Elizabeth the Queen

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Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most underrated legends of American celebrity.  She lived just long enough to turn into a caricature of herself: the weight gain and loss, the grotesquely youthful look, the friendship with Michael Jackson, and not a single worthwhile movie role after 1968’s Secret Ceremony.  I mean, do we really want to remember Miss Taylor in dreck like Ash Wednesday and The Flintstones

But for two decades, Miss Taylor was not just a star but one of the kinds of stars which burns up the entire galaxy in its wake.  Even then, the celebrity surrounding her extraordinary beauty and multiple marriages detracted from her talent.  Her first of two Oscars was won for the tepid John O’Hara adaptation BUtterfield 8 in which she played the world’s most unlikely prostitute…but in real life she had just undergone major surgery and Hollywood was noticing.  Miss Taylor had really earned that Oscar for her acting: in her greatest roles, she came off as smart, firm, and feminine. More importantly, she had a knack for taking a well-written part, seizing on one particular quality of the character, and making that a focus of empathy.  This worked in spectacles such as Giant (her very realistic progressivism) and the underrated Cleopatra (frustrated ambition in a male-dominated world), and was even more effective in the great theatrical adaptations she really shone in: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Maggie’s desperate need for love and affection), Suddenly, Last Summer (Cathy’s struggle to recover her sanity), and her masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Anyone who doubts Miss Taylor’s renown need only watch her Martha, sarcastic, angry, but terribly lonely and needful of a partner…with not a single false note.

I will forget Miss Taylor’s later years and remember the grand passion–and some great films–with the equally mythic Richard Burton…and how gorgeous she is coming into the frame in A Place in the Sun.

I wish she’d made one more good movie…for she will be missed.

The Academy Awards: Thoughts on the Winners

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Sorry this is LONG overdue…the last few weeks saw me out socializing, wrapping up some essential endeavors, and working on matters related to a new novel which was just published nationally AND received half a page in the March 9th USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/life/comics/2011-03-09-ameliajohnson09_ST_N.htm.  Now it’s time to play catch-up…so why not three posts on three different subjects in one night?

I watched the Oscars while drinking lots of punch and eating my girlfriend’s cooking with a wide assortment of friends, including MAPHers past and present and my co-workers.  So I missed out on a few of the details this year…but here are some thoughts.

I told everybody from the beginning: The King’s Speech is a marvelous movie because of the ACTING.  Especially Colin Firth…I’ve been a Colin Firth fan ever since his turn in Love Actually, and more importantly, every woman I know from every age group seems to be a Colin Firth fan.  He’s handsome but in a regular-guy way (possible exception: Mr. Darcy, which pushed him to a whole other level in terms of perception).  He can play the romantic lead or the supporting role where we hope he DOESN’T get the girl.  And he mixes up really artistic masterpieces with goofy films you don’t really expect to see coming.  So did a lot of other great English actors, by the way, but there are some movies you see that Lord Olivier did and you laugh.  Mr. Firth has never inspired me to laugh at him.  He has so many facets that doing a little work in teen movies every now and then is just another side of it…we can’t always play George VI or, because I’ve heard he was even better in this, the lead in A Single Man.  So kudos to him and the entire team.  This is a damn good Best Picture winner the way Chariots of Fire was…BUT…Tom Hooper.

I can’t stress this point enough.  Mr. Hooper is a terrific director.  This was not his best work and not the best work of the year.  David Fincher took a wordy screenplay involving people sitting at computers and made a technically immaculate jewel with one of the single greatest scenes of all time.  Why he didn’t win Best Director…I’ll never know.   And I’m terrified that the Academy might not take him seriously again after Dragon Tattoo.   Oh, well.

Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosted well enough, except Miss Hathaway carried the show after the very fun opening montage as Mr. Franco decided he just didn’t care.  The real highlight was Kirk Douglas, who is, we must remember, in his nineties and still on his feet.

Very happy with Aaron Sorkin and yes, David Seidlar, since they both came up with at least one great scene apiece, which is rare.  Still haven’t seen The Fighter, but I need to now.  And Natalie Portman…I grew up watching Miss Portman.  She and Mr. Firth are actually alike in that they mix silly movies and serious pictures, but Miss Portman is not even 30 and she’s laying the groundwork for so many potential career paths…though it’s odd to think that our Best Actress winner’s next two movies are a David Gordon Green high-concept comedy and Thor.  What I’d love to do is program a New Beverly Triple Feature of The Professional, Cold Mountain, and Black Swan to see her as girl, young woman, and mature woman in a fantastic row.

