Sunday, April 12, 2015

IN DEFENSE OF CINDERELLA


Disney is determined to capitalize on their princess franchise as much as possible these days. Indeed, their current cinematic output is looking more and more like the princess section of their Disney stores. This spring’s CINDERELLA had no less than the estimable Kenneth Branagh directing, and its strong reviews and box office have opened the door for more live action versions of Disney classics to come our way.

It makes sense that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is next on the docket for two big reasons. First, it’s based on what is one of Disney’s most prestigious animated efforts before associating with Pixar. It was so heralded it was even nominated for Best Picture back in 1991 when only five films made the list. And two, despite the success of the live action CINDERELLA, there has been an inordinate amount of backlash, so Disney likely feels compelled to present one of its most modern princesses for the post-FROZEN audience. 

Much has come under fire in this new version of CINDERELLA, from the slender appearance of lead Lily James’ waistline, to the story’s core conceit that the heroine needs to marry into money to escape her economic misfortunes. The latter is going to be inherent in any version of CINDERELLA and that's a fair criticism in this day and age. Still if this is a caricatured version of women, aren't superhero movies similar cartoon versions of manly men? Maybe we should go after DC or Marvel more, no?

Lily James in FAST GIRLS (2012)
Branagh stressed that there was no digital modification of James’ body in this film. Rather, she is a petite actress who happens to be in remarkably good shape, and the design of the dress accentuated the V of her figure. Also, Branagh said, lighting helped add more to her sleek physique.  

Critics shouldn't deride James for being fit however. She's played athletes on film and if you rent 2012’s FAST GIRLS you’ll see that slim waist of hers again playing a professional sprinter. No matter, James’ Cinderella shows a physical poise and strength throughout the film that should be lauded. She’s not a girly girl, wan and weak. She’s strong and agile, whether she’s taking care of her family and household, dancing at the ball, or riding a horse at full gallop.

Perhaps doing another version of CINDERELLA after the more progressive portrayal of princesses is a worthy criticism. This one is still an “old school” fairy tale in many ways, and shrinks compared to the feminism of FROZEN. Here indeed, a woman needs a rich man to rescue her, but the filmmakers at least do a good job of creating an environment where it's logical.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Branagh explain the dire economics faced by Ella (before she becomes 'Cinder-ella' for doing all the dirty work around the house), along with her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and step siblings (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). The death of breadwinner Father (Ben Chaplin) renders them without an income. It's hardly 2015, but that's the story. 

Beyond that though, this CINDERELLA has a lot in common with FROZEN or Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, starting with the way Cinderella is written by Weitz, directed by Branagh, and played by the assured and confident Lily James. She’s not a clichéd damsel in distress this time out, but rather a strong, smart, and courageous woman like the heroines from those more admired Disney movies.

Lily James as CINDERELLA, driven to a life of hard labor.
And James demonstrates the same positive and winning slyness whether she’s playing in scenes with men, women or against CGI mice. Isn't that feminist? There’s a maturity to James too that belies her 26 years of age. She’s got that British brevity to her, and her theater-trained grace and gravitas truly add heft to the movie’s motto of “Have courage and be kind.” This is a Cinderella whose hardships have been created for her by the economics of deceased parents and a stringent kingdom, but her pluck and perseverance will get her out of that abysmal state.

This movie doesn’t create a stereotyped prince either. Richard Madden’s Kit, which he prefers being called, is about as modern as a man can be in fairy tales. He’s humble, kind, sensitive, and actually treats Cinderella like his superior. He worries that he isn’t worthy of such a smart and capable woman. And he’s utterly embarrassed by his royal heritage, not wanting to be adored as a monarch, but rather, loved as a person. 

Derek Jacobi as the King and Richard Madden as Kit, the Prince.
He and Cinderella are kindred spirits this time out. They both struggle with domineering parents and want desperately to forge their own way in life. These are a lot of the same themes you'll find in THE HUNGER GAMES and the DIVERGENT series. It's appealing to teens and their justified fear that this world holds few opportunities for them regarding jobs and upward mobility. In that way, this Cinderella is very much a product of our times.

Screenwriter Weitz has always written great younger characters starting with his film ABOUT A BOY, which he also directed back in 2002. It had similar themes of teen outcasts struggling with parental control. And his heroine is certainly post-modern, laughing at her shortcomings and being as fun and feminine running around in flats as she is in glass stemware. 

Weitz also writes throughout with a nod to modernity. The Fairy Godmother (a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter) has an AB/FAB brusqueness to her that is anything but noble. And he creates plenty of dark-humored fun by having the animals turn into men that aren't fully human for Cinderella’s big night. The two lizards that become coachmen courtesy of the Fairy Godmother’s wand don’t lose their reptilian origins. Their skin keeps a greenish cast, and the tails of their coats swish back and forth suggesting their true appendages. These winks are cheeky and knowing and play well with the adults in the audience. Weitz has modernized the old tale as much as humanly possible.

