2008 Oscar Wrap-Up

It was one of the shortest ceremonies in memory (roughly 3 hours and 20 minutes) and not without a couple of jolting surprises.  The 80th annual Academy Awards were a mix of predictability and shock, originality and recycling, humourous quips and earnest, heartfelt sentiments.
 
As expected, the big winner was No Country For Old Men which took home Best Picture.  Joel and Ethan Coen picked up golden statues for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.  The last time they accepted an Oscar was in 1997 when their overrated Fargo won for Best Original Screenplay.  Javier Bardem, who attended the ceremony with his Spanish-speaking mother, picked up the Best Supporting Actor trophy.  He played Anton, the serial killer with the strange haircut and bad limp.  All in all, the film won four Academy Awards, the most of any movie nominated this year.
 
The highly acclaimed summer blockbuster, The Bourne Ultimatum, won everything it was up for:  Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.  Considering how strong the critical reviews were for this three-quel, one wonders why it didn’t receive further recognition in the major categories.
 
Other expected victors included Ratatouille for Best Animated Feature (this marks the third Oscar for Pixar in this category), The Counterfeiters for Best Foreign Language Film, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age for Best Costume Design.
 
But there were four major upsets.  Both Julie Christie and Ellen Page had to watch the ravishing French actress Marion Cotillard warmly embrace Best Actor winner Forest Whitaker on stage before she accepted the Best Actress award for her well received performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose.  “It’s true there are angels in this city,” she concluded.  The film also won for Best Make-Up.
 
Best Visual Effects didn’t go to Transformers, the presumptive favourite.  Instead, it went to The Golden Compass.
 
The Best Documentary Feature Oscar went not to Sicko or No End In Sight, but to Taxi To The Dark Side.  Alex Gibney gave a short, compelling speech about how his father, an outraged member of the American military, urged him to make this movie about torture in Afghanistan so that the country could start coming out of the darkness “and into the light”.
 
And in the wide open Best Supporting Actress race, Tilda Swinton looked stunned as her name was announced as the winner for her work as a slimy CEO in damage control mode in the well reviewed but little seen Michael Clayton, which just recently became available on DVD.  How fitting that last year’s Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin (himself, an unexpected victor) presented the award.  In one of the best speeches of the night, the redheaded Brit promised her American agent the award who she said resembled the Oscar trophy itself, especially, “the buttocks”.  She also gave George Clooney one more humourous reason to be embarrassed about his failed Batman And Robin.
 
A clearly touched Diablo Cody dedicated her Best Original Screenplay Oscar to the writers and unlike most winners this year, she thanked her fellow nominees in her category.  Classy babe.  The first-time writer of the beloved Juno failed to fight back tears as she wrapped up her brief acceptance speech.  When she told Best Director nominee Jason Reitman that he was like family to her he had a difficult time keeping his eyes dry, too.
 
Daniel Day-Lewis won his second Best Actor trophy for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, another expected win.  (The film also won for Best Cinematography.)  He graciously embraced fellow nominee George Clooney on his way to the stage where he then went down on one knee for last year’s Best Actress winner, the regal-looking (and hot) Helen Mirren, who good naturedly “knighted” him with his Oscar.  He went on to thank his lovely and talented filmmaker wife, Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity), and dedicated the award to his grandfather, dad and three sons. 
 
97-year-old production designer Robert Boyle won an honourary Oscar for the many, many years of work he put into numerous Hollywood productions over his long respected career.  During his speech, he thanked the late Alfred Hitchcock and Norman Jewison for hiring him for jobs on North By Northwest, Shadow Of A Doubt and Fiddler On The Roof.  The best moment, though, occurred right at the start after a minute-long standing ovation.  When it died down, he quipped, “That’s the best part about getting old.  I don’t recommend the other.”  (For the complete list of winners, scroll down to the bottom of this entry.)
 
After receiving some unfair criticisms for his first hosting stint two years ago (I thought he was funny), Jon Stewart actually performed better during his monologue this year.  Not that it really matters, but the audience appeared more receptive this time than in 2006.  And it was nice to hear the words “Gadolph Titler” for the first time in quite a bit.  (I’m fairly certain that’s a recycled punchline from The Daily Show.  I don’t care.  It’s still hilarious.)  Mixing politics with material about the Oscar nominees was a wise choice.  (I counted only two jokes that didn’t work.  Pretty damn good.)  And there were some funny bits sprinkled throughout the show, as well.  Goofing on the “rejected” film montages, Bad Dreams: An Oscar Salute and a compendium of clips featuring binoculars and periscopes, worked well.  Some bits and intros fell flat, though, but mostly, he did as good a job overall as he did in ’06.
 
Some other observations and unanswered questions:
 
What’s with those three very noticable holes in singer/guitarist (and co-winner of the Best Original Song Oscar) Glen Hansard’s diseased acoustic guitar?  Maybe I should see Once since it’s the same guitar from the movie.
 
Who knew helium-voiced Kristen Chenoweth could sound so womanly when she sings?
 
Josh Brolin and James MacAvoy amusingly spun around during their loose presentation.  After doing an impression of Jack Nicholson, Brolin rather endearingly apologized to him directly for not nailing it.  The always smiling Jack didn’t seem to mind.  Honestly, what could possibly piss off Jack Nicholson at this point?  Right.  The end of Viagra.  My bad.
 
If the Best Original Song and Best Original Score categories disappeared, would anyone miss them?
 
Does Colin Farrell only announce Irish Best Original Song nominees?  (In 2003, he introduced U2’s nominated song, The Hands That Built America, from Gangs Of New York.)  I don’t remember him doing anything else at the Oscars.
 
