Random Thoughts: 2011 Edition

For no particular reason I am bringing back “Random Thoughts,” little snippets that each are not quite enough to make a full column. Hopefully together they will amount to something:

Qwiskter, We Hardly Knew Ye
For the past seven years I have been a loyal Netflix subscriber. Many times I sang Netflix’s praises both in person and in writing. I even defended the company when it raised prices earlier this year. So I was surprised to read that, as part of an effort to stem the criticism, Netflix was splitting off its DVD service into a new service, “Qwikster.” Netflix would only stream movies. Customers would need to go to two separate Websites to pick their films. Who exactly would gain from this? Not the customers, who would have to maintain two separate film lists. Part of the appeal of Netflix was having all of your film selections in one place. The company was taking something that was easy and simple and making it cumbersome and tedious. If customers would have to go to more than one website, they might as well go to a Netflix competitor, which many of them did. Then there was the name “Qwikster.” That’s the best the Netflix marketing team could do? Qwikster sounds like a cheap toy you threw out when you were a kid or an Internet start-up company that folded ten years ago.

Thankfully, someone at Netflix realized that they had turned a wildfire into an inferno. They quickly changed their minds. Netflix will remain one service. On the small chance that anyone from Netflix is reading this – please don’t make any more changes for a while. This is a case where no news might truly be the best news, for both Netflix and its subscribers.

We Said Yes, Now Stop Asking
Next to the Uptown, my favorite DC area theater is the AFI (American Film Institute) Silver. It’s a beautiful theater with top-of-the-line projection and sound quality, plus comfortable seats and courteous, professional staff. Most importantly, the programming features independent films and a varied repertory slate. My favorite is their annual “Noir City” series. The AFI also hosts, in whole or in part, many local film festivals, including Silverdocs, the European Union Film Festival, and the DC Jewish Film Festival.

My only beef with the AFI is the short promo they run before the movie extolling the features of the theater. I was wondering why this spot got on my nerves so much when I agree with its main points. Then it occurred to me that it was selling me the theater when I was already there. Shouldn’t the AFI be running this on TV or online, to target people who don’t regularly attend? The promos make about as much sense as Sony having its TVs play an ad about what a wonderful TV you just bought.

Acting’s Yin and Yang
Much of the praise directed at My Week With Marilyn will no doubt focus on Michelle Williams’s riveting performance in the title role. Williams deserves every accolade she will receive, but the film has so much more to offer. In depicting Marilyn Monroe’s clashes with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, the story deftly illustrates the struggle between two styles of acting. Olivier, perhaps more than anyone, embodied the classic British theatrical school of acting as a profession and a craft. An actor creates a character from what is on the page, from costumes, and makeup (which Olivier famously applied himself). The actor will play a role for the length of the show, or the length of that day’s shooting, and then stop.

Monroe’s style could not be more different. She rigidly adhered to “the Method,” a way of acting through internalizing the character. The actor will tap into her own emotions and experiences to find the role within herself. The actor should not merely “play” the role, but “be” the role. The film shows Marilyn receiving constant guidance from Paula Strasberg who, along with her husband Lee, was the leading teacher of the Method in America. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift popularized this way of acting, and many others followed, including Monroe.

Naturally these two styles would clash. The whole idea of becoming the role seemed foolish to Olivier and his compatriots. Just work hard at your job, say your lines and hit your marks. Of course to Monroe and the other Method believers, that old school way of acting was inauthentic. For a performance to feel true, and to be true it must come from within. If it doesn’t there’s no point. To this day, you hear of Method actors, such as Daniel Day-Lewis, staying in character throughout an entire film shoot.

To the film’s credit, it does not take sides. It shows the merits and the drawbacks of both schools. It also has fun with Olivier’s growing frustration over Monroe’s approach. In one of the most telling scenes, Strasberg tells Olivier that Monroe has not shown up for shooting because she was not “feeling” her character. An exasperated Olivier replies, “Couldn’t she just pretend?”

Crowded at the Top
Entertainment Weekly and many other media outlets listed Williams as a lock for a Best Actress nomination and I’m inclined to agree. I believe Viola Davis is also a sure bet for The Help, and rightly so. Other experts have slots all but guaranteed for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady as Margaret Thatcher and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs as a cross-dressing butler. Sure, many of these experts haven’t seen either The Iron Lady or Albert Nobbs, but why should that technicality stop someone from prognosticating? Oscar buzz also surrounds Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia, Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene, Charlize Theron for Young Adult, and Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Kevin. Olsen would be worthy, but I have yet to see the other films. However, in many recent years critics have lamented how there would not be five deserving nominees. Now we have the very real possibility that some stellar choices will be left out.

That’s a good problem to have, especially in the light of the recent L.A. Times story about a study showing that, in the top 100 grossing movies of 2008 and 2009, over two thirds of the speaking roles were male. Less than one third were female. This is despite the fact that in 2009 females bought more than half of all the movie tickets sold.

I hope that this year’s Best Actress race, and the success of female-centered films such as The Help and Bridesmaids teaches Hollywood a lesson: The talent is definitely there, and the audience is definitely there. So if you have an ample supply and demand, shouldn’t you also have ample opportunities?

The New Old Host
I’m disappointed that Eddie Murphy dropped out as Oscars host after Brett Ratner resigned as a producer. Ratner left after stupid comments he made about homosexuals at a screening and even stupider comments he made to Howard Stern about his sex life. Hollywood veteran Brian Grazer replaced Ratner, and Billy Crystal came back to host the Oscars for the eighth time. You can’t go wrong with Crystal, who is consistently funny and a true professional, qualities sorely missing from last year’s James Franco-Anne Hathaway debacle. Still, Murphy would have brought not just comic talent, but also an air of excitement and unpredictability. And if he is going to quit, it should be for a much better reason than losing Brett Ratner. Since when did the director of the Rush Hour movies and The Family Man become such an auteur? For all his talent, Murphy has been plagued by his own bad choices, and rejecting the Oscar gig was another one.

Avoid the Rush and Start Griping Early
One last note on the Oscars for now: I’ve never gained a clear understanding on how the Best Documentary nomination process works, and after the latest travesty, I’m not sure I want to. In 1994 Steve James made Hoop Dreams, about two Chicago high school kids striving for basketball stardom. Even though Hoop Dreams landed on many critics top 10 lists for that year, and is now widely considered one of the best documentaries ever made, it was somehow not even nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. This year James unveiled The Interrupters, about ex-gang members in Chicago who risk their lives trying to save others from gang violence. James explores the background of these real-life heroes. Then he follows them as they intervene with young people who are headed down a path of crime and drugs. As he did with Hoop Dreams, James makes his camera so unobtrusive that the people often forget he’s there. Even though James followed the Interrupters for a year, he edited the movie so seamlessly that not a moment feels wasted.

When the Academy released, not its Best Documentary nominees, but merely the 15 films that would even be considered for that honor, The Interrupters was conspicuously absent. No, I have not seen all the films that were selected, and I am sure the list includes plenty of gems. But I did see many documentaries at this year’s Silverdocs, and while most of them were terrific, The Interrupters was the clear standout. I would challenge anyone to see that film and tell me it should not be, at the very least, in final consideration for an Oscar nod. The Academy did a major disservice, not so much to The Interrupters, but to its own credibility.

Adam Spector
December 1, 2011

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