Sunday, February 27, 2011

ANIMATION OSCAR NOMINATIONS 2011

Just like last year, there's a lot of Oscar-nominated animation in 2011.  And, like last year, an animated film has been nominated for Best Picture, outside of the Best Animated Feature category.  And this is as it should be.  Especially since the same film was the highest grossing film of 2010 and doesn’t money talk in Hollywood?   Maybe next year, two animated films will be nominated in the Best Picture category.  
Doesn’t that tell you something, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?  Animation doesn’t really need a separate category.  It never did.  The only reason one was created in 2001, was because live actors were outraged in 1991, when they found themselves competing with cartoons after Beauty and the Beast became the first ever animated film nominated in the category. 
     But I haven’t heard many actors bitching about competing with a cartoon lately.  Many of the A-list actors nominated for Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor Oscars have done highly-paid voice-overs for animated films and are as beloved for their live roles as for their animated characters. 
     Having a separate category for animation diminishes it and relegates it to a “not-quite-as-good-as the-real-thing” category.  There’s no reason why animation should be considered the exclusive medium of children’s films, therefore not to be taken seriously.  This  condescension seems to come from a time when animation was so primitive that it could do little more than make us smile with its silliness, not necessarily a bad thing.  But, times have changed.  Today’s animation is a very sophisticated art, involving not only highly educated and talented writers, artists and designers but even physicists who make the tools the animators use to make magic (light models, virtual clothes).  
     Audiences don’t identify with animated characters any less than live actors these days, either.  They care just as much about Andy and his toys, Hiccup and Toothless as they do about Colin Firth and Natalie Portman. 
     And let’s not forget that animation has invaded live-action film to an astonishing degree.  There are few, if any live-action films untouched by CGI in one way or another today.  From merely digitally removing the nose hairs of a star, to the explosions and crashes and mind-boggling landscapes of Inception, CGI is everywhere in “real” films.
     So, members of the Academy, why have a separate category for animation?  Really, it’s just plain silly.  Animation and live-action have a symbiotic existence now, they’re inextricably linked.  Let’s just have one Best Picture category and may they best pixel, er, picture win.
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Sunday, February 20, 2011

HAS PIXAR LOST ITS TOUCH?

The author of this week’s guest post is author illustrator, animator and interactive designer, John Lechner.  See his work at johnlechner.com

HAS PIXAR LOST ITS TOUCH?
 

Toy Story 3 was the highest-grossing film of 2010, showered with praise from audiences and critics alike. It would seem that Pixar is on a roll and can do no wrong. However, in my view, the scriptwriting from Pixar over the last five years has been uneven at best, formulaic at worst, and not nearly up to the high standards they set for themselves many years ago.
 
I still remember when the first Toy Story came out, the first animated feature to use computer-generated, three-dimensional characters. No one had seen anything like it before, animated films had always been drawn by hand, frame by frame. Audiences approached cautiously, but Pixar knocked it out of the park. The film had beautiful art direction, great characters, a breezy and clever script, and even packed an emotional punch. John Lasseter, the visionary animator and director behind Pixar, had an uncanny knack for knowing what looks good in computer animation, combined with a natural talent for telling a good story on screen. Critics declared traditional animation to be a thing of the past. But it wasn’t the astounding graphics that made audiences stand up and cheer, it was the great writing.
 
Lasseter always said that Pixar puts story above all else, and it showed in their subsequent films. A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc. all featured great characters and a tasty blend of comedy, action, and heartwarming moments. I think Pixar reached its apex with the films Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.
    
In Finding Nemo, several stories were woven skillfully together, touching on some pretty serious themes of parent-child relationships and growing up. Yet there was very little preaching or explaining, all of the drama and humor came from the characters and their watery surroundings. The movie was also filled with clever details and observations that further enriched the story. 


The Incredibles was a different kind of film, the first one for Pixar where humans were the central characters. It was a superhero film brimming with action, suspense, imagination, and heart. And central to the plot were the characters, all of whom learned to  work together and accept themselves for who they were. Mixed in with the story were dozens of witty send-ups of the superhero genre, turning the conventions upside down while saluting them.
 
Cars was another very different story. The subject matter didn’t lend itself to the kind of fanciful creatures of Nemo or the hair-splitting action of The Incredibles, and audiences didn’t quite fall in love as much as the previous films. Still, it was a solid, character-based story about a boastful race car who learns a few lessons along the way to the finish line.
 
Then came Ratatouille, which I think is where Pixar began to stumble. While I enjoyed the breathtaking animation and humor, I never felt like I really knew the characters. The boy Linguini, the chef Skinner, the girlfriend Colette all seemed manipulated by the plot, rather than driving it themselves. I found myself not caring as much as I did in previous films.
  
Wall-E was yet another genre switch, the story of a lowly robot whose job it is to clean up a trashed future earth. The film received critical acclaim, and the first section, basically wordless, was a masterpiece of visual storytelling. The second half of the film fell into disarray, I wasn’t sure whose story it was or what lesson was being taught, despite (or perhaps because of) the heart-stopping action.
 

Up was another critically hailed film, the beginning of which was a masterful piece of cinematic storytelling, depicting a man growing up and getting married. The liftoff of the house was thrilling, but then the story seemed to lose its way. We were meant to see the growing bond between the man and the boy as they learned about themselves, but most of that business was done through explanation — characters telling, not showing — and seemed disconnected from the action of the film.                                 
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “But I loved Up, it was funny and exciting and made me cry.” That may be the case, but a film can be all those things without being very well written. Pixar does many things well, including sight gags, chase scenes, and pulling the heartstrings. But a masterful script, the kind seen in earlier Pixar films, does all of this while building character and reaching a higher, almost poetic level of storytelling. 
 
Which brings us to Toy Story 3. Here is a film that has action, comedy, emotion – all the ingredients of a classic film, everything audiences love. But unlike previous Toy Story films, the pieces don’t quite fit together, the characters seem to be going through the motions. It is a plot-driven film, where the primary objective is to get from point A to point B while avoiding the dangers conveniently placed in between. Motivation is explained by the characters, it didn’t evolve naturally through the story.
 
Michael Sporn wrote a critical review of the film, citing its reliance on relentless action and chase scenes. These kind of scenes, where characters narrowly escape one peril after another, are fun to watch — but they should not take over the film. And the ominous final chase through the landfill and incinerator, ending in a most bizarre and arbitrary way, didn’t have the clever inventiveness of previous Toy Story climaxes. It was a straight-ahead action scene which ended with the characters basically giving up. That’s not the Woody and Buzz that I know.

 
I won’t deny the emotional pull of the film, as Andy grows up and the toys move on. But I believe the emotional weight came not from the writing, which I thought relied too heavily on characters explaining themselves and quoting truisms, but because we had lived through two other films with these characters, and knew them like our own family. It didn’t take but a little tug to open the waterworks and make audiences feel the pangs of goodbye.
 
I had other issues with this film as well, like the character of Lotso who was never quite as interesting as he needed to be, and the motivation of the bad toys. I’m not saying that Toy Story 3 was a poor film, I think it was a good film. But it was the latest in a trend I see at Pixar where inventiveness is giving way to formula.      


Of course, when your film makes more money than any other film that year, I imagine you would want to keep doing what you’re doing. A flawed Pixar film is still better than most of what passes for family entertainment. But Pixar is smarter than that, and they know that too much reliance on tried and true devices is what led Disney to stumble, as they churned out what audiences wanted until they didn’t want it anymore.     

This year at the Oscars, Toy Story 3 was nominated not only for Best Animated Feature, but Best Song, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. Whether the film wins or loses any of these categories, it is already a winner in the hearts of millions of film goers, another feather in Pixar’s cap. But I hope success doesn’t spoil this great studio, and make them lose sight of their storytelling roots. They can do better than that, and their audience deserves better.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

LOVE IN THE MOVIES

Love is hard to capture on film.  I don’t think you can actually write love for the screen, the emotion has to come from the talent and chemistry of the actors, with some help from a skillful director.  Close-ups of eyes and lips and other body parts, while beautiful and interesting, don’t transmit the emotion and neither do most two-shots of actors staring into each others’ eyes.  Only if there’s some excellent acting between faces and bodies, do you get onscreen steam and smolder.  See Ralph Fiennes visually devouring Kristen Scott Thomas as they dance in The English Patient  and Laura Linney showing us the thrill of dancing with a loved one for the first time; the feel of his jacket, the smell of his hair in Love Actually.  Dancing adds tension to love scenes.  All the holding and touching and eye-gazing have to be contained because the dancers are in public. Look at Beast’s face in the ballroom sequence from Beauty and the Beast, some of Glen Keane’s best acting. 

Out of Africa is a wonderful love story and there is some real tenderness and spark between Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer.  Unfortunately Robert Redford was too miscast to produce any fire.  He does best when asleep and gazed upon with unrequited adoration by Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.  Nobody does unrequited love better than Barbra Streisand.   
 
Hiccup and Astrid shared a cooler, more Viking kind of love in How to Train Your Dragon and Rhett Butler’s love for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind is touching under the toughness.  His sweeping her up the stairs is a wonderful scene but more lusty than loving, lust being easier to portray on screen than love.
  And, for sheer heart-breaking love, there’s Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain.

Other films are based on love, like West Side Story, but we don’t really feel it, other than the gut-wrenching last scene.  Casablanca delivers wonderful dialogue and story and a lot of noble sentiments but, despite Ingrid Bergman’s dewy-eyed performance, not much emotion.  Unless you count the feelings aroused by the playing of The Marseillaise, which gives me goose bumps every time.
 
Then there are less complex scenes involving kisses, smoldering stares and just plain sex:

Wonderful screen kisses:
* James Dean/Julie Harris in East of Eden.
* Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity
* Grace Kelly kissing Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.
* Dustin Hoffman/Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.

Smoldering Stares:
•    Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient.
•    Lawrence Olivier in Wuthering Heights.
•    Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire.
•    Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.
•    Charlotte Rampling in Farewell My Lovely.

Screen sex:
•    Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
•    Ralph Fiennes/Kristin Scott Thomas The English Patient.


By the way, no “Valentine’s Day” movie has a lick of love in it.  You’re better off watching one of the above with someone you love.     
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Sunday, February 6, 2011

MORE THAN GROCERIES

At first glance, it’s just another US supermarket: a large, flat building, with a purple and vermillion sign, shopping carts parked in front, automatically opening doors, metal detectors, some electronic self- checkout stations and some speedy, human cashiers. 
 

There are the usual piles of shiny fruit and vegetables, automatically sprayed every ten minutes, the familiar, brightly-lit shelves of stuff and counters of fish, meat, bread and pizzas and other fast food to go.
But my supermarket has something more.
It has a heart.
More precisely, the manager has a heart.
 

You can see signs of this, if you look carefully.  There are the tables of almost-free books: one dollar for a paper-back and two dollars for a hard cover.  These books cover the gamut from trash to text books and are all donated and bought by neighborhood shoppers.  The proceeds go to charity.
 

The vegetable stackers in the produce section always say Good Morning and ask if they can help you find something.  Even if you’re striding along purposefully or already selecting a potato, they still ask if they can help you find something. They all say it in the same way, so you know they’ve been told to do it.
 

There’s also a pharmacy in one corner and, tucked away, between the pharmacy and the unisex toilets, is an area with chairs for those waiting for prescriptions to be filled. Early in the morning gaunt, haunted homeless people can be seen sitting gratefully in those chairs, clutching a warm cup, munching a stale sandwich generously donated by the kindhearted manager, making use of the toilets and wash basins to clean up a bit, keep warm and feel human for a while.
 

Most places in Los Angeles chase homeless people away with alacrity.  Poverty is not tolerated here and is considered a shameful thing, worse than leprosy. Poverty isn’t shameful, it’s just a fact of life. Especially these days.
 


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