Director Kenneth Branagh with his leading lady Lily James.
Branagh was an inspired choice to direct too as he’s always worked wonders making stories from yesteryear seem fresh.  Look what he did with HENRY V, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and HAMLET, let alone THOR. All that royal family drama between Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston could have been stoic and stuffy, but it was utterly relatable. Branagh does the same here.

He’s respectful and reverent to the fairy tale tropes, yet he doesn’t let the clichés bog down the fun. He keeps the pageantry from overwhelming the story. And the actors’ director gets marvelous performances from his entire cast. Royals like the King (Derek Jacobi), the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) and the Captain of the Guards (Nonzo Onosie) could have been mere stuffed shirts, but Branagh gets three-dimensional turns from all of them. Even comic Rob Brydon shines in a brief but hilarious cameo as an artist whose tongue paints more vivid pictures than any of his brushes.

Of course, top-billed Blanchett registers vividly, as one would expect, but we understand why her Stepmother feels such spite, and her villain is quite sympathetic. She’s a widowed woman with two children to support and that’s never easy in the best of times, let alone during those years that were practically Medieval. And Branagh ensures that her character’s pain registers in every word, gesture and longing look. He’s even gotten his splendid costume designer Sandy Powell to drape Blanchett in green, ensuring that she always wears her envy of a better life on her sleeve.

One could find more spectacle in the average episode of THE BACHELOR than there is here, and the episode where Farmer Chris took Jade on a “Cinderella date” was more sugary sweet than anything here. Not only does Branagh move through the showy ball scenes quickly and deftly, but he plays them more for humor than romantic idealism. When the pumpkin turns into the golden carriage, it’s played as a burgeoning obelisk, not a spiffy ride, as it nearly smothers Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother while transforming in the pumpkin patch.

Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother in CINDERELLA.
And Branagh doesn’t make too big a deal out of that glass slipper either. Kit knows who he’s looking for; the search for the right maiden's foot is mostly for his Kingsmen, who don’t know what she looks like. And when he finally places the shoe on Cinderella, it’s shot modestly. Even the beautiful score by Patrick Doyle doesn’t overdo the strings at that moment. 

Kit is a character who knows what he’s looking for, and he’s already found her, shoe or no shoe, at that juncture. Has any CINDERELLA ever made so little out of the story's big show-stopper? Doubtful. And yet underplaying the symbolism of the glass slippers is, dare I say, perfectly fitting to the tone and style of this much smarter than usual adaptation.

So why is there so much backlash online? The Cinderella story has been derided for years as being sexist, so what's new? The same criticism was levied at Hollywood’s versions that starred Julie Andrews, Lesley Anne Warren and Brandy, respectively, when they took on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The trouble lies in the dated story, but it’s let's cut it some slack. After all, it is a fairly tale. 

Or should we condemn any work that has an antiquated view of women, or portrays women as subservient figures in a male hierarchy? Should we then condemn Jane Austen for writing about women needing to marry to survive in the nineteenth century? Is it fair game to slander feminist icon Gloria Steinem for choosing to play up her curves as a Playboy bunny to study men? Should something like “Dancing with the Stars” be taken off the air for the revealing outfits that showcase Peta Murgatroyd’s thighs or Kym Johnson’s toned stomach? Sometimes, critiques can go a bit too far.


It certainly is fair for critics and audiences to expect fairer presentations of female leads in movies than something as overdone as the saga of Cinderella. But can’t we applaud this new version of that heroine who equals the Prince in every way accept economically? Can we not admire its portrayal of a young person whose life approach promotes courage and kindness? And while she’s attractive, isn't the fact that this movie makes more of Cinderella’s inner beauty worthy of great praise? 


Let’s remember as well that for all of their strengths, FROZEN traded on cliched issues of frigidity, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST had a heroine named for her looks. Branagh, Weitz, James and team have done wonders with CINDERELLA and it doesn’t deserve its berating. At least Cinderella never gives up her voice to land a prince like Ariel did in THE LITTLE MERMAID. Let’s see how Disney gets out of that one when they attempt a live action version of it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A GREAT HORROR MOVIE THAT WILL STAY WITH YOU? "IT FOLLOWS".

Maika Monroe in a rare moment of solitude and solace in IT FOLLOWS.
The distributors of IT FOLLOWS missed their opportunity to open the heralded horror film wide two weeks ago after a nationwide PR blitz and sterling reviews across the board. Instead, only New York and Los Angeles got to see the movie as it opened on all of four screens in those two cities. However, distributor Radius-TWC brokered a deal based on those strong reviews that enabled the film to open on 1,200 screens March 27,  just two weeks later. That’s exciting news for horror fans nationwide as this thriller is an absolute must-see.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created a truly special frightener. It’s exceedingly scary, but in a fun way. There’s nothing here that will make anyone wince or cover their eyes, so it’s that rare horror movie that should be just as appealing to non-aficionados as well. Instead, what he’s delivered is a tense, exciting entertainment with just enough subtext about the dangers of casual sex to make you think while you scream and laugh.

Mitchell’s story focuses on Jay (Maika Monroe), a comely and self-aware young college student who knows she’s pretty but wants a deeper connection with a boy than just those surface trappings. She’s dating a guy who fits that bill named Hugh (Jake Weary). He seems to have a good mix of sexy and sensitive, and Jay’s more than willing to keep their relationship progressing towards the inevitable sexual acts. On their third date together, he sees a woman coming towards them in a movie theater and suddenly claims illness, so they leave. Jay doesn't see what he's seen, but let's it go, and his brooding afterwards leads her to believe he's being soulful. She gives in to his charms and trysts with him in the backseat of his car. 


Afterwards, as she muses about what she’d like from life, she gets something that only her worst nightmares could conjure. Hugh incapacitates her with chloroform and when she wakes, Jay is tied to a wheelchair, half clothed, and parked in an abandoned apartment complex. Hugh shows up and explains to her that their sexual intercourse has passed on a curse. An entity will now come after her, at a walking pace, in the guise of people, one that others will not be able to see. If the entity catches her, it will kill her. The only way to stop it is to have sex with another person and pass the virus onto the next victim. (And you thought the idea of getting herpes or AIDS from a partner was disturbing enough. Yikes!)

Indeed, Mitchell is equating casual sex with danger, just as many filmmakers have before. This is well worn terrain in horror and many thrillers have traded on the idea of STD’s as monster metaphors. Films from David Cronenberg’s RABID in 1977 to Eric England’s CONTRACTED in 2013 have mined that rich field. Mitchell however, cultivates the land without the usual body dilapidation. Rather, he  turns his 'STD', if you will, into THE TERMINATOR or something akin to the alien from 1987's cult classic THE HIDDEN. His entity is a sexually transmitted one that takes any human form and is relentless as hell. It keeps popping up when you least expect it or want to see it. 

Hugh (Jake Weary) shows Jay (Maika Monroe) what's in store for her now that they've had sex in IT FOLLOWS.
And while the urgency of this entity is fairly pragmatic in its pursuit,  especially since it's able to break down doors and travel great distances, the real horror here is in those moments when it lies dormant. When Jay is not in immediate danger, that is when the film is at its most fiendishly clever. Waiting for the entity is just as scary as when it's onscreen. And it's a great credit to Mitchell that he can fill the downtime with such incredible dread. 

Jay is no passive horror heroine though, which is very unique and refreshing for the genre as well. She tells her close circle of friends what is going on immediately, and equally impressive is how Mitchell has them all believe her right away. He doesn't waste time on 'Doubting Thomas' that so often plague horror. Yet even with her great support system, they’re all at a humongous disadvantage confronting the entity because none of them can gauge exactly when and how it will be coming. 

When Jay was strapped to that wheelchair by Hugh, they could both see the entity because they’d had sex together. But now only Jay can see it and she sure as hell doesn’t want to pass it on to some poor sap just so another can share in her hell. Thus, thwarting it becomes quite the Herculean task for her and her comrades. 

And the entity is nothing if not inconsistent. It takes many forms. The first version of it that she saw with Hugh took the form of a nude young woman, but the first time Jay sees it alone, the entity comes towards her in the form of an elderly woman. And what's so fiendishly clever about the entity is that Jay, along with the audience, is expecting that nude girl, so when the old bag starts making her beeline for Jay, it takes a while for her to register. 

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell
Mitchell finds many ways to make the entity's walking towards Jay into sheer terror,  and still cheekily humorous as well. The entity can be old, young, male, female...it can even look like a friend. 

When Jay and her friends go to Hugh’s school to confront him, Mitchell circles his camera around the student population. Dozens of kids cross back and forth in the frame. Are any of them the entity? We can’t be sure anymore than Jay. But then, in the background, one student starts walking directly towards the camera, and us, and it is utterly unnerving. 

Jay will try to outrun the darn thing, even drive as far away as she can get from it, but it will find her. Ultimately, she’s faced with the inevitable need to rid herself of it by having sex with someone else. But even that comes with a hitch. If the new partner/victim doesn't pass it on in time, the entity will find them and kill them. Then, the entity returns to the giver. It's like a boomerang from hell!

While the story and set pieces are filled with oodles of cleverness and intricacy, the characters aren’t quite as developed. Teens in horror often aren't, and sometimes a great premise can overcome such shortcomings, and they do here, by and large. The cast does fine with their underwritten roles, and Monroe plays her cool blonde part very well and keeping the blitheness of youth around the edges, despite the horrors chasing her. 

The real stars are some of the technicians on hand. In addition to Mitchell's virtuoso direction, the camera work by Mike Giouliakis is superb. His eerie tracking shots and full framed compositions are amazing throughout.  Julio  Perez IV's edits every scene for maximum tension and story thrust. And this film has one of the best horror scores done in quite some time. The music by Disasterpeace is both sensual and unnerving, a lot like sex can be actually, with a great synthesized 80's vibe to it. It conjures up the likes of John Carpenter's scores for HALLOWEEN and THE FOG, as well as the electronic allure that Nicholas Winding Refn gave to everything in his thriller DRIVE back in 2011.

Mitchell is such an assured director, with his masterful sense of pacing, tone, tension and showmanship, that his name can be spoken in the same breath with Hitchcock and Spielberg. In fact, his helming is so terrific that it upstages his writing. His third act's plotting is plagued by some unfortunate story problems that surprisingly contradict much of what he established in the first two-thirds. You can see the script straining  to keep the surprises bigger, but too many of them are illogical and inconsistent.

His script establishes that those involved in the sex act are the only ones who can see the entity, but then suddenly he lets others see it all too readily towards the end, even allowing for sheets to be tossed onto it where it becomes a physical form that all can see. Such a change in the story doesn't make sense and it makes the entity seems smaller and less threatening. And it seems to break the rules already established. 

And Mitchell's story suddenly allows for a well-placed punch or a bullet to be able to stop the entity in that final third. Why? If it's a demon or supernatural, that shouldn't occur. It seems like something from a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, and not worthy of this sophisticated entertainment.

Plus, why would Mitchell go out of his way to painstakingly show how these kids cleverly keep the authorities at bay, only to have one show up dead and another get clipped by a stray bullet, which would surely lead to them being held for questioning by the police?

Such flaws in the final act keep IT FOLLOWS from masterpiece status. Nonetheless, it is still exceptional filmmaking and should delight audiences everywhere. The film will yield a ready-made franchise as well because the entity can continue to be transferred to all sorts of unsuspecting 'sexual sinners'. 

Originally, this indie was slated to open on VOD at the same time as its nationwide launch. The small screen opportunity has now been delayed to try and yield more box office bucks on the big screen. That's a shame since SNOWPIERCER proved last year that audiences will seek out good movies in both places. And there are plenty of profits to be made simultaneously. 

As scary as IT FOLLOWS is in working up an audience, what’s almost as disturbing is how releases too often restrict their potential audiences. One would think with the incredible ROI for SNOWPIERCER and THE INTERVIEW in the past 8 months, releases would be launched with as wide an audience as possible. Particularly for small-budgeted, intimate horror films such as this one. Alas, such logic doesn't always follow. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

THE LETHAL COMBINATION OF HORROR & SEX


The new horror movie IT FOLLOWS opened in LA and NY this weekend and has been getting a lot of press for its theme of a supernatural entity that acts as a sexually transmitted disease. Still, the buzzy film didn’t open except on the coasts this week. The rest of us get it in two weeks.  In this day and age of VOD and mass marketing, let alone the timeliness of everything social on the web, it seems silly to this film fan that a sure moneymaker like a horror film isn't opening broader. 

However, IT FOLLOWS is not the first horror movie to serve up STD metaphors. In fact, here are five classics that did, and you can catch them on DVD and streaming platforms today.


STARRY EYES (2014)

In this body transformation shocker by directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the wonderfully nuanced Alex Essoe plays Sarah, a young actress in Hollywood who’s desperation to succeed is greater than her talent. She succumbs to the casting couch and soon her sexual tryst starts eating at her, literally and figuratively. As her body starts rotting so does her morality. She becomes homicidal, leaving a path of destruction in her wake as she rises to her true calling, that as high priestess in the satanic cult behind her sexual demolition.


CONTRACTED (2013)

Eric England’s indie also savaged the land of La-La with its tale of a young woman searching for connection and a better sense of herself in a town preoccupied with self-absorption. She has sex with a stranger at a party and soon lives to regret the intimate act, as a rabid STD seems to have come with it. Slowly but surely, her body starts to betray her. Her skin, teeth and irises all become discolored and moldy, yet no one really notices because the town’s inhabitants are too caught up in their own dramas. Najarra Townsend gives a subtly distraught performance as the self-deceiving Samantha, whose pride prohibits her from seeking treatment. Hubris is the real contagion here.


SPECIES (1995)

At the height of the era of AIDS, this 1995 creature feature certainly was symbolic of that devastating STD. An alien life form, that scientists merged with human DNA, becomes a comely woman (Natasha Henstridge). She escapes and searches for a human male to mate with to carry on her species. The tony team of actors chasing after her in this fun thriller by Roger Donaldson include Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Alfred Molina, Marg Helgenberger and Michael Madsen. Casting an utter knockout like newcomer Henstridge helped ensure her numerous nude scenes were both titillating and terrifying. SPECIES proves that even if sex looks good on the outside, you never really know what's going on in the inside of your lover. Scary thought, eh?


CAT PEOPLE (1982)

Back in the 80’s, when Nastassia Kinski was the hottest German import since the BMW, she starred in Paul Shrader’s remake of  CAT PEOPLE. This horror movie was a more explicit remake of the wonderful original starring Simone Simon. Kinski is nude in scene after scene, and she's truly alluring as Irena. Her sexuality is so potent, after orgasm, she  turns into a panther and eats her mate.  The man-eating metaphor is a bit obvious here, but the lauded likes of Malcolm McDowell, John Heard and Annette O’Toole help keep this grounded. It also boasts a wonderfully tense and pulsing score by Giorgio Moroder. All this makes CAT PEOPLE one of the Reagan era's horror gems. 


RABID (1977)

David Cronenberg has always used horror to brush up against sexual issues, as films like THE FLY (1986) and DEAD RINGERS (1988) can attest. But as early as 1977, he was pushing the juxtaposition of sex and disease in his cult classic RABID. To ensure that no one missed his point, he cast adult film star Marilyn Chambers as his lead. She plays a young woman who undergoes experimental plastic surgery that leaves her hungry for human blood. Everyone she attacks and infects turns into a bloodthirsty zombie. Dare one say, Chambers oozed sexuality in her body language and saucy facial expressions, and her provocative persona added to the allure of her out-of-control heroine. But she also aced the parts requiring her to be horrified and horrid.  

So, until IT FOLLOWS makes it to your Cineplex, there are plenty of notable films with similar themes, that can be (ahem) transmitted to film fans like you. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

THE IMPORTANCE OF SPOCK AND THE LEGACY OF LEONARD NIMOY

Original caricature of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from the TV series STAR TREK done by Jeff York in 1990.
(Yes, that long ago.)
A legend has truly passed with Leonard Nimoy dying this past week at the age of 83. His Spock character was one of the truly great characters to come out of the world of Hollywood entertainment, going from TV cult hero to movie franchise stalwart. And at every turn that he played him, Nimoy made the character endlessly fascinating.

Spock, despite playing second banana to Captain Kirk, was the breakout character of the STAR TREK television series almost as soon as it debuted on NBC in the fall of 1966. Nimoy became a phenomenon, and a cult figure, all because of his portrayal of the complicated half-human, half-Vulcan character who was the chief alien in the famed science fiction series.

Nimoy was so good and his character such a big deal, that he garnered three Emmy nominations in each of the show’s three seasons, and was the only actor to be recognized for the series. The success of the character launched Nimoy into huge international fame and it led to a heralded stint on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE after STAR TREK ended, a recording career, roles on Broadway in big plays like EQUUS, the opportunity to direct movies, and of course, the legendary STAR TREK movie franchise.

Spock and Nimoy became so inextricably linked, that even when J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise on the big screen in 2009, he felt the need to bring back Nimoy, even though he had his newly cast Spock in Zachary Quinto. (Funny, but Abrams still didn’t have enough confidence to let his new cast stand on its own as he brought back the original Spock for a cameo yet again in 2013’s STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.)

The Spock character had many standout episodes during the original series' 1966-1969 run. “Amok Time” surely is one of them, as Nimoy got to portray a different side of his logical and cool character – that of the Vulcan in heat. Nimoy did incredible work in dramatic episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever”, “Shore Leave”, “Mirror, Mirror” and “Journey to Babel”, but he also excelled in the more comedic ones. His witty flair made Spock delightfully droll in episodes like “A Piece of the Action” and “Mudd’s Women”. Spock may have only run the emotional gamut from A to D, but those four letters were incredible in the hands of Nimoy.

Part of what made Spock so intriguing, and appealing to play for Nimoy, was the fact that the character was always trying to suppress his human side. At times he was a virtual computer, spouting facts and figures with a dry delivery that HAL 2000 would envy. But Spock was only half Vulcan, and the race that eliminated overt emotionality from their psyches could not always prevail on Spock. He was half human of course, and that always made him, as Kirk put so eloquently in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN,  the most human of souls.

And indeed, as great as all the TV episodes were, and even the other films often were, it is that legendary second film where Nimoy and his character became as ginormous on the big screen as Spock was on the small one. (For those of you who’ve never seen the second and best STAR TREK film, spoiler alerts will now be coming at warp speed.) Why did Spock become so fabled in THE WRATH OF KHAN? Quite simply, because he dies. Heroically. Tragically. His sacrifice for the needs of the many proves fatal and he dies as his captain and best friend Jim looks on. 

When I saw that incredible movie back in 1982, and watched Spock die, it felt like a family member had passed. His death had to happen in the incredibly smart story, but it still was a gut-wrenching punch to everyone. It carried so much weight because Spock was so beloved by so many.  
  
People sometimes forget this, but the original series was incredibly political. Gene Roddenberry ensured his show continued in the vein of Rod Serling's TWILIGHT ZONE by making sure that his science fiction was really about the times he lived in. That's why the stories on STAR TREK echoed issues like the Civil Rights movement, women's rights, even gay rights. The show dealt with themes of  prejudice, ecology, anthropology and psychology, just like the world was dealing with in that turbulent decade. STAR TREK commented on socialism, fascism, communism and totalitarianism. And Spock represented anyone and everyone who was discriminated against for being different. 

It's shocking to see just how badly Spock was continually bullied on the show, being called a "freak" constantly by his enemies and even by friends. (Shame on you, Dr. McCoy.) Spock represented the foreigner, the different one, the other. He represented the black man in America, and all others who weren't treated as equals yet by the majority of the population. Women, the handicapped, immigrants, homosexuals, lesbians, Muslims, atheists, you name it - Spock stood in, and up, for all of them.

STAR TREK was also incredibly hopeful about getting past such prejudices and trauma. This was a science fiction show that didn't subscribe to the doomsday warnings of sci-fi like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and such. STAR TREK believed in a better tomorrow. A future where the folks on the bridge of the ship came in all colors, sexes and sizes. The show portrayed a mankind that got past the threat of nuclear proliferation. It showed a united world - the Federation - going out into the galaxy to explore strange new worlds and welcome others into the fold. And Spock became a symbol of that more tolerant world, of a more global community where all kinds of different people could be accepted and yes, loved.


Thank you Leonard Nimoy, and your singular character, for all that. You helped teach us to look to the stars and be bold and prosper.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

OSCAR'S 2015 TELECAST WAS THE MOST POLITICAL IN AGES

Common and John Legend win the Oscar for Best Song for "Glory" from SELMA

As Graham Moore accepted his Oscar for penning THE IMITATION GAME, he implored those watching the 87th Oscars to stay weird and different, knowing that those who strive for something unique are the ones who create art. They might have been the best words spoken on the telecast, and in their own way they even fit the Oscars telecast. The show was indeed weird as it always is, a blend of class and crass. Yet this year it was also quite different as it was the most political it had been in years. 

For weeks, the 87th Annual Oscars promised to be two things: one, a contest between BIRDMAN and BOYHOOD, and two, a superb entertainment based on having emcee extraordinaire Neil Patrick Harris host the ceremony. Instead, BIRDMAN took four Oscars while BOYHOOD only got one. And NPH wasn’t nearly the inspired host that he had demonstrated numerous times at the Tony Awards. Perhaps the only certain prediction about the Oscars is that they will always be hard to pin down.

Oddly, the films that seemed to give BIRDMAN more of a run for its money turned out to be THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and WHIPLASH. The former won just as many Oscars as BIRDMAN, taking the gold for Best Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, and Makeup & Hairstyling. And the latter certainly surprised many by going three for five in the categories it was nominated in, snagging Best Supporting Actor JK Simmons, as well as Best Sound Mixing and Best Editing.

Most of the rest of the wins were easy to predict. The majority of pundits forecast victories for leads Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) and Julianne Moore (STILL ALICE). Best Song went to “Glory” from SELMA. And even the shorts went the way most figured they would with FEAST, THE PHONE CALL, and CRISIS HOTLINE: VETERANS PRESS 1 prevailing.

What made this year’s Oscars truly different was how many people got their ‘cause on’ in their speeches. Granted, John Legend and Common have expressed disdain for Civil Rights legislation being walked back in several states when their SELMAN song has won, but who expected Arquette to talk about equal pay for women in her speech? Did anyone think that Alejandro Inarritu would touch upon the problems with Mexico’s government in his Best Picture acceptance speech?

Redmayne dedicated his victory to victims of ALS, and Moore spoke eloquently about Alzheimer’s, but even the expected politics that came with the CITIZEN FOUR win for Best Documentary were done with even stronger words than had been used at previous awards ceremonies. It was a very serious and issue-oriented Oscars as evidenced by so many of the acceptance speeches. Quite different from most telecasts of late, and welcome, as well as appropriate, in a film year that had a lot of strongly messaged movies.

And such gravitas only made NPH’s wisecracks appear even more amateurish and inappropriate. Cracking a lame treason joke at the expense of Edward Snowden seemed disrespectful after the documentary victory. Making dress jokes about the two female filmmakers who won for CRISIS HOTLINE seemed sexist and tin-eared. And his whole bit about forcing Octavia Spencer and Robert Duvall to watch his predictions under lock and key was long and weird, maybe eve sexist and ageist. Harris’ constant smug laughing at his lame jokes didn’t help matters either.  

Many thought he’d be the next Billy Crystal, asked back again and again, but I think the Academy might want to look elsewhere for someone who gets the need for the Oscars to have a bit more reverence mixed in with the irreverent. The show has to walk that line between being fun and funny while still showing respect for the fact that this is Hollywood’s biggest night and the audience is worldwide. Opening with a joke about “Hollywood’s best and whitest” set a strange tone for a show that’s supposed to celebrate the nominees, not linger on the omitted.

Surprisingly, there was little controversy with AMERICAN SNIPER at the Oscars. Despite it being a hot button issue for both the left and the right these past months, its one Oscar victory (for Sound Editing) contained nothing polarizing about it at all. The winners thanked director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper mostly, with little about Chris Kyle or the Iraq War in their acceptance speech.

Actually, the most shrewdly calculated political movement occurred organically during the show. Many winners refused to be played off by the band, instead opting to keep on talking until the intrusive instruments stopped badgering them altogether. The show is always going to run long anyway, so why is the technical director signaling for the conductor to be so rude? Let the winners have their time in the sun and say what they want, political or not. 

If only Harris had made more hay out of that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

HOW TO WIN YOUR OSCAR POOL

Original caricature of "The March to Oscar 2015" by Jeff York (copyright 2015)
The Academy Awards are just five days away, and for the first time in many years, there are a number of genuine contests that make it an incredibly difficult year to be certain on what to predict. Starting at the top with Best Picture, many of the categories are simply too close to call. But at least such uncertainty should make for a suspenseful show this Sunday night.

Up until the guild awards, the Oscar telecast looked like it was going to be a sweep for Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOOD. His personal film about a boy’s life, from age six to eighteen, was favored to take Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Editing. However, most of that changed once the Producers Guild honored BIRDMAN as the production of the year. Then the Screen Actors Guild gave their Best Ensemble Award to Michael Keaton and company. And finally, the Directors Guild overlooked Linklater in favor of Alejandro Inarritu and his tale about an actor’s troupe.

Those are the two reasons that BIRDMAN now may ultimately prevail at the Oscars. Not only has it swept the three major guild awards but its topic is near and dear to Hollywood’s heart. Navel gazing is a national pastime in Tinsel Town, and actors make up the largest voting block too, so all that bodes well for Inarritu’s film. Look no further than how the Academy has voted two of the last three years for Best Picture. THE ARTIST and ARGO, both show biz tales, took top prize.

In order to make educated guesses while filling out your Oscar pool ballot, it’s wise to keep such history in mind. It’s all a guessing game anyway, of course, but if you use your head more than your heart, you will likely be more right than wrong.

There are two other factors to keep in mind when predicting your winners. First, the Academy usually chooses prestige over commerciality, so that means films that have a historical significance or a certain perception of class to them, likely will prevail. It’s maybe why NIGHTCRAWLER didn’t get as many nominations (Picture, Actor, Cinematography) as it was expected to receive. The story of a sleazy, tabloid journalist may just have been too unsavory for the high-minded Oscar voter.

The other factor to keep in mind when making your predictions is that while composers nominate composers, and production designers nominate production designers, everyone votes on the final ballot. That means an awful lot of voters are voting for categories that they know very little about. Musicians may recognize that Alexandre Desplat’s score for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a stunningly complex work and is vital, dare I say instrumental, to that film’s success, but special effects guys don't recognize that. They're not music experts. So they may vote for a film with a more obvious score, even the one with the loudest music. (Yes, I’m referring to the score for INTERSTELLAR.) Their palates just aren't going to be as sophisticated. 

So with all that in mind, here are what I believe to be the most rational predictions for this year’s Academy Awards.

 Best Picture – BIRDMAN

BOYHOOD still could triumph, but that likelihood seems in tatters after those guild awards. Even though it was the odds on favorite for months, and recently won the top prize at the BAFTA awards, the momentum here in America seems to be with BIRDMAN.

Best Director – Alejandro Inarritu BIRDMAN

It’s rare that Picture and Director fail to go hand-in-hand. Granted, these top two races are neck and neck between BOYHOOD and BIRDMAN, but Inarritu definitely is the favorite after the DGA.

Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Even though it appears BIRDMAN has the big mo, why isn’t Keaton a shoo-in for Best Actor? Because Redmayne has come on strong in the last months, winning at the Golden Globes, SAG and the BAFTA’s. Remember too that voters elect acting that they can see, and it doesn’t get more apparent than when an actor plays someone with a handicap. Thus, newbie Redmayne will likely squeak by the veteran Keaton.

Best Actress – Julianne Moore STILL ALICE

Sunday should finally be Moore’s night. She’s been nominated four times before without a win, and this actor’s actor is due. She’s also swept most of the important awards, and she’s playing someone with a handicap, in this case – Alzheimer’s. The Academy will not forget to award her this time.  

Best Supporting Actor – JK Simmons WHIPLASH

The surest bet of the night is veteran character actor Simmons for his triumphant work in WHIPLASH. He’d win it in a competitive year, but the supporting actor field is exceptionally weak this go-round, and Simmons has dominated the critics’ awards. Plus, what actor wouldn’t want to honor a guy who’s paid his dues for decades, remained largely unheralded until now, and has charmed everyone at each ceremony with his humbleness and wit?  

Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette BOYHOOD

She too has swept all the awards. And she’s great in the film. And it’s almost a leading role. All that will help make her the inevitable choice.

Best Original Screenplay – THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Wes Anderson’s film got nine nods and everyone, young and old, loved it. It also was the biggest indie hit of 2014 and such statistics make it the fave in a lot of technical categories and this big one. Anderson even trumped Linklater at BAFTA for their screenplay prize. This sleeper comedy could be a surprise upset in Best Picture, but it’s the favorite for its screenplay, even though this category is chock full of good nominees and remains a fairly competitive one for the night.

Best Adapted Screenplay – THE IMITATION GAME

The year’s best-adapted script wasn’t even nominated this year. That would be Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, but since that isn’t in the running, the award will likely go to THE IMITATION GAME. That’s based on it winning some big awards in the last month, including Best Adapted Screenplay at the Writers Guild of America awards last weekend. It also has that gleam of history to it, and that always helps in the writing categories.

Best Cinematography – BIRDMAN

Its virtuoso trick of seeming to be one, endless shot is the kind of gimmicky photography that even a sound engineer can see and appreciate. And that’s not to say that it isn’t worth heralding. It’s key to the story as it blends the real world of the Keaton character with his fantasy one.  

Best Editing – BOYHOOD

WHIPLASH and AMERICAN SNIPER both created incredible tension with their expert editing, but BOYHOOD will likely beat them, as its challenge was to edit down 12 years of filmmaking into one, cogent two-hour film. It succeeded spectacularly at doing so.  

Best Production Design – THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

The fact that the hotel is a main character in the film and its candy-colored designs are so integral to the movie’s comedy and whimsy gives Anderson’s fable an advantage over its competitors.

Best Costume Design – THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Its period clothing tells an incredible story about each character. And this movie has been cleaning up in categories like this, production design and makeup all awards season, so expect that below-the-line streak to continue through Oscar night.

Best Hairstyling and Makeup – FOXCATCHER

This category could go any of the three ways with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY being superb competitors. Still, I'm guessing FOXCATCHER here. All three of its lead actors (Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) were rendered unrecognizable by their extraordinary makeup. Such noticeable achievements should be easy for that sound guy to notice and vote for, right? 

Best Original Score – THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

The more sophisticated score is the aforementioned one for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, but the Stephen Hawking bio’s music was emotional and helped open voters’ tear ducts. (You notice such things when you’re sobbing.) Thus, it will move Academy members to vote for it, just as it did with the Hollywood Foreign Press for the Golden Globes, and many other contests this awards season.

Best Visual Effects – INTERSTELLAR

The Oscar here should go to DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, but INTERSTELLAR is more of a prestigious choice. Plus, the old school green screen utilized here plays with a lot of voters who fear losing work to CGI enough already.

Best Sound Editing – AMERICAN SNIPER

Films shot outside, and in difficult locations, often prevail in the sound categories. So do action movies. This has all that going for it, and it's a huge box office hit that so many voters have seen in theaters where they can appreciate the full effect of its great sound editing. 

Best Sound Mixing – AMERICAN SNIPER

It should be WHIPLASH for its sophisticated blending of all the levels of music it mixed, but AMERICAN SNIPER had obvious noise and outdoor challenges that even the most unlearned voter should be able to sense.

Best Original Song – SELMA

It was an egregious shame that this stellar film only received two Oscar nominations. It won’t win Best Picture, but its consolation prize will have to be Best Song. And it’s a very good one too. It’s also got all the momentum having been performed at the Grammys two weeks ago, and scooping up a lot of awards in the last two months.

Best Animated Feature – HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

For the first time in years, this category is competitive too. It could go a number of ways here, but the Dreamworks sequel has been winning most of the awards lately, and it just swept the Annie’s, Hollywood’s animation awards. Look for it to win here too.

Best Foreign Language Film – IDA

Poland's IDA was the best foreign film of the year and even scored a deserved cinematography nod. Plus, it’s about the Holocaust, which is always catnip for Academy voters.

Best Documentary – CITIZEN FOUR

LIFE ITSELF, the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, would’ve given the Edward Snowden story a run for its money if it were nominated. It wasn’t, and the path is clear for the edgy and important story about whistleblowing to prevail.

Best Documentary Short – CRISIS HOTLINE: VETERANS PRESS 1

Ah, the shorts. They’re usually very difficult to predict, but since they’ve become open to more voting members, they have generally followed the trend of honoring those that most people have seen. This one is been very popular and it’s wonderful too. It also couldn’t be timelier, as the problem of veterans care is a national topic, if not shame. The award here will shine even more light on the problems.

Best Live Action Short – THE PHONE CALL

Again, here’s another tough category to call, with BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM being worthy of the win, as well as AYA. But the smart money is on the sensitively rendered two-hander between a timid crisis hotline operator and a man who just overdosed on anti-depressants in his bid to commit suicide. The fact that it stars British stalwarts Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent only helps its case further.

Best Animated Short – FEAST

Disney’s delightful short about a hungry dog could easily win it outright. The fact that more voters will have seen it due to it proceeding BIG HERO 6 in theaters only creates more of an air of inevitability.

Those are my best guesses for the 24 Academy categories, based on data, trends and tea leaves. Who do you think will win?