Monday, March 02, 2015

In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy

We need to talk about Spock, of course, but before we talk about Spock, we need to talk about "Going Down To Liverpool." That was a song by Katrina and The Waves but The (immortal?) Bangles covered it in 1984, and for the song’s video on MTV they chose to film it as limo ride – The Bangles in the back, singing, with a seemingly irritated, my-time-is-too-valuable-for-this-horseshit chauffeur. The chauffeur was played by Leonard Nimoy. Why him? The trivia masters will tell you it’s because Susanna Hoffs was friendly with Nimoy’s son, Adam, but over-analyzers know better. It takes a lot to play annoyed in the presence of Susanna Hoffs, one of the 80’s grandest divas, and who had more experience playing irritated compatriot to a diva than Leonard Nimoy?

It’s one of those never-ending eerie cosmic coincidences that the venerable Interwebs domain Grantland ran a "Second Banana" Tournament the exact same week the man who played Spock passed away (Friday, aged 83) but that’s exactly what happened. Spock advanced all the way to the Final Four, the semi-finals, before being dispatched by Canada. Grantland’s resident Trekkie was enraged by this development, and how can you blame him? It robbed us of a Spock vs. George Constanza showdown, which would have been incredible. It would have been incredible because, in fact, Spock and Constanza were polar opposite second bananas. Seinfeld was the straight man to Constanza whereas Spock was the straight man to Kirk. And while Jerry and George viewed "The Wrath of Khan" as the pre-eminent "Star Trek" film (though Kramer was partial to "The Search For Spock"), I admit to having a place in my heart for the fourth film in the series.

We need to talk about "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home", of course, but before we do we need to talk about the opening passages of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” set in Yosemite National Park. The scene, if you don't recall, finds Kirk free climbing El Capitan and Spock flying in on some sort of foot-jet pack doohickey, allowing them to have a colorful give and take, right there on the side of a freaking mountain. "Twelve hundred points of interest in Yosemite and you pick me," says Kirk, and that cuts right to the heart of the matter. Wherever they were, whatever place, whether on futuristic Earth or out there in the far-flung reaches of the place called space, what really mattered was these two, their friendship, testy and loving, their emotional push and logical pull, and their banter. They were a comedy duo with semi-philosophical tendencies.

That mountainside verbal hoedown leads into the incredible scene around a campfire where Dr. McCoy says of a squabbling Kirk & Spock: "You know, you two could really drive a man to drink." Maybe it's because my first experience with "Star Trek" wasn't "First Generation", or even "The Motion Picture", but re-runs of the original series on our old black & white TV in the kitchen that often came across more like a sitcom than drama. And that leads me to "The Voyage Home", the greatest time travel movie ever made, the time travel movie that understood justifying the means of time travel was so much less vital than what the time travel wrought. And in "Star Trek IV", it wrought something less logical than Warner Bros. live action Looney Tunes.

In many ways "The Voyage Home" foreshadowed film's overriding and ridiculous importance on my absurd existence. It was Christmas Day 1986 and presents had been unwrapped and the meal had been consumed and all I wanted to do in my official capacity as College Football Fanatic was watch the Sun Bowl. My parents, however, decreed that our family would be going to the theater for a showing of "The Voyage Home." I rebelled, but I lost. I'm glad I lost. God, what a marvelous Christmas Day, and viewed through the prism of time I wonder if that's the moment when in spite of worshiping at the pagan altar of college football I sub-consciously realized the film de cinema was truly my bag, baby.

America's 1987 box office champion, "Three Men and a Baby", was directed by Nimoy, a delightful choreographing of comedy, but he outdid himself a year earlier with "The Voyage Home." In her original review for The New York Times Janet Maslin knocks around Mr. Nimoy's supervision of special effects and while her assessment is not invalid, well, in spite of "Star Trek's" space opera origins the effects are less the point than the comedy. Perhaps Nimoy struggles in the get-go, tying up loose ends from the previous movie and setting the table for the current one. Yet once the film goes back in time to then-present day San Francisco, he demonstrates a breezy professionalism. This isn't sci-fi, this is screwball.

It's a fish out of water comedy that finds the crew of the Enterprise going back to 1986, forcing these futuristic characters to try and fit themselves into a "primitive and paranoid" culture where they don't belong. The film's comic timing, never harried, is built with notably formal elegance to all manner of extremely polite payoffs. So many of it jokes are cornball, yes, but nevertheless effective, not so much middlebrow as totally accessible, an approach that in this day and age feels wistfully old-world.

Screwball comedies, however, of the golden era often had a socially conscious tinge to go with all that repartee, and "The Voyage Home" is no different. It packs a pro-environmenetal message into its narrative as the crew's quest involves rescuing a pair of humpback whales to bring them forward into the future, a place where they have gone extinct, quietly yet forcefully indicting mankind for its ecological idiocy. Yet simultaneously it takes an extra-terrerstrial - Nimoy's Spock - and makes him come to grips with his humaneness, and do so in a Reagan-era habitat not outwardly lending itself it to civility.

To my admittedly non-Federation approved eyes that was always the spiritual center of "Star Trek" - the yin & yang of emotion and logic, embodied in the kindly combative relationship of Kirk and Spock. And I will confess that in re-watching "The Voyage Home" the whole way through twenty-four afters after Mr. Nimoy's passing I found myself profoundly moved by a passage late in the film between Spock and his father.

It's no secret that Leonard Nimoy had a complicated relationship with the role that made him an icon, and how could he not? The part took him to a celebrity stratosphere that transcended most. Everyone mourned his passing, Trekkers, Trekkies, Federation of the Planet part-timers, neophytes, etc. And I think that's because the eternal inward battle of thinking with our heads and thinking with our hearts is one thing that will for certain exist in the twenty-third century the same as it existed in the twentieth. The key is to find the place that Spock found by the end of "The Voyage Home", which was the same place Nimoy found by the end of his long life.

Spock's father asks his son if he has a message for his mother. Spock replies matter-of-factly: "Tell her...I feel fine."

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday's (Not So) Old Fashioned: The School of Rock (2003)

In writing about the tenth anniversary of Richard Linklater’s “The School of Rock” for Esquire, Michael Hoinski referred to a specific scene, the one in which Dewey Finn (Jack Black), an aspiring hard rock axeman masquerading as a private school teacher acts out the theoretical live performance of his own composition, “Legend of the Rent” (“when the legend of the rent comes due”), to his musically-gifted students whom he's yearning to enlist in a brand new band. Hoinski explains that “Linklater wanted to shoot the scene just once: one shot, with a slow pull-out. Black was nervous, self-conscious. He wanted to break it down, do some close-ups, capture multiple angles — just in case he beefed it. But Linklater was steadfast. He envisioned the scene as a centerpiece. It ended up one of Black's favorite moments.” It speaks wholly to the idea of live music, one that is not created in a studio with extra takes and overlays, but a spontaneous eruption of the soul.

The transformative power of music never ceases to amaze me. A couple weeks ago I had plans to go see a show but it was across town at my least favorite music venue in the city and it was, like, four degrees outside and I had to wait for a bus – and wait, and wait, and wait – and the show didn’t start ‘til 9 even though it was a school night and I’m old and yada yada, more whining, etc. Then, the show began. And there but for the grace of Nikki Lane’s twang went I. Shivering in the cold before and only getting a few hours of sleep with a slight whiskey hangover after? Fughetaboutit. The concert, like so many concerts I've attended in my time, altered my mood, and allowed me communion with that beautiful place – the ever present now.

Richard Linklater has always been a filmmaker interested in music. More than that, though, he has been interested in how music relates to time. In his seminal “Dazed and Confused” he memorably marks the end of the Moon Tower party with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone”, a song, not coincidentally, about moving on. In his astonishing “Before Sunrise” he plants our darling Jesse and Celine in a listening booth with Kath Bloom's “Come Here” and then doesn’t cut, lingering on them stealing looks of one another, music momentarily freezing time. In last year’s “Boyhood”, a movie made and set over the course of twelve years, he employs pop songs as a means to both convey the passage of time and transport us to a particular place, the nifty trick that music itself is always able to manage. But never was music was more integral than in “The School of Rock”, his 2003 family comedy semi-musical in which drifting misfit Dewey Finn, needing to make quick cash, takes the place of his academically inclined pal who's been asked to substitute at a prestigious school only to instead find himself transforming the children in his charge into a rock ‘n’ roll super group.

At first blush “The School of Rock” and “Boyhood” may not have a lot in common, but what they share most precisely is a conventionality of form. Yes, the latter was filmed over 12 years, but its narrative is completely linear, one touching on many of the more unremarkable moments of a child’s rearing, snapshots, like moving photos from the family album that a stranger doesn’t want to see and yet, somehow, is drawn into anyway. It is virtually resistant to the set-in-stone McKee-ish screenwriting principle of Dramatic Conflict. Consider the sequence, mentioned by many, where Mason Jr. and his pals are messing around with a circular saw blade. McKee would demand that blade “pay off” in some way. Linklater leaves it alone, which is the payoff. Yet it also adheres to a McKee screenwriting rule, the one that goes “Every scene is a story event”, it just doesn’t adhere in the way McKee necessarily intends.

You could, as many have, dub the plethora of scenes as mere “ennui”, and you would not be wrong, yet that two-and-a-half hours of “ennui” subtly add up to something whole. Not something concrete, per se, not a resolution so much as a realization. “It’s like,” says Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) sitting with his brand new lady friend at film's end, “it’s always right now.” It comes across simplistic, sure, because, duh, of course it’s always, like, right now. But so what? If it's so simple, why does no one appreciate it? Why does no one grasp it? It’s taken him the entire film to realize it and makes him, and us, go back every other event in the film where “nothing’s happening” to appreciate it for the way in which each and every one is always right now, and how it just slipped on by, undetected, like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, to quote some dude.

Not only is “School of Rock’s” form conventional, so is its execution. As a teacher, Dewey enlightens his mighty-mite protégés to real rock history and teaches them to play their instruments with a flair becoming Keith & Ronnie to win The Battle of the Bands, but with Dewey pretending to be someone else, he is always in danger of being exposed. That exposure, of course, arrives like clockwork, forcing him to leave school in shame, ruining their shot at music-making glory. The kids, as they must, bust out of class to “kidnap” their favorite fool, Dewey, and make it to the gig late but still on time, just like a true rock band, while their parents and principal and give chase.

