Monthly Archives: February 2015

On the Oscars, and Giving Awards for Art

We all know that it’s technically impossible to judge art. Art is subjective, meaning it’s an opinion, and opinions will vary from person to person. And we all know that we aren’t allowed to tell people that their opinion is stupid (even when it clearly is – believe me, I’ve tried). So if no one is wrong, then how can anything be right? Is an awards ceremony like the Oscars meaningless?

In a word, yes. The winners are established not by general consensus, but by secret-ballot voting of a select few who are not even a representative sample of the public. The Academy is made up of industry people – people who work in the business. People whose livelihoods depend on theinarritu business. People who are financially invested in the outcomes. They all pledge allegiance to certain movie studios and voting is not decided on ‘merit’ but on the political glad-handing that runs rampant behind the scenes. People campaign for votes. Literally campaign. Studios host lunches and come up with special advertising. The Academy is influenced by marketing first, and we can only hope that quality is at least second. The studios negotiate between themselves – if I can have your vote for Best Supporting Actor, you can have mine for Best Original Screenplay. Richard Linklater was an ardent campaigner this year while Birdman’s Inarritu was too busy working on another movie. But does someone deserve to win based on how many hands he shook, how many martinis he comped, or how unembarrassed he was to beg for the votes?

It all starts to feel a bit dirty.

As you know by now, the Best Picture award, which was a hot race between Boyhood and Birdman, went to Birdman. Inarritu’s peers, the people who make movies and would like to continue making them, decided his movie was the best. Or at least the one that should be rewarded, ostensibly so movies like that can continue to be made and the voters can continue to be employed. But movie critics, people who judge movies professionally, who are educated inTransformers-Age-of-Extinction-Desktop-Images what makes a movie ‘good’ gave it to Boyhood. The Assholes were split; Matt really loved Boyhood and I threw my weight behind Birdman. I enjoyed the concept of Boyhood immensely and gave it a lot of props and admiration but at the end of the day, I much preferred the experience of watching Birdman. Boyhood felt a little dull to me. And isn’t that the point, at the end of the day? To want to watch these things? Because the truth is, if you ask the viewing public, they’d pick neither. We audiences may not have a fancy red carpet or a gold statuette to offer, but we vote every day with our dollars. The top-grossing movie of 2014 in North America was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part1; internationally, it was Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Movies are made to be seen. That’s their purpose, it’s why they exist and why they are made. Being popular does make a movie good, but shouldn’t it count for something? Transformers gangs-of-nygrossed over a billion dollars last year – that’s more than most countries’ GDP. Any good art should transcend any critical reasoning. I think good art is something that lasts. The Academy fails to get even that much right reliably – nobody watches Shakespeare in Love anymore, but Saving Private Ryan seems to have proved itself over time. And Chicago winning over Gangs of New York? Don’t get me started. William Freidkin, himself an Oscar-winning director describes the Awards as  “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever devised for itself”.

Artists typically roll their eyes at the concept of rewarding one piece of art over another, but movie stars are just too vain to turn them down. They all give lip service to “not doing it for the accolades” but they all start salivating during awards season, and who among them has not been reciting their acceptance speech into a bathroom mirror since tweendom? Oscar in hand, suddenly they’re singing a different tune. Only three people, two of them actors, have turned down their Oscars. Marlon Brando famously used his win for The Godfather to protest the The Godfather movie image Marlon Brandoportrayal of Native Americans in film but only George C. Scott turned his down for Patton because he didn’t feel acting should be competitive. Competitive is a great choice of words – clearly it has become a competition since studios will gleefully turn out scripts stinking of “Oscar bait” but it’s not one that can be accurately measured. If someone runs competitively, you can declare a winner based on who was fastest. But when people start acting competitively, what criteria do you use for establishing the winner? Who was the best fake person – or who was the least offensive mimicker of a real person?  Who got paid the most? Who got the greater screen time? Whose name got first billing in the credits? Who did the more ingratiating appearance on Conan? And lately it seems that acting awards aren’t necessarily based on merit at all, but rather on sentimentality, personal popularity, atonement for a past mistake. And then there’s the ever-popular just deciding it’s time – time to reward someone with a distinguished career but no wins, time to give it to a black woman, time for a comedian to have his turn.

Elizabeth Taylor lost an Oscar due to controversy over her unpopular 4th marriage. The Academy made it up to her  for her work in “Butterfield Eight,” a role which even she hated, but she’d nearly died of pneumonia, with only a tracheotomy saving her life. Shirley MacLaine, her competition that year, nominated for her role in “The Apartment” said, “When Elizabeth Taylor got a hole in her throat I canceled my plane.”

blind-side_1590892cSandra Bullock somehow got her hands on an Oscar for playing a fairly convincing condescending white lady. To make matters worse, she won over Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe and Helen Mirren, because Sandy Bullock is a likeable and well-liked Hollywood staple with an awful lot of powerful friends in the business.

It seems like the Oscars are just another black-tie opportunity for millionaires to congregate and pat each other on the back. Because the caviar and private jets just aren’t quite enough

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Focus

After being one of the world’s most reliable hit makers and bankable movie stars, Will Smith focusmovietook a hiatus from making good movies. He felt he’d contributed his share of watchable movies to the world and it was time to make some crap ones for a change. He’s excelled at the crapfest for a while now, but I guess his paycheques must have started to reflect the loss of box office, so Focus is meant to be his comeback.

But is it?

Only three of us saw Selma together, and only two made it out to Birdman, but somehow all imagesfour of us, every last Asshole, made time in his or her busy schedule to take in Will Smith’s latest. Our low expectations turned out to be a gift for the film, which very slightly exceeded them.  It wasn’t a bad movie, per se, and the trouble at any rate wasn’t attributable to the Fresh Prince.

Matt was wary of the movie before it even started. Focus is a heist movie and Smith plays a con man. And savvy little movie goers that we are, we know that the con man isn’t just trying to con the bad guy, he’s also trying to con the audience. So you have to be on guard. Sean felt that because he couldn’t trust anything, he never felt invested in the characters, and just couldn’t enjoy it that much. The formula is tired. The first time a movie like this tricks you, it’s great. But when they all line up to trick you, it’s just annoying. You don’t buy the tricks anymore, but you don’t buy into anything else, either. When M. Night Shyamalan brought us The Sixth Sense, we were dazzled, but by the time The Happening Lady in the Water The Village rolled around, we were over it. We’re over it!

margotrobbieBut do you know what we’re not over? Margot Robbie! In fact, most of us agreed that we’d like to be under her. She’s a delight and a half and I can’t wait to stare to her lips watch her in whatever else she’s working on – a Tarzan movie with Alexander Skarsgård (she plays Jane, of course), and Suicide Squad where she’ll reteam with Smith (he plays Deadshot) as Harley Quinn, supervillain and girlfriend ofmargot-robbie The Joker (Jared Leto). After stealing scenes from Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and charming the pants off us (and the watches off most of her costars) in Focus, it’s fair to say that whether this movie flops or not, Margot Robbie is a rising star.

Father-Son Movies

This week’s Thursday Movie Picks theme is father-son relationships. The challenge is to list 3 movies that highlight the theme. I didn’t have to think too hard because this theme seems to be explored exuberantly in so many intriguing ways, so here are 3 off the top of my head:

BEGINNERS-articleLargeBeginners – Matt has a strong and pervasive dislike of Ewan McGregor so I know he’s disapprove of this pick, but I can’t help it. After the death of his wife, an older man (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay to his son. There is a real relationship here, a shakiness between dad and son that feels genuine. But the honesty seems to breed closeness and the two embark on a new relationship, late in life, one with understanding and humour. The story is told cleverly and shows a bravery we don’t often see on screen. It’s not necessarily about being gay, it’s about a father teaching his son about what is possible when you open your heart.

