Wednesday, January 30, 2013

2012 Oscars: Makeup and Hairstyling

Wow, this category is all wrong.

No really, I don't think any of these films should be nominated.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables

3. Hitchcock

This is easily the worst offender. It's okay in a biopic to not have your actors look exactly like their historical counterparts. It's not okay to have them look cartoonish. Half the time Anthony Hopkins looked more like Elmer Fudd than Alfred Hitchcock. I doubt very much that this film is nominated because Scarlett Johansson had a wig that looked like Janet Leigh, but instead for the Hitchcock makeup, in which case I have no clue what happened here.

2. Les Miserables

There was actually a lot of really good work here: the level of detail with the dirty teeth, every hair in - or appropriately out of - place, the gaunt faces of revolutionaries, etc. There was an awkward tension though between reality and fantasy. There's something gritty and raw in Valjean escaped prisoner, something painful in his face that I believe was as much the makeup department as Jackman's performance. But then all the prostitutes look nearly like Heath Ledger's Joker. The tension between the  stagey musical conceits and the epic drama of angry men was awkward and I think the makeup choices have something to do with that. But what bugs me most is how poorly done most of the aging was. Valjean and Javert go through a 20 year journey together and they hardly look any worse for the wear by the end of the film. Something was missing.

1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This is really just more of the same work we saw in LOTR, but that's not to say it isn't just as good. Each of the dwarves has a distinct face and their faces are still able to emote, unlike in Hitchcock. Their beards are also pretty epic, and since this category name for the first time accurately reflects the contribution of hairstyling to the film, I think the diversity of characters who we are still able to recognize is impressive. In this instance, given these nominees, I think most does equal best.

Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (though I wouldn't be shocked by a Les Mis upset)
Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Should have been nominated: Lincoln, Holy Motors, and Cloud Atlas

This time I'm definitely going to explain why three entirely different films should have been nominated.

Lincoln: Excellent and very subtle aging on Day-Lewis, and even allowing Sally Field to look her age (instead of the 20 years younger that Mary Todd Lincoln was than Field) added enormous depth to their characters. Lincoln did not look so much old or aged as he did weary. His shadowy eyes and what looked like hundreds of tiny wrinkles instead of a few deeper ones. He was a weathered man. And again, consider the unique hairstyles that went to each and every member of congress, pulling back Sally Field's hair to match the high-forehead style of the times. With Les Mis I mentioned an uncomfortable tension between the comic and the drama, but consider here something so simple as James Spader's wig and mustache.  His physical appearance alone gave the film a lightness and comic relief while still feeling authentic and a natural aspect of his character.

Cloud Atlas: One of the most ambitious projects of the year, there was a ton of makeup that went into transforming every actor into two or three or six characters.  From false teeth to prosthetic noses, from tattoos to full latex masks, this movie had it all. And most shockingly, it worked probably 95% percent of the time! The one transition I'd argue did not work at all was turning Doona Bae into (what I think was) a Mexican woman. That was weird. Most of the others worked well enough to go relatively unnoticed, while others were truly shocking (Halle Berry as Old Japanese Doctor?!).  There was some murmuring about potential racist elements to the "yellow-face" but personally I think that's a load of hogwash.  The Asian-eye makeup was set in a futuristic society where human genetics had hypothetically merged certain racial qualities.  It wasn't "yellow-face" because they weren't actually playing Asian characters, but white and black characters with certain Asian-influenced attributes. So shut up.

And finally, Holy Motors, in which the makeup goes beyond character or gimmick or ambition and is actually a vital narrative element.  Denis Lavant plays something like 8 or 9 characters over the course of his day who are each unique, compelling, and convincing. It's difficult to explain the use of makeup without explaining the movie, which is itself rather difficult to do, and I can't find enough of the different characters' photos, so watch this trailer.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2012 Oscars: Costume Design

I know, I know, I said I was going to do the techs first, then the artistics. I'm sure you're very disappointed and confused that I'm going out of order. But there's a single costume in particular that kind of blew my mind and I want to talk about it.

So get over it.

Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran
Les Miserables, Paco Delgado
Lincoln, Joanna Johnston
Mirror Mirror, Eiko Ishioka
Snow White and the Huntsman, Colleen Atwood

5. Mirror Mirror

Some of the dresses were pretty, I guess. The bright colors gave a nice fairy tale feel to the whole movie And Ishioka died a year ago, so yes, there's a bit of a sympathy vote here. But at the end of the day, these were cookie-cutter costumes that we've seen before, and they lacked a certain detail and texture to help them blend into their surroundings. Julia Roberts' giant yellow dresses were distracting. The costumes drew attention to themselves rather than aiding the story, and that's just not okay.

4. Les Miserables

These were fine, I guess. I wasn't a fan of the movie, and I don't want that to affect my position here, but given that most of the film was shot in closeups, most of the costumes we really got to see were of the collars and lapels, so it's rather difficult to tell if they were really all that good or not. They were appropriate enough, I guess. They seemed to fit the period and the characters, and there was a certain elaborateness that reflected the heightened musical atmosphere of the film, but really there wasn't a whole of really interesting work going on here.

For all I know, the entire cast never wore pants.

3. Snow White and the Huntsman

Colleen Atwood never fails to deliver, and where Mirror Mirror's costumes seemed distracting and inappropriate even for its bubblegum fairy tale vision, Atwood's work here adequately fits the darker medieval world of the film, without being too garish. Charlize Theron's costumes frequently had a sharp angular feel that matched her villainous character, and all the armor and chain mail seemed original and unique. That said, a few notable pieces aside, I feel like I've seen this all before.

2. Anna Karenina

Of the nominees thusfar, I think these costumes are the ones that best struck a balance between the authentic, period-based demands of the design with the colorful, exaggerated nature of the film itself. The film is intentionally theatrical, where films like Mirror Mirror and Les Miserables were accidentally theatrical. Therefore in my mind it gets a little leeway with its flamboyance. What's more, I never felt like I was focusing on the costumes, they seemed to simply exist in the world and became a part of the characters who wore them.

1. Lincoln

This will be the first of several awards I personally think Lincoln deserves, although it almost certainly won't win all of them. (And just to clarify now, in each of these categories I don't necessarily think Lincoln had the best such-and-such of the year so much as the best such-and-such of the nominees.) At face value, the design of Lincoln seems based in simply historical authenticity. Joanna Johnston has said as much, that "getting it right" was really the goal. So you see muted tones and rich textures to recreate the clothes and the mood of the times of the Civil War. Much of the outfit in Lincoln are indeed dutiful recreations, right down to the use of Lincoln's shawls, which he was apparently quite fond of. One of the few garish pieces was the bold yellow Asian-looking garment worn by Secretary of State Seward, and it does call attention to itself because it seems so out of place. Yet apparently, Seward had been a world traveller and was known to wear these sorts of things in private. So it is at least justified in it's out-of-placeness. Mary Todd Lincoln frequently wears finer fabrics and bolder colors in the film because, as she explains in one scene, she is intentionally living beyond her means so that the office of the Presidency maintains its dignity while she inhabits the White House. Her costumes are driving partially by history, but also by character.

My favorite example of character-driven costuming this entire year is the suit that Bob Lincoln wears on an outing with his father. It's a simple suit. The first time I saw the film, though, I frequently thought, "Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks odd in this film..." The second time I realized why: his clothes were almost always too big for him. In the film, his character is basically the son who wants to grow up and be a man in conflict with his parents who want to protect him and keep hold of their child. It's as though the entire film he's trying to wear his big boy pants, but something is stopping him from growing. It isn't until he does enlist in the military that he finally looks right in his own clothes.  It's honestly a brilliant piece of character-driven costume design, and just because the suit is an ugly brown instead of bright yellow, and just because the military uniforms are recreations instead of original armor and mail, and just because Charlize Theron looks hotter in her gowns than Sally Field does, that doesn't mean Lincoln is any less deserving of this award.

Will win: Anna Karenina (and that's not necessarily wrong or undeserving)
Should win: Lincoln
Should have been nominated: Argo and Django Unchained, instead of Mirror Mirror and Les Miserables.

(By the way, if anyone wants me to explain my "should have been nominated" choices any further, indicate it in the comments. I just dont' want to bore anyone too much.)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012 Oscars: Visual Effects

Over the next several weeks, I'll be going through each Academy Award category giving my personal rankings of the nominees. I'll give my thoughts on which films/performances didn't deserve to be nominated, and which should have been in their place. I'll start with the techs, move to artistics, then the major categories. I'm holding off on shorts, foreign, and docs since they're harder for me to get a hold of, and as often as possible I only want to address categories when I've seen all the nominees.

(Heads up, the most vs. best comparison comes up frequently in end-of-year awards discussions. Most cuts doesn't mean best editing, fanciest shots doesn't mean best cinematography, most beads and boldest colors doesn't mean best costumes, etc., etc.)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Marvel's The Avengers
Snow White and the Hunstman

5. Snow White and the Hunstman

This movie really did look pretty great and the effects were effective enough, but something about shards of black glass and ravens flying around just seems kind of "been there, done that." Not to mention the celebrity actor faces on dwarf bodies was a bit peculiar-looking.

4. Marvel's The Avengers

I warned you: most effects doesn't mean best effects. There are great effects in all the Marvel films, but by the end of The Avengers I just lost any sense of reality when the flying slug things were floating up and down the streets. It was CGI overload. I know these films aren't trying to bring a gritty true life feel to comics the way Nolan tried with Batman, but there was something unintentionally cartoonish about The Avengers and I don't think it was intended the way I took it.

See what I mean?

3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Again, most doesn't equal best, but The Hobbit felt real the entire time. I believed I was looking at Middle Earth the whole time - even in 48 fps - and with the excellent 3D cinematography, at times I believed I was in Middle Earth. The fighting rock formations in the rainstorm was one of the most simultaneously terrifying and majestic scenes of the year. That alone deserves recognition, but the whole film was visually stunning. The main missteps would be the CGI goblins in the Misty Mountains. I thought the taller, more humanoid orcs of Moria had a stronger, realer presence. Peter Jackson wanted a lighter feel for these films, and that works, but for me the Misty Mountain goblins stepped a toe over the line from light to silly.

2. Prometheus

Lots of people hated this movie, and plenty of people loved it. It basically depends on how much you choose to focus on the plot holes. I would also argue that since it's a film about human origins and cosmogony and religion, how much one likes the film is dependent on one's interests in that subject matter. But no one complained about the way the movie looked. The production design and especially the realization of that design by the FX team is near flawless.  Again, at times I felt like I was looking at real, tangible sets and creatures and sand storms, etc.

1. Life of Pi

Life of Pi, though, managed to find a brilliant balance between that real, tangible sort of effect (those flying fish look like they're hitting you in the face) and the fun, more colorful sort of effects like in Avengers (the gorgeous "Tiger Vision" scene).  Then consider the backgrounds and seascapes, the shipwreck, the "God Storm," and it becomes clear this movie had the best visual effects of the year. And all of that goes without mentioning Richard Parker, who this year trumps even Gollum as the best animated creature on the screen. That tiger was a thing of terrifying beauty and subtle character which all by itself earns this award. Just watch the trailer below for proof. The most visually stunning film of the year.

Will win: Life of Pi
Should win: Life of Pi
Should have been nominated: Cloud Atlas, instead of Snow White and the Huntsman

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Process Stories

It's Oscar season again, which is about the only thing that can usually pull me out of the woodwork to start blogging regularly again, for at least a month or so.  I'll get into what I think about specific categories as the next several weeks go by, but today is something different.

Looking up and down the list of major awards contenders, I began to notice a trend this year in the types of stories that were being told.  With many of the acclaimed or otherwise successful films this year, we usually know the ending before we get into the theater, or at least by a few minutes into the movie.  

Does Lincoln get the 13th Amendment passed?  
Do the hostages get out of Iran?
Do we find Bin Laden?
Does Hitchcock manage to make and release Psycho?
Does the family in The Impossible manage to survive the tsunami aftermath, reunite, and sell the movie rights to their story?

These are, of course, matters of history or common knowledge.  But then consider the fictional films.

Does Django get his revenge on the oppressive/racist White Man? It's hard to imagine a bleaker story than one in which the slaveowner wins the day.
Does Pi survive his adventure at sea? Considering the adult Pi is narrating the tale from the start, the question of life or death seems moot.
Does Snow White defeat the Evil Queen? Always and forever.
Does Denzel get away with the tragic consequences of his alcoholism, or does he ultimately face his demons? 

You get my point.

There really weren't many surprises this year.  Yet I'd argue 2012 gave us one of the best crops of films we've had in quite a while.  How is it that so many movies with predictable endings could be so fascinating and satisfying?  Because ultimately we don't go to the movies to see what happens - we go to see how they happen.  The big twist ending or the big reveal or whatever is maybe five minutes of what following two hours of how.  You can have a crappy ending and still have enjoyed the ride and be grateful for the experience.  Or you can have a crappy ride, but get blown away by the finale, and subsequently confuse that with high quality.  But the best cinematic experiences are the ones that strike a balance.  When you suspect the ending will be satisfying regardless, and the trip the filmmakers take you on to get there is the truly enthralling part.  

Which brings me to Argo. I saw it in theaters and I was underwhelmed. I thought it was a well-made film, and Ben Affleck's direction held everything together. But Best Picture? Meh. 

You see, the whole time I was stuck in my head. I kept thinking, "This thriller isn't very thrilling. We know they're going to get out of Iran, we know the plan worked, so why am I here?" So I enjoyed the film but I questioned its necessity. 

But I watched it a second time recently and it was a different experience.  Having gotten the negativity out of my system, I realized that even though we know the hostages escape, they don't. And suddenly a tautness entered the movie that wasn't there before. I was also able to step back and look at some of the production elements more objectively - the costumes and production design were superb.  Giving the "Film Director" character curly hair and an ascot was brilliant.  The story juggled two or three locations/subplots at a time, but the editor never loses track of them so neither do we.  There's really not a bad performance in the entire ensemble.  The screenplay shows a fascinating look at the Hollywood system and the US intelligence system but includes just enough family tension to give Affleck's character an emotional core.  

All that said, it's not a perfect film. Because there are so many characters, only a few of them are developed beyond their function or the lines they are obligated to say to move the story forward.  And I think Affleck made a mistake in casting himself in the lead role - it might have been the writing, but it simply wasn't a charismatic enough performance from the guy who's supposed to be leading us through the adventure.  Not a bad performance by any means, but not exactly a memorable one. 

I looked up the historical accuracy and noticed that the screenplay takes liberties to create a more heightened sense danger than may have actually existed, but that doesn't really undermine the preposterous nature of the extraction plan or the fact that they actually pulled it off.  The story of the process trumps the announcement of the outcome. 

Life of Pi is essentially a story making that very point. Pi narrates the tale of his sea voyage with a tiger named Richard Parker, and when its integrity is questioned he responds simply, "Which story do you prefer?" 

Filmmaking is storytelling, and stories are how you get there, not where you get.