February 25, 2012

Oscar Thoughts and Predictions

I get why the 2011 nominations are considered boring. It’s a field dominated by household-name directors; a usually-controversial Scorsese churned out a kid’s movie; no one likes one of the Best Picture nominees. But while I disagree with the consensus (more later), there are two “risky” films the Academy failed to highlight (though I understand why)...

Martha Marcy May Marlene
We know little about Martha. From her inability to socialize to her bizarre behavior and random panics, we think she’s crazy. But flashbacks to her time in a cult provide (possible) explanations for her quirks. I went from observing her to observing life through her eyes... and I’ve rarely felt more terrified.

The dramatic but gradual shift in perception is headed by writer/director Sean Durkin. In a plot driven by curiosity, he understands the power of information: when to give it, what to give, when to stop. His characters are either quiet or cryptic, giving each scene an underlying tension. His editor knows a wide shot with a gun aimed at someone’s chest is considerably less powerful than a medium with the gun off camera. His DP leaves empty space in the frame, allowing the possibility of it being occupied. Of course, there’s Elizabeth Olsen, who led the picture’s slim Oscar hopes. As Martha she never tips her hand, acting neutral in bizarre scenarios, allowing context to dictate the arc.

It might be the most well-crafted film I saw in 2011.

So why zero nominations? A lack of exposure is the obvious answer, but more than that... The title. Martha Marcy May Marlene. I understand why this is the title, but damn... I forget the order of the names. I sometimes say Marsha. Or Mary. Titles are important. This one isn’t even bad, it’s just... confusing.

It isn't until Part II of Melancholia that the rogue planet threatening to crash into Earth is mentioned, but in a way, both parts are disaster movies. Part II, entitled "Claire", observes the titular character's fear of this planet destroying her life and her family and her eventual loneliness when disaster becomes inevitable. It's pretty conventional as far as disaster movies go. 

Part I is less obvious. Entitled "Justine", the story focuses on Justine at her lavish wedding reception with perfect-looking people, all having a great time... except for the fact that Justine is miserable. No one knows or cares to know. Her sister, Claire, can't understand why either. She's beautiful, her husband is handsome... she should be happy. But the reception is Justine's worst nightmare.

A therapist told Lars Von Trier that people with depression are more equipped for heavy pressure because they face it in their day-to-day lives. Von Trier dishes a lot at Justine. A cold mother. A careless father. Guests with veiled agendas. Her seemingly caring groom only wants to get her to bed. Even the vanity of the reception seems to force happiness upon her. Von Trier wisely presents these as triggers, not the cause of her depression. For her, the reception is a planet crashing into Earth. Claire tries to will her into happiness, but can only later grasp her fear and loneliness.

Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes for portraying Justine, and both she and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire) deserved recognition. It could have also garnered attention for writing, directing, and a slew of artistic awards but... well...

Perhaps an industry exists where you can succeed while calling yourself a Nazi while admiring the work of Hitler and Speer... I’ve just never been there. I have been to Hollywood. They don’t much care for that.

(Also, I felt the red herrings were distracting.)

The complete omission of these two films is my biggest gripe with the nominations. Imaginative and creative, they could have filled the void in an average year. But it is indeed average, not poor. Though the Best Picture field is too generous, three nominees have the imagination and skill to contend any given year. Hopefully these are made clear by my predictions:

Who should win: John Logan, Hugo
Who will: Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Descendants was disappointing. The script is uneven and clunky, the plots don’t mesh, and conflict gets resolved too easily. The dialogue lacks the texture of Payne’s prior scripts, and the voice over is a bad choice. It wins more on subject matter than quality. Moneyball was a tough adaptation (no fewer than 3 Oscar winners tried to crack it). Statistics and calculations are tough to film, and Sorkin and Zaillian were properly recognized for the amount of content in the final product. But this can sometimes become cumbersome. The writers never tapped into the book’s subtext, the je ne sais quoi of baseball that inspired Bill James to write his books or Hatteberg’s wife to hit him grounders in the rain. Still, it's a solid script from a tough adaptation. Hugo is well-imagined and has a lot of heart. It flows sequence to sequence, and each turn is fresh and surprising. Every character has dreams, fears, and personalities, and even the villain is well-rounded. Logan will lose to Descendants because his script is not emo.

"You mean, he does nothing but mope
for two hours?"  "Nope."  "Magical!"

