Popularity Contest — Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

oscars nannouncement

It’s been a notably rocky year for the the most hallowed of entertainment honors, so it’s fitting that the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominees was a mix of the woefully predictable with gleaming bursts of the daring. In truth, that’s long been the case, but there are intriguing signs in this year’s batch of honorees that the Academy’s mighty efforts to improve the diversity of its membership are yielding the desire results. Netflix has steam-shoveled money into the campaign to get Roma Oscar love at levels unseen since the heyday of Miramax’s game-changing promotional assaults of the nineteen-nineties, but it still takes an Academy membership with a more adventurous gaze for talent to earn acting nods for both Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira.

Much of the Oscar season narrative to date has centered on the ways in which the Academy will inevitably pivot to the safest of safe zones, the films that remind seasoned observers of the dullest and most lamentable of past winners. The recent victory of Green Book at the Producers Guild of America’s awards ceremony coupled with its haul of Golden Globes had people invoking Crash through tightly gritted teeth. Green Book did well today, including nominations for leading actor and screenplay despite ugly controversies that surely dissuades plenty of voters from penciling them in. Even so, director Peter Farrelly didn’t make the cut in his category, which isn’t a good sign for the film’s prospects in turning nominations into wins. Similarly, there was a resolute band of Oscar prognosticators that kept insisting A Star is Born would eventually muscle its way to the front of the pack. Once again, its the directing category shifting the story, with Bradley Cooper forced to be content with only three nominations (for producing, acting, and writing) for his passion project.

I’ve complained at length in recent years about the predictability of the award dispersal — in the major categories, anyway — by the time the Academy weighs in. It can seem as though they’re anointing picks that have been made by others rather than selecting new members in most elite of showbiz clubs. With rare exceptions, I don’t look at this year’s tally of nominees and see a lot of sure bets. Even the presumed front-runners could fall prey to the strange dynamics of this year, which includes a Best Picture nominee so messy that its director was fired mid-shoot (and reviews that largely reflect the compromised nature of its production). Likely preferences could solidify in the month between the nomination announcement and the ceremony, but the counterarguments of entertainment business politics could just as easily keep the races uncertain. In the acting categories, Glenn Close is the only person I’d confidently lay a bet on right now, and I’d still slide a couple chips onto Olivia Colman’s square, just in case.

Following the debacle of the announced then retracted popular films category, the lineup for Best Picture includes Black Panther, the top domestic grosser of 2018, and two other films (A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody) that raked in more than two hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office. That’s more than one-third of the contenders for the top prize that can be considered popular films. If a dearth of titles familiar to the general populace has been the cause of the Oscar telecast’s declining ratings (I don’t believe it has been, but that’s a furiously typed diatribe for another day), then it’s up to the Academy to capitalize on the presence of these hits. This morning’s nominations announcement doesn’t bode well. Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross (who I think is wonderful, but who also hasn’t appeared in a feature film in the last ten years) recited the honorees with a measured restraint that lapsed into blandness, engaging in asides about the early hour and what they had for breakfast. All the while, the nominees emerged in onscreen chryons that had all the excitement of a PowerPoint hastily assembled by the least imaginative person in an accounting office.

The Academy’s fumbled attempts to secure a host for the Oscars have been an embarrassment, but the institution’s corresponding inability to muster enthusiasm for its own yearly celebration of the finest film has to offer is a far bigger problem. Recent years have suggested the Academy powers that be have no feel for the true treasure of their centerpiece, the one entertainment prize that carries the weight of canonization. It’s time for them to stop implicitly apologizing for all the things the Oscars are not and start taking visible pride in the

Other thoughts:

—I think Close is finally going to become an Oscar-winner because it’s her seventh nomination and continued futility would be downright cruel. At least she’s in good company if she loses again. Richard Burton was nominated seven times without winning and Peter O’Toole reached eight swinging strikes.

—Amy Adams earns her sixth nomination, five of which have come in the supporting category. If my quick research is correct, only Thelma Ritter had more lifetime nominations in the supporting category. Adams has never won, and I think there’s a good chance she’s passed over again. Ritter also went Oscar-less. She didn’t even get an honorary trophy.

—Over thirty years after his debut feature, well after he was skittishly bypassed for worthy fare Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, and three years after his well-deserved “lifetime achievement” Oscar, Spike Lee gets his first nomination in the Best Achievement in Directing category. It’s especially nice that his longtime musical collaborator, Terence Blanchard, breaks through in the same year and for the same film.

—Songwriter Diane Warren is up to ten lifetime nominations, and she’d never won. Up against “Shallow,” the night’s more certain trophy recipient, she’ll be clapping for someone else again. Of course, many of the songs she’s been nominated for are hideous and the rest are merely forgettable, so adjust sympathy levels accordingly.

