Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Keep It Simple, But Not Too Simple

Happy 75th, Philip Glass, everyone's favorite minimalist.





So It Went

Been reading a lot of authors' bios lately.  For instance, just finished And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields' life of Kurt Vonnegut. (Shields had the cooperation of his subject, but Vonnegut died almost as soon as he started). Like Joseph Heller, Vonnegut's WWII book simmered for many years until it came out and made him famous.  His generation served in the war, and many big novelists made their name soon after, but Vonnegut, who landed in Europe and was captured almost immediately, wasn't sure how to write about his experiences as a POW, especially his time in Dresden, before and after it was firebombed.

Born in 1922, he was the youngest child of a successful German-American family from Indiana.  They were hit hard by the Depression, however--his mother would commit suicide.  His older brother Bernard was a brilliant scientist and the family in general looked down on something so "ornamental" as writing.

He attended Cornell for a couple years, where he studied science--as his family demanded--but enjoyed his work in journalism more. (He wrote pro-isolationist editorials). Then America joined the war, and he was about to flunk out anyway, so he enlisted.  After the war, he attended the University of Chicago--without receiving a degree--and then, with help from his brother, got work in General Electric's PR department out in Schenectady.

He got married, had kids, and spent his free time writing.  It took a while to break into the market, but he had talent, and with help from certain editors who liked him (including an old acquaintance from Cornell) was soon selling regularly to the slicks.  He did well enough to quit GE and move to where he thought a writer should be--Cape Cod.

He wrote short stories for a market that would soon dry up due to television.  Meanwhile, he published five novels, including Player Piano, The Sirens Of Titan and Cat's Cradle, but none made a splash.  He was also involved in other ventures, such as owning a SAAB dealership and working in theatre.  When his sister and brother-in-law died, their kids came to live in the already packed Vonnegut household.

In the mid-1960s, he accepted a teaching post at the Iowa University Writers' Workshop, but things weren't looking up.  He was in his forties, barely known as an author, and didn't seem to have any prospects.  But things soon changed. His works were re-released by a new publisher and his easy-to-read, satirical style went over big with the 60s generation.  And then he finally wrote his WWII novel, Slaughterhouse Five, and hit the big time.

The trouble with the bio is at this point the drama is mostly over.  You have a lot of depressing facts about Vonnegut's troubles with the women in his life, with his children, and with the world in general.  His public reputation--he often came across as a sweet, funny, middle-aged hippie--didn't always comport with the sometimes callous and querelous man he could be.  But as a writer, after Slaughterhouse Five, he puts out one bestseller after another, so his need to make it is gone.  And since Shields spends little time on Vonnegut's literary output, the second half of the book isn't nearly as compelling as the first.

Vonnegut was aware in later years that his reputation was falling.  It seemed to pain him.  At present, it's hard to say what his place is in American letters.  He wrote some funny, smart and charming books, but they're fairly glib, don't have particularly deep characters, and are often shot through with simplistic politics.  Still, they're read, and I'd guess he's got as good a chance of living on as any of his contemporaries.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Saul And Leo

It happens to be the birthday of Saul Alinsky.  He's been dead 40 years but it's amazing how often his name pops up, usually as an accusation.  He was a community organizer who wrote Rules For Radicals, laying out his strategies to help the underclass, based on a lifetime of experience.

Very few Americans have heard of him, much less read his book, but that doesn't stop Newt Gingrich and others on the right from claiming he's Obama's guru.  My attitude is so what? I have no doubt Obama and Hillary Clinton and others on the left know about Alinsky, and maybe even learned a few things from him, but it's not as if Obama's hiding what he believes. Of course he's trying to make his programs and tactics sound as good as he can, that's what everyone does, but his campaign is not some sort of Alinsky-based conspiracy.

This reminds me of nothing so much as the left attacking neocons not too long ago, and whenever they could dropping in the dreaded name of political philosopher Leo Strauss.  It's true, some neocons were inspired by Strauss's teachings, but leftists exaggerated his power and malevolence so much that they turned him into Emperor Palpatine.  Even if Strauss were as bad as they claimed, once again, so what?  The politicians who might have been inspired by him ran and/or served publicly, and whatever ideas they had the public could decide about openly.

It's really as silly as someone accusing another politician of having read Machiavelli, or Lao Tsu.  But certain names end up having a talismanic quality for partisans.  Another recent example is the left obsessed by the Koch Brothers, whom they assume are not only bankrolling every right-wing cause, while the right believes George Soros is behind everything.

Early Returns

The Directors Guild named Michel Hazanavicius director of the year for The Artist.  Not a great choice.  Yes, a silent film may be striking, but it didn't seem to me the direction was that well done, and some of the staging was downright awkward.  I suppose this makes him the favorite for the Oscars.

He beat Woody Allen, David Fincher, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese.  I'm not sure what Allen's doing here--his film seemed pretty lazily shot.  Fincher's work as a director was more notable, though I'm not sure what it all adds up to.  Payne's work didn't seem especially inspired.  Scorsese's nomination I understand--Hugo showed plenty of visual and narrative imagination.  Of course, I thought Terrence Malick should have won, but he wasn't even nominated.

The SAG awards are an even better predictor of the Oscars, since most Academy voters are actors.  The sadly predictable award for supporting actor went to Christopher Plummer for Beginners.  Just as predictable (but maybe not quite so sad), supporting actress went to Octavia Spencer in The Help.

Following that momentum, The Help's Viola Davis won the award for best actress. She probably didn't deserve it, but the competition wasn't that great. For best actor we get maybe the biggest surprise.  Beating out George Clooney and Brad Pitt is Jean Dujardin for his pleasant if bland performance in The Artist.  When he wins his Oscar, I wonder if he'll give his acceptance speech in English. (Or maybe he'll just dance.)

For ensemble, The Help once again won.  That makes sense.  They did a good job and except maybe for Bridesmaids, none of the other titles were as centered on the ensemble (if you can be centered on a group).  There is no comparable Oscar, but this suggests The Help, which didn't get a director nomination, may still be in the running for Best Picture.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Contributing Editor

I recently heard something on NPR about the effect of Citizens United on the 2012 campaign. (I probably don't need to tell you it was one of those pieces where the media says "hey, we enjoy more freedom of speech than anyone, but it's still important that the government require everyone else to shut the hell up.")

Anyway, the host introduced the piece by declaring the Court had said in the case that contributions were equivalent to free speech.  No it didn't. If you want to create a movie or a book or an article telling the public your views on Hillary Clinton, that sounds like freedom of speech to me.  If, somehow, the government is allowed to prevent you from putting out your opinion, then it's denying you your freedom of speech.  Is it that hard to understand?  Money isn't speech, speech is speech.

What's So Funny?

I just watched an episode of Inside Comedy, where David Steinberg sits down with various comedians.  There have been a number of shows with this sort of format, though it's a bit different in that we cut back and forth between the two interviews.

Steinberg created the show, and I suppose he's a good producer in that plenty of funny people probably know him and are willing to talk to him.  (And those younger probably see him as an inspirational figure.)  But as an interviewer he leaves something to be desired.  The show I saw featured to greats, Don Rickles and Jerry Seinfeld.  There are two strategies Steinberg might emply.  Being a stand-up himself, perhaps he could go the extra distance and ask questions, as the title implies, from the inside.  Get past the familiar anecdotes and penetrate a little more deeply into what makes something funny.  Or he could just sit back and be a good audience--most comedians are self-starters, so just ask a question and let them go.

