Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Lincoln' is good because and despite Spielberg


Steven Spielberg is the most famous director of my lifetime. It's the one guy most people will think of when you ask them to name a film director. He has been hugely influential in shaping the cinematic landscape as we know it and has made great films in the process. The great Spielberg films were made before I was born. Schindler's List and Jurassic Park came out when I was one year old. Every Spielberg movie I've seen on the big screen has been a disappointment. For me, there's always been two Spielbergs: the great one from my living room and the not-so-great one from the movie theaters. 

Abraham Lincoln is such a revered historical figure that I was expecting this film to be a disaster. A depiction of Lincoln as a political Jesus working hard to abolish slavery while the democrats disapprove selfishly and the slaves look at him starry-eyed. Thankfully, there's little of that to be found in Lincoln, which is without a doubt Spielberg's best film in almost two decades. Almost every one of the traits that had made Spielberg into such a boring director are gone and the ones that remain can be easily forgiven in an otherwise very good film.

The film depicts the last few months of Lincoln's life, as he aggressively seeks for the passing of the 13th Amendment before the Civil War is over. Most of the movie is devoted to the political machinations necessary to pass the Amendment. There are a few moments revolving around his relationship with wife Mary Todd Lincoln and his older son Robert, but even those scenes work best when taken as added pressure to the passing of the Amendment. The screenplay by Tony Kushner is very focused on what is important to the story and fills the screen with interesting characters and very clever, entertaining dialogue. The script is not perfect, but whenever there's a character (mostly antagonists) that could be a mustache-twirling caricature, you have amazing performers to provide extra depth.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of the best performances of his highly impressive career as Abraham Lincoln. Not only because he looks and feels like the President, but because he the script gives him what's he needs to really create an amazing character. Lincoln is not perfect, he has a history and he is a politician. He knows how the game is played and is not afraid to play it. All of that is conveyed by Day-Lewis who gives reality to the legend. And the rest of the cast is quite outstanding too. Critics groups have singled out Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, both of which are great; but the deep pool of character actors doing impressive work here is much deeper. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward is one of the film's strongest building blocks, James Spader is surprisingly entertaining as shady W.N. Bilbo, Lee Pace is one of those actors I allured to earlier that make a thankless role realistic. The list goes on and on.

Those are the pillars that make Spielberg's film so great. Spielberg restrains his overtly sentimental style in order to serve the script and the acting. This is not to say the film lacks emotion, I mean, we're talking about Steven after all. It's just that the emotions don't feel heightened or unearned. We are not reacting to the "Spielberg face" or John Williams' score, we're reacting what happens. This film depicts a pivotal moment in American history and that in and on itself is powerful enough. We don't need to be made to feel more important or more emotional, we just need it to be told well and the script, the acting and Spielberg's restrained direction do just that.

The one thing that doesn't really work is the last five minutes. The movie shoves in Abraham Lincoln's assassination. A plot point that the film, as a story, doesn't really need. This is not a film about Lincoln's death. It doesn't really add anything and is handled in atrocious fashion. This is the one moment in which the movie goes full-on Spielberg, unashamedly telegraphing the emotion. The scene doesn't belong in this otherwise incredibly well made movie.

Friday, December 28, 2012

'Life of Pi': Some Things Great, Some Not So Much


Of all the movies I've seen this year, I think there are few scenes better executed than the ones in  Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' in which Pi (Suraj Sharma) is stranded on a boat with a tiger. Lee is a very meticulous director and it shows in those scenes more than any other time in his career. He is working in the 3D format for the first time and he seems to be taking it very seriously, working very hard to establish the space the boy and the tiger must share and and what that means for each of them. The craft put in those scenes; the cinematography, the art direction, the visual effects, every single thing works in order to make it as believable and palpable to the audience as possible. If Lee wanted us to feel that we were on the same boat with Pi and Richard Parker (that's the tiger's name), then he succeeded enormously.

The sad thing is that the stuff surrounding those scenes just isn't very good. In the insufferable framing device for the film, an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells a writer looking for inspiration for his new novel that his is a story that will make him believe in God. There is a lot of symbolism and strong religious theme to the way Pi reacts to being stranded in the middle of the ocean with a large predator, but I personally didn't get why that was supposed to make me believe in God. The fact that at the end of the movie, (spoiler) adult Pi backs down and gives the reporter a different alternative story to what happened (end of spoiler), makes it even more confusing and rather simplistic. Should we believe in God because it is the more beautiful thing to do in such circumstances? I don't really know what to think of that ending. The only way I can interpret it is way too simplistic for an Ang Lee movie. 

Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors. He seems to me, like a director fully committed to great storytelling (As a matter of fact, 'Life of Pi' is all about storytelling). Films like 'The Wedding Banquet', 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' and 'Brokeback Mountain' are all great. And like I said before, he does some pretty amazing work in many of this movie's scenes. But it's just in some scenes, not the whole film. 

I can't help but compare this movie to last year's 'Hugo', directed by Martin Scorsese. In both cases we get great directors working for the first time in the 3D format. In both cases there is something that captured the director's mind about the story. In 'Hugo' it was the life and magic of Georges Melies' early film work. In 'Life of Pi' it seems to be the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker and the many interpretations one could have of their adventure. Also, in both cases, those aspects of the film are wonderful, while the rest is rather lackluster. Scorsese is not really interested in Hugo's personal story and Lee isn't really interested in anything that goes on away from the boat. Especially the framing device with adult Pi and the writer, which is just SO bad. There is far more believability in a boy living next to a tiger for many weeks than in the way the writer talks with the survivor. 

And still, besides Lee's seeming disinterest in half of the movie, 'Life of Pi's biggest problem is its script. The movie would be, in my mind, exponentially better if we didn't have the framing device. Not only because it is poorly presented, but because it tells us out front what to think and expect from the film. "This is a story that will make you believe in God" is such a poisonous thing to say at the beginning of this film. Concentrating only in Pi's journey, there are so many things to take out of the film and so many ways to interpret it. With the framing device guiding us, the interpretation is extremely more limited and it is just a pity. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas


We are pretty big fans of Peanuts here, at Coco Hits NYC. (Me and my multiple personalities that is, since I'm the only "staff member"). Anyway, happy holidays!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Disney Canon: Lady and the Tramp


I think there are only two words you could use to describe Lady and the Tramp and they are "cute" and "sweet".

No matter how you look at it, cuteness is at the heart of this movie. It is there from frae one until the last shot. Its very premise (romeo and juliet with dogs) is inherently cute, not to mention the many details that make it even cuter. It all starts when we meet Lady, a dog living a comfortable live with a loving family in the suburbs of early XX century America. We see the world through her point of view. That is in and on itself cute enough, but she also refers to her owners, a sweet young couple, as "Jim Dear" and "Darling", because that's what they call each other. 

The film actually starts pretty slow as it devotes a lot of time to show us what a great life Lady has. Jim Dear and Darling love her very much, that is until they suddenly stop paying attention to her. They are going to have a baby! But don't worry, once the baby is born, wanting to know what the fuzz is all about Lady meets the little boy while he is sleeping in his crib. You don't get much cuter than that now, do you? The first half hour of the film is so full of "aaaw" moments that the film gets to the brink of a cuteness overload. Thankfully (for the film's sake, that is), whenever there's too much sweetness in a Disney film, something bad's bound to happen. 

Jim Dear and Darling must go on a trip of some sort, and so, coming in to take care of the baby is Aunt Sarah and her pet siamese cats. Now it's time to make an aside and acknowledge Disney's tendency to indulge in racial and cultural stereotypes. Since dogs breeds come from different countries, we have many thick-accented supporting characters. From the pretty benigne Scottish Terrier Jock going to a mexican Chihuahua called Pedro, a southern Bloodhound Trusty (whose grandfather, in one of the film's funniest jokes, was called 'Old Reliable') and the pretty offensive asian stereotyping present in Aunt Sarah's cats. 


Coming back to the story, the siamese cats pretend to have been hurt by Lady, and so, Aunt Sarah takes her to a pet shop to get her a muzzle. Lady manages to escape and that's when the Tramp enters the picture. Actually, we had already been introduced to the Tramp in a scene depicting his carefree lifestyle as well as his ability to beat the law at its own game by freeing a couple dogs from a dog pound wagon. Later he had stopped by Lady's lawn to tell her how Jim Dear and Darling's baby would be her doom. Anyway, the Tramp seems to be pretty kin of Lady, as he takes her to the zoo so a beaver can bite off her muzzle and later taking her to a romantic dinner at  his good pal's Tony. 


As you could easily get from the world-famous sequence embed in the video above, sparks fly when these two dogs meet. However, the Tramp's adventurous and law-free attitude clashes with Lady's rather settled-down lifestyle. He encourages her to go chasing chickens, but she is captured and put in the dog pound. She will get off easily as she has a collar and a plaque, but in true Disney fashion, the pound is a horrible place where dogs cry thinking about their fate and the possibility of being put down. It's also the place where Lady learns about the Tramp's reputation as a lady-killer thanks to Peggy Lee-voiced Peg. 


That's the point in which the dogs' relationship turns sour until an event involving a horrible rat and the little baby brings the two of them together. 

Now, at this point I've basically just made a recap of the movie and that is because there's few things that I could say about it. Like I said, the film is cute, it has a delightfully romantic scene in the "bella notte" sequence and some pretty nice songs. It's a low-stakes story told in a pretty cool way, with some very beautiful animation. The dogs are all very beautifully animated and the backgrounds are among the best in Disney's filmography. There's few exceptional things about the film, but it is nice, enjoyable and plays well with children. It's a minor success, but a success after all. 

So nothing special about that, right? Well, Lady and the Tramp is much more impressive when you look at the history of its production. After the War, Disney spent a lot of time developing projects such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and even Sleeping Beauty. Disney's release deal with RKO Pictures had expired as he started releasing his films with the newly formed and Disney-owned Buena Vista. What's more, in 1952 Disney announced the opening of "Disneyland", one of Walt's most ambitious projects, which would revolutionize theme parks like no other before it. And that's not all. In order to build up to the opening of "Disneyland", Disney also created the television show of the same name. So when he was strongly focused on his park and the tv show that came with it, not to mention that production had already started on Sleeping Beauty, Disney decided to put Lady and the Tramp into production. 

The animators not only had to finish a film in two years (as a comparison, Sleeping Beauty starting storyboarding in 1951 and wasn't finished until seven years later), but they were also to make it using a new technique called CinemaScope which made Lady and the Tramp Disney's first widescreen animated feature. That the film is actually any good is a little surprising, but that it became Disney's highest grossing release since Snow White is almost unbelievable.

Next Week: We are introduced to the third ever Disney Princess in Sleeping Beauty.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top 10 Television Shows of 2012

It's that time of the year again, when all people all around the internet release hundreds upon hundreds of top 10 year-end lists. The best movies, news, memes, music, theater... Anything that could be judged and put on a scale will be the subject of such articles. And we here at Coco Hits NYC are no different. So, without further ado, I present to you my top ten favorite television shows of the year 2012!

