Monday, February 28, 2005

Kodachrome Memories

The 77th Annual Academy Awards, conducted at the Kodak Theatre in the Hollywood and Highland complex in Hollywood last night, were a big disappointment. The chief highlight was the early (relative to most years) finish, the show wrapping after three hours ten minutes.

I've not seen enough of Chris Rock to have an opinion. I recall he was on Saturday Night Live but he didn't make much of an impression. I saw him as Rufus the forgotten apostle in Kevin Smith's Dogma, but that's about all. The Academy and the press had been building him up like it was the Second Coming and as most things hyped are, he was a let-down. Samuel L. Jackson as host of the Independent Spirit Awards, held the previous evening, did a fine job. Funny jokes and gags and helped by Megan Mullally et alia singing about the best picture nominees. Very light and casual. And good television even if ninety percent of Americans couldn't have seen most nominees even if they wanted to.

He simply wasn't funny. The declaration that some people weren't stars sounded harsh to my ears. The joke against himself, that if you have him, don't make the picture and wait for Morgan Freeman, of course works. The stuff against Bush needed polishing. As delivered, it felt too raw and unfocused. Humor at the Oscars should singe, not burn, and Rock burned a lot of people. (Witness the uneasy laughter to his monologue and Sean Penn coming out to explain who Jude Law was.) And after his monologue, he disappeared except for the schtick with Adam Sandler about Catherine Zeta-Jones. I did get a chuckle when he introduced "comedy superstar Jeremy Irons" to present the best live action short award. That was good because Irons can be very funny, a dry humor well shown in Die Hard With A Vengeance and Reversal of Fortune. (In the latter, Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) tells Irons's Claus von Bulow "You've got one thing going for you. Everyone hates you." Irons waits about two beats and deadpans "Well. It's a start.")

The hosts in the past decade (David Letterman, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, and now Chris Rock) show the need to sign Robin Williams (who stole the show with his mimicry last night) or Billy Crystal to long term contracts. Crystal was the last host who knew how to do it. He's got the jokes, he's got himself inserted in the nominated films, he's got the wonderful songs (e.g. Secrets and Lies to the theme to The Brady Bunch and The English Patient to "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady).

I felt sorry for many of the technicans who were denied their moment in the sun by the producers' decision to put a number of them in a line-up and then call the winner. We didn't even get to see most of their faces. And I'd sure feel gypped if I'd won an Oscar and didn't get to make that walk up on stage as was done to the short subject winners.

Was it a little joke by the producers to have the two sound awards presented by Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, two unintelligible actresses? Hayek I do like but Cruz is absolutely incomprehesible. See Eyes Wide Shut or Woman On Top. Or, rather, don't actually.

As usual, I found myself watching the late reel, introduced by a wooden Annette Bening, and wondering who'd get the most applause. An unseemly bit of business as always. I didn't detect a winner, but Tony Randall and Jerry Orbach did very well, as did Rodney Dangerfield. (I wonder if the Academy ever gave him any respect. A decade or more ago he applied and was turned down for membership and told to "improve his craft". Philistines.)

I haven't seen Million Dollar Baby but I'm glad it beat Sideways. I saw the first two films of Sideways's director, Alexander Payne, and they were both nasty, vicious little films. Clint Eastwood was his gracious self. I'm pleased to see him win. I'm not bothered in the slightest that Martin Scorsese has been shut out. I don't approve of the auteur theory and find that when a film touts who directed it, it usually isn't very good.

Cate Blanchett winning supporting actress for her portrayal of four-time Oscar winner Katherine Hepburn (The Aviator) makes a nice bookend to Maggie Smith, the only actor to receive an Oscar for playing an Oscar-loser. (That was California Suite.) Jaime Foxx I've liked for some time. He's got a good, albeit small, role in The Truth About Cats and Dogs. The announcer said he was one of ten actors to receive both lead and supporting nominations the same year. Julianne Moore is one. Barry Fitzgerald is another--he got nominated for lead and supporting for the same role in Going My Way!

My candidate for best song, "Accidentally in Love", sadly lost to a tune from The Motorcycle Diaries. Salma Hayek's praise for that biopic's hero, Ernesto "Che" Guevara as a "young, passionate idealitst" was disgusting. He was a thug who relished torturing his victims. She sounded not unlike the parents of Charles Graner, the U.S. Army soldier convicted of abusing prisoners in Iraq, defending their son. Why is it Che is a cult figure to those on the left?

I'll give the producers' credit for eliminating the time wasting montages and interpretive dance numbers (which for years were the Academy's sop to the choreographers for the lack of an Oscar for that field). But in all a big disappointment. What should have been a night of excitement was a snooze.

For photos and the list of winners, check out the official site.

Read Tom Shales's opinion from The Washington Post here, he being similarly unimpressed with Chris Rock.

Best Pictures

I've seen about half of the seventy-some Best Pictures. Some really don't age well, e.g. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) I'm sure was a moving film in its day but now seems very ordinary. I've not seen Mrs. Miniver (1942) but I've heard the same of it. Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is fun for spotting the cameos (Noel Coward! Hermione Gingold!) but rather dull and rather studio-bound. The Apartment, oft cited as a classic and the last best-picture winner to be entirely in black-and-white, I didn't care for at all. It is interesting to see Fred McMurray playing a cad. Marty (1955) started as a t.v. drama (Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand were in it) and on the big-screen seems small.

