The Beauty and the Backstory: Disney’s Remake Answers Questions You Didn’t Really Ask…and Does it Well Anyway

If there’s one thing I never thought I would say coming out of a Beauty and the Beast remake, it was probably “That rose is full of the plague.” That is what this version is: a backstory machine. It’s an expansion of the original, an answer to questions you weren’t really asking, and ultimately a thoughtfully inflated love letter to an animated gem (which will hopefully remain the primary point of entry for future generations). More invested fans of the original animated version will delight in the opportunity the remake takes to…erm…smell the roses: to expand a bit of backstory and answer to a few of its predecessor’s idiosyncrasies.

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Take the timeline. The original film stressed that the castle’s occupants had been cursed for ten years (from Be Our Guest, “ten years we’ve been rusting, needing so much more than dusting.“) At the same time, the prologue established that the rose offered by the witch was “an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his twenty-first year.” By that math, the pre-cursed Beast would have been less of a narcissistic adult and more of a bratty tweeny-bopper and, frankly, who isn’t at eleven years old?  This film gets the opportunity to sort out the math, showing a clearly adult prince turned into a beastie and dropping any reference to birthdays.

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The film further uses its expanded run time to elaborate on why the household staff have been cursed along with the Beast, why the Beast was so nasty to begin with, why Belle’s mother isn’t in the picture (who was asking?), and why no one in the town seems to know there’s a sinister castle and animal-man occupant just a few blocks away. Some additions work better than others – the backstory about Belle’s mother causes some serious slowness has little to no influence on Belle’s characterization or the plot moving forward.

This narrative lag is the chief issue with the expansion of the film from an 84 minute run-time to 129 minutes. In the perfectly edited 1991 original, the plot drives forward from the moment the Beast lets Belle go all the way to the end of the film. Each scene serves a purpose: Belle saving her father, showing the villagers proof of the Beast’s existence, the Mob Song, the battle at the castle, the transformation, roll end credits. In this remake, the Beast lets Belle go and then the momentum grinds to a halt as he bellows out a big solo number. The pacing is off.

With that said, there’s a bit more room for contextualization in this new iteration, though things are never taken too seriously – for example, Gaston is returning from “the war” though the war isn’t named and it’s played for laughs. The direction is more camp than grit and the movie wears it well.

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Though evenly acted throughout, Gaston (as portrayed by Luke Evans) really carries the show. He’s the best thing about the remake as a whole. He’s actually – dare I say it – one part of the film that improves on the original. You can tell both he and Josh Gad (LeFou) come from a stage background as the pair plays off each other. During the Gaston number, the person behind me was practically kicking my chair their foot was bopping so hard to the rhythm, I almost felt the need to clap at the end (even though it’s not live and be cool okay?) – it’s further substantiation to my theory that Hollywood needs to employ singers rather than actors that can carry a tune.

This Belle is different too. She’s functional – she’s not wearing an apron, those are pockets. Sure she’s wearing a dress but there are bloomers underneath suited for all the running, horse-riding, and wolf-fighting a poor provincial town has to offer. She’s telling Gaston what’s what and she’s not letting him into her house either (in this version the conversation is between LeFou and Gaston, where the suitor boasts of his future plans with his “little wife, massaging [his] feet”).

I’m not entirely convinced that this Belle is the type of person to be bothered by a Beast that’s “coarse and unrefined,” but this Beast isn’t an illiterate dope either – he’s read everything in the library (except the stuff in Greek). In this version, Belle and the Beast seem to actually have more things in common than just mutual self-isolation.

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The film uses logic to tie together narrative threads. Maurice is abandoned in the woods by Gaston and LeFou and is rescued by a transient woman who returns him to the village days later. However sometimes logic doesn’t adhere well to the narrative surfaces provided. For example there’s a clunky throwaway line of exposition from the Beast explaining how he suggested that he and Belle have a dance in the newly refreshed ballroom. It just makes the whole affair feel sillier than it might have been if the scene was left unexplained. This is a fairy tale after all.

As far as music goes, the most poignant missing piece from Beauty and the Beast‘s enchanted remake is Howard Ashman. The lyricist for the original flick, Ashman passed away just prior to its release in 1991. In 2017 composer Alan Menken, who also worked on the original, remains on point but he’s only one half of a dynamic duo and unfortunately the element that set the original apart was Ashman’s lyrical creativity and musical sensibility.

As an example, consider The Mob Song – a pretty standard go get em! song that’s not really doing anything different narratively – similar songs in Pocahontas and Wicked come to mind. Instead what we get is Gaston telling his companions to “screw your courage to the sticking place.” A sheer product of Ashman’s lyrical brilliance, this line is drawn directly from the scene in which Lady Macbeth urges her husband to buck up and quit worrying he’ll fail in his plot against Duncan. Not only is it ironic (has Gaston ever even opened a book?) it’s also prophetic of his eventual downfall. This kind of writing is strewn throughout Beauty and the Beast‘s soundtrack and its noticeably missing in the new songs.

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Another example is simply in the delivery of lyrical phrases. In the song Something There, Ashman coached Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle in 1991) to sing the line “new and a bit alarming” like Barbara Streisand would. The result is quirky, fun, and adds a bit of depth and intrigue to the song that wouldn’t be there if it was sung flatly, as it is in 2017.

