Friday, December 30, 2011

The Last Post of the Year

Well, it's the end for 2011, and I'm coming upon two years writing this blog and sending my thoughts out into the online void. I thought it would be a good time to sit back and take stock. Here's some random factoids and highlights from the year in Miss Media Junkie

- There were three posts that attracted more attention and hits than anything else I wrote, and got linked around quite a bit. All were meta analysis/news items. In third place was Why Does "Arrietty" Have Two English Dubs, where I looked at the different release strategies of the American and British versions of the animated Ghibli movie. In second, was "Once Upon a Time" + "Grimm" = "Fables"?. When the two fairy-tale themed shows premiered in the fall, as I expected there was a good deal of debate over how much resemblance they had to "Fables." But by a huge margin, the one article that got the most traffic was Guys Like "My Little Pony," and That's Okay. Apparently the popularity of the ponies with young male audiences continues to confound a lot of people. The search terms pointing people toward my blog constantly include phrases like "Why do guys like 'My Little Pony,'" and "Is it okay for boys to watch 'My Little Pony'" and the like.

- As of two days ago, I wrote my 300th post for the blog this year. I've slowed down a little since last year, what with a new job to worry about and less free time in general. However, I've managed to meet my goal of writing twenty-five posts a month. Next year I plan to start adding tags for some of the regular features I've been doing like "My Favorite (Insert Director) Movie," the follow-up posts, liveblogs, lists, media business trends, trailer and marketing analysis, and the social justice pieces on race and gender. Also, I definitely need a nostalgia tag for the navel-gazing. I don't have any major plans to change how I've been writing the blog for next year, but I am hoping that I can find the time to edit and catch mistakes more regularly before the posts go up. Also, looking at my own media consumption habits, I really should be writing more reviews and general posts about older films, because I watch way more of them than recent films.

- I wrote roughly sixty movie reviews this year, the majority of them based on rentals. I have many, many 2011 films left to see before making up my final list sometime next autumn, but right now if I had to make a top ten list, my choices would be Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Win Win, The Artist, Project Nim, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Drive, A Better Life, Meek's Cutoff, and Hugo. The worst film I saw was probably "Rio" or "Priest," which I wasn't expecting much from anyway, but the most disappointing was definitely Cowboys & Aliens. The best surprise was Captain America. As for the movies I watched that didn't come out in the last year or two, more to come soon.

- On the television side of things, Community, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones were the highlights. On the flip side, I regret sitting through every episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Best surprise was the new Thundercats reboot. I really don't watch much live television anymore, well comparatively, and I expect that I'm going to look back on 2011 as the year I finished both "Babylon 5" and "Farscape," thereby upping my geek cred. Next up, maybe "The Sopranos" and "The Wire"?

- And finally, I leave you with some of my favorite meta and analysis pieces:

Are the Disney Princesses Growing Up?
Meta on Fan Documentaries and "Star Wars Begins"
"Akira" Casting and Racebending Redux
Why Hello There, Transmedia
What Do CinemaScore Grades Mean?
The Obligatory Royal Wedding Post
I Figured Out the Problem With Romantic Comedies
The First Rule of Fanfiction Is...
New Movie Ads in Old TV Reruns?
What's in a Movie Title?
Starship Memories
The End of Film
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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Keeping Up the Theatrical Habit

Roger Ebert has written an article about dropping theater revenue. One of the primary issues he points out is ticket costs, along with all the usual suspects like high concession prices, rude audiences, and too many other competing distractions. I think he leaves out a big one, which is that the culture of movie-watching has totally and inexorably changed over the past few decades. Let me illustrate with my own history of theater going.

When I was a kid, my family went out to the movies about twice a year, primarily for the new Disney features. My parents were not great theater goers, and the only time I remember them leaving us kids at home to take in a movie by themselves was when "The Last Emperor" came out, and won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was sort of an Asian solidarity thing to support the picture, I think. Anyway, I was totally enamored with films and movie theaters at a very early age, in part because I never saw new movies by any other means. I would have gone to see a movie in theaters every week if I could have, and I understood that it was the norm for many people, back when an evening show only cost $5.

Then home video happened, and the dollar rental stores proliferated, and I found that I was watching a new-ish film or two practically every weekend with my parents. $20 to take the whole family to the theater wasn't justifiable except for special occasions, but a dollar or two to watch something that had come out eight months ago was a much easier sell. It opened the floodgates, and suddenly I could see most new movies once they hit VHS. And you better believe that I kept track of those release dates. Going to the theater still had a strong allure, though, because that's where all the newest releases were, the ones that Siskel and Ebert and the entertainment reporters were always talking up.

In junior-high and high school I started going to the movies with friends, and at that point it became much more of a regular social activity. I wasn't particularly picky about what I watched, because that wasn't really the point. I saw some movies multiple times, because it was with a group. Ticket prices were inching up, but a once-a-month outing was still affordable. There wasn't really much to do in my corner of suburbia otherwise. I remember classmates talking about going to "Titanic" five and six times, and it didn't seem all that outrageous because you'd always go with different friends, or on dates, and a full three hours of distraction was worth the cost of the tickets.

It wasn't until college that I turned into the hardcore movie junkie that I am today, and I was in a college town with a ton of art house theaters. Those should have been my peak theater-going years. I was going out more often than ever, I had access to practically every current release from the blockbusters to the limited runs, and thanks to the internet I was better informed about the movie scene than ever. But that's when the price of tickets really started to climb, and the frugality instilled in me from childhood slammed on the brakes. I remember balking at the price of a $7 matinee. So I went to the library and local video rental places much more often instead, to fill in the gaps in my film knowledge.

This is more or less where I still am now, ten years later. With a steady income, and much more mobility, I'll happily go to the movies with friends or make the special trips out to see things like "The Artist" or "Tree of Life" that I think need the theatrical experience. But this doesn't add up to more than a theater visit once every few weeks - with exceptions for the summer and holiday gluts - and I'm about the most ardent movie nutcase that I know of. I have one friend who goes out every Friday night with her husband for a movie and dinner, but she's a rarity. Personally, I have trouble justifying the amount of theater visits I indulge in now.

What I don't watch in theaters I can easily catch up with by rentals, the same as always. The windows between theatrical and DVD or online releases have shrunk quite a bit too, so I never feel that far behind the critical conversations. I've learned to wait things out and save a few bucks. And I think this is true for pretty much everyone else I know.

I've seen twenty-something films in theaters this year. And I've seen at least three hundred through rentals and streaming and borrowing. In the end I still think of going to the theater as a special occasion, but it hasn't been my primary means of watching new movies for years, and I don't think it ever will be again.
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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How "Stardust" Went Bust

I've been pretty hard on this year's movie marketing campaigns, but thankfully few of the bad ones seem to have damaged the fortunes of the films they promoted. "X-Men: First Class" came through with decent returns, good enough that there are rumors of a sequel on the horizon. "War Horse" lured in families and older audiences over Christmas, posting better numbers than expected. "Hugo" is still struggling, but the continued critical support as we move through awards season is likely to give it a boost. None of these films will slip through the cracks and be forgotten.

This wasn't the case four years ago with "Stardust," which was a film I had big hopes for and was highly anticipating back in 2007. It suffered one of the worst marketing campaigns that I've ever seen, and even after so much time, I still find myself cringing at the thought of it. Now honestly, "Stardust" wasn't a great movie. And it was one of those odd ducks that wasn't easy to pigeonhole into one easily-defined category, so it presented a marketing challenge. However, it was a perfectly fun, sweet little fantasy-romance-comedy in the same vein as "The Princess Bride." Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Peter O'Toole added some star power in supporting roles, and it looked like perfect counter programming against a glut of heavier summer action films. But its audience didn't find it. "Stardust" opened fourth at the box office against "Rush Hour 3" in the middle of August and only made back about half of its budget, even though it was one of the only female-friendly offerings available.

How did "Stardust" fail to connect? Well, for starters somebody made the decision that it should be sold as an action movie, to young men. They weren't willing to sell it as straight fantasy, because despite the success of "Lord of the Rings," straight fantasy films never really did come back in vogue with the exception of children's films. "Stardust" is not a children's film. It's rated PG-13 and there's some morbid humor and violence and mild sexuality that aren't family friendly. I don't think there was anything especially objectionable about the content compared to your average action movie, but the whole tone of "Stardust" was considerably more adult and sophisticated than the "Narnia" and "Harry Potter" installments of the time. There was no way to disguise it as a harmless kiddie fairy-tale film you could park the kids at for ninety minutes, and I'm glad they didn't try.

However, selling it as an action-adventure film like one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" blockbusters, was also a mistake. A major problem of the campaign was that people were confused about what the movie was about. The billboards and print ads were terrible, so generic that I suspected some people might have thought they were advertisements for a new Stardust casino. The trailers and commercials were better, but still a blur of random action scenes without much context. So people mostly understood that it had fantasy and action and a little bit of horror, but nobody knew it was a romance and a comedy too. This was on purpose, because the marketers were targeting the young male quadrant of the audience, and the prevailing wisdom is that romance is anathema to them.

The trouble is that the romance is central to the whole film, and it's tough to describe what it's about without at least mentioning that the lead is on a quest to retrieve a fallen star as an engagement present for his lady love. The star turns out to be a pretty girl, played by Claire Danes, so our hero ends up falling for her instead. Hijinks ensue. I remember some of the actors making the rounds on late night talk shows, being asked to describe the movie, and every single one of them avoided calling "Stardust" a romance or a romantic comedy. Instead it was all action, action, action being talked up - there certainly is plenty of action in the movie, but it's really not the point. The actors ended up sounding evasive, the film sounded difficult, and I think everyone came away still confused.

