Sunday, February 27, 2011

Last Minute Oscar Pics

It was a fairly meh year, and I'm about 30 movie reviews behind. And I have no sense of what the Academy is up to. But I'll take a wild shot at this year's pix.

The "Best Picture" field has been expanded to ten films, nine of which I've seen. I didn't go see The Kids Are All Right because the buzz on it was too...perfect. Gay-themed movies with A-List stars always get overpraised. But I will eventually see it, on Jason The Commeter's recommendation.

Anyhoo, even without that, I can say the best movie of 2010 was Toy Story 3. But the Academy can't give the Oscar to an animated flick. Can't. Be. Done. I'd say they'd vote for the fairly banal Social Network but didn't they just give Fincher an award for the nearly as banal Benjamin Button? No? Hmmm.

No, I think it's gonna go to The King's Speech. This is a very enjoyable historical drama, stuffed to the gills with acting and meaning—reflecting on the importance of presentation. The Social Network is about the Internet after all, and there's no shortage of hostility to the Internet in Hollywood.

If it can't go to Toy Story 3, it probably should go to Winter's Bone, but King's Speech is a grand film in the Hollywood tradition.

Likewise, I think Colin Firth will win because Jesse Eisenberg is a punk, Bridges won last year, Franco was really good—but 127 Hours just isn't Oscar material, however good—and Bardem is a Spaniard (who already has an Oscar).

For best actress, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Jennifer Lawrence will win. To my mind, the acting awards are always the toughest. There's almost always a good crowd. The supporting actor/actress award is usually the one where the less conservative pics are, and yet I think Lawrence was the big standout this year.

Best supporting actor? Christian Bale. Why? He needs one. They can't give him one for being Batman, but they can give him one for losing a bunch of weight and playing a crack addict.

The supporting actress category is even tougher. As tempted as I am to say that it'll be Hailee Steinfeld—and that's a way more likely bet than Jennifer Lawrence—I'm gonna guess Melissa Leo gets it. Seems like she's due.

Best Director: Tom Hooper. Well, look The King's Speech wins best pic, it almost has to be the Best Director, too, right? Not really, but I'm gonna say the other guys all have the contempt that comes from familiarity.

Inception for best screenplay. That way they can give Chris Nolan an award that doesn't really matter.

Aaron Sorkin for the other best screenplay. 'cause they love him.

Toy Story 3 for best animated. If they give it to The Illusionist out of spite, they deserve to finish their careers out as voice actors for French funded films.

Biutiful for best foreign. Why? It's the only one I've even heard of, and I see more movies than most of the Academy.

Cinematography is a tough one. The real contenders are True Grit, Black Swan and Inception. But King's Speech could win 'cause it's on a roll. (I'm not sure how any picture can have "momentum" in this kind of voting scheme but they always talk like it does.) True Grit has the best classical cinematography—lots of great landscapes and natural lighting—while Black Swan's cinematography contributed heavily to its sense of a claustrophobia and paranoia.

I'm gonna guess Inception, just on the basis of it being incredibly complex.

Somehow, Inception isn't even up for editing which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But 127 Hours is. Editing is almost always good in an big budget movies. I remember a few years ago (maybe 10-15, actually) where the editing was really bad and just being shocked. They're highly skilled guys as far as I can tell.

So my guess is between King's Speech (see previous discussion of "momentum") or Black Swan. I'm going to guess the latter.

Those are my guesses.

Let's watch and see how I fare.

(I'm kidding. Last time I watched the Oscars was...I think when the Enigma was too young to complain.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Eagle

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman Ninth Legion vanished. Well, to be more accurate, the history of the Ninth Legion suddenly stops. Flash forward a couple of milennia, best guesses of the are that the Legion was defeated in the north of Britain, and the Romans (who were perhaps even more fond of historical revisionism than we are today) did a little damnatio memoriae and *poof*, the troop vanished.

Enter 1950s era children's author Rosemary Sutcliff, putting together a museum exhibit with aforementioned theory, along with the urge to write an adventure story to appeal to boys and voila, The Eagle of the Ninth is born.

How we get from a 1954 young adult novel to a 2011 movie, after the central theory has long fallen into disrepute, I don't know. But "historians" have been kind enough to resurrect the theory for a Discovery/Nat Geo/History/Whatever Channel tie-in.

The story goes that young Marcus Aquila is put in charge of an outpost in Britain (the armpit of the Roman empire) where he must prove his mettle to a cynical group of old hands. Turns out his father was in charge of the Legio IX when it was lost and also managed to the lose the legion's Eagle, bringing great dishonor to the family and the empire.

Aquila is there to set things right, lead the group in defending the empire where his father failed. He's torn between loving memories of his father and concerns about how his father might have acted in those final moments.

After an early incident both establishes his character and acuity, and ruins his plans, he finds himself in possession of a Briton slave, Esca, and a story of the Eagle being seen in the far north of the country.

He decides to enlist the help of the slave in finding and retrieving the Eagle.

Road trip!

OK, so this is a buddy movie, between the Roman legionary and the Pict (?) slave, as they travel to the north end of the island and (with luck) back on their wacky quest.

This movie has the unfortunate position of last in director Kevin Macdonald's (Touching The Void, Last King of Scotland) film canon (on IMDB) and it's struggling to make back its meager $25M budget, but I'm not sure why it's so reviled.

It moves pretty well, with the exception of two spots (the part leading up to his first encounter with Esca, and the part where he and Esca are in the Pict village), with some very good action sequences (including a very good hostage rescue scene), and the leads (GI Joe's Channing Tatum and Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell) are likable enough, if not outstanding. Donald Sutherland oozes character as Aquila's uncle.

Weaknesses? Well, the slow parts tend to make the movie seem a little rudderless, some of the action sequences aren't very good (in the modern tradition of having the camera be so close as to obscure the action), and it has a juvenile (in the sense of a "juvenile novel") feel to it which is either due to being faithful to the book or completely disregarding the character of the book, depending on whom you ask.

It also suffers in comparison with the two big Roman juggernauts of the past decade, Ridley Scott's Gladiator and the HBO/BBC series Rome. The ending reminds me a lot of Knight's Tale, in terms of plausibility, fidelity to time, and just general goofiness. But I didn't mind.

But you could take your 10-year-old son to see it. There are virtually no women to be found anywhere in the movie, except seen briefly about an hour or so into the movie.

And—this may be the pivotal thing—the whole movie is extremely earnest. The plot hinges entirely questions of honor and duty, and whether a man has to put his word above his duty to his people.

It might be that there's not enough there for a contemporary audience to grasp; the movie is very light on providing support for certain characters' actions. A minor issue 50, 60 or 70 years ago in (say) a cowboy movie, but maybe a sticky point for a modern audience.

The Boy, a self-confessed Romanophile, enjoyed the movie very much.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tangled

So, it's another princess story from Disney. And why not? It's sort of what they do, and (for the most part) they do it pretty well. Granted, it was a little less wearing when Uncle Walt was doing one every ten years or so, then during the '90s when they turned out five of 'em (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan), but still, there's nothing like stalwart heroes rescuing damsels in distress—and it doesn't hurt that they're not entirely helpless.

And how does Tangled, their take on Rapunzel, hold up?

Glad you asked.

As it turns out, it's one of the best.

It's always tempting to embrace the newer over the older. This is why new films tend to hit IMDB's top 100 and bottom 250 all the time: There are always a bunch of kids whose repertoire is limited and who are just sure everything is just so extreme.

It's always tempting to embrace the newer over the older, that is, unless you're a film critic, in which you probably give weight to old stuff, and the less accessible the better.

The filmmakers are in their own conundrum, of course. They have the awareness of the film critic with an even more acute awareness that their jobs rest on appealing to the more excitable crowd, and that merely being good (like the previous year's The Princess and the Frog) or evengreat is no guarantee of success.

This can lead to paralysis, or over-caution, or desperation, or worst of all a bad movie.

Tangled is the story of a young princess who is born with magical hair. Her hair has the property of healing and restoring of youth. The latter power is particularly appealing to an aging old woman—who looks like she's had a few two many lifts and botoxes—who kidnaps the baby and takes her to a tall tower.

The catch is that if her hair is cut, it loses its power. And because it has such utility (serving to make the princess less helpless than she might traditionally be) the story has the old hag imprisoning the princess by pretending to be her mother and telling her the world outside is so dangerous, she would die if she set foot outside the tower.

This creates some amusing angst as the princess wants to leave but doesn't want to hurt her "mother".

The catalyst of the story is in the form of a roguish bandit who stumbles upon the tower by accident.

From there, it's a road picture.

What makes the narrative work is a tone right at the sweet spot, like Despicable Me. It's not square, like a traditional Disney princess pic, but it doesn't go into total hipsterism like Shrek.It's sort of a musical, but after the first couple of numbers, kind of gives it up in favor of moving the story quickly. Threats are presented, but then quickly defused with humor, making this suitable for the younger ones.

The animation is, fair to say, breathtaking. They took the traditional Disney look and managed to translate that to CGI (one of my dream jobs would be doing that sort of thing), such that along with the expectedly beautiful landscapes, the characters themselves have a kind of warmth and subtlety actors often don't achieve.

With advances in CGI, animation in kids' movies has been bumping up against the uncanny valley in kind of uncanny ways. For instance, in the (under-rated) Monsters vs. Aliens, Susan's oversized eyes look a little freaky given her otherwise realistic presentation. But here, again, Disney hits the sweet spot—perhaps because the characters themselves are very much modeled after traditional Disney characters, and shaded in a way that really invokes hand-drawn animation.

Whatever the reason: There's a distinct warmth to the final product that works.

And the voice actors seem to have been chosen less for their star power and more for their vocal talent. Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and the exquisite Donna Murphy are not exactly, say, Amy Adams, James Marsden and Susan Sarandon—who were in this movie's putative prequel,Enchanted. Not taking away from the latter three talents, but it's nice to see a movie where the voice actors probably weren't being considered primarily their live-action drawing power.

It makes a huge difference. Consider the supporting cast: Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Brad Garrett, Richard Kiel, Jeffrey Tambor and (comedian) Paul Tompkins. You'd recognize their faces, sure, but even in live-action, their voices tend to stand out.

I don't know, but it just seems like a lot of care went into this. I mean, obviously, nobody makesany animated feature and doesn't give a damn, but this one thrashed around at Disney for years (running up a reputed $260M cost) and they might have just kicked something out to save somebody's ass.

Instead, it's chock full of little touches that take it out of the Disney comfort zone unlike, say, the perfectly serviceable Princess and the Frog. For example, the hero is being pursued by the captain of the guard and his trusty horse—but the Captain gets knocked off his horse by an errant tree branch, and it turns out to be the horse who doggedly pursues the hero.

The movie's almost uneven, which has its perils, but I'm reminded (perhaps because of the horse) of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", which juggles romance, scares and laughs with a similar light touch.

Thumbs up from both The Flower and The Barb. The Boy opted not to see this, but later regretted his decision.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I've always gotten the impression that the Narnia movies are somewhat fraught with production difficulties. The latest movie doesn't dispel that impression. After the disappointing box office of the last movie, Disney dropped out and left Fox to write the checks. (Whether or not it pays off is a matter of opinion, I guess: This film did worse box office than Prince Caspian, but it still grossed over $400M world-wide on a $220M budget. And it's Fox's first $100M hit in over a year.)

It's not the little background news items that make it seem that way, though; usually the movies feel a little conflicted to me somehow. The special effects are always a bit uneven. Sometimes the pacing feels slightly off.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader is like that, only moreso. It has the lowest budget of any of the films; on the positive side, this seems to have encouraged the filmmakers to use CGI more sparingly. I particularly like the minotaurs, which I think are just big guys in bull suits, but with a little CGI to keep them from looking lifeless. Reepacheep returns and, except for a few scenes, looks good.

At the other end, the big effects (a dragon and a sea serpent) are a bit, well, conspicuous. Not awful, just noticeable.

The pacing is brisk, almost breakneck. This may be because they wanted to keep the movie at the two hour mark (which makes marketing easier and allows more showings in a day). This largely works, too, except for the occasional abruptness.

The story has Lucy and Edmund returning to Narnia along with their incredibly irritating cousin Eustace Scruggs. Eustace is one of the great characters in literature, embodying something akin to a literary critic mixed with Richard Dawkins.

Shrill, condescending, unimaginative, rigid—as he's on the Dawn Treader with its minotaurs and satyrs, he's deriding everyone as insane for believing in such fairy tale nonsense—and, on top of it all, worthless, Eustace passes his time complaining and avoiding helping.

But of course, this is Narnia, where one may be redeemed, no matter how awful.

Overall, I found this the most moving of the Narnia movies, probably because of Eustace's transformation, but I was annoyed by the filmmakers' insistence on bringing the White Witch back to torment Edward (also done in Caspian).

The kid's been saved. The Witch never bothers him after the first book, that's sort of the point.

I don't remember the book that well, but it didn't seem like the movie stayed that true to it. But as I recall the books seemed to get less tight, narratively speaking, as they went on.

The acting is, of course, good as one would expect. The kid who plays Eustace manages to be convincing as a twit and endearing as a reformed twit. And the actor who plays Edmund did a fine job as the frustrated teenager, who feels his responsibilities acutely and often is stymied in trying to execute them well.

Lucy is maturing into a fine young actress (though, again, the English seem to have some kind of Manhattan Project for child actors, so it's not unexpected). The older kids are missing from this movie, though Susan shows up in archival footage as an object of Lucy's envy. (I remember a vague hint in the book, nothing to the extent of what shows up in the movie. But then the book didn't have Anna Popplewell.)

Liam Neeson returns as Aslan and, honestly, it doesn't get old to me. You always have the issue of a (literal) deus ex machina in these stories, but the movies have done a good job of making it feel like Aslan's appearance is tied to necessary changes in the characters, rather than to service the plot.

And there's something archetypally pleasing about a big rumbling lion deity who's both protective and powerful.

I enjoyed it overall, as did The Flower, though her favorite is still the first movie.

And I hope they get to do the other four books.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 31: Never Mind!

Flower (to her brother): "Shut up!"
Barbarienne (echoes): "Yeah! Shut up!"
The Boy (to the Barb): "I can eat you."
Barbarienne: "Oh. Never mind, then."

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