Friday, January 28, 2011

Of Course There Should Be A "Tiger Mother" Movie

If you haven't heard of Amy Chua and her parenting memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," by now, you are officially out of the loop. Excerpts published in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago set off a boisterous debate about American versus Chinese parenting styles. Were the extreme tough love methods Chua depicted helpful or hurtful? Everyone seems to have an opinion or a response. Every Asian-American I know has been quick to point out that not all Chinese mothers are like Chua, though her tactics and her mindset are awfully familiar. The "Tiger Mother" controversy has lingered in the public consciousness for an unusually long time, a cultural moment that is going to be used as a point of reference for years to come. Of course, the book is selling like mad.

So it's no surprise that Hollywood is interested. Other recent adaptations of women's memoirs have included "Eat, Pray Love," "Julie & Julia," and "The Devil Wears Prada." It's not a genre that gets much press, but these tell-alls have always been a staple of cinema aimed at women. "Tiger Mother" would seem to be a perfect choice for adaptation, with its newfound cultural cachet, and ability to rouse strong emotions. There are early stirrings of putting "Tiger Mother" on the big screen, according to The Hollywood Reporter. However, there's one big problem that will significantly impact the likelihood of an adaptation actually being made. As a literary agent interviewed for the HR article points out, studios may balk at the prospect of a film starring an Asian lead actress.

I know Hollywood is a far more conservative town that it's reputed to be. I know that the content of mainstream films has always lagged woefully far behind social reality in terms of racial representation and diversity. I know there have been some significant gains for minority actors and actresses in recent years, especially on television. I know we have to patient. That said, comments like this always make me want to throttle the big-shot Hollywood creative types. The prevailing attitude toward the marketability of minority actors and actresses is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No lead roles for Asian actresses means they'll never have the opportunity to break out and become box office draws. And in the name of marketability - rather, in the name of pandering to the segment of the audience they think is secretly racist - I know Hollywood is going to compromise this material.

If a "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" movie gets made, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the Caucasian actor playing Chua's husband, who happens to be Jewish, ends up with top billing. Or if they decide to reframe the events of the book from a Caucasian woman's point of view. Or if they drop Amy Chua and her family completely, and have Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson try to use Chua's parenting tactics on their own adorable onscreen children. Suddenly a book about the Asian-American experience becomes the movie about the white, Middle-American co-option of the Asian-American experience. They've done it so many times before. If the studios can't figure out an angle on "Tiger Mother" that would downplay the involvement of Asian-Americans, its chances of being made into a film will drop like a rock. Sure, they made "The Joy Luck Club" - seventeen frickin' years ago.

The most frustrating thing is, I can think of several familiar Asian-American actresses who could be great Tiger Mothers, mostly from television. There's Sandra Oh, who seems to pop up as a supporting best friend in everything these days. Olivia Munn has been kicking ass on "The Daily Show." Lucy Liu and Ming Na, the closest thing we had to Asian-American movie stars in the 90s, would welcome the work. Or there's a slew of younger actresses who are overdue for a break. A character based on Amy Chua has the potential for all kinds of interesting dimensions, and its a chance for an Asian-American actress that doesn't come along every day.

The movie business has been getting into a lot of these fixes lately, being called out for whitewashing and underrepresentation more and more often. I think it's because the discrepancy between the portrayals of minorities onscreen and actual reality keeps getting wider. America is not going to be a majority Caucasian nation for much longer, and we're already seeing signs of the cultural shift. Hollywood may be squeamish about multiculturalism, but the real world has no such bias, so cinemas are missing out on a lot of great - and potentially lucrative - stories. By the way, when can we expect that movie about the Chilean miners?

Let's get a Tiger Mother on the case. They'll never know what hit them.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Digging "Dogtooth"

I knew "Dogtooth" by reputation before I had a chance to watch it, and cheered it's inclusion on this year's list of nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It's a film of taboo topics, featuring graphic sexual scenes, bloody violence, incest, and several varieties of abuse. The assumption was that the traditionally conservative voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would find "Dogtooth" too extreme to single out for recognition. However, I'm not surprised they were ultimately won over.

"Dogtooth" is a portrait of a very peculiar Greek family. There is a father (Christos Stergioglou), a mother (Michelle Valley), and three adult children - an older daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), younger daughter (Mary Tsoni), and a son (Christos Passalis). We learn none of their names, and the children do not appear to possess them anyway. They all live together in domestic comfort, but it soon becomes clear that the parents have never let their offspring leave the enclosed compound where they live, and enforce strict discipline as to every aspect of their behavior, leaving them developmentally stunted. With no other sources of information available, the parents feed the children a steady diet of misinformation and deranged fantasies. Passing airplanes are toys that sometimes crash into the yard. "Telephone" means the salt shaker, and "zombie" is a type of flower. At one point the mother announces that she will be giving birth to two additional children and a dog.

We never learn the motives of the parents, though the film documents them going to elaborate lengths to maintain their stifling little world. There is a constant tension in the household, where the strain of keeping up the act may be starting to weigh too heavily on the father and mother. They rule the household with the constant threat of gut-wrenching violence, but the children, especially the older daughter, are becoming restless and acting out in bizarre and destructive ways. And then there's the outsider, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), who works as a security guard at the father's place of employment, and is occasionally paid to come to the house, blindfolded, in order to attend to the sexual needs of the son. It's Christina's unstructured interactions with the older daughter that introduce new stimuli into the lives of the deprived children, and disrupt the control of the parents to horrifying effect.

"Dogtooth" is meant to be a metaphorical fable, exploring the the mechanics of tyrannny and deprivation, and their effects on both the subjugated and the subjugators. There are too many holes in the premise for the audience to accept the situation of the family as anything but an artificial construct. For instance, the younger daughter is shown to have access to medical texts and other books, so the whole business with the vocabulary words is unlikely. However, the characters are genuine enough. The way the adult children behave is often frightening and alien - barking like dogs on command, employing brutal violence in minor spats, and reacting abnormally in sexual situations - but they retain enough human impulses to gain our sympathies. Aggeliki Papoulia is especially good as the older daughter, who wants desperately to rebel against the parents, but has no idea how to go about it. Her efforts are hampered both by her lack of knowledge and the utterly warped context of what little information she does have.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos does a wonderful job of turning a friendly domestic home, full of soft pastel colors and warm lighting, into a nightmarish hell from which there is no escape. His characters seem trapped in his frames, squeezed in and ill-fitting, sometimes with their heads and limbs lopped off. Stills from the film could be family snapshots, except that none of the characters ever smile or laugh. During a party scene late in the story, the contrast is starkest. All the accouterments of a joyful celebration are there, from decorative balloons to the childrens' party clothes, but the daughters dance because they are ordered to, and with a petrified stiffness that anticipates terrible punishment if they stop. The sex scenes that have caused such a ruckus are cold and clinical, about the least prurient depictions of sexual activity I've ever seen, though certainly disturbing for other reasons.

There's a strong urge to compare "Dogtooth" to the work of European auteurs Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, who are known for similar acts of extreme cinema sadism. Lanthimos doesn't seem nearly as bleak and fatalistic, though, which I'm thankful for. And though everything is played dead serious, he also has a much better sense of humor. I find his style and his filmmaking sensibility closer to Roy Andersson, the Swedish filmmaker who gave us the pitch-black apocalypse comedy, "Songs From the Second Floor." I hope the Academy Award nomination encourages to Lanthimos to make more films, because I'd love to see more from him. I'll just have to remember to stretch first, in preparation for all the cringing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oscar Meta 2011

And now we get to the fun part of the Oscar nominations. After all the nominees have been tallied, surprises and snubs noted, and lists made up of the films we still need to watch - in my case too many - it's time to pull back and look at the big picture. What do the 2011 Academy Award nominees say about the state of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and about the state of American cinema, if it says anything at all?

It's a good year. I think this is the first time in a long time that I've felt the Oscars have been so relevant and in sync with the artistic achievements of the film community and the popular culture at the same time. In the Best Director category are Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, the Coen brothers, and David O. Russell - the madman behind "I Heart Huckabees"! - an unthinkable prospect just a year or two ago. These are some of the most exciting American filmmakers working today, and they're at the height of their creative powers. Nobody's here because they're a legacy pick or a sentimental favorite. Even Tom Hooper, who directed the most conservative film of the bunch, "The King's Speech," is a relative novice who has mostly worked in television. Personally, I would have booted him in favor of Christopher Nolan in a second, but you could have a really good debate about it on the actual merits of their films.

What's been really surprising is how well the nominated films have been doing at the box office this year. While many would-be holiday blockbusters tanked or underperformed, ticket sales have been robust for the prestige pics like "The Black Swan" and 'The King's Speech." The Social Network," our current Best Picture frontrunner, was a surprise hit in September, pulling in nearly $100 million with no benefit from awards season chatter. When crowd-pleasers "Avatar" and "The Blind Side" muscled into the Best Picture race last year, analysts declared them concessions to populism. This year, the highest grossing nominated films after PIXAR's "Toy Story 3" are "Inception," widely lauded for its intellectually stimulating puzzle-box plot, and "True Grit," the Coen Brothers' western. This year's films are not only more critically acclaimed than the last bunch (higher Metacritic average), but more people have seen them already.

Expanding the number of Best Picture nominees to ten was a great idea. In the past, the Academy was simply not comfortable with nominating certain films, like animated features or genre pictures. Therefore, especially between 2004 and 2007, there was practically no overlap between the Best Picture nominees and the films that audiences actually went out and saw. Oscar viewership plummeted because no one had heard of films like "Babel" and "The Reader." The actual frontrunners for Best Picture still tend to be heavy dramas, but the full list of anointed nominees is now a much better reflection of what the American cinemascape actually looks like. This year in particular showcases a good mix of titles, from the expensive blockbusters to the microbudgeted indies.

This is also having an interesting effect on the content of the films themselves. Thanks to the critical accolades heaped on commercial genre pictures like "The Dark Knight," "Inglorious Basterds," and "District 9," our serious filmmakers are more willing to tackle this kind of material now. Aronofsky's "Black Swan" has been categorized by many as a horror film, with elements of camp. Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" is a desert survival movie. "Inception" is science fiction. The year's big historical drama, "The King's Speech," is much more of a crowd-pleaser than similar nominees of the past like "The Queen" and "Atonement." And with the caveat that these things tend to be cyclical, there have been indications that movie viewers are warming up to films with more substance, in reaction to too many disappointments at the multiplex.

I expect that audiences are coming because the best films of the year are more accessible now than they've been in the past, but this probably isn't by chance. Getting cynical for a minute, the independent film market took a dive with the recession that it hasn't fully recovered from. More challenging films with fewer commercial prospects were less likely to be bought and distributed, and thus less likely to get financed and made at all. This year's major nominees may be more diverse in terms of genre and themes, but the Academy has also taken a few steps back in other areas. There are no films with cross cultural elements, no big foreign language contenders, no social justice or "message" movies ("The Kids Are All Right" is far more nuanced than you've heard), and the acting nominees are overwhelmingly Caucasian, with the iffy exception of Javier Bardem for the Spanish language "Biutiful."

The last few years have also given us a bumper crop of miserable, angst-ridden pictures, like "Precious," "No Country For Old Men," "Frost/Nixon," and "The Hurt Locker," perhaps reflecting the mood of the creative community and the psychological impact of larger national and global conflicts. In 2008, Jon Stewart asked during his Academy Awards ceremony hosting gig, "Does this town need a hug?" So it's nice to be have a roster of Best Picture nominees that isn't so depressing, and I can actually prod friends and relations to come see them with me. On the other hand, I don't want the pendulum swing too far back in the other direction either. Relevance and popularity are two different things, and shouldn't be confused. I don't want to see films like "Precious" disappear, simply because they're harder to sell and champion.

Finally, there's this whole New Hollywood v. Old Hollywood narrative that's being trotted out again. It's good copy, but it's total bunk. "The Social Network" has lots of younger up-and-coming actors and is about Facebook. "The King's Speech" is a costume drama with a middle-aged British monarch. None of the other Best Picture nominees fit the narrative. "True Grit," the other big contender, neatly subverts it by featuring both older and younger leads. Yes, we have a pair of young hosts and lots of younger nominees this year, including Hailee Steinfeld, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jesse Eisenberg. Many older favorites like Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, and Lesley Manville didn't secure predicted acting nominations. And yet, Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network") lost out a spot in the Best Supporting Actor race to John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone") and Mila Kunis ("The Black Swan") couldn't gain traction for Best Supporting Actress against Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom").

Now we head into the month of furious campaigning and conjecture before the big night on February 27th. I plan to enjoy it, as I have no stake in the race and it's fun watching the studio executives tie themselves in knots over dreams of Oscar gold. I hear Harvey Weinstein is pulling out all the stops and threatening to cut "The King's Speech" for a family-friendly version without the therapeutic profanities. Someone, please stop this man before he hurts himself. Other than that, Hollywood, go forth and do battle.

Because it's Oscar season again, the most wonderful time of the year to be a film nerd.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Preliminary Oscar Nomination Reactions

I got up at 5:30AM today just to listen to Mo'Nique and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) president Tom Sherak announce the nominations for nine of the big categories. Yes, I am a film nerd! Yet at this point I've still only seen six of the Best Picture nominations and one of the frontrunners that didn't make the list, so the following analysis is based on all the gossip and politicking and conjecture that's been going on - pretty much the same as everyone else this morning. The list of all the nominees, which I will not reproduce here, can be found by clicking on this link that leads directly to the AMPAS website. Now let's get down to business.

Best Picture - There are no big surprises in this category. Most of the list was hashed out ages ago, with only the last three slots in any real doubt. "Winter's Bone" edged out "The Town" and "Blue Valentine," and also picked up nominations for Actor, Actress, and Writing. If the votes had come due a few weeks later, however, I think "Blue Valentine" would have had a good shot because I've been hearing much more chatter about it. "The Town" was an early favorite that lost a lot of steam over past few months - I found it solid but unspectacular next to "Winter's Bone." And I guess those concerns about "127 Hours" being too visceral for Academy voters to handle wasn't the case - it landed six nominations today.

Best Director - Cue the fanboy wails and lamentations. Where is Christopher Nolan for "Inception"? He picked up an Original Screenplay nod, and the picture netted eight nominations, mostly in technical categories. But no Best Director nod, which means the film's chances at a Best Picture statue have taken a dive. In years past, the directing nominees nearly always mirrored the Best Picture nods, so Nolan's absence suggests that "Inception" might not have gotten a Best Picture nomination if the category was still only limited to five films. Instead, the fifth director slot went to Joel and Ethan Coen for "True Grit," one of the day's big winners with ten nominations.

Best Actor - Probably the biggest surprise of the morning was Javier Bardem's nomination in this category, beating out Robert Duvall for "Get Low" and Ryan Gosling for "Blue Valentine." The Alejando Gonzarez Innaritu film also made an appearance in the Best Foreign Language film category. However, Colin Firth is pretty much a sure thing at this point, having swept nearly every other acting award this year so far for playing King George VI in "The King's Speech." Firth's nomination is one of twelve for "The King's Speech," the biggest haul for any film this year. This is one of my favorites of 2010, so I can vouch that it deserves every last one of them.

Best Actress - There was some suspense over whether Hailee Steinfeld and Lesley Manville would be counted as a lead or supporting actresses, which made this one of the harder categories to predict. Steinfield wound up in the Supporting Actress race, and I suspect Manville would have too if she'd gotten a nomination. This made room for Michelle Williams for "Blue Valentine" and Jennifer Lawrence for "Winter's Bone." The other favorite who didn't make the cut was Julianne Moore for "The Kids are All Right. This is good news for her co-star, Annette Bening, who doesn't have to worry about a potential vote split now, though Natalie Portman is still the one to beat.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role - The Screen Actors Guild nominations turned out to be prescient. John Hawkes, a character actor with a long career of small roles, landed a nomination for "Winter's Bone," squeezing out Andrew Garfield for "The Social Network." This puts their films at four and eight nominations apiece, and might signal that "The Social Network" isn't a sure thing for the major awards. Also making an appearance in this category is Jeremy Renner for "The Town," the only nomination the film wound up with.

Best Actress in a Supporting Roles - I just watched "Animal Kingdom" last night, and Jacki Weaver is right where she should be. Hailee Steinfeld being categorized as a Best Supporting Actress means that there wasn't room for Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey for "The Black Swan." Melissa Leo and Amy Adams of "The Fighter" are the most prominent contenders here. All these acting nods pushed "The Fighter" to seven nominations, putting it right in the middle of the pack among the Best Picture hopefuls.

Best Writing - "Another Year" only managed one nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. The picture's fortunes have faded since it made the AFI list earlier in the season. Otherwise, the Original and Adapted Screenplay nominations match the Best Picture nominations. The odd one out is "The Black Swan," possibly a sign that the film's chances at a statuette aren't so good. It stacked up five nominations, including a Best Director nod for Darren Aronofsky, though, so I wouldn't count it out of the running yet.

And the Rest - I am stunned that "TRON: Legacy" failed to score a nomination for Best Visual Effects, even with the unconvincing Jeff Bridges stand-in. And the snub of the Daft Punk score is just criminal. The only nomination "TRON" ended up with was for Sound Editing. On the other hand, I'm tickled that "Dogtooth" got a nod for Best Foreign Language film, relieved that "The Illusionist" pulled through in Best Animated Feature, and kind of boggled that "Unstoppable" got a nomination - also for Sound Editing.

Notable shut-outs and near shut-outs include "Never Let Me Go," "Somewhere," "The Way Back," "Hereafter," "Shutter Island," "The Ghost Writer," "I Love You Phillip Morris," "Four Lions," "Made in Dagenham," "Fair Game," "Conviction," and "I Am Love."

Whew. Okay, that does it for the the preliminary reactions. More in-depth meta ramblings tomorrow.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The End of "Babylon Five"

So many television series with ongoing stories fail to stick their endings. I've suffered through a lot of them over the years, and I have to give it to "Babylon Five." This was one of the most graceful ends I've ever seen to a science fiction program. Spoilers ahead.

Season Five was a step down from the seasons that preceded it, but it wasn't disastrous. The first half featuring a storyline about a telepath colony on the station was tedious and predictable, but had some good creepy moments. The second half fared better, reviving some of the major themes and conflicts from Season Four, but it didn't feel like much narrative ground had been gained. The few major events, like the ascension of Londo Mollari to the Centauri throne, were needlessly dragged out over several episodes. Other conflicts that had been previously alluded to and heavily foreshadowed, like the Telepath War, never fully materialized, while the more immediate ones seemed manufactured to fill time.

"Babylon Five" did regain its footing in the final denouement, committing the last handful of episodes to the major characters' farewells as they left the station, one by one. Some of these departures were the natural results of ongoing character arcs, like Ambassador G'Kar's rise to religious icon status, but others were more clumsily orchestrated. The station's doctor, Stephen Franklin, who had just taken on one new job, was abruptly obliged to take on a different one back on Earth. Another character's alcoholism resurfaced out of the blue, requiring him to seek alternate employment. On the other hand there were some interesting twists. Odd characters were paired up, and one had a tragic turn I didn't see coming.

The last episode was a coda that skipped ahead twenty years into the future for a goodbye with more finality. It wasn't as ambitious as some of the other "Babylon Five" stories that hopped around in space and time, but it was a fitting conclusion that still left the door open for more to follow. The creators used it as a chance to bring some old characters back, and to lay in more groundwork for storylines that would never be explored onscreen. A little research reveals that some of these would be used in later tie-in novels and some were meant to be revisited in the "Babylon Five" sequel series, "Crusade," that only lasted a season.

Up until the end, the series was great at leaving us wanting more. There were so many unanswered questions when the final episode was over. The fates of several major characters were left up in the air, and the particulars of many big events were not explored. The Centauri emperor who makes in appearance in the coda is Vir Cotto, confirming the long-prophesied demise of Londo Mollari, but we don't get to see it happen. One of the most important characters who is supposed to figure heavily into the later adventures of the two leads, never appears onscreen at all, though it didn't feel like we lost anything by not seeing him either.