Who should win: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Who will: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Part of me wants Michel Hazanavicius to win for The Artist. Too often, people identify good writing with snappy dialogue over structure and plot. Both are solid in The Artist, which relies on visual storytelling. The parallel action sequences are done well. His fall from grace and her rise to stardom is clear and natural, and their cause is quite clever. And it ends on a good note. The story might be a little too thin to warrant a victory over strong opposition. Props to Bridesmaids for scoring the nomination that eluded Mean Girls and 40-Year-Old Virgin before it. There are sight gags and mean observations, and all setups have payoffs. The characters are funny and likeable, none of whom distract from the universal themes. For a comedy, the nomination is a victory. Woody should get his first statue since Hannah and Her Sisters. The premise is recycled from Purple Rose of Cairo, but this is a fun movie. And you don’t require expert knowledge of ‘20s Parisian ex-pats to appreciate it. The story is less-cynical than most of his work, and he strikes a variety of notes in a thin plot. And few writers could turn a story with a single word.

Who should win: I…don’t know
Who will: Viola Davis, The Help

The category suffers because the movies represented are, by all accounts, sub par. I can say that Roony Mara in Girl With a Dragon Tattoo killed it. More than a physical transformation, she inhabits this tortured character. She’s quiet and aggressive; her stare and monotone voice mask any rare slip of sentiment; and her stone cold expression makes any smile chilling. I wish I’d seen the other noms to determine whether she should win. I have lukewarm interest in The Help and will probably avoid My Week With Marilyn and The Iron Lady. For the latter, Meryl Streep is said to be the best thing in a bad movie. But as leads are partly responsible for overall quality, I wish a great performance in a bad film were omitted for a great performance in a great film (Olsen, Gainsbourg, Dunst). I hear Michelle Williams and Glenn Close were deserving. It sounds like this is Viola Davis’ year.

Who should win: NOT George Clooney, The Descendants
Who will: George Clooney, The Descandents

He just wasn’t that good. There are stronger ways to evoke internal conflict than walking around with your head hung low, looking off in the distance. Take Paul Newman in The Verdict, or Eastwood in Unforgiven. Granted, those screenplays gave more for their leads to build on, but little about his performance feels inspired (I’m fairly certain his “we’re Hawaiians” monologue is lifted from his Fantastic Mr. Fox speech, Hawaiians in place of foxes). Everyone in the category was better. Brad Pitt was the perfect choice to play Billy Beane. He’s temperamental but fun; a handsome jock with deceptive intelligence; good-natured but knows how to play the managerial chess match. With more to work with in the first hour, Pitt would have been a shoe-in. 
"Can I do something awesome yet?"

The Artist lives and dies on its performers. Jean Dujardin’s memorable scenes are of him dancing and those with the dog, but the story is told on his face. It’s so expressive and malleable that rare instances of stillness command attention. He could score the gold, but I wonder if not speaking hurts his odds. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman keeps those around him (and us) guessing through a difficult story. His expressions and speech remain unchanged, regardless of context. A difficult monologue at the midpoint would have fallen flat with a lesser actor.

Who should win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Who will: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

The intro to Midnight in Paris is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. If the latter is his love letter to New York, in many ways, Midnight in Paris is a more strongly-worded letter to the city of lights. The present scenes are full of life and promise, the past is warm, inviting, and nostalgic. You get the feeling that while his lead yearns for the old days, Allen begs him to just look around. He could win this year. So could Martin Scorsese. Hugo has so many great ideas that you don’t know whether to credit Scorsese or Logan or the source material. We’re told that in the early days of film, a film with an approaching train caused the audience to jump out their seats in fear that it would charge off the screen. Later, during a chase sequence, Scorsese takes advantage of 3D as a train literally jumps out the screen at the audience. It’s an interesting choice, using 3D to tell a story of early film. Traditionalists frown upon the new medium, but Scorsese – as great a film historian as he is a filmmaker - seems open to the ever-evolving art form. Still, I think this goes to Hazanavicius for The Artist. Directing is a balancing act to begin with, but to omit a key component of modern film requires extreme precision in every other element. The story works and doesn’t need dialogue to cover any lapses in logic. The performances – from everyone to Desjardin to the dog – are spot on. And everything looks perfect.

Who should win: Hugo
Who will: The Artist

Midnight in Paris would be my choice if not for one glaring flaw: Rachel McAdams, as Owen Wilson’s wife. For Wilson's character to yearn for the past, the present cannot be inspiring, and that includes his wife. I get it. But she has absolutely no redeemable qualities. None. It's partially Allen's fault, but McAdams is way too aggressive. At some point, I was annoyed at him for tolerating her.

"Quit it! When you kiss me I can't yell at you!"

In a two-race horse between Hugo and The Artist, I choose Hugo. There’s not much else to say to support my pick, I guess I just... still love being a kid at the movies.

Other Oscarvations (sorry about that...):

- Supporting Actor will go to Christopher Plummer; for Actress, Octavia Spencer. I'd vote for Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. She finds a good balance in a role that’s tougher than meets the eye.

- I saw the animated shorts this week at IFC. There were some great ideas in both the nominees and honorees. My favorite was Wild Life, about an Englishman who moves to Canada to become a rancher. It had the most impressive animation and was the first animated mockumentary I've seen of any length. The Stroll was also clever and well-executed. The Pixar entry La Luna left something to be desired.

- People cite Jessica Chastain, but Jonah Hill also had a better performance in 2011...

- John Logan not only penned a Best Picture contender, but the front-runner for Best Animated Feature. The most underrated writer in Hollywood.

- Drive is overrated, but count me among those who feel Albert Brooks was robbed. The thing is, he doesn't play against type; his comedic persona is what makes his acts so sinister. Very clever.

- I'm surprised Bennett Miller was ignored for Moneyball. He's a big reason the difficult subject matter works, and the baseball scenes are very well shot.

- War Horse. There, I acknowledge it.

February 13, 2012

Kyrie Irving, I’ll Never Buy Your Jersey. You’re Welcome.

Looking back, it’s no wonder Kyrie Irving began the year with such low expectations. As the Cavaliers’ questionable #1 pick over Derrick Williams, Irving was the face of a draft without a superstar. Experts projected him as a poor man's Chris Paul. And a city needing a successor to LeBron got a soft-spoken kid NOT from Akron, Ohio, who doesn’t have “Chosen One” tattooed across his back. He couldn’t even attract ESPN or TNT to cover one game.

And he's been outstanding.

It's not just that he's averaged 18.0 points on 49.2% shooting (41.3% on 3's), but that he's done it while only playing 29.8 minutes a game. He creates shots for himself and for those around him (5.1 assists per game). He already has wins over Boston, Rubio in Minnesota, and the defending champion Mavs. In a rookie season that's so far better than LeBron's, some feel he was snubbed an All-Star selection, even though no rookie point guard has made the team since 1982. But instead of complaining, he's excited to be in the Rising Stars game. Cleveland loves him. And so do I.

So much so, that I refuse to buy his jersey.

No, really, it's no sweat. See, I get how injuries plagued him at Duke, and after sitting out the last three games with a concussion, the last thing he needs is a curse. And I refuse to subject him to the torture that befell every player whose jersey I've ever owned.

Derek Anderson

A Google search of "Cleveland Derek Anderson" will yield photos of the Browns' canon-armed slinger of 2007.

But this Derek Anderson was the Cavs' 1997 lottery pick. While most fans gravitated toward newly-acquired Shawn Kemp, I preferred the swingman with Ray Allen's skill-set. The former "Untouchable" from Kentucky was of a select few to sign with Jordan's brand, and was permitted the number 23.

No one knew of him when I got his jersey for my 13th birthday. By then, the Cavs were midway through a 47 win season with Anderson posting a promising 11.8 points and 3.4 assists. In April, I wore his jersey to Gund Arena to watch the Cavs vanquish Jordan's Bulls for the second time that year. It was only a matter of time before he became the first home-grown star in a decade.

Except... the lockout happened. Shawn Kemp gained 70 pounds of marbling, Z went down for the year, and the Cavs finished 6 games under .500. And Anderson... well, he didn't regress, he just never eclipsed his rookie numbers. He was eventually traded, then kicked around the league for a few years, fading into further obscurity.

Admittedly, tame results for Anderson. But they got worse...

Jamir Miller
You might ask, who is Jamir Miller?

The 2001 Browns rebounded from two disastrous first years in the NFL to post a respectable 7-9 record, highlighted by two victories over the defending Super Bowl champ Ravens. Had they closed winnable games against Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville, rookie coach Butch Davis would have had his team in the playoffs. As consolation, outside 'backer Jamir Miller made the Pro Bowl, the team's first representative since their return. 

