Archive | February, 2015

Oscar Picks to click

22 Feb

The 87th Academy Awards are upon us, replete with a new host (the affable Neil Patrick Harris who so vividly got his throat slashed in “Gone Girl”) and a wave of controversy that’s been missing since the days of Hanoi Jane. I jest some, but it truly has been some time since there’s been a splitting of political hairs, leading up to, or on, Tinseltown’s big night. The rubs du jour revolve around the factuality of history as represented on film, the politics of the Academy when it comes to recognizing diversity and the disparate interpretations of a war movie that drew diametrical political factions for different reasons. The two films at the crosshairs, “American Sniper” and “Selma,” are both nominees in this year’s Best Picture category.

Sniper,” based on the popular biography of Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle (killed tragically as the project took shape) has registered as a patriotic anthem (Kyle notched the most confirmed kills of any rifleman in U.S. military history) to those in support of the current U.S. war efforts. Others have taken it as jingoistic twaddle directed by the man (Clint Eastwood) who ridiculed that now notorious “empty chair” at the 2012 GOP national convention. Those less polarized found “Sniper” hit home as a poignant document of how war destroys the lives of the men we send—something akin to Academy Award winners “Coming Home” (1978) and “Hurt Locker” (2009). Though “Sniper’s” not as sharp, visceral or politically cutting as its predecessors, it’s lineage, dominance at the box office and appeal to many on different levels, will certainly score the film a share of gold come Sunday.

The other movie in the equation, “Selma,” has the opposite problem of “Sniper.” Eastwood’s picture, impressively staged, well edited and shot with great artistry, lacks depth, something “Selma” brims with, but the passionate portrait of Martin Luther King’s legacy-defining march from the titled city to Montgomery, and the events leading up to it, is hobbled by a junior production. I’m not here to fault the director Ava DuVernay. Her ardor and effort is effusive, but some tightening of scenes and more artistic attention to the integration of song and score could have made “Selma” a bona fide contender.

At the fore however, remains the hotly contested matter of history and President Johnson’s involvement. The film initially paints him as a passive obstructionist focused more on legacy building than civil rights (the guy had Vietnam to contend with too), but in the end, his famous televised speech in support of MLK’s mission (voting rights) remains congruent with LBJ’s broadly held, supportive civil rights record (while in the White House). It’s in that grayer in-between that has many crying foul—that historical liberties were taken by the filmmakers to heighten the air of conflict and to drive home their agenda. And it is true, that the portrayed LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) does do something of a political pirouette and never quite rises to anything more than a plot-feeding caricature.  Continue reading

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Wild Tales

22 Feb

Six seemingly disparate stories—ranging from the quirky to the macabre—unfold with plenty of punch and panache in Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, an old-school anthology film laced with biting social commentary about Argentinean class and how one’s sense of justice plays into where one’s lot has fallen in life. Equal partsAmazing Stories, Creepshow, O. Henry and Almodóvar (who both produced and brought the film to an international audience), Wild Tales was a big pleaser at Cannes, recently opened the 38th Annual Portland International Film Festival and may win a Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2015 Academy Awards, to name but a few accomplishments. Seems like people the world over are finding a lot to identify with.

The more-than-appropriate title (Relatos Salvajes in Spanish) might be a bit on the obvious side—and just in case you’re not getting Szifrón’s broad picture, the film’s opening credit sequence serves up image after image of sinister-looking beasts in their unwelcoming habitats, like a PowerPoint slideshow set against Gustavo Santaolalla’s lilting, slightly menacing score. The most wickedly outrageous vignette comes even before the opening credits roll: a music critic (Darío Grandinetti) on an airplane realizes the woman in the seat next to him (María Marull) is the ex-girlfriend of an aspiring musician he once panned. The six degrees of separation don’t end there, or even in that row, leading to a collective gasp among passengers as each person begins to understand their fated place on the plane. This short story, coupled with the credits, form a striking opening sequence, an appropriate preparation for the sometimes overt but nonetheless entertaining yarns to follow, in which Szifrón peruses human animalism in its many dire colors.  Continue reading

Fifty Shades of Grey

15 Feb

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: Orgy of insipidity humiliates everyone but intended victim

Through an act of fan-fiction gone amok, “Twilight,” Stephenie Meyer’s tedious YA vampire-cum-romance series about restraint and crossing over, got spun into a worldwide must-read that transposed characters and tropes into the carnal taking of a fetish-driven business tycoon (some might call them vampires too), all the while butchering any sense of literary craft to an unconscionable degree. Sadly, I can attest that “Fifty Shades of Grey” the movie is better than the pages on which E.L. James swapped out fangs in favor of butt plugs – and all in time for Valentines Day.

021415i Fifty Shades of GreyMake no mistake, the insipid, light whipping of S&M porn that sparked a wildfire among soccer moms and other unlikely segments will rake it in big at the box office. And for those saying it’s a cheap misogynistic fantasy, keep in mind it’s written by a woman and directed by a woman. Yes, there’s tons of nudity, but erotic? No. “Nine 1/2 Weeks” lived in an equally campy and tawdry place when it came out in 1986, but there the stars, Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger (actors recognized by the Academy over their careers), under the sweaty, pandering eye of Adrian Lyne, conjured up something titillating, even human, albeit inane – and there was far less nudity. Here director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who made the wonderful young John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy,” has leads Dakota Johnson (the offspring of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) and Irish actor Jamie Dornan (he doesn’t act, he just poses and looks good doing it) get naked as often as possible – but there’s little fire. Much of what goes on in the boudoir or Grey’s playroom (a BDSM antechamber) feels like a soft-core model shoot for a tier-two gentleman’s mag, and someone decided to let the camera roll and capture the tedium in between the postured highs.

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