Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Original Song

August Rush* – Jamal Joseph, Charles Mack, Tevin Thomas (“Raise It Up”)
Enchanted – Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz (“Happy Working Song”)
Enchanted – Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz (“So Close”)
Enchanted – Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz (“That’s How You Know”)
Once – Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová (“Falling Slowly”)

Will win: August Rush is dead in the water. Enchanted is obviously the showier movie, but it’s highly likely that its three songs will split votes. Once is a critical darling, and it has the added benefit of only being nominated, ahem, once. Besides, it’s about time Disney loses one of these things, if only once. (O.K., I’ll stop. For once.)

Should win: Unlike with the score nominations, I pilfered all five of these and gave them a detailed test drive. The August Rush song is abominably awful – it features a faux gospel choir and sounds like it was composed by the kids from School of Rock, only if they’d been taught by Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk. Of the three Enchanted songs, “So Close” is the weakest. A Bryan Adams knockoff, it’s a forgettable slow dance tune that is straightforward, innocuous, and uninspiring – essentially everything a pivotal moment in Enchanted ought not to be.

The other two Enchanted numbers, both performed by Amy Adams (meaning we’ll actually get to see her at the Oscars in spite of her Best Actress snub, which is awesome), are delightful to watch in the context of the movie but are less compelling when distilled to pure audio. “Happy Working Song” features Adams as Gisele, a new wave Snow White bouncing around Patrick Dempsey’s apartment, instructing various critters how to clean up a mess in a tone of sublime cheeriness. (I particularly like the line, “We adore each filthy chore / That we determine / So, friends, even though you’re vermin / We’re a happy working song!”.) No maid has ever discharged her duties with more effervescent enthusiasm. (Speaking of which, 2008 offers the premiere of Sunshine Cleaning, in which Adams and Emily Blunt play two maids who also function as criminals of some sort. Stay tuned for that one.)

“That’s How You Know” is even more grandly buoyant. Undoubtedly Enchanted’s signature scene, it starts as a quiet dialogue between Gisele and Dempsey’s Robert, only Gisele takes a simple question (“How does she know?”) and turns it into a show-stopping scene of musical joy. Against Robert’s mumbled protests, she starts bounding through the park, repeating his question in an airy tune and rhythmic, syncopated beat. The song first functions as a duet, as Gisele enlists a conveniently placed drum artist to play off of (the increasingly bemused Robert asks, “He knows the song too?”); then, with her dazzling eyes and bubbly charm, she parades through the rest of Central Park, recruiting pedestrians to join in her triumphant chorus. By the song’s end, half the city of New York seems to be cavorting in perfect choreography.

It’s the kind of rapturous musical moment not seen at the movies since Moulin Rouge!. For the first time since that film, I wanted to stand up and applaud. (Of course, the Common chose that particular moment to have its DTS start flickering in and out. I was absolutely seething.)

But as I alluded to, most of the song’s splendor comes from its staging, particularly Adams’ visible eagerness. Removed from the screen, it’s disappointingly ordinary. Additionally, while I believe that Amy Adams is a great actress, I’m not convinced she’s a great singer. Enchanted’s nominations, then, are fabulous as movie moments but not overly memorable as songs.

That isn’t true for “Falling Slowly”, the graceful, tender duet from Once. The composition and performance of the song is crucial in the film’s context – it essentially represents the potential vindication of everything the lead characters have strove for thus far – but it is also noteworthy on its own musical merits. It begins softly but builds to an aching chorus of raw power, with Glen Hansard’s sudden falsetto perfectly embodying both sexual and emotional longing. It’s a beautiful piece, and a worthy Oscar winner.

(Amazingly enough, it doesn’t even constitute the most touching musical moment in the film. That would be a much earlier scene, in which Hansard and Irglová – credited only as Guy and Girl – are first forming their tentative bond, both musical and otherwise. She takes him to a piano shop, and he brings his guitar with him. She convinces him to teach her one of his personal, original songs. He has a duet, of course, for piano and guitar; he gives her a few instructions and show her an example, and then, quite simply, they begin to play. Over several minutes, they gradually develop a rhythm, feeling each other out musically, eventually performing a delicate, nimble piece of quiet, profound musical beauty.

