Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"V" is for Vacuous

"FlashForward" and "V," ABC's freshman light fantasy/science-fiction shows, have returned from hiatus to lukewarm response. Many commentators are pointing to the shows having suffered from unusually long breaks between new episodes, especially on the part of "V," which is only eight episodes long to begin with and was conceived of as a long miniseries, potentially leading into a full-blown serial. I agree with the point, as it's difficult for an audience to sustain much interest in a show that disappears in the middle of a regular broadcast season for several months. However, as I gave both of these new series a try last year, and regularly tuned in from week-to-week for a full half-season, the most probable reason for the viewer dropoff is a a lot simpler than scheduling woes: "FlashForward" and "V" are both terrible.

I have always loved genre shows, and during my teenage years, I eagerly followed dozens of one-season wonders that wanted to be the next "X-Files" or "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer." And I remember the era before that, when science-fiction, fantasy, and horror shows existed mostly on syndication, and could only aspire to cult status. It's been great to see the evolution of these programs from "Star Trek" clones and kiddie-fodder to mainstream blockbusters like "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" that hold their own against any number of prime time reality shows and "Law & Order" spinoffs. However, as a result of many new genre programs trying to appeal to a much broader audience than they have in the past, we've been getting shows that do a good job of looking and sounding like science-fiction, but don't really understand how science-fiction conventions work.

Let's take "V," for example. I remember watching at least one of the original miniseries as a kid, following each installment night after night with rapt attention as the alien Visitors were revealed as the nasty, thieving, conniving invaders that they were. At its heart, "V" worked the same way that B-movie action-adventure serials worked. You rooted for the good guys, booed and hissed at the bad guys, and most of the enjoyment came from watching the creeping thrills and over-the-top mayhem onscreen. The human characters were fairly shallow, but that was beside the point. The real stars were always the curious alien Visitors, who emanated wonderful menace from the moment they set foot on Earth with their promises of peace and friendship. Add 80s-era special effects, rubber lizard-head masks, and a lot of cheese, and "V" was absolutely irresistible.

The new "V" follows the original's story for the most part, but places far more emphasis on its ensemble of human characters and has a terrible habit of undercutting the dramatic tension before it can build up to anything significant. Instead of the aliens' dastardly plans being uncovered bit by bit, we skip right over the budding skepticism and distrust of the leads to the discovery of a full-blown underground rebellion against the invaders in play, complete with alien sympathizers who have already been on Earth for ages. Yet the pacing has been on a flatline ever since, with significant developments very slow in coming. There's no visceral feeling of impending doom here, and little real excitement. Though we know the alien Visitors are up to no good, the actions of their leader, Anna, seem downright leisurely. At the end of the fourth episode, the Visitors are still focused on winning hearts and minds. So far they come off as sinister, but there are few hints of the vicious monsters that are supposed to be lurking just beneath the surface.

Most of the tension in "V" so far has been in the interpersonal realm, with our female lead and her son keeping secrets from each other, and an alien disguised as a human struggling over whether to reveal his identity to his wife. For a show about a worldwide alien invasion, the drama is kept surprisingly small in scope, limited to only a handful of characters in the same geographic area. And despite setting up conflict between the Visitors and human militants, the action sequences have been appallingly scant. Mostly the characters just stand around and talk, and the writing is so poor, the leads so dull and bland, it gets tedious very quickly. I can't imagine a ten-year-old version of myself being enamored of these endless soap-opera scenes of angst and kvetching. So far there are none of the gleeful shocks or suspenseful horrors of the original. I might as well be watching "Grey's Anatomy." Sure, the effects are better this time, but they're nowhere near as much fun.

The failings of the new "V" are even more starkly obvious when compared to another alien invasion program that arrived in 2009. This was "Children of Earth," a miniseries that was supposed to serve as a truncated third season for the British science-fiction show "Torchwood." In five broadcast hours, it did everything that "V" didn't. It told a terrifying, intense story about bad aliens coming to Earth - slowly building up and revealing the ugly depths of their schemes, and following a small band of humans in the fight to stop them. The action never let up, the focus never wavered from the threat of the aliens, and though there really wasn't much to the characters, it was hard not to love them by the end of the adventure. Moreover, "Children of Earth" didn't have very sophisticated special effects and occasionally indulged in campiness and humor. And this didn't affect its emotional impact at all.

Or its success. "Children of Earth" won "Torchwood" its highest ratings and all but saved the show from cancellation. There's even talk of a US version being produced by the FOX Network. And really, when it comes down to it, the biggest difference between "Children of Earth" and "V" is that "Children of Earth" does the most with its premise. Science-fiction is about big ideas, and it often needs a bigger scope and larger-than-life circumstances. "V" has no shortage of potential to be an excellent program, but so far it hasn't capitalized on a fraction of what the older version did. Why are we spending so much time watching an idiot teenage boy try to hide his relationship with an alien girl from his mother when we should really be checking in to make sure the lizard-faced creeps aren't trying to suck the planet dry like last time? I want "V" to be "V," not a carbon copy, but at least a show with some ambition instead of this safe, pedestrian, gutless thing they're trying to pass off as "V."

Whew.

Well that took more space than I thought. I'll have to save "FlashForward" for next time.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On the Warpath

Afghanistan and Iraq War films don't sell. This is the message that Hollywood is getting after a string of recent high-profile bombs, including "Body of Lies," "In the Valley of Elah," "Stop Loss," "Rendition," and "Brothers." "The Hurt Locker," has the dubious distinction of being the Best Picture winner with smallest box office earnings in history. The most recent casualty is the Matt Damon vehicle "Green Zone," which tried to invoke the "Bourne" series in its marketing and still fell flat.

I can understand the urge of filmmakers to tackle the Middle-East conflicts, and the willingness of the studios to fund these pictures. War films have traditionally been popular box-office draws, and include some of the most influential and critically acclaimed films in American cinema. The closest analogue to Iraq and Afghanistan is undeniably the Vietnam War, which gave us "Apocalypse Now" and the "Deer Hunter" in the 70s, "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" in the 80s, and served as the backdrop for the Rambo films and dozens of cheesy action flicks. Vietnam influenced every corner of popular culture from Bruce Springsteen to "The A-Team." Decades later, the loving spoof "Tropic Thunder" is still feeding off the nostalgia.

But looking at the timeline of the Vietnam War films, the reason for the tepid response to the recent crop of Middle East war films becomes pretty clear. It's far too soon for these movies to find any sort of audience. People just aren't ready for them. The quagmire of Afghanistan is still ongoing and Iraq has only barely recovered some stability over the past year. There's been no time for people to gain any distance from the events, to step back and assess the extent of the damage, or evaluate the psychic scars. Moreover, any serious social commentary in these films is still inevitably viewed through a political lens, and no doubt will be for years to come.

It's important to remember that few of the Vietnam films actually made during the Vietnam War had much success. The war films that were hits in that era were fairly positive adventure stories about World War II, like "Patton," "The Dirty Dozen," and "The Great Escape." The only Vietnam War film of the 60s that ever got much press was the John Wayne film, "The Green Berets," and that was because it was fairly sympathetic to the Viet Cong and memorably controversial. It wasn't until the rise of the New Hollywood directors in the 70s after conflict ceased, that the most iconic Vietnam War films were produced. Notable among them was Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran.

I expect the Middle East war films will follow a similar trajectory, though probably accelerated slightly, as the idea of portraying an ongoing war in a mainstream Hollywood film has lost most of its taboo nature since the 60s. Also, the studios seem more eager to commercialize the conflict this time, rolling out slick action-adventure films set in Baghdad and Kabul. There's been nothing as crassly commercial as "Rambo: First Blood Part II" yet, but you can sense the film executives salivating over the possibilities. If John Rambo could rack up millions by going back to Vietnam to track down missing American POWs, there's no reason Jason Bourne couldn't do something similar in Iraq. But as the failure of "Green Zone" signals, they're probably about a decade too early. The mainstream culture is still in the early stages of processing the Middle East wars, and there's no rushing it.

For another recent example, there's the outrage over the ending of the recently released "Remember Me," which invoked the 9/11 tragedy. After eight years, apparently it's still too soon to be mining the collapse of the World Trade Center towers for dramatic material, or at least to be springing it upon unsuspecting Robert Pattinson fans. A glut of 9/11 themed prestige projects have already passed through theaters, but only "United 93" made any real critical impact by capturing some of the horror and emotional intensity of the day. But to date, there have been no 9/11 films that have managed to adequately address with the impact of the event, because even now the impact is still being felt.

Still, I don't think the studios should rush to junk all of their remaining Iraq and Afghanistan projects. The wars are now a permanent part of this era of the American experience, and will be a major influence on artists of all stripes for a very long time. Eventually, after some of the wounds have closed and the political fallout is over and done with, the commercialization of the modern wartime experience through entertainment will become more palatable to the mainstream public - say, by the fifth or sixth Bourne movie.

And more serious film lovers shouldn't give up on the new breed of war films either. Just as it proved impossible to convey the Vietnam War experience through the conventions of older war films, the Middle East War films will be a different animal too. At the moment, the genre is characterized by didactic political pieces, frenzied action thrillers, and suburban sob stories, but recently acclaimed entries like "The Hurt Locker" and "The Messenger" promise better to come.

After all, a country doesn't go to war for seven plus years and come out of it without any worthwhile stories to tell.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Where Have All the Casablanca Spoofs Gone?

There's a long tradition of references and spoofs of popular culture in all forms of media. It's a good barometer of relevance, and an informal indication of how much impact a film or television show or album retains in the present day. Sitcoms and comedy films have been particularly fond of them lately, with projects like "Hot Tub Time Machine" and "The Venture Brothers" practically built from references to the pop culture of the 70s and 80s. And unexpectedly, the trend has been making me yearn for the spoofs of that generation, and their parodies of films and shows that have almost entirely disappeared from the media consciousness.

