Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sexism and the Oscars

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry premiere (Adam Schlesinger, director Alison Klayman, Karl Katz, and Julie Goldman)

Last year several excellent documentaries were not nominated by the Oscars, two of which were directed by women. In 2012, Queen of Versailles, directed by Lauren Greenfield, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry by Alison Klayman were both critically acclaimed but not even in the running for best documentary. 

Look what happened this year:
A couple of surprises came in the feature documentary category, where Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” a personal yarn about her own dysfunctional family, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish,” about allegations of abuse of animals and trainers at the SeaWorld parks, were left out. Both films appeared on list after list of favorites. (NYT)
Two films directed by women, AGAIN mysteriously snubbed? I also found it strange that The Invisible War, which focused predominantly on the sexual assault of women, lost to the male-focused Searching for Sugar Man.

(I must note that I saw Searching for Sugar Man but not The Invisible War. Sugar Man is a remarkable story, charming if initially hagiographic, but The Invisible War actually inspired policy change.)

I am unfamiliar with the politics of nominating and selecting best pictures. However, isn't this snub of four prominent documentaries over two years, all directed by women, a blatant example of sexism? Not having seen most of the examples, I can't say whether the movies deserve to win or even be nominated based on quality. But we all know the Oscars have little imagination. A movie doesn't have to be groundbreaking to become an Oscar nominee. 

I will speak for Queen of Versailles, though: it is one of the best documentaries I have seen, certainly one of the best films I saw in 2012. A timely, funny, and dark take on the American dream, it follows it's extremely wealthy subjects with subtlety and precision. The movie speaks volumes about gender relations, the state of the economy, ambition, inequality, and a variety of other issues.

Other worthy movies, including those I consider modern classics, have been ignored by the Academy. Most of them are not directed by women. But the absence of these female-directed documentaries should be noticed.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The second part of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy will arrive in about one month, so I am revisiting my experience watching the first movie in the theatre. An Unexpected Journey is entertaining but bloated and frustratingly familiar. 

The story follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) years before his younger cousin Frodo's adventures in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo's mentor, drops by one day to take Bilbo on an adventure. More than a dozen dwarves join them in an attempt to reclaim their treasure and homeland from a greedy dragon. Jackson doesn't just follow J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit. He adds tidbits from other Tolkien books to flesh out the story.

The film's ambiance is jarring, alternately somber and colorfully childish. The latter is the more endearing, mainly because it is more original. Many shots and scenes come across as a worn imitation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Action scenes are repetitive and confusing, while other scenes drag on. Cutting a good 45 minutes might have improved the pacing.

That said, revisiting Tolkien's work is nostalgic. Its ominous tone, including a glimpse of the dark "necromancer," foreshadows the increasing perils in The Lord of the Rings. The characters are charming. Bilbo is more mischievous and developed than the movie-version's saintly Frodo (Elijah Wood). (It is still nice to see Frodo again.) The dwarves, though stereotypes, including Richard Armitage's Thorin, are nicely acted and likable.

There is something enjoyable about talking monsters. Their humor SLIGHTLY humanizes them. Unfortunately, a white, giant orc is given a very cheesy role as Thorin's nemesis. The film dwells far too long on how evil this creature is. We had three movies to discover how bad orcs are. I didn't find this plotline compelling.

Perhaps the best scene of the film occurs between Bilbo and (SPOILER ALERT) Gollum (Andy Serkis). It is one of the most subtle moments in a loud, heavy-handed movie. The encounter between the former hobbit-like creature, a currently mad Gollum, and the inexperienced but crafty hobbit Bilbo is genuinely suspenseful.

The cinematography and music are lovely, but all derivative. It feels more like a copy than an ode. The Hobbit could have been a truly resonant, enchanting movie instead of a trilogy. The makers could have distinguished this film from its predecessors. But the lure of gold, as Smaug the dragon would agree, is strong enough to justify one movie for the price of three.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Graceland (pilot episode)

USA Network's summer television show "Graceland" airs June 6, but viewers can watch the pilot episode on VOD (Video on Demand) from April 29 to May 12. The series follows a group of undercover FBI, DEA, and customs agents who live under one roof in Southern California. Their house, confiscated from a drug dealer and Elivs fan, is an expansive beachfront home dubbed Graceland.

Brand new agent Mike Warren's (Aaron Tveit) abrupt arrival initially causes some tension. He is eager to be trained by the legendary Agent Briggs (Daniel Sunjata). Though very green, Mike's innovation and book-smarts impress the others. He wonders how the once driven Briggs turned into a surfer dude, and Briggs privately puzzles over why Mike was suddenly sent to Graceland, against his request. Other house members include the easygoing Johnny (Manny Montana), and Dale (Brandon Jay McLaren), the only customs agent.

Unfortunately, the heavy-handed writing is mostly expository. The creators appear to know as much about undercover life as I do, which isn't good. The plot is more diverting than intense, and the straightforward dialogue doesn't crackle.

What works is an engaging sense of camaraderie between these young agents. The actors do what they can to make their characters believable. Also welcome is the diversity. Mike is the only white male dwelling in the house, and the two women, Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito) and Lauren (Scottie Thompson), are more than just token females. The flirtatious and competent Charlie is especially appealing, and Dale.

In the end, in spite of the lackluster writing, the cast of characters and their relationships indicate that "Graceland" has potential.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reservoir Dogs

I only recently saw Quentin Tarantino's first film Reservoir Dogs. More focused than most of his movies (but by no means a tight narrative, this being Tarantino), Dogs follows a group of criminals. The story slowly unfolds, using flashbacks to tell the audience important--or just diverting--information. All we know for sure is that a heist went terribly wrong. 

The men only know one another's code names. The shrewd (or paranoid) Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) suspects there was a betrayal, but Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) lives by an older creed, and finds it difficult to imagine that any of the men he worked with are less than "honorable." Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) has been shot and will bleed to death if he doesn't get medical attention. The rest have either died or scattered. 

Needless to say, the movie includes trademark graphic violence, artful cinematography, and moments of pathos. Scenes are long and self-conscious, full of dialogue both relevant and random. The recognizable cast fit their roles perfectly, from Michael Madsen as the crazy Mr. Blonde to Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, son of big shot Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). While they are all varying degrees of lowlifes, make no mistake, they have no problem murdering policemen or people who get in their way. Yet several appear to hold genuine, even tragic, affection for another comrade.

Reservoir Dogs is recommended viewing for Tarantino fans and one of his funniest and most emotional pieces.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Master

The Master is an uncomfortable piece of cinema. Characters are irritating, pacing is slow, and the plot is pieced together through flashbacks and the occasional hallucination. The movie will frustrate some and absorb others, but the gorgeous cinematography, evocative music, and fantastic acting make it a film worth seeing. Though much of the movie may be baffling, it raises valid questions about the human condition.

The story follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic and addled veteran of World War II. He stumbles across philosopher Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his group of followers. Lancaster, everything Freddie is not, takes him under his wing and teaches him about "The Cause," a way of living which includes acknowledging past lives.

Phoenix is astounding as Freddie, an embodiment of the id. His poisonous moonshine exacerbates his mental disorders. Unusual for the movies, he is completely unglamorous. Freddie's hunched over, thin form and gnarled but enthralling face contrast with Lancaster's paunchy figure and composed expression. Hoffman is, of course, excellent. Amy Adams (or her character) is slightly over-the-top as Lancaster's uncompassionate and creepy wife Peggy.

Freddie's existence disproves Lancaster's mantra, "Man is not an animal," which may be why Lancaster is so drawn to him. Freddie is by and large loyal to Lancaster, dangerously so. Their relationship is a strange love story of sorts. In the end, though, Freddie is his own man, a chaotic force of nature. Will the brainwashing techniques of The Cause work on him?

Deep, dark colors emphasize a sense of post-war paranoia, and the unique cinematography and music emphasize how strange people are. Everyone is searching for some kind of truth, be it through control or a connection. The Master may be full of symbolism, but its oddness makes one thing very clear: humans are silly and fascinating creatures.