So after five seasons, how was "Babylon Five"? From a narrative standpoint, it came a long way and accomplished more than I think any science-fiction serial on American television managed before it. The special effects were much improved by the final year, though I'm sad to say the music never got any better. The writing and acting were similarly patchy throughout, full of shining ideals and romanticism, but sometimes awfully shaky on particulars with a lot of blind spots as to its own biases. It was definitely science-fiction in the tradition of Asimov and Clarke, full of larger than life characters who represented interesting concepts, but often had little psychological depth. On the other hand, I can see why this was necessary to a degree, as the show dealt in far bigger concepts and ideas than anything else on TV.

Still, I found it disappointing that human characters, like Michael Garibaldi and John Sheridan, were far less complex and multi-faceted than alien characters, like Ambassador G'Kar, Londo Mollari, and even Lennier. There was also certain aura of predestined greatness around the two leads, Sheridan and Delenn, that made them harder to empathize with, though the writers - or really, the writer J. Michael Straczynski who scripted most of the series - deserves credit for recognizing and incorporating some of these issues into Season Four. I'm sorry to say that some of the blame has to fall on the actors, because I've seen similar characters on "Star Trek" and other science fiction series who were realized far better. Next to the very imperfect heroes of "Battlestar Galactica" and "Firefly," certain members of the "Babylon Five" crew are awfully stiff and pedantic.

Today, "Babylon Five" feels a little dated, perhaps because it's such a product of its time and owes so much to older science fiction narratives. Space operas of such grand ambition and with such optimism for the future are out of style. Most of our science fiction has taken on gloomier overtones, predicting all manner of apocalypses and extinction scenarios for the human race. So I appreciated the show for its hopefulness and its faith in human betterment. I like that it's a piece of science-fiction that cares about ideas and ideals as much as it cares about spaceship battles and aliens in rubber masks. There are a lot rough edges and I don't think the series is as good as it's been trumped up to be, but I still found its universe extraordinary and its aspirations very admirable. Science fiction and fantasy shows have found more mainstream acceptance these days, but you still rarely see anything at the level of "Babylon Five."

So I was sad to see it end, and I join the legions of fans hoping that someday, somehow, it might come back in some form. I still want to know what happened to Lennier and Lyta and G'Kar and Bester and Zathras. I still want to know if Majel Barrett's prophecy came true. Until then, I guess, we'll always have reruns.

Now what do I watch next?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Week in Entertainment News

It's been an eventful week in Tinseltown, despite the snoozy box office and the so-so TV ratings. The Golden Globes officially kicked off awards season, Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday, the Sundance Film Festival is premiering a slew of new prestige pics that will reach theaters later in the year, the TV midseason has kicked off, and "American Idol" has returned and predictably slumped. There have been a lot of announcements and controversies lingering over the past few days, but none that I feel deserve an entire blog entry to themselves. But I don't want to let them pass without comment either.

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes - This may go down as one of the most hotly debated award show hosting performances in history. Maybe all those Comedy Central roasts and VH1 rock band retrospectives have warped my standards for bad behavior, but Ricky Gervais's zingers didn't ping as mean-spirited or especially original to me. Every film freak knows the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will sell itself for a song - one sung by Cher, apparently - and the Golden Globes are only a big deal because NBC trumped them up as their answer to the Oscars a few decades ago. The yearly Globes telecast is famous for having a more laid-back atmosphere, where the stars frequently become inebriated and tongues are looser. The pressure is off because these kudos count for far less than the Oscars and Emmys, which are decided by peer and industry groups. Gervais lobbing potshots is not only appropriate for the affair, it's neccesary. Why else would we watch, if not for these kinds of shenanigans?

New Batman Villains - The WB has announced that two of the villain roles in the new Christopher Nolan Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises," have been cast. Tom Hardy will play Bane, and Anne Hathaway will be the new Catwoman. I've seen "Bronson," and I'm sure Hardy will be fine as Bane, though it's a little disappointing that the character's Latin roots will probably be erased in the process. Hathaway's involvement is more interesting. She's known for her good-girl roles, and her ability to be charming and lovable even in her bleakest work, like "Rachel Getting Married." I don't think we've really seen the dark side of Anne Hathaway yet, and I'm very excited to find out whether she can do what Heath Ledger did with the Joker, and metamorpohse her sunny screen persona into something darker. The choice of Hathaway hasn't been too popular in nerdier circles, and among the many grumblers was one anonymous commenter who dismissed her for smiling too much. Oh, but it makes all the difference in the world if those smiles can show off sharper teeth. Good luck, Anne!

New Films Starring Black Actresses - Minority women and girls have always had the least amount of opportunity in Hollywood and representation onscreen, so it's gratifying to have the announcement of two new projects featuring black actresses in the same week. The first is a new version of "Annie," starring Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's daughter Willow. The second, and the real shocker, comes from Clint Eastwood. He's announced his next film will be a remake of "A Star is Born," starring Beyonce Knowles. There have been the usual complaints about reboots and nepotism in response, none with much merit. Both of these properties have already been remade several times apiece, and having black stars will add some welcome new dimensions to the familiar stories. As for Willow Smith, she and her brothers have proven to be a talented bunch, and deserving of encouragement. Jaden Smith made a great "Karate Kid" and brought box office bank, so Willow trying on "Annie" is not just a good idea, but a reasonably sound investment.

New Roger Ebert Review Show - Hooray! I can't wait for the debut this weekend so I can weigh in on the performances of Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. However, I encourage any show that aims to have real discussions about movies on principle. Also, Ebert got a new prosthetic, which I hope means we'll be seeing more of him in public in the future. He's still America's most beloved film critic, and I miss him.

Amy Chua and Tiger Mothers - Okay, this is last week's news and it's about a book - a book! - but the fallout is still going on and it's irresistible. From what I've read from the excerpts and the Wall Street Journal article, Chua is doing this Chinese mother thing all wrong. At the sight of a B+, my mother just sighed and told me that she was sure I could do better, and I turned out to be a perfectly respectable neurotic overacheiver.

Sacha Baron Cohen Will Be Saddam Hussein - Ha!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Least Anticipated Films of 2011

There are lots of lists of the films that people are most anticipating to see in 2011. I have my own. But I figure, I'm going to be writing about those anyway in the future. Why not get the bad stuff out of the way first? What follows is a non-comprehensive list of the 2011 films that I currently have no desire to see, that it would take cash payment, personal relationship status, or heavy intoxication to make me lie through my teeth and say I want to see them. I have a feeling I'm going to end up watching a lot of them anyway, but I don't have to like it. Included below are some additional thoughts for the borderline cases, or where I just feel like driving the point home. And a final caveat - I really hope I'm wrong about all of these titles. Much as I enjoy schadenfreude, I know nobody sets out to make a bad movie.

"Just Go With It" - I like Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler is decent on occasion, but I can't help thinking that all the best jokes are in the trailer. And they're not very good ones to begin with. This year's crop of romantic comedies look just as bad as last year's. The biggest potential landmines include "One for the Money" with Katherine Heigl, "Something Borrowed" with Kate Hudson, and "New Year's Eve," the sequel to last year's "Valentine's Day." Oh, and Judd Apatow is making a movie about bridesmaids called "Bridesmaids." Gee, that's memorable.

"X-Men: First Class" - Have you seen the new stills that have been released for this thing? They're hideous. I like James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Michael Fassbender, and director Matthew Vaughn, but this is a franchise that has been grasping at straws since "X-Men 3," and in a year crowded with eager new superhero movies, another campy prequel is not going to cut it. FOX should just give the whole sorry series a few years off and then reboot the whole "X-Men" universe. Or do something really risky and make that "Magneto" movie.

"The Smurfs" - This year's "Yogi Bear." As a kid I loved "The Smurfs," and I would have welcomed a new "Smurfs" movie if it had gone back to the original Peyo comics for inspiration or its ad campaign was showing us images of the Smurf village or the woods or something familiar. But no, Papa Smurf and Brainy and Smurfette and all the rest are being converted into CGI and sent off to the real world, under the guidance of the director responsible for the live-action "Scooby-Doo" movies. Hank Azaria is playing Gargamel. It hurts just to type this synopsis.

"Your Highness" - I've already shared my reactions to the trailer for "Your Highness." Would I have gone to see a medieval fantasy adventure film starring James Franco, Natalie Portman, and Zooey Deschanel? In a heartbeat. Do I want to see a crass, lunkheaded spoof of one with Danny McBride schlumping around for two hours in search of a pot joke I haven't heard before? No. I'm really getting sick of the imbecilic, immature, man-child heroes that have taken over our comedies. At first they were kinda cute, but now they're just boring.

"Puss in Boots," "Happy Feet 2" and "Cars 2" - None of the films these sequels are following were good enough to warrant sequels. I feel a little bad for having a PIXAR film in here, though. Surely after their unparalleled run of successes, they're entitled to one obvious cash-grab sequel? Sorry, but no. I can't work up a shred excitement for the further adventures of Lightning McQueen and Mater the Tow Truck. "Puss in Boots" and "Happy Feet 2" actually get more benefit of the doubt right now because I haven't seen a frame of either one yet, but I'm sure they'll make up for that in no time.

And then there's "Fast Five" (That's the fifth "Fast and the Furious" movie), "Mars Needs Moms" (leftovers from the defunct ImageMovers Digital) "Scream 4" (inevitably to be followed by "Scary Movie 5"), "Big Momma: Like Father Like Son" (Yes, really), "Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World" (eight years after the last one), "5nal Destination" (Gesundheit), "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," (insert obvious pun here) "Gnomeo and Juliet," "Johnny English Reborn," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1," "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked," and of course, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

Sigh... It's going to be another long year.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Who is This Laurence Olivier Guy?

Sir Laurence Olivier. The name still conjures images of theater acting at its most erudite and unapproachable. This was the man responsible for making Shakespeare a mainstay of the silver screen as well as the stage, undeniably one of the most important figures in the history of Western cinema. And up until recently, I had no clue who he was.

Sure, I'd seen him in films before, usually as the villain. There he was in "Spartacus" as the evil Roman general, and in "Marathon Man" as a nazi dentist. He was one of the leads in the original "Sleuth," one of my favorite crime films, and a strong supporting presence in Alfred Hitchcock's spectacular "Rebecca." I'd come across plenty of references to Olivier when reading up on the lives of Vivien Leigh and David Niven. And his influence, of course, is inescapable. Kenneth Branaugh's career, for instance, often seems to be patterned directly after Olivier's. Yet I'd never seen the films that Olivier was best known for, the Shakespeare adaptations.

I decided to fix that. I recently sat down with "Henry V" (1944), "Hamlet" (1948), and "Richard III" (1955), the famous Shakespeare trilogy that Olivier directed and starred in. All three films are currently available on Netflix Instant Watch. I know I'd seen "Hamlet" a long time ago in an English class, but didn't remember much, and I've seen several other versions of "Hamlet" since then. Better to start over from the beginning. I spaced the films out over a couple of days - they don't run much longer than two and a half hours apiece, and significantly abridge the original plays, but the text is dense and I'm not as familiar with Shakespeare's "War of the Roses" tetralogies as I should be.

So, what do I think of Laurence Olivier now? As Bette Davis is rumored to have said of Errol Flynn, "Damn, he's good."

My biggest surprise was that Olivier turned out to be a tremendous director. His "Hamlet" is a moody, gothic piece, where the camera skulks around a chilly Elsinore Castle with the tormented Danish prince. "Richard III" makes the viewers complicit in the machinations of the murderous hunchback, as he has a habit of addressing the audience directly. And then there's "Henry V," which starts in the famous Globe theater with a lively period performance of the play, that slowly transitions into a full-scale epic cinematic retelling. Far from being the stuffy, formal, overly faithul adaptations I was expecting, the films livened up the material with plenty of action and a few gory killings here and there. I can see why they were so popular when they first hit theater screens in the 40s and 50s.

As an actor, Olivier lives up to his reputation. His performances as Hamlet and Henry are big and exciting. His thunderous Saint Crispin's Day speech in "Henry V" is the best one I've ever heard. And he doesn't just stab Claudius at the end of "Hamlet," but leaps off a platform and tackles the evil king to floor before running him through. I preferred his quieter moments though, getting existential with Yorick's skull as Hamlet, and delicately wooing the French princess as Henry. This is where he gets to be funny and subtle and charming, and he's terribly good at all of it. There isn't a moment where Olivier doesn't seem to be giving these roles everything he's got.

But far exceeding either of those previous outings is Olivier's transformation into Richard of Gloucester, one of Shakespeare's great misanthropic bastards. With a fake nose, affected limp, and some good costuming, suddenly he's unrecognizable. And oh, the odious ambition and the twisted jealousy and the seething self-loathing coming off of this man! Sometimes Olivier goes well over the top, but he is so much fun to watch as Richard. It's no wonder that everyone wanted Olivier for villain roles in his later career. "Richard III" was the hardest of his films to get through, but it was worth it for the finale, where all of Richard's bad deeds finally catch up to him on the battlefield, and Olivier gives him a really great death scene.

And now I want to see his King Lear and his Othello and his Shylock. I want to see his Mr. Darcy in the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice," and his Heathcliff in the 1939 "Wuthering Heights." Because now I know what Laurence Olivier is capable of. Now I know what Kenneth Branagh and every other Shakespeare-loving actor out there has been trying to live up to for the last six decades, with varying degrees of success. I've seen better Hamlets. I've seen better Henrys. But there's no question that it was Olivier who set the bar, who was the touchstone and the starting point for so much of Shakespeare on film. That's why he's important. That's why he's remembered.

I'm so glad I finally got to know him.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Getting Stung by "The Green Hornet"

I feel sorry for any fan of "The Green Hornet" who went to the new Seth Rogen reboot hoping to see a faithful take on the character, who originated in a radio program and then went on to star in movie serials, comic books, and a television show in the 60s with Van Williams and Bruce Lee. Oh, the general premise and the fine details are the same. A newspaper man named Britt Reid gets the bright idea to fight crime as a superhero, with the help of his trusty manservant Kato. However, this isn't a straight adaptation but a merciless skewering of the original "Green Hornet" and certain elements of the whole superhero genre. It's very, very funny, but I'm sure many of the Hornet's existing fans were wincing.

The primary difference here is that Britt Reid is a buffoon. Played by Seth Rogen, who also had scripting duties with Evan Goldberg, Britt is an immature, egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, slacker frat-boy who inherits a media empire from his departed father James Reid (Tom Wilkinson) and resents him for it. His intentions are pure and he tries to make good by becoming a crimefighter, but Britt can barely go five minutes in the movie without making an ass of himself. Chief among his bad habits is constantly taking credit for the work of Kato (Jay Chou), who does the bulk of the fighting, builds the cool cars, and invents all the neat gadgets for the Green Hornet. All of Britt's insights into criminology come from from his extremely overqualified secretary - does anyone still call them secretaries? - Lenore (Cameron Diaz), who Britt obliviously insults and sexually harasses during their interview.

In such fashion, Rogen and company none-too-gently poke fun at all the problematic elements of "The Green Hornet" lore. As a comedy, the movie works gangbusters. It's a lot of fun, has wonderful energy, and the visual gags and action sequences are a blast. But as a superhero film, even a comedic superhero film, "The Green Hornet" is hard to swallow. The biggest problem is Rogen. As hard as he tries, he's never credible as a heroic person, but merely someone who's posing in the role. Rogen's inherent likability kept me rooting for him to make this character work, but I think Britt Reid was changed too much. Making him ineffectual, insensitive, and oblivious to the contributions of the people around him is one thing, but this Britt is such a crass, mean-spirited, petty guy, with a bizarrely R-rated vocabulary for a PG-13 film (how did they get this past the MPAA?!), you seriously start to wonder why Kato and Lenore put all this effort toward helping him and don't get fed up with his antics a lot earlier.

To their credit, they do get fed up. All the characters around Britt work just fine. Jay Chou and Cameron Diaz put in good performances here. Chou is especially good as Kato, though in some of the action scenes I think his role bears more resemblance to the "Pink Panther" Cato as opposed to the "Green Hornet" Kato. And I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the villain of the piece, Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), a traditional black-suited baddie confounded by a sudden proliferation of image-conscious, gimmick-happy rivals. His resulting midlife crisis and awkward attempts to turn himself into a supervillain are hysterical. I wish they'd done more with the idea and more with Waltz.

Finally, my pretentious movie fan credentials require me to talk about the director, Michel Gondry, whose wildly inventive visual style was a hallmark of his past pictures like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Be Kind Rewind." Here, we get Gondry-lite. There are a few scenes that are recognizably his work, and I'm guessing a lot of the neat gadget ideas and action sequences came from him, but most of the movie doesn't feel like Gondry. While this proves that the director is capable of churning out mass-market entertainments like everyone else, which should be good for the budgets of his future projects, I can't help wishing I could have seen a version of "The Green Hornet" where Gondry really let loose and did it his way with all the cardboard and toilet paper and oversized puppets.

But there's no use in reviewing the film that wasn't made, especially when the film that was made was a perfectly good watch. Ultimately, I don't think there's all that much wrong with "The Green Hornet" except the title. The film was a good satirical takedown of the concept of "The Green Hornet," and might have been even better if they'd taken the joke farther, but it didn't really work as a reboot of the franchise. There was too much smirking for that, and not enough heart. And that's the thing about superheroes - brains and brawn can be compensated for, but they gotta have heart.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Why the Rebuild of "Evangelion" Isn't a Reboot

I saw "The Green Hornet" over the weekend, but that's not the franchise title I want to talk about today. Instead, I have a slightly older title in mind, one that I had written off sight unseen a few years ago - the feature film remake of the "Neon Genesis Evangelion" anime series, titled "Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone." For the record, I saw "1.11," the DVD release with a few extra minutes of footage, not the "1.01" theatrical release.

"Evangelion" was one of the major anime titles of the 90s, a massively popular, influential, and controversial story of giant robots, teen angst, and sinister Christian theology. It was produced by Studio GAINAX, famous for being founded by a pack of dedicated anime fanboys aiming to revolutionize the industry. And to an extent, they did. "Evangelion" was considered a watershed title that defined an era and introduced anime to many Western viewers. Anime fans of a certain age all know the characters on sight, even if they never watched a frame of the twenty-six episode television series or the two follow-up films.

When I heard that GAINAX, was planning to remake the series, I wasn't expecting much. At the time the "Rebuild of Evangelion" project was announced in 2002, GAINAX hadn't had a hit in a while. The studio had always leaned heavily on "Evangelion" merchandise, and there were other "Evangelion" projects like video games and manga trotted out every few years, aimed at milking the franchise for all it was worth. In the interim, I'm happy to report that "Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagaan," a thoroughly enjoyable new giant robot show, became a smash in 2007, giving the studio something else to fiddle with.

But on to the reboot. "You Are (Not) Alone" is the first of four planned "Rebuild" films and covers the material found in the first six episodes of "Neon Genesis Evangelion." What surprised me about the new feature was not the changes from the original, but the relative lack of changes. The series is essentially recreated, practically scene for scene, and largely using repurposed or painstakingly copied character animation from the original show. I knew "Evangelion" well enough to spot new animation and any deviations from the original script, but there weren't many instances of either.

This is not to say that the new "Evangelion" is a simple re-edit of the existing material. Nearly every frame has been heavily retouched or enhanced. Backgrounds have been replaced, details added, and CGI used to add more interesting dimensions to the fight scenes. All the enemy "Angels" have been redesigned for greatly pumped-up battle scenes. What's really impressive is how seamlessly the old and new elements have been combined. If this was the first time I'd seen "Evangelion," I wouldn't have been able to tell which bits were from the original and which were not.

After sitting through "You Are (Not) Alone," I'm not sure the film can really be called a reboot since so much of it really is taken directly from the original source. Yet at the same time so much has also been changed, it felt like I was seeing certain familiar events for the first time. The film's climactic battle with the Sixth Angel had the most new material and was a huge improvement on the original. The closest thing I can think to compare the effect to is the "Special Edition" versions of the "Star Wars" trilogy, if George Lucas had added twice as many new scenes, ten times as many new effects to existing scenes, and then re-edited half the film.

