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oscar run xxvii: live action short films

Short films are interesting. I tend to like them … I don't complain about movies being too long just to be cranky … even a bad short is over soon, and the best ones are lean, all-meat wonders. But I don't really remember short films after I've seen them. So I can tell you I didn't much care for Six Shooter, which won this category last year, but I can only tell you that because I can see on IMDB that I rated it 5 on a scale of 10. I don't actually recall anything about the movie.

I still have this year's nominees fresh in my mind, though, so I can tell you that I thought Binta y la gran idea was one of those sappy one-love movies where you don't need to read the credits to know it came from UNICEF. And I can tell you that the other four were about equal in quality. Éramos pocos was a funny look at how hapless men are without a woman around (and it had a surprise ending), Helmer & søn was a mundane but heartwarming look at how hapless men are about exposing their emotions to their fathers (and it had a surprise ending), The Saviour was an interesting look at Mormon missionaries in Australia (and it had a surprise ending), and West Bank Story was an entertaining but one-joke version of West Side Story, with Jews and Arabs in place of Sharks and Jets (and the ending shouldn't have surprised anyone). If I had to pick a favorite, I suppose it would be Éramos pocos, if I had to guess which one would win, I'd choose either Binta for the sappy message, or West Bank Story because its one joke was a good one. All of these films are available on iTunes for $1.99 apiece.

friday random ten, 1963 edition

1. The Ronettes, "Be My Baby." The greatest moment of just about everyone involved, and the perfect beginning to Mean Streets.

2. The Beatles, "Don't Bother Me." Ironic, that we get started on the Beatles' classic period, and shuffle play coughs up a George song, the first of his solo compositions the Beatles recorded.

3. Paul Revere & the Raiders, "Louie Louie." My memory may be faulty at this point, but I could swear that in the SF Bay Area, this was the more popular version, not the Kingsmen.

4. Bob Dylan, "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance." Dylan used to put a song like this on albums at the beginning of his career … I imagine they were good concert tunes. I love 'em.

5. Boots Randolph, "Yakety Sax." You know this song, even if you don't think you know it (think Benny Hill).

6. Mongo Santamaria, "Watermelon Man." Written by a family relation of the best man at my son's wedding. This oft-anthologized song appears on the classic album Dick Van Dyke's Dance Party.

7. Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, "Why Do Lovers Break Each Other's Hearts." A tribute to Frankie Lymon.

8. Martha & the Vandellas, "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave." When it came to Motown, I much preferred Martha to Diana.

9. The Essex, "Easier Said Than Done." Perhaps the best song ever by a bunch of Marines.

10. The Singing Nun, "Dominique." There are a lot of amazing stories to be told about the various artists on this list, but none can match that of the Singing Nun. By the way, as far as I know, the video I've linked to is legit.

oscar run xxvi: babel (spoilers)

Three different narratives (maybe four) are artificially twisted into one movie for no apparent purpose, resulting in a movie that has spectacular moments but grows tiring over the course of 143 minutes.

Babel wears you down with its unrelenting take on modern life. American woman gets shot in Morocco … will she die? Will her husband be able to save his wife and their marriage? A Latina woman living in the States for sixteen years gets caught by border police … she's done nothing wrong, but she's an illegal, so she gets deported. Oh, and she's a nanny who loves her two cute charges, and she'll never see them again, plus her crazy nephew leaves the three of them in the middle of the desert, where they almost die. A deaf Japanese teenager is horny, and humiliates herself in a quest for someone who will love her. Oh, and her mother blew her brains out. Oh, and the American woman was shot accidentally by a young boy. Who was playing with a rifle that his father bought from a friend. Who got the rifle from … the father of the teenager.

Hey, I told you there were spoilers. The connections between the various stories are bogus, and there's really no reason why this wasn't three different movies. Well, I guess we're supposed to think about the old "a pebble in a pond here makes something happen there so we're all part of the same universe" thing, which isn't v.profound. The individual stories are of varying quality … none are bad, but your interest in them will differ depending on your own tastes (I liked the teenager's story the best, as usual, and the Americans' story least). The photography is superb, and some good acting is scattered throughout the film (two of the women got Supporting Actress noms). But it's much ado about nothing, in the end. You know how sometimes an actor will get a real curtain-chewing role, and they'll play it to the hilt and get an Oscar nomination because of how well they show off? This movie has an equivalent in its editing. Yep, it's amazing … you can't not notice is, that's for sure. It's a perfect match for Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane … you show off, you get nominated, everyone is impressed, but so what?

