Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts On Expanding The Best Picture Oscar Nominees

And the Losers Are All of Us...

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is the grand title of the organization best known for the Oscars (they are called the Academy Awards). In their 81+ year history, it's not surprising that they've made a few mistakes apart from whether Louise Rainer merited two back-to-back competitive awards or its failure to ever nominate Myrna Loy.

Now, the Academy has decided to have ten Best Picture nominees next year up from the standard five, though all other categories will remain at minimum 3, maximum 5.

I suspect the increase came because of the criticism the Academy got when The Dark Knight did not get a Best Picture nomination. There had been speculation that it would, and it did earn seven nominations with two wins. However, because it didn't get one for the Top Prize, certain circles believed the ceremony was now tainted.

Now that there will be ten, there will be a greater chance that films like The Dark Knight, popular films that were hits with both critics and the public, will get nominated and perhaps even win.

However, the Academy needs to be careful what it wishes for. With the field opened wider, there will be a greater chance that second-rate films will find their way into the running. All that one will need to get a not-so-good or even a bad film nominated are enough votes and enough muscle & pressure from the studios or companies. If people think Harvey Weinstein stole Best Picture from Saving Private Ryan in favor of Shakespeare in Love, just think what could happen when you get double the shot of getting your flop into the mix.
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If you think about how the campaigns for such notorious flops as Doctor Dolittle and Hello, Dolly! got them Best Picture nominations (and how dangerously close they came to actually winning) you will see how this move won't guarantee nominations or wins for films like The Dark Knight or Dreamgirls.

It will only end up splitting the vote among more films, and the Academy may be in the embarrassing position of ranking something like a Pearl Harbor or a Transformers alongside Lawrence of Arabia or Schindler's List, Casablanca or The Godfather. For those who hate the idea that Gladiator beat out Traffic or The Greatest Show on Earth won over The Quiet Man, just think what will happen when people vote for the most popular film over a smaller film that might be better in terms of quality.

In short, it's a cynical ploy to boost ratings. The idea is with more popular films in the running, more people will watch. There is a certain merit to that thinking: one of the lowest-rated Oscars was when the critically-beloved but public-rejected No Country for Old Men won, while one of the highest was when Titanic overwhelmed its competition.

This might only end up blowing up in the Academy's face. I suspect it will go no longer than this year, five at the most. I think it will bring ratings down in the long run (if it brings them a short-term gain at all).

If the Academy wants to get higher ratings, it would help if Hollywood gets around to making good films that don't insult the audience's intelligence, films that don't cater to 14-year-old boys, and/or films that don't lecture us. It will help if the studios break away from group-think and aren't afraid to make films that won't break box-office records but will earn them a good reputation. Watchmen was the number one film when it opened, but it came and went fast. Money isn't everything.

Tragically, Hollywood has become too isolated from its audience, and rather than fix the internal problems (overpaid stars, underwritten scripts, lazy formula films, endless prequels/sequels), they focus on external matters ranging from "Passion dollars" (catering films to Christians with weak biblical trappings) to enlarging the Best Picture nominees to ten.

I have one question for the AMPAS: if you're going to bump up the Best Picture nominees, will you also bring back the traditional "And the winner is..." to replace the "And the Oscar goes to..." or are you more concerned about hurting the non-winners feelings than you are about your reputation?

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April 2019 Update: Two years after this post, the Academy shifted Best Picture slightly to having anywhere from five to ten nominees and to shift to a preferential ballot vote where the film that had 50% + 1 votes would win versus the one with the most overall votes.

I was wrong in my prediction that the Academy would abandon the expanded list, and most of us have grown to accept it even if we may not support it.

As for my prediction that it might come back to haunt the Academy, that seems to be bearing some fruit. All those enraged that Green Book won Best Picture over such things as Roma or BlacKkKlansman should note that this decision would end up with results like this. Best Picture now is more a consensus film than one that gets the most votes. Granted, there were other elements in Green Book's win, but on the whole it winning should not have been a surprise.

Finally, with Black Panther being the first comic book-based film nominated, the expanded field has indeed done some of what it was meant to do, even if for some time the Academy has ended up nominating and awarding more obscure films versus less obscure films.

The Shape of Water.

