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The End of OSCAR Season

Why don’t they make more movies out of literary classics?

One reason is because the overwhelming majority of them are vastly overrated.

One good example is Anna Karenina, based on Tolstoy’s classic soap opera. Anna is married to a saintly (as she says so over and over again) national cabinet minister, with whom she’s in love with. So, it’s obvious, Tolstoy, who was a bit of a misogynist, will move to destroy this domestic bliss. So she falls in love with a beautiful moron with the title of Baron, and…you get the idea.

Tolstoy is famously wordy. This appears to be based on the Cliff Notes® version, and that is mostly a mean little story (or two, but they appear to have little to do with each other), so how to make it watchable? Staging?

The film takes place in a theater. Since this is a movie, the entire theater, from the rafters to the seats, are used. At first, this is a good idea; the camera angles and the stylized costuming distract us from the mostly boring story. The contrast between the lush costumes and scenery and the spartan, stylized space, and things like model trains going from St. Petersburg to Moscow, but then sometime in the middle, one of the characters walks out into a field, and the illusion falls apart. The illusion that we’re watching a play is shattered, and it turns into a regular movie, and then we discover that the only reason this is considered a classic is that it was written by Tolstoy, not on it’s own merits.

The problem with a film like this is that people come for the story and not the visuals. This isn’t always the case, Avatar was a huge hit and had one of the worst scripts of the decade. But in this case, it’s literary film all about the writing, and if the writing fails, then the whole ting falls apart.

The fact that it’s having a very limited release won’t be any help either, as this sort of thing is going to be decided by word of mouth of the literati. It’s going to be a massive flop.

Another literary adaptation that isn’t doing all that well is Life of Pi, which is a much, much better film.

They said Life of Pi was unfilmable. Clearly it is. . The reason is CGI animation. Many of the backgrounds and all the animals are computer generated, creating a wonder-filled sea and a carnivorous island. The magically realist story is brought completely to life by Ang Lee and his team of animators. The technology is now fully capable, and the visuals add greatly to the storytelling.

The acting is professional. No one gives a poor, or even mediocre performance and before the it turns into a literal cartoon, it more than holds one’s attention, but then the ship sinks and the Pi() begins to play second fiddle to the CGI characters. It’s one guy in front of a green screen all by his little self. Armed only with Tom Stoppard’s script and Ang Lee’s direction. The whole thing works, so why isn’t it doing better? 007 and Vampires, as Parents were all at the stores buying gifts, as their kids go off to the movies so they don’t act as a drag on mom and dad.

This may be one of those years that the Oscars will go to film s that few before their nominated, and Classic books and recent best sellers will get the short shrift.

Commentary: Dead Presidents and Awards Season

The election is over, thank God, but fascination with the presidency goes on. The “big three” -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt -- are back with a vengeance on the big and little screens.

George Washington

The latest edition of Assassin’s Creed takes place during the American Revolution and GW is a major character. Unfortunately, I suck at video games so I haven’t actually perused it. I throw it to the audience to add your own commentary on this game and its consequences.

Abraham Lincoln

Filmmakers have been trying to portray the Great Emancipator at least since Birth of a Nation a century ago, and with the possible exception of Raymond Massey’s portrayal in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor) most have failed. He’s just too iconic. 

There’s something about being a national hero, THE national hero, that makes it difficult to do a portrayal of that person as a regular human being. In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg doesn’t do a full biography, but just concentrates on one incident, the passing of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the first in over half a century.

For the most part, the film is a celebration of the art of lobbying. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), hires three unsavory lobbyists -- William N. Bilbo (James Spader), Colonel Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Congressman Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) -- to bribe Democrats (who were the bad guys in those days) by offering retiring and defeated congressmen patronage jobs.

While Daniel Day Lewis is utterly brilliant as Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones steals the show playing Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Congressman who led the antislavery movement -- well before there even was a Republican party -- and then the Radical Republicans. He channels Don Rickles and is a hoot. This is one of his best performances, and the whole thing is reminiscent of The West Wing in 19th century drag.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Director Roger Michel’s Hyde Park on the Hudson has been making the rounds of the film festival circuit and it just recently opened. If this one doesn’t get Bill Murray an Oscar®, he’ll never get one. The film’s got everything a Masterpiece Theater fan or political junkie would want. 

After all, there’s nothing the British are better at than a good costume drama, and the visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and his Queen (Olivia Colman) -- the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth -- to the US in 1939 is the perfect vehicle for expanding the American market.

With the Great Depression finally ending and World War II looming on the horizon, someone in the administration had decided that President Roosevelt (Murray) needed a playmate, and found one in his sixth cousin Daisy Suckley(Laura Linney), who is taking care of a very aged aunt. 

The film has the feel of Downton Abbey meets the West Wing to it, as Daisy and FDR fall in “like” with each other and what happens when she discovers he’s shagging his secretary Missy Lehand (Elizabeth Marvel), while their majesties are making a royal visit to the President in order to deliver English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s request for help after he realized he’d made a huge mistake trying to buy Germany’s Adolf Hitler off.

It’s a fun film and really nice to see history done right for a change. I remember how Spielberg really botched Martin Van Buren in Amistad a decade ago, and more recently, Oliver Stone’s horrible history series on Showtime. But with the election over and politics thankfully on the back burner for a year and a half, I don’t think we will see anything like these films in quite a while. 

Ottawa Animation Festival 2011

Read more: Ottawa Animation Festival 2011

SxSW 2012: The Paramount Theater

Every state capitol in the Union has a legitimate theater, a big one where the road companies of major Broadway shows can come and entertain the elite. Such a place is the Paramount, a fine old palace dating back a century or so, located about 10 blocks south of the State capitol building in Austin, Texas.

The place is huge, and decorated with faux art nouveau paintings and looking exactly like it should: A movie palace par excellence. This is why all SxSW’s gala premieres take place here.

Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods opened the festival and well it should. This is a really good theological action comedy, and possibly Whedon’s best work to date.

What do I mean by “theological?” You’ll have to see the movie to find out. The title refers to the stereotypical dwelling, where a standard bunch of college students (Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz) are forced to battle the forces of evil (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford)….or do they?

This is one of the most self-referential horror films since Scream One, playing up on each and every movie cliché in the history of genre to hilarious effect. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of scares here too, but this is an action comedy, and Whedon, who gave us the likes of Buffy and Firefly, is a master of those.

The film careens from jokes to scares with wild abandon, and we’re not sure where this thing is going, but the ride is too fun to care much, and when we finally get to the climax, which is totally mind-blowing, we’re almost totally exhausted as the protagonists are supposed to be. Think of Westworld meets Scooby Doo.

Blue Like Jazz

Director Steve Taylor’s latest opus is a theological coming-of-age movie and as such is too cute by half.

What do I mean by “theological?” it means that God is discussed ad nauseum. It’s all about region and what it means, and while it pretends to come from a free thinking atheist perspective, it’s as pious as an afterschool special on the Pope Channel.

According to the blurb, Don (Marshall Allman), a 19-year-old sophomore at a Texas junior college, tries to escape his Bible belt upbringing for life in the Pacific Northwest at the “most godless campus in America.”

Well, it ain’t. It’s a right-wing parody of the “most godless campus in America” and isn’t that good a depiction. The characters are all cardboard cutouts, and the edges aren’t all that well cut out either. It tries to have some Animal House moments, but while it comes close once in a while, it cannot shake that piety that Don and the film are so dead set on rebelling against. The ending is broadcast well before the middle of the film, and despite what we fervently hope, it gets there, ug.

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