Monday, February 27, 2012

Afterthoughts about the Oscars

I wanted to live-tweet last night's telecast, but since I watched it on PVR, I couldn't tweet since I didn't want the rest of the night to be revealed before I watched the show. So here are some of the things I thought that I probably should have tweeted last night, along with ten "day-after" reflections on the show and the awards in general. (By the way, as I refer to the years of different awards, I'm referring to the year they concerned, rather than the year of the telecast.)

1. Bret not thanking Jemaine may be worse than Hilary Swank not thanking Chad Lowe. Can we please see HBO commission a third season of Flight of the Conchords so they can write an episode about Jemaine winning an award and Bret not dealing with it well?

2. How did I not pick Streep? She's in a biopic with heavy make-up doing an accent, and there was a significant sense of "we may not ever have a better opportunity to give it to her again". It's a testament to Viola Davis' performance that, in spite of all of the signs pointing to Streep, that she was considered the frontrunner.

3. Further breakdown on Streep's win: this biopic thing is out of control. Since 1994, there has only been one year - 1997 - in which there has been no acting award given for a biopic. Before last night, five of the previous seven Best Actor winners had been awarded for biopics. But it's in the actress categories that it gets even more interesting. Since 1998, there has only been one year in which one of the actress awards has not gone to someone playing a real-life character - 2008. In nine of those fourteen years, Best Actress awards have been given for biopics, with four for supporting roles; interestingly enough, there has only been one year - 2000, when Marcia Gay Harden unexpectedly upset Kate Hudson - in which both the Actress and Supporting Actress awards have been given for real-life roles. So the lesson here is to count on one actress award being given for a biopic; since Octavia Spencer was a lock, that meant that Streep should have been the consensus pick.

4. Billy Crystal needs to retire as host of the Oscars. I know they installed him as Eddie Murphy's replacement on "short notice", but his schtick (and that's what it was) felt mostly forced and outdated. Remember: he hosted when Jack Palance won for 1991's City Slickers, two decades ago. Granted, he didn't have a lot of material with which to work, but the comparisons to the latter Bob Hope years are appropriate. There are a lot of comedians who could do better than the performance Billy mailed in last night.

5. About last night's show: the Christopher Guest segment was genuinely funny and Cirque de Soleil was amazing, but most of the rest of the production was weak. And what was with that random montage? It seemed like a Grade 10 student's version of a media project: let's just throw all of these cool scenes together and hope it makes people forget about the lack of any purpose or direction in all of these clips being together. Weird.

6. Aside from Zach and Will (always a good laugh), Chris Rock, the Bridesmaids, and Emma Stone overplaying her giddiness, the presenters ranged from boring to just plain odd (Cameron Diaz acting like a 15-year-old girl) to awkward (Michael Douglas completely mangling Hazanavicius' name).

7. Can we finally just merge the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories and allow their professional association to give awards for the specific jobs? The list of nominees for both categories differed by only one film. We could break down "Best Visual Effects" into more than one category, but we don't, so can we please amalgamate the two into one finally?

8. I was surprised at Hugo's dominance in the technical categories (5 awards) not because of its prowess, but because those awards are often more spread out. I was slightly disappointed to see that Rise of the Planet of the Apes couldn't overcome 35 years of history (a non-Best Pic-nominee has never beaten a Best Pic nominee in for Best Visual Effects) and that Hugo won, but it is still a technically amazing film. Also, the Film Editing win for Baxter and Wall for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a sign of their dominance with that movie. Not only was it their second consecutive win, but it beat four Best Pic nominees. Impressive.

9. It seemed unnecessary to have nine nominees for Best Picture, especially given that, for the third year in a row, four of the nominees did not win any awards. The four that missed out - Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - were seen mostly as the "extra" nominees. Can we please go back to the five nominee system and be able to have the conversation about whether Moneyball should have been nominated instead of The Help?

