Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Well, there it is."

The target of perfection at which posing, period "Oscar bait" pictures shoot in vain.


I was 9 years old when this movie came out in 1984, and my parents went to see it without me (I would discover it on television soon after). I remember that they dressed up as if they were going to the theater and were appalled that people had shown up to the cinema in jeans and shorts. To see a movie about MOZART, forsooth! They talked rapturously about it with my piano teacher, and I listened jealously. This was a point in my life when I was completely unaware of the Oscars and the honors lavished on this film the next spring. But this has been a very important movie to me for most of my life, and it's a case of a great movie that has only gotten better with age (both the movie's age and my own).

My first vivid memory of the film was always the horror of the Salieri's suicide attempt, which for the longest time I could not watch - a fact that seems hilarious to me now. There are many moments in the film, though, that have lived in my memory for a long, long time. At the center of this fantastic movie are two phenomenal performances. F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart) would each go on to be nominated for Academy Awards, and when Abraham won, he paid tribute to his co-star and on-screen rival by saying that the only thing missing from the experience was having Hulce standing at his side.

The first thing to note about this film, which was written by Peter Shaffer (who also wrote Equus), adapted from his own 1979 play, is that it is not a biography. It is a highly fictionalized story about real people. Mozart's (and Salieri's) music is heavily featured throughout and is an essential piece of the storytelling. Perhaps more than anything else, though, what it is "about" is the nature of genius and the appreciation of it. It may be a cliche to say that a true genius is never appreciated in his/her own time, but I have to say that seeing this film again in the context of an Oscar season puts a fascinating new spin on it. With all the arguments over what the "best" film of the year is and many people feeling (as if this is anything new) that the frontrunner is merely a sentimental favorite rather than a genuinely great work, I can't help thinking of Mozart and Salieri. One was perhaps the greatest composer who has ever lived but, at least as the film portrays him, he was not the most popular composer of his day because he was ahead of his time in so many ways and because he was not a toady of the Emperor's Court. The other man had musical talent - was quite good in fact - and received many honors and accolades while he lived but was all but forgotten by history (until Shaffer's play and the film brought him back to people's attention). Salieri receives medals and commendations by the Emperor who calls one of his works "the greatest opera yet written." Mozart, on the other hand, sees his own opera, La Nozze di Figaro (arguably his greatest work), pilloried and parodied on the vaudeville stage as if it were part of one of those awful pop culture pastiche movies like Not Another Teen Movie. Mozart obviously got the better deal in the long run, but we can only see that conclusion through the long lens of history.

I won't go through a play-by-play of the film, because there is far too much to say. I will just leave you with my two favorite moments from the film, both of which are key musical moments as well. In the first, we're watching the premiere of La Nozze di Figaro. Salieri, despite his resentment, cannot but marvel at the beauty of the piece. Abraham's narration is absolutely perfect here, putting each word in precisely the right place in the music so that he only adds and never takes away from it. This part of the opera, by the way, is probably my favorite piece of music ever, I'm sure in no small part due to the meaning Abraham gives to it in this scene.

Of course, before we can get too carried away, there is that yawn which changes the tone utterly and irrevocably, followed by another scene that spookily mirrors the film criticism world (to me, anyway). Salieri suggests that Mozart's opera was too long, and that he should have given the audience a big bang at the end of songs to let them know when to clap. I've seen loads of film critics say comparable things about films, to say nothing of snap judging a film because it doesn't have "X" or "Y" in it. Or, you know, snap judging at all (Incidentally, I think Twitter has been the worst thing to happen to film criticism in a great many years - how can you possibly judge something adequately before you've had a chance to think about it?).

And then there is this moment. I don't know how much you may know about sound mixing. I'm pretty ignorant about it myself, but it's really hard not to see how massively important it is to this scene (and the one embedded above, for that matter). Mozart, on his sickbed, is dictating part of his Requiem, specifically the "Confutatis," to Salieri. You hear each piece of the whole by itself, as Mozart dictates, and when he finally looks at the whole thing you hear it all together and can see what each little piece brings to the whole. I've heard this piece of music many, many times since first seeing this film, and I never fail to marvel at all those amazing little pieces.

There is a director's cut of this, which adds a great deal of character development, but which doesn't flow quite as well as the theatrical cut, in my opinion. This is a perfect film in every way. If you have not yet seen it, by all means do so. It is definitely not one of those "eat your spinach, it's good for you" period movies. It is bold and hilarious and moving and is a movie I could watch again and again and again. Even if you have resisted because you don't like classical music, this film could very well make you a newborn fan.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Final Girl Film Club - Frozen

February's Final Girl Film Club is the ski lift chiller (*rimshot*) Frozen.


I'm tweaking a previous review here, but giving it a bit more context. I was fortunate enough to see this at Butt-Numb-A-Thon (BNAT) in Austin (held at the Alamo Drafthouse) in December 2009, about a month before it made a more official bow at Sundance. This film played roughly 2/3 of the way through our 24-hour cinematic journey (roughly 2am) - the 8th film out of a total 12 - and was sandwiched between Jean-Pierre Jeunet's then-new film Micmacs and the banned Shaw Brothers flick Centipede Horror. (NOTE: Centipede Horror is not to be confused with Tom Six's The Human Centipede; Centipede Horror has REAL centipedes, not to mention flaming zombie chickens.) We'd had a couple of mild forays into semi-horror already that evening, with Shutter Island and The Lovely Bones, and everyone expected great things from Adam Green, the guy who made Hatchet and who showed up and braved a probably very ripe-smelling and farty room to personally introduce the film to us.

As with most of the films over the 24 hours, this one was preceded by some appropriate vintage trailers.

The Ski Bum


Hot Dog: The Movie

I love the Alamo Drafthouse.

So anyway ... FROZEN.

This movie is about three young people - a guy, his girlfriend, and his best friend - who go for a short ski trip. They spend most of the day on the bunny slopes, because the girlfriend is not an experienced skier, and the guys decide to go up again that evening by themselves to do some real skiing. After some arguments and hurt feelings, however, the girlfriend ends up going with them, and they get stuck on the chair lift while the place shuts down for the week.

Okay, so let's get the implausibilities out of the way, because they are many and pretty egregious. These kids must have driven a car to this place (though it's possible they took a shuttle). If they drove, someone would have noticed an extra car and asked whose it was, realizing that someone could still be on the mountains, possibly even trying to get a free night's stay or extra skiing they didn't pay for. Second, no skiing establishment is that lackadaisical about people being on the chair lift or on the mountain. You wouldn't be able to bamboozle someone into letting you on the chair lift without paying in the first place, and you certainly wouldn't have one solitary chair lift operator be the final word in whether everyone was down from the lift and the mountain. There are way too many precautions in place at ski resorts for what happens in this movie to happen. Third, wolves don't hang out where there are loads of people skiing.

HOWEVER. Forget about all that for a minute. What if you DID get stuck on a chair lift and there was no way down and no one would find you for several days? If you take it from there, this is a pretty fantastic scary movie about the series of bad decisions you might make in the huge effort to get out alive. Decisions that are bound to be further hampered by the extreme cold weather and its effect on your brain.

The first huge mistake is made when the boyfriend decides to try and jump down, however much it might injure him. Well, it injures him a hell of a lot. Both his legs snap (there were some excellent sound effects in this film, by the way), and when he tries to move himself, he just injures himself exponentially more and more. A wolf finds him and eventually leaves after a stare-down, but this is not a victory for our poor broken-legged hero. Oh no. The wolf went and got a few friends and they proceed to eat him alive while his girlfriend and best friend can only listen to his screams and do their best not to watch from above. This was fairly affecting to me, actually, as the guy screams to his best friend not to dare let the girlfriend look. Story issues aside, there was still some pretty great acting in this, I have to say.

The rest of the movie alternates between the girlfriend and best friend blaming each other, consoling each other, and making fresh attempts to get out of this situation. Strangely, they make little attempt to huddle together and actually keep each other warm, which might have been helpful. And I can't figure out why the girl, after losing one of her gloves, didn't pull her coat sleeve over her bare hand. That would have saved a lot of pain, especially when she wakes up with her bare hand frozen to the safety bar.


The movie manages to be very effective, though, despite it's implausibility issues, and was one of the better examples of audience reaction of the evening. A woman in our audience actually FAINTED during this movie (she was alright, by the way, just overcome by the movie, it seems). This was probably the most talked about film at the post-BNAT dinner and party. Several in our crowd were from Minnesota and had HUGE issues with its plausibility. But there was no doubt that it made an impact.

Regardless, though, if you can let go of the need for accuracy and credibility, it's a pretty dang good scary movie.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Oscar Time Capsule

Kristopher Tapley, of, is a critic who frequently infuriates me, but who just as frequently allows the clouds of whiny punditry to part and lets the logic shine through. Case in point, this article about the inevitability of The King's Speech's frontrunner status, how that status was decided not just in the last week but at the end of the summer (when it received a five-minute standing ovation at its Telluride Film Festival premiere), and how that status (coupled with disappointment over The Social Network's fading star) is starting an inevitable backlash.

One thing to remember is the difference between these supposed early indicators - the critics groups and the Hollywood Foreign Press who put on the Golden Globes (all of which are pretty small groups of people) - and the real meat of the season - the guild awards and the Academy (each of whose membership runs at the several-thousand mark). The Social Network is an exquisite film that does exactly what it sets out to do, but the buzz around it became built up to the point of hyperbole in the early weeks of campaigning, mostly due to Rolling Stone's Peter Travers and his comment about "defining a generation" (which, by the way, I don't think is true, but that's a whole 'nother post). Meanwhile, if you stepped back from the stats and actually talked to Academy members (obviously, I didn't do this personally, but I've read a great deal of commentary from those who have), upon mentioning The King's Speech, you'd see many, many of them get that far away look in their eyes and gush like a teenager with a life-defining crush. People really love this movie. So do I. The "Camptown Races" bit brings me to tears every --- damn, there I go again.

But of course, once a film starts to become the more obvious frontrunner, people will try to knock it down. It already happened with The Social Network, back in those heady days of its reign atop the prediction lists. If it's not historians or the real people involved complaining because it isn't a documentary and leaves things out (e.g., Bertie's support of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement and whether or not Mark Zuckerberg had an "Erica Albright" in his life when he started Facemash), then it's the screeching commenters claiming that if the movie wins (just talking about King's Speech now) it will be a blight on the Academy's history, which ... really, now. Rotten Tomatoes is probably not a completely objective measuring stick, but it's probably as good as we've got, and while The King's Speech doesn't have quite as high a rating as three of its Best Picture competitors - The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and Winter's Bone - at 88% fresh it is still "better" (whatever that means) than 2008's Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire, 2002's winner Chicago, and 2004's winner Million Dollar Baby. I mean, it's not like we're talking about the embarrassment of 1956 known (sadly) as "Best Picture winner Around the World in 80 Days," for crying out loud!

As exciting as the race is to watch, it doesn't ultimately mean anything, other than that whichever film wins will possibly make a bit more money - or, in the case of The Hurt Locker, maybe not. (Side note, loosely related: Harvey Weinstein, sensing victory in the air for The King's Speech and hence more money for the studio, is trying to edit the film to get a PG-13 so that more people will see it. Director Tom Hooper, for his part, has no intention of cutting anything, and his DGA plaque could give him some pull there. But they may add ... bleeps. *facepalm*)

The Oscars are a time capsule. They are, to paraphrase Amy Poehler's genius deadpanning at the SAGs, the opinion of a certain group of people at a certain time. The Academy is not five guys in a room somewhere, nor are they some all-ruling Taste Police. Was Rocky really the best film of 1976? I don't think so, but it caught the collective cultural consciousness that year in a big way even if history would grow more respect and affection for its stellar competitors Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President's Men. Was Titanic really a better film than L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting in 2007? I say no to L.A. Confidential, actually, unless you cut out that bullshit ending, but who cares, really? Loads of people (not just Leo fangirls but people in the industry) LOVED that movie. Personally, I really love that the Academy so often votes with its 6000 or so hearts rather than with its heads.

I do think there's something to Matt Damon's old suggestion that you really can't properly appraise a film's merits until it's at least 10 years old (though I disagree that we should wait that long to give awards). But hey, let's try it. Let's take a look at what was up for Best Picture 10 years ago...

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovich

Dudes, I love Chocolat as much as the next red-blooded gal, but it had no place on that list. Nor did Erin Brockovich, if you ask me. Of course, if we were really doing this proper, those same five films would probably not be the final five in contention now. So let's look at some of the notable films that might or might not make that list if we were to make it today.

Almost Famous
American Psycho
Amores Perros
Battle Royale
Before Night Falls
Best in Show
Billy Elliot
Chicken Run
Dancer in the Dark
In the Mood for Love
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Nurse Betty
O Brother, Where Art Thou
Requiem for a Dream
Sexy Beast
Wonder Boys
You Can Count on Me

At a glance, I see at least a few among those titles that might get in due to their directors having done excellent work over the last decade and bringing new appreciation to their 2000 films. Specifically, I see the films of two current Best Director nominees, Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky) and O Brother, Where Art Thou (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen). Plus a third film by a director many feel should have been in that mix this year - Memento (Christopher Nolan). Two of those three could respectably replace Chocolat and Erin Brockovich in a list of 5, and if we're going for 10, let's throw in all three. Billy Elliot should probably be in there too (its director, on the other hand, probably wouldn't be in the Directing slate if we were doing this now). I'd round the 10 out with Almost Famous, Quills, and Wonder Boys. But that's just me. Those movies have, I think, stood the test of time and people enjoy and respect them as much as, if not more than, they did during the films' original releases.

I'd better not go further than that, because man, can you imagine how different the movie business would be if we waited that long to give out awards for a particular year? Not just to movies but to actors and craftspeople as well? I mean, you could stage a comeback off an "Oscar bump." That is, if the Oscars still had as much prestige and pressure around them if they were ten years behind the times.

But then again, I kind of like the way it is now, being able to look back over Oscar history and see, with pleasure or regret, the films that were loved and revered at the time. It's certainly nice to have your affection for a film validated by an award show like the Oscars. I mean, who among us LOTR wonks could forget the anxiety and excitement that accompanied the 2003 Middle Earth Oscar ceremony (and the subsequent laying down of crowbars after Return of the King's clean sweep)? But the films we love should be the films we love, regardless of what some voting body declares is awards-worthy.

One of my favorite things to read between last year's Oscar season and this one has been a column called "Life Without Oscar," also on Chad Hartigan went through each Oscar year and picked one film that didn't receive a single nomination and highlighted it as an example that the Oscars are not the be-all and end-all of what a great movie is. There's a good deal of snooty arthouse fare among his posts, but there's also "Kindergarten Cop" and "What's Up, Doc" - just to give you a feel of the range of titles. :P

Not that it matters, since I don't get to vote on the Oscars, but my Best Picture pick of the ten nominees THIS year would be Black Swan, with Aronofsky as Best Director. Obviously, I always knew there'd be no way in hell my FAVORITE movie of the year would be in the race, even with ten nominees. :P But hey, you love what you love. Don't let any stupid critics or award shows (or me, of course) tell you what's worth admiring.

Unless what you love and admire is Twilight, in which case ... I don't even.