Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Would You Pay for Hulu?

As part of its quest for new sources of revenue, Hulu is ready to launch Hulu Plus, a new pay subscription service. The current ad-supported video service will remain largely intact, but $9.99 a month will get you access to a wider variety of shows and libraries of older episodes. Frankly, it sounds like a lousy deal.

I stopped watching Hulu regularly after "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" were removed from the site a few months ago. Sure, it was a convenient way to catch up on missed episodes of "Community" or "Glee," and take in the occasional free movie. On the other hand, I rarely just went to the site and browsed until I found something I wanted to watch. The indexing is terrible, and the interface always seems to require sifting through pages and pages of listings, with the most interesting offerings buried in a glut of third-tier reality shows. You have to know exactly what you're looking for, and it's so easy to miss what good shows and films are being offered. I always end up hearing about intriguing acquisitions like the British comedy "Spaced" and the Japanese anime "Mushishi" from other sources. I never get sucked into Hulu the way I have with Netflix, where I'm never not working my way through a huge queue of Instant Watch titles.

Speaking of Netflix, the film rental company's subscription service is going to be the major competitor of Hulu Plus. The two will cost roughly the same amount, if you go with Netflix's cheapest plan of two rentals by mail per month with access to their video library. Curiously, Hulu Plus will still have ads, and I'm assuming that it'll be the same one or two spots played over and over ad nauseum, that are laced through their free content. I suspect that Hulu is more interested in positioning itself as a possible alternative or add-on to traditional television cable plans, which have also been incorporating video-on-demand services. I had Comcast On-Demand for a few months, which operated like a pared-down Hulu with a few free shows and movies, but mostly it felt like a handy vehicle to shill their pay-per-view titles and premium channels. It was certainly not worth forking over extra dollars for, and I dropped it as soon as I realized I had the option to.

Of course Netflix is still primarily a DVD rental service and the cable companies supply live television. Hulu's entire game is providing the ability to watch its content on demand, a service that is really only supplemental for the other two. Yet Netflix has a better system in place, for the same cost to the consumer, and no ads. The only thing that would distinguish Hulu is the quality of its content. Right now the free version of Hulu only carries a limited number of "trailing" episodes of current television shows, usually the most recent three or four, so viewers can catch up to the live airings. Hulu Plus would provide access to full seasons, plus entire series runs of older shows. But a quick glance at the "Content" page of the new service reveals a surprising emphasis on network and syndicated shows, with few titles from the most basic cable tiers, let alone from the premium channels. In fact, there seems to be little that isn't featured in the free section of the site already, just with more episodes available.

Hulu Plus is also offering the ability to watch shows on peripheral devices like gaming consoles, iPods, and iPads, along with higher quality HD. I can see why those who are currently purchasing their television shows an episode or two at a time from iTunes or Amazon would benefit from having full seasons of multiple shows available to them all at once for these devices. I have friends waiting for DVD box sets of certain shows to be released so they can catch up via purchase or rental. Then again, episodes bought from iTunes don't carry advertisements and can be kept for as long as the purchaser wants. And while I can see wanting to marathon through a lot of episodes of a favorite show all at once, I don't think anyone would keep a subscription to Hulu Plus for more than a month or two for the privilege.

I'm sure someone who has the time to go through a lot of content quickly would get their money's worth with Hulu Plus, but anybody reasonably tech-savvy and media-savvy is going to realize pretty quick that they're just paying for reruns.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

YouTube Does Something Right

Finally, in the ongoing turf wars between traditional IP owners and the online remix culture, sanity and greed have prevailed.

The announcement came down yesterday that indie label Rumblefish will start selling licenses for songs from its catalog that will allow users to use the music in non-commercial web videos. The best part? The license for each song will only cost $1.99 a pop, purchasers will be allowed to edit the songs however they want, and the rights last in perpetuity. Finally, after years of DMCA skirmishes and countless Youtube videos stripped of their audio tracks, a fairly sizable music distributor has realized that they're sitting on top of a potentially lucrative new revenue stream and giving users a way to legally use their music for benign purposes, like adding soundtracks to videos of dogs on skateboards and slide shows of Robert Pattinson photos. Rumblefish is not a major label so most popular songs won't be available, but this is an important first step. If they can prove that this kind of IP licensing scheme can be profitable, the big four are sure to follow.

The most significant part of this deal is the partnership with Youtube. By using the Rumblefish service, users can avoid the hassle of dealing with Youtube's notorious automated Content ID program that seeks out and blocks or disables any video deemed to have infringing material. Youtube has long been criticized by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a legal advocacy group, for making it far too easy for IP owners to block access to work they deem objectionable, whether those works are actually infringing or not. Many popular remixers, vidders, and other gray-area user generated content creators have abandoned the site for other video sharing platforms as a result. Until now, Youtube and the music companies haven't been able to provide any viable means by which such content could be legitimized, for those creators who would be willing to pay to do so.

Music licenses for commercial purposes, as any aspiring filmmaker will tell you, is often prohibitively expensive and covers far more than the average Youtube user will ever need. Non-commercial licenses, like the Creative Commons licenses which require no licensing fee at all for non-commercial use, have been growing in popularity among musicians and other artists. Rumblefish's new Friendly Music service marks the most ambitious attempt by a commercial music entity to find a workable happy medium, that will let the users do what they want with the songs, provide some modest returns for the company and artists, and hopefully promote some lesser-known music in the process. There's no guarantee that licensing is going to catch on with video creators, but at least the option will be available as a real alternative to the rigidity of the traditional music licensing.

However, I am concerned that in the long run this kind of scheme might end up narrowing the fair use exception to copyright, which allows for excerpts of copyrighted media to be used without license fees if the use falls into certain categories like for educational or commentary purposes in the US. Unknowing users may end up paying to license content that they're perfectly within their rights to use without a license. Consider the wider implications of this. I'd imagine that if the music licensing goes well, the next step will be licensing videos. I expect that this will be more difficult to implement, but let's say the IP holder wants to charge something like $4.99 for a three minute clip, which would include both audio and video. That's roughly the same length as an average song.

So if someone wants to make a video using the famous three-minute Hitler rant from "Downfall," it would be easy to pay the one-time fee and never have to worry about Youtube yanking it, the way they have with other Hitler meme videos earlier in the year. The problem is, of course, that most of the Hitler videos arguably fall under the parody or criticism exceptions to copyright. Also, putting a monetary price on being able to create these remix videos obviously gives an advantage to those who are in a position to pay. Five dollars may seem insignificant to most users based in the US, but what about those in the developing world? What about those who are indigent? Licensing wouldn't solve the fundamental problem of Youtube overzealously policing their site's content. It just provides a way for some accused infringers to pay their way out of the hassle. But some perfectly innocent parties will not be able to, which is going to mean a lot of protected speech is still potentially getting quashed.

But for now, I think this is a positive development. Notably, the announcement of the new licensing service comes just a little more than a week after a US District Court ruled that Youtube is protected by the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, denying Viacom's ability to collect damages for copyright infringement on the part of Youtube users. Viacom is going to appeal the decision, of course, but for now Youtube can stop being so intimidated by the demands of the big media companies and start paying attention to the rights of its users again. And if Viacom can't beat Youtube, maybe they'll be more receptive to joining them instead. Because if Youtube and Rumblefish really have found a way to monetize the online remix culture, maybe - just maybe, everybody wins.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Shuddery Pleasures of "Splice"

Director Vincenzo Natali makes interesting puzzle-box films that are a little more demanding of the audience than most. There's usually a science-fiction or metaphysical bent to his plots, where his hapless protagonists are at the mercy of larger, unknowable forces beyond their control. In "Cube," his best-remembered feature, we followed a group of unhappy individuals trapped in a deadly maze of interconnected cubes. "Cypher" was about a spy with a very fickle identity. "Nothing" dropped its heroes in a place where literally nothing existed outside of their house. Natali's latest horror film, "Splice" is a similarly cerebral piece of work.

Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are a pair of young scientists who are romantically involved with each other, and lead a team responsible for creating novel life forms based on splicing genes together from different organisms. They're a little different from Natali's other leads, as they bring the oncoming horror upon themselves, but they are no less subject to the whims of strange and sinister forces. Their biggest successes, when we first meet them, are Fred and Ginger, a pair of caterpillar-like creatures who can synthesize a valuable protein. Clive and Elsa want to push ahead with splicing experiments involving human DNA, which could lead to cures for deadly diseases, but their corporate overlords are wary of the moral implications, and want to wait. For once, the corporate overlords are right.

Elsa goes ahead with an experiment with human DNA regardless, despite Clive's serious misgivings, which leads to the birth of a creature who will eventually be named Dren. The less you know about Dren going into the film, the better it plays, and I won't go into too many spoilers about her development. Dren is a remarkable creation, one of the few truly feminine cinema monsters in a field dominated by wolf men, vampire lotharios, and asexual little green people from Mars. Her most horrific moments manifest in very masculine ways, but best scenes are when she is at her most recognizably human, and a curious, distinctly female personality emerges. Visually, she's an fascinating collection of human and inhuman features that keep changing as she grows, bit by bit, so the audience never has the chance to become acclimated to her appearance and is always left feeling slightly unnerved or off balance. Dren never quite registers as a human being, yet her humanity is undeniable. She displays a full range of emotions, from petulance to despair, despite not speaking except in chirps and warbles. This is achieved by having Dren a portrayed by a pure CGI creation in early scenes, and then by actresses with seamless CGI enhancements.

As impressive as Dren is, the performances by Brody and Polley are vital to why the picture works. One might be tempted to ask what these two award-winning performers are doing in a creature feature, but their talents are put to good use here. Clive and Elsa are initially the picture of arrogant scientists who thoughtlessly decide to play God, with a bit of Sillicon Valley dot-com hipsterism tossed in for good measure. They play heavy metal while working at the lab, treat their managers like nagging parents, and regularly sport T-shirts and jeans when they aren't in lab coats. Elsa reveals the more interesting hidden depths, uncomfortable with the idea of having children, but all too eager to bring Dren into the world. While Clive's initial instinct is to recoil from their creation, Elsa bonds almost immediately, placing strain on their relationship as the two of them gradually assume the roles of Dren's parents. They seem to age and mature before our eyes, soon becoming very different people than they were at the outset.

