Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Update From "Babylon 5"

I'm 49 episodes into "Babylon 5," which is just short of the halfway point of the series, and I wanted to write up some general thoughts about my experience with the show up to this point. I'll try to refrain from spoilers, but there will be a few about cast changes from the first two seasons.

"Babylon 5" is a '90s sci-fi television series best known for being one of the first to successfully follow a single, cohesive narrative from day one. Creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote nearly all the episodes and had an unusually high degree of direct creative control over the show's content. "Babylon 5" was the flagship series of the short-lived television network PTEN, where it ran for four years before finishing its last season on the cable channel TNT. All five seasons are available on Netflix, and I've slowly been making my way through them over the past few months. The centerpiece of the series so far has been an ongoing war between two alien groups, the Narn and the Centauri. This is shaping up to be only the prelude to a larger conflict that will involve the human race, which is facing its own internal troubles due to corrupt leaders and sinister, propaganda-spewing paramilitary organizations.

"Babylon 5" has aged well, and improves significantly from season to season. The instances of outlandish 80s fashions and bizarre set decoration from the early episodes have mostly gone, and the CGI effects that started out so primitive-looking have gotten much better. The first season was largely comprised of interchangeable stand-alone episodes that introduced various concepts and characters that would become important later. The second and third have been focused on ratcheting up the tension and developing arcs for each character. I find the individual installments of the series fairly predictable, and rife with the sort of schmaltz and cheesiness that invaded too much mainstream science fiction back in the 90s. There are protagonists called Rangers and telepathic baddies called Psi Cops, for instance. However, at its core "Babylon 5" is a far more mature and interesting series than any of the other space operas of the era, including all the "Star Trek" variations I've seen.

Initially it was the little details that stood out. There were obvious efforts to have gender balance and more ethnic diversity on the show, though from a modern frame of reference the cast still comes off lopsided in both regards. However, the show tackled themes and ideas that "Star Trek" never would have touched, often by putting its characters in moral and ethical quandaries that felt truer to life. Episodes have dealt with labor strikes, medical ethics, recreational drug use, propaganda, and religious themes. I especially appreciate the treatment of religion, since most science fiction series are happy to talk generally about spirituality but tend to get cold feet addressing organized religion directly. "Babylon 5" introduces an order of monks to the station in the third season, several characters are outspoken about specific beliefs or religious affiliations, and there's even an updated version of a grail quest in one episode.

The "Babylon 5" universe is an awfully complicated place, where Earth Dome, the central government of the human race, is a far shadier organization than the Federation of "Star Trek." Bending the rules becomes a necessity for the staff of Babylon 5, and currently most of the major good guys are part of a secret war council that requires them to keep their involvement under wraps from their superiors and nearly everyone working under them. Every character has committed acts that would be questionable from a certain point of view. At least one has crossed the line to become a true antagonist on the show, while remaining sympathetic and possibly redeemable. My favorite character is still Londo Molari, the gregarious Centauri ambassador who has gotten himself far, far in over his head in the current conflict. However, the character with the most impressive arc has been G'Kar, who has been transforming from a simple diplomat to something far more intriguing.

It hasn't all been smooth sailing though. In my previous entry looking at the first five episodes, I incorrectly identified the lead actor playing Captain Jeffrey Sinclair as Bruce Boxleitner, when he was actually played by Michael O'Hare. Boxleitner came in as Captain John Sheridan in the second season, one of several cast changes that have occurred so far. I've accidentally spoiled myself for another major character leaving the series at the end of season four. This is one of the major elements I wasn't prepared for. Though all the hype around the series emphasizes how well-planned the continuity for the story was, it's been obvious where the writers have been caught off guard. When O'Hare left the show after the first season, the exit for Captain Sinclair was awkward. Another major female character, who enjoyed nearly two years of continuous development, also had a sudden departure that obviously wasn't anticipated.

The real strength of "Babylon 5" has been how well the show has recovered from each of these setbacks. The story is big enough, and all the characters well developed enough that the narrative can switch gears at a moment's notice. Some characters have had less attention than others, but it doesn't seem odd for minor players like Londo's attaché, Vir, to suddenly take the lead for an episode or two, because they're so well set up. One character who has recently risen to prominence has been Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), a member of the Babylon 5 station's security staff who was a recurring background player in the second season and became a regular in the third. The newly introduced Marcus Cole (Jason Carter) has had a more difficult adjustment and still feels like an outsider after seven episodes, but this is partly by design and has been worked into the storyline.

The big conflict that has been teased for two-and-a-half seasons has yet to fully unfold in the show, but it's coming, and the knowledge that it's coming is a wonderful certainty. And knowing the show isn't going to be canceled before we get to the climax, and knowing all this careful setup and these characters I've grown to love aren't going to all be suddenly dead-ended by nervous executives or studio meddling is no small comfort. Usually I have to wait for the second half of a series to get to the emotional payoff, but I've gotten so much out of "Babylon 5" so far, can't wait to see where it goes next.

I'll be back with more updates soon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The Halloween Tree" - My Favorite Halloween Cartoon

Everyone can name a favorite Christmas cartoon. "Charlie Brown," "Rudolph," "Frosty," "The Grinch," "The Snowman," and all the rest are beloved holiday traditions. But what about cartoons for the other big kid-centric holiday, Halloween? Animation enthusiasts can still count on "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!" the yearly "Treehouse of Horror" installments of "The Simpsons," and "The Nightmare Before Christmas," but there's no denying the pickings are slimmer. The networks will premiere Halloween 'toons regularly, like the new "Shrek" Halloween special airing tomorrow night, but they rarely endure year after year. My personal favorite is one of the exceptions, a 1993 made-for-television feature adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "The Halloween Tree." As childhood nostalgia has begun been hitting Gen-Y, it's started to creep on to many lists of the best Halloween cartoons. Narrated by Bradbury himself, it begins like this:

"It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn't so much wilderness around you couldn't see the town. But on the other hand there wasn't so much town you couldn't see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of fences to walk on, and sidewalks to skate on, and the muted cries and laughter of boys and girls, full of costume dreams and pumpkin spirits, preparing for the greatest night of the year. Better than Easter, better than Christmas… Halloween."

A small gang of trick-or-treaters, dressed as the classic skeleton, mummy, witch, and monster, are troubled to learn that their friend Pip has been carted off the the hospital with appendicitis. But then they see a spectral figure who looks like Pip, and it leads them to a house of haunts on the outskirts of town. There they meet Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, a ghoulish figure voiced by Leonard Nimoy who will serve as guide and host for the evening. The specter of Pip steals away one of Moundshroud's jack o' lanterns, possibly containing Pip's soul, and uses it to escape TARDIS-style into the past. Moundshroud gives chase with the other kids in tow, following Pip to ancient Egypt, the Feast of Samhain at Stonehenge, the building of Notre Dame cathedral, and Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. And along the way, he provides some illumination on the origins of Halloween and the kids' familiar costumes.

"The Halloween Tree" won a few awards upon its initial release, and was rebroadcast several times on Turner cable channels like TNT and Cartoon Network during the 90s. It also aired on a few syndicated stations, which is where I first saw it, but over the last decade it's largely disappeared from sight. There was a VHS release, but the feature has yet to find its way to DVD. I'm not surprised that many people of a certain age remember and cherish it, and that others have either never heard of it or dismiss it as low-grade kids' fodder. "The Halloween Tree" was one of the projects created by Hanna Barbera studios during its brief creative revival in the early 90s after they were acquired by Turner. Though the studio put obvious effort into the production, the animation quality is only just adequate, and the character designs are a little too reminiscent of the endless Hanna Barbera "Scooby Doo" direct-to-video series.

However, the strengths of the feature far outweigh its weaknesses. There's a wonderful score by John Debney, Bradbury himself wrote the adaptation - the teleplay is included with a later edition of the 1972 "Halloween Tree" novel - and Nimoy's Moundshroud is a fantastic creature of the night. The story has more than enough educational material to make "The Halloween Tree" classroom appropriate, which is where many fans first encountered it, but it's also far darker and more emotionally charged than the bulk of similar material aimed at children. What impressed me on my first viewing, when I was well past the age of being Too Old For Cartoons, was that the adventure involved serious stakes and consequences, and that it took real sacrifice to get everyone home again. Not only the accouterments of death, but death itself was central to the story. Not many in children's programming are brave enough to do that these days.

Also, though I may grumble about the animation, there are some striking visuals. We're treated to a living kite made of the wild beasts from circus posters, Notre Dame assembling itself under the moonlit sky, and the Halloween Tree of the title, which is adorned not with autumn leaves but with countless glowing jack o' lanterns. Helped in no small part by Bradbury's own text, "The Halloween Tree" does a very good job of translating the feel and mood of Bradbury's work, which Hollywood has often had trouble with. Grown-ups will appreciate the nostalgic, melancholy atmosphere. Kids should love the supernatural adventure, though the modest scares are probably too much for the littlest ones.

I hope more people discover and rediscover this one as time goes by, because I think there are the genuine makings of a perennial classic here. "The Halloween Tree" has become one of my yearly traditions, and I honestly can't think of Halloween without it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gobsmacked by "Goldfinger"

My first James Bond was Pierce Brosnan, who assumed the role in 1995. I was around for the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton eras, but their films never really caught my attention - I thought of them as kitschy action films for my parents' generation. The Brosnan films, starting with "Goldeneye," and subsequent ones with Daniel Craig, were the only Bond films I was really familiar with for a very long time. Eventually I got curious about the older ones and watched "Dr. No" and "The Spy Who Loved Me," but wasn't invested enough in the series to seek out more. The rest of the classic Bond films remained on the list of movies that I was meaning to watch, but just never got around to. And then last night I watched "Goldfinger," the 1964 installment with the original Bond, Sean Connery, and was walloped with one of the most severe cases of cultural dissonance I've ever experienced.

