Wednesday, March 10, 2010

(Brendan and) The Secret of Kells

I was fortunate enough to catch this before the Oscars this past weekend, and while I don't think it was the strongest film of the Animation nominees, it's nonetheless a staggeringly beautiful myth of a movie. Click on all the images below to see them bigger; there's a lot of detail that rewards a closer look.

The Secret of Kells

The story revolves around Brendan, who lives in a little village called Kells with his guardian uncle, Abbot Cellach (voiced by Mad-Eye himself, Brendan Gleeson). The Abbot is consumed with a project of building a wall around Kells, in order to protect it from attack by the approaching barbarians. He forbids Brendan from straying on the other side of the wall, but Brendan is as restless as any other boy his age. He spends a lot of time with the scribes and becomes obsessed with illumination - an intricate process of drawing which was used to create the wondrous Book of Iona, a book prophecies were made about which was largely made by the work of Father Aidan. Father Aidan seeks refuge in Kells from the barbarians, who are moving ever closer, and Brendan befriends him and becomes his apprentice.

On a mission to find special berries to make ink for the Book, Brendan ventures outside the wall into the forest and is nearly killed by wolves. He is saved, however, by a faerie named Aisling (which may sound to an American ear more like "Ashley"), who can also transform into a white wolf (zomg stolen from twilight!). Aisling befriends Brendan and guides him through the forest (which she calls *her* forest), and she helps him find the berries he needs to bring back to Father Aidan. Over the course of the film, Brendan must face many fears, from fear of his uncle's disapproval and punishment to more mythical fears such as monsters.

This is very much a hero's tale, with a real sense of fear - Brendan must face his fears in order to accomplish his fated task and finish the Book. There is even a quite striking "belly of the beast" sequence that features some of the most spellbinding animation and drawing that you've ever seen. Seriously, just wow.

My favorite sequence, though, is the one embedded below. Brendan has been locked in his room for disobedience, but he desperately needs to make another trip into the forest to get an essential item for illuminating. The key hangs above where Brendan's uncle is sleeping, and Aisling goes with the cat Pangur to get it.

This is a real gem of a movie, and if you get a chance (I'm not sure how widely it will be released in theaters, but it should be at least on DVD soon), I highly recommend it. It's a storybook come to life, and it tells its tale in a way no other medium but animation can.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I am woman, hear me roar

[Side note: Was there anything tackier than the orchestra playing that Helen Reddy anthem as Bigelow walked off the stage with her Oscar?]

I've seen a lot of comments about this, and I'm a bit weary of everyone's obsession with Kathryn Bigelow's gender, too. But it's a significant milestone nonetheless.

Bigelow, on the set of The Hurt Locker

The directors branch of the Academy is notorious for being a boys club. Not just because it only awarded men up until last night, but because it's members are this small, exclusive, tight group made up entirely of men. The directing Oscar is Hollywood's thickest glass ceiling, and to see it shatter last night was a HUGE deal. To illustrate, lemme tell you a little story about the woman who handed Bigelow that Oscar last night (and hilariously asked if she could keep it), Barbra Streisand.

Streisand, on the set of Yentl

Say what you want about Babs, an honest look at her career as a director (even the amazingly self-obsessed The Mirror Has Two Faces) shows that she has a true gift in that arena, regardless of her sex. When she made her first film, Yentl, she showed it to Steven Spielberg. The media would later distort this exchange into Spielberg giving her "advice" (a distortion that led to her refusal to give interviews for a decade), but the only advice he gave her was, and I quote, "Don't change a frame." Streisand would go on to WIN the Golden Globe for Best Director for this film, but when Oscar nominations were announced, her name was noticably absent in the directing category. In 1991, she directed The Prince of Tides, which went on be nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. Streisand was also nominated for the Directors Guild award for that film. Yet she was shut out again for the Directing Oscar (Billy Crystal ribbed the Academy for this in his opening number - "Did this film direct itself?!").

L to R - Lina Wertmueller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola

There has been a decided gender bias in Hollywood, and not just at the Oscars. Women filmmakers are consistently ignored, not just for awards, but by the studios and media as well. Where once upon a time 25% of screenwriters were women (writing ultimately half of the films that were actually produced), now it's more like 6-7%. It is the fondest hope of mine - and I mean this seriously, as a woman who hopes to break into the movie business - that Bigelow's win will draw more attention to female filmmakers. I'm not saying give them awards and movie deals just because - quality should always trump gender politics - but don't keep ignoring them, because they're not going to go away.

Oscar Post-Mortem

That may be the last time I try to liveblog an award show, or at least the Oscars. I was trying to do way too much last night and it was a bit stressful.

Thoughts on the ceremony...

- It may have been my overexcited state, but I thought Martin and Baldwin did just fine. Some of the jokes fell flat, but since when is that something new? I thought the opening number with Neil Patrick Harris was very fun (I guess he was the surprise that got translated as "secret third host" in the rumor mill).

- I was excited that they were doing a tribute to John Hughes (who never won an Oscar), and it was great to see Molly and Matthew and the other Hughes "kids" on stage, but I thought this was a bit out of place. And since the BFCA Critics Choice Awards did basically the same thing, it felt a little superfluous.

- Did anyone notice the little Kanye moment with the man and the woman accepting for Documentary Short? I wasn't paying close enough attention to what was said, though I did notice that the woman seemed to be interrupting the man. There was apparently some legal drama with their film, and these two had not spoken to each other for a while (not even to work out who was going to speak if they won). And the man's mother held her cane out to keep the woman from getting to the stage too quick, to give the man more time (or perhaps all the allotted time) to speak. Wow.

- I thought the dance number to the nominated scores was HORRENDOUS and a very, VERY poor exchange for what might have been some great musical performances of the song nominees. Odd that the reason given for nixing the performances was that they wanted to treat that like all the other categories. And yet the musical scores got their own dance number. Shenanigans!

- I liked the montages of clips for the acting categories (as opposed to single scenes) - you get a better idea about the overall performance - but I don't understand why they did supporting different from lead (lead nominees being the only people to get the "eulogy" treatment). Nor why they trotted the lead acting nominees out on stage, like those are the two most important categories of the night.

- While I really loved the five previous winners presenting each category last year, I did NOT like the way they did it this year, where five people connected to the nominees came out and gushed about them and THEN the previous Oscar-winner in the other-gendered category opened the envelope. Very disjointed, and the producers clearly did not get what worked or what was so special about what was done last year.

- I made a joke about the Ghost reference being kind of tacky to start the Memoriam segment with, but I'd forgotten that Demi and Swayze were in Ghost together (probably Swayze's greatest performance), and he was the first person to show up in that clip. That was sweet. And I'm very glad that everyone learned from last year's fiasco that what we want to see in this segment is the SCREEN, with the IMAGES and the NAMES. Not someone performing a song on the stage.

- I loved that they did a segment on horror, and I could not care less if it was pandering. I was giddy as a schoolgirl throughout. EXCEPT for the films that were not even remotely horror, notably Twilight (the other one people mentioned was Edward Scissorhands, but that's much closer to being horror than Twilight). Also, fail for the drivel writer who said the Academy hadn't honored horror since The Exorcist in 1973. I don't personally define Silence of the Lambs as horror, but most people do - and, yanno, they used several clips from it in the horror montage. As well as Misery, which the Academy honored the year before that. And The Omen, which won Best Original Score three years after The Exorcist. A little research never killed anyone.

Thoughts on the winners...

- No surprises in the acting categories, of course. I think it's kind of brilliant that Sandra Bullock collected a Razzie for Worst Actress and an Oscar for Best Actress in the same weekend. I'm glad Mo'Nique used part of her speech to address all the hoopla over her non-campaign. Christoph Waltz was charming, as usual. And the Dude abides, man.

- Biggest surprise was Geoffrey Fletcher winning the screenplay award for Precious, making him the first African-American to win a writing Oscar. I'm not sure it's terribly deserved, as the actors are what really make that movie work, but I can understand people going down their ballot and wanting to support the film in another category. I think In the Loop was robbed, though.

- There will be countless debates as to whether Avatar should have won Art Direction and Cinematography, but I suspect in ten or twenty years, the Academy will seem strangely prescient here.

- Very glad that Up took another prize besides animation, a well-deserved win for Michael Giacchino and his loving musical score.

- I still wonder if the seeming incongruity of a woman directing a gritty war film made people see The Hurt Locker (NOT the direction, which is a separate thing) as better than it is. Nevertheless, I do feel that Kathryn Bigelow's directing win was richly deserved. That movie is an absolute director's showcase, and the main reason it works is because it's so skillfully shot.

- While The Hurt Locker is a fine film, I don't think it was the Best. A lot of prognosticators and critics are patting themselves on the back for shepherding this thing to a win, despite its miniscule box office returns. I have to ask one thing, though. Why were these same people whining about predictability, "echo chamber"s, and "safe" choices this year when this outcome that they're so happy about is all three of those things? I would have loved to see a surprise for Best Picture, but I guess those just don't happen anymore. And can't, with the press analyzing every detail and event of the season.

In the final analysis, I have to wonder how meaningful it is to follow all this so closely, as I have this year. Part of me loves having the inside info and knowing pretty much what to expect, but in a way I kind of prefer getting attached to what I want, without that filter of "never gonna happen."

As regards the show, I have to say that Adam Shankman's and Bill Mechanic's efforts were not really a success. The entire evening felt disjointed and there was more stuff that didn't work than did. I liked Steve and Alec more than most people liveblogging, it seems, but I agree that their schtick would have worked just as well, perhaps better, with one host. The best moments last night were the unscripted ones, and maybe there would have been more of those if the orchestra hadn't been so ruthless about playing people off.

Oh, and Best Dressed - definitely Sandra Bullock.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do not open until Oscars!

I don't know about anyone else, but when the Oscars come around, I feel a lot like a kid at Christmas (though not as much as when Butt-Numb-A-Thon comes around, but that's a whole 'nother thing). I know it's Serious Business for a lot of people, and careers are on the line and all that, but with the Oscars less than 100 hours away, my simple, movie-loving self feels a lot like this right now...

I mean, I'm not even GETTING an Oscar. I'm getting something else, though. Four hours - lets face it, it's going to run long, it always does - of pure unadulterated gushy movie love. I've heard tell of special segments like a John Hughes tribute and a segment dedicated to horror movies (O frabjous day!), but the real juice comes from the awards themselves and the suspense about OMGWHOWILLWIN.

Which is why it galls me to know end to see Oscar bloggers proclaim in such incredibly smug and cocksure ways that it's all basically over before the envelopes are even printed, in every major category. Maybe it's my fault for peeking into the hall closet where the presents are being hidden (which is my cheesy metaphor for following all these silly blogs and ripping all the mystery and excitement out of it for myself), but I've kind of spoiled it in some ways. So much so that I'm not *quite* as excited as I usually am for the ceremony.

I try very hard not to get worked up about it. After all, I don't have an actual horse in the race. But we all have movies we root for, and it's sort of sad to see people get bent out of shape when what they wanted is not what they rip open the wrapping paper to find. I read a guy saying that this was the first time in the 20 years he's followed the Oscars that his favorite film of the year (The Hurt Locker) is the perceived frontrunner, and he's looking forward to hopefully tasting the small feeling of victory that comes when the Academy shines its light on your darling. This kind of depressing. I'm kind of meh on the film myself, but I also hate to begrudge someone the chance to feel what I've felt abnormally often (compared to this guy, that is). In fact, I felt that the very first time I watched the Oscars, when a film I really loved won Best Picture. And even when the winner (be it film, craft, or performance) is not my favorite of the year - it rarely is - I'm almost always capable of finding something that reconciles me to the notion that it's worthy of the honor it receives.

Part of this, too, is that this guy is a critic - one of many - who feels that they have had some hand in Locker's award success. As if the movie is their baby and its success or failure is somehow a reflection on them. A patently absurd notion, in my opinion, but that's another rant for another time.

The point is this - all I want for Christmas Oscars this year is some magic. Not just tributes and dance numbers but something - one lousy thing - that makes me shriek and say "I never expected that, but that's AWESOME!" Like Gabby Sidibe winning Best Actress. Like Up winning Best Picture. SOMETHING that will make the smug Oscar bloggers wake up from their comas and adjust their expectations for next time. And maybe, just maybe, admit that even in the age of information and polling, surprises are still possible. Because the fun of the Oscars is not the snooping through shopping bags in mom's secret present place and smirking that you know something you're not supposed to.
Well ... maybe it is for some people.