Cake, candles and celluloid

Tuesday, 17 August 2004 — 3:25pm | Film

It’s that time of the year again. I refer not to my birthday, which I am commemorating throughout the week by watching all five Pixar features back-to-back, but that mid-year mark in late August when the summer movie season is effectively over, and we are halfway from one Oscar season to the next. You can always tell when it hits, because if you go to the cinema in late July and August, all you see are uninspiring trailers for the dud-dumping that goes on in September and early October, one of the two perennial droughts where studios release the films they are not particularly proud to back (the other being late January to early April). Now that the release date lineup for the next few months is falling into place and we are finally seeing trailers for potential contenders, it is high time to finally get excited about movies again. As was the case last year, columnist David Poland is the Oscar heavyweight in the prediction game with his 30 Weeks to Oscar chart, and OscarWatch.com’s Kris Tapley is a pundit to watch.

This is another back-heavy year in the making, because so far, the year has offered practically nothing in the way of Oscar contenders. Remarkably, the three best films I saw this year were all sequels – Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Spider-Man 2. I’m not sure if this speaks to the increasing quality of sequels, which is only the case with Spider-Man given that Kill Bill was one movie sliced in half and Azkaban was based on an established marvel of a literary follow-up, or the generally lacklustre performance of original pieces this summer, but what is certain is that none of them are in contention. The only film released this year that may clinch a Best Picture nomination is The Passion of the Christ, and that depends on the extent to which the November-December crop meets expectations. It stands virtually no chance of winning.

Rather than delivering my own predictions about awarding films that are weeks or months away from hitting theatres, I will offer a brief guide to the remaining 2004 releases that I am most anticipating, the ones that I think have the most potential to be permanent five-star additions to my personal hall of fame. These are the ones I will see on the opening weekend, if not the opening day. There are six of them; in order of release, they are:

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (9/17) – This was originally slated for a June release right in the path of Spider-Man 2, and was wisely bumped to September, where it is the only film on the schedule that even remotely piques my interest. I’m unabashedly a sucker for movies that take a genre and explore it to the farthest corners, and Kerry Conran’s special effects extravaganza looks to do just that with the same pulp sci-fi serials of yore that inspired George Lucas. The only thing I am a little concerned about is that everything I’ve seen of the film looks a little soft and feathery, so hopefully the blending between live actors and animated backgrounds is more seamless in the final product. Sequels aside, this year has yet to see a great effects-driven popcorn movie, and Sky Captain may be the one to step up to the plate. The advance screening at Comic-Con reportedly brought down the house. Killer robots, flying aces and 1930s costumes? Just my type.

The Incredibles (11/5) – I have long made it clear, and by “long” I mean since I saw the footage attached to Finding Nemo fifteen months ago, that if at the beginning of the year I was told I could only go to the cinema once until 2005, this superhero blockbuster in the making would unquestionably be the one I chose to watch. Pixar, more than any production studio in history, commands total brand loyalty from this here writer. The studio is five for five when it comes to knocking projects out of the park (or in the case of Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, well into the stratosphere). Directed by Brad Bird, who worked on The Simpsons and is best known for his wondrous but largely unnoticed The Iron Giant, early word on The Incredibles is that Pixar might have outdone itself again. As a perk, as if it needed any, it will likely sport the first teaser trailers for both Revenge of the Sith and Cars, the biggest blips on my 2005 radar.

Alexander (11/5) – The Incredibles gets opening-day priority, but I will likely also be watching Oliver Stone’s latest on the 5-7 November weekend. It’s been a full nine years since the last truly classic historical hero epic, Braveheart. (I’m ignoring The Lord of the Rings here because while I consider Middle-Earth a part of our history, most do not; Gladiator, while a lot of fun, was itself an entirely fictional piece in a historical setting.) Alexander may be the breakthrough picture that reminds us that the legendary period costume dramas about larger-than-life historical figures never rested on spectacularly bloody battles and casts of thousands, but on a thorough interpretation of what made these people tick, what guided their actions and decisions, and what consequences they had to face. See Lawrence of Arabia for details.

Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (11/26) – I’m a huge admirer of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s previous collaboration with Audrey Tautou, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, and still find it to be one of the most imaginative and endearing comedies in recent memory. Un Long Dimanche (to be released here under the title A Very Long Engagement, I hear) is something completely different, a war bride drama based on a World War I novel, something that on the surface might sound like a familiar premise to those of you who saw last year’s Cold Mountain. This is shaping up to be a must-see, and the chief concern is whether and when the local arthouse screens will pick it up.

The Aviator (12/17) – Martin Scorsese’s second film starring Leonardo DiCaprio (the first being the disappointing Gangs of New York), a biographical picture about aviator and film director Howard Hughes, is considered to be this year’s favourite for Best Picture. Judging from the footage and the pedigree of the people involved, I cannot disagree. The problem is that word on the street indicates it is behind schedule and may be delayed to 2005. DiCaprio convinced me in Catch Me If You Can that paired with the right director, he is a delightful actor to watch. As long as this movie avoids the trap of being two-thirds classic, one-third nosedive as was the case with Gangs, it’s almost guaranteed to be a high-quality masterwork.

The Phantom of the Opera (12/24) – As I have professed on many an occasion, it is important to me on a very personal level that this film be good. But let’s be optimistic for a second: other than the fact that Joel Schumacher’s been a marked man among movie buffs since Batman and Robin, Phantom has yet to raise any early warning alarms, and is actually shaping up to be what I imagined. And this is a case where just being what I imagined is more than sufficient to place it in the pantheon of everlasting classics, as was the case with The Lord of the Rings, the last adaptation I cared about this much. I know I am not alone when it comes to being sentimentally attached to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s finest work, and this is one chandelier nobody wants to see crash to the floor.

In addition to these six, there are a number of upcoming movies that I will probably see, though I do not consider them exciting priorities. As an animation aficionado I cannot miss Shark Tale or The Polar Express, and while I am highly sceptical about both of them in different ways, I will at least see them out of curiosity. I’m hearing good things about Ray, the impeccably timely biography of the late Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx, who allegedly underwent a procedure that rendered him temporarily blind in order to fit into the role. Being busy over the past few weeks I also have to catch up on the late-summer releases that have garnered some acclaim, among them The Bourne Supremacy, Collateral and Napoleon Dynamite. Garden State has not hit theatres here yet but is set to expand on Friday. Once those are out of the way, I may compose a more comprehensive recap of this year’s summer stable.

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