Saturday, February 25, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards – Oscars Live Feed - La La Land Awards Watch


The nominations are all over La La Land even though I don’t know how popular it was with viewers. Viewers liked it – okay. I was underwhelmed. No catchy songs – and the songs didn’t elicit much emotion. Not much story – and what story there is has been told multiple times: young persons pursue their dreams in Hollywood, fall in love, one makes it, the other makes it so-so.

So why has this film been so popular with critics and the Academy?

1. It’s called La La Land and it’s about Hollywood.

2. It’s a musical. People in a traffic-jam burst into a sprightly dance number. Emma Stone swishes her dress as she embarks on a girls’ night out on the town with her roomies.

3. Trump got us all depressed. Then along came La La Land to cheer us up, and musicals are inherently cheerful.

So here’s my prediction: La La Land will win Best Picture, and I’m fine with that. It’s a done deal – unless this year’s awards turn out to be as surprising as the recent Super Bowl. I expect it to win. I enjoyed the other films nominated for Best Picture but I’m not passionate about any of them. I think Moonlight is the best-made film of the lot – the artistic and touching indie – but I’m not passionate about it.

Again, I don’t care if La La wins Best Picture and a bunch of other awards it doesn’t really deserve.

I just don’t want it to win 11 awards to tie the record or, horrors, surpass the record! I don’t want it to tie Ben-Hur and Titanic for most Oscars won: 11. (Yeah, yeah, that includes Return of the King too, but that was more of an installment or episode – part of a masterpiece trilogy that deserved some sort of award.) Beyond the fact that Ben-Hur has the unsurpassed chariot race and Titanic has the masterful sinking of the great ship - oh, and Kate Winslet in the drawing scene, let’s not get into why I don’t want La La to win 11 or 12. Let’s move on.

If you care about this, the situation is very dicey!

Here’s the deal - La La is nominated for 14 awards. Yikes! This makes me nervous – but wait! It can’t win 14 because it’s competing against itself for Best Song. It could win 13, but that won’t happen. Gosling won’t take Best Actor against Affleck or Denzel. That bumps it down to 12. It must lose two more! I predict, I hope, it will not win for Best Original Screenplay. Voters might want to honor Manchester By the Sea. That cuts it down to 11.

Oh, shit! One more! It must lose one more!

It does not deserve Best Cinematography - there's Silence and Arrival, but when the Academy voters latch onto a favorite they vote without imagination and they fall into sweep fever – give it all to the favorite! Or, Justin Timberlake could come through for us and take Best Song for "Can't Stop the Feeling" - the kind of catchy song La La needed. Could Meryl Streep's outlandish costume for Florence Foster Jenkins choke the competition? Could the Force be with us so that Rogue One gets it for Sound Mixing? Unfortunately, Allied - which created multiple blocks of Casablanca and London in the 1940s - is not nominated for Production Design.

In the spirit of meaningless pursuits – at a time when such trivial diversions are crucial for maintaining one's sanity during the current administration in Washington - join me for a Live Feed La La Land Watch this Sunday, February 26, at 8:30 EST (at 5:30 out there in La La Land).

(Once the winners start being announced – be sure to refresh this feed for updates.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hannah – Past or Future? – The Non-linear Time Paradox in Arrival


BEWARE! BIG SPOILERS! THIS DISCUSSES THE ENDING!

How refreshing it is to watch a well-made film that makes you think and compels you to view it again – which I did, and I plan to see it again. Arrival is the kind of film that stimulates examination and discussion – and one question I wonder about is whether Hannah is born BA (before the aliens arrive) or AA (after aliens).

Just about all the websites, YouTube videos, reviews, and chatlines I consulted say – and rather bluntly as though you’re an idiot if you think otherwise – Hannah is born AA – period – or, PERIOD!, as some posts put it. If we go with AA, then the opening scenes involving Hannah are presented out of sequence, which is kind of a gimmicky trick that cheats the audience into accepting, as most viewers would accept, that a depressed women seeing her young daughter is having flashbacks – not flashforwards.

Most of these sites that I consulted start with, “That’s the way it is in short story.” But this is not a strong argument because, we know, filmmakers love to adapt and “re-envision” their source material – often to the outrage of readers faithful to the source material. At least, filmmakers may not change the source radically, but they love to inject ambiguity. In my film course, I had young students who hated ambiguity. I love it!

For this film, ambiguity is all in keeping with the non-linear time paradox that is part of heptapodese – also in keeping with palindromic nature of Hannah’s name – which can also be read the same way backwards as follows: hannaH. Ooh, ah!

I have no problem placing Hannah’s life – from birth to premature death – AA or BA. I suppose AA needs no argument here since that’s “the way it is in the short story”! Also, toward the end of the film, it seems that Louise is learning that she can time-shift as part of comprehending heptapodese. Still, if we go with BA, Louise gets to time-shift when she goes ahead to the book-release party and she gets General Chiang’s phone number so she can call him in the film’s present and tell him his wife’s dying words – which prevents the Human-Alien War.

Still, still, if we go with BA, Louise also gets to use her new talent to shift into the PAST to answer her daughter’s question: “Zero-sum game.” She is also able to shift into the past and tell her husband that she knows Hannah is going to die prematurely. “I told him something he wasn’t ready to hear.” Also, also, alien time-shift vibes seem to have affected Hannah who draws the picture of Mommy and Daddy with the caged bird – which will happen in the future – which suggests that Ian – or a different scientist guy – is Hannah’s father.

Of course, it at first SEEMS clear that Ian is not Hannah’s father – he’s the father of a second child - because when Ian and Louise meet they don’t ACT LIKE they know each other, and references are made to Louise’s life BA as though he was not part of it: “I didn’t know you were married,” says Ian. “I just realized why my husband left me,” says Louise. But I think the filmmakers are being coy here. I think they are throwing in more ambiguity on top of the film’s mind-bending sci-fi premise – if you go total immersion with heptapodese, you will be able to time shift - because –

if we accept that Ian is not Hannah’s father BA, then why the hell does he say – in the scene in which Ian and Louise watch the alien shell disintegrate and then embrace – “Do you want to make a baby?” Wow, this is pretty familiar! Sounds more like something a formerly estranged ex-husband might say to his ex-wife after a bonding experience. This does not sound like what a guy would say to a woman before he’s even gone out on a date! They haven’t even kissed yet! Also, when they embrace, Louise says, “I forgot how good it felt to hold you.” Did I hear this wrong? Accepting Ian as Hannah’s father BA does not rob the film of its question regarding "would you still have your child if you knew she was going to die prematurely." AA, Ian and Louise may still have to face this dilemma.

None of this discussion is meant as criticism of the film. I love it. As a teacher of ESL, I loved their efforts to find a way to comprehend alien speakers and make communication as easy as possible. I love that the “weapon” is language! But I feel there are some loose ends – which I hope are not loose ends but intentional elements of ambiguity and paradox – because ambiguity and paradox are what the film is about in many ways.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Ben-Hur for Dummies


I would confidently wager money that the new Ben-Hur contains a greater percentage of dialogue for its little-over-an-hour running time than the 1959er has for its plus-three-hour length. That is one of this film's many downfalls. All that talk slows down the action as the film spends more time telling than showing. Hell, even Jesus talks, whereas, in the William Wyler film Jesus says nothing, we never see his face, and the result is more mystery. On top of that, the film opens with one of the worst usages of voiceover narration I've experienced in a long time as Morgan Freeman explains things about the Roman Empire that most viewers could intuit as well as backstory about the relationship between Ben-Hur and his Roman friend, Messala, that the film should be showing us through action.

I enjoyed the new film's authentic locations and some of its reinventions. For the most part, however, the twists, indeed, the contortions, made to the classic plot line, steered by Christian producers going for a one hundred percent feel-good story, rob the film of drama and any sort of visceral seriousness.

SPOILERS - The Changes:

Morgan Freeman narrates.

The tile does not fall - an element that is integral and thematic to the story. The arriving governor is not injured. B-H is not condemned for a fateful accident!

Messala is a conflicted character who feels forced to condemn B-H. He is not the wonderfully corrupted Messala played by Stephen Boyd.

Quintus Arrius harangues the rowers and dies in the battle. B-H does not save him so that Quintus can adopt him, get him pardoned, and make him a wealthy man of power who is posed to seek his vengeance Count of Monte Cristo-style.

The leper story is not developed. We just learn that mother and daughter are incarcerated somewhere - looks like they have been lying on a cot for seven years - and it's not clear what disease they have. Very rapidly and without any drama, they are cured by a trickle of rainwater coming through the roof and the Sheik (Freeman) buys their freedom. "I'll take them."

Jesus talks and appears more - but his death is less visceral.

Interesting, the film includes a scene in the garden where Jesus is betrayed - and this is in the novel - but B-H is not present, running from the Romans, as he does in the novel.

And, most disappointingly, B-H and M forgive each other, and M does not die - though he loses a leg. It's all a big happy, hugging family at the end, traveling along with Freeman's caravan. And M rides off into the sunset with B-H - and what's this? Indeed, M has grown a new leg. Miracle!


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ben-Hur - The Classics Illustrated Comic


This Classics Illustrated version of the novel, published in 1958, includes all the iconic moments. It all starts with that darn tile falling. "That tile is still falling," Esther says in the 59er movie. Caused a lot of problems!


For not fixing his roof, gets Ben-Hur sent off to row with the slaves in a Roman galley. "Ramming speed!" "Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one!" Here is a curious case of a blatant anachronism (Romans didn't use galley slaves - what were you thinking, Lew?) turning into an iconic episode in the novel as well as in the film versions.


Then there's Jesus, looking like he belongs in a Christian fundamentalist brochure. He gives Ben-Hur that symbolic drink of water that Ben-Hur will attempt to repay at the end of the story. As Ben-Hur's conflicts play out, Jesus is headed toward his fated climax. Ben-Hur's life parallels that of Jesus. Both are the same age. While Ben-Hur seeks vengeance, Jesus preaches forgiveness.

The 59er film does a great job of presenting Jesus without showing his face. His face - that subdues a Roman soldier going to interrupt Ben-Hur's refreshing drink - are left to our imagination. Unfortunately, the mini-series casts as Jesus someone who looks like Graham Chapman in Life of Brian. The mini-series downplays the drama of the Crucifixion and the miracle while the 59er goes for visual spectacle, blood, and a tumultuous storm and earthquake during the culminating miracle.

Influenced by Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all things Roman constituted an ongoing fad throughout the Victorian Era. Lew Wallace's novel appealed to that fad, and readers must have been thrilled with his description of the chariot race, the action scene that would epitomize the films. The Classics Illustrated Comic images evoke the speed and violence of that scene.


The comic is not a movie spin-off. It is all about the novel. As do all Classics Illustrated editions, it ends with the following plug:" Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don't miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library."

Indeed, as a boy, I did just that. It took patience getting through Wallace's detailed travelogue-style commentary and his descriptions of architecture and the culture of ancient Rome and the Hold Land, but the central conflict is always compelling. Now wonder Ben-Hur has been made into a spectacular stage play, a feature silent film, a sound film that won eleven Oscars, a British mini-series, and now an epic remake! It's a great story that explores the themes of vengeance, hope, forgiveness, and the importance of family.



Monday, July 25, 2016

Ben-Hur (2010) - The British Mini-series


In anticipation of the August 19 release of the "re-imagining" of Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Babmembetov, my personal Ben-Hur-o-thon continues.

Watch the 2010 British mini-series version of the story! It's excellent and builds to an emotional finale. While it doesn't have the epic, broad scope of the 59er, this is an admirable, well-written, well-performed rendition whose big advantage is realistic location shots in the ksars and old buildings of Morocco. With more than three hours to work with, the mini-series builds in some re-interpretation of the story - Messala's father is a prick who pushes Messala in a power drive for the governorship of Judea - Quintus Arrius kills himself - Ben-Hur sleeps with a concubine - Ben-Hur's mother and sister do not have contagious leprosy; they just don't want Ben to see them like this. As often happens, however, the casting is largely Caucasian; Ben, Esther, and Jesus look as Jewish as Donald Trump. Sheik Ilderim, however, is played by a real Arab!

As for the classic action, the sea battle is done small-scale with three pirate ships pursuing Quintus Arrius's ship, but the encounter and sinking are gripping enough with dark lighting disguising the obvious CGI. The chariot race is realistically done without CGI - billed in the story as a small-scale affair appropriate to Judea - "the arm pit" of the Roman world. Visually, with its Moroccan setting and set decoration, it is very colorful.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Facts About Ben-Hur


Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was written by General Lew Wallace. It was published in 1880 and it became a bestseller, selling more copies than Uncle Tom's Cabin.

General Lew Wallace fought in the Union army during the Civil War. He flubbed things up at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 by taking his division the long way around the barn and arriving late at the battlefield. In 1864, he redeemed himself at the Battle of Monocacy, near Frederick, Maryland, when he fought a successful delaying action against Confederate forces threatening Washington. After the war he led the commission that investigated the assassination of Lincoln and he presided over the war crimes trial of Henry Wirz, commandant of notorious Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia.

His popular novel was adapted and produced as a stage play first presented in 1899. The spectacular London version was first performed in 1902. Both extravagant productions included hundreds of cast members, a sinking slave ship, and a chariot race with real horses, chariots on a treadmill, and a rotating backdrop to create the illusion of speed.

When I directed drama with middle and high school students, I toyed with the idea for a Ben-Hur stage adaptation. Wish I had done it.

This hilarious ad announcing a broadcast of Ben-Hur, on Turner Classic Movies is a wonderful parody of the 1959 film. At the same time, it shows how much fun a stage production could have been.