Archive for February, 2007
He’s my favorite Oscar host of recent years, mostly because he liked to poke pins in Hollywood’s self-congratulatory little balloons. But the Academy people didn’t like him, probably for that same reason. And so this year Ellen DeGeneres hosted, played it safe, and was extremely unfunny. And overtime. If you’re not going to be funny, you could at least be concise.
Anyway, aside from my general annoyance at the lack of humor, I was of course upset that The Departed managed to take the top two awards of Best Picture and Best Director last night. Grrr. Now, I admit I’ve never seen The Departed, and most likely never will, because I don’t like gratuitously violent organized-crime movies. But, having seen Scorsese’s abysmal work in The Aviator, I can’t say I’m a fan.
But . . . there was a corgi at the Oscars last night! Didn’t I say that I wanted to see one there? Someone was listening! So it was sneaked in as an accessory in the Costume Design tableaux (a category in which The Queen was nominated . . . and lost), but, still, it was there. On stage. I almost died of joy. Lucky Hollywood people who got to share the stage with a corgi.
That was the highlight. Second best was Helen Mirren’s completely unsurprising victory. I was also pleased at Jennifer Hudson’s and Forest Whitaker’s wins. I was disappointed that The Queen didn’t win Best Original Screenplay, but Little Miss Sunshine did, so I wasn’t too disappointed (and that victory was especially exciting, given that Michael Arndt is a first-time screenwriter).
Several upsets were, well, upsetting. Despite liking Little Miss Sunshine, I felt like Alan Arkin, as just one member of the film’s tightly woven ensemble (and perhaps the member with the least to do), didn’t quite deserve Best Supporting Actor. I would’ve given it to Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls, but voters probably were punishing him for making Norbit his first post-Dreamgirls role.
Speaking of Dreamgirls . . . what on earth happened in Best Original Song? I know that having three songs from Dreamgirls probably split the vote, but, still, who in their right minds could have voted for Randy Newman’s snore-inducing “Our Town” or Melissa Etheridge’s equally dull (and ironically titled) “I Need to Wake Up”? Maybe they voted for the latter because they needed to get rid of environmental guilt . . . but that’s why you vote for An Inconvenient Truth (which did win Best Documentary, by the way, and deservedly so), not for a song that didn’t even appear until the movie’s credits. I think the Academy ought to only nominate songs that actually appear within a movie—otherwise, how is it a measure of anything cinematic?
Most people in the know were betting that Best Cinematography would go to Children of Men (since, you know, it won pretty much every pre-Oscar cinematography award). Pan’s Labyrinth stole it away, though. I don’t know anything about cinematography, really, but the one clip they showed from Children of Men almost had me crying . . . again. And I think part of that is due to the camera work, even if I’m not particularly aware of it. Did the voters just not watch Children of Men? ‘Cause it won squat, and it deserved lots.
Grand totals for the evening? The Departed led with four awards, and Pan’s Labyrinth followed behind at a very respectable three (despite losing Best Foreign Film to Germany’s The Lives of Others). Little Miss Sunshine, Dreamgirls, and An Inconvenient Truth each won two awards. Every other film that won something just got one award.
And can I just say, “the Oscar-winning film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”? That certainly makes up for some of the evening’s disappointments. Hurrah for pirates and corgis!
Also, I kind of liked the weird shadow-acrobat people. Especially their tribute to Snakes on a Plane.
Best Dress of the evening goes to Anika Noni Rose’s red gown, worn during her performance of Dreamgirls’s nominated song “Patience.” Runners-up: Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Helen Mirren, who always looks regal.
February 26th, 2007
Several movie critics have pointed out the (intentional?) irony that Alejandro Gonzalez Innáritu’s film Babel, with its four interconnecting narratives—two in Morocco, one in Japan, and one between San Diego and Mexico—is a monumental (ha, ha) and ambitious filmmaking effort. The question everyone’s asking is if it succeeds—and, more concretely, if it will succeed in nabbing the Best Picture trophy at tomorrow night’s Oscars.
