Oscar Checklist – Part 2: Tunes and Toons

Today’s checklist will focus on Animated Feature and Best Song. I bit the bullet and paid my $10.50 to see Country Strong at a second run theater. The things I do for…umm…let’s move on.

Check out reviews for the other two films nominted for Best Song: 127 Hours – “If I Rise” and Toy Story 3 – “We Belong Together.”

Country Strong – Nominated for Best Song – “Coming Home”

I suppose I should begin by mentioning my prejudice toward country music. This comes from my Disc Jockey mother and her never-ending complaints whenever a station made a format change in favor of that hillbilly sound. It also stems from the fact that most of it is indeed crap. Even when a band I enjoy, like The Decemberists, decides to make a country-tinged record it takes me awhile to overcome my country bias. But I do overcome, especially since the new Decemberists is so damn good. I have learned that there is a difference between Johnny Cash and Carrie Underwood. Still, you can imagine my hesitation in seeing a movie all about an Underwood-type star.

Country Strong is mighty weak. The film begins in rehab where country’s biggest sensation is admitted for alcohol problems. We’re told Kelly Canter, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is a superstar, but I never bought it. No matter, cause before any real character development Kelly is whisked out of rehab prematurely by James  Canter (Tim McGraw) her manager and husband, in that order. Kelly is scheduled for an encore tour to make up for her debauchery that alienated fans and caused her miscarriage. Along for the ride is Beau (Garret Hedlund), an old-fashioned cowboy crooner and Chiles (Leighton Meester), an All About Eve beauty queen. Beau also worked as an orderly during Kelly’s rehab stint, and it seems got to know Kelly intimately during her stay. This romance is rather haphazardly introduced and we’re led to believe it’s been happening for a while. Believe me, it was quite a surprise when they began casually kissing. I thought the affair was going to happen not that it was already ongoing.

The plot continues as it were, not naturally, but forcibly. Not one decision made by a character feels like an extension of their personality. Beau sleeps with Kelly. Chiles flirts with James. Beau sleeps with Chiles. And Kelly does whatever a “troubled superstar” supposedly does.

Every single contrivance is stale and stiffly cut together. The film has no second gear. It knows only how to drag the plot and the players forward until the predetermined conclusion can put us out of our misery. There’s zero chemistry between Paltrow & Hedlund, and what I’d call negative chemistry between Hedlund & Meester. Performance-wise Hedlund, Paltrow, and McGraw are all adequate and handle the songs fine enough. Meester, on the other hand, is a disaster. I’ve never seen her in anything else and I hope I never have to. She can’t sing, can’t act, and I’d hesitate to call her decent looking.

About the best thing the film has going for it is the acknowledgment of good and bad country music. It’s too bad the film subjects us to so much of the latter. There are a few decent songs, but the one that snagged a nomination is not one of them. In fact, it’s the song at the end of the big climax in which we are treated to three songs in a row with little in the way of dramatic tension. It’s just three songs for you to listen to before the film can move on. This is a movie not a concert right? You know a child will enjoy a movie with talking animals, regardless of quality, but that doesn’t make it worth showing to children. I would suggest the same for all you Carrie Underwood fans.

Grade: D

Tangled – Nominated for Best Song – “I See the Light”

I actually saw this when it first came out but neglected to review it because I was unable to make it through the final reel. My son poured chocolate milk all over both of us (on accident?) and demanded we leave the theater. It was only recently that I managed to see the ending and therefore compose an accurate critique of this wonderful fairy tale.

Tangled begins with a voiceover from the dashing Flynn Rider (voiced by Chuck’s Zachary Levi) that is pretty terrible. It’s the kind of self-aware post-modern schlock that’s made Shrek so unbearable for all these years. Luckily, it’s only present for the prologue. When the story begins in earnest, I was surprised what a breath of fresh air it turned out to be.

In this new version of the classic tale, Rapunzel, voiced by Mandy Moore, has magical healing powers thanks to her gloriously long golden hair. The evil Mother Gothel kidnapped Rapunzel as a child so she could utilize the mystical power as a fountain of youth. To that end, Gothel has locked Rapunzel away in a tower and kept up a ruse about being her mother. Rapunzel, now a curious and bored teenager, begins to yearn for adventure as well as an answer in regards to the mysterious lights she sees every year on her birthday. Enter our trusty narrator, Flynn, the thief with a heart of gold. Reluctantly, Flynn promises to escort Rapunzel to the puzzling lights while being tracked by a determined stallion, some former associates, and anyone seeking reward money. Not to mention Rapunzel’s psycho surrogate.

In between the romance and adventure are some entertaining musical numbers. They aren’t particularly revolutionary, but still very enjoyable. When they’re cued up to such beautiful animation, one is hard pressed to complain. This is especially true of the nominated song “I See the Light”. The song is good, but the visuals make it transcendent. The film is also very funny. There’s the aforementioned steed, a chameleon sidekick, and a hilarious running joke involving a frying pan. Some of this might sound like Disney cliché, but they are all used sparingly and to great effect.

While not in the same rarefied air as Pixar, Tangled is great fun. It didn’t manage a nomination for Best Animated Feature because there were only three open spots this year. It’s a shame, because I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this fresh take on an old classic.

Grade: B+

And speaking of those three Best Animated Feature spots…

The Illusionist – Nominated for Best Animated Feature

A less kid friendly piece than its fellow nominees, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon. The Illusionist is an adult picture, with mature themes and a generally melancholy tone. If you don’t require all of your animated films to be bright and fluffly or full of fart jokes, then The Illusionist might be the kind of magic you’re looking for.

If you are familiar with creator Sylvain Chomet’s earlier work, The Triplets of Belleville (I am), then you’ll know what to expect from the animation. It is finely detailed, hand drawn with a keen eye for character design. He finds a way to add layers of depth within the stereotypical fashion he dabbles in. Be it the sad clown, the lush Scotsman, or the British rock band, Chomet animates them with wit and with care.

If you are familiar with the writer whose work the film is based, Jacques Tati (I’m not), then you’ll recognize the title character, Tatischeff, as he is drawn in Tati’s image. Tatischeff is a talented–if not spectacular–magician, constantly looking for the next gig. But, the world is changing and he struggles to find anyone still believing in magic. He does, however, find a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who still believes. She runs away from home, and tags along with the struggling illusionist. He puts up very little resistance and an odd platonic relationship takes shape.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of The Illusionist. There are plenty of funny scenarios involving Tatischeff, his magic, and his non-existent or apathetic audience. It’s funny even though it’s sad. The second part is strong as well, but there were a few things that I didn’t love. There is a reference to Tati, a scene from one of his movies, which takes you right out of the movie you’re watching. There is a single panoramic city shot that was grand when it should have been subdued. And there’s the core relationship that is intriguing at first, but doesn’t really have anywhere to go. It’s obvious that Tatischeff is a relic and the girl is going to grow up sooner or later.

The starkness is overcome by the strong emotion Chomet still manages to level the audience with. There are quite a few moments of pure heartbreak. It’s a tragedy when something like magic or someone like a clown or ventriloquist is not only no longer wanted, but replaced. It reminded me very much of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, but with magic. I might prefer Belleville, but this is a worthy nominee and a welcome nod for those still laboring away at traditional animation.

Grade: B+

Why do I do this to myself? No matter, look for Part 3, coming soon to Shooting The Script!


4 responses to “Oscar Checklist – Part 2: Tunes and Toons

  1. Enjoyed the read on The Illusionist, I also appreciate the fact that you even chose to write about it at all, but I had to speak up on a couple of notes. It should be noted first of all, that I am a huge Jacques Tati fan and consider him to be one of my favorite filmmakers; Playtime being one of my top 10 films of all time.

    It also bears mentioning that I’ve been waiting for The Illusionist for at least three years, and as my hopes were to see both it, and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life released in the same year, and while they are spread between 2010 and 2011, I still consider this period of time to be a huge year filmically.

    You mention the scene where Tatischeff walks in to the theatre to find Mon Oncle playing, and being one that “removes” you from the film. I might respectfully argue that if you knew Tati, the work and his significance a bit more, it wouldn’t be so “removing” for you.

    Certainly it’s homage, but Tati was always one who had a commentary to make about humanity’s relationship with technology and how it either augmented (or usually) distorted our relationship with each other. That’s one reason why the character walks in on Mon Oncle in particular, is that it is perhaps that film’s central underpinning more than any other.

    Still more important to The Illusionist in this moment, is here is the literal moment when the titular “Illusionist” is staring at his own illusion. For me, such reflexive moments in filmmaking are what give great filmmaking depth beyond the two-dimensional screen.

    Perhaps what is most important in this moment, has to do with Sylvain Chomet himself. It’s in this moment that Chomet acknowledges that there would be no “Sylvain Chomet” (as filmmaker), no Triplets of Belleville, let alone this film, without Jacques Tati.

    When I initially understood that Chomet was adapting Tati’s script, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. This was the opposite of what A.I. was to Stanley Kubrick’s legacy. . . The Illusionist is the torch being carried by heir apparent. Chomet illustrates in “Belleville” that he is a master of characterization, like Tati was. Tati was a schooled mime who spent as much time directing the guy sweeping dust in the background of Playtime as he did the nephew in Mon Oncle. We see this skill in Chomet as an animator, an observer of human behavior who relates characterization through the stroke of a pencil, one who learned from observing Tati not only as mimic, but as humorist and social critic.

    Returning to the moment of homage in the theatre, I think this is also a key distinction in the difference between Chomet’s acknowledgement of Tati, versus Spielberg’s treatment of Kubrick’s material in A.I.— In The Illusionist, we have the character in the most literal sense, bowing to it’s creator: Chomet to Tati, Tatischeff to Hulot. In A.I.., there’s nothing so reverential. Instead, it’s Spielberg hanging circular lights which prove the fact that he was paying attention to Dr. Strangelove, Haley Joel Osment walking in shoes similar to the grip shoes worn in 2001: A Space Odyssey. . . We got it Steven, we noticed the same things, too. . . So what?

    A final note that bares mentioning. Without going into too much detail, the key story behind The Illusionist is Tatischeff’s relationship to the girl. The film is dedicated (by Chomet) to Sophie Tatischeff, the daughter (an Editor and filmmaker herself) that presented him with the script before her death in 2001. If we look at the film from the writer’s perspective, we see a film that was written by two different fathers in Jacques Tati himself. Tati it is said, was regretful of being an absentee father to Sophie, if we look at it from that perspective, we understand the film to be the love letter to her that it was.

    The story from that perspective does not fall entirely into place when we realize that Tatischeff meets the young girl upon his travels. However, when we realize that Tati had another first born daughter, born out-of-wedlock, and one that he was urged to turn his back upon, the story gains even greater depth and poignance to it.

    If we look at the final note left for the girl in the film’s closing, it is rife with multiple meanings depending on which story perspective we choose to apply it to, illusionist or father; It’s both heartbreaking and cynical, courageous and loving, damning and liberating.

    I can’t recommend taking the opportunity to take in Jacques Tati’s full body of work highly enough. I think in doing so, you’ll not only develop a deeper appreciation of both this film and even your preferred Belleville, but the level of story teller that Tati was, and why we have him not only to thank for filmmakers like Chomet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the entire community of filmmakers at Pixar, but even Monty Python and Trey Stone & Matt Parker, and Pee Wee Herman.

  2. Some really good points there.

    I will no doubt eventually see Tati’s films and I agree that my appreciation of this film might indeed increase afterward. The review is of course subjective to my knowledge going in and I do think a movie should hold up regardless of my familiarity beforehand, which it does.

    I think the film works without knowing Tati, but I did find it prudent to mention my lack of acquaintance. I appreciate the attempt during the Mon Oncle scene to nod to the influence and the themes of this picture, it just didn’t work so well for me. It is a small complaint and as you’ve read did not ruin the picture for me.

    I am actually a fan of A.I. so I will avoid that can of worms for now.

    The first born daughter stuff I think I missed. It’s something that passed me by while I was trying to focus on previous information. Again, something that repeat and more prepared viewings I’m sure will correct.

    I hope my small quibbles aside that more people do seek this movie out. With Triplets and now this, I will certainly look forward to more from Chomet and am of course more interested than ever at discovering Tati.

  3. Pingback: The Trouble with Quibbles: 2011 Oscars | Shooting the Script

  4. Pingback: Oscar Checklist – Part 8: Salute Your Shorts | Shooting the Script

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