Monday, February 28, 2011

83rd Annual Academy Awards: An Overview




Well, we now have put the Oscars to bed. Who knows how it will be next year? As for now, let us go over the winners as selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.


BEST PICTURE: The King's Speech


There wasn't a bad one in the lot. I expect a lot of people will say that the older Academy members pushed The King's Speech over the critically slobbered-over The Social Network because they are more traditional (and I expect some Academy members like Ernest Borgnine or Celeste Holm probably don't have Facebook pages). I will grant that The Social Network was more contemporary to the times and The King's Speech more Oscar-fare (traditional subject, inspirational story). However, people may forget that The King's Speech was an extremely good film. It also had the blessing to come out late in the year. The Hurt Locker managed to beat the Winter Winner Theory (those films released at the end of the year end up winning Best Picture), but perhaps if The Social Network had come out later, it could have won. Ultimately, the Academy ain't that hip (though it's making progress on that front). On a personal level, I prefer The King's Speech over The Social Network, and I think it was the right choice. The latter may be a reflection of its time, but the former is more for the ages.

BEST ACTOR: Colin Firth (The King's Speech)

There simply was no other way to go. Bridges: won last year (beating Firth). Bardem: already won and his film wasn't seen by many. Eisenberg: over-rated (he still was doing his Jesse Eisenberg-character). Franco: great performance, but a bit young (and given his appearance as host, a bit dazed). Again, we need to remember that Firth gave a brilliant performance as King-Emperor George VI, allowing us to see the man behind the Majesty.

BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

If Hailee Steinfeld had been here (as she should have been) she might have either won or split the vote to get Bening to win a long-overdue Oscar. However, no sympathy vote for her. Kidman has already won (and Rabbit Hole was little seen), Williams and Lawrence a bit young (with both Blue Valentine and Winter's Bone were little seen). Besides, the Academy gravitates towards roles where a character triumphs over adversity (Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot) or are crazy (Jessica Lange in Blue Sky). Firth took the Inspirational Oscar, and Portman took the Crazy Oscar. However, seeing Queen Amidala slowly go insane was a magnetic performance.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christian Bale (The Fighter)

Only Geoffrey Rush was going to give Bale a run for his money. Bale is one of those actors that totally sinks into the character, and here he showed what a range he is (I doubt Rush could handle a Massachusetts accent). Bale's win should give lie to the idea that the Academy members are all resistant to the younger set. Rush would have won if it was going to be a sweep for The King's Speech, but Bale was just too good.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

Again, another great performance. At least we know now that the show was on a seven-second delay (thought it was not the reason the show ran too long). I think that by the time Leo had released her "Consider" ads too many votes had already come her way to be stopped. As good as Leo was, I would have preferred Hailee Steinfeld, and can only hope that she has a big career after True Grit.

BEST DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)

This was not indicative of a sweep (as we shall see) but it was a bit of a surprise. Everyone's money was on David Fincher for The Social Network, but Director and Picture tend to go together. As good as Fincher's work was, I think The Social Network was too cold a film for the older members to embrace. I'll go out on a limb and say this will not rank as one of Oscar's mistakes, and we need to take this into account: out of the four acting honors, no one won from The Social Network and that film garnered only one acting nomination of its eight total nominations, while The King's Speech garnered three acting nominations out of the twelve it got.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Inside Job

While Exit Through the Gift Shop and Restropo were critically acclaimed, any film that bashes the Bush Administration (and the greed and evil it unleashed) tends to have a lock on Documentary Feature. Now that we're two years into the Obama Administration, these types of films will be around for a few more years, but eventually Bush-bashing will have to go wither away. I'm still waiting for documentaries where we can go back to bashing the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Toy Story 3

Who here thinks this was a surprise? Granted, The Illusionist is a beautifully drawn picture (and in the two-dimensional drawn style I tend to favor), but with the exceptions of Spirited Away and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit every other winner has been computer-generated (PIXAR having had a lock on the category for now-four years straight doesn't hurt). Personally, I favor hand-drawn animation because there is more artistry to it (though I don't object to computer assistance, I do worry we're relying too much on computers to where we're dulling the audience to a more artistic look).

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: David Seidler (The King's Speech)

Inspirational, non-threatening, non-objectionable. Still, the true-life story of George VI and Lionel Logue was well-written, so I can't object to it. There's something wonderful about seeing the King-Emperor waltzing his speech. I feel for Christopher Nolan: the Academy keeps screwing him over. Maybe if he'd settled the spinning top question...

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

I am one of the few people who is adamant about this not being the Citizen Kane of anything, and Sorkin's script was no different than something you'd see in The West Wing or Sports Night. To his credit, Sorkin believes he's a genius, so everyone else (except me) believes it too. This was one of those we expected, so I wasn't shocked.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Inception

This is where I think the Academy was wrong. Granted, Inception is a visual feast, but I think True Grit was the better filmed of the nominees. I cannot believe True Grit lost this category (or actually went 0-10). I know I've had issues with the Coens, but even I think this was not a good choice. I thought it was at least better than The Social Network (the ahem Citizen Kane of my generation).

BEST MAKE-UP: The Wolfman

As one of the few people who enjoyed The Wolfman, I am glad it won. Barney's Version did make Paul Giamatti look appropriately old, but Best Makeup tends to go to the one with the really big showcase, not the most subtle makeup work.

BEST ART DIRECTION: Alice In Wonderland

Not having seen it, I can't say whether it deserved it, but having seen clips, Alice In Wonderland is certainly the most lavish of the nominees, and the bigger the better is sometimes the Academy's mindset.

BEST VISUAL (SPECIAL) EFFECTS: Inception

Right, right, right! I think all the other nominees used the special effects in a way that called attention to themselves (and Hereafter appears to have created only one big special effects number). Inception, on the other hand, did something I have long called for in the Visual Effects Department: serve the story.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: Alice In Wonderland

Again, always go for the most lavish. Usually, these are the pictures that involve royalty (the last four winners were respectively Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Duchess, and The Young Victoria), so The King's Speech might have won. However, they weren't as splashy as another Queen--The Red Queen. Hence, Alice In Wonderland (although since it does involve some form of royalty, can my theory that films with monarchs in them winning Best Costume Design still hold?

BEST FILM EDITING: The Social Network

Well, I suppose all that bouncing back and forth between the past (when Facebook was created) and the future (two depositions between Mark Zuckerberg vs. the Winklevoss Twins and Eduardo Saverin) was good work. Personally, I think the blending of fact and fantasy in 127 Hours and the authentic-looking fight scenes in The Fighter were better, but I won't argue this one.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: The Social Network

Of all the things I remember about the alleged Citizen Kane of my generation, the music isn't one of them. The score for Inception (while overbearing) was more remarkable in my view, and The King's Speech a nice, elegant bit of music. Now I'll never be able to hear Nine Inch Nails without thinking Trent Reznor is an Oscar winner. Apparently, rock/rap stars are doing well in the music categories (Eminem, Three-6 Mafia, and now Reznor).WHO says the Academy is stuffy? At least not in the music branch.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: We Belong Together (Toy Story 3)

Again, I actually thought Toy Story 3 HAD no song. I'll have to watch it again. The absence of any song from Burlesque to my mind helped Randy Newman score his second Oscar, but I think the big surprise was how Zachary Levi (aka Chuck) managed to hold his own while singing.

As for the show itself, we saw that The King's Speech and Inception scored the same number: four each. It goes to show that the war between the old guard and the young Turks in the Academy is in full swing. On the one hand, you had the traditional film. On the other, a revolutionary adventure into pure imagination (to quote the song). Curiously, The Social Network got lost in the shuffle (only three Oscars, granted, more than the film that it's apparently better than--Citizen Kane) but when you had so many critics masturbate to The Social Network, it is remarkable that it got so rejected and slammed by the Academy.

Still, for those who think the Academy is too stuffy and old-school, let's remember that The King's Speech lost twice as many Oscars as it won. Four out of twelve is by no means a sweep. Inception, on the other hand, had as many wins as losses (four out of eight). By those standards, The Social Network did better than The King's Speech (three out of eight). The BIGGEST loser was True Grit (zero out of ten). If it had had just ONE more nomination, it would have tied The Turning Point and more shockingly The Color Purple as having lost the most Oscars without a single win (eleven). Even then, True Grit still will rank high in number of Oscar losses (though history will bear out that True Grit was a better film than...you guessed it: The Social Network).

Finally, on the show itself. It was disingenuous to start playing the music for 'minor categories' like Adapted Screenplay (though it didn't trouble me none to see Aaron Sorkin told to basically shut up) while the Acting category winners were allowed to go on and on and on (and in Leo's case, forget herself and be bleeped). To shame, to shame. As for the co-hosts, while watching the telecast with friends we all started wondering about James Franco.

I flat-out speculated that Pineapple Express was still rolling on for him. He looked dazed and confused, and all six of us (small party) wondered if he was drugged, because he just appeared out of it. No, that's not quite fair: Franco also looked bored, as if he was just too cool and important for the gig. I have a weak spot for Anne Hathaway (and think she'll make a fine Catwoman), but while she sparkled she couldn't handle it by herself (and by Hour Two she basically had to do it by herself because Franco was there in body but not in mind). The In Memoriam clip was nice (though they are never as good as the ones made by Turner Classic Movies--which do include more people) but it was nice to NOT hear applause whenever any particular person appeared. I personally would have preferred a musical tribute to Lena Horne than having Jeff Bridges tell all five women just how great they were in their films.

An oddity was having the nominated songs be abridged (leaving time for Portman and Bale to prattle on and on...to where the latter actually forgot his wife's name) and introducing previous hosts Bob Hope and Billy Crystal just served as reminders of when the show was actually good. Pity about that. I didn't get the banter between Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr. considering how ticked off Downey was when Ricky Gervais mocked him at the Golden Globes.

Not allowing Honorary Oscar winners Eli Wallach and Francis Ford Coppola to receive their awards at the actual ceremony is to my mind a slap in the face to all of them. Allowing Kirk Douglas to go on and on (while trying to make out what exactly he was saying) bordered on the grotesque. He's a legend, and we love him and admire his courage to have come back after that brutal stroke. When he spoke upon receiving his own Honorary Oscar shortly after he was struck was one of the most beautiful and brave moments in Oscar history. Now, seeing a man in his 90s hitting on women old enough to be his GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTERS while not being able to follow what he was saying was almost cruel. Finally, I DETESTED the fact that the Lead Actor and Actress nominees had these rhapsodic accolades about their performances (which dragged the show after it came close to ending on time) that no other category had (not even supporting). The general consensus is that Franco bombed (or perhaps was bombed, I'm still not sure), and it will be interesting to see how he handles the reviews. I expect a brave journalist to ask him while he promotes Your Highness with Best Actress winner Natalie Portman. I think it will be one of the low points in any biography...and goes to show that despite his upcoming Ph.D. he is still quite dumb. He's extremely talented, but apparently extremely dumb, and not quite the genius James Franco is being painted as...especially by James Franco.

In short, I don't think the 83rd Annual Academy Awards were a disaster. It just could have been much better if A.) Franco had shown up, B.) they played off every winner, C.) they allowed Honorary winners a greater presence (some of the best Oscar moments were the Honorary Oscar presentations to Satyajit Ray, Andrzej Wajda, and Jack Cardiff where we were allowed to see the sheer beauty and brilliance of their work. I digress to say that when I saw the short film for Ray, I was thoroughly stunned at the visual imagery and that moment was the first time I recognized film could be true art. In fact, I can it was one of those moments that changed my life--pity that the person watching this year did not have that privilege), D.) they had not made the Best Actor/Actress nominees to be these spellbinding moments in film history, E.) allowed for more of the Best Original Song and Score nominees to be heard, F.) allowed Turner Classic Movies to do the In Memoriam film, and G.) Franco had shown up. I am if nothing an optimist, which I expect the 84th Annual Academy Awards to be better.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

You Might After Leaving



DRIVE ANGRY

I find it hard to give a full review to Drive Angry because, at what I figure is the climatic moment where a child will be sacrificed to Satan, I did something that I haven't done in a movie since at least when I saw Alexander.

I fell asleep.

It was probably no more than a minute or two, definitely not five, but I did. I simply nodded off. A big explosion or noise woke me up, and when I started watching again, I saw a completely naked woman with a gun shooting at Nicolas Cage's car. It doesn't sound any stranger the second time round. What makes my unexpected slumber even more out-of-the-norm is that this wasn't some midnight screening I went to. In reality, it was a nine p.m. sneak preview...and in 3-D no less. How then could it have been possible that I managed to fall asleep in a 3-D action picture like Drive Angry? For the same reason I fell asleep at Alexander as well as The Matrix Reloaded (in IMAX no less)...

It was simply boring to watch.

The parts I was awake for made me think that Drive Angry was in the style of a seventies drive-in midnight movie, something that a young Tarantino or Rodriguez would have flocked to while they learned the fine art of cinema watching 'grindhouse' films. Since those types of films passed me by (and frankly, I doubt my mommy would have taken me to see them), I don't think I could get into the spirit of this film; however, I wonder if Drive Angry was deliberately trying to be tacky or it was trying to be serious. How can one take a character having sex (fully dressed, no less) while blowing a Satanic cult away with his gun at the same time?

John Milton (Cage) is pursuing a group. Over the course of the film, we learn that this group is a cult, whose leader, Jonah King (Billy Burke), claims to worship the Devil and be his servant. King has killed Milton's daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter in order to sacrifice it to Satan. Milton is himself being pursued by someone who calls him The Accountant (William Fitchner), a being who appears beyond killing, always in a suit, and quite deadpanned (no pun intended). Milton gains the aid of Piper (Amber Heard) to help him in his efforts. Eventually, we learn that Milton is no mortal. He actually is dead, has escaped from Hell, and is being pursued by The Accountant to be brought back. We get this information from Milton's good pal Webster (David Morse), who was one of his pallbearers. Eventually, Milton catches up to King at the climatic moment and takes care of business.

Drive Angry is junk from the word go. The audience oohed and aahed the opening moments when we see what we later learn is Hell (and I'll grant you, they were nice to look at), but once we left one Hell we found ourselves going into another. With the name 'John Milton', I get a wild sense that director/co-screenwriters Patrick Lussier (with Todd Farmer) was going for something more intellectual than the story would have ever needed. John Milton escaping Hell (perhaps contemplating a Paradise Lost?) may have been a connection that escaped some of the audience, but the name sounds rather grand for someone who is on a revenge quest. The main character's name is the least of Drive Angry's problems.

Simply put, Drive Angry is boring because there is a desperate rush to get going to the next big action/3-D scene. We really don't require any actual character development, especially since the film takes great pleasure in disposing of people all over the place. Granted, a film like Drive Angry is built on killings galore, but at a certain point we need to pull back to get some idea of who these people are, if not the victims who are going to get dispatched quickly, at least the protagonist and antagonist.

We don't. We didn't even know until mid-way into the film that Milton is really not alive. As Cage portrayed him, he was dead not just in body. No joy in Milton--and while I know he has a mission to do and an agent of Lucifer to stay one step ahead of, if you're not even going to enjoy the sex then why have it in the first place? Also, this whole 'dead guy who has dealing with Satan' bit--hasn't Cage already done this? Wasn't it called Ghost Rider? We had someone who was escaping Hell, who was hunting down souls, and who (true horror of horrors) was leaving the door open for a sequel. The difference I could see between Ghost Rider and Drive Angry is that the Accountant could be the Ghost Rider, but I felt these two Nicolas Cage features touch too closely for me to consider the latter truly original. Yet I digress.

Cage at this point doesn't appear to be a trailblazing actor (although I have yet to see Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, or Adaptation). His performance shows just how bored he is with all of this, on how he needs to be in films like Drive Angry to pay off whatever debts he might have incurred. At a certain point, he appears not to care what effect this film and those like them have on his reputation or box-office appeal. If Cage could have communicated some wry humor in Milton, we could have had some fun with Drive Angry (by the way, the title comes from Piper's license plates, or to be exact, her ex-boyfriend's license plates). If he was in on the joke, he didn't tell us.

This isn't to let anyone else off the hook. Burke already has those Twilight films to his credit (in which with the possible exception of New Moon he's been awful in), so perhaps adding another lousy film to his résumé won't hurt him none. I can only hope it was his intent to ham it up to the Nth Degree, otherwise he too wasn't in on the joke. It may be a reaction against Twilight: in those films, everyone acts as if they had been drugged, so here, Burke can amp it up to his heart's content. Of course, it didn't help that throughout Drive Angry I was trying to figure out where I had seen him before. If you are suppose to be this dangerous Satanist, shouldn't you be one that people wouldn't be laughing at?

I have to give credit where credit is due: Fitchner's Accountant somehow managed to maintain the balance between menace and camp. He played it totally straight: deadly serious about his task to bring Milton back to Hell but oddly humorous when driving a big rig into a police blockade. The Accountant is just an entity doing his job with no other agenda, and it is Fitchner's rather blank expression that is a plus (admittedly, I also wondered while watching where else I had seen him and was temporarily confusing him with Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs). The strangest (or worse) performance was Morse. Again, he was unemotional, even slightly unperturbed, by the fact that his dead friend was standing before him. It was almost like this was rather ordinary, something that happens to everyone. Granted, I've never had anyone I helped bury come back to visit, but if I saw someone I knew to be dead asking for help with his car, I would not take it well.

Now, as to the 3-D effects, well, like in most 3-D films, it's obvious they are there not to enhance or further the plot. They are there to draw attention to themselves. Some, granted, looked appropriately gruesome (whenever something was thrown to be used to kill), but other times it just was bad (whenever The Accountant threw his coin--which never failed to bring back Two-Face to mind). If it hadn't been free the night I saw it...

In short, the best thing I can say about Drive Angry is that it might be worth seeing if you are seeing it for free. If you are asked to pay to see it, don't drive angry...just drive away as fast as you can.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

And My Winners Are 2010 Edition

Now that a week has passed, and by Monday we'll know who the Academy selected out of its nominees, I can now announce my winners on my own list. Winners indicated by red.


BEST PICTURE

The Fighter
The King's Speech
Inception
Toy Story 3
True Grit

There isn't a bad one in the lot, and some that perhaps should have been put here (like Black Swan), got cut because I still go by the Five Nominee rule. Out of all of them though, few got me to an intense emotional level like The Fighter, one of only two films I saw twice for the sheer pleasure of it (The King's Speech being the other). It was a truly tough choice, but I opted for the working-class drama of The Fighter over the upper-class drama of The King's Speech in a very close race. Granted, the latter is more Oscar-friendly, but The Fighter had so much within it: great acting, a compelling story and a sense that every character had undergone a life-altering journey that it pushed it over the top for me.

BEST ACTOR

Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
James Franco (127 Hours)
Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
Ryan Reynolds (Buried)

Again, not a bad performance in the group. If it had been released later and had a wider release, perhaps Reynolds would have gotten a nod. Certainly, it takes a great deal of talent to hold a film all by yourself, a difficult thing to do which he did so well. Eckhart was heartbreaking in Rabbit Hole, and it's difficult for men on film to show how emotionally vulnerable they are. However, Firth managed to show the King-Emperor at his weakest physically (with his stammer) without it being showy but instead natural. He also handled scenes of emotional impact flawlessly. All around great performances by all, but Firth comes First.

BEST ACTRESS

Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Diane Lane (Secretariat)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

Let's start by saying the obvious: Steinfeld is not a Supporting Player. She is the star of True Grit, and it's a curious quirk in Academy rules that the star or central role in a film can be called Supporting. Granted, she submitted her name in that category since Portman is all but assured a win. However, I think Steinfeld would have given Portman a strong run for her money, and to my mind, although Portman was absolutely brilliant in Black Swan, Steinfeld at her age carried a performance that showed a greater maturity than most actresses twice or thrice her age.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception)
Jeremy Renner (The Town)
Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

There have to be SOME surprises, shouldn't there? All right, so why did I opt for Spidey over Batman? Very simple. Throughout The Fighter, I thought Bale was brilliant (and he certainly was--one of THE great performances of this talented but highly troubled actor). However, I never lost sight of the fact that it was Christian Bale. When it came to down to it, no matter how often I tried to get it right, I always ended up saying "Eduardo Saverin" when I meant to say "Andrew Garfield". To me, Garfield WAS Eduardo Saverin, the heart (emotionally speaking) of The Social Network, and when an actor becomes that wrapped in a role where I forget he ISN'T that individual, it just knocks me out. This was not the easiest choice: I kept flipping back and forth, and at one point had made it a tie. However, I opted out of that easy way out, and decided that by the thinnest of margins the award went to Peter Parker over Bruce Wayne.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)
Loretta Devine (For Colored Girls)
Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Emma Roberts (It's Kind of A Funny Story)

Leo's chances of winning, though still good, have shrunk after the release of some bizarre "For Your Consideration" ads which feature her ample cleavage and in a glamorous floor-length fur coat. On a personal level, I think this was a completely idiotic move: it's one thing to campaign for an Oscar (and it is a bit naive to think people don't, no matter how much they may protest to the contrary), but it's another when it looks so shameless and tacky, especially when you are the Front-Runner. The ads, according to articles I've read, have so irritated Academy members that some have said they will either reconsider voting for her or flat-out won't vote for her BECAUSE of them. It would be ironic: an Oscar campaign actually made one LOSE. It even had me reconsider my own vote and go for my second choice: Hershey in Black Swan. It was a small role, but Hershey did what any good Supporting Player do: support--the lead character or the story or what have you, without overwhelming you with their presence. However, I don't vote based on ads (no matter how stupid)--I vote for the work. That being the case, my winner survives her massive Melissa misfire.

BEST DIRECTOR

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
David O. Russell (The Fighter)
Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
Ben Affleck (The Town)

Let me start out by saying, yes, even I was surprised I would nominate someone with such limited talents as Ben Affleck for anything, but his direction of The Town showed that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke. However, he will have to go outside Boston to show he can do more than gritty crime dramas. As for the rest of the nominees, the idiotically ignored Nolan created a masterful film in Inception, and it takes a director of great ability to hold an audience so completely within his/her hands, especially in such a complex film like Inception. Yes, you may ask where were Joel & Ethan Coen for True Grit or David Fincher for The Social Network. Again, it's a case of being spoiled for choice, and unfortunately some just fell by the wayside.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Black Swan
Buried
The Fighter
Inception
The King's Speech

Buried is a great idea for a film, overall well-executed, but if it weren't for the ending it might have actually won in my list. Now, all the other films were expertly written, but given that both the plot and execution of Inception so blew me away, I'm giving the edge here to it rather than to my immediate runner-up, The King's Speech. In this case, I'm going for the 'original' in Original Screenplay.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

127 Hours
Never Let Me Go
The Social Network
The Town
True Grit

Now, I've always had my issues with the Coen Brothers and their die-hard 'everything they do is brilliant no matter what it is' cult they have (whom I lovingly refer to as Coen-Heads). However, I have to recognize any film that uses such phrases as "a congress of louts" as part of ordinary speech.

BEST EDITING

127 Hours
The Fighter
Inception
The Town
True Grit

I liked The Town more than I thought, didn't I? I gave it more nominations that The Social Network, a film that most critics masturbate to but which I find highly, excessively overrated. In spite of that, I still have to acknowledge the sharp work in The Fighter, especially in the actual fight scenes that were cut in so well that one might have thought they were actual archive footage of the bouts rather than scenes specially filmed for the film.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Buried
Black Swan
Inception
The King's Speech
True Grit

I guess I liked Buried more than I thought as well. I put it here because it is extremely difficult to make one set (in this case, the wooden coffin our lead finds himself in) riveting for over an hour & a half. However, they did it, so the work has to be acknowledged. In the end though, the visual impact of True Grit is simply too beautiful and majestic to ignore.

BEST ART DIRECTION

Burlesque
Inception
The King's Speech
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
True Grit

Some films are simply there for the visual aspects of it. Such is the case with Burlesque. Granted, this is one where I actually flipped, having selected Inception first. However, I took into consideration whether or not the actual sets in Inception were what was impressing me, and I decided that in the end they weren't. So with that, I opted for the movie where lavish sets were the order of the day. Thus: Burlesque.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Inception
The King's Speech
Never Let Me Go
Tangled
Tron: Legacy

How I debated this one. HOW I debated this one. After a second listen-through, I decided that Daft Punk's score for Tron: Legacy not only served the story but was excellent, capturing the world of Tron so well (and yes, I was influenced by the techno/electronica aspect of the music). It might have been selected, but when I thought about the music from a film, it was Rachel Portman's mournful, elegant score to Never Let Me Go that stayed with me long after the film ended. As in Tron: Legacy, it captured the mood of the film, in this case a sad, tragic one. Simply put, the score to Never Let Me Go was simply...beautiful.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Show Me How To Burlesque (Burlesque)
You Haven't Seen The Last of Me (Burlesque)
Give In To Me (Country Strong)
I See The Light (Tangled)
Shine (Waiting for Superman)

I still don't understand how You Haven't Seen The Last of Me or actually ANY song from Burlesque could have been so ignored by the Academy (especially since Diane Warren is no stranger to nominations and that, frankly, her work for Burlesque was better than something like There You'll Be from the abysmal Pearl Harbor). I liked Coming Home from Country Strong and I would have nominated that one, but Give In To Me had the same impact that the score for Never Let Me Go had: it is still in my mind long after I saw the film.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Black Swan
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I
The King's Speech
True Grit

I wasn't overwhelmed with any film frocks, but given I have a penchant for 'costume pictures' and royals (especially when they are combined) by virtue of default The King's Speech gets my vote.

BEST MAKEUP

127 Hours
Black Swan
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I
The Wolfman

Though the film was disparaged (though not by me, since I enjoyed it thoroughly), the actual makeup work in The Wolfman both served the plot and looked convincing. With that, I think it should (and will ) win.

BEST VISUAL (SPECIAL) EFFECTS

Inception
Iron-Man 2
Tron: Legacy

Here we have not only remarkable special effects (the fight in the hallway both brilliant and iconic) in Inception, but they do something that all special effects should do: actually serve the story as oppose to show us what they can do. I'm big on not having visuals drown out the story, so that gives Inception a bigger push.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Inside Job
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Oceans
Waiting For Superman

Unfortunately, most 'documentaries' are really advocacy films: movies that want me to take a certain point of view (the filmmakers) and worse, ask me to join whatever campaign they are pushing. In short, they slip into being infomercials. However, that isn't the reason I chose the only one which isn't an advocacy film. I chose Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work because it gave me a real look into this somewhat angry, bitter, even scared woman who keeps pushing herself because she knows she still has much to do before the final curtain.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Despicable Me
Tangled
Toy Story 3

There's no surprise here. Now, all three films were very good, but Toy Story 3 did what appears to be so impossible for Hollywood: make a second sequel that not only works, but actually adds to the previous stories. Toy Story 3 had a deep emotional impact with almost everyone who saw it (myself included). If I had seen The Illusionist before the cut-off point, I would have placed it on my list, and it would have been the only film that might have made me hesitate on Toy Story 3. However, it isn't so there it is.

Mañana we'll all find out who won and who lost. Frankly, I don't expect many surprises, though seeing The Social Network go down will thrill me endlessly. I expect it will win Screenplay & Director, maybe Editing, Original Score less likely. However, I don't think it will win Best Picture, sending many of my fellow critics to their beds to cry on their pillows--this generation's ALLEGED Citizen Kane gets the same treatment as that film, they'll mourn. Doesn't the Academy know what we know...that The Social Network is actually BETTER than Citizen Kane, than The Godfather, than Birth of A Nation, than 8 1/2, and than Seven Samurai? No film will ever be able to approach the genius that is The Social Network...at least they think so. For those of us who work outside of watching movies but who love film, we can see The Social Network is a fine film: expertly crafted, good performances, well-written. HOWEVER, it would be nice if my fellow critics could tone down the rhetoric that accompanies this film. Surprisingly enough, I haven't seen it more than once and worse, have little interest in doing so.

In the end, a good rule of thumb is that the film with the most nominations wins Best Picture. With 12 nods, that would mean The King's Speech will reign supreme.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Two & A Half Brain Cells


At long last, after trashing hotel rooms and holding hookers hostage, after attacking his then-wife, after bacchanals that shocked even decadent Hollywood, the producers of Two & A Half Men have decided that their star Charlie Sheen was now so beyond sanity that they did what is almost sacrilege in Tinseltown: they ended the most successful comedy on the air today rather than continue enduring Sheen's sheer lunacy.

I can't bring myself to feel sympathy for any of the parties involved, except the rest of the Two & A Half Men cast and all the crew. Their livelihoods have been thrown in turmoil because one clearly unstable man who has no self-control has indulged himself to a degree that any sane person (not to mention anyone in what is dismissively called 'fly-over country') would have been fired from long ago. Instead, with all the troubles the producers endured, all the bad publicity, they didn't fire him before now...instead, they gave him MORE money. I wonder where else in the world someone who has a criminal record, who has admitted to paying for sex, and who has had a public drugs problem can earn $2 MILLION, not per year, but per EPISODE. At twenty-six episodes, that's $52 MILLION dollars a year, and that's considering he wouldn't work a full fifty weeks (I grant him two weeks vacation, like other Americans).

None of Sheen's horrors appears to have bothered Chuck Lorre (real name, Charles Michael Levine--which is important), or at least bothered him enough to where he might have pulled the plug long ago. However, it is a different story today, when Sheen decided to bite the hand that fed him, going off on a rant (one that makes Muammar Gaddafi's musing seem downright Buckley-esque), or should I say, a new rant, that finally forced Mr. Lorre to realize, 'this man is just bonkers'.
It's nothing this side of deplorable that a certain Chaim Levine, yeah, that's
Chuck's real name, mistook this rock star for his own selfish exit strategy".
Let's leave the fact that what he said makes no sense (exactly how and why Mr. Levine could use Sheen as an exit strategy Charlie leaves unexplained), I think we need to focus on the tinge of anti-Semitism Sheen poured out. By introducing 'Chaim' into the discussion, was Sheen trying to suggest...horror of horrors...that Lorre is...Jewish? If he is, what difference does it make? What was Sheen trying to do by calling a man he'd worked for and with for several years 'Chaim' when I figure he'd know that wasn't his real name? Granted, he didn't go the Mel Gibson route and blame the Jews for everything, but to my mind, referring to his boss as 'Chaim' and acting like he'd revealed a big secret makes me think Sheen isn't just crazy but downright bigoted. Again, I ask, what difference does it make what his producer's name is?

However, I digress. My main point is that all this time, Sheen's behavior was more than tolerated by those at Two & A Half Men. It was coddled by them, and by those in the entertainment industry that did not care how awful his behavior was, so long as he brought in the ratings. Charlie Sheen's problems with drugs, with hookers, with instability were known by all. Who here really is flabbergasted that Charlie Sheen has to go to rehab? It brings to mind Claude Rains' famous line from Casablanca, "I'm shocked, SHOCKED, to find that gambling is going on in here". Likewise, the producers were shocked, SHOCKED, to find Charlie Sheen was going off on benders.

In short, those of use who did any of the things Charlie Sheen did wouldn't be celebrated...they'd be imprisoned, either in jail or in a mental institution. I don't wish ill on Mr. Sheen, but I hope that Hollywood will finally, FINALLY see that sometimes, they need to get rid of people who are far more trouble than they are worth. I feel for those who worked on the show--now they are out of work through no fault of their own. I expect them to appeal to their unions, because these are the organizations that need to fight against the indulgence of one person. If one person had cost me my job, I'd be furious. Hollywood, take heed--this idea of indulging loony stars, like Sheen, like La Lohan--it must stop. They Aren't Worth It.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Shot Down Mexico Way


8 MURDERS A DAY



Across the border from the safest city in the United States (El Paso, TX), is the most violent city in North America if not the world (Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico). Truth be know, Baghdad today is safer than Juarez. 8 Murders A Day, a new documentary directed by Charles Minn, attempts to chronicle the monstrous reign of terror that has overtaken Juarez, and while the courage of Minn to take on such a daunting task is to be applauded, the film itself is riddled (no pun intended) with so many curious choices on his part that one doesn't quite know what exactly he's trying to say beyond merely showing us just how graphic the barbarism 'over there' is.

We begin with title captions telling us how Mexican President Felipe Calderon decided to take on the drug cartels shortly after taking office. From there, total chaos engulfed the country. We go on to one particular massacre (one tragically out of many), at a birthday party where it appeared to be just a random shooting spree of people not involved in the drugs trade. We get details about the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels, and how they have taken their fight to control the drug trade to the streets. Minn takes to driving around Juarez at night, to get a grounds-eye view of what is going on. In between all this, we get various interviews from University of Texas at El Paso professors, New Mexico State University research librarians, journalists and writers about what the causes and effects of the violence has taken on the civilian population caught in the cross-fire.

Here, unfortunately, is where part of the problem cinematically 8 Murders A Day has. We have a constant repetition of who is being interviewed, as if Minn simply did not trust his audience to remember who the people speaking were. For example, we have UTEP professor Tony Payan. He appears to have interviewed at least twice (given the locations for his interviews were different), but his name and title appear on the screen virtually EVERY TIME his face shows up. After a while, this incessant reminder of who is talking gets hopeless annoying. You could have his name appear the first time (or you could have had a title caption appear before his first interview telling us who he is and how he is an expert in the Juarez massacres), but you don't have to have it done so much. Same goes for NMSU Research Librarian Molly Molloy or writer Charles Bowden.

It's an odd situation in 8 Murders A Day where we are constantly reminded Bowden is a writer but we're never told what exactly he writes or what his expertise on Juarez are. I had to find out for myself Mr. Bowden is the author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economies New Killing Fields. Normally, I chastise filmmakers for not trusting their audiences, but in this case, I'm chastising Mr. Minn for trusting his audience too much by having them assume they already know Bowden and his work.

This is a curiosity throughout the film: introducing things merely to drop them or not give any real explanation. A good example is when Minn enters a sanctuary for La Santa Muerte (Holy Death or Sacred Death). The local audience would know what it is: a cult where Death is quite literally worshipped. However, someone who is seeing 8 Murders A Day doesn't have any information given about Santa Muerte or what power the cult has over the underworld. In short, we are asked to fill in too much information which Minn opted not to provide us, which runs the risk of leaving many people in the dark.

Another difficulty I had with the film in terms of pure cinema was Kyle Hildenbrand's score. It reminded me of Hans Zimmer's score for Inception...not in terms of being good, but in terms of being incessant. There didn't seem a point where Hildenbrand's dark, ominous music wasn't always playing to remind us just how horrifying the murders in Juarez are. I take that back: there were moments when his music wasn't playing. It was when the video had recorded music being played in the streets. This is a case when less would have been more, where one could have held back some and let the images speak for themselves.

Here is where Minn got things right. Some of the video (culled from local newscasts, some from his own camera), is absolutely heartbreaking. Early in 8 Murders A Day, a grieving mother of one of the children assassinated at the party does the unthinkable: confronts the President of Mexico demanding justice. In a macho and compliant society like Mexico, this is a total breach of etiquette, but the situation here demands no soft touch. While on his Night Journey in Juarez, Minn and his crew, along with a crew for a Juarez television station, come across an old cripple who insists on showing them a trick after they give him a dollar. He goes in front of the car (and the camera) and begins to twirl one of his crutches. It was such a sad scene, and to my mind emblematic of how Juarez is: a crippled city nearly unhinged, humiliating itself for a little money but knowing no other way to survive.

Minn also did right by showing us the pictures of those shot down. Too often, people here in the U.S. are sheltered from some of the most gruesome images of this insanity to protect our sensibilities. Oddly though, he opted not to go for the really vicious crimes, such as decapitations and bodies hanging off bridges. Granted, perhaps he thought those were far too brutal, but in this situation the horror has to be made clear.

I think there were, unfortunately, some lost moments in 8 Murders A Day. To boost morale in Juarez, the Mexican Soccer Team came for a match in the beleaguered city. Earlier in the film, we saw a story about how murderers had taken to a soccer field and killed seven I believe. What could have been an interesting counterpoint (murders in a soccer field vs. the National Team coming to play soccer) was not explored. Another curiosity is that, for all the interviews done, there weren't virtually any done with those actually caught in this catastrophe. Only once to my memory did Minn and his crew actually talk to someone who was directly impacted by the murders: a widower who had lost his wife when her bus bringing her from work was ambushed. Seeing the anguish in his face, seeing his wife's corpse in her coffin, flanked by a photo of her and her child, that moment tore at your heart and brought the tragedy and horror of the madness overwhelming Juarez straight to you.

Unfortunately, those moments were few and far between. Most of 8 Murders A Day was spent explaining the drug war as basically 'class warfare disguised as organized crime', how it really an effort to wipe out the poor, a war waged by the U.S. and Mexican government. Granted, the poor tend to be the easiest victims, but while these are the opinions of those who think NAFTA is evil and that drugs should be legalized, there is scant evidence presented in the film to solidify their claims.

Now, while 8 Murders A Day looks like it was filmed on a no-strings budget, one has to keep that in mind while discussing how the film actually looks. I have to remember that when looking over the film. Yes, it does have the appearance of a high school or college video class project, but the film is an important step in showing people the horror and tragedy taking place across the border, where people are being murdered left right and center for no reason other than greed (whosoever it is). In the end, there were many things that Minn I felt could have done better (cut down the music, more interviews with those caught in the middle, detailing how we got to this sorry situation, focus on one or two specific crimes, a countdown while spending a Night in Juarez, not including interviews he's done to other outlets, giving more details about what we're seeing, not flash names so often), I applaud him for taking on the subject and daring to put a human face on Juarez. 8 Murders A Day should be seen, but in terms of an actual movie, the film could have been so much better.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Misguided Letter Writing Campaign


LETTERS TO JULIET

I'm still of an age where I remember being taught how to write letters. In fact, even as letters themselves, and even e-mail, are being discarded, some things just won't leave me. For example, whenever I write an e-mail for work I not only include a heading but go so far as to leave a few blank spaces between the closing and my name to indicate where the signature would go. Alas, no one writes letters anymore, what with text messaging destroying spelling today. Letters to Juliet is the type of film that begs one to go back to the idea of love letters, and under normal circumstances, if the film had done a better job of going against a collection of cliches, it would have been a return to good romantic comedies. However, by relying on the safe and secure, it did itself a terrible disservice.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a young fact checker/aspiring writer for a magazine engaged to Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) a cook who is thoroughly obsessed with his work. They go off to Verona, where Victor is entranced with the culinary opportunities for him and oblivious to Sophie's presence. He goes off to a wine auction while she stays behind in the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. While at the Casa Di Guilietta, she comes across a strange sight: a group of women writing notes & letters and placing them in the wall of the courtyard. This Wailing Wall for the Lovelorn* is watched over by a group of women who bill themselves as Juliet's Secretaries, offering replies to the various women in need of advise from a fictional character. She starts helping out to pass the time, and in due course discovers a fifty-year old note within the wall. Sophie is so moved by the heartache contained in the note that she writes a reply.

Less than a week later (we know this because we're told it's been less than a week) Charlie (Christopher Egan) a very irritated Brit, arrives in Verona. He wants to know what dumb woman wrote a response to a letter that brought his grandmother Claire (British Marxist Party founddress Vanessa Redgrave) back to Italy in search of her Lorenzo. He is extremely irritated that Claire is going on this wild hunk-chase, but Claire was so inspired by Sophie's note that she decided to rush to Verona and rediscover her long-lost love. With Victor conveniently away and uninterested in anything Sophie does, she asks to join Claire & Charlie on their search (might make good material for a story). Claire agrees over Charlie's objections. They search high and low, running into countless Lorenzos until nearing the end of their journey, Claire finds a nice young hunk working in a vineyard. Though it's impossible, she knows it's Lorenzo, and in a sense, she's right. It's her Lorenzo's grandson, who calls his father, who then calls HIS father, riding upon a horse. THE Lorenzo (Franco Nero) instantly recognizes Claire, and their romance is rekindled. Of course, we can only imagine what happens between Sophie and Charlie (here's a hint: they start out hating each other). Story and romance over, Sophie goes back to New York where her story impresses her editor (Oliver Pratt in a cameo) so much she now gets to write full time. Sophie gets an invite to Lorenzo & Claire's wedding, and from there you can fill in the blanks.

 

Letters to Juliet to its credit has such a generally sweet tone that we might have liked it for being a light film. It isn't trying for anything special or extraordinary: just to be a little romance about finding the right person for you regardless of how long ago it was or who it may be. However, that's part of the problem. By not being original (and frankly, by not taking advantage of some good possibilities for the characters), it makes some of the characters pretty dumb or even downright crazy. Throughout the film we wondered why Sophie, who is supposed to be smart, would have even dated someone like Victor who appears loving but totally disengaged and disinterested in what she does and in spending time with her, let alone be engaged to him. We wonder why Charlie is so implacably hostile to Claire coming to Verona to see if Lorenzo is still among the living. Claire, in fact, doesn't seem the slightest bit perturbed to receive a reply fifty years after the fact. In short, it's a pity the script by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan was so riddled with cliches, as if they didn't trust the audience to see something different and unique.

Letters to Juliet, in fact, is a compendium of cliches, which pushes the film down when you stop to think about things.

Seyfried has a remarkably open and pretty face, particularly her eyes, that makes her appear totally believable as the optimistic in love Sophie. Oddly, it's her pretty nature that makes it hard to believe whenever she has to be hostile towards Charlie because she doesn't seem capable of disliking anyone. Egan, granted, is pretty to look at, but it's hard to gauge how good an actor he is or could be since his Charlie is one note throughout Letters to Juliet: always irritated by everything going on. Therefore, we really don't see or believe he's gone through any change, let alone have fallen in love with Sophie (no, it's not a spoiler--since they start out hating each other, and this is a romantic comedy, if you couldn't guess that then you need to see more romantic comedies). Garcia Bernal's Victor is of vague ethnic origin (while he handles English well, you can still tell he doesn't sound like a native speaker and at one point he asks Sophie 'WHO are you' when he meant 'HOW are you') but while I suppose it's understandable why a woman would want to be with him (he IS Gael Garcia Bernal after all, despite his Vulcan eyebrows and short stature), his disinterest in Sophie's life is inexplicable. Near the end, Victor blames HER for being apart while in Italy (talk about clueless). Basically, Victor just served as a plot device to get Sophie to Verona and get the ball rolling. Redgrave (or as I lovingly call her, Hezbollah's Pin-Up Girl) is tottering through the film, and since she basically has one expression through the film I can see the family resemblance between Claire and Charlie.

While watching Letters to Juliet, I kept thinking how the film could have been improved if director Gary Winick and the writers had made just a few changes. Dump Victor--make Sophie single or at least merely dating him. Have Charlie enthusiastic at first only to get disillusioned by the journey. Make Claire have some doubts about coming to Verona. Why not make Sophie an American in Verona (which I was told is the City of Love--dethroning Paris, I suppose) who has grown cynical or suspicious of love. If only a few things had been changed, Letters to Juliet could have been far better and original.

Granted, Letters to Juliet is a light fare, nothing offensive, only wanting to please and be loved. I get that. However, just because a film knows it isn't original or clever doesn't mean you have to like it for those flaws. You should be calling for it to do better. Still, I can't be too harsh on Letters to Juliet because I know what it's going for. Therefore, I'm giving it only a slight reprimand, and ask it to do a rewrite.

 

*While I know that the term 'Wailing Wall' has fallen out of favor when referring to the last remnants of Herod's Temple and 'Western Wall' is the more current term, in this case the word 'wailing' seems to apply given the situation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gracias Por Nada

FROM PRADA TO NADA

I start out by saying I've never read Sense & Sensibility or seen any film adaptation of Jane Austen's book. Therefore, I'm in no position to say whether or not From Prada To Nada stayed close to the source material. However, being someone who IS of Mexican descent (albeit one who is bourgeois, libertarian, and Lutheran), I think I'm far better able to judge how close or far it comes to capturing the contemporary Mexican-American worldview. My belief is that it is far easier to play on stereotypical images of Mexicans/Mexican-Americans than to possibly portray us/them as just Americans whose ancestors (or yes, parents) came from Mexico. It may give From Prada to Nada an ethnic flavor that a more WASP interpretation of Austen's work would have, and while it is good to see Hispanics on the screen perhaps the film itself could have stepped up to be more inclusive of the idea that there is an 'American' aspect to being Mexican-American.

We have two sisters, the Sensible Nora (Camilla Belle) and the Sensibility (although I would argue sensuous) Mary (Alexa Vega) Dominguez. In spite of being Mexican-American, they are remarkably rich. Nora works towards being a lawyer, while Mary is content to merely spend Daddy's money and marry rich. Alas, Daddy dies, leaving them broke and with the added pleasure of discovering at Daddy's funeral that they have an illegitimate half-brother (Pablo Cruz), along with his shrewish wife Olivia (April Bowlby). Because they are poor, they eventually have to leave their home in Beverly Hills (along with the swimming pool and movie stars) and crash at the home of Aunt (or as we would say, Tia) Aurelia (Adrianna Barraza) in that mysterious world known as East L.A. They arrive to find a totally blue house (as in color not depression) and the local homeboy, Bruno (Wilder Valderrama). Now, the Dominguez Girls have to adjust to being poor and horror of horrors...ETHNIC. Nora, still working to doing something productive for society, finds herself in the same law firm where Olivia's nicer brother, Edward (Nicholas D'Agosto) works, while Mary, still in college (though one wonders why, let alone how, she got in and continues to go), falls for the Student Aide, Rodrigo (Kuno Becker--again, don't let the name fool you; he is Mexican).

One actually doesn't have to have read Sense & Sensibility to know where the story is going or who is going to end up with whom. From Prada to Nada isn't going for originality (not even when taking a novel with a very British worldview and adding a heaping helping of salsa). It is pretty obvious where the story is going (girls learn about true love and ethnic pride), but some things in the actual movie don't make any sense.

From Prada to Nada wants us to know how important family is to the Hispanic community (I can vouch for this). At one point, when Mary appears reluctant to invite Rodrigo to the family's 16 de Septiembre celebration, her Tia chastises her, pointing out how important family was to their father. This was the same father who thought family was so important that he also had a bastard, right? This was the same father who apparently thought family was so important that he apparently never bothered to bring his girls to bum with the poorer relations, right? After all, the Dominguez girls seem quite horrified when they see the house apparently for the first time. You can't have it both ways: saying that the theme of family is paramount while at the same time show very little cohesion within the extended Dominguez family.

A more troubling aspect is the fact that writers Fina Torres, Luis Alfaro, and Craig Fernandez (I'm going to guess they are all Hispanic) rely so much on stereotypes to signal the 'contemporary' Mexican-American world. At one point Edward comes calling to Tia Aurelia's home for Nora, and Tia sees a young man in a suit and automatically assumes 'Immigration'. Therefore, all the women working at the sewing machines in the living room quickly rearrange the furniture to watch a soccer match. As much as I support seeing Hispanics behind the camera, I'm going to take the three writers to task. Old Mexican women (at least the ones I know based on my mother, her sisters, and her friends) would NEVER watch a soccer game or care to. Now, a telenovela (a Spanish-language soap opera)...that's another matter. Heaven Help the Man who dares interrupt a novela for any reason, and I mean ANY.

Another strange moment is when the whole neighborhood comes to Tia Aurelia's home to celebrate Mexican Independence Day (September 16). I wondered if it would have been better to have celebrated Cinco De Mayo (May 5), since this day (which commemorates the Mexican victory of the invading French army at the Battle of Puebla) has been confiscated by Mexican-Americans in the same way St. Patrick's Day denotes Irish-American pride (and both are excuses for drunkenness regardless of ethnicity). I personally don't know any Mexican-Americans who celebrate 16 de Septiembre...and I especially don't know any who dress up in traditional Mexican garb (unless they are part of a show). It might have been to show just how ethnic Mexicans can be, but it all looked a little to cute for its own good.

It just seems that the writers and director Angel Gracia (whom I'm again guessing is Hispanic) weren't at all or perhaps in a limited way interested in showing us a side to Mexican-Americans that didn't rely on excessive devotion to saints or living in the barrio in a garishly painted house. If I had been Mary, I would have said I'm more ashamed to live in a house that would have made Frida Kahlo burst into laughter than in my relations. Maybe I have the wrong reading on From Prada to Nada: maybe they made this film to appeal only to Hispanics, specifically Mexican-Americans, and if that's the case it did a decent job in pointing out all the oddball quirks of the community (excessively long names, a virtual requirement to know Spanish, having faith healing work its wonders). If you can't laugh at yourself, the film perhaps is saying, then who can you laugh at?

All that I could, albeit reluctantly, give a pass to. It is in some of the performances and plot that I wondered if From Prada to Nada was even trying. Pablo Cruz's Gabriel Dominguez, Jr. is perhaps the worst. In the few short scenes he was in, he rarely did or said anything. In short, he may be the most milquetoast Mexican in the history of film. He was just there, just a plot device to get the girls out of their house and into Kahlo-landia. Whatever trauma he may have had about being a bastard is unexplored, as is whatever relationship he may have wanted with his sisters. That is because he appears so bullied by Olivia that he barely says a whisper (or at least I don't remember him saying much). Bowlby's Olivia has no real reason to be so hostile to the legitimate branch of the Dominguez family (other than it was needed to get the girls out of the house).

Both Vega and Belle did a good job playing the self-absorbed and self-assured Mary & Nora respectively. Both gave good performances where you could see their characters changing to embrace the situations they found themselves in (although one wonders how two girls whose Spanish appears so weak could pick it up so fast). Their love interests (D'Agosto, Becker, and Valderrama) also were all right, bringing an almost innocent charm, smooth moves, and gruff likability respectively.

If it weren't for the predictability of the film itself, From Prada to Nada could have been much better. As it stands, it is mildly amusing but perhaps only to those who might get the 'inside jokes'. I hope that Hispanic filmmakers will one day realize that there are outposts of Hispanics that are beyond East Los Angeles, that some Hispanics are actually members of the middle class, and that not every Hispanic is a Catholic. Here's where I'm going to editorialize just a touch:

I don't have tattoos, I was never in a gang or knew anyone who was in a gang (unless you count my brief time in the G.O.P. as gang affiliation, but that's up to you), I do speak Spanish but it is my second language (my first is still English), I don't celebrate Mexican holidays or dress up in colorful costumes, respect Catholics but don't have any saints in my home (Protestants aren't all that big on candles of the Pope), and my home is a nice, one-story brick structure. In short, while I can appreciate the ethnic humor within From Prada to Nada, I can't say it comes from personal experience.

No, From Prada to Nada isn't a bad film. It just isn't original, either in plot or how it tells it. I can't be too harsh with it since from what I saw it wasn't going for a broader market (or a broader mindset about Mexican-Americans), so I will give them credit for making an effort. Hopefully, we can get to a point where Hispanics aren't portrayed (even by other Hispanics) as poor, unable to speak or understand much if any English, and/or fearful of immigration or police officials (except in Arizona, where even bourgeois, libertarian, Lutheran Hispanics fear they may have to bring their American passports or be arrested for suspicion of being in the country illegally). It could have been better, but that's the way the enchilada crumbles.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mad About Mozart: Amadeus Review



AMADEUS (1984)

The success of Amadeus isn't in the music (although few composers equal Mozart's glorious sounds). It isn't in the performances (although even the smallest parts are magnetic excellently directed by Milos Forman). It isn't in its sets and costumes (even if they are both lavish and appropriate). It isn't even in Peter Schaffer's adaptation of his own play (though granted, it is a clever script, with wit and pathos all rolled together). Now, Amadeus succeeds not JUST because of all of those elements, but because in spite of the time and distance between Mozart's time and our own the themes still resonate. The ideas of blind jealousy, bitter revenge, between knowing how to live with what you have, and the sharp difference between genius and mere competence.

Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), former Court Composer at the Court of Austrian Emperor Joseph (Jeffrey Jones), is now an old, frail, bitter man who has attempted suicide after making the shocking confession of having killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Placed in a mental institution, he tells his tale to a priest, explaining his bitterness towards the God Salieri once loved but whom he turned against after meeting his idol, Mozart. Salieri had made a private pledge to God: in exchange for Salieri's piety and chastity, God would grant him the ability to create great works of music. Now, Salieri comes to the angry realization that the gifts he so longed for himself are in abundance of a little man Salieri considers unworthy: in his words, a lustful, boastful boy, a giggling, dirty-minded creature. Salieri is inflamed even more when Mozart's works soon overshadows his own, and now, believing himself screwed over by God, decides to take revenge on Him by doing everything in his power to destroy Mozart.

Mozart, rather oblivious to Salieri's treachery or to anything other than his work, continues to live beyond his means, with his wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) supportive but extremely worried about his increasingly erratic behavior and disorganized life. Mozart, a man who creates the most sublime music but who behaves like a child, becomes haunted by the memories of his stern father Leopold (Roy Dotrice). Salieri, realizing what emotional control Leopold has over Wolfgang even after death, decides on a shocking plan for revenge: secretly commission Mozart to write a Requiem Mass, then kill Mozart. Perhaps Salieri had some hand in Mozart's death, or perhaps it was Mozart's own derelict living that did more damage than his jealous rival ever could. Salieri ends his 'confession' by acknowledging that while his own music is disappearing from the popular repertoire, his hated rival's is growing immortal.

Amadeus may frighten some people because it involves that terrifying subject: classical music. As is common knowledge, classical music is boring...because it doesn't have any words. However, the film is instantly relate able because jealousy, especially when one feels morally or intellectually superior to someone else and still can't beat those one holds in contempt, is unfortunately a common emotion. Shaffer in his play and screenplay taps into that human need to please God however He is perceived, and the hurt and anger when our best doesn't compare to the work of others. Take for example the musical montage when Salieri is presented with some of Mozart's work. He is first surprised to learn from Constanza that all the samples of her husband's works are first drafts, and once he examines them, he becomes shocked, humbled, and infuriated to see that Mozart's first drafts are perfect, to quote him, 'as if he'd merely taken dictation'. Salieri's comprehension of Mozart's true genius, mixed with his shock that the gifts he longed for himself went to someone he thinks less 'worthy' along with his fury at this perceived 'betrayal' is beautifully put together in all aspects: Abraham's performance, Forman's direction, Michael Chandler & Nena Danevic's editing (with more work done by T.M. Christopher for the Director's Cut), and Sir Neville Marriner's musical direction of the various Mozart pieces.

In terms of the acting, there isn't one bad performance in the entire film. Let's go over some of the smaller roles first. Every minor character, from Jones' Emperor Joseph to Charles Kay's Count Orsini-Rosenberg (the Director of the National Opera who doesn't take to Mozart's music, complaining it had 'too many notes') to Roy Doltrice's Leopold Mozart (oddly, no mention the real-life Wolfgang had an equally talented sister, Maria) all create in their few scenes whatever their character was suppose to be: dense for the Emperor, antagonistic for Orsini-Rosenberg, intimidating for Mozart, Senior. More prominent roles, like Simon Callow as Mozart's friend and parodist Schikaneder and especially Berridge's Constanze are equal to the leads. Callow is someone who shows concern for Mozart but who also knows he has the talent to give him good music (and a hit for his own theater). Berridge is the consummate wife: loving, concerned, and shrewd about the people who surround her husband. Seeing her struggle with keeping Mozart working and coherent is especially heartbreaking. There's even an early appearance by a pre-Sex & The City Cynthia Nixon as a chambermaid at the Mozart house where she is completely unrecognizable from her Miranda.

Abraham's Salieri is a man who mixes self-pity, self-righteousness, and vindictiveness all at once. There is a scene in Amadeus that so brilliantly captures his performance. He has written a March of Welcome for Mozart when he is formally presented at Court, and in his naivete Mozart plays the March and decides to 'improve' on it. As Mozart begins to work on his variations, you can see Salieri seething with rage and humiliation but because he is in the presence of the Emperor and his colleagues, he is unable to say anything. Instead, he is trying to retain his composure when it's clear that his now-former idol has almost casually dismissed what he has lovingly and carefully worked on. Anyone in Salieri's situation would feel the same, which is what makes both the film and Abraham's performance so good. The film, despite its rather grand setting, is relate able to our time and common human emotions, and here is the genius of Amadeus: the human drama and struggle between one man and his ideas of God, and the tragic cost that interpretation took.

Abraham is matched by Hulce's Mozart. Here, we too cannot believe that such glorious music comes from the same mind that is obsessed with sex and gutter humor. Hulce makes Wolfgang both naive, almost innocent, and extremely lewd. We laugh at his laugh, this high-pitched, almost infantile, giggle, that possesses him whenever anything strikes him as funny. As he so passionately argues to Emperor Joseph when trying to convince him to allow The Marriage of Figaro to be performed, "I am a vulgar man...but my music is not".

And oh, yes, what music, what divine music in Amadeus. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (which I was fortunate enough to have visited, but I digress) envelope Amadeus with simply glorious music. The fear of writer Shaffer was that we would begin identifying a certain piece with Mozart only, another piece with Salieri, and so forth, that each character would have a specific theme. However, director Forman steps over this by letting the music simply be. The music of Amadeus serves the story both when it is presented in the proper context (such as the stagings for The Abduction From the Seraglio, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, or Salieri's own opera Axur) but also within scenes where Mozart's music enhances the scene. For example, at the party Wolfgang, Leopold, and Constanze attend where Salieri unexpectedly and unbeknownst to all of them also goes only to see himself ridiculed by Mozart has The Chorus of the Janissaries from The Abduction From the Seraglio as the music playing both when the Mozarts select their costumes and when they are Salieri are partaking in the festivities. It might not have been the music that was actually being played at the masked ball, but it fits so brilliantly that one is swept into the scene.

It has to be said that the music of Mozart is perhaps the third star of Amadeus, since it is so integral to the story. For myself, this is highlighted at the end of The Abduction From The Seralgio (I really dig the music for this opera), where everything comes together: Twyla Tharp's dance direction, Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography, Patrizia Von Brandenstein's art direction, Theodor Pistek's costumes, Milos Forman's directing of the actors both on stage and in the audience, and of course, that MUSIC--it is simply fantastic! In fact, everything in Amadeus truly came together to create one of those films where one never tires of watching over and over, not just for the lavishness of the film itself but for the true human drama within it.

There is one caveat I would have. If one has never seen Amadeus, I would recommend watching the theatrical version first rather than the Director's Cut. While I'm a stickler for seeing a film the way the director intended to be, and while Forman's cut gives a deeper understanding of how far Mozart fell and the rivalry that emerges between Salieri and Constanze, it might be a bit too much to take for someone coming into it with no background. The theatrical release works just fine, and if you love the film with a passion, then one could get the Director's Cut. A more casual viewer could do with just the original release.

Amadeus the film is like Mozart the composer: something to which many will aspire to, draw inspiration from, and enjoy forever. As always, there are more Best Pictures and Essentials which I welcome one to look over.

1985 Best Picture: Out of Africa

DECISION: A+

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Neeson Ist Ein Berliner

UNKNOWN

In spite of films like Taken and now Unknown, the phrase 'action star Liam Neeson' still doesn't quite ring true for me. I have a hard time accepting Oskar Schindler taking down bad guys, but then again, he seems to have developed a yen for showing us his bad-ass side. Unknown does that, and it does it with such pleasure and unapologetic glee one forgets (and forgives) the sheer oddball nature of the plot.

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a conference. Martin accidentally leaves his briefcase (which has his passport) at the airport, so he rushes back in a cab, leaving Elizabeth in the hotel lobby. On the way to the airport, a freak accident plunges the taxi into the river. The cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger) rescues him, but immediately disappears from the scene, leaving Martin to the paramedics. Four days later, Martin emerges from his coma, but his memory is a bit hazy. Soon, he remembers who he is, and goes to the hotel to see about his wife (who curiously has never shown up or inquired about her husband--funny how Martin never really bothers to figure out why she hasn't). He sees her across a crowded room (I suppose it could have been Some Enchanted Evening...it is suppose to be around the Thanksgiving holiday), but in a shocking twist, she says she has no idea who this man is. Even more shocking, she calls a man over to her: her husband, Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). With nothing to prove who he is, he is forced out of the hotel to his confusion and anger.

In due course, he tracks down Gina and a helpful nurse gives him the address of Herr Jurgens (Bruno Ganz), a former agent in the East German Secret Police now working as a private investigator. Jurgens makes his inquiries while Martin A. and Gina (whom we discover is an illegal alien from Bosnia--good to know our German cousins have the same problems we do) delve into the mystery of who he is and who Martin B. is. In the course of this labyrinth plot we make even more shocking discoveries, involving secret identities, an assassination squad, biotechnology, and the ever-creepy Frank Langella.

Now, I've heard complaints that the plot of Unknown (screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert--a title that would have been so much fun to play with) is outrageous and nonsensical. I would counter, outrageous and nonsensical as opposed to what--The Big Sleep? Touch of Evil? In fairness to Unknown, while the story is preposterous and yes, rather outlandish, it is so unapologetic about it and does it with such sincerity and enthusiasm that you can overlook that it all is rather implausible. In short, Unknown starts out as an amnesia story, shifts into a stolen identity story, and then goes into full kick-ass killer story. Really out there? Absolutely. Fun to watch? Absolutely.

One can see from the performances that almost everyone was having fun reveling in the crazyness of the project. In what is basically a cameo, Langella brings a creepy menace even when we're suppose to think he's the good guy (rarely is he ever a good guy, so we should know better). Ganz (an actor who should be more known to American audiences) is wonderful as Jurgens, making a former agent of the Stasi almost grandfatherly, and the fact that he appears to be either dying or in seriously ill health makes him almost more endearing. Quinn (another actor who should get more roles and who to my mind is terribly underused) is also fun to watch playing someone who may be good but can't be since he's impersonating our hero...and nothing good can ever come from impersonating our hero.

As for the leads, Neeson owns every scene he is in: being full-fledged action star when needed, being a confused and almost frightened man when needed. Neeson never goes over the top but plays Martin A. with total commitment. For that, one should give him a great deal of credit: that he can play this shall we say, offbeat material totally straight. Kruger, with whom I've had issues with (see Troy, or rather, don't), and who is actually German, does at times make her Gina a bit hysterical and oddly quite the action lead at the same time, but she does make good use of her time, almost making us believe she is an actual refugee--albeit a beautiful one.

The only one who doesn't seem to get it is Jones. Her Elizabeth is blank throughout Unknown, as if she's just waiting for the new Mad Men scripts to arrive. Granted, I've never seen that show, but I can't imagine whatever character she plays is that emotionless and oddly disengaged from almost anything involving her character. Side note: if we are to believe the story as given to us, wouldn't it have been easier to get Martin A. out of the way while he was in a coma rather than just let him wander around like a loose cannon? Just a thought.

Director Jaume Collet-Sera, whose body of work such as the remake of House of Wax with Paris Hilton and Orphan doesn't exactly bode well for Unknown. However, since I go into these films unprejudiced by him few films I will grant that the action scenes are well-made, fast, and exciting. I even give him credit for putting in those touches, like seeing Jurgens coughing at various times to signal that he is an old man facing his mortality. My only complaint about the actual filming was that a lot of the action takes place at night or under heavy cloud cover, which gives Unknown a rather dark look that at times makes things just a touch hard to see.

I can't lie: Unknown isn't a great film, but it is a very entertaining one. I like to judge the success or failure of a film based on what it sets out to accomplish, and Unknown set out to do nothing more than provide action within the confines of a rather outlandish plot. The performances were played straight when even one of them going for camp would have killed the mood (although I did end up laughing--albeit in a fun as opposed to mocking way--when Frank Langella got his just desserts). If you go with the premise of the film without thinking too much about it you'll find that Unknown is a fun, fast, action-oriented film that is entertaining and unapologetic about it. I think in the end that it should be more known. It did make me want to visit Berlin, so that's a plus, too.

The Nominees According To Me 2010 Edition

One of the terrible effects of the massive winter storms in early February was the fact that we had major power outages and were virtually under house arrest. As a result of the ensuing chaos, I was unable to get to my own selections for the Best of 2010. At last, now I am able to get down to my list. Now, I don't have a name for these endeavours (any suggestions would be nice: the closest I got was Letters of Transit, but frankly, that just sounds silly). Therefore, without further ado, let's get down to My Nominees.


BEST PICTURE

The Fighter
Inception
The King's Speech
Toy Story 3
True Grit

BEST ACTOR

Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
James Franco (127 Hours)
Ryan Reynolds (Buried)

BEST ACTRESS

Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Diane Lane (Secretariat)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception)
Jeremy Renner (The Town)
Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)
Loretta Devine (For Colored Girls)
Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Emma Roberts (It's Kind of A Funny Story)

BEST DIRECTOR

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
David O. Russell (The Fighter)
Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
Ben Affleck (The Town)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Black Swan
Buried
The Fighter
Inception
The King's Speech

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

127 Hours
Never Let Me Go
The Social Network
The Town
True Grit

BEST EDITING

127 Hours
The Fighter
Inception
The Town
True Grit

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Buried
Black Swan
Inception
The King's Speech
True Grit

BEST ART DIRECTION

Burlesque
Inception
The King's Speech
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
True Grit

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Inception
The King's Speech
Never Let Me Go
Tangled
Tron: Legacy

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Show Me How To Burlesque (Burlesque)
You Haven't Seen the Last of Me (Burlesque)
Give In To Me (Country Strong)
I See The Light (Tangled)
Shine (Waiting for Superman)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Black Swan
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I
The King's Speech
True Grit

BEST MAKEUP

127 Hours
Black Swan
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I
The Wolfman

BEST VISUAL (SPECIAL) EFFECT

Inception
Iron-Man 2
Tron: Legacy

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Inside Job
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Oceans
Waiting For Superman

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Despicable Me
Tangled
Toy Story 3

Now, it should be noted I only nominated those which I have seen and written of as of today, so if something you think should have been included, keep that detail in mind. I would have liked five nominees in every category but alas, sometimes I couldn't find enough. Let's face it: a lot of 2010 was absolute junk. It's only in the last month or so of the year that a vast majority of the good films came our way, and then they took longer to play here in El Paso because this is a second or even third-tier market. We West Texans, especially in a majority Hispanic city, wouldn't be interested in dramas about King George VI or loony ballet dancers, the mindset goes. We'd much rather watch things like Takers or Little Fockers--you know, things more at our intelligence level. Note The Sarcasm.

Well, by Saturday I'll announce my winners. Suggestions and opinions always welcome.

Friday, February 11, 2011

It's Dangerous To Join A Celt. A Review of The Eagle (2011)



THE EAGLE

It just may be that there simply is no getting away from it: every Roman-era film appears to be trying to channel Gladiator. Instead of going back to do some good action, nifty fight scenes, and grandiose dialogue about Empire, recent Roman epics go for some vague, mystical feel, with curiously Middle Eastern-style music and rather glum leads. The Eagle, if it's aiming for those standards, achieves them remarkably well. If, however, it aims for anything else: be it entertainment or insightful commentary on friendship or honor, it missed by a Roman mile.

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of the commander of the Ninth Legion, who twenty years earlier he and his men disappeared, along with their eagle standard, deep within the now-Scottish Highlands. Marcus, now a commander in his own right, takes command of a fort in Britannia. The native population attacks, and while Marcus manages to rescue his men he is severely wounded. He is taken to the villa of his uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland) (conveniently also in Britain, I might add) but Marcus is honorably discharged from service due to his injuries.

While at a gladiatorial event Marcus admires the courage of a Celtic slave (Billy Elliot, I mean, Jamie Bell). Marcus gets the crowd to spare the slave's life, and Uncle Aquila buys said slave for Marcus. This slave, Esca, is none to pleased to be in Marcus' service, but since he saved his life he pledges loyalty. Now, things would stay as they are but for rumors that the Ninth Legion's eagle has been spotted deep within the Highlands, beyond Hadrian's Wall. Marcus, desiring to restore his family's honor, decides to venture beyond the edge of the Roman world, taking Esca as his guide/translator/slave. Again, Esca is none too pleased with this arrangement, but he does as he's told. While on their journey, they meet Guern (Mark Strong) who survived the massacre of the Ninth and has 'gone native'. He tells Marcus that Esca is a member of one of the tribes that took part in the massacre, and a little after both are captured by the Seal People (which I confess to hearing as the Sea People but I kept calling the Painted People for obvious reasons). Now the tables are turned: Esca is now the master, and Marcus is the slave. In a native ceremony Marcus sees the Ninth Legion's Eagle, and with the surprise help of Esca retakes it. Now it becomes a race to evade the Seal People and make it back to the Roman world.
 
Again, a film like The Eagle should not be held up to a standard of something like a Ben-Hur. The latter is an epic, and it involved the struggle between two men who at first loved each other only to see their love turn to bitter rivalry. The Eagle appears to have that in reverse: two men (or at least one man) who hate each other learn to value each other. The problem is that Kevin Macdonald (no relation, at least known, to one of the Kids In The Hall with the same name) never got us to care all that much about Esca and Marcus. He certainly never made us believe that they cared about each other. For most of the film, we never got a sense that Marcus and Esca grew as people or in their relationship to each other. In short, we never see them as friendly towards each other, let alone friends. Their relationship isn't based on anything because Esca spends so much time scowling we can't imagine he has any other emotion save for barely masked hostility for Marcus. This makes his aiding Marcus near the end quite puzzling because it comes from left field. As for Marcus, he appears so interested in the eagle standard that he never seems interested in sharing words with his slave. Therefore, if neither of the leads appears to have any interest in what the other is thinking or be able to read each other, how then can we believe that they can make the decisions they make?

There is also a wild inconsistency in Marcus' warrior abilities in Jeremy Brock's screenplay (which he adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth). Early in The Eagle, Marcus stirs from his sleep and in the misty quiet of the English country senses and hears an impending attack from the natives. However, later in the film, he appears completely clueless that a smaller group of Picts are about to attack him and Esca. In fact, it's Esca, not Marcus, that hears and senses the impending attack. Maybe it was suppose to show that both of them really are two sides of the same coin, but it signaled instead that Marcus' Spidey Sense was off.

 
The performances by the leads don't make things any clearer. Tatum appears built (physically at least, and his short, cropped hair helps) to perpetually play military types. If I go back to his previous films, at least the ones I've seen of his, it appears his stock and trade is to play soldier (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Dear John, The Eagle, even perhaps The Dilemma). Perhaps Tatum doesn't mind appearing to be typecast since he has earned success in these types of roles. However, while he is pretty to look at, he still isn't able to show any true expression. I confess that my mind wandered a bit to imagine Channing Tatum playing Hamlet, and found that my imagined efforts of him trying his hand at Shakespeare were more entertaining than the film I was watching. Throughout The Eagle he maintains the same facial expression as if he's still deciding what 'acting' truly entails. When he's taken prisoner he looks genuinely confused as to what's happening, and while granted I've never served in the military (to my regret) I would imagine even I would realize when I was being taken prisoner and would be at the least slightly concerned. Since we never get a hint that Esca and Marcus are remotely friendly (they are overtaken by the Painted People after a very short argument/fight) we aren't shocked Esca turns on his master.

Speaking of Esca, it appears little Bell is going the Christian Bale route: former cute kid who gained fame for dancing turning into an all-Method, intense actor. He doesn't smile, or in fact doesn't really have much of a personality . Here he is, in his home country, looking over the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, and he doesn't seem even the least excited about been back to his native land. He really doesn't seem excited about anything. When we first see him, it may be just to draw attention to how he's physically built himself up (Billy Elliot is now buff), but for most of The Eagle, he appears to be a shadow, going through the motions of a second-rate action film, biding his time before he can find his own version of The Fighter.

The smaller roles don't fare better. Sutherland is basically a cameo whose purpose is to get Marcus and Esca together, a bit of a Roman matchmaker. Once they go off into the Outlands, he disappears from the film completely (he doesn't even bother to show up at the end). Strong is vaguely recognizable as Guern, but since we don't really get to know him all that well, we don't have any vested interest in him. There is unintended comic relief in two minor characters: Dakin Matthews' Claudius and his son Placidus (Pip Carter). We first hear Claudius before seeing him, and at first I thought Claudius sounded like a Roman version of Truman Capote. As for Placidus, besides having little to do except give Marcus the motive to begin his search, I couldn't help think he looks like a young Marco Rubio.

Perhaps we could have done with more comic relief in The Eagle. The tone of the film is deadly serious and deadly dull. It takes itself way to seriously. There isn't a sense of adventure, of action. Instead, the mood of the film is one where no one appears either awed or excited about anything. We also spend so much time seeing Marcus recover from his battle wounds we wonder how much time has actually passed, a problem we see again when our leads are wandering through unknown territory. Days? Weeks? We don't know. The somber tone of The Eagle is carried further via Atli Ovarsson's score. When a good pounding beat would be good (say, a battle scene) we get instead these quasi-mystical choral works more suited for a Russian Orthodox service than a fight between Nobles and Savages (which to my mind is another Gladiator effect). The constant flashbacks to Marcus' memories of his father and of the fall of the Ninth Legion don't help; they tend to slow down what momentum The Eagle starts to build.

The frustrating thing about The Eagle is that it bills itself as an action adventure, tries to be a character study of two men on opposite sides of a fight who find a genuine friendship between them, and then fails on both counts. Worse off, it leaves the door ever so slightly open for a sequel. Were there to be one, the only thing they could do is give the leads some personality. Again, we never got to know Marcus or Esca, and certainly never got a sense they even cared for/about each other, let alone grew to be best friends. We never got the sense or understanding as to what motivated one or the other to do the things they did for each other. If the story had focused more on their relationship on the journey (rather than on the beauty and wildness of the Scottish Highlands, though they were spectacularly filmed thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography), The Eagle could have been entertaining, certainly fun. The serious tone and poor starring performances, however, made it crash.



Normally, it's Channing Tatum that serves as eye candy. It's nice to see him give Billy Elliot a chance to show off another beautiful male.
DECISION: D+