I just discovered that Babel’s screenplay writer Guillermo Arriaga was also behind Tommy Lee Jones’s movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. I like Babel better, mostly because it doesn’t have any snakes and because the characters are more complex, but it has some similarities with Three Burials: an interesting premise, moving and important themes, but a story that doesn’t . . . quite . . . come together.
Babel does have the advantage over Three Burials, though, with its stellar acting (which is not unconnected to the better character writing in this film). As much as I liked Jennifer Hudson’s performance in Dreamgirls, I wouldn’t be upset if the Best Supporting Actress Oscar went to Babel’s Adriana Barraza or Rinko Kikuchi—really, there’s no one I’m rooting against in this category this year!
Rinko Kikuchi, as a deaf-mute Japanese teenager who has recently lost her mother, excels at conveying rage and despair without speaking. Knowing before I saw the movie that her anger manifested itself in some bizarre sexual ways—namely, foregoing panties and flashing young men in public—I expected hers would be the storyline I liked least. Actually, it was the one that ended up being most compelling. When someone finally responds to her character Chieko with compassion—not taking advantage of her, but not shying away from her either—you see some itty, bitty hint of healing occurring.
Neither of the story lines centered around browner-skinned people ends well. Adriana Barraza’s illegal immigrant nanny tale ends with sudden brokenness but little resolution, and the two Moroccan goatherd boys who are unintentionally responsible for the movie’s central event—the shooting of an American tourist—also meet tragedy and injustice.
The fates of these characters—and the movie’s sudden lack of interest in them once their stories turn for the worse—is, I think, intentional. It’s a stark contrast to all the international fuss over the shooting of one white woman (Cate Blanchett)—of course, for a while, all that fuss is mostly sound and fury, signifying nothing, for while the tourist’s story is all over the news, nothing is actually happening to get the seriously wounded woman out of the small town where she’s stranded.
Part of this inaction is due to the U.S.’s immediate accusation of terrorist activity involved in the shooting, which of course makes Morocco less friendly to American embassy efforts to get Susan Jones to a hospital. There’s a lot more attention being paid to tracking down the “terrorist”—an understandable fear on the Moroccan government’s part, given the possibility that, if they don’t produce a culprit, they could be invaded!
But the biggest block to action—and the movie’s central problem—is Richard and Susan Jones’s strange unwillingness to take one of the several available cars to the hospital. It doesn’t even seem to occur as a possibility. I mean, sure, an ambulance would be better and faster, but wouldn’t a car be preferable to sitting in a hut and either bleeding (Susan) or storming about and insulting everyone (Richard)? The movie doesn’t explain why they don’t take any of the available transportation methods, and so the central conflict just doesn’t make sense.
Also, we knew that the couple was in Morocco to try to get over some sort of marital problems, but none the three of us watching the movie figured out—until reading reviews afterward—that they were dealing with the death of one of their three children. I’d thought that Richard had an affair or something. On the bright side, though, I thought that Brad Pitt, as Richard, produced the finest acting I’ve ever seen from him.
By the end of the film, you feel relief at the relatively happy ending for the Joneses—and then you feel guilty for feeling such relief, when you haven’t even had a chance to mourn for the endings dealt out to the nanny or the goatherd boys. This feeling of relief mixed with dis-ease is, I think, one of the greatest accomplishments of Babel. It does hit you emotionally—not preachily—with discomfort over American privilege in the international scene.
Some viewers may not have this reaction, though, because of Babel’s confusing plot and loose ends. As my beloved Porpoise said, another implicit message it sends is, “Stay home! Don’t go to third world countries!”
In any case, I’ll be interested to see how Hollywood responds to Babel tomorrow night.
February 24th, 2007
So, now that Hollywood has almost run out of Jane Austen novels to make movies from (Northhanger Abbey is still left, true, but since it’s a satire of Gothic novels, it would be hard to adapt well), they’re making a movie from Jane Austen’s life—or a mostly imagined version of her life.
The film centers around a young Austen’s infatuation with a young Irishman, played here by James McAvoy (a.k.a. Mr. Tumnus). Austen did indeed write a letter to her sister Cassandra telling of her flirtation with Mr. Lefroy, but it was apparently short-lived and without much consequence. The movie trailer, however, heavily implies that Austen couldn’t have written her novels without this “experience” of love—a strangely modern notion, this idea that writing depends on first-hand experience.
The trailer irritates me for many reasons, and I’m not entirely sure what all of them are. Part of it is the music recycled from Sense and Sensibility and Little Women (which, excuse me, sounds so distinctly American—in fact, it’s usually used in trailers for nostalgic, Americana-type films—that it’s ridiculously out of place here). Part of it is undoubtedly the premise of the film, and part of it is Anne Hathaway’s voice. Despite bearing the name of Shakespeare’s wife, the American actress doesn’t seem right for the part. Also, there are naked bottoms in the trailer—must be because it’s the international, unrated one. The film itself will be PG.
I think what I most resent, though, is the title of the film, which implies that Jane Austen isn’t herself, isn’t complete, until she falls in love. In other words, she’s not complete unless she has given her heart to a man, which is a pretty icky message, in my opinion. (And, I would add, you can’t really love someone unless you are complete in yourself–if you are yourself on your own, you have so much more to give.)
According to an article in the Telegraph, Becoming Jane prides itself on its “authenticity” and “earthiness”:
“Becoming Jane certainly looks different from most other Austen productions. It is still a period picture, with magnificent country houses and carriages, and a Wordsworthian rapture for fields, but the air is cold and wet, the colours are earthy – mustard, yellow ochre, burnt sienna – and there is a wintry feel draped over proceedings. For once you hear the squelch of mud and the sound of crows and pheasants rising out of the mist. Even the costumes seem oddly casual.
Hathaway isn’t wearing the signature Austen Empire line, but simple cotton dresses. ‘This film is set much earlier than the period typically shown in Austen films,’ says Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, who was responsible for about 3,000 costumes. ‘The really high waists were not yet fashionable and I wanted Jane’s world to have a simple country feel to it, so her dresses are very plain in shape and structure.’”
Hmmm . . . where have we heard this before? The most recent Pride and Prejudice, anyone? Now, I certainly don’t mind pigs and Irish wolfhounds traipsing across the screen, and there were things I liked about that version, but to me it seemed to focus on the mud at the expense of the wit. And, with Becoming Jane, authenticity seems to be left by the wayside when it comes to late-eighteenth-century philosophies of writing.
Why is there suddenly this obsession with claiming to be different from all the other Austen films?
No doubt I’ll see the movie–and probably in the theater, too–but let it be known beforehand that I am dubious about its quality. (By the way, it opens here in August, though the British premiere is next month.)
February 22nd, 2007
An excellent way to spend a snowy weekend! I think it’s been a good 13 years since my last re-reading of the Cooper books, but I read them so many times before that that I really hadn’t forgotten much. It was still a delight to immerse myself in a mysterious, haunting world—a world still connected to the good, earthy pleasures of large families and fresh-baked bread and “Good King Wenceslas.”
I mentioned in my previous post that, overall, The Dark Is Rising sequence is not particularly friendly to Christianity. As I recall (and I have to admit, I remember many images and symbols and characters from the books, but my memories of their doctrine is a bit fuzzy), most of that comes across in The Silver on the Tree, the last of the five books. There are hints of it in some of the other books as well, but any discerning Christian reader should still be able to appreciate the books for their writing style and their evocation of a mythic world.
Will Stanton, the 11-year-old protagonist of The Dark Is Rising, is the youngest of 9 children born to a family in a small Buckinghamshire village. He is, however, as even his siblings realize “a very old eleven.” Not only is he mature for his age, but, as he learns on his birthday, he is actually one of the Old Ones, a group of people who serve the Light and protect the world from the forces of the Dark. Eleventh birthday, discovering you’re someone more special than you knew . . . sound familiar? Remember that Cooper wrote these books a good twenty-five years before the first Harry Potter appeared.
There is, of course, a lot of appeal in this kind of character, especially for a bookish child who often feels older or somehow different from his or her peers. You recognize yourself in Will, you think, “Oh, there IS a reason I don’t fit in—I have a special calling”—not that that makes you think you need to go around collecting the Signs of Power and learning the Old Speech. When you’re older, you may be able to apply that feeling to being called to life in Christ—and I have to admit that I’m more excited about being called to life in Christ when I read about Will Stanton than when I read the words of the Apostle Paul (though I also recognize that if I hadn’t read Paul, I might not be able to appreciate Will’s calling as much).
In spite of their simplistic names, the Light and the Dark convey a much deeper, more convincing sense of good and evil than anything in J.K. Rowling’s books (which is why it’s all the more puzzling that Cooper decides to collapse the categories of good and evil by the end of the series). In The Dark Is Rising, the Dark has no power on its own to hurt human beings, “but they can encourage men’s own instincts to do them harm.” And that’s how evil really seems to work, even when it’s not embodied by tall men on black horses.
The most heartbreaking character in the novel is The Walker, a man torn by conflicting allegiances to Dark and Light (so, you see, it’s not all dualistic). He’s sort of a re-working of the myth of the Wandering Jew, without all the anti-Semitic associations. Even though I didn’t remember his exact words, I remembered for years the sense of anguish that accompanies his interactions with Merriman Lyon.
And then there’s that sense of beauty beyond this world—a dimension totally lacking from the Harry Potter books. When Will’s brother is allowed to play an ancient flute with a marvelous tone, he fumbles in his attempt to describe the beauty of it. “There was an ache in his voice and in his face that something in Will responded to with a deep, ancient sympathy. An Old One, he suddenly knew, was doomed always to feel this same formless, nameless longing for something out of reach, as an endless part of life.”
That’s C.S. Lewis’s Sehnsucht, right there! It makes me ache just to read about it.
There is one scene in the book in which it’s implied that the church is weak and powerless against the Dark, and that Christ is simply one way of talking about a much older power existing in the Light. This makes me squirm a lot, but there’s so much else in The Dark Is Rising that feeds my soul.
I was thinking just this morning: Susan Cooper was born in England in 1935, and she grew up during the war years. In fact, she would have been close to the same age as the fictional Lucy Pevensie. What if she had had a chance to peer into the wardrobe? I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but there it is.
February 18th, 2007
Who’d have thunk? One of Walden Media’s next projects is a film version of Susan Cooper’s children’s fantasy novel The Dark Is Rising. I’m surprised because Walden seems to prefer taking on adaptations of books that are at least sympathetic to a Christian perspective, which the Cooper books aren’t particularly.
Don’t get me wrong–I love The Dark Is Rising and the other books in the series, especially Over Sea, Under Stone and The Grey King. They made me fall in love with England and Cornwall and Wales at the tender age of 8. Plus, I think they may have contributed to my spiritual development as a sacramentally oriented Christian (not that Cooper intended the books to have a sacramental emphasis . . . but they kind of do, anyway).
But none of my childhood friends read the Cooper books. Certainly not the friends whose parents thought even The Chronicles of Narnia were Satanic! Even my more moderate Christian friends were suspicious of The Dark Is Rising sequence. So I only got to talk about the books with my dad, who read them to me.
Anyway, all that to explain why I’m surprised about the Walden Media connection. Moreover, the film’s director is going to be David L. Cunningham, the son of one of the founders of the evangelical Christian organization Youth with a Mission. I’ve only seen one of his films: To End All Wars, a movie about British soldiers held as prisoners by the Japanese in World War II. That film, though brutal, definitely had an emphasis on Christian forgiveness (and it starred Robert Carlyle, of whom I’m always a fan). So I’m fascinated to see what will be done with The Dark Is Rising’s spiritual themes.
