February 28, 2016

Oscars 2016: Will DiCaprio finally win? And will a bunch of white people benefit from Oscar guilt about race?

Oscar Night is sort of the Superbowl for movie lovers, only not really, because the more you learn about the Academy Awards, the more you realise they are ostensibly a popularity contest. If merit does factor into the voting process, it probably accounts for 40% of the decision; other factors that likely go into voters’ decisions: whether the movie was successful at the box office, whether it’s “his or her year to win,” or whether the voter handed his or her Oscar ballot to a spouse, a personal assistant, or a kid, to do the voting “by proxy” as it were.

Consider this: Directors Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville) and Alfred Hitchcock never won Oscars. (They received lifetime achievement awards, but this is not the same as actually winning one.) Actreses Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy never won Oscars. Marlon Brando, whose performance in A Streetcar Named Desire revolutionized acting, was the only lead performer in that movie who did not win an Oscar that year. The Academy made up for it by choosing Brando three years later for On the Waterfront. Brilliant comic actors rarely win, unless they move into dramatic roles (like Jack Lemon or Tom Hanks). (But do check out Kevin Kline’s magnificent Oscar-winning performance in the best comedy of 1988, A Fish Called Wanda). Paul Newman, who gave many Oscar-worthy performances all the way back to 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, was nominated 6 times before finally winning for 1986’s The Color of Money. (Not that Newman wasn’t good, but it was definitely an Oscar of obligation.)

You could almost make the case that Julianne Moore’s win last year for her performance in Still Alice was a “courtesy” Oscar, since Moore had been deservingly nominated five times before. The trouble with that argument is that Moore’s performance is terrific. In fact, Moore achieves a trifecta score with Still Alice: She plays a character with a debilitating disease (the Academy loves those), it was “time” for her to win, and she’s fantastic in the role.

It took the Academy 81 years to award a woman a Best Director prize (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker). The first black person to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind (1939), much earlier by comparison. McDaniel gives a fine performance (and I think her Oscar was deserved), but it’s hard not to read that win as an endorsement of the kind of roles the Academy believed black actors—and black people—should remain in for eternity. It would be another twenty-plus years before Sidney Poitier would win the Best Actor prize (1963, Lillies of the Field).

Movies about race often win something, though, but usually they’re the kind of self-congratulatory movies about race like To Kill a Mockingbird. I like many things about To Kill a Mockingbird (both the book and the movie), but it lives in a world where the only bad racists are uneducated poor people. The problem of racism was and is much deeper, because there are nice racist white people in positions of power, making laws, enforcing their prejudice with impunity.

Oscar voters often give awards for the good intentions a movie displays. Therefore, Shoah, a 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust, was pretty much a lock for Best Documentary because its subject matter is sacrosanct, regardless of the fact that it takes nearly half a day to watch. (Film critic Pauline Kael ginned up controversy when she criticized the movie's length, and people decided that criticizing the movie equated allying one-self with Hitler.) 

The Academy also loves doling out awards about Hollywood (or acting). Last year’s Best Picture/Director winner was Birdman, a flawed study of an actor’s journey into madness while starring on Broadway in a play he adapted from a Raymond Carver story. 1950 was another good example, where Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve (both movies about older actresses struggling to accept their ages) battled each other for statuettes. Of course, those are both terrific movies, and Bette Davis was robbed, because her performance as Margo Channing (in Eve) is the best work she ever did and maybe the best screen performance by any actress of her day. (I’d put her next to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, and a few others, probably.)

The big question I keep hearing is: Will Leonardo DiCaprio finally win? Judging from history, DiCaprio is the likely winner under the “it’s his turn” scenario, having been nominated multiple times going all the way back to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The problem is, DiCaprio’s performance isn’t the best of the five nominated. People have reacted strongly to The Revenant because DiCaprio’s character endures so much hellish torment as he pushes on toward his goal of revenge. And because people love DiCaprio, they feel he deserves to win. Actually, Michael Fassbender gives the more accomplished performance, playing Steve Jobs. But I do think DiCaprio will win. 

