Friday, June 24, 2016

Missmediajunkie v. Trailers

I used to adore trailers.  They were such a highlight of the moviegoing experience for me, that sometimes I was actually disappointed when they ended and the feature presentation began.  I have fond memories of the late '90s, when watching a trailer over a 56K connection meant waiting several minutes for the video to load, especially if you wanted one of the larger sizes.  The release of new ones for anticipated movies always felt like an event.  But while I was putting together the most recent "Trailers! Trailers!" post, it hit me how my attitudes toward trailers have almost entirely changed over the last few years.  Sure, I still watch them and analyze them and write about them, but a lot of the fun is gone.

There are the obvious culprits.  Trailers are so accessible now, you can see them at any time on demand, not just in theaters or prepended to home media releases.  The information that they contain is often available through many other outlets.  There's the oversaturation issue - too many trailers spoiling too many surprises have been blamed for diminishing the actual movie watching experience.  There are some good arguments for avoiding trailers altogether.  However, the trailers themselves haven't really changed all that much over the years, and that includes the amount of spoilers.  I can still name plenty of good ones from the last year or so - "Whiplash," "Black Mass," and the various "Force Awakens" trailers.

A big thing that has changed, however, is presentation.  There's been a particularly annoying development recently, the pre-trailer trailer, or a five-second preview for a trailer leading into the actual trailer.  These have been implemented on Youtube and other platforms to keep potential viewers from skipping them when they autoplay.  Of course, if you're trying to watch the trailer directly, they're terrible.  And often, there are the mood-wrecking post-trailer ads that will point you to a film's website, supplementary material, or other trailers.  Film trailers have long been considered content in and of themselves, but are now being packaged and promoted more aggressively than ever.  I admit that I'm wary of watching the latest "Bourne" trailer because the previews for the preview have been so obnoxious, though I'm still looking forward to the actual film.

Then there's the whole culture around movie trailers, which has grown increasingly hostile.  Most of the highly anticipated blockbusters have their trailers dissected and analyzed frame by frame these days, and filmmakers have even been throwing in Easter eggs for the particularly rabid fans to find.  Massive controversies can erupt over the tiniest details, which are taken out of the context of a finished film, of course.  The recent "Ghostbusters" teaser was a pretty dull and uninspired affair, but the negative reaction to it has been comically over the top, indicating that many viewers are writing the film off sight unseen.  Usually it's the other way around.  Trailers are major drivers of hype, and if you want to avoid the hype surrounding a new release, you need to steer clear of the trailer discussions online.  And as much as people complain about the spoilers in the trailers, spoilers in the discussions of trailers are endemic.

I still love getting a first peek at an anticipated film, but dealing with everything that comes with a trailer is getting increasingly difficult.  Certainly my own tastes have changed over the years and I've learned that knowing less about a film beforehand is usually better than knowing more.  For most of the studio films that I want to see, I stop after the initial teaser - most of them are hitting the two minute mark and are essentially full-length trailers anyway.   I think a large part of my growing ambivalence towards trailers is that I'm not actually seeing them in nearly the numbers that I used to.  Trips to physical theaters are still rare for the time being, due to personal issues, and I watch so many films through VOD or other online outlets where trailers are not attached.  In short, I've simply fallen out of the habit of watching them.

I don't actually watch trailers unless I go looking for them, and then it's usually for films I'm already interested in watching.  Watching trailers, oddly, has become a bit of a chore when I no longer depend on them to figure out which movies I want to watch.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Son of Saul" and "The Second Mother"

Closing out my reviews of the films of 2015 with some very late entries, but I finally saw "Son of Saul" and thought I'd pair it up with another foreign language film I wanted to highlight from last year, "The Second Mother."

"Saul" is the one that's gotten all the attention, and rightly so, because it's such a daring, instantly compelling story told in such a memorable way.  In the waning days of WWII, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), is a member of a sonderkommando, a unit of workers made up of recruited prisoners, at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Saul's unit works in the gas chambers, and one day he comes across the body of a boy who he believes to be his son.  He wants to bury him properly, but has to find a way to both secure the corpse, and find a rabbi who will help him with the proper funeral rites.  Other workers, Abraham (Levente Molnár) and Biedermann (Urs Rechn), are planning a rebellion and Saul becomes involved in their efforts to help further his own goals. 

