Four and a half reasons

Dear Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences,

The next time Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis does the lead role in a motion picture, I request you to simply disqualify all other potential Best Actor nominees for reason of not being Mr. Day-Lewis and present him with the statuette forthwith. To support my humble request, I present four and a half reasons:

0.5: If his performance in his Oscar winning turns (as well as some others like my personal favourite — The Age of Innocence) is anything to go by, you are unlikely to find a better performance in that year. Ordinarily, this would count as a full reason, but I give it only half points because on the odd occasion, some actors do manage to do better. (Although even if they did, you manage to ignore brilliant performances often enough that this wouldn’t really be noticed.)

1.5: Cutting down the time taken for to go through the nominees for even one award would cut the time taken for the Oscar telecast by a precious few minutes. Some of us have to get to work after the show’s over, ya know?

2.5: Consider his first Oscar win for My Left Foot. Look at how Morgan Freeman (nominated that year for Driving Miss Daisy) was cheering when the winner was announced. My guess is, he knew what was coming: a witty, wonderful, yet short speech that stayed in the memory.

3.5: Now, despite the fine example he set back then, so many of his contemporaries insisted on blubbering up there with the statuette in their hands, reading out prosaic laundry lists of thank-yous and making us admire, instead of their acting abilities, the writing abilities of the screenwriters that made them so watchable in the movies they won for. So he obliged by winning again and There Will Be Blood and giving us this object lesson:

4.5: One would imagine that a lesson twice-taught would be heeded, but no. We still got laundry lists. We still do, come to that. So he has won — yet again — this year, just so he could teach his dim-witted colleagues once more how it ought to be done.

However, dear Academy members, I doubt that he will be successful in his endeavour despite his repeated attempts. Therefore, I humbly request you to put both him and us out of our misery and do the needful.

Regards etc.


White Chicks

The entire principal cast of A Streetcar Named Desire received Academy Award nominations for acting in 1952. Three of them won. The one who didn’t? Marlon Brando.

I’ve been following the Oscars regularly for nearly as long as I have been a serious movie buff. That’s a long time, and the quizzerly part of my brain (i.e., the part that stores useless trivia in memory locations reserved for what I need to get from the store on the way back from work today) has used these years to collect a whole bunch of interesting trivia about one of the most coveted set of film awards on the planet.

Or at least the part of the planet I inhabit. Aamir Khan, for instance, is well known for not attending the Filmfare awards or any other Indian award show, but pulled out all the stops while promoting Lagaan in the run-up to the Oscars. I’m sure he has his reasons, but the point I’m trying to make is this: we (our film industry as well as the unwashed masses) celebrate the Oscars more than any other film award.

For a long time, I subscribed to that view. In some ways, I think I still do. I couldn’t stop grinning when Scorsese finally won Best Director, even if The Departed wasn’t his best work. As much as I thought that Slumdog was one of Rahman’s least impressive albums, I still celebrated when he won a couple of statuettes. Resul Pookutty’s win was another huge moment.

But strangely enough, it was Slumdog‘s Best Picture win that changed my thinking about the Oscars. Personally, I thought the film was a well-made but badly written work that didn’t deserve all the praise it was getting. I could also see, however, that a lot of Westerners liked the film, so I even wondered if I would’ve been more charitable towards it, had it been set in some other developing country — say, Brazil — rather than India.

Then I realized something: Slumdog won Best Picture, not because it was the piece of work most people in the Academy admired. It won because it was the piece of work most of them liked. As much as I admire Citizen Kane (nominated for Best Picture, lost to How Green Was My Valley), my favourite movie is still Before Sunrise (not even nominated).

This year, for instance, most of the awards were cleaned up by a couple of movies  that were, above all, enjoyable. The Artist was a black-and-white silent film that was enjoyed by everyone who got past those two adjectives and actually watched it. Hugo was a love letter to early cinema pioneers in the guise of a children’s film, and an equally enjoyable ride.

Wonderful films? Absolutely. Best Picture candidates? What does that mean, really?

Now, admittedly, the Academy’s “liking” is often tinged with a touch of self-consciousness. Likeable, relevant serious films very often trump comedies and box office successes. Barring a few exceptions, your safest bet for winning a Best Actor/Actress statuette is to play someone who is either dysfunctional or real (often the same thing). It’s as if the Academy voters have a couple of miniature versions of themselves perched on their shoulders arguing:

Oh come on, admit it, you loved it more than any of the other nominees.

It’s a wonderful movie, but does it really deserve to win Best Picture?

