Saturday, February 27, 2010

I Confess - I Like TV Edits of Raunchy Movies

Everybody hates television edits of movies - the wacky overdubbed lines, the awkward blurring of naughty bits, and the haphazard cuts for time. But there are a few instances where I do prefer watching the television edits to the actual films. For instance, I don't think I ever would have watched the Will Ferrell comedy "Blades of Glory" if it hadn't been one of these versions.

A quick digression before I get to the meat of this post. "Blades of Glory" premiered in March of 2007 and was shown last night on ABC. The fifth "Harry Potter" film from July 2007 is airing tonight. This means the interval between theatrical and ad-supported network television exhibition has shrunk to less than three years. "Spider-Man 3" might be showing up sooner than I thought.

But back to the point. I know there are a lot of controversies and sensitivities around any kind of editing of films for broadcast. Only a very few movies with adult content, such as "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" appear unedited on American network television out of respect for their artistic impact and integrity, but for the most part strong language, violence, and sexual imagery are strictly curtailed.

America is far more stringent about this than most, which is ironic considering our tradition of free speech protection. Canada, for instance, aired both parts of Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent "Kill Bill" on its national public broadcasting station CBC, without touching a frame. The only concession was to air the program at a late hour when children wouldn't be watching, but in the US, this isn't nearly enough. The US broadcast version made drastic cuts for language, sex and violence. It was so sanitized, it even went as far as to edit the name of the Bride's car from the Pussy Wagon to the Party Wagon.

The editing overkill is largely explained away by the networks as serving the public interest by keeping potentially objectionable content away from children and other sensitive persons. The films themselves are not considered truly censored, because the films are always easily available in their original versions from other sources - except finding them usually requires time and money that may keep some of these films away from those who don't have the resources. And of course the expensive premium channels almost never edit, which is blatantly hypocritical.

In general, I think the systems stinks. The content restrictions keep more interesting films away from the public and the networks are allowed to royally mangle most of the ones it gets its hands on. The original creators have some control over how their work is presented under the law, but they have to give up practically all of these rights if they want their films to have any public exposure at all. In fact, the only one that commonly remains is the notice screen preceding any broadcast that indicates a film has been edited for time or content.

The only time I can remember any sort of challenge to the status quo was in 2002 when the company ClearPlay tried selling a video content player that would create edited versions of any movies that were played with it. Concerns about copyright violation ultimately sunk ClearPlay, but it did get enough dialogue going in the wider press to get some cable networks to loosen its content restrictions. In 2003, Comedy Central started showing completely unedited programming in 1AM weekend slots.

However, I have to admit that I do benefit from the system. I don't watch movies like "Blades of Glory" because I don't enjoy raunch for the sake of raunch. I can take it in small doses when it's done well, but that's a rare thing outside of Judd Apatow movies. Scatological jokes, toilet humor, and the graphic depiction of unpleasant bodily functions usually just make me wince. I'm not as sensitive about profanity, but my parents are, and I've had to vet stuff for them lately, so I've had to be more aware of it too. There's an awful lot of both types of content in movies today, far more than there was ten years ago.

With edited television versions, I don't have to do any work at all. I know I'm not going to see the excrement monster in "Dogma" or the full frontal shots from "There's Something About Mary" and "Something's Gotta Give." Some films plan ahead and do TV-friendly versions of certain scenes, often substituting dialogue to avoid those awful overdubs. So I can watch films I would otherwise avoid because of concerns about the content.

"Blades of Glory" is a prime example. It was only rated PG-13 to begin with, but featured an extended vomiting sequence, crude sexual situations, and plenty of innuendos. ABC's Broadcast Standards and Practices excised or shortened the worst of them so I could enjoy Will Ferrell's desperate man-boy buffoonery and John Heder prancing around in a peacock-themed skating costume without feeling like I needed to take a shower afterward. Truthfully it was a pretty lousy movie, but the editing helped me enjoy the few charms it had.

I still think the system could be better. There's no reason why other network and cable stations couldn't follow Comedy Central's lead and start showing unedited films at later hours while keeping the edited ones on primetime. Or let the directors make some of the edits themselves instead of going in and making unwatchable horrorshows out of "The Matrix" or "Interview With the Vampire."

I hold out hope that things will improve, and the networks and studios learn to take advantage of the chance to create different versions of their films. I know of at least one instance where the TV version actually substantively improved on the theatrical version - when the director of "Waterworld" was allowed to go back and restore the original ending. Now that was something worth sitting through commercials to see.

Friday, February 26, 2010

And How I Finally Did Watch Spider-Man 3

I mentioned in the previous post that I really enjoyed "Spider-Man 2" and only marginally liked the original "Spider-Man." I'd put "Spider-Man 3" somewhere between the two. On the one hand it's technically impeccable, nicely acted, and does a great job of delivering action sequences that don't feel labored or repetitious. But on the other hand, I don't think I've seen a movie that had so much and so little happening at the same time.

There have been countless dissertations on the failings of "Spider-Man 3," written by every disappointed comics-literate geek with access to a computer, so I'm just going to focus on the two major elements that I thought caused the most problems: 1) The story was too ambitious, and 2) They made Peter Parker unlikable. The first is easily forgivable, but the second is harder to ignore, and both issues are pretty intimately connected.