Due to the subject matter alone, "Son of Saul" is an intense experience.  The opening scene systematically shows Jewish prisoners arriving at the camp and being sent to their deaths in the gas chambers.  However, we almost never see any of the deaths or the other atrocities directly.  The camera stays with Saul, who waits outside of the gas chambers and carefully keeps his distance from the Nazi soldiers.  The framing is very tight and our field of vision is often limited to whatever Saul sees, creating this little bubble of relative safety in the midst of all the horror.  It feels a little gimmicky at first, but the approach makes many of the worst scenes of violence and cruelty more bearable for the viewer, and creates just enough emotional distance from the killings so that the viewer can keep their focus on what Saul is doing.

This is director László Nemes' first film, and an extremely assured piece of work.  Though the story seems small in scope, it's structured in such a way that it lets the viewer see the ins and outs of life in the concentration camp in great detail.  You can appreciate how much work was involved in keeping the operation going, and the stresses on everyone involved on multiple levels.  Géza Röhrig's tense, haunted performance is so important here, because it keeps everything grounded and immediate.  I like that there's also such an ambiguity an anonymity to Saul.  He's almost constantly onscreen but we learn very little about him beyond his foolhardy quest and his reactions in the moment.  Yet in the end, it's impossible not to become invested in his story, and to cheer on his minor victories in the face of so much tragedy.

"The Second Mother" is a much easier watch, a light Brazilian dramedy about a housekeeper named Val (Regina Casé).  She works for a wealthy family in urban São Paulo, made up of mother Barbara (Karine Teles), father Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), and teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), who Val has played a large part in raising.  It's been years since Val has seen her own daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), who is the same age as Fabinho and lives with relatives.  One day, Jessica calls to ask if she can come stay with her mother while she studies for her university exams.  This arrangement that initially seems harmless enough, but fiercely independent, strong-minded Jessica's arrival upends the usual dynamics of the household, and tests all the social and familial tensions between Val and her employers.

Regina Casé's Val is the center of the film, and a constant source of enjoyment.  Watching her fret over Jessica's impropriety, and trying to keep everyone's feathers from getting ruffled, it's clear that while Barbara may be the boss of the household, it's Val who is the heart.  The film is so easy to get caught up in because we care so much about Val, and Val cares so much about everyone else.  And watching her realize how important she is, and slowly letting go of her dogged adherence to the established hierarchy, is an absolute joy.  Karine Teles and Camila Márdila are also excellent, warily circling each other and inevitably stepping on each other's toes.  Never has the act of eating ice cream been so nerve wracking to behold.

"The Second Mother" was written and directed by  Anna Muylaert specifically to bring attention to women like Val, who she has claimed to be far too unappreciated.  I love how confrontational Muylaert's approach to the material is, how it isn't afraid to provoke and antagonize while still retaining sympathy for all of its characters.  Even Barbara, who is the clearest antagonist, is a concerned, protective mother above all else.  The film aims barbs at Brazil's social ills specifically, but the themes and the relationships are wonderfully universal.  And the film overall turns out to be a pleasantly accessible, unfussy crowd-pleaser. 


Saturday, June 18, 2016

"James White" and "Experimenter"

I've spent the past few weeks dutifully catching up on the award season "also rans," the movies that seem to have been tailor made for an Oscar campaign, but just weren't quite good enough to get there.  Off the top of my head this includes Stephen Frears' "The Program," Edward Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice," Nicholas Hytner's "The Lady in the Van," Sarah Gavron's "Suffragette,"  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck "s "Mississippi Grind," and Angelina Jolie "By the Sea."  None of them are worthy of much note. However, there are two titles that I do want to highlight, that I found in that pile: "James White" and "Experimenter."  Both are indie pics that got some attention for good performances, but never had a chance at getting more of the spotlight.  I want to devote some space to them here - mostly because I don't have room for these two in my upcoming 2015 Top Ten list, and both films are good enough features that I feel bad about it.

First up, "James White," the debut of director Josh Mond.  James (Christopher Abbott), is a familiar twenty-something New Yorker who has spent the last few years steadfastly not growing up.  He lives on his cancer-stricken mother's couch, indulges several vices and bad habits with exasperating regularity, and wants nothing more than to not get on with life.  However, soon he doesn't have a choice in a matter.  His mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is slowly but surely dying, and James has to act as her caretaker, even though he's woefully unprepared for the task.  Shot vérité style with a paucity of locations, this domestic drama initially feels a little too familiar, like it's slacker main character.  However, it distinguishes itself in a hurry, painting a heartbreaking portrait of two difficult people at the hardest point in their lives.  Abbott and Nixon are both fantastic in the film, and it'll be impossible for me to view either actor the same way after this movie.

