If I Had My Way: 2016 Awards

Posted on Updated on


I’m also reminded of the time I was once invited to play fantasy football. It was with some friends, including Kevin Ketchum and Bryan King, and someone had tweeted that it was going to be “film critics vs film fans”. In my naiveté, I thought that suggested that we would be picking actual film critics and film people to play football against one another. I was imagining Richard Roeper and Peter Travers being pummeled and thinking it would be “warm and likeable” to experience. Signing up to begin playing was kind of how I imagine the shoot for The Revenant to be, if I am to believe the press tour. Arduous, stressful, dirty, and bloody. (I gave myself a papercut.) But, in the spirit of making fantasy picks for things that are as foreign to me as heterosexuality, and also an awards show I just suffered through, here are my ideal picks for awards things. Read the rest of this entry »

A Short Note on the Passing of My Hero and Inspiration, Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013)

Posted on

I’m sure there will be a bevy, a multitude, an avalanche of more eloquent remembrances of Roger Ebert than mine, so I will keep it short and sweet.

Without him, I would have never started this blog in the first place. At 13, I would have never started writing reviews. At 8, I would have never started to talk about film incessantly. He is my hero and my inspiration, and one of the biggest reasons why I love film and why I ever wanted to delve into its history and analyze its nuances, magic, majesty, and sometimes its follies.

I may not have always agreed with him, or even liked some of his reviews, but I always, always admired his passion and integrity. Losing him, even though I’ve never met him or even made contact with him, is like losing the person who got you into the thing you love and are intensely passionate about.

As Chris Jones titled his beautiful profile of Ebert, he will always be The Essential Man.

Goodbye, Mr. Ebert, and thank you.

P.S. I also want to thank everyone who reads this blog or has ever read my writing. It means the world to me. Thank you to all the film enthusiasts, bloggers, critics, buffs, etc. whom I talk to or have talked to, for you, like Ebert, have taught me a great deal about the movies, life, and writing and have made me a better critic and writer (and sometimes person). Thank you all, so much.

Obligatory Oscar Post: My Ideal Academy Awards

Posted on

As opposed to posting my predictions, ideal winners, or even fantasy Oscars, I’ll take a different route primarily because I am as uninterested in those things about myself as you are. Instead, I’ll lay out briefly my issue with the Academy Awards and how, if I were omnipotent, I would fix it.

The Issue

There are a plethora of supposed issues with the Oscars, from the feverish campaigning, to the bizarre winners and nominations, et cetera, et cetera. There’s the issue of the Academy itself, made up of a majority of old white people, mostly men, who themselves have never won an Oscar. And, finally, and possibly most “glaring” of all is the issue of the “snubs”. When your favorite film gets shut out of the race, not even acknowledged on technical awards never mind for any of the major categories. It seems that expanding the Best Picture category hasn’t really helped. This was originally done, supposedly, to make up for the lack of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in the Director and Picture categories. That year, the first time that the Best Picture nominees racked up to ten since the studio era, had stuff like Avatar and The Hurt Locker, The Blind Side and Inglourious Basterds, and Up and District 9. The following year, (2010) had a very odd array of stuff from Toy Story 3 to The Fighter, from Black Swan to Winter’s Bone, and from Inception to The Social Network and The King’s Speech. The next year, the Academy changed the rules again, stipulating that, as opposed to ten films being the total number of Best Picture nominees to “anywhere from 5 to 10”, which basically meant nothing. So, there was The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Moneyball and War Horse, and The Help and The Tree of Life.

What is clear about this method, or any method of nominating a specific number of films (still even evident in this year’s nominees, with picks like Amour and Les Misérables) is that there’s always the exclusion of “better films” and the inclusion of “lesser films”, or, at least films that one wouldn’t normally think of as Best Pic material (I loved Toy Story 3 as much as anyone else, but Best Pic? Really?). And with the inclusion of such films and the exclusion of others, the race becomes more and more obvious, indicating that your favorite will probably not win.

The same can be said of all the other categories, from the tech ones, featuring people who’ve been nominated 9 times and never won (I’m lookin’ at you, Deakins), to the acting categories.

And another issue comes down to the politics of it all. In a world where Doctor Doolittle, the unmitigated disaster from 1967, can score a Best Pic nomination over, say, In Cold Blood, I sense a problem. Do we really live in a world where winning these things is so important that you have to campaign for them? And they have smear campaigns? Yeah, essentially the Oscars have just become career boosters and good PR, but really? That just feels really desperate to me.

And finally, the Academy members themselves: old, white, mostly non-Oscar winners. So, their tastes aren’t exactly contemporary, they like sap and nostalgia and very shallow explorations of social issues. (Some exceptions, though, include Midnight Cowboy winning and being the first and only X rated film to win Best Pic.) If the industry is about trying to appeal to you young audience (with so little attention span, mind you), why are your Academy members so old and pretty much blah?

The Solution

So, I have a solution. Mind you, it’s democratic, kind of sappy in and of itself, but if I were running the show, I would ideally fashion it a certain way.

My first move would be to make a Cannes style jury vote on the films each year. This technique, of a dozen or so people within the industry vote on certain films in competition, isn’t just limited to the legendary Cannes Film Festival, but remains, pretty much, a staple of most film festivals. So, why not make the Oscars the same? A rotating jury for the major categories, and the smaller juries for the smaller, tech, short, and foreign categories (maybe have some members overlap). These jury members, though, wouldn’t vote on one film. Instead, they would be asked to list their, say, 10 to 15 favorite performances, films, technical accomplishments in film that year. The lists would be compiled together. And the final 25 that received the most votes would all get plaques! Yeah, it may not be as prestigious as a golden boy (maybe a mini Oscar would be a substitute if people are that fussy), but imposition of restraint works against the idea of recognizing great films. Also, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m indecisive.

Another rule would be: absolutely no campaigning beyond the usual screening and post-screening question and answer. Go away, Weinsteins! We don’t need your pandering. (Maybe there should be a rule against Harvey setting foot near the jury members? And no baskets of mini muffins either.) Again, if this is supposed to be a celebration of great film, there really shouldn’t be any need to start running weird ads whining about factual inaccuracy or affairs.

So, in my Utopia, where I run the Oscars, everyone would be happy. Hopefully. I mean, you can’t please everyone, but we can at least do the art the favor of recognizing it appropriately without what feels like corruption. Celebrate film!

(For the record, I’m totally on #TeamHaneke.)

P.S. I’m just glad that, when it ends, people will forget Les Mis existed and I hopefully will never hear the words “Argo fuck yourself” again.”

At Once, “Wild” and Predictable: The 2013 Oscar Nominations

Posted on Updated on

It’s flu season! I mean Oscar season! But, is there really a stretch between the two? The Academy Award nominations are like that film you see where you’re fairly satisfied walking out, but the more you think about it, the more you begin to dislike it (sort of like Les Miserables, but not as bad). Anyways, here’s my quick lowdown on what I thought of this year’s nominees. (Here is a complete list.)

  • Picture: Rather pleased with the Best Picture roster. Not surprised that Les Mis got in, but it doesn’t mean I like it anymore. Very, very happy that Amour slipped in. A little surprised that Django Unchained is in there at all.
  • Best Actor: Can I just say how overwrought Hugh Jackman was in Les Miserables? Okay, thanks. Other than that, all looks fine and predictable. Nice to see Phoenix in there for The Master.
  • Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin again. Please. Go away. Your one good line in Argo does not/should not equate with a nod. Honestly surprised that Waltz got a nod in Django Unchained over DiCaprio. No Javier Bardem for Skyfall bums me out hard.
  • Director: Woo, #TeamHanake! Did you know my birthday falls on Oscar night? Yep. It was my secret (okay, not secret) birthday wish that Tom Hooper would not get nominated for Best Director. And it came true!
  • Actress: Woo Riva, #TeamHanake! Cute to see Wallis in there for Beasts of the Southern Wild. But now I have to learn how to spell her name. A little surprised for Watts in The Impossible over Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea.
  • Supporting Actress: It’s just lovely to see Amy Adams because I love Amy Adams. The inclusion of The Master at all this year, in acting categories especially, is nice, even if it didn’t get Directing or Best Pic nods. Jacki Weaver represents the usual “out of left field supporting acting nod”.
  • Adapted Screenplay: surprised no The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
  • Original Screenplay: Yay Amour, #TeamHaneke!
  • Cinematography: WOO Deakins!
  • Documentary Feature: Woo Kirby Dick!
  • Foreign Film/The Movies with Subtitles: yay Amour again! #TeamHanake. You know what also would have been awesome, besides Holy Motors, of course? Oslo, August 31st.
  • The rest of the lot: I’m super bummed that The Cabin in the Woods and Looper didn’t get in for Original Screenplay. That would have been nice. Sad that Andy Serkis didn’t slip in for Supporting Actor, but I don’t think that will ever happen, regardless of how brilliant he is as Gollum. No Holy Motors at all is crazy. No The Dark Knight Rises or Cloud Atlas, even in tech categories, is very surprising. Especially the former. It would have been lovely had Keira Knightley been in there for Anna Karenina. That Ted nomination is BS. And that “Suddenly” nod for Les Miserables just proves what everyone had been saying: a shameless way to get the film eligible for Best Original Song. No Bigelow, Affleck, and Tarantino are a surprise.
  • Can I just say “Who Were We?” from Holy Motors should have been in there? Seriously.
  • What can we learn from this year’s nominees: we had an average year for films. But you can’t please everyone.
  • What you can learn from a variety of top ten lists from the year: we had a freaking great year in film. But you can’t please everyone.

But, the race ain’t over till Nate Silver puts in his two cents.

Singers in the Dark: Les Misérables

Posted on Updated on

Despite practically growing up on musicals, a) I never got to see Les Misérables live and b) the televised/filmed productions of the seminal musical have never really struck me as deeply as, say, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Company, Chicago, Cabaret, etc. Les Misérables is great, I am certainly not denying that, but it never cracked my list of “favorites”. That said, I am truly a sucker for some of the music, “On My Own” probably being my favorite. The 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” Concert is quite lovely to behold, and thus, hearing of an actual film adaptation of the musical intrigued me. The original story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, had been adapted to the screen a handful of times (including one with Liam Neeson), but Tom Hooper’s period spectacle would mark the first time the musical would make it to the big screen. And, because I love musicals, I was excited. Instead of getting in line for the tickets, I should have gotten in line for the guillotines.

Les Misérables tells the sad, sad tale of a bunch of people prior and during the French Student Rebellion (June 1832), and not the French Revolution (1789-1799). Included in this group of the afflicted is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent over a decade in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; Javert (Russell Crowe), the dutiful officer; and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the poor single mother who goes to certain extremes in order to allocate money to send to the couple taking care of her daughter, Cosette (later played by Amanda Seyfried).  As Jean Valjean moves up in the world under a pseudonym, the presiding officer holds a grudge and the animosity between the two ends up involving pretty much everyone else somehow or another.

The implications of a theatrical adaptation of a stage show, whether it is an actual play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rabbit Hole, etc.) or a musical (Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd) is to not merely paste the songs in a film like setting, but to fill in some of the holes by utilizing everything that film as a medium has to offer. Expand on character relationships, elaborate on character goals and motivations; effectively explain plot holes or context. With a musical (and its source material) that is so often incorrectly assumed to be about the French Revolution, you would think that the film adaptation would give the perfect opportunity to give more context to the time and setting of the darn thing. Alas, no. Tom Hooper, who can do period detail very well (see: Elizabeth I and John Adams from HBO), instead seems to concentrate on just seemingly cutting and pasting the singing of the stage show to a well-dressed back lot. Without that context or background, the stakes are not nearly as high and the audience, including myself, has less of a reason to care about a) the characters involved and b) the situations they are stuck in. There is no primer as to the Student Rebellion and the most we are offered are a couple lyrics sung by a dirty, if cherubic blond kid in a thick Manchester accent. He sings about the lack of change and the remaining bourgeoisie reign, but so what? That alone isn’t enough to make me care. Give me higher stakes and give me more reason. A couple lines from “ABC Café” are hardly reason enough to make us care about a Student Rebellion (who, by the way, seem too well dressed to really seem like they care about the upper class).

Part of the problem is the streamlining of the material. On stage, you have more time because you have an intermission, and those going to a musical have, generally, educated themselves enough to get the gist of things. If not, then the book or the lyrics do some of the heavy work for you. There is not as much an issue in terms of time and linearity because of the sparseness of sets and locations, but in a film, you must deal with time as a concept. Which means that as Valjean contemplates his existential identity crisis in “Who Am I?/The Trial”, in the space of three cuts, he goes from his little house to riding on horseback to the courthouse. Those three cuts take less than three seconds altogether. There is no actual travel, unless you count the split second, blink and you miss it ride on horseback. This is not limited to that one scene, but several scenes. The love story in the second half of the film looks entirely moronic because there isn’t enough time to develop Cosette and Marius’ attraction to one another. Star crossed love is romantic when the characters are allowed to revel in what they have just experienced, however brief it may be; but when it is reduced to literally ten seconds and no less than ten reverse, point of view shots, the rest of the stakes for love are dwarfed and just look stupid. In an attempt to quicken things up and make an already deathly long and poorly paced film seem shorter, some plot points are either dropped or obscured by and buried under the “let’s get through all the songs first”.

This, I suppose, is in itself a mixed bag. You have seen the ad more time than Sascha Baren Cohen’s ratty Thenardier has stolen gold pieces, and it has been something the Les Misérables have been pushing really hard: the live singing. Marketed as “the first time it’s ever been done before” is not actually true. The 1995 television adaptation of Gypsy (starring Bette Midler) featured live singing; Susan Stroman’s ill-fated screen adaptation of the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers had live singing; and Julie Taymor’s experimental Beatles musical Across the Universe had “live singing 80% of the time” (this according to the director’s commentary on the DVD). Les Misérables only stands apart from the first two in that the live singing isn’t so much singing (not in the performing way that most musicals employ) as it is giving life to the songs. When it’s done well in the film, it can be truly visceral and moving (Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks, for instance, nail you in the soul). When it does not work, it just seems sort of sad. While it is no surprise that Hathaway stuns with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the songs that seemed to work best were those that featured most of the company. “At the End of the Day”, “Lovely Ladies”, “One More Day”, and “Red and Black” all had verve and life to them, which several of the other solo/character focused songs did not.

Which brings me to this – Newsflash, I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice. I never have. He is a lovely actor, and his voice is technically fine. But, that’s what I don’t like about it. Jackman, as much soul as he tries to put into “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” seems to be so focused on technique and placed in a situation where he has to move and where the vocals will come out imperfect, he loses the essence of the tune. It sounds professional, sure, but the wealth of vibrato works against him in a way. Russell Crowe, for all of his unpolished singing abilities, in a way, surpasses Jackman vocally because you can hear the tune. The gravelly, maybe somewhat nasally quality gives more life to the character than Crowe actually provides when he is acting. (Much like Gerard Butler in Phantom, but worse.) It probably was not the best idea to hire Crowe, due to the complexity of the music and the range it requires.

With that laborious focus on singing and period detail by Hooper (whom I still, probably unfairly, resent for winning Best Director of The King’s Speech), the story, as I said, gets left behind. Which makes it feel like the intentions were to just see the famous people performing the songs one after the other. There are maybe 10 lines of dialogue total in the film, which, for most mainstream audiences, is not anywhere near enough. Again, with the medium of film, you have the opportunity to a) make a musical more accessible to other audiences and b) expound on story, characters, etc. There was zero attempt to do this; just song after song after song. It’s not this cycle that is inherently the problem; it’s the missed opportunity to make the story more enjoyable.

Aside from singing and famous people, some very strange focus (hah) was put on the film’s cinematography. Mostly, my time was spent scoffing in the theater, writing furiously on my notepad. If you’ve heard anyone complain about the camerawork, listen to them: it is pretty much the most abhorrent work I’ve seen this year. (As random as Killing Them Softly was, at least it was nice to look at and properly framed.) There should be a meme that says “FRAME A DAMN SCENE RIGHT, HOOPER!” I’m pretty sure his logic went as follows: “Okay, you go over there and act and I’m going to have my camera right up in your face. And then I’m going to turn it on a 135-degree angle.” While I’m sure the logic behind this was to provide an intimacy in the performance that the stage inherently cannot give, it does not explain why so many of his frames were off balance. That just looks like some of the half-assed pictures some of the slackers in my photography class take, except more expensive. Also, one can certainly utilize more than one camera angle to achieve intimacy. A musical, shot in all close-ups! There’s a reason why Fred Astaire was never shot in close up: so you could still get the essence of his performance.

When Hooper is not placing cameras six inches away from his actors’ faces, he is editing like he stepped into the editing room while on cocaine. I seriously wondered while I was sitting in the film if the people from Glee were editing the film. What few nice moments and nice frames there are on screen are snatched from us with a splice. This, again, affects linearity, but the constant CUT, CUT, CUT is so uninspired and useless. It works as an antithesis to the artistic desire to achieve more intimacy in the performances. The camera work itself does not work. Shakier than some of my own camera work on my short films, there seems to be no evidence of any SteadiCam used. Just tripods and someone seemingly drunk walking around with a camera. This is not supposed to be a poor man’s Dogme 95 inspired musical! You are no Anthony Dod Mantle! The action scenes don’t work either. If there isn’t a random Dutch angle (which, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no reason to be in there), there’s a fly, swoop, and a lot of cutting involved. I guess Michael Bay would be proud.

The film’s two saving graces are Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. I would like to think that Hathaway ignored Hooper’s direction altogether and that her transcendent portrayal of Fantine, however short it is (not a spoiler because of the source material), was pure instinct. She gives power, emotion, and passion to a film where there is none. Her heart shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the film’s highlight. It’s close enough to get every look of Fantine’s but far away enough so that there is distance. It’s not the camera that should destroy the distance between audience member and character; it’s the character themselves and their power. And Hathaway succeeds in spades (a little reminiscent, it has been said, of Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Samantha Barks, a newbie to the film world, has portrayed the gloomy, heartbroken Eponine before on stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables. Despite that, she still brings something entirely new and fresh to the film, her performance of “On My Own” absolutely splendid. I suppose, if you’re going to spend your money on the film, do it for these two girls, one of whom I wouldn’t be too mad should she win the Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne, whom I didn’t know could sing, is actually quite good as well, but the film’s inability to really dig deeper into his character and his motivations leave a lot to be desired and mar the experience.

Les Misérables is a trifle; a film that could have easily avoided its problems by reeling back its eagerness and giving the story a chance. The singing might be cool, but what’s a song without a story behind it? Les Misérables is also probably the first film whose cinematography made me actively angry in the theater. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are the film’s saviors. So, while you sit in the theater for what was, for me, a nearly unbearable two and a half hours, I’m going to sing these words:

“I had a dream this film would be,

So different from this Hell I’m watching,

So different now from what it seemed.

Now Hooper’s killed the dream I dreamed.”