I have issues with two of the three, but whatever their merits it is hard to see those being watched repeatedly the way Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca or The Godfather are.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Up (2009): A Review (Review #11)


A Lovely Flight of Fancy...

I find it curious that American filmgoers think animation is a purely children's genre. My theory is that people think animated films are the same as the cartoons they watched on Saturday morning. This might explain why parents took their progeny to watch UP, the latest Disney/Pixar collaboration, and why some people may avoid it. Truth is, UP is one of the truest films made this year: a beautiful, thoughtful, mournful and ultimately uplifting film (no pun intended).

UP begins with an old-style newsreel telling the exploits of Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an explorer who is determined to prove the existence of a bird after the skeleton of the animal he brings back is declared a fraud. Muntz is still a hero to Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner), a child who dreams of having similar adventures in the wild. Carl meets Ellie, a girl who shares and even exceeds his passion for Muntz-worship, and soon we see they marry and build a life together.

Tragically, Ellie dies, and their dreams of going to Paradise Falls together die with her. Carl, alone, continues to live in the house they shared while major construction goes around his house. He is interrupted in his mourning by Russell (Jordan Nagal), an eager Wilderness Explorer who wants to help Mr. Fredericksen in order to get his final badge, which is the "Assisting the Elderly" badge. Carl wants nothing to do with him or anyone really. An incident forces Carl to be sent to a retirement home, but on the day he is suppose to leave, he takes all the balloons he has and literally pulls up stakes to fulfill the shared dreams of living beside Paradise Falls.

Unfortunately, he didn't count on Russell accidentally being carried away along with the house.

They do make it to the falls but the wrong side. Together, they trek toward Carl's goal, using their body weight to carry the house to the right side, only to be sidetracked by a large bird whom Russell takes to his heart and calls Kevin despite Russell not realizing that the bird is female. They also encounter Dug, a sweet albeit slightly dumb dog with a talking collar that allows him to communicate with them.

They discover Muntz is still very much alive and unhinged in his quest for the bird. Carl realizes Kevin is that bird, and that Muntz is no hero but instead quite insane and will stop at nothing to get at them.

UP is more than an adventure story with a fantastical premise. It really is about life, and how it goes on even when we lose people important to us. Each of the characters has a loss in their life: Carl his wife, Russell his father, and they find that while the people they would want to be there may not be, there are others who can be there for them.

More than anything, UP continues in the Pixar tradition of making the most human of animated characters. They continue to show just how important it is to care about your characters. We care about Carl and Russell; we even care about Kevin and Dug. Although they are computer-generated, they have more emotion than John Conner in Terminator: Salvation or Logan in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Neither of those films, with their large budget and louder explosions, has the power of UP.

When Carl takes his house up into the air, it is an extraordinarily beautiful moment on film, which is a rarity these days. The opening itself is a beautiful montage that says so much about Carl and Ellie without having to use words, and near the end we get another beautiful montage.

Carl is finally at the right side of Paradise Falls, and he begins to look at the scrapbook his wife kept, My Adventure Book. Before, it had been a collection of her early life with space left over for "Stuff I'm Going to Do". He looks at it mournfully, but then he discovers these formerly blank pages are filled...filled with their life together. At the end, there's a message from Ellie, telling him their life together was an adventure, now go and find the next one. Even now, it's one of the most moving and beautiful scenes I've seen all year.

Not enough credit has been given to Michael Giacchino's beautiful score . It's reminiscent of the music for another film that features flying balloons: Victor Young's Oscar-winning score for Around the World in 80 Days. I hope that the Academy will remember the music come nominating time. It seems clear that UP is a sure bet to win Best Animated Feature. It just seems a shame that it might be overlooked for Best Picture. True, it is too soon to make those kinds of predictions, but UP is the best film I've seen all year.

Ultimately, UP is about the importance of human connection, the importance of love both giving and receiving, and, to quote Peter Pan, about how "living is an awfully big adventure".


Friday, June 12, 2009

White Christmas: A Review (Review #10)


That Old White Christmas Has Me In Its Spell...

I have never liked Danny Kaye. Perhaps that is why I had not seen White Christmas until now. I now see how wrong I was to have waited so long just because I have a dislike for one of the stars. What I found was a sweet, charming, light, and delightful musical, one that is unashamed in its desire to entertain and doing it so well.

In Christmas 1944 on the European front, Captain/song-and-dance man Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is entertaining the troops along with Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). Davis saves his life  and from that schemes his way into making the already-established Wallace make him his showbiz partner. After the war, the double-act is a hit, and they get into producing. As part of that work, they scout the Haynes Sisters act, Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney). Judy and Phil are apparently in cahoots to get Betty and Bob together, and Bob is hoodwinked into going to a Vermont ski resort with the girls.

Coincidentally (as coincidentally as any musical would make it), the inn is run by their former commanding general who's fallen on hard times. The old Army buddies decide to put on a show to help the general out. Soon romance begins for Bob & Betty (love the names), but, in the tradition of all good musical comedies, a classic case of misunderstanding takes place that separates the lovers. Eventually, it's all cleared up, allowing the lovers to reunite and sing White Christmas one more time.

White Christmas gleefully is what it pretends to be: a film where the plot is just an excuse to have big musical numbers and revel in the non-reality of them. Take the number Snow. Here, the leads sing in a dining train car about what they're going to do when they get to the lodge and see 'snow'. It's so nice to see a film where people sing to describe their plans without it being considered odd and being unapologetic about it. Writers Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank trust the audience to know they are not trying to be 'realistic' and to go along with the ride.

It is hard to believe that there could be a barn in Vermont big enough to host such a lavish number like the Minstrel medley, complete with sets and a full orchestra with backup dancers. Like other musicals of its time, it wasn't going for strict logic as it was for entertainment value. In this, it is a brilliant success.

As a side note, the Minstrel number has no blackface, which is a relief.

It's obvious in the film that Crosby is not a dancer. He certainly wouldn't have been able to do the The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing number that is a showcase for Kaye and Vera-Ellen. However, he certainly shows his charm with his duet with Clooney in Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep). Clooney has her own highlight with Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me, looking so elegant as she sings of a broken heart. Both versions of Sisters with Clooney/Vera-Ellen and Crosby/Kaye are excellent, and the latter a moment for Crosby to match comic skills with Kaye.

White Christmas also has the always reliable Mary Wickes as the general's wife. It is also more evidence for the case that director Michael Curtiz should be thought of with higher regard and should be remembered by people as a master of all genres.

My only slight complaint is the Choreography number. It reminds me why I find Kaye so irritating. His habit of making faces, his vocalization and rubbery body movements that many find endearing I only find annoying. Still, that's a minor issue that I'm willing to overlook.

White Christmas the movie is exactly like White Christmas the song: sweet, gentle, and nostalgic. White Christmas is a beautiful, lovely film. As for Danny Kaye? I'm still not a fan, but I gladly make an exception in this case.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Marnie: A Review


Tippi Cannot, And Hitchcock Too...

Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock's followup to The Birds, has a few things to recommend it. However, I would consider it a minor Hitchcock film. It was as if he tried to bring another version of Spellbound in terms of plot and greatness but ended up with another version of Suspicion.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is a thief who has robbed her employers of thousands of dollars to help her mother and keep a horse, her only indulgence. Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) is the head of the company she's planning her next heist on. She eventually commits the planned robbery, but Rutland is on to her and blackmails her into marrying him. Once married, she wants nothing to do with him, repulsed by his touch and disgusted by even the suggestion of sex with him.

Mark recognizes that Marnie has some secret that even she's not fully aware of. Eventually, after a horse-riding accident, he cajoles her and her mother into discovering the strange history of Marnie, and now that the truth has set her free, she and Mark can start a life together.

There are certainly signs that Hitchcock is still a visual craftsman of the first rank. When we first see Marnie's face, it's a pure vision of exquisite beauty, accentuated by Bernard Herrmann's beautiful score. Another flash of genius is when Marnie finally pulls of her heist. In the scene, she is suppose to be alone, but we see in the wide shot that parallel to her is a cleaning lady. When Marnie starts to leave, she realizes there may be a witness. She takes her heels off and tiptoes out, but we see her shoe start to slip out. Hitchcock builds up the tension beautifully.

However, there are problems. This was Tippi Hedren's second film, and while she was excellent in The Birds here she seems a little out of place, a bit lost. I don't think it's fair to fault her for this: she was doing her best with little experience. Connery, however, is a different matter.