What’s amazing about the scene is not just the simplistic music but the realism. Director John Carney barely moves his camera; the entire scene is one continuous take. Watching these two musicians play off one another, we realize that we are witnessing not the premeditated performance of art but its actual creation. This is essentially an elemental example of how music – and movies, for that matter – is made. It may have been rehearsed, but it feels entirely organic, as though we have just seen a sacred birth.)

Into the Wild – Eddie Vedder (“Society”). It didn’t result in as much outrage as the exclusion of There Will Be Blood, but the exclusion of Eddie Vedder’s score for Into the Wild because it was too “song-based” caused a controversy all the same. I actually sort of side with the stodgy Academy on this one. I always view musical scores as supportive in nature, and that’s generally accomplished through instrumentation. Actual songs are more discrete and showy, and hell, that’s why the Oscars have two different categories.

Still, I’m stunned that none of Vedder’s compositions was selected in the Best Original Song category. “Society” is the most immediate of his tunes for the movie, a soft-spoken and stunningly direct justification of Chris McCandless’ disenchantment with the material world. The chorus of “Society, you’re a crazy breed / I hope you’re not lonely without me” is a nice refrain, but it’s lines like “I think I need to find a bigger place / Because when you have more than you think / You need more space” that speak openly about the movie’s free spirit. Just as Into the Wild isn’t quite a great movie, “Society” isn’t a great song, but it has its own quiet poetry.

O.K., before we get to the rest of the categories (only five left!), I need to present everyone’s favorite section of the Manifesto: an analysis of this year’s best nude scenes and lack thereof. And just so you know, when I write that this is “everyone’s favorite section”, I’m not remotely kidding. The Manifesto is probably the most singularly unique thing about me. Say what you want about its relative value, but not many dudes hole themselves up in their apartment for a month, including a final week during which they stop watching sports, get temporarily addicted to caffeine, average less than three hours’ sleep per night, literally make themselves sick, and eat one meal every 36 hours (M&M’s excluded), just so they can write about an awards ceremony that has minimal perceived impact on most people’s lives. I’m sort of on my own here.

Because of this, I tend to talk about the Manifesto a lot. That is, I pretty much talk about nothing else the entire time I’m working on it, so there will be conversations at work where someone will say, “Beck, can you fix the printer?” and I’ll respond, “You know, it’s funny you should mention printers, I just wrote a whole passage in the Manifesto last night about various forms of electronic equipment and how they relate to the future of cinema, both economically and literally,” and then I’ll talk about that for five straight minutes as their eyes glaze over because really they just want the fucking printer fixed. I imagine this sort of thing can be vaguely irritating (except maybe for people like, well, me), but that’s never stopped me before.

However, whenever I mention the section on nude scenes, my audience’s attention is positively rapt. Everyone cares about nude scenes. For example, my friend Laura, who graciously read the entirety of last year’s Manifesto even though she’d hardly seen any of the movies being discussed, gently suggested that if I were pressed for time in writing this year’s edition, I might be able to strip out some of the minor categories (it’s a reasonable suggestion – I’m probably not going to lose or gain readers based on my analysis of Best Sound Editing). She quickly followed that up with a directive: “Whatever you do, don’t cut out the stuff about the nude scenes, that’s my favorite.”

So for any new readers who might be offended by such content (although if you’re offended by this but not the rest of the Manifesto, well, there might be a contradiction there), it’s now out of my hands. I’m just giving the people what they want.

As always, this is divided into two parts. First up, we have the “Mario Bello in A History of Violence” Memorial Best Nude Scenes of 2007:

5. Martina Gedeck, The Lives of Others. Martina Gedeck is pretty, but this is a serious reach – I had to put it here just so I can round out a Top Five. 2007 may have been a good year for movies, but it was a terrible year for nudity. That the fifth-best nude scene I can think of is a cleansing shower scene is a sad commentary of the state of affairs in contemporary cinema. I blame the MPAA.

4. Carice van Houten, Black Book. Thank God for foreign movies. Paul Verhoeven may not be the most subtle filmmaker around, but the Dutch director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls knows how to photograph the flesh. And young actresses who are tentative about disrobing, please take note that Miss van Houten – who is actually shown dyeing her pubic hair in this movie (but so tastefully!) – has now landed a part opposite Tom Cruise in Valkyrie. That is the best piece of career advice you will ever receive.

