Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar Predictions 2011

It is that time of year again for me to prognosticate the winners of this year's Academy Awards, as if I were the Oracle at Delphi.

Best Picture

Will Win: "King's Speech"

Two months ago it seemed impossible that anything would beat "The Social Network," but after winning the majority of critics' prizes and the Golden Globe, it appears that David Fincher's film has lost much of its momentum. The positive buzz around "The King's Speech" has even propelled this small prestige film to over $100 million at the box office. The film boasts an extremely powerful cast and a tight, snappy screenplay that are incredibly popular with the Academy.

Best Director 

Will Win: David Fincher, "Social Network"

Tom Hooper, the director of "King's Speech," did win the DGA award, but if the British Academy did not give the prize to Hooper, it seems unlikely that the Oscars will either. Fincher is well respected and this may be the consolation prize for the facebook movie not winning the top prize.

Best Actor

Will Win: Colin Firth, "King's Speech"

This is the one category where there is absolutely no possibility of an upset. People were saying Firth would be nominated last year even before the film was out of post-production. He is playing a British monarch with a speech impediment, two of the academy's favorite character attributes: disability and royalty. Firth is also popular and never been honored. His win will surely result in a standing ovation as well. Hopefully, his wife doesn't cheat on him with a Nazi sympathizer, like last year's sure thing winner Sandy Bullock.

Best Actress

Will Win: Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"

Natalie Portman is the clear front runner in this category but there is a dark horse: Annette Bening. Bening is a Governor of the Actors' Branch of the Academy and she has never won before. She lost twice to Hilary Swank and this year she portrayed a lesbian in a well-liked independent comedy. I think Portman will take it in the end, but there could be a major upset here.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Christian Bale, "The Fighter"

Bale has been pointed to as one of the strongest actors of his generation. From intense indie dramas like "The Machinist" to huge blockbusters like "Dark Knight," Bale is accomplished in a number of genres. His performance as a crack-addicted boxer was the highlight of David Russell's family melodrama. If any upset were to happen, it would be Geoffrey Rush as the King's speech therapist.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Helena Bonham Carter, "King's Speech"

Melissa Leo was the clear leader in this race, but then she took a major misstep by taking out large ads in the trade papers courting voters for their votes. Many people saw it as a highly tacky move. I believe she still has the edge but the "King's Speech" steamroller may very well bulldoze this category, too. Carter, a woman noted for eccentricities and her marriage to famed director Tim Burton, may ultimately triumph in this category. But then there is also Hailee Steinfeld, the fourteen-year-old wonder kid in "True Grit." This is one of the only wide open races this year.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: David Seidler, "King's Speech"

I would much rather see Lisa Cholodenko win here for "The Kids are All Right," but Seidler, with his first nomination with the script he plied around town for years before it was picked, up has a true underdog story. Plus, the film is going to win Best Picture, so screenplay prizes often go to the Best Picture winner as well.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Aaron Sorkin, "Social Network"

Everyone in Hollywood loved Sorkin's work on "The West Wing," and his lock on this prize seems assured. This is the chance to honor a respected writer and a film that has been honored by most film critics across the country.

Best Animated Feature

Will Win: "Toy Story 3"

Unlike most threequels, "Toy Story 3" did incredibly well at the box office (grossing a billion dollars worldwide) and with critics--it was the best reviewed film of the year, in fact. A travesty would occur if this failed to win in this category.

Best Song:

Will Win: The "Tangled" Song

Who knows who will win in this category? Some predict that AR Rahman will repeat here, but since he won just two years ago for "Slumdog Millionaire," I can't see the Academy giving him the prize for a movie that has failed at the box office and not reached the same critical respect as his first foray into Anglo-American cinema. Alan Menken wrote the songs in "Tangled" and he hasn't won since "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, so this may be a chance to give Menken his ninth Oscar.

Best Score

Will Win: Trent Reznor, "Social Network"

Some think Alexandre Desplat's score for "King's Speech" will triumph here. He has never won and been nominated several times, but the Academy actually has a past awarding rock stars in this category. Prince won for "Purple Rain," and Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne of Talking Heads won for "The Last Emperor." With a new upsurge of younger Academy members, Reznor will most likely be able to beat the established film composers.

Best Editing

Will Win: "Social Network"

I have no clue how "Inception" was not nominated in this category, but with that removed from the running, "Social Network" clearly has the edge.

Best Cinematography

Will Win: "True Grit"

Roger Deakins, who has shot many of the Coen Bros. finest films, has never won an Oscar. This will most likely be his year to shine.

Best Costume Design

Will Win: "Alice in Wonderland"

"Alice in Wonderland" may not have received heaps of praise from critics, but its costume designs were one of the actually unique aspects about it. When Alice shrunk, her dress became a huge mess, and when she grew her dress became small and tight. Something never done in any other adaptation of Carroll's work. It was a brilliant move and may give the film its sole win in this category.

Best Art Direction

Will Win: "King's Speech"

Although "Alice" had the most spectacular sets, most of them CGI'ed, "King's Speech" went for accuracy and simplicity on a shoestring budget. Sometimes less is more.

Best Documentary

Will Win: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"

Banksy's tongue-in-cheek documentary blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction and in the process made some profound statements about art's relation to commerce. Categories like documentary are difficult to predict because for one to be able to vote in this category he or she must be able to demonstrate to the Academy that he or she has seen every film nominated (a regulation not in place for categories like Actor, Actress or Picture). Thus a small group of people who saw all the films may elect a film that has not even been released in theaters to win. "Inside Job," a well-reviewed doc about the meltdown of 2008, may upset here, but I am going with innovation here.

Best Foreign Language Film

Will Win: "Biutiful"

To vote in this category, like in the Documentary category, you have to see all the nominees. I haven't seen a single one, thus I am going with the film with Bardem, only because Bardem is in it. The Danish film may win because of its triumph at the Golden Globes. This category often results in upsets ("Departures" over "The Class;" "Lives of Others" over "Pan's Labyrinth;" "Secret of their Eyes" over "White Ribbon"--that is the last consecutive three years). Frankly, no one can know who will win here.

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: "Inception"

"Tron" had some gorgeous effects but since it seems that is ALL it had, the much smarter and better "Inception" will easily beat the competition.

Best Makeup

Will Win: "Wolfman"

No one could have seen this coming: "Wolfman" will be an Oscar-winning flick. Rick Baker who has six OScars already designed the fur mask for Benicio Del Toro. Why the make-up branch did not nominate films, such as "Black Swan," "Alice in Wonderland," or "Inception," I shall never know.

Best Animated Short

Will Win: "Madagascar, carnet de voyage"

I like the title and it's about Madagascar, so in honor of Jane, I say this will win

Best Documentary Short 

Will Win: "Killing in the Name"

Sounds like a good expose about something violent and without justice.

Best Live Action Short

Will Win: "Na Wewe"

It's about Rwanda, why not?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

State Budget Crises and Union Busting

The events in Wisconsin over the past couple weeks have pointed to a strategy by Republican fiscal conservatives that we may see play out in a number of states where huge budget shortfalls are forcing state lawmakers to make cuts and raise taxes. In Wisconsin, a controversial attempt to end the collective bargaining of unions (especially those of teachers' unions, the most vilified in the media) is being fought in major protests by state workers. Fiscal conservatives point to the fact that everyone has made sacrifices since the economic meltdown of 2008 and the unions need to take similar measures. But is this notion that unions have not made sacrifices true?

The short answer is a resounding no. Unions' ability to negotiate in the time of economic downturns has been made increasingly difficult in the past several years. The amount of money that state workers and teachers are now required to pay in health care premiums have more than doubled in the last decade. The amount of pensions being paid has also been cut and raises have not been paid that accord to inflation.

Why then this new massive attack on unions? Unions serve as the base of the Democratic Party and among the top ten contributors to the 2010 elections, only unions were able to be placed in the top ten makers of political donations among the conservative PAC's that dominated the support for tea-party candidates. With the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United, we will see a continued rise of corporate monies going to conservative candidates who will repay their donors with major federal subsidies and tax cuts, which will not go to product development or aiding their workers but creating huge bonuses for their executives.

According to many pundits and Wisconsin legislators, the state was on the track to have a budget surplus this year, but the new tea-party governor, Scott Walker, created massive tax cuts to corporations that has now created a major budget deficit. Somehow these tax cuts are not the issue, but rather the "entitlements" of unions.

For Republicans, their mantra of budget cuts masks their true conservative agenda that wants to see Planned Parenthood funds cut to nothing. They want to eviscerate the few institutions of power the Democrats may have and that remains the public-employee unions across the nation. The tax burden of the richest Americans is in no way the high burden that many Republicans claim, far lower than most industrialized, Western nations. The tax code needs to be reformed and with this reform a general lessening of maximum tax rates will be achieved, but so many loopholes need to be closed (even Mitch McConnell agrees with this point). Carnival Cruise Lines paid only 1% of their billion-dollar profits to the government last year. General Electric actually received more money from the federal government than it paid in taxes in 2009. Small businesses, however, do not possess two floors of tax attorneys who know how to negotiate the loopholes that result in paying virtually nothing in federal and state taxes.

Many people have been duped by Fox News and its incessant partisan "reporting." The assiduous rants of O'Reilly and Beck tell these people that it is liberal, commie fascists who are out to destroy the American way of life and "bankrupt our grandchildren." As we all know, fear is a great way to boost ratings and a way to mask actual issues and debates and frame them in apocalyptic language that gets us nowhere. (Glenn Beck is currently convinced the end of times is nigh with Obama as the Anti-Christ. How is this news?).

In 1975, New York state faced a dire financial situation. creditors began to fear that the riskiness of the state's holding would result in the defaulting of major municipal bonds. The Governor at the time, Hugh Carey, vowed everyone would need to make huge sacrifices, especially public unions. The rhetoric he used is identical to what we hear today, but what actually was necessary in solving the 1975 crisis. The wealthiest billionaires who find municipal bonds to be a huge boon to their profit margins saw in the 1975 crisis (and our present crises) an opportunity for renewed cash flows. Credit is withheld to fund these shortfalls or create new businesses (something also creating problems on the job-creation front today), until the situation is so dire that major cuts have occurred and these creditors can step in with a magic wand that has huge interest rates that will pay these creditors huge amount of money. So we will sacrifice our unions and pensions in order to give the wealthiest half of a percent of the American population more money? I think not.

Rather than attacking Wall Street investors and their major avarice, we turn on the teachers, federal workers, and state employees, who played no part in the economic meltdown of 2008. That was caused by the cutting of taxes, the increase of spending (especially military) and most importantly the de-regulation of financial investment tools. The attack of public employees is an easy scapegoat in a time when rich conservative fundraisers (e.g. the Koch brothers) can donate massive amounts of money to make sure that these more liberal-leaning institutions are destroyed.

We should all stand with these unions because without them the ability to negotiate with employers will be impossible. Without unions, the gap between the rich and poor will increase to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. The evisceration of the middle class will be complete, and those poor dupes of Fox News will wake up one day to find their way of life is no longer. Hopefully, they will wake up and realize it wasn't Obama's fault.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jane Fonda's Triumph: Moises Kaufman's "33 Variations"

In 1819, a music publisher, Anton Diabelli, developed a scheme that he was sure would be a great money maker for his firm: invite the fifty greatest composers of Vienna to compose a variation on a waltz that the publisher composed himself. Forty-nine composers agreed to contribute to the volume, including Schubert and Weber, but one did not: Ludwig van Beethoven. After Beethoven initially refused the invitation, he began to tinker with the theme composed by Diabelli and created a set of 33 variations, which became Beethoven's last great work after the Ninth Symphony. Along with Bach's "Goldberg Variations", Beethoven's work serves as one of the greatest lengthy set of pieces written for solo piano.

Moises Kaufman's play, "33 Variations," now playing at the Ahmanson Theater, focuses on an academic obsessed with the genesis of Beethoven's Opus 120, the "Diabelli Variations."Why would Beethoven devote so much time to such an insignificant piece of music in the closing years of his life? Dr. Katherine Brandt, played by the regal Jane Fonda, sets out to answer her question while illness chases her down. The similar obsessions (Beethoven's with the waltz and Brandt's obsession with the work) intersect as the play cuts between the two plots, showcasing the similarities between the scholar and the composer.

Similar to his previous plays, "The Laramie Project" and "Gross Indecency," Kaufman weaves the words of his historical characters into his work. In "Laramie Project," he used the words of inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of Matthew Shephard's killing. In "Gross Indecency," the transcripts of Oscar Wilde's obsecenity trial served as the basis for a majority of the dialogue in the second act. In "33 Variations," Beethoven's words are used throughout but in the most ingenious use of historical texts in a recent play, Diane Walsh plays excerpts from the variations throughout the play. When the characters discuss, often in quite technical language, the development of chord progressions in the work, the themes are played for the audience to hear.

The thrill of academic work is evident in the play, perhaps the best cultural representation of what a scholar does. The frustration and exalting possibility of the archives is expressed by Katherine repeatedly. The tantalizing notion that all of our academic (and even personal) questions can be answered by the dusty papers in those archival boxes and the concomitant feeling that the papers are not saying what you want them to say. This feeling of dejection by the sources gives way to Katherine (and to all of us who have worked in archives) when she allows the sources speak to us, rather than speaking for them. Her discovery is made and her questions are answered (in a fashion far different form what she predicted) and with this discovery she achieves some sense of peace.

The piece takes on true tearjerker qualities when we discover late in the first act that the illness from which Katherine suffers is ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease). The rare disease (apparently it affects only 30,000 people in the United States and because of this drug companies are wary of soending money on clinical trials for treatments) results in a loss of motor function, and the second act of the play showcases Fonda's formidable talents as she begins to lose her ability to walk and even speak.

Both Beethoven and Katherine in the final scenes fight to finish their work before their health renders them incapable of it. By the early-1820's, Beethoven was fully deaf but fought to still create further works. Katherine as she is unable to move dictates the final edits on her monograph. It is heartbreaking to see two great minds lose their ability to create the works that formed their identity. Along with Margaret Edson's "Wit," "33 Variations" may serve as one of the finest plays about academic work.

The play with a breathtakingly simple and beautiful set composed of coat racks with curtains of sheet music form the backdrop of the emotional turmoil of the cast. (The set won a Tony Award in 2009). The simplicity of the production values contrasted nicely with the intricacy of the music analysis that served as much of the dialogue and the intensely complex characters of Katherine and Beethoven.

The intersection of personal and academic questions frames the work. Why would Beethoven become so obsessed with a trivial and seemingly "mediocre" piece of music, such as Diabelli's waltz? Similarly, why does Katherine's daughter seem to embrace mediocrity? It is the intersection of all of our creative interests that help form the way we approach the relationships that shape our lives. The link between the two is irrevocable and at times blissful, and at times painful.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The most random of musings


Tonight, in my sweet and sour soup, I found a spring. No, that does not mean that I have a spring in my step, or that I found a sprig of parsley. I actually found a black, metal spring. There it was lying in the plastic take-out container, thus meaning I had eaten the entire portion of soup before I discovered that a metallic device had made its way into my potent potable. This situation would make most not want to patronize the sushi restaurant around the corner, but then that means finding affordable take-out sushi will have to be discovered somewhere that is no longer walking distance from my apartment. I am not willing to make such a commitment to another establishment. I would rather turn a blind eye to what may have been the part of someone's watch than lose my favorite eatery of raw fish.


I have recently become obsessed with literary first editions. I read a book about a book thief who had hatched a devious plot where he stole credit cards to buy rare first editions of "The Great Gatsby" and "Far from the Madding Crowd." Because of this, I have been scouring local thrift stores (and most importantly the charity shop around the corner). In my quest, I have found an advance reader copy of John Updike's "Widows of Eastwick" for 2 bucks (worth about $40); a first edition of Whittaker Chamber's "Witness" (worth $150, bought for $4). Now, we just have to see if a used bookshop will think that my purchases warrant them giving me massive amounts of money. If only I could find a first edition of "Interview with the Vampire" or "Gone with the Wind."


Ross and I watched the Grammys this past Sunday, and we had many disagreements with some of the winners and some consternation at many of the performances. When the great shock of the evening, Arcade Fire winning Best Album, we both turned to our internet-loaded devices to twitter, update and doublecheck our reactions with that of our friends and critics. At this point, the broadcast cut to the local news program. The news anchor in his booming voice said:

"At tonight's Grammys, Lady Antebellum was the big winner with five awards. Let's turn to our correspondent, ________, who is live at the Staples Center right now."

The camera cut to an attractive blond, seemingly in her early to mid-thirties. She began to speak:

"Well, tonight globbedy blook, Gooble goobble. Let's look flirtational shooble doo."

Ross and I laughed at her complete incompetence in creating a coherent sentence. The next day, Ross discovered that the aforementioned woman was slurring her words not because she was drunk, but because she was having a stroke on the air.

I felt bad for having laughed at her.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Race and the American Novel in the "Post-Racial" Age: Kathryn Stockett's "The Help"

Kathryn Stockett's The Help has become a phenomenally successful novel. It has spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list and a movie adaptation has been made, starring Emma Stone and Viola Davis by Dreamworks Pictures. This is an amazing achievement for a debut novel from a young woman from Mississippi, but is it a novel to celebrate?

The novel centers around the relations between white women and their black maids in Civil-Rights Era Jackson, Mississippi. The premise of the novel is appealing: how did black women work for women who were often extremely racist, but yet somehow still forged intimate relationships with these families, in spite of closely maintained lines of race?

The Help clearly deals with far more treacherous issues than most novels that become staples of reading groups: race and racism are something most people do not want to confront in a tearoom setting with the women from the neighborhood. Stockett is able to grapple with many of these issues because of the distance we presently have from the 1960's. This also partly explains the popularity of films like "Ray," "Dreamgirls," "Hurricane," and "Ali;" we can watch Denzel and Will be faced with oppressive racism because we know we have progressed far from that point. This also requires that we ignore much of the institutional and economic racism that still occurs on a daily basis.

The novel follows an idealistic young, white woman, named Miss Skeeter (short for "mosquito," a name given to her by a black domestic who thought she resembled the blood-sucking insect), who after graduating from Ole Miss is debating about what to do with her life. Her mother is fretting about Skeeter's lack of a beau. Skeeter dreams of writing, writing important books, and not the Household Hints column, which is the only job she was able to get from the local newspaper.

When asking a local maid, Aibileen, how to clean rugs and get bloodstains out of sheets (because Skeeter has never cleaned a house up and can't write her own column), she hits upon a bright idea: Why don't I write a book about black maids' experiences working for white families? Aibileen at first dismisses the idea. If anyone were to find out that she spoke about her employers frankly, not only would she be fired and blacklisted from ever finding a job again, she would also most likely be beaten up, or worse, lynched. In a very unconvincing scene, Skeeter assures her names will be changed and that Skeeter will protect her identity. Aibileen then agrees because she has her own secret ambitions to write.

Stockett's first major misstep comes with the poor decision to have the main maid, Aibileen, narrate her story line in a Southern black dialect, reminiscent of Amos and Andy. "Law have mercy" and "I reckon I 'm on help you" are frequently uttered by the quietly suffering maid. It is hard to accept the woman would write like this when she encouraged her child to read Ellison's "Invisible Man" and devoured classics of race relations by American novelists from the local library (eg Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird). Aibileen's no-nonsense friend, Minny, who has no interest in reading or writing narrates her section with no grammatical mistakes but plenty of idiomatic color. Why doesn't Aibileen have a similar voice?

In the most troubling instance of dumbing down her main maid character, Aibileen sees her employer return home and says: "[Miss Leefolt] got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia" (p. 94). My eyes went over that sentence and stopped. Is this some illness as metaphor that I do not understand? Then I realized no, Aibileen means "ammonia." Is this a typo no one caught? Or, has Stockett thought she has done something clever by showing that Aibileen doesn't know the difference? But why wouldn't Aibileen, who seems to know every secret to cleaning a house not know how to spell ammonia, which she uses on a weekly basis, but would know how to spell a quite difficult illness and mix the two up? Stockett has most likely, in an unconscious fit of writing, felt that she should make it clear to her readers Aibileen is a little slow. An offensive move.

The novel is also marked by a series of narrative mistakes common to a novice. She has three narrative voices (Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny), but then for a key scene in the third act, a limited omniscient third-person narrator has to be employed, a jarring instance. The jumps from one character to another is not even or thoughtfully placed, which leads to some frustration on the reader's part. Stockett twice mentions some event in the opening fifty pages that is not explained for two hundred pages, so the reader is left with tantalizing and frustrating references to "the time I did the Terrible Awful," until we finally learn what it is around page 350.

The largest shortcoming of the novel is the lack of placing at the center of the novel the experience of violence in the experience of these black maids. The book that Skeeter has anonymously authored is published and becomes a bestseller in Jackson, with everyone trying to figure out who is who. The novel ends with few repercussions meted out to the maids, which seems preposterous that they would not be jailed or lynched after divulging the deepest, darkest secrets of their employers' psychic lives (eg one woman doesn't seem to care about her children, another stole her mother's possessions). Their are references to characters who went to prison for allegedly stealing a ring or a character beaten so badly after accidentally walking into a white bathroom that he is blinded, but the maids themselves are never met with physical and sexual assault (except for Minny, whose husband beats her, playing into stereotypes of black masculinity), which many black domestics suffered at the hands of whites in that period.

The book will surely be applauded by many and liberal white-guilt will be appeased by reading the book, but does it give us a new shade of understanding of race? I think not. Stockett had the chance to answer a very important question: how do people who are seemingly intelligent people believe the most insidious and irrational things about race? Miss Hilly supports feeding starving children in Africa, but she contradictorily believes that black maids should not use the same restroom as their white employers, for fear that "black diseases" will be spread to whites. Unfortunately, Stockett makes Hilly so despicable she turns into a cartoonish monster. Hilly is so despicable that the reader asks: how could sweet Skeeter even associate with her?

Stockett has done her readers and herself a disservice, making Hilly complex and somehow likable but also racist would do far more to make The Help an important novel about race. Without these, the novel is simply the fodder for a feel-good Hollywood production.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Grammy Predictions 2011

The Grammys are a strange beast: seemingly out of touch with the music of an era, and then in a rushed frenzy of catching up years after the artists have realized their greatest success. We need only consider the fact that the Rolling Stones did not receive their first Grammy until 1994 with their largely dismissed album, Voodoo Lounge. Elvis won his two sole awards for Gospel Albums in the 1970's. Diana Ross, either as a member of the Supremes or as a solo artist, has never (I repeat, NEVER) won a Grammy. (Jimmy Kimmel always quips when Fergie is on the show: "Welcome a woman who has more Grammys than Diana Ross!").

Sometimes the Grammys do get it right and award an album or recording that captured the Zeitgeist of a particular year: Thriller in 1983; Jagged Little Pill in 1995; Speakerboxxx/Love Below in 2004; Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. The question becomes each year will the Grammys award the best or someone that hasn't been rewarded before (eg when Steely Dan beat out Eminem in 2001). Last year, Taylor Swift beat out Beyonce and Lady Gaga because of Kanyegate, rather than because the album was the best of the year. Although Swift deserved some recognition, giving her Album of the Year may have been a bit presumptuous.

Best New Artist

The Grammys have had some of theis most laughable decision with this category. Some artists have gone on to be immensely successful artists, and some have never been heard from again. And then, some won in this category who have become famous but in very different: ie Bob Newhart, who won in 1961. Mariah Carey, The Beatles, Bette Midler and Carrie Underwood were solid choices, but does anyone know where Debby Boone, the Starland Vocal Band, or Jody Watley have gone to?

Sometimes people who have exploded on the scene fail to get nominated. When Whitney Houston was burning up the charts with "Saving all my Love for You," she was deemed ineligible to compete in this category because she had recorded a duet with Jermaine Jackson the previous year, but Lauryn Hill won Best New Artist over five years after she became a star with the Fugees when they relaxed these rules. Somehow Lady Gaga and Katy Perry failed to be nominated in their respective debut years. Jonas Brothers, Shelby Lynne, and even Justin Bieber were nominated several years after the release of their first album. It is a very strange category.

This is usually one of the trickiest categories because there is always one wildly popular artist who has little critical respect and then a darling of the critics. For instance, the year Christina Aguilera won, she was competing against Macy Gray. In fact, that decision has been vindicated with time, as Xtina has gone on to phenomenal successes (and some missteps. hello, Burlesque, anyone?) and Macy Gray has never repeated the success of her first album. This year we repeat this dichotomy with Justin Bieber and Florence and the Machine. Many are predicting Bieber will triumph, but there is a chance that Florence will upset the young boy with the haircut.

Best Record of the Year

No hip-hop record has ever won in this category. This seems like the year where that could change. Billboard predicts that Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" will be the winner, but Eminem's quite complex song about an abusive and codependent relationship, "Love the Way you Lie," is also nominated. This predicament could actually mean that the votes are split and then the safest choice in the entire category, Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," beats out the hip-hop records. There may be some riots in the Staples Center if that happens. I still do not understand how "Bad Romance" was not nominated in this category.

Best Album of the Year

There is little doubt in anyone's mind that Eminem will finally be presented the big prize this year, especially after he was shockingly defeated by the senior citizen-age Steely Dan in 2001. His stiffest competition comes from the heralded album of Arcade Fire, The Suburbs, but it seems Eminem will defeat them easily. Once again, they nominate Gaga for an EP, but can't nominate her for record?

Best Female Pop Vocal

I will personally storm the stage if Gaga does not win here for "Bad Romance." If Norah Jones wins again, which is possible, it will be another instance where the Grammys decide to load one group of because they are safe and uncontroversial. How many Grammys does U2 or Alicia Keys need? They both have over a dozen a piece. And if Katy Perry, who can have so much trouble matching pitches when  singing live, garners this award over Gaga, I will also not be pleased.

Best Male Pop Vocal

This category may go to John Mayer, someone who keeps winning Grammy after Grammy, or it may be a posthumous award for Michael Jackson. I am hoping that there is a major upset and Adam Lambert's "Whataya Want from Me" (penned by Pink) is the victor in this category. The very gooey "Just the Way you Are" from Bruno Mars is a backup.

There are over 100 categories at the Grammys. Only a fraction of them are presented at the actual show. I have always said if you want a lot of Grammys, garner an iota of critical respect in a little known genre. Alison Krauss' 26 Grammy Awards partly came from the fact that she dominated the Bluegrass category for a decade. Jimmy Sturr has 16 Grammys in the Polka category.

Well, let's tune in and very likely be displeased with whom the Recording Academy chooses as the Best of the Year.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Middle Eastern Democracy, or how American Invasions don't accomplish it

After eighteen days of protests, Egyptian President Mubarak has finally stepped down. Down with the king; long live the people. More positive change has occurred in the past month in the troubled Maghreb (North Africa) than any of our invasions (Iraq, Afghanistan) or covert operations (deposing Mossadegh of Iran in 1953). More likely than not, the victory of the Egyptian people over their corrupt dictator will inspire Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians, etc.

Regardless of the conspiracy theories proffered by the luminaries of Fox News, who believe that a Muslim caliphate is now on the rise that will destroy our values (said in a desperate voice on the verge of tears), these protests and this handover of power represents serious, positive transformations in Middle Eastern politics. Granted, we have no way to predict what will happen next, but there is no reason to feel as if the ousting of Mubarak will result in Osama bin Laden becoming the new president of Egypt.

Many critics have pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood as becoming the leaders of this opposition government, which would result in a war with Israel. This supposition seems unlikely for numerous reasons. First, the Brotherhood did not start these protests and did not become involved into nearly the second week of demonstrations. The majority of protesters, according to journalists like Richard Engels and Chriastiane Amanpour, were mostly secular young people of collegiate age.  Second, the billion dollars in American aid that is given to the Egyptian military is predicated on following the Camp David Accords of 1978. If the Egyptians were to decide to invade Israel, they would lose that very large chunk of change. The military, which is currently in power,  need that money, and will do anything to ensure its continued presence in their coffers.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a reactionary organization, but they are not al-Qaeda. They will have to play a part in this government, being that they held sixty-seats in parliament. As long as they renounce violence, which they seem to be doing, there is no reason to limit the legal participation of a group, simply because we, the American people, do not agree with their philosophy. The absolutely worse thing American foreign policy has done in the last fifty years, from Iran to Argentina to Vietnam, is decide that the people of a country have elected the wrong man to lead the country. Our presumptuous attitude has forced us into wars and military invasions that are costly in lives (both military and civilian) and destroying our budgets, making us unable to provide healthcare to our citizens. Presuming to know better than the electorate of a nation is a dangerous business, and one American foreign policy seems to engage in on a yearly basis.

Some commentators have noted the role of social networks, such as facebook and twitter, in these protests. making this as the true innovation of democracy in the twenty-first century. That could not be further from the truth. The Egyptian government shut down the telecommunications of the entire country, meaning no one could get on his/her facebook account or even use his/her cell phone. The demands and grievances of the people were so great, this lack of access did not matter and people took to the streets peaceably.

Of course, there were days of violence, but this violence arose not from overzealous protesters, rather from Mubarak's supporters and undercover police officers. Why would Mubarak want to strike up violence? It is a brilliant strategy that allows Mubarak to come onto national television and notify the people that new emergency powers would be taken to put down the violence and end the chaos in the country (this on top of the fact that Egypt has been under emergency powers for the last thirty years, longer than my entire life). Fortunately, Egyptians, nor the international media, bought into this skewed logic. With Mubarak supporters sounding more radical than his detractors, reporters were bruised up and sometimes beaten, sparking ire among international viewers and weakening Mubarak further in the eyes of his people. Every step he took in the last two weeks has been a serious misstep, except for his final step down.

Hopefully, the people of Iran will be able to further their demands, but in Iran the police force and the regime has a firmer grip on the affairs of the country. What ended the protests in 2009 was the fact that the majority of the country believed that the elections held that year were free and fair and the secret police were able to shut down mobilizing forces with a quick hand. However, the model of Egypt may change this. See three good books on this topic: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern IranRoots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran; and The Mantle of the Prophet, 2nd Edition: Religion and Politics in Iran.

I have avoided the thorny topic of Israel in these musings, but it is undeniably wrapped up in these political events. I do not think that a change in Egyptian leadership will meet with the destruction of the Israeli state, as some hawkish foreign policy commentators have asserted, but it will bring renewed protests from Palestinians. I hope in all my naïveté that they are not violent. I will say this: Why haven't we learned more from the example of Ireland in dealing with the extreme violence of the Israeli/Palestinian case? The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has effectively minimized, if not eliminated, a problem that seemed so incomprehensible that Northern Ireland would always be awash in the blood of its citizens. From the "Troubles" of the 1970's and 80's to the peace of this century, a radical  metamorphosis has taken place. Can we hope the same for the Middle East? Well, this week may be the first tentative steps in that direction.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Theater in LA: the tragedy that is "Venice"

A hip-hopera of "Othello"? Why yes that does sound fascinating! Why don't we update the setting, so it can ominously and vaguely resemble Obama! What a great idea! Let us also have some dancing ripped from the music videos of Michael Jackson!

This must have been the conversation between the creators of "Venice," which premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theater last October, hopefully on its way to a Broadway run. Eric Rosen and Matt Sax have created one of the strangest and least successful adaptations of Shakespeare that I have ever come across.

As we all know, Los Angeles is not a mecca of great theater. This is not to say that there are not great, small theater companies producing good work (e.g. East/West. Colony, Odyssey, etc), but it is nowhere on the scale of New York, or even Chicago. The Mark Taper Forum is the largest theater in the city that has consistently fostered new talents who have gone on to great success. For instance, the world premieres of "Angels in America," "Children of a Lesser God," and "Zoot Suit" took place at the Taper.

The Kirk Douglas, which is part of the Center Theater Group that includes the Taper and the Ahmanson, is trying to put on new works and revivals that can transfer to Broadway. However, as of yet the Douglas has failed to mount anything that meets the criteria of great theatrical work.

Reinventing Shakespeare is a mainstay of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theater, but what marks a failed adaptation? Rosen's and Sax's freestyle vision of Othello fails to take on the emotions of Othello, and rather adapts it for some vague political purpose. There are so many inconsistencies and missteps that your attention is always distracted from the music and dancing (which may not be a bad thing, but more on that later).

The play is set at some point in the near future in a city called Venice (is it the Italian Venice or some American city? Who knows!). Some postapocalyptic event has happened and now the city is under the siege of terrorism and its government is operating under emergency powers. The main character is also named Venice. Was he named after the city? Who knows! He is some supposed savior for the city, and his parents were somehow involved in rulign the city before the apocalypse.

Just this convoluted backstory takes at least fifteen minutes to explain. And in this musical everything is told at least three times: once by the narrator (played by Sax whose bug eyes disturbed me throughout the night); second, by the characters in their dialogue and/or music; and third, the narrator has to summarize what we have just seen.

Trying to figure out where the parallels between Shakespeare and this work begin and end is a supremely frustrating act. Why has everyone's name been changed, except for Amelia's? Why is this version of Iago so one-dimensionally evil (and why does he have to shout the entire time?)?

And then there is the music... There is absolutely no need to have a role of the narrator who tells us everything, except to satisfy the ego of co-creator Matt Sax. Did anyone not teach him the cardinal rule of "Show, Don't Tell"? The pedestrian and prosaic lyrics point to the banal music it is placed over. One song, which actually elicited twitters of laughter from the audience because of its banality, contained the following rhyme: "Willow, Willow, Willow. Get your head off the pillow, pillow, pillow." This is deep stuff.

My visceral distaste for this piece is not shared by every critic. True, critics for the "LA Times" and "Variety" panned it, but "Time Magazine" named it the best musical of 2010. Did Richard Zoglin see a different show? Zoglin writes, "While Sax's rhymes may have less street authenticity than Lin-Manuel Miranda's similar hip-hop narration for In the Heights, they are also less sentimental and carry more operatic grandeur." 

I could not disagree more. "In the Heights" was  a breathless and endlessly innovative piece that married the traditions of the musical to hip-hop. For Zoglin, the songs are sentimental because they deal with emotions, but at least they were memorable fast-paced and moved the story. I also saw no "opoeratic grandeur," rather I saw derivative dancing, uninteresting staging, and heard unmemorable music.

The Douglas did not help itself with its next play for the season, a revival of "Much Ado About Nothing." As Justin and I were on our way to the theater that evening, I asked: "So who is in this production? Anyone famous?"

Justin: "Yeah, Helen Hunt."

I almost threw up in my lap. Helen Hunt's Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center over a decade ago was resoundingly panned. Her delivery of lines has no variance and pays no attention to the meter (well until she does pay attention to the meter and she goes into a sing-song voice). There are no shaded emotions in her portrayals, no growth, no change. Also, I am still angry that she stole the Oscar from a group of far more deserving actresses in 1997 (Judi Dench in "Mrs. Brown," Julie Christie in "Afterglow," and Helena Bonham Carter in "Wings of the Dove;" for the gods' sakes, Kate Winslet was better in "Titanic").

When we reached the theater box office, it turned out we had tickets for that day's matinee, not evening performance. Rather, than being devastated, my first thought was: Maybe this is divine intervention to stop us from seeing this bastardization of Shakespeare. Unfortunately, they found a pair of tickets for us.

I always find it amazing when actors and a director are able to conspire together to efface humor from what is a comedy. In a play that focuses on people who hate each other and then fall in love with one another, I laughed for a total number of ... wait for it ... one time!

Helen Hunt was awful. I  kept hoping she would get sick and never return to the stage, and then Emma Thompson would take her place. But alas and alack, that never occurred. On top of wretched performances, a seemingly pointless updating of the play to 1940's era wine country, Lyle Lovett performed songs throughout the play. Why this was necessary or desired, no one will ever know. His songs brought the pacing of the play to an utter dead stop. One song went on so long, I forgot what was happening between the characters.

Let us just hope that the Douglas' next season is an improvement over this one. Then again, Sesame Street on Ice would be preferable to either of these two shows.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Soggy Potato Chips

Allow me to begin first with a definition of the term and its etymology.

Soggy potato chips: annoying, obnoxious, entitled white people.

Origin of term: Makes its first appearance in the 1999 mockumentary, "Jackie's Back" (the best of the genre this side of Christopher Guest). Jackie Washington is attempting a comeback after years of booze binges, failed marriages, and flopped films and records. She goes back to her hometown with her film crew and runs into her old babysitter (played by the inimitable Isabel Sanford [aka Weezy Jefferson]). "Jackie Washington, get off my lawn and take those white people with you. You know what they smell like after the rain: soggy potato chips!"

"Soggy potato chips" is a most highly useful term for one's lexicon of racial epithets. It can be used in public around its targets, and go completely unnoticed. Its similarity to "cracker" is implicit but not obvious.   The term provides a much needed way to label the most annoying of white people, while in their presence.

But how do we identify the aforementioned "soggy potato chips." Politics can play a role. Clearly, John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, and Pat Buchanan are the clearest exemplars of "soggy potato chips." Their insistence on the whiteness of the American experience, their discomfort with anything marginal (gay, lesbian, feminist, black, hispanic, progressive, sane) marks them as the soggiest, most entitled potato chips around.

But conservatism is not the only marker of sogginess. The most anarchist of hipsters are also "soggy potato chips." Their non-conformity is marked by their utter and most banal compliance to the hipster "image":  skinny pants, messed up hair, and mediocre rip-offs of Arcade Fire.

White privilege affects all of us. Those of us who are white (especially those middle-class and male) benefit from it so constantly, we do not even notice it. When this privilege is pointed out (not even called into question), the first tactic of a soggy potato chip is to cry in horror. For example, when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court, Pat Buchanan told Rachel Maddow:

"White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks, who were 90% of the nation in 1960 when I was growing up and the other 10% were African-Americans who had been discriminated against."

This is the mantra of the soggy potato chips. When Michelle Bachmann discusses American exceptionalism, she is referring to the image of prim, proper white men in wigs carrying muskets fighting for an American republic. A highly skewed historical vision that effaces the many political battles and disagreements between the "Founding Fathers." (Can we also keep in mind that the term "Founding Father" was never used by any man who signed the Constitution, but was rather an invention of the twentieth century).

The nostalgic celebration of the 1950's as a time of great peace and American tranquility similarly eliminates the real turmoil of that decade. It was not simply a time of white picket fences, "I Love Lucy," and "Howdy Doody," it was a time of great racial violence (lynching, shootings, assassinations), persecutions of homosexual minorities, back-alley abortions, misogyny, anti-communist hysteria. Not a time to which I have any desire to return.

But yet the philosophy of the soggy potato chips is that the times are a-changing and not for the better. A black man (who is at once labeled a fascist, communist, socialist, Kenyan, Muslim, radical) as president is threatening to destroy "what America stands for." Black people, poor people, illegal immigrants (who are always Mexicans), feminists, gays and lesbians are taking away from white, heterosexual, middle-class Americans what is rightfully theirs.

Of course, this is where the great hypocrisy lies. White people benefit from invisible privileges, while the people that are so often criticized by the soggies face structural discrimination, and yet somehow affirmative action, fights for equal pay or recognition are examples of people trying to steal from white people.  Those who cannot make ends meet in this ideology are simply those who, in the words of the oppressive cliché,  have not "pulled themselves up by their boot straps." What happens to those who never had boots or straps to begin with?

A sample of a conversation from a soggy potato chip overheard just the other night at a Marie Callender's illustrates this point. This white girl most likely voted for Obama and is probably horrified by the human rights violations committed across the world, but yet the following conversation marks her as soggy, as unable to realize her own subjectivity in a world of objectification. "My mom keeps telling me that my life isn't that bad. At least, I don't live in Africa making 30 cents a day while dying from AIDS." Oh what breathtaking logic she exhibits! Yes, somehow the miseries of the world are justified because they make her feel better! Does she indicate a need to help alleviate these sorrows? No, in fact, she revels in them because they place her a notch higher in the great social hierarchy of the world.

This description does not only apply to the whites so easily marked as soggy potato chips (e.g. James Franco, Glenn Beck, Adrien Brody, Eric Cantor, Kirsten Dunst). One need not be white to be a soggy potato chip. Michael Steele is clearly one because of his politics. Radical Islamists with their hypocritical hatred of the West, women, homosexuals and concomitant love of modern technology and weaponry marks them as pringles in a bucket of water.

Now one may ask: But Dana you are as white as white gets, how can you be so critical of whiteness? In terms of racial legacy, you are quite right. My own family history is marked by some of the worst injustices of the soggies: I am a descendant of Samuel Sewall, who sent many women to their deaths in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. My southern family most likely owned slaves in the lead up to the Civil War (if they were too poor to own many slaves, they were at least unadulterated racists). I will try to assert a choice not to allow this to define my own identity.

I can, however, choose to renounce some of my whiteness. Following the argument of Robert Reid-Pharr in "Once You Go Black" (NYU Press, 2000), I may not be able to choose blackness, but I can surely utilize some agency to distance myself from the racial identity markers I find so abhorrent.

Let us all distance ourselves from the soggy potato chips. We unite in our irritation with those who do not realize or ponder their racial privilege in this world that (pace Dinesh D'Souza) is not post-racial.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why do I hate James Franco so?

My despiction (that is my own personal neologism) has grown in leaps and bounds since 2009. I now writhe in pain when I see his snarky face, or hear his disingenuous words. Why has it come to this? Why have I come to abhor him so?

Let us take a journey back, way back to 2008...

I, like so many other white people, liked James Franco. He seemed to have talent. He was self deprecating. His television biopic of James Dean, though not great, showed he had talent, and his humble speech at the Golden Globes showed his modesty. "Freaks and Geeks" was a cherished show; its early cancellation is still rued by fans today. His turn as Harry Osborn in the first two "Spiderman" films exposed him to millions of fanboys and placed his face high on the list of crushes of teenage girls (and some boys).

In 2008, his comic turn in "Pineapple Express" endeared him to million of stoners. A dramatic turn in Gus Van Sant's "Milk" demonstrated that Franco was only beginning a rise to stardom. But then it began to go all wrong...

Personally, it went wrong with me when I ran into him at a small, dark Mexican restaurant in the San Fernando Valley the week after the 2008 Oscars--on my birthday. Let me stress this minor point: my birfday!... There I am with my mother eating a tostada salad, and James Franco is seated next to me. I hyperventilate slightly. He was feet away from me. I could reach out and touch him.

Upon leaving the table, rather than sliding out of the booth, I decided to vacate by sliding between my table and that of Franco. Unfortunately, there was not enough room and I pounded into his table, disturbing glasses of water and margaritas.

Franco looked up at me. We made eye contact. I blurted out: "Hi! I think you deserved the Oscar nomination for Milk, not Josh Brolin."

Now we can all agree, that this may not have been the most eloquent thing to say to Mr. Franco. Perhaps, I should have said: "I loved you in 'Milk.' " I did not. My mistake. But Franco did not handle himself remarkably well either.

"Whoa, man, don't knock Josh. He was amazing. He deserved everything he got," he responded in a very Franco kind of way.

"Oh well I think he got nominated this year 'cuz he didn't get nominated for 'No Country' last year." I was beginning to sound slightly anxious. The pitch of my voice moving ever so slightly upward.

"Dude, hold up. He's my colleague. You can't dis him like that." His hands were up in the air, resembling Diana Ross stopping her lover in the name of love.

"I was just trying to compliment you," I replied dejectedly.

"Compliment accepted, man."

I turned to my mother and said, "Ok, let's go." My mother asked who that was, I said James Franco. She asked "who?" Yes, exactly.. .who was that?

Since then, he has managed to work himself under my skin with his ubiquity. A collection of short stories? Attending Yale for a PhD? Teaching a class on himself (himself??? himself???) at Columbia (who the hell accepted that syllabus?)? Hosting the OSCARS???! I could go on and on...

His precious attitude of ennui whenever he is interviewed further aggravates me. Oh, poor, poor Franco, you are so put upon! I am so sorry your life is so difficult.

At the red carpet of the SAG awards. Nameless white girl asking the great cliché: "Who are you wearing?" Franco's response: "Well, I model Gucci, so I HAVE to wear Gucci." Oh, I am so sorry you have no agency! you are merely a tool of the great capitalist game. How will you ever escape? God, having to wear Gucci whenever you leave the house, that sounds downright awful!

When he received his Oscar nomination: "Did you do a little Oscar Dance?" Franco: "No, it was like any other day." Oh yeah, this is the first of many nominations, why get excited? You are the male Meryl Streep.

Oh and on his performance in "127 Hours": Mr Franco believes it is unprecedented in film history. Because in "Castaway" Tom Hanks had the volleyball to talk to. Yes, Mr. Franco you have reinvented cinema.

Then he says in some interview that he "has a high metabolism for productivity and creativity." You know something, I think you have a high metabolism for being a dilettante and a hack!

When he was interviewed by James Lipton for "Inside the Actor's Studio," Franco told a lengthy anecdote about the prosthetic arm he had to saw through for the climactic scene of the movie. "The makeup guy told me I wouldn't be able to saw through it, but, you know what, I did." WOW! where is your Nobel Prize? Can you also solve the crisis in the Middle East when you have a second? Maybe next Thursday between 10 am and 11 am? I think you have a free space in your schedule.

Now go back to studying for your seminars at Yale. I am sure you can get through three novels and several hundred of pages of theory in your sleep. You are just that talented. I am sure there were no students in this world better qualified for that one slot at Yale. I am sure of that. 

Oh Jimmy, I used to like you, but look at what it has come to. Just bitterness. So sad.

Movies of 2005

I swear: I will see the Squid and the Whale at some point, but i'm busy so i will post my top ten regardless.

1. Brokeback Mountain: So the "gay cowboys eating pudding" (cf. South Park) movie turned out pretty well. A set of expert performances from a group of actors no one had too much respect for (save jake) carried a film with a controversial topic that depicted the love that dare not speak its name without camp or exploitation. Some brilliantly compsoed shots (ledger standing before a backdrop of fireworks, gyllenhaal lassoing ledger in the wyoming noon light) help moved a movie that was at time langorously paced. There is little doubt that the movie is a frontrunner at the Oscars and it deservedly should be.

2. Good Night and Good Luck: George Clooney has shaken the yoke of tv stardom this year with what julia roberts called his annum mirabilis (year of miracles). His brilliantly done ode to edward murrow succeeded with brilliant directorial moves and an amazing performance from david straithairn. Though if an actor had been cast as McCarthy, he would surely have a strong chance as Best Supporting Actor, but by using only documentary footage, the film took a risk that paid off handsomely.

3. Match Point: Woody Allen has returned to the top of his game after a string of ridiculously bad movies (deconstructing harry, hollywood ending, curse of the jade scorpion) and some decent but ignored films (melinda and melinda, small time crooks). Match Point returns Allen to his Crime and Misdemeanor days with the morality tale of a man who marrys rich but then finds passion with a poor American actress. Jonathan Rhys Myers, who seems to always have a sneer on his face, carries the film with disdain and opportunistic motive. Though Scarlett Johansson become shrill at the end (apparently Allen cannot make a film without a taste of misogyny), her seductress injects raw chemistry. (Supposedly the part was supposed to be Kate Winslet's and I would love to see that).

4. Mrs. Henderson Presents: Yes, Eddie, it is in my top five, so there. This film is not simply the mildly amusing story of a wealthy British widow who opens a titty bar in the West End of London shortly before WWII, but rather a musing on the meaning of war, emotion, and love. Judi Dench contributed three great performances this year to three very good films: Ladies in Lavender, Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Henderson. This film with its strong script by Martin Sherman (Bent) and some heartbreaking moments with Bob Hoskin's career best performance should be seen by more people than have currently seen it.

5. Memoirs of a Geisha: A devastatingly beautiful (if problematic) adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel. The assesmbled cast is amazing: probably the greatest cast of asian actors since 1961's Flower Drum Song. Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken WATanabe, and the frighteningly gorgeous Ziyi Zhang comprise the megastars of Asian cinema (But wait couldnt they find a part for chow Yun Fat or Margaret Cho???). I will agree with Carina Chocano who felt that the rich historical background of the novel gets lost in the adaptation but I don't think it detracts horribly from this film that is worth seeing for its wondrous cinematography by Dion Beebe (collateral).

6. Rent--Yes, only those who know the soundtrack by heart loved this movie, but goddamnit we loved this movie. Rarely have the original broadway casts been retained for the film version of a film (Audrey Hepburn replacing Julie Andrews in mY Fair Lady; Vanessa Redgrave replacing Julie Andrews in Camelot), but here all but Daphne Rubin Vega are playing th eparts they played in the first production off Broadway (Daphne declined to be in the film). Chris Columbus has not made an imaginatively brilliant film by any stretch of the imagination, but damnit it is faithful and cut out none of the music. Though when I left the movie, I will admit to humming the words of the famous parody of Rent contained in Team America: "Everyone has AIDS." But still for us die hards, it was good...

7. March of the Penguins: Awww look at the cuddly little babies. And the outtakes at the end... Aww look at the little penguins looking at the cameramen. Awww. Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones should duke it out for best voice over narration of all time.

8. Munich: Spielberg ain't my favorite director of all time, but he crafted a remarkably tense thriller about global terrorism. The almost Hitchcockian pace of the film is buoyed by a strong sense of postmodern relativity. As Gandhi once said: If you take an eye for an eye, everyone will be blind. A morally ambiguous film like this should be screened for our current administration who sees only black and white, but the problem is by the single act of killing, someone will replace whom you have killed and will now want to enact revenge. The circles are constantly perpetuated. I credit the script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's script for expunging much of the trademark Spielberg sentimentality from this film.

9. Pride and Prejudice: When I firs theard Keira Knightley was making her own Pride and Prejudice, I said to myself: Why??? The BBC version is so excellent, why try to improve upon it. THOUgh this film does not improve upon the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle version, this film is as EQUALLY good. Certain changes made to this one, including making the Bennet family more attuned to class difference and the final romantic ending were excellent additions that though not quite present in the novel are perfectly apt. The supporting cast of Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland also displayed these two actors abundant talents.

10. Walk the Line: Though I dont want to see Reese Witherspoon win Best Actress, this film's strength came from its two very powerful performances. Though it closely paralleled last year's Ray, the two films had much different feels and the love story of June and Johnny helped this film feel more unified. But why oh why did they not include "IF I Were a carpenter" in the soundtrack? It would have been the perfect ending!

11. Capote: Last year was the year of the biopic and this year was the year of gayness. This is the transitional film between the two: a biopic of a super gay man. Playing Capote is notoriously difficult. The man's high-pitched nasal voice was so bizarre that is hard not to turn into a campy send-up (much like Robert Morse's one-man show Tru). The film's strength (and maybe also its weakness) came from its focus on the writing of Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood. The moral center of the film is found not in Capote's self-righteous indulgence but in Catherine Keener's richly subtle Harper Lee (who also never wrote another book after Mockingbird; Capote later claimed he wrote it). A bravura peroformance from a man who should be recognized. (Did anyone else read in the LA TImes that someone else is going to do a Capote movie? sounds ridiculous to me).

12. Syriana: The CIA is now considering a ban on former CIA members writing meoirs after the release fo this film. Much like the Quiet American or the Tailor of Panama, the roots of American terrorism are not bombs but ridiculous diplomacy and corporate espionage. It is hard to think that the new American Empire is not in full force.

13. Star Wars Episode III: Lucas finally showed us where he was going with this trilogy. This last film was dark and heartwrenching. Finally, the transformation from Anakin to Darth was complete and we all gasped and fought back some tears.

14. The Constant Gardener: Ralph Fiennes has usually been a fairly cold actor, relishing evil characters that are not fully human (Schindler's List, English Patient, Red Dragon, Harry Potter ["I don't like Harry Potter but when you play Voldemort, you don't have to"], and Maid in Manhattan), but his performances in this film and the White Countess showed that maybe he has feelings after all. Rachel Weisz who is curiously hot gave a performance that shows that she can act.

15. A history of violence: A strange but powerful little film, probably David Cronenberg's best. Viggo Mortensen will forever be Aragorn but there was a strange vulnerability present in this seemingly invulnerable character that shows Viggo will find life after LOTR. Maria Bello who proved her acting chops in the Cooler once again shows her raw sexuality. Strange sex scenes but also a little hot.

16. In her Shoes: It flopped, but this chick flick showed some of the best performances of Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and the indominantable Shirley MacLaine. It was cute and silly but actually packed an emoitonal wallop.

And here is my top Ten of 2004 as well... 1. A Very Long Engagement 2. Sideways 3. Hotel Rwanda 4. Phantom of the Opera 5. Bad Education 6. Million Dollar Baby 7. The Sea Inside 8. Fahrenheit 9/11 9. The Incredibles 10. Ray

Movies of 2006

After a lackluster year for American cinema, there seems to be some ligh ton the horizon. Up to this point in time there have been few films I felt were worthy of high praise. Those few films I felt were successful consisted of: Inside Man, V for vendetta, Cars, and Nanny McPhee. everything else I felt was run of the mill or incredibly disappointing.

Mission Impossible: 3 was a self-indulgent waste of time. This franchise has removed the actual spirit of the tv show, which was based around a team of super-brilliant individuals. This teamwork has given way to tom cruise taking care of every aspect of the global crime fighting in which he takes part. Maybe Tom Cruise should work on making himself seem a little less crazy in the real world, and give some work to the admirable people cast in teh film, including Jonathan rhys Myers, Ving Rhames, and Laurence fishburne.

Da Vinci Code, instead of reveling in some of the off-the-wall plot twists, insisted on remaining "true to the book and ended up with an overblown and over serious film starring tom hanks bizarre haircut.

X-men 3 was, obviously, the most disappointing film of the year and not just to those who worshipped Bryan Singer's first two films in this very promising franchise. Brett Ratner took over an candy-coated over the social relevance of the first two films with as many explosions as was possible in a two-hour time frame. The film had a spectacular opening weekend at the box office and then proceeded to crash in a blazing glory of light, topping its domestic box-office intake at $233 million (now surpassed by Cars and Pirates 2). Hopefully, Bryan can be persuaded to return to helm the next film in this franchise.

And while we are on teh topic of Bryan Singer, let us address Superman Returns. It is not a bad film by any means, but it is overblown and at times simply ridiculous. As David Denby of the New Yorker said, "Why would Superman care about saving the human race if they are so stupid they cannot recognize him with a pair of glasses on?" Superman has become the quintessential American superhero because it gives solace to those workers who put in their daily grind in their 9 to 5 jobs. The sense of wonder Superman imposes gives these men a chance to emasculate themselves and change identity by the simple jump into the proverbial telephone booth. Unfortunately, Superman may no longer be as relevant for he appears as nothing more than a cardboard character. Also, the $260 (!) million budget of this film was beyond ludicrous (It's entire world-wide gross has jsut reccently surpassed $200 mill).

Though Meryl Streep was able to turn in an amazing performance in the Devil Wears Prada (did we ever doubt her?), the film was based on a horridly written book, and tho far better than the book, the film still suffers from self-indulgence and cardboard characters.

Little Miss Sunshine has prompted me to think that this horrible state of affairs may soon change. A brilliantly touching piece that is able to amuse while not pandering, Little Miss Sunshine shines with an amazing ensemble cast led by Steve Carrell (as America's "pre-eminent Proust scholar"), toni Collette, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin (who could receive his first Oscar nom since The Russians are Coming), Greg Kinnear and Abigail Breslin. The script deserves a nomination as well. Basically, any film that brings a tear to my eye as the credits begin to roll is a goodie.

The following films I cannot wait to see and have incredibly high hopes for (hopefully these hopes wont be dashed--i just used the word hope in one of its incarnations three times in one sentence).
Almodovar's Volver... I was one of the ferw people who did not love Hable con Ella as much as Todo sobre mi madre, but Pedro redeemed himself with the amazingly brilliant and beautiful La Mala Educacion. I'm sure volver (which has grossed $35 mill overseas already) will be phenomenal.

Michel Gondry's Science of Sleep. One of the most inventive and creative directors has teamed up with our generation's most creative actor, Gael Garcia Bernal, and the results will probabyl be phenomenal.

Cuaron's Children of Men. The plot sounds a bit lame (or at least like it was based on a novel by Philip Dick or Thomas Berger) but Clive Owen and Julianne Moore have enough talent between them to make this a worhtwhile watch, esp helmed by the master of Y tu mama tambien.

Hollywoodland. Anotehr backstage film about Hollywood in the fifties, this may not be as brilliant as Hanson's LA Confidential, but Diane Lane's scintillating performance as Toni mannix may get her some Oscar attention.

Annette Bening has suffered at the Oscars herself because somehow Hilary Swank managed to coordinate her performances in the same year as bening showed that she had serious acting chops. Well, she has proven herself Helen Mirren's only competition for the Emmy in Mrs. Harris and Running with Scissors may be Annette's chance to walk off with the golden boy (fortunately Swank's perf in the Black dahlia would be considered supporting lol). There is some fondness in my heart for Bening because when she is over the top, she reminds me greatly of my mother...

Tho Inarritu's Amores Perros was underwhelming to me, 21 Grams was amazing and hopefulyl Babel will live up to some of its hype.

Stranger than Fiction. A movie that can somehow manage to put Queen Latifah, Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in the same film deserves attention from teh get-go, but when it is an Adaptation like story about a woman writing the fictional sotry of an exisitng man that can hear her limited omniscient narrator, we should all be rushing to see it.

Notes on a Scandal.. Any movie that teams Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett together was made jsut for me.

Aronofksy's the Fountain... Requiem for a Dream is one of my favorite movies of all time. I wouldnt miss this for anything (well for $500,000 i would)

Movies that may suck ass, but which I will see anyways:
Casino Royale: I have never missed a Bond film in my life and i aint going to make this my first.

The Illusionist and the Prestige: I can't tell these two magic films apart. To throw into this melange of films about the dark arts put in Woody Allen's Scoop--tho i loved match point, i still believe Allen is the most overrated American auteur ever. Even in Manhattan, his masterpiece, he played a neurotic pedophile... the man is the most irritating actor ever.

Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Is there any way I can miss a movie about the most maligned woman in french history? I think not.

Fast Food Nation. Im not sur ehow this is going to translate as a film.

Stephen Frears' The Queen. I gotta see this jsu tbecause Helen Mirren is QE2, but dont think itll be any good.

A good Year. Don't know a damn thing bout this one but its Russell Crowe and Albert Finney in a ridley Scott film written by Peter Mayle.. it definitely has potential.

In a way, I hold very high hopes for Dreamgirls, but am very afraid they will not live up to my expectation. The musical came out in 1982, and it is only now coming to the screen... its expiration date may certainly have come...

Movies I dont understand why they would ever be made:
The Santa Clause III
The remake of The WIcker Man
The Grudge 2
Deja Vu
The Nativity Story

Top Films of 2007

Here is my much anticipated list of the best films of 2007

1. Hairspray. This light, fluffy piece of happy entertainment has brought back an era of the movie musical where characters sing unapologetically. This movie has no intention of trying to create realistic and psychological scenarios for the fact people burst into song (unlike Chicago). And unlike more serious fare like Sweeney Todd and Moulin Rouge, this film is so hearteningly sweet and funny that if you leave without a smile in your face, you should not refer to yourself as a human being. The ensemble cast creates a symphony through their individual notes. The return of Michelle Pfeiffer as the nefarious "Queen of the Baltimore Crabs," along with Travolta's cross-dressing song and dance with Christopher Walken make this a great film with some of the best lines of the whole year. (for instance, "I wish every day was Negro Day!")

2. The Kite Runner. Upon reading the book, I was a bit irritated at the pervasive masculine fear of being sodomized that drenched every page in some odd homophobia. The movie, however, helmed by the master of the tearjerker, Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), tells this masculine tale of self-discovery with a mixed cast of amateur Afghani actors and prfoessional actors that brings a ringing note of authenticity to the film that the booka ctually did not have. The young actor who plays the Hamza boy Hassan is so breathtakingly good that after his rescue from the authorities in Afghanistan (who found out he was playign a by raped by another man) will hopefully be given a chance to turn in another great performance.

3. Sweeney Todd. I admit to being a Sondheim aficianado, and also admit that when I heard that Johnny Depp was playing Sweeney, I was most worried. My fear were proven wrong. And can anyone not say that Tim Burton is not the best man to direct this tale of a murderous barber and the woman who bakes his victims into meat pies. Though the part of Mrs. Lovett has often been played for comedic effect (most famously by Angela Lansbury in her pre-J.B. Fletcher days), Helena Bonham Carter plays her as darkly as Depp plays Todd. The desperation and frantic search for meaning and love in these characters becomes far more poignant because of that very fact.

4. There Will be Blood. I often become adverse to films that critics praise to the high heavens (for instance this year: I feel the critics have celebrated Atonement, Into the Wild, Michael Clayton and even No Country for Old Men just a bit too much). P.T. Anderson's new film, however is different. Though the film loses me with the very scene, Day-Lewis' performance of a fictionalized William Doheny is so pitch-perfect and scarily creepy that it will be hard to imagine anyone beating him for Best Actor. The breathtaking cinematography and haunting, dissonant score by a member of Radiohead add to the odd building of the hauntingness of Day-Lewis' character. PT Anderson's oeuvre of Southern California films is expanded judiciously through this historical epic.

5. Juno. What can I say about this movie? Simply this: I cry every time I see the commercial where Ellen Page tells Michael Cera: "You are like the coolest guy ever, without even trying." And he gulps and responds: "I try really hard." Enough said.

6. Lars and the Real Girl
. Ryan Gosling has become known as a talented young actor after his breakthrough in the Notebook. He received acclaim for the Believer (where he played a Jewish white supremacist) and an Oscar nom for his tale of an a drug-addicted high school history teacher. This odd tale about a boy who falls in love with a blow-up doll leads to hilarious confrontations between characters. (Does Lars sleep with her?" "Well, duh, that's what she's made for!"). This should receive OScar noms for Best Actor and Screenplay

7. American Gangster. I have become sick and tired of Ridley Scott, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, but this movie redeemed every single one of them for me. This two-and-a-half-hour movie had such fine pacing and editing that you didnt even notice its length. Though the film has an odd hint of misogyny running through it, the portrayal of the relationship between Washington's suave Harlem criminal to his family and Crowe's honorable police officer to those around him made the film build to the inevitable meeting between the two at the very end, where in the end they realize they aren't all that different.

8. Enchanted
. Yes the preview looked dumb. very dumb. incredibly dumb. But Disney was able to poke fun at themselves and with the brilliant casting of Amy Adams made this one of the most enjoyable Disney films since the hey day of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

9. Paris, je t'aime. Bringing together acclaimed directors to direct their own odes to the city of lights brought forth a breathtaking, if uneven, cinematic experience.

10. No Country for Old Men. No, it's not in my top five, but it is very good. Bardem is amazing, utterly stupendous as the creepiest hired killer of all time. His craziness is never explained by some weird psychological defect (e.g. oedipal complex or jilted love) but his insanity just merely is so becuase for him the ends always justify the means. And he has to get his work done. I could have done without Tomym Lee Jones' long, rambling speeches, which made no sense. To end the movie on one of those speeches deflated the film's enigmatic power.

11. La Vie en Rose. This biopic of French songstress, Edith Piaf, succeeded because of Marion Cotillard. Though World War II was completely omitted from the film (I'm not sure why: the stories of Piaf's harrowing saving capabilities--however far away from the truth--under the Germans would have worked well in the film), Cotillard transformed herself into the beautiful twenty-something she is into an ugly old lady.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Top Films of 2008

A second post of past movie reviews

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: David Fincher has marked himself as one of the most talented directors to emerge in the 1990's. With films that were often controversial, sometimes successful, he created an opus of films that explored the darkest parts of humanity. Whether it was the serial killer of Seven or Zodiac or the brutality of Fight Club, Fincher pointed to the obsessions inherent in everyone. With Button, he has made an abrupt volte-face and directed a sentimental romance. Though the premise--a man who ages backwards--could have become a mere gimmick, the film succeeds in being able to make such a narrative possible. The film has little resemblance to the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story, but by using it as a base the film goes off in more profound directions than its original author would have conceived. With the perfect casting of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (who were supposed to have made their first appearance togetehr in Aronofsky's The Fountain before Pitt abruptly dropped out), the film carries you through the life story of an eminently strange man. As Pitt youthens (is that the opposite of ages?), his face beckons to the alluring dancer of Blanchett. However, both know that their love is doomed. The film is in many ways quite a conventional epic, but it is also strangely affecting. And anyway, if we can believe that a billionaire would dress up as a bat why can't we believe a man can age backwards?

2. Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne): This film was actually released in France back in 2006, but did not receive American distribution until this year. This murder mystery based on a novel by Harlan Coben achieves what few thrillers ever dare: being utterly romantic. With a fine cast, including Francois Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas, the film follows Dr. Alexandre Beck as he tries to uncover his wife's murder mystery after he receives an email from her eight years after her death. The message's only words were: Tell no one. After the mystery is unraveled with numerous complications, one of the most satisfying endings ties this underrated masterpiece together.

3. Australia: Yes, most critics and audience members despised Baz Luhrman's newest cinematic extravaganza. The film is a rich, and sometimes ridiculous, pastiche of movie history. With a plot line involving an ice queen (Nicole Kidman's usual type of role) who must go to the wilderness of Down Under, Luhrman utilizes the glory of the Australian landscape to backlit a rather complex story of pre-WWII policy towards aborigines. The film cannot quite make up its mind as to what it is: is it supposed to be funny, is the over-the-top sentimentality ironic, is it just a mess? Regardless, it is a beautiful film, and one of the few that should be seen on the big screen.

4. Milk: Gus van Sant has been a rather uneven director. He had a huge hit with Good Will Hunting (1997), and received critical respect for Elephant (2003), but since then has toiled with some films that received no acclaim commercially or critically. Milk sees van Sant return to form with a powerful biopic of Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician elected to the Board of Supervisors to San Francisco. Sean Penn, whom I thought incapable of a restrained performance, has stunned critics with this film where he is neither campy or dour. With a strong supporting cast of James franco, Diego Luna and Josh Brolin, the film follows Milk on his rise and then to his doom.

5. Wall-E: Pixar did it again. This story of a trash robot, who resembles short circuit, and his quest for love succeeded on little dialogue and stunning visuals. When he meets a female robot, he plays her his favorite songs from Hello, Dolly and then holds her hand. After the required conflict and adventure, everything is resolved in perfect Disney fashion, but never feels manipulative or treacly.

6. Slumdog Millionaire: It is quite the sign of the times that the feel-good film of the year has scenes of torture, sexual abuse, blinding and intense poverty. It is also telling, that one of the first truly successful films about India in the States was directed and written by white guys (Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufroy). However, that aside, the film is pitch-perfect in its rendering of the love between a slumdog and the beautiful Latika. An appearance on the Indian edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, sets Jamal on a path to reunite with the girl whom he lost many years before. When Jamal uses his lifeline to cal his brother and Latika answers instead, tears should be welling in your eyes, or you have a heart of stone.

7. The Reader: Two years ago, Kate Winslet made an appearance on Ricky gervais' HBO series, Extras. In the episode, Winslet is making a Holocaust film about a catholic nun who saves Jews from the Nazis. When asked what drove her to choose this project she respoded: "For the Oscar. Do we really need another Holocaust movie? No, but hey I've been nominated five times and never win. The Academy eats up this stuff. I am sure to win." Well, Winslet made a Holocaust movie and appears to be the frontrunner for Best Actress. Bernard Schlink's novel, upon which the film is based, was heavily moralistic (see Dominick LaCapra's excoriation of the book in "Writing History, Writing Trauma"), but David Hare's adaptation (fortunately) loses much of that tone. This tale of a former female guard at Auschwitz who befriends an adolescent in post-war Berlin shines because of Winslet. Winslet could have become a star of pointless romantic comedies after Titanic, but she chose to become a great actress, and now her year of Oscar glory seems to be at hand.

8. Gran Torino: Only Clint Eastwood could utter lines, like "Listen, you gook..," or "You are slant-eyed idiot" without being offensive. This story of a elderly curmudgeon who has just been widowed and befriends his Hmong neighbors, whom he previously felt unworthy of a greeting, shows Eastwood at his best as an actor, and unlike the overwrought quality of his WWII epics, the film has a small feel to it that is very welcome.

9. I've loved you so long (il y a longtemps que je t'aime): Who would have thought that Kristin Scott Thomas was a better actress in French than she is in English. She portrays a woman who has been released from prison after a 15-year sentence for murder. Philippe Claudel masterfully reveals the circumstances of her imprisonment in this quietly affecting film that is hinged on Thomas' bravura performance. It is a tragedy that Thomas was not nominated for Best Actress.

10. The Wrestler: coming from Darren Aronofsky, one of the most brilliant, if also bizarre, auteurs of our generation, one would expect this film to be a bit more "out there." Instead, Aronofsky has directed a poignant character study of a Hulk Hogan-era wrestler far past his prime. The film is devoid of the supernatural storyline of The Fountain or even the metaphysical discomfort of Requiem for a Dream or Pi, but Aronofsky achieved a breathtaking performance from Mickey Rourke, a man everyone had given up for dead. I'm not sure if Rourke will win the Oscar; many seventy-year-olds who make up the core of the Academy's voters will most likely be a bit turned off by him, but it is most assuredly one of the best performances of the year.

11. The Visitor: A gem of a movie. Richard Jenkins shines as an embittered professor of economics who befriends two squatters he discovers in his Manhattan apartment. Jenkins who had been a busy character actor finally found a role that brought him acclaim and attention. With touching scenes of his emotional rebirth, Jenkins could very well win the Oscar this year.

12. The Dark Knight: Enough ink has been spilled about this movie. It is slightly uneven, a half hour too long, but Heath Ledger is superb.

Honorable mentions: The great comedies of this year: Nick and Norah's Infinite PLaylist, Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Mamma Mia.