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Oscars 2019 Recap

What to lead with?

a) The Oscars were boring as hell without a host.

b) Green Book is NOT my best picture.

Although the Oscars did see a modest bump in audience this year, it is not likely to 91st Annual Academy Awards - Showhave converted any of the first-time watchers as the show felt listless and low energy without a host or opening number. Many of the presenters were good – I like the John Mulaney-Awkwafina pairing, and of course Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey, though I think the win goes to Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry who really went balls-out in paying tribute to costumers (and kudos to the costume designer in charge of her cape who actually got every single one of those bunnies to stand up).

It was a great night for women, and for women of colour in particular. Rachel Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first ever African American women to win in their categories – costume design for Carter and production design for Beachler. They’re the first African American women to win in a non-acting category since 1984, when91st Annual Academy Awards - Press Room Irene Cara won for cowriting Flashdance. Both wins come courtesy of juggernaut Black Panther, which may be the actual best picture of 2018, trophy or not. “Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design, we turned him into an African king,” Carter said in her speech. “It’s been my life’s honor to create costumes. Thank you to the academy. Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead onscreen.” Beachler, meanwhile, paid it forward “I give the strength to all of those who come next, to keep going, to never give up. And when you think it’s impossible, just remember to say this piece of advice I got from a very wise woman: I did my best, and my best is good enough.”

Regina King, Mahershala Ali, and Rami Malek all earned the Oscars they were expected to in the top acting categories. I have trouble calling Ali’s performance a 91st Annual Academy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019supporting one since he has pretty equal screen time to Viggo, but his award is deserved – not only was it the best and only good thing in an otherwise shitty movie, he ran a very gracious and thoughtful campaign. So did Malek, which is probably what pulled him out ahead of Christian Bale, who probably turned in the more effortful performance as Dick Cheney in Vice but didn’t campaign at all. Olivia Colman pulled out the night’s biggest upset (well, one of them) with her best actress win over the favoured Glenn Close (clearly not The Favourite though, haha, movie puns). Close is great in The Wife, which is not a good movie. Colman is great in The Favourite, which is an exceptional movie. Again, you can’t and shouldn’t really call hers the leading performance above Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz when all 3 ladies get equal screen time, but thanks to wonderful editing, her story line acts as 91st Annual Academy Awards - Backstagethe emotional anchor. And oh boy is she emotional! It’s such a forceful, impassioned performance. Truly deserving, even if poor Close has now lost 7 times and won 0 – a dismal track record, and she’s the got the dubious title of most nominated but never winning actor – male or female.

Spike Lee finally won his Oscar, for BlackKklansman‘s best adapted screenplay. A tough category, which makes it exciting. You could have had heaps more in there spike-lee-1-1for sure. I think If Beale Street Could Talk and Can You Ever Forgive Me? were just as good (and so different!) but I’m glad Lee won, and super glad that pal Sam Jackson was there to tell him the good news. Their on-stage celebration was one of the highlights of the night. So, by the way, was Barbra Streisand telling the audience the many things she and Spike have in common – including (but not limited to) their love of hats. God bless her!

Alfonso Cuaron won best director, as he should, from great friend and last year’s winner, Guillermo del Toro, who got out of his sick bed to do so. And Cuaron accepted Roma‘s award for best foreign language film on behalf of Mexico. And he won best cinematography, the first DP to win who also directed the movie. 91st Annual Academy Awards - Governors BallInterestingly, the American Society of Cinematography gave its highest award to Cold War’s Łukasz Żal, but that’s because Cuaron, a director, is not a part of this guild. Cuaron is the first person to be personally nominated for 4 Oscars for a single film (best foreign language is not personal, but awarded to a country), the fourth being for his original screenplay, which he lost in a tragic incident I don’t even want to get into. Anyhow, in presenting the award for cinematography, Tyler Perry noted it was a pleasure to do so “live on 91st Annual Academy Awards, Governors Ball, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019camera, not during the commercial break. Thank you, Academy.” You may recall that just a few weeks ago, the Academy said it would hand out several awards, including this one, during commercial breaks, but had to rescind its decision due to the wrath of nearly everyone.

It used to be that best director and best picture often went hand in hand, which makes sense. But in the past 10 years, since the Oscars opened up the best picture category to a potential 10 nominees, things changed. Now it uses a “preferential ballot” system, which means the most liked movie wins – but not necessary the most popular, which could explain the now 50% 91st Annual Academy Awards - Showdiscrepancy between best picture and best director wins. Members are asked to rank the best picture nominees from best to worst. This year there were 8 nominees, so the accountants made 8 piles and sorted all the ballots according to their #1 choices. If no movie has more than 50% of the votes, and with more than 5 nominees that’s practically impossible, then the smallest pile is removed. Let’s assume that Vice had the smallest pile. Now all the ballots that listed Vice #1 are re-sorted into piles according to who their #2 pick was. You can see why canny members are now voting strategically, and how the movie with the most #1 picks won’t necessarily be the winner. The win could easily go to the movie with the most #2 picks, which is weird, but that’s also how Americans pick their presidents, and we all know how well that turns out. So Green Book is the Donald Trump of best pictures.

Green Book shouldn’t have been nominated. At best, it’s a pretty pedestrian movie. At best. But it’s also a movie about race relations that’s written and directed by white ABC's Coverage Of The 91st Annual Academy Awards - Press Roommen. Solely by white men. Which is why so many of the Academy’s old white men felt comfortable voting for it. They could pat themselves on the back for being ‘diverse’ while still rewarding the status quo – for reframing the story of a black man’s experience into the perspective of his white driver. Never mind that director Peter Farrelly has a history of consulting his penis during meetings. And that writer Nick Vallelonga has said some weird Islamophobic shit, agreeing with Trump of all people, tweeting “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down” – and that was still on his time line when he won the Golden Globe this year. Gross.

Meanwhile, Roma is a work of art from start to finish. I’m so proud that a black and white movie, with subtitles, with no stars or recognizable names, about society’s less visible women, is such a huge deal, so gorgeous and relatable. What a win for 91st Annual Academy Awards - Governors BallNetflix, and for taking chances. And If Beale Street Could Talk is also completely worthy. It’s visual poetry. I was electrified, from the colours to the dialogue’s flow, and the story’s timeliness and timelessness. Perfection. And there are many other terrific movies besides: The Favourite is funny and incisive and beautifully acted; BlackKlansman is galvanizing wizardry; Sorry To Bother You is risky and bold; Blindspotting is culturally significant; Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse is ground breaking; Eighth Grade distills a moment in time, taking us back while pinning us in place with its precise observation; Black Panther elevates the super hero game and asks more of us as an audience and a culture; Can You Ever Forgive Me? is funnier than almost any comedy released this year but the humour comes from a dark and interesting place, a true voice for society’s losers; Leave No Trace is heart breaking in its truth and simplicity; First Man is cold and wonderful and ambitious and intimate; Crazy Rich Asians is visually stunning and a cultural milestone. I’m going to stop there, but you get my point. 2018 was a great year for movies. I was moved, I cried in utter delight, I was horrified and invigorated. I think Green Book is a step back. I wish it didn’t win. But instead of complaining about Green Book, I’m going to keep pushing forward the movies I love, because that’s what’s so great about cinema. You don’t have to like them all, but if you keep watching, you will find something to love.


The Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' Scientific And Technical Awards CeremonyOn Saturday, Leslie Mann & John Cho hosted the awards we don’t see (their 3 hour ceremony will be distilled into about 1 minutes of broadcast during the Oscars) – the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards. There are no nominees at these awards, just winners, people the Academy have chosen to honour for their contributions to film making (the Academy’s Board of Governors does the voting). These are often inventions and discoveries that make cameras better, or CGI more realistic.

“Simply put, the movies we love would not exist if not for your talent, your knowledge and your creativity,” academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said in her opening remarks. “There’s a reason it’s called the Academy of Arts and Sciences.”

Awards were given out for all kinds of sciency things I don’t really understand, motion capture stuff, programming stuff, and improvements to digital cameras. One thing that caught my eye thought was called an Animatronic Horse Puppet.

