Chico and Rita

If asked for an era I could travel back in time and visit, one of  my top choices would be Havana in the late forties/early fifties.  I guess a part of my fascination with Havana comes from the idea that it had shone so brightly for such a brief time and then it was gone; this in some ways parallels the love affair between the two main characters in Chico and Rita.  It was my fascination with this era that lead me to choose to see Chico and Rita at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Animation seemed like it might be the right medium to recreate an era that has long since passed, and it was.  The troubled love affair at the heart of the story might have seemed routine if told in a live action story; animation adds a certain timeless quality to the story.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that Chico and Rita was nominated for best animated film at the Academy Awards, even if it does seem bizarre that this film was categorized with Puss in Boots and Rango.  This film is definitley not a children’s film; it is a very powerful love story for adults.

The story begins with an elderly Chico living in present day Havana.  He returns home from his job as a shoeshiner, and turns on the radio.  He hears a song performed by Chico and Rita that causes his mind to drift back to 1948.  In 1948, Chico and his friend Ramon are at a bar with two American women when a woman named Rita takes the stage.  Chico is drawn to this woman and her voice, but she also is not at the bar alone and ends up being taken by her date to the Tropicana Club.  Chico and Ramon sneak into the Tropicana Club through the performer’s entrance and almost end up being kicked out because Chico provokes Rita’s date.  However, in a lucky break, the band is in need of a pianist and Chico ends up being taken backstage to perform.

After hearing Chico play, Rita finally agrees to ditch her date and goes home with Chico; it really is the music that brings the two together.  After their night together, Chico composes as song named “Rita.”  However, the happy couple is interrupted by Chico’s former girlfriend and Rita leaves angrily.

There is a competition being held in which the prize for winning is a month long engagement at the Hotel Nacional.  Chico will not enter it without Rita, but Rita is not speaking to him.  His friend and manager Ramon ends up negotiating with Rita to persuade her to perform with Chico for the competition.  They end up winning (with the song that was heard on the radio at the beginning of the film), and once again the two lovers seem to be on the right track.

Their residency at the Hotel Nacional goes well, but soon Chico is jealous of the men who are attracted to Rita.  One fateful evening, Chico becomes very jealous of a man who talks to Rita about coming to New York City and offers her a contract.  His intoxication impairs his ability to  understand what is going on, and he leaves the bar angrily, thinking that Rita has chosen the American over him.  In fact Rita has insisted that the contract include both of them and goes to wait for Chico in the courtyard to his apartment.  Rita falls asleep, but, unfortunately,  she awakes to see the drunken Chico being helped into his apartment by his old girlfriend.  She leaves with the American the next morning.

I won’t give away the rest of the story, but various forces pull the two lovers together, only to have them pulled apart again by people whose interests are better served by separating them.  The action travels from New York to Paris to Las Vegas and back to Havana.  Both performers obtain success, only to lose it, and each other.  There are themes of betrayal and loyalty running through this film.  It also deals with racism and prejudice, and how it affected even the most successful of entertainers.

Jazz music is also character in the film.  The film also gives a fascinating portrayal of jazz music in this period, and various jazz musicians pop up in the story.  You meet animated versions of legends, such as Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie.  Jazz music is at the heart of this story.  Both characters love music and express their feelings through the music they are composing and/or performing.  The music is what keeps bringing the two lovers together and it is what pulls the viewer through the story.

The animation is a fairly simple animation; the bold colors and simple lines add to the feel and the tone of the picture.  It’s nothing flashy, but animation was a perfect medium for this story.  Animation allows Havana in its heyday to be recreated quite simply, and allows the characters to travel from one glamorous location to another with ease.  Past eras can be reconstructed with a paper and pencil in ways that they can’t in reality.  The past can really be resurrected before your eyes with animation.  This film is as much about a love affair with an era of music as it is about the love affair between the two leads.

As a side note, when I saw this film, it was in Spanish with subtitles.  I’ve heard that there will be an English version in which the voices will be dubbed, but that was not the version that I saw, so I can’t comment on it.

Oscar Predictions

It’s almost time for the Academy Awards, so that means it’s time for me to make my picks for who I think will be a winner on Sunday.  I’m also including who I would choose, if I picked the winner because, hey, it is my blog.

Best Adapted Screenplay-I think The Descendants will win this one, as I think it should.  Moneyball would have more of a chance if Aaron Sorkin hadn’t won last year for The Social Network.  Hugo has a shot, and could have momentum with it being the film with the most nominations (11), but I think it’s seen as more of a directing accomplishment for Martin Scorsese.  The Ides of March and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (with did win the BAFTA in this catagory) just don’t seem to have any momentum going, so it would be a major upset for either of those films to win.  Alexander Payne has already won an Oscar for adapted screenplay (for Sideways), but much of the acclaim for The Descendants stems from the strength of its writing.  It also just won this award from the Writers’ Guild.

Best Original Screenplay-This is another category in which I think the right person will win.  It looks like this award will be handed to (most likely accepted in his honor, since he has only attended the ceremony once) Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris.  He won the Golden Globe for best screenplay and won this award from the WGA (although The Artist wasn’t eligible).  Woody Allen has already won this category twice (for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters) and been nominated 12 (!) other times.  The Artist would be the closest competition (and could sneak in if there’s some kind of Artist sweep), and the other nominees (Bridesmaids, Margin Call, and A Separation) don’t stand much of a chance, although I think they’re all deserving.

Best Supporting Actor-It’s beginning to seem like they can already engrave the statuette for Christopher Plummer for his great performance in Beginners.  He does provide the heart of the film as a man who come out late in life (and deals with terminal illness).  I have no problem with him receiving the award; it was a funny and moving performance.  It’s also a bit of a lifetime recognition for his body of work, which is why his closest competitor is Max Von Sydow for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, another accomplished octogenarian without an Oscar.  I would, however, choose Kenneth Branagh for My Week with Marilyn.  I think he has been underrated as an actor.  He was able to capture the look, speech patterns, and mannerisms of Laurence Olivier, without simply doing an impression.  He also did an excellent job of exposing the insecurities behind the bullying facade.  I would be very surprised to see either Jonah Hill (for Moneyball) or Nick Nolte (for Warrior) win.

Best Supporting Actress-This one is going to go to Octavia Spencer for The Help.  She, like Christopher Plummer has won all of the major awards up to this point.  She made Minnie a memorable character and showed many facets to a complex personality.  I’d probably give the award to her, but Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids would be a close runner up for me.  She managed to take a character who could have been over the top and played simply for laughs and turned her into a believable, if still extreme character.  I’d love to see her recognized, but comedy is always under appreciated by the academy. She’s one of the rare performers to get a nomination for such a broadly comedic role.  Jessica Chastain turned in many great performances this year, but her nomination is probably the reward for her breakthrough year.  Bérénice Bejo could ride an artist sweep to the podium, but I don’t think she can overtake Spencer.  It’s the second nomination for Janet McTeer, but she hasn’t really been a factor up to this point.

Best Actor-This category really is a toss up between George Clooney for The Descendants and Jean Dujardin for The Artist.  Clooney won many critic’s prizes and won best actor in a drama at the Golden Globes, but Dujardin won best actor in a comedy at the globes and won the SAG award.  I could see it going to either one (and my vote would be for Clooney), but I think Jean Dujardin will win.  Demián Bichir and Gary Oldman don’t really stand a chance.  Before The Artist picked up momentum, it looked like this race would be between George and his friend, Brad Pitt.  However, the momentum for Moneyball has slowed, while The Artist continues to surge, so Brad will have to be happy with his third nomination.

Best Actress-Although this has been billed as a close race, I think time is making Viola Davis the clear favorite.  While her performance in The Help was not a showy one (her character has more going on internally than she ever shows), she will likely be rewarded for her subtle performance.  She won the Golden Globe and SAG Award, although she lost the BAFTA to Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady.  Meryl Streep will likely go home empty handed once again.  She hasn’t won an Oscar since 1983, although she has been nominated a record 17 times.  Her chances are hurt by the film’s poor reception.  She gave a great performance in a mediocre film, while Viola Davis is nominated for a film that has several nominations, including best picture.  While I have no problem with Viola Davis winning (especially when I thought she should have won for her emotionally charged performance in Doubt), but I would choose Michelle Williams for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn.  I had my doubts when I first heard that she was taking on the role, but I was amazed by the final performance.  Many people have tried to portray Marilyn over the years, but only Michelle was able to capture her innocence along with her sex appeal and portray the many conflicting sides to both her public and private personna.  She won the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy, and she could be the dark horse on Sunday, but most likely she, Glenn Close, and Rooney Mara will be watching as Viola Davis accepts the award.

Best Director-I find this race a hard one to call.  There have been some surprises (like the year that everyone thought it was a face off between Scorsese for Gangs of New York or Rob Marshall for Chicago and Roman Polanski ended up winning for The Pianist), but I think this year the winner will be Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist.  The Artist seems to be steamrolling everything in its path at the moment.  I wouldn’t count out Martin Scorsese for Hugo, but he won about five years ago for The Departed.  Additionally, even though Hugo has the most nominations, most people feel that it doesn’t really stand up to his greatest work, which can hurt the chances of a film from a widely respected and accomplished director like Scorsese.  I’d, of course, like to see Woody Allan win, but his films are generally more recognized for the strength of their writing and acting than their direction.  The same is true for Alexander Payne.  The dark horse contender is Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life,  The film was extremely polarizing, but he is another highly respected director, and one who has never won an Oscar.  And, his film is definitely the work of an auteur, which the academy usually favors.  He could be the surprise winner who sneaks in between Scorsese and Hazanavicius.

Best Picture-I think the big winner is going to be The Artist.  It’s won the Producer’s Guild Award and most of the time the winner goes on to win best picture (the last 4 winners have all done so).  It also won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy, although it lost best ensemble at the SAG awards to The Help.  It also seems to be a movie that people feel passionately about.  Hugo had one more total nomination, which usually helps indicate a possible winner, but it received no acting nominations and it just doesn’t seem to evoke the passionate following that The Artist has.  It could sneak in there as a spoiler, as could The Descendants, which won the Golden Globe for best drama.  The Help has passionate supporters, but seems to have just as many detractors (plus it wasn’t nominated for adapted screenplay).  Midnight in Paris will be recognized for its writing, and so won’t be much of a threat here (and would be my choice for best picture, which you know if you’ve read my other posts).  None of the other films are going to offer much competition.

So, there are my predictions.  I’d love to hear other opinions, so if you have any different ideas, leave them in the comments.

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

As I’m sure most people are aware of by now, The Hunger Games will soon be arriving at a theatre near you.  As a fan of the books, I am looking forward to the film.  I just saw the extended trailer, which you can see if you click  here.

Watching the trailer made me think about how perfect I think the casting is.  Obviously, I haven’t seen the film yet, but the characters look a great deal like I pictured them when reading the book.  In particular, I think Jennifer Lawrence is the perfect choice to play Katniss Everdeen.  I was surprised to hear that some fans questioned her ability to play the role.  If you haven’t seen it already, you should check out her Academy Award nominated performance in Winter’s Bone (which is a fantastic film in its own right).  There are a lot of similarities between the character Katniss and that of Ree.

First, the two characters come from similar backgrounds.  They are both from underprivileged families, in which the father is missing/dead.  If you ignore the politics of The Hunger Games, they are even living in poverty in basically the same region, the American South.  In The Hunger Games, Katniss is from District 12; most guesses put this district in roughly the area of West Virginia.  Winter’s Bone is set in the Missouri Ozarks.

More than a similarity of situation and location, are teenagers who are responsible for taking care of their mother and younger siblings.  Both characters have taken on the burden of supporting their family, no matter what it costs them.  They put themselves at risk, rather than risk anything happening to their loved ones.  This additional responsibility that they take on prevents them from having the opportunity of acting like normal teenagers.  They are both basically living the life of an adult.

As I referenced above, Katniss and Ree are tough and share a determination and selflessness.  They are both willing to do whatever it takes to protect and provide for their families.  Ree’s resolve to save her family from eviction puts her on a dangerous path, but she never backs down.  The same goes for Katniss.  She volunteers for the games to protect her sister and it is her desire to survive and return home to the family that needs her that helps her continue.

All of these things have convinced me that Jennifer Lawrence could be a perfect Katniss.  I believe that she can bring out both Katniss’ strength and humanity, and bring to life the character that so many people have grown attached to in the novels.

Shades of Grey

When I first saw the trailers for The Grey, I wasn’t planning on going to see it.  The previews made it appear that the movie was all about Liam Neeson fighting wolves.  It seemed to promise a lot of action and I assumed it would be one of those man vs. animal horror movies, like Cujo or Deep Blue Sea.

I have to admit that I was wrong.  When someone persuaded me to go see it, the movie I saw was far better than the one I was expecting.  If you’re looking for scares and gore, you shouldn’t go to this movie.  You might be disappointed by the thoughtful human drama that you’ll find.

The premise is this: a group of men who have been working for an oil company up in the Arctic are flying home.  Their plane crashes and only seven men survive the crash.  They are stuck in the middle of nowhere and there is very little hope of being rescued.  They have to contend with freezing temperatures, very little food, and, of course, a menacing pack of wolves.

Very early on, a parallel is established between the wolf pack and the pack of humans.  Several times the two rival groups face off.  Just as the wolves have their alpha, the humans do too.  Liam Neeson’s Ottway quickly becomes the leader of this pack, since his job was to shoot the wolves before they could attack the men working at the base.

This is where the movie really takes an unexpected turn.  Yes, the wolves begin to pick the men off, one by one, but what you really get is a character study.  Each of the men has a distinct personality and you begin to care about them.  The film seemed to me to be about life itself and how you have to embrace the good and enjoy what you have, since you never know what might be waiting around the bend.  Each man faces death in a different way, and their true character is revealed in their end.  All of these men have someone that they hold dear, who they think of in their final moments.

There are some great images of the wolves stalking the men at night, but what really stays with you are is the theme of survival, and of knowing when to fight and when to let go.  There is some talk of religion in which, the religious men can’t understand why they would survive a plane crash only to die from the elements or wolves in the days that follow.  Ottwat doesn’t believe in god.  In fact, in one pivotal moment, he asks god for a sign, and when he doesn’t get any, he utters that he’ll have to do it himself.  This seems to be a major focus, to survive, you have to be able to face your fears and be able to rely on yourself.

From what I’ve read online, many people are upset over the ending.  If you haven’t scene the film yet, make sure you stay through the credits, because there is a brief scene at their conclusion.  Anything I say from here on out will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading here.

 

SPOILERS BELOW

 

 

The big climactic fight between Liam Neeson and the wolf, which the trailers seemed to promise, is never shown.  The people who came to the film wanting to see Liam Neeson fighting a wolf are, quite rightly, disappointed.  What actually happens is this: Ottway, who was about to kill himself the night before he was due to leave, finally decides that his life is worth fighting for.  He has mistakenly been leading the men towards the wolves’ den, and, all of the other men having been picked off along the way, he finds himself alone in the middle of the den, facing the alpha wolf.  Here the inevitable alpha vs alpha showdown occurs, but it is not shown.  The screen cuts to black before the fight occurs.  It seems to me that this ending works.  The brief scene after the credits indicates that Ottway does defeat the alpha, but is this really important?  What is important is his decision to fight, whether he lives or dies is almost irrelevant at that point.  Even if he is able to defeat the alpha wolf, will he find civilization?  There’s no guarantee.

Doctor Who Valentines

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I just stumbled across this on line:

I think Amy and Rory are perfect characters for Valentine’s Day.  I’ve always felt the Ponds’ storyline has been a great romance.  I mean, come on, Amy couldn’t imagine living in a world without Rory, and he waited 2,000 years for her.  What could be more romantic than that?

This valentine, as well as many more, can be found at Craig Hurle’s Doctor Who Facebook Page.  They feature many different characters Doctor Who in the style of The Simpsons.  Check it out!

Sherlock Holmes: My Glass of Tea

Sherlock Holmes is the character who would not die.  His creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, thought that he had killed him when he wrote “The Final Problem” in 1893.  He was tired of the character and felt that the Sherlock stories overshadowed what he considered his better, more serious work.  He was astonished when the public mourned the death of their hero as if a real man had died.  Conan Doyle received both threats and pleas to resurrect his character, but Sherlock remained dead for almost 10 years.  Conan Doyle went back to the character after he began writing a story of a ghostly hound on the moor and needed a hero.  However, The Hound of the Baskervilles takes place before Sherlocks death at the falls.  He was not officially resurrected until a new Sherlock adventure was published, “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

The blur between reality and fiction still exists when it comes to Sherlock Holmes.  I visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London (at 221b Baker St, naturally), and wondered about having a museum billed as “the official residence” of a fictional character.  I was approached by a young tourist from Japan who asked me where she could find “the home of the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.”  I wasn’t sure if she knew he was a fictional character, or if she thought he had actually existed!

The appeal of Sherlock Holmes endures today.  First, there are the very action-oriented American movies starring Robert Downey Jr., as Holmes, and Jude Law, as Watson.  I find these movies to get a bit carried away in the action sequences.  Sometimes the plot (and the cleverness of Holmes), is lost in the din of the explosions.

My favorite adaption is Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ television series Sherlock.  Even though the action is set in modern day London, they feel very true to the spirit of the original stories.  I love how there are elements taken from the classic stories, but they are used to serve an entirely new mystery.  Benedict Cumberbatch is an excellent Sherlock; he’s incredibly observant, totally lacking in empathy, yet he possesses a strong connection with Martin Freeman’s Watson.  Freeman’s Watson is a very sympathetic character, but in this version he is a bit more his own person and not just an audience surrogate so that Sherlock has someone to which he can explain his thinking.  The chemistry of the two actors is fantastic.  I just finished watching the second series of the show, and I feel that it surpasses the first season.  I can’t wait for the explanation of Sherlock’s “death” in the next season.

I know this was not a recent adaptation, but I was just able to view The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes on the big screen.  It’s often overlooked, and seems to be almost forgotten now, but, if you’re a Sherlock buff, it’s worth a viewing.  While not the best of the Sherlock Holmes adaptations, Billy Wilder’s version is entertaining.  I feel that it goes on a bit too long, but the beginning is great fun.  It addresses idea that there is a difference between the Holmes of Watson’s stories and the “real” Sherlock Holmes.  The main mystery involves spies, secret technology, and even the Loch Ness Monster.  I think the movie would have been better to have stuck with the more humorous tone from the first 20 or so minutes.  The dialogue there is very much the witty banter that Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond do so well.

Zooey vs. the Feminists

I don’t consider being a feminist and being feminine two mutually exclusive categories, but I’ve read many articles and blogs looking at Zooey Deschanel from the “feminist” perspective.  I was amazed to see what a polarizing figure she has become.  Some of the authors seem to believe that she is the absolute worst role model that a girl could have, and that started me thinking.  What exactly is wrong with being girly?  Why is it bad to wear pink, or play the ukulele, or whatever is deemed “girly?”  They don’t seem like activities that will lead to the downfall of women.

I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly (I can’t find a copy of the article, so I’m working from memory here) in which the woman writing it was concerned that her daughter could have Zooey as a role model.  Her choice of a better role model: Lisbeth Salander.  Now I think that Lisbeth is a fantastic character, but I was baffled as to why Zooey would be such a terrible model for  a girl.  I see her as a successful woman who is popular for things she has accomplished, instead of being famous simply for being on tv (like a lot of reality stars).

This got me reading lots of blogs and articles to try to understand when the Zooey Deschanel backlash came from.  The blog that gets referenced a lot in these discussions is by Julie Klausner.  I read it and don’t think it says exactly what people have taken it to mean.  It seemed to me that her concern was about women putting on an act and adopting the persona of a little girl to be less threatening to men.  A lot of the things she references, I don’t even consider to be something that Zooey Deschanel does, and the focus of the article is not one specific person.

As for my take on it (since this is my blog), I agree that women shouldn’t have to play dumb to get by in society, but I don’t think that being girly like Zooey Deschanel means that you can’t be a strong woman.  A lot of the other articles and blogs that I’ve read seem to be implying that to be taken seriously, you can’t be too feminine and I disagree with that.  In an article in New York magazine Zooey is quoted said,  “that people equate being girlie with being nonthreatening … I mean, I can’t think of a more blatant example of playing into exactly the thing that we’re trying to fight against. I can’t be girlie? I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined. I don’t think that it undermines my power at all.”  I tend to agree with that sentiment.  I don’t think that women should have to become more masculine to be taken seriously.  And looking at Zooey Deschanel, you can see that she is a successful woman; she’s in movies, writes and records her own songs, is the star of a hit tv show, and has her own website.  I’m not arguing that all women should be girly, just that women shouldn’t be discounted just because they choose to be more girly.  I believe that it’s your right to not find a certain personality appealing, but I don’t understand why that has to mean that anyone who is like that is holding all of womankind back.

For the record, I’m not over attached to pictures of kittens or babies and I have plenty of interests that would definitely not be considered girly (although I’m not sure who gets to decided to which gender activities belong), but I just might bake you cupcakes, and I am a grown woman who wore my hair in pigtails yesterday.  And if you want to think I’m less intelligent or weaker because of that, well, that’s your problem.