Friday, February 22, 2013

5 Most Ridiculous Moments in the Oscar Nominated Films: #1

Zero Dark Thirty isn't really about the search for Osama bin Laden. Though that's the sequence of events around which the movie revolves, the main purpose of the film is to validate women's roles in places where men have traditionally dominated. This is a noble effort and certainly one that bears consistent repeating, given how we're still so male-focused in society: men's sports vs. women's sports, women on the front lines in combat, lack of equal pay standards, the list goes on and on...even into the arts, where it would seem natural for women to have an equal share of opportunity and recognition as men. It wasn't until 1998 that a female director won a Tony Award for work on Broadway (2 won that year, surprisingly, one for directing a play and the other for a musical). And it wasn't until Kathryn Bigelow won a Best Director Oscar in 2008 for The Hurt Locker that Hollywood seemed to finally acknowledge women directors.

Throughout Zero Dark Thirty, we see Jessica Chastain's character--I don't remember her name, but I do remember the men referred to her as "The Girl"--transition from a somewhat reluctant viewer of state-rationalized torture into the leader of the small group who took down America's Most Wanted. The torture scenes, shown taking place in 2003--well ahead of our national debate on torture--are used not to show how awful the US is; they're there to show how difficult it was for The Girl to be in the situation she found herself in. We see her reluctance, her questioning, her hesitation, her every-other-synonym-we-can-find. The torture scenes are not egregious and end when we understand The Girl has grown at least somewhat used to the tactic.

Side note: the societal debate about the use of torture in this film is silly. Though the film is based on real events, it's a fictional story--The Girl's character does not exist in reality. True, there were women CIA operatives involved, but Chastain's character as portrayed on the screen is an amalgam of multiple people. That's important to understand first, and then to remember as we view the torture within context of the developmental needs of the character. The scenes were necessary; whether they're a condemnation, support, or falsifications of US tactics is irrelevant. It's fiction. Move on.

Back to The Girl. Aside from the misogynistic referencing of Chastain's character as The Girl, the men in ZDT are portrayed as incompetent, unsure, and weak. This is an isolation technique Bigelow uses to establish The Girl's strength and, by proxy, the strength of all women who are in male-dominated environments. And that's a valid artistic choice, not necessarily a good one, but valid nonetheless. It's clear as we watch the film that The Girl is the only one who was actually capable of finding bin Laden. Ok. Girl Power!

Except. Jennifer Ehle plays, I cannot remember her name either (in fairness, I don't remember any character names--I'm not just being a misogynist), the (we'll call her) Other Girl. She and Chastain share a brief territorial (and cliched) squabble when they meet, but then become somewhat close (and cliched) friends. The difference between the two is shown through emotion. The Girl is not outwardly emotional about her job, while The Other Girl becomes very excited at the possibilities involved in their shared mission. This emotion is heightened and punished in the following scene, which reenacts a pivotal moment for the CIA that occurred in December 2009.

Note: this is a potential spoiler, I know, but I also don't care. If you didn't pay enough attention to the news to recall what happened when the date flashes on the screen, shame on you.

This event did happen and it was a woman CIA agent who facilitated this meeting. It's troubling, though, that Bigelow is allowed to use it to punish The Other Girl for having emotions. That is the context of the event within in this film, and the result is to further close off The Girl's emotions and isolate her from her colleagues.

But that's not the problem with the scene. Neither is the fact that the scene is 5 minutes long.

No, the problem with the scene is this:

WHY is there a black cat running across the street?

Is there an abundance of cats, specifically black ones, on our bases in Afghanistan? Are they wont to roam free where seemingly no one else is? We have scavenger cats around our house in Brooklyn, but Brooklyn is a big city and it makes sense for cats to wander around. It doesn't make sense on a military base in Afghanistan.

But whether it's possible or not for a cat to wander a military base in Afghanistan is not the issue (though it is ridiculous). The issue is the choice to use this cat. It's not like the cat just happened to wander into the shot. There was a specific choice made to include this cat in this moment, and that was to foreshadow the event that was about to occur. And it actually looks like the cat was added digitally (though I, of course, can't say for sure).

A black cat. Used to foreshadow something bad happening. Just. Dumb.

This. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.

5 Most Ridiculous Moments in the Oscar Nominated Films: #2

Indulgent Sap

There's really not much to like about Flight. Sure, the plane crash scene was great, but sadly, Denzel's character survives the crash and we're subjected to the rest of the film.

This film is not similar to the one that was advertised: action-packed, funny, and sharp. What it is is another run-of-the-mill case study of an addict consistently justifying his bad behavior until the consequences are so severe that he has to accept responsibility. He goes through the requisite problems: the alienation of his closest friends and only allies, the continues separation from his wife and son (who both cannot stand him, rightfully so), and furthering of self-destructive behavior patterns. There's nothing new here, except perhaps that Denzel is playing the role--and even that's not so new. He's mastered the art of turning unlikeable characters into heroes, which is why he won the Oscar for Training Day. But this time, even his talent can't help the pathetic screenplay by John Gatins.

It's bad enough to watch a film and be able to call out what the next scene is going to be about before the scene even starts--this happened with us several times throughout--but what's worse is when a story overindulges in its own sap.

When all is said and done, and Denzel's character has accepted responsibility for his actions and actually admitted he was drunk and high when he flew the plane, we see that he is in jail and confessing his sins to the other inmates. Of course, he's very contrite. And then he is told he has a visitor, though we don't know who. A few moments are spent building up what turns in to a "duh" reveal of the visitor being his son, the one who hates him. They sit at a picnic table (I guess they have picnics in prison. I wonder what those are like.) and go through the standard preliminaries, "How are you?" "How's your mom?" blah blah blah.

And then, the son pulls out a notepad.

You see, he's applying to college and has to write an essay (as we all did). His topic is the person he most admires. And, of course, as is Hollywood's natural tendency, the son's hero is his father.

Aw, shucks.

Just pathetic. Why John Gatins was nominated for an Oscar for this screenplay is beyond me.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

5 Most Ridiculous Moments in the Oscar Nominated Films: #3

I Will Never Rest, Either

Even with all of the problems with Les Mis, I loved it. I saw it in the theater twice and will likely own it when it’s available. The story and the music get me every time. Even when people fuck it up.

I’m not sure what musical theatre credentials Tom Hooper has, but it seems like he has none. He made a wealth of really odd choices, ranging from interchanging of various lines to swapping the order of some songs and their corresponding story elements. What was left was the weakening of, arguably, one of the most beloved stage characters in Eponine, and a film that didn’t quite live up to its full potential.

But two things really stand out as serious what-the-fuck-was-he-thinking choices. The first is very minor in the grand scheme of things, but necessary to bring up nonetheless, and that is the literal interpretation of what lies in the sewers beneath Paris. 

Do we really need to see this? No. The answer is no.

The second, and most egregiously bad choice Tom Hooper made, is Russell Crowe. There hasn’t been much positive feedback about Crowe as Javert, nor should there be. There was really nothing worth watching.Or listening to, which I think is probably why no videos of his performance are available on YouTube.

I will say this, though, hearing his version of Stars made me want to jump into the sewers with Valjean and Marius.

My personal favorite moment is about 2:30 in...Check it out. It's astonishing.

Safe behind baaahhhhhhs.

I certainly will never rest, either.

5 Most Ridiculous Moments in the Oscar Nominated Films: #4

Sally Field, Tony Kushner, and Stephen Spielberg: A Match Made in Overindulgent Hell

Lincoln is fantastic. Genuinely fantastic. From the brilliant opening scene to the Tommy Lee Jones reveal. I was in.

I don’t need or want to see it again, but I was in.

And Daniel Day-Lewis is the clear frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Actor. Well deserved.

Or is it? Perhaps not. His performance is very consistent, maintaining an even level of energy and temperament throughout, which gives us the idea that Lincoln himself was a very methodical, thoughtful man. And he may have been, but let me offer another interpretation.

Without intending to take away from his great performance, I cannot help but wonder if he was simply refusing to partake in the same overindulgent, bloviated work his colleagues were turning in. Sally Field, Tony Kushner, and The Great and Powerful Spielberg (aka, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Criticized) spend a lot of energy seemingly trying to ruin this film with lazy choices.

