As I began watching this Ben Zuk tribute recap of 2014 films, I said to myself, “Gee, with all this spritzy, pop-pop energy and visual whammo you’d never realize that 2014 was a relatively weak year.” But then that awful tinny music began seeping into the bloodstream and I became quickly apparent that Zuk was making no attempt at all to capture the interior rumble in all these films…the themes and ideas and the character bits and the dialogue…zero interest in the adult undercurrent stuff. This video is like all the other year-end recaps, pitched to the easy-lay submentals who want nothing more than rapid-fire cutting and fast-flash bullshit.
A little over seven months ago I completely flipped over Andrey Zvagintsev‘s Leviathan, which finally opens today. My 5.22 mini-review was titled “Crushes It — Almost Certain to Win Palme d’Or.” Two days later the Cannes jury gave Leviathan a piddly screenwriting award and handed the prestigious Palme d’Or to Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s Winter Sleep, which I’ve since seen and quite enjoyed. The Ceylan is a mesmerizing, superbly constructed character piece — I was completely in its spell and barely noticed the running time — but it lacks the epic, symphonic power of the Zvagintsev (which is pronounced ZivYAHgintsev). Leviathan is a drop-dead brilliant, awesomely-composed-in-every-respect melodrama and moral tale that concurrently serves as a microcosm of (or metaphor for) a morally compromised, ruthlessly malevolent, bare-knuckled Russia. Political corruption, lust and infidelity, way too much vodka, blackmail and thuggery, gunshots, bromide-dispensing priests who kowtow to powerful scumbags, huge whale skeletons, crashing waves, rotting ships — this puppy has it all plus the aura of a majesterial art film plus opening and closing musical passages by Phillip Glass plus the most beautifully lighted, handsomely composed widescreen photography (by Mikhail Krichman) I’ve seen in a long time. And the acting — Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Dmitri Seleznev, Aleksey Serebryakov, Anna Ukolova — isn’t ‘acting’ but rooted, rock-solid behavior that kicks ass all the way around the block and back to your driveway.”
There’s a line in a review of J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, written by Metro‘s Matt Prigge, that caught my eye this morning. The New York-based crime and heating-oil film, he said, is “all foreplay, but it’s good foreplay.” It’s actually mostly foreplay, not all. Because the movie “comes” at least four or five times. Or seven or eight times if your definition of a cinematic orgasm is on the liberal, less-strict side. What Prigge means is that A Most Violent Year never explodes in any kind of wild-ass, gun-crazy, super-splatter showoff fashion. It doesn’t give you an orgasm that leaves you panting and spent.
That’s because Chandor is keeping it “real”, which is a concept or approach that 90% of the action-film directors have pretty much thrown out the window. Their movies have foreplay, of course, as all action sequences have to deliver some kind of semi-realistic, semi-logical motivation, but the emphasis is always on climaxes, and as many as can be fit in. Except life in general is almost entirely foreplay. How often do people experience orgasms in their lives, apart from sexually? Damn seldomly. And yet 90% of moviegoers buy tickets with the expectation of experiencing one shuddering Kama Sutra moment after another.
Chandor’s film currently has a 92% Rotten Tomatoes and 84% Meteoritic rating, which obviously places it in the upper bracket of must-sees. But of course, as I noted on 11.7, there’s that title to get past.
“Violence certainly happens from time to time [in the film] but why J.C. decided to call it A Most Violent Year is…well, I don’t get it,” I wrote. “It’s about a highly disciplined, super-determined guy (Queens-based heating-oil supplier Oscar Isaac) trying very hard to solve his problems with honor and smarts and without resorting to violence or allowing his employees to do the same. It’s about clannish groups and predatory behavior and laws and bank loans and oil storage tanks and the whims of prosecutors. It’s an urban-jungle story in which violence only punctuates the story like periods and commas punctuate a typical paragraph.
Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher is about how a strange, obsessive, ostensibly Olympics-driven relationship between Pennsylvania millionaire John Dupont (Steve Carell) and former Olympic wrestling champ Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) led to Dupont shooting Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). The real-life Schultz has been highly complementary of the film and Miller over the last several months, but he’s suddenly changed his tune and thrown both under the bus, apparently over concerns that the film points to a homoerotic undercurrent between Carell/duPont and Tatum/Schultz.
Schultz has totally ripped into Miller on Twitter, calling him “scum” and declaring that “we’re done” and that he’s going to take Miller down, etc. He’s obviously quite upset but why the sudden turnabout? The film opened nearly six weeks ago, but Schultz seems to have suddenly decided that homoerotic interpretations by reviewers are hurting his reputation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Schultz’s Twitter account has been hacked (?). I’ve asked Miller and a Foxcatcher publicist what they know or suspect about this, but you know how people get when something like this blows up — they hunker down and dive into the bunker.
If Schultz has literally tweeted all this stuff it sounds to me like a delayed case of homosexual panic — not literally about gayness but media perceptions of his having had some kind of suppressed gay dynamic with duPont, which Schultz believes is harming his rep. Although he’s written that the gay element in Foxcatcher “wasn’t explicit [and] so I didn’t have a problem with it,” he’s now blaming Miller and the film for slipping this perception into the conversation.
I’m presuming Schultz might also be pissed that Channing portrays him as scowling, emotionally constipated and seriously inarticulate, which usually indicates some degree of emotional repression…but again, why six weeks after the film opened?
If Foxcatcher reps don’t get in front of Schultz’s charges and try to frame them in a fair and proper context, this will probably harm Foxcatcher as far as Academy nominations are concerned, particularly Carell’s possible Best Actor nomination. It gives people a reason to step back and say “hmmm, maybe not…maybe vote for someone or something else.”
Anyone can tap out a worst-films-of-the-year list. Pick this or that from the slush heap and it doesn’t matter. What can “worst” possibly mean in this, an era of corporate franchise zombie films overwhelming almost everything in a megaplex sense? How many years ago did Andrew Sarris note that “the bottom has fallen out of badness in movies?” In the early ’80s, I think it was, and he could’t have foreseen how absent that “bottom” would truly become. The point (and I realize this paragraph isn’t exactly flowing from thought to thought) is that mature and knowledgable film lovers will never dismiss a formidable, strongly flavored, well-made film just because they didn’t enjoy watching it. You have to take yourself out of the equation and step back and evaluate a film cold and clean. Once you’ve done that, jump back in and fire at will.
Hundreds of times I’ve said “I didn’t like watching this film and in fact I kind of hated it on a certain level and I was enormously relieved when it ended, but it’s not half bad, and in fact I respect where it’s coming from and I would never call its admirers wrong or delusional.” I know enough about movies to be able to say this. Just because a flick didn’t ring my little personal cowbell doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve praise from others and perhaps even tribute from the Movie Godz (although I’m in fairly close contact with those guys and rarely have a difference of opinion with them).
How then to start my list of 2014 films that I personally found agonizing or depressing to sit through, but which are far from bad or dismissable? I know from experience that I can always start by referencing Karina Longworth‘s best of the year list. The author and former L.A. Weekly/Village Voice film critic is a brilliant filmologist and knows her stuff cold, but her personal end-of-the-year favorites are almost always “what?” to me. Ditto New Yorker film critic and columnist Richard Brody. There are plenty more where these two are coming from. Dennis Lim, Gavin Smith…guys like that. Elite sensibilities. Ivory tower-ists. Year after year I ask myself, “How could these guys live on more or less the same planet that I do and sincerely praise these movies as among the very best? What am I missing? Do I need to change my diet?”
This is the final day of 2014…big deal. Tomorrow will be the first day of 2015…and what of it? I feel great about a lot of stuff, mind. Best time of my life. I just don’t care about New Year’s Eve bullshit, and staying out until 3 am ruins the following day. This is a lousy town to celebrate in anyway, time-zone-wise. Everyone has already whoo-hoo’d and guzzled the bubbly and stumbled home and gone to sleep by the time midnight hits Los Angeles. Paris is the place to be.
The cooler and deeper you are, the quieter and more away-from-the-madding-crowd your New Year’s Eve is. I know a lady who says she always does it solo — meditating, painting, incense. Okay, maybe that’s taking it a bit too far in the other direction. I suspect that those who take really long showers are almost certainly among those who whoop it up on New Year’s Eve. In both instances they’re looking for comfort, for that womb-like security and sublime relaxation that comes from steaming hot water and alcohol and the embrace of fair-weather friends.
Every new day is a renewal, and the time to celebrate that is the early morning. And yet I’ve known people in my life who actually wake up in a bad mood. (My ex-wife was one of them.) How is that possible? How could the metaphor be lost on them?
I shouldn’t be admitting this but I didn’t know quite what to say or think when I heard about the death of Luise Rainer, the two-time Oscar winner who lived for 104 years. That’s because I never wanted to watch The Great Ziegfeld (’36), for which Rainer won her first Best Actress Oscar, nor The Good Earth, for which she won her second Oscar. I just never wanted to watch either, and there are very few significant ’30s films that I haven’t seen. Wiki graph: “By winning two consecutive Oscars, Rainer later noted, nothing worse could have happened to her, as audience expectations from then on would be too high to fulfill. Some film historians consider her the “most extreme case of an Oscar victim in Hollywood mythology.”
Oscar nomination balloting began yesterday, of course. One of the big teeter-totter contests is over position #5 in the Best Actor race — Foxcatcher‘s Steve Carell vs. Nightcrawler‘s Jake Gyllenhaal. A popularity contest between two likable actors, one tall and buff and younger and broad-shouldered, the other a bit older and a bit shorter and narrow-shouldered and often bearded. Both playing sociopaths who are more or less inhuman. I’m a Gyllenhaal supporter because I recognize the monster inside Lou, the video shooter — open, eager, ultra-polite, calculating. He’s a creep you can deal with if you keep your distance. On the other hand Carell‘s John DuPont is somebody you just want to squash like a bug. You can’t help but admire the way Carell suggests all kinds of deep down fucked-up stuff — a mixture of pride, anger, maternal resentment, control-freak mania, homosexual repression and bad genes. I just think it’s fair to ask how arresting or standout-ish his performance would be without the prosthetic nose. For what it’s worth, Gyllenhaal over Carell.
I love Mike Leigh‘s personality, his manner. He just says it and come what may. To me that’s the mark of a real artist. Several years ago he upbraided me at the Spirit Awards for asking the wrong kind of question. He didn’t like my attitude. He’s very blunt and real. In this Hollywood Reporter round-table discussion he’s asked about the prospect of developing a film for 12 years, and Leigh says “I haven’t got 12 years.” Neither Mr. Turner nor Leigh are likely to be nominated for Best Picture or Best Director, but he’s a very good guy. You know who might be nominated for Best Director? Angelina Jolie. Because Unbroken made so much money over the Christmas holiday.
Everything all along has pointed to North Korea being the prime mover behind the Sony hack. The North Korean government has denied involvement but otherwise indicated it was completely delighted with the results of the hack. On 12.17 N.Y. Times reporters David Sanger and Nicole Perlruth ran a story saying that “senior administration officials who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings have concluded that North Korea was ‘centrally involved’ in the hacking of Sony Pictures computers.” An apparent response followed when North Korea’s internet was blacked out, presumably by Obama administration operatives.
But now UPI.com’s Francis Burns is reporting that the hacking may have been an inside job by a disgruntled former Sony employee. A woman, in fact. Kurt Stammberger, a senior vp with the security firm Norse, believes [that] “the hacking was an inside job. Stammberger said the team has even identified one possible perpetrator, a woman who worked for Sony for 10 years before losing her job in a recent reorganization.”
Hold on…I’m not following. The whole North Korea narrative is, what, imaginary? Or did this woman somehow feed information to someone else who assisted the Guardians of Peace, the hackers who claimed responsibility for the Sony hack? I’m completely confused.
In response to Joseph Califano‘s 12.26 Washington Post Op-Ed piece that sharply disputed Selma‘s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as being reluctant to support voting rights legislation, director Ava DuVernay tweeted yesterday that “folks should interrogate history…don’t take my word for it or LBJ’s rep for it…let it come alive for yourself.” I tried that yesterday by reaching out to LBJ historians Robert Caro, Robert Dallek and Ronnie Dugger…no dice. DuVernay’s film essentially portrays Johnson as a pragmatic, vaguely patronizing racist (i.e., that dismissive pat on the shoulder of David Oyelowo‘s Martin Luther King) who had to be pressured into pushing for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Tom Wilkinson‘s LBJ “offers a few shadings and nuances,” as I noted yesterday, “but mainly you remember his disagreements with King and saying ‘not now.’” So this morning I captured this anecdote from former Johnson administration attorney Roger Wilkins in David Grubin‘s LBJ, a PBS American Experience doc that originally aired in 1991.
How reluctant was Johnson to push for voting rights legislation in early ’65? Was he in fact reluctant, as Selma dramatizes? Perhaps he expressed concerns along these lines at some point. But yesterday’s HE story contains a White House recording of a 1.15.65 discussion between Johnson and Martin Luther King that undermines Selma‘s view.
David McCullough‘s narration of LBJ quotes Johnson as saying that while some men have called the White House a prison, “I’ve never felt freer.”
There’s a story that came from James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, in an 8.24.08 New Yorker story by George Packer called “LBJ’s Moment”: “I asked him how he got to be the way he was,” Farmer recalled. “He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, here you are, calling senators, twisting their arms, threatening them, cajoling them, trying to line up votes for the Civil Rights Bill when your own record on civil rights was not a good one before you became Vice President. So what accounted for the change?” Johnson thought for a moment and wrinkled his brow and then said, ‘Well, I’ll answer that by quoting a good friend of yours and you will recognize the quote instantly. ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.’”’