By Charly SHELTON
We have all seen the Oscars. The host comes out and makes a few jokes and then announces the category. Then another star comes out to read the nominees and then, after a dramatic pause and some trouble opening the envelope, the winner is read and applause fills the theatre. But many of us don’t really know why they won or even what they are up for.
We have two weeks left until Oscar weekend. The big night is Sunday, March 7. Some nominees are obvious choices for who the winner may be; others are a complete toss up. But over the next few weeks, we will break down the Oscars and the nominee list to see who is up for what, and what each category is. For instance, Disney’s Animated “Up” would not be nominated for best short subject documentary because it is neither short nor documentary, but it is nominated for Best Picture because it was voted as one of the ten best films since last February. That was an obvious one, but Sound Editing, Visual Effects, and many other aspects of the Oscars that most people ignore while they wait for Best Actor and Actress will be included in this column so you can have a better understanding of all things Oscar.
This is the third installment of the series started two weeks ago. Week one explored the acting profession: actor, actress, and each supporting. Last week, we saw some of the artistic technical awards, including Art Direction, Costume Design, and Make Up, as well as Foreign Language films and Documentary films. And this week, we take on some more very artistic aspects of film: Screenwriting and Music.
The writing profession is rarely one of fame and glamour. You all know who was in Inglorious Basterds, but do you know who wrote it? And everyone knows who George Clooney is, but do you know who Sheldon Turner is?
Sheldon Turner, along with director Jason Reitman, adapted “Up in the Air” from the book to the screenplay, and yet his name like so many other writers is often lost when thinking of a movie.
“Casablanca” is possibly the greatest film of all time, and certainly my favorite ever. Directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz, with Humphrey Bogart as Rick (one of the best actors ever on the screen), Paul Henried as Victor Laszlo, and Ingrid Bergman as Lisa Lund. Classic. And yet even though I have seen this film upwards of 50 times and I can conjure all those names from memory, I had to refer back to my DVD to find that the writer of the beloved film was Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein with Howard Koch, adapted from the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. It is the sad fate of the writer to be left in the shadowy corner of the spotlight when a movie is made. With all the attention going to the stars, directors and, recently, effects gurus, the writers are commonly dismissed as less important when the movie is a hit and only recognized when a film is terrible.
But let’s look at who is really to blame on certain films – for both good and bad – when writing comes into question. For example: Marie Antoinette. Quite possibly the single worst film ever to pass through a camera lens.
For those of you who have seen it, read on and accept my condolences for losing those two hours of your life. For those who have not seen it, don’t bother renting it. One critic described it as pouring Coke (this film) into Merlot (the real story).
The only person who deserves to have a career after that movie was released is Jason Bateman, because his portrayal of King Louis XVI pulled out all the iniquities of the king and he did so without looking like he was trying to be comedic. A perfectly subtle portrayal.
That being said, the movie was beyond saving because of Sofia Coppola.
The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she got none of his movie making talent when she jumped out of the gene pool. She wrote and directed “Antoinette” and because of her role as director, the movie was a huge disappointment. The script was all right – not great by any means, but not too bad.
So when someone blames the writing for the movie’s problems, it may not be totally accurate. The fault lies mainly with the directing; it lies in the fact that the late 1700s era queen of France during the dawn of the revolution goes shoe shopping to buy Chuck Taylor Converse shoes – which she apparently buys 128 years before they were first manufactured in 1917.
The fault lies in the fact that many of the turning points in the story of the queen are without reason (which could be a script issue, but seems more of a pacing issue in the playing out of the film).
The fault lies in the fact that nothing that happens in the film really makes the audience care whether she lives or dies in the revolution because we don’t really see her on the level of a human, more the level of a Sim from The Sims game because Kirsten Dunst brings no personality to the character at all, and apparently Coppola can’t draw any out of her with needle-nosed pliers. The script wasn’t great, it sure had some major faults, but when every critic in town is bashing the film, and half of them just say it’s the script but don’t explain why, then people begin to blame the script for every bad movie out there without knowing why either.
Michael Bay is a director of effects-driven event films. He has done “Pearl Harbor,” “The Island” and “Transformers” 1 and 2, just to name a few. These films are usually blamed on Mr. Bay because his films have no script. They are all explosions and special effects, and the two lines of logic are only there to connect the effects and fight scenes. These are script problems as well.
For a good script, look at “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” My family has a saying from that movie: “What truck?” Because Lawrence Kasdan wrote one scene when Indiana Jones is fighting Nazis on an airfield and is getting really beaten and bruised, and just when he thinks he has saved the Ark, he finally sits down to rest when his friend Salah tells him the Ark has been loaded on to a truck. Indy sits back up and all the fatigue he feels falls off as he says “Truck… What truck?” and heads off into battle again. This shows what kind of a man Indiana Jones is: no matter how hard he is beaten down, or how tired he is, or what he has to lose, his only goal is the safety of the Ark. For the museum. That is a hero – someone who keeps going no matter what. That “What truck?” moment is present in the majority of great films.
As previously mentioned, “Casablanca” has a “What truck?” scene. When Rick knocks out Major Strasser, knowing that it would be his downfall, when he wakes up but it is the only way Victor and Lisa will get away. That is the moment that sticks out in the mind that makes it a great scene in a great movie.
This year’s nominees for Adapted Screenplay are “District 9,” Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; “An Education,” Nick Hornby; “In the Loop,” Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; “Precious,” based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire- Geoffrey Fletcher; and “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner.
The race is going to be close but in my opinion, “Up in the Air” and “Precious” will probably be at the head of the pack. Both of those are terrific films. They tug at the heartstrings on many occasions and both seem like the kind of film the Academy goes for. But that is not a guarantee. Any of these films are just as likely to get the win.
The nominees for Original Screenplay are “The Hurt Locker,” Mark Boal; “Inglorious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino; “The Messenger,” Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman; “A Serious Man,” Joel and Ethan Coen; and “Up,” screenplay by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy.
This could really be anyone’s race. “Up” is heartwarming and sweet, “Hurt Locker” is dramatic and painful, “The Messenger” is sad but hopeful – the Academy can go any way. This will be one of the closer races of the Oscars. All of these films are great and all of these films have nominations in other categories as well. Having seen all of these, I still can’t make a prediction because this is a collection of some of the best movies this year had to offer.
If a ballot was handed to me, I would vote for “Inglorious Basterds,” but the Academy may not – that was just my personal favorite as far as writing goes because of the creativity and attention to detail Tarantino took in crafting his characters. Remember these names so when someone asks who wrote these movies, you can say these names and let the writers be remembered and respected for their accomplishments.
Music is the audible canvas that artists with instruments use to take us deeper into the worlds we see on the screen. Be it 1800s London with a pipe smoking master detective, or into a bayou as a frog who befriends a jazz playing alligator, or even flying through the clouds in a house tied to balloons, music sends us further into the world we want to go to in the movies.
At a recent seminar on sound editing, director James Cameron talked about James Horner’s score for “Avatar” being subtle enough to let the actors and digital creatures do the story leading, but strong enough to reinforce the fact that these aboriginal blue creatures called the Na’vi are very similar to our ancestors, and our cousins in the outback of Australia and in the jungles of Africa and South America.
Horner combined chanting in the native language of the Na’vi (similar to the African music in films such as “The Lion King”) with the strong drums (as in Native American and South American music) with the wind instruments (of Native American, Celtic, and Australian music) with the strings of a modern orchestra to create a dramatic tone that perfectly matched not only the action of the film, but the overall message and moral of the film, one of unity and respect for the planet, a staple of the beliefs of many of the cultures he combined.
Another great soundtrack to hear was the score to “Sherlock Holmes,” composed by Hans Zimmer. A huge fan of the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, I have seen many interpretations and retellings of “Sherlock” over the years and my favorite was “The Great Mouse Detective,” an animated Disney movie from 1986.
Basil of Baker Street was a mouse detective who lived in a small flat under the home of the famed detective, and he paralleled Sherlock’s story. This had a fantastic score by Henry Mancini that I still consider to be one of the finest written for a film. Hans Zimmer (“Pirates of the Caribbean” and the new “Batman” movies, to name a few) has made a score for the Robert Downey, Jr. film that gives Mancini a run for his money. Holmes is an avid violinist in every version of the tale; it is as much a signature aspect of him as is the Calabash pipe and magnifying glass and so Zimmer took that into the score as the overarching theme instrument and not only uses the single violin plucking and scratching out the tunes, but also a whole army of strings to give a full, epic sound to any chase or deduction. I challenge anyone to buy the soundtrack and listen to it while running down a hallway – you can’t help but feel like you are the master sleuth evading the bad guys as you run down the darkened back alleyways of London at night. This is not only my vote for the win (if I got one), but it has great chance of taking the Oscar.
Other nominees are “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Alexandre Desplat; “The Hurt Locker,” Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders; and “Up,” Michael Giacchino.
The other music category is for best original song. Three of these are from musicals: “Almost There” and “Down in New Orleans” from “The Princess and the Frog,” and “Take it All” from “Nine.” Randy Newman is up against himself for “Princess and the Frog.” He may take the Oscar or it may go to “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges got a nom for his performance, and this song is a good one, so the Academy may take this as the winner. Questionably, “Take it All” from “Nine” was not the best song from that musical in my opinion. It was OK, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ song “Guido’s Song” was one that I thought would get a nomination as soon as I saw the film. He is not really known for his singing, but he did a spectacular job of it in the film. But the Academy doesn’t always recognize the best songs simply because the voting members cannot agree on the best of the best (I still say “Le Festin” from Ratatouille was one of the better songs made for a film in recent years and the best Pixar film, despite the film’s lack of a nomination across the board).
Marion Cotilliard’s “Take it All” did receive the nomination, however, and that may cost “Nine” an award, seeing the competition. The other song up for this category is “Loin de Paname” from “Paris 36.” Prediction: either “Crazy Heart” or “The Princess and the Frog” will take the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Be sure to watch the awards on March 7 to see each of these songs performed live on stage.
For a full list of the nominees, as well as more analysis of them, visit our website www.cvweekly.com. And look in next week’s paper for part 4 of the “Oscar Breakdown,” when we will break down Short Films, as well as the visual aspects of the film: Cinematography, Visual Effects (AVATAR!), and Editing.