Formulaic as it comes, right? Yet the screenplay, which was written by Mike White, is doing some incredibly deft things. It uses these rote reversals to intrinsically embody the rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Even better, rather than having than turning it into a showdown of Parents & Principal vs. Dewey & The Kids, it lets all the conflict fall away once the concert commences. Everyone looks up, shuts up, and simply gives themselves over to the ministry of rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, they realize “it’s like, it’s always right now”. The movie ends in the middle of the encore, which is apropos because that's the ultimate dream of every magnificent concert - to extinguish suffering and desire and consciousness and just be.

“Time,” wrote Indian philosopher Jidda Krishnamurti “is transcended only in the stillness of the present.” That's the ineffable place magnificent live music takes us; that's the ineffable place Richard Linklater and his Richard Linklater-y protagonists are always striving to find, and sometimes, even if they don't realize it, they do.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Post Oscar Recalibration

I’ve never been shy in acknowledging my adoration for the Academy Awards, and I never will be. Yet as much as I cherish Oscar Sunday, I have come to despise the apocalyptic Monday After, the insufferable day when editors enlist all manner of writers to unleash journalistic cow chips on the masses about how everything is awful while social media belches forth relentless mounds of its patented I Don't Know What We're Yelling About invective. This grating conveyor belt of self-righteous gasbags and their gaspingly obnoxious snobbery expelled from the conceited spot atop their high horses......OH MY GOD!!! I'M FALLING INTO THEIR TRAP!!!

Enough. Let's tamp down that fury. Let's shut down that TweetDeck. Let's get lost in the deep beautiful la la land of the motion picture.....

Monday, February 23, 2015

Logging the 87th Academy Awards

You might recall that Ava DuVernay was snubbed by the Academy in the Oscar category of Best Director. Was she really "snubbed"? Who the hell knows? Everyone thinks they know but no one really does. Because no one really knows what goes on in the mind of an Academy member. Scrutinize all you want, Oscar bloggers, but there is no empirical analysis when it comes to the whims of Academy voters, and the whole ordeal would be less interesting, anyway, if you could break it down by metrics. Which is precisely why I so desperately loved what Ms. DuVernay said in an interview with Gillian Orr for The Independent. Of her supposed snub DuVernay said: "I think what’s nice is the conversation about diversity, inclusion, and representation [that arose]. We need to challenge the industry, to challenge the studios. We need to acknowledge that films should not be told from one point of view and not only one point of view should be celebrated." Hear, hear.

"But," Orr noted in her article, "DuVernay is not bitter. She’s looking forward to the Oscars, which she says will be a 'lovely celebration of the film' and she plans to be there 'in a pretty dress, having a good time.'" So cool your jets, you angry birds of Twitter. Don't get yourself in a CinemaScope lather if your favorites don't win. Ya know why? Cuz in 1998 I got myself in an immature frenzy when Julianne Moore didn't win Best Supporting Actress for "Boogie Nights" (Amber Waves 4Ever) and look! It's 17 years later and that (not really at all except in the deranged catacombs of my mind) egregious robbery is about to be rectified. It all evens out eventually. So put on a pretty dress, or your finest pajama pants, and have a good time. It's Oscar Night. It's the most wonderful night of the year. And remember, the only people who say the Oscars take themselves too seriously are generally people who take themselves too seriously.

In keeping with Michael Keaton's speech at the Independent Spirit Awards where he referenced Narcissus and his presence on the awards trail, the part of the traditional Oscar night Entire Bottle Of Wine will be played by a wine that shares my name.
5:32 PM (CST) - I'd planned on watching  Lady Gaga on DVR during "The Sound of Music" tribute. Then I found out Lady Gaga was singing as part of "The Sound of Music" tribute.

6:49 - The show hasn't started but several precincts are already reporting that Marion Cotillard has won the night for her "getting ready" selfie, one in which she's apparently fronting a fake electronica quartet that she really needs to turn into a real thing.

6:58 PM - On ABC Jess Cagle just announced that the Best Picture category will come down to "'Birdman' and 'Boyhood.'" Trenchant analysis.

The show begins......

7:30 - Neil Patrick Harris takes the stage and the very first star reaction shot goes to.....Nicole Kidman. Because duh.

7:31 - "Best and whitest."

7:35 - I confess, I really liked the opening song & dance number by Mr. Harris, with a crucial assist from an as-ever spirited Anna Kendrick. It cops to a belief in the phrase that grinches eating gruel despise and the Academy adores - Magic of the Movies - with equal parts earnestness and wonkiness, and then gets Jack Black out there to point out a few of the more significant flaws in the business model at the same time.

7:37 - N.P.H. stares down Oprah and doesn't blink an eye when she tries to blow off his joke. Respect.

7:39 - Best Supporting Actor. It's like 1984 Election Night in America and everyone that ain't J.K. is Mondale.

7:42 - True story: I watched "The Rewrite" on Saturday night and in it J.K. Simmons plays the dean of the Binghamton University English Department as a gruff if warm-hearted family man who can't help but tear up at absolutely any mention of his wife and kids. And then his entire Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech revolved around his wife and kids and the importance of parents. As a friend who watched with us texted my girlfriend as this was happening: "J.K. is his character in 'The Rewrite!'" And that speaks to Mr. Simmons' entire career - "Whiplash", "The Rewrite", anything, whatever, he always delivers. A consummate professional.

7:49 - Neil Patrick Harris made a Chris Kyle joke but tied it back to Harvey Weinstein which isn't offset by the "It's a requirement" addendum. We needed Chris Rock to tell the Chris Kyle joke. He would've gone there. You know where. And I say that as someone who liked "American Sniper."

7:58 - Best Costume Design. A friendly reminder that Cinema Romantico's Best Costume Design of the year goes to "Still Alice" for Kristen Stewart's Snoopy t-shirt.

8:01 - "The Grand Budapest Hotel" wins said award and so an ancient Oscar narrative emerges - it's winning all the "little" awards because it won't win the "big" award. Never mind that Costume Design and Makeup & Hairstyling is integral to whatever wins the "big" award but that doesn't fit the narrative so SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

8:03 - What is up with this Bellboy on stage schtick? Is this The Grand Budapest Hotel?

8:11 - "Ida" wins Best Foreign Language Film and director Pawel Pawlikowski gives my favorite acceptance speech of the night. "We made a film in black and white, about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation. And here we the epicenter of noise and world attention." And then he stared down the playoff music and won and kept speaking. Because maybe if they scrapped Adam Levine songs they could let these people talk a whopping thirty seconds longer. God, what a concept.

8:17 - I'm pretty sure Steve Carrell just dared Neil Patrick Harris to talk to Edward Norton and Harris didn't take it. And why would you? I'm 65% sure Edward Norton would have punched him in the face. Cheerily punched him in the face, but still.

8:29 - "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1" wins Best Documentary short and producer Dana Perry, speaking as the playoff music kicks in, mentions that her son, a veteran, committed suicide, automatically prompting the playoff music to cease (thank God someone behind the scenes has decency). An unspeakably affecting moment. A half-minute before you could see Internet memes firing up regarding her pom-pom dress and then she, bravely, took it to the most personal place imaginable. And then she leaves the stage and the camera goes to Neil Patrick Harris and he makes a joke about the dress and you know what? Perhaps (most likely) it was poor taste, but I don't even fault him. I think he was totally knocked for a loop and didn't know how to react. Maybe it would have thrown the entire telecast out of whack but screw it.....they should've just faded out and gone to commercial. No one should have been asked to try and follow up that moment.

8:33 - Harry Belaftonte: "After all, Paul Robeson said, 'Artists are the radical voice of civilization.'"

8:34 - Neil Patrick Harris talking about how things sound better in English accents. If that's your angle then, for God's sake, at least talk to Keira Knightley.

8:35 - "My friend Tim McGraw." Jesus effing Christ, Gwyneth. And I was still, like, one-seventieth on your side.

8:43 - All right. That Miles Teller reference in the "Birdman" homage was pretty damn good.

8:45 - Sienna Miller just took the stage to "Take My Breath Away." Am I suddenly conductor of the orchestra?

Cinema Romantico's Best Dress of the Night goes to Sienna Miller. Because this blog doesn't hide its biases.
8:48 - Best Sound Editing goes to "American Sniper", prompting the left to condemn the sound of said film as including "too many subtle whispers of American flags waving in the wind" and the right to praise the film for including "so many noticeable booms of 4th of July fireworks" to which the actual sound editors replied "what the hell are you idiots talking about? Did you even watch the movie?"

8:51 - Was every cameraman in the building purposely trying to keep Jared Leto off of theirs? Seriously, how did I not know Jared Leto was wearing that until now?

8:55 - Patricia Arquette's Best Supporting Actress coronation for "Boyhood" is complete. And then. She said a bad word, she put on her reading glasses and she unloaded. And you know what? Nothing I could say could communicate or express proper reverence for what she said. So here's what she said: "To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America." 

Shaking the world.
9:03 - Chole Grace Moretz quotes William Goldman, one of Hollywood's most legendary screenwriters, as a means to set up the Visual Effects. Which is, like, the most succinct summation of modern day movies ever. Writers set the table and then all the utensils and napkins get shoved aside to make way for the Visual Effects.

9:12 - That scream from who-knows-who from the cheap seats for the guys of "Big Hero 6" was so righteous.

9:18 - Anna Wintour sitting next to Harvey Weinsein. Which is ironic because Anna is the only one who could order a shivving against Harvey and get away with it. Each one is also actually more powerful than the President of the Academy, who's currently speaking.

9:20 - Neil Patrick Harris's ongoing schtick with Octavia Spencer has taken on the air of one of those David Letterman callbacks that he keeps hammering at specifically because he knows it's dead air. At I least, I think Harris knows it's dead air. Look close and you can start to see the flop sweat. That's what hosting the Academy Awards does to even the most charmingly composed man.


9:25 - Emmanuel Lubezki wins for Cinematography for "Birdman." The real question, however, is this: was Roger Deakins actually in the audience (this was, of course, his 63rd consecutive loss) or was he drunk at a bar in Cabo San Lucas.

9:37 - The Memorial Segment. 1.) Half of society doesn't understand why certain people weren't included. 2.) The producers decide to trot someone out there to sing a power ballad at the exact moment every rule of decorum and common sense stipulates you just fade to black. How does the Academy consistently screw up the one thing that should be utterly resistant to a screw-up?

9:46 - "How far would you go to help someone find the greatness in himself?" Wait, are we sure that's what "Whiplash" is about?

9:47 - God, to be Terrence Howard's PR rep on Monday morning... "Well, Terrence had a bad reaction to some sushi in the green room. Plus, he always gets emotional when he sees Oprah..."

9:52 - "Citizenfour" for Best Documentary. A supremely political moment somehow only feels like the fifth or sixth most incendiary moment of the night. But then the whole auditorium is pretty much under surveillance with or without the government. Hey-o!!!

10:02 - John Legend and Common and a no-nonsense, we're-in-it-to-win-it choir takes the stage to sing "Glory", the Best Original Song nominee from "Selma." It's incredible. It's majestic. It takes the whole damn room up the mountain. The amazing moments and meaning in this Academy Awards are, frankly, overwhelming N.P.H., and it's totally not his fault. What's he supposed to do other than give Oprah a bullhorn and let her take over?

10:04 - John Travolta brought out with Idina Menzel to atone for last year's Adele Dazim sin and somehow, through the grace of L. Ron Hubbard, only proceeds to make it even worse. Are he and Terrence Howard going out on the road together?

10:06 - After that performance, if "Glory" hadn't won for Best Original Song they would have needed to instantly conduct a fake recount and announce it as the winner.

10:16 - I love Lady Gaga as much as anyone. I have a picture of her (with Bruce Springsteen) on my refrigerator. But this "Sound of Music" moment is totally blunting the emotional impact of the previous few minutes......

10:19 - ......until Stefani Germanotta brings the effing house down again and then introduces Julie Andrews herself who somehow brings the effing house down in the midst of already being brought down. I can barely form coherent thoughts at this point. I mean, I'm sure the pre-eminent Internet trolls and professional contrarians and doubting Thomas's will roll their eyes but the hell with 'em - I love this Oscars!!! I do. I.Love.Them. Who needs more wine?


10:30 - Eddie Murphy to present the original screenwriting awards. Could he throw out an Afrim reference? Anyone? Anyone??? No one? No one. ("Because Afrim here is a damn fine screenwriter, as well as accountant and part time receptionist.")

10:32 - Birdman. Screenplay. Don't you want to imagine these four dudes holed up in a hotel writing that movie?

10:35 - "The Imitation Game" wins Best Adapted Screenplay. And look...I am on the record as possessing immense disdain for that screenplay, and I stand by it. I stand by it because it's the truth and I have to be honest. And because I have to be honest I have to say that Graham Moore's acceptance speech and his sudden admission that when he was sixteen he wanted to commit suicide floored me, moved me, made me reconsider all the snarky things I wanted to say in this space (and had literally typed). The Oscars for reasons that I both completely understand and totally can't grasp spark so much social media vitriol and yet......these Oscars. So many people spoke from their hearts. Be a pollyanna once in awhile. You'll feel better.

10:43 - "But the paradox is that true art, true individual expression," Alejandro González Iñárritu upon winning Best Director for "Birdman" says, "can’t be compared." Ha! Tell that to Twitter, Alejandro!!!

10:51 - Eddie Redmayne. Best Actor. "The Theory of Everything." Welp. "Birdman", it seems, is primed to sweep all the big awards......except for Michael Keaton as Best Actor. A friendly reminder that Hollywood really digs movies about themselves but actually prefers performances where actors play other people.

10:53 - To me, the 2014 Best Actress race has never more succinctly crystallized the Oscars. I wanted Marion Cotillard to win for "Two Days, One Night." Desperately. My favorite female performance of the year, and it wasn't close. I hooted and hollered - literally - when Matthew McConaughey drawled her name. But you know what? When Julianne Moore won for "Still Alice", like every human being who cares about the Oscars (or pretends not to care) knew she would, I still smiled and applauded and got emotional. And the standing ovation and slightly extended applause right there at the end told the whole story why - because she's Julianne fucking Moore. She's one of our greats, and has been for a long, long time. She deserved it. It was time. It was past time. Seeing her standing on that's where she belonged.

11:01 - At this point, no one wants to go to the Vanity Fair party as much as Octavia Spencer. "Why won't he stop talking to me?"

11:02 - Neil Patrick Harris, oddly, manages to trivialize a few of the evening's most significant highlights with his Oscar "predictions". God, didn't he have someone in the wings telling him "Seriously man, just it let it go."

11:03 - I hope that if anything other than "Boyhood" wins Best Picture that Matthew McConaughey crashes the stage to demand the victor hand over his Academy Award to Richard Linklater. "My righteous amigo, my fellow Texas troubadour, Rick Linklater, should be up here hoisting this little dude, this signifier of creative aptitude and taquerias of the soul. Give UP your Oscar, you imitators, you wannabe carpetbaggers, you assembly line manufacturers of hackneyed Hollywood claptrap, for genuine Lone Star art. Somebody, say amen!"