There are some twists that occur late in the story that have caused considerable controversy online, and may be the reason why some audiences have responded very negatively to "Splice." Natali is not afraid of crossing lines that others would balk at, and he and the actors sell what could have been some pretty dicey material. I can understand the objections to some of the events in the film's second half, but there's never anything that feels exploitative or gratuitous about what we see, and the outcomes are reached organically, with plenty of buildup if the viewer is paying attention. Clive remarks at one point that the rules have changed, but I think it would be better to say that the rules have been replaced. When Dren finds human morality lacking, she substitutes her own, more brutal version. But like "Frankenstein" before her, Dren cannot really be blamed for her actions, as everything she is originates from the two scientists that created her.

"Splice" works fine as a horror film, with a few good jump scares and some running around in the dark, but at heart it's a science-fiction fable for the bioengineering age. It also touches on several other genres, including a little character study and a little morbid family drama. The story goes in so many different, unexpected directions, viewers have to stay on their toes. The closest thing I can think to compare it to is David Cronenberg's take on "The Fly," which also examined the unfortunate results of unrestrained scientific exploration, except "Splice" is much less straightforward. I enjoyed being unable to figure out where the movie was going, and the director's willingness to embrace unconventional developments made it all the more unpredictable.

Of course, this is not a viewing experience that everyone is going to appreciate, as it does push the boundaries and goes to some uncomfortable places. But for those who don't mind being challenged by their movies once in a while, and enjoy a good squirm, "Splice" is one to seek out.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

When Spock met Uhura

I rewatched the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot recently, and marveled at how well J.J. Abrams had managed to pull off one of the best franchise updates I've ever seen, despite one of the most notorious sci-fi fandoms in the history of sci-fi fandoms breathing down his neck. He and his collaborators cast exactly the right people to play the iconic characters, knew exactly which elements could be changed and which had to be retained at all costs, made the material accessible to newcomers, and turned out an excellent summer action movie too.

The original 60s "Star Trek" was long before my time, and to date I've only seen a few of the most famous episodes. However, I knew the feature films that came along later, so I got to know Kirk and Spock and all the rest that way. I'm sure there were a lot of the little callbacks and references in the new film that went over my head, but there was one that really caught my attention that I haven't seen much discussion of. In fact, I'm not sure if it was even meant to be taken as a reference at all.

One of the major changes to the new "Trek" was the surprise romantic pairing of Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). The relationship raised some eyebrows among some Trekkers, who were quick to point out that Spock was never seriously paired off with anyone in all the "Trek" media that came before, and the prospect was highly unlikely due to the fabled stoicism of the Vulcan race. It bears repeating that the Spock of the film is not the same as the Spock of the television series. The new version has more access to his emotions, or perhaps hasn't grown to embrace the logical to quite the same degree as his older counterpart yet. And of course Spock's parents, the Vulcan Sarek and the human Amanda Grayson, were happy together, so there is established precedent in the "Trek" canon for such a relationship.

Others expressed disappointment that Uhura, the only major female member of the cast, had been consigned to the stereotypical girlfriend role. I don't buy that line of thinking either, since Uhura was established as a very strong individual presence in the film early on and stays in the thick of the action as part of the bridge crew of the Enterprise throughout. This is why the revelation that she and Spock were involved with each other was such a pleasant surprise. Personally, I also found it a nice reversal of the "alien princess" trope, where science-fiction heroes invariably end up with exotic extraterrestrial beauties, as recently seen in "Avatar," which ironically also starred Zoe Saldana.

But what was the reference I caught? To "Plato's Stepchildren," the landmark episode where the original Uhura and Kirk, Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner shared the first interracial kiss on American television. First aired in 1968, the kiss itself broke boundaries, though it lacked any sort of romantic context, and the idea of a full blown interracial relationship being incorporated into the show was unthinkable. Now, nobody would bat an eye. Of all the complaints about the pairing of Spock and Uhura, no one objects because they're people of two different ethnicities. In the new film, not only does Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) get to flirt with Uhura, a red herring that draws on the fans' knowledge of that particular episode, she's seen as a real potential love interest for him before we find out that she's already involved with the other male lead, Spock.

I'm not sure that J.J. Abrams or the other writers necessarily intended to make any sort of social statement, or even if they meant to reference the Kirk/Uhura kiss at all. They easily could have come up with the idea independently, without any knowledge of the earlier episode, though the film was so good about addressing its roots, I think it's more likely that they were completely aware of what they were doing. Forty years after the original "Star Trek" aired, it's nice to see how far we've come in social acceptance. For every grumbling fan who can't get their heads around the idea of Spock and Uhura, for whatever reason, there are dozens who adore the pairing. The fan communities that have popped up around the reboot have turned out a staggering amount of fanfiction about the relationship, speculating on how the two met, how they got together, and what the future might bring.

Most of the criticism has long since died down, and the buzz is slowly building up for the next film in the series. The only real naysayers of any vehemence anymore are those fans who think that the new Mr. Spock would be better off with a different member of the crew – Captain Kirk.

Hmm. Maybe we can try for that one with the next reboot.

My Favorite Luis Buñuel Film

It took me a long time to warm up to Luis Buñuel, one the most influential filmmakers in cinema history, the most notable purveyor of early Surrealist and absurdist films. I remember sitting through "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" for the first time in a state of stupefaction, completely unable to process what was going on. Since then, I've picked through much of the rest of his filmography, from the early collaborations with Salvador Dali to his later work in France in the 70s. There are still several of the major films I haven't seen yet, including the ones made during his self-imposed Mexican exile in the 50s. And I've learned to appreciate him, with the help of a lot of context provided by Criterion essays and interviews. Ironically, the one Buñuel film that I really love is often considered the counterpart to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," - "The Exterminating Angel."

The premise of the film a simple, almost perverse idea. A group of upper class somebodies convene for a dinner party in a mansion, retire to a salon to listen to one of the ladies play the piano, and then discover that they are unable to leave the room. Some invisible force compels them to remain, though all of them want to leave. Also, no one can enter the house to rescue them or provide any supplies. As hours turn into days, and the guests run out of food and medicine, their civility crumbles. First it's minor breaches in decorum, then a complete breakdown of social rules and structure, a theme Buñuel would return to many times in his films. The guests tear up the walls of the room to get to water pipes, chant spells to appease angry spirits, and finally descend to the brink of savagery in their desperation.

There is never any explanation given for the imprisonment, only some coded hints regarding religion and social rituals. Perhaps the guests unknowingly tapped into some sinister cosmic "Twilight Zone" force by committing some seemingly inconsequential faux pas. The key to the mystery turns out to be repetition of certain mundane actions, which Buñuel cleverly works into the narrative of the film by including repeated lines and scenes and acts throughout, some instances more noticeable than others. What initially appear to be editing errors turn out to be clues to the logic of the film's universe. But unlike some of the more surreal Buñuel films, this one is narratively coherent and at no point are there any dream sequences or odd tangential scenes to confuse the reality of the events being presented. It's certainly one of Buñuel's most accessible pictures in spite of the surreal premise.

"The Exterminating Angel" is classified as satire by most, or even as a particularly black comedy. Made right after the firestorm of religious controversy that greeted "Viridiana," Buñuel's target this time is the upper classes. The guests at the dinner part are mostly terribly unsympathetic, portrayed as disconnected, insensitive, elitist snobs, who are useless in the face of crisis. The staff of the mansion quits the premises just before the dinner takes place, perhaps sensing the calamity to come, an instinct found wanting in the unfortunate guests. Left on their own, powerless and isolated, these supposedly civilized men and women repeatedly fail to cooperate in their efforts, wasting much of their time trying to escape responsibility or to shift blame to others. Outside the house, would-be rescuers and authorities are similarly stymied. The Church, doesn't escape a few pointed jabs either, particularly in the ominous ending sequence that I will not spoil here.

I've also seen the film classified as a fantasy or genre picture, which doesn't feel quite right. There are elements of horror, mystery, and possibly the supernatural at work, but the story is concerned primarily with the drastic undercutting of the social constructs that the characters are dependent on, and the mechanism by which that is achieved is really arbitrary. The events of the film would have played out the same way if the inexplicable force imprisoning the guests was replaced by, say, a garrison of enemy soldiers or a natural disaster. Buñuel simply dispenses with a physical antagonist in favor of a metaphysical conundrum. There have been other, more complex allegorical films made in recent years that occupy similar territory, such as Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" and Fernando Meirelle's "Blindness," which both use science-fiction devices to examine social upheaval.

I find "The Exterminating Angel" more effective for its simplicity. In interviews Buñuel's would later complain about lamentable acting from his principles and lousy production values, as the film was shot in 1962 on a modest budget in Mexico. It might be the language barrier or my lack of familiarity with the culture, but I couldn't see any evidence of corners being cut. Rather, I expect that the limitations of the production forced Buñuel to create something starker, tighter and more focused than many of his more celebrated Surrealist films. "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," by contrast, maddeningly meanders along with its characters. This is necessary by the plot's design of course, but results in a much less satisfactory viewing experience. The pressure of the enclosed spaces and mounting tension of "Exterminating Angel" force Buñuel to give us a fairly straightforward narrative and even something like a resolution - if only for a moment.

Is it the best example of Buñuel's work? Probably not. But it's a good contender for the one that leaves the most impact, as it's the one that's stuck with me the longest.