How nice was it for Jon Stewart and the Oscarcast to allow Marketa Irglova, co-winner of the Best Original Song award, a second chance to say thanks after she was rudely interrupted by that infernal Bill Conti and his dopey orchestra?  It’s too bad she gave Russell Crowe’s Best Actor speech from 2001.  (You know, if you have a dream, it is possible.  For you, maybe.)
 
Even with those ridiculous black feathers, Penelope Cruz is still ridiculously beautiful.
 
How come Brad Renfro wasn’t mentioned in the annual In Memoriam clip montage?
 
That 11-year-old August Rush singer is remarkably good.
 
Michael Bay is an Academy member?
 
 
The complete list of winners:
 
BEST PICTURE – NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
 
BEST DIRECTOR – Joel and Ethan Coen (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)
 
BEST ACTOR – Daniel Day-Lewis (THERE WILL BE BLOOD)
 
BEST ACTRESS – Marion Cotillard (LA VIE EN ROSE)
 
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Javier Bardem (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)
 
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Tilda Swinton (MICHAEL CLAYTON)
 
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – RATATOUILLE
 
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE MOVIE – THE COUNTERFEITERS
 
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE
 
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – Diablo Cody (JUNO)
 
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – Joel and Ethan Coen (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)
 
BEST ORIGINAL SONG – Falling Slowly (ONCE)
 
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – ATONEMENT
 
BEST COSTUME DESIGN – ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE
 
BEST MAKE-UP – LA VIE EN ROSE
 
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – THE GOLDEN COMPASS
 
BEST ART DIRECTION – SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
 
BEST FILM EDITING – THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
 
BEST SOUND EFFECTS EDITING – THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
 
BEST SOUND MIXING – THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
 
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – THERE WILL BE BLOOD
 
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT – FREEHELD
 
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – THE MOZART OF PICKPOCKETS
 
BEST ANIMATED SHORT – PETER & THE WOLF
 
 
Special Oscar
 
Honourary Oscar – Production Designer Robert Boyle
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 25, 2008
2:13 a.m.
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Published in: on February 25, 2008 at 2:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Sky High

Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston play two of the least convincing and least interesting cinematic superheroes you’ll ever see in Sky High.  He’s Commander, an arrogant, self-absorbed strong man and she’s Jetstream, a high-flying long-haired babe.  His costume looks like it was made for a rejected character named Chess Nerd.   And hers?  Not enough cleavage.
 
They’re a married couple who also work as real estate agents.  (Remember, every superhero has to have a secret identity and crappy cover job.  And yes, they both wear specs.)  Their teenage son, Will (a sadly miscast and charisma-free Michael Angarano), is in a panic.  He’s about to start attending Sky High, a special school for wouldbe superheroes, and he doesn’t know if he has a superpower or not.  He keeps his dilemma a secret for fear of pissing off his parents.  Commander has great ambitions for him and he wouldn’t want to let him down.  Fortunately, they’re both dumber than dirt so he has no problem keeping them in the dark.
 
Why is this secondary institution called Sky High?  Because of its location.  A bus driver named Ron (Kevin Heffernan) takes them to and fro every school day in his flying orange spaceship.  Sky High is literally a floating island unto itself, always moving around to avoid detection by nefarious baddies.  (An underground lair would probably be safer, but never mind.)
 
Keep in mind this is a school for good guys.  (More on that in a moment.)  During gym class, Sonic Boom (a wasted Bruce Campbell) informs the new recruits that they have to demonstrate their special abilities in order for him to determine what kind of training they’ll be receiving.  If they have a really cool superpower, they get the Hero training.  If it’s lame, Sidekick or Hero Support.
 
Because Will’s power hasn’t materialized, he joins his pals in the Sidekick class.  There’s glow-in-the-dark Zach (Nicholas Braun), shapeshifting Magenta (cute Kelly Vitz), nerdy ass-kissing Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels) who turns into a puddle and redheaded Layla (lovely Danielle Panabaker) who secretly pines for longtime pal Will.  Layla might have the lamest superpower of them all.  She can make dead plants come alive again (and vice versa, depending on her mood).  Watch out, weeds.  Your days are numbered.
 
Meanwhile, Will finds himself mesmerized by Gwen (the exquisite Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Sky High’s overly friendly student body president and head of the homecoming committee.  However, long before the complete truth is unveiled, her motives are completely transparent.  But wouldn’t you know it, not one person clues in about this.  (Why are our heroes written so stupidly?  And didn’t we see this plot in Teen Wolf?)
 
Remember how I mentioned that this is a school for good guys?  Well, for some unknown reason, the place has bullies.  (Gee, that’s not suspicious.)  Speed (Will Harris), the fastest fatman, and Lash (Jake Sandvig), a jerky teenage Plastic-Man-type, love tormenting the sidekicks.  Principal Powers (a still ravishing Lynda Carter) doesn’t exactly go out of her way to protect the freshmen students, so these assclowns have their run of the place.  They have a snooty cheerleader pal who can clone herself six times and who loves Will’s friends about as much as Hitler loved the Jews.  In other words, not so much.
 
During a cafeteria scene, Will learns about the son of one of his father’s old enemies, the fireball-throwing Warren Peace (talk about excruciating).  Holding a grudge, Warren makes it clear that vengeance is on his mind which leads to a remarkably unexciting fight sequence, instigated in no small part by Lash and Speed.  Near the end of it, Will’s paternal genes kick in and soon, he’s transferred to the Hero class where Gwen continues to weave her spell on him.
 
As Gwen and Will become closer, Layla can’t hide her feelings for him anymore.  She confides in Warren (played by Josh Harnett soundalike, Steven Strait) who, unsurprisingly, isn’t as bad a guy as he lets on.  He agrees to pretend to be her date for the Homecoming Dance (where Will’s parents are scheduled to receive a special award) in order to drive Layla’s unrequited love crazy.
 
Shocking as it may seem, Sky High got great reviews upon its commercially successful theatrical release in the summer of 2005.  How depressing.  This is a plodding, uninvolving, mostly unfunny failure.  (Kevin McDonald’s big-headed scientist is the only funny character.)  The heroes are boring, their superpowers are unoriginal, the villains are lame, the story is predictable, the costumes and set design look bad, all the romantic pairings lack chemistry and most importantly, no one looks like they’re having much fun.  I can see why.  Sky High is no different than real high school.  Even Dave Foley, playing one of the teachers and Russell’s old sidekick, All-American Boy, can’t bring the funny.  (And what’s the deal with alll those retro cover songs on the soundtrack?  Too cheap to shell out for the originals, Disney?)
 
Have things in the movie business gotten so bad that ripping off Teen Wolf and other similiarly themed films become accepted as true creativity?  Where’s the imagination, the heart, the big laughs, the originality?  They’re all on vacation, apparently.
 
This is one of those times where you also question the sanity of professional film critics.  They’re supposed to be jaded towards formulaic dreck like this and generally have builit-in bullshit detectors.  How can the majority of them who praised this awful movie look themselves in the mirror and believe that this is fine entertainment?
 
Sky High could have been something special in the hands of more courageous and talented filmmakers.  It wouldn’t look so cheap and bore so easily.  What a waste.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
3:34 p.m.
Published in: on February 20, 2008 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Simpsons Movie

What do you do with long beloved characters from Television when it comes down to making a credible theatrical feature?  Let’s be more specific.  How do you take the longest running animated prime time sitcom in history, which has continually and surprisingly moved us and makes us laugh 22 minutes at a time, and deliver an entertaining story that’s nearly an hour and a half long?  How do you do it?
 
This was the long-term dilemma facing the creative staff of The Simpsons.  The idea of making a movie about America’s favourite yellow family has been kicking around for over a decade.  But it didn’t become a reality until recently.  In the summer of 2007, The Simpsons Movie (could there be any other title?) finally arrived in theatres.  How anticipated was its release?  In its first weekend, the film made back its 75 million dollar budget.
 
So, how did they do it?  Easy.  With trademark wit and warmth, some computer enhanced tweaking of its delightfully quirky animation and by drafting 158 versions of the script.  (Why not 159?  Pussies.)
 
All that hard work has undoubtedly paid off.  The Simpsons Movie is not only clever and tremendously funny, it’s also sweet and sly, too.
 
The environment is the real star of the film.  Brainy Lisa Simpson is having a hard time convincing the citizens of Springfield that their cozy, little lives will cease to exist if they continue to pollute the town’s water supply with their garbage.  (She’s looking at you, crazy cat lady!)  During a church service, senile dozer Grandpa Simpson warns of great dangers to come through mysterious, short sentences.  (If you pay close attention, you can figure out one of them immediately, especially if you have your closed captioning on.)  No one listens to either of them.  But Lisa does find an ally in an Irish boy named Colin who she crushes on madly, much to the consternation of terminal loser, Millhouse, who foolishly continues to pine for her.  This subplot doesn’t get the greatest amount of attention but it’s nice to see the smartest Simpson engaged in an endearing puppy dog romance.
 
Thanks to a stunt Lisa pulls during her presentation at City Hall, Mayor Joe Quimby insists on the construction of a wall that surrounds the contaminated water.  It’s seemingly "idiot-proof" (Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel can’t get past it) until a desperate Homer Simpson drives right through it hoping to dump a silo full of excrement.  (I wouldn’t dream of revealing why.)
 
At any event, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the slimy Russ Cargill (well voiced by Albert Brooks), informs the President of The United States that Springfield has become a threat to the rest of the country and must be contained.  With his unwitting approval, the town is soon encased in a giant glass dome and Homer becomes a target of mob hate.  To reveal more of the story would be a mistake.
 
This is a beautiful looking feature.  The colours are more vibrant and the scenes have more depth and detail than the TV episodes.  It’s the kind of animated movie you’d like to watch with the sound off just so you can take a closer look at the overall visual presentation without being distracted by the dialogue and plot.
 
Speaking of the plot, it’s nicely straightforward if a bit predictable in places and yet it’s also sly, too.  You gotta love a movie that has characters complaining about people preaching about the environment while simultaneously inserting helpful tips on saving the planet.  (Listen closely to what Lisa and Colin say when they first meet.)  If you’re familiar with any of the episodes of this nearly 20-year-old show, you’ll recognize some familiar elements like Bart once again appealing to the better angels of next door neighbour Ned Flanders when he feels let down by Homer, and the garbage storyline.
 
Hearing the voice talents of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer remains great fun.  It’s still stunning to realize that Castellaneta, Cartwright, Azaria and Shearer alone are responsible for breathing life into some 60 characters or so, human and animal.  (Do they get paid per voice characterization?)  As with the TV series, there are some plum celebrity cameos, too.  Not only is Green Day’s moment inspired, they also do a killer version of The Simpsons theme, the best rendition since Sonic Youth’s.
 
Many of the jokes, a mixture of sight gags, physical comedy and one-liners, are very strong, with Republicans deservedly taking a lot of pointedly aimed shots.  (There’s plenty of stuff in the closing credits to keep you amused, as well.)  It’s nice to see a comedy like this actually surprise you with its material which results in very big laughs.  (Its style is very reminiscent of those Naked Gun and Hot Shots! movies.  It’s literally crammed with funny.)  Talking about any of these specifically would needlessly hinder your enjoyment of the film.  What can be said is that it’s as funny as the first two Shreks.
 
