July 31, 2014
Boyhood and real time
Richard Linklater has covered a lot of ground in his filmography, many different styles, genres, and time periods, but one thing his movies are not is rushed. He typically lets his stories meander along and unroll at their own pace, with plenty of time for characters to hang out and talk and talk and talk. If there's a theme he often returns to, it's shooting movies in something close to real time--Slacker, Dazed and Confused, each of the movies in the Before trilogy, Tape, and whatever the hell is going on with time, space, and reality in Waking Life.
So Boyhood, which covers 12 years of small but significant moments in a kid's life in just under 3 hours, seems like it would be a departure for Linklater, blasting through the years at a breakneck pace. But one of the things I love about this movie is how slow and easy it feels. There's nothing in the movie to clearly signal that we've moved forward in time, no "One Year Later" captions, or a few frames of black screen. The movie slides ahead a year with nothing but contextual clues to indicate it. If it wasn't for hairstyle changes, new sets, and the almost imperceptible aging of the actors, we might not even realize it was happening.
Which of course is how we all experience moving through time. As in all Linklater movies, the characters have a lot of philosophical musings that are often circular and logically hazy, but still endearing and fun to watch. I think of them as Freshman Dorm conversations. During one of these musings, Mason says something like, we're all living in a new reality each moment, all the time. In an interview about the movie, Linklater says, "Time is actually the lead character in the film," which is sort of annoying and trite, but also accurate, and I'm sure he meant it totally sincerely.
We in the audience watch Mason and his family move through their lives, and sometimes barely notice the changes they're going through. Most of the major plot points happen off screen. It's the cumulative effect of those changes that suddenly hit you, like seeing how confident and sure of herself Patricia Arquette has become, and how much more considerate Ethan Hawke eventually is. And how Mason grows from a little boy into a sullen kid into an artist and an adult. It's a real strength of the writing that these character developments feel the way real people grow and change, and never magically appear as new traits that exist to serve the plot. We only have something like 15 minutes to catch up with everyone each year, and Linklater quietly packs a lot into each year. With only one viewing, I couldn't say when the jumps ahead in time even happened.
But they do happen, and Mason grows up. My own baby turns one next week. Time flies.
June 26, 2014
How not to do philanthropy
"Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model" and generously-minded rich person, Chen Guangbiao (above), demonstrated yesterday why the world needs philanthropic advisors. Chen took out an ad in the Times last week to invite 1,000 "poor and destitute" Americans to lunch, where they would also be given an alleged $300. Lunch and cash, sounds pretty good, right?
Well, the luncheon actually happened: it was at the Central Park Boathouse, featured tuxedoed servers, beef fillet, and magic tricks, and was served to about 200 homeless clients of New York Rescue Mission. The Rescue Mission agreed to bring some of its clients to the Boathouse only if Chen did not actually hand out cash--instead, Chen made a large donation to the organization to support their programs: education, shelter, career training, and counseling. You know, the kinds of things that actually lift people out of poverty and homelessness.
The lunch guests, not being idiots, were suspicious about the $300 they would allegedly receive. They soon started to think they'd been deceived. The Times' article describes how Chen's ostensibly generous act quickly devolved into a deceptive, humiliating fiasco:
The homeless men and women shot to their feet, whooping and applauding.
"No he won't," Michelle Tolson, the mission's director of public relations, said. "The police will shut him down."
Officials from the Rescue Mission quickly brokered a deal with Mr. Chen's assistants, allowing him to hand $300 to several chosen homeless clients in a symbolic gesture. The clients, however, would have to return the money. [Ed: Oh My God.]
A trolley loaded with $100 bills appeared on the dais, and the homeless delegates were led to the stage, where they posed for the television cameras. Mr. Chen moved into the last portion of the program, launching into an awkward karaoke version of "We Are the World." But as he sang, word began to spread around the room that there was, in fact, going to be no broader cash disbursement.
"Very deceptive," grumbled Dennis Durant, 58.
As the event ended, several of the guests rushed the dais. "Stop lying!" one yelled at Mr. Chen. "We're human beings!" another shouted.
The security guards formed a cocoon around Mr. Chen as angry guests, and dozens of reporters, pressed in.
Throwing money around in front of truly poor people, as though a few hundred bucks is going to mean you don't have to live on the streets anymore. It's insulting, delusional, and demoralizing.
Chen wants to bring his philanthropy to Africa next.
