29 February 2012

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 23: RETURN OF THE INDIE CORNER

Hey independent filmmakers! Want to have me take a look at your hard-made film? E-mail me!

There might well not be a human population more thoroughly documented than young people of uncertain means living in New York City; thank God that there are so many kinds of New Yorkers, then, or the subgenre might be really tedious, or at any rate more tedious more often.

Things I Don't Understand, the sophomore feature made by writer-director David Spaltro, is probably not the most innovative or original entry among its peers; but that's not to say that it's a cookie-cutter quirky dramedy, as it briefly appears that it might be in the opening stages. Herein, we meet Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman), a graduate student conducting a singularly morbid study of near-death experience; coming off of her own ambiguous failed suicide (she claims it was a staged experiment), this is not necessarily the healthiest course of action for her to pursue, which is why she's presently in therapy, under the care of a certain Dr. Anne Blankenship (Lisa Eichhorn). In the meantime, Violet, her gay roommate Remy (Hugo Dillon), and their new third, a fluttery radical green activist named Gabby (Meissa Hampton) are contentedly going about their business living in a nice-sized but ramshackle loft above a bar.

The three complicating incidents: Violet forms an unusually strong bond to one of her research subjects, a young cancer patient named Sara (Grace Folsom); she starts crushing on the downstairs bartender, Parker (Aaron Mathias); and the bucolic world of the loft is threatened by a real estate development. These three things allow Spaltro to explore the life of young urbanites from three equidistant angles: the philosophical (Violet's age-inappropriate obsession with death), the interpersonal (Violet's burgeoning love affair is matched by her roommate's individual goings and comings with lovers and other acquaintances), and the sociological (the economic world of unemployable young creative class types). Spaltro's screenplay doesn't delve into all of these topics with equal success (the Violet-Parker story in particular skirts rather near to cliché), but the mere fact that the film has its eyes open about the pragmatic details of life among the under-moneyed classes, without turning into a full-on message picture, is enough to put it ahead of the curve.

The generally intelligent script is matched with unusually polished cinematography for a low-budget film, courtesy of Gus Sacks; with one eye on ethereal atmosphere and the other on stripped-down realism, the movie pivots constantly from sleekness to grit and back smoothly. It's not the only sign of exceptionally professional filmmaking, though it is fair to say that nothing else here is so consistent: in particular, the film suffers from editing that's a bit more hectic than it needs to be, and a sound mix that's all over the place, with some characters virtually unintelligible - Remy is singularly horrible example, made worse because of Dillon's thick accent - and music that veers from too loud to barely audible with no reason (this could easily have been a result of the copy I was watching; either way, it's distracting).

Sadly, the acting isn't quite at the level of the craftsmanship and writing: there is a persistent lack of modulation demonstrated by nearly all of the actors (though Eichhorn is largely faultless throughout): a little bit too much mugging in some scenes followed up by slack, oddly-stressed line readings in the next. I don't think I could go so far as to call any of them bad, but there's a certain strained "we are acting! in a MOVIE!" quality that never quite shakes itself off, and it's hard to fully engage with the characters as a result.

This is not a minor problem, but it's also not uncommon in the low-budget world we're dealing with; and the sophisticated visual language is more than enough to leave Things I Don't Understand comfortably in the realm of above-average indie filmmaking. Not a slam-dunk masterpiece, but better than just a calling card, and a perfectly satisfying treatment of themes that don't get nearly as much air as the more common "I want to play acoustic guitar and have sex" tropes that dominate the urban 20something indie scene.

Official Site

* * * * *

The Big Something is the first feature to come out of Tempe, Arizona filmmaking concern Running Wild. This has the merit, first, of definitively answering the question, "Wait, they make movies in Arizona?", and proving that regional cinema not located in any of the expected urban centers is alive and well. It also explains and to some degree excuses the film's resolutely and at times aggressively frivolous tone: if it feels, from time to time, like the movie is the result of a bunch of friends hanging out and making a movie while they hang out, that's not exactly the opposite of what it is.

I will confess that it took me a while to warm up to The Big Something's shaggy tone, and particularly the lead performance of Michael Coleman; whether this is because it genuinely takes time for the character, actor, and scenario to gel, or if it's simply a matter of getting used to Coleman's sped-up energy, I am not entirely sure. Either way, The Big Something ends better than it begins, shedding the most cloying of its quirky notions as it goes along and coalescing as a light comedy-mystery after some rocky exposition of the "I want to have a stilted conversation about things we both know, and later I want to repeat it just to make sure the audience is 100% on board" variety.

Coleman plays Lewis, a homeless employee who works at a vintage record store and sleeps there by the grace of its kindly owner Marcus (Steve Fajardo). When Marcus shows up dead of an apparent suicide, Lewis is the only person to suspect foul play, which leads him to play amateur sleuth, with the intensely reluctant aid of his new boss, the hard-drinking, easily-angered April (Mina Mirkhah). The journey he makes to find the truth and secure his place in the easygoing, freeloader-friendly world of ironic nostalgia takes him through a cross-section of comic exaggerations, resulting in a film that is half parody of hipsters (a black market fixie operation is a particular highlight) and half tribute to their tenacity.

Mostly, though, it's a hang-out picture, the kind whose chief appeal is that it makes the protagonist somebody that we enjoy visiting with for a period of time - a slightly overlong 101 minutes, to be exact - without specifically needing to know exactly where his journey takes him, or why. Coleman's Lewis certainly fits the bill as a charmingly scabby indie hero, all gangly limbs on a tiny frame, and a slightly befuddled reaction to most everything that happens to him. It takes a while, as I said, to figure out the film's rhythm, which is unrelentingly slight; but getting there is worth the patience it takes.

As a piece of filmmaking, it's unmistakably a low-budget affair: the lighting isn't terribly even, for a start, with interiors that are a bit too dark and exteriors that are a bit too blown-out. But the worst that can be said about it, for the most part, is that it is unexceptionally competent. I am not entirely onboard with all of director & co-writer Travis Mills's conceits; the use of silent intertitles and old-fashioned irises in and out of some scenes both strike me as a contrivance that isn't used with near enough consistency to have the effect it's meant to (which, if I would guess, is meant to tie the loosey-goosey detective story into the tradition of '30s pulps, and reference the characters' love of retro aesthetics), though the ancient blues and jazz soundtrack, while coming from the same general place, is far more effect both in conception and execution.

It would be possible to complain about this or that - the scruffy audio, the unchallenging shot vocabulary, and especially the acting, which veers from moderately unsteady to perfectly decent, with virtually no genuinely bad moments but also no standouts - but it would be, to a certain degree, missing the point. The Big Something transparently has no pretensions towards depth; it is a lark meant to demonstrate "we can do this" rather than redefine the medium. At that task, it succeeds; I do hope that Running Wild finds a little bit more ambition at some point, but for now, engaging and genial character comedies are nothing to sniff at.

Official Site

TYLER PERRY: MADEA'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY (2011)

Madea's Big Happy Family, the sole Tyler Perry film released in 2011 (which thereby became the first year with only a single Perry release since 2006), crystallises something for me: I don't get Madea. And not in the obvious sense of what that phrase means: by this point, I imagine anyone paying attention to this retrospective has figured out that I - a white, atheistic Midwesterner - don't get what makes Madea ostensibly funny. I mean, I do - in Spike Lee's ever-useful words, it is "coonery", because apparently in the 21st Century, enough Americans of all races still enjoy watching black people stripped of their dignity to make such farce economically viable - but I don't.

That's not what I'm referring to: I mean that I simply don't get what Madea is supposed to represent in Perry's moral worldview. Time and time again, the unresolved question has come up of why the apparent hero of a series of films that unambiguously double as evangelical Christian morality plays is so resistant to Christianity, and Big Happy Family nails that down in a scene where Perry's bellowing parody of matriarchal womanhood straight up refers to "the Christians" in terms that cannot be regarded as anything other than gentle, loving, and wildly condescending mockery. If there was any doubt left that Madea, consistently presented as the source of unfailingly sound, common-sense wisdom, views herself as not merely separate from the organised religion that has given so much shape to the universe of Perry's films and thinking, but in every significant way superior to Christianity and the people who let themselves be governed by the rules of organised religion. What message, if any, this situation is meant to impart, is completely unclear to me; perhaps this speaks to my lack of sophistication on the niceties of Southern Baptism, and perhaps Tyler Perry is one of the most terrible dramatic writers to ever ride that non-talent to tens of millions of dollars.

The film, adapted from Perry's 2010 play - the shortest stage-to-screen turnaround in his career - is once again a melange of family drama and broad farce, though the balance skews a bit more serious than it does in the bulk of the Madea pictures. We have here Shirley (Loretta Devine), who learns at the start of the movie that she is about to finally lose a seven-year battle with cancer; her response is neither fear or sorrow, for her faith gives her the certitude that she is leaving for a better place, but to hope, earnestly, that before her death, she can bring her three children together, patch up all the anger and mistrust that have marked their relationships, and leave this life with a happy family behind her. The problem is that her daughters, Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) and Kimberly (Shannon Kane) can't be in the same room without lambasting one another's parenting skills and general personality flaws, when they're not verbally abusing their husbands, Harold (Rodney Perry) and Calvin (Isaiah Mustafa), while her son, Byron (Shad Moss, better known to most of us as rapper Bow Wow), is always just one weak moment away from returning to a life of drug dealing, to support his son's wretched mother Sabrina (Teyana Taylor), and to keep his shallow girlfriend Renee (Lauren London).

If you have not noticed Madea factoring into all of this, that is because she spends the first half of the movie in a separate plotline, where the ebullient malapropist Mr. Brown (David Mann), in his third feature film appearance, is terrified about his own health prospects, and discovers in the process of having bloodwork done that he is not, after all, the father of his and Madea's daughter Cora (Tamela J. Mann). What draws the two together is the fact that Madea is Shirley's aunt, and she is called in to serve as heavy artillery by Shirley's other aunt, Bam (Cassi Davis, a House of Payne mainstay given her first substantial role in a Perry feature), to lay down that good old-fashioned Madea beatdown to get Shirley's children and grandchildren in line.

Structurally, this isn't really any different than Madea Goes to Jail or Madea's Family Reunion:a torrid family drama that is spiked with the spectacle of Perry in drag, shouting. Even so, there's an X-factor about Big Happy Family that feels weirder than those movies. I wonder if it's simply that the soap opera acrobatics are so much more earnest and dark here; there is, after all, no looming specter of death in most of Perry's earlier work. In that regard, this movie actually resembles the writer-director's The Family That Preys with a huge serving of Madea wedged in, and it's less than surprising that this graft doesn't hold, for at heart, the story of Shirley's march towards death is too muted, though Devine has the good sense not to play for too much sympathy or sorrow, which would only come across as out of place in the company of the clowns and melodramatic caricatures making up the rest of the plot. At any rate, the underlying seriousness of the film fits uncomfortably at best with the slapstick of Madea and company; it is a tension that has been found in several of the director's movies, of course, but in this case, the comedy loses out, with Perry's performance of Madea especially feeling flatter and more strained than he ever has in the role. Taking two years off of the character appears to have intensified the filmmaker's Madea fatigue rather than recharged his batteries: even his wig is limp and worn out. The less said about Taylor's comic relief performance as a character so insufferable that even the other characters don't understand why she's there, the better.

Indeed, the only parts of the film that are suffused with any kind of comic brio - any sense of humor at all that does not ultimately hinge on either Perry or David Mann being shouty, in fact - are the opening credits, a brightly animated sequence set to a Macy Gray song, and the famous series of posters spoofing some of the 2010 Best Picture Oscar nominees; and the fact that I've had to go to the advertising campaign to scrape up something remotely innovative about the film (and that said ad campaign is still a pretty far cry from "funny") speaks to just how tired Big Happy Family is within the Perry family of films. The dramatic A-plot is so ribboned with trite ideas, including a hokey third-act twist that is unpredictable only insofar as it's such an ancient idea that you wouldn't necessarily expect a filmmaker in 2011 to trot it out without a whisper of shame, that I see no reason to discuss it at all: other than Devine, who pushes against the role much less than some of the other genuinely great actresses in Perry films, but still lends it gravity and crucially, convinces us that impending death really isn't the biggest concern in her world, none of the performances are much of anything, one way or another, and the implied message of "Men, the right way to be a husband is to constantly intimidate your nagging shrew of a wife" is as indefensibly misogynist as anything else in the ordinarily woman-friendly director's career.

I take comfort in thinking that even Perry's fandom somewhat agrees with me: adjusted for inflation, Big Happy Family is the lowest-grossing of the major Madea films (excluding the two, Meet the Browns and I Can Do Bad All By Myself, in which she appears only briefly and is not mentioned in the title), and presumably this all has something to do with Perry's decision to take the rest of the year off. Whatever the case, we can be sure that the shrieking phantasm and parody of womanhood is merely resting, not retired, and perhaps when she comes back in Madea's Witness Protection, Perry will have something better in mind than just trotting out his signature character like a show pony, propping up a weak-kneed plot that goes nowhere and communicates nothing that he hasn't already said elsewhere. Till then, a horrifying, braying old grandma and her gun will always be playing.

28 February 2012

MARCH 2012 MOVIE PREVIEW

Now that the Oscars are freshly behind us, and with 2012 promising to be at least a slightly better year for big studio product than 2011, it's time to dig into the first month of a blockbuster season that just keeps getting longer and longer. Mind you, none of those promising 2012 studio pictures are set to come out yet, but pretty much every single weekend has its own smallish wannabe blockbuster. Let's call them pup-tentpoles.

2.3.2012

Feature-length adaptations of Dr. Seuss books have been predominately awful, and the only one to come even close to good - I would not say it came all that hugely close, but there are those who'd disagree with me - was the 2008 Horton Hears a Who!, produced by one Christopher Meledandri. One Despicable Me later, Meldandri returns to the Seuss well with The Lorax, and to be frank, the trailer doesn't make it look any more than tolerable; and the bevy of marketing tie-ins suggest that somebody has missed the anti-development, anti-corporate message of the story pretty badly. But "tolerable" is above-par for both Seuss movies and American animated features, so I won't get all huffy about how terrible it's going to be - point in fact, it's likely to be one the more watchable films of March.

In a keen bit of counterprogramming, the truly abysmal-looking Project X marries the evergreen "teens, party, sex, booze" genre to the long-expired first-person camera movement. I am as far from this film's target audience as can be, and will not speak of it more.


9.3.2012

After decades of Development Hell at just about every studio in Hollywood history, Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars finally hits theaters, under the punishingly anonymous title John Carter, a misstep in the Disney marketing department so dire as to make the Tangled imbroglio look dainty. In the wake of the ungainly Prince of Persia 2-looking ads, the only point of optimism left is that it's the first live-action film directed by Andrew Stanton, the second Pixar director to make that jump; it's surely too much to hope for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol levels of accomplishment, but it shouldn't be too much to hope that it's at least a fun popcorn movie.

Elsewhere in wide releases, Eddie Murphy is back with another concept-heavy comedy that would have made more sense in the 1990s than it does now: A Thousand Words, in which he can't talk or he'll die. Because ha ha, Eddie Murphy likes to talk, as we all knew 15 years ago. Also, it's apparently been on the shelf for 4 years, and that is the most unpromising thing imaginable.

Speaking of concepts replacing plot, Silent House, starring new indie It Girl Elizabeth Olsen, is a single-take slasher movie. It will, undoubtedly, be a fascinating experiment, but I have grave concerns that it has the potential to be anything more.


16.3.2012

Channing Tatum and Oscar nominee Jonah Hill team up for a feature version of 21 Jump Street,and it gets dumped in the saddest little weekend of the season, between the two most heavily-hyped pictures of the first quarter of the year. Hopefully the inevitable Johnny Depp cameo will be fun and not e.g. "LOOK AT JOHNNY DEPP BUYING A CARTON OF MILK!" Also, hopefully Hill and Tatum will, between them, be funnier than either of them typically are apart.


23.3.2012

I know very little about The Hunger Games, the latest attempt at making the new Harry Potter, with Harry himself finally out to pasture and Bella Swan and her shiny vampire husband just about to wrap things up; I wanted to remain as cloistered as possible until I read the fairly well-regarded YA novel, which steadfastly refuses to show up from the library, because everybody else in the world had the same idea as I did, at the same time. But Jennifer Lawrence is an actress who deserves a better chance at the mainstream than her wobbly performance in the male-dominated X-Men: First Class, and I hope this does it.


30.3.2012

For a while, Mirror Mirror was the stupider-looking of this year's two Snow White riffs, and the second consecutive Tarsem Singh picture aiming to make Singh's fans into shame-faced apologists. Then, on a very sad day in January, it became the final movie to showcase Eiko Ishioka's endlessly imaginative costume designs, and went from "I suppose I might see that" to "I must see that under the finest conditions of projection and sound that can be managed." The trailers still look unmatchably awful ("Snow White. Snow What? Snow Way!"), but still, pretty. Pray to God it is pretty enough.

Over here, Wrath of the Titans. For serious, did anyone in the entire world like the Clash of the Titans remake nearly enough to justify the fact that this exists? I ask because I genuinely do not know the answer.

27 February 2012

SEALS OF APPROVAL

Sometimes, I wonder if it would be worth throwing out the entire corpus of Italian cinema from De Sica to Antonioni to Argento, if such a dire price would save us from Neo-Realism's most disreputable legacy: non-actors playing major characters in movies for the "authenticity" it brings. That wasn't invented by the Italians, of course, but it was certainly legitimised by Bicycle Thieves; and it has resulted in some of the most embarrassing performances in cinema history in the six-plus decades since then.

Newest example: Act of Valor, a movie that exists for the single reason that active duty U.S. Navy SEALs are playing active duty U.S. Navy SEALs, but not ones based on themselves. Unless some of them actually let themselves die in order to make the movie, which would be even more badass than SEALs are typically held to be. It is, I want to stress, painfully obvious that this was not about key grip-turned-screenwriter Kurt Johnstad coming up with a story about Navy SEALs, giving it to directors Scott Waugh and Mike "Mouse" McCoy, and during pre-production, somebody hit upon the obvious-in-retrospect idea that there could be no better verisimilitude than put real American warriors in the film. This was a project build from the ground up to serve the concept of SEALs playing SEALs, presumably because an executive decided that hardcore pro-military conservatives haven't had a project tailored to their interests lately, and there was money to be made. And he handed it to one of the co-writers of 300.

The results aren't as bad as you might expect, largely for the reason that the filmmakers either by previous intent or immediately upon getting their performers on set have tailored the film to require as little capital-A Acting as is remotely feasible and still call the thing that results a narrative film. Here, in brief, is the plot of Act of Valor:

-COMMANDING OFFICER: "SEALs! You have to go to South America to save a CIA agent!
-[The SEALs travel to South America, where they shoot guns and blow things up for 30 minutes]
-C.O.: "SEALs! There are terrorists in Africa!"
-[The SEALs travel to Africa, where they shoot guns and blow things up for 30 minutes]
-C.O.: "SEALs! The terrorists are in Mexico now!"
-[The SEALs travel to Mexico, where they shoot guns and blow things up for 45 minutes]

The film wears its intentions to pander to the shallowest kind of xenophobic patriotism on its camo sleeves, but the real ideology of Act of Valor has less to do with neo-conservativism or neo-liberalism, and more to do with video games: the narrative structure doesn't even try to hide it. The gruff old dude who speaks uniformly in tough guy boilerplate dialogue announces the mission objectives, and the player (the one SEAL, uncredited like all the others to protect his identity, who narrates the film in the form of a letter to his dead friend's newborn son - that is a spoiler if you have never seen a single action movie, or were unaware that it is a wholly-defined genre of cinema) marches around and shoots, and occasionally gets to use the X button to do SEALPowers in order to solve puzzles or kill an extra-large number of olive-skinned villains. Sometimes, McCoy and Waugh even go so far as to shoot from a first-person perspective with the gun barrel pointing out of the bottom of the screen.

This results in one of the shallowest action movie experiences of recent memory, some two hours of soldiering action linked by a handful of tremendously unpersuasive character scenes in which we learn that, however good active duty SEALs are at being active duty SEALs, they are terrible at acting, even when the characters are ostensibly versions of themselves. The gruff old commander is by far the worst: he can't stop blinking, and though all of the players are visibly attempting to not look straight into the camera, he's the one who makes that task seem hardest. There's really no defending it: everything from staring into a dead comrade's face to sharing the news of one's impending baby is recited by every member of the cast in a similar angry monotone, and there is a complete vacuum of emotion. The filmmakers would have it that this is because no mere actor could be an action hero like a real-life action hero, and if Act of Valor were a live stage play, that argument would have merit. But in the movies - as the last 110 or so years have born out - give you the opportunity to fake it; and we are now living in an age where computers let you fake just about everything, including being in an action sequence. What they cannot fake is emotion, and that is an actor's job. That is why we have actors. The unit directors figure out how to make the doughy movie star look like a hard-ass, and the doughy movie stare figures out how to make the character not seem like an inordinately detailed fleshy prop.

It is this, and not the film's disquieting rah-rah kill the foreigners and protect our borders jingoism, that leaves Act of Valor as an extraordinarily anti-humanist film; the people in it simply do not register or matter. The one and only moment in the film where it's really easy to make a connection to one of the characters onscreen, it's when the villainous Chechen arms dealer Christo (Alex Veadov) is suddenly confronted with the reality of what could happen to his family if he doesn't play ball with the Americans - first, it's poor storytelling to make your bad guy more sympathetic than the nominal heroes, and second, Veadov is a proper actor, and that is what happens when you use proper actors. In fact, Veadov is a proper actor who does most of his work in FPS video games, and I am going to take that as deliberate.

But back to my point: Act of Valor is sprawling violence with absolutely no human anchor to give it any value beyond death pornography, and that would be true regardless of what military it served as feature-length advertisement for; it cares only about beating the bad guys without ever giving them or us any kind of motivation or feeling besides being Them or Us.

And even, in despite of all that, I would at least consider giving the film a muted pass, if only it had the goods as an action movie. An uphill battle, given that we don't really have much reason to give a shit about any person we see anywhere onscreen, but doable. Even here, though - especially here - the film collapses. Partially, this is because it looks like crap - in order to capture the SEALs working at the speed and in the conditions to which they are accustomed, Waugh and McCoy and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut* have shot the vast majority of the picture on DSLRs, and bless 'em for it; but DSLRs aren't ready for this kind of exposure. The film looks like a high-quality YouTube film that is, for some odd reason, being projected in a movie theater: it looks chintzy and fake, even though the very reason it looks like that is to minimise the amount of faked material put into the finished product. Which is a uniquely immaculate demonstration of a catch-22, if nothing else.

And with these cheap, amateur-looking cameras, the filmmakers capture... nothing, really. Action movies are too good at what they do for reality to compete; these very real SEALs doing very real and presumably very dangerous actions look, for all the world, like every single movie made in the 1980s, only darker and grubbier. It's frankly a waste of the SEALs' time to use them for something as derivative and brainless as this, and a waste of the viewer's time to watch what amounts to exceptionally well-Foleyed home movies.

3/10

CRYSTAL AND GOLD

There was an Oscars last night. So I am told, anyway; though I very clearly remember spending three and a half hours in front of a television, the ceremony pretty much glided right in and right back out of my brain without leaving more than a trace impression. More on that anon.

Meanwhile, the house-keeping: I went 14/24 in my predictions, an absolutely hideous record in a year that nobody had an excuse for hitting below 15 (13 of mine + Adapted Screenplay and Foreign), and 17 should have been pretty much a given for anybody paying attention (those + any 2 of Hugo's craft nods that I missed). The one and only thing I get to be even a little proud of is getting "The Shore" for Live Action Short. What can you do?

I have no Lubezki rant: of course he lost. He lost for a more overtly pretty film in a less competitive field with The New World; he lost for a technical masterpiece in a field that couldn't be strong enough to trump it with Children of Men. He is not going to win; him and Deakins, the two best living cinematographers, hanging out and having only the acclaim of everybody who knows anything about filmmaking. He's got a further two films on the "maybe" pile for 2012, one for Terrence Malick and one for Alfonso Cuarón, both of which are going to be gorgeous; and they are going to be gorgeous whether they get nominated for and then proceed to lose an award or not.

As for the winners: to be honest, the instant that Malick was nominated for Best Director and The Tree of Life was nominated for Best Picture, I stopped caring. I knew that was as far as that film would go, and it was farther than I'd hoped for, and I got to be content. The rest was just a bunch of noise. I still like The Artist; I still like Hugo; I would necessarily have given them all or even most of the awards they picked up, but in general, if Best Picture is going to go to a nice film, I'd rather it go to a nice film that is charmingly Gallic, rather than one that is soberly British. And let's please keep things in perspective: Crash and A Beautiful Mind are not so far in the past that I care to take for granted that a film I truly enjoyed dancing away with the top award. Weirdly, I am feeling more of a personal backlash against tech-sweeper Hugo than big winner The Artist; I think it is because The Artist's wins, on balance, did not fuck up my predictions, and Hugo's wins, on balance, did.

Meryl Streep: now, I have not attempted to hide, and to some degree have broadcasted, my limited interest in her work as an actor (in dramatic roles, anyway; I am almost uniformly delighted with her comic turns). I don't begrudge her the win, anyway, which was for a better performance than her other two, from where I'm standing. I am only sad for Viola Davis, who was outstanding, and will probably not ever be back here; Streep herself, having won, I expect to see only once more, for August: Osage County (I've been saying for years that her nominations would dry up once she finally took statue #3, but her part in August is too baity), which should still leave her with an unbeatable nomination record.

As for the night's one surprise (Streep was more of a shock than a surprise, and no, I don't know what distinction I'm drawing there, either), the Baxter/Wall win for editing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was history-making - no editor has ever won two years in a row - deserved (it was the only one of the nominees that I cared for the editing in any active way at all), and weird as hell. How on earth did The Artist win in the crowded and competitive Best Costume Design, and then lose in a category that practically comes with the Best Picture winner's name pre-inked? Of note: it has been seven years since it was last true, as it is now, that the last five ceremonies resulted in a minority of films winning both awards.

And: A Separation. Ironically, I saw In Darkness just the day before the awards, and was immediately convinced that the Iranian film had no prayer, but it's so gratifying to be wrong: it's been more than a decade since a film even comparable in quality took the Foreign Language award, and I am generally in favor of good movies winning more Oscars than bad movies.

Now, about that ceremony: ye Christ. It's not that anything about it was "bad" - nothing about it was much of anything at all. The whole thing had a worn out, "let's please get this over with" feel, and Billy Crystal, wearing a thick enough veneer of makeup to seem though he was auditioning for Armie Hammer's role in J. Edgar 2: J. Edgarer, did exactly what Billy Crystal does: make shticky jokes that fall somewhere on the positive side of Jay Leno on the "gags to make middle-aged women chuckle" meter. I am certain he said one thing that made me laugh out loud, but I do not now remember what it was.

The conceptual hook of, in essence, "since the two big winners are going to be a pair of movies about old movies, let's pretend that this is old movies!" did not work at all, not from the very first second; it felt kind of cheesy, in fact. But that was, perhaps, the order of the night.

I will confess to being a bit annoyed by how Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction - the two most visual categories in this awards ceremony celebrating a visual medium -were both sort of thrown out without any comment at the very start, like the director realised about 20 minutes before going live that they'd forgotten to schedule them in.

The speeches were drab across the board: of the biggies, only Christopher Plummer's was particularly elegant or deep, I thought. Octavia Spencer did that "I have to leave before I start bawling" thing that I always find charming, while Meryl Streep, after a really terrific opening gambit that smacked down her haters in the most charming way conceivable, sort of fizzled into "I love the people that I love" boilerplate, and Dujardin - one of the worst speeches of the night - started fumbling the second he got on stage; my impression is that he had something silly and comic and French planned, and then the minute he got to the podium, the Gravity of the Proceedings hit him like a wall, and he choked.

Below that, it was a lot of nice, routine, and dull speeches; I will confess to finding the whole matter of the Descendants screenwriter's acceptance to be as smugly self-congratulatory as the film itself, mostly because Jim Rash was making fun of Angelina Jolie's admittedly strange stance for absolutely no good reason. I was delighted by how obviously stunned Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall were for their Editing win; and Bret McKenzie's Best Song speech was the only genuinely fun, light moment of the night, including what I choose to believe, perhaps without evidence, was a gentle slam against the peculiarity of that category this year, thanking Disney for making movies that have songs in them.

The best speech of the night, though, had to be Ashgar Farhadi using his Foreign Film win to briefly remind everybody that there is a world out there, and it has issues bigger than what wins or doesn't win a metal man covered in gold leaf. It was politically charged without being confrontational, and the one and only moment in 24 awards where it actually felt like the movies maybe can be about more than just watching things and being entertained until you leave.

Other than that, it was as bland an Oscar night as I've seen in 21 years of watching them. Which is, to be fair, a huge step in the right direction from the embarrassing fiasco of having your host visibly stoned and not even a little bit interested in doing the work of Oscaring. And that, at least, is a promising sign. Now just bring back Hugh Jackman and all is well.

A last thought: while The Tree of Life was shut out, so was Rio. There is a little justice, anyway.

25 February 2012

TYLER PERRY: FOR COLORED GIRLS (2010)

For Colored Girls is the clear outlier among all of Tyler Perry's films: most prominently because it is the only one of his features not ultimately based on his own idea, adapted instead from a 1975 theater piece by Ntozake Shange, for colored girl who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. It is, a bit more subtly, his only film to take place entirely in New York, and not the beloved Georgia of Perry's own history. And, though this is a subject measure entirely, it is far and away the most motherfucking insane thing he has ever done or will ever do, and it is for this reason that I am absolutely obsessed with it: it comes not even close to earning the title of his best film - "best" and "worst", "good" and "bad" are judgment calls that seem unusually difficult to apply here, anyway - but is almost certainly his strangest and most endlessly fascinating, and that's in a career decidedly not wanting for weird fascinations. I will make a confession: one of the chief reasons I wanted to do this Tyler Perry retrospective in the first place was because I proved unable to find a spot in the reviewing schedule for this one when I first saw it in theaters in November, 2010, and I've been hunting for a good excuse to return to it ever since.

I have not read, much less seen Shange's non-narrative play made up of 20 "choreopoems", though I know it to be an exegesis of the experience of the African-American woman as of the three-quarter mark of the 20th Century, with seven unnamed characters, each identified only by the color she wears, performing poetic narratives about love, rape, personal strength, and such. Perry' screenplay expands this rather considerably: not only does he give the women names, there are nine of them now. And in lieu of a non-narrative consideration of being a black woman, it is an expansive ensemble film on the Robert Altman model, in which the inhabitants of a single run-down New York apartment building, and some of the individuals in their sphere of influence, walk through individual narrative arcs that each explore some of Shange's topics.

In brief, we have Tangie/Orange (Thandie Newton), a habitual drug user and sex fancier - the English language lacks a better word than "slut", though the movie tries (and often fails) to be less judgmental than that - Crystal/Brown (Kimberly Elise), who lives with an abusive boyfriend (Michael Ealy) and is in perpetual fear for the safety of their children; Gilda/Gray (Phylicia Rashad), the apartment's designated busybody, who spends most of her time nagging Tangie for her filthy slut ways; and Yasmine/Yellow (Anika Noni Rose), a dance teacher looking for love. They are the inhabitants of the building; we also meet activitist Juanita/Green (Loretta Devine), whose erstwhile lover Frank (Richard Lawson) lives just down the hall from Tangie, and whose constant emotional absence has forced Juanita into a reconsideration of her dependence on men as a class; Jo/Red (Janet Jackson), a magazine editor and Crystal's boss, a stressed and snappish Type A with a notable lack of mercy; Nyla/Purple (Tessa Thompson), a ballet dancer and Tangie's sister, just on the cusp of womanhood and unready to deal with the crises it brings; Alice/White (Whoopi Goldberg), Nyla and Tangie's mother, who subscribes to a peculiar, cultish fringe religion that dominates her every waking moment; and Kelly/Blue (Kerry Washington), a social worker who introduces us into the film when she comes to Crystal's home, looking to figure out what's going on with this apparent abuse case.

We'll get to the rest of it, but I first want to call your attention to that list of names: that is a stunning cast of top-notch black actresses, nearly all of whom are perpetually locked out of good, meaty roles in the traditionally white hierarchy of English-language filmmaking. If that was the only thing For Colored Girls got absolutely right - as it is, in fact,the only thing For Colored Girls gets absolutely right - giving these nine women some robust characters and thick lines to read would be sufficient all by itself to make the film essential viewing. There is, for starters, a rare chance to see the comedy-pigeonholed Goldberg play an intensely serious role; far and away the most dignified role the great and criminally underexposed Devine has ever been given; frustratingly small but piquant roles for the vibrant Washington and imposingly regal Rashad; and Newton, probably the actress best-served by the film industry out of this cast, gets a hugely melodramatic part to devour raw. That said, singling out a single performer for the quality of her work is almost impossible here: Perry structures the script to make sure that every one of them gets at least one showcase moment, and all of them make the most of it, even in performances (Jackson's and Thompson's, mainly) where that showcase scene is the only truly excellent thing they contribute (Jackson is especially impressive in this regard, given that her intense, one-shot monologue has to come right after the absolute worst writing in the entire picture, and save the movie from itself).

That much, then, is unequivocally and exquisitely good; but oh, my Lord, is For Colored Girls not a good movie. It is tacky and misjudged to the extreme in almost every respect that is not the acting; and not just tacky in the sense that Tyler Perry's melodramas are all a bit overwrought and gaudy, but tacky in the special way of a singularly untalented filmmaker trying to do something really serious and noble.

Not to mince words: this film should never, ever have been made by a man, whatever his race. But Perry, lover of women and matriarchs, dove right in anyway, and his attempts to pay tribute to one of the cornerstone texts of African-American feminism border on the surreal. Right from the first moment, he foregrounds Shange's heightened language in a montage that shows each of the women reciting a few lines before dissolving into the next, and then culminating in a cacophonous soundscape as the words the women are saying pop up in multiple colors: it is the most primitive way imaginable to visualise the flow of language, and especially given the "pre-installed font" quality of the text, it feels terrifyingly like a neophyte animation student realising the night before that his project to make a movie out of a poem is due at 10:00 AM.

And this is but the first gesture in a long film - at 134 minutes, Perry's only movie to cross the two-hour mark - in which hardly a single directorial choice goes right. The most notorious mistake is almost certainly the director's amazingly tasteless but epically serious decision to intercut Yasmine being raped with Jo's realisation while attending the opera that her husband is gay, but even that doesn't give the full picture: the worst part of it is not his thoughtless mash-up between these two wildly incompatible moments, but the little things, like how he cuts away to Yasmine's dinner burning during the rape itself, or the popsicle-blue hue he in which he coats the opera and Jo's face. And while that is probably the low point of the whole movie, it is not wanting for little brothers and sisters; the act of violence that divides the film right down the middle is too horrifying for the soap-operatic staging Perry gives it, replete with overly-embellished reaction shots and a disastrous fade to white. And there is the matter of how urgently he color codes each woman's appearance to fit in with Shange's multi-colored conceit, despite how little point it has in the context of this film (nine women after all, cannot map to the rainbow), and how ineffectively he does it - it is a noble attempt that comes off feeling like Krzysztof Kieślowski making Three Colors after a massive stroke; and I have to imagine that even 14 years in the grave, Kieślowski would have done a better job of making this movie than Tyler Perry.

But even the directing isn't as feverishly off as the script, which takes uniformly hackneyed melodramatic threads and wedges them into Shange's poetry with a great deal of care and almost no success. And then there is the crowning misstep of the project, which is the incorporation of the playwright's verse into the screenwriter's dialogue: and without having read the play, there is more than enough of Shange's original work in here to see it as being really tremendous, and the best moments of acting almost invariably map onto the most roiling passages - Devine's life-affirming rant about someone trying to steal all her stuff, Elise's film ending explosion of rage and self-power, Rose's shocked hospital monologue about the rape. And boy oh boy, is it ever obvious when Perry stops and Shange picks up: it's as massive a tonal change as when in old movie musicals, the songs announce themselves through an orchestral flourish that almost demands the characters stop what they're doing and look for the conductor.

Best of all? Perry tries his damnedest to write his new dialogue in a heightened register to match the poetry, and it still feels like the kind of abrupt gear-shift that send your engine block flying out through the hood, and this on top of being the most unnatural, arrhythmic, nearly undeliverable kind of speechifying imaginable. It is terrible, just absolutely terrible; and it reduces a sincere consideration of the way it feels to be a woman in some uncertain mixture of 1975 and 2010 into a flailing dumb show, which only the master class acting can keep nailed to the ground at all.

Terrible; but completely addictive. You'd have to look a long time to find something as unnaturally compelling as For Colored Girls, which is the apotheosis of Tyler Perry's quintessential ability to do everything wrong in the most unique and amazing way possible. Nearly everything is done wrong here, but it is done wrong in ways you have never seen, ways you can barely imagine, and it reaches a point where it's difficult to say with certainty that it's still "wrong"; at its most hypnotically inept it turns into some kind of perversely arresting outsider art - the rape scene leaps to mind, or the bizarre sequence where Jo's husband (Omari Hardwick) offers the most incomprehensible definition of homosexuality ever committed to film, culminating in the miraculous line, "I'm a man every day of the week. I'm a man. I'm just a man... who enjoys having sex... with... another... man" - and if you want to have a field day psychoanalyzing art, the fact that Perry, who must surely be aware of the rumors surrounding his sexual preferences, would sign his name to this kind of dysfunctional exploration of a gay man's hidden life (it is the biggest sustained moment given to any of the male characters throughout the movie) passes from "telling" to "unabashed self-parody".

I do not know where on the border between Bad, and Good, and So Bad It's Good, and Artifact From Another Planet For Colored Girls lies. I know only that watching it feels absolutely different from anything else in the world. It is surely not successful at its stated intentions, no matter how hard the actresses try to sell it, but it's hard to imagine how the film could possibly be more transfixing. It's closer anti-masterpiece than masterpiece, but I for one am terrifically glad it exists, for reasons I don't even quite understand.

24 February 2012

HARRY POTTER AND THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED

There are enough reasons to like The Woman in Black and virtually no reasons to love it; but the one that got me the most is its awareness of history. The fourth feature film released by the newly-resuscitated Hammer Films, and only the second to get an actual push, after the 2010 revisionist vampire picture Let Me In, it is spectacularly aware of what being a Hammer horror picture is all about: period trappings, and overbearingly Gothic production design that is called upon to do nearly all the work of storytelling and atmosphere-building and causing whatever scares are to show up. By the ten-minute mark, when the protagonist had his first run-in with a nervous innkeeper who brusquely refuses to speak about The Secret In These Parts and all but begs the newcomer to go back... to leave this place... I knew that I was in safe, if hugely unimaginative, hands, and strapped in to enjoy the show.

And yet it is not just a throwback (though it is, unquestionably, mostly a throwback: squint enough, and you can see how this is Hammer's attempt to patch the holes in its history. Let us pretend that the company hadn't nearly winked out of existence in the 1970s, but had purred along as a creative force; The Woman in Black is at least partially a guess at how the house style would have naturally evolved in that time. By which I mean, it's a typical Hammer Gothic that is unexpectedly spiced with some of the iconography of J-horror, a solid three years after J-horror riffs stopped having any real currency in the anglophone world. The graft does not hold altogether well; but it is pleasing to see it attempted nonetheless.

The film takes place a bit later than what we might call Hammer Time, if we had a stunningly comprehensive lack of shame: sometime early enough in the 20th Century that automobiles exist but are still a bit of a novelty in the remote English town on the moors where the main action takes place. Here, a young solicitor by the name of Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) arrives on the orders of his superiors, giving him one last chance to start functioning again following the death of his wife in childbirth; he is given the simple task of sorting through the papers of the late Alice Drablow, last inhabitant of Eel Marsh House.

The hamlet near Eel Marsh House - and not too near, for the house itself lies seemingly miles away on an island in in the center of the marsh, connected to the rest of civilisation by a causeway that disappears under the water at high tide - is a damped, dark little place, full of suspicious faces, under the cloud of a rash of children's deaths. Only the wealthy landowner Daily (Ciarán Hinds) offers Arthur any aid whatsoever, though he has his own share of dark secrets, in the form of a wife, (Janet McTeer) who went a whole lot nuts when their son drowned.

Arthur's first visit to Eel Marsh House reveals a home that, to be blunt about it, was never lived in by any human being: it is a phenomenally unhinged exercise in production design, courtesy of Kave Quinn. I am of two minds, here, for the house is so divorced from reality, starting at its angry, staring windows and going down to the littlest prop details, including what I assume was called on tours the "Fucking Terrifying Mechanical Doll Room", that it immediately locks us out of experiencing the movie as anything other than a movie; and yet at the same time, it's pretty amazing in its total absence of subtlety, and there's something delightful about being in the presence of such warped imagination, heightened by director James Watkins and cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones's decision to cake everything in the most overt shadows you could hope to see. This is not the Hammer of yore, which used atmosphere via production design heavily, but usually with some degree of sophistication and finesse This is atmosphere created with the abandon of a teenage boy having sex for the first time: hugely enthusiastic and clumsy, and there's little concern devoted to what kind of mess is made in the process.

Arthur's first day is plagued by the suspicion that someone else is around: and a couple of times he thinks he spots a pale-skinned woman (Liz White) in mourning clothes with unnaturally corroded-looking skin. This proves to be only the first of many terrible things he'll encounter over the next few days, eventually learning that he's right in the center of a local legend about the Woman in Black, who rises when she is spotted at Eel Marsh House, and will not be quieted until she has taken a child's life.

Like most ghost stories, The Woman in Black loses most of its go once the explanations start to roll in, but in this case, at least, the film does a smart job of structuring itself so it doesn't entirely matter: the whole point of the movie seems to be to get us to and then lead us back out of its mammoth central section, Arthur's second day and only night at Eel Marsh House, a protracted sequence - without having timed it, I'd never believe it was less than 20 minutes and very possibly 30 - in which there is essentially not a word of dialogue, and no real plot, just scene after scene of the paranormal activities which plague the solicitor and the dog he's been lent for the evening. This is patently nuance-free stuff, all creepy-crawlies and rattly sound design and horrifying ghost faces popping up in the corner of frames; but it's pretty great anyway, or maybe even because of it; it's like a short film on the theme "old-fashioned horror movies are fantastic", and it is far and away the best reason for The Woman in Black to exist.

Indeed, it is possibly the only reason for The Woman in Black to exist, for otherwise, this is altogether shallow: Jane Goldman's screenplay, adapted from Susan Hill's 1983 novel, keeps wanting to have more resonance than it ever achieves, largely because the attempts at establishing a narrative for Arthur's grieving and his ambivalence at being a single father never go anywhere interesting. How much of this has to do with Radcliffe's occasionally stiff performance - how much of it has to do, for that matter, with Radcliffe's impossible-to-overcome link to a callow adolescent wizard, making it hard to buy him as a widower and parent - and how much because the balance between character drama and atmospheric horror movie is mismanaged by writer and director, it's hard to say; certainly, no Hammer film was ever called a masterpiece first and above all because the protagonist was such a compelling dramatic figure.*

The narrative itself isn't terribly compelling either: it's pretty much just a ghost story, and it's not tremendously hard to figure out the explanation before it shows up, nor to guess the twist ending, which as it plays here feels less like a natural extension of what's gone before and more a sop to the modern tendency for every horror story to have a shocker right before the credits. On the other hand, the mere fact of an old-fashioned ghost story is pretty satisfying, and even if this is not the best of the recent group of such films, it's also not the worst. Radcliffe might not handle the dramatic depths of his part, but he's satisfying as the guileless urbanite who stumbles into a world he and the audience don't understand until late in the game.

Regardless, horror is a genre uniquely well-inoculated against weak stories: if the atmosphere is sufficiently glowering and overcast, that gets you most of the way. Whatever else is true, The Woman in Black is damned atmospheric, excessively so, but better excessive atmosphere than the opposite. It's not a return to peak form for Hammer Gothics, but it's not any worse than the median, and that means a film worth gaping at even if it's sometimes not worth anything else.

6/10

23 February 2012

SMALL WONDER

Here's a stat to chill the heart of any fan of painterly, hand-drawn animation and prefer their family movies to be told with gentle grace rather than screaming pop culture references and fart jokes: of the 18 feature films produced in the 26-year history of Studio Ghibli, fully two-thirds of them have been directed by 71-year-old Miyazaki Hayao or 76-year-old Takahata Isao. Even chillier: until 2011, they were the only individuals to direct multiple Ghibli features, and the film to break that record was helmed by Miyazaki's son Goro, who had previously mismanaged Tales from Earthsea, the consensus pick as the studio's all-time worst project. It's not news that Ghibli has had a difficult time finding a likely successor to the two grand masters who co-founded it; but when you slow down to really stare those figures in the face... I mean, Christ. We're not in "every new Ghibli film may be the last" territory yet, but it's close enough that you can start throwing phrases like that around.

At any rate, the studio executives continue to give new directors a chance to try their stuff, and the latest sample is presently on American soil, though it premiered in Japan in the summer of 2010: The Secret World of Arrietty, an unusually crappy title for a film known in its native country as The Borrower Arrietty. By any name, the film's completion represents the end of a four-decade quest on the part of producer-screenwriter Miyazaki to film an animated adaptation of Mary Norton's 1952 children's novel The Borrowers, which has since been turned into a 1973 telefilm, a 1992 television program, and a 1997 feature; I am personally familiar only with the last of these - and I wish I wasn't - so I can't say what seems likely, which is that Ghibli's version of the story is the best; certainly not the truest to the book, which has an irreducible Britishness to it that survives the translation to the Japanese suburbs not one iota, but it's hard to imagine this scenario playing out with more delicacy and care than animator-turned-director Yonebayashi Hiromasa brings to bear. It is fair to admit that Arrietty is pretty darn far from the best of the studio's output, owing mainly to a somewhat less sophisticated narrative - it comes powerfully close to having the kind of straightforward comic villain that Ghibli is so very good at avoiding - and partially to a significantly less complex visual style than the great majority of their films. It's also fair to say that if there's a more sensible and appealing movie "for kids" that has all the right kind of sweetness and intelligence to be just as good for adults released in the States this year, I will very likely die of shock.

Arrietty of the title is a 14-year-old girl living with her parents Pod and Homily in a house on the edge of the woods. Not "in", maybe. "Under". This is, you see, a family of borrowers, a race of hominids about three inches tall, who live by snagging odds and ends that the full-sized humans, called "beans", don't need and won't notice if they go missing: a sugar cube here, a sheet of tissue there, and so on. The story kicks off when a young human named Shawn (Sho in the original Japanese version) moves into the house to rest up in preparation for a rather dangerous round of heart surgery; he happens to come along the same day that Arrietty is going on her first borrowing trip, and she manages to get seen. Things unravel steadily but quietly from here: the calculating housekeeper Hara/Haru has been convinced for years that there are little people in the floorboards, and Shawn's awkward attempts to hide them only serve to rouse her suspicions; in addition, the boy's attempts to help tend only to get Pod and especially Homily all the more paranoid than they already are, and the borrower family is forced to confront the horrible question of whether or not it's worth the arduous, dangerous trip to a different human house, where they won't be hunted like rodents.

That conflict, such as it is, opens up during the film's 94 minutes with almost exaggerated slowness; Yonebayashi (doubtlessly taking at least some of his cues from Miyazaki's script - there's a lot of My Neighbor Totoro in Arrietty's DNA) would prefer to linger over moments of peace, particularly the exquisitely restrained development of Arrietty and Shawn's friendship, than emphasise moments of tension, and it's probably not a coincidence that the scenes which generally land the hardest, particularly a sequence involving a murderous crow that feels like it goes on forever, are those which violate this generally aimable spirit. It is, in all ways, a singularly nice movie, legitimately and effectively so; and it's not common at all for niceness to avoid the feeling that it's condescending to us.

The same spirit infuses the visuals, which are far simpler than the films by which Ghibli made its reputation in the West, primarily Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away: the look is deliberately stripped down, "cartoonified", with delicate shading replaced by bold patches of color, and exactingly precise lines dropped in favor a few swift strokes that give us "face" without attending to every crag and wrinkle. If it recalls anything in Ghibli's recent history, it's The Cat Returns, a feeling strengthened by the pride of place given to the film's depiction of Shawn's cat, a round shape in just a few colors that still manages to express with admirable specificity the altogether cat-like emotions of "I want to eat you" and "I am too comfortable not moving to bother with eating you now". And it all takes place against drop-dead gorgeous backgrounds, done up like oil paintings that started off on the road to Impressionism before the painter decided that realism wasn't so bad, after all. Indeed, if the character design and animation are pleasing to the eye but ultimately slight, it's the vivid, evocative backgrounds that give the film the bulk of its visual impact: the borrowers' world is rich and detailed without seemingly blandly "real", and it is a potent reminder of what 2-D animation can achieve, stylistically, that tends to fall flat in fully-rendered CGI. But I surely don't need to bang that drum any more than I have over the years.

I am tempted, in fact, to say that the only place the film genuinely comes up short, rather than being a very effectively anti-ambitious mood piece, is in its American localisation; considering how high the bar Disney and especially John Lasseter have raised the bar for quality dubbing tracks, the U.S. Arrietty is embarrassingly shoddy, with far too many examples of Godzilla-esque "the mouth is moving but the words aren't coming" fuck-ups, and a less-than-inspired batch of voiceovers: Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are fine as Homily and Pod, if wasted, while Carol Burnett's Hara is just a touch too obviously Carol Burnett. And the less said about Disney teen star product Bridgit Mendler's anodyne take on Arrietty, the better (in the UK, they got Saoirse Ronan, lucky British bastards). So it's a bit of a difficult place to be in: the movie is charming and delightful and simple and deeply pleasing, but I would really strongly advise anyone reading this to wait until the DVD comes out, and just watch the Japanese track, the way Disney always makes us do. It'll be worth it, I promise: low-key and all, but Arrietty is a sleepy charmer, from its playful establishing scenes of a microscopic, detailed-packed world, all the way to its hopefully melancholy final moments.

8/10

22 February 2012

TYLER PERRY: WHY DID I GET MARRIED TOO? (2010)

When I reviewed Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?, I was able to comfortably make this observation: it was "the first genuinely boring Tyler Perry movie, on account of being the most tasteful and restrained Tyler Perry movie." And that remains true, all these Tyler Perry movies later. It is still fairly simple and straightforward by his lights, and it is about as sedentary as any of them.

These things are not true of its sequel, released two and a half years later: Why Did I Get Married Too? in addition to having one of the worst titles it possibly could, is certainly not tasteful or restrained: it is as borderline-psychotic as some of its characters. And on that count, it's really not fair to call it boring, either, although it is not crazily delightful after the fashion of The Family That Preys or Perry's film from later in 2010, For Colored Girls, or even the indescribably gaudy Madea films; if it is not-boring it is for the worst possible reason, which is that watching unstable people shrieking irrationally tends to put one on guard, and the experience of watching Why Did I Also Get Married? is less "entertaining" than it is "alarming", and the film has the rare effect of making one feel defensive, as though this shrill, inexplicable people might jump off the screen and start raging at the very fabric of reality. That was my experience, anyway.

So, the film picks up three years after the original, and apparently, the grousing displayed in the original that vacationing to snowy Vermont was idiotic has been heeded, since this time around, our four couples have taken their annual marriage retreat on a Caribbean island, having apparently not gotten together as a group since the traumas of that day, which are referenced with heavy-handed "remember when X" moments of dialogue that indicate first, that these characters have no other point of reference for their alleged decades of shared memories, and second, that Perry can think of no better way to make a sequel than keep nudging his viewer and shouting, "That happened, remember how that happened? And then this other thing happened?" Which is, to be fair, better than the way that George Lucas writes prequels.

Do you remember the four couples? I cannot begin to imagine why you would. Just a quick refresher: Terry (Perry) and Diane (Sharon Leal) were torn apart last time by his concerns that she was too busy with work to love him and their child; they seem to have gotten over that by now, and are far and away the most well-adjusted of the couples, having all sorts of cute, couply, "let's have fun, married sex!" conversations that are particularly discomfiting when delivered by the man who vocalises Madea. Then we have Marcus (Michael Jai White) and Angela (Tasha Smith), the comic relief couple; I will return to them. Sheila (Jill Scott) was the focal point of the last movie, which spent most of its plot energy on her separation from the crude and vicious Mike (Richard T. Jones), prior to marrying Troy (Lamman Rucker); now, their marriage has hit its first major trial, and Troy's perpetual unemployment has left him angry and resentful. And then, we have pop-psychologist Patricia (Janet Jackson) and Gavin (Malik Yoba), the super-together power couple who break the movie into two halves with their stunning announcement that they plan to get a divorce.

Structurally, In Addition, Why Did I Get Married? is identical to the original: the first half at the marriage retreat follows the characters having very didactic conversations about life and marriage and the responsibilities of being in a relationship and such; the second follows each of the four couples dealing with the seismic changes that the midway twist brings about. This was all a bit bland and talky in the first movie; here, it's all sort of deranged and nonsensical. As it happens, this was only the third Perry film not based on one of his stage works, and it seems at least possible that what we find here is the result of material that hasn't been tested: while WDIGM? was about as insightful as a greeting card, it was tonally and thematically unified; the follow-up just throws ideas at the wall. It is, as well, his only non-Madea sequel, and he fails entirely to answer the key question facing every sequel that ever gets made: why are we revisiting these characters? Is there some hugely important facet of their lives that gets explored this time, or are we just covering the same ground? Stunningly, I Got Married As Well - Why? manages to fuck up both ways: the first half is just reheating the same material in different costumes, while the second half manages to expand upon the first film's universe only by blowing up all the characters and then dancing on the ashes.

In brief: the new film only found its own personality by steamrolling over the only thing that made the original at all noteworthy, which is that it's the one Tyler Perry film grounded in recognisable everyday psychology and emotion. Here, in order to drive any new plots at all, Perry has to first bring Mike back in and wedge him squarely in the plot without reason or motivation, nothing at all beyond his jolly decision to be a dick because he is dickish. When this ends up failing to kick off anything worthwhile, Perry just straight-up character assassinates Patricia and Angela, and this is a huge pity, because Angela, and Smith's performance, was about as good as WDIGM? got. Here, she is not a comical woman with trust issues: she is a dangerously off-kilter monster, spitting fire and venom at anyone who stands still long enough, and what she unloads 'pon Marcus is not comic relief nagging, but genuinely nasty verbal abuse, and a shockingly vindictive piece of revenge against no sin at all that Perry can't come even slightly close to turning into comedy.

She still gets off easy next to Patricia, who morphs into one of the most unbridled, misogynistic parody of the greedy professional woman that 21st Century American filmmaking has produced. A far cry this is from the typically sensitive, even belabored depiction of women as strong, dynamic figures that pepper's Perry's work; there is something dark and angry underpinning this, though I cannot begin to figure out what it might be. Perry's awful, abusive men are simply comic absurdities; his awful women, it turns out, are a nightmare of sexism and patriarchal rage.

So, the film doesn't manage to attain even the slight degree of psychological verisimilitude of the original; but even worse, it's a colossally mis-aimed bit of filmmaking, from the broadest strokes, such as Perry's hugely superficial treatment of the Caribbean as a place where people wear tacky clothes (and where poor Cicely Tyson is forced to trot out an unbelievably inconsistent accent), down to the most particular details of shot composition and editing; there are cuts that would get a first-year film student a failing grade here, and crowded medium shots that give the film a sick, claustrophobic feeling. Coming off of the relative triumph of I Can Do Bad All By Myself, it is particularly galling to see such slackness everywhere, but this isn't just a bad film, it is Tyler Perry's worst film, and would have stood out for its ineptitude and divorcement from human experience no matter where in his career it had cropped up.

21 February 2012

SPY HUNTER

In Safe House, Denzel Washington is a badass; we know this because there is a scene in which he snaps a man's neck in a public restroom, during which a) Washington's face is an implacable blank slate; b) the action is shown from directly above, in a stylistically brash gesture of "look at me!" filmmaking; c) Washington is bathed in ice-blue light. Right there, those are three pretty unmistakable gestures not just of what we're meant to think of his character, but of Safe House entirely, namely that is is a really unimaginative action movie.

Is this a sin? Maybe not. Action movies, like romantic comedies, have reached a point where their very existence is predicated not on surprising the viewer or presenting any innovations of content or form, but with going through 90-120 minutes' worth of pre-packaged narrative complications with an ending that is palpably obvious by the one-quarter mark, if not, indeed, from the opening scene. That Safe House presents the same chase scenes shot in the same contrasty, over-saturated color scheme with the same over-Foleyed gunshots that resemble tiny nuclear explosions leading up to the same Shocking Reveal as God knows how many other movies have done over the years, then it's really only doing its duty by the scores of audience members who want to see it precisely because it is not in even the slightest degree challenging or inventive.

For the rest of us, Safe House is a whole lot of nothing: a movie that sits there, being absolutely no more and no less than it is required to be. Certainly, it's too busy to qualify as boring; it's too standard in every way to count as a failure on any level. It's just There.

The film takes place in Cape Town, South Africa, where not-getting-any-younger CIA operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) has been stuck for 12 months as the babysitter of a safe house, a secure location where, in time of need, the agency can send agents or detainees to be kept out of harm's way until something better comes along. In that year, Matt has seen exactly no activity, and he is just starting to figure out how bad this is going to end up being for his career, when something awfully big happens. Namely, the notorious and legendary ex-CIA turncoat Tobin Frost (Washington) has just turned himself in to the U.S. embassy in Cape Town, on the heels of a hand-off of a computer chip worth a hell of a lot of money to the right buyers going severly wrong; at this point, Frost has the chip implanted into his thigh, and a lot of people hunting for him.

It sort of writes itself from here: the bad guys raid the safe house and only Matt and Frost are able to escape, but the grizzled old traitor is too canny to let a young agent lead him by the nose, so the whole film is a double cat-and-mouse thriller: the gunmen hunting Matt and Frost while Matt has to keep chasing down and re-capturing Frost. Eventually, we find out exactly what was stolen and exactly why it turns out that Frost isn't the big nasty bad guy after all, which will come as a surprise to the very stupid and imperceptive; meanwhile, Matt keeps checking in with his immediate superior, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), who locks horns with his colleague Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga, for once failing to make something out of a nothing part), while they are held apart by their boss, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard). Which I mention solely because of the gaudy charm of how director Daniel Espinosa keeps reverting to leering close-ups of Gleeson and Farmiga every time there is a hint of corruption, presumably trying to cunningly foreshadow that one of them has a dark secret, but in practice screaming in letter for all to see "ONE OF THESE PEOPLE IS THE REAL VILLAIN, GET IT?" which is already redundant given that the genre-savvy will be pretty readily able to pick out the secret traitor's identity even before the film has bothered to indicate that there is a secret traitor.

Insofar as Safe House exists solely to move fast and be exhilarating, it frequently meets its goals. Espinosa makes absolutely no attempt to hide his theft of the Tony Scott playbook, right down to the pumped-up color scheme (one suspects his single conversation with cinematographer Oliver Wood consisted, in its entirety, of "pretend that you're Paul Cameron"), but since that playbook has resulted in more high-energy films than not, the upshot is that Safe House has the basic decency to move at a fairly breakneck pace. Indeed, sand out the cutaways to headquarters and the momentum-shattering bickering between Barlow and Linklater, and you would very nearly have a film that does not stop moving from the instant it picks up. Then add in its ersatz Bourne Ultimatum editing, with the significant proviso that unlike most of the films to ape that chaotic aesthetic of cutting along visual momentum and praying the audience can keep up, Safe House actually boasts a good deal of continuity, and you can actually determine what happens and when to whom; and then we have film that almost copies, in much reduced form, the balls-out pacing that this system provided to the Bourne picture.

At the very least, then, what we have is a movie that clips along; the only real problem is that it gives us absolutely no reason to care, and no characters to care about. Reynolds is far from his worst here, but he's simply too callow to hold his own against Washington, and even if that weren't the case, Matt Weston's life and problems aren't really worth our attention. Washington is worth our attention; he's not really playing a character so much as an attitude, but it's an attitude he projects awfully well, and the actor's incredible native charisma remains arresting no matter what else. Frankly, I think that it would have been enough to coast on nothing but that charisma, and just let us enjoy watching Denzel do Denzel, and allow that the plot mechanics are too predictable and unimaginative to deserve more than a minute's consideration. Instead, screenwriter David Guggenheim apparently concludes that we care about what's on that chip and what has been motivating Frost, and plays that scenario out with a deadly final 15 minutes that kill everything that has thus far made the movie worth watching.

Still, as empty calories go, Safe House has the merit of being painless - and that is not much of a merit, and I am surely not alone in finding it extra-hard to care about a movie that does nothing but move along quickly and fire off lots of gunshots, so soon after the genuinely dazzling Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. But then, if it were worth a damn, surely they've had found a better time to release it than mid-February, yes?

5/10

20 February 2012

W.E. WHO ARE ABOUT TO DIE

To start by answering the only question most people probably care about very much: Arianne Phillips's costumes in W./E. are pretty great, all right. Oscar-worthy? That I cannot say. It is not the worst of the five nominees for the 2011 Best Costume Design Oscar, that much is certain.

The second question: yes, it's W./E. just exactly like that. I, for one, had been lulled into thinking it was just the nice, sane, visually unexceptional W.E. but when you actually get into the movie, there is no mistaking it. They stress the hell out of that slash; it appears before the W or the E slide out to the sides of it, and it remains after they have slid back. W./E. then, which is a most ungainly collage of characters and punctuation marks, but memorable, at least.

It is in this respect the ideal title for a movie that is also an ungainly collage, perhaps not so memorable. As you likely know - for W./E. is the platonic ideal of a movie that is known, discussed, and ridiculed by far more people than will ever see it - the film is writer-director Madonna's take on the story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward VIII of England (James D'Arcy); the American divorcée and the British monarch who fell in love, precipitating a constitutional crisis that only resolved itself when Edward abdicated in December, 1936, after 11 months on the throne; this resulted in Colin Firth pretending to stutter for two hours.

But no! That is not really the plot of W./E. at all, which instead largely focuses on New York in 1998, where late-twentysomething Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), named for Wallis Simpson, endures a strained marriage to wealthy psychiatrist William Winthrop (Richard Coyle), who would rather work late nights possibly having an affair and definitely doing charity work than make a baby with his wife. This frustrates her, given how much she has sacrificed to be with him, primarily her awesome job as a researcher at Sotheby's. It happens to be the case that the auction agency is currently hosting a display of Wallis and Edwards personal belongings, and Wally spends all day every day standing and looking at these things and lapsing into reveries where we in the audience see the romance and exile of the titular lovers progress largely but not entirely in chronological order; it's not clear if Wally herself is imagining these moments or not. What she is certainly not imagining: hunky Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac, criminally unconvincing as a Russian).

For Wally, the legendary story of Wallis and Edward is one of the great love stories of all time; Madonna would appear to endorse this view, though it's not obvious that anyone else alive would agree with her. Regardless, it gives us one movie with one emotional throughline - whatever else is true, Madonna's script, co-written with Alek Keshishian, does a more than adequate job of following Wallis and Wally's respective love affair with the right kind of cross-cutting to make it obvious how they're informing one another. One emotional throughline, but two entirely different emotional registers.

Above and beyond all other concerns (and there are many), the simple truth about W./E. is that it fails because Wally absolutely and irredeemably sucks as a character. We learn exactly two things about her through the entire feature: she wants to have a baby, and she's obsessed with Wallis Simpson. That is a deadly laundry list for the character who gets the most screentime. It doesn't help that her entire plot arc is founded on such shaky grounds: as near as we can tell, William is no more unreasonable or shitty than any busy doctor husband - the film fails to give us even the slightest indication that the affairs he's having exist anywhere but Wally's mind. And if he can't stand the thought of fucking his wife or having a child with her, maybe that's because she's such a dreadful square: in a simply wretched performance that I pray has more to do with Madonna's obvious inability to manage actors than with the star's own shortcomings (for I rather like her), Cornish fails to give Wally any kind of depth or personality or even vitality; she spends the entire movie looking blanked-out on lithium, never responding to anything with more than a slight raising of her face and an attempt to look slightly more focused; if you take everything bad that Kristen Stewart has ever done and condense it into one performance, you have Cornish's Wally, one of the least-sympathetic romantic leads in contemporary memory.

With that kind of black hole sucking all the matter out of the center of the film, W./E. had absolutely no chance of being good; and Madonna does not do much to help things out with her really weird insistence on all the wrong things. "If only Wallis Simpson, the maligned romantic goddess of my imaginings, had a chance to tell HER story!" coos Wally at several points, and this is plainly the exact approach Madonna wanted to take; pity, then, that we never get any idea of what's going on below the most obvious surface-level activities. Wallis herself remains stubbornly enigmatic, despite a good share of half-baked expository lines about the struggle of a woman, and Don't they see what I gave up? (Not really, not based on this movie). Riseborough's performance, all battery acid and clipped line readings, is absolutely the best thing in the movie next to Phillips's costumes (which, incidentally, are chiefly interesting because of how they define Wallis's personality, so there's that) and perhaps Martin Childs's production design, and while she is enjoyable to watch in her brittle, commanding iciness, it's not really the kind of performance that Madonna seemed to be gunning for; the film's argument doesn't seem to be that Wallis Simpson was a misunderstood lover and victim, but that she was a hyper-competent bitch who was always the sharpest, smartest, and most talented one in the room. And that makes for a good movie character, but not at all an ingratiating one, and if this is meant to be Madonna's idea of what a powerful and sympathetic woman is like - and I might add, Riseborough is made-up to look rather like early-'90s Madonna, not such that it's glaring but enough that it's hard to un-notice once it drifts into your head - then it tells us much more about Madonna's personality than Wallis Simpson's.

But, although the film is thus misconceived - spectacularly misconceived, even - and though it plays so fast and loose with history that, perhaps by accident, it ends with a card indicating that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental, the film is not the car crash that you might have heard. Oh, how it is easy to pick at Madonna! But really, she's not a particularly awful director. Not at all a good one, of course; but the cinema is littered with not-quite-competent filmmakers, and if W./E. had been helmed by e.g. Lasse Hallström, it would have managed to avoid some of the spittle that landed on it. Her ending credits song, agreed, is pretty atrocious (and largely irrelevant to the movie's subject). But only her handling of actors qualifies as genuinely bad, and compared to her jangling and puerile 2008 debut, Filth and Wisdom, this film practically qualifies as stately. Anyway, it will make a fun double feature with The King's Speech some day; Harvey Weinstein's 1930s Royal Family Pictures. Maybe we can hold out hope for the same story told from Queen Mary's perspective next year.

4/10

TEN FOR MONDAY: OSCAR GETS IT RIGHT

One of the most fun things to do is to bitch about how consistently wrong the Oscars have been throughout their history; but in the interest of being positive and loving to all things in the world, I thought I'd take the exact opposite tack of spending some time exploring the places where the Academy did well, even really well. The places, in fact, where the Academy gave out an award so smart and deserving that I can hardly assume that it was the same body responsible for maintaining that John Mills gave a great supporting performance in Ryan's Daughter, that Joan of Arc had cinematography deserving of any better compliment than "functional", or that Ron Howard directed A Beautiful Mind with more skill than that demonstrated by Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Robert Altman, or David Lynch.

I give you a list of:

The Ten Most Deserving Oscar Winners (Outside of the Big 8)

Honorable Mention:
Mostly because it seemed like the fair thing to do, I only included competitive wins, and not any of the special awards given out here and there along the way. But that said, I think it would not do at all to forget about the 1952 Honorary Oscar given to Rashomon as the best foreign-language film released in the United States in 1951; the arcane rules of the actual Best Foreign Language Film category, introduced five years later, mean that very few real masterpieces have even been nominated there, let alone won, but it is pleasing that the film which in one stroke established Japan as one of the most important national film industries, as well as kicking off the decade when non-American films first became a major force in the lives of U.S. cinephiles, should be recognised in some capacity.


10. Best Art Direction-Interior Direction in Color, 1946:
The Yearling (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, Edwin B. Willis)

First, if you think you're too sophisticated for the story of a carpetbagger boy and his pet deer in Reconstruction-era Florida, you are mistaken: the film is by no means as sugary or simple as its plot would suggest. And a very huge part of the reason why is the brilliantly-realised world that the movie takes place in, one that is appealingly quaint but also realistic enough not to seem like a storybook. It's also an unusually fine example of an exterior set that strikes a good balance between looking like the actual out-of-doors and the pleasantly artificial world of a studio. The fact that it beat out the almost-equally deserving Henry V even means that this wasn't, in despite of the evidence, the most conservative choice that year.


9. Best Film Editing, 1969:
Z (Françoise Bonnot)

All things considered, Editing is one of the categories that has a better track record than most; even then, a politically audacious Greek biopic-thriller-message movie is an unusual choice (that same year, they could have gone with Hello, Dolly! - the brain revolts). On the other hand, it's a typical winner in this category in a lot of ways: calls a lot of attention to itself through chronological manipulation and fast pacing and such. "Typical", that is, except in its level of achievement: the film itself is one of the tightest, most brutally driving thrillers of its decade, and that is largely the result of Bonnot's immaculately well-timed cuts.


8. Best Cinematography, 1975:
Barry Lyndon (John Alcott)

On paper, this one is pretty damn conservative: pretty movies usually win here, and Barry Lyndon is nothing if it isn't pretty. And I suppose that's probably why it actually won. On the other hand, it's also one of the most technically innovative movies to ever triumph here, given the tendency for really important works of cinematography to lack the postcard loveliness the Academy favors (as Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki, to name two recent high-profile losers, have cause to know). So it's a bit of luck that this film which re-wrote the book on using on-camera and natural light happens to have also been so gorgeous; and yet not luck at all, given that it was precisely the technological leap that Alcott and Stanley Kubrick made in shooting this film that gave it such a painterly quality.


7. Best Costume Design in Black-and-White, 1963:
La dolce vita (Piero Gherardi)

There have been a lot of fine and worthy winners of the Costume Design Oscars, but more than any other visual category, the Academy knows what it likes here: 18th or19th Century period pieces with lots of big, pretty dresses. Which makes the occasions that they've broken away from that all the more precious. A lot of those were clustered around the beginning of the 1960s, of which the smartest to my mind is Gerardi's first victory (he was back for ) for Federico Fellini's study of the lives of the stylish classes; a movie in which the clothes that people wear are frequently the only indication of their personality, or more to the point, the personality they'd like to showcase. It's one of cinema's most sustained and effective examples of costume-as-storytelling, and a fantastic time capsule of haute couture c. 1960 as well.


6. Best Original Score, 1938:
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)

John Williams, Miklos Rozsa, Maurice Jarre: a lot of great composers have won for a lot of great scores. But my favorite will always be Korngold's bright and hugely enthusiastic pop-symphonic adventure in obvious emotions and exhilaration - a score without which it's difficult to imagine Williams's career - that is perhaps the most singularly rousing adventure music ever tied to a Hollywood production. Sure, it's not as experimental or challenging as a lot of the music that hasn't won or been nominated, though it's more innovative than you might think, in a world where its descendants can be found five or six times every summer; but what matters is ultimately how much flair it adds to an already peppy film, and how it's one of the few scores from the 1930s that is worth listening to on its own merits as music.


5. Fanny and Alexander, 1983:
Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Anna Asp, Susanne Lingheim) and Best Costume Design (Marik Vos-Lundh

And also this fella named Sven Nykvist won for Cinematography, but the reason I have lumped these two together, and not that one, is simple: both of these categories have a pronounced weakness for period films that Fanny and Alexander fulfills to a "T", and in both cases, this is the best period film that has ever been rewarded. Largely because Fanny and Alexander is among the best period films that has ever been made at all; one in which the precision of the sets and costumes is not merely eye candy, but the viewer's visual entryway into a world that is fundamentally different than ours even if the emotions are the same; it is a film in which nostalgia for a time and place we have never personally experienced is a major element in how it goes about telling it story, and the heightened, even theatrical feeling of turn of the century Sweden as depicted in this film is far and away the most important element in creating that nostalgia.


4. Best Film Editing, 1975: Jaws (Verna Fields)

A legendary achievement in turning a pile of footage into a clear, driving narrative; but as impressive as it is that Fields was able to make Jaws exist in the first place, that's not why I've put her here. It's because of the degree to which this film, among the finest action-adventure-thrillers ever produced, relies upon savvy and impeccably-timed cutting for almost all of its best moments to land with the, frankly, sublime force that they do: several of the film's most celebrated sequences, from the opening shark attack to the climactic face off between Roy Scheider and a dysfunctional shark robot, are masterpieces of the editor's craft as much or more than they are the director's or screenwriter's.


3. Best Cinematography, 1927-'28:
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Charles Rosher, Karl Struss)

The first-ever winner of this award is also the best: a grab-bag of every trick and technique that filmmakers had achieved as of the pinnacle year for visual storytelling in silent cinema. Combining sentimental pictorialism with some of the brashest and most Expressionist shots in American film history - its depiction of the city as a nightmare of straight lines and cruel angles is topped only by fellow Class of '27-'28 film The Crowd (which wasn't nominated in this category), while its dreamy depiction of the countryside in its final sequence is matched nowhere else in the medium. How much of this is due to the cinematographers and how much is the German genius F.W. Murnau is hard to say, but with results this good, it's hard to be concerned with such matters.


2. Best Original Song, 1940:
"When You Wish Upon a Star", from Pinocchio
(Music by Leigh Harline, lyric by Ned Washington)
&
1. Best Original Song, 1939:
"Over the Rainbow", from The Wizard of Oz
(Music by Harold Arlen, lyric by E.Y. Harburg)

Even before the notorious failure of the Best Song category to justify its own existence in even the slightest degree (seriously, they nominated the song from motherfucking Rio), Best Original Song had a legendarily bad track record: some of the losing nominees include "They Can't Take That Away from Me", "What's New Pussycat", "The Bare Necessities", "Blame Canada", and "Nine to Five", and that's without so much as the songs that weren't able to swing a nomination. But there have been exceptions, of which the most extraordinary was a 2-year run that has never been matched in any category at the Oscars. The 1940 song is, of course, a ballad of winsome yearning sweet enough that 72 years later, it's still the official theme song of the Walt Disney Company; and while it is undeniably on the corny side, it takes a much stronger viewer than I to resist its delicacy.

Even so, it's not a patch on the winner from the year before: another yearning ballad that was slow enough that it very nearly was cut from the film before its release. But wiser heads prevailed, and so the world was given the gift of teenage Judy Garland, before MGM got her all jacked up on pills, singing one of the tenderest "I Want" songs in the history of the American musical, and a solid candidate for the title of best song ever written for a motion picture. You'd say that such perfection was a shoe-in for the Oscar; no such thing when it comes to Original Song, but sometimes heartbreaking genius is simply too obvious to deny.