Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Summer of '88: An American in Python: A Fish Called Wanda

Monty Python was arguably the most versatile of comic troupes. Each of its members displayed an abundant range of creative poses and vocal deliveries in addition to wry intelligence. While their act is undeniably outlandish, there's something very subtle about the performances and how the actors interacted that made everything work. Perhaps that's why a majority of the individual efforts after the British ensemble had disbanded lacked the same flair. A noted exception to this is A Fish Called Wanda, a film that channels much of the effortless wit and energy of Monty Python's work but with its own personality.
A Fish Called Wanda's Monty Python influence comes primarily from John Cleese, who stars in and wrote the screenplay about four London jewel thieves chasing some elusive loot after their master plan goes awry. Also on hand from Python-land is Michael Palin, here playing Ken Pile, a stutterer and an animal lover—two attributes that make him the butt of a hefty number of the film's jokes. As Palin hams it up with yet another of his famously nervous characters, Cleese plays the straight man, a barrister brilliantly named Archie Leach. Initially this proves an odd fit for the actor, who so often commands the screen with exaggerated annunciation and body language. But once Archie becomes entangled in the thieves' scheme, Cleese slowly teases out a confection of classic looks and one-liners that rivals the actor's finest work.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Finding Nemo: Pixar's Quiet Masterpiece

Of all the feature films in Pixar's impressive repertoire, Finding Nemo has arguably proven the most durable. The movie, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, is held in high favor critically and with audiences, but to some extent it's also underappreciated, commonly regarded as an admirable, stalwart entry from the animation house. And yet, though it's not a film that's inspired the kind of rapturous following that The Incredibles or WALL-E have cultivated, Finding Nemo remains the heart and soul of the Pixar family of movies. It showcases a number of hallmarks for which the studio has become renowned, such as stunning technical bravura and smoothly elegant storytelling. But what distinguishes Finding Nemo from its studio brethren—and what makes it Pixar's enduring classic to date—is its narrative accessibility and emotional directness.
        At the time of its release, Finding Nemo was primarily heralded for its unparalleled pictorial beauty. Digital animation was still somewhat fresh at the time; just two years before, Shrek had introduced brand new possibilities in digital animation with its crisply rendered environments and characters that had scale and weight. Finding Nemo, by turn, was possibly the first full realization of those possibilities. I still remember seeing it in the theater and feeling completely engulfed by the colors, layers, and textures of the underwater world it fashions. Ten years later, the film still exudes an ethereal quality that's seldom seen in today's animation (which is a credit, also, to the deep musical and overall soundscape). But the abounding detail of the film's visual design, from the scales on Nemo's body to the speckles dancing in the foreground and background of every frame, is all the more astounding for how subtly it's deployed.

Click here to read the full article at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Summer of '88: Willow — Fantasy Departed

One of the many residual effects of the massive success of the Star Wars trilogy was the boom of fantasy films that arrived in theaters in the mid-1980s. Movies such as LegendMasters of the UniverseThe NeverEnding StoryThe Princess Bride, and others were all released within the span of a couple of years, and each to some degree featured sprawling sets, evocative atmospheres, and extensive use of prosthetics and puppets. These elements were staples of George Lucas's storytelling, a quality that proved to be a strong companion to the Star Wars films' grand visual and narrative design. It wasn't long after the trilogy had wrapped that even Lucas himself had dipped into the bankable commercial lore of fantasy moviemaking when he produced Jim Henson's 1986 film Labyrinth. His own contribution to the subgenre followed two years later at a time when fantasy appeared on the decline. With an original story by Lucas, Willow was met with widespread ambivalence upon its release. Retrospectively, however, the film's graceless hybrid of Star Wars-style mythmaking and leftovers from the short-lived fantasy period in commercial cinema that Lucas inspired offers a pointed reflection and portrait of the filmmaker that has grown more compelling as the full trajectory of Lucas’s career has emerged in view.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Best Picture 2013: The Contenders

We all know how this is going to end. It’s been etched in stone for weeks. I’ve placed three films in this final category, but there is only one real contender here. Maybe you can make the case that one of the other two films could play spoiler on Sunday, but after a long, strange Oscar season, Best Picture is now Argo’s to lose. In fact, any other result would be a massive shock, since Argo has won just about every precursor race up to this point. And thanks to the increasingly drawn-out and political nature of the race, there will be little suspense during the telecast. That speaks as much to the predictable nature of the Academy as it does to its decreasing relevance in its own arena. These days, the significance of the Oscars encompasses little beyond a victory lap for the film that sweeps the guild cycle.
Perhaps someday Oscar voters will have been so inundated with the unanimity of the awards circuit and may opt for another film, if only to assert their relevance. But this is not that year. Once again, the Academy will give the Best Picture award to a skillfully made film lacking any distinctive factors and largely bereft of creative voice. After all, that’s the kind of film that’s built to survive the rigorous campaign required to reach Best Picture gold.
Most of us acknowledge the fundamental absurdity of the Oscars’ format for determining artistic merit and can therefore accept the inherent flaws of the process. But the largely sterile nature of recent Best Picture winners is making the Oscars harder to enjoy. Everything is subjective, but I would argue that until recently (as in the last 20 years, give or take), there was an honest attempt to reach a consensus on the most culturally relevant and aesthetically rich films, even if many don’t agree on what deserves to win. I may be fooling myself, but I nevertheless feel that the new Best Picture prototype is symptomatic of the ugly campaign process that the Oscars have become. At a time when the medium of cinema is clawing to stay afloat amid great competition with various other media, the Oscars represent a good gauge for how the industry itself fails to grasp what makes movies so distinguishable from other media and art forms. Alas, instead of highlighting films coursing with rhythm, ideas, and possibilities, it’s the shiny surfaces that win the day.
Lucky for the rest of us that the kinds of films that the Academy fails to recognize are still out there for us to see; which, when you think about it renders the Oscars nearly obsolete. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with hoping that the one institution charged with educating the masses about this wonderful world of movies that so many of us love will someday live up to that promise.

Life of Pi (***)
Though not as thematically dense as perhaps its source novel, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a visually fluid and deeply affecting chronicle of survival. Structurally, it’s a bit sluggish, particularly in the exposition-heavy scenes at the start, but once Lee sets everything in motion, the film opens up an incredibly rich canvas upon which its intimate tale takes shape. Life of Pi might have benefited from a less directness regarding its message about faith—which, quite frankly, can be at odds with the story itself—but the elongated mid-section set on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean is nonetheless a triumph of large-scale filmmaking and enough to forgive most of the flaws. Academy voters tend to respond to earnest and well-made epics such as this, but Life of Pi’s victories on Oscar night may be limited to technical categories, where it’s sure to perform well. But it’s worth noting that even though the film’s chances of winning Best Picture are slim, Ang Lee stands much better odds to take Best Director. (In fact, I predicted it.)
            The Bottom Line:  Expect Life of Pi to pick up many of technical awards (cinematography, visual effects, score, sound editing), and possibly even Best Director, but an upset in the Best Picture category is extremely improbable.

Lincoln (****)
Eschewing every dreaded convention of the standard film biopic, Lincoln is really a film about process. It takes you into the trenches of negotiation that many films of its kind ignore. The subject—the passage of the 13th Amendment—happens to be one of the most pivotal stretches in US history, but Steven Spielberg’s film is only concerned with these events insofar as how they have been painstakingly waged on a number of fronts at the level of government. At the center is Daniel Day-Lewis, whose performance, as I noted in my Best Actor prediction piece for Slant, “resounds through quieter timbres and softer movements than we're accustomed to from the actor.” Day-Lewis’s portrayal of one of the most revered figures in American history is both towering and nuanced. He renders the 16th President as a funny, manipulative, and deeply flawed man who nonetheless was a brilliant tactician and in the end a benevolent soul. Spielberg’s direction is much like Day-Lewis’s performance in that it is both toned down in some respects but no less thoroughly commanding. Lincoln is a challenging but exhilarating film, and while it would be my personal pick for Best Picture, its chances of winning the gold are very slim.
            The Bottom Line:  Although Lincoln is probably the only film capable of taking down Argo, it has proven too slippery and cerebral for the Academy. However, several years from now, I predict, voters may regret their choice.

Argo (**)
It's become a trend for presumed Best Picture winners to suffer serious critical backlash long before even being awarded the prize. In full disclosure, I saw Argo long after it had assumed the frontrunner position. Thus, I’m not ruling out that this condition may have colored my view of the film, because I found it shallow and ideologically misguided. (For more on the film’s “Otherness” issues, read Kevin B. Lee’s great essay.) But even if we put aside its overt racial pandering, Argo is still overcooked and underwhelming. It’s skillfully made, but to what end? Director Ben Affleck wrings so much false tension—the kind of movie fakery that the film lampoons but ultimately celebrates—that it may distract you from noticing that there is very little weight to the swift proceedings. The film offers at least one brilliant scene that intercuts a Hollywood press conference with news footage. It’s a wonderful moment on its own account, but it also articulates Argo’s greater failure to interconnect a bevy of themes that it only suggests topically. This hasn’t stopped every awards group from bestowing its highest honors on the film, making the Oscars merely a formality at this point. Strangely enough, too, Affleck’s absence in the Best Director category has helped Argo cement itself as the likely winner for Best Picture.
The Bottom Line:  Backlash or no backlash, Argo will win Best Picture on Sunday. It is as close of a lock as we’ve seen in years. And leave it to the Academy to reward the movie that celebrates the both the artifice and universal love we feel for movies.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscars 2013: Musings and predictions

[This article was originally published on February 1, but I've moved it up to reflect its completion and updated links.]

I really relate to film lovers who reject the pomp and circumstance of the Oscars. To describe the two-month-long awards process as nauseating is an understatement, not just because of the self-importance exuding from many involved, but also because it reduces artistic achievement to the equivalent of a grade school science fair. Inevitably, the movie with the most outward flair, or, as the saying goes, the most of any given category will be crowned victor (i.e. the volcano with the first-prize ribbon). And yet, despite the deep issue I take with the notion of breaking down and awarding films by category, each year I get caught up in the spectacle and follow the contest like I would a Presidential election. While in some respects the Academy Awards represent a political horserace and everything that celebrating cinema shouldn’t be about, I’ve since learned to be at peace with my relationship to Oscar. After all, the commercial aspect is a great part of what makes movies unique, even if it exudes an unseemly aura that often clashes with the aesthetic and narrative depths that movies are capable of producing. And though the Oscars may not have the cultural relevance to which the Academy voters and members aspire, they do hold some relevance. As long as one is able to recognize the perfunctory absurdity of the pageantry, it is quite possible sit back and enjoy the gaudy display of what A.O. Scott once called the American film industry’s impression of itself.
            Given my Oscar appetite, this year I’ve decided to make better use of the energy spent anticipating and watching the show. Here on this site, I've posted short reviews for each film nominated for Best Picture in a series of commentaries in which I also surmised each film’s chances at the top prize. (Here is my write-up on the "Long shots," and here is "The Middleweights," and finally "The Contenders."I am also pleased to have taken part in a bigger Oscar project over at Slant Magazine, where I joined several Slant writers for the site’s annual Oscar Prediction series, running now until Oscar weekend. Following extensive discussion about each category, Ed Gonzalez, Eric Henderson, R. Kurt Osenlund, and myself penned reflections in our assigned categories, with a new commentary posted daily at Slant’s blog The House Next Door. I handled six categories, all of which are linked below. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Best Picture 2013: The Middleweights

In reality, each of the films I’ll be discussing today have no better a shot at winning Best Picture than the “Long Shots” I projected last week. But where the long shots never stood a chance in the race, these three films at some point or another were considered viable contenders. With the endless awards cycle zapping any tension out of the race anymore, the whole exercise of running through nine nominees seems even even more pointless. Now perhaps more than ever, the contest comes down to two or three real contenders, which are minted weeks in advance. Nevertheless, the films below represent different ends of the Oscar spectrum in terms of quality and relevance that's worth having a closer look at, no matter how unlikely that any one of these should win.

Les Misérables (**)
I don’t consider myself part of the critical contingent that’s “above” Les Misérables. I loved the musical when I was younger, and though I haven’t listened to it in probably 15 years, I was genuinely surprised to recall many of the songs as I watched Tom Hooper's adaptation. I wish my nostalgia for the play had carried over to the film itself though. Despite an appropriately grand scale and a handful of impeccably voiced performances/songs, Les Misérables is startlingly inept in concept and execution. That Hooper is so in-your-face with the live singing and jarring close-ups only deepens the film’s failure as a visual and narrative spectacle. And while the Academy has a soft spot for epic melodramas like this, the film has generated no support outside of Anne Hathaway’s performance.
            The Bottom Line:  Once considered an early contender, Tom Hooper’s lack of a Best Director nomination was just the start of Les Misérables’s downfall as a serious contender.

Zero Dark Thirty (***½)
Glenn Greenwald is an important voice on geopolitical matters, but I wish he had kept his stubbornly facile take on Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty to himself. Instead, his weighing in on the film’s “pro-torture” stance (according to him) was the beginning of the end of the film’s Oscar chances. It’s a shame, since Zero Dark Thirty is a quietly subversive film that takes a cold look at the emotional, strategic, and monetary means of hunting down Osama bin Laden. It’s a moral Rorschach test in which some will see a patriotic validation of the American way, and others a hazardous labyrinth of ethical compromises. That’s part of what makes the Zero Dark Thirty so relevant and incisive. Unfortunately, it's been derailed by a fatuous controversy over torture that both somehow both distorts and validates the film's nuances.
            The Bottom Line:  Given how it’s become just about impossible to engage this movie from outside the torture debate, Zero Dark Thirty is now probably as much of a long shot as Amour.

Silver Linings Playbook (*½)
As I’ve noted in a previous post, Silver Linings Playbook is a con job of a movie—a cheap romantic comedy masquerading as pseudo indie drama. But no amount of strong performances and elegant visual grammar are enough to overcome a nearly unparalleled level of recklessness at this level of "prestige" filmmaking. And as if its cheapening of mental isn’t enough, Silver Linings Playbook’s message about blind faith is sanctimoniously wrong-headed. But this is a Harvey Weinstein-backed picture, so a win for Jennifer Lawrence in the Best Actress category is expected at the very least. Best Picture is probably out of reach, but after last year’s The Artist debacle, anything can happen.
            The Bottom Line:  Never rule out the influence of Harvey Weinstein, but there is a good chance that Silver Linings Playbook is where the Weinstein magic ends after two straight years of Best Picture winners.