Monday, February 26, 2007

The Academy finally grows up

I have a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards. I usually wind up complaining and whining about which films get nominated and which ones don’t. I become outraged when deserving films lose to more popular, but lesser works. Nearly a decade later, I am still fuming about “Titanic’s” best picture win. It was never the king of my world.

And yet every year I watch diligently. But why? It is just the opinion of a group of people. There are numerous award shows that hardly raise an eyebrow, but because the Oscars are the biggest they hold a fascination.

It is just an opinion, but within the film industry and culturally that opinion has been made significant. What wins and is nominated can dictate the trends of Hollywood. It isn’t a guarantee, but an Oscar win can change a career, Just look at Jamie Foxx. He went from a grade B comedian, to an A-list actor practically overnight. Oh how quickly we forgot “Booty Call.”

Too often the Academy failed to notice the truly remarkable films in any given year. Spectacles like “Gladiator” and “Chicago” tended to be the easy wins. But the last couple years have brought a shift that is refreshing. The Academy has increasingly been nominating and awarding films that are important socially, culturally and globally.

Last year saw numerous nominations for films like “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Crash” and “Munich.” They were films that had something to say about the world’s past, present and future. This year the trend continued with nominations for weighty films like “Babel,” “Last King of Scotland,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Children of Men.”

There has also been a broader inclusion of smaller or independent films. This year saw “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Half Nelson” and “Little Children” scoring nominations in major categories. Perhaps this is a statement of where the best films are coming from now. The fact that this year’s Oscars were the most international ever, something that was repeated multiple times through out the evening, is a further reflection of this.

It is as if the Academy members suddenly became politically and globally aware. They usually left the political messages to be sent by the best documentary category (i.e. this year’s winner “An Inconvenient Truth”), not the big categories. That Melissa Etheridge’s theme song for “An Inconvenient Truth” beat out three songs from “Dreamgirls” felt as important of a statement as the film itself winning.

A Hollywood film, “The Departed”, was the evening’s big winner, but Hollywood doesn’t always churn out crap, sometimes substance creeps in, and in the hands of Martin Scorsese, “The Departed” isn’t the run-of-the-mill remake of a foreign film.

This was Scorsese’s year. There was no way he could be denied an Oscar for best direction again. “The Departed,” while not flawless, is an example of dynamic storytelling brought forth by a dream cast that doesn’t let down. It is the sort of film Hollywood should and could be making consistently if the lowest denominator still didn’t make a buck.

As for the ceremony itself, it is still a bloated affair, with too much needless filler. This year clocked in at just over three hours and 45 minutes. Padding included nice, but unnecessary clip montages of foreign films, films about writing and films about America.

Some of the filler was enjoyable. Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly sang a lively song about how comedians never get their due at the Oscars. Another highlight was the sound effects choir, which “sang” the effects for a series of film clips. Quite impressive.

Ellen Degeneres was a fine host, who at times seemed uncertain of herself, but in a way that was part of her charm. Then again, maybe that was all part of the act. Her best bits involved her venturing into the audience to chat with directors Clint Eastwood and Scorese.

She gave Scorsese a fake script for a movie called “Good mommas,” a cross between “Goodfellas” and “Big Momma’s House.” As for Eastwood she scored a photo with him for her myspace. The photographer: Steven Spielberg.

As far as winners go, the evening was rarely a shocker. As anticipated, Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren and Jennifer Hudson all won. Alan Arkin, with his win for best supporting actor in “Little Miss Sunshine,” was one of the few surprise wins.

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” a favorite for best foreign language film, lost to Germany’s “The Lives of Others.” The Academy has a funny way of balancing things though and awarded “Pan’s Labyrinth” for its achievements in art direction, make up and cinematography.

Acceptance speeches were largely forgettable, although Hudson was genuinely surprised and honored and Whitaker spoke passionately about the power of acting to connect to people. Scorsese had the most memorable acceptance speech moment when he asked, “Could you double check the envelope?”

Overall, my love/hate relationship this year is leaning away from the hatred. Perhaps the Academy is aging in dog years because at 79 it seems to have finally outgrown those awkward teen years. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go wild when it hits 21.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Anti-Love Songs:
Five Alternatives for Valentine's Day

In the tradition of Merry Subversive Christmas, my list of songs for the holiday season, I present you a new list: anti-love songs for Valentine’s Day. This isn’t about resentment over being single, rather it is merely providing a few alternatives to the bombastic ballads and acoustic declarations of love that are saturating the airwaves.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good love song as much as the next person, but sometimes enough is enough. Nothing pushes the stop button on a bile-inducing ballad like a good break-up song. So, here are five anti-love songs that I am currently digging on. Feel free to provide your own additions and remember to spread the love this Valentine’s Day.

“Satin in a Coffin”- Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse’s 2004 mainstream breakthrough, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” spawned the feel good hit “Float On,” but that song was hardly a reflection of the album’s dark and moody vibe.

“Satin in a Coffin” is perhaps the album’s darkest moment with the creepy chorus: “Are you dead or you sleeping?/God I sure hope you are dead.” That’s enough to kill any romantic evening. Isaac Brock’s lead vocal is full of emotion and sells the bitter sentiment of the song completely. Musically, the song is a beautifully disjointed combination of banjo, guitar, standup bass and pump organ.

“Sexed Up”- Robbie Williams
Williams has sung more than his fair share of affecting ballads and “Sexed Up” follows the pattern of its predecessors in terms of production and sound. Over sweetly strummed guitar and pleasant piano Williams sings as if he is wooing, but listen closely, for this is all a disguise.

The chorus brilliantly subverts the formula of clich├ęd love songs with Williams belting out: “Why don’t we break up/There’s nothing left to say/I’ve got my eyes shut/Praying they won’t stray/And when I’m sexed up/That’s what makes the difference today/I hope you blow away.” The glossy packaging of the song makes its acidic moments sting all the more.

“Divorce Song”- Liz Phair
This is more a real representation of love and all of its imperfections, than an anti-love song. I include it here because Phair’s lyrics encapsulate that painful feeling of knowing you are in a dysfunctional relationship, but at the same time are unwilling to get out.

“And the license said/You had to stick around until I was dead/But if you’re tired of looking at my face I guess I already am/But you’ve never been a waste of my time/Its never been a drag so take a deep breath and count back from ten/And maybe you’ll be alright.” As a singer Phair probably wouldn’t get passed Simon Cowell, but her ache comes across in every word and that’s rare. Phair reminds us that it is possible to be angry, spiteful and frustrated and still be in love.

“Married With Children”- Oasis
Oasis’ Noel Gallagher tosses the word love around quite a bit in his songwriting. With songs like “Let There Be Love,” Who Feels Love?” and “She is Love” it feels as if he desperately looking for the next “All You Need is Love.”

Hidden away on Oasis’s first album “Definitely Maybe,” “Married With Children” is the exact opposite of all those songs with lyrics that are snide and pissy. “I hate the way that you are so sarcastic/And you’re not very bright/You think that everything you've done’s fantastic/Your music’s shite it keeps me up all night.” The song’s extra bite comes in a verse of realization that being with someone you may hate is better than being alone.

“Smile”- Lily Allen
The song’s narrative is simple enough with a guy crawling back after cheating on his girlfriend, but the song avoids the usual self-pitying. Musically, the song is upbeat and fun and masks the hurt of some of the song’s lyrics.

The sing-a-long chorus is satisfyingly cheeky and oddly empowering: “At first when I see you cry/yeah it makes me smile, yeah it makes me smile/At worst I feel bad for a while/but then I just smile/I go ahead and smile.” Catchy and danceable aren’t usually the words you associate with a break-up song, but its hard not to groove on Allen’s “Smile.”

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Valentine's Day, movies and the singleton

Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us. A day of chocolates and flowers, gifts and dinners. A time to celebrate that most cherished emotion: love. It is a day for couples and there in lies the problem.

What is a single guy or gal, bloke or bird meant to do on this day of love? Certainly, there’s always sitting on a couch in a raggy pair of pajamas eating ice cream straight out of the carton with a rather large spoon while watching Meg Ryan, Katherine Hepburn, Hugh Grant, Cary Grant and all the rest fall in love. Yes, this is the depressing image that society has branded the singleton with.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. For those of us without significant others, we do not have to be stuck watching Rick tell Ilsa, “Here’s looking at you, kid” for the umpteenth time. Seeking cinematic escape doesn’t necessitate watching the typical tear inducing tried and true. We have options.

As loyal readers of this blog know, I have nothing against romantic comedies (for further reading see my article on chick flicks and my review of “The Holiday”), but on Valentine’s Day there’s a sting to these films that leads to too many unhelpful questions: Why can’t I have that kind of love? What is wrong with me? Why is my box of tissues empty?

Valentine’s Day is a holiday of love, but love doesn’t have to be purely romantic. There’s something magical about simply connecting with someone in a way you can’t explain, and yet still feel deeply.

To meet or know someone and share a moment where you feel united intellectually, emotionally or spiritually is an extraordinary thing. At its core, that’s what Valentine’s Day should be about. It is films that embrace that idea that should be sought out by the singleton on Valentine’s Day.

Richard Linklater’s double feature of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” hits the spot quite nicely. They are films that are romantic, but don’t follow the formulas of the typical fare that we are told we should be watching on Valentine’s Day.

In “Sunrise” an American man (Ethan Hawke) and French woman (Julie Delpy) meet on a train and based on an initial spark decide to spend a night wandering around Vienna before having to go back to their respective lives. In “Sunset” the two meet by chance in Paris nine years later and pick up where they left off.

Both films are essentially non-stop dialogue as they discuss love, life, and death in ways that are intelligent, witty and natural. There’s a rhythm and flow to the dialogue that feels authentic. These are sort of conversations you know you’ve had yourself, or that you wish you could have. The films get the little details right, the awkward pauses and uncertain gestures, and capture the essence of meeting someone and feeling an inexplicable bond.

Similarly, Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” depicts that same hard to explain connection with a stranger. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters meet in a hotel bar in Japan and can sense that they are at the same emotional place, albeit from different stations in life. They are able to commiserate and find comfort through each other in surroundings that are unfamiliar.

It is a quiet, slow and largely plotless film, which, for some, makes it difficult to get into. As a society we are trained to have our films, TV and literature follow the reliable three-act structure, but “Lost in Translation” breaks from that and our expectation for the plot’s set up.

Murray and Johansson don’t fall in love, not in the traditional movie sense at least. They don’t have sex, and they don’t run off together. They simply share their time, knowing it is special, important and life altering.

Another worthy choice is Zach Braff’s “Garden State.” It is a bit of tearjerker, but like the above films it is about meeting and wanting to spend time with someone for reasons you don’t necessarily understand.

Braff’s character returns home for his mom’s funeral and for the first time in years is un-medicated. Through meeting Natalie Portman and reconnecting with a high school buddy (Peter Sarsgaard) he begins to come out of an emotional malaise.

For all its quirky charm “Garden State” has a message that is sincere. The film is a reminder of how important it is to let people into your life, even if it is sometimes painful. Although the main pairing is a romantic one, the message transcends that.

Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown,” which was unjustly panned by most critics, takes the same premise as “Garden State.” Orlando Bloom returns home for his dad’s funeral and is changed by meeting Kristen Dunst. It is sort of convenient that these broken guys always seem to find these free spirited girls at the right time, but I suppose it is a male fantasy come true.

What allows these encounters to work though is that they don’t fall into male sex fantasy. There’s an honest exploration of the excitement of meeting someone new. What keeps both “Garden State” and “Elizabethtown” interesting is that these meeting occur during a grieving process. There’s a sense of hope coming out of pain and of a chance for renewal.

As a single guy living alone, these are the films I am drawn to as Valentine’s Day approaches. I watch them and look at my own life and I am happy to know that even if I don’t have a significant other, that I am significant to someone. I can think back on all the times I’ve shared with friends and family and feel loved.