Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Winners at 2011 Academy Awards: Another Year, Another Fail

The King's Speech
Another year, another Academy fail. Not that anyone would have expected significantly different Oscar winners.

If there is a big Oscar winner at 2011's Academy Awards that's obviously The King's Speech with its 4 wins. While it's not the single film winning 4 Oscars overnight (the other one being Inception), all of The King's Speech statuettes have been won amongst the most important categories: Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. The King's Speech is a decent film. But it is also unworthy of at least two, possibly three of these Oscars. Because, you see, The King's Speech is flawed. And seriously so.

The King's Speech has a very potent premise and it starts quite well, vigorously exploiting that. It is pleasantly witty and sporting some likable characters, most notably Elizabeth and Logue. The acting of the three leads is strong throughout. All is good up to and including the first encounter of Logue and Bertie. Then the film quickly loses steam and (best) direction, and starts treading in circles. Luckily, the stupid substandard Freudian psychoanalysis crap is only superficially mentioned and not explored further, but we are not saved the mediocre court drama and the even more boring brother-son-king-duty stuff. On top of that, everything is presented in distracting wide-angle and self-indulgent framing and camera tilts. This translates The King's Speech into a movie undeserving to be among the Oscar winners in the Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Original Screenplay categories. Whether Colin Firth's Best Actor win is justified can probably be argued but at least it is not as grating as the other three awards. Rewarding Tom Hooper for ruining what could have been a great movie and granting that mess the Best Picture Academy Award is ironic. Especially in the competition of Fincher, the Coens and even Russell.

The Oscar winners in Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories add even more ridicule. The Academy's preference for hyperactive roles with a hysterical tendency is utterly amusing. Academy members are like children in a candy shop. They go for the most colorful and noisiest stuff. Which makes Oscar baits so easy to pull on them. Both Oscar winners, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, seriously overact their performances. And while picking Bale for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award over the quiet menace of John Hawkes or the confident eccentricity of Geoffrey Rush is understandable, and to an extent, excusable, as Bale's attention-whore style overacting is mostly during the docu-shoot (a fact that, in a way, makes it acceptable), one can't really say the same for Melissa Leo. Every single alternative among the Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actress would have been better than her, but apparently not noisy enough for the Academy: Jacki Weaver's measured performance in Animal Kingdom; the regal, yet warm, Helena Bonham Carter; the cocky and determined Hailee Steinfeld; even Amy Adams was less annoying in The Fighter compared to Melissa Leo. And while we are still at the candies, Alice in Wonderland's Academy Awards in the Best Art Direction and Best Costumes categories give us even more examples of the Academy's affinity for the bright and loud.

As we predicted here, Roger Deakins was once again denied his long overdue Academy Award for Cinematography. This time True Grit was not enough to make him an Oscar winner. Inception's merits in the field of cinematography mostly come down to the use of 35mm in VistaVision mode, adding 65mm to that, mixing in some digital, and executing a few difficult shots. In that regard, its Oscar award is not totally undeserved. Not that the Academy understands it, though. And they aren't less guilty of missing the beauty and superiority of Deakins' work. Still, it could have been worse. The King's Speech could have won the Oscar here...

To end on a more positive vibe, it was not mediocrity and epic fail only at 2011's Academy Awards. After all, Aaron Sorkin did win the Best Adapted Screenplay category, and Hans Zimmer's music was not among the Oscar winners again. And, erm, yeah, that's that then.

Discover more Oscar related articles in our Review Maze.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blazing Saddles: A 1974 Western Comedy with Its Own Style

Blazing Saddles
Blazing Saddles has been one of the classic Western comedies for years. There are people that would easily give it a 10 out of 10 rating and also there are others thinking the movie is not worth even one viewing. We're going to point out some good and bad sides of the film so if the case is you haven't seen this movie yet, check out both of the lists below in order to make a decision. But first, a brief introduction of Blazing Saddles plot.

In the Old Wild West, a group of workers are constructing a new railroad. Unfortunately it runs into quicksand. A new route should be thought of and it looks the "best" option requires the railroad to go through a small western town named Rock Ridge where everyone seems to be named "Johnson". A corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr (played by Harvey Korman) wants to drive the townspeople out in order to buy the land cheaply. To scare the people away and to make the town unlivable, Lamarr sends a gang of criminals to kill the sheriff and make some havoc. The townsfolk demand a replacement sheriff from Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks). Lamarr convinces the half-brained Governor to send one of the black railroad workers Bart (Cleavon Little) as a new sheriff. Lamarr's evil idea is that a black sheriff will be such a big offence to the citizens so they will leave the town just because of him or maybe even kill him. We will not continue revealing more of the plot but Blazing Saddles fun continues without having a break.

What you might not like about Blazing Saddles:
  • It's a Mel Brooks movie. If you've seen a lot of his movies and you think they are pretty much repetitive, chances are, you are not going to like this film.
  • If you don't like jokes about black people or Native Americans, do not see this movie.
  • There is a fart joke in the movie. Probably the first one in a film released from a major studio.
  • The ending is a mess. Even some people who do like the movie, do not enjoy the ending scenes.
  • It's a parody. Strangely or not, there are folks who do not like parodies.

What you might like about Blazing Saddles:
  • It's a Mel Brooks film. If you love his films, this one is definitely for you. It establishes patterns Brooks has been using in many of his subsequent movies.
  • The movie is a parody of numerous Western films with a lot of references. Some of the influences have been High Noon and Once Upon a Time in the West.
  • There are also many non-Western movies references, for example, to Hedy Lamarr or to Mel Brooks' film The Producers.
  • The movie satirizes racism. It shows a black sheriff being a hero in a white dominated and prejudiced country.
  • There are tons of funny (and memorable) lines in Blazing Saddles (e.g., "You men are only risking your lives, while I am risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor!").
  • Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn star in the movie. The latter has even received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
  • Count Basie appears in a cameo role as himself.