Catch Me If You Can – Christopher Walken is the shit. I just love the layered performance in this 002CMY_Leonardo_DiCaprio_013movie. Frank Abignale Sr. is obviously a huge influence on Frank Jr. Clearly this is where his charm comes from, but it’s also where he learns his seething resentment for the world. Even when his father makes for a rather pathetic picture, Frank Jr. idolizes him and chooses a life of crime not just to make his father proud, but restore his father to his former glory.

big-fish-2004-77-gBig Fish – This is one of my all-time favourite movies (sorry, Matt – how did Ewan McGregor end up here twice?). The relationship here is complex – a son is called to his estranged father’s deathbed. He wants to be able to say goodbye to him, but isn’t sure if he even knows him. His father has told grandiose tall-tales his entire life, and those stories have gotten in the way of their relationship. The son thinks they are lies that put distance between them, and the father feels they are essential truths meant to serve as legend. They are his legacy. As the stories are retold, the son (Billy Crudup) comes to understand that the exact facts are not the point. His father (Albert Finney) is a story-teller, each story is infused with heart and meaning, and it’s not what they tell so much as how they’re told, and to whom.

What are your favourites?

Focus

As much as I always enjoy the chance to see a SilverCity pre-screening, it’s hard for me to get enthusiastic about a movie about a couple of grifters. Especially the master and apprentice kind, where a seemingly hopeless but but enthusiastic novice tells a seasoned veteran “Show me how to do what you do”. I couldn’t help entering the theater thinking that I had already seen every possible twist, every possible combination of who’s playing who and who’s been in on it the focus 1whole time. Having been tricked before, I vowed to go in with my eyes open.

Focus didn’t throw anything at us that I haven’t already seen. I can’t say I was able to predict every single twist. I couldn’t possibly. The movie shifted gears so many times that I couldn’t always tell which trick was coming next but, once it came, it was usually familiar.

Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing to like. Focus is more than a heist film, it’s a comeback film for Will Smith after a nearly two-year absence after 2013’s unsuccessful After Earth. His career has had more surprises and twists than Focus does and I’ve enjoyed watching him continue to improve as an actor ever since his sitcom days. Now well into his forties, he plays Nicky as confident instead of coky, with none of that goofy hamminess he brought to most of focus 2his earlier movies. His banter with up and coming co-star Margot Robbie is much more fun to watch than the execution of the scams are, which are rarely clever and often just plain sillly.

Smith and Robbie look great and so does the movie. Directors Glenn Ficcara and John Requa find the coolest bars and know how to shoot them and, just like in their last movie Crazy Stupid Love, the bar seduction scenes are the best in the movie. The clothes, the lighting, the slick editing, and confidence of the two leads can make the dialogue sound smarter than it really is.

Oscar aftermath and Requiem for a Dream

Twenty years ago, having not met any of the other Assholes yet, my Oscar parties were just my younger brother and I in front of a TV. I was 13 years old and hadn’t seen most of the nominated films but I still felt like my opinions on every category needed to be heard. Not having a blog yet, my 11 year-old brother birdman oscarbecame the first victim of my Oscar rants. Not that he minded. Although less invested in the awards themselves than I was, I think he joined me each year for the fun of watching me guess wrong over and over again. “You’re really bad at this,” he used to say.

Twenty years later, I’m still really bad at this. I watch as many nominated films as I can now but only managed to call 12 of the 24 awards on Sunday. That’s 1 in 2 which I remember was pretty much exactly what I scored back in the early days. So all that preparation, sitting through Hnpharry Potter and Transformers movies just to have an opinion on visual effects, for nothing.

Not that I didn’t enjoy losing. Despite Neil Patrick Harris’ awkward hosting (“We’ll be right back with Oscars for Best Live Action Short, Animated Shorts, and Bermuda Shorts” being the low point), it was a great night full of red wine and spicy mustard that Jay brought back from Paris. There were pleasant surprises too. I don’t mind losing when losing means Big Hero 6 gets to take home an Oscar or when the excellent Whiplash takes home more than anyone but Sean expected.

Now that awards season is officially over, I’m a little burnt out. It happens every year.Starting on nomination day, I hit the ground running seeing so many movies that by the end the thought of sitting through another movie makes me exhausted and the smell of popcorn makes me nauseous.

Because we have this site now, taking my usual post-Oscar break isn’t an option so I went out and rented Requiem for a Dream, one of Luc’s favourite movies that I have been putting off seeing for fifteen years. I didn’t know much going in but I knew enough to think it would be unpleasant and 2000’s nightmarish cult classic did not let me down. Despite some scenes of hope and beauty early on, it started out sad and only got more punishing as it went on. Director Darren Aronofsky’s unusual filmmaking lets us experience the pain and anguish from the point of view of the characters. His style separates Requiem for a Dream from more conventional films about addictions. requiem for a dream

Requiem for a Dream mostly stands out because of Ellen Burstyn who, at the age of 68, was a good enough sport to walk around with 10 and 20 lb fat suits and sat wit5h the makeup department for hours putting on uncomfortable prosthetics. She gives a performance that’s so heartbreaking that the cinematographer reportedly sobbed through her big scene. She won an Oscar for this, right?

Nope. Just checked. She lost to Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich. Come on, guys. No wonder I can never predict your choices.

And the Oscar goes to…

legooscarI would like to take this opportunity to present myself with a fabulous LEGO Oscar because I’m the winner of our Asshole Oscar pool. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one since I won last year also, and tied for first the year before, which means I’ve never lost. Even Meryl Streep doesn’t have a record like that. Suck it, Streep!

Oscars 2015: Best Director and Best Picture

Birdman cinematographyBest Directoruntitled

Richard Linklater- Boyhood

Alejandro González Iñárritu- Birdman

Bennett Miller- Foxcatcher

Wes Anderson- The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten Tyldum- The Imitation Game

One of the more controversial categories this year, the Best Director race is traditionally one of the more reliable predictors of the Best Picture Oscar. The Academy’s snub of Ava DuVemay for Selma has put a bit of a damper on things but Linklater and Iñárritu’s inclusion still make for an nteresting race.

Miller and Tyldum are strange nominations. Not only did I find Selma a much better movie than The Imitation Game, it was much more of a director’s showcase. And Miller won’t win. Since I started watching 20 years ago, no director has won for a film that didn’t even earn a Best Picture nomination. As good a job as he did with Foxcatcher, it really is bizarre that the Academy passed over four Best Picture nominees in favour of Milller.

Now for Wes Anderson. I am running out of things to say about him, having praised The Grand Budapest Hotel several times over the last couple of weeks. We love him here at Assholes Watching Movies and are thrilled that the Academy finally got around to giving him his first Best Director nomination.

That leaves Linklater and ñárritu who have made two of this year’s best movies. How do you compare the ambition of these two projects. Birdman’s self-aware screenplay and dizzying cinematography vs Boyhood’s 12 year commitment. I wouldn’t be disappointed either way but I’m voting Linklater. He made a great film, not just an ambitious one that was filled with beautiful moments filled with truth.

Best PictureBirdman script

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation GamePatricia Arquette

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

I’ve commented on all eight of these films at length andhave made no secret of my love for boyhood. Experts have declared Boyhood and Birdman as the two frontrunners, leaving me with no idea what is going to happen. Both movies are great so I won’t mind either way. As long as American Sniper doesn’t win as my colleague just predicted.

 

 

Amelie

Sean and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary in Paris; today we’re actually renewing our wedding vows at the Eiffel Tower so I’m posting about a wonderfully romantic French film about love and life in Paris through the eyes of an idealistic and imaginative young woman.

Gloriously known as Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (translation: The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain), this film introduced the rest of the world to Audrey Tautou, seemingly born to play the role though it was actually written specifically for Emily Watson, who turned it down because she doesn’t speak French. A passion project for director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, he’s been collecting the various memories and curiosities that make up the story of Amélie since 1974. Who knew that the guy who brought us Alien:Resurrection had such magic and whimsy in him?

audreytautou

Amélie was brought up in a rather protected fashion, her father being very concerned about her supposed heart condition. To make up for her isolation, a young Amélie lives in her imagination, and her grown-up self is still very much a dreamer, a wondrous observer and devoutly introverted. She devotes her life to making others happy, and lucky for us, she’s surrounded by a very quirky bunch.

For her father, she fulfills his lifelong dream of travel (tough for a recluse) by stealing his treasured lawn gnome and sending it all over the world. This was inspired by true events – in fact, a rash of pranks perpetrated in the 1990s in England and France.

amelie

The traveling gnome was inspired by a rash of similar pranks played in England and France in the 1990s. In fact, the theft of garden gnomes is so pervasive it even has a name – “gnoming.” A gnome is taken from someone’s garden and released back “into the wild” (wherever that is for an inanimate object – the shelves of Walmart?). In 1997, a the leader of the Garden Gnome Liberation Front was convicted of stealing over 150 gnomes – his prison sentence was suspended, but he did pay a hefty fine.  (A couple of years later, there was a “mass suicide” of garden gnomes in a small town in France – residents woke up to find 11 gnomes hanging from a bridge, swinging from the nooses around their necks). At any rate, Amélie was responsible for bringing the whole garden gnome kidnapping thing to our attention, and the idea was later used by Travelocity in an ad campaign.

colignon

Although the movie is shot in a dreamy sort of way, with Paris polished, glowing, and blemish-free, some of the locations can actually be found in Montmartre. The cafe where Amélie works, for example, can be found on Rue Lepic (and is conveniently also named “Les Deux Moulins”). The fruit store run by M. Collignon is at 56 rue des Trois Frères. And of course the church where Amélie’s mother is crushed to death by a suicidal jumper is none other than the uber-famous Notre Dame  cathedral.

ameliegif

Amélie’s watchful neighbour paints the same painting yearly – he’s up to 40 copies of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, and he still hasn’t got the girl-drinking-water’s expression quite right. Pierre-Auguste Renoir is a French artist of the impressionist variety and I’m looking forward to ogling his stuff at the Museé de l’Orangerie, but that particular painting can actually be found in The Phillipps Collection in Washington, DC.

If you haven’t seen this, you should, and if you  have, no time like the present for a re-watch!

ameliemetro

Gideon’s Army

I set out to review Gideon’s Army last night with a quick comment on the best documentary Oscar race. My quick comment became a long comment as I got a little carried away thinking about what makes a documentary great. Should we hold theGideon's Army 1m to the same standards as we would fiction in terms of style or is it enough to just tell the trruth about an important subject?

Gideon’s Army is a fantastic documentary no matter how you look at it. Screened mostly at film festivals in 2013 but now available on Netflix, it follows three young and hopelessly overextended public defenders working in poor areas in the southern US. Anyone who’s ever watched Law & Order knows the Miranda rights, probably by heart. “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed.” Everyone has a right to legal representation, even if your lawyer is taking on up to 180 clients at a time as Brandy Alexander (not even thirty years old yet) has to. A statistic at the beginning of the film states that there are 15, 000 public defenders working in the US right now and together they represent millions of defendants each year.

Gideon's army 2

Gideon’s Army gets the statistics out of the way quick and then puts all its focus on people. The three lawyers that we get to know in the film have to defend both people that they firmly believe to be innocent and people that they know to be guilty and proud to be guilty of unspeakable crimes. They lose sleep over the cases that they are terrified to lose and the lives they are afraid of ruining. In Brandy’s case, she had to represent at least on person who threatened to kill her. The work is so stressful that they have a support group.

One lawyer described being regularly asked “How can you defend those people?”. This is not a popular subject for a doc. Lawyers don’t get much sympathy, especially criminal lawyers, and Gideon's army 3neither do defendants. The film makes a strong case that the system that claims “Innocent until proven guilty” is really stacked heavily against the accused, especially if the they don’t have money. The system puts tremendous pressure to take a plea bargain, not being able to afford to stay in prison while their house and job slip away as they await trial.

Gideon’s Army potrays those that do their best to keep burnout and pennilessness at bay to defend those that can’t afford to pay them as heroes. Director Dawn Porter’s admiration is understandable. As a social worker, I can cheer for anyone who will take the time to listen to and stand up for those that the rest of the world has seemed to have given up on. I highly recommend you check out this movie.

Gender Inequality in Film

Yes, there are movies made with a female in the lead. But has Oscar ever heard of them?

This year’s Best Picture nominees are as follows: a story about a man who goes to war and loves it; a man on Broadway as actor\director\schizophrenic; a little boy growing up to be a man; a man running a crazy hotel; a brilliant gay man; a brilliant black man; a brilliant man with a degenerative disease; a devoted male student and his sadistic male teacher.

So, a big time sausage fest. These are the stories of men. Felicity Jones, Emma Stone, and Keira Knightly are all nominated for their roles as pretty accessories. None are real players in their films; they are passive actors in someone else’s story. Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Reese Witherspoon in Wild, and Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night are all the driving forces in movies told from their (female) points of view, and none of those movies earned best picture nods.

2014’s highest grossing movies include:

1. Transfomers: Age of Extinction

2. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ARmies

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

4. Maleficent

5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

6. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, part 1

7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

8. The Amazing Spider-Man 2

9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

10. Interstellar

Women fare a little better here – females take the lead in 2 of the 10, which, in case your math is  weak, is exactly 20% of the top-earners and 0% of the most lauded. And women, in case you haven’t looked around in a while, make up a good 50% of the population. Does that make any sense to you? Only 12% of protagonists were female in 2014 movies, which is down 3% from the previous year. THAT’S THE WRONG WAY, PEOPLE!

a0e86469192b5ac4b68c392aa7ee39b1Yes – you’re reading that right. Only 9% of directors are female. Only 4 women have ever been nominated as Best Director, and of them only Kathryn Bigelow has won (for The Hurt Locker – a movie with basically no women in it). It would seem that to be taken seriously, a woman has to direct a masculine film; Angelina Jolie made war movie Unbroken this year, and Ava DuVernay tackled the most iconic man in American history with Selma. Both were locked out of the Best Director category but Selma scored 2 men nominations for Best Song while Unbroken garnered 3 nominations spread among 5 men and 1 lone woman (Becky Sullivan, for sound editing – we salute you!).

In 73 years of Academy history, only 8 women have won best adapted screenplay, and only 8 have won best original screenplay. In 85 years, only 7 women have taken home Best Picture Oscars as producers, and all of them were co-producers with men.

77% of Academy voters are male. Another big surprise: the average winner in a female acting category is 36 years old compared to 44 for men.

The top 10 highest-paid actresses made $181 million in 2013 while the men made more than twice that – $465M!

The worst part is that the stats are worse when it comes to movies made for kids – in top-grossing G-rated family films, there is almost a 3:1 ratio of male characters to female characters. And how many of those are industrious go-getters? What are we telling our daughters, or for that matter, our sons? And what does it say about us as a society that animated female characters tend to show more skin than male ones – even the little girls – and are portrayed with tiny little waists and sexy features. Even the non-human females are sexualized in children’s cartoons!

In G-rated family films, speaking parts are 70% male. Characters with jobs are 80% male.

In 2012, Pixar released Brave, its first movie (out of 13) with a female protagonist. While Merida provides a positive female role model to its young audience, behind the scenes things were a little less progressive. Brenda Chapman, who spent 6 years working on the film, was stripped of her directorial duties and for the 13th time in a row, a Pixar movie was helmed by a man.

Check out the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to find out more.