Monthly Archives: February 2011

Oscar Dark Horses

If you’re like many movie buffs, you’ll be watching the Oscars tomorrow night. But though you’ll probably be rooting for your favorites to win, most winners will likely come as little surprise. Now that there are a gazillion other awards shows that lead up to the Oscars and set a hard-to-change precedent by the time the Oscar winners are announced, surprise winners are difficult to come by. However, it’s still fun hoping to see an upset (like when Adrian Brody won best actor for The Pianist over Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson in 2003).

The following are three films nominated for Oscars this year that have zero chance of winning. But I’d love to be proven wrong! They are amazing films and far better than many others they’re nominated alongside.

Animal Kingdom (nominated for best supporting actress): No, this is not a film about a Disney World theme park. It’s an astonishing, subtle Australian film about a Corleone-esque crime family in the midst of Melbourne suburbia. Some have called it Australia’s Godfather, and I think the comparison is apt. The debut of writer/director David Michôd is an epic, tragic, beautifully told examination of power, fear, family, & survival.

Another Year (nominated for best original screenplay): Mike Leigh’s film is more than just an actor’s showcase for British thespians. It is that, but it’s also one of the most jarring, make-you-think studies of relationships that I’ve seen on film in some time. It’s about solid relationships, fragile ones, and the lessons we learn from both. But the “one year in the life of” film is also just about time, and the things (births, deaths, jobs, friends, food) that mark our lives. It may sound boring, but Another Year is anything but.

I Am Love (nominated for best costume design): There are many words I could use to describe Luca Guadagnino’s Italian film: grandiose, regal, sumptuous, sprawling, colorful, ambitious. But I’d rather just say, “essential.” For true fans of the cinematic art form, I Am Love is a must-see. The film’s attention to detail, and the pulsating intensity of Tilda Swinton’s performance (how did she not get nominated for best actress? Oh yeah, she scares people on the red carpet) make it one of my very favorites of last year. For a stellar critical engagement with the film, check out this video essay by Kartina Richardson.

And for the record, here are my predictions for who will win in the major categories at tomorrow night’s Oscars:

Best Picture: King’s Speech
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth
Best Actress: Natalie Portman
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale
Best Supporting Actress: Helena Bonham Carter
Best Animated: Toy Story 3
Best Foreign Film: In a Better World
Best Documentary: Inside Job
Best Original Screenplay: The King’s Speech
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network

Lady Gaga’s Alien Logic

Watching Lady Gaga’s Grammy performance of her new single, “Born This Way,” was sort of like watching Species while pondering the end of western civilization.

Nothing about Gaga makes much sense. Her meticulously crafted, over-the-top essence is founded on a fetishizing of head-scratching chaos, postmodern meaninglessness  & “just dance” hedonism. Whether she’s sporting a dead-Kermit dress, bloody pieces of cow, or mutated shoulder blade prostheses straight from Syfy’s Face Off, Gaga prides herself on being an outrageous parody of shock-art subversiveness.  In everything she does, Gaga makes a headline-grabbing “statement,” the substance of which is usually just a declaration of the primacy of “anything goes” surrealist circus fun.

The interesting thing about “Born This Way,” the anthem to go along with Gaga’s recent foray into pro-gay rights politics, is that it tries to make a statement of objective meaning even while it bombastically insists on a universally binding, “only you can determine what’s right for you” subjectivism.

The message of “Born This Way’ is that no matter what you are (gay, straight, bisexual, Kermit, an alien with horns and a Batman bubble butt), you should love yourself and embrace it all. “There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are,” sings Gaga. “Cause he made you perfect, Babe… God makes no mistakes.”

OK, Gaga. Even if I agreed with your illogical philosophical assertions about everything and everyone being perfect just as they are (which I don’t), how do you expect anyone to take seriously your “this is the right way to believe” political/theological statements when they are couched in a persona so thoroughly, amusingly dismissive of normative truths or general sense-making?

Among its many problems, “Born This Way” heralds the self-defeating message that no one can tell anyone else who they are or what they ought to be, even while it assumes the privileged mantle of moral authority to assert this apparent  truism in the first place.

All logical inconsistencies aside, the song is just a bleak, hopeless celebration of nothingness. If the abiding truth of reality is that everyone in the world (including me) is exactly as they ought to be–every last broken, frail, misguided, treacherous one of us–then the world is a far darker place, and virtuous existence a far more futile endeavor, than any of us previously imagined.

But I believe, because my experience proves and my faith compels me to believe, that none of us are, or were born, just as we should be. Quite the opposite actually. From the get go we are selfish and sinful, out-of-sorts and awkward, prone to wander. To throw up our hands and say that all is well, we are “born this way,” is false to our very nature and tragically bereft of a theology of hope. “Born this way” is a self-satisfied approach to life that believes itself to be freeing, but inadvertently undercuts the things (repentance, redemption, reconciliation, moral formation) that bring about true human flourishing.

Lights Out

On Wednesday night, Friday Night Lights aired its series finale on DirecTV, a few months before the entire season will air again on NBC. After five years and five stellar seasons, the under-rated show ended its run, and in characteristically poetic, elegiac fashion.

I remember back in the summer of 2006 when I first saw the pilot for Friday Night Lights. I was writing a Fall TV preview for Relevant and so the networks sent me all the DVD pilots of their new shows that season (including 30 Rock, Heroes & Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip… remember that one?). I had been a fan of the Peter Berg-directed film version of Lights, but I was admittedly skeptical about NBC’s serialized version. The pilot floored me. The characters were instantly real, recognizable, sympathetic. The solemnly nostalgic tone and uplifting ethos were evident from the get go. Coach Taylor and his motivational speeches. “We all fall.”

From there I was hooked. I told everyone I could to watch the show, the first season of which was among the most perfect single seasons of TV I’ve ever seen. By the end of the season, the show had won universal critical acclaim and a Peabody award, but its future was in jeopardy because, from day one and throughout its run, the show had inexplicably low ratings.

Lights premiered on NBC on October 3, 2006 (Tuesday night at 8pm) with decidedly disappointing numbers: 7.18 million viewers, 5.3/8 share, and 2.3/8 in the 18-49 demo. It was in third place in the time slot, and its numbers would only slide further with the second episode, which dropped to 6.28 million viewers (fourth place). By episode five, NBC moved the struggling series to a new time slot: Monday at 10pm, the normal spot for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (itself a major ratings disappointment). Here Lights benefited from a lead in from Heroes, but still underperformed (8.26 million viewers, 5.3/9), representing a 41 percent audience erosion out of Heroes.

Still, the critical buzz for Lights was through the roof.  Tom Shales of The Washington Post labeled Lights ”great, heavy-duty, high-impact TV” while The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan repeatedly proclaimed it “the best show on network television.” Perhaps the most common sentiment of the show’s surprising critical appeal was expressed in Tim Goodman’s review of the pilot in The San Francisco Chronicle: “Friday Night Lights is not good. It’s great… If viewers get over their preconceived notions about what they think this series is about and actually give it a shot, they’ll be as stunned as everyone else.”

Buoyed by glowing critical praise and a developing core fanbase, NBC ordered a full-season pickup for the show in mid-November, even as the ratings plateaued at seemingly cancel-able levels (around 6 million average viewers, with an average 7 share). After the holiday break NBC tried the show on Wednesday nights (8pm), with little evidence of ratings change.  The show chugged along for its full 22 episodes with little improvement, with cancellation looming (and expected) as the season finale approached on April 1. Miraculously the network took a risk and–banking on the critical acclaim and “prestige” of the show (Emmy bait?)–renewed it for a 2nd season.

Perhaps because the show’s creatives felt pressure from the network to make the nuanced, understated show more edgy, youthful and soap opera-esque (as a strategy for winning over new fans), the 2nd season was tonally different than the first. There was an ill-advised murder plot. Diehard fans like myself felt let down, but we didn’t give up on the show. Thankfully the season was cut short due to the writer’s strike, forcing an abrupt but satisfying end to the show’s one off season.

The 3rd, 4th, and 5th seasons of Lights were as nearly flawless as the first, and the show gradually engendered itself to new fans. When people discovered it, they got hooked, pouring through the early seasons on DVD in a weekend.

For me, my life from 2006-2010 can in part be marked by the various people I shared Friday Night Lights with–watching it together on holiday weekends, having season premiere parties, loaning out the DVDs to countless friends and family. It was a special show because it was so real to so many of us. We saw ourselves in these people, or saw models of people (Coach and Mrs. Taylor) we wanted to be.

I’m going to be writing more about the show this summer as it finishes its run on NBC, but for now I’ll just say this: I’m so thankful for Friday Night Lights–for so many reasons. It was a rare show that took beauty, truth and goodness seriously, and which favored earnestness and simplicity in a medium that increasingly seems to prefer gimmicky, trite, cynical and overblown. I appreciated Lights because of how complicated it was, how hard it was to classify. I appreciated it because it featured the best portrait of a marriage I’ve ever seen on television.

Lights was a show that made me buy DirecTV so I could watch it a few months before it aired on NBC. It’s a show that made me laugh and cry on numerous occasions. It’s a show that I will remember and appreciate for the rest of my life, and one which television history will record as one of the best, most singular achievements of the form.


Among the most talked about commercials that aired at the Super Bowl this year were the trio of ads from Groupon that mimicked celebrity “cause” PSAs. Groupon’s ads featured D-list celebrities speaking about various causes–saving the whales, Tibet, Brazilian forests–but then calling for humanity to “Save the Money” through coupons discounts on whale cruises, Tibetan curry and a Brazilian wax. You can watch them here, here, & here. The ads were directed by Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) and are hilarious,  effective (at getting millions of people to learn of Groupon for the first time), and strangely insightful into the paradoxically self-interested nature of the wiki-world.

The great hope of the networked, power-to-the-collective, wikipedia web world is that somehow the masses will be bound together in common causes more quickly and more efficiently than ever. Somehow we will all become more selfless and more willing to work together across dividing lines now that we’re all so interconnected. But this great web we exist within has hardly made humanity more unified. On the contrary, it seems like we’re more fragmented than ever–with more and more self-interested cliques and groups and niche blogs vying for the energies of smaller and smaller bands of people.

In his New Yorker article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social networks and democratized media will not be the revolutionary force some have hoped for. As Gladwell notes in the article, networks that are free of a single central authority are “enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations” — situations like Wikipedia, where the “anyone can say anything about anything” approach works because falsehoods are eventually corrected by the community. But as Gladwell notes, these networks “have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”

Indeed, the only place where the forceful power of the collective seems to be harnessed on the Internet these days is when self-interest is ensured–as in Groupon. No one will refuse partnership with fellow consumers if a deep discount is at stake. No organization is necessary, no painfully arrived upon compromises or goals are required. You just have to click “buy,” along with a bunch of other people. It’s a low-commitment activity, but en masse it has the power to triple the profits of a local business and increase the value of Groupon as a powerful gatekeeper/arbiter of consumer behavior. Hence the Groupon slogan: “Collective Buying Power.”

Similarly, Facebook is the most powerful social network on earth not because the 600 million users are pooling their intelligence and/or joining forces. They’re not. They’re playing Farmville or stalking each other endlessly. No, Facebook is powerful because 600 million users equals $50+ Billion of economic value. The power is where the money is, and the money is where the people are.

Meanwhile, the people are just having a good time. They’re getting 50% off paragliding lessons and $35 hour-long tours on Segways ($65 value). The huge potential of the aggregated masses on social media mostly just results in 30 million or so views of the most popular YouTube videos, 60k “Likes” on Facebook or 10,000 new fans of a new restaurant in town, thanks to a Groupon deal. For businesses, social media like this is insanely helpful. What better way to get exposure for your small business than to tap into the voracious audience of a site like Groupon–a collection of people for whom consumption-as-adventure is the only tie that binds.

Social Network vs. King’s Speech

Until recent weeks, David Fincher’s The Social Network won pretty much every major award of the season. It was named best picture by the National Board of Review, the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, and pretty much every major film critics circle. Then, all of a sudden, The King’s Speech came on strong at the guild awards–winning top honors at the Producer’s Guild, Director’s Guild, and Screen Actors Guild Awards. The momentum shifted, and now Tom Hooper’s royal costume drama seems poised for a rout of The Social Network at the Oscars.

Which is really unfortunate.

Don’t get me wrong… I absolutely loved The King’s Speech. I saw it three times in December, and put it #3 on my “best of 2010” list. It’s an elegant, near-perfect crowd-pleaser with exquisite dialogue, immaculate production value and stellar performances across the board. It’s hard to find anything wrong with The King’s Speech, but I’ll still be upset if it beats The Social Network for best picture.

Why? Because The Social Network is the more significant film. Objectively. Fincher’s film is more daring, more interesting, more unexpected and more important that The King’s Speech. It turned the rise of Facebook into a Shakespearian tragedy, a Citizen Kane for Millenials. It captured the zeitgeist and used dialogue to create visceral action the likes of which Michael Bay CGI could only dream of. It was a film not just about Facebook, but about the changing nature of communication in a digital age. It’s an epic, modern, ambitious film that blazes with intelligent energy and an unsettling ambiguity.

In the indieWIRE Critic’s Poll, which polls top critics and bloggers from around the country on the best movies of the year, The Social Network landed at #1 as the unanimous pick for the best film of the year. The King’s Speech was way down the list at #28. Is the Academy really that out of touch with the critical mass, that it would award the Best Picture Oscar to a film that landed on only 10 out of 120 of the nation’s leading critics’ lists?

It’s easy to see why The King’s Speech will win the Oscar. It embodies everything Oscar loves: kingly performances, period costumes, accessible artsiness, dynamo performances, laughs, tears, white knuckle tension. It was made to win awards, and was released (in December) with that objective clearly in mind. The Social Network was released in October and is the “old hat” award-winner by now. Many people are just now seeing The King’s Speech, and the bias of the “I just saw the most amazing film!” buzz of newness is working entirely in its favor. The incredible film we just saw almost always trumps the incredible film we saw 3 months ago.

Then there is the “age divide,” which pits the older Academy voters (fans of The King’s Speech) against the younger ones, who appreciate The Social Network more because they resonate with its story and its style.

Whatever the reason, The King’s Speech is now in the driver’s seat for the best picture Oscar, much to the chagrin of the nation’s critics, me included.