Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Universal Language

Last weekend my wife and I had time to watch movies together, something that doesn't happen as often as we'd like. After working, making dinner, cleaning up and waiting for everything and everyone to settle down, we usually have but a couple of hours of free time with which to paint and write, and we do. But on Memorial Day weekend we found time for not one but two movies together. We chose La Ceremonie and Topsy-Turvy and were, of course, more than happy with both choices as both are exceptional films. But what I kept asking myself, again and again, after watching them was, "Why didn't these get any acting nominations?"

I'm not going to go off (again) on how awful the selections are for the Oscars, year in and year out, or bemoan the fact that not one film nominated for Best Picture in 1999 can hold a candle to Topsy-Turvy, which wasn't nominated for the top award at all. I just want to say, quickly and cleanly, that the Academy members really need to start appreciating foreign language performances and films more often, as well as english language films from outside the United States, especially now that we are finally entering into a stage where practically everything is available to practically anyone who wants to see it.

They've done better by Britain over the years (you know, they use the same language and all, not that weird foreign stuff you have to read on the screen) but still, how any informed voting body can watch Topsy-Turvy and not find it in them to nominate anyone/everyone from the film is beyond me. Still, British film, on the whole, does fairly well, as witnessed by last year's winner, The King's Speech, for Best Actor, Director and Picture.

However, when it comes to foreign language, it's not just worse, it's downright soul-crushing. There are three winners in the history of the award: Sophia Loren for Two Women, Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose and [cringe] Roberto Benigni for [major cringe] Life is Beautiful. That's it. That's the sum total for foreign language performances taking home the Oscar. Okay, there are actually some others but they come from American films in which the performance is in another language (Robert de Niro for The Godfather, Part II, Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds, and so on - the complete list here). That's different than being in a movie made and released in another part of the world.

So after watching these two films, Topsy-Turvy and La Ceremonie, I kept asking, "Why no acting nods? Why?" Because I'm here to tell you that everyone in Topsy-Turvy is superb and that Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire delivered the two finest performances of 1995 (date of European release) or 1996 (date of American release) in La Ceremonie and to not be nominated is a crime. But this has been happening and will continue to happen.

Back in 2006 Carice van Houten was stellar in Black Book and yet managed to evade the notice of the voting members of the Academy. And if you think it's a current trend (after all, Sophia won back in the sixties, remember?) then how about Giulietta Masina? She should have been nominated for La Strada, should have won for Nights of Cabiria and given a lifetime achievement award for everything else. But it was not to be. She was never nominated. Ever.

Or Anna Karina, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Anderson, Isabelle Adjani or Chieko Higashiyama. Oh, there are some nominations in there but no wins. Or how about Norma Aleandro for The Official Story? She wasn't even nominated!

Ah, hell, what's the point? I suppose now I could list all the male actors ignored but this isn't about ticking off each individual snub. You know it happens and that it will continue to happen and, really, it's time for it to stop. Foreign films used to be pretty damn inaccessible outside of big cities but now, even if it doesn't hit the local multi-mega-plex, it can be sent to your home or streamed directly to your television for a small fee.

It's time for Oscar to adapt. It already has the prestige of being the biggest award for film out there. Now, it could become (possibly) respectable by nominating from the world instead of just what played in Peoria. Drop the Foreign Language Oscar and start nominating those films alongside the Best Picture nominees. I'd love to see a non-English language film win once in a while. It would announce the Oscars were about the best in film from all over the world, not just the states. But even if that doesn't happen soon, and it won't, can we at least start acknowledging the great work of so many great actors who have the "misfortune" of not portraying characters who speak english? Personally, I don't care what language they speak as long as the performance is good and when it is, everyone understands anyway. The language of a great performance is universal.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Mom, a man just died."

There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Homer are watching a McBain movie and cheering on McBain as he kills one enemy after another. Wanting to join in, Marge quips, after watching McBain snap a man's neck as he hurtles through the sky in a jet, "Now that's what I call breakneck speed!" She is only able to savor her quip momentarily as Bart turns to her and scolds, "Mom, a man just died."

Similarly, in the deleted scenes from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, friends of anonymous henchmen, killed in the movie without a thought, mourn the death of their friends, husbands and fathers.

The joke in both, of course, is that the onscreen death of a faceless, nameless character in an action movie is suddenly given the kind of weight and thoughtful consideration normally reserved for a central character, one in which the audience cares for deeply. And the joke of my movie-watching life, as I grow ever older, is that I give random, nameless and faceless deaths onscreen the same kind of consideration The Simpsons and Austin Powers did as a clever ironic statement, only with me, there's no irony.

It's actually not all that new, having started years ago, but has grown increasingly worse as I get older. It first manifested itself in childhood as I wondered about this or that person being killed by the likes of James Bond and wondering, briefly, fleetingly, "What's his story?"

The first time it ever truly took hold of me was during the viewing of a perfectly wretched catastrophe of a movie, Nothing but Trouble. It was the mid-nineties, I was up late flipping through the channels and on HBO there was this movie, written and directed by Dan Aykroyd, and I quickly realized it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen. Needless to say, I kept watching. Like the driver slowing down to see how bad the carnage is alongside the road after a traffic accident, I wanted to see just how deep into the abyss of badness this movie would plunge.

Early on some hot shots in a sports car get pulled over by the lone police officer in town, John Candy. They're snorting coke and have plenty of drugs and it's implied they deal. They've got two women with them and they're armed. Candy arrests them and brings them before the horrifying town judge/dictator, played by Dan Aykroyd, who summarily executes them. They are sent onto a treadmill/ride into a shredder. This is played as a joke.

Okay, time for some personal background, for both me and Dan. For my part, I have a sister who got heavily involved in drugs in her twenties and thirties. When I say heavily, I don't mean she smoked some pot like you or I did in college or had the occasional hash brownies. No. I mean she was addicted to all manner of drugs, particularly cocaine, and unlike addicts you may have known, my sister married a drug dealer and was pursued, surveilled and eventually arrested by the F.B.I. After turning evidence and being released she sunk into alcoholism and eventually, unable to hold down a job, moved back in with my parents. The drugs she did had severe physical repercussions and now she suffers from brain seizures but there is a plus side to all this: She completely cleaned herself up. She's been sober now for more than eleven years, and while she still lives with my parents thanks to her neurological condition, she is drug-free and helping out my elderly parents as they get older and their health declines.

Now for Dan. He was close friends with John Belushi and despises drug use and drug dealers. Thanks to Cathy Evelyn Smith serving up a too potent speedball, his friend John Belushi lost his life. While she served time for this on manslaughter charges, it can never bring Belushi back. His life is gone, forever. Dan Aykroyd hates dealers. I get that and I sympathize. And I understand, that's where the scene comes from. It comes from the anger and hatred he holds for people who deal in death, at least in some cases.

But when I watched that scene, all I could think of was, "Those two women, why'd they get killed? Because they made the wrong choice? Lots of people make perfectly horrific choices and recover, grow up and turn themselves around. They chose to be with these loser drug dealers, like my sister did. I don't think they deserve to die for that."

Now, I know, it's all a little heavy for a throwaway scene in a perfectly rotten movie and perhaps you're thinking, "Greg, geez, come on, lighten up!" And you're right because I'm saying it too, which is why I'm writing this piece in the first place. Because what started in Nothing but Trouble has continued and I repeatedly find myself asking, even of several supposedly "bad" characters, "That person just died, doesn't anyone care?"

And to be sure this is all perfectly understood, I'm NOT talking about central characters or major supporting characters or even minor supporting characters. That's NOT what I'm talking about. With those you DO feel something and often are meant to. I'm talking about characters that the writer, director and actors want to be nameless and faceless. The characters of whom the audience is completely indifferent. Characters played by actors you will never know and whose credit listings are along the lines of "Man #3." I'm talking about THOSE characters. More often than not, lately, their onscreen deaths really bother me.

The most recent example of this came in the movie Kick-Ass, which came to theatres already swirling in controversy over the language and violence dispensed by the eleven year old character Hit Girl, played by then 13 year-old Chloƫ Moretz. The movie (from the comic book of the same name) deals with ordinary people taking on the personas of super heroes in the real world, a world filled with violence and danger. There is no "cartoon" violence in the movie. Blood flies, guts spill. It is exceptionally violent and while some critics, most notably Roger Ebert, found it morally offensive, I did not, unless you count the death of a certain nameless, faceless character. Then maybe I do but for the reasons I've outlined here, not because Kick-Ass is any different in this respect than any other action movie. It's just that in Kick-Ass, it seems more real and, thus, more impactful.

The death to which I'm referring is particularly troublesome for me because of another important plot line set up by the film. Here's the setup: Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a New York teenager who decides to become a superhero named Kick-Ass. Among his first assignments is to help out a girl he long been secretly in love with, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca). She's been mixed up with a guy she wants to stop seeing and asks Kick-Ass to get that message to him. Kick-Ass goes to see the guy, Rasul (Kofi Natei) who is in an apartment with several other unsavory characters and they all appear to be drug-dealers. Kick-Ass is grabbed by them and about to be killed when eleven year old Hit Girl shows up and proceeds to viciously slaughter all of them with a mounted hunting knife. Finally, she turns her attention to the lone female in the apartment who breaks a bottle to try and defend herself before running to the door. She then tries to get it open, terrified, until Hit Girl pulls the knife mount apart, revealing another knife inside, and proceeds to skewer the poor girl before pulling the blades out and casually walking away as her lifeless body falls to the floor.

Ha, ha! She hooked up with the wrong people and now will never have a chance to learn from that and grow as a person because an 11-year-old girl decided it was time for her to die, never to experience life again. Ha, ha! Oh man, that shit is funny, huh?

Okay, it's not that funny but could be depending on your point of view, I guess. The problem with this scene is that the whole reason Kick-Ass is taking on Rasul in the first place is because Katie, the good girl of the movie, was mixed up with him! In other words, the movie is flippantly killing off one girl with Rasul, treating it as a joke that it believes the audience will follow along for the ride because, after all, she's mixed up with a drug dealer, so let her die! But wait! Katie was too! The whole thing feels more like bullshit Hollywood moralizing than anything else.

It's the same bizarre duality Hollywood has exhibited for years: Film folks get mixed up in drugs but portray people mixed up in drugs as evil. Film folks enjoy unimaginable wealth but often portray the wealthy as evil. Film folks sleep with a great many people and... well, you get the picture. There's a lot of projection going on in Hollywood, and not just the kind where reels get changed.

Of course, let's be honest: We've all laughed at people getting killed in films. As referenced earlier, the Bond films have made an artform out of turning a nameless character's death into a joke. One of the more famous examples comes from the beginning of Goldfinger in which Bond electrocutes a man in a bathtub and walks away shaking his head saying, "Shocking." This guy, whoever he was, was clearly in the business of killing people and, frankly, I don't care what happens to him. Likewise for the dealers in Kick-Ass. They are, we can assume, physically dangerous men who have killed and will kill again. It's the girl I have problems killing. The girl who, like Katie, hooked up with someone bad but unlike Katie, wasn't smart enough to unhook herself in time. Had I been the director, I would have had her get the door open and flee. We'd never see her again and leave the theatre thinking, perhaps, she turned her life around after that terrifying incident. Despite all the violence, mayhem and bloodshed in that scene, it is only her death that bothers me and I think it was a mistake to leave it in.

But lest we think this is some new trend in movies or that my dismay is reserved only for the female cohorts of drug dealers, I should say it's been going on since the beginning of cinema. In the film Heaven Can Wait, not the 1978 Warren Beatty film but the 1943 Don Ameche film, the lead character played by Don Ameche is speaking with Satan, played by the great Laird Cregar. As Ameche speaks with an elderly woman (assigned to Hell in the afterlife) Cregar bores of her and presses a button that opens a trap door releasing her to her eternal torment with a blood-curdling scream. After this I couldn't focus on anything else in the movie. All I could think was, "Right now, at this moment, she's being tortured, brutalized and tormented. This will go on forever and why? Because she was a gossip?" That's what's implied: She will be physically tortured for eternity because she was a busybody. And her release into Hell by Cregar is played as a joke. Had Lubitsch made her a rapist or a murderer or a gangster or, fuck, anything but a gossip I would have taken to the joke better. But by making her so innocuous, the joke was given an unfortunate weight, a weight that works against comedy. Well, for weirdos like me who focus on this kind of thing.

For the most part, this is all reserved for moments where a person's death is played off as a joke in a reasonably realistic way. That is, Rowan Atkinson backing off of the cliff in Hot Shots, Part Deux is played so ridiculously that the only thing to do is laugh since no one in the movie feels real in any way, and isn't meant to. But when the guy with the fancy swordwork gets casually shot by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think, "Damn, it's over for him now. He's dead." Of course, I laugh at the scene anyway, just like I'm supposed to, probably because Spielberg is skilled enough to keep just enough distance from it to make it work. The death isn't terrifying (like the woman sucked down to her torment screaming in Heaven Can Wait) or bloodthirsty (like the drug moll in Kick-Ass) and the swordsman isn't in closeup when it happens. But it doesn't mean I still don't think about it, if only for a moment.

A part of me is utterly annoyed with myself for these new found feelings of empathy for faceless extras in the movies but another part of me thinks it's perfectly normal and I'm happy I don't have a cold, mechanical reaction to anyone's death onscreen. I'm well into middle-age, have children on their way out the door and into their own lives and a lovely wife with whom I look forward to growing old. If that means I spend a little more time thinking about life in a way that makes casual onscreen death seem unnerving, so be it. It's not going to kill me.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Still Reeling (in the movies)

It's been a tough month, what with obligations and parties and the busiest time of the year at work and promises to keep and miles to go and my horse thinking it queer and, really, just the whole goddamn thing. Seriously, go find a kit, get yourself a caboodle (Amazon has 'em cheap), combine the two and that's what I got in things to keep me busy. But I'm still watching, still thinking around the clock about movies, still trying to get excited for something, anything in this, my most dreaded movie season, the summer season. Really, there's just nothing I ever want to see in the summer season. It doesn't mean I don't usually find something worthwhile in the end but I never expect to and usually can't muster up enough excitement to look very hard anyway.

At home, I wait it out by watching, scanning, perusing or just glancing at hundreds of movies, all those now available to me on streaming whenever I want. Here are some things I observed last week:

Escape From New York: By god, it's still entertaining. It's still stupid as hell, too (I mean, seriously, the architecture, the center of commerce, the history, all of it thrown away to make a prison?! Hahahahaaaaa!) but damn, it's entertaining. The one area where the "New York as Prison" worked best when it was released was the wink and a nudge joke John Carpenter was making about New York already being halfway there anyway. Now, though, with the downtown area glossed up, Disneyfied and fun for the whole family, most people probably wouldn't realize there was ever a joke there.

The Blue Angel (Original German Version): The scene where the Professor (Emil Jannings) drops the cigarettes is a great moment. For those unfamiliar, he has to crawl under the table to pick them up while Lola (Marlene Dietrich) stays seated at the table smoking hers. Meanwhile her legs are down there, in his face, driving him crazy. It's a great shot by Sternberg, the once dignified professor, on his hands and knees, under the table at her feet while she goes about her business. Talk about defining a relationship in purely visual terms.

Easy Virtue: Silent Hitchcock melodrama. Not as bad as I'd heard. By any other director would have seemed decent. By Hitchcock's standards, fairly sluggish and dull. But the line Noel Coward pens for the closer is the ultimate in self-pitying mega-drama!

Greedy: Not much to say here except this: Phil Hartman, god what a loss!

Algiers: The moment where Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer first spy each other is fantastic. The camera focuses in on Lamarr lips as they widen to a smile. Boyer, meanwhile, is doing nothing but eyeing her jewelry.

When We Were Kings: The final fight and its analysis is a joy to behold but it should be noted: Norman Mailer does the worst Ali impersonation in the history of ever.

Finally, Ed Howard, the most prolific unpaid movie reviewer on the internet, has a music club now which I will be participating in but, alas, not this time or, at least, not on the first day. I dropped the ball, simply no way around it. I didn't get the album in time (though I do have it now) and still haven't listened to it what with everything going on. But, if you have listened to and/or know well the album Heart of the Congos by The Congos, by all means, hop over to Only the Cinema and join in the discussion. I'm sorry I missed it but will chime in later once I've listened to the album and formed something resembling a cogent opinion.

That's all for now. Back to work, watching movies and listening to The Congos.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Blog With No Cheer or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse

I'm not exactly blazing new trails in website posting around these parts lately but, hey, I got a lot going on. I mean, there's going up to Massachusetts to get my daughter from college, planning a birthday party for my other daughter (actually, just trying to sort out what she told me was going to happen and trying to understand how it's all going to work and then there's this scavenger hunt map that has to be made and... oh, never mind) and on top of all that, the world's going to end on Saturday in an epic battle between someone's idea of good and evil. So Saturday might be a little slow but since I'm sure I'll be left behind (ahem), I promise things will pick up on Sunday.

Just a few thoughts until then:

Watched The Verdict again after Sidney Lumet's recent death. Wow, what an incredible career performance by Paul Newman!

Watched Raging Bull again recently too. Kept watching the scene in front of the tv where Jake (Robert De Niro) says, "That's not what I heard," and then Joey (Joe Pesci) says, "What'd you hear," and then Jake says, "I heard some things... I heard things." Made my wife and oldest daughter watch it too. Repeatedly. Did things like point and say, "Wait... here it comes." I keep saying it around the house, "I heard some things." Can no longer watch that scene without chuckling. That shouldn't be the case but, sadly, it is. Still think it's an excellent movie but other Scorsese flicks are much better.

Enjoy watching the opening credit sequences from Mission: Impossible on Netflix Instant. Don't care much for the actual episodes but each opening credit sequence is unique to that episode so you don't really have to watch the show. When I do, I remember my prepubescent fascination with Barbara Bain. She played Cinnamon. No, seriously, her name was Cinnamon.

Really enjoy watching the opening cattle call audition scene from All That Jazz. Did a Facebook status update based on the lyrics of On Broadway. Yeah, I'm pretty fucking sad.

Now have thousands of followers on my tumblr site and having a great time doing it. It's allowed me to combine my old Unexplained Cinema site, featuring shots from movies, with The Invisible Edge's more parody filled posts. There are a lot of younger bloggers there than me so it feels a little different than here. The people I follow (hoodoothatvoodoo, mudwerks, vintagegal, alleyesandears, cupcake katie, amphora) are terrific bloggers who post some incredible artwork and photography. I rather enjoy it and look forward to keeping it up.

You know a favorite moment of mine in a movie (and, no, it's not something amazing or portentous or telling): When everyone goes into the chocolate room in the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Gene Wilder, just before he starts singing Pure Imagination says, "Hold your breath... make a wish... count to three" and then he goes into the song. That's a great moment and he does a wonderful job with the song.

Got the John Barry box set about a month ago. Look, I know I loved the guy's music before but, damn, it's really something! An incredible listen, over and over and over again. And Beat Girl is all kinds of mod rock awesome!

Well, that's it for now. Back to work, preparing for parties and the apocalypse. If I have any revelations before then, I'll let you know.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Everything Goes to Hell

Walking to downtown Silver Spring today I see the entire public area in front of the Civic Center taken over by some goddamn Cars 2 event sponsored by State Farm in which hundreds of parents are standing in line with their kids to get a glimpse of those "adorable" cars from Cars, or something like that. Anyway, I start thinking about how everything goes to hell, just like Tom Waits said. I mean, here I am, in Silver Spring, a great city, diverse, progressive, open, cultured... well, maybe we should scratch that last one. Maybe it isn't very cultured anymore, or maybe it never was. I can't really say.

I love the AFI Silver Theatre and the films it gives this community a chance to see but the downtown area is turning into some kind of fucking corporate variation of a Disney universe, just like Time Square in New York. Seriously, I'm walking downtown with my wife for a drink and I get bombarded with some candy-coated bullshit paraded into town by Pixar, the studio where imagination and creativity go to die. But this isn't about the dreaded Pixar so much as how utterly soulless downtown Silver Spring is becoming (hmmm, maybe it is about Pixar).

Noodles and Company. Ben and Jerry's. Red Lobster. Macaroni Grill. And they're packed! Actually, I'm happy about that because that's good for business. I mean, hell, I like a thriving community and the central Downtown section of Silver Spring is thriving. They turned it around and now the city has a nice robust economy.

But can we just stop there? Do we have to keep going? Do we have to let greed consume all?!

Silver Spring keeps buying up the next street, and the next and the next like a Zardoz god-head with an ever increasing appetite for grain. Every street with any kind of local flavor gets bought up and ousted so a new high rise can take its place. Now they've bought up Bonifant Street, a great and diversified street that has everything from a used bookstore and tattoo parlor to an Ethiopian cafe and a gun shop! Wow, I can hardly wait until those shops get replaced by a high rise with a TCBY Yogurt in the lobby. Hey, Silver Spring, FUCK YOU!

I don't even want to think about the desperately limited imaginations of the white bread wonders in charge of making these screamingly beige decisions. The same folks, I would assume, who believe that Avatar and Up are the apex of art cinema.

It's okay, I guess. I've got Wheaton and the People's Republic of Takoma Park just around the corner and that's where I'm spending my time these days anyway. It's just too bad that people can't accept a thriving downtown and say, "This is good. We've done it and now we're finished." They have to keep going and going until it all looks like every other goddamn whitewashed city in every other goddamn state in America. It's too bad. I guess everything really does go to hell.