It is so satisfying to watch James learn to summon all these hidden reserves of courage, empathy and sheer willpower that I don't think he realized that he had.  We first meet him at his estranged father's wake, where he lashes the way that we expect a spoiled, entitled young reprobate would.  However, the more time we spend with James, the more the film helps us to probe beneath the surface.  James may not know what he's doing, but it turns out he's exactly who should be there in a crisis, and his priorities shift immediately when they must.  He and Gail initially seem to be on the outs with each other, but when they find themselves facing the worst case scenario, their relationship is suddenly forced into a very different place, and their roles have to change accordingly.  Cancer narratives tend to follow a certain pattern, and "James White" is no exception.  However, I've rarely seen any that are this fearlessly intimate, that put the viewer so close to James's vulnerability, helplessness, and raw despair.

My favorite scene of 2015 is the bathroom conversation where James relays a fantasy of their lives to Gail to help calm her down during a bad episode.  It's a moment of tender happiness at the end of a harrowing sequence of pain and terror.  James does all the talking, but the scene only hits as hard as it does because of both Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon.  Nixon's expressions and reactions convey so much, and her face often fills much of the frame. Abbott, meanwhile, suggests James's newfound maturity and confidence as he works through his monologue.  It's a breakthrough that feels earned here, that feels right for the characters.  And in spite of how dark and how emotionally fraught "James White" is, I came away from it with a genuine sense of hopefulness and fulfillment that is about the rarest thing in modern cinema these days.  And it's something I'll be holding on to for a long time.

Now on to "Experimenter," a thoughtful look at the life and times of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and the famous Milgram experiments, which tested obedience to authority.  Amusingly, descriptions in a few places have categorized "Experimenter" as an "experimental biopic," because it has some unconventional narrative techniques, and occasionally plays fast and loose with the fourth wall.  First, Milgram is both the subject and the host of the show, presenting scenes from his life and adding dry commentary where appropriate.  The story mostly follows his career during and after the famous obedience experiments, especially Milgram's struggles to weather the controversy that followed.  We also spend some time with Milgram's wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) and learn about a few of Milgram's other social psychology experiments, but it's the obedience experiments that dominate the film.

I appreciate that the experiments, which have often been portrayed with such sinister connotations, are given so much careful, considered context here.  The film opens with Milgram and his collaborators matter-of-factly carrying out the most famous version of the experiment from start to finish.  Milgram comes across as cold, even a little flippant about what he's doing.  However, the experiment is never sensationalized, unlike last year's other true life psychology drama, "The Stanford Prison Experiment."  And as "Experimenter" goes on, it becomes even less sensationalized, as Milgram is forced to defend himself against charges of unethical behavior and flawed methodology.  There's an uncomfortable, amusing debriefing sequence where Milgram is forced to be face to face with many of the experiment's less satisfied subjects.  It says more about Milgram's personal flaws than his critics ever could.

"Experimenter" is so straightforward that it doesn't offer much by way of traditional dramatic conflicts.  Some viewers will surely find the movie dull, but I liked how it made room for real discussions to take place, and how committed it was to the concept of letting Milgram have his say on his legacy.  Stanley Milgram is fascinating enough that his life doesn't need any embellishing.  Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Milgram, an unreliable but honest and insightful narrator. The film, directed by Michael Almereyda, clearly had almost no budget to speak of.  However, its recreations of the '60s and '70s are convincing, and I liked the little trick of having the actors act against projected video footage of real locations in a few scenes.  It's a good reminder that you don't need many frills make a great film, and "Experimenter" outdoes most of the other biopics of 2015 by a wide margin.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Heights of "High-Rise"

Reactions have been very mixed towards Ben Wheatley's adaptation of "High-Rise," the J.G. Ballard dystopian novel.  Some love it and some hate it.  Those who expected a genre film that would follow the expected rules of genre films hated it.  Those who expected a more faithful and explicit retelling of the events of the novel hated it.  I fall into neither of those groups and loved it, as a full throated satire about social unrest and class warfare.  I admit that I was a little worried by the pairing of director and material - Ben Wheatley's "Kill List" did nothing for me - but now there's no doubt in my mind that he was exactly the right director to bring "High-Rise" to the screen. 

