Recent Writings

Current film reviews for The Los Angeles TimesThe Village Voice, and LA Weekly can be found at my Rotten Tomatoes page.

TV recaps and editorials for Film School Rejects can be found here.

 

Selected writings below:

 

The Village Voice

Orange Is the New Black‘s Radical Critique of American Prisons”

“Ten Fascinating Facts from Slimed!, the New Oral History of ’90s Nickelodeon”

“How Friends is Already the Relic of a Bygone Era”

“Pedro Almodóvar’s Forgotten Films: 5 of the Spanish Maestro’s Best Comedies”

“To Actresses on the Brink of 40: Go Bad or Go Home”

“Hollywood: Enough With the Father-Son Dramas, Already!”

 

Vulture

“How Fox News, Terrorists, and Truthiness Ruined The X-Files for Me”

 

Badass Digest

School of Rock Wails Against The Man – For Fat Acceptance: How Jack Black Turns His Heft into a Rock-and-Roll Badge of Honor”

 

The Atlantic

“Hollywood’s Changing Its Movies to Appease the Chinese? Good”

 

Bitch Magazine 

Side Effects Indicts Big Pharma, But Does it Villainize Gays?”

 

Salon

“Hollywood is Ruining Musicals: Studios Used to Dub Off-Key Actors with the Voices of Real Singers. Now Everyone Gets to Sing — And It’s Terrible!”

 

Indiewire – Women and Hollywood

“Why Female Actions Heroes Need to Be Role Models”

“Take This Waltz and Female-Centric Love Triangles”

 

Movieline

“Words & Nerds: Ranking the Writing Careers of the Freaks and Geeks Cast Members”

“Tales Of The Military-Entertainment Complex: Why The U.S. Navy Produced Battleship

“Maya Vs. Carrie − Comparing The Feminism of Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland

“A Tale of Two Directors: Alfred Hitchcock, J. Edgar Hoover, And The FBI’s Eye On The Master Of Suspense”

“From Brave to Snow White and the Huntsman to Game of Thrones, Has the Anti-Princess Moment Finally Arrived?”

 

Boxoffice Magazine

“It’s Not You, It’s My Cancer: Ill-Fated Romance on the Silver Screen”

“The Sensitive Schlub’s Chub: The Meanings of Jason Segel’s Fat”

“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Brazil (But Were Afraid to Ask): An Introduction to Brazil through Film”

 

And for something completely different, i.e., some FOIA journalism and an autobiographical essay:

MuckRock

“FBI Reveals Why It Labeled Insane Clown Posse Gang Leaders”

“Gore Vidal’s FBI File Shows He Was a Thorn in Bureau’s Side”

“Businesses: ‘Yelp is the thug of the Internet’”

“The General Who Wouldn’t Give Up the Battle”

 

The Toast

“Tetraptych of My Grandfather”

Surprises and snubs among the 2013 Oscar Documentary Nominees

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Since the announcement of the 2013 Oscar nominations this morning, Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Harvey Weinstein (Silver Linings Playbook), and the Beasts of the Southern Wild team have undoubtedly been peacocking around town. But what of the often ignored Best Documentary Feature category? As with the other Oscar nominations, there were a few surprises and obvious snubs on the shortlist.

To recap, the five documentaries basking in Oscar attention today are:

5 Broken Cameras

The Gatekeepers

How to Survive a Plague  

The Invisible War

Searching for Sugar Man

The least surprising nominee – and likely front-runner — is Searching for Sugar Man, a film about two South African fans’ mission to find their musical idol, seventies rock’n’roller Rodriguez. It has thus far been nominated for pretty much every documentary award out there, but even this universally beloved critical favorite may have to fight an uphill battle against the Academy’s conservatism and self-importance. The Oscars are nothing if not the world’s most glamorous patting-of-one’s-own-back, so a portrait of a single musician might not be grandiloquent enough for self-conscious Academy voters. In fact, despite the proliferation of this subgenre, only three documentaries devoted to a musician have ever won: Arthur Rubenstein: Love of Live (1969), about the famed Polish classical pianist; From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1980), about the famed Polish classical violinist (detect a pattern here?); and Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got (1985), about the jazz clarinetist and bandleader. As you can see, the last documentary of this type to clinch the Oscar was nearly thirty years ago. We’re long due for another.

The recognition of How to Survive a Plague and The Invisible War (two in my 2012 Top Five) is mildly surprising. Both documentaries have been universally praised, but their subject matters (AIDS, rape in the military) are so weighty, and their audiences (gays and women, respectively) considered too “niche,” that I didn’t dare hope the Academy would give them a chance. Glad to be proved wrong.

The nomination of The Gatekeepers, a series of interviews with six former Shin Bet (the Israeli anti-domestic terrorism agency) heads, was thoroughly expected, if not guaranteed. The film is perhaps too stingy with context and overly narrow in focus, but Israeli director Dror Moreh lined up one-in-a-lifetime interviews with spy leaders whose job is to be tight-lipped and anonymous. Moreh somehow coaxed out of his subjects shockingly candid statements, including one former Shin Bet chief’s admission that Israeli occupation isn’t unlike that of Nazi Germany.

The Gatekeepers has a compatriot in 5 Broken Cameras, another import from Israel. Cameras is a first-person doc that details one Palestinian farmer’s attempts at non-violent resistance against the Israeli army. That makes three international documentaries being nominated this year, the third being the Swedish/British Sugar Man. Add all the nominations for Amour (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, and Foreign Language Film) this year, and the big picture signals a steadying internationalization of the Oscars over the last few years.

As for the snubs, The House I Live In, a touching but familiar excoriation of the drug war, is the most obvious example. The Imposter enjoyed a good box office, but it may have been too evasive and fractured to make a lasting impression. Detropia also seems like it just missed the cut-off, but perhaps one Detroit doc (the other being Sugar Man) was enough for the Academy. And, of course, three of the biggest names in the doc world this year — the Ken Burns-directed The Central Park Five, the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis, and the legally troubled The Queen of Versailles – weren’t even eligible for a nomination. 

But the snub that matters most is that of This Is Not a Film, a 75-minute first-person documentary recorded partly on an iPhone by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Panahi is currently under house arrest, facing a twenty-year ban on filmmaking, and appealing a six-year prison sentence for creating “propaganda against the regime.” The film itself was smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake. For better or worse, the Academy has used the Best Documentary Feature category as a political soapbox from time to time, hence the wins for the big-screen PowerPoint Presentation An Inconvenient Truth and the factually flexible Farenheit 9/11. By ignoring This Is Not a Film, Academy voters missed a big opportunity to publicize the tragic plight of one of their own – and to commend one of the most tragic films of the year.

My Five Favorite Documentaries of 2012

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There are so many documentaries of such high caliber being made these days — and so many of them so similarly — I can’t help but suspect that all critics’ best doc lists are simply confessions of which social/political issues matter most to them. I certainly won’t pretend that I’m immune from my biases, which is why I’m calling this list my five favorite documentaries of 2012, rather than “best” or even “top.”

 

1. The Invisible War  – I named The Invisible War, along with The Queen of Versailles (also below), one of my top ten films of the year. It’s a true must-see, especially because its topic — the institutional failure to prevent or punish rape in the armed forces — is so difficult to face. Veteran doc director Kirby Dick (Derrida, Twist of Faith, This Film Is Not Yet Rated) has about a dozen women and one man tell the stories of their sexual assaults and the apathy, skepticism, or cover-ups they encountered from their higher-ups afterward. Just as enraging are the policies set in place to discourage military brass from pursuing action against wrongdoers — and a court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of veteran rape survivors on the basis that rape is an “occupational hazard” in the armed forces.

2. The Queen of Versailles - Almost everything about this film is ridiculous, from its subjects, a billionaire couple who attempt to build the largest house in America during the Great Recession, to the drama surrounding it, like the defamation lawsuit the couple has filed against the director Lauren Greenfield). The strained marriage between 77-year-old David Siegel and his 46-year-old trophy wife Jackie, the would-be queen of “Versailles,” their $30 million white elephant, is everything you’d expect, including Siegel joking/”joking” about his trading his fortysomething wife in for two twenty-year-olds. And yet their obscene, grotesque wealth — built on cheap credit and highly borrowed – is surprisingly relatable, and Greenfield is ever compassionate toward her two jerkwad subjects.

3. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present - Named after a 2010 retrospective/90-day performance at MoMA, The Artist Is Present provides an overview of Abramovic’s life and fearless, sometimes frightening performance art. The NYTimes was unimpressed, calling the doc “more celebratory than analytical, a kind of slick, extended promotional video for its subject.” That certainly is the case, and yet Abramovic is so articulate and charming, while her work so frequently viscerally repellent (and designed to be that way), that the contradiction makes for a more complicated and interesting film than perhaps originally intended.

4. How to Survive a Plague - The tragic, painful, rousing, inspiring, and altogether necessary history of 80s AIDS activism is vibrantly and emotionally told in journalist-turned-filmmaker David France’s debut. Through mostly archival footage, France skillfully pieces together the incremental gains of ACT UP, a small group of gay activists in New York who crusaded against governmental indifference, religious hatred, and scientific inaction to fight for their lives, and ended up transforming American society.

5. Paul Williams: Still Alive - This sometimes goofy, often touching first-person doc certainly doesn’t belong on any list of notable cinematic achivement. In fact, it’s a film that works in spite of its filmmaker, on account of its intelligent and charismatic subject, composer and 70s TV personality Paul Williams (The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” The Muppet Movie‘s “Rainbow Connection”). But it’s stayed with me, partly because Williams has dealt with his post-fame life so enviously, and partly because the interplay between a happy “has-been” and his biggest fan is just as fun and awkward to watch as it sounds. (Read my review here.)

 

See also: My Top Ten Movies of 2012 and The Ten Highest Grossing Documentaries of 2012.

2012′s Highest Grossing Documentaries

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Last year was another boom year for the documentary genre, both creatively and financially. In fact, three of 2012′s films – 2016: Obama’s AmericaChimpanzee, and Katy Perry: Part of Me – became part of the ten highest grossing documentaries of all time. Box office performance is, of course, no indication of quality, and only one of my five favorite documentaries of 2012The Queen of Versailles, made it on to the list. Still, it’s always interesting to see what other people are into.

Without further ado, the top 10 moneymakers of 2012:

1. 2016: Obama’s America – $33.4m. I guess libel and slander count as documentary, too.

2. Chimpanzee – $28.9m. Disney has been making a killing off family-oriented animal docs.

3. Katy Perry: Part of Me – $25.3m. Not quite Madonna: Truth or Dare.

4. Bully – $3.4m. Hollywood’s biggest bully releases an anti-bullying movie. 

5. Searching for Sugar Man – $3.0m. A musical mystery tour, from South Africa to Detroit.

6. Samsara – $2.6m. An international travelogue for cinematography fans and dialogue-phobes.

7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi – $2.5m. The familiar tale of an exacting father and a disappointing son set in the world of Michelin-starred sushi. (Oedipus Rice?)

8. The Queen of Versailles – $2.4m. A time-share billionaire and his trophy wife attempt to build the biggest house in America… and then the recession hits.

9. Marley – $1.4m. Reggae’s biggest star gets a respectful but fair treatment.

10. Air Racers 3D - $1.3m. The “ultimate air show experience” didn’t make a blip on my radar — nor anyone else’s, it appears. It somehow made over a million dollars without a Wikipedia page, so, uh, kudos to its marketing team.

[BoxOfficeMojo]

My Top Ten Movies of 2012

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2012 was my first year as a working film critic. I watched more movies than I would have thought possible and thought about them more than I ever had before. So it’s impossible for me to judge 2012 objectively as a movie year. I did like many more films than I thought I would, even when I couldn’t justify their existence (ahem, Total Recall). There was plenty I missed (Holy Motors), didn’t have time for (The Story of Film), or was too scared to watch (I’ll get to Compliance soon). Of everything I did see, here is my top ten of 2012 in no particular order, except the first:

1. Take This Waltz – No other film this year made me feel as much as Sarah Polley’s hipster love triangle. I hated Michelle Williams’ trendy onesies (they were designed to conceal diapers, ladies), but no other actress breaks my heart so reliably in just under two hours. Williams just makes me feel love. And want love. And fear love.

Sister – Switzerland’s nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is a compassionate but disturbing portrait of an older sister and a younger brother who live on the fringes of society below a ski resort. The AV Club summed it up best in their review: ”Sister is about the condition of being poor and its corrosive effect on human relationships.” The film’s not as depressing as that sounds, but it is way more twisted.

21 Jump Street - Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum make a comedy dream team in this very loose remake of the 80s cop show. Hill and Tatum go undercover at a high school as the world’s least convincing teenagers to stop the spread of a new street drug. There’s little veering from the buddy-cop formula, but with perfectly timed gags, Tatum’s self-parody, and one very special cameo, who cares?

Amour - It really is as good (and depressing) as everyone says it is.

Seven Psychopaths - Martin McDonagh’s second film is not as tightly structured as In Bruges (his debut), but it’s still endlessly clever and funny, not to mention very often heart-wrenching. Supporting players Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Tom Waits (yes, that Tom Waits) give their best creep, while dopey screenwriter Colin Farrell runs circles trying to write them all into a movie and avoid being killed by his psycho-characters.

Cabin in the Woods - I’m a Buffy/Angel/Firefly/even Dollhouse fan, so perhaps my love for Cabin should be taken with a grain of salt. But I found Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror film about five attractive college kids being gruesomely murdered in a [title of the movie] exceedingly smart, deliriously funny, and perversely, stubbornly hopeful.

The Invisible War - The statistics and testimonies in documentarian Kirby Dick’s exposé on rape in the military aren’t just harrowing — they’re fucking mind-boggling. The short-sightedness and nonchalant cruelty with which the armed forces deals with (i.e., ignores and/or covers up) violent sexual assault within its ranks almost beggar belief. The Invisible War gives voice to the service-members (mostly female, one male; all veterans) who now battle against the status quo of rape as an “occupational hazard” in the military.

The Queen of Versailles - A glimpse into obscene, grotesque wealth is what Lauren Greenfield offers in the hilarious, heart-breaking Queen of Versailles. That it isn’t eligible for a Best Documentary Oscar is a joke, since no other film this year, or any other year, comes close to explaining and humanizing the Great Recession, while also taking full delight in its destructive force.

Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin’s Hurricane Katrina fantasy-melodrama never quite comes together, but that sense of fractured reality is what gives Beasts of the Southern Wild its magic. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) loses her moorings when a tropical storm injures her single father (an astounding Dwight Henry) and washes away her dilapidated town. It’s not at all clear how she’ll survive, or what the Arctic papier-mache rhinos unfrozen by climate change have to do with her personal tragedy, but survive she will, because she’s got to.

End of Watch - Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as police partners and platonic soul mates in this criminally ignored procedural. The two beat-cops cruise around South Central L.A., busting petty crooks and small-time gangsters, until they stumble onto a Mexican cartel operation. That makes them targets for assassination — a fact they don’t realize until it’s too late. Gyllenhaal and Peña have a run at Bromance of the Year, while the always charming Anna Kendrick sparkles in a supporting role.

Honorable Mentions:

Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a riotously fun revenge fantasy, with brilliant cinematography and a devastating villain. Give Christoph Waltz all the awards.

Chico and Rita - Rendered with exquisite (French/Cuban) animation and music, this love story between a jazz singer and a pianist set in mid-century Cuba is a surprisingly sexy delight.

 

See also: My Five Favorite Documentaries of 2012.

Five Points About ‘Dark Shadows’

There’s a wonderful scene in Ed Wood, my nomination for Tim Burton’s best film, when Wood, the worst director of all time, runs into Orson Welles in a restaurant. Wood is working on Glen or Glenda, Welles on Citizen Kane, and the two commiserate about the difficulties of securing financing for their films. Wood sighs and asks the maestro, “Is it all worth it?” Welles responds, “It is when it works,” and encourages the young director: ”Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”

I’d like to ask Burton the same question. I’ve spent the past week catching up on the director’s filmography, which is littered with other people’s visions: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, and the latest, Dark Shadows. It’s not that Burton — or any other director — isn’t capable of leaving his own fingerprints on someone else’s work, but why bother? Did he always envision Willy Wonka as a Michael Jackson impersonator or little Alice as a sword-wielding dragon-slayer?

I wish Tim Burton would be much more ambitious, or much less so. I love his cartoonishly macabre sensibility, but wonder why he can’t marry that to a grown-up story with higher emotional stakes than “Is Johnny Depp going to get the kewpie-eyed girl?” His juvenile taste in scripts make me wary of his movies as an audience member — so much so that I wonder if he should ditch narrative altogether and just focus on making it big in the art world. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of Dark Shadows, a film so busy and inconsistent it should have had Jason Statham in it. Here are some lasting impressions:  

1. There were too many storylines. Let’s see if I can count them all:

  • Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp) is a vampire freed from his coffin after 200 years; he has trouble adjusting to life in the Groovy Seventies.
  • Angelique (Eva Green), the jilted witch who cursed Barnabus with vampirism, is still alive and gives her former lover two choices: love her or die.
  • Barnabus falls in love with Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the new nanny for the Collins family, who looks exactly like his murdered 18th-century wife.
  • Both Victoria and her new charge David (David McGrath) can see ghosts, and must help the ghost that haunts the Collins mansion find peace.
  • David’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), is a loon who seduces Barnabus.
  • The Collins’ house, family business, and reputation are in disrepair; Barnabus, as the new paterfamilias, must fix them.
 I haven’t yet mentioned three of the other Collins family members: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), nightmare teen Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), and David’s absent father Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), who each have small storylines of their own. The script is like a kid high on sugar: there’s a lot of running around, but only in circles, and then it suddenly falls flat at the end.

2. It’s terribly unfunny. This is, again, largely the script’s fault. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith’s approach to comedy is to introduce a bad joke, then tell it several more times. The film is full of zingers and gags, but it’s really just the same five over and over again. The idea of the 1790s (Barnabus) and the 1970s (his descendants) making fun of each other is brilliant in theory, but the execution fails at every level. I felt especially sorry for Johnny Depp, a hilarious actor when given the chance, for being saddled with clunkers like, ”You may strategically place your wonderful lips upon my posterior and kiss it repeatedly!” and tired jokes about hairy hippies and Alice Cooper being a woman.

3. The vampire angle suckssssssss. One of the best things about the recent vampire trend is writers and directors tripping over one another to come up with a new twist on vampires. Barnabus’ vampirism is a crucial factor in several of the storylines, but the film explores it so superficially and glosses over it so quickly when it becomes morally inconvenient that Twilight‘s Edward looks like an ethics scholar in comparison. Barnabus claims he hates having to feed, but harbors no remorse for the people he’s already killed, because, haha, they’re just hippies and blue-collar workers! Likewise, he calls his vampirism a curse, but forces it on people he loves against their will for purely selfish reasons. And Barnabus isn’t an antihero — he’s a square, family-values, father-knows-all type who’d probably vote Republican if he could go out in the sun. That’s not moral ambiguity, just lazy character development.

4. I’m so tired of watching Johnny Depp make out with doll-faced hotties half his age. Sure, Depp looks much younger than his 48 years, but his middle age really starts to show when he declares love to an anonymous ingenue hired for her childlike looks. Accordingly, Burton’s wingmannish handpicking of doe-eyed young women for his friend to mack on is starting to feel skeezy. The persistence of the pedo-bait look in Burton’s films is all the more frustrating because neither Burton’s vampish ex-wife Lisa Marie nor his current spouse Helena Bonham Carter look like scared little girls, so he clearly finds other types of women attractive. IS THIS DEPP’S DOING?

5. The movie isn’t a total loss; the production design and special effects are gorgeously creepy. The Collins mansion is a wood-paneled nightmarescape, and the seventies-era clothes are fun to look at. The biggest eye-treat, however, is the climactic fight between Barnabus and Angelique, when Angelique begins to crack and crumble like an egg shell. At least two hundred years old, she’s a hollow creature, and each blow chips away at yet another sliver of her britle exterior to reveal the blackness underneath. The sound design adds marvelously to the effect, as do Angelique’s disjointed, unnatural movements (a combination of Eva Green’s flexibility and CGI). It’s a marvelous, singular spectacle. Too bad you have to sit through 100 minutes of turgid nonsense to see it.

Five Points About ‘The Five-Year Engagement’

After reading many mixed-to-negative reviews, I was going to wait to see The Five-Year Engagement on DVD. I’m glad I didn’t. Funny, nuanced, and genuinely romantic, it’s the best rom-com I’ve seen since last year’s Beginners. Here are some lasting impressions:

1. It feels really contemporary. Several of the reviews I read grumbled about the lack of tension in the movie, given that the central couple, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), are already effectively married: They’re committed to each other and live together, so why bother with a ceremony? These reviews couldn’t have missed the point more. Yes, the title refers to a delayed wedding, but the film’s central conflict is an excruciating situation that almost every one of my friends has experienced, or at least contemplated: Moving for your significant other’s demanding, inflexible career, thus sacrificing your own career, leaving behind all your friends and family, and exponentially multiplying the pressure on your relationship. In Engagement, the culprit behind The Big, Bad Move is academia, but moving with your S.O. to some podunk town and hoping like hell that you don’t resent him/her for the rest of your life for it also happen to people in business, the arts, and the military. As soon as Tom and Violet move from San Francisco to Michigan, he regrets the decision, and that regret slowly but irreversibly curdles into bitterness and anger. The script is satisfyingly unafraid to explore how Tom’s second-fiddle status makes him resentful and poisons his relationship with his fiancee. Unfortunately, it completely ignores how Violet handles the move to Michigan apart from her professional success and romantic troubles — a glaring blank in an otherwise wonderfully detailed portrait.

2. It’s very romantic. I suppose mileage will vary on this one, but I for one was utterly charmed. Sure, the meet-cute is wider-eyed than a newborn puppy and the weddings that begin and end the film are practically fucking perfect, but one wrenching scene sticks out in my mind as the most tender and loving. Tom and Violet have their worst fight in bed after she admits a betrayal. Shaken, Tom says that he needs to be alone. She starts for the couch, but he stops her, saying he wants her beside him. She begins to speak, and he repeats that he needs to be alone. So they sit together in bed, silent and tense, Tom indignant but needy and Violet uncomfortable but eager to assuage. Their obvious fondness for and attachment to each other, even when things are at their worst, give Engagement its raw, quickly beating heart.

3. Alison Brie and Emily Blunt are adorable and hilarious, and they have chemistry with everyone. I was a bit distracted by Blunt’s disconcertingly Queen Mum-ish accent, though.

4. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s script was well-plotted, but only some of their jokes worked. I laughed a lot, but much more at the visual gags than the jokes involving words. It didn’t help that all the best PG jokes were spoiled by the film’s trailer. (Expect to see even more of Jason Segel’s body.)

5. The film rightfully acknowledges that Asians are found in California and academia, but does quantity make up for quality? The Asian character with the second biggest role (after Mindy Kaling’s “Kelly Kapoor Goes to Grad School” character) is a somewhat stereotypical Type-A student, and all the others are random hotties. Sorry, attractive Asian actresses! You’ll have to play wordless second/third wife roles to old, white men for a while longer.