Monday, February 19, 2018

“Battleship Pretension” Sets Sail at Oscar Time

Classic film enthusiasts are well acquainted with Battleship Potemkin, the thrilling 1925 silent Soviet epic in which director Sergei Eisenstein showed the Russian people rising up against their Tsarist oppressors. But do these film fans also know “Battleship Pretension”?

This latter is something totally unknown in Eisenstein’s day: a podcast. It’s been around for 13 years, regularly doling out opinions about movies. As the “Battleship Pretension” site makes clear, it offers  “movie talk from two guys who think they know more than you do.” Frankly, I’m not convince they know more than I do about The Graduate. I first met Tyler Smith, one of those two self-confident film dudes, when I climbed aboard “Battleship Pretension” to talk about my new book, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson. Tyler may not have been the ultimate expert on The Graduate, but he was savvy and charming. That’s why we scheduled a second conversation to compare notes on the upcoming Oscar race. Afterward, I couldn’t resist asking Tyler about himself.

Tyler is currently a graduate student in the UCLA film school, majoring in critical studies. He’s the rare film geek who holds conservative social values, and considers himself a committed Christian. (By contrast, his co-host and longtime friend David Bax is, in Tyler’s words, “a liberal atheist.”) One thing that fascinates me about Tyler’s perspective is that – unlike a good many Christian conservatives – he has no use for censorship of any sort. Devices like Vid Angel that remove nudity and rough language from an existing film, are for him completely missing the point, and he wouldn’t dream of favoring a cleaned-up version of a Scorsese or Tarantino film, because “that stuff is the movie.” No fan of most overtly Christian movies, he points to the evolving Samuel L. Jackson character in Pulp Fiction as an unlikely but genuine Christian role model.

Each year’s Oscar season is a special time for “Battleship Pretension” and its fans. Since 2013, Tyler and David have been handing out the BP Awards, based on the votes of about 30 movie experts, including site contributors, fellow podcasters, and previous guests. The winners are announced at the end of February. Alas, there are no fancy gold statuettes, but the BP folks do generally stage an impressive ceremony that is featured on the podcast. OK, so it’s faked – but they have fun adding music, crowd noise, and celebrity photos. Tyler has loved putting these bogus events together: “I don’t know if anybody enjoyed it as much as I did.” 

Most of the BP award categories are familiar ones – best supporting actor, best documentary feature – but Smith and Bax have given themselves the right to invent categories of their own. That’s why there’s an award for best stunts, as well as the unique “The Bruce McGill in The Insider Award for Best Performance Under 15 Minutes.” Past winners of this prize have included Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street and Channing Tatum in Hail, Caesar! But Tyler seems most jazzed about the 2016 award, which went to journeyman actor Neal Huff for his tiny but key scene as an abuse survivor who gets the ball rolling in Spotlight. Tyler loved the fact that Huff was hardly a movie star. “Battleship Pretension” contacted his publicist, and learned that Huff would be happy to tape a gracious acceptance speech. 

This year’s nominees, who include Bruce Greenwood as a frantic reporter in The Post and Harriet Sansom Harris as a soused client of couturier Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, are by no means celebrities. Let’s hope the BP Bruce McGill Award really makes someone’s day.

Friday, February 16, 2018

"Dunkirk": Britain’s Band of Brothers

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” That’s the beginning of a famous speech in which Shakespeare’s Henry V urges his troops forward. It’s 1415, and the British are invading France, in a series of battles that are part of the Hundred Years’ War. Somewhat later in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young king – who in the spirit of the times personally leads his men into battle – addresses them, manfully insisting that the odds stacked against them will only make their success more glorious. In what is always called the St. Crispin’s Day speech, Henry waxes philosophical about the long-term fame that awaits his soldiers, then rises to a glorious climax:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember├Ęd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .

The valor of English soldiers and their leaders, as displayed in Henry V, has of course always had high appeal for English audiences. That’s why Winston Churchill, in the dark days of World War II, turned to actor/director Laurence Olivier for a film version of the play, with which to boost the morale of the English citizenry. It appeared in 1944, dedicated to “the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has humbly attempted to recapture.” The movie was a commercial and artistic success, winning Olivier an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

Given the tensions of those times, it’s no surprise that the war as depicted in Olivier’s Henry V is picturesque and fairly bloodless. Almost 50 years later, in 1989, Kenneth Branagh was gutsy enough to film the play once again. His version (which like Olivier’s features the cream of the British acting community) is powerful and realistic, containing battlefield scenes that strongly convey the horrors of war.