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What I've Seen - Buñuel

L'âge d'or (1930)
Los Olvidados (1950)
El (1953)
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955)
Nazarín (1959)
Viridiana (1961)
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)
Simon of the Desert (1965)
Belle du Jour (1967)
Tristana (1970)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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Friday, June 25, 2010

"Micmacs" Proves There's Such a Thing as Too Much Whimsy

The French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie" is one of my favorite films, in part for all the wonderful, whimsical characters he worked into the picture, some so sparsely, efficiently drawn that they often felt liked collections of itemized quirks. It worked for "Amelie," as the story was about a girl who placed great importance on little trivialities and found ways of using them to her advantage. It doesn't work so well for "Micmacs," Jeunet's latest, where the quirkiness and whimsy is often cranked up a couple notches too high.

"Micmacs," originally "Micmacs à tire-larigot," is a caper film. A young man named Bazil (Dany Boon) is our hero, his life touched by unhappy tragedy from an early age. The opening scenes show his father being killed by a landmine when he was a child, leaving Bazil an orphan. In the present day, he's hit by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, which costs him his job and all prospects of securing new employment. Left penniless, homeless, and perhaps about to die at any moment because of the inoperable bullet still lodged in his head, Bazil is in dire straits. Fortunately, he's taken in by a group of oddball salvagers who have made a cozy little home in the nearby landfill. They include a Buster (Dominique Pinon), a human cannonball, Tiny Pete (Michel Cremades), who makes mechanical sculptures, Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), who is very good with numbers, Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), the den mother to the group, Remington (Omar Sy), who has an interesting way of speaking, Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an elderly ex-con, and finally a friendly contortionist, the Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier).

By chance, Bazil discovers that the landmine that killed his father and the bullet that ruined his life were produced by two big munitions manufacturers, whose factories are situated right across the street from each other. Their owners, Fenouillet (André Dussollier) and Marconi (Nicolas Marié), are bitter rivals and utterly unscrupulous bad eggs who are making a fortune in profits from their villainy. Bazil decides that the two need to be taught a lesson, and he enlists his new friends to help him seek his revenge. What follows is a chaotic, madcap adventure involving sabotage, kidnapping, subterfuge, and elaborate Rube-Goldberg plots that make use of everyone's talents. However, there are a few unforeseen complications that imperil our intrepid band. Also, the Elastic Girl falls for Bazil along the way, and in spite of Bazil's wariness of "twisted" girls, romance is soon in full bloom.

If all of this sounds like a lot of fun, it is. Jeunet's misfits are an endearing bunch, all glad to be of use and loyal to the end. The situations that they get themselves into are inventive and often very funny. The filmmakers get away with putting together a lot of random things together that shouldn't work but somehow do. The trouble is that there's too much. Too many strange characters, too many improbable situations, too much overwhelming wackiness, and if such a thing is possible, too much of Jeunet's fiendish cleverness. The universe of "Micmacs" is few more steps removed from reality than any of Jeunet's previous films, a place of cartoon physics, thought bubbles floating over characters' heads, and coincidences happening at the drop of a hat. After the relative realism of "A Very Long Engagement," Jeunet has gone for the other extreme, often stretching our suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. But not always consistently.

As a result, I found the film dreadfully uneven and disjointed. There were some sequences that worked tremendously well, and some that just fell flat. I usually enjoy Jeunet films for their ready embrace of strangeness and whimsy, but something about this outing made these elements feel very calculated and a little forced. Maybe I've seen so many of these rumpled eccentrics and obsessive-compulsive artistes, that I've become immune to their charms. It didn't help that the script was very little light on substance, and the anti-war messages were especially blatant. However, I did admire a lot of the smaller moments and little details - Little Pete's machines, the Elastic Girl's wardrobe, and Bazil taking advantage of the wonders of Youtube. And the performances are great all around. Dany Boon and Julie Ferrier are sweet as the leads, but I got the most enjoyment out of Nicolas Marié and André Dussollier as the hapless villains who really sell the elaborate ending. In fact it wasn't until the ending that I really felt settled into the "Micmacs" universe, and then it was over.

I want to watch this one again, just to see if I might have missed anything in translation or perhaps failed to catch some bit of plot or character development that went by too fast the first time around. I really felt like there was something I wasn't quite getting about "Micmacs," because much of it seemed ever-so-slightly off from Jeunet's usual style and storytelling sensibilities. On the other hand, this is his first film in five years and his first comedy since "Amelie." It could be that he's just gotten a little rusty.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Good News Everyone! "Futurama" is Back!

Just like sweet zombie Jesus, "Futurama" has been resurrected from its early grave, to the delight of its dedicated fanbase of nerds and geeks and animation lovers, my favorite kind of people.

It's hard to believe that it's been well over a decade years since "Futurama," the brain child of "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and David X. Cohen premiered on the FOX network, with an episode that took place on New Year's Eve, 1999. There it enjoyed a four-year run in a lousy early Sunday evening timeslot that kept being pre-empted by various sporting events, much to the ire of it budding fanbase. After the agony of cancellation in 2003, the show would live on through syndicated reruns, first on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup, where it became a cult favorite, and then on Comedy Central. Robust DVD sales of the season box sets led to four direct-to-DVD movies in 2007 and 2008, comprising a unofficial fifth season, and finally Comedy Central took the plunge and ordered up more episodes in 2009. And now, at last the long wait is finally over and the series will premiere again with two new episodes tonight.

All the Planet Express regulars will return: Philip J. Fry (Billy West), Leela (Katy Sagal), Bender (John DiMaggio), Professor Farnsworth (Billy West, again) Dr. Zoidberg (yup, Billy West too), Hermes (Phil Lamarr) and Amy (Lauren Tom). I've been avoiding spoilers, so I haven't looked at any of the previews or plot synopses that have been floating around the web in recent weeks, but it's been promised that the new episodes will resolve the cliffhanger at the end of the last direct-to-DVD movie, "Into the Wild Green Yonder." I really love that - not only because it means the creators care about preserving the continuity of the series, but because it indicates that somewhere along the line "Futurama" turned into a show where the continuity became important to the audience. Will Fry and Leela ever acheive permanent couplehood? What about Kif (Maurice LaMarche) and Amy? And am I the only one rooting for the Professor to hook up with Mom (Tress MacNeill) again?

Like "The Simpsons," to which all modern prime-time and late-night cartoons owe an incalculable debt, "Futurama" is one of those rare animated gems that can genuinely tug on the heartstrings. I enjoy the show for the brainy sci-fi satire, the snarky pop-culture references, and the darkly surreal humor that birthed the notion of preserved celebrity heads in jars, suicide booths, and Slurm. But I love it for episodes like "The Sting," and "Jurassic Bark," that gave its characters more human dimensions and told very personal stories. For every "Star Trek" spoof and rampaging robot Santa episode, we got more thoughtful installments like Bender's brush with divinity in "Godfellas" and Leela finally finding out the truth about her parents in "Leela's Homeworld." My favorite episode is still "Luck of the Fryish," which let Fry put his rivalry with his older brother to rest, despite a gulf of a thousand years separating them.

And because "Futurama" is animated, it gets to pick up right where it left off without skipping a beat. "Family Guy," which also amassed a bigger audience from late night Cartoon Network reruns, made its way home to FOX after a multi-year hiatus and is now one of the network's strongest performers, with its own successful spinoff. "Futurama," though it had to navigate a rockier path back from the abyss, is now in a good position to do the same. There's no guarantee that the new season of "Futurama" will be able to recapture the glory days, but the cast and crew certainly deserve the chance to try. Over the last few years the show has been a steady presence on cable, hardly showing its age, and I've happily tracked its slow absorption into Internet culture. The "I see what you did there" meme, the Hypnotoad, and cries of "your [insert noun] is bad, and you should feel bad!" never fail to make me grin when they pop up somewhere unexpected.

"Futurama" was never as widely embraced as "The Simpsons," and I don't think it ever reached the same highs. But it has yet to run out of steam or hit a plateau of mediocrity the way "Simpsons" did, and I expect there are a lot more stories from the year 3000 waiting to be told. I was with the show from the beginning, was crushed when it was banished from network television, bought all the DVDs in solidarity, and now I gleefully welcome its return to ongoing series status.

"Futurama" airs at 10PM on Comedy Central. The show's website currently offers a recap of the first five seasons to get new viewers up to speed, narrated by Zapp Brannigan (Billy West, for the win!)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount Ruined My Summer

I've written before about the controversy surrounding "The Last Airbender," which will be released in theaters in less than two weeks now. I tried to be impersonal, refraining from snark and bitter fangirl histrionics. But revisiting the subject now, my resolve to stay out of the argument is eroding fast. Because the "Airbender" controversy is very personal to me, and the actions of the creative talent behind the films have upset me greatly. People are sick of hearing about the accusations of discriminatory casting that have emerged, and I'm sick of talking about it. But I know that it's vital to keep bringing it up, again and again if necessary, because if I don't who will? If I don't say that this is wrong, put it into words and put it out there, I certainly can't expect anyone else to.

I'm Chinese-American, have lived in the U.S. all my life, and I'm about as assimilated into Western culture as it's possible to be. I have always thought of myself as an American, and was fortunate enough to grow up with a big West Coast Asian-American community that kept me from ever feeling alienated or isolated because of my ethnicity. In fact it took me much longer than it should have to realize that this was not the norm in most parts of the country, and for many Americans someone of Asian extraction is immediately assumed to be a foreigner or a recent arrival from the Far East. The American media has reflected this for a long time, happy to trot out the Korean convenience store manager, the Japanese tourist, and the wizened old Chinese restauranteur for bit parts, but not so comfortable letting them be leading men or women.

When I was younger, I made excuses for Hollywood. I knew the Asian population in the US wasn't very large, and I thought the ignorance was unfortunate but understandable. Sure, we were the bad guys more often than not, but occasionally there was a "Karate Kid" or a "Goonies," even if the Asian characters always had to speak with funny accents. As I got older, I thought that things were getting better. Asian-American themed media offerings were still few and far between, but at least we were getting better ones like "Joy Luck Club" and "Better Luck Tomorrow." I took it as a good sign that there were more improvements to come. But those grating old stereotypes never seemed to go away. And after a brief boom in Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies about ten years ago, Asians in the movies have largely gone back to one or two small niche pictures a year - prestige pics and cheaply made comedies - while otherwise filling out the background roles in major commercial films.

I'll make a quick digression about television, which has done a much better job of putting Asian leads in the forefront recently. "Heroes" with Masi Oka and Sendhil Ramamurthy, "FlashForward" with John Cho, and "Lost" with Naveen Andrews, Daniel Dae Kim, and Yunjin Kim recently went off the air, but we've still got Tim Kang, B.D. Wong, Ming Na, Margaret Cho, and Sandra Oh on the air representing East Asians, while South Asians have been seeing a bumper crop of roles lately, as chronicled in this recent Slate article, making stars of Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Danny Pudi, Kunal Nayyar, and hopefully many more to come in the fall. TV's generally more representative and socially conscious all around, though there are still plenty of issues which need to be addressed that I'll leave for another time.

The movies are another matter entirely. The current glut of giant CGI-heavy blockbusters all seem to follow the same formula of an everyman hero going the distance to save the world, and that hero is almost always a Caucasian male unless he's Will Smith, Denzel Washington, or a cartoon character. With so much money going into some of these pictures, the studios are far more risk averse and seem eternally terrified that there's some miniscule chance that the black or brown or yellow heroes won't play in the midwest or the South, never mind that we've all gotten used to seeing them on our television screens. The result is a cinemascape that feels decades behind the reality of US demographics, where over a third of the population is non-Caucasian.

And so we come to "The Last Airbender," which is such a perfect vehicle for young Asian and Native American actors, such a great chance to see a little more multi-ethnicity at the movies. The film is an adaptation of a 2005 Nickelodeon cartoon, "Avatar: The Last Airbender," that built its fantasy world on East-Asian and and Inuit cultures, and featured characters to match. I didn't expect the cast that would be fully Asian and Native American, but like so many others I could only gape in disbelief when I discovered that all of the lead roles were initially filled with Caucasian actors, mostly unknowns and minor television tween stars. It seemed like a horrible joke. The film would retain the Asian and Arctic settings, and keep many of the cultural elements like the character names, martial arts, costumes, and mythological underpinnings, but whitewash all the ethnic heroes out of existence.

I can't begin to convey how maddening this is. "Airbender" isn't some obscure Asian import that is having its premise Americanized for the big screen like so many recent Japanese horror flicks, but a fantasy property that was conceived by its American creators to showcase Asian and Inuit culture, that already has a substantial American audience that is familiar with the ethnically diverse characters through the cartoon, and was always sold by Nickelodeon as an Asian-themed story. But now that it's being translated to the big screen, suddenly the carefully researched, authentic cultural elements of the cartoon are being scrubbed out, to be replaced with generic Oriental exoticism. Now the characters are being described as racially ambiguous with more marketing emphasis on "diversity," to justify having Caucasian heroes with the ethnic actors limited to villains and background color.

Oh yes, there are Asians in "Airbender" now. After the backlash over the initial casting choices, South Asian British actor Dev Patel, fresh off the "Slumdog Millionaire" Oscar victory, was tapped to play the lead villain of the film, replacing Caucasian pop singer Jesse McCartney. Several other South Asian and Middle-Eastern actors, all conspicuously darker-skinned, are joining him as supporting villians - Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, and New Zealander Cliff Curtis. There are no East Asians or Native American actors that I can identify in the mix, except for those playing such vital roles as "Earthbending Boy" and "Old Man in Temple." It's enough to make one long for the days of Short Round and Mr. Miyagi. Speaking of which, the only summer film to conspicuously feature ethnic leads this year is the "Karate Kid" remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. Having no Caucasian leads certainly doesn't seem to have hurt that film's box office performance.

Probably the worst blow is that the director of "The Last Airbender" is M. Night Shyamalan, one of the most prominent Asian-American directors we have. And frankly, he should know better. He's said in interviews that his own children watched the show, and as an Asian-American he should be aware of the dearth of minority heroes at the multiplex. Instead, he's been giving us the studio line about more diversity and ethnically ambiguous characters in his interviews. If "Airbender" is his idea of diversity, I think we're in serious trouble. If an Asian-American director could take a property that was so obviously meant give the spotlight to underrepresented minorities, and twist its good intentions into something as insensitive and ugly as this, I can't simply stand back and let it happen without complaint. This is my culture and heritage they're messing with. It's people like me being displaced and disappeared from the story. It's unfair, it's wrong, and it's been going on for far, far too long.

So please boycott "The Last Airbender." But look up the cartoon, "Avatar: The Last Airbender," if you haven't seen it yet. It's a great show that doesn't deserve to be associated with Paramount's unfortunate cinematic travesty.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The View From "Agora"

I've heard Alejandro Amenábar's "Agora," described as "The Passion of the Christ" for agnostics and liberals. I find this a gross oversimplification of a complicated and unusual film. It's difficult to categorize "Agora" because it doesn't quite fit into the mold of the recent "swords-and-sandals" action films. While there are several major action sequences, I found the film closer in tone to the big religious epics of the 50s and 60s, except that it takes what could be considered the opposing point of view.

Our heroine is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a philosopher and teacher who is the daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale), the director of the famed Library of Alexandria. Though beloved and admired by many young men, Hypatia rejects all her potential suitors, preferring to devote herself to the sciences, particularly astronomy. Among her students are three young men who will have a significant impact on her life - Orestes (Oscar Isaac), Synesius (Rupert Evans), and a slave, Davus (Max Minghella), who is part of Theron's household and secretly a Christian. In Alexandria, which is ruled by the largely pagan Roman Empire, Christians are a persecuted minority. But this does not remain true for long.

The monk Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) begins to incite the Christian population with fiery rhetoric in the agora, the public gathering place of the city. His movement gains influence and the Christians becoming a growing social and political force despite fierce opposition by the pagans. A nasty clash results in a siege on the Library, where Theron, Hypatia, and many of the students have taken refuge. Davus goes with them, but is torn between his loyalties to the Christians and his intense feelings for Hypatia. I won't reveal how the conflict plays out, except to note that the resolution of the siege only marks the end of the first half of the film.

Where "Agora" really distinguishes itself is in the second half, which takes place several years later, after the Christians have risen to power in Alexandria and are busy converting or subjugating everyone else. This is where the film's most controversial elements come into play. Amenábar does not pull back an inch from showing how the Christians destroyed much of the knowledge and culture of the pagans they displaced, and brought scientific progress to a halt. The portrayal of the Christian antagonists as intolerant fundamentalists, who are willing to use Biblical texts as an excuse to commit atrocities, has understandably made some viewers and Christian groups uncomfortable.

However, the film does not position itself against Christianity, but rather against ignorance and blind faith. The pagans are not romanticized, as early scenes show their bloody persecution of other groups. But so rarely have we seen their side of the story in film, the familiar historical narrative from such a different point of view, the role reversal is extremely startling and effective. The audience is forced to question how much of their understanding of the period has been whitewashed by the victors, and acknowledge the losses that came with the Christian faith's historical rise to prominence. Unfortunately, the film doesn't have quite such a good handle on other components of the story.

The trouble really boils down to the script, which marries too many disparate elements and revolves around a stoic heroine who never quite manages to engage our sympathies. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia often feels dispassionate and detached from the events surrounding her, wrapped up in her study of the orbiting planets while Alexandria is in the throes of social and religious upheaval. She is undeniably a striking figure, but occupies a role that is often more symbolic than active, and as seen through the eyes of her students and admirers, remains at a distance from the audience. It's only late in the picture that she comes to the forefront, but by then it's too little too late.

Also, the narrative suffers from being two distinct stories in one film: the siege and the later struggles of the surviving characters. The two hour length simply isn't enough to do them both justice. Several of the characters would have benefited from more development and additional context for their actions. Characters seem to switch allegiances between the two halves of the story, conversions occur offscreen without a word of explanation, and I had a difficult time trying to sort out the political maneuverings that were going on during the siege. It's rare that I encounter a film that could use more exposition, but this was one of them.

But credit where credit is due, because "Agora" gets a lot of things right. Director Alejandro Amenábar clearly knows how to mount a good looking epic. The production values of are very high, such that this often feels like a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, complete with massive scale combat and carnage. I would never have guessed "Agora" was a Spanish film, as it was filmed in English with an international cast. I didn't recognize most of the actors aside from Weisz, but there are several up-and-comers to keep an eye out for in the future. Oscar Isaac as politically-minded Orestes and Max Minghella as the brooding, tempestuous Davus are standouts.

I wouldn't put "Agora" up there was "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus" as a classic historical epic, but it's a film that I'm glad exists in spite of its faults. It's well worth watching, and its themes are timely, fascinating, and deserving of the attention.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Crazy Heart" is the Same Old Song (But Not a Bad One)

The immediate impulse when trying to explain the appeal of "Crazy Heart" is to draw up comparisons to Darren Aronosky's "The Wrestler." Both are stories of aging entertainers who are struggling to escape obsolescence and too many regrets. Both feature heart-rending performances by mature leading men that went over very well the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in their respective years of release. But while Randy the Ram was Mickey Rourke's comeback role, Jeff Bridges has never really gone away or lost any of his star power, and that's the major difference between the films and the performances.

We first meet Bad Blake, a singer-songwriter of country-western songs, rolling into a small southwestern town for his latest gig. He was once a major star, such that he's still recognized at liquor stores and audience members regularly come up to him with song requests, but he's been reduced to one-night stands in bars and small venues. The opening engagement is played in a bowling alley, where the proprietor has been warned not to allow Blake to run up a tab for any drinks. It's quickly apparent that alcoholism and a stubborn, lone-wolf nature are at the root of Bad Blake's woes. The film follows him though an eventful few weeks, as he reunites with an old friend (Robert Duvall), gets a leg up from a successful protégé (Colin Farrell), and starts romancing a newspaper reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) after she comes calling for a rare interview.

"Crazy Heart" leans heavily on the performance of Jeff Bridges, who creates such a likable, personable protagonist in Bad Blake, the audience can't help but forgive him for his many transgressions. And we can understand why so many of the supporting characters do too. Bridges gives Blake such charisma when he's onstage, and hints at so much simmering talent held at bay by his addictions, his return to fame and acclaim is all but a foregone conclusion. But it takes a lot of pushing and a lot of heartache to get Blake back on the straight and narrow path, and the real key to the character is the persistence of his faults. Once he turns on the charm, it can be easy to forget this was the same guy who was retching into a wastebasket two scenes ago.

Of the supporting cast, only Maggie Gyllenhaal really has the space to create a full, interesting performance to complement Bridges. She's likable enough as Jean Craddock, the earnest young reporter and single mother who manages to tease a little honesty out of Bad Blake, but it's her subtler, more ambiguous moments that sell the character. This is an intelligent young woman who must see all the signs of Blake's self-destruction, but like the audience is perhaps too willing to overlook them. I found the chemistry between the two a bit lacking, probably because the age difference is so glaring, but watching their relationship grow and develop is a pretty enjoyable trip.

But is "Crazy Heart" as good as "The Wrestler"? No, it's not. Director Scott Cooper does a decent job, but he's not at the level of Darren Aronofsky and doesn't try to be. Bad Blake's redemption amounts to a fairly conventional, feel-good story that celebrates the country music that Bad Blake delivers up to his adoring fans. There's no feeling of any real risks being taken here, and the emotions evoked are far more subdued. I found "Crazy Heart" pleasant and enjoyable, but not especially moving. But the size of the film is right for this story, the tone is right, and Jeff Bridges' performance is worth seeking out.

Bad Blake's journey is inextricably tied to his music. The songs in the film, including the Oscar-nominated title track, "The Weary Kind," are all pleasant earworms, probably tunes you'll find yourself humming out of the blue a few days later. I'm no fan of the genre myself, but there is none of the harsh twang I associate with the worst of country music. Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell put forth some decent vocal performances, though the songs weren't really as central to the story as I was expecting. We don't hear a full version of "The Weary Kind" until the end credits, providing a nice incentive to linger on the way out of the theater.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Can You Tell "MegaMind" Apart From "Despicable Me"?

My viewing of "Toy Story 3" this weekend was preceded by a blur of trailers for every CGI animated film and CGI-heavy kids' film coming out in the next few months, including "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," and the movie formerly known as "The Guardians of Ga'Hoole" from Warner Brothers, the bottom-of-the-barrel "Alpha and Omega," which marks old Don Bluth collaborator Richard Rich's first shot at a CGI film for Lionsgate, Disney's "Tangled," and Sony's "The Smurfs." (Really, Sony? Really?) Alas, there was no preview for "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the next installment of the Narnia series reported to be attached to some prints of "Toy Story 3." However, I did get trailers for Dreamworks' "MegaMind" and Universal's "Despicable Me."

Every once in a while you get very similar film projects that spontaneously pop up at different studios at the same time, and end up competing against each other at the box office. In the animation world, the most famous head-to-head was back in the fall of 1998 when PIXAR and Dreamworks/PDI both released insect-themed movies within a few weeks of each other. "Antz" hit theater screens in early October while "A Bug's Life" followed during the Thanksgiving weekend. This was due to a pretty nasty feud going on between Disney and Dreamworks at the time, which resulted in Dreamworks purposely pushing up the release of "Antz" to beat "Bug's Life" to the finish line. In the end, both films got good reviews and made money. More importantly, they established that there was room for two major animation studios in Hollywood, where once Disney had dominated the landscape. Since then, of course, a couple more have joined the party.

Universal Pictures is hoping to become the next major player, partnering up with Chris Meledandri's new studio, Illumination Entertainment for "Despicable Me," which tells the tale of a supervillain who tries to steal the moon and becomes surrogate father to a trio of orphan girls. Steve Carrell will voice the despicable protagonist, Gru, and the cast includes such notables as Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, and Kristen Wiig. The ad campaign has been in full swing since last July, when the first teaser trailer was attached to the sixth "Harry Potter" film. Despicable Me" will finally be released on July 9th.

But then there's "MegaMind," the third Dreamworks Animation release for this year, following the adventures of an alien supervillain voiced by Will Ferrell. It started up its ad campaign back in March with a teaser attached to "How to Train Your Dragon," which of course also had a trailer for "Despicable Me." Since then, "Shrek Forever After" and "Toy Story 3" have also featured trailers for both films, sometimes one right after the other. "MegaMind" won't be released until November, but it's still hard not to expect that there might be some confusion with "Despicable Me," since the two films have an awful lot in common.

Both have supervillain main characters with a love of elaborate schemes and over-the-top technological gadgets. Both will no doubt discover that villainy isn't all it's cracked up to be, and learn to open their bitter hearts to new relationships – in Gru's case with small children, and in MegaMind's case with a lovely female reporter – and maybe take on new roles as a result. Both movies will lovingly spoof the superhero and superspy genres and do their best to avoid inevitable comparisons to PIXAR's "The Incredibles" and Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." Maybe they should have been more worried about trying to distinguish themselves from each other.

As a lover of cartoon films, I've seen both trailers multiple times now, but I had to go online to sort out which film came from which studio, which big-shot comedic actor voiced which role, and which movie had the cute little yellow pill-shaped minions. It didn’t help that the early trailers for "Despicable Me" revealed little of the film's plot details and several didn't even feature the main character. I think it looks more promising than "MegaMind," though, which has a wackier, derivative vibe similar to last year's unfortunate "Monsters vs Aliens." "MegaMind" will be in the riskier position, opening four months after "Despicable Me" and poised to either benefit from "Despicable's" success or perhaps suffer from association or unfavorable comparisons.

Or both films might pull through like "Antz" and "A Bug's Life" did back in '98. "Despicable Me" and "MegaMind" could be might end up being very different from each other, but they're being sold on the same few qualities: snarky humor, zany characters, and an army of celebrity voices. Animated films might be enjoying an unprecedented Renaissance, but it's clear to me that the marketing for them is in a serious rut.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Triumph of "Toy Story 3"

When I set off for college, well over a decade ago now, I left a certain toy rabbit, who shall remain nameless, behind in my bedroom closet. I tried to get by without him. I really did. But after a few weeks of a new roommate with some interesting emotional issues, strained ties with old friends, and a good bout of homesickness, I asked my mother to send the old fuzzie along with the next care package. Since then, he's found his way back to the bedroom closet, but he is not forgotten.

So, sentimental schmuck that I am, of course I got all teary-eyed at "Toy Story 3," which is as good a film as PIXAR has ever made and a great ending to the "Toy Story" series. I know expectations couldn't be higher, but somehow PIXAR did it again. They went in directions I never dreamed they'd be willing to take the movie, and even to some darker places that might upset the youngest members of the audience. The PIXAR films aren't afraid of evoking mixed and difficult emotions, which is why their films tend to provoke such strong reactions from its viewers. There are a few humorous winks to the grown-ups here and there, but they never undercut the significance of the story's major themes.

The eleven-year wait since "Toy Story 2" seemed to last forever, but it was necessary in way. In that time, the toys' owner, Andy (John Morris), grew up from a little boy to a seventeen-year-old about to leave home for college, and suddenly the years don't seem quite so long at all. The fates of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), and all the other familiar playthings are suddenly up in the air. Will they be placed in storage in the attic? Donated to a day care center? Or – gasp – thrown away? Woody is especially conflicted, wanting to stay loyal to Andy's wishes, even if means going into storage, while his friends aren't so sure. The stakes are higher than they've ever been, and there's real dramatic tension from the outset. Much of the audience has known and loved these characters for fifteen years. PIXAR wouldn't really let anything bad happen to them, would they? Would they?!

It's so easy to lose yourself in this movie, and get swept up in the toys' newest and most perilous adventure. For all its heartstring-tugging dramatics and unabashed sentiment, "Toy Story 3," like the previous installments, is a great big action movie, and easily the best one of the summer so far. The opening fantasy sequence is a wonderful Western spoof, and there are later set pieces that recall disaster movies, prison breaks, and just a little bit of Stygian horror. The humor is also as good as ever. There are lots of sublimely funny moments, like Buzz discovering his Spanish settings and Timothy Dalton's voice coming out of a stuffed hedgehog. There was no shortage of pop-culture references either, mostly involving clever riffs on older classics like "The Great Train Robbery" and "The Great Escape."

Due to circumstances I will not spoil, Buzz and Woody and the rest of the gang are brought to Sunnyside Daycare, where they meet a whole new pack of toy characters. Fans of the series might remember the rumors that the third "Toy Story" film would end with all of Andy's toys being donated to a local kindergarten, where there would always be new children to play with them. It sounds like the perfect new home, but all is not what it appears at Sunnyside, especially under the rule of Lotso (Ned Beatty), a magenta teddy-bear with an unhappy past and a serious grumpy streak. Other new characters include a very metrosexual Ken doll (Michael Keaton), an ancient Fisher Price Chatter Telephone (Teddy Newton), a creepy one-eyed Big Baby doll, and the morose Chuckles the Clown (Bud Luckey), whose visual design alone had me cracking up. There are dozens of others, who will need more than one viewing to properly appreciate.

And of course just about all the old favorites are back, including Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, filling in for the departed Jim Varney) Jessie (Joan Cusack) and her horse Bullseye, Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), a Barbie doll (Jodi Benson), and a trio of those squeaky three-eyed aliens from Pizza Planet. But unlike other franchise films, "Toy Story 3" takes a moment to acknowledge that several are missing – Bo Peep, Wheezy the Penguin, the Etch-a-Sketch – lost to yard sales and the landfill over the years. It adds additional weight to the toys' fears of an uncertain future, and shows an attention to detail and commitment to these characters by the creators that is extraordinary.

