Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars 2013 Educated Guesses

A note on this year's predictions - I am a new father as of three days ago and will be watching tonight's ceremony from a hospital room. I had a draft of this mostly done but it still needed to be finished. I decided to go without pictures this time and I also omitted the writing categories this year. I hope you still find it enjoyable and I expect next year will be more typical.

Best Animated Feature
The Pirates: Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Who Will Win: We've got a whopping three stop-motion animated films competing this year, but I think the trophy will go to one of the CGI films - Brave or Wreck-It Ralph. Brave was widely considered average by Pixar's famously high standards but it's been doing well in some of these pre-Oscar competitions. Ralph was more acclaimed and took home a boatload of Annie Awards. It's close but I think Ralph is gonna wreck it in the end.

My Choice: I thought Wreck-It Ralph was a fantastic movie and I would be delighted to see it win. Still, I've got a soft spot for ParaNorman, an underdog nominee about underdogs.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams in The Master
Sally Field in Lincoln
Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables
Helen Hunt in The Sessions
Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook

Who Will Win: This one was over around the time people starting seeing Les Miserables. Specifically, the scene where Hathaway, covered in grime and tears as doomed mother Fantine, belts out "I Dreamed a Dream" while the camera sits still for the entire shot. When that song ended, so did the suspense for this category. She's gotten a lot of hate on the internet for obnoxious acceptance speeches, but that kind of petty stuff rarely has any impact on the actual vote.

My Choice: It's not a huge or showy role, but Jacki Weaver did great work as one of the only relatively stable characters in Silver Lining's cast of eccentrics.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin in Argo
Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained

Who Will Win: Not a slam dunk, but I'm predicting Jones will take it for his hilarious, blistering performance as the anti-slavery Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. His closest competition is Robert De Niro, whose role in SLP is one of the meatiest he's had in many years. It's been decades since a film has gotten a nomination in all four acting categories and I figure it will win at least one...but I think that one is Best Actress.

My Choice: Jones, De Niro, Waltz...I'm good with all of them. All five of these men have won in the past so there's nothing particularly high-stakes about this year's outcome.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva in Amour
Quevenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts in The Impossible

Who Will Win: A highly competitive category. Lawrence has done best in the playoffs, followed closely by Chastain. However, I think Lawrence's biggest competition is not her but Riva, a veteran French actress who may pull a Marion Cotillard and take this trophy out of nowhere. She's 86 years old and has had a remarkable career...but I can also see a scenario where nine-year old Quevenzhane Wallis wins for her already legendary performance. Watts is probably the least likely, just because The Impossible came under heavy criticism for turning the story of the tragic South Asian tsunami into a story about how a bunch of white people had their vacation ruined. I'm going with Lawrence based on her wins leading up to this, but I'm far from certain.

My Choice: Naomi Watts is one of my favorite actresses and I really hope one day she pulls this off. She should have won for Mulholland Drive back in 2001, but I know she'll show up here again soon, hopefully for a stronger film.

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Denzel Washington in Flight

Who Will Win: By contrast, this one is NOT competitive. Daniel-Day Lewis is about to become the first man to win Best Actor three times. The rest of them might as well just stay home.

My Choice: Anyone who has seen Lincoln knows that Day-Lewis has hit the level cap when it comes to acting. Still, I kind of want Jackman to win. He really held that movie together and some of those high notes...damn.

Best Director
Michael Haneke for Amour
Ang Lee for Life of Pi
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Who Will Win: This is usually one of the easier categories to predict. This year, it's been so unpredictable that it's had serious ramifications for the Best Picture race (more on that in a bit). It started when Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow, the directors of two of the most discussed films of the year, were left out. Bigelow's case is understandable - her Zero Dark Thirty has gotten excoriated repeatedly for its implication that torture contributed to the location and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Although it sounds more like a writing problem rather than a directing one and screenwriter Mark Boal is a nominee. Perhaps Bigelow's win for The Hurt Locker three years ago is still too fresh. Affleck's case with Argo was more of a surprise and has been taken as mean-spirited by most of Hollywood, with people asking how long the poor guy was gonna be punished for the era where he was married to Jennifer Lopez and acted in a string of terrible films. But he's become an awesome director and the industry has rallied around him. He even got the Director's Guild of America award, which is often an oracle for this category but won't be this time for obvious reasons.

The irony is that I'm not sure Affleck would have even won had he been nominated. But he would have at least had that acknowledgement of his work and the lack of that acknowledgement is what's driving the backlash. With him out of the running, I would say Spielberg has the best chance (would be his third), but I could also see scenarios where Lee or Haneke upset. Russell's film isn't heavy enough and Zeitlin's nomination is a vote of confidence in his future work. So my tentative prediction is Spielberg but watch this one closely cause it will be suspenseful right up until the end.

My Choice: This category has been such a blindside I heaven't really given much thought to who I actually want to win. How about Zeitlin? That movie really did have a unique vision...and it was his first feature!

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Who Will Win: Let's knock off the outliers. Zero Dark Thirty, briefly a front-runner, has been totally sunk by the ongoing controversy. Amour's premise (old people dying slowly for two hours) alienates too many potential viewers - it will have to settle for the consolation prize of an easy win in the Foreign Language film category. Life of Pi seems to be viewed as mostly a technical achivement, with its support mostly confined to those categories. A movie as provocative and badass as Django Unchained has no chance. Beasts of the Southern Wild has done well to get this far but it won't go the final distance.

Now for the stronger contenders. Les Miserables has its fans but also some pretty ardent detractors, making it too polarizing for the Academy's preferential ballots to work in its favor. Silver Linings Playbook is clearly popular among the Academy members but it's also at least kind of a comedy and those almost never win Best Picture. So it comes down to the final two. Lincoln was the front-runner for a while and still leads in terms of nominations. Under normal circumstances, I'd call it a shoo-in...but those are not the circumstances we're seeing this year. Argo director Ben Affleck's lack of a nomination was so scandalous that the movie has swept the guild awards of the last several weeks. Those awards, much more so than the Golden Globes (although Argo won that too), are a good indicator of how the Oscars will go. It also doesn't hurt that the film casts its Hollywood characters in a highly positive light. Argo's looking good for the win, which would make it the first film since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 to win the top prize without even a nomination for Best Director. Lincoln may come back, but it doesn't seem likely.

My Choice: I really enjoyed Argo, but I thought Django was a spectacular movie and very relevant to the times we live in. I would love to see it win, but it's just too edgy.

That's that. The ceremony starts in a few hours!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Felix the Cat (1989)

Well, this goes to show that digging up past fascinations doesn't always work out. I found a lot to appreciate about Casshan and was ultimately blown away by Teknoman, so I felt good tracking down this animated film that utterly enchanted me one night when I was about 7 or 8 years old.'s actually quite atrocious.

I'm not talking about the ancient Felix the Cat cartoons, those are an essential part of animation's early history (his first appearance on screen in Feline Follies was almost a decade before Steamboat Willie introduced Mickey Mouse). This feature-length film was a 1980s effort to revive the character for a new generation of youngsters growing up in the Disney Renaissance of that era. That comparison is not very kind to this particular film - it's no Beauty and the Beast. The freewheeling storyline places Felix in an adventure ripped right out of Star Wars - he gets a magical transmission from a princess in distress, who is in the clutches of a half-man half-machine villain.

One problem early on is that Felix just won't shut up. Despite his origins in silent cinema, any time he's on screen he's squawking away in that chirpy voice of his. Puns and pop-cultural references abound - in one bit, he tells the skull of a dead miner that it needs a Big Mac. Living creatures have no awareness of their privilege. But his constant jabbering is just one example of how the movie is just so busy, like they're afraid any pauses will lose the attention of the little kids. You still see this attitude today, especially in the Dreamworks animated films. But there may be something to this approach since I distinctly remember being thrilled by this when I saw it as a kid.

I think it was the very storytelling I now regard as messy or incoherent that made it so appealing. In its own bonkers way, it's very imaginative and colorful. It was something I might have imagined as a kid. The suggestion that a movie made by a studio full of professionals probably should be more competent than what an eight-year-old can dream up was not something I considered. Speaking of that, I miss playing pretend. That was really fun.

Academy Award predictions will be coming very soon (ceremony is this weekend). I have The Pirates of Dark Water on deck for the next installment of the Nostalgia Series. Hope to see you then!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Actual Sunlight

Whenever someone asks me what the key to making a successful RPG Maker game is, I always have the same answer - Focus on your strengths and make the game based on them. Don't try and make everything perfect just to meet the RM community's absurd standards. Perfectionism is the great foe of the RM scene, as too many highly talented creators abandon their projects when they realize that their quest to avoid every possible criticism that could ever be given is doomed to failure. This philosophy has served me well and makes it highly satisfying when a game like Actual Sunlight comes along and gets raves from big-time gaming websites solely on the strength of its top-notch writing.

Created by Will O'Neill, Actual Sunlight is the story of Evan Winter, a highly intelligent and talented guy whose skills are rendered useless by the severe depression that slowly destroys his life. The story is unbelievably bleak from the first few minutes on, with details so specific and familiar that it becomes clear this tale is at least a little autobiographical. We follow Evan on his daily routine as he avoids sitting too close to other human beings on the bus, wastes his time at a miserable corporate job and buys new video games despite knowing that the novelty won't bring him much relief from the burden of angst he's always carrying around. The highly linear nature of the story is essential to its overall theme, which culminates in the brilliant, nightmarish finale that turns the simplest RPG Maker functions into a demonstration of how depression can render a person completely powerless.

The game is rightfully getting acclaim for its unflinching portrait of depression, but I feel like what's missing from the discussion is how much it nails the soul-sucking corporate world that preys on people of the protagonist's generation (and mine). Yes, Evan is ultimately responsible for his own life and his own actions, but our shallow, sociopathic society is not doing people like him any favors. The office scenes in Actual Sunlight are a nice demonstration of "presenteeism" - this idea companies push that you should never ever take any time off becuase your work is just so important, so important that you get paid like crap as the joy is siphoned out of your life. Buy into that for too long and you end up like Troy, a co-worker of Evan's whose relentless commitment to work alienates the very family he was working so hard to provide for. I identified with Troy even more than with Evan, despite being closer to the latter in age, but I suspect my impending fatherhood is the reason for that.

As a veteran of the RPG Maker engine, I can point out little things to criticize. The buzzing noise that accompanies most of the text gets old quick, the maps (using my friend Lunarea's modern tileset) are very sparse, and Evan's chibi sprite is unable to convey his supposed obesity. But you know what? I can point all that stuff out, but I honestly don't care about any of that because this game is special. It is not easy to put out something this personal without it being insufferable. I'm not sure I'd call it "fun," but it's a riveting and undeniably brilliant piece of work.

The game can be found at its official site, along with an Indiegogo campaign to beef up the art assets. I am looking very forward to seeing more of the creator's work.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Disney still wishy-washy about Gargoyles DVD release

Well, I think an apology is in order. If anyone read my post in September about how a Disney rep had indicated to me that the long-delayed Gargoyles Season 2, Volume 2 DVD would finally get released, they may have gotten excited. And then watched that excitement turn into familiar disappointment as 2012 ended with no additional news, not even a release date.

I reached out to Disney again, referencing our past correspondence and pointing out that it was now 2013. This time, I was told "Although we do not have an official release date set, we would be happy to share with the rest of our team that you would like to have this available for purchase."

Oh, bullshit. If desire among fans for the release played any role in this, we would have had this DVD years ago. Gargoyles fans are a dedicated bunch, sometimes disturbingly so. There's one guy in particular whose screen name I've started to recognize because he shows up anywhere this DVD issue is mentioned, including this blog. Disney has to be constantly hearing from superfans like that and yet so far, they've only toyed with the idea.

Despite that, they still must not think there are enough fans out there to make the release profitable. That's hard to imagine, but it must be the reason. Sometimes fans say that Disney hates the show, but that's ridiculous. Money drives these decisions and nothing more. But still, I see on the Disney DVD release site that The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a very interesting but not necessarily beloved animated feature of theirs, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, one of those cash grab straight-to-home-video sequels that the company binged on in the 90s, are getting released soon. I can't imagine people are gonna be banging down the doors to get those. The original Hunchback has been released on DVD in the past and the people who really like it probably already have it.

The original response I got indicates that Disney at least considered the Gargoyles release. So in the highly unlikely chance that someone connected to the company sees this...just release the frickin' thing already. We will reward you with money. Not like Wreck-It Ralph money or anything, but a nice amount.

If anyone wants to pester them, the email is