June 17, 2014
Who'dat?™ & Who's Older?™
Today we bring you a special crossover episode of Who'dat?™ and Who's Older?™, your favorite unrecognizable celebrities game.
First: take a look at this photo, and try to identify who it is. Click on the photo to see if you're right.
Next: Is the bronzed celebrity above older or younger than Malin Akerman? (Hint!: bathing-suited celebrity is not Malin Akerman.)
For reference, here's a recent Malin photo:
May 8, 2014
Richard Linklater, in for the long haul
There are some filmmakers who make their movies, put them out, then move on to the next thing. Not Richard Linklater! After he completes his movies, it could be years (or decades) before he's really finished.
Consider his new movie Boyhood, which he took 12 years to shoot using the same actors over time. Or the Before trilogy, when he got Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy together three times over 18 years to tell the charmingly long-winded story of Jesse and Celine's romance.
At the time it was released, we didn't know Bernie would be another movie with a long time horizon for Linklater. But today we learned that, since the movie came out in 2012, Linklater has maintained some connection to the real life Bernie Tiede, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his rich and super-mean companion Marjorie Nugent. The movie apparently inspired a lawyer to revisit the case, and she persuaded a judge to let Bernie out on bail and reduce his sentence to time served (he's been imprisoned since 1997.)
The best part is that one of the stipulations of Bernie's release is that he live in an apartment in Richard Linklater's garage! "When Bernie comes out, he wants to take care of him," said Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the article that inspired the movie.
This means there's a pretty good chance that 15 years from now, he'll reunite with School of Rock's Miranda Cosgrove to be her campaign manager when she inevitably runs for President.
March 18, 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel
There's all the expected whimsy and preciousness and adorably fussy set design in Wes Anderson's new movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but there's some interesting stuff in this one that feels like a departure from his other movies. For example:
Ralph Fiennes. We all know he's a great dramatic actor with a talent for intensity and scariness, but how many comedies have we seen him in? Other than Maid in Manhattan? Clearly, he's also gifted at dry banter and wily charm, and he throws himself into the Gustave H. character with glee.
Gustave is an odd duck. He's an authoritarian taskmaster with the other hotel staff, a doting lap dog with the little old ladies, a sucker for romantic poetry, a vain peacock, and an art thief, and he can suavely stick it to the Nazi-esque barbarians without mussing his perfect manners. And he's sad and insecure, like most Wes Anderson characters.
But he swears a lot, too! Which brings us to the next notable thing:
Lots of swearing. Also nudity and sex, both of the old lady variety. Yeah. Whoa. I don't remember any on-screen sex happening in his other movies, right?
It's European. The tone of the movie was a little different, too, maybe because it's so intensely European. A few other Wes Anderson movies take place in other countries (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited), but even those feel as American as Bill Murray's flat a's.
This movie's story about the decline of the hotel from a once-great institution serving the rich and famous to a lonely dump could be a metaphor for the Continent and its gradual loss of global influence and power. The hotel's physical transformation from an ornate pink palace to an orangey-brown Soviet-era slab of drab mirrors what happened to much of Eastern Europe over the course of the 20th century. It was shot around Dresden, in what used to be East Germany. The wistful tone of lost greatness shows up in other WA movies, but the scale of loss is bigger in scale than in The Royal Tenenbaums. This one has actual fascists, who take over the Grand Budapest Hotel and shoot people.
Heavier stuff than we usually get from Wes Anderson. But M. Gustave's streak of nose-thumbing defiance amidst all the frivolity and mountains of pastel cream pastries actually works pretty well. If this is Wes Anderson doing a political-historical thriller, I'll take it.
March 3, 2014
Oscars and money for the pizza guy
Last night's Oscars didn't offer many surprises or memorable moments--I was pretty much OK with all the winners, and the night's predictability meant that I did *really* well in my office pool. My favorite moment was probably Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and their cute rhyming acceptance speech for Best Song. Robert Lopez was one of the writers of The Book of Mormon and is now a proud member of the very exclusive EGOT club.
But the weirdest moment was when Ellen, having ordered some pizzas in a folksy stunt, went around with Pharrell's hat asking all the famous audience members for money for a tip. The men dug out their wallets and obediently put some cash into the hat. But then Ellen started chiding them for their cheapness. She called out Brad Pitt for only contributing a twenty, and then things heated up. People started leaning over each other to put more money into the hat, and for a few seconds we had a bunch of celebrities literally throwing their money around on TV, showing the world how amazingly generous they were in their tipping of an anonymous low-wage worker.
