MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The Academy Awards: 2008

The intoxicant most widely trafficked in the lead-up to the Academy Awards is glamour. One night each year, the world’s most fabuloso personalities gather in a single location to sell pipedreams to the rubes in Hicksville who must content themselves with watching the fatuous coverage on TV.

Even as viewers are weaning themselves from the attendant hype, the media can’t kick the celebrity habit.

This year, apart from some suspicious choices in the Best Song and Foreign Language categories, the nominees are sound, and the length of the writers’ strike mercifully forced party planners to ratchet down their sickening displays of gluttony and self-love. Even so, by successfully turning December into the only month that matters, the studios have limited exposure to the worthy finalists to such a degree, only a small percentage of the television audience will have seen the movies in contention.

As ratings of recent ceremonies suggest, the only viewers willing to stay tuned after the three-hour mark are those with a vested interest in the outcomes of the more prestigious contests. Considering that Juno has grossed twice as much as the next most commercially successful Best Picture candidate – No Country for Old Men, at $59 million – the academy should strongly consider having Miley Cyrus (a.k.a. Hannah Montana) and Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock) open the night’s most important envelope. Even I might stay up to see that.

On the left coast, of course, viewers are allowed plenty of time to finish their naps and catch the party action, which the L.A. stations and cable infotainment channels cover with breathless intensity. It’s the one of night of the year when the paparazzi and celebrities are working towards a common goal – personal aggrandizement – and the magnetic appeal of free booze and fancy grub is on display for the world to witness. Because cameras aren’t allowed in the bathrooms or under the tables – and Cops doesn’t pay valets to give Breathalyzer tests to the stars, before handing over the keys to their SUVs – the glamorous Hollywood of old is paraded out as if it were Brigadoon (adapted by John Waters).

Among the winners, celebrities and panty-deprived ingénues who won’t be awarded much air time in the wee hours are those nominees whose fates were sealed in during the moments reserved for stars to grab a cigarette, take a pee or powder their noses. Those competing in the technical and shorts categories – and, absent an Almodovar or Moore, the foreign-language and documentary finalists — generally are seated closer to Highland Avenue than the stage … far enough removed as to eliminate the need for seat-holders.

And, for most of artists relegated to fringes of the Kodak Theater, that’s perfectly OK. If they can snap off a few photos of themselves on the Red Carpet — and their cellphone batteries hold out — they’ll die happy, knowing their names will be preceded by “Oscar-nominated in obituaries.

These are the folks I remember most fondly when I look back on the Academy Awards ceremonies I was paid to cover. You can always pick them out from the parade of studio executives and pals of academy weasels because they’re the ones who aren’t being interviewed by the entertainment press and their formal attire looks as if it were rented or was chosen off a rack. (The stars who most easily can afford designer gowns and fine jewelry are the ones least likely to have actually purchased them.) The first-timers are the ones who plant themselves on the Red Carpet and refuse to move when prodded by security goons. Why leave the best seat in the house? God bless ’em.

The nominees in the “minor categories remind me of the forgotten folks in flyover-land who are still waiting for Atonement to open in a theater within a hundred miles of home, and are so respectful of the movie-going experience that, once seated, they wouldn’t think of answering their cellphone. They may not be able to remember the last good movie they saw at the local multiplex, but will sit through the presentations of Oscars to engineers, designers and those filmmakers who work short, while thinking big.

Happily, these are the buffs served best by such innovative home-delivery services as Netflix, Facets and Movies Unlimited/TCM. While studio executives and other media concerns salivate over the possibility of selling movies intended for display in theaters to teenagers with teeny-weeny iPods, these companies have leveled the playing field by delivering a wonderfully diverse catalogue of movies, short subjects, documentaries, television programs and cultural events to underserved viewers in far-flung destinations.

When Mohammed couldn’t get to the arthouse, the arthouse came to Mohammed. The same principle also applies to the short and foreign-language films nominated each year for Oscars, but rarely, if ever were made available for public consumption.

Starting this weekend, anyone who’s ever wondered what’s so special about short films can find out by attending special screenings in dozens of theaters nationwide. If that isn’t a convenient option, the 10 nominated live-action and animated shorts can be downloaded onto iTunes and viewed on the video monitor of a home computer. Hosted by Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International, these programs have benefitted from their association with AMPAS’ Oscar brand, and have swiftly become an awards-season tradition.

Combine the efficiency of home-delivery services – and the reams of background material available to their customers — with the convenience of such Internet resource sites as, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and Mr. Skin, and, voila, a door opens to a vast new world of cinematic opportunity.

For example:

Ever wonder what made two-time Oscar nominee Javier Bardem such a hot commodity, prior to his emergence in Before Night Falls and No Country for Old Men? Last week, via Netflix, I was able to travel back to the dawn of the hunky Spaniard’s career, and find several answers to the questio. In the early ’90s, Bardem delivered memorable performances in Bigas Lunas’ sexy dramedies, Huevos de Oro and La Teta i la lluna, neither of which was released in the U.S., and Jamón, jamón, which was. At the same time, I was able to study Penelope Cruz’ theatrical debut in Jamon, jamon and enjoy watching Benicio del Toro in Huevos de Oro, making love to Maribel Verdú, of Y tu mamá también.

The same sort of game can be played with Best Actress front-runner Marion Cotillard, who delivered such a remarkable portrayal of Edith Piaf, in La Vie en rose. A closer perusal of the DVD and its bonus features provides all the evidence one would need to understand why the biopic also was nominated in the Best Achievement in Makeup category. If I hadn’t already seen Cotillard in A Good Year and Big Fish, I might have been tempted to visit and find out what she looked like without makeup. I might very well check out her performances in Luc Besson’s Taxi trilogy, though.

At once, another road to discovery opened up before me.

Even though La Vie en rose (a.k.a.,La Môme) was nominated for 3 Oscars, 11 Cesars and 7 Bafta awards, France caused a short-lived uproar by electing not to submit the film for consideration as in the Best Foreign Language category. Instead, the panel recommended Persepolis, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s animated story of a precocious Persian girl, coming of age during the Iranian revolution. The picture found universal praise among American critics, but will have its work cut out for it againstRatatouille and Surf’s Up.

(It’s possible that France anticipated Cotillard’s Oscar nod, for Best Lead Actress, and passed over La Môme simply to piss off the Iranian officials who lobbied against its selection. Organizers of the 2007 Bangkok Film Festival buckled under the pressure from Tehran, dropping Persepolis from its lineup.)

Last year, in an attempt to avoid similar controversies, academy officials borrowed the winnowing process favored by judges in the documentary category. It would release a “short list of candidates, a week ahead of the official announcement of nominations. While the 2007 list was impeccable — After the Wedding (Denmark), The Lives of Others (Germany), Pan’s Labyrinth (Mexico) and Days of Glory (France) – the 2008 ballot baffled many observers by failing even to short-list Persepolis and the Romanian abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which was a multiple winner at Cannes.

Just as France had two legitimate candidates, but could only submit one for Oscar consideration, Israel’s dilemma extended into the realms of politics and procedure. In the process of vetoing the submission of The Band’s Visit, the much-admired story of an Egyptian police band that mistakenly ends up stranded overnight in a small Israeli town, the committee found it necessary to put a stopwatch on the dialogue. Citing academy guidelines that stipulate more than 50 percent of a film’s dialogue be in a language other than English, the selection committee was given a legitimate excuse for its decision. Even as their calculations were disputed by the film’s American distributor, however, others argued that political motivations were behind the action. The war drama Beaufort was submitted, instead, and it successfully made the cut, along with films from Mongolia, Russia, Poland and Kazakhstan.

Beaufort debuted here at last month’s Palm Springs Film Festival, before opening on three screens in New York, while Austria’s Nazi-era thriller, The Counterfeiters, will get a limited release next week. With no big-name actors or directors involved, this year’s Foreign Language contest will be of interest only to buffs, nationalists and conspiracy theorists. Most of us will have to wait until the DVDs arrive, before adding our opinions.

Again, by way of comparison, big-city audiences can get an early handle on the level of competition, when Cao Hamburger’s bittersweet The Year My Parents Went on Vacation opens this weekend in select theaters. The Brazilian entry made the short list of nine films, but was denied a trip to the finals. If the other five movies turn out to be superior to Hamburger’s compelling period drama, there will be much to anticipate in the coming months.

Hamburger’s factually based story takes place in 1970, as World Cup fever and a brutal crackdown on dissenters play out simultaneously throughout Brazil. An educated Jewish couple abruptly informs their 10-year-old son they’re leaving Belo Horizonte, and going on “vacation” of indeterminate length. The boy, Mauro, is to be left with his grandfather, who lives in Sao Paulo’s teeming Bom Retiro neighborhood. It is an established conclave of lower-middle-class Jews, Italians and native Brazilians.

Unbeknownst to the couple, who hurriedly drop Mauro and his bags off on the curb, before speeding away, the old man has just suffered a fatal heart attack. It takes a while for an elderly neighbor to return home and open his door to the boy. Even though Mauro doesn’t understand Yiddish, and the bearded gentleman hasn’t a clue about the circumstances surrounding the boy’s arrival, shelter is offered and accepted.

Like almost everyone else in Brazil, Mauro is a rabid fan of the national team. It helps him make friends with an energetic young girl in the building, and she introduces him to the denizens of the lower-middle-class neighborhood. Soccer is the common language of the street, and, Pele is the Moses leading the team and its supporters to the Promised Land.

The old man, Schlomo, is deeply religious. Perplexed by the unexpected and unwanted arrival of the boy, who would rather kick a ball through the streets of Sao Paulo than attend schul, he seeks the advice of his rabbi. The rabbi convinces Schlomo that his unexpected guest is a gift from god, however challenging his presence might be.

Even as Pele and his compatriots climb the ladder to the championship match — to be contested in Mexico City – Hamburger and co-writer Claudio Galperin put the military in position to swoop in and crack down on dissidents. Apparently, Mauro’s parents are known to radicals at the local university, and they, in turn, keep a quiet watch for his safety.

Although Mauro doesn’t understand what his parents meant by going on “vacation,” viewers who can remember the turmoil that blanketed South America in the early ’70s will have guessed early on that they went underground to avoid being arrested, tortured and, perhaps, killed. Argentinean filmmakers have produced several dramas referencing the disappearance of dissidents, which extended to the abduction of their children for placement in the homes of childless couples.

(In 1982, Costa-Gravas referenced America’s involvement in the assassination of Chilean leader, Salvador Allende, and subsequent slaughter of leftists. Last year, his daughter, Julia, recalled the same period in Blame It on Fidel! In 2002, John Malkovich directed Javier Bardem in The Dancer Upstairs, a drama inspired by the war between Peruvian police and Shining Light guerrillas.)

It wasn’t until the military governments collapsed, years later, that filmmakers, writers and artists enjoyed the freedom to comment on the unreported murders of their friends, relatives and teachers. Instead of relying on polemics to deliver a message to audience, Hamburger accentuates the humanism at the core of Schlomo and Mauro’s ability to peacefully co-exist. The excitement generated by Brazil’s quest for another World Cup is evident in the multi-hued faces of the fans who gather in the neighborhood’s restaurants and bars, as is the general aura of dread. None of the parallel stories drains the entertainment value from the others.

It may not have made the Oscar cut, but The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is the best movie opening this weekend, and the only one adults are likely to enjoy.

Also, beginning Friday, buffs will be given an opportunity to survey the candidates for Oscars in both of the Best Short Film categories. Besides providing several hours’ worth fine entertainment, the screenings allow fans to interact — albeit subconsciously — with those academy members deciding which title will be announced at next weekend’s ceremony.

This year, for the first time in memory, all of the competing shorts are from countries other than the United States. Needless to say, most also are subtitled. Not surprisingly, all are terrifically entertaining.

Competition is as intense in the lesser-appreciated categories as it is in those whose winners are announced in the show’s final hour. In the 2007 Animation competition, The Danish Poet, a Norwegian-Canadian co-production, played David against the shorts submitted by Goliaths Disney, Pixar and 20th Century Fox. In the Live Action category, the winner was West Bank Story, a musical comedy made by Americans about rival falafel stands on Israel’s West Bank. Other candidates were from Senegal, Australia, Spain and Denmark. American products have been shut out of one or the other shorts category, but not both at the same time.

Considering how little the academy does to enhance our enjoyment of the overlong and increasingly self-important ceremony, the program developed by Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International beats hiring Regis Philbin to host the pre-show and calling it progress. The quality of the movies themselves warrant the attention of movie lovers.

Those so inclined can find a list of the participating theaters, in about 70 cities, by going to The Live Action program lasts 137 minutes, while the animated program tops out at 90 minutes. Each one requires separate admission. (You can get information on the films and artists at Magnolia has also collected the 2007 candidates in DVD, and it can be found on the websites of the aforementioned home-delivery services.

Unless they live in New York or Los Angeles, viewers passionate about documentaries aren’t quite as fortunate. Information on pre-Oscar DocuDays in those cities is available at

2008 Live Action Shorts

AT NIGHT (Denmark): Three young women share their problems while spending the holidays in a hospital cancer ward.

THE SUBSTITUTE (Italy): The arrival of an unusual newcomer galvanizes the students in a high school classroom.

THE MOZART OF PICKPOCKETS (France): A pair of unlucky thieves find their fortunes have changed when they take in a deaf homeless boy.

TANGHI ARGENTINI (Belgium): A man who must learn to dance the tango in two weeks asks an office colleague for help.

THE TONTO WOMAN (United Kingdom):. Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, a cattle rustler meets a woman who is living in isolation after being held prisoner for 11 years by the Mojave Indians

2008 Animated Shorts

I MET THE WALRUS (Canada) In 1969, 14-year-old Jerry Levitan snuck into John Lennon’s hotel room with his tape recorder and persuaded him to do an interview.

MADAME TUTLI-PUTLI (Canada) A timid woman boards a mysterious night train and has a series of frightening experiences.

EVEN PIGEONS GO TO HEAVEN (France): A priest tries to sell an old man a machine that he promises will transport him to heaven.

MY LOVE (Russia): In 19th Century Russia, a teenage boy in search of love is drawn to two very different women.

PETER & THE WOLF (United Kingdom/Poland): A young boy and his animal friends face a hungry wolf in an updated version of Prokofiev’s classic musical piece.

February 16, 2008

– Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon