Monday, February 25, 2019

the 2019 oscars ~ professional, polished, elegant

Refusing to be distracted by all the unsolicited advice of the media know-it-alls, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instead focused exclusively on streamlining and enhancing its annual awards show and the result was an Oscarcast that regained its station. It was downright regal.

During the past two decades or so, movie awards shows have multiplied at a freakish rate, diluting the importance of the Oscars and diminishing its legendary status. Snarky naysayers had written it off - but naysayers be damned! The show rebounded this year. And fabulously. The 2019 Oscars was professional, polished, elegant -and, once again, inarguably iconic.

Kudos go to Academy president John Bailey; the show's director, Glenn Weiss, and Weiss's team of (all-female) art directors Alana Billingsley, Margeaux Lapresle and Amanda Stephens. Their sets for the Dolby Theater stage were handsome and sleek, unfussy and unostentatious.

Basic. Much like the show itself.

And Bailey and company proved conclusively that an awards show does not need a host. Again: An. Awards. Show. Does. Not. Need. A. Host.

This is not a radical idea. For years, The Golden Globes got by without a host. A host gets in the way. The standard opening monologue eats up time with predictable (hit-or-miss) jokes about the stars in the audience. The 2019 Oscars had an unseen announcer who introduced the presenters who introduced ... the winners. Basic. It was all about the awards. Period.

There were any number of memorable moments. The show had an electric opening with Adam Lambert performing Queen's 1977 double-sided single, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” with original members of the band that's celebrated in Bryan Singer's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Following quickly was the three-way hilarity of Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who announced the supporting actress nominees, while assuring everyone that, no, they were absolutely, definitely not hosts.

But this was easily topped by Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry, outrageously costumed in the spirit of the award they were presenting - for costume design. The ever-game McCarthy was decked out like Olivia Colman in "The Favourite," in a gown festooned with little bunny rabbits. (You have to see the movie to understand this joke.) McCarthy even wore bunny gloves which made opening the envelope, well, a tad awkward.

And, despite the usual unavoidable omissions, the In Memoriam sequence this year was especially touching, with musical accompaniment of a composition by John Williams - played hauntingly by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.

Best of all, among the winners was the year's underdog, "Bohemian Rhapsody," a terrific film (dismissed by clueless critics) which took home the most awards of the evening - four - in the actor (Rami Malek), film editing, sound mixing, and sound editing categories. This wasn't supposed to happen. The evening was supposed to belong to "A Star Is Born."

The day before the Oscarcast, The Film Independent Spirit Awards was telecast - and the contrast could not be more dramatic or jarring. If the Oscars show is polished and professional, The Film Independent Spirit Awards is decidedly not. But I've a hunch that's the idea.
Easily the silliest movie awards show, the Spirit Awards is a gig where art-house celebs have no qualms bounding on stage to embarrass themselves, inevitably shouting some school-yard obscenities and trying desperately to be cool. This show has a host and this year it was Aubrey Plaza, who has no trouble trying to be cool because Aubrey Plaza actually is cool. She was the show's sole saving grace.

Watching it this year, it occurred to me that, unlike other awards shows with which I'm familiar, I had no idea who picks the nominees and eventual winners of the Spirit Awards. I mean we know who makes up the Oscar voting block and who votes for the SAG awards and the Directors' Guild, but who votes for the Independent Spirit Awards, which the astute Anne Thompson of IndieWire has described as "the alternative to the Oscars"?

So I reached out to friends, one of whom is a member of Film Independent, the force behind the awards. Apparently, the public - average moviegoers - makes up a sizable portion of Film Independent.

Which, I guess, makes it nothing more than a variation on The People's Choice Awards.

Anyway, if I had to compare the Indie Spirits show to a movie character it would be Baby Jane Hudson - weird and slightly terrifying. The Golden Globes, meanwhile, is like Auntie Mame - madcap and unpredictable.

And the Oscars? Easy. Margo Channing - legendary and unattainable.

Oscar! It's back on top, baby.

Note in Passing: While, the 2019 Oscarcast received enthusiastic reviews from The New York Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and IndieWire, among others, there were the usual naysayers who, this time out, complained about the length of some acceptance speeches. Bulletin! No one really has any control over how long a winner goes on or how many people he/she thanks. Jeez. It's an awards show. "Thank you's" are to be expected, see? But I doubt if any of the naysayers can appreciate or process that. It's unlikely that any of them will be in a position to win an award of any kind.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top) 

~ One of the sets on the Dolby Theater stage, designed for the 2019 Oscars by Alana Billingsley, Margeaux Lapresle and Amanda Stephens
~photography: ABC/ The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences 2019©

~Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry, in costume, presenting the costume design award 
~photography: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP  2019©

~Aubrey Plaza hosting the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards
~photography: IFC/Film Independent 2019©

Friday, February 22, 2019

the biggest company picnic ever

The Oscarcast - if you've kept up with the overheated media response to the recent changes to make the show less insufferable, less elephantine and something close to remotely watchable - is in big, big trouble.

It seems that no one could stand the show's vulgar bloat which grew bigger year after year after year - and yet no one approves of any attempts to remove the unsightly girth either. In fact, one self-appointed "Oscar analyst" (a breed of nobodies who are multiplying faster than rodents) has categorically declared that "the Oscars cannot be fixed."

The people who run The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (essentially the stage mother behind the Oscarcast) made a smart movie when they eliminated the gratuitous, Vegas-style "Hurray for Hollywood" production numbers. And despite an embarrassing plea from a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times, I like the idea of going host-less this year.

Do we really need one of ABC's late-night hosts or some stand-up comic wasting precious time with pathetic jokes at the expense of all the attention addicts in the audience? For years, the Golden Globes got along just fine without a host, only an unseen announcer introducing each pair of presenters. But then, The Hollywood Foreign felt the need to bring on Ricky Gervais to host (memorably), followed by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (also excellent) and suddenly, it was in the host-hunting mode, too.

An awards show should exist for only one reason - to dole out awards. All that's needed are for fabulous movie stars to come on stage to announce the winners who, in turn, are given ample (read: reasonable) time to thank people who have no real connection to their achievement (wives, mothers, kids, analysts, managers, press agents and workout gurus).

No frills. If done correctly, the ordeal could be done in two hours, tops.

But forget about the highs and lows of the show. What none of the show-biz pundits bother to examine is the relevance of these awards in general, particularly the Oscars (formerly known as the Academy Awards).

OK, someone has to say it: They're ultimately meaningless, all of them - and, surprisingly, most of all the Oscar. Quick! Who and what won the top Oscars last year? Boing! Time's up! I've a hunch that you couldn't answer that question without doing a hasty Google search. The winners always fade from memory - and much more quickly than they did in the past.

These days, the Oscars (both the nominations and the ultimate winners) mean only one thing to the studios: $$$$$$$$$$ - increased revenues for the type of movies that they make grudgingly, only because they win awards. And awards = money. As for the actors who win, for a few years after, they get Big Deals to star in Big Movies (the kind that don't win awards). Case in point: Brie Larson. And another: Eddie Redmayne.

I like Brie Larson but it's difficult to remember that she has an Oscar.

Glenn Close is a safe bet to win the Best Actress award Sunday night (for "The Wife") but, at age 71, it's doubtful if she'll suddenly be in demand as much as Larson and Redmayne were after their wins. Close, a seven-time loser, will win but, a few months from now, will anyone remember?

That's the way it with the Oscar these days. The sense of achievement is fleeting. It goes away. And it's good to remember that, even in its earliest incarnation, dating back to 1928, the Oscar was not about achievement.

Far from it. In fact, there are two reasons why Hollywood invented the Oscar - and neither was about art or real achievement.

One was all about, for lack of a better word, "appearances" - the desperate need to appear respectable. And the second reason involved the one element that has always driven the movie industry - power.

The industry had a rather sullied reputation back in the 1920s, seemingly promoting sex and violence and threatening to corrupt children and destroy the family unit and, by extension, the country.  There was a serious threat of government censorship that could stymie the industry.

So what better damage control than to champion all the wonderful, uplifting and artistic accomplishments of movies? By giving awards to itself, the industry somehow would acquire "class."  True, that doesn't make any sense at all but, if you think about it, the ploy worked.

The second, more pressing reason for the creation of the Oscars had to do with union-busting, which had become difficult on a studio-by-studio basis.  But, as the saying goes, United We Stand.  By banding together as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the studios became one powerful monolithic structure and the awards themselves personified this.

The Oscar became a symbol.  And the less-than-subtle implication was that, if someone was a member of a union, that person would be ineligible to vie for an award. The Academy originally consisted almost solely of studio executives who selected the nominees and winners, rewarding those who played along. It was not uncommon for the wives, mistresses and girlfriends of the executives to win the top acting awards. 

One of the unexpected bonuses of all this was increased box office - money again. Big Money. An Oscar-winning film or performance proved Hollywood had "class" and, in turn, impressed the paying public.  All of this has contributed to the movie industry's preening, overbearing self-regard.

The Oscar - a shrewd idea that's been a win-win situation for the movie industry for 90 years now, making the award bigger with each decade, but as we've learned, not necessarily better. Its history has been conveniently eradicated by Hollywood and kept from those fans still in the  thrall of it.

But the thrill is gone.

Note in Passing:  Curiously, the various movie unions never went away - and actors, long under the thumbs of the studios, eventually unionized themselves, forming The Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Which now gives out its own awards!  More is not enough in Hollywood. Anyway, the studios may have lost their union-busting fight but they won the respectability - and the respect - that they so desperately coveted, thanks to the Oscars.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.


~A winner seemingly pleasuring his Oscar

Monday, February 18, 2019

cinema obscura: billy wilder's "fedora" (1978)

While many of his contemporaries were slowing down with only an occasional film every now and then, Billy Wilder remained a vital, prolific filmmaker, particularly in the 1950s and '60s, churning out title after title.

His only equal at the time was Alfred Hitchcock.

In 1957 alone, Wilder produced a wildly diverse trio - "Love in the Afternoon," "The Spirit of St. Louis" and "Witness for the Prosecution."

But after "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966, he abruptly pulled back. It was four years later when he returned with the troubled but appealing "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," followed another two years by "Avanti!," a sophisticated but rather middle-aged "romp" based on a semi-successful play by Samuel Taylor. Wilder was beginning to slow down, too.

He would make only three more films, two of them rather lethargic Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau teamings, "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy," the latter being Billy Wilder's final film. But sandwiched in-between those two was 1978's compelling "Fedora," an attempt by Wilder to return to form. More accurately, it was a companion piece to his triumphant "Sunset Blvd." (1950), replete with the same leading man - William Holden. It was nearly 30 years later -  and Wilder and, to a degree, Holden were out to prove that they still had it in them to make a seminal, influential movie about the moviemaking process. Only this time, the pervasive eeriness of the material wasn't simple camp. "Fedora" is genuinely eerie - actually downright creepy.

Once again, Holden plays a washed-up movie opportunist hoping to nudge a retired, reclusive actress - the Polish-born Fedora - toward a comeback with his new version of "Anna Karenina." But something is amiss, strange.

And when Fedora dies suddenly, after jumping in front of a moving train, Holden attempts to ferret out the ... "truth." That word comes with ominous underpinnings in this atmospheric, chilly affair which is not quite as companionable as "Sunset Blvd." And while Wilder opted for color cinematography (courtesy of Gerry Fisher's painterly hues), rather than black-&-white, he conjurs up dreamy shadow imagery that efficiently distills his film's disturbing themes. (A French-German co-production, "Fedora" is essentially the European sibling of "Sunset Blvd.")

Wilder surrounded Holden with both a top international cast - Marthe Keller and Hildegard Kneff as two incarnations of Fedora, along with José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Henry Fonda, Mario Adorf, Arlene Francis and Michael York - and also a hugely photogenic backdrop, the Greek Island of Corfu.

Stephen Collins is a good match-up as the young version of the Holden character in flashbacks.

The film's Big Secret - concocted by Tom Tryon (the late film-actor-turned-writer) for a short story in his 1978 collection, "Crowned Head" - remains provocative. For the occasion, Wilder adapted Tryon's story with his long-time writing partner, I.A.L. "Izzy" Diamond, and these vets make it clear that the aim of their collaboration is not for the modernity of the other films at the time but for something ageless - not unlike "Sunset Blvd."

Their efforts here almost matched their previous project. Almost.

Note in Passing: In his book, "Conversations with Wilder," Cameron Crowe writes, "Wilder is quick to point out that his original casting plan would have served the picture better." I believe, if my recollections are correct, that his original plan was to cast Vanessa Redgrave and her mother Rachel Kempson is the roles ultimately played by Keller and Kneff.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top) 

~Artwork for "Fedora"

~William Holden and Marthe Keller in a scene from "Fedora"
~Mario Adorf and Holden in another scene from the film
~photography: Lorimar/United Artists 1978©

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"the young and the restless," literally

True, this site is devoted largely to theatrical films - misunderstood and neglected movies, to be specific. Nevertheless, I've indulged myself occasionally by commenting on television and even commercials. 

Movies, TV and commercials - they're all relatives of sorts, whose common link is the camera's eye. Which brings me to "The Young and the Restless," one of the best shows on television, daytime or prime time. Period. 

I'd also pit it against any movie these days. Given the choice of a trip to the multiplex or relaxing time spent at home on the sofa watching Y&R, there's no contest. It is certainly one of the crown jewels in CBS' schedule.

Not that the show always manages to keep up its incredible momentum. Lately, since the beginning of the year, Y&R has hit some awkward road bumps in its storytelling, an unusual disappointment that's been balanced by the terrific performances of some of its younger cast members.

"The Young and the Restless"... Rarely has the show's title seemed more prophetic and descriptive than at this moment. I'll get to the current "restless" state of its narrative in a bit - but first, some praise for its "young" - Hunter King, Melissa Ordway, Loren Lott, Zach Tinker, Sasha Calle, Camryn Grimes, Noah Alexander Gerry, Lexie Stevenson, Cait Fairbanks and especially Michael Mealor. 

Wonderful young actors, all of them, who are ready-made for movies, again especially Mealor. 

Actually, Hunter King has already had what I consider to be a breakthrough role in movies - or one that should have been. She is commanding and, more importantly, surprisingly nuanced as a high-school mean girl in Amy Weber's 2015 "A Girl Like Her," an excellent film about the damage of bullying done in a faux documentary style that required its cast to give performances that feel improvised.

On Y&R, as spoiled rich girl Summer, King plays snark to the hilt, with a touch of pain around the edges. Summer is something of a lost soul and, as played by King, difficult to dislike. Her acting duets on the show with Camryn Grimes, who is ostensibly her polar opposite, are infrequent but telling. Grimes' Mariah character has rougher edges than Summer but they share essentially the same brand of pain and the same appreciation of snarky retorts. Both want affection but demand it in alienating ways. Grimes has nailed the idea of "attitude" - no-nonsense and in-your-face. Her character would never resort to flirting the way Summer does.

Both Loren Lott and Zach Tinker are relatively new on the show and are, more or less, untested. But they both have plunged head-first into their roles - as a fledgling music producer Ana and hopeful singer Finn, respectively - tearing into them with focus and enthusiasm. And it helps considerably that their characters are incredibly well-written - which can't be said of the material given to the show's older actors of late. Lott, in particular, is wildly charismatic and Tinker can go seamlessly from fake confidence to insecurity without missing a beat. And in tandem? They have chemistry.

I've written about Melissa Ordway in a previous piece but it bears repeating. It's always a privilege to watch a performer grow in stature and hone their talent in ways that are totally unexpected and exciting. Ordway who, about five years or so ago, was a charming ingenue as Abby, is currently at the top of her game. Her acting is naturalistic and basic, free of frills, with line readings that are flawless. Better yet, she says all there is to say with her gorgeous, penetrating eyes. When Ordway is on screen, the viewer's eyes can't help but go directly to her. She's a Movie Star in the making.

Talented Sasha Calle is also new on the show and, initially, her character Lola was so engaging that she was like an instant friend. She was an exciting find. But for some bizarre reason, the writers elected to make this Latina a conflicted virgin, as well as a high-maintenance girlfriend - way too high - bent on giving a difficult time to a guy who clearly loves her. The character has become an unnecessary annoyance which is a disservice to the groundwork developed by Calle. The writers have piled so much baggage on an originally carefree, playful character, making her seem middle-aged now, that the results may be irrevocable.

Cait Fairbanks as Tessa and Noah Alexander Gerry and Lexie Stevenson as the charming twins Charlie and Mattie have much less screen time - and it doesn't help that Fairbanks (who has a Kristen Stewart quality about her) is saddled with a virtually unplayable character.

Finally, there's Michael Mealor who plays preppy Kyle Abbott, a character who came on the show with an acquisitive, smacked-ass attitude but, thanks to the writing but largely to Mealor's performance, has become so much more. Mealor has been memorable in one scene after another, regardless of his acting partner. Much like Melissa Ordway, he keeps getting better and better - so good that I now consider him the star of the show. (Sorry, Eric Braeden!) He deserves his image in the opening credits by now. In fact, given that the credits keep showcasing the same usual suspects over and over again, they should have been updated ages ago.

So much for the "young" part of "The Young and the Restless." Now for the "restless part" - the bad news. In a word, it's the writing - as well as some unfortunate new hires - but mostly it's the writing, which has been askew for so long that it's now difficult to remember Y&R at its peak.

Bad ideas abound...

Bad Idea #1: The murder of J.T. and its botched aftermath. It was a clever idea to have four of the show's top female characters accidentally collaborate on the killing but the idea wore out its welcome several months ago. "Do you think J.T. is still alive?," the women now nervously (and constantly) ask each. Frankly, who cares?

Bad Idea #2: Keeping characters who should be terminated. (1) Tessa, a problematic character since Day One. Her lesbian relationship with Mariah never worked because the writers weren't brave enough to do anything but tiptoe around it. But Fairbanks is too good to lose. Fix her character already! (2) The Rosales Family - Rey, Arturo and the truly awful Mia (but not Lola). This laudable effort to be inclusive and diverse backfired because the writers let these characters take over the show immediately. (3) Kerry, a stick-figure character hastily invented so that Peter Bergman's Jack Abbott could have a love interest. Why does Jack always need love interest anyway? He's pushing 70, right? So if he absolutely must have a lady friend, why not someone more age appropriate? It's been revealed that Kerry now desperately wants a baby - preferably Jack's, of course!

Bad Idea #3: Always keeping The Newman Family on the front burner. Look, they've become tiresome. Plus, are audiences these days really expected to have any sympathy or empathy for an entitled rich old patriarch who thinks only of himself, does as he pleases and gets away with it? Sure, Victor has been sent to prison for breaking one law after another but he always gets released. Always. It's boring and completely devoid of any suspense. I mean, it's as if he can't sit behind bars for more than five episodes, six max. But the writers like to tease us with the possibility of Victor - or Nikki - being incarcerated at regular intervals.

Bad Idea #4: Making established characters cringe-worthy. (1) Phyllis. She's always seething now. Not exactly attractive. When exactly was the last time she smiled? (2) Nick. What was wrong with him being the hipster owner of a dive bar? Now, as a newly made-over businessman, he looks like he wears way too much cologne. (3) Nick & Phyllis as the show's official awful couple. Their worst moment together (among many): Playing a ridiculous Valentine's Day game where if one of them gave the wrong answer to a question, he/she had to take off a piece of clothing. This is your average soap's idea of "sexy."

Bad Idea #5: Toxic masculinity. Either knowingly or inadvertently, it has been introduced to the show. Or was it always there, only now much more obvious? Well, there's Victor, of course, who may have invented male toxicity. He has no redeemable qualities. Not one.  He loves his family, you say? Not really. He relentlessly tries to control them, but that ain't love. Then there's Nick, who now seems bent on being like Victor even though daddy emptied his trust fund not so long ago. Cain and Rey, meanwhile, are old-world chauvinists. Cain, in particular, can go from being a pig to a prig, but fans seems to love him. Why? Rey sleeps with a wife he detests when he says (or thinks) he loves Sharon. The day he showed up to declare that love, he ended up interrogating her. Huh? Then there's Rey's sleazy little brother, Arturo, who opportunistically slept with Nikki Newman before hooking up with her stepdaughter, Abby; and the know-it-all but clueless Devon Hamilton; and Michael Baldwin with his self-satisfied smirk; and Jack Abbott who is given to condescending mansplaining (not good), and Billy Abbott who seems unable to sit anywhere without manspreading (definitely not good). Am I imagining that all of these male characters, in one way or another, are (how shall it put this?) offensive?

Bad Idea #6: Firing Doug Davidson, who played the show's one tolerable adult male characters, the only one. Davidson and  his character, police commissioner Paul Williams, were sidelined to make way for dull Rey. Aside from Davidson playing the show's one recognizably likable male character, he is also a wonderful actor: His scenes with the great Stacy Haiduk as his sad, lost sister Patty were like a master class in acting. Bring him back.

"The Young and the Restless" may have developed problems during the past year, but Doug Davidson certainly wasn't one of them. It's the writing!

Anyway, someone involved with "The Young and the Restless" got the bright idea to fix what wasn't broken. Hopefully, someone else there can now do some serious damage control and restore it to its greatness.

But even when it's mediocre, "The Young and the Restless" still has the abiility to hold us in its grip. It's just that once - not that long ago - it was so much more adept and accomplished at meeting that goal. 

Note in Passing: During the past year, "The Young and the Restless" lost several of its top actresses. One by one, a crucial performer dropped out. The first to call it quits was Melissa Claire Egan, who had the rare knack of having chemistry with every other actor on the show. Next was Mishael Morgan, an actress the show could not afford to lose. And then Eileen Davidson, who could play a strong woman like no one else. And then the invaluable Judith Chapman and then fan favorite Christel Kalil. Beth Maitland, always a treat to watch, and Marla Adams, a major actress, pop up occasionally but way too infrequently. Infrequent? It's as if Adams' character has already been killed off. Only the reliable Sharon Case has remained unscathed. Her consistently watchable performance has been the main reason to tune into "The Young and the Restless" recently (along with those remarkable young actors).

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

* * * * *
(from top) 

~The logo for "The Young and the Restless"
~CBS 2019©
~A few of the younger cast members of "The Young and the Restless" - Hunter King, Camryn Grimes, Melissa Ordway, Sasha Calle and Michael Mealor

~The pros: Doug Davidson, Stacy Haiduk and Sharon Case