"Toy Story 3" is not perfect. Lotso is a little too reminiscent of Stinky Pete, the villain of "Toy Story 2," and some of the jokes, like Buzz Lightyear's recurring bouts of amnesia, are well-worn even with the new variations. However, these are minor complaints about a film that really surpassed all the expectations I had for it. While I thought "Shrek Forever After" was a fairly decent way to end the "Shrek" series, "Toy Story 3" is in another league entirely. This is a film that was clearly conceived to say goodbye to the franchise permanently, where big changes occur and we know as the credits roll that nothing will ever be the same for any of the characters again. It is my favorite PIXAR film since "The Incredibles," and there are a few moments that rank among the best pieces of cinema to ever come out of the studio.

In a summer of sequels, I'm glad we have at least one example of a franchise that did it right and is going out on a very, very high note.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Folly of the Fifth "Twilight" Film

A franchise that can endure past three installments is a rare and prized bird in Hollywood these days. Witness the staggering success of the "Harry Potter" series which will see its seventh film released in theaters this November, with an eighth on the way next summer to finish off the set. And "Twilight" has recently announced that its fourth and fifth films will both be directed by Bill Condon. However, readers of the book series these films were based on may be puzzled as to how the math has worked out. J.K. Rowling only wrote seven "Harry Potter" books and Stephanie Meyers only wrote four installments of "Twilight." The studios behind both franchises have decided that the final volumes should be split into two parts, resulting in an extra film apiece. And it's an absolutely terrible idea.

Despite claims of wanting to do the finales justice by giving them more time to unfold on screen, the motives of the studios are fairly clear. These franchise films make money, and more films mean more money. "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" are lengthy, but finite series, which is one of the reasons they've been able to sustain momentum where so many open-ended superhero sagas have fallen flat after only two or three successful outings. But having definite, predetermined endings also means that continuation of a successful franchise is all but impossible once the endpoint is reached. "Harry Potter" will not be able to become a perpetual earner like "James Bond" unless the whole film series is rebooted. So it's no surprise that the urge to stretch out the last bit of remaining material proved irresistable to Warner Brothers and Summit Entertainment, resulting in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part II" and whatever they decide to call the the latter half of "Breaking Dawn."

The fans of these franchises have been nonchalant about these decisions. After all, isn't more films a good thing? Why begrudge the studios the chance to squeeze a few million more dollars out of the box office as long as they're remaining faithful to the source material and keeping the quality of productions the same? Two-part films have worked before in the case of Quentin Tarantino's pulpy revenge picture, "Kill Bill," and everyone loved the extended editions of films like "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven," didn't they? What could possibly be the downside of extending these beloved film franchises for another picture or two when it seems like everybody wins?

It's easy to forget that the enduring popularity of "Harry Potter" is almost unique in the history of Hollywood films. I can't think of another series that has ever managed to tell a single story in so many installments over so many years, while retaining such a massive audience the whole way. Nearly every attempt to duplicate the success of "Potter" has failed to catch fire, from "Series of Unfortunate Events" to "Percy Jackson." Only the "Narnia" series, also based on classic children's lit, has made it to a third movie, and only after the intervention of 20th Century Fox when Disney balked after "Prince Caspian." Time and time again, we've seen major franchises go off the rails because of one unpopular film, and every additional film in a series presents another chance of this happening. "Potter" can probably get away with its extended finale because it has miraculously managed to reach the end of its run without shedding too many viewers. It's far too soon to say the same about "Twilight," which has yet to see a third film released.

"Twilight" is in many ways a far worse candidate for longevity. The films play to a niche audience of young adults whose tastes could turn on a whim. The most recently released, "New Moon," has been almost universally panned. Moreover, "Twilight" has been breathlessly overhyped and oversold for several years now, sweeping the MTV Movie Awards twice in succession and saturating the covers of Entertainment Weekly so often, some readers have protested. The initial buzz has long since gone, the girls who turned the franchise into a monster are growing up, and those who might have been drawn in by the novelty or the hype have had plenty of opportunity to see exactly what the series is, so I don't see much chance of audience expansion. Expectations are running high for "Eclipse," which will be released over Fourth of July weekend, but I'll be very surprised if it can meet them.

If the bubble pops and "Eclipse" does underperform, as so many other big tentpole pictures this summer have, Summit Entertainment is looking at diminishing returns over two films instead of one. "Breaking Dawn," the last "Twilight" book, also presents some unique challenges for filmmakers because of its notoriously campy content, including a rib-cracking wedding night, a cesarean birth performed by vampire fangs, and an exceptionally skeevy relationship involving a newborn and a werewolf. It hardly seems possible to make one film out of this source material, let alone two. There's a good chance that interest and goodwill for the series are going to run out before Summit is done releasing all the films. Of course the upside is that the "Twilight" films are relatively cheap to make and can be turned out quickly. The last one is due in the summer of 2012, just five years after the original film was released. Summit will almost certainly make its money back on all of these sequels, even if the profits tank. But the reputations of the franchise itself and all the creative folks involved may not escape unscathed.

Also, the whole concept of a two-part film is practically unknown in mainstream cinema. Sure, there's "Kill Bill," but "Kill Bill" was made as a single film and only bifurcated for its release upon the insistence of Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. Similarly art house offerings like "Che" and "Red Cliff" have had to be released in parts due to extensive length. What "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" are doing is different - the final installments for both franchises could be wrapped up with single films, but they're being purposely padded out to double-feature length. "Harry Potter" has considered doing this before, back when Chris Columbus was still putting out the too-faithful adaptations of the early volumes. It was suggested that the fourth film, "Goblet of Fire" be made in two parts to better cover the material of the significantly lengthier book. Alfonso Cuaron put a stop to that kind of thinking when he turned out a lean, pared-down, "Prisoner of Azkaban" that some still consider the best film of the franchise.

Fans should remember that having more time to tell a story doesn't necessarily mean anything about the quality of the finished product. In fact it often proves detrimental, especially in a theater setting. Remember all the complaints about the drawn-out endings to "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King"? The danger of overindulgence runs very high for the "Potter" films because they've been so successful for so long. No franchise is bulletproof. All it ever takes is one bad film to wreck the party - or a noticeable dip in quality, which is what sank "Spider-Man." I'd hate to see "Potter" stumble this close to the end of the race.

As for "Breaking Dawn" - I'd tell Summit not to push its luck.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"We're on a Mission From God"

As we approach the 30th anniversary of John Landis's "The Blues Brothers," and debates resurface over whether it should count as a "Saturday Night Live" movie, and the veracity of Elwood's claims about police cars of a certain age, an interesting new fan of the film has emerged: The Catholic Church.

L'Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican has given "The Blues Brothers" an official endorsement. The distinction should be made that this isn't coming from the Vatican itself, but a publication that has deep historical ties to the Holy See and the papacy. The current editor-in-chief is a Italian professor of patristic philology, and the paper regularly publishes official documents that originate from the Church itself. L'Osservatore will at times take positions on social issues that differ slightly from those of the Church, and has recently come under criticism for editorials on "Harry Potter" and President Obama, but traditionally they hew very close to the official line, and their influence with the community is undeniable.

My first thought upon hearing about this was that this was a pretty shameless ploy to co-opt the popularity of a well-loved film. "The Blues Brothers" has about as much religious content as "Sister Act," and many of Jake and Elwood Blues' hijinks can't possibly be considered moral and upright behavior. But you know what? Everybody loves to talk about movies, and everybody has opinions on movies, so why shouldn't our spiritual leaders be able to geek out over their favorites like the rest of us? If someone at L'Osservatore wants to make a case for the spiritual value of "The Blue Brothers," why not? It'll certainly make for an interesting new perspective on the film, and will have at least as much critical importance as the umpteenth dissection of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ."

The more I think about the choice, the more I like it. Back in 1995, to celebrate the centennial of motion pictures, the Vatican released a list of forty-five features it distinguished as "great films." It came in three parts, one each for "Religion," "Values" and "Art." There were several popular Hollywood films listed, mostly in the "Arts" section, including exactly two comedies : Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" and "The Lavender Hill Mob," a British caper film made in 1951. Otherwise the choices leaned heavily toward older classics from Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, and the Italian neo-realists. I love Carl Dreyer, but he never made the most accessible films, and all the titles listed under "Religion" and "Values" that I've seen are fairly somber, weighty pictures - the big exception being "It's a Wonderful Life."

Now consider "The Blues Brothers." True, it's a tale of car chases and jilted ex-girlfriends and unrestrained musical mayhem, but it's also a very entertaining story of redemption. Joliet Jake and Elwood may not be the most saintly pair of do-gooders, but their efforts to reform are genuine and their motives are mostly pure: to save the orphanage that fostered them and reconnect with old friends. The content may border on salacious at times, particularly the Twiggy bits, but no more so than "8 & 1/2" or "Schindler's List," which were among the Vatican's choices. And if we're supposed to draw out profound religious messages from the esoteric gloom of Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice," than I see no reason why we shouldn't be able to take them from something more fun and joyful and lively too.

I'm taking the endorsement as a positive sign that the religious authorities are trying to take a broader view of the popular culture than they have before, and they could certainly benefit from it. One of the biggest omissions to the Vatican-approved list that I noticed immediately was the lack of Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant," a ferociously venal, violent portrait of a corrupt police officer with some of the most powerful religious messages I've ever seen put to film. I've never found an argument for the necessity of religion put across any better. Of course the Church could never acknowledge a picture like that due to its controversial content, and I think it's their loss. "The Blues Brothers" is nowhere near as overt in its subversiveness or prurience, but it is pushing the boundaries for them, and every little bit counts with an institution that's been around as long as the Catholic Church.

And I doubt Jake and Elwood would mind teaming up. After all, they're all working for the same guy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why No One is Talking About an "Alice in Wonderland" Sequel

Incoming news from the film sequel front. "Clash of the Titans 2" is getting fast-tracked into production, with recent announcements coming from Warner Brothers about new writers being attached to the project. Sony is getting directors onboard for a "Ghost Rider" sequel, and in the wake of the big opening weekend "The Karate Kid" had at the box office, we'll be getting a second installment. Looking over the hits of the past few months, it seems like everything that made money is getting a sequel. There will be follow-up films to "Avatar," "How to Train Your Dragon," "Sherlock Holmes," and even one for "Valentine's Day," which will follow many of the same characters around a year later in the tentatively titled "New Year's Eve." A second "Iron Man" sequel has already been a certainty since the first film, though it will have to wait until after "The Avengers," a sort of super-sequel to at least three different Marvel superhero titles.

However, there are a few 2010 hits that will not be getting sequels any time soon. Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" had a tightly self-contained story with no room for expansion, and bears all the earmarks of a prestige picture that was meant to be Oscar fodder. "Shrek Forever After" was marketed as being the last of the series, and its box office earnings, though nothing to sneeze at, would indicate that the public's interest in the Dreamworks franchise is waning fast. But then we come to what would seem like an obvious candidate for a sequel, the surprise Disney hit "Alice in Wonderland." With a stunning worldwide box office take of over a billion dollars and a narrative that is open to continuation, the conventional wisdom would be that Disney should waste no effort to either convince director Tim Burton to come back for a sequel or rustle up a suitable replacement for him. In my review of the film a few months ago, I assumed an "Alice Through the Looking Glass" was an near-absolute certainty, though it might take some time and a lot of money to tempt Burton and Johnny Depp back for another round. They might have more artistic cachet than most these days, but neither are above sequels.

But by all indications, Disney has no immediate plans for another "Alice in Wonderland" film. According to Jim Hill, Disney is after Burton to helm a new "Maleficent" project, and Johnny Depp is not being pursued for anything but more "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Disney's biggest interest in "Alice" at the moment is figuring out how to merchandise it and incorporate some elements of the film into its theme parks. There are plenty of theories as to the reasoning behind this surprising show of restraint from the Mouse House, and I'm a great believer in idle speculation, so here's a quick rundown of several possible reasons why no one at the studio is jumping on a sequel to what is already the fifth highest grossing film at the worldwide box office ever:

Caught Unprepared - "Prince of Persia" was supposed to be Disney's big new action franchise, stepping up to take the place of "Pirates of the Caribbean." "Alice in Wonderland" was only supposed to be a flash in the pan, drawing in a niche audience before quickly disappearing from movie theaters. But both films performed against expectations, leaving Disney scrambling. The studio was bracing for "Alice" to be a costly disappointment, to the extent that Disney sparked a fight with its exhibitors by trying to rush the film out to DVD to recoup projected losses. When "Alice" turned out to be a monster hit, Disney had none of the usual deals and options in place to secure the creative talent for future installments, or any release dates staked out on the calendar. Now, faced with a steep hike in costs for any sequels as a result, the math may not add up for Disney to return to "Wonderland." But I doubt simple sticker shock is the culprit, since the profits have been so staggering, so maybe it's -

Regime Change - We still don't know why Disney studio chief Dick Cook was fired back in September, but "Alice in Wonderland" and most of the current slate of Disney films were projects that originated during his chairmanship. The gossip is that the studio is trying to move in a new direction. There have been signs over the past few months that Disney is trying to downplay its traditional family-friendly image, just enough to attract that elusive audience of young male viewers. I could spend several column inches ranting about the idiocy of this approach, but suffice it to say that Disney wants to dissociate its image from anything that looks too emphatically feminine. Hence the acquisition of the back catalogue of Marvel Comics properties, and recent decisions like "Rapunzel Unbraided" becoming the more boy-friendly "Tangled." "Alice in Wonderland" put Alice in a suit of armor and sent her out to do battle with the Jabberwocky, but this may still be too unconscionably girly for Disney executives under the new chairman, Rich Ross. On the other hand, "Alice" certainly wasn't only loved by female audience members, so it could be -

Sequel Shunning as Business Strategy - As the Daily Vulture noted yesterday, the recent trend of tanking sequels and reboots is forcing the studios to rethink putting so much of their efforts into big franchise pictures. Some are even considering the unthinkable: original material. In Disney's case, I suspect there's a growing disillusionment with franchises in general. The "Pirates" sequel made them millions, but also cost a bundle to produce. They gave up the "Narnia" series to FOX after "Prince Caspian" underperformed. There have been several new projects announced to cater to the same audience as "Alice in Wonderland," like the aforementioned "Maleficent" movie, and a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" with Sam Raimi, but the magic word - franchise - has been noticeably absent lately. But Disney still has plenty of sequels coming down the pipeline, such as the fourth "Pirates" movie, a second "Enchanted," and a couple of PIXAR follow-ups, and there's been talk of turning the upcoming "Tron: Legacy" into a trilogy, so I doubt they're averse to the idea of an "Alice" sequel. My best guess is that the reason we're not getting one anytime soon has everything to do with -

Tim Burton - There aren't many major filmmakers who have such a unique, identifiable style, that they can be brand names in and of themselves. In the age of CGI-heavy 3D spectaculars, Disney has benefited from cozying up to the striking, surreal whimsy of Tim Burton, who has mellowed over the years and now regularly turns out child-friendly work like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland." "The Nightmare Before Christmas," panned at the time of release for being too dark and strange, has turned into a perennial moneymaker for Disney, which has re-released it multiple times in theaters and generated countless items of Halloweentown merchandise. They have every reason to want to keep Tim Burton happy, so they aren't about to apply too much pressure for a sequel or risk alienating him by going to someone else to helm a new "Alice" movie. Frankly, I doubt that there is another director out there who could take over for Burton, as the visuals of "Alice in Wonderland" were the major selling point of the film. And Johnny Depp, Burton's long time collaborator, probably wouldn't reprise his Mad Hatter role without him either.

So right now, the fate of any future "Alice" sequel rests with its director. If Tim Burton wants to make another one, then I'm sure Disney would be thrilled. If he wants to make something else, and if it's reasonably family friendly, I doubt Disney will have any complaints. If I were in their shoes, I'd pick Tim Burton over "Alice" too. After all, Burton's career has outlasted multiple franchises and multiple studios, and he shows no signs of slowing down. If Disney plays their cards right, they'll get something better than a franchise - they'll get a consistent, creative, genuinely interesting artist in their corner.

And Disney's always had a pretty good history with those types.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Does "Criminal Minds" Hate Its Female Characters?

I apologize for the inflammatory title of this post, but that was the first thought that came to mind upon hearing that A.J. Cook, who plays FBI Agent Jennifer "JJ" Jareau on the CBS crime drama "Criminal Minds," will not be returning for the show's upcoming sixth season. Additionally, Paget Brewster, currently second-billed in the show's opening credits for her role as Agent Emily Prentiss, will only appear for a reduced number of episodes. A new female principle will replace A.J. Cook, but details haven't yet been forthcoming. There are conflicting reports as to why this is happening - the early ones mention budget issues and the more recent ones indicate it's a creative decision. Now "Criminal Minds" only has three female cast members to begin with out of the seven principles, the third being Kristin Vangness as the show's resident hacker goddess Penelope Garcia. Clearly there's something going on behind the scenes beyond simple "budgetary reasons" that would require the elimination of half of the show's female cast, especially this late in the show's run.

It's a real blow because one of the reasons I still watch "Criminal Minds" is for these ladies. The characters of JJ and Prentiss come across as far more natural, genuine, and believable as professional women than a lot of the other female leads on similar crime dramas. I've never had to suffer through any grating histrionics, overtly sexual vamping, or affected ice-queen bitchery from either of them. And since the premise of "Criminal Minds" is so centered on serial killers, many of the stories involve young women in peril, and the counterbalance provided by Cook and Brewster is invaluable. They haven't gotten big story arcs the way some of their male co-stars have, but the odds and ends of character development we did get were always enjoyable. JJ got married to another agent and had a baby, working A.J. Cook's pregnancy into the show. Prentiss had less happening onscreen, but we'd occasionally get hints about more interesting bits of her backstory waiting in the wings. I can imagine the show without the two of them, but I don't particularly want to.

It's hard not to read more into this. Meredith Monroe's recurring character, Haley Hotchner, was killed off earlier this season. Jane Lynch hasn't been on the show since "Glee" went supernova. There were at least two attempts to introduce a love interest for Shemar Moore's character, Agent Derek Morgan, that ultimately went nowhere. Jane Atkinson as FBI Section Chief Erin Strauss had a bigger role this season, due to an internal investigation storyline, but her role's always been very limited. At the end of the day, it seems the only one left standing will be Garcia. While I think she's a wonderful, positive, fun vision of a girl geek, it's sad to think that she's going to be much lonelier in her little girl-power bubble at the end of the day. I know this sort of thing happens when shows hit their fifth seasons, and contracts are up for renewal, people get tired, and sometimes there's just not enough money to go around. If the network's official line isn't some sort of smokescreen, and the actresses aren't leaving for personal reasons that they don't want known, I sincerely hope that they can hammer out some sort of deal - Paget Brewster is reportedly still in talks - and we don't end up losing both of them.

"Criminal Minds" has had casting woes before, most notably when Mandy Patinkin abruptly quit at the end of the second season and Joe Mantegna was brought onboard. The show was never the same. Also Lola Glaudini, who portrayed the show's primary female lead Agent Elle Greenaway in the first season, was replaced by Paget Brewster part-way through the second. "Criminal Minds" has always had very decent ratings, and this year saw only a minor dip in numbers after significant gains during the past several seasons. A spinoff with Forrest Whitaker, "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," is being readied to premiere next winter, though from the cross-over episode I saw a few months ago, they could use more estrogen in their cast too. Maybe if A.J. Cook and/or Paget Brewster were to join up, I'd be more willing to watch. Just saying.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Shrek" 4: The Midlife Crisis

The "Shrek" films, along with the "Ice Age" films, have a penchant for contemporary humor aimed not-so-slyly at the grow-up members of the audience. Moreover, the central characters are all adults, facing problems that wouldn't be out of place in a Judd Apatow comedy. Shrek, the grumbly green ogre we first met back in his bachelor days, has had to contend with in-laws, fatherhood, and the challenges of becoming a more domestic monster over the last two sequels. The latest, and purportedly the last "Shrek" film, "Shrek Forever After" is no different.

This time the culprit is middle-age malaise, as we find Shrek (voiced as ever by Mike Myers) happily settled down with his loving Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and their triplets in the swamp. But besieged by the demands of family and friends, including Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), he soon becomes weary of the repetitive day-to-day grind. Shrek starts feeling resentful of his loved ones, and pines for the good old days when the sight of his big green mug would elicit shrieks of terror from the public instead of smothering adoration. After an ugly blow-up, he attracts the attention of the villain of the piece, Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), ready with a Mephistophelean deal: he'll give Shrek one day as his old ogre self for a seemingly insignificant price. Of course, the consequences turn out to be not so benign.

So commences a long walk down memory lane, as Shrek finds himself in an "It's a Wonderful Life" scenario, stuck in a world where he never existed and Rumpelstiltskin has taken over the kingdom with the help of some menacing witches. To set things right, he has to reconnect with his friends and woo Fiona all over again. As a sequel, and a third sequel no less, "Shrek Forever After" adds very little to the existing universe, aside from a decent villain, and a couple of new variations on some very old jokes. It's a completely superfluous piece of work and everyone involved knows it. To the filmmakers' credit, there's relatively little rehashing of past events, and the skimpy premise ultimately yields a nice alternate version of Shrek and Fiona's romance. So many little moments play on our knowledge of the first film, however, I don't think the new one would work half as well if viewers weren't familiar with the original "Shrek."

But even though the new film is such a shameless exercise in extending already overextended material, it's hard to deny the charms of the "Shrek" franchise. While the narrative treads water, often feeling like an epilogue stretched out to unseemly proportions, it's all a perfectly harmless diversion. "Shrek Forever After" is the equivalent of cinematic comfort food, a film so familiar that we're left with no surprises but no disappointments either. The small children that comprise its target audience will be thrilled with it, and parents may not be especially entertained, but they won't be bored either. At a brisk eighty minutes, it's an effortless watch, well-packaged and well-executed. I skipped the third installment of "Shrek," "Shrek the Third," but I didn't feel like I'd missed anything important. Whether this is a positive or a negative for the film, I suspect will depend on the viewer.

"Shrek Forever After" is targeted at parents more than kids, as the film is so derivative, you could stick a DVD of the ten-year-old original "Shrek" in the player, and the kids would hardly know the difference. However the new film does deliver a strong dose of nostalgia to the grown-ups and the adolescents who grew up on the earlier films, as it serves as an acknowledgment that time has passed even for the world's favorite ogre. The themes of settling down and learning to move on to a new phase of life are not going to resonate very strongly with the twelve-and-under set, but they might spark a little wistfulness for the rest of us. "Toy Story 3" will be plumbing the dramatic depths of similar nostalgic territory with its final installment later this week, and considering their recent output, will likely bring audiences to tears in the process. "Shrek Forever After" has no such grand ambitions, content to simply say that they all lived "happily ever after," and leave it at that.

... until the "Puss in Boots" spinoff anyway.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hey, the Tonys Are On!

Another day, another awards ceremony. In the opening sequence of tonight's Tony Awards, the drag queens of "La Cage," gave way to the afrobeat of "Fela!" followed by the punk rockers of "Green Day." There was a little Sinatra and a little rock and roll to give the show some musical continuity with the past, but this isn't your mama's Broadway anymore.

I love the Tonys for all the reasons that other people seem to dislike them – the lighter emphasis on major stars, the older skewing tastes, and the close-knit community that can seem unwelcoming to outsiders. And the performances. The Tonys are almost wall to wall performances, and people whose eyes glaze over at the thought of the song numbers and dance breaks at the Oscars must go catatonic with fright at the thought of three solid hours of them. But unlike the Oscars, the performers have been doing these shows nightly for months and months and are well versed in how to play their numbers to the live audience for maximum effect. And they get away with so much more spontaneity - such as when Douglas Hodge came into the audience to coochie-coo Matthew Morrison.

But despite all the big numbers, the proceedings feel smaller and more intimate than most of the other big award shows. The stars look more relaxed, there's way more energy from the performers, and we get just as many of the big emotional moments that the Oscars and the Emmys have served up over the years. The Tonys may not be of particular cultural significance to the majority of the country anymore, but you can tell they're important to the people in that room. It comes across how tight-knit and well-regarded the New York theater community is, and how it has its own way of doing things. The In Memoriam segment named theater founders and press agents alongside the actors and directors. And nobody makes much of an effort to hide alternative lifestyles anymore, the way they still automatically do over on the West Coast.

Host Sean Hayes, who I haven't seen since "Will and Grace," effortlessly accompanied the opening performers on piano, kept his introductory appearances brief and fun, and did an all-around great job. There were appearances by many actors who have been absent from Hollywood lately - Lucy Liu, Antonio Banderas, and even Angela Lansbury. There were bigger names as well – Beyonce, Jay-Z, Will Smith, Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren, Michael Douglas, and Green Day. Denzel Washington and Catherine Zeta-Jones picked up awards. And of course there were the stars usually associated with Broadway like Nathan Lane, Kristin Chenoweth, Bebe Neuwirth, and the ever-present Bernadette Peters. But it was especially gratifying to see Morrison and Lea Michele from "Glee" dropping by to pay tribute.

As usual I didn't know most of the nominated plays and musicals aside from the reviews I'd read in the New York Times, but that didn't bother me. I don't know most of the film nominated for the Oscars when they're up for awards either. A major function of these award shows is to give the public a glimpse of work being honored so we'll go and seek them out. The problem is that I rarely get to see the Tony winners, being so far from New York. Sure, I'll see the touring versions of "Avenue Q" and "Wicked" when they make it out to my end of the country, but it's not the same. I'm still kicking myself for not getting up to Berkeley in time to catch the Berkeley Rep tryout of "American Idiot."

Tomorrow there will be the usual gripers who come out every year and make the case for CBS to stop broadcasting the Tonys, or at least to truncate them more than they already are. This is a mistake, because though the awards don't matter to a lot of people, they matter an awful lot to those few people who do still watch and enjoy. I still watch every year and I will continue to watch no matter how out of style they become.

I mean, how wonderful was Catherine Zeta Jones's acceptance speech? Or Nathan Lane, who was such a memorable Albert in "The Birdcage," presenting the Tony to Douglas Hodge for Albin in "La Cage"? "Glee" has proven that we have much to thank Broadway for, so let their kudocast endure. With so many others crowding the airwaves, surely one more in the middle of June can't hurt anything.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Cashing in on "Toy Story"

We're less than a week away from one of the most anticipated films of the summer, PIXAR's "Toy Story 3," to date only the second sequel the studio has ever made after "Toy Story 2." The first two films hold such an unassailable place in the pop culture pantheon of the past two decades, of course the third would be viewed as a seminal event. PIXAR's reputation is as stellar as ever, and there's no taint of any money-grubbing, or over-milking of the franchise, as other franchises have fallen victim to. It's a bit of a shock to realize, for instance, that all four of the "Shrek" films and all three of the "Ice Age" films have been released in the years between the second and third "Toy Story" films. PIXAR has built up such an image of artistic integrity, potential audiences surely will feel that the new film must be special, because otherwise John Lasseter and his crew wouldn't have made it. Especially after all this time has passed.

I'm a little skeptical on that front. While I'm sure that the PIXAR crew have made a wonderful film, I remain pragmatic about the decision to move ahead with the project. The sequel bug has bit the studio hard recently. Just over the horizon are "Cars 2," which is due out next summer, and "Monsters Inc 2," which will be in theaters for the holiday season of 2012. And of course, there's the merchandising issue. PIXAR films are known for winning accolades, but the real money from children's films is usually in toys, games, tie-ins, and other merchandise. PIXAR's last few blockbusters have made gazillions at the box office, but they haven't exactly been merchandising bonanzas. Disney execs and Wall Street investors were very concerned about the prospects of "Up" last year, which had a very modest rollout of toys and games. And before that "WALL-E" and "Ratatouille" were similarly difficult for Disney to capitalize on.

So I doubt it's an accident that the next two PIXAR films are going to be from franchises that have been very good to retailers in the past: "Toy Story" and "Cars." Parents may still remember the mad rush for Buzz Lightyear dolls when the first film came out. And though "Cars" is probably the least loved of the PIXAR movies, it spawned an empire of popular merchandise, especially those collectible toy cars. And I'm not the least bit surprised that I'm seeing new "Toy Story" toys everywhere already, and the characters popping up on Sara Lee and Kellogg's products at the supermarket. PIXAR's marketing department has also gotten bolder with cross-promotional tie-ins. In fact, I'm a little worried that they may have gone too far in this department. There are three separate television ad campaigns currently in full swing that incorporate the "Toy Story" characters – Visa, the United State Postal Service, and the Aflac insurance company. Along with the actual television commercials for the film, we're getting bombarded around the clock.

On the one hand I'm worried that the overexposure might harm the characters in the long term, but on the other hand, there's the distinct possibility that this is the end of the road anyway. It's taken PIXAR eleven years to release the third "Toy Story" film, and there's such an air of finality to it from every trailer and promo I've seen, I can't imagine that it would ever be resurrected for a fourth installment. So if this is the last chance for the marketers and merchandisers to cash in on the goodwill toward the "Toy Story" brand, it's hard to begrudge them. It's a necessary evil, and a small price to pay to get the third film so many of the fans have been dreaming of. At least there's been no indication that any of the promoted products are being incorporated into the film itself, the way "Iron Man 2" shamelessly did earlier this summer. And so far PIXAR's done a fairly good job of choosing their promotions, though I have to wonder who approved the one for Aflac – that irritating duck mascot does not make a good addition to the "Toy Story" universe, even with a CGI beak-lift.

I mean seriously. What would toys know about supplemental insurance policies anyway?