Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Music of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hasn't been putting up much of a campaign for the Oscars so far, but its soundtrack seems promising. And there are two possibilties for a Best Original Song nomination: Imogen Heap's "Can't Take It In," and the one that is certain to be more high-profile, Alanis Morissette's "Wunderkind." Check it out here.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

More Films You Must See Before You Die

My recent obsession with films, particularly the classics, was sparked in large part by my purchasing last year a wonderful film book called "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die." It's a survey of not necessarily the best films but the most important, beginning with Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902). There are several films that I believe should have been included in this list for one reason or another, although I am not going to say which ones should NOT have been there (though in my opinion, the inclusion of 1998's There's Something About Mary is surely questionable). Here are the films that I would have included:

Jui Kuen (Drunken Master; 1978)
Superman (1978)
The Karate Kid (1984)
Before Sunrise (1995)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Shakespeare In Love (1998)
Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale; 2000)
Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo (My Sassy Girl; 2001)
Spider-Man (2002)
Wu Jian Dao (Infernal Affairs; 2002)
Love Actually (2003)

Rotten Tomatoes and Oscar Nominations

Critics and Academy voters have never completely seen eye-to-eye when it comes to Oscar nominations, but critical praise for a film can surely influence a film's chances for Oscar recognition. I don't know if someone has actually done this, but surveying the ratings of all nominees for Best Picture in the last ten Oscar ceremonies (since the 68th) in Rotten Tomatoes yields very interesting results. For one, none of these 50 nominees got a Rotten score (59% and below). The closest to a Rotten score was the 61% of Chocolat (2000). Interestingly, the fifth lowest unadjusted (the number of reviewers differs per film, with generally more critics reviewing more recent films) is Gladiator, the Best Picture winner in 2000, with 77%. In fact, only four of the 10 winners got ratings of 90% and higher, with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) being the highest at 95%, followed by 1998's Shakespeare In Love (94%) and last year's winner, Million Dollar Baby (91%). Out of all the 10 winners, only The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was the highest rated among the films nominated in its year. The big champion (unadjusted) is the 1995 nominee Sense and Sensibility, the only film to get a rating of 100%.

Of course, we have to take into consideration the fact that, as mentioned above, the earlier movies generally have less reviewers. If we use the complicated weighted formula used by Rotten Tomatoes, the same three Best Picture winners have the highest weighted scores, and Gladiator is still the lowest. But this time, the big champ is The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), with a whopping grade of 98% from 201 reviewers.

But the nominees aren't always what the Rotten Tomatoes critics think are the best. There are many films with higher ratings that failed to get a Best Picture nomination, so a very high score here doesn't necessarily mean a nom. Still, it's probably safe to say that if a film's score is Rotten, then it won't be nominated for Best Picture. That would mean that Oscar-buzzed Jarhead (Rotten at 58%) will be ignored for the top prize, while Good Night, and Good Luck. (94%, 151 reviewers) has a very good chance for one of the five slots.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Best Supporting...Villainess?

It's a three-way catfight between Hatsumomo, Nola Rice, and Jadis.

In a film year of dark-horse champions, hope amidst racism and political turmoil, cultural sensitivity, and the magic of witches and wizards, the usually intriguing Best Supporting Actress category of the Oscars is shaping up to be exactly that, maybe even more so now than in recent years. While most pundits are confidently placing ever nice (though sometimes with a streak of mischief, frighteningly so in the 2001 TV movie Sister Mary Explains It All) Diane Keaton (The Family Stone) at the head of the pack, a number of the other potential nominees show more than just a spark of that Bette Davis spirit. Heck, Bette Davis's Baby Jane Hudson would cringe when faced with the baleful glare of the geisha from hell or with the malevolent witchcraft of the frosty witch of Narnia. Among these darker possibilities for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Scarlett Johansson is getting the most buzz for playing a femme fatale in Woody Allen's Match Point. Undoubtedly a big, juicy role, but her Nola Rice would have to take a backseat to another heavily talked-about performance this year. Early reviews of the film say that Chinese superstar Gong Li plays vindictive geisha Hatsumomo in Rob Marshall's adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha with gusto and uncanny fire. For those who have read the book, it's a completely enticing and frightening prospect, as Hatsumomo is chilling enough offscreen. Still a possible nominee despite lack of buzz is respected actress Tilda Swinton for playing the mother of all bitch roles this year: Jadis, the White Witch, who has frozen over the land of Narnia and kept Christmas celebrations off the Narnian itinerary, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Who can top that?

But have female film villains always been so visible in the race for Supporting Oscar? A quick survey of the Academy Awards' history would show only a smattering of vicious vixens in this category, whether we're talking about winners or nominees. It's hard enough to find nominees whose roles can be considered more than a bit naughty or mischievous. There are few that stand out: chilling child murderess Rhoda Penmark, played by 11-year-old Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed (1956), Angela Lansbury as the manipulative (some may say evil, as Lansbury herself does) mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Linda Blair as diabolically driven Regan MacNeill in The Exorcist (1973). Regan can even be considered a mere victim; she's an ideal child sans Pazuzu. Brat-to-the-end Veda (Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce (1945), Piper Laurie's fanatical mom to Carrie (1976), and Barbara Hershey's opportunistic Madame Serena Merle in The Portrait of a Lady (1996) may be sadistic and selfish, and may in fact be considered villainous, but calling them evil would be a stretch.

