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Oscars So Blank

For years now, I’ve maintained that the Academy Awards are overdone, overplayed and overestimated as a commercial or cultural barometer. Last night, host Jimmy Kimmel summed up the fading luster in a single line after the show’s worst display of ineptitude in Oscar’s history. After the wrong winner was announced, Kimmel jokingly blamed the host of another TV awards telecast—known for announcing the wrong winner at a beauty pageant—as the Oscars ended in confusion, not exactly celebration. Despite gracious statements and commentary by various filmmakers and TV hosts, the fiasco capped the Oscars’ increasing irrelevance, which represents the growing American cultural disunity. First-time host Kimmel’s comment comparing the once grand and glamorous Academy Awards to a beauty pageant striving to retain an audience miniaturized an already minimized Academy Awards.

The bigger they’ve become in coverage—with a red carpet that’s wider than ever—the smaller the Oscars became. The culture is saturated with awards and chatter about awards and, while movies that get nominated and win Oscars see a spike in box office receipts, the Oscars barely have relevance to most people’s daily lives, even in the most superficial sense. This is unfortunate, as far as I’m concerned, because movies are getting deeper, more interesting and better in some respects and people need both glamorous, larger-than-life escapism and thought-provoking films more than ever, especially as the middle class is decimated and vanishes. Dropping candy and other tricks, such as duping tourists and taking so-called selfies, only underscores the smallness of the ceremonies.

The real cause of the Oscars blankout is its creeping egalitarianism. Audiences used to tune into masters of ceremonies Bob Hope, Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal in Santa Monica, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Hollywood to see movie stars with elegance and ability at their best in a night of galas and celebration of the world’s finest movies. The Academy Awards were an unabashed toast to the best in motion pictures. But they were predicated on the idea that there could, in fact, be a best picture. Today’s Academy Awards are led by a president who instituted a discriminatory new system to impose a certain type of pre-ordained “diversity”, an idea based on multiculturalism, a notion that all cultures are equal. This egalitarian ideal sets the standard as the color of one’s skin, or sex or sexual orientation, as against the quality of the movie, performance or direction. So, no one should be surprised that the Cheryl Boone Isaacs “diversity” campaign against old and white Academy members has sparked an annual accounting of nominees and winners primarily on the basis of race, sex and sexual orientation.

This is not to say that irrational discrimination against blacks, women and gays does not exist in Hollywood. These are loaded, complicated and difficult problems to address. They are not solved by contests between works of art or manipulations of membership based on age, race, sex, sexuality or other factors. They are solved, as the inspiring Hidden Figures and the thoughtful and Oscar-ignored Sully, Loving and Snowden dramatize, through activism, discourse, challenging the status quo and, above all, as each of those movies demonstrates, by being one’s best.

By replacing the Oscars as a selection by members of the best works in movies with the most diverse works in movies, the Isaacs-era Academy and its orthodoxy make the Academy Awards less enjoyable. It’s not just that heavy-handed speeches by millionaires to the masses amid perpetual insider jokes and self-centered congratulations wear thin at a time of post-2008 discord, economic hardship and disunity over complex, confusing flashpoints such as unisex toilets, denunciations of police and whether health care is a right and everyone should be forced by the government to “buy” health insurance at rates and terms dictated by the state. For a moviegoing public beleaguered by nonstop Islamic terrorist attacks—in Tennessee, Texas, Florida, California, Massachusetts—and a radically restructured government now controlling the people with mass, indiscriminate surveillance and mandatory health plans and travel restrictions, the fixation on race and sex during the Oscars telecast—whether scrutiny on those grounds is warranted or not—takes some of the fun out of the Academy Awards. This fatigue, in turn, may lead to vulgar Oscar shows fixated on women’s breasts and other displays of political incorrectness.

So, I think it’s a cycle that spirals downward; the worse the culture, the more churchy the Oscars become and the reverse is true, too. Fatigue sets in for everyone and, I suspect, what almost everyone loves about the Oscars—the glamor and grandeur in toasting the best in movies—slowly, sadly whimpers to an end. Though last night’s show featured outstanding moments, including an eloquent and passionate argument for art by Oscar winner Viola Davis (Fences) and Sara Bareilles’ flawless and moving rendition of “Both Sides Now” in memoriam for those who’ve died, the Oscar fiasco exemplifies the cycle and fatigue. Whichever movie you wanted to win—the romantic, realistic homage to making your life a work of art La La Land or the bleak, stylized warning that life grants one brief moment under Moonlight—announcing the wrong Best Picture winner (Moonlight is the winner, according to the Academy) brought the cycle, fatigue and self-congrats to an abrupt and muddled conclusion. Through no fault of Moonlight‘s or La La Lands or presenters Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway, last night’s awards show ended in apology, confusion and comparison to a beauty contest. That the Academy left the question of whose picture is best to its presenter, host and false and true winners to figure out is an example of what happens when being the best—and getting who’s best right—matters less than which favored collective gets more power in reaching that outcome.

Movie Review: Get Out

The eerie Get Out piles up questions in a fast, steady and fragmented way that keeps an audience guessing what will happen to the black man at the center of this racially themed movie. Centered upon a young, interracial urban couple (Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya) going to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), the script by Jordan Peele, who directs his first feature film here, combines dark and violent themes with humor and comes up with a mildly entertaining movie. Get Out is so broad, derivative and cartoonish at times that it’s difficult to discern what to take seriously. The theme—intentionally or not—is segregationist, though very vaguely and in a way that the “bruh” generation might not notice.

Opening with black and white pictures of narrowly focused urban scenes such as a ferocious looking dog with his muzzle taken off, the bloodshed to come gets plenty of forewarning and this thriller earns most of the jump and jerk moments. Two black pals, one of whom is a photographer dating a white woman (the other’s a TSA worker), banter about the excursion, setting up the couple’s trip to the country to spend time with the white people. If you think about the premise, it is not realistic. But there’s enough truth in what the black characters fear to give Get Out the juice to sustain plausibility. The country home is creepy with clues to raise alarm. The conflict to come is not hard to guess.

An overbearing score and a mismatched, scrawny sibling character who appears to have stepped in out of a front porch scene in Deliverance doesn’t help and Get Out goes slap happier as it heads for a violent climax. Catatonic states of other black people on the family estate deepen the cause for concern, so much so that it’s hard to accept that anyone would stick around for more than an hour without taking the movie’s title at face value. The caricatured if romanticized TSA agent and Get Out‘s stereotyping black people as bumping fists and whites as shallow, condescending and worse pose problems. As the plot progresses—with nods to Marathon Man, The Stepford Wives and Motel Hell—it’s easier to spot what’s going to happen. Peele and company stoke suspense with bits of what comes off as dark humor, such as a line that “we keep a piece of her in here” and a bowl of Froot Loops, but the anti-interracial theme leaves buy-in remorse. An interesting policeman scene could have been developed to add depth and end on a note of racial harmony. But Get Out is a horror movie touched by satire and the cast, especially Keener, is fine in getting the audience to chuckle and feel scared. I don’t know whether audiences will take to the film’s big twist—I didn’t—but, either way, the disturbingly regressive Get Out gets in the head.

 

Three Interviews

Dion Neutra (photo by Scott Holleran)

Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles is a uniquely compact and inviting home where I first met Dion Neutra. I had spoken with and interviewed the noted architect, who studied and worked with his father, the late Richard Neutra, a few times for articles about modern architecture. The prospect of an extensive interview had previously been discussed though it hadn’t been conducted. This time, when Dion Neutra suggested that we meet for an interview, it was promptly scheduled. I drove to LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, parked and climbed the steep stairs. I soon met the man who made with his father some of America’s most distinctive and iconic homes and buildings. We sat in a dining room and talked for over an hour. Days later, we would toast to his 90th birthday and, later, talk again about a campaign to restore one of his father’s signature buildings, the Eagle Rock Clubhouse. During our exchange, we managed to cover a lifetime of memories, thoughts and details of his father, meeting Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kun house, World Trade Center, Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama and his childhood trauma in Silver Lake. I knew from previous talks that Neutra’s son and heir could be both eccentric and exhausting. This conversation is no exception. Read my exclusive interview with Dion Neutra.

Jim Brown, Ayn Rand Institute CEO

Another inheritance-themed opportunity for an exclusive talk recently presented itself when the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) named a new CEO. His name is Jim Brown and his background is in business, financial analysis and military leadership. Qualifications alone merited my interest and I immediately welcomed him to ARI and asked for an interview, which he kindly granted at his Irvine office. Though days into the job, he discussed plans, management philosophy and his favorite Leonard Peikoff works. As an Objectivist who first visited ARI as a teen when I took the bus to its office on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, who has worked and studied with ARI, I think Jim Brown is the right man for the job. So, I want my readers to read the interview and consider supporting ARI under Jim’s new and purposeful management. An edited transcript of my conversation with the center for Objectivism’s chief executive officer—Jim Brown’s first interview as ARI’s chief executive officer—appears on Capitalism Magazine (postscript: read a shorter version in the Los Angeles Times here).

