Monday, February 23, 2009

It's still the Oscars.

The new look Oscars debuted last night amidst tons of marketing hoopla (the one thing Hollywood never seems to tire of) and the one thing we can say confidently the morning after - they're still the Oscars. Love 'em or hate 'em, it's still the most hyped event on our annual calendar with the smallest payoff and the most asinine sense of self importance.
First things first, it's all that pre-Oscar television coverage that's become unbearable. We keep wondering how close we are until the scales tip from movie awards celebration to fashion design showcase. This year's addition of Tim Gunn doing red carpet interviews lapsed into deadly stupid questions and television directing incompetence. There are some pretty shallow personalities out there handling the microphone. Mr. Gunn had to stake out entirely new low ground to eclipse the usual idiocy. He succeeded far above and beyond.

OK, there was a show after that and if you made it past Hugh Jackman's surprisingly flat and limited vocal range, some acceptably humorous fluff and a couple of instances of non-existent comic timing, the Australian accent didn't entirely annoy. That said, the musical number in the Oscars is most definitely NOT back. If that was one of the goals of the redress, mark it pending. 

The reworking of formula and staging did have it's successes last night and the one we liked best could have even been expanded just a touch. We throughly enjoyed the introduction of five peers introduced in each of the acting categories to come out and personalize the introduction of each of the award nominees. It automatically had the effect of slowing the proceedings and allowing the awards to focus and linger on artistic achievement. The personal words, delivered by some of acting's finest to those that might join that elite rank were engagingly appropriate, seemingly genuine and often movingly emotional. The idea should become a tradition and be extended to the category of directors next year. 

We also like that the orchestra never welled up under the drawn out sentiments of an acceptance speech. We'll put up with a bit of boredom rather than be embarrassed for someone, who during one of their finest moments, gets told to shut up by a string section. It was also noted that rather than step on a speech that angled into personal causes or politics, those moments were allowed to run out, restoring an immediacy and a spontaneity that the Oscars have sorely lacked for far too many politically correct broadcasts.

The sets were attractive (for the most part), the pacing seemed even (for a three hour + broadcast) and the new ideas were at least interesting. Here's a couple of highlights...

Sean Penn's Best Actor acceptance speech was delivered with that self-deprecating casualness and honesty that makes the guy so... Sean Penn. Nicely done.

Heath Ledger goes out with the ultimate salute to one of the best performances given in any actor's career and in the finest superhero (villain) characterization ever put to film. Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers were the most cheated of recognition by the Academy this year.

Philippe Petit becomes the first recipient of an Oscar to balance the famous statuette on his chin. Perfect. And how cool is it to cross between the World Trade Center towers of NYC by tight rope in 1974 and show up on the stage of the Academy Awards in 2009 to be honored for his documentary Man on Wire?

Slumdog Millionaire goes gold statue 8 times. What a year for Danny Boyle. What a grand recognition of the fact that Hollywood doesn't have a strangle hold on great movies. And what a wonderful way to admit that the international box-office does matter, does have substance and will indeed be influencing moviemaking, as it should, from now on. The world is getting smaller and more like a neighborhood in spite of itself. Somebody find the thermostat and turn down the heat. Audiences - open yourselves up to foreign films and sub-titles. Trust us, you'll find yourself rewarded.

Lastly, we loved that the Oscars at least tried last night to tell a story. To hang an awards show on a narrative framework was inspired, though not entirely effective. The process of moviemaking, from script to screening the end credits, was a natural for organizing the award presentations and the departure from parading presenters with badly written banter and awkward podium skills, was more than welcome. Movies are a vehicle for storytelling so why not an awards show? Though much of what was new felt tentative, the impulse to change and freshen things up is spot on. The idea showed initiative and promise, and aren't we hoping for both in just about everything these days?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Would you pay to see this movie? Tarantino's: Inglorious Bastards

Reservoir Dogs. Kill Bill. Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino has indelibly stamped violence across his resume in brilliant, bloody scarlet.
From Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange and Mr. Blonde first punctuating each line of dialogue with the wave of a 45 automatic in Reservoir Dogs to the masterpiece of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino changed cinema. A child of bloody sensationalism in movies, Tarantino fed from classics like Cagney's White Heat and amped up the violence past reality into fetishism. Nothing in his resume so far, has surpassed the brilliance and balance of his writing and directing skills or has shown so well, that his fascination with violent outbursts can find legitimacy as art, as in those earlier films. Death Proof, released as one half of 2007's box-office disaster Grindhouse, fell into a pit of lazy, self-inflated ego driven, crud. That film had as much right to call itself a movie as the "grindhouse" theaters Tarantino was trying to pay homage to (though the whole stunt reeked of gimmick marketing) had the right to be referred to as cinemas. "Awful" in reviews was the starting point.

This year Tarantino is back. Where Death Proof's Kurt Russell was the square-jawed machismo catalyst for pending havoc, this time it's Brad Pitt. Where 70's muscle cars were the testosterone spewing props, this time we go bayonets and machine guns (just for starters). Where kick-ass bar babes were the eye candy, this time it's a jewish victim of WWII Nazis. Most importantly, where in each of Tarantino's previous forays into violent laced depravity, there was a story conceived in fiction, the appetite for unrestrained bloodshed in Inglorious Bastards is told against true history, true geography and true tragedy.

Our question is this - by placing his story against the true and horrific events of the Jewish slaughter by Hitler's Germany in WWII, does Tarantino (with the backing of The Weinstein Company) take his brand of cinema over the line, from art to blatant and offensive exploitation?

The truth is that the trailer, now showing in our "Would you pay to see this movie?" feature for Inglorious Bastards, caused us to cringe. As the monologue continues from Brad Pitt, playing a US Army lieutenant prepping his Dirty Dozen like squad, the language becomes more extreme, the titles overlaid, like "exterminate", become more offensive and the premise of the film, more repulsive by the second. Fans of so called "torture porn" will likely recognize Hostel writer/director Eli Roth as one of the soldiers in Pitt's lineup and there's an extra cringe waiting at the end of the trailer with it's cavalier tagline "A bastards work is never done". 

Set against true historical context and viewed in a world where torture and extremist terror kill thousands, as our own violent history is recorded, does Inglorious Bastards have a place as entertainment? Indeed, is Tarantino's penchant for explicit violence, in itself and anachronism to our present day circumstances, belonging more to a less troubled time and painted on a far more fictional canvas?

You be the judge. As with all of our "Would you pay to see this movie" features, you can click on the link in this sentence and watch the trailer embedded on Moviedozer's Pulling Focus page (just scroll down the page, the trailer's right below our Poster Gallery). Watch as many times as you like, then click on the links next to the trailer and you'll be returned to this column where you can add your comments.

Would you pay to see Inglorious Bastards? Let us know. We'll comment again in the light of a Summer Blockbuster season that will be just wrapping up as Inglorious Bastards reaches it's planned August 21st release.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Finding Nemo... in Venice

This September the organizers of the Venice Film Festival will honor John Lasseter and the directors of the Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. The film festival referred to Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Disney/Pixar and two-time Oscar winner, as "one of the great innovators and experimenters of Hollywood". The festival's career award, usually reserved for live-action directors, marks a level of recognition for an animation director that is a marked departure for Venice, but perhaps a sign of the times for the artistic merits of Pixar, top of the class since the animation pioneer's earliest efforts.
When a movie studio releases nine motion pictures, what are the chances of opening at number one nine times? If your logo says Pixar on it, pretty damn good. In fact, last year's Wall•e made it nine for nine, an honor now shared by Disney, since Robert Iger smoothed over relationships with Mr. Lasseter and ingeniously, not only bought Pixar, but elevated Lasseter to Disney's Guru of Creativity.

All this leaves us wondering about the same point we've been wondering about since realizing that we've been watching something tremendously special during a showing of Ratatouille. Why hasn't any other studio, live action or animated, hand drawn or CGI, been able to come close to what Pixar seems to so adeptly achieve? Talent, certainly. Creative ideas on hyperdrive, undeniably. Secret recipes? Maybe. Or is this simply all the result of the most effective company mission statement ever written?

The real question seems not to be why other companies have been unable to match Lasseter's results but why Lasseter and Pixar attain them in the first place. That "why" seems to be imbedded in what corporations love to call their "culture". But before becoming a cultural characteristic, the principals and practices of that culture reside in someone's DNA. Drawing on them and then believing in them, believing absolutely, is essential. Knowing what then becomes possible is vision.

Lasseter leads his company with vision, what is in his DNA made things possible, absolute belief then became their culture. That belief must be etched in one hell of an effective mission statement, but it is a mission statement that has been written, not on paper, but in turn on the very DNA of Pixar employees.

Academy Award nominated Wall•e is only one of nine examples of the result. The vision to see a small, clunky mechanical robot (a nod here to Wall•e writer and director Andrew Stanton) as a Chaplin-esque character is near genius and representative of all nine of Mr. Lasseter's productions. (Some of which he also wrote and directed). The artistry, charm and inventiveness only match the playfulness and innovation. The Venice Film Festival has chosen a recipient of their honor that embodies creative courage.

During the festival run from September 2nd to the 12th this year, Nemo will be splashing around the canals of Venice, enjoying both the scenery and the accolades. For generations to come, audiences will be enjoying the work of John Lasseter. As it should be, his audiences get the bigger prize.

Congratulations Mr. Lasseter and all of the creative teams at Disney/Pixar.