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.