Why the Oscars Matter

It’s pretty easy to dismiss awards shows, like the upcoming Academy Awards, as pointless. Every awards season, you’ll hear the same mumblings about how the winners don’t really matter, it’s just Hollywood patting itself on the back, and other short-sighted dismissals of the ceremony.

To some degree, they are correct; the Academy Awards, and other awards shows, were originally formed by professionals within the industry to promote their artistic works. The concept of naming particular creative minds and talents in entertainment as the “Best” of that year was devised, essentially, as an elaborate marketing tool.

However, I find that awards ceremonies mean more with the passage of time than in that respective year. They’re a time capsule into pop culture of a specific moment in history, and are a great way to start venturing into film from a bygone era.

I am very fortunate to have had parents who shared classic films, like the works of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, with us growing up. Sure, it kind of set my sisters and me apart culturally from our peer group (how many kids can quote Sunset Boulevard?), but it set a great foundation for our love of movies and for building a genuine interest in older films. From the movies our parents shared with us, my sisters and I went off in our own directions: the older sister going through a Grace Kelly phase, another delving into late 1980s / early 1990s camp, and me going for Oscar winners from yesteryear.

The building blocks my parents set, starting with Academy Award winners, were a perfect gateway into lesser-known and, in some cases, better movies that I would never have stumbled upon otherwise. I rented Roman Polanski’s The Pianist by Roman Polanski, who I had never heard of as a pre-teen, soon after he won the Oscar for Best Director. From there I wanted to see more works by him, which led me to his terrific older films, like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. I ended up liking those even more than The Pianist, so I’m grateful for the Academy Awards for first putting this director on my radar and indirectly bringing me to other films I would love.

Awards shows are more than just time capsules, of course, and can get us to enjoy entertainment we wouldn’t have even considered before seeing it listed on a nominees ballot. In the past few years, I have made a point to see all the Best Picture nominees by Oscars night. (TIP: It makes watching the awards WAY more fun when you know what’s at stake!) This introduced me to what have become two of my favorite contemporary films, Up in the Air and Silver Linings Playbook, neither of which I would have seen had they not been up for Oscars.

Sure, on some level they may be self-congratulatory, but awards shows have introduced me to what are now some of my favorite artistic works. They are a great tool for acculturating yourself and exploring new cultural horizons. Future generations may look to today’s nominees, like La La Land, Moonlight, and Arrival, as entry points to develop their own love of film. Everyone needs to start somewhere, and the Oscars are a terrific gateway.

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Purple Rain: A Traditional Musical with an Anti-Traditional Score

West Side Story. Singin’ in the Rain. My Fair Lady. Ask any film fan for a classic example of the Hollywood musical, and these are the ideas that first come to mind. And they’d be absolutely correct; each of these classics, and more, helped define and refine the genre. The electrifying 1984 film Purple Rain thrust the movie musical into the 1980s with a spectacular dossier of rock, pop, and funk songs, all framed within the traditional Broadway musical structure.

hqdefaultThe opening number “Let’s Go Crazy” functions as a perfect musical introduction: establishing the time, the place, and the main players all embedded in one song. Our hero Prince (playing The Kid) performs onstage with his band The Revolution, as his flashy rival Morris Day and future love interest Apollonia each arrive at the First Avenue nightclub. Small but character-defining vignettes catch us up to speed as to who they are in the Minneapolis universe, and instantly set the foundation for the drama to unfold.

The “I Want” song, a staple of Broadway musicals, appears in the same setting, sung by Prince only, but can apply to all members of the neon love triangle. He wails “The Beautiful Ones,” an unstoppable power ballad demanding, “Do you want him, or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you.”Prince sings this directly to Apollonia, and it certainly applies the other way around, as well as from Morris Day to Apollonia. Even beyond the romance itself, the potential jealousy and obsession puts Prince’s career at stake. Prince and Morris have a deep-seeded feud, and the sudden appearance of Apollonia into town might just be enough to push them over the edge. They are enemies both in their careers and in their love lives, raising the stakes to dangerously personal levels.

For the grand finale, this purple package is all wrapped up by a one-two-three punch  of the songs “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star.” After scenes of high drama and disturbing violence, “Purple Rain” is the thoughtful, mature ballad to redeem Prince and all his mistakes. This deeply personal song pierces through the club crowd and they beg for more, so he returns to the stage for the rollicking pop songs “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” From the audience’s reaction, it is clear that the Revolution’s future at the club is guaranteed, and Prince even shares a charming smile with Apollonia, watching from the crowd; we know they’ll work out in the end. In one extended sequence, we go from mournful and introspective to celebratory, charming, and triumphant.

What Purple Rain is arguably missing is an Eleven O’Clock Number: a big, energy-driving Act Two song to propel us through the end of the show. The film takes an extended break from music, as romantic tensions rise between Prince and Apollonia, Prince grapples with his parents’ violent relationship, and he struggles to make amends with The Revolution. The energy deflates from the film, and Prince is forced to get his life back together.

This decision is an important one, as the third act is all about Prince rebuilding himself after he’s sunk so low. He cleans up his life, focuses on his music, and opens his mind to allow in others’ ideas. The reawakening comes not from some song pulsing through him, but an internal journey and choice that only he can make. The music literally stops until he has redeemed himself.

tumblr_m6khz1luin1qcvaxho1_500By working in a classical musical structure, Purple Rain introduced an incredibly niche culture to a wide audience. The smoky nightclubs and pop-funk stylings of the Minneapolis Sound were just at the brink of explosion across the airwaves, and it admittedly is a unique world. The enormous hair, outrageous styles, and dripping sexuality may have seemed otherworldly to moviegoing audiences of the 1980s. It becomes easier to digest and packs more of an emotional punch when framing this world bizarre into a familiar, traditional narrative structure. Our hero, villain, love interest, and outlining the foreign landscape within a standard musical theater context, allowing a mainstream audience who’d never step foot in the First Avenue nightclub to enjoy and partake in the wonders and beauty of Purple Rain. “It’s time we all reach out for the new, that means you too.”



This blog post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2017 hosted by Aurora’s Gin Joint, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Check out the full lineup here!

Criterion Book Club: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini

Much like the films he directs, Federico Fellini’s book Making a Film is a fluid, stream-of-consciousness work that ebbs and flows across time, places, and subjects. And like his films, it casts an undeniable spell and is completely enchanting.

I name it as a general “book,” as it is part memoir, film theory, and sociological study all at once. What initially drew me to it, besides Fellini’s name, was the potential of new insight into his films, and Making a Film certainly delivers as expected: he shares the juvenile experiences that inspired Roma and Amarcord, outlines the the larger-than-life iconography of 8 1/2, and provides perspective on nearly all his films. (I would have liked more on La dolce vita, one of my favorites!)

Beyond its insights on filmmaking, however, Fellini’s text most impressed me with its thoughtful perspective society. His recurring theme of clowns throughout his film is certainly discussed here, and he offers a thought-provoking world view from this lens. He argues everyone is one kind of clown: the White Clown, authoritative, cruel, foreboding; and the auguste, primitive, playful, childlike, and naive. The two exist as foils, and can be defined negatively when paired against each other. He goes so far as to list off who he considers to be which kind of clown.

In my very favorite passage, he reflects on how the struggle of making a film runs parallel to everyday life and struggling to get by. Even when entering a situation with set expectations, it’s important to stay flexible and adapt to what life has to offer. In Fellini’s words:

Making a film isn’t about obstinately attempting to adapt reality to preconceived notions; making a film also means knowing how to recognize, accept, and utilize the progressive changes that preexisting ideas are subjected to by the continuous, parallel coming into being of what happens.

Making a Film is an enriching read, both for devotees of Fellini’s filmography, casual students or film, or even someone who knows nothing of his works. It is a meditation on the creative process and finding inspiration and motivation in the most unlikely places. Like his films, he humanizes and romanticizes the everyday, transforming the mundane into something miraculous and beautiful.

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

I’m not putting that in my butt!

 

Fifty Shades of Grey was such spectacular so-bad-it’s-good trash that I was concerned its successor would not live up to the promise of the original. Fortunately, I was proved wrong: Fifty Shades Darker is a frequently hilarious, totally implausible, and utterly delightful trip back into Christian Grey’s sex den.

When we last saw Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, Miss Steele had broken things off with Christian, no longer able to abide by his preposterous dominant-submissive contract. She finds herself lonely and longing for him, and when he reaches out to her, she proposes a change in contractual terms, and he agrees.

From here on out it’s another wacky fantasy. Christian takes Anastasia out to masquerade balls, yacht voyages, and even sends her $24,000. He also continues to push her boundaries sexually, including one memorable scene where he sticks metal balls inside…her.

The onscreen action is all so silly, and the dialogue treating the absurd material with such weight and seriousness makes the adventure all the more laughable. My audience roared with laughter throughout, particularly at Dakota Johnson’s pretty awful acting – always wafting between pleasure, curiosity, and cringing her neck when she’s mad, without a whit of subtlety. Poor Jamie Dornan does the best he can do in a movie where uses a medieval contraption to keep a woman’s legs apart.

This is not a film to be taken seriously, but if you enter it with an open mind (and maybe a drink or two), it’s a fun and occasionally sexy romp.

Oscar Nominations 2017

This year’s announcements ceremony was, well, non-existent.

The nominations are typically announced as a big live press conference, with publicists and press agents gathered in Hollywood as the next year’s nominees are announced live.

Not this year – the event was scrapped and instead live-streamed from the Oscars’ web site. Most of the broadcast was pre-recorded interviews with past nominees (including Terrence Howard, Ken Watanabe, Guillermo del Toro) sharing stories from when they were nominated, and offering advice to this year’s nominees (“Don’t pop the champagne too early!”). Between all this was the actual listing of nominees by an (unseen) narrator. There was even a break between announcements, highlighting Jimmy Kimmel as he prepares to host this year’s Oscars.

Then the Best Picture nominees were announced by Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

The full list of nominations are available here.

SNUBS & SURPRISES:

  • While certainly not traditional Oscar-bait, Deadpool had been gaining steam since its nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture at the Golden Globes. There was quite a bit of talk that it could land an Adapted Screenplay and even Picture nod at the Oscars, but it was not too be.
  • Lots of love for Hacksaw Ridge. This film was not really on my radar, nor is it really being talked about, but its nominations for Picture, Actor, and Director (among others) certainly make this a movie to consider.
  • Amy Adams not being nominated for Arrival. While the film itself performed well (earning Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods), her performance is the heart and soul of the movie. A surprise in the Best Actress category is Ruth Negga from Loving (another film that has been largely left out during the awards season).
  • Hidden Figures also picked up steam, earning nods for Picture and Adapted Screenplay, as well as Supporting Actress (a nomination Octavia Spencer also earned at the Globes).
  • Finding Dory shut out of Best Animated Feature. This has also been left out of a few awards this year, including the Golden Globes, but I’m still amazed that such an emotionally powerful film somehow didn’t move the voters.

What movies are you rooting for? Who was shut out this year? Reply below in the comments!

Arrival (2016)

Arrival is a perfectly realized, occasionally terrifying, and wholly mesmerizing high-concept sci-fi thriller.

It takes the question of “what if aliens landed on Earth?” to a remarkably layered and realistic level. Twelve massive spaceships land, in seemingly unrelated places, across the planet. Pandemonium, chaos, and the threat of global war soon follow.

Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US military to make sense of what the aliens want. She teams up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) on a series of missions to meet and communicate with whatever is on board the space vessels.

This first half of the film recalls the deliberately paced sci-fi horrors of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. Sequences of the military team scaling up a space craft, and monstrous figures creeping out of the mist, all set to a horrifying score, make for some of the scariest scenes since The Witch.

As with much sci-fi, and certainly non-fiction, however, much of fear comes from the unknown. As Louise and the team fall into a rhythm and break ground in their work, the aliens become less threatening and more friendly, striving to share their message with the human race.

Arrival’s approach to this more optimistic theme pivots the film into more Malick-ian territory, with lucid montages and non-linear narrative. This proves to be more than just a stylistic choice, and the film takes on a significant weight of emotion and meaning.

If ever there were a 2016 awards season contender that I wasn’t expecting to be a tearjerker, it was Arrival. On the surface, it may appear to be just another sci-fi flick, but its thoughtful storytelling and moving emotional elements elevate it to a sublime level of sophistication.

Finding 2016

2016 was an unusual year in the real world: one of political change, tragic losses, and confounding times. The world of cinema mirrored this in many ways, from rebels confronting an overpowering empire, an empowering feminist Puritan horror movie, and a blue fish trying to make sense of the ocean around her.

I haven’t been watching as many movies this year as last year, due to some personal changes on my side. I cut my cable cord and later Hulu, so less stuff was just “on” to kill time. What has also changed, and for the better, is watching fewer movies but with more meaning and getting share that experience with others.

Early in the year, in my quest to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, I saw Brooklyn in theaters with someone new in my life, who has long been a US citizen and immigrated here about 25 years ago. We didn’t speak at all during the movie, but afterwards wandered the quiet streets of Pasadena talking about our own family histories, the feeling of “newness,” and learning to find home in a new environment.

The experience of sharing love of movies, and our personal ties to them, continued on through the year, particularly with throwback screening events. At the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, I got to see Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Hercules, Lady and the Tramp, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled – and that’s not including the first-run movies that premiered there. Getting to see such long-beloved films in packed theaters, with devoted audiences both young and old, is a wonderful opportunity of living in Los Angeles.

Speaking of Los Angeles, my city has probably never looked better than it does in La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is shot in warm oranges and lush purples, with thrilling musical sequences as vibrant as anything from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’m eager to see how this one does come awards season.

It would also be tremendous for Zootopia to get some love, especially in the Best Original Screenplay category. There was probably no smarter movie in 2016 than this fast-talking comedy/mystery/thriller that tackled issues of gender, race, and class (to name a few) better than most movies for grown-ups, without coming across as preachy or with a set agenda. In today’s hyper-PC culture, it’s incredibly daring for a major film from a major studio to make a film saying we are not equal, the world is not colorblind, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it better. The rainbow palette landscape of the Zootopia metropolis gradually fades away into bleaker greys and browns as our optimistic heroine Judy Hopps gets deeper into a mystery, revealing the darker underbelly of the world she thought she loved.

