  But the questions it leaves us with are more than enough to chew on for an entire evening afterwards with friends or perhaps even a date who is interested in something more than, well, your ________________.  Yeah, movies used to be about the latter, too.  Not all, because who would really want that?  Just a few of them.  Ida is one of those few.  It is what it is AND deserves to be seen.

Saturday Afternoon:

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction

Bumblebee-Transformers-4-Age-Of-Extinction_1399883699

Good grief.

Expectations:  None.  Like zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

Venue: Linwood Dunn Theatre, Hollywood, CA

Outcome:  My expectations were met – and then some.

This film is such a great example of what major movie studios are about today.  Therefore criticizing it is a bit like complaining that eating at McDonalds or even In ‘n Out Burger isn’t as good as enjoying the burgers they serve at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut or Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.  Or even at that favorite local greasy spoon you’ve been sneaking out to for years and years.

Hungry?

Hungry?

This is a movie that is not made for me or perhaps you.  The best thing about it is that it doesn’t take itself totally seriously, though you wish the jokes were better or even good.  It tries to be meta in some moments –like when it has an old movie proprietor complain in the first act that movies got ruined when they started doing those lousy sequels (Note: Not totally exact quote but you get the idea). And eventually it simply stops trying to do even that in favor of blowing things up, melting them down and throwing as much product placement at you (do people still drink Bud Lights?) as possible.

Full confession:  I have never seen any Transformers movie all the way through – rephrase that – I have never seen more than 20-25 minutes of any Transformers movie before this one though I’ve tried to if for no other reason than to understand what’s going on in movie land.  Of my attempts, some of them were from the beginning, other times it started in the second act, and at least once I think I forced myself to watch an ending – hoping that if it worked I might be motivated enough to track back and get the full Transformers movie going experience.

See, I made an effort

See, I made an effort

I used to be a movie critic so it doesn’t take a lot for me to be perversely curious about films.  In fact, sometimes I will purposely force myself to sit through something I’m unlikely to enjoy in the hopes that it will be so bad that I will actually be entertained.  I sort of felt that way about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor until it lost me when the gleam from the spanking new desks in the 1940s military offices it was seeking to portray were so shiny that they began reflecting off the screen into my eyeglasses and gave me a headache.

Mr. Bay still clearly loves golden time lighting and shimmery new/old stuff.  But rather than give me something truly god-awful he’s basically made a movie that at the end of the day is merely repetitious, corny and dull.  The effects are fine, the robots or whatever you call them feel generic and somewhere along the way Mark Wahlberg, who turned in fine recent performances in movies like The Fighter and Lone Survivor, not to mention Boogie Nights, got Bay-ized into oblivion here.  He’s truly hideous in the movie but you try to make those lines work and then get back to me.

My favorite moment was during the act three action in China (Note: Why we are in China is a mystery, except it must have something to do with international financing).  At one point, a requisite Steve Jobs type character, who is stuck lugging what amounts to a mini nuclear bomb in what reads like like an elongated violin case, balks at a group of old ladies preventing him from passing and bellows:  How do you say get the fuck out of the way in Chinese?

Oh hey, I'm in this movie!

Oh hey, I’m in this movie!

This line does not simply please me so because it is uttered by Stanley Tucci, who plays the Job type and is part of my real life extended family.  It makes me happy because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to say to Michael Bay – in English – but unfortunately will never get to do so.  Unless, well, I just did.  (Note: In which case, be forewarned if I happen to fall upon any tragically sudden accident).

Saturday Night:

The Lego Movie

more than just shiny plastic?

more than just shiny plastic?

Expectations:  High, high, high.  Everyone seems to think it’s awesome!!

Venue: My upstairs TV room big screen with a brand new DVD since it’s not playing at a theatre and I waited too long to see one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

Outcome: I don’t get it.  And I didn’t like it.  What gives???

I sooo don’t get the appeal here.  Don’t hate me.  Okay, hate me if you must – I’m not changing my mind.  I can’t help but believe that the hype here is because of diminished expectations for wit and inventiveness during the first half of 2014 and  this simply happened to pass for something that could fill in the drought.

In case you were wondering, I’m a big fan of the Toy Story movies, really enjoyed Despicable Me and sang along to both Happy Feet and Frozen.  Oh, and I loved Ratatouille, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast  – if it counts for anything.

OK.. this too!

OK.. this too!

Fine, I’m done apologizing because I don’t have to.  I barely laughed through any of this and thought the characters especially simplistic and poorly drawn – in every way that implies.  And let’s talk about its ultimate theme – the reinforcement of the patriarchy.  Yes, I’m going there.  There’s a twist at the end of the second act that felt totally unnecessary and seemed determined to make something that up to that point was just sort of silly suddenly become a family movie with a message.

There is nothing wrong with a first act showing an average young worker drone Lego guy singing an original ditty called Everything Is Awesome as the film proceeds to show us how his assembly line life is anything but.  Yet somehow, as he Forest Gump’s his way into…well, I don’t want to give it away…the song replays and asks us to believe everything is indeed awesome because….uh….oh, what’s the difference?  It was about as simplistic and mundane as one expects a Lego movie everyone seems to love NOT to be.  And I got to watch it at home eating dessert.  Hmm, maybe this means I should leave the house.

