Friday, November 21, 2014

WHY DOES OSCAR OVERLOOK HORROR FILMS?

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in the very scary GONE GIRL . (copyright 2014)
We’re in the middle of Oscar prediction season again, and there are few horror movies that will figure in any serious prognosticating. The animated film “The Book of Love” is a ghost story and it is considered to be a strong contender for Best Animated Feature, but no out-and-out horror films will likely be in the running for any other categories. Despite the raves for frighteners “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Oculus”, few expect them to figure in the nominations.

Why is that? Do genre films like horror, thrillers and science fiction yield a reputation that doesn’t appear serious enough to be considered art? Are the pulpier aspects viewed as too base or even cheesy for best of balloting? Perhaps it’s because genre tends to be more visceral than intellectual. But no matter what the excuse is, the Academy finds plenty of reasons to shun such films year in and year out.  

Original caricature by Jeff York of Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider in JAWS. (copyright 2013)
In fact, it’s quite astonishing how horror films specifically have gotten such little love from the Academy Awards over the past 86 years. When it comes to Best Picture, only a handful of true horror films have ever been nominated. “The Exorcist” in 1973, “Jaws” in 1975, and “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991 made the cut. Borderline scare-fests like “Fatal Attraction” and “No Country For Old Men” did too, but classics like 1931’s “Dracula” and ‘Frankenstein” didn’t.

The list of other classics that didn’t yield a single nomination is astonishing: the 1942 version of “Cat People”, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (neither the Don Siegel original or the Phillip Kaufman remake), “Night of the Living Dead”, “Halloween”, “The Shining”, “Theater of Blood”, John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, "Let the Right One In"  – none of them were up for boo. At least “The Silence of the Lambs” swept the Oscars its year, taking Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay.

More often than not, if horror does receive Academy recognition, it’s in smaller categories like makeup or special effects. And horror rarely rates an entry in the acting categories. Thankfully, there have been exceptions over the years, like when Ruth Gordon won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and Kathy Bates won in the lead category for 1990’s “Misery”.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Vincent Price in 1973's THEATER OF BLOOD. (copyright 2012)
Still, horror legends like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price were never nominated for their performances, nor for that matter, were any of them given life achievement Oscars either. In fact, it’s more often the case that acclaimed horror performances, even those that have won critics awards, get notoriously snubbed by the Academy when they’re filling out their ballots. Jeremy Irons won a slew of awards for his dual performance in "Dead Ringers" in 1988, but the Academy just couldn’t stomach nominating him from that David Cronenberg shocker. Same with Jeff Goldblum for Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” two years earlier. It was a widely heralded performance, but the Academy ignored him anyway.

There are other great performances in horror movies that have been similarly overlooked. Even if they’re from hit movies or are adapted from great literature. Alistair Sim couldn’t muster a Best Actor nomination come Oscar time for his dramatically nuanced turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol”. He captured the miser’s loathing and bullying like few others before or since, and he aced the redemption part too, but it still wasn’t enough to sway voters.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO. (copyright 2013)
“Psycho” was such a phenomenon in 1960 that it couldn’t be ignored, so the Academy nominated both director Alfred Hitchcock and supporting actress Janet Leigh, but they forgot to remember its star Anthony Perkins. Was Perkins simply too effective at creating the insidious character of Norman Bates, arguably the greatest horror movie character in the history of film, that it unsettled too many voters? Were his fellow actors jealous that he transcended the one-dimensional male ingénue roles he’d often had previously and hit such a complicated part out of the park?

What’s so incredible about Perkins’ work in the film is how he manages to make the audience sympathize, even empathize, with such a psychopath. You actually root for him to cover up the crimes of his ‘mother’ and get away with it. And it isn’t until the very end that audiences realized how his character had conned everyone on screen and off. Maybe the Academy members resented being fooled so definitively, or perhaps their complicity in cheering on his horrible actions made them feel remorse and guilt. Either way, they snubbed him.

Two of the greatest female performers in frighteners were unfairly ignored as well. Both Catherine Deneuve in "Repulsion" and Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” gave incredible performances in the classic horror films directed by Roman Polanski, but neither performance got the Academy’s due. The gorgeous Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing a “Monster”, but these two ingénues couldn’t get the time of day for battling theirs onscreen.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Alistair Sim in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (copyright 2012)
The year before “Repulsion” came out in 1965, Deneuve played a singing shop girl in Jacques Demy’s candy-colored “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. Her follow-up role the next year couldn’t have been more different. Yet Deneuve showed she had the talent and the range to pull off the part of a deranged young woman losing her grip on reality. And she did it with nary any dialogue, instead using her large eyes and expressive body to register her downward spiral into insanity and homicide. Still, Deneuve’s palpable performance wasn’t enough for the Academy.

And why was Farrow ignored? She’s onscreen virtually the entire film and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. You’re invested in every second of her pregnancy and even come to understand her choice to nurture the baby at the end, rather than snuff out Satan’s spawn. Yet while the Academy acknowledged Gordon, they ignored the movie’s lead.

If straight horror movies fare poorly with the Oscars, horror comedies barely even register. Michael Keaton may be considered this year’s Best Actor frontrunner for his sublime work in the dark comedy “Birdman”, but he couldn’t muster even a Supporting Actor nomination for his hilarious turn in the 1988 comedy hit “Beetlejuice”. And of course, horror comedies like “The Evil Dead”, “Fright Night”, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” were completely overlooked. Those last two even warranted a 92% and 90% rating at RottenTomatoes.com, respectively, but that and a dollar fifty got them home on the bus.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Linda Blair in 1973's THE EXORCIST. (copyright 2012)
There is hope though. “Gone Girl” brushes very strongly up against the horror genre, and it’s a real contender this year. It’s expected to get Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Editing and Cinematography. Whew! Rosamund Pike is surely Oscar worthy, but we’ll see if her monstrous Amy Dunne character has turned off too many viewers to prevail. Glenn Close played a similar role in “Fatal Attraction” and came this close to winning, but she didn’t.

It has always been an honor just to be nominated for an Oscar. There are only 24 categories and most of them only allow for five nominees. (Best Film now allows 5-10, depending on vote totals.) Nonetheless, horror movies too seldom make the top five, and that’s not right. Is a film whose primary purpose is to scare you less legitimate than a film where the goal is to make you cry? Here’s hoping that at least “Gone Girl” and “The Book of Life” scare up some awards this season. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

THE KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL CAREER: TALENT, HARD WORK AND MORE THAN A LITTLE INSANITY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER. (copyright 2014)
The 2014 film year has already been distinguished by movies with a decidedly dark slant to them. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is not your typical Wes Anderson whimsical comedy, but rather a biting commentary on racism, the class system and fascism despite its candy-colored decor. THE LEGO MOVIE may have been aimed at 6-year-olds but the romp was as cynical as any of Christopher Nolan’s superhero movies. GONE GIRL is not just a thriller, it’s also a searing indictment of the compromising institution of marriage. And the brilliant BIRDMAN is both an affectionate love letter to the theatrical world as well as a brutally scathing takedown of the egos in show business.

Now along come two movies that are so dark, so bleak, and so black of heart, that they almost could be horror films. And both contain a ‘villain’ with borderline personality tendencies that are truly terrifying and might even be sociopathic. And each film has a lot to say about America and in particular, what it takes to succeed in the modern world. The films are NIGHTCRAWLER and WHIPLASH. Even their names are rather frightening.

NIGHTCRAWLER could easily be the name of a horror movie and true to form its protagonist is a man who’s essentially a monster. Jake Gyllenhaal, in a career best performance, plays Lou Bloom, a petty thief who stumbles upon a car accident one night and watches as a freelance videographer films the scene for a local news station. Suddenly, he sees a way to make money as well as a name for himself.

Bloom starts to bloom in his chosen career path as he starts racing across the streets of LA looking for the latest accidents, murders, and crimes to film. He’s intrepid and immoral, and willing to do anything to get the most lurid shots for a voyeuristic TV audience. He’ll even tamper with a crime scene or move a dead body to get a better shot. It skyrockets his career and buoyed by it all, he starts extolling his success philosophy to both his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) and the station producer (Rene Russo) buying his bilious tape. It’s the same bullshit that you’d find in a Tony Robbins tape or any self-help book, and it’s clever how writer/director Dan Gilroy uses it to expose the crap that is the cliched American Dream formula.

One of the most amusing things about this dark comedy/thriller is the way in which Gilroy has directed Gyllenhaal to play Bloom. He is a man who doesn’t close his eyes to any of the ugliness, thus he barely blinks in this movie. Bloom has an aggressive staring gaze, like a predator considering prey, and it's both eerie and amusing. The shrewd actor even lost 30 pounds to give his hungry hunter a hollowness. There is no core to him. And the weight loss helped make Gyllenhaal's large eyes pop even more. They seem to be akin to his camera lens, all seeing and unwilling to look away. 

Bloom triumphs again and again in the story, and he becomes addicted to it. Ultimately, he starts creating the stories to keep his camera rolling. He even allows himself to become the news towards the end of the film, and again, reaps heaps of glory, albeit for a story he set up, starred in, and shot with his ever-present camera. Bloom’s complete lack of journalistic ethics makes the blurring of the lines between good reporting and bad reporting at the heart of movies like NETWORK (1976) or BROADCAST NEWS (1987) seem almost quaint by comparison. And Bloom’s sensationalized, over-the-top work isn't much different from the utter hysteria the cable news media created these past months with their breathless coverage of Ebola or ISIS. NIGHTCRAWLER couldn’t possibly be any timelier. It’s an up-to-the-moment cautionary tale about the faltering morals of our news media and its  insatiable catering to an audience's that devours fear and misery on a nightly basis.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH. (copyright 2014)
Bloom may fancy himself a connoisseur in a way, but he knows it's not exactly art he's creating. Nonetheless, the question of art is precisely what's at question in WHIPLASH. Here writer/director Damien Chazelle deals directly with what one suffers for their art, specifically the struggle of a young musician to make it in the world of jazz. His protagonist is Andrew (a brilliantly nuanced Miles Teller) who's a young drummer trying his best to meet the exacting standards of his brutish and dictatorial teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). It's all about the thin line between a dedication to one’s art versus obsession. 

Andrew is good enough to make it into the top jazz band in a performing arts college (a take on Julliard), but he's not sure he has true greatness in him. He wants to become a legend in the mold of  Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, but what does it take to get there? Can pushing yourself through endless practice get you there? When talent and hard work isn’t enough, what becomes the X factor that pushes you into true excellence? Is it insanity?

Fletcher seems to believe that if that's necessary, than so be it. That's why he's pushing his students to the brink. That’s why he’s willing to bully, terrorize and physically assault his charges to get them to dig deeper. For him, the end result of true greatness justifies the horrible means. And he thinks nothing of methods that  include physical assault, verbal abuse, and driving a student to the edge of mania.  

Fletcher may be a monster, but he’s not all black despite his rather Johnny Cash-esque wardrobe. (That costuming choice is a bit on the nose.) And the casting of Simmons was a stroke of genius as he’s capable of even making assholes into sympathetic and relatable characters. Every time he was onscreen as bellowing newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the SPIDER-MAN movies, he was an absolute treat to watch. Here, he does something similar, turning Fletcher into both a terrifying jerk, but a funny one as well. Not since John Houseman’s pudgy face stared down Timothy Bottoms in 1973’s THE PAPER CHASE has an educator been so leeringly LOL.

Fletcher goes too far, no doubt, as no teacher has the right to slap students or slur their heritage or sexual orientation. My God, his anger issues are as brazen as his brass section! Still, this instructor knows that playing up the fears of failure in an artist can amp up their will to survive and strive. It's a pact with the devil the ambitious Andrew is all to willing to succumb to. Like Lou Bloom in NIGHTCRAWLER, he wants to be a huge success as well, and he's willing to do almost anything to reach such lofty goals. Andrew bleeds, sweats, loses sleep, turns away his kind-hearted dad (Paul Reiser) and adorable girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), and even drives recklessly to get to a concert to play - all to be the drummer of his dreams. And Fletcher’s.

Teller does an amazing job of portraying the character and he  demonstrates some truly astonishing work on his drum kit too. We remain on his side every step of the way, even when he starts to go mad. And by the end, when the two men finally get on the same page together,  the two see eye to eye, literally, over what matters - the music. You can hear the difference that Andrew’s perseverance has made in his extraordinary climatic performance. 


The takeaway from both of these dark films is that hard work and talent no longer ensure career success. Something else is required to give it a push, be it shamelessness, brass balls or utter insanity. It would appear that crassness and craziness are the new paradigms of the job market.