Inevitably, though, some bits fall flat (even dumb guys can let you down on occasion) and some of the many popular supporting characters get very little screen time.  (And, no, I’m not mentioning any names.)  Fewer painful pratfalls and violent gags would’ve been preferable, too. 
 
And yes, maybe it’s not entirely suspenseful at times, either.  But The Simpsons Movie has enough humourous moments (we’re talking the sore jaw variety), a good heart and cleverness to keep you watching and more importantly, entertained.  (The environmental plot would never have happened were it not for Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.)
 
So, that’s how they did it.
 
(Special thanks to Rob Kerr.)
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
2:17 p.m.
Published in: on February 19, 2008 at 2:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hit Cover Songs Mistaken For Originals (Part One)

Songwriting is an elusive art form.  Inspiration for that great single is frequently beyond your control, no matter how hard you try.  Think about it.  Developing lyrics and melodies that will knock out a large population on a consistent basis seems a fool’s game, especially since being original and successful simultaneously is the most difficult, if not impossible, task of all.  Only the truly gifted are able to churn out hit after hit after hit, making everybody else look like desperate amateurs.  But even the best composers can’t always come up with stellar material of their own.  After all, there are only 13 basic notes to work with day in and day out.

Sometimes, a well-made cover tune can save the day.  Not only that, depending on how strong it is, a musical remake can deceive the listener into thinking it’s not a remake at all.  Generally, it helps that the initial version is not particularly well known.  But sometimes a hit cover can eclipse the chart fortunes of its predecessor to the point where it becomes the definitive version, making the original a forgotten relic of the past.

Here are the first set of examples:

“The Messenger” by The Tea Party

In the 1990s, this Windsor, Ontario trio were among the biggest bands in Canada.  Beginning with their second album, Splendor Solis, Jeff Martin and company became reliable hitmakers for much of the decade with original songs like The River, Fire In The Head and Temptation dominating rock radio.  In 1999, they released their fifth full-length offering, Triptych.  Among the breakout hits were Heaven Coming Down (their only number one hit in Canada), These Living Arms, and Touch.

And then, there was The Messenger.  It sounds like a typical Tea Party ballad with its acoustic guitar opening and Martin’s typicallly anguished vocals.  But a quick perusal of Triptych’s liner notes reveals something surprising.  It’s not an original.

The song was written by Daniel Lanois who initially recorded it for his 1993 solo offering, For The Beauty Of Wynonna.  (It’s the opening number.)  Unlike The Tea Party’s rendition, though, the Hamilton native’s original was not a radio staple.  (Lanois is better known as a superproducer who’s collaborated with performers like U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Luscious Jackson, and, believe it or not, Raffi.)  The band had been playing it live during gigs for years before finally recording a proper studio version for release.

Not only did it appear on Triptych, it was also added to the band’s only greatest hits package, Tangents.  (Heaven Coming Down was the only other Triptych single included on the compilation.)  For a singer/songwriter who’s never had a hit single or a certified album of his own, Lanois must’ve been appreciative of the extra cash The Tea Party’s cover generated for him.  The band can take credit for making it well known even if they didn’t write it.

“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell

It might be the most annoying song of the 1980s.  Memorably irritating from start to finish, this you’ve-done-me-wrong song never really disappeared from the radio or dance clubs, thanks to the continuing endurance of Retro music.  It’s so engrained into the popular culture (popping up in numerous TV shows, commercials and movies) that the mistaken belief it was written by these two DJs from Leeds, England persists.

But truth be told, theirs is the fourth recorded version.

Tainted Love was the brainchild of Ed Cobb, who wrote it for soul singer Gloria Jones in 1964.  It was her first single and her first hit.  Eleven years later, Ruth Swann did her own take on the song.  In 1976, Jones revisited it.  This time, she worked with T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan on the number.  (The following year, they both got into a horrendous car accident which claimed Bolan’s life.  Jones was the driver.)

By 1981, Marc Almond and David Ball were ready to work on their own version.  Desperate for a hit, they relied on a borrowed drum machine and a synclavier (“a rather large computer instrument”, according to the song’s producer, Mike Thorne) for much of the instrumentation.  Almond’s first stab at singing, a standard rehearsal take secretly recorded, is the one that ended up on the record.  In all, the sessions took a day and a half to complete.  The numerous electronic effects were feverishly mixed in real time late one night.  Almond thought at the time it would do no better than crack the Top 50 in England.

He greatly underestimated the song’s appeal.  Not only did it become Soft Cell’s breakthrough single, it hit number one in 17 different countries.  (In 1982, it cracked the Top Ten in America.)  Both the abbreviated 3-minute version and the expanded 9-minute epic (which includes elements of The Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go?) were impossible to avoid.

Since then, the song has been covered by other acts like The Inspiral Carpets, The Living End and The Pussycat Dolls.  Marilyn Manson closely followed the Soft Cell rendition for his contribution to the Not Another Teen Movie soundtrack.  And most recently, Rihanna’s SOS single sampled the song’s famous “bam bam” hook.

But most disheartening of all, it is said that The Clash had this track in their repertoire, as well.  Oh God.  Please.  Someone prove this is not the case.  Alan Cross?  Warren Kinsella?  I turn to you for relief.

“The Twist” by Chubby Checker

Was it a dangerous activity that served as foreplay for immoral acts or was it a simple series of moves that made clubbing with strangers fun?  It all depends on who you talk to.

Hank Ballard was a risque rhythm & blues performer well known for cheeky hits.  (Work With Me, Annie is all about trying to get laid.  “Work” is black slang for “fuck”.  Ditto the phrase, “rock & roll”.  He even made a sequel to it:  Annie Had A Baby.)  In 1958, while on an American tour, he closely observed the movements of his back-up band, The Midnighters, during various gigs.  “I was just watching them go through their [dance] routines, seeing them twist their bodies, and the lyric just came to me – ‘twist’,” he remembered years later in the book, Behind The Hits: Inside Stories Of Classic Pop And Rock And Roll.  It looked like they were “putting out a cigarette with both feet” while “wiping off” their “bottom[s] with a[n]” imaginary “towel to the beat of the music.”.

Inspired, Ballard stole the melody line from a 1955 Drifters song called What’cha Gonna Do.  With the words all worked out, he wanted the music of this new composition to match the moves of his gyrating bandmates, hence the calculated thievery.  Despite thinking he had a major hit on his hands (and a possible dance craze), The Twist, as he called it, was initially a tough sell to his live audiences.  “We went all over the country doing this dance,” he recalled in Behind The Hits.  “It didn’t catch on until we got to Baltimore and Philadelphia.  That’s when the kids caught on to it.”

He was crushed when his record label, King, refused to issue his new recording as a single.  Instead, it was relegated to the flipside of Teardrops On My Letter in 1959.  But when radio DJs started playing the B-Side, The Twist started climbing the pop charts.  One of these jocks, Buddy Deane, who had his own self-named TV show in Baltimore at the time, an American Bandstand-type program, noticed the reaction the song was getting from the teenagers who were dancing to it during a particular broadcast.  According to Hank Ballard, “[h]e called up Dick Clark and told him to come over and see these kids, and hear this record by Hank Ballard called ‘The Twist’.”.

According to Bob Shannon and John Javna, the authors of Behind The Hits, Clark was initially disinterested because he thought it was “another one of those dirty songs”.  Deane somehow convinced him he was wrong and soon, Clark was playing the recording on American Bandstand.  Sure enough, it got a strong reaction from the dancers on that show, too.

The next step was to get Ballard & The Midnighters to appear on Bandstand.  It never happened.  So about a dozen performers were contacted and interviewed by Clark for the purpose of doing a cover.  Freddy Cannon and Danny & The Juniors were among the approached.  But then, Clark remembered this kid Ernest Evans.  He had recorded this song in 1958 called The Class which showcases his impersonations of singers like Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and The Chipmunks.  Clark wondered if Evans could imitate Ballard’s voice.  He could.  Originally nicknamed “Chubby” by his then-employer, a grocery store owner, Candy Clark, Dick’s wife, added “Checker” as an homage to Fats Domino.

According to his official website bio, Checker’s version of The Twist was cut in June 1959 and was met with skepticism by Cameo Parkway label boss, Bernie Lowe, who preferred it as a possible throwaway B-side.  Undaunted, the former Ernest Evans became a promotional machine hocking his version of the record wherever he could.  As the song started climbing Billboard’s singles chart, Ballard’s original started to fall.  By the summer of 1960, some fourteen months after it was recorded, Chubby Checker had a number one single.  It unleashed a phenomenon.

Two years later, the song incredibly returned to the top of the singles listings and soon people like Zsa Zsa Gabor were having their picture taken twisting at the popular Peppermint Lounge.  Checker would go on to have a very good career making hits out of dance crazes.  He even made a sequel to The Twist called Let’s Twist Again.  There was another number called Twistin’ USA.  He even went so far as to remake the song with The Fat Boys in the late 1980s.  Ballard would get his due in Ron Mann’s 1991 documentary, Twist.  Curiously, Checker never mentions Ballard in his official online biography.

Was Hank ever pissed about all of this?  Quite the contrary.  He told Shannon and Javna, “There wouldn’t be a ‘Twist’ if it hadn’t been for Chubby Checker and Dick Clark.  My company couldn’t see it, they couldn’t hear it.  Dick Clark was the one responsible for making it a hit.  I was always grateful to [him] and Chubby Checker for doing ‘The Twist’ cause it put a spark in my career — plus, heh heh, I get my royalties.”

Thirteen years after being inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Hank Ballard died of cancer in 2003.  As for Chubby Checker, he’s still going strong.  He’s got an eponymous line of snack foods now.  Its slogan:  The King Of The Twist Food Products.  To call this shameless would be an understatement.  Not bad for an imitator.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 15, 2008
9:44 p.m.

CORRECTION:  A major factual error was made in the Chubby Checker story.  Lines two through four of paragraph two originally said:  “While touring cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia in the late 1950s, he noticed something unusual.  The kids who came to see him and his back-up band, The Midnighters, play did this rather unique dance.”  That is wrong.  It was The Midnighters who invented The Twist.  This part of the entry has been reworked considerably in order to fix the original mistake.  Also, as a clarification, the description of The Twist, the actual dance, was taken from Chubby Checker’s official website.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, March 22, 2008
1:44 a.m.

CORRECTION 2:  I finally corrected the spelling of Rihanna’s name.  (I originally had it as “Rhianna”.)  I’m sorry for the mistake and wish I had corrected it a lot sooner.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 25, 2012
7:57 p.m.

Published in: on February 15, 2008 at 9:44 pm  Comments (3)  

Oscar Picks (Part Three)

 
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – NO END IN SIGHT
 
Michael Moore made a big mistake not submitting his terrific Fahrenheit 9/11 for consideration of this category several years ago.  By trying to secure a Best Picture nomination instead, he blew his chance at scoring a surefire second Oscar.  Sicko, his take on health care, faces an uphill battle against four titles that deal with Afghanistan (Taxi To The Dark Side), Uganda (War/Dance) and Iraq (Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience, No End In Sight).  Even though it did well with critics and audiences, Moore won’t be invited to take the stage to give a big, fat “I told you so!”.  (When he won five years ago for Bowling For Columbine, another terrific effort, he talked about the phony Iraq war and actually got booed.  Personally, I thought it was the wrong venue for such a statement even though I didn’t disagree with a single word he said.)
 
Instead, he’ll be watching writer/director Charles Ferguson and producer Audrey Marrs make their way down the aisle to accept their Oscars for No End In Sight, the highly acclaimed history of the Iraq invasion that has already won several critics’ awards as well as the Special Jury Prize at The 2007 Sundance Film Festival.  I’m willing to bet he’ll lead a standing ovation when that happens.
 
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – Diablo Cody (JUNO)
 
Unless lovely Ellen Page snags the Best Actress trophy (which could happen but don’t get too optimistic), this will be the sole consolation prize for Juno.  Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), Brad Bird (Ratatouille) and Nancy Oliver (Lars And The Real Girl) can relax and enjoy the show since their names won’t be called.  Tony Gilroy has an outside chance with his script for Michael Clayton but history has proven that a sleeper Best Picture nominee usually wins for writing.  And who doesn’t want to see the
charming, funny and sexy Cody all glammed up and on stage doing her thing?  The first-time screenwriter has thus far lived an entertaining life (author, screenwriter, wife, stepmom, stripper, phone sex operator) which should provide her with some good material for her acceptance speech.
 
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – Joel & Ethan Coen (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)
 
This category focuses on scripts that were inspired by other sources like novels and stage plays. 
 
Christopher Hampton won’t win for Atonement.  Neither will Ronald Harwood (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly).  Director Paul Thomas Anderson will not only lose in that category but in this one as well for writing There Will Be Blood’s screenplay.  And Canadian Sarah Polley, who wrote and directed the acclaimed Away From Her, like Atom Egoyan before her (The Sweet Hereafter), will have to savour her nomination.
 
Why is this all so?  Because The Coen Brothers are going to have a big Oscar night.  Not only will they win Best Picture and Director, they’re going to win for writing the cinematic version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel.  This is their year.
 
 
And here are the rest of my picks:
 
BEST ART DIRECTION – ATONEMENT
 
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
 
BEST COSTUME DESIGN – ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE
 
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT – FREEHELD
 
BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT – AT NIGHT
 
BEST ANIMATED SHORT – I MET THE WALRUS
 
BEST FOREIGN FILM – THE COUNTERFEITERS
 
BEST MAKE-UP – NORBIT
 
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – James Newton Howard (MICHAEL CLAYTON)
 
BEST ORIGINAL SONG – Falling Slowly (ONCE)
 
BEST SOUND EDITING – THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
 
BEST SOUND MIXING – THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
 
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – TRANSFORMERS
 
BEST FILM EDITING – NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
 
The 80th Academy Awards airs Sunday, February 24th at 8:30 p.m. on ABC in the US and CTV in Canada.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, February 14, 2008
1:11 a.m.
Published in: on February 14, 2008 at 1:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Oscar Picks (Part Two)

 
BEST DIRECTOR – Joel & Ethan Coen (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)
 
You hear this complaint nearly every year.  Why arent the five Best Picture nominees exactly the same as the five Best Director nominees?  There’s a very good reason for this.  All academy members vote for the top prize (which goes to the producer(s)) while only directors vote for Best Director.  As a result, it’s very rare to have synchronicity with both categories.  And it’s happened once again this year.
 
Joe Wright, the director of Best Picture nominee Atonement, was snubbed.  In his place is Julian Schnabel who made The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.  Also nominated is second-generation director Jason Reitman (Ivan’s son) for Juno, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men).
 
Schnabel, Reitman, Gilroy and Anderson, this isn’t your year of triumph.  Clear a path to the stage for The Coen Brothers.  History has proven that when someone wins The Director’s Guild Of America prize, far more often than not they win The Best Director Oscar.  Joel & Ethan Coen were so honoured by The DGA and as a result, they’ll be winners at the Oscars February 24th.  Consider it a make-good for Fargo.
 
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Javier Bardem (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)
 
This year’s batch of male scene stealers all made their mark in critically acclaimed dramas and thrillers.  Casey Affleck plays a seemingly gay assassin in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Javier Bardem is a ruthless serial killer in No Country For Old Men, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War, Hal Holbrook is an old man who befriends a young drifter in Into The Wild and Tom Wilkinson portrays a guilt-ridden lawyer in Michael Clayton.
 
Count out Hoffman who won The Best Actor Oscar two years ago for playing Truman Capote.  Wilkinson, who was previously singled out for his work in In The Bedroom, doesn’t have a chance.  Neither does Hal Holbrook.  (How incredible is it that he received his first Oscar nomination at age 82?)
 
After eliminating those choices, we’re left with Affleck and Bardem.  Although the former has won a number of critics prizes for playing the guy who guns down Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem has been trophy collecting like a madman.  (Click here and scroll down to see what I mean.)  More importantly, he delivered one of the most talked about performances of 2007.  It would be an absolute shock if he doesn’t win.
 
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Ruby Dee (AMERICAN GANGSTER)
 
Of all the major categories, this might be the most difficult to predict.  You have Cate Blanchett playing a pseudo Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.  There’s 83-year-old Ruby Dee, up for her first Oscar (amazing), thanks to her work in American Gangster.  Tilda Swinton, who you might remember from Orlando and Adaptation, plays an evil CEO in Michael Clayton.  13-year-old Saoirse Ronan makes a crucial misjudgment in Atonement and beautiful Amy Ryan is a grieving mother in Ben Affleck’s well loved Gone Baby Gone.
 
Child actors rarely get Oscars so count out Ronan.  Swinton and Ryan have done well with critics prizes and either one could snag the golden naked man but I don’t think so.  Blanchett has an outside shot but I don’t believe the academy wants to give her another Oscar right away.  (Remember, she won previously for The Aviator.) 
 
Because she won the SAG Award and has had a long, respected career, I’m going with Ruby Dee.  It’s a shame her late husband, the great Ozzie Davis, can’t be there to cheer her on.  It will be a bittersweet moment when her name is announced and she tries to fight back those tears.
 
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – RATATOUILLE
 
Last year, Happy Feet upset Cars.  Is another surprise in store this year?  Don’t count on it.  Even though Persepolis has its supporters, it’s not likely that this Iranian movie will be the big winner.  Surf’s Up will have to settle for its nomination.
 
Ratatouille was one of the best reviewed films of 2007 and also an enormous blockbuster.  It continues Pixar’s incredible hit streak.  (8 in a row.)  Many people will be incredibly shocked if it loses.  But it won’t.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
1:40 a.m.
Published in: on February 13, 2008 at 1:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Oscar Picks (Part One)

It’s been an annual tradition of this website since its inception nearly two years ago.  We’re less than two weeks away from the 80th Annual Academy Awards and you know what that means.  That’s right.  It’s time to present our predictions for this year’s crop of nominees.
 
Who will win the golden naked man named Oscar and who will develop a nasty heroin habit the minute they lose?  Let’s find out by going through each of the 24 categories one by one.
 
BEST PICTURE – NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
 
Most years, this is an utterly predictable category.  But since Crash upset Brokeback Mountain in 2006 and The Departed surprised many (not me) with its triumph last year, the most important honour of the night has recently become the most exciting.  This year, four critically acclaimed dramas duke it out with a comedy blockbuster.
 
There’s Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan.  A teenager’s misunderstanding leads to a false accusation in this modest grossing British feature.  Michael Clayton has George Clooney playing a “fixer”, an attorney specializing in bailing out shady corporations, during a crucial week of his life.  There Will Be Blood is about a dastardly oilman in the late 1800s.  Juno is a romantic comedy about a pregnant 16-year-old.  And No Country For Old Men, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, involves missing drug money and a ruthless serial killer.
 
We can eliminate Atonement right away.  Although the academy loves to reward period UK productions, it’s not getting much attention at the moment which is a bad sign.  Michael Clayton won’t win for the same reason.  Ditto There Will Be Blood.
 
That leaves Juno and No Country For Old Men.  The former is the biggest grossing nominee this year.  (It recently passed the 100 million mark.)  But comedies routinely get screwed over on Oscar night and that tradition will continue February 24th.  There’s also been a bit of a backlash happening, as well, which Roger Ebert’s Movie Answer Man column has noted.  Besides, The Coen Brothers are due.  Fargo lost in this category eleven years ago.  (It was beaten by The English Patient.)  Furthermore, No Country For Old Men has been winning numerous Best Picture honours (Boston Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics, Central Ohio Film Critics, Chicago Film Critics, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics, Florida Film Critics, Las Vegas Film Critics, National Board Of Review, New York Film Critics, Online Film Critics, The Producers Guild Of America, Phoenix Film Critics, San Diego Film Critics, Satellite Award, Southeastern Film Criitcs, Toronto Film Critics, Washington D.C. Film Critics, Screen Actors Guild (Ensemble Acting)) and has the momentum on its side.  Finally, it’s the best reviewed nominee (94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to Juno’s 93%).  Juno could be a spoiler but I seriously doubt it.  No Country For Old Men will take it.
 
BEST ACTOR – Daniel Day-Lewis (THERE WILL BE BLOOD)
 
Three previous winners, a three-time nominee and Aragorn are competing in the Best Actor In A Leading Role category this year.  George Clooney plays the title role in Michael Clayton.  Daniel Day-Lewis plays another bad dude with a great moustache in There Will Be Blood.  Johnny Depp sings and slices in Tim Burton’s adaptation of the dark musical, Sweeney Todd.  Tommy Lee Jones is trying to solve the mystery of his soldier son In The Valley Of Elah.  And Viggo Mortensen, the star of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, is a Russian mobster in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.
 
Count out Clooney who won The Best Supporting Actor Oscar two years ago playing a fat, bearded guy in Syriana.  Tommy Lee Jones won in the same category in 1994 playing Harrison Ford’s worthy nemesis in The Fugitive.  The academy is not aching to give this cranky old sod another trophy.  Mortensen will have to be content with his nomination.
 
That leaves Depp, who was previously nominated for his first portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates Of The Caribbean:  The Curse Of The Black Pearl) and Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie (Finding Neverland), and Day-Lewis, who won in this category almost 20 years ago for his highly regarded performance in My Left Foot.  The latter was the favourite five years ago, thanks to his brilliant work in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York, but Adrien Brody (The Pianist), the only nominee that year who didn’t already have an Oscar, pulled an upset.  (His other nomination was for In The Name Of The Father.  He played one of the wrongfully convicted Guildford Four.)
 
Depp hasn’t won any major prizes for Sweeney Todd.  (The bowling trophy better known as The Golden Globe doesn’t count.)  Day-Lewis, on the other hand, has been cleaning up.  He’s won a BAFTA (British Oscar), a SAG award, and Best Actor honours from the following film critics’ associations:  Broadcast, Central Ohio, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Florida, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, National Society, New York, Phoenix, San Diego and Southeastern.  (And yes, he, too, won a bowling trophy.)
 
Consider this a make-good for 2003.
 
BEST ACTRESS – Julie Christie (AWAY FROM HER)
 
A mix of new and familiar faces make up the shortlist of this year’s leading actress nominees.  Cate Blanchett reprises her role of Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  Julie Christie (Shampoo) plays a woman slowly slipping away in the Canadian-made Away From Her.  Marion Cotillard is Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose.  Perennial nominee Laura Linney squabbles with brother Philip Seymour Hoffman over their sick father in The Savages.  And Canadian beauty Ellen Page is the pregnant teenager, Juno.
 
