Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Sherlock" and the Chinatown Problem

After polishing off the first episode of BBC's new "Sherlock," I was revved up for the rest of the series. That anticipation was short-lived, however, when it became clear that the next installment was a Chinatown episode.

What's a Chinatown episode? The short answer is that it's an episode of a TV series that takes place in or around Chinatown, features Asian guest stars, and uses outdated cliches about Asian immigrants and culture. Occasionally you'll get a Japantown or Little Saigon episode, but the structure remains the same: a case brings the leads of a crime procedural or action show to Chinatown, which is teeming with recent immigrants, exotic rituals, and a barely concealed criminal element. There will be a local in distress, usually a young woman like Bai Ling, Kelly Hu, or Lucy Liu, who speaks with an affected accent and suffers under the tyranny of the Tongs, the Triad, or the yakuza. The story is thick with Oriental exoticism, from the music to the imagery to the behavior of the Asian characters. The Caucasian heroes, sometimes with the help of an Asian counterpart we will never see again, save the day and then beat a hasty retreat.

Often the portrayals of Asian communities in these episodes are woefully out of date, or riddled with mistakes, or belie such an ignorance of the actual culture that I'm left shaking my head in dismay. But what really grates is how prevalent and how exclusive these portrayals used to be in the media landscape. For years, the Chinatown episode was the only time we saw Asians on many popular programs. Throughout the 80s, action shows like "Miami Vice," "MacGyver," "The A-Team," and "Magnum PI" all had their Chinatown episodes, dabbling in Orientalism and playing up the imaginary, exoticized picture of Asian culture that many Westerners still have in their heads. Chinese-American actor James Hong appeared in a staggering number of them over the years - Google a picture of him and you're sure to recognize the man. Are you surprised to know he was born in Minnesota and doesn't speak with that exaggerated Chinese accent?

Criminal activity and ethnic gangs are associated with some ethnic neighborhoods, and you will find a greater concentration of immigrants there who don't speak English well. Pageantry is played up for the tourists in larger Chinatowns, and admittedly some Chinese decorating sensibilities really are gaudy as hell. But 99% of Asian Americans don't match the image of the characters who pop up in Chinatown episodes, including the people who actually do live there. So as one of the 99%, it was a relief when Chinatown episodes began to fade from American TV, more Asian-American actors began appearing in non-stereotypical roles, and the episodes that did focus on Asian culture became more subtle and sensitive. Occasionally shows like "Chuck" or "Pushing Daisies" will still roll out the old cliches, but nowadays it's usually with a healthy dollop of self-awareness and played-up kitsch, and sometimes even subversion of the old tropes.

I can't imagine that there's much difference between American Chinatowns and the British ones, so I was floored to discover that the second episode of "Sherlock" was not only a Chinatown episode, but one that followed the old, outdated pattern for one. Gemma Chan plays the Asian damsel in distress, Soo Lin Yao, who works for the British Museum restoring Chinese artifacts, including a set of ancient teapots. Her disappearance coincides with a series of unexplained murders that Holmes and Watson are investigating. Sure enough, a clue sends them off to Chinatown, where they prowl the tchotchke shops and dim sum restaurants. In the end it turns out that one of the shadowy criminal Tongs are responsible, which can't be too shadowy since they sent an circus acrobat assassin to London to take care of some business for them, and the big bad is revealed to be an adage-reciting elder who moonlights in the tchotchke business.

It's not a very well written episode, reliant on a lot of coincidences and unlikely events. The cultural mistakes weren't all that egregious individually, but I had to roll my eyes at their combined effect. I took special exception to the character of Soo Lin Yao, who doesn't act like any modern Chinese woman her age that I've ever encountered. Even her name is unlikely - most immigrants of our generation and everyone within shouting distance of Hong Kong adopts a Western name because Chinese names are difficult for Westerners to pronounce (Japanese and Vietnamese names tend to be easier). It was also obvious that the actress, Gemma Chan, didn't speak Chinese because her pronunciation of her brother's nickname, "Spider," was completely off. But I don't blame her, because at least she tried to make that ridiculous Tong-smuggler-turned-British-Museum-employee sob story come off credibly.

The little exotic touches were everywhere, of course. Black Lotuses, hanzi tattoos, circus acrobats, clay teapots, counting rod numerals (which gave the detectives a headache but are easily Googleable), origami flowers, and fortune cookie wisdom everywhere you looked. And apparently deadly Tong members prefer to perform executions with ancient spear-chucking mechanisms instead of shooting people in the head like any other self-respecting criminal. For better examples of what Tong members might actually look like, there are dozens of Hong Kong gangster films that could have provided easy references. Even Jackie Chan movies are a better reflection of reality.

This heavy use of bad Orientalism is the sort of thing I expect from old "Indiana Jones" and "James Bond" movies, not a twenty-first century crime procedural. The episode would not have passed without comment if it had aired in the US, and I'm puzzled as to why the British creators missed the problems here, but the answer may be in a line of dialogue from the episode itself - the Chinese in Britain are a very small community. Proportionally they're a much smaller population in the UK than Chinese Americans in the US. I'd estimate they're where we were about twenty or thirty years ago, so I guess it makes sense that the British media still isn't clued in.

But seriously "Sherlock" writers, go pick up the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy or some of the early John Woo films. You're better than this.

Monday, August 30, 2010

On the Case With "Sherlock"

After two two-part television posts over the weekend, I'm afraid I have another one for you. I got a look at the new BBC "Sherlock," created by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Merchant, and it's definitely going to need more than one post to get my thoughts across. The short version: The series can best be described as three ninety-minute TV movies. The first and third are excellent. The second completely rubbed me the wrong way, to the point where I hope they sell these installments separately so I can avoid buying that one. I think it's only fair that I separate out my evaluation of the offending episode in its own separate post. But first, the good stuff.

I know he's a fictional character, but I feel oddly more secure knowing that Sherlock Holmes is back on the streets of London, with Dr. Watson at his side and the authorities trailing woefully far behind. "Sherlock" is a reimagining of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, which takes the the original plots and reworks them for the present day. The protagonists, likewise, are a mix of familiar details in a modern context. Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) is newly arrived in London after military service in Afghanistan, recovering from an injured leg, and looking for a roommate. He's introduced to Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), the world's first and only consulting detective, and is soon touring 221B Baker Street and assisting on Holmes' latest murder case.

Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes defines the show. A self-declared "high functioning sociopath," condescending and arrogant, Sherlock knows he's brilliant and makes sure that everyone around him knows it too. He's also completely lacking in social graces, and thinks nothing of using his deductive powers to reveal the details of other people's private lives right to their faces. Thus, at the start of the series he has no friends, no close personal relationships of any kind, and has alienated just about everyone on the police force. Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) only calls on his expertise out of desperation, and earns a torrent of jibes and insults from the detective for his reluctance. Idiocy annoys Sherlock, and to Sherlock everyone is an idiot. He could be a more misanthropic nephew of Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House, also a descendant of the original Holmes, or a meaner cousin to Dr. Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory."

I can't say enough about Cumberbatch's performance, which gives the obnoxious, charismatic young Holmes no obvious quirks, but nonetheless projects an air of remoteness and oddity. Visually, he's practically monochromatic, pale of complexion and always dressed in dark colors. One suspects he was not born, but activated. Or possible unearthed. His best moments come when he's caught up in the the chase, puzzling his way through clues, brain fully engaged and excited. In the heat of the moment he often thinks out loud, and so quickly that he sometimes won't bother explaining his epiphanies immediately. Holmes gets so singularly focused on solving mysteries, it's easy to see why everything else becomes of secondary importance. At least one character points out that his relationship to his work is that of an addict seeking his next fix. And as in the Doyle originals, Holmes also dallies in more traditional substance abuse.

Watson reacts the way the audience does, simultaneously impressed and taken aback, but mostly impressed. Holmes finds plenty of ways to be aggravating, but his exploits also provide Watson with much-needed intellectual stimulation and a way to ease back into civilian life. Watching their friendship form is a lot of fun, and Martin Freeman puts his comic talents to good use with baleful reactions and sputtering protestations in the face of Holmes' outrageous behavior. His Watson initially seems like such a mild-mannered pushover, it's easy to misjudge his true mettle. But as time wears on, he becomes less of an audience stand-in, and his own capacity for smarts and heroism begins to come through. Freeman and Cumberbatch are a great onscreen duo, bantering and bickering their way through dangers and doldrums with equal dexterity, and it's hard to imaging the show without either of them.

"Sherlock" is a very strong production all around. The writers are instrumental here, providing well-plotted stories and sharp dialogue. Unlike most police procedurals, the focus remains on the character interactions as opposed to the cases themselves. Holmes stays persistently uninvolved emotionally, caring only about the cold logic of the game, so there's not nearly as much of the filler that comes with guest stars and sensationalized crimes. The direction is on par, with little evidence of corner-cutting or compromised quality. A neat little trick is the superimposition of text and graphics on screen. Sometimes these are incoming text messages or E-mail exchanges received by one of the characters, which saves the actors the time and trouble of reading them aloud. In one scene, Holmes' thoughts pop up as he examines a corpse, giving us a glimpse into his deductive process and saving the audience from an onslaught of expository dialogue.

Speaking of texts and E-mails, sussing out the various ways that the duo's Victorian traits have been translated into modern day equivalents is a source of endless amusement. Holmes is never without his smart-phone and his preferred means of communication is by texting. His violin is the old-fashioned kind, but his pipe has been replaced with nicotine patches, and he dubs a vexing snag in a case "a three patch problem." Watson blogs his case write-ups instead of committing them to paper, and protests when strangers assume the co-habitating bachelors are a couple. This isn't the first adaptation to insinuate the potential pairing, but it is the first where it's presented as a perfectly acceptable, non-scandalous possibility. The show works perfectly well without knowing any of the references, but such solid knowledge of the source material is always a plus.

But for all the fuss over faithfulness, I think it's the show's willingness to take the characters in new directions that is its real strength. This version of Sherlock Holmes has a welcome dark side, even without the influence of the villainous forces lurking in the background. "Sherlock" works best as a character study of its title character, who is at least as fascinating and complex as any of the cases that he tackles. With Watson prodding him to embrace humanity and sinister forces taking an unhealthy interest in him, it'll be interesting to see what direction the character takes. I'm looking forward to the return of "Sherlock" in the future, which is all but assured from the boffo ratings its summer run garnered in the UK. However, I'm also worried that more episodes will mean a dilution of quality, and lead to more installments like the unfortunate second episode that I'll devote my next blog post to.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

2010 Emmys Liveblog II

Continued from previous post -

6:34 - I now fear the sound of that guitar. Here's the montage for variety and information programs. That one wasn't bad.

6:37 - Joel McHale and Jeff Probst presents Best Writer for Variety, Music or Comedy Special. Only one nominee-submitted intro and the rest are clips from the shows. Huh? Well, the guy who cared enough to send in a personal intro won. Good karma.

6:45 - I'm breaking out the Ben & Jerry's for the last hour. Gervais cometh! Gervais wants alcohol. Gervais *gets* alcohol!

6:46 - Best Direction for Variety, Music or Comedy Special goes to a man named Bucky Gunts who did the last Olympics.

6:51 - Best Variety, Music or Comedy Special Intros. Colbert wants a human centipede. Stewart is doing his Glenn Beck impression. What looks like a simple clip from Conan turns out to be masterful subversion. "The Daily Show" wins so we don't get to see any epic Conan shenanigans. Stewart's not here because he's sick. Ah.

6:56 - Boardwalk Empire looks amazing. There really is no line between the quality of movies and TV anymore. Hey, Kelly MacDonald and Steve Buscemi are in this!

6:59 - Clooney gets a Bob Hope Humanitarian award, and Julianna Margulies is here to say nice things about him. I tend to forget about Clooney's "ER" years and all his previous TV work. Wow, you have be a nice guy for a guy his age to get that kind of ovation. Great speech too. Ever think about going into politics, George?

7:04 - Here come the Miniseries and Movies montage. The hour is late indeed my friends. It feels like we've just switched channels to the Oscars. Let's see which stars actually showed up.

7:06 - John Krasinski bombs spectacularly at presenting. Did not catch co-presenter's name. Best Supporting Actress in Movie or Miniseries goes to Julia Ormond, who I continue to mix up with Juliette Binoche.

7:11 - I love the Community Infiniti promos. The use of cut-off music is inspired.

7:14 - Her comes Claire Danes to present Best Supporting Actor in Movie or Miniseries. David Strathairn wins. That's two for "Temple Grandin," and Strathairns is so not prepared for this. No reeling off names is a dead giveaway.

7:17 - No transition at all to Jewel's performance. She's backing the "In Memoriam" segment. Her yowling is really killing the mood this year. Good to see Captain Phil in the lineup. And I miss Dennis Hopper.

7:25 - Maura Tierney and Blair Underwood present Best Writing for Miniseries or Movie. No intros and very little banter or lead-ups for these categories, which is kind of a shame. These are really the indie and mid-range pictures that couldn't get the financing to be full-fledged theatrical feature films. With a little luck, many of these nominees would have been up for Oscars. "You Don't Know Jack" takes the writing prize.

7:27 - Best Actress, Miniseries or Movie, is Claire Danes for "Temple Grandin." I will continue to confuse her with Anna Paquin and hope she comes back to the movies someday - rather, that there's something worthwhile for her to come back to.

7:34 - The cast of "True Blood" presents Best Director, Miniseries or Movie. Emmy goes to "Temple Grandin." Spielbeg's "Pacific" is denied.

7:37 - Lead Actor, Miniseries or Movie, goes to Al Pacino! And he showed up! TV audiences didn't think they'd be getting a little Pacino tonight, but here he is! Hoo-ah!

7:40 - Hodgman just twittered that he was told to play it straight with Pacino's intro. You must publish the unused ones Sir!

7:41 - Chill passes through the room. Kevorkian appears.

7:41 - But I don't want an exclusive look at "The Event"! And of course it's exclusive! Your network is airing the darned thing!

7:45 - You lie, Dish Network. You could give us a la carte channel pricing if you wanted. Nobody says you can't. And if you did, maybe the Internet wouldn't be kicking your -

7:46 - Laurence Fishburne presents Best Miniseries Emmy to "The Pacific," which is suspiciously one of only two nominees in the category. Has some tragedy befallen the Halmi clan?

7:47 - Best Made-For-TV Movie Emmy goes to "Temple Grandin." The lady finally makes it up on the stage. And it's her birthday! Hey, David Strathairn, your producer is prepared for *her* speech!

7:50 - Fallon's real father, Tom Selleck, comes to present Best Drama. Fallon's going to hang on to that joke for a while. "Mad Men" wins again. Third time in a row, to the chagrin of Alessandra Stanley.

7:53 - Only one award left to go. Very proud of myself that I haven't misidentified Jimmy Fallon as Jimmy Kimmel once all evening.

7:56 - Ted Danson presents Best Comedy series. "Modern Family" wins! Crowd goes bananas. "Glee" tastes bitter defeat, though we all saw it coming.

7:59 - Betty White does not look pleased at Fallon's announcement of the after-party at her house. Silly Fallon, didn't you know it was invite-only?

8:00 - And we're done. Bryan Cranston and "Mad Men" won again. "Modern Family" beat out "30 Rock," and somehow Jim Parsons and Edie Falco sucker-punched the "30 Rock" cast. The Movies and mini-series categories still get no respect, and we were denied the glorious return of Conan O'Brien.

Next time, Emmys. Next time.

2010 Emmys Liveblog

Here we are again, for another Emmy Awards telecast. I can't help feeling a little bitter straight off, because I was Conan O'Brien had hosting duties the last two times NBC had the Emmys, and he was always fantastic. Were it not for the spectacular flameout earlier this year, he would be hosting again. Jimmy Fallon's got big shoes to fill.

Here we go:

5:00 - Opening sequence "Glee" parody is a little awkward, but the cameos are good. Oh, Betty White, you never get old. Fallon's singing on "Born to Run" is... unfortunate, but he's getting plenty of good support. Nice to see Time Gunn, Hurley, Jon Hamm, Tina Fey, and Joel McHale.

5:07 - Here comes the monologue. Acoustic guitar is a good sign. And not a minute in, we've got the Conan joke. Hello!

5:08 - The little song numbers for each Emmy category would have been a nice conceit if they were grouped together, but it just went straight into a comedy montage. Blah.

5:12 - First award presented by Betty White and Jon Hamm. Best Supporting Actor for Comedy is... Eric Stonestreet. First win for him and "Modern Family."

5:13 - Is that John Hodgman announcing? The deadpan intro is great. I hope this keeps up.

5:15 - Commercial break. Was that it for Fallon's monologue? It feels like he bailed awful quick there.

5:18 - It is John Hodgman! I wish he was hosting instead of Jimmy Fallow, who is relaying jokes from Twitter. Ehh.

5:19 - Sofia Vergara and Jim Parsons are presenting for Best Comedy Writing. I love the writing intros. "Modern Family" is two for two. Steve Levitan is an adorable man.

5:23 - Hooray, Stephen Colbert! No Jon Stewart this year? They usually have a double act. Oh well, he's presenting Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy. Jane Lynch! Jane Lynch! Yay! If "Glee" doesn't get anything else tonight, no big deal.

5:26 - They just lifted a sting from "Kill Bill." Which, now that I think about it, probably lifted it from something else.

5:31 - Well, Jimmy Fallon is trying. I'll give him that. Matthew Perry and Lauren Graham are up to introduce the winners of Best Guest Actors in Comedies - so they can introduce something else. Betty White and NPH win... and they're not presenting anything? Oh well.

Perry and Graham go on to present Best Comedy Direction. I love that they gave them the same chance to do intros the way the writers did. I love seeing the behind-the-camera getting more spotlight. And another win for "Glee"! Tied two and two with "Modern Family."

5:35 - Looks like a cross-over clip sketch with "Modern Family." Stewie drops in, rampant heterosexuality, and Clooney!! Fun bit of filler there.

5:37 - LL Cool J (whuh?) and Eva Longoria present Best Comedy Lead Actor - Jim Parsons won! Jim Parsons won! You heard Hodgman. Nerds, take to the streets!

5:44 - And we're back with NPH, who owns Fallon's sad attempt at ragging on him. He's also presenting Best Comedy Lead Actress. Edie Falco wins, ending Tina Fey's streak. Good for her. She tries to convince us she's not funny. Not working.

5:47 - Fallon's back with the guitar, which means we're in for another montage. Reality shows! The quality-to-crud ratio here is staggering, but enough good shows are around that I can't write it off wholesale.

5:49 - Will Arnett and Keri Russell present Best Reality Series - Top Chef wins! They just ended the insanely long "Amazing Race" streak! It's out with the old this year in practically every category.

5:56 - Hail Ernst & Young. Hallowed be thy name.

5:57 - Ooh, Julianna Margulies dissed Fallon. But it was planned. On with the drama montage. You know they mean business when they bring out the "Dragonheart" music. These montages are including all the right shows, but the footage choices are terrible.

6:00 - The Law & Order SVU leads are here to present Best Drama Writing. Fallon correctly observes that they saved NBC's 10PM timeslot. Suck it Leno! "Mad Men" wins, as expected. Will the proliferation of newbie winners be limited to the non-dramatic categories?

6:03 - Awkward cutoff there. On to Best Dramatic Supporting Actor - Aaron Paul wins! And he hugged Hodgman on the red carpet! Go "Breaking Bad"! Go!

6:09 - Should I be worried that they're leaning so heavily on Tweets? Here's Emily Deschanel and Nathan Fillion for Best Best Dramatic Supporting Actress. Archie Panjabi wins for "The Good Wife," a show I'm not familiar with. But Panjabi is gorgeous and articulate and awesome.

6:12 - Edie Falco presents Best Dramatic Actor - Cranston wins! I was rooting for Hall or Laurie since they're overdue for wins, but it's hard to argue with "Breaking Bad." And Cranston is such a wonderful presence, I can't say no to more of him.

6:19 - I'm really looking forward to "Undercovers." Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw present Guest Actor Emmys for Drama. John Lithgow and the glorious Ann-Margaret are the winners and here to present Best Director for Drama. Nice to see so many female nominees this year, but I'm glad "Dexter" won. The show does not get enough love.

Going to have to break for a second post soon.

6:23 - An In Memoriam segment for finished shows? Oh, Fallon's doing Elton John. Enough time has passed since we lost Princess Di that this isn't skeevey. And Fallon's vocal cords have warmed up. He sounds much better now.

Wait, no Heroes, Cold Case, Scrubs, or Tudors? Awww.

6:31 - Twitter intro is definitely getting old. Matthew Morrison and Tina Fey are up to present Best Actress in a Drama. Kyra Sedgwick wins! And I'm cutting off here for a new post.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Persons Unknown" Finale Liveblog II

Continued from the previous post:

9:00 - Oh crud, the Giants game is still pre-empting the finale on the San Francisco NBC affiliate. I'll be back as soon as this ends.

9:11 - Delay wasn't long at all. We're back in business!

9:12 - Mark and Janet backstory! Would have helped to see this a couple episodes earlier, but boy is it obvious why they didn't work out.

9:19 - Paco Ortiz! I mean, Carlos Lacamara as the clueless detective! Looks like this is going to be a coda episode rather than a big showdown finale.

9:22 - Erika and Moira are in Morocco. Erika rocks a headscarf. Moira does not.

9:24 - Charlie and Bill re-enact "Thelma and Louise," while Mark and Kat try to hitch-hike. Just leaves Graham and Joe unaccounted for.

9:28 - How old is this Fry's Electronics ad?

9:29 - Well Charlie and Bill didn't get far. Maybe Janet will have better luck re-enacting "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Oh wait, that one didn't end so well, did it?

9:32 - Aw, I really do like Lola Glaudini and Gerald Kyd in this.

9:33 - Kudos to the fact that Janet looks like hell as she's making her escape. Nobody should ever leave a hospital looking remotely normal.

9:38 - Has Janet been caught? Did she make this tape while still in the hospital before escaping? Oh, maybe this is faked to help the Program get into Joe's head.

9:39 - Heh.

9:42 - Of course Janet goes straight to Megan. And then, another commercial break. That was weirdly quick.

9:47 - Lucius Malfoy?! My god, it's Robert Picardo! He and Madame Director have an ominous exchange.

9:50 - And lest we forget, Janet's mother is in the pocket of the Project. Oh wait, we have a heel-face-turn. Yay!

9:52 - Kat meets Tori's father in one of those scary imprisonment scenarios that "The X-Files" used to do so well. Where's Mark?

9:56 - They've got Graham in the interrogation room where Joe was a few episodes back. Amnesia forthcoming maybe? Or are they setting him up as the next season's big bad? And how does Madame Director get around so fast, or are they just playing fast and loose with the timeline?

9:58 - Bill just slipped up. Looks like only the female characters actually got away, or in Janet's case are getting away.

10:01 - "I love you Mommy" is the first thing that comes out of the kid's mouth when she wakes up? Something is wrong with this girl. Super secret Project operative, maybe?

10:02 - And back where we started. Good use of music here.

10:05 - Joe, Janet, Moira, Erika, Charlie, Graham, Bill - gang's all here plus Mark and Kat and some new faces, but they're split up in different towns.

10:08 - Tori's the new night manager for Joe, Janet, Mark & Kat's group.

10:09 - The rest of our familiar cast is on "Level 2," a cargo ship heading out into stormy waters with Nick Fury.

Aw, I wish there was going to be a second season, but if NBC's scheduling insanity is any indication, the ratings are rocky and this is the end of the line. The finale did not disappoint, though I liked the first hour better than the second.

I'll be back tomorrow to liveblog the Emmys with Jimmy Fallon.

"Persons Unknown" Finale Liveblog

I've been following the NBC summer mystery series "Persons Unknown," all throughout its run, despite the erratic scheduling and meandering plot. I'm all caught up with the latest episodes, including the one that premiered online, and I'm ready for the two-hour finale tonight. As I expected from the first episode, this has turned out to be a pretty pedestrian show with the usual shadowy conspiracy organization responsible for everything. Still, it has a lot of actors I like and it's fun for summer TV.

I'll be liveblogging the last episodes as they air. I'm hoping for some surprises tonight.

8:00 - Thanks to the ballgame, looks like the first half will be airing on one NBC affiliate, and the second half on another.

8:03 - Liam, the replacement night watchman is having a nice little crisis of faith. His superior may be the least sinister supervillain lady ever.

8:05 - The Chinese restaurant is empty. Not such a horrible shock. If they'd been *closed* on a business day that would have been a reason to panic.

8:10 - A "Battle Royale" ending? They have to be teasing us.

8:12 - Janet's a much more tolerable character when every other line out of her mouth isn't about her daughter.

8:14 - The contact's name is Sherman Golightly. Only on television.

8:17 - Did Liam just explode? Looks like they cut something.

8:21 - Mark and Kat meet one of the guys who match the thumb they smuggled back into the country last week. I wonder what the viewers who didn't see the online episode think.

8:24 - Charlie and Bill's relationship is *way* more fun to speculate about than Graham and Moira's or Janet and Joe's. Of course, there's Erika and Janet...

8:25 - Of the heterosexual couplings, I go for Mark and Kat. At least they're functional.

8:26 - Ha! I've been waiting for Erika to do that since the episode where she first showed up.

8:28 - Charlie does not take Bill's removal well. Aw, no big epic, bromatic goodbye.

8:32 - Charlie looks the way I do when my heater's broken.

8:33 - Mark, Kat, stop bullying the docent. And what are they supposed to accomplish with all the taunting? I know the reaction of the Program directors is just supposed to be exposition, but it's so matter-of-fact, it's *hysterical.*

8:34 - Down goes Charlie. Somehow I don't think anyone has actually died yet. The manner of the deaths is way too ambiguous.

8:41 - And now Erika goes for the rebound with Moira. Wait, no time for romance - Moira's snapped. Wow!

8:44 - The new technicolor writing in Moira's room doesn't match the older, more orderly scribblings. Planted, maybe?

8:45 - Oh, I don't think Graham's walking away from that one. And then there were three.

8:51 - Down to two. And, alarm klaxons signal the arrival of - "Doctor Who" CGI effects!

8:53 - Watching Joe and Janet angst, now I'm a little pissed off that they demonized Moira in the end. She got to be a badass, but *still.*

8:54 - Joe reveals he's well and truly drunk the Kool-Aid. And now his nuzzling with Janet's just kinda creepy.

8:56 - Madame Director and Nick Fury arrive just in time to be utterly useless.

8:58 - Yay! Nobody's dead! And they also faked the lesbian kissing. Awww. But I take back everything about them demonizing Moira.

Back in a flash. Need to change the channel.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ready for Your Favorite Movie Part IV?

After a summer of slumping box office returns, disappointing reboots, and weak adaptations, several studios are falling back on one of the tried and true ways of sustaining a franchise: more sequels. In the past, it was the height of folly to make more than two sequels to any hit film unless you were churning out cheap horror flicks starring Freddy and Jason. Occasionally you had a Dirty Harry or a Captain Kirk who could get away with it, but poor Rocky Balboa couldn't. Pushing past "Part III" would sometimes pay off financially, but was almost always viewed as a blatant cash-grab or a sign of creative bankruptcy. Sometimes, the audience response was so dire to fourth installments, it ruined the reputations of whole franchises. Superman was burned in the 80s by "Quest for Peace," and Batman was a laughingstock in the 90s after "Batman and Robin."

And yet here we are, on the verge of a new year at the movies that will be filled with more sequels than ever, many of them on their fourth, fifth, or eighth installments. There are a few prequels and reboots to add some variation, but by and large it's a glut of traditional sequels that are going to be storming the screens. Just looking at fourth acts, 2011 will bring us "Scream 4," "Spy Kids 4" "Mission Impossible IV," "Twilight: Breaking Dawn," and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." The dangers of franchise fatigue are still alive and well, as many properties like "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" are going the reboot route after being brought low by disastrous sequels, but for the most part it seems that the old stigma against the once-dreaded "Part IV" has disappeared. How did this happen? What changed?

We need to go back to the beginning and suss out why filmmakers were expected to stop after the completion of a trilogy in the first place. When you look back over the history of film, there were plenty of properties that spawned more than two sequels. "The Gold Diggers of 1933" had four sequels and "The Thin Man" had five. During the 30s and 40s, Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan headlined film series with at least a dozen entries each, even if you only count the ones that had the same actors in the title roles. After the advent of television, the demand for multi-part adventure serials and the more mundane film series like "Blondie" and "Dr. Kildare" died away, but you still saw the emergence of properties like "The Pink Panther" and "The Three Stooges" that would come around every year or two. James Bond, one of the greatest perennials in movie history, has racked up twenty-two films and is still going strong.

The emergence of the trilogy as the standard length for a film series by the 80s came from the combination of a lot of different factors, but it really boiled down to successive sequels becoming associated with drops in quality and drops in box office numbers. Studios became more risk averse as film productions became more expensive. That's why, when a second or third sequel was badly received, the studios were quicker to pull the plug on franchises. Directors also had an easier time sustaining quality over three films rather than four or five, often modeling their narratives after the traditional structure of a three-act play, so the trilogy really became a storytelling unit in and of itself. More highbrow auteurs like Satyajit Ray and Michaelangelo Antonioni were associated with famous trilogies, and a string of massively popular blockbuster trilogies like "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones," and "Back to the Future," also helped to make three movies the default.

When you look at the proliferation of "Part IV" or higher numbered franchise films coming out now, it's because the cinema culture has changed again. Studios are more risk averse than ever, but the pendulum has swung back the other way. Having built their business around franchises and brands, and faced with the uncertainty of investing in original material, the appeal of making a fourth "Bourne" or "Ice Age" movie becomes obvious. Franchises offer a certain amount of security to studios, who are always looking for their next dependable revenue stream. But with so many would-be franchise starters like "Prince of Persia" and "The Last Airbender" bombing this year, many have opted to go back to material that has been proven to work, though they run the risk that the audience may lose interest and leave them in the lurch.

Higher numbered sequels are still associated with worse quality, but not always. Series like "Harry Potter" and "Narnia" have source material that runs longer than three installments, so it makes sense to have additional movies. In other cases, plots have become less serialized and more episodic so franchises are less dependent on specific writers or directors staying for the duration. The past few years have proved that audiences are willing to put down money for sequels that everyone acknowledges are only mediocre. The fourth "Indiana Jones," "Terminator," and "Die Hard" films all did well at the box office. The fourth "Fast and the Furious" was a surprise hit last spring, outgrossing all of the prior sequels despite lousy reviews. This year's "Shrek Forever After," however, didn't come close to the totals of "Shrek 2" or "Shrek 3" and will be the last "Shrek" film.

The age of the endless sequels appears to be upon us in full force, and isn't going away in the foreseeable future. However, cinephiles can take comfort knowing that titles appended with "Part IV" are now as likely to be expensive blockbusters as they are to be bargain-basement, straight-to-video dreck. And far from being some new, alarming development, this can easily be seen as a return to an older age when a sixth or seventh sequel wasn't such a sign of notoriety. Heck, I'm looking forward to the last "Harry Potter" movies myself. If a franchise can maintain that level quality over so many movies, then as far as I'm concerned it can go on for as long as it likes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sympathizing With "Lady Vengeance"

I admit that I have trouble with many Asian films, which is ironic because I'm Asian-American myself. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I haven't been exposed to much Asian popular culture. Sure, I like my period dramas and think inappropriate thoughts about Nicholas Tse and Takeshi Kaneshiro, but I don't engage with the Asian media to nearly the same degree, and hardly anything outside of anime, art house cinema, and Hong Kong gangster films. So when watching the first two installments of South Korean director Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and "Oldboy," I was thrown off by the style and tone of the films.

Gory violence was mixed with domestic melodrama, the hardest crimes fueled by the tenderest fuzzy feelings of love and parenthood. Innocence was mercilessly squashed, yet good intentions and strength of feeling seemed to count for everything. The characters were often wildly emotional, breaking down in tears or throwing over-the-top tantrums at the slightest provocation. And yet they were strangely stoic or unmoved in other situations where I would have expected a reaction. I spent a lot of time just trying to nail down what constituted a normal emotional state, so I could have some baseline reference to compare to. And this isn't even getting into the more typical cultural differences, like "Oldboy" taking for granted that everyone believes in the effectiveness of hypnotism, to the extent that its infallibility is a major plot point in the film.

So when I say I liked "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance," the last installment of the Vengeance Trilogy, better than the previous two, it comes with a great big asterisk, for my own cultural disconnect with the material. "Lady Vengeance" is the most straightforward of Park's tales of revenge, its characters display the least amount of confusing behavior, and thanks to its comparatively happy ending, it's more of a crowd-pleaser. I also finally realized, about halfway through the film, how much dark and deadpan humor Park used in his work. I know a lot of the laugh lines in "Mr. Vengeance" and "Oldboy" must have gone over my head, and now I want to go back and try to figure out what I missed. Cross-cultural communication issues even arise in the story, as the heroine reunites with a teenage daughter raised by Westerners, forcing her to simplify and spell out her thoughts and actions in ways that are more universal and transcendent.

Like the other films in the Vengeance Trilogy, "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" examines cycles of revenge, parent-child relationships, the effects of extended incarceration, social disconnection, and the unintended consequences of seemingly innocuous acts. "Lady Vengeance" also deals heavily with themes of redemption, forgiveness, and atonement. Our heroine is a woman named Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Young Ae) who has just been released from prison after serving thirteen years for the kidnapping and murder of a five-year-old boy. Her case was a media sensation, because she was only nineteen when convicted, and Geum-Ja cultivated a reputation for being a kind-hearted, angelic figure in prison, though not above using extreme measures to deal with problematic fellow inmates. Upon her release, however, she drops the facade, puts on blood-red eyeshadow, and starts calling in favors. Geum-Ja is out for revenge.

Eventually, we learn the target of her ire is Mr. Baek (Choi Min-Sik), though I won't reveal the nature of their relationship because of potential spoilers. The lead-up to their confrontation is lengthy, and Geum-Ja first makes a detour to Australia to track down the baby she gave up for adoption, now a plucky teenager named Jenny (Kwon Yea-Young). Despite not speaking a word of Korean, Jenny follows Geum-Ja back to South Korea, insistent on learning why her mother abandoned her. The girl's presence lingers at the edge of the audience's consciousness and Geum-Ja's as the narrative becomes darker and bloodier, its early prevalence of warm pastel colors giving way to a monochromatic chill. In the end, the connection between mother and daughter seems the only thing keeping Geum-Ja from becoming a real monster, though it also spurs one of the most truly spectacular and satisfying revenges I've ever seen onscreen.

"Lady Vengeance" surprised me in a lot of ways, not only for its inventive story, but for its oddly lighthearted tone. I had been steeling myself for an especially brutal slasher flick after hearing about some of the more violent bits, but I needn't have worried. There is some explicit violence, but it's brief and often presented in an unexpected way. The blood-letting itself is never played for laughs, but the circumstances around it often are. There's a brilliant sequence during the Grand Guginol finale where a group of nervous killers are making small-talk together, revealing class divisions and family insecurities. The situation is terribly serious, but the director keeps slipping in odd reaction shots and incongruous bits of normality that just left me smiling in spite of myself. He winds up subverting the whole notion of revenge, showing the smallness and the silliness of his would-be avenging angels, even as he feeds the audience's bloodlust.

Keeping the whole venture from becoming a farce is the excellent performance of Lee Young Ae as Geum-Ja, whose melancholy yearning for redemption provides the film with a depth of sentiment that is very affecting. When all of the character's masks and pretenses are finally stripped away, we're left with a woman who is truly sorry for what she's done and who is deserving of our sympathies. I'm still not sure if Park Chan-Wook made a better film, or if I finally got used to the way he makes them, but "Lady Vengeance" was a great experience and it's certainly my favorite of his trilogy. I think it might even be my favorite South Korean film, not that I've seen very many. But at least now I have a better baseline for comparison.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sayonara, Satoshi Kon


I generally try to space out my posts about animation, one of my favorite subjects, for fear of narrowing the scope of this blog too much. I posted about the rumored similarities between the anime "Perfect Blue" and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" just two days ago, but I need to break the rule now. We just lost a major talent in the animation world. Satoshi Kon, the writer and director of the anime films "Perfect Blue" (1996), "Millennium Actress" (2001), "Tokyo Godfathers" (2003), "Paprika" (2006), the upcoming "The Dream Machine" (2011) and the television series "Paranoia Agent" (2004) passed away yesterday at the age of 46. His death was sudden, and details are still forthcoming, but he apparently lost a battle with cancer that few of his fans were aware of.

Satoshi Kon was one of the animation greats despite his relatively young age. He's not as well known as Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki, but he's easily as important. Kon had a singular, instantly recognizable visual style that had greater verisimilitude than most of his contemporaries. This allowed him to tackle dramatic stories grounded in the real world that were rarely done in animation. Many of his films like "Perfect Blue" and "Tokyo Godfathers" could have been made in live action, but the fact that they were animated allowed him to blur realities within his narratives, and include fantasy elements with a seamlessness that would be impossible in live action. "Millennium Actress" followed a celebrated actress from her schoolgirl days to old age, every stage of her life perfectly brought to the screen without the distracting complications of make-up and CGI. He used animation in ways that no one else did, told stories with it in ways that no one else had tried, often with magnificent results.


One of the hallmarks of his stories was the use of ambiguous and shifting frames of reference. One of his lovely heroines might appear in her childhood home, and then open a door and walk out into a movie studio, revealing everything we saw was on a film set. Or physically revisit old memories by walking into different rooms to join the tableaux of the past within, moving from one to another at will. Or have conversations with a doppelganger projection of herself that represented an earlier persona. Or drop an assumed identity by literally shedding it like a snake skin. Technically, he worked at a level equal to any live action filmmaker you could name, and his penchant for reality-bending brought comparisons to the films of Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, and others who took on similar material. I still can't find a credible source for the claim that Aronofsky bought the remake rights for "Perfect Blue" so he could recreate a sequence in "Requiem for a Dream," but I wouldn't be surprised if he had.

Kon's biggest accomplishment was that he succeeded in bringing anime down to earth in a way that made it accessible to non-anime fans, especially grown-ups. Even in his wildest flights of fancy, such as the dream-hopping fantasia of "Paprika," his characters always looked and behaved like regular human beings, with a certain real-world gravity about them. The stylistic excesses often associated with anime were almost wholly absent from his earlier features, and often satirized in his later work. He explored multiple genres, including comedy in "Tokyo Godfathers," a murder mystery in "Perfect Blue," romance in "Millennium Actress," science-fiction in "Paprika," and blended all of them and more for the various installments of "Paranoia Agent." As Kon racked up festival awards and heaps of good press, larger studios like Dreamworks and Sony took notice and distributed several of his films in the US as serious prestige pictures, a rare distinction for anime. He was one of the very few animation directors who truly transcended his chosen medium.


Ironically his unfinished "The Dream Machine" would have been his first children's film, and the first to star non-human characters. He described it in interviews as a fantasy-adventure road movie about robots. At the time of writing, there is no word from Madhouse, the studio where Kon made all his pictures, when or if "Dream Machine" will be completed. The abruptness of Kon's departure may leave the film in limbo, and underscores the bitterness of the anime community's loss. Kon's legacy is assured with the work he leaves behind, but his career was all too brief. His directorial debut, "Perfect Blue," was only fifteen years ago. It's hard not to wonder what other genre-bending, boundary-pushing wonders Kon might have produced if he'd had another fifteen years, or even five.

But there's no use dwelling on what might have been. Satoshi Kon left us with four feature films, another in progress, thirteen episodes of "Paranoia Agent," assorted shorts, and some notable contributions to other projects, including the script for the "Magnetic Rose" segment of the criminally underseen 1995 anthology feature "Memories." My favorite, and the one I can't help thinking of now, is the eighth episode of "Paranoia Agent," titled "Happy Family Planning." A very black comedy, it follows three people who are determined to commit suicide together, but keep being foiled in their attempts. I enjoyed it for its absurdity and dark humor, but I also liked how Kon treated the subject of death, as something natural and eventual and maybe not such a big deal in the end. Death brings three lonely strangers together, and I hope it might help to bring Satoshi Kon's work to greater prominence. Too few people know him and the anime he created.

They don't know what we've just lost.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How Was Your Summer at the Movies?

We've been hearing about the disappointing summer blockbuster season since early May, practically since the first weekend that "Iron Man 2" underperformed at the box office and set off a round of speculation. Industry commentators grew louder in their consternation in the following weeks, as expensive tentpole pictures collapsed left and right, including "Robin Hood" and "Prince of Persia," which was supposed to launch a new action-adventure franchise for Disney. Even smaller films like "Get Him to the Greek" failed to find much traction. It wasn't until the middle of June that we had a film that exceeded expectations, when "The Karate Kid" reboot outpaced "The A-Team."

Everybody has a theory as to why the returns have been so lackluster. Was the slow summer a self-fulfilling prophecy? Some analysts were grumbling long in advance over the lack of major franchise installments like a new "Batman" or a new "Harry Potter" to provide strong anchors for the season, though there were plenty of sequels and remakes and reboots for audiences seeking familiarity. Others complained that more traditional, male-friendly action films were MIA, though both "The A-Team" and "Predators" floundered before "The Expendables" hit the mark. Are superheroes losing their shine? Not according to "Iron Man 2," which ended up pulling comparable numbers to the first "Iron Man."

A few people brought out the quality argument, suggesting that viewers were put off, because this year's crop of films just weren't as good as the ones in years past. This is a tempting position to take, but one that ultimately doesn't hold up either. Before I explain why, I have to caution that comparing films based on quality is always a dicey proposition, because personal preferences play such a big role in these evaluations. I can only go by my own viewing experiences, so all the usual caveats about me being a pretentious, elitist, Adam Sandler-snubbing film snob apply here. However, I'll be setting aside the art house and indie titles for now, as they aren't marketed or distributed like mainstream films, and the measures of success are very different.

Let's take a look a how the summer films of 2010 measured up. So far, the ones I thought were worth the price of admission include "Toy Story 3," "Inception," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "Predators," "Splice," and "Salt." I moderately enjoyed "Iron Man 2," "Shrek Forever After," and "The A-Team." "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "The Expendables" were notable failures, and I have no plans to see "Robin Hood," "The Last Airbender," "Eclipse," "Grown Ups," or "Sex and the City 2." Also, there are still quite a few titles that I need to catch up with like "Despicable Me," "Knight and Day," "Prince of Persia," and "The Karate Kid."

Now compare to 2009. I liked "Star Trek," "Angels & Demons," "Terminator: Salvation" "Up," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," and "District 9." Among the disappointments were "Public Enemies," "Brüno," and "Wolverine." I expected "Night at the Museum 2" and "Ice Age 3" to be underwhelming, and they were, but I moderately enjoyed "Julie & Julia," "The Proposal," and "Inglorious Basterds." As for "G.I. Joe" and "The Hangover," the less said the better. "Transformers 2," "Land of the Lost," "Year One," and "Funny People"? I can wait for those to hit basic cable or simply ignore the fact that they exist.

There isn't much difference here in the proportion of good and bad films. However, there are some major differences when you start comparing the budgets and box office totals. All the summer films I really enjoyed in 2009 were big tentpole pictures that did well at the box office and were largely expected to do well. "District 9" was a surprise hit, but one that was made for so little money, it would have earned profits regardless. This year is very different. Half of the films I liked were modestly budgeted pictures that bombed at the box office regardless - "Splice," "Scott Pilgrim," and "Predators" - while there was considerable uncertainty about the money-making potential of "Inception" and "Salt" a few months ago.

Notably missing are the more traditional big-budget spectaculars like the Jerry Bruckheimer movies and franchise flicks, films considered sure bets by the studios, which is why they get those bigger production budgets. Four of my 2009 favorites were sequels or reboots from big franchises, while there was only one that made my 2010 list, "Toy Story 3." ("Predators" was more throwback than sequel.) This matches what happened at the box office, where the cost of a film and the size of its advertising push turned out to have no correlation to how well it actually performed. We always have a big flop or two every year - "Speed Racer" in 2008, and "Land of the Lost" in 2009 - but this time there were at least half a dozen major would-be blockbusters that failed to connect with their intended audiences, and at least as many mid-size flops too.

This bumpy summer movie season is really due to the unpredictability of the summer audiences, not across-the-board failures. I think that's what has Hollywood spooked. Industry expectations were the greatest casualty here. Sequels did not outperform their previous franchise installments. 3D surcharges did not rescue such ill-conceived projects as "The Last Airbender." Massive hype and marketing dollars did not translate into bigger box office receipts. And some of the most dependable filmmakers like Jerry Bruckheimer were shunned, while Sylvester Stallone is having his best showing in ages. All the conventional wisdom about how audiences should behave has gone right out the window.

It's almost impossible to point to any emerging trends being responsible. Are audiences seeking out smarter material? "Inception" was the film of the summer, but viewers also flocked to "The Expendables," "Grown Ups" and "Vampires Suck." Are female filmgoers gaining power and influence? "Sex and the City 2" and "The Switch" crashed while "Eclipse" and "Eat, Pray, Love" hit the jackpot. Do viewers want more originality? What even counts as originality anymore? Mixed messages abound, leaving no easy answers. The only films that have performed consistently well have been the animated ones, suggesting that family films may be getting a lot more love in the future while geek-centric cinema is on its way out the door.

If I have to single out any one factor for exacerbating this situation, though, I'd have to go with a very basic, commonly overlooked element that has nothing to do with the content of the films: the marketing. Never have I seen a year of worse movie trailers and ads - generic, bland, dull, and unoriginal. Some were too niche, like the ones for "Scott Pilgrim," some were too broad, like the "Prince of Persia" trailers that tried to draw in everybody, but attracted nobody, and some were just plain terrible, like the ads for "The Expendables," that were outdone by a lone mash-up artist on Youtube. It may be telling that I can't think of any notable ads for this year's box office bombs.

Good ad campaigns are still worth the money, and this year they helped "The Last Airbender" recoup most of its budget, despite one of the worst critical drubbings all year, and ensured that discerning audiences gave "Inception" a chance. In a lot of cases, I suspect good films were overlooked because they weren't properly marketed. It only felt like the quality dipped this summer because nobody seemed to be watching the good stuff. There's no excuse for a solid action film like "Predators" failing to find an audience while dreck like "The Expendables" is rolling in dough. Word of mouth can save the day, but it usually needs a lot of help.

In the end, I had a good summer - as good as any other summer anyway - and I look forward to the fall and beyond. But as I predicted back in May, a lot of the fun just came from watching the box office returns roll in and seeing Hollywood lose its mind over the numbers every week. Next year should be more predictable, with a glut of familiar titles like "Harry Potter," "Transformers," "X-Men," and "Pirates of the Caribbean" coming our way. But I prefer a year like this, where at least there's more of a chance for surprises.

Until next time!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Didn't I See That in an Anime?

With the release of the trailer for "Black Swan" there have been a few rumors circulating that the new Darren Aronofsky drama is an unofficial remake of the 1998 anime thriller, "Perfect Blue," directed by Satoshi Kon. Though "Black Swan" concerns ballerinas and "Perfect Blue" followed the career transition of a pop star to an actress, some of the imagery is similar. Aronofsky may or may not own the remake rights to "Perfect Blue," supposedly bought for sum of $59,000 back in the 90s. This claim has been repeated all over the Internet but can be tied to no specific source. The best argument for Aronofsky being aware of the anime, however, would be the bathtub scene from Aronofsky's earlier thriller "Requiem for a Dream," which Youtube videos reveal is awfully close to a sequence in "Perfect Blue."

This is only the latest claim of Hollywood creative types secretly referencing or outright lifting elements from Japanese animation. Countless hours have been spent by fans to compile the evidence showing suspicious similarlities between Disney's "The Lion King" and Osamu Tezuka's "Jungle Emperor," better known as "Kimba the White Lion." Or between "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and GAINAX's "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water." Or between the "Firefly" pilot and "Outlaw Star." Or No Doubt's "Ex-Girlfriend" music video and "A Kite." This year's "Inception" has prompted comparisons to another Satoshi Kon anime, "Paprika," for its dream-manipulation plot and an action sequence involving a hallway. In a few cases, the creators have admitted the influences. The Wachowski brothers famously borrowed imagery from the cyberpunk classic "Ghost in the Shell" for "The Matrix."

While some of these claims may have merit, most do not, or involve such trivial minutiae that there seems to be no point in obsessing over them. Yet the rumors and urban legends persist, year after year, even long after the accused offenders have faded out of the mainstream consciousness. Why they persist is a more interesting question to examine, that really ties into the nature of the Western anime fandom and how it relates to the broader popular culture. Millions grew up with English localizations of "Astro Boy" and "Speed Racer" in the 60s, "Robotech" and "Voltron" in the 80s, and "Pokemon" and "Sailor Moon" in the 90s. However, anime remained very niche until Gen Y and the Millennials started taking an interest and the industry experienced an unprecedented boom roughly ten years ago.

Younger fans won't remember the mainstream's generally unfriendly attitude toward Japanese animation in the 80s and 90s, when anime was assumed to be either kiddie pablum or degenerate pornography. The cult success of ambitious films like "Akira" and "Ghost in the Shell" created a small, passionate fanbase for adult animation, which was often wrongly lumped in with the perverts. Animation was viewed as a children's medium in the West for decades, a view that's still tightly held by much of the American public, and many found it impossible to take the notion of a real, dramatic animated film for grown-ups seriously. The frustrations of dealing with these attitudes and the struggles to gain recognition for the medium as legitimate art created an us-versus-them mentality with many anime fans that persists to this day.

Being an anime fan doesn't have the same stigma anymore, with so many teenagers reading "Death Note" manga and watching episodes of "Fullmetal Alchemist." It's no longer social suicide to admit a yen for the genre, as popular directors like the Wachowskis and Quentin Tarantino have openly embraced and encouraged others to seek out specific titles. In fact, due to the rise in interest, Hollywood has snapped up dozens of anime properties, including "Ghost in the Shell," "Robotech," "Akira," and "Death Note," to be developed into feature films, though almost none have found their way out of development limbo. However, more adult-oriented fare still raises eyebrows, and the old-school fandom remains very niche. It's this atmosphere of quasi-acceptance while remaining on the fringes that allows the rip-off rumors to proliferate.

Typically, the genesis goes something like this. Anime fans will spot something in a mainstream that looks like it's been borrowed from an anime, and assume that the director lifted it without attribution because the original material's obscurity would allow them to get away with it. In many cases, such as the proposed connection between "Atlantis" and "Nadia," the creators won't even have heard of the anime involved, and so don't bother to address any of the speculations. The lack of response just cements the idea that something fishy is going on, which spurs even more speculation. The issue isn't so much that an anime has been referenced or borrowed from, as much as it's about getting acknowledgment from the mainstream that anime was an influence. It's another variant of the same fight for recognition and legitimacy that anime fans have fought for years.

"Black Swan" very well may have borrowed a few shots from "Perfect Blue," but movies borrow shots from each other all the time. Sometimes they're meant to be little references, and sometimes they're done without the director even realizing it. The famous closing shot of "The Searchers" has been borrowed countless times for "The Devil's Backbone," "Inglorious Basterds," and cheesy Dolph Lundgren movies without any such complaints. But the difference is that everyone knows and reveres "The Searchers" in cinematic circles. The fixation by anime fans on directors possibly borrowing from anime is because the originals, in their eyes, get no respect. It's the same sort of grudge that foreign film fans nurse when remakes of their favorites gain success while the older versions still languish in obscurity.

And once in a while, the fans are vindicated. Gene Simmons' son Nick, a would-be comic book scribe, was caught lifting poses, panels, and entire layouts for his new comic from the popular manga, "Bleach," by an enterprising group of online manga fans a few months ago. Faced with mountains of evidence and a storm of controversy, Simmons' publisher pulled the offending books. I highly doubt that Darren Aronofsky needs to worry about this kind of reaction, even if "Black Swan" does take more than a few shots from Satoshi Kon's work, because even a cursory glance at the trailer shows the story takes place in a very different world from the animated landscapes of "Perfect Blue," and Aronofsky is a good enough director that any references would likely be seen as - and meant as - homages.

But if he did borrow a few things, it's best to acknowledge it up front and quickly - or the anime fans will never let him hear the end of it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"The Expendables" Expends Little Effort

Hey look! Sylvester Stallone is in the same scene as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis! Jet Li is fighting Dolph Lundgren! Mickey Rourke and Jason Statham are throwing knives together! And they gave Terry Crews a really big gun!

The only thing that can really be said for "The Expendables," the new action film patterned after the action spectaculars of the 80s is that it is exceptionally well cast. The gimmick is that you have a collection of famous 80s and 90s action stars together in the same film, along with a couple of the wrestling world's finest and a former member of the NFL. Massive quantities of testosterone are presented on the screen, but unfortunately much of it goes to waste. I've heard fretting that director Sylvester Stallone was unable to secure the appearances of even more older stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, but it's hard to imagine that it would have been worth their time.

"The Expendables" follows a group of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Steven Stallone), who take on dirty jobs that require mowing down countless numbers of people with machine guns, blowing up buildings, and elaborately choreographed hand-to-hand combat. Each member of the team gets a few defining characteristics, but are otherwise dependent of the screen personas of the stars portraying them. Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) throws knives and bickers with Ross about women and getting old. He's the only one who gets a whole subplot to himself, trying to woo back an unfaithful girlfriend, Lacy (Charisma Carpenter). Yin Yang (Jet Li) has insecurities about his height and keeps angling for a pay raise. Toll Road (Randy Couture) is a demolition expert who sees a therapist. Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) likes firearms an awful lot.

The crew is hired to disrupt the drug operations of an oily businessman, James Munroe (Eric Roberts), and a corrupt general named Garza (David Zayas), who control the small island nation of Vilena and bring its inhabitants much misery and woe. The only thing in Vilena Ross thinks is worth saving, of course, is their lovely guide Sandra (Gisele Itié). As an added complication, Munroe and Garza also hire Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), a former member of Ross's team who we see being let go for excessive brutality in the opening scenes. And that's really all there is to the story. The much-hyped appearances of Willis and Schwarzenegger are limited to a single non-combat scene that lasts all of five minutes. Mickey Rourke plays a tattoo artist guru character, still sporting the same hair from "Iron Man 2," and stays firmly on the sidelines too.

There is nothing in "The Expendables" that we haven't seen done better in any number of similar action films over the years, and it's disappointing to see such a promising team-up of talented actors amount to so little. Stallone seems to want to address more timely themes, including scenes of Somali pirates, a prisoner being waterboarded, and extensive dialogue about battlefield regrets, but none of it ever goes anywhere. The writing is very sub-par, with only Ross's and Statham's characters enjoying any sort of development, and even then it's only perfunctory. With the mix of heavy accents in the cast, however, this was probably a necessity. Nonetheless the villains are bland, all the secondary characters are underused – Steve Austin barely registers as one of the baddies' minions – and most surprisingly, the action scenes are severely underwhelming.

Poorly shot, poorly lit, and difficult to follow, the fight and chase sequences are terrible. Thus the movie fails to deliver on the single most important element that could have made up for all the other deficiencies. There are the requisite explosions of ridiculous size, the weaponry overkill, and the shots of our heroes posing in badass fashion. But when it comes down to it, the only people doing anything interesting onscreen are Jason Statham and Jet Li, who are the two proven action stars still young enough to get into serious fisticuffs without hurting themselves. The credits reveal that Li brought his own fight team and choreographer, though he ends up getting rescued from most of his fights by others. With so many characters to juggle, I guess someone had to play the low man on the totem pole, and it was probably safer to have it be someone who could still take a hit.

There are some pleasures to be had from seeing "The Expendables." The nostalgia factor is very, very high, and it's wonderful to see older stars like Dolph Ludgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger onscreen again. Stallone, however, acquitted himself better in both the latest "Rocky" and "Rambo" films, leaving his role in "The Expendables" feeling extraneous, like a failed revisit to one of his other, more obscure 80s film heroes. The rest of the cast have plenty of better credits to their names, and the team-ups and match-ups between them are brief and unremarkable. Only Li's fights with Lundgren and Statham are any fun, and they're not worth sitting through the entirety of "The Expendables" to see.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Did We Need Another "Nanny McPhee"?

The first "Nanny McPhee," which came out in 2005, almost felt like a throwback to the children's movies of the 80s and 90s. It was a smaller film, free of excessive CGI, toilet humor, and featured children facing problems grown-ups might find insurmountable. There were some sillier touches, like food fights and garish costuming, but not so much that they overwhelmed the story's oddball charms. "Nanny McPhee Returns," on the other hand, falls prey to many of the traps the original successfully avoided.

Emma Thompson returns as Nanny McPhee, the world's homeliest nanny, this time to the farm of Mrs. Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her three children Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer). The father is away at war and hasn't written in a long time, money is so tight Mrs. Green might not be able to make the tractor payments, and their debt-ridden Uncle Phil (Rhys Ifans) is determined to sell the farm from under them. To add to the chaos, the Greens' snooty city cousins, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), are sent by their parents to stay at the farm for an indeterminate period of time. The children hate each other immediately, resulting in predictable rounds of fistfighting and hair-pulling.

When Nanny McPhee shows up at their door, explaining to the frazzled Mrs. Green that she's been sent by the army, the movie falls back on the familiar formula. Nanny and her magic walking stick turn the children's misbehavior against themselves, and every time they learn one of her lessons, she looks less and less grotesque. The children actually learn to get along fairly quickly, so the bulk of the movie's running time is spent dealing with subplots like Uncle Phil's scheming and an impromptu trip to London. The plot turns into a jumble of different odds and ends that don't all mesh together quite right, capped off by an ending that literally comes out of nowhere.

The biggest problem here is wild swings in tone, where scenes of slapstick humor will be followed by the mother's languorous, melancholy flashbacks. The use of CGI effects and rude humor is much more pronounced than we saw in the first film, with scenes of piglets doing synchronized swimming and many of the early jokes involving copious amounts of mud and dung. Nanny McPhee also has an animal sidekick for this outing, a bird named Mr. Edelweiss with flatulence issues. Anyone who sees many children's films knows knows it's par for the course, but "Nanny McPhee" was so good about avoiding this kind of extraneous nonsense in the past, it's disappointing to see how much finds its way into the sequel.

Still, the movie deserves kudos for its willingness to put the young heroes in difficult situations and subverting some of the usual kiddie film tropes. Pompous, stocky Cyril and shoe-obsessed Celia are outrageous caricatures at first glance, and would have been villains in a lesser movie. Here their faults are gradually revealed to be the symptoms of serious troubles, and they're allowed to show their bravery and smarts alongside their scrappier cousins. The Greens' missing father, played by an almost unrecognizable Ewan MacGregor, inspires a lot of angst among his brood, and the film doesn't shy away from making his possible demise a major component of the story. But any seriousness is constantly upended by farce and spectacle, so the proceedings are far from glum.

The cast is easily the film's biggest asset. The first "Nanny McPhee" had one sterling child actor. The sequel boasts at least three - Butterfield, Vlahos, and Taylor-Ritson. Maggie Gyllenhaal keeps up a credible British accent while gaining our sympathies as the overwhelmed young mother. Rhys Ifans is a lot of fun as the dastardly, yet pathetic Uncle Phil. Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, and a few other stars also show up for good-natured cameos. As for Emma Thompson, her Nanny isn't nearly as stern or sinister as she was before, her most cutting barbs reserved for Mr. Edelweiss. She also keeps running into former charges during the course of the story, which undercuts some of her appealing oddity.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is not a bad little film, especially if you need something to amuse the kids with, but it provides nothing new, little that's memorable, and it's not as good as the first one. But there have been far worse sequels, and there's less objectionable material to be found here than in most other comparable kids' films. A third "Nanny McPhee" is reportedly already in the works. Hopefully, it'll be a stronger piece of work than this one. We get a glimpse of Thompson's Nanny free of all her snaggle teeth and moles at the end of the film, but the payoff feels perfunctory this time, part of a formula that's already worn thin. And it's something of a relief to see her go.

Friday, August 20, 2010

After "At the Movies"

This Sunday evening at 6:30PM, I will sit and scowl at my television set, thinking nasty thoughts at Buena Vista for canceling "At the Movies," which was better known in the 80s and 90s as "Siskel & Ebert," the syndicated movie review program that was largely responsible for turning me into the movie geek that I am today. The last episode aired this past weekend, with the back half devoted to the show's history, including clips of the various reviewers who had a seat in the balcony over the years, and even a final playthrough of the old theme song.

A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, who valiantly tried to reverse the deterioration of the program this past year, expressed gratitude and optimism during their exit. In the final segment of the show, they took a few minutes to discuss the state of film criticism. I was very glad that Scott addressed and refuted the complaints about the new breed of Internet-based critics, who some have blamed for the recent downturn in the fortunes of traditional print and television critics. As Scott and Phillips said their too-soon goodbyes, one question lingered in my head, and not the one that I expected.

"At the Movies" no longer fits so well into the media landscape, and can no longer attract the viewership it once enjoyed or command the attention and clout it once had. It has been a very, very long time since I've seen a movie ad with the once common "Two thumbs up!" designation. I'm still trying to work out *why.* The most obvious reason is the loss of the original reviewers who were once synonymous with the show, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. And yet, I think that this is only part of the reason. The entire format of "At the Movies" feels out of date, and I think the show would have seen inevitable declines even with Ebert still at the helm.

One point that that stuck with me was when Scott brought up that "At the Movies" had been initially derided by certain members of the film criticism community for being reductive with its "thumbs" system. I never found the show reductive at all, even after I started reading print critics regularly, but I often wished the discussions weren't so brief. Of course there's nothing wrong with brief. Roger Ebert's online reviews tend to be roughly 650 words apiece. David Denby requires less than half of that to pronounce judgement on a film in the "New Yorker." It doesn't take much to get an opinion across when you know what you're doing.

But the arguments and the interplay between the critics is something that I think needs more space. And when the discussions gets bigger, and you want to talk about audience reactions or comment on cultural context or simply address other arguments, a six-minute segment just isn't going to cut it. To talk about multiple issues surrounding this summer's "Inception," Phillips and Scott devoted two "web exclusive" segments to the movie, in addition to their standard review, and it still felt like they were only scraping the surface of something much bigger. Something that doesn't fit into the confines of a twenty-minute syndicated TV show.

Some of the most memorable bits of film criticism I've seen in recent memory have been the extended conversations that critics get to do in year-end commentaries. David Denby and A.O. Scott spent an amazing twenty-six minutes dissecting 2009 Oscar nominees on "Charlie Rose," which very well may have landed Scott the "At the Movies" gig. And then there was this year's series of "Movie Club" columns over at Slate, which was essentially an extended E-mail chain discussion between five different movie critics, including Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek, and Dana Stevens, that ran for eighteen parts and covered an array of disparate topics.

Among the semi-professional and non-professional online critics, there's an even greater lack of formality and structure. Film criticism in this realm often feels like one massive, interconnected conversation. Internet reviewers will often get into feuds with each other, trading barbs and missives in spats which will play out over days or weeks or even longer. Podcasters and vloggers can go for hours on a single film, blurring the lines between simple film reviews and in-depth commentary. If you really want to hear critics get into a heated debate about "Inception," try Slashfilm's recent podcast (#109) devoted to the film, guest starring the always infuriating Armond White.

"At the Movies" can't compete with the Internet's proliferation of discussion in its current form. Once in a while, when Roger Ebert was still in the balcony, he'd devote specials to particular topics, and there were always the "Best of" and "Worst of" lists at the end of the year, and the Oscar specials where he'd put on a tux. Only once did I ever see an entire episode devoted to a single movie - Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" back in 1999. Ebert convened a round table of fellow critics and served as moderator for the group to discuss the picture, an experiment I wish we could have seen repeated. The later incarnation of the show with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz briefly incorporated a panel of other critics, but it was so constrained by the format's limitations it didn't last more than a few episodes.

But there's no reason why "At the Movies" should compete with the Internet, as it was still perfectly good at doing what it's always done: to review current films, and point audience members toward the smaller titles that they might otherwise miss. I think there's still a place for it in the changing media landscape, which is why I feel it was canceled before its time. There is no single source, or even handful of sources that can replace "At the Movies" or improve on its format. Internet, podcasts, webcasts, and the multiplicity of blogs are good for going in-depth or more metatextual and comparative evaluation, which is the direction I think film criticism is going in, but when it comes to a good, simple, compact summary of what general audiences should know about these films, there's nothing that can compete with the duo in the balcony.

So in closing, I want to say my thank yous to Siskel, Ebert, Roeper, Phillips, Scott, and even the Bens for keeping "At the Movies" on the air for so long. Moviegoing isn't going to be the same without it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Looking Forward to Fall and Winter Movies II

Continuing yesterday's list of the films I'm most anticipating for the fall and winter, we come to our prestige pictures. These are the films of artistic ambition, the ones that critics and cinephiles will spend early 2011 debating over, and everyone else might just happily ignore. This is not to say that more mainstream films don't have their cinematic merits, but they don't market themselves by underlining those bona fides the way most of these will. There's always a little uncertainty about whether some of these films will actually make it to theaters before the end of the year, and those up for major awards tend to have later rollouts after initial qualifying runs in select cities. I've made an effort to focus on movies that already have a release date, but there are a few others that are already being talked up, though their distributors haven't hammered out the details yet. Plus, I've included one big question mark.

"Never Let Me Go" - I'll start with the film I'm the most unsure about, mostly because it depends on a premise that could be terribly gimmicky if handled badly. Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Carey Mulligan are three students who attend a boarding school together and face uncertain futures when they leave it. To seek out more specifics about the story may be unwise for those trying to avoid spoilers, but it's based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who also gave us "The Remains of the Day," and examines similar issues in a very different way. Mark Romanek, director of "One Hour Photo" and a very long list of music videos, will be at the helm.

"The Social Network" - When I first heard that a film was being made about the birth of Facebook, and its enigmatic creator Mark Zuckerberg, I was indifferent. And then I found out that David Fincher had signed on to direct. And Aaron Sorkin had scripting duties. And the underrated Jesse Eisenberg would be playing Zuckerberg, joined by a lot of other twenty-something up-and-comers, including the new Spiderman and the new Lisbeth Salander. Then the teasers started popping up, piquing a lot of interest from the cinegentsia and inspiring mash-up parodies left and right. As a result, my expectations for the "The Social Network" have gone through the roof.

"The Black Swan" - Darren Aronofsky laid bare the miseries of the wrestling ring with "The Wrestler." Now he's taking on the ballet world with "The Black Swan," a tale of two rival ballerinas played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. The trailer hit the web a few days ago, featuring desperate characters pushed to the psychological brink, blurred realities, and a few salacious hints of lesbianism - no doubt to draw in insecure menfolk unsure about the subject matter. But it's not necessary. Aronofsky makes tiny women in tutus and toeshoes look absolutely terrifying, and gets across what dancers and enthusiasts already know: ballet is not for sissies.

"The Tempest" - My favorite Julie Taymor film is still her first, "Titus," based on the lesser-known Shakespeare play, so I'm glad to see her return to the Bard's folio for "The Tempest." This version will have a few novel twists, including a gender-swap of Prospero so Helen Mirren can play the vengeful magician. The rest of the cast includes Ben Whishaw as Ariel, Djimon Honsou as Caliban, and especially interesting - or possibly disastrous - Russell Brand as the jester Trinculo. The play's use of magic and supernatural spirits should also give Taymor the opportunity to conjure more of her famously bold, hallucinatory visuals.

"True Grit" - The Coen brothers are remaking "True Grit" with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I haven't seen the 1969 original with John Wayne (yet), and I have no great love for Westerns, but it doesn't matter. I've seen every Coen brothers film and there's no chance that I'm missing this one, especially since it will reunite them with Jeff Bridges. The last time they worked together, they birthed The Dude, hero of "The Big Lebowski." The protagonist of "True Grit," a cranky, one-eyed, alcoholic deputy marshal gone to seed, sounds right up their alley. Between this and "TRON," Bridges could have a very good Christmas this year.

"The Illusionist" - French animator Sylvain Chomet, best known for "The Triplets of Belleville," will resurrect the great director Jacque Tati through traditional hand-drawn animation, for an old-fashioned cartoon feature based on an unproduced Tati script, "The Illusionist." The sight gags and visual whimsy of Tati's comedies should be a good match for Chomet's gift for caricature and slightly surreal sensibility. As a fan of both directors, I've been following the production of the film for what feels like ages, through endless delays and setbacks. Now that it's finally finished, I can hardly wait until December to see the results.

"Somewhere" - Sofia Coppola's latest is a father-daughter dramedy starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning, partly inspired by Coppola's own childhood experiences in Hollywood with her celebrated father. Comparisons have been made to "Paper Moon," which should put "Somewhere" closer in tone to her breakthrough, "Lost in Translation," than her less well-received "Marie Antoinette." For the record, I liked both pictures about equally. Dorff and Fanning the Younger have been largely flying under the radar with smaller roles in recent years, so I'm curious about what they can do with the screen to themselves for once. We'll see in December.

"A Film Unfinished" - I'm cheating a little with this entry, since the film opened on Wednesday in New York, but I wouldn't expect it to show up at a theater near you for a few more months. "A Film Unfinished" is a documentary dissecting a 1942 Nazi propaganda film about Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto. Many of the depictions were considered at least partially accurate in the past, until additional material surfaced a few years ago containing outtakes and deleted footage that show the staggering degree to which the production was staged. The documentary has already stirred controversy due to a ratings battle with the MPAA.

"Biutiful" - Alejandro González Iñárritu clearly has hefty directing chops, but can he write? After parting ways with Guillermo Arriaga, who scripted practically all of his previous efforts, that's the big question that must be asked of Iñárritu's "Biutiful," his first film without Arriaga. It will also be something of a homecoming for the director, his first Spanish language film since "Amores Perros" ten years ago. Javier Bardem will play a man named Uxbal, struggling to keep a complicated life from spinning out of control on the edges of the Barcelona underworld. From the trailers, it certainly looks promising so far.

"The Tree of Life" - Terrence Malick my be the new Stanley Kubrick. This is not because his films are of comparable quality, though they are terribly good, but because the director is famously reclusive, has unimpeachable auteur status, and each of his films seems to be in post-production percolation for years before they finally emerge. Thus the completion of every new Malick film is an event. "The Tree of Life," with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, has been delayed multiple times, but there's a good chance we may finally see it released this year, since there have been some indications that Malick is busy gearing up for his next one.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Looking Forward to Fall and Winter Movies

As we enter the dog days of summer, with only the dregs of the summer blockbuster season left before us, it's time to look ahead to Labor Day, the unofficial start of the fall movie season, when holiday tentpoles, quirkier midsize pictures, and all the serious Oscar bait and art films come out to play. I'll have a post mortem on the 2010 summer cinemascape in a little while - piranhas and Danny Trejo may yet make their mark - but right now I'd like to take a look at some of my most anticipated films of the fall and winter of 2010. To avoid tonal whiplash, I'm dividing this up into two posts - one for more mainstream and genre releases, and one for the awards contenders. I'm sure there will be some crossover, so bear with me. Up first, the big guns:

"The Town" - Ben Affleck made an impressive directing debut in 2007 with "Gone Baby Gone," a social drama set in his native Boston. He doesn't seem to be straying far from familiar territory with "The Town," a tale of cops and robbers set in a similar blue-collar, Bostonian milieu. Affleck will be starring this time, along with John Hamm, Rebecca Hall, and Jeremy Renner. Similar crime dramas haven't been doing so well lately, critically or commercially, so it'll be interesting to see if this one can break free from the pack.

"Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps" - The financial meltdown of 2008 provided the impetus for Oliver Stone to revisit Gordon Gekko, the nefarious corporate raider embodied by Michael Douglas in "Wall Street," who declared "greed is good" and became an icon of the American financial system's dark side. In light of the recession, it's the perfect time for a sequel, but timeliness alone does not a movie make, and Stone's recent track record hasn't been stellar. Fingers crossed that the new film is worthy of Douglas's return to his most celebrated role.

"Buried" - The most prominent of the ultra-low budget indie films that have emerged on the festival scene lately. I group "Buried" with the mainstream releases because it has good crossover potential thanks to its star, Ryan Reynolds, and a genre premise that is sure to get attention: a contractor in Iraq is kidnapped and buried alive, with only his cell-phone and a few other objects on hand. The entire film (Lionsgate's announced reshoots not withstanding) takes place in the confines of the tiny sepulchre Reynolds is buried in.

"RED" - "RED" is an acronym for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous," and follows the former members of a special team of CIA operatives, who are forced to reunite and break out the heavy artillery when they come under threat. Featuring a cast full of seasoned thespians behaving badly, including Helen Mirren, John Malkovitch, Morgan Freeman, and Ernest Borgnine, with Bruce Willis on point, the trailer is so joyously over-the-top, I have to smile just thinking about it. Any film that gives John Malkovitch an excuse to to play unhinged is one I will put down money for.

"Monsters" - Another micro-budget indie, following in the footsteps of last year's "District 9." This time the aliens have landed on Mexico, and our heroes' trek to cross the border into the United States will no doubt be rife with not-so-subtle social commentary and even less subtle sci-fi splatter. Unlike "Buried," "Monsters" will only be in limited release for Halloween, but it should still provide a nice alternative to "Paranormal Activity 2" and the seventh (!) installment of "Saw," for those lucky enough to find it.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I" - It's hard to remember a time when "Harry Potter" wasn't a part of the popular culture, and there wasn't a "Potter" movie in theaters or looming on the horizon. The newest installment hitting theaters in November is not the franchise's big screen swan song - Warner Brothers split the final book's adaptation into a two-parter to squeeze a few more dollars out of the Potterdammerung - so we'll just have to make do with the penultimate chapter this year, which will set-up to the final showdown.

"Tangled" - Called "Rapunzel" and "Rapunzel: Unbraided" during the course of its rocky development, Disney's latest animated fairy-tale purports to put a modern spin on the classic story. It's far too soon to tell whether this will truly be something fresh from the Mouse House, or if "Tangled" is just another "Shrek" clone. Princess films have historically been Disney's strong suit, but they stumbled with last year's "The Princess and the Frog." However, with PIXAR keeping an eye on Disney's animation department these days, we have every reason to hope for the best.

"The Tourist" - I'll admit that my interest in this crime drama, based on the French thriller "Anthony Zimmer," is primarily due to the cast. Johnny Depp will be headlining in the title role, with Angelina Jolie, Rufus Sewell, Paul Bettany, and Timothy Dalton filling out the ensemble. "The Tourist" will also mark the English language debut of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, best known for the Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others." A release date of December 10th was just announced, which is a promising vote of confidence from the Sony execs.

"TRON Legacy" - Only a few years ago, a sequel to "TRON" would have been nearly unthinkable. Now with Jeff Bridges riding the wave of comeback success and a torrent of 80s nostalgia showing no signs of letting up, it's one of the most anticipated films of the year. I can vouch for solid buzz from the Comic-Con crowd, and with a little help from the vaunted Disney marketing machine, mainstream audiences may be willing to embrace the property at last. For my part, "TRON" is an indelible part of my earliest memories, and I can't wait to hear those lightcycles again.

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" - 20th Century FOX and director Michael Apted taking the reins of the "Narnia" franchise has some fans worried, but with the same writers and cast involved, I doubt there will be any major changes in quality. "Dawn Treader" was my favorite of the "Narnia" books with its fantastic sea voyage to the literal edge of the world. I'm hoping that with such strong material, the newest "Narnia" film might surprise us and spur enough momentum to get a few more installments made.

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Scott Pilgrim" Defeats World, Can't Attract Audience

The amount of over-the-top hand-wringing that has resulted form the underperformance of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" this past weekend would normally prompt feelings of schadenfreude for me, but my black little heart just isn't in it today. I really enjoyed "Scott Pilgrim," and I was rooting for its success. Sadly, this was not to be. The movie was trounced, not only by the premieres of "The Expendables" and "Eat, Pray, Love," but by "The Other Guys" in its second weekend and "Inception," which has been in theaters for over a month. Coming in fifth, with only a $10.6 million total, "Scott Pilgrim" is already being labeled a massive disappointment despite great reviews and positive responses from the audiences that did come out to see it. The trouble is, those audiences were a fraction of what the hype suggested they would be.

This is almost an exact replay of what happened to "Kick-Ass" earlier this year. A comic-book based property fronted by young stars with a lot of candy-colored, stylized violence had the fanboys frothing and left everyone else cold. I didn't like "Kick-Ass" much, but it had comparable reviews to "Scott Pilgrim" and connected strongly with a similar target audience. The situation is worse for "Scott Pilgrim," because "Kick-Ass" was independently produced with a small budget, so it made its money back. "Scott Pilgrim," on the other hand, cost twice as much and will only do half the business if it follows the same trajectory. The message this sends to Hollywood is pretty clear - the young, geeky crowd may make a lot of noise at Comic-Con, but they can't be counted on to bring bank, and the crossover appeal of movies made for them is severely limited.

I'm still struggling to understand why. I didn't find many similarities between "Kick-Ass" and "Scott Pilgrim." "Kick-Ass" was a superhero spoof about a wannabe crime-fighter which was loaded up with violence and foul language. "Scott Pilgrim" was a surprisingly kid-friendly romance with cartoonish fight scenes and maybe two fleeting expletives. What ties them together is similar tone and visuals. Both star lanky young actors, Michael Cera and Aaron Johnson, and rely on the juxtaposition of youthful angst with a lot of over-the-top graphics and fight scenes that are modeled on comics and video games. This may be signaling that both films are meant for younger viewers, though "Kick-Ass" is emphatically not a kids' film. Yet CGI-heavy spectacles and animated movies targeted squarely at children have been doing record business this year, and attracting adults in droves. What's the distinction here?

I think it really has to do with attitudes toward this particular segment of youth culture, which projects a vibe that is very different from mainstream tastes. One of the things I liked about "Scott Pilgrim" was how adept it was at using the whiplash visual shorthand of recent video games and comic-books. There were certain scenes, like Wallace ratting out Scott to his sister while apparently fast asleep, that could have come straight from any number of current anime comedies. I'm never seen a Western director nail that type of humor so perfectly. But if I hadn't spent the better part of the last decade up to my ears in anime and manga, I'm not sure I would have been entirely comfortable with the wild stylization, the deadpan humor, and the nonexistent line between reality (Scott lives in Toronto) and allegorical fantasy (Scott's duels with the evil exes involve demon summonings and flaming swords).

"Scott Pilgrim" is a reflection of the geeky youth culture as it is now. Though much has been made of the successes of comic-book superheroes in Hollywood, that's the geek culture of an older generation. The heyday of "Iron Man" and "Batman" as truly nerd-driven comic properties was thirty or forty years ago, and they have a completely different sensibility than the comics and video games making waves today. I've seen the disconnect happen in other situations, where otherwise genre-friendly individuals will be utterly baffled in the face of gamers, hipsters, anti-hipsters, otaku, and the anarchic Internet-based subcultures of fandom that have blossomed in the last few years. Understandably, the common reaction by the baffled is to dismiss or retreat. I don't think it's an age divide so much as a cultural one, because there are plenty of younger viewers who are as confused by all of this as anyone else, and quite a few over thirty-five who do get it.

So it's no wonder that "Scott Pilgrim" scared off most moviegoers. It caters to a very specific niche, one that's still hasn't quite meshed with the popular consciousness, and the mainstream simply wasn't ready for it. Hopefully good word of mouth will keep the film from being a complete disaster at the box office in the weeks to come, and the creative types involved won't be dissuaded from taking similar risks in the future. I think it's just a matter of time before one of these hyperkinetic video-game style films connects - "TRON" or "Sucker Punch" could have a shot - and then more people might be willing to give "Scott Pilgrim" a second look.