Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Ellen Show

Ellen DeGeneres? Really? I just don't see the whole "get a TV host to host the Oscars" theory. All this talk about Hollywood's Big Night, all the Glamour and whatever of the Academy Awards, and then they turn the show over to someone who's constantly blathering on TV every other night. I thought Jon Stewart did an okay job, certainly an improvement over Billy Crystal and David Letterman, but he's just out of his element on the Oscars.

I think they should give it to an old timer. Have Martin Scorsese host the Oscars. Or Warren Beatty (or Beatty and Annette Benning together). Lauren Bacall. They don't have to be goddamn comedians, after all. Some opening comedy sketch that someone else (not Bruce Vilanch) writes, a brief introduction, BOOM, right into the show. Why not give it a try? It's got to be better than a desperate, grasping Chris Rock or Steve Martin or (ugh) Whoopi Goldberg bookending each and every commercial break with painful, "improvised" one liners.

Anyway, here are all the nominees:


The Departed
The Queen
Little Miss Sunshine
Letters From Iwo Jima

It's a rare year when I don't see all the Oscar nominees for Best Picture, usually based on hype before they're even officially nominated. But I just couldn't bring myself to watch Letters From Iwo Jima. I just don't care. I'm not even saying it's not great. Maybe it's great? But Clint Eastwood's stately earnestness has just worn me out over the course of the past few years.

I'm sure I'll catch it on DVD.

Anyway, out of the other four, my choice would be The Departed, though I wouldn't mind seeing The Queen win (it won't). I liked Little Miss Sunshine, but the suggestion that it's one of the five best pictures of the past year is ludicrous on its face. Almost as ludicrous as, I don't know, suggesting that Steve Carell is the world's foremost Proust scholar.

I mean, where's Children of Men? Where's Borat? Both films are far more interesting and had more of an impact on the culture than Babel or Little Miss Sunshine. Nevertheless, I think Babel will win.

Letters from Iwo Jima is in Japanese, featuring an all Japanese cast, and Clint Eastwood already won big two years ago. (Of course, I'm biased. If Letters From Iwo Jima wins Best Picture, its producer, Paul Haggis, will accept that award a staggering three years in a row. He wrote and produced Million Dollar Baby, wrote and directed Crash, and produced Iwo Jima. Holy shit, this cannot happen.)

Little Miss Sunshine isn't really all that great, and it's pretty slight. I don't think Academy voters would feel right about themselves in the morning if they cemented its place in the American canon with an Oscar win.

The Queen is incredibly British and unseen by almost anyone not in Britain or coastal America.

The Departed could win. It was a huge box office success, Scorsese has been denied over and over again, and pretty much everyone loves it.

Then there's the whole "it's the best movie nominated" thing. As you faithful readers know, this means absolutely nothing. In fact, I'd say the biggest strike against Departed is that it's the best film nominated, and the best film nominated never wins. I also think its frequent, gory violence will give the aging Academy voters pause.

In many ways, the Best Picture is seen as representing the Hollywood "brand" to the rest of the world. Think Titanic. That was an easy choice. That's pure 100% Hollywood escapist filmmaking entertainment. That's the brand. The Departed makes us look like psychopaths.

I guess you could say that Gladiator is a violent movie that won Best Picture, ditto Braveheart, but they give heavy spoonfuls of uplift and pomp along with their bloodletting. Departed is just a brutal, nihilistic bloodbath. I mean, a great one. But get what I'm saying.

What's left? Innaritu's non-controversial, not-particularly-exciting ensemble drama. Some social commentary, but tinged with hope. Some solid performances. Some big stars. Some critical praise. And it has a diverse cast, a Latin director. I think it's the safest, surest pick, and I think it's how the voters will go. But what do I know?


Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

I have not seen any of these movies. Wow. A first, definitely. Still, I think Whitaker will win.


Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Mirren will win. I would say hers was probably the best out of the four performances I have seen (still haven't caught Volver), but Winslet and Dench were both terrific as well. Ironically, Dench is nominated all the time and won previously for a movie in which she barely appeared. (Shades of Streep's nomination this year for Prada, a film defined by her absence.) This year, she has the leading role in a great film with several nominations, and has no shot at winning.


Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

I'd give it to Wahlberg, who was arguably the best part of The Departed. Which means he was showing up Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone. No easy task. I mean, granted, his character got all the best dialogue, but that's really Marky Mark dominating the focus whenever he's on screen. Totally unexpected and awesome.

