Tag Archives: John Travolta

HBO’s Scientology Documentary is Credible, Astonishing

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Three stars (out of four)
Not rated
119 minutes
(HBO has been rerunning the documentary for those who missed Sunday’s premiere. The film will inevitably be released for home viewing, although no date has been announced.)

I’ve never been a member of the Church of Scientology. I’ve never been “audited.” I’ve never been compelled to part with large sums of money so I can move up “The Bridge.” I’ve never been intimidated or abused or harassed by disciples of that dubious religion.

Despite my lack of firsthand experience, for most of my life, I’ve been riveted, with a mixture of fear and fascination, by the sensational rumors that swirl around Scientology. So, of course, I couldn’t wait to see HBO’s documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”

In the late ’80s, my dad took the family on our first official sightseeing trip to Hollywood. Among the bizarre points of interest we encountered were friendly people armed with funny-looking gadgets, offering free “stress tests,” or E-Meter readings, to passersby.

In response to our questions, my father regaled us with tales of the mysterious religion/cult known as the Church of Scientology. During a career in advertising, he’d met several former members who recounted harrowing tales of harassment after “escaping” the church — bullets left in mailboxes, shady characters lurking in cars outside suburban houses, sinister acts that sounded like something from a movie.

Later, as an entertainment reporter, I had my own brief but strange encounter with Scientology.

The newspaper I worked for received a press release announcing an event at Willow Springs International Raceway featuring the Dianetics motorcycle racing team. I was dispatched to cover the event because several celebrities were expected to attend, including “King of Queens” star Leah Remini. (Remini has since become an outspoken critic of Scientology.)

Despite the fact that it was Saturday and I was sick and the raceway was no short distance from my home in Lancaster, I dutifully dragged myself to Rosamond to interview Remini and friends. When I arrived at the track, there were no celebrities to be found, only a cheery publicist who handed me a free copy of Dianetics and explained that Ms. Remini was stuck in traffic.

As the minutes ticked by with nary a recognizable Hollywood personality in sight, she suggested I interview some of the racers instead. Out of politeness, I agreed, listening to enthusiastic personal testimonies detailing how Scientology had helped these guys overcome problems, like conquering fear and tight curves on the racetrack.

After several hours passed, it became apparent that Leah Remini was never going to show up, despite the publicist’s insistence the actress was only a few minutes away. I began to wonder if the promise of her appearance was a lie from the very beginning.

As one church member after another was trotted out to recount to me the life-changing benefits of Scientology, I was overcome with the suspicion that the entire event had been staged simply for the purpose of proselytizing unsuspecting rookie journalists.

After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to make my excuses and break free, hightailing it back to the office with a story to tell my editor and the lingering sensation that I had only narrowly escaped this unexpected, vaguely creepy situation.

Maybe that’s why I found it easy to give credence to the bold, often horrifying allegations in “Going Clear.”  Based on a book by Lawrence Wright, the documentary first created a stir in January at the Sundance Film Festival. After a limited theatrical release, it premiered Sunday on HBO to a viewership of 1.7 million. That’s the biggest audience for one of the network’s docs since 2006’s “When the Levees Broke,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The fact that most of the accusations in “Going Clear” cannot be corroborated, thanks largely to the Church of Scientology’s notorious secrecy, doesn’t make the film any less credible or shocking.

Veteran documentarian Alex Gibney has a way of quietly creeping up on his topic, saving the more astonishing revelations for the end of the film. It’s an insidiously clever approach. The film’s gradually escalating flow of revelations is calculated for maximum impact.

“Going Clear” begins predictably with a history of Scientology and its creator, science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Gibney’s portrait of Hubbard relies heavily on the recollections of the writer’s ex-wife, Sarah Northup, who claims her former spouse once kidnapped her child and kept the girl in a cage. Northup also recalls that Hubbard was obsessed with creating a religion so he could enjoy the profits tax-free.

Gibney paints a colorful picture of Hubbard that is so bizarre, it’s difficult to deny the man was anything but completely bonkers. It makes director Paul Thomas Anderson’s roman a clef “The Master” seem tame in comparison to the apparent reality.

If you’ve spent any time reading about or researching Scientology, there’s nothing terribly surprising about much of this information, or the details of the religion’s wackier tenets, including a creation myth involving an alien overlord named Xenu and extraterrestrial spirits that cling to human hosts, causing them psychological trauma.

“Going Clear” really starts kicking butt and taking names when Gibney delves into a series of face-to-face interviews with eight former high-level members of the church. On-camera appearances by present or past members are a rarity and these “talking heads” have a lot of damning things to say about the religion’s alleged history of abuse, physical violence, manipulation, blackmail, fraud and cult-like lack of transparency.

“Crash” director Paul Haggis recalls being innocently sucked into the church while beginning his screenwriting career, claiming that members are kept in the dark for years about Scientology’s absurd core philosophies.

A publicist who was once a respected member of Hubbard’s elite Sea Org operation and a friend of celebrity Scientologist John Travolta remembers undergoing weeks of church-mandated rehabilitation that involved imprisonment and forced labor. She was pregnant at the time.

Several former church officials admit to participating in lies, intimidation, cover-ups and blackmail using scandalous personal information culled during the intense auditing sessions members are encouraged to undergo.

The jaw-dropping highlight of the film comes when Gibney actually has the guts to call out two of Scientology’s most famous ambassadors — Travolta and Tom Cruise — for their complicity in the church’s corrupt practices.

The doc goes so far as to allege that Scientologists conspired to break up Cruise and ex-wife Nicole Kidman and entertainingly addresses some of the crazier rumors that surfaced shortly before Cruise’s infamous couch-jumping phase.

“Going Clear” also goes after Hubbard’s successor, Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, a charismatic figure of controversy whose alleged ruthless and paranoid tactics are credited with filling the church’s coffers even while depleting its membership.

If even a handful of the misdeeds described in “Going Clear” are true, then the Church of Scientology’s tax exempt status should be revoked immediately, as suggested in the film.

And we, as a society, should scrutinize this so-called religion with sharper eyes, instead of dismissing it as merely harmless and eccentric.

Photo: http://www.sundance.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Travolta’s Face Grab, A ‘Glory’-ious Speech and Other Oscar Highs and Lows

In many ways, Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony was so forgettable, it hardly feels worth rehashing Hollywood’s big night.

It’s not exactly a shock that ratings for the 87th installment of the show dropped to a six-year low. Can you blame viewers for changing the channel during what was often a dull and disappointing evening?

Despite a surprisingly lackluster performance by host extraordinaire Neil Patrick Harris, an abundance of awkward puns and some creepy presenter shenanigans, there were a few moments of genuine delight, including heartfelt speeches and a refreshingly wacky rendition of the song from “The Lego Movie.”

Below, a recap of the low points and highlights of this year’s Oscars.

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The Low Points

The Host: I’m as big a fan of the ubiquitous Neil Patrick Harris as the next person. The classy, hilarious, self-deprecating former child actor is always a welcome sight, whether in “How I Met Your Mother,” the “Harold and Kumar” movies, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a Broadway musical or one of his countless stints as awards show emcee.

So Harris’ almost total failure in his first — and probably last — stint as Oscar host came as a crushing disappointment.

It wasn’t really his fault, though. The show was disjointed, badly written, poorly paced and woefully out of touch.

For whatever reason, the ceremony’s writers declined to capitalize on Harris’ strengths, resorting to a series of leaden puns and occasionally insensitive ad-libbed banter. Making fun of a winner’s dress after she just mentioned her son’s suicide probably isn’t the best choice, for instance.

The night’s longest running gag involved a dramatic magic trick that should have been right up Harris’ alley. But enlisting previous Oscar winner Octavia Harris to keep an eye on a locked box all night verged on insulting and, after a whole lot of build-up, the illusion’s finale was a huge letdown, merely a recap of the evening’s hashtag-worthy events.

Yes, there were occasionally funny bits. I liked the part where Harris walked through the audience in nothing but tighty whities, a la Michael Keaton’s “Birdman” character, encountering a drumming Miles Teller along the way, but I’m guessing a large portion of viewers didn’t get the joke since they hadn’t seen the films.

Overall, the evening felt strained and “uptight,” as several guests at an Oscar party I attended remarked. The Academy still has a long way to go to make Hollywood’s most celebrated awards show more relevant and entertaining to its biggest audience — everyone who doesn’t happen to be an industry insider.

As J.K. Simmons’ terrifying music instructor likes to shout in best picture nominee “Whiplash”: “NOT MY TEMPO!”

John Travolta and Other Awkward/Insensitive Moments: I already mentioned Harris’ callous mockery of the dress worn by a producer of a documentary about crisis hotlines, who also happened to be a bereaved mother.

Sadly, Sunday’s Oscars were full of other painfully awkward and insensitive gaffs.

There was Sean Penn’s joke about green cards before presenting one of the night’s biggest awards to “Birdman” director Gabriel Gonzalez Inarritu. There was Terrence Howard’s strange and overly emotional introduction of “The Imitation Game.” There was Harris’ mispronunciation of “12 Years a Slave” star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name.

However, the most jaw-dropping embarrassment occurred in the ill-advised union of “Frozen” star Idina Menzel and John Travolta, who shared the stage to present the award for best original song. As you may recall, Travolta became a Twitter legend after bungling Menzel’s name at last year’s Oscar ceremony, spawning legions of “Adele Dazeem” jokes.

The show’s producers no doubt thought it would be touching, or perhaps funny, to give Travolta the opportunity to extend an olive branch to Menzel, but their meeting quickly devolved into ickiness as Travolta grabbed his co-presenter’s chin in his hand while she vainly struggled to be free of his grasp.

That’s the stuff of ratings and social media fame, but it also left a yucky taste in our mouths.

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The Highlights

The Music: The ceremony opened with a lively, old-fashioned, Sondheim-esque musical number by seasoned showman Harris, the talented Anna Kendrick — dressed as Cinderella, a la “Into the Woods,” and an impish Jack Black.

Penned by “Frozen” songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, the piece celebrated the magic of “moving pictures,” poking fun at the Academy Awards and paying homage to classic and popular films.

The lyrics were playful and clever — “I love happy endings. Except for in ‘Gone Girl’ when that lady slit your throat,” Kendrick crooned to Harris — and even got a little edgy when Black crashed the party with a roll call of the industry’s flaws and a jab at modern moviegoers’ obsession with “screens in our jeans.” It was a nice twist on the traditional song-and-dance prologue we’ve come to expect from the show.

Building on that momentum, Tegan and Sara and comedy trio The Lonely Island hit the stage to perform best song nominee “Everything is Awesome” in a performance so surreal and fun, it immediately provided the event a much needed jolt of energy.

“The Lego Movie” may have been snubbed in the best animated feature film category, but it stole the night with a Lego choir, Lego Oscar statuettes, an assortment of costumed dancers, a cape-wearing Andy Samberg, Will Arnett as Batman and cameos by Questlove and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh.

Unfortunately, the moment didn’t last. The rest of the night’s musical performances were a snooze with the exception of John Legend and Common’s rousing rendition of “Glory,” from the movie “Selma.” The winning song brought the Dolby Theatre to its feet and tears to the eyes of many, including Chris Pine, whose effusive reaction became Twitter fodder.

As for Lady Gaga’s impressive but random tribute to “The Sound of Music,” it was just another head-scratching moment in a ceremony that too often felt confused and cobbled together. Better to have used the time to give host Harris a chance to show his stuff.

The Speeches: In a telecast that lacked humor and energy, with predictable results in all but the minor categories, the winners’ speeches provided brief glimmers of passion, inspiration and controversy.

Accepting the best supporting actor award for “Whiplash,” J.K. Simmons sweetly commanded the viewing audience to call their parents. Best actress and actor winners Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne dedicated their statuettes to sufferers of Alzheimer’s and ALS, respectively.

Best director winner Inarritu petitioned for “dignity” and “respect” for immigrants. The adorably enthusiastic Graham Norton, who nabbed a trophy for his screenplay for “The Imitation Game,” recalled a youthful suicide attempt and admonished misfit kids to “stay weird.”

Best song winners Common and John Legend showed us how acceptance speeches should be done with a pair of graceful statements about civil rights.

“The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status,” Common said, referring to Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, immortalized by Martin Luther King Jr.

“The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the south side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.”

“Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” Legend added.

One of the night’s most talked-about speeches came courtesy of best supporting actress Patricia Arquette, who honored her “Boyhood” character, a struggling single mom, with a demand for equal pay for women. Her statement was met with both enthusiasm — Meryl Streep leaped to her feet to show her approval — and outrage.

Whether you agreed with Streep or not, you had to admit it was one of the night’s most memorable occasions.

 Photos: news.com.au, article.wn.com, robot6.comicbookresources.com.

 

 

From Lupita’s Dress to ‘Adele Dazeem,’ Musings on Hollywood’s Big Night

For some of us — I’ll admit, a very small segment of the population — the Oscars are like the Super Bowl. We spend months speculating about the nominations, making sure we’ve seen the films, taking our best shot at who will go home with the gold on the big night. And now that Sunday’s ceremony is over, the trophies handed out, the designer gowns worn, the after-party champagne sipped, there is still a lot to talk about. Here are some thoughts.

1. After establishing herself as a fashion icon throughout the awards season with her simple but bold choices, best supporting actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o unveiled her pièce de résistance at the Academy Awards, creating a sensation in her floaty, pale blue Prada gown. This stunning dress is destined to go down in red carpet history and stood in tasteful and fanciful contrast to some of the night’s more bizarre sartorial moments — Anne Hathaway wearing a chandelier, Liza Minnelli in silk pajamas and Whoopi Goldberg as flapper/geisha/Seinfeld’s puffy shirt/Wicked Witch of the  West.

Nyong’o’s gown couldn’t have been more appropriate for her fairy tale moment when she took the podium to claim the prize for her harrowing work in “12 Years a Slave.” Her acceptance speech was one of the highlights of the evening, heartfelt, brimming with joy and elation.

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said. “And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own. … When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

Moments like these are the reason we watch the Oscars.

2. Was it just me or were there an inordinate amount of awkward Teleprompter related gaffes during this year’s ceremony?

When  it came to reading their lines, so many presenters stumbled — metaphorically, except in the case of Jennifer Lawrence, who continued her tradition of taking a fall while wearing sky-high heels.

Silver screen legends Kim Novak and Sidney Poitier really needed their glasses. Zac Efron botched his scripted patter. Even host Ellen DeGeneres flubbed, calling actor Christoph Waltz “Christopher.” There were so many awkward moments, but none of them quite as hilarious as when John Travolta introduced “Frozen” star Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem.”

His error has turned into something of a social media sensation. Slate even concocted this hilarious name generator based on the goof.

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/low_concept/2014/03/john_travolta_called_idina_menzel_adele_dazeem_what_s_your_travolta_name.html

All of this makes me wonder. Did anyone actually rehearse before the ceremony?

3. Matthew McConaughey’s win for a role that demanded a transformation of career and body in “Dallas Buyers Club” wasn’t exactly a surprise, but his resulting comments are now the talk of Tinseltown. Many people were delighted by his mention of God, gratitude and family. Others, like me, were baffled by his improvisational style.

In regard to a higher power, McConaughey said, “When you’ve got God, you got a friend. And that friend is you.”

In reference to his dearly departed dad: “To my father who, I know he’s up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there. He’s probably in his underwear. And he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite and he’s dancing right now.”

And then he pretty much shattered his previous humility by declaring himself his own hero. Well, sort of.

“I’m never gonna be my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not, and that’s just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.”

It was all only slightly less surreal than his Screen Actors Guild Awards speech, in which he made wacky reference to the planet Neptune, or his remarks at the Golden Globes, which revealed that apparently his wife calls him her “king.”

Whatever your reaction, you have to admit there’s never a dull moment when this guy takes the stage.

4. A spirited Cate Blanchett accepted her trophy for “Blue Jasmine” with the immortal words, “Julia, hashtag suck it!,” referring somewhat cryptically to Julia Roberts.

More memorably, she called out a male dominated Hollywood on the woeful lack of satisfying roles for women, slamming those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

It needed to be said.

5. After last year’s poorly received performance by host Seth MacFarlane, whose caustic and sometimes offensive schtick rubbed Hollywood the wrong way, the Oscar producers’ pendulum predictably swung to another extreme in the form of the ever likable, always pleasant DeGeneres.

Don’t get me wrong. Hosting for a second time, Ellen was great, cultivating a playful atmosphere with gentle jabs at celebs during her opening monologue. She treated the bejeweled audience to pizza, stole Nyong’o’s lip balm and coaxed Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep and other luminaries into posing for that now famous selfie.

Despite her best efforts, however, this year’s ceremony often felt tedious and tame. There were few surprises when it came to the winners — “Gravity” dominated with seven trophies; “12 Years a Slave” took the best picture prize — and only a handful of moments that resonated with the genuine emotion that keep Oscar viewers coming back for more.

This year’s theme was dedicated to movie heroes, but the ensuing montages were so generic they barely registered. Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the traditional In Memoriam segment and received one of several overeager standing ovations, but considering the song is more than 30 years old, it was a strangely stale choice.

Ultimately, the 86th Academy Awards were done in by a stultifyingly conservative aura. Nobody ever got the gold by playing it safe.