There's always a curious sense of what I'll call nostalgia by proxy that happens when watching a much beloved, popular film for the first time. Even though I'd never seen "Goldfinger," I had seen clips of its most famous moments and knew many of the characters already. There was the villain, Auric Goldfinger, famous for saying "No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die," his sinister Korean manservant Oddjob, the girl who was murdered by a coating of gold paint, and of course the immortal Pussy Galore. I recognized scenes like Bond facing imminent death by laser beam - a new invention in 1964, Pussy's introduction, and Oddjob decapitating a statue with his deadly bowler hat. There have been so many references to and parodies of "Goldfinger" over the years, it was impossible to go into the film with a clean slate or to engage with the material the way an unwary audience member in 1964 would have. This sort of thing doesn't always adversely affect a film for me, but in this case, it was distracting in the worst way.

And when I wasn't busy mentally disentangling famous scenes and characters from their "Austin Powers" counterparts, I was getting tripped up by the rampant instances of sexism and orientalism. Generally I don't find it difficult to make allowances for older films in this department, because I get that cultural standards and sensitivities change over time. However, with "Goldfinger" it was just one thing after another. Bond goes through women like Kleenex, at least two are killed off in fairly grisly fashion for shock value, and the bulk of the minor villains and henchmen in league with Goldfinger are nameless Asian cannon fodder. The 60s Bond was a hero of the "Mad Men" era, a fantasy masculine ideal that looks woefully out of date from the other side of the generational divide. I keep thinking of Judi Dench as M in "Goldeneye" dismissing Bond as "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War." I like Sean Connery's portrayal in spite of this, but it takes a lot of effort to push past all the baggage, ultimately too much for me to really enjoy the film.

There were plenty of things that I appreciated about "Goldfinger" though. The title sequence with the Shirley Bassey theme song is still spectacular. Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore is easily the most interesting Bond girl I've encountered next to Vesper Lynd of "Casino Royale," and she complements Connery's Bond beautifully. Speaking of Connery, his performance here was a good improvement over "Dr. No," a Bond film that has aged far less gracefully than this one. All the wry humor and double entendres were a lot of fun, as well as the early encounters between Goldfinger and Bond at the hotel and golf course. Then the film moved on to the silliness of laser beams and Fort Knox, and it lost me. There have simply been too many parodies of the more over-the-top elements of the Bond franchise for me to take them at face value. It's no wonder that the series increasingly took a turn for the comedic by the time Roger Moore came to the role.

I'm still curious to see some of the other Connery Bond films, like "From Russia With Love" and "Thunderball." Since I'm not as familiar with their particulars as I was with "Goldfinger," maybe I'll be able to enjoy them more. "You Only Live Twice," however, is going to the back of the line. In addition to a plot that takes Bond to Japan and briefly arranges a sham marriage to a local exotic beauty, this is also the first installment with Blofeld, the villain who I'm afraid I already associate too closely with his parodies - Dr. Claw from "Inspector" Gadget," and Dr. Evil form "Austin Powers." The Bond film I most anticipate seeing, however, doesn't exist yet. Now that MGM may finally be emerging from limbo, hopefully they can move ahead with the third Daniel Craig Bond film and get the series back on track.

Connery was a great James Bond. But he'll never be my Bond.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Taking a Shine to "Top Gear"

It was a nice coincidence that I was watching a really great episode of "Top Gear" the weekend that "60 Minutes" decided to run a piece about the beloved British program, which celebrates all things motorized and vehicular. I know next to nothing about cars, motorcycles, or pretty much any other form of transportation that goes vroom, but as I'm about to join the legions of commuters on the road next week, and my significant other has a condition colloquially known as the Need for Speed, cars are quickly becoming a major part of my life. And I've come to know car culture a little better over the past few weeks, thanks to the antics of "Top Gear" hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May, and the Stig.

My view of "Top Gear" is probably heavily skewed since I've only been watching the highlights of the show - the specials, races, challenges, and the segments about Richard Hammond's notorious crash of a jet-powered car in 2006. I think I've only sat through a single episode from beginning to end with all the reviews of various vehicles, the guests competing for best time on the test track, and arguments over placements of cars on The Cool Wall. In short, all the segments that contain content that a serious car enthusiast would be interested in, I tend to tune out. I'm in it for the spectacle, the personalities, and the humor, which all transcend the divide between the car-lover and the car-ambivalent.

Before I actually saw "Top Gear," all I knew was that it was a show about automobiles, and assumed that it was all gearhead reviews, speed tests, and purchasing tips. Not my idea of entertainment. Then I saw the show's 2007 segment about the Reliant Robin, a tiny, three-wheeled car that was popular in the UK in the 70s, despite being difficult to drive at anything approaching normal speeds. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson tested one out, but he never seemed to be able to go more than a few hundred yards without the car rolling over or skidding onto its side. It was the most hysterical thing I'd seen in ages, and suddenly the idea of watching a show about cars didn't seem like such a tedious prospect after all.

By far the most entertaining segments are the races and challenges when the three presenters have to compete against each other. This weekend I watched their Vietnam special from 2008, which required the trio to race from the south of Vietnam to the north on motorcycles and scooters over the course of eight days. All three of the hosts are scruffy-looking journalists in their forties and fifties, and might seem like an odd choice to be fronting a program that regularly features some of the slickest pieces of engineering known to mankind. But what they might lack in visual appeal, Clarkson, Hammond, and May more than make up for with speedy wit, creative snark, and an endlessly combative working relationship. It's like watching the good old days of "Siskel and Ebert," if their show had been about cars and they were really invested in humiliating each other.

In the Vietnam episode, for example, the presenters make their trip on locally purchased vehicles, including a comically inappropriate Vespa, which break down at the drop of a hat. Two of the three can't find bike helmets that fit, and initially have to resort to modified crockery and a bucket. A few days in, they trade in their clothes for newly tailored monstrosities of fuchsia and aquamarine. Then they keep buying each other outlandish presents like statuary and a model galleon that have to be strapped to the backs of the bikes to transport. Eventually they resemble nothing so much as a trio of mini-parade floats inching up the map toward Hanoi. Toward the end of the trip, realizing they can't possibly make the deadline, they cheat and take a train to make up for lost time. The entire way, they bicker and taunt and needle each other, and utterly fail to maintain any pretense of dignity. I nearly laughed myself sick.

I'm told the more serious segments of "Top Gear" are sufficiently informative and critical so that the show has a sterling reputation among enthusiasts. And it's concerns about maintaining this integrity that has stymied past attempts to export "Top Gear" to other markets like the US, where the program would have to be careful about stepping on the toes of corporate sponsors, something the BBC-produced original doesn't need to worry about. Nonetheless, the History Channel is planning to launch its own version in a few months. Maybe I'll tune in, but first I'll be searching out the past episodes where the presenters take on challenges in Botswana, the North Pole, and (gulp) Alabama. And maybe, someday, I'll learn to appreciate the more respectable parts of the show.

And who knows? Maybe I'll even learn to like cars too.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Waiting for Guillermo

Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" looks like it may finally begin filming soon, now that the cast has been announced, the labor issues are getting resolved, and rights-holder MGM is likely to merge with Lionsgate and finally emerge from limbo. Hopefully it will be a chance for Jackson to improve on his last film, the underwhelming "The Lovely Bones." However, the news also marks the advancement of yet another project that Guillermo del Toro, who had been tapped to helm "The Hobbit" up until a few months ago, is not directing. I was at the Comic Con Disney panel this summer, where Del Toro appeared to confirm his involvement in the new "Haunted Mansion" reboot. A few days later, it was clarified that Del Toro would be producing and possibly writing, but would not direct. Finally, at the end of September, he announced that he would direct an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," for Universal, to be produced by James Cameron.

But first, he needs to finish writing "Trollhunters" and stump for "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," the horror film that Disney recently delayed. Del Toro is also associated with at least a dozen other future film projects, including new versions of "Pinocchio," "Tarzan," "Frankenstein," "Van Helsing," "The Witches," and "Slaughterhouse Five." He's also involved with feature adaptations of the upcoming novel "Drood," the comic "Deadman," the animated short "Alma," and original projects "Saturn and the End of Days" and "The Coffin." Of course many fans are still hopeful that a third "Hellboy" movie is still a possibility. Personally, I'm the most interested in the third film in his planned "Spanish Civil War" trilogy, tentatively titled "3993," which would follow 2001's "The Devil's Backbone" and 2006's "Pan's Labyrinth."

There's no telling which of these films are actually going to be made. One of the older projects that I was looking forward to was "Domu," the Katsuhiro Otomo manga that Del Toro was reportedly dying to adapt back in the late 90s. It doesn't get mentioned on any of the lists of Del Toro's upcoming films anymore. Many of the others that he's producing are those that Del Toro was initially planning to direct and ended up passing on to other directors. Some have suggested that he's been overwhelmed by the wealth of opportunities that opened up to him after the success of "Pan's Labyrinth" in 2007. The last film that Guillermo del Toro actually directed was "Hellboy: The Golden Army," which was released in the summer of 2008. Looking at his current slate, his next will be "At the Mountains of Madness," which is projected for sometime in 2012.

Four years isn't a huge gap between films for a director. James Cameron, for instance, took twelve years between "Titanic" and "Avatar," with a few documentaries during the interval to remind us he was still around. However, the size of the slate that Del Toro is taking on has many observers raising eyebrows, and so many of the titles are fanboy-friendly that the hype and anticipation surrounding his projects keeps growing. The longer the gap grows between Del Toro's last film and the next, the greater the expectations. "The Hobbit" situation was a setback that wasn't his fault, but I'm worried that since Del Toro's next will be a pet horror project based on non-mainstream material, he may be setting himself up for a fall.

Because Del Toro hasn't spent the capital from his triumph with "Pan's Labyrinth," he hasn't really had his chance to put a film forward based on the strength of his own name. He's lent his name to promote smaller films like "The Orphanage," and the "Hellboy" sequel highlighted him as director, but there hasn't been anything that's felt like a true follow-up to "Labyrinth." I think this is because Del Toro as a director feels like one of his beloved monsters, namely Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His more commercial films like "Blade II," "Mimic," and the "Hellboy" films are decent, but feel very different from his weightier, more impressive Spanish language projects, where he has more creative freedom. I'm still waiting to see Del Toro truly unleashed on a mainstream film, but on the other hand I'm not sure if that's such a good idea.

I found "Hellboy: The Golden Army" disappointing compared to the original, and I wonder whether it's because Del Toro had fewer constraints. There were clear signs that he got too bogged down in the gorgeous visuals and neglected the script. The film was a bad clash between his two different sensibilities, with tonal issues all over the place. Will Del Toro improve upon his next outing? Will he bomb? The added pressure of growing expectations is just going to get worse the longer he's absent from theater screens, and would compound any perceived failure. On the other hand, I doubt a bomb or two would be the end of Del Toro. Audiences are nothing if not forgiving, and they have notoriously short memories, as the career of M. Night Shyamalan proves.

Not that I think Guillermo del Toro should be compared to M. Night Shyamalan, or even Peter Jackson. One thing Del Toro has in his favor is that he's been working in Hollywood for a good long while, and "Pan's Labyrinth" wasn't his first major film or even his fifth. He's already has his ups and downs, and I think that's what we'll continue to see from him in the future.

We'll just have to wait (and wait, and wait) and see.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Inevitable Demise of the DVD

Netflix's third quarter earnings came in yesterday, along with annoucements that its business was shifting focus to its online streaming service and away from its original DVD-by-mail service. This is just the latest sign that the prevalence of physical media may be coming to an end. While I think it's doubtful that all media we consume will be in digital form, and I certainly prefer having something physical to put on the shelf when purchasing films and televisions shows, I have to say I'm not sorry to see the age of the DVD go. I hate DVDs.

It's hard to imagine it now, with DVDs so prevalent, but the transition from the VHS tape to the DVD as the dominant media format was a slow one. DVDs were introduced in the US in 1997, but it wasn't until 2003 that rentals and sales began outpacing VHS tapes, and many content providers were wary that the new format wasn't going to catch on. I remember Disney being a notable holdout, waiting until 2000 to start releasing its back catalogue of animated films on DVD. At that point, the superficially similar laserdisc format had been around since the 70s and was never popular except with the hardcore technology geeks. The benefits of the DVD seem to be obvious in hindsight: vastly greater storage capability in a more compact form, slower degradation, and better resistance to repeated playing. All those fancy extras like director commentaries, multiple language tracks, and turning on and off subtitles became possible. Also, you never, ever need to rewind a DVD when you're finished watching a movie. But I still hate them.

DVDs, along with CDs and all their variants are far, far more user unfriendly than just about every other media format ever made for mass consumption. From the beginning, using DVDs and CDs was an annoyance. It was a struggle to get jewel cases open. It was a struggle to get the discs off the plastic hubs holding them in place in the cases. If you didn't hold the discs by their edges and avoid rough handling, they would end up smudged or scratched, affecting their playability. If you didn't put them back just right, the discs would slip and end up scratched. It's no wonder people were reluctant to switch. Say what you will about VHS, but I could stack the cassettes on top of each other, drop them on the floor, and bang them against the VCR without worry. And no matter how badly the picture quality degraded, or became clouded with static, at least they were still playable. I still borrow movies from the public library all the time, but when I borrow DVDs I've taken to checking them for scratches before taking them home.

I don't want to go back to the VHS days, but I still use a VCR to record shows I want to timeshift, and sometimes I find it a relief to see shelves of the old clamshell boxes along the back wall of the library. VHS tapes may be dinosaurs, but they never inspired the kind of frustration and rage that DVDs have managed to provoke from me over the years. I've literally spent hours trying to coax scratched rental discs to advance a few more frames after they freeze at a critical juncture in a movie or TV show. I've lost major scenes in films like "Waitress," and had to forego the endings of Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" and Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." I know all the tricks for fixing scratches, but none of them work 100% of the time. Too often, I've had to listen to the endless click-whir, click-whirr of my player or laptop trying to read the damaged sections of a disc, before finally giving up and going to Youtube to find out how my movie ended. These aren't just the library discs, mind you, but ones I've occasionally gotten from Blockbuster and Netflix too.

Streaming services may have their hiccups, and they don't have all the wonderful extras that come with DVDs yet, but there's no comparison when it comes to usability. I don't have to worry about whether a film is going to stop halfway through, or if its picture is going to erupt into cascades of green and magenta pixels, no matter how many people have used the same file before me. I don't have to handle a digital file gingerly - I don't have to handle it at all. Many people like making digital backup copies of their DVDs, and I have to wonder why you'd bother keeping the DVDs around after ripping them, especially now that it's gotten so much easier to watch internet content on regular old TV screens. I still like having physical media, and would gladly buy movies in flashdrive form if they were made available, but I can't wait for the discs to go.

One day in the future, I look forward to replacing all my DVDs, and taking the obsolete discs out to the park to play Frisbees with. Or shoot skeet with. Or use as a coaster set. Or maybe I'll just send them off to the library, to gather dust and keep the old VHS collection company.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Excuse to Write About "The Twilight Zone"!

Via Deadline, the news came in yesterday that a new "Twilight Zone" film is in development, being scripted by writer Jason Rotherberg. As a fan on the original series, who never missed a holiday marathon (my hometown syndicated station, KTLA, popularized the tradition), I welcome the news. As a child I was happily freaked out by the first "Twilight Zone" film, especially Joe Dante's take on "It's a Good Life," and George Miller's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" with John Lithgow. I even have fond memories of the 80s revival, "The New Twilight Zone," but not so much the 2002 attempt. Bloggers and journos have already started speculating and offering their suggestions for which classic episodes could be adapted to feature length. I can't resist adding some of my own favorites to the pile.

"Little Girl Lost" - There's nothing more frightening for a parent than a missing kid. And as this episode and "Poltergeist" proved, when the supernatural is involved, a kid can go missing without ever leaving the house, or even leaving their parents' earshot. We didn't get to explore much of the strange pocket of interdimensional space that little Tina briefly tumbled into, back in 1962, so there's lots of room to expand the story and flesh out the characters. And any remake should have a boost over the original just by using a real little girl's disembodied voice calling for help, instead of a grown woman trying to sound like a little girl.

"To Serve Man" - Sure it's based on a groaner of a pun, but the satirical possibilities are endless. The aliens may do the serving of man, but I'm betting that they're going to need some help with the processing, packaging, marketing, quality control, and advertising. Who better to lend a hand than the beloved entities that are very familiar with the product already - corporate America? After all, Soylent Green didn't become a success all by itself. I'd love to see the story from the viewpoint of a harried executive, trying to deal with production problems, suspicious underlings, and demanding clients, and maybe a little office romance on the side?

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" - This one just keeps getting more relevent over time. I always felt for the poor heroine, Marilyn, forced to confrom to a cookie-cutter standard of beauty that effectively lobotomized her in the process. In the age of Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians, sometimes you have to wonder if there's something more sinister going on. I'd love a little more insight on the origins of the dystopian nightmare world "Number 12" takes place in, and after seeing a few too many similarly premised movies end in revolution and upheaval, it'll be nice to see something with a more sobering, unhappy ending.

"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" - With all the alien invasion films coming soon, this one should fit right in. The cook with the third eye was one of the images I always associated with "Twilight Zone," and I'm dying to see someone take a stab at it again with today's effects technology. I don't think that filmmakers could get away with using the same twist again, but the concepts of competing invasions, alien infiltrators, and the "extra man" dilemma could easily be reconfigured into a fun science-fiction thriller. A feature would also provide the opportunity to show us some of the actual interstellar warfare between the Martians and Venusians.

"Paladin of the Lost Hour" - My favorite of the '80s "Zones," written by science fiction's most irascible scribe, Harlan Ellison. The original episode introduced the idea that the last, precious, hour before the end of the world has been safely preserved in a pocket watch. As long as the last hour is kept safe, doomsday will never come, but it holds powers that may be an awful temptation to whoever holds it. Twenty-five years after we saw the watch passed on from one caretaker to the next, I'd love to see the idea revisited. And as an added perk, we can count on a good rant from Ellison about the end result, good or bad.

There are so many, many more that could be revisited, and reading over the lists of episodes I just want to sit down and marathon them all over again, especially some of the more obscure episodes, and the installments from the two revival series. Did you know "Dead Man's Shoes" was remade as an 80s episode with Helen Mirren? That Robert Duvall starred in one of the hour-long episodes as a man in love with a museum miniature? There's so much potential here for something special. A final note - the robot boxer story, "Steel," would have been on this list too, but it's already being turned into a feature film, "Real Steel," with Hugh Jackman, due in theaters next year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Watching the News and Ducking the Bias

People love to talk about bias in the media. Liberal bias, conservative bias, FOX News for Republicans, and MSNBC for Democrats. CNN tries to take the middle road, and its audience just keeps shrinking. But where is most of the bias really coming from? The audience. Getting your news online or through a multiplicity of cable channels means that it's easier to pick and choose your sources of information than ever, and most people like whatever reinforces their own views. Notably, CNN gets a boost whenever something really momentous happens in the world, like the rescue of the miners in Chile, because their fundamental newsgathering resources are stronger than those of their competitors. The trouble is that the rest of the time, the demagogues have center stage. I won't point fingers or name names, but I long for the second Tuesday of November to be over with, so we can stop with the airing of grievances and the rabble rousing in the lead-up to election day.

Putting aside the politics though, my personal issues with bias and media go beyond the left/right slant and simple likes and dislikes. I'm constantly catching myself skimming and ignoring important news stories on the web, only to be surprised when I see television segments about them later. The blockades and protests happening in France right now are a huge story, but I mentally just skipped right over yesterday's reports when browsing the Google news aggregation page. It's happened enough that I worry about my own invisible filters affecting how I take in information. For all the talk of journalistic biases, the biggest barrier between me and the big story is usually me, or rather my own preconceived notions. Stories about Africa, reports of the wars in Afghanistan, anything involving the Middle East conflicts between Israel and Palestine - it sounds terrible, but I'll automatically ignore them without a thought.

It bothers be me because I like being informed and I like being in the know. But every time I open a web browser to read up on the news, it's always an internal battle between reading articles that are entertaining and articles that are truly informative. I find I get sucked in by sensationalistic headlines, controversial opinion pieces, and rehashed fluff all the time. To combat this, I make myself go through a short checklist of sites and pages every day before I let myself indulge in softer articles, sort of an eat-your-vegetables-first approach to the news. First I'll look over the Google World News and US News sections, then the New York Times World News main page, then the list of the most popular articles for the World News section, then the lists of most popular and most blogged general news articles. I don't necessarily read all the articles, or even half of them, but at least I can get a good sense of what's going on in the world.

I also regularly watch the BBC World News telecast via PBS in the evenings. I started tuning in shortly after the September 11th attacks, because the American news organizations were getting too emotionally overwrought for me. Certainly they have their own biases, but I like them because they provide a more neutral outsider's point of view to whatever is going on in the U.S., and their coverage of events in other countries is much more comprehensive than what the major American networks provide. More importantly, the newscast provides a perspective, something you can't get by simply looking at a list of the major stories of the day. They choose which stories are the big ones, like the social upheaval in France, and devote more time to them. I can scroll past the stories about France in a fraction of a second on a news website, but it's much more difficult to ignore a five-minute video segment.

And while I do my best to see and hear more of the news I don't have any interest in, or don't particularly feel like consuming, I also do my best to stay away from the non-stories and molehill-turned-mountain stories that dominate certain news sources. I don't listen to talk radio. I don't watch any of the cable news networks, with the exception of CNN during big events like the mine rescue. The most I hear of commentators like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann is through Jon Stewart's snarky smackdowns on "The Daily Show." There's too much going on in the world to pay much attention to the fustigators that stir up outrage for ratings, even for fun. All the news commentators that I like aren't particularly photogenic and stick to print.

The only exception I make is for the entertainment news, because if opinion gets confused with the facts in that arena, well, I don't see any real harm. In Hollywood the gossip often is the news. I still hold out hope that the rest of the world doesn't have to work that way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Madness of the Mobile Friendly Website

The horror is spreading. A few months ago I broke up with TV Squad over their new layout, which took the television blog and merged it with AOL's "Inside TV" blog, which was essentially a collection of posted television clips from the previous night. The result was a disaster - horrific technical problems, hideous formatting, and greatly watered-down content. I struggled for months with the site's multiple new aggravations before finally calling it quits.

A few weeks ago, my favorite movie blog, Cinematical, was acquired by Moviefone and followed suit. Despite promises from the editorial staff that nothing was really changing in spite of their new corporate sponsorship, they soon adopted the exact same graphic format as TV Squad, one that uses too much white space and makes the articles more difficult to read on my laptop screen. The content thankfully didn't change, but there were several technical issues to deal with, like the commenting system becoming less user-friendly and a multiplicity of sidebars and link blocks. It was the massive graphics that irked me the most, though, because they took up so much space and required so much additional scrolling.

Then other sites started following suit. At the end of September, the individual film pages of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) suddenly changed over to a new format. Now they're dominated by graphics, and the neat, easy-to-navigate navigational column with its links to the Trivia, Awards, Goofs, Quotes, and other sections has disappeared. You have to do some serious scrolling to get to information that was available at a glance in the previous versions, like running time, rating, and release date. A little clicking around will bring up supplemental information in the old format, with all the old shortcuts intact, but finding anything on the main page requires much more effort than it used to.

Poke around the web a little, and you'll find other recent website and blog redesigns all focused on bigger graphics, clunkier designs, and harder-to-navigate pages that give you less information and use up much more space. It took me a few weeks to figure out what the hell was going on, but finally it hit me. If you shrink the new pages down in size, to the way they would appear on a mobile device like an iPhone, suddenly the graphics don't look big at all. The links are easier to click with a fingertip because they're less crowded together, and scrolling is a breeze. The new IMDB page is much easier to view on a mobile device with Internet browsing capabilities.

The problem is that I don't use an iPhone or a Droid, or anything of the sort. I'm still using a web browser to browse the web, and I'll bet the majority of the users who are visiting these websites are too. Redesigning IMDB into a giant iPhone app seems like a great, forward-thinking idea - except that an app doesn't make for a very good website. Fortunately there is an option to automatically revert to views of the older versions of the IMDB pages, but only if you're registered with the site and have access to the personal preference options. The mobile-device-friendly version remains the default for everyone else. And frankly, it stinks. Why must a long-established website suddenly start catering to a small minority of early adopters while giving the rest of its user base headaches?

I can just hear the defensive protestations now. Everybody is going to have a mobile device eventually, whether it's one of the new Smartphones or other devices, right? So surely websites and bloggers need to make the drastic changes quickly in order to stay on the cutting edge. It's all well and good to accommodate mobile users, but I doubt there's anyone who's a mobile user all the time. A simplified version of the IMDB might be fine to scroll through on an iPhone, but it's not as useful and not as valuable to me as having the original version available for reference when I get home, the version that gets me to use IMDB over Wikipedia or another information source in the first place.

I know it's too much to hope for IMDB to scrap the new design completely and revert to the older one, but I'm hoping that they'll listen to the chorus of complaints in the wake of the changes and find some sort of happy medium to make both the mobile and the stationary users happy. As for Cinematical, I've resorted to reading the blog through an RSS feed. This still requires me to visit the site in order to read their full posts and articles, but at least the scrolling issues are mostly alleviated.

Now I just have to figure out why my Gmail account suddenly thinks that I'm reading my E-mails from a Blackberry, and has taken away all my navigation panels. If I give in and buy an iPhone, will Google please put them back?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Oh No, Not the New Girl!

I'm taking a break from "House." This is not because I dislike the title character's new relationship with his lovely female superior. On the contrary. I can't wait to see the pair hit the skids and the inevitable workplace fallout. Rather, and I am ashamed to admit this, I'm staying away from the series until Amber Tamblyn's guest run as a newly recruited medical student on the show is over, or at least until Olivia Wilde comes back, or Tamblyn's settled into the show's universe for a few months. I really have no excuse for being apprehensive. It's been years since Tamblyn was trembly-lipped Emily Quartermaine on "General Hospital" and Joan from the cloying "Joan of Arcadia," and she deserves a chance as much as anyone.

And yet, the immediate thought that entered into my head when I first heard about the casting decision was, oh good grief. Another photogenic twenty-something actress of dubious acting ability being shoehorned into the established cast of one of my favorite television shows to introduce more sexual tension, draw in younger viewers, and muck up the status quo. I know that part of this is simply ingrained resistance to change, but it's just as much a reaction to too many past experiences where these kinds of additions have been done badly. Cast changes are often the shark-jumping moments when a long-running show begins its inevitable decline. And when they happen as late in the game as this, you often get a Cousin Oliver situation, a la the infamous introduction of a bratty younger relative to "The Brady Bunch" in one of its later seasons. "House" is currently in year six, and is threatening to actually resolve several character and story arcs, so it's understandable why the producers are looking for new sources of conflict. But tossing a new girl into the mix just seems desperate and cheap at this point.

I have a similar gut reaction about Julia Stiles joining the cast of "Dexter" for the fourth season, even though I like Julia Stiles. And it'll be the same with whoever they get to fill A.J. Cook's spot on "Criminal Minds." "House" itself has been through a round of cast changes already. It was a smooth transition adding Olivia Wilde to the cast as Dr. Remy "Thirteen" Hadley, because two other cast members were rotated in with her and the transition period was much longer. On the other hand, it doesn't help that she was quickly paired up with Foreman, and now Chase is pursuing her. I know there's been a gender imbalance since Jennifer Morrison departed the show and Olivia Wilde is on leave, so the addition of a new female character should be something to look forward to. And I know I wouldn't have these same apprehensions if it was a new guy coming on board as opposed to a new girl, and it's stereotyping to assume that Tamblyn is being introduced simply to add another option to the staff hookups that "House" indulges in. And yet the nagging unease persists.

I've blogged before about my dissatisfaction with the way female characters are underrepresented or sidelined in the media, and the way that many of the creative types behind the scenes view them as interchangeable. We're a long way from the days when producers could write Suzanne Sommers off "Three's Company" over contract disputes without consequence, but A.J. Cook was unceremoniously dropped from "Criminal Minds" this season over budget cuts, with Paget Brewster soon to follow. There's still a significant gap between how male and female characters function in fictional narratives on television, how much screentime they get, and how they're treated in general. A new girl isn't just a new castmember, but a walking plot device that too many shows have bungled. Whether Tamblyn turns out to be a good fit on "House" or not, I'm skipping out on the first few episodes that will feature her because I have no interest in watching the usual rounds of salacious gossip and awkward adjustment that tend to accompany similar newbies.

Just looking at Amber Tamblyn's filmmography and reading the descriptions of her character on "House," it's clear she's going to be a wide-eyed young idealist who will initially be in over her head on House's team of diagnosticians. In other words, she'll be an easy target for House's curmudgeonly snark, which is bound to resurface over the course of the season. And given that she bears no resemblance to the three doctors House hired during Season Four, in either experience or temperament, the real medical mystery is going to be what kind of convoluted logic the writers are going to use for House to justify hiring her. As much as I enjoy watching House's cynical smackdown of naivete and positivism on the show, this feels too easy. Maybe I'm wrong and Tamblyn will turn out to be a cynic or a firebrand, but right now the feeling I get is that she'll be a younger retread of Jennifer Morrison's Cameron from the early seasons of the show, another cardboard cutout to add to the roster of underused secondary characters.

Maybe while Olivia Wilde was on vacation, they could have given Foreman a mini-arc or looked into Taub's marriage problems a little more in-depth. The biggest bone I have to pick with the new girl, is that she's frequently a distraction from a long-running show's real problems - narrative stagnation and lack of ideas. The writers could have used Wilde's absence to do all sorts of interesting things, or brought back plenty of characters from the past to stir up trouble, but instead they're going the safe route with a fresh face and the same old story.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In the "RED"

There are many, many things wrong with "RED," the new comedic-action film loosely based on a DC graphic novel by Warren Ellis. The screenplay by Jon and Eric Hober is very weak. Robert Schwentke's direction is marginal at best. What "RED" does have in its favor is a spectacular cast, and if there were ever a time when the casting people for a film were responsible for saving the day, this is it. What got me into the theater was the promise of seeing Bruce Willis, John Malkovitch, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and Ernest Borgnine, who were all featured in the trailer brandishing oversized firearms, dropping one-liners, and looking like they were having a blast. Thanks to their performances, there are some fun moments in "RED," but overall the film is a disappointment.

Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, a CIA agent who isn't adjusting to his retirement in suburbia very well. One of his few joys is calling and chatting up Sarah Ross (Mary Louise Parker), a minor government employee in charge of sending out his pension checks. One night Frank is attacked by a team of assassins, and is forced to go on the run. He makes a brief detour to Washington DC first, in order to kidnap Sarah, knowing she'll be targeted by whoever is after him. Hot on Frank's heels is Agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), an ambitious young G-man who has been ordered to hunt him down by some shadowy superiors. Frank goes to his old friends and former black-ops team members for help, including Marvin Boggs (John Malkovitch), Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), and the lovely Victoria (Helen Mirren).

"RED" stands for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous," a designation stamped on Frank Moses' impressive file at the CIA. The movie makes good on its premise of giving us a chance to see all these celebrated, award-winning older actors kicking butts. Clearly, there's a limit to the kind of stunts that someone like Morgan Freeman or Helen Mirren can really pull off, but there are several good action sequences that milk the spectacle for all its worth. It's a delight to see Malkovitch facing down an RPG with a handgun and Mirren taking out secret service guards in an evening gown. Unfortunately, "RED" isn't successful at doing anything more with its cast, and considering the caliber of these actor's, it's an awful waste.

After Frank Moses hits the road, the story immediately begins to fall apart. Sarah goes from kidnap victim to giddy accomplice much too quickly. Marvin, who is established as a paranoid basket case, also seems awfully eager to leave his isolated bunker in the Everglades to come along for the ride. Morgan Freeman as Joe pops in and out of the film seemingly at random, and one wonders if the writers were having trouble deciding whether or not to keep his character in the script. His performance is utterly wasted, as are those of Richard Dreyfuss and James Remar, who show up in roles completely extraneous to the plot. The writing is terribly weak throughout, with labored plot twists, and dialogue in desperate need of a good polish.

This wouldn't be such an issue if "RED" was a pure action film like "The Expendables," but it's not. "RED" is much lighter fare that relies as much on its spy story narrative and comedic moments as it does on its action sequences. The real benefit of having these seasoned actors involved is their ability to salvage what they can of the lackluster script. The standout of the cast, to my surprise, turned out to be Mary Louise Parker as Sarah, who made an underwritten love interest character into someone lovable and sympathetic. Another was Brian Cox, playing a former Soviet rival of Frank's. Karl Urban in the thankless antagonist role was also far better than the material deserved.

In the end "RED" was a lot of fun, but it could have been so much more. It's impossible to see all that talent onscreen together and not wish that they could have had something more substantial to work with. "RED" may have been conceived as a farce, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have had more class and wit and intelligence. I'd love to see a sequel to "RED," just so everyone could get back together and give it another try. And maybe they can lock the writers in a room, and force them to watch the "Pink Panther" and Roger Moore era "James Bond" films a few times first.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The TV Shows I Wish I Could Be Watching

The urge to follow the crowd can be strong, and in television watching, this is no different. I've long reconciled myself to the fact that there are way too many shows to ever catch up on, my tastes never seem to follow the mainstream, and TV scheduling practices are evil. I find it impossible to keep up with more than four or five shows per season, and this year I've already bailed on nearly all the new shows that premiered less than a month ago, and I've been adding old favorites like "House" and "Law & Order: SVU" to the discard pile in favor of more "Babylon 5" on Netflix.

And yet, as I browse through the entertainment pages every day, I get that wistful twinge whenever I spot another breathless "did you see what happened last night?!" article about the latest developments on shows I don't watch, like "Mad Men," "Boardwalk Empire," or "Project Runway" - well, I'm actually watching that last one, but I'm at least a month behind the current episodes. You lose the fun of the communal viewing experience if you don't watch a show live, and the anticipation and speculation that happens between episodes is a bigger part of a show's success than I think most people realize. On the other hand, sometimes the commitment can be rough.

So here's a short list of current shows that I'm not watching, but wish I had the time to check out based on the chatter I keep hearing about them, and the limited bits that I've seen of them:

- Shows on premium cable - It will be a long, long time before I am in a financial position to have regular legal access to HBO, Showtime, and the Starz content that is not available on Netflix. Thus, I've largely skipped shows that have originated there, even though I keep meaning to try a few episodes of "The Sopranos," "The Tudors," and "Carnivale" on DVD. The only exception has been "Dexter," which hooked me with an edited broadcast of the first season that CBS ran a few summers ago. Right now, the big title I'm been rubbernecking over has been "Boardwalk Empire," the period gangster series that Martin Scorsese is heavily involved with. Other recent offerings I've been curious about have been "The Big C" with Laura Linney, "In Treatment" with Gabriel Byrne, and the post-Katrina David Simon series, "Treme."

- Shows that air on AMC - "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" keep winning Emmys every year, and their fans keep wringing their hands over every episode. "Mad Man," in particular, is a critical darling that has brainy publications like "Slate" and "The New York Times" generating reflective dissections that are really just shined up versions of the "did you see what happened last night?!" blog posts everyone else is writing. I've had plenty of opportunity to see both shows, but I've never managed to sit down for an episode of either. They seem like serials that require starting from the beginning, one of the big barriers that kept me from getting into other ambitious fare like "The Wire." So having missed the launches of both shows, now it seems easier to wait them out and marathon the whole series later.

- "30 Rock" - I've actually taken several stabs at watching "30 Rock," but never quite connected with the material. The media establishment and various friends keep prodding me to add it to my schedule, and I'm pretty sure that if I had four or five episodes to run through at once, I'd get into the rhythm of the comedy more easily. I love Tina Fey as Liz Lemon and think that Tracy Morgan is some kind of secret entertainment genius, but I don't find myself coming back to the show from week to week. Just last night I made it about halfway through the big live show before interrupted. I tell myself that I'll go back and finish the episode on Hulu or the NBC website, but I know I really won't. Other sitcoms I keep meaning to watch regularly include "How I Met Your Mother" and "Modern Family."

- "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" - Yes, I still watch cartoons, especially the ones that air after midnight on Cartoon Network. The original "Fullmetal Alchemist" is one of my favorites, and this alternate version of the story, that's supposed to hew much closer to the original manga, has been very well-received. However, the reboot covers many of the same events as the original in the early going, so I only got through about four or five episodes of the new series before calling it quits. This was the same show I'd already seen, but with dodgier art and direction. Everyone I've spoken to swears up and down that it gets better, and I believe them. Anime are often slow burners that take a few episodes to get warmed up. But that's also made it easier to shuffle this one to the back of the deck for now.

- "Fringe" - I saw the recent season three opener featuring a great performance by Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham, the first episode I've watched. Comparisons have been made between "Fringe" and "The X-Files," which I faithfully watched all through the 90s up until its final season, but "Fringe" wasn't on my radar at all until recently. I love supernatural shows, and I dig the concept of a parallel dimension full of sinister doppelgangers, and that John Noble gets to play a more lovable crazy than Denethor from "Lord of the Rings." Alas, "Fringe" clashes with the schedules of too many other shows on my roster, and even though the episode I saw provided an easy in for the series, it'll have to wait until I can find the time for it.

- Humorous action-crime shows - The list is endless. "Leverage," "Burn Notice," "White Collar," "The Good Guys," and "Psych," and so many more all seem to have slipped through my fingers. I love light action shows full of snark and banter, but I have a hard time holding on to them. So far "Hawaii Five-O" seems to be sticking it out, because I can't resist the theme song, but frankly it's not as good as some of the others. Most of these shows are on cable, and I've watched mini-marathons of several like "Burn Notice" on the weekends. But when it comes to the premieres in prime time, I just can't seem to keep track of them.

So many TV shows and so little time. Maybe I'll just avoid the problem and go watch a movie.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

I've been seeing the trailers for "Buried" in theaters for months now, the Ryan Reynolds thriller that has the actor trapped in a coffin and buried underground for ninety excruciating minutes. It's been in limited release since late September, and was due to go into wide release on October 8th, last week. I was reading interviews and reviews for it from all the usual corners, and was surprised when it didn't show up in the box office rankings Monday morning. Unfortunately, it looks like the film only expanded to 92 theaters and is unlikely to go wider because of tepid audience reaction. Faced with a potential bomb, distributor Lionsgate is apparently trying to cut its losses. Since "Buried" was made on a shoestring budget of less than $2 million, and Lionsgate acquired it for around $3.5 million, they shouldn't have much trouble making back their investment and whatever they've spent to market the film so far. However, this means that a huge chunk of the potential audience is going to have to wait to see it.

But at least "Buried" was actually released within a few months of of its acquisition in January, back when it was considered a hot property after its premiere at the Sundance film festival. "I Love You Phillip Morris" was another title that premiered at Sundance, but a year earlier. Because of its dark comedic tone and homosexual love story, it had trouble finding a domestic distributor. When one emerged, the Consolidated Pictures Group, they missed the original February, 2010 release date, though the film was released in other markets like Taiwan, which is where I saw it. In the US, "Phillip Morris" was pushed back to March, then April, and then a California District Court Judge slapped an injunction on the release of the film in July when the filmmakers sued Consolidated. The film was picked up by a new distributor, Roadside Attractions, in August, which is planning a December 3rd release, just in time for the Oscar rush.

But at least "Phillip Morris" was picked up for distribution. Look at the case of "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil," a horror comedy that premiered with "Buried" at Sundance, and then went on to the SXSW Film Festival in March, where it won the Audience Award, but failed to find a buyer both times. It's played a slew of other festivals since then, but according to its IMDB page has only managed to secure distribution for upcoming Canadian and Dutch releases so far. And then there's the great independent animator Bill Plympton, who is self-distributing his latest feature, "Idiots and Angels." It premiered in New York at a single theater on October 6th, and is slowly making its way through other major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. He's keeping a blog about the whole experience here.

All of these films have received good-to-great reviews from those who have seen them, and these are all titles that I'd love to see. However, aside from "Phillip Morris," which I only encountered by a stroke of good luck while I was out of the country, they've all been largely inaccessible unless I want to spend several hours driving to a theater. I wouldn't even have known about the latter two if I didn't follow the reviews coming out of the festival circuit in the case of "Dale & Tucker," and if I wasn't already a fan of Bill Plympton's, in the case of "Idiots and Angels." It's one of the frustrations of being a real movie nut like I am, to know that we get so much dreck like "Jackass 3D" passing through mainstream cinemas every day, while exciting, interesting indie films are stuck in distribution limbo. I can't count the number of films I would have loved to have seen in theaters, but ended up catching on DVD or Netflix's streaming service.

In the course of finishing up the films of 2009 earlier this month, I kept tripping over 2008 releases I'd missed, like Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours," Hirokazu Koreeda's "Still Walking," and Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments," so I take this as a good sign that everything that generates a decent amount of interest will find its way to audiences eventually, even if it's not under optimum circumstances. I mean, at least all of the films I've talked about were actually financed, completed, and made it to their premieres. There are a lot of would-be films out there from big studios and big names stuck in perpetual development. A film with troubled distribution is, at the very least, still a film.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How Long is This Movie?!

I don't scare too easy when it comes to movies. Is it in black and white? No problem. Was it made sixty years ago? Bring it on. Foreign language? Yes please. Johnny Knoxville? Well... I might need a drink or two first. I think I've been pretty successful at getting myself into a headspace that keeps me open to the more unusual, more pretentious, and more avant garde films that might repel more faint-hearted viewers. I've reaped the benefits of being able to enjoy movies that the mainstream public largely ignores, overlooks, or has forgotten about. However, there's still one criteria that stops me dead in my tracks, that makes me do a double-take and retreat as quickly as possible - movies with very long running times.

Now, I'm not talking about your average, run-of-the-mill "Lord of the Rings" length films, the longest of which clocked in at a brisk 200 minutes, or roughly three-and-a-half hours. I'm talking about the really massive cinema undertakings, like Jean-François Richet's "Mesrine," which runs 246 minutes, John Woo's "Red Cliff," at 280 minutes, and Oliver Assayas's "Carlos," at 330 minutes, just to name a few of the recent ones. The first two were released in two parts each, and the third was originally a miniseries that also has a shorter, 166 minute version. Despite hearing wonderful things from the critics, inwardly I groan every time I hear that a film is so long, it has to be released in multiple parts. They always end up pushed to the bottom of my to-see list. I confess I finally watched "Nobody Knows" the other day when I realized that the running time Netflix had listed, over 300 minutes, was an error. It's only 140 minutes.

Pushing past my personal biases has been slow. So far my biggest accomplishment is getting through all 931 minutes - roughly fifteen hours - of R.W. Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz." It took about a week, and it would have probably taken longer if the DVD set hadn't been on loan from the public library. I've also seen Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Decalog" at 550 minutes, really ten films of 55 minutes apiece. The longest film I've watched in a single sitting was Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900," at 318 minutes, though I took a few breaks. Still on my to-see list are Steven Soderbergh's "Ché," (268 minutes), Abel Gance's "Napoléon" (330 minutes), Marco Tullio Giordana's "The Best of Youth" (354 minutes for the shorter theatrical version), Béla Tarr's "Sátántangó" (450 minutes), and the Holocaust documentary "Shoah," (originally 613 minutes). It's no longer difficult to find most of these titles, but the business of actually watching them requires effort.

It's easier if I think of longer films as short television serials, and many of them did start out as television projects that were never meant to be watched all in one go. Ingmar Bergman did "Fanny and Alexander" as a five-part television movie that ran 312 minutes, and cut a theatrical version that was 188 minutes. "Scenes from a Marriage" was six episodes and 296 minutes, but cut down to 167 minutes for theaters. I've only seen the theatrical versions of both, but I've been curious about the originals, and I expect they would actually be easier to watch. "Berlin Alexanderplatz" and "Decalog" both have multiple parts, thirteen and ten respectively, which meant there were obvious places to break, and I could parse out a few segments to view at a time. Watching three 90 minute films, like the "Red Riding" trilogy, feels like less of an ordeal than sitting through a single 270 minute narrative.

Looking at my television viewing habits, I have even less reason to be apprehensive about long running times. I recently finished the great 1977 BBC miniseries, "I, Claudius," which had thirteen episodes totaling 650 minutes without any fuss. To date, I've seen thirty-one episodes of "Babylon 5," which adds up to over 1300 minutes. I know I've devoted more time than that to "House," "Law & Order," and "Doctor Who" individually. A five hour film may seem like a arduous experience, but there's no rule that says I have to sit through the whole thing at once, and the potential rewards are huge. "1900" was a spectacular watch, with Donald Sutherland playing one of the greatest cinema villains I've ever seen. The last two hours of "Berlin Alexanderplatz" were an amazing payoff to the thirteen hours it took to get there. I can understand why so many filmmakers in the US have been seeking out opportunities to do long form television lately. There are some stories that simply can't be told in two or three hours.

Of course, I haven't even talked about the real marathon films, the experimental pieces that play single theaters or museums, that can have running times of multiple days. The longest film ever released, according to Wikipedia is "Cinematon," a series of 2319 silent vignettes, each 3 minutes and 25 seconds long, that took director Gérard Courant thirty-two years to complete. Its length is 9120 minutes, or 152 hours, or over six days of continuous film. Seven hours of Béla Tarr's "Sátántangó" seem downright brief in comparison - but I think I'll go for the director's two-hour "Werckmeister Harmonies" first.

The struggle continues. Happy watching!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Dangers of the Do-Something Documentary

In my posts on the best films of 2009, I left out the documentary section because I figured that they could use a separate post. I think I've only watched five or six documentaries from 2009 so far, but one of the major trends I noticed recently was the prevalence of films meant to highlight specific social ills to galvanize the audience into action. "The Cove" and "Food Inc" both ended with direct appeals to the audience to get involved through activism groups and put a stop to the practices portrayed in the films. One of the most buzzed-about documentaries this year, "Waiting for Superman," simply ends with the words "The system is broken," but clearly the implication is that somebody should do something about it. And on the horizon are several exposes of investment banks and financial institutions, revealing the bad practices that lead to Wall Street meltdown of 2008. It's a good bet that most of them include calls for reform and new regulations.

These are among the latest of the generation of documentaries spawned from the success of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," and Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," rabble rousing docs that brought box office bank and won statuettes at the Oscars. Unlike the more even-handed documentaries that came before them, they make no apologies for having a point of view, or pushing an agenda. They're not afraid of going after organizations like Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and Lehman Brothers and calling them out for their bad behavior. Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" was a memorable milestone, one of the few cases where the storm of bad publicity generated by the movie actually prompted action. McDonald's eliminated the "Super Size" option from its menus and introduced healthier options for its Happy Meals. No doubt the filmmakers and activists behind recent documentaries like "The Cartel," about the state of public education in the US, are hoping for similar results with their films.

The prevalence of these polemics is starting to worry me, well-meaning as many of them may be. I like that they shed light on issues that wouldn't get much attention otherwise, like the alarming proliferation of Monsanto's generically modified soybeans in "Food Inc." And I like that they've been used to apply pressure to the legislative and administrative entities that often move far too slowly on important issues. As for corporations, McDonald's never would have been prompted to act if public opinion hadn't turned against their practices. On the other hand, I find most of the newest crop of feature length documentaries to be of equal or lesser informational value than your average episode of "Frontline," and their tactics are far more questionable. I had a lot of problems with the most recent winner of the Best Documentary feature Oscar, "The Cove," which I detailed in a previous post here. Too much appealing to the audiences' emotions, and way too much cultural bias.

There's the urge to let inaccuracies and hyperbole slide because many of these documentaries were created to help good causes and a little sensationalism is expected in order to make their messages more palatable to a mainstream audience. However, it would be too easy for someone with less altruistic motives to use similar methods to manipulate the facts for their own gain, or to vilify people or organizations undeserving of scorn. I often agree with Michael Moore's positions, but I think his confrontational guerrilla style is counterproductive, and it's unfortunate that his tactics have been adopted by so many other filmmakers. There's also the element of fearmongering that many American news organizations have fallen prey to. "An Inconvenient Truth" established that climate change is a serious problem that needs immediate attention, but it did so in large part by deliberately provoking fear and outrage. I don't think it's an exaggeration to call "Inconvenient" the best horror movie of 2006.

I find the most interesting and illuminating documentaries are still those that analytically examine recent or past events and controversies and show how they fit into a broader context rather than serving as fodder for an argument. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was an irate, reactionary piece against the Bush administration, aimed squarely at persuading potential voters not to re-elect George W. Bush as president in 2004, and thus feels outdated a mere six years later. "Bowling for Columbine" was released earlier but remains far more effective, because its examination of the Columbine tragedy and American gun culture was more measured, lighter on histrionics, and had the benefit of some distance from the tragedy. I still wince at some of the stunts Moore staged, like his gotcha interview with Charlton Heston, but at least he correctly identified the American culture as the real culprit and didn't try to provide easy answers.

These days, it feels like every issue-centric documentary ends with a list of things the audience member can do to help, websites to visit, and ways to get involved. Sometimes I feel like I'm watching public interest infomercials, with all these different groups and organizations trying to sell me on why I should support new environmental legislation, or donate to aid programs, or stop eating processed food. And as they keep getting more aggressive and emotional, I get more and more fed up. It's wonderful to see filmmakers getting passionate about important issues, and I don't have a problem with documentaries having a point of view. But when they seek to influence the narrative as opposed to simply uncovering and presenting the story for the audience to decide for themselves, I think it crosses a line.

Thankfully, a new season of "Frontline" starts this week. Check your local PBS listings.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Keeping an Eye on "The Maid"

It always happens. Every year when I think I'm done with all the notable films of the previous year, I stumble over a title that demands recognition. This time it's "The Maid," a Chilean film which would have easily made my shortlist if I'd seen it earlier. I actually passed it over a few times, assuming from the plot synopsis and the cover image of the title character glaring out at the viewer that it was a pulpy horror film about a killer domestic. This isn't the case, but one of the strengths of "The Maid" is that there's enough ambiguity in the first half of the film, that it could have been. Knowing less is more, so I'm reluctant to say much about the plot for fear of spoiling it.

Catalina Saavedra stars as Raquel, the maid of a wealthy household with four children. In the first scene we see the family celebrating Raquel's birthday, but she's so shy and embarrassed, she has to be coaxed to leave the kitchen and join the festivities. We learn that Raquel has been with the family for over twenty years, helped to raise the teenage children, and barely has any contact with her own relations. Raquel's life as a maid is all she knows, and she thinks of the family as her own. She reacts negatively when Pilar (Claudia Celedón), the mother, suggests hiring additional help to ease Raquel's workload. Unfortunately, stress and strain take their toll and Raquel collapses one day. During her recuperation, Pilar hires Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), a girl from Peru who Raquel immediately sees as a threat. Two other maids, Sonia (Anita Reeves) and Lucy (Mariana Loyola), also play important roles in the story, which I leave for the viewer to discover.

I can't say enough about Catalina Saavedra's performance. Raquel is a fascinating character. She seems like a timid figure at first, but reveals vast reservoirs of stubborn willfulness when provoked that can border on frightening. Her manner with Camila is hostile and bullying, but when she takes action, it's rarely in any straightforward manner. Rather, she prefers passive-aggressive tactics like redoing chores that she feels have been done incorrectly, and locking Camila out of the house and then refusing to answer the door. For much of the film her face is stony and expressionless, and we can only guess what she's thinking as she commits her sabotage. When confronted, she only stares blankly at her accusers, but tension radiates from every inch of her frame. Occasionally there are cracks in the facade, brief moments when we can see her fear and frustration. Surely this is a woman on the brink of doing something truly terrible.

What makes "The Maid" such a great watch is the uncertainty of how far Raquel is going to go in order to keep outsiders from the household. Director Sebastián Silva gives the audience no obvious cues for what to expect, and I'm not even sure what genre to classify the film as. There are clearly elements of thriller, social drama, but it could fall into a few other categories as well. The cinematography is starkly realistic, free of artifice and obvious staging. There isn't much of a soundtrack to underline any feelings of unease about the situation. Raquel's behaves reprehensibly toward Camila and others, but she's not especially malicious, and for a good hour of the film I wasn't sure whether we were meant to be rooting for her or not. At one point Pilar argues with her daughter and mother about whether Raquel ought to be fired for her transgressions, putting many different emotions and sympathies into conflict.

There's a clear turning point about two-thirds of the way through the film when Raquel's stoicism finally gives way, and we see an outpouring of genuine feeling. And then it happens again, in a very different way, one of the most unexpected and thrilling shocks I've had from a film all year. "The Maid" has a lot of rough edges, and some of the emotional manipulation gets too blatant, but it's a very rewarding watch with a great payoff. South American film is one of those areas that I have almost no familiarity with, and I can't even think of another Chilean film I could name. So it's great to see titles like this finding their way to greater worldwide visibility and acclaim. I'll be keeping an eye out for the work of Sebastián Silva and especially Cataline Saavedra in the future.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Meeting the Children "Nobody Knows"

"Nobody Knows" is one of those films that I had been meaning to watch for ages, but I was hesitant about the premise. A young mother named Keiko (TV personality, Yo) and her son Akira (Yuya Yagira) move into a new apartment building, secretly smuggling in Akira's three siblings Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), two of them hidden in suitcases. The younger children are not allowed outside for fear of discovery, and subsequent eviction, and none of them attend school. Akira at twelve is the oldest, and responsible for running the household, buying groceries, and managing the money while their mother is away. Keiko has a tendency to disappear from the apartment for weeks at a time, latching on to new boyfriends who are kept in the dark as to her status as the mother of four. Eventually she doesn't come back at all. The children are left to fend for themselves on a dwindling supply of money, unwilling to go to the police or social services for fear of being separated.

The events of the film were based on a real-life Japanese scandal that happened in the 80s, where a group of siblings was similarly abandoned by their mother for over six months. Because they were kept hidden and had no records, they went unmissed by teachers, social workers, and anyone else who might have raised the alarm. It's sobering context for a film where the extent of the dramatized neglect often seems beyond belief. Eventually the children are left without electricity, heat, or running water, and resort to foraging for expired food and dropped coins. Director Hirokazu Koreeda suggests that the whole of society was complicit. He includes several instances of grown-ups learning about the children's situation, who proceed to offer sympathy or handouts, but decline to take on the responsibility of intervening. It's not their business, so they politely ignore the tragedy unfolding beneath their noses.

However, "Nobody Knows" is not about the absent, irresponsible adults, but about the four children, especially Akira. Yuya Yagira gives an astonishing performance as a boy who is not mature beyond his years, but often seems that way because of the burden of responsiblity he has to shoulder. He tries very hard to be a good surrogate parent, doctoring fake messages and presents from their mother to reassure his siblings, but his frustrations grow day by day. Akira's brother and sisters depend on him and he's acutely aware of it, but he's still a child. Interacting with other boys his age, he briefly forgets himself and acts irresponsibly. The elder sister, Kyoko, initially provides a lot of support, but she crumbles as the situation worsens. Mercifully, Shigeru and Yuki are too young to understand how dire the circumstances are, and they seem relatively unaffected through most of the story.

I've made the film sound dark and depressing, and it often is. Yet I was also caught off guard by the film's many lighter, happier moments. There's a beautiful sequence where the kids all venture outside the apartment for the first time together and explore convenience stores and empty playgrounds. Watching them laugh and play and interact, you have to marvel at the kids' resilience in the face of hardship. Koreeda shows us everything from their point of view, creating a private world of stuffed toys, crayon-scrawled ledgers, fast food containers, and eternally drying laundry. Chocalates and video games become important indicators of happiness. It's only late in the film, when the siblings make friends with a girl who is slightly older than Akira, named Saki (Hanae Kan), that the camera pulls back to reveal the state of the apartment to the eyes of an outsider.

This is my first viewing of a Koreeda film, and it won't be my last. The cinematography of "Nobody Knows" is gorgeous, especially the wide, open, exterior views of Tokyo that greet the children when they step outside. The bulk of the story, though, takes place inside the apartment, a warmly intimate environment where there are multiple shots crowded with children's feet and hands and faces. The pace of the story may sometimes seem unbearably slow, but there are a wealth of small details marking the passage of time, noting the children growing older, and providing clues about minor characters. Koreeda shot the film in sequence, and you can see the apartment falling into disrepair, clothes getting shabbier, and the kids looking scruffier as the film goes on. Many shots also hint at the ending, some almost subliminally. I rewound one scene a few times to make sure that the movement in the corner of the frame had only been a cat.

I wonder if I was hesitant to watch "Nobody Knows" because I sensed that it was going to have a strong emotional impact on me. Depictions of vulnerable children in harsh circumstances are never pleasant. Yet "Nobody" turned out to be far subtler and gentler and restrained than I'd assumed it would be, and now I'm a little sad it took me this long to see it. Time to go explore the rest of Koreeda's filmmography.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Rally to Restore Sanity - Is Political Satire Dead?

October 30, 2010 is fast approaching, the scheduled date for the "The Daily Show's" Rally to Restore Sanity, and the counter-rally, The March to Keep Fear Alive, led by Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report." Regular watchers of the two Comedy Central programs will know that the event is designed to be a mockery of Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally that happened back in August. The two hosts are essentially putting on a big, free, one-day-only comedy show, meant to entertain their audience first an foremost. Designs on prompting actual political action are fairly minor - raising awareness, encouraging participation, and calling out the demagogues. Though both comedians are more sympathetic toward the Democratic party, that hasn't stopped them from leveling criticisms at the Obama administration, and their performances at the rallies should have little partisan content. Or any content that's meant to be taken very seriously, for that matter.

Unfortunately, Washington may not let that happen. Over the past few weeks, the actions of Stewart and Colbert have come under increasing scrutiny. Stephen Colbert's in-character testimony at a House subcommittee hearing on illegal immigration led to gawking media coverage and charges of wasting the lawmakers' time. The actual message of Colbert's testimony, compassion for migrant workers, was lost as too many people took his satirical performance at face value. And just last week, Jon Stewart became embroiled in the meltdown and firing of CNN reporter Rick Sanchez, over anti-Semitic remarks made by Sanchez during an interview. Stewart didn't instigate the comments or the firing as far as I can tell, but since Sanchez singled him out as a "bigot," Stewart's name has been all over the media coverage.

As for the upcoming rallies, the intentions of Stewart and Colbert may be largely facetious, but they aren't being treated that way. The Rally to Restore Sanity has been endorsed by Oprah, President Obama namechecked it in a speech aimed at younger voters, and various media figures have been examining it as a serious political event. Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of inflating the importance of the rallies. The Democrats have been far too hopeful that real political momentum might arise from the event, and the Republicans are scared of the same thing. A fake political rally on this scale is an unknown beast, and no one is quite sure what's going to happen. No doubt some of the attendees of the rally will be slow on the uptake as well, potentially further muddling the picture.

Stewart and Colbert have gone to some lengths to ensure their actions are identified as purely satirical, but considering some of the shenanigans in the current political culture, it's no wonder that some people are having trouble telling the jokers apart from the real thing. The extremism that dominates the discourse and the media narrative presents a skewed vision of the country, and only the very naive would think that these attitudes don't play a role in the decisionmaking processes of politicians, voters, and everyone else engaged in the system. Or those who have disengaged completely out of disgust. If the Rally to Restore Sanity has any real agenda, it's to bolster those who are apathetic, cynical, and demoralized with politics, who feel they've been drowned out by the hysterics.

I think "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," and by proxy their rallies, ultimately serve a very important function. By toying with the line between satire and reality, while continually insisting that they're only going for laughs, the comedians are setting a standard. Their actions may not be considered ridiculous in the current political climate, but the message is that they should be. When Stephen Colbert is in character as the faux-Republican blowhard version of himself, we're meant to consider him a dimwit. When Jon Stewart announces a Rally to Restore Sanity, the idea should be ridiculous. Except that so little sanity is apparent in some of the upcoming election matches, the rally sounds like a pretty good idea. Some have called Stewart and Colbert disingenuous for representing themselves as powerless comedians, but that's the point. In a better, saner world, they wouldn't have this kind of clout.

Is political satire dead? It's in constant danger of being subsumed by real-world idiocy, fewer and fewer people seem to be able to identify or appreciate it, and our best satirists have to keep telling us that we shouldn't take them seriously. As long as Stewart and Colbert and their spitball-throwing brethren keep holding the line and don't give in to the madness, I think we'll be okay. I wish I could be at the rally on the National Mall on October 30th with ironic protest art in tow ("My other protest sign is a highway billboard"), but it's nice to know we're all being invited to take part in the mockery. I'll take restoring perspective over "Restoring Honor" any day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Star Wars" 3D is Not the End of "Star Wars"

Oh, the teeth-gnashing and the hair-pulling from the "Star Wars" fandom! Oh, the wails and lamentations from the geekiest corners of the internet! The announcement last week that George Lucas and friends are going to re-release the "Star Wars" films converted to 3D over the next few years has sent many a loyal fanboy into paroxysms of despair. Admittedly it's hard to see this move as anything but another attempt to wring more dollars out of the "Star Wars" faithful. But really, by this point what did they expect?

The beloved "Star Wars" franchise, which played no small part in creating the summer blockbuster culture, has followed almost every media trend and cash-in opportunity available. It's been multiple cartoons, a Christmas special, a theme park ride, TV movies, special edition directors cuts, and metric tons of merchandise that lesser sci-fi franchises can only dream of. With the rise of 3D as the latest moviegoing fad, of course George Lucas was going to jump on it. He loves shiny, new, gee-whiz, technological advancements like this, and must have been itching to bring it to the "Star Wars" universe since "Avatar" hit the theaters last year. I'm more surprised at James Cameron announcing that he'll be using a similar conversion process on "Titanic," a period disaster film where 3D would be useless for the bulk of its running length.

The real issue may be whether it's actually going to be profitable to go through with the scheme. Box office analysts have been warning for months that the 3D trend is already seeing declines, and the conversion process isn't going to be cheap. Lucasilm has laid out a schedule that would see the release of one film per year in a 3D format, starting with the prequel films. This makes sense, as the more recent installments of "Star Wars" relied far more heavily on digital effects and would be easier to convert than the older films from the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately the prequels are disliked by much of the older "Star Wars" fandom, especially "The Phantom Menace," which will be first in line to get a 3D version. Lucasfilm will be looking at its performance to decide whether or not to proceed with converting the other five movies.

But who knows? Maybe the 3D technology will have improved by 2012, the projected re-release date for "Phantom's" big 3D debut. Lucasfilm and ILM might be able to do something with the format that we haven't seen before and buck the trend. Maybe thirteen years will have been enough time for the younger fans to start waxing nostalgic for the prequels and start pushing back against all the hate. Or maybe the film's backers will figure out how to sell it to yet another generation of kids who aren't familiar with all the fandom history and drama. Yes, 3D is a gimmick, but it's a gimmick that might help to ensure that "Star Wars" endures after the current generation of fans is gone. By the time the original "Star Wars" returns to the big screen, it will have been nearly forty years since its debut. If the original fans aren't feeling their age yet, they soon will be.

Finally, the fact that 3D versions exist won't alter the original films or their place in cinema history. Well, any more than George Lucas has already altered them with the Special Editions. Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" had a 3D version that few people know about, and it's still considered a suspense classic. A few critics even thought the 3D version was an improvement of the original, after it was resurrected for a successful run a few years ago. If Hitchcock can work in 3D, there's no reason why "Star Wars" can't. I have to admit that some of those big space battles would be awfully fun to watch with the ships and asteroids popping out of the screen at the audience. Just think of the famous opening shot of the original "Star Wars" with a little added depth. If Lucas can do it right, it sure would be something worth seeing.

Then again, the man responsible for Jar Jar Binks could also screw this up in so many different ways, and I understand why some exasperated fans no longer want to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I'll also echo the commonly expressed sentiment that all this time and energy spent retrofitting the older films would be better spent on creating new "Star Wars" content. The recently quashed live-action television series would have been a good place to start. That sequel trilogy Lucas used to talk about would be nice too. Some part of me wonders if the new 3D re-releases might be meant to generate funds for a new, secret, "Star Wars" project that Lucas has planned for the future. It's probably wishful thinking, but here's another thought. Even if Lucas doesn't want to continue the franchise, it's gotten so big and been so successful, eventually somebody will.

3D "Star Wars" may ensure there's still an interested audience when the time comes.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Problem With Mary Jane

A few months ago, the part that every young actress in Hollywood was salivating over was Lisbeth Salander, the hacker heroine at the center of David Fincher's remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Rooney Mara, most recently seen in "The Social Network," has emerged the winner. Then speculation turned to who would fill the lead role in Alphonse Cuaron's new science fiction thriller, "Gravity," which has yet to be resolved, but Natalie Portman is rumored to be in talks. So what's next? Over the past few days, the spotlight has turned to the part of Mary Jane Watson in the reboot of "Spider-Man." Emma Stone, hot off the success of "Easy A," was erroneously reported to have been offered Mary Jane a few days ago. However, the news emerged yesterday that she'll be playing one of Peter Parker's other love interests, Gwen Stacy.

Let's be honest. Playing Mary Jane Watson would help to raise the profile of a young actress, but it's a boring, lousy role that completely wasted Kirsten Dunst in the first set of "Spider-Man" movies, and I don't see that changing with the reboot. The fact that so much attention is being focused on who will be the new Mary Jane, or that anyone considers it the "new hot female role for young actresses" of the moment, just strikes me as depressing. Romantic comedies are struggling and, midrange pictures are scarce, so there are hardly any "hot" film roles for middle aged and older actresses. Right now, I'm sad to say, Mary Jane, the classic damsel in distress, is being billed as the best any actress in Tinseltown can hope for.

Of course, in reality the better female roles are rarely the ones that come with much hype and anticipation. Nobody was fighting over the part of Leigh Ann Tuohy, the heroine of "The Blind Side" that netted Sandra Bullock an Oscar. Movie projects are tailored to be vehicles for specific stars all the time, and arrive in the public consciousness with their leading actors or actresses firmly in place. It's only the already familiar, big brand characters like Superman, James Bond, and Harry Potter that attract this kind of casting speculation. Occasionally chatter develops when an actor or actress drops out of a big role or turns down a project they were expected to take, creating a gap to be filled. The fuss over "Gravity" emerged when Angelina Jolie reportedly turned the starring role down twice, possibly endangering the entire production.

So why worry about Mary Jane Watson? Because the massive amount of attention inevitably makes bad roles seem like a plum ones, especially when playing the sexy girlfriend is often the only way for actresses to have any sort of presence in the big summer action blockbusters that the studios reap the bulk of their profits from. Too many of our better young actresses keep having to take these thankless girlfriend roles in order to keep their cachet with the Hollywood establishment, when their time that could be better spent on more interesting fare. Natalie Portman is being courted for "Gravity" in the wake of "The Black Swan," which she'll almost certainly get an Academy Award nomination for, but first we'll see her next year in "Thor" as the main character's love interest.

I wouldn't mind so much if these roles were better written and better regarded. But for every Pepper Potts from "Iron Man" or Uhura from "Star Trek," there are a dozen lousy, vapid, cardboard females, who are instantly forgotten once the film is over. Think of poor Jessica Biel in "The A-Team" or Teresa Palmer in "Sorcerer's Apprentice." It takes a minute or two to remember they even appeared in the films. Now quick, name all the actresses who played Bruce Wayne's girlfriend in the live-action "Batman" films since 1990. The only one who left much of an impression was Michelle Pfeiffer, and that's because she doubled as a villain, Catwoman. Complaints by actresses about the sexist Hollywood culture responsible for this imbalance are ignored, garner catcalls and patronizing lectures, or result in being fired by Michael Bay in favor of an underwear model.

I'm hopeful that things may be changing, even if it's only slowly. We are getting a new Lisbeth Salander. And if Warner Brothers doesn't muck things up with Alphonso Cuaron, we are getting "Gravity" with a female lead. But for now, these roles are still the exception to the rule and there are still too many Mary Janes. However, I am happy that Kirsten Dunst can finally leave Peter Parker's girlfriend behind her and move on to better things. And that Emma Stone didn't end up stuck with the job.