Maybe, as the Clint Eastwood character says in Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

ps: In case you were wondering, Brando lost to Bogie for The African Queen. And the Best Picture award in 1952 went to a musical: An American in Paris.

pps: The title of this post is a reference to a Chris Rock sketch introducing the 2005 Oscar ceremony, where he asked random people on the street whether they had watched any of the big nominees that year (Million Dollar Baby, Sideways, Ray, The Aviator, Finding Neverland), and it turned out that most of them hadn’t. On the other hand, all of them had watched and enjoyed a critically-panned Marlon Wayans starrer named White Chicks. Finally, he gets to a serious-looking guy who says he has watched all of the nominees. But when Rock asks him if he has watched White Chicks, his face lights up and he says, “Best movie of the year!”

ppps: Plus, I figure an offensive title like that would get my blog a lot of eyeballs on Women’s Day.

pppps: You realize I was kidding about that last line right?

Thoughts on the 2011 Oscars

  • As award ceremonies go, this one has to rank among the worst in recent memory. Anne Hathaway, an actress I otherwise admire immensely, looked like she was having as much fun as a thirteen year old girl watching Princess Diaries 2. Watching her performing co-host duties, however, was about as much fun as I, a thirty-something male, had while watching said movie. (Yeah, I’ve watched it. So sue me.)
  • James Franco looked like he was on pot, but without the more hilarious after-effects he displayed in Pineapple Express or in the similarly themed snippet he and Seth Rogen did a couple of years ago at the Oscars. Seriously, how do you go through a whole Oscarcast without a single funny line?
  • Most of the laughs came from brief appearances by Billy Crystal and Bob Hope. There’s a reason why these guys have hosted this ceremony 8 and 18 times respectively. Crystal even got a standing ovation, which says a lot about how the attendees felt as well.
  • Why did they have to embarass Kirk Douglas by calling him up on stage? It wasn’t as entertaining as they made it seem. Those repeated you-knows seemed more about senility than suspense.
  • I absolutely loved Spielberg’s comments before presenting the award for Best Picture. Put the award in perspective very nicely.
  • High point of the whole event: Vodafone’s 3G launch ad. If I get around to updating my Favourite Superhero Movies list, this one will get an honourable mention at the very least.

Winners and acceptance speeches…

  • As acceptance speeches go, David Seidler (who took home the Best Original Screenplay statuette for The King’s Speech) ranked highest. It took away at least a bit of my frustration about Chris Nolan not winning for Inception. I liked how Speech took a simple story and invested it with so much drama, but in terms of sheer achievement in telling a more or less impenetrable story and making us care, Inception ought to get more brownie points than it did, don’t you think? Was it simply a case of being too difficult to understand?
  • Then again, this has happened before — Adaptation lost to The Pianist in 2002 for no apparent reason other than that it was too complex. As good as the latter movie was, I thought the former was a bigger achievement in adapting a virtually unadaptable book. I mean, how often does your imaginary twin, whom you created for the purpose of telling the story, get nominated for an Oscar along with you? (They did make up for it and give Kaufman the award for Eternal Sunshine a couple of years later. Is that why Inception didn’t win? That the academy quota for awards to mind-raider scripts was over?)
  • I’m glad Inception took home most of  the technical awards, though. Rolling up a city is tough to argue with, I guess.
  • Colin Firth’s speech was lovely as well. Long, thanked a whole bunch of people, but made it work. I sometimes wonder if academy voters are partial to Brits because they do such a good job on stage after collecting their award. Even Kate Winslet, after she had gotten her post-orgasmic thank-yous out of the way at the Golden Globes, did pretty well, what with asking her dad to whistle and everything.
  • I’m glad The Fighter won the two awards it deserved. Melissa F-word Leo and Christian Bale were absolutely outstanding  in that film. There were a few other deserving nominees in those categories for sure, but these two weren’t undeserving winners.
  • The Social Network took home the awards it deserved as well. As for the award for Editing, I am not quite clear how one goes about judging that one. Is it about trying to present a lot of material in a cogent manner (in which case, wouldn’t it be about the screenplay as well), or aboout effectively presenting a fragmented narrative, or… what exactly does one have to do to win this award? Part of my confusion arises from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies where he talks about how difficult it is to talk about editing simply by watching the movie. The only movie I can think of that was an obvious contender for an editing award is JFK. Nothing else compares, really.
  • Speaking of editing, why does it take the folks back home a whole week to edit and telecast the Filmfare awards, while the Oscars have no more than a tape delay? Does it have to do with all those crappy medley performances with long pauses for costume changes in between?

Some thoughts on the Oscar ceremony

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were, by and large, unfunny. Martin was the better of the two — there were moments when it seemed like Alec Baldwin had forgotten his glasses and was having trouble reading off the teleprompter. When they did get their timing right, it was awesome to watch. The quip about Christoph Waltz’s Jew Hunter role was hilarious, and no one laughed harder than Sandra Bullock when Steve Martin asked, “Who doesn’t like Sandra Bullock?” and Baldwin replied, “We’ll know before the night is out.”

As it happened, enough people liked Sandra. I doubt I’d have voted for her though. I mean, it’s a good performance, but I am not sure it’s Best Actress material. Having said that, she was quite gracious in her acceptance speech, which she began by asking: “Did I really deserve this, or did I just wear you down?”

As acceptances speeches go, this wasn’t a brilliant year. Christoph Waltz gave a beautiful acceptance speech that paid rich tribute to Tarantino’s idiosyncratic vision, but that was the high point. Jeff Bridges gave the sort of speech you might expect The Dude to give, and Monique seemed to have a lot of stored up anger about industry politics. Her point about Hattie McDaniel was quite valid, though — back when she won for Gone with the Wind, she had to sit at a separate table during the awards dinner.

A word on some of the presenters: Robert Downey Jr. and Tina Fey were awesome, and Steve Carell was good as ever. As for Ben Stiller, every time he comes on stage to present an award, he makes you wish they’d invite him to host the whole thing. Sean Penn was… well, Sean Penn. And please, folks, is it too much to ask for a Seth Rogen sketch every year? One with Zack and Miri thinking of porn versions of this year’s nominees, maybe. Oh wait, Ben Stiller more or less did that at the Independent Spirit awards a few nights ago.

One very heartening moment for me personally was Woody Harrelson’s nomination for The Messenger. A long time ago, I wrote about a scene in We Were Soldiers that focused on the plight of men whose job it is to notify the next of kin when a soldier dies. I felt that their story deserved to be told — looks like someone was listening.

My favourite part, by far, was when Sound Editing was explained to us morons through a voiceover by Morgan Freeman. There are few greater pleasures in the movies than the sound of Freeman’s voice. (More on that in my Invictus post, coming soon.) Now, if they could follow that up with a Martin Scorsese narration…

Big mystery: Why did George Clooney look like Ryan Bingham would if he hated his job?

Will someone please, for the love of God, tell Miley Cyrus to dress up like she’s a seventeen year old?

My guess is, no matter what he does, Neil Patrick Harris will never escape the shadow of his childhood stardom. He could be up there on stage doing A Streetcar Named Desire and making Brando look like a bloody amateur, and our first thought would still be, “Dude, what’s Doogie Howser doing up there?”

The Reader

After having watched The Reader I realized something interesting: It is a movie about guilt and involves a former guard at Auswicz, but this description simultaneously tells you everything and nothing.

I will not spend much time on the plot, which is beautiful. Or on the writing, which feels like a punch to the gut. Or on the direction, which is unquestionably splendid.I will speak, instead, of the experience of watching Kate Winslet playing Hanna Schmitz.

When you first see her, she is a middle-aged woman, still beautiful, still vibrant, but possessed of demons that we can only guess at. She can be brusque, almost cruel, and yet is capable of tenderness and joy. You can understand the fifteen year-old Michael’s fascination with her. There is a scene in a church where she is moved to tears by the choir, and Michael observes her, smiling. Winslet is so radiant in that scene that you can understand what he feels like to bask in it.

When we see her next, she is on trial for being complicit in the murder of Jews at Auswicz. I cannot overstate how much heavy lifting Winslet does in this segment. The trial itself has some of the most interesting dialogue I have heard in the movies. Consider how difficult it might be to try and humanize someone like that. Oh, I don’t mean “humanize” in the sense of excusing her guilt with any kind of pop psychology. But think about how the only faces of the perpetrators of the Holocaust that we encounter in the history books and in fiction are the ones who are shown as obviously evil. Eight thousand people worked at Auswicz, yet only a handful were convicted of murder. Did the rest of them not know what they were involved in?

The third act shows Hanna as an old woman. It shows how a haggard, almost zombie-like prisoner suddenly finds herself rejuvenated when she begins to receive tapes of Michael reading out loud to her, as he used to during that summer years ago when they were lovers. From Hanna’s standpoint, she had two lives: one involving her job as an SS guard, and another involving her affair with the young Michael. It is in this segment that these two lives collide. It all culminates in a scene of surprising power between Hanna and Michael, where little is said but much is resolved. Watch Winslet’s eyes and body language in this scene. Watch how she tries to reach out from the world she lives in to the world she once had, and how she reacts to him as the scene progresses.

The counterpoint to her performance is provided by a pair of actors – David Kross playing the younger Michael and Ralph Fiennes playing the older one. While Kross has done an absolutely fabulous job, his role is more of a foil to Winslet’s character in the first two acts. It is Fiennes who really brings home how much these experiences have affected him. Watch how he struggles with his own guilt in the scene with a Holocaust survivor (played by Lena Olin) who testified against Hanna at the trial. It is amazing how much the man conveys while playing such an emotionally closed-off character.

As good as they both are, the movie belongs to Kate Winslet. The Oscars have had a dubious tradition of honouring the person rather than his/her work in a movie. What with Winslet being nominated so many times without winning anything, I always feared that she might finally end up winning for a decent performance in a weak year. The good news is, The Reader features her best performance to date — if she hadn’t won for this one, she might as well not have won at all. The even better news is, she’s still working.

Open question: Schrodinger’s Death Match

I woke up early on Monday morning a week ago so I could watch the Oscarcast on TV. Most of it was fairly standard — Kate Winslet’s dad whistling and Philippe Petit balancing the statuette on his chin were the highlights for me. By my reckoning, that’s slim pickings. My wife missed most of it, so when we watched the retelecast in the evening, I noticed a couple of things:

  1. Dustin Lance Black’s speech (Best Original Screenplay, Milk) was snipped a little bit from the morning, specifically the part where he tells all the gay and lesbian people out there that they are beautiful creatures of value, or something on those lines.
  2. Sean Penn’s speech was also snipped. Which part? The ones where he uses the phrase “You commie, homo-loving sons of guns.”

It turns out that the STAR TV network did this across Asia. Once my commie, homo-loving son-of-gun self got over its outrage, my cynical self told me that I should know better than to expect unbiased coverage. At the very least, I should know better than to expect it twice in a row.

So here’s my open question for the day: If we we have a Celebrity Death Match between Sean Penn and Rupert Murdoch, who will win?

Penn’s experience in tactfully dealing with the paparazzi makes him the odds-on favourite. However, Murdoch’s handiness with a pair of scissors means that, if he has anything to do with it, we’ll never really know how many blows Penn actually landed on him. 

What do you guys think?

Mickey Rourke

Did any of you happen to see Mickey Rourke’s speech at the Indie Spirit awards last week? This is what he did up on stage:

I’m happy for Sean Penn, I really am. He probably deserved the award as much as Mickey did (I haven’t seen either movie yet, so I can’t comment). But as acceptance speeches go, he isn’t in the same league.

Then again, nobody is.

To Kate Winslet, Part Deux

Dear Kate,

Ref: My earlier letter to you regarding accepting awards that are surely your due by now

Congratulations! I couldn’t be happier.

Good speech, too.  Not outstanding, but definitely an improvement. Asking your dad to whistle — and, to our delight, actually hearing him do it — was an especially nice touch. My only regret at that point was that Lauren Bacall wasn’t around for a reaction shot.

Keep ’em coming!



It is written. But not very well, I’m afraid.

At the time of writing this, Slumdog has already won over audiences around the world, snagged a few Golden Globes (and other awards besides) and is widely expected to take home some statuettes on Oscar night. And I’m happy for the cast and crew who made it this far. I really am. But here’s what I cannot get around:

The movie simply did not work for me.

There’s enough to like, believe me. The movie is beautifully structured, the concept is interesting, the performances are quite good, the camerawork is amazing… But at the end of the day, I did not feel emotionally attached to this tale of a ragamuffin from Mumbai surviving a baptism in shit, communal riots, a brother’s betrayal and numerous other setbacks to find love and 20 million rupees in the end.

A big part of that is the writing. Sample this exchange between Jamal and Latika right at the end:

Jamal: I knew you’d be watching.

Latika: I thought we would meet only in death.

Jamal: This is our destiny.

Latika: Kiss me.

If the structuring of the story and the concept are interesting enough to warrant an Oscar nomination, then tripe like the above should warrant a Razzie nomination as well. I agree that dramatic lines like this are an integral part of our own films, but the good ones learn to do it with a modicum of panache. For a movie that’s been feted all over the place, it’s surprising how pedestrian the dialogue is. When Salim tells his brother, “The man with the Colt45 says ‘Shut up!'”, I wanted to barf.

The sad part is, the performances are pretty good but are hamstrung by the dialogue. The kids who play the younger and adolescent Jamal, Salim and Latika are fantastic. Dev Patel is quite good as the older Jamal — I was initially apprehensive about his accent being a distraction, but he managed to hold my attention despite that. The actors who play Salim do a pretty good job. Frieda Pinto looks like a million bucks, but has little to do. She does adequately. Anil Kapoor is suitably supercilious — I doubt a real game show host would be this condescending on live TV, but he makes it work. Irrfan Khan is his usual dependable self.

Three of the Oscar nominations have gone to A. R. Rahman. This is genuinely puzzling, because I can’t think of a single good thing to say about the music. The celebrated Jai Ho is earth-shatteringly nondescript. I sat there listening to the song and thinking, “They love him for this?”

Rahman’s music has brightened my days for the better part of two decades now. But he’s done much better than this. Then again, sometimes the Oscars are about granting overdue recognition. If Judi Dench could win for Shakespeare in Love, then our man certainly deserves a statuette for this score.

Let me leave you with a question that has been on my mind since yesterday. I don’t think the things I have spoken of in this review add up to why the movie didn’t work for me. There was something else missing, maybe a sense of wonder, of seeing something I hadn’t seen before. Is it that I have become desensitized to the poverty I see around me? Would I have loved this movie if it was set in, say, Brazil instead?

Thank you, etc.

Not from me, although I have much to be thankful for. This one is about acceptance speeches.

My friend Rajendran posted a comment to my Kate Winslet post asking whether the reference to Emma Thompson was due to her acceptance speech at the Globes years ago, for Sense and Sensibility (Thompson won for Best Adapted Screenplay). And I realized that not many people might know about this little gem. So here it is, in full:


Thank you very much. Good Heavens. Um, I can’t thank you enough, Hollywood Foreign Press, for honoring me in this capacity. I don’t wish to burden you with my debts, which are heavy and numerous but, um, I think that everybody involved in the making of this film knows that we owe all our pride and all our joy to the genius of Jane Austen. And it occurred to me to wonder how she would react to an evening like this… [Puts down statue on stage, reads paper] And this is what I came up with.

Four a.m., having just returned from an evening at the Golden Spheres, which despite the inconveniences of heat, noise and overcrowding was not without its pleasures. Thankfully, there were no dogs and no children. The gowns were middling. There was a good deal of shouting and behavior verging on the profligate, however, people were very free with their compliments and I made several new acquaintences. There was Lindsay Doran of Mirage, wherever that might be, who’s largely responsible for my presence here, an enchanting companion about whom too much good cannot be said. Mr. Ang Lee, of foreign extraction, who most unexpectedly appeared to understand me better than I understand myself. Mr. James Shamis, a most copiously erudite person and Miss Kate Winslet, beautiful in both countenance and spirit. Mr. Pat Doyle, a composer and Scot, who displayed the kind of wild behavior one has learned to expect from that race. Mr. Mark Kenton, an energetic person with a ready smile who, as I understand it, owes me a great deal of money. [Breaks character, smiles] TRUE!! [back in character] Miss Lisa Hanson of Columbia, a lovely girl and Mr. Garrett Wiggin, a lovely boy. I attempted to converse with Mr. Sydney Pollack, but his charms and wisdom are so generally pleasing, that it proved impossible to get within ten feet of him. The room was full of interesting activity until 11 p.m. when it emptied rather suddenly. The lateness of the hour is due, therefore, not to the dance, but to waiting in a long line for a horseless carriage of unconscionable size. The modern world has clearly done nothing for transport.

P.S. Managed to avoid the hoyden Emily Thompson, who has purloined my creation and added things of her own. Nefarious Creature!

Thank you.


This is the sort of speech that makes for a wonderful trivia question, and warms the cockles of my quizzing heart. She followed this up with an Oscar win as well, although that speech was marginally less wonderful:


I don’t really know how to thank the Academy for this. And if I try we’ll be here till Christmas. So I better get on…

Before I came, I went to visit Jane Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral to pay my respects, you know, and tell her about the grosses. I don’t know how she would react to an evening like this, but I do hope — I do hope she knows how big she is in Uruguay.

Profound thanks to Columbia Pictures and the lovely forms of Lisa Henson, Gary Wiggan, and Mark Canter for hiring a first-time writer; to James Shamus for his rare intelligence; to Sidney Pollack for asking all the right questions, like ‘Why couldn’t these women go out and get a job?’ Why, indeed. To the cast and crew, for being impeccable. To my friend and my teacher, Lindsay Doran, for being the single most frustrating reason why I can’t claim all the credit for myself. And finally, I would like with your permission to dedicate this Oscar to our director, Ang Lee. Ang, wherever you are, this is for you. Thank you.

Source: Wikiquote

Bonus feature

Since I am in a generous mood (also since I don’t have to do much else other than cut-pasting these items here), here are Youtube links to Hugh Grant’s acceptance speech for his second Golden Globe win (Best Actor in a TV Series – Drama, for House):