I like that Ramis and his collaborators tried to include a variety of different sources of conflict for our hero: a new supervillain, a new rival, ongoing issues in old relationships, and the hidden pitfalls of his own success. What sets Peter Parker apart from his costumed brothers-in-arms is that he's young, has limited resources, and juggles a complicated life that never seems to give him a break. Anyone who is struggling to hold down a job or make time for loved ones can relate to him, because Peter's troubles are so wonderfully normal.

But while the previous films let myriad problems compound on top of each other, the ones in "Spider-Man 3" end up pulling Peter Parker in too many different directions. The Sandman brings out Peter's vengeful side, the alien symbiote turns him into an over-confident jerk, the Eddie Brock and Harry Osbourne storylines need him to be a straight-arrow good guy deserving of our sympathy, and his relationship troubles with Mary Jane require a lot of self-centered cluelessness. It doesn't feel like the same person is showing up from scene to scene.

The inconsistencies don't end there. Despite being well over two hours long, the movie often feels like it's missing scenes, rushing to deliver exposition but rarely lingering long enough to fill out its characters. The villains suffer the most here - Sandman only seems to show up for action sequences, and Harry Osbourne's personality veers wildly between vicious and friendly depending on what the plot needs him to do at the time. Eddie Brock comes out about right, but only because he's the shallowest character. Ultimately none of the bad guys get a full-fledged story the way Goblin and Dr. Octopus did, not even poor Harry.

Peter Parker and his multiple personalities get the bulk of the film's screentime, and they need it. The script forces the character to go through so many painful contortions, it's a wonder Tobey Maguire didn't throw out his back. One of the major themes of "Spider-Man 3" is Peter discovering his dark side, which manifests in some bizarre ways. The famously mocked dance sequence wasn't as bad as I was led to believe, but I thought a later scene did far more damage to the character: the club sequence with Gwen Stacy.

"Spider-Man 2" drove the message home that the hero wasn't the suit, but the kid who wore it. Peter Parker might have a bumpy life, but at the core of his character was that wonderful moral center that kept him going. Even when faced with horribly unfair or unreasonable situations in his normal life, Peter didn't whine, didn't retaliate, and didn't stop doing things the hard way. He persevered, because that's what heroes do, and deviations from that standard always came with consequences.

So to see Peter throw all caution to the wind, mercilessly sabotage Eddie, disfigure Harry, and then deliberately humiliate Mary Jane - it was crossing way too far over the line. Acting like a dorky bad-boy version of himself was silly, but fairly harmless. Watching him deliberately hurt the girl he loved in an act of utter petulance was another matter entirely. The film almost lost me completely at that point, and the subsequent lack of any truly serious negative consequences from his behavior still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

All in all I do like the film. There are lots of wonderful little moments in it that belong in a much better story, and every time the suit comes on, all the other problems seem to melt away. I think my favorite bit in the whole thing was during the climatic fight scene where we see Spider-Man trying to web-sling his way out of a fall, only to run out of space and end up slamming himself into a roof. He does that move so often, so perfectly, we don't expect him to crash until it happens. And then all you can do is wince.

But you know he'll pick himself up and try again. Heroes do that.

How I Didn't Watch Spider-Man 3

So I finally saw "Spider-Man 3" for the first time last night. Before you point out that the title of this post is seriously misleading, consider this - why did it take a self-declared movie geek with a yen for superhero films nearly three years to see this one?

These days if you really want to see a movie, it's fairly easy to find a way to see it, and if you really don't want to see a movie, it's not difficult to avoid it. But when you're ambivalent toward a film, that's where things get interesting. I'm one of those people who ends up seeing a lot of movies that I don't have strong feelings towards one way or the other. I see them in theaters with friends or relatives on social outings. I see them on DVD when I hang out with people casually. And of course, I run across plenty of them while channel surfing. To give you an example, I've paid to see three films in theaters in the past two months that I had no real interest in seeing - "Avatar," "When in Rome," and "Up in the Air" - two with dates, one with family. They outnumber the films I saw that I actually wanted to see over the same time period, "Sherlock Holmes" and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

When "Spider-Man 3" came out, it was impossible to avoid the hype leading up the May 2007 release date. It did amazing business and currently ranks fifteenth on the list of the highest grossing films of all time at the North American Box Office (unadjusted). But for my part, once I had a look at the reviews, I decided that I didn't need to see it in theaters. I wouldn't have said no if a friend or relative asked me to go with them, but I didn't think it was worth the money to specifically seek it out on my own. For the record I liked "Spider-Man 2" and thought the first "Spider-Man" was passable, but I didn't have a very strong attachment to either, making me pretty hype-proof.

The theatrical release came and went, and the next round of the marketing blitz came around with the "Spider-Man 3" DVD release in September. I seriously considered renting it, but money was tight and I had a big list of films that I wanted to catch up on from earlier in the year. I was alsopretty sure I'd see the film eventually on cable and didn't mind waiting. Mainstream films, especially the blockbusters, have a far higher profile on television than the little indies and foreign films that can only be found through rentals. So I let it go, and for a long time after that, I totally forgot about "Spider-Man 3."

