Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Independent Day

Today it's a day reserved for independent film news. Last night the Gotham Awards were celebrated in New York City, the big winner of the night was Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom', which took home the prize for Best Feature. The average American probably won't know what a Gotham Award is, but the prize will certainly help Anderson's film get some traction when the bigger awards come around later this year. Maybe an Oscar nomination?

Overall, I was very pleased with the winners. Besides the wonderful 'Moonrise Kingdom', other winners included the also wonderful 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' for Best Breakthrough Director and actress Emayatzi Corinealdi from 'Middle of Nowhere' for Best Breakthrough Actress. The winner for Best Documentary was 'How to Survive a Plague', a movie about the first years of the AIDS epidemic. I've only heard great things about the film and am eager to give it a look. 

The Gothams will bring a little help to its winners in their quest for more awards, but the biggest news of the day are actually the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards. Widely regarded as the independent film equivalent to the Oscars, as independent films take a bigger stab at the year end awards each year, the Indie Spirits (as they are sometime known) become more influential in the Oscar race. Past nominees and winners include 'Black Swan', 'The Artist', 'Precious' and 'Juno'. Let's take a look at this year's nominees.  

Best Feature
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Keep the Lights On
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook

'The Master' had too big a budget to be deemed an independent film by the nominating committee, although the press of getting some nominations would have helped it a lot. I'm very glad to see 'Beasts', 'Moonrise Kingdom' and 'Bernie' here, all movies I really liked this year. 'Keep the Lights On' did very well with nominations and is kind of the big surprise, I guess?

Wes Anderson - Moonrise Kingdom
Julia Lotkev - The Loneliest Planet
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Ira Sachs - Keep the Lights On
Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild

Moonrise Kingdom
Ruby Sparks
Seven Psycopaths
Silver Linings Playbook
Keep the Lights On

First Film
Fill the Void
Gimme the Loot
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sound of My Voice
The Perks of Being a Wallflower

First Screenplay
Fill the Void
Safety Not Guaranteed
Robot & Frank
Celeste and Jesse Forever

John Cassavetes Award (For films made under $500,000)
Breakfast with Curtis
Middle of Nowhere
Mosquita y Mari
The Color Wheel

Female Lead
Linda Cardellini - Return
Emayatzy Corinealdi - Middle of Nowhere
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Mary Elizabeth Winstead - Smashed

Male Lead
Jack Black - Bernie
Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
John Hawkes - The Sessions
Thure Lindhart - Keep the Lights On
Matthew McConaughey - Killer Joe
Wendell Pierce - Four

Supporting Female
Rosemary Dewitt - You Sister's Sister
Ann Dowd - Compliance
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Brit Marling - Sound of My Voice
Lorraine Toussant - Middle of Nowhere

Supporting Male
Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike
David Oyelowo - Middle of Nowhere
Michael Peña - End of Watch
Sam Rockwell - Seven Psycopaths
Bruce Willis - Moonrise Kingdom

Valley of Saints
Beasts of the Southern Wild
End of Watch 
Moonrise Kingdom

How to Survive a Plague
Marine Abramoviae: The Artist is Present
The Central Park Five
The Invisible War
The Waiting Room

International Film
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Rust and Bone
War Witch

From the films I've seen, these all seem like pretty worthy nominees. The one which will probably get the biggest Oscar traction is 'Silver Linings Playbook', but strong showings for 'Moonrise Kingdom' and 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' could help those films too. 

One big thing, though. Is 'Magic Mike' an independent film? And if so, isn't it weird Matthew McConaughey was its only nomination?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

'Wreck-It-Ralph' continues yet another Disney renaissance

We might have only talked about the earliest years of the Disney Canon so far, but that doesn't mean the Mouse House is going to wait for us before expanding it further. Our series hasn't even reached its teen years, but the Canon is middle-aged and 'Wreck-It-Ralph' is the 52nd entry.

The Disney Animated Feature brand has gone a long way since its beginnings back in 1937 and so many have noted that 2012 has been a particularly weird year for the company as a whole. Disney's sister company Pixar, who has more than any other studio influenced animated features in the last decade, took on its first female protagonist, which wasn't only a girl, but also a princess set in a fairy-tale land that wouldn't feel foreign in a traditional Disney movie. Meanwhile, the Disney studio itself has brought us 'Wreck-It-Ralph', a movie that at least in concept, sounds much more in the vein of Pixar. 

Wreck-It-Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the protagonist of our story. He is the villain of a popular arcade video game called 'Fix-It-Felix Jr.', but he is tired of being rejected and sidelined for being the bad guy. He assists a support group for depressed bad guys, but can't cope with the nature of his existence and so he decides to leave his game in order to be appreciated as a hero. It does sound kind of Pixary, doesn't it? And if it doesn't quite live up to the ridiculous high points of that studio's output, it comes close enough to be called a big success. 

The initial motivator to get people to see 'Wreck-It-Ralph' has been its Roger Rabbit approach to video game characters. Just like they did in the 1980s movie, the film is full of amusing cameos by popular characters, just this time instead of cartoons from the 30s and 40s, it's video game characters. Most of the cameos and references to other games are very amusing, but like Roger Rabbit before it, 'Wreck-It-Ralph' knows that in order to succeed it needs a strong story at its center. And it certainly has one. I don't want to get into spoiler territory regarding the plot, but sufficient to say that along his journeys, Ralph befriends a little girl character named Vanella and that it's the relationship that forms between them that becomes the heart that makes the movie work as well as it does. 

Vanella is voiced by Sarah Silverman, who does a truly outstanding job creating a completely adorable and believe character while never completely abandoning her popular comedic persona. Vanella and her personal quest end up being as important as Ralph's and that is good. Being a little girl, Vanella is a character that children will probably identify more with than Ralph. And because both characters are so rich, it helps get across the film's message of standing up to be accepted for who we are. 

I recently watched Sony Pictures Animation's 'Hotel Transylvania' and couldn't help but mourn the dreadful state most children's animation has evolved into since the release of the first 'Shrek' movie. Most mainstream animation houses are content with trying to imitate that film's comedic approach failing to focus on crafting a good story. 'Wreck-It-Ralph' is a film that is full of references to many pop-culture elements, but that always puts the story front and center. That is what Pixar has always done and what Disney seems to be doing lately as well. After 'Bolt', the incredible 'Tangled' and now 'Wreck-It-Ralph', the studio has regained the magic that made it so big in the first place and that just half a decade ago seemed to had lost completely. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

'No' is the Yes Option

Being back in my hometown of Lima, Peru, I'm going to fall back and probably not be able to watch the latest U.S. releases such as 'Lincoln', 'Anna Karenina' and 'Silver Linings Playbook' maybe until early 2013. But while I may end up being late on some of those, I will try and report on whatever I'm able to see over here. Especially when it's a movie as good as the one I just saw. 

Pablo Larrain's 'No' is Chile's official submission for the Oscar Foreign Language Film category. If I were a voter, I'd do as much as I can to make sure it makes the cut. As the third movie in Larrain's unofficial trilogy about dictatorship-era Chile, 'No' is set in 1988, the year president Augusto Pinochet succumbed to international pression to legitimize his government and called for a referendum to determine whether he would stay in power for eight more years. 

The protagonist of this story is René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a hot-shot young publicist who is approached to help craft the 'No' campaign against president Pinochet. Each campaign has been allowed 15 minutes of television airtime every night until the election. Daily airtime on national tv is already a win for the opposition, but to get Pinochet out of office, they must have a winning campaign. As an ad-man, René understands this and treats the campaign as he would any other. The 'No' campaign is a product he has to sell. Of course, as the movie goes along René gets more emotionally involved in the campaign and the ideas that stand behind it. 

Played by Gael García Bernal in a terrific performance that manages to convey the character's inner struggle without words, René Saavedra turns out to be the key cog in the film's machinery. The movie is not as much about him as about the 'No' campaign as a whole, but it's through him that we get to understand the magnitude and the importance of the events portrayed in the film. As he is swayed from his analytical approach to the campaign into deep felt hope for a better Chile, the audience too is swayed into believing that two of the world's most cynical enterprises (Publicity and Politics) could not only work together to bring down a dictatorship, but do it by embracing positivity. After a U.S. election where the main focus of television campaigning has been badmouthing the other candidate, it's refreshing to look at a winning campaign that utilizes happiness, hope and humor. 

A particularity that might set some people off is the film's visual style. It uses a lot of archival footage, but you'll have a hard time differentiating it from the new material, which is shot in a very ugly-looking manner, as an eighties videotape might look. Some viewers (and Oscar voters) might not embrace this look, but it's a fundamental part of the story. The lives of the people creating this television spots and the campaign itself are one and the same. When the only way to defeat a dictator is with an optimistic television spot, then the spot is as real as the crimes, the protests and the tortures. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Skyfall: Martini or Old-Fashioned?

Before delving into 'Skyfall', I must admit I am not a big Bond fan in the sense that I am largely unfamiliar with his filmography. I have only seen a couple of the Connerys and the Brosnans. I have now seen all three films in Daniel Craig's career as 007, though. Like pretty much everyone else, I disliked 'Quantum of Solace' quite a lot, but I am a huge fan of 'Casino Royale', which was not only a great way to bring the beloved spy to a new film era, but an outright pretty fantastic movie. 

Were I a bigger Bond fan, I would have probably written a big retrospective or something of the like. You see, 'Skyfall' arrives on the british spy's 50th anniversary. James Bond turns fifty in a movie landscape largely devoted to comic book adaptations, fighting exploding robots and the fourth installment of a franchise that largely shaped the nature of his latest incarnation (that is, of course, the Jason Bourne series). Actually, 'Skyfall' opens up with a scene not that different from what a Bourne action sequence would like. A frenetic pace, a chase through the streets of Istambul and a constantly shaking camera. One of 'Quantum of Solace's biggest mistakes was trying to imitate the Bourne esthetic too much. 'Skyfall' may open up with a Bourne-like sequence, but said scene doesn't exactly end up well for Bond and the quickly establishes those two spies are not the same character. 

The big theme of this film is old vs. new. For example: the villain of the piece, played by Javier Bardem, is a big hacker. He uses computers, the most powerful and revolutionary of latest innovations for destruction. Meanwhile, MI6 director M (Judi Dench) is put on the spotlight after a series of violent incidents that bring the general public to question whether espionage is a relevant part of national security. Finally, big part of the movie is devoted to question if Bond himself isn't too old to keep up with the trade of being an international spy. Is not a spoiler to say that the answer to that question is no. 

That seems to be director Sam Mendes' big message with this movie. Judging from the film, one could easily believe Mendes is a big Bond fan. He seems to be willing to demonstrate that Bond, like a good wine or scotch, only gets better with age. Never mind the Jason Bournes and such other fads, Bond is an institution and is here to stay. So, we have a movie that brings the biggest archetypes of the Bond mythology to the foreground: the cars, the gadgets, the elegance, the casinos, the martinis, the good girl, the femme fatale are all elements present in 'Skyfall' that bring back memories of the characters' past. In most cases, they are welcome elements, but there is one that sticks out. Bond represents a certain type of old-fashioned very traditional male identity and for long type he has always been confronting classy, sophisticated, almost femmenine villains. Bardem's character is no exception to this rule. It is a performance that is not too over-the-top for Bond villains historically speaking, but one that is derivative of the typical fancy villain, doesn't fit with this new Bond and that highlights how this type of villain feels incredibly dated in this day and age. 

Mendes' celebration of the old ways of Bond doesn't stop there. In the final confrontation, in order to defeat the villain, Bond must go back and find his secret weapon in his own past. In this way Mendes' deconstruction of the character finishes up telling us to find the beauty and strength of Bond by embracing the characters' long history. Even the villain isn't after world domination but on a personal vendetta against MI6 itself. It is a fine idea to try to convey with the movie, but one that doesn't keep 'Skyfall' from being an ultimately disappointing experience. For a long time it is teased that this is going to be Bond's greatest adversary, one that is brighter and more fearful than any other. It is also hinted that we are bound to discover key elements from Bond and M's pasts. But in the final act, the film settles for a mexican stand-off-like scenario that is way too long and not at all thrilling. There is much more suspense and entertainment in the tease than in the payoff, which proves a dull action sequence and doesn't really answer any questions. After two and a half hours of movie I hadn't learned anything of note about the inner personality of Bond, M or the villain. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Disney Canon Detour: Donald Duck Shorts

Whenever someone mentions the word 'Disney', most of us in the western world immediately think of Mickey Mouse. Mickey is not only the official mascot, but also by far the biggest, most famous character in the Disney ouvre. But what if I told you there is a far away land, way up north in which the biggest cartoon character of all-time, who by the way enjoys from a popularity far greater than the one Mickey has in the rest of the world, is actually Donald Duck. 

That is largely the case in Scandinavia. Nobody's bigger than Donald in Sweden, Denmark, Norway or Finland. Donald Duck comic-books and strips were first published in nordic languages in the 1930s and the character soon became a huge sensation. He is not only far more famous and easily identifiable by nordic people than Mickey, but people in Scandinavia have a long tradition of writing 'Donald Duck' in their election ballots as a protest vote that some analist estimate he has received as many votes as to be the ninth biggest political organization in Sweden. 

He is also pretty big in Germany, where Donald Duck comics are also very popular. Having attended a German school, I have read a couple of these comic compilations. I didn't completely understand these books because of my not being german, but I can corroborate Wikipedia's information that the Donald of these books is not as inarticulate and temperamental as his screen persona, but rather intelectual, even philosophical. 

The American Donald Duck comics are also very important not only for the character's popularity, but for comic-book history. Carl Banks, considered one of the greatest comic-book writers for his work with the character, was the writer for Donald comics for a long time, starting in 1942. He expanded Donald's adventures and world, introducing such characters as Scrooge McDuck, the Beagle Boys and Gyro Gearloose; all of whom would become essential parts of the Duck mythology and you might remember from the wonderful 1980s animated series 'Ducktales'. 
But in order to explore Donald's career in classic Disney shorts, we'll have to go back to his beginnings. 

Donald's first appearance was in the Silly Symphony short 'The Wise Little Hen' (1934).  The director then featured him in a small role in a Mickey Mouse short called 'Orphan's Benefit'. Audiences seemed to be responding to the character, so he starting popping up in different shorts until he was pretty much appearing regularly Mickey Mouse shorts. The short above is called 'The Band Concert' (1935) and is probably the most famous of these early Donald appearances. His role in this short is basically to wreck havoc while Mickey and his band try to perform. We can see Donald's characteristic temperamental performance in such scenes as the one with the bee. The short itself is also very good, it has some pretty funny sight gags and is regarded as one of the best Disney short subjects. 

After that, Donald got a makeover that gave him the look we all know him for nowadays and was soon given his own solo shorts. He was also paired up with Mickey and Goofy in a series of hilarious cartoons I talked about in the Mickey post. But most importantly, it was around this time that he started to get more popular than the Mouse, to the point where he was paired with Goofy without the presence of Mickey. Such was the case in 'No Sail', in which Donald and Goofy get stranded at sea.

It's no surprise to me that Donald became such a popular character so quickly. After all, he has a very well-defined and relatable personality. While someone like Mickey was initially a funny mischievous character, he was toned down and turned into just a nice guy when he was adopted as the studio's official mascot. Donald, on the other hand is a character that has a really hard time trying to achieve what he wants and instead of reacting to his adversities with creativity and a smile, he has a very hot temper. It's easy to relate to Donald's frustration and it ends up being somewhat cathartic to laugh at his misadventures. Many of Donald's later shorts employed this very structure, having Donald be harassed by different outside sources; be it his nephews, the aracuan bird, or, as is the case in this short, Chip n' Dale.

It may have been his relatable quality that made Donald such a popular character for propaganda shorts during the War. During this time, Disney made a bunch of short films to boost moral and support the war effort. Donald starred in a series of films in which he enlisted the U.S. Army and was sent off into a mission to a Japanese air base. The most well-remembered of the war shorts also starred Donald. In the controversial and Oscar-winning 'Der Fueherer's Face', Donald is presented as a citizen being oppressed by the nazi government, having to work long hours making bombs and hailing Hitler over all things. At the end of the short, it is revealed it was only a nightmare, but watching the beloved Duck in Nazi uniform still feels incredibly odd, especially so many years later at a time when Disney is slowly becoming the biggest company in the world (buying 'Star Wars' and whatnot).   

At the end of the day, even in America, Mickey might be the most popular character, but people will tend to prefer Donald. Be it for the simplicity and familiarity of his behavior or just because his personality makes him an inherently funnier character, Donald will always remain one of the greatest creations of the Disney company.

Next Time: The official Canon will be back on Sunday December 2nd. Mark the date, because things are just starting to get interesting. That day we'll cover 'Cinderella', which just had a blue ray release, but after that some of the most beloved Disney classics (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians) are coming. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Homeland: 'A Gettysburg Adress'

This post is a little late, I just wanted to say a couple things about sunday night's 'Homeland'. 

I guess I was kind of right last week, at least for one episode, the status quo of the show this season seems to be Brody informing the CIA about Nazir's plan in exchange for immunity. The thing is his allegiance is yet again in question. By the end of this episode, we have a relationship with Brody pretty similar to the one we had in season one. Basically, we don't know what he's about. It's not as if we don't know whether he is a terrorist or not, but the question seems to be which of his bonds is stronger: the one with Nazir or the one with his original home and family. 

I guess Brody had to keep some kind of loyalty to the terrorists, or at least said loyalty had to be hinted at because the show would lose a lot of tension if it didn't, but it felt a little too repetitive of season one to me. At least for this episode. For all I know, my distrust may be over next week. After all, we did get that moment between Brody and Carrie at the very end of the episode that hints at some pretty interesting character stuff. Have they really forgotten about each other? Seem like they haven't and that might be an interesting thing going forward. 

Finally, the story about Dana running over a lady is one that hasn't really added that much to the story and hasn't been handled on 'Homeland'-level quality so far. I hope it does amount to something bigger by the end of the season, because if it is just an excuse to give Dana something to do, it doesn't seem worthy.