Finally, since I have not been able to look at it without increasing disappointment, the number of Oscars for Inception, particularly kicking poor Roger Deakins’s butt, is a little depressing.

Toy Story 3 (2010) by Lee Unkrich and Michael Arndt

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I had my doubts going into Toy Story 3, for once you get past part twos of things, the law of diminishing returns is so much more likely to rear its money-sucking head.  However, I needn’t have worried.  Pixar, as I should have known, is by now incapable of producing a less-than-great movie (though Cars 2 scares me a little), and Toy Story 3 provides a natural conclusion to the saga of Woody and Buzz Lightyear.  It’s very funny, very wise, and startlingly poignant in the final fifteen minutes.

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are still a marvelous double act, Mr. Hanks’s emotional, somewhat square persona and Mr. Allen’s just-reigned-in manic intensity complementing each other perfectly, and writer Michael Arndt (the man responsible for Little Miss Sunshine) provides them, and the other characters, with apropos dialogue which feels like the product of lifelong relationships.  Joan Cusack is the highlight of the other returning cast members, as Jessie’s relationship with Buzz also is resolved in fitting fashion (through a cultural breakdown/breakthrough similar to their status as toys of different eras).  The additions to the cast are just as great: Ned Beatty gives a full-length variation on his famous, chilling cameo in Network as Lotso, and Michael Keaton, in a great change of pace from his recent turns as the “loving but clueless dad” in chick flicks, gives a nuanced high-comic performance as Ken, romancing Jodi Benson’s girly-but-somewhat-liberated Barbie.

Mr. Arndt’s screenplay is where the film deepens from its predecessors: if part one was a fulfillment of the “toys coming to life” fantasy and part two touched on the aging process, part three comes close to elegy and requiem: with Andy going off to college and the toys having to adjust to an uncertain life-after-owner.  A few notes feel rushed or false: Woody’s unceasing, repetitive devotion to Andy palls, and the disappearance of Bo Peep is glossed over.  But the climax is laden with emotional power and the resolution, in common with the other recent Pixar pictures, induces a tear.  And Mr. Arndt makes up for minor flaws with his excellent comedic set pieces: the opening fantasy sequence with the supporting players hamming it up delightfully, Barbie putting Ken through a torturous ringer, and Woody’s encounter with a new set of toys (voiced by Pixar vet Bonnie Hunt, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Garlin, and Kristin Schaal) which made me almost wish for a Toy Story 4.  Lee Unkrich’s direction is well-framed, and Randy Newman provides a top-notch score.

Twilight: A Novel (2005) by Stephenie Meyer and a Film (2008) by Catherine Hardwicke and Melissa Rosenberg

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Give me immortality or give me death...no, I'd prefer death.

I worked at one of the largest Barnes & Nobles in the country from March 2008 to June 2009.  It was a pretty good year for book sellers, for in August Stephenie Meyer published Breaking Dawn and then, three months later, the film of Twilight guaranteed massive sales for the Christmas season.  We could never keep any of Ms. Meyer’s novels on the shelves, and our stockroom was filled with hundreds of copies being replenished each week.  I didn’t understand it…all I knew about Twilight back then was “oh, a girl and a vampire…like Buffy but with less fighting.”  And I joined in with people who laughed at the saga, but I always feel a twinge of remorse when I deride that which I have never experienced.

So I read the novel.  And I saw the first two movies in company of my roommate, our mutual friend, and initially a large bottle of gin. What I discovered was an absolutely terrible work of fiction and an unsurprisingly entertaining motion picture.

Stephenie Meyer’s talents as a writer I am not prepared to comment on.  Her plotting is predictable, her characters have very few notes to play, her sense of humor often rings flat, and her command of the English language seems deliberately simplified for the mass audience.  She also has a skewed idea of the ideal man, given that Edward Cullen acts like a superior, sometimes bipolar jerk and women fall at his feet.  This being said, she is not the first writer to succeed with such a weight to carry and she may have more ability than I give her credit for.  However, my ability to judge Ms. Meyer is inhibited by a first-person narration where I ABSOLUTELY LOATHED THE NARRATOR.  Ten pages in or so, I was ready to start bashing Bella Swan’s head against the nearest wall…all she did was whine, simper, and make melodramatic declarations.  How I made it through will remain a mystery.

The film, on the other hand, is a great success…as a comedy, a movie to get drunk to, and a film which provides magnificently goofy background noise on boring days at home.  It is helped immeasurably by the removal of the first-person narration in place of Kristen Stewart’s beyond minimalist performance as Bella (which drives me nuts because I have enjoyed Miss Stewart in several other pictures).  But it is also helped by a delightfully faithful screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg which eschews suspense in favor of misplaced atmosphere and terribly corny and cliched dialogue in every scene (this IS faithful to Ms. Meyer), lousy visual effects (although Catherine Hardwicke is clearly trying to shoot a tight, stylish picture), and actors who are either playing it far too seriously or, seeing this as a joke, deliberately push themselves to extremes.  Robert Pattinson seems to revel in being flat, and after having seen her in other movies, I strongly suspect that Anna Kendrick reveled in being so vapid.  The older actors give off looks every so often of the “What am I doing here?” variety.  The one actually good part of the film is Carter Burwell’s score…only a man who worked so often with the Coens could have wrung odd beauty out of this, so of course only three minutes of his music made the chart-topping soundtrack album of songs as whiny and overblown as Bella’s narration.

But Twilight makes for two hooting hours.  And I won’t go into how New Moon pushed the bar so high that I’ve been afraid to see Eclipse.

Easy A (2010) by Will Gluck and Bert V. Royal

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David Poland and Roger Ebert are my two go-to men for anything in the film world today…I love reading their columns on the Internet as I love reading few other things.  For them to express the exact same thought in the exact same words is a rarity, so not only do I really enjoy it when it happens, it’s even better when they turn out to be right.  And both of them agree that with Easy A, Emma Stone becomes a full-fledged movie star.

Easy A is a good, entertaining movie about a sharp-witted high schooler who plays along when an untrue rumor about her starts up, with consequences ticklish to the pink and thought-provoking.  Will Gluck and Bert V. Royal shoot for Mean Girls but miss: unlike Tina Fey’s minor masterpiece, Mr. Royal’s screenplay never quite walks the fine line between the straightforward, the satirical, and the wildly outrageous with the confidence it needs.  The tone shifts wildly and too many characters are grotesquely overwritten, especially Patricia Clarkson and Stanely Tucci as heroine Oliver Penderghast’s far too accepting parents.  These actors are excellent and fun to watch, but their vaudeville act jars when the movie takes on some serious tones in the end.

But Miss Stone takes the role of Olive and does indeed move from being a minor leading lady playing second fiddle to actors or concepts (Superbad and other fine pictures) to the type of actress who can carry movies on her shoulders.  It surprised me how much she reminded me of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in their youth: the cocked eyebrows with knowing glances, witty retorts and banter, drop-dead sexiness, and ability to convey many different moods and never lose credibility.  In 93 well-paced minutes, Miss Stone is adorable (singing “Pocketful of Sunshine”), brilliantly funny (the entire second act as she trades barbs and repartee with bitchy right-wing Christian Amanda Bynes and uenxpected gay buddy Dan Byrd), and full of remorse and repentance in a third act where she fully realizes the consequences of her actions.  Miss Stone convinces us she has learned a lesson and deserves the standard-issue teen-movie happy ending which follows.  I rooted for her every step of the way…a rare feat in getting involved with a character!

So while not perfect, Easy A is a should-see thanks to Miss Stone, some laugh-out-loud lines, the diversion of Miss Clarkson and Mr. Tucci, and a few good and more appropriate supporting turns from the likes of Thomas Haden Church as a wise, sympathetic teacher (He gets the best line of the film when he mocks facebook: “Not every thought all of you have is a diamond. ‘Roman is having an okay day.  I just bought a Coke Zero from the gas station.  Raise the roof.’ Who gives a rat’s ass?”) and Malcolm McDowell as the principal in a damn good cameo.

And incidentally, if Miss Stone becomes the next Davis or Crawford…and I predice an Oscar nod before 2020…Penn Badgley, her leading man, has a shot at making a good career this decade as a 21st-Century John Gavin…a handsome, somewhat wooden figure who gives the heroine of female-dominated pictures validation.  We need John Gavins, too.

2010…The 83rd Academy Award Nominations

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WHAT I LIKE

In 2007, Best Picture became a showdown between the two best movies of the year: No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood.  This year, the situation repeats itself as in my opinion the two films head and shoulders above all else have come out on Oscar’s top, for with no Editing nomination (kiss of death) for True Grit, no widespread love for The Fighter, and middling reactions to the rest, it’s basically The Social Network v. The King’s Speech.

And the the 8/12 nomination count is deceptive.  TKS surpassed TSN because one, it had the best acting ensemble of any movie this year and I personally would have tried to get as many of them in as possible, and two, TSN had no art direction or costume design to speak of…it was modern-day twentysomethings in Boston schools and Palo Alto houses.  TKS involved dressing people up regally and recreating period palaces.  It looked gorgeous.  TSN was with one exception nominated in all the right ways it deserved.  And honestly, I’ll be happy with either of them winning as long as Fincher takes Best Director.

The Illusionist getting Jacques Tati love after death…now I REALLY NEED TO SEE IT.

18 out of 20 acting nominees I have no problem with, and a perfect screenwriting slate which mixes genres and sizes…really, even though some awards are predictable, this is a great Oscar line-up.  Even the lousy but visually lovely Alice in Wonderland was honored for what it did RIGHT.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The two acting mistakes: no Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right (she is as on key as Annette Bening and yet is passed over for what I have heard was some very one-note bits of ham in The Fighter) and no Andrew Garfield for the Social Network (quietly heartbreaking as Eduardo, a performance needed to counterbalance Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliant oblivious ambition)

Clint Mansell’s adapted but distorted beyond recognition Black Swan score not making the cut.

The King’s Speech for cinematography when it DIDN’T DO A DAMN THING BEYOND THE ORDINARY.

End of the month…picks!!!

The Kids Are All Right (2010) by Lisa Cholodenko

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Annette Bening and Julianne Moore…what’s happened to them is a crime against all aesthetic judgment-making ever.  Two of the greatest American actresses of not just my but any generation: always intelligent, always emotionally in tune and witty when needed and full of sincere heartbreak when needed, and both still amazingly sexy.  (Warren Beatty and Bart Freundlich are damn lucky men.)  And yet, still no Oscars when almost every performance they’ve given in their careers was worthy.   The latest picture for both of them, The Kids Are All Right, will probably continue their streaks of bad luck, which is a shame since they and Mark Ruffalo opposite them are uniformly terrific.

The Kids Are All Right is the movie I wish Brokeback Mountain had been.  When we really think about it, the storyline and emotional beats of Brokeback would have been much the same without a homosexual leading couple (except for the prominent symbolism of the tire iron).  But The Kids Are All Right, by all other accounts a fairly ordinary domestic drama, would not work if homosexuality was not integrated into the story…Mr. Ruffalo’s character becomes an interloper specifically because Ms. Bening and Ms. Moore’s happy lesbian couple Nic and Jules have no way to bear children together, and his presence becomes a foundation-shaker in a way it would not for a straight couple unable to conceive who meet their sperm donor.  It upsets the parameters of the world.  But in showing Nic and Jules loving, arguing, approaching a crisis point in an enduringmarriage…they are a recognizably been-together-for-twenty-years couple, the kind I came of age being raised by (Ms. Bening’s Nic even reminds me of my mom in many ways), and the film’s refusal to draw special attention to this makes it a potent story for an age when our conceptions of love, marriage, and family are finally in for a long-overdue haul.  In that, though Lisa Cholodenko’s screenplay says nothing startlingly knew about midlife crises and human decision making (and her direction is everyday) The Kids Are All Right is terrific.  It’s a Stanley Kramer movie with more sincerity and no preachiness.

Ms. Bening and Ms. Moore play Nic and Jules with goofiness, vulnerability, and a constant potential to break and change.  Mr. Ruffalo also excels as a roguish charmer with more depth than he lets on.  Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson in the title roles are good, but the script lets them down by giving them sitcom-like problems and not exploring a very intriguing possibility of a same-sex relationship for one of them. 

And of course, Ms. Bening was nominated for an Oscar against Natalie Portman’s tour de force and Ms. Moore didn’t get nominated at all.  Mr. Ruffalo has the best chance of winning…but I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

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