I bring all this up because two films that take us back more than 75 years to another English war are in the running for the 2018 Best Picture Oscar. I confess I haven’t seen Darkest Hour, which I understand is best served by Gary Oldman’s stirring portrayal of Winston Churchill, captured at a moment when he and his strong anti-Nazi views are finally coming to be adopted by Britain’s royals and its citizenry. I did, however, see Dunkirk, which has been called an impressionistic account of the massive British evacuation of a French beach in one of World War II’s most pivotal moments. Dunkirk is a labor of love for British director Christopher Nolan, who’s best known for such science fiction and fantasy fare as The Dark Knight and Interstellar. It’s clear he feels deeply about this moment in history, when thousands of small English seafaring vessels sailed across the English Channel to rescue English soldiers. The film cuts between a pilot in the sky, the crew of a fishing boat on the water, and a representative British “Tommy” trying to leave that corpse-strewn French beach. My problem: I could never figure out quite where I was and who was at the center of the action at any given moment. (At least in my American eyes, young English actors all seem to look pretty much the same.)

Nolan has been praised for making a strikingly different sort of war film. I certainly got a sense of the enormity of the whole undertaking. But having to continuously ask “Wait, what’s going on?” is not a helpful sort of history lesson.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ice-Dancing Goes to the Movies

As happens every two years, I find the Olympic Games irresistible viewing. Even though --  technophobe that I am -- I consider the many-buttoned remote control gadgets that power my TV extraordinarily daunting, I’m currently spending my evenings glued to the tube, enjoying the scope and the sweep of winter sports. Speaking of sweeping, I can’t say I’m keen on curling, but  watching snowboarding sports sure gets my blood racing. Heck, I even got excited recently during the finals of the single-man luge.

But for me the sport of sports is figure-skating. The blending of music, costumes, and dramatic emoting with first-class athleticism is for me too powerful to ignore. I’m a sucker for up-close-and-personal profiles of the skaters, and the one-two punch of Tara Lipinski and the always memorable Johnny Weir adds invaluable commentary. I learned from Weir, for instance, that in ice-dancing the woman’s role is to be the show-offy flower, while her male partner acts as her stem. Weir then went on to portray one of the teams, admiringly, as containing two flowers. 

I think one of the things that intrigues me about figure-skating competitions is that they meld artful discipline with the spontaneity of live competition. When you watch a movie, you’re enjoying the result of months and years of careful planning by a whole army of participants. Yes, it’s true that the unexpected things that pop up on a movie set can have impact on a completed film, for better or for worse. Serendipity is a very real aspect of the film-making process, and smart filmmakers know how to take advantage of happy accidents. Still, when we watch a film, we’re seeing a finished product, one that has been lovingly polished and perfected before it reaches audiences.  A live theatre performance can change slightly from evening to evening, depending on the mood of the audience, the health of the actors, and a host of other things. But normally theatre productions that are beyond the rehearsal stage try to conform nightly to a set of codified expectations toward which everyone has been aiming during weeks of preparation. 

In figure-skating, too, there is a carefully developed plan of attack for each stage of the competition. Costumes, music, and basic choreography don’t vary from outing to outing. But this is a sport, and so anything can happen. A bobble, a recovery, a fall . . . what develops in the dynamic between pairs skaters from night to night is particularly fraught. One Canadian ice-dancer, I’m told, is super-adept at calculating point totals in her head while she’s on the ice. If one of her and her partner’s elements doesn’t go as planned, she knows how to adjust for maximum impact. 

It doesn’t surprise me to sense that figure-skaters love movies. At least, they frequently turn to famous movie themes to add crowd-pleasing oomph to their programs. In the last few days, I’ve seen skaters glide to music from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Memoirs of a Geisha, and “Unchained Melody,” as featured in the schmaltzy lost-love movie, Ghost. The Italian duos seem particularly adept at taking advantage of movie drama through their choice of music. One pair of Italians charmingly captured the antic spirit of Fellini by way of Nino Rota’s film scores. And an Italian ice-dancing team, skating to music from Life is Beautiful, conveyed that Holocaust film’s heartbreaking throughline by moving from romantic love to the horrors of war. All the best skaters, at least in my eyes, tell a story with their faces and bodies. And movies are often the inspiration that moves them forward.