From Cook Pu to Oscar Nom in 5 easy years….

29 Nov

It’s been an interesting Oscar nominating season with some fantastic advance screenings & a few infuriating ones as well.

Alexander Payne just never lets me down… with films that look at the human element and the way that people relate to each other and themselves.

In his latest film, Downsizing, a kind of modern sci-fi version of Gullivers travels, he looks at a slew of issues including class, cast, power, the environment, love and people. With his choice of cast of Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chau, this ultimate road trip movie really worked for me.

While it’s all about Paul Safronek’s journey as portrayed by Damon, Hong Chau pulls in a solid performance as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident, that at first seems like a stereotypical immigrant character. Chau’s interpretation gives depth to the role, with a nuanced, emotional and comedic interpretation.

She’s come such a long way since her tiny day player role on How I Met Your Mother 5 years ago as a Chinese student named Cook Pu in Ted’s architecture class. The role was limited to just a few words spoken by a stereotypical meek Asian female student: her character kept trying to convince Ted that she was a real student in his class and not a made up childish prank of a name – Cook Pu.

As many an actor knows, you take any gig you can when you are starting out, especially if it’s on a hit tv sitcom. You give it 100% and try to make the role as human as possible, and that’s what Chau did with Cook Pu. She does it again with the role of Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran in Downsizing and I think she’s just as strong as Kate Winslet is in Wonder Wheel. Funny thing is that Winslet addressed this issue of roles & scripts a few weeks ago during the Q&A for Wonder Wheel at an advance screening I attended downtown.

During one of the most spirited and animated Q&As I’ve seen in a long time, Winslet spoke about acting in the script, and how her job is finding the character in what may or not be a great script. Both she & Jim Belushi spoke about how many times an actor has to create a role when the writing isn’t quite there ( think of Cook Pu & try to find the humanity in that…!). Winslet, Belushi & Justin Timberlake then went on to discuss how Woody Allen is an actor’s auteur, writing a script that allows the actor to create a fully-fleshed, nuanced character with depth. They all had their own hilarious Woody impersonations, but they all agreed his writing worked for them as actors, and that he would go back to the page to rewrite a scene if it wasn’t working for them.

Jim belushi’s intensity in the film really surprised me, as well. He commented on his past experience as an actor in sketch tv, and how he reached for the emptiness in his role as Humpty, comparing the character to the broken quality & emptiness of the famous egg that sat on a wall. For Belushi, Wonder Wheel felt like working on Playhouse 90. This hit the nail on the head for me, as I felt the film had a very theatrical, filmed-theatre-production vibe throughout. Belushi’s ability to let go emotionally came through in scene after scene.

Winslet, meanwhile, tore it up as a middle aged woman whose life was not what she hoped it would be. With two incredible, heart wrenching monologues about the turns life takes, I can’t see Winslet not getting an Oscar nom, even though I am quite ambivalent about the film itself.

Why is that? While I hope Winslet gets that Oscar nom, I am not bowled over by woody allen’s need to insult Italian Americans with ethnic slurs in a movie that was pretty lily white with only 1 other mention of ethnicity at all, the full name of woody’s stand in character, Mickey Rubin. He chooses to insult the ethnicity of a small time hood that he names Frank Adano ( the only other fully named, albeit unseen, character in the film) instead of insulting the character’s criminality. Allen uses the archaic but no less insulting terms “gR$&3%ball” and “gutter g*^!?#” instead of using non-ethnic choices like “gutter thug”, for example. A non-italian colleague of mine commented that the slur is appropriate since the film takes places in the 1950s but he failed to notice that there is no other negative mention of race in the film at all. Now, we’re not talking Tarantino’s pointed use of language to portray the evil of slaves owners or of nazi murderers.

we’re talking about lazy, petty writing. Can you imagine the use of k$)!, s?$3!, N:?)7&, or s>#~, by a filmmaker & writer as heralded as Allen is in referring to Jewish, Asian, African American, or Latino characters? Not in today’s world, not unless he’s looking for his films to be boycotted.

So it’s surprising that Allen couldn’t be more creative in his choice of words in describing Humpty’s unseen son-in-law. The use of other racial epithets doesn’t occur to Allen in his films, so why this lazy, glaringly isolated use of slurs against Italian Americans? We all would have been better served if he insulted the criminal & not the ethnic background of his character. Such a dinosaur, un-PC move in a very PC climate by Woody Allen disappoints but sadly, doesn’t surprise me.