As a kid I remember watching Carol Burnett donning Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet curtain dress, complete with the curtain rod. And I remember Kermit and Miss Piggy re-enacting the farewell scene from "Casablanca" on "The Muppet Show." Thirty-odd years on, I'm sure that there are still plenty of people who would get the jokes, but the classic films of the 30s and 40s are no longer considered part of the modern cultural zeitgeist, at least not for the audiences that marketers are interested in. It makes me more than a little wistful. These days, the oldest pop culture artifacts still being regularly referenced are "The Godfather" and the Beatles. Even that old standby, Elvis Presley, hasn't been sighted much lately.

But this is nothing new. Time marches on and the old always gives way to the new in the public consciousness, even where nostalgia is concerned. The recent fixation on all things 80s reflects the happy memories of people in their thirties and forties who were kids during that era. And the big hits of the 80s like the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films were updated version of the old adventure serials and kitschy sci-fi kidvid beloved by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas when they were kids in the 50s. And the 50s yearned for the good old days of the 20s. And so on. The expiration date for most pop culture, then, is about thirty years, or roughly a generation.

I suspect my fixation on older spoofs comes from my own nostalgia for the 70s and 80s. I really detest the "Scary Movie" style films that pass for parodies these days, which are really just lazy collections of pop culture references that immediately became dated upon release. "Epic Movie" even parodied trailers for films that hadn't hit theaters yet. They don't hold a candle to the work of Carol Burnett or Mel Brooks or the Zuckers. The only reason why I ever went looking for many of those classic films is because I learned about them through the nostalgic gaze of truly great comedians. Will anyone be inspired to track down "The Breakfast Club" after seeing "Not Another Teen Movie"?

But I'm not being fair. There have been some good parody features recently like "Shaun of the Dead," "Tropic Thunder," and "Enchanted" that have done right by the films they reference, and have some very funny people behind them. Deep down I know that comedy would stagnate if it stuck to the same old frame of reference all the time, and there's no shortage of modern material that deserves skewering. Somewhere out there, this generation's Mel Brooks is gearing up to give the "Twilight" franchise a good, swift kick in the pants, and I can't wait to see it.

And just because most of Hollywood's gaze has drifted doesn't mean that everyone's has. "The Simpsons," spoofed several of the more obscure Hitchcock films in their most recent "Treehouse of Horror." "SNL" let guest host Joseph Gordon Levitt recreate the "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence from "Singing in the Rain," and castmember Kristen Wiig regularly revels in resurrecting bygone cinema greats like Gloria Swanson and Katherine Hepburn. And of course there's "Mad Men," one of the rare period pieces on American television, that brings its audience back to the 60s in all its troubled glory. As long as there are people in Hollywood who love the classiscs, Rick and Ilsa may be harder to spot, but they'll never be truly gone.

And as long as we're bringing back the 80s, there can never be enough parodies of this scene:


Bum bum bum bum bum bum bum....




Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why I stopped watching "Chuck."

I feel like I've been ignoring the television side of things. To tell the truth I haven't been watching much television lately and there are few shows currently being broadcast that I'm actively following. My regular roster has been whittled down to about three or four prime time shows, "At the Movies," and "60 Minutes," and I can safely say that I watch more late night programming than anything else. Reaching this low didn't happen all at once, and in the spirit of over-analytical navel-gazing, it wasn't a simple process either. I suppose the easiest way to explain this is to provide the specific example of why I stopped watching "Chuck."

After hearing people rave about "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica," and missing the fun of having appointment TV to look forward to like "Buffy" and "The X-files" from the 90s, I started watching a bunch of new genre programs at the start of the '07-'08 season, including "Pushing Daisies," "The Bionic Woman," "Moonlight," "Reaper," and "Chuck." This was quickly whittled down to "Chuck" and "Pushing Daisies." Both shows were funny and geeky, had great production values, and were smartly written by good writers. They were also both victims of the '07-'08 writers strike, which left all of these freshman shows with severely truncated first or second seasons. "Pushing Daisies," my favorite of the lot, was axed midway through the second season, with the final episodes burned off over the summer months. "Chuck" received steady network support, however, and secured second and third seasons with the help of a vocal fan-campaign.

I, on the other hand, didn't make it to the midseason point with the second season of "Chuck." The most obvious reason was scheduling. FOX moved "House" to Mondays at 8PM, directly competing in the same timeslot as "Chuck". Because I didn't have a VCR or DVR, it was easier for me to watch "House" live and catch episodes of "Chuck" online. "House" is also available online through Hulu, but there's a significantly longer delay involved between the broadcast airings and when they become available online. So I watched the first few second season "Chuck" episodes through the NBC website weekly, but started putting off viewings for longer and longer periods of time until I finally lost interest and stopped altogether.

I can't say for sure whether or not the decision to stop watching the live broadcasts of "Chuck" sped up my decision to give up on the show, but I can say that once I stopped making time to see the show, I lost a good deal of investment in it. I think I would have dropped "Chuck" at some point regardless, because of changes in the show's content. I realized that the parts I enjoyed all involved the scruffy crew at the Buy More where the main character worked, and I was getting less and less patient with the spy drama aspect of the show and the endless teases about Chuck Bartowski potentially becoming involved with his beautiful blonde protector, Agent Walker.

I might have kept watching simply based on the show being part of my routine schedule, which is why I stuck around for all those lousy later seasons of "The X-Files." But once I started watching "Chuck" online, the sense of immediacy I got from the live broadcasts disappeared, and the weaknesses of the material started to weigh a lot heavier. Once I found another show that gave me the same geeky shenanigans, along with a couple where the nebbish protagonist had already firmly established couple-dom with the show's resident hot blonde girl, there was no going back. This was "The Big Bang Theory," which is not available online through any free sites, and it eventually knocked NBC's "Heroes" out of my viewing schedule too.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the networks that are doing the best now, CBS and FOX, have significantly higher barriers to accessing their first-run content than their competitors NBC and ABC. Online content is characterized by universal accessibility, so the urgency to watch anything is seriously diminished. And there are so many viewing choices available online, including original content, commercial programming can get lost in the din unless you're looking for it specifically. The shows that I still watch online now are ones that I tend to be diligent about keeping track of the scheduling for: "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," "Project Runway," and "The Venture Brothers," among others. Part of watching anything online is actively seeking it, which means the simple act of viewing a program is no longer a passive activity. Casual viewing is rare, and quality counts for more than ever.

"Chuck" is a good show, and has a lot to offer to geeks of a certain age and temperament. I enjoyed seeing Morgan evolve from slacker to someone worthy of the lowest rung of middle management. And I enjoyed Chuck using the timeless music of Rush to reach the kill screen of Missile Command. And I really loved Jeffster's rousing performance of "Mr. Roboto" at Ellie's wedding, though I watched that last one online after the video went viral. Maybe I'll give "Chuck" another shot one of these days when the show reaches its conclusion and I can pick up the whole thing on DVD and fast-forward through the angsty soap-opera bits.

Or maybe I won't.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

"For Both Can Issue a Note, Though it is Very Flat..."

I've loved Tim Burton's work for ages, and remain grateful for the darker, off-kilter visual style that he brought to the mainstream cinema in the 90s with "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands." His visuals are always the highlight of his films, and wholly justify the existence of these projects all on their own, but Burton has a tendency to stumble when it comes to the stories.

His new version of "Alice in Wonderland" is no different. Rather than being the umpteenth retelling of the familiar Lewis Carroll story, Linda Woolverton's screenplay functions as an exercise in knowing nostalgia, setting the action about a decade after Alice's initial adventures. When a now nineteen-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) stumbles upon "Underland" this time, after fleeing her pending engagement, she encounters many of the same characters and devices from the original that we all know and love. This frees the filmmakers to reference famous material, such as the Mad Tea Party, without being beholden to its source.

However this version of "Alice" is very much an action-adventure film, so a fairly formulaic quest story is immediately introduced with the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) now a fearsome tyrant who is subjugating the populace after having stolen the crown from her good sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Alice is foretold by prophecy to slay the fearsome Jabberwocky, and must overcome her own fears and doubts to do so. Most of the other familiar characters, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the White Rabbit (Martin Sheen) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both Matt Lucas) now constitute a scrappy band of freedom fighters. It actually doesn't come off quite so silly as it sounds, though the involvement of animal warriors recalls the much better "Narnia" films that Disney also produces.

The imposition of such a straightforward plot on the proceedings requires the transmogrification of many of the characters into forms that are at once familiar yet totally alien. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), for example, is the Red Queen's main enforcer and a primary baddie in the story. He's a familiar archetype, the power-hungry, traitorous black knight who is rotten to the core, but this bears little resemblance to the Knave in the original "Alice." Probably the most drastic change was made to the Mad Hatter, who by virtue of being played by headliner Johnny Depp, has now become a romantic hero and tragic soul. Proper names are given to one and all in addition to the usual descriptive titles, which dims a little of their shine. That all of these characters come across as fairly believable must be credited to top-notch performances given by the cast all around.

The bare bones plotting also gains immeasurably from Tim Burton's visuals. After some disastrous CGI in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Sweeney Todd," his work in "Alice in Wonderland" is a huge leap forward. Frame after frame is stuffed to the gills with beautiful Wonderland imagery, all lovingly designed and executed. There are dozens of little references and asides for fans of Carroll's work and the earlier "Alice" adaptations, such as the talking flowers, rocking-horse flies, playing card armies, and the obligatory shot of the pale crescent moon tipping over on its side to become the Cheshire Cat's smile. And there are a few moments where Burton lets a little macabre humor slip through, often involving monkeys. Some of these images go by so fast, it's a shame. I'm sure this version of "Alice in Wonderland" would make a much better picture book than an actual film.

In the end, I'm of two minds about the film. On the one hand, as a reimagining of the "Alice" story, it avoids the worst excesses that other modern productions have indulged in. Though its storyline is darker, it's perfectly safe for children and retains a lot of humor and charm. On the other hand, the dialogue is remarkably lazy, to the point where some of Carroll's best lines are appropriated to punctuate emotional moments completely out of context. "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" is actually echoed between Alice and the Hatter throughout the film and is supposed to come off as poignant upon the last repetition when they're making their farewells. There's also the matter of the ending, which is a completely implausible bungle once Alice returns to the real world.

