Sunday, February 27, 2011

Film is about art – art of acting, art of directing, and art of writing, among other things. Hollywood is about glamor. And one night a year, the epitome of Hollywood and film come together to celebrate the little golden man named Oscar. I love the Oscars. Let’s just get that out there. There are countless other awards out there for films nowadays, but it still holds true that it ain’t over til the fat lady sings and nothing sounds better before an actor’s name than “Academy Award Winner.” So let’s hear it for the Oscars. I enjoyed this year’s show very much and here are a few things I learned from this year’s Academy Awards...

1. Jesse Eisenberg is actually as awkward as Mark Zuckerberg.
I caught one of Jesse Eisenberg's interviews on the red carpet and realized that his portrayal of the socially inept Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network may not have been all that much of a stretch for him. His speech was hesitant just like his character in the film and some of his answers were just plain awkward. Even during the show, he often looked pained and rarely smiled. Why so serious, Jesse?

2. Kirk Douglas rocks.
Unlike Eisenberg, Kirk Douglas, who walked onto stage at 95 years old, was a hoot. He commented on Anne Hathaway's appearance, wondering where she was when he was making pictures, and on the reaction of the audience to the Best Supporting Actress reel, pointing out that Hugh Jackman was laughing, but Colin Firth was not -- he's English. Then, when it came time to announce the winner, he kept looking at the card and then making another comment to psych out the Supporting Actress nominees. He was simply delightful, a lively old man who has obviously not let a stroke or anything else get in his way. It was a tremendous treat to see him.

3. Dear God, I hope I look like Helen Mirren when I'm a senior citizen.
jk -- already knew that...

4. Technology never ceases to amaze me.

Mid-way through the show, legendary Oscars host Billy Crystal appeared to introduce another legendary figure and host, Bob Hope. Seeing as Bob Hope has been dead for some time now, this may seem impossible. However, the theater lights dimmed, an old-timey podium was rolled out and an film clip of Bob Hope at the Oscars was projected just above the podium, so that it looked as if he was standing there, addressing the crowd. I realize this is a fairly simple task of projecting a video, but the ingenuity and precision with which this was done was amazing. Following this marvel was the presentation of the award for best special effects, when films like Harry Potter, Inception and The Wolfman showed us just what magic Hollywood special effects technicians can make.

5. I love the memorial montage.
I apologize if this sounds morbid. I don't want to bum anyone out, but I really do love the memorial montage. I didn't just realize it this year; I watch it intently every year, but this year, I'm writing about it. The montage depresses me, but in a good way and it forces me to look to the past -- to the golden age of Hollywood and remember some of the figures that make cinema what it is. This year, Lena Horne, who became an inspiration to women of color everywhere when she broke racial barriers, was honored. Pioneer of the post-studio age, Easy Riders/Raging Bulls era Dennis Hopper was also included. Other figures we remembered this year were actor Tony Curtis, who I love, and director Arthur Penn.

If fact, I particularly like this year's Academy Awards because it focused so much on remembering and honoring Hollywood history. I suspect this was to ensure that, even with all the steps that were taken to draw a younger crowd (ex. Hottie McHosts), an appreciation and a respect for the past were not lost. This was especially evident through Kirk Douglas's appearance, the spotlight put on the Governor's awards, and the references to classic films such as Gone with the Wind. I remember thinking that last year’s Oscars were a bit boring, but this year’s were a success. Can’t wait for next year!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Just yesterday, my friend was telling me about viewing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in her race class. This 1967 film was obviously groundbreaking in its depiction not only of an interracial relationship, but also of a black man who does not fit black stereotypes. However, over forty years later, "Where is equal racial representation in Hollywood?" is still a question unanswered. The New York Times published an article examining the dearth of diversity in this year's Oscar nomination party. You may want to check it out:

Thank you, Joss Whedon!

Dear Joss Whedon,
Thank you for your years of service to the entertainment industry. Thank you for giving the world the hip supernatural and science fiction television shows that you have so brilliantly created. But most of all, thank you for creating a group of independent ass-kicking female characters. In film and television, female characters are too often written into supporting roles, only allowed to be wives, mothers, or figures within the madonna/whore dichotomy. But you, Mr. Whedon have changed things, placing women into roles and situations that were new to us.

First, there was Buffy. The 1992 movie was great and the television show was even better. In Buffy, we found a girl who could kick some serious vampire booty and make corny jokes in the process. She wasn't a robot (though there was a Buffy bot at one point) -- she had good traits and bad traits, but she always got the job done, protecting mankind from evil supernaturals. Buffy's scooby squad of sidekicks included her best friends Willow and Xander. While a loyal friend, Xander often took the back seat to Willow, the super brainy witch with a dark side. Later in the series, Willow discovered she was a lesbian. She's not a stereotypical butch lesbian or a man-hating lesbian or a super-sexy, man-titillating lesbian, but a representation of a real lesbian, who has relationships with other real lesbians. For a couple early seasons, Buffy worked with a fellow slayer, Faith. Eventually, Faith decided to drink the cool aid and turned to evil. Nonetheless, she was tough and proved that women don't always have to be good. We can be dark and mean just like male villains, thank you very much.

Then, we have Angel. The central character is the super-cute, soul-bearing vampire Angel, but his spot atop the supernatural detective pyramid is held steady with the help of his assistant Cordelia and Fred. Cordy, who was the Sunnydale bitch-who-owned it on Buffy, moved to LA and helped Angel solve mysteries. She is outspoken and tough; spiders might make her scream by she can kick a demon's ass. Throughout the series, she matured and became invaluable to Angel's agency. Part-way through the series, a succession of hi-jinks led Angel to find the brainy mathematician Fred in a cave in an alternate dimension. She joined the team and blossomed as their personal think tank.

Last but not least, we have Firefly. Firefly was gone too soon, but its short run showed us a host of awesome female characters. The ship, Serenity, was captained by Malcolm Reynolds. However, it could easily be argued that his tough-as-nails first mate Zoe outdid him in brains and balls. She wore the pants in her relationship with Wash, and saved the rest of the crew time and time again. The ship's mechanic, Kaylee, was bubbly and broke stereotypes because she knew everything there is to know about machines. In one episode, we learn that she beat out a guy for the position on Serenity. Then, we had Inara, the ship's resident companion (aka courtesan). She spoke her mind and was in control of her sexuality. She took a commonly stigmatized and marginalized social figure and made it elegant. In fact, she was the only one on the ship who was not on the run from something or someone. Last, there was River. Held in a government facility before being rescued by her big brother, she was slightly nuts, but wicked smart and incredibly insightful. In Serenity, the movie based on Firefly, we learned that River, with her pixie dresses and army boots, was a serious badass with the ability to face her demons and fight off hordes of commandos all by herself.

So, thank you, Mr. Whedon. The characters you have created show weakness, but it is because they are human, not because they are women. As women they show strength, intelligence, and sensitivity that makes them role models for all of us. You also show that femininity and non-violence do not necessarily go hand in hand, a misconception that has been reinforced for far too long. I am truly grateful that someone finally put these figures on TV and only regret that they can only be found in science fiction.

P.S. I haven't seen Dollhouse, but I can only expect that Eliza Dushku's character is awesome.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Introduction to Italian Cinema

I know, I know, you've been thinking for some time now that your film education isn't quite complete without a familiarity with Italian cinema. As I said in past posts, I recently fell in love with Italian cinema, so it would be my pleasure to suggest a few films to get you started...

1. The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948) -- Okay, so you knew this one was coming, but really -- no education on Italian film or even Italy itself is complete without The Bicycle Thieves. It is the story of a man in dilapidated post-war Rome whose livelihood depends on his bicycle, which he needs for his job. However, his bike is stolen within the first twenty minutes and the rest of the film follows him and his young son Bruno as they try to find it. This film is also has the key hallmarks of Neo-Realism, as it incorporates social issues, on-location shooting, and non-actors. The title in Italian is Ladri di Biciclette, which means Bicycle Thieves. This is actually a much more accurate and appropriate title. Once you watch the film, you'll know why...

2. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) -- Possibly Fellini's most famous film, La Dolce Vita is a commentary on Italian life after the economic miracle of the 1950s, when the standard of Italian living shot up. The film centers around a journalist, played by Fellini's "alter-ego," Marcello Mastroianni and his sordid affairs with the rambunctious Roman in-crowd. Known internationally, La Dolce Vita depicts a time in which Italian sensibilities shifted and displays the Felliniesque artistry that influenced later generations of filmmakers.

3. Divorce, Italian Style (Pietro Germi, 1961) -- Also starring Marcello Mastroianni, this film about a man trying to divorce his wife takes place before divorce was legalized in Italy. Therefore, his only option is to kill his wife in a fit of passion and partake of the archaic Honor Laws, which state that if someone kills their spouse after finding him or her cheating, jail sentences are minimized. Mastroianni is wonderful as an over-the-top caricature of himself in this hilarious social commentary on the backwards nature of the legal system and Sicilian social codes.

4. Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) -- Cinema Paradiso is a film about people who love films. Set in Sicily, it tells the story of a young man and how he came to admire the cinema with the guidance of his mentor, a theater projectionist named Alfredo. The film displays the beauty of the Sicilian landscape and also shows the changes in the island over the main character's lifetime. It is a poetic and beautiful tribute to filmmaking.

5. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003) -- This film/TV mini series is six hours long and spans about forty years of Italian history. It follows brothers Nicola and Matteo through their adult lives, as they take very different paths both politically and personally. The film takes place all throughout Italy and has a soap opera like tone, which will keep you hooked. The Best of Youth is a crash course in modern Italian history and depicts the changing sentiments throughout Italian society.

So there are just a few movies I would suggest to get you started. If you enjoy these, the fun doesn't have to stop! There are hundreds more that you would like. If there is a special place in your heart for Italian cinema as there is in mine, you may also like to check out my discussions on select films on my "Cinema Italiano" page, coming soon. Until then, Ciao!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

So Bad It's Good

Last week, I was dying to veg out and watch a "so bad it's good" classic -- The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension . If you are not familiar with this gem, please allow me to illuminate you. Made in 1984, this film stars Peter Weller as a neurosurgeon/ particle physicist named Buckaroo Banzai, who along with his scientist rock band the Hong Kong Cavaliers, save the world from aliens.

After changing the world of science by passing through solid rock unharmed, Buckaroo ignites an alien uprising and gains the ability to see the aliens in their true forms. To the average human eye, the bad aliens take on the appearance of creepy characters like John Lithgow, Dan Hedaya, and Vincent Schiavelli, aka the subway ghost from Ghost. The good aliens, who aim to help Buckaroo, take the form of Rastafarians. All the aliens have the same "lets be human" name: John, with last names ranging from Parker to Smallberries. Christopher Lloyd is particularly good as the evil John Bigboote (pronounced big-booty). Did I mention that this all takes place in my beloved motherland, New Jersey? Need I say more? No, but I will.

Equally as awesome as the plot of Buckaroo Banzai are the characters. Key members of Buckaroo's squad/rock band are his number two man, tough guy Rawhide, Jeff Goldblum as a cowboy called New Jersey (Why? I truly have no idea), and Billy Idol look alike Perfect Tommy, who indeed does seem perfect. Early in the movie, Buckaroo finds his love interest, played by Ellen Barkin. When they meet at his concert, she is crying in the crowd and he consoles her with the wise words, "remember, no matter where you go, there you are." Her name is Penny Priddy (yeah, sounds like Penny Pretty) and she is a bi-polar near idiot, who seems only to get in trouble. But she turns out to be Buckaroo's dead wife's long-lost twin sister. It really is a small world (with aliens).

Without doubt the best part of the movie is the end credit scene. Buckaroo is walking through some random large open space (I would describe it more, but I don't actually know what it is). As he walks, other characters, including those who'd died, join him. They basically walk and dance as the group grows and the characters magically change outfits. It's strangely heartwarming and the perfect ending to a ridiculous movie.

So, it you have the time and feel like being amazed, pick up Buckaroo Banzai and remember: "no matter where you go, there you are."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Let's Talk About Sex Part I

Let's talk about sex. Let's talk about Mickey Rourke and the Diner popcorn gag. Let's talk about the ceiling of the dugout in Fast Times at Richmond High. Let's talk about the innuendo and censorship and what that says about America and our films. For some time now, I have been interested in examining sex on film. It is not because I happen to be a college student with one thing on my mind (though that certainly helps) but because it is a subject related to the history and culture of the nation in which a film is produced and the plain and simple fact that the development of sexual content, like that of race and class, is an aspect of film history. The issue also brings up long-lived debates like those of censorship and art cinema versus pornography. The whole scope of this subject extends beyond my purview, but even what I do feel secure writing about is too much for one post. So, I shall publish a series of entries regarding sex in films. Tonight, let us begin with the thin line between art and porn.

In the documentary series Indie Sex, one critic commented that the only difference between graphic art cinema and porn was lighting. Fortunately, another countered that, in art cinema, sex would change the character either physically or emotionally. My personal views would land somewhere in the middle. Take, for instance, 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004) and Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006). Both are landmark films becasue they use real sex and neither is a porno. In 9 Songs, a story of a hot and heavy couple, not every sexual encounter has significance to the plot. Some are important to the development of the characters, whereas others seem just to fill space. Indeed the nine songs that act as chapters in the film mark the development in the characters more than the sex. On the other hand, each sexual act in Shortbus, which is set in an underground sex club, tells the audience something about the characters or story world. In some cases, whom a character is having sex with and how they are doing it says more about him or her than anything else. (The development of Shortbus is also very interesting. I suggest you investigate it sometime.) Based on these films and many others, I would insist that the distinction between art and porn should be based on the intentions of the director or writer, whether they are to incite an emotional reaction or to arouse While much of art interpretation should be left to the audience, at least the genre can be decided by the filmmaker -- we may laugh at Gigli, but it's still kept on the 'Drama' shelf.

Of course there is quite a difference between artsy independent films and mainstream movies, in which sex is injected into the film to titillate the audience. There are different standards and expectations. Once you enter mainstream media, it is a question of censorship rather than judgment and sensibilities. The first female on-screen orgasm was in the '20s or '30s, so why does it seem that we went backwards?

Tune in Next Time...