Directorial Debuts: Part II (1970’s)

The 1970’s is my favorite decade of cinema by far. Most of my most admired directors had their heyday during this ten-year period, and the majority of films I consider my all-time favorites came out here as well. In Part I of this series, I concentrated on the dearth of great film debuts since 2000 and I suppose there are a few reasons for this. And though the 1970’s brought us the debuts from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Wim Wenders, Ron Howard, Adrian Lyne, Catherine Breillat, and a host of other notable talents, I wouldn’t necessarily classify their first efforts as being overly impressive. Here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1970’s. Again, this is surely not a list of who I believe the best directors are to come out of the decade…I’m just judging first films here and the impact it had on cinema and the rest of their careers. As always, I’d love to see who you might include.

5. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)

One of the most influential horror films in cinema history, without question. And a film that will always freak me the fuck out. I’m not sure if it’s because Hooper’s film is so low budget (less than $300,000), but the quality of it gives the feeling of a snuff film that only adds to the fright factor. The aesthetic quality of the film is impressive and he does manage to get solid performances from a cast of complete unknowns. The irony with this horror flick is that it got an R-rating (though Hooper was fighting for a PG) and even Roger Ebert cited the movie “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises,” when in fact, there is very little blood or gore at all. A testament to the power of the mind and Hooper’s strong work here. Leatherface, inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, is without a doubt, one of the most terrifying and haunting figures in movies, as he waits for his prey in his dilapidated home in the middle of nowhere. Hooper would go on to direct the ill-fated sequel and a host of other horror flicks, but has never managed to outdo this first grand effort.

4. David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1977)

Um…yeah. Not really sure what to say here. Perhaps Entertainment Weekly said it best when they wrote, “Eraserhead is about that which can’t be described.” I could not have put it better myself. Since its initial release, the film has become one of the all-time great cult classics and is the epitome of “the midnight movie.”  Those familiar with the extraordinarily remarkable resume of Lynch, will surely be able to see a number of his favorite themes being introduced here for the first time. Lynch started work on the film when he was given a small grant by the AFI Conservatory, but the money of course ran out and it took him over 5 years to shoot — in spurts. Eraserhead is certainly not for everyone…in fact, it’s not for most. However, you can surely see the singular artistic vision that is David Lynch’s — his style, pacing, use of music, visuals, are all on display, and if not for this work, Mel Brooks would have had nothing to be so impressed by to hire him to helm The Elephant Man.  One significant sidenote – the US Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004. So there’s that…

3. Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me, 1971)

The Oscar-winning director behind such mighty works as Mystic River, Million Dollar BabyUnforgiven, and A Perfect World began his filmmaking career with this gripping psychological thriller. here, Eastwood plays a late-night disc jockey who has a brief fling with Evelyn Draper (a frightening Jessica Walter), an obsessed fan of his. It doesn’t take long for Draper to become more than a little obsessed with the DJ and eventually becomes quite the deranged stalker. The film was released before many stalker films of its kind began to come out, and, rarely seen, showcased a psychotic female villain. Fatal Attraction, anyone? After years and years of working in front of the camera, it is clear that Eastwood picked up a lot from working with great (and not-so-great) directors and puts that knowledge to most impressive use here. A sign of wondrous things to come from this mighty artist.

2. Erroll Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978)

The movie that launched the career of one of America’s premier documentarians. Of course, the main focus of the film is about the pet cemetery business, but the way Morris frames the work, it becomes about so much more than that. Themes of the afterlife, the inevitability of one’s own mortality, what pets mean in our everyday lives seep through and stay with you long after the film ends. There is no narration at all — unlike some of today’s “documentary” filmmakers, Morris refuses to editorialize for us and tell us what to think. It’s a fascinating film that many — most notably Werner Herzog — thought would never see the light of day. Herzog famously wagered that he would eat his own shoe if the movie was ever completed. True to his word, the great director consumed his own footwear, and became the subject of the delightful short 20-minute film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The score…Morris 1, Herzog 0.

1. Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973)

Not simply a magnificent directorial debut, but one of the best movies to come out of the 1970’s, period.  Made for around $300,000, Malick began working on Badlands after his 2nd year at AFI. The film revolves around the cross-country killing spree of sociopathic Kit (Martin Sheen) and young Holly (Sissy Spacek), after he charms her away from her dead-end South Dakota town.   The film managed to steal the limelight from Scorsese’s Mean Streets when it played at the New York Film Festival and critics were unanimous in their praise for the new filmmaker who depicted the violence in a very cold and remorseless way rather than with brutality and gore. Using America’s Midwest as the backdrop, Badlands plays a bit like Bonnie and Clyde (and perhaps a forerunner to Stone’s NBK), but the characters seem more real and the acts, more haunting than Penn’s piece. This film will surely be on any “Best Debut” list, but there is surely a reason for that. Malick, one of cinema’s most visionary directors with a painstaking eye for detail, cemented his reputation at the onset here, prompting his star Spacek to say (after working with him), “The artist rules. Nothing else matters.” Amen.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART III’ will give us the best from the 1960’s. 

Soderbergh: Retiring from Movies?!

I just read on The Huffington Post yesterday that director Steven Soderbergh is seriously contemplating retiring from Hollywood to become a painter. The first thing that came to mind was (sadly) Brett Favre and all of the other famous athletes who have proclaimed a hasty “retirement” only to come back to their sacred ground before the new season even begins. So my feeling here is that although I’m sure Mr. Soderbergh is genuine in his feelings for wanting to explore new artistic ground, I’m sure that in due time the lure of money and familiarity of making movies will suck him back in. And this, for most movie buffs, is a good thing.

I vividly remember seeing Soderbergh’s feature-length debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape 22 years ago (Jeez, has it been that long?!). To this day, I think this is one of the strongest debuts of any director to come out in the last 50 years and remains one of his strongest efforts. To his credit, Soderbergh is one of the few filmmakers who dare to explore new ground and take artistic risks with new experiments. They may not all work or make for great movies (see Full Frontal or The Girlfriend Experience), but you tip your cap to a man seeking to push the boundaries and test new concepts. His style has a unique vision and “look” to it – the lighting in his films and use of color always stand out and immediately tells you that you are watching a Soderbergh film. Since Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the Oscar-winner has made some of the strongest films over the past two decades, including (the often-overlooked) Out of Sight, King of the Hill, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich – all mostly coming in his earlier years. The last decade – which includes the insulting Ocean’s Twelve and his poorly received Che – has not been nearly as impressive. I enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven thoroughly. It is a stylish, well-made film, but also a helluva lot of fun too with a terrific all-star cast. It wasn’t until the subsequent two sequels that I felt he perhaps “sold out” just a bit, and this is a shame because he still is one of America’s finest directors.

But I digress. Announcing your retirement from Hollywood? Is this not a wee bit dramatic? David Lynch manages to balance a number of artistic mediums. He makes a film every few years (and the rarity of it makes a new release of his seem more like an event), while still dedicating himself to his other artistic outlets such as painting, photography, and music. Lynch is a true artist – and can never be accused of being a sell-out by anyone. With three films currently in pre-production and his movie Contagion set for release, it will be interesting to see how Soderbergh segues into his new endeavor, if he does at all. The trailer for Contagion (see below) is very intriguing and personally, I can’t wait to see it. It has the look of being his best in years, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

I hope that Soderbergh proves to be more Michael Jordan (or Joaquin Phoenix, if you will) and less Barry Sanders when it comes to the act of retiring — because it would be a shame not to have his films to look forward to. I have a feeling this is all much ado about nothing — and coincidentally garnering much publicity at the very time his new film is set to be released. For fans of the director, I wouldn’t let this get to you and I wouldn’t be overly distressed. He’ll be back – -just cross your fingers that it isn’t for an Ocean’s 14.

