Monday, February 23, 2015

87th Academy Awards Breakdown

The Oscars matter insofar as without them, fewer people would have seen or at least have the privilege to consciously ignore small, human-sized movies like Boyhood, Whiplash and Still Alice. Or so the thinking goes; a world where works of art are not pitted against each other in competition, where the long months of campaigning and op-ed defaming makes each final victory feel more than a little pyrrhic, could very well be more egalitarian and receptive to intimate, intrinsic artistry — but that is not the world in which we live.
For better or worse, Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards reflected the conflicted state of things in America today, with every forward-pushing acceptance speech tempered by a nostalgic spectacle or tone-deaf joke. There was, as per usual, no lack of self-congratulation.
Birdman fits the Best Picture profile, given the film’s insular regard for itself, which aligns perfectly with the Academy’s. Along with other recent winners The Artist and Argo, it offered Hollywood the chance to stop, light a smoke and think, “Aren’t we great?” The ceremony’s low points belabored this self-love, stretching the broadcast’s runtime to the longest in eight years, while the brightest moments shined past any one film or celebrity to illuminate, as only an awards show can, a myriad of political issues.
The low points, I am sorry to say, almost always involved the affable, seemingly perfect host, Neil Patrick Harris. He started strong with a song and dance number that ran through movie history and brought Into the Woods star Anna Kendrick on stage for harmonies. A cynical Jack Black jumped on stage to rant, in his own singsongy way, about the omnipresence of superheroes, “formulaic scripts” and, reaching for his smartphone, “screens in our jeans” in movie culture today, to much applause.
Without such an irascible counterpoint for the rest of the show, Harris struck a tone at once overly chipper and flippant. For the whole show, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer had to go along with a gag where Harris locked his “predictions” in a box that, when revealed, proved how the whole show is predictable, scripted or just ill suited to three-hour joke set-ups. His banter punned on Reese Witherspoon’s name or the furry ball dress of Dana Perry, just after the Best Documentary Short Subject winner opened up about her son’s suicide. His Birdman/Whiplash parody, where he took the stage in tighty whities to Miles Teller’s accompaniment on drums, displayed his most obvious assets without hiding, at least to awards season addicts like me, that Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell made the same joke at the Independent Spirit Awards the night before.
What this show never fails to deliver are the moments of unscripted awkward that, against all the micromanaged rehearsals leading up to it, scramble the evening’s gloss. I should disclose that the so-called disasters, like John Travolta’s garbling of Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem” last year, are my favorite parts of any live broadcast — anyone who follows up how embarrassing Travolta was with the decree that “he should never be up there again!” is no fun. Thankfully the show’s producers are fun, and reunited Menzel with Travolta, who after being introduced as “Glom Gazingo” petted the Frozen singer’s cheek as if he were Romeo.
It was the creepiest, most GIF-ready snippet of the night, though equally weird was when Terrence Howard took the stage to introduce Whiplash, The Imitation Game and Selma. Midway through, he paused to say, “Our next film … is amazing. I’m blown away myself right now,” before reading the synopsis not to Selma, but The Imitation Game. Drunk off emotion or some other drug, Howard could barely convey his enthusiasm for the other injustice-themed also-ran in the Best Picture race and not the good one. It felt like anything could have happened during his minute on stage; Imagine if Travolta just wandered, out of focus, in the background.
While Tegan & Sara, The Lonely Island, Questlove, Mark Mothersbaugh and Will Arnett hit peak goofiness during The LEGO Movie’s “Everything Is Awesome,” it was John Legend and Common’s performance of “Glory,” from Selma, that provided the moral center for the night. With lyrics evoking both the march to Montgomery and the Ferguson protests and a grand backdrop of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, “Glory” struck a chord with the audience, bringing star David Oyelowo and Chris Pine to tears. It’s easy to be cynical about such emotional displays at awards shows, but the way Legend brought Dolby Theatre and viewing parties across America to silence during his final solo cut through all the noise to contemplate the seemingly irreconcilable divide that exists in our country, the Academy most certainly included, to this day. Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music medley, though impressive, felt too sweetly nostalgic after such a conscious musical statement
When “Glory” rightly won Best Original Song after, Common and Legend were one of many to unashamedly marry thank-yous with impassioned political statements. Common pleaded for equality and freedom of expression via mention of the Charlie Hebdo and Hong Kong protests, while Legend stressed the disproportionate amount of incarcerated black men in prison. Best Documentary winner Laura Poitras, with her Edward Snowden-starring Citizenfour, urged awareness of the surveillance state, while Patricia Arquette, who won Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood, stumped for gender equality as Meryl Streep, flanked by a cheering Jennifer Lopez, pointed and hollered in approval. Graham Moore, Best Adapted Screenplay winner for The Imitation Game, seized everyone’s breath as he confessed to attempting suicide 18 years ago. He followed this harrowing anecdote with the hope that his presence on stage will inspire those younger than him, who feel like they do not belong, to “stay weird” and “stay different.” It was a powerful speech.
The thing about Graham Moore winning, though, is that he wrote an awful script. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” is a line The Imitation Game trailer holds dear and the movie itself repeats, out of the conviction that historical characters speak as if composing their memoirs. Share that quote on the Dolby stage, however, and it naturally, indisputably belongs. The Oscars so rarely award real art because they, themselves, are not art, and they don’t need to be. The most memorable moments are inspirational, rousing and morally good. Great movies are rarely any of those things, and never all three at once, but “the movies,” the mystique of Hollywood that the Academy and theater chains sell, is, always.
It is that feeling of uplift, if oh so fleeting, that jettisons Eddie Redmayne’s light track record and The Theory of Everything’s deadness from my mind when he took the stage for Best Actor. His youth, his recent marriage and his humility made for an infectiously adorable speech, which filled the room I watched from with high-pitched “Awww”s. Julianne Moore deserved Best Actress not just for her work in Still Alice but for her unparalleled career, yet her speech was what we wanted to hear for its focus on love, family and community. The work itself has no hold on the rapture of the Oscar moment — before all the lights and cameras, only gratitude, conviction and a manageable dose of human weakness thrive.
Birdman’s second-half sweep — in Best Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Directing and Picture — introduced the manic, musky humor of the film into the speeches, which did not vibe well with the prevailing Oscar ethos. I have already expressed my unfavorable opinion of the winning film, which I think is little more than clever. Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel were the rare masterpieces to actually make it into Best Picture consideration, which makes their loss more painful, since cinephiles more often than not revere their favorites in closet-sized shrines, without much notice from the outer, louder world.
But Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman’s director, said something that resonated with me during his acceptance speech, which went as follows: “Ego loves competition, because for someone to win, someone has to lose. But the paradox is true art, true individual expression, as all the work of these incredible fellow filmmakers, can’t be compared, can’t be labeled, can’t be defeated, because they exist, and our work will be judged, as always, by time.” I can’t say I think his film, with its Justin Bieber references and inexplicable gender politics, will survive that ultimate test, but I thank him for taming that ego this awards season has fed so well, for just a moment, to remind us of the absurdity of this whole artless enterprise.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Movies Lack Music

Music is sexier than movies, and I imagine few would jump to disagree. Movies follow people as they bumble and chat and fight, and the good ones will make you feel for those people and understand the context and causes of their unrest. Good music, on the other hand, rides a melody or groove or just a feeling from start to finish, sometimes telling a story through lyrics but more than anything expressing joy or longing — in a word, energy — toward some thing, which even if afforded a name (for Bob Dylan, Johanna, for Mac DeMarco, Viceroy cigarettes) can always, for the listener, stand in for something or someone else.
This is my roundabout way of saying I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie frontloads most of its heat, with bitten lips, steely eyes and rattled breaths overwhelming the first 20 odd minutes. It’s the kind of experience you’re implicitly paying for, and the kind of gaze-fueled desire that movies, whether they aspire to high art or schlock, do best. But when it’s time for the cuffs and cat o’ nine tails to come out, the film cools, stringing together flicks and shudders into montages only a notch hotter than the wind currently barreling over Cayuga Lake. Fifty Shades of Grey lacks music. 
