25 January 2008

"80 Years of Oscar" Poster

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that yearly gives us the Oscars, has just released its celebratory poster for this year's awards. The poster's design features the poster art for most, if not all, of the Academy's 80 Best Picture award-winners, including a question-marked space for this year's recipient. The posters are arranged seriatim according to year and conform with a spiral design that, when viewed as a whole, mimics an Oscar statuette. Combined with a classy backdrop and a written list of the titles of all the featured Best Pictures, the imagery of the poster looks simply beautiful, which is why I just had to post about it. Enjoy, people. There are about 4 weeks until the awards' ceremony.

22 January 2008

Heath Ledger: Tragedy

I literally just saw the incredibly tragic news on television that Heath Ledger, acclaimed actor from films like Monster's Ball (2001) and the landmark Brokeback Mountain (2005), was found dead in his NYC apartment today by his housekeeper. The report said that he was discovered lying on his bed next to numerous medications this afternoon, soon before he was scheduled for a massage. Despite the circumstances, the death is assumed to be an accident. He was twenty-eight years-old.

I'm speechless.

Here is a link to the "Breaking News" article on CNN.com.

From the Times:
"At 3:31 p.m., according to the police, a masseuse arrived at the fourth-floor apartment of the building, at 421 Broome Street, between Crosby and Lafayette Streets in SoHo, for an appointment with Mr. Ledger. The masseuse was let in to the home by a housekeeper, who then knocked on the door of the bedroom Mr. Ledger was in. When no one answered, the housekeeper and the masseuse opened the bedroom and found Mr. Ledger naked and unconscious on a bed, with sleeping pills — both prescription medication and nonprescription — on a night table. They moved his body to the floor and attempted to revive him, but he did not respond. They immediately called the authorities."

The Reaction to the Cloud

And the nominations have been announced.

Other than the blah support for Atonement that almost knocked me over, I was surprised by a few things:

  • the screenplay for Away from Her being nominated, because it definitely wasn't spectacular - but then the offerings for that category weren't spectacular in general this year
  • the screenplay for Ratatouille being nominated, because it also wasn't spectacular - but then they love their Pixar
  • the curve ball that was the nomination for Surf's Up as animated feature
  • the unexpected, yet still expected absence of Le Scaphandre et le Papillon from the Best Picture category, which to me only attests to the old-school, unadventurous mentality that plagues the awards
  • the unexpected show of double-love for Cate Blanchett, who, while always wonderful, did not strike me as outstanding in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, especially not more wonderful than, say, Amy Adams in Enchanted. (Huzzah for Laura Linney though!)
  • and the actually expected show of no-love for Sean Penn, who not only failed to get himself a Director nomination (and Emile Hirsche an Actor nomination), but also failed to have his marvellous Into the Wild nominated as Best Picture - how could they do that? Don't they love Sean Penn over at the Academy? I thought for sure they'd eat that shit up - ("shit" colloquially of course - I mean, I called the film "marvellous" sincerely, to which my personal nominations can attest [see right]).
Edits to come, pending the rest of the nominations, which were not televised....

  • Wow, all three songs from Enchanted?! They were good, but they weren't that good. I sense nostalgia for the Menken of yore. (Meanwhile, the ignorance-fest for Into the Wild shuts out Eddie Vedder from this category completely.)
  • Nothing for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix! Boo! Really, it deserved at least one recognition somewhere...
  • ...meanwhile, ugh, Atonement gets into the cinematography category - that just bothers me
  • Interesting choices for musical score - I didn't find Michael Clayton or Ratatouille to be very exceptional and I have not seen - well, heard, I guess - The Kite Runner or 3:10 to Yuma
  • Across the Universe for costumes? - but then the costume nominees usually contain one that is way out there and of a film that wasn't great (e. g., Troy). (Huzzah for La Vie en Rose though!)
  • and hooray for the Animated Short nominees!
OK, now back to sleep.


And, now that I've slept, some final thoughts:
  • About score: The Michael Clayton score is a big "what?" to me; I can appreciate minimalistic background but this just feels unspecial. I don't mind the Ratatouille score, but it is very typical. I wonder, could its being nominated be a recompensatory recognition of Michael Giacchino for his more unique work on The Incredibles? The 3:10 to Yuma score is actually thoroughly enjoyable and am for its having a nomination. And The Kite Runner sounds like a knock-off version of your wonderful score for The Constant Gardener, Mr. Iglesias.
  • About editing: I'm glad Le Scaphandre et le Papillon and Into the Wild got in there. Frankly any Into the Wild love is glad-making.
  • and about screenplay: ....

In the Shadow of the Oscars

So, the nominations for the 80th annual Academy Awards are due to become official tomorrow morning (though some sources may have had an insider's peek). For many, their announcement is yearly the cause of much anxiety and anticipation, since the reaction to them always seems to indicate that the films that the Academy chooses to either nominate or not nominate accordingly either gain or do not gain respect ad finitum in the Zeitgeist opinion of the general public - a phenomenon I like to call the clever misconceptions of the historical present (e. g., the existence of people who earnestly believe Crash was the best picture of its year). For me and, I suspect, for many others who enjoy taking a greater interest in the actual merits of film, the nominations of the Academy (and indeed their awards themselves) are nothing more than the opportunity to see how much the popular gurus "got right" (oftentimes according to our own personal observations) - well, that, or the opportunity to exercise our sports'-fan's-like competitive spirits with others like ourselves (but that's a whole different story).
For my own part, I just posted the final nominations for my own little awards (on the right) and, because I'm a dork who can't resist, I will be waking up early to watch the Academy's nominations' announcement to see "how well we've done." I know that my pushes for films like The Darjeeling Limited are far-fetched to any savvy "Oscar-tracker," but I stand by them all. (I mean, Mr. Anderson's work is not continually admitted to the Criterion Collection because it's bad.) And among the best of the others I stand boldly in the shadow of Oscar: Mr. Idziak's brilliant cinematographical work on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Ms. Garner's striking performance in Juno, and Ms. Lynch's captivatingly ephemeral portrayal in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; and, though I contend that the Oscars actually mean very little nowadays in terms of true achievements, fingers are nevertheless crossed in hopes that they recognize these worthy pieces.
Until the morning...

19 January 2008

Review: Le Scaphandre et le Papillon

Genre: Drama / Biopic

So I finally just saw Le Scaphandre et le Papillon today and, for the first time in a while, I discovered that the work had not been, to a disappointment's effect, extenuously overpraised in the media. Instead, I discovered that it was as many have already been saying, a wonderful and deeply beautiful description of one man's struggle to uncover and improve and express himself in the world; and, although that bit of plot detail may come off as more than a bit cliche and 'senti-metallic,' I assure anyone who may doubt me about it that, a former cynic myself, my similar doubts were quelled (and thoroughly quelled at that). From Mr. Kaminski's brilliant cinematography, that simply overwhelmed with its power, to Mr. Harwood's faithful adaptation, that glowed and radiated in its unembellished honesty, the film is clearly one of the best of the year.
To begin with, the film in its very first moment immediately breaks the divide of spectator from spectacle. Much of the entire film was shot in the first person, in a way that places the spectator within the visual confines of the struggling protagonist, and thus allies the two parties in that way. An extremely incisive and potent perspective, that alliance allowed the film to achieve true and unglamorized - ahem, Atonement - audience immersion, a phenomenon that roots strongly into the very foundational aims for the medium film - no, even (narrative) art in general - itself (i. e., the possibilities for consciousness' extension, metaphysical escapism, the persistence of memory, etc.).
These philosophical ripples were then supported by and symbiotically raised with an equally probing screenplay, that consciously investigated the limits of what it is to be 'human;' to have form, body; to think; to be thought of; and to create. Mr. Harwood delicately etched all this out from the original text marvellously, without any sensible or significant loss of strength; and additionally he found it within his capabilities and talent to cohabit these weighty discourses with the light and yet still emotionally and psychologically relevant portraits of the common tugs-of-war of the everyday and the people. In one rushing swift he touched on the quickly passionate anguish many feel when almost viscerally immersed in a televised sports' event and then cascaded smoothly into a solipsistic exploration of the larger-scheme, vital exasperation that can be extended from that rather quotidian origin. (When one is forced in on oneself, to rawly confront and really scrutinize oneself, in absence of all other things, all other beings, can what is commonly understood by the word "passion" truly be felt or achieved, or is that phenomenon solely and entirely an artificial, associative reaction to otherworldly things, a condition inspirable only by those things and those people absented outside of oneself?) And, for such tremendous tackle and ambition, he never once failed or faltered, but instead delivered and drove consistently rhythmically to as much of a conclusion as anyone can be said to have reached.
Intelligently, this philosophical questioning and journey was exactly and subtly mimicked by the quiet, evolving structure of Mr. Kaminski's cinematography. Much like the papillon's emergence from its scaphandre, the visuals of the film gradually reached beyond their starting point, to achieve a new frame, that of an abstracted self, an outsider, gazing within, gazing at the vessel from which it emerged. The transference from the initial first-person's perspective to a slowly more preponderate third-person's perspective illustrates this point most clearly; but Mr. Kaminksi marked all the story's archs in this way, extracting the proximal and the intense into the expansive and the resonant, and wove the film even tighter still by interlacing iconically significant, touchstone-like images at regular intervals throughout the film (e. g., the aquatic descent and the rigid, [old-world] full-body diving suit). Needless to say, the effects of all these aspects and designs were quite exquisite.
Together, the screenplay and the cinematography led the film's connoiter with concerns of the body, the mind, and the inexiguous delineation of the self as well as with the finesses and furies of human interrelations, especially intimate ones, but it was Mr. Schnabel's skilled direction that really gave all of it its flair. Drawing out spot-on performances from his cast, whom he superbly arranged in his spaces, and timing well the weight of each piece of his work, he quite elegantly oversaw his story from its at-first-instant beginnings to its majestic ends. He allowed the tragic to be tragic, the intimate to be intimate, and the funny to be funny and never let any one of them run away with the other two; and he made sure to extirpate any even meager sign of mill humor or pity or repulsion from his lush and sculpted filmscape.
Yet, for all its polished and clean and well conceived depths and surfaces, the film was not absolutely impeccable and, I feel, no matter what the condition or the origin of a work, unless perfect it can always be offered a little constructive criticism. In this case, I have three such comments. First: While I understand that, being based on a true and recent story, the film had little choice but to be allegiant to its source material, it also on the other hand could have taken some small, non-radical liberties without disavowing its source, in order to really crisp up and realize its source's at-least subtextual emotions. For example, I felt that in the first act, in which the protagonist learns of his "locked-in" condition, he could have more clearly been seen to go through the several stages of grief over personal loss that are to be expected in a situation like his. While confusion, displacement, despair, and acceptance are all there, the anger or frustration component I thought was lacking. If it had been more present, the audience's introduction into the body of the plot could have been more smooth and complete (though, without it, there is but a minor crease in the film's fabric [that may be arguably excused by references to the protagonist's character or personal nature]). Second and related to the first: While the borrowed music of the film was certainly strong and felt and very present, I thought the work as a whole could have used a more present, more solid original score. Mr. Constantin's and Mr. Cantelon's themes were a little too shy, too placid, too sedate for the film's fierce heart in my opinion. Third: While I understand the symbolic significance of the glacial imagery that figures throughout and at the closing of the film, I did not feel like it was a thoroughly sound analogy to make. Glaciers suggest coldness, frozenness, and 'in-fecundity' or 'in-arability' in addition to vastness, desolation, cohesion, etc.; and so they put me in mind of unsustainability, inaccess, and fruitlessness, which obviously stand in direct contrast to the tenets of the film. Perhaps fish in fractile, glass fishbowls would have been a better piece of imagery.
Nonetheless, despite these small constructive critiques, I did definitively admire the film and all the people involved in its creation. I strongly encourage anyone who have not yet seen it to soon do so, for in all its facets it was a tight, pointed, and affecting piece of work, with cinematography, a screenplay, and direction that stand out as some of the best of the year. And, them adeptly probing very profound, very current areas of philosophy, it sincerely was a tremendous work.

Grade: A-

17 January 2008

Animation Slip-Up? Or Just Snazzy Privy?

