Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Snub of WALL-E: The REAL Oscar Disappointment

That Pixar's WALL-E got snubbed by the Academy has apparently not come as a surprise to many people, certainly not in the way that The Dark Knight snub did. To my mind, though, it's certainly a bigger crime, because in addition to being a narrative masterpiece, the movie has something a lot more to say than, at the very least, a movie about a man aging backwards, yet another look at a disgraced President, a gay politician, and yet ANOTHER Holocaust/WWII themed movie.

WALL-E may have a love story beating at its heart, but first and foremost it's a film about saving our planet, something which can only begin with a sincere change of attitude. THIS is the kind of blend of craftsmanship AND relevance that the Academy has awarded in the past and should continue to recognize. Movies like Schindler's List and Crash were unapologetically message movies that were bestowed the Best Picture honor, so why not give similar recognition to a movie that is arguably at least as well-made as the former and, from what I've heard almost CERTAINLY better made than the latter? I may well have answered my own question on this very blog by talking about the Weinstein Brother's omnipresent influence with the Academy, but considering that Pixar has scored THREE best animated feature wins and has had every single one of its films released after the category was introduced score a nomination one wonders why they haven't crossed over yet. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon managed to score a Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film nod years ago, so really, I have to say, what's keeping the Academy from recognizing one of the best made movies of the year, which is arguably the most socially relevant?

There can be good arguments made in favor of passing up WALL-E just as there can be those for its snubbing The Dark Knight as well, though to my mind, in the case of the former, I'll be harder pressed to believe them. After all, the film WAS nominated for Best Original Screenplay, an arguably major award that not even TDK scored for all its eight nominations, and that's usually a very important indicator of how the Academy views the craftsmanship of the film. And to think that WALL-E and TDK were overlooked in favor of The Reader, a film which is now the whipping boy of just about everyone who believes these two films deserved better.

The way I see it, when the era of the Weinsteins is over, Oscar season will become a lot more interesting, because then films will have a better chance of getting in on merit.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Visionary History

One of my favorite movies of 2004 was Pixar Films' The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird. I loved everything about it: the idea of a superhero undergoing a midlife crisis and getting fat and balding just like regular people, the snappy dialogue, crisp animation and geek references.

One thing in particular I feel deserves celebrating about this movie is how it achieves a timelessness in its storytelling. Sure, it does this primarily by tapping universally understood themes and concerns, but one thing that really helps it along is the ultra-slick, retro-futuristic motif that permeates the film, from the production and costume design to Michael Giacchino's fantastically lively, predominantly jazz music score. It's evocative of a period that's caught somewhere between the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, and yet so much of the technology flaunted there doesn't even exist yet, even though much of it is theoretically possible.

I love movies that play with history this way; sometimes the filmmaker picks a certain point in human history and says "what if this was done differently somehow" and ends up giving us a world we can now only dream of seeing in real life. These are certainly not visions of our actual past, nor are they necessarily of our future, but often somewhere in between, somewhere we can never quite be because they are at the same time somewhere we've already been and somewhere we aren't quite at just yet. I believe one of the terms used to describe such non-histories is "steampunk."

Apart from Brad Bird's The Incredibles, one of my favorite examples of this is the little-seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a pet project of Jude Law's which presented an alternate version of the 1930s which was brought to life almost exclusively in Computer Generated Imagery, a full year before Robert Rodriguez did it in Sin City and three before Zack Snyder did it with 300. Unlike The Incredibles, Sky Captain does not envision a world that is neither here nor there but rather presents us with a definite past, albeit not the one we knew, one with Zeppelins as a usual mode of travel and robots that roam New York City in the 1930s. I suppose another good example would be The Golden Compass, though I did not see that film.

Speed Racer, for all its flaws, went the retro-futuristic route that The Incredibles did, and to my mind it is quite relevant that these two films share, in Michael Giacchino, a composer. While as a racing fan I simply didn't buy the film and its impossibilities, I loved the alternate history it presented with a world where cars ran on fantastical sounding components like transponders and convergenators, using fuel cells and yet sounding very much like throaty V8s were propelling them. The stylized anime-inspired visualization didn't float my boat when it came to many of the racing scenes, but it made everything else quite pleasing to the eye.

I'm sure there are dozens of examples of films that employ this storytelling technique just floating out there and I'd love to get my hands on them. I don't know how many people would agree with me on this but I'd love to see Superman re-fashioned this way.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why The Dark Knight Didn't Bag Major Oscar Nominations (Except for Heath Ledger's)

There's a part of me, a mean, juvenile, unapologetically puerile part, that took absolute glee from knowing that The Dark Knight failed to land nominations for Best Picture, Director or Screenplay at the recently announced Academy Award nominations, and not because I have anything in particular against the movie itself.