Adapting an erotic bestseller for an audience wide enough to deliver a $94 million opening weekend presents few opportunities for music anyway. The sex scenes are the selling point, so they demand center stage, and not just the sex but the gear, too — leather and ropes and slings, arranged before walls of red deep within Christian’s antiseptic Seattle penthouse. The 13th time Christian pesters Anastasia to sign her submissive’s contract, I swear the leather evolved to become the most sentient creature in the room. With too many studio notes to film a love scene as elliptical as Don’t Look Now or Out of Sight’s, and with too much money to just make pornography, director Sam Taylor-Johnson settles on an aesthetic somewhere between bad camp and HGTV.
The almost yearlong lead-up to Fifty Shades roped in the collusion of a real artist, that of course, being Beyoncé. Accompanying last summer’s debut trailer, her remix of “Crazy in Love” swaps fast for slow, horns for strings and her pop-perfect voice for a feistier tenor scratched up through a filter similar to Julian Casablancas’. In duration and texture, Beyoncé’s new “Crazy in Love” is a better Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation than the feature film, conveying and sustaining a dangerous intimacy for as long as an entertainment medium can. For all the conservative pushback on the sexualization of popular music, sex is something music not only sells but understands, and Beyoncé deserves all the praise for long fashioning the eroticism of her voice and image into messages of empowerment and pride.
There is a lot of strong, lovely music making waves right now, Björk’s Vulnicura being one of the most notable. It aims to fill the heart just as it breaks it, with Björk’s infinitely malleable voice oscillating between defeat and hope as it is besieged by violins, synthesizers and drum machines. Björk is a capital-A Artist, the first popular musician to receive a full-scale career retrospective at the MoMA (due in March), and the indeterminacy of her music lends itself to unfiltered, bewildering expression, which makes her success all the more remarkable. Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, released last week, takes a more deceptive approach to the love album, tempering fuzzy feelings with liberal irony and self-loathing. In “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” after telling his love she is “something else I can’t explain,” Father John Misty adds, “You take my last name,” in effect mocking his gendered obligation of ownership via marriage. The song sounds blissfully radiant, with a mariachi band blasting over the bridge, but Father John Misty can never seem to give himself a break. There’s a poetic density, and not to mention a stand-up’s hilarity, to his lyrics and his particular pairing of word to melody produces an album open to interpretation even as it serves many pleasures.
You can say movies are too burdened by images, and thus some kind of aesthetic obligation to the real world, to capture and critique one man or woman’s personal expression. And so, love and film is not the most natural pairing, even if it is regularly attempted and often enjoyable, if only in spite of its sincere intentions. The sexiest films need the help of music, whether literally on the soundtrack or spiritually through the movement of camera and assembly of images, to power through the awkwardness and achieve a transcendent effect. Classic Hollywood excelled at this better than the studios today, while the French, naturally, are masters to this day.
There is a moment in 35 Shots of Rum, a Claire Denis film from 2008, when the action comes to a full stop and the four main characters find themselves fortified in a bar on a nasty, rainy night. Their taxi broke down, and they missed their show, and not one of them knows what to do, until music starts to play: “Nightshift,” by The Commodores. It’s a slinky, funky song, bringing the characters, one by one, to their feet and to previously untapped life. The dance ends on a note of discomfort, as a young man carries his affection for a girl too far, but there is no disputing there was life on screen for that brief glimpse of time, a connection between clothed bodies more felt than seen.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How So?

Chances are you have enjoyed cinema your entire life, but the fact is the you who started with Sesame Street or Shrek or It’s a Wonderful Life is not the you today. The plastic tray fastened to your high chair no longer collects drool as you watch figures move across a screen. No doubt there are times, in a theater and especially out, when the blankness of youth sounds quite appealing. But if you are reading this, then you have read and lived and thought enough to bring something — education, curiosity, self-awareness — to everything you see.