I would like to attribute by extreme dislike to all that time I spent earlier in the day on Transformers 4.  Or maybe it was a case of inflated expectations – knowing full well everything I had read and heard about this experience indicated it was 100 minutes of unadulterated little pleasures.

Well, that’ll teach me to look forward to anything or to think even for one second I am still a kid at heart.  Bah, humbug.  Though this is exactly the kind of film I also would NOT have liked when I was 10 years old.  I was the kid who much preferred Mary Poppins.  And didn’t play with Legos.  Yeah, that could be it.  But I’d still take Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke over Will Ferrell and some animated pieces of plastic any day – because they were truly awesome.

Sunday Afternoon:

Jersey Boys

Got you under my skin

Got you under my skin

Expectations:  Middling – middlebrow.

Venue:  Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

OutcomeCouldn’t Take My Eyes Off Of It – see that’s a riff on a Frankie Valli tune and this is a biopic about him and the popular mega platinum singing group The Four Seasons in the 1960s.  Oh, never mind.

This film was so much fun – especially the first hour and 20 minutes.  So what if it then has the issue of almost every show business bio ever made.  And that issue is that once the uber talents become famous their personal demons – be it money, drugs, thug life, romance or family – are never as interesting as the purity of their exciting rise to the top with their newly discovered uber abilities.

None of this matters here because you get to listen to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ never-ending list of hits in an old-fashioned styled film whose pacing, cinematography and editing seem to exactly fit the time it’s portraying.  And unlike other movie musicals these days – say, uh, Nine or Chicago – it’s so nice to hear the songs sung by actors who are really singers as opposed to movie stars that can sort of get by without croaking out the words (Noteworthy example: Catherine Zeta-Jones – and yeah, I do know she won the Oscar – I still had to cover my ears at a few key moments in her “singing”).

Gurllll

Gurllll

Let it be said I had zero expectations for Jersey Boys going in.  I’d never seen the show and LOATHE movies where actors talk to the camera doing onscreen narration.  However, JB not only does all of the aforementioned but has multiple characters doing it multiple times.  Yet even that doesn’t matter because there is a certain suspension of belief in a musical set in the 1950s and 60s that allows you to get away with a lot more than that conceit.

Which begs the question of how an ultra liberal Chair like me watches a Clint Eastwood directed film without thinking about his infamous Chair performance at the Republican convention several years ago.  Well, I don’t think about it because I’m charmed by the film – it’s as simple as that.  Plus, I assume that people who are 30 plus years older than I am and grew up in a very different world are bound to differ with me politically.

Okay, and also it’s Clint.  Anyone who survives 50 plus years as an actor-director-producer in Hollywood and continues to consistently make more films than not that are worth seeing deserves our attention.  Because NO ONE else has.   Or is likely to.  Unless Warren Beatty decides to emerge soon from wherever he is or Robert Redford has a directing comeback 10 years from now.

OK you too.

OK you too.

Until then, leave the house to go see Jersey Boys.  Or leave the house and go see any movie you wouldn’t ordinarily go to anymore.  There’s a chance you might be surprised – and in a good way.  It just takes a little effort from us – and the filmmakers.

Hubris

icarus

Q:  What do you do when your real life exceeds your wildest fantasies?

A:  Keep it to yourself.

This is what comes to mind when I think of Seth MacFarlane as host of the Oscars.

By the way, the above is a quote from James L. Brooks’ very excerptable and very prescient screenplay for Broadcast News, an original script that was nominated for but did not win the Oscar in 1987 (that went to John Patrick Shanley’s more audience-pleasing Moonstruck).  Mr. Brooks’ dialogue was spoken by a somewhat empty-headed, pretty boy reporter (a much younger William Hurt) being groomed for network anchorman to a nowhere near as attractive veteran reporter (Albert Brooks, who incidentally now looks much better and younger than Mr. Hurt) being passed over for the job.  Imagine Seth MacFarlane 25 years from now, no longer well-groomed, svelte and hip but bald, pot-bellied and sallow-faced, talking to, say, a much older Seth Rogen, who right now could stand in for the young Albert Brooks and will likely look as good or better than the older Albert Brooks in two and a half decades, and you might get what I mean.

He has nice teeth.. I guess?

He has nice teeth.. I guess?

In any event, I have no idea if Mr. MacFarlane expected to one day be on the Oscar stage hosting but clearly it is reasonable to believe that two long-running, mega successful television series (Family Guy and American Dad) and one mega successful film (2012’s Ted) that one writes, creates, directs, voices and, by default, stars in before the age of 40, is enough karmic largesse to make any of us believe that this quote could certainly come up in conversation to categorize at least parts of his meteoric professional rise.  Well, if not in his mind, than in ours – or at least mine.   And that is the point.

Mr. MacFarlane’s belief in himself to the nth degree and beyond is what has made him wildly successful and popular and this is responsible for his crude, tacky and, to me, mostly unfunny stint as host of the 85th annual Oscars.  It’s not hard to imagine his very same frat boy type jokes about Star Trek, boobs, Chris Brown beating up Rihanna, and 9 year-old Quvenzhane Wallis one day dating George Clooney going over really well to a group of his bros in his parents’ basement, as one reviewer stated, without a peep of protest.  The trouble is, and the reason for the backlash despite a rise in the ratings (and it was only a 3% rise from last year – not the gargantuan one being bandied about), is that he’s performing to an audience of a billion people watching the Oscars.  And a lot of that core audience are not his bros – meaning, straight white guys of a certain age – but includes ladies with boobs.  And gay men – who mostly don’t think too much about Star Trek, don’t care much about ladies breasts (save, I guess, the representatives of the Gay Men’s Chorus who shared the stage with Mr. MacFarlane in a climactic moment of self-loathing irony during the boobs number), and are certainly protective over Rihanna and little diva in training QW.

Eh, not sure the audience was loving it either

Eh, not sure the audience was loving it either

Still, and perhaps rightfully, Mr. MacFarlane made a choice to be 1000% himself on Oscar night even though he was performing not in (his usual medium of) voice-over and animation and, depending on who you are, he may or may not have made the right call.  What is inarguable is that in making his choices for the evening he chose to indulge in the exact mindset that brought him and his comedy to the worldwide center stage in the first place. – hubris.

Hubris:  an excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.

It takes a certain amount of hubris to succeed as any kind of creative artist in show business.  I mean, one big clue is the phrase itself – SHOW business, meaning half of your job is to SHOW who you are through what you do.  To SHOW it without hesitation, to SHOW it boldly, proudly and to anyone who chooses to look at it.  To SHOW it despite the naysayers and with unbridled confidence to the world at large even if you are insecure, nee dying, on the inside.  And even if you are and can’t hide it, you can at the very least SHOW THAT to your audience fully and endear people to you that way.

Seth (I feel as if all this pillaring of him allows me to call him that now) was like a giant id dancing around the stage on Oscar night.  Howard Stern on steroids.  But — do we want Howard Stern hosting the Oscars? (Oh, now don’t tell me he’s next year’s host?!)  This kind of act works great in animation or on the radio or occasionally on the stage in a book musical (see Book of Mormon).  But the Oscars are theoretically supposed to be about the movies.  Not a frat boys’ obsession with Captain Kirk or the boobies of ladies that you want to ogle.  Unless — they can be.  Which is what some (but not all) people are saying.  While the rest of us (okay, maybe just me) are saying:

Just because in your wildest fantasies you can do anything you want doesn’t mean you should do anything you want.  Just ask Mel Gibson and Chris Brown.  When some fantasies are beyond your wildest dreams, maybe there’s a reason you yourself didn’t think of them.

But hey, that could be just me.  In my own informal survey of about 40 of my college students aged 20-22, about 90% were perfectly fine with Seth, in fact they thought he was pretty fun.  This is also borne out by the ratings numbers – which did rise 11% in the key 18-49 demographic, a bottom line kind of thinking which could be all ABC and this year’s producers really cared about.  As for my students, primarily, it was the guys who were most enthusiastic but most of the gals didn’t seem to mind either.  This, however, did not sway me one bit.  Though it did make me feel a bit….well, out of the mainstream.  Which is how I’ve felt most of my life anyway.  And that’s absolutely, totally 1000% okay.  In fact, it’s actually great.  Which could also be my own form of hubris, albeit expressed in a different form.  After all, one person’s excessive pride or arrogance could be another one’s salute to their favorite body part of choice.  Which begs the question posed by Oscar presenter Jane Fonda post ceremony:  If you want to stoop to that, why not a list all the penises we’ve seen?

You can't argue with someone you looks THAT good

.. and you can’t argue with someone that looks THAT good

The night after the Oscars I moderated a panel where a different sort of hubris was the star – a more life-affirming positive kind.  This occurred when three successful graduates of our program – one director-writer, one writer-director and one younger screenwriter – spoke to our current students about their paths to whatever professional good fortune they were now enjoying.

The stories were all the same.  A larger than life and seemingly illogical belief in your ability to “succeed”, a fierce dedication to the kind of work that you wanted to do, and an almost inhuman amount of enthusiasm and good humor along the way that caused people to want to be around you.  These kinds of strategies brought one of our grads a seven-figure plus studio sale on a script she wrote – one of the hottest scripts on Hollywood’s Blacklist.  It brought another alumn numerous on-camera network commentator spots that exceeded his wildest fantasies because it was nothing he ever desired, plus the ability to direct what are now five feature films.  It also has given the third the opportunity to support himself as a paid screenwriter for 20 years, writing numerous studio assignments and taking time out to direct a few of his own independent features, all the while living a more traditional life of husband and father during that time.

The new secret to success?

The new secret to success?

As I sat and listened to their stories I thought about my own, and that of many of my friends in the business.  Times and technology have changed but the basic scenario hasn’t.  Belief in oneself despite what the world is telling you, an almost superhuman work ethic, and willingness to, at least at some point in your life, occasionally be the kind of person others want to be around.

I guess, in the end, it’s all sort of a form of hubris.  The decision to make is:  do you want to use your powers for good – or for evil?