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Sheila Benson

Oscar, You’re Breaking My Heart (but you always do)

I have no proof whatever that when the final ballots were tallied, late at night at the Academy, and the prospect of a second year of the dreaded hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hung over the room, considerable thought was given to The Messenger of this news. Messengers.

I do know that it was really nice to see that Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee were given the first swath of nominations to read. The second list was handled by redoubtable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and John Krasinski.

It was a gallant show of inclusiveness, before the truth was out and hellfire rained down from every side.

– Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan? So, who was Creed about, an old, slow white guy from Philly?

– Idris Elba nowhere in sight, unless you count Netflix ads.

Straight Outta Compton? Not exactly the screener that . . .ummm, mature Academy voters bring out to share with poker cronies.

– Women? Don’t start. Freud said it best, “My god, what do women want?”

– Spike Lee? Maybe no one could pronounce Chi-Raq. In any case, he just got an honorary Oscar. . . in November, at one of those ceremonies that happen way, way off-stage. Check out his speech, every last minute of it.

Don’t even want to think what he’s saying today. No, actually, I do.

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“The Citizen Kane of the digital era. . .”

That’s not me talking. That’s what the great editor (great friend) Dov Hoenig said about  Birdman the other day, as his wife Zoe and I were trying to shorten the distance between London and Seattle over the phone.

Michael Keaton in ‘Birdman’

My enthusiasms you can take with a giant grain of salt. Dov’s you should take very very seriously. The secret in the IMDb listing of his 40+ films, abroad and crucially with Michael Mann, is that it spans movies shot on film (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) and digitally (Heat, Collateral Damage) and he knows the virtues and frailties of both. Never heard Dov — impassioned but also measured and serious — be this swept away before and this seems the time to share his fervor.

What particularly revved me up was seeing Birdman a second time last week. I’d forgotten just what a deckle-edge comedy it is, with all its soulfulness. I think it’s a reflection of my inner Olive Kitteridge that I’ve held fast (for 3 months!) to not just popping in the screener so that my husband could see what I’ve been hyperventilating about, but insisting on a dark quiet theatre, so he could see it as it should be seen, in its full wonder. Worked, too; he has come back to moments from it, again and again.

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Wait, wait! First the Golden Globes, THEN the Oscar nominations.

I know, I know: old and slow. My only possible defense is that we have either been guests or had guests since December 23rd, a sojourn involving passports, dear distant family, dear semi-distant friends and a last emotional good-bye at the airport yesterday. The cats barely know what lap to turn to, while I’m summoning up all my reserves to turn up in two matching shoes.

To get to those Globes: they were just Sunday and I know I’m behind on the newspapers, but where’s the outrage? Or even the irony over the results of the Globes TV Movies or Mini-series category? I’m talking about the sublime Olive Kitteridge, anchored by the unsparing eloquence of Frances McDormand, being beaten by the TV show Fargo. Let’s be honest, the initial good will of  Fargo-the-miniseries would never have existed without our collective infatuation with McDormand’s singular character in, ummm, Fargo-the-film. (Just the memory of the actress’s back, squared in rectitude as she marched up to get her Fargo Oscar in 1997 is enough to kick off a smile.)

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The remarkable Mr. Champlin

It’s rare that you can say that one person changed the trajectory of your life, and for the better. Charles Champlin, who changed mine in every way, died on Sunday. He was 88, and at the end he had Alzheimer’s but the earlier deviltry was that in 1999, he’d developed age-related macular degeneration that left him legally blind.

Charles Champlin, 1979

That must have been purgatory for someone whose life had been the graceful  consideration of books and films, films and books. As the writer that he was, above all else, he wrote about his AMD too, in a sliver of a book, “My Friend, You Are Legally Blind.” Purportedly, it’s about ways to get the better of the disease; it’s really a look at lifelong gallantry.

The persona that Champlin presented to the world: a man foursquare as the aviator glasses that became his trademark, wasn’t all of him, not by a Hammondsport mile. The essential Champlin who could shift among a half-dozen settings and arrive intact and unruffled at each one, was compound-complex.  He’d have to be; he was functioning as an editor, an essayist, a critic, most certainly a teacher, a lecturer, a sometimes author and a card-carrying devotee of the hurly-burly of Cannes. And, somewhere in all that, he and his extraordinary wife Peggy were raising a family of six.

