Friday, November 30, 2012

The five worst Oscar-winning movies

We've entered the season where would-be Academy Award nominees crowd into theaters, trying to please voters whose memories don't go back farther than six weeks. In honor of this mad rush, I'll devote one State of the Art blog entry to the Oscars every week, up to the nominations on January 10 (except for Christmas week, when I'll be wassailing at home).

I'll start with the five least-justified choices for best picture. Technically, I can't include "Mrs. Miniver," which was so sappy I left midway through to avoid killing more brain cells. I saw "Cimarron" and "Cavalcade" too long ago to make a clear judgment now, but I still have more than 80 to choose from. Here are the duds, in ever-increasing order of awfulness, followed by the nominees that should have beaten them:

5) "The Departed" (2006) -- The prize was a sop to Martin Scorsese, who has made a dozen movies better than this nonsensical mishmash about a cop and a crook who infiltrate each other's organizations. An affront not only to fans of the Hong Kong original ("Infernal Affairs") but to anyone with a brain, right down to the tacked-on happy ending. Should have won: "Little Miss Sunshine" or "The Queen."

4) "Ordinary People" (1980 -- Well-intentioned, competently made soap opera about a family that comes apart when a prized son dies. But when I rewatched it a few years ago, it seemed arid, obvious and gently preachy, like most movies directed by Robert Redford. The acting holds up well, but this didn't deserve the big enchilada. Should have won: "Raging Bull" or "The Elephant Man."

3) "Oliver!" (1968) -- The apex of the grandiose, over-the-top musicals of the 1960s ("My Fair Lady," "Dr. Dolittle," etc.) and the one that killed this sub-genre, except for Monty Python spoofs. (See the "Every Sperm is Sacred" number in "The Meaning of Life.") The exclamation point in the title indicates that everything must be BIG, including the hammy acting. Should have won: "Romeo and Juliet" or "The Lion in Winter."   

2) "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) -- The movie seemed to last 80 days, as it crammed celebrity cameos into flaccid sequences detailing the journey of Phileas Fogg (a miscast David Niven) around the globe. In a decade famous for movie bloat, producer Mike Todd was rewarded for setting the bar higher.Should have won: "Friendly Persuasion." or "The King and I."

1) "Crash" (2006)  -- A strident, inconclusive harangue about racism, crippled by absurd coincidences (apparently only two cops patrol all of Los Angeles), ludicrous situations and painfully shallow characters: (My favorite: The omni-bigoted white millionaire played by Sandra Bullock, who underwent such a miraculous transformation that she hugged her Mexican maid and blurted, "Maria, you are my best friend!")Should have won: Any other nominee in the category: "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck" or "Munich." Or almost any other 2004 release, possibly excepting "Van Helsing" and "Exorcist: The Beginning."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dreams pursued, dreams achieved

Good news about two remarkable performers landed on my desk just before the holiday week.

Merwin Foard, who cut his musical eyeteeth in Charlotte as Merwin Foard Jr., has made a Broadway career out of understudying or standing by for leads in some of the biggest musicals of the last 25 years: Javert in "Les Miserables," Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast," Fred Graham in "Kiss Me, Kate,"  the title character in "Sweeney Todd," Gomez in "The Addams Family."

As of Nov. 9, he's been understudying Australian opera singer Anthony Warlow as Daddy Warbucks in the revival of "Annie," but he's also playing a pivotal supporting role as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Terry Teachout, drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, said, "The smaller roles are also well done, with top honors going to Merwin Foard, whose impersonation of FDR (complete with leg braces, a nicely realistic touch) is dead on the mark." Warlow leaves the Warbucks role after 12 months, so you have to wonder if Foard has a shot at taking over.

Meanwhile, Joan Burton's CD "The Long Road" arrived in the mail. If you were lucky enough to hear her lead vocals in the nostalgia show "This is The '60s," which played Ovens Auditorium in July, you'll know why I looked forward to getting it. (Quoting myself now: "Smoky-voiced vocalist Joan Burton plays a mean rhythm guitar on the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" and sings with plenty of heart: Her version of Melanie's "Candles in the Rain" is even more powerful than the original.") Charlotte launched a tour of that show, which comes back to Knight Theater Dec. 15.

"Yes, it's been a long road," Burton writes in the brief liner notes. "Some of the songs reflect struggles I've dealt with in life and as a musician. The musician's road is not easy, but I do it for the love of it." The 15 cuts, compiled from her first three albums, include intense covers (The Doors' "Crystal Ship," The Beatles' "Oh! Darling") and originals. Those range from a reflection about romance ("For Love") to a wistful song about abused animals ("Weary Eyes") to a meditation on Patricia Krenwinkel's motives for joining Charles Manson in the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969. (Learn more at

Neither Foard nor Burton (who's headquartered in Myrtle Beach) has achieved top marquee status after decades in the business, but they plug happily away. They've made satisfying lives for themselves in show business, and they get to do what they love -- and were born to do -- night after night. How many of us can say the same?

Monday, November 12, 2012

IMDB voting is a joke

I go to the Internet Movie Data Base today to see how voters take to "The House I Live In," an Oscar-contending documentary about the vast amount of money spent prosecuting non-violent drug users in America. I see it has an unspectacular voter rating of 6.3 out of 10.

Then I look at the voter breakdown. 129 out of 235 voters (55 percent) have given the movie a 10.  62 voters (another 26 percent) have given it an 8 or a 9. So more than four out of five voters have given it a rating of 8 or above, yet the overall "weighted" rating is 6.3. How can this be?

The explanation on IMDB is a combination of obfuscation and gobbledygook. The site won't explain how it assigns different weights to votes, though some users have speculated in message boards that it automatically throws out 1s and 10s or devalues them until a certain number of people have voted. There's also speculation that people who regularly vote on films get their votes counted more heavily, as if prolific voters were more honest or intelligent.

When you search the FAQ section for an explanation, you get a longer version of the paragraph below:

IMDb publishes weighted vote averages rather than raw data averages. Various filters are applied to the raw data in order to eliminate and reduce attempts at 'vote stuffing' by individuals more interested in changing the current rating of a movie than giving their true opinion of it. The exact methods we use will not be disclosed. This should ensure that the policy remains effective.

The site justifies weighting answers by comparing its ratings to those used in assessing automobiles: A car that gets a 5 for looks, a 5 for gas mileage, a 5 for price and a 1 for safety may not get an overall average of 4, because safety is more important than the other factors. But how does one distinguish among people who are rating only one thing, the overall effectiveness of a movie?

Nobody wants a ballot box to be stuffed. (Well, Vladimir Putin and certain African dictators do, I guess.) I never vote on IMDB myself, because my reviews give my opinions, should anyone want them. No doubt rabid fanboys toss 10s around like confetti when the latest Batman or Avengers movies come out, and clever hackers can confound almost any system.

But when the mast majority of voters give a grade of 8 or higher to a serious documentary, and the overall grade is 6.3, something's wrong here. Do we need to get the electoral college involved?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Not James Bond -- ISRAEL Bond

As we note the opening of "Skyfall," the best James Bond movie since "Goldfinger," let's take a moment to pay tribute to the first great James Bond spoof: "Loxfinger."

It came out in 1965, the year after "Goldfinger" made Bond the most popular action hero in films. According to the book, author Sol Weinstein gained his knowledge of the subject by working for the CIA (Catskills Institute of Acne); he appeared in a trenchcoat on the back cover, smoking a cigarette and holding a very dangerous-looking slingshot.

The title character, Lazarus Loxfinger, was an alleged humanitarian with a suspiciously Germanic accent who talked about finding a "final solution" to the Israeli-Arab conflict. He was investigated by Oy-Oy-Seven, the Hebraic secret agent Israel Bond. (That was a 1960s joke: American Jews were expected to buy bonds to support their counterparts in Israel.)

The book riffs merrily on Bond conventions: Israel Bond beds lovelies with names such as Poontang Plenty, answers to a boss named Emma -- sometimes called M -- and fights off assassins from world-dominating organizations with tortuous acronyms, like the Syrian Corps of Heroes for Murdering Unmercifully Craven Kikes. (Work it out for yourself.) There's even a genetically altered dolphin, Agent D, who speaks in one-liners.

For all the comedy, most of which is 1960s-centric, there's a serious undertone about the jeopardy of being Jewish in a volatile part of the world: Israel had been founded just 17 years earlier, and the turmoil in the Middle East would erupt in a famous war two years later. The book's not meant as social commentary, but it turns out to be.

Like the Bond movie series, Weinstein continued to crank out sequels that were less and less necessary. (Although "Matzohball," his "Thunderball" parody, sustains the premise decently.) He eventually ended up writing comedy for TV ("The Jeffersons," "The Love Boat") and, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, turned 84 in July. The 11-year-old boy who laughed over "Loxfinger" when it first came out -- and missed all the double entendres -- still holds a fond thought for him.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Music for the day after the election

After looking at the results at 1 a.m. today -- some of which cheered me, some of which didn't, like all of you -- I settled into my recliner to listen to a CD titled "American Weekend."

It contained music by patricians and populists. It spoke of the bustle of New York, the common-sense values of the Midwest, quiet days of remembrance for fallen veterans in New England. Quite by accident, the conductors were a little melting pot of their own, men born in India and Germany and Hungary.

Charles Ives, the wealthy insurance salesman for whom classical composition was a hobby, weighed in with his variations on "America." George Gershwin, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, captured the swagger and romance of Manhattan with "Rhapsody in Blue." Samuel Barber, born to a prosperous and cultured family in West Chester, Pa., provided a restrained sense of mourning with his "Adagio for Strings."

The most moving contribution came from Aaron Copland, another immigrant's boy who captured the spirit of the American prairie like nobody else. It was "Lincoln Portrait," his 15-minute tribute to the man many of us consider our greatest president. Gregory Peck read the narration in a voice that was almost certainly more sonorous than Lincoln's, but the words hit home.

They rang out like this: "We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation." 

And this: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our country." 

Lincoln was speaking about America 150 years ago, in the grip of a declared civil war, but his words are just as true today. Will anybody listen to them now?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Jackass at the symphony

So I'm enjoying the return of conductor Christof Perick to the podium of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. And midway through the first piece, the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's opera "Der Freischutz," a cell phone goes off during a moment of absolute silence.

The ring was that old-fashioned sound phones used to have when they had dials. It was as loud as the phone in the hall of my college dorm, which was meant to be audible the length of the building. (I waited, reflexively, for someone to scream, "Hey, Toppman, it's for you.") A guy down front sheepishly got up and sidled out of Belk Theater.

Maybe this was my cue to abandon hope that people at arts events will learn how to USE THEIR *&^%$#@! TECHNOLOGY! True, the symphony didn't make a "Turn off your devices" announcement just before the concert, which could have helped. But I wonder whether anyone listens to those any more, or whether they've passed into the "heard but not received" category, along with instructions on airplanes about seat cushion flotation.

Concertgoers have learned not to talk or eat during a show  Why can't they learn -- reflexively, as they're first sitting down -- to turn off their phones, which are every bit as annoying and even more disruptive during classical music?

Unlike talking or eating, the cell phone offender also disrupts the experience for himself. He has to search his pockets, wearing a "Yes, I'm a dope" look, or get up and walk away to take the call. And when he comes back to his seat, people give him the fish eye.

This may be a lost cause. But by heaven and the spirit of Beethoven, it's worth fighting for!