The consistently solid website AWN.com, which yearly features (in great layouts) all the nominees for both of the animated categories of the Academy Awards, is as of today featuring what appears to be this year's collective batch of animation nominees (reproduced below). (Yes, you read correctly: today.) For you readers who are puzzled by why the date matters, I'm sure any such puzzling will end when you read the following: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) has yet to officially release its list of nominees for any category; the official press release is scheduled for this upcoming Tuesday (Jan. 22). So, I must ask (and do so nevertheless in complete deference to the work of all the listed films on AWN.com, for none is undeserving of the honor of a nomination [and many are my personal picks]), do they at AWN.com know something that we don't know? Or are they, like many, just doing their best to predict the yet-to-be-announced, real lists of nominees? AMPAS? AWN.com? Anyone?

Best Animated Short
How to Hookup Your Home Theater
I Met the Walrus
Madame Tutli-Putli
The Pearce Sisters
Prokokiev's Peter & the Wolf

Best Animated Feature
The Simpsons Movie

SATC Lameness

SATC - that's Smart-Ass Title Creatives - recently finalized the official poster for the upcoming and much anticipated Sex and the City movie, due in theaters this summer. Needless to say, they failed terrifically at being clever: "Get 'Carried' Away." as the tagline?? Come on, people; at least try a little. How about "L'amour c'est chic encore." or, if French should be too exclusive, "Cosmopolitan with a twist." (which both took me at most ten minutes to write)?

09 January 2008

Review (Theater): The Little Mermaid on Broadway

Genre: Musical / Fairy Tale

The Little Mermaid's appearance on Broadway marks the latest attempt in a string of productions at trying to translate a popular and classic Disney success across from animated film and onto the live stage. While past and some still current attempts have been admirable, none has made that translation well thoroughly and, I am sorry to say, The Little Mermaid is no exception. Stiff where it should have been fluid, short when it should have been full, and caricatured all over, the production in but few ways lives up to the great standards of its source material, Disney's masterpiece 1989 film; and, unbolstered by great acting or orchestrations, it could hardly have been commended more fulsomely.
My main complaint with the work is with the liberties that the writers took when adapting the play to the stage, for the changes figured more as a quite double-edged sword than a global improvement (or, even, maintenance of status quo). Putting aside my exacting qualms over their blundering of mythologies - Triton and Poseidon were not son and father and immortal gods cannot die(!) - I fall to (first) the metamorphosis laid upon the Ursula character, which, I'm guessing, was done as much for the musical adaptation as for the want to accommodate the actress portraying her, whose physique and vocal range quite differ from the film's Ursula's. Now, to be clear, I'm not lobbying against the fact that there were changes made to Ursula (or to any character for that matter) in general. Of course one cannot expect any trans-media adaptation to produce the story entirely unscathed; exact replication, especially one made so many years after the source material's creation, is a fool's hope; and alterations done in any such adaptation are often necessarily so for the simple matter of the differing media. A live Ursula, for example, could never be expected to capture the same exact swirling, oily avarice as an animated Ursula could; fluid tentacular movement and stroke-perfect energy would by far elude any actress trying to impersonate that Ursula in reality. So, the effects laid upon the Ursula of the show that had her seething in an embellished backstory akin to that of aging starlet whose heydays are days long gone by were interesting, potent, and not incongruous with the original. They gave the actress license to limit her movements, as a dramatic lay-about would do in expectation of being waited upon by her doting servants; plausibility to sing, albeit still grittily, within a higher range than the original, as a former tall and blond showgirl, long past her prime, would do; and most importantly great reason to act as saucily, cruelly, and sweetly underhandedly as she possibly could, exactly as a fame-obsessed, desperate has-been would do if given the chance to rekindle her glory. So then why why why was her dialogue written so fluffy and her demise so feeble? It was practically an offense to the character that she was hardly ever seductive or sadistic in her power over her servants Flotsam and Jetsam and it was clearly an offense that, for all her heighth and might, planning and deviation, she was such a push-over in the end - vanquished by the mere smashing of her huge, obviously delicate, and scandalously unprotected shell that was, not only so predictable for everyone in the audience miles beforehand that even the six-year-old girl in the row in front of me had guessed it by intermission, but also so inevitable for everyone in the production that even the actress playing Ursula hardly put up a fight in hope of preventing it! It was verily outrageous, especially considering the fact that Ursula has time and again been considered one of the most (wonderfully) vicious villains (if not the most vicious) in the entire Disney canon! And the writers' liberties only got worse from there on: Scuttle, the somewhat beloved slapstick reprieve from the heavy drama, was by light-years too far expanded and given two(!) solo songs neither of which had more substance than the stock fart joke and one of which was poised as the practical second-act opener! Sebastian, the moral guardian of the story, was quite awkwardly and rather interjectedly given what one can only assume was a lover; and Flotsam and Jetsam were demoted from slitheringly wicked servants/underlings to a a sort of bizarre/vaudevillian, comic duo. New song lyrics were at best fatuous and cake-easy and the anally symmetrical character tree added an unpleasant level of two-by-two match-y-match-iness and incest to the very present sexual undertones that the story inheres. Needless to say: I was somewhat less than thrilled by the blueprints.
And, like I mentioned earlier, the action/construction based on them was basically like spraying a whole lot of hairspray onto the open flame (of quality and integrity burning). Ms. Scott's (i. e., Ursula's) performance let on nothing of her slighted status, former celebrity, or acrid avarice for her return to the spotlight more than the little ditty "I Want the Good Times Back" (also known as I want the source material back) could muster. The song reeked of statutory design and show-tunes-y shimmer, and her singing of it and her other numbers was much more talking than actual harmonizing. Add to that the fact that she barely moved from what appeared to be stiffness and duress (likely due to the action-restrictions of her overly-ambitious costume), rather than deliberation and character meditation, and the fact that she maybe once out of five times emphasized the correct word in the line or phrase; and then you can approximate the level of her stage presence. Ariel (Ms. Boggess) was the wholly unremarkable, insipid and preening fluff that, I guess, they wanted her to be, her voice no where near the power or raw feeling that it is supposed to communicate; and Triton, her father, (Mr. Lewis) was generally quite weak and unimpressive, despite his scriptedly magnus animus and aggressive turns. The only performances that on the whole positively stood out to me were that of Mr. Burgess (i. e., Sebastian), though his lungs felt quite not powerful enough to support his two milestone numbers - he was visibly winded, skipping lyrics, during "Under the Sea" - and that of young Mr. D'Addario (i. e., Flounder), whose typical deficiencies as a child actor were in this show outshone by his strong singing voice and his marvellous ability to remain in character regardless of whether or not his actions be the current focal point of all the action on stage. However, I must add that in a better production the qualities of these two performances would have only been average and therefore probably would have not stood out to me so positively.
The musical score, especially during the first act, was frenetic and completely incoherent, as vaudeville(?!)-style stage numbers were filed in between the rich, orchestral original songs and (as) the whole tightly woven instrumental work of Mr. Menken was subjugated under the fatty weight of showtunes pop. At any moment, I was half-expecting, big-band would come out and bash the whole thing into unrecognizable distress; and my concerns were only mildly diluted by the (inventive?) reuse of the original latter-story instrumentals to flesh out the courtship phase of the story with some few new, actually congruous(!) songs.
The set design, light design, and costume design were beautiful, if you happened to be a tastelesss, artless seven-year-old girl particularly fond of neon pastels, glitter, and plastic jewelry. The exceedingly festooned, drug-store--nail-polish toned sets sizzled and cracked out the red end of the saturation meter immediately upon curtain up under the tartly warm red, yellow, and purple(?) lights - leaving little to nowhere for them to go during the intrinsically burstingly motivated scenes (e. g., "Under the Sea") - while the lights themselves discarded any sort of intelligent scheme that they otherwise might have achieved contrasting warm with cool hues, colors with their complements, benevolent with malevolent emotions, or dramatic with comedic moments. And the costumes, though all intricately worked and detailed, too often ascribed to that curious brand of half-prudish, half-parade-oriented kitsch that seems peculiar of Disney and its real-world 'imagineering' to be seriously, earnestly appreciated.
And the rest of the shows failings I must lump onto the director, Ms. Zambello, who for some reasons unbeknownst and unguessable by me, not only assumedly instructed results in the aforementioned degrees, qualities, levels, and manners, but also and moreover approved them for opening night.
No, no, Disney, you were not the exquisite fantasy-land of possibility for this prominent inner child this time. Whatever success you derive from this latest investment may only be from the good name that is the card that you play by rousing and redressing your classic masterpiece. And, I'm sure as there were the scores of critics also present at my Tuesday night's performance, my particular showing was not an anomaly.

Grade: C/ C-: Mediocre and disappointing