January 29, 2007
A Fairy Tale with Fangs and Horns
Do you remember the original Grimm's Fairy Tales? Good people died. Children got eaten. And even when the story ended well, it probably traumatized you somewhere along the way. This is the spirit in which El Laberinto del Fauno, or Pan's Labyrinth (written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, best known in this country for 2004's Hellboy), was conceived. It is a marvellous and breathtaking creative effort, introducing conventional fairy tale elements into one of the most important ideological conflicts of the twentieth century to produce an enchanting and terrifying fable for adults.
It is the summer of 1944, and Ofelia, a young girl, is traveling to northern Spain with her very pregnant mother so that they can be near her new stepfather, Capitán Vidal, when the child is born. Vidal is a brutal military officer in the Spanish army who has been stationed in the area to eradicate a small rebel militia that is hiding out in the woods, stubborn holdouts from the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia is a bookish kid, used to enduring the usual admonishments that she stop filling her head with nonsense.
Her active imagination is in little danger of starvation in her new surroundings, however. The run-down mill where Vidal has set up his base of operations is right next to an ancient and mysterious stone labyrinth. She has been at the mill for less than 24 hours, in fact, before she receives her first midnight visit from a fairy who leads her deep inside the labyrinth for a meeting with a very shifty-looking faun. The faun reveals that Ofelia is, in fact, the long-lost princess of a fairy kingdom, and in order to return there she must prove herself by completing three tasks of increasing difficulty before the next full moon.
As Ofelia begins her quest, Vidal sadistically tightens his grip on the local community to increase the pressure on the rebels, members of his household play their own dangerous game of aiding the enemy, and Ofelia's mother experiences frightening complications to her health as she prepares to give birth. If ever a child needed a fantasy world to escape to, Ofelia certainly does, but in an interesting twist, the horrors of her tasks parallel the atrocities committed by her new stepfather. Before she can truly escape, she will have to face terror and evil head on.
The film is very dark, both in content and visuals. The people behind the camera seem grimly determined to hold each shot during the film's most gruesome moments long past the point where most movies (and, indeed, most moviegoers) would have gladly turned away. What some might view as a lack of restraint, and possibly even good taste, on the part of the director is also incredibly effective in communicating the stakes to the audience. The characters are right there in the midst of it, and all but the most desensitized of viewers will be forced to invest heavily in their plight or walk out.
Additionally, of course, there is an element of contrast at work here. Ofelia's innocence and the virtue of the rebels and their allies are thrown into sharp relief against the background of evil, both human and monstrous, which they struggle against. Nor is Ofelia helpless in this struggle, although she may seem young, weak, and naive. Underscored by the film's tagline: "Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine," this theme is developed throughout Ofelia's adventures. The more terrible evil is shown to be, the more potent the force that defeats it will seem.
Pan's Labyrinth has been nominated for Best Foreign Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Music, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Makeup. While I would not be surprised to see it win any (or all) of the above, it is up against a number of worthy contendors. However, it would be positively wrong for another entry to come out on top in the latter two categories. Del Toro's fantastical creatures have an amazingly palpable screen presence, rivaling anything from the WETA or Jim Henson creature workshops. Although Del Toro's vision lacks their menagerie-like variety and enormous cast of hundreds, its high quality more than compensates for the low quantity. The denizens of the labyrinth live, breathe and move flawlessly and believably, every bit as alive and real as the human characters. One of the them in particular is among the most terrifying things I have ever seen.
This film is suffused with a powerful combination of delightful wonder, harrowing thrills and moving human drama. It emerges from a rich heritage of fairy tale literature without seeming bland or derivative, sure to leave its own unique mark on a tradition that, apparently, is far from extinct.
January 23, 2007
2007: An Oscar Primer
This year's Oscar nominations were released today, leaving me just a month and change to (if I can) hurry and see all the Best Picture nominees I missed. This year that happens to apply to four out of the five. And the only one I have seen I am, quite frankly, a bit shocked to find on the list: Little Miss Sunshine. I liked it, but . . . it is very indie and the thought that it might be Best Picture material never occurred to me.
The other 3 nominations it scooped up are for Best Supporting Actor (for almost 73-year old Alan Arkin) and Best Supporting Actress (for 10-year old Abigail Breslin) and Best Original Screenplay. Wow. Winning Best Supporting Actress would tie Breslin with Tatum O'Neal as youngest Oscar winner (not counting Shirley Temple's "honorary Oscar" which she got at age 6). Meanwhile, while Alan Arkin is not quite the oldest Oscar winner, I wouldn't be surprised to find that this represents the greatest age disparity between acting nominees from a single film (or even in a single year).
The other nominees for Best Picture are:
-Babel, one of those long movies with several interlocking stories and an ensemble cast (like Magnolia, Crash, Syriana, and so forth). This one is from a Mexican director who also did 21 Grams (same genre, I saw it and thought it was quite good, but very difficult and disturbing) and Amores Perros (which I didn't see, but which apparently made quite a big splash). It netted 6 other nominations as well: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, 2 for Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay (in other words, there is only one category where Little Miss Sunshine does not face competition from Babel).
-The Departed, a Martin Scorsese-directed crime drama/thriller with a killer cast, adored by critics and several of my friends alike, which I really had no interest in seeing. I guess now I will. I'll probably like it, too. The Departed scooped up four other nominations: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Apparently, Jack Nicholson's exclusion from an Oscar nod for his role was a surprise. I wouldn't really know.
-Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood directs, Steven Spielberg produces, and the subject is World War II. The reviews practically write themselves, right? This one slipped by completely under my radar as a rather late release among the other nominees, but I probably wouldn't have seen it anyway. It, too, has 3 additional nominations: Best Director, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Screenplay.
-The Queen, a dry-looking biopic (despite apparently great performances) focusing on Elizabeth II in the days following the death of Princess Diana. It might be rather good, actually. The Queen also has five other nominations: Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay.
A major surprise is the exclusion of Dreamgirls from the Best Picture category. It has received eight other nominations, making it the most nominated film this year: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, 3 for Best Original Song, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphey's first nomination) and Best Supporting Actress.
There are a few others with several nominations but no Best Picture attention: Blood Diamond has 5 nominations and I'm still not very interested in seeing it. Pan's Labyrinth has 6 nominations, including Best Foreign Film. This film currently represents the only reason that I hate living in Longview (these things come and go). I have been desperate to see it for months, it still hasn't come out here, and it likely won't. As of this moment, I am seriously considering going to Shreveport to see it (or somewhere closer, if I can find anywhere).
Will Smith and Forest Whitaker have both received their first nominations (for Best Actor) in films I still would like to see: The Pursuit of Happyness and The Last King of Scotland. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio has received his 3rd acting nomination (for Blood Diamond), so far without a win. But that's nothing; Peter O'Toole's nomination this year (for Venus) represents his eighth nomination without a win (his first was, of course, for Lawrence of Arabia, which he lost to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird). This is O'Toole's first nomination in nearly 25 years. However, he did receive an honorary "throw-me-a-frigging-bone-here" Oscar a few years ago.
The Best Actress category is largely a clash of Oscar veterans. You've got Dame Judi Dench, this is her 6th nomination (she's won once). Then there's Helen Mirr (of The Queen). This is her 3rd nomination, no wins yet. I've seen both of the previous movies she was nominated for (The Madness of King George and Gosford Park) and both are very good. Then there's the obligatory semi-annual Meryl Streep nomination. Streep already held the record for number of acting nominations, and this is her fourteenth. She has won twice, but she's received a nomination pretty much every other year since the late '70s. The only other actress who even comes close is Katherine Hepburn with 12 nominations, and I doubt she'll be closing that gap any further. Finally, there is Kate Winslet, who I would very much like to see win. This is her 5th nomination, with no wins yet.
Other nominees that I have seen:
-Children of Men, 3 nominations
-The Prestige, 2 nominations
-The Illusionist, 1 nomination
-Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, 4 nominations
-Borat, 1 nomination and by far the biggest Oscar groaner this year. To add injury to insult, the nomination is for Best Adapted Screenplay . . . as if that movie had a screenplay.
-Cars, 2 nominations
-Superman Returns, 1 nomination
-Water, 1 nomination (for Best Foreign Film; this is quite possibly the best film I saw last year). Interestingly, this is the first year that it would have been possible for Water to even be nominated. The film was entered by Canada, but it is not in one of the primary languages of Canada. The rules were changed just this year to make that no longer a problem.
-"No Time for Nuts," nominated for Best Animated Short. I was actually surprised to discover that I'd seen something from this category. It was on the DVD of Ice Age 2 that I saw. It features Scrat, who stumbles across a small time machine and ends up chasing his acorn across history. It was rather amusing.
Other nominees that I would very much like to see:
-The Curse of the Golden Flower, 1 nomination
-Marie Antoinette, 1 nomination
-Apocalypto, 3 nominations
-Jesus Camp, 1 nomination (for Best Documentary; I hope it beats An Inconvenient Truth, but I won't hold my breath).
-Deliver Us from Evil, 1 nomination (also for Best Documentary, ditto above)
Let's see . . . oh yeah, haphazard and worthless predictions:
Best Picture: Probably The Departed, ideally let's say Little Miss Sunshine (but I really should actually watch some of the others)
Best Actor: Forest Whitaker
Best Actress: Probably Helen Mirr, ideally Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin
Best Supporting Actress: Abigail Breslin
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel
Best Cinematography (since I've seen more from this category than any other): Probably Children of Men or Pan's Labyrinth
Best Foreign Film: Again, I really need to see Pan's Labyrinth, but if it is as excellent as I've heard, this should be a toss-up between it and Water.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my rundown on the 79th Annual Academy Award nominees. I have some stuff to watch.
January 18, 2007
Mayans, Mirth, Mendacious Manipulation, & Many-Happy-Returns
So, a few random things:
Chattaway over on Filmchat tells me that Mel Gibson is creating a stir on my home turf. I should see if I can find that article on the Prensa Libre website . . . It kind of makes me want to go see the movie in March, surrounded by a group of Guatemalans (I haven't seen it yet, and may not). That 43% pure Mayan statistic, though . . . not sure where that came from. First, it's kind of like saying "pure European," and assuming that all Europeans are a unified nationality of some kind. Second, I don't think there are very many "pure" Mayans left, whatever that means. But maybe I'm wrong . . . I have been shockingly ignorant before.
I was clearing in a cart of new books today and I picked up Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired [abridged] by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. That made my day. It is sitting on my desk, waiting to go home with me.
Returning, for a moment, to Filmchat, here is a report of some pretty shady dealings between FoxFaith and the evangelical community. I foresee nothing but bad for the truly artistic and the truly spiritual in an unholy alliance between corporations and congregations. I can only hope that movies of the FoxFaith variety continue to get wait they deserve and the whole business meets an imminent and sudden end. In better news, I hear that The Nativity Story pretty much bombed, making films that hope to capitalize on The Passion's success a harder sell . . . at least for now.
Finally, Rachel joins me at 23 years of age today, so wish her a happy birthday. I guess I'll eventually have to stop reporting her age, but for now youth continues to abound (she thinks she's ancient, I know we're not). And on that note, I adjourn this blogpost for festivities. Adieu.
January 16, 2007
A Very Silly Thing To Do
Ohhh, I was so irresponsible last night. But it sure was fun. Midnight, you see, marked the release of "The Burning Crusade," the long awaited expansion to World of WarCraft. There has been a great deal of anticipation building up around this release amongst the group of friends that I play with, and by the 15th we were all quite excited. I, for one, have never pre-ordered anything in my life . . . I just figure I'll go out and get whatever it is I want at some point after it comes out (one can generally count on Wal-mart). However, as the time grew closer and closer and the buzz built to a fever pitch, I began to grow worried about my prospects of acquiring it in a timely fashion.
I had to go to Wal-mart yesterday afternoon anyway, and I took a look around to see if there was any indication of a midnight release. There was nothing. Not a sign, or a poster, or a little label on a shelf . . . Ominous silence. At that moment I decided I'd rather not drag myself out to Wal-mart alone at midnight just to be disappointed by empty shelves. I resolved to stay at home, content myself with the original game for one last evening, and hop out there sometime during the morning to do the deed. (I work today from 12pm-9pm.)
As the usual evening's questing wore on, people began to talk about their midnight plans. Randy and Barbour (who had no preorders) would be joining Scholl (who had two) at a games store where Scholl has "connections." I invited myself, unable to face the prospect of everyone else in the game ditching me to explore the new content, but agreed to hover at the bottom of the priority list in case a shortage should occur. I wouldn't have minded going home empty-handed at that point . . . it was the going alone and coming back with nothing alone that bothered me. Rachel reluctantly stayed behind to finish her homework.
We arrived at the store with over a half hour to spare and found that it was (of course) already crowded with the pre-order crowd. I have seldom been less proud to be seen in public . . . it was like showing up on opening day of a Star Wars movie. The couple in front of us (who won the "costume contest" which I had been unaware of) were decked to the hilt. The woman came as a rather hideous Undead Mage. She accepted her prize with a hearty Horde battle cry, the Alliance monkeys behind me began to grumble, and I began to fear that we might be caught directly in the middle of a violent and ugly geek altercation. Her consort (or whatever) was dressed in some sort of vaguely game-related piratey get-up . . . with tight, black leather pants, a thin white shirt, and a sword. I could have done without having those pants in front of me for half an hour.
Side note: Certain readers who might in all other respects be disgusted with this post, may be proud to hear that "the rule" of refraining from WarCraft discussions in public held firm, even though we were surrounded by players and about to buy a copy of the game.
Anyway, to make a long (and by now rather boring, no doubt) story short, we waited until all the pre-orders had been filled and then stepped forward with bated breath. Barbour, in front of me, got a lecture on the virtues of pre-ordering and was told that he had gotten in just under the wire, and I braced myself for disappointment.
"I didn't pre-order, either," I ventured next, and received a dirty look and a growl of disapproval before the clerk dove for a copy. My voice barely audible now, I timidly mumbled, "Could I . . . have . . . two? Please?" Cursing the day on which my lousy, non-pre-ordering lungs first drew breath, she fetched me a second copy. I breathed freely again. Had I returned home with only a single "Burning Crusade," I knew quite well whose computer it would be installed on.
We rushed back with our shiny green boxes in our hot little hands, and set to work installing. My computer, in its wisdom, decided it did not want me to play right away. I spent 90 minutes navigating errors, bugs, and general slowness, with some help from Scholl and from Rachel's computer, and finally at about 2 in the morning, I was in!
Rachel ran a few quick quests with me before trundling off to bed, but I wasn't even remotely tired. So much to see, so much to do . . . Five hours and more later, I had visited three zones in Outland and the new zones in Azeroth, played extensively with the new playable races, created a brand new level 5 Draenai Shaman and a brand new level 3 Blood Elf Warlock (the Blood Elf explored more and quested less, for he was alone), and generally concluded that I was not disappointed at all. I helped Rachel get ready for her first class, fed her breakfast, drove her to the education building, and went home to crash for three and a half hours.
I haven't stayed up all night gaming in a very long time. It was just as fun as I remembered . . . but I don't know if I'll ever do it again. For the clueless non-players who are still reading, this post is effectively over. You may go back to your lives feeling superior. A few thoughts:
-My first order of business upon returning home will be to scrape, beg, borrow, and steal every cent I can lay my hands to get my main an epic mount. Everyone else has one, even Rachel, and I am not exploring the vast reaches of Outland trailing somewhere far in the wake of the rest of my party.
-I was immediately struck by the large number of very high heights, without any sort of safety railings, that exist in the new content, even in the capital cities. I experienced the danger of this first-hand last night when I plummeted into a ravine and landed on a very unhappy 63 elite. The fall didn't quite kill me, but the orc was more than happy to finish the job. I can't wait for flight form.
-Blizzard's art department has outdone itself. Truly. Almost every location in the new content is many times more beautiful and stunning than anything in the old.
January 14, 2007
Dystopian Fun for Everyone
I went to see Children of Men about a week ago. I'd had my eye on it since I first saw the trailer: novel, thought-provoking concept, respectable cast, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (helmer of the only truly stand-out Harry Potter movie to date). So, when it opened in Longview, we were so there, and I, for one, was not disappointed.
This film has gotten a lot of criticism for things which I feel have nothing to do with how well it played on the big screen, so I won't discuss them right away. It gets so much right: locations, technology, atmosphere, attitudes. From the large to the small, Children of Men convincingly transports the audience to a 2027 where no human pregnancy has occurred in over 18 years. Cuarón is very comfortable working with dark, gloomy material, as is his leading man, Clive Owen. Very ably backing him up are Julianne Moore, Michael Caine (always excellent), newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey, and a growing favorite of mine, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Amistad). Seriously, every time this guy pops up in a movie I'm watching, it happens to be a really great movie.
There are also some bold storytelling choices here that shatter the predictability of the plot. No character is sacred, and there is a very real tension throughout most of the movie as the ultimate ending remains very much up in the air right down to the final moments. Every time things seem to be moving comfortably down a particular path, there is a sudden reversal that throws everything into disarray. There is some really great work here in the action sequences as well, including one of the most intense car chases I've ever seen, during which the car's speed never exceeds 20 mph!
Of course, the thing everyone is talking about is that (I believe) 7-minute unbroken shot that takes place in the midst of a chaotic urban battle near the end of the film. It is indeed impressive, although I barely noticed that the camera hadn't cut once until the scene was probably a little over half over. It is a major undertaking to get everything to work perfectly during a shot that requires so much in the way of explosions, gunfire, and rapid but smooth camera movement, and it is carried off fairly well. However, I've seen Russian Ark, a movie which consists of a single 96-minute take involving 2000 actors costumed and scripted to cover 300 years of Russian history, and three live orchestras performing massive ballroom sequences . . . It makes 7 minutes of pitched battle seem a tad less worthy to write home about.
About halfway through the sequence in Children of Men, blood spatters on the camera lens (this was what first drew my attention to the lack of cuts), and as I watched I found this extremely distracting and annoying. A few minutes later, it suddenly disappeared and I assumed that there had been a cut even though I could not in any way detect one. A few days later, I read this about the filming:
Cuarón had access to his location for the shot for just a few weeks, and his crew used up all but the last two days simply preparing for the long sequence. The first take, which took all of the first day, was a disaster from start to finish. The second, which took up most of the second day, was ruined when the cameraman tripped. Each ruined take would require several hours for the crew to set everything back up and try again, so when the third take began, the sun was literally setting on their final day to use the selected location. No pressure.
With the fate of the scene hanging in the balance, filming began, but then one of the fake blood packets on a dying bystander exploded too close to the camera, spattering the lens as I described above. Disgusted, Cuarón yelled "Cut," but fortunately the sound of an explosion drowned him out and no one heard. He sat through the rest of the sequence, and then Owen and the cameraman came over, elated at their success. He quickly pointed out that, certainly everything seemed to have gone well, but the scene was ruined by the blood. Both Owen and the cameraman, incredulous and furious, told Cuarón off, stating that the accident of the blood was an incredible boon to the scene and was precisely the sort of thing he himself was always looking for.
Well, when they put it that way . . . the scene went in the film and the blood stayed. But Cuarón recognized that it grew tiresome after a few minutes, and the production hired a digital artist to painstakingly remove the blood from every single frame of the final minutes of the scene. The job was, by all accounts, quite tortuous, and the digital artist hated them for it. So, when the blood disappears, the scene was not cut as I had assumed it must have been. Quite a story, I thought.
Anyway, about that criticism . . . apparently Cuarón was not at all interested in reading the original book when he worked on the screenplay and on filming. He thought it would distract him from what he wanted to do: namely, use the idea of a future world with no children as social commentary on certain American governmental policies of the present such as immigration and the environment and so forth.
He pretty much sucks at this no matter which way you look at it. A lot of people were disgusted with the movie because they found it jarring and irrelevant that he should try to use this concept as a soapbox for those issues. I greatly enjoyed the movie and completely missed the fact that this is what he was supposedly trying to do. Looking back I remember maybe one or two asides that might be construed as pertaining to those issues, but I don't really see how they connect to the present, and I certainly don't think they make any sort of coherent political statement.
One thing that I did notice while watching the movie, however, was the number of seemingly disconnected religious pointers floating around in it. Main character names included "Julian," "Theo," "Luke," "Miriam" and "Kee" (spelled differently from the "circulating life energy" of eastern religion, but certainly pronounced the same). The title itself comes from a Psalm. These and other similar names and ideas appeared at random in the movie, didn't seem to really go anywhere, yet did not seem to be coincidental.
I have since grabbed the book from the library and I plan on reading it, and I have discovered that the author is a Christian and her book explores many Christian themes and ideas through the premise that the film version took (or tried to take) in an entirely different direction. In the book, for instance, Luke is an Anglican priest, and the organization called "Fish" (a strange name for what is, in the movie, a terrorist organization) is much more closely linked to the ideas represented by the Christian fish after which it is named in the book. The faith upon which the book is based is strangely absent in the film, but the labels remained like cryptic signposts, pointing at nothing in particular. The director (seeking to "go in a different direction") was too ignorant to realize that he had left in the terminology when he drained the ideology.
My attitude about that is one of sad amusement tinged with disappointment for what might have been. Children of Men is an amazing film experience just as it is, but compared to what it could have been it seems strangely hollow. I loved the movie, but it could have changed my life. Oh, well.
One final thought . . . I keep thinking of Children of Men as a dystopia, but I have to wonder, are dystopias in the eye of the beholder? Children of Men might very well represent my friend Randy's version of utopia . . . a world without children. What say you, Randy? Glorious dytopia?
January 05, 2007
You Have Been Warned
In a highly experimental attempt to foster critical thought and articulation and encourage regular writing in a public forum, Rachel has agreed to post a certain number of movie reviews in tandem with me (employing, of course, her own unmistakable elan). Anyway, here's Rachel's review.
And so we begin on familiar ground, with a movie I brought home from the library for her: The Wild. There are two things you need to know about this movie immediately: 1) It is a computer-generated cartoon directed by a man credited as Steve "Spaz" Williams whose previous movie work is confined almost exclusively to visual effects. 2) Its story is a hideous stew of ingredients stolen brazenly from Finding Nemo, Madagascar rounded out with the various tired cliches of its genre. Anything that smacks of originality also stinks of the kind of thing other animated movies wouldn't stoop to include.
The Wild (as I've already kind of told you) is about a ragtag group of zoo animals led by Samson the lion (Kiefer Sutherland) that breaks out of the New York City zoo to rescue Samson's son Ryan, who has been mistakenly loaded on board a ship headed for the jungle. This well-worn story seems all the more overdone when weighed down with the standard Disney plot accoutrement of the single-parent family. (What's with that, anyway?) Along the way they mingle with a menagerie of different species representing the full spectrum of offensive racial stereotypes.
The prize goes to the Arab pigeon, a wild-eyed idiot with a gambling habit. However, the icing on the cake has to be the tropical island dung beetles done out in full Swedish yodeling-polka-singer regalia complete with lederhosen and golden braids. The sight brought a single stunned query to my lips, but since this is a review of a kid movie I'll refrain from repeating it.
The movie's subplots are a tad disturbing as well, the most prominent of these being the attempts of Benny the squirrel (James Belushi) to win the love of Bridget the giraffe (Janeane Garofalo). If they can't keep it inter-species, can't they at least stick to romances between vaguely compatible species? There is also a herd of wildebeests intent on becoming carnivores, but I guess that's more weird and, I dunno, impossible than truly disturbing. But did I mention that William Shatner voices the fanatical leader of the wildebeests? Yup. And Eddie Izzard is the show-stealing koala bear/comic relief (I say show-stealing because this movie's few fans seem to be fans because of his character, not because I myself was vastly entertained by him).
So, if the plot and characters fail so spectacularly, how are the visuals? Problematic to say the least. First, the animals are spectacularly realistic. They look so real, in fact, that they just aren't funny. This is a cartoon that has a hard time feeling like a cartoon because its characters lack stylization, and therefore they lack . . . well, character. Meanwhile, the environments that these hyper-realistic, high-quality cartoon animals stroll around in are just plain lousy. I have never seen such total incongruity in an animated feature. It is literally as if the environments were designed and rendered by a completely different team on Big Idea's software (the Veggie Tales people, in case you wondered). This effect is so jarring that, more than once, the animals appear to be performing on a sound stage, complete with static, painted backdrop and plastic props. Tacky.
The humor feels the same way. The best animated movies manage to keep people of all ages entertained with a smorgasboard of cartoon action, clever concepts, and wise-apple humor aimed just over the kiddies' heads. Having run through the first on auto-pilot and skipped the second, The Wild attempts at the third are beyond contrived. The effect produced resembles attending a children's puppet show where the puppets occasionally go limp and lifeless and the puppeteer's head emerges from behind the curtain as he breaks character completely to fire off a smart remark at the adults in the audience.
In conclusion, this is an inferior effort on all fronts. Should have been aborted. Should be avoided.
January 04, 2007
Old News and Bad News
I am peeved. After months of attentive awareness interspersed with periodic active searching, the title of the 7th Harry Potter is finally announced, and I miss it for 2 solid weeks. And I don't even know how it happened. Something is dreadfully wrong with that.
Anyway, the title is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This is by far the most mysterious and intriguing title to date as it uses a word which is neither immediately familiar (as with "goblet" or "chamber" or "prince" or "stone") in addition to making reference to something within the book which is not already familiar to a reader of the series (as with "Azkaban" or "Order of the Phoenix"). As a result, speculation about the meaning of the title is apt to be a bit more varied than with a previous volume. This is also a very dark, somber title. It suggests a certain adult seriousness not really found in the other titles.
Of course, the very first thing the title suggests when broken down is a vague concept of holiness through death, which would certainly line up with John Granger's theory that each title is a reference to Christ. Granger himself flirts with this possibility in his own clumsy way over on his website (I have rarely known anyone to make such brilliant connections in such stupid ways).
But speaking of brilliant connections, this essay makes, I would say, the true case for the meaning of the title. In a nutshell, it discusses the significance of "hallow" as a reference to the grail relics of Chretien de Troyes, which opens up a rich, deep field of symbolism and significance (as fellow students from Dr. Watson's Grail Quest course will know all too well). How appropriate that this brilliant series, already so filled with canny bits of Western mythology and lore, should turn at last to draw from the quest for the Holy Grail in its final chapter. It's all speculation, of course, but I would say that this theory is right in line with everything we know about the way Rowling writes fantasy. It just feels right.
Anyway, in the realm (while I'm discussing books) of the not-so-exciting, I ran across this a few moments ago. Do you remember when libraries were repositories for the preservation of cultural history and heritage rather than a cultural outhouse doubling as the local Blockbuster where the unwashed masses can wallow in paperback romance trash, best-selling excrement, and the latest top-grossing redneck flick without having to shell out? They're throwing out Faulkner, Hemingway, Henry Adams, and Harper Lee! Can you imagine?!
Happily, this sort of thing runs contrary to our library's ideas of how things work, and we are in no danger of running out of shelf space in the forseeable future. Why shouldn't libraries shape the cultural tastes of their communities at least as much as they are shaped by them? That's public service for you.
January 03, 2007
Randy got me The Film Snob Dictionary for Christmas. That's hilarious. He wins. It also reminds me of something . . . It's that time again; time for the trimester report on the best films I saw during the last (approximately) 4-month period. I don't think whittling things down to a top 10 has been this difficult since that very first summer (2004), when I watched 137 films. Since the end of August I've seen "only" 58, but statistically they've been rather good.
While I've occasionally been forced to dip into the 92-93% types to fill up the full ten, this time there are over a dozen in the high 90s alone, with several deserving entries in the 94-95% range which will simply have to be left out of the final count. Heartbreaking. On the positive side, I have begun a list (based on my record) of movies I'd like to own. Current most coveted is A Passage to India, chiefly because I've begun to look for it specifically every time I walk into a store that sells DVDs and I have yet to find it. Eventually I shall tire of this game and buy it online, but for now I'm enjoying the thrill of the chase.
I discovered an interesting anomaly between two of the films I watched last month (which I shall go ahead and note here, since neither is in the running for a top spot). Oliver! won the 1968 Oscar for Best Picture (rather undeservedly in my opinion, but the competition was thin) and is (to date) the last G-rated film to have carried off that award. I, for one, am sure that there are very good reasons for that, but anyway . . . The very next year, Best Picture went to Midnight Cowboy, the first (and only) X-rated film to win said award. That film, incidentally, I did feel to be most deserving of its recognition, chiefly thanks to its lead actors. I was horrified to discover that Best Actor that year went to John Wayne for True Grit. Dustin Hoffman was surely most grievously robbed, to say nothing of Jon Voight.
Yeah, okay. I'll stop stalling. Let's get to it:
I rather sorely neglected to discuss the films we saw at the Kilgore Film Festival, probably because Randy and I reviewed them all for the YellowJacket (a veritable tour de force it was). There were some really great ones . . . all of them actually, with the exception of Woody Allen's boorish schtick. Water was indisputably the best (although my personal favorite was Wordplay, I have to say . . . more on that later). Incredibly moving, great cinematography and locations, magnificent performances and score, and the plot faked me out completely at least three times. I really need to check out the rest of Deepa Mehta's elemental trilogy (Earth and Fire) one of these days.
Chinatown, North by Northwest, and Stranger Than Fiction, and Joyeux Noël I have discussed before. Chinatown is a seriously worthy noir film, which felt (to me, anyway) very much like a bridge between two very different eras of filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock . . . one of his best . . . always worth a look. Stranger Than Fiction, the most charming, likeable 2006 release I've seen yet. I hope to see it snag some Oscar nominations. Joyeux Noël, I repeat, best Christmas movie I've ever seen. You have to get it and see it . . . and don't tell me you can't. My brother tells me he even found it in Guatemala.
I have now seen Gattaca probably half a dozen times, and my enjoyment grows with each viewing. Every time I watch it, I think it can't be as good as I remember, and it's always better. It represents a flawless marriage of several rather disparate concepts, producing a retro-futuristic blend of stylish mystery and drama. There is film noir, there is the genetic dystopia of Brave New World, there is more than a hint of Isaac Asimov's fabulous robot mysteries . . . and so much more.
Tsotsi is a shocking story of unexpected redemption. I think I may have mentioned my affinity to the well-done redemption story once or twice before. This one was so excellent that it went directly onto that syllabus I was composing shortly thereafter, neatly saving me from having to insert a more controversial entry like Pulp Fiction or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year, and it certainly had it coming.
Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile certainly don't belong together, since they are almost nothing alike . . . but they both center around death row and feature a less than benevolent view of capital punishment. The former is a focused statement of that position, while the latter's politics are more incidental to its story. But they're both really good. I first saw Dead Man Walking in my Bible class during my senior year in high school, and at that time (perhaps not surprisingly) it failed to make the same impression as it did when I rewatched it last semester. In fact, I barely remembered having seen it. Not so this time. Very impacting.
The Green Mile I saw my freshman year of college, and I've had the urge to rewatch it several times since. I finally sat down and did it while packing to return to Texas. The deliberate, measured way in which this great movie sets up its story and characters before allowing them to unfold their little drama before us is truly impressive. This film is almost as good as its more grounded cousin (by the same author and the same director, and with some similar elements), The Shawshank Redemption.
I have saved the most exhilirating for last: Big Night, the story of two brothers (played by the hilarious and gifted Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, who also directs) whose newly opened Italian restaurant is floundering because their customers are gastronomic philistines. A friend (and rival) with a highly successful set-up just down the road offers them one last chance to keep the place open: the attendance of a big-name celebrity at a no-holds-barred feast to be prepared by them and served at their restaurant, with full press coverage.
Big Night is an absolute joy to watch from first to last. Every performance, every scene, is a priceless gem. I didn't think a "food movie" could ever top Babette's Feast (another favorite), but this one does. There are so many magnificent moments leading up to the title event, as Primo (Shalhoub) berates his ignorant patrons and clumsily woos the local florist and Segundo (Tucci) juggles two very different women (representative of his cultural confusion), a steady relationship with an adoring American girl who wants him to settle down with her, and a passionate, illicit affair with an Italian mistress who calls him back to his roots and threatens his plans for stability.
But once the festivities begin, the film truly (and I mean truly) pulls out all the stops and just goes crazy. I won't say anymore about that, because I wouldn't want to give anything away . . . but the very last scene, with no dialogue or cutting, is pure and perfect cinema to the core.
Now, maybe this sets a bad precedent, but I have to do it. It was the only way I could talk myself into cutting a few of these off the top ten.
I saw this one twice. It's just so wildly original; a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book . . . pure comic genius.
I read somewhere that a prominent movie critic declared at the end of the '70s that it had been the worst decade in film history. Well, first of all, the man had obviously not yet encountered the 1980s (which were the worst years in film history, their dubious lone contribution being the establishment, but not invention, of the summer blockbuster). Second, I can hardly believe that anyone would make such a statement about the decade that produced both Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sting, and even Star Wars (to name just a few). It was quite possibly the best decade for American film, and arguably the most important since the introduction of the "talkie" in the late 1920s.
Well, that was kind of irrelevant. All that to say . . . Taxi Driver is both an important part of the milieu of 70s film, and a disturbingly sympathetic experience inside the mind of a sociopath. And also a really good movie.
I've had a lot of enjoyment for indie films ever since I saw Garden State about two years ago. It was distributed by Fox Searchlight, which finds some of the best stuff . . . among them, last year's Little Miss Sunshine. It is an extremely fun movie that I saw with Rachel and Randy and we reviewed for the YellowJacket. The great cast includes Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, and Steve Carrell, and it is part of a growing sub-genre of recent quirky (that's the key adjective) movies about families (but definitely not for families) moving from dysfunctional bickering to warmth and fellowship.
Best documentary I've ever seen (besides Night and Fog, which is in a whole different class); interesting, entertaining, informative, innovative, hilarious . . . who knew an hour-and-a-half of crossword puzzles could be so manic and riveting?
I had a very hard time deciding between this and Stranger Than Fiction, and I'm not sure I could explain what made me go with the latter. Regardless, this is right up there among the best releases of 2006 with its brilliant cast, chilling Victorian atmosphere, dark and suspenseful plot, dizzying narrative technique, and Twilight Zone-esque flair. A must-see movie that I'd love to see receive some Oscar attention, but its chances are probably not as good as Stranger Than Fiction's, sadly.
I was amazed by this movie, but even more than that I was amazed that no one had ever gotten me to watch it. Is it possible that Christians don't realize this movie exists? It is a story of Christian love, grace, and redemption amidst the violence, evil, and greed of the world that tells its story with honesty and recognizes the hope and light that lie even in apparent defeat and darkness, and all with a PG rating. But you won't find it in a Christian bookstore, and I've never once heard it mentioned amidst all the talk of Hollywood's anti-religious bias . . . and that is something that I simply do not understand.
And that's it for now . . . my mega-movie update of the past few months. Maybe one of these days I'll have the time to devote to keeping up with writing thoughts on these fantastic films as I'm watching them. Novel concept, that.
Oh, and one last thing: the title of this post was cribbed from this excellent blog, which Mr. Wilson introduced me to some months ago. Check it out.