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 Iñárritu 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.