Monday, February 23, 2015

The Political Oscars

There's no way of getting around it: every year, the Oscars are guaranteed to be a monstrously long 4-hour affair (and that's not even counting the red carpet coverage).   Most of us only care about the biggest awards, and yet have to wade through painful opening segments by the host, cheesy musical performances, endless montages and tributes, and awards for categories like sound mixing and "short form animated feature".  And yet, many of us watch anyways, because the spectacle is like no other during awards season: it's bigger, fancier, more expensive, and more bombastic than any other, the height of Hollywood excess--and yet the idea of a 'humble' Oscars is simply out of the question.  This year, however, there seemed to be a new common thread to the show and that was a marked, almost militant political bent where every celebrity seemed to be promoting a pet cause.

The tone was set in the first two minutes of broadcast, as host Neil Patrick Harris--normally a safe bet for inoffensive humor and spectacular song-and-dance numbers--joked that the show would highlight Hollywood's "best and whitest...I mean brightest", a clear reference to the shutout of minorities from the best actor and actress categories this year.  Even in the spectacular song-and-dance number that followed, Jack Black stole the show in a hilarious interruption that savaged Hollywood's reliance on formula superhero films and greedy corporate mentality.

The show then settled from there into its usual mind-numbing routine, but little moments of social and political activism kept popping up--and sometimes in surprising ways.  Patricia Arquette's acceptance speech after her win for best supporting actress ended with a passionate plea for women's rights and equal gender pay, which had luminaries like Meryl Streep on their feet cheering.  Best actor winner Eddie Redmayne used his win to highlight sufferers of ALS, the motor-neuron affliction that Stephen Hawking (the man he portrayed in The Theory Of Everything) carries.  When Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald took the stage for their win in the best documentary category, their speech praised the controversial NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was the subject of Poitras' stunning Citizenfour.

One of the most touching speeches of the evening was given by best adapted screenplay winner Graham Moore, who recounted his own suicide attempt at age 16 as a means of highlighting awareness of the issue.  Even the best song category wasn't immune, as John Legend and Common's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink performance of "Glory" from the film Selma referenced civil rights flashpoints from Selma to Ferguson and earned them a standing ovation.  In his acceptance speech, Legend noted that more black men are incarcerated in prison today than were enslaved in 1850 (this was fact-checked to be true, by the way).  Finally, best director and film winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu spoke about the immigration issue that his fellow Mexicans face in the United States.  And if all of that socio-political grandstanding seemed too heavy for the average viewer merely tuning in for some light entertainment, we did get to see what was perhaps the first-ever thank you given to a winner's dog in one speech!

As for the winners themselves, the best actor and actress categories were a virtual lock, as Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore had swept all other award shows this season.  The best picture, director, and screenplay categories were unsettled, however, with Birdman and Boyhood generally seen as the two films battling it out this year.  In the end, Boyhood (which had been a clear winner at the Golden Globes) was shut out in all but the supporting actress category, while Birdman took home a clean sweep of the screenplay, director, and picture awards.  The film is also one of the rare comedies to win the Oscar for Best Picture, perhaps reminding us that even on a night as seemingly serious and packed with issues as this one, it was humor that reigned supreme.  

PS Let's not even talk about John Travolta's creepiness, OK....?

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Monday, February 16, 2015

SNL's Big Night

Saturday Night Live's much-hyped 40th anniversary special hadn't even reached the halfway mark of its mammoth 3 1/2 hour running time, when the internet blogs, live tweets, and Yahoo! news articles began their commentary.  Betty White kisses Bradley Cooper!  Kanye West sings from the floor! And Eddie Murphy--WTF?!

The television extravaganza had more star-power packed into its running time than three Oscars combined, with over 100 big names--all cast members, hosts, or musical guests who had been on the program--sitting in the audience, watching as their fellow stars congratulated themselves for contributing to the longest-running and most successful comedy institution in American TV history. SNL has become such a benchmark for our culture--it is literally the axis upon which our pop culture has spun for the past four decades--that even amidst its excessive bloat, the special made for compelling viewing.  

Of special interest to most of the commentators was a rundown on who sparked laughs and who bombed spectacularly: Will Ferrell and Darryl Hammond got props for their reprise of Celebrity Jeopardy; Bill Murray struck gold in character as 70s lounge singer Nick Ocean discovering the long-lost lyrics to the Jaws theme; the 93-year old Betty White rescued a below-average Californians sketch by locking lips in a passionate make-out session with Hollywood hunk du jour Bradley Cooper; Eddie Murphy's eagerly anticipated appearance amounted to a mere 73 seconds of screen time, in which the comedian looked like he wished he was anywhere else; and Jerry Seinfeld fielded both hilarious and awkward questions from some of the big names in the audience.  This author's personal favorite sketch was a reprise of the Wayne's World cable access show, which featured a running gag referencing Kanye West's hubris at the Grammys the week prior.  

The musical guests also included Kanye, who doubled down on his megalomania by preferring to rap while lying on his back, a move predictably hailed by Rolling Stone the next day as performance-art "genius".  Miley Cyrus performed an adequate if low-key cover of Paul Simon's "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover", but at least decided to keep her outfit semi-tasteful and her tongue in her mouth.  Paul McCartney, winded from a nearly three-hour concert in front of invited guests the night before, massacred his classic "Maybe I'm Amazed" with a labored, cracked vocal.  Finally, Paul Simon closed the proceedings with an appropriate if overly-sentimental "Still Crazy After All These Years"; unfortunately it seems as if the septuagenarian rocker is also losing his voice.  

While great musical guests have always been a bedrock of SNL's legend, the subpar performances last night could have been easily discarded in favor of highlighting more sketches and characters from the program's rich and varied history.  If there was one overriding impression from the event, it was that too much was being crammed into a 3 1/2 hour time slot that still seemed too short; classic characters like King Tut, Debbie Downer, and Matt Foley were relegated to 30-second cameos, barely enough to register a brief laugh of recognition before moving on to the next one in the grind. While it was fun seeing every generation of SNL performers--from Chevy Chase to Cecily Strong--sharing the stage together, there just wasn't enough time to showcase anyone adequately.  This was made acute during the special's Weekend Update segment, which lasted barely six minutes in spite of featuring a killer anchor lineup of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jane Curtin.  

The verdict: the highs and lows, gaffes and surprises, bombs and triumphs of the special very much mirrored a typical SNL episode--which at least somehow seems appropriate.  

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Valentines Day Films

Last year, we suggested five romantic films to enjoy on Valentine's Day.  Naturally, that did not exhaust the number of fine films available to us, so this year we present you with five more classics, to be enjoyed in a comfortable loveseat with your loved one, lighted candles and a bottle of wine at your side.  If you really want to go all-out, try the Madison Refreshment Console sofa, which will turn your seat into a romantic mini-bar with space to chill your drinks--and don't forget the wine glass caddy!  

1. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934): The Academy Award winner for best picture in 1934, this Frank Capra masterpiece holds up surprisingly well to modern audiences some eighty years on. What's a perfect movie date night without the legendary stars of old?  Claudette Colbert stars as the spoiled heiress who runs away from an arranged marriage, only to bump into Clark Gable, who portrays a hapless newspaper reporter.  The film set the pace for all future romantic comedies, as the two stars cross tempers before finally falling for each other.  The black and white charm of this timeless classic has the power to effortlessly transport you to a simpler era; if the classic hitchhike scene doesn't get you, nothing will!

2. JULES AND JIM (1962): There had to be at least one French film on this list, and Francois Truffaut's powerful meditation on love and friendship remains a peak effort of the French New Wave. This existential drama follows the lives of two men who fall for the same free spirited woman, played brilliantly by Jeanne Moreau.  She ends up falling in love with both, but each relationship is doomed.  In spite of its bleak premise, the cinematography is astonishing, as it revels in a soft-focus beauty and love of geometric form. This sumptuous, passionate film will be sure to inspire those looking to forge a deep romantic bond.

3. ANNIE HALL (1977):  The template for all modern-day romantic comedy was kickstarted by legendary comedian Woody Allen, who moved from the slapstick farce of gems like Bananas and Sleeper to this sophisticated portrait of a New York City couple as they fall in love, break up, get back together, and then slowly drift apart once more.  The story is told in vivid flashbacks that end up touching on all aspects of life, while remaining hilarious throughout.  The deft blend of comedy with more intelligent themes has impressed audiences for nearly four decades, with the film appearing on many all-time best lists.

4. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989): What at first seemed like a somewhat fluffy takeoff on Annie Hall soon developed a life and following of its own, and is now seen as a classic in its own right.  There is, of course, the now famous restaurant orgasm scene, which boasts one of the greatest comedic performances of the last thirty years.  Even better, the film as a whole seems to please both sexes, so it's an almost surefire bet, even on repeated viewings.  You may have seen the film before, but in the context of your decked-out home theater, it will feel brand-new once again: trust us, by the film's end, you'll want what Meg Ryan is having. 

5. GROUNDHOG DAY (1993):  This film, which received mildly favorable reviews on initial release, has grown in stature to be hailed as a contemporary masterpiece.  That's because it is built layer upon layer, and these layers are gradually unfolded on repeat viewings.  Its feel-good message is not gratuitous or contrived, in spite of the fantasy storyline--somehow, when the film is over, you have grown in wisdom received.  And Groundhog Day does all of this while keeping its tone deceptively light and charming, harkening back to the sweetness of an old Hollywood classic like It Happened One Night.  In the end, it does what the best romantic comedies are supposed to do--use laughter as the best means to romance. 

At, we have the largest selection of in-stock and ready-to-ship home theater seating and home theater furniture available! We offer theater seating and design solutions for both the casual and professional home theater enthusiast.  We also have a complete line of custom home theater decor available.