Sunday, January 27, 2013

Disney Canon: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Those who, unlike me, aren't fans of Disney's classic animation are usually set aback by the films' big sentimentality and cuteness factor. If you didn't grow up watching and loving these movies, then it's understandable that, as an adult, you will have little patience for cute woodland creatures and obviously emotional moments like the faith of Bambi's mother. You might also find yourself feeling uncomfortable with Disney's dated representation of its heroines. If you are one of these people, then what you probably need in order to gain appreciation for Disney's work, is to watch One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is not only one of the best, but also one of the most original movies in the Disney Canon. 

Disney's very ambitious take on Sleeping Beauty was released in 1959... and didn't make any money. By this time, the company was very much invested in two new ventures: Disneyland and television. Many people told Walt the best thing he could do was to stop making animated featured. The man recognized animated films were what brought him to the top in the first place, but man were they a bad investment. Enter a man called Bob Iwerks, and his plan to cut spending with the so-called "Xerox technique". As its name suggests, this technique pretty much consists of using a xerox machine to translate the animators' drawings from paper into animation cells. This was a big way of cutting expenses since it eliminated the whole inking department, which consisted of ladies that had done an amazing job of transposing the animators' drawings into cells ever since the beginning of the company. Suddenly these women were out of work, but Disney could work on a budget that wouldn't put the company on the risk of bankruptcy every time they wanted to release an animated feature. 

Unlike a person working in the inking department, the xerox machine could only use black ink, something that could have been a problem in other movies (think for example, of the gorgeous tapestry of colors presented in Sleeping Beauty), but wasn't a big problem for Disney's next project: an adaptation of Dodie Smith's children book One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Dalmatians were perfectly suited for the xerox process, because, you know, they are black and white; and at the end of the day, having everything being traced in black lines would give One Hundred and One Dalmatians a distinct, and in its own way beautiful, look. The stylized character designed utilized in Sleeping Beauty was taken to a new level with this movie, which not only uses more pointy lines, but also embraces highly cartoony characters. This is never more apparent than in the first scene of the movie, in which dalmatian Pongo looks out the window trying to find a wife for his human "pet" Roger. 

The cartoony similarities between the dogs and their owners makes this one of the most memorable scenes in the movie and one that must have been applied many times in real life by those who have seen it (Is sitting in the park and figuring out someone's personality by their dog a thing?). This all brings me to one of the most important aspects of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It is Disney's first contemporary movie, taking place in the early 1960s, and featuring maybe the most realistic situations so far in the Canon. And it feels like the animators really wanted to make this feel like a true product of its time. One Hundred and One Dalmatians has an incredibly particular look for a Disney movie, one that would never get it confused with any other Disney movie, not even Lady and the Tramp. 

The Xerox process again goes hand in hand with another aspect of the movie: the art direction and background design. The drawing of the background, done with black lines and the little differences between what is depicted and the coloring, which doesn't always end where the black lines do and sometimes paints many things the same color gives the movie an expressionistic and very modern-art look. The title sequence, too, is a first for Disney, showing playful animation, full of spot-based puns and set to an equally playful jazz score by George Burns. These are but some of the elements in design that embrace the distinct tone of the story of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the most playful and sui generis movie in the Disney Canon up to this point. 

We've talked about the style, let's talk about the substance. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is based on the book of the same name by Dodie Smith and was in its adaptation to the screen pretty much the vision of one man: Bill Peet. Usually, it's between five and ten people that are in charge of the story on a Disney production, but this time Peet is the only one to receive a story credit. If the documentaries and statements on the subject are any indication, he did do the job pretty much by himself. And kudos to him on that, since he is probably the person responsible for the film's uniqueness. 

You surely are familiar with the story. Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita have fifteen puppies, which evil Cruela De Vil kidnaps so she can turn them into a fur coat. As it's many times the case, it's not so much what is told, but the way it's told that makes the movie so special. Peet didn't write what at that point (and to this day) was recognized as a "Disney movie". For starters, unlike all the previous feature-length entries in the canon, this movie couldn't be called a musical. There are only two songs in the movie and only one of them really takes an important role in the plot. I'm talking, of course, about "Cruela De Vil".  

While we're at it, let's talk a little bit about Cruela as a character. Like Cinderella's Lady Tremaine (which I'm on the record as saying is one of the greatest Disney villains), Cruela is no witch, fairy, or queen; she's just an ordinary woman. But unlike Lady Tremaine, she is an undoubtedly modern woman. Just looking at the video above you get a kind of behavior that feels very far from the solemn evil of Maleficent or Lady Tremaine. She's that annoying self-centered aunt that doesn't stop talking whenever she enters a room. We all know someone like that. Cruela isn't by any means a down-to-earth character. She's a hurricane, but one that is made all the more terrifying by her familiarity. You know exactly what type of person Cruela is and this is one of the crucial decisions that One Hundred and One Dalmatians gets right. As comparison, the Cruela from the 1996 live-action remake played by Glenn Close is a psychotic mess that you can't for a moment believe wouldn't be locked in a mental institution. 