The 10 Creepiest David Lynch Moments

As a tremendous admirer of David Lynch and his artistry, I thought this was a brilliant idea for a post by the writers of Zen College Life (www.zencollegelife.com). I personally feel that he is one of only a select handful of American filmmakers who you can classify as a true “auteur.” Katina Solomon was kind enough to send this my way and after reading it, I felt I must publish it here on The Lantern to help spread the Gospel of Lynch. Some amazing and haunting scenes are listed here…give it a look! — P.E.

When your name becomes an adjective, you know you’ve made it. Case in point: the word “Lynchian” now means, essentially, a movie characterized by stark images, eerie moods, arresting sound design, and often graphic and twisted depictions of the human form. In other words, it’s like watching the most beautiful nightmare you’ve ever had, torn between wanting it to end and wanting to see if it gets weirder. David Lynch. He’s a masterful, remarkably assured filmmaker who’s proven himself to be one of the American greats, yet even by his own special standards, the scenes below are full-on creepy. They’re dark and ominous, and they share a common fear of the unusual and unknown. Many of them are marked by the sudden appearance of something unsettling that’s made all the more so for the way it just kind of shows up in the middle of a scene that’s already surreal. Don’t know what we mean? Throw some headphones on and get comfy, then. Time for a trip down Lynch’s rabbit hole.

10. Every Single Moment in Eraserhead

Lynch’s first film remains his most disturbing. Shot on a shoestring budget in the 1970s, the film is a gross, often revolting work that revolves around a deformed creature with no limbs and a monstrous face. Placing a heavy emphasis on emotional states over linear narratives, the film is a blast of bizarre visions and creepy encounters that Lynch may never top (not that he should.) Even for Lynch die-hards, this is a tough one.

9. The Televised Rabbits in Inland Empire

Significant portions of Inland Empire involve a faux-sitcom set featuring a three-member family with human bodies and rabbit heads. The images come from “Rabbits,” a series of video shorts Lynch made in 2002. On paper, the set-up sounds like a cheesy kids comedy, but in Lynch’s hands, it becomes so weird and menacing and uncomfortable that you don’t know what to do.

To view the scene, please click here.

8. The Shooting at Room 47 in Inland Empire

Totally nonlinear and endlessly challenging, Inland Empire offers some of Lynch’s most upsetting imagery (which is saying something). The movie’s basically a series of scenes that only loosely form a plot, and the action comes to a head when Nikki (Laura Dern) confronts the evil Phantom and shoots him, only to see his face turn into a grotesque version of her own. Seriously, this will mess you up…

To view the scene, please click here.

7. Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive

Only Lynch could make such a moving and beautiful scene so rattling. The final moments of Mulholland Drive exist almost outside of time and reality, playing with the fabric of dreams and death just like the rest of the film. We get our heroines back, briefly, freed from suicide and sex games and everything else that’s plagued every version of them, and we also get a stirring song that raises the nature of seeing versus believing.

6. The Mythical Origin Story in The Elephant Man

Probably the most accessible film Lynch made until 1999’s The Straight Story, The Elephant Man was nominated for a host of Oscars and earned praise for its cast. The opening of the film, though, is vintage Lynch, blending sight and sound into a weird metaphorical origin story that sees a woman trampled (and maybe more) by a herd of elephants. Even in a film as straightforward as this one, the “Lynchian” vibe is inescapable.

To view the clip, please click here.

5. The Figure Behind the Diner in Mulholland Drive

Originally written as a TV pilot before being retooled and partially reshot, Mulholland Drive is a haunting Mobius strip of a movie that slides back and forth between dreams and reality in ways specifically designed to leave viewers unsure of what’s happening. The creepiest moment is one that feels totally unrelated to the surrounding story, too. Set at a diner called Winkies, the scene deals with a man confronting a nightmare that turns out to be real. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the movie, or what your theories are about this scene’s meaning: it will still scare you. Here’s part one; the conclusion is below.

4. The Chat with the Mystery Man in Lost Highway

It sounds misleading to merely refer to Lost Highway as unsettling, as if the rest of Lynch’s c.v. was a lighthearted romp through Candyland, but there are some really spooky moments here that almost defy description. (David Foster Wallace memorably profiled Lynch during the film’s production for Premiere magazine.) The plot is almost too Lynchian to try and sum up, but it starts out dealing with a man (Bill Pullman) who finds himself haunted and stalked by a pale old Mystery Man (Robert Blake). After a brief vision of the Mystery Man, our hero meets him at a party and has a supremely eerie conversation with him that seems to break the rules of space and time.

3. Frank Booth’s Dry-Humping Fit in Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet was Lynch’s art-house redemption after the bloated mess of Dune, and he didn’t mess around: the film’s loaded with the symbolism and sexual themes that are prevalent in much of Lynch’s work. Chief among these is a wild man, Frank Booth (played with insane lust by Dennis Hopper), who gets off by dry-humping Isabella Rossellini while huffing from a gas mask. Even for a movie that kicks off with a guy finding a severed ear, this is a rocky scene.

2. The Appearance of the Navigator in Dune

Lynch’s version of Frank Herbert’s sci-classic is, well, not without its flaws. Lynch spoke out against the film, saying that producers had kept him from having final cut and implementing his own personal vision. Still, the film remains a stark and often ugly work of modern art, and it’s packed with the physical grotesqueries for which Lynch is often known. Easily the most unnerving is the giant navigator that at once is phallic and vaginal, a mutant in a glass case who can fold space and time and who has paid a bodily price for being submerged in the magical spice that gives him his powers. It’s impossible not to see him and feel a chill.

1. Agent Cooper’s Dream in Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks was the kind of daring, what-is-going-on type of TV show that now exists on cable. But in 1990, you could actually get a network to take a chance on a murder mystery that chucked the whodunit plot in favor of weird characters, dream sequences, and pie. Agent Cooper’s dream at the end of the second episode (after the two-hour TV-movie pilot) became an instant pop culture sensation thanks to its style, execution, and indescribable oddity. It’s vintage Lynch, and it set the stage for the rest of the show’s iconic run.

By Katina Solomon
(Zen College Life website)

8 Thoughts on 8 David Lynch Films

Artisphere in Washington DC is celebrating the magnificent works of film auteur David Lynch by screening his works every Wednesday of this month. In honor of this well-deserved tribute, the film writers of the DC-based online entertainment magazine Brightest Young Things (myself included) have chosen to write a few personal thoughts on a film of their choosing — by Sir Lynch.

I personally had to go with Blue Velvet, for many reasons. My commentary on this 1986 masterpiece is below. If you are not acquainted with the film staff at BYT, they have some pretty great writers who know their movies. If you’d like to read some thoughts on such works as Wild at Heart, The Straight Story, Mullholland Drive, Dune (yes, Dune), Lost Highway, Inland Empire — and the mega cult classic Eraserhead, then click on the BYT Loves Lynch article. The BYT film writers include Alan Z., William A., Zach G., Logan D., Erin H., and BYT editor Svetlana L.

Here are my initial thoughts on Mr. Lynch’s Blue Velvet:

It all starts – with an ear. A severed human ear, decomposing in a lush green field. The camera slowly zooms in to the canal as the sound amplifies and the busy ants swarm around the flesh. Thus begins David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, a modern-day film noir with elements of surrealism thrown in for good measure. As we get a closer look inside that rotting ear, we are invited in to Lynch’s world of a dark and violent underbelly lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful suburban logging town.

Blue Velvet is certainly not for everyone — a polarizing film, if there ever was one (you may recall Siskel and Ebert’s famous argument over the film’s merits). Regardless, it garnered Lynch his 2nd Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Director,’ on the heels of Woody Allen calling it the single best movie of 1986. Since its theatrical release – through VHS, laserdiscs, DVD’s and now Blu-Ray — the film has reached legendary cult status, playing on many a midnight movie screen.

College student Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Lynch fave Kyle Maclachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to see to his ailing father when he stumbles across the detached ear. He takes the ear to the police, but his own voyeuristic tendencies take over and Jeffrey proceeds to begin his own investigation, with the help of the police detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). The ear draws him deeper into his hometown’s sordid underworld, where he meets the captivating torch singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose son and husband have been kidnapped in return for sexual favors by the sadistic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, at the top of his game in a career-resurrecting role). Jeffrey becomes further involved, running into a cast of sleazy characters, trying his best to save the helpless Dorothy – and later, himself.

Lynch had the idea for this film in the early 1970’s – before his first feature film Eraserhead (another cult classic) was released. After his marvelous work on The Elephant Man (1980) and the failure that was Dune (1984), he was given complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges with Blue Velvet, culminating in a truly personal work. His casting choices here are right on the mark. Rossellini no longer had to cling on to those Lancome advertisements – she is finally given the opportunity to test her acting chops in a meaty role. With all that her character must endure at the hands of Frank, it is a truly courageous performance – and opened up a whole new career for Ms. Rossellini. Dean Stockwell plays Ben, a drug dealer and one of Frank’s accomplices. His lip-synched performance to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is both chilling and somewhat comical and makes for one of the film’s highlights. Laura Dern turns in a solid performance as the high school girl who is a perfect paradox for Dorothy and all that she represents. Maclachlan holds the film together quite – he is strong when he needs to be (remember that tremendous backslap to Dorothy in a moment of pleasure and rage) and completely naïve and vulnerable when at the mercy of Frank. The film also delivers one of cinema’s greatest villains of all-time in Frank Booth, played deliciously by Mr. Hopper. This guy is one scary sociopath. Between his palpable Oedipal issues, vulgar mouth, peculiar sexual proclivities, and that oxygen mask (which Hopper later said was Amyl nitrite) – Frank Booth remains one of film’s most iconic characters. On top of the stellar performances, Angelo Badalamenti’s score is a true stand-out, creating that film noir atmosphere while also helping to create a haunting mood.

The film isn’t all that’s polarizing though – Lynch himself is one of film’s most divisive figures. You either love him or can’t watch his stuff. There are many directors who I greatly admire, but there are a small handful that I would call true auteurs – David Lynch is surely one of those very few. Perhaps it is because of his background and work in the visual arts, but Lynch is the only director who comes to mind where you can take a snapshot from any moment in one of his films – and it comes off as a true work of art. His attention to color, to place, to character, and to the human psyche is truly unique. So unique that many dub his style to be “Lynchian.” He changed television with his phenomenal opus, Twin Peaks and has continued to perplex and dazzle his audience with one daring work after another. But it is Blue Velvet that, to date, is his seminal work.

Peter Eramo’s Film Review of the Terrible “Trash Humpers”

There are those movies that I think are just bad – but can at least see how others may enjoy and even appreciate them. Then there are those movies that are just plain awful – and the majority who claim to appreciate the filmmaking and absolutely love the film are simply lavishing their pretentious airs about, wanting to be different and one of the few to proclaim, “I get it.” Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers is a perfect example of such a catastrophic film. Despite what J. Hoberman (Village Voice) and other “artsy” critics might have you believe, this is one hopeless, boring, and futile project disguised as cinema vérité, but in reality is just plain crap.

Abstaining from any narrative structure at all, Korine, the self-proclaimed “mistakist artist,” gives us a small band of older troublemakers who run about their trailer trash towns creating all kinds of havoc. The painfully long 78-minute film (shot on video) has the look of a worn out VHS home video, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But what we are given are snippets of random, silly acts with no form or logic attached, that plays like disappointing freak show. We watch the costumed characters ride bikes with baby dolls attached to them, destroy TV’s and other gadgets in abandoned lots, drink plenty and, most of all, dry-hump trash bins with reckless abandon anywhere they can find. There is a scene where “Momma” (Rachel Korine) gives delightful advice to a young boy on how to properly insert a razor blade into an apple to offer to a friend; another where a chunky hooker in a thong is fondling one of the guy’s junk while singing “Silent Night.” On top of this is the incessant laughing/shrieking that manages to hit the bottom of your spine and make its way up to your throbbing head, as it grates on your very last nerve. And on and on the stupidity goes.

Korine has said that growing up in Nashville, he would see trash cans strewn about and an elderly group of boogeymen would come out at night, camouflage themselves with bushes, get covered in dirt and peep through other people’s windows. This, my friends, was the mighty inspiration for this poor excuse of a film. To give off the look of spontaneity, Korine cut the film on two VCR’s and shooting is said to have taken two weeks. No script was attached, but rather, just a collection of ideas. Perhaps they (and in turn, we) would have been better off with some semblance of a script.

Remember, Korine was one of the writers behind the fascinating and brilliant 1995 film Kids and has since succeeded in alienating his audience by making movies with the sole intention of making us feel uneasy. David Lynch does it well. Werner Herzog does it well. Lars von Trier also succeeds more often than not. Korine is none of these masters. Unlike some of his previous work that can be viewed (at least by a few) as thought-provoking, challenging or downright disturbing, Trash Humpers is a tedious mess with nothing at all to say.

Rating:   
Year:       2010
Director:  Harmony Korine

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (**)

What do you get when you get master visionary David Lynch producing a film by filmmaking maverick Werner Herzog? You get the 2009 film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, a film inspired by the true story of deranged Mark Yavorsky, a talented actor who was so inspired by Aeschylus‘s Oresteia that he stabbed and killed his own mother. Though the film (now finally out on DVD) is based on this horrific real-life event, Herzog takes much poetic license with it and, along with co-writer Herbert Golder, decided to create their own portrait of this delusional man (who was later found “not guilty by reason of insanity”) and Herzog even states that “about 70% of the script” is loosely made up.

Golder, a classics scholar, was fascinated by the subject years ago and began a relationship with the killer, Mark Yavorsky (who was living in a trailer at the time), writing a screenplay in the process. Herzog was intrigued by the story and though several lines in the movie are taken directly from the files surrounding his case, they made the conscious decision not to connect much to the real Yavorsky, but instead focus on the poetry of Yavorsky’s madness rather than the clinical facts. All sounds for a very intriguing and interesting movie, right? We have LynchHerzog….a psychotic killer who is so removed from reality that he slays his own mother with a special, antique sword. Great! Overall though, it is quite a disappointment despite some rather captivating moments in small doses.

Michael Shannon plays the deeply disturbed Brad McCullum (his name changed here) and the film opens with the police being called to the scene of the dead body of McCullum’s mother. The rest of the narration jumps back and forth between the scene of the murder and the “hostage situation” taking place and recent events in Brad’s life that have led to this most unfathomable of murders. The detective in charge (the dynamic Willem Dafoe) tries his best to take control of the situation and in doing so, learns bits and pieces about his prime suspect from his fiancé (Chloe Sevigny) and the man who was directing him in The Orestia, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier). There are bits and pieces of bizarre and surrealistic Herzog-ian moments thrown about, and yes, some that did remind me of David Lynch, and the pace is typically very deliberate.

Dafoe doesn’t really get much to do at all except gather information and seem somewhat helpless at times. Michael Pena (who plays his partner) is given even less to do and I am still not sure why he was cast here. Udo Kier does a fine job and stands out, showing great sympathy and a tremendous curiosity about his troubled actor throughout. Sevigny is well cast here; she usually bothers me, but here, it wasn’t so much her performance that troubled me, but why this woman was planning on marrying this nut-job within a month’s time to begin with that left me scratching my head. We are given no signs or reasons to suggest any love that this woman might have for him. The flashbacks between the two mainly show him making her feel ill at ease and perhaps a danger to her. So I wish that was explained in some detail, or at least give us a glimpse of this guy’s cute-and-fuzzy side, ya know? The wonderful veteran actress, Grace Zabriskie is outstanding as McCullum’s terrifyingly doting mother. She is right out of Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart here and fits perfectly in Herzog’s exploration. The mother-son relationship is touched upon and we do see glimpses of a love/hate relationship (as a middle-aged man, he is still living with her), but I wanted to see more between the two. I have only seen Michael Shannon steal scenes in smaller, supporting roles in the past, but he is the center of it all here and carries the film quite nicely. As we saw in Revolutionary Road, Shannon can play these disturbed characters quite well, though here there is more of an element of danger, darkness and unpredictability. He is a true paranoid, feeling the whole world is against him. We don’t know what he will do or say next and when he tells a neighbor to kill him (“Kill me now before it happens”), we feel that this character simply cannot help himself and is being forced by something bigger than him.

The performances are fine. I had a problem with the approach and felt that they should have perhaps connect more with the real-life story. I would say that unless you are a great fan of the daring and stylistic films of David Lynch (who had little-to-no creative input, but was the catalyst for getting this project off the ground) or Werner Herzog, stay away from this film. Even then, I’m not so sure how many will think highly of this particular effort. I am a tremendous and loyal fan of both and I couldn’t help but feel somewhat let down.

Rating:      ** (out of 4 stars)
Director:  Werner Herzog
Year:         2009

Movie to Look Out For: Solondz’s “Life During Wartime”

Sure, the movie features a slovenly phone-sex fetishist, an overly sexed Russian cab driver, an obese woman who dismembers her superintendent (and keeps him in her fridge), a cold writer who is a fan of S&M, a father who is a pedophile and various other sexually frustrated and socially inept New Jersey suburbanites — but Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness is a near masterpiece of a film that, to me, never really received the true recognition it deserved. Featuring a stellar cast that included courageous performances from Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson, Jon Lovitz among others, Happiness (the title itself just drips with an ominous irony) suggests a dazzling blend of David Lynch and P.T. Anderson — though remains strictly all Solondz. Of course, this film isn’t for everyone (even Universal Pictures bailed on it, calling it morally objectionable, though it took home the international critics prize at Cannes), but it remains a provocative and haunting work of art from one of cinema’s true independent, albeit bleak, artists.

Twelve years later, Solondz treats us to its quasi-sequel in the newly released Life During Wartime. All of the same characters are present, however Solondz has re-cast different actors for all of the roles, which proves to be very intriguing indeed. Ally Sheedy now takes on the part of Helen, the impressive Ciaran Hinds takes on Baker’s pedophile who is newly released from prison, Allison Janney plays the oblivious housewife Trish, Shirley Henderson takes on the role of Joy — and Paul Reubens (yes, that Paul Reubens) plays the ghost of Joy’s ex-boyfriend. The setting shifts from New Jersey to Florida and from what I have read on the movie so far, it is a positively grueling and fascinating watch…just like its predecessor. At last check, Life During Wartime was playing on 6 screens nationwide, though I am sure it will make its way to art-house theatres across the country at some point — and hopefully soon!

I remain exceedingly anxious and excited to see this one — and find out where Solondz has taken all of these fascinating, disturbing and complex characters, twelve years later. Where does he leave them in the end? He doesn’t churn out very many films at all, but when he does, it’s usually worth buying a ticket. After all, he is the filmmaker responsible for the very impressive Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), and the powerful and brilliant Palindromes (2004) — so I trust that he’ll deliver the goods with this latest effort.

Let me know your thoughts if you’ve already seen Life During Wartime! Or, if you have any thoughts on Happiness, I’d love to read those too!

10 Movie Scenes That ALWAYS Bring on the Waterworks

I have an imaginary outtake scene in The 40-year Old Virgin, only here, I am cast in Seth Rogan’s character opposite Paul Rudd. The scene goes something like this:

Paul Rudd (to me):     You know how I know you’re gay? 
Me:                              How?
Paul Rudd:                 You create lists of movie scenes that make you cry.

OK, so today I feel like getting more in touch with my sentimental side. What can you do? It happens. Anyway, I managed to catch a scene from a movie a couple of days ago that ALWAYS makes me cry and thought that I’d come up with a list of 10 movie scenes that always make me cry like a little baby. And you know what?! I’m secure in my own masculinity to create such a list, dammit! This is NOT a Top 10 List, as there are surely other scenes out there that bring on the same proverbial waterworks for me. Nor are these scenes you see here in any particular order. They are simply what I think are 10 great, emotional scenes that, for whatever reason, move me to such a point where I have to reach for a tissue. And stop snickering at me…there’s no shame in it!

And hey! Since I’m putting myself out there, I expect you to do as well. Post your comments and share a scene or two that makes you teary-eyed and weepy…unless you have no heart at all!

1. The Final Scene of ‘Running on Empty’

SPOILER ALERT!!! Earlier in Sidney’s Lumet’s wonderful movie, the family clears the dinner table and joyfully starts to sing along to James Taylor’s classic “Fire and Rain.” Arthur and Annie Pope have been running from the FBI since blowing up a bomb to protest the war. Their son Danny (River Phoenix) has had to live with the repercussions of their acts. The final scene always gets me. On the run again, the family is in their truck and Arthur (Judd Hirsch) tells his son to take the bike out of the back — and to get on it. We see the truck drive off, leaving Danny alone to start his own life anew — all played against the backdrop of the very moving “Fire and Rain” song yet again. The combination of the song and this pivotal moment always wrecks me.

2. The Baseball Catch from ‘Field of Dreams’

Maybe it’s because I’m a huge baseball fan. Or maybe it’s because some of the greatest memories I have are when my father managed me in Little League. Perhaps it’s because this marvelous story of Ray Kinsella’s (Kevin Costner) strained relationship with his father, forever seeking his approval just got to me. I think it’s a blend of all three. Near the end of the film, on his utopian baseball field, Ray recognizes his father in the prime of his life. The two shake hands and say goodnight. As his father turns to walk away, Ray asks, with a crack in his voice, “Hey, Dad? You wanna have a catch?” His father simply says, “I’d like that.” What follows is a very simple, moving father-and-son catch. Gets me every friggin’ time…

3. A Connection is Made in ‘Rain Man’

Charlie (Tom Cruise) tries to make a connection, any connection with his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) throughout the film. Of course, Raymond is mentally unable to do so, much to Charlie’s tremendous frustration. Charlie ‘kidnaps’ his own brother from an institution solely for selfish and greedy purposes. As the two brothers spend time together, Charlie undergoes a miraculous transformation of character and begins to feel absolute love for his brother. When he returns his brother, the two are given a moment alone to say good-bye and  Charlie says to him, “What I said about being on the road with you I meant. Connecting. I like having you for my brother.” The two slowly, softly touch heads — and finally, a connection is made…if only for a moment and Charlie repeats with great warmth, “I like having you for my big brother.” It’s a cathartic moment to be sure as the entire film is building to this one emotional moment. Tender, warm, poignant…excuse me, I need a moment….

4. Adrian’s Change of Heart in ‘Rocky II’

I realize this is hokey and very melodramatic, but I don’t care. I love this movie, I love this scene and I love the dynamic that is Rocky and Adrian. Adrian (Talia Shire) has been pleading with her husband not to fight Apollo Creed again because she is worried about his eye. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is struggling with himself as to what he should do. He decides to fight, but without Adrian’s stamp of approval, his heart is just not into it. Adrian gives birth to a baby boy and falls into a coma. Now Rocky won’t train at all and spends all of his waking hours at church or at his true love’s bedside, reading to her. After a long while, she finally wakes up. With her new baby in hand, Adrian has a complete change of heart. She looks up at her husband and says, “There’s one thing I want you to do for me.” He leans in. She smiles, and simply says, “Win.” It is at this moment where I lose it. The iconic music starts to play, Rocky finally smiles and we know he’ll go back to training and kick the crap out of the champ.  Throughout the Rocky series, his love for his wife never wavers and I think it is one of the stronger aspects of the franchise. I also think that Adrian is what makes Rocky tick. Without this scene, Rocky gets slaughtered and loses in the rematch.

5. Singing for Prison Inmates in ‘Young @ Heart’

One of the Top 10 films of 2007, this inspiring documentary focuses on a chorus of senior citizens in Massachusetts who perform cover songs by The Clash, Sonic Youth, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and many others. Many of these real-life people stay with you long after the film is over, reminding us of what is truly important in this life.  Fred’s solo to a packed theatre near the end of the film will no doubt move you, as will many other emotional scenes. There is a lot to laugh at throughout this life-affirming movie, and yes, a lot of times where you can’t help but cry. The emotional climax for me occurs when the Young @ Heart chorus perform a concert — at a prison! After losing one of their own, they go out and sing Bob Dylan’s classic “Forever Young” to the inmates of the prison and…talk about perspective! The looks on the faces of the prisoners are completely genuine as they listen to the elderly singers and yes, the chorus no doubt has their utmost respect. It remains one of the most moving scenes of any film I have seen in recent memory. If you missed this film, I highly recommend that you go out and rent it as I am sure you will be pleased that you did.

6. Helpless Feeling in ‘She’s Having A Baby’

Go ahead, laugh. Then watch this scene once more and I will await and accept your apology for doing so. After much prodding by their parents, newlywed couple Jake & Kristy Briggs start to try and have a baby. They continue trying. Finally, Kristy (an adorable Elizabeth McGovern) is pregnant.  However, there are severe complications with the delivery, leaving Jake (Kevin Bacon) powerless and waiting for a good word. This is such an emotionally draining sequence and John Hughes picks the perfect song (Kate Bush’s moving “This Woman’s Work”) to accompany the montage of watching Jake crippled with fear and anxiety for the well-being of his wife. The song certainly helps, but Bacon is brilliant here. Watch his initial reaction when he is told what is going wrong with the delivery. It is so natural and so genuine, we instantly feel for him. The camera pans out and the beginning of the song begins to play at just the right moment. The beautifully edited montage is so effective as Bacon plays with his wife’s ring, his father’s ‘thumbs up’ to him from afar — giving him his needed space. The symbolic drop of blood to the floor is a nice touch. I get teary-eyed with goose bumps just thinking about it.

7. Final Sequence of ‘Umberto D.’

Vittorio de Sica’s 1952 masterpiece which Time magazine wisely included in their “All-Time 100 Movie” list. I don’t know how any human being alive can watch this film and not shed a tear. Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is an old man in Rome who is poor and trying desperately to keep his modest, shoddy apartment which is becoming quite difficult to do since his landlady wants to throw him out if he doesn’t come up with 15,000 lire. His best friend in the world seems to be his little dog, Flick (called ‘Flag’ in some subtitled versions). Umberto is admitted to a hospital and when he returns home, finds that he is no longer welcome. He also discovers that his dog is gone. After finding him, he looks for a place where Flick can live a carefree life, away from all of his hardships. I will not include the video of this movie, because that would completely spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that the last scenes of this film always manage to break my heart in more pieces than any psychotic ex ever has. If you are interested in seeing this glorious piece of filmmaking, do yourself a favor — read nothing about it beforehand — and get a box of Kleenex…you’ll need it.

8. A Fitting Farewell to Professor Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’

I am not sure why, but most film bloggers seem to have a great aversion towards this film. I absolutely love it – always have. Is it melodramatic at times? Perhaps. Is this particular scene a bit over-the-top and cheesy? I say, “Not at all” if you understand where it is coming from and it all starts with the character of Todd Anderson (a very young Ethan Hawke). Todd has been the quiet, insecure one throughout the film…always wanting to do, but never actually doing. Professor Keating (Robin Williams) has been unfairly dismissed of his duties at the prep school and the impact he has made on his students will be remembered throughout their lifetimes. In this deeply affecting scene, he enters the classroom to pick up a few of his belongings. There are actually a handful of scenes where I can’t help but start crying, but this one has become a classic scene (hey – it beats the hell out of hearing “I’ll have what she’s having” for the umpteenth time). The tension in the room is palpable as they leaf through the poetry book. The desk of Neil Perry’s, noticeably vacant; the exchange between Keating and Todd made just with their eyes….very moving. The core of this film is the relationship between these two characters and here, it reaches its climax. Ethan Hawke says so much here without saying anything at all…we see him struggling with himself, wanting to speak out. He knows this will be his last opportunity to do something, anything…and he takes his first step, literally and figuratively. Robin Williams doesn’t overdo it at all, but merely reacts to what is happening before him – and his subtlety is very touching. The students who stand…This is their “Thank You” to their wonderful teacher — and by the look on Keating’s face, it is perhaps the greatest goodbye gift he could have asked for as he says, “Thank you, boys. Thank you.” I have seen this film many times and it never ceases to move me. I can watch this film twenty more times and I know for certain that I will surely cry another twenty times.

9. Reading Shakespeare in ‘The Elephant Man’

John Merrick (John Hurt) is first abused and used for profit being showcased as a freak. He is then taken into the safe confines of a hospital by Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) only to be showcased as a freak of nature once more — and again, for the personal gain of the man he is entrusted to. No one bothers to try and make a human connection with him, even though in many ways, Merrick possesses more humane qualities than those around him. Here, the famous stage actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) makes that connection by presenting her new friend with a gift. Merrick begins reading the lines from Shakespeare’s classic love story, Romeo and Juliet and soon, the two are reading the lines of the star-crossed lovers to each other. It is a hypnotic exchange. Watch the way Bancroft looks at him throughout – not like every other person does, but with gentle eyes. She sees not a deformed elephant man, but a real-life Romeo. This entire film makes me teary-eyed, but the human connection made right here is the highpoint for me. Mel Brooks was right in hiring the masterful David Lynch to direct this film. Released now 30 years ago, it never ceases to have a profound emotional impact on me.

To watch this great scene, just click here.

10. Making Breakfast in ‘Big Night’

One long shot, one short word…sheer brilliance. Watching this final scene on its own of course does no justice to the emotional weight it surely carries. However, when you watch the entire film that leads up to this, the love between the two immigrant brothers hits you hard, and needs no words. We know that everything that has happened before is water under the bridge…nothing at all compared with the great bond that exists between Primo and Secondo (Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci). One of my all-time favorite last scenes of any film I have ever seen. The relationship between the brothers throughout the movie is complex and extraordinary, as it builds to what we see here. Directors Campbell Scott and Tucci have a delicate touch throughout and make the perfect choice here by having everything done in silence. I always need a moment when the credits start to roll. A moving film, a stirring scene.

Peter Eramo’s Personal Pet Peeves

Now how’s that for alliteration…hmm???