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Oscar shows us its boobs: MacFarlane & Co.

God love Tom Shales and this Tweet last night:  “For the first time ever the Oscar show is worse than the Red Carpet crap that preceded it.”

For anyone who does not regularly rejoice in the work of the  former Washington Post TV critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, he blogs here.   For fear of suddenly sounding a whole lot smarter than I have a right to, I haven’t yet read a word of it, beyond his blog headline and this Tweet. Soon as this is posted I plan to luxuriate in Shales’  gentle, dove-like tones, since we seem to have seen the same show.

One of the hundreds of tidbits the Academy chummed to its ravenous readers was an interview with the show’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, The Bucket List, Footloose) who confessed that for years, they’d been dying to stage the Oscars since they’d  knew exactly what they’d do, “But no one asked us.”

Then, for better or worse, they were asked.

Let’s go with the best first.  The awards themselves, over which they had no control, were wide-ranging and generous (if your name isn’t Steven Spielberg.) It seems almost impossible not to love Ang Lee, people seem to beam in his presence, and he returns the favor. The whole theatre seemed to love his winning Best Director for Life of Pi, a seemingly impossible-to-pull-off, spiritually charged and breathtaking film.

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Oscar detritus and a mad Academy Award daydream

Waded through many double-page newspaper ads lately? Checked any late-night talk shows? With Academy balloting closing today  it’s last ditch stand time for nominees, who’ve suddenly popped up on every flat surface to remind Academy voters of their existence.

It’s not just the ballots… although it IS, of course. But also, all those end-of-the-year movies have just been released on DVD – and, bien sur, Blu-ray – and their reappearance has given their stars a chance for one last chorus of “Hey, big spender, spend some time with me.”

The results have been. . .informative. You might imagine after The Hunger Games and especially her nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook that Jennifer Lawrence was a peppy thing, but who could have predicted she’d throw in a mention of anal leakage to David Letterman?  Bet you he didn’t.

Helen Hunt’s Letterman moment was calibrated to a nanosecond. She’s gorgeously naked for a good deal of The Sessions, slipping between motel room sheets in her role as a sexual surrogate, so she and Dave kicked that one around to a fare-thee-well. She got to rap him on the knuckles for taking the low (i.e. leering) road with his questions, which only made him… ummmm, aim lower. Big surprise, huh, Helen?

The really electrifying thing about all their merriment was the name that never once came up: John Hawkes.* He’s the actor in the other half of that bed, Hunt’s un-nominated co-star.  Hawkes’ deeply soulful playing of this wry, shy Berkeley writer and (partial) iron lung patient, anchors The Sessions and gives the film its greatest depths.

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What’s kept ‘Argo’’s flame burning brightly

I have a hunch about what’s helped keep Argo’s awards slowly, stubbornly piling up inside Hollywood: Benghazi and its seemingly interminable fallout.

Ben Affleck in ‘Argo’

Argo opened one month and a day after that murderous attack. It was a month that reshaped what we knew about the realities of  “diplomacy” when, in the presence of the President and the Secretary of State, the bodies of our Ambassador to Libya and three men who tried to save him were returned to their families and to a largely uncomprehending country.

And as we began to think about what it is that diplomats do, Argo arrived to show us. It was deadly-real and it was Hollywood-real; it had the look of newsreel footage and a grand, bogus bigger-than-life finale, and at its core were six, human, identifiable characters – diplomats all.

At its most deadly serious, Argo was sound for sound, action for action, what happens when an American embassy (consulate, mission) is overrun in a decidedly unfriendly country. Even when Benghazi became political attack fodder, Argo’s resonance of resilience under fire lingered.

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From Abraham Lincoln to Eiko Ishioka, wot a year it has been

Well, here we are again, friends.  The Academy Award nominations are upon us. For voting members it opens the sluice-gates to six weeks of more “friendly” persuasion than the NRA at that Tucson gun buy-back.