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On Art & Film…

12 Oct

So for some reason, the past several weeks have had a recurring theme in our discussions during my art lectures: what is art?!?!? Inquiring minds keep asking why painted rocks go for 12 grand at auction, and why a tweaked video game platform is in the permanent collection of a major New York art institution.

We have gone back and forth between the various reasons and arguments:  the monetary value of art, the cultural importance of art’s creative push, the emotional response that people have to various works of art, and the very nature of art itself – what art needs to be made of and what is must or must not depict.  Is art valuable because a billionaire owns it or  is its value inherent in its very creation… does art need to be visual? Numerous NY art institutions this past summer have tied sound together to sculpture and painting in their exploration of the definition of art, and  pursuit of a larger and more varied audience.

How do you define art?

https://twitter.com/profvfranco/status/875939707116539909

17 Jun

Booze, Books & Bocce!

26 Nov

Sooo much to talk about these past few weeks I don’t know where to start- some great film Q&As in LA & NY  ( including hell or high water & arrival), the soft opening of Barnes & Noble kitchen in my backyard ( I love #food&film but #boozeBooks&bocce is right up there! ) & Oliver Sacks’ thoughtful & oh so timely little gem, GRATITUDE. 


So, let me finish the post-Thanksgiving clean-up, get my holiday lights up & get back here to hash it all out. 

From Krall to Luther: Idris Elba tears it up

10 Aug

It’s always interesting to see actors’ develop in various roles throughout their careers but it’s a guilty pleasure for me when I can binge watch a few different shows over the course of a night or two in my own de facto retrospective.

 My own mini Idris Elba fest combined his turn as the evil Krall in the latest Star Trek franchise installment, BEYOND, & his work as noble but emotionally tortured policeman John Luther, in the BBC program, LUTHER.


I get a kick out of Star Trek, always have – always will, even before my days in LA working for Paramount & then the sfx house that did the effects on Star Trek:The Next Generation, so to watch a screening & get absorbed in the well written, boundless universe that incorporates Kirk, Scottie & Bones is pure pleasure.  Simon Pegg’s tight script & Justin Lin’s fluid direction give everyone a bit of joy. But we expect great writing & performances from the guys who brought us ( separately) such films as The World’s End, Shaun of the Dead, Better Luck Tommorow & the Fast & The Furious. 

Psycho, Hopper, Tourists & Booze… Rooftop Met

2 Jul

Sitting in the bench against the wall, facing Central Park & the Dakota, In the full hot early evening sun, watching 400 or so of my closest strangers pass by as they walk around & display themselves & peruse the (maybe not) Art … I am reminded why I love Manhattan & why I really love the seasonal rooftop installation pieces at the Met. 
An adorable 8 year old is splayed out over his dad like a blanket as his mom reads “Digger & Daisy” to him (they are in the shade of the pergola column, facing me & so completely obvious of the Installation – a version of ” psycho meets hopper ” type of scaled down installation that actually works with the background of various skyscrapers setting it off as a grown-up’s over done doll House set. 

With the 2 bland exceptions in the distant past of painted blood colored leaves on the floor & ripped up tiles with weeds growing between them ( the former meant to inspire contemplation of the blood being spilt in the Middle East & the latter meant to be an imitation of an urban archeological dig) usually the seasonal exhib – no matter how great or horrible is wonderful- because it serves to bring the city’s flotsam & jetsam of tourists, art lovers, first dates, young families, bored bro-artists, etc etc etc., together. 

They are the real, ever changing, often drunk, sometimes complaining, never boring, exhibit. Sit with your prosecco & ham with Brie sandwich, & watch it all go by. 

You have got to love it. Literally. Love. It. 
If you don’t, don’t bother taking up space in my bench…

Derek rocks…

15 May


Love him or hate him – check out Ricky Gervais’ gentle 2012 comedy “Derek” on Netflix. 
His autistic character is kind, patient and caring & the whole show looks at the humanity & dignity of the overlooked, the old, the different, the forgotten & the ignored.

Gervais said in an interview that he loved Derek because the character was a hero…

  &… A bonus is Karl Pilkington, Gervais’ Idiot Abroad, in a wonderful turn as Dougie.