Exhibit A: Sally Field

Sally Field never met a turn-crying-into-anger moment she didn’t milk. Let’s face it, it works for her. She does it well, but I don’t believe her anymore. She’s used it so effectively in the past that it’s become a parody of itself.

She first capitalized on it in Steel Magnolias in the famous “Take a Whack at Ouisa” scene:

She then followed that up with the purposefully overindulgent Soap Dish:

Keep those two in mind as you watch this clip.

I literally had to stifle a laugh in the theater. I was expecting Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine to show up.

Other choices could have been made that could have made the scene more powerful and her more sympathetic. She shouldn’t not win the Oscar because of Anne Hathaway. She should not win because of her laziness as an actor.

Exhibit B: Tony Kushner

Upfront admission: I’ve never been a fan of Kushner’s work. I think Angels in America is awful. AWFUL. Never have I wanted to see an entire group of characters kill themselves more than in that Pity-Me-filled play.

His work on Lincoln, however, is a different story. The film is appropriately heady and dialoguey. The sentimental moments, even Sally Field’s pathetic scene above, were very well-written. Most everything made sense (the carriage scene is nonsense). Until this:

Can you guess what’s going to happen next? Of course you can!

As a writer, this frustrated me to no end and took me right out of the movie. Why? Because it’s false. What does ‘false’ mean? It simply means that it doesn’t fit the rest of the script.

Case study: The Gettysburg Address.
We all knew it was going to be in the film—it had to be. And we all expected that it would be in there in the standard way—a reenactment of Lincoln giving the speech. But no. Kushner (as much as I generally dislike his work, I do recognize that he’s brilliant) is too smart for that.  He managed to find a brilliant solution to getting the Gettysburg Address into the movie—the opening scene, in fact, which simultaneously reset our expectations for what we were about to witness.

And he succeeds with those reset expectations the rest of the film. The character motivations are clear with being pandering. The conflicts are clear and respectful of each side. And the subtle moments, specifically with Lincoln and the youngest son, are genuine (in both performance and writing).

“Well, I…” does not fit with the rest of Kushner’s script. It’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber lyric in a Sondheim show. It’s a lazy, throwaway line meant to transition us to the denouement of the film.

And I don’t believe that Kushner wrote it, for the reasons stated above, and for a second reason that brings us to…

Exhibit C: Spielberg.

Give me a minute to rid myself of the forced emotion that I’ve been trained to experience when I hear his name. You can do the same by repeating the phrase, “Spielberg CAN be criticized. Spielberg CAN be criticized. He’s not Oprah. He’s not Oprah. He’s not Oprah.”

Feel better? Feel like a layer of sugary caramel coating has been lifted off your emotional self? It’s so nice to have clarity.

Spielberg is most successful as a filmmaker when he is able to get out of his own way. Lincoln is a highly successful film up through the scene where Tommy Lee Jones’ character’s true motivation is revealed. That is the point when the film should have ended. We all know what happened to Lincoln. Though the movie may have felt incomplete without the assassination, it wasn’t necessary. This isn’t a biopic on his life. This is the story of his struggles, personal and professional, to abolish slavery. Had the film shown his assassination in the context of that struggle, it would have been necessary. But it didn’t. It showed his assassination in the context of a young boy losing his father.

And this is the problem with Spielberg. A common theme of his, probably the most common, is that of absentee parents and the resulting difficulties on the child(ren). Close Encounters, ET, Indiana Jones, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Catch Me If You Can, Munich…all have abandonment, absenteeism, or reluctance to parent. This theme by itself is not a problem, and has been used effectively in many films. However, there are some stories where it doesn’t necessarily belong. It certainly doesn’t belong in Lincoln.

The film would have been much stronger had he ended it at the first ending. And, I believe, the Oscar predictions would look much different than they do now. My prediction? 1 Oscar, for Daniel Day-Lewis. Maybe one for Spielberg, but only because Ben Affleck was overlooked.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

5 Most Ridiculous Moments in the Oscar Nominated Films: #5

Let me start by saying that I'm a playwright and have a degree in theatre. This does not mean that I "know more about whether a movie is good or not" than the average person, as I've heard so many say when they're hesitant to say why they did or did not like a certain film. There's no amount of training or experience that can enable one to say definitively if a piece of art is good or not. What my background does provide, however, is *some* insight into *some* of the tricks of the trade.

As a playwright, director, and producer, I hold myself to a very high standard or artistic quality. Though I rarely, if ever, reach the standards to which I strive, I do expect that other professionals will achieve them—especially professionals that are being paid such huge amounts and showered with critical accolades and industry awards.

And when I see professional, critically-acclaimed work that falls short, I get frustrated. Very frustrated. Probably more than is healthy.

It's not as bad as it may seem. I certainly have a healthy respect for work that is consistent in its mediocrity, or work that to others may be really wonderful, but just doesn't connect with me. Those are not the problems. For me, the problems lie in these areas (in any and all orders):
  • Plot traps with silly escapes 
  • Laziness 
  • Egregiously bad choices 
  • Indulgent sap 
  • Targeting the Lowest Common Denominator 

Some of these may overlap at times, but they are, at their core, very distinct, and the basis on which I have created this list of the five most ridiculous moments in this year's Oscar-nominated films.

5.) The Magically Huge Eagles Rescue Everyone From the Trees!

I liked The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I wanted to like it much more than I actually did. Sure, it was beautiful to watch, but what kept nagging me during the films was the repetition. From a top-level outline-of-events view, each of the films in that trilogy are the same. The difference lies with the ultimate plot trap in the final film, where everyone good is certain to be defeated by the bad guys. They are, after all, outnumbered 3 million to one. Tolkien and Jackson don't seem to believe in subtle stakes, nor do they seem to be able to trust their audience to believe in them, either. But whatever. This is a fantasy, so we must accept the absurd and up the ante with more absurdity.

Enter the ghosts. You remember them, the ones we were afraid of because no one knew them, or no one had survived meeting them, or something. I don't remember because I didn't care. So to rescue our heroes from certain 300-million-to-1 odds of death, Tolkien gets out of his plot trap by having the ghosts kill all the bad guys. And then they don't have to be ghosts anymore. Or something. What utter nonsense.

Except what's most frustrating is that it works. It all has symbolic meaning about defeating the odds and actually contributes to the story of what's-his-name being the king. So all is forgiven. Lord of the Rings is great.

And then came The Hobbit. For over two hours we get to watch the midget version of the Lord of the Rings. The plot is similar, I think, though it doesn't much matter. The battles are all very similar to those we've seen in the first trilogy, and all the characters are as who-cares as before. And, we're as invested as before. We know they'll fight or talk their way out of any jam, and not because we know they're making two more movies. And not because we know that Bilbo and Gandalf will be ok, since they're in Lord of the Rings. We know they'll be ok because the "Unexpected Journey" is Bilbo's discovery of himself as someone who is more than he thought he could be (not entirely dissimilar to Lord of the Rings, but whatever). And it's not just Bilbo's journey, it's the dwarfs’ journey, too. They will discover things about themselves that we'll not even have time to get to, even in the assumed close-to-10-hour running time this trilogy will be. And all of that discovery is great. And negated by one stupid, stupid ending.

Just as the gang is facing certain death from the bad guys du jour, Gandalf whispers to a butterfly.

—No, no. You read that right. A butterfly.—

The butterfly flies away and, just as death is drawing near, the Food of the Gods-sized eagles come and grab all our heroes and fly them off to safety. The eagles, you see, were summoned by the butterfly.

Not only do the eagles fly them to safety, they set our heroes on top of a rock way the fuck up high on a mountain.

(the caption says: "This little speck is Bilbo.")

This mountaintop rock is very picturesque, and not only because the picture is created by CGI. It’s a beautiful view of the land with another snow-capped mountain way off in the distance.

The same mountain, by the way, that the heroes are trying to get to.
The same mountain, by the way, that the EAGLES COULD HAVE FLOWN THEM TO.

Ridiculous. I wonder if the next film will be called "The Hobbit: We Should've Flown Eagle Airways to This Goddamned Mountain."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thanks, Mom

I've been thinking about the Emmys since Sunday night...not about the winners, or who should've won, or really anything having to do with the actual dissemination of the awards.

