Casting A 20th Century League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

This is kind of a silly thing, but the kind of writing that belongs on the internet, so… This was inspired by the awesome film critic Tim Brayton, who made a comment on one of his latest columns over at The Film Experience, in which he mentioned something about the idea of a more modern version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Now, I’m a big fan of Alan Moore and of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series -not so much of the stupid movie starring Sean Connery- so I couldn’t stop thinking about what the League would look like if their adventures took place one hundred years later, at the turn of the twentieth century. Here’s the members I came up with:

Dana-Scully

Agent Dana Scully
Now, fans of the series will know about the funny artwork by Davinder Brar depicting a 1996 League of Extraordinary GentlepersonsIt is pretty cool, but also just for laughs. What I wondered about when making up my list of League Members was what pieces of pop culture from the late 90s and early 00s people will remember a hundred years from now. Of the properties depicted in Brar’s piece, I think The X Files will not only definitely be remembered, but is also a natural fit with the kind of paranormal mission the League gets into. The question then was, of course, who would make a better League Member, Mulder or Scully? I went with Scully not just because I think Gillian Anderson’s performance on the show is just fantastic (don’t get me wrong, Duchovny’s also great, but Anderson is better), but because of Scully’s skepticism. If you are a fan of comic books, or movies, or television, basically if you’ve been alive the past few decades, you know there’s always the skeptic character. Scully happens to be one of the best ones ever.

Hermione-Granger

Hermione Granger
Another big question for me when coming up with my League was how many British characters to put in. The original League is very British, but it is also set in at the time when Britannia ruled the seas. The late 20th Century undoubtedly belongs to America, but I felt like I still had to tip the scale towards British characters. Now, the biggest piece of pop culture to come of the United Kingdom in the past few years has to be the Harry Potter series, but following the way Moore tended to avoid the really huge characters in literature, Harry himself was out of the question. Also, Harry is kind of a terribly dull character. Hermione, on the other hand, is much more fun, and would be such a better recruit for the League considering her enthusiasm for knowledge and her ability to quickly come up with plans that involve using the Polyjuice potion.

Spike

Spike
Following the big character rule, I couldn’t cast Buffy, but I had to pick someone from that show. Since I already had Hermione, Willow would be redundant. And Xander, well, I had someone other in mind to fill up his role. So the obvious answer was Spike. Vampires were already present in the first League, plus, Spike is awesome and he is sort of a shady character considering his villainous past. Being someone you can’t always trust, he would bring the kind of tention Hyde and Griffin brought to the team in the comic books.

ShaunShaun
There are two guys who pretty much own all the nerd/geek cred right now, if you ask me. And they are Joss Whedon and Edgar Wright. Whedon’s creation are already represented in Spike, so in terms of Wright I went with Shaun. The question is, of course, why would the League recruit just a regular English dude, except for the fact that he is pretty successful at fighting the Zombie apocalypse. But, hey, he can work as the fish out of water character. Maybe I should’ve gone with another Simon Pegg character? I mean, Nicholas Angel is a policeman, and Gary King seems to be a pretty good fighter, but Shaun’s just my favorite.

The-10th-Doctor

The Tenth Doctor
Now, this is where it got tricky. I am very unfamiliar with Doctor Who beyond having seen a couple episodes here and there. I know the Doctor is kind of a big deal, so at first I thought he might be too big a character to put in the League. But from what I understand, there have been many doctors, and not in a James Bond kind of way, where they are supposed to be the same person, but they are different guys who could interact with each other. As you might have guessed, all of this knowledge comes from those Day of the Doctor commercials, so I understand I could be totally wrong about this, and if I am, please correct me in the comments, but following the my knowledge, one of the Doctors could very well be part of the League and he is the kind of beloved British character that would fit. My pick out of the Doctors would be 10, played by David Tennant, because he’s the one in the episodes I’ve seen, and he is a pretty cool actor.

Other characters I considered for the League were Hannibal Lecter, Sarah Connor, Donnie Darko, Dr. Alan Grant (from Jurassic Park) and Bryan Mills, who in case you don’t know, is the name of the character played by Liam Neeson in Taken. Hope you liked this, if you have any ideas of your own, sound off in the comments.

Disney Canon: Frozen (2013)

Frozen

The Walt Disney Company, one of the biggest, and ever expanding, media conglomerates in the world never stops its steady walk towards world domination, and so, while I try to make my way through the Disney Canon of Animated Movies, the studio releases a brand new movie in theaters.

Frozen, fans will be glad to know, is the latest fairy tale in the style of the Company’s most beloved movies. Of course you wouldn’t know this looking at the trailers or other promotional material for the movie. Just like with the studio’s previous fairy tale movie, Tangled, the material has tried to make the movie seem like one more of the hundreds of comedic talking animal mediocre animated movies we get every year. Does Disney feel like it has to con people into watching these movies? Tangled was a huge success (it grossed close to 600 million dollars worldwide) and Frozen is bound to make a gazillion dollars too. People saw Tangled and they loved it. They love Disney movies, and there is no financial reason to pretend Frozen is a spiritual descendant of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaidbecause not only is it that, but damn good movie too.

The movie’s closing credits say it is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which is correct, since they do share general similarities. Basically, the general idea of a girl having to venture to find the “Snow Queen” that has set a curse of eternal winter to her homeland. Frozen, however, changes a lot of the original story’s plot, including the crucial detail of making the girl at the center of the story and the “Snow Queen” sisters. In the movie, Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) has to grow up hiding the fact that she has the powers to generate and control ice in order to protect her sister Anna (Kristen Bell). The fallout of Anna discovering her sister’s powers is pretty much what sets the story off in Frozen. From then, Anna teams up with a young man named Kristof (Jonathan Groff), his pet reindeer and talking snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) in a quest to end the eternal winter cast by Elsa.

If you think about it, there are not many Disney movies that deal with relationships between siblings. I think Lilo & Stitch might be the only one. I guess you could count the relationship between Mufasa and Scar in The Lion Kingbut that is far from the main focus in that film’s plot. Anna and Elsa are the heart and soul of Frozen, what makes it such a great movie. Disney, which has received a big amounts of flack for the depiction of its Princess protagonists, kind of turns the table on their classical image in this movie. There are romantic elements to the plot of Frozen, but from beginning to end, the movie understands that it really is the story of two sisters and their love for each other. It’s not only a refreshing and innovative concept for the studio, but an incredibly powerful relationship and the most valuable part of the movie. I’ll just say I’m king of jealous, but also really happy little brothers and sisters will have this story to accompany them as they grow up.

These are two great characters, and the movie soars whenever it focuses on them. Anna manages to be interesting and fun to watch while being a very earnest and inherently good character, which is something Disney’s struggled in the past. She is a little awkward, but also completely delightful (in quite a similar way Rapunzel was in Tangled). Meanwhile, Elsa, is not a very common Disney character, feeling trapped by the power she holds within and standing on emotional crossroads for most of the film. The animation used to characterize the two of them is practically flawless. The way Anna clumsily makes her way through her journey, and Elsa’s transition from feeling deeply uncomfortable to owning her power both work fantastically.

Frozen is, in the tradition of Disney’s animated classics, a musical, and one very heavenly influenced by Broadway. I’d say it has the biggest theatrical influence since the one-two-punch of Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The songs were composed by Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who previously worked for Disney on 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Their songwriting is very much influenced by stage musicals. Many numbers are very comedic and on the same level as Lopez’s previous stage work, but there are also all-out high-belt stopping numbers, most specifically Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” (very much inspired by Wickedsomething I find appropriate considering the similarities between these two). Most notably, though, there are moments that have Anna and Elsa dialoguing to each other in song, a very popular musical theater device that I think we hadn’t seen in any previous Disney movie before. Most the songs are great, not to mention the beautiful score by Christophe Beck.

The sisters are the highlight, but it doesn’t mean the rest of the movie isn’t great. The banter between Anna and Kristoff, as in the best relationships of this kind, is very amusing. So is the presence of Olaf, who being a talking snowman, always seemed like the most dangerous character. He could have very well be one of those obnoxious supporting characters (like those unbearable Minions from Despicable Me), but he is very much the complete opposite of that. He is so endearing, so enthusiastic, so well-hearted that he fits the tone of a movie that is very serious about its main themes, while still being pretty hilarious. I would point to him as a great example of finding the most appropriate comic relief for your movie.

I can only find one weakness with Frozen, and it is that the movie feels a little oddly paced. The first five to ten minutes of the movie, in which a lot of the groundwork for the relationship between Anna and Elsa is laid, feels very rushed. It is followed by a pretty slow moving first act that sets up a lot of characters and relationships that don’t necessarily pay off later in the movie. Or they do, but not in  particularly meaningful way (I am mainly referring to a character named the Duke of Weasletown). It feels like there are a lot of ideas that were developed but had to be cut out of the movie, which makes for a couple weird shifts in the movie’s pace. Just wondering what the other ideas the guys at Disney might have thought of is going to keep me awake many nights, but it won’t keep me from enjoying Frozen, which is, again, and I won’t tire of repeating this, at least for the foreseeable feature, a movie that deserves to rank amongst Disney’s greatest. If you have children, or nephews, or better yet, a little brother or sister, take them to see Frozen. You won’t regret it.

Grade: 9 out of 10 (Great Movie)

Disney Canon: The Lion King (1994)

The-Lion-King

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Well, I knew this moment was going to come, and so I have to talk about The Lion King. I was kind of dreading this moment; not because I don’t like the movie (quite the contrary), but because I have such a long and tight relationship with it that I simply don’t know how I could talk about it in any critical terms. This is the very first movie I saw on the big screen. I don’t have memories of the event itself, since I was only two years old at the time, but I certainly liked it enough to have repeatedly watched the film on VHS for the next eight or nine years of my life. In my discovery of Disney and its movies, I clung to the movie as  sort of totem (just like other people I know clung to The Little Mermaid or Toy Story). The Lion King not only was my favorite movie for the longest part of my life, it was also a movie through which I came to understand movies and cinema as a whole.

I’ve watched the movie so many times, I know the plot from beginning to end. I know the exact order of the scenes, almost all of the dialogue, the beats. I just know this movie like the palm of my hand. In the years when I was becoming more and more of a cinephile, The Lion King was the story through which I understood the mechanics of plot, main characters, motivation, villains, love interests and sidekicks. Elements that are not present in the more avant-garde films in cinema history, but parts of a movie’s narrative that help me understand the language of story telling. I will try to be as objective as possible in the following paragraphs, but if the piece ends up feeling like the Chris Farley Showat least you’ll know why. It’s hard for me to put aside the feelings I have to The Lion King, and the lessons I learned from it, like how effective the beginning of a movie can be.

That first image of the sun rising up in the savannah set to the african chants has become as iconic and culturally prevalent a cinematic moment as the crawling text of Star Wars or Indiana Jones running from the big rock at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just loudly sing anything close to “naants ingoya!” and everyone will now what you’re referencing. The fact that The Lion King has remained in the public consciousness is unarguable. There is a whole generation that grew up on the films of the Disney Renaissance and none of those films seems to have been as influential to them as The Lion King. When it came out in 1994, the movie became the biggest success Disney had ever had, and it remains the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time. Popularity at the time of its release, however, is not enough to justify a film’s cultural legacy; at least not to the degree The Lion King stands above its contemporaries.

I Googled Disney’s biggest Renaissance films and this is what I got: 56 million results for The Little Mermaid, 60 million for Beauty and the Beast, just 9 million for Aladdin (a surprisingly low number, but that’s a story for another time). None of those numbers are small by any means, but they all pale in comparison to the more than 200 million results I got for The Lion King! There is, without question, something that makes audiences connect to The Lion King, and as someone who holds the movie so dear to my heart, I refuse to think it’s only nostalgia that is playing a role here. If I have to find a purpose to this post, then it might as well be trying to find out what is it exactly that makes the difference in The Lion King’s cultural dominance.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Watch the video of “Circle of Life” I embed a couple paragraphs ago, and you’ll see why someone who is watching the film for the first time would be drawn in. There are very few places in which I’ve seen more beautiful animation. I mean, that shot of the ants and the zebras is insanely gorgeous. Since the movie has become such a cultural giant, it has also gained a lot of detractors, but even they can’t argue with the fact that The Lion King is a beautiful movie to look at. It is the absolute pinnacle of the Disney Renaissance as far as technical proficiency is concerned. I talked last week about how Aladdin already showed the animators comfortable with the rhythms of producing a new movie every year and the best integration of the CAPS (computer animation) technology so far. Well, for as technically great as Aladdin is, The Lion King makes it look rather unimpressive. The stampede that comes roughly at the halfway mark of the movie, and is simply the best use the studio made of CAPS up to that point, and the animators make a wonderful use of color and geometric design in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”.

Considering how visually outstanding and technically flawless the film is, as well as for its rather epic plot, it’s really weird to hear that back in the day this was regarded as the black sheep amongst the studio’s projects. It was developed at the same time as Pocahontas, and since it wasn’t based on a pre-existing property, and it didn’t have as an immediate hook as the Romeo and Juliet-like plot of Pocahontas, the executives believed the movie wasn’t probably going to be a huge success. The Lion King was the project nobody at Disney really wanted to be working on. Beauty and the Beast‘s producer Don Hahn was put in charge of the project, with directorial duties going to Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. We know, of course, how things turned out, but the massive success of the film was a big surprise.

It was advertised as the first Disney film to not be based on a pre-existing story, but The Lion King is basically an adaptation of both William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Disney’s own Bambi. The influence of the latter on The Lion King, I think, is gigantic. I am on the record as not being the biggest fan of Bambi, but there is no question it is an absolutely beautiful movie to see. It shows Walt’s classic studio working at its peak, with art direction and character animation that are virtually flawless. The animators followed a lot of the procedures used to make Bambi such a visually striking film, including the observation of lions in order to get he most realistic animation possible. They also got a lot of their story beats from that film. The similarities between Bambi and Simba’s journeys are numerous, to say the least. From the movie opening with all the animals coming to meet the young prince, to their early curiosity as children, the loss of a parent and their comeback to become king.

One of the film’s detractors main complaint is that Simba, as a character, is rather dull. I can’t argue that is pretty bland, but even if he is a little too vanilla, I think the movie does a good enough job of giving him enough personality to make us care about his journey. His personal arch is far clearer than most of Disney’s male heroes. He is a young kid who encounters the darker side of life and must learn to stand up to his problems and embrace his responsibility. It’s a coming of age story, basically. Also, compare Simba to Aladdin, for example, and you’ll see he has a few flaws in his personality that make him more interesting. As a cub, he’s a little bit of a brat and when he becomes an adult, well he has the whole running from responsibility thing.

As far as the influences of Hamlet on the film, well, they are a little more limited. They can be reduced mainly to the fact that Simba sees his father as a ghost and the villainous role of his uncle Scar. I think at the end of the day the heart of the matter is not that Simba is a bland character, but that Scar is such a great one. I talked last week about Andreas Deja, whom I learned about as the animator of Disney’s villains. He is the supervising animator in charge of Scar, his greatest creation ever. Like Ratigan and Jafar before him, he continues the line of theatrical and ostentatious villains. Jeremy Irons’ mellow and campy voice work in the role, as well as the flamboyant animation have long been regarded as hints that the character might be a homosexual. Whatever his sexuality, Scar is a fascinating character to watch, probably the best in the movie, and he gets a musical number worthy of a theater queen.

While we’re on the subject, this is a good time to talk about the film’s music. The music for the songs was famously composed by Elton John, with lyrics by Tim Rice. I already talked about Rice last week, and how he was far from the ideal replacement for the late Howard Ashman in Aladdin. I could say that Sir Elton and Rice’s compositions don’t quite measure up to the standard set by Ashman and Alan Menken in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but then again, who could? Listening to the songs as an adult, it’s easy to notice they are mostly good, or just ok, and never great.  None are terrible songs, but they mostly just serviceable, with not very inspired melodies and pretty lacking in the lyrics department. The one exception, I think, is “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, which has an infectious upbeat rhythm and kind of clever rhymes. If you are a huge fan of the movie and refuse to admit the songs aren’t all that good, let me point you to something I said earlier in this post: What is the single musical cue in The Lion King people remember the most?

