“Star Wars”: The “Lost” Episodes

The nerd world combusted like Alderaan when it was announced last Thursday that J.J. Abrams, creator of such memorable genre works as Alias, Cloverfield, and his magnum opus, Lost, would be directing the first of an as-yet-unspecified number of new Star Wars films.  At the end of 2012, the Walt Disney Company purchased George Lucas’s LucasFilm for the galaxy-sized sum of $4 billion, and promised fans that more big screen adventures in the galaxy far, far away would be forthcoming.  Speculation immediately began as to what direction the franchise would now take, and who would be at the helm.

Now that the project has a director and a writer (Little Miss Sunshine scribe Michael Arndy), fans like myself can begin to salivate over what might be coming to multiplexes in 2015.  The House of Mouse has neither confirmed nor denied that the new films will be influenced by existing Star Wars lore, which is so abundant that even a die-hard like me has barely scratched the surface.  However, I did start to wonder how it might be that Abrams could find a way to reunite with some of his Lost actors.  I mean, when you think about it, the similarities between the two franchises are blindingly obvious.  Both are six-chapter epics chronicling the adventures of a wide network of characters–characters connected through coincidence, dire circumstance, or family ties they never knew existed–fighting the never-ending struggle of good and evil, both in the world they inhabit and within themselves.  So here’s some suggestions for how we could see our favorite island castaways swashbuckling across the stars…

(Caution: Spoilers abound!)

Nestor Carbonell as Grand Admiral Thrawn
Nestor 2
Perhaps the most beloved and recognized of all the Star Wars characters who never appeared in the six films, Thrawn was a villain created by author Timothy Zahn to be the anti-Vader: calm, methodical, almost academic–but no less dedicated to the destruction of the Rebel Alliance.  In Zahn’s first trilogy of novels, Thrawn takes the reigns of the shattered Empire nine years after the Battle of Endor, and puts the Rebels on the ropes by using his most powerful weapon: his superior intellect.  Carbonell, who was always so intriguing as the enigmatic Richard Alpert, would be perfect for playing the alien mastermind.  The requisite red contact lenses would do nothing to diminish the intensity of Carbonell’s stare.  And I think hearing him deliver Thrawn’s delectable last words (“But…it was so artistically done.”) would give me goosebumps.

Michael Emerson as Nom Anor
Michael EmersonWhen Star Wars books jumped publishing houses from Bantam to Del Rey, they embarked on an ambitious first project: a multi-volume story chronicling the next generation of heroes as they battled alien conquistadors from another galaxy who thrived on pain and were invisible to the Force.  The New Jedi Order series featured many great new characters, and developed existing ones in very unexpected and controversial ways.  One thing fans could agree on, though, was that at its center, the New Jedi Order series had its most captivating villain since…well, Thrawn.  Nom Anor was an advance agent of the alien Yuuzhan Vong who had been fermenting trouble throughout the galaxy in an attempt to destabilize the New Republic ahead of the Vong invasion.  Throughout the series, Anor donned assorted disguises and personas to execute the will of his superiors, manipulating major players against each other.  If there’s one actor who can pull off dangerous ambiguity, it’s Michael Emerson, who helped to take the character of Benjamin Linus so far beyond the three episodes in which he was originally intended to appear.

Ian Somerhalder as Kyp Durron
Ian Somerhalder
Kyp is an interesting character.  Created by prolific sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson for his Jedi Academy trilogy, Kyp represented what might have happened to Luke Skywalker if he hadn’t had devoted guardians or a wise mentor to guide him.  A teenage slave in the spice mines of Kessel, Kyp was rescued by Han Solo, who took him to Yavin 4 to join Luke’s inaugural class of new Jedi trainees.  Unfortunately, Kyp was a bit damaged, and his inability to control his raw power and emotions saw him knocking Luke into a coma, hijacking an Imperial superweapon, and welcoming the demonic possession of a long-dead Sith Lord.  To the credit of Anderson and many subsequent authors, Kyp was redeemed and thoroughly fleshed out over time.  He was a philosophical foil to Luke in the New Jedi Order series.  He also had a complicated teacher-student relationship with Han’s daughter, Jaina.  At the risk of dipping back into the same well–a young man eager to prove himself, confounded by his own desires–I could see Ian Somerhalder, Lost‘s doomed Boone Carlyle, in the role.

Matthew Fox as Ulic Qel-Droma
Matthew Fox
It is possible, but very unlikely, that instead of carrying the Star Wars story forward, Abrams and Andry might take it backward.  What I mean is that they could choose to adapt one of the most revered pieces of Star Wars lore, Tom Veitch’s Tales of the Jedi comic series, which takes place 4,000 years before R2-D2 and C-3PO crash-landed on sunny Tatooine.  The central figure of the Tales saga is Ulic Qel-Droma, an upstanding Jedi Knight whose desire to keep the galaxy he served and the people he loved free from harm ultimately led to his own fall to the Dark Side.  I admit, the thematic elements of Star Wars can be a bit repetitive.  Still, the character of Ulic gets a lot of emotional mileage.  Unlike Anakin Skywalker, Ulic doesn’t conveniently die moments after his redemption.  A significant portion of Tales is devoted to Ulic’s post-redemption exile, and his struggle to forgive himself for his heinous crimes.  Matthew Fox does well as a tortured soul anchoring a large ensemble of characters.  There’s even ample opportunity in Tales for a “We have to go back!” moment.

Elizabeth Mitchell as Nomi Sunrider
Elizabeth Mitchell
This is my favorite bit of cross-over casting.  Elizabeth Mitchell was so wonderful as Juliet Burke.  Throughout her tenure on Lost, she had to be by turns desperate, heartsick, commanding, vengeful, and hopeful.  These are all things that describe the character Nomi Sunrider, who was Ulic Qel-Droma’s love interest in Tales of the Jedi.  Widowed when her Jedi husband is murdered by gangsters, Nomi soon harnesses her own Force potential and finds herself on the front lines of some of the Old Republic’s most legendary conflicts.  It is in these dire situations that she meets and finds love again with Ulic Qel-Droma.  When it becomes clear that Ulic can neither be turned back to the light nor defeated in combat, Nomi employs one of the rarest and most awesome of Force abilities to bring an end to his reign of terror.  It’s one of the best and most poetic moments in the entire franchise.  Watching Mitchell perform it would be a treat.

Terry O’Quinn as Booster Terrik
Terry O'Quinn
I know.  You’re probably thinking that Terry O’Quinn, who so masterfully played the conflicted John Locke and his evil doppelgänger, should be playing Darth So-and-So; but that would be too easy.  I’d much rather see O’Quinn tap into his rambunctious side by playing seasoned smuggler Booster Terrik.  Created out of a collaboration between Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole, Booster was introduced as a new underworld ally for our Rebel heroes.  Personally, I thought he was the end result of a clever “what if”; that being, “what if Han Solo had never joined the Rebellion?”  Booster was a smart-mouthed, blustering, proudly improper scoundrel who, like all such characters in Star Wars, had an underlying heart of gold.  He was also a little grandiose.  As payment for his aid to the Rebellion, Booster demanded his own personal Star Destroyer, which he later turned into a mobile casino and trade outpost (and secret Jedi refuge).  A guy that eccentric could be a ton of fun to portray, and to watch.

Evangeline Lilly as Mara Jade Skywalker
Evangeline Lilly
Evangeline Lilly always seemed perfectly at home in the role of Kate, a woman with a very checkered past who tries to do the right thing when such an opportunity presents itself.  She was a physical actress, and held her own opposite any of her male co-stars, whether they were adversaries or love interests.  Basically, there’s no doubting her ability to play an active, self-sufficient, layered female lead.  That pretty much defines Mara Jade, the woman who first sets out to kill Luke Skywalker and later winds up marrying him.  Another creation of Timothy Zahn’s (noticing a trend?), Mara spends years developing a relationship with Luke that is all at once antagonistic, instructive, challenging, and supportive.  It was only fitting that Zahn was the one who got to finally bring the two together, after putting them through the ringer in his Hand of Thrawn series.  Subsequent authors have taken the couple to new and exciting stages of life in the New Jedi Order series and beyond.  There’s an infinite amount of Mara material to mine for a movie.  Of course, it might be tough to do, since her presence necessitates the return of Luke, Han, and Leia.  Think Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher are up to it?

Big Three

I think they still got it.

~ T

Version 3.0

Hello again, readers new and old.  It’s your friendly blogmaster, returned after an extended absence from the interwebs.  We’ve got a lot to catch up on!  I’ll start by explaining exactly why The Honestly Blog has been dormant for so long.

The main reason that I wasn’t blogging this year was because I was spending most of it undertaking a project that I wasn’t comfortable having on the public record.  That project was applying to graduate school.  From Christmastime through the middle of February, I was hitting the books for at least 90 minutes each night, studying for the GREs.  After that, springtime was spent working on application essays, accumulating writing samples, and seeking letters of recommendation.  My applications went out right before Easter, and I am happy to report that it was about a month later that I found out I had been accepted to the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at NYU.  Starting very soon–Tuesday, in fact–I will begin my course of study towards my masters degree in public relations and corporate communications.

The eternal flame of knowledge…or an albino artichoke

Now you might be thinking, “But Tyler, that’s awesome!  You write so well and you’re so engaging and so effortlessly handsome that this program sounds like it’s tailor-made for you.”  (You are thinking that, aren’t you?)  “Why wouldn’t you be shouting that from the digital rooftops?”  Well, you rascally flatterers you, the reason I was keeping this under wraps was because I hadn’t told anyone at work that I was pursuing this.  To be as frank as I can be, this has not been a very good year for me on the job.  2012 has been a year of extreme ups and downs in the office. Our normally slow summer was upended by the much deserved yet unexpected retirement of one of my bosses.  It was only in the last two weeks that we wrapped up the majority of the unfinished business left in her wake, and it was only then that I felt comfortable sharing with my remaining employers that I would be spending my evenings learning how to make myself a more marketable applicant to other businesses.  Since I can only afford to go to school at night if I keep my job during the day, the whole situation has required a level of decorum I usually wouldn’t have to keep.

The air might be cleared now, but that doesn’t mean that I can go back to being a blogging machine.  Given the amount of schoolwork I have coming my way and the rigorous standards of the program (less than 3.0 each term and you’re out on your ass!), I’m afraid that my postings may not be as frequent or as lengthy as in the past.  Couple my course load with the fact that I’m also going to be actively searching for new employment (that retirement doesn’t seem to be yielding any promotions), and you can imagine just how little spare time I  might have.  But I also recognize that the months ahead are going to be very strenuous, and I’m going to need an outlet, a place to turn when I near a burn-out, a way to exercise the wackier parts of my brain, a place where everyone knows my name…wait, scratch that last one…

So my game plan for The Honestly Blog is to write one post each week; a weekly installment of the shenanigans and sass you’ve come to enjoy over these past few years.  I’m hoping to write about a wide variety of things in an array of different styles; maybe have some guest writers; perhaps even experiment with video content.  I hope you’ll continue to drop by.  I’ve also become quite a Twitter fiend this year, so follow my bird to get some giggles on your smart phone in 140 characters or less.

Before I give you the abridged run-down of my 2012 adventures thus far, I have to give a special thank you to my family and friends who persisted in getting me back to writing this blog.  Special shout-outs go to the kickball gang (especially fellow blogger Jill), my bestest best friend and budding blogger herself, Lauren, and no less a cewebrity than the talented J.T. Riley, whose prodigious and enjoyable output can be tracked via his Twitter.  Mille grazie, everyone!

So, what else was I doing while operating in Sith-like secrecy?  Well, the first thing I did after taking the GRE was to get on a plane bound for Austin, TX!  Literally, I went from the test location to the airport.  A handful of Hobos and I went to the liberal center of the Lone Star State to cheer on one of our own, Stacy, while she ran the Austin marathon.  She set a new personal best with her running, and I set a new personal best eating ribs.  Success all around!  Other far-off adventures this year have included a visit to Syracuse and its surroundings to see my pal Stef, an extra-long Fourth of July holiday in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with most of my cousins, and more trips to the Long Island beaches than I can recall making in previous summers.  There were many more local adventures as well: nights out in Hoboken and Jersey City, and the annual multi-borough epic affair known as Handicapable Ice Cream Day, a weekend whose history would require a posting of its own to fully explain.

An aquatic event on this year’s Summer Olympic-themed Handicapable Ice Cream Day

There were sporting events aplenty.  My brother and I sat twenty rows off the floor of the Prudential Center when Blake Griffin and the Clippers came to town to play the Nets, I made numerous trips to both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, and I even won a few shekels at the Belmont Stakes.  Sadly, my kickball days are over, as my NYU schedule won’t allow enough time for that much drinking athleticism.

There were cultural outings, as well.  For every excellent book I read (Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding being the best among them), I saw a terrible movie (Honestly, Prometheus?).  I saw musicals good (Now. Here. This.), bad (Merrily We Roll Along), and ugly (Leap of Faith).  I made my first trip to the Metropolitan Opera.  I also hit a few concerts, including my favorite one to date: the incomparable, insatiable, insane Scissor Sisters.  Don’t take my word for it; Anderson Cooper was there right next to me.  (No, really, he was.  I got a drink at the bar, turned to walk away, and bam–Silver Fox!)

Scissor Sisters having a kiki at Bowery Ballroom

And if, like me, you’re in your late twenties and actively maintaining a social life, you probably spent your summer going from one wedding to another.  I know I did, and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend those weekends any other way.  Each celebration was special in its own way, and each of them was an absolute blast.  Congratulations again to Christina and Charlie, Matt and Jess, and Kaitlyn and Matt!  May you spend Summer 2013 judging other people’s nuptials against your own.  They’ll be tough to beat.

That about brings you up to speed, faithful readers.  It’s Labor Day weekend now, the unofficial end of summer.  Big changes are about to take shape, and I’m looking forward to them.  Stay tuned.

~ T

A Winter Update

Bless me, bloggers, for I have sinned.  It has been six weeks since my last posting.

I should know by now that my writing output is one of the most obvious things to suffer during my self-imposed hibernation.  But just because I haven’t been reporting on my goings-on doesn’t mean that they haven’t been happening.  Let me fill you in…

I’ve stayed active.  Knowing that my metabolism slows as the temperature lowers, and that there are plenty of treats to be had this time of year, I’ve added in extra work-outs with my buddy, Alex.  He finally wore me down and got me to agree to try the Insanity Workout program.  So here’s a taste of what he and I get up to three times a week.

Insanity Workout

A more leisurely athletic accomplishment came just before Thanksgiving, when my fellow agents and I finally defeated the casting directors at show biz softball!  I went 4 for 4 at the plate during our 17-7 drubbing of our dreaded opponents.  There was the typical trash-talking and dirt-kicking, but when all was said and done, we still got together at a dive bar on Avenue A to enjoy pitchers and wings.

Yeah, I look like I need that pitcher, don't I?

But outdoing me on all fronts was kickball legend Stacy, running her second (or was it third?) New York City marathon!  She’s gone from Ol’ Whiskey Lips to Ol’ Whiskey Hips!  Way to go, Stacy!

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I made my first trip to the movies in ages to see The Muppets, which I thought was absolutely delightful.  Writer and star Jason Segel imbued the film with the love and reverence of a true fan.  It keeps the spirit of the old Muppet films and TV shows but gives it enough modern sourness and self-awareness to mesh with today’s comic tastes, so as to not feel like a stale reboot.  And the songs by Bret McKenzie were a wonderful surprise.

I also did some reading these past weeks.  A duo of works by Hollywood’s hardest-working funny ladies, Ellen DeGeneres and Tina Fey, were enjoyable as expected, but surprisingly opposing in style.  Ellen’s Seriously…I’m Kidding is half comic essays on her life of late as an established celebrity, and half left-over material from her talk show monologues (I say “left-over” because they honestly weren’t that funny).  But Tina Fey’s Bossypants is a full-blown memoir in which the good-natured author reveals that, after spending half her life climbing the show biz ladder, she still holds a handful of axes to grind.  And like any good writer, she doesn’t mince words (“The definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore”).

I also reached a benchmark in my American history reading, having now cleared the Civil War era.  My latest selection was Eli N. Evans’s Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate.  Evans’s biography of the most powerful pre-twentieth century Jew in American politics is deeply interesting.  Benjamin, born to modest means in the British Caribbean, wound up becoming a United States senator and one of the architects of the Confederacy.  As Jefferson Davis’s most trusted professional ally, Benjamin was right at the heart of the Confederate machine.  But for all his skill as a politician, it was his legal talents that he was most remembered for.  It was how he made his fortune as a young man in New Orleans, and how he later supported himself–quite comfortably–in England, following his escape from the South.  Since Benjamin destroyed most of his papers during and after his flight from America, Evans is forced to explain Benjamin’s life from some interesting perspectives: as a friend of Jefferson and Varina Davis, and as a prominent Jew living in a place and time in which anti-Semitism soared among the populace.  Benjamin proves to have had a powerfully analytic mind, and seems to have had a disturbing ability to apply it to his personal life.  His marriage to the notoriously unfaithful Natalie St. Martin was worth increasing his social standing; his adherence to his faith waxed and waned as necessary given the personal or professional company he kept; his wholesale rejection of his time at the forefront of Union and Confederate politics was simply a bit of show to impress his British colleagues.  Everything was a means to an end; and as such, his loyalty to anyone but his beloved brother-in-law, Jules, and his daughter, Ninette, appears to have been completely flexible.  Given the incomplete source material, Evans has done a good job in painting a full portrait of a man who apparently was content to have been forgotten.

Finally, you’ll be happy to know that in a week or so, I’ll be posting some outrageous tales of adventure, as I am leaving soon to visit my best bud, Kevin, in tropical St. Maarten!  This is the biggest adventure of 2011.  I aim to close the year out with a bang.  Stay tuned, readers!

~ T

Young Hollywood

I have seen a minor handful of the films that earned Academy Award nominations this week.  Combining that with how utterly dreadful I thought last year’s Oscar show was, I’m seriously debating whether or not to even watch.  But this first promo of this year’s hosting duo, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, has piqued my interest.

It’s not anything brilliant, but it does make me want to share a pizza with them and just shoot the shit.  That can happen, right?

~ T

At the Movies: “The Kids Are All Right”

Roommate Dan continued his cinematic generosity yesterday by bringing me along to a screening of the family dramedy The Kids Are All Right.  Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, and directed by Ms. Cholodenko, the movie is, at base, conventional kitchen sink drama, albeit with a contemporary and unconventional spin.  It’s serious without taking itself seriously; though the director owes this balance of levity and gravitas entirely to her outstanding cast, who elevate material that in other hands would be trite melodrama.

The Kids Are All Right starts its focus on the titular kids: siblings Joni, a brainy but restrained high school senior, and Laser, her younger and somewhat wayward brother.  The kids have the same father, but different mothers.  Joni was born to Nic, a type-A surgeon, and Laser was born to her partner, Jules, a laid-back free spirit.  Despite sharing his DNA, the kids have never known anything of their sperm donor father, and have had a happy, healthy upbringing with their moms.  But the occasion of Joni’s 18th birthday, and the legal opportunities it presents, are too much for their curiosity.  After some snooping and carefully placed phone calls, Joni and Laser track down their dad, Paul, an affable loner who runs his own farm and restaurant.  When word gets out to the moms, the film shifts its focus largely to the adults, as Nic, Jules, and Paul try to understand what place–if any–they have in each other’s lives.

The happy family?

There are some predictable twists and turns along the way.  The characters are clearly yet broadly drawn.  The script sacrifices some of its earlier wit and authenticity for some Oscar bait moments in the second half.  But despite this, the film still floats.  It makes no attempt to wrap everything up cleanly.  It never gets preachy about marriage, adoption, or parenting among gay and lesbian families.  And even the clumsier dialogue comes out polished in the talented hands (or is it mouths?) of this wonderful cast.  There is no denying the chemistry that freely and believably flows among these actors.  Mia Wasikowska ( as Joni) and Josh Hutcherson (as Laser) are two of the more promising young actors I’ve seen of late.  I have no doubt of the critical praise that will follow the adult leads–the always reliable Julianne Moore (as Jules), the underrated Mark Ruffalo (as Paul), and the criminally underworked Annette Bening (as Nic).

I’d recommend The Kids Are All Right, perhaps more for the performances than the story.  It’s impressive to watch people do something so difficult so effortlessly.

Check out the trailer…

~ T

At the Movies: “Animal Kingdom”

Last week, my roommate Dan invited me along to a free film screening down in the Lower East Side.  He invited me solely because the film in question was an Australian film, and he knows of my adoration for all things Oz.  The film in question, Animal Kingdom, was the feature-length debut of writer/director David Michod, and it was a doozie.

Animal Kingdom is the story of Joshua Cody (often called J), a young man who, through unfortunate circumstances, finds himself in the care of the extended family he so rarely saw growing up.  His mother had good reason for keeping her distance, as the rest of the Cody clan are among some of Melbourne’s most wanted.  His uncles–hot-headed Craig, feeble Darren, and ruthless Pope–are all dangerous in their own way.  Most threatening of all could well be his grandmother, Janine, a tiny woman so fond of her blue eyeshadow that she has earned the nickname Smurf.  Yet the connotations of friendship and innocence that the name arouses have no place in J’s world.  Soon his uncles have brought J into the fold, and it isn’t long before he realizes there is no easy way out.

Animal Kingdom is clearly a well-made film, though I’m not sure it’s one that I could see again.  I don’t think I’ve sat through a movie that heavy or draining since Munich.  It is very much a series of increasingly bad things happening to people–some deserving of their fates, but most not.  The only levity you can take from it is that it is so well-crafted.  Michod is a master at building tension, and his twisted  mind takes the story to many dark places, most of them unexpected.  He has excellent actors at his disposal.  Aussie film vets Joel Edgerton and Guy Pearce do excellent work with their supporting roles, playing an associate of the Codys and a determined detective, respectively.  James Frecheville turns in an accomplished debut performance as J.  Jacki Weaver has given Janine so many layers that as each one is peeled away, you feel like you’re seeing the character completely anew.  And Ben Mendelsohn is positively terrifying as Pope.  He brings the kind of dead-eyed menace to the screen that hasn’t been seen since Anthony Hopkins was taking the role of Hannibal Lecter seriously.  But Pope’s crimes are so much more commonplace that they become that much more horrid.

Part-L.A. Confidential, part-The Godfather, and plenty parts intense, I’d recommend Animal Kingdom…but just once.  Check out the trailer below.

~ T

The Hollywood Walk of Shame

My condolences to anyone else who watched the Oscars last night.  It was absolutely painful.  Beginning at 8:30 EST and technically only ending this morning, this year’s ponderous telecast was almost twice as long as the film it benighted as the best of year.

The Oscars are a cultural touchstone that, much like O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin, and Paris Hilton, seem to exist solely as outlets for our equally powerful desires to gape and gawk as well as to belittle and ridicule.  We all ooh and ahh at the shiny dresses and beautiful faces, and when one of our favorite matinée idols ascends to the podium, we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for them to forget a co-star, agent, or spouse so we can rob their pivotal moment of all triumph.  It’s tradition.  Disturbing, but still tradition.

Yet just because a good portion of the viewing audience is hoping for a small scandal doesn’t mean that the entire telecast has to be one enormous clusterfuck.  The Oscars have never been easy, but this year’s broadcast was more lethargic, less surprising, and just more frustrating than any I can remember.

As such, I offer the following suggestions for next year’s event.  If followed, I believe we can have a more fluid, more exciting, and noticeably shorter Oscar telecast.

Know Thyself

The Oscars are a televised event that celebrates the best in film.  What sense does it make then to place the entire affair in the hands of a choreographer?

Stick to what you know

That’s all Adam Shankman, this year’s head honcho, is.  Sure, he’s good at what he does, but Hollywood doesn’t give a shit about song and dance.  And the American viewing public doesn’t care about it either, unless they get to send people away via text message.  So next year, how about we hire a producer/director who’s familiar with the medium.  Someone who can run a tight ship and turn out a product that hums along, smoothly and steadily.  The gang at 24 has churned out taut TV under the most stringent of time constraints; why not hire their two most veteran directors Jon Cassar or Brad Turner?  No one did fast-paced, arresting television better than Thomas Schlamme and John Wells on The West Wing.  If we’re going to insist on these bogus interpretive dance numbers and ham-fisted openings, why not let Ryan Murphy and the Glee gang take the wheel?  Or how about you take someone who has directed for the small and big screens, who has never displayed anything but admiration for the industry, and who continually pushes the bounds of whatever medium he chooses to tell a story in?  Joss Whedon, I hope you’re free next March.

Song & Dance

Despite wanting Shankman forever barred from chairing the Oscars, I am not asking for a complete cessation to the Oscar production numbers.  What I am asking for are ones that make sense.  This year, we were treated to an interpretive number set to selections from each nominee for Original Score (at which point I decided flossing my teeth was more interesting), and a derivative opening song from Neil Patrick Harris.  The former is a complete waste of time; the latter would have made sense if NPH had actually been hosting the Oscars himself.  I say, do away with both of them and keep it simple.  The Oscars have a Best Original Song category, but this year we never got to hear any of the nominated songs.  That seems counterintuitive.  Why not let these people perform?  Often times, popular recording artists lend themselves to a soundtrack.  In recent years, we’ve had nominations and thus performances from Beyonce, Melissa Etheridge, Dolly Parton, The Counting Crows, Sting, U2, Randy Newman, and Three 6 Mafia.  Now, everyone’s taste may differ, but these artists have followings and command an audience.  So let them sing!

You must be this famous to approach the podium

People watch the Oscars to see glamorous movie stars.  They do not watch it to see scraggly-haired dweebs give an exhausting acceptance speech when celebrating their win for Best Sound Editing.  No matter how sexy or interesting they might try to make these categories (a short explanatory reel presented by Zac Efron and narrated by Morgan Freeman, using examples from a popular movie that’s over two years old?  Swoon!), it just never works.   I’m all for equality and ending discrimination, but segregation must reign at the Oscars.  There are the Movie Stars and Everyone Else.  Call it segregeektion.  That’s why they have those Technical Oscars a week before the main event, and that’s why they summarize the entire evening in less time than it takes to introduce the nominees for Best Picture: because nobody cares who’s going to win the hotly contested race for Best Use of A Steady-Cam During A Rotoscoped Zero-G Sex Scene or Action Sequence!

Just because you gave a cunty acceptance speech doesn't mean you're exempt, crazy lady

And I’m sorry, talented Hollywood craftsmen, but nobody cares about art direction, cinematography, costuming, film editing, make-up, sound editing, sound mixing, or visual effects either.  Oh, they might care about the visceral thrill they provide for the senses, but they don’t care about the people who did it.  I understand that they are integral parts of the process, but how many forced jokes about self-conscious beautiful people urging the wizards of the screen to make them look flattering do we have to endure?  Relegate these awards to the technical ceremony, or at least present them before national broadcast, the way the Tony Awards do.  Yeah, that’s how bad this year’s Oscars were: I’m suggesting that they take tips from the Tonys.

This May Be Your Life, But You’re Wasting Mine

Now even though the beautiful people are the main event, there does come a point of oversaturation.  I think we could have shaved thirty minutes from the telecast if we did away with this absurd new practice of having previous nominees, co-stars, directors, or anyone else tangentially connected to the best actor and best actress nominees run up the clock by telling the nominees what wonderful people they are.  We already know they’re wonderful; they’re nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress!  This is masturbatory theater at its most extreme.  It’s nothing more than a cheap way to get more famous faces on the stage and to ratchet up the tension in a manipulative American Idol fashion.  Of course, for it to work, there has to be tension to begin with, something that this year’s contests were lacking.  Yes, Best Actress may have been a toss-up, but did you really think Meryl Streep was going to trip Sandra Bullock on her way to the podium and storm out of the Kodak Theater (with Stanley Tucci scampering behind, simply out of habit)?  I don’t care if one of these contests even ends in a tie (and it has happened), this express canonization has to stop!  And what was even more ridiculous was that after these interminable introductions, they re-read the names of the nominees!  Probably because by the time they were done introducing the fifth, everyone had forgotten who the first was!  I allow no room for negotiation on this point.  It simply has to stop.

A Middle Finger Salute

Another thing that I expressly forbid in future Oscar telecasts is any kind of salute beyond the traditional “In Memorium” montage.  This year, that midget juicehead and bitchy sourpuss from Twilight introduced a salute to horror, which was kind of like having Tiger Woods and Elizabeth Taylor introduce a salute to marital fidelity.  Little Miss Crankypants even mentioned that it had been thirty-some-odd years since a horror film received an Oscar.  If that were true (and it’s not), then why the hell are we saluting it?  And why did John Hughes get his own special memorial?  I’ve enjoyed some of his work, but was he really the one dead person to elevate above all others?  You could argue that his work was influential to a specific generation of movie-goers; I might counter that it was just because his actors are now all washed-up and were foaming at the mouth at the prospect of appearing on the Oscars.

A Host of Issues

I had faith in Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin to host the Oscars.  That faith seems to have been misplaced.  Clearly, these two were kept on a short leash, forced to adhere to some B-grade writers’ non-threatening, pedestrian material.  I say that because I’d hope that a Snuggie joke was not the best that these two could have come up with on their own.  If you’re not going to let talented comic performers deviate from a shapeless opening monologue of point-and-laugh one-liners, or the requisite prerecorded parody segment, or any of the other staid Oscar gags, then why bother having hosts at all?  Cutting out hosts would eliminate an astonishing number of minutes from this lumbering showcase.  The forgettable introductions could be scrapped.  The witless banter could be avoided.  You don’t need hosts!  All you have to do is have that overeager announcer lady inform you of who was approaching the podium to present the next award.  But what about the opening, you ask?  I have a solution.  It turns out that aside from those boring accountants and the doddering old president, there is a Board of Governors within the Academy that includes a representative for all the actors out there.  That current representative is Tom Hanks.  Can you think of a better person to kick off the Oscars?  In his capacity as First Vice President of the Academy (his official title, I shit you not), all Tom Hanks has to do is deliver a two-minute monologue about how magical movies are, kick it over to a montage of all the nominated films, and then walk off stage as the first presenters approach.  If that were the case, we could have presented three awards by the time Alec Baldwin had unhooked his safety harness.

The face of salvation

Grow Up

Finally, let me address one of the aforementioned Oscar gags that really pisses me off.  I don’t want to see another “interview” with a cartoon.  Look, I adore animation in all its forms, but this stopped being amusing after Toy Story.  No one is impressed anymore that you can have actors interacting with CGI characters, and no one is fooled into believing that this bit hasn’t been prepared months in advance.  Don’t insult my intelligence with this crap, Oscars.  You already have enough ways to do that.

I hope someone of influence out there is reading this, and that my recommendations can be considered before next year’s ceremony.  With any luck, next year’s Oscar night 11:00 news might actually air at 11:00.

~ T

Candid Camera

The Oscar nominations came out earlier this week.  While I’d love to comment on the odds for Hollywood’s biggest event, I feel I can’t adequately do so because my cinematic intake this past year was so paltry.  Instead, I decided to share with you these quirky candids of some of Tinseltown’s finest.

Marlon Brando and his editor
I feel for the little guy here. Having a big head invites all kinds of abuse.
Sigh... La Liz made anything look glamorous.
Sigh... John Travolta makes anything look ridiculous.
I have no idea why Anthony Perkins and Audrey Hepburn are doing what they're doing in this picture, and I don't want to know.

~ T

At the Movies: “Precious” – Life Certainly Is

This weekend I got around to finally seeing one of the most buzzed-about films of the  year, Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.  The buzz is justified.  This is a film definitely worth seeing.

Precious packs a big emotional punch, which is all the more remarkable because the story is one that movie-goers have most certainly heard before: a troubled teen discovers the sense of community and self-respect she’s robbed of at home in the company of fellow misfits and a saintly teacher.  What sets Precious apart is that the obstacles the heroine has to overcome have rarely been presented as brutally, honestly, and directly as they are here.  Dangerously overweight, the title character is the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother.  Barely literate, the film begins with Precious learning she is pregnant for the second time.  The girl isn’t even old enough to drive.

What also sets it apart, and what makes this at times terrible tale watchable, are the excellent performances from its very unusual cast.  Gabourey Sidibe, playing Precious, turns in what has to rank as one of the most memorable debut performances of all time.   Paula Patton hits all the right notes as the dedicated Ms. Rain.  Sherri Shepherd, bubbly co-host of The View,  is unrecognizable in her role as a school secretary.  Lenny Kravitz (yeah, the Lenny Kravitz) is great as a curmudgeonly nurse with a soft spot for Precious.  Xosha Roquemore stands out among Precious’ classmates as the sassy Joann.

Director Lee Daniels (far left) with Patton, Sidibe, Carey, and Kravitz
Mo'Nique in "Precious"

But the performance that everyone is talking about, and rightly so, is Mo’Nique’s turn as Precious’ monstrous mother, Mary.  Dirty, foul-mouthed, two-faced, and unrelenting in her torment of Precious, watching this performance made me wonder what it was like being on set, let alone acting opposite her.  Having made a name for herself as a smiling court jester on stand-up specials and sit-coms, this is as big a leap as Mo’Nique could ever hope to take, and she stunningly lands on two feet.  In the final scene, Mary is forced to explain her actions, and the fact that Mo’Nique can almost elicit your sympathy for Mary proves just how capable an actress she is.  It’s a perfect ten.

Overshadowed by Mo’Nique, but by no means less remarkable, is Mariah Carey (yes, Mariah Freakin’ Carey) as Mrs. Weiss, the tough-loving social worker who helps set Precious free when Ms. Rain can’t.  De-glammed, un-tanned, and sounding unusually hoarse, MiMi holds her own against the talents opposite her, and her work in that last scene is just as solid as they come.  You’ve come a long way from Glitter, baby.

Final commendations (and hopefully an Oscar nomination) should go to director Lee Daniels, for telling this story in its uncensored, unvarnished entirety; for his clever transitions, camera work, and lighting in Precious’ daydream sequences; and for coaxing these remarkable performances out of his cast.

I definitely recommend Precious.  It felt good to see a good movie again.

~ T

At the Movies: “Nine” – Far From A Perfect Ten

Please be warned.  I am about to review a movie musical.  Not only will there be spoilers, my analysis will be exhausting…

I saw a lot of shitty movies in 2009, but I still wouldn’t call them disappointments.  I had absolutely no expectation for them.  I knew they were going to be awful.  Nine, however, was something I had high hopes for.  Directed by Rob Marshall, adapted from a Tony-winning musical, itself adapted from a film by one of cinema’s international greats, Federico Fellini, featuring a cast of Oscar winners and nominees from multiple nations and generations, Nine should have been a slam dunk.  But it just wasn’t.

I should first say that Nine is not awful.  There is much to admire; just not as much as there should be.  Visually, it’s a stunner.  Rob Marshall has an excellent production team and they clearly all work excellently together.  Marshall trades in the shady cells of Chicago for the sun-kissed vistas of Rome and coastal Italy.  The swingin’ ’60s style is captured just as expertly as Prohibition Chicago was.  The film sounds great, as the score by Maury Yeston has some truly wonderful songs within it.  Oddly, though, the songs are more enjoyable coming from your iPod than from the big screen.

That’s because, even though he is one of the most sought-after names in the world of musical theater, Rob Marshall doesn’t really know how to make a movie musical.  The conceit of Chicago‘s musical numbers was that, unless they explicitly occurred on a stage in a performance setting within the story, they were happening in the main character’s mind–and that worked.  It worked in Chicago because Chicago was all about the main character’s obsession with celebrity and fame, and her fantasies of living in a world where she commanded the world’s attention from a stage.  As a professional star-gazer, Roxie sees anyone in a position higher than hers as a dazzling performance artist.  They have what she doesn’t have (power, authority, experience), and she equates that with celebrity.

All this means that Chicago is not really a fully integrated movie musical.  And that’s fine.  Such is the nature of that particular beast.  The problem is that Rob Marshall seems to think that Chicago‘s formula is the only way to make musicals.  It sounds like it should work.  Nine is the story of Guido Contini, the Italian cinema’s (fictional) favorite son, who is facing insurmountable writer’s block as he prepares to shoot his next masterpiece.  Having the character of a film director view the women in his life as characters in song-and-dance numbers should work, but it just doesn’t.  For one thing, we’re never given any indication that Guido makes movie musicals.  Why would be this the way he sees his women?  For another, it becomes apparent that, as a stage piece, Nine was a fully and intricately integrated musical.  I say this is apparent because the way Marshall excises the musical numbers from the reality of the world within the film often completely interrupts the flow of the story.  Finally, despite this front-and-center presentation of these women, the numbers often fail to define them as characters.  We aren’t given much time with a good number of them, and when their moments in the spotlight are so brief and muddled, it doesn’t help us sympathize.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard

And sympathize we should, because the women in this film have got to be the most unhappy, miserable lot this side of Desperate Housewives.  That’s because they continually throw themselves at or pledge themselves to a man who is utterly unlikable.  As a husband, lover, boss, employee, and son, Guido is a boorish, selfish, and arrogant failure.  “I would like the universe to get down on its knees/And say, ‘Guido, whatever you please’,” he sings.  Modest, he’s not.  He estranges himself from his wife, drives his mistress to suicidal depression, takes his only defenders for granted, and flirts shamelessly and compulsively with any mini-skirt that sashays by.  Whatever rakish charm Daniel Day-Lewis has as Guido fades fast, and it evaporates completely during his musical numbers.  This is not a mid-life crisis you can hope to identify with.  Halfway through, I felt like saying, “Take your head out of your ass, put your dick back in your pants, and get to work!”

As for the seven members of Emotionally Battered Women Anonymous, there were a lot of surprises, some good and some bad.  The best among them is Marion Cotillard.  As Guido’s long-suffering wife Luisa, she winds up becoming the film’s aching emotional center.  Her first song, “My Husband Makes Movies”, is a perfect character piece, lyrically powerful and graciously framed.  Her second, “Take It All”, a defiant striptease, is so desperate that it loses all sex appeal, which is what makes it such a powerful moment.

If every call from the Vatican was like this, Catholic churches would be overflowing.

Providing more than enough sex appeal are Penelope Cruz and Fergie, as Guido’s longtime mistress and his inappropriate boyhood crush, respectively.  Cruz is great as Carla.  Watching Guido take advantage of her naiveté is pretty hard, especially since she has the audience on her side the moment she appears in her song, “A Call from the Vatican”.  That number might be the sexiest three minutes of film of 2009.  Coiling herself in ropes, writhing across a set that looks like something Georgia O’Keefe would have designed, she is both playful and powerful.  Even more threatening with her sexuality is Fergie, playing Saraghina, a local woman of ill repute who fascinated Guido as a boy.  Her only appearance in the film is a flashback, in which Guido recalls Saraghina’s advice to “Be Italian”, as conveyed through an awesomely choreographed, captured, and edited massive musical number.  Fergie looks and sounds nothing like her Black Eyed Pea self.  The girl can belt!  If the other women were as powerful singers, maybe Nine would have been more captivating.

Fergie and her tambourinas

Nicole Kidman, as Guido’s go-to leading lady Claudia, gets to sing the haunting “Unusual Way”, but doesn’t get to do much else.  She bears her soul in the song, which comes mere moments after we finally meet her, and she never returns once it ends.  It all happens a bit too quickly; it’s sort of emotional vomiting.  Personally, I wanted to know a lot more about Claudia.

Do we think she taught A-Rod any of these moves?

Kate Hudson and her performance of “Cinema Italiano” had been one of the main marketing points of Nine, and both were surprisingly weak.  As Stephanie, Hudson represents little more than one final temptation for horndog Guido; given the unflattering close-ups, it’s kind of hard to see why he was so conflicted.  “Cinema Italiano”, while a bouncy poppy song, fell flat on screen.  The toe-tapping tune, deifying Guido, comes moments after he’s left his wife in tears.  It’s poor placement and pacing; by that point, nobody–including Stephanie, including the audience–should be admiring Guido.

The timeless Sophia Loren

As a movie buff, it’s a thrill to see Sophia Loren on the screen.  Playing Guido’s doting, disapproving, and deceased mother, it becomes apparent in her performance of “Guarda La Luna” that all of Guido’s issues start with her, which is rather cliché.  In an appropriately hypnotic cadence, she speak-sings her way through the lullaby.  “Always remember, my son/You will always be mine,” she tells him as a boy and from the beyond.  The lovely Ms. Loren is the only person who could have played this part: beautiful, authentically Italian, and so loaded with presence that her absence weighs heavily in all the right moments.

Rounding out this menagerie is Judi Dench as Lilli, Guido’s costume designer, confidant, and substitute mother.  Dench makes Lilli a memorable character–feisty, assertive, and thoroughly lived–but her accent crosses the English Channel multiple times, and her number is a disappointment.  As exposition or character background, “Folies Bergere” might have been more effective had most of it not been in French.  Despite that, I was enjoying it as I watched it.  My first thought was, “Cool.  This must have been what it was like seeing Dame Judi play Sally Bowles decades ago”.  My next thought was, “Huh.  Well, this number not only sounds like it’s from Cabaret, it even looks like it”.  And the next day, when I listened to the instrumental finale, which I thought was an excellent and effective moment that tied much of this wayward film together, I made a disappointing connection.  That final scene was structurally identical to the final scene of the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret…which was choreographed by Rob Marshall.

So, I stand by my earlier accusation.  It’s not that Rob Marshall doesn’t know how to make movie musicals; it’s that he only knows how to make one movie musical.

~ T