—On the other hand, it’s pretty great that the now routine Academy affection for the brothers Coen helped make Gillian Welch and David Rawling into Academy Award nominees. Hopefully, they get to perform at the ceremony, preferably with Tim Blake Nelson seated and singing between them.

Playing Catch-Up — Shirkers; I Feel Pretty; First Reformed

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Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018). This documentary traces a guerilla attempt at filmmaking by a group of teenagers and their somewhat skeevy teacher in Singapore, in the early nineteen-nineties. Essentially a cinematic memoir of embitterment and gradual self-discovery by Sandi Tan, Shirkers abounds with ingenuity. Tan intercuts footage of the original film (also called Shirkers) that was lost for years with modern reminiscences about the whole process, including emerging revelations on the toxicity that was in play in and around the shoot. The recovered material is consistently striking, offering visual premonitions of the precise whimsy of Wes Anderson or Paul King while tonally recalling the offhand absurdity of early Jim Jarmusch. But for all the testimony about its latent genius, there are also clear indications that the film would have been hampered by its amateur origins. It’s the retrospection that gives Shirkers its power and poignancy, especially in the documentary’s closing rumination on the value of preserving moments of youth when personal bonds are intense and all dreams seem possible.

 

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I Feel Pretty (Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein, 2018). The feature directorial debut from the screenwriting duo behind Never Been Kissed and a cluster of similarly high concept romantic comedies that beg to be avoidedI Feel Pretty aspires to some broader social commentary around its gimmick. It’s ultimately too muddled to deliver any effective arguments, though, making it a perpetrator of the sort of inane surface-level judgments it supposedly condemns. Amy Schumer plays an aspiring fashion industry worker hampered by her glum appraisal of her own beauty. A conk on the head jumbles her perception. Her appearance is unchanged, but when she looks in the mirror she sees a knockout, and the film charts the upward personal and professional movement she enjoys mostly, it seems, because her confidence spikes. Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein are perfunctorily capable as directors, but deserve credit for casting Michelle Williams against expectations in a broadly comic role. Adopting a wispy, high voice and a stiff yet needy demeanor, Williams is thoroughly engaging, the film’s sole winning attribute.

 

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First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018). In a striking, flawed artistic comeback after several years adrift, Paul Schrader cribs liberally from preceding cinematic depictions of religious leaders (particularly classics by gloomy European masters) and injects the material with the grinding nihilism that comes with residing on a planet being made uninhabitable by humanity’s harsh hubris. Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is charged with presiding over a dinky church with a dwindling congregation. He is sinking into physical disrepair and psychological distress, which Schrader depicts with bracing acuity. For most of its running time, First Reformed is insightful and starkly potent. Then the third act arrives and the film veers into bonkers thematic tumult that echoes the trajectories of any number of Schrader’s many protagonists over the years. Charitably viewed as a honoring of signature, the closing stretch instead plays to me as a roughshod recycling that betrays an absence of ideas. The considerable strength of all that precedes it is sadly undermined.

From the Archive — FernGully: The Last Rainforest

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The brevity of this review reflects its placement as part of general round-up of new releases I wrote for The Pointer, the student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. It’s highly questionable as to whether or not college students in the early nineteen-nineties were looking to the media created by their peers to determine whether or not to carve out some of their beer budget to buy tickets for animated features, but I had column inches to fill. 

Vivid and good-natured, this animated feature employs pixies in an Australian rainforest to make valid points about the way man is destroying the environment. The magical residents of FernGully get help from a shrunken human named Zak and a crazed bat who’s an escapee from a testing laboratory (voiced with admirable energy by Robin Williams) in their battle against the impending doom of a wildlife-menacing machine controlled by a toxic villain.

Though the issues addressed are important, the film is surprisingly lacking in vigor and focuses on dull, lifeless characters. No amount of pristine animated can make up for faults like those.

Golden Words — “The Lou and Edie Story”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

lou edie

The Emmy Awards are known for a consistency that occasionally lapses into pure redundancy. The act of rewarding yearly excellence in a cultural field of ongoing endeavor will naturally lead to a certain amount of encore winners. A show that’s great one year is likely to still be at a similar enough quality level the next to merit similar accolades. Even so, a record of constant dominance in a category is impressive. Recent sitcoms have had their own strong runs, but few reached the peaks of adulation enjoyed by The Mary Tyler Moore Show across its seven season run. Among its many feats, The Mary Tyler Moore Show holds the title for most consecutive wins in the comedy series writing category, collecting the trophy in each of its final four years.

In that four year run, the first winner achieved its own odd place in the Emmy annals. Because the Television Academy kept restlessly rejiggering its awards in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, the array of categories for the 1973-1974 season included a general series writing category in addition to the prizes delineated between drama and comedy, part of a strange initiative of so-called Super Emmys. And so Treva Silverman, credited writer of the Mary Tyler Moore episode “The Lou and Edie Story” won two Emmys for the same script.

“The Lou and Edie Story” was the fourth episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s fourth season. Like a lot of the comedy series Emmy victors over the years, the episode likely prevailed in the three nominee category (against two M*A*S*H episodes) because its skewed in the direction of drama. By this point in the run of the series, there was a certainty to the characters that actually made the comedy fairly easy to develop. Just the simplest reaction from, say, Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) could get laughs because it carried with it an detailed background knowledge of the character’s traits and foibles. And the episode is structured around that strength expertly, crafting strong punchlines out of little more than the discomforted inability of television news staffer Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) to refer to her supervisor as anything other than Mr. Grant (Ed Asner).

What most distinguishes “The Lou and Edie Story,” though, genuinely setting it apart from the era’s norm, is the rather lengthy stretch in the last act in which the performers largely play it straight. The plot revolves around the relationship woes of Lou and his wife, Edie (Priscilla Morrill). Initially, the episode develops gentle jokes from the embarrassment Lou feels about seeing a marriage counselor and his awkwardness in sharing the information with workplace confidantes. As it moves on, it actually starts to examine the underlying concerns within the partnership, notably Edie’s yearning to figure out who she is as a person apart from the defining role of spouse, a reflection of the time’s women’s liberation movement that comes across as genuine and empathetic rather flagrant grasping at topicality that many shows tried in emulation of Norman Lear, the television creative titan of the day.

Just as the comedy became more secure as the characters locked, in, it was easier for a well-established series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show to provide the breathing room needed for a creative departure such as “The and Edie Story.” And the episode arguably provided the earliest proof that the character of Lou Grant — and the acting acumen of Asner — could prosper in a distinctly different genre if given the chance.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Closer”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

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Trent Reznor didn’t expect to make hits. In fact, he outright rejected the notion that his band Nine Inch Nail might strive for music with popular appeal, leading to a unrepairable rift with TVT Records, the label that signed him and released Pretty Hate Machine, the band’s debut album. The dispute didn’t exactly slow down Reznor’s creative process, but it did lead to a fair long wait before a second full-length studio effort was forthcoming.

Nine Inch Nails was basically swapped over to Interscope Records. After a couple EPs basically proved that the new corporate overlords were more amenable to Reznor’s caustic musical instincts, he and his collaborators began earnestly working on the material that would comprise the sophomore release. Around five years after the band’s debut, a follow-up, The Downward Spiral, finally arrived, in 1994. It was a major commercial success, getting all the way up to the runner-up spot on the Billboard album chart. To date, it’s sold over four million copies in the U.S.

Even with album sales popping, Nine Inch Nails was a fairly hard sell on commercial pop radio, which was still the main driver for the singles charts. Lead single “March of the Pigs” made it onto the Hot 100, but it could only go so high. For the second single, Reznor and the label went with a fairly unorthodox choice, given the need for some heavy duty editing to make it suitable for airplay.

“Closer” is raw, thudding, angry, and profane. In the waning days of MTV’s interest in playing music videos, the assemblage of nightmare footage promoting the single, directed by Mark Romanek, became a staple. Many songs were bigger that year (Boyz II Men had the top of the Billboard singles chart almost all to themselves for the second half of 1994), but few felt as a doggedly inescapable as “Closer.” Even so, it didn’t have the oomph to make it into the Top 40. Still undoubtedly the most famous Nine Inch Nails song, “Closer” was later out-charted by both “The Day the World Went Away,” in 1999, and “The Hand That Feeds,” in 2005.

Realistically, it’s impressive that a song highly reliant on the repeated phrase “I want to fuck you like an animal” even made it as high as #41.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #792 to #789

eric backless

792. Eric Clapton, Backless (1978)

Eric Clapton’s career was on steady ground when he made the 1978 album Backless. He’d spent several years with essentially the same backing band, he was working on the second straight album with producer Glyn Johns, and he was coming the very successful 1977 LP Slowhand, which included the Top 40 single “Lay Down Sally.” He was in that rock ‘n’ roll sweet spot: a legend without being a relic.

Accordingly, Backless is the artist in a confidently, relaxed mode, a rock god at ease. The album inevitable suffers from a touch of the blandness that typifies much of Clapton’s solo work, but it’s also more agreeable than a lot of his output. Hit single “Promises” is emblematic, swirling a toe in the gentle pop of adult contemporary radio (an abomination just emerging on U.S. airwaves) and improbably charming in the process. For all his devotion to the grit of classic blues music, Clapton is instinctively a softie, and the cut show he can indulge that part of himself without giving into treacle.

“Early in the Morning” is Clapton as dutiful student, and the swampy “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime,” originally written and performed by J.J. Cale, is similarly reverential to his spiritual forebears. This is — and always has been — where the performer is at his strongest. Interestingly, some of the weaker chunks of the album center on contributions from Bob Dylan. The future Nobel winner had engaged in very loose songwriting sessions with singer Helena Springs, discarding a lot of the resulting material. Clapton pulled a couple from the rubbish bin, recording both “Walk Out in the Rain” and “If I Don’t Be There By Morning.” They’re joyless trudges, utterly generic. The tracks were surely viewed as a convergence of rock icons. Instead, they forecast the dire tedium to come in Clapton’s recording career.

 

 

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791. Todd Rundgren, Healing (1981)

When Healing arrived, it stood as the first new solo studio album from Todd Rundgren in three years. He’d spent a good chunk of the interim recording with his band Utopia, a situation that was trying the patience of Albert Grossman, the head of Rundgren’s label. The tension was exacerbated by the unkind reception given to Utopia’s 1980 album, Deface the Music. Grossman wanted Rundgren to concentrate on solo work, which generally fared better on the charts. Healing is an album that arguably proves the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for.”

Grossman probably wanted the next “Hello, It’s Me.” Instead, Rundgren delivered an album-length experiment, an attempt to see if a record could have therapeutic qualities, if, in its delicacy and intricacy, it could heal the soul as it spun. Indeed, the whole second side is given over to a three part “Healing” suite, characterized by arch space pop and  milquetoast jazz embellishments. The same general vibe is found on the first half of the record, in the fussy, fluttery “Healer” and “Flesh,” which manages to be both staid and sonically ornate. The frantic calliope pop number “Golden Goose” is at least distinctly different. Taken as a whole, it all sounds more like artier Al Stewart than the work of a pop visionary.

Healing was such an abstraction that Grossman, maintaining no single that could be easily extracted from it, convinced Rundgren to record an additional song and package a stand-alone 7-inch with the release. “Time Heals” was bundled with Healing, and the accompanying video, directed by Rundgren, was part of the inaugural rotation when MTV launched, in the summer of 1981.

 

 

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790. The English Beat, I Just Can’t Stop It (1980)

A force of multicultural exuberance, the English Beat (or simply the Beat in their homeland) crafted a sterling debut with I Just Can’t Stop It. Formed in 1978, the band helped forge and embodied the ska-influenced pop music that made a major impression on the U.K. charts in the years around the turn of the decade. Album opener “Mirror in the Bathroom” was a deserving smash at home (and a reasonably strong presence on the U.S. dance chart), peaking at #4, in part because its references to surreptitiously enjoyed cocaine were just oblique enough to sidestep the scrutiny of more prudish programmers. Musically, it’s a buoyant blast, properly setting the stage for the smart, zesty songs to follow.

“Twist & Crawl” is deliciously slinky, but with a jabbing authority, and the easy chug of “Hands Off…She’s Mine” carries a fairly withering appraisal of male possessiveness. There’s a lean, cunning takedown in “Big Shot,” and the gets even more specific in their danceable dismissiveness on “Stand Down Margaret,” which takes at the iron-willed prime minister who was bad for the nation but was remarkably good for inspiring angry punk retorts. Like many of their compatriots, the English Beat had pointed ideas to share and a lively musicality in expressing them.

The album grows more reliant on covers as it moves to the end — a lilting take on “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a warm, pleasant version of “Jackpot,” originally performed by the Pioneers — which could easily dull the personalized assurance of the band’s voice. Instead, it effectively binds them to the past they drew upon while simultaneously demonstrating their ability to move beyond it, forging material that was at once familiar and boldly new.

 

 

berlin love

789. Berlin, Love Life (1984)

Formed in California, well away from the European capital from which they took their name, the band Berlin effectively surfed the waves of early-nineteen-eighties new wave. For their third full-length, Love Life, the band primarily worked with producer Mike Howlett, who had something of a golden touch for the day, presiding over seminal hits by the likes of A Flock of Seagulls and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Accordingly, Love Life is vivaciously of its era, awash in synthesizers and icy Europeans beats, the chill only countered somewhat by the coyly flirtatious vocals of Terri Nunn.

Galloping “No More Words” was the band’s first single to crack the Billboard Top 40, and it’s matched in polished exactitude by “Touch” and “Pictures of You.” Although slowing down would later bring the band a true monster hit, that approach results in the least compelling stretches of Love Life. “Fall” plays like a subpar version of what ‘Til Tuesday would arrive with one year later, and “In My Dreams” is, befitting the title, a little sleepy despite the emotional strain in Nunn’s singing. There’s a hint of the cheerful ludicrousness that could have been in “Dancing in Berlin,” a track co-produced by Giorgio Moroder and Richie Zito. A band called Berlin performing a dance song called “Dancing in Berlin” is downright delectable in its carefree flouting of serious artistic intention. Love Life could use more of that.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs