Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Aliens are Coming! The Aliens are Coming!

Earth is about to be beset by an invasion - of alien invasion movies. Aliens will be coming at us from all directions next year, some from newbie directors operating with microbudgets and some from major names with the full force of Hollywood's best special effects houses behind them. "Monsters" from first timer Garent Edwards will be in limited release for Halloween, and the Strause brothers' "Skyline" follows in November. Next year we can look forward to D.J. Caruso's "I Am Number Four," "Battle: Los Angeles" from Jonathan Liebesman, "Paul" with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, JJ Abrams' "Super 8," Chris Gorak's "The Darkest Hour," Jon Favreau's "Cowboys and Aliens," another "Transformers" movie, and a reboot/prequel/whatever of "The Thing." To top it all off, there's another "Men in Black" movie on the horizon in 2012. Now Sam Raimi is joining the fray with "Earth Defense Force," which was announced today over at The Vulture. Those aliens sure are persistent, aren't they?

If we must point fingers at any culprit, it ought to be at Neil Blomkamp. His "District 9," though not exactly an invasion movie in the strictest sense, was one of the most prominent recent features to feature aliens, along with "Avatar" and "Star Trek." "District 9" made its debut at the tail end of last summer and promtly cleaned up at the box office, despite a minuscule budget and no recognizable stars. And Blomkamp snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Picture for good measure. Now several would-be auteurs and distributors are ready to turn that singular success into a full-blown trend. No doubt the rush to capitalize on the 3D gold rush is also an influence. Aliens and spaceships present all sorts of opportunities for massive CGI spectacle. And while the bulk of the new movies are based on original material, meaning they're not part of any existing franchise, there's a familiarity to alien invasions that should make them an easy sell to action fiends.

Many industry watchers are already crying foul at the sudden mass proliferation of these films, but I remain hopeful about most of these titles. I can see a lot of variation here. "Paul" will be a comedy directed by Greg Mottola, who also brought us "Superbad" and "Adventureland." "Monsters" contains a lot of satirical elements aimed at the current immigration debate, and will have a fairly minimalist style. "Cowboys and Aliens" will be a big-budget action-adventure film in the same vein as Jon Favreau's superhero movies. "I Am Number Four" has prompted some hopeful comparisons to the "Twilight" franchise. "Skyline" and "The Darkest Hour" will play up suspense and thrills. The original "Thing" is a horror classic and the new version should follow suit. The aliens run the gamut from CGI animated critters to organisms practically indistinguishable humans to largely invisible forces that stay hidden in the shadows. There's a little something for everybody here.

Maybe I'm less sensitive than most because I've been a science-fiction fan for a very long time and alien invasions have always been a staple of the genre. I've read and watched hundreds of different takes on the invasion scenario, from "War of the Worlds" (remade most recently in 2005) to the "Torchwood" miniseries. So a bumper crop of new alien invasion films is about as worrisome to me as an uptick in police procedurals or romantic comedies. They come and go and all I'm worried about is whether they're any good or not. Before "District 9," we had a bad run of clunkers like "Monsters vs. Aliens," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" remake, and "The Invasion," which is the latest "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" remake. I'm sure there will be clunkers in the newest batch, but I expect we'll have a few diamonds too. The earth coming under attack by hostile forces from the stars is a formula that is never going to wear out and can have endless iterations. "District 9" and "Avatar" can both be seen as subversions of the familiar story.

Oddly, the upcoming alien invasion film that I'm the most interested in seeing hasn't been formally announced yet, and has been so far below the radar lately that I'm a little worried that it might not be coming - the promised follow-up to "District 9," presumably titled "District 10," that was set up at the end of the first film. "District 10," ironically, would be much closer to the classic invasion scenario than the original, and would fit right in with the new slew of invasion films. So bring on the aliens! In the theaters, at least, there should be room for everybody to cohabitate.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Up and Out From "Undercovers"

A couple of quick thoughts on the new J.J. Abrams-produced spy series "Undercovers." I've seen two episodes now and I find it enjoyable so far, but I can see some potential issues here. The series follows a husband and wife pair, Steven Bloom (Boris Kodjoe) and Samantha Bloom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who used to be spies in the past, and are now called back into service by a deadpan G-man named Shaw ("Major Dad" himself, Gerald McRaney). When the Blooms aren't jet-setting to exotic locales to save the world, they run a catering service that resembles a kitchen fixtures catalog. There are also two comic relief characters to inject zipper humor at appropriate intervals. One is Samatha's sister Lizzy (Mekia Cox), who works at the catering service and comes off as a good-natured basket case. The other is Bill Hoyt (Ben Schwartz), the pair's tech support on their missions, who has a serious case of hero-worshiping mancrush on Steven.

"Undercovers" is primarily a romantic comedy, with a lot of action-adventure elements provided by the Blooms' globetrotting adventures to picture-perfect foreign cities. The show literally uses postcards to demarcate changes in scenery, though it's pretty obvious that a few domestic locales are filling in for the bulk of them. The tone is light, and darker, grittier elements are kept to a minimum. Though the action set pieces are impressive, I never thought for a moment that anyone was in any real danger. The humor is gentle, the action elements are exciting, and the lovey-dovey behavior of the happily married couple is designed to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings. The descriptor I keep associating with "Undercovers" is old fashioned. The Blooms feel more like Hepburn and Tracy than "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." The only thing really edgy or distinctive about the series is that the leads are black - both played by excellent African-European actors.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with going for light and fluffy. After so many series where the heroes are miserable and angst-ridden, it's nice to have one where the leading lovebirds get to be happy together, and subvert a lot of cliches in the process. "Undercovers" is a very easy watch, the performances are good, the characters are likable, and the production values are great so far. Still, I wonder if it can hold the broader audience's interest for long without a little more drama and tension. The first episode was rife with meaningful glances and teasing banter that pinged as cute rather than sexy. There was no real ongoing conflict in the premise that I could see, no big conspiracies or mysteries set up for us to follow. The Blooms were resolved to balance their spy lives with their normal lives, and learn to work together as partners in the field. There were some marginal concerns about keeping Lizzy in the dark about their newly active spy status, but nothing I could see sustaining a full storyline.

More promising was the introduction of Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre), a fellow spy and ex-boyfriend of Samantha's who has a shady side. As of the second episode he'll be the third wheel to the Blooms' dynamic duo. Some might take his inclusion - and that of the other prominent Caucasian supporting actors - as proof of the network's reluctance to entrust "Undercovers" entirely to its minority leads. However, Nash is the only element that might introduce some real drama into the current status quo of the Bloom's lives, so he's a necessary presence. I'm hoping for a female counterpart from Sam's past to to show up too, because the show could use a recurring villain or antagonist to add a little more visceral danger. As of now, "Undercovers" is the kind of show I would have watched with my parents twenty years ago - soft-edged and very safe. The comparisons with "Hart to Hart" are dead on.

I don't feel "Undercovers" is a show I'd make an effort to follow regularly from week to week, but it's certainly something that I would recommend to people who need a break from the paranoid puzzles of "Fringe" or the whiplash snark of "Glee." It's a good one to relax and decompress with, that lets its grown-up characters be mature grown-ups, and is a nice reminder to the youth-oriented culture that adventure and excitement and romance don't end when you get married. We have so many doctor and lawyer and police and dysfunctional family shows, I hope "Undercovers" sticks around so we can maintain a little diversity in our programming - in more ways than one.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Netflix and My Ongoing TV Paradigm Shift

My slow but inevitable transition from the appointment model of TV watching to the anytime a-la-carte model just hit a milestone. I've finished an entire season of "Babylon 5" through Netflix's streaming Instant Watch service. This is big for me because I've never picked up a new show solely through online viewing before, a few obscure anime series not withstanding. With Netflix, it was almost frightening how easy it was. All the episodes were available, commercial free, and despite a few mislabeling errors they were all in order. And at forty minutes apiece, watching two or three or more in one sitting was a breeze. I didn't have to be mindful of when the episodes were about to expire online. I didn't have to jump through hoops or sit through repetitive ads to get to the next one. And if I was interrupted, I didn't even have to spend time backtracking to where I had been in the middle of an episode. Netflix kept track for me.

In a way, this is all the Bravo Channel's fault, as they provided a crucial stepping stone to the a-la-carte model for me. As any fan of "Project Runway," "Top Chef," or any of their other reality competitions knows, Bravo runs all the previous episodes of a current season in the timeslots before the premieres of their latest installments. If you miss a week, just tune in an hour earlier for a double dose of "Top Chef." If you miss three, start watching in the early evening and have a mini-marathon to catch up. The channel's schedule is flexible enough that it can accommodate this tactic, and viewers reap the benefits by having multiple chances to watch episodes. You could even wait until right before the season finale and watch a whole season in one go. I haven't ever tried this, but it's nice to know that I could. One of the downsides of "Project Runway" moving to Lifetime was that the scheduling format didn't go with it. If you missed a week, you had to brave their gaudy website for past episodes.

Bravo's not the only channel that does this, of course. They're just the one I'm most familiar with and thus have singled out as being the most responsible for my current change in viewing habits. Most cable channels rely on marathons and repeats to pad out their schedules. Blocks of "Law & Order" and "CSI" episodes are common on the weekends. I became a fan of several procedurals like "Criminal Minds" and "Law & Order: SVU" thanks to marathons because I burned through multiple episodes at a time. I still watched premieres in their regular timeslots, hewing to the standard model of appointment television, but increasingly I found myself getting into older shows like "Firefly" and "Avatar: The Last Airbender" through borrowed DVD sets. It was nice not to have to schedule my life around the shows I wanted to watch - I'm one of those poor schmucks without a DVR and my VCR refuses to cooperate when I try to record anything. Then streaming TV on the internet came along, and it was a great help for certain shows like "Chuck" and "Dollhouse," though older programs I had an interest in were difficult to find.

It all changed when I got Netflix. Now I'm paging through the listings of other Instant Watch shows, trying to decide what I want to see next. "Arrested Development"? "Damages"? "Weeds"? "Veronica Mars"? "Lost"? "Nip/Tuck"? "Black Adder"? "The State"? The Tom Baker era "Doctor Who" serials? The second season of "Dexter" that I skipped? There aren't many newer shows, but I've missed so many of these older ones, it doesn't make much difference to me. And the benefit of watching an already finished series is obvious. I don't have to worry about cancellations or scheduling changes. Sure, I miss out on the excitement and drama of following a current television show from week to week, but there are plenty of other viewers who are in the same boat as I am. I've already found several active discussion groups for "Babylon 5," including the Usenet forums that were with the show from the beginning. And I find it much easier to follow a serialized mytharc if I watch more than one episode at a time.

I can't see myself abandoning my television set entirely anytime soon for a media diet of only online content, but as far as scripted series goes, Netflix beats network and cable hands down. There's no question anymore. Last night I missed a new episode of "House" because I'd gotten caught up in the shadowy maneuverings of the Vorlons and the Minbari on "Babylon 5." And I didn't care. That episode of "House" will be on the FOX website and Hulu in two weeks. An encore should show up on the USA cable network shortly after that. And sooner or later, the entire series will be on Netflix or one of the other upcoming television streaming sites being developed by Amazon or Blockbuster or Comcast. I felt a little irritation that I'd missed the episode, but there wasn't the annoyance or frustration that there'd been in the past. There's no rush and I can catch up easily enough. And right now, in the middle of September premieres, I don't feel any need to chase down all the new shows right away because I've come to expect that I'll still have access to them in a week or three - almost certainly with less commercials too.

Maybe I'll just wait and see which of the new TV shows can fend for themselves and win over audiences before I invest my attention. In the meantime, I think I might rewatch "The X-Files" on Netflix and stop after Season 6 this time. Just because I can.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Spawn of "Scooby Doo"

I went to the "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" movie last night - the title has been through a few changes due to marketing shenanigans, but this is what any kid familiar with the books is going to identify it as. "Guardians" is a beautiful new CGI animated film from Animal Logic, the Australian effects house that did "Happy Feet." It's a little light on the story side, but easily the best bet for a family movie currently in general release. However, I want to devote some digital ink to what I found in the previews. During the fifteen minutes of coming attractions, trailers, and pre-show material I sat through, I came across no less than three different CGI projects based on characters who were originally 2D cartoon characters.

The first, appropriately, was a "Scooby Doo" made-for-television film, set to premiere on Cartoon Network in the near future. This is the latest of a series that pairs the antics of live-action actors playing the Mystery Inc. gang with a CGI animated Scooby Doo character. It's being billed as a quasi-prequel to the "Scooby Doo" theatrical film that hit the screens in 2002. When "Scooby" became a surprise hit, it fueled the recent trend of resurrecting older 2D cartoon and comic-strip characters, and giving them CGI face-lifts to appeal to a new generation. As studios raided their archives for nostalgic toons, we've been barraged with CGI versions of "Garfield," "Underdog," "Marmaduke," and "Alvin and the Chipmunks," with more on the way soon. One of the trailers I saw last night was for "Yogi Bear," with CGI doppelgangers of Yogi and Boo Boo.

This is a actually a continuation of an older trend from the 90s that rebooted cartoon properties with live-action actors. You might remember "The Flintstones," and "Inspector Gadget" as some of the more notorious examples of these films, but there were a few decent ones like "George of the Jungle" and "Casper." Before turning exclusively to CGI to bring inhuman cartoon characters into the third dimension, a few films tried using comedians in elaborate character suits, such as Jim Carrey in "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and Mike Myers in "The Cat in the Hat." I still cringe just thinking about them. Primarily live-action cartoon-based feature lives on to this day, but lately Hollywood has moved on the action-oriented series like "Transformers" and "Speed Racer," which some younger fans don't even identify as cartoon-based.

The reboots featuring CGI characters, however, are in a class by themselves, and not in a good way. I haven't seen a single one of these films that I have liked for a variety of reasons, but the primary one is that they're just not very well made. At the most fundamental level, these are projects that really embody the current studio mindset of pushing familiar brands over story and character. They're aimed at the youngest segment of the audience, retaining just enough of the original property to ping on the radar of busy parents as something familiar and nostalgic. The films themselves follow a simple formula for family-friendly comedies that involves a lot of slapstick, bodily humor, and pop culture references. Kids aren't very discerning and tend to like anything with a lot of noise and color, which these films happily provide.

There's also another deeper level of resentment because the characters are familiar, often ones that I grew up with like the Chipmunks and Garfield. Clearly the new films are not made for the original fans, but the projects only gain traction because the studios recognize that there is some goodwill and affection for Yogi Bear or the Smurfs that can be exploited for monetary gain. Each new announced reboot of a beloved character is met with exasperation and sometimes frustration from grown-ups who were fond of the originals. It's no secret that the adaptations are terrible by any measure. Yet parents dutifully bring their children to the latest "Alvin" movie, the way our parents brought us to all the lousy movies of our youths, and the studios keep making more because the profits keep coming in. Such is the power of heavily-marketed children's entertainment.

I'm sure there's potential for these films to be better. Nobody sets out to make a stinker, of course, but the odds against the emergence of a good "Yogi Bear" or a good "Smurfs" are very high, because of the awful formula that these movies can't seem to get away from. Beyond that, of all the usual techniques used to modernize older characters, it's still the use of CGI that bothers me the most. Some of the redesigns come off better than others - Yogi and Boo Boo actually look like their animated counterparts, unlike the awful Chipmunks. Yet something about them still rankles. I've tried to ignore the differences, tried to pretend that I was watching new characters, and tried to explain away the problem as being due to cultural disconnect or visual dissonance. The problem was really highlighted for me when I watched the new CGI Coyote and Roadrunner short that premiered before "Guardians of Ga'Hoole"

"Fur of Flying" is one of three new Warners' shorts that are being released in theaters this year with WB kids' films. It's the latest bid by the studio to revive the Looney Toons characters. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner were up to their usual tricks. The gags were good, the quality of the animation was decent, and I enjoyed it. However, the CGI was incredibly distracting the entire way through. It was fun to have the camera swooping around after the Coyote, giving us new angles on the pursuits and the inevitable arcs of descent. However, the humor was drastically undercut by all the new bells and whistles. The elegant visual simplicity of the Coyote plummeting to his doom was lost, as my eye kept wandering to little things like fur textures and the background environments and what the virtual camera was doing.

2D characters just don't work as well in 3D as they do in 2D, and doubly so for the ones dependent on 2D humor. Most of the cartoon characters that are adapted into CGI began their lives as simple line drawings, as caricatures. These don't always translate well into the 3D realm, and it takes a strong creative talent that understands how both universes operate to do it right. Most of the cheap cash-grab pictures take shortcuts or don't even bother to try, leading to odd Franken-creatures like the recent feature film versions of Scooby Doo and Garfield, which were partly modeled on real-world animals, and lost much of their exaggerated quality in transition. Meanwhile animated characters conceived in three dimensions to begin with, like the owls of "Ga'Hoole," or Scrat from "Ice Age" feel like less of a clash.

My hope is that as CGI animation improves, and competition for younger audiences heat up between the multiple CGI animation studios currently in business, then "Scooby Doo" and its ilk will find themselves squeezed out. "Marmaduke" bombed a few months ago and "Yogi Bear" will be up against stiff competition during the holiday season. Alas, there's sure to be a third "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movie and there are tons of cartoon characters that haven't been exploited yet. The studios may insist on trotting out new versions of each and every one of them, from Hong Kong Phooey to Spongebob Squarepants, before finally letting this genre die. Maybe by that point 2D animation will have come back into style and we can start having them convert all the 3D animated characters into 2D.

And then all the kids of this generation can take our places, to complain that Hollywood is ruining their childhoods.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Cultural Moment of "Catfish"

Following up on the post about "I'm Not Here" yesterday, I want to bring up the other documentary of dubious authenticity currently making its way through indie theaters. This is "Catfish," the purported tale of an internet romance that isn't what it seems. The recent ads I've seen for the film are seriously misleading, in that they suggest that this is a horror movie, which it isn't. I haven't seen "Catfish" yet, but I had the film spoiled for me in some detail. I think it fair to warn potential viewers that the tension and the thrills alluded to by the trailer and TV commercials are strictly in the realm of straight drama. No bloodbath for you gore-lovers. It's not that kind of film.

I'm going to get into some serious spoilers in the rest of this post, so please stop reading now if you have any intention of seeing the film without knowing the ending, because it's difficult to talk about "Catfish" without giving away the central mystery.

Anyone who has been on social networking sites, and anyone who has participated in any online social activities period, knows that the Internet lets users take advantage of their anonymity to create new identities and augment their existing ones. This can be taken to elaborate extremes, which I've seen first hand. I count myself a member of several media fandoms that see a lot of wild personality types, and witnessed the uncovering of several amazing, convoluted ruses perpetrated by users upon other members of their online social groups. Faking one's death to foster sympathy or evade blame is a common one. Creating imaginary people is popular too.

The simplest example of anonymity abuse is someone representing themselves as someone else. I don't mean identity theft, but rather the practice of assuming a different gender, a different ethnicity, a different age, or being from different circumstances than in reality. These fantasy personae are easy to create and seem harmless at first, even expected to some extent. One of the unwritten laws of the Internet is to avoid giving out personal information. However, a false identity can have serious real-world consequences. The suicide of Megan Meier after being bullied by an ex-friend's mother in the guise of a teenage boy is the most notorious example. There have been plenty of other cases where people were bilked out of funds, sent on wild goose chases, or simply emotionally victimized by people who were representing themselves as something very different from the truth.

Related to this kind of online fabrication is the creation of the manufactured ally, or the "sockpuppet," where someone creates two distinct identities and represents them as different people, usually to help bolster arguments or to be used for self-promotion. But a sockpuppet can take on a life of its own or turn into an army. I've seen cases where single users were running multiple sockpuppets with incredibly detailed personal histories and complex relationships, all totally imaginary. Thanks to Photoshop and IP address anonymizers, it's easier to be a fake person than ever. Online conversations involving a crowd of different avatars could actually be taking place between only two people. It's alarming, infuriating, and you have to marvel that anyone could keep it all straight.

The independently produced "Catfish" is a cautionary tale that deals with the outing of one of these serial prevaricators. Using a documentary format (the filmmakers insist everything is real, but I'm skeptical), it chronicles the romance that develops between our naive hero and a young woman after he interacts with her and various members of her family online. However, parts of the girl's story don't add up, so the guy and his friends decide to confront her about the inconsistencies after tracking down a physical address. The truth turns out to be far different from what the filmmakers - and the audience - are lead to expect.

"Catfish" deserves kudos for being one of the first films to really delve into this subject matter and to portray the perpetrator in a fairly sympathetic light. Up until now, anonymous ne'er-do-wells on the Internet have generally been viewed by Hollywood as cold, amoral creatures operating out of malice, when the motivations of the actual people behind them can be quite complex. Of all the sockpuppeteers and hoaxers I ever ran across in media fandom, there wasn't a one I didn't end up feeling sorry for once their real-world circumstances were revealed. Some were too young or inexperienced with online socializing to realize the harm they were causing, some were playing out fantasies of how they wanted their lives to be, and some just unwittingly let small wrongs snowball into chaos. Real sociopaths and troublemakers were the rare cases.

As for the film, judgment of its merits must wait until I've actually viewed it, but I suspect it'll very much a product of its time and may not be able to retain its ability to surprise in the future. As the age of social networking rolls on, more and more people will come across these sockpuppet situations, until discovering a single user masquerading as a whole family will be viewed as a commonplace annoyance instead of some alien Internet phenomena. "Catfish" may not be so much a cautionary tale as much as a harbinger of an inevitable change in our basic social interactions - all thanks to the Internet.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Was Joaquin Phoenix Trying to Do?

I was going to blog on the premiere of "Undercovers," which is a fun piece of romantic fluff, but then I stayed up to see Joaquin Phoenix's much-promoted return to David Letterman's show, and I feel compelled to add my two cents.

First, it was a relief to see Phoenix drop the act last night - gone were the beard, the sunglasses, and the mumbling. I'd read a few reviews of the new film at the center of the latest media scrum, "I'm Still Here," that questioned whether the whole rapper persona he'd adopted last year was an act or whether Phoenix had really gone off the deep end. Just about everyone wanted it to be an act, me included, though the saga of the actor apparently self-destructing over the course of the last two years was entertaining in a rubber-necking sort of way. And a grand total of nobody was surprised when co-conspirator Casey Affleck finally spilled the beans.

Letterman claimed that he knew Phoenix's new persona was false and played along during the actor's first appearance on "The Late Show." I'd have been inclined to agree eighteen months ago, but I started having doubts when "I'm Still Here" started prepping for its theatrical release and Phoenix still hadn't come clean about duping his audience. It takes serious dedication to go to those kinds of extremes for any kind of performance, so I have to respect him for putting aside two years of his life and risking his career to take on the challenge. However, I'm still not sure what he was trying to accomplish with the whole charade.

According to last night's interview, Phoenix and Affleck wanted to explore the nature of celebrity and its relationship with the media and the audience. They figured the best way to do this would be to turn Phoenix into a Lindsay Lohan-type walking disaster by staging an elaborate fake disintegration of his career. I can see how the concept has merit, and there are clear precedents for similar stunts from comedians like Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen. Heck, Stephen Colbert will be playing Stephen Colbert in front of a U.S. House committee hearing on illegal immigrant farm workers today. And the gullibility of the media is always a fun target.

But in the case of Phoenix and Affleck, I'm not sure I get the joke. By all accounts "I'm Still Here," which Affleck directed, is a fake documentary following Joaquin Phoenix's attempts to start a recording career as a rap artist, in the same vein as "Borat" or "Bruno." Various events like a brawl at a concert were staged with friends, and mixed in with unscripted, unrehearsed material like the Letterman interview. But since the film is still playing it straight, and meant to fuel further speculation about Phoenix's hijinks, it doesn't seem to be the end result of the project. So what is? The media reaction? The follow-up Letterman interview?

I don't think the filmmakers themselves had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish, and the execution of the whole scheme left much to be desired. Most of the "I'm Still Here" reviewers were either left repulsed by Phoenix's false persona or else puzzled as to its authenticity. If Phoenix and Affleck were trying to turn the tables on the media and expose its weaknesses, they have yet to succeed. The focus of the film wasn't on the portrayal of Phoenix by the media, but on Phoenix's eccentricities. Now that the hoax has been revealed, there's no ambiguity left to draw curious audiences. And it's hard to be critical of the media for its behavior when they were being so obviously baited.

Sacha Baron Cohen's guerrilla comedy was brilliant because it got people to drop their guard and react in ways that revealed hidden attitudes and hypocracies. "I'm Still Here" only got the media to shine a spotlight and invite others to gawk and speculate. There were hardly any of the usual snide tabloid insinuations you often get with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. In fact, there was actually very little coverage of Phoenix that I remember, and much of it was various film bloggers hoping that whatever the actor was going through, that he'd come out all right. I don't think that anybody bought the act entirely, which probably contributed to the limited coverage.

I wonder if Phoenix would have found more success if he'd left off some of the more extreme changes to his appearance, like the ZZ Top beard, that signaled that something was up. Or if he'd recruited a more tempting target for the cameras, like Mandy Moore or Hilary Duff or the pop princess of you choice, to stage a more familiar kind of celebrity meltdown. Joaquin Phoenix claimed that the whole idea came from watching reality television and the skewed portrayals of people that it regularly presented as reality. Though he tried his hardest to get the media to skew his actions into something outrageous, in the end it feels like Phoenix did most of the skewing himself. And in the process, he made everyone who expressed genuine sympathy for him feel like a twit.

In any case, it's good to have Phoenix back. And I think we can all agree that David Letterman delivering a comedic smackdown of the whole affair was satisfying catharsis for everybody.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bring On Some New Batman Villains!

It seems like a new candidate for a villain role in the next "Batman" movie pops up every week. After the release of "Inception," rumors swirled that Jospeh Gordon-Levitt was up for the Riddler and Marion Cotillard was all but a lock for Catwoman. This week it's Eminem gunning for Riddler and Sienna Miller lined up for Catwoman. Of course Christopher and Jonathan Nolan haven't confirmed which villains are going to appear in the next film, but everyone just assumes it will be one of those two, or both. Occasionally you'll find someone campaigning for the Joker to be recast or for Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the Penguin, but the gossip columnists have latched on to Riddler and Catwoman. No surprise, since those are the next two Batman villains most people remember after the Joker, so they're the ones who will get all the speculation until any real information about the Nolans' third "Batman" film surfaces.

So for fun, and because I haven't blogged about comic book movies for a while, I've compiled a list of some lesser-known members of the Batman Rogue's Gallery that we might see in the next "Batman." After all, "Batman Begins" used Ra's al Ghul, Henri Ducard, Carmine Falcone, and the Scarecrow, so it's perfectly reasonable to assume that the Nolans will go for more obscure characters again on their next outing. In keeping with their penchant for more grounded, real-world villainy, I've sidelined the more flamboyant types like Mr. Freeze and King Tut. And so as not to tread on any toes, I'm sticking to villains commonly associated with the "Batman" corner of the DC Comics universe. Amanda Waller would have been on this list in a minute if the guys behind the "Green Lantern" movie hadn't already wrangled her to appear in their film, to be played by Angela Bassett. And no, Batman vs. Superman will have to wait for another time.

Bane - A Latin-American supersoldier renowned for his massive physique and ruthless intelligence. In early appearances he was addicted to a drug called Venom that made steroids look like lemonade, and operated as an assassin for hire. Though sometimes portrayed as an animalistic brute, there's no question that Bane is formidable. He managed the feat of putting Batman out of commission in the comics for over a year after breaking the Caped Crusder's back during a fight. Bane appeared briefly in "Batman & Robin" as one of Poison Ivy's henchmen, but didn't get the chance to show that he was more than the usual musclebound thug. Loosing him on Nolan's Gotham should remedy that very quickly.

Black Mask - A nasty crime lord with a grudge against Bruce Wayne since childhood. The original Black Mask was Roman Sionis, a former business mogul who shared a similar background and tragic past with his greatest foe. The difference is that every one of Black Mask's misfortunes was brought upon himself. He became a sadistic sociopath who ran the Gotham underworld for a time through his own personal "False Face Society" and recently managed to kill off one of the Robins. There's also a second Black Mask, a madman who took over the business after the first one met his demise. Both versions would be a good fit for the Nolanverse, or some combination of the two.

Clayface - There have been several Clayfaces in the "Batman" universe - a treasure hunter, an actor, a scientist, and others - who range from mostly human shapeshifters to monstrous creatures who are more mud than man. Clayface's usual range of powers may be too wild to fit into the Nolanverse comfortably, but an anonymous villain with an unknown identity is a staple of film noir, the basis for most "Batman" stories. A few tweaks to the character should bring him down to earth. And if the audience is expected to suspend disbelief for Aaron Eckhart's transformation into the charred Two-Face from "The Dark Knight," a man who can rearrange his features isn't much more of a stretch.

The Clock King - Temple Fugate, The Clock King, is one of the more obscure foes that Batman has faced in his long career, a sharp-dressed villain who uses his obsession with perfect timing to commit improbable crimes. In some incarnations he uses special devices to speed up or slow down people's perceptions of time relative to his own. Sound familiar? The detail-oriented mentality of the Clock King might appeal to Christopher Nolan, who has turned out beautifully intricate puzzle-box films like "Memento" and this summer's "Inception" with similar concepts. If he ever wants to bring the sensibility of those films to a "Batman" project, this might be the villain to do it with.

Harley Quinn - Joker's favorite henchgirl is one of the best contributions to the DC universe by the creators of the 90s animated "Batman." Harley, a former Arkham psychiatrist turned bazooka-weilding Bonnie to the Joker's Clyde, is an awful lot of fun. She's a cheerful, bubbly free spirit who acts out of twisted love for the Joker, and sometimes for her own gain. Once she memorably paired up with Poison Ivy for a girls-only crime spree. Occasionally she'll take wobbly steps toward rehabilitation only to relapse when her darling "Mr. J" comes back into her life. Joker may be out of the picture in the Nolanverse, but that doesn't mean that Harley can't come to Gotham to stir up some trouble on his behalf.

Hush - One of the most prominent villains to emerge from the recent "Batman" canon. Hush is another childhood acquaintance of Bruce Wayne's who developed a violent hatred of the Wayne family and seeks revenge. Visually he's hard to miss, going around with a perpetually bandaged face that obscures his identity. This is because he's a master surgeon who is familiar with all manner of medical procedures and has a habit of performing them on himself. Usually without anesthetics. However, Hush's most impressive abilities are as a strategist and manipulator. He's recruited or coerced several of the other major villains to take part in his plans, notably the Riddler.

Inque - Another shapeshifter, this time from the "Batman Beyond" universe. Unlike Clayface, there was never much exploration into her psyche or inner life. Her creators tried to give her a few motivations that weren't very compelling, and could easily be ignored. Inque works best when you get down to basics. She's a terrorist for hire, a femme fatale who can not only change her features but also change her physical form with liquid fluidity into endless nightmare shapes. The Nolans could translate her into a shadowy operative in the employ of one of Gotham's many criminal organizations. With her indeterminate ethnicity, she'd also be a great opportunity to introduce a little color into the ranks of Batman's foes.

Mad Hatter - Isn't a villain patterned after an "Alice in Wonderland" character with a penchant for giant hats too hokey for the Nolans? Hear me out. Jervis Tetch may have a penchant for Lewis Carroll, but he's got more interesting dimensions. His modus operandi is that he uses mind control devices to get others to commit his crimes and turn his enemies against one another. Also, the initial motivation for his villainy was his obsessive love for a girl named Alice, sadly not reciprocated. Among the many mad scientist characters that Batman has faced over the years, Tetch is the most interesting next to Mr. Freeze. And I think mind control will show up in the Nolan films before freeze rays, don't you?

Red Hood - If there's one way to do a Robin story in the Nolanverse, Red Hood might be the key. Instead of Robin being a kid sidekick, an older protege who ends up turning against his former mentor would make for a good parallel to "Batman Begins." Recent events in the comics gave us a new twist on one of the most shocking events in the Bat-mythos and proves that nobody in comic books stays dead. Condensing the Red Hood storyline has a lot of dramatic potential, though the filmmakers have already been beaten to the punch by their animated counterparts. The direct-to-video animated "Batman: Under the Red Hood" was released this summer and received high marks from the comics crowd.

Talia al Ghul - Among Batman's love interests, Catwoman always got the most press. However, he also has a lot of history with Ra's al Ghul's daughter, Talia. Since "Batman Begins" already established Ra's al Ghul's presence in the universe, Talia is a natural choice to make an appearance in subsequent films. In the comics she was more anti-heroine than villainess, torn between her feelings for Bruce Wayne and her loyalty to her megalomaniacal father. There's no reason she has to remain so benign, and I'd love to see her step into her father's shoes and go for full tragic villainy. Talia also played an important role in the Red Hood storyline, if the Nolans consider going that route.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The Event" and "Hawaii Five-O" Initial Impressions

I watched two of the new premieres last night, "The Event" and "Hawaii Fice-O," and I thought I'd share some early thoughts.

"The Event" was the weaker of the pair, because it's coming off as convoluted and impenetrable right off the bat. I immediately thought of "FlashForward," which was also about a single, mysterious cataclysm that affects multiple characters who seem to be unrelated. However, in the case of "The Event," we don't know what the cataclysm is yet. Something big and sinister and important happens in the premiere episode, but it's not clear what it was or whether it was the "event" in question.

The story is told in fragmented fashion, with each segment following a single character backwards and forwards in time and space. A key character who gets the bulk of the attention in the premiere is Sean Walker (Jason Ritter), a young man who we follow as he tries to stop an airplane from taking off, and also while he's on a tropical vacation with his girlfriend Leila Buchanan (Sarah Roemer) some time in the past. Another thread of the story follows Simon Lee (Ian Anthony Dale), who is described as a CIA operative. Through his POV we get another angle on the airplane incident, and in his past we get our first glimpse of a woman named Sophia Maguire (Laura Innes), a prisoner of some sort in a secret military installation on Mount Inostranka, Alaska. She shows up again later in the hour when we follow the US President, Elias Martinez (Blair Underwood), as he pushes to close down Mount Inostranka and free the ninety-some people being detained there. His Director of National Intelligence, Blake Sterling (Željko Ivanek), is adamantly against this, warning repeatedly "don't let them out."

There's a lot of intriguing bits and pieces here, but the trouble is that the emphasis is in all the wrong places. It's a neat trick to see how the puzzle pieces fit together as the various narratives collide at the end of the episode, but there's so much focus on the plot points and exposition that the characters get lost in the shuffle. The pair that get the most emphasis, Sean and Leila, are easily the least interesting of the bunch, and I couldn't wait for the scenes of them meandering in paradise to be over so we could get back to Simon or Sophia or Željko Ivanek's sinister politico. If they kids had been cut out entirely, I'd have liked the show about twice as much as I did. Instead, they represent the same weaknesses that many network sci-fi shows like "FlashForward" and "V" have, namely the inability of the creators to fully embrace the show's more cerebral ideas without resorting to a lot of cheap, pandering dramatics that may give the characters motivations but doesn't make them worth caring about.

"Hawaii Five-O" is a lot more straightforward and a lot more fun. Detectives Steve McGarrett (Alex O'Loughlin) and Danny "Danno" Williams (Scott Caan) play bickering partners chasing baddies for a new crime-fighting task force in Honolulu. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, responsible for a slew of recent summer blockbusters, penned the premiere and CBS coughed up the money to pay for lots of fancy car crashes, bazookas, and a helicopter. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first hour of the new "Hawaii-Five-O" is practically indistinguishable from most recent action films like "The Losers" and "The A-Team." The show's biggest accomplishment is establishing the leads as likable, engaging characters. Caan is great as the sarcastic, pineapple-hating Danno who has programmed a "Psycho" ringtone for incoming calls from his ex-wife. O'Louglin's American accent goes a little wonky at times - I swear he was trying to ape Nicholas Cage at one point - but he comes across credibly as the driven badass of the pair.

The Asian-American characters, Detective Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) and Detective Kono Kalakaua (Grace Park) were mostly stuck being support crew for the episode, but I'm hopeful this will change as the season rolls on. The writers played up the exotic tropes, and I'm tempted to call this a Chinatown episode since there was a major subplot involving snakeheads and human trafficking from China. Adorable refugee girl in distress? Check. However, the difference here is that three of the four lead characters identify themselves as Hawaii natives, and the show establishes that this is going to be their home turf. In essence, they're never leaving Chinatown, so they may actually get past the cliches as the episode count goes up, and the Asian characters will have the chance to develop into more well-rounded heroes. Also, points to O'Louglin for his passable Mandarin.

A couple of little things. I barely remember the original show so I have no idea how much has changed, but I did like that they recreated the original theme music and much of the opening sequence. James Marsters was the terrorist villain, and I was sad to see him dispatched at the end of the hour. Will Yun Lee as the secondary baddie survived, though, and I hope he'll show up again. Also, Masi Oka of "Heroes" fame is supposed to play the coroner in upcoming episodes, so I'll be keeping an eye out for him too.

Both premieres had excellent production quality, full of expensive special effects and hardware. No series airing outside of HBO or Showtime manages to maintain that level of excitement for long, so it'll come down to how well the writing holds up. I expect "Hawaii Five-O" is going to settle into a nice action-comedy procedural like "Burn Notice" and "The Mentalist," while "The Event" has the inenviable job of trying to cough up an interesting protagonist to get us through its elaborate cat-and-mouse game. I'll give "The Event" another week or two, but it may be time to turn my attention to "Lone Star" and "Mike & Molly."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dust Off the TV - It's Fall Premiere Week

The fall television season is upon us, with the September schedule full of premieres for new shows. There are no less five new programs premiering on network television tonight, plus premieres of returning shows. Just as I have no access to early film screenings I have had no access to the TV pilots that have been in circulation for TV critics for the past few months. I'm not going to try to review everything, but I thought I'd give a quick run-down of the new shows I am interested in and will make an effort to catch in the weeks to come. I'm behind on my TV viewing in general, so I'm not going to get to everything right away, and I expect several shows are going to take a few weeks to get a good sense of. And cable, of course, is a whole other planet. Notably there are far fewer reality show premieres than there have been in the past, which I'm very happy about.

Sunday - There are no new shows being added to any of the networks' Sunday schedules until midseason, though "CSI: Miami" is moving to the 10PM slot opposite "Brothers & Sisters."

Monday - This was the most crowded night of television for nerds for a long time, thanks to the convergence of "House," "Heroes," "Terminator," "Chuck," "24," and "Big Bang Theory." Now most of those shows have been canceled or moved, leaving lots of empty timeslots to fill. Depending on how the new shows perform, it could be very crowded again. "Mike & Molly" will be the new sitcom on the CBS block, about two Overeaters Anonymous members who fall for each other, followed by the new version of "Hawaii Five-O." NBC is rolling out "The Event," which is being described as a conspiracy thriller with a little sci-fi, and "Chase," which follows a manhunt from the POV of both the fugitive and the authorities. Finally FOX is adding "Lone Star," a drama about a Texas con-man, in the old "24" slot.

As a genre fan, "The Event" gets the benefit of the doubt. It looks splashy and fun, and the premiere episodes of these kinds of shows usually turn out to be the best ones, as "FlashForward" proved last year. I'm worried about "Mike & Molly" stating its intention to tackle body image issues so bluntly, but it has very good reviews so I'll try to make room for it later. "Lone Star" is the kind of show that should get better as it goes along if it's worth watching, so that can wait a few weeks until I figure out if "The Event" lives up to its title. As for "Chase," it's a Jerry Bruckheimer production that looks like a "24" knock-off. I was never a fan of "24." NBC will be running the repeats on Saturday for a while if I get curious, which I doubt. However, "Hawaii Five-O" has Daniel Dae-Kim and Grace Park, so Asian-American solidarity requires that I at least give the reboot an episode or two to see if it joins the list of police procedurals I'll be keeping up with.

Tuesday - ABC will be adding the superhero show "No Ordinary Family" and the procedural "Detroit 1-8-7." FOX has pushed Glee up to the 8PM hour and will premiere two sitcoms in the 9PM hour. "Raising Hope" with Lucas Neff and Martha Plimpton is about a dysfunctional family rearing their latest addition, and "Running Wilde," a rom-com with Will Arnett and Keri Russell. How poor Keri Russell has found her way to sitcom hell I have no idea, but I have no interest in seeing the results. The ABC shows feature several actors I like - Michael Chiklis, Julie Benz, and Michael Imperioli - but the premises look derivative and the reviews have not been kind. "No Ordinary Family" is one of the season's more ambitious titles, and has been described as "Heroes"-lite or a live-action "Incredibles," minus PIXAR. It's nice to see family-friendly genre programs on the air, but I'm not the target audience for this one and I know from experience that I should keep my distance. Besides, I'll be busy watching the inevitable "Glee" sophomore meltdown.

Wednesday - Let's deal with the shows I'm writing off sight unseen first. ABC adds one new rom-com sitcom, "Better With You," in the 8PM hour, and the CW has a cheerleader dramedy, "Hellcats" at 9PM. The former looks pretty generic and the latter is about cheerleaders, which is anathema to every nerdy bone in my body. I'm much more interested in NBC's "Undercovers," which is about a sexy African-American couple who are spies. I'll admit a childhood fixation on the old "Hart to Hart" detective series, and this looks to be a similar premise. I've liked all the previews and J.J. Abrams is involved, which is always a good sign, so this one definitely gets a look. However, the real fun on Wednesday is going to be the fight over the 10PM timeslot. All three major networks are premiering new legal and crime dramas: ABC has "The Whole Truth" with Rob Morrow and Maura Tierney, CBS has "The Defenders" with Jerry O'Connell and Jim Belushi, and NBC has "Law & Order: Los Angeles" with Terrence Howard. I think NBC has this one sewed up.

Thursday - I may never forgive CBS for putting "The Big Bang Theory" opposite "Community," but I'll watch anyway since "Big Bang" is harder to find online. In any case, I don't plan to check out "S#!T My Dad Says" with William Shatner, which "Big Bang" will provide a lead-in for. I also don't see anything interesting about "My Generation," a nostalgic hour-long dramedy about Gen Yers in ABC's 8PM slot. The message of that one, apparently, is that you aren't defined by who you were in high school, which anyone over the age of twenty should have figured out already. What is it about the American media's fixation on high school? And wasn't this FOX's "Reunion" five years ago? Anyway, the other two premieres are "Nikita" on the CW, which I've discussed at length already in a previous post, and "Outsourced," replacing "Parks and Recreation" on NBC's comedy block. "Outsourced" is the sitcom about the Indian call center, which every media blog has proclaimed to be terrible. However, I'm still interested to see how bad it is, especially the handling of the cultural divide.

Friday - Not a good night of the week for television in general, so it's safe to say that the weaker pilots ended up here. I'm usually not home anyway, so I doubt I'll be seeing much of any of them. ABC has the closest thing to a new medical drama this year with "Body of Proof," with Dana Delaney as a medical examiner. After several high profile flops like "Trauma" and "Mercy," TV doctors are largely in hibernation. Crime drama "Blue Bloods" with Tom Selleck is in CBS's 10PM slot and will be up against the courtroom drama "Outlaw" with Jimmy Smits on NBC. "Outlaw" may have the year's most ridiculous premise, with a former Supreme Court justice quitting the bench to become a firebrand trial lawyer. As if to punctuate the joke, Conan O'Brien is listed as a producer since his company is producing. No surprise then, why NBC has dumped it on Friday nights. The network also has a new reality series, "School Pride," at 8PM, which is being delayed until October and is described as a school make-over program. Yeah.

Saturday - Rerun night. I miss the days of "Golden Girls" and "The Carol Burnett Show."

Happy watching!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Happened to the Cyberpunk Genre?

It's been about a decade since "The Matrix," and we live in a tech-obsessed world where the computers have largely taken over. So what the heck happened to the cyberpunk film genre? First, a quick definition. Cyberpunk was a genre of science-fiction that rose to prominence in the 70s and 80s with titles like Philip K. Dick's "A Scanner Darkly" and William Gibson's "Neuromancer." Its common settings are dystopian futures dominated by urban landscapes, where invasive technology permeates nearly every part of human life, and corporations have more power than traditional governments. Hackers and artificial intelligence are common players, and along with many different variations of the internet. Narratively, most of the stories have their roots in noir and detective novels.

Film adaptations have had mixed success, and the most famous features like "TRON," "Blade Runner," and "Ghost in the Shell" are still beloved only by the niche. Many thought that this would change with "The Matrix," still the biggest cyberpunk film to date, and there were some who predicted that we were seeing the birth of a new film genre for the 21st century, to supplant the void in the popular culture left by westerns and old-fashioned noir. To some extent cyberpunk elements have found their way into the mainstream. Action films and television shows regularly feature hacker characters, megacorporations are common villains, and the Internet continues its ongoing takeover of human society. But I think we've yet to see the genre fully embraced.

Looking at recent films like "Surrogates," "Gamer," and "Repo Men," there's no question that cyberpunk has had impact and made gains, enough to up the number of decent additions to the genre every year. However, they've never really taken hold the way superhero and apocalypse films have in the cineplexes lately, though both of those have built on common cyberpunk tropes. Yet the "Terminator" franchise aside, cinema apocalypses are still more likely to be the result of zombies and aliens than runamok technology. And while everyone purports to love "RoboCop," the film is rarely remembered as the satire on corporate and consumer culture that it was, and usually gets lumped in with the more knuckle-headed 80s action-adventure films

More telling, cyberpunk and science-fiction films in general remain on the fringes of "serious film." Before last year's "District 9" and "Avatar" picked up Best Picture nominations, decisions strongly derided in some circles, you have to go all the way back to "Star Wars" in 1977 to find another science-fiction film that managed to do the same. However this year's "Inception" is widely expected to rake in the kudos, so who knows? Maybe it's a sign that science-fiction is on the verge of finally getting some respect. Then again, when you mention the genre, it's still the space operas and the little green men from Mars that get the most press. And many have argued that "Inception" is closer to a parapsychology work than science-fiction, though its technology-aided corporate espionage owes quite a bit to Philip K. Dick.

My armchair theory - you knew it was coming - is that the reasons cyberpunk never quite took off was because the prognostications were too close to reality. Cyberpunk had its heyday in the 80s when it was a dark vision of a far-off future, but now we're all but living in it and the social commentary aspect hits an awful lot closer to home. Spaceships, giant robots, and dream-walking are all far more speculative, more suited to escapism and fantasy. A modern tech-savvy thriller like "Untraceable" would have been a cyberpunk film twenty years ago. Consequently, some of the genre's classics have aged awfully quick. "Hackers," with Jonny Lee Miller and a cherubic young Angelina Jolie, now plays like an alternate-history retro-tech nostalgia trip. "The Net" with Sandra Bullock is downright hysterical.

And yet I remain optimistic. The central themes of cyberpunk are being explored and examined more thoroughly in cinema than ever before. As the visions of Gibson and Dick have become reality, we have new films like "The Social Network" and "Catfish" that are carrying on the tradition with its outsider heroes, sinister corporate forces, and growing ranks of the anonymous and the technologically empowered. Except they're real-world social dramas now. The days of extreme body cyberization, virtual and augmented realities, and the rise of the corporate techno-hegemony don't look to be far off either (I, for one, welcome our Google overlords). In some ways hard science-fiction always has to be niche, because it has to stay one step ahead of the real and almost-real. So cyberpunk - the parts that are still science-fiction - will never be truly mainstream.

But that's not a bad thing.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Visit to "The Beaches of Agnes"

Agnes Varda doesn't appear to be a cinema titan at first glance. She looks like somebody's grandmother, which she is. She's also a lover of cats and knick-knacks and foreign cultures and heart-shaped potatoes. And beaches. She has many, many friends, some of them famous. And she constantly takes photographs of everything that interests her. And when we're very lucky, sometimes she makes films about them too. For her latest, and possibly her last film, Agnes Varda has taken an interest in her own eventful life and obligingly turns the camera on herself for "The Beaches of Agnes."

The result is a rare, wonderful autobiographical film - an autobiopic - tracing her personal and artistic development from her childhood in Belgium, to studying in Paris, to her participation in the vaunted New Wave of French cinema, to Cuba and China and Hollywood and beyond. Varda and her crew backtrack through her life, revisiting old friends and old haunts. The timeline of the film is more or less linear, with occasional digressions, but events are presented through a collage of impressions using several different techniques and devices. There are re-enactments, interviews, reunions, and various artistic representations of events and figures from her past. Agnes Varda mostly plays herself, though she recruits others to fill in for her younger selves. Her friend, fellow filmmaker Chris Marker, is represented by a large, orange, cartoon cat. When they reach the point in her life where Varda started making films, clips of them find their way into the mix too. She sets up a unique screening of her first film, "La Pointe Courte" while reacquainting herself with the locations and the actors that appeared in it. Images of the rebel heroine of "Vagabond" are intercut with Varda's own participation in the feminist movement.

I have a special fondness for films about artists and the artistic process, and it's so gratifying to see Agnes Varda not only examining herself and her work, but turning the act of examination into a distinct piece of art in and of itself. The opening scenes see her and a small army of volunteers setting out mirrors on the beach, who she introduces to us by filming images of their reflections, one by one. It's a fun bit of metaphor that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Varda is a sweet, warm, maternal presence, but also a tremendously inventive artist of great technical brilliance, who can still spring surprises on her audience. There's a segment late in the film where one of her beaches is invaded by bathers in a riot of brightly colored clothing, carrying plastic buckets and toys. The soundtrack becomes a series of cheerful inorganic pops and percussion sounds to match. It's such a quick series of shots, a transitional moment that didn't need to be there, and yet it perfectly captures Varda's playful artistic sensibilities. She finds inspiration anywhere and everywhere, as her pleasant narration attests.

For cinephiles, plenty of time is devoted to Varda's life with husband Jacques Demy, particularly their globetrotting adventures and later years together. Many of these scenes are poignant, as Demy passed in 1990 after a prolonged illness and Varda's thoughts and camera linger on the final images of him. Other famous names make cameos throughout. Jim Morrison drops in during their stay in Hollywood, there's a brief encounter with Fidel Castro in Cuba, and we even get a glimpse of a young Jean-Luc Godard in a rare moment without his shades. My favorite of these little portraits is a quick photo collage of Alexander Calder, who was a neighbor when Varda and Demy lived in Paris. As for Varda's own work, she discusses several of her celebrated films, spending the most time on "La Pointe Courte," but it's impossible to think of Agnes Varda simply as a film director after this. Her photographs and art installations are everywhere in "Beaches" and add immeasurably to the film, including a museum exhibit that she dons a potato costume to promote. She captures herself constantly in the act of creation, still taking pictures, telling stories, and making friends.

The film ends with Agnes Varda celebrating her eightieth birthday among family and friends, counting her blessings and her grandchildren. "The Beaches of Agnes" confirms that her star has lost none of its shine over the years. In a previous post I lamented being unable to connect with the self-centered heroine of Varda's most famous film, the New Wave classic "Cleo From 5 to 7," but I adore her later films, especially the documentaries like "The Gleaners and I." "Beaches" is happily more like "Gleaners," a documentary of the self with a far more charming heroine than the lovely Cleo. I sincerely hope this is not the last Agnes Varda film, since there's clearly a lot of life and art left in her. But if it must be, then it's a fitting finale to her amazing career.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's Too Early for Your Oscar Predictions

The way the entertainment reporters are buzzing about Oscar nominations right now, you'd think were were only a week or two away from the announcement of this year's ten nominees for Best Picture. Instead, we're well over three months away form the end of the year and most of the prestige pictures have yet to see the light of day. Yet if you believe the early prognosticators, over half of the slots are spoken for already. The summer hits "The Kids Are All Right," "Inception," and "Toy Story 3" have been cited everywhere as locks for nominations, mostly because they're the only films that came out in the first three-quarters of the year that critics largely agree have a decent shot at industry recognition. "Winter's Bone" also gets mentioned as a potential dark horse if it can get enough buzz behind it. Those pictures I can understand the speculation for, since their theatrical releases have come and gone, and there's been enough positive critical and audience consensus to cement them as serious contenders.

The rest of the hopefuls are being singled out due to recent premieres and screenings at the Toronto, Venice, and Telluride film festivals. Depending on which critics you want to believe, Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," David Fincher's "The Social Network," Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech," Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," and Mike Leigh's "Another Year" are already frontrunners. And this isn't even getting into some potential heavy hitters that nobody has seen yet like the Coens brothers' "True Grit" remake with Jeff Bridges, and David O'Rusell's "The Fighter." Plus, if Oscar history has told us anything, an early favorite like "Dreamgirls" always gets snubbed and there's usually an upset or two by popular films like "The Blind Side" and "Avatar" managed last year. So I'm not writing off "TRON Legacy" until someone actually sees the movie, oversells it, and sets off the inevitable backlash.

I understand why the early Oscar talk happens. It's part of any prestige picture's marketing to be in contention for major film awards. An analyst trying to gauge how well a film will perform in theaters has to take into account the potential boost from the industry's yearly bout of kudomania. A Best Picture Oscar doesn't always translate into box office returns, as "The Hurt Locker" found out the hard way, but it does ensure a certain level of visibility. Now that the Academy has expanded the field of Best Picture nominees from five slots to ten, exponentially more titles can be seriously considered for the top prize. Ironically with the financing for most independent films drying up, there are fewer contenders than there might have been in earlier years, but that doesn't mean the 2011 Oscar race is going to be any less contentious or dramatic. The fact that we're hearing this much chatter this far in advance all but guarantees that we're in for a longer, tougher slog this year.

Now, I enjoy the Oscar race. It's my equivalent of the NFL playoffs, with the Academy Awards as the Superbowl for cinema snobs. I'm well aware of how lousy the awards are as a barometer of quality, and all the distasteful politicking that often goes on behind the scenes. Still, its a fascinating thing to observe all the various Hollywood players - the studios, the talent, the critics, and yes, even the audience - affect how the race is run and who ultimately goes home with the little golden man. Plus, it's always nice to have an excuse to talk about movies and the people who make movies, even if it's for the purposes of reaffirming the Hollywood pecking order. But to see so many people compiling serious lists of Oscar hopefuls in the middle of September strikes me as awfully premature. There are always the woolgathering early birds who will trot out lists midyear or even earlier, but the vibe is different with this latest round.

There's already the beginnings of marketing push behind some of the newly anointed frontrunners, and signs of critics starting to choose sides and declare allegiances. Maybe this happens every year and I'm finally noticing the preliminary maneuvering, but it all seems to be happening a lot earlier than it has in the past, and initial predictions are being taken more seriously. I'm a little worried that by the time December rolls around, the later arrivals are going to suffer from Oscar voters either having already made up their minds, or being so worn out from the campaigning process that they're less receptive to those smaller, less flashy films that are in greater danger of being overlooked. And conversely, hyping up "The Black Swan" or "The Social Network" too early might be counterproductive with Oscar night more than four months away.

The culprits for the early onset of the awards season are easy to spot: a blogosphere with access to more information than ever and a habit of jumping the gun, indie films jockeying for buzz to land their distribution deals, and an industry that's coming off what's been widely perceived as a particularly lousy summer at the movies. There's no faster way of putting the summer behind you than discussing plans for the holidays. I guess it's just another sign of our impatient times, along with the Halloween candy on sale at the Safeway and the GOP freak-out over Tea Party primary winners. I'm guilty of encouraging this too, in my own way, as I regularly scour the entertainment blogs for early reviews, and like making up lists of titles to watch out for.

But do I have any thoughts on whether Annette Bening or Natalie Portman is going to take home the Best Actress trophy next year? In fact, I do.

Never count out Helen Mirren, ladies. "The Tempest" FTW!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Johnny Depp, Gateway to Pretentious Movie Fandom

Tracing the origins of my love of pretentious movies back to its roots, I inevitably have to reach the conclusion that the one cinema figure that had the greatest influence on my development was Johnny Depp. Not so long ago, he was prime crush material for my generation of teenage girls, the bad boy alternative to Tom Cruise and the London brothers. Naturally, once I'd been firmly hooked on "21 Jump Street" reruns and multiple viewings of "Benny and Joon," and "Edward Scissorhands," I set out to watch everything else in his filmography. I did not know what I was getting myself into.

Depp movies were my introduction to many cinema greats, including Roman Polanski ("The Ninth Gate"), Oliver Stone ("Platoon"), Jim Jarmusch ("Dead Man"), Terry Gilliam ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), John Waters ("Cry Baby"), and Lasse Hallstrom ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"), but it was a challenge. Initial encounters with unorthodox material often left me bewildered or completely out of my comfort zone. But every time I got frustrated with weirder titles like "Arizona Dreams" and "Fear and Loathing," Johnny Depp would go and make another movie with Tim Burton and I'd find the patience to sit through "Blow" or "The Man Who Cried." And I started to appreciate what he was doing.

Depp's wont for picking projects based on the people he wanted to work with was fairly unique at the time, which meant he wasn't focused on box office success like your typical movie star of the era. It was often an ordeal to find some of his smaller films a I remember a TIME magazine article expressing sympathies for his agent regarding the Depp's shrinking paychecks and diminishing visibility. Occasionally he would show up in a thriller like "Nick of Time" or "Donnie Brasco" so he could share the screen with Christopher Walken or Robert DeNiro, but for much of the mid-to-late 90s he was a decidedly non-mainstream commodity. It wasn't until 2003 and "Pirates of the Caribbean" that he started turning out massive, kid-friendly blockbuster films. Now he's one of the only A-listers we have left, and many young actors are following his model for success.

I've gone through a lot of other filmographies since Depp's, and found a lot of stars with amazing cinema legacies, like Jimmy Stewart, Catherine Deneuve, Cary Grant, Claudia Cardinale, Jeanne Moreau, and Toshiro Mifune. I wouldn't have gotten to know them if I hadn't learned to sit through more challenging Johnny Depp movies like "Dead Man" or figured out how to get my hands on a copy of "Platoon" for those few brief scenes where he plays an army translator. His choice in roles wound up influencing my taste in films, just for their variety and their departure from the usual leading man images that Hollywood offered up. He played kooks, junkies, outcasts, dreamers, and people who got very, very lost. And I slowly became a fan of the directors who made films about those characters. And a fan of the other actors who showed up in those films too. I still think of Marlon Brando as the psychiatrist from "Don Juan DeMarco" before I think of Don Corleone or Stanley Kowalski.

To date there are still several titles from Johnny Depp's filmography that I haven't seen. "The Brave," for instance, which was his directorial debut back in 1997, the sex comedy "Private Resort," "The Astronaut's Wife" with Charlize Theron, "Lost in La Mancha" about a film he and Terry Gilliam didn't make, and most of the cameos. I also really should get around to seeing Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls." Now looking ahead to Depp's upcoming films, it's amazing how my priorities have shifted. I still adore his work, but much of my excitement over "The Tourist," which is coming out in December, is due to the film being the English language debut of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck ("The Lives of Others"). And then there's "The Rum Diary," which will be the first picture Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I") has made in nearly twenty years. Sure, it'll be fun to see Depp back in Jack Sparrow mode for the next "Pirates of the Caribbean" installment, but I find myself preferring the weirder pictures now.

I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I'd been infatuated with Luke Perry. Well thinking it over, I know what would have happened. I'd have probably found my way to pretentious movie geekdom eventually, but it would have taken me longer and I probably wouldn't have sat through Polanski's "The Ninth Gate." Johnny Depp has been in a lot of great movies, and he made a lot of not-so-great movies seem great, but even he couldn't salvage that one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Festival Envy

Telluride. Toronto. Venice. Cannes. Berlin. Simple place names to some, but to a film nerd they're so much more. When I was younger and unaware of how the cinema world worked, I always marveled over how movie reviewers and journalists managed to see all those prestige pictures that came out in the last few weeks of the year, and had their top ten lists compiled right at the beginning of January. Often, the lists would have impossibly obscure foreign pictures that couldn't have played more than a few cities, and yet all the major critics had seen them somehow and were discussing titles months in advance of when they became available to the masses. The secret was the film festivals, gatherings of the cinema elite in beautiful cities across Europe and the United States where artsy and not-so-artsy films could premiere with a splash and start building up buzz.

I've developed an awful case of festival envy. "Black Swan" premiered at Toronto a week ago, putting director Darren Aronofsky and his leading ladies firmly in the running for year-end awards contention. Over the weekend, Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" picked up a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and may have muscled its way back into the Oscar race despite being written off by several prognosticators earlier this month. Or maybe the Venice jury, led by Coppola's former beau Quentin Tarantino was biased in her favor. I wish I could weigh in on the controversy myself, but alas the domestic release date of "Somewhere" isn't until December. So I'm left daydreaming about dashing around Venice or Cannes, marathoning screenings of pretentious movies and catching glimpses of Vincent Cassel and Wong Kar-Wai.

And of course there's the fun of being around a lot of cinephiles who will not only sit through these films willingly, but anticipate them and want to talk about them. All the rumors of Oscar winners being decided in advance by a tiny cabal of mysterious people is true, you know. They're the film nerds and critics and buyers and industry folk who go to these festivals and preview these films, the people who help to pare down the thousands of pictures that get made every year to the handful that studios spend millions promoting and cineplexes grudgingly turn their screens over to in January. As studio output becomes more conservative and risk-averse, the independent films like Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" and Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" have dominated. Boyle is in Toronto right now with his latest, "127 Hours," a survival thriller with James Franco that is getting lots of attention.

It isn't just the ability to get an early peek at highly anticipated films that makes me envious of festival-goers. There are some films that never get picked up for distribution and never screen anywhere else. Festivals for indie films like Sundance and South by Southwest operate as markets for hopeful filmmakers trying to get their completed films picked up for wider distribution. But in other cases, especially with many foreign and more experimental films, there's no market for the work and thus no way that many titles are going to find their way to audiences through conventional channels. It came as something of a shock to realize how many films never get domestic distribution at all. During my otaku days, one of the biggest events for the anime fandom was Disney agreeing to release the back catalog of Studio Ghibli's movies direct-to-video. There are still dozens of films I want to see that I have no access to without importing them from overseas and buying myself a region free DVD player.

I live in a major metropolitan area that has plenty of art house theaters, several museums and institutions that do special film screenings, and a couple of smaller film festivals. There's nothing on the level of Toronto, but we do get a good number of domestic premieres of foreign films and I've been able to see a lot of movies I otherwise would have never been able to. Also, I'm overseas quite a bit so I do end up watching a lot of Asian films before they hit they hit the U.S., such as Zhang Yimou costume epics and various anime features. Once in a while, I'll even stumble across American films that, for whatever reason, end up opening in other countries first, such as the long-delayed "I Love You Phillip Morris." So I count myself luckier than most as far as access to varied theatrical experiences is concerned, but I still can't help being impatient to see "Black Swan" and "Somewhere" and all the rest of the films that are currently being talked up on the festival circuit.

I want to be part of the secret cabal - or just sit in on the meetings.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Chinese Film Industry's Inferiority Complex

Every time a massively popular Western film opens in China, you hear the same grumbles from the Chinese media. Why can't we make a film like "Avatar"? Why isn't our film industry exporting its own blockbusters to the rest of the world? "Kung Fu Panda" was heavily based on Chinese culture. Why didn't we make that movie? Sure enough, after the release of "Inception" a few days ago, articles like this one started appearing online.

There are a lot of different cultural and historical issues tied up in these complaints, which I'll try to untangle as delicately as possible. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the frustration is not a symptom of envy, but of national pride and competitiveness. China has long been dissatisfied with being shadowed by the West and Japan. Its explosive economic growth in the last decade has given it plenty of clout on the global stage, but in the eternal quest to prove its status as a major world power, China has also spent years trying to compete in "soft power" arenas like sports and the arts. If you saw the last summer Olympics, you get the idea. They see Western media as cultural imperialism to some extent, and the government has taken serious measures to counteract or match it, launching global news networks, investing in co-productions like this summer's "Karate Kid" remake, and so on. And every time a big Hollywood picture beats out the local titles in Chinese theaters, the griping follows.

Outside observers may scoff, but it's easy to see how the inequity can rankle. Many other film industries around the globe have faced similar issues with the dominance of Hollywood flicks at local box offices. China may have one of the more restrictive quota systems, but they're not alone in using protectionist measures. Thanks in part to their efforts, wonderful Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and John Woo are turning out spectacular costume epics every year, and smaller films from directors like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai have won critical accolades. Chinese films are now a staple at arthouse theaters, and when you throw in the work of Hong Kong and Taiwan-based directors, their pictures dominate many critics' lists of the most influential films of the last decade. Yet there's a dissatisfaction with loftier kudos from the cinegentsia. Artistic excellence isn't what the Chinese are after. It's popularity and influence. They want a Chinese Michael Bay or a Jerry Bruckheimer, not a Chinese Darren Aronofsky or a Sofia Coppola. They seek populist acceptance, that slick wow factor that keeps the Western films at the top of the global box office. They're just not sure how to get it.

The last major "event" film to come out of mainland China was John Woo's "Red Cliff," a massive five hour historical epic starring Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro. It was a lavish production that spared no expense and made full use of the latest special effects and technical filmmaking wizardry, "Red Cliff" was no different from any major Hollywood Blockbuster as far as production values. It made a huge splash in China and the surrounding Asian countries, but the success didn't translate overseas. The international release cut the running time in half, distributors trumpeted it as the comeback of director John Woo, but to no avail. In the US and most other countries, it played the smaller theaters like all the rest of the foreign pictures and completely failed to make any sort of impression on the wider moviegoing public. Most have never heard of the film at all. I sat through the original five-hour version last month marveling at the pageantry and the performances. It wasn't a great film, but it was a shiny, entertaining, epic piece of cinema that you didn't need to be Chinese to enjoy. But it helped to know the history in order to follow the story, and ultimately "Red Cliff" was a blockbuster that only Asian audiences were going to connect to.

It's been fun reading some of the articles where people try to dissect why big American films have universal impact where the local ones don't. Some of the better explanations I've read include the late development of the Chinese film industry, artistic expression constrained by heavy censorship, too much didactic subject matter, and a lack of fantasy and science-fiction pictures. Nobody mentions the fact that Americans rarely embrace foreign films of any stripe, or that if the forces of cultural hegemony are at work, they've given Hollywood a distinct advantage in terms of attracting talent and attention for decades – that kind of systemic bias can't be overcome easily or quickly. I also want to point out that the notorious Chinese restrictions on the distribution of foreign films means Chinese viewers are not getting the full picture of the American cinema landscape. When you only see the top dozen or so films through official channels and other cream-of-the-crop hits through other means, perceptions tend to get skewed. Not only does this set up the foreign films as special event pictures, it keeps Chinese audiences from seeing the depths of the dreck that American audiences are regularly subjected to. Without that context, of course the foreign films are going to look better.

Chinese filmmakers should certainly be encouraged to reach for the stars and compete with their American counterparts, but I can't help thinking that it's counterproductive to measure the success of Chinese films against those made by Hollywood. If the Chinese want to clone the Hollywood system, I've no doubt that they could, but it would be such a waste. Chinese films have their own artistic strengths that should be encouraged. To model everything too closely after Hollywood product would just lead to a multiplicity of pabulum and potentially quash the gains that Chinese films with uniquely Chinese sensibilities have made in recent years. There's nothing wrong with current Chinese films. They're amazing. They're wonderful. And if audiences haven't figured that out yet, it's their loss.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The New "Nikita"

I don't have much familiarity with the various incarnations of "La Femme Nikita," which began as a Luc Besson action film in 1990, was remade as "Point of No Return" with Bridget Fonda for American audiences, and finally spawned a successful cable series, "La Femme Nikita," that ran for four and a half seasons in the late 90s. "Alias" is also widely acknowledged to have taken several elements from the franchise. Somehow I managed to avoid all of them, so I went into the newest reboot, CW's "Nikita," with some familiarity with the premise, but no attachment to any existing characters.

A quick introduction: a rogue operation that was once part of the US intelligence network, known as the Division, coerces young ne'er-do-wells into becoming assassins and operatives for them. Nikita (Maggie Q) is one of their former star pupils, who escaped Division's clutches and is trying to bring them down from the outside. Meanwhile, a new teenage recruit named Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca) is introduced to the training program after being arrested and framed for murder. Operative Michael (Shane West) and psychologist Amanda (Melinda Clarke) handle her transition, and she befriends other Division trainees Jaden (Tiffany Hines) and Thom (Ashton Holmes). Other members of Division include its ruthless head, Percy (Xander Berkeley), and the resident techie Birkhoff (Aaron Stanford).

"Nikita" is certainly darker and more ambitious than you'd expect from the CW, and I am desperately trying to give them the benefit of the doubt in case they really do end up producing a "Sandman" television show. After viewing the first hour, I can see some potential. Maggie Q is by far the show's best asset, a transplanted Asian-American Hong Kong action star with the screen presence and the fighting experience to pull off this kind of role. The show dulls when she's off the screen for too long. Fonseca's Alex is the standard teenage-girl-with-a-chip-on-her-shoulder heroine that we'd expect for the network's demographic, but she's not obnoxious and I can see room for growth. The rest of the cast is uniformly underwhelming, but it's early yet and nobody's had a chance to do anything interesting, so I'm not going to write anyone off. What worries me more is the production quality.

I'll give the show credit. The tone is right, it looks expensive and serious, and it has some respectable ambitions. But over the course of the hour, I could tell that certain elements weren't going to hold up. The writing is the most obvious Achilles heel. The dialogue is written at the level of most other CW shows, meaning it's heavy on emotional outbursts, light on original plot points, and depends heavily on the appeal of the photogenic young leads. The pilot does pull off one good twist to set up its premise, but I'm skeptical that they can keep the momentum going when the characters are rattling off glib explanations for how the Division manages to operate instead of laying the groundwork for a more complicated series mythology. Of course a slick action show doesn't need much plot, but if they were going for something cheesy and fun, there should be a lot more humor and a lot less angst. Also little things like the muddy score and some of the lighting tricks were noticeably sub-par. Compared to similar action shows like "Burn Notice" and "Chuck," you can tell there are some corners being cut. Never a good sign.

Still, it's expected that there would be some kinks to work out in the early going. If nothing else, this is a step in the right direction for the CW. "Nikita" has plenty of crossover appeal and might steal a few viewers away from Thursday night heavyweights "Fringe" and "CSI." It'll also be a good stepping stone for Maggie Q to bigger and better things, because she's doing a great job of shoring up the show's weaknesses right now, and these fairly lightweight spy-game shenanigans wouldn't work half as well without her. I've heard some complaints that she looks too fragile too be a credible bruiser, but Q is one of Jackie Chan's proteges and rose to prominence in Hong Kong action films like "Gen-Y Cops." She's doing all of her own stunts for "Nikita," and even if the show doesn't last past a season, I expect that Maggie Q could have a long career in Hollywood. If she wants one, that is. Remember what happened to Michelle Ryan in the wake of "The Bionic Woman"?

If there's any benefit to being on the CW, it's that at least "Nikita" will have a more breathing room to work out its little problems without being yanked immediately if it fails to connect right away. It might turn out to be a good show, and it might not. I'll stick around to find out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Are the Masses Being Priced Out of Mass Entertainment?

The summer's box office totals have been a topic of discussion for couple of days now, especially as they contain a potentially troubling revelation - box office revenues have gone up again, but the actual number of tickets sold has fallen. The statistics are being spun in all sorts of ways, with some claiming that there are too many other media options competing for attention, or that the quality of cinema offerings has dropped. But the common refrain, over and over, is that ticket prices have gone up too high - especially the surcharges for 3D presentations - for audiences to maintain their regular moviegoing habits.

Let me bring a little of my own experience into this. I regularly go to $11 evening shows with friends, and know where to find a decent $6 weekend matinee when I'm by myself. But I also know that the window between theatrical release and the date a new title becomes available via Redbox or Netflix for rental has shrunk to only a little over four months for major films. I'm willing to pay more for a social outing and willing to pay more to see films I have real anticipation for, but I'm no longer willing to put down money for films I don't mind not seeing right away. So I didn't go see "Knight and Day" or "Karate Kid" or many of the other films that I only had a mild interest in. Instead I went to "Micmacs" and "Agora," because who knows when those are ever going to hit DVD? I'm still kicking myself for missing "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which Netflix refuses to list a DVD release date for. But I digress. I know I'm a pretentious movie nut with skewed tastes in film, but I can imagine that this kind of cost-benefit analysis is applicable to most viewers, who are choosing to sidestep the theatrical experience for more non-event films as costs keep going up and Netflix content just keeps getting better.

Take "Date Night," for instance. I like both of the stars, Tina Fey and Steve Carrell. I was won over by the trailers, but not especially excited for the film. It seemed like a fairly run-of-the-mill comedy that would probably pop up on basic cable to be rerun ad infinitum in about two years. There were no special effects that would benefit from being seen on the big screen or any real buzz or discussion around the film that seemed to be worth participating in. I would have seen it with a date or a friend if anyone had expressed an interest, but initially nobody did. When I finally did see "Date Night," it was in a second run theater months after its release. I paid my two dollars, didn't like the film, and felt gypped. Now I'm even less inclined to pay full price to see similar comedies. So in my own way I'm contributing to the blockbuster mentality of the current film landscape. I've pretty much given up on casual moviegoing on my own. If it's not some kind of event film and I don't get any social mileage out of it, I don't need to see a movie in theaters.

The theatrical experience has also been downgraded. Audiences pay more but often get a worse experience than they used to for their money. My favorite movie of the summer was "Inception," and after a first viewing I was keen on seeing it again, maybe with a different group of people to have a different conversation about it afterward. And yet it never happened. Once I'd had the theatrical experience, I felt no pressing urge to repeat it. I remember in the 90s I went to several movies like "Titanic" and "Tarzan" multiple times, movies I know I didn't enjoy nearly as much as "Inception." Yet somehow in the interim the allure of the big screen experience faded. This isn't because my local theater is poorly run or maintained, or because the audiences are more obnoxious and rude than they used to be, which are commonly cited reasons for the decline. Comparatively, I think it's because home viewing has gotten exponentially better. When I rewatch "Inception" again it'll probably be on DVD so I have the ability to pause and rewind it, maybe with the director's commentary and and the extras disc close at hand.

And finally, we come back to the price. $11 is cheaper than a lot of things, and $6 is a bargain, but when you compare it to the costs of rentals and streaming services and all the other options to see a movie these days, it doesn't look so good anymore. And when you watch a lot of films like I do, or are bringing a whole family along to see the latest CGI spectacular, the costs add up very quickly. The last time I checked we were still in the middle of a recession, and theaters charging through the roof for tickets might ensure their profits keep rising, but they're not doing a great job of hanging on to audiences. I'm not among those who are taking this as a sign of the death of cinema as a force in the popular culture, or predicting that trips to the multiplex will become a less egalitarian activity, but it's not something to be ignored either. Movies and the way we watch them are changing. Theater attendance levels dropped with the advent of television, and I think we might be going through another adjustment thanks to the dawn of the digital age.

Moviegoing will always be popular for the social aspect, so I don't think theater owners should be worried in the short term. The price adjustments were expected with the onset of the 3D craze, and the backlash will put a damper on any future price hikes for a while. And the audiences will be back soon enough for the holiday season, which is shaping up to be pretty promising after the lackluster summer.

As for me, I'm still willing to pay $11 a ticket for godawful films if I'm with the right people - but I wouldn't pay $15.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Dark Tower": The Cinema Revolution May Be Televised

It seems like all the white whales are surfacing this week. Yesterday the web was abuzz with the news that Stephen King's "Dark Tower" books are coming to both the large and small screens. The plan is to turn the fantasy novels into a series of three films, with two seasons of corresponding television episodes linking the pictures. This is by far the most audacious and ambitious project to come out of Hollywood in a long time if the creators can get away with it. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are going to be helming the first film and television series for Universal, with Stephen King along for the ride as a producer. Akiva Goldsman, who I'm trying very hard to dissociate from "Batman and Robin," and "Lost in Space," will be scripting.

Though I'm familiar with a good portion of King's work, I haven't read any of the "Dark Tower" books. However, their fans are a vocal and skeptical lot, and there's a lot to be skeptical about here. They've been quick to point out that the dark, Western-flavored multi-verse-spanning "Dark Tower" books bear little resemblance to anything that these creators have done before. Howard is known for safer fare like "The Da Vinci Code," and "Apollo 13." Also, the proposed multi-platform rollout is utterly unique. The closest thing I can think of to compare it to is the first "X-Files" movie that came to theaters while the television series was still on the air, and may have contributed to the franchise's decline. Or "Serenity," the follow-up to Joss Whedon's cult favorite "Firefly," which many were hoping would lead to more episodes or films. And of course there's the usual practice of creating elaborate premieres for new television shows that are more or less feature films. But nobody's ever tried to put one in theaters before.

The really interesting part is that this experimental new format presents further evidence of the erosion of the traditional boundaries between the movies and TV. Or as George Costanza might say, "Worlds are colliding! Worlds are colliding!" There's no longer any distinction in quality between film and television productions. A.O. Scott over at the New York Times bemoaned the decline of film's influence on the popular culture just yesterday, noting that the two media had swapped places sometime over the past decade. Now television is home to daring, critically beloved popular entertainments like "Mad Men" and "Treme" that get a lot of press and a lot of discussion, while movies have become more conservative as a whole, and the most ambitious and critically praised titles are getting more and more inaccessible. I agree, as a cinephile who is still impatiently waiting to get her mitts on 2009 releases "The Secret in Their Eyes" and "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done."

Still, the logistics of the proposed "Dark Tower" project are boggling. How long would the wait be between the film and the television series? Would it be better to wait for the movie to come to DVD so new viewers can catch up before watching the series or push ahead earlier to build off the buzz? What if the first film doesn't do well? And should the series air on premium or pay cable? Or on network in order to build up the audience for the next film? How would the foreign distribution be handled? There's so much risk and uncertainty going into this, I have to give Howard and Grazer kudos just for trying. This could be a disaster of epic proportions, but if they succeed, this may open the door for other similarly complicated or difficult genre works to be adapted. I could see the approach working for Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonriders of Pern," or even something like Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, which was originally done as a series of made-for-television-films.

I can't help speculating that this is a reaction to other forces at work in the mediasphere. Are film and television joining forces due to the influence of the Internet perhaps? Certainly the web has played its part in equalizing the two media in terms of digital age distribution, and a significant portion of the intended audience of "The Dark Tower" will probably end up watching installments online in some fashion. Of course, this kind of cross-platforming also presents an amazing marketing opportunity, resurrecting that old buzzword "synergy." Plenty of spin-offs and revamps have crossed media before, but never as part of a single product, and never so directly linked. We may be on the brink of a revolution or a catastrophe. The only way to find out is to get in the ticket line - and stay tuned.