Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Notes on The Greatest Show on Earth - Not!

Having just seen Michael Haneke's brilliant, brutal and altogether disturbing American remake of his 1997 German film, "Funny Games," I've come to the conclusion that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should enlist Haneke's villain, Michael Pitt, as its Oscar host next year - with Pitt preferrably in character.

Something has to be done to give filmdom's embarassing White Elephant a shot in the arm - although I'm not certain that even Pitt scaring the bejesus out of the viewers will necessarily do the trick.

The situation appears to be hopeless: The show, which has been dissected and critiqued ad infinitum for the past two decades at least, has simply become too self-conscious. It seems to keep checking itself in the mirror so no hair is out of place and blowing into its palm to make sure it's breath is OK. (Bonus: Check out Newsweek's "The Oscars Must Die" by
Mark Peyser for more dish on the divine badness of the Oscars.)

This year's show, which managed to eke out a few good notices in some quarters, was so proper and so careful that it was absolutely dull, with its potentially promising host, Jon Stewart, so reigned in that he was incapable of doing anything edgy or envelop-pushing. He was almost apologetic when he did say something vaguely out-of-line. Such a polite young man!, as my granny might have said.

The overall lifelessness of the show made me long for the good, old vulgar days when Rob Lowe teamed up with Snow White for some deranged, tone-deaf harmonizing (thank you, Allan Carr, wherever you are) or the four or five hours when the exiled Chris Rock dared to deflate industry egos with a nasty, bracingly profane sense of humor. The funniest bit on any recent Oscar show was Sean Penn self-righteously rushing to poor Jude Law's defense and chiding Rock for verbally bludgeoning his bud.

The only remotely memorably moment on this year's show was best-actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis planting a kiss of George Clooney's mouth prior to accepting his award.

There's a reason why the Oscar comes in the form of a naked man, right?

The ratings for this year's show were reportedly the lowest ever - no surprise, given the films and people nominated. The ratings always plummet when America's moviegoing public is uninterested in the nominees. On the other hand, they soared when the film in question was James Cameron's "Titanic" (1997) or Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003).

No one wants to see Tilda Swinton win an awards, expect for me and possibly a few hundred movie freaks. And contrary to what the clueless pundits had to say, Swinton's acceptance speech was brilliant, the best of the evening - a wittily caustic gem of brittle cynicism and hero-bashing (the hero being George Clooney, who Swinton actually likes). But no one got it, especially not the people who should know better. Has American been dumbed-down that much?

Finally, what’s with the Academy's annual “In Memorium” errata? Either the board of directors is being very selective (and, by extention, snobbish) about who is honored or it's simply slipshod and lax in its research and fact-checking. How else can one explain the omissions year after year?

How difficult is it for someone to keep a list of those film personalities who died during the calendar movie year being honored? Well, apparently, it’s a tough job because how else do you explain the fact that, every year, familiar faces are overlooked?

This year, the Academy omitted both Lois Nettleton and Brad Renfro from the group. Granted, both died in 2008, not 2007, but Heath Ledger and Suzanne Pleshette passed during the same week as Nettleton and Renfro and they were both included. (The Academy doesn't seem to pay attention to the strict calendar year when honoring the dead. Either that or it changes the rules from year to year.)

When US Weekly asked about the omission of Renfro, an Academy rep reportedly said, "It was an editing decision ... We can't fit everyone in."

Say what? It would have taken - what? - five or six extra seconds to include Renfro and Nettleton.

It's simple bad form and it happens every year. Last year, Dennis Weaver and Adrienne Shelly, who both died in 2006, inexplicably didn’t make the Academy's 2007 obit reel, while James Doohan, who died in 2005, was honored in both 2006 and 2007. Go figure.

What's odd about the omission of Shelly is that the last film she directed, "Waitress," was generating a lot of buzz at Sundance just as Oscar fever was raging in late 2006-early 2007.

Going back, the criminally underrated Sheree North didn't make the list the previous year, 2006.

Again, just how difficult is it to compile a list of people who died during the calendar year? It's something an intern could do for the Academy.

Anyway, it's difficult to take the Academy's self-congratulatory airs or to appreciate its bizarre, arbitrary rules regarding foreign-language films when it is so sloppy in other areas. And this sloppiness is just another example of the Academy’s overall lack of respect for “its own.”

Yes, it's time to face up to the facts that the Oscarcast is old and tired and has become obsolete, having been usurped by its own sidebar - the ghastly Red Carpet Ordeal that precedes it. Fashion has become the main focus; the awards are now beside the point, almost unnecessary.

I wouldn't at all be surprised to learn that the ratings for E!'s pre-show Red Carpet Ordeal were not only better than the ones for the show that followed, but that they actually skyrocketed.

Although I didn't think it possible, the Red Carpet Ordeal hit an all-time low this year when the Red Carpet Whores (the overly painted women and snarky gay guys who provide non-stop fashion commentary) repeatedly dissed poor little Ellen Page, the star of "Juno," for, well, not looking vulgar or like some Vegas showgirl. She looked youthfully sophisticated and, here's the catch, normal. Like a genuinely young woman, you know. Once again, no one got it.

Bottom line: The Oscars are hopeless. It's time to write them off. End of diatribe.

Note in Passing: There's been a tempest in a teapot about Whoopi Goldberg being omitted from the collection of hosts over the years in a montage celebrating the Oscar's 80th year. (Former hosts Jack Lemmon and Steve Martin were also overlooked, but never mind.) The show's producer Gil Cates apologized, saying it was an oversight. (Was Brad Renfro's omission from the "In memorium" clips also an "oversight"? Or was it another "editing decision"? Sloppy!) Anyway, Whoopi really wasn't completely omitted from the montage. A clip of her victory was included among those who won an Oscar over the years. My hunch? It was no "oversight" at all. The Academy figured she was represented with one clip and didn't need another. That makes sense, right?

Thanks to jbryant for reminding me of Charles Lane, who died in July at the age of 102 and was also omitted from the In Memorium reel this year; and to Godard for reminding me of the passing of Richard Jeni and Tom Poston last year.

(Artwork: The Golden Boy himself and Brad Renfro, a tarnished actor ignored by a splipshod Academy. Ditto for Lois Nettleton and, last year, Adrienne Shelly)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Friday, February 22, 2008

cinema obscura: Cecil B. De Mille's "The Cheat" (1915) and George Abbott's "The Cheat" (1931)

“The Cheat” has it all – sex, sadism, inflammatory racial issues and a socialite wife - a compulsive gambler and all-around handful known alternaltey as Edith Hardy and Elsa Carlyle. Doubling the fun is the fact that the material has been filmed twice and yet, despite being rather ubiquitous, it remains something of a secret among cineastes.

The story is the kind that can be easily personalized by a filmmaker, in much the same way that John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk each reinvented their own version of Fanny Hurst’s “Imitation of Life.” Edith Hardy/Elsa Carlyle takes charity funds for which she is responsible and promptly gambles the money away, putting herself at the mercy of a sadistic man who will lend her the sum – but for a price. Before long, she is his sex slave and “property,” literally branded as such. When she shoots her evil benefactor, her husband assumes the blame.

The most celebrated of the two versions of "The Cheat" is the silent film made in 1915 by Cecil B. De Mille – starring Fannie Ward (in her first film) as Edith, Jack Dean as her husband and Sessue Hayakawa, in his breakthrough role as Hirshuru Tori, the Japanese businessman who entraps Edith. Paramount took so much heat because of the villain’s Japanese nationality that Hayakawa's character was changed to a Burmese for the film’s re-release three years later.

De Mille was also under attack, not surprisingly, for daring to depict a sexual affair between a Caucasian woman and an Asian man and for using the "branding" of Edith in the film as a metaphor for rape – a clear violation.

But, lurid storytelling notwithstanding, it’s the lighting distinguishes that De Mille’s movie (followed closely by Wilfred Buckland' painterly, miminalist art direction). Studios, which had used sets with glass ceilings up to that point to achieve natural lighting, began to move towards artificial lighting which could be more easily controlled for desired effects. De Mille takes full advantage of the change and does auspicious work here. “The Cheat” of 1915 fairly bristles with realism and modern aesthetics. It was way ahead of its time.

The filmmaker clearly worked in close collaboration with cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff, using low-keyed, shadowy chiaroscuro effects and silhouettes (of the actors posed behind rice-paper) to create the mood that drives the plot.

The performances, not that they really matter, are broad, although Hayakawa is such a riveting, commanding presence that it’s easy to see how this film triggered his lengthy movie career.

In De Mille’s film, the money that Edith squanders is from the Red Cross, of which she is treasurer. In George Abbott’s 1931 remake, the $10,000 that she loses is from the Milk Fund. There’s also one other change, a big one – the villain is no longer Asian.

Irving Pichel plays Hardy Livingstone, a roué just back from the Orient, where he picked up some dubious habits. The wealthy young Carlyles (Harvey Stephens and Tallulah Bankhead), catch his eye, particularly the wife Elsa. Bankhead is the big attraction in Abbott’s film, playing Elsa as a willful, recklessly impetuous woman capable of ruining her husband financially. It's a truly major performance - a lot of fun to watch.

Abbott’s “The Cheat” may not have the "Rembrandt lighting" that distinguishes De Mille’s movie, but it is every bit as arty, psychological and memorable – and it is also an excellent example of how movies took advantage of the pre-production code laxity that pervaded the films of the time. Abbott didn’t need symbolism to convey his ideas; his version is more literal and blatant.

"The Cheat" of 1931 was recently featured in "Universal Preservation: Pre-Code Films From the Universal and Paramount Libraries," a series devoted to, as Kenneth Turan put it in The Los Angeles Times, "this most exciting era of American film, a time when movies were just learning to talk and had the irrational exuberance to prove it." The series, highlighting recently restored films from the two studios, made between 1930 and 1934, played at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, from February 1 to February 23.

It was the third time in five years that the UCLA Film & Television Archive presented this invaluable series.

Note in Passing: De Mille's "The Cheat" is available from Image Entertainment has a double-feature DVD with "Carmen," also directed by C.B. It's available on Amazon.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Tullulah Bankhead as Elsa Carlyle, with Irving Pichel and Harvey Stephens, in George Abbott's remake of Cecil B. De Mille's 1915 silent film)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Dreaded Oscarcast

The good news is that the entertainment industry's writers' strike has been settled.

The bad news is that the Oscarcast, the biggest company picnic ever, is back on track, replete with the demoralizing red-carpet vulgarity that's become an unfortunate staple of the event.

The only fascinating thing about it is how the show manages to top itself in awfulness year after year - and that ain't easy.

To paraphrase Will Rogers' quip on the weather, everybody complains about The Oscars, but nobody ever does anything about them. Clearly the powers behind them – which is most of Hollywood – share a “why-fix-what-isn’t-broken?” mentality.

They are oblivious to the fact that as the Oscarcast grows into a bigger White Elephant each year, it is transcended by the appealing simplicity of the (supposedly lesser) Golden Globes.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must think it is some kind of progress to trade in those deadly, stultifying production numbers for an endless series of clip-dominated montages that are at once pretentious, self-congratulatory, sancitmonious and numbing.

But is this annual giveaway - and the predictably dull show celebrating it - really worth the energy required to complain about it?

Unfortunately, yes.

Besides the dubious show, the awards themselves produce a lot of unanswered questions about a voting system that embraces thousands of Academy members, few of whom exhibit any indication of having actually seen any of the films and performances for which they’re voting.

But, for me, the most annoying aspect of this annual event is its rampant snobbery. For nine or ten months out of the year, the industry produces highly disposable, critic-proof movies designed only to make money. Come October and intentions are suddenly, magically, elevated. It becomes an industry of pretentions, in need of

This misguided snobbery, which ordinarily would be hilarious, is never more evident than in the choices for the yearly Irving J. Thalberg Memorial, Jean Hersholt Humanitarian, Gordon E. Sawyer and Honorary awards.

These awards seem to bring out the self-consciousness of the Academy’s board of directors who invariably underrate, ignore and, by extention, insult some of film’s most popular professionals. Overlooked in their lifetimes, for example, were the invaluable Robert Mitchum, Ida Lupino and Glenn Ford, all of whom should have been honored with lifetime awards. And that kind of heartless neglect, which exists at the core of the film industry, is exactly what this blog is all about.

Still waiting for this kind of peer recognition are Richard Widmark, Doris Day and Jerry Lewis, all of them more than deserving and long overdue. The Academy’s refusal to honor or at least acknowledge them - to willfully overlook them - smacks of a disturbing lack of gratitude and, again, pretention. Only those artists perceived as highbrow and, therefore, "worthy" tend to be accorded honorary awards.

Peter O'Toole, anyone? Yes! Elia Kazan? Bravo! Doris Day? No way!

One final question: Historically, winning an Oscar was always important to a career, or at least that's the hype that was generated for decades. But is that still true? More and more people who win Oscars seem to fall for grace and fade out of sight. The so-called "Oscar jinx," which was once restricted to an unlucky few, seems to be spreading.

Quick! Who won last year?

(Artwork: Three views of the great but perennially slighted Richard Widmark, lest we forget)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, February 16, 2008

cinema obscura: Alan Rudolph's "Investigating Sex" (2001)

Diehard Alan Rudolph fans take note. The auteur's long-shelved "Investigating Sex," which played the film festival circuit in 2001, is finally available for us to peruse. Apparently, Rudolph had to go to Europe (Germany) to find funding for his film which is what led to its ultimate unraveling.

It is now available on DVD under the new title "Intimate Affairs." I thought you might want to know because if you came across that moniker in your local Blockbuster, you'd probably (and understandably) assume it was a Lifetime movie.

Audacious as ever, Rudolph does not let down his disciples with his examination of the free-thinking climate of bohemian Europe in the late 1920s, apparently based on real characters - from José Pierre's book, "Recherches sur la Sexualite Archives du Surealisme."

Witty in an intellectual way, "Investigateing Sex"/"Intimate Affairs" stars Dermot Mulroney as Edgar who oversees a circle of avant-garde pals in discussions of modern sexuality - which Edgar insists be dealt with in clinical detail.

The participants include Jeremy Davies as a filmmaker, Alan Cumming and Til Schweiger as two artists and Julie Delpy as Edgar's lover who prefers flesh-and-blood sex to abstract discussions of the subject.

Brought into the circle are two young stenographers - the sexually experienced Zoe (Robin Tunney) and the virginal Alice (Neve Campbell), with the understanding that they don't comment on what they hear and record. Rounding out the cast are Nick Nolte as a businessman and Tuesday Weld as his wife, whose villa Edgar uses for his sexed-up discussions.

Reviewing the film from the 2001 Seattle Film Festival, Variety's Ken Eisner wrote,
"whether set in 1929 or 2001,
'Investigating Sex' already feels too dated, and far too timid, to spark any real exploration of mind or body."

There are also two other hard-luck titles that are going directly to DVD - Marshall Lewy's "Blue State," a game political satire starring Breckin Meyer as a disgruntled Democrat who actually follows through on a drunken campaign promise to move to Canada if George W. Bush gets re-elected and Anna Paquin as his unwitting traveling companion, and Amy Heckerling's May-September romance, "I Could Never Be Your Woman," which teams Michelle Pfeiffer with Paul Rudd. Like the Rudolph film, Heckerling's was apparently the victim of financing gone awry.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: German poster art for Alan Rudolph's never-released-in-the-states "Investivating Sex" - aka "Intimate Affairs" - and Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfeiffer in Amy Herckling's direct-to-DVD "I Could Never Be Your Woman")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

unsolicited pontification: Diablo Cody - What's In a Name?

OK, full disclosure: I don't like "Juno." Not even a little bit. I know, I know. That's considered heresy, even blasphemy, in a country where even the intelligent critics have been bamboozled by it and moviegoers have been turned into extras from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Actually, I'm exaggerating a wee bit. "Juno" certainly isn't a bad film. On some levels, it's very pleasant, even though it spins a lot of reassuring lies - or perhaps because it spins a lot of reassuring lies - about teenagers, unplanned pregnancies and nonexistent abortions, although it absolutely nails America's still-Puritan attitude towards sex. Nevertheless, it remains wildly overrated.

I'm clearly in the minority here, but I'm in excellent company and I bow to Dave Kehr who nailed it when, in analyzing this year's Oscar nominees, he referred to "Juno" as "the phony, feel good comedy about teen pregnancy (as opposed to 'Knocked Up,' the phony, feel good comedy about twentysomething pregnancy), which racked up four key nominations — picture, director, actress, screenplay. This piece of cheese could still take it, as I imagine it’s a film that the worried parents of the Academy would clutch to their hearts far more firmly than 'Atonement,' a film that wears its sense of Oscar entitlement on its sleeve."

The chief beneficiary of the film's "heartwarming" success is its writer, the zanily self-named Diablo Cody whose reputation as "Juno's" auteur even trumps the efforts of its director, Jason Reitman. Maybe it's because my view of the film is so jaundiced - and cranky - that I can't help thinking that the critics are even enchanted by her fake name.

I mean, would Cody have elicited the same reaction from reviewers if her real name, Brooke Busey, was listed on the film's credits? Or if there wasn't so much pre-release publicity about her former occupation as a stripper? I speak from experience: I was a critic for far longer than it is healthy to be and I am keenly aware of how critics think - and how gullible they can be (although they'd never admit to it). There was no way that the name "Diablo Cody" wouldn't titillate them.

"Diablo Cody" has a definite, quirky ring to it. She has to win the Oscar because it's so obvious that Hollywood is salivating over the idea of someone getting on stage of the Shrine Auditorium and uttering the words, "An the Oscar goes to ... Diablo Cody."

And I say that as yet another self-proclaimed, accurate indicator of success at the Oscars.

Probably my least favorite thing about "Juno" is its dialogue, largely because star Ellen Page (who is in nearly every scene) talks like no teenager I've ever encountered - past or present.

Peter Bart, the columnist/editor at Variety, is the only member of the press so far who has come out and said this. A veritable voice of reason among a collection of love-struck scribes, Bart wrote:

"Would a pregnant, 16-year-old 'Juno' really talk that hip all the time? Every moment she's popping lines like, 'Jocks like freaky girls with horn-rimmed glasses and Goth makeup who play the cello' or 'I hear they give away babies in China like free iPods.'

"I like the movie, but it seemed to me Juno talked more like a 30-year-old ex-stripper trying to make a name for herself as a screenwriter."


(Artwork: Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby in the wildly overrated "Juno," its auteur, Diablo Cody, and Variety's Peter Bart)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Friday, February 01, 2008

Melissa George Does Sandy Dennis

Is it me or could Melissa George consciously be channeling Sandy Dennis on HBO's "In Treatment," Rodrigo García's adapatation of the 2005 Israli series, "BeTipul"?

It's uncanny how much the young Australian actress resembles the late Oscar winner, not only in looks but also in acting style and mannerisms.

Like Dennis, who died at age 55 of ovarian cancer in 1992, George was a blonde when she started her film career (see Steven Soderberg's
"The Limey" and David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.") and has recently become an attractive brunette, a coloring especially well-suited to the neurotic, needy woman she plays opposite Gabriel Byrne on "In Treatment."

She even has Dennis' trademark stammer down pat, often punctuated with a sob or a tear.

Here, George is highly remeniscent of the Sandy Dennis of "Thank You All Very Much," "Up the Down Staircase" and particularly two Altman films, "That Cold Day in the Park" and "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean."

Dennis's last film role, incidentally, was in Sean Penn's underrated "The Indian Runner," opposite Charles Bronson, David Morse, Viggo Mortenson and Dennis Hopper, made in 1991, the year before her early death.

(Artwork: Melissa George and Sandy Dennis - compare and contrast; poster art from Altman's "That Cold Day in the Park")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com