Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dimanche (Sunday) (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Animated - Patrick Doyon

It's hard not to be impressed by Patrick Doyon's labor of love "Dimanche."  Doyon told CTV News that he spent two years painstakingly animating the ten-minute short by hand, choosing the traditional method of animation while he studied computer animation.  The film was inspired by his childhood visits to visit his grandmother, and shows the imagination of a bored young child during such a visit.

If you grade "Dimance" on a curve, which seems reasonable due to the limited resources Doyon had available to him, it's an amazing achievement.  Compared to the other films nominated in the animated short category, however, it wasn't quite as creative or engaging, and though it is a charming film, I doubt I will remember much about it in a few weeks.  Still, Doyon is obviously an empathetic and thoughtful storyteller, and if he continues to hone his talents, he has the potential to be a unique and interesting maker of animated films.

Remaining: 3148 films, 872 Oscars, 5408 nominations

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Royal Affair (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film - Denmark

Yes, you read that right, the entire nation of Denmark was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  Due to an odd and controversial rule in the Academy's bylaws, each country may submit one film to be considered for the Foreign Language category, and the Oscar is given to the country that submitted the winning film (though the director of the film accepts the trophy).

Alicia Vikander kissing Mads Mikkelsen
Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in A Royal Affair.
Photo Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
For the 85th Academy Award, Denmark chose to submit A Royal Affair, a telling of one of the most interesting events in Denmark's history, the affair between Queen Caroline Mathilde, the daughter of the Prince of Wales and wife to King Christian VII of Denmark and Norway, and Johann Struensee, the king's personal physician.  The affair, born out of a loveless marriage between Caroline and the unstable Christian, predictably sets off a chain of events that leads to tragedy for all involved.

Danish language aside, A Royal Affair feels like many of the films produced by the BBC, and there wasn't much terribly original about the film.  The story is told in a straightforward manner with little to distract from the story.  Mads Mikkelsen was the best I have seen him, though admittedly I have not seen any of his previous Danish film or television work.  Alicia Vikander has an intriguing quality about her, but her performance felt flat and a bit lifeless.  Mikkel Folsgaard has the showiest role in the film as Christian, yet while he fully embraces the mental instability of the character, he pulls back just enough to keep his character from descending into a parody, and allows his character to show growth and empathy while still demonstrating a childish lack of comprehension.  A Royal Affair was Folsgaard's first feature film, and he has a very promising career ahead of him.

The story of the pseudo-love triangle between Christian, Caroline, and Struensee is a fascinating one, and the filmmakers rightly realized that there is enough at the root of the story to make embellishment unnecessary.  This film should appeal to anyone who loves a good BBC romantic tragedy.

Remaining: 3149 films, 872 Oscars, 5409 nominations

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Prometheus (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Visual Effects - Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, and Martin Hill

I'm a bit young to have been truly hit by the Alien franchise.  The first film came out five years before I was born, and the sequel was released when I was just two.  Even though I've long been familiar with the films, I've never felt the attachment to them that I have for other series of films released during my years as a filmgoer.  Yet I was still curious about Prometheus, the prequel to Alien and the latest installment of the franchise, both due to the stellar cast and the return of Ridley Scott to the director's chair.  Those I know who love the Alien films seem to love Prometheus, while those like me with less of an attachment to the films seem to feel underwhelmed.

I give Ridley Scott and his team a great deal of credit for putting a great deal of care into this film.  Prometheus is a far above average effort, with an arresting visual aesthetic, fantastic cast, and the seeds of some interesting themes.  What bothered me is that the film felt schizophrenic in how it dealt with its themes, quickly vacillating between moments that felt downright Malick-ian at times and others that were straightahead popcorn-flick fare.  It feels like a film that is being forced to fit into the Alien model, but it clearly wants to be something different, resulting in a disjointed whole.

The film is led by a nice performance from Noomi Rapace, and Charlize Theron is fine but, as was too common in 2012, was underused.  Michael Fassbender has become one of my very favorite current film actors, and his performance as David the android was the primary reason I was interested in the film.  He does a very nice job in a difficult role in which he must turn in a compelling performance inhabiting a character who is described as literally having no sole.  And it should come as no surprise to his many admirers that Idris Elba steals every scene he is in.

The film received its nomination for visual effects, a no-brainer nomination.  Some of the digital manifestations of the aliens looked goofy, but overall the effects work is well deserving of a nomination.  The Academy gave the award to the visual effects team behind Life of Pi, who clearly deserved the award.  Still, the quartet behind Prometheus did a great job, and it was clearly one of the five best examples of visual effects in 2012.

Remaining: 3150 films, 872 Oscars, 5410 nominations

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Adam and Dog (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Animated - Minkyu Lee

Apparently I didn't get the memo, but it seems that to be nominated in the Best Animated Short category a film must be free of any dialogue, or at least that's what the Academy effectively said in their selections for the 85th Academy Awards.  Maybe this was for the best, because it's pretty hard to argue with the stellar crop of films nominated this past year.

"Adam and Dog" wordlessly tells the story of what is presumed to be the first dog on earth, who wanders the world alone until he encounters Adam, and the two become fast friends.  Anyone familiar with the story of Adam and Eve can imagine what happens next, but telling the story through the dog's eyes adds a nice twist, and though the film's ending can be pretty easily inferred, it still packs a hefty emotional punch when the moment arrives.

The animation is a lovely blend of traditional 2-D character animation and more traditionally painted backgrounds, and the animators succeeded in conveying complicated and deep character emotions without the crutch of dialogue.

The entire short is a set up to the punch line, and therefore not as complex as other nominees like "Head Over Heels," but it's still a gem of a film, and I'm more likely to return to it than any of the other nominees from this past year.

Remaining: 3151 films, 872 Oscars, 5411 nominations

Hitchcock (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Makeup and Hairstyling - Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, and Martin Samuel

The biggest danger of any work of art about another work of art is that the latter will pale in comparison to the former, even if they are very different creations.  This is the problem I had with Hitchcock, which left me wishing I had spent my evening watching Psycho instead of the story of how the classic film was made.

Hitchcock tells the story of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock's struggles to make the film Psycho, an endeavor in which few believed.  According to the film, the Hitchcocks battled through skeptical studio executives, marital troubles, potential financial ruin, and Hitch's own demons in order to make Psycho.

While the making of Psycho was certainly fraught with difficulty, there is not nearly enough drama to sustain the running time of the film.  The filmmakers instead rely on underdeveloped insinuations about Hitchcock's famously creepy obsessions with his leading ladies and a personification of his inner demons in the form of Ed Gein, the inspiration behind Norman Bates.  These digressions are divorced from the film's central narrative, never coming together to form anything resembling a cohesive script.

As is the case in any biopic of a recently living famous person, the film cannot even begin to succeed unless the actor or actress in the lead role pulls off his or her transformation into the famous subject.  Anthony Hopkins turns in a solid performance as Hitchcock, but even though I was able to forget I was watching Anthony Hopkins, I never became entirely convinced I was watching Alfred Hitchcock, as I did while watching Meryl Steep in The Iron Lady.  This wasn't due to any shortfall in Hopkins's performance, but instead to a lack of character development in the screenplay.

Helen Mirren, freed of any responsibility of portraying a famous person - how many of us know what Alma Hitchcock looked like, let alone sounded like - steals the movie.  She is fierce yet tender as Alma, both protective of her husband but also infuriated with him.  It's a performance of contradictions, and it left me wishing that Hitchcock was about the other Hitchcock.

The film's sole Oscar nomination came in the makeup and hairstyling category, presumably due to the makeup work done to make Anthony Hopkins resemble Hitchcock, since it is the only makeup work of note in the film.  The makeup work was well done, but it in no way compared to the creativity of the makeup in The Hobbit or the vast scope of the work done in Les Miserables.  Hitchcock's hairstyling work was also nice, particularly that of Scarlett Johansson in the role of Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, but once again does not seem to be enough to be worthy of an Oscar nomination.

If nothing else, Hitchcock made me anxious to watch Psycho again, a film I haven't watched in a few years, and anything that makes its audience revisit Psycho deserves recognition.

Remaining: 3152 films, 872 Oscars, 5412 nominations

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Costume Design - Colleen Atwood
Nomination: Best Visual Effects - Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Phil Brennan, Neil Corbould, and Michael Dawson

The only thing more overexposed these days than brightly colored skinny jeans is the fairy tale.  For whatever reason, Hollywood has collectively decided that what the world needs is an endless procession of modern adaptations of fairy tales: Jack the Giant Slayer, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, as well as TV shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time.  One or two have connected with audiences - I remain tenuously interested in Once Upon a Time - but for the large part viewers have collectively yawned.  Snow White has been of particular interest to this wave of filmmakers, with Snow White and the Huntsman one of several attempts to tell the tale of Snow White and her Prince Charming in a way that would appeal to modern sensibilities.

Chris Hemsworth protecting Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth
Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Snow White and the Huntsman tells a modified, and often confused, version of the classic Snow White story.  Snow's father remarries the wicked stepmother (Charlize Theron), who kills the king and banishes Snow to prison.  After reaching adulthood and posing a threat to the queen's beauty, the stepmother tries to have Snow killed, but when Snow escapes the prison, a huntsman is hired to capture Snow.  The huntsman quickly and without much conflict joins Snow in her quest to find the exiles from what was once her kingdom, as they plan to reclaim the kingdom.

The film has enough twists from the classic story to make the story at least somewhat unpredictable, and Theron is solid if unspectacular as the wicked queen.  The highlight of the film is the casting of the seven dwarfs, a group of some of the finest of Britain's character actors: Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, and Toby Jones leading the pack.  

The film's pair of nominations were for the costume design and visual effects.  Neither was anywhere close to my favorite of the year in their respective categories, but I can't argue with their nominations.  

Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman
Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman
Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures
The film suffers from two major problems.  The first is the most easily addressed: casting.  Chris Hemsworth isn't terrible as the Huntsman, but neither does he bring anything interesting to the film.  When I saw him in Thor, I thought his monotonous, booming delivery of lines was chosen because of the godly nature of his character.  However, this voice also inhabits his Huntsman, and it appears to be the only way he is capable of speaking in character.  Far worse, however, is Kristen Stewart as Snow White.  A film about Snow White succeeds or fails largely due to the casting of the fairest princess, and though Stewart certainly looks the part, she brings no charm, sweetness, ferocity, mirth, or any characteristic that would make her Snow White even mildly interesting.  This lacking is made all the more evident by the fact that every week I see Ginnifer Goodwin do all of this and more in her performance as Snow on Once Upon a Time.  I find it hard to believe that anyone would feel compelled to offer their loyalty and life to such a dud of a personality.

The larger problem I had was with the concept of the film itself.  The idea of an adult version of a fairy tale isn't a bad one, but this film has been stripped of any sense of fun or joy.  Despite the changes made to the story, the tale of Snow White is one for children, and thus it doesn't have enough depth when told for an adult audience.  Perhaps the film could have benefited if it allowed more room for humor; had Charlize Theron been allowed to really run wild as the wicked stepmother (something similar to her character in Young Adult could have been a good starting point) instead of playing it entirely straight would have surely made the film more fun, and the presence of actors like Hoskins, Winstone, and Frost would have been even more enjoyable.  I understand the intent was to make an adult drama out of a fairy tale, but as the old saying goes, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Remaining: 3153 films, 872 Oscars, 5413 nominations

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Music Man (1962)

6 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment - Ray Heindorf
Nomination: Best Picture - Morton Da Costa
Nomination: Best Film Editing - William H. Ziegler
Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Color - Paul Groesse and George James Hopkins
Nomination: Best Costume Design, Color - Dorothy Jeakins
Nomination: Best Sound - George Groves (Warner Bros. SSD)

After making my way through the occasional discomfort and less than occasional boredom of Flower Drum Song, it was a relief to watch a musical that I could enjoy without any question or hesitation.  The Music Man is one of those movies that I had somehow never seen, despite the fact that I grew up watching musicals, so when it was shown on Turner Classic Movies, I took the opportunity to end my ignorance toward one of the most popular American film musicals.

There's not much I didn't love about The Music Man.  Based on Meredith Wilson's stage musical, there were probably half a dozen times during the film that I exclaimed "THIS song comes from The Music Man?!"  While there are some relatively standard (though still wonderful) songs such as "Till There Was You" and "Goodnight, My Someone," Meredith Wilson was a truly unique composer, with songs like "Seventy-six Trombones" defying all conventions of meter and rhythm.  I loved Robert Preston in the lead role of Harold Hill, as he can deliver these deliver songs with amazing diction and style.

The Music Man is a big, brassy musical, full of lasting songs, memorable contributions by several character actors, and a killer lead performance from Robert Preston.  It's a joy to watch and does not feel the least bit dated.  I imagine in the future I will be returning to The Music Man often.

Remaining: 3154 films, 872 Oscars, 5415 nominations

Monday, April 8, 2013

Flower Drum Song (1961)

5 nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Color - Alexander Golitzen, Joseph C. Wright, and Howard Bristol
Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - Russell Metty
Nomination: Best Costume Design, Color - Irene Sharaff
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture - Alfred Newman and Ken Darby
Nomination: Best Sound - Waldon O. Watson (Revue SSD)

In a year in which films like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty were released, it's hard to imagine that a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical from 1961 could be considered controversial.  Yet Flower Drum Song, with its often simplistic and cartoonish depiction of Asian-Americans, has been considered a troubling film to many since it was released more than five decades ago.

An adaptation of the tenth Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song was directed by Henry Koster, nominated for Best Director for The Bishop's Wife 1947), Flower Drum Song tells the story of Mei Li, a Chinese immigrant who arrives in San Francisco with her father to enter into an arranged marriage. Her husband-to-be doesn't want to settle down, so attempts to find another husband for Mei Li.  As various romantic pairings become entangled with one another in a manner reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy, the film deals with many questions surrounding the theme of Asian-American identity.  Some of these themes are dealt with in an interesting, thoughtful manner, but some are not.

The largest criticism directed at Flower Drum Song is that of cultural appropriation, or "Can and should non Asian-Americans depict the Asian-American culture?"  This question is dealt with quite thoughtfully in one of the DVD's bonus features, including a very thoughtful point of view from noted playwright David Henry Hwang.  It's a question I won't begin to attempt to answer in this post, but I will say that while the film should be lauded for being one of the first to portray Asian-American characters outside of comic relief - let's not forget that Mickey Rooney's offensive performance of an Asian-American in Breakfast at Tiffany's was released the same year as Flower Drum Song - some of the characterizations made me uncomfortable.  Still, I feel that the film, while far from perfect in how it portrayed Asian-Americans, was far ahead of its time and served as the bellwether to many of the Asian-American centered films that would follow.

Flower Drum Song is the source of a few notable songs that have become a part of the American Songbook, namely "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "Chop Suey."  While these songs are worthy additions to the Rodgers & Hammerstein oeuvre, most of the film's numbers are largely forgettable.  The scoring of the film by Alfred Newman and Ken Darby, which received an Oscar nomination, is respectable, but not terribly exciting.

The film received four additional nominations, three for the look of the film and one for the sound.  With the possible exception of some of the Chinese-American inspired costume designs that were visually appealing and a good representation of the community it was attempting to represent, I didn't find any of these nominations to be particularly noteworthy.  The cinematography in particular felt rather lifeless, and the filming of the musical numbers was more similar to the musicals of the 1930's than the breakthroughs represented in films of the previous decade like Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris.

While Flower Drum Song has clearly built a legacy as a worthwhile and historically notable musical, it's not hard to see why it is generally held with less reverence than other efforts from Rodgers & Hammerstein.  I'm glad I watched it, but I don't think I will be returning to it like I do to other Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptations.

Remaining: 3155 films, 873 Oscars, 5421 nominations

Friday, April 5, 2013

Undefeated (2011)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Features - Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin, and Rich Middlemas

While I remain a stoic in even the most tragic circumstances in real life, I'm capable of turning into a weeping idiot at the climax of a good sports movie.  Hoosiers, Rudy, Rocky, hell, even The Mighty Ducks can make me tear up in a way that the real world rarely can.  Yet any embarrassment I feel about this admission reached an all-time high when I found myself choked up on an airplane while watching Undefeated on my iPad.  There's nothing like surreptitiously wiping away tears while sitting between a traveling salesman pounding back Maker's Marks and a young man watching The Deadliest Catch on the in-flight television to make me question my manhood.

Undefeated documents one season in the life of the Manassas Tigers football team, a high school team in a severely economically disadvantaged part of Memphis, Tennessee.  The Tigers have long been the laughingstock of local high school football, the team that better and richer teams turn to when they're looking for a patsy to hang a half dozen touchdowns on for their homecoming games.  As a result of a dedicated and inspiring coach and the leadership of a particularly gifted group of seniors, the Tigers stand poised at the film's outset to have the best season in the team's history.

The film has often been described as a real life Friday Night Lights, and in many ways this is an accurate description, as long as the reference is to the Buzz Bissinger book and not the wonderful but sometimes soapy television series (I'm looking at you, whoever wrote the story arc involving Landry killing a man).  While the TV show focused on the dramas of the player's personal lives, the book was an exploration of class, race, and of course football.  The filmmakers behind Undefeated similarly explore several complex issues, but like in Bissinger's book, these issues are always explored within the context of the story being told.  Remarkably, the film never for a moment loses its focus on the story and the individuals at the films' center, showing incredible maturity and talent on the part of the filmmakers.

Despite all of the greater issues being addressed, Undefeated is at its heart a sports film, and I knew from the beginning that the film would follow one of two formulas: the team would victoriously achieve its goal a la Hoosiers, or nobly fall short a la Rocky (don't worry, I won't reveal which is the case).  While this structure came as no surprise, the journeys of the film's subjects were far more surprising, and one particular moment was so surprisingly joyful that it left me in the aforementioned tears.

Of the four films I have seen that received nominations in the Best Documentary Feature category at the 84th Academy Awards, Undefeated is by far my favorite, and it might just be my favorite film of the year, with only The Tree of Life offering a challenge.  It is a superb documentary, handling weighty and difficult issues with maturity while still telling a thrilling story.  In every possible way, Undefeated exceeded my expectations, and I can even forgive it for embarrassing me in public.

Remaining: 3156 films, 873 Oscars, 5426 nominations

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Sessions (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role - Helen Hunt

Maybe it was the Boston accent that was all too reminiscent of Kevin Costner's in Thirteen Days, maybe it was the unsteady plotting, or maybe I was just more impressed with John Hawkes, but I just wasn't as taken away with Helen Hunt's performance in The Sessions as everyone else seemed to be.  This isn't to say her performance was bad (accent aside), she's actually quite solid in the film and deserved the positive notices she received.  Hunt's performance allowed the audience to feel understanding toward her character, a character who in the hands of a lesser actress might have left viewers cold and judgmental.  Yet due to the limitations of her character rooted in the imperfect screenplay by writer/director Ben Lewin, Hunt wasn't able to bring much unexpected to the role, and I'm left confused by the buzz around her performance.

The problems with The Sessions, namely uneven pacing and unnecessary scenes involving secondary characters, both stem from the screenplay.  Lewin's script has some sharp and witty dialogue, and it deserves credit for creating sufficient sympathy toward the characters to understand their unique circumstances without resorting to pity.  Lewin also faced the challenge of adapting a feature length film from an article and a short film, and perhaps these scenes were added to help the film reach an appropriate run length for a feature film.  Whatever the reason for their inclusion, these scenes left the script with the feel of an early draft in need of additional polishing.

The Sessions is a nice little film, and the performances by both the leads, as well as a pleasant supporting role from William H. Macy, makes the film worth a watch.  However, the film feels to be lacking enough material to justify a feature film, and perhaps would have been better off as a short.

Remaining: 3157 films, 874 Oscars, 5427 nominations