And in the end the approach backfired. The older audience and the female audience that come out for romances didn't come out for "Stardust." The ads made the film look like an action movie, but not a particularly good action movie, so young males stayed away too. Of course nobody tried to target the young female crowd, because this was still a year before "Twilight," and everyone thought that a supernatural romance couldn't possibly make as much money as something with a lot of fighting and running and explosions. If "Stardust" were released now, with "Twilight" and "Alice in Wonderland" behind us, and lots of fairy-tale adventure films coming next year, I think it would fare much, much better.

But for now, "Stardust" has to settle for being a sort-of cult-classic, still too recent to have much nostalgic value, and still too obscure to have much cachet. But if you go back and look at it today, there's Mark Strong in one of his best villain roles, and Ricky Gervais putting in a good bit part, and Claire Danes never looked more lovely astride a unicorn. I know so many people who'd eat this stuff up. I expect that "Stardust" will be rediscovered eventually, but it's a shame it didn't really get a chance to connect with its intended audience from the beginning.
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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

There Are No Literal Submarines in "Submarine"

Well, I finally found a bildungsroman that I liked. I actually found a couple this year, including the terrific "Terri," and "Hanna." However, I want to spend this post singing the praises of Richard Ayoade's "Submarine," a British coming-of-age tale that does a lot of familiar things very, very well. Ayoade is a comedic actor, probably best known for playing Moss in the UK sitcom, "The IT Crowd." I knew he was also a director, who contributed a fun episode to the last season of "Community," but I didn't suspect that he had this movie in him.

Craig Roberts plays Oliver Tate, a fifteen-year-old with high ambitions and a very high opinion of himself. He puts on a front of great sophistication and intelligence. In actuality, he's deeply insecure, and not too sure of his place in the world. He falls for a girl named Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and schemes to become her boyfriend. At the same time, he's all too aware that his parents, Jill (Sally Hawkins) and Lloyd (Noah Taylor), are hitting a rough patch in thier relationship. His mother is spending an awful lot of time with a man from her past named Graham (Paddy Considine), who Oliver takes it upon himself to stalk. And when he and Jordana do get together, he discovers that he isn't ready for all that entails.

The immediate urge when analyzing "Submarine" is to compare it to Wes Anderson's films, specifically "Rushmore." You have a pretentious teenage hero who adopts countless pseudo-intellectual tics, there's deadpan humor galore, and it's covering similar dramatic ground in regards to love and family problems. There is an unmistakable resemblance, but Anderson never would have made a film like "Submarine." Yes, Oliver is quirky to a fault, but yet there's a wonderful cohesion to all of his pretentions and predilections, and you can tell where they came from. Oliver's world is also much less stylized, despite some dream sequences and recurring motifs, and feels much closer to the real world. Developments are more organic and play out in less fantastic ways. Oliver may be trying to be a Wes Anderson type of hero, but the film universe he's in doesn't work by the kind of logic that allows him to keep up the act for very long.

The film is especially strong in its portrayal of a very imperfect teenage romance, with all the ups and downs and doubts and discoveries that too many movies gloss over. The young actors are both great, but I especially liked Yasmin Paige as Jordana. Oliver romanticizes her as an ultra-cool, unsentimental rebel, but she turns out to be a real girl with hidden vulnerabilities. Without spending all that much time on her side of the story, Ayoade and Paige get across the notion that Jordana is just as smart and just as much of a kook as Oliver is, but more importantly she's also using her own facade to cover up major troubles. What we see of Oliver's relationships with his parents also suggests a lot without saying too much. There are obvious gimmicks and pat little bits of clever dialogue that could have easily come off as very manufactured, but nothing feels insincere thanks to the performances.

Ayoade also has a welcome facility with visual composition. "Submarine" has nothing to do with literal submarines, and the title is never spoken aloud in the dialogue. However, the metaphor is easy to grasp. Oliver's father is a depressed marine biologist and there are many allusions to oceans, nautical activity, and marine life throughou the film, sometimes just subtle imagery tucked into the corners of the frame. It's never so much that it seems out of place - Oliver and Jordana go to the beach, Oliver has fond memories of his father's science lectures, and there are occasional marine-themed items of decor around the Tate house, which are to be expected, considering Lloyd Tate's profession. It's just enough to be present, without intruding on the story.

I don't expect that "Submarine" will gain much mainstream love, because it has a very particular kind of humor that won't rub everyone the right way, and it's too easy to confuse the attitude of the neurotic young protagonist with the attitude of the film, which is actually much gentler. But I came away from it very pleased and feeling nostalgic for my own weirdo teenage years, when I though that the world turned by certain theories I had worked out - but of course they mostly didn't hold up.

For all you other weirdos out there - and I know you're out there - I think this one's for you.
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Monday, December 26, 2011

Adventures in Letterboxing

I'm still at home with the folks, still watching more live television than I've seen in the last six months. I've finally found one thing that I think has improved about live TV in recent years. While channel surfing today, I came across the Reelz Channel, which was showing Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor." What was interesting about this particular broadcast was that it was a pan-and-scan version of the movie, and a pretty terrible one. Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck's faces were partially cut out of many frames, the scope of the big action sequences was severely reduced, and the print was noticeably grainy.

And that's when I realized that wider aspect ratios had quietly become the standard over the last few years. It's rare now to find a cable channel that doesn't have an HD counterpart showing letterboxed versions of newer movies to fit rectangular television screens. I rarely see films shot in the widescreen format presented in pan-and-scan anymore, because I don't tend to watch them on television. It's only in the cases where I can't find older films in any other format that I'll suffer through the cropped versions. Now, not only movies, but a lot of regular old television shows are shot in widescreen too. Even a good percentage of commercials are letterboxed. Ten or fifteen years ago, before the technology changed, this would have been unthinkable.

When I was younger, everything was shown in pan-and-scan, and it was only PBS and perhaps some of the higher end premium cable channels that would occasionally show a film in the original aspect ratio. The only indication that "The Sound of Music," "Ben-Hur," or "Fiddler on the Roof" were originally meant for a much wider screen, was that broadcasts would sometimes switch back to the correct aspect ratios for the last few shots of a film, usually the final, epic panoramas. On a square television screen, this meant that you'd end up with black mattes on the tops and bottoms of the frame, which is known as letterboxing, in order for the whole picture to fit. Viewers would actually complain about letterboxed broadcasts in the past, not realizing they were actually losing a huge percentage of the picture with the pan-and-scan versions.

It was only when everything went to digital and HDTVs were produced with longer screens, that the standard changed. Now the programs that aren't in widescreen sometimes have to be "pillarboxed," which adds mattes on the sides of the screen, or "windowboxed," which compensates on all four sides. There are also settings to have the picture be automatically stretched and skewed to fit, which is anathema to this particular film nerd, but some people honestly can't tell the difference in presentation quality and hate the mattes, so more power to them. The conversion to digital transmissions has made all of this possible, giving more control to the viewer to watch a program or movie in whatever format they want.

I've noticed that letterboxing has actually gained some major cultural cachet recently, possibly because it's associated with newer televisions and HD technology. I think the shift actually started well before televisions themselves changed, though, when DVD technology meant that it was possible to put multiple versions of a film on the same screen – pan and scan on one side, and widescreen on the other. And more people become familiar with the different aspect ratios as a result. Letterboxed television became a thing for a while – I distinctly remember boggling at the sight of a syndicated CGI cartoon called "Heavy Gear," back in 2001, being presented in letterbox format. Now I run into people who want to watch everything letterboxed, even the stuff that's not meant to be – a problem we only used to run into with movie theaters showing cropped prints of older films like "Snow White" from the age before widescreen existed. Strange how the world turns, doesn't it?

So it was a bit of a shock to see "Pearl Harbor" this afternoon in pan-and-scan. It's a 2001 film, not very old at all, but the awful presentation made it look like some relic from the 80s. Okay, Michael Bay's ham-handed direction didn't help matters, but still. I've seen broadcasts of "Battlefield Earth" on SyFy that looked better than this, and it's an older and much more incompetently directed movie. This was a stark reminder of the pretty awful quality of most television broadcasts most of us lived with up until only a few years ago, and the leaps and bounds that the recent digital conversion has allowed. It also makes me want to go seek out some of the other movies I only saw on television on a kid, and see how much I missed.

And I should clarify that I was watching the standard version of the Reelz channel. According to their website, they do have an HD channel, and a letterboxed version of "Pearl Harbor" was probably being broadcast there simultaneously with the version I saw, but I couldn't find it – I don't think my parents' provider carries it.
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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Media Christmas!

A couple of random observations on watching television with the folks today:

- The "CBS News Sunday Morning" program is still going with host Charles Osgood, who took over from Charles Kuralt. It's a news magazine show that focuses on human interest and Americana stories, the furthest thing from hard-hitting, but a nice feel-good program much beloved by the older set. My parents watched it every week for years when I was younger, and I'd totally forgotten about it. But there it was, minus the trumpet fanfare, but still sporting its usual sunburst logo, and with some new faces like Mo Rocca, who turned in an interview with Oscar hopeful Albert Brooks today.

- "Sunday Morning" also had a quick run-down of the new Christmas releases with New York Magazine critic David Edelstein. Aside from "We Had a Zoo" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," it's just about all action movies this year with a couple of thrillers in the mix. Box office watchers have been unhappy with the returns so far, and this is a much better selection of films than we had last Christmas, when "Little Fockers" and "Tron Legacy" were doing battle. Not a great way to end what hasn't been a great year for Hollywood.

- It being Christmas, most of the news stations were covering feel-good stories like soldiers coming home and local charity efforts. And because we're only a week away from the new year, several were showing highlights from 2011. Apparently the biggest news story of the year according to multiple stations was the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. I must have seen more wedding pictures and recap than actual news about Prince Philip, who is currently in the hospital recovering from surgery. Then again, there hasn't been much news this year that wouldn't be a downer on Christmas.

- Ah, commercials. How I have not missed you. Spotted a new Cover Girl ad for their True Blend foundation line, which is touting something called "skin twin" technology. Beauty products are notorious for advertising based on junk science and using meaningless buzzwords. Shampoo ads used to be my favorites, touting the addition of supposedly beneficial stuff like "jojoba," "hawafena," and other mystery substances.

- Around noon, CNBC was running infomercials for a 90 day workout program. Never too early to start working on New Year's resolutions, huh? I know that a station devoted to business news really has nothing to report on over the holidays, but surely NBC could have could have rustled up some more festive programming. On the other hand, I guess it makes sense that a business-oriented station would look better if it was doing its best to maximize profits.

- SyFy was running a mini-marathon of "Merlin" episodes. I'm looking forward to the fourth season, which I'm fairly sure just ended in the UK. Oh, and there's that "Doctor Who" Christmas special to go track down.

- My parents have satellite, including a lot of movie channels. There were a couple of Christmas movies running, like "The Grinch" and "Jingle All the Way," along with lots and lots of sentimental family movies – "Shrek," "Kung Fu Panda," "Indiana Jones," "Forrest Gump, and so on. I watched "Secretariat," which I skipped when it was in theaters last year because it looked awfully maudlin. I forgot about John Malkovitch being in the film. Between him Diane Lane, it was much better than I was expecting, though still very much a Disney movie. And Margo Martindale really was in everything, wasn't she?

- I thought that Cher looked badly preserved in "Burlesque" last year. I think Dolly Parton in the commercials for the upcoming "Joyful Noise" has her beat. I'm pretty sure the last time I saw her was when she performed at the Oscars back in the 90s, and she looks terrible. It's not that she hasn't aged well. It's that she so obviously hasn't aged naturally. Why do these poor women do this to themselves?

- I'm a little sad I won't be around for the New Year's "Twilight Zone" marathon that SyFy does every year. The marathons date back to long before SyFy acquired the rights to the series, and my local syndicated station was one of those that popularized the tradition. Then again, there's no reason I can't buy a few "Twilight Zone" box sets with the gift cards I got, and run my own little marathon next week. There are a lot of episodes that I haven't seen unedited. Heck, I wouldn't even have to sit through commercials that way.

- And in the end, I ended up watching what I always end up watching when I'm home for Christmas – way too many episodes of "Mythbusters." There's nothing like science experiments and explosions to celebrate the season.

Happy holidays everyone!
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Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Different "White Christmas"

About five years ago, I was visiting friends in Michigan for Thanksgiving. Afterwards, as a surprise, they drove me and another friend into town to see the new stage production of "White Christmas," the 1954 Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye musical. This one was retitled "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," because it mercilessly padded out the running time with other Irving Berlin songs, including a "I Love a Piano" and "Love and the Weather." I loved Danny Kaye musicals as a kid, but "White Christmas" was never one of my favorites. There was too much schmaltz in it, which the stage version turned up to eleven. The only part I really liked was the "Sisters" number, where Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen vamped around with big ostrich-feather fans.

I sat through the two-and-a-half hour show, wondering if the movie was quite as aggressively sentimental and cloying as I remembered. And it wasn't. The stage musical tries to be far more family friendly, and doesn't have the benefit of Crosby and Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, probably why it swapped out some of their showcase numbers, like Kaye's "Choreography," with more generic ones like a full version of "Blue Skies," which was only briefly heard in the film. It also saw fit to beef up the role of the nosy housekeeper Ellen by replacing her with Martha Watson, a former showbiz star who gets her own solo, "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." I didn't even remember little Susan Waverly in the film, but there she was in the musical, being cute and precocious and stealing practically every Vermont scene.

I don't count myself as much of a theater fan, but I have seen my share of Broadway shows – "Phantom," "Cats," "Showboat," "Les Misérables," "Miss Saigon," "Sweeney Todd, " "Wicked," and "The Lion King" off the top of my head. As the daughter of a music teacher, show tunes were inescapable, so I knew a lot of the music from various shows that were off my radar otherwise. And of course, the stage musicals were the origin of a lot of the movie musicals I grew up watching. But lately, the adaptations have been going in the opposite direction. More and more movies are being turned into musicals, trying to follow in the footsteps of big successes like "The Producers," "The Lion King" and "Hairspray."

The quality of these adaptations varies – "Spider-Man," "Young Frankenstein," and "The Addams Family" have had fairly disastrous receptions in recent years. But on the other hand, I think it is an interesting way for older films that have quietly slipped out of the public consciousness to be reborn. "Hairspray" went from a campy cult film to a more cheerful musical, that was received so well, they sent it back to the big screen again with its song numbers in tow. Ditto "The Producers." The theater is so different from film, musical adaptations have to make massive changes and introduce a lot of new elements by necessity, and there's a lot of room for good creativity there.

"Once," based on the 2007 Irish film, is among the latest projects getting prepped for Broadway, and it's going to need more than a few verses of "Falling Slowly" to fill a whole stage show. It'll also have to trade in a lot of its subtlety and nuance for more externalized emotional displays. It'll be different, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Another one that I'm curious about is the announced musical version of "Rocky." It's not exactly the most obvious choice for a musical adaptation – but then, remember the training montages and Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now"? I can see how that could be expanded for the stage.

Even a pretty crummy adaptation like "White Christmas" had its moments. The performers couldn't hope to match up to Crosby and Kaye, but they were enthusiastic and it was nice to hear some of the songs performed live. The relentless Christmas cheer and old fashioned idealism were really not to my taste, but some of the older viewers and families around me were clearly getting a kick out of the whole thing. So I wasn't surprised to discover that the show is still going. A few nights ago, after coming home to California for the holidays, my mother announced that she had gotten us tickets to a show as a surprise, and it turned out to be "White Christmas."

I liked it better this time around. I think it helped that I knew what to expect - and knew it wasn't going to be the movie.
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Friday, December 23, 2011

Untimely Trailers?

With the Christmas movie rush in full swing, we've been seeing the premieres of trailers and teasers for several highly anticipated 2012 films. On Monday, "The Dark Knight Rises" gave us our first look at Tom Hardy as Bane and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. On Thursday, the teaser for Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" paid homage to the original "Alien" trailer.

The biggest splash, however, was made by the trailer for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." The film is a little less than a year away, set to be released on December 15, 2012. However, the filmmakers released no simple teaser, but a full two-and-a-half minute trailer that introduced us to all the major characters. Big effects shots were missing, as "The Hobbit" is still in post-production, but there was lots of footage of Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, and all the dwarves. Teasers being released so far in advance are no longer rare, but a full trailer that already shows off so much eye-candy is practically unheard of.

I loved the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and I've been happily anticipating "The Hobbit" for a very long time. Being a fan of the original Tolkein book who already knew everything that was supposed to happen, I had no qualms about watching the trailer. I enjoyed it very much, especially hearing the singing and the introductions to the dwarves and the hints of Gollum's appearance. At the same time, I was getting the feeling that I was seeing too much. Sure, there was no sign of Smaug or the three trolls or the Lakemen, but there was Cate Blanchett reprising her role as Galadriel, and some of the voice-over all but confirmed the return of Ian Holm as the elderly Bilbo. It didn't really hurt to know any of this, but I felt like I was ruining some minor surprises for myself all the same – and this is, I remind you, a full year ahead of when "The Hobbit" is actually due to be released. No doubt there's going to be far more information and marketing material in the same vein to come.

Out of curiosity, I went and looked up the first teaser that was released for "The Fellowship of the Ring," which also appeared about a year before the film hit theaters. It was a very simple trailer, heavy on voice-over, without a whole lot of actual footage from the film, and most of that was clearly reworked from the Internet-only preview that had surfaced the previous March. I found it a much more effective piece of marketing than the new "Hobbit" trailer because it gives the viewer so much room for speculation. Ditto the new teasers for "The Dark Knight" and "Prometheus." A couple of brief glimpses of totally out-of-context visuals from "Prometheus" has moved it much higher in my "to see" list for next summer.

Then again, two-and-a-half minutes of "Hobbit" trailer isn't nearly as egregious a marketing tactic as the six-minute preview for "The Dark Knight Rises," which is currently attached to IMAX screenings of "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol." I haven't seen it and don't plan to, but apparently it's the prologue for the film, a pre-title sequence like the first Joker bank robbery in "The Dark Knight." This is not unprecedented, as James Cameron also offered a similar preview for "Avatar," roughly fifteen minutes of footage that screened in select IMAX theaters four months before it was released. However in that case, fans had to actively seek out the special sneak peeks for the movie. It wasn't thrust upon unsuspecting viewers, like the "Dark Knight Rises" preview has been. And this is one movie I want to know as little as possible about before going in. I even had a friend vet the trailer for me first, to make sure it was safe.