3. Eva Mendes, We Own the Night. Now this is a pleasant surprise. There isn’t a lot of nudity here, but it’s nevertheless an extremely sensual scene between Mendes and Joaquin Phoenix that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It also happens to be the movie’s very first scene. Suffice it to say that things quickly go downhill.

2. Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan. Some people are just hotter than they actually look. They might not be empirically beautiful, but they can turn up a dial and exude serious hotness. It’s true for some men as well – Viggo Mortensen isn’t really a great-looking guy, but women still swoon for him because he has such charisma. Elisabeth Shue is like that as well; she wouldn’t win many modeling contests, but good luck trying to find a guy who didn’t want to bang her in Cocktail or Leaving Las Vegas.

Well, Christina Ricci may not be classically gorgeous, but she has one hell of a Dial, and in this movie she turns it all the way up. She plays a nymphomaniac, and she is one hell of an actress in that regard, because she absolutely oozes sexuality the entire movie. There’s an all-too-brief shot where she rips off her shirt and stalks toward the camera at rapid speed and with serious purpose – at that point, every guy in the theatre got one of those dorky “I wish she would just walk right through the screen” feelings. Ricci may never exceed the hotness she displayed as Wednesday in The Addams Family, but she sure keeps trying.

1. Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. God DAMN.

I’m often accused of having inappropriate preferences when it comes to women, but Marisa Tomei is 43 years old, and she was unquestionably the hottest chick at the movies this year not named Keira Knightley. Her first nude scene (also the very first scene of the movie) is awesome enough, but she generously provides another one not longer after (and she even has an awesome line – “So does Oliver Twist”). I don’t know how she’s done it, but she’s just as hot in this movie as she was in My Cousin Vinny, and that came out 15 years ago. People kept gushing about Diane Lane after Unfaithful, and for good reason, but Lane has nothing on Marisa Tomei.

But while the Tomei-Ricci one-two punch is impressive, it was clearly a disappointing year overall. As you might expect, the opposing list – the North Carolina to the prior list’s Duke – of actresses who should have been nude but weren’t is more robust, and subsequently more depressing.

I’d like to dedicate this next section to Julia Roberts, who was recently quoted as saying that appearing nude in front of a camera doesn’t constitute “real” acting: “I wouldn’t do nudity in a film. To act with my clothes on is a performance. To act with my clothes off is a documentary.” Um, that makes sense how, exactly? We’re saying Naomi Watts wasn’t acting in Mulholland Dr.? Nicole Kidman wasn’t really acting in Eyes Wide Shut? If it’s a natural part of a film’s story for a woman to be naked, we’re saying that’s, what, an exploitative story? Please, make sense of this for me, I’m completely confused.

Anyway, I’d like to thank Julia Roberts for negatively impacting any entire generation of young actresses and discouraging them from disrobing in front of a camera. That sound you just heard was a million high school kids resignedly turning back to their laptops – if they can’t find their nudity in American cinema, they’ll have to go online to get it, and they’ll probably break the law. So bravo, you fucking wench, you’re now actively encouraging underage kids to peruse pornography online. How you live with yourself is beyond me.

And now, I present the “Scarlett Johansson Memorial” Top Movies of 2007 That Should Have Featured a Nude Scene But Didn’t:

10. Naomi Watts, Eastern Promises. This almost doesn’t make sense. You’ve got David Cronenberg, who’s a pretty seedy dude and has made something of a career exploiting women in his movies (if you ever want to break up with a woman, just make her watch The Other Crash and tell her you thought it was really deep and meaningful – she’ll be out the door in 30 seconds). You’ve got Naomi Watts, who was awesomely naked in Mulholland Dr. and then again in 21 Grams (easily the most redeeming feature of each of those movies, by the way). So how is she not naked? I know that the screenplay as presently constructed doesn’t allow any opportunity for that sort of thing, but Cronenberg probably should have revamped the whole movie. New plot: Watts trail Mortensen to a strip club – then, in order to gain his trust, she needs to conceal her identity and moonlight as an actual stripper. This totally could have worked.

9. Saffron Burrows, Reign over Me. Saffron Burrows is almost creepily hot in this movie. I get the feeling a little nudity would have made things less creepy. Just a hunch.

