Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Culture Vulture, Pt. I

Those who can, do. 
Those who can't, teach. 
Those who can't teach, blog. 
--Ch'in Shih-tang
This past weekend initiated the 8-week holiday season for films, in which most of the serious releases will occur.  I note it, protesting the unnatural distribution, but the fact remains that those films (officially) released between January and October are not generally considered Oscar material by their distributors.  Yes, there are exceptions--last year, "The Grand Budapest Hotel", which won four Oscars, was released in March, and "Boyhood", which won only one but was nominated for five more, was released in the summer.  But the Oscar success of "Budapest" was a suprise to most, while "Boyhood" was an art film with a quirky concept and limited release that built its success over months.

(February through October) 2015 AV Review
I can't say I've seen all the major motion pictures released this year--in fact, due to a heavy travel schedule, I've seen few of them.  There has been some good entertainment, I guess--I liked "Trainwreck" with Amy Schumer and Bill Hader, Blake Lively in "The Age of Adaline" and--forgive me--I enjoyed "Hot Pursuit" (the women's comedy buddy movie still amuses me).  "Inside Out" has put me to sleep on airplanes on two different occasions, which is enough for now.  I missed out on the mega-release action movies of 2015, but neither I nor they feel the loss.  As for "The Martian", I suggest you see the 2000 release "Mission to Mars", which covers most of the same ground.  There are a couple of movies released earlier than this fall that I would still like to catch--"Aloha" and "Straight Outta Compton"--and some movies released (in limited release for the most part) that I would like to track down, though I may have to do that via video later on, because I will be sufficiently challenged keeping up with the frantic pace of late-season revleases coming ahead.

For the most part, I'm not watching anything, whether on the big or small screen, that is based around any of the following overworked genres:  organized crime, forensic criminal investigation, private detectives, zombies, vampires, superheroes or superpowers, counterterrorism, magic (magicians or wizards), stories about the last person or persons on Earth, and above all, that abomination falsely known as "reality TV" in most of its forms.  I will make an exception if the treatment is unusual enough, satirical with regard to the genre's formal conventions, or truly humorous.

Of the four "audiovisual productions" that I have seen since the 2015 Oscars in February and that merit serious comment for their artistic merit, I saw only one on the big screen, and that one hasn't been released in the US yet.

First, I must mention "Leviathan", which I was lucky enough to find on an airplane ride--it was released in 2014 and was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language film, but never got to a cinema anywhere near me.  It's a character-based drama set in the far north of Russia, a brave, though indirect, political commentary that left a deep impression.  Next, "Veep":  it's just a TV comedy series, but a very funny one, a satire that hits a lot closer to the mark than "House of Cards" or "Madame Secretary" or "Scamdal".  I particularly like the episodes since Selena (Julia-Louis Dreyfuss' character) became the Accidental Preisdent.  Third, I mention "Show Me a Hero" the TV miniseries which fictionalized a case study of a political battle over desegregating housing in Yonkers, New York in the '70's, with a touching performance by Oscar Isaac (of "Inside Llewyn Davis").

The last of these four is "Youth", the latest film by Paolo Sorrentino, director of "The Great Beauty" ("La Grande Bellezza"), the Oscar winnner a year ago for Best Foreign Language film.  The two films share a similar visual sensibility, with an eye for outlandish persons, costumes, and gorgeous scenery, and also have in common powerful dialogue with a dose of philosophical inquiry, but other elements are completely different:  plot, location, types of characters.  "Youth" will be released in the US December 7--I don't expect great box-office, but Michael Caine's role as co-lead (along with Harvey Keitel, with Jane Fonda in an over-the-top supporting role) could even give Caine a shot an Oscar for Best Actor (he has been nominated for that one once, but has won twice for Supporting Actor).  If "Bellezza" turned you off because of the main character's self-indulgence, this one might not work any better (semi-retired, wealthy artists at a luxurious Swiss mountain resort), but Caine and Keitel's characters do not have the overweening self-regard that was the big hangup with Toni Servillo's Jep.

Holiday Movie Preview
Three themes I can foresee for this year's climactic season of film:

1) A desperate struggle for box office attention. There will be a few, certain monster hits:  "Star Wars: A Force Awakens" (Dec. 18), "Mockingjay: Part 2" (Nov. 20), and the new James Bond film, "Spectre" (Opened Nov. 6). "Victor Frankenstein (Nov. 25), yet another retelling of the classic human creationist fable, starring James McAvoy in the title role and Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe as Igor, also looks like a winner.  So, dreams of commercial success for the primary artistic endeavors will likely not come into play until and unless their first runs survive well into 2016. (Note: the dates for the movies above will be hard to miss, but many of the ones below will be more low-key, possibly displaced, or limited to theaters not near you.)

2) Lead women's roles of an unusual nature. My early favorite for Best Actress award?  Eddie Redmayne, coming off his Best Actor award last year, for playing a man passing as a woman who decides to switch gender in the love story "The Danish Girl". OK, just kidding about that, and, although transgender is the cultural fad of the moment, it's not entirely new as a storyline--think of Julie Andrews in "Victor/Victoria" or Jaye Davidson in "The Crying Game", both of which were nominated for Oscars.  I would expect something similar for Redmayne; coming off an Oscar-winning performance in 2014, he will earn respect but probably not a repeat award.

Then there is Brie Larson in "Room", who is playing a captive woman who tries to make a decent living arrangement for her child; next, I mention Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the lesbian romance "Carol" (Nov. 20) set in the Fifties. Oscar-wise, take your pick; I expect Blanchett to get a nomination for Best Actress and Mara for Supporting Actress.  "Carol" is a production of the Weinstein brothers, and those who have watched them do it year after year know that no one plays the Oscar campaign political game better. Jennifer Connelly plays a homeless drug addict in a love story called "Shelter" (Nov. 13). Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore in "Miss you Already" (opened Nov. 6) play inseparable friends that face cancere for Collette's character while Barrymore faces childbirth.  Finally, in this vein I mention Carey Mulligan as a working-class British woman who turns to violence for her cause--the vote--in the historical drama "Suffragette" (opened Oct. 23).

There are a couple of significant lead women's role contenders that are a bit more conventional: Saoirse Ronan as an Irish-American in "Brooklyn", and Jennifer Lawrence as a multi-faceted entrepreneur in "Joy", the latest from director David O. Russell.  The combination worked well for er in "Silver Linings Playbook" and may do so again.

3) Documentaries, Historical Drama, and Biopics. OK, there's "Steve Jobs", which has already come, flopped, and gone.  I'm not sure why it was so inferior to "The Social Network", which had the opposite commercial outcome, but I didn't really need one nor the other.  "Snowden", Oliver Stone's telling of the Edward Snowden saga, has now been postponed until 2016--maybe the story will have a different, more interesting, ending if he waits awhile; of course, Stone will always push the envelope of credibility. Michael Moore has come out with "Where to Invade Next" (Dec. 23)--as one of my friend's bumper stickers stated, "I'm already against the next war"--but the thrust of his film (which has been released for awhile but has not come anywhere close yet) is that the US could learn something by invading certain countries.  Seems doubtful.  Johnny Depp is out there as Whitey Bulger in "Black Mass"--Depp is a great risk-taker, but I got enough of that character (fictionalized) in "The Departed".

Three others that have greater interest for me"  "The 33" (Nov. 13), starring Antonio Banderas, is the true story that we may still remember of the Chilean coal miners, their ordeal, and their ultimate resuce.  If it is anything like the real-life drama, it could be gripping.  "Spotlight" (Nov. 6, starring Mark Rufalo and Michael Keaton, among others) is the story of the Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of Catholic priests in the diocese who abused children, and of the church officials who covered it up. "Trumbo", starring Bryan "Breaking Bad" Cranston, is a promising story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted in the McCarthy Era of the Fifties for refusing to answer whether he had been a Communist, but who was able to work under assumed names and contributed to some of the great successes of the period.

Finally in this category I want to mention "The Big Short" (Dec. 11), the movie version of Michael Lewis' non-fiction story about the financial crisis, and in particular, a few investors who figured out what was going to happen with the credit default swaps and made huge profits. It doesn't seem like a very suspenseful or entertaining movie, but Lewis' tales have already hit the mark twice in Hollywood, with "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side", so we'll see.

Big Question Marks, and a Couple "Sure Things"
I note first Quentin Tarantino's new film, "The Hateful Eight" (Dec. 25), which I presume is a variation off "The Magnificent Seven", itself a variation off Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai".  By now, we should know what to expect from a Tarantino genre knock-off romp, so the question is merely whether it's what you want to go watch.  Charlie Kaufman is one of the most brilliant, quirky writer/directors in the industry; he has a movie called "Anomalisa" coming out (Dec. 30) which is billed as a "stop-action animation sound play", whatever that is. And, returning to a topic he worked hilariously in "Being John Malkovich", puppets.  I am attracted to the idea of a new production, with modern action film techniques, of the Shakespeare action drama "Macbeth" (Dec. 4), starring Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard--maybe the time is right for it.

For creatively divergent films with world-class production values, I have increasingly come to look to what I call the "Mexican Mafia"--directors Alejandro Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo del Toro, and the king of cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubetzsky. To me, this looks like an off-year for them, though:  Cuaron ("Gravity", "Children of Men") does not have any films coming out, while del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth", the "Hellboy" films) had a horror film, "Crimson Peak", that came out last month and didn't seem to take off.  Inarritu ("Birdman", "21 Grams") has a major release, "The Revenant", a gruesome-looking Western revenge drama with Leonardo diCaprio (Dec. 25). From the preview, I can see that, with his compadre Lubetzky, the cinematography will be incredible, and I will go see it, but I am not too hopeful.  And my other top go-to director, Joel/Ethan Coen (think of them as one auteur), has nothing coming out this season, either; his/their next movie, "Hail, Caesar!" is now scheduled for release in February, 2016.

Besides "Revenant", two other movies that I will have to see, and in their cases I expect they will be rewarding experiences, are:  "Sisters" (Dec. 18), with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (How could it miss? I hope it can't); and "In the Heart of the Sea" (Dec. 11), Ron Howard's adventure epic which re-creates the 19t-century whaling incident that was reputedly the inspiration for Herman Melville to write "Moby Dick".  Howard is a canny veteran who rarely goes astray, and I credit him for digging this one up.  Sight unseen (though I have seen the previews), it would be my pick for favorite in the Best Picture category.

Sorry if I missed something important.  Hope you can make it to the cinema to see some of them (in the words of the late Roger Ebert, "Save me the aisle seat").  I far prefer those venues, preferably a big old one with a good sound system (IMAX/3-D totally unnecessary), to DVD, DVR, Netflix, fill in the blank with the latest lazy consumption medium....

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

That was a lot of work, re-typing all that review. Since I first wrote it, a lot of the movies mentioned have come out, but generally without too much notice. "Spectre" did a moderate amount of business, but not much for a Bond movie--this may at last be the final one.