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.
July 25, 2013
It's late July, so this year's Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, or TUSH, should already be out there, everywhere, an indelible, unavoidably catchy presence in your life.
So here it is: TUSH 2013 is "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk.
I suppose there's a potential title-holder in the other hit song to feature Pharrell, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines", but that song has several strikes against it:
- "Blurred Lines" came out all the way back in March, while "Get Lucky"'s release date of April is closer to the ideal early-summer TUSH debut.
- "Get Lucky" is groovy, irresistibly catchy, features Nile Rodgers on guitar, and is 1,000 times better than "Blurred Lines".
So even though "Blurred Lines" is actually at the top of the charts right now, "Get Lucky" meets more of the classic TUSH criteria: I hear it more often, and I like it a lot more. Random people polled by New York Magazine apparently agree--GL beat BL in a person-on-the-street survey conducted in both Times Square and at 125th Street, which is close enough of a cross-section of America for me.
This is the second year in a row that a non-American has grasped the TUSH. In recent years, it's been someone like Black Eyed Peas or LMFAO, but last year it was "Call Me Maybe" by Canadian singer Carly Whatever Whatever. It's even more audacious that this year's TUSH was generated by a couple of French techno robots.
I for one support the international-robotification of the TUSH!
Note: Canadian 80's rock band Loverboy should claim a little bit of credit for "Get Lucky"'s TUSH victory because of their 1981 album of the same name. This album features enduring cheeseball classic "Working For the Weekend" and, in my opinion, the greatest cover art of all time:
July 15, 2013
Spitzer changes his mind
Many thoughts spring to mind about Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer entering this year's NYC elections. Can a politician come back after resigning in shame? And do voters even care about embarrassing sex scandals? (In the case of Mark Sanford, I guess not.)
What's also springing to mind are the icky details and images we all have of these guys' gross, inappropriate, and/or illegal sex lives, unavoidably returning to our consciousness. I never wanted to think about, for example, black socks in relation to Eliot Spitzer again, for example, but there they are, rising from the dark corner where I had mostly repressed it. (Even if that detail turned out not to be true.)
I've also been thinking about a really good interview from Spitzer in Vanity Fair from 2009, just over a year after the scandal and resignation. In conversation with John Heilpern, he reveals a surprising level of sincerity and regret about his actions and how he betrayed his family and the public. When I first read it, I actually felt a little sorry for the guy:
"You knew the risks. Either you felt you were above the law or you had some kind of death wish."
His response was that neither was the case. "It's a story that has been repeated since our earliest days as a species. It's both obvious and not susceptible to an answer," he insisted. "Nonetheless, we are led down a certain path. It wasn't hubris or a death wish--but frailty, temptation, and common miscalculation."
"Do you think the scandal will ever go away?," I asked.
"No. My obituary's written," he replied with shocking finality. "And that is a very hard thing to live with." When he turned away, I could see he was in tears.
When asked if he'd ever return to politics, he said, "I've a hard time seeing politics as a career. I wouldn’t want to put my family through the agony." Well, his family's agony must be less of a concern these days, because I'm sure they've had a horrible week since he announced he was running for office again.
Spitzer's name recognition alone is probably what landed him at the top of a recent poll, though he does have certain qualities that would make him a perfect candidate for the job. He's not afraid to stand up to powerful corporate interests in protection of the public good, which these days is so unusual that it's automatically appealing. But he went about his vigilance against wrongdoing in a hyper-aggressive, asshole-ish kind of way, making the entire financial sector hate his guts. I half love this about him and half think it shows a stunning lack of judgment. When it turned out he was hiring hookers while fighting publicly against sex trafficking, the "asshole with bad judgment" characterization got a lot of extra points.
Given the uninspiring list of candidates we're looking at for major offices, Spitzer's immoral/criminal past alone might not be enough for him to lose the primary, but the entire financial sector gleefully mobilizing their resources to bring him down probably is. A Crain's article about corporate bigwigs responding to the Spitzer (and Weiner) candidacy shows a fascinating combination of nervousness and salivation. "This is very serious business," one business leader said last week. "The mayor is a very serious thing. Comptroller is very serious. And they have a big impact on the economy and quality of life. So the question is, do either of these guys deserve to do that, or would they be good at it?" "Neither one of these guys has any friends in the business they were in," said one business leader. "That's part of the reason they fell so hard," he happily recalled.
I doubt these guys could care less about the prostitution scandal, but they'll use it however they can to remind voters about those black socks.
June 6, 2013
Some thoughts about Much Ado About Nothing, which I haven't seen
I haven't seen the movie yet, and I'm trying to keep an open mind. Critics certainly seem to love it, and I can believe that it's a fun time. But I've been irritated by the whole idea of this movie since the trailer came out, and still have some reservations.
First of all, some marketing firm came up with that idiotic tagline, but Shakespeare and his alleged ability to throw a party shows that those involved in this adaptation think Much Ado is a lighthearted romp. Shakespeare is a blast, kids! Look at all these beautiful young people drinking and carousing in the trailer! It's not like school, it's cool and fun. While it's fine to claim that experiencing Shakespeare is a good time, it assumes that audiences are incapable of appreciating the other enjoyable aspects of Shakespeare: the language, the wise and timeless insights into human nature, the emotions, the jokes.
Also, as much as I respect Joss Whedon and his clever, whimsical style, when I think about filmmakers I would trust with modernizing Shakespeare, I'm not sure he's above #40 on that list. He uses actors that are great for his kind of writing. But hiring the cast of "Angel" and "Dollhouse" to do Shakespeare strikes me as a bad misjudgment. American TV actors are fine for disposable American TV shows with that Whedon-esque snappy dialogue, but they might not bring the gravitas, skill, and confidence you need to pull off Shakespeare.
British director Trevor Nunn once said, "I have yet to see [Much Ado] done with sufficient seriousness." That's because it's not a lighthearted romp, like Whedon's version appears to be--it's actually really dark. The story follows two not-young people (Beatrice and Benedick) who have been through the emotional ringer, and seem to have a kind of romance PTSD. The subplot (Claudio and Hero) is about the world's harshest case of (misguided) slut-shaming, regret, and death. I might be wrong here, but I'll bet that Whedon didn't pick up on any of that in his adaptation. In an NPR interview, he calls the play the basis for all modern romantic comedies. Yeah, the language is a lot of fun, but the themes are dark, dark, dark.
Also, why is it in black and white? The movie was shot in Whedon's own sun-drenched southern California home, so the stark, austere, moody look of black and white seems out of place. I think he did it as an easy way to manufacture a sense of artistic legitimacy. For a certain audience, black and white automatically means "arty and serious", so they'll watch this Joss Whedon movie with second-rate TV actors and think "I'm watching a serious Shakespearean film, it must be good!" and get to feel smart and cultured.
Maybe I'm being too cynical. Critics who like the movie like A.O. Scott have personal preferences that are different than mine; in his glowing review he says, "I prefer my Shakespeare in modern clothing and with American accents." One day, if he's lucky, maybe he'll get to see David Boreanaz's Hamlet!
June 5, 2013
Don Draper hallucinates, again
I've mostly been liking this season of "Mad Men", and I've appreciated the many surprises and odd happenings that have popped up a show that was getting dangerously predictable. In particular, I liked the surprise merger, the disorienting break-in of Don and Megan's apartment by the kids' "grandmother", and every exchange between Joan and Peggy (especially this week's), whose relationship has always been one of the show's best and most complicated.
But one aspect that's getting irritating and sometimes comical is the overuse of hallucinations. Don Draper seems to hallucinate with such startling frequency that it's got to mean one of two things: his grasp on reality and overall psychological health are rapidly disintegrating toward total psychosis, or the show's writing is too reliant on a schlocky, soapy crutch. Do normal people hallucinate as much as as Don does? Of course not--just like amnesia is a much more common problem on daytime television than in real life--but it sure is a convenient plot device!
In the last couple of seasons, here are the times Don has hallucinated (that I can remember) and the alleged cause of his hallucination:
- A mystery woman from Don's past, she shows up in his apartment, they sleep together, he strangles her to death; cause: fever, self-loathing
- A ghostly Anna Draper, right after she died; cause: being extravagantly drunk, grief
- Don's dead half-brother Adam; cause: a hot tooth, gas at the dentist's office, guilt
- All kinds of weird stuff in "The Crash" episode from a few weeks ago, including a tap-dancing Ken Cosgrove; cause: a speed injection from Dr. Feelgood, a bizarre sense of office humor
- And this week, a pregnant hippie Megan and a dead Private Dinkins while at a Hollywood party; cause: smoking hash, regret, and (I guess?) severe mental illness
If we're supposed to conclude from all this that Don Draper is living on the razor's edge of sanity, and starts seeing things that aren't there whenever he runs a temperature or uses even the most pedestrian of recreational drugs, then OK, our protagonist is highly mentally unstable. If we're supposed to see hallucinations as a metaphor for the destabilizing, chaotic changes the American culture was going through in the late 60's, I can live with it, but it's clumsy and obvious. But if the writers keep using hallucinations because it's an easy way to visualize Don's emotional state and the people and things that he's haunted by, then they've really got to come up with something new.
My favorite thing in this week's episode are Don's sunglasses and Harry's rented Mustang.
May 28, 2013
We can't come up with a better name than Berberian Sound Studio?
There's a fun new trailer for a movie coming out in a few weeks that I'm really excited about. Here's the story: an English sound engineer arrives in 1976 Rome to produce the sound for an Italian horror film. The Italian movie looks like a lovingly blood-soaked homage to the great Italian giallo movies of the 70's: it's called The Equestrian Vortex, and it's set at an all-girls riding school and involves witches and lots of graphic murder. Anyway, strange things start to happen at the recording sessions (featuring screaming voice actors and shots of Foley artists brutalizing heads of lettuce and large melons) that blur the line between movie and reality. The reel-to-reel editing scenes actually look tense and creepy, and I think the whole thing will be stylish, pulpy fun. Plus, Broadcast did the soundtrack, which is out on Warp. Cool!
But somehow, this gory romp ended up with the title Berberian Sound Studio, as though the Armenian-inflected name of a production facility in which scary things happen would somehow get audiences excited to see the movie. Dario Argento would be dismayed, especially since this movie sounds like a combination of his classics Suspiria (murderous witches at all-girls ballet school) and Deep Red (Englishman in Italy witnesses horrors).
Here's the trailer:
The actor playing the English sound engineer is Toby Jones, who's had the misfortune of playing Truman Capote immediately after Philip Seymour Hoffman, and then playing Alfred Hitchcock immediately after Anthony Hopkins. But this time Toby Jones is going to OWN the role of freaked-out English sound engineer.