Wilder’s Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole is the most cynical film of Billy Wilder’s career, which is saying a lot since Wilder was never a filmmaker to want to play it safe.  Even his most conventional films are at least slightly subversive, pushing the boundaries of what could be depicted on-screen at the time.  Ace in the Hole was a box office bomb when it was released in 1951, but it is one of Wilder’s best.  After the resounding success of Sunset Boulevard, Wilder split from Charles Brackett, his long-time writing partner, and struck out on his own. Despite cowriting the story with Lesser Samuels and  Walter Newman, this is Wilder’s show all the way, as he wrote, directed, and produced the picture.  He takes the cynicism evident in Sunset Boulevard and multiplies it exponentially to tell the story of Chuck Tatum, a down on his luck newspaper reporter who has a knack for turning misfortune into personal gain.

Tatum and Boot

Chuck is introduced doing just that; the viewer first meets him as his car is being towed into Albuquerque.  Chuck sits, unperturbed, in his car as the tow truck brings him into town.  Although the image is a comical one, it speaks volumes about Chuck’s personality.  He orders the truck to stop in front of the newspaper office, turning the tow truck driver into his own personal chauffeur.  Once inside, he manages to talk his way into a job, despite his contempt for the town and the editor’s motto to “tell the truth.”  Chuck is biding his time until he finds a story that he can latch onto for a ride all the way back east.

His chance comes when he stumbles across a man who has been trapped by a cave-in in the small town of Escadero.  He quickly takes charge of the scene and turns the misfortune of one man into a story that captivates the nation.  Through his careful manipulation of the other players in this scene, he looks poised to make his triumphant return to New York.

Chuck Tatum is a true anti-hero.  He is obviously self-destructive, self-loathing, manipulative, and craves attention.  He doesn’t really have a redeeming quality, except that he’s entertaining to watch since he gets a lot of great Billy Wilder zingers. For instance when a fellow reporter asks him to share access to Leo by saying they’re all in the same boat, Tatum replies “I’m in the boat.  You’re in the water.  Now lets see if you can swim.”  I’ve heard Billy saw Tatum as a bit of an alter ego, which is interesting because he essential becomes the screenwriter, director, and producer of the story he’s selling.  He casts people into their “roles” and even gives them the words to say.  The whole event really becomes a drama that Chuck created, and he stays in control of it, until things get out of hand in the end.

I know it could be argued that Chuck repents at the end, thus redeeming himself a bit, a point that is emphasized by the focus on Chuck’s face while the priest grants absolution to Leo.  However, I was not convinced that he truly felt sorry for what he had done.  He did not mean for a man to die, which upsets him, but at least partially upset because he isn’t going to get the ending he wanted to his story.  Did he get the priest for Leo or as a way to absolve himself of his guilt without actually having to confess?  Is it out of remorse that he gets himself fired or is it the self-destructiveness that has clearly marked his life?  Until the moment he drops dead, he still seems to be looking for what would make the best story.  He never lets his imminent death humble him, remaining cocky until the end.  He tries to sell his confession to the editor in New York as a scoop on a huge story.  It seems to me that since he realized that he wasn’t going to make it back reporting on a news story, he decided to become the big story and get recognition that way.

Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole

All of the performances are strong, such as Porter Hall (perhaps best remember for playing Dr. Sawyer in Miracle on 34th Street) as Jacob Boot, Tatum’s editor, but the most memorable character is definitely Lorainne, Leo’s wife, played by Jan Sterling. She’s a woman who’s desperate to escape life in sleepy Escadero.  She sees Leo’s misfortune as her chance to escape, until Chuck convinces her she’ll benefit more by staying and playing the role that he has assigned her.  She’s a bit of a femme fatale, in the sense that she’s a woman trying to break out of traditional gender roles; she’s a woman struggling to escape the dull, domestic life in which she has found herself.  Although she lets Chuck tell her what to do, she never completely yields to him. When he tells he she has to go to the special rosary being held for her husband at the church, she replies, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”  Of course she ultimately lets her “director” tell her what to do, but she never stops expressing her displeasure at it.

The relationship between them is very much a love/hate relationship.  She’s attracted to him, even though he is often cruel to her, but she has a great deal of disdain for him at the same time.  I think she’s more attracted to the fact that Chuck is full of ambition and a drive to get back east, something that he has in common with her and that sets him apart for her husband.  Chuck, on the other hand, seems to have nothing but contempt for her, yet he paints her up at a saint in his articles for the sake of the story.  He rejects her advances early in the story, but eventually sleeps with her out of what seems to be his own self loathing.  Ultimately, she is Chuck’s undoing; while he chokes her with Leo’s anniversary gift, she grabs a pair of scissors and stabs him, which, of course, leads to his eventual death.

What is perhaps most interesting in all of this is that she does not get punished for what she has done.  We last see her missing the bus out of Escadero, but their will be other buses, and there appear to be no repercussions for her actions.  Unlike Chuck, who winds up dying for his role in the tragedy, Lorainne profits from it.  The business made a lot of money off of Leo’s misfortune and as his widow, she’s probably pretty well off. Ultimately she seems to get what she wants in the end, unlike the true femme fatales from traditional noirs who always end up punished for their transgressions.

For that matter, everyone gets away with exploiting Leo.  There really are no innocents in this film.  The sheriff exploits the tragedy to get reelected (even agreeing to keep Leo trapped in the cave, which ultimately leads to his death) and seems to get away with it.  Sure there’s a throwaway line by Chuck (when he knows he’s dying) who sarcastically says something about writing a piece to “get the sheriff reelected,” but it doesn’t really feel like the sheriff’s job is in jeopardy.  The carnival, the trains, the person who wrote the song about Leo, everyone profits as much as they can and then move on when there are no more profits to be had.  The tourists are not without ulterior motives as well.  They mainly exploit Leo’s misfortune for their own entertainment (they are attending the S & M carnival, after all), but there is more.  When being interviewed on the radio, the father of one of the first families to show up starts to promote his insurance business, hoping his fame as one of the first tourists on the site will boost his business. Even the Minosa’s, Leo’s parents, who seem to be the only people who actually care about Leo, consent to profiting off of their son’s misfortune.

aceinthehole4

Leo, however, is not a completely innocent victim in all of this.  In his first meeting with Tatum, he is blinded by the idea of being famous.  He smiles for the photo of him with his “treasure,” so thrilled with his newfound fame that he doesn’t even notice that Tatum hits him with the discharged flash bulb. He is also very concerned about his portrayal in Chuck’s story; he doesn’t want to appear too superstitious or weak.  He has no problems being exploited by Chuck if it brings him some fame.   Also, don’t forget that he ended up in the cave because he was exploiting the Native Americans.  He becomes trapped while he was taking pottery from a burial site, essentially grave robbing.  He also sells a lot of Native American memorabilia in his store (including feathered headdresses which were worn by plains indians, not indians who lived in the Southwest), so he is exploiting Native American culture for profit.

Therefore, although I’m not sure that Wilder meant to demonstrate this, Leo is not the only one being exploited.  Chuck has evident disdain for the Native Americans.  The first time he walks into the newspaper office in Albuquerque, he meets a Native American and greets him with a condescending “How” while the Native American greets him with “good afternoon, sir.” After a year has passed he still is condescending to the Native American.  He has no problems, however, exploiting their culture for the sake of his story.  He creates the phony “curse of the seven vultures” because it will help sell the story.  As the crowds grow, the viewer sees more and more children wearing the headdresses and playing with other artifacts purchased from the Minosa’s, further showing how they were exploited.

CARNIVAL ACE IN THE HOLE

Ultimately Wilder’s greatest trick is making the audience just as guilty as the characters in the film.  Does the audience ever grieve for the death of Leo? I would argue that they don’t.  His death occurs offscreen because the audience is not really invested in his fate.  He is basically a plot device, as he was to Tatum.  No one is safe from Billy Wilder’s critique of American values.  Ace in the Hole is a film that remains relevant; it could have been made today, even though one of the events that inspired it was the story of Floyd Collins, a cave explorer who was trapped in Sand Cave in Kentucky for about 2 and a half weeks before eventually succumbing to exposure, thirst, and starvation.  I guess people haven’t really changed that much, since it seems to capture the sensationalism that still occurs in the media and the people who capitalize off the misfortune of others.  It was made before the term “media circus” was coined, yet Wilder creates a literal media circus by placing an actual circus amongst the crowd that has gathered outside the cave.  Ultimately Ace in the Hole paints a pitch black portrait of American culture in which everyone is an opportunist, willing to exploit the misfortunes of others, whether it is for financial gain, fame, or just for entertainment.

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On the 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a timeless classic of literature. Since we have reached the 200th anniversary of its publication (January 28, 1813), I wanted to acknowledge the occasion. I love Pride and Prejudice, so I thought I’d take a tour through some of its various filmed incarnations over the years.

Pride and Prejudice book cover

First, however, a few words about the novel itself, written by Jane Austen.  In case you’re unfamiliar with the novel, it tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet, who comes from a family of five daughters. The Bennet family’s estate is entailed away from them upon the death of their father, but, for the time being, they are a fairly prominent family in a small town in Hertfordshire.  Elizabeth’s sister Jane is beautiful and kind, but the rest of her sisters and her mother are all very silly women.  I’ve always thought that perhaps their father took more of an interest in the first two girls than the others, leaving his ridiculous wife to raise the other girls without any involvement from him. The main focus of the plot is the relationship between Elizabeth and the incredibly rich (and eligible) Mr. Darcy. It starts out an antagonistic one, but gradually develops throughout the novel as they learn more about one another.

I know that Jane Austen has been adopted by the chick lit genre, where there is a similar focus on finding “Mr. Right” (who always happens to be rich and handsome and will love the independent heroines without wanting to change them), but I think there’s so much more to Jane Austen. She is a very witty writer who works a lot of social commentary into her novels.  Jane Austen was a keen observer of people and all of her characters seem to have a life beyond the page (even the minor ones).  She has a rather sarcastic voice at times, which peppers her novels (and especially Pride and Prejudice) with clever, perceptive quotes.  One of my favorite lines from Pride and Prejudice has always been, “There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.” Very true for Elizabeth, who speaks it, and probably true of most people, they’ve just never come up with such a clear way of expressing it.

The first film adaptation was made in 1940, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. It was based on the stage adaptation by Helen Jerome, instead of the novel, so some plot points and characters are quite different.  Most noticeably the character of Lady Catherine is quite altered for her final confrontation with Elizabeth, there is no visit to Pemberly, and, thanks to the costumes, the period setting is later than the original regency setting. There are also many supporting character who are missing from the story, such as the Gardiners and Darcy’s sister Georgiana (of course, they were all connected with the visit to Pemberly, so it’s not surprising). However, I still enjoy this film.  I love Greer Garson’s Elizabeth (even if she really was too old for the part).  She does a great job of showing Elizabeth’s intelligence and wit, while also showcasing her vivacious and lively personality.  You really can’t help but understand why Olivier’s rather stuffy Darcy would be drawn to her.  The comedy is played up to the expense of the social commentary and the more serious aspects of the plot, but it all makes for a lighthearted romp through the novel. However, if you’re looking for fidelity to the novel, this is not for you.

Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice

Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice

The 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is, in my opinion, the best adaptation of Pride and Prejudice ever.  The two leads have a great chemistry, that really is required to understand how two people who are at odds could still be drawn to each other.  You can’t help but notice that Colin Firth really perfected the art of impassioned brooding in this, since Darcy is often off on the sidelines watching Elizabeth. The supporting cast is all excellent too, especially Benjamin Whitrow and Allison Steadman as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. This adaptation is 5 hours long, so it has the time to do justice to all of Austen’s secondary characters.  The extra time also allows time for Elizabeth and Darcy to very gradually warm to each other, making the ending much more satisfying.  It is very faithful to the novel, so this movie has a lot of the carefully observed details about life in the regency period, as well as the underlying social commentary.  Jane Austen’s witty tone remains intact, but the comedy is a part of the story, not the dominant feature of the story.

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 miniseries

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 miniseries

I think the only version of Pride and Prejudice that I did not enjoy was the 2005 version starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden. I know many people love this version, but I found little to enjoy.  I felt that in an attempt to make the characters appeal to younger viewers, the filmakers emphasized the youth of the characters too much. They acted as if they were giggling schoolgirls, which is not how a woman of 21 would act; to be a teenager then was not the same as being a teenager now.  The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were also changed from the biting wit of Austen’s original characterization. Instead of Mr. Bennet being a man who married a beauty only to discover she was an idiot, they are now a couple who may have their differences, but are a loving couple. This was typical of the movie.  I felt like much of Austen’s tone and rich characterizations were lost in this teen romance.  The setting was also moved to an earlier period (the late 18th century), because the filmmakers did not want the glamour of the regency period and they wanted a different visual style from the other adaptations. Overall, I felt like I couldn’t recognize the characters that I knew and loved in this version.

220px-Bridget_Jones's_Diary_OST_US_Cover

There are, of course, several modern versions of Pride and Prejudice.  These versions preserve the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth, but eliminate the social commentary aspect along with the regency setting. The best of the modern versions is Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was both a novel (written by Helen Fielding) and a movie (staring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant).  It does a good job of taking the romance of Jane Austen’s novel and putting it in modern-day England (with the Wickham role expanded to make use of Hugh Grant).  It actually is very clever in the ways that it weaves familiar characters and events through the story, all the while giving them a modern twist. It is not completely bound to the original novel, so there are many changes to the story and characters, but it all works to make an entertaining, funny film. The performances are also excellent with Renee Zelleger giving an academy award nominated performance, Colin Firth playing his second Mr. Darcy (and being just as appealing), and Hugh Grant relishing the role of the charming cad.

There are two other modern Pride and Prejudice films: Bride and Prejudice and Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy.  Bride is a Bollywood musical version of the story staring Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson. I thought that this was actually a good fit for the story because the Indian setting allowed for a fresh take on the story.  The second film is a Mormon, yes that’s right, a Mormon version, of the story, which is a better fit than you’d think; they were able to work in the church through Mr. Collin’s character. It’s set in modern-day Utah at Brigham Young University. I actually saw it without knowing it was a Mormon version (the “latter-day comedy” subtitle wasn’t used), and it didn’t really offer anything new or clever, but it was okay. Of course I didn’t really understand the Mormon references and jokes, but I didn’t really need to to understand the movie.

I had to amend this post, because after I finished I realized that I really should have mentioned Lost in Austen, a 2008 British miniseries in which Amanda, a modern day woman, changes places with Elizabeth Bennet.  It’s a clever look at what it would be like to actually live as Elizabeth Bennet did (something that many readers have imagined, I’m sure). The period adjustment provides some humor, as well as Amanda knowing where the story has to go and trying to keep it on track now that it’s heroine has disappeared.  My complaint was that I wished I could have seen more of Elizabeth’s life in modern England.  Instead, that’s glossed over to focus on Amanda’s time inside the world of the novel.

I believe a movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is eventually being made, and there is a 1980 miniseries that I didn’t talk about here as well, but that covers all the various incarnations of Pride and Prejudice on the screen.

Upcoming movies

This year has a lot of movies that I’m really looking forward to.  Aside from the superhero ones (is there anybody who isn’t at least somewhat interested in seeing The Dark Knight Returns?), there are a couple, that have just released trailers in the past few days, that look promising.

First, is Prometheus, due to be released on June 8.  Even before I had seen any trailers, I was excited about this film.  Ridley Scott creating a prequel to Alien was interesting enough, but the cast is great too.  I loved Noomi Rapace in the Swedish Millennium Trilogy, and from the previews, it looks like she’ll be playing another strong female character here.  I was also excited to see that Idris Elba is a part of the cast because he’s amazing on Luther.  Plus, Michael Fassbender (although I’m assuming that he will spend more time clothed in this than some of his previous films), Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron…

The promo campaign for Prometheus has been great.  The earlier previews didn’t reveal a lot about the plot, but the new trailers reveal a lot more.  You can see the trailer here: Prometheus Extended Trailer.  The more interesting videos, however are the viral videos, the first featuring Guy Pierce’s character giving a TED talk.  The newly released on is even more intriguing, featuring Michael Fassbender in what seems to be a commercial selling his android to the public.

Another movie that I’m looking forward to is Looper, which isn’t due out until September 28.  This film reunited the star (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and director (Rian Johnson) of one of my favorite films, Brick. The premise as far as I know is that Joseph Gordon Levitt is futuristic assassin.  He works for the mob in 2042 by killing targets that are send back in time to him from the year 2072.  However, he recognizes his latest target as himself and ends up allowing him to escape, setting in motion, I’m assuming, the plot.  His older self is played by Bruce Willis.  Maybe I’m just a sucker for time travel, thanks to my Doctor Who obsession, but I think this one could be good. The Looper trailer and teasers can be seen here.

And, just for good measure, I’m going to throw a random trailer for Woody Allen’s new film, which, being a big Woody Allen fan, I’m looking forward to seeing.  It was originally called The Bop Decameron, which was then changed to Nero Fiddled when someone decided that audiences wouldn’t know what the Decameron was.  Now the title has changed once again to the much more generic To Rome with Love.  I guess it’s been decreed that whenever possible the name of the location should be in the title of Woody Allen movies (see Midnight in Paris, Vicki Christina Barcelona, Manhattan…), to make sure the audience isn’t confused. Still it has a great cast, so I’m hoping this will be one of his better efforts.

The Lubitsch Touch

Angel (1937 film)

Angel (1937 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I’ve been focusing more on Doctor Who related things on this blog lately (and I’ll have a review of the fifth Doctor Who story up soon), but I was just able to watch Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel, which is, I think, a very overlooked film.  I’m a big Lubitsch fan, so I was excited to have the opportunity to see this classic film in an old-fashioned movie theatre.

The plot involves a love triangle, as much of Lubitsch’s early films do.  The film begins with Tony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) visiting the salon of the Grand Duchess Anna, looking for, well, since this story is from 1937, I’ll say companionship.  It’s implied that the Grand Duchess can arrange private meetings for two, and Halton is looking to have some fun while he’s in Paris.  It just so happens that bored housewife Maria stops by to visit the Grand Duchess at this point.  It has been years since she has last seen the Grand Duchess, and the Grand Duchess is unaware of her current marital status.  Of course, Maria ends up meeting Halton in the salon, and agrees to meet him for dinner.  There is an instant attraction between the two, but Maria does not want names exchanged, so Halton calls her Angel.  She asks him to promise to never look for her, but he refuses.  However, after their romantic tryst, Angel disappears, but Halton does not give up searching for her.

Maria returns home to London, where we find out that she is married to Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall), a workaholic diplomat, trying to keep Europe from dissolving into war.  The scenes with Maria and Frederick lack the sexiness of the scenes with Halton, but that is the point.  Frederick loves Maria and thinks that they are a model of domestic bliss.  It’s clear that at one point, this was true, but since that happy time, Maria is always forced to play second fiddle to his work.

 

The plot thickens when Frederick meets Halton, and the two men strike up a friendship.  It turns out that their taste in women has always been quite similar because during the war, they shared a “seamstress.”  Halton tells Frederick about his Angel, completely unaware that he is speaking of Maria, Frederick’s wife.  An invitation extended to Halton brings him to Frederick’s home, where he discovers the truth about his Angel.  The end of the movie brings the action back to Paris, where decisions must be made, and the messy triangle gets wrapped up rather neatly.

I would have liked to have seen what Lubitsch (and screenwriter Sam Raphaelson) would have done with this story in the pre-code era.  Really, Lubitsch manages to make a sexy film without have any sex or direct reference to sex on the screen.    The envelope is still pushed in this film by the not so subtle implied sexuality of the characters, but I don’t think the ending would have been quite so neat, if it were not required.

This film also has the traditional Lubitsch trademark of not shooting what you would expect him to in key moments.  For example, Halton leaves Angel for a moment to go buy her some violets from an old woman who is selling violets in a basket.  When he turns back to Angel, she is gone.  Instead of showing Halton looking for Angel, Lubitsch stays with the old woman.  We see her watch Halton search, and hear him call out to Angel.  Finally, we see her walk over to where Angel had been sitting, pick up the violets from the ground, dust them off, and finally put them in her basket,ready to be sold again.  Without seeing Halton again, we know exactly what happened and the image of the woman putting the violets in her basket is more memorable and heartbreaking than seeing Halton’s reaction would have been.

Overall, Angel might not be the best Lubitsch film, but it’s still a good one.  How this film has been so overlooked with Dietrich, Douglas, and Marshall in film written by Sam Raphaelson and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, I’m not sure.  It walks a delicate line between comedy and melodrama, and has a great performance from Marlene Dietrich.  Its plot still feels very fresh and it clearly demonstrates that “Lubitsch touch.”

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.