All of the above makes it sound as if I disliked Babel, when in fact I thought it was pretty good. I can't say I was disappointed, because I managed to stay unspoiled about it and so had no expectations one way or another. But I liked how it started, loved certain parts, and nonetheless was ready for it to be over long before the actual ending finally strolled by me on the screen. A movie that starts crappy but picks up steam often seems better than it really is, because we leave the theater on a high. Babel seems worse than it is, because when you finally realize there's no there there, the movie still has half an hour to go.

To the nominations, of which there are seven. Best editing, obviously (although nothing for cinematography, which I thought was better). Best original score, which I guess it was OK because I didn't notice it, but since I didn't notice it, I don't imagine it's Oscar-worthy. Best original screenplay … if you want to know what I thought, just read the above, it's clever and showy and ultimately a bit unsatisfying.

Two women got Best Supporting Actress nominations, Adriana Barraza as the nanny, and Rinko Kikuchi as the teenager. They were the best thing about Babel, and I suppose I'd choose Kikuchi over Barraza because her humiliations required some brave acting (not that Barraza was bad). I've seen all five noms in this category. Jennifer Hudson will probably win, and she was fine, but I'd vote for either Kikuchi or for Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal. (Blanchett plays the wounded American in Babel, and is wasted.)

Alejandro González Iñárritu is up for Best Director, and I have the same problems here as I do with most of the movie … it's impressive, but a bit empty. I've seen all five in this category as well, and would choose either Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese. Either would be a good choice, although I admit I think Eastwood is far too highly regarded so it wouldn't break my heart if he lost.

Finally, there's Best Picture. Babel shouldn't win. Of the nominated films, I'd go once again with Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima and Scorsese's The Departed. Both would be decent choices … I don't think either will be considered part of the canon fifty years from now, but that's irrelevant. I've seen at least two movies that were better than all the Best Picture nominees, BTW.

Since I've now seen all of the Best Picture nominees, it's worth looking one more time at my ratings thus far for 2006 films I have seen:

9 on a scale of 10 (note that neither of these films got a Best Picture nod):

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

Children of Men


8 (two of these movies got zero nominations):

Casino Royale

The Departed

Half Nelson

An Inconvenient Truth

Letters from Iwo Jima

A Scanner Darkly


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (admittedly a TV movie)





Flags of Our Fathers

Notes on a Scandal







The Devil Wears Prada

The Illusionist

Jesus Camp

Little Miss Sunshine

Monster House


The Queen

Superman Returns

X-Men: The Last Stand



Marie Antoinette

United 93



Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Still to come are The Black Dahlia and The Prestige, which will probably be the last Oscar Run movies, and nine of the ten nominated live-action and animated short films (I've seen two, have seven more to watch, one I can't find anywhere).

oscar run xxv: poseidon

Poseidon is efficient. It gets the job done in twenty fewer minutes than the original, which must be some kind of record for modern film making. It lets Kurt Russell be the hero, even though he's older than I am, and as always, Russell is just fine in the movie, even though he has to overcome one too many facelifts. It features an entertaining blend of stars (Russell, Richard Dreyfuss), talented refugees from television (Andre Braugher, Kevin Dillon, Freddy Rodríguez), and babes (Jacinda Barrett, Emmy Rossum, Mía Maestro, Josh Lucas, Mike Vogel). Given the choices, it's the most qualified winner in its Oscar-nominated category (Best Achievement in Visual Effects, up against Superman and Captain Jack).

All of the above is true, yet one question remains: why was this movie made? I don't have the slightest idea. The original was crap. It might have had its entertaining moments, including a couple that have become part of pop culture history, but that's about it. Cutting the running time by twenty minutes is always a great idea, but in this case, there is even less time than necessary to answer my question. The opening credits establish one thing: the ship is big. Then the efficiency sets in. We get the usual one-quick-scene-establishes-character spots for each of the featured players, and before the movie has barely even started, the "rogue wave" flips the ship, and the action begins. Some of it is gross, some of it is exciting, all of it is stupid … there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes. But you won't have missed a thing if you never see this movie, a sure sign that there was no reason for it to be made in the first place. I understand why they made a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean … I don't like those movies, but a lot of people do, a lot of money is made. I understand why they made another Superman movie … he's a classic American character and they tried to do some new and interesting things with him (I'm one who isn't convinced there is much of interest about Superman, but that's another story). But why remake The Poseidon Adventure? If it's for money, then they had better hope for a lot of DVD rentals (something Kurt Russell movies do well) … it cost $160 million to make, and only took in $182 million worldwide. And when the only topic I can come up with to discuss about a movie is its box office numbers, it's not much of a movie, is it?

oscar run xxiv: notes on a scandal (spoilers)

It usually helps to come to a movie cold, with no knowledge of what you're about to see. This was the case for me and Notes on a Scandal. I knew it had Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, and in my mind, both actresses turn up in both classy movies and popular entertainments … I assumed this would be classy, when it turned out it was pop.

Both actresses are nominated for Oscars, with Blanchett having much the better chance of winning … Dench is up against Helen "Hand Her the Statue Now and Be Done With It" Mirren, while Blanchett, for no apparent reason, is in the Supporting Actress category (her part is just as important as Dench's). Both do fine work … when is it otherwise? … and for extra measure, Bill Nighy has a decent-sized supporting role, and he's one of my favorites (Pirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding). All of these actors deserve the kudos coming their way. The other nominations are a bit shakier. Best Adapted Screenplay is always a tricky category … are we supposed to consider the relationship to the source, and if so, what if we haven't experienced the source? (This year's nominees include Children of Men, which I liked a lot but which is said to have departed quite a bit from the novel that I haven't read, and The Departed, which I liked a lot and where I HAVE seen the source HK film … does any of that matter?) Notes on a Scandal is a very effective thriller, in a Basic Instinct but Tonier way, particularly effective for people like me who had no idea going in that I was about to see a thriller. "Thriller" isn't quite accurate, of course, it's a character study, so pick your own adjective … whatever you would have called Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, say, that's what this movie is. The film is also nominated for Best Score … I found it rather obvious, as soon as we figure out Dench's character is a bit evil, the music reinforces that notion, and does it again, and again, and again.

It's an enjoyable movie full of good acting, and Cate Blanchett is stunningly beautiful, which is duh, I know, but geez. I want to give this film a solid thumbs-up, but a point needs to be made. Certainly we've reached a point where lesbians are portrayed in popular culture in a variety of ways, which is good, and we've surely advanced to the point where a lesbian can even be a "bad guy." But it still seems a bit uncomfortable when we get a lesbian villain like this one. Repressed, devious, like a vampire … it's a character straight out of The Children's Hour or The Killing of Sister George. Ultimately, Notes on a Scandal survives such thoughts, but they are thoughts which won't go away … we haven't advanced quite that far, yet.

oscar run xxiii: marie antoinette

Any movie which kicks off with a Gang of Four song knows how to get on my good side, and so I wasn't bothered in the least by the anachronistic use of post-punk music as a soundtrack to 18th-century Europe. Sofia Coppola even pulls off an interesting trick with her choice of songs … while "Natural's Not in It," and indeed all of the early work of the Gang of Four, is a dynamic combination of radical political theory and booty-shaking jagged rhythms, and while the beginning of the song suggests a leftist approach to the movie's titular subject ("The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure … your relations are of power, we all have good intentions, but all with strings attached"), the phrase that actually sets up the film is "this heaven gives me migraine." This story is told, not from the point of view of an omniscient theorist, but from the point of view of the migraine sufferer. Coppola dares us to sympathize with Marie "Let Them Eat Cake" Antoinette, which to my mind is a far more dangerous move than just adding Bow Wow Wow songs to the soundtrack (and is, I think, the reason behind some of the most negative reactions to the movie … how dare she!).

And so, within seconds of the start, with the chunka-chunka guitar, I'm ready.

So why is it that when the movie is over, I'm drowning in frustration, as well as bored shitless? Especially since, to the extent I can ascertain authorial intent, it appears Coppola achieved what she set out to accomplish?

The first hour and a half of this two-hour movie is dedicated to the isolated existence of Marie Antoinette, used as a political pawn and given little opportunity to exercise any creative control over her own life. Coppola pulls this off … you understand why Marie wants to buy crap, she has no other outlet. The setup is there for an incisive view of a heaven that gives one migraine. But what we see on the screen would barely cause an ice-cream headache, much less a migraine. Her social surroundings demand that Marie's life be constricted, even boring … that's no reason for Coppola to bore the audience, as well. There is little sense of an outside world here, and again, that is not only appropriate, but in line with Coppola's stated intentions regarding the film … this is life as Marie might have seen it. But her response to the migraine-inducing heaven is dreadfully mundane. The film needs a dose of Sally Bowles-style decadence, a kind of self-absorption that invites the audience in. Cabaret is a great film in part because we get sucked into Sally's notions of decadence, and are then implicated in the Nazism going on while Sally is singing. Marie Antoinette never sucks us in … the only people who would watch this movie and wish they were in it are Manolo Blahnik fans.

So the picture looks sumptuous, and while I know little about costumes (period or otherwise), and thus can't really speak intelligently about the one category in which Marie Antoinette acquired an Oscar nomination, the costumes sure looked purty. But so what? Marie Antoinette's life was shallow, not because she lacked depth, but because society forced shallowness upon her. Fine, but the movie ends up being as shallow as was Marie's life.

When history finally makes its appearance, it is ludicrous. Coppola clearly intends for us, along with Marie, to have become so isolated that we're startled by the incursion of actual rebellious subjects. But to have a character pop in (and "pop in" just about describes how it happens) to shout out that the Bastille has been stormed … well, it's too late to be startled by anything, other than to finally realize what a waste the movie is. Coppola proceeds to squeeze the entire French Revolution into half an hour of "oh, here they come."

Television series have made the shortcomings of this kind of writing too obvious. The look of Marie Antoinette demands a big screen, so I can't argue that it would have been better on TV. But … and I hate to argue in favor of length when I so often complain about movies being too long … this movie would have been a hell of a lot better if it were six hours long instead of two. We could have had the 90 minutes of Marie's consumerist isolation, and still had room for a larger historical context that might have given the audience the opportunity to actually care about the people on the screen.

I liked Lost in Translation a lot and am surprised and not a little disappointed at how little I liked Marie Antoinette. But looking back on my comments about the earlier movie, I see something that perhaps speaks more to my own tastes than to whatever Sofia Coppola is up to. I made the inevitable if unfair comparisons to her father, and noted that while Dad made some very fine "small" pictures, his fame justly rests on his big projects. Then I argued that "Lost in Translation is about small things that matter greatly, and the best things about the movie are the tiniest," suggesting that Sofia was showing strengths in different areas from her father. Marie Antoinette is a much "bigger" picture than Lost in Translation … to me, it was also a much lesser picture.

performance revisited

We watched Performance again tonight, first time for the new DVD. The disc is mostly good … picture is fine, sound adequate, extras sparse but one, a 20+ minute documentary on the making of the film, is interesting, especially if you don't know the back story.

As for the movie, we had one virgin in the crowd, and he said he was surprised that the movie was relatively coherent and narrative-driven. It was a very interesting point, which served as a reminder than almost 40 years have passed since the film was made. What seemed revolutionary at the time is standard procedure now. Fragmented edited, flashbacks and flash forwards, some serious sex scenes (still beautiful after all these years), violence that still makes its point but is fairly tame by today's standards … if Performance came out now, the discussion would be about the themes of the movie, not the techniques. Count me as someone who thinks the themes hold up, and remain endlessly fascinating.

imperial presidency

Tomorrow's New York Times has an article with the following quotes. The candidate "believes that a president usually deserves the benefit of the doubt from Congress on matters of executive authority." According to the candidate's advisers, their boss "believes in executive authority and Congressional deference" and "is careful about suggesting that Congress can overrule a commander in chief."

The candidate in question is, of course, Hillary Clinton.

better than being eaten by dogs, or, don’t call me marie provost

More than a year after death, LI man found in front of his TV

A man's body was found in his home more than a year after his death, with the television still on and his features preserved by dry conditions, officials said.

Vincenzo Ricardo, 70, apparently died of natural causes, said Dr. Stuart Dawson, Suffolk County's deputy chief medical examiner. Southampton Town police found Ricardo's body this week when they responded to a report of burst pipes.

Ricardo was found in a chair in front of the television set, as though he were watching it, Dawson said.