Using a new term, "rebuild," feels appropriate for "You Are (Not) Alone," and I can't help wondering if this approach could work for other films. Since "Evangelion" is purely animation and so much of it centers around these big, wild fight sequences, obviously the techniques it employs wouldn't be as effective for something like "Star Wars" or even "Beauty and the Beast." Still, this could be a good example for filmmakers currently trying to revamp classic films by converting them for 3D or enhancing them with new CGI effects. I don't think the "Evangelion" rebuilds or any of these other reboots and reissues are necessary, but if the studios demand them, something like "You Are (Not) Alone" seems to do the least amount of damage by preserving the old while indulging the new.

Is the new "Evangelion" better than the original? It's a different beast, with a narrative that emphasizes different things but doesn't shed as much of its episodic nature as it probably should have for a feature. I certainly liked the new film and I'm anticipating the future ones, though I have to wonder how much of this is due to my nostalgia for the series. On the other hand, no reboot ever managed to evoke so much nostalgia from me for its original source material - because so much of the rebuild IS the original source material!

We've certainly entered an interesting new age in cinema. If this catches on, I wonder what they'll rebuild next?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Golden Globes Liveblog Part 2

Continued from the previous post...

6:36 PM - Gervais intros the presenters for Best Foreign Language films as only he can. Olivia Wilde shows up wearing an observatory. "In a Better World" from Denmark takes the prize. Haven't heard of this one.

6:38 PM - Helen Mirren presents "The King's Speech" nomination clip. Now this is a proper introduction.

6:40 PM - Best Actress in a TV Series Comedy/Musical goes to... Laura Linney! Yay! But she's not here. Awww.

6:46 PM - Ooh, Jane Fonda is here. To present the "Burlesque" nomination clip. Eeesh.

6:48 PM - Best Actor in a TV Series Comedy/Musical. Go Jim Parsons! Sheldon is triumphant!

6:50 PM - Jeremy Irons, sounding deathly ill, presents Best Supporting Actress - and it goes to Melissa Leo for "The Fighter." This speech should win her points come Oscar time.

7:01 PM - Matt Damon is presenting the Cecil B. DeMille award to Robert DeNiro. This should be fun. Damon does a terrible Pesci, and I'm glad he didn't try to do Jodie Foster. On with the clip package!

Man, DeNiro was great in "Raging Bull." I love that they're including some of the more obscure titles - "Awakenings," "This Boy's Life," "Midnight Run." The plug for "Limitless" was pretty sad though. And only two seconds for "Mean Streets"?

And DeNiro speaks. He gets in digs about "Little Fockers," the HFPS, 3D conversions, and Homeland Security. Heh. One of his laugh lines got bleeped, which makes me twitch. And DeNiro points out more missing obscurities that I am now obligated to watch.

7:11 PM - "Gnomeo and Juliet" looks terrible.

7:13 PM - "The Tourist" has its clip presented by Megan Fox? I thought she was persona non grata after "Jonah Hex."

7:14 PM - Here come the big guns. Best Director time. David Fincher wins for "The Social Network"! Looks like this is finally his year. Easily the most well-written speech of the evening. The camera-people at this show really need to pick their reaction shots better. Why are we looking at the cast of "Glee"?

7:18 PM - Best TV Show Comedy/Musical goes to... "Glee." No surprise considering the earlier wins. As with all the other TV awards, this would have been for the 2009-2010 season, not the current one. And the acceptance speech was cut off to go to commercial. Oh well.

7:25 PM - Alicia Keyes? Oh, she's here to present the clip for "Black Swan."

7:26 PM - Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical Film, aka the Johnny Depp category. Paul Giamatti wins for "Barney's Version," probably the most dignified choice and it'll get an underseen film some attention. So, best possible result. Giamatti's giving the five-second-delay a workout here. Someone get this man some more Godiva chocolates!

7:32 PM - Joseph Gordon Levitt presents the "Inception" clip. Is it just me or is he a little wired?

7:34 PM - Best Actress in a Drama Film. Portman takes it! She and Bening will be battling it out for the Oscar. Portman's got the better speech, and the whole drama of the baby bump on her side. And "Sweet Lips" Kunis, huh?

7:37 PM - Gervais is back to introduce Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. I think this is the first time I've seen these two together in real life before. Best Film, Comedy or Musical, goes to "The Kids Are All Right." Not a shock, since it had no competition whatsoever.

7:46 PM - We're getting down to the end and the room is getting restless. Gervais is still going strong though. Here's Sandra Bullock to hand out the Best Actor award for Drama Film. This is Firth's to lose - he wins! Great performance, and Firth is due for a statue. Good for him for thanking David Seidler, the screenwriter enjoying a major career comeback with this film.

7:54 PM - The resurrected Michael Douglas is here and has the room on its feet. Best Motion Picture, Drama, goes to - "The Social Network." Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield have to be verbally prodded to go onstage. The Facebook film juggernaut rolls on.

7:59 PM - Ricky Gervais gets the final word. "And thank you to God, for making me an atheist." Oscar nominations are announced next week and the fun will really start.

Goodnight everybody!

Golden Globes Liveblog Part 1

It's time again for those Golden Globes, the award show that means exactly as much as you want them to. I'll be liveblogging this evening. Here we go -

5:00 PM - Really, you're going to go with that same musical sting again? Here comes Ricky Gervais!

5:02 PM - Ooh, I don't know if he's going to be invited back next year. We all expected jabs at "The Tourist" and the HFPA, but Tom Cruise may sic the Scientologists on him for that "Phillip Morris" joke.

5:05 PM - Mel Gibson joke #1.

5:08 PM - Scar Jo fresh off her recent split is looking lovely. Best Supporting Actor - Bale wins. Haven't seen "The Fighter" yet. Is Bale's Welsh accent getting thicker, or is it just me?

5:09 PM - Bale's shout-out to Robert DeNiro was just cut off. Second time the delay's been used already. It's going to be an interesting evening.

5:10 PM - Best Actress in a TV drama. I haven't been watching any of these shows. Katey Sagal wins! Yay for Leela!

5:17 PM - Best TV Miniseries or Movie. Wow, "Carlos" ended up in this category? "Temple Grandin" may actually have competition - yep. "Carlos" takes it for Assayas.

5:21 PM - Gervais skewers Bruce Willis, who comes out to present "RED" as a Best Picture nominee. I'm still not sure how this happened.

5:23 PM - Best Supporting Actor in a TV Series. David Strathairn's in here, so it looks like miniseries and movies have been lumped in too. Whoa, the kid from "Glee" wins! That's a nice surprise. And a great speech.

5:30 PM - "Alice in Wonderland" nomination clip is presented by Michelle Pfeiffer. Helena Bonham Carter's shrug really says it all.

5:31 PM - Gervais, what would we do without you? Eva Longoria is stuck with introducing the HFPA prez.

5:35 PM - Best Actor in a TV Drama. Come on, Steve Buscemi! Woooooo! And the classiest speech of the evening.

5:37 PM - Best TV Drama goes to... "Boardwalk Empire." I would have been tickled if "The Walking Dead" took it, but "Boardwalk" will do.

5:44 PM - Andrew Garfield trips over a very badly written "Social Network" nomination clip intro. Poor guy.

5:46 PM - Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Lopez present Best Original Song. Baldwin is shameless, but he can get away with it. Er, didn't "Country Song" just come out last week? Not in this country, apparently. And the Cher song wins. Diane Warren dedicates the award to Ronnie Chasen. Sweet.

5:49 PM - Best Original Score goes to... Trent Reznor for "The Social Network"! Awesome!

5:55 PM - Here comes Best Animated film. Mixed messages about animated films being kid stuff, as usual. To nobody's surprise, "Toy Story 3" wins. Lee Unkrich gets in a good dig at Bieber and Stanfield being presenters. I'm still kinda ticked off the Golden Globes barred animated films from Best Picture consideration.

5:59 PM - Gervais has fun with Robert Downey Jr's intro. And Downey is hitting on Julianne Moore. And Angelina Jolie. And Annette Bening. I love this man. Every male in the room is now imagining a six-way with the Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical nominees. (Er, how is "Blue Valentine" a comedy?) Annette Bening wins! Too bad she's in a different category than Natalie Portman, so this is really indicative of nothing about the Oscar race. Not a great speech, but she got in a good laugh line thanking Beatty.

6:10 PM - Here comes Stallone to present the nomination clip for "The Fighter." Good to see him here to cap off another good comeback year.

6:11 PM - Best Actor in a TV Miniseries or Movie. Swinton and Pacino deliver it to Al Pacino. I have no idea if he deserves it or not, but it's always great to hear Pacino speak.

6:15 PM - Best Actress in a TV Miniseries or Movie. Yay for Claire Danes! And Temple Grandin came with her to this show too. This is the end of the line for the picture's contention for major awards, so I hope they enjoy it. Danes had a great speech. I hope this gets her more work.

6:23 PM - Zac Efron presents "The Kids Are All Right" clip. Why Zac Efron?

6:24 PM - Gervais is never going to stop ribbing on Steve Carrell over "The Office." And Carrell is milking it for all it's worth. Carrell and Tina Fey work so well together. Why was "Date Night" so awful?

6:26 PM - Okay, Best Writing goes to - Aaron Sorkin for "The Social Network." Yes, David Fincher is a national treasure. And Sorkin gives Zuckerberg his props and references the criticisms of hostility toward women in his script. Hmmm.

6:29 PM - Oh look, it's Thor and Captain America for some corporate synergy. Best Supporting Actress for anything on TV goes to - Jane Lynch for "Glee." This is leading up to something, I bet. Lynch is so awesome.

6:30 PM - Starting a new post. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Have Rossio and Elliot Split?

You've probably seen a film written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot even if you've never heard of the pair. Rossio and Elliot are the screenwriters responsible for all the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. Their first big hit was "Aladdin" in 1992, followed by two other films for Disney animation, "Hercules" and "Treasure Planet." They also wrote "The Mask of Zorro" for TriStar in 1998, the first "Shrek" film for Dreamworks, and had a hand in both "National Treasure" films. The duo has been one the most consistent writing teams in Hollywood for the past twenty years, give or take a "Godzilla" reboot. Now comes the news that Terry Rossio will be writing the fifth "Pirates of the Caribbean" film by himself. Ted Elliot, to use the obvious pun, has jumped ship.