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), moves into a new apartment on the 25th floor of a new luxury high-rise complex on the outskirts of London.  Quickly, he learns that the tenants have adopted a strict hierarchy, with the wealthy elite on the top floors, and the less well-off occupying the lower floors.  Laing becomes involved with a single woman named Charlotte (Sienna Miller) a few floors up, and at one of her parties meets a documentary filmmaker, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and his pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), from the lower floors.  Laing is also invited to the penthouse on the 40th floor to meet the high-rise's visionary architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), but is later ejected from a party by his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes), limiting Laing's social mobility.  Tensions rise as problems in the high-rise's operations begin to crop up.  Garbage chutes are blocked, the power becomes intermittent, and frictions between residents begin to escalate.  Soon, the system begins to break down, but the tribalism of the high-rise dwellers only increases.

Wheatley's "High-Rise" has a lot in common with Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," which also packed the whole of human society into a single, limited geographical area, and examined social mechanisms through a revolution in miniature.  More importantly, everything in these movies is highly stylized, and the plot only makes any kind of sense if you treat it as allegorical.  In "High-Rise," the state of the building mirrors the social order, while Laing's state of mind is linked to his own apartment, full of still unpacked boxes.  Parties operate as displays of power, and various animals seem to be linked to systems of morality.  Also, though the high-rise is billed as being high tech and futuristic, Wheatley sets the film in the 1970s, when the novel was originally written, giving the premise a nostalgic twist.  '70s design elements and culture are heavily incorporated throughout, including a repurposed ABBA song as one of the main themes, giving the universe a unique atmosphere that will probably help it age better than its similar genre contemporaries.  The major exception to this is the main character, bland and anonymous in timeless gray suits, signaling that he's having trouble fitting in. 

Where most of the viewers who disliked the film seem to have run into trouble is with the pacing.  Wheatley tends to skip over considerable amounts of time in the space of a quick montage, and explicit exposition is rare.  The high-rise falls into a state of anarchy very quickly, and all the viewer often has to go on are contextual cues and coded dialogue to decipher various plots.  I don't think it helps that Laing is such a slippery central figure, who is clearly losing his grip as time goes on.  However, Tom Hiddleston's performance is excellent, always maintaining a distance from the viewer, and using the character's ambiguity to his advantage.  It takes a while to realize that while Laing is presented as a potential hero, he becomes at least as demented as anyone else in the building by the end.  You can read the plot as being highly filtered through his unreliable POV, or as just a further extension of his mental breakdown. 
In short, "High-Rise" is a film that I think the viewer has to really engage with in order to enjoy it, and not everyone will.  It's full of little details, ominous symbols and visual motifs that keep coming back in different ways like running jokes.  It's very ambitious in its construction and unapologetically intelligent, tackling social, political and cultural criticisms, and ends with a pointed jab at Thatcherism.  I could compare this to so many other movies, and yet the whole is just so much more cohesive and better fleshed out than most other dystopian films I could name.  I think it could have answered a few of the more obvious questions for narrative clarity - what is going outside of the building? - but at the same time I appreciate that Wheatley kept the focus so tight on a small group of characters.  It allows for the interpersonal drama to really build up to something substantial.

I haven't even talked about the other performances - Evans, Moss, and Miller are all in fine form - or the epic production design that makes the high-rise very much the real star of the film, or the '70s inspired cinematography, or so many other things that help "High-Rise" stand out from the crowd.  But this review is already running long, and if I go on for much longer, I run a significant risk of gushing.  I can't help it.  This has everything I want in a good genre film, and more.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

My Favorite Michelangelo Antonioni Film

Michelangelo Antonioni's films are the very definition of arthouse cinema.  They have unorthodox narratives, often contain heady themes, and the later ones were usually built around landscapes and environments rather than performances.  They require the viewer to let go of preconceived notions of film to even approach them.  He caused a sensation with "L'Avventura" by presenting a mystery that is never resolved, in a film full of long shots where nothing apparently happens.  All Antonioni films were about social alienation in one form or another.  However, as time went on his characters spoke less and the camera more.  He became less concerned with traditional narratives, and instead on mood, atmosphere, and tone.  I admit I haven't always had the patience or the concentration to appreciate his work.  However, when I did connect to one of his films, the experience was entrancing.

"Red Desert" was the one I found the most affecting.  A woman named Giuliana (Monica Vitti) has recently been through a traumatic car accident, and is suffering from loneliness and alienation.  She has a young son, and her husband Ugo manages a petrochemical plant near Ravenna, Italy.  The area has become heavily industrialized and polluted, perhaps mirroring Giuliana's new state of mind and attitude toward the world.  Everywhere she goes seems to be contaminated.  She gradually becomes involved with Corrado (Richard Harris), a visiting business associate of Ugo's, and reveals her troubles to him.  He's sympathetic, having many of the same feeling toward the state of the world, but has learned to cope.  Giuliana tries to reconcile herself with her surroundings, but the people she encounters in social situations, her family, and ever her dreams continue to cause her anxiety. 

There is no literal desert in the film, but rather a metaphorical one created in Giuliana's mind.  Antonioni presents the world as the character views it, a looming expanse, full of soft colors, devoid of life, and terribly empty.  The only major landmarks are the hallmarks of industrialization: the smoke-spewing factories, construction cranes, and pieces of large machinery.  Giuliana is left adrift in the landscape, constantly wandering from place to place, constantly compelled to separate herself from others.  This was the director's first color film, and he was determined not to be limited by reality, opting instead for more stylized, impressionistic visuals.  He went so far as to have trees and grass painted grey to fit his specific palette of muted tones.  The color red appears repeatedly, but mostly in the interiors, when Giuliana manages to connect with other people briefly.  It's one of the few bright colors in Giuliana's world of grays and pastels, where everything seems to be on the verge of disappearing into the fog of polluted air. 

Monica Vitti gained a reputation for detached, cool characters after appearing in three of Antonioni's previous films playing similar characters.  Giuliana stands out, however, because her alienation is the most extreme, and Vitti is excellent at getting across her growing neurosis.  All the other actors seem to have been cast to be slightly off balance with her.  Richard Harris, a British actor known for emotional, turbulent performances, is very cool here, clearly an outsider with all his dialogue dubbed in Italian.  Carlo Chionetti, a Milanese lawyer who appeared in no other acting roles, was cast as Ugo.  As in all of Antonioni's films, social outings only serve to drive the characters further apart and highlight their isolation.  The small talk full of innuendoes becomes part of the din of industrialization.  And while we're on the subject of the sound design, "Red Desert" has a very memorable one.  Like the visuals, the soundtrack is impressionistic.  It uses a combination of machine noises and an electronic music score to make the atmosphere even more uneasy and unsettling.

Antonioni's films have been compared to poetry in the way the it conveys themes and ideas.  You could watch "Red Desert" and conclude that Giuliana's mental ailment to be due to a fear of men, or sexual dysfunction, or a rejection of Italian social mores, or plenty more.  The film invites interpretation, suggesting that the scenes where nothing happens may actually be the most telling.  Antonioni actually strikes me as fairly accessible because his intentions are quite clear in much of his work, and the visuals are always so striking.  Even if you find "Red Desert" completely obtuse, it's still a lovely, haunting landscape to observe. 

What I've seen - Michaelangelo Antonioni

Il Grido (1957)
L'Avventura (1960)
La Notte (1961)
L'Eclisse (1962)
Red Desert (1964)
Blowup (1966)
Zabriskie Point (1970)
The Passenger (1975)


Sunday, June 12, 2016

My Top Ten Warner Bros. Animated Shorts

I debated with myself for a long time about what format I should use to talk about shorts on this blog.  The iconic cartoon shorts from Warner Bros. and Disney are some of the most influential pieces of film from my childhood, as they were for pretty much anyone over the age of thirty.  I've finally settled on giving them their own top ten lists.  Bugs Bunny, Daffy, and the rest of the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes gang will go first, and Disney will have their own list next month.  Yes, I picked all Chuck Jones directed and Michael Maltese written shorts, and will not apologize for it.  Entries below are unraked, and ordered by date of release.  I'm going to cheat a bit on one of them, though.  And off we go.

Fast and Furry-ous (1949) - You simply can't talk about the Warner Bros. cartoons without mention of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.  Unfortunately, most of their shorts tend to blend together for me, so I'm going to pick their first outing as a representative.  It wonderfully set up the format for the long-running series and already has most of their best gags in some form: the malfunctioning ACME products, rampant misuse of dynamite, the demented cartoon physics, and of course the Coyote getting squashed and blown up multiple times.

Rabbit of Seville (1950) - A big contributor to some of the best shorts was composer Carl Stalling.  He was the one who rearranged "The Marriage of Figaro" and all the other music central to the escalating madness of Bugs and Elmer's feud in "Rabbit of Seville."  This one has so many of my favorite gags, from Bugs playing barber (and horticulturalist) on Elmer Fudd to the wedding that erupts out of nowhere.  Of course, Stalling and Chuck Jones' greatest opera-themed collaboration would come a few years later in another entry on this list.

Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952) and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953) - Now Bugs and Elmer are a classic pairing, but when you add Daffy Duck to the mix, suddenly there's rivalries on top of rivalries, and all sorts of new angles to play with.  If push comes to shove, I'd probably pick "Rabbit Fire" as my favorite of the "Hunting Trilogy," but the hysterical variations in the two sequels are so good, it's too painful to separate them.  And special kudos to Mel Blanc - remember that the whole "duck season/rabbit season" argument was one man!

Feed the Kitty (1952) - Marc Anthony the bulldog's selfless love for the world's most adorable kitten makes for a heart-tugger beyond compare.  There had already been shorts with a similar premise - Disney's "Lend a Paw" comes to mind - but it's the little things that make this one hit so much harder: Marc Anthony's evolving reactions to the kitten, the various distractions he comes up with, and finally the visual gag with the cookie cat.  Watching this one again as a grown-up and a parent just made me fall in love with it all over again.  

Duck Amuck (1953) - The epic struggle between a cartoon duck and the unseen animator who controls his universe is one of the greatest pieces of animation ever made.  It's such a simple idea, but the metaphysical and comedic implications are endless.  Daffy was always my favorite character, for his massive ego and his stupendous outrage, and they're impossible to suppress here, no matter what the animator does to him.  The sequel with Bugs was a lot of fun, but it couldn't match the heights of the existential lunacy scaled here by Daffy Duck.  

Duck Dodgers of the 24½th Century (1953) - The pitting of Daffy and Porky against Marvin the Martian is so memorable in this "Buck Rogers" spoof, that I was surprised to discover that it actually only happened once during the original Merrie Melodies run.  Marvin's usual adversary was Bugs, who he had some great cosmic spats with.  I prefer Daffy's outing though, for the buddy comedy bits with Porky and the constant self-aggrandizement.  And take special note of the spectacular layout and backgrounds by Maurice Noble and Phillip DeGuard.

Bully for Bugs (1953) - The legend goes that Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese made "Bully for Bugs" in response to their producer declaring out of the blue one day that he didn't want any pictures with bullfighting, as there was nothing funny about it.  So Bugs Bunny took another wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in the middle of a Barcelona bullring with Toro the Bull.  And now everyone knows the tune of "Las Chiapanecas," which must be accompanied by judicious slapping, and Bugs' famous line, "Of course you know this means war."

One Froggy Evening (1955) - I hated this short when I was a kid because I felt so bad for the poor construction worker who found the singing frog, and usually got upset when no one would believe him.  It took me years to appreciate that it was really a parable about letting things go and the dangers of greedy entitlement.  And that it's still really, really funny.  The short is so etched into my brain, I can still remember most of the charming old tunes sung by the frog. most notably "Hello! Ma Baby!" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry"

Double or Mutton (1955) - Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog are fairly minor characters, but I just love all their appearances.  The joke about them only being mortal enemies while on the clock never gets old.  Also, the ridiculous sight gags with the sheep get me every time.  "Double or Mutton" is their third short together, the one where their formula finally gelled and the two characters fully established their cordial working relationship.  I also love the gags in this one, especially the use of the silly disguises and Sam's bad hair day.

What's Opera Doc? (1957) - "Kill the Wabbit!  Kill the Wabbit!"  Chuck Jones rushed other productions to buy him more time to work on this short, widely considered to be his magnum opus, and it shows.  The transformation of the Bugs and Elmer's feud into a six minute Wagnerian opera is opulent and gorgeous.  And though it's a pointed spoof of theatrical excess, I still find the melodrama quite touching, especially the ending.  I'd never felt so much empathy for Elmer Fudd as I did when watching him cry in remorse over that wascally wabbit.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Is the All-Female Remake Trend a Problem? (Or Yet Another Frickin "Ghostbusters" Post)

The name is Bond.  Jane Bond.

While the impact of the female-led "Ghostbusters" on popular culture is still being hashed out, there have been rumblings of more gender-swapped versions of familiar films coming our way.  Gillian Anderson and Emilia Clarke have declared that if Daniel Craig is leaving the "007" franchise, they'd like a shot at the part.  There's also an all-female version of "Oceans 11" with Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lawrence picking up steam, and Ronda Rousey is headlining the remake of "Road House."  A female-led "21 Jump Street" spinoff is being considered, and somehow the "Expendabelles" isn't totally dead yet.   As the studios continue to reboot or spin off every last property in their back catalogues, some are trying to rejigger previously male-led hits to be vehicles for female stars.  Changing the gender of the main character in a story is not a new idea, and not a one-way street (see Jerry Lewis's filmography), but some nervous moviegoers are treating the newest batch of gender-swapped projects like it's the end of the world.

Now, if you've been paying attention to the state of pop culture, colorblind and genderblind casting is becoming much more accepted for most roles.  Nobody bats an eye if Scarlett Johansson plays Kaa in the new "Jungle Book," or Lucy Liu plays Watson in "Elementary."  By all accounts, the representation of anyone who isn't a white male in movies and television could still use plenty of improvement, so this is a good thing.  Where much of the controversy tends to come into play, however, is when more popular properties consider blind casting for lead roles.  And it's the lead roles that are particularly vital when it comes to representation and visibility issues.  Before this latest "Jane Bond" conversation, there was the female "Doctor Who" conversation when Matt Smith retired.  And there was the very different, but related black Spider-man campaign before that.  Whatever your opinions are on whether these particular roles are appropriate for race-blind or gender-blind casting, the conversations have been important because they highlight how few prominent roles are available to anyone who isn't white and male.  

Consider this.  All I could think about when I was watching the new "Cloverfield" movies, was that Mary Elizabeth Winstead would make a fantastic, scrappy young female MacGuyver, or maybe she could take over the aging "Die Hard" franchise, where she already plays John McClane's daughter.  Of course, I'd also love to see her in something original - if there's another "Cloverfield" sequel, I certainly want her involved.  However, starring in a more established franchise would boost her to better parts and more exposure much more quickly.  The trouble is that female-led action franchises are very few and far between, so her options are more limited than if she were Chris Pratt or The Rock, who seem to be constantly being considered for every reboot under the sun.  Flipping genders opens up more roles for women, and also gives at least the surface impression that something new and interesting is being done with an otherwise played out property.  It should be a win-win decision, right?

Well, not according to many fans of the original properties.  Now, I am absolutely not suggesting that everyone who's been throwing vitriol at the new "Ghostbusters" is a misogynist.  However, I am suggesting that there is an awful lot bias involved.  No matt how awful it was, the reboot would not have created the same firestorm of controversy if it had been made with an all-male cast.  Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Rob Schenider, and Tyler Perry in aggregate couldn't have managed it.  However, something about the new Ghostbusters team being all women really touched a lot of nerves.  Also, I don't think an unaffiliated female ensemble comedy involving ghosts would have been an issue for these fans, but the fact that they were touted as the new "Ghostbusters" was.  Some have brought up the issue of fan entitlement, accusing the unhappy "Ghostbusters" fans of being too resistant to inevitable change.  I don't think that's quite it either.

I think it has to do with who the target audience of the new "Ghostbusters" movie is, and who people think the target audience of the new "Ghostbusters" movie is.  For much of the current moviegoing audience, the assumption is that a movie with four female leads is meant for women.  Meanwhile, a movie with four male leads can be for anyone because male leads are the status quo.  So even though "Ghostbusters" is clearly intended to be a four quadrant movie, it's pinging for many of the established fans as a "chick flick" simply because of the cast.  That's the disconnect.  That's why many male "Ghostbusters" fans feel like they've been abandoned by the franchise - they no longer appear to be part of the right audience for it.  And until that mentality changes, I think we're going to need more of these gender-swapped movies, not less.

I'm certain that a "Jane Bond" movie is not going to happen.  Bond's appeal is intrinsically linked to his status as an icon of British masculinity, so there is almost no chance that whoever replaces Daniel Craig in the role is going to be anything but a heterosexual white male for a long time.  However, this is still an important conversation to have.  And maybe it could put Gillian Anderson in contention for an original female spy movie that some studio is on the fence about making.  Maybe Emilia Clarke would be right for a Bond girl spinoff.  We can't know the answers to these questions if they're never asked.