Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Remembering Norman Jewison

When I was a graduate student at UCLA, leading introductory literature classes, I was surprised by the number of celebrities’ kids who showed up on my roster. One was the son of Charlton Heston, who brought in to show me his father’s prized first edition of Hemingway’s cryptic story collection, In Our Time. One was the pretty, wholesome daughter of handsome, wholesome singer Pat Boone. One was Kevin Jewison, a pleasant young man who turned out to be the son of film direction Norman Jewison, the Oscar-winning director who just passed away at the ripe old age of 97.

 Looking back at Jewison’s long career, I was struck by how varied it was. Jewison, one of those famously “nice” Canadians, was born and raised in Toronto, and entered the entertainment world via Canadian television. That led him to NBC, where he seems to have been typecast as the director of innocuous musical specials, like The Chevy Showroom Starring Andy Williams (1959) and Bulova Watch Time with Pat Boone (1961). He also had the opportunity to work with such notable talents as Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, and Judy Garland, before pivoting into film. Following some innocuous Doris Day romantic comedies, he found more of a challenge working with Steve McQueen in 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid, a tough-minded film about serious poker players and the women who love them. The next year, he released The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, a timely Cold War satire –about a Russian submarine running aground off the New England coast—that made a comic star out of Alan Arkin. It led to four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor: I found it absolutely delightful at the time, but less so when I re-watched it decades later.

 In 1968, Jewison was back at the Oscars with In the Heat of the Night, a tight and tidy drama about racial tension in a small Southern town following a murder. The fraught interplay of the town sheriff (played to a fare-thee-well by Rod Steiger) and a Black big-city cop (Sidney Poitier) was brilliantly acted under Jewison’s direction. At a time when interracial tension was very much on the public’s mind, the film was nominated for five Oscars. It won four, including Best Picture, Best Actor (the much-deserving Steiger), and Best Screenplay (a vast improvement over the clumsy novel on which it was based). But Jewison lost to Mike Nichols of The Graduate in the Best Director category.

 In 1972, Jewison (who had to patiently explain to reporters that despite the implications of his name he was NOT Jewish) produced and directed a creditably gritty screen version of the beloved stage hit musical, Fiddler on the Roof. He followed up with something completely different, the film translation of Jesus Christ Superstar. Then came the violent and futuristic Rollerball (which indirectly led –as I well remember—to Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000), and a series of powerful films about social injustice. But his last really huge hit, leading to another Best Picture Oscar and another Best Director nomination, was a charming romantic comedy, 1987’s Moonstruck. Though he was nominated three times for the Best Director Oscar, he was fated never to win that prize. But the Academy did grant him in 1999 the coveted Irving Thalberg Award, in honor of his role as one of Hollywood’s most creative producers, alongside such industry masters as Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg.

 And son Kevin, my amiable former student, became a motion picture cameraman, whose credit I just noticed on Sleepless in Seattle.



Friday, January 26, 2024

Looking Back on “Past Lives”

Not long ago I saw on Facebook two brothers exchanging their views on Celine Song’s 2023 indie film, Past Lives. Both brothers are successful writers, and I worked with one of them (Hi, Lee Goldberg!) in my Roger Corman days. Lee’s brother, Todd, was praising to the skies Song’s writing and directing debut. Many of his friends (both male and female) agreed with him, calling it one of the year’s best, and describing how the ending had them in tears.  Lee countered, though, that he had found Past Lives extremely dull. For which he was accused by brother Todd of having no heart.

 I don’t know about Lee’s lack of a heart, but I’m basically on his side. Not that I found Past Lives boring, exactly. But for me it was remarkably unmemorable, a small and sensitive movie about people I could barely recall once the lights came up. This story of a thirty-six-year-old man who travels from Seoul, Korea  to New York City to reunite with the young woman who won his heart when they were both 12 sounds interesting enough, especially because she’s now married to a loving, and lovable, Caucasian American. And I was pleased that, for a change, the emotions in the film were low-key, with none of the characters on the brink of committing mayhem when they couldn’t get their heart’s desire. I like the internationalism of the concept, and (as someone with experience living in Asia) I’m always pleased to see that part of the world recognized on screen.