The list of winners gives up even less chilling prospects: among them only Ruth Gordon shines out as satanical neighbor Minnie Castevet in Rosemary's Baby (1968). All right, so that one's sufficiently dark, but that's as far as the rogue's gallery goes; Catherine Zeta-Jones's unrepentive criminal Velma Kelly in Chicago (2002) isn't so much a villain when studied beside Mrs. Castevet. Neither is Rose Ann D'Arcy, the restrictive mother in 1965's A Patch of Blue, played by Shelley Winters.

The Academy and other award-giving institutions have always had a dilemma in placing a clear-cut delineation between a lead and a supporting performance. But cold-blooded females have not had very much difficulty scoring Best Actress nominations, with icons Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford leading the way. Villainous females like Annie Wilks (Kathy Bates in 1990's Misery) don't have problems getting noticed as leads, with often strong, smoldering performances that allow them to steal the show from their costars. While in the past some leads have campaigned for Supporting honors (often because their chances for a nomination in that category were greater), the category is, as the label suggests, for those that offer the necessary back-up to the leads. Sometimes the supporting characters manage to upstage those in the leading roles, but it seems that the Academy prefers their supporting actresses to be sympathetic; it's a well-known fact that long-suffering wives have been greatly favored in this category, with characters played by Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, 2000), Shoreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog, 2003), and Laura Linney (Kinsey, 2004) among the more recent examples. In fact, in the last ten Oscar ceremonies, only Hershey, Zeta-Jones, and, to some extent, Catherine Keener (as opportunistic Maxine in 1999's Being John Malkovich) showed some sort of villainy, and only because they aren't as nice as all the other nominees (though Dame Maggie Smith as Constance in 2001's Gosford Park wasn't very nice).

Still, female villains that have an underlying passion, a sort of justification for their behavior however vile, may have a shot at a nomination. This could explain why Johansson and Gong are among the leaders in Oscar buzz in their category and may in fact be among the five. Swinton's climb will be more uphill, as her villain is as one-sided (read: evil) as one can get. If the Academy were a bit friendlier to such roles, Kill Bill: Vol. 2's Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) would have whistled her nasty way to Oscar honors, and so would have other dark, sadistic, brilliant but oh so easily dismissed actresses who just happen to have fun being bad.

Pictures taken from IMDb (Johansson and Swinton) and Yahoo! Movies.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mini-Review: Initial D

Two things that should describe any film on street car racing: "exciting" and "cool." Both could easily be said about Tau man chi D (Initial D), one of the better manga adaptations and Hong Kong films to come out recently. Though I haven't read a single volume of the manga or watched a single episode of the anime, and even if I'm not very interested in this sport, I feel that the film was able to capture the excitement and thrill that enthusiasts undoubtedly get when racing or watching someone else do so. This the directors, Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak (Infernal Affairs) were able to do without resorting to overly fancy and dizzying special effects that other directors who adapt manga or anime tend to incorporate into their films to less than flawless effect. There are special effects, but they merge almost seamlessly with the intense action of the actual cars racing. In the parts where they are obvious, the effects only serve to emphasize the power of the vehicles, which could be said to be as much the stars of the film as the actors.

Jay Chou holds his own as lead Takumi Fukiwara, effectively seeming bored when he needs to project that initially non-plussed but increasingly passionate attitude about racing. This role does not require that he overact, and he doesn't. Hong Kong heartthrobs Edison Chen and Shawn Yue have small but important supporting roles that they manage to handle well, and Chapman To is a source of a lot of laughs as he nearly always is, but it is Anthony Wong who, just as often, steals the show. He is extremely effective as a constantly drunk (or otherwise just unstable) former racing god who seems to not care about his son but, as is often the case, actually does. This film just solidifies Wong's status as a brilliant actor, particularly in supporting roles.

Plot-wise, the film has a simple story detailing the rise of Fukiwara as a race car driver and the beginnings of the Initial D storyline in the anime. Though it was clear from the start that the romantic angle would not be the focus of the film, the way it is (un)resolved at the end is not as smooth as I would have preferred. The direction, with key scenes being emphasized with brief stop-motion, can be distracting at times, in the worst cases a bit jarring, and may lead you to think that the disc is skipping in the player. But as a whole, the film is a real treat even for those who are not fans of the anime (or anime in general). The ending begs for a sequel, which I am now eagerly looking forward to.

Grade: B
FYC: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong), Best Sound Mixing

Monday, November 07, 2005

Munich Trailer is up, and Other Movie News

Just saw the Munich trailer. It looks like it's going to be a very powerful film with an awesome performance by Eric Bana. This trailer solidifies the claim of the film as Oscar frontrunner, and easily catapults Bana to the potential five for Best Actor. Check it out here.

In other movie news, here's something I'm pretty excited about: a Castlevania movie (finally!). I've been waiting for a big screen adaptation of this game for ages! Not sure how good a job Paul W.S. Anderson will do, but as long as it ends up being better than Van Helsing, then it's on the right track.