11:04 - "Birdman" takes Best Picture for 2014. And you know what? "Best", not the "best", whatever ("Land Ho!" anyone?), I think it's right. And I think it's right because the Best Picture is voted on by the Academy, and the Academy is the Movie Industry, and the Movie Industry goes back to that opening song & dance number where we view the movies through the gauzy filter of Neil Patrick Harris and Anna Kendrick even if we are aware of and admit to all the flaws pointed out by Jack Black. And even as the rest of us standing outside the Academy whine and moan and kvetch you know where we'll end up next year (this year)? Like Emma Stone at the end of "Birdman", looking up at the illusion, smiling, giving ourselves over to it, whether we like it or not. The movies always win.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Julianne Moore: A Kinda, Sorta, Something or Other Retrospective

When I think of Julianne Moore I think of her as Mia, the moody middle child who’s come home, mostly reluctantly, for Thanksgiving, as you do, in “The Myth of Fingerprints” (1997). She’s so emotionally sequestered, leaning on acerbic put-downs and mirthless facial expressions for communication, yet letting that armor subtly crack almost in spite of herself to reveal someone who somewhere lost something, whatever it was (unless it never existed [which is totally possible]). It’s my favorite performance in my third favorite film of all time. It means a ton. Rumor has it the moron writing this post once sat in the gazebo Ms. Moore sat in while filming said movie.


Rumor has is that Julianne Moore is set to earn her first Oscar this coming Sunday. And not just any old Oscar but the big kahuna – Best Actress – for her work in the admittedly schmaltzy “Still Alice.” Of course, because it’s admittedly schmaltzy what’s happened is that this prospective Oscar victory is already being applied with that most unfortunate of labels, the label that Chris Connelly gave it on The Grantland Oscar Preview, the label of Career Achievement.


When I think of Julianne Moore I think of her as Dr. Allison Reed in Ivan Reitman’s oh-right-I-forgot-that-existed “Evolution” (2001) even though she functioned less as a Movie Character than a Walking Female Stereotype. Or maybe that should be, a Tripping Female Stereotype, seeing as how she is a written as a woman who, in spite of her no doubt impressive resume, spends most of the movie stumbling, falling, dropping files, walking into sliding glass doors, and turning up not so much to “help save the day” as “fall in love with David Duchovny.” Yet in playing the role, Julianne Moore figuratively sighs, metaphorically shrugs, and attacks those tropes with vigor, walking into that sliding glass door like she really didn’t see it and telling Orlando Jones “you're so brave” like the dental assistant of the year. Rotten Tomatoes score be damned, she brought it.


Career achievement is really no different from Lifetime Achievement, but they already officially give out Lifetime Achievement statues at the Academy Awards, usually to people who should have won individual Oscars and didn’t (see: Lauren Bacall), and so the pop culture axiom is therefore amended to Career Achievement. The veiled meaning is that the precise performance for which the recipient officially earned the award wasn’t “award worthy”, per se, but that because the recipient has given so many “award worthy” performances over the course of his/her career, it’s “time” for him/her to win this one. That narrative's a favorite come Oscar Sunday. “We try to impose a narrative on everything where it doesn’t exist,” Ms. Moore once said in an interview with Lauren Waterman, “because we like narrative.”


When I think of Julianne Moore I think about how when this happened in the movie theater I didn't breathe for two minutes.


We do! We do like narrative! I like narrative! It’s why I have firmly (pathetically) held onto the narrative I formed a long time ago at an Academy Awards far, far away (read: the spring of 1998) that SHE deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her peerless work in “Boogie Nights” as an adult actress cum den mother, not Kim Basinger. And that's wholly unfair. That diminishes the work of Ms. Basinger. Hell, it diminishes their fellow nominees, the fiercely comic work of Joan Cusack in “In & Out” and the sumptuously charming work of Minnie Driver in “Good Will Hunting”. And it would totally diminish the work of Moore herself right here, right now in “Still Alice”, a performance that stands on its own just fine, thank you, and has nothing to do with rectifying one blogging moron's pre-Y2K grievance.


When I think of Julianne Moore I think of her in “Far From Heaven”, trapped in both Todd Haynes’ Eisenhower-era ecosphere and the mold of a 1950's housewife, a living, breathing Stepford Wife, like a woman who's in witness protection and doesn't know it. She can be such a relentlessly emotional actor, yet here it's all internalized because the society in which she's been immured stifles and free-thinking and when she starts have free thoughts she has no idea where they are supposed to go. It's the most buttoned-up emotional frenzy you ever did see, a face warmed by 1950's-era Technicolor that's iced over. You know how Niagara Falls looks right now in the midst of this Siberian Express? That's Moore.


Cinema Romantico’s had a few imbecilic moments over the years but one of the most imbecilic was smugly “re-evaulating” Julianne Moore's career a few years back, decrying a pattern, as I detected it, of, to paraphrase Ben Affleck as himself in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”, doing the art picture and then doing the safe picture, over and over, again and again. “The Hours” to “Laws of Attraction”, and so on. I was characterizing her as a certain kind of actress and to characterize her as a certain kind of actress was to designate her career as a particular thing.


Remember in “The Big Lebowski” when Julianne said “The little Lebowski urban achiever, yes, and proud we are of all of them”? Remember how she said it? That was awesome.


The term Career Achievement would seem to imply an accounting of each performance in a person's considerable career. Except that in the context of an Academy Award it merely works to diminish and dismiss the performance for which the recipient is claiming this award. This performance, the term is implying, does not matter as much as that performance, or that other performance, and in the face of these performances, all the rest of her performances don't much matter. And in the case of Julianne Moore that is ridiculous because in the case of Julianne Moore her career is only as deep and righteous as every last entry on her IMDB page. Writing yesterday on Grantland about the Best Actor race Mark Harris referred to Jeff Bridges' victory a few years back for Crazy Heart, “a win,” he said, “that represents appreciation for a performance that feels like a summary of all that’s good about an actor.” And that's a sentiment I can get behind so much more than Career Achievement, and especially when it comes to Julianne Moore because when it comes to Julianne Moore all that's good about her is, quite frankly, everything.


The late Robert Altman once said this: “People come to me about “Cookie's (Fortune)” and ask, “Did Julianne know what she was doing? Did she do that on purpose? What was that?" And I say, “Jesus, I don’t know. Sometimes I see it and I think that she really was getting back at her sister and other times I don’t. I don’t know." And they say, “How can you not know?” I say, “Well, how should I know?” 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

5 Moments That Made the Movies in 2014

A couple years ago my favorite film critic, David Thomson, put out a book titled “Moments That Made the Movies”, a compilation that focused, as you might surmise, on specific moments from specific films. In keeping with its spirit, the venerable web site Indiewire asked the incredibly esteemed Mr. Thomson to digress on the five moments that made the movies in 2013. It does not, however, appear that he took up the same task for 2014, which is where Cinema Romantico comes in.

To be sure, taking this torch from Mr. Thomson is an act of pure idiocy. I am essentially Nicholas Sparks to his Leo Tolstoy, and yet, like the fool I am, I must forge ahead, even as I suspect he’d look at my moments, his eyebrows raised quizzically, and query: “Those?”

5 Moments That Made the Movies in 2014

Morgan Freeman is legendarily a vocally resonant actor. He’s the go-to for voiceover gospel. He’s played the President, he’s played Nelson Mandela, he’s played God. Which is why when he’s prodded into stupefied stammering, you sit up and take notice. This occurs in “Lucy” when the titular character is getting all #science on him. The titular character is played by Scarlett Johansson. There is a lot of gobbledygook regarding Movie Stars these days; who they are, how they are defined, whether they exist. Well, put away your op-eds and, for God sakes, stuff a sock in those think pieces. Lauren Bacall became a Movie Star when she made the most cynical man in showbiz smile; Scarlett Johansson became a Movie Star when she turned the most melodious man in showbiz verbally inept.

“Somehow Doug feels that this stuff defines him.” That’s what the wife of Doug Brown, former chief engineer of the Deepwater Horizon, says in “The Great Invisible”, a riveting documentary chronicling the gulf oil spill. “The stuff” to which she refers is his Transocean and BP accouterments, kept in a box out in the garage that he has held onto since the 2010 disaster, even in the face of worker’s comp claims, post-traumatic stress and a suicide attempt. It’s revealed, in fact, terribly, that it was among these personal effects where he had planned on taking his own life. That which gives us life, threatens to snuff it out, an apt metaphor for the oil industry, and for this whole fucked up world.

It’s pretty much what you’d expect a foot chase in Wes Anderson Land to be – a gruff, affectation-afflicted Willem Dafoe ominously following a goateed Jeff Goldblum on a train through marvelous European locale that winds up at the Zwinger Museum in Dresden where the clip-clop of the each man’s respective shoes echoes across the screen. But then, when the chase concludes, a door closes on Goldblum’s hand, slicing off his fingers and staining the blood with snow. Those saying “The Grand Budapest Hotel” garnering so much Oscar nomination love when previous Anderson works had failed to move the Academy's needle are apparently missing the encroachment of reality - actual reality, however small the doses - on the auteur’s fussy, fantastical aesthetic, whether in the form of a Wes-ed version of WWII or, as in this blurb's example, legit violence. Those missing fingers might be remembered as the moment Wes Anderson stopped being twee and started getting real.

Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Mats (Kristofer Hivju) have spent a day on the slopes at a pristine Swedish ski resort. They relax in the sun with chalices of malted beverage. A lithe lady, several years their junior, approaches them and explains to Mats that her friend thinks Tomas is, like, the most handsome dude in the resort. Tomas struts his metaphorical feathers, never mind that he’s married with a couple kids. He’s a MAN. Then the lady re-approaches. She explains it was a mistake. She explains her friend meant some other guy was handsome. Mats, for reasons known only to the mind of dudes, takes offense and rises. An argument ensues. A guy approaches to calm things down. A shoving match breaks out. And all the while Tomas sits there, confused, defeated, emasculated. In that moment “Force Majeure” shatters the male ego so abruptly and enormously it makes five Goldman Sachs bros faint every time it screens.

Since the boy at the center of “Boyhood” was always going to have to reach the precipice of Manhood by the end we have known full well for the preceding two-and-a-half hours that this moment would arrive. By “this moment” I mean the moment when the boy, or Mason Jr.’s, mother, played by Patricia Arquette, would have to come to terms with her son standing at the precipice of Manhood, ready to go off on his own, represented by his departing for college. She sits at the table. She listens to him talk as teenagers boy do. She’s barely registering what he’s saying. We’re barely registering what he’s saying. LOOK AT HER! She breaks down crying. How can she not?! Her life is flashing before her eyes! Right here! At this table! All of it! And then she says the most terrifying thing, the thing that would have made Jack Torrance put down his axe and get misty-eyed, the thing that would have made a depressed Alien curl up for a long winter’s nap. She says: “I just thought there would be more.” If the film is a “gimmick”, as so many have claimed, then let them wait 'til the passage of time renders final judgement, as it surely will....then they'll see how gimmicky it is.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Film Location Awards

It’s been almost ten years since I arrived in Chicago and set off into the wilds of downtown for a job interview and emerged from the office building cozied up between a few much more towering edifices and looked up and did a double take and mentally gasped and internally cried: “OH MY GOD! THAT’S THE ‘ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING’ BUILDING! AM I GOING TO WORK NEXT TO THE ‘ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING’ BUILDING?!” For several years, I very much did, and as a zealot of the film de cinema, the rush never really dissipated for me.

Film locations, in other words, are all around me. Yet it’s not simply the “Adventures in Babysitting” building nor the Cameron Frye painting at the Art Institute (which totally has its own name, FYI) or the Jewelers Building where Batman stood aloft looking down over a twinkling Gotham that looked so much more dazzling than when it was Pittsburgh or that other city somewhere on the east coast. No, there are so many more, so many you might never suspect, so many that are so small but so crucial. Locations like the Black Rock, the bar just a couple blocks down from me where bits and pieces of “Drinking Buddies” was filmed, or The Double Door, where “High Fidelity” ended and where I was less than a week ago, or the St. Vincent de Paul Parish where Kelly Macdonald in my beloved “The Merry Gentleman” visited and which I pass by, oh, say, twice a month during my favorite walk in the city.

It was my friend and film blogger and/or filmmaker extraordinaire Alex Withrow of And So It Begins... who brought to my attention the existence of the Location Managers Guild of America (LMGA) and, even better, the LMGA Awards, scheduled this year on March 7 at The Wallis Beverly Hills. Film Location awards! Of course! It makes so much sense! Let’s say “Birdman” wins Best Picture. You will, whether consciously or not, remember the St. James Theater as much as the bird costume. Sure, you’ll remember the visual effects of “Interstellar” but also lingering in the back of your mind will be the locales of Alberta, Canada.

The LMGA recognizes Outstanding Feature Film and Outstanding Achievement By A Location Professional and Outstanding Film Commission and, heck, despite only having had an awards show for two years they have a Lifetime Achievement Award! The vaunted Eva Monley Award, bestowed last year upon Alexander Payne, no doubt for this. We here at Cinema Romantico felt there was no choice but to hop on the bandwagon.

1st Annual Cinema Romantico Film Location Awards

Night Moves. Aidan Sleeper, Location Manager. It’s not simply the radiant foliage of Oregon standing at attention throughout but the barn functioning as a sort of eco-friendly Studio 54 where club-hoppers drink out of mason jars and listen to fiddles as well as the bouts of pro-environmental pissed off poetry that director Kelly Reichardt captures whether in the fleeting image of apocalyptic timber or a white collar home with a fake waterfall in the backyard whose real-life owner must not have realized Ms. Reichardt employed it to give said owner the middle finger.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Chris-Teena Constas (Detroit). The Tangier locations as managed by Mohamed Benhmamane are spectacular in their own right, no doubt, but what Jarmusch’s vampire film does for the Motor City is beyond reproach, eliciting a vibrant apocalyptic air through its locales, a nostalgia that makes it seem like modern America’s version of a fallen Rome. Maybe the ruined Michigan Theater was an obvious choice, maybe not, but, God help me, that sequence’s romantic doom is taken up to eleven because of its setting.

Beneath the Harvest Sky. Josh LaJoie, Location Manager. Admittedly part of this stems from my own whimsy. Though “Beneath the Harvest Sky” was filmed in Maine’s Aroostook County, nudging up right alongside the Canadian border, its look and feel is nonetheless akin to the rural Midwest, and that always arouses fondness in my oft-homesick mentality. The opening shot features kids tossing rocks at a ramshackle water tower because what else do they have to do? That water tower is more beautiful than any iron latticework on the Champ de Mars.

Boyhood. Peter Atherton, Robbie Friedman, Steve White, Jose Luis Hernandez, Location Managers. For Antone’s alone. What other place could so perfectly capture a father's heart-to-heart with his son in advance of the son on the precipice of becoming “a man”?