It's important we can identify Cruela as a human being because Bill Peet wasn't writing a fantasy musical, he was writing a romance, an adventure, a thriller and most importantly, a good movie. More than any previous Disney film, this one feels the most cleverly plotted. Here we don't get long scenes featuring the mice running from Lucifer or the dwarfs washing their faces. Here every scene fuels the plot of the next one. Even a scene in which we see the dalmatian family watching television gets its own payoff later in the film. It is so well structured that even knowing the ending, I was biting my nails as the dalmatians disguised themselves as labradors to make their escape. It is also a very forward-looking film. Like Cruela, the married couple, Roger and Anita, do feel as if they were people. They flirt, they make jokes, they have a relationship. Not to mention the little detail that made me happiest: Perdita goes along with Pongo to save their children. You might don't think much about this, but how easy would it have been to set Pongo off while Perdita stayed in the house? 

It's a curious thing, that the movie most bound to reality ended up being the most playful and utterly entertaining of the Disney catalogue. The movie might not get to the emotional high-points of Pinocchio or Dumbo, but any way I look at it, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is one of Disney's biggest triumphs.  

Next Week: After this 60s adventure, it's back to medieval times with The Sword in the Stone.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Movie Year 2012 in Review

It seems a little unfair to me that critics, pundits and other internet movie people are required to write up their Top Ten Films of the year at the end of December. Movie studios have turned the last month of the year into one of the busiest. Too many movies looking for awards and prestige come out at the end of the year, which makes it almost impossible to really calm down and look back at the movie year that was. I much prefer to wait until the middle of January, when I have been able to watch any release more than once and take the time to really think of what each movie made me feel. So, without further ado, here are some superlatives reflecting what happened to me at the movie theater in the year 2012.

The 10 Best Films of 2012
Overall, 2012 was a pretty good year for movies. I watched a lot of very entertaning, very interesting and incredibly well made movies this year. And while I enjoy and admire a lot of this year's movies as much as to say they are great, if you want to know which of this year's movies I truly love, then you have to look at the top three in this list. Make no mistake, numbers four through ten are all brilliant movies, but those first three are just where my heart's at.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (directed by Wes Anderson)
When I first saw Moonrise Kingdom, I liked it. When I saw it a second time, I liked it even more, but I still felt like I had to watch it again. After a third viewing, I finally surrendered to this beautiful picture. Wes Anderson combines his trademark top-notch visual style, the melancholy of The Royal Tenenbaums and the childish playfulness of Fantastic Mr. Fox to give us what might very well be his masterpiece. The child protagonists of this story, Sam and Suzy, live a wild adventure when they fall in love and decide to run off together. Meanwhile the adults around them are soaked (like most Anderson characters) in deep melancholy and sadness. The movie plays like a beautiful children's book and reveals its genius in its happy ending. Sam and Suzy's Moonrise Kingdom will live forever as a cherished memory, and that is equal parts wonderful and sad.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin)
It's hard to put my finger in just what made Beasts of the Southern Wild work so well with me. If nothing else, I can say it is a very original and special film. One that I was incredibly happy to have seen once my screening was over. Benh Zeitlin's direction and visual style are amazing (even more when you consider this is his first feature, how the hell are you supposed to follow this?), but the thing that always draws me into a movie more than anything else are the characters. There was something inherently primal and emotional in the story of young girl Hushpuppy, who lives with her daddy in the Louisianna community known as "the bathtub", and the way she has to fend for herself and accept at a very young age the most painfully real side of the world. I also look at Beasts of the Southern Wild as a movie about the America and what it has come to represent to its children. And if nothing else, Beasts sports the most beautiful original score of the year.  

3. ParaNorman (directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell)
I fell in love with this movie. How could I not? It features the most beautiful animation of the year (a wonderful blend of stop-motion and computer animation), an incredibly clever script with plenty of laughs and a tender story that made me cry my eyes out. It had everything that I look for in a family film. And still, it went a step beyond, by having a truly sincere and well-rounded anti-bulying message. The movies too frequently tell us that the answer to bullying is to fight back, but ParaNorman has the guts to show that doing so just makes a bully out of ourselves. Call me a square, but I'm all for movies that advocate for pacifism and understanding. And even more when they do it in such an amazing fashion as this one.