The French Connection (1971) looks simply ugly. Maybe it was a bad transfer, but it was very drab when I watched it. And I did not care about the characters in the slightest. The chase under the elevated is a must-see however. Annie Hall (1977) I simply don't get. Diane Keaton's appeal has always been lost on me. Funny moment though when they're in line at the cinema and the blowhard in front of them is quoting Marshall McLuhan and Woody Allen pulls out McLuhan to rebut the man. The Sting (1973) has its moments but didn't do much for me.

Terms of Endearment (1983) I hated. Jack Nicholson gets an Oscar for playing the same loony-toon character he's been doing for thirty-years. Shirley McLaine is smothering and we wish Debra Winger would just die so we can all go home. And who thought up John Lithgow as a randy bank manager in the Hawkeye State? The Last Emperor (1987) is long and tedious. I once looked up the obituary of Pu-yi in the New York Times and found only a few grafs. The obit conceded what a dull, boring man he was. In that respect, Bertolucci nailed it.

Titanic (1997) is a spectacular achievement in special effects and production design. But with a script that could have flowed from the pen of Marx, and I don't mean Groucho, one is grateful for the plunge into the cold water. If only it could have happened about two and a half hours earlier. Neat to see Gloria Stuart, however. How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Rebecca (1940) didn't work for me, but Dame Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in the latter must be seen so one can allude to her. A Beautiful Mind (2001) is one of those mistakes I'd wager the Academy will regret in a few decades and rank up there with The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), unseen by me but oft regarded as the worst best picture.

Now for best pictures I liked. My favorite used to be My Fair Lady but its star has been fading in my eyes. There are good moments, e.g. Higgins's "Why Can't the English?", the "Ascot Gavotte" number, when Higgins sings of his triumph at the ball, and Alfred Doolittle's "Get Me to the Church on Time" but there's no spark, no chemistry at all between Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Alfred Hyde-White is wonderful as Pickering, though. Amadeus (1984) also seems less impressive with time. My current favorite must be Shakespeare in Love (1998). A wonderfully funny, dramatic, romantic allusive film. Simply marvelous.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Oscar Mania

February has been a month of busy Sundays. The first Sunday was the Super Bowl. The second was the Grammies. The third was the Daytona 500. And today brings us the Oscars.

I like the Academy Awards as much as the next cineaste, but who on earth is watching the E! channel's coverage live from the red carpet which began eight hours before the show begins? That's as bad as Fox's marathon of pre-game coverage for the Super Bowl. Is E! planning hot scoops from the janitors and security guards? Find out whether the assistant greensman likes Scorsese's chances this year? Query the fans from Possum Grape, Arkansas, in the bleachers whether Paul Giamatti was robbed by being denied a nomination? At least Joan Rivers isn't part of this slog, but we'll get to endure her later when we want to check the schedule on the TV Guide Channel. My favorite reply to Rivers came a couple years ago when Hugh Grant flat out asked her "Joan, are you drunk?" Why don't more of her victims respond like that?

Last night the local PBS station had a show on The Aviator, the sort of puff piece with junket interviews that one only usually finds on E!. That's why they deserve millions of our tax dollars every year?

I've not seen The Aviator. In fact, I've seen precisely one candidate for any of the awards, Shrek 2, which is up for best animated feature and a best song nominee ("Accidentally in Love" by the Counting Crows). The original I thought was a lot of fun. But the sequel I didn't like at all. There's nothing new or creative at all about it. A typical idiot plot: son-in-law is hated by father-in-law and lovers struggle to overcome phony obstacles. So what. Seen it a million times. The song, however, I really liked and I hope it wins. But the Academy has weird taste in music. A song in Latin from The Omen, a hymn to the Devil, once was nominated but darker forces prevailed that year, the Oscar going to Barbara Streisand for "Evergreen." "Sweet Lelani", made popular by Bing Crosby beat the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me." But hey, if Eminem and the former Robert Zimmerman can be Academy Award winning songwriters, why not Mr. Duritz?

Where's Alanis When You Really Need Her?

I'm like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites (1994) when Anne Meara challenges her to define irony and she's reduced to the Potter Stewart defense: I can't tell you what it is but I know it when I see it. Irony is such an overworked and abused word I try never to use it because of its slipperiness.

But today I break my rule. Judge Gary Lancaster of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a ruling in a criminal pornography case that not merely threw out the indictment, he declared the Federal pornography statute unconsitutional, based on his reading of Lawrence v. Texas.

The dismissal (available here ) came in the case of United States v. Extreme Associates where a California couple was selling videotapes and providing clips of them on a password protected web-site. In an abuse of venue, the Feds went after them not in the Western District of California, where they resided, but in Pennsylvania. (It's not unlike when the U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Tennessee indicted the performers in Deep Throat in Memphis, a place they had no connection to.) I guess the prosecutors' strategy backfired.

Now the opinion is largely tacit on just what the defendants had done, the judge referring to the indictment. But that indictment, which describes just what sort of videos they were peddling, is blocked by filtering software. Documents on a First Amendment case censored. It's ironic, don't you think?<