10. Adventure Time 
Not since the debut of Spongebob Squarepants and Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends had I seen a children's cartoon as magnificent as Adventure Time. The show seems to have learned from the best shows of its medium by crated a big, expanding mythology that not only is extremely original, but also outright bonkers. That a show as weird and hilarious as this has become such a huge hit with kids is one of the things that make me the happiest about television in 2012.

9. Ben and Kate
The low ratings Ben and Kate has been getting on its Tuesday at 8:30pm slot have practically made it a dead show walking. The chances that it will come back for a second season are unlikely at best, but I would like nothing more than for this sweet little show to find an audience. The chemistry between the cast is impecable and the emotional moments always feel earned. Even if the show goes away, I hope the cast goes on to find success, especially leads Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson who are aces as siblings Ben and Kate Fox. 


8. New Girl
The award for the most improved show in 2012 definitely goes to New Girl. In the early going of its first season, the show had trouble balancing star Zooey Deschanel's "adorkable" Jess and breakthrough character Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield) with writing a show that actually worked as such, but somewhere along the back half of season one the show became much more of an ensamble piece and starting slowly getting better until its culmination in season two, which put Jess in a hard spot when she lost her job and became one of the funniest comedies on television thanks in no small part to delightfully misanthropic Nick (Jake Johnson).  

7. Bob's Burgers
If there is a show that could dispute the title of "weirdest show on the air" with Adventure Time, then it's undoubtedly Bob's Burgers, which brought a huge breath of fresh air when it joined FOX's Sunday animation line-up a couple years ago. On a night devoted to five Seth McFarlane shows (and The Simpsons), Bob shouts with one of the most original and funniest voices on television. As a descendant of The Simpsons, it has done a wonderful world developing its characters and the town they inhabit by putting them in truly bizarre situations. No matter who the Belcher family stomps into; Be it a gang of bikers, a mechanical shark or a man in love with a mannequin, watching Bob's Burgers is always a delight. 


6. Homeland
If we're talking honestly and objectively, then Homeland's first season was probably more consistently plotted and overall better executed than season two, which had a couple of silly storylines and weird twists and didn't always work. But there is no way you can't admire what the showrunners of this show tried to do in its second year. They went all out to create one of the biggest thrillers in television running from one shocking moment to the next and sticking the landing. There were moments that didn't work as great as they could have, but when Homeland season two flew, it soared.

5. Parks and Recreation
If there is a reason to be happy that NBC is largely failing to produce big hits, it's that it has kept Parks and Recreation alive this long. While season four on the whole, with the City Counsel Election, wasn't on the level of the seasons it preceded; it sure had a wonderful last few episodes, especially Emmy-nominated "The Debate" and "Win, Lose or Draw". And what we've gotten from the fifth season so far has been the show at the top of its game. This could be the last season of Parks and Rec and the writers are clearly treating it as such, building happy endings for Leslie, Ben and even Ron Swanson. If this is indeed the last we see of Parks, at least it promises to remain great until the end.

4. Girls
One of the most controversial shows of the season (at least on the internet), Girls divided people into the camp that just couldn't stand Lena Dunham and the selfish characters of the show (to the point of attacking it with misogynistic comments) and the people that thought it was one of the best shows of the year. As you can see from the high ranking of the show in this list, I fall on the latter camp. Dunham has such a clear voice about what she wants to tell and how she wants to tell it, that I can't help but feel immersed in the show every time I watch it. The characters may be unlikable and do selfish things to one another, but that is partly what is so great about them. 


3. Breaking Bad
This year Breaking Bad gave us the first half of its last season, of which we wrote a lot about in this blog, and the show seems to be paying off big time on the terrific work it's done developing the relationships between its characters the past five seasons. I couldn't be more excited for the last few episodes of this show, but don't get me wrong, in the case of Breaking Bad the trip is as good (if not better) than the destination. 



2. Louie
I have written before about what a genius show Louis C.K.'s Louie is. And how, in its third season, by embracing longer arcs and more continuity than ever, he was able to tell stories that had the usual Louie payoff in a bigger, more emotional way. Louie is not only the most singular voice on television, but may also be the future of television programming as we know it. 


1. Mad Men

I could go on trying to find what makes Mad Men such a great show. Is it the plotting, the detailed period work, the wonderful characters and the way they slowly develop to then have huge payoffs years after they are introduced or just the fancy clothing? At the end of the day, in my case, it comes to the fact that I simply can't find a show as captivating, engaging and enjoyable to watch. And in its fifth season, it had some of the greatest moments in the show's history: Pete and Lane's fist fight, Roger Sterling taking meth and the ultimate faith of the characters this season are all among the best moments of tv this year. Mad Men has zou bisou bisoud its way to my heart. It's simply my favorite. 


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Disney Canon: Peter Pan


While I have always had a fundamental problem with the story of Alice in Wonderland, I have nothing but fond memories for the mythology behind Peter Pan and the world the character inhabits (except for Steven Spielberg's Hook). It is built, after all, on a more child-friendly and warmer concept than the one behind Alice. Both are stories about young girls coming to terms with their place in the world after taking part of an adventure in a magical land. Alice must learn the hard way in a scary place full of weird creatures where nothing makes any sense, but Wendy has a companion that is as much of character as she is to guide her in their adventure. In other words, I bet Wendy remembers her time in Neverland fondly, while I can only picture Alice having nightmares about Wonderland. 

I know it's not fair, but being both adaptations of popular XIX century british children's literature that were adapted by Disney at roughly the same time, I have always put the two stories against each other and there is a personal bias that makes Peter Pan an inherently better movie than Alice in Wonderland in my eyes. It is a tricky line to walk. I regard Peter Pan as a better film, but because it has a more cinematic story, it is also an easier piece to adapt. Disney's Alice in Wonderland is without a doubt the best version of that story that anyone could have put on screen, but there is still a chance that the best film adaptation of the Peter Pan story could be yet to be produced. For what it's worth, the mostly forgotten 2003 live-action version directed by australian P.J. Hogan and also titled Peter Pan, stands head-to-head with Disney's animated version as the best film adaptation of the source material. 

But let's start talking about the film itself. Disney was eager to adapt J.M. Barrie's most popular work a long time before the film was actually released. Some sources say the idea originated as far back as 1935, with Walt wanting Peter Pan to be his second feature. Barrie had left the copyright of his work to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, with whom Disney had to negotiate for four years before settling on an arrangement. So by the late 1930s production had already started for Peter Pan. It wasn't until February 5th 1953 that the film hit theaters. 

The movie starts with a lovely narrated introduction to the Darling family: Loving Mrs. Darling and practical Mr. Darling, as well as the Darling children who delight on the stories about Peter Pan and the world of Neverland: John, Michael and Wendy. We are also introduced to the Darling's dog, who is called Nana and takes care of the children. Then, the main emotional conflict is established: Mr. Darling is sick and tired of the havoc his children cause on the house by thinking of nothing else but the stories Wendy tells them about Neverland, when he finally loses it, Wendy is no longer to sleep in the nursery with the boys, but have her own room like a good young lady should. This sequence is sadly one of the film's weakest points, not being able to balance the comedic elements of Mr. Darling losing it and Nana trying to keep everything in order with the more darker side of presenting Mr. Darling as an outright villain. However, despite its shakiness, the scene works in establishing Wendy's conflicting thoughts with having to grow up and leave her brothers' room. The punchline of the family worrying for Nana more than Mr. Darling also works pretty well. 

After that, Peter and his fairy friend Tinkerbell come to get back his shadow, which he forgot when he was last hanging around the Darling House and is now under Wendy's custody. This is when the movie really soars. It takes just this one scene to establish both Peter and Wendy as distinct, fleshed-out characters. We get Wendy's educated very talky british girl attitude in contrast to Peter's carefree and adventurous attitude. Wendy might want to stay in the nursery, but the truth is she is growing up, as demonstrated when she offers Peter a thank you kiss for offering to take her to Neverland with him. The children don't kiss (they are interrupted by a jealous Tinkerbell) but we already know what is going there. Peter is the boy who never grew up, but Wendy is definitely maturing. The dynamic between elegantly in love Wendy, childish and jealous Tinkerbell and the oblivious Peter is rightfully at the center of the movie and is so precisely presented that it makes the film a stand-out as far as Disney character development is concerned. When Peter teaches all three Darling children to fly thanks to Tinkerbell's pixiedust, it's off to Neverland in a wonderful sequence of the kids flying over London and the film has won me over. 


It's a big asset for the film that Peter and Wendy's first meeting and the flying sequence are so fantastic. The remainder of the film has its fair share of flaws, and even if none of them are lethal, the groundwork set up by the preceding sequences goes a long way for making the viewer remain on the film's favor. This is particularly true for contemporary viewers, who will probably be put off by the film's dated depiction of native americans, especially during a pretty offensive musical number titled "What Made the Red Man Red?". And still, we can forgive the insensitivity because of the insertion of a critical point of Peter and Wendy's relationship in the middle of the sequence. Wendy is suddenly in Tinkerbell's shoes when she notices how indian princess Tiger Lily seems to be pretty fond of Peter. Like I said, good character development goes a long way, and because we know Peter and Wendy is that we are pulled back into the narrative despite the atrocious indian jokes. 

The film's climax also comes from that early scene in the Darling's nursery. When we arrive at Neverland we meet Captain Hook, Peter Pan's mortal enemy, whose big plan is to use Tinkerbell's jealousy towards Wendy to finally kill Peter. A lot of this comes from Barrie's original, but credit where credit is due, and the Disney teams deserves some applause for keeping the Peter-Wendy-Tinkerbell trio at the center of the conflict while tinkering with other aspects of the material. 

Captain Hook is the main villain, and he is an early example of a more nuanced Disney character. This is achieved by giving him a very clear weak-point: his fear for the crocodile that ate his hand. The crocodile also ate a clock, so every time Hook hears some ticking, he is invaded by fear and crawls upon the arms of his personal assistant, Mr. Smee. The dynamic between Hook and the reptile is played mostly for laughs, that makes him not as menacing a villain. Disney would get better at balancing the villain's insecurities, but that is not to say Hook is not an enjoyable presence in the film. He is fairly menacing, shooting one of his crew members in cold blood just for playing the accordeon. 

He also benefits from interacting a lot with the film's best characters. There are three that deserve to stand in the pantheon of utter genius animation: Tinkerbell, Smee and the Crocodile. And they all have scenes with Hook. The character animation in Peter Pan is superb, one of the very best in the canon up to this point and that is especially true of this trio. Not only are these characters more beautifully animated than any in the film, they are also great creations. Smee is a delight playing comic relief to Captain Hook's neurosis. Tinkerbell, modeled in a pin-up model kind of way is sweet and easy to identify with in her childish jealousy. And the Crocodile... My God, there must be few characters in the Disney canon that are so well designed and hilariously animated as that crocodile. This trio also helps Peter Pan be the funniest of the entries in the Canon up to this point.


On the whole not every scene is as good as the next one, but the heights achieved in Peter Pan make it a highly recommended watch. It is also a movie that I would recommend to small children, who will undoubtedly enjoy the experience and not be scarred in the process as they might be by other entires in Disney's oeuvre.  

Next Week: We'll talk about one of the most romantic Disney classics, and one of the highest-grossing films of the 1950s: Lady and the Tramp.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is unexpectedly boring


Between 2001 and 2003, Peter Jackson managed to emerge successful out of the titanic task of turning J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings into a live-action movie trilogy. Jackson made billions of dollars, won three Academy Awards and captivated audiences all around the world (not to mention he blew my 10-year-old mind). The Lord of the Rings films are not only a pinnacle of the fantasy genre, but also a milestone in hollywood film history that has influenced the moviegoing landscape more than any other film released in the past decade. 

Almost ten years after the last movie in the trilogy, Peter Jackson has gone back to Middle Earth to adapt another beloved Tolkien volume. But we were suspicious. Whereas The Lord of the Rings is way more than 1000 pages long, The Hobbit is a rather tiny book; so it came as a big surprise when Jackson announced that he was going to adapt the little Hobbit into three films. And not only that, but the first of this new trilogy is almost three hours long. So the question on everybody's mind is whether Peter Jackson has so much to say about Middle Earth and the story of The Hobbit to fill another nine hours of film. The answer is no. 

Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins, who is convinced by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to take part in an adventure to help a group of dwarves reclaim their homeland from a nasty dragon. Freeman is quite funny and charming as Bilbo, but the film doesn't help him very much. The Hobbit is, and feels, incredibly overlong. It wastes way too much time with framing devices and extended flashbacks that don't add anything to the story. It takes so much time to get the story going, by the time our hero was departing on his quest, I had already tuned out. It also doesn't help that a lot of the material was made up by Jackson and his team of writers in order to get enough material for three movies. We expect so many detours during this Unexpected Journey that we lose track of the characters we are supposed to care about. 

The film's biggest flaw is that it isn't successful at presenting the character arcs for our heroes. We get a lot of backstory on dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) and an emotional arc for Bilbo, but we never quite feel the emotion necessary for them to work. The Hobbit, is not as epic and dark as The Lord of the Rings; it has always been regarded more as a children's book and it shows in the characterization of these adventurers. Jackson wants everything to feel far more epic and high-stakes than it actually is. The prolonged dramatic scenes don't work because we don't have the character backstory or the developed relationships we got in The Lord of the Rings. There is nothing that comes close to the bond between Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin or Aragorn and Arwen. This story is supposed to tell how the great friendship between Bilbo and Gandalf started, but we the relationship between them was better presented in the first ten minutes of Fellowship of the Ring than in almost three hors of this film. 

There is also the matter of the humor. The Lord of the Rings was a very epic tale, but it felt especially refreshing because it always featured a healthy dose of humor. The Hobbit is also very humorous, but it's idea of "funny" seems to be anything involving burps, pratfalls or any kind of body fluid. You can forget about the clever and solemn attitude of the previous films once there's a joke about hitting a troll in the nuts.

To be fair, there is one very good sequence in the film in which Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) meet each other for the first time. But more than anything, The Hobbit made me sad. Here was an opportunity to revisit Middle-Earth and tell a nice, adventurous, fun story in glorious fashion by translating the spirit of the original book. Instead, we get an elongated movie which at the end of the day is just a very long, very boring experience. And that is the biggest crime of all, that I went back to Middle Earth and couldn't find anything entertaining. 

2012 Golden Globes: Nominations (Film)


Here are the Golden Globe nominations in the film categories... 

Picture - Drama
Argo
Django Unchained
Life of Pi 
Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty

The usual suspects are nominated here. Argo, Lincoln and ZDT continue to secure themselves a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Life of Pi also gets a nice push. But the biggest story is Django Unchained. A nomination here wasn't unexpected, but wait until you see how strong a showing it had across the board with nominations. 

Picture - Comedy or Musical
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Les Miserables
Moonrise Kingdom
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen 
Silver Linings Playbook


All the expected nominees... and Salmon FIshing in the Yemen? Did anybody not forget that movie existed? Did anybody even watch that movie? 

Animated
Brave
Frankenweenie
Hotel Transylvania
Rise of the Guardians
Wreck-It-Ralph 

That 'Paranorman', far and away the best animated movie of the year was snubbed is sad. That it was snubbed in order to make room for Hotel freaking Transylvania, one of the worst Shrek-imitators the animation landscape has ever seen and one of the very worst movies of the year, is outrageous. 

Lead Actor - Drama
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Richard Gere - Arbitrage
John Hawkes - The Sessions
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Denzel Washington - Flight

No surprises here. Joaquin Phoenix gets a nomination after his snub yesterday at SAG and that could help him get to the Kodak. But this award seems like Daniel Day-Lewis's to lose.

Lead Actress - Drama
Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone
Helen Mirren - Hitchcock
Naomi Watts - The Impossible
Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea

Sad, again, to see neither Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) nor Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) get some love in this category. Still, I'm hopeful they'll find a way to get an Oscar nomination even if their amazing work doesn't need such validation.


Lead Actor - Comedy or Musical
Jack Black - Bernie
Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Ewan McGregor - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Bill Murray - Hyde Park on Hudson

The love for Salmon Fishing was strong. This is going to be a showdown between Cooper and Jackman for the win. Also, in such a weak year for this category, I am pretty sad Tommy Lee Jones' great work in Hope Springs went unnoticed. 

Lead Actress - Comedy or Musical
Emily Blunt - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Judi Dench - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Maggie Smith - Quartet
Meryl Streep - Hope Springs

No surprises here either once you realize how much they loved Salmon Fishing. 

Supporting Actor
Alar Arkin - Argo
Leonardo DiCaprio - Django Unchained
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

Now here's the first sign of how much they loved Django at the HFFPA. Notably absent are Robert De Niro and Javier Bardem who could've really used a nomination. Most of all though, Matthew McConaughey, who seemed to me like a sure-thing here, is nowhere to be seen. 


Supporting Actress
Amy Adams - The Master
Sally Field - Lincoln
Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Nicole Kidman - The Paperboy 

So, Nicole Kidman for The Paperboy was actually a thing. Glad to see that happening strange as it seems. 


Director
Ben Affleck - Argo
Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty
Ang Lee - Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained

The love for Django prevented either Tom Hooper or David O. Russell from getting nominated. The Globes like QT more than other award groups, so I am guessing Tarantino doesn't make it to the Oscars (at least in this category). Either Hooper or Russell could get that fifth spot then.

Screenplay
Argo
Django Unchained
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty 

Score
Anna Karenina
Argo
Cloud Atlas 
Life of Pi
Lincoln

Song
Act of Valor - "For You"
"Not Running Anymore"
The Hunger Games - "Safe and Sound"
Les Miserables - "Suddenly"
Skyfall - "Skyfall"

I'm not quite sure in which film Jon Bon Jovi's "Not Running Anymore" was featured. Or if it was featured in a film at all of HFFPA voters just wanted to get JBJ to attend their ceremony and so they nominated a song without a movie attached to it.

Foreign Film
Amour (Austria)
The Intouchables (France)
Kon Tiki (Norway)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
Rust and Bone (France)

Rust and Bone is not eligible for the Oscars in this category, the rest of this field could very well be four of your Foreign Film nominees.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2012 SAG Awards: Nominations


The Screen Actors Guild (or SAG) Awards have decided on their nominees for this year's festivities. The SAGs are widely regarded as the closest thing to the Oscars when it comes to the acting categories. This year there are a few great and a few terrible surprises. Let's take a look. 

Actor in a Leading Role
Bradley Cooper - "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis - "Lincoln"
John Hawkes - "The Sessions"
Hugh Jackman - "Les Miserables"
Denzel Washington - "Flight"

None of these nominees is a surprising nominations, since they are all supposed to be pretty good in their movies and have garnered a lot of buzz around themselves. The surprise here is the omission of one of the most talked-about and greatest performances of the year: Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master'. Now, Joaquin did dizz awards groups a couple months ago saying the whole thing was ridiculous and he didn't want to take part of it. It could be that voters are reacting to those comments, because otherwise, how could they have watched that performance and not put it in the top five?

Actress in a Leading Role
Jessica Chastain - "Zero Dark Thirty"
Marion Cotillard - "Rust and Bone"
Jennifer Lawrence - "Silver Linings Playbook"
Helen Mirren - "Hitchcock"
Naomi Watts - "The Impossible"

I haven't seen most of these nominees, but I can say that without insulting fine actresses like Mirren and Watts, their nominations seem very boring when compared with what could have been in this list. Granted, Quvenzhane Wallis from 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' was ineligible because the little 9-year-old isn't a guild member, but any kind of reasonable mind who watches Emmanuelle Riva in 'Amour' will tell you she more than deserved a spot. 

Actor in a Supporting Role
Alan Arkin - "Argo"
Javier Bardem - "Skyfall"
Robert De Niro - "Silver Linings Playbook"
Philip Seymour Hoffman - "The Master"
Tommy Lee Jones - "Lincoln"

Looking at the names alone, this category seems pretty boring. Upon further inspection it is not as traditional as one would have thought, but not being a fan of Bardem's villain in the lastest James Bond movie, I am pretty unenthusiastic about this list of nominees. Also, where are the supporting actors from 'Django Unchained'? They all had a lot of buzz, seems like the late arrival of the film hurt their chances for a nomination here. 

Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Field - "Lincoln"
Anne Hathaway - "Les MIserables"
Helen Hunt - "The Sessions"
Nicole Kidman - "The Paperboy"
Maggie Smith - "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Now here's a good one. Among all the typical awards performances nominated today, Nicole Kidman's completely bonkers performance in Lee Daniels' 'The Paperboy' stands out as a fresh reminder that sometimes, award bodies will recognize a great performance even when the movie isn't well received.

Ensemble Cast
Argo
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Les MIserables
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook

SAG treats this award more as a Best Picture category than a place designed to truly award the best ensemble performances. And thus, Argo, Les Miz, Lincoln and SLP all become official front-runners for the Best Picture nomination. For the fifth spot they went with 'Marigold Hotel', which is undoubtedly an ensemble piece that featured fine acting, but I can't feel a little sad since I was hoping for the outstanding ensemble work done in Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom' to be recognized here. 

So this is what the SAG chose at the best (some would say thinks will get nominated at the Oscars). Tomorrow is the announcement of The Golden Globe Awards will hopefully will resurrect life into some other deserving contenders now that this awards season has more than started.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Disney Canon: Alice in Wonderland


Last time we checked with the Disney Canon, 'Cinderella' had been the studio's biggest success in more than a decade. The cash was coming to the studio and it didn't need to make especially low-budget movies in order to break even. The following years, up until Walt Disney's death, would see what I call the Disney Silver Age. After many years of minor, 'package' films, the studio would go back to what it initially planed to do with its feature length projects. The determination to make movies that could stand head-to-head with 'Snow White' and 'Pinocchio' was back and ambition was running high. You can tell the attitude had change in Disney's very next movie after 'Cinderella': A feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carol's classic novel 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. You don't get much more ambitious than adapting one of the most beloved children's book of all time.

Now, here's the part of the review where I have to say I personally don't get the appeal of the Alice in Wonderland story. Yes, I am one of those people, I am familiar with the original novel, the film adaptations and even co-wrote a stage version back in high school. Still, I just don't get what is it about the whole thing that charms so many people. I think the Lewis Carol original is quite clever and amusing as much as word play and logical thinking is concerned, but as smart as it may be in parts, the story itself is way too episodic and emotionally distant for me. I don't care about Alice as a character. And why should I? After all, I know nothing about her personally besides the fact that she's a regular XIX century girl. Sufficient to say the original story is not my cup of tea. Now, that being said, I think this 1951 movie is probably the best adaptation of the novel we will ever get.

To get a great discussion about what makes Disney's the best possible adaptation of the book, you should listen to episode 73 of Tyler Smith's film-and-christianity themed podcast, 'More Than One Lesson'. The first part of the episode is dedicated to the wonderful Spike Jonze film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are, but the second part focuses on a discussion of Disney's 'Alice in Wonderland' so great I couldn't picture myself writing this post after I heard it, because I would have just said everything I had heard. Instead, I decided to link to the episode. That way, you might get to know Smith's great show, which by the way you can enjoy very much without being a christian. Case in point, I enjoy it and I'm pretty far from being a devoted christian. 

In the episode, Smith and co-host Josh Long point out a number of things that are undoubtedly the reasons why this is such a good translation of Carol's work from page to screen. Having adapted the story for the stage myself, I know the story is not a particularly easy one to adapt. It is also a very disturbing one when you think about it. Alice's personal journey is one of discovering a world without rules would be complete chaos. Disney is often accused of turning famous literary works into something very tame and family friendly, but he doesn't shy away from the weird in 'Alice in Wonderland'. If anything, his bright and puffy style of animation only makes the film creepier. Because, you know, a world immersed in complete chaos can be very, very scary. Especially for little children. I know my sister and I had a very off-putting reaction when we first watched the movie. The nice looking characters won't help you once you realize there is no way you can rationalize with these lunatics. 

As an example, here's Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum telling Alice a nice story about the Walrus, the Carpenter and some cute oysters. The ultimate fate of these oysters is just one of the many parts of the movie my five-year-old sister and I just couldn't handle and that contributed to us putting 'Alice in Wonderland' outside of our home viewing video catalogue.



As much as I dislike the story itself, trying to improve on it is a fool's errand and it's on Disney's credit that they decided not to tinker with it very much. If you don't believe me, just look at the Tim Burton directed 2010 version for proof. Trying to make Alice into a more dynamic, of-the-times character with a personal journey that goes beyond her reaction to the world she encounters won't make your film a better adaptation. And if you outright present the world of wonderland as quirky and dark and decide to make your finale an epic battle, then you have one of the worst movies ever made. At least in my humble opinion. 

What can I say? I admire the effort, but 'Alice in Wonderland' is just not the film for me. And again, if you like the film and want more discussion about it, listen to the 'More Than One Lesson' episode'. 

Next Week: Another big deal as far as literary adaptation go: Disney takes on J.M. Barrie's 'Peter Pan'.

Friday, December 7, 2012

'Amour' Means Love, Haneke Style

Saying Michael Haneke's 'Amour' is one of the best films of the year is nothing new. Ever since the film won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, critics from around the world have given it nothing but praise. Director Michael Haneke is known for having a cold, distant approach when crafting his usually disturbing movies. Many critics have said, and they're right, that 'Amour' is Haneke's most humanistic, almost warm and sentimental movie. But Haneke is still Haneke. 

This will not be a surprise to anyone who watches the film, since the very first scene sets the tone in a very disturbing way. After that, we meet a nice octogenarian couple: Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Emmanuelle Riva (Anne) are two former music teachers who enjoy literature, art and going out to concerts. They have been married for a long time and it's easy to see they love each other very much. They are each other's companions. Then the bomb drops. Anne's health is getting worse each day and it's Georges that has to take care of her, standing by her side until the bitter end. It doesn't sound like a very uplifting movie. And it really isn't. But it did touch me in a very personal way.

During the past three years, I have had my first three encounters with death. Three people very close to me passed away. Each one had a different cause of death and a different struggle, but the journey was oddly similar in each case. There is always the deterioration of the body, the slowly getting weaker and the unbearable toll that the slow process takes on those who care the most about the eventual deceased. Georges and Anne, thanks to two superb performances by Trintignant and Riva, feel so realistic and specific about their situation that they become universal.  Watching 'Amour' was an emotional roller coaster for me, as every scene evoked a different memory from the past three years. It was like reliving the whole thing in just two hours. 

And then, just like Haneke drops the bomb on his characters when Anne suddenly disconnects herself from reality during dinner in an early scene, he dropped the bomb on me with the final act of the film. Initially disturbing and off-putting, the ultimate outcome of Georges and Anne's journey becomes deeper, more humane and lovelier the more you think about it. And that is kind of scary, but also, the film's biggest triumph. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Disney Canon: Cinderella


Perhaps the most enduring image the Disney Canon has left planted on popular culture is the Disney Princess. A beautiful young woman who is kind to every creature around her. She represents every quality a man from the beginning of the XX century would look for in a wife while she waits for some deux ex machina to come rescue her from the torment inflicted upon her by jealous villains for simply being nice. Many of this characteristics come from the original fairy tales in which the movies are based, but Disney's enormous popularity throughout the years has made sure it's his version of the stories that remains the one people immediately think about when they hear the names Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella. The success of the Disney brand has helped perpetuate a character stereotype that many feminist groups object to. But we're talking about a vicious circle here, because the Disney movies wouldn't have become as huge as they are were it not for the princesses. 

As you might remember from the very first entry in this series, Disney's first animated feature was 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' back in 1937. While practically inventing the animated feature as we know it, the film became a gigantic box-office success, giving good ol' Walt the ambition to pursue future projects. But a World War and a series of financial disappointments later, Disney had restrained himself to making cheaper "package films" composed of animated shorts. It wasn't until 1950 (eight years after 'Bambi') that he ventured into another feature-length production. It was a gamble that wasn't necessarily going to pay off, the studio was hard in debt and invested so much money in the production that Walt himself said if the movie wasn't a hit, it would have been the end of the Disney Studio. Lucky for him, people went crazy for 'Cinderella'. The film became Disney's biggest success since 'Snow White' and secured the future of the studio by bringing in enough cash to finance further productions.

It only seems fitting that 'Cinderella' became as huge a success as it did. After all, the approach clearly seem to have been to go back to what made 'Snow White' such a popular choice with audiences and using the studios experience with later films to create the ultimate hit. Years later, the studio would use the same approach with yet another princess, 'The Little Mermaid', which you might know also became a huge hit and kicked off the successful period known as the Disney renaissance.

But let's go back to 'Cinderella' and take a look at its many similarities with 'Snow White'. Well, for starters, they are both based on popular fairy tales. Then, we have the titular characters. As two beautiful and kind girls who have a group of cute little animals as friends, both fit in the "Disney Princess" stereotype perfectly. They are both tormented by their evil stepmother and are essentially passive characters that recuire an external characters to save them. In Snow White's case they are the prince and the dwarfs; in Cinderella's, the little mice and her fairy godmother. Both films feature a collection of characteristics that could make any 21st century boy or girl find them antiquated. And yet, they endure.

The big two reasons for this endurance are the same two that have made the best Disney films stand the test of time (apart from Disney's monstruos marketing machine) and both come down to making us care about the character. 

The first is the villain. 'Cinderella' is a far less scary movie than 'Snow White'. Nothing in it comes close to the horrifying images of Snow White running through the forest. It does, however, just like the earlier film, feature a terrifying villain that happens to be the lead character's stepmother. Lady Tremaine, voiced by Eleanor Audley, is one of the most underrated villains in the Disney catalogue. What has made her so underrated and rather forgotten in most conversations about the best and most evil Disney villains is what also makes her so great: she isn't a queen, an evil witch of a dark sorcerer; she's just a mean lady.

Her biggest crime is that she is so determined to make Cinderella's life so miserable out of sheer envy for her beauty, charms and probably also for being the daughter of her late husband's previous marriage. She only has power over Cinderella because she is the de facto mother figure in her life. The Evil Queen had her hatred towards Snow White founded by her desire to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but up until the moment the prince spontaneously decides to throw a ball, Lady Tremaine's mistreatment of Cinderella doesn't have any bigger purpose besides the advantages of pretty much turning her into a house slave. There is something inherently horrifying about the fact that someone would actively ruin another person's life just because she can. That same aspect speaks very strongly to children who start to realize how much power their parents have over them, and while in most cases parents love their children and treat them lovingly, there is the fear that you might have ended up being the child (adopted or not) of someone who outright hates you. The fact that Lady Tremaine is animated in a much more realistic way compared to the cartoony supporting characters makes her all the scarier.

The second characteristic that makes the film work so well is lifted from what I would argue was Disney's most successful decision when making 'Snow White': the supporting cast of cute animal companions. Lady Tremaine has the power over Cinderella, but our protagonist is not completely powerless. She stands tall as the leader of a group of animals living in the house that includes birds, a dog, a horse and, most importantly, a group of mice. She could very well treat them with the same disdain Lady Tremaine treats her, but Cinderella is a kind spirit and treats the animals as you would treat a friend. This is most evident with the mice, who she could let to be captured and eaten by Lucifer, her stepmother's pet cat. Instead, she feeds them, makes them clothes and practically adopts them as if they were her own children. 

This is one of the movie's most important aspects. The contrast in the way Cinderella and Lady Tremaine exercise their power over their subordinates is the film's most important motive. The fact that Cinderella treats the little creatures to kindly is precisely what empowers her. The morning after she manages to go to ball and dance all night with the prince, when the Duke is going around the kingdom looking for the girl the prince fell in love with, Lady Tremaine locks up Cinderella in her room. Were it not for the relationship she has with the animals, they wouldn't be there to lock her out. 

Not only that, but it's also through the animals' relationship to Cinderella that we get to sympathize with her. We spend as much time, if not more, with the two lead mice (Jaques and Gus) running from Lucifer as we do with Cinderella herself. Because of their dynamic with Lucifer, Jaques and Gus are far more dynamic characters than Cinderella and thus more easy to identify with. We care about these two mice and because Cinderella takes care of them and loves them so much, we care about her too (Very much like we cared for Dumbo and Bambi's mothers because they cared for their children). It's in the mice that we find the emotional core of the movie. They would be nothing except a cat's meal without Cinderella. That's why it seems to deserved and gratifying when, realizing that Cinderella won't have time to find a dress to go to the ball, they decide to band together and make her a dress themselves. 




The fact that the dress symbolizes the love in the relationship between Cinderella and the mice makes the following scene, in which the stepsisters tear the dress apart just before they leave for the ball, all the more tragic and especially frustrating for child viewers. 

The other day I mentioned I was writing this article to a friend and she told me how she has watched the movie a million times in the last few months while babysitting her niece. I too remember a time when the movie played daily in my house because of how much my sister liked it. There is something about Cinderella that works so well with children and I think it's fundamentally based in these power-relationships between the characters. Even in an age where parents largely cater to them, children are still pretty much powerless. They can only rely on the love their parents feel for them to keep them from harm. And I think there is something that speaks to them when they watch how these little mice can band together and make it right out of love for their loving Cinderella. 

Next Week: Disney ventures into high-brow literary territory by adapting Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland'.