He had much experience in film and on the stage, and in Marnie he is oddly cold and remote, without any passion or in some cases, interest in his performance. The phrase "phoning it in" seems apt. Connery is a first-rate actor, but his has to be one of his weaker performances.

The performances themselves aren't central to the issues Marnie has. The story is a bit odd. Mark doesn't appear at any time to be in love with Marnie, so why would he want to marry her? His motives are even more strange when you consider Marnie absolutely wants nothing to do with him sexually. On their honeymoon she is physically revolted at the thought of a kiss, and I couldn't help but wonder if she had been horribly abused  or maybe even a lesbian.

Still, there has to be a reason why she's so repulsed by the idea of going to bed with him that she would try to drown herself in a pool. It would have made more sense to either turn her in or just have someone following her. It doesn't help that some scenes such as the fox hunt or when Connery is suppose to be looking down a hall searching for Marnie are obviously fake with unconvincing effects and poor sets.

There is one good thing in Marnie: Bernard Herrmann's beautiful score. The title music and the music for the fox hunt are especially good and memorable. The soundtrack is worth getting, and it's unfortunate that both the studio and Hitchcock disliked it given it's about the only strength Marnie has.

Ultimately, Marnie can't compare to the films that came before. In the final analysis, Marnie the movie was like Marnie the character: cold, distant, remote. I love Hitchcock, but Marnie appears to be the start of Hitchcock's slow descent.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Made of Honor: A Review (Review #8)


It's Not Love.  It's Codependency...

It is a truth universally acknowledged in modern romantic comedies that a man can screw all the women he wants because every woman he meets not only wants to get screwed by him but believes she should be treated like a bargain basement hooker in exchange for the pleasure of his time.

This has been a curious trend in what passes for rom-coms, one where the male lead is catnip for women, all women want him, and the only one that has some sense of pride and/or brains eventually will learn her life was empty and meaningless until she finally falls to his charms. Then and only then will she discover that Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.

Made of Honor is in that vein, but curiously, it goes one worse in making everyone either incredibly dumb or incredibly narcissistic.

Tom (Patrick Dempsey) meets Hannah (Michelle Monaghan) in college in the cutest way: he tries to practically rape her. Actually, he's just trying to have sex with her roommate who had agreed to meet him in her room and mistook Hannah for the other girl. Hannah's horrified, Tom merely confused. It's this night that a friendship emerges between Tom & Hannah.  Tom's invention of the coffee collar will award him a massive fortune.

Fast forward ten years. Hannah looks on with bemused disapproval on Tom's many, many, many affairs with women eager to be treated like doormats just for a chance to spend a night with him. She seems happy to accompany him everywhere, even to his father Thomas Senior's (Sydney Pollack) sixth wedding. Shortly afterwards, Hannah's job as an art restorer finally has her leave Tom's side for six weeks in Scotland.

In that time, Tom falls apart: he can't find any other woman who knows what he likes to snack on or take a bit of cake from her plate. He goes so far as to wake her at 3 in the morning just so he can tell her banalities. With her absence, Tom realizes he's in love with her. He'll tell her once she returns, but she comes back engaged, and engaged to Colin McMurray (Kevin McKidd). Being her best friend, Hannah asks Tom to be her Maid of Honor (hence the pun of the title) and he agrees, just for the chance to ruin her wedding and, to quote his buddies, "steal the bride". Hilarity and hijinks ensue.

Let's start by asking the obvious question: why would these two want to be friends let alone best friends with the other? Tom's never treated any woman with a modicum of respect, while Hannah should be independent enough to find people who will respect her. If they existed in real life, neither of them would want to be around the other.

However, the first real problem is that this is not a romantic comedy. For it to be one, there has to be romance. As I watched, one thought kept emerging and reemerging in my mind:

This Isn't Love. It's Codependency.

Tom's never thought of her feelings. He's never cared that she's almost thirty and has no romantic relationship or life outside of him. He seems oblivious to the fact that she has few if any friends beyond him. If her leaving him for six weeks makes him so miserable, what would happen were she to go on vacation, or a girl's night out?

I figure she didn't: her whole life it seems, is devoted simply to cater to his needs/wants. This was essentially confirmed in Made of Honor when we see the wallpaper on her cell phone: it's of them together from a previous vacation.

He comes to the conclusion that he's in love with her only because she knows him so well. In short, he's so in love with himself that he decides he loves a woman because she has subjugated her life for him. When she finds another man who actually cares about her and treats her like a Duchess (more on that later) it sends him into a panic, and he is determined to keep her in his life by any means necessary.

Never was such obscene narcissism portrayed as romantic.

Another problem came to the forefront when Tom spends the day with Hannah to 'help' her in his role as Maid of Honor; she says that he didn't have to "clear his day" to do so. It's at this point when my friend Fidel Gomez and I look at each other in sheer disbelief.

"Cleared his day of WHAT?" we asked each other almost simultaneously and incredulously. "He does do anything except play basketball," Gomez said. "And schtup beautiful women," I added. The only outside activity Tom ever engaged in was playing basketball with his friends. He never actually does anything, and as much as one loves Starbucks, I don't think they sell enough for him to live such a lavish lifestyle year in, year out.

Add to this sorry mix Hannah's fianceé. He's suppose to be perfect: rich, handsome and incredibly endowed. As a side note, does anyone else think a group of straight men gawking at another man's penis is just a touch creepy? Add to all that is that Colin is a literal Duke, a titled nobleman.

Allow me a digression on titles and to begin a very long habit of getting hung up on details.

In order for Colin to be a Duke he would have to be the eldest surviving son of the previous Duke or the son of the reigning monarch. Since both of Colin's parents are alive and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Scotland, how can he be a duke? I could believe a viscount, or earl, or even a knight (Sir Colin), but a duke?

It's patent nonsense and shows how wildly inconsistent, illogical, and poorly thought-out Adam Sztykiel, Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont's script is. 

Made of Honor is filled to the rafters with wild leaps of logic and thoroughly stupid characters and situations. We're suppose to believe that Colin, Duke of Earl, and Hannah traveled together for a month and will get married in two weeks. That lead me to wonder if those four weeks were tied to the six weeks she was suppose to be working or if the museum just let her take gobs and gobs of vacation time. Yet for all the time they spent together, she was unaware that Colin played the bagpipes every night (I guess they hadn't slept together in all the time).

Here, when Colin doesn't let Hannah take a slice of cake from his plate, it's only then that she realizes Tom may be a better fit. What, they never shared an intimate dinner in those six weeks? I kept wondering what the rush was.

You also have some truly awful scenes. Perhaps it's to my credit or a sign of my naïveté, but at Hannah's bridal shower I had to have "thunder beads" explained to me. My friend Fidel Gomez was especially bothered by the fight between Tom and Hannah afterward the bridal shower for which Tom had taken credit versus blame for. It was an extremely gentle fight which had no circumstances and was basically a waste of our time except it gave chance to have an elderly woman snap thunder beads around her neck like a necklace.

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While you have beautiful Scottish scenery to admire, the bridesmaids were not funny, the future in-laws horrid, the Highland Games embarrassing and the church scene clichéd to the max.

I will confess to having laughed once. It was at hearing a particular line spoken by a bridesmaid who had slept with and been dumped by Tom. I laughed because I thought this could be one of those immortal lines that will be remembered by generations of film goers. "Service me, bitch", she pleads as she tries to rape Tom. Somehow I couldn't help laughing.

I feel bad for Michelle Monaghan. She's proven she can act in Gone Baby Gone, so why is she wasting her talent in nonsense like this? Kevin McKidd may be good as he was in the underappreciated Journeyman, but even with his native accent he can't rise above the shoddy material.

As for Dempsey, this was clearly a vehicle for him, capitalizing on his success on Grey's Anatomy to get him back into film and perhaps erase memories of such early efforts as Can't Buy Me Love or Loverboy. He didn't. Worse off is Sidney Pollack. He did the best job as Tom's philandering father, but to think this was his final film.

Ultimately, the film is misnamed. Tom isn't Made of Honor. He's actually quite dishonorable, along with slutty, shallow, lazy (any man who has no job by choice is lazy) and devoid of any qualities that a sensible woman would want in a spouse. Made of Honor is a romantic comedy that is neither. It's pretty much a horror to sit through, bordering on traumatic.

I conclude with this: Bogart was no pussy.