The rest of us can expect a deluge of guesses and pronouncements from folks not vastly smarter than we are about an event roughly as predictable as an earthquake. (See: Marisa Tomei’s Best 1992 Supporting Actress Oscar win over Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. I know. It was a long time ago. Some folks recover slowly.)

Kathryn Bigelow

To wade in at the top: what was the Directors Guild up to on Tuesday — that’s just two days ago’s Tuesday —  when it nominated Ben Affleck and Katherine Bigelow for two of its five Feature Film Director slots?  (Tom Hooper, Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg rounded out their slate.)

The DGA slate is supposed to be the solid gold, take-it-to-the-bank standard of who’ll be nominated by the Academy. Were they simply giving two hard-working directors a good night’s sleep before Announcement Thursday, when they might reasonably expect to find themselves in nomination?  You don’t think Affleck and Bigelow were being set up for a sucker punch, do you? The Guild loves you, just not the membership of the Guild, the ones who vote in the Academy?  Don’t look at me.  I’m as stunned as they are.  Well, relatively speaking.

BAFTA, the British film academy, released their nominations at virtually the same moment as our Academy.  Will it make Ben Affleck feel any better to go to the London celebration, where among Argo‘s seven nominations, including best picture and best director, he also picked up one as best actor?  Probably not.

I liked the Guardian’s description of the BAFTA best five pics: “Lincoln,  Argo, Les Miserables, Django Unchained and Life of Pi, pluckily bobbing in their wake.”

What makes me personally happy?  To see the many ways humanism was defined by this year’s nominees: in utterly different ways throughout Life of Pi and Argo; in so many of the personal exchanges in Lincoln; by the tenacity of Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and by the unforgettable face of Emmanuelle Riva in Amour. And please, throw in your own choices, this is such a perfunctory armful.

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Argo and me — the back story

I started to describe why Argo struck me as brilliant and almost unendurable, all at once, but that’s silly. Just drop everything and go.  For such a full-throttle, gripping, movie-goer’s-movie, it has depths that linger — certainly at this house.

I haven’t been writing for a while.  Even before the September 11th attacks in Benghazi, with the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, I’ve been reading, almost every day, reports from a world that I am intimately connected to, yet necessarily apart from, our Foreign Service.

Most of my friends know that the most far-flung of the three daughters joined the Foreign Service just over three years ago.  She began working in Bogota, came back to D.C. this Fall for training as a Consular Officer and when that’s finished, she goes to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  With, of course, her husband and their three cats, the Tabbies.

At the same time that I followed every test, every setback and surge forward on her blog, I began to browse over at the Tabbies’ lower right-hand column, where she lists other FS blogs she follows.

They are the damndest mash-up imaginable: blogs so dense with acronyms that I don’t venture across their threshholds; ones fuming at a bureaucracy that seems to make things harder, not easier, and ones with pretty imaginative examples of coping calmly with what you and I might see as staggering obstacles.

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A Night Swung Between Two Oscars

The secret of having a fine night watching the Academy Awards is having a horse in the race, and I had two: Meryl Streep, whom I couldn’t bear to see lose again, not after that performance, and Undefeated, a documentary longshot about high school football players in North Memphis,Tennessee, that didn’t stand a chance in a field that stretched from Pina to Hell and Back

Truly deeply deserving Streep

So, understandably, our house echoed with shrieks, after Undefeated’s win. You may remember the bleeping disbelief by one of its pair of young director-editors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscars in hand.

As the extraordinary Manassas Tigers’ coach Bill Courtney says, “Football doesn’t build character; football reveals character.” Undefeated reveals the almost overwhelming personal struggles of three of Courtney’s young black athletes as they move toward manhood, captured by the kind of filmmaking “luck” that comes from being there, day in day out, recording routine  moments and ones of high and sometimes almost hidden emotion.

One of these came on the filmmakers’ first day with Montiel, known as “Money,” a small, speedy offensive lineman and honors student. He took Lindsay and Martin behind his grandmother’s house where he lives, to show them his pet: a tortoise. As he picks it up, explaining gently how its hard shell protects the soft creature inside, we get the first glimpse of the heart on each side of Undefeated’s lens.

If you saw The Blind Sideand think you already know this territory — you don’t. There’s no Sandra Bullock (lord love her) facing genteel opposition as she steps in to change the life of one gifted black player. If Undefeated’s kids see college football as the only way out of their flat-lined lives in this weed-filled, scraggly patch of North Memphis, they can also see the odds as clearly as we can.

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In shock over the Academy’s stats? Not so much.

So, after an 8-month effort of digging, cross-referencing, and prying the news out of agents and publicists that their clients are in the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Los Angeles Times released its bombshell Sunday.

Academy members are:

  • 94% white
  • 77% male
  • 54% over 60 years old

Board members, reportedly surprised by the results, reacted with variations of, “We knew it was bad but we didn’t know it was that bad.”  You might think that a quick look around the room. . . . oh, never mind.

Dig a tiny bit more and you’ll find that only 2% of the membership is under the age of 40; those in their 40s make up 11%, and 25% are in their 50s.  (I know, there’s a rogue 8% “Unknown” missing. . don’t look at me, I only lose glasses.)

Michael Fassbender in 'Shame'

“Uncomfortable,”  “Profound,” “By Mike Leigh” are not words that propel the well over-60-year-old Academy member into a screening. Do you think those same members liked what they saw, when they threw their For Your Consideration DVD of Shame on their home projection system?

Although it’s essentially a noir love story, how well did the unexpectedly violent moments of Drive play in that comfortable Bel Air living room?  What about the knife-edge walked in Young Adult by both Patton Oswalt and  Charlize Theron?  Their (virtual) shut-out in the nominations was a hint. Drive managed one technical nomination, but nothing for its music, let alone its actors, just ask Albert Brooks. On second thought…

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Nobody Does It Better or Morphine Through A Drip?

Before we get into BAFTA, here are a pair of presents.

Looking up from the work at hand — bringing home as many Oscars as possible — a couple of studios have watched what big money PACs have wrought, and liked what they saw: money = influence.  No, no, no, this time it’s a good thing. These featurettes were made in the hope of swaying voters, but they’re shameless fun all the same.  (Okay, the von Sydow piece is truly barefaced and blatant fun, and it diminishes my ardor for him not one scintilla.)   .

Take another brief look at the incomparable Hugo.

Here’s a celebration of the equally incomparable Max von Sydow.

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I’ve been trying to puzzle out why last night’s BAFTA Awards show went down so smoothly, at least at this house.  Not the awards themselves — a few things to talk about there — but the feeling of the event.

Jean Dujardin and his BAFTA

It may be a certain British take on life in general that seems so appealing. Offer a wild opinion to the kind of Englishman now owned by Colin Firth, and his opening salvo is, “Yes, well. . ” It has to do with reticence, a deep level of wit and intelligence, and the sense — rightly or not –that the person you’re speaking to is as least as quick as you are. It’s so flattering, really.

The show last night seemed to be steeped in that attitude.  It gets on with things. Even thought it’s held at the Royal Opera House, it seemed intimate, certainly compared to whereever  they house the Oscars, where the vastness is always chilling.

BAFTA seems blessedly anti-banter (Aussies excepted), which usually means a single presenter, even a grown-up, who gives a short intro that gets briskly to the point. Although music is recognized, there are no song awards,and thus no music production numbers. Think of the time your life gets back, right there.

If they have a house band, I don’t remember it, but nothing drowns out the winners who, peculiarly enough, have short and sometimes moving things to say. There seems to be the expectation that they will have something to offer, beyond thanks to their wife (first or current), to everyone they’ve ever met in the Industry, to their parents and to the god that made them. And this is an example of the thanks they do get:

Winning the Best Adapted Screenplay for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  Peter Straughan first acknowledged the beginning of The Artist’s mop-up job of 7 awards in all, with, “I’d just like to thank The Artist for not being based on a book.” Then, he took the award for himself and his late wife and co-writer, Bridget O’Conner, whose clear blue eyes had just shone down from the BAFTA clip of artists lost in 2011, saying “She wrote all the good bits, I made the coffee.”

