Friday, February 27, 2015

Emmy Rule Changes: Fighting Back Against Category Fraud

In the midst of all the Oscar hoopla, last Friday the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced some pretty major changes to the Emmys, particularly in the ceremony's top categories: Best Comedy Series and Best Drama Series. A lot of these changes are meant to combat category fraud, that awful plague of award shows where a nominee campaigns as something other than what they actually are (for example, a lead performance masquerading as supporting). This is a welcome change of pace, since the Emmys have developed a reputation for being confusing in their definitions of "comedy," "drama," "miniseries," and more. Granted, these terms are being blurred throughout the entire medium of television; it's more a symptom of an greater issue than the root of it.


So let's break down the changes one by one and examine what exactly is changing and what it means for the future of the Emmys.

What changed: Best Comedy Series and Best Drama Series will expand from six to seven nominees.

What this means: This is actually a fairly reasonable change. There's been drastic explosion of television options in recent years - many of which are no longer tethered to "traditional" networks, but rather streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Even Overstock.com and Playstation are getting into the original programing game, and networks previously best known (if known at all) for their syndicated programing and Cubs games like Pivot and WGN America have recently aired critically-acclaimed original series (Fortitude and Manhattan, respectively). There is, quite frankly, more television available now than ever before.

So it makes sense to expand these categories, allowing more shows the opportunity to earn a nomination. However, seven may not be enough. I personally would advocate for ten nominees in each category; there are certainly more than ten great dramas and ten great comedies on the air right now, and having the categories extend that far would be a great opportunity for smaller shows to get much-need recognition and exposure. Of course, it sounds great in theory. The reality is that the Emmys would continue to avoid certain types of programs in favor of middle-of-the-road shows, so don't hold your breath for Sleepy Hollow to be a Best Drama Series nominee.

But the expansion to seven does provide at least one show a chance at a nomination that previously would have been out of reach. Yet it's the next change that's going to have a greater impact on these categories...

More after the jump.

Monday, February 23, 2015

That's a Wrap: The 87th Annual Academy Awards

Another Oscar ceremony is in the books, and wow, what a wonderful year it was for the winners. The Academy spread the wealth this year, with every Best Picture nominee taking home at least one Oscar for the first time since the category expanded to more than five nominees. The biggest winners of the night were Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - which took home both Best Director for Alejandro G. Inarritu and Best Picture - and The Grand Budapest Hotel, with each film winning four statuettes (they were also the nomination leaders, with nine apiece). Boyhood was perhaps the most underwhelming performer, being a tough contender for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing but ultimately only winning Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette. On the other hand, the most surprising performer may be Whiplash, which ended up winning three Oscars - Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons.


And of course, there were some surprise winners as well. Many (myself included) predicted a Director/Picture split, with most of us picking Richard Linklater (Boyhood) to win the former and Birdman to take the latter. Instead, Inarritu won, making him the second consecutive Mexican director to take the prize (following close friend Alfonso Cuaron last year, for Gravity) and the third consecutive director of color to win (following Cuaron and Ang Lee in 2012, for Life of Pi). How to Train Your Dragon 2 was widely favored to win Best Animated Feature as a consolation for the first film in the series losing to Toy Story 3 in 2010, but instead the prize went to Big Hero 6, giving Disney its second consecutive win in this category (following last year's Frozen). And after being the bridesmaid almost every year over the past decade, composer Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) was finally the bride in Best Original Score, beating out presumed favorite Johann Johansson (The Theory of Everything).

That being said, for the most part the winners were fairly predictable. Eddie Redmayne took Best Actor, Julianne Moore finally got her Oscar for Still Alice, and Simmons and Arquette had dominated their categories all season. Best Foreign Language Film went to frontrunner Ida (from Poland), while Best Documentary Feature went to the buzzy Edward Snowden doc CitizenFour, ending a mini-streak of feel-good music docs prevailing in this category.

As for the ceremony itself...