And I am delighted that my favorite filmmaker—director Lasse Hallström—granted to me his only interview about his successful motion picture, A Dog’s Purpose, before returning to making Disney’s adaptation of the beloved Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. I am often enchanted by Mr. Hallström’s work. I always anticipate whatever he chooses to make. And I am privileged to have interviewed Lasse Hallström before. This time was particularly rewarding.

Lasse Hallström

Lightness in his pictures is perhaps the most indelible quality. Think of the French village in Chocolat or Venetian escapades in Casanova. The way he guides an ensemble cast to perfect union for an exalted or higher cinematic goal—around foodmaking in The Hundred-Foot Journey, liberation in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, serenity in An Unfinished Life, healing in The Shipping News, and the power of a dog to align man to what’s here and now in A Dog’s Purpose—should also be known. All of his movies, which began with his film about ABBA, are wonderfully musical including A Dog’s Purpose. But what, besides unity, love and lightness, is more pressing and relevant now than the seriousness with which he films his stories? This unique blend by a Swede who lives in America is often mistaken strictly as sweetness, which one should expect in a circus culture of cynics, celebrities and smears. The interview with Lasse Hallström, the artist who to me best expresses in today’s movies the American sense of life, is one I know I’ve earned and deserve.

I did not plan the pieces as a thematic trifecta, though it occurs to me that these three interviews explore man’s mastery of living in accordance with nature, man’s mastery of advancing the ideal and man’s mastery of recreating both in movies. Read, think and enjoy.

Richard Hatch

Richard Hatch has died of pancreatic cancer. The actor, who played Captain Apollo on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, was 71 years old. We met twice; once in St. Charles, Illinois, where, as a boy, he taught me a lesson in benevolence. The second time was over 35 years later at a cafe in Studio City, California, where we talked about the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, which was being discussed for a possible revival at Universal Studios (the interview is unpublished).

Richard Hatch

As a kid, I had been a fan of his work as a policeman on the ABC crime drama The Streets of San Francisco. Later, in the spring of 1977, when I found out Hatch was staying at the same resort where I was visiting with my family on spring break, I found him and asked for an autograph. Meeting an actor playing a dynamic young cop appealed to this suburban kid in the 1970s. I remember 1977 as strangely subdued yet also conflicted and turbulent. Nightly news was dominated by war, terrorism, domestic and foreign, hijackings, riots and constant dissent and debate over politics. So, I was drawn to cop shows. The Streets of San Francisco like KojakHawaii Five-O and Dragnet depicted the pursuit of justice as noble and important. They depicted a world in which peace was possible. Detectives proceeded to solve crime through investigation based on facts and going by reason. They were men of action. When Richard Hatch looked at me, listened and said Yes before signing his name, it affirmed more than my hero worship; his relaxed, amicable and accommodating manner showed me a certain kindness. I always remembered that he responded to my request with a quality more enduring than mere charm. He treated me as though asking for an autograph is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve had a number of formative encounters with VIPs—movie stars, sports champs, future presidents—that contributed to my ability to communicate with influencers. My childhood brush with Richard Hatch is one of the first.

I still have the autograph. When I interviewed him by phone in 2012, an extensive interview which covers the whole range of his career and is being quoted and cited in his obituaries, including the Hollywood Reporter‘s, I recounted the 1977 meeting and thanked him once again. He was still kind, if more seasoned and cautious, which I think is evident in the exchange. He was candid, too, and one of the things we discussed were his “abusive stepfathers” which added to my appreciation. When we met again—this time, as writer and actor, neither as a household name—he was indefatigable. And now I know that this is how I will remember him. To have been an actor, earned a livelihood and kept himself both whole and real, neither becoming beaten down nor neurotic and inflated, is an accomplishment. Richard Hatch, who remains known and beloved for single first, last and lone seasons of top programs as well as for touching countless lives including mine with his bright, positive attitude, was beautiful inside and out.


Read my interview with Richard Hatch (2012)

Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderfully rendered fairy tale from Hollywood’s most magical filmmaker. I laughed, I cried, and I thought about “the meaning of life” as the opening line of the movie asks the audience to do. This is such a rare combination in movies—and people, especially show business people, go on about how Hollywood used to make light and intelligent pictures and bemoan that they’re not like that anymore—that this Universal film, made with Amblin, Walden and others and based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, deserves 100 percent support.

The best pictures often don’t get what they deserve and A Dog’s Purpose, with a target on it from a group opposed to almost any relationship between pets and humans from the start, is one of them, which I know firsthand. In fact, when the smear campaign against the movie was launched, courtesy of a selectively edited video released for distribution through a trashy website, its own stakeholders were effectively shamed into submission, burying heads in the sand, dodging questions and queries for clarification and cancelling the movie’s premiere. Those who spoke out in defense of the movie, including one of each of its writers, actors and producers and the director, Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), either came off as defensive or as if they were almost apologizing for the movie in advance. Josh Gad (TV’s The Comedians and Frozen), who does the voice of the dogs, took the bait and denounced purported footage in a controversial video rather than back the movie. Almost no one—not Universal, Amblin or Walden, or Mr. Hallström—chose to condemn the smear campaign, which sanctioned the flawed premise of the attack (that a picture, or pictures that are edited and arranged, is an argument) and passively legitimized a disturbing and potentially dangerous trend against the exercise of free speech. Going to see a movie should not require an act of bravery.

This time, I bought my own ticket on principle. I was joined by another guest when he found out I was going to see A Dog’s Purpose and I was asked again by two friends if they could come, too. The audience at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas was lively and diverse. They were mostly families with young children, single men and single women, seated separately and alone, and couples or groups of friends like us.

Like most of his movies, which are some of the most life-affirming movies ever made, director Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose plays to everyone capable of kindness, love and rationality. With a sharp and searching narration, as in An Unfinished Life and his seminal adaptation of John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules, intersecting plot lines and multiple characters converge into one poignant point about the whole of one’s life. The action starts, however, with themes of ownership, tagging and naming and what a dog uniquely means to a boy. The particular boy (Bryce Gheisar) to whom this dog first belongs reads comics and books about characters such as Captain America and Tom Sawyer and he grows into a fine teen-ager (K.J. Apa, TV’s Riverdale).

The wholesome, unspoiled quality of the boy’s character adds to the film’s conflict and grounds the movie’s other characters and subplots, building on subtle and gently delivered themes about dog people as peculiar, sad and lonely, and out of step with others, introverted and perhaps deferential to others, too. It’s a keen insight which is easily overlooked amid the dog tales, pathos and humor.

But it’s this type of skillfully woven idea that stirs one’s thoughts and moves one’s emotions in A Dog’s Purpose. So many of these tender truths dot the trail with wisdom, warmth and depth, such as a girl (Britt Robertson, Dan in Real Life, Tomorrowland) winning a prize for herself at a shooting gallery, a hardworking Midwestern father who slowly yet understandably lets himself go or a kid who’s jealous of the star quarterback. Then, there are the short but intelligent, clever or hilarious takes on the rivalry with cats, the sights and aromas of farms, or the irony of overindulging in hot dogs. That’s not to include how a dog’s hard work liberates a stoic policeman. Or that a dog’s companionship aligns in love and life with a college student. Along the multiple incarnations of a dog’s life, imaginatively depicted as foraging for a dog’s purpose, cultural points pop up—a Dynasty smackdown in the 1980s, guns in the 1970s, folk music in the 1960s—and A Dog’s Purpose comes in stunning pictures of a morning fog at the farm, a depressed home with an impoverised dog chained to a post, a happy dog bounding through the field to greet his master. It’s as sentimental as life and I suppose that if A Dog’s Purpose comes off as overly sentimental—a common complaint about Lasse Hallström’s moviesit’s in direct proportion to one’s own cynicism, as usual. This movie is treasure in every scene even when you see the scene coming.

With a cast including The Mod Squad‘s Peggy Lipton and Truth‘s Dennis Quaid in his finest performance since Far From Heaven—and a nice companion role to his quarterback Mike in Breaking AwayA Dog’s Purpose leaps from the screen with wonder, twists and an unequivocal answer to the meaning of life. In what may be his best movie since Chocolat, Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose routes life’s loneliness into the chilling, wrenching and marvelous experience of owning and having a dog and with the reward you would almost certainly come to expect.