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oscar run x: the devil wears prada

It would appear that I am going to spend a lot of time the next month or so talking about movies where I am not the intended audience. Partly this is because I’m trying to work my way through my thoughts on criticism, and it seems important to emphasize that what I like (or in this case, don’t like) about a movie may just reflect my taste preferences.

And so I can say that I didn’t much care for The Devil Wears Prada. Didn’t hate it, didn’t think much of it at all. I could look at Anne Hathaway all day, but that’s not really reason enough to watch a movie, not when the Internet offers easy access to a million pix of the actress. I am seriously stupid about the world of fashion, insistently, proudly so … if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a lot of interests that others would find numbingly trivial, I’d rant and rave about fashion, which just seems like the stupidest thing in the world to me. I don’t mean personal fashion … when someone creates a look for themselves, I’m impressed … but when someone else creates a look for you, I don’t get too excited.

So I don’t know how accurate this movie was about the fashion world. I kept having to ask Robin who so-and-so was … I never knew which names were of real people and which were fictional. So that’s one big reason the movie isn’t intended for me.

Add the part where I’m mostly uninterested in the same old thing plots of movies like this, and the part where I am not the biggest Meryl Streep fan (I don’t dislike her, and often admire her work, but rarely respond to her on any deeper levels … at the end of Postcards From the Edge when she sings, in Adaptation, I’m sure there are a couple of others … I guess I like her comic work more than her dramatic work, but again, I think she’s fine, I just don’t go ga-ga over her), and I guess you get the point: if the movie sounds interesting to you, that should matter more than whether or not I liked it.

I will say this. The movie got nominated for two Oscars. One is for costume design, and I know nothing about that category, but it sure looked like they did a good job. The other was for Meryl Streep. It doesn’t really matter, since Helen Mirren is going to win anyway (now there is an actress I can both admire and respond to emotionally), but Streep is not the leading actress here, and in a proper world, she’d be up for Best Supporting Actress rather than Best Actress.

As for her performance, which as always is precisely done … well, you’ve all seen movies where an actor/actress will give an over-the-top performance in a showy role and get kudos and awards for their overacting. Streep does the opposite here: she tones down her performance so much that everyone is congratulating her for the subtlety of her deviltry (she is the titular character, after all). It’s effective, and less annoying than the overacting versions … but it’s a parlor trick all the same, and apparently it works just as well … I counted more than ten different awards where she was nominated or won an award for her acting here. I’ve seen three of the five Oscar nominees for Best Actress now, and I’d say Streep’s was the third-best performance of that group.

oscar run ix: dreamgirls

Well, here we go again … Steven talks about a movie where he isn’t a member of the primary intended audience. Thus, some of my comments should be taken with more than a grain of salt. On the other hand, I know a teensy bit about Motown and R&B music, so maybe I can offer some insight in that regard.

Dreamgirls purports to be about soul. Jennifer Hudson’s Effie has too much of it for Jamie Foxx’s Curtis Taylor, Jr. … Taylor wants crossover hits, which he calculates will come if the Dreams R&B act foregrounds Beyoncé Knowles’ Deena (at one point he says she has no personality, which is just what he wanted) at the expense of the gospel sounds of Effie. Dreamgirls tells us that Taylor is wrong (not commercially … he shows an unerring sense of what will sell), both musically and personally, because he will sell his friends, family, and lovers (and soul) down the river for success on the pop charts. It’s an interesting concept for a movie (or a stage play … this is very clearly a stage musical on the screen), with one crucial problem: for a movie that claims to come down on the side of soul, Dreamgirls has an odd notion of what constitutes the thing it supposedly promotes. For Dreamgirls, soul is expressed via show tunes.

Now, there is nothing wrong with show tunes … they aren’t my favorite kind of music, which is one reason I’m not the primary audience for the film, but that’s just taste preferences. But show tunes are most definitely not about soul, unless soul is defined solely by what you hear on American Idol, where climbing up and down the octave ladder is substituted for actual feeling. Put bluntly, while it is entirely possible the music in Dreamgirls is great on the level of show tunes (I am not the one to ask … I liked some of the songs, if that matters), the music in Dreamgirls has little connection to actual R&B/soul music. If that doesn’t bother you, then you will love Dreamgirls. And there is case to be made that we shouldn’t judge show tunes by holding them to the standards of a different kind of music.

Except … the plot of Dreamgirls hinges on the concept of soul. Which I believe makes a comparison of the music with actual soul music to be a legitimate approach. And the music ain’t soul. The bands and the arrangements are pure Broadway … Motown might have cranked out tunes like a machine, but the band was funky, which is the last thing you’d say for the musicians in Dreamgirls. The play/movie’s most famous number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” works on a number of levels, but those levels exist in a world where a performer must, night after night, knock Broadway audiences out of their seats. It’s like the ultimate American Idol song. Jennifer Hudson knocks it out of the park … the audience in the theater where I saw it broke into applause when the song was over, which apparently is a common occurrence, and she deserves it. But it’s not soul music. And again, that hardly matters, expect Dreamgirls holds up Effie as the exemplar of soul, the symbol of what is lost in the drive to success, and while Hudson (and that song) are terrific, they don’t work as exemplars of soul.

There is plenty to like about Dreamgirls. Eddie Murphy kicks ass … I’d heard he reminded viewers of James Brown, but I thought of Jackie Wilson in the earlier scenes, when Eddie whips off his jacket in the middle of a number. And while a hundred years from now, people will still be talking about Hudson’s career being made the moment she sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls, Murphy has a number of his own that resonates beyond the confines of the picture. Near the end, when Murphy’s James “Thunder” Early is on the downhill slide, and he is singing Quiet Storm music because it might sell, he turns up at a show celebrating the Motown stand-in, Rainbow Records. He starts off singing a second-rate Luther Vandross-type number, then stops, says he can’t do it anymore, instructs the band to get funky, and rips through some actual gutbucket R&B. Murphy makes the entire scene work … the music isn’t any better here than anywhere else in the film … and when he first takes off his jacket, and then begins to remove his pants as well, we’re supposed to be embarrassed for him, but I was thinking the opposite, I was thinking “thank God someone finally let Eddie Murphy loose again after all those crappy movies.” I’ve been waiting for Eddie to take off those metaphoric pants since Raw, which was 20 years ago, and watching him in Dreamgirls, I can forgive him for all those Vampire in Brooklyns. (I should emphasize that not every movie Eddie Murphy has made in the last 20 years has stunk … I’m kinda fond of Bowfinger, and The Nutty Professor was very good.)

There are some other shaky moments … while it makes sense story-wise when Effie complains about how skinny Deena is, when she refers to Beyoncé’s “bony ass,” you have to wonder why they didn’t find a different part of the anatomy to refer to, Beyoncé looking as bootylicious as ever in this movie. And it’s oddly insulting when Deena and the Dreams have a disco hit with a song stolen from Effie … it’s shot as a big gay-disco production number, and it’s actually pretty good (disco music being perhaps easier for Broadway composers to mimic than soul music). But the point of the number is to show how Deena has lost her soul … we’re supposed to see the disco music as inferior in every way. And disco is associated with the gay community, which is good, this ain’t Saturday Night Fever, but how are we to take it when the only clear example of gayness (in a play that holds special meaning for the gay community) is tied to what is supposed to be inferior?

Despite all of this, if you think in advance that you’ll like Dreamgirls, odds are you will like it. It captured my attention, and I had my doubts beforehand, so I suspect it’s very good at what it is. It’s what it isn’t that bothered me. The movie is nominated for 8 Oscars, and I can’t complain about any of them. Murphy and Hudson are both excellent, the sound was so well-done that several times I wanted to turn around and shush the people behind me, only to realize it was the movie’s surround sound offering crowd noises from the back of the theater, the costumes and art direction are appropriate to their times, and while I can only remember one of the three nominated songs (and I only remember that one because of Beyoncé’s strong performance), I’m sure they are good ones. Now that I think of it, those nominations sum up Dreamgirls: good production values, good music of its kind, and a couple of outstanding performances, in a movie that got no nominations for direction or writing or Best Picture.

oscar run: oops

I’ve done eight movies so far, and now that the nominations are out, I can say oops about the ones where I guessed wrong about potential nominations.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party did not get nominated, which I suppose was to be expected. I was wrong about Quinceañera, which I thought might be a little film that could. Conversations with Other Women? Nope. So five of the eight movies I watched because I thought they’d get Oscar nominations did indeed get them. I have no idea if that’s a good prediction rate or not. Of the three I got wrong, only Block Party is a real mistake by the Oscar folks.

Meanwhile, there was The Queen, about which I wrote earlier in the year. I also saw and loved two movies that got no nominations, Casino Royale and A Scanner Darkly. It’s a sign of how many old movies I watch that I’d only seen three movies from 2006 before I started my Oscar binge. It’s a sign of how far from the Oscar mainstream my tastes are that the two of those three movies that I really liked did not get any nominations. Meanwhile, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 got four nominations. I don’t know why I bother …

old cases

Steve Hammond tipped me off that BET showed Season One, Episode Four of The Wire the other day, the one with the infamous “fuck” scene that made many of us wonder how BET would pull it off. Having re-watched the original, I’m guessing BET just deleted all the dialogue. Anyway, here is a transcript of the original … if you want to watch it, go to this YouTube video.

Bunk: Aw, fuck. Motherfucker. (lays photos on kitchen floor) Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck. Fuck. Umm, fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
McNulty (sees something important on a photo): What the fuck?
Bunk (drawing circle on floor): Fuck.
McNulty (catches finger in tape measure): Fuck! (Checks out shooting angle with tape measure) No.
Bunk: Fuck.
McNulty: Fuck it. (Crawls on ground) Fuck.
Bunk (figuring out the connection between bullethole in window and other stuff): Motherfuck. Aw fuck. Aw fuck.
McNulty (gauging the trajectory of the shot): Fuckity, fuck fuck fuck fuck.
Bunk (disgusted): Fucker.
McNulty (checking wall): Aw fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Bunk (talking over McNulty): Fuck fuck fuck fuck. (McNulty points out something in a photo) Motherfucker.
McNulty (making a discovery): Fucking A.
Bunk: Um-hmm.
McNulty: (Takes apart door in fridge) Fuck. (Pulls slug out of door) Check this. Motherfucker.
Bunk: Fuck me.

battlestar galactica half-season or whatever it's called premiere (spoilers)

I’ll actually avoid most spoilers, but just in case …

A very intense return for BSG, with some resolutions and other new angles. Alan Sepinwall has some interesting things to say about the arc-intensive episodes as opposed to the standalones, and I think his argument goes quite a ways towards helping to explain the up-and-down nature of the show, which seems to hit a lull on a regular basis, only to rebound with absolutely terrific episodes (of which tonight’s was one):

Why are the arc shows so much better? I can think of a few obvious reasons:

1. Awesome cliffhangers (Adama shot, Pegasus and Galactica at war, "One year later," etc.);
2. The entire cast is involved in significant ways, whereas many of the standalone shows tend to focus on one or a handful of characters;
3. There are consequences to what's happened before and in what will happen after.

It's that last one that's the big issue, one of the main elements that's elevated "Galactica" over the "Star Trek" spin-offs and virtually all of modern TV skiffy. There is no reset button. Grudges are held. Lost lives and resources aren't magically replaced. What the audience has watched before matters, and it makes what they're watching now better.

I’ll stay away from spoilers now, and just note one aspect of tonight’s episode that I loved. The Xenas (I know, lots of hardcore fans hate it when people like me call them that) think they have a destiny, and are gloriously happy about that supposed fact. Starbuck finds out she has a destiny, and she’s pissed off … the last thing she wants to hear is that her life was already planned out for her. Ever the rugged individualist! Of course, she is also one of the more religious humans, so it will be interesting to see how this angle plays out. And we don’t actually know yet what her destiny might be.

oscar run viii: united 93

I did not look forward to watching this movie. Having seen it, I’m not sure why I let my desire to watch possible award winners overcome my desire not to watch the movie. But it’s done, and so on to whatever I might have to say.

I remember when it came out, and I didn’t want to see it. Outside of that remembrance, I couldn’t recall much else of my thoughts at the time. So I was surprised to go back to those thoughts, after finally watching United 93, and realizing I had it right before I’d seen it. (This is not a good thing … one should never pass judgment in advance.) My thoughts were posted on my friend Charlie’s blog, after he’d written some useful notes on the film, which he saw with someone who, like Charlie, knew one of the passengers on the flight. Here is what I wrote at the time:

I often decline to see a movie because I sense in advance that it will be crappy or I simply won't like it (of course, those may be the same thing). I rarely decline to see a movie because I object to it on some level, regardless of whether or not it's any good. I really hate people who make choices about movies, or books, or music, or whatever, based on how much they agree or disagree with what they perceive will be the socio-political stance of the work (so that people who couldn't tell you which Dixie Chick is Natalie will start buying their albums the minute they diss George Bush).

But I am pretty sure it is going to be a very long time before I watch United 93. I'm not sure why it was made, and I find myself disapproving of the reasons even before I know what they are, no matter what they are. Part of this may be the lack of distance to the event ... it was Lenny Bruce who pointed out that time is needed to make something funny (in the 50s and early 60s, he could make all the jokes he wanted about Napoleon, but Hitler wasn't funny yet to most people, because most people still remembered Hitler). But that's not entirely my problem ... I just read a review of a new film called The Bridge that is about suicide jumpers off the Golden Gate Bridge, with footage of actual jumps, and that seems far more exploitative than United 93 yet I wanted to watch The Bridge the minute I read of it (suicide being something I probably obsess about too much).

I also don't object to revisiting past horrors for what we might learn. The Sorrow and the Pity, to take one excellent and very long example, is near the top of my lists of all-time films, and you don't see me objecting to it because it's an honest documentary look at the German occupation of France (any more than I object to what is clearly set up to be a metaphoric representation of that occupation in the upcoming Season Three of Battlestar Galactica). But United 93 just doesn't feel right to me. I only have second-degree-of-separation connection to the people on that flight, and based on your [Charlie’s] post here, I know that others with a much closer connection were willing to see the movie on the first night of its release. But me, I'm going to pass for a couple of decades….

I would read a book about the subject. I have already read Charlie's take, and cpratt's, and am thankful they've both written their immediate responses to the film. I would go to a movie that offered a fictionalized version, something that was "about" the events without being literal about it ... the way Elephant is about Columbine, say, although I really hated that movie, so maybe that's not the best example.

What I don't want to see is a recreation of the events, perhaps especially one that does a good and mostly accurate job of recreating. I can't justify my position, I just know I won't see the movie.

Well, now I’ve seen it. And I don’t know that I’d change much, if anything, of what I wrote before I saw it. One question was never answered for me: why was this movie made? I still don’t know. It’s very well done, it seems pretty honest and “accurate” whatever that means. But it was like porn, only porn I don’t like … I’m happy to look at movies of people fucking, but United 93 seemed barely better than a snuff film, in terms of its need to exist.

One problem with writing about culture is that there is always someone else out there who has already said what you wanted to say, and usually said it better, besides. Oftentimes, when it comes to movies, that person for me is Stephanie Zacharek. Her review was “positive” enough that it was given an 80 on a scale of 100 by Metacritic, yet her concerns (and mine) were evident from her very first paragraph:

Paul Greengrass' "United 93" is a movie made with tremendous care, and with almost boundless sensitivity to persons living and dead. But just hours after seeing the picture, I'm finding it hard to care about Greengrass' integrity: I've never had a more excruciating moviegoing experience in my life, and as brilliantly crafted -- and as adamantly unexploitive -- as the picture is, it still leaves you wondering why it was made in the first place.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

oscar run vii: little miss sunshine (spoilers)

That was it?

I can skip the part about whether or not it will get any Oscar nominations … it’s a possible Best Picture candidate, and will likely get a Best Original Screenplay and a couple of Best Supporting Actor/Actress nods as well.

Which is why I ask, that was it?

The best thing I can say for Little Miss Sunshine is that there’s nothing awful about it, and it’s feel-good dysfunctionalism makes me feel like a creep if I say anything bad. There are some good things going on here … lots of fine acting (for my money, Toni Collette is the best, but all of the main performers are good), and I suppose it’s nice that a movie exists that comes out on the side of freaks yet appeals to the mainstream.

But the tone of the film is confusing. If it’s a comedy, it’s not very funny. If it’s a drama, it falls flat. If it’s in between, well, it would help if the comedy was funny and the drama was engrossing. Take the death of Grandpa. He ODs on heroin … was it supposed to be funny, sad, a commentary on our times, or what? The family is sad … of course they are, one of them has passed away … but the death results in slapstick scenes of hijacking the body so they can drive down the freeway to a kid’s beauty pageant. It’s not a case of complex emotions, or of a movie that shows how even death can be funny, or any of that stuff … it’s a movie that will do anything to make a particular scene work, and when the end result is a mess, well, hey, it’s indie cinema, life is messy, what, you have something against freaks?

The big finish, while it was actually surprising (and funny), is just as confused as the rest of the movie. After a series of sex-pot performances from little 7–year-old girls, which I assume we’re meant to find disturbing, on comes little Olive to do her act. I think … again, if the movie worked, I’d know, I wouldn’t think … I think Olive’s act is supposed to be a commentary on the sick awfulness of the other performances, and of kids’ beauty pageants in general. But that’s not how it comes across. Olive isn’t great because she critiques the norm … she’s great because her version of the norm is less “authentic” and more crappy than the others. She’s great because she’s not good at being bad, and that’s not really a critique of what she’s trying to be. It’s a feel-good moment because she is a wonderful girl even though her act isn’t as good as the others. If the film really came down on the pageant, Olive’s act wouldn’t have been a lesser version of the others, it would be something entirely different. That she dances to “Super Freak” is indeed surprising and funny, but the only pro-freak thing about what follows is that she’s not very good at being a freak (which is a freaky thing in its own way). She’s really more normal than the other girls. How nice. Me, I’d rather she’d been freakier than the other girls.

The harried mom, the Kramden-esque dreamer husband, the suicidal brother, the moody teen, the grouchy grandpa, and the cute-as-a-button little daughter … do people really find this an original bunch? Each character’s quirks are original, I’ll give them that … grandpa does heroin, the brother wants to die because his work as a Proust scholar is underrated (by his peers, and by his ex-boyfriend). But none of these characters are anything other than characters in a movie. The actors strive mightily to make something of what they’re given, and most of the film’s success comes from those actors, who manage to suggest humanity where it didn’t likely exist on the page.

I suppose if there are going to be feel-good family movies, it’s nice that there’s one which is R-rated and freak-positive. I just wish it was a better movie than Little Miss Sunshine.

five years ago

Yes, it’s another installment of “What Was in This Blog Five Years Ago!”

On January 19, 2002, I blabbed about Netflix. They were having inventory problems … a lot of the DVDs in my queue were unavailable. Things must be better, since I have no unavailable discs in my queue right now.

I also included this picture, taken from the old webcam I used to have: