All that’s gold does not glitter

It’s a bad sign that my favorite moment from last night’s Academy Awards telecast was when Cate Blanchett called one of the nominees in the category she was presenting “gross.” Right before presenting that nominee with the award, of course.

In many respects, I’m an easy mark for the Oscars. I’m enamored with its history, its spectacle, its lore. I know a lot about the awards and I’m the sort of person who’s equally fascinated by the politics of the voting body and the intricacies of the show itself. When the Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress categories came and went without wins for the Coen brothers’ True Grit last night, I immediately started thinking about the rare company it was likely heading to join in the hearty futility of its evening. When the acting winners are striding to the stage and the broadcast announcer provides background on their previous nominations, that’s information that resides fully at the ready in my noggin. I can’t remember my cell phone number, but I can recite all six films that nabbed Jeff Bridges Oscar nods in seconds flat. So if an Oscar show bores me, I can only imagine how poorly it’s playing with the people who have only a passing acquaintance and interest with the land of Academy-friendly movies.

Last night’s show bored me.

I’ll concede right away that show producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer were dealt the same tough hand that it seems every set of Oscarcast guardians will now get. The awards themselves are almost entirely devoid of tension. The long march to Oscar night has become a listless ratification process with the same performers winning over and over again until the sight of them clutching a statue holds no charm whatsoever. It was clear from the reactions of the winners that Oscar still has greater significance that the awards that lead up to it (although it’s possible, given the gauntlet of awards shows that must now be run, that the more emotional responses from Colin Firth and Natalie Portman are akin to the burst of tearful relief that swells in a marathoner when finally crossing the finish line), but the luster starts to fade when the process of opening the envelope seems less like a discovery and more like a formality.

But, then again, the lack of suspense to the awards should necessitate a more enlivening production, and Cohen and Mischer instead delivered a woefully drab show filled with little bits that may have seemed cute and clever when first batted around but weren’t developed or realized effectively. The notion of foisting auto-tune on movie dialogue to transform unlikely films into musical may have produced giggles at some point among those working on the show, but it was so flat-footed and dopey (and, let’s face it, blatantly swiped from online practitioners who pull off the trick far more adeptly) that I can’t believe it wasn’t cut. The whole show was a conveyor belt of ill-conceived ideas, right up to the woeful presentation of the Best Picture nominees, which made it seem like it was The King’s Speech and the nine runners-up even before Steven Spielberg confirmed that to be the case.

Anne Hathaway’s enthusiasm bordered on the frightening, although it could be reasonably explained by her instinctual need to fill the void caused by James Franco’s perpetual apathy. The ideal Oscar host may reside somewhere between the two styles. I don’t think she’d ever take the gig, but the best choice may be Sandra Bullock, whose own trek across the awards season mountain range last year helped her develop a style that uniquely mixes affection, grace and a pointed no-nonsense intelligence. She manages to be appropriately respectful of the occasion while still deflating the moment just a touch. Just let her present all the awards and let Randy Newman deliver all the acceptance speeches.

Then again, maybe they should recruit the producers of Modern Family to stage the Oscars. For the second straight year, their commercial was better than anything on the show.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 44 and 43

44. R.E.M., Green

When R.E.M. released the album Green in 1988, fans immediately took note of the greater directness to the songs, especially when it came to some of the political messages the Athens band was trying to convey. It even marked the first time the band included printed lyrics with the packaging of the album, although it was only for one song, the potent “World Leader Pretend.” With that in mind, one of the interpretations of the album’s title is that its a reference to the environmental movement that several of the band members were becoming more deeply involved with at the time of the recording. They were so dedicated to the cause, in fact, that Georgia Senator Wyche Fowler helped organize a benefit in Washington to honor those efforts. All that praise doesn’t mean the band can’t discern some hypocrisy in their advocacy. As lead singer Michael Stipe put it: “There are huge contradictions when pop stars support environmental causes. On one hand, the arts and entertainment industry has always offered society and alternative way of looking at itself–the political cutting edge has always been expressed through the arts, whether painting, music, theater or film. And yet, taking the music industry as an example, there’s a tremendous amount of environmentally destructive waste–my entire career is based on vinyl and plastic.” Of course, wrestling with those sorts of contradictions is one of the chief ways that artists find their way to their best work, an outcome that’s clearly the case with Green, which stands as one of the band’s finest.

43. Jackson Browne, World in Motion

Jackson Browne has been politically involved for years, but his music took a sharp turn into forceful expresofsion of his views with the 1986 album Lives in the Balance, an album so thoroughly in line with his views that even the sleeve reversed the usual design to have its opening for the vinyl on the left. That commitment with the follow-up, World in Motion, released in the summer of 1989. Recruiting friends like Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby and Sly and Robbie, Browne took aim at the injustices he saw across the planet while still holding out some level of hope that inspired patriots can change things for the better. That’s what prevented the record from turning into a mere diatribe. It was just a more preserved version of Browne’s contributions to No Nukes concerts and Amnesty International concert tours. If albums are a songwriter’s primary goal is provide moving expressions of self then Jackson Browne made sure he was explaining his views loud and clear in the grooves of his records.

90 and 89
88 and 87
86 and 85
84 and 83
82 and 81
80 and 79
78 and 77
76 and 75
74 and 73
72 and 71
70 and 69
68 and 67
66 and 65
64 and 63
62 and 61
60 and 59
58 and 57
56 and 55
54 and 53
52 and 51
50 and 49
48 and 47
46 and 45

Spectrum Check

This week, I made my usual contribution to the movie review section, offering up an assessment of Putty Hill, a film that has, in my opinion, some clear forefathers. It’s the sort of lo-fi cinema wonder that gets extra credit when it’s discovered at a film festival, where its unassuming nature always feels a little fresher. It’s very good, but has some of the hard-to-dodge flaws built into its understated methodology.

Then there were a couple pile-on pieces that included my humble contribution. The first was the latest List Inconsequential, which focused on books that elicited tears. I’m not sure my selection actually made me cry, but it certainly hit me hard. To give due credit, I likely never would have even cracked that book if not for the informal little long-distance reading club I entered into with my friend Holly a couple of summers ago.

Finally, as a site that expended digital ink on movies, weighing in on the Oscars is almost an obligation. I was one of many voices contributing to that piece. I mostly reiterated things I’ve already typed out here, I’ll admit that I was pleased to have a fresh opportunity to heap contempt on Biutiful.

One for Friday: Debbie Harry, “Liar Liar”

Part of the job of the Music Director at the college radio station during my days as a student was providing brief reviews of all the new releases. These upper left hand were handwritten onto little labels, approximately three inches by half-an-inch, that were then affixed to the upper left corner of the album cover. The limited space necessitated extreme brevity in the reviews (except for a couple of Music Directors I can think of who had remarkably compact handwriting that was also so legible it looked like it was produced by a special typewriter) making it sort of the Twitter equivalent of its day. Actually, 140 characters sounds about right for the reviews. Those of us who were a little sloppier with a pen may not have even had that luxury.

Given that, those of us who got to take a turn or two scratching out those reviews took understandable pride when we came up with an especially pithy condensation of an album’s charms or affronts. In another era, we might have found other avenues for these efforts, but then we settled for affirmation from one another. I’m sure I’m not the only one who praised a certain Music Director’s assessment on R.E.M.’s Green, comprised entirely of the bittersweet shrug “At least something good happened on November 7, 1988…” referencing a particularly dismaying presidential election. (That presidency may look positively Trumanesque in its integrity given the unexpected legacy echo that reared its ugly, empty head a decade or so later, but believe me that it was plainly awful at the time.) That remains one of the only little write-ups I remember verbatim. Another is one of my own, and it only sticks because that self-same individual who conceived the Green review once cited mine as one of his favorites. It was stuck onto, of all things, the Pretty Woman soundtrack, and it read “Maybe you should look for the Married to the Mob soundtrack instead.”

I don’t necessarily think the Married to the Mob soundtrack is some paragon of that odd duck subset of music releases, but it sure is cool. That comes in large part from Jonathan Demme, who cemented his smart music fan status forever by directing the greatest concert film of all time and only compounded it by later championing The Feelies (and directing the music video to one of their finest songs). The soundtrack to his splendid 1988 comedy is diverse, jubilant and marked by his exemplary taste. If nothing else, the release merits special attention for the inclusion of Sinéad O’Connor’s phenomenal “Jump in the River” two years before it landed on her true masterpiece of an album.

Much as I played that song, I think it was a different track that I gravitated to more. After an unimpeachable career as the lead singer of Blondie, during which she became perhaps the consensus pick for most photogenic rock ‘n’ roll performer ever, Debbie Harry had a fairly difficult time building a solo career. Even the peaks register more as guilty pleasures than anything remotely approaching the brilliant pop created by her former band. But I always had a soft spot for those solo efforts, and even found those vocal performances, in the ultimate heresy, sexier that her work with Blondie. So I naturally wound up often spinning her cover of “Liar Liar” by the Castaways. So much great material on the Married to the Mob soundtrack, and yet when I urged DJs to seek it out, this is the song I secretly hoped would cross the airwaves. It may not be the best song on the album, but it’s probably still my favorite.

Debbie Harry, “Liar Liar”

(Disclaimer: By all indicators, the Married to the Mob soundtrack is out of print, and the sole Deborah Harry “best of” album that my admittedly cursory search turned up doesn’t seem to include the track. I don’t believe the song is available for purchase through a means that will provide due compensation to the artist, the songwriter and the proprietor of your preferred local, independently-owned record store. The song is posted here with that understanding. If I’m contacted by someone with due authority to request its removal, I will rapidly acquiesce. To provide due credit, I should note that I’m in possession of the song in the first place because of the efforts of a blogger whose corner of the Web occupied an awful lot of my time recently. I am indebted. It’s also noticeably pulled from a vinyl copy. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

Twenty Performances, or If I Had a Ballot

As the banner above implies, my standing tradition is to post this little exercise is Oscar wishcasting on the day of the actual ceremony. I don’t want to preempt the recurring feature that resides on that day (especially since one of the two albums featured this week is a big personal favorite), so we’ll jump the gun a bit. It’s not like there’s some hallowed sanctity to the timing of this, after all.

Having made my opinion on the best films of the cinematic year 2010 abundantly clear over the course of the past few weeks, I want to turn my attention to the other Oscar categories that command the most attention. If some unlikely turn of events had placed a fresh, unmarked actors’ branch Academy Award ballot in my hands, this is the way I would have filled it out.

1. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
2. Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
4. Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
5. Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right

Might as well begin with the heresy of omitting one the front-runner that all the cool kids seem to agree upon. Though I’ve previously noted my dislike of Darren Aronosky’s dull, puddle-shallow mess of an arty horror movie, I do think Natalie Portman does a nice job in the lead role and will be a suitably deserving winner on Sunday night. But I don’t think she displayed the same level f range and inner intricacy as the five actresses listed above. It was a very good year in this category; leaving Greta Gerwig off pains me even more, though not enough to follow the Academy’s ill-footed lead and make room by relegating Hailee Steinfeld, an actress who appears in damn near every scene of her movie, to the supporting category. I’m thrilled Williams got an actual nomination, though I harbor no illusions about her winning. I think she delivers the best acting job of the year, regardless of category.

1. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
2. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
3. Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
4. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
5. Jeff Bridges, True Grit

I’ve weighed in on my appreciation for Jesse Eisenberg’s performance elsewhere, but Firth’s sterling work in The King’s Speech is just a notch behind in my estimation. Assuming Spech does as expected and cops the Best Picture prize, it’ll be the squarest winner in years. That’s no reflection on Firth’s efforts, though. He makes the aches of his character’s verbal struggles piercingly tough and real in a way that the rest of the film often seems too skittish to do. I know that the Academy had no interest whatsoever in Shutter Island (not even in the tech categories, where I think even it’s detractors would say it’s deserving), it’s also beginning to seem that DiCaprio is tragically undervalued by this group of voters. He should have also been nominated two years ago.

1. Amy Adams, The Fighter
2. Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone
3. Patricia Clarkson, Shutter Island
4. Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer
5. Ellen Wong, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I think Adams was sensational in The Fighter but the other three Oscar nominees who actually belong in the supporting category elicit little more than a shrug from me. It would have been nice to see the Winter’s Bone appreciation extend to Dickey’s imposing performance, but that was probably asking too much. I’ve already extensively covered Clarkson’s work. Williams gave nice shadings to a fairly predictable role in Roman Polanski’s overpraised thriller, and Wong was good enough as Knives Chau that was sort of rooting for her to win out over Ramona Flowers for the hand of the titular hero. As for the Oscars, this category is the one true toss-up among the acting honors with Melissa Leo squandering what was probably a precarious lead with the ill-conceived and surprisingly tacky personal campaign she mounted. Many think Hailee Steinfeld will be the beneficiary, and I hope they’re right. I suspect that the strength of The King’s Speech will sweep Helena Bonham-Carter into a surprise win. Now that I look again at the list, this is a batch of pretty tough characters I’ve lined up for praise.

1. Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
2. Christian Bale, The Fighter
3. Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
4. John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
5. Tom Hardy, Inception

It’s a shame about Andrew. The emotive counterpoint to Jesse Eisenberg’s constrained social misfit, Garfield is, in many ways, the real heart of the film, the person who shows the emotional cost of the choices that went into building a digital empire. Bale will win the Oscar on Sunday night, and it’s hard to argue with that. His performance moves beyond gimmick in a way that Bale has never quite accomplished previously. He uses the mannerisms of the performance and his trademark poundage yo-yo to burrow deeply into the character. Again, the other names on my list are plenty familiar, though it would have been nice to see Hardy get a little more attention to applying a droll humanity to the intellectual loop-de-loops of Christopher Nolan’s unlikely blockbuster. Of course, the performance elevated him from intriguing fringe player to burgeoning star, so Hardy’s done just fine without any Oscar attention. Not every cinema reward comes from the Academy.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number One

Ree Dolly is a teenage girl living in the Missouri Ozarks. Her family has a modest shack, a smattering of belongings and a distinct lack of money. Her father is completely absent, and her mother exists in a haze of mental solitude, as if simply shut down. Ree has two younger siblings, a brother and a sister, who she is effectively called upon to parent, seeing that they have food on the table even if it means taking a pellet gun into the woods to hunt down any small rodents unfortunate enough to be in range. Ree is constantly instructing them in self-sufficiency, just in case some misfortune rips her away, a possibility that becomes more likely when the mystery of her father’s whereabouts puts what little the family owns on the line. With limited time available to her, Ree ventures out to try and put everything right, running afoul of dangerous factions in her own extended family. Adapted from a 2006 novel, director Debra Granik works with her co-writer Anne Rosellini to develop a vivid sense of place and community in Winter’s Bone. These clans that loathe the outside influence of law operate with their own rigidly enforced set of mores and protocols, unwritten but thoroughly understood rules that Ree pushes up against while searching for her errant father. Granik palpably conveys the currents of understated intimidation that hold the whole chilling system in place. It takes strength to persevere in this community, and that’s precisely what Jennifer Lawrence brings to the lead role, exhibiting an uneasy self-assurance developed out of necessity. She faces down the challenges of life with a hard veneer because that’s what’s required, but there are the slightest tremors of worry underneath. Lawrence has a welcome naturalism, a quality shared by the other professional actors in the cast–there are excellent supporting turns by John Hawkes, Dale Dickey and Garret Dillahunt–but especially vital in her interactions with the amateurs recruited by Granik. There are several of them filling in the cast and, in a reflection of their contributions, cited in the closing credits for providing “Additional Dialogue.” When Ree talks to an army recruiter, for example, the scene’s complete lack of artifice, its rejection of dressed up dialogue in favor of the mundane truthfulness of life, heightens the film’s already considerable authenticity. This is how these sorts of conversations actually play out, each and every day, and it is hard and stark and impactful enough on its own terms. That how Winter’s Bone operates, without exception. And that’s a major reason why Debra Granik’s film is the best of the year.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Two


Twenty years ago, I thought of the Coen brothers as cheeky titans of upending genres. They started their mutual career with a crime film, a broad comedy and a gangster picture, each of them adhering to the tropes of their respective genres while also spinning them around like they’d been tossed in a turbine. Joel and Ethan Coen were obviously impeccable cinematic craftsmen, but they also laced just enough satirical meta-commentary into the work to make sure the finished efforts were held at a certain remove. Much as I love those films, they operate with a slight lack of conviction, a hint to the audience that the filmmakers might be a little above it all. That aspect of their art has almost entirely slipped away, and their new version of True Grit stands as the latest, strongest evidence of that fact. Not a remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne an Oscar (though at least one scene pays direct tribute to that predecessor), but a fresh adaptation of the Charles Portis novel from a couple years earlier, Ethan and Joel Coen’s film is as sturdy and stolid as many of the classic Hollywood westerns churned out by studios when tales of weathered cowboys ruled the box office. The Coens embrace the classic narrative style with an inspiring confidence, generating the thrills in their film from beautifully constructed interplay between characters and an expert unfolding of the plot. They also create verbal pyrotechnics by adhering closely to the original dialogue penned by Portis in his book, a shrewdly mannered and buoyantly intelligence bundling of marvelous words that admittedly hews closely to the style the brothers have perfected across their fourteen previous films. The work of the performers is crucial to the effectiveness of that language, and the Coens have assembled a game cast, including Jeff Bridges, a paragon of muttered discomposure as Marshal Rooster Cogburn; Matt Damon, oozing comic vanity as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf; and the film’s largely unsung but completely vital actor, Dakin Matthews as the horse trader Colonel Stonehill. It’s his scene with actress Hailee Steinfeld, playing the headstrong teenage girl out to avenge her father, that establishes her unyielding, impenetrable authority. After watching her talk circles around Stonehill, I believed this girl could get anything she wanted and turn the most grizzled souls to her side. The Coens have said they cast Steinfeld from a pool of thousands of contenders largely because she could handle the difficult dialogue. That’s readily apparent, but she also imbues Mattie Ross with a forcefulness that’s pure and compelling. The Coens could have taken all sorts of eccentric liberties with their film and still made something entertaining. But by being as true as their heroine, they’ve made something that can stand with the revered classics of the form.