 Still, I was and still am surprised at the ecstatic reaction that Past Lives has garnered. I can see it as a Sundance success, but I’ve been stunned at how often it shows up these days on Top Ten lists. As of Tuesday morning, it is now officially one of ten films up for a Best Picture Oscar, along with such masterworks as Oppenheim and Killers of the Flower Moon. Radio commentators were lamenting on Tuesday that Celine Song was not included by Oscar voters as one of the year’s five best directors. (Hey, I’m more concerned about the snub to Barbie’s Greta Gerwig.) I doubt Song herself is much lamenting her omission, because she also authored the Oscar-nominated original screenplay. Several commentators also seem a bit bummed that lead actors Greta Lee and Teo Yoo were overlooked by the Academy. (I’m more inclined to regret the omission of Margot Robbie and Willem Dafoe.)

 Don’t get me wrong—I like small, sensitive movies. And it’s nice to applaud female writer/directors  (especially women of color) who do something good their first time out. But I also understand why the big prizes generally go to those connected with ambitious projects, films that try something brand-new and gutsy. (That’s why I’m pleased with all the acclaim for Poor Things.) I also tend to root for projects that have something highly important to say. (That’s why my very favorite film of the year is Killers of the Flower Moon.) I guess Past Lives has taken the “sensitive indie” slot on the Oscar Best Picture list. Good for Celine Song and her team! What I really want to see, though, is what she does hereafter.

 Not that everyone who wins an Oscar needs to be a Hollywood veteran. There’s room for the occasional dazzling newcomer,  especially when their achievement strikes a chord with national and international audiences. (Yes, I’m thinking of Lily Gladstone.) But I’m  not a fan of overpraising good, modest work, and I believe that when prizes are handed out, a track record should count for something.


Monday, January 22, 2024

A Water Nymph Makes a Splash in “Nyad”

 In Nyad, you’ve got to give Annette Bening credit for having courage. Not simply the courage to portray long-distance ocean swims that showcase her exhaustion, her nausea, and her multiple near-death experiences. But also, as an actress in her late sixties, the courage to spend most of the movie’s run-time decked out in a form-fitting tank suit. Most women, including me, would at a certain point in their lives rather not be photographed in swimming attire. And this film is hardly an Esther Williams-type extravaganza with a focus on glamour (and waterproof mascara). This is the real-life story (though some have quibbled about the details) of an champion distance swimmer who—having failed to swim from Cuba to Key West at about age 30, decided at sixty to try again. It sometimes feels like a stroke-by-stroke recap of her four failed attempts and her final 2013 victory over  the waves, the sharks, the jellyfish, and her own mind. (By the end, WE’RE exhausted.) Nyad is also a character study of a woman who is almost brutal in her determination to sacrifice everything in order to meet her goal.

 Diana Nyad, as portrayed in this film, is not often gracious. So single-minded is she that she risks alienating even those who love her best and admire her most. The #1 person on that list is Bonnie Stoll, a racquetball champ who years ago dated Nyad briefly. As a strongly competitive athlete with organizational skills and a tender heart, she’s the ideal coach for Nyad, though at times she’s fully determined to walk away from what seems like a foolhardy gamble. Jodie Foster pours her heart and soul into the role of Bonnie, which has made her a nominee for multiple best-supporting actress awards. Without her feisty but tender performance, we might well find Nyad (and Nyad) insufferable. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is also memorable as an old salt whose grasp of Caribbean waves and weather makes that final victory possible. Though Nyad is a creature of towering ego, it’s worth noting that when she lands on that Key West beach, to be greeted by cheering throngs, she speaks of her achievement not as a solo victory but in terms of the “family” of support people who made it possible.

 It's an interesting film, though certainly not always an enjoyable one. Uplifting? Maybe, but I mostly came away relieved that no one was requiring me to go on a long-distance ocean swim anytime soon. And I need to point out some artistic distractions, like the frequent cutting away to childhood Nyad experiences (some of them disturbing, and not particularly well played) and also the insertion of footage from time to time of the actual Diana Nyad, who’s still very much around, pursuing a comfortable dry-land career as a radio and TV sports journalist. I also admit, from my spot on the couch, that watching Nyad give it her all was probably a good reminder to work a bit harder at my local gym.

 I’ve always admired Bening as a courageous actress. I first became aware of her in 1990’a The Grifters, in which she held her own as a con artist opposite Anjelica Huston and John Cusack. She also, in a startling moment, appeared jaybird-naked, another kind of courage. That let to her first Oscar nomination (in support). There’ve also been three Best Actress nominations for such strong films as American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids are All Right, but never (alas) a win.  

A long, strong marriage to former playboy Warren Beatty is a win of sorts, though.




Friday, January 19, 2024

Facts About American Fiction

American Fiction nabbed the People’s Choice Award at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival. I wasn’t there, but I would probably have voted for it too. After all, the film—by writer-director Cord Jefferson in an assured cinematic debut—touches with sardonic glee on several subjects all too familiar to me, including academia and the wonderful world of book publishing. But American Fiction is also much concerned with racial matters, and with the delicate question of who is entitled to tell whose stories. I can’t pretend to appreciate, as an outsider, what it’s like to be a Black intellectual in today’s America. But for me American Fiction is a prime example of how to make a funny but pithy small movie (the kind Alexander Payne does so well), while also weighing in on important matters of today. Timely? You bet.

 Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, PhD (an unforgettable Jeffrey Wright) isn’t doing so hot. At the California university where he teaches English and creative writing, a white student berates him for assigning a Flannery O’Connor short story with the n-word in its title. The self-righteousness of this generation of students, it seems, is wearing him down. His fellow faculty members don’t show much sympathy for his unwanted position as the campus point-person for all things Black, but do remind him that he hasn’t published a new novel in years. (A scholarly and self-contained man, he tends to write lyrical books with allusions to the mythology of the ancient Greeks. Being cutting-edge hardly interests him.) Because he has an upcoming trip to the east coast to help judge a literary competition, he reluctantly accepts his colleagues’ strong suggestion that he take a leave and spend time with family.

 Ellison’s family members are not his favorite family. I won’t go into detail and spoil plot surprises, but they’re a fractured bunch, full of grudges and resentments. They are, though, impressively well educated. His late father was a medical doctor, as are his two (very complicated) siblings. They live well, spending time at a wonderful old summer place at the New England shore. Their Black heritage is important to them, philosophically speaking, but there’s no way they feel much personal connection to the whole ghetto experience. In the course of his stay, Monk visits his literary agent, only to discover that no one wants to publish his latest manuscript. He is, he discovers, just not “Black” enough to satisfy editors looking for the next best-seller. That’s when an evil impulse strikes him, and he begins to write—at white heat, one might say—a raw, raging narrative full of every cliché (guns! drugs! bad grammar!) of inner-city African-American life. Pretty soon he’s facing an unexpected dilemma: how does he turn down a small fortune in advances and the sale of movie rights for a novel he doesn’t want to claim as his? (His literary agent certainly has something to say about the choice he ends up making.)

  The  plot thickens as Monk takes on family responsibilities, finds (maybe!) love, and—as part of his work on the committee judging contemporary literary excellence—runs into opposing views that get him (and us) thinking. (I’m still chewing on the position taken by the one other person of color in the group.) If all of this seems solemn, fear not. Hollywood (in all senses) basically saves the day. American Fiction builds to a truly hilarious conclusion, a moment that in one fell swoop lampoons all of the film’s satirical targets. And then sends us to the exits in a marvelous mood.