Sunday, February 27, 2011

Academy Awards 2010

This year, I don't think people can complain about The Academy nominating movies that the majority of the public hasn't heard of, let alone watched. Out of the ten nominated films:

  • Toy Story 3 and Inception were two of the highest grossing films in 2010. (Toy Story 3 was first, Inception was fourth).

  • Black Swan, True Grit and The King's Speech made over $100 million at the box office. This is impressive, considering they are three genres that studio's assume the public won't watch (Art-house, Western, and Drama).

  • The Social Network and The Fighter finished outside the $100 million total, but still had strong box office performance (approximately $97 million and $89 million, respectively) and widespread critical acclaim.

  • Even the other three nominated movies (127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter's Bone) despite grossing less than the other films, still managed to turn a profit considering their budgets.

All things considered, 70% is pretty good for the Academy Awards.

As for my predictions,  I'm personally hoping that The Social Network wins Best Picture, but won't be surprised if The King's Speech takes it. It has everything that the Academy loves: it's a historical drama focused on the British monarchy;  it is promoted by the Weinstein Company, who specialize in this type of film (ex. Shakespeare in Love);it is largely inoffensive, with the exception of that one scene where King George VI says fuck 5 times;  It has the story of a person overcoming adversity or a disability. (stuttering). All it needed was the Holocaust, and Best Picture wouldn't even be a contest.

Despite my prediction of Best Picture, I see David Fincher winning Best Director for The Social Network as his direction was why a movie about Facebook was so successful. Still can't believe Christopher Nolan was snubbed for Inception. I would have nominated Nolan over  David O. Russell (The Fighter). 

Most of the Acting categories are locks. Natalie Portman for Black Swan and Colin Firth for The King's Speech will take the lead acting oscar's. Christian Bale will finally be rewarded for his work, winning Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter. Bale will also win because the Academy will need some younger faces to be nominated in the future, now that Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington are older and entering the "Paycheque" phase of their career. Supporting Actress is the tightest race. I think Melissa Leo will not win for The Fighter for two reasons. 1) Her co-star Amy Adams is nominated, so they'll split the vote. and 2) Her solo For Your consideration campaign may have ruined her chances. Either Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) or Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech) will win this award, but I'm leaning toward Carter.

Gwenyth Paltrow wins best song because Hollywood is intent on forcing the idea of her as a singer on the public.

Final note: How surreal would it be if Trent Reznor won an Academy Award?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

February 13-20:I Believe in Music

After this past week, I can safely say that I am optimistic about the music industry. But it didn't start out that well.

On Sunday, with a lack of anything else on the television, I settled in to watch the Grammy awards, the music industry's annual back-patting session. With over 100 awards given out, but only ten given out on the broadcast, the show was built around a showcase of today's best music talent. As I was watching, I kept thinking, "if this is the best the music industry has to offer, we're fucked."

Throughout the show, viewers were bombarded by artists who are virtually interchangeable from each other. Their voices are fed through a computer program to ensure note perfect vocals, at the cost of sounding robotic.  They were wearing clothes that nobody would wear outside of a fashion show runway. The music was composed around synthesized beats and samples. Falsified positive emotions. It was all the same, from Lady Gaga to Rihanna.

Country music does not fare much better. Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," the big winner of the night, is a song destined to be a first dance for married couples for the next decade. Just hearing the chorus sends me running for cover.  It also disappoints me that a genre once known for accepting performers who did not quite fit the standard of beauty put out by popular music, seems to have been taken over by the same pop music factory. It's all perky blondes with so-so voices, mixed with the Los Angeles interpretation of down-home heartland charm ('House that built me,' I'm looking in your direction here). Trisha Yearwood, possessor of one of the finest voices in country music, would not even get a look today. (They'd say "She's too fat...Who'd want to have sex with her her?)

Despite the negative introduction,  there were several performances that made me optimistic for the future of the music industry going ahead.

Here's what stood out:
-The Aretha Tribute that started the show was very well done. Jennifer Hudson again showed why she is one of the best musicians to ever come out of American Idol. Not bad for someone who finished SEVENTH.

Christina Aguleira, however, continues her year of bad luck. Her GaGa ripoff makeover flopped, her album was disappointing in sales, Burlesque bombed, her tour had to be cancelled, she flubbed the national anthem in front of 100 million people, and fell over after this performance. She's been playing catch-up for a decade now, relying too much on her looks rather than her actual ability to sing, and it seems to be getting to her. At this rate, it won't be long until she's performing on the casino circuit or develops a drinking problem.

-Bruno Mars, B.O.B., and Janelle Monae were the first performance of the night, and they gave it their all. Granted, B.O.B. was sort of "there", but Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae more than made up for his shortcomings.  Monae in particular carried herself like a true rock star, crowd-surfing as she performed her hit "Cold War." She gave the evening a good boost of energy. Here's hoping for more from her.  Mars has a nice voice, and R&B is in need of a new young star ever since Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna.

-I was torn on Muse performing. On one hand, they were one of two bands there that could be classed as rock. On the other hand, I thought The Resistance was one of their weaker albums. But, they were pretty good here, performing the only good song off that album. And Matthew had a double guitar, which automatically makes him cool in my books. But, whoever came up with the idea of adding gimmicks to the performance, in this case, some anarchists rushing the stage and smashing things, needs to be fired. It's distracting to people at home, and comes off as tacky.
-Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and Bob Dylan also had a great performance. Mumford and sons perform good folk rock that can appeal to a variety of listeners, and the Avett Brothers made a fan out of me. Seeing both of the bands perform behind a bonafide music legend was also really cool, and you can tell that these guys were excited to be on the stage with Dylan as he performed Maggie's Farm. However, any voice Dylan had before is gone, reduced to a Tom Waits-esque growl.  The performance was great, and after Arcade Fire's performance, the best of the night.

-Mick Jagger performed for the first time ever at the Grammy's, doing a tribute to the late Solomon Burke, and showed everyone why he is one of the best front men in rock and roll.  His showmanship made all these young stars look second rate. He really is on another level.

-I really tuned in to see Arcade Fire perform for the first time at the Grammy's, and they kept me waiting. Fortunately, they did not disappoint. They livened up a lethargic show when they performed "Month of May," probably the most rocking track on The Suburbs. Best performance of the night, and hopefully, they won over some new fans.

On the topic of Arcade Fire, I was rooting for them to win Album of the Year, but was expecting Lady Antebellum to take it. I was shocked when Arcade Fire won the award. and so were thousands of viewers, who took to Facebook and Twitter to share their disgust. This site catalogued some of the best responses. It's amazing to think how many people thought the band was named "The Suburbs."

There has also been a backlash brewing among the underground community towards Arcade Fire, claiming that they sold out. There is nothing I hate more than that term. just because a band or artist reaches a wider audience doesn't mean they have sold out. To me, the term means that you sacrifice your principles in order to make money. Shouldn't you want a band to be successful, and not playing the same shows in front of the same people? Sure you may feel something special, but this special feeling doesn't pay the gas money for these bands. People who label anything underground that becomes popular as selling out are not real fans of music.

Though, I'm really happy that arcade fire won, and you could tell they were overjoyed as they closed the show. The Grammy's get it right once in a while.


This week continued with the announce that Radiohead would be releasing their new album The King of Limbs digitally that Saturday, later bumping it a day early. Now here is a band that I used to loathe when I was a teenager, mostly because i thought they were boring. Though my opinion changed when I started volunteering at CKUW around the time In Rainbows was released. This album was not released with the pay what you want model that In Rainbows used. you want the album digitally? $9 for MP3, $14 for WAV. i went MP3.

I read a lot of mixed opinions across the internet. I think that people put this album on a pedastal and as a result, they were disappointed. It is not a game changer like previous albums were, but it is still very good. Musically, it reminds me a lot of Kid A, with some added influence from Thom yorke's solo recordings and In Rainbows: it is a challenging listen, built around electronics and minimal guitar. But, you spend some time with it, and songs start to grow on you. The album feels a lot like a concept album about the relationship between technology and the natural world. If you listen to it, you will understand what I mean.

Again, it's a very good album, but it's not for everyone. Choice tracks: "Morning Mr. Magpie", "Lotus Flower", "Give Up the Ghost", and "Seperator."

Though I'm still trying to figure out what exactly a "newspaper" album is...

In case you are wondering, here is how I'd rank Radiohead's albums right now.

1. OK Computer
2. In Rainbows
3. The Bends (very underrated)
4. Kid A
5. The King of Limbs
6. Hail to the Thief
7. Amnesiac
8. Pablo Honey


Maybe we are at a cultural shift.  Maybe last week was the start of something. It's happened before; an era where art triumphs over commerce. These next few years will be interesting to watch.

But, as long as there are artists who continue to make good music, challenge the conventions of their genres, and get rewarded for it, I will always believe in music.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day Playlist.

The best way to show your partner how much you care this Valentine's Day? Make a mix CD with these love songs on them, which are some of my favorites, along with a few of my friend's picks. 14 songs, in an order that best details the path of a romantic relationship in my opinion, and are just some good songs in general.   (Acknowledgements to Kelsey [#3], Russ [#9], Marc [#10] & Mike [#13] for their contributions)

You may thank me later. and you can put these in any order you feel like. Here's my order.
1. These United States - First Sight
2. The Beatles - I Want To Hold Your Hand
3. Mr. Big - To Be With You
4. Garth Brooks- To Make You Feel My Love
5. Billy Joel - Just The Way You Are
6. Radiohead- Exit Music (for a film)
7. Bush - Glycerine
8. Jewel- You Were Meant for Me
9. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Dosed
10. Beach Boys - God Only Knows
11.Pearl Jam - Just Breathe
12. Barry White- Can't Get Enough Of Your Love Baby,
13. Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova - Falling Slowly
14. Daniel Johnston- True Love Will Find You In The End.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Waiting For Superman (2010)

Not about this Superman. :(

When I first read the premise of Waiting for Superman, I was disappointed, yet interested. The disappointment was a result of learning that it was not a film about comic book characters, and people wishing that they were real (alright, I’ll stop trying to be a comedian); but my interest peaked when I learned that it was about education. I have somewhat of an interest in education, which is the understatement of the century. Up until last year, I was studying to be a teacher, but realized that it was not what I was meant to do. So, I left. I still have a respect for most teachers. They have a difficult, stressful, job, and they receive little respect from the public. And we in Canada are blessed with an education system that is one of the best in the world. The same thing can’t be said for the U.S.

In a word, the United States Education system is broken. They rank near the bottom in education scores, and reading levels have remained stagnant since the 1970’s. No Child Left Behind was supposed to fix the education system, but it was akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on a house that just got hit by a tornado. It is admirable to have a standard to strive towards, but when each school district and state have their own standards, it is ineffective.

Throughout Waiting for Superman, we follow five students from different backgrounds, go through the education system that is broken, that their parents know is broken, but still go because there are no other options. The parents of these children want a better education than what they’ve received growing up, and look for any option that will help their kids. Most of the stories are engaging, with the exception of one, and you become attached to the students, and hope that they end up succeeding.

David Guggenheim hoped to use this film as a call to action for education reform, much like his previous feature An Inconvenient Truth strengthened the green movement in 2007. While his film will indeed promote discussion and debate, I feel that it missed the mark in its treatment of the issue, and likely alienated the segment of the population who could have benefited from learning about this issue.

Guggenheim claims that teacher’s unions , the issue of tenure, and a bloated bureaucracy are the reason why American schools are failing, ignoring the fact that number one ranked Finland and other countries that rank higher than the U.S. also have unionized teachers. While I personally believe that unions are another broken system (to paraphrase an education reformer quoted in the film, “the world has changed, but unions have remained the same”), blaming the entire poor state of education of unions and the terrible teachers that are protected by unions and tenure is misguided. If you are blaming the unions, you are also blaming the truly amazing teachers who make a difference. Despite some brief clips from his previous documentary on education, Guggenheim does not show examples effective teachers in the public school system. Why would he? He sends his kids to a private school. He doesn’t feel that the public school system is effective, and showing examples of effectiveness in public schools would undermine his message.

Waiting For Superman is blatantly in favour of charter schools; They are the Superman referred to in the title, swooping in to save the children from a path to destruction! You’d almost mistake the film for an orientation video for the Harlem Children’s Zone. We see graphs that supposedly show that students in charter schools achieve higher scores than their public school brethren, even though there are surveys that show that the achievement rate of public schools and charter schools are basically even. Guggenheim twists data to support his opinion, showing charter schools as beacons of success, with caring teachers that guarantee that your child will be prepared for college when they leave the school. It’s a pitch that convinces the parents of the children featured, along with hundreds of other hopeful parents, to sign up for a lottery to get into the school (the school is required to hold a lottery if the number of students who apply is greater than the number of available spaces).

Guggenheim tells the viewer in the film that it is too late to fix the current education system. Any attempt at reforming the system is doomed to end in failure. Teacher’s unions will block any legislation that will hold them accountable, even if it makes sense. The only hope for a decent education in America is to hope that your number is chosen from hundreds. The scenes at the lottery are heartbreaking as a viewer. You get attached to the kids, and you feel crushed when their numbers aren’t called. Out of the five students featured, only one student’s number is called (the less-interesting one). Fortunately, circumstances change for one of the other students, ending the movie on a more positive note. I would be interested in seeing a follow-up on the students featured ten years from now, to see how their circumstances may have changed or if they're in the same spot as before.

The best way to sum up Waiting For Superman: A missed opportunity. It is a film that could have fired up the people who needed to be fired up about education, and shed some light on the challenges teachers face, and the flaws that need addressing (the disparity between the funding of inner-city schools and suburban schools was not even touched upon). Instead, the people who could have been impacted by this film leave thinking “I can’t change anything. Why bother trying?”

EDIT: Fixed some typos. It should be gramatically correct now.