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Tim Grierson on the Six Ways That the Oscars Are Actually Better Than Political Campaigns

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Now that the presidential election is finally over, we can turn our attention to another never-ending campaign: Academy Award season. As we move closer to Thanksgiving, some of the potential Oscar front-runners have already been released — “Argo,” “Lincoln,” “The Master” — with a bunch more coming very soon. I’ve mentioned before that, despite the many reasonable objections to the contrary, I remain a fan of Oscar season, and as I reflect back on the political campaigns that have been waging over the last several months, I’ve noticed several instances in which Oscar campaigns are far more tolerable than the buildup to elections.

Let’s be clear: I’m not trying to minimize the importance of elections. As opposed to Oscar handicapping, they’re actually a meaningful part of our democracy that can shape the future of our country. But after enduring months of political ads and televised debates, I recognize that certain elements of awards season aren’t nearly as toxic. For that, we can be grateful.

Here are six ways in which the Oscars are better than elections:

1. They almost never go negative.

Most political campaigns, presidential or otherwise, spend a fair amount of time attacking the other candidate’s positions. You and I can grumble all we want about the mudslinging, but there’s a simple reason why both Democrats and Republicans keep doing it: Going negative works.

By comparison, Oscar campaigns almost entirely are based on the merit of a particular film or performance. The Academy Awards may be a tiresome parade of self-congratulatory fluff, but at least the trades and Oscar sites aren’t filled with ads where, say, Warner Bros. tries to pump up Ben Affleck’s Best Director credentials for “Argo” by bashing “Life of Pi” filmmaker Ang Lee. At least on the surface, there’s an appearance of civility about the whole thing. (And the times that there hasn’t, it’s been a bit ugly. The backers of “A Beautiful Mind” had to confront a whisper campaign that alleged that their movie wasn’t a worthy contender because its subject, mathematician John Nash, wasn’t the heroic figure that he was portrayed in the film. It ended up not working: “A Beautiful Mind” won four Oscars, including Best Picture.)

2. There’s not a two-party system.

Every election cycle, observers wonder if there will ever be a time when a viable third-party candidate challenges the two major, deep-pocketed political parties. But aside from the stray independent — like Angus King, who won a Senate seat in Maine — you’re normally stuck with just two choices when it comes to President of the United States.

Money matters in Oscar campaigning as well, of course — studios can spend much more than small indie companies — but at least the little guys have a chance in the major categories. In 2011, “Winter’s Bone” (from Roadside Attractions) benefited from there being 10 Best Picture slots, just like “Precious” (from Lions Gate) and eventually winner “The Hurt Locker” (from Summit) benefited in 2010. Granted, these smaller companies are still competing with the big boys — even so-called indies like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features are part of larger studios — but at least their movies get to be part of the conversation. If movies were like presidential elections, those smaller films would all be Gary Johnson, a third-party candidate who ran for president and got almost no attention.

Not that the Academy Awards aren’t narrow-minded in their own way. While Pixar has helped break the bias against animated movies for Best Picture, it’s still incredibly rare to see an action movie or a comedy in the running for the big prizes.

3. They don’t make you hate the thing they’re supposed to be covering.

Despite the importance of presidential elections, the ceaseless campaigning can’t help but foster a cynical attitude toward politics and politicians. That doesn’t happen with the Oscars. Like I’ve argued before, the Academy Awards may be little more than a popularity contest, but they still do stir debate about what constitutes great films. You may end up hating who wins the Oscars, but it doesn’t turn you off from the art form as a whole. (If anything, it maybe just makes you hate the Oscars.) But even then, there’s still a place for you: Perhaps you’re someone more closely aligned with the Spirit Awards or the different critics’ prizes. Political elections can inspire people to turn apathetic and become disinterested in the democratic process. By comparison, if you’re mad that the Academy loved “The Artist” so much, you’re not going to stop watching movies because of it.

4. They don’t reward the same people over and over again. (Well, maybe not quite as much.)

Like a lot of fields, politics definitely has a bias toward name recognition: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton; Ron Paul and Rand Paul. It doesn’t guarantee you victory, but it definitely doesn’t hurt your chances. And it goes beyond famous families: Members of Congress are voted in again and again because their constituents are familiar with them, even if Congress gets abysmal approval ratings.

This familiarity goes on in Hollywood as well. A respected actress like Meryl Streep and an acclaimed screenwriter such as Woody Allen have been nominated plenty over the years. And being the daughter (Sofia Coppola) of a celebrated filmmaker (Francis Ford Coppola) has its advantages. But I’d argue that there’s more turnover in Oscar nominations and wins than there is at the polls. For one thing, once an actor or director wins an Oscar, they tend not to win ever again. Sure, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Spacey and others have two for acting. And, granted, Steven Spielberg has two for directing. But when Oscar prognosticators start making their predictions, they tend to factor out nominees who have previously won, figuring that Academy members might want to reward a new face.

With that said, though, the Academy can still be a pretty complacent bunch, especially when it comes to technical fields. Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood have each won three Oscars for Best Costume Design, and they’ve won all theirs within the last 13 years. Rick Baker has won seven Best Makeup Oscars in 30 years.

5. You can’t Nate Silver-ize them.

This year, one of the biggest stories in the presidential campaign was about Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog had been stunningly accurate in predicting 49 of the 50 state outcomes in the 2008 election. Using a sophisticated mathematical analysis that took in to consideration different state polls, weighing their party bias and polling methods, Silver gave Barack Obama the edge to win this year’s election, despite considerable pushback from conservative commentators who argued that he was relying too much on statistics rather than intangibles such as gut feelings about each campaign’s momentum. (Additionally, they argued, polls don’t matter.)

Silver’s model was ultimately vindicated, but those who dismissed the statistician would probably love the Oscar horse race. Because the Academy doesn’t publish a list of its almost 5,800 members, it’s hard for news agencies to poll these individuals to see who they’re voting for. (Around the time of the broadcast, Entertainment Weekly will ask members of different branches of the Academy to reveal their ballot anonymously.) So, unlike Silver’s rigorous approach to crunching data, a lot of Oscar handicapping is an absolute crapshoot. Sure, there are patterns you can follow to make informed guesses — Silver did that himself a few years ago — but without much information about who these members even are, you can’t be sure exactly which way they’re leaning. (Plus, we never find out what the final vote total is.) We’re all going with our gut when it comes to picking the Oscars, and it does make for an exciting evening. Even if we think we know which performances and films will be crowned, there are always surprises.

6. In the end, the outcome doesn’t have any bearing on the real world.

When politicians run for office (or reelection), we the people decide who wins. (If we vote, that is.) That brings with it a responsibility that none of us should take lightly. You could argue, in fact, that it’s the most important thing we do as citizens.

By comparison, we have no control over the Oscars at all — unless, of course, you’re an Academy member who’s reading this. With a presidential election, you have a certain stake in the outcome, but when it comes to the Academy Awards, it’s all sport. That powerlessness is something of a relief, frankly. When the winners are announced on February 24, 2013, your and my life won’t change in any significant way. We’ll wake up the next morning and go about our day as we normally would. Having just gone through a contentious presidential election will hopefully give us all some perspective as Oscar season starts ramping up: There are bigger, more important contests going on in the world, and while art absolutely has its place, the handing out of little gold trinkets doesn’t mean all that much. Honestly, we’re lucky to live in a society that allows us the luxury of obsessing over such things as Oscars for months at a time. We should never take it for granted.

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Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.


9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.


8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.


7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.


6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!


5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.


4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.


3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.


2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.


1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

Tim Grierson on the Smart, Sexy Romantic Drama “28 Hotel Rooms”

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Every year, the Sundance Film Festival serves as a launching pad and seal of approval for worthy indie fare, and this January’s festival was no different, introducing the world to films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Sessions,” “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.” But sometimes, great movies fall through the cracks, and one of this year’s festival’s very best offerings is about ready to arrive in theaters. (It’s already available On Demand and through iTunes.) It’s a beautiful romantic drama called “28 Hotel Rooms.” When I saw it in January, I was pretty sure I loved it. Watching the film again recently, I’m convinced.

The plot of the movie, which is the feature debut of writer-director Matt Ross, is right there in the title. A rising-star novelist (Chris Messina) and a married accountant (Marin Ireland) hook up one night, having passionate sex in a hotel room. It would seem like a one-time thing — he lives in New York and she lives in Seattle — but they run into each other at another hotel later and decide to continue the affair. Thus begins a series of 28 hotel encounters that trace the arc of their unlikely relationship.

With a running time of just 82 minutes — and that includes five minutes of end credits — “28 Hotel Rooms” has several narrative quirks that add to its compelling design. For starters, we only see these characters in their encounters with each other in the different hotel rooms. We never see her husband, nor know his name, and we also have little idea about his girlfriend that he has in New York. We don’t even know the main characters’ names. The film’s habit of withholding information extends to where the characters are when they’re having their affairs, how long it’s been since their previous encounter, and also how long precisely their affair runs. “28 Hotel Rooms” exists entirely in what the characters might consider their parallel reality: a world of high-end hotels where they can escape their real lives and enjoy these brief, sexually-charged flings. Everything outside the hotel rooms is a mystery, a separate zone that’s off limits to each other and to us in the audience.

The film’s construction may remind some of “Same Time, Next Year,” a 1970s play turned into a movie that featured two married individuals who have a standing annual date to carry on their affair in a small California resort. But unlike that work, “28 Hotel Rooms” isn’t interested in making its characters be representatives of America’s shifting social values. Rather, Ross just wants to focus on these two individuals and their bond, examining how their clandestine relationship affects each of them over time.

Of the two actors, Messina is the better known: He was the supportive husband to Amy Adams in “Julie & Julia,” and he’s appeared on TV shows as different as “Damages” and “The Mindy Project.” Here, he plays a man who isn’t your typical one-night-stand sort of guy. From the beginning, you get the sense that he feels something for this married woman, even though she’s a bit withholding about what goes on in her life. (And because we never see them away from the hotels, we have to take the few clues we get into their worlds at face value.) Messina’s counterpart, Ireland, isn’t quite as high-profile, although she was a part of the “Mildred Pierce” miniseries and appeared on “Homeland.” (This summer, she played the daughter of Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in “Hope Springs,” a nice piece of casting because Ireland bears a slight resemblance to Streep, particularly her sad, smiling eyes.) Ireland’s “28 Hotel Rooms” character is less emotionally available than he is. That’s in part because she’s married, but over time we begin to understand that it goes beyond that: She’s simply a distant person, although she’s incredibly warm and loving at the same time. In lesser hands, “28 Hotel Rooms” would be a schematic study of opposites — he’s an artist, she’s a businesswoman; he’s impulsive, she’s practical — but Ross and his cast love these characters too much to look at them as types.

Last year, we got not one but two Hollywood romantic comedies about unconventional no-strings-attached relationships: sex without the tedium of being boyfriend and girlfriend. “No Strings Attached” and “Friends With Benefits” both tried to flaunt their modern twist on typical boy-meets-girl love stories — it was meant to seem “sexy” and “naughty” — but they ended up as traditional in their attitudes as a Kate Hudson rom-com. The characters in “28 Hotel Rooms” travel down a somewhat similar path — their early encounters are filled with nudity and sexual banter, while their later meet-ups often consist of emotional, substantial conversations with their clothes on — but there’s a nuance to the story’s arc that makes its trajectory far from predictable. And it’s also an incredibly sexy film, not just because of the nudity but because of the intelligent, grownup construction of these two characters. He and she are smart, articulate, sophisticated people, and they have a warm rapport that feels genuine to the way couples actually behave, even if this particular relationship is far from normal. “28 Hotel Rooms” never judges its characters because of their affair, and in this way it’s actually nervier than those other recent movies, in which there really weren’t any emotional stakes.

When I saw “28 Hotel Rooms” back in January, I was quite taken by its structure, its performances and the subtle way in which it explores how all relationships begin with such passion but then must evolve if they’re going to last. Revisiting the film, I felt the same way, but I was surprised by another reaction: I had missed these people — not the actors, per see, but these two characters. Without realizing it, they had stayed in my mind for months, and I relished the opportunity to relive their hotel adventures. They make each other laugh, and they make each other cry, and they might not survive if they tried to end the charade and admit to their significant others that they’re in love. But I found myself rooting for them all over again, even though, as a married man myself, I probably shouldn’t be supporting such behavior. But I think that’s ultimately one of this film’s great strengths: It takes an adulterous relationship seriously enough that its contours become indistinguishable from any other romantic relationship. Musician Lou Reed once sang, “It always comes to this/It’s all downhill after the first kiss,” and it’s important to remember that he was in the midst of a long-term relationship when he wrote this lyric in an otherwise happy love song. All couples, no matter how contented they are, are always trying to keep a spark alive. In a sense, all relationships are their own self-contained mystery, unknowable to the outside world. With “28 Hotel Rooms,” we get a chance to peek inside one of them, and damn if it doesn’t speak to so many of our own.

Tim Grierson on Being a Reformed Horror-Movie Wimp

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It’s Halloween time, which means you’ve probably seen plenty of those “Scariest Movies of All Time” lists pop up on the web. Looking at the movie titles on those countdowns, you probably remember the first time you saw them, maybe as a kid during a sleepover with a friend when you were probably too young to handle it. Or maybe it was in a packed theater with your buddies, all soaking in the scares together. Not me. I’ve seen most of the top horror movies, but only as an adult. You see, I was a scaredy-cat as a kid.

For a lot of red-blooded American boys (and girls), seeing horror movies is a rite of passage: They’re another way to prove that you’re tough and cool and not some baby. I never went through that phase as an adolescent — I guess I was just a sensitive kid, and the idea of watching slasher movies and being exposed to tense situations in a dark theater just wasn’t all that appealing. (I also didn’t ride roller coasters. Yeah, I was that kid.) Other young people had a natural curiosity about experiencing terrifying things — I just never did. In fact, I didn’t see my first horror movie until I was 16, and even then it wasn’t my choice. It was a double date, and I tried hard to convince everybody else that we should check out “Dead Again,” the well-reviewed Kenneth Branagh thriller. I got outvoted, and off to “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” I went. I hated it — not because it was scary but because it was terrible. I was pretty convinced that my lifelong aversion to horror movies had been well-founded.

But I knew that wasn’t going to be the end of it. I was going off to film school, and if I really wanted to have a career in the movies, eventually I’d have to start watching horror flicks. Much to my relief, once I started watching them in classes … well, I can’t say I became an instant fan, but I did start to develop an appreciation for them. Growing up as a budding film enthusiast, I tended to prefer dramas and other “serious” movies, deciding that they were somehow “superior” to comedies or action blockbusters or horror films. (Looking back, I realize that the 15-year-old version of myself had the same prejudiced mindset as your typical Oscar voter.) But in film school, I began to understand how horror movies often reflected (or capitalized on) the real horrors of their times. How “Night of the Living Dead” spoke to the paranoia and confusion of the Cold War/Vietnam era. How David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” could be seen as a parable about the fear of AIDS. But perhaps most importantly of all, I came to recognize that, done well, horror movies were as “meaningful” as any other type of film, whether it be the psychological horror of “Rosemary’s Baby” or the haunted-house suspense of “The Innocents.” These revelations ought to have been obvious, but for me they weren’t.

Not that I suddenly became a horror fanatic: Those movies had their place, sure, but I didn’t rush out to see the latest installment of this or that horror franchise. But even if I wasn’t all that passionate about those kinds of movies, I wasn’t done with them. When I started reviewing movies, I’d work for outlets that would assign me the films that other people didn’t want, which was understandable since I was the low guy on the totem pole. And so I ended up at a ton of horror screenings. Most of them were bad — I’ve blocked out the titles — but the weird thing was, I usually had a pretty good time watching them. Partly, this was because I was just starting out as a critic — since this was the job I’d wanted since I was a boy, each assignment was incredibly exciting — but, also, I started to gain an appreciation for how hard it is to make a good horror movie. Not unlike comedies, which are constantly trying to elicit laughs, horror films are working to get a visceral reaction out of you. If you’re just sitting there passively watching the screen, the movie’s not working. I realized how much pressure that was on a filmmaker, and so I found myself weirdly intrigued seeing how the director went about trying to freak me out.

But another major component, I must admit, is that I still carried around with me that feeling of what it was like to be a scared little kid — a sensitive boy who was afraid that horror movies would be too rough for me. If you talk to psychologists, they’ll tell you that one of the reasons why people love horror movies is because they get to experience the sensation of being terrified in a safe environment. You shriek or sweat or feel your heart pound, but you don’t have to worry about dying — when it’s over, you go home without a scratch on you. (Same thing with roller coasters: We put ourselves in harrowing circumstances without the anxiety of real consequences.) When I was young, there must have been a part of me that wasn’t convinced I’d escape unscathed. I think I was afraid of what being scared would feel like and what it would say about me — that I wasn’t tough or cool or manly enough. And yet, here I was as an adult, reviewing horror movies — and I never died once.

Nowadays, I still review some horror movies, and my colleagues are always a bit surprised when I’m not dreading going. Most adults I know in general — and critics in particular — hate horror movies. They find them immature, tedious, badly made and predictable — and, for the most part, they’re right. But there are times when there’s a good horror movie, like the recent “Sinister” or the “Paranormal Activity” series, and it gives you an experience that’s like nothing else at the movies: You genuinely and unreservedly get scared. Everybody else, who grew up watching horror movies, has probably become a little blase about that sensation now that they’re older. Me, I feel like I’m making up for lost time.

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