I try my best not to get caught up in the endless cycles of Hollywood gossip over breakups and relationship troubles among movie stars, but this is different. Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot have a creative partnership has been very good to us over the years and left its mark on the popular culture. Of course this isn't the first time the two have tackled projects separately, and there's no sign of any permanent break here - they're still producing another project together, "Jingle," over at Nickelodeon films with Sandra Bullock. Elliot passing up the next "Pirates" might mean nothing. However, this is definitely the highest profile film where either of them are going solo, and in image-conscious Hollywood, that sends a certain message. And I do not have the self-restraint to keep myself from speculating as to whether this means something else is up.

It's perfectly understandable why Ted Elliot wouldn't want to write a fifth "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, since he and Rossio have devoted the better part of a decade to this franchise and there has to be a sense of creative stagnation setting in by now. Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparow is great fun, but by the third "Pirates" film I got the sense that the filmmakers were running out of things for him to do. Hopefully having a new set of characters to play off of will help breathe some new life into the fourth "Pirates" film. Then again, Eliot's exit may have nothing to do with creative boredom. It could be the money. Or it could be studio politics, or personal reasons, or needing a break from writing, or "creative differences," or any other number of possibilities.

I've really enjoyed Rossio and Elliot films over the years, so much so that they were the first screenwriters who I could recognize as being screenwriters, who were not also directors or actors or whatnot. I've kept an eye out for their work, especially after their involvement in one of the many failed attempts at a "Sandman" movie back in the mid-90s. Their draft is still online over here. Having sat through more than my share of bad mainstream movies, I appreciate what they do. There's an art to putting together a piece of major studio spectacle, that can be just as difficult as putting out a serious prestige piece. I won't name names, but there are some great writers out there who should never be let within a hundred miles of another genre film.

Yet, I also can't help but wonder what would happen if Rossio and Elliot did branch out beyond big budget action and kids' films. What would happen if they tacked a historical drama? Or a comedic farce? Or one of those little indie films about miserable families? Terry Rossio wrote an original script with Bill Marsilii a couple of years ago for "Deja Vu," a Denzel Washington science fiction thriller I haven't seen. Maybe now it's Elliot's turn to get a pet project off the ground. That's the best case scenario I can think of.

In the short term, Terry Rossio handling scripting duties solo is unlikely to change much. Ted Elliot's name is still going to be all over the fifth "Pirates" film because he's contributed so much to the existing universe of the "Pirates" franchise already. And after four films, I don't think it's going to impact the quality of any future installments if only one of the pair is onboard. Heck, I don't know if either of them need to be there - maybe Captain Jack Sparrow would benefit from a new writer or two on his crew.

Okay, I'll stop with the nautical puns now, but it's just too easy, dammit!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Things I Picked Up On My Third Viewing of "Inception"

My favorite film of 2010 is probably going to be "Inception," because I am still totally enamored with it six months and three viewings later. There are still little things I'm picking up with each viewing and I thought I'd share some of them to show where I am in the process of breaking down and getting to know the film. Here's a quick list of observations I made while watching "Inception" for the third time. Spoilers are everywhere, so be warned.

During the preparatory and planning scenes for the Fischer job, the characters hold discussions in the dream architecture for the first two levels. First, we get to see the car chase environment when it's not raining and then the office building environment empty, and with different lighting. It's wonderful foreshadowing.

The wine glass breaking in the bar during the "Mr. Charles" sequence is a visual and aural reference to Cobb stepping on a glass in the hotel room before Mal's suicide. You can really see the way Christopher Nolan added all these recurring motifs throughout the film upon rewatch, and I'm still finding new ones.

Is the snow fortress Eames' dream or Fischer's? I figured out the reason why I got confused was that Cobb tells Ariadne that they're going into Fischer's dream to clarify that they're not going into Browning's. This doesn't mean he's the Dreamer, to use the film's terminology. The entire time, Fischer remains the Subject, while the other team members are the Dreamers constructing dreams for Fischer to populate. That's why all the projections are hostile all the way down - they're all part of his subconscious. The other people sharing the dream can also affect the environment and bring things in, which is why it's raining in Yusuf's level and Cobb is stalked by Mal and a freight train.

Also, I still can't figure out why there should be a loss of gravity in the second dream level, but not in the third. Saito's injury still affects him as he goes deeper into dreams, but the effects are delayed. So the loss of gravity should still affect the third dream level, but maybe to a lesser extent. Wouldn't it have been fun to see the assault on the hospital base if the gravity was similar to the moon's? Then James Bond fans could have had "Moonraker" references instead of the ones to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

There are a few other inconsistencies with the second level that I spotted. Arthur has to retrieve the explosives, get his floating teammates into the elevator, reset the charges, and then blow them for the kick, all in the space of about five minutes according to Cobb's math. I find that unlikely. Also, the projections are supposed to get worse the further down into dreams you go, but Arthur fights off far fewer projections than Yusuf does a level above him, few enough that they can be dispatched by hand-to-hand combat. Maybe his level is better designed and only a few projections managed to find him?

I no longer have any trouble understanding Ken Watanabe or Marion Cotillard's dialogue. As non-English speakers, they're actually being very careful with their pronunciation. However, I want to watch "Inception" with closed captioning for a fourth viewing because I'm still missing Tom Hardy's lines. He tends to blurt things out quickly, and his British accent gets pretty thick.

Isn't the whole team still stuck in the car chase level for a week after the van goes off the bridge? The reason the team wasn't going to wait out the sedative once they realized Fischer's subconscious was militarized it because they would have had to survive in the first dream level for a week to wake up naturally, and even longer the farther down they went. Everyone except Saito and Cobb only wake to the first level at the end of the film, because we don't see a kick in the real world to bring them all the way back up to reality. Does this mean Fischer's projections were placated after the inception and the team waited it out for a week? What were they doing for all that time?

And why did they just leave Cobb in the van underwater? Not being conscious might mean you can't drown in a dream, or killing yourself in Limbo might automatically bring you all the way back to reality. The rules about death and limbo still elude me. If suicide was always the way out, why didn't Dom and Mal kill themselves earlier when they were stuck in Limbo the first time? My guess is that no one had been to Limbo before so nobody really knew the rules of the place yet. Or something.

I love that the film ends in LAX because I'm frequently at that airport, groggy, have just woken up or having been awake for too long. I think the filmmakers fudged some of the interiors because I never remember going through any sort of security to go from the baggage claim to ground transportation. Or maybe coming in from Australia you get a different terminal. Did they ever mention what Fischer was spending so much time in Australia for? He doesn't have an accent.

On the subject of accents, Michael Caine's character, Professor Miles, is identified as Dom's father-in-law, but why does a professor with a British accent have a daughter with a French one? There are lots of possibilities here. He could have divorced her mother, or been a step-father, foster father, adoptive father, or simply an absent one - in the military or living in England separately for work. There are hints in the film that Mal didn't have a happy childhood. Some interesting backstory is lurking in there.

Too many unanswered questions. I'd better go watch the movie again.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In the Home Stretch With "Babylon 5"

This post will contain spoilers for the fourth season of "Babylon Five."

Since my last post, I've finished off Season Four and now I'm about five episodes into Season Five, the show's final year. My worries about "Babylon Five" jumping the shark after the conclusion of the Shadow War turned out to be unfounded. After a brief transition, the show moved right into the struggle to free Earth and Mars from a corrupt tyrant, and Season Four ended in a totally different place than I thought it would. So I'm giving Season Five the benefit of the doubt, even though the action has slowed down again and we've lost two more major cast members.

What I really loved about the latest batch of episodes at the end of Season Four was that the story maintained such a broad scope and really felt like the climax to a full-fledged space opera. I love science-fiction stories that aim for the moon, tackling big ideas and big conflicts that require a tremendous stage to fully explore. In "Babylon Five" battles are fought over planets and wars can engulf galaxies. You have dozens of different alien races in the mix and the main characters are constantly searching for common ground with multiple, disparate cultures and peoples. And then there's one of my favorite science-fiction tropes: giant leaps in time. One episode, which would have been a great coda for the show if Season Four was the final season, charts the effects of the characters' actions over millennia. It was a little clumsy in execution, which is how I feel about "Babylon Five" in general, but you have to admire the guts and ambition it took to put it on television.

At the same time, the personal stories also saw some major advancements. One of the central arcs of "Babylon Five" is the romance between Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and the Minbari Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) I was a skeptic in the beginning, but their relationship progresses so naturally over time, by the end of Season Four when they reach some major commitment milestones, it feels right. And then there was the unrequited love story between Commander Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Ranger Marcus Cole (Jason Carter) that had been playing out since the middle of Season Two. Boy, what these two lacked in screen time they sure made up for in emotional trauma. And then there's the ongoing "Odd Couple" re-enactment that Ambassadors G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) and Mollari (Peter Jurasik) have been treating us to. Since the major fisticuffs seem to be over between them, they're mostly acting as comic relief now. But they're so good at it, I don't mind.

There were some missteps in Season Four. Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) had a very involved subplot that took him to Mars to confront some of his personal demons. It wasn't a bad concept, but the what they did with it was lousy. To say that Garibaldi's actions felt forced during this whole adventure is an understatement. I never bought for a second that he was ever going to turn traitor or leave Babylon Five behind forever, so his storyline got pretty tedious as I waited for events to play out. Fortunately Marcus and Dr. Franklin (Richard Biggs) were also on Mars - I complained in the last post that they weren't getting enough to do, but they got plenty of action in the second half of the season. These episodes also introduced one of my favorite minor characters so far - Number One (Marjorie Monaghan), the leader of the Mars resistance.

Season Five is still in the process of ramping up toward a new conflict and has introduced two new major characters. First there's Captain Lochley (Tracy Scoggins), who is brought on as the new commanding officer of Babylon Five. Scoggins replaced an actor who didn't return for the new season, and her transition was actually handled much better than I had expected. I like the character and her actress is decent. I'm less impressed with Byron (Robin Atkin Downes), the leader of a group of telepaths who are trying to establish a telepath colony on Babylon Five. Every time these telepath characters are onscreen, I feel like I'm in the middle of a very bad early 90s acoustic rock video, with all the long-haired men, the candles, and the new-agey spiritual schtick. Good Grief. Downes isn't a bad actor, but he does not make a credible messiah figure.

I hope Byron's budding relationship with the troubled telepath, Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman), and all these heavy forewarnings of a "Telepath War" lead somewhere interesting. Lyta's the only one of the show's regulars who still seems to have any pressing issues left to resolve. For most of the others it's business as usual running the station, and a few like Londo Mollari and G'Kar seem to be taking a break from any strenuous activity before destiny inevitably catches up with them.

The end is in sight. I hope "Babylon Five" still has a few surprises for me in these last twenty-odd hours. I'll post again after the last episode with some final analysis.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Wicked" the Movie vs. "Wicked" the Miniseries

I love it when Hollywood gets themselves into these situations. For years now we've been hearing about the potential development of a film version of "Wicked," a take on "The Wizard of Oz" told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. Originally a Gregory Maguire novel published in 1995, "Wicked" became a wildly successful Broadway musical in 2003, and a film version of the musical is supposed to be in the works with Universal Pictures. There's been plenty of speculation about possible directors and stars, but the project has been stuck in development hell for years. This may be about to change.

Enter ABC. On Sunday, the Disney-owned network revealed that they're considering an eight-hour "Wicked" miniseries. Salma Hayek's production company Ventanarosa, best known for "Ugly Betty" (which had an episode devoted to the "Wicked" musical), would partner up with ABC Studios for the project. Though Universal may own rights to the musical version of "Wicked," they don't own the rights to the original Gregory Maguire book that it was based on, so ABC could make their own non-musical adaptation. Can't you just hear the execs at Universal freaking out? If ABC's "Wicked" makes it to air before Universal's "Wicked" make it to multiplexes, it could potentially take the wind out of the movie's sails. Or would it?

The "Wicked" musical is pretty well known as musicals go, so ABC runs a risk of alienating viewers who might be show up expecting showtunes. However, I suspect there's also a pretty big potential audience that isn't familiar with the musical or simply wouldn't care. Going back to the Maguire novel as the basis miniseries also helps, because it's very, very different from the "Wicked" musical. It's darker, much more serious, and has a huge chunk of material in it that never reached Broadway. I seriously doubt ABC would be all that faithful to the book, but they could use it to go in a different direction with the story. ABC and Disney actually adapted another Maguire novel for television a few years back, "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister." They turned a gloomy book into a much lighter, family-friendly TV movie. It wasn't bad either.

Then again, why adapt the "Wicked" novel again when the "Wicked" musical already did such a good job the first time around? Admittedly the songs aren't great, but I thought their take on the story was fantastic - especially the way they added humor and girl power themes and many, many visual references to the classic MGM "Wizard of Oz" musical. I like it far better than the book, which was too morose and tragic for my tastes. I've been anticipating the new film version because I think the "Wicked" musical would translate very well to the silver screen. A new version based on the "Wicked" novel could be good, but it's not the "Wicked" that I've been waiting for. I welcome the news of the miniseries version primarily because it might push Universal to get the film into production faster. And for the inevitable schadenfreude if the two productions do end up clashing, but that's a given.

Disney also has another Oz project lined up, "Oz: the Great and Powerful," a feature film about the adventures of the Wonderful Wizard before he met Dorothy, that might star Robert Downey Jr and might be directed by Sam Raimi. Since "Wicked" is also a prequel, hypothetically the two could be tied together in the same universe for a nice bit of corporate synergy. Also, depending on how their "Wicked" miniseries is written, ABC could go ahead and adapt the subsequent Gregory Maguire Oz books if the first series is a success. Currently there are two sequels to the "Wicked" novel, "Son of a Witch" and "A Lion Among Men." The "Wicked" musical changed certain story elements that would make it difficult to do any follow-ups, something the ABC version can take care to avoid.

The best case scenario is that both versions are produced, and we end up with two different, quality adaptations of "Wicked." The worst case scenario is that the projects are rushed or compromised and we get two lousy versions. Or both studios lose their nerve and neither get made. It'll be interesting to see how things play out. For the moment, though, the moral of the story is this: in Hollywood, good ideas should be capitalized on quickly, or they're liable to be capitalized on by your competition - especially when you don't have all the rights to the source material locked up.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What the Hell Was "Werckmeister Harmonies" All About?

Let me try to explain what happens in Bela Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies." First, there's a village in the dead of winter. Sinister things are happening there, and some terrible cataclysm seems to be looming on the horizon. The primary harbinger of doom seems to be the arrival of a mysterious circus, the star attraction of which is a giant stuffed whale in a corrugated metal shipping container. The whale is accompanied by a figure known as The Prince, who intends to give a "blasphemous" speech that has incited terror and destruction in other places.

However our main character is not The Prince but a young man named Janos (Lars Rudolph), a resident of the village who bears silent witness to many of the strange events that are to follow. Janos's elderly Uncle Gyorgy (Peter Fitz), a pianist, may hold the key to the film's story. Gyorgy has a theory that past mistakes by certain musical theorists inadvertently caused all music on Earth to become out of tune with the greater, purer celestial harmonies. Perhaps this is why darkness has descended on the village, like the eclipse that Janos illustrates in the film's opening sequence by creating a model of the solar system with a trio of obliging bar patrons.

Have I mentioned yet that the film is shot in black and white and is in Hungarian? The black and white part doesn't faze me in the least, but the Hungarian part does, because I know nothing about Hungary or the Hungarian culture. Without that context, I can't tell if Janos is supposed to be a simpleton or if his interactions with the other villagers, usually addressed as Auntie or Uncle, is normal. I'm not sure what year it's supposed to be, whether the helicopter that appears near the end of the film is supposed to be viewed as an anachronism or if it's perfectly contemporaneous with the more dated-looking tanks and hospital equipment we see earlier. I don't know if the violence that erupts in the village is a reference to something in the local Eastern European history, or perhaps it's meant to be a more allegorical event.

And then there are the musical references. The title refers to Andreas Werckmeister, a 17th century composer who developed a tuning system called the Werckmeister Temperament. I know a little about musical theory, but not enough to fully comprehend Uncle Gyorgy's criticism of Werckmeister's work. Music is certainly important in the narrative of the film itself, especially the haunting string and piano theme that recurs throughout the film at its most important moments. If the music of humanity being in discord with the music of the heavenly spheres caused the events that occurred in the film, does this mean that the situation was corrected by the ending? Was this something that could have been avoided or prevented, perhaps if Werckmeister had caught his terrible error? Or was it predestined, like Janos's eclipse?

And speaking of Janos, his fate may be the most confounding part of the whole film. What happened to him? At one point we see him running, being chased by unknown forces. Then there's a quick cut to Janos at a later point in time that reveals his ultimate fate, but nothing to explain how he got there. Exposition is often sacrificed for mood in the film, and the lack of information adds to the atmosphere of unease. It's a fine artistic choice, but left me grasping for straws. Janos's fate is echoed in the fate of the stuffed whale, a massive physical and psychological presence in the film that also seems to represent something important, though I'm still struggling to figure out what it is. I have a dear Hungarian who friend who often makes jokes about Hungarian navigators, a great irony since Hungary is utterly landlocked in all directions. Surely it's the last place on Earth that a whale should ever find itself. But what does it all mean?

"Werckmeister Harmonies" is a great film. I find myself unable to write a traditional review of it, because I haven't been able to process it yet. It has all these mesmerizing visuals, composed entirely of long, long shots that can last several minutes apiece. I found myself having strong emotional reactions to what I was seeing, even though I couldn't understand what was going on or what it was exactly that I felt. The famous hospital sequence where the dread and violence reach their peak is a stunning piece of filmmaking. I'm fascinated by the way director Bela Tarr finds images of beauty in unconventional subjects - an old man, a room full of drunks, a shipping container. I only wish I could figure out how everything fits together - or maybe the point is that it doesn't. I just don't know.

This post has been pretty incoherent, but I guess that's a testament to the film itself. "Werckmeister Harmonies" left me confused, frustrated, emotional, and very impressed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Here Comes "The Cape"

NBC's new superhero adventure show "The Cape" premiered last night. Before seeing a frame, I thought it had a lot in its favor, including a strong cast featuring some familiar faces - Keith David, Summer Glau, James Frain, and Vinnie Jones. The promos have been full of fancy CGI cape effects and slick villains with names like Chess and Scales. I'm not familiar with David Lyons, who plays the hero Vince Faraday, but he's got the right look for a superhero.

Every caped crusader needs a city, and sunny Palm City is a hotbed of crime. Its police force is replaced by the sinister ARC Corporation after the police chief is mysteriously murdered by a villain named Chess. Vince Faraday is a dedicated cop with a loving wife Dana (Jennifer Ferrin) and young son Trip (Ryan Wynott). When Vince discovers that his new boss at ARC, Peter Fleming (James Frain), is Chess, Vince is framed for the murder. He narrowly escapes and is presumed dead, left to figure out a way to bring down ARC and clear his name from the shadows. All this happens in roughly the first fifteen minutes, and it's pretty rote exposition, dispensed with quickly. Then we get to the fun stuff.

Vince is taken in by Max Malini (Keith David), the leader of a gang of circus folk who rob banks. Soon enough, Vince gets the bright idea to assume the guise of his son's favorite comic book superhero, the Cape. Max just happens to have a legendary magician's special, super-strong, super-light cape in storage, and he and his gang are perfectly willing to train Vince in the arts of fighting, illusion, legerdemain, and all sorts of other fun circus skills in an improbably short amount of time. He also finds an ally in Orwell (Summer Glau), a gonzo investigative reporter and technology wizard, bent on exposing corruption in Palm City through her eponymous blog.

So far, "The Cape" is very uneven, but I can see potential here. The show's biggest problem right now is that far too much time is spent with Vince's wife and kid. The second hour of the premiere was saddled with scenes of them struggling to cope with his absence and a few sentimental flashbacks, exactly the kind of melodramatic dead weight that killed "FlashForward" and is severely hampering shows like "V" and "The Event." If "The Cape" is meant to be a superhero action show, it needs to be less mopey and more exciting. Sure, having a tortured hero is fine, but there's only so far you can go with domestic drama when it's only going to be a minor part of Vince's adventures. Checking in every week with the miserable family is going to get tedious and repetitive really fast.

The show is much better when the focus is on Vince's interactions with Orwell and Max, or when he's out fighting crime and tracking down the show's villains. This is where the pace picks up, and we get some good action and humor. In the premiere I didn't think there was enough of either. I'm not sure why all of the recent genre shows produced by the major networks are keen on being so serious in tone when their fantasy premises call for a lighter touch. Vince Faraday may not have superpowers, but he's essentially running around in a magic cape and boarding with circus folk. "The Cape" isn't as thematically heavy as "Watchmen" or "The Dark Knight," so there's no reason why it has to be so dark and gloomy. The creators would be better off aiming for something a little more tongue-in-cheek like NBC's own "Chuck."

Where "The Cape" is the most successful is in its special effects and other fancy visuals. Vince can use the cape to vanish into thin air, to smack bad guys around, or to grab objects like an octopus tentacle. Orwell and Chess both have holographic displays for their computers, and the villains all get distinctive makeup enhancements. There were also some fine explosions and fight scenes, though I don't know if they'll carry over to the regular episodes, since they don't look cheap. The comic book motif is the most apparent in the stylish credits sequence and act breaks, which I thought was a nice touch.

As for the acting - well, it's a mixed bag. David Lyons as Vince isn't bad, but he gets hampered by a lot of awkward dialogue and multiple scenes of broody angst. It's the same with Jennifer Ferrin as his wife and Ryan Wynott as the cute kid. Genre show alums Keith David and Summer Glau are far more entertaining as the larger-than-life supporting characters. With television shows, fortunately, there's plenty of time for the kinks to get worked out and for the actors to improve and settle in. I'll probably give "The Cape" a few more episodes to see how it shapes up. There's plenty here that works, but I don't think it's quite where it needs to be yet.

"The Cape" airs Mondays at 9PM on NBC.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

How Did I Miss That Movie?

I love classic films. However, the enduring popularity of many classic movies over time has to do with factors that most viewers never consider. I had a good reminder of this during my vacation, when I came across an entertainment channel that was programmed with several films I'd never seen.

First there was "How to Marry a Millionaire," a 1953 romantic farce starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable as a trio of gold diggers. Then there was "The Agony and the Ecstasy," a historical epic about Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, starring Charlton Heston as the temperamental artist and Rex Harrison as his patron. These two films I'd at least heard of before, but I was completely unaware of the existence of "How to Steal A Million," a romantic crime caper starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, which was also one of the last pictures directed by the legendary William Wyler, of "Ben-Hur" and "Roman Holiday" fame. I really enjoyed all three of these films, and I was puzzled as to why I hadn't seen any of them before, or why they weren't as popular and well-known as many similar films featuring the same actors.

The answer had nothing to do with the films themselves and everything to do with the fact that they were all distributed by 20th Century Fox. Fox's classic titles get less play than the films from other studio libraries, and are thus less well known. There are exceptions, of course. "The Sound of Music" and "Miracle on 34th Street" are easy to find on television, especially around the holiday season. However, browsing through their titles, I found that most of the ones I'd seen like the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Marilyn Monroe films, and Mel Brooks comedies were ones I'd had to seek out myself on video and DVD. I almost never saw them on television. On the other hand, I'm far more familiar with the Disney catalogue that was a staple of my childhood and the films from MGM, United Artists, RKO and Warner Brothers, thanks to Turner Classic movies. Fox also has a premium classic film channel, that I've stumbled across once or twice, but it's not nearly as accessible as TCM.

And accessibility is important when it comes to older films maintaining their visibility and popularity. The most famous example is "It's a Wonderful Life," a film didn't perform very well upon its initial release. However, the copyright was allowed to lapse in the 70s and "It's a Wonderful Life," became public domain for decades. It was aired by local television stations during the holidays for years for marginal fees, until it became the perennial it is today. Subsequently the soundtrack to the film was found to still be under copyright, allowing the rights to be reclaimed in the 90s. On the flip side, there's "The African Queen," one of the most celebrated films of 50s that won Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar. The AFI listed it as #17 on its list of the top 100 Movies of all time in 1998. Thanks to snarled distribution rights, it wasn't made available on DVD until last year. As a result it became less accessible, fewer people saw it, and on the next edition of the AFI list in 2007, "The African Queen" plummeted nearly fifty spots to #65.

This is something to keep in mind when considering the potential longevity of more recent films. Whether subsequent generations will still know "The Social Network" or "Inception" might have a lot to do with who ends up with the rights to these films. Studios rise and fall, and their properties can end up anywhere. Most recently, the Miramax library has been up for sale and whoever buys it will decide the fate of titles like "Shakespeare in Love," "Good Will Hunting," and nearly everything Kevin Smith has ever made. If a film isn't seen by audiences, it can't be remembered and beloved by the ones that come after, no matter how many awards, no matter how good its reputation, or whether the hot new director of the moment is helming a remake. On that note, the original 1982 "Tron" is apparently nowhere to be found. I lucked out, having stumbled across the special edition DVD a few years ago. However, I'm still waiting on Netflix to send me the original "True Grit." Somehow I never managed to see it, and I'm determined to get acquainted with John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn before I take a look at the Coen brothers' version.

Somehow, I feel like I owe it to the Duke.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Your Belated Christmas Trailer Trove

The new batch of trailers that came with the Christmas releases had fewer surprises than the Thanksgiving ones, but there are a few interesting titles here that ought to tide us over until the Superbowl. Once again, all links lead to Trailer Addict.

Rango - Westerns are back in full force this year, with "True Grit," "Cowboys vs. Aliens," and now "Rango" for the younger set. The dusty, gritty, Southwestern vibe I'm getting from the visuals has me intrigued, more than the promise of Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski's involvement. It's nice to see an animated film trying to move away from unreal perfection and getting down and dirty instead. This is the first new animated feature from Industrial Light & Magic in decades, and the fabled effects house might just become a surprise major player in the CGI animation landscape. And I can't help wondering if Rango is one of the lizards from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," who made off with a bit of Hunter's soul.

Thor - Not much more to see since the Comic Con footage, but the new trailer is edited better and has more finished effects. I'm worried about the possibility of bad dialogue and epic overkill in the direction, but I still like the art direction and the sense of scope here.

Hanna - Saoirse Ronan plays a child assassin, more of a junior Evelyn Salt than a Mathilda, who is trained in secret and then unleashed upon the unsuspecting world. Already, I think this one looks miles ahead of the upcoming "Sucker Punch," which features similarly armed and dangerous teenage girls, or rather the adolescent male fantasy incarnations of them. "Hanna" at least will have a proper opponent, played by Cate Blanchett, and the appearance of Eric Bana and Olivia Williams in supporting roles doesn't hurt either.

Tree of Life - Terrence Malick's new film isn't being released until the fall of 2011, but the trailer is already making the rounds, first attached to prints of "The Black Swan," and then made available online. Ever enigmatic, Malick has only given the sketchiest details of what "Tree of Life" is supposed to be about. We know that it stars Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, though they probably won't share the screen together since Pitt is playing the father of Penn's character, and the narrative appears to be jumping around in time. The trailer is an intriguing and unapologetically artsy hint at cinematic possibilities to come. I don't count myself as a Terrence Malick fan, but it's hard not to be excited for this one.

Real Steel - I've heard a lot of negative reactions to "Real Steel," which is a science fiction boxing story starring Hugh Jackman and a lot of Transformers-esque robot brawlers. Will this be Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots the Movie? Maybe, but maybe not. "Real Steel" is based on an old "Twilight Zone" episode, "Steel," which I'm sure very few people remember. If they stay true to the original ending, I think this film is going to surprise some people. The trailer does a so-so job of selling the concept of robot-on-robot sporting spectacle, but the effects look promising. The film isn't due out until October, so they've got some time to hammer out the bugs. And speaking of robot movies...

Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Sigh.

Rio - The first trailer has been floating around for a few months, and December brought a second one. The story is awfully reminicent of the PIXAR newt movie that was quashed in pre-production - two of the last remaining members of an endangered species are brought together to propagate, and end up on a wacky adventure to help the romance along. Only in this case, it's with parrots. Blue Sky Studios, home of the "Ice Age" movies, is behind this, and from the level of humor in the trailer I'm not expecting much. The only thing I wonder about is why Blue Sky didn't hold this back to 2012, so they could take advantage of the excitement for the 2012 Olympics being held in Rio de Janeiro.

The Lincoln Lawyer - Wherever Matthew McConaughey has been, I wished he'd stayed there. This is easily the most incompetent trailer out of the bunch, that fails to establish anything useful about the film's plot or the main character. Ryan Phillippe apparently plays a lead, but we don't learn a thing about him. I pity all the other good actors I spotted filling out the supporting cast.

Paul - This was not what I expected when I heard that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost would be reuniting for a movie about two Comic-Con fanboys who meet an alien. I was anticipating something along the lines of "Galaxy Quest." "Paul" looks like "The Hangover" with E.T.'s stoner cousin. The trailer could just be playing up the crasser moments for the lowest common denominator, and since director Greg Mattola was also behind "Adventureland" and "Superbad," there ought to be some more character-based humor in there too. On the other hand, it doesn't help that Paul the alien reminds me an awful lot of Roger from "American Dad."

Red State - Kevin Smith is making a horror movie about fundamentalist extremism taken too far. The teaser went up on his websites just before Christmas, and the buzz from those who have seen the film has been terrific. I'm not big on horror films, but all the best luck to Smith to stage a comeback. At this point, anything will be a step up from "Cop Out."

Water for Elephants - The trailer is pretty awkward, especially toward the end, but the film itself seems promising enough. I guess it was inevitable that I'd see a Robert Pattinson movie eventually - he's up for the next Cronenberg film, which seals it - but one look at the cast run makes me wonder if he's not out of his league here. Anyway, it'll be good to see Reese Witherspoon onscreen again, as I've missed her and have no intention of going anywhere near "How Do You Know?" The release date suggests this is an Oscar season reject, but I'm a sucker for period pieces and shameless melodrama.