Oscar season has come and gone. I could spend this time complaining about the various aspects of the show, but there is one problem. I didn’t watch it. Due to the time constraints of my current position, if I were to observe the ceremonies, I would not be in as chipper of a mood as I normally am come Monday morning. For the sanity of my fellow coworkers, I abstained from this year’s ceremonies. Besides, there are numerous other blogs and articles critiquing every little thing that could be improved on next year’s iteration.
Instead I will concentrate on my own little awards, namely the best and worst of February. I must confess that the best of the month was hard for me to decide. Many of the features were of a quality that I felt would be disingenuous to level the fine praise of best. It wasn’t until last week when I saw a small little gem at the Kentucky Theater that I finally had my choice.
Studio Ghibli has always been a source of great entertainment. Unlike most of the animated features that seem to be obsessed with pop culture references and not so subtle adult humor, their focus has always remained on story and characters. There has not been a disappointment in their filmography and The Secret World of Arrietty is no exception.
Based on the Mary Norton children’s book “The Borrowers”, the story concerns a family of “Borrowers”, human-like creatures that stand 4 inches tall and live under the floorboards. At night, they emerge from their homes to borrow only the items they need to survive, be it a sugar cube or one tissue paper. They must remain hidden for their own safety. If a human spots them, they need to quickly find a new place to live or else risk widespread exposure to the harsh human world. The Clock family has been living this way for years. On the night of her first borrowing, Arrietty is spotted by the sick boy staying with the human family. Going against what she has been taught her entire life, she is able to strike up a friendship with a human she is supposed to fear. What follows is a story of a friendship that transcends stereotypes and proves that what one is told to fear may not be all that bad.
Taking over the reins of normal director Hayao Miyazaki is Hiromasa Yonebayshi. It’s his first time in the director’s chair and what he delivers is a fantastic tale of forbidden friendship and the harsh realities of the Borrowers lifestyle. Despite the animated nature of the production, everybody felt like living, breathing people. The care taken for the characters is shown in the minute details of their lives, and the fear they feel is real. The mother of the family is constantly worried that her family will be eaten by the cat roaming the premises. There is a bird attack that was more intense than anything in most blockbusters that spend hundreds of millions on special effects and not the script. They don’t need fart jokes, quick edits or flashy effects. They allow the characters the time to breathe and exist.
If the audience is not allowed to grow connected to the characters on screen, then little to no amount of money thrown into special effects will make them care. Studio Ghibli gets that. Their use of visuals ends up complimenting the characters and is not the main driving force. There is a quality to traditional 2D animated features that is lacking in their 3d brethren. 2D hand drawn animation reflects a more personal connection as opposed to the harsh, impersonal computer generated monstrosities that dominate today’s animation. It’s a format that is very much missed.
In the end, The Secret World of Arrietty takes its time to allow the story to unfold. Its use of traditional methods of animation enhances rather than detracts from the proceedings and leaves a personal touch that most animated movies today lack. Throughout the month of February, there was not a better release and it gladly gets a 4 out of 5.
The worst choice was also hard to pick. Instead of a dearth of nominees, there was plenty. This Means War was the back runner for a while, with Woman in Black and Journey 2 not far ahead. That was until I went to see this loathsome beast just this past Monday that earns my worst pick.
Is it too much to ask for a thriller to have thrills? Somehow deemed worthy enough to be released theatrically, Gone feels it should be more at home in the bargain bin at Best Buy. It’s dull, lifeless and moves at a snail’s pace, despite its brisk 94 minute runtime. It’s the epitome of bad cinema and an early contender for worst of the year.
Jill (Amanda Seyfried) is a disturbed individual. The year before, she was kidnapped and dumped in a hole to rot. When the time came to finish her off, Jill was able to fight off her attacker and escape. The cops investigated but found no evidence to her claims, shunting her away to a mental institute. Now, she lives with her sister, Molly (Emily Wickersham), and is working an overnight shift at an all-night diner. She comes home one morning to find her sister missing. Believing that the kidnapper has struck again, she conducts a one-woman investigation to find out what happened and to bring her sister home.
Amanda Seyfried has to carry this movie on her back. She is the lead actress and on screen for 95% of the journey. Unfortunately, she is not up to the task. Her Jill should be strong or at least somewhat crazed, considering what she has gone through. Instead, she sleepwalks through her scenes, never conveying more than a blank slate. It seems to be the modus operandi of the current generation of actor, the Kristen Stewart approach to coin a phrase. She doesn’t need to emote to Nicolas Cage levels, but something is better than nothing.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare any better. The cops perusing her show some levels of competency, except when the script takes away their brains. The other characters show up for one scene, spout a line of exposition to get Jill to her next destination, and are never seen or heard from again. They aren’t able to do much with the material given to them, and none of them really try. They are there for their paychecks and it shows.
The film is shot in a monotone blue tint and it showcases the dreariness of this production. There is no excitement to the camera. The images shown are stale and uninteresting. The film is directed by Heitor Dhalia, and if this film showcases the quality of his talents, he needs to find a different job. Never once is there any natural flow to the proceedings. It’s just scene, cut, scene with just the minimalist of threads connecting the two. The action sequences are few and do little to tide the boredom that has already set in. The laziness showcased throughout is extended to the end, of which will remained unspoiled. It takes the path of least resistance and doesn’t rely on much from the previous 80 minutes of screen time, rendering most of the investigation mute.
Gone is a direct-to-DVD movie that was able to sneak its way into the cinemas. It’s a movie that the participants should consider Gone and definitely forgotten. 1 out of 5.
The films I was not able to get to were Big Miracle, The Vow, Star Wars (I saw it 13 years ago and chose not to go back), Wanderlust, and Good Deeds. I doubt any of those three would have topped (or bottomed) the two choices I made and I am glad with my decisions. I will still try and get to those I missed at a later time, but for now it is time to concentrate on March.
Two new additions are added to the multiplex fray. Will one of these new releases earn the praise of best or the scorn of worst? Let’s see. First up we have…
DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX
Based on the beloved Dr. Seuss children’s book, this latest 3D computer animated family adventure concerns the quest of a 12 year old boy. To win the heart of the girl of his dreams, he must embark on a quest to discover the story behind the Lorax, a mythical creature who is trying to protect the world from those who would harm it. It stars the voices of Danny DeVito (Two Daddies?), Zac Efron (The Derby Stallion) and Taylor Swift (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation).
I railed on the computer generated tendencies of today’s animators which may have been too harsh. I simply yearn for the traditional hand drawn format of yesteryear. The truth is there is quality CG animated fare. It’s just usually done by Pixar, who normally takes the time to develop a story and characters for the audience to grow attached to, Cars II notwithstanding. This is not a Pixar release. My enthusiasm for this is waning every time I have to see the trailer (I think it is mostly the “never hit a woman” line that is plastered on every spot I see. I’m guessing that may be the highlight comedic moment of the movie. I hope not). This movie is for kids and not for me, so I may give it a slide. In the end, I will simply end up giving this 2 me’s (aka the Grinch) out of 5. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is rated PG for brief mild language.
The parents are away, leaving the teens to play. What starts out as a simple birthday party soon blossoms into an all-night keg-a-thon enveloping the entire neighborhood, eventually involving the local authorities. The three best friends responsible for the initial party try to document all the happenings with their camcorder.
We’re three months into the year and already have our third “found footage” type film. It’s getting ridiculous. The reliance on such a narrative device is a crutch in this day & age. It’s a cheap and lazy way to make a movie. This trend needs to die down and disappear for a while. I’ll give Chronicle some credit as it found a way to still use it in a more creative manner, but I don’t know if I can let this have the same leeway. It was effective in The Blair Witch Project as at that time, it hadn’t been shoved down our throats. Now, it is tired and worn out. I for one am not looking forward to this picture. Maybe it will prove me wrong. As of now, I’ll just grant it as a 1 obligatory Matthew Broderick and chimpanzee movie remake joke out of 5. Project X is rated R for crude and sexual conduct throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem – all involving teens.
I’ve gone too long on this column and am wrapping it up. Tune in next week when a Civil War vet goes fishing. Until next time, keep on Party Rocking (I hate myself now for using that term.)