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We've had a lot of fun preparing for "The Simpsons" 500th episode over the last few days, with you guys choosing your favorite episodes, quotes and (non-Simpson family) characters. Now it's time to discuss episode 500 itself, with a quick review coming up just as soon as I spend $800 on dragon insurance...
1) Whitney Houston. Listen to this and try not to cry over what we’ve lost.
2) Adele: Really? You have to ask? We have six, shiny gold reasons.
3) Madonna: Madge lands her 38th Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, widening her margin over the Beatles by four. Any other week that would definitely get her the top spot.
4) Grammy Awards: The Feb. 12 ceremony drew more than 41 million viewers, making it the second-most watched Grammy ceremony, ever only behind the 1984 show.
5) Dave Grohl: This rock and roll true believer gets to the heart of the matter with the Foo Fighters’ Grammy acceptance speech: “Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that's the most important thing for people to do” We're embroidering it on a pillow.
6) Nicki Minaj: Almost a week after her Grammy performance, I have only one question: What was that?
7) Chris Brown: Love him, hate him, we’re all talking about him this week, aren’t we?
8) Columbia Records: The label is rolling in the dough, as Adele continues her winning ways: Next week “21” will surpass 7 million copies in the U.S., making it the best-selling album in nearly seven years (since Carrie Underwood’s “Some Hearts”).
9) Skrillex: He's gone from who? to Mr. Three-time Grammy winner in a beat--or two.
10) Katy Perry: Her new single “Part of Me,” which she debuted on the Grammy Awards, will sell more than 400,000 in its first week of digital release, making it her biggest download week yet. But you know what really makes her a winner? She had pledged her portion of the proceeds to MusiCares, the Recording Academy’s charity that aids musicians in need. Baby, she's a firework.
The Cinema Audio Society has made some interesting calls over the years. "True Grit" last season, in the face of blockbuster and eventual Oscar winner "Inception." "No Country for Old Men" in 2007 rather than the skillfully layered "Transformers" (and, again, eventual Oscar winner "The Bourne Ultimatum"). "Road to Perdition" over musical heavyweight "Chicago" and feast for the ears "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
I applaud that. Very much. And indeed, when you look over their history, they often eschew the big, "loud" stuff that tends to have an easier time at the Oscars. In addition to the above-mentioned "Inception" and "The Two Towers," they ignored all the "Spider-Man" films, all the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, "King Kong," "The Dark Knight," etc., etc. Well, tonight they did something they have done a few times in the past -- they went with a serious Best Picture contender that doesn't really have showcase sound qualities. They went with "Hugo."
The 24th annual USC Libraries Scripter Awards were held this evening just south of downtown at the Doheny Library on the USC campus. For the first time in a while, I had to miss the show (which is always a classy affair and, as a former USC grad student, always a bit odd, ordering a vodka tonic at the counter where I used to check out books for thesis and term paper purposes).
Anyway, the goal of the honor is to recognize adaptation of the written word. Once upon a time that was limited to literature, but in recent years it has expanded to include former screenplays (allowing for remakes to be recognized) and comic books.
This year, the big winner, unsurprisingly, was "The Descendants." Screenwriters Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were awarded alongside author Kaui Hart Hemmings. The film won the honor just moments after it was announced as this year's ACE Eddie winner for dramas.
The 62nd annual ACE Eddie Awards, recognizing achievement in film editing, were held this evening, and the big surprise came in the drama category. Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" beat out fellow Best Picture nominees "Hugo," "Moneyball" and "War Horse," as well as the slickly cut (by last year's Oscar winners) "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" for the award.
Meanwhile, "The Artist" predictably took the comedy/musical prize, besting "Bridesmaids," "Midnight in Paris," "My Week with Marilyn" and "Young Adult." And "Rango" beat out "The Adventures of Tintin" and "Puss in Boots" for the animated prize. (I might have gone with the former instead, as Michael Kahn's work there was really a virtue and part of the film's identity. But I'm happy I'm such a fan of both of those films this year and any success either gets is fine by me.)
As I wrote in my most recent Berlin Film Festival dispatch -- and will explain further tomorrow, when I review my favorites of the festival -- this year's Competition turned out far stronger than it looked on paper, with a handful of rangy, robust formally exciting films that would have passed muster even in a more high-stakes Cannes lineup.
"Caesar Must Die," a comeback effort of sorts from veteran Italian auteurs Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, was not, for my money, one of those films. A gimmicky melange of re-enacted documentary and heightened performance piece that feels padded even at 76 minutes, it follows the rehearsal and staging of an amateur production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in Rome's rough Rebibbia prison.
With an array of real-life convicts, most of them Mafia-related, playing themselves, the film rather unsubtly underlines the liberating powers of culture -- at one point, by having one of the men helpfully say that he feels liberated by culture. (Another participant, Salvatore Striano, was paroled in 2006 and has since cultivated a career as an actor, popping up in "Gomorrah" a few years back.) The film premiered early in the fest and had its admirers, but swiftly dropped out of the critical conversation -- and, indeed, my memory.
When I was on the set of "Kick-Ass," I spent a fair amount of time in casual conversation with Nicolas Cage. Because I was there for a while, Cage relaxed enough around me to discuss a wide range of topics, and at one point, we were talking about "Ghost Rider" and his general affinity for the character. He had issues with the first film, but was pleased to have played Johnny Blaze, and he was determined to take another shot at it at some point.
He told me a story about an afternoon while he was on the press tour for the first film, and they were in Rome to promote it. He had the afternoon off and was walking around, looking at old churches, wearing his Johnny Blaze costume. He happened to walk into a church where there was a conference of cardinals underway, and they recognized him. They called him down to the front of the church and asked him to sit in the front with the main cardinals. As he was sitting there, listening to the conversations, dressed as Johnny Blaze, he got the idea that in the second film, Blaze should be employed by the Vatican as a special weapon against the forces of darkness.
I'm not sure how that idea led to the film that opened yesterday, "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance," but I am sure that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are a creative cancer, perhaps the most aggressively unpleasant mainstream filmmakers working. Their work seems to be devolving from film to film, and as much as I disliked "Gamer," their last movie, it's safe to say it would be hard for me to imagine hating another film this year on the same level as "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance." Visually repulsive, morally empty, and intellectually bankrupt, this is the film that people are thinking about when they moan about Comic-Con culture and fanboy cinema. This is devoid of invention or ideas, joyless filmmaking without any investment from the filmmakers. It actively scares me that these guys have fans, and that people are willing to defend their filmmaking, because what I see onscreen in their work is nothing less than the deadest of dead ends, the worst of modern action cinema taken to its logical conclusion.
In the end, it was the bodyguard who said what we all needed to hear—no, not her “Bodyguard” co-star Kevin Costner—but her real-life bodyguard of 11 years, Ray Watson.
As I watched Whitney Houston’s nearly four-hour funeral beamed from Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, and listened to moving speech after moving speech — all of them heartfelt in their own ways, some more poignant than others—it was Watson’s words that resonated the most.
Unlike some of the speakers, Watson had been with Houston virtually every day for 11 years until she died on Feb. 11 and he saw a side of her that none of the others saw on a consistent basis. As she wrapped her last movie, “Sparkle,” this summer, she declared that she and Watson would drive back to New Jersey rather than fly (and since she didn’t drive, that meant the driving chores fell all to Watson...and, furthermore, despite his speaking tenderly, it was clear that her decision was not up for discussion).
As Watson commented on carrying his “precious cargo” back home, he perhaps, unwittingly, revealed how sheltered and isolated she had become—so much so that he worried about stopping during the trip and leaving her alone in the car when he paid for gas. “I told her, ‘Don’t get out of the car’,” he said.
He also spoke lovingly of her Bible, her constant companion, which he, unbeknownst to her, nicknamed Raggedy because it was so dog-eared and underlined. She took it everywhere. That one story did more than any other to humanize her and it felt authentic and true that despite his grief, he felt that with her death Houston’s spirit came to him to tell him that he was “free.” In that moment, I felt his sorrow and relief and, moreover, thought that Houston herself was finally free: unshackled of the demons—whether they be drugs or the paparazzi — that had kept her in chains for too much of her life.
The other “Bodyguard,” Costner, knew he had to find a way to quickly explain his presence at the service and he did so with grace, acknowledging that first appearances would seem to show he and Houston had nothing in common, but they did: They both grew up in the Baptist church. After he bridged that gap, he told how he stuck up for Houston and made sure she was cast in their 1992 blockbuster, despite others’ misgivings about showing an on-screen interracial romance. It’s a testament to his charm and obvious affection for Houston, that his long speech, which served him as much as Houston, was one of the most moving...and was one of the few to hint that Houston’s “stumbles” should provide a cautionary tale to young women to “guard their body.”
The service, filled with moving performances by the Winans family, Alicia Keys, Donnie McClurkin, Stevie Wonder, Kim Burrell, R. Kelly and many others, felt authentic and filled with love for Houston from many people who knew her in varying degrees, professionally and personally. But most of all, it was Houston’s abiding, deep faith that stuck with me and that dominated the service-- in almost every word that was spoken and every song sung. Filmmaker Tyler Perry, who had known Houston only for four years, spoke eloquently and movingly of the two “constants” he knew about Houston: her grace and “her love of God.”
As Marvin Winans stressed in his eulogy, there is no shame in declaring one’s faith proudly and loudly. Other than in R&B, gospel, country and contemporary Christian music, musicians often hide their faith for fear of being seen as uncool and unhip. A number of acts, including some huge artists who have transitioned from Christian music to mainstream rock, are told to turn down the preaching or risk turning off fans. Houston’s funeral and Winans’ words showed how wrong that kind of thinking is.
As the service reinforced over and over again, for Houston, there was no separation between music and her faith. The two were intertwined: her talent was a gift from God and how she shared it with millions was her way of honoring Him for bestowing it upon her. Music provided salvation, healing, and redemption for Houston, as it does for anyone. Furthermore, as singer after singer praised God in song, especially the choir member who sang The 23rd Psalm, it felt exultant, as if Houston’s spirit was being returned on the music’s glorious wings back up to God.
And that is why it is called a homegoing. RIP, Whitney.