Blanchett was previously nominated for playing the legendary British monarch in the superb 1998 movie, Elizabeth.  (She lost to Gwenyth Paltrow.  What a mistake that was.)  She won in 2005 for Best Supporting Actress portraying Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.  Considering how unloved The Golden Age was by critics her nomination was a surprise.  She won’t have to prepare an acceptance speech, though.
 
The stunning French actress Marion Cotillard should worry more about what to wear on February 24th rather than thinking of something memorable to say on stage.  She doesn’t have a prayer.  Besides, she’s already won numerous awards for playing Piaf including a BAFTA award.  Linney has previously been acknowledged for her work in You Can Count On Me and Kinsey, one of the best films of the decade which was unfairly maligned at the time of its theatrical release.  (She played Alfred Kinsey’s long suffering wife.)  As good as she’s been in films like Kinsey, Primal Fear, Mystic River and the underrated Congo, I suspect the academy will reward her some time in the future.
 
This one’s between the ageless Christie and Kitty Pryde.  The former plays a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and the latter is a wisecracking pregnant teen.  A tough one to call considering the amount of buzz both performances have received.  This is Page’s first nomination and Christie’s fourth (she was previously singled out for Afterglow and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and won this category in 1966 for her work in the film, Darling).  Will the long respected veteran win for the second time or is the academy thinking of honouring the newcomer?  Give the edge to Christie.  She’s already won numerous critics’ prizes for this performance and more importantly, she won the SAG Award.  Furthermore, the academy is made up of a lot of geezers who relate more to older characters than young whipper snappers. 
 
Page could pull an upset but Christie has more respect.  The Oscar is hers.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
12:44 a.m. 
Published in: on February 12, 2008 at 12:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Grammy Hopes

Tomorrow night, the 50th annual Grammy Awards air on CBS at 8 p.m. (Global is simulcasting it in Canada.)  There’s been much talk about what kind of ceremony we’re going to see.  For many weeks, it looked like the show would not go on at all or at least, be a far different affair than past ceremonies.  But with the devastating writer’s strike on the verge of completion, according to this Canadian Press report, it looks like this year’s festivities will feature its fair share of music superstars after all.

Besides the Oscars, this is the only other award show I look forward to watching every year.  There’s usually a few live performances worth savouring and at least one of my favourites gets lucky by snagging a golden phonograph.  It would be nice if the producers finally grew some balls and dropped that ridiculous seven second delay that prevents home viewers from enjoying those real moments the FCC and The Republican Party can’t handle.  But that’s wishful thinking in the Bush era.  Remember when Alanis Morissette was allowed to sing “fuck” during her performance of You Oughta Know and no fines were forthcoming?  Seems like ancient history now.

Nonetheless, I have expectations for the awards, themselves.  The Foo Fighters had a terrific 2007 and as a result, they were rewarded with several nominations.  Their unstoppable single, The Pretender, really should take the prize for Record Of The Year.  Despite being a very competitive category that’s hard to predict (look for either Rihanna or Amy Winehouse to take it), I hope the sole rock nominee wins.

Even though In Your Honour was a better album, it would also make my day if The Foos win the Album Of The Year category, as well.  Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, which is a lyric taken from the record’s sole stinker, Home, (too reminiscent of a slow-ass Billy Joel piano ballad), is a fine effort.  Besides The Pretender, which will probably win Best Hard Rock Performance and Best Rock Song, follow-up single Long Road To Ruin and Erase/Replace are other notable standouts.  That being said, this category’s a coin flip between whiny, grieving self-lover Kanye West (Graduation) and out-of-her-mind UK headcase, Amy Winehouse (Back To Black).  The Foos will probably beat Bruce Springsteen’s Magic for Best Rock Album.

Speaking of the Best Hard Rock Performance category, I would really prefer it if Queens Of The Stone Age upset The Foos for their kick ass cut, Sick Sick Sick.  Warren Kinsella loves the song so much, it’s his cell phone ringtone.  Shockingly and distressingly, this is the only award Josh Homme and company are up for this year.  How their brilliant, filler-free Era Vulgaris album got snubbed, we’ll never know.  It was one of last year’s finest albums.

Even though they haven’t put out a proper studio release since 2004, U2, a perennial Grammy favourite, are nominated for two songs, Window In The Skies (which was recorded specifically for their 18 Singles compilation) and their cover of John Lennon’s Instant Karma (a contribution to a charity CD filled with remakes of the ex-Beatle’s solo numbers).  Even though it should’ve been saved for their upcoming album, instead of being included as an annoyingly obligatory bonus track on their unnecessary third greatest hits collection, it would still be nice to see the irresistibly moving Window In The Skies win for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals.  Whatever keeps Daughtry and Bon Jovi off the podium is fine by me.

The Arcade Fire made a wonderful CD last year called Neon Bible.  Try as he might, even Kinsella couldn’t resist it.  It would be great for Canada to see this much celebrated Montreal group wrest The Best Alternative Music Album Grammy away from the likely winners, The White Stripes.  Neon Bible is the kind of album that requires several listens before its full emotional power completely envelops you.  Yep, patience is necessary with this one, although I did like it right away, I have to admit.  My Body Is A Cage is the sole misstep.  All the remaining tracks are exquisite and improve upon subsequent listening experiences.  Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen are appropriate and complimentary.  I would add The Velvet Underground and Echo & The Bunnymen to that list.

For the complete list of nominees, click here.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 9, 2008
3:16 p.m.

CORRECTION:  It only took me four years but I finally corrected an embarrassing spelling mistake.  It’s Rihanna, not Rhianna as I originally had it.  My apologies for the error.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 25, 2012
7:24 p.m.

Published in: on February 9, 2008 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment