Monday, February 28, 2011

The King's Speech Had a Director?

It's one of life's cruel ironies that, moments after Tom Hooper won the Best Director Oscar for The King's Speech, the telecast then decided to show highlights from the Governor's Awards where French iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard, who "regretfully" couldn't make it, received an honorary Oscar for his 50 years of continually redefining cinema and pushing its boundaries. Whether or not he would have appreciated the honor, here is a man who gave us Anna Karina silently crying to The Passion of Joan of Arc and Jean-Paul Belmondo & Jean Seberg seductively and slyly bantering back and forth in her bedroom, who created a nearly 10 minute long take of a congested traffic jam as a metaphor for capitalism run amok and who gave a voice to leftward politics without trivializing it or making them the enemy, and how many Oscar nominations does he have to show for it? Zero. Meanwhile, Tom Hooper, with a whole bunch of respected-if-not-quite-beloved TV movies and one feature film on his resumé, waltzes up to the podium on his first try for The King's Speech. Now, I'm not one to believe that a director must "pay his dues" before he can be called a great director or even win an Oscar; there are plenty of guys who have proved they had exactly what it takes to be a great director within their first few tries. But who in their right mind thought while watching The King's Speech, "This guy, Tom Hooper, he's got something! What a bright future he has!"? You may notice the respectable acting, The Wall, the off-centered cinematography or the "quirkiness" of the interactions between Firth and Rush, but absolutely no one leaves the theatre thinking that Tom Hooper had any real point of view or the balls to take this film in any slightly uncomfortable direction. He's a fine organizer and may even be good at eliciting performances from his actors, but that's not all that is required of a director, especially one with a Best Director Oscar. They have to offer something more and I'm afraid Tom Hooper simply hasn't shown he's even remotely capable of doing that.

And just because I'm super bitter about the whole thing--I was literally in the fetal position when he won last night--here's a Best Director Oscar statistic for you:

Tom Hooper: 1. Hitchcock, Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard: 0.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gay Hoover and a Bad Teacher

Last year, I was looking forward to typical "Dame James films" such as films where women go insane (Black Swan, The Roommate), hot guys take off their shirts (Love and Other Drugs, The Eagle, The Fighter) and really gay stuff (Burlesque, Charlie St. Cloud). This year, however, is shaping up to be an unusual one, anticipation-wise. My most highly anticipated films of the year are a biopic from Clint Eastwood and a Cameron Diaz comedy. Feel free to do the Miley "Whuuuuuuut" right now; I'm just as confused myself. But let's discuss these films further.

J. Edgar is Clint Eastwood's biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, the famed head of the FBI for many, many years. I initially didn't care about it at all, especially once it was announced that Hoover's rumored homosexuality would be addressed and Leonardo DiCaprio and Joaquin Phoenix would be the ones making out. Fine actors, yes, but I really don't need to see those two mackin' on each other.

But then Joaquin dropped out and Armie Hammer was hired as his replacement. I liked him in The Social Network, but I'm slowly falling head over heels for him since his casting in J. Edgar. First of all, he's gorgeous. But, even more importantly, the man gives good interview. His greatest contribution, however, was telling Leonardo DiCaprio to "pucker up" for their love scenes in the movie. How incredible is that? I love that he's comfortable enough with his sexuality to be this silly about kissing a bonafide A-lister like Leonardo DiCaprio. When you have a film as serious-minded as I'm sure J. Edgar is, and especially when you have an ultra-serious director/star pair like Leo & Clint, it's important to have someone like Armie Hammer who can joke about the project without diminishing its value.

Here is Armie in formal wear. Doesn't he look good? (The only acceptable answer is yes, by the way).

A couple weeks ago, the first behind the scenes footage was released and let's see if you can spot another reason why I would be excited for this project:

Yes, your eyes don't deceive you: that is Dame Judi MOTHERFUCKING Dench, the fiercest bitch around. She is apparently playing Leo's mom but I had no idea until I saw this clip. Let me tell you, I'm 99.5% sure I did the gay inhale at that point. I love her so much.

Secondly, isn't Armie a complete goofball? I love the random faces he makes for no apparent reason.

Kinda reminds me of this shot of Armie photobombing Chris Colfer at the SAG Awards (via).

What a dork. A hot, delicious dork.