A few months after the season, I bought his jersey. A few months later, he tore his Achilles tendon. He would never play again...

Tim Couch
To this day, the Browns have never faced a more difficult schedule than 2002. With 7 games against playoff teams - including the eventual Super Bowl champs - they still managed 9 wins. The man under center, Tim Couch, led come-from-behind victories over the Jets, Titans, and Ravens en route to the team's first playoff appearance since 1994.

Unfortunately, a broken leg in the final game of the season (a clinching win vs. Michael Vick's Falcons) sidelined Couch for the playoff game in Pittsburgh. Enter Kelly Holcomb, whose 429 passing yards staked the Browns to a 17-point, second-half lead...only for the Browns' prevent defense to prevent a victory.

The performance created a quarterback controversy, championed by the fans and media who never really liked Couch. And there were whispers that the receiving corps also preferred Holcomb. But I bought my orange Couch jersey anyway. Why not? I mean, a good coach like Butch Davis wouldn't abandon a playoff quarterback for a career journeyman...could he?

He could. And did. And the Browns went 5-11 in 2003, the lone highlight coming when Couch - subbing for an injured Holcomb - embarrassed the rival Steelers 33-13 on Sunday Night Football.

Couch was sick of Cleveland. He bounced around the league a bit - backing up Favre in Green Bay, a stay in Jacksonville - before calling it quits. He now coaches high school in Kentucky.

"Why, Shawn? Why..."

The brilliant Butch Davis was forced out in 2004 after a 3-8 start. He coached college at North Carolina, but was fired prior to the 2011 season.

But I shouldn't deflect responsibility. The fault lies with me, and me alone.

Travis Hafner
In August 2005, my grandfather and I went to Jacobs Field to watch the Indians play the Rangers. We sat in right field with Travis Hafner at the plate. The lefty turned on a fastball and nearly tore the cover off the ball as it screamed past the first baseman. My grandfather remarked that he'd never seen a ball hit so hard. I bought Hafner's tee-shirt jersey a few weeks later.

The 2005 Indians dropped 6 of their last 7 games, narrowly missing the playoffs. "Pronk" came 5th in MVP voting. 2006 was even better for Hafner, who hit .308 with 42 HRs (including a record-tying 6 grand slams) and 117 RBIs. He got on base at a .439 clip and had a 1.097 OPS. Had the Tribe not struggled, Hafner would have been MVP. So...the curse was broken? Not quite.

The Indians had two marquee contracts due to expire in 2008: Travis Hafner and CC Sabathia. Mid-market teams can't afford to chew up payroll with two contracts, so the Indians had to choose one. They went with Hafner, paying him a $58 million extension over 4 years.

And the 2007 Indians were brilliant. Sabathia won the AL Cy Young, #2 starter Carmona (Heredia?) was the ERA champ, the offense clicked, and Kenny Lofton's return sparked the Tribe to its first division title since 2001. The Indians blitzed the Yankees 3-1 in divisional series and led the Red Sox 
3-1 in the ALCS, one win from the World Series.

But what about Hafner? It was 2006 in reverse, Pronk fading as the team excelled. In the regular season, he hit .266 with 26 HRs. Maybe he'd turn it on in the playoffs? Against the Yanks, 4 hits in 4 games; versus the Sox, 4 hits in 7 games (and a dreadful .503 OPS). The Indians blew the series to Boston, who of course would dismantle the Rockies in the World Series. Sabathia was traded and eventually signed with the Yankees, leading them to a World Series title.

Meanwhile Pronk has been a shell of his former self. 42 homers in 2006, he's had 42 in the last three years combined. He and the Indians began strong in 2011, and hopes are high for 2012.

But, man, had I not bought that jersey...

Grady Sizemore
I never owned a proper Indians jersey. Not even from the star-driven '90s teams of Ramirez, Thome, Lofton, Alomar, and Vizquel (had I, would they have been stars?). In 2009, Grady Sizemore seemed a logical choice. He struck out a lot for a leadoff hitter, sure, but he was a five-tool player with the potential to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. He was a three-time All Star coming off his second Gold Glove. Hard-nosed, scrappy, a fan-favorite. The 26-year-old was never hurt, missing 21 games in 4 years, one of the most durable guys in baseball. I purchased his jersey in January 2009.

His career would never recover...

2009 was shortened by surgeries to his elbow and groin. In 2010, he logged 33 games before injuring his left knee. In 2011, it was his right knee. Over that time, he played 174 games out of a possible 495. When not under the knife, his speed, mobility, and power disappeared. A guy with 30-30 potential has hit 28 homers the last three years combined and had ZERO stolen bases in 2011. To top it off, some candid pictures intended for his girlfriend were intercepted and posted online (though for an athlete with sex appeal, maybe that's a positive?).

Like Hafner, 2011 had promise. Perhaps 2012 will offer a resurgence. But let's be real: his fate was sealed in January 2009...

Peyton Hillis
By 2010, yes, I'd learned my lesson. But listen... When my mother asks what I want for Christmas, she hates when I say money. Hates it. It's not even that I want money from her it's just...what else do I ask for? Paid time off? Box sets for TV shows I have no interest in? In November 2010, Peyton Hillis had just bulldozed through the Patriots and Saints en route to 1,177 rushing yards, another 477 receiving, and 13 TDs. When mom asked on Thanksgiving, I said the first thing on my mind: a Peyton Hillis jersey.

Instant regret.

Then, a Christmas miracle: every store in northeast Ohio was sold-out of Hillis jerseys! It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Because they are so few, a successful pro athlete in Cleveland can magically separate cash from wallets. The 24-year-old bruiser looked to carry the offense for a long, long time, and Clevelanders wanted on the bandwagon. And for once, I wouldn't be the one to derail him!

Cut to summer 2011, and a surprise package: a beautiful, white "Hillis" jersey with a note: "Better late than never!" Oh crap...

I accept that a player's performance and well-being will inevitably suffer through my selfishness. I just never thought it would affect their psyche. NFL players play through sprains, pulls, concussions, broken bones...you name it. In week 3 of 2011, Hillis sat out against Miami with...strep throat? No way. Was it a ploy? A byproduct of contract negotiations? Were the Browns concealing a knee injury? Nope. Strep throat. The humble Arkansas boy would later flake out on a charity event, and his frequent mental lapses would prompt eight veterans to stage an intervention. He missed another five games with a hamstring injury and only scored 3 TDs all season.

Those who cite Hillis as another victim of the Madden curse can't begin to know the truth. My bad, dude...

Anyway, Kyrie, if you're reading this, you can rest easy. I fully understand how draping that veritable voodoo doll over my shoulders will bestow pain, suffering, and mediocrity upon the name scrolled across the back. Take your time with your recovery, please. Because if you become the first player to suffer a serious injury in the Rising Stars game, I'll consider myself vindicated and your jersey fair game.



February 5, 2012

The Super (Awful) Bowl

I love football. 

I played high school ball ten miles from the Hall of Fame. In the Fall, Saturday and Sundays are reserved for football. Come Springtime, it's the NFL draft and college recruiting.

But I hate the Super Bowl.

Don't get me wrong, I've watched every Super Bowl since I was five. The Pittsburgh/Arizona Super Bowl is the best football game I ever watched. And I fully intend on joining the Browns when they finally go (and, I admit, their zero appearances causes sour grapes).

So maybe I use the word "hate" for emphasis. Let's just say, it's my least favorite football game of the year. Here's why...

5. It Discourages History

The grainy film of Namath dueling Unitas is considered old-school football, but the Super Bowl is only 46 years old. Before that, the NFL Championship was around for over 30 years. The Bears, Eagles, and Browns were dynasties of the Championship era with 15 in total, but have one total Super Bowl victory between them. Conversely, the Steelers, 49ers, and Cowboys won 16 Super Bowls, but zero NFL Championships. (The Packers and Giants had success in both eras.)

It's common to measure the strength of a franchise
in Super Bowls, but doing so disregards half the league's history. Take the Yankees, who have an impressive 27 titles; over the past 46 years, they only have 6 (still impressive). Furthermore, if a player's legacy is shaped by their performance in the Super Bowl, what of those who came before? "Red" Grange. Bronko Nagurski. Y.A. Tittle. Jim Brown. The Mantles and DiMaggios of the NFL will be ignored Super Bowl Sunday because the name of the game changed after they retired.

"What I wouldn't give for a time machine..."

4. The Worst Championship Name Ever
I can imagine the young NFL exec pitching a revamped NFL Championship Game to the seasoned commissioner. 

"It's the only sport in America decided by ONE game. Make that one night a SHOW, THAT'S how we get the fans!" And the old commissioner sits back, listening to this twenty-something on his third cup of coffee rattle on about hundred-yard American flags and parades and movie stars.

The commissioner interrupts, "You mean... like the Rose Bowl?"

"Um... Yeah, but that's college. The NFL is the SHOW, this is THE game! Yeah like the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, but... bigger! Like a... super bowl! YEAH! And we'll get giant helmets that shoot FIREWORKS and fighter jets and - " And as the exec continues, arms flailing to emphasize just how super this bowl will be, the commissioner scribbles "super bowl" on a pad. Intended as a placeholder, it never got corrected.*

Uh oh! Shit's about to get super, y'all!

*All made up. I don't know why it's called the Super Bowl, nor do I claim this much logic went into the choice.

3. There's a Fixed Venue
It's the only championship in America without a home-field advantage. While plenty of New Yorkers and Bostonites have descended on Indy, the majority in attendance will be Colts fans. They may choose to root against their sort-of-rival Patriots, but they're probably too jazzed about hosting a Super Bowl to be a good crowd. And that's a shame because Indy fans are as knowledgeable as they come. When the NFL calls the Super Bowl site neutral, they mean the fans are equally ambivalent.

A Super Bowl appearance creates a logistical nightmare for a team's fan-base. 
Say the Bears rebound next year, win the NFC title, and earn a trip to New Orleans (next year's host). A Bears fan is at the mercy of brokers and locals who will charge $1000 per ticket (minimum; if they like him). And there's still the issue of the flight and hotel. He gets only 10 days advance to book, whereas reporters, network personnel, and the remaining sports world spent months snatching up spare seats and rooms.

Indianapolis is just the 3rd northern city to host a Super Bowl (the first northern game in a non-roof stadium won't be in 2014). Tampa alone hosted 4, while Los Angeles, Miami, and New Orleans have combined for 27. This despite the fact that most teams hail from the North.  I understand that a northern Super Bowl could be disastrous for the league if, say, a blizzard hit. But a fixed venue marginalizes the demographic who made the NFL what it is: blue-collar fans.

2. The Games!

It was best observed in Any Given Sunday: "The first time they stopped the game to cut away to some fucking commercial, that was the end of it."

The Super Bowl generally takes three and half hours to play. A regular season game is three hours. 
A 60-minute game of football - when accounting for halftime and other stoppages - can be completed in two and a half hours.

The sport is a game of stamina and discipline. To lose either is to lose the game. "Time of Possession" is so indicating because a favorable ratio indicates a well-rested defense; the more rested, the more gas they have down the stretch. Scoring and preventing points is obviously the goal, but the key to football's chess match is to force three-and-outs on defense and to avoid three-and-outs on offense. 

But the Super Bowl gets half an hour of fat through extended breaks. This allows the defense to catch its wind even if it's being gashed. While I can at least understand the aversion to northern Super Bowls, game strategy and conditioning are variables that should not be sold out. But it makes sense because -

1. The Super Bowl is a Pageant

It begins with pretty faces on the red carpet. Then someone important - a former President, an old football star, an astronaut - flips a coin to decide many a Vegas prop bet. A famous recording artist will honor America, then after a series of $3.5 million short films intercut with images of movie stars and supermodels, a bigger recording artist will lead a rousing twenty-minute performance to begin the end of the night. Then there are fireworks!

Quite a departure from the days of Lambert...

"I'd considered a career in European
modeling. By going to four Super Bowls,
you could argue I met it half way."

February 2, 2012

The Oscars: Why I Should Hate You, But Secretly Like You (And Not-so-secretly Want You)

OK, so the Oscars are flawed. Originally created by studios to market "good" movies that underperformed at the box office, an Oscar is the industry standard for excellence. Everyone in show business wants one, and - to some film artists - financial and critical success mean little without "Academy Award Winner" beside their billing.

Some question whether art should be measured in trophies. It boils down to intentions, whether the existence an award alters an artist's work. Indeed, some filmmakers and actors who feel their best work has been ignored tend to press in film choices. Martin Scorsese comes to mind. People debate his biggest snub: losing to Redford after directing Raging Bull; not getting nominated for Taxi Driver; losing to Eastwood after Goodfellas.

After getting bested by Polanski and Eastwood (again) in the aughts, he finally reigned one in for... The Departed. Now let's be honest: Departed wouldn't crack his Top 10. Sure, it was enjoyable but c'mon: a movie about betrayal ends with a rat crawling in front of the State House. Is the image somehow less laughable because it's Scorsese? Scorsese would laugh at it if he wasn't Scorsese!

Departed was successful in presenting a clever dual-narrative weaved together by snappy characters and catchy one-liners. It maintained an edge while softening (dulling?) the climax of its Hong Kong predecessor. It was Scorsese's biggest hit, it was enjoyable to critics and audiences, it was - Oscar bait... And the Academy lined up his '70s buddies to give him the statue.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
With actors, the joke is staring in a Holocaust movie, "going gay", or playing disabled nets you a statue. Of the 19 Best Actor winners since Pacino in Scent of a Woman, 12 fit the criteria. Not that every actor was fishing. Sean Penn felt inspired as Harvey Milk (though he WAS fishing in I Am Sam, and got nominated). Same with Brody. Benigni. Hoffman.

But awarding two of every three Oscars to these performances? The job of an actor is - simply put - to deliver their lines honestly while following the writer's intentions. The measure of their performance, therefore, is NOT how far they stray from reality, but in how they elevate and conceal the machinery of the screenplay. 

The voters seem to argue that "acting" is to pretend you have no legs or that you like boys. And it's not limited to sexuality and disability. DeNiro's two wins were well-deserved but were for one role in which he spoke Italian and another where he put on a record amount of weight. Critics said Phillip Seymour Hoffman "embodied" Truman Capote, but they can't seem to differentiate acting from mimicking. Showy roles are, frankly, easy to identify.
"Try ignorin' me wit' 70 extra pounds, y' pricks."
The year Hoffman won, Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain conveyed with little more than a stare all the depth and emotion and confusion and pain of his character. Had Ledger won, yes, he'd still be the actor who won for "going gay". But to me it was less about sexuality than about a man subdued his entire life, whose inability to love destroys the only person who inspired passion in his life, leaving himself alone, filled with regret. The story is plotted on Ledger's face, through subtle actions, and few words.

A showy role can still be well-performed, sure. But film is still a dramatic art, and in drama, subtext is currency. Subtext doesn't necessarily mean subtle. DeNiro's loud-mouthed Jake LaMotta couldn't conceal his jealousy, and nothing Christoph Waltz said in Inglourious Basterds could be taken at face-value; the most offhand comment was a probe.

But it takes an extraordinary talent to convey internal feelings in an external art form, to create between the lines. Before Ledger (who ultimately won for a showy role), there was Al Pacino in Godfather: Part I. I grew up knowing Pacino as a badass gangster, but in Godfather he was the quiet brother who wants no part of the family business. A crisis pulls him in, and he finds himself sitting with his family's enemy and a corrupt police officer. Though they believe he's making peace, he's there to kill them. But he's never killed anyone or done anything illegal, and for over a minute he sits silently, listening, and from his face we see him weigh taking this monumental step destined to change his life forever. 

Pacino didn't win that year (he even boycotted the ceremony feeling his Best Supporting Actor nod should have been Best Actor). Nor did he win for Serpico, Godfather II, or Dog Day Afternoon. After losing again for Dick Tracy, his friends noted bitterness. The next year, he won by playing blind.

I write that contemptuously, but it was still a good performance. And the thing about any other winner I criticize is that their victories are not undeserved. Winners are subject to debate, but the strength of the Oscars is that the nomination itself is an achievement and a sign of recognition. Thomas Hayden Church and Jackie Earle Haley's careers got a kick from their nods for Sideways and Little Children. Million Dollar Baby got a nation-wide release and made bank after the '04 nominations were announced. The 2011 nominations have already piqued interest in A Separation and A Better Life.

At the end of the day, artists are human and seek recognition for good work. If not via award statues, then somewhere else. But what the Academy offers is a committee of professionals who can identify the best and say, "THIS is how it's done." And if risk, skill, and imagination are recognized, both artists and audiences will be better; if ignored, kitsch will replace quality. Let's just hope Hollywood is not full of rats.
"The rat symbolizes obviousness!"