Then came April of 2009, when I got my first taste of Netflix. It was love at first sight. I filled my queue out to ridiculous lengths and and devoured the free online catalog. I watched war documentaries, old Bing Crosby musicals, and lots of other titles I never would have picked up in a hundred years if they weren't so conveniently available whenever I wanted them. And what was sitting on top of the list of free Starz Cable films when I logged on the first day? "Spider-Man 3." I happily made plans to watch it over the weekend, but alas it was not to be. Cut to a few days later, when I discovered that it had been dropped from the catalog to make way for newer titles. Curses, foiled again.

From that point on it turned into a game, and I started consciously keeping track of where the film was popping up in the distribution stream. How long would it take me to see "Spider-man 3" without consciously making any effort to do it? I had just missed the end of the premium cable "window" for the film. How far down the media food chain would it go before I ran into it again? I'll stress now that at no point did I lose my ambivalence toward seeing the film - I could have added "Spider-Man 3" to my online rental queue or gone right out to the nearest Blockbuster and picked up a copy at any time. I saw plenty of other movies while this was going on, and my lukewarm initial impression of "Spider-Man 3" never changed.

After the theatrical, rental, and premium cable distribution windows comes basic cable. (For a great breakdown of these "windows of exploitation," see this lovely article here: "Spider-Man 3" had its premiere on FX in December, 2009 and has been making frequent appearances on its schedule ever since. Unfortunately, I liked Netflix so much and was getting so much more out of it than my overpriced TV cable service, I went ahead and dropped the cable during the digital TV transition over the summer. Another chance to see the movie squashed.

A very near miss occurred over the Christmas break when I went to visit the folks for the holiday. They have satellite - and got the deal that gave them the basic tier channels plus a bunch of premium movie channels for a couple of months. And since they're early sleepers, there wasn't much to do for many of those nights except watch movies with the siblings. A lot of these were 2007-2008 titles I'd put into the ambivalent category - "Eagle Eye," "I Am Legend," "Beowulf, "Body of Lies," and the most recent "Die Hard" movie. "Spider-Man 3" would have fit right in.

After realizing I'd missed the cable premiere, I figured that "Spider-Man 3" would probably be airing over the Christmas weekend when lots of movies fill out the schedules, and I was right. It was on slated to be on FX on Saturday the 26th. But my parents' satellite service didn't carry FX or any of the other FOX/Newscorp channels on the basic tier. Apparently FOX's carrier fees are much higher than most other channels. My cable company sucked it up and paid, but the satellite carrier bumped those channels up to a secondary tier that required extra charges. No FX, no "Spider-Man 3." So I watched "Stardust" again.

Ironically on the way home from that trip, I took Jet Blue, which had an in-flight TV service that carried nearly all the FOX channels, including FX, and a bunch of other second-tier cable channels like BBC America and Boomerang and Discovery Health. I wonder if the airline got some sort of special rate to pad the number of subscribers to these channels. Anyway, FX was showing "Spider-Man 3" during the flight, but since the trip was short and the movie was already well into the second hour by the time I stumbled across it, I didn't bother trying to watch.

Now, two months later, I've finally seen "Spider-Man 3." I didn't pay for a movie ticket, or a rental fee, or a pay-per-view fee, or a premium cable subscription, or even a basic cable subscription. And no, I didn't pirate it. And no, there hasn't been a showing on one of the national networks yet - that probably won't happen until this fall at the earliest. No, what happened was that a couple of the DVDs turned up at my local library. Probably old rental copies or overstock from somewhere that were donated.

You can blame shrinking windows and you can blame too much mediocre product out there, but movies don't seem to be worth as much as they used to be, even with all the insane profit from the highest performers. I can't help but find it funny and sad that while movies themselves may last forever, the business of movies has become so terribly time sensitive, a single viewing of a film loses nearly all of its commercial value over the span of just three years. Anyone with a little patience can wait it out like I did - anyone who's figured out that new isn't always better and films don't actually have expiration dates.

So what did I think of "Spider-Man 3"? That's a post for another time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Welcome Back Terry Gilliam

I've missed Terry Gilliam. In the 80s, he was one of our prime purveyors of phantasmagoria, a dependable source of weird, wonderful, difficult films that nobody else would make. The intervening years haven't been kind to him, with a string of misfires and stillborn projects, including the notoriously thwarted "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Though none of his films were ever exactly lighthearted entertainment, the most recent ones got so dark and claustrophobic, you wondered whatever happened to the guy who gave us the elderly swashbuckling accountants of "The Crimson Permanent Assurance" or put naked Uma Thuman in a giant clamshell for "The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen."

So it's a relief to find that Gilliam's latest, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" not only survived the death of its leading man, Heath Ledger, but marks the director's return to the full-fledged fantasy and whimsical mayhem that characterized his best work. The story follows the ancient Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the leader of a shabby troupe of traveling entertainers who work out of a ramshackle, horse-drawn wagon that doubles as their proscenium and their living quarters. The rest of the troupe includes Parnassus's budding teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who is sick of scraping by on the fringes of society, the barker Anton (Andrew Garfield), who yearns for Valentina, and a long-suffering dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer).

Their one and only act, the Imaginarium of the title, involves sending audience members through a strange portal that is connected to Parnassus's mind and lets them enter a fascinating dreamworld. There, they face temptation and are offered a chance at spiritual salvation. However, if they make the wrong choice, they fall into the clutches of the Devil (Tom Waits), who is stalking after the Imaginarium and Parnassus to collect on an old gambling debt. So where does Heath Ledger come into all of this? He's the mysterious stranger our little band finds hanging under a bridge one stormy night, by the neck, apparently dead. (Here we must give props to Gilliam for brass cojones, if nothing else.) Of course the mysterious stranger is not dead, but rather a live amnesiac named Tony, who joins Parnassus' troupe, learns of their troubles, and decides to help them stiff the Devil of his due.

Ledger delivers a charming, but noticeably incomplete final performance, and I couldn't help feeling robbed of his presence in the last reel of the film. As you may already know from the press, Ledger finished filming nearly all of his sequences outside of the Imaginarium before his death, so Gilliam and his crew were able to use film's fantasy elements to recast him for the missing bits inside the Imaginarium. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all step up to do their parts, but I'm sorry to say that it doesn't really work. These aren't just cameos, but almost the entire final third of the film pieced together out of the different performances. And because so much effort is expended on keeping Tony afloat, the rest of the characters are shortchanged, especially Parnassus and Valentina. It doesn't help that the narrative gets harder and harder to follow, and though an ending does present itself with a suitable amount of emotional closure, logically it makes no sense at all.

What does work are Gilliam's visuals, particularly the production design and the effects. In the real world, the Imaginarium is an astonishing anachronism, a patchwork of of Medieval passion play and Renaissance commedia dell'arte, sticking out like a sore thumb in modern day parking lots and shopping malls. Everything is handmade, mismatched, old as dirt, and held together with chewing gum and a lot of faith. You do not doubt for a second that these are people who may have been wandering the Earth with the very same act since before the birth of Christ, but perhaps never got the hang of electricity or motorized transportation.

Inside the Imaginarium is another story. Gilliam's painterly style had a tendency to clash with CGI in the past, most noticeably in "The Brothers Grimm." This time he uses it far more extensively than in any of his other films, and to amazing effect. Sharp eyes will notice some unfortunate technical flaws, but the dreamworlds of the Imaginarium are exactly what they should be: huge, lushly colored, impossible landscapes that could only exist in the imagination, and seem more real than real. I especially loved all the little nods to classical painters, a Boticelli angel here, a Salvador Dali desert there. It really feels like Gilliam got back to his roots as an animator and just let himself go nuts. And it's wonderful.

In the end, "Parnassus" is not one of the best Gilliam films, but it is a big step in the right direction. My worry is that with the state of independent filmmaking the way it is, and with Gilliam's amazing bad luck, we might not get many more like this out of him. But on the other hand, who else but Terry Gilliam would be able to come back from Ledger's death, and the death of his producer, and getting hit by a car, and all the other calamity around the production to reach the finish line? It is not wise to underestimate this man, and if his filmography has told us anything, it's that he can do great work even when all the odds are against him.

In fact, I hear he's trying to mount another attempt at "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Somehow I think it's going to take more than a few sidelined actors to stop him this time.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Growing Maelstrom Around Paramount's "The Last Airbender"

Paramount's Fourth of July tentpole release, "The Last Airbender," has been generating some buzz over the past few weeks as new trailers and TV spots have been unveiled. Adapted from a Nickelodeon animated series that ran from 2005-2008, the property already has a sizable fanbase and plenty of brand recognition. Helmed by M. Night Shyamalan and veteran producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, it has all the early earmarks of a blockbuster in the making. It's kid friendly, effects heavy, and has staked out a prime release date where the only real competition for its younger audience will be the third "Twilight" movie. Unfortunately, there is a major wrench in the works.

The original "Avatar: The Last Airbender" cartoon (the "Avatar" was dropped to appease Jim Cameron's lawyers) was heavily Asian themed and featured young heroes that were thinly disguised versions of a Tibetan monk, Inuit tribespeople, and East-Asian martial artists. By contrast, the live action film initially cast Caucasian actors for all of the major roles, only swapping in darker-skinned actors for the villains right before filming began. The backlash was swift and vehement. An online fan campaign, centered around the website and the social networking site LiveJournal, has lead the charge against the whitewashing of the ethnic characters, decrying the film as racially discriminatory towards Asians and Native Americans. To date their activities include letter writing campaigns, picketing, dozens of Youtube videos, media convention appearances, and plans to boycott the film.

Of course fan campaigns against all sorts of perceived slights are common for big event films, especially those based on beloved source material, but this controversy has definitely struck a nerve for many observers as well as those involved in the fray. Racebending directly addresses a subject that nobody in the industry likes to talk about - that despite recent demographic shifts, Hollywood still engages in casual racism to an astonishing degree, often justifying skeevy decisions like the whitewashing of "The Last Airbender" as necessary for financial reasons. For many of the decisionmakers, it's better to shut minority actors and actresses out of lead roles rather than risk alienating Caucasian audiences who might be leery of identifying with ethnic protagonists. "Airbender" is only the latest in a string of recent films where Asian characters have been supplanted by Caucasian ones, including "Dragonball Evolution," "Extraordinary Measures," "21," and the forthcoming "Tekken."

The unusual intensity of the reaction to "Airbender" can be traced to the especially blatant discrimination during the casting process. It's long been the accepted status quo that ethnic minority actors are only considered for roles tailored for their specific ethnicity, and no media property seemed to be as Asian-specific or Native American-specifc as "Airbender," with its purposeful incorporation of so much cultural detail. Yet casting sheets have surfaced that clearly preference Caucasians for the lead roles, while asking for ethnic minorities to play extras. The original core cast, annnounced by Entertainment Weekly in December 2008, was completely comprised of Caucasian actors despite the characters retaining Asian and Inuit names and other cultural signifiers. British-Indian actor Dev Patel has since been prominent in the advertisements, but his role originally went to the pop singer Jesse McCartney.

The "Last Airbender" controversy has so far passed largely unnoticed to the mainstream media, but as the film's release date approaches, the situation has been heating up. The SF Chronicle and Salon have both run critical reaction pieces. Film blogs have been discussing the issue openly, and Roger Ebert has signified his disapproval. But the real negative impact will probably be dealt by the existing "Airbender" fanbase, which has been contentiously divided over the new film and proven ready and willing to rehash the entire debate in any available forum. Already, it's difficult to find any online discussions of "The Last Airbender" that don't end in angry confrontations between members of the Racebending group and the film's supporters.

There's no greater buzzkill than a touchy discussion about race and media, and this one is well on its way to overwhelming the film's ad campaign. With less than five months to go until "The Last Airbender" release date, and nobody willing to back down, there's an ugly fistfight on the horizon that might just sink a very troubled film.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What's Driving Me Crazy About Sleuth

It all must have looked so good on paper.

The original 1972 "Sleuth" was a classic game of GOTCHA!, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as a rich old man and poor young man, a cuckolded husband pitted against his wife's unrepentant lover. They become locked in a epic battle of wits, and the entire film is the two of them manipulating, humiliating, and generally screwing with each others' heads in the name of pride and revenge. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it's a wonderfully nasty piece of work that gives the actors a lot of scenery to chew and a lot of plot twists to play out. The second act features one of the best damn GOTCHA! moments in all of film history, which left me shrieking with glee when I first saw it. (No worries. I won't spoil it here.)

Fast-forward to the 2007, and the modern-day remake scripted by Harold Pinter, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and starring Michael Caine as the rich old man with Jude Law as the younger one. Take a minute to let those names sink in. Harold Pinter is a playwright with an endless list of honors, including a Nobel Prize for Literature and his own adjective, pinteresque. Kenneth Branagh built his film and theater career on updated versions of Shakespeare plays, and is a massive Olivier fanboy. Michael Caine's has continued to do good work since the 70s and shows no sign of slowing down. And Jude Law is one lucky bastard, but not an untalented one.

This is a film nerd's dream, the ideal group of people you want involved in a remake of anything - good filmmakers and performers who admire the original, including one of the primary actors ready and willing to have another go at the material. With such big, famous, celebrated names, what could possibly go wrong?


I don't doubt for a minute that everyone involved with the 2007 "Sleuth" tried their best and had only good intentions for the film. Parts of it are pretty decent, especially the thirty minutes of the first act - conventional, but solid. And then it all goes to hell. I mentioned before that the second act has one of the great GOTCHA! moments of all time. The remake uses the same trick, except it doesn't work. None of it works, not the performances, not the writing, not even the little technical things that shouldn't have mattered. And then it got worse. I spent a good couple of hours after the movie was over, trying to puzzle out whether it had been badly done on purpose, for some sort of artistic effect, and finally came to the conclusion that it really was as awful as I thought it was. And all four of the guys with their names on the poster are responsible.

Harold Pinter - I've only seen a few of the older films he was involved in, and they don't call his work "comedies of menace" for nothing. He knows how to put these stories and characters together, knows how to get all sorts of complicated emotions out in the open. The trouble is his dialogue, the famous awkward pauses notwithstanding, has seriously fallen behind the times. Michael Caine's character is more or less all right, but some of the stuff that comes out of Jude Law's mouth is nothing you'd hear out of a guy his age in this decade. Moreover, I think Pinter made a mistake removing so much of the really visceral nastiness and unpleasantness of the original. At no point did I think that either of the characters was really being pushed beyond their limits or driven to do things they otherwise wouldn't. Subtlety is all well and good, but not when it undercuts so much of the energy and rawness of the story's emotional core.

Kenneth Branagh - He's probably responsible for the most damage. The original "Sleuth" was set in the old man's country mansion, full of odd clockwork curios, providing a thematically significant backdrop to the fun and games. Branagh's modern update turns the old man's house into a weirdly-lit, sparsely furnished, museum of modern something-or-other. The curios have been replaced by high-tech gadgetry, surveillance cameras, and remote-controlled electronics that provide opportunities to get in plenty of gratuitous fish-eye shots, shots from television monitors, shots from laptop screens, and so on. "Sleuth" has its origins in a theater play of the same name, and the whole thing doesn't take place on more than two or three sets. To make it look cinematic must have been a challenge, but Branagh seriously overcompensates. He never stops pushing these distracting visuals at us, that do nothing to complement any of the performances or the story itself.

Finally the actors are not blameless, though there is every indication that both of them were trying really, really damn hard. Especially Jude Law, who goes so far over the top, he's practically stratospheric. Of course, Olivier also hammed it up in the first "Sleuth," so this isn't a serious transgression in and if itself. The real trouble is that Law and Caine don't seem to be operating on the same wavelength after the first act, when the tricks and the games really kick into gear. Caine plays it so close to the vest, as Law's performance gets more and more outlandish, after a certain point you completely lose suspension of disbelief. They both have their good moments, when the masks slip and some of the inner demons coming smiling through, but there aren't enough, and the facades they throw up against each other aren't nearly as entertaining as they're supposed to be.

"Sleuth" '07 isn't unsalvageable. The third act does get back on track eventually, and there are a few good twists that you never could have had in "Sleuth" '72. I wouldn't mind sitting through a stage version of the new one, just to see if it comes out any better than the film. Right now I can't get my head around how four creative people of this caliber could have put together such a mess. Maybe they were too enamored with each other to adequately check and balance their worst impulses. Maybe this combination of talent just added up to toxic. Maybe it was everything. Maybe it was nothing. It's a mystery far more fascinating that the film itself.

I'm still glad they tried, if nothing else. I still love the original film. And if they want to mount a "Sleuth 2042" when Jude Law finally gives up on his hairline, I'll be happy to watch and obsess over that one too.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where did they get the idea that Lorenzo's Oil is sentimental?

With the recent release of "Extraordinary Measures," the inaugural film venture of CBS and Les Moonves, there have been references to "Lorenzo's Oil" cropping up in reviews and articles. No surprise, since the 1992 film has a very similar plot - the parents of a child with an incurable fatal disease beat the odds to find a cure. But according to a recent article by Brooks Barnes of the New York Times, "Lorenzo's Oil" is considered "the industry’s go-to example of overdone sentimentality." To which I can only reply, these mooks obviously haven't seen the film.

Starring Susan Sarandon and a pre-mugshot Nick Nolte as Michaela and Augusto Odone, the parents of the titular six-year old Lorenzo Odone, the film spends the bulk of its running time charting the horrific physical decline of Lorenzo after he is diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD. There is onscreen emotion in abundance, that runs the gamut from the despair of the Odone parents when they learn their son is terminally ill, to unbridled elation when their research yields a potential treatment. Director George Miller ratchets up the intensity to near-operatic heights, even piping in Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," for the most poignant moments.

But would you describe it as sentimental? Maybe for the few minutes of the opening sequence, where Lorenzo is running around the beach as a normal, healthy kid. But after that, the tone of the film turns unrelentingly bleak and harrowing. ALD systematically cripples, blinds, mutes, deafens, and eventually kills the boys afflicted with it, and there's no attempt to sugarcoat this for the audience. The disease not only destroys Lorenzo, but turns his parents into agonized, desperate souls out of a high-numbered circle of Dante's Hell. The performances of Nolte and Sarandon are excellent, conveying the crushing emotional, mental, and physical toll of the day-to-day decline. Sarandon's iron-willed Michaela Odone is especially memorable, and it's no surprise the role netted her an Oscar nod.

Of course there are a good number of the usual cliches. The Odones have to contend with unfeeling medical professionals, impassive academics, and complacent, resigned fellow parents of similarly afflicted children. A few months of independent research and haphazard testing lead to miraculous results rather than deadly failures. We even have a Magic Negro in Lorenzo's male nurse, whose onscreen presence is mercifully limited. At the time of release, the major controversy was that the treatment discovered by the Odones might be grossly oversold as a miracle cure to the detriment of other ALD patients. The film ends with a video-mosaic of boys supposedly saved by the treatment, but recent clinical trials suggest limited benefits, if any.

Still, none of this adds up to anything resembling schmaltz. "Lorenzo's Oil" is genuinely affecting, because it presents the unflichingly dark emotional reality of its characters, and it's only after monumental struggle that hope and relief appear, and then only briefly. Lorenzo's parents turn on each other and turn on themselves as the disease progresses. Lorenzo himself has little to do on screen despite being the center of the story, and at no point does he mug for the camera or spout cloying platitudes. This is by far the best and most high profile of the small genre of "search for a cure" films. I suppose that's the problem, as nothing else out there comes close to its level. Rather, medical dramas, especially involving children, are the common domain of made-for-TV offerings that are overly sentimental practically by definition.

In short, a very good film has been lumped together with a lot of very bad ones. And it doesn't deserve it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Don't Ride the "Carousel"

Rodgers and Hammerstein were superstar creators of American musicals, back in the 40s and 50s when that meant something. Their impressive body of work includes "Oklahoma!" "The King and I," "The Sound of Music," and "South Pacific," blockbuster productions of enduring popularity. Everyone knows their music, even if it's not by choice for most people under thirty.

Though derided for creating "formula" musicals that adhered to the same basic structure, Rodgers and Hammerstein were no slouches artistically. They set a high standard for quality and tackled difficult themes with surprising regularity. They famously portrayed interracial romances in "The King and I" and "South Pacific," and the immigrant experience in "Flower Drum Song." But as these musicals were written five or six decades ago, the prevailing social attitudes of the day left their mark. The stories might have been progressive back in the 40s, but it's difficult to watch most of the original versions through modern eyes without wincing at the steady stream of ethnic and gender stereotypes.

"Carousel" (1956), one of their duo's earliest musical films, is a good encapsulation of these issues. I wasn't familiar with it before my first viewing last month, and came away with an extremely negative impression. This surprised me, because "Carousel" has a good reputation and tops TIME Magazine's list of the greatest musicals of the century. I found the story ambitious, the performances decent, and the technical quality perfectly up to par. But in its entirety, the movie was barely watchable.

Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones star as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, a carnival barker and a mill worker who fall in love, but suffer a troubled marriage. The story is presented as an extended flashback observed by Billy's soul after death, recounting how things went so wrong with the relationship. "Carousel" is probably the most dramatically serious of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals along with "South Pacific," focusing nearly all its attention on difficult interpersonal relationships, and occasionally touching on darker themes like domestic abuse and class prejudices.

But while choosing such difficult subject matter was commendable, it's absolutely poisonous in the context of a musical extravaganza. I can see how "Carousel" would have worked as straight melodrama, but adding song-and-dance numbers results in awful tonal clashes. The songs are by turns operatically morose and cheerfully insipid, forever undercutting the dramatic tension. I've never seen a musical that had to fight so hard to inject any energy into its numbers. With angst-addled soliloquy after soliloquy, "Carousel" boasts only one truly bombastic musical sequence, "June is Bustin' Out All Over," that feels like it belongs in a different film.

Rodgers and Hammerstein would return to similar subject matter with "South Pacific," but that story had the benefit of a tropical locale and a good variety of principals from different backgrounds to help hold our interest. "Carousel," by contrast, is set in a tiny, insular seaside town in Maine that provides little by way of memorable visuals, and the small-minded townfolk tend to blend into one another. There are no major subplots or side-stories, and a very limited set of characters. Modern musicals have done far more with far less, but a Rodgers and Hammerstein production that skimps on the ensemble and the pageantry is like a superhero film that skimps on the fight scenes.

In end, what sinks the movie completely is an insistence on dour seriousness, coupled with an inability to confront its subject matter directly. Billy Bigelow reveals that he became involved in petty thievery and was abusive toward his wife, which lead to his untimely death. He's granted one day back on Earth to try and help Julie an his daughter Louise, who still suffer under the pall of Billy's actions many years later. The attempt does not go well, ending in more violence, but Billy is shown to be able to convey his feelings of love to his family and the movie ends with all three of them at a point of spiritual peace, backed by a rousing choral finale.

What the story fails to do is hold Billy to any sort of accountability for his actions. Rather, it only goes so far as to explain their origins and the good intentions behind them. In fact, good intentions seems to count for everything, as Billy Bigelow's redemption doesn't require him to actually do anything to make amends. Almost entirely glossed over are the consequences of the domestic violence, a controversial topic at the time of the film's release. Julie explains that Billy's slap felt like "a kiss" that "didn't hurt at all," which is a pretty heinous whitewash even for the '40s, and an absolutely unacceptable sentiment in the present day.

"Carousel" is important in film history as a major work from important artists, but otherwise its merits are pretty limited. There are sequences that are excellent on their own, such as "June is Bustin' Out All Over," and Louise's ballet in the third act, but as a film it doesn't hold up at all. I'm not surprised this isn't one of the more well-known Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

Frankly, it deserves to be forgotten.

What New Kevin Smith Movie?

Kevin Smith's problems with Southwest Airlines made a splash this week, but I was more surprised to learn that he has a new movie hitting theaters soon - "Cop Out," a buddy-cop film starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. After watching the trailer and taking measure of the buzz, it doesn't look promising. If Kevin Smith's name weren't linked to the picture I'd have passed it over as some studio exec's sad attempt to resurrect the glory days of "48 Hours" and "Midnight Run." It's being sold as completely generic comedy, way outside the realm of Kevin Smith's trademark New Jersey slacker milieu.

Or to put it more bluntly, WTF? Why is Kevin Smith directing such a bland-looking commercial studio picture? Has he sold out (again)? Gone into a creative tailspin a la John Hughes?

It's simpler than that. Smith made it very clear that he got tired of making the low-budget indie "Askewniverse" films that brought him fame, and has been doggedly trying to tackle more mainstream material over the last few years. He's been working steadily, but none of his films have found much traction out there. The trouble is that his filmmaking sensibilities don't fit in kind of movies that Hollywood knows how to sell, and he's never really found a way to adapt his considerable talents to bigger, slicker features. It's not a good sign when a director's best recent work has been as an actor (in the latest "Die Hard" and "Catch and Release").

Both of Smith's non-"Askewniverse" films have been notorious flops. "Jersey Girl" was a sentimental family drama nobody wanted to see - neither Smith's usual audience nor the older demographic that similar films are usually aimed at. He came closer with "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," which was sold as a Judd Apatow-style raunchy rom-com, but it wore its geek-cred on its sleeve and came off as more than a little skeevy. Ironically Apatow owes a lot to Smith for pushing the envelope on adult content - but Apatow never went nearly as far.

After striking out twice with rom-coms, a buddy-cop comedy makes sense as something new to try that would still be in Smith's comfort zone. As much as his fans would love it, no one's going to let him near a superhero film, which are largely based on visual strengths that Smith has never demonstrated any affinity for as a director. I'm not saying it's impossible, but there's a big gap that needs to be bridged. "Cop Out" actually might be a step in the right direction, since we can probably expect some action sequences to fill in the pauses between the banter. But with so little of the director's usual flourishes coming through in the marketing, I'm getting worried that he might have reined himself in too much. On the other hand, if I was the studio, both leads have a better track record than Kevin Smith, so I'd downplay his involvement too.

I have to hope for the best, since I like Kevin Smith. He made at least one really great film and inspired several others. There have been indie directors like Sam Raimi and Christoper Nolan who made the jump to the mainstream successfully without losing themselves artistically. Since Kevin Smith can work a small budget and has a loyal fanbase, he certainly won't run out of chances anytime soon.

The Devolution of "Criminal Minds"

I know enough about the criminal justice system and all the affiliated governmental agencies to be pretty skeptical about anything that happens on prime-time crime dramas. Nonetheless, most of them do a darn good job of being entertaining - I just wish they didn't make me suspend my disbelief so often.

Take "Criminal Minds," which follows a group of FBI profilers out of Quantico who track serial killers. I've gotten hooked over the past month thanks to ION running through about ten episodes - nearly half a season - every week. It's currently in its fifth year on CBS, and started out as one of the better entries to the cop-show genre with good writing, good actors, and a better eye for accuracy and realism than most. Subsequent seasons have been wildly uneven in tone and quality, and now it's pretty much been dumbed down into another "CSI" clone. Sure it's still entertaining, but I do miss being able to watch a whole episode without spotting things that would never, ever happen in real life roughly every five minutes.

Some of the biggest recurring issues:

1) Wardrobe - One of the first things I notice about most crime dramas is that the law enforcement professionals aren't dressed right. The women have overdone makeup, inappropriate hairstyles, and low necklines. The men tend to come off better, but still have a tendency to push the dress code. The "Criminal Minds" pilot had most of the cast sporting the suits and ties and tasteful blouses we expect with G-men and G-women, and it all went downhill from there. Subsequently the only one still regularly seen in a suit is the team leader, Agent Hotchner (Thomas Gibson). Meanwhile Agent Morgan (Shemar Moore) has been in T-shirts and polo shirts for the better part of four seasons and the team techie, Garcia (Kirsten Vangness), has seen her outfits go from business casual with a few quirky accessories to looking like a younger version of Mimi from "The Drew Carey Show."
2) Getting Personal - It's natural that as we get to know the principals in the show, we'll see their personal lives intersect with the job. I don't mind this happening on occasion, like the cliffhanger season finales that traditionally feature go-for-broke dramatics. The trouble is that the writers have been relying on it far too heavily, turning most of the major characters into walking founts of angst. I don't think there's a single character left who hasn't been revealed to have a troubled or tragic childhood. Poor Agent Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) apparently doesn't have enough to deal with, being a socially awkward prodigy profiler who is the youngest member of the team. No, he has to have a schizophrenic mother, a father who abandoned them, job-related PTSD, a drug habit, and a peculiar ability to be taken hostage at the drop of a hat.
3) Celebrity Rehab - Luke Perry, Wil Wheaton, Frankie Muniz, and way too many other B-list celebrity guest stars have shown up in various episodes. It's one thing when you have good career character actors like Tony Todd dropping in for a cameo, but it's another thing entirely when you're cycling through former teen heartthrobs of the 90s of dubious talent and billboard appeal. By far the worst instance was a post-"Dawson's Creek" James Van der Beek playing a serial killer with dissociative identity disorder. The guy could hardly handle one personality, let alone three.
4) Tropery - One of the things I really loved about the first season of "Criminal Minds" was that every member of the ensemble was professional, intelligent, knowledgeable, and contributed equally to cases. The characters had different specialties, but the crucial deduction or ultimate insight could come from any of them. Since then the writing has suffered a significant drop in quality (alongside the cinematography, direction, and pretty much everything else). All the characters have now been neatly distilled into their most obvious personality quirks, with most of the greatly reduced exposition coming from Garcia or Agent Reid. The character who's suffered the most has been Agent Morgan, whose role has largely been reduced to kicking down doors and providing innuendo-laced banter.

I know that Mandy Patinkin's departure at the end of the second season was a major turning point in the show for the worse, but it also looks like budget cuts did away with most of the interesting visuals and research-intensive writing that characterized the earlier seasons. What depresses me is that this has actually helped the show, because the ratings for "Criminal Minds" have been steadily improving even as the quality has dipped.

I do find it refreshing to find a crime drama that is so shamelessly pandering to women. Thomas Gibson, Shemar Moore, and Michael Gray Gubler provide a great variety of masculine eye-candy. On the female side of the cast, Paget Brewster, AJ Cook, and Kirsten Vangness are certainly not unattractive women, but neither are they aggressively sexualized the way you see in so many similar shows.

All in all, there are enough redeeming elements that I keep watching "Criminal Minds." Despite all the issues I have with it, I have to admit that it's far better written than most of the other crime dramas and will occasionally do something really riveting. It's just a shame that the federal agent characters it portrays are somehow less realistic and believable than the ones found in far older and less ambitious shows - like "The X-files."



Here is my confession. I am a female thirty-something visual media junkie, who spends way too much time consumed with television, films, internet videos, and the fandom associated with them. So I might as well blog about it. Here I will chronicle my adventures in media - reviews, meta, articles, recs, and musings.

I love genre stuff, cartoons, old pretentious movies, crime dramas, Comedy Central pundits, and reality shows where people make things like clothes (Project Runway) and science experiments (Mythbusters).