The trailer for the new Cameron Diaz comedy, Bad Teacher, debuted only yesterday, but I was completely on board for this film from the first 20 seconds. I genuinely think Cameron Diaz is one of the most underrated actresses of our time. When she finds a good role she believes in, she absolutely nails it. Watch In Her Shoes, Being John Malkovich or There's Something About Mary again and you'll see that she has a range most actresses only dream of. True, she does choose shit movies over and over again, but I love seeing those rare moments when she truly shines. Bad Teacher is Cameron's return to raunchy, balls out comedy and I'm already dying of anticipation. I could tell that her character is one that would become endearing to me the moment she says "Fuck my ass" when she realizes that school is starting back up the next day. You know who also says "Fuck my ass" when they're extremely frustrated? Me. I just hope that the rest of the movie is able to keep up with Cameron. By the looks of the cast, give or take Justin Timberlake, it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Debbie Gets the Last Laugh

Carrie Fisher: "He [Eddie Fisher] consoled her [Elizabeth Taylor] with flowers. And, ultimately, he consoled her with his penis."

Monday, February 21, 2011

I Am Liz Lemon #2

A new semi-regular series in which I point out moments from Liz Lemon's life that have either happened to me in the past or are currently happening to me in my own life. This will be the ultimate proof that, once and for all, I am Liz Lemon.

"For the first time ever, things are lining up for old Liz Lemon!"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rants on A Free Soul

It would be easy to dismiss A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931) as a relic of a bygone era, both morally and cinematically, even though its dismissal would be warranted as the film is a creaky, stodgy early talkie that sets the artform, not to mention women's sexual rights, backwards 20 years. A Free Soul, a standard melodrama of its day, revolves around Stephen Ashe, an alcoholic, upper-class lawyer (Lionel Barrymore) and Jan, his free-spirited, vibrant daughter (Queen of MGM, Norma Shearer). He just successfully gotten cruel, yet completely charming gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) acquitted of murder. Jan begins a sexual affair with the gangster, much to her father's dismay. Not that she's having sex so much as she's having sex with that lowlife creep so obviously beneath him and his daughter's social class.

The story of A Free Soul is hardly its strong suit, as it was hardly revolutionary even in 1931. What fascinates me 80 years later is the surprisingly strong feminist revelation that the film leads to. The character of Jan is supposed to be this free spirit, a remnant of the flapper era in the sobering days of the Great Depression. She thinks she can do whatever she wants but, really, she's merely a piece of property passed around between various entities over the course of the film. In the first part of the film, Jan is owned by her class and all the protocol that is included. After her affair with Ace has been going on for months, Ace is suddenly angered by the fact that she will only see him late at night at his place, never out in public where others will see them. Jan's class definitely prohibits liaisons such as this, so it is her duty to hide the dirty little secret instead of flaunting for everyone else to see. She is not a rebellious character; she is simply a girl who wants a little action.

After her father learns of her affair, he forbids her from seeing him again or accepting his marriage proposal. Fearing that this news will drive him to go on another, possibly fatal, binge, Jan promises to give up Ace if he will stop drinking. So, the two of them drop everything and head off into the wilderness to deal with their addictions for a few months. Jan may say she's working on getting over Ace, but she's truly spending the bulk of their time away trying to get her father sober. She frets over it constantly, theoretically replacing one addiction with another. Jan has given up everything in order to help a man who, at the first opportunity, buys as much alcohol as he can and goes on a major bender without a care in the world for her.

When she returns home, without a father and shunned from the rest of her family, Jan returns to Ace, hoping he will provide some of the happiness she has lost. He is happy to see her, but after losing her all those months, Ace wants more than just sex from her. He wants to marry her, much to Jan's surprise. She at first accepts but quickly considers her options and realizes that she doesn't have to marry him. She's not in love with him anymore and he has no right to treat her like a possession. This idea is further explored when Ace comes to her apartment later on and says, in effect, "The ring is here, the minister has been called, we're getting married. Come on." Ace believes that just because she is a ruined woman now, she has no choice but to marry him. But Jan knows that being with him for that reason alone will never make her happy. So she makes the difficult choice to choose her own freewill over the happiness of those around her.

As a film about a woman owning her own soul, A Free Soul is surprisingly liberal for 1930s Hollywood, almost becoming a tamer version of Their Eyes Were Watching God. As a film about a woman owning her body and her virtue, A Free Soul looks dated even by 1931's Pre-Code standards. Don't forget that this is from the same studio that, one year later, showed Jean Harlow seduce a married man, marry him herself and then leave him with no punishment for her actions. A Free Soul wants it both ways--we are meant to cheer on Jan's sexual exploits but the film ultimately condemns them--but it simply doesn't work. If it's a feminist tale, then why is Jan's ex-fiancé (Leslie Howard) fighting for her honor when Ace won't leave her alone? Jan has already accepted the consequences of whatever she did and is not ashamed of them anymore, so why is the film? If A Free Soul is a condemnation of lax sexual morality, why do they make it look so fun and openly flaunt the Pre-Code sexuality that they were allowed to get away with, only to come down nearly as harshly as they would have been forced to just years later? The film can't make up its mind what it wants to be so it throws everything up on-screen in the hopes that something will stick. Nothing does, and it only makes an already convoluted film that much more preposterous.

A Free Soul looks like it was edited with a hacksaw and features Lionel Barrymore at his hammiest and Norma Shearer, as fascinating as she is to watch, at her shrieky worst. If you look beyond the surface badness, however, there's an interesting film ready to emerge and ripe for a retelling should a writer be so bold as to tackle this moldy antiquity. C-

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Few Thoughts on a Few 2011 Singles

I was listening to my playlist of 2011 singles and I had a couple of thoughts concerning some of them. Here they are in no particular order.

>>Katy Perry has been really smart with her single choices from Teenage Dream. Aside from the lead single, 'California Gurls', Katy has but released three surprisingly adult choices in a row: the title track, 'Firework' and now 'E.T.' What makes this even more incredible is that she two surefire hits in the making on her album--'Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)' and 'Peacock'--that could easily be Top 5 hits with very little work. They are both generic and audience-pandering pop tracks that any mediocre popstar could have pooped out but Katy, surprisingly, went for the less obvious choices. I mean, who would have guessed when 'I Kissed a Girl' or 'Hot N Cold' came out that she would even record an anthemic, 'Beautiful'-esque song like 'Firework,' much less release it as a single and get it to #1. 'E.T.' is even more of anomaly as its a dark, rather melancholic (well, as dark and melancholic as Katy Perry can get) track a good deal more adult than 95% of her output. The song is more proof that when she really tries and cares, Katy can be a really great popstar.

>>'Hold It Against Me' is, strangely enough, a grower. I have liked Brit's comeback single since the minute I first heard it, but I haven't been passionate about it like I have many of her other lead singles. Over the past month or so, however, I've slowly liked it more and more to the point where I'm now madly in love with the song. What I think took me so long is the fact that 'Hold It Against Me' is subtly different from the rest of her work. To a casual observer not intimate with Brit's work, it's auto-tuned business as usual. But to an obsessive like myself, 'Hold It Against Me' is quite different from her most recent lead singles. There's no massive hook and no repetitive chorus. In fact, the chorus is actually the softest, prettiest part of the song while the middle 8 is where the song really shines. The song changes gears and tempos about four different times but that's what I love about it. 'Hold It Against Me' is Brit playing against our expectations about what a lead single of hers sounds like and I think it's a clever, bold move for the legendary Miss Britney Spears.

>>Who is Jessie J? Yes, I know who she is but I have no clue who she is as an artist. I didn't particularly care for 'Do It Like a Dude' when I first heard it but, like 'Hold It Against Me,' it has grown on me considerably in the past month or so (even if it's not as good as Ciara's ultimate equal-rights-between-the-sexes anthem 'Like a Boy'). The song is loud, in-your-face and aggressive as hell, which coheres with the rough and tumble persona Jessie J has created for herself. With that angry bob haircut and tattoos all up and down her body, she's the kind of chick I would totally expect to stand up to domineering men and let them know she can do what they do just as well as them. But now her second single, 'Price Tag', has come out and already hit #1 in the UK and I'm more confused than ever as to what kind of artist she is. The song is another one of those "people are so superficial and only care about fame and expensive things" that we get every year from pretentious a-holes who think they're so clever and witty with their bashing of the rich and the vapid. We get it, rich people have no souls. Can we move on already? Unfortunately, Jessie J goes down this road once again and the result is atrocious. 'Price Tag' features B.o.B. but the message is so earnest and "insightful" I'm really shocked Travie McCoy didn't reprise a verse of 'Billionaire' on it. I'm really hoping 'Price Tag' is just a one-off and the album is full of more 'Do It Like a Dude''s, otherwise it's going to be a nightmare to sit through.

>>I feel like 2011 will finally be the year of Vincent Frank, aka Frankmusik. I have been in love with him since I first heard '3 Little Words' and a few other underground releases, but his truly dire debut album sent his career two steps backwards. He's had a year to get back on track and now, with the help of Cherrytree Records, the same label that has made Robyn and Far East Movement massive successes, Frankmusik is ready to take over America. 'The Fear Inside' dropped very late last year to small, if very positive, fanfare and he has been steadily releasing free tracks--some of which are very, very good--to build hype for the upcoming album. Perhaps most importantly, he has made the rounds on the late night TV circuit, performing the chorus to Far East Movement's 'Rocketeer' in the absence of original singer Ryan Tedder. Maybe I'm just prejudiced, but I think he does a far better job than Tedder. If only this could have been his proper introduction to the American public. Then again, I feel like he will make it with his own material.

>>Sometimes I have no clue what goes through record labels' heads when they make the idiotic decisions that they do. Take, for example, Taio Cruz's 'Higher' and the differences between the original and U.S. versions. In the original version, the song is a duet with pop goddess Kylie Minogue. The song isn't exactly revolutionary but it's surprisingly catchy and Kylie & Taio have great chemistry. I'm not surprised that, for the U.S. release, the label decided to tack on a needless rap from none other than Travie McCoy. Taio isn't exactly an established star here yet and Kylie, no matter what the rest of the world says, hasn't had a hit in the U.S. since, arguably, 'Love at First Sight'. But what I'm flabbergasted by is the fact they completely dropped Kylie Minogue from the U.S. version and simply had Taio record all of her vocals. This was a stupid decision for two reasons: (1) the song functions best as a duet so as a Taio solo, something is missing and (2) why on Earth would you replace Kylie in the first place? It's not as if she's some complete unknown or that the Travie McCoy verse completely replaces her. The song would have functioned just fine if they had left Kylie in it. Then again, what do I know about making hit records in America. This is the same country that gave two #1's in a row to a cokehead.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Sauve Motherfucker

I've posted about model Sebastian Sauve--and his enormous, sexy lips--before. Within the last few weeks, a couple campaigns have been released and the results were, unsurprisingly, good. This kid is so unusual looking but also very, very sexy. Not exactly a bad combination, especially in the modeling world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Rest Is Same Difference

Same Difference, aka Sean & Sarah Smith, everyone's favorite lovable, slightly incestuous, brother and sister pop act, are back with a new album! Even better, it's available for purchase in the States! The album is called The Rest Is History and you need to buy it now.

As you can see by the cover, The Rest Is History is the group's attempt to move past the kiddie-friendly image they adopted over the course of their X-Factor run a few years ago into more adult territory. They've ditched the cardigan sweaters, lollipops and massive key changes that dominated their first album, Pop, for sleeker, less obvious production and a more mature, age-appropriate wardrobe. Their transformation was subtle--this certainly isn't Rihanna on her Rated R campaign--but it's noticeable, which is clearly the point. They want the world to see them as serious artists, not just the relentlessly cheerful pop tarts they were marketed as. Change is definitely necessary in order for this to happen as Sean & Sarah are talented individuals, but was the transformation a success?

I must admit that I was a little sad that the Pop era had come to an end. Without that album in the first few months of 2009, I don't know how I would have survived. Their optimism and cheerfulness warmed this cold cynic's heart in ways I had never experienced before. Just a year before, I probably would have laughed them off, but they came in at the right point in my life for me to appreciate their ridiculousness. While it's true that The Rest Is History captures a more mature-sounding Same Difference, they haven't lost the one thing that made their music so unique: the all-encompassing joy that comes through in their music. Just like with David Archuleta, everything Same Difference does never fails to put a smile on my face. With The Rest Is History, Sean & Sarah are their bouncy, joyful selves on something like the infectious 'Karma Karma' without limiting themselves to the BIGNESS of their earlier stuff. The album has some great jams, but the best in my estimation is 'Souled Out.' We've been hearing bits and pieces of it for well over a year now but nothing has prepared us for how gloriously epic the track is. It's everything we loved about the old Same Difference wrapped up in everything we love about the new Same Difference and is a huge leap forward for the brother and sister duo. The album title may suggest that Sean & Sarah are trying to forget the past but the music proves that they have only taken it in a new direction, not forgetting what made them successful in the first place.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sex & Blue Valentine

While watching Blue Valentine on Friday, the MPAA controversy surrounding it a few months ago completely escaped me. It was only after I was reliving the movie in my head later that night at work that I remembered the big ruckus about a certain sex scene that was gratuitous enough to earn an NC-17 rating. Usually, when a film receives an NC-17, it's quite obvious why it got the rating, whether or not you agree with the decision. Tellingly, I couldn't remember anything vaguely offensive in Blue Valentine for the longest time. After awhile, I decided that it must have been one very uncomfortable scene that I'm going to discuss more in-depth in a second, but, after some research, I came to the realization that it was the two moments where Ryan Gosling goes down on Michelle Williams that got the MPPA's panties in a twist. In hindsight, the answer is obvious, but I honestly can't believe that that was what was deemed so grossly offensive that it needed an NC-17 rating. You can't even fucking see anything! If I'm gonna watch an NC-17 film, I at least want a penis shot or something similarly out there to warrant such an outlandish rating.

The sex scene that made me more uncomfortable than the oral sex ones occurs about halfway through Blue Valentine's two-hour runtime. After a rough day, married couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are spending the night away from home in a cheap couples motel--the kind of motel where each suite has a wacky theme--in an attempt to escape their crumbling marriage and relax together. Cindy is clearly annoyed that she has been dragged away from home when she's on call for work the next morning, so she wastes no time in getting this show on the road as soon as they settle into the futuristic-themed room they have picked: Dean is playing around on the rotating bed, imploring Cindy to come and join him on it but she's busy looking for the alcohol they bought so she can get this over with. This retreat from their life is not a vacation for Cindy and I think Dean senses this, which is why he, in the beginning at least, chooses to tiptoe around her precarious mood. He's hoping his playfulness will slowly ease her into the situation.

After some failed shower sex and an uncomfortable conversation about Dean realizing his potential that quickly and unknowingly switches between bitterness and hilarity, Dean and Cindy finally get drunk. They are on the revolving bed when Dean suddenly gets off to do something. He leaves the room, falls down on the ground and calls for Cindy to come help him. She gets off the bed, slowly and completely buzzed from the alcohol, but isn't much help. She falls down next to him and, before she knows it, Dean is putting the moves on her. He starts sensually kissing her neck, hoping to make this a sweet, passionate lovemaking session, but she is visibly uncomfortable with the level of intimacy. She quickly takes off her underwear, hoping this will speed up the process. Dean tries, but is ultimately turned off by Cindy's lack of intimacy. An argument soon erupts and the couple ends up spending the night separately.

The first unpleasant thing about this scene is the role reversal and its ideology. Normally in the movies, it is the woman who craves intimacy while the man is after a quick fuck. In Blue Valentine, however, it is Dean who needs the emotional connection for the sex to be any good. "I want you," he tells Cindy, obviously interested in more than using her vagina as a tool to get off. What I think made the MPAA so eager to brand this film with the NC-17 is the fact that sex is used in Blue Valentine as a way of showing how obviously disconnected Cindy and Dean are. There are no happy endings here where one quick roll in the hay makes the two of them realize how they are meant to be; if anything, sex draws them apart, revealing just how far gone this relationship is. People do not like to be confronted with the fact that sex can be just as painful emotionally as it is pleasurable physically.

Secondly, the overall composition of the scene really makes it hard to watch. Shot mostly in brown and yellow shadows, the scene certainly is not pretty to look at. In fact, the color scheme is supposed to repulse us, just as Dean kissing her neck repulses Cindy. The fact that the camera hops around the room, going in and out of focus, capturing everything and nothing at all, yet remains suffocatingly close to the action, lends an almost perverse edge to the scene. We know we should not be watching this moment, yet we cannot help but to be involved in the scene. We wince with every wince of Cindy's. We want her to enjoy this moment but we also know that even if she did enjoy the sex, it would not solve the major issues in their marriage.

Thirdly, Derek Cianfrance and company's screenplay elevates this scene with a few choice lines of dialogue. In his initial "seduction," Dean tries getting Cindy in the mood by asking her "Do you want my baby?", much in the same way a male porn actor asks the person he's fucking "Do you want my big dick?" He repeats different variations of this line to her, all receiving a stony, chilled silence in response. Clearly, Dean is reading her completely wrong; she barely wants to have sex with him, let alone a baby. The aforementioned "I want you" line, uttered right after he realizes he can't have sex with her when she's not remotely interested, reveals Dean's desperation to reconnect with Cindy in a startlingly concise way. And Dean's later uttering of something to the effect of "Would you like it if I hit you?" is an interesting way of bringing up the idea that maybe Cindy has simply shut down and is no longer emotionally or physically invested in their marriage at all. Maybe getting slapped around would be the only way she could feel anything for him anymore.

This sex scene is far less gratuitous than the oral sex scenes that were initially condemned by the MPAA, but it is definitely the scene that is far more complex and mature in nature. It is almost impossible to put into words, but the scene leaves you with a pit in your stomach, gnawing at you the entire time. You want to stop looking at the mess unfolding before your eyes, yet the moment is so beautifully realized that there is no way you can emotionally divest yourself from watching it. This scene is a grade-A moment in a film filled with many of them and a true testament to the power of Blue Valentine.