10. Jim Rash, Oscar-winner. Enough said.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Final Oscar Picks 2012

Here we are, right before the telecast begins, and I'm making my final Oscar picks for this year. There are only a couple of categories that seem to be up for grabs, but here goes...

(Here's a quick reminder of my past performances.)
2005: 7/9, missed Picture and Original Screenplay
2006: 7/9, missed Picture and Supporting Actress
2007: 5/9, missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Animated Feature
2008: 6/9, missed Adapted Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress
2009: 8/9, missed Actor
2010: 6/9, missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay
2011: 7/9, missed Director and Original Screenplay

Best Picture: The Artist

Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Best Actor: My early observations were off, and it's between Clooney and Dujardin. Something tells me that Benigni/Brody syndrome kicks in this year and that Jean Dujardin - who has won almost everything else - wins for The Artist.

Best Actress: I think Viola Davis takes this one for The Help.

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners.

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer will win for The Help.

Best Animated Film: Rango

Best Adapted Screenplay: All the buzz has been going to The Descendants, even though Alexander Payne has won before (Sideways). I thought Hugo might have had a chance, but I don't think it gained enough momentum to win. I'm picking The Descendants, even if only to see Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) win an Oscar!

Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen will, I think, get his defacto "Lifetime Achievement" award for Midnight In Paris.

So, those are my picks for the main 9 categories. It should be a fun telecast, with the Muppets presenting, and I'll see if I can finally break through and get all my picks right this year! I'm also looking forward to seeing the phrase "Bret McKenzie, Oscar winner" in the near future. Off to the red carpet!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

For better or for worse: a personal narrative of The Simpsons

The Simpsons airs its 500th episode on Sunday, and it is a huge cultural milestone; only Gunsmoke and Bonanza have preceded Simpsons in longevity for prime-time shows. The fact that the show is still popular in its 23rd season is amazing, regardless of how the quality has dipped over the years.
I could go into all of the pop cultural ramifications of the show and how it has changed comedy and inspired a genre and a generation of comedians and spend time waxing poetic, but I'm going to leave that for someone who writes in the New Yorker. I'm going to focus on a more personal narrative: for better or for worse, The Simpsons has had a huge effect on my life.
When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to watch The Simpsons: it was too crass, I guess. My mom was the one who wouldn't let me watch it; it might have been the same "anti-misogynism" reasoning that meant that I couldn't watch The Flintstones. My dad watched it all the time, and he let me sneak around to watch my first episode when I was Bart's age (ten or eleven); "The Last Temptation of Homer" is still one of my favourites today. In the next few years, I watched the Simpsons every day, which happened to coincide with the show's best seasons (4th through 9th), and I quoted from the show constantly.
I remember watching the 138th Episode Spectacular when it aired, as well as "Trash of the Titans", the series' 200th episode, which featured U2 on the PopMart tour. I remember being incredibly excited about the launch of Futurama in 1999 and how I became increasingly disillusioned with the Simpsons the longer it aired. By the way, I don't think it was a coincidence that the onset of Futurama correlates directly with the descent of The Simpsons; though, if I had to choose between watching either only Futurama or the sixth through ninth seasons of The Simpsons, it would be a very tight competition - Futurama still wins, though. The first CD I bought was Songs in the Key of Springfield, and at one point I owned all of the CD releases as well as the book episode guides, in addition to over 500 mp3s from the show (found back in the pre-torrent days of Napster and Kazaa). I remember when I got rid of all of that material and all of the episodes I had downloaded in my purging of things that I felt were distracting me from my walk with God (ah, youthful naivete and zeal!), and how much of an embarassing vacuum it actually left in my life at the time. I've since matured (thankfully), and now I appreciate The Simpsons on several levels: as nostalgia, as occasionally still cutting-edge satire, as one of the dominant and resonant forces of pop culture of the past half-century (I think I'm going to have to make that a list now), as an invaluable tool as an English and Social Studies teacher, and as the source of a lot of laughs over the years. My life, and indeed the lives of my generation, have not only been mirrored in the residents of Springfield, but in fact have been shaped by The Simpsons. For better or for worse.