I can't tell if Ellen was doing it on purpose--goading the very rich and very famous into competitive coerced generosity--but it made the whole night look desperately show-offy. We all know the Oscars are about self-congratulation, but we don't usually get to see all those glamorous celebrities be such transparent camera hogs.
I hope the pizza guy got all that cash.
(Oh, he did!)
February 20, 2014
Stop explaining, James Franco!
I've had fun watching the ongoing experimental performance art that is James Franco's career. First he stars in the Spider-Man movies and a Julia Roberts romance. Then he's on "General Hospital" playing a tortured artist named "Franco". Then he's hosting the Oscars. Then he's directing tiny indie movies about Hart Crane and Sal Mineo, and an impressionistic adaptation of As I Lay Dying. Then last year he played an ingeniously unflattering version of himself in This Is The End, and Florida drug dealer Alien in the craziest movie of the year Spring Breakers. And also starred in Oz the Great and Powerful, which wasn't good by anyone's standards but was a huge hit. Oh, and he's also had shows in art galleries and appears to be pursuing doctoral degrees at several top universities simultaneously.
James Franco is the only person I can think of whose career is in itself a smart commentary/critique of what it means to be a movie star, while also actively being a movie star. He's wildly prolific, and takes on incredibly disparate projects that I assume he's doing because he's genuinely interested in trying new things. Especially if those things fuel speculation about his sexuality, like the "30 Rock" episode where his character, "James Franco", is having a secret romance with a Japanese body pillow, or last year's Interior. Leather Bar., which he directed and starred in, which re-imagines 40 minutes of gay S&M footage cut from Cruising. I don't know what he's doing, exactly, but I admire him for it.
But his latest trend of writing these explanatory pieces for the Times are starting to ruin it. Last year he wrote about why he posts so many selfies on Instagram, describing the up-close-and-personal access the public feels like they're getting through the celebrity selfie. Today he's got an opinion piece about Shia LaBeouf's recent anti-celebrity antics, which he thinks are part of LaBeouf's effort to "reclaim his public persona." It's a smart piece, and I'm sure his ideas about why famous people rebel against celebrity are accurate.
But he's too close to tipping his hand. I don't want to read James Franco's essays about how his appearances on "General Hospital" dismantle the hierarchy of entertainment. I just want the freaky, confusing experience of watching his scenes on YouTube, which he pretty much pulls off. I want to be confused. Whatever James Franco is doing is a lot more interesting when he does it without explanation.
Out of the ten (!) movies he's got scheduled to come out later this year, one is an adaptation of The Sound and the Fury. He's directing. And playing Benjy. It will also feature Seth Rogen and Danny McBride. This movie sounds utterly impossible and probably disastrous, but I want to see it anyway -- I just don't want to read Franco's philosophical musings about his craft and why Caddy smells like trees.
February 11, 2014
X-Men can't read my mind
Superhero movies aren't usually my thing, but I really liked X-Men: First Class, and have been excited about the sequel coming out in May, Days of Future Past. In the first X-Men series, I liked the sequel (X-Men 2) even better than the first movie, so I have high hopes that this sequel will also be great, before some other director comes in and ruins the franchise with an abysmally disappointing third installment. Please keep Brett Ratner away from this series.
I liked almost everything about First Class, with one big exception. James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, and his insistence on showing the audience he's reading someone's mind by putting his fingers to his temple, every blessed time. Once or twice would have been OK. Putting your fingers to your temple is universally accepted movie-code for "I'm reading your mind", but after the ten thousandth time, it just got insulting. Xavier can read minds, we get it! Unless there's a physical Telepathy Activation button located on Xavier's temple that must be pushed in order for mind-reading to occur, all that gesturing was pointless and silly.
What's especially strange is that Patrick Stewart didn't use the mind-reading gesture in the first X-Men series, and neither did January Jones, who plays telepath Emma Frost in the same movie as James McAvoy. Those other actors just look intensely focused for a moment and squint ever so slightly, and, magically, the audience understands what's happening.
Since the world has been so thoroughly educated on Xavier's mind-reading ability, I sort of assumed we wouldn't be subjected to so much temple-pressing in the X-Men sequel. Then I got my special collectible X-Men Days of Future Past issue of Empire magazine in the mail, and was greeted with this cover:
February 3, 2014
Why it's especially awful to lose Philip Seymour Hoffman
There's been shock, regret, and sadness in responses to yesterday's news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose. It was public knowledge that he'd struggled with addiction in his youth, and again recently, but he wasn't exactly a hellion bent on his own self-destruction. Amy Winehouse's death was tragic, but not exactly a surprise.
