March 9, 2011

In defense of this year's Oscars

In the wake of the 83rd Academy Awards, a disproportionately large wave of outrage and disgust swept the interwebs. Apparently, so many viewers felt utterly violated by the ineptitude of hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco that the head of the Academy more or less issued an apology. In a hyperbolic Fox News poll, 57% of respondents said it was the worst Oscars ever. Was the show really that bad?

Of course it wasn't! In fact, I found it to be quite enjoyable and well done (especially compared to last year, with hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin off their game and the sullen-looking stars of Twilight presenting a random horror movie montage). But the main problem with the Oscars these days is that it's locked in a standoff between the producers and the viewers.

The producers are bending over backwards trying to appeal to younger viewers, and in doing so are alienating and ignoring the older viewers who make up the majority of the audience. They're also constantly on the defense, hiring different creative personnel every year and trying to distance themselves from whatever came before. But then instead of actually trying to figure out what viewers want - reaching out to the public through focus groups, polls, what have you - they just come up with ideas in a vacuum and hope for the best.

The viewers, for their part, seem to approach the awards unwilling to like them. They refuse to like any host except for the all-stars of 20+ years ago. They say the hosts don't have enough good banter, but then they complain when the show gets too long. Maybe this seems cynical, but it reminds me of people who declare that "they don't make movies like they used to" but then shut out modern movies entirely and thus miss many that they would actually enjoy.

Basically, it's all a tangled mess of wrong moves and prejudices, so viewing the actual show objectively can be near impossible. However, if you can manage it, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Here's what I was digging this year:

- KIRK DOUGLAS! When they brought him out, I nearly plotzed. I don't care that he took forever - he's a 95-year-old legend who still puts moves on the ladies. They should have him host next year - the show will be 12 hours long, and AWESOME.

- Every year they spend millions of dollars on the set...and it ends up looking the same. It was great, then, to see them do something different (projecting different movie scenes and backgrounds onto the multi-layered arches).

- The Inception-based intro was seamless and hilarious.

- I had a good chuckle every time Hathaway blurted out "It's the young, hip Oscars!"

- And speaking of the hosts, yes, maybe they won't enter the hall of fame, but that's no reason to burn them at the stake. Hathaway was effervescent and charming as always, and Franco was...Franco. He wasn't high, he wasn't insane, he was just being James Franco. I'm not sure what the Academy thought they were getting when they hired him - you need only Google him for five minutes to find out about his, uh, "personality" - but I kind of enjoyed watching him have the last laugh by just being his kooky self.

- Whoa, it's Barack Obama! And he loves "As Times Goes By"!

- Presenting the awards in groups of two gave things a nice flow.

- I'll agree that the two-year experiment of having former winners say nice things about the nominees was a bit much, but I thought it was really nice to have one person dish out all the compliments. Having said that, I fully concede that it probably only worked because the presenters in question were the endlessly warm and lovable Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges. If the duty fell exclusively to, say, Sean Penn, that would just be terrifying.

- I'm glad they scrapped the little presentations of each Best Picture nominee. They're basically just trailers, which by Oscar night everyone's seen a hundred times already. And yeah, maybe John Doe somewhere doesn't yet know the plot and cast of The Kids Are All Right, but that doesn't mean that they have to take up broadcast time pandering to him. But I loved what they did instead, which was the...

- MEGA-MONTAGE! Having seen all the nominated films (and naturally, their trailers) already, it was neat to see the new life they took on when combined. Showing the differences, but mostly the similarities, shed a whole new light on the race. I hope they stick with this.

- Bringing out all the winners at the end was a nice touch.

Unfortunately, the things that really got me down this year were pretty important - namely, the winners of Best Director and Picture. Can somebody actually explain to me, in concrete, logical terms, why The King's Speech is a) the best picture of the year and b) a good movie at all? And you can't just say "it's inspiring," because if that's all that matters in filmmaking (and it isn't) 127 Hours or The Fighter should have won. Those films are EXPONENTIALLY more inspiring than a low-stakes story of a man overcoming an impediment that somewhat hinders but doesn't even remotely jeopardize his personal life or (token) career. Really, it could have been called "The King's Mild Inconvenience." On top of that, Tom Hooper's direction was actively bad. That's pretty difficult to achieve in a straightforward type of film like this one. Every frame was packed with unmotivated choices. Oh well, I'm sure history will have the last laugh when TKS is forgotten within a year.

And as a final, rather irreverent thought, I had been proposing ever since Colin Firth's win became inevitable that he conduct an Oscar swap with Jeff Bridges. It's like this: Firth's nominated performance last year in A Single Man was better than both Bridges in Crazy Heart and Firth himself in TKS. Bridges, on the other hand, won his Oscar for the tepid and uninteresting Crazy Heart but was incredible this year in True Grit. Basically, both men did great work but got Oscars for the wrong role - one too early and one too late. Usually the Academy has a displacement problem - they give Actor X the award the year Actor Y deserves it, Y the award the year Z deserves it, and so on - but this would be a simple, clean fix. Just sayin.

What did you think of this year's show?

March 7, 2011

Just lovely

For those of you who need an antidote to the toxic train wreck calling itself Charlie Sheen, here's 150 cc's of elegance:

“Once after a dinner party, Gregory Peck and I drove Fred Astaire home. Fred lived in a colonial house that had a long porch with many pillars. When we dropped him off, he danced along the whole front porch, then opened the door, tipped his hat to us, and disappeared.

Wow! Greg and I couldn’t speak for a few minutes. It was a beautiful way to say thank you.”

-Kirk Douglas

(via Old Hollywood)

March 1, 2011

The conundrum of the long movie title

Despite having a MOST IMPRESSIVE psychology minor indicated on my college diploma, I don't pretend to understand the mysteries of the human mind. But after a year and a half working at a video store and countless conversations with people of all stripes, I can claim some insight into the way the average brain remembers movie titles.

This may seem like insignificant nonsense to you - after all, how hard is it to remember movie titles? Take some recent Best Picture nominees, for instance - Inception, Black Swan, The King's Speech. What's so hard about that? On the whole, movie titles are pretty straightforward, and what they lack in everyday language (i.e. Inception) they usually make up for with brevity.

But occasionally you'll see a film with an unusual or long titles, particularly among indies. That's fine, and I'm all for artistic individuality, but it's very possible that that naming choice could cost the film its audience.


From working at the video store, I learned that the average consumer (and I'm excluding movie nerds here) can remember about 2-3 words of a movie title. That's why most movie titles aren't longer than that. If they are, the extra words get cut from their recollection. For instance, the Kevin James and Adam Sandler laff riot I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was shortened in the collective memory of our customers to just Chuck and Larry. We actually had to re-file it under "C" because no one could find it under "I." People were also much more likely to remember a unique word in a title, i.e. "Prada" in The Devil Wears Prada. If all they could ask for was "you know, the Prada something" then the process of elimination was pretty simple. Occasionally, you'd even get someone who could remember the approximate grammatical or thematic structure of a longer title, but nothing else. I once spent nearly half an hour with a man who kept insisting he wanted the Jodie Foster movie The Last House on the Left despite the clear absence of Ms. Foster on that film's IMDb page, until I finally pieced together that he was actually talking about The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

Now that video stores are all but gone from the typical consumer's lifestyle, the importance of remembering titles increases significantly. If the aforementioned man had been searching for that movie on Netflix, he probably would have hit a brick wall since the two titles don't have any words in common except "the." Of course, he could have just searched the filmography of Jodie Foster, but I'd have a whole lot of nickels if I got one for every time someone would swear on their dead mother's grave that a movie had Jodie Foster only to later admit sheepishly "although y'know, I guess it MIGHT have been Meryl Streep..."

So this brings us to the film 45365. The number refers to the zip code for Sidney, Ohio, which is the town depicted in this slice-of-life documentary. It's kind of a cool idea for a title, and I'm behind it conceptually. But I can't help but feel that the directors and producers just shot themselves in the foot. No one is going to remember a movie title that's just a sequence of five numbers, even a devoted cinephile. Maybe an interested viewer will remember that the title is a zip code, and go back and try to find that article where they first heard about it, but are unable to find the article. They'll Google "ohio zip code movie," as I did when trying to recall its title for this post, and won't find anything relevant. Only when you search "ohio zip code DOCUMENTARY" do you get what you're looking for, but perhaps the mildly interested viewer has already given up. A potential viewer lost on a technicality.

Here's another: the recent Sundance hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. The average person will probably remember that the title contains a series of names starting with "M." That alone could probably find you what you want with the help of a video store employee, but Netflix won't be so understanding. You'll have to remember at least one of the names, and in all likelihood you'll probably figure that one of them is "Mary." Or "Maggie." Or you might misremember Marlene as "Maureen." If you can't get at least one word correct, then you're out of luck and once again the film has lost a viewer.

Long titles don't always present this problem. For example, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has two things going for it that people would probably remember: the mention of an identifiable figure (Jesse James, or Robert Ford if you know your history), and the fact that it stars Brad Pitt. That's why longer titles hit indies harder, because people can't look them up by star.

So, again, I'm all for artistic freedom and integrity. I just sometimes wonder if filmmakers realize that their titles could cost them viewers, and if that's a tradeoff they're willing to make.

What do you think? Is a consumer's desire to see an oddly-named film hindered by the limits of human memory?