Bad Calls

I’m appalled (and I’m not alone) that two of the absolute finest, no-argument-tolerated docs of the year — Xan Cassevettes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession and Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation — have been excluded from the list of 12 semi-finalists for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar.
One of the docs that made the cut is Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants , an honest, open-hearted film about surfing that is nonetheless a bit too fan-maggish in toasting the champions of the sport. Sorry to sound harsh, but there’s no way this is a stronger, more accomplished work than Z Channel or Tarnation. Giants doesn’t begin to approach their realm in terms of passion, intelligence, soul.

And what about Kevin McDonald’s Touching the Void, a movie that has its roots on both sides of the aisle, making the cut? There is no bigger fan of Void than myself, but in an ideal world it should be a Best Picture nominee. I’ve had it on my Best Picture list in the Oscar Balloon section for months.
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I sympathize with the motives of those who put Void on the semi-final list, but it’s not a documentary. It’s mainly a docu-drama…a recreation. It uses actors who speak lines. It’s about a mountain-climbing adventure that happened in South America, and yet the bulk of it was largely shot in the Swiss Alps. The only thing that makes it feel like a doc is the talking-head footage of the real mountain-climbers.
Among the docs that made the short list are Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (fully deserved), Mark Wexler’s Tell Them Who You Are (a tribute to Mark’s cinematographer dad Haskell, in the vein of last year’s My Architect), Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born Into Brothels and Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal.

Other deserving hopefuls that got the shaft were Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Robert Stone’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst and Sara Price and Chris Smith’s The Yes Men.
Guerilla friend Fredel Pogodin said this morning that “given the monumental task that Stone went through to find the footage for this film, and to track down Russell Little and all the others, it is indeed a surprise that doc filmmakers who understand the difficulty in doing this did not put it on the short list.”
And yet, on the whole, “It’s a great time for documentaries. There’s an amazing amount of them that qualified this year. And the selection process has changed — the rules are now that only filmmakers in the documentary branch can name the semi-finalists. That’s an improvement from years before.”


I’ve been saying snide and dismissive things about the idea of The Phantom of the Opera being the strongest Best Picture candidate around right now, and because of this I feel I ought to say what I now believe, having seen it a couple of nights ago:
It ain’t my particular cup of tea, but Phantom delivers a big wham, regular folks are going for it, and it will almost certainly make the cut as a Best Picture nominee. Hell, it might even go all the way.

I’d rather not see that happen, being a Sideways man all the way, and (who knows?) maybe a Spanglish convert waiting to happen, as well as a Motorcycle Diaries) admirer, a worshipper of Maria Full of Grace, a Fahrenheit 9/11 protest-the-election-of-Bush guy and a devout believer in Collateral, not to mention Touching the Void.
If Phantom wins I will not be in pain, like I was when Chicago won two years ago. I will not agree, but I will understand.
I was down on the prospect of its Oscar ascension due to three factors. One, my general discomfort with emotionally bombastic films that send you over the waterfall (although I really liked Evita). Two, a reluctance to trust the notion that director Joel Schumacher has it in him to deliver a truly worthy Best Picture contender, given several disappointments with his past films. And three, stuff that I’ve been hearing over the past couple of weeks from colleagues.
I’m not saying the people who aren’t fans of this film are wrong, and I’m not going to get into a point-for-point review of any kind, but at least give Phantom this: it is not half-hearted.
You can bring up subtlety issues, and I’m sure some will address this down the road, but by any measure of committed filmmaking it takes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical and really rocks the house. Call it cornball, but it heats up the emotional essence of the piece and wears its heart on its sleeve. The actors hold their own, the musical sequences all swing for the fences, and John Mathieson’s cinematography is rich and painterly. The film plays like a Baz Luhrman musical on a mild sedative, and by that I mean it doesn’t make your head explode.

I suppose I sound like a square to some of you right now, but with that big 60-piece orchestra sawing away and the knockout production design and the sound cranked up and the film playing on a big screen with an appreciative crowd, the “whoa” factor is definitely there. In terms of the overall effort, I mean.
And so in the final analysis and various reservations aside, I’ve resigned myself to the likelihood of a Best Picture nomination because it satisfies the middle-class emotional criteria that Academy members tend to look for and respond to.
Picking over the particulars is for sometime next month. I just had to say this and set things straight. You can go with Phantom or not, but movies like this have their place. It’s not a crime to accept what they’re selling and go, “Yeah, I get it.”

Musical vs. Musical?

A friend thinks there’s some Academy mentality no-no about putting two musicals up for Best Picture in the same year. He says if this attitude holds it’s going to be an either-or between Ray and The Phantom of the Opera.
I don’t buy this. Ray is not a musical — it’s a biopic with a lot of musical numbers. And I reminded him that My Fair Lady was nominated for Best Picture against Mary Poppins in ’65, and Oliver against Funny Girl in ’69. (They were released in ’64 and ’68, respectively, but the nominations happen in January.)
And how strong a contender is Ray anyway? The talk I’ve heard all along is that Jamie Foxx is a lock for Best Actor, but that the film is an enjoyable and respectable thing but nothing to go out into the street naked and shout about.

Big Tinted Glasses

Last weekend I went up to Universal City Walk, a sickening corporate environment that mixes The Fall of the Roman Empire with Animal House, and shelled out $15 bucks to see The Polar Express in IMAX 3-D. It was worth it. However the movie plays in regular presentations (I hadn’t seen it before), this has to be better. This is a movie about digital technology first and all the other stuff second, but I didn’t mind because it looked so big and cool.

Okay, I had some quibbles. How many roller-coaster thrill ride sequences does this film have? Three? Four? It feels like one too many. The young African-American girl (the one with the leadership qualities) does look like she’s from Village of the Damned . And Manohla Dargis is right — that big red bag of gifts does look like a giant scrotum. But I have to say I thought Tom Hanks’ performance as the train conductor was note perfect. It’s not a big reach thing, but he handles it with just the right emphasis.

Prick Up Your Ears

Eddie Smith of Bainbridge Island, Washington, was the first to correctly identify all three of Friday’s (11.12) sound clips.
Clip #1 is Steve McQueen and Simon Oakland discussing the aftermath of a mob hit in Peter Yates’ Bullitt (’68) (b) Clip #2 is James Dean and Corey Allen standing on the bluff just before their chicken run in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (’55); and (c) Clip #3 is Thomas Gomez talking to Humphrey Bogart in an early scene from John Huston’s Key Largo (’48).
Today’s Clip #1 is a philosophical riff that most over-40s will probably recognize in a heartbeat; (b) Clip #2 and Clip #3 are taken from the same scene in a relatively recent film; and Clip #4 is not from a Gene Kelly musical or an Adam Sandler comedy.
I’ll post the winner in the column in next Wednesday’s column.


Too many people who write in fail to sign their names at the bottom of the e-mail. I copy and paste the letter into A Word file for a new column (which always includes letters), and the name of the writer isn’t there. I could afford a down payment on a new car if I had a dollar for every time I had to go back to an e-mail to search for the f***ing writer’s name. Spare me this exercise the next time you write a comment or whatever.

Hot Legs

“Why are you on your cell at Pavilions pontificating about the Oscars? This act is one of the reasons L.A. is the most shallow place on earth. As if you can’t go food shopping without cluttering people’s head with your thoughts, let alone a topic so useless as `what’s going to be nominated’?

“Have you no ability to see yourself from an objective angle? It’s so disspiriting that you can’t go about a normal errand without ranting about the friggin Oscars. Don’t you realize there are homosexuals trying to pick each other up there? They don’t want to be bothered with your Oscar jibberish — well, unless you were wearing short shorts.” — Larry Fisch
Wells to Fisch: Any hip gay guy at Pavilions with functional “gaydar” should be able to read me as one of those anguished hetero types from 100 yards off. I go to Pavillions partly for the hot 30ish women, if you really want to know.

Passion Fruit

“Like too many Oscar handicappers, you’re overlooking a big, ugly elephant in the room. There is one film that is a definite lock for a Best Picture nomination no matter what, and that is The Passion of the Christ.
“Not that it’s a good film, of course. In fact, it’s a lousy film. And not that the Academy is likely to have much affection for a nearly-plotless s&m-tinged propaganda film for pre-Vatican II Catholic regressionism/evangelical fundamentalism. But the Academy makes political nominations often enough, and I’m convinced that they’ll nominate Mel Gibson’s opus for just such a reason.
“A huge part of the volunteer marketing effort for The Passion was the spewing by religious-right media personalities of a baseless conspiracy theory that the film and Gibson were under attack by the liberal/gay/Jewish/secular media “cabal” that supposedly controls Hollywood and the media, and that it was believer’s Christian duty to get out and support the film to stick it to them.

“The Academy doubtlessly is aware of this, and even though they’ve surely got no intention of handing the Big Prize to this film, they are aware that if they don’t nominate Gibson’s vision the likes of James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will whip up an anti-Oscar media firestorm, claiming that the film is being denied a nod because the liberal Academy hates Christians!”
“It’l be too bad if of all the worthy films this year, at least one will be denied a place because of the Academy won’t risk the wrath of Evangelical extremists, and if I’m right it’s a depression situation indeed.” — Rufus T. Firefly
“I originally wasn’t very high on seeing The Incredibles because I wasn’t that nuts about Brad Bird’s Iron Giant and I thought The Incredibles would be more of the same. Instead, it’s a very witty take on superhero lore as well as the joys and foibles of family life. It’s one of the nuttiest movies I’ve seen about being normal in a long time but it works.
The Polar Express, on the other hand, is an amazing bomb not only because it is really creepy. Who on earth dreamed up the North Pole stuff with Nazi elves? They reminded me of the African-American midget from Bad Santa. It’s also a crashingly boring and predictable movie.
The Incredibles has people going back a second time to catch all the stuff they missed or enjoy it again. You see Polar Exprss once and that’s all you need, unless you do want to go catch it in 3-D, where it ought to be…well, incredible.” — M.


“Some random thoughts on the Oscars…
“(1) Ray shouldn’t be seen as a serious contender for Best Picture. It offers a moderately good impersonation of Ray Charles by a moderately good actor but it’s a essentially a mediocre TV biopic. Why won’t anyone acknowledge this?
“(2) I know it will never get a nomination but Kill Bill Vol. 2 definitely deserves awards consideration in several categories: director, actress, supporting actor, cinematography, etc. Can somebody please make at least a modest push for this, the best crafted film of the year so far?
“(3) I Heart Huckabees won’t win or get nominated for anything. Too many people hate it.

“(4) As someone who has seen The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sean Penn better get another nomination for this. It’s an infinitely better film and he gives a better performance in it than Mystic River but I assume nobody will see it.
“(5) Why does everyone assume that every Scorsese film is an automatic Oscar contender? This becomes the criteria by which they’re judged and some excellent movies (i.e. Casino) get dismissed because they don’t fit into the very limited Oscar package. I hope The Aviator is great and I hope it gets awards but I’d much rather see a solid, intelligent character study than a half-baked piece of Oscar bait like Ray.
“(6) I know there’s resistance to Sideways but don’t rule it out. It may not win best picture but it will definitely be nominated. Mark my words.
“(7) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou should not be forgotten. Movies that win Oscars are always very showy in their use of the tools of filmmaking (photography, costumes, sets, locations, actors, music, etc.) because then they appeal to a broad range of voters. The main thing against Sideways is that it doesn’t show off in these areas as much as the Academy likes. The Life Aquatic does. Admittedly, it may be a little too weird for Academy voters but it’s making people cry and that’s important. I know a few people who cried like babies when they saw it. Plus, don’t forget that Anderson is obsessed with American movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the same era of films that the influential older Academy members made and/or grew up with.
“And by the way, why haven’t you seen/written about Undertow yet? It’s a real 70s throwback and may be up your alley, although I fear it may be too poetic for your taste (i.e. Lost in Translation). Still, you should check it out. ” — Jonathan Doyle