Monday, February 23, 2015

Why The Oscars (Don't) Matter

I figured out years ago that the Academy Awards aren't about winners and losers, at least not in any similarity to a sporting event. 

It's just an opportunity for established filmmakers to congratulate individuals in the industry for doing good work.  And that is why some years are more predictable than others.  When handicapping the Oscars all one has to do is look to see who the Academy thinks deserves an award, and 9 times out of 10, that person or film will win.  If it's not your "turn," you won't win.  You might not even be nominated.  Sometimes there will be a breakout performance that interrupts the cycle, or a film is so overwhelmingly popular it will sweep a bunch of awards, but it's also common for the awards to be spread out over a number of films. 

I think that's what happened this year.  Birdman ultimately impressed enough people because of its technical achievements, but maybe not its performances.  The same with Grand Budapest Hotel.  And because there was no knock-out drama, the acting awards were spread out to the "deserving but overlooked" (Julian Moore) and a relative newcomer (Eddie Redmayne).  It also doesn't hurt that these two performances were about people battling illness - a favorite challenge for the Academy to recognize.  Supporting Oscars went to veteran actors this year recognized for their careers, although Supporting awards often seem to go to newcomers in stand-out roles.

I'm trying to figure out if the apparent snub of Selma was because a film featuring African-American struggles was a big winner last year, or if Selma just isn't a very good film.  I haven't seen it yet.  But I see now that American Sniper, despite its great box-office, never had much of a chance.  Eastwood has been recognized repeatedly for better work, and Cooper will get his Oscar eventually.  Just for a better role.  (Instead, Sniper won a technical award perhaps because that was a category it could be recognized for without upsetting the other award categories.)

This isn't a bad system, because how do you really judge one great performance "better" than another great performance?  I think the competition aspect is silly, but choosing to recognize films and individuals, the Academy's stated goal, makes sense.  Some people get overlooked, others get a little too much attention, but it's just a group of industry insiders picking people and films they think deserve recognition.  (And this is why I think a nomination is really just as good as a win.  I'm still shocked that The Lego Movie wasn't nominated for best Animated film, and that comedies and action films are still routinely snubbed in the Best Picture category.  Too many Academy members must not think those films are ever "deserving" of recognition besides in a technical category.)

The Academy is in some trouble, though, and they made telling fun of it during the opening number, with Jack Black angrily singing about people being more interested in the "screen in their jeans" than the Silver Screen.  Reading comments today it's clear that the Academy Awards show still matters because it gives a chance for the industry to promote itself and its stars.  And the industry really doesn't care how people watch movies, as long as they pay for them and not steal them off the web.  But the industry has little control over the message. 

The problem is that everyone now is an expert, and every opinion is just as valid as anyone elses' - at least that what people think.  We can see it in the disdain for science and for history.  There is little respect anymore for the opinion of established groups.  So what we get with the Oscars isn't a lively debate over who they choose, but a questioning of why we should listen to them anyway.  The secrecy behind the members doesn't help much, but I don't think "outing" them would make the process they have for voting more digestible for the average know-it-all.  And making the Academy more "democratic" would defeat its purpose of recognizing filmmakers in its own idiosyncratic way. 

So maybe the Academy is on its last legs.  With video games selling more and more units and making almost more money than movies, maybe in ten years the red carpet will feature avatars and rendered versions of actors, controlled remotely as they rest back home in their mansions or on the beach.  And the know-it-alls on the web will be complaining how the latest first-person-shooter game got robbed with only one award. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Video Diary 2.11.15

I've been interested in looking at patterns and lines lately. 

Recent Sci-Fi Films "Edge of Tomorrow" and "Under the Skin"

I caught up on two really interesting science fiction films this past week.  The Tom Cruise vehicle "Edge of Tomorrow" was an action packed, but also thoughtful, "War of the Worlds" re-imagined as the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day."  And "Under the Skin," starring Scarlett Johansson, was a visceral, disturbing, low-budget story, almost a horror film, that had my heart racing in spots.

In "Edge of Tomorrow" Earth has been invaded, and Europe nearly conquered, by creatures called Mimics.  They lurk underground and then attack in overpowering waves.  Humankind's forces are massing in London to prepare for one giant invasion of Europe.  Cruise plays an American Public Relations officer who is assigned to cover the battle on the ground - he objects to being sent to the front lines (he's never trained for combat) and he threatens to make the British General in charge of the invasion look bad by exploiting the increasing casualties of the united forces.  His reward is being labeled a deserter and stripped of his rank and sent directly to combat.  He trains briefly in an exo-skeleton battle suit, but dies during the assault, which goes very badly.  But as he dies he gets sprayed with the blood of a special Mimic called an Alpha, giving him the power to be "reborn" a few days before his death.  And he gets "reborn" again and again, every time he dies on the battlefield.  He soon discovers that another soldier he meets on the battlefield, played by Emily Blunt, might have had the same experience as he did.  When she sees him during the fight apparently aware of what's about to happen, she tells him to meet her when he is "reborn."  He goes back to her, day after day, to train - and he's able to convince her that he too reawakens every time he dies.  He learns that she also had the power but lost it when she received a blood transfusion.  If you don't fully die, you won't wake back up.  From then the film becomes occupied with them trying to figure out a way to beat the Mimics using their own powers - because they must be using their Alphas to figure out what the humans will or won't do on the battle field.  They are convinced they need to get to the head Mimic - the Omega - and kill it.  But the Mimics always seem to know what they will do, and they get stuck.

It's a good premise, and it gets more interesting when Cruise gets weary of reliving the same battles over and over, while Blunt doesn't remember them.  Cruise is also clearly fond of Blunt and doesn't like to see her suffer over and over again.  As they seem to keep getting stuck, with the mimics continuing to know their every move, Cruise and Blunt take the movie in a great direction when, in their search for the Omega Mimic, they figure out they need to go "off script" and stop trying to plan their every move.  That means they will have only one shot to kill the Omega once they find it.  It's a really interesting theme.  Fighting the same battle over and over again gets you nowhere.  To succeed you have to break convention, take risks.  And it's only when Cruise loses his power and gets just one shot at the Omega that this becomes most clear.   It's also a good lesson in plotting, and how audiences experience a film differently when they are with the characters, and not ahead of them.  Cruise and Blunt try to get ahead of the Mimics in their plot, but they never can!

"Under the Skin" MUST be watched in the dark, on a big screen, with a good sound system.  It's a dark film, shot on location on the streets and in the countryside of Scotland.   (The soundtrack, including the score and sound effects mix, is essential to the experience.  Listen to it with the surround sound on and the sub-woofer LOUD.)  The mood of the film is very disturbing.  I'm hesitant to reveal the plot because much of the suspense and emotion of the film depends on not being ahead of the characters, not know what is going to happen.  In some ways it's the complete opposite of "Edge of Tomorrow."  In that film we know all along what the heroes must do, and we are with them trying to do it.  In "Under the Skin" we are trying to figure out what exactly Johansson is doing, and why.  We don't ever really find out, but we learn enough to be both horrified and saddened by her experiences.

I will tell you that Johansson is very good in a difficult roll.  She drives around in a white van, picks up lonely, single men, many of whom were amateurs recruited during filming in order to create some odd realism.  Then what she does to the men is . . . horrible and unexpected.  She seems both intelligent, coldblooded, and in a sense very naive about what she is doing.  She has something of an epiphany later in the film, and begins to experience life more like the humans she is abducting, and it changes her, to a degree.  She encounters men who are attracted to her for the same reasons she used to abduct them, but now that she is more "human" she has less power over them.  (She seems to be going "off script" as well - there are other people working with her, men who ride motorcycles and seem to "clean up" her mistakes, clearing her tracks if she leaves any evidence of the men she abducts.  When she stops abducting lonely strangers, the men on motorcycles hunt for her.  Are they using her?  Is she a construction of theirs?  It's hard to tell.)  Ultimately the film ends with us understanding a little bit more about what she was doing, but with little explanation of how or why.

More than anything, "Under the Skin" made me FEEL.  The disturbing music and effect score, the dark and moody cinematography, all left me reeling even a day after viewing.  Watch it.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Three Funny Men

Jackie Gleason, "The Hustler," 1961.
Gleason portrayed veteran pool player Minnesota Fats opposite Paul Newman's upstart Eddie Felson in 1961's "The Hustler."  The role showed Gleason's great dramatic range as an actor. 

Groucho Marx, "A Night at the Opera," 1935.
 In many ways I think "A Night at the Opera" is the best Marx Brothers film.  It lacks some of the insanity and surrealism of their earlier Paramount films, and the musical numbers begin to feel tagged on instead of part of the show.  But the added polish of the MGM production values makes up for it.   Okay, maybe it's a toss up between this one and "Duck Soup."  Anyway, this film has Groucho and Chico discussing the Sanity Clause and the famous Stateroom scene, and if you don't know what I'm talking about you have a movie to go see right now.
Walter Matthau, "The Odd Couple," 1968.
As a native New Yorker (and lifelong Mets fan) I always feel nostalgic watching the original film version of "The Odd Couple."  Neil Simon has such love and sympathy for his characters, and he makes us really feel for their situations.  And New York becomes a character itself in many of his films, especially when we get to go outside with the characters and experience the city the way they do.  I love the scene early in the film when Matthau offers his poker playing buddies a sandwich.  What kind?  "Brown or green."  Very, very funny.