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I Owe You This Much

A few people have asked about the Margaret in Margaret, as well they might.  My apologies!   I think she was ungallantly left behind during a cut-and-paste from another version, although this may also have had something to do with it.

In any case, here she is:

Sarah Steele, Anna Paquin, and Matthew Broderick

“Margaret, whom we discover must be called Mar-gar-et to fit the meter of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” is a “young child”  who grieves over changes in nature she is noticing for the first, painful time.

“Ah, but as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by. . .”

It’s the kernel of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s epic look at the effect that the fall from another kind of innocence -– uncompromising idealism –- has on Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) a smart, self-absorbed 17-year old in New York City, a few years post-9/11.   

Lonergan lets Matthew Broderick give “Spring and Fall” its ideal reading, as an English teacher trying to pry responses from one of the poem’s tougher audiences, privileged kids, including Lisa, at a private school on the Upper West Side.

*                                       *                                 *

It occurred to me that the few readers lucky enough to see Margaret may not know Lonergan’s breakout success, You Can Count On Me (2000). It’s worth watching –  again or for the first time.

Scooping up indie and critical awards across the country, the film gave Laura Linney her first Oscar nomination and ignited Mark Ruffalo’s movie career after years of theatre.  Quite aside from its cast, perfect in Lonergan’s droll mix of dry wit, deprecation and tenderness, Count On Me is a time capsule of American innocence itself, before the convulsions of 9/11 and all that has followed.

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The Wonder That Is Margaret

Never, ever dismiss a grassroots movement (just ask Elizabeth Warren). Or the indignation of film critics, denied the chance to see what one of their clan has called “One of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders.”  The result has been a flurry of petitions, blog-wails and unkind aspersions directed at Fox Seachlight, from here at home and as far away as the U.K.

The fallout in Seattle has been that Kenneth Lonergan’s breathtaking Margaret got a press screening and a one-week run in one theatre (backed up by no ads anywhere.)

Here’s where critics come in: with 3 ½ stars from the Seattle Times’ Moira McDonald and a strong pick-up review-let at the Weekly – and, no doubt, a buzz in every cranny of Scarecrow Video – Margaret’s healthy weekend grosses have earned it a second week, through February 9th.

The tidy among us should probably know that Margaret is almost as gloriously unruly as Anna Paquin’s Lisa herself, and that we will be following her at almost eye level for 149 minutes, as Pacquin virtually irradiates the screen.

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Losses and Gains

Bingham Ray

Very mixed bag, in and around the Oscars this week.  At Park City, Utah, the Sundancers had the heaviest kind of pall thrown over their festival when one of the pioneer Indie good guys, Bingham Ray, there as always, suffered a stroke and died at a Provo hospice at 57.

During its too-short life span, October Films, the distribution company founded by Ray and Jeff Lipsky, became an imprint that meant something: singular, distinctive, often groundbreaking films (Remembering fondly and quickly, Breaking the Waves, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls, with the late, magical Katrin Cartlidge, Hilary and Jackie and The Apostle were among them.)

This invaluable mini-portrait of Ray, made by documentarian R.J. Cutler (The War Room) and Paco de Oris in 1996, was just posted over at Deadline.com.  In it, Ray talks about Secrets and Lies, and the impact a possible Oscar nomination might make for its writer-director Mike Leigh, as well as for October Films. Then you get the chance to watch pandemonium in (semi-) high places as the nominations are broadcast.

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As I write this, the Screen Actors Guild awards are just over, and The Help took Best Ensemble, with Octavia Spencer Best Supporting Actress and Viola Davis Best Actress.

In the infuriatingly slow ways that these things evolve, in and through film, it might be possible to see a continuum from the humor and bravery Leigh located in his film to those same qualities in The HelpPossibly. Of course, being the work of Mike Leigh, the young black optometrist of Secrets and Lies (the radiant Marianne Jean-Baptiste) trying to track down her birth mother was independent and upscale.  It was her white mother (Brenda Blethyn, equally unforgettable) who was a scatty factory worker.

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