Also, I can't help feeling that there were a lot of missed opportunities. "Alice" uses only the most iconic and popular Wonderland characters and ignored others that would have made more sense in the context of the story that they were telling. The White Knight, for example, would have made a nice Old Master figure for Alice. The cynical Gryphon would have been a more appropriate doomsayer than the Dormouse. And finally, how on earth did we get the Red Queen as the major antagonist without the film dropping at least a reference to the Red Queen's Race?

Perhaps some of these issues will be addressed in the sequel, because it's almost a certainty that there will be one thanks to the obscene amount of money this film is making now, Tim Burton or no. Will they call it "Through the Looking Glass," or perhaps the more traditional "Alice in Wonderland 2"?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Balcony Closed for Good? Say it Ain't So!

It's a bad day to be cinephile. Word came down from Disney yesterday that "At the Movies," the syndicated film review program that was the home of "Siskel and Ebert" for nearly two decades will cease broadcast in August. The show was never the same after Siskel's death in 1999, but Ebert kept it going until untimely his departure in 2006. And despite all the bumps and bruises that the show suffered since, I thought it finally found its feet again last year with new hosts Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott.

I called foul on the widely trumpeted demise of professional film criticism after Todd McCarthy was dropped from Variety last week, but it doesn't look good for the last reviewers standing. Philips and Scott will still be writing for their respective papers, but the end of "At the Movies," is a major loss for critics nonetheless. It was the most popular, most accessible television review program for years, and found a permanent place in the cultural zeitgeist of the 80s. I know most film lovers of my generation owe the show a debt of gratitude, as it was one of the only places to hear about smaller cinema gems in those hazy days before the advent of the Internet.

Even now, I can't think of any real alternatives to "At the Movies." There are some podcasts and webcasts that have gained popularity, but nothing aimed at general audiences that are nearly as comprehensive or as well presented. Though built on the charisma of two great personalities, I really thought the format could endure without them.

I remain hopeful that Ebert or Richard Roeper or someone else down the line finds a way to resurrect the program in some format. I never stopped watching and never missed a show, even when the dreadful Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz were foisted on.

I know my Sunday nights will never be the same without it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hidden Perils of the Third Dimension

The success of "Alice in Wonderland" over the past few weeks, and "Avatar" in the months before have spurred a lot of interest in 3D films. Studios have been falling over themselves to fill their production slates with them, an unthinkable prospect only a year or two ago. And no wonder, as audiences have demonstrated that they're willing to pay up to a $3 premium for 3D films over old-fashioned projection. It's gotten to the point where scheduling wars are in full swing as 3D have to compete for a limited number of screens, often resulting in shortened theatrical runs and front-loaded box-office receipts. "Alice" cut short "Avatar," and is about to be bumped by "How to Train Your Dragon" this upcoming weekend.

I'm not a fan of 3D films myself, but I don't begrudge those who have embraced them. Theater owners are happy to have a new gimmick to keep the multiplexes full and filmmakers have new toys to play with. However, the rush to cash in on 3D is still a worrisome development in the industry as it's almost certainly going to impact future decisions about what kinds of film the studios are willing to finance. Special-effects spectacles look great in 3D, but the format doesn't do much for romantic comedies or adult dramas like Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg," which is also opening this week. As IMAX screens and 3D-ready theaters are springing up like so many CGI daisies, I worry that a good chunk of the smaller, subtler films are going to be squeezed out permanently.

Looking at recent box office returns, the most vulnerable categories are adult dramas, prestige pictures, and mid-range films. Their numbers have been slipping precariously as the wattage of our A-list actors has dimmed, which means theater owners don't want to book these films if they have the choice and studios don't want to pay for them. Comedies and horror films will probably be all right, as they tend to be cheaply budgeted and are stable audience draws. If you're a fan of Oscar bait, however, there's ample reason to be concerned. The prestige labels are largely kaput, funding for the independents has all but dried up in the recession, and even Harvey Weinstein is tottering on the brink these days - though Quentin Tarantino did provide the Weinstein Company a brief reprieve last August with "Inglorious Basterds."

The studios have gotten more risk-averse than ever, and nearly all of them have cut back on the number of films in production. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but to see them shedding diverse film slates in favor of a steady stream of 3D special-effects behemoths leaves me worried. In addition to the questionable artistic merits and the lack of variety in our viewing choices, this is a risky bet for the studios if it goes wrong. Big effects films have astronomical budgets and need to be locked-in years in advance. If audiences lose their appetite for 3D films and the profit margins shrink, the studios and theater owners will be stuck with the cost of a lot of new theaters and a lot of very expensive movies.

The 3D movie trend came upon us quickly and it could go just as quickly as it becomes less novel. Last year's "Coraline" and "Avatar" were groundbreakers, but the latest crop of 3D films are just more of the same. And there's been a lot of sniping about the quality of a quickie conversion process that adds 3D elements to films like the new "Clash of the Titans" that were shot in 2D, in order to help them capitalize on the 3D rush. There's the very real danger of market oversaturation. According to Patrick Goldstein's "Big Picture" blog, Warner Brothers alone is planning to roll out nine 3D films in 2011. I'm getting eyestrain just thinking about it.

Finally, we're already seeing the arrival of "Real-D" enabled home theater systems, which will end the exclusivity of 3D in movie theaters. And it's going to make the premium ticket price tag look a whole lot less palatable soon.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

You Win This Time, Roland Emmerich

I feel a little hypocritical singing the praises of the latest Roland Emmerich disaster film, "2012," after being so hard on Pierre Morel's one-man-army actioneer, "Taken," yesterday. Both films are utterly formulaic, have cardboard characters, indulge in cringeworthy stereotyping, and play to the audience's basest desire for visceral thrills and noisy conflagrations. But the difference between them is plain. "Taken" rehashes its familiar action-movie elements in a new configuration, but does them in a fairly cheap, exploitative way. "2012," on the other hand, shoots for the moon - practically the only thing by the end of this film that isn't reduced to rubble.

If you've seen one of these recent "disaster porn" epics, you've seen them all. An improbable cataclysm strikes a major US city, an everyman protagonist is forced to fight for his family's survival against overwhelming odds, strangers from different walks of life are thrown together to find their common humanity, and though a few sympathetic characters may be lost along the way, the most photogenic leads survive to rebuild and repopulate. Roland Emmerich is responsible for some of the most famous ones - "Independence Day," and "The Day After Tomorrow." And he's borne the brunt of the criticism for their worst excesses.

Maybe this is why "2012" feels like a rebuke to Emmerich's most ardent detractors. Rather than reigning in or toning down his scientifically sketchy catastrophes, he goes bigger – with shifting tectonic plates bringing about the end of human civilization. The special effects sequences are bigger and wilder than ever, filling the screen with disintegrating cities, crumbling landmasses, and societal upheaval on a truly massive scale. Global landmarks are systematically destroyed and the leveling of Los Angeles is turned into a visual roller-coaster ride. If people outrunning fireballs and avalanches makes you roll your eyes, then "2012" apocalypse with its total rejection of the laws of physics and common sense may leave you aghast.

Or it may delight you. The film is so over the top, so gleeful in its orgy of destruction, it borders on the cartoonish. It's impossible to take it seriously, except possibly as allegory. And it works because the filmmaker is self-aware. Emmerich and his crew know that the special effects are the main event, and they wisely subordinate everything else. We get a few likable characters to follow through the mayhem, but aside from a few personal frictions, there's little to distract from the action. John Cusack plays the lead, with Amanda Peet as his ex- wife, and two young two kids to round out the family unit. They're not well fleshed out, but they don't need to be.

In fact, all the characters here tend to come off better than in most disaster flicks by being fairly limited in presence. We do get a villain in the cutthroat bureaucrat played by Oliver Platt, but he's terribly likable and prone to making more sense than any other character onscreen. There are also a few Russian caricatures and eccentrics for requisite comic relief, but their laugh lines are fleeting and there's no one who doesn't come off as sympathetic. In fact, it's amazing how much pathos Emmerich can summon with minimally defined characters. Some of the most affecting scenes involve doomed peripheral players who can't share more than five minutes of screentime collectively.

The film has its problems. It's too long, it's repetitive, and the final third loses a lot of momentum and ends up just throwing clich├ęs at us in the vain hope that they'll all come together in some coherent fashion. But I have to say, it's really nice to find a film that knows it's dumb entertainment, and doesn't try to get smart by bringing in social commentary, like "Day After Tomorrow" with its environmental messages, or "The Book of Eli," or "I am Legend," which took far darker, more serious approaches to similar material. While "2012" gets a few nice sentiments about global-connectedness and social responsibility across, in the end Emmerich knows what he does well, which is to blow things up real good.

Real, real good.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"Taken," Seriously

"Taken," the Liam Neeson thriller about an ex-Fed rescuing his kidnapped daughter from Albanian sex-slavers in Paris, was one of the surprise hits of early 2008. It's a straightforward, almost absurdly simple film that relishes in a standard one-man-army pursuit of the missing girl and her abductors, punctuated by frequent bursts of expertly choreographed violence. The lack of frills is the film's strength. There are no clever quips or plot twists, and not much exposition at all. The action scenes don't feel like set-pieces, but rather a recurring motif in almost every scene in the second half.

Liam Neeson, mostly associated these days with more peaceable characters like Oskar Schindler and Aslan, is the film's biggest asset. He provides just the right amount of awkward-father vulnerability to get the audience to sympathize with his character, and enough steely British gravitas to get us to buy him as one badass mofo. There's no question that his performance carries the the film, and plays a large part in getting us to ignore all the weaknesses of a very ham-fisted script. With another actor in the role, the film could have been a disaster.

At its heart, "Taken" is a middle-aged male fantasy in the same vein as "Die Hard" or "Death Wish," where all personal problems and societal frustrations can be solved with good old-fashioned brutality, and lots of it. Liam Neeson's character, Brian Mills, starts out as a sad-sack, divorced retiree whose ex-wife Lenore has remarried a wealthy older man. We're told explicitly that he wasn't a very good husband or father to their daughter Kim while employed as a "Preventer," and remains prone to smothering overprotectiveness.

Early scenes of Mills's clumsy attempts to reconnect with his estranged family are tedious and manipulative as the film tries to engage our sympathies. Lenore, played with grating exasperation by Famke Janssen, comes off as shrewish and brusque. Her character is amazingly flimsy, obstinately standing up to Mills regarding his fears about Kim traveling abroad, yet only able to express hystrionics in the face of her daughter's abduction. Twenty-something Maggie Grace is barely credible as seventeen-year-old Kim, and tends to overcompensate by acting even younger.

Once the action and the mayhem start, the film is a much easier to sit through. Director Pierre Morel keeps the pace brisk and the tension high. The fights are in a similar style to those of the "Bourne" films - fast and straightforward, but still kinetic and fun to watch. And there's no shakeycam to distract from the images, so it's easy to follow what's going on. But the moment you start thinking about what Mills is doing, his brute force tactics come across as ridiculous and anarchic.

The audience might get a rush seeing Liam Neeson beating up and gunning down countless black-suited goons, but as he gets further and further into the bowels of his enemies' criminal operations, his actions become very morally questionable. At least twice, he abandons dozens of exploited girls he stumbles across in dimly-lit flophouses. The one girl he does save disappears from the film after providing Mills with a piece of crucial information. And at one particularly low point, he shoots the innocent wife of a crooked police lieutenant in the arm in order to coerce her husband's cooperation.

Frankly, most of the plot developments in the film are ridiculous. You have young female tourists being snatched off the streets of Paris with nary a peep from their parents, the media, or Nancy Grace. International human traffickers enjoy a prosperous existence, aided and abetted by the corrupt French police. There's a lot of xenophobia and fear-mongering in this movie about foreign travel, white slavery, kidnapping rings, and systemic corruption. Backpacking across Europe has never seemed like such a dangerous or foolhardy proposition.

As with most of these one-man-army films, there are few consequences and no downsides to engaging in campaigns of violent retribution. Liam Neeson is threatened several times by the French authorities for disrupting and ignoring the existing justice system, but at the end of the movie, he simply goes home with his daughter. No arrest or other bad end results. And perhaps the most fantastic outcome is the complete evaporation of the tensions between Mills and his ex-wife upon Kim's return. And Kim herself appears to have suffered no trauma, even though her traveling companion died at the hands of their captors and her father has been revealed to be a cold-blooded killer.

I know I expect too much. "Taken" was not made to be taken so seriously, and its story only exists to provide some small justification for fight and stunt sequences, with the occasional explosion in the mix. On that score, it's not a bad picture.

But that doesn't mean it's not also still as dumb as a brick.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Say Bye Bye to the Cadbury Bunny

How's this for a sign of the times? Watching "At the Movies" this week, I noticed that the Cadbury Bunny commercial that always runs around this time of year for Easter, has been re-edited. In addition to being shortened and cropped to avoid shots of the chocolate eggs, now the tagline is "Nobody knows Easter like Hershey's." Because, if you've been following the business news, Hersheys just acquired Cadbury this year.

Time marches on and I know companies change hands all the time and make use of each others' assets, but it still bothers me that Hersheys decided to shanghai and cannibalize the familiar ad. It comes across as amazingly awkward and off-putting that Hershey doesn't even acknowledge Cadbury in the spot, but just superimposes itself right over the old text and audio.

If Cadbury's time has passed, it's passed. And nothing Hershey does is ever going to get me to associate the Cadbury Bunny with Hershey Kisses. It's just not going to happen. Hershey is better off getting its own mascot and its own Easter ad campaign.

Let the spokesbunny hop off into nostalgia-land with a modicum of grace.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ramona and Who?

The trailer for "Ramona and Beezus," based on Beverly Cleary's children's books, made its debut yesterday. Disney Channel star Selena Gomez is headlining as Beezus Quimby, an odd choice for a character who is about as far from a corporate-branded, perma-smiley TV starlet that you could imagine. But putting that aside, anyone at all familiar with Cleary's books will notice one thing immediately about this adaptation - seventeen-year-old Selena Gomez is much too old to play Beezus.

The Quimby sisters were introduced in Cleary's Henry Huggins books in the '50s, and soon took the spotlight in "Beezus and Ramona," published in 1955, and the subsequent Ramona series. Beezus started out around the age of eight and was never older than twelve or thirteen until the very last volume - published a decade and a half after the others - saw her enter the uncharted waters of high school. Beezus in the new film, as played by Gomez, is clearly well into her teenage years.

The change may seem minor, but Cleary's books were all about the joys and agonies of childhood and siblinghood as seen through the eyes of children. At least two generations have grown up reading about the girls surviving botched birthday cakes, bad haircuts, school troubles, and each other. To lose the child's voice and point of view is to lose much of the series' appeal. Fortunately the actress playing Ramona appears closer in age to the original version, but the disparity with Beezus will almost certainly change the relationship of the girls.

Beezus is only the latest young fictional character to be aged up in transition to film. Last month's "Percy Jackson" saw its main character go from a twelve in the books to his late teens in the film. The male lead of "City of Ember" was also twelve, but played by a twenty-two year old onscreen. And then there's the latest version of "Alice in Wonderland," which avoided the whole issue by having the film be a semi-sequel to the books, featuring Alice as a nineteen-year-old.

Explanations for these changes are rarely given outright, but one did come up in a recent article about the upcoming animated feature, "How to Train Your Dragon." Initially the heroes were ten-year-olds, but aged up to sixteen when the studio expressed dissatisfaction with early results and the film was essentially scrapped and rebooted. Or, as the LA Times Hero Complex blog put it, executives felt that "if 'Dragon' didn’t have older characters and more ambitious action scenes, its audience would become limited and it would suffer at the box office."

In other words, the studio was not willing to risk making a film aimed solely at children. It wanted yet another 3D-ready action spectacle that would play to a broader audience and was perfectly willing to warp the original source material until it matched their preconceived template for one. Dreamworks Animation production co-president Bill Damaschke even had this to say about the earlier, more faithful version of the film: “It was not a universal story that everyone would love.” Which begs the question why Dreamworks optioned the material to adapt into a feature in the first place.

I can see the practical reasons to avoid working with child actors, especially considering the amount of time and money involved in some of these massive blockbusters. But the idea that movies about children are somehow less accessible than movies about teenagers and adults doesn't hold water. Plenty of films like "Harry Potter" and the "Narnia" series didn't suffer from having youthful leads. And can you imagine Steven Spielberg making "E.T." with a teenage Elliot?

It's no secret that Hollywood only wants to make movies for teenagers and young adults right now, and seems terrified of doing anything that doesn't pander directly to this limited subset of the moviegoing population. Do they really believe that this audience won't see films with protagonists that are younger than they are? Are the studios now afraid of making kids' films for kids? Is Dora the Explorer now a niche product? Is that what this has come to?

If anyone needs us, Ella Funt and I will be under the bed rereading "The Mouse and the Motorcycle."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Fault Lies Not In The Star (Wars), But In Ourselves

Among the titles getting play at the SXSW film festival this week, one that caught my eye was a new documentary, "The People vs. George Lucas." My knee-jerk reaction was that this was yet another indulgent fanboy-coddling geek screed against the "Star Wars" franchise, the latest sign of fannish entitlement getting way out of control in the digital media age. But reading up on a few of the reviews, it sounds like this one strives for balance between the pro- and anti- Lucas camps, and is more concerned with the fan-creator relationship than chronicling the animosity of the players. And though the subject matter is slight, I have to admit that it does intrigue me as someone who loved the older films and didn't care for the revamped editions or the prequels.

I think every movie fan of a certain age had a stake in "Star Wars." I was definitely one of them, despite discovering the first trilogy about fifteen years after everyone else and initially watching edited-for-TV versions of the films - out of order no less. I have fond memories of seeing the 1997 Special Editions in theaters, though I wasn't keen on the so-called improvements. And I was in high school when "The Phantom Menace" arrived and got swept up in the momumental wave of hype. But though the prequels disappointed me, I was never embittered by them the way a lot of other "Star Wars" fans were. I more or less gave up on the series after "Attack of the Clones," realizing that Lucas was keen on permanently mucking up the image of Darth Vader, one of my favorite villains. I didn't bother seeing "Revenge of the Sith" until it hit the rental shelves.

Looking back, I have to admit that despite reading the extended universe novels and being able to recite "Return of the Jedi" dialogue from memory, I really didn't have much emotional investment in "Star Wars." It was a memorable part of my teenage years, but I didn't have much difficulty letting it go. Sure, I vented my spleen with other fans and engaged in some George Lucas bashing, but the urge was fleeting. When being a "Star Wars" fan stopped being fun, I just moved on to the next fandom: "Lord of the Rings." There was so much going on in the geeky media-sphere in the early 2000s, it seemed like a waste of energy to keep griping and listing out my druthers.

But the true "Star Wars" obsessives can't let it go and can't move on. It would be easy to mock these older fans who got so caught up in this universe and devoted so much to it, but I know better. The original "Star Wars" is special, a film that changed Hollywood, science-fiction, and all of media fandom for better or for worse. It was one of the first modern summer blockbusters, a cultural touchstone of the 70s, and sits atop many lists of the most influential pictures ever made. That the second and third films turned out as well as they did was a minor cinema miracle. Watching the original trilogy dazzle audiences back in the day must have been thrilling, and I don't begrudge anyone who cherishes those memories. And I truly sympathize with those who believe that something they feel so strongly towards has been cheapened or tarnished.

But blame George Lucas? Stepping back from my own preferences, I think Lucas understood what he was doing with the prequels. As many have pointed out, he didn't make the second trilogy for the existing "Star Wars" audience, but aimed them squarely at kids of a new generation. Always a technical innovator, he opted for cutting edge digital effects over older, more familiar methods. And since the plotty bits weren't his strong suit, he favored action and bombast over thoughtful scripting. In short, he did pretty much everything he did in 1977 that made the first "Star Wars" the success it was. Whether he was successful or not this time around is up for debate, but taking his failures as a personal affront seems petty to me. Time moved on and so did George Lucas.

I'm far less forgiving when it comes to how Lucas has handled the first trilogy, pushing the Special Editions with their updated effects and music, and often removing access to the untouched versions. Those films are a part of cinema history and the collective memories of millions of children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and the originals always should have remained available. Deep down I know that "Return of the Jedi" ends with the Ewok song and a glimpse of the ghostly image of Sebastian Shaw. And nothing George Lucas does or says will ever change that. To an certain extent, the "Star Wars" films no longer belong to Lucas alone, but to everyone who grew up with them and loved them.

But on the other hand, "Star Wars" as a larger entity does not belong exclusively to the original fans, no matter how strong the love. Eventually the fans of the prequels and the fans of "The Clone Wars" cartoon, and the fans of all the "Star Wars" media to come will grow up and have their say. They'll be the ones who keep "Star Wars" alive when we're gone and shouldn't be easily dismissed.

And no doubt they'll hate George Lucas for the next round of edits and retcons and wacky creative decisions just as much as we did.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reports of the Death of Film Criticism Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

The venerable Hollywood trade paper, Variety, is in trouble. After suffering substantial losses in ad revenue over the last Oscar season, last week it fired several staff members, including film critic Todd McCarthy. This is just the latest result of several media trends we've seen over the past few years - the decline of newpaper circulation, the shrinking influence of professional film reviewers, and the shift in power to the online bloggers and commentators. There's been a huge paradigm shift in the way entertainment reporting and film criticism are consumed by the public, and the bottom line may be that there's no longer money in either - at least, not through traditional outlets.

The transition has been met with understandable doom and gloom from those critics and reporters who have made their livelihood from print media. As content providers struggle with distribution woes and increasingly turn to cheaper freelancers, job stability has evaporated. A recent documentary, "For the Love of Movies," makes the argument that we stand to lose immeasurably by letting old-school print-based professional film criticism die at the hands of an unruly internet mob that seeks to supplant it. But I have to wonder how much we would really lose.

Let's think about the basic functions of film critique: a critic evaluates a film for artistic merit, promotes films he or she deems worthy of attention, and facilitates the discussion of films in a broader artistic context. However your gardern-variety print critic writes for a broad mainstream audience and hardly has the column inches to fulfill one of these functions, let alone all three at once. There are only a handful of writers at the major papers who are readily identifiable as distinctive voices, and any real discourse among them is limited to a few prestige pieces during Oscar season or off the page completely in ancillary forums.

In-depth, critical discussions of film, of the much romanticized Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael variety, are a rarity outside of academia and the pages of "The New Yorker." Moreover, they haven't had much clout with the mainstream public in ages. The closest thing we've had to star critics in the blockbuster age have been Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose invigorating weekly spats on their self-titled review program attracted mass audiences and provided a regular platform for the promotion of smaller independent and foreign films.

But even when "Siskel & Ebert" were at the height of their popularity, they could never have matched the Internet as a source for information or as a marketing tool for films. Entertainment news sites and cinema fan sites like Aint it Cool News and Dark Horizons emerged in the mid-90s to feed voracious demand for information on upcoming films and industry gossip. Trade publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter which had once been the exclusive sources this kind of media content would see their influence and readership wither as websites and blogs grew in prominence and started scooping them.

Because what the internet does best is provide access. Access to news, access to opinions, and most importantly different models to convey this information. What really distinguishes the new breed of online film critics and entertainment reporters is a refreshing degree of innovation and creativity. In addition to websites and blogs, many reviewers have created podcasts, videos, and interactive features to attract readers and audiences. And they've also found ways to make their content pay, though only modestly in most cases.

And those who bemoan the amateurish quality of online reviewers tend to be myopic. On the one hand you have the popular Ain't it Cool News and the Spill Crew, which feature reviews aimed at the teenage male population and contain a level of discourse on par with what you'd expect in a comic book convention. But on the other hand, you have Senses of Cinema, Slate, and other E-zines that regularly turn out quality reviews and articles. And you have academics like David Bordwell and Henry Jenkins keeping blogs and adding to the conversation.

More notably, the old school print critics like Roger Ebert have found new audiences for their work on the internet. Unconstrained by the limitations of physical media, many are flourishing and branching out. Online, there's infinitely more space for discussion to take place, such as the webzine Slate's eighteen-part year-end Movie Club feature, consisting of six critics simply posting back and forth free-form exchanges of their impressions of various notable films of the year.

Professional film critics are still important voices in the media landscape, as they provide insights and experiences that enrich the filmgoing experience for the rest of us. But while the old publishing models seem to be inevitably in decline, I don't think this is the end of film critics or film criticism as we know it. It'll take a while for new media to figure out how to monetize itself, but the critics will survive in one form or another.

Because if the internet has taught us anything, it's that everyone has an opinion on films, and nobody can keep it to themselves.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Farewell to ImageMovers Digital and C.O.R.E.

The word came in from Cartoonbrew yesterday that CGI animation studio C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures has shut down. They produced one feature film, "The Wild" for Disney on 2006 when negotiations for the PIXAR acquisition were still on shaky ground, and contributed to a bunch of other smaller films like "Valiant" and "The Ant Bully." This comes on the heels of last week's announcement that Disney is pulling the plug on ImageMovers Digital, the studio that produced Robert Zemeckis's motion capture films "The Polar Express," "Beowulf," and last year's "A Christmas Carol."

It's always sad to see animation studios struggle and fold, putting artists out of work, but I don't feel much distress seeing either of these companies go. The Zemeckis films were interesting curiosities, but the mediocre animation never made it to the other side of Uncanny Valley, and the older motion capture technology has now been decisively surpassed by James Cameron and "Avatar." Artistically, and apparently financially, they've just about run their course. My favorite of their films was 2008's "Monster House," one of the only ones that didn't strive for a photorealistic style and thus didn't come across as quite so stiff.

As for CORE, I was surprised to learn it was still in operation, but there are a lot of smaller animation studios out there, with new up-and-comers popping up every day, hoping to be the next PIXAR. Last year saw features from several independent and foreign operations including "Astro Boy" from Imagi Studios, "Planet 51" from Ilion Animation, and "9" from Attitude Studio. None of these did particularly well, but we can expect to see similar product getting picked up for distribution for a long while to come. Though many bomb, every once in a while one of these films will be a lucrative hit like "Happy Feet" or "TMNT."

Even with the belt-tightening going on, the animation industry is in a very good place right now. In fact, I think this is the healthiest it's ever been. There are at least a half-dozen digital animation studios that are flourishing – PIXAR, Disney, Dreamworks, PDI, Blue Sky, and Sony. All of these studios had sizable hits over the past two years. In fact, computer animated films seem to be one of the few sure bets at the box office these days, and have gotten a good boost from the recent 3D craze. Dreamworks alone is releasing three titles this year.

This is a far cry from how the industry looked ten years ago, when the closure of Fox Animation Studios after the failure of "Titan AE" had a domino effect that wiped out practically all the US studios that were doing features at the time. Even the long-reigning Walt Disney Animation Studios phased out traditional animation in 2003 and laid off hundreds. The only ones left standing were the nascent CGI animations studios, PIXAR and PDI/Dreamworks, who went on to rebuild and reinvent commercial American animation.

For the first time, there's actually sustained competition among the studios. You'll never hear anyone argue that PIXAR isn't the gold standard when it comes to computer animation, but they've never dominated the industry the way Disney did with traditional animated features. So the playing field has been much more level and accommodating to studios like Blue Sky and Sony Pictures Animation and other newcomers. And with the steady demand for these films, there's still room for other players. The last few years have even seen a small resurgence in stop-motion and traditional animation films like "Coraline" and "The Princess and the Frog."

So while it's sad to say goodbye to CORE and especially ImageMovers, there are plenty of other studios ready and willing to take their places, and the closure doesn't seem to signal any looming distress within the animation industry. The ImageMovers films in particular are expensive to make, and last year's "A Christmas Carol" underperformed and has few merchandising prospects. Disney has been seeking to cut costs and reduce its production slate, and they're juggling at least three other animation operations. They picked the right plug to pull from a financial standpoint.

And from an artistic standpoint, though there were a lot of talented people behind these films, photorealistic animation is a creative dead-end and motion-capture characters are better left to the visual effects artists. Here's hoping everyone involved can pick up and move on to better things.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Trip to "Shutter Island"

I went into "Shutter Island" knowing too much. Just from scanning a few reviews, I had a good idea of what the ending would be, even though I wasn't sure how the film was going to get there. I knew to be on my guard for double-meanings, dream imagery, and the full gamut of parlor tricks used in contemporary psychological thrillers. I've seen so many convoluted plots and narrative hairpin curves, that I've developed a pretty high threshold for the unexpected. I really envy filmgoers who can still be taken in by a good "Twilight Zone" style twist ending.

But while there was nothing in the story of "Shutter Island" that I didn't expect to some degree, I still thoroughly enjoyed the film on almost every level. It is so well made, so beautifully executed by director Martin Scorsese, it succeeds almost in spite of its obvious sensationalism. The material is familiar, following two lawmen on a visit to a sinister island populated by monsters of every stripe – a haunted house story essentially. But I've never seen it told this well, with such obvious care and craft. There wasn't a moment in this film where I wasn't sure that Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing. Everything is so well paced and so well set up. I figured out what was going to happen, but I wasn't just sitting there waiting for the characters to go through the motions to reach the climax. I was anticipating every new development. Or dreading them.

It's hard to think of any element of "Shutter Island" that wasn't exceptional. The cast is full of solid character actors who made even the most bizarre elements of the story seem plausible. Leonardo DiCaprio initially felt like a poor fit for the lead, a troubled fed named Teddy Daniels. But as the film progressed and the more dramatic parts of the plot began to unfold, his performance really came together. Say what you will about DiCaprio's lingering physical gawkiness, but he can act any of his contemporaries six feet into the ground. Here he manages to sell a character in severe psychic and emotional turmoil without ever coming across as overwrought. When he hits his stride, it's impossible not to empathize with him.

But what really held my attention were the visuals. I've often wondered if the increased control that filmmakers have over every single little detail of the images we see onscreen these days might be sucking the vitality out of films. So many blockbusters have an over-designed, artificial quality to them, where every imperfection has been digitally erased or color corrected. Of course these are just new tools, and some directors use them better than others. "Shutter Island" indulges in a lot of this with its dream sequences and flashbacks, which are often saturated with eye-popping color. But Scorsese does such great things with the imagery, letting the visuals echo and build on each other throughout. Fluttering papers in one flashback presage swirling ash flakes in the next. Some connections are so subtle you'll feel compelled to get in a rewatch just to confirm you saw them.

At its heart, "Shutter Island" is a pure genre film, which confused some critics who have come to expect a certain kind of gravitas from Scorsese. I'm not sure why, since this is the man who's directed pictures as disparate as "The Age of Innocence," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," and "Cape Fear." After so many years of Oscar bait, I expect that Scorsese finally has his fill of directing kudos, and the man is entitled to have a little fun. Or in this case, to take a common, almost cliche horror film premise and turn it into an amazingly effective work of art.

Do you think Scorsese would have any interest in a musical or a romantic comedy next?

Friday, March 12, 2010

How am I a spam blog?!

Okay, seriously. How am I a spam blog? I don't even *link* to anything. I just crosspost content to Dreamwidth and occasionally movie sites.

Grr. Aargh.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beyond "The Wizard of Oz"



The latest movie property up for a remake is "The Wizard of Oz," the 1939 MGM musical based on the book by L. Frank Baum. The LA Times recently announced that there are two major projects in development, one with Warner Brothers and one withe New Line. And neither of them have anything to do with "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," an animated film helmed by John Boorman slated for 2011. Or the long-anticipated film version of "Wicked," the Broadway musical about the Wicked Witch of the West. Or the string of recent Oz-themed television projects, including a Syfy miniseries and a Muppet musical.

I'm glad that "Oz" is back in vogue, and I'm not too worried about the multiplicity of competing projects. The Oz books have long been in the public domain, and there have been dozens of adaptations of "The Wizard of Oz" over the years, in every possible medium you could think of, stretching all the way back to stage plays and radio dramas in the early 1900s. The story has been retold in graphic novels, anime series, rock operas, ice show spectacles, and a disturbing line of Todd McFarlane figurines. This is a property that is so iconic, so deeply ingrained into our collective cultural memory, it won't wear out its welcome any time soon.

On the other hand, as an old-school fan of the original Oz books, I can't help thinking that Hollywood isn't taking advantage of the available material. L Frank Baum wrote fourteen novels about Oz and its inhabitants, and later authors contributed at least two dozen more official volumes and hundreds of unofficial ones. Some of the series' best characters, like Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, the Hungry Tiger, the Nome King, Polychrome, and the Shaggy Man have rarely found their way to the screen. Instead, filmmakers have been happy to rehash, remix, and reinvent the familiar plot and characters of "The Wizard of Oz" ad infinitum.

I think the reluctance to explore the farther reaches of the Oz landscape is due in part to the notable failure of "Return to Oz," the 1985 Walter Murch film that was conceived as a semi-sequel to the 1939 "The Wizard of Oz." Taking elements from "The Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz," the second and third Oz books, it had a much darker tone than the MGM musical and included several truly terrifying moments that alienated young moviegoers and their parents. But "Return to Oz" is my favorite of the Oz adaptations by far, as it comes much closer to the feel of the Baum books, and featured some of the best work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, Will Vinton Claymation, and other top special effects houses of the era.

Twenty-five years later, with so many adaptations and "reimaginings" going in darker and edgier directions, I'd say it's high time Hollywood tried again. If a "Wizard of Oz" remake does become a hit with audiences, there's plenty of unexplored territory in the Oz universe to sustain a full-blown film franchise. However this would require a fairly straight adaptation of the original and not a modern update - a conceit that's been central to so many other Oz projects. I don't think this will be a hard sell, as most contemporary and futuristic versions of "The Wizard of Oz" have fallen dead flat, "The Wiz" not withstanding.

The trick will be finding creative types with the guts to commit to the older material, but again, that shouldn't be difficult. Audiences have been rediscovering the 19th century tales of Lewis Carroll's Alice and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in theaters this season. "The Wizard of Oz," first published in 1900, is practically modern in comparison! But more than that, the Oz books present a great challenge to filmmakers: Can they finally do justice to one of the most beloved, most enduring children's series of all time?

Rapunzel v.Tangled - Or Why Disney is Scared of Girls

Kathryn Bigelow may have won the Oscar for Best Director on Sunday, but Hollywood's aversion to the feminine is still alive and kicking. The latest evidence comes in the form of the upcoming animated Disney project, formerly known as "Rapunzel" or "Rapunzel Unbraided." A few weeks ago, it was announced that the film would be retitled "Tangled." While there were murmurs of discontent in the animation community, things really heated up today when it was revealed in the LA Times that the generic new title and the addition of a prominent male lead were designed to attract a male audience.

By themselves these changes don't concern me too much, but the stated reasoning behind them is troubling. Disney is openly blaming the lukewarm performance of "The Princess and the Frog" on the unwillingness of the young male audiencs to see something with the word "Princess" in the title, and has declared that anything overtly girly is now verboten in the Mouse House. Disney is also shelving their long-percolating "Snow Queen" animated project, apparently for having too many female leads. This is a real loss, as the Hans Christian Anderson story featured a very strong young heroine who was not a princess, the sort of lead character that we could really use more of.

The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood today is that boys won't watch films about girls. However girls have no problem watching films about boys, so the best way to broaden a film's appeal is to minimize the use of female leads. This is absurd of course. Disney's legacy of animated films was built on the "princess movies," both the golden age fairy-tale icons and the modern heroines that headlined the Renaissance films of the late 80s and early 90s. These films were not designed to appeal only to women and girls, and they certainly were not watched by female audiences alone. Generations of red-blooded menfolk had their first crushes on Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Ariel, or Princess Jasmine.

And yet somewhere along the line, the Disney princess became unacceptably girly. I think it probably came around the time that the Princess merchandise line went into full swing, and every little girl of a certain age started collecting Disney-branded outfits and plastic tchotchkes. Or maybe it was when female leads started disappearing from mainstream films and Hollywood became more and more obsessed with chasing the young male demographic. Or maybe it was when the majority of animated films started patterning themselves after "Shrek." After so many years of wisecracking CGI characters voiced by braying comedians, it's no wonder that earnestness of "The Princess and the Frog" seemed alien to some viewers.

All this has led to Hollywood devaluing and underestimating female audiences - which it does at its own peril. The massive box office receipts for the "Twilight" movies and "The Blind Side" are proof of that female audiences can generate hits whether or not the male demographic shows up. And I don't believe the lack of male interest is what caused "The Princess and the Frog" to underperform, not when the opening weekend numbers for "New Moon" nearly gave the "Dark Knight" fanboys a heart attack a few weeks earlier. While I enjoyed "Princess," I don't think it was marketed correctly and I don't think it was made for a 2009 audience. Blaming the "Princess" title is just the executives taking the easy way out.

What really worries me is that Disney animation has fallen into this trap before. The animation Renaissance of the '90s came to a bitter end when they tried making action films to appeal to the summer blockbuster crowd and churned out a string of bombs including "Dinosaur," "Atlantis," and the notorious "Treasure Planet." The further away they got from their traditional family-friendly, female-friendly roots, the worse their films did. By now I hope the message has gotten through - teenage boys just don't want to watch Disney films. So the Mouse needs to learn to appreciate the audience it has, and worry about making them happy first.

Could the Disney animation studio use some new blood and new ideas? Yes. A fresh attitude for its next era of filmmaking? Yes. Are they going to get any of these things by pandering to the one demographic that doesn't want anything to do with them? No.

I just hope Disney hangs in there long enough to figure it out for themselves.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On "TRON"

I was a little too young for the original "TRON" when it was released in 1982. It was only a few years ago that I finally sat down and watched it, but I was definitely aware of the film throughout my childhood. I always remembered the imagery, especially the circuit-patterned bodysuits - a wonderful product of the neon-fixated early '80s. As a kid from Southern California with a serious Disney habit, it was hard to avoid "TRON." Stills and clips from the film regularly showed up in the Disney literature and TV retrospectives. The toys and merchandise were floating around, and the fanboys were already spreading the word and solidifying future cult status.

But my best memory of "TRON" comes from the now defunct PeopleMover ride at Disneyland. Up until it closed in '95, it had a TRON-themed section, where some of the CGI segments of the film were projected on giant screens decorating two tunnel segments. My mother was a big fan of the PeopleMover, since it was a long ride where we got to sit down, and it didn't move too fast. Unfortunately, it also had a habit of breaking down as it got old and creaky in the 90s, usually only for a few minutes at a time before lurching back on its merry way. Having been stuck in the TRON tunnels during a few of these breakdowns, listening to the blaring soundtrack of the lightcycle sequence, I would know the sound of those pixels anywhere.

It's odd to feel nostalgic toward a movie that I didn't actually see until I was well into my adult years, but that was part of the fun. The film's visuals were so strong and so iconic, I didn't need the story to feel the impact of "TRON." In fact, knowing the plot probably would have ruined the film's mystique for me. I did enjoy "TRON" when I finally saw it, but the best parts were the bits I'd already experienced - the visual effects sequences and the sound design.

I'll readily admit that "TRON" is still mighty impressive to this day, and holds up better than films half its age. It's pure popcorn, though, and I have no illusions that it's anything else. And that's all I really expect the new "TRON Legacy" to be - a big, loud, shiny, crowd-pleasing action movie. From the new trailer that was released last week and the Comic-Con test footage that left the fanboys euphoric, it looks like Disney is going to deliver. The updated visuals look gorgeous and the leaked plot details suggest the story will be solid, if not very ambitious.

But mostly, it's good to hear those lightcycles again after all these years. I can't wait for December.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscars Followup

A few follow-up notes on last night's Oscars.

- The Sci-Tech presenter who I couldn't identify was Elizabeth Banks of "W" and "Zack and Miri."

- Final running time this year was three hours and thirty-two minutes, about normal. There were several issues with the format toward the end of the show, however, that seriously slowed things down. I'm not surprised by all the kvetching from the press this morning.

And apparently there were a few controversies I didn't catch during the broadcast.

- The honorary Oscars were banished to a separate ceremony, so Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman were denied screentime. I think it's a shame, but if time cuts have to be made, I'd rather it were the non-competitive awards. Leave the tribute shows to AFI and the Kennedy Center Honors, who do them far better and more comprehensively.

- I saw the Documentary Short acceptance speech snafu between the dueling producers, but figured it was a case of overexcited winners accidentally tripping over each other's lines at the time. I'm surprised that there was serious animosity fueling it, though I suppose I shouldn't be with all the politicking around the awards these days.

- Farrah Fawcett was omitted from the In Memoriam segment. They always leave someone out. There are rules, but there are exceptions. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Does anyone remember Fawcett for her films? At least with Michael Jackson there was "The Wiz" and "Moonwalker."

I found the ceremony enjoyable, though this wasn't one of the better ones. The longer clips meant little breathing room, the hosts were mediocre, and removing the song numbers was canceled out by the dance sequence for Best Score.

And finally, please let Neil Patrick Harris host next year. If he's not too busy hosting everything else.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscars Liveblog Part II

And we're back.

7:18 - Martin and Baldwin have a "Paranormal Activity" sketch! Just okay.

7:19 - Kristin Stewart and Taylor Lautner woodenly introduce a tribute to horror films. I worry about those two. Never thought I'd see Freddy and Jason at the Oscars, but they're doing a nice job of mixing in the classics. I don't know that "Marathon Man," "Edward Scissorhands," and "Misery" are horror films - oh well, close enough. I liked the bit at the end with "Scream."

7:23 - Zach Efron and Anna Kendrick present, and Morgan Freeman gives us a quick intro for the Sound and Sound Mixing categories. The only other intro sequence was for the Shorts, another category some have argued are superfluous or at least shouldn't need to be broadcast as part of the main ceremony. I don't think the extra attention is helping.

Best Sound. WINNER - "The Hurt Locker"
Best Sound Mixing. WINNER - "The Hurt Locker"

Not keeping score, but it looks like "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" are roughly tied for technical awards so far.

7:30 - Quick rundown of the Sci-tech awards. I didn't recognize the presenter or catch her name.

7:31 - John Travolta spotlights "Inglorious Basterds."

7:32 - Just remembered, about an hour too late, that Ben Stiller was the one who was supposed to be translating for the Sacha Baron Cohen Na'vi charcter in that nixed sketch that got Cohen kicked out of the ceremony. Doubly good on Stiller for carrying on in Cohen's place.

7:37 - Sandra Bullock presents Best Cinematography. No accompanying graphics? Must be a technical glitch. WINNER - Mauro Fiore for "Avatar."

7:39 - And the orchestra playing "Unchained Melody" reveals Demi Moore? Ah, the In Memoriam segment. Oddly, I always enjoy these for the nostalgia factor. And James Taylor appears to play us through. Here we go.

David Carradine, Patrick Swayze, Dom DeLuise, Jean Simmons, Eric Rohmer, Brittany Murphy, Roy Disney, and Natasha Richardson. Michael Jackson's appearance feels perfunctory at this point. And they end, fittingly, with Karl Malden. Not too traumatic this year.

7:46 - Jennifer Lopez and Sam Worthington present Best Score. I'm rooting for "Up" and "Sherlock Holmes." Not crazy about the interpretive dance sequences they're foisting on us, but I like being able to hear the music.

WINNER - Michael Giacchino for "Up." He should have gotten it for the "Incredibles," but the Oscars are always known for being a little late about these things.

7:55 - Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper present Best Visual Effects. This one's no contest. WINNER - "Avatar."

7:58 - Jason Bateman spotlights "Up in the Air."

8:03 - Matt Damon with Best Documentary Feature. The clips with these are amazing. WINNER - "The Cove." This is the only one I've heard much about, but I'm interested in the others too. And I can't believe Fisher Stevens is up there collecting a statuette.

8:07 - Tyler Perry is up to present best Best Editing. He's got a pleasant, low-key comedy bit here, with the hosts in matching orange Snuggies in the end. Ha! This one might determine how the evening is going to go. WINNER - "The Hurt Locker." Still anyone's game at this point.

8:10 - Keanu Reeves spotlights "The Hurt Locker."

8:15 - Only five awards left to go. Pedro Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino present Best Foreign Language Film. WINNER - "El Secreto de Sus Ojos" beats "The White Ribbon."

8:20 - Kathy Bates spotlights "Avatar."

8:22 - Okay, now I'm noticing the moving elements onstage in the wide shots. There are two spangled panels on either side, and what looks like a background made of yellow table lamps that's lowered for certain presenters.

8:26 - Best Actor's up next. They have five presenters, one to deliver an anecdote for each nominee. This is the same thing they did last year for all the acting nominees. This time it's just the two big categories, and they've gone gender neutral for the presenters.

Michelle Pfeiffer gives it a good try, but doesn't quite connect to Jeff Bridges. Vera Farmiga is still earning her nomination as she highlights Clooney. Julianne Moore was in the early running for a nom for the role she played opposite Colin Firth, so it's good to see her here. Tim Robbins on the subject of Morgan Freeman has the best anecdote. Oh wait, no. Colin Farrell just topped it by admitting to spooning with Jeremy Renner on a trip to Mexico while filming "SWAT." These tributes take up a lot of time, but I'm enjoying them.

And here's Kate, last year's winner, per tradition to announce. WINNER - Jeff Bridges! The crowd goes wild! Ah, it's been a long time coming and it's so satisfying when that happens.

And he's channeling a touch of the Dude in the speech. What a guy.

8:39 - Best Actress should be up next. Sean Penn won last year, but he's been running charity operations in Haiti so I don't know if he'll be here.

Forrest Whitaker seems like an odd choice for Sandra Bullock, but it turns out he directed her in a picture, and he's wonderfully eloquent. Michael Sheen brings the funny and the charm for Helen Mirren. Peter Saarsgard starred opposite Carey Mulligan, so he's a natural choice. Oprah Winfrey is bringing Gabourey Sidibe to tears already. If she doesn't win, that's still a hell of a kudo. And Stanley Tucci is calling Meryl out for being an overacheiver. Heh.

Sean Penn showed up! I don't know what the hell he's talking about, but it's good to see him. WINNER - Sandra Bullock. Funniest moment of the night has to be her unintentionally ducking out of a hug, leaving poor Meryl Streep flailing! And Sandra makes up for it by complimenting her on being a good kisser. Her speech is restrained and sharp and great. Oooh, typed too soon. Here comes the catch in her voice, and it's all the more poignant for the buildup.

8:54 - Barbara Streisand is presenting Best Director. That's almost a dead giveaway. WINNER: Kathryn Bigelow. Yeeeee-haaaa! She's queen of the world! Bigelow is visibly nervous, but she's holding it together. And she leaves arm in arm with Babs.

9:00 - Tom Hanks presents Best Picture. WINNER - The Hurt Locker. They're running long and Hanks didn't even recap the nominees. Here comes Bigelow again. Neither of the other producers are very good speakers, and Bigelow is coming apart.

9:03 - And Martin and Baldwin close us out.

Too much to process now. More to come later.

Oscars Liveblog

I love the Oscars. I love the stargazing, the pretentious speeches, and all the cutthroat backroom politicking around the voting. I haven't seen the majority of the films up for the major awards, and I probably won't until they're available for rental - but that doesn't matter. The Academy Awards aren't about the movies so much as they are about Hollywood making itself the center of attention to feel important once a year. Boosting ticket sales for a couple of films is purely incidental. This night is all about egos and pecking orders under a nice thick layer of glamor. Okay, and maybe a little sincerity about the elevation of film as art from a few True Believers.

Ten Best Picture nominees, two hosts, and no song numbers. It's going to be quite a night. I decided to liveblog the ceremony a while ago - seems to be what all the cool cats are doing, and I like the immediacy of it.

Here we go:

5:31 - Wait, did I miss the intro? The Best Actor and Best Actress noms have been sent out. Gabourey Sidibe looks glorious!

5:33 - Neil Patrick Harris?! Just for the opening number, it looks like, but he's bringing it. They're doing a full Busby Berkeley number in full 30s regalia. "No One Wants to Do it Alone." It's light and classy and very right.

5:36 - Baldwin and Martin have descended from the ceiling. The banter isn't working so great, but they're slowly easing into it. Callback to "The Jerk." Nice. Woody Harrelson is "so high." The "Avatar" 3D gag didn't work, but the Cameron/Bigelow lines landed. And the ones for "Inglorious Bastards." And the Damon and Bullock ones.

5:44 - Efron and Lautner must be scared out of their cherubic little minds.

5:45 - Clooney, as always, comes out on top. All he has to do is not smile.

5:46 - Best Supporting Actor! Lovely Penelope Cruz is presenting. The performance clips are longer than usual, which I like - we're actually seeing what these guys are nominated *for* and it's helping to sell the films. WINNER - Christoph Waltz. Great speech.

5:51 - "Blind Side" spotlight, with Ryan Reynolds presenting. I'm not sure why - the only connection he has to the film is co-starring with Bullock in "The Proposal."

5:57 - The Kimmel-Silverman-Damon-Affleck joke has now extended to Jennifer Garner.

Back from commercial. Diaz and Carrell (who stepped in for Jude Law?!) are introducing clips of interviews with the stars of the nominated animated films - very cute, with Barbara Walters lending a VO. Oh, and the Best Animation Category too. Of course PIXAR gets it, but it was a strong field this year. WINNER - "Up"

6:01 - I love that satisfied look on Ed Asner's face.

6:02 - Martin announces "two actresses who have no idea who we are." Oh Steve, you're not that old. Miley Cyrus and Amanda Seyfried up to announce "Best Original Song." No performances tonight, so we get these nice extended clips. I haven't seen the non-"Princess and the Frog Ones." Now I need to see "Nine" for Marion Cotillard. WINNER - "Crazy Heart."

6:06 - Chris Pine is up to spotlight "District 9." The presenters have no real relation to the films, I guess. It's just a who's who of the actors that were popular this year. I'm glad they're not pushing those long-winded intros with the stars' future projects too hard this time. Just seeing Chris Pine here is enough to emphasize his breakout.

6:08 - While we're at commercial, a quick note on the set. Big and bright, but simple this year, without too many complex moving parts after the hosts' entrance. Just video screens and podiums and presenters in front, with staircases leading up to a raised platform in the middle. Lots of crystal beading.

6:13 - Baldwin intros Downey Jr and Tina Fey, and gives her kudos for reviving his career. Good man. Best Screenplay awards are up. They're doing an actor v. writer bit. This is great. Downey just called Fey a sickly little mole person. I love them both.

Best Original Screenplay - "The Hurt Locker" beats out some stiff competition, including Tarantino. That was a cold reaction shot of Quentin there.

6:18 - Molly Ringwald! And Matthew Broderick. Oh, they're here for the John Hughes memorial. There was some grumbling about him getting a separate memorial segment from everyone else, but the guy had such a huge impact on my generation, I approve completely.

This is like looking at a high school year book. Young Emilio Estevez. Young Mary Stuart Masterson, Charlie Sheen, James Spader, John Cryer, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Michael Hall, Kevin Bacon, a Baldwin, and both Cusacks.

And a foreboding shot of Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner at the end there.

6:25 - Spotlight on "Up" with Samuel L. Jackson. Best one so far - beautifully edited.

6:29 - Carey Mulligan and Zoe Saldana are both wearing terrible dresses. And presenting the Shorts categories.

And here's Taylor Hackford and David Frankel to justify why they're still presenting the Shorts Oscars. And John Lasseter too. Do we really need this? Fortunately, we do get to see actual clips of the shorts this year. They've been cut in previous years.

Best Animated Short - WINNER - "Logorama"! First surprise of the night. Wallace and Gromit's entry was easily their weakest, so it's not too shocking. I have to wonder if this makes it more or less likely for the creators to be sued for trademark infringement.

Best Documentary Short - WINNER - "Music By Prudence." This one's usually presented with the Feature Documentary category, so the ordering is new. Lends a little more justification for the intro.

Best Live Action Short - WINNER - "The New Tenants." They completely cut off the second winner. Ooh, no mercy for speech length for the the smaller, more insignificant categories they wasted all that time trying to - they would have had time to talk if you'd just cut the pre-taped intro!

6:39 - Ben Stiller in blue Avatar makeup is wonderfully awkward. And he's presenting Best Makeup. And he's making Trekkie jokes. And he's got a tail. Cameron's losing it. This is great. After some more monkeying with the tail, WINNER - "Star Trek."

6:44 - Jeff Bridges spotlights "A Serious Man."

6:49 - Rachel McAdams and Jake Gyllenhaal presenting Best Adapted Screenplay. They split up the writing awards this year. WINNER - Geoffrey Fletcher for "Precious"! We have an upset! We have an upset! And oh, the emotion in that speech is amazing.

Neither of the leading contenders for the writing awards won. I'm glad, since the awards went to people who will actually benefit from them. Reitman and Tarantino do not need Oscars to get films made.

6:53 - And Steve Martin segues us out as only he can, to Queen Latifah. Ugh, and the Governors Award highlights. Always good to see Lauren Bacall though.

6:57 - Robin Williams, in with a quick blue joke and the Best Supporting Actress category. Ooh, it hurts a little to remember that Heath Ledger would have presented this year according to tradition. WINNER - Mo'Nique. And people are on their feet! A forceful, honest speech, and there goes one classy lady.

7:03 - Colin Firth spotlights "An Education."

7:07 - Sigourney Weaver, looking amazing in red, presents Best Art Direction. WINNER - Avatar. First outcome I really disagree with, as there were design elements of that film that I thought were dreadful. "Sherlock Holmes" and "Parnassus" were both more interesting to look at.

7:10 - "Clothes whores" Sarah Jessica Parker and director Tom Ford (WTF? A director?) present Best Costume Design. WINNER - "The Young Victoria." I still have no interest in seeing this film, but the winner's speech was inclusive and thoughtful.

7:13 - Charlize Theron spotlights "Precious."

Been nearly two hours. I'm going to start a new post.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Top Gun Liveblog

To get in some practice for tomorrow night, I'm liveblogging the ION airing of "Top Gun." Despite being a child of the 80s, I've never seen it. Spoilers ahoy.

7:01 - Oooh. Widescreen.

7:02 - Tony Scott Directed this? Tony Scott? No wonder he's been so bitter at Ridley over the past two decades. His popularity peaked in 1986!

7:06 - Composer Harold Faltermeyer has been in the news recently for scoring "Cop Out," apparently as one of the only highlights of that movie. I will always love him for writing the "Axel F" theme from "Beverley Hills Cop."

7:10 - Saw this bit sampled in an Macross Plus AMV once.

7:15 - Anthony Edwards filled in nicely since "Revenge of the Nerds" in '84.

7:16 - "Your ego's writing checks your body can't cash" and "You're just lucky to be here" - did they come from this movie? It's hard to tell since the lines are so generic.

7:21 Michael Ironside! Kilmer with frosted tips!

7:24 - Cue the obligatory 80s bar scene. Tom Cruise is *tiny* compared to the other guys here.

7:25 - There is way too much material for a "Brokeback Mountain" parody with this scene and the earlier meaningful exchanging of glances between Maverick and Iceman.

7:26 - Bad karaoke singing trumps good karaoke singing any day for an endearing quality.

7:30 - Kelly McGillis's character would never be allowed to get away with that much clothing or that many good lines today. I like her - it's too bad IMDB says her career went nowhere after this and "Witness."

7:35 - Tom Cruise only gets away with the banter because he's just that pretty and McGillis is egging him on. I expect him to be curbstomped at any moment now.

7:37 - Is there a phone ringing in that scene?

7:38 - The dogfights aren't doing much for me, even though the cinematography is impressive and I know I'm looking at real hardware instead of CGI stand-ins. I think the problem may be that we're not with them long enough to get a real sense of what the planes are doing. It could just be the TV edit, but I doubt it.

7:42 - Oh dear. Spoke too soon. More Brokeback fodder.

7:43 - And more ringing phones. So far the beats have been very predictable and I'm not getting much out of this movie aside from nice shots of the photogenic leads. Maverick is such a typical hotshot lead with so little depth.

7:49 - "Take My Breath Away"? The soundtrack is definitely rivaling "Dirty Dancing" as far as the nostalgia factor.

7:52 - Fuzzy character moment. And here's the out-of-the-blue exposition and angsty hero motivation. Kelly McGillis is the best part of the movie so far, as she's the only character who doesn't come off as a complete action film cliche.

7:54 - A very young and squeaky Meg Ryan!

7:55 - And there's the curbstomp. Ouch.

7:57 - Cruise is being so immature it's almost adorable - they're almost swapping gender roles here. And McGillis follows him, because she's just that cool. Arrgh, I miss good female characters. Where were they all banished to?

7:58 - Of course they cut the love scene. Oh well. Hopefully when we get back from commercial the power chords will stop following us around.

8:03 - The sound design and editing is excellent here. Best dogfight scene so far.

8:07 - And we're back to Kenny Loggins. No, we didn't forget about you and the need for power to the Danger Zone.

8:10 - The crash scene's almost surreal. Did they not have the money to film the plane going down or was it cut on purpose to focus our attention on what was happening to the pilots? I'm not even sure what happened - was it a mechanical failure or was it Maverick's fault?

8:16 - Goose is dead?! Okay, I'm not alone with the confusion. Cruise doesn't know what happened either.

8:19 - This would be touching if it weren't for the overbearing Spanish guitar. I didn't know it was possible to be overbearing with a Spanish guitar!

8:21 - The electronica score's getting really intrusive now. It roots this movie so firmly in the 80s, there's no way to divorce it from the time period.

8:23 - Sundown's helmet appears to owe allegiance to the Empire of Japan.

8:24 - Maverick quits? I know something must have been cut there, because that was *way* too fast. And does the locker room have some mysterious ability to give everyone sinus trouble?

8:34 - The film has completely flatlined with the speechifying. I know they have to do it to set up the comeback, but the five-second flight strip scene pretty much did that without a word being spoken. More than anything, watching this film feels like watching "Avatar," where the formula is so obvious, you're just waiting for the film to go through the motions to get to the next effects scene. With "Top Gun," the flight sequences that are the film's big draw don't look all that great anymore - you can tell the actors aren't ever anywhere near the real planes. And of course they just sidelined the romance subplot - which is actually very decent in this film - to make way for the climax.

8:41 - Here come the fireworks.

8:45 - I was right. They never show the plane debris making impact after the hits.

8:46 - Machine-gun bullets with animated trailing streaks. Wow, the effects are dodgy. The editing is doing most of the work.

8:52 - I couldn't tell what was going on during most of that sequence. The shots are so choppy, you don't know where the planes are in relationship to each other except by following what the actors are shouting at each other. As an action sequence, it doesn't work very well at all. I don't think we saw any shots of the Migs, except through the targeting systems or when they were exploding.

8:57 - Hero's welcome. I can see why people call this an Air Force recruitment film. No complicated real-world fallout here.

"You can be my wingman anytime." Oh lord. Get a room boys!

8:59 - And now it's safe for Kelly McGillis to come back into the picture. I have to admit, this part's nicely done. I wonder if Tony Scott ever considered trying a romantic comedy or two. The genre could use him these days.

9:00 - And we're done. I feel like I've seen the film before, since it was such a big smash in the 80s and has been referenced so many times and influenced so many other pictures. Out of context, though, it's difficult to figure what was so special about this film in 1986 that made it stand out. Tom Cruise's charisma? The fighter jet action scenes? We've seen better examples of both since then, so there's not much impact left today. It is a decent action film, very slick, very easy to look at, and the performances are about as good as they can be given the material. But there's a lot less here than I was expecting, given the film's history.

And the soundtrack - I get why it was massively popular, but today the songs are so well known they actually take away from the viewing experience because they're so aggressively overplayed in the film itself. It's impossible not to roll your eyes by the fourth or fifth reprise of "Danger Zone."

This was worth a watch for the nostalgia value, for Kelly McGillis' sexiness and seeing Tom Cruise in his most iconic 80s form. But as far as entertainment value, it doesn't hold up - if it ever did at all.