Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar Night: It's All About Marty, Al, and Jack

Aww, Marty. It's nice to see you vindicated at last. And it's a doubly nice touch that you got Best Picture, too, because it weighs against the assumption that the Academy only gave you an Oscar to make up for all those times you should have won before. Not that that wasn't a factor, but as I've said before and will say again, "The Departed" is a strong film on its own merits and deserves all of its awards. After all, the Oscars are for the best work of the year - they're not competing against Scorsese's entire oeuvre.

I didn't do too well in my Oscar pool this year, mainly because of my poor showing among the smaller awards - and my sticking with "Little Miss Sunshine" as a dark horse winner. At least I did have the intuition to switch my Best Supporting Actor vote at the last minute from Eddie Murphy to Alan Arkin. Unfortunately, I also had the less-intuitive inspiration to change my Foreign Film vote from "The Lives of Others" to "Pan's Labyrinth" based on the latter's early momentum. Which just goes to show early momentum doesn't mean anything.

I don't know how many conservatives were watching the Oscars, but I'm sure to them all of Hollywood's godlessness and squishy, self-congratulatory liberalism were on full display tonight, from Ellen Degeneres hosting and Melissa Etheridge thanking her wife to the Oscars going "green" and throwing hosannas at "An Inconvenient Truth." Isn't it funny that the king of the night may not have been Martin Scorsese but, in fact Al Gore? (Unless it was Jack Nicholson, whom the cameras seemed obsessed with for no perceptible reason.) To his credit, Gore handled his rock-star status quite graciously. Environmentalism is so in at the moment in H'wood. I even wonder if the upset of "Cars" by "Happy Feet" in the animated feature category might not have had something to do with "Happy Feet"'s environmental message.

The winners mostly kept their speeches brief, so it's hard to explain why the ceremony dragged on so long, and I mean looooong. Helen Mirren was a class act, as always, paying a crisp and elegant tribute to the character she played. But it was Forest Whitaker who gave easily the most moving speech of the night. And I loved the lady who referred to her Oscar as a "doll" and tapped it so you could hear it clink. That was just priceless.

Other highlights: whenever that cool performance troupe created a silhouette image from one of the featured films. The Will Ferrell/Jack Black/John C. Reilly song about how comedians never win was mildly funny. And that triple number from "Dreamgirls" was a pretty rockin' performance, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that it kept threatening to turn into a Battle of the Divas. Nice to see the JHud managed to pull herself together after her win to go toe-to-toe with Beyoncé. Though, in the end, I think Beyoncé still schooled her. And they both got schooled by little Anika Noni Rose, bless her.

Otherwise, the ceremony was dreadfully dull. (You know things are bad when you're longing for more famous faces in the Dead People Montage.) It didn't help that Ellen didn't set much of a tone - though I thought it was cute she got Spielberg to take a picture of her and Clint - or that no one other than Nicole Kidman was wearing anything particularly hideous. Except for Abigail Breslin, and she's so cute it didn't matter. Where are Cher and Bjork when you need 'em?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Farewell to "The O.C."

Although I haven't watched "The O.C." in ages, I had to tune in for the series finale. You see, I have a very personal relationship with "The O.C." I was in my last year on the East Coast when the show first burst on the scene, and it quickly became a regular viewing ritual for me and my best pals. We loved the pretty faces, ate up the melodrama, and nodded approvingly at Josh Schwartz's salute to that seldom-glamourized species - the Jewish male - and his unlikely conquest of the most impregnable bastion of wealthy WASPiness this side of the Mississippi. And since I knew that I myself was moving to L.A. soon, the weekly paean to sun-kissed Californian shores took on a special significance for me. It was telling, I thought, that one of the first celebrities I spotted after moving here was none other than Mischa Barton, aka Marissa Cooper, lunching at the Peninsula in Beverly Hills.

Alas, "The O.C." didn't prove to have the staying power of "90210," because the show didn't seem to know what to do with itself after its whiz-bang first season. I continued to watch it for a while out of loyalty, but it wasn't the same. Maybe it wasn't the same without my group of friends. But too often what I saw before me were characters (whom I still loved) in search of a story, and not finding any that really held. I saw barely any of the third season, and didn't watch any of season 4 - perhaps at least partly out of mute resentment at the death of Marissa, who for me represented the heart of "The O.C."

