A Pepper Spray Present

Every year, the nominees for the Oscars get a lavish gift bag with all kinds of special items donated by companies that are looking for a little big of PR.  The bags are not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but they’ve become a kind of tradition and are loaded with goodies like plane tickets, high-end cosmetics, and new, uber cool gizmos.

So, what’s in this year’s swag bag?

promo343614230Well, among other things there’s a 12-day trip to Tanzania, something called a “24 carat gold facial” — that sounds like it will fit right in with the Hollywood tradition of wretched excess — and a “conflict-free” diamond necklace.  Oh, and multiple kinds of pepper spray, now that the Harvey Weinstein horror story and the exposure of many other producers, directors, agents, and actors have revealed Hollywood to be a place of rampant sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and outright rape.

It’s therefore not surprising that this year’s Oscar swag bag has a decided personal safety and security element to it.  It includes at least three different pepper spray options — including a key ring-sized device — two personal body alarms, and a kit that allows you to determine whether your drink has been drugged that no doubt will immediately come in handy at one of those Oscars after-parties.

It tells you something about what it must be like to be a part of the oversexed, overprotected, underinvestigated, and underbrained world of the Hollywood glitterati.  Normally I would object to the idea of Oscar nominees getting thousands of dollars in freebies on “rich get richer” grounds, but this year maybe the swag bags offer some hope and some perspective on what a wretched place Hollywood really is.  Maybe at least one of the nominees will grab their pepper spray and spiked drink kit, don the personal body alarms, sell the “24-karat gold facial” and the “conflict-free” diamond necklace for a little ready cash, jet off to Tanzania for that 12-day holiday — and wisely decide to never come back to the lewd and lecherous land of Oscar.

Advertisements

Screening The Shorts

Today Kish and I continued our project to see as many of the the films nominated for Oscars this year as possible.  We screened the five “live action” short films that are up for an Academy Award.  They are playing, as a group, at the AMC Lennox.

timecodeUnder the Academy Award rules, the short film category is limited to movies with a running time of 40 minutes or less, including credits.  The films therefore must be more compact, without a lot of subplots or extraneous characters who might otherwise hog the screen time.  And yet, the storytelling is still there — and in fact might actually be enhanced and made more powerful by the time limits.  When you compare the short films to the kind of big-budget fare that Hollywood typically produces, you realize that all of the CGI and explosions and special effects sometimes interfere with, rather than promoting, the basic tale-telling that is a key part of the magic of movies.

The five finalists for 2017 include films from Hungary, Denmark, Spain, France, and Switzerland.   All were terrific, and their stories, and tones, were dramatically different.  The Hungarian film, Sing, told the story of a children’s choir controlled by a domineering conductor.  Silent Nights, the Danish movie, explored a relationship between a Ghanan immigrant trying to make money to send home to his family and a volunteer at a Salvation Army shelter.  In the Spanish film, entitled Timecode, a security guard at a parking garage who has to review surveillance video learns something surprising about the guard who holds down the other shift — and the movie ends with a laugh out loud joke.  The French movie, Ennemis Interieurs, is a taut interrogation between an Algerian immigrant who wants to become a French citizen and the police office relentlessly questioning him to try to determine if he might be a terrorist.  And the Swiss film, La Femme et le TGV, introduces us to a baker and chocolatier whose innocent act of always waving the flag and smiling as the train rumbles past her house produces some interesting consequences.

There’s lots of good movies and talented filmmakers out there, and the short film genre allows the Academy to recognize works that otherwise might not get much attention.  If the five nominees come to your local theater, you won’t regret checking them out.

