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Monthly Archives: February 2015

Well, I just got in from seeing American Sniper and I’m feeling pretty glum. Honestly, I’m just sitting here thinking that life has no meaning. I’m writing more because I’m not quite ready to go to bed than for any other reason.

First of, regarding American Sniper – Did you see the trailer? Did you read a review or two? Yeah, then you saw the movie. It was just barely interesting enough to not qualify as boring. I don’t know. I feel like I’m supposed to have an opinion about it. Is it pro-war or anti-war? Is it patriotic or does it subversively question patriotism? That would imply that there is something going on in the movie. It’s workmanlike in a not good meaning of the word. Does Bradley Cooper do a good job? I guess. He holds a gun and runs around believably. Did anyone else here feel like life wasn’t worth living when they left the theater, or is it just me?

I’ve been in a weird damn mood the past couple of days, and that it’s hard to tell if my response to that movie is due to my circumstances or if it was in fact, kind of uninteresting.

You see, what you probably don’t actually know, but you may very well have faint glimmers of it, is that I don’t have an especially rosy view of humanity. As I see it, we’re social animals. All of the crap we call morality is the decisions we make for whatever group we belong to survive and continue. We’re sensitive to power and status. Sometimes that causes us to do altruistic and caring thing, but more often we do petty and competitive things. Nothing matters to us as much as our place in that social hierarchy.

We all do what we have to do to make it in this society. Usually, that involves not being very nice to other people.

Okay, here’s my own preferences among the Oscar nominees. This isn’t in anyway a prediction of whether or not they will win, just whether or not I liked them.

Whiplash, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Boyhood.

Boyhood may have succeeded in being the single most pretentious piece of crap ever made. It has one major gimmick. It took twelve years to make. No review can say anything positive if it doesn’t say that. It’s long, and it’s boring. Sitting on a park bench and watching people walk by for three hours would be more interesting.

Well, I’m going to sleep on it and see if I have anything more interesting to say about them tomorrow.

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And… the nominees are:

Robert Duvall The Judge
Ethan Hawk Boyhood
Edward Norton Birdman
J. K. Simmons Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo Foxcather

This might be the most fun category. Many of the most interesting roles are not the leads, and, for better or worse, men tend to get meatier parts than women on average.

If one of the abilities of a good actor is to be able to disappear into a role, then I think all five of the actors here can said to be good.

The Judge was a good movie, but not a great one, and it is unsurprising to me that this is the only category in which the film has received any nominations. Robert Duvall stands out in this picture as a small town judge who may or may not have killed a man to whom he had given a lenient sentence many years earlier and who later went on to commit another crime. Eventually, he is put on trial himself, and one of the factors that might help to acquit him, that he suffers from memory loss due to chemotherapy, is a fact he is trying to hide. Duvall does a notable job portraying the frailty of an aging man. Once, I had an acting teacher tell me that one mistake people make when playing someone who is drunk is that they act drunk, whereas drunk people typically struggle to act sober. We see Duvall negotiate this contradiction. He plays a sick, frail, older man who is trying to hide just how sick and frail he has become. The role gives Duvall the opportunity for more dramatic moments as well as more subtle ones.

Boyhood seems to have really enthusiastic defenders. I am not one of them. I’ve been told that I am not capable of appreciating that the movie is supposed to be about those uninteresting parts of life that happen in between the more dramatic moments that are usually the subject of a movie. Also, it took twelve years to make. Ethan Hawke aged very naturally over twelve years. What else can I say? Here is a scene in which Hawke, who plays a non-custodial parent, tries to make small talk.

Birdman also had its detractors and vocal defenders and in this case I am with the defenders. I walked out of the theater feeling that I had just seen something remarkable. Later, one of my mother’s friends said she hated the movie because the main character was not likeable. In fact, none of the people on the screen are likeable in the banal sort of way that almost everyone except the evil step dads are likeable in Boyhood. Perhaps it says something about me that I identify more with the unlikable, but interesting, characters in Birdman than the likeable, but insufferably boring, ones in Boyhood.

Like Robert Duvall, Edward Norton also had the good fortune to be handed an exciting complicated role. In this case, Edward Norton plays a critically acclaimed actor, Mike, who steps into the role of a play days before opening night. The actor who had previously been in the role has an accident. Mike has a reputation as being difficult to work with, a fact closely connected to his talent since he throws himself into his roles.

Mark Ruffalo is over shadowed by just about everyone else on this list. In some ways, this emphasizes the importance that the writing has as the starting point. Ruffalo’s character is simply not that interesting. I’ve already said in my discussion of the screenplays that I felt that Foxcatcher lacked the intensity of the other films. The two central characters, John Du Pont, played by Steve Carrell, and Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, are people with complicated motivations. Ruffalo’s character, Mark’s brother David, most just wants a stable life and is dragged into the drama happening between John and Mark somewhat against his will. I can’t say I’m overly fond of Ruffalo’s mumbling, shuffling, hunched over interpretation. I’m not really sure who to blame for this. I think the director needs to carry some of the burden. I’m really not very familiar with Ruffalo’s body of work. I was a little put off by the fact that Tatum and Ruffalo had such very different accents. Again, I feel as if the director should have picked up on that and stepped in.

Finally, we come to J. K. Simmons astounding turn as Fletcher, the music teacher, in Whiplash. Like Duvall and Norton, Simmons had the good fortune to be handed a meaty part. It is to Simmons credit that we don’t see Fletcher as purely evil. The following scene has been shown in just about every discussion of the movie, so I was tempted to show a different one, however I decided to include this one after all. In it, we can see the transition Simmons goes through from a demanding, although normal seeming, teacher to every student’s nightmare. (He reminds me of my first acting teacher who would regularly have me in tears at the end of a class. I used to say that he could get a performance out of a rock.) I understand that they first tried the scene faking the slaps but weren’t satisfied. In the end, the slaps are real, as you can see the redness on the student’s cheek. In a later scene, the student tackles the teacher and Simmons, I understand, broke a couple of ribs. It’s really an intense performance.

My own instinct would be to give the award to Simmons, but it would hardly be surprising if Duvall and Norton were to win it. If Simmons wins, Norton may have had the misfortune to get one of his best roles during the wrong year.

Okay, I’m not a professional writer. I’m not a researcher either, although I do have a liberal arts degree and internet access, so I wonder what the hell those professional writers are thinking when they type words and pick up a paycheck for that. Sure, I know the Daily Beast is garbage and I shouldn’t even be reading it, let alone complaining about it. Still, M. L. Nestel is getting a paycheck for employing words without knowing their meanings.

It was a story about a twenty-one year old man who is currently missing. His parents report that he experienced an extreme change in his personality, which they ascribe to supplements he was taking. I won’t go into other parts of the story, but I just wanted to deal with Nestel’s apparent misunderstanding of the word “homeopathic.” One of the supplements the young man was taking is described by Nestel as “a kind of homeopathic Viagra.”

I have to say, I never thought I’d find myself searching the internet for “Penis Enlargement Pill – BIG JIM & THE TWINS- MALE ENHANCEMENT.” Forgive me if I don’t provide a link. You can sully your own internet search history. However, you will be glad to know that it does not have a five star rating on Amazon, and it is reassuring regarding humanity that it is not highly ranked in the Health & Personal Care category. Toilet paper is the top seller. Much of humanity, it seems, is practical.

If I ever go missing, the police, or my mother, will have tons of fun with my browsing history because I’m the curious sort. I look at all sorts of things I would never admit to. Hell, I’m telling you about how I looked up Big Jim and the Twins, so let your imagination go regarding what I’m not telling you about. But I have an excuse. You see, I wanted to know if it was homeopathic. Big Jim and the Twins Male Enhancement Formula has a description that is surprisingly, ahem, small.

Big Jim & The Twins is a potent male enhancement formula fortified with powerful ingredients designed to promote sexual health including Tongkat Ali, Maca, L-Arginine, Ginseng Blend, Proprietary Blend: Saraparilla, Pumpkin Seed Powder, Muira Puama Powder, Oat Straw, Nettle, Cayenne Pepper, Astragalus, Catuaba Bark Powder, Licorice, Tribulus Terrestris, Orchis, Oyster Extract, and Boron.

One thing this does not say is that it is homeopathic.

Homeopathy is a pseudoscience created by Samuel Hahnemann in the late eighteenth century. Happily for us, medicine has advanced somewhat in the past couple of centuries. Unfortunately, the news appears to have not yet reached the suburbs. Hahnemann believed that illnesses could be cured by substances that caused the same symptoms as the illness. So an illness that had fever as a symptom could be cured by a substance that causes a fever when ingested. However, the substance must be taken only in the smallest amount. Therefore homeopathic remedies are extreme dilutions in water of the substances indicated on the label, usually containing not a single molecule of the named remedy. (Do you know who liked homeopathy? Nazis!) Needless to say, homeopathy “is not effective for any condition.”

Several of the herbs listed as part of the supplement are used in folk medicine and those uses include male sexual performance. I did a quick run through of the list on the internet and, while I can’t claim my research was thorough, so I may have missed something, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that most of them work for male sexual performance. Worse yet, there have been concerns recently that supplements to do not contain the herbs on the label.

Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia) has been shown to have an effect on testosterone levels in lab animals. Unfortunately, many products that claim to contain Tongkat Ali are fraudulent. The government of Malaysia, where the herb is native, has banned many fake products.

It is also important to remember if an herbal product is potent enough to have the intended effect, it can have side effects as well. Speaking for myself, I would not take an herbal supplement without consulting a physician.

But whatever it is and whatever it does, it is not homeopathy.

An amusing detail: On the Amazon website, the bottle of Big Jim and the Twins in the picture is empty. Symbolic?

I’ve decided to start my thoughts on the Academy Award nominated movies with the writing awards. I don’t want to speculate on the potential winners as to simply discuss the screenplays themselves.

Of the five screenplays which have been nominated in the Writing (Original Screenplay) category, four to them have the director as the writer or one of the co-writers. In these four cases the movies appear to be the director’s brainchild. Foxcatcher is the exception in this instance. Of the five nominees in this category, three of them, Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel have been nominated for best picture. Only Nightcrawler was not nominated in any other categories.

Birdman Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler Dan Gilroy

It is interesting to not that, with the exception of Boyhood, most of the stories have a darkness to them. Nightcrawler is most certainly the darkest of all. In fact, I would say that it falls squarely in the tradition of film noir. Unfortunately, I gave my little collection of books on film noir to one of my mother’s students when he was accepted to film school, so I’ll have to rely on the internet. Nightcrawler could be said to be a social problem film with a protagonist, Lou, who is something of a petty criminal or grifter. He begins as someone who is unemployed trying to find work. Unable to find any, he happens upon and accident and comes across a news stringer who listens to a police radio and heads to accident or crime scenes to try to get video footage for local television reports. Lou obtains an inexpensive camcorder and tries to get his own footage. In an effort to succeed, he begins down a slippery slope towards less and less moral actions. We see a world that in is inherently corrupt, where all human relationships have been reduced to transactions. The movie looks at the reality of a world where jobs are insecure and where news is entertainment. It is a dark, dark vision.

On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel would seem to have little in common with Nightcrawler, however if we look at the script rather than the visual style of the film we again see a corrupt, dark world. Unlike Nightcrawler, the world inhabited by the characters in The Grand Budapest is far from unrelievedly dark.  The film has the structure of a story within a story within a story. The central part is narrated by Zero, who, while working as a lobby boy at the hotel, is taken under the wing of the concierge, Mr. Gustave H. Twice, Mr. Gustave H. says something to the effect of, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” One of Gustave’s lovers has been murdered and left him an expensive painting in her will. Gustave is pursued by his dead lover’s greedy son and the family’s enforcer. All of this takes place as Europe descend into war in the background. Mr. Gustave H. sees himself as a bulwark against the decline of civilization. The bright visual style of the film belies the far more somber, although absurd, tone of the script. This lurking seriousness grounds the whimsy and keeps it from floating away into frivolousness.

Birdman has a serious, dark tone, but not in the way of the other two. In Birdman it is not a corrupt world that tortures us, rather we torture ourselves. All the characters struggle with inner demons. The main character is an actor who became famous playing a superhero character in multiple blockbusters. Now he’s seek artistic validation by appearing in a drama on Broadway that he has adapted and directed. I was looking at some clips of the movie online to remind me of it since it’s been several months since I’ve seen it. The dialog is very strong.

Foxcatcher, a story of an unhappy multimillionaire who tries to give himself a sense of achievement by nurturing a wrestling team, but become emotionally entangled with one of the wrestlers, is another dark story. As in Nightcrawler, we have another young man, this time played by Channing Tatum, who is struggling. Foxcatcher, while certainly in interesting movie, is not as tightly written as the others. It lacked the tension it needed or the emotional intensity.

Well, it’s getting late, so I’m going to have to wrap this up. There are a lot of interesting themes that were brought up in the original screenplays, the nature of work, the difficulty of making a living, the nature of the media, what defines civilization and humanity. My own personal favorites were Birdman and Nightcrawler. Since Nightcrawler has received significantly less attention than the other films, I’d like to say that anyone who enjoys film noir should try to see it. Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job as Lou.

No one asked me, but I figured it’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it, so I’ve been making my way through the list of Oscar nominees, at least in the major categories. Strangely, it started with the brouhaha over whether or not Selma was “snubbed” for a nomination because the actors, director and producers are black. (I originally typed African-American and then switched it because I remembered that David Oyelowo is not American.) I realized that I couldn’t have much of an opinion as long as I hadn’t seen the other nominees. Eventually, it bloomed into just wanting to watch as many nominees as possible before the Oscars.

Last night I watched Whiplash and I have to say that it utterly blew me away. I can’t say enough good things about this movie. First of all, if anyone was snubbed for a best Oscar nod, it was Miles Teller, who puts in a tremendous performance as Andrew, a music student. It seems that gender expectations make precocious little girls and very young women unexceptional as Oscar nominees in the acting category, but not so for young men. It’s a trend that may have to do with factors other than just the sexism of the people handing out awards, according to this interesting research, “Gendered Age Differences Expected among Oscar Nominees.” Teller certainly did a better job that that dreadful Benedict Cumberbatch, about whom no one would care if it wasn’t for brain-dead anglophilia – and the same can be said of his skeletal co-star.

Teller plays an ambitious young drummer, determined to do whatever it takes to be great, who encounters a teacher determined to do anything to make his students great, and anything includes viscous emotional abuse. It is a fabulous meditation about what it takes to rise above the common herd.

Besides the wonderful performance by Miles Teller, there is a great performance by J.K. Simmons, as the teacher. The role of the teacher exemplifies what makes this movie so great. The character is described in many reviews as a sadist. Yet, his sadism is not done for his own pleasure, but to get better performances out of his students. It asks us what are the acceptable lengths to which one can go in pursuit of excellence. To the movie’s credit, it does not answer that question.

This is a wonderfully relevant story in our current society, one that does not satisfy itself with the reassuring myths we are usually fed. Every time I hear someone saying that they’re insisting on “excellence”, I wince a little bit. One of the important myths needed to keep up the charade that we live in a meritocracy is that this arrangement is somehow universally beneficial. The people of merit are all healthy, fit, well-groomed, socially adept, friendly, poised as well as being academically and professionally successful, emotionally balanced, with a fulfilling family life and friends. Whiplash shows us the frustrating reality that we don’t want to see. Excellence, greatness comes at the expense of those other things. We see Andrew practicing until his hands bleed. The movie’s director, Damien Chazelle, told Teller to not exercise and to stay out of the sun. We are told in the movie that he has no friends. His one relationship falls apart. Excellence comes only at a high price.

A little over a decade ago, I lived with a man who had been a mathematical prodigy when he was young. At the age of eight, he taught himself calculus from a book. Starting in middle school, he would leave his regular public school after lunch and go to a nearby college where he would take math and science classes. He started Harvard at nineteen. Everyone expected great things from him, great things that never materialized. He used to tell me about a longitudinal study which followed gifted children over many decades. I believe it was the Terman Study of the Gifted. While some of the children who were followed in the study, which is still ongoing, went on to have notable careers, many followed more mundane paths. The point that my ex-boyfriend was always trying to make was that it was not ability, or even interest, alone that accounted for success. He always liked to point out that people who achieved great things made sacrifices in other areas of their lives that he was not willing to make. They have, in the words he preferred to use, unbalanced lives. His father, a medical researcher who had made some important discoveries, was one of his prime examples. His father, as far as he could see, was not a happy person. He would verbally berate his wife at home, who would put up with it because he was a genius. She saw her role as to nurture and take care of her driven husband. But my boyfriend didn’t want the kind of life his father had. He preferred to be more mundane, yet enjoy a life that was more balanced.

Whiplash was made on a small budget. It’s the director’s second movie, which he wrote himself. It’s partly autobiographical. Chazelle made a shorter film which he used to raise money for the full version. For this reason, the screenplay is nominated for the Academy Award for Writing in the Adapted Screenplay category. The budget for this film was only 3.3 million dollars, a pittance compared to the fifteen to sixty million dollars that it took to make the other nominees for best film. As a small, independent movie, Whiplash opened in few theaters. I wanted to see it anyway because of the subject. The first review I saw said essentially, “Finally, a movie about a drummer, and thank goodness it’s good.” The Oscar nomination has secured its release in many more theaters. Unless it wins in a big way at the Oscars, it probably won’t stick around long after the awards, so I really recommend you try to see it.

It has its flaws. I don’t want to give away the ending, so let me say that I wish Chazelle could have found a way to get the same emotional dynamics that we find at the end in a more realistic scenario. It stretched credulity, but it didn’t ruin it. The emotional intensity between the characters, not the setting, is the interesting part of the scene. The music is fabulous. I’m no jazz critic, but I really enjoyed the music. I understand that Teller can really play drums. Although it is not Teller that we hear in the soundtrack, it is apparently mostly Teller that we see on-screen. He could not have entirely faked it. If anyone finds themselves easily annoyed when actors obviously can’t play the instrument they supposedly are playing in a movie, they will be able to suspend disbelief watching Teller. As far as the other musicians in the movie go, apparently there is no need to suspend disbelief because they hired musicians, not actors, for those roles.

I’ve been trying to see all the movies in certain categories so I can write about the awards with a reasonable level of knowledge. I thought it might be more interesting to compare and contrast the movies than to just offer up reviews. However, I thought Whiplash was so good, that I wanted to alert everyone to it while it’s still lingering in theaters.