Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"iconic" and other words that should be retired

Lately, I've become aware that certain words are being tossed around rather recklessly.  The most abused words of the moment are "icon" and "iconic."  An anchor woman on a local television station breathlessly promoting "Fuller House," the Netflix sequel to the late 1980s sitcom "Full House," invoked the word "iconic" to describe the original series.

Iconic?  I wouldn't know.  I never watched the show.  I had a life back in the '80s. But something tells me that it was just another insipid sitcom.

Matters really hit home when I was watching Tuesday's episode of "Live with Kelly and Michael" (a terrific show I would never miss) and guest Carly Rae Jepson discussed her role in Fox's upcoming "Grease: Live," in which she plays Frenchy, a part originated in the 1978 film by Didi Conn.

In describing the role of Frenchy (and her meeting with Conn), Jepson invoked the word ... "iconic."  OK, that's it. Enough's enough.

I'm old enough to remember when "iconic" was reserved for a play by Shakespeare (not "Full House") and for characters like Blanche DuBois and Sugar Kowalcyzk (not Frenchy from a tacky movie musical like "Grease").

"Icon" and "iconic" are the new go-to words favored by talk-show hosts (both late-night and daytime) to introduce guests or describe the characters that those guests played/play in some disposable movie.

Frankly, I've grown weary of those two words, as well as several others being abused by talk-show hosts and social media.  What follows is a random list of annoying words and expressions that I think should be banned. Feel free to disagree - or add to the list.  Here goes:

Trendy show-biz expressions that annoy me: "Showrunner," "Tentpole" and "Residency," a word reserved for overpaid divas who set up shop for a few months in Las Vegas. And don't even ask me what "tentpole" means.

Trendy male-oriented expressions that annoy me:  "Bromance," "Manscape," "Man Cave," "Dad Bod" and "Junk."  (Why would any guy, except a self-loathing one, describe his penis and testicles as "Junk"?)

Trendy social media expressions that annoy me:  "Selfie," "Gone Viral" and "#hashtag."

"Baby Bump," the gratingly adorable word adopted by people who are phobic about using the word "pregnant."

"Family Friendly," a reason to avoid a movie or TV show.

"Going Commando," used to describe the dubious tend of eschewing underwear.

"Politicize," a word randomly tossed out by politicians against other politicians who have successfully used a cause to their advantage.

"Haters," used to describe anyone who confronts, challenges, questions or dares to criticize a public person.

"Shaming," used to describe those people who have been ridiculed for their weight, hair, tattoos, piercings, face or utter stupidity.

"Artisanal," favored by foodies, restaurant critics and food-show hosts to describe anything made by hand in a kitchen. Formerly "home made."

"Journey," used by celebrities and victims alike to describe their lives.

"Empower," "Empowered" and "Empowerment."  Popularized by self-deluded actresses when they agree to appear nude in a film or need an excuse for doing a graphic sex scene, whether it's gratuitous or not.

"Brand," the new word for "identity."  It could refer to a single person's "brand" (any Kardashian, for example) or a TV station's "brand" (HBO and the aforementioned Netflix come to mind immediately for some reason).

Any others?  Share!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

observations & pronouncements

The big movie news of the week isn't who or what was nominated for an Oscar but who or what wasn't.  But, in the end, who really cares?

Well, the studios and stars who reap the monetary rewards of a lauded film certainly care - and perhaps a few hundred die-hard movie geeks.

Ricky Gervais got it right during the recent Golden Globes Giveaway Show:  These awards mean ... nothing. And the notion of picking "the best" is a fairly futile exercise considering that 6,932 films, both domestic and international, were released in the United States in 2015, if one is to believe the statistics on IMDb. That's right, 6,932 titles. Insane, right?

So, it's kinda suspect that with that many films, employing what must be tens of thousands of actors, directors and writers, only white people were found worthy of recognition in the top categories.  White people and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. This isn't exactly a new phenomenon. It's as old as movies themselves - or at least as old as "Gone With the Wind" (1939) when Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar and was still treated shabbily.

"No young whippersnappers here!"

So I don't buy into the popular but naive conspiracy theory that there's this entitled Hollywood-&-Vine clique that operates nefariously to decide who is or isn't worthy. The problem is that the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has grown to approximately the same number as the films released in 2015 - 6,000-plus - but it hasn't changed in its demographics.  It remains an Old White Men's Club.  These numbers are in constant flux, I'm sure, but the Academy membership that votes for the Oscars is 94% white, 77% male and the average age is 63.

It's still 1939, see?

The Academy is the G.O.P. of the arts, still living in the past and unable (or unwilling) to accept progress and change.  It is afflicted with all the -isms.  In addition to its innate racism, which gets all the attention, the Academy is especially guilty of ageism.  A child actor rarely is honored, which explains the absence of Jacob Tremblay of "Room" among the nominees.

And Tremblay arguably received better reviews than his co-star, the talented Brie Larson, who was nominated.  And if Tremblay had made the grade?  Well, he would have been put in the supporting category, even though he is the male lead in his film.  Child actors who are the stars of their films have routinely been relegated to a supporting classification.

Think Tatum O'Neal and Patty Duke.

"She's just not good enough!"

And let's not forget the snobbery factor.  Kristen Stewart turned in one of the most acclaimed performances of the year for her work in Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria" as the assistant to Juliette Binoche's aging film star.  The New York Times' film critics predicted a supporting-actress nomination for her in their Oscar-preview essays.  But Stewart's association with the popular "Twilight" film franchise and her popularity with tabloid reporters and paparazzi somehow disqualified her from consideration.  She's good enough to make Hollywood rich with her participation in a franchise, but unworthy of artistic recognition.

One would think that her alternate persona in a string of impressive independent films would be enough to offset the "Twilight" curse.  She's given terrific performances in "Still Alice" (for which she also should have been nominated), "The Runaways" (as Joan Jett), "Adventureland" (with Jesse Eisenberg), "On the Road" (based on the Jack Kerouac book, of course), "Into the Wild" (the Sean Penn film based on the Jon Krakauer book) and especially "Welcome to the Riley's" (opposite James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo) and "The Yellow Handkerchief (with Eddie Redmayne, William Hurt and Maria Bello), to single out but a few of her achievements.

Could it be that she's still too young for recognition?

Well, Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence are the same age (both born in 1990), but Lawrence receives the respect that's denied to Stewart.
  The Voice!  

Overshadowing the calculated Oscar mania was the passing of the extraordinary actor Alan Rickman, whose death on January 14th eerily coincided with the announcement of the nominees - and, in my mind, trivialized them. It was sobering to hear names of the usual suspects being announced (Leonardo DiCaprio! Cate Blanchette!) while being keenly aware that Rickman, he of the deep, mellifluous voice and perfect enunciation, never won an Oscar or was never even nominated for one.

How could that possibly be?  Well, it be.

"This is no laughing matter!"

Finally, the utter strangeness of the Academy is perhaps best exemplified by its selection of hosts.  For some reason, the Academy gravitates towards comics, usually outrageous, irreverent comics.  Actually, to be fair, all movie-awards shows do, not just the Oscars.  And, each year, there is deep-seated fear and hand-wringing over who the comic in question will insult and how stinging and pertinent the insult will be.

Chris Rock, this year's Oscar host, was ruthless when he had the same gig about a decade ago.  (Remember his gratuitous tirade against Jude Law?)  If I recall, the Academy said he would never be invited back.  Gervais took no prisoners when he hosted the Golden Globes a couple times a few years ago. The audience was appalled but he was back on stage in the Beverly Hilton banquet room again this year. Jane Lynch hosted a recent "give-me-an-award!" show and was supremely sarcastic and the incorrigible Seth McFarland was suitably smarmy when he did the Oscars.

Then there's Tina and Amy who smiled sweetly as they sandbagged the invited guests and nominees - and they were as funny as hell.  Even Ellen DeGeneres had fun bursting bubbles.  But how dare they play so unfairly?

So if the Academy wants to free itself of this yearly, self-inflicted torment about its selected host, maybe it should simply stop hiring comics and stick to James Franco and Anne Hathaway, who were inadvertently funny (so memorably awful they were funny) a few years ago, or Neil Patrick Harris who, for all his talent and charm,  somehow bombed at last year's gala.

There will be no suspense (as usual) during this year's Oscarcast, as least as far as the winners are concerned.  Expect Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson, Sylvester Stallone and Jennifer Jason Leigh to thank their mothers and agents for their awards and blessings.

Award winners usually tend to forget to thank their spouses and co-stars.

Now, that's funny.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

cinema obscura: Tony Richardson's "A Death in Canaan" (1978)

This superior television movie, based on the 1976 Joan Barthel best-seller, is noteworthy for three reasons - its intelligence, an astonishing lead performance by the ever-underrated Stefanie Powers and the TV directing debut of the estimable Tony Richardson. The solid acting ensemble includes such reliables as Brian Dennehy, Kenneth McMillan, Conchata Ferrell, Jacqueline Brooks, Charles Haid, Charles Hallahan, Tom Atkins, Bonnie Bartlett and Paul Clemens in his first role as Peter Reilly, a New Canaan, Conn. teenager who found his mother's mutilated body and was charged with her murder.

Based on a true story, "A Death in Canaan" follows Powers, playing Barthel, as she tries to document the investigation of the 1973 case and the hands-on involvement of the townspeople, friends and neighbors of the solitary, fatherless Reillys. It was just Peter and his mother.

Powers plays Barthel with a perfect blend of nerve, insecurity and charm. Clemens, the son of the late actress Eleanor Parker, is astonishing. Around the same time, he also appeared in another fine lost film, Jerome Hellman's "Promises in the Dark" (1979), starring Marsha Mason, Kathleen Beller, Ned Beatty, Susan Clark and Michael Brandon.

Profoundly moving, "A Death in Canaan" is enhanced by Richardson's subtle direction of an exceptional cast.

The movie, now very difficult to see, was originally made for a 150-minute time slot, including commercials. One of its most recent - and last - TV airings was years ago on the Lifetime channel, which inexplicably edited it down for a 120-minute time period.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

a film of entitlement

"There is no there there"
-Gertrude Stein

Stein's famous quote - often appropriated and always misquoted - is from her 1937 book, "Everybody's Autobiography" (a sequel of sorts to "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"). It was written in reference to her return to her birthplace, Oakland, California after a sojourn in Paris.

She couldn't find her childhood home, or the school she attended, or the park where she played.  Hence, she wrote, "There is no there there."

But that sentence has been interpreted/misinterpreted to describe a certain emptiness, much to the chagrin of the people of Oakland. It's become engrained because this reading of Stein's words easily sums up something that's vapid and soulless. And it handily encapsulates my unexpected reaction to the lovely new Todd Haynes film, "Carol."

"Carol" is an apt example of Stein's misrepresented sentiment - there is simply no there there. The movie seemingly has all the right pieces for a great work, but something is missing - something so subtle it's omission has been overlooked by its passionate advocates (and there are many).

Set in the 1950s and based on "The Price of Salt," an autobiographical novel which the estimable Patricia Highsmith wrote using a pseudonym, Haynes' film details the casual meeting of two women whose attraction to each other escalates into a forbidden love affair that ends sadly.

This plot isn't as groundbreaking as it was when Highsmith wrote her book back in 1952, but it is a haunting reminder of exactly how much we were repressed and not that very long ago.  Haynes handles this material with great delicacy and attention to detail.  "Carol" fairly drips with a tony ambience.  It is a visually gorgeous, visually meticulous film - thanks to Judy Becker's production design, Jesse Rosenthal's art direction, Heather Loeffler's set decoration, Sandy Powell's costumes and, of course, the pristine porcelain beauty of stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

And all of this loveliness has been captured by Edward Lachman's flawless cinematography.  Lachman's camera not only serves up frame after frame of painterly shots but also serves as a character in the film, as it moves cautiously around the two women and the people that their love impacts.

Perfect, right?  So what's the problem?  It's the lack of chemistry between Blanchett and Mara, who individually turn in delicate performances, but who never really connect.  "Carol" is ostensibly a love story but it never really conveys what each woman sees in the other, or why they are attracted to each other, or the depth of their love. It's all a blank.

Sitting through "Carol" is akin to taking in a beautiful scenic landscape.  It ultimately becomes boring.  You move on to another bit of gorgeous scenery.  Until that also becomes boring.  In the case of "Carol," one visually stunning sequence follows another.  But my response was always the same.  Is this all there is?  There's no there there. Which took me by surprise, given that "Carol" was one movie that I eagerly anticipated.

It became as pointless as its rhapsodic reviews.  It's not the first time that I've been out of step with other critics, and it certainly won't be the last.

Ah, yes, the reviews...

"Carol" is one of those entitled films that comes along every year, a movie that critics respond to with an immediate knee-jerk positive reaction, almost a blind loyalty - as if it was decided beforehand, sight unseen.

In 2013, it was "Inside Llewyn Davis."  The movie year 2014 had two such candidates that received critical fawning - "The Grand Budapest Hotel"  and "Birdman."  Like "Carol," these are fine movies but each one is far from perfect, although reviewers gave all three the benefit of doubt not accorded to other titles.  The lavish praise heaped upon them was unmediated.  They are masterworks, see?  Without question. Period.

And "Carol" has opened to the same kind of entitled reception.

It's a beautifully mounted nothing, but it is indeed beautiful. Period.

Monday, January 04, 2016

twenty fifteen

The recently deceased movie year was a strange one, oddly unmemorable in spite of its loud, grandstanding, ultimately joyless blockbusters.

The highlight, for me, was the productivity of the fearless Kristen Wigg, who seems less interested in being a Movie Star than a working actor guided by an ecelctic, willfully uncommercial taste in the projects she pursues.  She's an SNL survivor in no urgent rush to become a "brand."

So, rather than indulge in your average movie critic's wet dream of composing a Ten Best list, I'm opting for a collection of 2015 observations that I think are more fascinating than the year's movies themselves.

Here goes...

Star of the year.  Easy.  The aforementioned Ms. Wigg, who did potentially audience-alienating, but bracingly good work in "Welcome to Me," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "Nasty Baby," as well as team player stuff in the mainstream "The Martian."  Plus, she was all over the small screen in the "Wet Hot American Summer" reboot, the second season of the goofy mini-series "The Spoils Before Dying" and the straight-faced Lifetime spoof, "A Deadly Adoption" (the latter two with the equally game Will Ferrell).  And yet there was too far little of Wigg in 2015, the year that she became the female equivalent of Steve Carell.

Wigg's output is certainly more impressive than the sitcoms that the fabulously talented Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been churning out.  "Baby Mama"?  "Sisters"?  They deserve - and can do - much better.

The revolving door.  The movie year 2015 produced a number of films with good pedigrees that enjoyed their 15 minutes (if that) and then went away as if they were never made. Chief among them were those that seemed to be made with awards in mind - "Pawn Sacrifice," "Truth," "The Walk," “Suffragette,” "Steve Jobs," "Freeheld," "By the Sea," "Macbeth,"  Love and Mercy,"  "The End of the Tour,"  "99 Homes," "Black Mass," "The 33,"  "Infinitely Polar Bear,"  "Our Brand Is Crisis," "Everest," "A Walk in the Woods," "Mr. Holmes" and "I Smile Back," Sarah Silverman's curious, rather abrupt venture into dramatic territory. "About Ray," the Elle Fanning transgender drama and a favorite on the film-festival circuit, didn't even get its 15 minutes. (Reportedly, it's been shelved, at least temporarily.)

Each one opened with a certain among of fanfare and potential and then, before you knew it, the film were gone.  Kaput.  "Freeheld"?  What's that?

A notch or two below them (read: less award-worthy) were "Aloha," "Miss You Already," "Self/Less," "Rock the Kasbah," "Mississippi Grind," “Sicario,” "The Rewrite," "Remember," "Five Flights Up, "Lily and Eva," "A Little Chaos," "While We're Young," "Mistress America," “Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation,” "The Gunman," "Burnt" and "The D Train."

Star marketing.  Little on screen was as exciting or as suspenseful as how effectively Disney whipped the moviegoing public into a frenzy over a franchise that, a decade ago, everyone thought was stone cold dead.

007.  It took me an entire decade to finally realize that Daniel Craig may not be the best candidate to play James Bond.  His blue-collar discomfort was never more evident than in "Spectre," in which he wore a series of tuxedos and tight designer suits as if they were straighjackets.  Fact is, Craig isn't the least bit debonair.  He's much more interesting than that.

Sell it, baby, sell it! Anyone who watches Turner Classic Movies on a regular basis (and who doesn't?) is aware of how much air time is devoted to the relentless pitching of products - DVDs, books, eponymous film festivals, cruises, localized screenings, bus tours and now wine - wine!  The wine ads couldn't be escaped, running like clockwork, seemingly between every screening. (And, frankly, the idea of an inebriated movie geek frightens the heck out of me.)  I just wish Turner had the same commitment to its year-end TCM Remembers memorials.  This year, it manged to overlook  Martin Milner, a regular in Turner movies.

A big hand for the little lady. Quenten Tarantino's ambitious "The Hateful Eight" was greeted with conflicted reviews - praised for its attempt to revive the 70mm roadshow spectacle and criticized for the amount of blood and carnage that it spreads across the Ultra Panavision 70 screen.  But no one has called Q. T. on the grotesque sexism of his film. "The Hateful Eight" is essentially an all-male Western with (for most of its running time) only one female character, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is abused in every way possible (and Tarantino even invents a few new ways) and the audience (of mostly males?) is encouraged to laugh at every abuse.  The reason for all the abuse?  Well, she murdered someone, see?  But so have all of the self-righteous men who are slapping, kicking, belting and insulting her.  (I personally don't think any of them are "men," even though they are played by people with penises.)  Tarantino makes all of this acceptable - the abuse and the audience laughing it off - by presenting the victim as something less than human.  Leigh's character is certainly unlike anyone I've ever encountered, male or female.  She's a sub-human here, a "thing" that spits, cusses and snarls.  Venom comes out of her mouth, instead of words. So who cares how she's treated?

This is not to detract from Jennifer Jason Leigh's acute, feral performance.  She finds a certain wit in the character and works beyond the call of duty to satisfy both her director's vision and and her own actorly instincts.

I've no problem with fake blood caused by fake violence, but the way this character is presented and treated is anything but fake.  It's pure, undisguised sexism that detracts from the filmmaker's core mission to create an old-fashioned, broad-shouldered, extravagant movie-movie.

Movie of the year.  For some reason, the only film that stayed with me this year was Hiromasa Yonebayashi's "When Marnie Was There" ("Omoide no Mânî"), a small but ambitious Japanese anime about self-loathing.  And could it be a coincidence that the enigmatic title character is named after a Hitchcock heroine?  Also, there was time very well-spent with David Cronenberg's "Map to the Stars," Isobel Coixet's "Learning to Drive," Niki Caro's "McFarland, USA," Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight," Woody Allen's "Irrational Man," David O. Russell's "Joy," John Crowley's "Brooklyn," Jay Roach's "Trumbo," Asif Kapadia's "Amy," Lee Toland Kreiger's "The Age of Adeline," Alex Garland's “Ex Machina,” Kent Jones' "Hitchock/Truffaut" and... Hey, wait! Am I constructing one of those "Best of" lists here?

Am I?