I like to think that when it comes to movies, I’m a pretty open-minded kind of guy. I will go to see just about any movie (given my current mood) whether its genre is science fiction, horror, foreign, documentary, silly comedy – even certain musicals that look to be worth the time and money (though those are rare and hard to come by). But we all have our pet peeves when it comes to certain aspects of a movie that keep us from plunking down our $10 to see it (because so-and-so directed it or so-and-so was in it). For example, how many times have you heard the following exchange:

“Did you see [fill in the blank]?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Really?! Why not?”
“Oh…I just can’t stand watching him.”

And you know what? That person has every right to feel this way. It’s your $10 and you have the right to spend it any way you damn well like.

Now there are certain actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, Al Pacino, Jeff Bridges) who, no matter what the reviews and public reception have been, I will go out to the theatres, put down my money and see. We all have them. Same for directors. If David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, P.T. Anderson, Oliver Stone or Woody Allen (though he has been testing my patience for the past decade or so) make a movie, then guess what? I’m going out to see it!

So I am looking at the newspaper trying to find a movie to see – and I notice there is almost nothing out there! I look online for the onslaught of summer movies on the horizon and scheduled for release (as soon as this week) and still, I see nothing but slim pickings. My interest is not at all piqued. Now I’m just generalizing here, but all I see is a bunch of movies that look like they were made with only one idea in mind: to take your money. Sequels that don’t deserve one, films based on bad television shows, remakes of films that were perfectly fine in the first place…all coming out. In the spirit of this thinking, I came up with a concise list of my own personal pet peeves – certain aspects of a particular film that will usually (but not all of the time) keep me from seeing it and in turn, I decide to spend my $10 on something else…like a good book – or crack. Here are just a few of my pet peeves, in no particular order:

PET PEEVE #1: Any Film With Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay Listed as Director

These two have decided long ago that they pretty much have little or nothing to say to their viewers other than provide meaningless explosions, rail-thin plot lines and costly (though at times impressive) action sequences. “2012,” “Godzilla,” “The Island, “Armageddon” “Pearl Harbor“? I’ll just stick that $10 back in my pocket, thank you.

PET PEEVE #2: American Movies Based on Very Good Foreign Films

I recently read that David Fincher is slated to direct the American version of the brilliant 4-star “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and I nearly wept. Why does this film need a remake so soon? Because too many Americans are completely ignorant and refuse to engage in the dreaded S-word…subtitles. Now of course there are a handful of exceptions, but there are too many embarrassing, needless remakes of these fine films. Examples that support my luminous pet peeve are:

– “Swept Away” (Guy Ritchie’s slap in the face to the fantastic Italian film)
– “Diabolique” from the masterful 1955 French film, “Les Diaboliques
– “Death at a Funeral” (now in theatres just two years after the brilliantly funny original of the same name. Do yourself a favor and rent the British film. It is hilarious! Was this remake absolutely necessary? Shame on you, Neil LaBute.)
– “Brothers” based on the powerful Danish film “Brodre

And there are many, many more. I think “Oldboy” is in the works for a bastardized American version too. In fact, many well made Korean and Japanese films have been retooled for the Hollywood machine and ruined in the process. I don’t want to piss people off more than I have in a previous list of mine, but you can include “The Departed” on this list. That’s right…Deal with it…

PET PEEVE #3: The Dreaded “Hit List”

Not that I don’t enjoy a good action flick, but I do tend to avoid the ones with names like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Vin Diesel, Gerard Butler, Dolph Lundgren (yeah, he’s still around), Steven Seagal and Jason Statham attached to them. Call me a movie snob…but I can find much more stimulating, edifying ways of spending my 90 minutes. One side note…I thought “JCVD” was a decent film.

PET PEEVE #4: Video Games Should Stay on our Playstations and X-Boxes

Any movie where studio execs said, “Yeah, that’s a popular video game! Make that into a movie!!!” I generally ignore. I love my PlayStation 3 and enjoy playing all of my sports games, but has any of these ever made for a good feature length film?! Let me jog your memory for ya: “Resident Evil,” “Max Payne,” “Street Fighter,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Doom,” and yes, the ever-brilliant “Super Mario Brothers.” Oh, Dennis Hopper….it was difficult, but all is forgiven. Just get well.

PET PEEVE #5: Nasty, Inept DNA

I don’t know what was in their water as children, but if a Gyllenhaal is attached to a project, I will oftentimes chuckle and then forget about it. I will admit that it can at times be fun to watch Jake Gyllenhaal struggle his way through a scene and try his little heart out, but more times than not, it’s usually just downright sad. Think of the car wreck that everyone on the road slows down to see…that’s the Gyllenhaal siblings! I will admit that Maggie Gyllenhaal has actually made some strong decisions (“Secretary,” “Happy Endings,” and “Adaptation“), but for me, it’s just ever-so-difficult to watch her. As for her brother, I think all hope is lost. He’s one box-office dud after another, and you know what? There’s a reason! Look at that joke of a film due out, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” — even the trailer looks awful.

Seth MacFarlane, creator of “The Family Guy” pretty much nailed it with the following brief scene. Give it a quick listen. It has the two siblings arguing with their father over who is “more off-putting.” Terrific….

I’m More Off-Putting! Gyllenhaal Scene

PET PEEVE #6: Shocking (Shitty) Sequels

Speaking of abysmal trailers, have you seen the one for the 4th installment of Shrek??? After the original, this franchise has gone steadily downhill. The third was even worse than the second and if this new frivolous trailer is any indication, “Shrek Forever After” will continue the predictable pattern. As a rule, I tend to avoid any sequel that has already shown a significant decline (“Spiderman 3” anyone?) or is so obviously made for purely monetary purposes. Though the originals may be very good (perhaps even the second as well), Hollywood execs will always “jump the shark” until it is quite clear that all possible profits have already been sapped and the audiences finally show that they’ve had enough by not going to the theatre. A fourth “Beverly Hills Cop“?! Tough times, Eddie? Let’s keep spewing out sophomoric Fockers films too. The only “Ocean” movie worth anything was the very amusing “Ocean’s 11” — please, stop, Mr. Soderbergh. I didn’t see the last Indiana Jones movie, and you know what? I sleep quite well. Most horror film franchises fall victim (like that pun) to this: “Saw,” “Halloween,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (uh, was that remake required?), “Friday the 13th,” “Scream,” etc. I understand that they are what they are — that they are not meant to be these enlightening, insightful films. I get that. But this is my pet peeve list and I choose to look elsewhere for my movie buck. “Sex and the City 2“? Were there really that many unanswered questions to the first one? At least Disney has the decency to release these “lesser” films on DVD and not take up valuable screen time.

PET PEEVE #7: Two Words — Michael Moore

I love documentary films. The problem is that, despite public opinion, Mr. Moore is not a documentary filmmaker. He editorializes and tries to manipulate your independent thinking with carefully calculated editing, insinuating music choices and of course, his own slanted commentary on a particular subject. This has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with his political views. The guy just doesn’t make documentaries. Period. If I want someone’s political opinion, I’ll read an op-ed piece. A good documentary explores a specific topic, shows all sides of said topic and lets the viewer come up with his/her own opinion. Most times, the filmmaker is never even seen or heard, but Moore loves putting his mug in front of the camera way too much. Trust me, if you want to see the work of real documentary filmmakers, you look to the fascinating work of Frederick Wiseman, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and yes, Ken Burns. Moore loves the spotlight, you can clearly tell. I also love his abrupt about face on Ralph Nader — from vehemently supporting him to publically crucifying him. Classy move, big guy. You will never get my $10.

Peter Eramo’s Postmortem on the Oscars – The Highs & Very Lows of the Ceremony

OK, so I went 14 out of 21 in my picks (I wasn’t even going to bother venturing a guess in the ‘Live Action Short,’ ‘Documentary Short,’ and ‘Animated Short’ categories). Not so very bad. I went out on a limb on a couple and was thinking that some of the awards would go to those who, you know, actually deserved it, rather than those who ran stellar Oscar media campaigns. In the end, if you bet on the chalk in most of the categories and just stuck with the favorites, you probably fared better than me. I am surprised because Oscar usually likes to distinguish itself from the other, “lesser” awards ceremonies.

In any case, it is a few days later and I thought that since I wrote two posts on this blog leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony, that I would tie a nice little bow on it and write a postmortem on the actual telecast: the highs, the lows, the funny, the embarrassing, the deserving, the unworthy, and the simply moronic. And I’m not getting into who wore what – whose dress was “to die for” and who picked a catastrophic ensemble….I don’t care about that. Not important. Unlike the previous few years though, I thought the ceremony for the 82 Annual Academy Awards was not nearly as boring. True, the list of winners was all pretty hum-drum and predictable, but the show itself…not half bad this time around. Here is a list of all the highlights and lowlights in no particular order:

OUR HOSTS

All things considered, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin played off each other quite nicely. Really, the host of the Oscars has only the first 10-15 minutes to worry about. It’s pretty much gravy from there, making a brief showing here, a quick cameo there. And they were relieved of most of their opening by Neil Patrick Harris’ song and dance number, “No One Wants to do it Alone.” Martin and Baldwin did have some very funny jokes written for them including one where Mr. Martin referred to his role in “The Jerk” when he said to Best Actress nominee “Gabourey Sidibe and I have something in common: In our first movies we were both born a poor black child.” Some good one-liners throughout and the two did an admirable job as hosts.

MORON OF THE NIGHT

Easily Elinor Burkett. What a train wreck this one was. “Who is Elinor Burkett?” you ask. She is the producer of the Oscar-winning documentary short, “Music by Prudence.” When writer/director Roger Ross Williams came up to the podium to accept his award, he just started his speech when Barracuda Lady came up and pulled her best Kanye impersonation. Yes, the two have had tremendous artistic differences with the film and even had a lawsuit between the two (which was settled out of court). I have no idea who is right and who is wrong – but Ms. Burkett made herself look like a fool, ambushing Mr. Williams in such fashion. Look at the YouTube video – he just stands there dumbfounded, almost wanting to laugh, while she is ranting and raving in a semi-incoherent manner.

IT’S ABOUT TIME

No, not Meryl Streep winning (more on that in a bit) – but Oscar’s tribute to the horror genre in their well-edited Horror Montage. I’m no horror buff by any stretch, but horror films play an integral role in the motion picture industry and this brief mosaic was a nice reminder of that. Just because horror films are rarely recognized come Awards season, that doesn’t mean there is no merit to them. In fact, so many great horror films (domestic and international) have gone straight to DVD without much of a theatrical release at all. Here, we got to see a nice mixture of some of the most memorable horror films in cinematic history, from “The Blob” to “The Shining” – and did I see a quick glimpse of “Leprechaun” in there for good measure???

NOT VERY ‘PRECIOUS’ AT ALL

Boy, did Mo’Nique come across like Queen Diva or what??? They can spin this any way they want – as if she wasn’t backslapping her fellow nominees, but when she started off her pompous speech with, “I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics,” a backslap was exactly what she delivered. I’m not saying she deserved the award or didn’t deserve it – she just came across here as arrogant and bitter – no class or grace whatsoever. And to bring up Hattie McDaniel? Give me a break. I was shocked to read all of the kudos pointed at her in the blogs and articles after-the-fact. Were they watching what I was??? Show a little humility…Come on! Even Samuel L. Jackson was rolling his eyes after this disaster of a speech!

The second Oscar that the film took (in a bit of an upset) was the Adapted Screenplay award which went to Geoffrey Fletcher. In doing so, Mr. Fletcher became the first African-American to win the screenwriting Academy Award. A terrific honor. But was it me, or did it sound like this guy ran 26 miles before coming up to the podium? Have a clue as to what you wanna say, guy. His speech was so incoherent and so bad that Steve Martin had to immediately joke about it by saying, “I wrote his speech,” which was met with laughter throughout the theatre.

BLUE MAN BEN

Why is everyone all over Ben Stiller? I give this guy credit. He is absolutely willing to commit 100% to the joke and make an ass out of himself to get a few laughs. Good for him. Last year, if you recall, he came out looking like Joaquin Phoenix, mimicking his much publicized stupidity on David Letterman’s show. That was funny. This year, he came out in complete Na’vi make-up and wardrobe from James Cameron’s Avatar.” Mr. Stiller was there to present the award for Best Make-Up, which, ironically, “Avatar” wasn’t even nominated for (a glaring oversight to begin with). Stiller was absolutely committed to the role (especially when he spoke in the ancient tongue of the Na’vi) and had some outrageously funny lines. Great delivery – and whoever did the work on those piercing yellow eyes – great job! I thought this was a great, humorous highlight of the evening. I don’t think he disrespected “Avatar” in any way (though a few of Mr. Stiller’s peers did just this throughout the evening) – and I thank him for being such a willing sport.

INTERPRETIVE DANCE OVER SONG

Did we really need to see all of those dance numbers choreographed to all five nominees for Best Score? Was this necessary? How many people watching on their flatscreens at home used this allotted time as their bathroom break for the evening? Come on – you know you did! I have nothing against dance at all – in its time and place. What bothers me greatly about this was that the producers decided to go with this bit (which took a bit of time) over actually having us hearing the songs that were nominated in the Best Original Song category. I am still upset that I did not get to hear “Take it All” (from “Nine”) and of course, the beautifully written “The Weary Kind,” which rightfully took home the gold. I was thrilled to see that it won the Oscar and I would have loved to see Ryan Bingham perform it. That moment was taken from us – all in the name of interpretive dance – show me your Fosse hands, people!

A FITTING TRIBUTE

The “In Memoriam” tribute dedicated to those in the motion picture industry who died during the year is conducted without fail during each Oscar ceremony. I look forward to this part of the telecast as I find it to be a pleasant reminder of those who have passed on – those who we have admired from afar whether it be an iconic celebrity or a cinematographer who most don’t know, but we love their work.

This year was especially exciting for me because the legendary troubadour James Taylor sang live on stage while the video montage was being shown. I have loved J.T. for years and years and he is without a doubt my all-time favorite musical artist. His appearance was a total surprise to me and I instantly received a text message from my brother saying: “J.T. and the Oscars? Is your head about to explode?” True, I could barely contain myself as I watched the names and faces pass on screen and listened to the voice that, like a very fine bottle of wine, only gets better with age. He performed the classic Beatles song, “In My Life” and did a wonderful, stirring job with it. And dressed in his black tux and bowtie – he looked handsome, elegant and skilled. I equated the event to that of the delectable Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: two totally separate entities coming together to make a most delicious noise. A wonderful Oscar moment – and done with class, taste and heart.

While I am on the subject, those of you screaming about the omission of Farrah Fawcett –SHUT UP! All I’ve been hearing for the past few days was how “shameful” it was that she was left out of the tribute. Please! Yes, it is true that she did do some film (she was actually damn good in Robert Duvall’s powerful “The Apostle”), but (1) she is recognized mainly as a television star and (2) the tribute is never able to squeeze in every single person connected with the film industry. In fact, I give those who make these decisions some credit for keeping some in that most may have never heard of (composers, editors, et al) and not the iconic Charlie’s Angel. On top of this, I have to hear Ryan O’Neal vent about this like it’s a slap in the face?! Perhaps Mr. O’Neal should pay attention to more important matters like how to properly parent his son so he doesn’t wind up dead or in jail again.

THE DOLPHIN IS CENSORED

The Cove” took home the Oscar for Best Documentary. A truly remarkable, horrific, eye-opening film for sure. The award is well-deserved and I was elated to see it win. During his acceptance speech, producer Fisher Stevens referred to the main subject of the film, the courageous, dedicated and heroic Ric O’Barry. Mr. O’Barry then (remarkably in character) lifted a poster-board reading “Text Dolphin to 44144.” The orchestra immediately started to play (their cue to walk off the stage) and director Louie Psihoyos was never able to give his brief speech. I thought this was uncalled for. Let the man hold up his harmless sign – if you saw the film, you know how worthy this cause is! It makes me more upset because of all the previous political statements made by presenters and winners of past telecasts. Were they cut off as promptly as the artistic team of “The Cove” was? I don’t think so. I simply thought it was a poor decision.

In case you were interested, this is what Psihoyos emailed the media regarding what he would have said had he been allowed to: “We made this film to give the oceans a voice. We told the story of The Cove because we witnessed a crime. Not just a crime against nature, but a crime against humanity. We made this movie because through plundering, pollution and acidification from burning fossil fuels, ALL ocean life is in peril, from the great whales to plankton which, incidentally, is responsible for half the oxygen in this theater. Thank you, Black OPS Team for risking your lives in Japan — and thank
you Academy for shining the brightest lights in the world on THE COVE……Japan, please see this movie! Domo Aragato!” Wish I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!

THE VICTORIOUS BAD BLAKE

At last, Jeff Bridges gets his Oscar. Great performance, great speech – long overdue. Though of no surprise to anyone, it was a pleasure to watch. I no longer get to call him our country’s most under-rated actor (as I have been for well over a decade), but it is absolutely worth it now. Great to see the Kodak Theatre stand for the Duderino. Touching to hear him speak of his parents. And Michelle Pfieffer’s introduction was poignant and sincere as well. Here’s to you Bad Blake!

BABS OVERDOES IT

When Martin Scorsese took home the Best Director award a few years ago for his much over-hyped, and somewhat over-rated “The Departed” we knew he was going to win before the winner was even announced. Why? Well, the choice of presenters for this category that year was clue enough – with Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas handing the statue to their longtime colleague. This year, when we saw Barbra Streisand make her way across the stage, the odds-on-favorite to win became a shoe-in. We knew right then and there that Kathryn Bigelow would make history by becoming the first woman to ever win the award. True, she was the favorite here; I picked her to win though I surely did not feel she was deserving – and still don’t. Plus, I also considered this to be an anti-Cameron vote as well, with James Cameron rustling many Hollywood feathers over the years.

So there was Babs. And she looked so giddy right off the bat with the prospect of a woman finally winning. I thought her commentary here was not necessary either. Upon opening the sealed envelope, she commented, “Well…the time has come.” A bit over-the-top, don’t you think? Perhaps I am just upset because I still don’t believe “The Hurt Locker” was all that it is cracked up to be and that the media helped enormously in its many wins on Oscar night. I will give it a second viewing and perhaps I will feel differently. Perhaps not.

STILL RECUPERATING

I am still trying to get over what I perceive to be those undeserving who actually went home with an Academy Award. I knew Sandra Bullock was the media darling and the favorite to win. I couldn’t pick her. I think Ms. Bullock said it best with the very first thing she said in her speech: “Did I really earn this or did I just wear y’all down?” She knows it herself and she’s saying so right there. Way to get out there and campaign, campaign, campaign! And see what ya get? A nice, shiny Oscar. Again, very weak category this year and very few great leading roles for women in 2009, but Carey Mulligan clearly gave the strongest, most multi-layered performance of the five. Ms. Bullock is fine and I hope she continues to choose better roles in better films, but I will say it again: This is not an Oscar-worthy performance by any stretch of the imagination. I am still having trouble saying it: “Sandra Bullock…[gulp]…Oscar-winner.”

And even though the Best Picture category seemed like it was down to two films (“Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker“) and there was no surprise to it, I am still trying to cope with the idea of Bigelow’s war film winning the evening’s most prestigious award. I feel very strongly that “Up in the Air,” “District 9” and “Inglourious Basterds” were all superior.

“VOICE OF THE 80’S” HONORED

Being in my late 30’s, I sadly had no choice but to grow up during the horrid decade that was the eighties. I graduated high school in 1989 and the films touched by John Hughes permeated the decade. “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” are pretty much a staple of 80’s films, right? It is safe to say that John Hughes was “the voice” of film in the eighties on a certain level. I see that, I understand that, I accept that.

Having said that, I had very mixed feelings about the tribute to Mr. Hughes on Oscar night, which was led by 80’s prom queen Molly Ringwald and the very talented (and still working) Matthew Broderick. On one hand, this was a very sweet, touching, tasteful homage to the late filmmaker who passed away much too soon in August 2009. The video medley of films that he worked on was edited quite nicely and when 80’s stars such as Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, & Ally Sheedy came out to speak about their mentor and friend, it was a nice touch. I get all of that.

But was this honorary tribute truly necessary? I mean, in all, John Hughes directed only eight films…eight. He mainly worked as a writer and a producer. Not a big deal at all, as he was still surely a very creative aspect to the films that he did not helm. What bothered me was I don’t remember any Oscar tribute resembling this one for much more accomplished directors who have died – I’m talking about the great Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, the exceptional Sydney Pollack, John Sturges, the ingenius Ingmar Bergman, the auteur that was Stanley Kubrick, Richard Attenborough, Akira Kurosawa, and the list goes on and on. Why does John Hughes merit this? Because his movies were more “popular”? He was never at all nominated for an Academy Award and his films were mainly targeted towards adolescents. We like them now in part because it is nostalgic – it brings us back to our own days of graduation. So though touching and well-done, I felt that this tribute to Mr. Hughes was gratuitous. Will Woody Allen get this sort of treatment when he passes? (And let us hope that is a far, far way off.) What about Mr. Coppola? Scorsese? David Lynch? After this, I sincerely hope so….but I’m not holding my breath.

MISCELLANEOUS TIDBITS

Cameron Diaz: Rehearsal would have been nice. Come prepared.

Sean Penn: I love ya! I really do. But I’m still trying to figure out what you were saying.

Tina Fey and Robert Downey, Jr.: Loved the writer vs. pampered actor schtick. Great stuff.

– Zac Efron, Tyler Perry, Taylor Lautner, Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart, Amanda Seyfried: WHY???!!!

Tom Hanks: Was he just running late for a dinner reservation or something? Never saw an envelope ripped open faster than that.

– What was with the bizarre Lamps-R-Us backdrop?

James Cameron knew that eyes were on him and played a good sport throughout the night, taking all the ribbing in stride. At least on the outside. And he stood and clapped for Ms. Bigelow before just about anybody. Well played, Mr. Cameron.

– I want to see more clips from the actual performances being nominated! Each year they never show enough. Showcase the films being honored so people at home will think, “Huh…that looks good. I gotta go out and see that.”

– “Up in the Air” goes home empty. Cold, man. I thought it was a dead-ringer for Best Adapted Screenplay. You could make the argument that the film deserved Best Picture honors – as it was a much stronger film than “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” in addition to be more topical and making a great, subtle statement on our country today. Years from now when we look back at the films of 2009, this is the one that leaves its mark.

So it’s now mid-March 2010…a new year of films to catch up on. I hope it is a stronger year than last. A lot of new blockbusters that will start to rear their heads in a month or so. I will keep posting on this blog with various “Best and Worst” lists as well as film reviews throughout the course of the year…until the Awards season is upon us once again in December 2010.

As always, I cannot wait.

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