Okay, I’ll bite: animatronic horse puppet, you say?

Mark Rappaport is credited with the concept, design and development. He runs a company called Creature Effects, Inc, that specializes in creating hyper-realistic make-up effects and animatronic animals for use in movies. Most movies will still use primarily real animals, but for certain scenes, animatronic replacements is just plain safer for both actor and animal. The trick is to make the “puppets” look real and move realistically.

Scott Oshita is credited for the motion analysis and CAD design; Jeff Cruts with the development of faux-hair finish techniques; and Todd Minobe for the puppet’s articulation and drive-train mechanisms.

The production crew of The Last Samurai needed an animatronic horse able to perform stunt sequences that would put a real horse and rider in danger, and goodness knows we can’t risk Tom Cruise’s pretty face.. Rappaport was commissioned to build a horse that could seamlessly replace Tom Cruise’s real horse for those scenes. Rappaport said “It’s probably the most sophisticated horse or animatronic creature ever made for film. It cost $1.5 million to make. It gallops in place. It reared up. It fell over. And it looks completely real.”

220px-300_animatronic_wolf_puppet_closeupThose horses came in handy again for the 300 movie, and Rappaport was given a new challenge: a wolf to attack young Leonidas. This wolf was able to blink, movie its head, its neck, its brow, its jaw, and its tongue, it could even salivate and had glowing eyes!

Their animatronic horse has also been used in The Lone Ranger and The Revenant.

Pretty cool, eh?


Live By Night

It’s possible that Live By Night will give hope to mopey gangsters everywhere by raising awareness of their difficult, stressful lives. It can’t be easy making money hand over fist by preying on the working class, especially when other bad guys are constantly trying to pick fights with you. In that small way, Ben Affleck (a.k.a. the director of Argo and the Town) has done those poor souls a great service by finally addressing this important topic and bringing their suffering to light.  screen_shot_2016-09-08_at_4-54-03_pm


It’s clearly long past time for Matt Damon to stage an intervention. Affleck has lost his way and next on his list of mopey outlaws is the Batman. There can now be no doubt that Affleck will use that movie like he used this one, to share his people’s plight by bringing more one-percenter depression to the silver screen.  I can neither tolerate another bad Batman movie nor refrain from seeing whatever schlock is put onscreen starring a comic book character (I am so far gone I thought the Logan trailer looked good). Help me, Matt Damon, you’re my only hope!

Putting aside my Batman-related angst and focusing on Live By Night, Affleck is the core of what is wrong with the movie, which I suppose is inevitable since he directs, stars and wrote the screenplay. I suspect he’s even disappointed in himself. He should be, becauslead_960e if nothing else the role he has created for himself is a terrible one. The lead character is remarkably unsympathetic and no amount of teary-eyed inner conflict or monotone monologuing in voiceover form (because this character doesn’t like to express feelings aloud) can change that. On top of that, his hats make him look ridiculous, and there are so many hats.

Affleck the writer/director also does himself no favours by all but omitting action scenes from this gangster tale. Worse, the film’s few action scenes are as a jumble of tommy-gun-wielding m_8e517450-d96c-11e6-a260-7aa04c68bc63aniacs shooting at each other that leave the viewer unclear as to who’s on whose side (spoiler alert: the guys doing the killing are the ones on Affleck’s character’s side). Affleck also completely wastes Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, and most egregiously Agent Coulson (though Jay took Chris Messina’s bad teeth and pot belly hardest but at least Messina got a decent amount of screen time).

In case you can’t tell by now, Live By Night is not a good movie, not by a long shot.  I should have seen Patriots Day instead. Did you hear that, Affleck? I should have seen a Mark Wahlberg-Peter Berg joint rather than this mess. You’re an Oscar winning writer, dammit! Go think about what you’ve done and get your shit together before you ruin Batman too.

Best Screenplay

La La Land swept the Golden Globes and set a new record doing it. No other movie collected 7 Globes before, and only 2 merited 6 (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, Midnight Express). This paints a huge target on La La Land’s back going into the Oscars – or more likely, on Damien Chazelle’s. If he wins best director there like he did at the Globes, he’ll be the youngest person ever to do so.

La La Land is a superb movie and its merit is splashed across the screen in dazzling technicolour. It’s technically perfect, visually dizzying, and directed with evident love. The lalachazellegoslingone things that’s easy to overlook, however, is the screenplay. Which is why there were some raised eyebrows when it took the Globe for that as well. A movie like La La Land doesn’t necessarily need a great script, it just needs a bridge between big, magical movie moments. But Damien Chazelle offers more than that. He doesn’t just write characters who randomly break out into song and dance. He writes true characters, people who speak to each other with nuanced emotion, raw around the edges, honesty we can all identify with.

Mia and Sebastian are fairly classic types, starving artists. But the dialogue between them establishes them as outsiders, oddballs. There is specificity to their oddness that makes them jump off the page: she drives a Prius, so generic among the Hollywood set, he drives a classic car, that’s maybe a little like him, a little like the jazz he loves so much, finicky, temperamental, requiring work, not easy to love.

Chazelle lays the groundwork for the emotional reality of the film. The script earns it. When Mia and Seb waltz literally up into the stars, our hearts take the leap along with them. We don’t hesitate, we are ready. We have been prepared by the excellent writing and also by the fully fleshed characters brought to life by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. But we feel it just as truthfully when the relationship begins to disintegrate.The scene in the gritty little apartment when the smoke alarm goes off, romantic dinner burned, is about as grueling as it gets. And when we finally get to the climax of their imagined life together, the attention to detail pays off. If you’ve been paying attention, all those little moments added up to something. It’s Chazelle’s fluidity between vision and execution that pulls us headlong into this bittersweet romance.

Certainly, as a writer-director, Damien Chazelle pulls off exactly what he intends. Two other of this year’s nominees accomplished the same: Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins and Manchester By the Sea’s Kenneth Lonergan are both writer-directors as well, and it’s no surprise that they were Chazelle’s biggest competition. Sean was pulling for Jenkins, in gallery-1477344433-barry-jenkins-01-david-bornfriend-courtesy-of-a24fact, calling Moonlight’s writing “tight” – and I knew just what he meant. There’s no fat in the script. Everything is precise, the chapters discreet. As writer-director, he trusts his audience to make certain leaps with him, and these small revelations help us to feel a part of the story. Jenkins pulls us in by showing us not just who this person is, but why he is, how he is. By showing rather than simply telling, we have so much more empathy and understanding, and this depth is what we really respond to in Moonlight. The character is so specifically written that even though we may have very little in common with him, we recognize the universality of his struggle and for a moment, we can slip into his skin. I’m glad Moonlight was rewarded with Best Picture, Drama and in truth, I would not have been disappointed had it garnered Best Screenplay as well. It truly is some remarkable writing.

Manchester By The Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is also a major 1251523_lonergan-2accomplishment in terms of writing. Its main character Lee (Casey Affleck) is a man so paralyzed with pain that he rarely speaks. Every word in the script therefore counts doubly; Lonergan must convey everything with hardly anything, and he knows that because there is little dialogue, we are paying close attention to every word. Lonergan has the courage to present us with a very un-Hollywood story of grief that is not vanquished. There is no character arc, there is no redemption or triumph, certainly no happy ending. The script bravely presents us with the painful notion that not everyone will overcome.

The last two nominees were no slouches either. Tom Ford is nearly a writer-director himself, having personally adapted Nocturnal Animals from Austin Wright’s novel, Tony NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, from left: director Tom Ford, Jake Gyllenhaal, on set, 2016. ph: Merrick Morton/and Susan. It’s a very layered script, requiring a boundary between “real life” and “the novel” that sometimes blurs. It’s part psychological thriller, so it needs to keep a pace that grips us, titillates us, without ever leaving us behind. Ford deviates importantly from the source material, strengthening it in the process, at least in terms of film making. He sets it in a vapidly stylish world where the plot can work as a further metaphor for vanity and aesthetic, perhaps a nod at Ford’s own critics.

Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, a man not well known for writing until taylorsheridan2he burst on the scene with his impressive 2015 effort, Sicario. Hell or High Water is a smaller, quieter movie, at once a throw back to Westerns of yore, and a timely commentary on today’s economic crisis. He counts both these movies as part of a trilogy about the “modern day American frontier.” Sheridan never studied film or writing but seems to have learned his craft by appearing on loads of television shows, some good (Sons of Anarchy, Veronica Mars), others not so much (CSI) and learning to spot the difference between them. He knew Hell or High Water would thrive on authenticity, and he wanted to give the audience something to take home and chew on.

There are no losers in this bunch. Awards are subjective, and you may prefer one of these over La La Land. But La La Land is not undeserving. It’s a beautiful film that doesn’t take any short cuts.


It’s funny how animated movies from this vintage have aged so badly compared to classically-drawn stuff like Snow White. Old Disney has a timeless feel whereas the dawning days of CGI just looks goofy and amateurish. But I can remember at the time thinking it looked slick as shit. Actually, as early as 1991, Steven Spielberg held the rights to this film and thought he’d do hand-drawn animation through Amblin studios, with Bill Murray as Shrek and Steve Martin as Donkey. Just imagine that.

Shrek came out in 2001. Animated movies took so long to make that voice actors were cast 12.pngyears in advance. Nicolas Cage was offered the part of Shrek but turned it down, not wanting to be drawn as an ugly ogre (he apparently missed the whole point of the movie, unsurprisingly). Chris Farley was then cast as Shrek but at his death in 1997, producers decided to recast the role and it went to SNL alum Mike Myers (you can hear Farley’s work here). Farley’s gone but not forgotten – if you look closely, you might just see a few of Shrek’s movements that were inspired by Farley, notably his use of “air quotes” just like a certain Farley character. And that’s a bit of a miracle, because when Mike Myers came on board, he demanded a complete re-write of the script, not wanting any of Farley’s influences to contaminate his own performances. Another result of Farley’s death was the dropping of Janeane Garofalo from the cast. She was supposed to play Fiona opposite Farley’s Shrek, but she was dropped like a hot potato after his death, no explanation given.

Janeane Garfalo wasn’t the film’s only disappearing act: Jimmy Fallon had recorded the tumblr_memaanhvik1qk381no1_r2_250dating game show portion as the Magic Mirror, but in the film that hit theatres (and your DVD shelf), it’s just storyboard artist Christopher Miller.

Like Farley, Myers recorded his role in his normal speaking voice. When he saw the movie with test audiences, he realized something crucial was missing, so he drew on the Scottish accent his mother would use when reading bedtime stories to re-record the lines. That little decision cost the studio $4 million dollars. Do you think it was worth it?  All the actors recorded separately, as was the custom at the time. John Lithgow (Lord Farquaad) lamented never being able to meet let alone work with Myers, Eddie Murphy (Donkey) or Cameron Diaz (Princess Fiona).  Don’t feel too bad for them though – they’ve had several red carpets to schmooze each other since. Mike Myers did a lot of ad-libbing which comes as no surprise, but it seems that Cameron Diaz also added a lot to her role. Like her character, Diaz had studied kung fu (she was a Charlie’s Angel, after all) and recorded that part in full exertion (occasionally breaking out in Cantonese). Producers also scrambled to add Fiona’s burping scene after Diaz let one rip after drinking a Coke.

Because the film took so long to make (they started work in 1996), it features a lot of maxresdefault.jpgreferences that would have seemed fresh at the time (The Matrix, for example), and some that seemed almost immediately dated (the Macarena, and Riverdance, for example). It also gave the Dreamworks lawyers plenty of time to go over the film with a fine tooth comb: no one wanted to get sued by Disney for the many satirical pokes and jabs at their theme parks.

Of course we all know that Donkey is the best character in Shrek, and he was memorably voiced by Eddie Murphy, like no other could. In fact, Murphy received a BAFTA nomination for his voice-over performances, the first of its kind. Murphy knows it’s some of his best work, and firmly believes that when he does, the obit will run with a picture of a donkey beside it. “Donkey is a really positive character. He’s always looking at the bright side of everything, trying to work it out. A happy-go-lucky donkey.” How can you not love a sensitive, hyperactive donkey with a sweet tooth for waffles and parfait? And if you thinktumblr_n50847EJoc1smcbm7o1_500.gif he looks a little too cute and cuddly for a donkey, you’re right – although he’s modeled after a real-life miniature donkey named Perry who lives in Palo Alto, near DreamWorks, his movements mimic that of a dog rather than a hooved animal.

Shrek was released to enormous success. They immediately went to work on a second (which led to an ill-advised 3rd, and then a 4th that’s not much better). But in 2001, Shrek was animation gold. It was the first animated American film screened at Cannes since Peter Pan in 1953. It also won the inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Film when the Academy Award added it in 2001 (it beat out Pixar’s Monsters, Inc!). It was the 3rd highest grossing movie of the year, behind some Harry Potter and some other Lord of the Rings (and just edging out Monsters, Inc, in fact). So even if the animation looks a little busted today, it’s got a pretty solid spot in animated history.

West Side Story

Steven Spielberg wants to make a musical, and not just any musical, but a remake of West Side Story. Reportedly Tony Kushner’s already working on a script.

Coincidentally (or not) a certain Chris Evans has been mouthing around town that he’d love to do a musical too – specifically, West Side Story.

It sounds like this thing’s going to happen but before it does you’d better make sure you’ve seen the original. It took audiences by storm in 1961 and won an astounding 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.

The 1961 version starred a young Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as the lead characters Maria and Tony, who are basically Romeo and Juliet, if you watch carefully enough. They come from not two feuding families but two warring gangs, sworn enemies soon swooning in young love. But if you know your Shakespeare, you know their love is heading for tragedy.

Happily, this classic film is back in theatres.

Quebec City can  see it at Cinema Le Clap July 24-26

Vancouver can watch it at Pacific Cinematheque June 30-July 3 or on July 9 at the Rio Theatre

ballet.gifWatch it, and let us know what you think. Does Beymer make a good Tony, or would Elvis Presley (the director’s first choice) have done better? And how will Captain America fill the role?

During the entire production, the actors wore out 200 pairs of shoes, applied more than 100lbs of make-up, and split 27 pairs of pants. Will Spielberg get away with such a dancey remake? Would we even want him to?

See how many of the songs you know from other pop culture references. In my head “Gee, Officer Krupke” is always sung in Larry David’s voice. And Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson made “I Feel Pretty” famous again in Anger Management. Where did you first hear the songs?


Audrey Hepburn was the original choice to play Maria but was too pregnant at the time to accept. Who is today’s Hepburn equivalent? Or is it blasphemy to even ask?

Citizen Kane: The Citizen Kane of American Cinema?

Citizen kane 3First of all, I like Citizen Kane. It is on my short list of movies that I try to make a point of checking in with at least once a year. “Keeping your film nerd cred up to date,” my friend called it yesterday. Because nothing keeps you current like rewatching a 1941 movie.

Of course, I’m not the only one who watches it regularly. Nearly 75 years later, it is still typically referred to as the prototypical example of a great movie. For example, if you wanted to recommend the latest Oscar bait with qualifications, you might say “It’s not Citizen Kane but I liked it”. I do it too. Back in April, I referred to The Dark Knight as the Citizen Kane of superhero movies. In May, I quoted Entertainment Weekly in calling The Room “the Citizen Kane of bad Citizen Kanemovies”. But is Citizen Kane really the Citizen Kane of American movies?

It’s not my favourite movie. How can it be? My own grandfather was just a kid when it was originally released. By the time I finally watched Citizen Kane for the first time when I was maybe 17, its visual style and narrative structure had been inspiring writers and directors for nearly 60 years, making it easy to take so much of what made the film unique in 1941 for granted. As a 21st century viewer, I’m far more likely to marvel at the style of, say, American Beauty even though that film would not have been possible without Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane 4So why do I find my annual visits with this movie so essential to my film nerd cred? First of all, I admire the non-linear structure. Even today, where movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento have taken this idea even further, Citizen Kane is still impressive. It remains one of my favourite character studies of a ruthless protagonist. And Rosebud! How often do we sit through an entire movie waiting for an answer that actually satisfies and feels right?

I can’t pretend to feel that Citizen Kane is necessarily the greatest movie ever made but it has a lot to offer even to modern film nerds. It rewards multiple viewings and I’m always looking forward to my next one.

Midnight in Paris

Establishing shots at the beginning of the film are divine, and if I wasn’t in Paris already, I’d be booking my flight! Funny how the toast of Manhattan, consummate New Yorker Woody Allen, now seems to be smitten with Paris. Is the City of Light his new inspiration?

Owen Wilson is quite taken with Paris in the 1920s.  He’s a writer who’s spent years grinding out Midnight in Paris (2011)scripts in Hollywood (successfully, it seems) but wishes he’d had the guts to write novels in Paris instead. He’s visiting the city with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), who’s had enough (“If I never see another charming boulevard or bistro -) but he’s still bubbling with anecdotes of Monet and Hemingway and their fruitful time lost in their art. While he’s out chasing the ghost of Joyce down cobbled streets, the clock strikes midnight and an old Peugeot drives up, full of merry-makers. Turns out – spoiler alert – that it’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

We never know whether this is magic or mental health, but he now possesses the ability to slipparis3 back to his favourite time period, 20s era Paris, and he gets invited into Gertrude Stein’s (Kathy Bates) famous salon. Bates is lovely but I have to say, Wilson’s earnestness is what really sells this piece. He’s wide-eyed and worshipful of his heroes. It’s major wish-fulfillment and it’s fun to see all these giants come to life.

parismarionRachel McAdams starts to get annoyed that he disappears every night, but how can he resist? Hemingway himself has offered to edit his work! Woody Allen’s script sings with treasures for book-lovers, and in this film, I can combine with my love of literature AND film (AND Paris, incidentally). Owen Wilson is just as bowled over – particularly when he comes across a beautiful muse (and mistress) to many famous artists (Marion Cotillard), but what a conflict between his actual fiancée in the present tense, and the people who get him but may just be figments of his fertile imagination.

This movie is not for everyone and that’s okay. And it’s not just about being well-read. You just either feel the charm or you don’t. Allen sprinkles the scrip liberally with treats that add up to a veritable feast (a moveable feast?) – you get the sense that he must have had fun writing this, which is perhaps why he won the Oscar for Best Orignal Screenplay (though he never attends to pick up his statuettes). If any of the above has sounded interesting, or if you just need another excuse to fall in love with the City of Possibility, then put this on your list.

Still Alice

We wstill aliceouldn’t even be talking about Still Alice, about a world renowned linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, if it weren’t for Julianne Moore. Michelle Pfeiifer, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman all apparently passed on the part before anyone got around to considering Moore, which is baffling to me. Who among Moore’s peers is more up for the challenge? Who can play confused just as well as they can play sharp or as vulnerable as well as strong. Or, as Jay was right to point out in her review of Maps to the Stars, who else is so unconcerned with how she looks while she’s doing it? Because there are so many sides to her persona, we believe her as a respected academic, as a mother, and as a wife which is just as important as believing her as an Alzheimer’s patient. Because of Julianne Moore, we’re talking about Still Alice as an Oscar nominated film (Best Actress in a Leading Role).

The movie, as written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, may not be as beautiful as Away from Her or L’Amour but it gets it right mostly by not doing anything wrong. It’s never corny and doesn’t search for easy answers. This may not seem like high praise but I can imagine so many ways this could have gone wrong by being too pandering or by focusing on the disease instead of the person. I give it credit for not falling into these traps.

Julianne Moore is still the best reason to see Still Alice though. She’s been great since short Cuts but hasn’t had such a great opportunity to show it for years. Smart money is on her winning the Oscar.

If one asshole’s opinion isn’t enough, check out Jay’s review.

Citizenfour – Discussion

Citizenfour is a great documentary, maybe not in terms of movie making, but certainly in terms of the discussion it generates. If you’ve followed the case, then you’ve learned nothing new: Edward Snowden surreptitiously contacts Laura Poitras, the film’s director, and asks to meet. She flies to Hong Kong and films him over the course of 8 days, as Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian interviews him and breaks the story on the extent of NSA’s pervasive spying on its own citizens. If you’d like to learn more about this movie, please see fellow Asshole Matt’s review of the film. If you’ve seen it and would like more in-depth discussion, then keep reading.

Why you should care: One thing this movie does well is that it makes the case for why should citizenfourwe all care. It’s easy enough to brush it aside, thinking that since we having nothing to hide, nothing nefarious in our texts or emails, then we’re “safe”, no one will be kicking in our doors. And that’s true. But it’s also true that every single day, these people are infringing upon your rights. They are looking over your shoulder at things we used to consider “private” – phone calls to our friends, emails to our mothers, messages from our doctors, banking we did online, books we’ve borrowed, movies we rented, things we bought, passwords we mistakenly believe are ‘secret’, every single thing we’ve ever searched for on Google. Think about that for a second. Our histories, our personal blueprints, are available for analysis. If this was a dystopian sci-fi flick, we’d be creeped out and outraged on behalf of the protagonist. But those scenarios are already happening. It’s already here. But since it’s illegal and since people might just be mad about it, the government does it in secret – and outright lies about it when called out. It uses all the technology developed for flushing out terrorists and uses it against YOU. It has turned spy against its own citizens, every last law-abiding one of them. You don’t need to be suspicious. You don’t need to have a record. You don’t need to have motive, or to associate with known criminals, or use words like “bomb” or “jihad” or “Ebola”.

What does privacy mean to you? Make no mistake, this data collection is a weapon and one that will be used to oppress you. Citizenfour and Glenn Greenwald in particular seek to impress us with this fact: PRIVACY IS FREEDOM. I think it’s important to think of it in terms of control: your own control over your privacy, and others’ ability to control you using obtained private information. There is no freedom without privacy. That’s why we vote by secret ballot. Privacy allows freedom of conscience and diversity of thought. Sure, the government has seriously abused this data yet, that we know of. But why should we be content to wait until that happens – and it will happen – it is being collected in order to be used, not for you, but against you.

Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor? Poitras doesn’t really touch on this, unfortunately. Her film is more a portrait of a man, but whether you call that man a whistleblower or a traitor tells a lot about you and about the world you think you live in. The truth is, he is responsible for one of, if not the, largest security breaches of American state secrecy. Why did he do it? The film paints him (and he paints himself) as self-sacrificing, conscience-directed, a do-gooder of the greater-good. He assured us he expected and was willing to be punished for his actions, but won’t return to US soil to stand trial. And for all his protestations, I felt he did court attention. He didn’t reveal the secrets himself, he sought out famous film and print journalists to bring “his” story to light. But he was an established (if closeted) libertarian for pretty much his whole life, believing that the government should defend its citizens, not encroach upon their rights. Few news stories, this documentary included, have been able to separate Edward Snowden, the personality, with the information he uncovered, and even though Poitras claims she was working on this film before Snowden contacted her, we see little evidence of this in its finished product. Those eight days in Hong Kong are the meat of the movie, but I was surprised that she merely recorded it passively rather than asking any questions. I was left wondering – is Snowden operating purely from an ethic of responsibility, or does he have other motives at play? And does it even matter, since the information is all true? Can you be held above the law if the information you leaked shows the corruption of the lawmakers themselves?

Has Citizenfour succeeded? Snowden tells us that what we can do at home to protect our privacy is to encrypt, to block our ISPs, to use personal clouds, to leave no trace. I’m not sure this is practical for every user of the web, and is it even enough? Citizenfour excelled at showing us just how seriously they took they spying. There’s an escalating sense of paranoia – from Snowden’s use of physical barriers to Greenwald’s reluctance to speak out loud – the camera focuses on his feverishly scrawled notes, methodically shredded. They take no chances but I do wonder – has the average viewer of the movie seen this as a call to arms? Have you changed the way you use the internet or cell phone?