Moonlight

Kish and I are continuing our quest to watch the Academy Award Best Picture nominees.  On Sunday we screened Moonlight at the Drexel, and I was still thinking about the movie hours later, amidst all of the Super Bowl hoopla.  It’s the kind of film that worms its way into your guts and sticks around, forcing you to think about it.

moonlight-posterMoonlight tells the three-part story of a quiet little boy — known variously as “Little,” Chiron, and “Black” — who grows up in a poor, drug-infested part of Miami.  His father is long gone, and his mother is on a downhill slide into drugs.  He’s relentlessly bullied by other kids, his mother (beautifully played by best supporting actress nominee Naomie Harris) smokes crack, brings strange men into their apartment, takes his money, and plays all kinds of mind games with him, and he’s just fending for himself and clinging to a really terrible life.  He’s got no chance for a safe, secure, “normal” existence.  It’s a brutal tale to watch, and I ended up feeling as sorry for this young man as I’ve ever felt for any movie character in any film I’ve ever watched.  The actors who play this character as a boy and a teenager — Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders — are flat-out brilliant.

But even amidst the terrible reality on the mean streets of Miami, the young man encounters kindness.  A drug dealer named Juan (played by best supporting actor nominee Mahershala Ali) befriends him, feeds him, and waits out his silence.  (The scene where Juan teaches “Little” to swim — and to trust another person, just a bit — is a beautiful little vignette.)  A young woman gives him a safe place to stay whenever his mother orders him out of the house.  And he makes a connection with a classmate that turns out to be a lasting one.  But those few happy moments are overwhelmed by the horror, and fear, and routine betrayal that are a part of this kid’s everyday experience.

By the time we get to the third segment of the movie, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is grown, has moved to Atlanta, and has become a hardass drug dealer with gold teeth inserts.  When an unexpected phone call brings him back to Miami, to see his mother and interact with his past, what will he find?  We just desperately want something good to happen to this wounded person who really never had a chance.  We get only a partial answer, and we leave the theater wondering:  what will the rest of this young man’s life be like?

Even a few days later, I still wonder.  How many movies have that kind of staying power?

Michelle Obama And The Oscars

On Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, First Lady Michelle Obama was the surprise presenter of the award for Best Picture.  What isn’t a surprise is that, in the wake of the Academy Awards show, some people have criticized her appearance as frivolous and not befitting her role as First Lady.

I’m heartily sick and tired of this kind of sanctimonious stuff.  I don’t see anything wrong with a First Lady participating in the Academy Awards broadcast if she wants to do so (although I’m not sure that, if I were the First Gentleman, I’d want to be part of the phony, kissy-face Hollywood scene).  It’s not as if Michelle Obama — or any other First Lady — is expected to be pondering weighty affairs of state at all hours of the day and night.  Even her husband, who unlike Michelle Obama was elected to his current leadership position, is not begrudged an occasional vacation, golf outing, or basketball game.  Why should anyone care if the First Lady wants to spend an hour of her time appearing on an awards show?

People who think First Ladies should act like Mamie Eisenhower are kidding themselves.  The line between politicians and celebrities has long since been blurred to non-existence.  Presidents and presidential candidates and First Ladies have been appearing on talk shows for years now; how is the Oscars broadcast materially different?  Hollywood is one of America’s most successful industries, one that employs a lot of people and generates a lot of income.  Would people object if the First Lady presented an award to, say, the Teacher of the Year or recognized the owner of a successful business that opened a new plant?  If not, why object to the First Lady’s acknowledgement of the film industry?

In our struggling country, Michelle Obama’s decision to present the Best Picture Oscar is the least of our concerns.  If the First Lady wants to share a bit in the glitz and glamor of Oscar Night, I’m not troubled by her decision.  Now, can we start talking about the real, important issues of the day?

2010 Oscar Picks

* = a movie I haven’t seen

Best Picture:

“Avatar”
“The Blind Side”
“District 9″*
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“Precious”
“A Serious Man”
“Up”
“Up in the Air”

“A Serious Man” tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor from the suburbs of Minneapolis in the 1960s who suffers a series of abrupt setbacks in his life: his wife leaves him for his best friend, his brother gets in trouble with the law, the possibility of him getting tenure becomes doubtful, and a failing student threatens him. The movie also follows his son, who is studying for his Bar Mitzvah and developing a taste for marijuana.