Unfortunately, these kind of lines are clipped throughout and the Gaston number probably suffers the worst as rhyming couplets are removed to make room for a bit more exposition. The complete removal of Gaston‘s reprise means we lose one of my favourite lines:

Gaston: LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking
Lefou: A dangerous pastime
Gaston: I know.
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Ultimately I think that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast is an example of a perfect film. Every scene, every song, and every beat is perfectly timed, cropped, and edited to tell a compact and effective story with real emotional weight. So many people my age know the lyrics to its songs that they can practically be considered folk songs. It maintains a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes 26 years after its release and is considered a classic for this very reason. Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1992. Though it didn’t end up taking home the prize, it still broke down barriers and stigmas about what animation could do. It was ground-breaking.

With that said I didn’t watch the remake wishing that I was watching the original instead. I think that says a lot. I love this story and its clear that this film does too – it isn’t trying to supplant the original but to supplement it. In the end it’s not the best tale as old as time, but it’s a tale worth venturing out to the theatres to enjoy on a big screen and its a great companion to the original.

@ElysiaRM


All photos are taken from Beauty and the Beast (2017) on IMDB.

 

 

 

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La La Land Dazzles at First Sight, Moonlight Shines in the Long Run

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After viewing La La Land at the Venice Film Festival in August, Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter proclaimed that “If you’re going to fall hard for Damien Chazelle’s daring and beautiful La La Land, it will probably be at first sight.”

Little else could account for La La Land’s meteoric ascension from critically acclaimed Whiplash (2014) follow-up to Oscar front-runner. Less than a week after the Venice Film Festival, La La Land opened the Telluride Film Festival where it received not one, not two, but three standing ovations during the course of its 2 hour run-time.

At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, La La Land continued to collect accolades including the People’s Choice Award – an early indicator of Oscar gold. A mere four months later at the Golden Globes, La La Land was still cleaning house, taking home all seven awards for which it was nominated. On the outside it appeared as though nothing had changed but under the surface La La Land fatigue had started set in.

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The run wasn’t quite over yet. While Ryan Gosling went home empty handed, Emma Stone took home the Best Actress trophy at the SAG awards. The streak continued as La La Land took home five big awards at the BAFTAs, indicating with near certainty a full coronation at the Oscars in late February. These suspicions were confirmed after a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations were bestowed upon the musical giant.

All signs pointed to Best Picture. It was just a matter of time.

Time turned out to be La La Land’s biggest rival. Had the Oscars been handed out at Telluride or TIFF, there is little doubt that La La Land would have taken everything home. But as Gosling and Stone sang and danced through awards season, the honeymoon period drew to a close. One by one La La Land’s critics started to gain traction – did it really hold up on a re-watch? Was the ending really that great?

Audiences and critics started looking for an alternative. If not La La Land then what? After its release in early February, posts started to appear speculating about Hidden Figures potential, which would go on rule the box-office. The climate was ripe for an upset, now it was just a matter of which film could pull it off.

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All the while, Moonlight waited in the wings and campaigned to be runner-up. Tucked within La La Land’s shadow, it reaped the benefits of La La Land’s criticism. Where La La Land’s characters were shallow, Moonlight’s were three-dimensional, where La La Land’s ending was emotionally manipulative, Moonlight’s was thoughtful and raw.

So why did Moonlight win?

First we have to look at how voting works within the Best Picture category, which is the only category that doesn’t use the “winner take all” model. Instead Best Picture uses a preferential voting system where Academy voters rank the nominees according to their preference. After that the method is a first-past-the-post system, which in this case is the first flick to surpass 50% of the vote.

After the first tally (everyone’s #1 choices), the accountants check to see if any film has reached the coveted 50% minimum. No? Back to the drawing board. At this point the film with the least number of #1 votes gets scrapped – it’s no longer in contention – and all of those ballots are now recounted using the #2 film in the place of #1. This process continues until one film hits 50% of the vote and is awarded Best Picture.

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As Daniel Joyaux of  Third Man Movies pointed out in his correct prediction of a Moonlight Best Picture win before the ceremony, the key to unlocking Best Picture is looking at which movies will likely get the least number of votes. Once the movies that will be first out of contention are identified, a prediction can be made based on what voters who liked those movies might have liked second best. Confused yet? From a numbers perspective, Moonlight won because it had more #2 votes than La La Land had #1 votes.

The second factor – the one that I think has gotten a bit lost in all of the kerfuffle around that big mix-up – is the depth and relatability of Moonlight’s characters and the expertly written script.

As a female caucasian 20-something, I probably fall more into the La La Land target audience than Moonlight. They’re both human stories – I get that – but I’ll be the first to admit I’m more likely to stick on Crazy Stupid Love than Boyhood on your average Saturday night. But – and here’s why I think Moonlight had the edge over La La Land – I was more emotionally involved in Moonlight and its characters while watching the film and, perhaps more importantly, in the days after having seen it.

Moonlight transcends its target audience through a thoughtful, quiet, and subtle script that builds and builds on characterization and drama. Take this scene in which Chiron gets revenge on a relentless bully:

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I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of using quietness as a stand-in for depth in a character but in Moonlight it works. Perhaps almost entirely because when it finally pays off Chiron stays in character, remains quiet, and reacts physically instead of verbally. There’s no emotional manipulation at work here – no score, no dialogue – if you feel something it’s because you have, at some point, started to care about Chiron’s journey.

In comparison take this closing scene from La La Land in which Mia and Sebastian exchange final knowing glances:

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This scene follows a montage of Sebastian and Mia’s potential lives together and unlike Moonlight it does rely on some level of emotional manipulation. From a storytelling perspective the filmmaker doesn’t trust the audience to understand and care about the implications of the main characters’ decisions without being explicitly shown. The viewer only really starts to realize how much they want to see Sebastian and Mia together after they are shown that version.

Because of this the scene from La La Land lacks any real emotional depth – the kind that comes from implicit storytelling – exactly the kind that you feel when that chair makes impact in Moonlight. It’s the basics of storytelling: show don’t tell. La La Land tells, Moonlight shows. Showing means you have something to come back to when you mull the movie over in your mind the next day at work, while falling asleep, while checking a box on a voting ballot.

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This is why La La Land was never in real contention for Best Original Screenplay. It’s the reason why La La Land drew audiences in at first sight but ultimately fizzled. It’s the reason Moonlight came out victorious – because it was a slow burn. Each time you think about it, there’s another layer to peel away. By the time the end credits roll, La La Land has nothing left.

In the end it’s pretty simple. La La Land lost because it peaked too fast without the substance to maintain its pace. Moonlight campaigned to be everything that La La Land wasn’t and like the fable, slow and steady won the race.

@ElysiaRM


Both script snippets were found here. If you are interested in reading more about the way that the Academy tally’s Best Picture votes, you can check out Third Man Movies blog post on the subject or this article.

The Guardian had a good article concerning the critical backlash against La La Land, which you should check out for more details. Articles concerning La La Land‘s awards run up to the Oscars include the following: TIFF People’s Choice Award, The Golden Globes, SAG Awards, the BAFTAS

All pictures are respectfully borrowed from Moonlight‘s IMDB page.

 

 

 

 

The Academy Giveth; The Academy Taketh Away

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Every night when I go to bed, I pray that I will learn two things before I die:

  1. What happens if the final tribal council vote on Survivor is a tie; and
  2. What happens if the wrong winner is announced, on live TV, during the Oscar broadcast.

While I may be left wondering about the Survivor thing for some time to come, (damn it CBS, just tell us already!) Sunday night’s 89th Academy Awards broadcast answered my second burning question. Oddly, I suspect the answer might be the same for #1 as well.

Chaos. That’s what happens.

Let’s take a step back for a second. I’m sure that approximately 1.2 billion blog posts are in the works as we speak to analyze what happened. All I know is that only two people know the results of the Oscar ballots prior to their reveal during the ceremony (Please, Jeff, I’m begging you). These two people are accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company that apparently hates predictable results as much as they hate the space bar. The two accountants arrive each year on the red carpet with a briefcase each containing identical copies of all award envelopes to be presented. Let’s be real, they probably have a taser hidden somewhere too.

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Right, so they arrive and are ushered back stage where they are positioned on opposite sides of the stage. The idea is that no matter which side of the stage a presenter enters from, an envelope will be there waiting for them. It makes a lot of sense from a production standpoint since I’m sure PwC doesn’t care to also include stage direction on the outside of their envelopes. It’s a flexible model to accommodate the fluid nature of live television.

So presumably the issue here is that Leonardo DiCaprio enters from one side of the stage, collecting the Best Actress envelope as he saunters out. Once that award and acceptance speech are done, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway enter from the opposite side and are accidentally handed the same envelope. It’s not that the Best Picture envelope contains the Best Actress card, it’s that two identical copies of each award envelope exist. So Beatty opens the award and looks confused by the sound of his illustrious career swishing by his ears. Welcome to Internet Meme-ry, Warren. It’s nice of you to join us.

Joking aside, you can’t help but feel bad for the presenters in addition to the mistakenly awarded. They’re reading from the wrong card! What is more it’s the perfect storm of screw-ups. Not only is La La Land a believable winner for the Best Picture category (we’d all have been confused if it was O.J.: Made in America in the envelope), but Emma Stone’s win is also required in order to facilitate that mistake. If Meryl Streep’s name is in the envelope, we’d never have believed Florence Foster Jenkins won an award it wasn’t nominated for – even Meryl can’t pull that one off.

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So La La Land is announced, awards are handed out, speeches are made (oh God, the cringe!), chattering begins in the background, and chaos ensues – along with a pretty gracious hand-over (kudos to La La Land for that).

I know that we need to talk about Moonlight‘s win – and we will. It’s a little unfortunate that it was overshadowed by the debacle and I’ve seen that same feedback from a number of bloggers this morning – but, BUT: This. Is. History! It’s a historic win and a historic mistake! Especially in the Best Picture category – the award of the night (or early morning…excuse me while I cry into my Eastern Standard Time a little). It’s what makes these sorts of live shows fun. We all loved Jennifer Lawrence a little bit more after she tripped up the stairs a few years ago. Whenever people go off-script, the audience leans in and they’re more likely to tune in next year.

Yeah we didn’t have a moment to really reflect on the magnitude of a Moonlight win, but we will be talking about the Moonlight win for years and years to come. I’d argue it might even be good for Moonlight – think of the free press! Controversy breeds interest. If the film is a classic, it will be a classic, debacle or no.

It was an unpredictable end to an otherwise over-inflated, boring, soggy bread (Jeremy Renner?) ceremony. For now, I’m satisfied to have the answer to at least one of my burning questions! (You have the power to end this, CBS.)

@ElysiaRM


This morning, I read this article from Vox to get a better understanding of what had unfolded. All images are taken from the Academy’s website.

Disclaimer: I know there was more to this year’s ceremony than just this episode. I’m going to write about how and why Moonlight won, how and why La La Land lost, and what it means for our place in Oscar history. Once I do, I’ll post a link here.

Oscar Predictions 2017: Does La La Land Take It All?

It’s the biggest night of the year in Hollywood and in anticipation, here’s my complete, finalized, no-take-backsies Oscar predictions for 2017.

The Top of the Ballot

Best Picture

The Golden Avocado goes to: Lion
The Oscar will go to: La La Land
For a little while it looked as though La La Land might have peaked but with the ceremony only a few hours away the hype-train seems to still be on track. There’s a colourfulness and cheeriness to La La Land that is undeniably contagious. Sure it’s been done better before – but this musical is certain to be singing from the rooftops tonight, even if it’s a little off-key.

Best Actor

The Golden Avocado goes to: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
The Oscar will go to: Denzel Washington (Fences)
Best Actor (often awarded late in the evening) is the biggest nail-biter on this list for me. With apologies to Gosling, Mortensen, and Garfield, Best Actor is a two-man race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. Casey should win, without a doubt – but his settlement (which I won’t get into here) hasn’t made him a favourite with Oscar voters and he’s up against Denzel’s hand-shaking, baby-kissing, charm. I suspect it might be too difficult a set back to overcome.
If we’re looking at the films alone though, Casey says with one look what Denzel says in a massive monologue. I just don’t think there’s a contest here. If it’s an Affleck loss, as I’ve predicted, it’s almost exclusively politically based.

Best Supporting Actor

The Golden Avocado goes to: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
The Oscar will go to: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
This is a weird category because of how non-competitive it is. Mahershala Ali is going to win for Moonlight, as he should, but I just wish he was up against a better field. Jeff Bridges plays Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water, Dev Patel is outshone by Sunny Pawar in Lion (who arguably should have been nominated here instead), and no one saw Nocturnal Animals (sorry Michael Shannon). The only one that could give Mahershala a run for his money is Lucas Hedges, but I doubt it.

Best Actress

The Golden Avocado goes to: Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
The Oscar will go to: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Despite the fact that Isabelle Huppert is one of the best actresses currently working in Europe, we’re probably going to see an Emma Stone win tonight. I can’t really wrap my head around this one – I just don’t think Stone’s performance was that remarkable. I suspect it may be more of a young career award for her past work in films such as The Help (2011).

Best Supporting Actress

The Golden Avocado goes to: Viola Davis (Fences)
The Oscar will go to: Viola Davis (Fences)
I didn’t like Fences. I did like Viola Davis. The Academy loves snot-crying. This one is a lock.

Best Animated Feature Film

The Golden Avocado goes to: Moana
The Oscar will go to: Zootopia
I have a soft spot for the Disney musical, but it goes more or less without saying that the time is ripe for a Zootopia win. With themes of cultural diversity and acceptance, it fits within the 2016 narrative. The raving critical reception and strong box office (over a billion!) certainly don’t hurt either!

Achievement in Cinematography

The Golden Avocado goes to: Moonlight
The Oscar will go to: La La Land

Moonlight is a beautifully crafted film with both explicit and implied storytelling. Scenes are beautifully shot and lighted in order to reinforce characterization. The end shot alone deserves this award – but ultimately, I think Moonlight will fall victim to La La Land‘s colour and vibrancy. The scene in which a dance number is carried out around a pool, for instance, features sweeping camera movements that eventually find the camera underwater before reemerging – all in one seamless shot. I’m calling this one for La La Land.

Achievement in Directing

The Golden Avocado goes to: Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
The Oscar will go to: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Damien Chazelle is no stranger to the awards circuit, having been through the process in 2015 for Whiplash. He’s been sweeping up awards for months now, including the Golden Globe and Directors Guild awards. This one feels like a lock – with his biggest competition coming from Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. I personally admired Kenneth Lonergan’s work in Manchester by the Sea for his ability to let scenes play out as awkwardly and uncomfortably as they would in real life. Great performances like Affleck’s are supported by great directors.
With that said, if we see a Jenkins win in the director category, we’re likely up for a big Moonlight upset for Best Picture – which would certainly add some excitement!

Best Documentary (Feature)

The Golden Avocado goes to: OJ: Made in America
The Oscar will go to: OJ: Made in America
Though I adored Life, Animated, the sheer advertising and marketing force behind OJ: Made in America is undeniable. I think this is another lock.

Adapted Screenplay

The Golden Avocado goes to: Lion
The Oscar will go to: Moonlight
Moonlight was bumped from the original screenplay category on a technicality as it is based on an unproduced stageplay. There’s little doubt that it will win – though I’d argue that Lion deserves a second look.

Original Screenplay

The Golden Avocado goes to: Manchester by the Sea
The Oscar will go to: Manchester by the Sea
This is one of the few categories where I sense that La La Land is going to fall short. Kenneth Lonergan’s ability to write realistic scenes in Manchester by the Sea is unparalleled. For instance take the scene in which Casey Affleck’s character arrives at the hospital, only to learn that his brother died before his arrival. In this scene, Lonergan lets the awkwardness and discomfort of the situation rest on the dialogue, as we are shown Affleck signing for his brother’s belongings. It feels like you are in a real hospital, witnessing a real tragedy. There’s no montage or even music to lean on – it just happens.

Best Original Score

The Golden Avocado goes to: La La Land
The Oscar will go to: La La Land
As much as I harped on the singing in La La Land, the film was beautifully scored. I think this is an easy win for the musical.

Best Original Song

The Golden Avocado goes to: “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana
The Oscar will go to: “City of Stars” from La La Land
I just want to see Lin Manuel Miranda EGOT – and we just might if the La La Land double-entry splits Academy votes, but I doubt it. Thankfully the live performances of La La Land‘s Best Original Song entries will be performed by John Legend at the ceremony tonight instead of Gosling and Stone.

The Best of the Rest

Achievement in Film Editing

The Golden Avocado goes to: Moonlight
The Oscar will go to: La La Land

Achievement in Production Design

The Golden Avocado goes to: La La Land
The Oscar will go to: La La Land

Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

The Golden Avocado goes to: Star Trek Beyond
The Oscar will go to: Star Trek Beyond

Achievement in Costume Design

The Golden Avocado goes to: La La Land
The Oscar will go to: La La Land

Best Animated Short Film

The Golden Avocado goes to: Piper
The Oscar will go to: Piper

Best Live Action Short Film

The Oscar will go to: Sing

Achievement in Sound Editing

The Golden Avocado goes to: Hacksaw Ridge
The Oscar will go to: La La Land

Achievement in Sound Mixing

The Golden Avocado goes to: La La Land
The Oscar will go to: La La Land

Achievement in Visual Effects

The Golden Avocado goes to: The Jungle Book
The Oscar will go to: The Jungle Book

Best Documentary (Short Subject)

The Oscar will go to: Watani: My Homeland

Best Foreign Language Film

The Oscar will go to: The Salesman

So that leaves us with 11 awards for La La Land out of a possible 14, including Best Picture. All that’s left is to see where the chips fall.

What do you think of my predictions? Let me know in the comments.

@ElysiaRM

The Political Oscars: I want to thank God, the Academy, and [insert cause here]!

With a new and controversial president and a room full of the liberal elite, it’s almost certain to be a very political night at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Meryl Streep started the trend with her Golden Globes acceptance speech on January 8, 2017, in which she criticized then president-elect Donald Trump.

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This is nothing out of the ordinary – the Oscars have always been political! Leonardo DiCaprio’s overdue coronation last year can be equally attributed to his performance as to how many luncheons he attended and how many hands he shook. Nominees often do the talk-show circuit and something as simple as a Saturday Night Live appearance can ingratiate contenders to voters and secure a win.

Outside of the inner-workings of Academy voting, the Oscars draw tens of millions of viewers each year to the broadcast. With a captive audience and 30 seconds until the long-winded are played off stage by the orchestra (which hilariously adopted the Jaws theme in 2013), winners have the podium to thank God, their families, the Academy (never forget the Academy!) and champion their favourite cause.

So in light of the current political and social climate, here are 7 of the most political Academy Award acceptance speeches:

7. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a shout out to environment (2016)

When six-time nominee Leonardo DiCaprio was finally awarded his Oscar in 2016 for his grueling semi-fictional portrayal of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, he urged those present not to “take this planet for granted.” Inspired by the unseasonably warm weather in Calgary that forced the production to relocate in search of snow, DiCaprio proclaimed that the Revenant was about “man’s relationship to the natural world,” which serves his point but forgets the way in which nature is manipulated to serve Glass’ purpose. Either way the crowd is with him all the way though – perhaps just relieved that they don’t have to suffer hearing about a DiCaprio snub for yet another year.

Skip to 3:26 to hear the political portion of the speech.

6. Patricia Arquette brings Meryl to her feet (2015)

Initially I hadn’t intended to include Patricia Arquette’s impassioned Best Supporting Actress speech (won for her work in Boyhood) on women’s work place and social equality. Though the majority of Oscar speeches are no doubt practiced repeatedly in Hollywood’s gilded showers, I tend to favour the more impromptu appearing speeches. This speech is read almost entirely – it’s kind of impersonal.

Arquette’s brief message (perhaps the shortest on the list) cites wage inequality and general equal rights – but what’s really amazing about the speech is Meryl Streep, who leaps to her feet, claps, and points enthusiastically to the stage in support. It’s an instant meme!

Skip to 2:50 for the beginning of Arquette’s message.

5. Graham Moore wants us all to keep it weird (2016)

Graham Moore’s acceptance speech after winning best adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game makes it onto this list because of how genuine, honest, and off-the-cuff it feels. After thanking the Academy and Oprah (as you would), Moore confides in the audience about his suicide attempt at 16-years-old because he felt like he didn’t fit in. In a year moved by the Oscars So White campaign, Moore’s encouragement to “Stay weird. Stay different.” did not fall on deaf ears. It’s a multi-layered, dark, and oddly cheerful and hopeful message that is meant to be received in whatever way the viewer needs to perceive it.

4. Vanessa Redgrave on Zionism (1978)

Sometimes political messages aren’t very well recieved – as with this speech delivered by Vanessa Redgrave for her Best Supporting Actress win for Julia. In her characteristically calm timbre, Redgrave “salutes” and “pays tribute to” her colleagues who have “stood firm and [have] refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” Yikes. The moment “Zionist” exits her mouth a smattering of boos is heard in the quiet theatre.

Unfortunately the ill-received speech ultimately overshadowed the awards ceremony and the film itself. Presenter Paddy Chayefsky commented later in the night on the speech, stating that he was “sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.” Instead he offers to Redgrave that “a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.” Oh Paddy, welcome to the Oscars!

The speech starts at 1:52.

Just for fun, here’s Paddy’s take on the speech later in the evening as well.

3. Tom Hanks emotional acceptance speech for Philadelphia (1993)

In his first win for Best Actor for his work in Philadelphia in 1993, Tom Hanks delivered a speech on the American AIDS epidemic that really tugs on the heart strings. It’s probably the most moving speech on this list and thereby perhaps one of the most powerful too because it feels genuinely selfless and reflective.

The speech starts at 0:53.

2. Michael Moore is not ready to make nice (2003)

When Michael Moore and Michael Donovan won the Academy Award for best Documentary (Feature) for Bowling for Columbine in 2003, things started off on a positive note. Moore invited all fellow documentary nominees up on the stage (aw, how sweet!) and then proceeded to protest that despite the efforts of documentary filmmakers to portray honest and genuine non-fiction, they instead “live in fictitious times” with a “fictitious president.” Sounds a bit too familiar, doesn’t it? His proclamations are met with a round of boos.

Moore goes on to rail against the war in Afghanistan and the boos only get louder as his voice and tempo escalate. By the end, he’s directly speaking to the president as the orchestra frantically tries to play him off the stage: “We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you! And any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!”

Skip to 0:57 for the beginning of Moore’s speech and strap in.

1. Marlon Brando refuses to accept Best Actor for The Godfather (1972)

It doesn’t get more political than this instance – in which Marlon Brando declined his Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in The Godfather (1972). In his stead, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather. As Littlefeather approaches the podium, presenter Roger Moore offers her the trophy and she politely declines.

As an Apache and President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Littlefeather explains that Marlon Brando has asked her to decline the award by way of a 15-page speech. Littlefeather’s abbreviated version is met with both scattered boos and applause and is made up entirely on-the-spot as she had been warned earlier not to exceed the allotted 60 seconds.

Wonder why you don’t see proxy speeches at the Oscars anymore? After this incident (starting at 0:57) they were banned.

That’s it for my top 7 most political Oscar acceptance speeches. Are there any I missed out? Let me know in the comments.

@ElysiaRM


If you are interested in seeing the transcripts of these and many more great Oscar acceptance speeches, check out the Academy’s database here.

The image of Oscar was borrowed respectfully from this site. I added the political garb!

Why “Lion” Should Win Big at the Oscars

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Lion is, without doubt, one the most emotionally powerful and moving movies of 2016. As a piece of art it is expertly directed, brilliantly cast, and beautifully scripted. This past weekend it walked away with two BAFTAs: Best Supporting Actor for Dev Patel and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film is nominated in both categories for the Oscars later this month as well as Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, and the big one – Best Picture.

Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography “A Long Way Home” which was published internationally in 2014. It chronicles Brierley’s remarkable true story who, at five years old, found himself lost almost 1,500 kilometers from his home in Khandwa, India. Saroo had accompanied his older brother, Guddu, to scavenge loose change on a passenger train before disembarking approximately 70 kilometers from home in Burhanpur. There Guddu left his younger brother asleep on a railway station bench with a promise that he would return to pick him up in a short while. When Saroo awoke delirious and using a child’s reasoning, he boarded a train at the same platform thinking that he would find his brother on board. It would be 25 years before he would see his family again.

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Following a traditional three-act structure, the film chronicles Saroo’s separation from his family, his adoption by an Australian couple, his decision to search for his family as an adult, and finally his eventual return home.

In some ways Lion’s construction is comparable to 127 Hours (2010), in which Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) is forced to amputate his own arm after becoming trapped by a boulder in a slot canyon while adventuring in Utah. Though the story of Ralston’s harrowing escape and Brierley’s return home to India are drastically different when it comes to their actual narrative arch, from a storytelling perspective they face the same challenge: the audience knows exactly what the movie’s climax will be and what the plot is driving toward.

If you were one of the brave souls to choose to experience Franco’s de-limbing on a big screen, you knew that arm was coming off from the first frame. The movie teased it by having Franco slip here and there and by having Franco do a test-poke or two at his arm with his knife once already trapped. Macabre as it may seem, audiences bought tickets to see that arm cut off in the same way that I didn’t buy a ticket for that exact same reason.

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Let’s do this.

Lion faces the same challenge. A well-informed audience with any knowledge of the true story will know Saroo uses Google Earth to find his way home. Like 127 Hours, audiences are captivated by the film’s climax and are eager to get there. The difficulty from a directing and screenwriting perspective comes in engaging an informed audience where manipulative tactics and big tear-jerking reveals won’t suffice if they aren’t backed by real substantive character development and plotting. In these capacities, Lion excels and are why it stands up to repeat viewings.

I’m also comparing Lion to 127 Hours because I think this similarity perfectly embodies why, at times, Lion felt like it dragged. As perfect as I thought it was, it felt bloated in the middle once we leave India (and the adorable Sunny Pawar as young Saroo). It’s not that the script isn’t well penned or that the acting isn’t compelling, it’s simply the audience’s eagerness to move on to their anticipated climax. Unlike 127 Hours, Lion’s narrative strength (and rewatchability) comes from the framing of these sequences with an emotionally compelling first and third act.

The only true flaw, in my opinion, is that the film glazes over Saroo’s adoptive brother’s struggles in favour of lending more screen time to Saroo and Lucy’s (Rooney Mara) romance. Though the catalyst for Saroo’s search, the romance was bland and unsatisfying – it felt more like a plot device than a genuine human relationship. In fairness, this probably stood out more in Lion than it would have in most movies since everything else surrounding it was so raw. With that said, a more in-depth look at Saroo’s relationship with Mantosh may have helped provide more intrigue during the movie’s midway lull.

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The film brilliantly opens with a fly-over geography of it’s protagonist’s journey, allowing for the opening credits to unfold across the landscape in a way that calls back to classic Hollywood dramas. It is the perfect opening as it is only later that the viewer begins to associate these earlier landscapes with Saroo’s home. In the beginning of the film the viewer is as lost as Saroo will eventually become, confronted only with fleeting images that they are unable to place. The images are deliberately ambiguous – are we looking at India or Australia? It’s an amazing piece of subliminal storytelling as it evokes an unwitting sense of familiarity when those same landscapes are later retraced visually at the climax of the film. This is further emphasized by the absence of a title card, which is revealed to the viewer at the end of the film – at presumably the same time as Saroo becomes aware of it himself.

The sheer power of the film lies in this balance between subject and viewer. It’s the reason that Lion deserves every accolade it receives and why, in a perfect world, it would walk away with Best Picture on Oscar night. It is not a celebration of film like La La Land or a celebration of cultural diversity like Hidden Figures. It isn’t an ode to the broody white-guy or an examination of human bitterness and brokenness. It is an honest look at the human condition with its ups and downs. If you find yourself welling up, there’s an equal chance that it is from happiness as sadness.

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Lion deserves to win because it doesn’t succumb to a moral dichotomy. It suggests, provokes, and produces genuine feeling rather than cinematic manipulation. As a result, it is the perfect cap to 2016.

It just isn’t the right year to crown a dreamy piece of escapism, a hopeful biopic, or a sullen examination of existential struggle. It is a perfect year to crown something deeply human, a film that engages the audience and makes the viewer feel something real that isn’t fleeting – and that’s exactly what Lion is.

@ElysiaRM

Lion is based on the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. The film was directed by Garth Davis and stars Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, and Nicole Kidman. The film introduces newcomer Sunny Pawar. Further credits can be found on IMDB site.

For information about showtimes and charitable causes, see Lion’s official website.

Photos and stills from Lion are respectively borrowed from their owners and were taken from this site. The image included from 127 Hours is from the IMDB page.

La La Land: a Best Picture contender in need of less L.A. and more La La

gallery-item04The theatre dims and the end credits start to roll on what most assume will be the best picture winner at this year’s 89th Academy Awards ceremony on February 26th. I’m not alone in saying that La La Land was my most anticipated movie of 2016. I went into the theatre sure that it would be my favorite movie of the year. Better than Stars Wars!

And yet at the end all I can think about is the singing – and not because it was good – it just wasn’t up to par. Is there a precedent? The cast of Chicago (2002) were passable, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman weren’t trained singers in Moulin Rouge! (2001), but they sounded okay most of the time. Russell Crowe aside, Hugh Jackman was alright in Les Miserables (2012), even if he missed some of the high notes. Depending on your enjoyment of extreme close-up and snotty crying (which the Academy goes bananas for) Anne Hathaway killed it in the same flick.

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Confirmed Academy member sighting.

Even in the classic and untouchable musicals of the golden age of Hollywood, actors and actresses were rarely ripped off Broadway. They sang their pieces to the best of their ability and if that ability was found lacking, they were dubbed over. Don’t believe me? Check out the work of Marni Nixon (dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), Jo Ann Greer (dubbed Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad), Betty Noyes (dubbed two of Debbie Reynold’s Singin’ in the Rain performances), Annette Warren (dubbed Ava Gardener in Showboat), and Bill Lee (dubbed Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music), to name a few. They were called ghost singers and they acted similar to stunt doubles. Painstakingly chosen to match the voice they were mimicking, the goal was to provide as little trace as possible of their presence.

So what’s the issue?

The issue is what La La Land stands for and purports to be. It’s not Baz Luhrmann’s pop fever dream and it isn’t Tom Hooper’s gritty examination of how close a camera can get to an actor or actress’s face without visible discomfort. It’s an ode to Hollywood – to old Hollywood – and to musicals where the singing was, fundamentally, real. 

This matters because song is how characters in a musical communicate vulnerability while establishing the same strength (or weakness) that will aid them in overcoming it (or succumbing to it) in the end. It is a narrative device that develops and sustains characterization. By casting big names and pretty faces instead of voices that are fluent in musical nuance, we miss the point of bursting into song entirely. It becomes a storytelling crutch.

For example, Anne Hathaway’s face is a runny mess by the end of her take on I Dreamed a Dream in Les Miserables. She’s been crying so hard that some lyrics have been missed, others choked out inaudibly, and some scream-sung. On the other hand, Patti LuPone’s original version of the same song portrays the same passion and raw emotion while remaining in complete control. It propels the music, lyrics, and their message above the needs and wants of the character and in doing so establishes her altruism and underlines the sacrifice that she has made. It’s much more raw when those things are not on the surface, like in Hathaway’s performance, but hovering just underneath instead. In her interpretation of the same song during the 25th Anniversary Concert, Lea Salonga hits a similar note. She’s more clearly emotional than LuPone, but again remains controlled and allows the music and lyrics to do the heavy lifting. It’s a matter of knowing when to defer and when the music is enough.

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When you employ sub-par singers for a movie that involves a heavy dose of singing, music becomes a crutch: a musical substitute for real emotion. It gives us a cue: Look! I am singing! Feel something! When you employ good singers with a few less Hollywood credentials, the music stands for itself. It’s not just a movie with music, it’s a real musical. The same can be said for over-the-top scores.

Take the scene in which Emma Stone’s character lands her big audition – her moment. We are meant to believe that she deserves it and that she has earned it, which is impossible when we have never seen that talent to begin with, implicitly or explicitly. We’ve just seen another Hollywood icon going through the motions of “inspiration” – crooning out a ballad that leaves you itching to check YouTube for the improved version. The camera emphasizes this by cutting away every time Mia’s artistic genius presents itself. It feels hollow. The music isn’t enough and neither is she.

We need to stop relying on Hollywood star power to outshine talent. As mesmerizing and impressive as it is that Ryan Gosling learned to play the piano, that both he and Emma Stone learned to dance, and that some of the performances were live, it just doesn’t cut it. Talented actors as they both are, talented singers they are not – and settling for their performances isn’t raw or realistic, it is a cop-out. It’s another instance of Hollywood patting itself on the back: look at us in this movie, these somebodies pretending to be nobodies! It’s aloof, unachievable, and dreamlike. Instead of a masterpiece, it becomes piece of escapism strewn fancy set pieces and musical numbers with no substance or truth to support them. It is as wooden and fabricated as the cardboard cut-outs Stone and Gosling dance through in the final scenes. It doesn’t represent a true thirst and yearning for success and fame in the way it claims to – because it isn’t brave enough to make that leap itself.

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And yet, La La Land is mesmerizing. It’s beautifully shot and edited. The set design is out of this word and the costumes are dazzling. It’s imaginative and the acting is fantastic. It makes you root for the characters by sheer power of visual spectacle. As Stone steps up for her audition, I am not thinking of how the actress herself probably didn’t have the same experience – not this time anyway. It was a good movie, it just wasn’t a brave movie – and so it stops short of greatness. It’s arty flesh covers a vacant interior, where City of Stars can ring true only to its occupants. We as viewers remain outside of it, with no entry point.

Take, as a final example, the end scene: Mia and Sebastian twirl through the life they might have had – it’s the most emotional part of the movie, I was sucked in entirely. It is impeccably scored, orchestrated so that the melody is passed among the orchestra, taking its cue from jazz while emulating the old Hollywood musical form. It doesn’t rely on a big brass section like many of it’s contemporaries. It’s powerful – and it doesn’t include any singing. It doesn’t have to.

La La Land is going to sweep the Oscars this year – and its unclear whether it would have done so without the two leads at the helm – with true, auditioned vocal talent instead of Hollywood’s head boy and girl. I just wish that the filmmakers had made a choice: L.A. without the la la or the la la without the L.A. Either of these options would have made this film, in my opinion, truly great.

What did you think of La La Land? Let me know in the comments below.

@ElysiaRM

Pictures are respectfully borrowed from La La Land’s official movie site. The banana photo is a stock photo from this site. I drew on the googlie eyes – quelle artiste!

La La Land was directed by Damien Chazelle. It stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. For more details and credits, see La La Land’s IMDB entry.