To conclude, here are my personal favourite episodes of the series, in no particular order. I know I've probably forgotten some classics, but here are the ten that stick out off the top of my head, along with some of my favourite moments from each episode. (I've also included one honourable mention and my favourite Treehouse of Horror episode, for good measure.)

"Itchy & Scratchy Land": The Simpsons take on the destruction of a Disneyland-style theme park was sublimely satirical. "Attention! We are out of Bort license plates" in the gift shop!"

"A Star Is Burns": The film festival, complete with a visit from Jay Sherman. "Man getting hit by Football" was sheer brilliance, but so was Burns' film. I could quote almost the entire episode, but I'll just leave it at "boo-urns".

"El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer": A chili cook-off, Guatemalan insanity peppers, Johnny Cash as a talking coyote, a touching moment in Homer and Marge's marriage, and a cargo of hot pants. "I'm missing the cook-off!"

"Das Bus": The Simpsons' take on Lord of the Flies, complete with a riff on Model UN. "Go banana!"

"The Springfield Files": Mulder and Scully investigate a mysterious being that appears in the woods every Friday night. Shamu guest stars. "It's the feds! Get him back to Sea World!"

"Deep Space Homer": Homer going into space was a great riff on The Right Stuff. "S-M-R-T!"

"The Last Temptation of Homer": Bart's a nerd, and Homer's tempted by a minx named Mindy. "Think unsexy thoughts, think unsexy thoughts."

"Bart vs. Australia" - Bart angers an entire island. "I see you've played 'knifey-spooney' before."

Lemon of Troy - For my money, the best episode featuring the kids. "Shake harder, boy!"

Homer Badman - The Candy Convention. "See you in Hell, candy boys!"

Honourable Mention - Summer of 4 Ft. 2. Lisa's cool on the Simpsons' trip to the cabin. "See you in the car!" "Sweet merciful crap! My car!"

And the best Treehouse of Horror: V, which featured "Time and Punishment" and "The Shinning". "Ach, I'm bad at this!"

Friday, February 10, 2012

We'll always have Burbank #goodbyechuck

Goodbye, Chuck. It has been a good run. I remember when I discovered you during a sick week in my first year of teaching. You've been with me for five years, the entirety of my professional career and my marriage. You've given me some great memories over the years, so I feel the need to take some time and reflect on the whole Chuck experience.

[Season 5 SPOILER ALERT!] I'll start off a quick review of Season 5, especially the series finale. I was glad that the show had the final season. It never felt extraneous or like the show went on too long; if anything, this season was not long enough. The thirteen episodes went very quickly, and my main criticism of the season is that it seemed like they had too many stories to tell, with three major story arcs and one of the best backstory flashback episodes of the series. I don't know what they could have done to amend the issue other than adding an episode for pacing, since I don't think that deleting content from the season would have worked. And really, it's a minor criticism compared to how effectively the events of this season developed the characters and the world of the show.
It was surreal watching the series finale after four years of preparing that every season finale could be the end of the series. The finale faced some of the same challenges as Season 5 in general: too much content and too little time. I really enjoyed the deliberate parallelism to the pilot episode, as well as the most epic Jeffster! performance yet, though I wanted a bit more closure with Ellie and Devon, and one last Chuck and Morgan bromance geekout scene. (Maybe five extra minutes. Maybe there will be an extended version on the DVD.) I loved the development with Sarah and Chuck, and I appreciated that the show did not take the easy way out of the developments of the last few episodes. I'm not going to lie: I cried at the last scene, and my heart will break a little every time I hear "Rivers and Roads" by The Head and the Heart, but that last scene was absolutely perfect. [END SPOILER ALERT...for now.]

The question, then, is what remains as the legacy of Chuck. It did not have a significant effect on pop culture as a whole, but will be fondly remembered by the people who did watch it. The show managed to last for 91 episodes over five seasons as one of the lowest-rated but largely critically acclaimed shows on TV because of serendipitous and circumstances (the writers' strike, the meteoric rise of social media, and NBC undergoing arguably the worst five-year creative stretch of any major TV network ever) and a passionate fan base. Chuck is the type of show that networks have long abhorred but that is finding home on cable networks. Chuck's 91 episodes are the equivalent of seven 13-episode seasons, and it's not that difficult to rework Chuck's narrative to fit that kind of structure. [SPOILER ALERT!]
Season 1: Chuck gets the intersect; discovers Bryce and Fulcrum at the end [no change from S1]
Season 2: Fulcrum; ends with Christmas episode (Sarah shoots Fulcrum agent) [move a couple of post-Christmas episodes beforehand to fill it out from actual S2]
Season 3: Orion, Roark, and the end of Fulcrum (end of actual S2]
Season 4: The Ring and Shaw; ends with Chuck killing Shaw on the bridge [S3E13]
Season 5: Chuck and Sarah start dating, Shaw returns, Chuck's mom discovered, ends with Volkoff being revealed [S4E7]
Season 6: Volkoff, Gretas, Agent X, and Chuck and Sarah's wedding [ends with actual S4 finale]
Season 7: Morgan gets the intersect, Verbanski, Omen, and the ending [Actual S5]

The point is that even with the constraints of network TV that the showrunners developed narratives that worked in shorter bursts. Chuck further demonstrates the need for networks to give more creative control in programming to the showrunners and to allow the freedom to develop stories without the imposition of a calendar year. Chuck could have been even better with that leeway, and it seems like more writers are gravitating toward the cable model of writing and developing shows that aren't crime procedurals or evening soap operas. Chuck will serve as a reminder and cautionary tale of this transitional period, when the networks still mattered in scripted serial series.

There are, of course, many reasons I do and will fondly remember Chuck, both in retrospect and when I rewatch the series eventually. So, finally, here are the top 10 things I'll miss about Chuck:
10. Adam Baldwin: After Firefly's inappropriately short run, I was glad to have the man called Jayne on one of my favourite shows. I'll miss his monosyllabic grunts and his ridiculous armory.
9. The background music: I can't remember many shows that have so effectively used repetitive music to establish mood. Frenetic arpeggios indicated a game-changing development; ominous undertones established villainy; carefree tunes framed the light-hearted escapades of the Buy More. It was obvious, to be sure, but it worked within the show's construct.
8. 80s nostalgia: From the music of Jeffster! to homages to movies like Back to the Future and Return of the Jedi to Missile Command, the 1980s were everywhere in Chuck.
7. The satire of corporate culture: The Buy More and Nerd Herd became one of the key plot pieces of the show, often in drastic situations, but there were always opportunities for the writers to use the Buy More to lampoon corporate big-box culture, especially around Black Friday.
6. The guest stars: I can't think of many shows that have featured as many guest stars and that have used them as effectively. Some of the show's most memorable characters were the guest stars (eg. Dominic Monaghan as Tyler Martin), and there was always a sense of "what are they going to have that actor do?" when the names were announced (or appeared in the opening credit roll).
5. The spying: Some of the show's best exploits were the episodes that relied heavily on spy cliches: smuggling, infiltrating, romancing, dancing, diamond thieves. Then there are all of the elements that became part of the show's constructed spy world: Charles Carmichael, The Intersect, Fulcrum, Orion, the Ring, Volkoff, and the Omen virus, to name a few. Chuck has earned its place in any discusssion of the spy genre.
4. Geek-speak and gadgetry: Beyond the spy-speak, there was an underlying sympathy toward nerds and geeks in the show. Some of the most fun moments were seeing Chuck and Morgan navigate the "cool" world and having to use their nerdly tendencies to save the day (ie. Morgan's COD advice or Chuck's hacking skills).
3. The soundtrack: Josh Schwartz' reputation as a master manipulator of music was reinforced with Chuck. The incorporation of tunes ranging from the most pedestrian pop to the indiest of indie was accomplished seamlessly, and many of the songs became integral to the show's key scenes. And somehow, there were repeated instances in which music I was discovering at that time was featured in the show: The National, The Black Keys, even The Head and the Heart. Well done, Josh. Well done.
2. The bromances: One of the true joys of the show was seeing how each of the bromances developed. Jeff and Lester, Chuck and Devon, Morgan and Casey, and especially Chuck and Morgan, one of the best all-time TV bromances from the get-go. In a word, Awesome.
1. The show's heart: The key for the show was that we cared about what happened to the characters. Chuck was a helpless nerd who became a superspy; Casey softened from a hardened soldier to a caring father; Sarah grew into her relationship with Chuck; Morgan grew up; etc. We believed their growth and we cared about their relationships; they were people, not just characters. Even with all of the fun and silliness and high-tech spy stuff, I most value the show for introducing me to this crazy group of characters. And so I bid a fond farewell to Chuck, at least until we meet again on DVD and the whole thing starts again.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Twenty years of Best Pictures

I realized recently that this year marks the twentieth year that I will be watching and keeping track of the Academy Awards. Yes, I started when I was nine, in 1992. I didn't watch the whole telecast, but I do remember that Star Trek VI was nominated for Best Sound Editing. Anyway, I thought I would spend some time during Oscar season reflecting on the past two decades of the Awards. I'll start with Best Picture this week. The accusation on the Awards is that they don't reflect one of popular opinion, artistic merit, or craftsmanship, depending on the year. There usually needs to be critical consensus, popular awareness, and an accumulation of cultural zeitgeist to win the award, which probably means that in a month The Artist should win its seemingly inevitable accolades barring some incredible rise in the fortune of The Descendants. At any rate, I thought I would go through the winners and nominees from the past twenty years and attempt to determine how many times the "right" film won, starting with 1991. I decided to look at which film won, which nominee should have won, and if there was another unnominated film that should have won. For example, if I were counting 1989 and 1990, they would both be big misses: Driving Miss Daisy over any other nominee that year, and Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas. Ugh.

1991-1993 are fairly easy, as the film that won in each case is also the film that should have won: The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, and Schindler's List. 3-for-3 to start.

1994: The first disparity: Forrest Gump won over Pulp Fiction (as well as The Shawshank Redemption). Sentimental biography wins over one of the most innovative films ever made - and Zemeckis even beat Tarantino in Best Director to add insult to injury. Miss.

1995: I can see why movie attendance in 2011 was the lowest since 1995. It was not a great year for movies. Braveheart won in a weak field, and by all accounts it should have won from the nominees (though some would make an argument for Sense and Sensibility). There were a number of smaller nominees that couldn't get the kind of traction they needed, so despite the flaws in Braveheart, I'll give it a marginal pass.

1996: The year that indie films really broke through - Shine, Sling Blade, Fargo, Secrets & Lies - featured one of the more tedious winning epics in Oscar history: The English Patient, which fits in well with the history of Best Pictures. The oversight is especially egregious, however, considering that one of the other nominees was the Coens' Fargo, which reinvented the American noir and will stand the test of time as one of the most memorable commentaries on American culture in later cinema, as well as the definining entry moment of independent-style filmmaking in the new American cinemas. Definite miss.

1997: Titanic was an unstoppable juggernaut, and perhaps rightly so, as no other film had the kind of moxie to dethrone the king of the world. Good Will Hunting had its charms and flaws; As Good As It Gets did not quite live up to its title; and The Boxer and Boogie Nights weren't even nominated. In terms of cinematic history, Titanic probably was the right choice (though it should not have won Best Director); in terms of quality, I'd have turned to L.A. Confidential (which still won a screenplay award). Marginal pass.

1998: Here it gets nasty. The nominees were Elizabeth, The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Life is Beautiful, and the winner, Shakespeare In Love. Great screenplay, even a valid nominee, maybe a winner in another year, but that year? Huge miss picking it over Saving Private Ryan.

1999: It's hard to argue against the winner, American Beauty. Maybe The Insider was a better film, but within the field of nominees, Beauty gets a nominal pass. I can understand why films like Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, and Magnolia weren't nominated and how they could have been picked over the winner, but I'll give this year a pass.

2000: Another groaner, as Gladiator won the top prize - though as small consolation, it is part of a select group of films that won Best Picture but did not win either Best Director or a Best Screenplay award. Those awards both went to Steven's Soderbergh's intensely-driven densely woven tale about drug sales in Mexico and California, which should have won Best Picture (the loss of which I think likely led to Crash's unfortunate win in 2005). I was entertained by Gladiator, but this is still a big miss.

2001: A Beautiful Mind won out of an eclectic group of nominees, including the quixotic nomination of Moulin Rouge! for Best Pic without being nominated for either Best Director or Best Original Screenplay. This year had several movies that were deserving but not nominated for Best Pic, such as Memento and The Royal Tenenbaums, but the real travesty was that The Fellowship of the Ring did not win. I know the whole series was honoured with the finale, but it really was an accomplishment unlike any other in film. A miss.

2002: Chicago is another example of a film that won Best Pic without winning Director or a Screenplay. It was stylized and relatively unique, but it felt more like voters were embarassed about the ignorance of Moulin Rouge! a year earlier. Considering the other nominated films as well as non-nominated (ie. Adaptation.), although it's difficult to say which film could have beat Chicago, it seems like one of them should have. Marginal miss.

2003: Arguments could be made for Mystic River or Lost in Translation, but the year was defined by the winner, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It had its flaws, to be sure, but it deserved its trophy. Pass.

2004: One of the worst years for Best Picture nominees that I can recall; Sideways was the best of the nominees, including winner Million Dollar Baby. Many films were eschewed in favour of the odd choices (Ray, Finding Neverland), including the film that I think should have won, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Definite miss.

2005: Crash. Any of the other four nominees should have won over Crash. Of the five, I'd probably pick Brokeback Mountain. One of the biggest misses ever.

2006: Scorsese's The Departed won in another weird year for nominees; there could easily have been another slate of five films that made up the nominees, and three of the top six films in terms of nominations were not nominated for Best Picture. The most egregious exception was for Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, which was the best of the year (and according to Metacritic, one of the best reviewed of the decade), and should have won. The best nominee won, but it's still a miss.

2007: One of my favourite years for film, period, including the winner, No Country for Old Men. Although I love There Will Be Blood, and I think it might be a better film (I vacillate between the two), No Country was amazing and deserved the prize. Pass.

2008: I think that the Oscars felt the need to shake off the "dark" vibe from the previous year, and that's partly why Slumdog Millionaire won (though it was intense, it was decidedly more optimistic). Again, a list could easily have been made of films left off the nomination list, but there's one film that stood out, despite the fact that it was not typical Oscar fare: The Dark Knight. I still think it genuinely should have been nominated, along with other films like Doubt, The Wrestler, or even Wall-E. Slumdog was the best of the five, so a marginal pass is awarded.

2009: With ten nominees, it was harder to omit any films, though it seemed fairly clear that there were five "real" nominees along with five "lesser" nominees that year. The Hurt Locker beat the Avatar juggernaut, and I'll give it a pass based on that criterion alone.

2010: Ten nominees again, with another set of favoured films and "lesser" Best Pic nominees. The Social Network, one of the most inventive films in recent history and one that will certainly help define the next decade of filmmaking, was beaten by The King's Speech, an entertaining though bloated historical biopic. Definite miss.

So, in twenty years of Best Pictures, the total comes to ten misses and ten passes, though I'd say that three of the passes are marginal. 50% of the time is not a good average, but it's actually better than I thought it would be. Of course, there were more astounding misses than there were definite passes, and the negatives will almost always outweigh the positives, but there it is. I should only expect to see a worthy film win every second year, and at least once every three or so years I should expect the "best" film to not even be nominated. I guess that's the life of a cinephile.


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