5. Amour (directed by Michael Haneke)
What makes Michael Haneke's movie so great? I feel like I can't really answer that question. I can only say that I have lost three beloved family members in the past four years and that this movie hit very close to home. The sudden fall into illness, the slow deterioration and the long support from the loved one. As much as I loved the people I knew that passed away, I wasn't in a situation like this movie's Georges; but I have been close to those who were. With a devastating and thought-provoking ending, Amour is one of the year's most emotionally powerful movies and more than deserves a spot in this list.

5. The Avengers (directed by Joss Whedon)
This is the most fun I had at the movie theater this year. And with good reason. Big blockbusters nowadays either rely too much in excessive eye-candy action (Transformers) or fall on their faces trying to cram in big themes that end up feeling stupid (The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus). Joss Whedon knew how to make a great blockbuster: he focused on the characters. The difference between an Avengers and an Avatar is that once the credits roll you think of the characters what they do and their personalities and not in the visual effects. These are not the year's most developed of complex characters, but they are specific enough to put The Avengers in the company of Star Trek and Spider-Man 2 as some of the best "popcorn" movies.

6. Zero Dark Thirty (directed by Kathryn Bigelow)
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal give the hunt for Osama Bin Laden the analytical, almost journalistic treatment they gave The Hurt Locker. There's been a lot of talk about the film's depiction of torture, but what the complaints are not taking into account is how much of the film is presented not to be glorified, but to be morally analysed. Is there a better or more conflicting image to describe the hunt for this man than that of Jessica Chastain's obsessive analyst in the last shot of this movie? 

7. Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is probably my all-time favorite novel, so you know I've spent a lot of time wondering how I would adapt it to the big screen. The biggest praise I can give to Joe Wright's movie is that I couldn't think of doing another adaptation after this. Even if the film isn't perfect (it is after all a little rushed, especially towards the end, in order to meet the 2 hour running time), Wright's decision to stage the drama in a run-down theater is a stroke of genius. The great relationships and the feelings of the novel are all there, and even if we rush through Anna and Vronsky's fate, this is one of the best looking and boldest visions of the year.

8. Holy Motors (directed by Leos Carax)
A man rides through Paris in a limousine. He makes a stop, puts on a costume and goes on to play a scene. He does it again. And then again. And every time the scene is different and the whole thing becomes a crazier and crazier study of cinema's place in today's life. Leos Carax' Holy Motors is not a perfect movie, but it is bold, adventurous, playful, ambitious and intensely original. You may not love it, but you owe it to yourself to watch it. 

9. The Master (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
A movie that has been widely lauded as a masterpiece. And also widely dismissed as a collection of enigmatic choices it doesn't have an answer for. To say that you understand The Master, as I tried to do in my original review, is to lie. It is one of the weirdest, most original movies of the year. It asks a lot of questions about human relationships and beliefs and is filled with so much detail and so many specific choices in the way it is shot, scored, and performed by the actors, that I have no doubt there is a lot to take out of it the further one tires to understand it. 

10. Looper (directed by Rian Johnson)
This is the way you approach time travel. This is the way you do a science fiction action movie without a billion hours of exposition. Rian Johnson's incredible script and vision make this one of the most entertaining and outright satisfying film experiences of the year. Where does the big success come from? Like I said about The Avengers, from the characters. Case in point, Emily Blunt, who apparently has the role of the token woman in the film, ends up giving not only the best performance in the film, but one of the best of the year. 

The 4 Worst Films of 2012 
I just didn't watch some films that are surely amongst the year's worst (That's My Boy, Oogieloves, Battleship). So here's the worst from what I saw.

1. Project X (directed by Nima Nourizadeh)
Is this really something we call entertainment? Look, I'm a twenty-year-old guy and I may not be as much of a wild machine as some other people my age, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't like to get my party on. But has "party" become a synonymous with the glorification of substance abuse, misogyny and overall douchery? I can't believe a well-thinking human being could watch this movie and not find it completely outrageous and offensive. 

2. God Bless America (directed by Bobcat Goldthwait)
In a way, I kind of feel sorry for this movie. It's a movie about a tired middle-aged man and a teenage girl taking on society by going on a killing spree, a subject that has become so delicate due to recent events that it will surely live on the shadow of this year's tragedies. In another way, I don't feel sorry at all. You see, God Bless America is a terrible movie. It believes itself to be groundbreaking satire when all it does is attack the easiest possible targets. And the fact that it never inflicts the minimal amount of judgement on its protagonists and their actions (they're going on a freaking killing spree!) is outright amoral. I'm not saying this is a subject matter that can't be explored in film, but it should be presented with at least a minimum amount of nuance. 

3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (directed by Peter Jackson)
I already expressed my feelings about Peter Jackson's bloated return to Middle Earth in my review. Back when I wrote it, I wasn't necessarily thinking it would end up on the list of worst films of the year, but the more I think about it, the more I realize this is the Middle Earth equivalent of Episode I (it even has its own Jar Jar Binks). A complete bore that doesn't deserve to come as close as it does to erase some of my estimation for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

4. Hotel Transylvania (directed by Genndy Tartakovsky)
I am a huge fan of Genndy Tartakovsky's television work (which includes Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars), so it was extremely sad for me to see him have to direct this mess. Hotel Transylvania is nothing but a cheap Shrek knock-off that doesn't come remotely close to the level that such a gifted animation talent as Tartakovsky deserves. The final credit sequence, which is the only glimpse at the Tartakovsky that I used to know, looks better and is far more entertaining than the film itself. Well, at least the movie made money and here's hoping this fine director can go on to better, more personal projects. 

Most Underrated
I'm going to have to cheat a little bit in this one and actually go with two different movies that are in similar underserving situations. A lot of people acuse Bachelorette of being too cruel, heartless and mean. At the same time, a lot of people find Safety Not Guaranteed too cutesy and quirky; too "sundanc-y", if you will. But I think people are forgetting that these movies have a lot to say and they do it in an incredibly entertaining and effective fashion. I have thought a lot throughout the year about the immaturity and mean friendship of the characters of Bachelorette and how that resembles some of my relationships. Also about Safety Not Guaranteed's point of view on life and belief. I think if you didn't like these movies the first time around, you should give them one more try and not think they are above you just because they're Sundance comedies. 

Most Overrated
Because of the amount of praise it's gotten and my unenthusiastic reaction to the movie, I have no other choice but to go with Sam Mendes' Skyfall. But I also don't see how critics could have given such a warm response to Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. I know it's lazy to think this, but I do believe the praise comes solely from the fact that the film is a stop-motion animation in black and white. It's really not much different from the junk Burton's been putting out lately. And yes, I must say that this is partially a biased opinion since I find a similar film that hasn't been as warmly received by critics, ParaNorman, infinitely better.

Biggest Surprise
Anyone who has seen it has to agree, 21 Jump Street is an awesome movie. It's hard, but understandable, that we were all expecting it to be a complete disaster before it premiered. This movie based on a stupid 80s teen show sounded like the recipe for another Starsky and Hutch. But it worked and I think mostly because the people involved set out to make a genuinely good movie with clever ideas and great comedy. The amazing comedic performances and chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are the cherry on top of this hilarious sundae. 

Biggest Disappointment 
I wasn't mad with anticipation for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises (hell, I even wrote a blog post about it), but I was expecting something more than this. I knew the most probable outcome was that we weren't going to get something as good as The Dark Knight, but this? Not only did the movie fail to meet the expectations, it was actually a pretty terrible movie. The screenplay for this movie is without a doubt one of the worst screenplays of the year. With a ridiculously complicated plot, nonsensical plot developments and the whole ridiculous Marion Cotillard ark that doesn't any purpose whatsoever; this movie made me angry. And one more thing, (SPOILERS) could we stop making movies where someone survives an h-bomb explosion?

Film That Is Probably Better Than I Made It Looked in My Review 
For the most part, Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere has pretty much been praised by critics all around. It didn't have the same effect on me, although I must say it could be that I didn't watch it under ideal circumstances. An early morning screening is hardly ideal for such a slow-paced movie (especially for someone who is not a morning person). Struggling to not fall asleep while watching the movie was only made worse by the fact that I received some terrible news right after the movie ended. These kind of things shouldn't interfere my critical reaction to films, but hey, we're all human, are we not? 

Film That Is Probably Worst Than I Made It Looked in My Review
It's not that I liked Cloud Atlas but think it is not a good movie. It's that I actually didn't like Cloud Atlas very much, but wrote a review that -reading back on it- makes it look like a pretty good film. I hope you can cut me some slack and understand that I can make such kind of mistakes on this newborn of a blog. I hope something like this doesn't happen in the future. You don't know how much time I've spent freaking out about having made Cloud Atlas look like a good film when I shouldn't have. So in this case, the title of this category shouldn't read "film that is probably worst.." I'm sure Cloud Atlas is way worse than I made it look in my review. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Disney Canon: Sleeping Beauty

To the very few (I assume) of you who follow these Disney Canon posts, I apologize for the sudden, unexpected long pause. I just had a couple of hard weeks. But don't worry, it's back! And will hopefully continue with weekly installments until further notice. 

The first thing I wanted to say to everybody after I watched Sleeping Beauty is that it is a freaking beautiful film. Like I mentioned in a previous installment of this series, Sleeping Beauty went into production as early as 1951 and was released eight years later, which means a lot of time was spent working on the film. Disney went a little out of his comfort zone this time, giving the movie a distinct look from his previous outings. The artwork ressembles medieval paintings and iconography, especially in the background design. Disney's round lines are replaced for more angular design, which not only gives the film a distinct look, but makes the characters look more edgy than the usual Disney cast, even when the script and their personalities tell us otherwise (more on that later). 

The other thing about Sleeping Beauty is that it is quite an ambitious film. Changing the established style of the feature-length animation was quite a gamble, but there was something maybe even more daring in the musical department. The production decided to use cues from Tchaikovsky' Sleeping Beauty ballet and adapt them into songs for the movie. A bold move, especially after the mixed reaction to the use of classical music in Fantasia. Anyway, the result of Disney's choices for this movie is the following: 

Beautiful animation, beautiful backgrounds and a truly though-out character design that embraces the angular lines and a superb composition of the frame that does capture the essence of medieval tapestries and paintings. This works particularly well because this is the first film to be photographed using the Technirama widescreen process, which provides a bigger frame that can be more artfully utilized to ressemble the artwork the animation is trying to evoke. The music also works pretty well, adding lyrics that work well enough not to destroy Tchaikovsky's original composition. So far we have a film that looks and sounds great, but we know no matter how beautiful the stills from a movie are, at the end of the day it's all about the story. So, how does Sleeping Beauty fare in that department? Well, it's a rather difficult question to answer. 

To start off, let me say that I belong to a generation that more often than not has grown up watching Disney films. Almost every person in my class, for example, could cite a movie from the Disney Canon that they watched over and over again when they were a child. The curious thing is that, out of all the people I know, never once have I heard someone say that it was Sleeping Beauty that they grew up with. Many have seen it and like it, but very few have had the connection that my sister had with Cinderella, my cousin had with The Little Mermaid and I had with The Lion King. 

I think this is because Sleeping Beauty is a hard film to put on a mold. Aurora is Disney's third princess, but the movie she's in isn't as obviously feminine as Snow White or Cinderella. That is not to say it isn't romantic. I mean, we do get that romantic scene in the forest and there's the little woodland creatures that help her, but unlike Snow and Cinderella's princes, which have a maximum of three lines in their films, here we spend nearly as much time with Prince Phillip as we do with Princess Aurora. And that is reflected in the movie. Roughly the first half of the movie is dedicated to Aurora's story as she is taken from her family to grow up with the three fairies in the woods so that evil Maleficent's spell won't come true. That's the part of the movie in which we get the scene linked above with Aurora romantically dancing and singing about her prince. Once the spell does come into effect, though, it's all about Prince Phillip breaking the spell... by fighting a dragon.  

That's some pretty intense action right there, the kind that would appeal to young boys and that, I think, is maybe what comes in the way of Sleeping Beauty's resonance. Boys might be put off by the movie being about a princess, girls might be put off by the large part of the story that is devoted to Phillip's fight and, especially, by the passive state of Aurora as a character. It's true that both Snow and Cinderella didn't exactly drive the action of their stories, but Aurora is by far the most passive of the three. Cinderella wants and tries to go to the ball, Snow White runs for her life in the forest and Aurora... is taken to meet her real parents and falls asleep after stinging her finger.

There isn't an ark as obvious to Aurora as there is to Cinderella because Sleeping Beauty is structured differently than the previous film. Sleeping Beauty, more than any other Disney film before it (except maybe Bambi) consists mainly of vignettes. There are long scenes devoted to Aurora and Phillip's fathers discussing about their children's engagement and the three fairies baking a cake and making a dress for Aurora. These fairies are the closest we get to Disney's typical supporting characters in this film, and while they are quite entertaining, children for some reason tend to identify more easily with little mice than they do with older british ladies. 

Sleeping Beauty doesn't quite sport the same level of complexity and psychological work put in other Disney movies, but it is an effective one. There is enough visual wonder and personality put into the characters as to dazzle children. And bear in mind that my theory of children not connecting with Sleeping Beauty might be utter crap. After all, just because I haven't personally met someone who obsessed over Sleeping Beauty when he/she was a child doesn't mean those people don't exist. This is all to say that I do think Sleeping Beauty is a worthy watch for the children in your family, boys and girls. Also, Aurora sports the first big trade mark of a modern woman in a Disney princess that I could find, when after meeting Phillip she tells the fairies she wants to marry him. That she falls in love with someone she doesn't know is a prince is quite a step in the liberated women camp, even if Phillip is royalty after all.

Before I go, let me just express how amazing a villain Maleficent is. The design and voice work of the character is pretty flawless. And talking about Maleficent, Disney is planning on making a live-action of this story titled Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie and to be released in 2014. Let's just hope it isn't another Alice in Wonderland, although considering Alice's production designer Robert Stromberg is making his debut as a director with the film, I'd hold my breath on this one being any good.

Next Week: Yes, I promise to be back next week, this time with Disney's beloved 101 Dalmatians. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Three Small Reviews

I'm back in New York City and quickly catching up with the movies I missed when I was gone. With the Oscar Nominations coming tomorrow I've been locking myself up at the nearest movie theaters. Here's a few thoughts on some of the movies I saw in this few days. 

Les Misérables 
Directed by Tom Hooper
This has shaped up to be one of the most divisive film of the year and as it tends to be my case with divisive films, I stand in the middle. Tom Hooper's Les Misérables has a lot of problems, but it's far from the worst of movie of the year. The biggest problem for me is that the different aspects of Hooper's vision and the original show clash and don't let the film work. 
Hooper seems to go for a very realistic look in his cinematography using long, unbroken close-ups for most of the solo songs. But the sets, especially in the second half, look very stage-y. This added to the hermetic frames give the movie an artificial feel that hurt the whole "realistic" approach. It's also an editing nightmare. Rarely do you notice the editing in a film, but in this case I was constantly wondering why every bad cutting-room decision was made. 
As far as the performances are concerned: Anne Hathaway knocks it out of the park, Hugh Jackman is solid throughout (but doesn't benefit from Hooper's tiring constant close-ups) and Eddie Redmayne surprises with his powerful singing voice. The rest don't offer much to write home about.

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow 
I don't think this one's better than Bigelow's wonderful Hurt Locker, but it takes a similar approach to its subject. The Hurt Locker stepped away from taking political sides on the necessity of the war in Iraq, focusing on the drama that affected the soldiers on duty. Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty takes a clinical look at the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. 
Much conversation has arisen about the film's portrait of torture. I think the film does not celebrate torture. I think it's mirror of the American mindset and its determination. The film's lead character (played masterfully by Jessica Chastain) is almost an embodiment of determination, trying to find Bin Laden at all costs. We don't know much about her personal life. We know her personal journey is to track and kill Bin Laden. Not for the victims or the American people, but for herself. 
The strength of Zero Dark Thirty lies in the many things you can ask yourself about the hunt for Bin Laden. In many ways, it's like a piece of journalism. It won't tell you what to think, but it will expose you with enough variables so you can draw your own conclussions. 

Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
And talking about advocating violence in film... Tarantino's latest is yet another revenge tale. This time, he takes us to the antebellum south to see how slave Django (Jamie Foxx) takes vengeance in order to free his wife Bromhilda (Kerry Washington). 
There's controversy surrounding the film and its portrayal of a former slave taking vengeance upon his masters. It's true that it has many funny and ridiculous moments, but it also takes the cruelties and horrors of slavery very seriously. The question is whether we should cheer for Django's violent take-down of the slavers or we should find that violence as disturbing as the one inflicted on the slaves. 
The trio of supporting actors featured here has gained lots of accolades. I don't know why so many critic groups have awarded Christoph Waltz for a performance that is largely a retread of his Hans Landa and Leonardo DiCaprio is a lot of fun as villainous Calvin Candie, but the true stand-out to me is Samuel L. Jackson, who is simply terrific as Candie's personal Uncle Tom. I also wish that Tarantino, who is so great with female actors, would have given Kerry Washington more stuff to do. 
Overall, the film, like most Tarantinos, is a lot of fun albeit a little sloppy. It doesn't feel as carefully plotted and edited as his previous work. It also lacks the kind of thematic richness and character development that made Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown such great movies. It's one of Tarantino's weakest films, but it will do for his most ardent fans. 

Oscar Nominations Prediction: Best Picture

As an awards nut; and ever since AMPAS announced last year that the Bes Picture category would now have anywhere from five to ten nominees, predicting the nominees for the Academy Awards' top prize has become one big headache. Not only must one guess which films are popular enough to make it to the top short list, but also how many. I am convinced that not once for however long this rule exists, will I predict exactly what and how many films will be nominated in this category. But it's still fun to try. 
I'd say we will at least have six nominees. Lincoln is a huge commercial and critical hit. The same can be said of Ben Affleck's Argo. And the constant apparition of Zero Dark Thirty amongst mayor awards group make them the top three contenders.
After earning big BAFTA (the british equivalent of the Oscars) nominations for Best Picture and Director, Life of Pi has become a front-runner as well (Just to put this into perspective, Steven Spielberg was snubbed in the BAFTA best director category). 
Also translating smoothly into a Best Picture nomination despite the recent critical backlash is Tom Hooper's Les Misérables which just a couple days ago seemed like it could be a shocking omission. Now the film that seems to be fading instead of Les Mis is Silver Linings Playbook, but I think it is still as popular as to get into the field without mayor trouble.
Those are the six I'm confident will be nominated. There's still room for four more movies at the most, but I just don't know if any of those films have enough support. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained seems pretty likely, but I don't know if it will play as well with the Academy as many of the internet fanboys are expecting. The same can be said of Skyfall, which suffered a mayor blow when it was snubbed at BAFTA's Best Picture list. And as much as I would love to see Amour or Beasts of the Southern Wild get in, something tells me they probably won't get in.
Now, we needn't look further than last year to see how many films that we presumed dead came back to earn nominations in this category (The Tree of Life, War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but for now, I think we will only have six nominees this year. 

Who Will Be Nominated? Argo, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty 

Who Should Be Nominated? Well, my Top Ten of 2012 is coming up, so stay tuned for that!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Oscar Nominations Prediction: Best Director

Today, the Directors Guild of America announced its nominees for best achievement in directing for the year 2012. The DGA as a group is well known for being extremely good at predicting the Oscars. Whoever wins the DGA for best director more usually than not goes on to win the Oscar in the same category (and that film usually wins Best Picture too). 
Back when we used to have five Best Picture nominees, it was usually the DGA nominees that went on to become the nominees for that category. Now that the category has been tweaked in order to accept anywhere from five to ten nominees, the DGA has become the predictor for the Best Director category. And this year, there's little reason to not believe that the five directors singled out by the DGA will go on to earn Oscar Nominations. 
Three of them are locks (Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Spielberg), one is pretty secure thanks to his film having the kind of visual uniqueness that plays well in this category (Ang Lee) and the final guy, well, he is the one who could get snubbed. 
Tom Hooper won both the DGA and the Oscar two years ago for The King's Speech and has a pretty big commercial hit in his hands in Les Misérables, but while the movie has been earning money, reviews were mixed and his absence from the Golden Globe nominations in this category got us second guessing the movie's power this season. Had he been snubbed by the DGA, then I probably wouldn't be predicting him. Now that he's in, I don't see who could take his spot. David Russell or maybe Michael Haneke could be possibilities, but right now he looks strong enough to me. 

Who Will Be Nominated? Ben Affleck (Argo), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Tom Hooper (Les Misérables), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

Who Should Be Nominated? Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Michael Haneke (Amour), Joe Wright (Anna Karenina), Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Oscar Nomination Predictions: Lead Actress

If the Golden Globes and the SAGs are to be believed, this is going to be a pretty boring category. The big story in this category is which of the new hollywood it-girls is going to win the award: Will it be Jennifer Lawrence's rom-com starturn in Silver Linings Playbook or Jessica Chastain's CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty
Those two are the front-runners for the win, and the most likely names to join them at this point are Marion Cotillard, who gives a very good performance in Rust and Bone, Naomi Watts and Helen Mirren. Now, those last two gals are hugely talented and are fine in their movies; but at least in my humble opinion, The Impossible and Hitchcock are pretty weak movies and the ladies' performances not very exciting. 
These are the five most likely to be nominated and yet I can't bring myself to predict them. That line-up would just be too boring. There's bound to be someone that will inject life into this list. It could be young and lovely Quvenzhane Wallis, who has been countlessly called "a force of nature" for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild. It could also be Emmanuelle Riva, who is devastating in Amour. Or Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea, who got a big boost after she won the Actress Award from the New York Film Critics. I think of these three, the most likely to make the cut is veteran Riva. 
But that means one of the presumed lady must miss out. We know Chastain and Lawrence are locks. I think Naomi Watts' performance is way too much in the Academy's wheelhouse as to miss out. It's either Cotillard or Mirren that misses the cut, and since I think Cotillard is a better performance and Hitchcock has been such a critical failure, I think dame Helen won't get a fifth nomination this year. 

Who Will Be Nominated? Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

Who Should Be Nominated? Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour),  Lea Seydoux (Farewell, My Queen), Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Oscar Nominations Predictions: Supporting Actor

Welcome to this year's most boring category. There are four actors who are pretty much locked up for nominations, and there is no way you could come up a more unexciting list. Alan Arkin is very good with one-liners and shows it in Argo, but I find it hardly an awards-worthy performance. Similarly, Robert De Niro has been in such a terrible place in his career for the past few years, he is poised to be nominated for basically not sucking in Silver Linings Playbook. Tommy Lee Jones is also a lock for his emotional performance in Lincoln, while Philip Seymour Hoffman, despite pretty much being a lead, will also be nominated for The Master.
And even if some of these performances are very good, tell me if that isn't the most boring list of names you've ever heard. They aren't just all previous Oscar winners, they also feel like very obvious choices from the Academy's part. All of this becomes all the more tragic when you consider how many amazing performances are fighting for the fifth spot in this category. 
We have Matthew McConaughey, whom I really don't like in anything, giving the performance of his career with his delightfully trashy turn in Magic Mike. Even if I'm not a fan of his performance, Javier Bardem's performance in Skyfall also looks like something a little more lively than that list. And if we start looking into more unlikely contenders, we could really have a tremendous category: Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Ezra Miller (Perks of Being a Wallflower), Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Jude Law (Anna Karenina), Christopher Walken (Seven Psycopaths) and Garret Hedlund (On the Road) would all be welcome in my book.
The person most likely to earn that fifth spot seems to be Leonardo DiCaprio, for playing the villainous Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. I too think he could get the nomination, but there seems to be little consensus that Leo is the best performance in that movie: co-stars Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson have also gotten raves for their roles. With little consensus, all three might end up snubbed. I'm going with a bold prediction, this probably won't come true, but it would be nice to see McCounaghey earn a nomination for this performance. 

Who Will Be Nominated? Alan Arkin (Argo), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike)

Who Should Be Nominated? Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Garrett Headlund (On the Road), Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained), Jude Law (Anna Karenina)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Oscar Nominations Predictions: Lead Actor

Lead Actor is usually one of the most competitive categories as far as getting nominated goes and this year is a fine example of that. It's more than likely that Daniel Day-Lewis will walk away with the Academy Award this February. His work in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln fits into so many of the things Academy voters look for in their winners, it's virtually impossible that he'll lose. I have no problem with that, since the performance is truly outstanding thanks to Day-Lewis' understanding that to play a great character, even if it's a real-life person, the mind is more important than the mimicry. But while Daniel Day-Lewis should be getting his speech ready, there are five other guys fighting to become the four nominees that will surely lose to him on Oscar night.
The most likely to get the nomination alongside Day-Lewis are, in my opinion, John Hawkes from The Sessions and Denzel Washington in Flight. Both are pretty good performances of the kind that get nominations. It's either Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman or Joaquin Phoenix that won't be invited to this year's ball.
Hugh Jackman has the advantage to have finally find the kind of role that serves both his dramatic and musical skills in Les Miserables, and even if the movie is getting some negative reviews, I think it will still resonate with voters. Bradley Cooper has the advantage of starring in one of this year's favorites, Silver Linings Playbook, but the disadvantage of being a young, handsome man. Oscar doesn't like awarding pretty boys in this category (just like at Brad Pitt for proof). The final contender is Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance in The Master is so weird and brilliant it no doubt deserves a spot among the five nominees, but whose performance is so weird and brilliant that it might turn off some voters. It doesn't help that The Master seems to be losing steam left and right and that he recently was heard talking smack about the Academy Awards. The most common opinion is that Joaquin seats this one out, but I'm having a hunch he will make the cut at the expense of Cooper.

Who Will Be Nominated? Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Denzel Washington (Flight)

Who Should Be Nominated? Jack Black (Bernie), Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Denis Lavant (Holy Motors), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour)

Oscar Nominations Predictions: Supporting Actress

It's a well-known fact that by and large the most likely winner of this year's Supporting Actress Oscar is Anne Hathaway. Her rendition of Les Misérables' "I Dream a Dream" has been singled out as the greatest part of the movie by almost every single review I've read. And even if the critics' awards haven't really showered her in awards, she's still believed to be the front-runner. 
The women she'll most probably be beating are Sally Field in Lincoln and Helen Hunt in The Sessions, who are pretty much sure-things to be nominated, but will have a hard time beating Hathaway. Actually, anyone who gets nominated in this category will have a hard time beating Hathaway. But that's something we'll talk about once nominations are announced. For now, there's two free spots in the nominee list so which are the ladies that will fill them?
For a long time it seemed like Amy Adams had a very good shot for The Master, she's a beloved actress and she won the L.A. Film Critics Awards, but then she was snubbed by the SAG Awards and that can be a death sentence in this category (think Julianne Moore in A Single Man or Shailene Woodley in The Descendants). The SAG did nominate Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel though, and that seems like the kind of sassy veteran performance the Academy would go with (Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sushine, Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love). Talking about british dames, maybe the love for Skyfall is truly big and Judi Dench can get nominated (although I find this possibility largely unlikely). And there's also Ann Dowd, in indie critical hit Compliance, who is financing her own "for your consideration" campaign and has already been nominated for a "Critics Choice Award" and has earned the Supporting Actress Award from the National Board of Review. 
All those ladies make sense as nominees, but we are forgetting the biggest surprise in the way this category has shaped up so far: Nicole Kidman's batshit crazy performance in The Paperboy has been nominated by both the Golden Globes and the SAG. It's almost impossible to really believe Kidman could be nominated for a movie in which she pees on Zac Efron, but only two actresses who have been nominated for both awards have not been nominated for the Oscar in the past ten years (Mila Kunis in 2010 and Maria Bello in 2003).

Who Will Be Nominated?: Sally Field (Lincoln), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Helen Hunt (The Sessions), Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy), Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Who Should Be Nominated? Emily Blunt (Looper), Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister's Sister), Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy)