Feb 22, 2012

The extent of my Oscar coverage this year

In the "should win" categories, an N/A means I haven't seen all the films nominated, and therefore cannot officially enter an opinion. An * can be found before those correctly predicted.

Best Picture
*Will win: The Artist
Should win: The Tree of Life
Best Director
*Will win: Michel Hazanavicious, The Artist
Should win: Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Best Actor in a Leading Role
*Will win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Should win: Demián Bichir, A Better Life

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Will win: Viola Davis, The Help
Should win: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
*Will win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Should win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
*Will win: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Should win: Jessica Chastain, The Help
Best Original Screenplay
*Will win: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Should win: Asghar Farhadi, A Separation

Best Adapted Screenplay
*Will win: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, The Descendants
Should win: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Monkeyball

Best Animated Feature
*Will win: Rango
Should win: N/A

Best Documentary Feature
*Will win: Undefeated
Should win: N/A

Best Foreign Language Film
*Will win: A Separation
Should win: N/A

Best Art Direction
*Will win: Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, Hugo
Should win: Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, Hugo

Best Cinematography
*Will win: Robert Richardson, Hugo
Should win: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design
Will win: Sandy Powell, Hugo
Should win: N/A
Best Film Editing
Will win: Thelma Schoonmaker, Hugo
Should win: Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Makeup
Will win: Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnson, and Matthew W. Mungle, Albert Nobbs
Should win: Nick Dudman, Amanda Knight, and Lisa Tomblin, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Best Original Score
Will win: Howard Shore, Hugo
Should win: Alberto Iglesias, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Original Song
*Will win: Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets
Should win: Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets

Best Animated Short
*Will win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Should win: N/A

Best Live Action Short
Will win: Tuba Atlantic
Should win: N/A
Best Documentary Short
*Will win: Saving Face
Should win: N/A

Best Sound Editing
*Will win: Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, Hugo
Should win: Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, Hugo

Best Sound Mixing
*Will win: Tom Fleischman and John Midgley, Hugo
Should win: Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, and Peter J. Devlin, Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White, and Daniel Barrett, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Should win: Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann, and Alex Henning, Hugo

Overall correctitude: 75%
Meaningless validation of superior taste: 17%

That's all, folks!

Feb 8, 2012

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999): C-

What does it mean to be a fan? The question begs asking when one is considering something known for testing the very essence of the term, and if the cultural tsunami that was the anticipation and eventual reaction towards The Phantom Menace doesn’t count, nothing does. The line that separates yours truly from the kind of people seen here lies far, far away, yet despite such potentially embarrassing associations, I consider myself very much a fan of George Lucas’s decades-spanning space opera, warts and all, and in the interest of full disclosure, know that I enjoyed the exceedingly hyped The Phantom Menace quite a bit as a youngling (it was my first big-screen experience with the series, and I saw it three times), up until as recently as five years ago.

To which I can now only remark at how time chases these things away. What once seemed worth eager defense now rings with a hollow thud, and revisiting the film recently, the most astonishing thing I discovered was how little I found myself able to care about a lick of plot or character or drama or story or the like. To be clear, I don’t consider it anything like a death knell of cinema, but rather, an achievement of misplaced priorities, the best example of what critic (and modest Star Wars fan) Matt Zoller Seitz described as Lucas’s relative filmmaking abilities to one who can levitate entire cities without yet mastering the basic functions of a knife and fork. As an act of obsessive world creation, of unwavering confidence in what basically amounts to a very silly story, and of visionary purity, it’s among the best of its kind. As a story about characters and conflicts worth our empathy or concern, it’s virtually without a pulse.

The temptation exists to place the majority of the blame on the cast, or perhaps more specifically, Lucas’s well-documented difficulty in directing them. Sure, these performances are as broad and gee-whiz as those of the first trilogy (okay, maybe less so on the latter point, but that’s what they’re going for), but gone is the essential spark that gave those films a recognizably human element. Several performances, particularly Liam Neeson’s and those of some CGI characters, hit the right balance of seriousness and playfulness, but a few weak links are enough to break the chain, and too many of the key players never instill their roles with the necessary conviction to keep things afloat. They seem not to believe, so why should we?

That alone might have been enough to sink this ship, but perhaps even more damaging is how this script’s domino chain of events unravels in such a deliberately doled-out fashion; whatever interest might have otherwise accrued is almost completely obliterated through sheer lack of storytelling rhythm. No surprise, then, when six years later during interviews for Revenge of the Sith, Lucas confessed to padding out the scripts for episodes one and two, originally having less than sufficient material to make them feature length. You may recall that whole assembly line setpiece from Attack of the Clones, which felt even more arbitrary and needless than the racing centerpiece of this, its predecessor. Stir the pot too long, and your recipe starts to burn.

Lacking much in the way of a dramatic hook, then, The Phantom Menace becomes a film admirable only from a certain distance, and certainly, hermetically sealed emotions notwithstanding, it’s an excellent execution of a certain kind of rigid film theory, if one that’s perhaps a bit oblivious to the clashing tones inherent in a highly youth-oriented adventure whose story is propelled by interstellar political conflicts over the taxation of trade routes. The earlier films operated as broad allegory, and while The Phantom Menace is downright ballsy in laying out a more serious, politically minded groundwork, it mistakes exposition for depth and loses sight of the audience. Even the most tolerant of fans had to give pause when Lucas began to mistake his creation for an episode of Masterpiece Theater.

Some of the least visceral sequences of the film – particularly the much-maligned Senate debate scenes – actually hold the most appeal for me; it’s new material (as opposed to a more recognizable preparation for events yet to come that we already know about), and through them, Lucas is already asking some serious questions about justice and freedom, which would manifest more explicitly, and meaningfully, in later episodes. The larger majority of this story, then, falls into place with the thud of joyless obligation, as if it were being choked to death on the solemn reverence that manages to coexist with the race of the Gungans, references to The Three Stooges and Buster Keaton, and poop jokes. The Phantom Menace’s fleeting pleasures aren’t even table scraps to my inner child.