More interesting/frustrating: The problem of diversity. There were several movies featuring people of color that Oscar could have nominated for acting awards (and more) this year, including Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s underrated masterpiece. That film should be represented in multiple categories (including Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actress for Angela Bassett). And what about Tangerine, a fascinating and vervy indie movie starring two African American trans women?

What may happen is that, out of guilt, voters will pick anyone who worked on any of those neglected movies that got nominations in other categories (e.g. Best Screenplay) (e.g. Straight Outta Compton), even though those particular nominees are white. Of course, all this sparring over race has led to people making a lot of assumptions without any decisive proof. Cinema is incredibly diverse, and the world of cinema is expanding all the time. The Academy will eventually catch up, I think, even if it’s the last major award ceremony to do so. 

Below are my Oscar predictions for 2016:

Best Picture:
Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s won so many other awards from other groups over the past few months, and it’s the kind of movie that would make Academy voters feel relevant. Spotlight feels like a clear-headed choice (and it’s my personal favorite of the nominees), but the Academy voters might choose Max because it’s shiny and big and expensive and, unlike so many similar movies, very good.

Best Director:
George Miller, Mad Max. I can see them giving it to Iñárritu for The Revenant, but that seems unlikely since he just won for Birdman last year. More often than not, the Best Director and Best Picture winners go to the same movie.

Best Actor:
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant.

Best Actress:
If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years, hands down. But after Rampling came under fire for saying that the “Oscars-so-white” campaign was racist against whites, it’s possible Rampling may have ruined her chances. Since Cate Blanchett has already won twice, I’m predicting Saoirse Ronan will win for her appealing, sympathetic portrait of an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn. (Unless the voters feel that Rampling’s performance outweighs her controversy.)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies. The old guys do well in this category. Bale’s already won, and I don’t see people getting behind Hardy or Ruffalo; Sylvester Stallone, also an old guy, is the only other likely winner.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
A tough category this year. I can see sympathy votes for Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her character really suffered in The Hateful Eight, and Leigh is very good and very funny, even though she’s as utterly unlikable as anyone else in that film. I’m really pulling for Kate Winslet, even though she’s already won. Her performance in Steve Jobs is in many ways the glue that holds the film together. She makes Steve Jobs sympathetic, which is no easy task. It doesn’t feel like Rooney Mara’s year (because Carol isn’t Rooney Mara’s movie), and Rachel McAdams, who’s a terrific actress, doesn’t get anything showy to do in Spotlight, so her chances are slim. Alicia Vikander is a possibility, especially because of her strong performance in another 2015 film, Ex Machina.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Big Short or Carol. Either The Big Short because it’s gotten so much acclaim (and it’s the kind of thinking person’s movie that gets rewarded with a screenplay Oscar) or Carol because it’s just the kind of prestige picture—about waspy lesbianism—that the Academy responds to.

Original Screenplay:
Spotlight, a movie about journalism, will likely be rewarded here for the Best Picture award it won’t win but should.

Documentary Feature:
Amy, a popular favorite about a compelling and tragic subject: singer Amy Winehouse.

Animated Feature:
I’ll double down on Inside Out.

* I must credit Michael Gebert's book The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards, where I have gleaned a wealth information about the Oscars. His observations about how the Academy votes have certainly informed and shaped my own opinions.

February 10, 2016

'Hail Caesar' lets a dull plot get in the way of a good time.

Hail, Caesar! takes us back to Old Hollywood, where the movie stars were cattle and the studio executives were kings, where those same executives traded the secret sins of lesser celebrities to protect their more lucrative properties from the scandal-mongering gossip rags. It’s the latest movie by the Coen Brothers, one that many people have been looking forward to because of the trailer, which is terrifically appealing. Sadly, the movie falters for most of its hour-and-forty-five minutes. The film’s biggest problem is its banal film noir-esque plot, which frequently gets in the way of all the interesting things going on around it.

Plots are wonderful things when they work and when they’re arresting. I found the lack of plot-adherence in Inherent Vice maddening, but I think Hail, Caesar! could have profited from that movie’s casual, who-cares attitude. The Coen Brothers never seem to be sure which attitude they want. Most of the time, the movie slavishly grinds through its own plot with little to show for it, and poor Josh Brolin suffers through with as much pluck as he can. But sometimes the movie does let loose enough to simply entertain us, as in a terrific scene recreating a Hollywood musical, in which a bunch of sailors, led by Channing Tatum, tap dance in a bar. The number they sing playfully laments the fact that they’re going off to sea and there won’t be any ladies to keep them company. 

Like so many great musicals from the period Hail, Caesar imitates, this scene is purely entertaining on multiple levels: the skillful dancing and singing is fun to watch, the humor is both clever and sharp, and the choreography is in sync with the jokes, as when Channing Tatum glides across the bar much to the chagrin of the rotund bartender, who frantically grabs beer bottles about to be stepped on. Watching that scene, we’re reminded of the pleasures to be found in the best old movie, movies that work as delightful entertainment (there’s a kind of magic at work here) and as innuendo: it’s pretty clear the sailors have agreed to make do with each other by the end of the number, and we see it in their dance moves. This sexual suggestiveness is funny and a slightly sharper and more pronounced version of the innuendo we see in great musicals of the period like Singin’ in the Rain. It's the best scene in the film.

But then the plot returns. The plot involves Eddie Mannix, an executive for the fictional Capital Studios (played by Josh Brolin), who’s trying to figure out who kidnapped one of his stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) off the set of a movie about the Roman Empire and the coming of Christ. Mannix is a harried man, constantly juggling the demands of the talent, the technicians, the press, and his own conscience, because he feels neglectful of his wife and kids. (He frequently goes to confession, where he bemoans his secret smoking habit much to the annoyance of the priest, who’s underwhelmed by Mannix’s “sins.”) Now he's trying to keep this kidnapping a secret, until he can figure out how to get his star back. But this story never carries much weight: it's something to pad the running time and give the movie a sense of singular direction, when what it really needs is more extravagant recklessness. 

The Coen Brothers have created a sort of menagerie of all the types of people we remember from the period: the gruff studio exec, the dutiful secretary, the big star (Clooney), the new star, the sexy ingénue, the trashy journalist, even a terrifying editor (played by Frances McDormand), who sits in her dark room smoking over film prints, and whose scarf gets caught in the editing equipment in a disturbing scene.

Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, the kid who’s made his name in cheap Westerns and whom the studio is grooming for stardom. (He’s earnest and charming as hell and he lassos everything from a rope to a spaghetti noodle, but when Mannix plucks him out of a horse movie and thrusts him into a 19th-century English period piece, he’s all thumbs.) Ehrenreich is terrific in this, and in one scene--another movie recreation--he strums on a guitar and purs out a song about moonlight, like the scene in Rio Bravo where Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sing together.

Scarlet Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, the sexy ingénue, who in her opening scene, in which she’s playing a mermaid leading a bunch of other mermaids in an elaborate aquatic show, looms elegant, almost as bewitching as Grace Kelly was in that first shot of her in Rear Window. But when the cameras aren’t rolling, DeeAnna sheds her elegance, talking like a harried New York waitress and trying to avoid putting her illegitimate child up for adoption.

All these characters fail to add up to anything bigger. It’s as though the Coen Brothers were merely making a documentary about what Hollywood was like seventy years ago. The joke at the heart of the film, which is clever even if it, like everything else in this movie, has been done before, invokes Communism and the role Hollywood plays in sating the masses. But it’s hard to take such a pill from the Coen Brothers, who always seem so contemptuous of their audience even as they take our money and Hollywood's accolades. Parts of this movie are terrifically entertaining, just not enough of them, and by the end, the film’s darker and more existential humor wears thin. Viewers are likely to remember with fondness the lighter recreations of the movie past, and wish the Coens had conjured up a whole feature of such “simple” magic.

With Tilda Swinton in a dual role as sisters who write competing gossip columns; Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, and Dolph Lundgren as a Communist submarine commander (because, why not?). The misplaced, stuffy English narration is provided by Michael Gambon. Written by the Coen Brothers with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. Music by Carter Burwell.

February 08, 2016

Standy By Me

Rob Reiner directs this adaptation of a Stephen King novella called “The Body.” Everybody seems to love this movie, and with good reason: it’s a touching story about four 12-year-old boys in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Oregon, in 1959. They’re at that lovely age of boyhood where girls haven’t entered the consciousness (not fully anyway), and they’re more interested in having adventures with each other than anything else in the world. These four, played by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, are particularly lucky children because their parents basically ignore them, thus freeing them to embark on a 20-mile hike along a railroad track, searching for the body of a missing boy. (They’re of course very unlucky in that they’re not particularly loved, but the movie uses this to its advantage to manipulate us constantly.)

It’s frustrating to feel such love for this movie, yet be nagged by the gnawing suspicion that it’s a total manipulation. Perhaps if we did not learn that one of the characters later dies tragically as an adult, the movie’s evocative depictions of childhood nostalgia and innocence wouldn’t feel so calculated. But make no bones about it: this movie is calculated. It’s just so well-done that it’s hard not to be emotionally affected. Stand By Me is genuinely enjoyable entertainment, and yet it’s somehow wickedly aware of what it’s doing to the audience.

What feels authentic are the performances, especially of River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton. Phoenix is a natural actor, channeling such powerful emotions at such a young age, and his tragic early death at the age of 23 made him a contemporary James Dean figure, enshrined in cult status. Oh that he could still be with us today, even if it meant the descent into mediocrity that befell all three of his co-stars.

Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket (1987) is an astonishing, hard-t0-shake Vietnam movie, one that’s essentially two separate stories smashed together. Director Stanley Kubrick, working from Gustav Hasford’s autobiographical novel The Short-Timers, turns in one of his most effective films. Full Metal Jacket is mesmerizing, sick, terrifying, and funny. It lingers in the brain like a sickness, or a joke that you understand more fully with the passage of time.

I should point out that I’ve never expected to like the films of Stanley Kubrick. It’s probably my hero worship of Pauline Kael, who panned every Kubrick film after Lolita. But ever since watching Barry Lyndon last year, I’ve discovered a real love of Kubrick’s work that makes me feel slightly shameful, perhaps because he seems like a pretentious person’s filmmaker. Barry Lyndon was surprisingly hard to shake off, as was Eyes Wide Shut, and Full Metal Jacket joins them as one of my personal favorite Kubrick films.

The movie opens with a montage of boys—young and dumb, about to be sent to basic training—getting their hair buzzed off by clippers. Then the film cuts to a basic training facility where we’re pummeled by the craftily vulgar screams of relentless drill sergeant Lee Ermey, whose performance is the prototype for the kind of asshole-power-monsters we see in movies like Whiplash (the one where J.K. Simmons plays an asshole of a music teacher, who delights in the aggressive humiliation of his students). I felt more than a little sadistic laughing at the horrifying jeers of Ermey’s character: he berates his grunts with such unmitigated, tenacious fervor that it’s hard not to laugh, until you realize the chilling effect his torment as on one particular young man, the incompetent “Pyle” (Vincet D’Onofrio), who can’t seem to do anything right, and who becomes the pariah of the group when Ermey starts punishing the other guys for his blunders. Watching Pyle lose it is truly one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen in a movie.

When people talk about Vietnam movies, they often obsess over the authenticity of it. Every time I turn around, someone’s telling me about the 2002 film We Were Soldiers, and how that film is the most authentic of all the Vietnam movies, according to the men who actually put their boots to the ground. That may be the case. (I wouldn’t begin to know.) But Full Metal Jacket, whether it perfectly nails an authentic depiction of the war or not, is one of the most jarring, powerful movies about war that I’ve ever seen. Kubrick of course criticizes the politics of the war, as is to be expected, but his criticism transcends the political in showing us just how much the war dehumanizes people.

Of course, the most powerful example of dehumanization happens in basic training, not in combat. It’s D’Onofrio’s transition to madness which stays with us most. The second act, which offers a well-staged descent into a war-torn town where a handful of soldiers face off against a hidden sniper, is tense and extremely well-made, even though it lacks the emotional weight of the first half. It’s still powerful, and when you consider both halves of the film together, you can sense the layers of the war as they happened to the individual soldiers, for whom basic training was a world unto itself, a place where a new identity—the identity of a nationally-vindicated killer—was forged under the auspices of protecting the American way of life.

With Matthew Modine, Arliss Howard, Adam Baldwin, Dorian Harewood, and Kevyn Major Howard. Written by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford.