Wednesday, March 05, 2014
The one film that he directed was Jack Goes Boating, released in 2010. It also stars Hoffman in the title role, a sad sack limo driver who embarks on a tentative romance with another sad sack (Amy Ryan) while the relationship between his best friend and his wife fall apart.
Hoffman, in many of the eulogies in print on on the Web, was proclaimed the greatest actor of his generation, which I think is a bit of hyperbole, especially since I didn't hear much of that while he was alive. In the last few years he branched out, but for much of his career he played a similar kind of role, perhaps because of his body type. He was frequently the slumping slacker type, a victim of the unmerciful universe. When it came time to direct a film, he gave himself perhaps the ultimate of this type, as Jack is a guy who doesn't seem to have much going on for himself.
The film, adapted from a play by Bob Gaudini, does give Jack the chance for growth. We are led to believe that his relationship with Ryan is a first, and he endeavors to better himself, learning to swim and to cook. But in an overwrought finale in which he attempts to cook a meal, everything falls apart.
Jack Goes Boating is a low-key, hipster kind of movie (the music is by Brooklyn hipster band Grizzly Bear) and wears well in its brief ninety minutes. The performances are good, especially John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Jack's friends. For the audience, Hoffman's death is saddest when we think of what he could have done, as in films like The Master he broke free of the sad sack image. He was working on a second directing job when he passed, it would have been interesting to see what he could have done with it.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
I have two streams of commentary here. One is on the show, the other on the winners. I'll start with the latter. There is almost nothing to say, because there were no gasp-inducing surprises. I got 20 out of 24 right. When the biggest surprise among Oscarphiles was the winner of the Best Animated Short, then it's pretty much a routine evening.
But while the winners weren't a surprise, some of them were meaningful. Alfonso Cuaron was the first Latino to win Best Director, and 12 Years a Slave was the first Best Picture to be directed by a black (who also was one of the statuette-winning producers, another first). I think we also saw the birth of a star in Lupita Nyong'o, who won Best Supporting Actress. This category has been known to be a curse (Mia Sorvino, anyone?) but I got the impression we'll see a lot more of Nyong'o. She seemed like she was born to be there, dancing with Pharell and getting a hug from Liza Minelli on her walk to the stage. Could we see a black actress grab the attention of moviegoers like Jennifer Lawrence or Julia Roberts before her? I hope directors, writers, and producers are thinking of projects for her right now.
Nyong'o's speech was the best of the night, graceful and humble. In fact, there were a lot of good speeches, and nobody got played off, even when they went way over time. Jared Leto, looking like a Christ as a waiter, managed to give his mother heartfelt thanks, referenced the tumult in Ukraine and Venezuela, recognized the millions dead of AIDS, and gave his rock band a plug. Cate Blanchett did go there, thanking Woody Allen, and Matthew McConaughey gave a three-minute mini-performance, describing how his father is dancing in his underwear in heaven, and then ending with a bizarre spiel of how himself in ten years is his own hero. Cuaron had the best unintentional laugh when he thanked the "wise guys" of Warner Brothers.
Gravity picked up seven awards, most below the line, as expected. The winner of Best Picture was still a big question right up to the moment the envelope opened, as 12 Years a Slave had only won two awards thus far: Nyong'o and screenwriter John Ridley. But as many predicted, 12 Years pulled it out, because it was a more important film.
Now, for the show. I found it to be long and boring. The hero theme was meaningless, as the clips shown seemed random. DeGeneres had a pretty good monologue, but the comedian who never offends actually seemed to do so to Minelli, calling her a drag queen.
For the rest of the show, DeGeneres just seemed to be winging it. I found the pizza incident tacky. DeGeneres was, I'm sure, trying to show us that those millionaire performers are just regular folks, and would appreciate some chow. But the spectacle of these one-percenters tossing money into a hat (Pharell's hat) was disturbing. It's nice that Harvey Weinstein kicked in $200, but at the same time, it seemed like it was just rubbing it in that they're rich and we're not. At least Ellen did give the delivery guy a $1,000 tip.