I’m also excited to see that Christopher Eccleston (the Ninth Doctor Who) will be joining the cast as a villain, the Dark Rider. Some of the other casting news has me discouraged, though. Ian McShane is to play Merriman Lyon, one of the best characters in the whole series. I’ve never seen McShane in anything, but he’s only 65. He doesn’t look old enough to play the craggy-featured Oldest of the Old Ones. Where’s Ian McKellen when we need him? Now, he would make a perfect Merriman. But maybe McShane will be okay if he grows a beard and dyes his hair white.
Also, most of the children cast thus far seem to be either American or Canadian. Oh, please, please tell me they’re not going to try to set the movie in the U.S. We don’t have Old Ones here! Or Herne the Hunter! The English landscape/mythology is so essential to The Dark is Rising. So those kids had better be able to do British accents.
February 16th, 2007
So, how many of you have heard of the movie Amazing Grace (to be released Feb. 23), a new film about William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery in Britain?
I encountered news of it only by chance a few months ago, when I was conducting an IMDB search for the future projects of either Ciaran Hinds or Rufus Sewell (can’t be sure which, because I check both of their lists pretty frequently, and they’re both in Amazing Grace, much to my joy).
But not a word of it from the movie blogs I read. Not a word from Entertainment Weekly, who left it off their fairly extensive list of this spring’s movies. In fact, the only online mention I’ve seen has been from Christian social justice sources, such as Sojourners.
Social justice people are excited about the movie not only because of its subject matter, but also because there’s a campaign associated with it, a campaign to end modern-day slavery. If you look at the groups that have signed on as partners with the movie and the campaign, it’s pretty impressive in its mix of “conservative” and “liberal,” “red” and “blue” groups. I have to say, I’m encouraged to see so much cooperation across the alleged American cultural divide.
Check out the movie trailer and the Amazing Change web site. Also, if you attend a church, you might want to look into encouraging your congregation to participate in “Amazing Grace Sunday” on February 18.
Given all the noble causes connected to it, I really hope the movie is actually good. It has excellent actors in its favor, so at least there’s that. From the trailers, it looks like Ciaran Hinds is once more playing the bad guy–but Rufus Sewell gets to break out of his usual Hollywood-villain box to play an abolitionist. An abolitionist with a silly wig. Ioan Gruffudd stars as Wilberforce himself, and he sports some nifty hairpieces, too.
February 7th, 2007
Ah, how I love Monday nights. Every week, I drive twenty minutes to get to Irish dance class, and during that twenty minutes, I almost always hear something interesting on NPR’s program “Fresh Air.” That’s not to say that host Terry Gross doesn’t irritate me, because she does. She just has one of those “public radio” voices . . . and her questions and tone sometimes seem condescending (I noticed that her slang and use of “like” increased exponentially when she interviewed rapper André Benjamin of OutKast, as opposed to when she interviews a white historian—really, Terry, I’m pretty sure that André Benjamin understands multi-syllabic words). But her guests are great.
Last night’s “Fresh Air” was an interview with Little Miss Sunshine’s writer (Michael Arndt) and co-directors (husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris). There were enough interesting tidbits to keep my mind off the below-zero weather and instead thinking about “Sunshine.”
You can listen to the whole thirty-minute program on NPR’s web site, but if you’re pressed for time, here’s some interesting Little Miss Sunshine trivia:
- Michael Arndt has two brothers who are academics, and one of them is even a Proust scholar, like Frank (Steve Carell). Arndt didn’t say whether his brother is the nation’s preeminent Proust scholar. He did, however, share his opinion that academia is “an inherently amusing place” because of its distance from the real world: the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so low. Sounds ‘bout right.
- Arndt decided that Frank would be a scholar specifically of Proust when, in a telephone conversation, his brother mentioned Proust’s comment about the happy years of one’s life being the wasted years, that the valuable years are really the miserable ones. Arndt wanted to use the quote in his script, and he figured that audiences would only buy it coming out of Frank’s mouth if Frank were a Proust scholar. Makes sense to me. While I don’t necessarily agree with the Proustian sentiment, I absolutely buy that it’s something that Frank would say—and that it’s something his nephew Dwayne would find comfort in.
- Arndt also pointed out that a lot of comedies make the mistake of trying to be funny right away. He was determined to start low-key, introduce each character, and allow you to enter into the reality of these people, before wacky things start happening.
- Dayton and Faris used real child beauty pageant contestants for the last part of the film—it saved the time and money that would have been necessary to train child actors. Plus, it certainly adds some very, very scary authenticity.
- The now ten-year-old Best Supporting Actress nominee Abigail Breslin was cast in Little Miss Sunshine when she was six years old. By the time they got around to filming, she was around nine. Faris pointed out that, oddly enough, she had already had more film experience than the first-time movie-directors (whose previous experience had been limited to music videos and commercials) and the first-time screenwriter. Faris also mentioned that she was particularly impressed by Breslin’s capacity to listen to the other characters in a scene, rather than playing to the audience.
I really liked Little Miss Sunshine’s screenplay—but it’s up against The Queen in the Best Original Screenplay category. It’s so hard to compare them. I think I’d vote for The Queen, but I certainly won’t scream and kick things if Little Miss Sunshine wins. Sadly, probably neither will win Best Picture, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to hope.
February 6th, 2007
From the reviews of Dreamgirls that I’d read beforehand, I was expecting to be most impressed by Jennifer Hudson’s much-touted show-stopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” That moment fell a little flat for me (as far as emotions, not pitch!), but there were plenty of others that showed off Hudson’s amazing voice—and acting talents.
At least in the movie version (I’ve never seen the stage musical), the most powerful story in Dreamgirls isn’t that of Hudson’s character Effie; it’s the story of black music in 1960s and 1970s America. Then again, as far as Effie’s career mirrors the ups and downs of soul-infused African American music, it’s her story too.
Most of you probably already know the skeleton of the plot: Effie sings the lead for a young girl group from Detroit. As the Dreamettes get taken on by manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), they gain fame and popularity—but only within the black music community. The ultimate insult is when a squeaky-clean white teen idol steals a song by the Dreamettes and Jimmy Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy) and takes it to the top of the charts.
At that point, Curtis pours all his money and energy into making the Dreamettes into a crossover success (and his quest comes alive in the simultaneously thrilling and heart-breaking song-and-dance number “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”). But, as usual, success comes at a price. Curtis forces the full-bodied, full-voiced Effie to relinquish the lead, giving it instead to the thinner, lighter-skinned, sweeter-voiced Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), guessing (correctly, unfortunately) that she will have greater appeal for white audiences.
You can see why he does it. You know he’s selling his soul—in more ways than one—but you know he’s in an incredibly difficult situation. Regretfully, from this point on, Curtis becomes a pretty one-dimensional character. All the complexity in the “how far do we go to beat them at their own game?” question gets parceled out to Effie’s brother C.C. (Keith Robinson), who composes the Dreams’ songs. (I particularly liked Robinson’s performance, and I’m sad that he hasn’t received as much recognition as his co-stars.)
It’s hard to compare Dreamgirls to the Academy’s Best Picture Nominees—a group to which everyone thought the musical would belong—because its storytelling method is so different. It still struggles with the problem of making a contemporary musical film (with all the serious subject matter of contemporary musicals) that audiences will relate to. Most of the musical numbers are actually songs performed on concert stages within the film, and the evolution of the songs’ styles tells the film’s story pretty well. For me, the least effective numbers were the ones (like, “And I Am Telling You . . .”) in which a character directly expressed his or her feelings. Much better were the “concert performances” that also suggested something about the character’s current situation (like Hudson’s “I Am Changing” or Robinson’s “Patience”).
Overall, Dreamgirls is definitely worth seeing for its portrayal of an era—and of the struggle of African American musicians during that era to make their music heard, while still making it their own.
Oh, and did I mention that John Krasinski has an itty, bitty cameo as a screenwriter for one of Deena’s potential movie projects? He has one line, I think.
February 2nd, 2007