Still, these early promos clearly aren't hurting anything from the studios' point of view. The "Hobbit" trailer did its job, and now a movie that isn't coming out for a whole year is the talk of Hollywood, getting the existing fanbase revved up, and generating plenty of buzz to attract potential newcomers. I expect that at some point these earlier and earlier marketing campaigns are going to hit some point of diminishing returns, but it hasn't happened yet. Especially with these big franchise films, some fans are hungry for any information they can get their hands on, as soon as they can get it. I guess the rest of us will just have to get used to longer marketing cycles and more prolonged campaigns.

I mean, some movies get promoted before there's even anything to show. If you think about it, "Avengers" has all the others I've mentioned beat at the early marketing game, since it has been setting up the upcoming movie as far back as the first "Iron Man" movie in 2008.
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Need Some Help With "Tinker, Tailor"?

I'm a little taken aback at some of the reactions to Tomas Alfredson's new feature adaptation of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." I finished off my review a few days ago and went off to track down some critical discussion about the film to compare notes. A lot of viewers, including professional critics seem to have no idea what the movie was actually about, or what Alfredson was trying to do. Or they were so caught-up in trying to decipher all the precise maneuverings of the labyrinthine plot, they missed the larger point of the story completely. Or at least, the story as I understand it. I could be in the wrong here. I haven't seen the 1979 "Tinker, Tailor" miniseries and I haven't read the novel by John le Carre. But I still feel like I watched an entirely different story unfold than the one that other people saw.

So to try and help sort things out, I'm going to use this post and write down my understanding of what happened in the film. Maybe somebody else out there will get some use out of if. Heavy spoilers from this point on.

Here's the gist: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is the mole, who is part of a clique within the British Intelligence that is keen on using information from a Russian informant named Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy). Polyakov is a fake, of course, and is actually feeding the British minimal intelligence, just good enough to hopefully attract the attention of the Americans. At the same time, Smiley's four suspects, the clique, think they are feeding worthless British intelligence back to the Russians through Polyakov, except one of the them is sending real intel. The other three protect Polyakov and the mole, not realizing that they're the ones being exploited.

Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) stumbles across the existence of the mole through the woman he was trying to turn, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and tries to warn the Circus, but only ends up alerting the Russians and the mole. Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) doesn't actually think there is a mole, but goes on the Hungarian mole-finding mission that Control (John Hurt) sends him on anyway, out of loyalty. The Russians came down on both men for getting too close to the truth, resulting in Tarr becoming a fugitive from both sides, and Prideaux stuck in a miserable anonymous existence after being shot, abducted, tortured, and sent home to Britain. Prideaux's failure causes the scandal that removes Control, allowing the clique to assume power. Smiley pieces together the common elements of both of their stories together with records pilfered from the Circus to confirm that there really is a mole, being run by the Russian spymaster Karla, and that Tarr is telling the truth.

Smiley then flushes out the mole by sending Ricki Tarr to Paris, where he sends another warning back to the Circus. Having figured out where Polyakov is being kept, Smiley simply waits to see which of the four will show up there after they learn about the latest message. It's Haydon. His downfall also brings down the other three members of the clique, opening the way for George Smiley to return to the Circus as the new man in charge. He also leaks the location where Haydon is being held to Prideaux, allowing him to take his revenge.

But that's not the whole story.

This version of "Tinker, Tailor" is far more interested in examining the inner lives of George Smiley and his colleagues, looking at how they operate and what makes them tick. A major recurring theme in the story is emotion - all emotional attachments are a weakness in the spy game. Smiley constantly manipulates those around him through these weaknesses. He uses Ricki's hopes of finding Irina to get him to go back to Paris, knowing full well that she's dead. He sends Prideaux after Haydon, knowing they used to be friends, and knowing Prideaux will pay back the betrayal. You could also argue that he also knew about Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) having a lover, and gave him orders to clean house to ensure it couldn't be used against him - or to keep Guillam in line.

And that ties directly to how Smiley finally identifies the mole. In addition to flushing him out, Smiley also figures out who the mole is by looking at his own weaknesses which could be exploited by Karla. The flashbacks to the Christmas party aren't there to reveal any suspicious behavior among the four suspects, but to show us where the ever-watchful Smiley's own blind spot is. The only time in the entire film where we see Smiley expressing any kind of genuine emotion is when he discovers his wife Anne is having an affair with Haydon. That was his weakness. And the person who knew and used that weakness was the mole. The night that Ricki Tarr first tried to warn the Circus, Haydon was the first to show up on the scene. Smiley had the plausible explanation that Haydon received the information through Anne, so he didn't question any further. That was what let Haydon get away with it.

This more personal battle of wits, and Smiley's cerebral self-analysis are what I've noticed a lot of people seem to miss or gloss over while they're trying to untangle the bigger story. Admittedly the film doesn't play fair, being very stingy with the exposition so it's difficult to piece together what's going on. There was clearly a lot that didn't make it from page to screen this time around, and I know a lot of characters and loads of details got shortchanged. Even so, as someone who went into the film blind, I came away very happy with the psychological character study and the moody period atmosphere, so much so that I didn't mind that I didn't get every detail of the operations to uncover the mole. That's what rewatches are for. But Alfredson and Gary Oldman nailed George Smiley. It's not exactly clear how he won, but in the end, you definitely know why.

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is not an easy film to grasp, and it does require your full attention and concentration. It's slow, it's somber, and it's willfully opaque. But the deeper you look, the more there is to find. I don't think I'm done digging things up yet, and every new question just makes me want to see the film again.
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Hesher" and "Everything Must Go"

I'm writing one review for two movies, "Hesher," and "Everything Must Go," because what I want to say about both of them essentially boils down to the same thing. The two are not at all similar, aside from being independent films and technically both could be called comedies, if you like your comedies with a large dose of depression, angst, and self-destruction. They both have the same problem though, which is that they both have interesting ideas at their cores, but those ideas aren't fully developed enough to sustain full features. So the filmmakers added a bunch of other typical, indie, quirky bits of business in a vain attempt to patch the gaps. In both cases, it doesn't quite work.

"Hesher" is the worse offender. It's the tale of T.J. (Devin Brochu), a kid who is frequently bullied and lives with a dotty grandmother (Piper Laurie) and depressed father (Rainn Wilson). He develops a fixation on a girl who works at the supermarket (Natalie Portman). Then an accidental encounter brings Hesher (Joseph Gordon Levitt) into their lives. Hesher is long-haired, bearded, heavily-tattooed, reprobate drifter with no respect for the rules of civilization. He is impulsively destructive, cheerfully vulgar, taking a variety of different substances, and will commit illegal acts at the drop of a hat. And somehow, astonishingly, he gets away with everything. At first I thought Hesher might be the imaginary personification of some kind of emerging rebellious instinct in T.J., but no. He's a real person who we're supposed to try and take seriously. Aside from Gordon-Levitt's weirdly appealing visual transformation into a young Alan Moore, I couldn't buy it.

There are just too many ridiculous holes in this plot. Why does a guy like Hesher develop a fixation on T.J., to the point where he stalks the kid, and moves into his grandmother's house? A bad explanation is offered, but no real reason beyond Hesher's own arbitrary whims. And then there's the fact that nobody stands up to the guy. Nobody throws him out, calls, the cops, or refuses to be intimidated by his posturing. I get that Hesher is meant to be inhumanly badass, and cannot be denied or reasoned with by mere mortals, but he's still supposed to be a real human being. Even worse, the film decides to awkwardly humanize him in the last act, which undercuts the whole schtick. Suddenly Hesher's offering advice. Suddenly he and grandma have bonded. Suddenly, unleashing the darkest, most negative part of your psyche on the world is considered healthy. It's like watching a angry-young-man masculinity fantasy gone haywire and then being billed as therapy. The pieces just don't fit.

"Everything Must Go" is lighter, sweeter, funnier, and just as contrived. A man named Nick, played by Will Ferrell, is fired for backsliding into alcoholism, and returns home to discover he's been locked out of his house by his wife, and all his possessions are on the front lawn. Nick refuses to leave his stuff, and takes up residence on the turf. He spends the next several days battling his demons and figuring out how to move on, eventually hiring a lonely kid named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to help him organize everything into a giant yard sale. Now the image of Will Ferrell occupying his own front lawn, surrounded by and held captive by the domestic detritus of his own life is a pretty good one. But it doesn't make a movie. The screenwriters don't manage to extrapolate enough story from that idea to justify one.

But they try. So Nick goes through all these manufactured subplots, like teaching Kenny to become a good salesman and baseball player, and having heart-to-hearts with the pregnant woman (Rebecca Hall) who just moved in across the street. There's a nice little visit with a character played by Laura Dern, which could have been the basis of a much better movie. "Everything Must Go" is better than "Hesher" at tying everything together and grounding the more outlandish occurrences with something approaching real-world logic. Will Ferrell is also a very likable screen presence, despite the fact that he's playing a troubled alcoholic, and delivers a decent performance. This doesn't meant that the movie feels any less manipulative or oddly pieced together though.

There's nothing that makes one of these indies feel more stereotypical than a high concept premise and a totally conventional execution. I wonder if "Hesher" would have turned out better if the title character wasn't taken to such ridiculous extremes, or mashed into a narrative where he didn't fit. Or if "Everything Must Go" had put Nick's absent wife onscreen, so she could be dealt with directly, instead of letting Nick wander off on so many tangents. In both cases, it felt like the filmmakers set out to break some boundaries, but then gave up after a certain point and fell back on old conventions. As a result, both movies feel messy and insincere. I'll cut some slack to the first-time directors, but I have to wonder how the hell both films got made with the roster of talent they feature, and with such glaring flaws in there from the outset.
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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A "Burn Notice" Post

"Burn Notice" is one of those shows that I find myself watching very sporadically. The spy game stuff is a lot of fun, and I like the Miami setting, the whole schtick with Michael Westen's tips for being a better spy, and the well-rounded cast. It's nice that Hollywood vets like Bruce Campbell and Sharon Gless, along with former ingenue Gabrielle Anwar have all landed somewhere warm, where they get to play with guns and explosions occasionally. It just never hooked me so much that I felt compelled to seek the show out on a regular basis. However, I've recently been watching a couple of episodes of Season 6 with some friends, and realized that the plot of the show had actually advanced considerably from the early days. Just saw the season finale from last week, so I thought I'd put down a few thoughts. Spoilers ahead for the season.

Michael Westen, our hero, has not only figured out who burned him, but is being blackmailed by the guy who did it, one Anson Fullerton, played by Jere Burns. Speaking of Hollywood vets, I remember Burns bouncing around between about four or five different short-lived sitcoms back in the 90s, including "Mommies," always playing the sarcastic type. Now he's older with a much more interesting face, and he makes for a great villain. It was such a nice surprise to see him pop up here. It had never crossed my mind that "Burn Notice" needed a regular Big Bad, but now that it has one, I hope he sticks around for a while. There's also a new guy in Westen's team, a former agent named Jesse, played by Coby Bell. He apparently had a big arc that I missed completely, and I'm not so sorry I did. He doesn't really add much to the latest episodes I've been watching.

It seems to be business as usual for the rest of the gang. Bruce Campbell's Sam Axe is my favorite character, and I got a chance to see "The Fall of Sam Axe" prequel TV-movie special a while back. It was too long and was giving me flashbacks to really bad action films of the 80s, but it was fun and diverting. I got all the jokes and the references, but I like Sam better as a schlub and a sidekick, and Bruce Campbell only barely managed to pull off playing an action hero again for two hours. Fiona has hardly changed, which is a relief. She's one of the only women in these cable action shows that actually looks like she belongs in the thick of the action. I think it's something about her face or her voice of her trigger-happy attitude that makes me take her completely seriously as a badass, even when her persona is played for laughs.

Oh, and the on-again, off-again romance between Michael and Fiona is definitely on again, but I don't know if it's for the best. Jeffrey Donovan is very good playing Michael Westen as super cool and perpetually put-upon, but he's lousy at emoting. The show gives him a few big, heartfelt love scenes with Fi at the end of the season finale that just don't come off at all. It was almost a relief to see them separated at the end of the hour. On the other hand, the goofy dialogue played a big part in it too. As fun as "Burn Notice is for the action scenes and the over-the-top characters, the writing is pretty dire. I don't think it even rises to the level of the old 80s action shows like "The A-Team" and "MacGyver" most days, and that's not really a high bar.

But it doesn't matter so much on the whole. The show's formula is rock-solid and entertaining. The budget has gotten a noticeable boost, and the action and effects scenes have upgraded considerably as a result. In the finale alone, we had car flips, an exploding warehouse, an exploding airplane, a sustained gun battle, and more. It also featured an unusually star-studded guest cast, including Dean Cain and Kristana Loken. "Burn Notice" does a couple of things very, very well and that's enough. There's no need to complicate things further.

I don't know that I'll be back for next season, honestly, since I have a lot of other things to watch, and this one has slipped through the cracks before. However, I am glad the show is doing well and we can expect more "Burn Notice" to come. I'll catch up eventually, someday.
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Monday, December 19, 2011

"Tinker, Tailor" is a Thinker's Thriller

There is certain information that the new film version of John le Carré's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" expects its viewers to already know. For instance, that the film takes place during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, when the British and Soviet intelligence agencies were pitted against each other in deadly games of cat-and-mouse. It also expects a basic understanding of agents and counter-agents, intelligence operations, and the uneasy political climate of the day. Oh, and it helps to know the British counting rhyme that the title refers to, that goes, "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief."

But even beyond that, "Tinker, Tailor," requires the viewer to really think and pay attention in order to piece together what is going on. For a film with so many twists and feints and red herrings, there isn't much exposition. Sometimes the plot hinges on small details, like being able to recognize a woman whose face is never shown onscreen, or to work out how the protagonist, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), comes to certain conclusions. There are multiple flashbacks, some that may be confused for the present day. Most of the characters also use a shorthand slang, known as Tradecraft, that takes a while to pick up on – for instance, MI6 is The Circus, and the Soviet Spymaster is nicknamed Karla. And this is not the kind of movie that stops to explain every unfamiliar term and concept.

Yet while the particulars of the plot are convoluted, the premise is not. A British agent named Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), is sent to Hungary by Control (John Hurt), head of the Circus, to find information about a mole he suspects the KGB has planted in the upper echelons of British intelligence. Prideux is shot and the resulting scandal forces the resignations of Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley. However, a subsequent allegation by a possible rogue agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), brings Smiley out of retirement to secretly investigate the mole. His suspects are four: Percy Alleline, (Toby Jones) the new Chief of the Circus, and his inner circle, comprised of Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

The film is deliberately a little smarter than the audience, helping it to seem that George Smiley is always several steps ahead of everyone else. However, all the complexities of who knows what, and who may be untrustworthy can easily be worked out with a few rewatches and Googling the details. Focusing too closely on the minutia may cause viewers to miss that the film is primarily concerned with examining the character of Smiley, and through him the cold, amoral, labyrinthine world he must navigate. The search for the mole encompasses the stories of several agents who have to make hard sacrifices for the sake of their work. There's the sad love affair between Ricki Tarr and a Soviet woman he tries to turn (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the conflicted maneuverings of Smiley's chief ally Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the awful fate of Jim Prideaux, and finally the troubled personal life of Smiley himself.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has gone from helming a small horror tale, "Let the Right One In" to a massively more complicated espionage thriller with a star-studded British cast in "Tinker, Tailor," but it's clear immediately that he's the right man for the job. He summons up a wonderful atmosphere of isolation and loneliness, placing his characters in stark, almost monochrome environments. You can practically feel the perpetual chill through the screen. And he is exceptionally good at suggesting the psychological states of various characters with hardly a word of dialogue. It may be difficult to follow the specific logic of the spy games, but it's always clear what every character is going through emotionally, in the moment, and it's riveting to watch.

The cast is excellent, with Gary Oldman at the top of the list. His Smiley is minimalist, cerebral, and immaculate - cultivating a perfect dead-eye stare behind thick vintage glasses. He is the most closely examined character, and the most impenetrable. We see other characters let down their guard in private moments, but Smiley never slips - he's the perfect Cold Warrior. Among the supporting cast, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Tom Hardy get a lot of emotional fireworks to play with, and John Hurt is as invaluable as ever.

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is a spy film after my own heart, made in the grand tradition of the 1970s conspiracy thrillers. Yet it's the more personal stories at its core, the examinations of the terrible human cost of the game, that make it distinctive. If you want to see a typical Hollywood spy film, full of action and mayhem, I hear the new "Mission: Impossible" is quite good. But if you want to delve deeper into the murk of real-world espionage, and have the patience for it, "Tinker, Tailor," is a very satisfying experience.
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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Are We Ready for 2012?

As I'm sure you've heard, there's going to be a new "Batman" movie this summer. And an "Avengers" movie. And a new non-"Cars" PIXAR movies. And in December, a little flick called "The Hobbit" will grace our theater screens. And James Bond will return in "Skyfall." And the "Twilight" saga will finally end with "Breaking Dawn Part 2." 2012 will soon be upon us, and some long-awaited films are just around the corner. As with every year, there's bound to be plenty of bad mixed in with the good, but for now, with everything yet unseen, it's a good time to just sit back and enjoy the speculation and anticipation. Consider the possibilities, if you will.

Release slates are still very much a work in progress, but most of the big studio titles have been scheduled, and we have a pretty good idea of which in-progress projects are expected to reach theaters by the end of next December. Here's some of the upcoming titles I'm looking forward to, that haven't gotten quite as much media attention as "The Hunger Games" and "Men in Black III" and their ilk yet:

John Carter - The marketing so far has been horrific. Absolutely awful. However, if you look at the film's pedigree, there is a lot to get excited about. This is the live action debut of "Finding Nemo" director Andrew Stanton, with a script written by PIXAR alum Mark Andrews, with an assist by Michael Chabon. A crummy title and a clueless marketing might be hiding something really interesting here.

Moonrise Kingdom - The next film by Wes Anderson. We know it's set in the 60s, we know that it was shooting in New England, and we know it's about a group of townsfolk chasing a pair of eloping love-birds. And the cast includes Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, and of course, the one and only Bill Murray.

Gravity - A year ago, everyone wanted to know who would land the lead female role in Alfonso Cuaron's latest science fiction feature, and the part finally went to Sandra Bullock. George Clooney will co-star, replacing Robert Downey Jr. This is Cuaron's first directorial effort since "Children of Men," and there have been whispers and rumors that it may be the most daring thing he's attempted yet.

Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino is making another revenge movie, this time about a former slave, played by Jamie Foxx, settling the score with his former master, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, and Kurt Russell will be along for the ride. I'm a little scared of how far Tarantino is going to take this, but I wouldn't miss is for the world.