Instead, Steinberg (at least in the show I saw) too often treats this as if he's sitting down with some friends, and not putting on a show.  He keeps interrupting with lines like "Yes" or "That's right" or "I agree."  I'm sure it's how he feels, but it only gets in the way.

Still, Rickles and Seinfeld get off enough good lines that it's worth seeing.  Other guests will include Mel Brooks, Larry David, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Martin Short.  I guess as long as he's not required to pull something out of his guests, I can put up with Steinberg's occasional outburts.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

No More Danger

Dick Tufeld died earlier this week. He was one of the greatest announcers of the 20th century. If you watched TV from the 50s through the 80s there was a good chance you'd heard him.

The first time I heard his name was when he did his famous "This is Dick Tufeld speaking" sign-off on Albert Brooks' album Comedy Minus One.  But his voice I'd been hearing for years, on Disney, on commercials...



and above all, on Lost In Space.

You Better Shop Around

I was reading this Michael Wood essay on one of my favorite films, The Shop Around The Corner, in the London Review Of Books when I came across this:

The plot turns almost ugly when [Jimmy] Stewart [who plays the clerk Alfred Kralik] learns [the] identity [of co-star Margaret Sullavan who plays co-worker Klara Novak] but doesn’t give his away. He shows up for the rendezvous the timid correspondents have finally managed to arrange – it’s in a café; he wears a carnation, she carries a copy of Anna Karenina – and asks a friend to peer through the window for him and tell him what he sees. [....] This piece of immortal dialogue ensues. ‘If you don’t like Miss Novak, I can tell you right now you won’t like that girl.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because that girl is Miss Novak.’

If it seems unfair that Stewart should now be allowed to go into the café and bait Sullavan, she certainly repays him by getting so cross that he should be standing in the way of the man she’s waiting for.

I've heard other people claim Stewart is a little too mean to Sullavan, and spends the rest of the film toying with her before he reveals his true identity. But I think this misses the point of the well-wrought screenplay.

Here's the opening dialogue as they meet in the cafe:

Stewart:  Hello, Miss Novak.
Sullavan: Good evening, Mr. Kralik.
Stewart: It's quite a coincidence. I had an appointment here, too. You haven't seen Mr. Pirovitch by chance?
Sullavan: No, no, I haven't.
Stewart: All right. Well, I think I'll wait. Do you mind if I sit down?
Sullvand: Yes, I do. You know, I have an appointment, too, Mr. Kralik.
Stewart: Oh, yes, I remember. Yes. My, your friend seems to be a little late.
Sullavan: And I'll thank you not to be sarcastic. I know you've had a bad day, and you feel very bitter. Still, that's no reason...
Stewart: Bitter? Me? About leaving Matuschek and Company? When I got home and sat at the phone...in five minutes I had what amounts to two offers.
Sullavan: I congratulate you. I wish you good luck.
Stewart: I see you're reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Sullavan: Yes, do you mind?
Stewart: No, no, I just didn't expect to meet you in a café...with Tolstoy, that's all. It's quite a surprise. I didn't know you cared for high literature.
Sullavan: There are many things you don't know about me, Mr. Kralik.
Stewart: Have you read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky?
Sullavan: No, I haven't.
Stewart: I have. There are many things you don't know about me, Miss Novak. As a matter of fact...there might be a lot we don't know about each other. People seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things...to find the inner truth.
Sullavan: I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik...because I know exactly what I'd find. Instead of a heart, a handbag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter which doesn't work.
Stewart: That's very nicely put. Yes. Comparing my intellect with a cigarette lighter that doesn't work. Yeah, that's a very interesting mixture of poetry and meanness.
Sullavan: Meanness? Let me...
Stewart: Don't misunderstand me. I'm only trying to pay you a compliment.
Sullavan: Mr. Kralik, please! I told you I was expecting somebody.

The point of this scene (which goes on with more insults) is Stewart has been shocked to discover the pesky girl from the shop is actually the one with whom he's been corresponding.  This was to be their big night, where they'd finally meet, though it was broken up a bit by Stewart getting fired.  So Stewart is a little dismayed--he almost walks away, but decides to come back to see if he can make something of this fiasco.  Down deep, he realizes this is the girl for him, and he's got to ease into it to not lose her. If he just comes in and announces guess what, I'm the guy you've been dreaming of for months, yet I'm also the guy at the workplace you can't stand, and who just got fired, she might not be able to take it.  Going off on the wrong foot could lose a relationship Stewart understands is worth saving.

So he takes an oblique approach.  First there are a few social amenities, followed by his putting her mind at ease about his job (even though he's lying--this is so they can talk more about their feelings and not about his misery, but also because if she were cruel while thinking he's fired her character would be unredeemable). Then he looks for a conversational gambit to allow him to break to her who he really is.  Relatively soon, he hits on it--he'll use the fact she reads great literature to bring up the concept that people aren't always what you expect.  This will allow him to gently explain that he's not what he seems on the surface.  In fact, he's been corresponding with a wonderful woman for some time now, and they're falling in love.  And what he seems to be back at the shop doesn't truly represent him.  He knows that she is a wonderful person and he hopes that she can forgive how he's sometimes appeared and they can get under the surface and understand each other.

But almost before he starts he fails.  She is understandably nervous and annoyed at Kralik. She has enough to put up with him at the shop, and now he's bugging her here, on this biggest of all nights?  Kralik is somewhat aware of this, but he's got to broach the subject somehow.  However, as soon as he offers her an opening to talk about how people may fool you, her annoyance flares up and she starts insulting him.  Very quickly they've reached the point of no return.  She ends up calling him an "insignificant little clerk," and Kralik--who still believes he's fired--realizes now is not the time to reveal himself.  He now adapts a long-term strategy, where he'll bide his time, write a few more letters, and finally destroy her illusions about her pen pal as he introduces himself back into her life.

Altogether, it's an exquisitely written roundelay, keeping the lovers apart yet allowing them to get back together.  I don't think playing it another way would work.

PS  Here's a nice article dealing with the above scene (comparing it to the same moment in You've Got Mail) and here's a pretty cool analysis of Jimmy Stewart in the movie overall.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Anne's Ayn

I just read Anne Heller's Ayn Rand And The World She Made.  It's probably the best book about Rand--but then, it's one of the few books written about her from the outside. (An objective book about the first Objectivist.) Heller appreciates her accomplishments, but isn't an acolyte, and didn't even read Rand's novels until she was in her forties.  She also offers a good balance of biography and literary analysis.

So many not in sympathy with Rand treat her as an oddity, or a monster, but Heller gives Rand her due.  Heller conjures up a women who must have been quite magnetic in person--not only did she gather a circle, she also charmed quite a few people who didn't agree with her politics.  She had talent, insight, high intelligence and an astonishing work ethic. (Rand wrote about the importance of money, but it was never her central motivation.) Even if she wasn't a first-class writer, she created indelible characters, sturdy plots and fascinating set pieces that make her work live while so much that was highly regarded in her day is forgotten.

But Heller doesn't (couldn't) ignore the dark side.  Rand had a temper and seemed incapable of blaming herself for anything--sooner or later, she'd fall out with almost everyone she cared about. And as she became more successful, she became more absolutist--a dangerous stance in any case, but especially when you espouse the value of selfishness.  Rand also started taking credit for everything in her life, forgetting all the friends and influences that got her to where she was.

In a way it's a sad life.  Yet, you can understand how whatever it is that drove Rand to be impossible also drove her to create the work for which she'll be remembered.

Ruled By Randomness

Touch is the new Fox drama from Tim Kring, who created HeroesHeroes started out fun before falling apart, but Touch isn't fun right from the start.

Kiefer Sutherland stars as a Martin Bohm, whose wife died in 9/11 and whose son Jacob is troubled--he doesn't talk, doesn't like to be touched, but is fascinated by numbers.  He seems autistic, but according to Professor DeWitt, played by Danny Glover, Jacob is just the next evolutionary step who sees so far beyond us that he needn't waste him time with language.  Maybe, but since everyone else is still talking, it'd sure be a lot easier if he'd tell his father what he wants, rather than scribble a lot of numbers that are supposed to mean something.

That's the sci-fi concept that I guess Kring sold the show on.  The boy sees connection we can't. (Troubled people with amazing powers, especially in math, are pretty commonplace in movies and TV shows, actually.) But the pilot was ridiculous.  The big number was 318, and it just kept showing up everywhere.  We had enough with mystical number in Lost, but at least there Jacob was arguably behind it.  But here, we've just got to trust that the universe offers all these connections that we're blind to, even though such numerical coincidences (318 is an address, a bus number, a time etc.), as far as I can tell, aren't meaningful in real life.

There are many more connections in the show.  Sutherland was connected in a bunch of different ways to the fireman played by Titus Welliver (MIB in Lost)--Bohm runs into him early on (where the son and Titus both know the winning lottery number, which ties into some 9/11 numerology), as a fireman he was the guy who failed to save Bohm's wife and needs to call him now that he's won the lottery, and the two are meant to fight over a rare pay phone at 3:18. But that's just the beginning--before we're done, there are a bunch of lovely coincidences with characters in Iraq, Ireland and Japan.  By the end of the pilot, even Gugu Mbatha-Raw as lovely social worker Clea Hopkins, who temporarily took the boy away until he gives out her mother's phone number using popcorn, recognizes how amazing the child is.

So that's what we have to look forward to each week? The boy will write some numbers down which Kiefer et al will have to interpret, and if they do it right a bunch of amazing coincidences will occur?  Doesn't sound like fun to me.  It's okay in a story if someone or something is ultimately revealed pulling all the strings, but drama still needs some room to breathe. A show where what would otherwise be random is actually nothing but a series of predictable and convenient coincidences takes all the fun (and free will) out of everything.  And having it be a kid who knows everything, yet can only cryptically tell us information to make sure the world runs smoothly (not unlike the machine in Person Of Importance, but at least that's mostly offstage and allows the other characters to determine the action) is too dreary to contemplate.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Its Not Called Bathrobe Guy

The great Pajama Debate (as opposed to that silly one in Florida with the shrieking ninnies) continues.

Farhad Manjoo comes down squarely on the side of wearing Pajamas out and about- or I think so- I actually find the Slate tech-writer's articles tiresome and didn't finish it-he tends to have have other annoying opinions e.g. don't complain about internet ads that slow down your browser since ads are somehow good for us, embrace internet transparency since privacy is an over-rated sham, and Facebook is actually not evil.

Actually, I have found that "pajamas" have actually become more like regular clothes - ie. just flannel pants and T shirts (without the metal snaps, duckie designs or ridiculously open fly's as in the youthful days of yore) so it has had the effect of encouraging them to be more all around wear. I generally don't wear them outside the house except to get the paper or take out the garbage but I think I would probably be comfortable cavorting about in them if I had to.

However I draw the line at housecoats (do these exist anymore?) or bathrobes (sorry LA Guy).

Not So Easy

I sometimes shop at the local Fresh & Easy grocery in Hollywood. They used to have this big station where they offered samples of their goods.  Recently, they shut it down and now only fitfully give out free stuff. I never thought that's why I shopped there, but I have to admit, it's a bit out of the way and I now feel less likely to go.

I've often wondered how retailers figure out these things--are free samples worth the loss of product and employee time for the good will they gain?  Instead, now F&E has got these "Friends" cards which earn you ponts if you shop there.  This is the kind of promotion I hate, but is all too common.  Special clubs that anyone can join, the intention of which is to make you more faithful to their brand.

Trader Joe's still has free samples and regular low prices that all can enjoy.  Maybe I'll go there today.

Mighty Ochs

I watched the American Masters documentary on Phil Ochs. The format was interesting in that there was no narration, just soundbites from those they interviewed to tell his story.

He was one of the better known protest singers in the folk movement of the early 60s.  Dylan became the best known, but recognized it was a dead end and moved on.  Ochs never really did.  He moved beyond just a guitar and voice, but never dropped his politics, or his need to sing about them.

I wouldn't call him a great songwriter, or singer, but there's no question he had some talent, and even more commitment.  It's interesting to hear a song like "Love Me, I'm A Liberal" today, when most politicians fear the term for sounding too left, while back then the New Left hated liberals for being so wishy-washy.



He spent his life fighting for causes. This may be noble (or does that depend on the cause?), but artistically you can only sing so many fingerpointing songs until it becomes tiresome.  Who are you to judge everyone else all the time?  And aren't you just preaching to the converted, the self-satisfied crowd who attend your concerts to hear their favorite targets attacked? Maybe liberal Tom Lehrer had a point:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Boss Of Bossa Nova

Happy birthday, Antonio Carlos Jobim.  A lot of people who haven't heard of him have probably heard his music.  Get ready to feel mellow.







The Big Day

There was an important event that had Americans glued to their sets yesterday.  I'm talking about the Oscar nominations, of course. Let's go over the big ones:

BEST PICTURE
"The Artist"
"The Descendants"
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"
"The Help"
"Hugo"
"Midnight in Paris"
"Moneyball"
"The Tree of Life"
"War Horse"

Only nine.  They could have had ten. Some are suggesting the last Harry Potter might have fit.  What's with Extremely Loud?  The critics hated it and it's not a hit. Most of the others were not unexpected, though at present I'd say there's no clear frontrunner. I guess it's most likely between The Artist, The Descendants and The Help, even though Hugo got the most nominations overall, which is generally the best single predictor.

LEAD ACTOR
Demián Bichir, "A Better Life"
George Clooney, "The Descendants"
Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy "
Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"

A couple major surpriseds here. No one saw the Bichir film, and Oldman, not doing much in an incomprehensible film, is a shock.  Experts were expecting names like Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling or Leonardo DiCaprio. Could be an interesting three-way battle between old friends Clooney and Pitt and newcomer (to the Oscars) Dujardin.

LEAD ACTRESS
Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
Viola Davis, "The Help"
Rooney Mara, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"

Some surprises here, though maybe it's due to lack of competition.  I avoided Nobbs because the reviews were bad, but Oscar favorite Close still got the nod.  Then there's Streep, doing a decent job in an uninspired movie, getting her annual nomination.  I didn't think Mara was that good, but I guess it was memorable. (Apparently more memorable that Tilda Swinton this year.) Viola Davis was expected (she's a new Academy favorite), even if her role could arguably be called supporting. I think Michelle Williams (another new Academy favorite) has the best shot.

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"
Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"
Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"

Good to see Malick here.  Tree is certainly a director's film, though with no acting or writing nods, I don't see him taking it.  Hollywood hater Allen gets another notch in his belt--is this the Academy's battered wife syndrome? Scorsese did a lively job with Hugo, though I suspect the battle is between Hazanavicius and Payne (both with overrated movies).

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh, "My Week with Marilyn"
Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"
Nick Nolte, "Warrior"
Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
Max von Sydow, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

Generally the best category, this year features a highly unimpressive group.  The only one that really rises above would be Jonah Hill (in his "before" days).  Too bad Christopher Plummer will probably win.  Some were surprised there's no Albert Brooks, but not me.  The Academy wanted nothing to do with Drive. A few people expected Patton Oswalt to sneak in here, but there was no love anywhere for Young Adult.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Bérénice Bejo, "The Artist"
Jessica Chastain, "The Help"
Melissa McCarthy, "Bridesmaids"
Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"
Octavia Spencer, "The Help"

This is the category of the year.  It's great to see Chastain, even though her best work was in Tree Of Life.  Bejo didn't do much (and wasn't she the lead?), but they love The Artist.  McCarthy almost stole the film in the kind of role that defines this category.  McTeer apparently stole Nobbs from Close (playing another woman as a man--maybe she's more convincing).  I expect the winner will be Octavia Spencer since her role was the most memorable in The Help.  The question is will Chastain siphon off votes. I think the most disappointed person in Hollywood yesterday was Shailene Woodley of The Descendants.

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
"The Descendants," Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
"Hugo," John Logan
"The Ides of March," George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
"Moneyball," Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Story by Stan Chervin
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan

Usually adapted screenplay is the better screenplay category, but what a motley collection.  From lame (Ides Of March) to dull (Descendants) to impossible to understand (Tinker Tailor) to not so much a story as a visual feast (Hugo).

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
"The Artist," Michel Hazanavicius
"Bridesmaids," Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
"Margin Call," J.C. Chandor
"Midnight in Paris," Woody Allen
"A Separation," Asghar Farhadi

I'm sure Chandor, Farhadi, Mumolo and Wiig are all surprised and pleased.  And interesting to see a screenplay with no dialogue get in.  Then there's the tiresome choice of Woody Allen.

PS Here's Hitler's reaction:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Short Note

Jesse Walker has no top ten for 1921 because he hasn't seen enough films from that year. Fair enough, but if he were into comedy shorts (and Chaplin) it might not have been that hard.

Jesse mentions The High Sign, which is fine Keaton (though he put it on the shelf because he didn't think it was good enough to be his first release), but in 1921 Keaton released a short every two months, and they're all great:  Hard Luck (Keaton's personal favorite, and thought lost for decades), The Haunted House, The Goat (my personal favorite), The Playhouse (famous for multiple Keatons) and The Boat (sometimes called his greatest short).

Harold Lloyd, who'd recovered from losing a few fingers, was making his last shorts in 1921.  There's Now Or Never, Among Those Present, I Do and what I think is his best short, Never Weaken.  He also made A Sailor-Made Man, which started as a short but was working so well they didn't want to cut it so became his first feature.

Then there's Chaplin, who made a short and a feature: The Idle Class and his classic The Kid.

Then there are other big names from the era.  1921 was the year Rudolph Valentino became a star with The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse and The Sheik.  Mary Pickford made a few films, including Little Lord Fauntleroy.  Douglas Fairbanks made a couple including his classic Three Musketeers. Griffith made Orphans Of The Storm while DeMille made The Affairs Of Anatol.  There's also Tol'able David and Brewster's Millions.  I admit these features aren't as commonly shown as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, but they're out there.

Who's Bad?

In the comments to a recent post about Newt Gingrich, there's been a discussion of how much character should matter in voting for candidates.  I say very little.

First, I don't believe personal character tells you much about how someone will serve.  There are plenty of people who personally connive, sometimes even going over the line, but who otherwise are very effective leaders. In any case, someone who has personal failings but supports programs I do is far preferable to someone simon pure who supports horrendous programs.  I don't vote people into office as a reward for their morality--in rewarding them, I'm punishing myself.

Is it possible for someone's private morality to fall so short that the candidate would lose my vote? I suppose, but it'd have to be pretty bad--say, murder or child molesting. (Or rape, you say?  Some believe we already had a rapist as president.) Lesser infractions, especially if they're safely in the past, don't bother me nearly so much.  Other failings--drug use or affairs--probably wouldn't change my vote. (If anyone who ever had an affair or illegally used drugs couldn't run for office, a lot of ballots would be empty.)

Then there's public morality--has a politician abused the public trust in the past.  Once again, this doesn't bother me too much.  Blago was a rotten governor because of how he ran things, not because, like so many Illinois politicians in the past, thought he could use his power to get a little something extra.  In fact, legal bribery is what politics (unfortunately) is all about--"give me money and vote for me and when I'm in office I'll use my power to return it all back to you and more." And then when they leave office, they make millions legally selling their influence.  In light of this, I can't get too excited about minor corruption from a politician who does a good job otherwise.

Second, we don't really know the character of candidates.  When it comes to issues, we can easily see their differences, since we have their political records, and direct statements on where they stand.  But when it comes to character, they're all trying to convince us they're good people (and no doubt believe it).  The one who wins the character contest may then be the one who hides his past and his personal life the best. 

Third, character is really a partisan issue.  It's always the other guy who lacks character, and the other side that's involved in so many scandals.  Our side is the good guys--we're unfairly attacked and misunderstood.

Finally, the character issue is a waste of time.  It's a smokescreen that prevents actual discussion of issues, which, after all, is what will matter once the winner takes office.

Character can matter in a roundabout way, in that you don't necessarily want to nominate a candidate with character questions since other voters may be turned off.  So perhaps Republican voters can't ignore Newt Gingrich's personal life, as it will come up in a general election.  But that doesn't mean it'll make him a worse (or better) President.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Just Jazz?

Django Reinhardt was born 102 years ago today.  When he was 18, a fire destroyed his ability to use his left hand's ring finger and pinky, but that didn't stop him from being the greatest guitarist in the world of jazz.



Depressing

Jesse Walker is near or at the end of his movie lists, since he's now doing 1931.  By this year, Hollywood had firmly made the transition to sound and we're starting to establish new stars, but what's fun is they haven't figured out all the cliches yet, so you get some weird stuff too.  (Profits were also dropping considerably due to the Depression.) Meanwhile, there was some interesting work going on in Europe.

Right off the bat I figured he wouldn't list Cimarron.  It won the Oscar then, but not too many people think time has treated it well.  So what did he pick?

1. Bimbo's Initiation
2. Monkey Business
3. M
4. Le Million
5. La Chienne
6. Frankenstein
7. À Nous la Liberté
8. The Smiling Lieutenant
9. The Threepenny Opera
10. Night Nurse

I have two quibbles.  First, and Jesse knows this already, I don't see the point in putting shorts on these lists.  As much as I love Fleischer's Bimbo cartoons, they're just not the same thing as a feature.  Second, once you add shorts, you open up the floodgates.  In addition to Fleischer, you've got Disney putting out a new short every two weeks, most of which are pretty cool, not to mention a new Laurel & Hardy almost every month (including Beau Hunks--practically a feature--not to mention Pardon Us, an actual feature).

My other quibble, which I'll get into later, is what's missing.  As for the films, I like them all.