The answer, of course, is that Zulu chant at the beginning of “Circle of Life”. Not many people outside Disney fans know the lyrics to “Circle of Life”, but everybody knows the chanting at the beginning. It’s composer Hans Zimmer’s arrangements and the African influence in their instrumentation that elevates the songs throughout the film. Zimmer is a composer who is much maligned lately (and rightfully so) for re-doing the same emotionally relentless score over and over again, and although his recent work is not such a great indication, he can be pretty great when he wants to. Case in point, I would point out to his score of The Lion King, for which he won his one and only Oscar, as the best work of his career. Whatever the film is lacking in the songwriting department, it makes up for it in ther musicalization and the visuals that are paired up with them. Take, for instance, the allusions to facism and Triumph of the Will in the way the hyenas march during “Be Prepared” and that moment in the middle of “Hakuna Matata” in which we see a silhouetted Simba growing up while he walks across a tree trunk and the day turns into night. That last one ranks amongst the most iconic and beautiful moments in any Disney movie.

This brings me to the last big thing I wanted to talk about in ragard to The Lion King, and that is the comedy. Before re-watching the movie, and especially after finally seeing the Broadway production last year, I was expecting the humor to be one of the weakest part of the movie. Despite Disney getting squeezing every penny they can out of Timon and Pumba, who are the biggest comedic force of the film and its breakthrough characters, the comedy in the movie is much more limited and well balanced than I anticipated. Yes, Pumba as a character pretty much introduces fart jokes into the Disney Canon, but the I personally think that, for the most part, this movie has comedy and drama standing in perfect balance. The way the theatrical production can’t seem to integrate its broad comedy in a way that makes the drama work was making me fear The Lion King was a step closer to something as lacking in good use of comedy as Shrek, so I was very glad my fears were unfounded. It’s true that the popularity of Timon and Pumba (and of Aladdin’s Genie before them) made animation look for bigger and grander comic relief for their movies, but at least in this movie, that is not a problem.

Like most questions about taste, I think there is no good answer as to why the public loves The Lion King so much. What I can say, though, is what I think makes the movie so great, and its in the little details. The plot and characters are good, but not far above those of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. What’s undeniable is that The Lion King is superbly made, and this actually provides the film with many inspired details that make the difference. What are some of these details I’m talking about? Well, I already talked about the rising sun at the beginning, the shot with the ants and the zebras and the way they convey Simba growing up. Add to that the moment in which Simba tries to scare the Hyenas and his roar is echoed by his father’s, or how when he comes back Scar and his mother initially think he is Mufasa. I think at the end of the day it’s those details that drive the film’s message home and announce its quality to those who watch it. It’s not a perfect film. It’s not the best film in the Disney Canon, but what can I do? I love The Lion King, but you already know that.

Next: Disney was at the top of the world, and wanted to go even higher with Pocahontas.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Review)

Catching Fire

Ok, I have a fundamental problem with the very existence of The Hunger Games as a movie franchise. I’m surely not the first person to say this, but these are issues that bother me profoundly and are keeping me from truly embracing the movies. The problem, of course, is the fact that these movies are a product. Considering the message of the films and the book series by Suzanne Collins on which they’re based, I feel like this whole enterprise is a very hypocritical one. David Bax, of the amazing Battleship Pretension podcast has used a similar example in the past, saying how much it irritates him that a movie like Sweet Home Alabama tries to argue that simple country life is the best when it is obvious none of the people involved in the making of that film believe that message. That is kind of the irritation I feel for the success of The Hunger Games.

I don’t mind the irony of the movie arguing the “hunger games” themselves are an inhuman institution while millions of people get incredibly excited to watch them unfold on their local movie screens. But I do mind that the people from Lionsgate (the studio behind the film) see it fit to have a movie that stands against mindless consumerism and superficiality of the “Capitol” that at the same time has its own Covergirl makeup line. What am I supposed to make of that? The movie makes me want to fight the system and turns out the system is the guy who’s putting out the movie? I know it’s a little innocent from my part to not expect this kind of thing from Hollywood studios, and that Lionsgate’s marketing around Catching Fire aren’t too far from what is done with any other franchise, and that this is, at the end of the day, just another product, but dammit if this is going a bit too far. I’m not a big reactionary guy, but this is the kind of thing that makes me want to say “fuck the system, man!”. Anyway, that doesn’t have much to do with the actual quality of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a movie, which is actually rather good.

I had my fair share of issues with the first Hunger Games film, which I found to be just a so-so film. I am happy to report that most of the problems I had with the first movie quality-wise have been addressed and improved upon. The most important one is Catching Fire seems to have a much more nuanced and interesting point of view towards the dystopian world these characters inhabit. That is one of the advantages of being the second film in a series and not having to present us with a complete new world for the first time, but the amount of time Catching Fire dedicates to giving us small glimpses to make this world richer is worthy of praise. From the very beginning, in which we see the emotional toll participating in the Hunger Games has brought upon Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the movie is already willing to work around the main plot to give us insightful details.

This M.O. continues as Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) make their way through a sort of press tour dedicated to the Victors of the Games. We get to see more shades to the situation the people of Panem are in and their inhability to do anything about it than we did in the first film. The seeds of revolution are in the air and for every on-the-nose beating by the “peacekeeper” police, we get character moments that make me think the makers of this movie have really thought about making something good. The best of these kind of moments comes from what I found to be a highly unexpected place, when Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a character that so far had been portrayed as basically the essence of the Capitol’s frivolity shows there are much more complex and human feelings going inside her. It’s a development that doesn’t play a huge role in the film, but that I am glad the filmmakers (led by director Francis Lawrence) decided to keep, as it makes a big difference in the quality of the film.

One thing that was a weakness in the previous movie, and remains so in Catching Fire is that the most boring and unexcited part of the movie are the “Hunger Games” themselves. This time, it’s especially irritating because there is much more interesting stuff about revolution going on somewhere else that we just can;t see. This time, evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) puts a spin on the games. In order to eliminate Katniss and the revolutionary thoughts she’s inspiring, he decides to make this edition of the “Games” a sort of all-star season, drawing the participants from previous winners of the games. This is an improvement over the first film’s game, not only in that you sort of avoid the problem of depicting children killing each other on screen, but also because previous winners make for more interesting characters than scared and violent teens. What still doesn’t work, however, is the Deus Ex Machina aspect of the games and its traps. It all feels too systematic to make me truly excited by what’s going on screen, not to mention the visual effects -although they are a big improvement on the first film- are still not entirely convincing. This last thing about the effects it’s kind of a pity, considering how great the film looks for the most part. It seems like knowing this was going to be a huge success kept Lionsgate from holding back on any expense, since the film looks pretty incredible, especially if you compare it to the uninspired look of its predecessor.

The most important thing that keeps the movie from being great, which is something that seems to be a problem with many young adult fantasy adaptations, is how bland the characters at the center of the story can be. This is what I call Harry Potter Syndrome, when the lead in your movie or novel has to be an entry point for the audience and so you make him kind of righteous, and nice, but not all that interesting. I have to say that in the spectrum of such characters, Katniss is definitely amongst the better ones (with Twilight‘s Bella probably being the worst). I really appreciate, for example, how amongst the whole love triangle shenanigans (and you don’t need me telling you to know there is one), Katniss finds a moment to point out to one of her suitors how romance couldn’t be further away from being her priority. She has to worry about this oppressive world that might kill her and her family! At the same time, though, the character is not the most fun or interesting one to watch, which is what happens when your character’s main goal is to put others before her and always do the right thing. In that sense, I have to give credit where credit is due, and congratulate Jennifer Lawrence and whoever decided to cast her in this role. I am not as in love with Lawrence as the whole world around me seems to be, but she is undoubtedly a really good actress, and it’s to her credit that I can tolerate how many times Katniss screams in terror when witnessing a horrific act in this movie.

The same couldn’t  be said about the closest we have to a second lead, and that is Peeta. I don’t meant o diss on Josh Hutcherson, because he’s been good in other movies (The Kids Are All Right, for example), but he is not very good in the role. But I don’t blame him, I mean, I don’t know if any actor could have given a good performance playing such a non-entity of character as Peeta. Hutcherson even manages to find a few good moments to play off of (one involves him calming a character while looking at the sky), but if you think Katniss is too righteous, then you will get diabetes watching the sweet things Peeta is up to. The movies weakest passages are undoubtedly those that focus on the romance, and there is a lot of that. On the other hand, though, Catching Fire benefits from one of the Harry Potter Syndrome’s side effects, and that is that even if the leads are not all that great, the supporting characters make up for that. And as in the Harry Potter series, the key here is to cast interesting actors. We get the return of Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland (wonderfully evil as President Snow) as well as the addition of characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and my personal favorite, Jena Malone, who is just delightfully energetic as Johanna Mason.

Ultimately, the power of Catching Fire lies in its ending. It goes a very specific goal in its final moments, and by all means it achieves what it set out to do. The climax comes at an unexpected moment (I didn’t even realized it was the climax until after it had happened) and presents us with a new path for the series that I have to admit, made me very excited for what is to come. At the same time as it is exciting, though, the ending is kind of frustrating, considering how the movie cuts off at absolutely the most interesting moment in the whole movie, but hey, that’s one of the difficulties of being the middle chapter. I wasn’t very optimistic for this series after The Hunger Games, but after this movie, count on me to be there when Mockingjay premieres next year.

Grade: 7 out of 10 (worth watching)

Disney Canon: Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin

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Last week I talked about Beauty and the Beast as Howard Ashman‘s last great contribution to Disney history. But while it was his greatest contribution, it wasn’t his last. It was actually Ashman, alongside collaborator Alan Menken, who amongst completion of The Little Mermaidcame up with the treatment for Disney’s next movie: Aladdin, an adaptation of one of the most well-known tales in the Arabian Nights. They crafted the basic outline for the movie with the help of Linda Woolverton (who had written the script for Beauty and the Beast).  Unlike in Beauty and the Beast, though, Ashman’s input in Aladdin was only limited. He died of AIDS complication relatively early in the movie’s production, but not before writing eleven possible songs for the movie (three of them were used). Also amongst completion of The Little Mermaid, its directors were given free reign to choose on which of the studios’ future production they would like to work next. Ron Clements and John Musker also decided to work on Aladdin.

All accounts I am familiar with coincide that, coming from the (marvelous) darkness and complexity of Beauty and the Beast, from the moment of its inception, Aladdin was supposed to be, above all, a comedy. A big influence seems to be Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of BagdadLooking at the movie it’s easy to see how it would seem as if the filmmakers were aspiring to that swashbuckling adventure’s tone. Aladdin feels more like a cartoon than any of the other Renaissance movies (even the one that starred mice). The character design is stylized and the color palette saturated. Above all, though, the tone of the movie is light and funny. This would be an important development going forward in the history of both Disney, and American mainstream animation.

Even though Ashman, Menken and Woolverton came up with the original idea, the story was largely reworked throughout production, and so, the people who get a screenplay credit in the final film are, Clements, Musker and two newcomer writers. Two gentlemen by the names of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who would go on to write blockbuster hits such as Shrek and Pirates of the CaribbeanIt’s curious and fitting that Elliott and Rossio went on to write Shrek, the ultimate example of the kind of (mediocre) animated movie that gained strength the following decade and remains popular today. If nothing else, because Aladdin, although much better than Shrek and the movies it inspired, seems like its most direct forefather. But we’ll talk about Aladdin’s legacy later, for now, let’s focus on the film itself.

Before we go on, I feel like I must say I’m not a huge fan of Aladdin. Which is to say I like it a lot, but don’t think it’s great. I find it to be the weakest of the four films largely regarded as the Renaissance “Classics” (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King), but still more than worthy of being in the other three films’ company. I have a series of quibbles that keep me from completely embracing Aladdin, but one thing that’s for sure is that it is a beautiful film to look at. It seems like by this point, the animators were really getting a hang of coming out with a new movie every year, because any of the imperfections in the animation of Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast is gone. The film also features the best use of the CAPS technology so far and with its strong colors and smoothly moving characters, it is the most visually accomplished Disney film since, well, probably since Sleeping Beauty.

Aladdin’s biggest problem is that it goes off on a pretty rough start. Not the prologue involving villain Jafar (more on him later) and the Cave of Wonders, which is a perfectly good introduction to the movie’s themes and tone, but what comes next, when the movie has to flesh out the motivations of its three leads. First off is Aladdin himself, a poor orphaned boy surviving in the streets of the fictional city of Agraba. He hustles his way through life as explained in -sigh- the song “One Jump Ahead”. I’ve just started to talk about the movie, but already am about to go off on a tangent, however, this is important. All the story retooling done after Howard Ashman’s death only left three of the songs he wrote in the movie. For the rest of the musicalization, Alan Menken worked with lyricist Tim Rice, who came up with a couple of numbers, most notably “A Whole New World”. for which they won an Academy Award, and “One Jump Ahead”. If you’ve read the last couple of entries in this series, then you know how much I love Ashman and can probably guess I’m not very enthusiastic about Rice’s work.

The thing is, Rice is lets a lot to be desired as a songwriter. I don’t want to call him a “hack”, because I do like some of the songs he’s written, but there is no question his compositions pale in comparison to the better Disney numbers, especially the outstanding work done by Ashman. As a matter of quick comparison, let’s take the songs they won Oscars for. Ashman’s “Beauty and the Beast” has been somewhat maligned for being too sappy and sentimental, which in many ways it is. It is also, however, a perfect embodiment of what the movie wants to say through it: the inevitability (“tale as old time”), the sudden and unprepared nature of the leads (“barely even friends, then somebody bends”) and the supernatural power of their love. Can you feel the power of lyrics like “certain as the sun, rising in the east”? Now what about “Hold your breath, it’s better” or “when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear”? The lyrics in “A Whole New World” are not very inventive, to say the least.

I must admit I am a fan of “A Whole New World” despite its silly lyrics and the annoying anachronism in the world-tour sequence it scores. Probably because Alan Menken can bring an effective sense of momentum and urgency through the music. Going back to the main discussion of Aladdin, though, there is absolutely no excuse for the horrible, horrible mediocrity of “One Jump Ahead“. I see what they were going with this number, trying to set up Aladdin and the people of the city just like they did with “Belle” in Beauty and the Beast. But the jazzy music and the slang rhyme don’t come even close to conveying what “Belle” did, or to be any fun. It’s probably on my shortlist for the worst Disney songs (it might even take the prize). It doesn’t help that Aladdin is a pretty bland character, defined more for being a cardboard early nineties young male lead, than for any personal characteristic. He is just a good guy and not very fun.

There is much more attitude present in Princess Jasmine, the female lead of the film. She continues the trend of more “liberated” and modern Disney Princesses that defined this era of animation. She wants to have agency and not be reduced to a girl who must marry a prince. She is a much more dynamic and fun character to watch than Aladdin, but there is the problematic fact that once she falls in love with our male lead, she doesn’t seem to mind her status as someone whose importance lies on getting married anymore. This kind of problem is certainly not exclusive to Jasmine. Many people would point out to Ariel and Belle doing exactly the same, as their narratives are somewhat defined by them getting a man, but I would argue Jasmine’s is the worst case of the three. That is basically to say I buy into Ariel’s longing for a different life and Belle’s slow enchantment by the Beast much more than I do spunky Jasmine’s sudden change in priorities. This could be considered either a matter of preference, or, probably more accurately, a sign that the script for Aladdin isn’t as strong as the others’.

There are many things Aladdin is good at, but story isn’t one of them. The film’s first thirty minutes are dedicated to present the main characters and the plot and it is, by far, the weakest part of the movie. As I mentioned earlier, our introduction to Aladdin is pretty terrible. Our introduction to Jasmine brings a little more life, but it’s still boring. Not even the moment in which they meet each other in the marketplace is much fun. The two things that keep the first thirty minutes from being outright bad are 1. Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu, who I think is a very well designed and funny character (also the only truly funny thing in the film so far) and 2. Jafar, who, it will come as no surprise, is the villain.

There is a long tradition of the villains being more entertaining and fascinating than the heroes in movies in general and in Disney in particular. The ultimate example of this is Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, and Jafar doesn’t come far behind. Talking about Jafar, let me tell you about the first Disney animator I knew by name: a man by the name of Andreas Deja. Back when I was just a kid, I got to know him as the guy who animated Disney villains, and boy, was he good at it. By this point he had already collaborated on Gaston and was making his solo debut animating Aladdin’s evil antagonist. Jafar is not an incredibly good villain, my main problem with him is that he isn’t all that threatening, especially when put in comparison with other bad guys in the Canon, but then again, he is more than appropriate for the lighter tone of Aladdin. He is  wonderfully designed, with that long, almost monolithic body and unamused face. Not to mention the fact that he continues a line of male villains that present a high-class, diva-like personality. That trend started with The Great Mouse Detectives Ratigan and Deja really took and ran with it when doing Jafar (spoiler alert, this wouldn’t be the last or best work he would do with such a character).

In any other film, Jafar would be a strong contender for the most memorable and dynamic character in the film, but thirty minutes into Aladdin we are introduced to what is, by and large, the biggest talking point about the movie. I’m talking, of course, about the Genie as voiced by Robin Williams. When it comes to this character, the camps seem to be clearly divided between those who find Williams’s anachronistic and, well, Williams-y performance hilarious, and those who find it very irritating. Now, I personally think the detractors come at the character from a retroactive perspective influenced either by Williams’s horrendous recent career or the amount of annoying celebrity voice-overs the character’s popularity unleashed on contemporary animation. I personally think there is no denying the comedic chops of the performance. This is, after all, Williams at the top of his popularity, and what better channel for a man who has been largely described as a living cartoon to display his abilities than in an actual cartoon?

Williams’s work here is, obviously, highly improvisational and full of pop culture references. This type of comedy, especially in a Disney film, made Aladdin somewhat of an anomaly. It’s more than likely that it was the comedy (it is a strong contender for the title of funniest movie in the Disney Canon), along with the success of the previous movies, that made Aladdin such a huge success. It became the first animated movie to make more than 200 Million dollars in the domestic box-office, becoming the biggest movie of the year. With those kind of numbers, it’s no surprise so many studios (Disney included) tried to replicate the success by embracing more comedic narratives and, worst of all, casting well known celebrities and comedians to voice the characters. You don’t need me to point out at the many terrible movies that have come out in the past years that follow that pattern. It’s true that it sometimes works wonderfully, but for every Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, you have a dozen Open Seasons or Hotel Transylvanias.

Aladdin no doubt falls in the good category. Very good, actually. It might be hard to remember if you haven’t seen the film in a while, but the Genie is a wonderful character. He is truly hilarious and he works perfectly in the movie, because his supernatural nature lends itself to the atemporal references in Williams’s comedy. He is also the most interestingly animated character in the film. More than any other, he is the most cartoony, with his abstract body, changes sizes, shapes and moving all around. He is a larger than life personality that comes at the precise moment to inject the movie with the energy, momentum and life it lacked in the first half hour.

It might sound weird, but once the Genie shows up, I started having so much fun I just forgave the movies’ inconsistencies. Yes, Aladdin remains largely bland, and yes, it is kind of weird that Jasmine doesn’t recognize him when he pretends to be “Prince Ali”, and yes, the plotting doesn’t feature a lot of character development, but it works. The script unfolds in a reasonable and logical enough way that you can just sit back and enjoy. And that’s exactly what I did. Ultimately, Aladdin isn’t the most ambitious and challenging of movies, but it does set itself a very specific goal: be a funny, entertaining movie. By this point Disney wasn’t willing to go all-out on a completely silly comedy, so it retains a lot of the typical arcs for their lead characters. These arcs are the weakest part of the movie, but then again, we will come back to this in future installments of this series. For now, Aladdin set itself a goal and achieved it handsomely.

Next: Naaaaants Ingonyaaaa… it’s The Lion King. 

Academy Rules: Lead Actress 2010

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It’s time to continue my monthly look at previous years in Academy Awards history. In Academy Rules, I take a look at the movies and performances from a particular past category. For someone who is as fascinated by the Academy Awards as I am, judging the Academy’s taste and wonder why I would have voted had I been in the position to do so, is simply something fun to do, so I hope you enjoy this series as much as I do writing it. This month, with the return to the big screen of both Natalie Portman (in Thor the Dark World) and Jennifer Lawrence (in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), I decided to look at the one time they faced off for the Oscar. The nominees were…

Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
I find this particular Oscar race to be immensely satisfying and also very frustrating at the same time. It is satisfying because, as you’ll see as this post goes on, the five nominated actresses were all fantastic. This is one of those rare cases in which I would have a very difficult time deciding who I would bump out of the list if I had to. For that same reason, it is incredibly frustrating that in a year with such a strong line-up, Natalie Portman was so far and away the obvious winner. At some point during the race people thought about the Oscar maybe going to Annette Bening, but really, once Black Swan became a box-office and pop-culture sensation, Portman was unstoppable.
I had never been a fan of Portman’s acting. Actually, I still aren’t. I think for the most part, she isn’t very good in the movies she’s in. Black Swan, however, is the exception. I am not a big fan of director Darren Aronofsky either, but dammit, Black Swan is such a good movie. I love its over-the-top horror and the willingness with which a director I considered to be incredibly self-serious adopted an appropriately campy tone.
As Nina Sayers, Portman is also willing to adopt the camp (just look at her final dance as the black swan). There is a big element of physical commitment in the dancing, but the best element of the performance is how perfectly she manages to sell us on the sexual repression and artistic ambition of the character. Even if she’s technically an adult, Nina is really a child and Portman knows how to play to the vulnerability of the character. The most poignant moment of the performance is when she calls her mother after she gets the main role. “He picked me, mommy”. What a fantastic line reading. Portman is great in Black Swan, but I couldn’t single her out as easily as awards bodies were doing back in early 2011. At least not with this amazing competition…

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Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Bening’s role as Nic, a lesbian mother whose children want to meet their biological father, is at once the most naturalistic and low-stakes of the nominated roles, but I also think it might be the most difficult. Nic is a very hard character to pull off. She is a woman very much focused on her work. She wants to always be in control. She is the “boring one” in her marriage to Jules (Julianne Moore). She has somewhat of a drinking problem and she seems, for the most part, to be soaring through her marriage in auto-pilot. These are all things that will take the plot the way it goes, but that can also make her a very irritating character.
She does come off a little annoying at times, but that is part of who she is, and the level with which Annette Bening embodies Nic as a complete human being is astonishing to me. It’s one of those performances in which I simply cannot see the strings in the acting. More than a performance, it seems like an effortless embodiment. And that is something that awards groups seem to ignore when it comes to great acting. You know, they usually go for bigger is better. I am glad this performance got as much traction as it did. It benefited from the fact that Bening had been nominated for so many Oscars without a win (she still hasn’t won), but at the same time how do you deny that amazing scene in which Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” plays in the background? Perhaps the best piece of acting in all of 2010.

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Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Director John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole feels very much like one of the casualties of 2010. Based on a Pullitzer-Winning play about a couple dealing with the death of their infant child, it seemed like one of the big players going into Oscar season. The difficult subject matter kept the movie from catching on at the box-office and it ended up being mostly forgotten except for Kidman’s performance.
If you haven’t seen Rabbit Hole, I recommend you do so. It is a much better movie than its history would have you believe. It is not one of those middle-brow prestige movies that are catalogued as “Oscar bait”, it is a much more personal and emotionally truthful film. If nothing else, it features amazing performances. It features the breakthrough role of Miles Teller (who you might recognize from The Spectacular Now) and a simply heartbreaking performance by Aaron Eckhart. Nicole Kidman is at the center of the film and is also fantastic. It’s easy to dismiss this as a nomination based on name recognition, especially considering how the film was ignored anywhere else, but even if it is, it’s a good one. There has been strong backlash to Kidman as an actress as of late, but she can be pretty fantastic when she wants to.

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Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
This is the breakthrough performance of megastar Jennifer Lawrence. It is also undoubtedly the performance that landed her the role of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies. Nowadays, seeing Lawrence as a tough girl surviving in an Appalachian environment is old news, but back in 2010, it was a “who’s that girl?” moment.
And with good reason; Lawrence’s performance here is still her best work yet. She stands tall and carries Winter’s Bone and is without a doubt really great in the film. But when it comes to comparing performances to one another, well, sometimes no matter how good you are, there is a value to experience. And so, no matter how good Lawrence is, she can pale in comparison to the emotional punch of more experienced actresses such as Annette Bening or Nicole Kidman. Even in her own film, she must compete with the immensely powerful John Hawkes and Dale Dickey.    

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Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
The gimmick of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is that it shows us both the beginning and end of a relationship. However, the movie transcends its high-concept to be truly great, and does so in two ways. First, with a structure that juxtaposes the moments from the past and present in the most powerful way possible. Second, of course, is the strong performances at the center.
It’s a shame co-star Ryan Gosling didn’t manage a nomination in the Lead Actor category, since he is as great as Williams. But let’s focus on the actress, who by all counts, is outstanding. Williams’ Cindy has to make a series of decisions that could easily alienate the audience and sells every one of them. The most essential of which is the way she makes the audience understand her complicated feelings for husband Dean. From her initial bubbling enchantment to the last moments of a disillusioned relationship coasting on the final traces of its initial charm. It’s one of the most depressing and heartbreaking movies of the year, and largely thanks to Gosling and Williams.

Overlooked Performances?
As undeniable as Annette Bening’s performance in The Kids Are All Right is, it was still tough to see her co-star Julianne Moore be mostly ignored come awards season. For one thing, she is as due for an Oscar as Bening is. For another, her role is also not an easy one to pull off, especially towards the end of the film, and yet, it is so easy to understand what are the things that brought Jules to the situation she ended up in as well as the reasons for her love for her family and her wife.
But if I had to pick one overlooked performance to nominate, I would have to go with Emma Stone in Easy A. It is not even that good of a movie, but Stone is fantastic in every second of it. It’s fitting that this was the movie that made Stone a big star, because if there ever was a personification of a “star-making” performance, then this is it. Emma Stone IS Easy A. I can’t imagine the movie without her, or with anyone else in the lead role for that matter. And that is, in my head, the definition of great acting.

Did the Academy Make the Right Choice?
With such a strong line-up, the Academy couldn’t really make a wrong choice, but there are some wins that feel better than others. The irritating thing about this race is that it is yet another example of Oscar’s despicable tendency to 1) prefer younger, sexier women to veterans, and 2) reward an otherwise just ok actress when she gives an impressive performance while ignoring actresses that have built their entire careers on turning out one excellent performance after another. Annette Bening is one of the best examples of this tendency, which is a shame, since I would actually deem hers the best performance in this line-up. Natalie Portman was great in Black Swan, but I can’t think of another great performance by her, while Bening has been great in so many movies, and I would argue, never better than in The Kids Are All Right. 
Anyway, if you would ask me to rank the nominees, I probably would go like this: 1. Annette Bening, 2. Michelle Williams, 3. Nicole Kidman, 4. Natalie Portman, 5. Jennifer Lawrence.