The Master - This one may not be completed before the end of the year, but after a lot of false starts and cast shuffling, I'm just glad that Paul Thomas Anderson's period film, about a man who starts a new religion played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is finally getting made. Anderson is one of the major American auteurs, and it has been far too long since his last feature, "There Will Be Blood."

Prometheus - Ridley Scott's recent films haven't been great, so I have very mixed feelings about the prospects of "Prometheus," which is not a sequel to "Alien," apparently, but a story from the same universe. Then again, Scott's never gone wrong on a science-fiction film, and with Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender as the leads, I'm certainly willing to give "Prometheus" the benefit of the doubt.

Life of Pi - I know I've talked up this film before, but I find it such an intriguing one. Based on the beloved novel by Yann Martel, "Life of Pi" will follow the adventures of a young Indian boy, stranded in a boat with a Bengal tiger and other animals after a shipwreck. Ang Lee is directing, after a parade of other directors came and went, and here's hoping that he can do the book justice.

The We and the I - Not much is known about Michel Gondry's next film, except that it involves a group of kids from the Bronx and inadvertent time travel. Anyway, here's hoping it'll be a return to form for Gondry after the disappointment of "The Green Hornet." The superhero flick was much too straight-laced an exercise for his talents, and it'll be good to see him fully unleashed again.

Seven Psychopaths - This will be the second film directed by Martin McDonagh, who is best known for "In Bruges," and writing a string of gory, violent, darkly humorous plays about murderers, hit-men, maniacs, and very, very bad people. I adore his work, and relish the thought of him working with a slew of screen badasses, including Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits.

Cloud Atlas - There isn't the space to go into the complexities of the multi-universe story that Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis siblings are attempting to bring to the screen, or the incredible lengths they've gone to in order to finance and film it. For more details, see this NY Times article. But one thing is certain. I have absolutely got to see what the end result. Whether failure or triumph, it's going to be spectacular.

And a few more to look out for:

* Steven Spielberg is directing Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.
* Spike Lee will reportedly reprise the role of Mookie from "Do the Right Thing" in Red Hook Summer, which will premiere at Sundance.
* Woody Allen's European tour continues with a stop in Italy for Nero Fiddled, with Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page.
* Park Chan Wook, director of the Vengeance Trilogy, will be making his English language debut with Stoker, a thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska.
* Tim Burton is making a movie where Johnny Depp is a vampire, called Dark Shadows, and no one is the least bit surprised.
* I've been hearing about Rian Johnson's new science film Looper for ages, and I hope it turned out well.
* Finally, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis will be my first Robert Pattinson film. Hope the kid can act.

Happy watching!
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Friday, December 16, 2011

Let's Skip That Movie

I've been mainlining indie films from the spring and summer all week, in a vain attempt to play catch-up on some of the titles that have been appearing on various Top Ten lists. Got through "Beginners," "Submarine," "Another Earth," "Everything Must Go," "Hesher," "The Devil's Double," "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," "Terri," and "Win Win" so far, and have way, way too many titles to go. (You might see reviews posted for some of these eventually, or you might not. I'm open to taking requests.) I'm at that point where every time I check another title off my "to watch" list, another two or three pop up. Demian Bichir just got a SAG nomination for Best Actor, so I'd better add Chris Weitz's "A Better Life" to the list. Oren Moverman's "Rampart" is getting buzz for Woody Harrelson's performance. Add that to the list. Foreign contenders like "A Separation" and "In Darkness" are starting to gain steam. Gotta make more room.

I posted a list of all the 2011 films I thought I still needed to see about a month ago, which had about sixty-something titles. I've seen about fifteen of them in the last month, but the list hasn't gotten any shorter. However, there are quite a few films that I'm going to be skipping, and not the most obvious ones. I may be a movie nut and a completist, but I don't actually endeavor to watch everything that gets a theatrical release and a lot of publicity. I just want to see the good stuff and the interesting stuff. Figuring out what does and doesn't make the cut, however, is a process I thought would make for a good blog post. A lot of it has to do with personal taste, but there is a method to this madness.

First, there are now more films made in any given year than it is physically possible for a single person to watch in the course of a single year. There are films being made all over the world for different audiences, most of which never get any sort of American theatrical release. I keep an eye on what's premiering at the various festivals, which act as gatekeepers for independent and world cinema of higher artistic ambitions, but the vast majority of those films never penetrate my consciousness either. It's only the awards winners, and the films snatched up for commercial distribution, and others that attract a good level of consistent buzz that, I pay any attention to. So already, that's a huge percentage of existing films that I never even consider watching.

I'm at least aware of most American studio films, since they're so accessible and intrinsically part of the current pop culture. But frankly, most of them aren't very good. With studio films, it's easy to pick and choose. I watch what I think looks good, and ignore what I know I'm not likely to enjoy. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1," "The Hangover Part II," and "The Smurfs" are all among the top ten highest grossing blockbusters of the year. I'm not going to make any special effort to see any of them, and don't feel guilty at all about it. "New Year's Eve" topped the box office last week. No interest in that one either. Usually I try to keep an open mind and not dismiss titles too quickly though, so this still leaves me with an awful lot of films to choose from between studio and non-studio titles.

From there, I depend on the critics and awards more than I should, I think. Critical consensus is a poor measure of entertainment value, and sometimes all I want is to be entertained. But when it comes to looking at films as art and films as more potentially enriching experiences, then the critics become vital. A bad review will rarely be able to talk me out of watching a film that really catches my interest, but a good one can get me to at least consider watching something like "Warrior," which was sold as a lunkheaded sports film and had a terrible trailer. An award or nomination can vault a little-seen stealth release like "50/50" to the top of my "to watch" list. Heck, if one critic I trust is sufficiently passionate enough about a film, I'll give it a chance. I give a lot of things a chance, more than I probably should, considering the length of the current "to watch" list. But there are way too many films out there for me to give everything a chance.

So conversely, the bad reviews make me feel more comfortable about leaving off films like Angelina Jolie's "In the Land of Blood and Honey" and Madonna's "W.E.," which are both making the rounds for awards contention, but have few champions. If I'm already iffy about a certain film, I let the critics be the deciding vote. Bland-looking indies that came out earlier in the year, like "The Art of Getting By" and "One Day," aren't showing up on any year-end lists and aren't in the awards conversation at all. That means I'm less likely to spend any time tracking them down either. And after the reviews came in, "Arthur Christmas," which I was doubtful about, is now on the list, and "Happy Feet 2," which I was equally doubtful about, is off.

Reading over that last paragraph, I hope it doesn't sound like I'm picking on actresses-turned-directors, because I don't mean to. Miranda July and Jodie Foster turned out some interesting stuff this year. Vera Farmiga's "Higher Ground" is on the "to watch" list too. Wait, and there was a new Sarah Polley film that premiered at Toronto this September, wasn't there? "Take This Waltz"? Has it come out yet? Looks like that one won't actually be released in theaters anywhere until 2012. Okay, let's save it for next year.
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

5 Reasons "The Hobbit" Won't Be The Prequels

We have just about a year to go until Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" reaches theaters. I've been trying to keep myself away from the production news, but I have heard that there is a teaser out there, that may be attached to some sort of action-adventure spectacle that's coming out in a week or two. I have my doubts about how good "The Hobbit" will be, but then I'm the doubting sort, prone to blowing small rumors totally out of proportion. On the other hand, I think I'm right to be worried about the extensive list of rumored cameos, Jackson monkeying with the frame rates, and the fact that "The Hobbit" has been split into two films. And, um, "The Lovely Bones" happened. But there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful that "The Hobbit," won't end up being the Middle Earth equivalent of the "Star Wars" prequels. I enumerate some of them below:

1) It's Pre-Existing Material - "The Hobbit" was always the most accessible of J.R.R. Tolkein's books. The story is simpler than "Lord of the Rings," has already been adapted a few times in various media, and is an all-around much better fit for the kind of big special-effects laden spectacle that Peter Jackson and his crew are so good at. As prequels go, it's starting out from a much better place than just about every other franchise that has attempted one. Even if Jackson does expand the story and go off on original tangents, at least we can be assured that "The Hobbit" will have a rock solid narrative backbone.

2) Lots of Old Familiar Faces - It would have been fun to see what Guillermo Del Toro would have come up with, but come on. Nobody really wanted anyone but Peter Jackson to direct "The Hobbit." And now that Jackson has fully expended all the goodwill that the "Lord of the Rings" afforded him on his passion projects, he's at the point where he needs the "Hobbit" movies about as much as they need him. And though there have been lengthy delays in the project brought on by the MGM bankruptcy, it wasn't too late for Ian McKellan to return as Gandalf the Grey, and a bunch of other "Rings" alumni to line up for appearances.

3) Not Made in a Vacuum - I am grateful for Del Toro being involved in the project, because a lot of times when successful filmmakers get a hold of too much creative freedom, and there's nobody to tell them that something isn't going to work, their ambitions can get a little out of hand. You know, like the "Star Wars" prequels, the "Matrix" sequels, and so on. The collaboration with Guillermo Del Toro hopefully provided some good friction and helped to reign in some of Jackson's self-indulgences as a director, which were already becoming noticeable in "Return of the King." I wish directors did this sort of thing more often.

4) Not the First in Line - There's something to be said for the fact that "The Hobbit" is being made now, in the age of prequels and extended multi-part movies, which were relative rarities ten years ago. Jackson will be able to learn from the mistakes of the ones that have gone wrong, and hopefully pick up a few pointers from the ones that have been done right, like this summer's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and the final "Harry Potter." Tolkein fans may argue that "The Hobbit" isn't really a prequel, but in this context the new movies will be. We can certainly expect a few callbacks to the trilogy, and it has long been rumored that the second "Hobbit" will set up "The Lord of the Rings."

5) Smaug the Dragon - Smaug the dragon is my favorite character from Middle Earth, and he is a proper villain. Not some floating eyeball stuck on a tower, not some Grim Reaper equestrian club, but a freaking dragon. One who can fly, talk, breathe fire, and is a badass, and I have been waiting for too damn long to see a proper cinema version of him. He was animated once back in the 70s, but not to very good effect. Jackson's version is still under wraps, but we do know that he's going to be voiced by "Sherlock's," Benedict Cumberbatch. Now how utterly perfect is that?

I can't wait until next December. There are a lot of ways "The Hobbit," could turn out to be a disappointment, but I've got a good feeling about this one. Fingers crossed.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Turning Down the Volume

Now this is good timing. On Tuesday, the FCC passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM), which tells broadcasters that television ads now have to be played at the same volume as the shows that they're running with. Say goodbye to those noticeably louder, overbearing commercials that regularly send viewers scrambling for the remote control. You can thank the representative from Menlo Park, Anna Eshoo, for writing up the bill and Senator John Wicker for shepherding it through Congress last year. The rules won't be totally implemented until next December, but I'm glad to see that one particularly obnoxious aspect of TV ads is finally being addressed. It's a bit late for me, since I killed the TV, but I'm glad for everyone else's ears. And I get to write a quick follow-up to my previous post about quashing TV ads.

The battle over the volume of TV ads has been going on for ages. I first became aware of it about ten years ago, when a little service called ReplayTV was making waves. It was a subscription DVR service similar to TiVo, which had a couple of features that many TV companies objected to. One was the ability to share recorded shows with other ReplayTV subscribers. The other, was "Commercial Advance," which allowed viewers to watch recorded shows without the commercials. ReplayTV would cut them out automatically, simply by detecting the tell-tale rise in volume whenever a show went to commercial. Turning down the ads a few decibels would have rendered the feature unusable, but instead, there were lawsuits, ReplayTV filed for bankruptcy, and soon TiVo took over the DVR market.

Since then, we've seen the introduction of several new gadgets and built-in TV features designed to mitigate the loudness of ads, using sound-leveling technology like Dolby Volume and SRS TruVolume. There has been some debate over whether these really do much good or not. But clearly there is an ongoing issue with the loud ads, that consumer electronics makers recognize and have been happy to tackle on the receiving end. The real problem, however, is with the television broadcasters who control the volume knob on the transmission end. They don't want to admit there's a problem at all, even though according to this TIME article, TV stations have been getting complaints about the excessive volume since the 60s.

The common tactic in dealing with complaints has been to deny the ads are any louder than the programs they run with, which is usually true. Technically. Commercials currently aren't supposed to be run any louder than the peak volume of a particular program - think gunshots, screams, and explosions. However, thanks to fiddling with compression levels, the range of volume in a commercial is much narrower, and concentrated toward the loud end of the audio spectrum. The new rules will require that the levels match the average of the program instead, which is much easier to monitor and enforce now.

Of course, it's no mystery why TV ads are so loud in the first place. The advertisers want them loud so that viewers will be briefly jolted out of our vegetative TV-watching states to pay attention to whatever they're trying to hawk. I wonder if this really works though. Blaring ads just seem to cause many viewers to change channels. And I expect most people have developed the same Pavlovian response that I have, and tend to tune out whenever the volume increases. Maybe turning the sound down will actually help advertisers. I used to mute commercials, which may have actually caused me to pay more attention to them, to make sure I turned the sound back on after they were over.

I've already heard some grumbling and complaints from various corners about how this regulation is a waste of time, and how the volume of our television commercials is unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Surely the efforts of the FCC could be directed to more useful purposes? Well yes, but this is one of the rare wins for consumers over the media companies, and it does suggest that our legislators can be prodded to take action on similar issues. And you can't tell me that everyone hasn't been hit by one of these disruptive advertisement blasts at some point. It may be a minor annoyance, but it's a pervasive one and it's been steadily getting worse.

Besides, the TV stations can still play the commercials just as loud as they did before. They just have to play the programs we actually want to watch at the same volume, and give a little control back to the viewers.
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Favorite Steven Spielberg Film

Mr. Spielberg has two new films coming out in a few weeks, so this is as good a time as any to write up this post. I am an 80s kid, so of course Steven Spielberg's work had a major impact on my development as a movie fan. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" were the big titles, "Jaws" was too scary to watch more than parts of, but was always lurking somewhere in the nether regions of my consciousness, and "Jurassic Park" was the first real non-Disney event movie I remember getting hyped up for.

So I suppose it's ironic that I associate Spielberg so closely with my childhood, but my favorite film of his is one I didn't see until I was an adult. I'm not exactly sure when it was that I first laid eyes on "Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind," but I know it was after high school because I remember getting my hands on the novelization first. I found the book intriguing, but it was a poor substitute for the actual film, which does things with music and visual effects that are astounding to experience, and utterly transcendent of the old sci-fi B-movies that preceded it. Yes, on the surface level "Close Encounters" is about mankind encountering alien visitors from outer space, but more fundamentally, it's a film that examines the basic act of communication, through many different means.

We start with various strange occurrences around the globe: missing fighter planes and ships reappearing decades after they were lost, strange signals coming from unknown sources in the sky, and various people suddenly compelled to act in odd ways. UFOs are the cause, and everything seems to be building up to some bigger, imminent event. We follow three major characters through the film - family man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who has a close encounter with a UFO, and becomes obsessed with them, a young mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon), who searches for her missing son, and a French scientist, Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), leading a group trying to determine the visitors' intentions.

Throughout the film, Spielberg examines how humans communicate with each other, as they seek to find a way to communicate with alien beings. One of the canniest decisions he made was casting Truffaut as Lacombe, a character who speaks entirely in French and requires the use of an interpreter, played by Bob Balaban. The most knowledgeable, charismatic, and intelligent man in the movie is someone who is incomprehensible to the majority of the American audience without the aid of a go-between. On the flip side we have Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, struggling with to respond to the message that the aliens left with him, which was conveyed in a manner that defies traditional language completely. Communication with aliens seems impossible at first, but then patterns emerge, signs take on meaning, and the John Williams score does the rest.

I always feel compelled to watch "Close Encounters" the whole way through every time I stumble across a broadcast on television, because I get caught up in it so quickly. The entire thing is one long build-up toward a grand finale, and finales don't get any grander. The sight of the alien mothership descending on Devil's Tower is one of the greatest images in cinema. Nothing beats it for sheer, jaw-dropping visual splendor. And it creates such a feeling of wonder - sheer wonder at witnessing the characters in their first moments of discovery. I especially love the designs of all the spaceships. Instead of something hard and solid and tactile, they're these almost intangible collections of glowing lights, the embodiment of a hundred different UFO sightings and stories. They dazzle, and yet retain their mystery. And cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, responsible for all those indelible landscapes, got the Oscar for this film and deserved it.

"Close Encounters," along with "E.T." also solidified Spielberg's reputation for making very humanist, very aspirational blockbusters. His critics write them off as fairy-tales, but I always appreciated Spielberg's optimism and faith in mankind's ability to do good. It's difficult to imagine in an age of so many violent, bloody alien invasion pictures, that we could ever have the scenario that plays out at the end of "Close Encounters," where man makes contact without aggression, fear, or paranoia. And yet having the possibility of it there, captured on film, does make a difference. I wouldn't call "Close Encounters" a feel-good film, but I always come away from it feeling a little better about the human race. Even if such collective magnanimity is beyond us today, at least it's still there in our dreams - courtesy of Mr. Spielberg.
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What I've Seen - Spielberg

Duel (1971)
Sugarland Express (1974)
Jaws (1975)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Hook (1991)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Schindler's List (1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Amistad (1997)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
Minority Report (2002)
Catch Me if You Can (2002)
The Terminal (2004)
War of the Worlds (2005)
Munich (2005)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
War Horse (2011)
Lincoln (2012)
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Monday, December 12, 2011

Life Without TV Ads

It's been over six months since The Day I Killed the TV, and I thought I'd follow up. I'm still mostly living without live television. I do have an antenna on the new TV, but it works so poorly that I only get reception for two of the major networks, FOX and CBS, and not in very good quality. With awards season in full swing, I'm worried about how I'm going to be able to watch the Golden Globes, which are on NBC, and the Oscars, which are on ABC this year. On the other hand, this is literally all the live television that I'm interested in watching for the foreseeable future. I watch everything else online.

I didn't realize how much television I was watching until suddenly I wasn't. I've stopped watching morning shows, most late night shows, and the programs I was following just because they happened to fit a particular open time slot that was convenient for me. I've cut down TV viewing hours by at least 60%. I'm down to a handful of regular network shows - "The Daily Show," "Community," "House," "60 Minutes," "Person of Interest," "Grimm," "Castle," and "Nikita" - and everything else I'm seeing through subscription services, rented discs, or pay-per-episode options - "Louie," "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead," etc.

So I'm still watching a lot of television by my own admission. The biggest difference is, I'm only watching a fraction of the advertisements, and in some cases, no ads at all. It's the same with movies. I skip through the previews unless I'm in a theater, and have been watching fewer and fewer trailers. I use the internet with ad blocker programs, so most print media is also coming to me mostly ad free. Sure, I still get those sidebar ads and Google paid links, and the occasional click-through screen, but it's very limited in comparison to the inundation of ads I used to be regularly subjected to by magazines and newspapers.

I've noticed the most dramatic difference is with the television ads, though. It's been a very bizarre couple of weeks for me, with no commercials to remind me about Black Friday deals or the fact that I only have a few more shopping days until Christmas. It's only when someone turns on a radio that I get hit with bursts of holiday marketing chatter. Lately, when people talk about particular marketing campaigns or ads, more often than not I don't know what they're talking about. Does this disconnect me from the popular media experience somewhat? Sure, but after a couple of months without all that background noise, I wouldn't give it up for anything.

Advertisements are designed to be distractions, to steal away your attention from other things, even when you're no longer looking or listening to them directly. How many times have you had some tuneless fast food jingle stuck in your head? ("$5 - $5 - $5 foot looooooong") How many times have you unconsciously found yourself associating a company or brand with their zippy slogans? ("Taste the rainbow!" "Just do it!" Or else!) I still think of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" as the United Airlines song, which is just wrong on so many levels. So it's such a relief to be able to avoid the most obnoxious ads almost completely now.

And it's not just the usual corporate advertising for products and services either. I used to dread election season, with all those awful, misleading attack ads raising political tensions to a boiling point. Now I just read the summaries of the candidates' latest hijinks on news sites, and can look ahead to next November without fear. And I'm not sure why I ever thought that the nightly American newscasts were ever as informative as print, with all those commercials disrupting the flow of information every few minutes.

Now I can just hear the old media guard wringing their hands. But media business models are primarily advertisement based! How on earth can we sustain our television operations if you're not willing to watch ads anymore? Well, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I'm willing to pay for the privilege of not watching ads. I pay for Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and iTunes. Yes, I know there are ads on Hulu, even on the paysite portion. And I hit mute, minimize the window, do something else while the ads are running, and just scroll back to the start if I come back in late. Streaming video's great like that.

So NBC, ABC, I'll gladly fork over a few bucks if you guys can work out a way to stream your kudocasts live online this year. Louis CK just put up a brand new hour-long special for $5. Your awards shows aren't nearly as entertaining, but considerably longer. So, I'd be willing to pay up to, oh, $10 apiece for them - with no commercials of course. Maybe add another buck or two for the Golden Globes as a premium, if you turn off tape delay for Ricky Gervais. What do you say?
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Friday, December 9, 2011

It's a "Win Win"

I used to think I didn't like sports movies, because I have very little interest in any sports. However, a good film can take any subject and make it compelling, especially if it's coupled with some good human drama, strong characters, and a sense of humor about itself. So when I tell you that "Win Win" has a lot to do with high school wrestling, please keep in mind that the movie's not really about the wrestling. It serves as a focal point, but there's much more going on.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small town lawyer and family man, whose practice serves the elderly. Unable to make ends meet, he takes on the guardianship of one of his clients, Leo (Burt Young), who is going senile and can't live alone unassisted anymore. Leo wants to stay at home, and Mike convinces the judge that he can ensure that as his guardian, but then ships Leo off to a nearby nursing home to avoid doing the work. What Mike didn't count on was Leo's estranged grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) showing up on his grandfather's doorstep unannounced. Kyle ends up rooming in Mike's basement, despite the misgivings of his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), while Mike tries to sort out the situation. It soon becomes clear that Kyle can't go home, but he might be a blessing in disguise. Mike and his friend Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) coach the local high school wrestling team, and it turns out that Kyle is a natural.

Writer director Thomas McCarthy's oeuvre has become pretty clear. He makes small-scale comedy-dramas about unlikely individuals coming together and forming family groups, often through unusual hobbies or interests. In "The Station Agent," a trio of oddballs bond over trains. In "The Visitor," a professor and an illegal immigrant practice drumming together. McCarthy also had a writing credit on the PIXAR film "Up," about another odd-couple duo. So "Win Win," with its wayward characters figuring out where they belong, is familiar territory for him. However, you don't see many filmmakers these days who can handle these topics without making them overly sentimental or cloying or insincere. So I really appreciate it whenever one of his films shows up in the movie landscape, because it proves these stories can be modern and relevant and still entertaining. Like McCarthy's previous work, "Win Win" is a low-key charmer, but in less skilled hands, the material would not have come off nearly so well.

In spite of the eccentric characters, the emphasis on familial bonds, and a genial atmosphere, you couldn't really call "Win Win" a feel good film. Neither is it one of the recent batch of stereotypically cynical, self-aware indies about dysfunctional families. Instead, with its rough edges and big heart, McCarthy manages to strike a balance in tone somewhere between the two. Mike Flaherty is clearly a well-meaning good guy and he's easy to sympathize with, but the plot hinges on the fact that he's done something thoroughly rotten, and no plot twist is going to come along to save him from the fallout in the last act. Similarly, Kyle seems to be well on his way to redemption through the wrestling team, but the film never forgets that he's a seriously troubled kid, and his problems can't be solved easily, or all at once.

The performances are stellar across the board, and a lot of the film's resonance is due to the the fact that the characters come across as very genuine, multilayered people. The MVP award should go to Amy Ryan as the sharp, no-nonsense Jackie, who anchors the Flaherty family, and who everyone is accountable to in the end. Giamatti was never more likable, and Alex Shaffer, making his acting debut here, is quietly the most charismatic presence on the screen. Bobby Cannavale, Melanie Lynskey, and Margo Martindale all show up in smaller roles, all at the top of their game. And I doubt that anyone can resist the charms of Jeffrey Tambor playing a totally ineffectual wrestling coach.

If I have any criticism, it's that "Win Win" is easily Thomas McCarthy's most conventional film. It uses a lot of family drama and sports movie tropes, and doesn't really break any new dramatic ground. But on the other hand, McCarthy executes everything extraordinarily well and never lets the story become formulaic or predictable. "Win Win" is substantive without being heavy, uplifting without being twee. And best of all, it's genuinely funny. The humor is mostly situation, and doesn't rely on any overt jokes or gags, but I found myself smiling through the whole film.

I wish they made more of them like "Win Win."

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Perils of Year-End Movie Montage Videos

Haven't done a post on fandom in a while have I? Let's fix that.

A trend I've noticed over the past few years is that many movie fans, who are also amateur editors, make film tribute videos at the end of each year, usually from footage collected from trailers. There's already one or two of these for the films of 2011 floating around on Youtube. These projects, like most fan-edited videos, are totally non-commercial and often can serve as good advertising, so the studios and artists who own the rights to the footage tend to leave them alone. One even gained some positive media attention a few years back.

I enjoy a good clip montage, and I really liked some of the early ones I saw, back in 2005 and 2006. These homemade tributes can be a great opportunities to do really creative, fun, different things with the familiar marketing clips we've been seeing all year. There aren't many venues outside of straitlaced award ceremonies that have the rights and access to edit together bits and pieces from so many different films, so it's the perfect kind of project for fans to tackle. There are still a few exceptional editors who I'll check in on every year, but lately my enthusiasm has been waning. I think this is one trend that is starting to wear out its welcome.

If you look at a bunch of these videos from different years, they start to look depressingly similar. Most end-of-the-year montage videos simply use too many clips, and a few editors even make it a point of pride to use a shot from every single film released in a particular year, no matter how obscure or how bad the film. And because everyone rushes to post these montage films online in December or January, there's no way that the editors have seen more than half of the films they're using footage from, so clips tend to be not particularly representative of the films. Rather they're the most showy bits, or shots that happen to fit the narrative they're trying to construct.

Using trailer footage also presents its own problems. As I've noted on this blog before, I think trailers have been steadily decreasing in quality over recent years, becoming more bland and generic. As a result, the footage they contain tends to be the most bland and generic parts of the films they're promoting. Think about the trailers for "Hugo" and "Planet of the Apes" compared to the finished films and you can see the problem. The best scenes from "Hugo" are all the spoilery ones from the end of the film, and there's no way anyone could get ahold of those clips by any legal means until "Hugo" arrives on DVD sometime in the spring. Some trailers, like the early ones for "The Muppets," are full of scenes that didn't even appear in the finished films. Could you spot Wanda Sykes anywhere but the trailer?

As a result, many of these videos are mind-numbing catalogs of endless mediocre films, and you get many of the same sort of sequences - compilations of the best actions scenes, shots of teary and romantic moments, and a lot of emphasis on familiar faces. Oh look, there's George Clooney, and Sandra Bullock, and Robert DeNiro looking a little grayer each year. It's often hard to tell which movie the stars appeared in, because you'll often only get a half-second head shot mixed in with a lot of others. In short, a lot of these montages end up looking like very, very long super-trailers for one big, expensive, film, full of hugging and explosions and every big movie star who made something that year.

Some of these projects are more artful and interesting than others, but it's hard to think of most year-end montages as real tribute pieces, as opposed to just massive editing exercises. I've seen a lot of good fan-made vidding projects out there using clips from films you can tell the editors really enjoyed and cared about. I don't get that from these latest "Best of" vids. The earliest year-end movie montage videos get kudos for being innovative, but the later ones haven't really built on them to do anything more distinctive or offer any real commentary. They just get longer, showier, and use newer music every year. You could easily churn out a montage video right now for the films from the first half of 2012, just from the trailers that have been released.

I'm not going to write off this whole category of vidding, but I will say that the stuff I like tends to be shorter and focus on fewer films, resulting in more personal, oddball looking videos. They don't get as many hits, and don't get their links passed around, but at least they feel like videos that were really made by fans.
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