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

shirkers clapboard

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.

 

feel pretty

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.

 

first reformed

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #788 to #785

stevie wild

788. Stevie Nicks, The Wild Heart (1983)

At the time Stevie Nicks recorded The Wild Heart, her second solo album, there was little doubt that she was emerging as the dominant member of Fleetwood Mac, the band that could still be considered her primary gig. The band alienated a chunk of the fan base with their 1979 album, Tusk, but had rebounded with the soft rock accessibility of Mirage, released in 1982. In the span between those two albums, solo outings from Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood underperformed. In contrast, Nicks had a sizable hit with her first outing on her own. Bella Donna, released in 1981, topped the Billboard album chart and yielded four Top 40 singles.

Shortly after the Fleetwood Mac tour in support of Mirage loaded out for the final time, Nicks raced back into the studio. Imbued with a new urgency by the death of a close friend and the quick dissolution of her marriage to that friend’s widower, undertaken largely out of a sense of obligated to care for the deceased’s newborn son (“Completely crazy,” Nicks said later. “We were all in such insane grief, just completely deranged.”), Nicks attacked the creative process with a sort of fervor. The resulting tracks have a vigorous polish and sharp sense of craft, fortified by the distinctive, emotive vocals of Nicks.

“Stand Back” is a near-perfect distillation of Nicks’s creative voice: forceful, churning, defiant in heartbreak, bolstered by a relentless nineteen-eighties synthesizer part (contributed by Prince, uncredited), and suited to spinning in lace and witchy shawls. Released as the album’s first single, it made it up to #5 on the Billboard singles chart. Much of the rest of the album adheres devotedly to that basic template, with only album closer “Beauty and the Beast” falling prey to the syrupy balladry that was increasingly creeping into the songbooks of all the Fleetwood Mac members. “If Anyone Falls” has a finely calibrated keening bombast, and “Nothing Ever Changes” pushes the trademark Nicks sound right to the limit of its cheesiness without ever quite crossing the line.

The Wild Heart was another hit for Nicks, roughly keeping pace with the commercial achievements of Mirage. Along with its direct predecessor, The Wild Heart served as the foundation for a solo career notable enough that Nicks recently locked induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of the Fame, the first woman to achieve the honor as both a member of a band and a solo artist.

 

 

dire communique

787. Dire Straits, Communiqué (1979)

The record labels weren’t dawdling with their new band Dire Straits. Mere weeks after the release of the group’s self-titled debut, which included the hit single “Sultans of Swing,” singer-guitarist Mark Knopfler and his cohorts were hustled off to Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas, to start working on the follow-up. Dire Straits were a strange outlier in the musical moment, exhibiting the jazzy slickness of Steely Dan without the jazz or the breezy pop of Boz Scaggs without the sense of overt ease. In retrospect, it almost seems as if the music executives were less concerned about capitalizing on a band with a fresh hit and more committed to conveyor belting out more and more material before the jig was up.

The resulting sophomore album, Communiqué, is a somewhat mushy affair. It showcases Knopfler’s intricate guitar playing and lyrics tangled up between erudite and dully plainspoken. The tracks proceed with the forward momentum of a wispy cloud on a windless day. The title cut meanders, Knopfler’s deep murmur voice layered atop music that approaches bluesy riffs only to back away as if flushed with embarrassment at its momentary insolence. Most of the album settled into the same numbed zone, with single “Lady Writer” standing as one of the few cuts that actually has a hook. Supposedly written about author Marina Warner, inspired by little more than Knopfler watching her get interviewed on television, the songs lyrics reflect the mundane inspiration (“Lady writer on the TV/ Talk about the Virgin Mary/ Reminded me of you/ Expectations left to come up to yeah”).

If Communiqué sounds bland, it basically did the job it was supposed to do. It didn’t sell quite as well as Dire Straits, but it kept the band in the public consciousness. They also kept churning out new albums at a fairly steady clip. Only later in the nineteen-eighties did they really take their time in crafting an album. Of course, in that instance, the results were uniquely impressive.

 

 

blue fire

786. Blue Öyster Cult, Fire of Unknown Origin (1981)

Fire of Unknown Origin was the eight studio album recorded by Blue Öyster Cult, landing almost a full decade after their self-titled debut. Heading into the nineteen-eighties, longevity wasn’t exactly a quality associated with rock ‘n’ roll bands, which may help explain the ripples of reinvention present on the record. Best known for the catchy classic rock morbidity of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Öyster Cult seemingly surveyed the music that was making headway on the charts and determined that they could play the shifting game as well as anyone. To a degree, they were correct. The new wave nicking cut “Burnin’ for You” became the band’s second single to reach the Billboard Top 40.

Fire of Unknown Origin is remarkably all over the place. The free-ranging style choices don’t always work, but at least the album is rarely boring. “Sole Survivor” is a fine example of the Alice Cooper model of adorning a hard rock frame with theatrical rock opera tinsel and baubles, “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver” is dutifully representative of the musical genre cited in its title, and the title cut entertainingly hedges its bet by carrying a disco tinge. With just the slightest reworking, “After Dark” could turn into a smashing Meat Puppets song, and “Joan Crawford,” inspired by Mommie Dearest, lands in some strange netherworld between Bruce Springsteen and Rufus Wainwright.

Blue Öyster Cult earned a gold record with Fire of Unknown Origin, and undoubtedly bought themselves a few more years of major label largess. They released three more studio albums through the remainder of the eighties, to diminishing chart returns. They kept right at it, still touring to this day.

 

 

nina in

785. Nina Hagen, Nina Hagen in Ekstasy (1985)

Anyone looking for an example of just how wild and wooly the business of show could be in the nineteen-eighties could satisfactorily complete that quest by watching the shockingly lengthy amount of time Nina Hagen spent spinning bodacious lunacy on a 1985 episode of The Merv Griffith Show, seated on a couch next to none other than Don Rickles. She was there promoting Nina Hagen in Ekstasy, her third solo album (and fifth overall, including the pair released under the name the Nina Hagen Band), which found her playing up the garish theatricality and punk rock abrasion that had always been part of her aesthetic. Seeing the German-born performer present that persona without the slightest bit of tempering on a middlebrow talk show broadcast to U.S. homes in the middle of the room approaches the surreal.

Nina Hagen in Ekstasy is a fearless stunt dropped onto record. It’s vibrantly alive and flatly ludicrous. As if demonstrating just how far she’ll go to dare the pop culture authorities to loop a long hook around her midsection and yank her offstage, Hagen peppers the album with thoroughly familiar material she delivers with wild-eyed gusto. Her version of “My Way” that makes the famed Sid Vicious evisceration of the song sound comparatively demure. And “Spirit in the Sky” is similarly unorthodox, though more loopy seduction than abrasive endurance test. As a capper, “The Lord’s Prayer” transforms the pious proclamation into warped pop delivered at a breakneck pace. Hagen’s vocals are joyously all over the place on single “Universal Radio” (originally recorded by the Ron Dumas Group), a zingy recklessness she tops with “1985 Ekstasy Drive,” on which she occasionally pushes her screech to the very limits of the frequency of human hearing.

The glorious unhinged quality of Hagen’s music gives it a lasting thrill. It also was, perhaps understandably, too much for her label, CBS Records. Unsure of how to turn music this deliberate strange into pop hits, CBS dropped the artist shortly after the release of Nina Hagen in Ekstasy. She continued making music for a variety of labels for many years after. Best as I call tell, she didn’t cross paths with Don Rickles again.

 

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

From the Archive — FernGully: The Last Rainforest

ferngully

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.

This Week’s Model — Strand of Oaks, “Weird Ways”

strand close

The way Timothy Showalter tells it, creating new music to be released under his preferred moniker Strand of Oaks wasn’t his idea. On his website, Showalter even openly ruminates on the possibility that he might have reached a creative endpoint if not for the intervention of some trusted cohorts, including a sizable chunk of the band My Morning Jacket. He wound up back in the studio, and the resulting album, Eraserland, arrives in the spring.

The new record was announced with a song. Lead single “Weird Ways” is a beauty, infused with a with a melancholy that slowly, unexpectedly transforms into something resembling quiet perseverance and hope. It’s a slow build that begins to reveal its deeper magic at the moment about a minute and a half in. After a opening of lithe vocals and plaintive acoustic guitar, the electric kicks in. A lean, sharp drum beat joins. The song simply, confidently expands. Another minute later, Strand of Oak reins it back in, creating an exquisite tension. It swells again.

Showalter implies a lot of personal rebuilding in reflected in the material he created for the new album, and that’s certainly the vibe of “Weird Ways.” It has some of borrowed classic rock majestic scope found on the most recent War on Drugs album, but it probes in a different way, at once more inquisitive and relaxed. Somewhere in those bars is the sound of an artist firmly finding himself.

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.

My Misspent Youth — Crazy Magazine

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As if predicting the indie cred craving, college rock fellow I’d become a few years later, I largely rejected Mad when I was a youngster. I adored the brand of goofball, snot-nosed comedy offered up by that particular periodical, and there were certainly enough paperback collections culled from its pages strewn about my various homes that it’s reasonable to say I was reared on its insolence. But when it came time for me to fish some nickels out of my wee pockets to grab some age-questionable comedic content from the racks on magazines at the grocery store, I decided Mad was too venerable, or maybe too predictable of a choice. I opted for the off-brand competitors instead. And since I was following the Make Mine Marvel plan when it came to my superhero comics, I did the same with my humor mag.

Crazy was launched by Marvel in 1973, as part of ramping up of a magazine line that included horror titles artfully eliding the Comics Code Authority and soon serve as the publishing home of the behemoth success The Savage Sword of Conan. It devotedly followed the Mad model, with a parade of bratty, lowbrow gags rendered by distinctive cartoonists. Like Mad, movie and TV parodies took a central role, usually built on jokes so cheeseball they didn’t even rise to the lofty accomplishment of groaners.

crazy raiders

Because the magazine was officially created under the same roof as the high-flying heroes of the Marvel Universe, there was, it seemed to me, a greater willingness to generate material from the vagaries of superhero storytelling. Except for a few characters that had crossed over into the broader public consciousness, most of the Marvel titans were still relatively obscure. In Crazy, though, they could become fodder for intensely specific gag work.

crazy kvetch men

In the early nineteen-eighties, I’m doubt any other magazine would have let the idea of imagining Uncanny X-Men as a product of Momma cartoonist Mell Lazarus get past the brainstorming stage, but Crazy ran with it. As someone who studied the daily comics page and my latest superhero adventures with similar scrutinizing focus, I felt the magazine was catered directly to my specific sensibilities.

Crazy had recurring features that were, to be fair, notably mediocre. To me, the comfort of their familiar jokes was a huge part of the appeal. There was nothing all that memorable in, say, the monthly installments of “Teen Hulk” or the basic as can be song lyric parodies under the conceit of loose spoof of The Midnight Special.  There was also the charming oddity of Steve Mellor’s “Kinetic Kids,” a regular experiment in two-page flip book animation from the artist who eventually had a strong hand in the heyday of Spider-Ham.

Nothing found in the pages of Crazy had the feel of mild classic that could be discerned in Mad‘s best stuff. Even at the time, I knew that. It didn’t really matter. I was completely invested in finding new, wild, rule-flouting comedy that could be my very own. Crazy, by aping Mad but also standing indifferently separate from it, satisfied that desire nicely. That I found few others who partook of its ripe japery only confirmed the rightness of Crazy for me. Juvenile comedy rebellion doesn’t require teammates.

crazy obnoxio

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.