The other big moment was the selfie that Ellen took with many of the front-row spectators. It's a kind of fascinating snapshot, as it has some very big stars, Kevin Spacey with a goofy look on his face, and a young black man in front who years from now will mystify those who look at it. He is Lupita Nyong'o's brother Peter, who seized the opportunity and blocked Angelina Jolie.
Of the musical performances, I did like the Best Song nominees, but why Pink, of all people, to perform "Over the Rainbow?" I suppose this was an attempt to get the young crowd, but Pink seemed a random choice--were Taylor Swift and Katy Perry busy? Pink's voice is okay, but nothing exceptional. If they were looking for someone who has a fantastic voice and has actually been in a movie, that need only look in the audience for one of the presenters--Kristin Chenowith.
The presenters were a mixed bunch, from young stars like Emma Watson to the older and nearly forgotten, like Goldie Hawn. Kim Novak garnered a lot of Internet buzz for her incoherent appearance and atrocious plastic surgery. Another person getting a lot of comments was John Travolta, who had one job--to introduce Idina Menzel. Instead he introduced "Adela Dazeem," which inspired someone to create a web site that will Travolta-ize your own name.
This is the Oscar ceremony in the age of social media, for better or worse.
Monday, March 03, 2014
The film is about imagination and thinking outside the box, but is also very meta about it. Our hero, Emmet (voiced by Christ Pratt), is a typical figure who lives his whole life following his instruction booklet. His world is run by Lord Business, who in Murdochian way owns everything, from the TV show (that repeats the same gag line every show) to the cameras that spy on everyone. It's a toy version of 1984, but Emmet is not a rebel. He sings along with all the other characters that "Everything Is Awesome."
But there are rebels, including Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who is in search of the "piece of resistance" that will stop Lord Business from using a weapon that will end the world as they know it. Emmet, who is boring and bland, turns out to be "the special," who is prophesied to stop the destruction. Along with a few sidekicks, including Batman, Emmet learns there are many worlds besides his, and that a mysterious man upstairs controls everything.
This film works on so many levels it's dizzying. It goes beyond the usual animated films that have two levels of humor--for the young and old. Yes, there are many pop cultural references. There are also scholarly references (one visited place is Cloud Cuckoo Land, a nod to Aristophanes). But it's also an intriguing philosophical puzzle, especially when it is revealed who the man upstairs is (no spoiling here).
Most of all it's laugh out loud funny. Much of the humor. oddly, comes from Will Arnett as Batman, who is played as kind of a dick. He's Wildstyle's boyfriend, and says things like, "If this relationship is going to work out between us I need to feel free to party with a bunch of strangers whenever I feel like it. I will text you." Also very good is Liam Neeson as Badcop/Goodcop, who by switching his head around changes his attitude. I also liked Nick Offerman as Metalbeard the pirate, who offers this: "The first rule is never sit on a pirate's face."
Because Lego has so many licenses, there are many familiar characters here, including Superman, the Green Lantern (he's annoying), Milhous Van Houten and Dumbledore. In a kind of celebrity cameo, we get some Star Wars figures, who come to an ignominious fate.
The film has many similarities to the Toy Story films, although these Legos are not aware that they are toys. But, judging by its quality and its box office success, we can be sure to see many more films to come.
My grade for The Lego Movie: A-.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
For years, a split between the Best Director and Best Picture Oscar was fairly rare--about one year in ten. But in the last fifteen years it's happened five times, so it can't be seen as an anomaly any more. It seems that Academy voters are now differentiating what they deem good direction and what they deem is the best film. Frankly, it's kind of mysterious to me, but it's happening anyway.
Everyone is sure that Alfonso Cuaron will win Best Director for Gravity. The film is a technological marvel, and will probably sweep the below-the-line categories. Cuaron had to make it over several years, waiting for the technology to be invented. It's such a visual marvel that many are willing to overlook the story problems (except the writer's branch, which did not give it a nomination).
Cuaron would be the first Hispanic to win a Best Director Oscar. If he doesn't win, history would likely be made by Steve McQueen winning for 12 Years a Slave, which may very well win Best Picture. So why doesn't McQueen have a better shot, which would make him the first black to win the award (he's only the third nominated)? I suspect it's this new found spreading-the-wealth mentality. 12 Years a Slave may win Best Picture because it's a Serious Subject Movie, while Gravity, ironically, doesn't have the gravitas necessary to win Best Picture. Also, frankly, 12 Years a Slave does have some directing problems in pacing and structure.
The other three nominees for Best Director don't figure to win. Martin Scorsese finally got the monkey off his back seven years ago, and The Wolf of Wall Street will get shut out tonight. David O. Russell picks up his second straight nomination for American Hustle, but will probably win Best Original Screenplay. And Alexander Payne, nominated for Nebraska, would be an earthquake-level shocker.
Will win: Alfonso Cuaron
Could win: Steve McQueen
Should win: Steve McQueen
Should have been nominated: Jean-Marc Vallee, Dallas Buyers Club
In the Best Picture race, it's really a coin toss. Most think that 12 Years a Slave will win, though McQueen will not, and it's because 12 Years a Slave is more of a Best Picture type film. Although Gravity is not really science fiction (there's nothing about it that couldn't happen, I guess) it's nerdy enough to qualify, and no science fiction has ever won an Oscar. Still, I would not be surprised at all if it wins, as it is much more of a crowd pleaser than the didactic Slave, which is also much more difficult to sit through.
Of the other seven films, American Hustle seemed to be a player at one point, after winning the SAG ensemble award, but then again so did The Birdcage. It's stock has dropped a lot after losing the PGA, the DGA, and BAFTA (they award two--Best Picture and Best British Picture; 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, directed by an Englishman, while Gravity, directed by a Mexican and starring Americans, won Best British Film).
If we go by the directing nominations, we can surmise that the next two in the voting will be The Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska. Wolf is far too debauched and controversial to win, while Nebraska is too cranky and bleak.
The other four films, without directing nominations, figure to settle at the bottom. In the late fall I thought Captain Phillips had a chance to be a spoiler, but it got no director nomination and even Tom Hanks, the former golden boy himself, got skunked. Dallas Buyers Club will get two acting awards, but that's all, even thought it's my personal favorite. Her, which I think does qualify as science fiction, is a player in the Original Screenplay category, but will not win Best Picture, and Philomena is the trailer, the film that was probably the last pancake off the griddle.
Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Could win: Gravity
Should win: Dallas Buyers Club
Should have been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis
My complete predictions:
Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Best Actor: Matthew McConnaughey
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o
Best Original Screenplay: American Hustle
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Best Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty
Best Animated Film: Frozen
Best Cinematography: Gravity
Best Editing: Captain Phillips
Best Production Design: Gravity
Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby
Best Song: "Let It Go"
Best Musical Score: Gravity
Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom
Best Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6
Best Makeup and Hairstyles: Dallas Buyers Club
Best Animated Short Subject: Get a Horse!
Best Live Action Short Subject: Helium
Best Sound Editing: Gravity
Best Sound Mixing: Gravity
Best Visual Effects: Gravity
Saturday, March 01, 2014
I think the delay was due to the fact that Ronstadt was something of a throwback. By the time she hit it big, about 1975, the singer-songwriter era had completely taken hold. Before the rock era, and even into the early days, songs were written by songwriters and sung by singers, and rarely did the twain meet. Ronstadt did not write many songs. On the disc I've been listening to, her first two volumes of greatest hits, she didn't write one song. She was a vocal interpreter, and it's no surprise that she would later branch out with an album of American standards. My aged great-aunt, who wouldn't know a rock star from a barracuda, even listened to that album.
So Ronstadt was essentially a cover artist, singing songs first done by a whole range of performers, including Buddy Holly, the Eagles, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Martha and the Vandellas, and Warren Zevon. But she wasn't just a very good karaoke singer. She put her stamp on the songs, and in may cases made the songs her own. I think especially of the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved," or Orbison's "Blue Bayou." I had to stop and think who first did those songs, because Ronstadt's versions have surpassed the originals.
Ronstadt, in addition to standards, later did Mexican Mariachi music, in tribute to her heritage. She also starred on Broadway and in film in The Pirates of Penzance. Her voice was incredibly flexible, at home in belting out rockers like "Tumbling Dice" to soft ballads like "Desperado." She could hit the high notes and growl like a tigress.
I must add, perhaps strangely, that she was incredibly good at enunciation, another throwback to the days of the crooners and chanteuses. I could understand every word she sang, a rarity in rock. Consider her first hit, "Different Drum" (written by a pre-Monkee Michael Nesmith) recorded when she was with the Stone Poneys. She wraps her voice around the words with such precision and delicacy it's a pleasure, such as with the line, "We'll both live a lot longer, if you live without me." The -er in longer would be dropped by most singers, but she lowers her voice and captures it, giving it a smidgen of humor.
I also love her vocal on Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," the way she hits the consonants in "pitiful" and how she gives a country inflection to the rhyming words "gender" and "blender." But my favorite vocal on the disc is the heart-rending "Long, Long Time." This is the kind of song you listen to when you're heartbroken, although it will only make you more depressed.
Ronstadt, sadly, has Parkinson's disease and can no longer sing, but I'm sure they'll be others to step up and belt out her hits when she's inducted. It's an honor long overdo.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Ghostbusters really was a phenomenon. I'm not sure it invented a genre--the action comedy--but it redefined it, as the film works as both a summer blockbuster, complete with big special effects and stuff blowin' up, and a sly comedy. Above all, the film hits the heights of cool, as the premise was irresistible--a bunch of paranormal researchers form a squad that will rid your place of ghosts.
The touches are all right, starting with the cast of characters. Bill Murray is the ostensible star, cementing his persona as the wisecracking guy who doesn't seem to care about things until the chips are down. Dan Aykroyd (who looks so baby-faced here) kind of takes one for the team and plays it straight, while Ramis, in his most prominent acting role, is the nerdy Egon Spengler, who is always serious and has a hobby of collecting spores, molds, and fungus.
The accoutrements are all perfect, too. The old firehouse used as headquarters, the old hearse as their vehicle, Annie Potts as their secretary, and the jargon tossed around about phantasms and vapors. Aykroyd, whose interest in the occult was the spark that lit the flame, did his research.
The film, even in in repeat viewings, is a joy. I still chuckled at many lines, including Murray saying "Back off man, I'm a scientist," or Ramis, who is resolutely deadpan, saying "I blame myself." The special effects and the overall look of the picture have a dated feel, which is to be expected, but some of the set pieces, such as the ghost in the library and the whole Stay Puft Marshmallow Man segment, are still fun to watch.
I think most of all, the film leaves us with a wish that there really were Ghostbusters, and they would be just like the guys in the movie. That's a kind of movie magic that's rare. Bless you, Harold Ramis, for your comedy gifts.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Two performers are nominated for Blue Jasmine, Allen's latest film. Sally Hawkins is unlikely to win for Best Supporting Actress, but Cate Blanchett, as a 21st-century Blanche Dubois, is a lead-pipe cinch. She's been the favorite since the film opened, and only the ruckus raised by the allegations of child abuse against Allen has cast any doubts. But I doubt this will have any effect at all. After all, this is the organization that gave convicted child rapist Roman Polanski an Oscar. Word is some voters have felt sympathy for Blanchett, since she's just an innocent bystander.
If for some reason Blanchett doesn't win, it could be any of three performers winning. I'm kind of surprised there isn't more heat around Amy Adams, as the con woman in American Hustle. Of the five, she's the only one not to have previously won, and she's 0 for 4. But I would imagine voters think she's young enough to win later. She has won absolutely no precursors (but then again, neither has anyone else).
Another dark horse is Judi Dench, in the touching portrayal of an elderly Irish woman searching for the son taken from her by the church in Philomena. This is Dench's seventh nomination, all after the age of 63. She has won, in Best Supporting Actress, for a role that was about 8 minutes long, so voters may want to add another one to her mantle.
Sandra Bullock, as the astronaut stranded in space in Gravity, has been mentioned in some blogs lately as yet another dark horse. This will only happen if Gravity really makes a sweep--if Bullock wins, Gravity may win every award it's nominated for. She won only four years ago, and the competition is too strong.
Finally, Meryl Streep, as the drug-addicted matriarch in August: Osage County. Streep finally got her third Oscar two years ago, and doesn't figure to win again until at least her 80s. Besides, the movie wasn't exactly beloved.
Will win: Cate Blanchett
Could win: Amy Adams
Should win: Cate Blanchett
Should have been nominated: Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha