New York Moovee Daze

The bulk of the time since getting back to New York was spent working on the new SITI piece “Who Do You Think You Are”. It’s exciting work and I can’t wait to get back to it. We’re taking a few weeks away from it before we go back to Arizona for the second SITI residency there where we’ll finish the play and premier it on March 1st.

In the meantime, I was supposed to go to Paris to act in a film. That got nixed because the director decided that he wanted to do my scenes in a more improvised style and I don’t have the French to do THAT. So I’ve ended up with some time on my hands. Which means, as usual that I let a lot of it run through my fingers. I’m not complaining. Wasting time is not a waste of time as far as I’m concerned. It’s giving me a chance to check in with all kinds of “Back-burner” things, but it’s at the expense of some of the “front-burner” stuff. Se la vie!

One thing that has taken up some time, is the fact that the Oscar nominations have come out. I had seen several of the films that had important nominations, but there were some holes. So I’ve been filling them in.

This gives me an excuse to talk about the Oscar movies for a bit.

I haven’t seen Atonement or Juno as of this writing, but the other three nominees for Best Picture are all exceptional films.

• Despite the fact that my friend Jordan Lage makes an appearance in it, I had not seen “Michael Clayton” until it was nominated. It’s an amazing movie. It captures a finely modulated sense of frustration about life that is so subtly rendered that it was hard not to identify strongly with the characters. I’m not one who usually finds this an important criteria for enjoying a film, but this was rather uncanny. There are things about the title character and his situation that I identified so strongly with and have never seen dramatized before. The entire cast is fantastic. Clooney, Wilkinson and Swinton are being singled out for very good reasons. It is a testament to her chops, but if this was the first thing that I had seen Tilda Swinton in, I would think of her in a totally different way. For someone who is the embodiment of a certain kind of internal metal, to perform the complete lack of it is stunning. Tony Gilroy’s direction and screenplay are both not only inspired but driven by a clear passion for these flawed people and what they say about the world we live in. Mr. Gilroy also directed last year’s excellent, and otherwise nominated “Bourne Ultimatum” and is quickly becoming someone I pay attention to. Next time, I don’t think I’ll wait for a stupid Oscar nod to go see his movie.

• “No Country for Old Men” is, in my opinion, the most mature movie the Cohens have produced. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re doing an adaptation for, what I think is, the first time, but the film has a steady intelligence that cuts through their normal wit to punch you straight in the gut. It’s not that the wit is gone, it’s just modulated, and as such, moments that would make you laugh in another of their movies become something quite different here. Somehow in what is a disturbingly violent movie, they get you to care about almost everybody who enters the frame. This is why the violence is so disturbing. It is not a cartoon. Even the seeming stock charactors like the hotel clerks or gas station attendants (not to mention Tommy Lee Jones’ jaded cop with a hard past) come off as people who are worth caring about, and this is part of what makes Javier Bardem’s psychopathic hit man so chilling. He’s hurting people. And he knows it. No movie of this genre has ever scared me before. This movie scared me.

• I don’t know how to start talking about “There Will Be Blood”. It is a remarkable film. It is cinema. Although Anderson has been inviting comparisons to Wells and dedicated the film to Altman, it made me think of Kubrick at his best, and that’s hard to do. Daniel Day-Lewis stands tall in the middle of this masterpiece, and if he wasn’t a giant of world cinema before, he is now. It is a performance of historic proportions. There is much that can (and is being) said about this movie, but the most cogent thing, if you haven’t seen it, is “Go see it.”

What all three of the afore mentioned films confirm that whether a film (or any work of art) is uplifting, is not dependent upon it’s content, but upon the level of the artistry with which they were crafted. What is hopeful, is that in such a dark time in our culture, we can still make substantial works of art.

Looking over some of the other nominations:

• Mr. Depp certainly deserves his nomination for “Sweeny Todd”. I’m not always a fan of Tim Burton’s stuff. When I like it, I really like it, but there are times when he leaves me cold. I liked “Sweeny Todd”. Liked it a lot. It’s wonderfully twisted. The parallels to “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” are both disturbing, and surprisingly fun to think about. I also love the fact that all over America it’s got the goth kids talking to the musical theatre kids.

• Mr. Hoffman’s nomination for “Charlie Wilson’s War” is deserved. It’s a wonderful turn in a good movie. I’m not a big Tom Hanks fan, but I actually liked him in this film as well. I was surprised. The film itself is interesting. I kept wondering if the general American public is actually understanding the connections between the story of the film and our current nightmare. There are a couple of scenes in which the screenplay is about 1 degree of separation away from mentioning Osama Bin Laden. It’s weird because I’m usually a big fan of ambiguity and allowing the audience to do the work, but I found myself wanting a more explicit line drawn.

• Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” is one of the best films of the year. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it in the Best Picture category. The Best Director and Adapted Screenplay nominations are well deserved. This is another must-see, run-don’t-walk picture. It’s absolutely brilliant. On paper, it looks like it’s going to be a total drag, but it just simply soars. Filmed in the hospital where the story actually happened with some of the actual people who took part, playing themselves, this is a remarkable achievement.

• It’s nice to see Pixar’s second Brad Bird picture, “Ratatouille”, get some attention here. Recruiting Mr. Bird is one in a long line of smart things John Lasseter has done. The movie is a delight. I find it particularly moving because of the allegory that Bird is making about being an artist in America (I’m not making this up. I’ve heard him talk about it in interviews). The idea that we’re trying to make something good for people in an environment where the folks in charge are trying to kill us, is very resonant.

• Despite this post, I don’t really put a lot of stock in the Oscars. They’re fun. I enjoy them, but I don’t think they have a lot of meaning. What meaning they have is their ability to direct attention into directions that it wouldn’t otherwise go. Almost every year I can find something in the nominations or awards that makes me angry or bewilders me. This year is no exception, and here it is: Why no “Simpsons Movie”? What the…? I’m not going to go out on a huge limb here defending The Simpsons as important American cinematic art. I would argue, and not alone, that the show represents the very best of what American Television has to offer. This is not the same thing as being great cinema all on its own. That being said, there is something very interesting going on in “The Simpsons Movie”. It’s not just that it had a certain pop culture penetration. A careful examination of the film reveils that these people worked very carefully to ride the aesthetic line that separates Film and Television. I didn’t fully realize how carefully this was done until I got the DVD and saw it on a TV. The movie is in a different world from the TV series. If only on this basis, I think the film has something very important to offer to the conversation about cinema in the United States. This is ignoring it’s value as a fun movie that hangs twenty, while surfing the huge wave of American pop culture like only The Simpsons can.
Now even if you don’t buy this, are you going to argue that “Surfs Up” is better? Really? REALLY? “Surfs Up” should be considered for an Academy Award and “The Simpsons Movie” shouldn’t. That’s what you’re saying? I wouldn’t mind it at all if “The Simpsons Movie” lost to “Ratatouille” or “Persepolis” (which I haven’t seen but intend to). I really wouldn’t mind that. But for Matt G. et all to not even be nominated is just crazy.
Disclaimer: There may be some technical reason why “The Simpsons Movie” was not nominated. If that is the case, I don’t know about it. If I find anything out, I’ll report back. If any of you know, then enlighten us.

• The other movie that I think could have gotten more attention is “Once”. This lovely little film is something that there was a lot of buzz about in certain circles, but a more prominent Academy notice could get a lot more people to see it.

Ok. That’s enough for now. I’ve still got some movies to go see, so I’ll be back with more, but for the time being let me just say that it’s a nice time to be a cinemaphile. There’s some great stuff being made out there. The writers strike may move a lot of production overseas but that’s not such a bad thing. The standards are good and we may be getting back to somewhere near where we were before the industry was hijacked by the blockbuster. But that’s a rant for another time…

Go to the movies!

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One Response to “New York Moovee Daze”

  1. Seth says:

    I will always appreciate the Oscars because that program is what sent me down the rabbit hole that is my obsession with cinema. Although it baffles, disappoints, and even infuriates me in some way every year, I am thankful that it exists.

    As my film consumption grows each year, I think that the area in which the Oscars have the furthest to travel is in the area of “BEST FOREIGN PICTURE.” While generally good films are represented in this category every year, the academy simply doesn’t have a good grasp of all the amazing cinematic works going on around the world. Why is the film being produced all over Asia not even registering on otherwise well-schooled filmgoers radars? Couldn’t the Academy play a big role in shining a light onto the daring work of Wong Kar-Wai, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul? Couldn’t American filmmakers learn a thing or two about cinema as personal and national history from Jia Zhangke (arguably the best living filmmaker working today)? If the “best” function of the Oscars is to shine a flashlight, I want to see the voters pick a stronger bulb to point overseas.

    That gripe aside, I believe this is the strongest year for American film in quite a long time. Artists like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Cohen brothers are using American landscapes in terrifying and beautiful ways, and with a boldness/maturity far surpassing their previous works. Even Juno, on the comedy front, somehow manages to escape a nauseatingly “indie flick” first half hour, only to arrive at something much more pure and simple than perhaps the director (and certainly the writer) thought possible.

    My closing Oscar question (which I will reflect from the mountians so all souls can see it): Why is I’m Not There not anywhere at all?!? Aside from Blanchett, of course, who plays only a string of the instrument as a whole. This is the best film of the year (the best piece of art I saw all year), and easily one of the best films of the decade. It is messy, it is (like Haynes) too smart for its own good, it is confusing, and it is all the better for these reasons. This movie will be uncoiling for years to come.

    I’ll shut up now. Go see I’m Not There!