Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The vermin won: The short life and excruciating death of The Interview

Seth Rogen and James Franco star in The Interview.

The vermin won. There is not much more to say than that. If you have followed entertainment news or just the news really over the last few weeks, you are probably aware of the Sony hacking scandal: thousands of emails leaked, private documents compromised, and privacy lost. Two things happened tonight. Bowing to pressure from the organization behind the hack, Sony Pictures pulled the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview from release. The U.S. government declared North Korea the perpetrator of the attacks.

More than pressure, though, the group behind this threatened to blow up theaters that showed the film. While the U.S. said there was no credibility to the threats – and the Feds would know – theater chains decided to error on the side of caution, which in this case, happens to be the side of cowardice. Here is Sony’s statement in full (via

“In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

“Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

A lot to digest here. First and foremost, though, let’s look at the ending: “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression …”

Allow me to congratulate Sony on being able to heap that much bull shit into half a sentence. Standing by their filmmakers and their right to free expression is actually the one thing Sony has failed to do in this case. It would be more accurate to say the company stepped aside as the steamroller of cyber-terrorism and threatened domestic terrorism ran right over filmmakers and free expression.

I am not na├»ve. People’s lives are more important than one film, but the idea here is dangerous. In theory, this group of hackers now controls Hollywood. That is hyperbole, but it is also simple extrapolation. They did not like what this movie had to say. They killed it – or perhaps, we should say fear and ignorance killed The Interview. What about the next movie they do not like? What about the next movie any powerful group does not like? Precedent means something here.

In 1988, Universal Pictures released Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It was called blasphemous. It was picketed. A theater was blown up, but the film continued to screen. It is a masterpiece. It is probably unfair to compare a Scorsese picture with a buddy comedy from co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg. As cinema, the two are unlikely to compare, but we all have the right to see them and judge for ourselves.

Last Cinema Standing was founded on the idea that movie-going is as much a right as a ritual. Films shine on the big screen, and the cinema is where the art of movies lives. When something attacks that – in this case the hackers and Sony are nearly equally culpable – the culture at large is being attacked. It is hard to say where we should go from here. What is likely to happen is all of this will die down, and in a couple of months, we will get our DVDs of the film if we so choose, and all will be mostly forgotten. But, where we should go is another matter. All that is known right now is: We are lost.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Adjust your radars: 5 actresses who deserve Oscar's attention

Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the performances of the year in Nymphomaniac.

In case you missed it, the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood Foreign Press Association released their respective nominations lists mid-week last week. Two categories stood out as being identical: best supporting actor and best actress. Aside from the baffling continued inclusion of Robert Duvall for his performance in The Judge, the supporting actor race is a tight and impressive group of the year’s clear best. The same cannot necessarily be said of the best actress nominees.

Here is what the list looks like as of now:

Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Jennifer Aniston, Cake

Throw in critical favorite Marion Cotillard for her work in Two Days, One Night (as well as The Immigrant), and you likely are looking at your six contenders for the Best Actress Oscar. The Broadcast Film Critics Association, which announced its nominees yesterday, has a field of six nominees, comprised of all of the above.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with this group. Though the quality of the cited films varies wildly, it would be hard to argue too hard against nominations for any of these women – two past winners, three would-be first-time nominees, and a multiple nominee whom some might consider due for a win. An easy argument to make is that the list is just not all that inspired. To be sure, it is a handsome list but not one that arouses excitement or convinces anyone of a desire to look outside the box.

Every year, this year included, pundits and critics wring their hands over the lack of strong or interesting female leads in film. Then, their awards predictions and citations reflect this perceived lack of choice and opportunity. This line of thinking trickles all the way to the Academy Awards, and really, it is kind of a bummer. The lack of strong female roles in Hollywood films is both well documented and worth addressing, but before we yell too loudly into the echo chamber, perhaps we should consider a few of the less heralded performances that deserve recognition.

With that in mind, Last Cinema Standing presents an alphabetical list of the best female performances of 2014 that will not get anywhere near the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac

First alphabetically and first in my heart, Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the best performances of the year – male or female – in Lars Von Trier’s devastating opus. As a sex addict recounting the downward spiral of her life, Gainsbourg shines through the despairing muck this film wallows in to deliver a performance of heart, vulnerability, and bravery.

This is the actress’ third collaboration with the prickly Danish director after 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’s Melancholia. Though incontrovertibly brilliant in each of those, her performance in Nymphomaniac may be the crowning achievement in Von Trier’s spiritually related Trilogy of Despair. However, do not hold your breath waiting for the Academy to recognize an actress’ work in one of the director’s films.

Only Emily Watson has able to crack the nominations list for 1996’s Breaking the Waves, despite career-topping work from Nicole Kidman in Dogville (2003), Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay (2005), Bjork in Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Kirsten Dunst for the aforementioned Melancholia. This will not be the year Gainsbourg breaks that streak, but in a perfect world, there would be no streak to break.

Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure

Force Majeure is the story of a marriage that begins to unravel due to the actions of the husband, but the emotional arc of the story belongs to the wife. Lisa Loven Kongsli has done only a handful of films, and I have seen none but this, but based on her performance here, I hope to see a lot more of her work in the future.

She is a lightning rod of anger, resentment, hurt, guilt, and shame who cannot help but draw others into her headspace. For a film with several unabashedly over-the-top sequences, Kongsli is always firmly in control of her character and her performance. As her marriage descends into pettiness and self-deceit, Kongsli ensures she is grounded in an emotional reality true to her journey in contrast to the film’s more impressionistic tendencies.

Elisabeth Moss in The One I Love

Little seen in theaters (it is on Netflix Instantwatch now, and I highly recommend it), Charlie McDowell’s first feature explores the ways people want what they want, even if they cannot bring themselves to say so. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are a husband and wife who go on a weekend retreat to fix their marriage. I will spoil none of what follows, but suffice it to say, some strange stuff goes on.

Moss, whom many of you will recognize as the star of Mad Men, has a tall task assigned to her in this film: stay true to the heart of the character while portraying all sides and all facets of her being. How does she see herself? How does she think her husband sees her? How does he actually see her? These questions are all answered by the nuances and subtleties of Moss’ shifting persona. Though she essentially plays only one woman, Moss must portray all sides of that woman as distinct while keeping the central character intact. She succeeds brilliantly.

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

A charmingly quirky performance in a charmingly quirky film, Jenny Slate plays a comedienne who gets unexpected news and handles it the best way she knows how. Without revealing the particulars, the plot is remarkably straightforward and carries a simple premise through to its logical conclusions. However, Slate’s portrayal is anything but simple.

Adulthood sneaks up on most of us, and for a comic who specializes in jokes about sex and bodily functions, it may not be all that welcome of an arrival. Slate is perfect as a woman confronted with growing up at a time in her life when it is neither convenient nor all that necessary. This is not a Judd Apatow-style Peter Pan narrative. This is about how average people deal with average problems when they are not ready for them. The circumstances may be ordinary, but Slate is extraordinary.

Mia Wasikowska in Tracks

I wrote about Mia Wasikowska’s performance in my glowing review of the film (which you can read here), so I will not spend too much time on this. Similar to Reese Witherspoon’s character in Wild, we are presented with a woman who chooses to put herself through immense physical turmoil in search of some greater truth – or perhaps, just because it was what needed to be done.

What still impresses about Wasikowska is how much of the film she carries on her own. We get very little backstory, which is a plus because it means we get no trite, pop psychology explanations for her decisions. Wasikowska’s portrayal is of a smart, brave woman who knows what she needs to do for herself and no one else. Her story is inspiring because she is not trying to inspire. She is trying to discover, and it is our good fortune that she invites us to discover with her.

None of these actresses’ names will be called out on Oscar nominations morning, Jan. 15, but each would be deserving. At the very least, these films are worth a watch because they are reminders of how many great actresses are doing phenomenal work in movies that so often fly below the radar. More than that, they are a call to action: We need to readjust our radars.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Screen Actros Guild nominations kick off industry awards

Emma Stone and Edward Norton were each nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for their performances in Birdman, which was also nominated for best ensemble.

The nominations for the Screen Actors Guild Awards were announced Wednesday morning – bright and early if you are on the West Coast, reasonably mid-morning out East, and if you are an East Coaster out West for the week, well, it is just a weird way to start the day. Regardless, let us dive right in.

The importance of the Screen Actors Guild Awards to the Oscar race is that these are the first major industry awards to announce nominees. Critics and awards-giving bodies are good for consensus, but industry voters – the folks nominating for SAG – are many of the same people voting on the Academy Awards nominees and winners. So this gives us a more concrete idea where we are heading. In that respect, a few things were confirmed this morning, and a few things stood out as surprises.

The Screen Actors Guild Awards nominees:

The Imitation Game
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Theory of Everything

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Edward Norton, Birdman
JK Simmons, Whiplash

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Naomi Watts, St. Vincent

First, the surprises and my favorite nomination of the morning, Jake Gyllenhaal is nominated for best actor for his performance in Nightcrawler. It is a seedy, dirty, impressive little film from first-time feature director Dan Gilroy, and Gyllenhaal is amazing in it. As a freelance “journalist” exploiting the worst traits of the modern news media, Gyllenhaal is scary good. The movie has done well by independent standards and is back in theaters for a limited run. If you get a chance, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Jennifer Aniston is a surprise best actress nominee at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for her performance in Cake.

Over in the best actress category, the big surprise is Jennifer Aniston’s nomination for Cake, which I have not seen. Considered by many to be a week year for actresses – though it really is not if you know where to look – the category is ripe for an upset nomination or two. Aniston gets in at the expense of Marion Cotillard, who had been picking up steam for her performances in The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night.

Robert Duvall is the big surprise in supporting actor and not necessarily a pleasant one. The Judge was a widely panned, largely forgotten box office failure. Duvall’s nomination seems more like proof that well-respected older actors with a lot of friends and fans in the industry can be nominated for less-than-stellar work in subpar films. I would have rather seen maybe Alec Baldwin for Still Alice or an outside shot such as Michael Fassbender for Frank or Chris O’Dowd for Calvary.

In supporting actress, Naomi Watts gets in for St. Vincent, a film that had mostly been positioned as a nomination vehicle for Bill Murray. With a crowded best actor field, that was always unlikely to happen, but Watts’ nomination at least shows some support for the little film that has found some success in theaters.

Even without an individual acting nomination, The Grand Budapest Hotel sneaks into the top category for best ensemble – which includes Murray, so he was not entirely shut out today. This nomination keeps the film firmly in the conversation for the Academy Awards, not an easy feat for a quirky independent film released early in the year. Such is the respect Wes Anderson garners.

Overall, the rich got richer as Birdman earned four nominations on the morning, while Boyhood, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything each pulled down three nominations, including for best ensemble. All four are expected to be major Best Picture players at the Oscars. The only possibly irksome thing here is the nod for Theory of Everything, which is really a two-hander between Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones more than a true ensemble piece. Something such as Foxcatcher is probably more deserving of ensemble recognition.

Tomorrow, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will announce its nominees for the Golden Globes, and we will have a whole new list of nominees from which to tease out information. Things will start to move pretty fast from here.