Monkey Business.  What can I say?  The Marx Brothers made five films in five years for Paramount, and all of them are among the greatest comedies ever.

M may be Lang's greatest.  Some find Clair a little precious, but at his best, such as in Le Million and A Nous La Liberte, he's quite charmikng.  La Chienne shows Renoir, even in the early days of sound, is something special. (On Purge Bebe is also fascinating to see him making a purely commercial work.)

There's nothing quite like the early Universal horror titles, such as Frankenstein, and James Whale was their greatest stylist. There's also nothing like the early Lubitsch musicals, such as The Smiling Lieutenant (though I often wish they had better tunes).  Speaking of musicals, there's also The Threepenny Opera, which may not be up to Pabst's best silent films, but still hold sup.

And Night Nurse is one of those pre-Code Warner Brothers films that's so delirious that sometimes your can't believe your eyes.

Unfortunately (and oddly, seems to me), Jesse doesn't have a full list for honorable mentions, but notes Platinum Blonde and another Flescher cartoon. He also hasn't seen The Criminal Code, which I'm definitely a fan of.

But there are plenty of features he might consider.  He doesn't have to like every one, but what about:

Blonde Crazy

Caught Plastered

Cracked Nuts

Dishonored

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dracula (English and Spanish version)

Flying High

The Front Page

Little Caesar

The Maltese Falcon (dry run for the 1941 version)

The Public Enemy

On top of all these choices, there are two that should definitely make the list.

There's Tabu, the last film Murnau made before dying in a car crash.

Then there's one of the greatest films ever, the one that should probably top the list.  Jesse knows what I'm about to write, and I know why he didn't put it up there.  It's Chaplin's City Lights. He was still making silent films in 1931, and it's as great as anything he ever did.  Yes, it's got sentimental scenes, but they're handled well, and, more important, most of it is hilarious. For some reason, Jesse is one of those people who doesn't quite cotton to Chaplin.  I realize these people exist, but I don't get it.

Other films of note: An American Tragedy, Arrowsmith, The Champ, Connecticut Yankee, Delicious, Dirigible, Dreyfus, Five Star Final, A Free Soul, The Guardsman, Marius, Mata Hari, The Miracle Woman, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, Private Lives, Sidewalks of New York, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Skippy, Strictly Dishonorable, Susan Lenox, Svengali, Trader Horn

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Double Triple

There's a scrabble site I check out regularly, where they draw letters and have visitors send in the biggest point play possible (which is sometimes incredibly stupid--they'll throw way an S for an extra point) on the ever-changing board.  They update twice a day, at 9 am and 9 pm PST.

Right now the rack holds DOTCMEE (though it may be gone before you read this). Nothing too special.  Certainy can't get a bingo.  But on the board, we've got a lonely P on the top row sitting on the double letter score.  So what this amounts to is:

Triple Word Score, space, space, P, space, space, space, Triple Word Score.

Is everyone thinking what I'm thinking?  Yep, that's right,  COMPETED fits right in there.  C is three points, O one point, M three points, P three points (too bad we can't use the double letter score), E one point, T one point, E one point, D two points.  That adds up to fifteen points.  Multiply by a triple word score then by another triple word score and you get 135 point.  Plust 50 for the bingo and you end up with 185 points!  An amazing score by any measure, and actually the highest this site has seen in all its years.

Yeah, I know it's a nerdy thing to care about, but little things like this can make your day.

Oh Lord

Some songwriters claim the songs are already out there, they're just channeling them.  A bit too mystical for me, but I've always been fascinated by how poets can fashion words in such a way that they can't be forgotten, as if they were always meant to be in that order.

It's Lord Byron's birthday, so let's use a famous example of his:

Ray Of Light

I just read Patrick McGilligan's biography Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure Of An American Director.  It's sort of a sad life, filled with doomed marriages and affairs, drug and alcohol binges, and what amounts to a failed film career.

Ray, born in Wisconsin in 1911, was mentored by people like Thornton Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Elia Kazan and John Houseman before he found his calling as a film director in the late 40s.  He was considered an "arty" director, and didn't always get along with the studio brass.  That along with personal problems amounted to a Hollywood career that lasted about fifteen years.

During that time, he made a fair amount of memorable films, even though he sometimes had to fight his lead actors, and didn't always have full control: They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place, Flying Leathernecks, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without A Cause (his only major hit), Bigger Than Life.  I'm not sure if I'd call any of them great, but there's no question Ray had a style (that often goes too far).  He was somewhat appreciated in his day--the French went wild for him--but when he left Hollywood I don't think too many felt it was a big loss.

He kicked around his last couple decades, sometimes teaching.  He spent some time with SUNY students working on an "arty," definitely non-commercial film entitled We Can't Go Home Again.  Ray died in 1979.  Many of his films have become cult favorites, and Rebel still represents a moment in time like few others  For a guy who never really fit in, he could have done a lot worse.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Nutty

Is it Squirrel Appreciation Day already?





South Carolina: Second Comeback

Fascinating.  After having been written off a second time, Newt Gingrich is making another comeback.  According to the most recent polls, he seems to be the favorite to win in South Carolina.  His recent rise isn't that mysterious.  There's still a lot of anti-Romney feeling among conservatives and the main question is which candidate will it coalesce behind.  You'd probably think Santorum--especially now that Perry is out of the race--but Gingrich hit it out of the park in the last two debates.  Conservatives hate the media, and Gingrich attacked the media.  Conservatives are tired of being called racist, and Gingrich defended them. And he did it with some panache.



Let's assume Gingrich wins and Santorum drops out.  Would that be enough to give him a decent chance of taking down Romney?  I'd guess not.  Romney is still better organized and funded, and there are enough Republicans who want to win in November and figure Newt's general unpopularity would prevent that.  For that matter, the kind of stuff that plays well in debates now will probably hurt him against Obama (by making him look angry, petty and perhaps hypocritical while Obama seems farsighted and above it all).

But if he does win, at least it'll make the campaign more fun.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sez You

I just read Gary Wills Rome And Rhetoric, his looks at Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar--how Shakespeare creates the characters and their rhetoric, versus what he know about them from Plutarch.

It's an erudite book (actually taken from the Anthony Hecht lectures at Bard) that has some different takes on the play.  For instance, though it's called Julius Caesar, the big parts are Brutus, Cassius and Antony. Yet in the original production, Burbage played the title role.  Wills suggests two things--that Burbage had huge roles in the other plays that season, so he needed to take it easy, but also that Caesar (played by an actor who also probably took on Cicero--they doubled parts then, which also explains why certain characters don't appear at the same time), as opposed to how he's often interpreted today, must maintain a certain dignity and power, so his ghost will haunt the rest of the action after his death.

Wills looks at Brutus's big speech, which is generally considered a decent piece of rhetoric that's completely overshone by Antony's.  Wills claims that Brutus overrelies on certain rhetorical devices--devices that ancient speakers warned against overusing--and worse, was unresponsive to the audience, relying (in a way that shows his character's flaw) on the crowd not doubting his honor as his justification.  No wonder the wilier Antony easiliy turned things against him.

Shakespeare was hardly the only playwright of his time to write about the ancient world, but his humanity makes these portraits live above others.  Ben Jonson's Catiline is a more learned work, and probably more historically accurate. But Shakespeare knew how to create living, breating characters, so his work is not only the one we remember, but the one that helps us conjure up, fairly or not, what ancient Rome may have been like.

David's World

David Lynch turns 66 today.  He's a great director, but considering how unconventional his approach is, it's amazing he's had a career at all.

I noticed him with his first feature, Eraserhead.  The original funders thought he was making a short, but his visual style played longer onscreen than on the page.  It took years to complete and introduced a lot of themes and stylistic quirks he'd revisit throughout his career.  It's a film of no known genre. In many ways, he's never topped it.



It was not well-reviewed in the trades, but became big in midnight showings.  It also caught the attention of Mel Brooks, who helped Lynch get a big job directing The Elephant Man.  (Word is Stanley Kubrick got his own copy of Eraserhead and screened it regularly)

The Elephant Man did decent business and Lynch was nominated for an Oscar.  He also got a shot at something really big--Dune. The result is generally considered a disaster, and Lynch himself swore he'd never work again without complete control.  But producer Dino De Laurentis also funded Blue Velvet, which received rapturous reviews and still packs a wallop. (I could show you a scene, but I'd rather show Roger Ebert getting angry about it.)



Lynch moved into TV, producing Twin Peaks, which was the coolest show on the air for a short period before it fell apart, both in popularity and plot.  He continued making films, some winning awards, some even making their money back (eventually)--not only the bizarre Twin Peaks movie, but Wild At Heart (Palme d'Or at Cannes), Lost Highway and The Straight Story (as the title suggests, his most straighforward, "normal" movie).

Then he worked on a TV pilot that didn't sell.  He got some money to turn it into a feature, and the transformation was astounding.  When I was waiting in line to see Mulholland Dr. someone drove by and shouted "that's the worst film I ever saw."  I thought it was the best film of the year.  Lynch does that to poeple.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

PE Exercise

Happy birthday, Phil Everly.  He was the younger half of one of the best rock duos ever.





All That Traz

I watched the first two hours of Alcatraz, the new series on Fox.  The premise is when Alcatraz closed in 1963, the official story was a cover-up.  What actually happened was the criminals there simply disappeared. Since then, there's been a task force run by former Alcatraz guard Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) researching the situation and awaiting their return.

In the present, indefatigable detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) gets assigned to the murder of an old deputy warden at Alcatraz--turns out he was taken down by one of the old prisoners who has reappeared and is as young as he was in 1963.  Madsen has another connection in that her grandfather was a guard at the prison (though she later finds out he was actually one of the more mysterious inmates). In doing research, she gets Alcatraz expert and comic book writer Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) to help out.  Eventually, she stumbles across the secret group Hauser is running and by the end she and Garcia join (though clearly Hauser and lovely co-worker Lucy Banerjee know a lot more than they're telling).

Madsen captures the guy and Hauser locks him up in a special new prison where all the old criminals are to be housed. And in the next hour, a new prisoner from '63 appears, causes mayhem, and is captured.  But the big question remains--who is behind all this weirdness, and what do they want? (Probably Madsen's grandpa has something to do with it.)

The show has a lot of Lost people behind it, and you can tell from the structure.  Not only is it a mix of action and the supernatural, but it has the flashback structure--with each new criminal, we get to see what they were like back in the Alcatraz days.

It's an odd premise and I'm not sure how far they can go with it.  Each week they can capture another old/young imate, but just how different is this from any other cop show?--it's mostly criminal of the week, with some headway presumably made on the main mystery.  It's also not clear just what Hauser's place is--he's mysterious and sometimes doesn't even seem to be the good guy. (Another Lost trope.)

Outside of Neill, none of the characters register strongly yet, except for Garcia.  It's always nice to see Jorge, and here he stands in for the audience.  He's the regular guy who keeps asking everyone why aren't you more amazed by this mindblowing situation.  Unfortunately, while the situation might be bizarre, it's not yet gripping.  I may check it out again, but I'm not sure how much more the show has to offer.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

No Love for Blog in Caddo

I feel we have a special obligation to object to this particular proposed nanny state law.

To the Parish Commissioner's slippery slope argument- "Is underwear next?" I can only hope so.

That Him, All Right

Bobby Goldsboro was a big soft pop artist in the 60s and 70s, scoring a bunch of top 40 hits, hitting #1 with the lachrymose "Honey" in 1968.  His first top ten song was "See The Funny Little Clown" in 1964, but how many remember the song that went to #74 later that year, the Bacharach/David composition "Me Japanese Boy, I Love You"? Anyway, happy birthday, Bobby.

The Year With THE Film

Jesse Walker now presents his film list from 1941.  I see it as the last year of the early talkie period.  Yes, things had changed since the late 20s, but it was a time when all the studios were operating at their peak, just before the U.S. entered the war and everything changed. (Everything had already changed in Europe, of course.)

It's also the year when the title that wins every poll for the greatest film ever came out, Citizen Kane.  Will Jesse put it up high?

To end the suspense, yes, it's number one. On the other hand, Jesse ignores the Oscar winner for the year, How Green Was My Valley. (I agree, though there are plenty of auteurists who wouldn't like that.)

Here's the list:

1. Citizen Kane
2. The Maltese Falcon
3. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
4. The Sea Wolf
5. Meet John Doe
6. Hellzapoppin'
7. Lambeth Walk—Nazi Style
8. The Wolf Man
9. Ball of Fire
10. The Lady Eve

Pretty solid list, and just about all Hollywood.

It's hard to think of Citizen Kane as a regular film anymore, it's become so deified, but it should be somewhere in the top ten.

The Maltese Falcon I've always considered overrated, but it made Bogie a big star and is certainly a decent version of the novel after two weaker attempts.  (I try to imagine how it would have come out if George Raft hadn't turned down the lead.)

The Fields film is great, and certainly surreal.  It's the kind of thing that makes you wish the Marx Brothers had gone to Universal instead of MGM.

The Sea Wolf is a bit high here, but it certainly manages a menacing mood.

Meet John Doe is a troubled classic from Frank Capra.  He didn't know how to end it and it shows. The Capra formula is straining a bit here, but it can still stand near his best.

Hellzapoppin' is an oddity among oddities.  I only wish the whole film could be as bizarre as its first ten minutes.  Of course, Hollywood would never allow that, as they must have known when the bought the property.

The Lambeth Walk is fun but as always I don't think shorts fit in these lists (except maybe the great comedy shorts in the silent days that competed with features for attention).

The Wolf Man is also a classic of its type, but not as special as the previous great titles in horror.

Ball Of Fire and Lady Eve had to be in the top ten. In fact, they should both be in the top five.  Maybe the top two.

Here are his honorable mentions:

11. Sullivan's Travels
12. Suspicion
13. Tortoise Beats Hare
14. Dumbo
15. The Devil and Daniel Webster
16. Among the Living
17. Hold Back the Dawn
18. Ladies in Retirement
19. The Iron Crown
20. The Devil and Miss Jones

Sullivan's Travels plays as an unusual film today as much as it did seventy years ago (which is why it was not a hit), but Sturges pulled off something special, with dramatic peaks as well as comic.

Suspicion is often considered a compromised film, but it's one of my favorite Hitchcock's with one of my favorite Cary Grant performances (even though his co-star won the Oscar).

#13 is another short.  Dumbo should be top ten--there's nothing like the early Disney animated features.  Just the "Pink Elephants" number alone shows how Disney can outdo the surrealists at their own game, (1941 turned out to be a high point for Hollywood surrealism.)

The Devil And Daniel Webster is okay but not great.  The Devil And Miss Jones, however, is an underappreciated gem (and a rare chance in early Hollywood to hear the Bill Of Rights defended).  Hold Back The Dawn is Brackett and Wilder showing yet again (they also wrote Ball Of Fire) that they were the best screenwriting team around, in comedy or drama.  The rest I haven't seen.

Other films that were highly regarded that year:

Sergeant York (the year's biggest hit and actually pretty good, but hasn't dated as well as other Hawks)

They Died With Their Boots On

A Yank In The RAF

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Babes On Broadway

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

High Sierra

The Little Foxes

Penny Serenade

That Hamilton Woman

Major Barbara

Here are some films that might have made my list:

Man Hunt (worth it just to see Lang imagining Hitler being shot at)

Road To Zanzibar (not their best Road picture, but still pretty good)

You'll Never Get Rich (any decent Astaire musical tends to make my list, and this is his first with his favorite partner)

Other films of interest.

All Through the Night, Andy Hardy's Private Secretary, The Big Store (a sad example of what MGM was doing to the Marx Brothers, but it's still the Marx Brothers), The Black Cat, The Bride Came C.O.D., Buck Privates (here's the hot new team that would rule the 40s), Charley's Aunt, The Farmer's Wife, The Flame of New Orleans,  Flying Blind, French Without Tears, Hold That Ghost, In the Navy, Kipps, Life Begins for Andy Hardy, Manpower (the story behind the film is better), Million Dollar Baby, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,  Mr. Bug Goes To Town (a fascinating glimpse at feature animation without Disney), Mysterious Island, Penny Serenade (one of two Cary Grant performances to be Oscar-nominated), Playmates, Shadow of the Thin Man (the first Thin Man to drop greatly in quality), The Strawberry Blonde, Sun Valley Serenade, That Hamilton Woman, That Uncertain Feeling (an odd Lubitsch in between his two greatest films), Tobacco Road, Tom, Dick and Harry, Two-Faced Woman (the film that made Garbo give up), Western Union (Lang in color), When Ladies Meet ,You're in the Army Now, Ziegfeld Girl

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Film Year In Review--2011

Time for my annual film wrap-up.  Maybe I was just in a bad mood, but I thought 2011 was a weak year--even the stuff I liked I didn't like that much.  Which is why I was so surprised when a lot of critics called it a great year. I don't see all the films they see, but I saw enough of the top-ranked titles to realize we have a difference of opinion.
 
For instance, I thought one film that won a lot of awards, The Descendants, was on the dull side. An even more crtically-esteemed movie, The Artist, I found as generic as its title. (It's so beloved that I'm afraid to attack it right up front, since people might stop reading.)

Still, there were some decent movies here and there--enough to make a top ten, anyway.  But before we get to that, let me quickly go over how this works. I only discuss feature films released in theatres (or first made widely available in theatres) in 2011. No TV, no shorts. I'll give some awards, note some trends, categorize the films I saw and then list my top ten.  But don't rush to the bottom, plenty of good stuff on the way.

And whether or not you agree with me--in fact, especially if you don't--feel free to leave a comment.


AWARDS:

Actor Of The Year: 2011 was unusual in that a lot of stars did decent work in more than one film. For example, George Clooney (The Descendants, Ides Of March), Ryan Gosling (Crazy Stupid Love, Drive, Ides Of March), Emma Stone (Crazy Stupid Love, The Help), Brad Pitt (The Tree Of Life, Moneyball) and Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method). But for actor of the year it wasn't even close: Jessica Chastain. From her amazing work in The Tree Of Life--where she manages to be ethereal and earthy at the same time—to her more comic turn in The Help, to other accents, styles and genres in Take Shelter and The Debt, she showed amazing depth and range last year.  I look forward to catching her in three film from 2011 I missed, CoriolanusWild Salome and Texas Killing Fields.

Most Pointless Remake: Arthur. The original worked because of the jokes and, to some extent, the cast, two things that can't be recaptured. It certainly didn't work because of its hoary plot, which is the one thing they kept.

Worst Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene. It's long, impossible to remember and means nothing.

Most Generic TitleThe Dilemma. As has been noted, this could be the title to any film.

Most Descriptive TitleWe Bought A Zoo. No doubt about it, they did.

Most Optimistic Title: Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

Most Ominous Title: Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

Most Impressive Shot: In The Green Hornet two people meet and then the frame turns into a split screen. They go their separate ways and we follow both in a continuous shot, and they continue to meet more people and split the screen more.  I have no idea how it's done, except it has something to do with computers. Runner-up: Jake Gyllenhaal jumping from a moving train in Source Code–sure looked real. Second runner-up: A lengthy action sequence involving numerous characters and settings done in one shot in The Adventures Of Tintin which would be impossible in a live action film.



Worst Sequel: The Iron Lady.  Nothing like Iron Man.

Best Ending: Tie: Red State, nice anticlimax. Martha Marcy May Marlene, nicely understated (though I wish the rest of the film were a bit more lively).

Worst Ending: The epilogue to Harry Potter—so after a whole bunch of books and movies leading up to a huge showdown, essentially nothing's changed. It was all a big waste of time. Runner-up: Tree Of Life, where Malick tries to pull it all together cosmically, but it doesn't work.

Most Politically Correct:  In Captain America, the Cap works with a multi-ethnic team to fight Hitler.  I can almost buy an African-American in the group, but I think there might have been a Japanese guy in there, too.

Best End Credits: Super 8—the film the kids shot is more entertaining than the film they're in.

Best Final ShotMelancholia, which shows what it would look like if Earth smashed into another planet.  Quite beautiful, actually.  (And not a plot spoiler since the ending is revealed in the prologue.)


You Me And Dupree Award For A Film That While Nominally A Hollywood Comedy Is Actually A Surrealist Masterpiece, Where Plot Points Are Introduced And Dropped For No Reason, Where Dialogue Is Unrelated To The Action, And Where Characters Do Things That Bear No Resemblance To How Humans Act: Larry Crowne

Best Old-fashioned Crowd-pleaser The Help

Best Movie With A Dinosaur In It: The Tree Of Life

Most Pointlessly Convoluted Plot: Sucker Punch. It's about a young woman put into a mental institution who's about to get an ugly procedure (because this worked so well in Return To Oz). She imagines a brothel with the same characters as the asylum, and from which she plans an escape. But that's only the beginning. When she performs her brothel dance routines for the customers, she hears the music and imagines complex action scenarios that symbolically stand for what's going on in the dance at the brothel, which already symbolically stands for what's happening in the asylum. A long way to go for very little result.

Creepiest: The Skin I Live In, though Martha Marcy May Marlene is almost as creepy without going gothic.

Contempt For The Audience Award: Hangover 2, a beat-by-beat remake with nothing new to offer except less humor. And characters who were once sweet guys stuck in a tough situation become hateful jerks.

Film That Goes On The Longest After It's Over Award: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Runner-up: Source Code. It has an obvous endpoint but it wasn't happy enough so they kept on going.

Best Musical Number: "Star Spangled Man" from Captain America, a patriotic rouser presented with more than a little modern-day cynicism.


Worst Set Award: Thor's town that pops up out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, and only exists to be destroyed.

Top Anachronism: Nothing takes you out of a film faster than a modern expression in a period piece. Sherlock Holmes was a treasure trove, but the winner comes from X-Men: First Class, set in 1962. Villain Kevin Bacon sees a large ship coming to capture him and shouts “Now it's a party!”

Least Deserving Performance Guaranteed To Win An Oscar: Christopher Plummer in Beginners.

Most Painfully Predictable Plot Point: The Descendants. George Clooney has a choice: sell some beautiful Hawaiian coastal property to developers so his overprivileged relatives can continue to be layabouts, or nobly turn down the money to keep Hawaii pristine.  Hmm.  What will he do?

Clint Eastwood Award For Most Boring Movie goes to...Clint Eastwood for J. Edgar (aka “Johnny and Clyde").

Comeback Of The Year (Though He's Never Been Away): Amazingly, Woody Allen had his biggest-grossing film ever with Midnight In Paris. It's charming, but still shows what a shoddy filmmaker he's become. The scenes set in the present often seems to be going through the motions so we can get to the scenes in the past. And even those scenes, while entertaining, are often slack (and cover territory Allen's done years before in his writing and stand-up).


TRENDS AND OBSERVATIONS:

Don't quit your night job (prime time TV beauties with less than impressive performances on the big screen): Dianna Agron (I Am Number Four), Olivia Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens, The Change-Up, In Time), January Jones (Unknown, X-Men: First Class)

Decent premise that falls apart: Cowboys & Aliens, Super 8, Hanna, Limitless, In Time

Counting On The Movies: I Am Number Four, Fast Five, Super 8, 13 Assassins, 30 Minutes Or Less, 50/50

Colorful Language: The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Red Riding Hood, Red State

The Name Game: Paul, Hanna, Terri, Arthur, Hugo, Buck, Jack And Jill

ImpressionistsJ. Edgar, The Iron Lady, My Week With Marilyn, Midnight In Paris

Trend of the year: R-rated comedies are strong, with Hangover 2, Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses and Bad Teacher all grossing over 100 million.

No Animation Celebration:  Almost every year at least one animated feature makes my top ten list, but nothing came close in 2011.  All the major titles were fair to bad: Rango, Rio, Kung Fu Panda 2, even Pixar's entry Cars 2.

Nothing is funnier than a woman with uncontrollable defecation: Bridesmaids, Jack And Jill, Hall Pass

Which is worse?: In Green Hornet, there's a very uncomfortable scene where Seth Rogen talks about how old Cameron Diaz is. In Bad Teacher, everyone ignores how old Cameron Diaz is.

People from the Midwest are simple folk:  Cedar Rapids, Young Adult, 30 Minutes Or Less

Gentiles make the best-looking Jews: Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain in The Debt, Vigo Mortensen and Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, Rosamund Pike in Barney's Version

Don't stand in the middle of the road now that they've perfected CGI: The Hedgehog, The Debt

Watching people die of a wasting disease is your best entertainment: Contagion, 50/50, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

You never know when an old white guy will break out into a rap:  The Muppets, Jack And Jill

Jason Statham should read scripts first, not just watch the original: The Mechanic, Killer Elite

It's Like, Cosmic, Man: Tree Of Life, Melancholia, Another Earth, Take Shelter

The End Of The World As We Know It or Apocalypse Now: Melancholia, Take Shelter, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Them Cults Is Dangerous: Red State, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Them Religious People Is Crazy: The Ledge, Red State

Rich People Suck: Tower Heist, Margin Call, In Time, The Descendants

Rich People Are Wonderful: Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 (very rare we even get one in this category)

I Liked This Movie Better When They Called It Kick-Ass: Super

Movies About Movies: Hugo, The Artist, Super 8, My Week With Marilyn

Unexpectedly Violent:  Drive, Super

Double Trouble: Adam Sandler usually only bothers us with one film a year, but this time around he gives us two dogs, Just Go With It and Jack And Jill. Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds strikes out big with two poorly-received films, Green Lantern and The Change-Up.

Bryce Dallas Howard—What a bitch!: The actress plays two meanies, very convincingly, in The Help and 50/50. She better watch out or she might get typecast.


Rankings:

Good: Source Code, Blank City, Jane Eyre, Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff, Everything Must Go, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Help, Littlerock, Contagion, Hugo, My Week With Marilyn, Corman's World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel, Buck, X-Men: First Class, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Attack The Block, The Skin I Live In

Bad: Season Of The Witch, The Green Hornet, The Dilemma, The Mechanic, Super, Tron Legacy, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, Fast Five, Water For Elephants, Hop, The Hangover 2, Beginners, Super 8, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Rio, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, Page One: Inside The New York Times, Kung Fu Panda 2, Cowboys & Aliens, Puncture, The Ides Of March, Toast, The Women On The Sixth Floor, Tower Heist, Killer Elite, In Time, Real Steel, The Artist, Young Adult, Barney's Version, Jumping The Broom, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Rite, The Ledge, Puss In Boots, A Dangerous Method, War Horse, Pariah, Red Riding Hood, The Eagle, Sucker Punch, The Iron Lady, Arthur

Ugly: Just Go With It, Rango, Green Lantern, The Change-Up, J. Edgar, Jack And Jill

Half And Half: Melancholia (brilliance mixed with boredom)

Disappointments (films I had reason to expect I'd like much more than I did): Cedar Rapids, Hall Pass, Bridesmaids, The People Vs. George Lucas, 13 Assassins, Terri, Take Shelter, Le Havre, The Muppets

Okay: Unknown, Adjustment Bureau, Take Me Home Tonight, Limitless, I Am Number Four, The Lincoln Lawyer, Paul, Battle: Los Angeles, Hanna, Thor, The Robber, Midnight In Paris, The Trip, Bad Teacher, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Horrible Bosses, 30 Minutes Or Less, Red State, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing In The Darkness, The Hedgehog, The Debt, The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Drive, Moneyball, 50/50, Margin Call, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Descendants, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Gnomeo And Juliet, The Sitter, Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect And The Painter, The Adventures of Tintin, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, We Bought A Zoo


TOP TEN (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):

Bill Cunningham New York

Nothing beats an interesting character.  There was another documentary in 2011 about The New York Times, but it tried to do too much and was a mess.  This one tells you about someone you may not know much about, but is worth knowing.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Decent farce is hard to find.  This one was sweet and funny and even a little edgy.

The Guard

A comedy-action film that breathes some life into the police genre, with a major assist from Brendan Gleeson.

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol

We had to wait till December for the best action film of the year.

Sarah's Key

At first I thought not another film about Jews during WWII, but it turned out to be something quite different.

A Separation

Domestic squabbles in Iran. What's fascinating is both how similar it is to and how different it is from America.

Submarine

The British show that the coming of age genre is not dead.

Tabloid

I had no interest in a rehashing of some trashy scandal from the 70s, but this turned out to be a fascinating character study of a very strange woman with a very peculiar story (though it does trail off a bit at the end).  It's also fun to see Errol Morris let his hair down a little.

The Tree Of Life

Certainly no film like it this year, or maybe any year. At its best--which it is for most of the time--it's an impressionistic tale of growing up in the suburbs of Texas in the 1950s, but it captures something a lot bigger. I also sort of liked the cosmic detour (placing the story in a much wider context).  Unfortunately, all the Sean Penn stuff in the present doesn't play, but even with that, it's an amazing work.

Win Win

Another winner from Thomas McCarthy, who makes films about average people in tricky but realistic situations. I like that they hired a real wrestler to play the kid.

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