The other triumph from Walt Disney Animation Studios was Moana, which took my heart like no other film this year. The epic scale of this Polynesian story about a princess who has to save her people has a mythic sense of destiny and importance, in a similar vein as Brave and even The Lion King. Its spectacular musical score is the most varied and consistently strong in years, with brilliant lyrics from the mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This year also had its share of disappointments – I left Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moonlight, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feeling lackluster, despite their critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences. Still, I appreciate getting to see different takes on existing franchises, and stories of people who frankly aren’t often portrayed onscreen, and the new ways of thinking they might inspire.

Here’s a look back at my 2016 in film:

  • 248 films seen (0.68 movies per day, down from last year’s run rate of 0.73 movies per day)
  • First movie seen: In Cold Blood (1967)
  • Last movie seen: Blast of Silence (1961)
  • Most-watched:

    • Zootopia (4 times)
    • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (3 times)
    • Brooklyn (3 times)
    • Looking: The Movie (3 times)
    • The Witch (3 times)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2016? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

La La Land (2016)

There’s a lot to love about La La Land.

You’ve probably heard how it’s an homage to classic Hollywood musicals (and in many ways it is), but don’t let that discount the layers upon layers of passion and ingenuity that clearly went into this project.

Its terrific musical score, treading between big band jazz and melodrama symphonies, is one of the strongest of a non-animated musical in years. A recurring horn line, simultaneously building up in strength while an underlying minor chord wrings out the tension, is a perfect accompaniment to the film’s key conflict: balancing professional dreams with personal passions.

The visuals of the film, for both its musical numbers and dramatic spoken scenes, is also thrilling to behold. Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and her roommates go for a night on the town hoping to be noticed by “someone in the crowd,” sporting different colored  dresses. From the costumes perspective, each young woman asserts her own unique identity, to catch the eye of someone who may help her career, while wearing a similar cut and complementary color to one another. Again, the underlying conflict of what must be done for one’s career, while balancing personal and social pressures, is illustrated, in visual film.

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I wish I had roommates like this.

Where the film disappoints, sadly, is its story. There are great nuggets and scenes throughout, but I never really bought the love story between Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), so the abstract, extended dance sequences felt less like organic, romantic movement and more like forced choreography. The musical numbers were great on their own terms, but as the film dragged on (and frankly stopped being fun after a while) I was ready for things to wrap up.

I wouldn’t call La La Land the modern musical masterpiece many claim (or hope) it to be, but it is a great step in a positive direction for imaginative, strong staging of musical sequences within a setting as (typically) unromantic as Los Angeles. The pure heart and love that went into this film is evident in every frame. Pictures like La La Land make the movies a better place.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The first time I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens about a year ago, I left the theater enthralled by the dynamic new characters, imprinted by the instantly-iconic new planets, and superbly entertained by an overall great film.

I felt none of these during Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As the first stand-alone Star Wars film (rather than an “Episode,” a specific piece of the lineage), it has plenty of room to experiment and redefine what a Star Wars movie means. If they continue to go the route of Rogue One, however, the standalone anthology films might not be for me.

Rogue One explores just how the Rebellion got the plans to the Death Star, without which the victory in Star Wars: A New Hope could never have happened – certainly an important moment in the Star Wars saga. A quirky band of rebels, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is tasked first with finding Jyn’s father, a designer of the Death Star, and then learn it was designed with a core weakness, and then task themselves with procuring the plans so the Rebellion can destroy it.

Everything requires a lot of steps, it turns out. I found myself irritated by a climactic battle scene, where the Rebels first had to disguise themselves as Imperial officers (a moment reminiscent of That’s So Raven), then get the plans, then radio-signal them up to Rebel ships, but first clear the air lock, and fix the broken satellite, and also fix the comms tower while they’re at it. It felt like the unending climax of Finding Dory, where trivial conflicts would pop up only to accumulate another 5 minutes running time, rather than build up any real tension.

What made it all worse was that these characters weren’t any fun. Jyn and Cassian had no personalities to speak of, and even the deadpan humor from new robot K-2SO fell flat. It’s already hard to be engaged in a movie where we all know the ending, and it’s even harder when you don’t particularly like anyone onscreen.

I did appreciate how the ending (which I won’t spoil) was handled, as it was a pretty gutsy move from a major movie studio. Rogue One ends on a very dark note, appropriate for this time in Star Wars “history” and the broader film anthology.

I didn’t like Rogue One, with weak characters and a frustrating narrative that were simply not up to par with what we expect from the Star Wars saga. It was interesting to see this piece of the story fleshed out, but these are not people and places I care to revisit. At least (according to Kathleen Kennedy) there won’t be a sequel!