It’s directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who made “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”, “No Country For Old Men”, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, and about a dozen other great movies. Like their other movies, “A Serious Man” has a dark sense of humor. The “best friend” who steals Gopnik’s wife insists on counseling him through his loss, embracing him whenever they meet. The look on Gopnik’s face during these hugs is funny and pathetic at the same time.

I’ve seen the movie twice. The first time, I realized there were deep themes behind the film, but I couldn’t grasp them. I thought about it a lot, then I saw it again. Then I thought about it again. It’s a complicated movie – one film critic said something like “it’s the kind of movie you get to make after you win an Oscar” (which the Coens got for “No Country for Old Men”). It has things to say about family, manhood, morality, and the pitfalls of life, as well as Jewish culture and the Jewish identity in America.

It doesn’t beat you over the head with an obvious message like “Avatar”, “The Blind Side”, “Precious” and “Up in the Air” (though all those except “The Blind Side” were good movies nonetheless). It’s not boring, though; I enjoyed seeing it a second time and I will probably watch it again. It’s like one of those deep, complicated books that’s entertaining at the same time.

Also – I can’t believe the schmaltzy feel-good race movie “The Blind Side” was nominated, but original, thoughtful movies like “The Messenger”, “Where the Wild Things Are”, “Crazy Heart”, and “The Road” were not.

Best Director:

Kathryn Bigelow – “The Hurt Locker”
James Cameron – “Avatar”
Lee Daniels – “Precious”
Jason Reitman – “Up in the Air”
Quentin Tarantino – “Inglourious Basterds”

“Avatar” may not be perfect, but it’s the most ground-breaking movie in terms of special effects I’ve seen in a long time, and I think most of that is due to Cameron’s direction. Cameron should get credit for being the first director to take full advantage of the 3-D medium, using it to bring me into a different world like no other movie has before.

Best Actor:

Jeff Bridges – “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney – “Up in the Air”
Colin Firth – “A Single Man”*
Morgan Freeman – “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner – “The Hurt Locker”

Bad Blake, the alcoholic country singer played by Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”, is brilliant but immature and consumed with guilt. The character could have been a cliche, but Bridges makes him nuanced and believeable. He created probably the most memorable character I saw in the movies this year.

Best Actress:

Sandra Bullock – “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren – “The Last Station”*
Carey Mulligan – “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe – “Precious”
Meryl Streep – “Julie and Julia”*

I watched “An Education” a few nights ago because I thought I should see as many Oscar-nominated movies as I could before I offerred my verdict in this blog post. The trailer for the film didn’t appeal to me much but I was surprised to find that I liked the movie a lot, especially Carey Mulligan’s performance as the intelligent but naive Jenny Miller.

Best Supporting Actor:

Matt Damon – “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson – “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer – “The Last Station”*
Stanley Tucci – “The Lovely Bones”*
Christopher Waltz – “Inglourious Basterds”

I invited my friend to see “The Messenger” with me because he is a big Woody Harrelson fan. I think he expected a comedic Woody Harrelson performance, like in “Kingpin.” There was some of that, like when he woke up hungover and mumbled “I need to call my sponsor.” But Harrelson also gave a great dramatic performance as an alcoholic Gulf War veteran who at first regrets not having seen combat, but changes his mind after getting to know his colleague, an Iraq War veteran who has seen too much of it.

Best Supporting Actress:

Penelope Cruz – “Nine”*
Vera Farmiga – “Up in the Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal – “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick – “Up in the Air”
Mo’nique – “Precious”

I didn’t know Mo’nique was such a good actress. I thought she was just a vulgar comedian. She played a cruel, miserable mother, but I, unlike the women I saw the movie with, ended up sympathizing with her (a little bit) at the end.