No, my beef is with the legions upon legions of fanboys who infested messageboards like a loud, unstoppable plague for months before the release of TDK and were thumping their chests for months thereafter, like the asshats who posted messages like "TDKTDKTDK (add about 100 more TDKs)" and "TDK will pwn" on every update on Iron Man or some other movie of 2008, people who, as the film scooped up one accolade after another, were picking up a sickening momentum in terms of their collective cacophony. The snub at the Golden Globes, while it could have been seen as a precursor of things to come for the film, really meant little to nothing as the Globes have been somewhat widely ridiculed for years.

As patently absurd as it sounds, it struck me that, if TDK had garnered either Best Picture or Best Director nod, fanboys would have been morally convinced that they owned the world, and the entertainment industry would go to hell in a handbasket because Hollywood would agree. I mean, as it is, they already have a sense of self-importance more bloated than a drowning victim who's been floating around for about three months.

I have no idea if the Academy was thinking this and truth be told, they probably weren't, but I'm GLAD the fanboys are taking it personally; I'm GLAD that, to them, it's the Oscar folks flipping the bird right at them. The sound of their collective heart breaking as they post their spelling- and-grammar-impaired diatribes on messageboards decrying the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences is all the payback I'll ever need. Iron Man didn't get any major Oscar nods either but I couldn't give a damn; it's already performed well beyond anyone's expectations, even making it on at least ONE major critic's top ten movies of 2008 lists...a list which excluded TDK. In short, no expectations, no disappointment. I don't even expect Iron Man to win either of the technical Oscars for which it was nominated.

The more rabid TDK fans, intoxicated on the thought that for once, they were at one with the teeming masses, rode the gravy train all the way till it was abruptly derailed last Thursday.

It was funny how they loved to talk about how grosses mean nothing and yet point to TDK's b.o. as the reason why it's the greatest movie ever. It was funny how they talk about how awards mean nothing but cried like babies when TDK was snubbed in favor of The Reader, which, from all indications, is yet another meandering downer of a movie produced by the grossly overrated Weinstein brothers, Bob and Harvey.

Thing is, even though there was a part of me that took pleasure in seeing so many fanboys wailing like hungry infants, the greater part of me, to my SURPRISE, was sickened that yet again, the Academy has shown its true colors by throwing its most infamous "political figures," the Weinsteins, a bone, one that happened to be at Batman's expense. Of the five nominees, four were widely expected to make it into the race: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk and Frost/Nixon. The Reader, a film which was noted for Kate Winslet's portrayal of a Nazi, while well-regarded, was not expected to make the cut. It perhaps is not entirely coincidence that it happened to be released by the Weinstein company, the studio formed by the Weinstein brothers after Walt Disney Pictures eased them out of ownership of the studio they had founded, Miramax.

The fanboys whose pleasure gave me a rise can and actually should take solace from the knowledge that the Academy, in its history spanning over eight decades, has, time and time again betrayed its highly political nature. There have, throughout the years, been power players and I'm sure learned film historians could provide a pretty long list of them. Recently, in maybe the last four or five years, TIME's Richard Corliss, wrote about how downright ridiculous some of the awards in the last twenty years had been and I have seen a couple of lists of questionable nominations that some other writers have compiled over the years.

Of these power players, the Weinsteins are undoubtedly among the more significant of recent times.

Now, these guys have arguably done a lot for independent film, almost as much as Robert Redford did by coming up with the Sundance Film Festival. The studio they founded has enabled small filmmakers to make movies that a lot of mainstream studios wouldn't even touch. In fact, sometime in the 1990s, the Weinsteins helped make independent cinema "en vogue" at a time when studios seemed to be artistically bankrupt.

That said, the brothers, both at their time with Miramax and their new studio, the Weinstein Company, have come up with some real clunkers, some of which, absurdly enough, were able to garner Oscar nods or even wins and to my mind it's the Academy's irrational need to pander to these men that makes so many of their choices suspect, including some of the ones they made this year.

The late 1990s to early 2000s were the heyday of the Weinsteins in terms of Academy Award recognition. 1998 was a year that particularly grated on me as the moderately entertaining Shakespeare in Love achieved a shocking and widely despised upset over the sweeping war epic Saving Private Ryan. Moreover, Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar for Best Actress left a lot of people grumbling, as did Roberto Benigni's Best Actor win for Life is Beautiful, a film in which he played...himself. The worst was yet to come, though, as 1999 and 2000 saw back-to-back nominations for Miramax that, in a word, seemed somewhat gratuitous on the part of the Academy. Lasse Halstrom's The Cider House Rules, a film based on John Irving's novel that was regarded by critics as somewhat tepid and which didn't even achieve much by way of box-office garnered Best Director and Picture nods to the dismay of many. I'd like to comment more on that but I haven't seen the film.

In 2000, though, the Academy gave quite a bit of recognition to a film I DID see and which I found distinctly underwhelming: Chocolat, AGAIN directed by Halstrom, and AGAIN distributed by Miramax. It got nominations for Best Picture, Actress and Supporting Actress, among others, and though I found it a charming little film I confess I was really left scratching my head by the Academy's choice. It was shut out when awards night rolled around, but in any event the nominations themselves were absolutely puzzling, and pretty much led me to believe that the Weinsteins somehow had the Academy by its collective balls, if that was at all possible.

Nor are the Academy's dodgy decisions limited to favoring the W brothers. Among some decisions I found somewhat risible were Kevin Spacey's Oscar for playing American Beauty's Lester Burnham, who was basically a total retread of a character he'd played in the late Ted Demme's The Ref, a movie that had come out five years earlier. There was Denzel Washington's Best Actor Oscar for Training Day, which he arguably should have gotten two years earlier for The Hurricane and which could have been an apology from the Academy for passing him over in favor of Spacey. Unfortunately, if it was an apology, it came at the expense of Russell Crowe, who deserved to be a back-to-back winner that year. Crowe had won a deserved Oscar for Gladiator but lost out on A Beautiful Mind, something I (and a couple of other people I know) feel was just...wrong.

And then, of course, there was all the brouhaha in 2005 about how Crash won the Best Picture Prize that, many believed, rightfully belonged to Brokeback Mountain. I won't even get started on that one.

It's all politics, really. It seems that the Weinsteins who are notorious for their aggressive campaigning come awards season, needed a slot and somebody had to get bumped off. In a way, it's the luck of the draw and considering TDK was primarily a summer blockbuster type of movie, it was the easiest choice to drop in favor of a "serious" film, i.e. anything from the Weinsteins that has an unhappy ending. I'm not saying there was anything as insidious as a buyout or something like that, but I am willing to bet money that the Academy's biases against certain genres and FOR certain producers, based on past history, may have played a role of one kind or another.

So TDK fans, content yourselves with your favorite movie's 8 Oscar nominations, critical acclaim and massive box-office. You may not own the world, but an Oscar Best Picture snub isn't nearly the terrible blow many of you may think it is.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Philippine Independent Cinema," or...Leave It To Filipinos To Bastardize Yet Another Noble Concept...

On my way to and from work I find myself walking by a lot of "second-run cinemas" or movie theaters that show old movies. Because I work in the Manila area and walk most often by Avenida Rizal, most of those second-run theaters invariably show...adult films. Though I never actually watched any of the movies, a lot of them looked familiar to me, and it was only upon some thought that I realized it was because I had seen the ads and posters for a number of them before, touted as examples of "Philippine Independent Cinema." I almost gagged with the realization.

Now, I'm no prude and no self-righteous crusader and I've seen a number skin flicks or skin-heavy flicks, including some of the acclaimed ones. That said, it really pains me to see that Robinson's Galleria, which devotes one of its theaters to showing independent movies, more often than not finds itself playing features that end up in second-run skin-flick theaters. Whether it's straight or gay porn, the thought that the only stories that many, if not most of our "independent" filmmakers can come up with are those involving graphic sexual intercourse really makes me shake my head for the Philippine movie industry as a whole. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the forces behind these so-called "independent" films were basically the guys who were cut loose by the studios when folks like Henry Sy (and the consumers in general) laid down the law and said "we don't want to watch your garbage anymore." So yeah, the term "independent" is accurate in that sense, but I despise those people for badging their films with it, because in some cultures, like Hollywood, an independent film is one that is free from studio meddling and bureaucracy and, quite often the need to pander to the lowest common denominator. Of course, just because a foreign film is independent is no guarantee it'll be good, but if nothing else, it'll at least be different from the stuff the studios come up with.

Here, "independent films" seem only to pander to their viewer's sexual appetites, with story basically being a secondary consideration. I saw the highly controversial "Live Show" on DVD and, whatever people may say about the decision to ban it, will have to agree with its critics that yeah, it was basically pornography masquerading as a "message film." One of its stars, Klaudia Koronel, did porn fans a great disservice by going legit, getting her degree and getting married (I think), but she did the movie viewing public a huge favor by ensuring they'd never have to endure her "acting" again.

There's nothing wrong with independent films having sexual content if it serves a greater story, but for flick upon flick to center around the same themes and to lean on the same old devices to propel their stories, many of which involve two people taking their clothes off and getting it on, kind of hammers home just WHY Filipino movies are floundering in the first place. I'll give a good example; when Asia Agcaoili promoted her movie "Casa" another movie bandied about as an "indie flick," her selling point was basically...her sex scenes. Nothing about the story or guerilla style filmmaking, just...her explicit sex scenes for which, she teased, she did not even cover her vaginal opening with the plaster traditional used by actors simulating love scenes to prevent unwanted entry. I've often fantasized about buying all of her smut on black market DVDs, smug in the knowledge that I'll be "taking advantage" of her without giving her a solitary centavo of my money. She deserves no less for mangling something as noble as the term "indie flick" which in other places of the world means something more than a soft-core porn movie.

The problem isn't that we're prudes or living in the 19th century; the problem is that now the "independent filmmakers" who are basically supposed to be mavericks and at the forefront of creativity, appear to be creatively bankrupt.

Petty Tyrants Lining the Pews

This was meant to be my "pop culture" blog, but lately I've decided that it would be better devoted to what it was titled for: throwing tantrums, and this one, to my mind, is a doozy.

I sometimes find myself questioning the systems that some parish priests institute as part of their masses, like the time of the mass during which they choose to make their announcements, with some priests having the congregation stand up, abruptly sit down again to listen to the announcements, then to stand up again. One parish has the congregation stand up after communion and all the way through several minutes worth of announcements after they've already sat through an entire mass and want to go back to work. These can be pretty annoying, but truth be told I just shrug my shoulders and make it a point to avoid going to mass there.

There's one practice, though, which I simply have to comment on because based on what I've seen it appears to have bred a bunch of despots.

Apparently, in one parish, the line for communion is policed by a bunch of middle-aged to geriatric women. I experienced this first hand when one such woman snarled at me to wait till I was called, as I was, at the time, unfamiliar with their practices. I've not made the same mistake again, but I have noted that a couple of these pseudo gestapo tend to give parishioners dirty looks for such harmless things as heading to the bathroom, which I sometimes do when hearing mass. Now, I won't knock the purpose for these attempts to instill some kind of order as I'm not really familiar with how chaotic things were before these systems were put in place, but I will say that if ever it was a good idea, the cure has since become worse than the disease.

The saying power corrupts may be tired and old but it is ridiculously apt, and what immediately comes to mind when thinking about those old biddies who fancy themselves "policewomen of God" (a concept probably cooked by an overzealous parish priest) is a bit of dialogue between Steve Buscemi and an actor playing a parking attendant, whose name I've forgotten, which took place in the movie Fargo. In the film, Buscemi pulls into a parking lot, gets a ticket, doesn't park, then, upon immediately pulling out again, is compelled by the attendant to pay for the ticket. Annoyed, Buscemi says "I bet you think you're some kind of authority figure, with your little uniform." That's pretty much EXACTLY how to describe the attitudes of many of these post-menopausal women during the mass.

Well, if the church starts to lose parishioners to nearby churches, and I can think of at least two, in reevaluating their approach, the first thing they should give the axe are these ridiculous little stormtroopers.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Movies Made for Everyone That Pleased (Almost) No One

I'd be a consummate liar and hypocrite if I said that I was not at all entertained by the Speed Racer feature film when I watched it on DVD a few days ago; it was funny at some parts and exciting at others, and I honestly liked the story which propounded the arguably speculative but at the same time intriguing conspiracy theory that race victories are often decided in board rooms rather than on racetracks. Sure, I found a lot, and I mean a lot, wrong with it, but I still managed to enjoy myself for most of its 130 minutes.

That said, I understand why it bombed, primarily because it's a phenomenon I've seen before.

The first movie that comes to mind when I think of movies that tried to reach several audiences all at once is Titan A.E., the last feature-length animated film ever to be directed by one of my favorite animation wizards of the pre-Pixar era, Don Bluth, the director of An American Tail and The Secret of N.I.M.H. It was way too violent to be a kid's film (with several characters getting blown away and with one character snapping the neck of another) but never, even with Joss Whedon as one of its screenwriters and some really fantastic CGI blended in with the hand-drawn animation, quite seemed to cross over into sci-fi action territory. I, for one, liked it, but kind of had an inkling that its somewhat amorphous nature could, as it did, hurt its potential box-office. The real tragedy was how this movie apparently did for Don Bluth what Gigli did for one-time Oscar-nominated director Martin Brest. It's sad that this approach to animated filmmaking tanked because had it worked I could see a lot of comic books being made into films this way, and to my mind it is definitely nice to watch. Two attempts by Disney to make movies in this style, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, suffered similar fates at the box office, with Treasure Planet being one of the biggest box-0ffice turkeys of 2002. A Punisher film done in this anime hybrid style, reminiscent of the short-lived but fantastic HBO Spawn series, would probably have been a lot better than all of the forgettable live action films Marvel has failed to sell.

Another example I can think of, though this is slightly different, is Kingdom of Heaven, a movie that tried to be a historical epic in the vein of Braveheart and a political commentary on the struggle in Israel all at once, with director Ridley Scott and screenwriter William Monahan trying perhaps a little too hard not to antagonize any Muslim viewers. The film, while gorgeously shot and with a number of good points, ultimately meandered and sputtered at the box office as well, although a director's cut that has been released on DVD which had something like an additional half-hour of footage was allegedly a much better film than what made it into theaters.

Like both these films, Speed Racer is, in many ways, a fairly bold enterprise. While I wasn't a fan of the Japanese animated TV show on which the movie was based, I liked the idea of a major, big-budget racing movie, the first to be attempted since Renny Harlin's trainwreck titled Driven. I even liked that, from what I saw in the trailers, this movie, rather than try (and fail) to capture racing the way that Harlin did, the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame/infamy were trying for a retro-futuristic, hyper reality.

The thing is, while they attempt to build their visuals around a fantastical world, they ground their script in the more "real" issues of big corporations running and fixing races. While they attempt to make a kid-friendly movie where the race winner drinks milk instead of champagne, they create races where crashes and deliberate collisions by drivers are commonplace. There's a fairly interesting amount of pseudo-science which vaguely explains how the cars are built and how they run, but all believability pretty much jumps out the window when one sees the cars pretty much defy all known laws of physics.

There's just too much going on at the same time for the brain to really process, and I've noticed that the people who've enjoyed themselves the most are my kids, to whom concerns like plot and credibility are pretty much superfluous.

There's a lot wrong with these movies, but they definitely deserve credit for trying something new. People who make these noble failures deserve some kind of pat on the back for trying something new, and well, for whatever it's worth, I'm giving it to them here.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Fool Me Once...

When I read the first issue of the Marvel Comics miniseries The Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr., I genuinely felt the story held the promise of great things to come. Seven issues later, I felt that the series had utterly failed to deliver on this promise and had basically spent the entire seven issues showcasing Romita's art and spinning its wheels. There were a lot things set up pretty well, but after seven issues there was no payoff to be found anywhere.

When the ongoing Eternals series was announced I understood what Gaiman's true imperative had been, which was to set-up the ongoing and whet people's appetites for these relatively obscure characters, even though he would pass the writer's baton to someone else.

I was sold on work of series artist Daniel Acuna after seeing a few preview pages, and wanting desperately to see some payoff after following a very expensive seven issues of Gaiman's miniseries I picked up the first storyarc. I had thought to review it in my multiply blog, which is where I post majority of my thoughts nowadays anyway, but I changed my mind and put my thoughts here because these are the first words I'm typing in a while that actually qualify as a tantrum.

After six issues, a little more exposition and character development, I'm still where I was when I bought this series, which was to be my "triumphant" return to comic-book collecting; feeling that I had been completely hoodwinked into thinking I'd be getting a complete story and not just some prolonged, unconsummated tease. The art is pretty (except for some annoyingly muddy colors), but this series doesn't even merit a review anymore.

I understand the writers' and editors' imperative to keep things interesting as this is now and ongoing series as opposed to a limited one, but the sales of the title seem to indicate that other readers feel exactly as I do. I've learned that in a desperate bid to boost sales, Marvel is tying the book into the X-Men to generate a little attention, but for my part I have never bought any comic just because it has "X" on the cover. Also, Acuna appears to be leaving, thus removing my only reason to keep following this title.

Thanks a lot for spoiling my "comeback," Marvel. And here I was thinking you actually wanted my money. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. If you manage to fool me again, well, I'm clearly hopeless.