Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oscar, Coraline, and Slumdog.

The week of the Academy Awards are over. After all the build-up, I remember again why the awards are so fleeting, and how much of a "meat-parade" they are. I have to admit, I stole the "meat-parade" bit from George C. Scott, which is what he called the Academy Awards when he refused his Best Actor award in 1971. This year, the ceremony couldn't have been more overblown, with a broadway style show led by host, Hugh Jackman. Although I have to praise Jackman's song and dance abilities, the whole thing seemed a little too inappropriate given the current state of the economy. Like Benjamin Button, some of the musical numbers just seemed to drag on. Although I was pleased with most of the outcome, by the end of it, I realized I just didn't care.

This year so far, I am all over two movies that left me with a sense of cinematic hope.

Although it opened two months ago, it wasn't until January I finally saw Slumdog Millionaire. Although I am not as familiar with all his work, director Danny Boyle did Trainspotting in 1996, which is one of my favorite movies. Slumdog is a marvelous movie, filmed more like a blood and sweat independent film, rather than a big budget Hollywood polish. I don't mean to sound too biased, but there are times when I am more in favor of the indie style. Come to think of it, most films looked like that in the days before the digital age.

The story of Slumdog reads like a modern-day fairy tale, with a traditional good vs. evil plot. And I mean this in the best way possible. We get a slimey representation of India and its various battles, notably the slums vs. the economy, and the uneducated vs. the educated, and (more realistically) religious conflict. I love this movie, because it is a gratifying story, portrayed with sweat and dirt, and mixed with glitter.

Next up is Coraline. I've seen it only once, and I make it a point to write a proper review after seeing it twice. But I need to be careful financially, so I can't make too many trips to the cinemas. But after one viewing, I was already blown away by how beautiful the movie was. It is full of charm, stunning design work, and a grand mix of chaos and atmosphere. Obviously the right hands were involved in this, and the result is one that doesn't suffer from a transparent script, and doesn't become too predictable. A big kudos to Henry Selick, whose skills as a director are in terrific form with this film.
The film is solid, and is so far, the best film of the year. I know it is early to say that, but I can say it with honesty. I just feel its a shame the movie had to be released in February, when a lot of attention is usually paid to the Oscar nominations. Still, the movie seems to be doing good business, though it still has catching up to do at the box-office.

Now we have a whole new year of new films to look forward to.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Harry Potter and the words of a Film Loving Yank

I love the Harry Potter movies. I keep hearing a lot of negative things about the movies in general (though the acting usually receives the best accolades). All I can say is that if I am both inspired and entertained, then for me, the films have done their job. I love the characters, because they represent things about us we are often afraid to explore. Harry goes through events that most people dread (losing your family, seeing your friends get murdered, having a whole community against you, etc), and survives through it all in ways we can only hope. I love films with a shade of darkness within them. I don't mean to say I'm a morose person (although if I am, I don't mean to be). But the fact is, these are fantasies that revolve around death and mortality. Harry Potter's life story starts with the horrible murder of his parents, and his mysterious (one-year old) defeat of their murderer, the evil Lord Voldemort.

The first two movies were handled by American director Chris Columbus (best known for family films like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire). While the stories were clear and the acting already in terrific form, the overall feel of the movies were too commercial for my tastes. There didn't seem to be enough going on artistically, and the directing was simply too plain. I don't mean to sound disrespectful to Columbus. I'm sure he's a nice guy, he's just not one of my favorite directors. Besides, if the first movie appears cliched, it was probably because the first book is meant to introduce all the main characters. And from the outset, most of the earlier characters seem to be based on traditional character-types, though they eventually evolve as the story moves forward.

With the arrival of Alfonso Cuaron (Mexican born who did Y tu mama tambien and Children of Men), the series took a new direction. Cuaron's approach involved playing with the visual style (particularly the photography) and making his take on Harry Potter more character driven. Although it has been argued that Chris Columbus's versions were more faithful to the novels, Cuaron's version gave a whole new level of audience accessibility. The relationship and communication of the characters now appeared to be more realistic, which in a way, blurs the line between the wizarding world (fantasy) and the muggle world (reality). The actors seem to be given more room to play with their characters. The Wizarding school of Hogwarts is now portrayed more like a British boarding school, where magic happens to be natural.

These movies get the best actors in the United Kingdom. Not just film and TV actors, but well-renowned stage performers (including Daniel Radcliffe himself). It is known that one of J.K. Rowling's conditions for selling the rights was that an all-British cast be used, unless a different nationality is noted in the stories. One of the reasons I am so entranced with the Harry Potter films is because I am in awe of a fantasy starring the very best British talent in the world. I am simply going to say that I am impressed with every one of these actors. Rambling on any further about them could get kind of boring.

Daniel Radcliffe is an actor with a lot of promise, and hopefully, he will embark on a career beyond Harry Potter. This image of Radcliffe is not from Harry Potter, but from Equus, a Peter Shaffer play currently on Broadway, starring Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter's uncle Vernon Dursley).

Ralph Fiennes gives Lord Voldemort, the primary antagonist, an amazing energy. His performance makes the character not only dangerous and fearful (as he should), but also gives a charming demeanor, which plays to the character's strengths.

Along with the best British talent, the fourth movie featured some of best musical talent. The Yule Ball scene called for a famous rock band from the wizarding world, The Weird Sisters. In an inspiring cameo, the Weird Sisters are fronted by Jarvis Cocker (leader of Pulp), and members of Radiohead, Pulp, electronic groups All Seeing I, and Add N to (X). The result is a band that looks like a Goth version of Queen meets Jethro Tull.

With Mike Newell, there is now a distinctly British feel to the whole thing. Current director David Yates has managed to maintain that feel. When I say a British feel, I am more or less referring to the British dialects and wording. With that, the movies feel like they are taking place somewhere real; in this case, England. In the third and fifth movies, some of my favorite scenes are those that take place precisely in London. The flying sequence at the beginning of movie 5 is dazzling for me, not just because of the effects, but because of the footage capturing London seen from the River Thames (and Nicholas Hooper's score compliments it nicely). All in all, a nice visual composition.

Now, I don't want people to think I wish these places were real, but like a toddler, I do. But I am old enough to know better. I can call these movies fantasies, and at the very least, they exist on paper and in movie sets.
Anyway, I have read the last two books, and am looking forward to their adaptations. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (movie 6) is set to be released in July.