Monday, February 25, 2013

Goodbye, Oscar Season

This is my final column about the Academy Awards for this year, I swear. For IFC Fix, I list five good things about this Oscar season that has, mercifully, ended after five months. For whatever reason, this year it really took it out of me. Still, it wasn't all bad. Enjoy.

So, Was Seth MacFarlane a Terrible Oscar Host?

To my shock, I have to answer "no." (I say shocked because my feelings about this man are well-documented.) Granted, he wasn't good, either. But I do give an Academy Awards points for at least injecting a little energy and new ideas into the show. Of course, I do think MacFarlane was helped by the fact that he hosted one of the more unpredictable Oscars in terms of the winners -- that always helps. My review of the show is up at Deadspin.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

My Best Picture Ballot for the 2013 Academy Awards

I know, I know: They're not called the Academy Awards anymore. Regardless, here's how I would fill out my Oscar ballot. (And here's some very humorous background on the Academy's preferential voting system.) To be clear, these aren't predictions: This is how I would fill out my ballot if I was an Academy member....

1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Amour
3. Lincoln
4. Silver Linings Playbook
5. Life of Pi
6. Les Miserables
7. Django Unchained
8. Argo
9. Beasts of the Southern Wild

And here's my quick overview of 2012's best movies.

No matter how slice you it, the Academy did a pretty good with its Best Picture picks. Yes, The Master isn't on there, but not one of these movies is less than solid. (But, of course, I liked Les Miz.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Oscars ... in the Year 2029

The Academy Awards will be celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2029. For Paste, I decided to speculate about what the ceremony might be like at that time. What the piece is really about, though, is figuring out how the broadcast will reflect possible changes in the film industry. My thanks to Michael Dunaway for bringing me into the Paste fold; it's an honor. You can read the piece here.

De La Soul - "In the Woods"

If I had to pick a greatest De La Soul album, I would probably go with Buhloone Mindstate, although any of their first three records is worth considering for that distinction. Remember when hip-hop used to feature female vocalists who didn't just sing the chorus hook? There are many fine songs I could have picked off the album, but I went with "In the Woods," in part, yes, because of its inspirational line that's such a great kissoff to "hardcore" rappers.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

'Snitch' Review

I'm happy to report that Dwayne Johnson's new movie, Snitch, is probably the best thing he's done in a while. Now, that doesn't mean this is a great film, but it's smart and tough and there's some real feeling coursing through its veins. That's not everything, but it's enough to recommend. My review is up at Deadspin.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscar Predictions: The Major Categories

Yesterday, I offered my predictions for the lesser Oscar categories -- "lesser" in the eyes of most award handicappers, anyway. Today, I go through the eight major categories. Lincoln fans aren't going to be too happy with me. Will and I discuss our predictions at Deadspin.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Oscar Predictions: The Technical Categories

I'll have my picks for the eight major categories tomorrow, but today here are my predictions for the other Oscar categories: everything from Best Visual Effects to Best Makeup and Hairstyling. (Yup, they changed the category name.) If I get 75 percent of these correct, I'll consider myself lucky.

Why I Love Dwayne Johnson

The man who once went by "The Rock" is starring in Snitch this Friday. I haven't seen it yet, but I remain optimistic. Why? What has Dwayne Johnson ever done to reward such faith? I examine that in this week's IFC Fix column.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Common (featuring the Last Poets) - "The Corner"

It was with a certain amount of alarm and embarrassment that I noticed recently that my Friday Videos tend to feature very few black artists. That changes right now. Common's Be came out in 2005 and was helped by the success of his buddy Kanye West's breakthrough record, The College Dropout, the previous year. West produced a majority of Be, and you can hear him providing some background vocals on the single "The Corner." For fans of West's R&B-sampling style of his early career, this track is pure bliss.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

'Pretty Woman' and Valentine's Day

For Deadspin, Will and I both picked a romantic comedy whose happy ending never sat right with us. Will went with Clueless; I selected Pretty Woman. Our argument: In real life, these couples would not end up together at all. You can read the piece here.

'A Good Day to Die Hard' Review

Before watching A Good Day to Die Hard, I was convinced that no Die Hard movie could ever be as bad as Die Hard With a Vengeance. I was wrong, people -- at least, I think I'm wrong. I'm not going to go back and revisit Die Hard With a Vengeance to see. My review of this stinker is up at Screen International.

Monday, February 11, 2013

'Die Hard' at 25

When I was working on FilmCraft: Screenwriting -- my new book of interviews with the world's best film writers -- I was very happy to get to speak to Mark Bomback, an action-thriller writer who wrote Live Free or Die Hard. Action writers in general don't get much respect, so I was doubly pleased to include his voice in my book. One of the things we discussed was what made the original Die Hard so great; his enthusiasm and insight reminded me all over again what a fantastic movie that is. With A Good Day to Die Hard about to come out, I decided to write about the old Die Hard, which opened in the summer of 1988. Can it really have been 25 years? Yup. My piece is up at IFC Fix.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

'Beautiful Creatures' Review

With a movie like Beautiful Creatures, it's always a bit of challenge judging its merits since it's clearly aimed at a gender and an age group of which I am not a part. Still, some nice Southern atmosphere and an initially tart tone didn't go far enough toward winning me over. (And Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert do make a nice couple, I suppose.) My review is up at Screen International.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Coup - "The Magic Clap"

Public Enemy was a major band in my formative years, forever establishing in my mind what a socially conscious hip-hop group was capable of. If I was that age now, I think the Coup would rewire my nervous system in comparable ways. Party Music and Bigger Weapon are both terrific, and their latest, Sorry to Bother You, ain't too shabby, either. "Magic Clap" kicks off the album, and it shows how frontman Boots Riley's digression into rap-rock with Tom Morello for their side project Street Sweeper Social Club has rubbed off on his principal group. Hell yeah.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

'Identity Thief' Review

I can't say that I held out a lot of hope for Identity Thief, but the actual film might be even more disheartening than I feared. It's not that it's unfunny or crass -- trust me, it's both. It's that it's just simply stupid. It's the sort of film that thinks if a male character is named Sandy, then everyone else in the movie should make fun of him about that because Sandy is a girl's name. If that notion makes you laugh, you may enjoy Identity Thief more than I did. May god have mercy on your soul. My review is up at Deadspin.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

'The Day He Arrives' Review

Hong Sang-soo's films can seem repetitious because of their overlapping themes and narrative tricks. Lots of scenes of drinking, immature male characters who constantly have romantic troubles, fractured or circular timelines: If you're not feeling charitable, you might say that if you've seen one of Hong's films, you've seen them all.

But like Woody Allen, the American filmmaker to whom he's most compared, Hong doesn't repeat himself because he doesn't have any fresh ideas. Rather, it's that he's constantly reworking and rethinking his approach, finding new angles by which to attack the subjects that fascinate him: the fragility of friendship; the fine line between fiction and reality; the annoying unpredictability of the human heart.

Like Allen, he's incredibly prolific, but unlike Allen, it isn't always easy to see his work. In the last 10 years, Hong has produced nine features. I've managed to see six of them: one at a film festival; three on DVD; one through a publicist's screener; and one, I swear to God, while in Seattle for a few days during my honeymoon. (That one was a complete fluke.) LACMA had a retrospective of his films in 2009, but I was told they were poorly attended. Deceptively slight and endlessly watchable, this South Korean filmmaker's comedy-dramas aren't seen nearly as widely as they should be.

I bring this up because I've just today caught up with The Day He Arrives, his 2011 film that finally played in New York in April of last year. (To my knowledge, it never got a theatrical release here in Los Angeles.) Because of the character-driven, dialogue-heavy nature of his films, watching The Day He Arrives on DVD didn't make me feel that I had been greatly deprived by missing it in the theater. The bottom line is that however you see it, you should see it. (It's available on Netflix as we speak.)

The Day He Arrives isn't that different from Hong's earlier works in its outline. Seongjun (Yoo Jun-sang) is a young filmmaker taking a break to do some teaching in a small town. But as the movie opens, he's returned to Seoul to see an old friend and, we soon gather, to perhaps get a sense of what he's been missing by moving out of the big city. He eventually gets reacquainted with his buddy (Kim Sang-joong), but he also is drawn into the orbit of a few different beautiful women, including his buddy's platonic friend Boram (Song Sun-mi).

Hong's other 2012 U.S. release, In Another Country, was structured as three very different short stories revolving around the same characters in the same location and time frame. The Day He Arrives, at first, seems more conventional, but soon it begins to reveal its own subtle narrative quirks. I almost don't want to discuss them so that they can be surprises, but I will say that odd coincidences and strange repetitions of actions begin to occur. Sometimes the characters notice them; sometimes they don't. The advantage to seeing the movie on DVD is that once you're finished with the film, you can immediately hop over to the extras, where Kevin B. Lee has a typically sharp, thoughtful video essay about the possible meanings behind Hong's déjà vu-like structure. Lee offers a few intriguing theories that are excellent food for thought, even if he himself acknowledges that he may be reading too much into the film.

I can understand Lee's impulse. At just barely 78 minutes, The Day He Arrives is a slender little film, and yet its construction is so absorbing that you feel like it opens a door into the much bigger, richer world that we all occupy. Plus, it's simply gorgeous-looking. Whereas some of Hong's films are visually unremarkable -- his focus is on people, not showy framing -- The Day He Arrives was shot in beautiful black-and-white, giving his characters' romantic woes a grandeur that's earned but, also, even funnier because of their ordinariness. (Speaking of Allen, while watching The Day He Arrives I caught myself humming in my head some of the Gershwin tunes used in Manhattan. The two films do have fun with the ways in which we elevate our relationship problems to the level of grand drama.)

But it's not just this film's look -- it's the way Hong very patiently starts weaving in his repetitions, whether they be locations, conversations or even people. Because he never lays out precisely why these repetitions are happening, we're left to fill in the blanks ourselves. Lee suggests that perhaps some of what we're watching is invented -- the main character is a filmmaker, after all -- and that's a perfectly valid theory. (It's a technique Hong has utilized in other films.) Personally, though, I don't quite want to attach concrete explanations to an enigma like The Day He Arrives. Much like we never really learn why Seongjun decided he wanted to leave Seoul -- or why he's coming back now -- the movie as a whole holds on to its mysteries. There are plenty of clues, but sometimes it's better to let a film wash over you, allowing it to seep into your subconscious and start playing on your own attitudes, biases, worries and worldview.

For me, Seongjun's journey to Seoul puts him into a self-repeating purgatory -- his own Groundhog Day, I suppose -- that causes him to reevaluate past mistakes while being introduced to new mistakes he's about ready to make. That's not so different than the rest of us who return to an emotionally-charged location, the past and the present playing off each other in sometimes very alarming ways. But that's just my own take. You really should see this movie to make your own.

E Talks About My Eels Biography

With E out promoting Eels' fine new album, I was, of course, curious if anyone might ask him about my Eels biography. Happily, Dan Lucas, who's a fan of my book, did just that. Dan's profile of E at Drowned in Sound is great across the board, but here's the section where he asks E what he thought of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations: The Story of Eels...

Back in 2008 E received widespread acclaim for his literary prowess thanks to his fascinating memoir Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Now, just four years later, rock critic Tim Grierson has written the unauthorised biography Blinking Lights & Other Revelations which offers a welcome objectivity that the autobiography, by nature, lacked. I felt the book had its merits but, as its subject, E is less certain having been just about the only person closely associated with Eels who declined to be involved in Grierson’s project. “It’s very flattering that somebody wrote a book about me. I couldn’t really recognise myself in it though, I felt like I was reading about somebody else. I think it was odd that it would come out so soon. I think I did it better, but then I would think that! Maybe it’s odd to read a book about yourself? I mean, I’m happy to try anything once, so I just thought ‘let’s see what I’m like’ and so [when reading Grierson’s book] I was like ‘didn’t we do that already?’”

I thank Dan immensely, and I appreciate E's comments. My short response to his rhetorical question is that while Things the Grandchildren Should Know is indeed great, it skips over a lot of his life and musical adventures. For instance, he doesn't talk about I Am the Messiah, nor does he discuss the very-hard-to-find Bad Dude in Love, which he recorded while he was still living in Virginia. Plus, getting to hear other people's perspective on E's creative process, to my mind, makes my book a valuable companion piece to E's memoir.

With that said, I can't imagine what it must be like to read a book written by a complete stranger about you. I've been a fan of the man for more than 15 years, so I definitely approached this project with a lot of love and a huge sense of responsibility. As Dan mentions, E didn't participate in the book, but he was kind enough to let me interview those around him. (I've interviewed him twice in the past, though.) Someday, I hope to actually sit down with the man and chat about this book. Even if that doesn't happen, though, I'm proud of my effort to explain to the world what an undervalued talent he is. That's enough for me. (You can order the book here and judge for yourself.)

Monday, February 04, 2013

On the Great Steven Soderbergh

For years, Steven Soderbergh insisted he'd be retiring from filmmaking when he turned 50, and for years, I didn't believe him. Well, he turned 50 last month, and he's still very serious about hanging it up. With Side Effects coming out on Friday, I wanted to write a little something about his legacy. My piece is up at IFC Fix.

(Also, as an added bonus, here's a photo of Soderbergh that accompanied a Rolling Stone profile from 1989. I'm not even sure what to say about this.)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Eels - "Peach Blossom"

I'm not going to deny that I've been very curious what the first Eels album after my book came out would sound like. Not that I think that my biography would in any way influence E's work -- I was simply wondering how the book would influence how I approach his new stuff.

Hearing "Peach Blossom," the first single from Wonderful, Glorious, I dug it but wasn't wowed by it. I feared the worst: Perhaps after spending a year working on that book (and listening to Eels rather obsessively during that time), maybe I couldn't properly appreciate anything new he put out.

Well, I'm happy to say that after listening to the full album, I'm duly impressed. It keeps growing on me, in fact. I hope it does the same for you.