Random Thoughts: 2005 Wrap-up

These are some thoughts I had as 2005 comes to a close:

Blind Oscar Forecasts

In the summer of 1989, I was working at a movie theater in Baltimore when I saw a trailer for Old Gringo, starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. It was a historical film, based on the last days of writer Ambrose Bierce. With the cast and the subject, it just seemed like an important film. I proudly proclaimed that Old Gringo would be one of the year’s Best Picture contenders. Not quite, and by not quite I mean not at all. Old Gringo was ravaged by critics and died at the box office. It was nowhere to be seen on Oscar night.

Pretty stupid, huh? In my defense, I was 16 and did not have the understanding of film I do today (please keep all snickering to yourself). Now fast forward to late November when Premiere picked Steven Spielberg’s Munich as one of the Best Picture nominees. No one from Premiere had actually seen Munich when they made this prediction. How do I know this? Well, that goes back to my keen understanding, shrewd insights, and the fact that the Premiere Oscar article cites that Spielberg was “at press time, still editing this gritty thriller...”

Now Munich may very well be a Best Picture nominee. It may be the top film of 2005, or even the decade. Or it could be a total waste of time. I don’t know, mostly because I haven’t seen it yet. Yet that same handicap, not having seen a film, doesn’t stop bloggers, journalists, and even some critics from forecasting that film’s Oscar prospects.

Remember way back in 2004 when The Phantom of the Opera was considered an Oscar favorite before people actually saw it and realized it was a big, bloated, boring mess? “Wait a minute,” you might say, “That film was directed by Joel Schumacher. Munich was made by Spielberg. The man’s got much more Oscar pedigree than the hack who inflicted Batman and Robin on us.” True enough, but think of Amistad? This was Spielberg’s first film about a serious subject (no I don’t consider genetically created dinosaurs serious) since Schindler’s List. And now Spielberg was focusing on another atrocity: slavery. This had Best Picture written all over it. Except it didn’t. The problem for many people (myself included) was that the film spent too little time with the slaves and too much time in the courtroom. Amistad got solid but unspectacular reviews and was lukewarm at the box office. It received four nominations, but missed out on Best Picture and Best Director, and was not one of the leading Oscar contenders.

Ronald Brownstein, in his excellent weekly Los Angeles Times column, recently decried the “horse race mentality” that instantly puts each film against the other in the quest for the Oscars. There certainly is too much of that these days. This time of year we should just be enjoying the films out there. There’s plenty of time for predictions in January and February. And even then please don’t call the race before you know the strength of the horses.

The New 007

In 1994 when Pierce Brosnan was named the new James Bond, there was a sense of excitement. This was clearly the right man for the role. This past fall when the Bond producers announced that Daniel Craig would succeed Brosnan, the collective response seemed to be “Huh?” For one thing, there was no reason to replace Brosnan. His films were more popular than ever, and I’d put two of them Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day, into the upper echelon of Bond films. Brosnan is 52, but Roger Moore was doing Bond films until he was 58. Brosnan was reportedly asking for $25 million, but given that Die Another Day did over $431 million worldwide, his price was not outrageous.

That being said, I’m willing to give Craig a chance. From the little I’ve seen of him, he seems to be a capable actor. Whether he has the charisma, charm, and style to pull off Bond, we’ll find out. One warning sign was the talk of a “tougher, grittier” Bond, one that was closer to Ian Fleming’s novels. Those were the same things said when Timothy Dalton became Bond, and we know how that turned out. James Bond succeeds because he is fantasy, not reality. For the fantasy to work, Bond has to enjoy being James Bond. Audiences don’t want a dark, brooding 007. Let’s hope Craig and the Bond producers remember that.

Now There’s a Thought

On August 24, the New York Times ran an article by Sharon Waxman about the 2005 box office slump. Waxman asked several studio executives about how they planned to deal with the downturn, including Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Note this excerpt: “With the task so large, and so very complex, Hollywood is still grappling with how to broach solutions. Mr. Lynton said he would focus on making ‘only movies we hope will be really good.’” Wow, what a concept!!! Did Sony have to hire a focus group to come up with that idea? I can picture that corporate meeting:

“Sir, these are desperate times. We’ve tried everything, but nothing has worked. As a last resort we thought, now stay with me sir, let’s make films that don’t suck.”

“Hmm, that’s just crazy enough to work.”

Good luck, Mr. Lynton, with your brand new strategy. I’m pulling for you.

Yes to Singers, but No to Movie Stars?

With the success of Walk the Line coming on the heels of last year’s Ray, many have noted the resurgence of biopics about music stars. But just as noteworthy is the dearth of films about movie stars. Think about it. Since 1970, we’ve had Lady Sings the Blues (about Billie Holliday), The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter (about Loretta Lynn), Sweet Dreams (about Patsy Cline), La Bamba (about Ritchie Valens), Bird (about Charlie Parker), What’s Love Got to Do with It (about Tina Turner), Great Balls of Fire (about Jerry Lee Lewis), and recently Beyond the Sea (about Bobby Darin), in addition to Ray and Walk the Line. And I’m probably leaving some out.

Now since 1970, how many films have we had about movie stars? I can think of two--Mommie Dearest and Chaplin. The Internet Movie Database revealed biopics of W.C. Fields and Carole Lombard, but has anyone even heard of these two films? Yes, Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for playing Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator but the film was about Howard Hughes. If you want to stretch we can include Frances, about Frances Farmer, but Farmer was hardly a major star. There have been biopics about movie stars, including James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Rock Hudson, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, the Three Stooges, Martin and Lewis, the Rat Pack, and, most recently, Peter Sellers. But, ironically, these have all been TV movies.

Before 1970 there were some film biopics about early movie stars such as Lon Chaney, Will Rogers, Al Jolson, and John Barrymore. But since then why have filmmakers been reluctant to tackle movie stars and so much more willing to take on music stars? Don’t have an answer here, merely posing the question. Any thoughts out there?

Note: If sports columns can cover popular culture, and the DC Film Society can offer its members discounts on theater tickets, I figure I can occasionally discuss music and television. So please bear with me.

Variety Can Still Be Classic

A few weeks ago I was listening to ARROW 94.7 FM, the DC classic rock station. ARROW played Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine,” one of the band’s lesser known songs. After the song ended, the DJ said, with a touch of sadness, “You don’t hear that song much anymore.” It was as if there were unseen forces preventing us from hearing “Tangerine” on the radio. I yelled out, as though the DJ could actually hear me, “The reason we don’t hear it that much is because you guys never play it!” Many classic rock stations, but especially ARROW, play the same songs over and over again. Even with artists that have vast repertoires, like Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, or The Who, the station will only play their five or six biggest hits. I don’t know exactly why this is the case, but I’m guessing that the DJs, programmers, station managers or whoever makes these decisions are afraid to take any risks. And that they define a risk as playing any song that people can’t instantly recognize.

If I’m right than these stations are very shortsighted. Maybe having more variety would risk tuning off people who would refuse to listen to anything but a hit. But by not having variety, radio stations risk boring people who now have many more places to get their music--satellite radio, downloads, digital cable, etc. Sometimes there’s a thrill in rediscovering a great song that you haven’t heard for a while. Classic rock stations have the means to give listeners this thrill, and it would be a shame if they don’t take advantage.

Needing a Station Break

Along with cold weather and holiday sales, this time of year always brings irritating commercials. None more so than the Lexus ads where one spouse gives the another one a car as a Xmas gift, complete with a big red bow. Who exactly is the audience for these ads--Bill Gates? Oprah? Trump? Does anyone know people why could truly say “Honey, instead of buying you that sweater, I decided to blow $40,000 on a luxury car?” If by some chance you do know these people, do you like them?

Those Lexus ads got me to thinking about other commercials that must be banned from our airwaves. The top five:

5. The Chevy Chase Bank ads with “Ben Franklin”. For those of you not in the DC area, these ads have an actor portraying Ben Franklin extolling the virtues of a local bank. Keep in mind that the real Ben Franklin was one of our Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence. Yes, it’s a real service to his memory to pretend he’s pitching ATM service. Unfortunately it doesn’t stop here. How often around President’s Day do we see “George Washington” or “Abraham Lincoln” selling used cars? Again, these were statesmen who made vast contributions to our nation, in Lincoln’s case making the ultimate sacrifice. Franklin, Washington, and Lincoln are people to be remembered with honor. Using their likenesses in cheap and tacky commercials is insulting, disgusting and unpatriotic. Maybe it’s not quite as un-American as burning the flag, but it’s close.

4. The IBM ads where geeks talk about their servers. Would you ever want to hang out with someone who talks about expanding capacity and says things like “It’s an on demand world?” I didn’t think so. Why IBM thinks that these people make their products more appealing is beyond me.

3. The Verizon ads with the “Can you hear me know?” guy. Yes, we can hear you, now shut the f*#k up! Instead or reminding us how convenient cell phones can be, this guy reminds us they can also be incredibly annoying.

2. Those diamonds ads with that smarmy yuppie couple. You know the ones. A couple is standing in some European square and the husband pulls a Tom Cruise, shouting at the top of his lungs. “I love this woman, I love her, I love her!” Then, when she tells him to quiet down, he gives her some jewelry. Yes, buy your wife’s love with diamonds. The next ad is even better. The same couple is in another European square, when the husband tells his wife that he would marry her all over again (lucky her). Then her parents appear and he gives her some more diamonds. She goes nuts for the diamonds while not even saying hello to her parents, who conceivably came a long distance to surprise her. Hey, if you want to be as stuck-up and shallow as this couple, diamonds can be your best friend too.

1. The Subway ads with Jared Fogle. The single most grating presence in any commercial today, and that’s saying a lot. I’m thrilled he lost all that weight, but that was a while ago. He doesn’t have to keep rubbing it in our faces. To top it all off, he makes asinine statements like “Did you know that a Big Mac has 35 grams of fat?” Yes, we know that it has a lot of fat. It’s McDonalds. Jared’s 15 minutes of fame should have expired years ago.

Adam Spector
December 22, 2005

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