8. Rosamund Pike, Fracture. I love Rosamund Pike – I’m the crazy guy who claims that she was the hot chick in Die Another Day, not Halle Berry – but we’re running out of time. She’s going to be an established actress soon enough, and then all hope will be lost, because, thanks to charmers like Julia Roberts, it’s becoming less and less likely for an established actress to strip off her clothes these days. We need to get her in a Paul Verhoeven movie, and soon.

7. Michelle Monaghan, Gone Baby Gone. I’ll admit it, Michelle Monaghan – not exactly a perennial Oscar candidate – is perfectly serviceable in this movie as an actress. That said, think of it this way: No movie featuring a non-naked Michelle Monaghan could ever become worse if it instead featured a naked Michelle Monaghan. Make sense?

6. Isla Fisher, The Lookout. This is most disappointing. After a phenomenally nude performance in Wedding Crashers, Isla Fisher had the perfect opportunity to double up in the R-rated The Lookout. No dice. Here’s hoping she isn’t already considering herself a serious actress who’s above the concept of nudity; to paraphrase Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, that would be bad, and for her more so than for us.

5. Megan Fox, Transformers. Over the past seven years I’ve been writing the Manifesto, I’ve included commentary on young actress with varying degrees of creepiness. But I honestly don’t always talk about their appearance – sometimes it really is about their acting. Over the past several years, I’ve highlighted the cinematic accomplishments of young women such as Emma Watson, Dakota Fanning, Jena Malone, Sarah Bolger, Abigail Breslin, Evan Rachel Wood, and others. I believe that all of these young women have the potential to mature into truly excellent actresses.

Megan Fox does not have that potential. She will never be a great actress. She is unlikely to even be a good actress. It is therefore in her best interests, as well as ours, to get naked as fast and as often as possible. To quote I, Robot, my logic is undeniable. And you all freaking know it.

4. Maggie Q, Die Hard. Mmm, Asians …

3. Emily Blunt, Charlie Wilson’s War. Uh oh. I think we may have missed her window. True, Emily Blunt did appear marvelously naked (and as a lesbian, no less) in 2005’s British drama My Summer of Love, but that was before anybody knew who she was. After her landmark turn in The Devil Wears Prada, her future stardom is simply a matter of when, not if. Hell, her five-minute appearance in Dan in Real Life turned a quiet romantic comedy into a sexually charged scorcher. And if the current trend holds, the moment she officially ascends to the A-list, any chance of seeing this stunning British beauty in her natural glory will drop dramatically.

Charlie Wilson’s War might have been our last chance. She plays one of Tom Hanks’ easy conquests, and she’s quickly shown, in a breathtakingly seductive shot, gliding down a spiral staircase clad only in her underwear. But then Julia Roberts’ character calls and interrupts things. (See, she really does ruin everything.) And that, I fear, may be as good as it gets for the rest of Emily Blunt’s career. Oh well, at least she still has the British accent.

2. Rachel Nichols, P2. A slickly effective B horror movie about a terrified woman locked in a corporate parking garage with a sadistic security guard, P2 wasn’t hurt by an additional asset: the exquisite cleavage of its heroine. Rachel Nichols’ (no, not that Rachel Nichols, sorry) breasts were practically their own character in this movie. In the name of superior character development, they should have seen the light of day.

1. Rose McGowan, Grindhouse. This proves one thing and one thing only: Quentin Tarantino is truly a schmuck. Or maybe I should blame Robert Rodriguez. After all, it was in his segment (“Planet Terror”) of the double-bill Grindhouse that the former star of “Charmed” reached a level of hotness I would have thought impossible. Now, Grindhouse is supposed to be a valentine to those sleazy exploitation drive-in double features of the ‘60s and ‘70s, full of queasy violence and extraneous nudity. In keeping with this theme, Rodriguez and Tarantino supply an overload of hyper-desensitized violence. You can’t watch five minutes of “Planet Terror” without some sort of newly eviscerated organ flying across the screen.

It would follow, then, that they would do the same with regard to nudity, thus maintaining the whole spirit of lovable excess. Nope. As blazing hot as Rose McGowan is in “Planet Terror” (she also plays a much more meek character in Tarantino’s “Death Proof”), she isn’t indecent for a second. Shame on you, Robert Rodriguez. You had better atone with Sin City 2.

Alright then, in the words of Kurt Russell it Tombstone, let’s finish it.

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