THE CEREMONY



  • Neil Patrick Harris made an affable, if a tad underwhelming, host. His opening number, a musical tribute to the wonder of moving pictures, was highly entertaining, particularly the involvement of Anna Kendrick and Jack Black. But after the opening, he mostly just made goofy puns and kept things relatively tame. It may be that Ellen DeGeneres was just so phenomenal last year, but Harris never seemed to rise above the level of "good."
  • The stage itself was elaborately decorated, perhaps a tad too busy. Did we need all the giant Oscars floating around the back?
  • Of the Best Original Song performances, "Glory" was by far the most powerful, an understated performance that rightfully placed the attention on the music. Tegan & Sara and The Lonely Island's performance of "Everything is Awesome" was an energetic blast, and Tim McGraw's solo set of "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" was moving and sweet. The tough ones were Rita Ora's "Grateful" and Maroon 5's "Lost Stars," both of which were marred by bad acoustics (was this a problem for anyone else, or was it just my signal?).
  • The musical highlight of the night was Lady Gaga's tribute to The Sound of Music, which turns 50 this year. It's easy to forget that, beneath all the pop frills and outre shenanigans, Gaga really does have a force of nature for a voice. If I were more confident in her acting abilities, I would say cast her in a Broadway revival as Maria immediately. Even surprise guest Julie Andrews thought she was great, and when Hollywood royalty loves you, you know you're for real.
  • I don't usually comment on red-carpet fashion, but Dakota Johnson looked stunning in her red dress, Lupita Nyong'o's pearl-studded dress was gorgeous on her, Anna Kendrick was jaw-dropping beautiful, and David Oyelowo looked very dapper in his velvet tux. On the negative side: Jennifer Lopez's makeup was not flattering.
  • Speaking of Dakota Johnson and the red carpet, her interview with mother Melanie Griffith was a disaster, mostly thanks to reporter Lara Spencer's fumbling through dumb questions. Actually, a lot of the red carpet interviews were embarrassing, particularly Marion Cotillard's ("You're the only one nominated for a foreign film, that must be amazing!," followed by Cotillard's "well yes, I am French" look on her face).
  • "In Memoriam" reminded me of how many great people we lost this year. RIP.
  • In his introduction for some of the Best Picture nominees, I was genuinely concerned about Terrence Howard. I don't know if he was drunk or just overwhelmed, but he was not acting like he was okay. Here's hoping it wasn't anything serious.
  • Eddie Redmayne's genuine excitement over winning Best Actor was perhaps the night's best acceptance speech. Nobody said anything too weird; the closest would be J.K. Simmons' PSA about calling your parents. The sound mixing team for Whiplash, however, were probably the least-prepared: they fumbled through their speeches.

As for myself, I correctly guessed a respectable 19 of the 24 categories correctly, with Best Director and Best Original Screenplay being the biggest two that I missed. That's a step down from my 22 of 24 mark last year, but then, I got super lucky last year in my ballsy picks. This year, playing it safe actually did me in more. So be ready for some wild choices next year (maybe)!

Full list of winners, with commentary, after the jump.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Everything You Need For Tonight's 87th Annual Academy Awards

Hollywood's High Holy Night is finally upon us, as the Oscars are tonight at 8 pm on ABC! Unlike last year, I haven't had a lot of time to write about the Oscars this year. But, so you can get ready for tonight's ceremony, I've compiled links for all of my coverage from this season, including this week's preview and last week's FYCs. You can find those links below.


OSCAR PREVIEWS

Best Adapted Screenplay / Best Original Screenplay
Best Actor / Best Supporting Actor
Best Actress / Best Supporting Actress
Best Director / Best Picture

FYC WEEK

Begin Again for Best Original Song
Guardians of the Galaxy for Best Makeup & Hairstyling
American Sniper for Best Sound Mixing
Whiplash for Best Film Editing
Interstellar for Best Original Score

OTHER ARTICLES

A glimpse into Best Visual Effects
The debate about historical accuracy in American Sniper and Selma

You can find a full list of nominations here. And now, last but not least, my predictions in every category. A lot of these races are really tough to call this year, to the point where I don't feel particularly comfortable with my predictions in several categories. I'm particularly nervous about my Best Picture call; anything could happen in that category this year. Moreover, I think this could very well be a "spread the wealth" year, with several films winning a few trophies rather than a few films winning all the awards.

My predictions after the jump. And happy Oscar watching! I'll have a wrap-up of the ceremony and winners tomorrow evening.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscars 2014: Best Director / Best Picture

We've come to the final two categories of our preview: Best Director and Best Picture. Best Director has been a point of controversy this year, with the exclusion of Ava DuVernay (Selma) causing a huge stir across social media and the entertainment media. Though her historic inclusion as the first woman of color to be nominated in this category would have been exciting (and well-deserved), we still have a lineup that's interesting, recognizing very different voices that have created a fascinating variety of films. In Best Picture, too, we saw less than nine nominees for the first time since the category expanded in 2009, with eight films earning nominations. They, too, paint a surprising portrait of the year that was, from arthouse favorites to unexpected blockbusters.

So, without further ado, here are the nominees:

BEST DIRECTOR


Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Who would have thought that the Academy would ever recognize Anderson's direction? After years of ignoring his uniquely brilliant work, Anderson has finally been nominated for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. In addition to his favorite pet themes - melancholic loneliness, impeccable production design, tightly-stylized performances - Anderson also tosses in some madcap screwball comedy. The result is a film that crackles with nonstop energy, making it Anderson's showiest film to date. Even if he's made better films, it's hard to deny that his work here isn't terrific.


Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

After years of making his name with miserablist dramas about the interconnectivity of life (Babel, Biutiful), Inarritu loosened up with this showbiz satire that's nevertheless as dark and scathing as his previous films. The running gimmick of making the film appear as if it was shot in a single take isn't nearly as distracting as it sounds, instead allowing Inarritu to place the audience in Riggan's (Michael Keaton) state-of-mind as he tries to mount his comeback show. In Inarritu's hands, the camera becomes a wandering eye, capturing all the ins and outs of this production and all the artistic narcissism that comes with it. Most importantly, he shows off an acrid sense of humor. It's a masterstroke from the director, proving that he's significantly more talented than he had previously hinted at.

More after the jump.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscars 2014: Best Actress / Best Supporting Actress

Every year, I try to make it a point to see every one of the films nominated in the top eight categories, so that when I compile these previews and make my predictions, I can do so from a place of authority. In recent years, I've managed to do this successfully just about every year. Unfortunately, this is not going to be one of those years, as I failed to see one of this year's Best Supporting Actress nominees: Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. It's my own damn fault: I waited too long, not taking the opportunity to see it on one of my precious few days off from work, and by the time I did have a chance it had just left theaters in the Greensboro area. So I apologize for failing in this; when I do finally see it, I will update my ballot and say a few words about Streep's work.

In fact, I was concerned that I would miss a whopping three of the nominees, as Best Actress contenders Still Alice (Julianne Moore) and Two Days, One Night (Marion Cotillard) had not yet opened in the area (and still haven't; Greensboro is a horrendous movie market). A trip to Asheville, North Carolina allowed me to see both films, so we will have a complete Best Actress preview for you this year.

Enough about me, though. On to the nominees:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS


Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Of all of the Arquettes, Patricia always seemed like the one most destined for a long-time career as an actor. And in many ways, her role as Mom here allows her to prove her worth. Arquette's performance is remarkable to behold, an encapsulation of messy maternity and the difficulty of raising two children as a single parent. But throughout the poor relationship decisions and tender love for her children, Arquette never lets this woman fade into just being another screen mother. She's fully alive, a human being with wants and needs who worries who she will be once her children have grown up and moved out. She's afraid of being left behind and forgotten; with this performance, Arquette proves that there's no chance of that happening to her in the industry.

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Abstain. We'll talk more about Streep when I actually see the movie.


Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game

As Joan Clark, the only woman on Alan Turing's (Benedict Cumberbatch) team of cryptologists tasked with breaking the German enigma code, Knightley faces the tall task of providing what's pretty much the only feminine voice of the film. What's remarkable about her performance is that she takes what's written to be a secondary character and imbues her with a world that is completely her own, turning Joan into a figure that stands out from the very first frame she's in. She's a woman who seeks an escape from convention, but knows full well that she cannot avoid the trappings of 1940s society altogether. Her relationship with Turing is knotty and complex, built on a love that's based in mutual admiration and a chance to better herself. Knightley is nothing short of delightful in this role, proving her dramatic chops and capping a terrific year for her as an actor.

More after the jump.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2014: Best Actor / Best Supporting Actor

This year saw an eclectic mix of actors earn nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. In the former category, only Bradley Cooper has been previously nominated, and for a long time this awards season it seemed as if the category could very realistically be loaded with nothing but first-time nominees. On the other hand, four of the five nominees in Best Supporting Actor have been previously nominated, though only Robert Duvall has ever won an Oscar among that group. Actually,  Duvall is the only previous winner among both categories. But who has the best shot at joining him in the winners' circle this year?

Here are the nominees:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


Edward Norton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Norton is famous for his reputation as a difficult-to-work-with actor, noted for his on-set tantrums and insistence on having enormous creative input in the films he signs up for. So Norton makes perfect sense to play Mike Shiner, an actor who's notoriously difficult to work with and exerts creative control over Riggan's (Michael Keaton) play. Norton expertly taps into Mike's facade of being a crusader for artistic truth, playing it serious while also letting the audience know that he's full of shit. It's a high-wire comedic performance of the highest order, and Norton pulls it off with aplomb. 


Robert Duvall, The Judge

The Judge didn't deserve someone of Duvall's calibar; or, rather, Duvall didn't deserve reheated dreck like The Judge. Either way, the film earned him his first nomination in 17 years for his portrayal of Judge Joseph Palmer, a long-time small-town judge who is charged with murder, and must rely on his estranged son (Robert Downey Jr.) to help defend him. As the film drudges through legal cliche after small-town-feel-good-family-drama cliche, Duvall dedicates to the role, giving Judge Palmer a prickliness that belies the sense of nobility that drives him. That being said, this is the sort of role that Duvall could play in his sleep, and at time it seems like that's exactly what he's doing. He's an Oscar-caliber actor, make no mistake, but this is not an Oscar-worthy performance.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscars 2014: The Screenplays

There's only a few days left before Oscar night, so now's as good a time as any to begin our annual Oscar previews. As in previous years, we're covering each of the top eight categories - the four acting, two writing, Director, and Picture - and evaluating each nominee's merits, determining who has the best shot at winning, and publishing my personal ballots for each category (if I actually had a vote).

We're going to kick things off this year with the writing categories, which tell two very different stories. On the one hand, Best Original Screenplay may have been the most competitive category of the year, with at least a dozen viable contenders fighting for five spots; it's no surprise that some high-profile works were left out (Selma, A Most Violent Year, Interstellar) in the end. On the other hand, Best Adapted Screenplay didn't seem to have very many contenders at all, and still managed to pull off two glaring omissions (Gone Girl and Wild) while loading up on some rather perfunctory scripts. That's a shame, because there were several other great contenders available, even if they fell outside the purview of "traditional" Oscar contenders (Under the Skin, Snowpiercer, A Most Wanted Man).

Here are your nominees for this years' writing categories:

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY


American Sniper; written by Jason Hall

The factual errors in American Sniper have been well-documented, though its tough to say whether this is to the detriment of Hall's screenplay or not. Hall is simply adapted Kyle's memoir, and in some ways the skewed history works by illustrating Kyle's mindset in wanting to serve in the military. Yet it's still clumsy, and the script doesn't balance Kyle at war and Kyle at home enough to make a clear impact. It introduces ideas only to drop them immediately afterward, making it more of a work of missed opportunities than a work of excellence.

The rest of the nominees, plus Best Original Screenplay, after the jump.

Short Takes: 2014 Oscar Nominees, Part Two

Two Days, One Night (dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2014)


Two Days, One Night is something of a "Judas" moment for the Dardenne Brothers. The Belgian directors made their name by adhering to the aesthetics of the French New Wave: amateur actors, child protagonists, strict use of diegetic sound, and handheld cinematography. But in this film, for the first time, they've worked with a major international movie star: Marion Cotillard. It could have been seen as the auteurs selling out. Instead, the film turns out to be another affecting, remarkable work from a duo who have made nothing but affecting, remarkable works.

Cotillard stars as Sandra, an employee at a solar-panel company who learns that, while she was on leave, her boss held a vote amongst her co-workers: either Sandra stays or they get to keep their bonuses. Naturally, her co-workers chose their bonuses, and Sandra petitions for another vote, this time by secret ballot. She gets her request, leaving her with one weekend to convince her co-workers to surrender their bonuses and allow her to remain employed.

The Dardennes have stated that the film is meant to be an allegory for the austerity measures that have affected Europe since the 2008 economic collapse. But greater meaning or not, the film succeeds thanks to the remarkable empathy that the directors have for the characters. Each of Sandra's co-workers are given reasons for their decisions, and in every case it's presented as valid; they do what they have to do to get by, even if it comes at the cost of someone else. Cotillard is, of course, incredible in the role of Sandra; that pretty much goes without saying with an actress of her considerable talent. Ultimately, the film is another great work from a impressive pair of auteurs. A-

More after the jump.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Short Takes: 2014 Oscar Nominees, Part One

Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay, 2014)

Incredibly, there haven't been too many films about Martin Luther King, Jr., despite his high stature in American mythology. Perhaps its because the civil rights leader still remains a controversial figure, even 50 years after his assassination in 1964. There are debates from both sides of the political aisle as to what his ultimate message was, and even further disputes over the methods he endorsed for achieving those goals of equality. Those disputes have made him a difficult figure to represent in pop culture, which may be why in most films about the era he only appears as a minor character at best, in stock footage or even not at all at worst.


Ava DuVernay's new film takes on King as its protagonist, but instead of a sweeping biopic that spans the entirety of his life, it narrows its focus on one event: the march from Selma, Alabama to the state's capital in 1965 to protest voting restrictions of African-American citizens. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) arrives ready to lead a peaceful protest, especially since he and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) are at odds over the urgency in passing voting rights legislation. However, the demonstrations are met with hard resistance, both from local sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). Facing certain arrest and possibly death, King proceeds to lead his protesters anyway, despite concern from his wife Corretta (Carmen Ejogo) and his fellow activists.

The most interesting thing that DuVernay does with her film is to make it less about King himself and more about the effectiveness of grassroots activism. The film uses King's example to argue that waiting for change at the federal government will not accomplish things fast enough; change comes when the people demand it and demonstrate for it. It's no accident that DuVernay, along with master cinematographer Bradford Young, stage many scenes from the march in a way that directly recalls last summer's demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. It's a film that's (sadly) ever so timely with a message that's ultimately timeless.

Of course, much of the film's power belongs to the acting, in particular Oyelowo's commanding performance as King. He doesn't rely on mimicry so much as gusto, capturing the charisma and gift for oration that made King a prominent activist. He also doesn't shy away from King's warts, such as his affairs or his moments of weakness. But the truth is the film is ultimately DuVernay's. She's announced herself as one of the best working American directors today. It's a title she's certainly made a very strong case for with Selma. A

More after the jump.

Friday, February 13, 2015

FYC: Best Original Score, "Interstellar"

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

The Best Original Score category tends to favor established composers over newcomers or those never nominated, to the point where it seems like it's an exclusive club. John Williams - the Meryl Streep of composers - seems to be nominated more or less every time he works, to date racking up 44 nominations in this category alone (he also has a handful of Best Original Song nods, bringing his total to 49). Alexandre Desplat has been nominated eight times in the last eight years, including two nominations this year alone for both The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel.


However, that trend has been slowly changing over the past few years. The past four winners in this category did so on their first nomination, and each of the past 11 winners did so on either their first or second nomination. In fact, the two of this year's nominated composers hadn't been nominated before: Gary Yershon (Mr. Turner), who's scored each of director Mike Leigh's last three films, but otherwise only has a few television credits to his name, and Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), who's most notable work to date had been the score for Prisoners (2013) but has been making music in his native Iceland for years. And as of this writing, Johannsson is widely considered the favorite, making it possible that this streak could be extended to 12 years running.

That being said, the best score in this category comes from a composer who has been nominated 10 times before and has won once before: Hans Zimmer's score for Interstellar. It's a massive work, both sonically and ambitiously. The most distinctive feature of this score is its use of organ, an antiquated instrument that's now mostly relegated to old churches (in fact, the organ used in the score was recorded at London's Temple Church). It's an odd mix, to have such an ancient instrument woven into a score featuring synthesizers and a full orchestra. Yet it works perfectly, and not just because the results are aurally excellent. The organ works within the film's main theme as well: humanity being the core of technology, not the other way around. The organ brings warmth and emotion to the score; no matter how epically the music swells, it's never less than human.



In a featurette published on Slate last November, director Christopher Nolan notes that he had wanted "religiosity" in the score for Interstellar. The organ certainly provides that, and the score itself can feel like a religious experience in and of itself. It can feel like it spans the entire length of the universe, yet it never loses its beating heart.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

FYC: Best Film Editing, "Whiplash"

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

Believe it or not, Whiplash was perhaps the most exciting, pulse-pounding thriller of 2014. No, there were no high-speed chases, nor were there any shootouts between troubled men, nor were there any explosions of fire and fury. Instead, the film is a tense battle of wits at a prestigious music school, where talented jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) seeks the approval of his terrifying, brilliant instructor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is a sadist, and Andrew is a glutton for his punishment, eager to do whatever it takes to impress him and be acknowledged. It's a horrifyingly abusive relationship built on a game of derogatory cat-and-mouse; Fifty Shades of Grey has nothing on this film.


So it's not particularly surprising that Whiplash earned an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing when that category has long had a soft-spot for tightly-wound thrillers. Even just looking at the past ten years, this category lists The Departed (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), The Hurt Locker (2009), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) among its winners, with nominees including Collateral (2004), The Constant Gardener (2005), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Captain Phillips (2013). You could go back even further and see that Three Days of the Condor (1975), Robocop (1987), Die Hard (1988), Basic Instinct (1992), and Air Force One (1997) were all nominees in this category as well.

Whiplash deserves this award, however, because the editing is crucial to the film's frenzied build. In many ways, the editing functions as the conductor of the jazz ensemble that is the film, tightly controlling the tempo, the dynamics, tossing in a lighter phrase before hitting the next crescendo. The film cuts quickly between Fletcher's prestige jazz ensemble prepping their instruments to him conducting, alternating between the characters' faces and feet tapping the ground to keep the tempo. The editing pulses with a rhythm that's not unlike the high-energy jazz number that is the ensemble's centerpiece performance, also called "Whiplash." It's a dazzling feat that culminates in the year's most intense, electrifying finale, a burst of cathartic release that perfectly pays off everything the film built up.

Sure, there were other terrific feats of editing this year. But none were as powerfully effective as the rat-a-tat editing in Whiplash.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

FYC: Best Sound Mixing, "American Sniper"

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

This is not an endorsement of American Sniper as a whole. The film certainly has its fair share of flaws, ranging from the bald-faced irresponsibility in the film's implication that Iraq was responsible for the attacks of September 11 to the now-infamous "fake baby" scene. The most glaring flaw, in my eyes at least, is the disservice the film ultimately pays to Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as a compelling character. The film is quick to buy into Kyle's status as "The Legend," by film's end vaunting him as a perfect, pure distillation of kick-ass American patriotism that's a far cry from the more nuanced, complex portrait director Clint Eastwood seemed to be aiming for in the harrowing opening scene. In short, the film tilts far in favor of scenes of violent, video-game-like wartime heroism, with the more-compelling scenes of Kyle at home between tours, struggling to adjust to civilian life, given the short shrift. (I'll write more about the film next week)


However, the film's sound mixing makes for a very interesting case of the film taking a more measured stance on its protagonist. The film is structured in such a way that Eastwood and writer Jason Hall want to comment on some of Eastwood's pet themes, namely the cost of wars on the men who fight them and the dangers of unchecked patroitism/fanaticism. While in Iraq, Kyle is a deadly sniper with steel nerves, taking lives in the name of protecting his fellow soldiers and protecting the United States. But at home, he's clearly wracked with post-traumatic stress disorder, shutting off from the world and twitching at every unexpected noise. The idea is that the war is taking its toll on Kyle, even if Eastwood's execution is flawed (Cooper, however, is excellent).

Here's where the sound mixing comes into play. Whenever the film transitions from Kyle in Iraq to Kyle at home (or vice versa), the sounds of warfare bleed into the domestic scenes. On the one hand, this effect works as a smooth transition between the two areas of Kyle's life; to move abruptly from one to the other would be disorienting. What's surprising about this is that, ideally, the transitions would be disorienting, with marked differences between war and peace. Instead, they seem perfectly, disturbingly normal.

The sound work puts the audience in Kyle's headspace, illustrating how, even when he's at a barbecue with his family, he never completely leaves the warzone. The war comes home with him, it's changed him, and there's no real way to come back from that. It's an impressive feat, especially considering how the film's screenplay and Eastwood's direction often fails to communicate the same idea. Coupled with the film's excellent use of cacophony and silence, it's hard to ignore the accomplishment of the film's mixing team.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

FYC: Best Makeup and Hairstyling, "Guardians of the Galaxy"

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

As noted in my discussion of the Best Visual Effects category last week, "best" usually means "most" at the Oscars. Oscar pundits and cinephiles alike will often bemoan this fact, arguing that nuanced work is far superior and lamenting the go-for-broke nominees who end up taking home statuettes. But bigger isn't always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes "most" actually is "best."


Take, for example, the makeup in Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel's sci-fi superhero film utilizes far more obvious makeup than either of the other two, more prestigious nominees in Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Foxcatcher and The Grand Budapest Hotel). Most of it is in turning actors into aliens, such as Zoe Saldana's green-skinned assassin Gamora, Michael Rooker's blue-toned bounty hunter Yondu, or Lee Pace's lighter-blue-complexion villain Ronan the Accuser. Similarly, in terms of hairstyling, the wild, untamed white mane of Benicio Del Toro's mysterious Collector immediately comes to mind, as does Glenn Close's future-chic coif as galactic leader Nova Prime.

The important distinction is that the sheer volume of the makeup effects in the film aren't just massive, but also memorable. Director James Gunn could have easily opted for computer effects in creating most of these looks, but instead he utilizes outlandish makeup to create the characters. The result is that characters like Gamora, Drax (Dave Bautista), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) all occupy real space, a feat that is difficult to recreate with pixels in post-production. The characters have weight onscreen, which is valuable to the film's overall effect; the audience senses that these characters are real, allowing us to invest more in them.

Certainly, The Grand Budapest Hotel has some fabulous old-age makeup and Ralph Fiennes' impeccable mustache, and Foxcatcher is most notable for Steve Carell's prosthetic nose. But with Guardians of the Galaxy, the most makeup really is the best.

Monday, February 9, 2015

FYC: Best Original Song, "Begin Again"

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

It's no secret that the Best Original Song category has been something of a crapshoot since the turn of the millennium. Sure, there are have been some instant-classic winners, such as "Skyfall" (Skyfall) and "Falling Slowly" (Once), but in between the category has seen rough times, including years with only four, three, or even two nominees (the disastrous 2011 field). It's odd, you would think, that with Hollywood putting a least a little more faith in movie musicals that there would be more quality songs for this category. The problem, of course, is that most of those movie musicals are stage-to-screen transfers, with maybe an obligatory song written for eligibility but otherwise featuring songs that fans are already familiar with. In the meantime, this category catches all manner of hastily-produced songs that, at best, just play over the end credits of a Best Picture nominee.


Last year, we got lucky in that two of the four remaining nominees ("Alone But Not Alone," from the film of the same name, having been disqualified) were major pop hits as well: Pharrell Williams rode "Happy" (Despicable Me 2) to the top of the pop charts, while winner "Let It Go" (Frozen) was as inescapable as the film that spawned it. This year, of the five nominees, none were major hits, but the breakdown includes a lush ballad from an aging country legend ("I'm Not Gonna Miss You," from Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me), an empowering gospel-tinged rap anthem ("Glory," from Selma), the goofy earworm from The LEGO Movie ("Everything is AWESOME!!!"), and two ditties from original movie musicals: the Diane Warren-penned "Grateful" (from Beyond the Lights) and "Lost Stars" from Begin Again.

Having not seen Beyond the Lights, I can't speak with any certainty about the placement of "Grateful" within the film. "Lost Stars," however, is exactly what a Best Original Song winner should be. The song plays a prominent role in the film, functioning as the central composition that Gretta (Keira Knightley) will find success with, as well as the peace-offering from her pop-star ex-boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). Begin Again is as much a film about the unique joys of the creative process as it is a traditional underdog story, and throughout the film we see "Lost Stars" evolve from just Gretta and her guitar to a full-blown pop arrangement by Dave.



It's the final version that shines the brightest (no disrespect to Knightley and her impressive chops). It's a pop song through-and-through, but it manages to be both contemporary and timeless; it doesn't chase current pop trends or tether itself to the sound of any particular time period. It rises into a joyous burst of a finale, with Levine's falsetto lifting the song into a state of exuberance. Though it perhaps contends with "Everything is AWESOME!!!" as the catchiest song in the category, it is without a doubt the most memorable.

Ultimately, the winner of Best Original Song should be, in equal measure, well-integrated into the film and a great tune in its own right. "Lost Stars" fits that description to a tee, and would be a worthy addition to the list of winners in this category.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Best Visual Effects: Spectacle > Supporting (Or Is It?)

It's no secret that when it comes to the Oscars, "best" usually equals "most." Subtle, nuanced performances tend to lose to work that screams "look at me!," while the most overwritten screenplays will usually take home the statuette. This is especially true in the craft categories, where the more extravagant the costumes, the more gimmicky the makeup, and the more noticeable the sound, the more likely that film will win.

For evidence of this, look no further than this year's Best Visual Effects category. All five nominees - Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and X-Men: Days of Future Past - are effects-driven blockbusters where the eye-candy spectacle is the main draw. These movies are BIG, not only in the scale of their effects but in the prominence of those effects to the narrative. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for example, relies heavily on the digitally-created apes that drive the narrative, particularly in the motion-capture performances that were used to create them. Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar rely on their visual effects to create entire new worlds, while X-Men and Captain America utilize their effects to emphasize their (super)heroics. (this year is heavy on the superheroes, more so than any other lineup with more than three nominees in this category).

The Guardians of the Galaxy

You could easily make the observation that in each of these films, the effects do play something of a supporting role. Indeed, it's impossible to imagine any of these films being possible without their complex visual effects. But how well does this argument really hold up?

More after the jump.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #9

"You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti."
- Roger Ebert 

For years, it seemed like Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's landmark silent French film The Passion of Joan of Arc had been lost. The original negative of the film was destroyed in a fire in Berlin in 1928, with only a few of Dreyer's original copies surviving. Some in the French government considered the way Dreyer portrayed the French national hero controversial, and so the film was re-edited - without Dreyer's involvement - before its French premiere. For decades, the re-edited version of the film was the only one available, until a preserved copy of Dreyer's original cut was discovered in a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway in 1981.


The film has been considered a landmark in cinema history - especially in regards to the silent era - for a number of reasons. Limiting the scope of the story only to the trial and execution of Joan of Arc,  the 15th century French heroine who helped lead a rebellion against invading English forces, Dreyer films mostly in close-ups, using dramatic lighting to covey much of the atmosphere that the intertitles cannot supply. The film earned a rapturous reception upon its release, both abroad - where it was recognized as a masterwork - and in France, where audiences praised the treatment of the recently-canonized saint.

But what truly sets the film apart is how essential the central performance from Renee Maria Falconetti is. It has been hailed as one of the greatest performances put to celluloid, and rightfully so: the film couldn't work without her.

More after the jump.