Something about losing PSH feels like more of a personal loss. I'm more affected by it than other celebrity deaths, in part because of how talented he was and how much I love his movies. There's no better actor out there. I remember noticing him in some earlier roles, like in The Big Lebowski and Boogie Nights, and in a Broadway production of True West in 2000 I was lucky enough to see, and feeling like I'd found out about something big and important that the world wasn't quite aware of yet. Think about PSH in Happiness. Then think about him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then in Synecdoche, NY. Then in Pirate Radio. The guy could do anything, and he made so many movies.
But the best actor we had was also a middle-aged father of three and appeared to be a nice, smart, down-to-earth guy. He seemed to be genuinely respected and admired by everyone, both people who actually knew him and regular fans. It's hard to think of a person you admire doing something as foolish as getting sucked into heroin abuse. Again. This is what makes addiction so scary, and so hard to understand from the outside: he must have known how dangerous it was to start using again, and he couldn't stay away from it.
Here's how I'm thinking about it all:
1) We're lucky that the best actor we had worked so much and made so many movies, right up to the end of his life. I don't think there's a single actor who I've seen in more movies and plays.
2) We're unlucky that our best actor was addicted to heroin.
3) Heroin has gotten really incredibly dangerous lately, with spikes in deaths being reported all over the country. There seem to be batches out there that contain a lot of fentanyl. And as Russell Brand keeps reminding us, addiction kills.
Here's a great Times Magazine profile of PSH from 2008.
January 6, 2014
Top Movies* of 2013
*that I've been able to see
And we're back! Just in time to look back at 2013 and pick our favorite movies. With the new baby robot launch earlier this year, it's been hard to get to the theater, so there are a lot of movies that everyone seems to love that I haven't caught up with yet. Thankfully there were great movies coming out all year long, so even if the end-of-year representation is spotty, there's enough notable stuff for a list of 10.
Spring Break Forever! I just fell in love with y'all. This list represents my personal favorites, not necessarily The Best Films of the year, and no movie had a greater effect on me than Spring Breakers. It's a smart criticism of our culture's sexual exploitation of young women, and it's a nightmare of violence, drugs, excess, partying, and James Franco's cornrows. But it also works as an impressionistic fantasy and has some surprisingly beautiful hot tub sequences, Franco at a white piano (adding another chapter to the absurdist performance art his career has become) and a shotgun ballet musical number to Britany Spears's "Everytime". It added "Look at all my shit!" to the lexicon (A.O. Scott has a lot to say about that) and introduced the world to the scary and fascinating ATL Twins. I'm still picking my jaw up off the floor.
Inside Llewyn Davis
It's not an easy one to love, this melancholy movie about failure with a central character who's kind of a jerk. Little happens besides losing, finding, and losing a cat, but the tone of struggle and disappointment is what the Coen Brothers do best. What did you expect, a happy ending and a record contract? Llewyn's musical performances are so compelling and sad that we want it all to work out for him, even though most of his woes are self-created. The movie is full of tiny moments with big emotional impact, like Llewyn looking at a record sleeve of the album he did with his dead ex-partner, and driving past a highway sign reading "Akron". Sadly funny and beautiful.
Somehow, this movie completely avoids being the self-involved, precious, twee little hipster quirk-fest that it so easily could have been, and ends up just about perfect. Frances isn't an adorable oddball, she's a real mess, but her flaws make her sympathetic and genuine. Things get wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly at the end, but the way there is sloppy and hilarious.
Stories We Tell
A fascinating documentary about Sarah Polley's nice Canadian family, that ends up exploring how we construct our family histories and whose version of the story gets passed along as "what really happened". Her family is more convoluted and mysterious than most, but it's the inventive way the central mystery is set up and investigated that makes it so good. It's also a sweet father-daughter story and a love letter to Polley's own father, the unexpected hero of the story.
The World's End
The funniest movie I saw all year, and the best/saddest/most touching of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto Trilogy. Simon Pegg's energetic performance as a delusional hyper-manic middle-aged early-'90's throwback was my favorite of the year.
I love the whole series, and feel a particular resonance with Jesse and Celine's rocky romance because I've always been about their age when each new movie comes out. Their relationship is at its thorniest in this final installment, but watching them fight is more fun than watching them talk about the nature of consciousness. I especially admire Julie Delpy for writing and performing a lot of unflattering scenes in which her character is insufferable and nuts; conversely, Ethan Hawke let himself off easy with all his reasonableness and wit. Who's that clever when their relationship is falling apart?
Beyond the Hills
Just like the director's earlier 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, this movie got under my skin with its oppressive sense of dread. This one feels even more like it exists in its own creepy universe, set in an isolated monastery with an overbearingly controlling culture. The two central characters are childhood friends/lovers, trying and failing to find a way to relate to each other within this scary, byzantine place. I love these movies, but they scare the hell out of me.
12 Years a Slave
An unflinching look at the brutality of slavery, but full of many beautiful shots and moments--you can really tell that Steve McQueen was a visual artist before he started making movies. This one has the same chilly, detached quality that Shame and Hunger have, which sometimes made it hard to feel involved in the action on screen, though given what much of the action consisted of, maybe I should be grateful for that.
I should point out that there are many recent movies I haven't seen yet, some of which would probably be on this list: Her, Short Term 12, The Past, All is Lost, The Wolf of Wall Street, Blue is the Warmest Color, Nebraska and American Hustle. Those last two movies are by directors I don't much like anymore (and have I told you lately how much I hated Silver Linings Playbook?) but everyone seems to love these movies, so, OK.
There were also a few exceptionally good examples of otherwise tired genres: Gravity, an old-fashioned disaster movie with fancy new technology, Pacific Rim, the best big-budget monster-action movie I've seen in a long time, and Philomena, a perfectly constructed touching true-story human drama.
The year's biggest disappointments:
This is the End. Not funny enough.
To the Wonder. Terrence Malick finally blows it.
World War Z. Starts strong with a large-scale zombie attack on downtown Philly during rush hour, ends with a series of incredibly boring walks down long deserted office hallways. Terrible.
What were your favorites last year? Let me know what you recommend in the comments. Here's 2012's list.
October 8, 2013
Amy's Robot: On standby
As you've probably noticed, we're taking a break over here. The recent launch of a new Baby Robot model has us pretty busy, and there's isn't as much time to spend watching movies and musing/complaining about pop culture and political minutiae.
But before we resume our hiatus, a few observations about recent stuff:
The World's End: My favorite of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost trilogy, and the funniest movie I've seen all year. I really like how perfectly they nailed both of the movie's hackneyed genres: Old friends who've grown apart get together for a reunion and learn they still really love each other, despite everything; and Invasion of the alien machines. The way the old rivalries resurface, and tough truths are learned about their friends... and themselves, every detail is perfect.
But the most impressive part of the movie for me is Simon Pegg's performance. The first half-hour especially, where he's simultaneously manic, obnoxious, desperate, pathetic, and hilarious, in one hyper-energetic, repellently appealing spaz-explosion in a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. He just burns a hole through the screen. It's a performance at about the same energy level as Jack Black's first scene in High Fidelity, but he sustains it through the entire movie. He deserves some kind of award, even though really inspired comic performances like this hardly ever get the recognition they deserve.
Enough Said: I like all Nicole Holofcener's movies, and this one has the same agonizing social awkwardness and flawed but sincere characters that I like in all her stuff. This is one of James Gandolfini's last movie appearances, and it makes me wish he got to do more romantic comedy in his career--he's a big, gruff, hairy love interest, more convincing than you'd think.
And finally Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series. It took a while to get going, and its biggest problem is the main character, who is unappealing and less interesting than the far more colorful and interesting ensemble, but I still like it. A few episodes in, I thought, wow, it's great that there's this show with so many good roles for black and Latina actresses, older, bigger actresses, butch actresses, all roles for women that deviate from the pretty young white norm, that are so often missing from other TV shows and movies. Then I realized: that's because it's set in prison. Oh well.
We'll be back!
July 30, 2013
NY Times coverage of the Farm Bill
On the New York Times's National News page today, these two headlines appear right next to each other:
Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture sent out over $10 million in subsidies to 1,000 farmers that had been dead for over a year, and $22 million in crop insurance payments to 3,400 people who had been dead for over two years. In order to deal with this, the Government Accountability Office suggests the USDA runs its list of farmers through the wonderfully diabolical-sounding "Death Master File" before it gives more public money to dead people.
Help poor people get enough food, or subsidize dead farmers to grow commodity corn that gets turned into high fructose corn syrup. Gee, Congress, quite the political conundrum you've got there.