I'm inclined to say it's going to Alan Arkin or Eddie Murphy though. This is probably the hardest category to call. Both guys have had huge careers, and Arkin was actually nomianted for his first film role ever in Norman Jewison's The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. (It's not very good!) And though I haven't seen Dreamgirls, I understand Murphy's great. Arkin's easily the best part of Little Miss Sunshine, and they do tend to give the Supporting Actor award to the greatly loved, popular, audience favorite movie (like Jack Palance in City Slickers).

So I'm going to guess Arkin, with slight reservations.


Adriana Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

My favorite performance, believe it or not, was Kikuchi's in Babel. If the Japanese segments had been removed from all that other stuff (particularly the wandering, ambiguous and ultimately inscrutible Mexican oddessy), it would have been a great film. A brief one, but still. It was subtle and strange and centered entirely on Kikuchi's wordless, manic turn as the deaf and defiant Chieko.

But I think it'll go to Jennifer Hudson. Which will mean that it only took "American Idol" six years to go from silly teen sensation to an Oscar and Grammy factory. How weird. Why not just eliminate the middle man and start giving Oscars to reality TV stars? Seriously, Trishelle deserves some recognition.


Happy Feet
Monster House

I'd go with Monster House, all the way. It was a really good scary movie for kids and the first time I have seen the motion capture technique used effectively as a storytelling device. These characters did not have the glassy-eyed, uncanny stiffness that plagued the evil Polar Express, which looks like a Christmas movie co-directed by Satan and Dr. Caligari. You'd better watch out, indeed.

But Happy Feet seems the obvious choice. A bonafide sleeper hit that continued the penguin's peculiar dominance of the American box office. Unfortunately, as in all his other entertainment projects, Bob Saget's Farce of the Penguins somehow failed to capitalize on this wave. He was on "Full House," though. Remember "Full House"?


The Good Shepherd
Pan's Labyrinth
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Prestige

I've only seen three of these. And to be honest, Dreamgirls looks like it has awesome art direction from the trailers. I kind of wish I had gotten around to that one, but my theater-going has been off this past month.

Out of the ones I have seen, I'm inclined to go with The Prestige. I wasn't all that taken with the film, but it looked amazing, really capturing the detail of the period without romanticizing it. So many period films look upon their settings with awe; look at how wondrous and elegant everything looked back then! 2006 was a year in which many films, from The Proposition to Marie Antoinette to The Prestige kind of rejected this vision. Its late 19th-century London is a world of iron and grime. Only when the setting moves to the Rocky Mountains, and the strange experiments of Tesla, does Nolan's camera open up to find room for beauty and wonder.

Pirates looked great as well and had some truly remarkable sets. The Flying Dutchman, the fortune teller's hideout, the tropical kingdom. Great stuff.


The Black Dahlia
Children of Men
The Illusionist
Pan's Labyrinth
The Prestige

Two period magician films in the same category? Odd.

The Illusionist is a pretty stupid film that nonetheless looks AMAZING. Time-worn and underlit and just gorgeous. I remarked when I reviewed the film that it resembled a Rembrandt come to life. I have since read that cinematographer Dick Pope used gaslights to light some scenes to get that perfect, amber effect. It works.

Black Dahlia as well was beautifully shot, and it's nice to see the movie get some recognition despite being universally reviled.

I think, however, this award should go to Children of Men. Some of these films are about magic, but Lubieski's camera in this film is legitimately magical. Alfonso Cuaron and Emanual Lubieski won't even talk about how they accomplished some of these extended shots (some appearing to last several minutes in length and filled with chaotic action and effects). This film should win in pretty much every category in which its nominated and some in which it isn't. And I think it will win, at least in this category.


Curse of the Golden Flower
The Devil Wears Prada
Marie Antoinette
The Queen

Marie Antoinette probably should win (though, again, haven't seen Dreamgirls or Golden Flower), but it very well may go to Devil Wears Prada. The whole point of that movie was the clothes, anyway.


Martin Scorsese, The Departed
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Babel
Paul Greengrass, United 93
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima

I think it's Marty's year. He deserves it, he directed the hell out of this movie. What more is there to say?

Outside chance Eastwood will get it again, because the Academy loves him, and I could even see Greengrass receiving the award as a dark horse. Man, I hope not. That would really piss me off. If only because his film seemed to scream "Give me an award! I am Paul Greengrass, the lens through which Americans view themselves and their world!" and we would be walking right into his trap. Just like George W. walked into Osama bin Laden's.


Deliver Us From Evil
An Inconvenient Truth
Iraq in Fragments
Jesus Camp
My Country, My Country

I think Gore's film will probably win. It was pretty well-made, I suppose, but hardly the BEST documentary film of the year. (That's The Devil and Daniel Johnston). Perhaps the fact that it's about the most important issue and had the biggest influence on American opinion is enough. Out of these, bearing in mind that I haven't seen My Country, My Country, I'd say Deliver Us From Evil is the best film. But it'll be nice to see Gore up there getting an Oscar. Maybe if he gets the Nobel as well, he'll run for President.


Blood Diamond
Children of Men
The Departed
United 93

Children of Men, all the way. Though I could see Babel or Departed or United 93 or even Blood Diamond winning this as well. Always a hard category to pick. I think they'll give this one to Children of Men because it won't win much else and it was easily among the year's most impressive technical achievements.


After the Wedding
Days of Glory
The Lives of Others
Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth is clearly the favorite and will almost assuredly win. I preferred Germany's entry, The Lives of Others, which I really ought to review on here in full one of these days. I know Days of Glory was also supposed to be spectacular, but I haven't had a chance to see it yet.


Pan's Labyrinth

Didn't see Apocalypto, but nothing about Click was award-worthy. I repeat, NOTHING. If they were giving an award for Best Film of 2006 About a Magic Remote Control Starring Adam Sandler, I would abstain from voting.


The Good German
Notes on a Scandal
Pan's Labyrinth
The Queen

Notes on a Scandal had one of the year's worst scores, a Phillip Glass abomination that continually intruded on the main action with its droning repetition. (And, yes, I know it's supposed to be repetitive but that didn't make it less annoying). I have liked Glass scores in the past (Truman Show has a great one), but this one nearly ruins several scenes fo the film.

I thought the music in Pan's Labyrinth was effective. That's how I would probably vote. Can't say how it'll go, though, as I really have no idea which of these five is more or less likely to win.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Superman Returns

Except for Pirates, which is filled with eye-popping effects work throughout, these other two films have been nominated for specific scenes. The only part of Poseidon that was in any way enjoyable was the brief scene in which the boat sinks. Everything after that is (pun intended) a wash. Superman Returns has that one tremendous sequence where he saves the shuttle-plane, although that's such a retarded idea, to attack a launching space shuttle to a plane in flight, that you almost feel like the Man of Steel should let them crash to teach humanity a thing or two about physics and aerodynamics.

So I think you have to go with Pirates. No movie this year was bigger or had more going on visually. The entire crew of the Flying Dutchman must have required painstaking months of work. Plus, the Kraken scenes were ridiculously cool.


Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
Pan's Labyrinth
The Queen

My choice would be The Queen, a very wry, unexpectedly funny take on the clash between tradition and progress in modern England. I thought the weakest aspect of Pan's Labyrinth was Del Toro's distracted, oddly conventional screenplay, and that the script for Babel is downright incoherent, saved by Innaritu's sharp direction and the skill of his actors. And I'm sorry, I know a lot of people felt strongly about it, but Little Miss Sunshine is slight. It's a good vehicle for some very talented actors and a lot of the gags work well, but this is hardly original or award-worthy work. In spots, it's downright hacky. (Who could believe Carell runs into his ex-boyfriend and colleague on a random highway turn-off in middle America at that exact moment? That's almost insulting.)


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Children of Men
The Departed
Little Children
Notes on a Scandal

These are all pretty strong contenders. Little Children DQ's itself for the totally unnecessary use of narration. In fact, one need only see the beautiful, perfectly-scripted narration in Notes on a Scandal to realize all that is wrong with the dry, flat narration of Little Children, in which a disembodied, kind of creepy voice, tells us what's happening, in the hopes that we don't forget this movie was based on a really excellent novel that the screenwriter also wrote.

Naturally, I'd like to see my Movie of 2006, Borat, take the prize. I will say, however, that its nomination in this category is nonsensical. The best moments in Borat were improvisational. Even though Baron Cohen created the character and obviously pre-scripted many of the character's trademark one-liners and witticisms (you don't just improvise the phrase "liquid sexytime explosion" takes hours of careful preparation), it's obvious that his genius lies in performance, not writing.

He should be nominated for Best Actor and he should win. I'm thinking Departed will, quite deservingly, take this category. Monahan's script was brilliant and hilarious and near-flawlessly executed. Like Batman Begins or Big Lebowski, it's one of those scripts that's, to me, kind of awe inspiring. How could any human being have the patience to concoct something so intricate and ceaselessly creative?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Post-Recreational Paranoia is the Sport of Now

I've almost seen LA rapper Busdriver (real name: Regan Farquhar) live on more than one occasion over the last few years. He used to open for The Unicorns, the short-lived French-Canadian psychedelic pop trio, and joined the group for their even-shorter-lived hip-hop offshoot Th' Corn Gangg. Unfortunately, it never worked out (the only time I did see the Unicorns perform, at the Knitting Factory if I'm not mistaken, the opening act was a different rapper named Subtitle).

His new record, RoadKillOvercoat, has been dominating my playlists for the better part of February. Without a doubt, this is my favorite album of the year thus far. It's pretty much hip-hop, I suppose, but songs like "Sun Showers" and "Go Slow" sound almost like really percussive indie rock songs. ("Go Slow," in fact, is much closer to something like Broadcast than, say, Ludacris). He's one of the few musicians I think could be legitimately compared to TV on the Radio.

Like Beck or Anthony Burgess, Busdriver creates his own version of English from scratch here. Words with absolutely no business together intermingle within his nonsense collages. The title of this post, part of the chorus to a song called "Kill Your Employer," typifies his lyrical style. Absolute gibberish that nonetheless sounds compelling, even deep, under closer consideration.

"Sun Showers" is perhaps the album's least successful track. It's cool, but it does kind of feel like something off of a B-grade Young Liars. On an album defined by genre-smashing and experimentation, t's the only time Busdriver sounds a bit out of his element. "Secret Skin," opener "Casting Agents and Cowgirls" and my personal favorite track, the head-bopping extravaganza of pop sugar "The Troglodyte Wins," which sounds like Fatlip guesting on a Soul Coughing record, are the highlights.

You can grab two mp3's from the album plus some promo videos shot by a friend of my brother's at Epitaph Records. Here's the first promo, featuring "Troglodyte Wins."

The Arcade Fire's awesome new record is called Neon Bible. Here's a link to the official website. It's exceptionally creepy and strange.

I only, um, obtained the disc last week, so I'm still finding my way around. My instinct is to say that it's not quite up to the ridiculously high standard set by Funeral, but that it's a great collection of songs. The band hasn't really altered its sound tremendously. These are more immediate, swelling pop songs about pain, anxiety and loss performed with a eye towards theatricality and lots of strings.

Nevertheless, Neon Bible does mute some of the previous album's spazzy energy, opting for classic rock throwbacks like "(Antichrist Television Blues)," which could have been written by Tom Petty, or piano ballads like "Ocean of Noise" over the first album's more propulsive, glam-rock powerhouses. Right off the bat, opening track "Black Mirror" and the title track find the band in a somewhat more emo, softer mode than the anthemic Funeral.

My one nitpick is the inclusion of "No Cars Go," a mediocre song from The Fire's first album (the pre-Funeral tiny label one) and a staple of their live shows (they've played it both times I have seen the band, at least). The lyrics are repetitive and silly, the music is predictable and not particularly catchy and it's easily the weakest track on Neon Bible. Why keep resurrecting this old song when the songwriting on both of their subsequent albums has improved considerably?

Anyway, I'm otherwise really digging the whole album. Here's a video of the band playing "Black Mirror" at a show in Montreal.

A guy in the comments over at YouTube implies that the song rips off David Bowie's "Changes." I don't hear it...Leave your comments below.

Finally, like everyone else around the Inter-Web, I'm disappointed in the new Bloc Party, A Weekend in the City. These songs just kind of suck. That one, "Prayer," is alright, I guess. But the whole album just kind of sits there. I had to go back and listen to the first record just to remind myself why I had even liked these guys. Not to worry..."Banquet" still rocks. I'm not quite sure what happened to this band, if it's just a sophomore slump or whatever. Maybe they were touring so much that they didn't get around to writing songs until the last minute.

Judge for yourself. Here's the video for "Prayer."