Archive for January, 2007
Christianity Today has just released its list of “The 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2006.” According to their intro, by “redeeming film,” they mean, “They’re all stories of redemption—sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; one even includes the Redeemer. With others, you might have to look a bit harder for the redemptive thread, but it’s certainly there. Some are ‘feel-good’ movies that leave a smile on your face; some might leave you uncomfortable, even disturbed, and asking, ‘How should I process that?‘ But you won’t be able to shake it from your memory, either.”
Okey doke. I can go along with that. But, my question is, can a film really be “redeeming” if it’s lacking in artistic quality? Does it even make sense to look at these qualities separately?
I’m very happy with some of the movies on the list: Children of Men and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, in particular (Sophie Scholl was, of course, released in 2005, but since it’s a foreign film, most people in the U.S. didn’t see it until 2006). Some I haven’t seen. Then there’s Akeelah and the Bee, a movie I liked a lot, but one that could have been done better. Same goes for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which had a plot that was obviously supposed to be redemptive, but which had huge characterization problems that made the “redemption” completely unbelievable.
I guess that’s one of my main criteria for a “great” movie: if I can imagine improvements, it’s not “great.” And if I can see big flaws, I’m not sure how redeeming it is, since it doesn’t reflect well on our God-given creativity.
And that’s my big beef with putting The Nativity Story at the top of the list, because, while it told the most redeeming story in history, it was, frankly, boring, except for the bits with Joseph. As I’ve mentioned before, I think Children of Men, with all its violence and strong language, actually did a better job of conveying the need for a redeemer and of portraying the hope and joy surrounding the birth of one special child.
One thing that particularly interested me about the list is that three of the ten films are foreign (actually, all three were 2005 Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film). I don’t think that other countries’ filmmakers are any more interested in redemptive stories than U.S. filmmakers. My guess is that the foreign films that make it to the U.S. and do well here are the more “feel-good” ones (“feel-good” would apply to Tsotsi and Joyeux Noel, though not to Sophie Scholl, I think).
January 31st, 2007
Check out the cynical cleverness in Steve Rose’s article “Heal the World,” in yesterday’s The Guardian. It’s all about the cliches that go into those Hollywood movies where some conscientious white person confronts “the horror, the horror” of a third-world country with darker-skinned people in humanitarian crisis.
Here’s one of my favorite bits, to give you a flavor of the article: “Wherever you are in the world, especially in the greatest depths of dark-skinned human suffering, you’re sure to find a smokin’ hot white woman. Usually she’ll be struggling to rectify the situation single-handedly on behalf of her uncaring compatriots, carrying the conscience of the western world on her shoulders, and bravely maintaining immaculate skin tone despite the absence of cosmetics.”
The one puzzle is that, as an example of this genre (along with Blood Diamond, Traffic, The Interpreter, The Constant Gardener, and Syriana), Rose includes Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel. This seems odd, because, unlike the directors of the other films, Iñárritu is Mexican and therefore not exactly from the First World. It’d be interesting to explore how and why Babel acquiesces to the Hollywood pattern–if indeed it does. Of course, I have to actually see it first, which won’t be happening until it’s released on DVD next month.
From what I’ve heard, The Last King of Scotland may follow this formula to some degree as well. The one difference is that the white character, a Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy, actually gets drawn into participating in, rather than observing or fighting against, the horrors of Idi Amin’s regime. But several reviews have mentioned that the film’s ending, where McDoctor takes his story back to the white, Western world, implies that justice can only be brought about when the U.S.-European authorities get involved.
January 28th, 2007
Cute Overload (not the same thing as Cute Otters) just posted pictures of the baby otters born recently at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The pups are African spotted-necked otters (I think I remember trying to draw one of those when I was eleven). While not as cool as Asian small-clawed otters–who, in my book, take the cake for lutrine cuteness–they’re pretty amazing critters. Fluffy.
You know you’ve watched too much “Firefly” when you see otter pups being held by blue-gloved hands, and you start chanting distractedly, “Two by two, hands of blue . . .”
January 26th, 2007
Now, I’m no fan of “South Park,” but I do credit them with recognizing that there is some kind of inherent humor in an otter saying “tummy” in a faux-British accent. They must have recognized it, because they did it twice, in two different episodes. I do NOT recommend watching the episodes, as they are extremely offensive and tasteless, but you can see the otter portions at Cute Otters.
These episodes aired towards the end of last year, but I was reminded of them because Cute Otters just posted a photo of a grumpy-looking otter with the caption, “I shall smash your skull like a clam on my tummy!” (a line I’ve been repeating to the world at large for a couple of months now). It would have been more appropriate in combination with a sea otter, of course, but it’s still amusing.
The other “South Park” otter-tummy line is well worth some chuckles, too: “They [humans] are not a logical race, Wise One! They go around chopping down trees for tables when they have perfectly good tummies to eat on. How logical is that?”
January 26th, 2007
The biggest shocker is, of course, that Dreamgirls wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. It was replaced by Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language movie Letters from Iwo Jima (and I say “replaced” because the other four nominees were pretty much what everyone was expecting). I haven’t seen Dreamgirls yet, so I can’t comment on its omission from the top race (though it had eight nominations total), but I can say I’m sorry that Eastwood got nominated. Nope, I haven’t seen Letters from Iwo Jima either, so it has nothing to do with that: I just don’t like Eastwood. And the Oscars seem to love him. Grr.
Over at Entertainment Weekly, they’re joining me in mourning that Children of Men didn’t get nominated for any of the biggies. It got nods for Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing, but that’s it. Pan’s Labyrinth, however, did a bit better than expected, with six nominations total, including one for Best Foreign Film, one for Original Screenplay, and one for Original Score—which was beautiful and haunting, by the way (you can hear it at the Pan’s Labyrinth web site). Speaking of scores, I’m pleased that Ennio Morricone’s work is being recognized with an honorary Oscar—his soundtrack to The Mission is one of my favorites.
I’m also happy for every single bit of recognition The Queen receives—it’s still the best movie of the year, in my opinion.
You can view the full list of nominees at The Envelope.
January 23rd, 2007
Why is it that no one is talking about how three Mexican filmmakers have taken the world by storm this winter? Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel did win the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and it’s quite possible that it will be one of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture—which is curious, because though I haven’t seen Babel yet, reviews seem to indicate that it’s weakest of the trio of Mexican films. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth did win Best Picture from the Society of Film Critics, but nobody really pays attention to them (except for obsessive people like me). And Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which may be the best of the three, is getting very little awards love at all, perhaps because of its (and Pan’s) late release date (see the aforementioned Mark Harris article for an explanation of how release dates can affect a film’s Oscar chances).
But people are seeing Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men, in greater numbers than they saw Babel. Pan’s Labyrinth was 7th at the box office this past weekend, despite playing in only 609 theatres across the nation (most others in the top ten were playing in at least 2,000 theatres). Not bad for a subtitled film.
Iñárritu, Cuarón, and del Toro are all friends, and Cuarón even served as a producer for Pan’s Labyrinth. I found that connection especially interesting, since Cuarón’s version of A Little Princess (which I highly recommend) combines fairy-tale scenes and “real” scenes, as does Pan’s Labyrinth. In both films, fantasy isn’t merely an escape; it’s survival, and it matters.
I’m particularly impressed at del Toro’s dedication to making sure he hasn’t portrayed fantasy as an escape—which he does by making the young protagonist Ofelia’s ventures into the fantasy world scary and grimy. She gets real mud on her clothes when she goes on a fantastic-real quest. In fact, the biggest difference between the fantasy and realistic worlds of the movie is that, in the fantasy realm, Ofelia can act, whereas she is largely powerless in the world of 1940’s Spain.
Del Toro also anchors the fantasy plot in reality by drawing deliberate connections between Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and Mercedes (Maribel Verdu of Y Tu Mamá Tambien, which may be the only Cuarón movie I don’t like), Ofelia’s stepfather’s housekeeper. It’s clear that Mercedes sees something of herself in Ofelia, and del Toro reinforces that bond by giving both characters archetypal objects that mirror each other.
Ofelia and Mercedes are also alike in their bravery and their refusal to follow orders without question (a central theme of the movie). The film’s “real” story is set just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, while the Franco-istas are still trying to stamp out vestiges of resistance in the mountains. Ofelia’s new stepfather, Captain Vidal, is in charge of an outpost in northern Spain, and he is relentless in his efforts to succeed against the rebels. But, the movie suggests, he isn’t as brave as he thinks, because he never has the courage to ask questions. He always shoots first.
Of course, Vidal is a microcosm of the larger problem with fascism, as del Toro himself states. “For me,” he writes, “fascism is a representation of the ultimate horror and it is, in this sense, an ideal concept through which to tell a fairy tale aimed at adults. Because fascism is first and foremost a form of perversion of innocence, and thus of childhood.”
Vidal’s cruelty is almost unbelievable, but I think that’s intentional, because the Faun, in Ofelia’s fantasy world, is something of a parallel, but he is morally ambiguous (as fauns of mythology usually are). As a result, the Faun’s world seems a bit more real, while the “real world” is presided over by an evil king, a one-sided villain of fairy tale.
I do think the movie’s violence sometimes borders on the gratuitous, however. Yes, we need to see that Vidal is cruel, but we can understand that without seeing everything that the movie shows us. And there’s a medical amputation scene that’s absolutely unnecessary to the plot.
The gratuitous violence is part of why I’m going to say, after some debate, that I like Children of Men better than Pan’s Labyrinth. Overall, Children of Men is about survival, while Pan’s Labyrinth is about the good death. Children of Men ultimately offers more hope for life on this earth, while Pan’s Labyrinth, in an unusual move for a contemporary movie, hints at hope in the supernatural and in the afterlife. Both are necessary. Both are more courageous in dealing with spiritual themes than any American movies I’ve seen recently. Both are great films that should get Academy recognition. But I have a feeling I’m going to be grumpy on that score tomorrow morning, when the Oscar nominees are announced.
Note: Pan’s Labyrinth will probably be an Oscar Best Foreign Film nominee (for Mexico), because, unlike Babel or Children of Men, it’s not in English. Oh, and in case you’re wondering why a Mexican director chose the Spanish Civil War as his subject matter, del Toro has an answer. Many Spanish Republican expatriates settled in Mexico as a result of the war, and, del Toro writes, “These expatriates heavily shaped Mexican culture and cinema. Some of them became key mentors of mine growing up. They had tales of leaving Spain behind as children. These tales affected me a lot.”
January 22nd, 2007
I finally saw Little Miss Sunshine! I happened to be in Turkey and Egypt when it was playing in my town, so I’ve had to wait until DVD to enjoy the mayhem—and enjoyable mayhem it is.
Most of the people who have recommended the movie to me have been through therapy. And that actually makes me trust their opinion of the movie’s portrayal of human experience more. The Hoovers’ trip from New Mexico to southern California certainly concentrates disasters: within the trip, we get to see how each character reacts to devastating failure. The pile-up of “oh no, this can’t be happening” moments, if a little exaggerated, by that very exaggeration gives us something that we can identify with. Who hasn’t had a series of debacles that makes you finally shake your fist at the sky and yell, “This isn’t funny, God!”?
But of course it is funny when we get to watch movie characters go through it. I won’t give away many of the details of Little Miss Sunshine’s plot here, because that would definitely spoil part of the effect. But all the twists and turns along the road are wacky and rewarding.
I particularly enjoyed seeing Steve Carell’s portrayal of the nation’s preeminent (and also gay and suicidal) Proust scholar. I’ve always thought Carell had a lot of acting versatility: his characters in “The Office” and The 40-Year-Old Virgin are extremely different from each other, though both belong to a kind of comedy painted with broad strokes. Carell manages to bring nuances even to those characters, but it’s a pleasure to see him blend into the background of the ensemble (a very talented ensemble) in Little Miss Sunshine.
For a small movie directed by relative unknowns (husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose only previous directing experience was with music videos), Little Miss Sunshine has done very well both at the box office and in the awards season so far, leading to its new epithet: “the little movie that could.” An article about the awards season in last week’s Entertainment Weekly points out some irony in the situation: Mark Harris writes, “This year, Fox Searchlight has done everything but trademark the color yellow in its attempt to drive the Little Miss Sunshine bus all the way to the Kodak Theatre [where the Oscars are held]. One of the season’s ripest ironies may be the company’s mammoth effort to secure prizes for a movie that makes such acute fun of the American obsession with winning.”
So it may be a little ironic, but I still want to reward the film for creating such an appealing portrait of losing. All the Academy’s acting races may be fairly predetermined this year, but there’s a chance that Little Miss Sunshine could sneak in as the fifth nominee for Best Picture (I’d like it to be nominated, but I’d still prefer that the award go to The Queen). We’ll see when the nominations are announced on Tuesday (yup, the same day as the State of the Union—hmmm, which am I more excited about?).
January 20th, 2007
So, though “The Office” didn’t win any Golden Globes last night, I had a couple of consolations, namely Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep.
(By the way, I’m happy that “Ugly Betty” and its star America Ferrera won Globes—I’ve never seen the show, of course, since it’s on at the same time as “The Office,” and my priorities there are clear. But I’ll happily root for Ferrera because she’s not stick-thin and because her Globes dress was purple. I just wish “Ugly Betty” hadn’t had to beat “The Office” to get its Best Comedy Series trophy. Grump, grump.)
Thanks to The Queen, I can now distinguish Mirren from all the other British-actresses-who-can-do-Shakespeare-and-who-get-nominated-a-lot. I mean, I’d seen her in so many things previously, but I struggled to come up with her name when I saw her face. Maybe that’s part of why she’s such a good actress—she does tend to melt into her roles. However, she shines on awards nights: her Golden Globes dress was officially my favorite of the evening, though evil sites like In Style are officially ignoring it in favor of Cameron Diaz’s Ruffle-Fest of Doom.
Anyway, both Mirren and Streep gave the classiest acceptance speeches—and the funniest, outshining Eddie Murphy (and Sacha Baron Cohen, whose body-humor-laced speech quenched any desire I had to see Borat). How brilliant of Streep to end her speech with her character Miranda Priestly’s supremely dismissive “That’s all.”
These two venerable ladies, along with Judi Dench, also grace the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly. Their three-way interview in the magazine has plenty of wit and insight. Among the highlights are when Streep explains her theory about why there were so many great roles for older women this year: “There are several generations of women who have the habit of going out to the movies and buying a ticket, which is not so true [of young people]. It’s just like in the music business. The only people that buy CDs are people like us. Everybody else downloads it illegally off the LimeWire. And that’s probably what’s coming with movies. But while we still have the habit of going to films, they d— well better market to us and give us something to watch.”
Oh, so that explains why I was the only person under 45 in the theater when I went to see The Queen (with my mother-in-law, I might note).
Another great moment is when Mirren responds to EW’s question about whether any of the three actresses have ever considered directing. After a hearty “no,” Mirren hypothesizes about why other male actors their age have jumped into the directing camp: “A weird thing happens to male actors, especially movie stars, in my experience. Which is, they become grumpy old men. I think a young male actor feels great. All the girls want him. He’s a star. As they get older, that sense of not being in control of their own destiny grates on them, and they get grumpy. And they move into direction to try and feel they’re in control of their own destiny.”
Helen Mirren, psychologist. Is there anything she can’t do?
January 16th, 2007
Whoa! NBC Universal has confirmed that Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams will direct separate episodes of “The Office,” probably airing in February.
I can’t comment on Abrams, as I’ve never seen “Lost” or “Alias” or Mission Impossible III. But contemplating a Whedon-directed episode of “The Office” has me both excited and trembling in my socks. What I’m most concerned about is that the creative styles won’t mesh. From listening to “Firefly” commentary, you get the impression that Whedon is a very hands-on–okay, I really mean micromanaging–writer/director. Even when he’s not writing an episode, he’s checking the writer’s scripts and making him or her re-write them over and over again. And it produces good results. But it seems very at-odds with “The Office”’s process, which involves a lot of input from the actors (since most of them are writers, as well). It’ll be really interesting to see who writes the episodes that Whedon and Abrams direct.
For the meantime, can I posit that the true origin of Reavers has to do with years of working at Dunder-Mifflin?
January 10th, 2007
Apologies for The Ottery’s silence for the past couple of weeks. Holiday travels and the death of my grandmother (a wonderful woman and a creative inspiration for otters everywhere) kept me from writing.
However, travels also allowed me to do more fun reading than I usually manage. I’ve just finished Naomi Novik’s new novel His Majesty’s Dragon, the first of a series of at least five books about a dragon named Temeraire set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. The first three Temeraire books hit the stores in rapid succession in 2006, and director Peter Jackson has already optioned them for film adaptations. (Of course, the Temeraire movie(s?) will have to wait until Jackson is finished with The Lovely Bones—and possibly The Hobbit, if that mess ever gets straightened out. Maybe Smaug could make a cameo in His Majesty’s Dragon?).
Novik’s dragons are of a very different sort from Tolkien’s—and, given the unusual 19th-century setting, also very different from the plethora of copycat dragon fantasies. The Temeraire books are frequently compared to Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” books, only with dragons thrown in. There’s quite a bit of Jane-Austen-style social commentary, too. And something—perhaps the skepticism about war’s purpose, at the same time that battles are rendered thrillingly–reminds me of the fiction of Lloyd Alexander, as well.
His Majesty’s Dragon is really more about British Naval Captain Will Laurence than it is about Temeraire, whom he captures from a French vessel while the young dragon is still in his egg. When he hatches, Temeraire immediately latches onto Laurence, in a touching display that also dooms Laurence to a life as an “aviator.” Aviators, because they must tend to their dragons constantly, are a scorned social class, viewed as wild and somewhat reclusive. There is little chance of marriage, as few spouses would care to come second in priority to a dragon.
Laurence, of an aristocratic background, gradually learns to change his opinion of aviators once he leaves the Navy to train with them—though not without some initial character misjudgments worthy of any Austen heroine. Thanks to Temeraire, who has a mind of his own, Laurence also begins to think twice about principles he has never questioned: duty to the Crown, the justice of capital punishment, etc. The use of dragons as beasts of war also makes him more reluctant to engage in battle, for their wounding or death is far more tragic than the destruction of a ship.
Overall, His Majesty’s Dragon has a light tone with plenty of humor in the human-dragon interactions. However, the climactic battle was hard for me to read, because of the very real risk to the dragons. Sure, nature is red in tooth and claw, even dragon-nature, and I’m sure dragons fight each other in the wild, but it’s heartbreaking that these dragons must attack other dragons, for whom they hold no personal dislike, simply because the other dragons represent an enemy nation. It makes you think, more than human-versus-human battles, about how inhumane war really is. Whether that’s Novik’s intention or not (and I suspect that it may be), it’s certainly the effect, but it’s done without speechifying or over-the-top narrative condemnations of war.
I’ll definitely be reading the second and third Temeraire novels, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War.
January 6th, 2007