So coming back tonight felt a little like catching up with an old flame I hadn't seen in years. I wasn't exactly up to speed on all that had happened in the past season - though I'd gotten occasional updates from the few friends who remained faithful fans - and I didn't try to figure it all out, except to wonder "What is Hercules doing on this show?" (I later figured out he was supposed to be Ryan's dad - and, apparently, Julie Cooper's latest lover and father of her new kid. Kudos to the writers for carrying, to the last, their grand tradition of tangling all the characters together in one big, vaguely incestuous snarl.) Also noticed the boys looked older. Older, but also hotter. They are aging quite scrumptuously.

Luckily someone had prepared me for the shock of seeing Ryan and Taylor as lovers. I still didn't like it; I've never bought Taylor as a character. I'm glad the finale at least left their future open rather than pushing them back together. (C'mon, the writers owed Marissa *that* much at least.) On the other hand, the sappy part of me rejoiced when Seth and Summer finally got hitched. And, since Sandy Cohen has always been my fav character on the show, I very much liked the idea of Ryan becoming a Sandy-figure at the end, even if it did come just a little too pat.

For the rest, the finale had a subdued, rather downbeat feel that overpowered all its improbable plot turns and attempts at humor. (I did like Bullitt, and the gay couple, even if I couldn't help rolling my eyes every time these three had to play the roles of deux ex machina.) I have to say I'm not sure how I feel about the mainstay of "The O.C." - the Cohens - abandoning the O.C. altogether. Still, perhaps it was the only appropriate ending, given that the tie-up of the show was ultimately a rejection of everything it once represented in the pop culture landscape. One and all, every single major character (even Julie Cooper!) ends up becoming a serious, responsible, successful person - only by putting all the glamour, fluff, and frivolity of Newport Beach firmly behind them. Good for them. But, "O.C."...we hardly knew ye.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's Oscar Time, So Why am I Yawning?

Make no mistake, 2006 was an exciting year in the movies. It was a year in which several promising filmmakers reached new artistic heights or at least struck boldly in new directions. It was a year in which strong acting ensembles worked together so seamlessly one could hardly tell who led and who supported. And it was a year in which globalism was more than just a catchphrase and the fluidity of national boundaries could really be felt even in films featuring faces familiar to American audiences.

Too bad, then, that so little of that excitement carried over into the Oscar nominations. It's not that the nominees are generally unworthy (I'll withhold skepticism on "Blood Diamond," not having seen it). It's that the most interesting films of the year, at least in this viewer's humble opinion, are mostly hiding out in the minor categories rather than contending for the major awards. Which may be why in some ways I'm more interested to see who wins Art Direction, Cinematography, or even Costume Design than who wins Best Picture. Nevertheless, from a handicapper's perspective, the race for the big one is a corker. There's been a gradual tilt over the past few weeks towards two of the nominees, but it's still a wide open field. Anything can happen, and just may.

My predictions on the majors:


Nominees: "Babel," "The Queen," "The Departed," "Little Miss Sunshine," "Letters from Iwo Jima"

Will win: The last lap seems to have come down to either "The Departed" or "Little Miss Sunshine," but as of this posting, I'll put my money on LMS. It's the most likable of the five, it's won some of the key pre-Oscars bellwether awards (Producers' Guild, SAG) and just seems to have more industry goodwill towards it. "Departed" will likely be awarded in the directors' category instead. As for the other candidates, "Babel" seems to have lost steam since the nominations came out, and "Iwo Jima" never really picked up any. "The Queen" still has some, but it's hard to conceal that it's basically two exceptional performances in a thoughtful but otherwise unexceptional film.

Should win: In this crowd, definitely "The Departed." It has its flaws, but it's still a gripping blend of crime thriller and psychodrama, directed with all the flash and bloody panache that made Martin Scorsese a household name.


Nominees: Alejandro González Iñárritu, "Babel"; Stephen Frears, "The Queen"; Martin Scorsese, "The Departed," Paul Greengrass, "United 93"; Clint Eastwood, "Letters from Iwo Jima"

Will win: This is Scorsese's award to lose. He won't lose. Clint's movie just doesn't have enough oomph to unseat him.

Should win: Scorsese. It may not be his best work, but unlike his last two nominated films, he really knocked this one out of the park.


Nominees: Forest Whitaker, "The Last King of Scotland": Leonardo di Caprio, "Blood Diamond"; Ryan Gosling, "Half Nelson"; Peter O'Toole, "Venus"; Will Smith, "The Pursuit of Happyness"

Will win: Forest Whitaker. He's been cleaning up all the other acting awards this year and enjoys the longstanding respect and goodwill of his fellow Academy members. His only real challenger is O'Toole, who's been nominated for Oscar, what, eight times? and never won any but an honorary. For sentimental reasons, I'd be delighted if he won, and I'm sure many in the Academy feel the same way. But this doesn't feel like the right role: after all, he basically plays an old lech, and from what I can tell, coasts on his charm and experience. On the flip side, the other nominees are all too young; they've got lots of future opportunities ahead of them.

Should win: I'm a bit ashamed to admit that of the five nominated performances, I've only seen Forest's. (Though I really wanted to see "Half Nelson," it kept eluding me - first in the theaters, then on Netflix, where it's next on my queue but apparently subject to a "short wait.") However, his is plenty strong enough for me to feel comfortable with his pretty damn-near-inevitable victory.


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

Will win: Mirren, hands down. There is no contest, which is remarkable, considering she's up against no less than Oscar darlings Meryl and Judi. She's won every award there is to win, and shows no signs of slowing down. The other nominees need not even show up this Sunday, except as a courtesy. Actually, I think Dench isn't showing up, apparently for medical reasons.

Should win: Hooray, I actually saw all five of these performances! And I liked them all (well, Dame Dench made my flesh crawl, though I think that was the idea), but I have to jump on the bandwagon here. I tend to prefer quieter turns anyhow, and Mirren illustrates to perfection how much you can convey through restraint.


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

Will win: Murphy, if "Norbit" flak doesn't catch up with him. Otherwise, Arkin is a fairly close second. That said, this is a race that can surprise (remember Jim Broadbent beating out Ian McKellan's Gandalf?), so don't count out Marky Mark.

Should win: Haley. He somehow managed to make his character at once hair-raisingly creepy and unexpectedly poignant. That is one tough feat.


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

Will win: Hudson. Hers is too good a story not to get the fairy-tale ending, and none of the other nominees have built up enough momentum to overtake her. Though again, the supporting races can pack some surprises.

Should win: Kikuchi's performance still haunts me, but I'd give the award to Blanchett. For an actress who's best known for playing ladies of iron will and fearsome intelligence, she's remarkably convincing here as a naive, weak-willed, slowly unraveling woman all too ill equipped to resist her own impulses, yet has the presence to face off with la Dench and still more than hold her own.


Nominees: "Babel," "The Queen," "Little Miss Sunshine," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Letters from Iwo Jima"

Will win: "Little Miss Sunshine." Again, there's all that goodwill, and apart from Best Picture, this is the movie's best shot at an Oscar

Should win: Oddly, while I thought this was a good year for movies, I didn't find it to be a particularly good year for screenplays. I felt like most of this year's standouts rode on the strength of their direction, visuals, and/or acting rather than the writing. Among this lot, I'll give a very qualified nod to "Little Miss Sunshine," because, despite its loads of painful contrivances, it had a basic underlying humanity I appreciated, and it made me laugh. A lot. Though how much of that is due to pitch-perfect delivery by an incomparable cast, rather than the words on the page, is hard to say.


Nominees: "The Departed"; "Little Children"; "Children of Men"; "Notes on a Scandal"; "Borat"

Will win: "The Departed." Never mind that nearly all of its plot points are copied from the Hong Kong "Infernal Affairs" trilogy - I guess that's "adaptation" for you.

Should win: Despite that small gripe, "The Departed" deserves this award. It does a fine job transferring the action and sociocultural conflict from Hong Kong to Boston. But if the screenwriters (or for that matter, the producers) get more than half a minute for their thank you speech, they sure as hell better thank the writers of "Infernal Affairs."

And that's a wrap. See you all on February 26!