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Oscars Watch 2017: The Less-Depressing Campaign: Best Original Song

This was supposed to be Best Screenplay this week, but I kinda feel like getting ranty today.

The Best Original Song category is mostly crap.

Let me qualify that. The Best Original Song category is WAY too often not actually about the Best Original Song as it’s used in a movie. Rather, it’s often about the production values and the prestige, this is one of those categories that more often ends up being about who’s willing to pump money into selling things more than actual artistic achievement.

Best Original Song is a category that makes a whole lot of sense when you remember that the Musical used to be one of the dominant modes of Hollywood filmmaking when this category first started being awarded in 1934. When so many films actually had original songs written for them, it made sense to reward the best of them.

But as the musical has slowly faded out of the public love, the category has stuck around. Not for no reason. In the 80s, we had winners and nominees from the “Original Soundtrack” that accompanied every film. You know, that thing when you hired Kenny Loggins to write a few songs for your movie that we really don’t do much of anymore. In the 90s, this was the Honorary Disney Musical award, as they won 6 out of 10 in the years from 1989-1999.

These days though, it’s pretty rare to have either an original soundtrack or a major musical, so where do these nominations go? Well, the rules state that the song either needs to play during the film or be the first song during the end credits.

It’s that latter rule that pretty much seals up the majority of the nominations here. A lot of films (especially documentaries) get a famous performer to put a song together that plays over the end credits. No real thematic work integrating it into the film, just playing over the theater speaking as everyone is thinking about leaving.

It annoys the living hell out of me because it’s one of the laziest ways to get Award Prestige. Pay enough for a decent song connected to the movie and plaster it over the credits then call it done. Even when the song is great (“Glory” from Selma), it’s still a reward for the least well-put artistic part of a movie.

This year is looking a little different, but there’s plenty of potential slap-ons to get awarded this year.

SURE THINGS: 

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
City of Stars” – La La Land
“How Far I’ll Go” – Moana

The fortunate thing about all my ranting is that first and foremost, the Academy is almost universally willing to award the songs of actual musicals. The Academy will always be a sucker for musicals and rewarding the songs of actual musicals comes first.

This year, the musical showdown is between La La Land and Moana.

La La Land‘s jazz-influenced numbers are already getting raves from the people who love the film and the worst the few detractors can say is that they aren’t total earworms. Set up largely as either individually sung or duets between Gosling and Stone, who don’t have traditional musical voices, we can already count on some love for the idea of getting Gosling and Stone to perform these live. If this one is a total darling as the expectations are, we can actually probably count on two nominations. My guess is the catchy “City of Stars” that is the forward push of this film and “Audition” because it’s apparently the emotional climax.

Moana has a bit different weight. Besides the fact that everyone loves the Disney musical, this actually could be a big deal. With this win, Lin-Manuel Miranda would become the youngest person to ever EGOT (the winning of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, signifying success in pretty much every area of entertainment) which would cap off his ascendancy into one of our great modern artists. “How Far I’ll Go” is the “Let It Go” of Moana (without the mind-numbing ear-burrowing of “Let It Go”) and something is gonna get nominated given the current love for Miranda and the general love for Disney. This one wouldn’t surprise me.

MAYBE THINGS: 

Runnin'” – Hidden Figures
We Know the Way” – Moana
Faith” – Sing
“I’m Still Here” – Miss Sharon Jones
A Letter to the Free” – Selma

So, from here on, a few groups of songs that get nominated.

First, let’s address two more from actual musicals. “We Know The Way” depends on how much love the voting body is looking to heap on Moana. I wouldn’t put it as likely to get nominated over “How Far I’ll Go,” but the potential of actually having Miranda performing this one is an undeniable attraction, plus the more unique Polynesian flavor of this track. Then “Faith” is one of the few original tracks from jukebox animal musical Sing, so if that thing is a crowd pleaser, I see no reason it might not make the journey on that goodwill. Think “Happy” from Despicable Me 2.

Which, speaking of, we have another category: Well-known people making songs for issues pictures. Pharrell is now a mogul of the songwriting world and his work on Hidden Figures marks his first major soundtrack. The love for him and for the film could coalesce, especially if he gets to perform at the Ceremony. Common is a thinking man’s favorite and already has his first Oscar for “Glory.” A second nomination for him wouldn’t seem out of place.

Finally, we have the memorial songs. These are rare, but we have one in “I’m Still Here.” Sharon Jones’ unfortunate recent passing may motivate a second and harder look at the documentary and the song she wrote for it.

DREAM THINGS: 

Drive It Like You Stole It” – Sing Street
“Finest Girl (Bin Laden)” – Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Now, for two that won’t ever actually get nominated, and that’s part of why this category sucks.

This really is a “Pay to Play” category, where it’s all about the weight of the name and the money anyone is willing to throw. Songs from non-Oscar pictures tend to have a harder time, and songs that aren’t from big names tend to be up the creek. Even if they work better in the actual movie or are just more enjoyable to listen to.

These two are case in point. Both are thematically better and more enjoyable as part of a movie than most of the ones I’ve listed that I’ve heard. Because they’re actually part of the movie. But no major names and no prestige or category navigation or money means they won’t be thought about.

So, rather than complain, I’m just going to leave you on those two. Have fun.

Next Week: Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted

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Moana’s beautiful specificity wrestles with its generic instincts

Formula is not necessarily poison for a film. Look, we have to accept that studio filmmaking is its own mode and purpose, and the beats that we hit are hit for a reason. At the big-budget, the level of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and the star-studded cast and crew, only one out of every 20 or 30 may have any interesting narrative twists or innovations.

All this is to say that yeah, Moana is hitting all of the recent Disney films’ plot points for narrative gain and for narrative loss. Accepting that means that evaluating these films becomes about the shading they bring, how they deal with and color the familiar. In that, Moana has much to admire.

Moana is the story of a young girl, Moana (Auli’i Cravallo), who is next in line to be Chieftan of Motunui Island. In her heart though, she wants to explore, the ocean calls her to sail, an instinct her father (Temeura Morrison) seeks to keep down for her own safety. But when an encroaching darkness threatens Moana’s home, she must sail out and find the boisterous demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), so that she can enlist his help to save the world.

So, from about Ratatouille to Brave, Pixar had a bit of a problem. While one of their most famous runs of quality, the films were imbalanced, frontloaded with absolutely brilliant first acts and petering out somewhere around the second to go from great to good.

The Second Disney Renaissance has been marked by a similar problem. Disney’s recent run of incredible animation (Wreck-It Ralph through now) have shown a remarkable emotional maturity and visual cleverness. But they’ve all been cursed by second act problems out the ass, with the exception of Zootopia. These films have amazing first acts and emotionally resonant thirds that follow perfectly out of their first. But the second act seems to be a thin glue intended to hold the two together, usually wandering idly through a few setpieces of whatever it takes until the actual climax needs to start.

And so it goes with Moana. The first act is a remarkable and beautiful look at a culture and a character piece about a girl who struggles with it. The third act is a touching piece of empowerment that inspires awe time and time again. The second act is a collection of moments, a few cool ideas here and there strung together by slapstick and reference.

It seems weird to throw that at a children’s film, after all you gotta keep the kids entertained. But not only has Disney/Pixar animation proven consistently better than that, we should as a whole be asking for better from children’s filmmaking. Hell, Moana itself shows the better that can be asked for.

Artists like writer Taika Waititi (along with Musker/Clements, the directorial team, and John Bush),  Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i give this a remarkable sense of specificity and detail. This feels like a film immersed in culture, immersed in an understanding of who and what the place and the people they’re showing us are. It feels like an actual piece of Polynesian culture guided onto American screens. That specificity alone makes it more interesting.

It’s also that specificity that guides the remarkable visual acuity of the film. Moana is breathtaking animation, using the water and the weather of the area to produce a series of shimmering picturesque images with lush and bright colors. Plus a few bits of remarkable motion with Moana’s control of the ocean and the Fury Road-tribute sequence.

Seriously, there’s a tribute sequence to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is dope as hell.

That specificity also guides the music. While there’s no blockbuster standout (For better or worse, Moana does not have a “Let It Go”), this is probably one of Disney’s strongest batches of songs since the First Disney Renaissance. Perhaps my own bias shows through, but you can particularly hear Miranda’s guiding hand here. His brand of vocal melody shows through all over (not just because he sings track “We Know The Way” and longtime collaborator Christopher Jackson sings on “Where You Are.”) and it has his same tight and well-controlled songwritings. Between Miranda’s work and the brief joyful lapse into Britpop/Flight of the Conchords territory with “Shiny” (sung by Jemaine Clement), this was basically made for me. Kids probably won’t ask to have any of these on loop, but everyone will enjoy them in the movie and you may actually not mind having the CD play in the car a few times.

Really, I like so much of this film. I haven’t even gotten into Moana herself, played by the surprising newcomer Auli’i Cravallo. Cravallo gives the character a lot of strength and self-assurance, she’s written with complexity and not a love interest in sight, which is rare enough even outside of the “Princess” genre.

It’s just a shame this film has a big Maui-shaped hole in its center. Look, I like Dwayne Johnson a lot, he’s one of our few great action-comedy guys who can play both sides convincingly. And he does great work here. Maui is just emblematic of the problems in the middle of this film. A few good moments don’t make up for a lot of wheel-spinning and lot of far less specific material that Maui largely embodies. He’s a bit of a stock character who exists mostly as a plot vehicle for a few too many awkward references. It feels like they tried to figure something out for Johnson and just really couldn’t ultimately find anything but his standard character.

When it’s focused on him, Moana is every other story. When it’s on Moana and her people, it’s something unique. It’s a shame there is so much of him holding back what could have been a truly phenomenal movie.

Grade: B+

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 2: Lin-Manuel Miranda helps the show ignite

This was the kind of Saturday Night Live that every season dreams of having. A “So hot right now” host. A hungry cast willing to prove itself. Most importantly, Satirical gold dropped into its lap basically the night before without a single other late-night show having the time to interrupt it. Saturday Night Live was, for almost the first time ever, the first late night comedy show to have a chance to comment on a seismic political happening, the Trump Tapes. How’d they do?

How’s the Cold Open?

They knocked it out of the park.

The obvious subject of the Cold Open this week was the Vice Presidential Debate, with its constant shouting and interrupting and easily imitable gestures, plus that’s just how the schedule of these things go. SNL does the Debates as Cold Opens during Election Season.

That’s the initial feint of the sketch, with Beck Bennett coming out as Mike Pence and Mikey Day coming out as Tim Kaine (actually a flip of how I thought this would go). It doesn’t go that way for long, and it’s solid when it’s there. Mostly thanks to Beck Bennett’s Pence. Bennett is starting to show a knack for not the affable morons that Killam played, but rather for the sinister politicians, playing his generic white dude with just the right amount of comedic menace. Had it just remained a VP Debate, it might have been fine. And then came the twist.

The rest of the sketch becomes about the Trump Tape scandal of the last few days, giving Baldwin a chance to try out his Trump in an actual sketch. Baldwin seems even more comfortable this week, and shows why Hammond’s Trump wouldn’t have worked in this cycle. Hammond played Trump as the goofy reality show host. Especially this week, Baldwin plays Trump as a gargoyle, barely stretching what Trump said, but saying it in a way that clearly takes any kind of salesmanship out of it. Baldwin’s Trump is barely able to contain himself, constantly straining and twisting, the change in facial expressions are wonderful. Baldwin’s Trump is the unveiled monster we’ve found him to be, played as satire.

Plus, the sketch is funny! It couches discussion of the real mockery (the things he said) with the obvious comedy bit (him never knowing when his mic is on). Cecily is a great scene partner here, allowing herself to slowly express the horror she feels, eventually just hugging herself. It’s just specific enough to be understandable, it’s SNL actually grasping at satire. This is a hard moment and election to satirize, but SNL actually does it.

In fact, it’s definitely a strong sketch when Kate McKinnon’s Clinton isn’t even the highlight. She comes in and she’s still a lot of fun, but the basis of the joke is one they functionally made last week.

A hell of an opening, and one of my favorite Cold Opens last week. By the way, it’s good they pushed the boundaries with the word “pussy” last week, because they needed the hell out of it for this opening sketch to work.

Who’s Hosting?

I’ll disclose up front that I was predisposed to love this one. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of our most important artists working, not just for his skill but also for the sheer lack of cynicism in his work or in his public life. His perfectly sincere, full-throated theater kid enthusiasm is what’s fun, and of course makes him a natural fit as an SNL host. The live theater experience doesn’t hurt either.

And he didn’t disappoint. Miranda is a hell of a lot of fun in this episode, a natural performer who avoided taking over the show. He’s a natural fit into the cast and shines the couple times he’s really given a chance to shine. The cast also clearly loves working with the guy. When he says that this has been the best week of his life, despite the fact that almost every host says it, you can tell he means it. I won’t be surprised to see him back.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“A Day Off”

To continue with the theme of “a show with a host made for me,” this was the show of “sketches almost entirely made for me.” “A Day Off” is an incredibly strong one, a perfectly escalating look at Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway being completely unable to escape her candidate. The structure is fantastic and McKinnon’s performance sells every new appearance. It’s a small idea made very large by some great writing and increasingly strong sketch filmmaking. It’s the kind of thing that SNL will increasingly become good as the Internet sketch comedy writers now on the show become more and more comfortable.

“Crucible Cast Party”

This one was wonderful. So specific and so deadly accurate and so much fun. One of the few sketches besides the monologue to make use of Miranda’s musical abilities, this is also new cast member Melissa Villaseñor’s induction into the “Lady Cast Songs” group, and proves herself a worthy addition to the strongest bench of female cast members this show has ever said.

For anyone who’s ever been into anything nerdy, you got this sketch. You saw something you did, or something you know someone did. While it may not be the best musically, it’s probably the most specific and accurate, and you know everyone in the cast was fully committed because they’d been there too. Love this one.

“Diego Calls His Mom”

A weirdly sweet little interlude and the only sketch Miranda was actually the lead in. A call home by an immigrant to his mother, it’s just good, gentle fun. No huge laughs, but great little details and a great outsider perspective. I really liked this one from a filmmaking perspective too, the hazy darkened stage he’s putting his memories on to really comes to life.

“Substitute Teacher”

Yeah, this is a sketch that Miranda was made for. His sincerity sells the hell out of the cliche “inspirational” teacher and the kids’ deadpan response makes it hit all the harder. I’m torn over whether I enjoyed Kenan Thompson’s undercutting or Pete Davidson’s prediction of the teacher’s life story.

“Went to Hollywood. Failed Hard.”

A lot of this show’s strength is in the specifics, whether it’s in parody or satire.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda Monologue”

It’s the first time in a very long time that the show’s mainstay of a musical monologue has made sense, and also the only real reference to Hamilton the whole show. An adaptation of “My Shot” about hosting SNL, it’s not a particularly hilarious, but it’s energetic and a great bit of tone-setting. Plus, Miranda being the first non-Jost and Che person to go in on Trump having hosted SNL last year (including a famous little riff from “The Reynolds Pamphlet“) was kind of everything I needed.

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“Stranger Things”

While a sketch that might have been better in a docket-clearing season premiere, and the kind of sketch I’m not overly fond of (SNL never feels older than when they try to shoehorn in references to popular things), the turn this one takes really makes it work, revealing Lucas’ (Sasheer Zamata, making an actual sketch appearance) parents and pivoting almost into a discussion of the difference between the world white kids and black kids face. It’s surprising. Plus, Miranda as the kid with the lisp (so help me god if I can remember anything much about Stranger Things at this point) was just great.

“You don’t have to be scared, it’s the police chief.” “We know.”

“Dying Soldier”

Could have gone wrong. It didn’t. It turns Davidson’s soldier and his final requests into what might have been an extended gay joke that never feels mean, just eccentric enough and bizarre enough to remain on the side of funny rather than unfortunate.

“Melania Moments”

I’m glad it looks like we’ll be seeing this regularly. A darker joke this time, Melania (Cecily Strong) sensing that Trump’s next wife is being born and deciding to kidnap her, “not for my sake, but for hers.”

What Didn’t Work?

“Camping Ground”

Just a bizarre sketch that goes nowhere. It has the same elements that all the others that worked tonight did, a lot of weird details and commitment from its performers, but the joke just never really found its place.

“The Music Man”

The only real dud tonight. The sketch took way too long to get to its central joke that felt like it was shoehorning in a reference that didn’t much make sense. I thought maybe it was because I’ve never seen The Music Man, but the person I watched this with had, and told me that it didn’t make the sketch make any more sense. Oh well, they can’t all be winners.

Weekend Update!

JOST AND CHE WENT HAM.

I’ve liked Jost and Che, but tonight is the most shining example of why they work. Their chemistry feels natural as they let out all the anger they’ve had about Trump during their first segment. The two tear into him in the most SNL way, never landing a killing blow, but keeping a series of strong hits. That was the most fun I’ve had with Weekend Update in a while, and while I question why it took them so long, I’m not about to worry why they got there.

Che: “You started off your campaign by accusing all Mexicans as being rapists. Now you’re on tape explaining how you sexually assault women. The only way it could be more hypocritical is if you said it in Spanish.”

Jost: “This is just the worst thing he said to Billy Bush, while miked, on an Access Hollywood bus.”

Jost, on the idea of Trump’s words as locker room talk: “Which locker room, Penn State? This isn’t ‘just how guys talk.’ It’s not how humans talk.”

Che: “ ‘They’ll let you do anything because you’re a celebrity’, so you’re literally explaining your entitlement

This is the best the hosts have been in a while.

Which makes the other host return boring. We had Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon come back as two undecided Philly housewives, and while I get the idea, it doesn’t work. Partially because while Fey gets the accent, it seems like she’s willing to drop it when she’s actually getting going, which pretty much dulls anything she’s doing.

And also because Fallon is still a shitty SNL character performer. He constantly broke, had no idea where the accent or the character was, and seemed like he hadn’t read the script before walking up. Fallon’s attempt at apology for his softball Trump interview falls flat, and it leaves the sketch dull.

Pete Davidson is always fun.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did not!

Impression of the Night?

Baldwin’s Trump. There were some other fun ones, like Miranda as Dustin (I looked it up) in Stranger Things or McKinnon starting to turn Kellyanne Conway into a character, but it was Baldwin’s night to shine and he performed exactly as he needed to.

MVPs!

Jost and Che.

This was an ensemble night, with everyone playing their parts and bouncing off the energy Miranda, but Jost and Che going in on Weekend Update was the star turn of the evening. Plenty of great performances, but those two deserve the honor.

Season so far:

Kate McKinnon – 1
Jost and Che – 1

Final Thoughts!

This was my kind of episode. Way more hits than misses, a lot of fun and specific and committed comedy, a host that’s game for anything, and the first time SNL is feeling a fire under its ass about its political satire. It’s an early homerun and if our cast and writers can bring half this much fun week by week, we may have a comeback story on our hands.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  2. Margot Robbie