Movies

The Oscars? Let's Grouch

AP Images/DAVE CAULKIN
P icture a caravan of Edsels charging at you with tuxedoed dodos behind every wheel. You've now got some idea of how most movie fans under, oh, 40 or so apparently feel about the Oscars, and who can blame them? Not me. Hitting rock bottom—well, let's hope so—with the recruitment of jackass-of-all-trades Seth McFarlane as last year's host, the Academy's frantic attempts to rejuvenate the proceedings are based on a faulty premise. Really, the problem isn't—or isn't only, anyway—that the show and/or the nominees aren't hip enough to lure an audience not dependent on Depends and revitalized by Viagra. So far as I can tell, the kiddies are increasingly unbedazzled by the ceremony's purpose, a rather more fatal drawback. The whole, lumbering mystique of the Academy Awards derives from two outdated notions. One was that Hollywood's output had pride of place among America's pop-culture amusements, and the far from unrelated other was that Academy voters' verdict on the year's top movies and...

Ashes to Ashes—The 3D Edition

When you buy a ticket to a movie called Pompeii, expecting art or even brains would be fatuous; what you want is a good time. Sue me for confessing I had one. 

AP Images/FEREX
AP Images/FEREX I s Pompeii worth two hours of any sentient adult's time? It's definitely a waste of your hard-earned leisure cash, but that's not quite the same question. I don't know what sort of value you put on your time when you're in a mood to savor dumbness so unalloyed it's like a throwback to the dawn of cheesy movies. I'm not sure I can improve on the studio's own deadpan plot summary: "Set in 79 A.D., Pompeii tells the epic story of Milo (Kit Harington), a slave turned invincible gladiator who finds himself in a race against time to save his true love Cassia (Emily Browning), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant who has been unwillingly betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator. As Mount Vesuvius erupts in a torrent of blazing lava, Milo must fight his way out of the arena in order to save his beloved as the once magnificent Pompeii crumbles around him." Translation: Spartacus meets Titanic. Do I even need to mention that this thing is in 3-D? Starting with the casting...

A Monumental Failure

Honestly, who on earth thought George Clooney's The Monuments Men was a good idea for a movie? 

AP Images/Sony Pictures Publicity
I 'm not sure what could turn George Clooney into a good movie director, but he could start by curing himself of wanting to be well thought of. In front of a camera, he's all suave effrontery, but plunk him down behind one and his cockiness goes out the window. Since Clooney minus his cockiness is the approximate equivalent of Joe Biden with laryngitis, you find yourself wondering which long-gone high-school teacher he's wanly hoping to impress. If the overrated Goodnight, And Good Luck and the forgettable, forgotten The Ides of March were Clooney in civics class, The Monuments Men is a dose of World Civ combined with art history combined with nostalgia for the jaunty, "Let's put a ragtag bunch of misfits together and go on a mission" WWII movies of his (and my) youth. Predictably, the last of these is viewers' best chance of getting some driblets of fun out of watching the thing, thanks to a very juicy cast: Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Babalan, Downton Abbey 's Hugh Bonneville and...

Campaigns and the Human Condition

An image from "Mitt," taken at the moment when Mitt Romney realized he had lost the 2012 election.
Over the weekend I watched the Netflix documentary "Mitt," and true to its billing, it humanized Mitt Romney to an extraordinary degree. That's not all that surprising, given that the film was directed by a filmmaker who is friendly with the Romney family and obviously sought to give a behind-the-scenes view of the campaigns (it covered both the 2008 and 2012 races) that portrayed Romney in the best possible light. But in humanizing Romney, it did an excellent job of illuminating just how artificial all campaigns necessarily are. One of the distinctive things about the film was the absence of almost any talk of policy whatsoever. We do see Romney batting around some talking points to get them right, but the only moment in the film that features any discussion of an issue is when Romney delivers a little oration to his family about how Democrats support higher taxes because they're all lawyers and have never run a business, so they don't understand just how hard it is to labor under...

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of NYC’s Lena Dunham Obsession

Vogue Magazine
Flickr J ust as twentysomethings aren’t the ones writing about millennials ( that would be Ross Douthat ), Lena Dunham’s contemporaries aren’t the demographic that considers Girls its television muse. No, that would be over-twentysomething men, who make up over 20 percent of the show’s viewership and a perhaps even healthier percentage of the bylines featuring name drops of Dunham in the New York media ( this would also be Ross Douthat). Everyone who’s been having heart palpitations over Hannah Horvath’s desire to be a voice of a generation seems to have missed the New York old guard’s intention of making her the voice of the whole damn city. Since 2001, The New York Times has published over 300 articles mentioning Dunham, about 99 percent of which have been written in the past four years. And, except for the early days, right when Tiny Furniture became a thing and Girls screeners became zeitgeist incarnate, she’s hardly ever the subject matter. Any story with a wisp of beard, a hint...

Why Are So Many People Still Protective of Woody Allen?

AP Images/Chris Pizzello
T hey may be a big deal these days—the prelude to the Oscars, like that's something to brag about—but some of us remain secure in our knowledge that the Golden Globes are a joke. Not the judgment by one's presumably qualified peers that gives the Academy Awards their claim on validity, the Globes aren't the verdict of particularly qualified critics either; the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which bestows them, is notoriously a pack of nonentities. All in all, the GG's might as well have been named for the late, great Anna Nicole Smith's not-found-in-nature gazongas. So it logically follows that last Sunday's Cecil B. De Mille Lifetime Achievement award to Woody Allen should be a joke as well. But it wasn't one to Mia Farrow and her family. Both during and after the show, they took to Twitter for their latest commando raid on a rehabilitation that leaves them understandably indignant. "Did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after...

Pope Francis's "Cardinal" Rules

Thinking about Otto Preminger's film 50 years later in the context of Pope Francis.

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
What to make of last year's onslaught of Francismania? Like the sucker for pop-culture phenomenons I am, I haven't enjoyed anything so much since the Harry Potter books took off. As a veteran secular humanist, I can't help feeling some simpatico with the killjoys striving to remind us that the first Pope in memory to rate an affectionate New Yorker cover still presides over an essentially reactionary organization whose core doctrines haven't changed. But all the same, screw it: they're messing with everybody else's good time . Those of us without a dogma in this hunt just dig waiting for Pope Frank's next Bob Newhart-ish "He said that??" surprise, even as we relish the consternation he's provoked in everybody from Rush Limbaugh—"pure Marxism," the great man flatulated—to Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who fretted that Francis doesn't understand how good rich Americans are. Cardinal Timothy Dolan had to reassure Langone that the latest Pontiff does indeed love his flock's...

Peter O'Toole, Always in Character

The actor, who died earlier this week at the age of 81, turned every role into a feat of concentrated charm and wit. 

In a fantasy sequence in the 1967 movie Casino Royale—not a straight Bond flick, like the 2006 version, but a famously messy spoof—Peter Sellers, playing one of several rival 007s, sees a haggard-looking Scots bagpiper emerge from soundstage fog. "Are you Richard Burton?" the piper asks, and Sellers retorts, "No, I'm Peter O'Toole!" At which the piper—played by O'Toole himself—is overcome by emotion. "Then you're the finest man who ever breathed," he says, and vanishes into the mist. What's nice is that O'Toole has the wit to say it in character—that is, in character as a demented Scots piper who reveres Peter O'Toole, with nary a hint of a wink to the audience. It's not just that he obviously knew it would be funnier that way, and we can only imagine how Burton's peculiarly preening self-contempt would have soured the cameo. No matter how silly the job at hand was, O'Toole just couldn't help acting. But he also seldom made it look like a job, which was a key part of his charm during...

"Spring Breakers" Was the Best Movie of the Year. Seriously.

It was imbecilic but gorgeous—just like America. 

AP Images/A24 Films
F irst off, some disclaimers: I haven't seen Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis yet. I thought 12 Years A Slave and Gravity were both just swell, and I had a great time at Ron Howard's unexpectedly lively—and worldly— Rush. In spite of groaning at Woody Allen's bald-faced hijacking of A Streetcar Named Desire and his Rip Van Winkle unfamiliarity with the current century, I even got semi-down with Blue Jasmine, and so on. But that said, as we gear up to dispatch 2013 to the rear-view mirror, there's no contest when it comes to naming my favorite American movie of the year. That would be Spring Breakers, cult director Harmony Korine's sleaze-addicted, druggily impressionistic—and wondrously beautiful—tale of vacuous college girls gone wild in St. Pete. It features bare breasts galore, surreally goofy robberies and mayhem, and an all but unrecognizable James Franco wearing what look like brass knuckles on his teeth as a white rapper/wannabe gangsta named Alien. Will you believe me...

The Coen Brothers' Goodbye Song

Inside Llewyn Davis deepens the duo's turn from satire to elegy

AP Photo/CBS FIlms, Alison Rosa T he year is 1961 in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis , and the title character is a struggling New York City folk singer caught in one of life’s loops. The movie begins where it will end, with Davis onstage at the Gaslight, one of the West Village venues for a musical movement that, in the early ’60s, was caught in a loop of its own, believing it was the start of something rather than the finish. Before getting his butt kicked in a back alley by a mysterious stranger, Davis sings the song of a man condemned—if only in his miserable mind—to be hanged; we assume Davis must be a victim before we realize, over the next 100 minutes, he’s a fuckup. Homeless and broke and constantly relying on the kindness of strangers or near strangers or the newly estranged, the suddenly solo singer was once half of a duo whose fortunes were on the rise. Now haunted by the loss of his partner to suicide and raw to the doubts that go with being on his own, Davis...

Another Note for the Bettie Page Files

A new documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All, provides not only a bonanza of images of the proto-hipster pinup girl in her prime, but her later-in-life musings as well. 

 

It's fun to think of Bettie Page as not only Jackie Kennedy's secret 20th-century sister but as Hugh Hefner's female rival. Six decades ago, Playboy 's incredibly dull founder created an empire that turned women into interchangeable sex objects in the guise of liberating Americans from their Puritan hangups. All Page had to counter him with was a body that couldn't be mistaken for anyone else's and an extraordinarily expressive face. Hef made millions while Page posed for chump change for amateur shutterbugs, at least until softcore fetish king Irving Klaw and then pinup photographer Bunny Yeager recognized her uniqueness and she wound up in Playboy itself. And yet she won; she beat him. Hefner and Playboy are both still with us, but so is Ovaltine—and when was the last time you had any? Page, who died in 2008, is not only the most iconic sexual image of midcentury's louche subcultures but a 21st-century heroine to hipsters and feminists alike. Kids who don't give two hoots about...

The Seven Stages of Important Black Film Fatigue

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I f you live outside of major film markets like New York or Los Angeles, this weekend marked your first opportunity to see Steve McQueen's much-lauded 12 Years a Slave . But it's probable that you've already heard early buzz, either from fawning reviewers or from friends who've caught advance screenings. Perhaps you've heard that its commitment to historical accuracy has resulted in graphic depictions of violence and torture. Maybe your best friend still can't shake the cracking urgency in Chiewetel Ejiofor's voice or a haunting expression on Lupita Nyong’o's face. If you've experienced any of this as a member of the black movie-going public, you're already in the cycle. You've entered the Seven Stages of Important Black Film Fatigue, a tiring exercise in decision-making whenever films like 12 Years a Slave are released. The stages are doubt, guilt, self-preservation, annoyance, anger, vulnerability, and acceptance. You may have never heard these stages named, but you've likely...

Royal Rumble: Academics vs. Film Critics

AP/Belknap Press
It's not every Sunday morning I find myself engaged in a Twitter quarrel with Richard J. Evans, today's foremost (though Ian Kershaw may disagree) academic historian of the Third Reich. But Sir Richard—yes, he's been knighted—is also the foremost academic defender of Ben Urwand's controversial new book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler , and I had a bone to pick with him. I can't say I'm not grateful he answered, although my dream of blowing off Cambridge's Regius Professor of Modern History by tweeting, "Gotta go. Saints game's on!" didn't materialize. The nature of my bone—and I suspect I've waited years to commit that phrase to the public's tender mercies, Prospect readers—was fairly simple. I haven't read The Collaboration yet, a disqualifier from passing judgment on it I strongly urge you to keep in mind. Because I'm a movie reviewer and my colleagues are involved, I'd been a fascinated onlooker to the kerfuffle over Urwand's alleged "reckless" misinterpretations...

Restorative Justice's After-School Special

“Education was where my heart was,” says Tyrone Sinclair in Growing Fairness , a documentary showcasing the impact restorative-justice programs can have in our nation's schools. Sinclair says he was expelled from school at 16, became homeless, and then ended up in jail. Now, he organizes young people in Los Angeles. “I knew that wasn’t the place for me,” he says of prison. “I love to learn every day.” Growing Fairness was screened at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington, D.C., this Wednesday, at an event hosted by Critical Exposure, a local youth group that trains high-school students in photography so they can document problems in their communities. The audience included mostly high-school students and people in their 20s, most of whom were interested in or researched education reform, though a few older community members and attorneys for civil-rights organizations were also present. The event was part of the fourth annual Week of Action organized by the Dignity in Schools...

You’re Tearing Us Apart, Tommy!

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s new book, The Disaster Artist, basks in the delightful weirdness of The Room and its chief architect.

Photo by Amanda Edwards/PictureGroup
T he greatest bad movie ever made." That's what the subtitle of The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero with co-author Tom Bissell (Simon & Shuster, $25.99), calls crackpot director-writer-star Tommy Wiseau's The Room, on which Sestero labored as costar, line producer, and thunderstruck eyewitness. The object of a worldwide cult that's still going strong a decade after the movie's 2003 "release”—it played for two weeks in a single L.A. theater rented by Wiseau, to mostly empty houses until word began to spread that this was no ordinary train wreck— The Room has definitely displaced the previous bad-movie champ, Ed Wood's legendary 1959 Plan 9 From Outer Space, in both notoriety and audience affection. And what a bitter pill for Wood's ghost, since the only superlative he ever earned has been snatched away by an even crazier usurper. The differences are considerable, though. Beyond his staggering ineptitude, Wood was mainly hampered by a budget barely adequate to running a lemonade...

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