What resonated with me was one of the questions they asked the nominees, "What did your mother want you to be when you grew up?"

An odd question for an awards show, I think, as it's completely irrelevant to the work. But whatever. Like the awards themselves, who really cares.

What resonated with me, though, is the collective set of answers that the respondents gave. Each was something specific and job-related. A fireman, an engineer, a famous actor. I don't remember what specifically they said, but it was really kind of sad.

What did my mother want me to be when I grew up?


It's that simple.

I'm sad for the nominees that that wasn't their answer. And I'm sad for their mothers.

But who cares about them.

I'm happy that my mother instilled that immediate response in me.

Thanks, Mom.

Friday, August 27, 2010

And Betsy Ross Used to Sit Home and Sew and Sew and


It's been pretty fantastic year for me, artistically speaking...and I'm hoping to continue the streak with a remounting of In Our Own Image at FRIGID 2011...So keep your fingers crossed.

In order for that to happen, though, I need to rework the final of the 3 plays that make up Image, Who Art In. I've had some strokes of brilliance (ha!) this week, and rewriting has begun...So that's very exciting.

That self-diagnosed (well, to be honest, my mother diagnosed it first) ADD is kicking in and from an artistic perspective, reworking Who Art In just isn't enough. In addition to that, and providing comments to Jamie on his great play, Roy of Troy, and working with Casey on the play (musical?) he's conceived, I've decided to pick back up with my series of 175 short plays, Over the Table and Under the Bar. To-date, I've written, or begun writing, 94 plays for the series, so I'm just over halfway there...

Only 3 have been transcribed from my handwritten journal to the typed and formatted template, but baby steps. So that transcription is going to be happening as often as possible. I don't consider the plays complete until they're typed in. So, here are the titles so far:
1) You Don't Know, Jack
2) Excess Hollywood
3) Eldergarten

Hopefully, I'll get #4 typed in today.

All that said...Here's the question, responses, and song for the next/current play...Feel free to add your own responses in the comments section...And, for more info on what the hell Over the Table and Under the Bar is all about, go HERE.

Question 21:
Would you stop eating all junk food to live 5 years longer? Why or why not?

  • I would give it up. And as many have said, the extra five years would feel like 10 without junk food.
  • Extra 5 over 80—no; under 80, yes. I’m really not hooked on junk food. Easy to give up. Bread and cheese, much harder, yet I would still give it up for 5 more years if I was under 80 years old.
  • NO - How could they be good years without cookies? Enjoying food is part of life’s pleasure and life’s regrets usually include missed opportunities for having fun. No one dies saying, “I should have had more broccoli.”
  • Ask me when I’m 70

When I Met the Girl, by Big Kid

When I met the girl
I lost my mind
'cause she is the only one that turns my world upside down

When I met the girl
she stole my heart
right from the start I knew she saw right through me, already knew me, makes me crazy, Oh Yeah!

Girl gives me feelings I never had before
Blushing under cover, She's like no other
I never had a reason to love like this before
Girl gives me feelings, Oh Yeah!
'Cause I can't get her out of my mind,
Can't get her out of my mind- at all

When I met the girl, you changed my world
She is the only one that turns my world upside down
At the end of the day
I call her name
Gives me this crazy feeling when she calls back, turns her head, smiles at me, Oh Yeah!

Girl gives me feelings I never had before
Blushing under cover, She's like no other

I never had a reason to love like this before
Girl gives me feelings, Oh Yeah!
'Cause I can't get her out of my mind,
Can't get her out of my mind- at all

When I met the girl...

Ask me what I dream of
Ask me what I think of
When I'm not with you
Ask me what I dream of
Ask me what I think of
When I'm not with you
When I'm not with you

when I met the girl
I lost my mind
'cause she is the only one that turns my world upside...

Girl gives me feelings I never had before
Blushing Under Cover, She's like no other
I never had a reason to love like this before
Girl gives me feelings, Oh Yeah!
'Cause I can't get her out of my mind,
Can't get her out of my mind- at all

When I met the Girl- I met the girl
When I met the Girl- I met the girl