Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Night

The Golden Globes got their own See You Next Tuesday, so it's no surprise that come February, I'd indict the Oscars, too.  I've had on my "To Blog" list (literally, I have one, it's amazing anyone talks to me) since LAST February the fact that the Oscars now have ten nominees. I had fully intended to write an epic rant against the Academy's sell-out move, but got distracted writing about Lost and Indiana Jones and my porn-store-star internet doppelganger and showing you pictures of transvestites.  I know, I know; it could've happened to anyone.

But I think I've changed my mind about the ten nominees situation, or at least muddied the waters.  First, some background for the straight guys out there:  

Last year, the Academy decided to have ten best picture nominees instead of just five, mostly because they are James Cameron's little bitches.  In the 1930s, the Oscars recognized ten movies a year, but in 1945, the Academy cut it back to five; it's been five films for however many years 2010 minus 1945 is.  The Academy has all these soundbites about being able to recognize more great movies this way, but it's frankly just a ratings plug.  This is because often the five best movies of the year are non-mainstream films that only a few people saw, and people are less likely to watch the broadcast of the Academy Awards if they've never seen any of the films. 

The change was prompted by a 2009's snub of The Dark Knight, and 2010's potential lock-out of Avatar if only five movies were nominated.  (This is because you could throw a dart into L.A. and hit five movies better than Avatar, but James Cameron would pitch a hissy fit.)  So, the list was expanded, and 2010's best picture noms looked like this:
  1. “Avatar”
  2. “The Blind Side”
  3. “District 9”
  4. “An Education”
  5. “The Hurt Locker” (Winner)
  6. “Inglourious Basterds”
  7. “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
  8. You really wanna snub these guys?
  9. “A Serious Man”
  10. “Up”
  11. “Up in the Air” 
When they should've looked like this:
  1.  “An Education”
  2. “The Hurt Locker”
  3. “Inglourious Basterds” (Winner)
  4. “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
  5. “Up”  
I was bitter last year because I felt last year's nominees were dreary and diluted. Even if the decision were prompted by 2009's awards overlooking some great films, 2010 did not suffer from the same over-abundance of Oscar-worthy movies. The result was five extra nominees that tasted like bland filler.

But this year the pickings are far more robust, exciting, and deserving, so much so that they've made me reconsider my view of 10 nominees as selling out:
  1. Apparently I look like her.
    “Black Swan”
  2. “The Fighter”
  3. “Inception”
  4. “The Kids Are All Right”
  5. “The King's Speech”
  6. “127 Hours”
  7. “The Social Network”
  8. “Toy Story 3”
  9. “True Grit”
  10.  "Winter's Bone"
(View all the nominees here.) With a line-up like that, I won't be truly disappointed with anything (though I'm not particularly partial to The Social Network, and you know how I feel about Black Swan).  Tonight, as you ready your Oscar ballots, snack trays, gay friends, and judgmental red carpet eye, keep in mind some of these Oscar betting tips, and entertain your friends with these Oscar stats.  And, as a favor to me personally, here's hoping Anne Hathaway (the youngest host in history) doesn't screw things up.  Because I'm just not gonna live that down

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is Black Swan a Chick Flick?

Why is it that the movies which most disturb us also obsess us?

My friend writes a truly excellent blog called “Fuzzy English” that breaks down how words evolve, become meaningfully charged, and are used across media.  I’ve been reading a lot of it lately, and I think he’d start off this post by looking at the word “disturb.”

Though I usually balk at the idea of quoting a dictionary as a beginning of a blog (or a misguided graduation speech, or a toast), I'm going to break form here because I want to flesh "disturb" out a little bit. Merriam Webster’s first definition is of “disturb” is “to interrupt.” And, I suppose, that’s what disturbing movies do.  When we are “disturbed” we are interrupted from the inside; our normal thoughts and reactions are broken and replaced – involuntarily – with new ones. Disturbing movies leave images inside us that we can’t get rid of.
When I saw Black Swan, one of this year’s 10 Best Picture nominees and the vehicle that earned Natalie Portman the Golden Globe for Best Actress and an Oscar nom, I was disturbed and haunted and followed by its images for days.  And while usually I enjoy the process of thinking over a film after the fact, while I usually take a film’s resonance as a sign of its success, with Black Swan, I was miserable.  I wanted to get it out of my head, I wanted to forget about it; I told a friend that I wanted to wash my eyeballs.

M-W also lists “unsettled,” unhinged,” “weirded out,” “worried," and “discomforted" as "disturbed" synonyms.  Black Swan was all of these and more: it was horrifying.  While I had expected a dark, psychological memoir, I really hadn’t anticipated a full-on horror movie.  And critics agree, Black Swan is most definitely that – a horror movie.  
Black Swan is certainly a psychological drama, but it evolves (devolves?) into a (pointlessly?) gory movie with did-that-just-really-happen murder scenes and blurred realities.   I talked before about the rare A-list horror genre occupied by films like The Shining and the pilot of "The Walking Dead" (before it turned into "Lost 2"). Black Swan belongs in that category – relentless storytelling, Academy-grade acting, and director Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) art house take on over-the-shoulder scary-movie cinematography.  
But here’s the thing: I love horror movies.  I love violence and gore, shoot-em-ups, dismemberments, and breakdowns.  I especially love that stuff when it’s coupled with heavy-handed directors (anything Tarantino), nightmarish sociopaths (No Country for Old Men), or surreal descents into madness (American Psycho).  But somehow, despite all of these elements, I couldn’t relate to Black Swan; I couldn’t get past the unnecessariness of it to appreciate it.

Interestingly, girlfriends of mine who saw the movie loved it, especially those girls who don't particularly like horror movies or gory movies.  So, somehow, Black Swan found a bizarre niche with the rom-com set.  Was it Natalie, darling star of Garden State and The Other Boleyn Girl?  Was it ballet, (which only girls like)?  Was it the pink tutus and bulimia?  What was it about the twisted, abusive, disgusting femininity of this movie that made it appealing to women who don't like horror movies (and uncharacteristically repulsive to at least one girl who loves horror movies – me)?

I am convinced there is some peculiar gender divide underlying this film, though I can’t fully tease out an explanation for it.  If we're willing to agree, for the sake of oversimplication and stereotype, that there are "boy movies" and "girl movies," we would all know how to categorize most modern films.  Of course, there are girl movies that many boys like (Love Actually) and boy movies that girls like (Fight Club, Boondock Saints). But Fight Club is still a "boy" movie and Love Actually is still a "girl" movie, right?  Undoubtedly there are cross-overs, but I know you're with me, even you pretentious liberals who "don't see gender." 

What I'm getting to is: Black Swan is a "girl movie." Girls went in groups to see it without their boyfriends, and boys were dragged on dates.  But why?  It's a movie about abuse – physical and sexual, external and self-inflicted.  It's a movie about pain and violence it features some extremely disturbing mutilations, both realistic and unrealistic, and plenty of blood. It has naked women, masturbation, and a famous-for-the-wrong-reasons lesbian sex scene.  So why, after all this, is Black Swan still ultimately a “girl movie?”

Is it that it's all internalized – the fights are within Natalie’s character, not acted out on others?  Is it the complexities?  Is it the delicacy of the (anti)heroine?  Is it that sometimes women just feel crazy and unbalanced and it’s nice to see someone crazier?  Is it just that the main character is a girl?  I just don't know.  But I can’t stop thinking about it. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Who is Arcade Fire?

Short Answer: a Canadian indie rock band who’s latest release, The Suburbs, beat out Eminem and Gaga for the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year.  I adore this band, even if the lead singer does look like a serial killer, and it’s wonderful to see them get any kind of popular exposure and recognition.  However, beating the Biebs to a Grammy is something the tweens won’t tolerate, so Arcade Fire’s underdog win prompted a lot of confusion, death threats, and of course, hilarity.

This is best chronicled on a Tumblr site called “Who is Arcade Fire,” which compiles some of the most misguided tweets about the band’s win.  The masses were so baffled and irate, though, that eventually indie fans had to come forward and defend one of their own.  Please check out the Tumblr. And please, please figure out, in your own personal way, who Arcade Fire is, because if you don't, the hipsters will attack you:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Soda Tax: Propaganda and Politics

There’s a new commercial going around that decries government “food” taxes. In an apparent effort to appeal to libertarians, a woman declares she doesn’t need the government telling her how she should feed her family. But the “foods” she enumerates are “soft drinks, juice drinks, sports drinks – even flavored water!”  That is to say, she wants to buy sugary, nutrition-less drinks with major links to obesity and obesity-related health problems like high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes. 

I thought the anti-big-government tenor of this commercial meant it was only airing on Fox News, but recently heard reports of it being seen on CNN and MSNBC.  Learning that this propaganda is widespread motivated me to address why it’s so totally misinformed, and make my best argument for why soda taxes are a good idea.

First, despite the seeming Tea-Party-esque rhetoric of the commercial, most Republicans favor consumption-based taxes. What conservatives dislike are income-related taxes. For example, proponents of the Republican-driven Fair Tax favor high sales taxes in exchange for low (or no) income tax.

One type of sales tax is a sumptuary tax, commonly called a “sin” tax, which is a tax on items the government has a policy reason for discouraging you from buying – like cigarettes.  Sin taxes serve dual purposes of benefiting the public welfare and raising revenue, so they tend to be a great, agreeable compromises between just about everyone.  Except, of course, the people who make the taxed goods.  And that's precisely where these ridiculous, fear-mongering commercials come from: they're funded by “Americans Against Food Taxes,” a front group for the soda industry.

Facing insanely, embarrassingly high rates of obesity (in 2009, 72 million people – three out of ten adults – were medically classified as “obese”), and rising health care costs associated with obesity, a few states have proposed placing high taxes on foods with little to no redeeming nutritional value and high sugar content. In 2008, New York Governor David Paterson suggested an 18% tax on sugary drinks, including sweetened juices with less than 70% juice.  But Paterson was immediately met with backlash from the American Beverage Association, including protests by bottling plant employees, and the creation of aforementioned Americans Against Food Taxes.  PepsiCo even threatened to move their corporate headquarters out of New York if Paterson persisted.

So in 2010, Patterson proposed a more modest tax: an excise tax of just one penny per ounce only on sodas, no juices at all.  The Governor estimates this would raise $450 million for the city’s health care budget in its first year alone.  But even his new proposal has been met with intense opposition.  The beverage industry's newest argument is that the tax will disproportionately affect low-income and minority buyers, citing a study that low income consumers are more than twice as likely to drink soda.
A Yale professor named Kelly D. Brownell (along with every other scientist ever [uncited hyperbole]) debunked these beverage-industry-sponsored studies. Further, his studies pointed out a whole bunch of "market failures" that strongly support the soda tax, including the disparity of short-term gratification versus long-term harm, the misinformation propagated by the beverage industry, and the fact that the health system as a whole is forced to absorb the costs of soda-related obesity.

To combat these public health externalities, Brownell suggested exactly the same tax Paterson has proposed – a one-cent per ounce excise tax on sodas.  A soda tax would not disproportionately disadvantage the poor, he argues, because the poor experience the brunt of obesity-related diseases.   If anything, such a tax could benefit the poor by saving them money (a free beverage source – water – is readily available), and preventing disease.

According to the plethora of studies out there, even reducing caloric intake by a few percentage points a year could mean meaningful reductions in health care spending.  Thus, if implemented, the soda tax would have a short term economic benefit of revenue, a long term economic benefit of decreasing health care costs, and a warm-and-fuzzy benefit of improving public welfare and reducing obesity.  The only downside: to stay afloat, Pepsi is just going to have to buy more fast food chains.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

See You Next Tuesday (CYOSYNT)

See You Next Tuesday is the Boomstick's regular weekly column. Each Tuesday, I bring you the week's most laughable scumbags, idiots, and jerks for your reading and reviling pleasure. You can read previous editions here. 

I've missed a few Tuesdays, so to make up for it, today is CYOSYNT: Choose Your Own See You Next Tuesday.  I have three honorable candidates collected over the last few weeks.  Weigh in in the comments and tell me which of the following should officially be today's See You Next Tuesday.

1. Charlie Sheen
Charlie Sheen was recently hospitalized after partying with prostitutes, adult film stars, and a suitcase full of coke.  Nothing new about that.  What's See You Next Tuesday worthy was his public excuse: he had to go to the hospital because he got a hernia from...laughing too hard.   At least we know he wasn't watching "Two and a Half Men."

2. Puppy Package
A Minnesota woman who tried to ship a puppy to Georgia in a box with no air holes had a hearing yesterday. The Jugde told the "befuddled" Defendant that no, she could not have her puppy back. The woman had told the post office she was shipping a "toy robot, and told the judge she was "only human." I assume she just forgot to add the "in" before "human" in the same way she forgot you can't ship a live animal in a closed box. Her best See You Next Tuesday line, though, came at the end of trial, when she asked the judge, "Can I get my box?" No, no you may not.

3. U Da Bomb
This one's more of a Darwin award than a See You Next Tuesday, but I wanted to mention the would-be suicide bomber who was accidentally blown up by a text message.  Instead of blowing up in Russia's Red Square on New Years Eve and potentially killing hundreds, she blew up part of a building, injuring no one, and becoming the single smartest anti-terrorist smart bomb ever.  The real hero? The text was from her mobile service provider, wishing her (and all of their customers) a happy new year.  If only she'd had AT&T, she wouldn't have had service...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Bowled-Over By Last Night's "Glee," and Other Puns

While the internet is abuzz with discussion of last night’s Super Bowl, I, true to form, want to talk about what happened afterward: "Glee."  Last night’s "Glee" was our first new episode in over two months, since the disappointing Christmas episode that followed a disappointing Halloween episode. I lambasted all of Glee's Season 2 earlier this Fall, criticizing its after-school-special storylines and overproduced musical numbers.  But, I’m delighted to say, last night’s "Glee" was back from hiatus with a bang. 

The Thriller half time show
In the post-Super Bowl "Glee," Coach Bieste and Mr. Schu decided to force the football players and the glee club to work together and perform a very special halftime show at the championship game.  Of course Sue Sylvester schedules the Cheerio’s national competition at the same time, and all of the angsty teens are forced to decide between being popular and being loyal to the glee club they all secretly (and somewhat unreasonably?) love.

It was a simple, resolvable plot reminiscent of Season 1, and it worked because it really brought some of the main characters (Finn and Quinn, namely) back into focus.  It was peppered with the kind of hope-the-kids-are-in-bed dark comedy that made "Glee's" first season so surprisingly risqué (it only masquerades as a family show), and seamlessly integrated some quality musical numbers that felt natural and fun and genuine.  And, as much as I hate to say it, I think "Glee's" success may owe to the absence of Kurt.

With a few exceptions, almost every episode this season has been Kurt-centric. Think about it – Kurt’s dad’s in the hospital, Kurt struggles with atheism, Kurt struggles with bullying, Kurt struggles with his homosexuality, Kurt transfers schools, Kurt’s dad marries Finn’s mom.  And while I think "Glee" would be remiss to not tackle issues like religion and bullying and high school homophobia at some point, they piled it on too thick, back to back to back to back, right at the beginning of a hyped second season. And it just wasn’t fun anymore.

But tonight’s episode felt liberated and ballsy and less afraid to offend us.  With Kurt gone, it was like the uptight guy left the room and we could all unbutton our pants and start cursing again.  For once, the episode was about football and romance and creative mash-ups and wicked humor, not people begging Kurt’s forgiveness while his porcelain, tickle-me-dough-face brims over with tears.

Instead, last night we got some legitimate dialogue between some of the main players we hadn't heard from in a while.  Finn finally (finally!) manned up and acted like the leader everyone’s been begging him to be.  Puck, in his own way, made apologies and amends.  And the new tension between Quinn and Finn bodes well for an exciting end to the season (nobody really liked her with that Macaulay-Culkin-looking new kid, right?).

Don't get me wrong, I adore Kurt as much as the next self-respecting Gleek.  But his purpose was almost better served in small doses as a supporting cast member.  His character is too extreme to carry the brunt of a leading-man: Kurt is the wacky neighbor, not the straight man (womp womp).  He wasn’t originally written to be a main player (in fact, Kurt wasn’t originally written into the show at all. The actor who plays Kurt auditioned for the role of Artie; he didn’t get it, but the creators liked him so much they wrote the role of Kurt just for him).  It’s almost as if when Brittany and Mike Chang were bumped off the background bench and made supporting characters, the writers had to bump Kurt into the limelight. The fit isn't right; Kurt was best when he left us wanting more, something I haven't felt since his magnificent Victor/Victoria number back in early October.

Fox is giving us another new episode Tuesday, and then there are only two more in the second season.  Though I hadn’t been before, I’m now newly excited for what the final episodes have in store.  And if they keep up the momentum from last night, and keep the Kurt-diva scenes to a minimum, then maybe, just maybe, Glee can redeem itself before Season 3.

"Glee"-dendum: I just found this super-snarky. Gaytastic, Wildean review of this episode on Vanity Fair's website. It's more verbose and bitchier than mine.