Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oscars of the '80s: The Best Original Song Project (1990)

A co-production celebrating the movies' pop-music dominance in the 1980s, with The Critical Condition.

Previously: 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989


"Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" -- Dick Tracy [Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim]

Joe: When I proposed this idea to Mark, I pretty quickly realized that I was going to have to stretch the boundaries of our '80s mission statement to include 1990, because there's no way I was going to stop ONE YEAR SHORT of Madonna finally having her moment of Oscar glory. We've talked in previous posts about glaring Madonna snubs, from "Crazy for You" to "Live to Tell" to "Into the Groove." Whether she'd won over the Academy voters through attrition or whether Sondheim's involvement lent her respectability is a matter for debate, I suppose. The latter seems more credible, particularly considering the next time a Madonna song brushed by Oscar, it was with another Broadway legend, Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the reins. (Yes, theater queens, I just drew an equivalency between Sondheim and ALW; stop fanning yourselves with your Playbills.) ANYWAY! It's lesser Sondheim, but it's still pretty tuneful, it doesn't tax Madonna's vocal range too much, and it helped inspire the album that gave us "Vogue," so who's complaining?

Mark: I can't prove it, but I'm convinced that if Madonna had written this song, it wouldn't have gotten nominated. There's always been a bias against her in Academy circles, whether among the Grammy folk (who didn't giver her serious attention until Ray of Light) or the Oscar crowd, who overlooked all the songs Joe mentioned and spent the 90s ignoring sparkling soundtrack cuts like "I'll Remember" and "Beautiful Stranger."

But that's beside the point, since "Sooner or Later" obviously did get nominated. I would've chosen "More," which features dazzling lyrics and a zippy tune, but this song is stunning. The rhyme scheme changes about 40 times, but the thinking in the lyrics is so clear that you barely notice the craft. Instead of clever assonance, you can focus on the story of a confident woman who always gets her man.

"Promise Me You'll Remember" -- The Godfather Part III [Music: Carmine Coppola; Lyrics: John Bettis]

Joe: Because you know what movie needed a jazzy love theme from the likes of Harry Connick, Jr.? The Godfather, Part III. And yes, I realize the modernity of a Connick song isn't strictly out of place with Part III taking place in contemporary times, but it still feels like a cheap attempt to cash in on the "cool" cache of the Godfather brand. That said, I'm pretty predisposed against anything Harry Connick Jr. does anyway, so maybe I'm not an objective judge here.

Mark: I'm not a Harry Connick hater -- he stirred some of my earliest yearnings when he appeared in a tank top in Little Man Tate -- and I'm also not opposed to Lite Jazz. But come on: This song is a dentist's office. It's a fancy supermarket. It is not a piece of music that demands attention or merits a major award. Again, just listen to "More" from Dick Tracy and explain to me how that got passed over for this. Family-legacy nostalgia for Carmine Coppola be damned.

"Somewhere in My Memory" -- Home Alone [Music: John Williams; Lyrics: Leslie Bricusse]

Joe: Holy shit, this music had lyrics to it?? John Williams, you tricky bastard. Always looking for ways to parlay single Oscar nominations into doubles. As you may know, Home Alone carved a place for itself in my pre-adolescent heart long before I discovered that -- as a serious-minded film enthusiast -- I was supposed to hate it, so the music certainly does bring back fond memories. But as a standalone song, the children's-choir thing isn't making it happen.

Mark: Let us never speak ill of Home Alone, as that movie has burrowed so deeply into my brain that whenever a little kid is irritating me in a restaurant, I think, "Look what you did you little JERK!" But yeah, Joe's right: This song is boring. As it happens, this was also the first Oscar-cast I watched from start to finish. and even at 12 years old, I knew that "Somewhere in My Memory" was a weak link.

"I'm Checkin' Out" -- Postcards from the Edge [Music and lyrics: Shel Silverstein]

Joe: I'm sorry, I can't look at the title of this song without being immediately reminded of the Simpsons parody of a gaudy Broadway musical, "Checkin' In!" Luckily, I have YouTube here to remind me what a great movie-ending song this was, or at least what a rousing spin Meryl Streep puts on it. I like Reba McEntire as much as the next non-Southerner, but what a pity Streep wasn't there to sing it herself (nor for her Best Actress nomination -- what the hell?). Watching Meryl do what she does here, and in A Prairie Home Companion, it seems obvious what kind of musicals she should be doing onscreen, and what she shouldn't.

Mark: Though he's mostly remembered for Where The Sidewalk Ends and The Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein also wrote a lot of great songs, including "A Boy Named Sue" and this high-stepping ditty that Meryl Streep just nails. Joe's right: It's amazing how great she sounds here and how, um, less great she sounds in that other, terrible movie that shall remain nameless.

"Blaze of Glory" -- Young Guns II [Music and lyrics: Jon Bon Jovi]

Joe: I suppose I can't be surprised that Bon Jovi's reputation has taken a nose dive in the last 15 years or so, given the milquetoast makeover the band -- and Jon Bon Jovi in particular -- has undergone. No, they didn't have very far to go, and lord knows they'll always be hated by the metalheads, but I have to stick up for a band that was this much of a hitmaker. And "Blaze of Glory" is bombastic fun in all the best Bon Jovi ways. There was absolutely no reason to make a Young Guns II, but for this song alone, I'm glad they did.

Mark: Fun fact! This song is credited solely to Jon Bon Jovi, not the band Bon Jovi, and it's the title track to his first solo album, which also doubled as the "song score" for Young Guns II. (And you thought Glee invented corporate synergy!) But all that brand positioning aside, "Blaze of Glory" still rocks in the friendliest way. Since I've never had use for authentic metal, this is exactly the kind of melodic rock that I prefer.

Final Assessment

Joe: The presence of "Blaze of Glory" keeps the streak of hits in the Best Song race alive, but the sprit of '80s pop dominance is already lost here, in favor of retro-period sounds and John Williams nomination-padding. And while, sure, there were other, better songs that could have made the cut -- Roxette's ineligible "It Must've Been Love" from Pretty Woman; something from Cry-Baby; probably not "Turtle Power" from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though -- you could sense the volume of great original movie songs drying up. Still, I can think of three songs who would make for worthy winners, so it's not all bad. At the risk of earning the ire of Madonna fans (who are kind of defensive? or haven't you heard?), I think I'm casting my vote with "I'm Checkin' Out."

Mark: Well, look... I'm a huge Madonna fan, and I don't feel defensive at all for declaring "Sooner or Later" the rightful winner in this category. It's Sondheim, people, and even if it's not as brilliant as "Every Day a Little Death," it's still a glorious piece of songwriting whose sultry swagger and subtle craft just dwarf the other nominees. I mean, I really like "Blaze of Glory" and "I'm Checkin' Out," but they're just tasty snacks next to a delicious meal.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

2011 Summer Movie Preview, Part 3

Summer movie season! You know it, you love it, you gently make fun of it. More often than not, summer offers a better variety of movies than it's given credit for. Looking forward at this particular summer ... well, there are some diamonds, but also a good bit of rough.

Previously: Part 1, Part 2

Movie: Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon)
High-Concept Synopsis: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis, and Charlie Day hatch a darkly-comic plot to murder their bosses -- the described-by-marketing-materials "psycho" Kevin Spacey, "tool" Colin Farrell, and "maneater" Jennifer Aniston. Everything goes wrong in One Crazy Night of attempted murder and hilarity.
Who Will Be Seeing It: Audiences placing their trust in director Seth Gordon, who gave us the absolutely wonderful The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. People who trust the comedic instincts of the cast, which also includes Julie Bowen and Donald Sutherland. People who just like movies where dudes stay up all night and crazy shit happens to them and maybe they have awful women in their lives who they hate.
Who Won't Be Seeing It: People who think this looks like The Hangover 3: Hangin' Tough (with Jamie Foxx in the Ken Jeong role!). People who cannot take seeing Jennifer Aniston lower herself yet again to play a woman desperate for sex and/or a baby. People who temper their Seth Gordon enthusiasm by noting he also directed Four Christmases.
Why I'd See It: It looks reeeeally Hangover-y, you guys. And both Aniston and Farrell look like gross caricatures of grossness. But I do like the three leads, and Sudekis and Day were really funny together in Going the Distance, so I may wait to see how word-of-mouth shakes out on this. July 8

Movie: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)
High-Concept Synopsis: Molly Weasley has her day.
Who Will Be Seeing It: ...What, are you trying to be funny?
Who Won't Be Seeing It: Joyless grumps and other such nonbelievers.
Why I'd See It: I can tell you this: I've been looking forward to this movie long enough that my sister has made plans to come visit me that weekend so we can see it together. What's left from the final book is pretty much an endless series of action and emotional high points, so expect me to be a bit rattled this weekend. July 15

Movie: Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
High-Concept Synopsis: The story of a runty CGI man who steps into an iron lung and emerges with a big, muscley waxed chest and the patriotic desire to defend the U.S. of A. from super-powered Nazis.
Who Will Be Seeing It: Fans of the cast, which has something for everyone, including hot guys (Chris Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sebastian Stan), grizzled veterans (Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci), pretty women (Hayley Atwell, Natalie Dormer), and charismatic villains (Hugo Weaving). Marvel fans who were pleased with how Thor advanced the Avengers agenda and are looking for more of the same. Fans of the Nazis getting their asses kicked in as many ways as we can imagine it (the Inglorious Basterds contingent, let's say).
Who Won't Be Seeing It: People who already saw one movie about a buffed-out superhero in fantastical circumstances this summer, and they weren't that thrilled with Thor anyway. People with very real and very understandable apprehensions about director Johnston (The Wolfman; Jurassic Park III). Suspiciously Teutonic-sounding peoples in Buenos Aires.
Why I'd See It: I love the idea of a superhero winning us WWII by defeating a red-skulled Nazi villain. And I really love Chris Evans and the rest of this cast. Just ... The Wolfman was so terrible, you guys. I don't know. July 22

Movie: Friends With Benefits (Will Gluck)
High-Concept Synopsis: In a strange and unfamiliar universe, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis find themselves single and sexually frustrated. But they're pals, and one day, they rent a Natalie Portman movie and get the brilliant idea to start Doing It, then spend a lot of time fretting about whether they're getting Feelings. Patricia Clarkson and Woody Harrelson co-star.
Who Will Be Seeing It: People who've got a special place in their pants hearts for JT and/or Mila. Fans of director Gluck, who directed the loved-by-many Easy A (as well as the liked-by-only-me Fired Up!). People who feel like there were some real holes in the fuck-buddy instruction manual that was No Strings Attached.
Who Won't Be Seeing It: People who hate the concept. People who hate the stars. People who wish Justin would fail as an actor so he'll go back to making music. It's not a difficult demographic to peg.
Why I'd See It: I find the stars ridiculously sexy, and I have moderate faith that Gluck will be able to spin that into 90 minutes that are worthy of my attention. Though I can't pretend that wasting Patricia Clarkson's talents on a "horny mom" character are a spectacular start. July 22

Movie: The Future (Miranda July)
High-Concept Synopsis: Miranda July is a big-ol weirdo, and she's not about to let one minute go by without you knowing it.
Who Will Be Seeing It: People who saw Me and You and Everyone We Know and didn't want to claw their limbs off in order to escape the self-conscious oddness. Fans of July's co-star, and under-the-radar film and TV star, Hamish Linklater. People who like anything about the future that doesn't involve marauding robots.
Who Won't Be Seeing It: People who find twee little details like talking cats to be fucking excruciating. Whimsy-hating jerkfaces. People who were looking to see something carefully crafted and sublime this weekend and opted for Chris Evans's pecs in Captain America.
Why I'd See It: You guys. I'm sorry. There are people I know and love who are super into Miranda July, but I just can't. The talking cat? I can't. July 22

Movie: Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Favreau)
High-Concept Synopsis: It's steampunk meets ... well, a more overt vision of steampunk, as Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, and the growly old ham that Harrison Ford has become fight invading aliens in the old west.
Who Will Be Seeing It: Genre dudes who like being flattered for their childhood preferences. Fans of the ostensible dream team of geek properties, with Favreau (Iron Man), and screenwriters Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek). Audiences drawn in by the rather excellent supporting cast, including Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, and Walton Goggins.
Who Won't Be Seeing It: People who don't see eight (8!) credited screenwriters as all that great an omen. People who take the longview of Favreau's films and see more misses (Made, Zathura, Iron Man 2) than hits (Elf, Iron Man). People who are fond of neither cowboy movies nor alien movies.
Why I'd See It: I could see myself buying a ticket for Daniel Craig alone, but something about this movie has felt outside of my sweet spot all along. I guess when I'm outside of the group that's being pandered to, I feel a bit alienated. July 29

Movie: Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
High-Concept Synopsis: Steve Carell is one of those sad, emasculated marrieds that the movies love to rehabilitate. Ryan Gosling plays an irresistible sex god who takes it upon himself to help Carell shape up and (ultimately) win his wife (Julianne Moore) back.
Who Will Be Seeing It: People who saw, via the trailer, that this potentially off-putting concept has been leavened by heartfelt comedy and a parallel plot where Gosling falls for Emma Stone. People with functioning sense receptors, because Ryan Gosling FUH REAL. Fans of directors Ficarra and Requa (Bad Santa; I Love You, Phillip Morris).
Who Won't Be Seeing It: People who can't quite be sold on a screenplay by the writer of the Cars movies. People who can't manage to stomach the notion of a movie about those noxious "pickup artist" types, however humorous and barbed. People who thought I Love You Phillip Morris fell short of its considerable praise.
Why I'd See It: The trailer was VERY charming, and it suggested a satisfyingly complex structure to both the comedy and romances. And how do you lose with this cast? My disappointment with Phillip Morris is the only thing making me worry about that very question. July 29

Movie: The Devil's Double (Lee Tamahori)
High-Concept Synopsis: From the director of xXx: State of the Union, comes the story of a man (Dominic Cooper) forced to stand in as the body double -- i.e. human shield, assassin's bait, that sort of thing -- for the monstrous Uday Hussein (also Dominic Cooper).
Who Will Be Seeing It: People who will watch the hell out of Dominic Cooper in one role, not to mention two. People who have noted the unexpected raves the movie got at Sundance. People who sense an audacious streak in the movie that could make things very interesting.
Who Won't Be Seeing It: Folks who aren't wild about spending two hours watching the crazy adventures of a torturing murderer. People who could not have less faith in Lee Tamahori (the man directed Next, people!). Audiences who somehow could give a shit about Dominic Cooper?
Why I'd See It: Well, Tamahori is a problem. I hated Next a whole fuck of a lot. But from what I've heard, Cooper's performance is strong enough to nullify any directorial worries. I'm in. July 29

Movie: The Smurfs (Raja Gosnell)
High-Concept Synopsis: The tattered remains of your childhood get smurfed right in the smurf-hole.
Who Will Be Seeing It: Children who don't know better. Adults who don't do a good enough job of keeping their children away from advertisements. People with bad taste who have been waiting impatiently for Katy Perry's feature film debut.
Who Won't Be Seeing It: People who never stop getting scandalized about'80s relics getting crappy movie updates. People who are irate that Hank Azaria stole the Gargamel role from its rightful owner, Fyvush Finkel. People who feel that, even for a live-action Smurfs movie, this looks particularly crass and joyless.
Why I'd See It: Oh, I won't. But I'm fully prepared for this to become an Alvin and the Chipmunks-sized hit that will make me feel terrible about the state of American culture. July 29

Monday, June 27, 2011

ATP Summer Hotness Rankings: Week 1 (Wimbledon)

John Ramos and I have been threatening to do this for literally years, and we finally got our act together just as Wimbledon had settled down on its middle Sunday before resuming with the Round of 16. So here's how this works: John and I are starting with a pool of the 16 men's tennis players still alive at Wimbledon and ranking them by hotness (quake with fear at the Low Res sports coverage, Grantland!). Ideally, as the season goes on, we'll re-rank depending on a combination of who's doing well in the summer tournaments and ... still hotness. Hopefully, it'll all culminate at the U.S. open, the greatest, most sleeveless-T-shirt Open of them all!

The innaugural Tennis Hotness Rankings are as follows:

01 - Novak Djokovic
Country: Serbia
ATP Rank: 2
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: It doesn't hurt that he's my favorite player, but he's got great features, body, and a sense of style that a lot of players lack. Plus, there's this little tidbit at 1:03. I could go on but I'm trying not to embarrass myself straight out of the gate.

Joe: The epitome of skinny, Euro athleticism, but with a personality thrown in where there might usually be cold aloofness. That personality has not always gotten the crowds on his side, both at the U.S. and French Opens, but you know what? Fuck those guys if they can't appreciate a guy who moves gracefully on the court and the runway.

02 - Rafael Nadal
Country: Spain
ATP Rank: 1
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
Joe: At this point, it feels boring to talk about the physical perfection of Rafael Nadal. Actually, scratch that, because "perfection" isn't exactly the right word. The man is all ass, arms, and legs -- if you're a chest man or are overly concerned with perfect faces, you're probably going to go home unsatisfied. But the fact that Rafa specializes in some physical areas over others -- an ironic contrast to his all-court game -- just endears him more to me.

John: His face can come off a bit rodent-like while he's competing, which with the Elvis-like twisted lip is not always my thing, but it's hard to find anything else to knock. Shakira doesn't cast ugly in her videos, for sure. And those guns!

03 - David Ferrer
Country: Spain
ATP Rank: 6
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: Possibly the most classically pretty face on the tour. He's a little stocky and as such lacks the elan of certain other players, but I could look at him all day.

Joe: You have to feel kind of bad for any of this era's bumper crop of Spaniards for having to spend their entire careers in Rafael Nadal's shadow. That goes doubly so for a guy like Ferrer, who has pretty much all the dreamboat goods -- hair! face! abs! -- but can't get arrested every time Rafa puts on a pair of white capris.

04 - Feliciano Lopez
Country: Spain
ATP Rank: 44
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: If anyone could snatch the Prettiest Face award from Ferrer, it's Lopez -- beautiful features and eyes like ice. Plus, in the interests of complete reporting, I must tell you that I saw him playing a match at the US Open years ago on a very hot day, and he was wearing the same white capris that Nadal used to favor, which if you'll remember were excellent for sweatily showcasing one certain aft feature of the anatomy. And it was good.

Joe: I should note that Lopez might have ranked higher for me had he not shown up for Wimbledon with an unruly beard situation and a half-assed haircut that he seems to have stopped washing. This man once had the finest head of hair in tennis, bar none, and the Ritchie Tenenbaum headband he kept it in was a signature look! Wimbledon is no place to mess with that. Seriously, though, this man is otherworldly beautiful.

05 - Richard Gasquet
Country: France
ATP Rank: 13
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
Joe: Everything about Gasquet screams "preppy jock," from his clean-cut features to his backwards ballcap to his 2009 suspension for testing positive for cocaine, to the fact that he said he accidentally consumed the coke from kissing a woman who'd done a line. And yet he doesn't come across as sleazy on the court at all! In fact, his one-handed backhand cuts one of the more graceful figures in tennis.

John: I still think of him as cute instead of hot, even though he's been around a good long while now, but that's not a bad thing. I mean, there are bunnies I find less adorable.

06 - Roger Federer
Country: Switzerland
ATP Rank: 3
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
Joe: Oh, Roger. I've never been a fan of his, per se, but my levels of like/dislike have ebbed and flowed over the years. Enjoyed him getting the better of Sampras (someone had to). Hated the teeny ponytail. Loved the newer cut that let loose his luxuriously full hair. Loved the Anna Wintour friendship. Hated the cardigans. Hate the private jet commercials. But I have to admit: the man has got it going on a little bit.

John: I won't catalogue my abiding lack of affinity for the man here, and I think he's in danger of developing a unibrow later in life, but despite his lack of a classic six-pack I find his body really appealing. Plus, he does have a physical grace probably unmatched on the men's tour, and a sense of style that usually works. (It probably goes without saying that I think his Wimbledon clothing line is the exception here.)

07 - Juan Martin Del Potro
Country: Argentina
ATP Rank: 21
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
Joe: I see why other people find him attractive, but he's just on the side of too tall (or at least too lanky), he pretty much always has facial scruff, and not the good kind, and his shockingly close resemblance to David Annable from Brothers & Sisters really became apparent right around the time that Annable's Justin was becoming insufferable. So no.

John: Sure, that's a lot of limbs, but I think he carries it well for six foot six. Actually, it's weird for someone so tall, but he's another one I just find totally adorable overall. Love.

08 - Tomas Berdych
Country: Czech Republic
ATP Rank: 7
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: Never has such a beautiful combination of features yielded something so bland. It's like, sure, he's pretty, but...what would you do with him, exactly?

Joe: Berdych is tall and lean and Aryan as all get-out, but his on-court brattiness always turned me off.

09 - Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Country: France
ATP Rank: 19
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: Kind of the opposite of Berdych in that I don't particularly find anything to love about his features, but he exudes something that makes you think you wouldn't ever be bored.

Joe: Tsonga's got all the ingredients -- I disagree about the "no good features" thing, because: that broad-shouldered frame! He's just yet to trip my personal wires with his personality. Maybe more big matches in the later stages of Slams will do it. Also: taking his shirt off at gay clubs.

10 - Xavier Malisse
Country: Belgium
ATP Rank: 42
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: I used to drink the Kool-Aid on this one, but honestly now when I look at him all I see is beady eyes and terrible skin. Not that he can help either issue, but he does nothing for me these days.

Joe: I may be slightly overrating Malisse due to my historical fondness of him, dating back to the early 2000s. It seems perverse to think of Xavier as an old man of the game considering he's one month older than me, but I've a fan of his ever since he was rumored to be a "bad influence" boyfriend of Jennifer Capriati's before her comeback. Maybe it was the ponytail back then, I don't know, but I've always got an eye out for him.

11 - Lukasz Kubot
Country: Poland
ATP Rank: 93
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
Joe: The one player in the Round of 16 of whom I was utterly unfamiliar before the tournament began. I know he's Polish, he's 29 (represent for the old folks!), he seems to be having fun with his career-best Wimbledon run, and he looks like this without a shirt on. Alllll right!

John: I haven't really managed to catch him playing, which makes my ranking suspect, I'll admit, but from pictures he seems to look a lot like Jurgen Melzer, which is not a bad thing from where I'm standing. I look forward to further research.

12 - Bernard Tomic
Country: Australia
ATP Rank: 158
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: It's not just that he's so young, but he's got one of those featureless faces that looks to me like it's not *done* yet. Talk to me in five years, Bernard, for a whole host of reasons.

Joe: New meat! I'm not sure if I've got a full grasp on just what Tomic's face looks like, perhaps because it's still growing into what he'll look like as an adult (jinx!). But he gives me a slight Aaron Krickstein vibe, and grade-school me would tell you that's a very dreamy comparison.

13 - Mardy Fish
Country: USA
ATP Rank: 9
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: I genuinely like him and would like to rank him higher, but I'm hard pressed to find a reason to do so? I don't think that's likely to change.

Joe: Mardy seems more like your brother's cool friend. Not his hot friend, though.

14 - Mikhail Youzhney
Country: Russia
ATP Rank: 17
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: Here's one I find so sour and unlikable on and off the court that I can't really see him objectively. I mean, good body, I guess, and it's not like his face routinely stops clocks, but I just cannot abide him. Ugh.

Joe: He's got a scrunchy face. I like him as a player, but he does.

15 - Michael Llodra
Country: France
ATP Rank: 35
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: The Radek Stepanek of France, which is all you really need to know.

Joe: The Radek Stepanek of France! Seriously, I was totally going to make the Stepanek reference too! Nothing else I need to say.

16 - Andy Murray
Country: Great Britain
ATP Rank: 4
Previous Hotness Rank: n/a
John: Was it Guy Lodge who recently said on Twitter that Murray is the living example of the old wives' tale about making a face and it sticking that way? Those Big Book Of British Smiles teeth! The hair that looks like it's trying to escape a labyrinth of its own making! The "Is it raining. I hadn't. Noticed." (tm Sarah D. Bunting) quality of his interviews! At the risk of being incredibly mean, keeping a picture of him on hand would be a very marketable cure for sex addiction. Yuck squared.

Joe: Shut up, Andy Murray's face.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Oscars of the '80s: The Best Original Song Project (1988)

A co-production celebrating the movies' pop-music dominance in the 1980s, with The Critical Condition.

Previously: 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987


"Let the River Run" -- Working Girl [Music and lyrics: Carly Simon]

Joe: If ever you need evidence that timing and enthusiasm can be everything when it comes to Oscar success, look no further than Working Girl, a mediocre (though fantastically watchable, don't get me wrong) movie that nonetheless captured the zeitgeist and made it all the way to a BEST PICTURE nomination AND a Best Actress nod for Melanie Griffith. Melanie Griffith! No small feat, that. I'd like to say that "Let the River Run" would have made its way to the ballot even without the rising tide of Aquanet that Working Girl's Best Picture nomination provided, but the truth is, the movie empowers the song just as much as the song empowers the movie. That triumphant crescendo just before the final chorus IS the sound of Tess McGill finally making it to her own office. And weirdly, ever since 9/11, that pan back across the New York City skyline into the credits, the Twin Towers suddenly coming into view, has adopted a significance no one could have intended. Bottom line: this is one of my very favorite pop songs from the '80s, and I'm glad Carly Simon took the Oscar for it.

Mark: I may be a busted, broken-hearted bastard, but I don't like this song. To my ear, Simon's voice sounds strained, especially in those unfortunate high notes, and that keeps her from attaining the grandeur the rest of the track is so clearly striving for. I'd say that it was the Aquanet tide that raised this song to glory, and I said in the 1987 recap, if "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" had been on this year's ballot, it totally would've won. Or should've. Or whatever. The point is: I will NOT let the river run, if said running means flowing into my earholes.

"Calling You" -- Bagdad Café [Music and lyrics: Bob Telson]

Joe: If the field of only three nominees didn't already tip you off as to the shallowness of the field in 1988, the nomination for a laid-back atmospheric tune from an independent German film, set in the Mojave desert, starring CCH Pounder and Jack Palance could give you another clue. The song, as performed by Jevetta Steele, does a great job of setting you down right in front of the titular desert cafe, but I can't pretend it doesn't get repetitive and even tedious. I should say that I know this song much, much, MUCH better as sung by Celine Dion as background music for this most incredible of So You Think You Can Dance performances, so my rose-colored glasses are firmly in place.

Mark: I'll agree that this song is about two minutes too long, given how little actually happens in it, but it's a lovely, haunting ballad that just sounds like yearning, you know? My research for this write-up also turned up a version by Jeff Buckley that replaces Jevetta Stone's restrained ache with wailing desperation, and that makes me like the song even more. (Though Buckley's version also goes on a bit.)

And now I must provide you with fun facts. First, the movie's title refers to Bagdad, California, and it is not, as I originally thought, a willful misspelling of "Baghdad." Second, I clearly remember being in my grandmother's house and seeing an episode of the 1990 sitcom that was based on this movie. It starred Whoopi Goldberg (improbably taking the TV scraps of a film role created by CCH Pounder) and Jean Stapleton and lasted less than a season. I'd say it's remarkable that I happened to see this show, but I watched a lot of TV back then. It's more remarkable that I have childhood memories of being in the sun.

"Two Hearts" -- Buster [Music: Lamont Dozier; Lyrics: Phil Collins]

Joe: I've actually defended Phil Collins twice before in these examinations, but I won't be making it three-for-three. I've never seen Buster, but given that he was never given a vanity project like this again, my guess is that it wasn't very good. And while "Two Hearts" isn't exactly a terrible song, it's pretty clearly a consolation nomination for the fact that the Academy couldn't nominate the inescapable "Groovy Kind of Love" from the same soundtrack.

Mark: Good God. Really? Now I'm in the position of defending Phil Collins? Okay: Like "Groovy Kind of Love," this song was a deserving #1 hit in the U.S. Just like Billy Joel with "The Longest Time," Collins successfully cops a 60s Motown vibe and invites us to dancedancedance without a care in the world. And dammit, I'm accepting the invitation. Collins may have gone crazy and spent the last ten years churning out sappy crap, but for a while, he was a tuneful treat. Cool? No. Sexy? No. Worthy of his own film? Despite never seeing Buster, I'm still saying no. But the man gave us some fine ear candy.

Final Assessment:

Joe: A mere three nominees. Could there really have been such a dearth of nominatable songs in 1988? Nothing worth nominating from the animated Oliver and Company? I guess there but for the grace of ... something (ineligibility?) went a nomination for "Kokomo" from Cocktail. You couldn't get away from that song in '88. Also, I'm sorry, but whatever your eligibility rules are, you know they're wrongheaded when you're not able to nominate "Wind Beneath My Wings" from Beaches. Love or hate that song (or that movie), it was the clearest example of a song defining a movie in all of 1988.

Mark: Oliver and Company! "Why Should I Worry?" is an Oscar-worthy song if I've ever heard one, and considering that "Kokomo" was eligible (I checked), I'm shocked it wasn't included. I mean, if you're going to shower the Bergmans with nominations for their horrible music, then why not nominate a full slate of songs in 1988? But anyway: I'm not that excited by any of the songs that actually made the cut. I like "Calling You" and "Two Hearts" well enough, but I'll be fine if I never hear them again. It's with muted enthusiasm, then, that I give the prize to Collins, who at least gets me bouncing a little.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Oscars of the '80s: The Best Original Song Project (1986)

A co-production celebrating the movies' pop-music dominance in the 1980s, with The Critical Condition.

Previously: 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985


"Take My Breath Away" -- Top Gun [Music: Giorgio Moroder; Lyrics: Tom Whitlock] WINNER

Joe: I cannot -- and have no desire to -- defend Top Gun as a movie. As a cash machine, sure. As a star-making vehicle, as a harbinger of summer-blockbusters to come, as a source of two-plus decades worth of homoerotic-volleyball jokes, absolutely. But not as a movie. But Berlin's gorgeously moaning love ballad? That I will defend all day. I'm sure it didn't start exactly here, but the era of movie soundtracks existing almost independently from the films they belong to certainly got a boost in '86.

Mark: Did you see that episode of RuPaul's Drag Race where the guest judge was Berlin's lead singer, Terri Nunn, and the queens had to pretend they knew who she was? It was hilariously awkward, but who can blame them? If it weren't for this song, Berlin would only be known as a German city with a troubled past, and even still, more of the credit goes to composer-producer Giorgio Moroder than to Berlin themselves. This song is so good---and was so destined for heavy promotion from the Top Gun/Columbia Records team---that any halfway decent act could've scored a hit with it. Berlin was just lucky to get the gig.

And speaking of: This song was initially offered to The Motels, a group that had two top-ten hits in the early 1980s, unlike Berlin, who only scored with this song. Yet does anyone who wasn't paying attention in 1982 even know who The Motels are? No. Because they didn't record a spectacular ballad and then reap decades of fame by association.

"Somewhere Out There" -- An American Tail [Music: James Horner; Lyrics: Cynthia Weil]

Joe: Okay ... I really can't talk about this objectively. An American Tail was the first movie my family ever owned on VHS, and my siblings and I watched it constantly. I'd have nominated "There Are No Cats in America" too, if I could have. I could probably remember about 80% of the dialogue from the movie if I watched it today, and I know this because it was on HBO last week when I was flipping through the cable grid, and I totally watched it all over again. And I'll just say this: any song that can work just as well as a wistful love ballad to a lover you haven't yet met as it does when sung by one estranged sibling to another has to have something going for it. Plus, this was from Linda Ronstadt's "duets with black people" era, which I remember fondly.

Mark: Like Joe, I cannot approach this song or this movie with objectivity. As a kid, I loved them both. In fact, I remember my friend John and I singing this song in a Feivel voice for weeks on end... until my mom finally snapped and told us we were never allowed to sing or speak that way again. To this day,I still threaten to "go Feivel" on her.

I second Joe's kudos---here's to Linda's "black people" phase!---and I will add that Cynthia Weil cooked up a brilliant lyric with "even though I know how very far apart we are, it helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star." That's a deceptively simple line that uses very specific imagery to conjure palpable longing. Top marks.

"Glory of Love" -- The Karate Kid, Part II [Music: Peter Cetera and David Foster; Lyrics: Peter Cetera and Diane Nini]

Joe: I'm not asking for the same immunity for this song as I did for "Somewhere Out There." I know this song is one big ol' cheeseball covered in slivered almonds just waiting for a Wheat Thin cracker. Well, America, I am that wheat thin. I just really enjoy Peter Cetera's voice, okay? Yes, this song mostly sounds like all of Cetera's other sappy love ballads, and the musicality of the tune is laughable, even by '80s standards. But the chorus? Where we're living forever because we did it all for the glory of love? That's the stuff, 1980s.

Mark: I somehow missed this hit. Listening to it now, I don't recognize it at all, despite having clear memories of other Cetera-fronted smashes like "Next Time I Fall" and Chicago's "You're The Inspiration." And so... without the mitigating power of nostalgia, all I hear is a snooze-nugget dipped in boringsauce. Songs like this are the hardest part of easy listening.

"Mean Green Mother from Outer Space" -- Little Shop of Horrors [Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Howard Ashman]

Joe: I'm of two minds when it comes to stage-to-screen adaptations that just add a new song which is then Oscar-eligible. 1) Sometimes the songs are pretty good, as is the case with "Mean Green Mother," so I don't mind so much, but 2) they almost never surpass the greatness of the original songs, and thus I end up watching the Oscar ceremony and wishing they'd just throw the rule book away for one year so I could watch "Somewhere That's Green" or "Suddenly Seymour" get performed and win much-deserved awards.

Mark: God, I love this movie. Joe's right that in a perfect world, "Suddenly Seymour" would have been eligible, but this is a pretty great substitute. Levi Stubbs (of The Four Tops) provides the plant's singing voice, and he adds some hair-curling soul to the toe-tapping fun.

"Life in a Looking Glass" -- That's Life! [Music: Henry Mancini; Lyrics: Leslie Bricusse]

Joe: The final Oscar nomination for Henry Mancini, for a Blake Edwards movie starring Julie Andrews and Jack Lemmon. I hope nobody back in 1986/87 acted surprised when this got nominated. As sung by Tony Bennett, the song is a perfectly lovely favorite of one of your grandparents, if not both. That's not a bad thing, but it really makes it stick out in a category full of pop hits and/or soul numbers about murderous alien plant life.

Mark: How interesting! This year brought the final nomination for both Mancini and Giorgio Moroder, and they both brought a definitive sound to the Oscars (and pop music) for many years. And I've got to say: Even though he was decades into his career by this point, Mancini was not phoning it in with "Life in a Looking Glass." It's a lovely example of that elegant-and-wistful sound he so famously perfected.

Final Assessment

Joe: This may be a year that's more tailored to me personally than most, but I love this field. One truly towering pop hit that defined its movie, two guilty pleasures, and Audrey II hollering out for all to hear. If I were making decisions, I'd have dropped "Life" for Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone" from Top Gun (Danger zone!), or the Eric Clapton song from The Color of Money. (Or, um, "Dance Magic Dance" from Labyrinth.) And I DEFINITELY would have found a way to bend the rules to nominate something from Pretty in Pink. But as it stands, I approve of this field AND its chosen winner.

Mark: Yet another strong lineup, though I'd axe "Glory of Love" for "Danger Zone" or, as Joe brilliantly suggests, "Dance Magic Dance." As for the winner: While I have permanent love for "Somewhere Out There" and all things Audrey II, and while I certainly have respect "Life in a Looking Glass," I cannot deny the power balladry of "Take My Breath Away."

"When you get to Boston, don't let them pull out all the good parts."

Beautiful note to go out on. Bye, Tara.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oscars of the '80s: The Best Original Song Project (1984)

A co-production celebrating the movies' pop-music dominance in the 1980s, with The Critical Condition.

Previously: 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983


"I Just Called to Say I Love You" -- The Woman in Red [Music and lyrics: Stevie Wonder] WINNER

Joe: You know, Stevie Wonder gets a lot of crap for throwing away so much of his well-earned music industry cred in order to cash in by penning one of the limpest movie themes of all time. And for good damn reason. What a load this song is, Stevie. You might've been able to get away with something like this in a weaker year, but not when there's a whole Footloose soundtrack worth of classic '80s tunes.

Mark: 1984 is the only year in which every Oscar nominee for Best Song was also a #1 hit. That's one of my favorite pop culture tidbits, and it underlines the intimate connection between pop music and the movies in the 80s. (You could make the same observation about pop music and TV today and about pop music and Broadway in the 40s through the 60s. Here's hoping that "pop music and e-readers" will be the hot new synergy in 2020!)

Since I love the symmetry of Oscar nominees/#1 hits, I'm tempted to excuse the appearance of "I Just Called to Say I Love You" on this ballot. Yes, this song is bootycakes, and yes, it's awfulness is even more apparent on my Stevie Wonder greatest hits album, where it oozes like a syrupy stain next to "Superstition" and "My Cherie Amour." But it needed to be nominated, right? There were no other #1 hits from movies that year, right?

Wrong! 1984 was the year of Purple Rain, people. Purple. Fucking. Rain. While the film was the third and final winner in the bizarre "song score" category, the Academy decided that none of its songs individually merited attention. And sure, it's possible that some of the soundtrack's hits weren't written expressly for the film, but Prince did write "When Doves Cry" just for the movie, and that song did hit #1. If they'd gone with "Doves" instead of "Called," the Academy could've kept its 5-for-5 ratio and avoided embarrassing crap.

"Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" -- Against All Odds [Music and lyrics: Phil Collins]

Joe: The era of American Idol has done a lot of things to the culture, many of them bad, but the very worst just might be how it's beaten down a song like "Against All Odds" and made it seem hollow and cheesy and soulless. It doesn't help that Phil Collins ran his own career into the hollow, hollow ground. But this is a great song, down to its bones; a desperate cry to be heard by a lover who's moved on.

Mark: I agree with Joe on all counts. I don't know much about the movie Against All Odds, but I don't see how it could be better than this song.

"Footloose" -- Footloose [Music and lyrics: Kenny Loggins and Dean Pitchford]

Joe: Kenny Loggins probably deserves a space next to Jennifer Warnes and Irene Cara on the Mount Rushmore of '80s movie soundtracks, and "Footloose" is likely his greatest accomplishment. The funny thing is that there was no real dance style associated with the '80s; the only specific dance that comes to mind with a movie like "Footloose" is a kind of weird teenage abandon, with a lot of jumping and kicking and swinging of arms. Really, we were all about two notches away from doing the Elaine Dance as a nation, with Kenny Loggins as our pied piper.

Mark: Joe, those kids didn't have specific dance steps because dancing was forbidden in their town! Forbidden! Can you imagine a darker hell?

Ahem. Obviously, no town could resist a groove as bouncy as the one that Loggins delivers here.

"Let's Hear It for the Boy" -- Footloose [Music and lyrics: Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford]

Joe: Look, I'm not going to take issue with any nominations tossed at the Footloose soundtrack. But I'm thinking about the songs that went un-nominated -- songs like Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" or the superb and underrated power ballad "Almost Paradise." Maybe there were eligibility issues with those? I hope so, because all do respect to Deniece Williams, but I can't support this song over those.

Mark: I've sat with Joe's comments about this song for many days. I've taken deep breaths. I've sulked. I've assumed he was kidding, or maybe just being mean. But now I've accepted that he means what he says. "Let's Hear It for the Boy" is our 95 Theses, nailed the chapel door. Will we survive this schism? WILL WE?

Because seriously, this song is the hottest of hot hits. I love it as much as liberty. As much as justice. The groove? Flawless. The melody? Unforgettable. Deniece Williams' vocal, including those ridiculous high notes at the end? Amazing. The lyrics, declaring love for a boy who may not be perfect, but who's perfect for her? Charming. Yes, those other Footloose songs are fantastic, but they're just footmen next to the queen.

Fun fact: I clearly remember roller skating to this song in 1984, wearing brown skates with orange wheels at Roller Coaster Skate World. I remember feeling awesome as I rocked that move where you crouch down and put your hands in front of you, but you keep skating at top speed. Like a badass.

"Ghostbusters" -- Ghostbusters [Music and lyrics: Ray Parker Jr.]

Joe: This isn't some kind of great song. I'm not even sure it's a song at all. It's kind of just people yelling "Ghostbusters!" when prompted. [Though I cannot recommend enough that you watch the video for an all-star cast of call-and-responders. Danny DeVito! Carly Simon! PETER FALK!] But it's also probably in the top 10% of most identifiable movie theme songs ever, and you try getting it out of your head now.

Mark: Bonus points go to Parker for adding this audacious revelation to his lyrics: "Let me tell you somethin'... bustin' makes me feel good!" He's not just bustin' to keep the city safe. He's bustin' because it makes him feel good. He's a loose cannon!

Final Assessment

Joe: What a fantastic lineup. Something for everybody, truly. I think "Against All Odds" is the best pure song, but if you're asking me what song best serves the movie it's nominated for, I have to kick off my Sunday shoes and call Kenny Loggins up to the podium.

Mark: Even without "When Doves Cry," this may be the best ballot in the category's history. In a field of strong choices, however, my top honor goes to "Let's Hear It For the Boy." What it does it does so well, it makes me want to yell.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Oscars of the '80s: The Best Original Song Project (1982)

A co-production celebrating the movies' pop-music dominance in the 1980s, with The Critical Condition.

Previously: 1980, 1981


"Up Where We Belong" -- An Officer and a Gentleman [Music: Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Sainte-Marie; Lyrics: Will Jennings] WINNER

Joe: We're back to Jennifer Warnes, queen of '80s movie music. Here, her essential sweetness is met by Joe Cocker's gravel-voiced weariness for a song that tells a story slightly different than the one Richard Gere and Debra Winger play out. And even though the lyrics -- eagles and mountains and whatnot -- are the stuff that parodies of cheesy '80s power ballads are made of, Warnes and Cocker hold a conviction that sells it.

Mark: Apparently, film producer Don Simpson tried to get this song cut from the movie, which just proves that having dollars doesn't always mean having sense. (ZING!) I've got a low tolerance for gooey ballads of the 80s, but thanks to the vocals that Joe rightfully praises, this ode to romance has got a hold on my heart.

"How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" -- Best Friends [Music: Michel Legrand; Lyrics: Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman]

Joe: Some background, because you need it: Best Friends was a romantic dramedy starring Burt Reynolds and (Golden Globe nominee!) Goldie Hawn, and the song was performed by James Ingram and Patti Austin. And while there's an attempt to throw some power into the 19th iteration of the chorus, don't be fooled. This is adult-contemporary/easy-listening at its snooziest

Mark: This song arrived just one year after Ingram and Austin topped the charts with the quiet storm of "Baby, Come To Me," a panty-dropping classic for the ages. By comparison, "How Do You Keep The Music Playing" is... a coma? Sonic Ambien? Let me think about that for a zzzzz.

"Eye of the Tiger" -- Rocky III [Music and lyrics: Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan]

Joe: That's right, people. We had to wait until the THIRD Rocky movie before Survivor bestowed upon us this most defining of training anthems. Mickey had to DIE in order that we could hear it! You know, I bet in 1982 there were people advocating for classier songs by more established musical talents to get the Oscar nomination, but kudos to the voters for recognizing a song that still has value today. At least if you frequent sporting events.

Mark: Every time I think the training montage industry has ruined this song forever, I hear it in a bar and start pumping my fist all over again. It just never, ever gets old.

"It Might Be You" -- Tootsie [Music: Dave Grusin; Lyrics: Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman]

Joe: Holy crap, Alan and Marilyn Bergman really dominated this category in 1982, huh? It almost feels like a pro wrestling event, where weaker competitors are used to make the champion look better. Because anybody who wants to knock "Up Where We Belong" for '80s cheese is going to have to grab a sleeve of saltines and work their way through the Bergmans' three-headed gouda.

Mark: Jesus, Bergmans! Enough! This song not only sucks, but also comes from the suckiest part of Tootsie, where the comedy gets replaced by the weird romance at the cabin. Why did so many 80s movies insist on adding those pace-killing "tenderness" segments?

"If We Were In Love" -- Yes, Giorgio [Music: John Williams; Lyrics: Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman]

Joe: So Yes, Giorgio was a starring vehicle for Luciano Pavarotti (!), and "If We Were in Love" is the soaring love ballad that plays while Pavarotti takes his beloved on a romantic hot-air balloon ride out to the countryside. You guys, if you couldn't get a movie made in the '80s, you must've been a fucking LOSER. Anyway, it's actually my favorite of the three Bergman-penned songs simply because it has some feeling behind it, and whether or not that's all Pavarotti, it counts.

Mark: The world MUST NOT FORGET that Pavarotti starred in a movie. A movie! Go watch clips of this movie on YouTube. They will change you. And as for the song? Yeah, Pavarotti's voice does add some beauty, but that's like whipping black truffle oil into rancid mayonnaise. Why waste something some precious on something so fetid?

Final Assessment

Joe: Yikes. I mean, again, it's pretty awesome that something like "Eye of the Tiger" got recognized, I guess under the "Theme from Shaft" Academy bylaws. But I think I'm going to agree with the Academy's choice to honor songwriter Will Jennings, who would repeat his win fifteen years later for some song about boats sinking and hearts going on.

Mark: I'd like to believe that it wasn't just vote splitting that kept the Bergmans out of the winner's circle. Surely, the Academy realized that "Eye of the Tiger" and "Up Where We Belong" are the only viable candidates here. As for me, it's a close race, but I'm giving it to Survivor's ass-kickery over Joe and Jennifer's raspy balladry.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Hey! Remember '90s Music: A Video Series*

*(...that I may or may not return to as often as I'd like; you know how I do.)

I get Frustrated Incorporated thinking about how much this music shaped my adolescence and now it's pretty much GONE.

See also: this fantastic list of Pearl Jam songs from 1991-1996, which really made me reconsider my generation's mistaken impression that Vitalogy sucked. Mister, it did not.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Ten Thoughts on: X-Men: First Class

Ten Thoughts on X-Men: First Class

1. What an absolute triumph of casting, first and foremost. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender seem like no-brainers, now, as Xavier and Magneto, but they're seriously just beyond perfect. Their relationship is intense right off the bat, and they both do an excellent job of selling the essential schism between their philosophies of mutant empowerment. Also, not sure if you've heard, but they're both kind of insanely sexy and use that to their advantage quite well. That scene with the both of them patronizing Zoe Kravitz in the champagne room? Damn.

2. But the brilliant casting goes beyond the leads. The young mutants that make up Xavier's original charges were all terrifically sympathetic, led by Jennifer Lawrence, whose face is a picture of still waters running deep. Nicholas Hoult was great playing a) American and b) counter to his more smirkily charismatic roles in A Single Man and Skins. John and I both emerged from the theater raving about Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, and not just because he looks like he could be kissing cousins with Ron Weasley. And my favorite twink from Hannah Montana Lucas Till really showed up well as Havok, and by "showed up well" I do mostly mean "wore sleeveless t-shirts" but also he was an integral member of the team! One of the triumphs of execution in Matthew Vaughn's film is how quickly it establishes these X-babies as a team, with loyalties and conflicts and distinct relationships. When you see them all finally hit the battlefield, it's cathartic and emotionally charged.

3. Also, I know not everybody is a January Jones fan, but my God was she an absolutely perfect choice for Emma Frost. Everything she puts into making Betty Draper a monstrous ice queen works even better as Emma, who even manages to have a bit of un-Betty-like fun with her superiority over the puny non-mutant humans.

4. Zoe Kravitz doesn't get a ton to do, but remember how when you first heard Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz had a baby together, and you were like, "That baby is going to be, like, otherworldly beautiful"? This movie gives you a really great payoff.

5. One of the more difficult to avoid pitfalls in either prequels or origin stories is the grocery-list effect, where the film becomes a matter of waiting for characters to emerge, iconography to be acquired, and the mythology-building events we've been hearing about for decades to happen, all so we can arrive at approximately the point we were at in the first movies. It becomes airless and perfunctory and not a lot of fun. Part of the reason First Class doesn't feel that way is because Vaughn gives us a great story -- stopping Sebastian Shaw from inciting World War III via the Cuban Missile crisis -- that, for lack of a better term, distracts us from the buildup to these signposts. Another example: Beast's furry origin. We know in our heads that Hank McCoy is going to go from nerdy scientist with monstrous (but flesh-colored) feet to a permanent big blue ball o' fur; we can even see how it'll get there, what with the serum that will hopefully "cure" both Hank and Mystique of their hideous exterior afflictions. But the characters, their motivations, and the performances are all strong enough that it feels like a complete (and tragic) story rather than a means to an end. Actually, I take back what I said before about distracting us from these inevitabilities. It's more that they feel earned and organic. I'll say right now that even though I pretty much knew where this movie was going to leave the X-Men story, the climactic moment that leaves Xavier in his wheelchair still caught me by surprise.

6. Really excellent effects work, particularly on Emma Frost's diamond armor.

7. I liked how the retro-'60s aesthetic was more than just superficial décor (and the odd "groovy" language tic), but really seeped into the filmmaking itself. The old Cold War maps, the Dr. Strangelove war rooms, Michael Ironside doing his best John Wayne at the navy blockade -- it goes beyond kitchsy throwback. This is a clear stylistic choice, and the film wears it well.

8. Vaughn was pretty smart in the ways he honored continuity and shrugged it off. Moments like young Magneto bending the gates at Auschwitz, or the way the misty mutant-scape of Cerebro is conveyed are matched closely to the original films, in a purposeful nod towards continuity. But I also like the way Vaughn doesn't hesitate to, say, re-shape Moira McTaggart into a CIA agent because it makes the story run more smoothly. The bond between Xavier and Mystique -- which, best I can tell, was invented out of whole cloth -- is pretty much the emotional backbone of the story.

9. Damon Lindelof tweeted on Saturday that First Class has "the best deployment of the PG-13 single-use eff-bomb I have ever seen." I concur. (Of course, he also went and -- completely umprompted -- called January Jones out for "sucking at acting," proving once again that Damon Lindelof is one of those celebrities who should not be on Twitter.)

10. I try not to concern myself too much with box-office, because that shit's beyond my control and not worth fretting about, but I worry that the soft-ish opening of First Class might make a sequel more of an arduous process. Because, like the best franchise movies, First Class REALLY made me itchy to see where the story goes from here.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Oscars of the '80s: The Best Original Song Project

At some point during the ramp up to last year's Oscars, I made the observation either here or any of the other places where I blathered on about the Oscars that I would be quite happy if the Best Original Song category would go the way of Best Black-and-White Cinematography and die a noble death. Because as of 2011, the age of the Movie Song is pretty much dead. Even the big Disney movies lack truly dynamic tunes, and while musicals have made a big-screen comeback, they're all Broadway transfers and at best offer up pale add-on songs just so they can beg for honor of a nomination from a category that has lost all its luster. All due respect to quality winners like "Falling Slowly" and "The Weary Kind," but original songs in movies are just nothing like they were back in the '80s. (Hey, there are few things we can say were undeniably better in the '80s. Let's go with this one!)

So, because Rooommate Mark and I get very easily obsessed with things like Oscar nominees of old and hit songs, we decided to take a look back at the Best Song categories of the '80s and dig into how many truly classic movie songs there were back then.

We'll be flipping entries back and forth between here and The Critical Condition, starting right here with 1980.


"Fame" -- Fame [Music: Michael Gore; Lyrics: Dean Pitchford] WINNER

Joe: A legitimate classic, even though it's neither the best song in its movie nor the best song from the movie in this category. Still, with an indelible hook and Irene Cara's brilliant voice, how can you lose? I also love that while the fame-seeking sentiment would seem to be prescient of today's youth culture, lyrical details show how we've changed. Nobody's taking the time to learn how to fly in 2011. You guys, remember when fame cost? And you paid in sweat??

Mark: This song launched Irene Cara's brief run as the queen of Oscar songs, and I'd imagine that back in 1980, it seemed like it was launching her journey to superstardom. (Since I was one year old for most of 1980, I don't trust my memories from that time.) I can understand the impact on both counts. Though Michael "Brother of Lesley" Gore's disco-synth production is as dated as an old pack of luncheon meat, Cara's voice still roars and the melody still kicks ass.

"People Alone" -- The Competition [Music: Lalo Schifrin; Lyrics: Will Jennings]

Joe: Did you know that The Competition was a movie where Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving play classical pianists who become lovers? Did you know Dreyfuss was nominated for a Razzie for his performance? I mean, I'm sure you knew all that, I was just checking. Anyway, if you look at the Oscar-nominated songs of the '80s, they tend to fall into some distinct categories. The soaring power ballads. The cheesy rockin' number. The story-driven musical number. And then there are these watery, easy-listening, filler entries penned by your Carole Bayer Sagers and the like. Guess which category "People Alone" fits in?

Mark: It's cute of Joe to pretend like there are people who don't know this movie. See you guys at CompCon! But seriously: I can't even find a recording of this song on YouTube, a website that readily proffers the main theme of the Garbage Pail Kids movie. I doubt we've lost a classic here.

"Out Here On My Own" -- Fame [Music: Michael Gore; Lyrics: Lesley Gore]

Decidedly the better of the two nominated Fame songs, and achingly performed by Irene Cara. I'm much more interested to learn that Lesley Gore -- she of "You Don't Own Me" and "Judy's Turn to Cry" fame -- wrote the song decades after her own pop star had faded.

Mark: I saw Fame for the first time a few weeks ago, and I was startled by how many things it did that would never happen today. If High School Musical featured a scene of a teenage girl taking her top off for a seedy "film producer" and then weeping as he recorded her shame, people would lose their fucking minds. Also? No modern movie would ever handle a song the way that Fame handles "Out Here On My Own." Irene Cara just goes to the piano and sings for about five minutes. There are no cuts, no characters fighting in the background... nothing. Just a great singer belting a great ballad. It boggles my 2011 mind, but since the song is outstanding, I appreciate the simplicity.

"On the Road Again" -- Honeysuckle Rose [Music and lyrics: Willie Nelson]

It seems almost unfathomable that there was ever a time before "On the Road Again" existed. Doesn't it just seem like that song was always there, waiting to score a montage about the protagonist moving across the country? Nobody remembers the movie (which starred Nelson himself, along with Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving, who really made some forgettable-yet-tuneful movies in 1980), but the song is iconic enough to be woven into the national fabric, so kudos to the Academy.

Mark: Joe, you may want to get a research grant and investigate this song's origins, because I'm pretty sure it was written at the dawn of time. I swear I've heard it in Chevrolet commercials from 1950. But maybe that's just a sign of how deeply it's embedded into our culture.

"Nine to Five" -- Nine to Five [Music and lyrics: Dolly Parton]

A home run! Brilliant song (the clackity-clack percussion! Dolly's common-sense airing of workplace grievances!) by an equally brilliant artist. I can never decide whether the movie makes the song better or the other way around, but I have a really hard time imagining Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda's comedy being remembered as fondly without Dolly's title track.

Mark:Do I even need to say it? There are three great songs in this category, but there's only one work of transcendent work pop genius. Dolly Parton devised that clackity-clack rhythm by tapping her acrylic fingernails on a countertop, for Christ's sake. That distills the 80s!

Final Assessment

My guess is that Fame being more of a musical film was still seen as an advantage in 1980 (we were well past the golden age of movie musicals, but I bet that genre preference had endured in this category), and just as pilot episodes are kind of the presumed favorites at the Emmys, my guess is that "Fame" being the title song helped it win. Much as I love "Out Here on My Own," though, I'd have given the award to another title song: "Nine to Five." Then we'd get to call Dolly Parton an Oscar-winner to this day!

Mark: I think Joe is spot-on with the reason "Fame" won the Oscar. It also helped that Fame was regarded as Real Art (check that year's nomination for Best Original Screenplay). Voting for "Fame," then, meant voting for a pop hit with prestige. But still... "Nine to Five" is one of the best songs of the decade and should've won. (Fun fact: Sheena Easton's hit "Morning Train" was known as "9 to 5" in England, but the title was changed in America to avoid confusion with Parton's track.)