A brief conclusion: If you do not have problems with Mel Brooks in particular or with parodies in general and you're able to excuse a few flaws, give Blazing Saddles a try. It is a movie with its own style, for good or for bad.

For other movie reviews browse our Maze of Reviews.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Das Leben der Anderen (2006) / The Lives of Others

Das Leben der Anderen
The 2007 Oscar winner in the category of Best Foreign Language Film of the Year has been a 2006 German movie called Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). It's about an agent from the Stasi (the East German secret police agency) who is instructed to keep an eye on Georg Dreyman, a successful writer, and his lover companion, the popular actress Christa-Maria Sieland. During the process, the secret agent becomes more and more interested in their lives and eventually sympathetic to the couple. What would be the consequences of a case like this in a 1984's socialist country and what is the most probable reason for this surveillance is up to you to discover.

What could you expect from Das Leben der Anderen / The Lives of Others? You'll learn a little bit about one of the world's most fearsome secret police machines, the East German's Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, known as the Stasi). You will become aware of some of the instruments Stasi has used. You'll see love, life of dissidents, brief nudity, low moral, a sort of betrayal, character transformation, some small twists and a great ending. The pace of the movie is slow to a certain degree and the movie unfolds tardy at the beginning but it becomes faster towards the ending. Its slow pacing could be intentional though in order to relate with the patient nature of a surveillance job. Anyway, the ending compensates for any slower parts of the movie.

The Lives of Others is directed by a debutant in the field of full length movies, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who although not being exceptional shows an overall good directing. The main characters are played by the actress Martina Gedeck having tough job to accomplish in the role of Christa-Maria Sieland, Ulrich Mühe seeming perfectly suitable for the role of the restrained but not heartless agent Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler and the actor Sebastian Koch nicely portraying the writer and "good citizen" Georg Dreyman. What you see on the screen appears a little bit detached from you but it is still very believable so you know throughout the whole movie it's about something that has really happened and that could happen again.

Apart from its Academy Award and high critical acclaim, Das Leben der Anderen has won about 60 international awards. Whether the movie deserves them is something that everyone has to decide for himself, but in general, the film treats some topics, which should be interesting to almost every person on the Earth. Thus, the movie's mass appeal is pretty much understandable. There are many people that have seen or experienced the life in East Germany or behind the Iron Curtain themselves but for the majority of the audience worldwide the film presents some events they've not even been aware of or at least they've never been real witnesses to. Being due to its subject or not, it's rather good that a non-Hollywood movie has received so much international attention.

If you're interested in the life of socialist country's people before the fall of the Berlin Wall and you haven't seen this film yet, it would be a safe bet to track it down and add it to your collection of movies if you have not a forthcoming chance to watch it on TV or in a cinema theater eventually. It will hardly be the best film you've ever seen but it will enrich your movie experience for sure.

For more movie reviews browse our Review Maze.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

People with Multiple Oscar Nominations and Not a Single Academy Award

True Grit
Continuing from our previous article on the Oscars and the Academy's omissions we are now going to talk about a few people who did get multiple Oscar nominations but never received an Academy Award.

This is formally inspired by the ninth Oscar nomination of cinematographer Roger Deakins (for True Grit) who doesn't have an Academy Award in his collection yet. The fact that this cinematographer extraordinaire and a long-time favorite of fellow cinematographers has been continuously neglected by the Academy is symptomatic of the way the Academy ballots work. A good chunk of the Academy members tend to vote for the bigger titles in the technical categories. Voting in these categories for their Best Picture favorite (if it happens to be nominated there) is common practice. Probably that's why Roger Deakins, who usually shoots smaller character driven films, never wins. Especially striking was that in 2008 he was double nominated for No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but lost to Robert Elswitt's There Will Be Blood (admittedly, a fine looking film but hardly of the exquisite quality of The Assassination). As occasionally happens in such cases, the double Oscar nomination may have been a bad favor, actually leading to split in the votes. Unfortunately, 2011's Best Cinematography Oscar does not look like going Deakins' way considering the competition of The King's Speech (wtf?), The Social Network and Inception. The chance one of these three films seizes the Academy Award for Best Cinematography is huge, but one can never know for sure.

To add some more spice, let's have a quick walk through history for some other multiple Oscar nominees who never got the Academy Award.

Italian maestro Federico Fellini was nominated twelve times for Best Director or Best Writing but never won an Academy Award. This is not surprising. Foreign filmmakers working out of Hollywood rarely won Oscars (other than the Foreign Language category) due to the general unfamiliarity of America audiences (Academy members included) with their work. The Academy sought to offset this omission with an Honorary Award in 1992. Like if anyone cares about these. They remain a popular Academy device for soothing its guilty hive-conscience nevertheless.

Alfred Hitchcock received five Oscar nominations for Best Director. Even though he was a crowd pleaser he never really got much love from the Academy. Even a masterpiece in direction like Rear Window couldn't bring him the Academy Award (that year he lost to Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront). Hitchcock's technical and artistic genius was in a way rediscovered after Truffaut promoted him heavily as an example of the Auteur theory. Truffaut's book-interview with Hitchcock may have actually played a role when Hitchcock received the Honorary Oscar in 1967. Hitchcock's influence continues to be stronger in European cinema, the latest noteworthy Hitchcock inspired outing being Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer.

Robert Altman was nominated seven times (five Oscar nominations for Best Director and two for Best Picture) but lost to the likes of Steven Spielberg, Milos Forman, Ron Howard and Clint Eastwood. He surely had some tough luck meeting serious competition in the years he got nominated. And guess what? Right...he got an Honorary Award in 2006. Well, it was the least the Academy could do to honor his unorthodox methods and contributions to filmmaking: loose scripts, non-linearity, free improvisation, overlapping dialogue. He even fought with the studios to get R ratings for his films in order to keep children out of the audience because they wouldn't get the movies, a commendable trait in a strong business-minded environment as the film industry.

And to finish this off we are getting back further in time. One of the biggest stars of screwball comedy, Irene Dunne, was nominated five times for Best Actress (all leading roles). And she is the only one in this company that did not receive a Honorary Award. Back at the time comedy was not so rare in the acting Oscar nominations as nowadays but performances in drama were still favored. Perfection of comic timing apparently was not enough to win her an Oscar. Ironically, her most critically acclaimed role was in a drama feature (I Remember Mama) which also garnered an Oscar nomination in 1949. But, really, it is the fact she did not receive the Academy Award for her performance opposite Cary Grant in the seminal screwball comedy The Awful Truth that is most infuriating.

Discover some interesting facts about the Academy Awards or search for other movie articles in our Review Maze.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Black Swan (2010): Perfection Meets Nightmare

Black Swan
If you've expected just by seeing the film's title or director that Black Swan is not going to be an ordinary "Swan Lake" tale, you've been right. Similarly to another 2010 movie Inception, Black Swan is a film which will hold your mind busy for quite some time after its ending. It is a little bit hard to watch but beautiful movie with great directing and cinematography work, lots of symbolism and really good acting performances. In a nutshell, you have to see this film, even if you do not like it for some reason.

Formally, Black Swan is about producing the "Swan Lake" ballet on a New York City stage by the artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). He wants to replace his long-lived prima Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) with a new lead so he's in need of a ballerina for the role of both, the White and the Black Swan, and such a role is dreamed of by every female ballet dancer in the world. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina that wants the part of the Swans with her entire heart and she is ready to do pretty much everything in order to get it. Naturally, she has a lot of competition coming from several other ballet dancers including a new ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis). While the delicate and innocent Nina is a perfect match for the White Swan, Lily is her counterpart being open-minded and seductive. Nina must find a way to represent both swans if she does not want to lose the role. But it's a hard task for a fragile young woman who is also being suffocated at home by another former ballerina in the face of her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).

Informally, Black Swan is a film about physical and mental pain, obsession, madness, self-destruction, perfection. You may find in some other reviews that it's a thriller or mystery and while those are not completely wrong, the movie should be primarily labelled as drama. You may also read there are some supernatural elements in the film which is not exactly the case as even if we assume there are such unnatural traces in Black Swan, they are just used in order to describe some psychological sides of the characters rather than being really unearthly forces. Saying that Lily represents the evil counterpart of Nina is also not completely correct cause Lily is just more easy-going and playful than Nina rather than being bad tempered. The evil in the movie is mainly fictitious and is used to emphasize certain mental condition effects. There are some hints of Nina being sexually abused by her mother but nothing that really proves it.

That being said, there are lots of contrasts in Black Swan. As the colors of the both swans prompt, white and black collide pretty often in the film. They are everywhere: in clothes, underwear, makeup, etc. White and black even change their bearers in different sections of the movie representing a shifted perception of the corresponding character. You may see various persons depicted as potential dark ones during the film but you rarely know what to believe until the end of it.

There are many other symbolic references in Black Swan but let's not spoil the movie for you. There are enough visual and sound effects to help you see and even hear Nina's physical impersonation of a swan. Plenty of mirrors are used to present the notion of duality better. The hue and saturation of colors in the "white vs. black" film is also fascinating. And the musical score of the movie, hugely influenced by "Swan Lake", is an ideal addition to the overall experience you get from Black Swan.

The acting is superb throughout the film. Vincent Cassel is awesome as the passionate ballet director. Winona Ryder has a little portion of time on the screen but she authentically portrays the retiring against her will prima Beth MacIntyre. Mila Kunis is beautiful, seductive and playful thus perfectly suitable for her role. Barbara Hershey plays a loving, yet frightening mother. And Natalie Portman is an incredible lead. It's not easy to play such a sad, desperate and obsessed woman with just a few sparks of living for a whole movie. She really deserves to get the Academy Award for her performance.

The director, Darren Aronofsky, proves again he is a master of making non-standard movies. While non-standard is not a synonym for good and this is even valid for Aronofsky's own movies to some extent, Black Swan is probably his most balanced film to date. It's not so disturbing as, e.g., Requiem for a Dream and it is not so close to the "mainstream" as The Wrestler. Being a kind of a mixture of themes explored in previous Darren Aronofsky's films, Black Swan could be treated as a good entry point to his works. It's a beautiful nightmare, not offering great surprises but firmly capturing your attention and probably requiring a second viewing for full appreciation of its details.

Find out more movie reviews in the Review Maze.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Facebook: Not Much More than Just a Common Place

In the last couple of months, I finally decided to register and see what that Facebook thing was all about. As expected, I did not see anything nice or charming. Actually, I got into just another crappy service proving the principle "the crappier the better". It's hard to imagine there are hundreds of millions of people using Facebook, yet it's reality.

To start with, Facebook proves its "charm" from the very beginning you've come upon it. Of course, you have to register in order to use the site. That's normal. But it's quite strange that during the registration process there is not a field to confirm your password. It's an unusual decision from Facebook sitemakers. What if you mistype your password? It's always a good idea to have an option for re-checking it. Especially, when it's a password field (thus, not a readable one, usually). Furthermore, there is not an email confirmation to enable your registration. You could be registered by someone else with your official email address as far as somebody knows it. But enough with the registration fun.

Facebook is a very user-unfriendly place. Is this intentional? In order to keep you longer on their website, people implementing it could have done it unamiable on purpose. Well, I'm just joking. Usually, you spend a lot of time to find a feature you're looking for. And if it happens to be a really useful feature, the odds are you are not going to find it at all. Why? Because it's just not there. Who does need useful features after all? For example, you cannot see a list of people you've invited to become your friends - a very simple for implementation, a very beneficial, yet inexplicably why, missing feature. Or you might see a red icon showing you have 34 messages in a chat with somebody and when you click on this chat there's nothing. Well, chatting does not bring Facebook any money, so it's a "good" feature, too.

Let's talk about some privacy... Not this time, we are still talking about Facebook here. So, as you already might know, pretty much every Facebook application requires access to your personal data. In addition, you are overwhelmed with adverts, various requests, "People You May Know" and you may not know, spam and whatnot. Sure, you've chosen to be there, knowing it's a "social" network, so there are not any reasons to complain.

The greatest advantage of Facebook is probably that it offers a little bit of everything. While it's not bad at first glance, in fact, it is just more crap. There is a chat possibility but it has nothing to do with the capabilities of ICQ, Skype, etc. There is messaging/emailing functionality but it's not even close to the real and pretty well-known email services' competition. There are photo sharing, video sharing, forum, linking and other options, again not at all near to the corresponding dedicated applications competition in terms of quality.

So, what do we have at the end? A "place" offering a lot of applications, yet none of them with exceptional or even good quality. But... it's a "place". Maybe, this is the key to it. Facebook makes people feel better since they are gathered at one common place and each of them has some good or bad, funny or stupid reason to stay at that place longer. Hardly anyone thinks he/she is using a not very efficient combination of washing machine and refrigerator because everyone is right there in the s**t together with the whole world. So, if you think to manufacture some universal device having cleaning, cooking, washing, TV receiving and so on capabilities but providing just a mediocre quality, and still conquer the world with it, most probably you won't have a success. Of course, not except you've made it a social device able to discuss, e.g., other people's (dirty) laundry while washing it.

Read about Skype service or find another service review in our Review Maze.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hotaru no haka (1988) / Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies
Following our recent criticism of 2011 Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees, let us review a not so recent animated film from Japan. It is a rare jewel among animation movies and although children are its main characters it is definitely not your average children animated story. We are talking about the 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka in Japanese) portraying unforgettably the wartime life in Japan during World War II.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) is a movie about two kids, young boy Seita and his little sister Setsuko. Their father has been mobilized in the Japanese army during World War II. Towards the end of the war, their mother dies from her burns caused by a recent firebombing. Remaining without any adult cares, the children shift to live with their aunt. But after a while, the kids' opinion on everyday activities grows different from their relative's view on life. The quarrels with the aunt become more and more frequent (due to a growing lack of food) and finally they leave her house to live in an abandoned bomb shelter. The children's struggle with the wartime reality is what the rest of the film represents in a very memorable way.

Grave of the Fireflies is about innocent children and adults who suffer because of other people's mistakes and mental defects. It is a movie about humans losing their humanity under critical conditions. It is about war, orphanage, death, famine, love, indifference. It is among the very few animated films that could bring you to tears. It is an innocent movie that does not preach, nor even point who are the good and the bad guys.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) is based on a semi-autobiographic novel by Akiyuki Nosaka and it is often viewed as an anti-war movie due to the events it depicts. For sure, it is not a typical animated feature. The narrative and the characters are what make the film really powerful. There are not gorgeous animations, visuals or sound effects. It's just the story of the two kids that blows your mind. If you've watched this movie and you haven't dropped a tear until its end or you haven't been deeply touched to the heart at least, you probably do not have a heart.

Many of the comments coming by professional reviewers or just regular cinema lovers in regard to Grave of the Fireflies have not been less moving than the film itself. The movie has found warm reception pretty much everywhere. With quotes ranging from just a "tragic film" to "The best movie you'll never want to see again", it seems almost everyone who has seen this movie at least once in his life has been deeply affected. People have been asking "What scene did you start weeping at?" or "How much time did you cry?". Roger Ebert, a well-known critic, considers Grave of the Fireflies to be among the most powerful anti-war films made in the history of cinema.

So, if you've missed to watch this exceptional movie gem for whatever reason, buy the DVD or Blu-ray disc, or simply find another way to see it. And since the film could easily win the title of the Saddest Animation Ever, you may even legitimately shed some tears, no matter whether you're a child, a woman or a man, because you'll be just the next in line to join the rows of many other weeping viewers.

Read more movie reviews in our Review Maze.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Academy Award Nominations 2011: Best Animated Feature Oscar Nominees Criticism, Part I

Toy Story 3
When it comes to Academy Awards the omissions of the Academy often generate more buzz than actual winners. Frankly, they are often more buzz-worthy indeed. While in 2011's Academy Award nominations there aren't really any laughter inducing blunders among the actual Oscar nominees like the ones at the Golden Globes (*cough* The Tourist *cough*), there are still some noteworthy omissions. One of these is discussed here, and it is in the category for Best Animated Feature.

If you have been following the Academy Award nominations in this category in recent years you may have noticed that the number of nominations varies between three and five. For example, last year there were five Oscar nominees and this year we have three: Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon and The Illusionist. This is because of a funny article in the nomination rules which defines a maximum of three nominees if there are less than fifteen submissions in the Best Animated Feature category and a maximum of five Oscar nominees if there are more than fifteen submissions. So in 2009 there were 20 movies submitted, which resulted in five nominees selected for the 2010 Oscars. And in 2010 there were 15 movies submitted resulting in three Academy Award nominations for the 2011 Oscars. One might wonder why the rules do not explicitly specify when to select four Oscar nominees and leave that to the discretion of the Nomination Committee.

The eligible movies for Best Animated Feature category were (in alphabetical order): Alpha and Omega, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Despicable Me, The Dreams of Jinsha, How to Train Your Dragon, Idiots and Angels, The Illusionist, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Megamind, My Dog Tulip, Shrek Forever After, Summer Wars, Tangled, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, Toy Story 3. It's a pretty decent line-up despite a few cringeworthy entries (but hey, it is a free country, any movie can be submitted if eligible). And the three Oscar nominees selected out of these fifteen are all solid movies. But as it ever(y) so often happens with the Academy Award nominations, the 2011 Oscar worthy title is not amongst them.

Before delving into that, a digression. The Academy has branches based on professional occupation. Most of the Oscar nominees are decided by members of the corresponding branch in a simple vote. The submissions collecting most votes are elected as nominees, which are then voted by all members of the Academy. This is actually reasonable because how many people can really judge the Sound Editing category, for example? So the sound nominations are decided by the Sound branch, the cinematography nominations by the Cinematographers branch, etc. This is not the case for all Awards, though. The Best Picture Oscar nominees are decided by all members. And some other categories are judged by committees. The chairman of a committee is appointed by the Academy president, and the chairman then invites people to serve on the committee. This is the procedure for most of the categories which don't have a corresponding branch in the Academy. And Animation is one of these "branchless" fields. So this is one of the categories that are not decided on a pure professional level. Which means that other factors come into play: politics, box-office and so on.

Academy Award Nominations 2011: Best Animated Feature Oscar Nominees Criticism, Part II

In recent years the category for Best Animated Feature has been dominated by Pixar productions. Which is perfectly understandable. Pixar have been at the forefront in the field of 3D animation, both technically and storytelling-wise. And their rivals were constantly lagging behind. Pixar's superiority was just a fact of life. The norm. One of those things that's silly to question. And Toy Story 3 is no exception here. The mature themes and their handling were even acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Second in a row for Pixar after Up. And also pretty much cementing Toy Story 3's win in the Best Animated Feature category, but this is another story.

How to Train Your Dragon is undoubtedly the best Dreamworks animation so far. Undoubtedly, it's also a worthy Oscar nominee. As all other Dreamworks productions it is a little bit uneven technically, mostly in the way it handles its realistic environments versus the stylized characters. But one can't help but notice the positive influence of visual consultant Roger Deakins in the way the movie is "shot": the fluid but restrained camera and the live-action-like lighting. In view of the forementioned Pixar excellence this little twist is commendable as an effort for differentiation. The end result is beautiful to behold, with night scenes and interiors being especially gorgeous.

What is the problem then, one might ask?
See, it is pretty obvious: that's the glaring absence of Tangled amongst the Oscar nominees. Tangled might be the most refreshing thing to happen to 3D animation since its advent. With the way it mimics the movements of the classic Disney animated figures. And with the way it boldly shuns away photorealistic rendering (which is Pixar's domain, anyway) in favor of hand-drawn simulation and then enhancing that with established modern techniques like global illumination (overemphasized for a richer look) and subsurface scattering. Tangled is really the missing link between photo-realistic 3D done the Pixar way and Disney from the old days. Surely, it deserves to be amongst 2011 Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature. Well, one could probably do with less singing, but, hey, it's Disney...

Now all this should be quite obvious to the Nomination Committee, or at least to a part of it. While Pixar and Dreamworks go evolutionary, Disney have gone radical. One possible reason for the omission of Tangled among the Oscar nominees in this category may be the fact Pixar and Disney are one company now. And with only three slots available the politically correct decision is probably to promote studio diversity in the Academy Award nominations. With the box-office success of Toy Story 3 and its apparent appeal (as pointed to by the Best Picture nod) favoring it over Tangled is understandable. Another possible explanation is philosophical and concerns the very foundations of the Best Animated Feature category and how the submissions for Oscar nominees are judged: Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon could just happen to be better films. But then again, this is not the Best Picture category, this is the category for Animated Features.

So maybe just bad luck for Tangled then. In a better year with five Oscar nominees the movie would most certainly get an Academy Award nomination. Yet, this is not a consolation or whatnot. The point is, the Academy has once again taken a wrong step. Unsurprisingly.

Read our opinion about 2011 Oscar winners. You might also find interesting to read about people who got multiple Oscar nominations but never received the Academy Award. If you like animated films, you may check our Top 5 3D Blu-ray movies article, where naturally you'll find some animations listed. Or just browse the Review Maze for more reviews.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Producers (1968): Mel Brooks' Awesome Directorial Debut Film

The Producers
This is a review of the 1968 original Mel Brooks' movie The Producers and it does not consider the 2005 film with the same title.

To start with the obvious, The Producers is a classic. Although it has been met with mixed reviews upon its initial limited release, over the years the movie has become one of Mel Brooks' defining films and together with his Western comedy Blazing Saddles has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. The Producers has also brought Mel Brooks an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Gene Wilder.

A few words about the plot: The Producers is about Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), a formerly successful Broadway producer who is having hard times recently trying to make more successful plays and romancing old ladies in order to raise money for his living and efforts. Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a shy accountant, comes in Bialystock's office to check his books and finds a small, maybe unintentional, fraud. Bialystock begs him to conceal the issue and while doing it, Bloom accidentally mentions a get-rich-quick scheme which he has just thought of: if one raises a huge amount of money and invests just a small portion of the cash in a play which proves to be a big failure then the rest of the amount could be easily embezzled since nobody will audit a failed play. Bloom is afraid to participate in such a dangerous venture but the old fox Bialystock manages to convince him stating that the accountant's life is already worse than prison and promising him they will flee to Brazil. Both of them immediately start looking for the worst play ever written and the production of the perfect flop begins.

While even the idea of The Producers is hilarious, there are many other funny and witty moments in the movie as well as a few additional ridiculous characters. You'll meet a fanatic Nazi psycho playwright (Kenneth Mars), the most incompetent dress-wearing director (Christopher Hewett), a lead actor called LSD who often forgets his own name (Dick Shawn). If this is still not enough, what about a song and a play titled "Springtime for Hitler" (this has been intended to be the name of the film too but which real movie producer in the 60's would agree with such a title), a hippie parody and a "Prisoners of Love" musical starring real prisoners.

The Producers offers an overall good acting and especially both leads, Mostel and Wilder, are incredibly funny at times. There are dozens of memorable lines, coming not only from the two main characters but also from some of the supporting actors. The songs of the intended flop-musical are very catchy and you may find yourself singing one of them a few days after you've watched the movie. The ending is great too and it's more appropriate than Blazing Saddles' experimental conclusion which has not been appreciated by many viewers.

Of course, like pretty much every other film, The Producers is not all good and if somebody wants to criticize the movie, it's not so hard to find a reason. Mel Brooks could be accused of bad taste. Or one might say that the style of the film is similar to Brooks' other movies and so on. But in fact, it is the first in a row of Mel Brooks directed films so it could be looked upon as a basis of his movie-making manner. Also, compared to his other films which are often parodies of a particular subject (Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, even Blazing Saddles and History of the World: Part I), The Producers is an original story. It has deservedly won the Oscar for Best Screenplay and subsequently it has been referenced in many contexts of the popular culture.

If you like some of Mel Brooks' other movies but you've missed to watch this one or if you just want to see a good 60's comedy that has aged quite well, try out The Producers. The film is even more impressing having in mind it's a debut effort.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Gary Moore: Dead, Yet He's Still Got the Blues for Us

Gary Moore music
Gary Moore died last night while being on vacation in Spain. The Irish guitar master passed away too young at the age of 58. He was a legend alive so, indisputably, he will stay a legend after his death also. While probably not the greatest guitar player ever, Gary Moore had developed an immediately recognizable guitar playing style and had proved to be amongst the most influential rock instrumentalists many years before his death. He undeniably has kindled many young people to start playing guitar and he has left a good number of memorable rock tunes in his recording catalogue.

Gary Moore timeless influence started with the band Thin Lizzy and continued with his solo career. His roots were in the blues and this had been apparent throughout his whole musical life. Thus, not surprisingly, his most renowned and successful release was Still Got the Blues. In spite of his masterful skills of a bluesman he had also some decent heavy metal tunes showing his technical and compositional qualities as well. He built a large following around the world with an exception of the United States where he remained relatively unknown.

So now Gary Moore is dead. We don't know if his death will increase his popularity in the USA as often happens with other performers or whether his sale numbers around the world will grow for the time being. But what we may say for sure is that Gary Moore's music will remain in the hearts of his countless fans and his influential works will continue pushing some young boys and girls into direction of learning how to play a guitar.

If you've ever listened to Parisienne Walkways it's hard to forget the sound of Gary's guitar, his soul is singing through his instrument and it's easy to get enchanted by the charm of the melody. His collaboration with the late Phil Lynott (Gary's long time friend and founder of Thin Lizzy) Out in the Fields or Over the Hills and Far Away show Moore's skill to craft not so bluesy tunes as well. And then, Still Got the Blues stays as his signature recording, both technically impressive and full of soul. It's not possible to ignore this song if you've encountered it once.

If you've had the chance to attend a Gary Moore's live performance you should already know how magical his fingers were. How the audience was looking fixedly at his instrument and how even not so famous tunes were sounding familiar and fascinating.

So, although Gary Moore's dead he will remain in our minds because of his natural ability to occupy them, once and for all, in the very first minute we've heard some of his immortal melodic creations. The musical and especially the guitar world will remember him long after his death and let's pray to the God of music to shape more divine performers like Gary Moore.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Movie and Fans Criticism

Anatomy of a Murder
It has been bothering me for a long time what people find to be so charming about 1959's movie Anatomy of a Murder. While I do like many old movies, black and white films, courtroom drama movies and so on types of films this movie could be categorized in, I do not find enough reasons to consider Anatomy of a Murder such a good piece of cinema as it is regarded to be by many viewers. I hope there are not any real spoilers below but still note you may consider something a spoiler yourself.

While a lot of people state Anatomy of a Murder is very realistic, in fact I think just the opposite. You hardly see anything realistic in this film. You see a lawyer with huge experience in court trials to be easily manipulated by his client concerning his fee. You see a jury to make a verdict based on a version of a witness doctor (while also hearing another more experienced doctor having the opposite opinion) plus a pair of panties which presence or absence practically has not any real relevance to the defendant's actions (and even less to his mental condition). So, we have a verdict based on almost nothing but still we should believe the movie depicts real courtroom scenes.

Here are some of the other arguments you may read in support of Anatomy of a Murder being a good movie:
  • It's the first movie to show what a jury trial looks like in reality. I've already written something above in regard to the realism of this film but in addition concerning the "precedence" part, there have been also other movies before Anatomy of a Murder dealing with jury trials. To name a few, 1957's 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution have been dealing with similar topics and in the author's humble opinion have been far more realistic.
  • The movie shows how expert testimonies are used in a courtroom. While the movie shows some expert testimony, there is really nothing good about this part of the movie and it is really unconvincing.
  • The movie shows how lawyers twist justice. Well, the earlier film Witness for the Prosecution shows it too. And also, what is so great about this? After all, it's lawyers job to twist justice. It's like showing how teachers teach. It's not that a-man-doing-his-job could not be shown in a great way because it could. But it is not something making a movie good just because it's there.
  • The movie deals with rape and suggestive behaviour. Ok, it's true. But this is not anything unseen nowadays. Still, it could give an argument in Anatomy of a Murder supporters hands.
  • The film deals with a controversial mental disease subject. Well, while this is also true, this topic is not a strong side of the movie - it is really presented very unconvincingly.
  • You never see the murder in the movie. That's true but what is so great about it? You don't see the murder in many other movies including the 2 previously mentioned above 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution. In fact, you do not see the murder in court movies very often.
  • You never see the murder and during the movie it become less and less clear what is the real story behind it. This point is not true. It's pretty much clear during the whole movie what exactly has happened. In addition there is almost no character development in the movie. We don't see any of the characters to make anything really surprising. We don't see also any unexpected twist in the movie. There is just a pair of panties, which we don't know whether will appear but as I've already said, they have absolutely no relevance to the case and their presence in the film seems really forced in order to add something interesting to the pretty straightforward story.
  • The author of the book, the movie is based upon, has been a former prosecutor and the story is based on real case. I don't see how this point relates to a movie being great or not.
  • The judge has been played by the famous lawyer Joseph Welch. Again, I don't see how this relates to the greatness of a film.
  • Michael Asimow, a UCLA law professor, calls the film "probably the finest pure trial movie ever made." I'm not a law professor but after reading this lecture containing his quote, I do not find any good reasoning why this film should be the finest pure trial movie ever. In fact, there is almost nothing supporting the quote. The only thing mentioned several times in various ways is about "How far can counsel go in suggesting a defense to a client who hasn’t a clue?". Even if we consider the latter something valuable, it concerns only a small portion of the movie so it's not right to base such a strong statement just on it. Furthermore, even in regard to this aspect, Anatomy of a Murder is not a precedence because Witness for the Prosecution has introduced something similar although not so evident by showing a lawyer accidentally motivating some of the future behavior of the defence.

To end this article, Anatomy of a Murder is not all bad. There are great acting performances by James Stewart and George C. Scott. Most of the other actors have also done good job. The music is something good to be mentioned too. The movie has presented some interesting legal aspects and it has been among the first films to challenge the Hays Code in Hollywood. The straightforwardness of the movie is also not such a big problem on its own. But the story and the film as a whole lack any realism and believability which is a big issue when speaking of trial court drama movies. It's a decent film to see but do not expect too much or there is a big chance to be disappointed after the movie's almost 3 hour time span.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Eminem: White Men Can Jump

Eminem music
Did you expect 20 years ago a white rapper would appear and sell about 30 million hip-hop records in the United States alone? I had never been a fan of this kind of music but even I knew that it was made by black artists and they were the real gurus in regard to hip-hop. Then Eminem came out and played. And the rap world was not the same anymore.

Now don't think I've become a big fan of hip-hop music, not at all. But I must admit there is something about Eminem that has caught everyone's attention and even people like me have noticed his musical and verbal skills. It's not a surprise he sells millions of records and even that he's got serious critical respect. He's also got more than 10 GRAMMY Awards. But apart from this, he has also been one of the biggest stars around the turn of the millenium and a big pop cultural phenomenon. I even know people deeply in love with some extreme styles of music like for example, black metal, which do like Eminem.

It's pretty obvious that Marshall Mathers (what is Eminem's birth name) has some masterful verbal skills. He's capable of long narratives as well as rapid strikes. His lyrics are dextrous, fluid, unpredictable, often mixing reality with violent imagination, parody and absurdity. You don't know when he's serious or when he's joking. You may find horror, satire, black humor, violence and whatnot in his songs. Eminem's rich vocabulary enabled him to create a lyrical body of work expanding hip-hop genre boundaries with various themes not common for his contemporary rapping peers. So, I have to admit it's really good luck Eminem is a rap player because who would hear his imaginative rhymes if he was screaming them among some death metal "noise" (nothing against the death metal style though).

As good as Eminem's lyrics are, it is their intertwining with his music that really works for me. When I listen to The Real Slim Shady, Without Me or Lose Yourself I've got the feeling that Eminem's voice is a part of the musical instruments used in the particular song, and it's a really well-mixed part. Not to mentioned that his music alone is quite memorizable and even more easily recognizable. It's obviously not amongst the greatest melodic achievements out there but it adds a lot to the whole experience of listening to an Eminem album. It helps for creation of a surrealistic world that can be both funny and terrifying but either way it's quite memorable and with a long-lasting appeal.

So, Eminem showed everybody a white guy could make hip-hop and that he could make it magnificently. Thus, his influence over myriads of young people is immense and unquestionable. Will another Eminem be born among those young people is yet to be seen. But certainly, it will be hard for anyone to match his merits and impact. Sure, the critical acclaim gained by Eminem and his sales numbers are not comparable with the achievements of greater icons in music like the Beatles, for example, but they are still amazing and definitely demonstrating that even white men can jump.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Oscar Trivia: Who's the Youngest Oscar Winner or Has Most Oscars Won, Part I

In anticipation of the announcement of 2011's Academy Award winners this month, let's warm up with some Oscar trivia. (Some of the listed achievements below have become obsolete after 2012 Academy Awards.)

General Oscar trivia
- The Oscars have been rewarded since 1929. The current "sealed envelope" method for the announcements is used since 1941.
- The Oscar statuette was modelled after actor Emilio Fernandez.
- The Oscar statuette weighs 8.5 lb (3.85 kg), and is 13.5 inches (34 cm) tall.
- The origin of the name "Oscar" is unclear with several versions circulating for many years but it has been around since the 1930's.
- Since 1950, the winners and their heirs have been legally prohibited from selling the Oscar statuettes without initially offering them back to the Academy for $1.
- Since 2002 the award ceremony is held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

Personal Oscar trivia - the oldest and youngest Oscar winners
- The youngest Oscar winner ever was 6-year-old Shirley Temple although her 1935's Academy Award was an honorary one.
- The youngest Oscar winner of a standard Academy Award was Tatum O'Neal at age 10. She won in 1974 for her role in Paper Moon in the category of Best Supporting Actress. This also makes her the youngest woman/girl to win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. And she is also the youngest Oscar nominee in the category.
- The oldest actress to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress was Peggy Ashcroft at age 77. The oldest Oscar nominee for Best Actress in a Supporting Role was Gloria Stuart at age 87 for Titanic which also makes her the oldest Oscar nominee ever.
- The youngest Oscar Winner in the Best Supporting Actor category was Timothy Hutton at age 20. He won for Ordinary People in 1981. The previous year Justin Henry at age 8 became the youngest nominee in the category for Kramer vs. Kramer and the youngest Oscar nominee ever.
- George Burns was the oldest winner for Best Supporting Actor at age 80. Hal Holbrook was the oldest nominee in the category of Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He was 82 years old when nominated for Into the Wild.
- Marlee Matlin was the youngest Oscar winner in the Best Actress category. She was 21 years old when winning for her role in Children of a Lesser God. Keisha Castle-Hughes was the youngest nominee in the category at age 13.
- Jessica Tandy was the oldest Oscar winner in the Best Actress category. She was 80 when she won for Driving Miss Daisy. Thus she is also the oldest Academy Award winner ever. She is also the oldest Oscar nominee in the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role.
- The youngest Oscar winner in the Best Actor category was Adrien Brody at age 29 for The Pianist. The youngest Oscar nominee in this category was Jackie Cooper at age 9.
- The oldest Oscar winner in the Best Actor category was Henry Fonda at age 76. The oldest Academy Award nominee in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role was Richard Farnsworth at age 79.
- The youngest individual to win the Best Director award was Norman Taurog at age 32. The youngest person to be nominated for Best Director was John Singleton at age 24 for Boyz n the Hood. Orson Welles was 26 years old when nominated for Citizen Kane.
- The oldest person to win the Best Director award was Clint Eastwood at age 74 for Million Dollar Baby. The oldest Oscar nominee in the Best Director category was John Huston at age 79 for Prizzi's Honor.
- The first woman to win the Best Director Academy Award was Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker last year.

Read Oscar Trivia, Part 2 to learn who has the most Oscars won and some movie-related Oscar trivia.

Oscar Trivia: Who's the Youngest Oscar Winner or Has Most Oscars Won, Part II

Read Oscar Trivia, Part 1 to learn about the oldest and youngest Oscar winners along with some general Oscar trivia. (Note: A few of the achievements below have become obsolete after Academy Awards 2012.)

Personal Oscar trivia - most Oscars won and most nominations
- Walt Disney is the individual with the most Oscars ever won and at the same time with the most Oscar nominations ever. He has 22 standard Oscar wins (plus 4 Honorary Awards) and 59 Academy Award nominations.
- Walt Disney is also the person with the most Oscar nominations in a single year: six in 1954, for 6 different films. He won 4 Academy Awards that year, which is also a record for the most Oscars won by an individual in a single year.
- The most Oscar nominated living person is composer John Williams with 45 nominations. He has 5 wins out of these. Another composer, Alfred Newman, also had 45 Academy Award nominations (with 9 wins), including 4 nominations for 4 different films in 1940. It is worth noting that back then the Academy would give out as many as 14 nominations in some categories and also there were categories for both Original Score and Scoring.
- Sound guy Kevin O'Connell has the most Oscar nominations without a single win ever: twenty.
- The director with most Oscars won is John Ford. He has four Academy Awards.
- The director with most Oscar nominations is William Wyler: twelve (3 wins).
- Leon Shamroy and Charles Lang have the most Academy Award nominations for cinematography: 18. Shamroy has 4 wins and Lang has 1 win. Shamroy holds the record for the most wins for cinematography together with Joseph Ruttenberg.
- The actor with the most nominations is Jack Nicholson (12). He and Walter Brennon have 3 wins each. All 3 Brennon's awards though are for Best Supporting Actor while Jack Nicholson has 2 Oscars for Best Actor. Thus, Nicholson is also among the nine actors having the most Academy Awards for Best Actor. The other 8 people having 2 Oscars in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role are Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis and Sean Penn.
- The actor with most Academy Award nominations for Best Actor without ever winning is Peter O'Toole. He has been 8 times Oscar nominee in the category. He also holds the record for the longest (44 years) span between his first and last Oscar nominations.
- The actress with the most Oscar nominations is Meryl Streep (16, with 2 wins).
- Katharine Hepburn is the actress that has the most Oscars won: 4 (out of 12 nominations).

Movie-related Oscar trivia
- The movies with most Oscar nominations ever are All About Eve and Titanic. They both have 14 nominations.
- The movies with most Oscars won are Ben Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. They have 11 Academy Awards each.
- Three movies have won the Big Five Awards in one year. The "Big Five" are the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and either Best Adapted Screenplay or Best Original Screenplay. These movies are It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.
- The first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture was Beauty and the Beast in 1992. Since then, there have been only 2 other animated films nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year - Up in 2010 and Toy Story 3 in 2011. (Criticism of this year's Best Animated Feature nominees)
- Two movies, The Turning Point and The Color Purple, are tied for most Academy Award nominations (11) without winning a single Oscar.