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February 25, 2007

Catching up with the Oscar Nominees in Chiang Mai, Thailand

As it turns out, being in Thailand has not been an obstacle in seeing several Oscar nominated movies before the awards show. Several of the films are now out on DVD, even before they have their theatrical run. These are not the kind of DVDs that are the work of someone who snuck a camera into the theater. What I've seen are quite watchable. I am watching the DVDs like the average Thai, on an old twenty inch screen TV with monophonic sound. This is hardly the ideal way to see any movies, although with the inflated reputations of some of these films, they are quite literally cut down to size.

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One film I will probably see again to evaluate better is Volver. To coin a phrase, the subitles were lost in translation. While I could recognize certain visual motifs, primarily using the color red, based on imagery alone, Volver was less interesting than Talk to Her among Almodovar's more recent films. My biggest problem was trying to follow what came off as a Spanish language talk fest, with subtitles written by someone not fluent in English. Between questionable choices of words and syntax, trying to watch Volver turned out to be so laborious that I fell asleep during the last half hour. I've seen all of Almodovar's films and enjoyed most of them to want to give Volver a second chance.

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Pan's Labyrinth had better subtitles, although my significant other questioned the English language title as there is no Pan. "Labyrinth of the Faun" is certainly more accurate. With a narrative tied to the Spanish Civil War, del Toro has created a film that works as a companion piece to his The Devil's Backbone. With a young girl as the main character, Pan's Labyrinth can also be viewed as taking the themes of Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, with a concrete presentation of the fantasy elements. Erice was inspired by James Whale's Frankestein, particularly the scene where the Frankenstein monster encounters the young girl by the lake. For all three filmmakers, the worst monsters come in human form. Del Toro and Erice's films are linked by characters who believe in the power of story telling. In Erice's film of two very young girls, the older one convinces her younger sister that the Frankenstein monster that they glimpsed on the movie screen now lives just outside their small village. Del Toro's film begins with Ofelia more interested in her books than the outside world, reading to herself, and telling the stories to her unborn brother.

Pan's Labyrinth also, perhaps unintentionally, reflects the changes in fantasy film in the past thirty years which brings up some questions: Are films that rely on computer generated special effects the result simply on the availability of the technology or customer demand or both? Conversely, would a film that suggests a fantasy world such as Curse of the Cat People been made had there been different technology available? Would a person who grew up with CGI even ask these kinds of questions? I sometimes wonder about the loss of the sense of magic when special effects are no longer special, and there is so much seen, denying the audience the ability to imagine.

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The ability to exactly reproduce a filmmaker's vision is what hobbles Apocalypto. I liked the film's opening zoom lens shot, closing in on some bushes in a jungle, followed by the hunt for a wild boar by a group of Mayans. After that were a couple of scenes that were lifted from Mel Gibson's book of practical and humiliating jokes. Following these light-hearted moments are scenes of people getting spears through their stomachs, an arrow through the mouth, beheadings, burnings, a swarm of angry bees, a jaguar who bites off someone's face, and a woman giving birth while stuck at the bottom of a pit filling with water while her young son looks on helplessly. As a filmmaker, Mel Gibson has a great eye for detail and dramatic camera angles. When it comes to scenes of torture, both with the films he stars in, and those he has directed, the concept of restraint is lacking. Where I will also give Gibson credit is that I could not imagine anyone else as having made Apocalypto. I could easily see Gibson playing every part in the film with every grin, gimace, laugh and scream. It may also be a backhanded compliment to say that based on what I saw in Apocalypto, Mel Gibson would be the perfect director to make a dramatic film about Abu Ghraib.

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Until I saw The Queen, I did not realize how enormous the public display of grief was in response to the death of Princess Diana. The most most impressive image in the film was an overhead shot of the thousands of flowers in front of Buckingham Palace. Helen Mirren was good, but is a gap between what's been nominated, and what I have actually seen of films that would have qualified. Two memorable performances not nominated belong to Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page in The Notorious Bettie Page and Diane Lane as Toni Mannix in Hollywoodland, again women dealing with public scandal.

What I thought interesting about The Queen was the examination of power. The film could have been easily retitled "The Seduction of Tony Blair". The evolution of Blair from a would-be revolutionary to virtually an apologist for the Royal family had greater intrigue, and timely interest considering the current state of British politics. I also liked the sympathetic portrayal of Prince Charles, caught between his sense of the changing times and his obligations to tradition, and conflicting family loyalties.

I did my shoppping today, with fresh expresso and breakfast pastries. If all goes well, I will live blog while discovering what it is like to watch the Academy Awards from a far different time zone in another country.

Posted by peter at February 25, 2007 06:07 AM

Comments

I think Apocalypto is a great movie at this time. I like a historic drama that Mel Gibson had made. The Passion of The Christ is good too but I like this film more than that one. The story setting is so fantastic--simple but cool, like we retrospect to the past.

Posted by: gorilakids at August 28, 2007 03:58 AM

I just got to see Pan's Labyrinth the other night. Freaky, freaky stuff. Well-made movie, though.

Posted by: James Benham at August 28, 2007 11:06 PM

Just watched Apocalypto with the family the other night; they remarked it was the first time they were ever able to forget about subtitles while watching a movie.

Posted by: Bond at November 15, 2007 01:58 PM

eh meh god! this is an insane picture!

Posted by: viviana at February 5, 2009 03:19 PM