What do we do with this power? Many do little, while a bilious, often anonymous contingent make a vocation out of belittling it. Comments sections under reviews, especially those that take a less than adulatory tone toward the latest hundred-million-dollar entertainment, charge the critic with overanalyzing or worrying too much about what it “means.” “It’s just a movie,” a regular sight on these forums, is a rejoinder so immaculate in its self-pleasuring logic that it becomes deflatingly clear movie critic and commenter speak totally different languages.
While philistinism in, around and beyond the cinema runs rampant, it can too easily stand in as a straw man for an equally one-sided, and superiorly pretentious, college newspaper opinion column. (What’d I say about self-awareness?) What irks me more are the discrepancies between those of us who, by and large, espouse the same critical language. You and I may regard movies as art, judge one’s worth not (only) for its “mere spectacle” but for its ability to “get at” something deep and still disagree about a particular film. That division springs from the indeterminable calculus of personal preference, plus some more explicable aesthetic expectations.
Chief among these is the expectation that a movie needs to be about Something — and least of all Schmidt — to be good. About The State of Marriage, Russia, The American Dream. I find this a tired, limited, predetermined approach to art, and one highly susceptible to P.R. hype and groupthink. Films so readily demonstrative, if only through dialectic arguments and foregrounded symbolism, of one big idea fail to fill in the little details of human behavior that would complicate such a broad, and thus phony, thesis. And yet these films are so often celebrated for their thematic obviousness, especially when released in the same year or season as other like-minded works. The think piece model thrives on corralling disparate works under one zeitgeist-defining headline, and better when the films assert the same reductive stance, regardless of individual quirks or vitality.
Take A Most Violent Year, the new J.C. Chandor movie starring beautiful people Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I do not expect you to have seen it, and I did not care for it so I am not here to recommend it. Isaac plays an ambitious oil entrepreneur who shuns his peers and immigrant heritage in order to, you know, be the best. As he gets there, his soul hardens to the climactic point where blood intermingles on-screen with oil in a risible metaphor for the violence of commerce. None of the scenes to that point, except for a grimy, spooky tunnel chase scene, inject the humdrum handsomeness with any personality, and the tunnel vision with which Chandor hones in on his star-spangled target makes for a redundant, lifeless film.
A Most Violent Year currently stands at a 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a blurb that praises its “thought-provoking heft.” The National Board of Review named it 2014’s Best Film, and I know plenty of smart critics who have praised it. I must have seen a different movie, or more likely I must hold different criteria with regards to quality. I expect a certain mystery and intricacy as a film follows its characters to the finish, and any sense that the filmmakers constructed their story in reverse, retrofitting a resounding conclusion with the steps it takes to get there, strikes me as antithetical to the mission of art, not to mention the strengths of cinema.
The only “abouts” worth fussing over in works of art have, in some way, to do with the nature of the medium itself. Ulysses is “about” consciousness, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is “about” perspective, Boyhood is “about” time. But each of these masterworks is “about” an infinite number of things as well, because a devotion to and mastery of artistic form leads to all-encompassing, endlessly reflective look at the world. Formal analysis is not an excuse to undermine the superficial pleasures of a film or flaunt a little thing only you noticed and no one else, but a method to truly evaluate greatness — to find words and reasons for what could otherwise be called magic. When a movie like A Most Violent Year, The Imitation Game or Birdman fails to say anything under close scrutiny — that is, say more than what already streamed from the mouths of its characters — it is because either the director had little grasp of the story’s complexity, did not know how to convey that complexity through cinema or both.
So much of the discourse surrounding film and television today latches on to the most obvious “abouts,” the kinds factory molded for think-piecing. High school English class, when we read The Great Gatsby and were told to identify its themes and figure out what the green light “meant,” still defines, and so limits, our expectations for moving pictures, and literature too. No one wants to stay in high school, yet our approach to film is surely stunted, not because it’s not intellectual or theoretical enough but because it likens drama, especially historical drama, to Spark Notes.
Cinema has the power to just look at people be, and in Boyhood, The Immigrant, American Sniper and Inherent Vice they can be compelling, contradictory figures at odds with the subject matter and expected politics of the film. Roger Ebert, the most mainstream film critic we’ve ever had, summed it up when he said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And what he surely implied is that the “how” is the fun part.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.