Monday, December 14, 2009

More Like Gauntlet

I recently decided to do something about the rhythm that has been nagging me from the back of my mind and incorporate it into a new piece.  The result is a fast, advanced-level piece in D Minor (occasionally going into F Major and flirting with Phrygian mode) with frequent meter changes.  I originally thought Agincourt, with its 7/8 time signature would be a good rhythmic challenge for advanced students, but now I see that middle school kids are playing it with no problem.  This new one (still untitled, of course) should be suitably difficult.

But while writing this new one, I got to thinking about something.

People always ask me "why don't you write something like Gauntlet again?" To which I have two responses.  First: I thought I have.  I'm not sure exactly how I bottled lightning with Gauntlet - it seems to be a product of the very specific state of mind I was in for two weeks in 1998 and, despite my best efforts, it remains a unique anomaly.  I think that Agincourt, Elementals, Avatar (no relation to the new movie), Gargoyles, Crusader, and Storm Trail all have that same "dark and fast" quality.  I also have dozens of unpublished pieces in the same milieu, but I still get asked why I don't write more pieces like Gauntlet.  I'm not sure what quality it is that people respond to and want me to reproduce, but it seems beyond my grasp.

My second response is: why would I want to write the same thing twice?  Even if I could write a piece like Gauntlet again, would you really want to play a piece that's exactly like Gauntlet but not Gauntlet?  Would teachers buy a piece that's really really similar to a piece that they already have in their library?  I still like Gauntlet, but all these years later I see a certain naivete in its construction and I'd like to think that I've grown as a composer since then.  While I sometimes try to emulate the dark style and fast tempo that made Gauntlet popular, I'd rather write a piece that is unique and interesting on its own merits than a complete re-tread of something I've already done.

Let me put it this way: What if the Beatles kept writing songs like "Love Me Do"  over and over for their whole career?  It was a huge success for them early on, but what if, instead of exploring new sounds and growing artistically, they kept focusing on the same jangly rockabilly sound they started with?  Another example: Hootie and the Blowfish, a band that stuck with its middle-of-the-road frat rock long after the public's taste for middle-of-the-road frat rock had faded.

My hero, Igor Stravinsky had this problem (on a much larger scale).   He spent a long lifetime writing an amazing string of masterpieces, but all anyone wanted to hear were the three ballets he wrote in his early 30's.  He never revisited the early style that made him famous and instead, focused on constantly exploring new sounds.  Still, he made a career out of it, so it's not the worst problem to have.  Another extreme example is Carl Orff, who lived to be over 100 and wrote tons of beautiful music, but all he's known for is the first five minutes of one piece that he wrote back in the 1940's.

So this new piece I just finished is like Gauntlet in that it has a fast tempo, a minor key and a legato section in the middle, but it also has unique challenges.  If it gets compared to Gauntlet that would be great, but I hope that it stands apart and can be appreciated on its own merits.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Workin' On the Opera

I've been doing some more work on my opera recently.  I actually finished it a few years ago, but now I'm taking some time to tweak it.  The biggest problem is that I initially wrote everything directly to score and then reduced it into a piano part.  Unfortunately, the multiple lines and cross-rhythms I used in the full score don't fit under two hands so well, so I've been writing a whole new reduction for four hands.  It already sounds more like the orchestral score and if I ever get into a rehearsal setting, it should work much better.

I'm also revising some of the vocal lines in an effort to make the whole piece more singable.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Midwest Clinic

The annual Midwest Clinic is only a few weeks away and, sadly, I won't be able to make it to Chicago this year.  Midwest is a huge event - a giant convention for music educators around the country to learn from each other in seminars, find out about the latest products, and hear the best of the best school-level, college, and professional bands, orchestras, and ensembles. 

This year, if you go, be sure to wake up bright and early on Wednesday, December 16 and head to the Skyline Ballroom at 8:30am to hear the J. Frank Dobie High School Chamber Orchestra of Houston, Texas.  They're going to play Quicksilver and I'm sure they'll do a spectacular job.

I found a performance from the Midwest Clinic on YouTube to share - the Hershey Symphony Festival Strings playing Zydeco Two-Step at the 2006 convention.  The intonation is perfect, but the tempo is way too fast.  Still, it's an honor to have my music selected for such a prestigious event.  Just one more thing to be thankful for this holiday weekend!


Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Videos - Agincourt & A Hero's Welcome

Agincourt really seems to be catching fire, based on the appearance of a new batch of videos on You Tube.  Please to enjoy a very good performance by the Bowditch Advanced Orchestra:



Not bad!  A good performance makes up for the fact that they mis-pronounced my name in the intro.  But up next is the thundering herd known as the Clay, Carmel, and Creekside Middle School Symphony, also playing Agincourt.  The tempo is great in this one and I really like the enthusiasm that they bring.



Go, middle-schoolers, go!  You rock that advanced-level piece!  I'll end this post on a somber note.  Here's the Sierra Vista High School orchestra playing A Hero's Welcome.  Very expressive and  beautifully done - bravi.



I just wish the YouTube postings gave more information about the groups.  I'd love to know where each of these schools are, so I can add them to my map.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Major/Minor Dilemma

I finished "Shadows Of Venice" last night - ahead of schedule.  Of course, that means I need to start thinking about my next piece to keep the momentum going.  Looking at my chart (the one that breaks down my recent compositions into skill level and tonality), I need more major-key pieces for beginners and advanced students.  But here's the thing: looking at my royalty statement from September, most of my best-sellers are minor key pieces.  Here's the top five:

1. Gauntlet
2. Avatar
3. Gargoyles
4. Agincourt
5. A Breeze In the Keys

"Breeze" is the only major-key piece in the top five (actually, in the top seven) and I think that's due to the fact that it was new this year.  New music sells big at first, but Gauntlet and Gargoyles have been around for a while.  The conclusion that I'm drawing from this data is that minor key pieces sell better than major key pieces.  So now I'm thinking that I should focus on writing more minor-key music.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shadows of Venice

I'm feeling really good about this new piece I'm working on!  I'm also feeling very proud of myself for writing a Grade 1.5 piece that only uses the first finger pattern on the G, D, and A strings (and a little E-string for the basses) and successfully negotiates three key changes.  It starts in B minor, transitions to E minor, over to G major, and back to B minor.

On top of that, it gives teachers the option to feature outstanding students with solos in each section.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the piece is a modern take on Vivaldi's style and takes the form of a rondo, so there's a recurring main theme with optional solos bridging the sections.

And to add to the excitement, I've already come up with the title: "Shadows of Venice."  This is a nod to Vivaldi's stylistic influence as well as the back-and-forth style of the solo sections.

I hope to finish the main writing tonight and put the finishing touches on this weekend.  Then I'll be ready to jet off on my Florida vacation!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Beating the Block

I've noticed a pattern to my creative output over the past few years:  I tend to be very productive in the spring and summer months and then suffer terrible writer's block in the autumn.  It's not a lack of ideas - I have a bunch of concepts and styles that I'd like to try - but whenever I sit at my computer to get to work, nothing comes out right.  I usually take this opportunity to take a short break and focus on something else, like an art project, a new recipe, or some other endeavor, to get my mind away from writing music.  If possible, I like to take a vacation out of town or just listen to music I've never heard before. This way, I can come back with a fresh, renewed perspective.

So in September and October I've worked on a few art projects and recipes and have planned a trip to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in early November.  I've also been plugging away at writing and have amassed pages and pages of sketches, slowly developing a few ideas into a new piece.  It will be a pseudo-Baroque piece in E minor that features G-string notes and a little bit of bariolage.  It should be a fun challenge for beginners.  It's coming along slowly, but I like the direction it's headed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Videos

It's been a while since I've updated the ol' blog!  I found a couple of new YouTube videos that I can share.  First up is a nice performance of "A Breeze In The Keys" by the Evergreen Orchestra.  They do a great job with the syncopation.



The second video is not really a video.  It's a recording of "Las Mariposas Exoticas" accompanied by an odd little collage.  The style and the use of dynamics are really spectacular in this recording, the intonation is beautiful, and the tempo is rock-steady.  I'm not sure who the group is or where they're from, but bravi to them and hats off to their director!




Friday, September 25, 2009

Got my Proofs!

Alfred is really running ahead of schedule!  I got my proofs for Sneaking Suspicion about two weeks ago and Storm Trail and Star of Valor yesterday.  Usually, they don't arrive until mid-October.

Bob Phillips, my String Editor did a really great job with them.  He made excellent suggestions about articulation, bowings, and caught a few note errors on the scores I had submitted.  Other things arose that I think were good suggestions.  For example, I tend to favor tied notation and Bob recommended using dotted notes instead.  He also found places for courtesy accidentals, bow lifts, and reminders in the violin and viola parts to use 4th fingers.  All good suggestions which should make the music more playable.

My corrections to the proofs were minimal and I can't wait to see the finished product!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Got My Contracts

We've reached the next step in the publication process - after writing the music, sending it in, getting it accepted for publication, Alfred sends me a contract addendum.  The original contract (which I got over 10 years ago) outlines my rights as composer and details how I will be compensated for my work.  Each year I receive an addendum to that contract, which adds the new selections to the list, thus allowing me to receive compensation. 

Up next in the process: proofs!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Agincourt Video

After updating my website recently, I came across a YouTube video that I didn't get to include. It's a really good performance of Agincourt. Check it out:


They do a nice job! Good work!

In other news, I got my upgrade of Finale in the mail yesterday! I've been using Finale 2007b and upgraded to Finale 2010 (I've mentioned it before, but Finale is the computer program I use to write music). The improvements over three years are negligible and mostly cosmetic, but the longer I wait, the more expensive the upgrade gets. Now I just have to find a way to get it on my computer. Hopefully, I'll have it installed this weekend.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bollywood

I've been continuing my ongoing effort to write unique music for students and expose them to styles and forms that that have been unexplored in the string orchestra canon. So I got out my atlas and looked around. There are plenty of arrangements of North American folk tunes out there as well as Latin dances. The musical styles of every European nation have been represented and Chinese and Japanese tunes have been done. There are still lots of options, but the one major culture that hasn't been represented is India.

This is probably due to the fact that Indian raga music doesn't translate easily to a Western format. It's percussive, improvisational, through-composed, and the sounds are distinctive and hard to approximate with Western instruments. India doesn't have "folk songs" in quite the same way that we do. It's a challenge, but I've found that the way around it is to meet Indian music half way - not to imitate traditional Indian music, but to write a Bollywood-style piece.

Bollywood (the Indian film industry, which puts out mostly musicals) has a style all its own, using distinctly Indian elements in a Western format. The melodies usually use the "asian" scale and are highly melismatic, but stay in strict rhythm and take the verse-chorus-verse-chorus forms of Western pop songs. They tend to use tabla drums and sitars, but often incorporate keyboard, guitars, and techno beats. They are a form of popular music, after all.

So, after a lot of research on YouTube and several weeks of false starts and experimentation, I've come up with an Indian-sounding piece that's approachable for advanced orchestras. I should be able to finish it early next week.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Royalty Statement 2009 (Part 2)

The listings for foreign sales are shrouded in mystery. Though I've heard of a few performances in Austrailia, have found an online German sheet music vendor that sells my music, and got word of a performance in Canada, I'm not exactly sure who it is outside the U.S. that's buying my music. I would hope that it would sell in Japan, home of the Suzuki Method, and in Europe. From what I understand, other countries don't have school music programs analagous to ours and wouldn't need school-level string orchestra music. Here are my top-selling sets of scores and parts in foreign markets:

1. Agincourt & Mambo Incognito (tie)
3. Hot Potato
4. Gargoyles
5. Violet's Tango

As you can see, there's a marked difference from the top five sellers in the U.S. I should note, though, that foreign sales make up a tiny fraction of a percentage of my total sales. Also, the printout that I received shows that several of these pieces sold at different rates - probably in euros, Canadian and Austrialian dollars, and yen.

Last year I got a sheet showing sales of digital downloads from alfred-music.com. This year, there's no record of sales of MP3 files - maybe bacuase they're so few that it will be rolled into next year's statement.

Finally, I did get a notice about liscensing. When orchestras record their concerts, they're supposed to get permission from the publisher and pay a small licensing fee. A few honest souls actually did that this year and I thank them. Liscensing also includes a few listings from "Make Music," a program where directors can access notes from the composer with tips on how to rehearse and perform their music more effectively. I wrote a few of these two years ago and think that I might want to do some more in the future.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Royalty Statement 2009 (Part 1)

I got my annual royalty statement from Alfred Publishing this week! This is where they tell me which pieces sold how many copies. In this case, it's for the period from April 2008 through March 2009. Sales were significantly lower than I was expecting, but I suppose that's a result of the economy in general - schools have less money, budgets get cut, and sales of published music suffer. Hopefully, things will turn around next year.

The statement breaks the sales down to scores only and full sets (which include scores and parts) and also domestic and foreign sales. Here are my top five full sets, in domestic sales:

1. Gauntlet
2. Avatar
3. Gargoyles
4. Agincourt
5. A Breeze In the Keys

Gauntlet and Gargoyles were the first pieces I ever had published and, as always, I'm amazed that they remain so popular. A Breeze In the Keys is brand new, and the new ones always sell well. Sleigh Ride To New Haven is also new and didn't do as well. I knew that Agincourt was popular and expected it on the list, but Avatar is making a surprise appearance in the number two spot. That one is a few years old and I had no idea that it was so popular. Here are the top five sales of scores only (domestic):

1. Gauntlet
2. Avatar
3. Las Mariposas Exoticas
4. Agincourt
5. Gargoyles

Directors buy extra scores to give to the judges at state orchestra contests, so high sales here indicate popularity on the contest circuit. If a piece makes it on to a lot of state contest lists, it's gold: guaranteed sales. Gauntlet is on quite a few contest lists and it shows - sales of Gauntlet's scores were more than double that of the next-best-selling piece. Avatar's sales weren't shabby either, indicating that it's increasingly being used as a contest piece. I have high hopes for Agincourt here and hopefully, as it catches on, its sales will skyrocket.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

dougspata.com

I recently updated my website and took the opportunity to acquire the domain name "dougspata.com." If you type it in to your browser, it will now take you to my site.

I do web updates only about twice per year, but this time I had a lot to change - new YouTube video links (43 performances of my music!), an updated contact page with links to my e-mail, Twitter page, Facebook page, and this blog, and a big update of my published music on the "music" page.

So go check it out and tell your friends - the address is now easy to remember!

Friday, July 31, 2009

I Take Requests

As I continue to write for school orchestras, my goal is not only to create interesting music that will keep the attention of young musicians, but also to reinforce lessons and teach important skills. For example: "Gauntlet" is an etude for low 1st finger notes; "Elementals" drills extended finger patterns; "Crusader" gets students familiar with a variety of 16th note rhythms; "Porcupine Pantomime" lets beginners practice rapid switches from bowing to pizzicato. In fact, every piece I've had published is an etude for some aspect of string-playing technique and my publishers and the teachers who buy these pieces have told me that they appreciate my efforts.

So with that in mind, I'll ask: what techniques would you like to see reinforced in a concert piece? Some fingering, bowing, or technical challenge, maybe? A tricky rhythm or position change? Maybe you'd like to see a specific style of music represented in the school orchestra literature? Some concept that you or your students need to practice?

If so, I'm always looking for ideas and inspiration, so let me know. Thanks!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New Music Selected!

I just got an e-mail from Richard Meyer, String Editor at Alfred Publishing - they've selected three of my pieces for their 2010-2011 catalog! I'm super-excited! This is the best birthday gift for the 12th year running!

I submitted nine pieces back in May (including two re-submissions) and am proud of all of them, but expected a few to stand out. As usual, I'm surprised (though not at all disappointed) by their choices. I thought that my piece for combined orchestras would be a big hit, that my Bachata would be an exotic choice, and that the piece that lets students improvise would stand out, but none of them were selected. I stand by those pieces and I'll give them another shot by re-submitting them in the future.

So what did they take? First, they were charmed by "Sneaking Suspicion," an all-pizzicato piece for beginners. It's cartoon tiptoe music. Next is "Storm Trail," a firey minor-key piece for intermediate players. It's this year's "Gauntlet." Finally, they selected "Star Of Valor," a triumphant major-key overture for intermediate-to-advanced players. This one was written for Chris Doemel and the Mabry Middle School orchestra of Marietta, Georgia - the same folks who commissioned "Westward Motion." I originally submitted this a few years ago in two forms - I gave Alfred the option of publishing an all-string version or the full-orchestra version that premiered in Georgia. This year, they opted for the strings-only version.

I'm extra super happy and, to be honest, very relieved. May through July is a tense time for me as I wait to hear what the selection committe has decided. I think they picked some really good ones that have the potential to be really popular.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Latest Compositions

Here's an update on what I've been working on recently:

Earlier this month I finished an advanced piece in A Major that focuses on jete bowing (a percussive bow-bouncing technique). I can't wait to hear it performed by a real orchestra - it should sound like a team of horses galloping across the stage. And one of the best parts is that it looks a lot more complicated than it really is. Lots of ink on the page, but not terribly difficult to play - good for a young musician's ego.

Just this week, I finished a simple little tune for beginners. The main theme is in D Major, the secondary theme is in B Minor, and it's all pizzicato on the D and A strings. I enjoy exploring the Latin styles (I've written tangos, a bossa nova, a mambo, and a bachata) and this one is a little samba. I also added optional parts for claves and cabasa. I think younger kids will really enjoy it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Joined Technorati

I just joined Technorati - sort of a blog search engine. Hopefully, it will get this blog a little bit more exposure. Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, July 6, 2009

Doug Spata's Desk

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is "how do you write music?" At first it seems like a daunting question, and my head swims, trying to decide where to start. College, performance, and teaching experience? Various books, influences, and techniques? It could lead to a long, rambling answer, but here's what most people are looking for: I use a computer.

I use a program called Finale, familiar to many student musicians and pros alike, because it's the industry standard for music notation software. Finale allows a user to play a keyboard and have the music transcribed automatically on screen, but I don't play piano that well and have gotten good at keying in the notes one at a time. My computer's audio card and external sound module can approximate any instrument and play back what I've written.

Most of my sketches and notes are done on-screen, but I keep a few pages on my desk to jot out a few notes. Here's an example:


Music theorists will immediately recognize what this is. I've been negotiating a few key changes in my latest pieces and have used these little charts to identify pivot chords. Here's another page that I keep on my desk:


I've mentioned this here before - it's a chart that lets me keep track of what I've written and what I need to write to balance out my portfolio. It includes titles and keys (though you'll notice that I'm two titles behind). Looks like I need an Advanced piece in a major key, a beginner piece in a minor key, and a few novelty selections.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Got My Music!

A shiny brown box from Alfred Publishing arrived on my doorstep yesterday: my "complimentary composer's copies" came! This is one of the exciting milestones in the publication process - after the writing, submitting, proofing, and recording, Alfred sends me a few copies of the printed music, all crisp and beautiful in its finely-finished glory. Thus ends the cycle that began two years ago when the ideas first sprang from my head onto a computer screen.

It's music - a performance art - so it really comes alive when it's being performed for an audience, but there's something uniquely gratifying about having the physical printed page in my hand. Plus, because they're in my hands, they're most likely in the hands of retailers. Even more gratifying than holding my music is seeing it on a store shelf.

The cycles overlap, of course, and I'm not only waiting to hear about Alfred's 2010 catalog, but I'm currently writing new music for consideration in the 2011 catalog.

Monday, June 22, 2009

New Music Update

I wrote last month about the importance of sending music with a broad range of styles and ability levels to publishers and mentioned that in order to do so, I needed add some beginner-level and advanced-level music to my portfolio. I'm happy to report that progress is underway. A few weeks ago I finished a Major-key piece for beginners that focuses on counting and subdividing beats and I'm now working on a major-key piece for advanced students that drills jete and spiccato bowing. The jete piece should be really fun and I can't wait to hear a whole orchestra bouncing their bows in unison.

On the "jete" piece (still untitled, of course) I have a little intro, the main theme, and I'm working on negotiating a key change into the second theme. It's still early and rough, but I have high hopes for this one.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Second Rejection

I got all my music back from FJH Music yesterday. Their String Editor wrote a nice note saying that she remembers my previous submissions and likes my titles, but there's no room for me in their catalog. Pretty much the same letter I always get. What's weird is that she wrote that they don't have a place for music "at this ability level" and I sent five pieces ranging from early beginner-level through high school-level music.

I might take a year off sending to them, but this won't discourage me from submitting more music. Even if their roster of composers is iron-clad, there must still be an opening at some point, right? Up next: I should hear from Alfred within the next few months.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Clarinet Sonata

I finished my Clarinet Sonata this weekend! After inundating myself with Benny Goodman songs, I got into the right mindset, started noodling around on my clarinet, and came up with a tune that I was happy with. From there, it was no problem to develop it into a nice 2.5-minute rondo. It's a little like the first movement, with a faster tempo and a more pronounced walking bass line, but I think it compliments the other two movements and matches them, stylistically.

Unlike the first two movements, I wrote a few of the riffs without the clarinet in hand, so I'll have to take a little time learning to play what I've written and maybe altering it a little to better fit under my hands. It should be a lot of fun getting this one together, though.

Friday, June 5, 2009

So You Think You Can Dance

Last summer, I wrote about my Olympic dream - to have a gymnast, skater, or synchronized swim team choose one of my pieces for their routine at the Olympics. Now that the summer TV season has started, I'll share my other dream - to have my music played on So You Think You Can Dance.

I love watching the first few weeks of this show, where the good and the diluted mingle in crowded hallways and take turns showing off for the judges. It's a panoply of dance styles, ability levels, and egos, and makes for some mesmerizing television. Most of the hopefuls choose their own music for this part of the show and I would just be thrilled and honored if someone were to choose one of my pieces for their audition. I think any of my Latin dances (Mambo Incognito, Las Mariposas Exoticas, Violet's Tango) would be appropriate for ballroom styles. Perhaps some of my more dramatic works (Gauntlet, Westward Motion, Agincourt) would work for modern dance styles and ballet.

This year's auditions are done and they usually use well-known songs for the voting segment of the show, but if you're thinking of auditioning for next season, please consider using one of my compositions - they're all available online at www.alfred-music.com.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

New Recordings Available

Alfred Publishing has posted this year's new recordings! You can now go to www.alfred-music.com, do a search by year or by my name, and download full recordings of my latest published works. They're only $.99 each to download or you can listen for free online by clicking "Flash."

The three new ones are A Hero's Welcome, Porcupine Pantomime, and Quicksilver. I see that someone was nice enough to have already downloaded A Hero's Welcome. Thank you!

Friday, May 22, 2009

1st Rejection Of The Year

Kjos Music Publishing wins the prize for sending me my first rejection letter of the year. Actually, it's not a rejection, they just sent my submissions back and let me know that their publishing schedule aligns with the calendar year and that if I want to be considered, I should send music around December.

That leaves Alfred and FJH, and I hope to hear from them in the next few months. I once sent to Carl Fisher, but it took them over a year to turn me down, so I don't bother there anymore.

With all the music for the year sent off, I'm ready to think about writing next year's submissions. I've looked at what I have and have determined what I need: It seems that I have an abundance of intermediate-level music and two good advanced-level pieces, so I'll focus on music for the beginners for a while. A few more advanced pieces and some "novelty" pieces will fill things out nicely. Also, since only about 25% to 30% of everything I write gets published, I'll have quite a few pieces ready for re-submission next year.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Music Sent

Last Thursday I took my trip to the post office and dropped off three packets of music - nine new pieces to Alfred and five older, unpublished works to FJH and Kjos. Now it's a waiting game. Alfred usually contacts me around July or August (the best birthday gift, eleven years running) and the others normally send me rejection letters around September. I send stuff to Alfred every year and they get first pick at my newest works, but I'll sent to the others only every two to three years. They always tell me that they have enough submissions and that they publish from their inner circle, but I'm always hopeful that there's an opening at some point or that I've come up with something that they just can't pass up. At any rate, I'll be spending the next three months with my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

New Music Update

I have a few things to report:

First, my new recordings are now available at www.alfred-music.com. Do a search for "Spata" or go directly to the new ones: A Hero's Welcome, Porcupine Pantomime, and Quicksilver. The orchestra did a great job with all of them, but (as I wote earlier) A Hero's Welcome is the standout.

Second, my Concerto for Orchestra and Tuba is getting its world premiere tonight! Acclaimed tubist T. J. Ricer will perform it as part of his PhD. recital tonight in Rochester, NY. He'll also be performing my Sonata for Piano and Tuba and four of my pieces for string orchestra, which I arranged for tuba duet. Break a leg, T.J.!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Selecting New Music

It's that time of year when I take a look at what I've written and decide what to send to my publishers. This year, I've overproduced a bit, so I have a few options on what to send. They usually only choose two or three from the eight pieces I submit, so I like to give them a wide variety of styles and ability levels to choose from. They can't all be dark, minor-key pieces or light scherzos and they can't all be intermediate-level pieces. This year I've selected two beginner-level pieces, two advanced pieces, three intermediate-level pieces, and one that sort of crosses in between. Of those, two are "Gauntlet-esque" (minor key, fast tempo), one is a fast major-key selection, two are lighter fare in various keys, and two are what I'd call "novelty" pieces.

I'm still making final adjustments but, more urgently, two of the eight pieces are still untitled. I've put it off for way too long, hoping that the perfect titles would come to me, but now I really need to make some hard decisions - and quick. My goal is to ship off a packet next week.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

New Recordings!

I'm working on the rest of my Classical Top 10, but it will have to wait, because I got my recordings from Alfred Publishing yesterday!

As much as hearing what music they've accepted for their next catalog and actually getting the finished, printed score in my hands, hearing recordings of a professional group playing something I wrote is a magical experience. They did a great job this year. Porcupine Pantomime turned out well - sometimes the pizzicato parts tend to be too quiet, but they achieved a good balance. Quicksilver was done at a good, even tempo with an appropriately rhythmic style. The best, though, is A Hero's Welcome. I got chills when I first heard it and I wrote the thing. The musicians really dug deep to give it emotional heft, leaning into every suspension and bringing out every dynamic change. I'm very impressed.

My only problem with Alfred's recordings is that they're done by a chamber group of about 10 musicians. This works fine for A Hero's Welcome and Porcupine Pantomime, but some pieces, like Quicksilver, would sound better if played by a larger group.

The recordings should be available in a few weeks at www.alfred-music.com - just do a search for "Spata" to find all my recordings.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Doug Spata's Classical Playlist (Part 2)

Here's the second half of my top ten:

6. 'Cello Suite #1 by J.S. Bach. Now, I'm not a huge Bach fan. I find most of his music too pedantic - it's like listening to someone solve a math problem - and when it comes to the Baroque era, I gravitate toward the Italians. If given my choice of Bachs, I will side, without hesitation, with C.P.E. That said, the first 'Cello Suite is something I can really get behind, because there's a real playfulness and room for expression among all the mechanical gears and levers of the piece. My favorite parts are the remarkable Prelude, with its propulsive push and pull, and the set of minuets in the middle, which I have nicknamed "Betty" and "Veronica" (the first is bright and happy, the second is dark and sultry). The thing that impresses me the most, though, is how perfectly executed the piece is. Every note that Bach chose is perfect in its placement, making the unaccompanied 'cello line simultaneously melodic and harmonic. Then it transcends both and achieves a deliciously expressive musicality. The interpretation options are infinite.

7. Short Ride on a Fast Machine by John Adams. Way back in the 1700's the stuff we call "classical" music was synonymous with "popular" music. Over time, though, a distinction has developed and the "classical" tradition has become associated with elitism while "popular" music is for everyday folks to enjoy. The rift reached its zenith in the 1950's when blues-based music became the dominant popular form and Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone composition technique became the favored style for classical composers. This dissonant style is hard to listen to and largely alienated audiences, making "classical" music more unpopular than ever. There were attempts to reconcile the two worlds, but to no avail. Then came John Adams and his "Short Ride on a Fast Machine:" tonal, consonant, uplifting, and fun. Written for the concert hall, but sounding like a film score. Minimalist music had been around a while, but Adams gave us something that was new and cutting-edge and still understandable to the untrained ear. My sincerest hope is that modern composers continue to create approachable works and draw larger audiences to concert halls and I feel that in time, history will credit "Short Ride" as a turning point in the re-popularization of classical music.

8. Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad" by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was the soundtrack to my Junior year in college. It opens with broad chords, like a sunrise over St. Petersburg. Then the trouble starts. A funny little march tune in the flutes. It grows slowly, getting closer and closer and as it approaches, it gets more worriesome. Before you know it, the troops are upon us with terrifying force. That harmless little tune has become, brutal, unforgiving, and destructive. Air raid sirens howl in the violins, bombs explode all around, and machine guns rattle away in the percussion section. When it's all over, the city is a crumbling ruin and death is all around. Shostakovich had originally intended to depict the siege of Leningrad in one movement, but later decided to expand it into a four-movement work. These later movements expound on his ideas and offer hope for the rebuilding of the city. The best part, in my mind, is the subversive nature of the piece. Shostakovich told Russian censors that he was depicting the Nazi invasion of the city, but secretly felt that it was the communists who had destroyed St. Petersburg from the inside, long before Hitler's army showed up.

9. The Planets by Gustav Holst. Such a great tone poem - each movement expresses the character of a mythological god or titan for which a planet is named. The style of each movement is pitch-perfect and the vibrant and colorful orchestrations are really exciting. My favorite parts are (in order) Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter. Mercury whizzes by in a flash of colors and crazy polytonality, the lopsided, relentless march of Mars is truly scary (and often copied - it's a touchstone for tons of movie music) and Jupiter, "the bringer of jolity," is full of joy and is tempered with just a touch of wistful sadness. The other movements are pretty great too, from the broad solo horn that opens Venus to the clamoring chimes of Uranus to the spooky chorus in Neptune. The whole work is so consistently excellent that it never fails to impress. It's also really fun to play.

10. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy. The piece that defines the entire "impressionist" movement, this luminous one-movement work is like a snow globe - a miniature, self-contained fantasy world. The simple augmented scale that opens the piece leads to incandescent harp runs, glowing horns, and wistful, lazy melodies that waft throughout on a cool breeze of violin harmonics. The orchestration is an integral element in the piece, everything in soft edges that just don't translate in a reduction. Also, this prelude is unmistakably Debussy - no one else could have created it and it remains a singular musical achievement.

So that's my top ten. I should note that I limited myself to one piece per composer - otherwise you'd see The Firebird, Mozart's Piano Concerto #20, La Mer, and many others. Hope you enjoyed!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Doug Spata's Classical Playlist (Part 1)

A few weeks ago I wrote out a playlist of some of my favorite pop songs and actually got a response from a commenter, so I thought I'd do it again. As I wrote in that earlier post, I use my iPod when biking in the park, so I prefer to fill it with up-tempo pop songs to keep my momentum going. For this list, I thought I'd share some of my favorite classical (that is, orchestral) works:

1. The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. This is it. Numero uno. Possibly the greatest artistic influence of my life. A touchstone to all the music I've created - you can hear it in Gauntlet, Gargoyles, Avatar, Agincourt... the list goes on. I first heard The Rite in high school and it blew my mind so much that I'm still picking up the pieces. I could go on for days about the rawness and immediacy of the style, how in one instant the world of music irrevocably changed forever. How this one piece was a turning point in history and decisively marked the beginning of a new era. I've been a die-hard Stravinsky fan ever since and have discovered many other masterpieces through The Rite, but this, in my opinion, is the single greatest piece of music ever written.

2. Overture to The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart. The whole opera is great, but I have a special place in my heart for the overture, which, thanks to Mozart's limitless prolificity, doesn't contain any melodies from the rest of the opera. In short, it's the sound of pure, unfettered elation. It builds slowly with the 'cellos and bassoons, bubbles up, and then explodes into a confetti of happiness. Then, as if to say "okay... keep it cool," it quiets down again, but just can't contain itself for long, so it bursts out again and winds and swirls through a colorful array of melodies - happy, wistful, romantic - before finally collapsing breathless into a satisfying ending. This little roller-coaster ride is the perfect start to the perfect evening.

3. Requiem by Gabriel Fuare. The composer himself described this piece as a "lullabye of death." It's not somber like Verdi's Requiem and it's not angry like much of Mozart's. Instead, Fuare's is gentle, warm, and comforting. The part that really gets me is the Agnus Dei - the most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard. It's so simple - just arpeggios and scales in the violins - but it's filled with such deep longing, such consoling sadness. It does exactly what you'd want from a Requiem. It says "I understand your grief and I feel it too." And it assures us that everything will be okay. Breaks my heart every time.

4. Symphony No. 6 in F Major by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Ask around about which is the best Beethoven symphony, and you'll hear many different answers. Number 5 is by far the most famous - who doesn't know those first four notes? Some will say that No. 3 is the best because it's a turning point in symphonic style. Some will say No. 9 for its expansion of the orchestra and groundbreaking use of choir. Some will say No. 1 and those people are just wrong. I say the best one is No. 6. Here, Beethoven takes a break from heavy thoughts and dense orchestrations and takes a trip out to the country. He has a reputation as a serious, dour thinker, but the "Pastoral" symphony shows that he had a lighter side. The joyous first movement sounds to me like towering clouds majestically floating by in a bright blue sky. The final - fifth! - movement brings on a thunderstorm, followed by a glorious sunset, and in between we get playful bird calls, a lively country dance, and a lazy afternoon in a boat, just floating around. Beethoven is an icon of music and has been elevated to impunable status, but I think that this piece, more than any other, shows off his humanity.

5. Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Leonard Bernstein. This was the first piece of music Lenny ever had published and it does a great job of illustrating where he came from and where he was going. It only has two movements and lasts about ten minutes, but it rivals larger works and deserves a better reputation among the chamber repertoire. The first movement is all lazy curlicues and sharp angles and you can tell that he was heavily influenced by the works of Paul Hindemith. It's dense style owes a lot to Hindemith's own clarinet sonata and reminds me in some places of Wiemar-era cabaret jazz. In that first movement, Bernstein is leaning over a precipice, holding on to Hindemith's hand for support and looking backwards for assurance. In the second movement, he lets go and soars. This is pure Bernstein, with broad, lyrical passages, swing-style jazz, odd meters, and everything that makes Lenny Lenny. It's evident that after this, he was ready to go out and write West Side Story.

That's just the first five. In order to keep the posts relatively short, I'll think of some more later.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fumbler

I've had a few false starts with that third movement to my clarinet sonata, so I've decided to put it away for a bit, focus on something else, and then come back to it fresh.

The something else is a new piece for student orchestras - a diabolical little etude that uses a lot of chromatic passages. Especially 2nd finger C-C# and F-F# combos and 1st finger B-Bb combos. It's like a tongue twister for the left hand (or, as sign-language speakers call it, a "finger fumbler") Just to make things a little more interesting, the whole thing is one giant accelerando. All that fancy fingering may seem easy at first, but the piece gets faster and faster and becomes more of a challenge. I hope students will really like the challenge of this one.

Of course, as always, the title is the hard part. I'm thinking "Accidentally On Purpose" is too long. I'd love to incorporate "Diabolical" into it - especially since it would go well with the piece's minor key.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Clarinet Sonata

I've been working on a clarinet sonata recently - I've completed the first and second movements and I'm really happy with them. Now comes the hard part: the third movement. Whenever I write multi-movement pieces, the third movement always gives me trouble because it should be fast (but not the same tempo as the fist movement) and stylistically related (but not too similar) and pick up the momentum of the previous movements. It's a tricky path to walk.

Whenever I start one of these things, I really need to use Stravinsky's trick and write the finale first. A lot of energy goes into the first thing I write, so that would make a lot of sense.

But I'm taking my time with this sonata because I want it to be perfect. I'd rather take a while to work out a third movement that I'm really happy with than just crank out any old something to complete the piece.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Doug Spata's iPod

I took a little blogging break after the Oscars, but now I'm back! I thought I'd start by sharing an iPod playlist for you. I love my iPod and use it regularly - since the weather was nice this weekend I took it out on a bike ride through the park. In warmer months I'll usually set it on "shuffle" and head out with my bike to the park, so my iPod is filled with up-tempo songs and not a lot of classical music. Classical music tends to change tempos a lot, which makes it hard to build up and maintain momentum. There are about 180 songs loaded up right now, but here are a few highlights. Please be aware that some contain explicit lyrics:

1. Jump by Van Halen. That opening synth fanfare makes the hair on my arms stand on end. And Dave's vocals rock. And Eddie's face-melting solo in the middle is amazing. Awesome awesome song all around.

2. T.K.O. by Giant Panda. I've discovered rap music rather late and have fostered an appreciation for the "new old-school" artists like Jurassic 5, Abdominal, and DJ Format. This one is a catchy little boogie.

3. Rainbow In The Dark by Dio. This one should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me through "Gauntlet." Dio is so wonderfully over-the-top that he nearly comes full circle. Another great synth riff.

4. The Load-Out/Stay by Jackson Browne. This little medley is one of my favorite songs ever. It starts slow and intimate and builds and builds and builds until it blossoms into a rolicking cover of Frankie Valli's hit (with altered lyrics). It's sad, funny, joyous, and honest all at the same time.

5. Lollipop by MIKA. Simply a brilliant, catchy pop song. MIKA is writing all the songs that Freddy Mercury never got around to and I hope his next album is as good as his first. I especially live the colorful arrangement - jazz trumpets and childrens' chorus augment the standard keyboard, guitars, and percussion.

6. Killers of the Kent County Kids by the Turnbull AC's. A fast, bright song that tells a dark, dark story. It's not often you hear a song that makes you want to dance while it breaks your heart.

7. Girlfriend (Japanese Version) by Avril Lavigne. It's the punk-pop princess's best song and it's made even better when she sings the choruses in Japanese. I like this one so much that the original all-English version sounds weird to me. The hooks, songwriting, production - this is a well-done recording.

8. Viva La Vida by Coldplay. There's so much beauty in this song - the bittersweet lyrics, the orchestral arrangement, the fantastic opening rhythm in the violins - but by favorite part is the delicious counter-melody played (very quietly) by the violas in the second verse. Listen carefully - this kind of subtlety is rare in pop music.

9. September by Earth Wind & Fire. It's my favorite EWF song. It's like they throw you into the middle of the greatest party ever. It always makes me smile.

10. Red Hot by Jurassic 5. It's not their best-known song and not from their biggest album, but this song is a highlight for me and makes me smile. It always makes me imagine a kung-fu actions sequence with Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar Post-Mortem 2009

Hooboy. That was a rough Oscar Night.

In the end, the final score was Doug: 13, Oscar: 7. That's a shameful 65%. I put too much faith in The Wrestler and Benjamin Button and too little faith in Slumdog Millionaire and The Countess. And next year will someone please stop me from making official picks in the Foreign Language category?!

Even worse than my average was the show itself. I can see that they were trying to shake things up and do it a little different, but what was supposed to be "innovative" ended up as time-consuming and tedious. Here are three examples:

1. The awful song-and-dance tribute to movie songs organized by Baz Luhrman. Giant waste of time and energy and an embarrassing throwback to the cheezy ceremonies of the '70's and '80's.

2. The whole presentation of the acting awards. Instead of showing clips, five past winners took turns eulogizing the nominees. It was just too much talking and it took what felt like an eternity to get to the award. This was a worse idea than having all the nominees on stage at once or making presentations in the audience, like they did a few years ago.

3. Hugh Jackman's opening number. God help him, he tried SO hard. But the song-and-dance part could have been a lot shorter and his second monologue after the medley should have been cut entirely.

That's just the start. I still feel that the Technical and even some of the Artistic categories should be relegated to the un-televised Sci-Tech Oscars. That would really move things along nicely. Overall, the show dragged on and there was too much of a gap between interesting things. Also, we were treated to the most boring red carpet in ages. On the plus side, no one rambled too long on their acceptance speeches and there were a few highlights. Here are some superlatives:

It's Not a Shampoo Bottle: No, Kate Winslet. It's not. Besides a bit of silly rambling, she had the most heartfelt, honest (and therefore, best) acceptance of the evening. Runner up: The tightrope-walking subject of Best Documentary Feature "Man On Wire" balanced an Oscar on his nose. I also enjoyed a lot of the Slumdog winners, who were genuinely surprised at their own wins and as starstruck as fans.

Biggest Upset: I was surprised that Sean Penn won (though his performance was great) and that anyone takes Penelope Cruz seriously enough to give her an Oscar, but for me the biggest surprise was that the Sound categories split. Seriously - since time began, Best Sound Editing and Sound Effects Editing have (almost) always gone to the same film but this year, Dark Knight took Effects and Slumdog took Sound Editing. It just left me slack-jawed.

Best Presenters: A great year for presenters! Steve Martin and Tina Fey were hilarious, gently ribbing celebrity solopism and taking a veiled crack at Scientology. Well done. Ben Stiller was also great as he lampooned Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre recent behavior and Jack Black, who revealed that the key to his financial success is to do a movie for Dreamworks each year, take the money to the Oscars, and bet on Pixar. I also enjoyed the Pineapple Express video bit where the stoners watched movies. Especially James Franco watching himself in Milk.

Best Dressed: Can I take a pass this year? Not only was there no "zowie!" fashion moment, but the red carpet was so dull it almost wasn't worth it. Just about every dress was black, white, or washed-out neutral. Zzzzzzzzz. Those who did wear color, like Amy Adams or Kate Winslet, weren't really exciting. If I have to pick a standout, I'd say it was Taraji P. Henson, who looked great in white and was beaming and effusive the whole time.

Worst Dressed: No Bjorks this year, but did you see Miley Cyrus? Her silver sparkley gown was painful to look at. Like a wrestler's title belt. Or like a matador exploded all over her. And I don't accept "she's just a kid" as a viable excuse - everyone on the red carpet has handlers and stylists who are paid big bucks to tell them what to wear and what not to wear. Plus, Miley Cyrus is backed by one of the biggest entertainment corporations in the world. You'd think that someone from Disney would meet with her to make sure that one of their most bankable assets looks presentable.

Not the best year for my picks, but there's always next year to vindicate myself. I hope you had as much fun reading these posts as I did writing them. I'll go back to blogging about music for now, but check back next January for my take on the 82nd Academy Awards!

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 5 Answers

21. "Everything in its proper place... except the past"
c. Ordinary People

22. "There are no clean getaways"
e. No Country For Old men

23. "Love is the only inspiration"
b. Shakespeare In Love

24. "His whole life was a million-to-one shot"
a. Rocky

25. "They got a murder on their hands. They don't know what to do with it."
d. In the Heat Of the Night

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Final Predictions

Here's my final list of Oscar predictions:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director: Danny Boyle
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger
Best Actress: Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actress: Marissa Tomei
Best Original Screenplay: Milk
Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Cinematography: Benjamin Button
Best Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Song: WALL-E
Best Art Direction: Benjamin Button
Best Costumes: Benjamin Button
Best Makeup: Benjamin Button
Best Visual Effects: Benjamin Button
Best Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
Best Sound Mixing: The Dark Knight
Best Animated Feature: WALL-E
Best Foreign Language Film: Waltz With Bashir
Best Documentary Feature: Man On Wire

Normally, the most-nominated film goes home with the most Oscars, but in this case it will share that distinction with the Best Picture winner. According to my predictions, there will b a tie, with Slumdog and Benjamin Button each taking five Oscars. The Dark Knight will take three and WALL-E and The Wrestler will each go home with two.

I always keep an eye on what Entertainment Weekly picks and this year we agree on most categories with a few notable exceptions. First, they're picking Sean Penn for Best Actor. He was good and it was a real departure for him, but I really don't see him beating Mickey Rourke. They also picked Penelope Cruz for Supporting Actress. Despite the fact that this is her second nomination, I just can't believe that Hollywood takes her seriously. With a good director in her first language, perhaps, but in English - not so much.

The Oscars are on Sunday, February 22 at 8:30pm on ABC. If you're like me, you'll watch E!'s coverage all day and tune in for the arrivals starting at about 7:00. The official pre-show starts at 8:00pm. Good luck with your own predictions and happy Oscar Night, all!

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 5

Match the Best Picture-winning film with its advertising tagline:

21. "Everything in its proper place... except the past"
22. "There are no clean getaways"
23. "Love is the only inspiration"
24. "His whole life was a million-to-one shot"
25. "They got a murder on their hands. They don't know what to do with it."

a. Rocky
b. Shakespeare In Love
c. Ordinary People
d. In the Heat Of the Night
e. No Country For Old Men

Friday, February 20, 2009

Best Picture

Warning: spoilers ahead.

I believe that the nominated movies' themes will be the key to this year's Best Picture race. First is The Reader, about the dark secrets and lies uncovered during the trial of a concentration camp worker. Next is Frost/Nixon, about the final disgrace of an already-maligned political leader. Then we have Milk, a film about the brief success and tragic end of a martyred political activist. Benjamin Button traces the life of a man who ages in reverse - it's an epic and tragic love story, but it's essentially a movie about death.

Finally, there's Slumdog Millionaire - the triumphant movie where the young protagonist rises from the filth and brutality of India's slums to win the girl of his dreams and millions of Rupees, while inspiring the downtrodden of his city.

It's a new world out there, people. We're in the Obama age and people are ready to embrace change and optimism and put the darkness of the past decade behind them. After years of brutal movies about moral ambiguity, war, and corruption winning Best Picture, I believe that the world needs a movie with a low body count where the guy gets the girl and lives happily ever after. We saw it happen back in 1998 when the relatively lighthearted Shakespeare In Love blindsided dour favorite Saving Private Ryan. Slumdog Millionaire has no nominations for acting and two of its ten for Best Song. With the most nominations of the year, Benjamin Button is a strong contender, but the world needs Slumdog Millionaire to win Best Picture. Let's all root for the underdog.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire follows Jamal (Dev Patel) as he uses the knowledge gained from a lifetime of poverty and hardship on the streets of Mumbai to answer questions on India's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." Like an Indian Charles Dickens character, we see Jamal overcome hardship, navigate the dangerous streets, fall in love, and learn the art of survival with the help of his brother Salim and Latika, a fellow orphan. The vivid colors and dizzying energy of the city provide a kinetic backdrop for the action, mirroring Jamal's struggle for survival and ambition - and it's the same ambition that drives Jamal to success that drives his brother and Latika in very different directions.

It's hard to believe, but Slumdog Millionaire almost didn't get released. Even though it's a British production mostly in English, the big studios thought that Western audiences wouldn't relate to the struggles of young Indians. Wouldn't relate? The film relies heavily on the very British themes of class distinction and colonialism. The plot is based on the very American concept of rising from nothing and achieving great success through hard work and determination. The vast majority of the Academy is American or British, so it seems highly unlikely that they can't relate to something in the film. Also, it's an upbeat, feel-good fairy tale with a sweeping, epic love story and clearly defined heroes and villains set against historical events. Plus, it doesn't have the highest number of nominations, making Millionaire the underdog in some tight races - and what American doesn't love to root for the underdog? It's practically designed for Oscar consideration.

Slumdog Millionaire is up for 10 Academy Awards: Cinematography, Editing, Score, two for Best Song, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Adapted Screenplay, Directing, and Best Picture. As the front-runner for Best Picture, it is also strongly favored for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing. Its kinetic score is also favored to win but its votes for best Song will likely be split and the technical awards will go to stronger effects films. Working against Slumdog is its complete lack of acting nominations and those two in the Song category, but I think it will pull through and take the big prize.

Best Director

Statistically, the Best Director award goes to the same film that gets Best Picture about 85% of the time and is usually a good indicator for choosing a winner. Looking at the last ten years, though, that statistic drops to about 50%, making this method a crap shoot. Complicating things slightly, the five Best Director nominees line up perfectly with the Best Picture contenders this year, meaning that no one can be easily eliminated.

The next step to choosing a Best Director is to look at the total number of nominations for each film. David Fincher's Benjamin Button leads with 13 (two of which are for acting, which bodes well), followed by Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire with 10. This makes these two movies the major contenders for Best Picture and, therefore, Best Director.

I'm going to give my pick to Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire. While Benjamin Button was more classically pristine and will do well in the artistic and technical categories, Slumdog showed off Boyle's uniquely kinetic style. Danny Boyle for the win.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Writing Awards

There are three things to look out for in the writing categories: Best Picture nominees (there's always at least one), actors who write (like Matt Damon or Emma Thompson), and the compelling story of a struggling writer who makes a big break (Diablo Cody and Quentin Tarantino come to mind). While there is no shortage of Best Picture nominees in the writing categories and there are compelling stories of struggle, we don't see any actors in the writing categories this year. It's a shame. That always makes things a little more interesting.

the Adapted Screenplay category gives us Best Picture nominees Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire. Filling out the category is Doubt. For this particular award, the adaptation itself must be taken into account. Doubt and Frost/Nixon are based on stage plays and it's often a challenge to move a story from the enclosure of a proscenium into the broad canvas of film. Benjamin Button is a three-plus-hour movie spun from a short story, and the other two are based on novels. I'm going to pick Slumdog Millionaire for the win. More than any other, it uses the source material as a jumping-off point and becomes something purely cinematic. While Doubt and Frost/Nixon retain much of the staginess of their origins, Slumdog Millionaire feels like it was originally intended for the screen.

There's only one Best Picture nominee among the Original Screenplays and I'm picking it to win. Milk comes with a great story: after decades of attempts and false starts, Hollywood wasn't able to make a dramatized bio of the gay-rights activist until a young Mormon came to town and showed them how to do it. It should handily beat Frozen River, In Bruges, and the largely-improvised Happy-Go-Lucky. Its only impediment might be WALL-E, but I'm confident that Milk will prevail.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows the life of a man (Brad Pitt) who ages backwards. Born an old man and raised in a retirement home, Benjamin grows, learns, falls in love, gets his heart broken, goes to war, and lives a full life - all in an increasingly youthful body. Benjamin doesn't achieve anything out of the ordinary in his lifetime and doesn't gain celebrity or recognition, but his unique peculiarity does have a startling effect - it throws his mortality into stark relief, coloring all the events and relationships in his life with melancholy tones of finality. As Benjamin grows younger, he sees everyone around him age and die, acutely aware of death throughout his life. The story is a dark fairy tale (literally read from a book in a clever framing device) and, like my favorite movie, is the confession of a man living under the cloud of regret and despair. The moral is made clear: forwards or backwards, life is fragile and death is an inevitability for everyone.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is up for 13 Academy Awards - more than any film this year. The nominations are for Lead Actor (Pitt), Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin's adoptive mother), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costumes, Makeup, Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, Editing, Score, Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Best Picture. It's sure to win more than a few and its best shots are for Makeup and Visual Effects, which combine seamlessly to create the illusion of age and put Brad Pitt's performance into an ever-changing body. It is also a likely winner for Costumes, Art Direction, and Cinematography. It is outmatched by heavy favorites in the other categories but might pull upsets for its score, screenplay, and editing.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 4 Answers

16 - b. Ben Affleck "Losing would suck..."
17 - a. Cate Blanchett "I don't have a sense of entitlement..."
18 - d. Grace Kelly "...I wish I smoked and drank."
19 - c. Jack Nicholson "...nuts in the Academy..."
20 - e. Hillary Swank "...trailer park..."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 4

Match the actor with the quote from his or her Oscar acceptance speech:

16. Ben Affleck
17. Cate Blanchett
18. Grace Kelly
19. Jack Nicholson
20. Hillary Swank

a. "I don't have a sense of entitlement or that I deserve this. "
b. "Losing would suck and winning would be really scary. And it's really, really scary."
c. "I guess this proves there are as many nuts in the Academy as anywhere else."
d. "This is one night I wish I smoked and drank."
e. "I'm just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Best Actor

Best Actor is another award that was decided ages ago. The category is filled with broad performances, but Mickey Rourke is poised to take the prize.

The Visitor, starring nominee Richard Jenkins is a great little film and his performance is wonderful. See it if you get a chance. Sadly, he is the least likely to win against a lineup of big-budget heavy hitters. Frank Langella mumbles and blusters his way through a terrible impression of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. Sean Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk is more nuanced, but doesn't have the heft of his competitors. Brad Pitt lives a lifetime in Benjamin Button and, as the lead in the most-nominated film, stands a reasonable chance.

But it looks like Mickey Rourke's year. Hollywood loves a comeback and he has certainly achieved it here. The whole movie plays as an allegory for Rourke's life and career: a young man wastes his fame and talent, burning hot and fast like a comet across the sky and in regretful middle age grasps at a fleeting happiness. The Wrestler is Mickey Rourke's apology for his youthful hubris and I can't think of anyone else who could play the part.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Animated Feature, Doc Feature, & FLF

A few years ago the Academy started a new category for Animated Feature Film, in order to better recognize those movies. While I appreciate them getting more attention and recognition, I can't help but feel that it's a move that ghettoizes animation and prevents them from ever achieving a Best Picture nomination. One such movie that ranks in quality with the Best Picture nominees is Pizar's WALL-E. It's the movie Stanley Kubrick would have made if he ever pursued animation. While its contenders, Bolt and Kung Fu Panda were above-average kid's entertainment, WALL-E works on multiple levels, giving kids a cute story about robots while providing biting social satire to the adults. WALL-E will easily walk away with this one.

At this point, I should note that I don't make predictions in the short film or documentary categories. I don't get to see many of them and don't feel comfortable predicting the outcomes based on synopses. That said, I would like to make an unofficial prediction for Documentary Feature - Man On Wire made a lot of critics' end-of year lists and will probably take the prize. Close behind, though is cinematic juggernaut Werner Herzog and his Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World. He's a legend doing what he does best (epics of man vs. nature) but I'll go with Man On Wire for my unofficial pick.

Foreign Language Film is another one of those that I usually don't pick, not just because I don't see them, but because the rules for this category are much different than others and greatly effect the outcome. That said, I'm going to risk a guess that Israel's Waltz With Bashir will take the Oscar. Another film that uses animation to address adult themes, Waltz With Bashir has been almost universally praised and is a standout among the nominees.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Frost/Nixon

The interviews depicted in Frost/Nixon are famous for finally answering questions and addressing issues that weighed on the minds of Americans since Watergate. What the movie focuses on, though, is the behind-the-scenes preparations that brought two men together in a mental chess game. No, not a chess game - more like a boxing match. In fact, the whole film seems to parallel one of the most famous sports films of all time, Rocky. Actually, it's more like Rocky III. In one corner, we have the underdog: flashy British celebrity chat-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), high on success and easy celebrity but looking to shed his lightweight reputation. In the other corner is the heavyweight champ: calculating and evasive former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), eager to establish a legacy focused on his successes rather than the scandal that brought him down. The two circle each other for quite a while, prepping for the interviews. Our underdog goes through challenges finding backing for the project and is under constant pressure to research every aspect of his subject's life - the journalistic equivalent of training in the snow and hauling timber. Meanwhile, Nixon has his own aids who expect softballs but prepare for the worst - A political version of Ivan Drago's high-tech training lab. When the two finally meet, the heavyweight just toys with his challenger, running down the clock. Can the challenger muster his courage and his last ounce of strength to defeat the champ?

The real theme of the film, aside from the political implications, is the power of media. Nixon's strength is his nimble mind and analytical nature, but ever since his debates with John F. Kennedy, he is fully aware of his complete lack of on-screen charisma. Frost may be a lightweight, but he understands the power of television, fully aware of how to work the medium to his advantage. He is comfortable and confident on screen and Nixon underestimates him because of this. I think that what the film is saying is that good public image is as important to a politician's success as positive actions. Nixon had neither and his downfall was inevitable.

Frost/Nixon is up for five Academy Awards: Best Actor (Langella), Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Directing, and Best Picture. Mickey Rourke's win seems like a sure thing this year, so Langella is out of luck. The editing is nothing too flashy and long-time readers know how I feel about Opie's directing, so I can't in good conscience pick them to win. Frost/Nixon was based on a play and transcends its origins into something naturally cinematic, so it might have a chance for Adapted Screenplay, but up against three better-received Best Picture contenders those chances are slim. Like Milk, Frost/Nixon uses historical events to make a statement about modern issues, but I think voters will want to go with something less cynical and more uplifting than a film about holding a scandal-plagued former President accountable for his wrongdoings.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 3 Answers

11. Who has the most Best Supporting Actor Oscars?
c. Melvyn Douglas won three

12. Who wrote the most Best Songs?
d. Alan Menken, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer & Jimmy Van Heusen all won four times.

13. Which country has produced the most Best Foreign Language Films?
b. Italy has produced 13 Best Foreign Language Films.

14. Which film earned the most nominations without any in the acting categories?
d. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King received 11 nominations - none of which were for acting.

15. Who has the most nominations in the writing categories?
b. Woody Allen has racked up a record 14 writing nominations.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 3

Multiple choice:

11. Who has the most Best Supporting Actor Oscars?
a. Michael Caine
b. Jason Robards
c. Melvyn Douglas
d. Peter Ustinov

12. Who wrote the most Best Songs?
a. Alan Menken
b. Sammy Cahn
c. Johnny Mercer & Jimmy Van Heusen
d. All of the above (3-way tie)

13. Which country has produced the most Best Foreign Language Films?
a. Japan
b. Italy
c. The Netherlands
d. Germany

14. Which film earned the most nominations without any in the acting categories?
a. The Last Emperor
b. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
c. Reds
d. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

15. Who has the most nominations in the writing categories?
a. Billy Wilder
b. Woody Allen
c. Frederico Fellini
d. William Wyler

Friday, February 6, 2009

Best Actress

The Best Actress race is a toughie this year.

Melissa Leo (Frozen River) stars in a tiny independent that not many people saw, so without a huge marketing push, her chances are weak. Perennial nominee Meryl Streep's dour nun in Doubt might be too severe a character and, though she gets a few good crying scenes, Angelina Jolie's movie, Changeling, fizzled at the box office.

The real revelation this year was Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married. As an alcoholic who ruins her sister's wedding, Hathaway gets to do all the things that voters love to see - broad range and self-destructive behavior. On top of that, this is the opposite of all the frothy romances she's know for. On the other hand, her recent follow-up, Bride Wars, didn't set the world aflame and may hurt her chances. Remember when Norbit was released right after Eddie Murphy was nominated for Dreamgirls? Many believe that it left a sour taste in voters' mouths and the same thing might happen to Anne Hathaway.

Any other year, I'd pick Hathaway, but Kate Winslet's nomination complicates things. Her role in The Reader has won her awards for Supporting Actress, but she is, in fact, the lead in the movie and is up for Lead Actress at the Oscars. Unlike Hathaway, her nomination is bolstered by a great un-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road. I think that the oft-nominated Winslet has gained a lot of support and will end up on stage this year. It's not a great movie and certainly not her best performance, but chances are, she'll win.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Music Awards

As always, I'm happy to see one of my favorite composers up for Best Score once again - Danny Elfman scored a nod for Milk. Unfortunately, he finds himself amid heavy competition and is likely to loose once again. There's the dramatic action of Defiance, the comically bittersweet music of WALL-E, and the mournful Benjamin Button to contend with. Most of all, though, is the musical explosion that backs up Slumdog Millionaire. A.R. Rahman's score spans action, suspense, and love scenes with Bollywood flavor. My concern, though, is that voters will confuse the score with the songs (two of which are also up for Oscars) and the "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" theme music and dismiss the score. Still, it gets my pick.

I must admit that I have a bad history with the Best Song category. Last year was the first time in a long time that I actually picked it correctly. What I've learned, though, is that voters prefer to award songs that are integral to the fabric of the film (last year's "Falling Slowly" from Once) or that bring depth to the characters ("Loose Yourself" from 8 Mile or "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp" from Hustle And Flow). This year we have two songs from Slumdog Millionaire - "O Saya," the "running through the slums" music from the beginning of the film, and "Jai Ho," the dance number heard over the closing credits. The third nominee is "Down to Earth," written by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman for WALL-E. I think that the biggest disadvantage for the Slumdog entries is that they're not in English - lyrics go a long way here. I also think that while the Slumdog songs set the mood and tempo for their respective scenes, "Down to Earth" does more to illuminate the characters. It manages to humanize robots, which is an amazing feat and worthy of the prize.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Milk

Milk is not as much the story of Harvey Milk as it is the story of a revolution with one charismatic personality at its center. Starting as a humble but civic-minded businessman in San Fransisco's Castro district in the mid-1970's, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was drawn into the world of politics through his involvement in the growing gay community in his neighborhood. Spurned into action, Harvey goes through three unsuccessful campaigns for public office, gaining allies and support as well as enemies with each attempt. When he finally becomes America's first gay publicly-elected official, he finds that things don't get easier. An expert at the theater of politics, Harvey used the media and grass-roots movements to affect change. He started speeches by saying "I'm Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you," demonstrating his belief that there is power in numbers and that when united behind a cause, minorities can make up a majority. As he gains support and influence, Harvey also gains powerful enemies who turn out to be his undoing, but the revolution he led grew and lives on, becoming more powerful than the actions of one man.

Milk is up for eight Academy Awards: Best Actor (Penn), Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin), Costumes, Editing, Score, Screenplay, Directing, and Best Picture. Brolin and Penn each have big competition and aren't likely choices. I'd love to see Danny Elfman's score awarded, but pop songs were used as much as original music, so a film with more sustained use of score is more likely to win. The costumes were period, but it was a recent period and will be considered to have a lower degree of difficulty than some other films. Milk will probably not win its Editing or Directing nominations. As for Best Picture, it's impossible not to draw parallels between Harvey's struggle against Issue 6 in the movie to the recent outrage over California's Proposition 8 - a ballot measure opposed by many current Academy voters. It's a very timely movie that brings up current events and strong emotions, but it will lose ground against flashier fare and epics. Its best shot is for Best Original screenplay. The story of Harvey Milk has been kicked around Hollywood for years and it was only recently that someone had the novel idea to focus on the political movement rather than the politician. Besides, it's the only Best Picture nominee in the Original Screenplay category.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 2 Answers

6 - c. "...friendo" Javier Bardemin "No Country For Old Men"

7 - e. "You think you're free?..." Angelina Jolie in "Girl Interrupted"

8 - b. "Rule number one..." Reese Witherspoonin "Walk The Line"

9 - d. "There is not a word..." Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote"

10 - a. "...justice being done." Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia"

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 2

6. Javier Bardem
7. Angelina Jolie
8. Reese Witherspoon
9. Philip Seymour Hoffman
10. Tom Hanks

a. "Every now and again - not often, but occasionally - you get to be a part of justice being done"
b. "Rule number one: Don't propose to a girl on a bus"
c. "What business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?"
d. "There is not a word or a sentence or a concept that you can illuminate for me."
e. "You think your free? I'm free! You don't know what freedom is!"

Friday, January 30, 2009

Best Supporting Actor

Let's not kid ourselves - this race was over six months ago when The Dark Knight was released.

Heath Ledger will become the second-ever posthumous winner of an acting Oscar (Peter Finch was the first - he won for Network in 1976). And he won't win just because he's dead. He will win because he accomplished one of the most jaw-droppingly fearless performances of the last ten years (at least). He'll win because every brief moment he has on screen is audacious and mesmerizing. The applause during the ceremony's "In Memoriam" montage will honor his life, but the Oscar will honor his performance.

There is a chance, though, that the Academy will decide to hand the award to someone who can actually be there to accept it. If that's the case, it will probably go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, making him the 13th person to receive Oscars in both acting categories. His role in Doubt has been deemed a leading role by everyone except the Academy, so placing him in the Supporting category gives him a boost. Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder) gave standout performances, but they're still classically supporting roles and Josh Brolin (Milk) simply gets lost in a sea of great performances.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Artistic Awards

In the artistic categories, more is always better. Period films always trump modern settings, and minimalism is disregarded in favor of opulence.

Let's start with Best Art Direction: basically set design, though it encompasses a lot more. I think that Revolutionary Road (though set in the 1960's) and The Dark Knight are too modern-looking for this category. The Dutchess is usually just the sort of movie that wins here, but it's few nominations and critical panning don't bode well. Same goes for Changeling, whose 1920's setting is better evoked with costumes than set design. Voters are often impressed when a film depicts two or more contrasting different eras or cultures, like Topsy Turvy's mix of Victorian England and Feudal Japan or Chicago's bleak prisons and flashy cabaret numbers. The film that achieves that best is Benjamin Button, which spans nearly a century of period settings.

The same rules apply to Costume Design, so we can eliminate Milk and Revolutionary Road as too modern. Australia (the film) makes its one and only appearance at the Oscars and against heavy competition, it's bound to loose. Again, The Dutchess looks good on paper, but I think it will be bested again by Benjamin Button. Along with a century of design, it also displays a century of fashion and I think the wide variety will give it the win.

By the way, Slumdog Millionaire's snub in the Costume and Art Direction categories are the year's most egregious oversights.

There are three nominees for Best Makeup: Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, and Hellboy II. Once again, making characters look natural is often overlooked while heavy prosthetics and effects get the glory. The Dark Knight features not only The Joker's spooky clown makeup, but Two-Face's digitally-enhanced visage. Hellboy II has the most prosthetic work, but I think voters will gravitate towards the prestige of Benjamin Button. Even though a lot of the character effects are done with computer effects, it's very hard to tell where the makeup begins and the effects end and voters will give both awards to Benjamin Button.

The Cinematography category is a tough one this year. Changeling and The Reader had some nice compositions and lighting, but they're pretty straightforward. I don't know anyone who left The Dark Knight saying "The camera work was amazing!" There were plenty of other things going on that overshadowed its cinematography. Benjamin Button's cinematography was good and could net a win if the film rolls towards a sweep. It could also be the first win ever for a female Director of Photography. Slumdog Millionaire had some beautiful and expressive camera work and captured the color and energy of Mumbai - it wasn't concerned with making everything look beautiful all the time and didn't shy away from ugliness. I'm going to pick Slumdog by a very narrow margin.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Reader

Several years after his affair with an older woman, German law student Michael (David Kross, later Ralph Finnes) discovers that his former love, Hannah (Kate Winslet), is on trial for war crimes in The Reader. When the horrors of her past are revealed in court, Michael must balance the abstract terms of the law with his personal relationship, sorting out his feelings and how they have changed in this new light. Can he show her sympathy? Should he show her sympathy? Postwar Germany was a tumultuous time when the youth of the nation had to come to terms with the actions of the older generation and this film brings that struggle to a human level. In the end, it is not about forgiveness, but about simple understanding.

I did not care for The Reader. It started great, even though the love scenes are rushed and the symbolism is heavy-handed (water = "washing away the past." Okay. We get it. Enough with the water.). Then in the middle of the trial there's a plot twist that I will call "The Twist That Ruined The Movie." Hannah refuses to reveal a personal secret that could help her case and she goes to prison for life. I won't reveal the twist, in case you want to see the movie, but I'll make a parallel. Let's say she's allergic to peanuts. Ask yourself: if you were on trial and could either reveal that you're allergic to peanuts or be sentenced to life in prison with the stigma of murdering the weak and infirm, wouldn't you tell everyone you know not to give you peanuts? Personally, I'd make that choice faster than you can say "anaphylactic shock." Hannah chooses not to, shattering the movie's credibility beyond suspension of disbelief. On top of that, Michael knows her secret and refuses to tell anyone or even address it with her. The story could have taken any number of more interesting, more realistic directions, but instead, it takes a glorious swan dive into the ground.

The Reader is up for five Academy Awards: Best Lead Actress (Winslet), Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director(Stephen Daldry), and Best Picture. Beset by strong competition in all its categories, I believe that The Reader is the weakest of the five Best Picture nominees. Its only outside chance is for Winslet, who is very popular among voters and may get a boost from her acclaimed and un-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road. Even still, I won't be picking The Reader to win any of its categories.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 1 Answers

1 - b. Denzel Washington played Alonzo (no last name given) in "Training Day"

2 - e. Morgan Freeman played Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris in "Million Dollar Baby"

3 - a. Jennifer Connelly played Alicia Nash in "A Beautiful Mind"

4 - d. Frances McDormand played Marge Gunderson in "Fargo"

5 - c. Audrey Hepburn played Princess Ann in "Roman Holiday"

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 1

Match the actors with the roles that won them their Oscars:

1. Denzel Washington
2. Morgan Freeman
3. Jennifer Connelly
4. Frances McDormand
5. Audrey Hepburn

a. Alicia Nash
b. Alonzo
c. Ann
d. Marge Gunderson
e. Eddie Dupris

Friday, January 23, 2009

Best Supporting Actress

"Two-time Oscar-winner Marissa Tomei."

That has a nice ring to it.

Yes, I'm picking Marisa Tomei to win another Oscar for Supporting Actress - and she'll win for the same reasons that earned her her first statuette. In the Supporting Actress category, I always look for the lead actress with supporting screen time. She was nearly the only woman on screen in My Cousin Vinny, technically making her the lead actress. Same goes for Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind and Kim Bassinger in L.A. Confidential, just to name a few.

This year, Amy Adams was overshadowed by Meryl Streep in Doubt and Viola Davis only had the one scene in that same movie. Taraji P. Henson is second in Benjamin Button to Cate Blanchett and Penelope Cruz is dynamic, but shares the screen with a whole cast of women. Marissa Tomei, on the other hand, is the female lead in The Wrestler. Her performance may not have the same intensity as Davis's or Henson's, but she shows a raw, gritty vulnerability. If Kate Winslet had been nominated here instead of Lead Actress, I would have picked her, but it's all to Tomei's advantage. Hopefully this will quiet those who felt her first Oscar was a mistake.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Technical Awards

The safe bet with the two Sound categories is to give them to the same film. Sound engineers do the nominating, but it's mostly actors (who don't necessarily know the difference between the two awards) who do the voting, so they usually pick the same film twice. For the record, "Sound Editing" involves just the effects, while "Sound Mixing" awards the total blend of music, effects, and dialogue. This year, there are four films that overlap in these categories, so we can eliminate Iron Man from Sound Editing and Benjamin Button from Sound Mixing. That leaves The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E, and Wanted.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that while the Academy loves to honor prestige films, this is the place where big loud blockbusters get rewarded. If they have the opportunity to award a big loud blockbuster with prestige and critical acclaim behind it, all the better. That's how The Bourne Ultimatum and The Matrix won their Oscars. This year, the film that fits that bill is The Dark Knight - the highest grossing movie of the year, critically acclaimed, thought-provoking, good acting, and lots of noisy action.

As for Visual Effects, voters usually look for a film where the effects aren't there for their own sake, but are integrated into the storytelling in a meaningful way. In this case, I think that Benjamin Button's more subtle, character-transforming use of computer elements will trump the flashiness of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which had more traditional action-film effects.

In the Film Editing category, voters have the option of awarding the stolid workmanship and good storytelling of dramas, (Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Milk) or flashier high-energy films (Slumdog and The Dark Knight). Guess which ones usually win? While it's possible that The Dark Knight could approach a sweep in the technical categories (like The Matrix did in '99) or that Benjamin Button could pick one up on its road to a sweep, I'm going to pick Slumdog Millionaire. It straddles the best of both worlds: fast-paced action and suspense that expertly cuts between time periods while including dramatic moments with breathtaking transitions. And it has dance numbers. Shiny, happy dance numbers.

Nominations

It has begun! Another Oscar season has kicked off and it looks like there will be a good mix of runaway favorites and neck-and-neck races.

Benjamin Button got the most nominations (13) with Slumdog Millionaire close behind with 10 (two of which are for Best Song). The big shocker was that Revolutionary Road, which was expected to make a big showing, ended up under-represented with only three nominations - none of them for lead acting, directing, writing, or picture. Instead, surprisingly, The Reader made a surprise showing, not only for Kate Winslet (up for Lead Actress, tdespite her campaigning in the Supporting category) but for Picture and Director, among others. Lots of people were rooting for The Dark Knight, which collected an impressive eight nominations, mostly in artistic and technical categories.

Two little independent films snuck in the door: the immigration drama Frozen River (up for two including Best Actress for Melissa Leo) and the excellent film The Visitor, which earned Richard Jenkins a nod for Best Actor.

As for the breakaways, Best Actor looks like Mickey Rourke's game to loose and Heath Ledger is poised to earn the second-ever posthumous acting Oscar. WALL-E is a shoo-in for Animated Feature, and Israel's Waltz With Bashir is poised to walk away with Foreign Language Film.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Oscarwatch 2008

After nominations are announced on the morning of January 22, I'll be dedicating this blog to the Academy Awards!

I hope you'll come back throughout Oscar season to read my reviews and predictions and to test your Oscar knowledge with my Big Oscar Quiz. Please feel free to leave comments. Happy Oscar Season!