Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar 2011 Post-Mortem

Let's get one thing out of the way first. I'm terrible at guessing Oscar winners. I only picked half the categories correctly, just one more than my friend at the viewing party who hadn't seen any of the movies this year. There were some good surprises in the smaller races - Wally Pfister won in Cinematography, a non-PIXAR short went home with a trophy, and "The King's Speech" didn't have anything close to the sweep that some were predicting. It got four Oscars last night, the same as "Inception," which had mostly wins in technical categories. "The Social Network" wrestled away a Best Editing win, netting three statues. All the acting awards went to the same actors who have been winning them all season. Though I disagreed with many of the winners, only one really disappointed me - that the Best Director Oscar went to Tobe Hooper for "The King's Speech" over David Fincher for "The Social Network." Hooper did a fine job, but Fincher turned the much-belittled concept of a "Facebook movie" into a critical awards juggernaut, and he's overdue for Academy recognition, dammit.

The ceremony itself tried to be a lot of things, and mostly turned out to be an awkward ordeal, but lets get to the positive changes first. I blogged a few suggestions for improving the awards telecast last week, and it turns out I was on the same wavelength as the showrunners about a few things. This year there were fewer presenters handing out more awards, the audience got to see more clips of the nominees' work, and the orchestra mostly behaved. Probably the biggest improvement, structurally, was removing the individual clips for the Best Picture nominees, opting instead to have a single montage at the end of the night. And using a single presenter to shower kudos on the Best Actor and Actress nominees with a longer intro was a much better alternative to that five-presenter set-up they tried a few times.

Sadly, the special honorary Oscars and the Irving J. Thalberg Awards have been permanently banished to the newly created Governor's Awards ceremony, and they will no longer be part of the usual telecast. Last night a summary of the event was included, similar to the one for the technical awards ceremony. I have to grudgingly agree with their exclusion for the sake of better television, though frankly I would have rather sat through the telecast of that ceremony - honoring Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard, actor Eli Wallach, and historian Kevin Brownlow - than this one. Three of the four got to come out for a cameo, the exception being Jean-Luc Godard of course, because Jean-Luc Godard does not put up with this kind of Hollywood nonsense.

There was a lot of downright cringeworthy business going on last night. Most of the attempts at pre-taped pieces fell utterly flat, including the traditional cameo-riddled opening sequence where the hosts pop in and out of scenes from nominated movies, and a bit where clips from blockbusters like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" got the autotune treatment. The ideas weren't bad, but the execution was horrendous. It felt like the show's producers had slapped the comedic segments together over the weekend and the writers had abandoned the hosts to flounder with hastily scribbled banter and ad libs. Instead of coming across as young and hip, the Oscars came across as trying very hard to be young and hip, and doing a lousy job of it.

As for poor James Franco and Anne Hathaway, I've read various dissections of their performances, and the overwhelming sentiment is that they were unfortunate choices for hosts. I thought that Hathaway came off better because she was trying so much harder, bumbling her way through a solo dance number in ridiculous shoes, and keeping up the energy in the latter half of the show while James Franco seemed to be in the early stages of rigor mortis. On the other hand, her continuous nervous laughter and odd mugging antics weren't winning her many points. Hathaway and Franco can be charming and funny, but I think they cracked a bit under pressure, and they clearly did not have the chops to save the lousy scripted material. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Billy Crystal showed up to tell a few tepid jokes and had the entire theater on its feet.

Bringing the Best Song performances back was also a mistake, especially this year when the nominees were uniformly mediocre. I have no idea how the logic of the nomination process works, if they bumped a Cher performance in favor of the "Tangled" duet (they should have picked the upbeat "Tangled" barfight number). But the mundane performances didn't stop there. It's now apparently a tradition to get a pop singer to come out to perform alongside the "In Memoriam" segment, a practice I find incredibly distracting. Celine Dion was up there this year singing "Smile," which was predictably dull. This would have been the perfect place to feature some music from the recently departed John Barry, who was listed in the segment, but had no other tribute. Getting a children's choral group to come out and sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" at the end of the ceremony was also unbearably twee.

The new virtual backdrops were nice, if needlessly distracting. The special effect that allowed Bob Hope to briefly return to the stage as the Ghost of Oscars Past was a neat trick, and might be a way to widen the talent pool for future presenters. And speaking of the presenters, several had good moments. Kirk Douglas was absolutely shameless, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law were effortless, and Helen Mirren and Russel Brand did their best to convince me to see the "Arthur" remake. The winners had their moments too, especially the actresses, Melissa Leo and Natalie Portman, Randy Newman lamenting his win-to-loss ratio, and film student Luke Matheny picking up the Best Short award while sporting the best hair of the evening. All the usual award show business was fun and watchable. It was the spectacle that crashed this time around.

So the most sinister moment of the telecast was the Academy's announcement that they had renewed their broadcast deal with ABC through the year 2020. If the future Oscar shows are anything like this year's, we may be in serious trouble. But all hope is not lost. In some ways, I though the producers were going in the right direction. They should keep the time-saving format changes, but boot the Best Song performances and the entire current writing staff. And please, please, please, next year hire a real comedian to host. David Letterman, Steve Martin, Neil Patrick Harris, somebody. It was a good year for movies, and there's no reason why it had to be such a bad year for the Oscars.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Emmy Merges Best Miniseries and Made-for-Television Movie Categories

In this tumultuous entertainment news cycle, when the Oscars are only a few days away and Charlie Sheen is indicating that he hasn't hit rock bottom just yet, there's been one news tidbit that has largely escaped unnoticed. Yesterday, word came in from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences that they're merging the miniseries and made-for-television movie categories. The networks had been lobbying for the past several years to weasel out of broadcasting htese categories, since they can't be bothered to produced long-form programming anymore, so the awards in these categories predominantly go to cable. I posted in the past that I was worried about this happening, because television, particularly HBO, is one of the last bastions for certain mid-range film projects that we would never see otherwise, like "Temple Grandin," which was a big Emmy winner last year.

Instinctively, I don't like the decision because it's taking away the spotlight from some lesser-seen television that isn't eligible for other major awards and would seem to be speeding the decline of the miniseries and made-for-television movie formats. On the other hand, the decision may be out of the Academy's hands. For the past two years, the miniseries categories only had two nominees apiece. This year, it was HBO's "The Pacific" against PBS's "Return to Cranford." Last year, it was HBO's "Generation Kill" up against PBS's "Little Dorrit." With dwindling numbers of potential contenders, the miniseries category might go away on its own in a few years without any intervention. All the other categories for miniseries and made-for-television movies have been merged since their inception. Originally, these were much more amorphously defined, with everything that wasn't honoring a regular series lumped in under the amorphous heading "Specials." Eventually the dramatic presentations were separated out from the variety shows, award ceremonies, and non-fiction programs. Best Miniseries trophies started being given away in 1973, and the Best Made-for-Television Movie category was inaugurated with "The Miracle Worker" in 1980.

The Miniseries and Made-for-Television Movie races are so intertwined, it would be difficult to separate them out, but if I were running things, I wouldn't be so quick to lump them together. Looking at the last few nominees for the Best Miniseries category, I think it would make for a much more interesting race if they were added to the Best Dramatic Series category instead. After all, structually "The Pacific" and "John Adams" are much closer to serials like "Mad Men" and "Dexter" than single presentation made-for-television movies like "Temple Grandin" and "Grey Gardens." No doubt, producers would argue that the miniseries have an unfair advantage in being higher budgeted, with fewer format rules, and only having to worry about a far smaller number of episodes. However, since cable started getting into the drama business, with their shorter seasons and more variable scheduling, this is no longer the case. Sure, "Return to Cranford" was only four hours long over two installments, but "The Pacific" ran for ten hours and "Little Dorrit" for fourteen. This year's Best Drama winner was "Mad Men," which had thirteen hour-long episodes. Other nominees included "Breaking Bad," "Big Love," and "True Blood," all at twelve or thirteen episodes apiece.

I can't help thinking that the merger decision is short-sighted. Sure, miniseries are out of style now, but that doesn't mean that the pendulum couldn't swing back in a couple of years. There was a boom in fantasy miniseries after "Gulliver's Travels" in 1996, and I used to love wasting afternoons whenever the Sci Fi Channel would marathon them. You'd think that the lack of competition in the category right now might spur some of the networks to push a few new projects into production, just to make their offerings look more diverse. Unfortunately, original productions are expensive, and everybody is getting more risk-averse these days. Miniseries and made-for-television movies are scarce outside of cable now, being pushed aside for cheaper reality fare. A few big projects will still slip through every now and then, which gives me hope. ABC is looking into a "Wicked" miniseries and the History Channel's troubled Kennedys project finally found a home on ReelzChannel. But you have to go to premium cable for the good stuff, like the miniseries prequel to Starz's "Spartacus" series, and HBO's new version of "Mildred Pierce" with Kate Winslet.

The miniseries is such a versatile format, and I'm sorry to see its decline in American television. As a movie nut, I often find best movie lists sneaking in the great miniseries like "Fanny and Alexander," "Berlin Alexanderplatz," and "The Kingdom." Prominent on my current to-watch list is Olliver Assayas's "Carlos." I don't know if we're ever going to see the days of "Roots" again, when a miniseries could keep a rapt audience for eight consecutive nights, but the potential for great television still remains. I hope Hollywood won't lose sight of it completely.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Should There Be a "Dead Island" Movie?

When the three-minute trailer for the "Dead Island" video game hit the internet a few days ago, it was to near universal acclaim. The trailer features no game footage and none of the main characters, but rather a computer-animated scene from the game's zombie-infested universe. It's essentially a three-minute short made to sell the "Dead Island" concept, portraying the graphic death of a little girl and her parents when they fall victim to a zombie attack. With a Christopher Nolan-style structure that intercuts pieces of footage that are running backwards and forwards from the same timeline, the short is unusually cinematic and effective. Immediately, rumors began swirling that Hollywood was ready to pounce on the rights to the game in order to turn "Dead Island" into a film.

These rumors proved to be wildly overblown, but considering that Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes just acquired the rights to something called "Zombies vs. Robots," it's understandable why so many industry watchers pegged "Dead Island" as a desirable property. Having watched the trailer a few times now and reading up on what the game actually entails, I don't think there's really anything special about the "Dead Island" concept that would be worth the effort to acquire. The game follows people stuck on an island with zombies, more or less the same idea behind the proposed sequel to Zack Snyder's remake of "Dawn of the Dead," which happened to end with its survivors stuck on an island with zombies. Plans to pick up the story from there never panned out, and the next film in the series, "Day of the Dead," dropped the continuity entirely and started over.

Credit for the excellence of the "Dead Island" trailer should really go to its director, Stuart Aitkin, and the creative team from Axis Animation. Having sat through a lot of crummy, sub-par game animation, I know it takes a lot of effort to make realistic CGI human characters like this seem compelling. I think it only works here because the trailer is short, there is no dialogue, and the narrative gimmick hasn't been applied to zombies before. If the characters were required to do more than run around in a slow-motion panic, and get themselves eaten, I think they'd hit Uncanny Valley territory very quickly. Notably, the opening shot of the dead girl is really the only time we have a close-up of any character's face for more than a second or two, and the CGI graphics are actually very helpful in making the kid look all dead-eyed, stiff, and lifeless.

If the "Dead Island" trailer is proof of anything, it's that Stuart Aitkin might deserve a shot at directing something bigger - maybe a full length animated feature or the next live-action installment of the "28 Days" franchise. Maybe Michael Bay could use some help with pitting zombies against robots. Unfortunately, much as I wish that things were different, I think a straight animated adaptation is out. By all indications, mainstream audiences are not ready for dark animated horror films after the abysmal performances of "Beowulf" and "9." Animation is one of the few ways you could get iffy content like graphic child murder on the big screen without a major fuss, but I doubt enough horror fans would show up for literal cartoon violence to make it profitable. But if it were filmed in live action, the material would have to be compromised.

I certainly don't mean to disparage the trailer, but I've seen a lot of people jumping to conclusions about why it worked as well as it did and the kind of potential it has to be parlayed into future projects. I think it makes a wonderful short, but I have serious doubts as to whether you could stretch out these three minutes of slickly presented footage into a feature film. The visuals are impressive, but this is because they're well directed, not because they're particularly distinctive or well animated. The story it tells is touching, but only because of the interesting way it's being told. We haven't even seen the "Dead Island" game yet, and there's nothing to indicate that it's going to be any different than any other zombie game that's already on the market. The trailer did what it was supposed to and put the title on everyone's radar, but that I'm not convinced that we're looking at the hot new horror franchise here in any medium.

On the other hand, "Zombies vs. Robots"?! Michael Bay, have you no shame?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" Liveblog

And now, because I really have no interest in writing up a full review for this show and yet I still feel the need to convey my frustrations, here I am liveblogging the second episode of "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior."

10:00 PM - Opening murder scene flashback, where unnamed male and female voices trade cliched pervert/victim dialogue, and fail to be as creepy or as pervy as probably intended.

10:02 PM - Forrest Whitaker shows up on a motorcycle, because motorcycles are shorthand for badass.

10:04 PM - Was that a title sequence? Damn, blink and you miss them these days.

10:08 PM - Back from commercial. Note the lack of the usual "Criminal Minds" opening pretentious quote, which ensures a higher chance of the viewer mistaking this for any other generic CBS crime drama.

10:10 PM - To be on this team, you need to have a degree in snark. Bonus points for being able to rattle off gadget statistics like a Fry's Electronics savant.

10:11 PM - Forrest Whitaker emulates Bill Shatner in a desperate attempt to make the dialogue sound competent.

10:12 PM - Was Garcia's head caught in a blender? Full of carrot juice?

10:14 PM - This whole "stone-cold killer" label is really undercut by the droning narration. Are the actors paid more if they don't emote? They just sound bored.

10:18 PM - Let's review our leads - Sam Cooper (Forrest Whitaker), Beth Griffith (Janeane Garofalo), Bald Guy (Michael Kelly), British Accent (Matt Ryan), Blonde ("TRON Legacy" hottie, Beau Garrett), and Garcia (Kristen Vangness). I shudder to think what would happen if Garcia weren't here.

10:20 PM - Cue the twenty-year old actress trying to pass herself off as a high-school age stabbing victim.

10:24 PM - Cue the standard impassioned mother speech. The daughter's supposed to be fourteen? No, really?

10:30 PM - If this unsub is so smart, maybe he shouldn't be provoking the armed Feds.

10:33 PM - I'm guessing the killer is either a split personality or it's a
Svengali/Stockholm situation. Whitaker goes for Svengali.

10:36 PM - Oh, NOW he wants counsel present.

10:38 PM - Need an exposition and backstory dump? Call Garcia. I know she's supposed to be a hacker genius, but they're just going to have to come out and admit that she's secretly made of magic.

10:40 PM - "I need to be alone with my client." Bow chica wow wow.

10:41 PM - Wouldn't that just be the most wonderful excuse? A charismatic criminal mastermind made me sleep with all those other men! I had no control over my actions!

10:43 PM - I love how mentally unstable emotional basket-cases can somehow flip a switch in their heads to go all iceberg in order to pull off complicated criminal schemes complete with misdirection and disguises.

10:48 PM - I approve of Adrien Brody's Stella Artois commercial.

10:50 PM - I'd buy this scenario so much more if the woman being controlled wasn't so obviously a photogenic actress who looks like she just walked out of a salon instead of a mental institution. This is why I always liked the original "Law & Order." Their criminals usually have the decency to look like hell. And their Svengali would be so much more convincing if he wasn't MADE OF HAM.

10:52 PM - Janeane Garofalo's very good at being an aggressive lady-cop. It's too bad that she doesn't have much to work with here. Would it be too much to ask for to get her a personality beyond righteous sarcastic? Or at least some better zingers?

10:55 PM - Put away the Gregorian chanting! Too much! Too much! You know, that death scene might have actually been effective if it weren't so oversold. With a score like that, I was expecting her head to split open and start spewing CGI bats.

10:57 PM - Was Whitaker's scene with the reverend supposed to be character development? Closure? Were the vague Biblical references and taunting from the B-grade psycho wannabe something that actually needed a visit with religious counsel?

10:58 PM - Oh, I was wrong. They closed with a Haruki Murakami quote. Which really had nothing to do with this week's plot. Natch.

Here endeth the liveblog. And any urge I have to watch any further installments of "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior." Good night.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ways to Shine Up the Oscar Telecast

On Sunday comes the king of all award shows, the Academy Awards. Its ratings have dropped over the years, and many people have pointed to the show's length and format as potential culprits. The Oscars usually run in excess of three hours, and its bylaws require that every competitive award it gives out be included in the televised broadcast, something the Grammys and Tonys don't have to worry about. The MTV Movie Awards, by comparison, scarcely run two hours, though MTV's video awards ceremonies and many other kudocasts rival Oscar's running times. In recent years, various producers have tried to make the show faster, leaner, and more appealing to younger audiences. Best Song performances have been cut to save time, but on Sunday they're staging a comeback. Montages were all the rage in 2010, but in 2011 they're out. We've seen experiments with different presentation options, scripted segments, pre-recorded videos, monologues, and all manner of wacky set designs. Some have come out better than others. And of course, like any random passerby, I have my own suggestions.

Cut down the number of presenters. I know that the Oscars are supposed to be a prime opportunity for stargazing, but there's no reason why you need different presenters for every single award, clip package, tribute, memorium, nominee spotlight, and to introduce Academy president Tom Sherak and the accountants. Every time you have a new presenter you need a new introduction, a new bit, and have to wait for that acknowledging round of applause. In some cases an introduction of a presenter can be longer than the presenter's actual appearance. Better to shift some of those duties to the hosts and the announcers instead of bombarding us with cameos by every bankable star in the Hollywood. Quality counts more than quantity. Fewer presenters also means that the ones who do get picked for the honor will have more time to actually do something memorable onstage. Besides, the endless Oscar red carpet preshows give audiences plenty of stargazing opportunities already.

Show, don't tell. Some Oscar telecasts have turned themselves into mini-film schools, explaining what certain categories are meant to honor, especially the more obscure technical ones like "Sound Editing." The categories for Best Shorts came under fire recently, and some suggested that they ought to be eliminated. This led to an Oscar telecast segment with familiar directors explaining why the categories were important and should be kept. It was a nice gesture, but highlights a key problem I have with the approach. I used to anticipate seeing the Animated Shorts category every year, because they would show brief clips of the nominees. In many recent broadcasts these have been eliminated, along with clips from other smaller categories, taking away the only chance for the national audience to see a couple of seconds of what's actually being nominated. The Oscars seem terrified of simply letting the work speak for itself, which is a shame. I'd rather look at the costume designs, production artwork, and special effects reels for a few moments more instead of listening to a presenter awkwardly try to convince us why these categories are worth our time.

Stop rushing. There's nothing that makes an award ceremony feel overlong than the people on stage trying to hurry their way through material and the orchestra being on a hair-trigger, ready to go off at the slightest sign of an acceptance speech that may go longer than twenty seconds. By all means, be jerks and cut people off in the name of expediency, but every time the music swells the audience is left straining to hear the poor recipient, and unconsciously expecting something climactic to happen. Maybe the orchestra cues could be replaced with the flashing light system from political debates. Or Charlie Rose calling time once they hit the limit. Or semaphore signals. And if the show is running long, for pete's sake, pretend that nothing is wrong. That extra five or ten minutes will go by a lot faster if the host doesn't suddenly stop quipping, and the presenters aren't rushing around like headless chickens. Some of those poor actresses simply can't move very fast in the getups they wear on Oscar night, and I'm always worried someone is going to take a spill. And then the show is just going to be longer, isn't it?

Loosen up a little. I'm all for tradition and I'm all for preserving Oscar's legacy of good taste and Hollywood elegance, but there's no reason why the atmosphere has to be so stuffy and self-important so often. An award show should be entertaining, be it through pageantry or jokes or just sheer star wattage. Instead of trying to micromanage the time it takes to hand out the awards, why not just insert a few more purely frivolous segments to keep the show's momentum going? Add a halftime show, like the similarly lengthy Superbowl uses to break things up. This doesn't necessarily mean song numbers and dance routines. Pretaped comedy segments, mashups, running jokes and parodies have worked in the past. There's no reason why the fun stuff has to be confined to the opening number, and they may work better if interspersed throughout the show. If montages are out, send Tina Fey and Will Ferrell on stage to re-enact the year's best moments in comedy. Or have the nominated directors quickly remake each other's films on the fly for laughs. Offer to have professional award recipients fill in for those winners who are too overwhelmed to talk coherently. With all this talent in the room, why not use it?

Finally, if the Academy Awards producers want to pander to the Internet generation, they should take a little inspiration from their target audience. Right now enterprising Youtube remixers and vidders do a better job of presenting the nominated material in ways we haven't seen before. Everyone's familiar with the same few clips of "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" by this point. I know I'm sick to death of Jesse Eisenberg's "Do I have your full attention?" scene. Instead, when spotlighting "The Social Network," why not intercut his takedown with one of Colin Firth's stuttering fits as King George VI? Why not recruit the actors and shoot a quick alternate ending that reveals Facebook was the product of an "Inception" job by Leonardo DiCaprio? It's silly, sure, but it's the kind of material that keeps the audience on its toes and boredom at bay. One of my favorite Oscar skits in recent years was Seth Rogen and James Franco, as their marijuana-loving "Pineapple Express" characters, watching and commenting on the 2008 nominated films. At one point they convince celebrated cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (with his Oscars in tow!) to join them on the couch. The Academy could stand to poke more fun at itself, and a little irreverence never hurt anybody.

Or they could always hire Ricky Gervais to host. And duck.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What Would a Lady Gaga Movie Look Like?

I love Lady Gaga. Not personally, not for her music, and not really for her performances either. I just adore her presence in the media, the attitude with which she cheerfully makes a spectacle of herself before anyone else tries to do it for her.

Madonna should have waited before Frenching Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera back at the 2003 MTV Music Awards, as her real successor didn't show up until 2009. Oh, Britney played with sexual identities and Christina's disastrous outfits had everyone's attention, but next to Lady Gaga, the self-dubbed Culture Monster, their titillations look positively timorous. Did you see the "Alejandro" music video? And the "Paparazzi" live performance where she simulated her own death onstage ? And the outfits - ohmigod, the outfits. She's a walking art installation, rotating between the provocative and the bizarre. Well, except when she's being carried around town in a giant egg. With her penchant for stunts, Gaga leads the media around by the nose and makes them like it. That's my kind of pop icon.

However, all divas inevitably travel certain paths in the course of their careers, and one of the usual stops is a feature film. Britney did "Crossroads," Mariah did "Glitter," Christina did "Burlesque," and of course Madonna, Cher, and Whitney Houston actually became bona fide actresses, briefly, in the early 90s. Lady Gaga has reached a certain standing in the pop culture firmament that would seem to compel her to tackle the silver screen next, if only to keep up with the likes of Justin Bieber. But how would you best translate the persona of Lady Gaga into movie form? Do you have a behind-the-scenes documentary like Michael Jackson's "This is It"? A biopic/concert film like "Never Say Never"? Or maybe turn one of her albums into a full blown musical, like Pink Floyd's "The Wall." She could even leaver her mark on the formula that most of her contemporaries have tried: the old small-town-girl-becomes-a-big-city-star plot.

Gaga's persona is strongly dependent on visuals, collages of image references and borrowed iconography from dozens of different sources, many of them already cinematic. Quentin Tarantino even loaned her the Pussy Wagon from "Kill Bill" for her "Telephone" music video. A feature film feels like the logical evolution of what she's already been doing. This is not to say that I'm in any hurry to see Lady Gaga turned into another commercial brand for Hollywood to exploit. Quite the opposite. I honestly think that she could create interesting films by taking the same approach to movies that she has with music and fashion. By pushing the common tropes of the music-film genres to their extremes, she could do what Joaquin Phoenix didn't didn't quite manage with "I'm Still Here," and make a movie that satirizes and illuminates the celebrity experience.

I've long wanted an "American Idiot" movie because the album provided such a wonderful snapshot of post-9/11 American alienation, and I'd love to see a Lady Gaga immortalize the Internet-celebrity age, where it's not enough to simply be a popular star. One must be self-aware, self-satirical, and self-deconstructing in order to survive the media gauntlet with soul and sanity intact. In a "60 Minutes" interview last week, Gaga acknowledged to Anderson Cooper that she was well aware that her audience was waiting to savor her tumble from grace and then cheer for a subsequent resurrection. Lady Gaga may not be interested in having in a full-blown celebrity meltdown in real life, but a film could be one way of exploring the meta-narrative that she's created for herself without suffering the personal damage that other pop starlets like Miley Cyrus have weathered recently.

Then again, an acting career could also be a good alternative to Lady Gaga for Stephani Germanotta if she gets tired of being a pop star one day. Other musicians like Mandy Moore, Jennifer Lopez, and Justin Timberlake have gone back and forth between acting and music. It's common for music stars to leave their stage personas behind when trying to break into Hollywood. On the other hand, it seems like such a shame not to take advantage of a media creature as vibrant and interesting as Lady Gaga. I wish others like Madonna hadn't been so quick to abandon their Material Girl selves in front of the cameras. Some of my favorite screen turns by musicians have been variants on their stage personalities, like Mick Jagger in "Performance," Whitney Houston in "The Bodyguard," and David Bowie - who is incapable of being anything but David Bowie - in just about everything.

Whatever Lady Gaga decides to do with regard to Hollywood, I hope she'll stick around for a while in some form or another. She may just be another incarnation of Madonna, but I think we always need a Madonna of some sort in the popular culture. When she went away, she left a void that hadn't been filled until now. And I missed her. It's so good to have a real provocateur around again.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Confessions of an Audio Commentary Freak

The first time I watched "The French Connection," I thought it was a fine 70s thriller with a great chase scene toward the end, but I didn't understand why it was considered to be such a classic. So once the movie was over, I watched it again with director William Friedkin's commentary track, which clued me in on masses of historical and cultural context that helped me to better appreciate and enjoy the film. Much as I like saying that I'm pretensions movie fan, I have to admit that there are a lot important films that have gone over my head upon initial viewing, and left me confused and adrift. Sometimes a fangirl needs a little help, and I acknowledge that I wouldn't have warmed up to many beloved titles if it weren't for available supplementary material like Critereon essays, Wikipedia plot summaries, and audio commentary tracks. Commentaries are especially near and dear to my hear. I love listening to them, and I've actually bought and rented DVDs of films just to be able to access them.

Why do I enjoy them so? I think this stems from a love of meta and a fascination with the filmmaking process. The "making of" documentaries often packaged with a film are usually fun, but often too slick and superficial. I like commentaries better because they're more unfiltered, and if someone is talking for the entire length of a feature, there's a greater chance that they'll say something honest or useful or interesting, even if it's by accident. Documentaries will pick out the most memorable incidents and trivia from the production of the film, but you tend to get a better sense of what the day-to-day experience was like, listening to the creative personnel chatter about difficult shoots or scheduling problems or what it was like to work with so-and-so.

Not everyone is cut out for commentaries. Some directors are absolutely miserable raconteurs and some actors can't refrain from speaking in sound-bites. I often find a more technically-minded director like Bryan Singer less interesting to listen to than a producer who had to go do battle in order to secure the financing for the picture, or an editor with insights into how and why the visual storytelling works. I wish there were a wider selection of commentaries you could get for a film. And heck, just because Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan don't like doing them doesn't mean that their pictures should go without commentaries entirely. I'd gladly fork over a few dollars for an iTunes download of a commentary track by the writer, or cinematographer, or art director, or makeup artist, or composer for certain films. The "Lord of the Rings" folks had the right idea, giving us four tracks apiece for the Extended Edition DVDs.

However, my favorites are the analytical commentaries by historians, academics, and critics, which tend to pop up more often on older titles. I really enjoy other people's enjoyment of films, sometimes more than the films themselves. It's one of of the reasons why I like award shows and tribute programs so much. I get a lot of vicarious thrills through other cineaste's geek-outs, and an outsider who had nothing to do with the production of a film will often be better at articulating why a movie had such impact or achieved such artistic excellence. Or failed to. One of my favorite extras for the "Matrix" sequels was the audio tracks by a pair of critics who lambasted the movies. Sometimes you don't even need a professional. Those free alternative commentaries recorded by amateurs floating around on the Internet can be fun too, though you often get what you pay for.

And then there are the commentaries where people get creative. "Shaun of the Dead" had a zombies-only track, "Tropic Thunder" and "This is Spinal Tap" had actors staying in character throughout, and the "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog" DVD comes with "Commentary: The Musical." Some of my favorite commentaries come from creative types who seem intent on ignoring the content they're supposed to commenting on. Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer of "The Venture Bros." are famous for having highly entertaining conversations during their audio commentaries that have nothing to do with "The Venture Bros." And of course there's Rifftrax, which carries on in the grand tradition of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," offering audio tracks full of sublime mockery to accompany Hollywood's worst crimes against cinema.

I used to watch films over and over again as a kid, and now it's harder to justify doing this when there are so many good films around that I haven't seen yet. Because they provide a different experience, audio commentaries make it a little easier to convince myself to revisit the great movies, and the not-so-great ones, and that episode of "The Simpsons" where they go to Duff Gardens. I suspect that the day that they start offering audio commentaries on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon to play over streaming media, it will be the day I say goodbye to physical media entirely.

But for now, it's off to the DVD player, to see if David Lynch's audio commentary will explain what the hell was going on in "Eraserhead."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Self, Suck it Up and Watch These Movies

Following up to the previous post about the prevalence of the immature male hero in our modern cinema, I thought it was a good time to write-up a post on the 2010 films that I've formed an irrational mental block against seeing. This happens to me every year. I end up with one or two critically acclaimed titles that I really ought to watch if I want to make any claim at being comprehensive about my pretentious movie viewing choices, and yet I find myself deeply biased against them for no good reason. Last year, it was "The Road," the post-apocalypse survival film that wasn't nearly as gory or upsetting as I had built it up in my mind to be. This year, I've got two films up for the honor: "Greenberg" and "Cyrus."

"Greenberg" is Noah Baumbach's melancholy indie comedy about a graying Gen-Xer named Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), who has to confront the fact that he is a louse far past his prime. "Cyrus" is about John (John C. Reilly) and Molly (Marisa Tomei) starting a relationship, except that John finds his attempts at romance are constantly hampered by Molly's clingy adult son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who has never left home and is very protective of his mother's affections. Now I like Noah Baumbach's dark comedies and domestic dramas just fine, and I've heard plenty of good things about the Duplass brothers who directed "Cyrus." Both movies have solid, though not spectacular critical notices. Nonetheless, I find myself repelled. Give me the misery of "Blue Valentine" or "Biutiful." Sit me down with the "Carlos" mini-series. Anything but these two films!

But why? My first thought is that it's the actors. I've never been a fan of Ben Stiller's Frat Pack humor, found "Reality Bites" an overrated piece of hooey, and deplore his insistence on playing oblivious morons in movies like "Zoolander" and "Dodgeball." Yet I have to give him full credit for "Tropic Thunder," and he's fine when he's not appearing in his own material. He used to be a dependable romantic comedy lead in the likes of "Keeping the Faith" and "There's Something About Mary." And then there's John C. Reilly, who I like in his dramatic roles, but every time he goes for comedy, it's something like "Step Brothers" or "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." As for Jonah Hill - well let me put it this way. I have a relative who has a lot in common with the guys that Hill usually plays - he's a grown man who seems stuck in adolescence, is socially inept, underacheiving, unmotivated, and self-deluding to the point where his parents are worried he may have mental problems. I feel bad for him every time I see him, and I don't find characters like this funny. I barely find them watchable.

I know that "Greenberg" and "Cyrus" are both indie comedies that won't go for the cheap and easy laughs. They'll take the familiar screen personas of these actors and show the audience how they might actually function (or fail to) in the real world. One of my favorite films of the past decade did this with Adam Sandler, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." Suddenly the frustration and repression and bursts of violence typical of a Sandler character became unexpectedly poignant when the cinema world he inhabited was no longer on his side. From the reviews I've read, I know this is what "Greenberg" will be trying with Ben Stiller, offering us a character portrait of a serial sarcastic in decline. The idea of the premise does appeal to me. However, every review I've read emphasizes how difficult it is to sit through the film, and how unrelentingly awkward and uncomfortable it becomes to watch the character of Roger Greenberg struggle to maintain his facade. I don't like watching people humiliate themselves, and it's bad enough when Stiller does it for big laughs in his mainstream comedies. Seeing him do this in a Baumbach film sounds downright painful.

"Cyrus" is a broader comedy that should be easier to get through, though the clips I've seen of John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei singing karaoke together, and Jonah Hill's early confrontation scene with John C. Reilly leave me uneasy. It looks a little too close to other comedies that have gone for the lowest common denominator with similar premises. I can't get the images of "Step Brothers" out of my head, which featured John C. Reilly in full Idiot Manchild mode grappling with an equally lunkheaded Will Ferrell. Reilly and Jonah Hill fighting over the affections of Marissa Tomei could be similarly tedious if not handled right. I haven't seen any of the Duplass brothers' films, so I don't know what to expect. This is the kind of comedy I'd pass up in a second if it weren't for the recommendations I've been hearing.

I've resolved to watch both "Greenberg" and "Cyrus," and they're both on my list of the remaining gotta-see 2010 films I'm steadily working my way through. My worries about both films boil down to guilt by association and fear of the unknown, and I've got to get over this. I've missed too many good films by worrying over similar inconsequential things, and frankly there aren't enough good comedies these days that I can afford to pass up the ones that do come along, no matter how badly their content might make me wince. I might find the next "Punch-Drunk Love." I probably won't. But in any case, it's time to move these titles to the head of my Netflix queue.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why Seth Rogen Does Not Make a Good Superhero

I want to do a more in-depth post-mortem on "The Green Hornet," which did not perform as well as Sony was hoping for. It's far from a box office disaster, but between the tepid reviews and so-so audience reactions, we're not going to see a sequel unless the overseas numbers are stratospheric. I've heard murmurs that this might be an early sign of superhero genre fatigue, or that "The Green Hornet" was simply too obscure a property to stand this kind of rebooting. However most reviewers, me included, singled out Seth Rogen as the biggest problem with the movie, both for his performance and the way he wrote the character of Britt Reid.

You've seen protagonists like Rogen's Britt Reid in other movies, the physically adult but mentally immature male specimen found in many a Judd Apatow film, perhaps best encapsulated by the work of Adam Sandler and Homer Simpson. They frequently act like jerks, shun all social graces, and make no effort to hide long lists of typical frathouse vices such as excessive drinking, partying, carousing, and minor criminal mischief. They are notably lacking in brain power, ranging in IQ from the Faulknerian Idiot Manchild to the mere Average Boob. Despite this, they're often genial, likable guys who mean well, and have just enough redeeming qualities to make good and get the girl in the end. There are many, many of these protagonists found in our modern comedies, and we've seen them successfully cross over to comedy-dramas like "Cyrus" and action films like "Transformers." Perhaps that's why it was inevitable that one of these very imperfect protagonists would end up in the middle of a superhero movie.

I liked "The Green Hornet," but I think it would have fared better as a straight comedy - say, a buddy cop project like "The Other Guys." Then Seth Rogen could have been as crass and moronic as he wanted, and nobody would have minded. The trouble is that "Green Hornet" was billed as a superhero film, and superhero films need heroes. What Rogen did, which was great for the comedic aspects of the film, was to turn Britt into a typical mook of a comedy protagonist, an unrestrained male id. However, because Rogen's take on the character never grew up and never changed, nobody bought him as a superhero and that part of the movie fell flat. It's no mystery why existing "Green Hornet" fans were not happy. Generations of kids looked up to and pretended to be Britt Reid. Sure, it was easy to poke fun at him as a square, and through modern eyes we can see all the racial issues with Kato and the gender issues with his secretary Lenore, but the Green Hornet was indisputably a hero. Rogen's version was not.

The immature comedy protagonist is inherently non-heroic. Viewers may sympathize with them, may feel affection for them, and may identify with them, but that's as far as it goes. We don't respect these characters, don't aspire to be these characters, and certainly don't idolize and hold them in high regard. Superheroes, as many have pointed out, are representations of our ideals. They are the larger-than-life equivalents of the gods and kings and warriors that have populated all mythological pantheons since the dawn of time. These days, they can be as flawed and complicated and human as you like, but they have to fit the classical hero archetype. Tony Stark may have been a boozer and a lout, but he had his change of heart (literally) and made good when it counted. Looking at the Superbowl trailers for the upcoming superhero summer showdown, "Thor" and "Captain America" are full of traditional hero imagery - Nordic badassery and rampant patriotism. It's corny, but it sends the right message.

"The Green Hornet" made no concessions toward the superhero-loving audience at all. Britt Reid becomes a competent crimefighter for the space of about a minute, but remains a mook at the end of the story who hasn't learned a thing. Maybe the film would have found more success if the focus had been on Kato, who does fit the hero profile, so the audience could have come through "The Green Hornet" with someone to root for. I can see why viewers got frustrated if they weren't clued into the satire and were waiting in vain for their hero character to show up. Part of me wishes that "The Green Hornet" would get a sequel, so Rogen and company could undo some of the damage to poor Britt Reid and make him a real superhero again, instead of just a pretender we're meant to laugh at. Part of me is just glad that they didn't target a character I care about.

On that note, if Jonah Hill or Zach Galifianakis so much as looks at the Flash funny, I will not hesitate to bring the full wrath of the Internet down upon their heads. And that's a promise.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why Hello There, Transmedia

For any media fan worth their salt, story continuity is a big deal. Witness the "Star Wars" nerd trying to untangle the various timelines of the Extended Universe tie-in novels. See "Doctor Who" enthusiasts try to account for several bizarre story decisions made in the 1996 TV movie. Any "Highlander" fans who are still trying to keep track of all the various members of Clan McLeod have my deepest sympathies. Oh, and that whole alternate universe twist that the 2009 "Star Trek" movie pulled on us will no doubt be fodder for Trekker arguments for years and years to come. Such is the nature of fandom, which will remember, reflect, and obsess over all the minutiae that the actual producers of our media content are far less successful at keeping track of.

So it tickles me to no end that the studios are now paying outside companies to come in and help them stay on top of story and character continuity in their major franchise properties. A Los Angeles Times article published yesterday took a look at the rise of transmedia, specifically at the work of a company called Starlight Runner Entertainment, which specializes in developing and maintaining shared universes and ongoing continuities for easy translation to multiple media platforms. It used to be that writers put together their comprehensive bibles for the universes of television shows and other serialized media in advance. Now they can be created after a one-shot film or video game has hit it big, when unexpected opportunities for sequels and ancillaries require a media universe to start expanding in a hurry. And everything from pop-stars to toy lines can have an ongoing storyline with continuity, in order to keep their fans invested.

Why is this happening now? It seems that the studios have finally noticed that their fans pay attention to continuity across many different kinds of media, and it's actually a benefit to make sure that Captain Jack Sparrow stays in character, whether he's appearing in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" young-adult prequel book or in a MMORPG. It reinforces brands, makes marketing easier, and so on. And in the age of increasing cross-platforming, where different developers handle video games, spin-off television shows, novels, and merchandise, it takes more effort for everyone involved in a franchise to keep all the details straight. Apparently it's too big a job for the studios to take care of themselves anymore, especially when key creative talent is here one day and gone the next. If James Cameron drops dead tomorrow, it's reassuring to know that somebody has the master plan for the "Avatar" films filed away somewhere for safekeeping.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks. Too much cross-platforming can result in watered-down and confusing content. One of the most notorious examples is the ambitious Japanese ".hack" ("Dot Hack") franchise, that spread its story out over several anime series, video games, comics, and other media. The two ".hack" anime that I watched were well designed and had great worldbuilding, but also suffered from really lousy stories that were noticeably hampered by their piecemeal nature. To fully understand what was going on in one anime series, you needed certain background knowledge from playing one of the video games. It was one of the most frustrating experiences I ever had with a franchise, and I can see some of these new transmedia proponents making similar mistakes. "The Matrix" was another property that tried to insert bits of its plot into associated video games and other media, which few appreciated because the later movies were so badly received.

The bigger danger is that big, detailed master plans are inherently constraining. It's all well and good to have handy lists of character traits and universe timelines, but when you're talking about orchestrating universe-wide events to unfold over various media in different platforms, each individual component can suffer for it. You lose the flexibility and the creative freedom to take characters and storylines in more interesting directions when there's the constant worry of adjusting everything else in a property's universe to match. "Iron Man 2" had a plot that was treading water, and seemed more interested in setting up the "Avengers" movie than doing anything exciting with Tony Stark. I'm not looking forward to seeing Samuel L. Jackson being shoehorned into the new "Thor" and "Captain America" movies for more "Avengers" synergy. Building a consistent universe for these characters is all well and good, but not when it comes at the expense of basic storytelling.

I can only imagine what it must be like to work at one of these transmedia companies, trying to hash out a direction for "TRON" movies that may never be made, or figuring out how to redesign Strawberry Shortcake to translate better for video games and comic books. It's gratifying to see the monetization of activities that have been so closely associated with traditional fandom - extrapolating universes from media properties and then policing their continuity and consistency. But I'd caution for creators to tread carefully. We're not all minutiae-obsessed uber-fans, and while good continuity is a perk, it's not a necessity, and should remain secondary to actually turning out good content. You won't find a "Doctor Who" fan giving up the show just because some moron writer had the 8th Doctor declare he was half-human instead of pure Gallifreyan in the TV movie.

Maybe they could fix that through retroactive continuity. Or even regular continuity. We are talking about an alien being with a time machine here. I bet it was all a sinister Dalek plot. Oh well, that's a post for another time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Criterions on Hulu! Criterions on Hulu!!

What's the magic word to get a pretentious movie fan to sit up and pay attention? Criterion. As in the Criterion Collection, the video distribution company that has set a standard for classic film releases on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and has become practically synonymous with prestigious world cinema. Today, thanks to the power of Criterion, every cineaste and wannabe that formerly scoffed at Hulu Plus's efforts to muscle in on Netflix's streaming video turf (including me), is doing an about face. Word has come down that Hulu has sealed a deal with Criterion that will allow them to offer hundreds of titles from the esteemed Criterion film library to Hulu Plus customers, currently being offered at $7.99 a month. This will include a few select supplemental extras for certain films and even reproductions of some of the Criterion booklets. And Hulu has promised the films will run without ad breaks. Any commercials will only be played at the beginning of the presentations.

What does this mean for your friendly neighborhood pretentious film nerd? As a happy Netflix customer, I'm caught between the urge to rejoice and the urge to panic. Netflix has well over a hundred Criterion titles in its Instant Watch streaming library right now. The licenses for these films will expire in June, and the new deal with Hulu means that they won't be renewed and will no longer be available through Netflix's streaming service after that date. I'm already busy reordering my Instant Watch queue, to try and get through as many of the available Criterion titles as possible before they're yanked and end up behind the Hulu paywall. By my own count, there's about forty titles I haven't seen yet. That's perfectly doable at the rate I go through movies, but I never like being rushed.

But what about the new Hulu Plus service? There's been some grumbling already from users who don't like the idea of any commercials at all, those outside the U.S. who will not have access to the service, and Netflix subscribers who wish Criterion had made the deal with Netflix, because they don't want to deal with the hassle of multiple subscriptions. I'm not sure yet where I stand yet. On the one hand, I've never had any trouble with the Netflix streaming service and I'm perfectly happy viewing Criterion titles in this format. On the other hand, the sheer number of titles a viewer would get access to through the Hulu Plus services is extremely tempting. I certainly wouldn't mind an advertisement or two if it means having a huge chunk of the amazing Criterion library at my fingertips. $7.99 a month for the privilege is certainly reasonable too.

But do I want to give up Netflix to do it? I can't see myself using both of these services at the same time. I love Criterion films, but that's not all I want to watch. There are at least forty 2010 films I still want to see, and Hulu isn't about to start offering those for rental or streaming. For the moment, I'm in wait and see mode. I'll watch the Criterion titles that I have available to me now through Netflix, and wait for some feedback and reviews of the Hulu service before I test the waters. I can see myself taking a break from Netflix in a few months to try out Hulu Plus, but I highly doubt that it's going to be a viable substitute. For one thing, I'm using the Netflix plan with one DVD out at a time, which means that all of the Criterion titles available on Hulu are still available to me through Netflix - just not instantly. Though I think that Netflix's available film selection doesn't compare to Blockbuster or Greencine or some of its other competitors, they're still far better than Hulu, which has a library of mostly television shows.

What I find the most interesting about this development is that it's a change in tactics for Hulu, which was struggling to justify why it was charging for premium content that just didn't seem very premium. The Criterion deal is a huge coup for the company, putting them directly in competition with Netflix and other streaming services for desirable content. Their offerings are nowhere near on par with Netflix yet, but this is an important first step. Now if Hulu can land a distribution deal with another major company like HBO or Warners, which have been vocally hostile toward Netflix over the last few months, the fight for subscribers could start getting really exciting.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Where Do You Get Your Entertainment News?

Since I spend so much of this blog commenting on entertainment news, I figured it was a good idea to spend a post talking about where I'm actually getting my entertainment news from and how I stay in the loop.

When I was a kid, there were only two ways I could get any real entertainment news. One was the weekend edition of the Los Angeles Times, that my parents would bring home along with the local Chinese-language World Journal from the supermarket every Sunday morning. I read the Calendar section cover to cover, and especially loved flipping through the pages and pages of ads for films currently playing in theaters. I even saved a couple of the ones that were printed in color. My other source was "Entertainment Tonight," with Mary Hart and John Tesh. The fact that it featured so much celebrity gossip didn't bother me much back then, because there as always the possibility that I was going to see set footage or maybe clips of a new trailer or learn what project Steven Spielberg was going to do next. Thus, I didn't hear about most movies until I started seeing their marketing campaigns, or reviews popped up on "Siskel & Ebert."

As a teenager, when the Internet stormed into my life and refused to leave, it became all about the upstart rumor mill websites like Aint It Cool News (AICN) and Dark Horizons, which not only displayed no interest in Brad Pitt's love life, but turned their spotlights on the kind of films that I loved back then - the big action blockbusters and geek properties. After years of picking through mainstream sources for tidbits of real information, suddenly all the casting announcements and early reviews and set visits I could ask for were right there. I still check AICN daily, though their reviews are a mixed bag and many of their scoops come in later than other sources. The site's writers are solid film nerds who can provide a lot of valuable context and commentary. I enjoy many of their features and columns, especially the more nostalgic material. I just don't look to them as my primary source of entertainment news anymore.

These days my priorities have shifted again, and it's all about the news aggregators. I'm no longer interested just in production details, but developments in the wider entertainment industry too. I like the Cinematical movie blog, recently acquired by Moviefone, which is a good mix of reviews and deal announcements and general interest material about films, aimed at your average film nerd. I also check the Google News Entertainment section, which is a good barometer of the stories that are getting the most attention, though they usually include too much celebrity gossip - what the majority of the American public thinks of when they hear the words "entertainment news." Is it entertainment? Sure. Is it news? Not to me. I don't care if a newly single Scarlett Johanssen may be hooking up with Sean Penn until it starts to affect somebody's career.

The two big non-aggregator sources I check in on regularly are the various Los Angeles Times entertainment blogs and the Nikki Finke-edited Deadline website, which both provide news about the business deals and studio earnings and the other statistics that are at the real key to keeping up with Hollywood. Sure, the business end of things can be dull, and the middle-aged executives aren't nearly as much fun to follow as the creative talent - until you realize that these are the guys who finance, greenlight, and decide the fate of all the movies and television shows that come out of Hollywood, and are the gatekeepers for most of the content produced outside it too. You want to know why the 23rd James Bond movie has been delayed for so long? Take a gander at what corporate raider Carl Icahn has been up to for the last year. Even though I don't have the background for deep analysis of their antics, I've found it vital context for everything else going on.

Finally, it bears mentioning that I don't get much of my entertainment news from the traditional trade papers, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Variety especially cultivates its elitism and exclusivity to the point where I find it practically useless. I don't have the money to spend on the print publication, and the extreme security measures on their website are too much of a hassle. Practically everything they report on is now available through free sources, or is analyzed, commented on, and dissected by a dozen blogs and sites within a few hours. I used to fantasize about having a subscription to Variety, or even something like Entertainment Weekly, but these days the Internet has brought access to the same content to everyone, even the lowly amateur blogger like me.

Did you hear who's picked up the distribution rights to that Elmo documentary from Sundance? Not yet, but I know how I'll probably be finding out.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Akira" Casting and Racebending Redux

A few days ago, the rumor went around the internet that James Franco is in talks to star in a film adaptation of "Akira," playing the role of biker gang leader Kaneda. I winced and I cringed, waiting for someone to speak up and point out that Kaneda is a Japanese character, and if Franco was playing the role, this was racebending, and we could expect another "The Last Airbender" – style casting ruckus on our hands. Part of me wants to let it go, to not say anything and not rock the boat. Another part of me wants to grab the directors by the scruffs of their necks and shake them like bad dogs, while demanding to know why they insist on being so dense. The directors attached to "Akira," by the way, are the Hughes brothers ("Menace II Society," "The Book of Eli"), who are African-American and therefore firmly in the category of people who Should Know Better.

The "Akira" casting situation isn't as egregious as "Airbender." An early script moved the action from Neo Tokyo to Neo Manhattan, suggesting that we'll be getting a heavily Americanized adaptation that will retain few Japanese elements. The lead character probably won't be called Kaneda - a name which has proven notoriously difficult to pronounce in the dubs of the 1988 anime - and won't be of Asian descent. This will avoid the possibility of a verboten yellowface performance, essentially by erasing the Asian characters and replacing them with new Caucasian ones - a practice critics call "racebending." It's a common tactic, one that's been used in many other recent films like "Dragonball," "21," and "Extraordinary Measures." Of course, the title will remain "Akira," in order to capitalize on the notoriety of the famous Katsuhiro Otomo manga and anime.

And this is the real reason that the whole racebending debate has exploded over the last year, and why we'll be seeing the debate come up again and again in the years to come. There's a bumper crop of properties in Hollywood's development pipeline right now, that either feature Asian characters or have Asian origins - "Cowboy Bebop," "The Runaways," "Death Note," "Robotech," "Ghost in the Shell," "The Weapon," and "Oldboy," just to name a few. I expect we'll be seeing more of them once the nostalgia wave hits Gen-Y in ten to fifteen years, the generation that grew up with the mid-90s anime boom. Hollywood has proven that they're perfectly willing to mine these properties for new film projects, but very few will be staying true to their source material and feature lead characters who are Asian.

A common excuse for racebending is that it's a matter of economics. There are no superstar Asian or Asian-American actors who are marketable, recognizable names, capable of carrying major commercial films. Sure, we have Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but they're both foreigners who learned English as a second language, and they're graying quickly - not exactly who the studios want headlining their slick action blockbusters. We've seen Hollywood try borrowing existing foreign stars from Asia, like Jay Chou and Rain, but this isn't going to be as effective in the long run as having Asian stars that have come up through Hollywood itself. If we have a deficit of Asian talent, the obvious way to fix the problem is to start putting some real effort into finding young Asian actors and actresses, and giving them the opportunities to grow into the stars the studios are going to need for these future projects. Our Tom Cruises and Will Smiths were not made overnight.

That means taking risks on Asian actors that the studios haven't been taking. The more resistant studios are to casting Asian actors, the more exacerbated the problem becomes. There's no reason that the role of Kaneda couldn't have gone to a young Asian-American actor like Aaron Yoo ("Disturbia," "21," "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist") or Sung Kang ("Better Luck Tomorrow," "Fast & Furious"), except that these two have been stuck for too long in supporting roles and never got their break. There's no reason an Asian-American actor like Daniel Wu, who became a superstar in Hong Kong despite being unable to speak Cantonese until he was in his twenties, couldn't have become one in the U.S. The trouble is that so many of the roles these actors could have played have been reserved for Caucasian actors. This is one of the reasons last year's "The Last Airbender" casting fiasco raised such a storm of vitriol. It was not only a blatant example of racebending, but also represented a huge lost opportunity for American audiences to get to know some young minority actors.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of an Americanized "Akira" adaptation, but there's no escaping the sense that the material is being compromised. The central image of "Akira" that everyone remembers is Kaneda on his red motorcycle, roaring through neon-lit Neo Tokyo. There's no reason why a character like Kaneda has to be Japanese, but in this day in age there's no reason why he couldn't be - why our Asian actors can't play the heroes on the big screen. Racebending isn't going to fly for much longer. The audience is catching on and the existing fans of these properties are not happy. Hollywood better start getting proactive about this, or they're going to lose a lot of potentially lucrative franchises.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"127 Hours" Goes By Fast

2010 may be the year of the films about people in tight places - literally. We've had "Frozen," about three skiers trapped on a ski lift, "Buried," which stuck poor Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for the entire movie, and now James Franco gets his arm pinned under a rock for "127 Hours." How do you make feature length films about dilemmas like this? "Frozen" never strayed far from its three protagonists and the winter landscape. "Buried" pulled off the gimmick of never leaving the confines of the coffin. As for "127 Hours," director Danny Boyle took a different approach.

"127 Hours" is based on the real-life experience of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who was trapped in a canyon in the remote Utah desert, after a boulder came down on him. Ralston was an experienced climber and had enough gear to survive for several days, but the odds were against him. He hadn't told anyone where he was going, his supplies were limited, and he finally had to do the unthinkable in order to make his escape. If you don't know the particulars, I won't provide spoilers, except to say that what we see of the act in question really isn't as graphic or gruesome as some of the press has made it out to be. In fact, the movie is surprisingly short on terror or horror or anything of the sort. Rather, it keeps its focus on the internal thoughts of Ralston, who just isn't the type to lose his head in a bad situation.

The opening sequence sees Ralston playing guide to a pair of lost hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), who view his daredevil extreme sporting exuberance with some incredulity at first, but are quickly won over. He wins the audience over pretty quickly too. Ralston's personality is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. He's smart, likable, charismatic, funny, and down-to-earth in the best way. He spends those 127 hours in the canyon mounting multiple battles of man vs. rock and then man vs. self, and doing his best to stay upbeat in the pauses between. It may seem a gimmicky conceit that Ralston makes videos to his parents while he's trapped, sometimes narrating new developments to the camcorder like a game show host, except that this is what the real Aron Ralston actually did. And thanks to James Franco, at his most genial and scruffy, we believe it. Franco does a great job of embodying so much of the ordinary and extraordinary in the same person. He keeps Aron Ralston relentlessly alive and immediate, and it's impossible not to root for his escape. I think it's the best performance we've seen from him so far, and I'm glad he's been getting so much attention for it.

But as much as Franco fills the screen, this is Danny Boyle's movie. The fact that his hero is stuck in a narrow canyon for the bulk of the running time doesn't stop him from sending the camera off in a hundred different directions, often at breakneck speeds. As Aron fantasizes about an ex-girlfriend, or being at a party he was invited to, or a bottle of soda sitting in his car on the other side of the desert, the camera travels with him. At one point he dreams about a sudden rainstorm turning the canyon into a raging river, submerging him in water. The visuals are so tactile, you'll find yourself holding your breath. And because this is Danny Boyle, there's rarely anything slow or languid or dreamy about these fantasies. Smash cuts and split screens abound. This is "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" on crack.

Except, "127 Hours" has a happy ending. Sure, Aron Ralston is never going to be the same after his ordeal, but there is an unmistakable sense of life-affirming triumph at the finale of the film, and it's such a great, unexpected high. The film is pretty intense, and I'm not sure I'd sit through it again in a hurry, but it would be worth it for the euphoria that ending. After the dark, gut-wrenching intensity of "Frozen" and "Buried," I wasn't looking forward to "127 Hours" at all, but Danny Boyle and James Franco surprised me. They actually turned a wilderness survival picture into a feel-good film, and a damn fine one at that.

And I'm so glad Boyle decided to work with Indian composer A.R. Rahman again. This was one of the best scores I've heard all year.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Young Justice" and the State of American Anime

I checked in on a couple of the Friday night Cartoon Network action shows last week, after hearing some good things about "Young Justice" - essentially a junior version of "The Justice League" starring various DC Comics superheroes' sidekicks. I took no small amusement from the fact that their version of Superboy is moody and prone to fits of rage, and the team's only female member, Miss Martian, is an eager-to-please sweetheart who wields her sizable powers without a trace of aggression or menace. Any anime fan will instantly recognize them as the brooding seinen hero and the magical girl heroine. There are Western equivalents of these tropes, of course, but I rarely see American cartoon characters so easily identifiable as anime types, and it was hard to ignore them both popping up in the same show. However, there was also a much more typically Western comic-book hero in Robin, who did the Spiderman-style banter and puns, Kid Flash was a cocky little horndog, and apparently there's a more assertive female character on the way to balance out Miss Martian. I haven't forgotten Aqualad - he just didn't feature much in this episode.

It's been about ten years since anime and manga went mainstream in the US, and I've watched anime influences slowly make their way into Western cartoons. You don't really see much of it in the comedies like "Spongebob" or "Chowder," or the ones aimed at very young audiences like most of the Disney Channel cartoons, or the ones aimed at adults like "Futurama" and "The Venture Brothers." But in the action shows, which are the ones I always like best and tend to follow, you can definitely see where anime has made its impact. At first it was only visual styles that were being adopted, like in "Teen Titans," and then you had some that were deliberately patterned after Japanese formulas, like "Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!" and "W.I.T.C.H." Then there were shows that tackled Asian subject matter like "Avatar: the Last Airbender" and "Hi Hi Puffy Amiyumi." There were even a few ill-fated co-productions like "Oban Star Racers" and "IGPX: Immortal Grand Prix."

But the thing that always struck me about what many dubbed "American anime" was how unlike typical anime it usually was once you got past the visuals. All right, there's really no such thing as a typical anime, but the ones that are the most popular in America are always the action shows aimed at your average young adult viewer. These are the ones you're the most likely to see on SyFy or Cartoon Network at odd hours, and teenagers jawing about online - "Bleach," "Full Metal Alchemist," "Gurren Lagaan," "Evangelion," etc. Though a lot of them are still aimed at kids, immediately it's apparent that these shows are a lot darker, the themes are more serious, and the characters more intense. There is no Broadcast Standards and Practices department standing over the anime creators' heads, bent on neutering any content that looks the least bit traumatic. It's certainly what drew me into my decade-long relationship with anime in the first place. These were cartoons with some real bite that could appeal to adult audiences. There have been many pretenders, but few serious attempts to replicate this stateside. The only one I can think of that had much visibility was "Afro Samurai." Remember that awkward mess?

Nonetheless, you can clearly see a progression in Western action cartoons towards darker, more sophisticated material and looser content standards. Take "Teen Titans" and "Avatar: The Last Airbender," probably the two most commonly cited examples of American anime. Once you remove the manga-style visuals and the Japanese theme song from "Teen Titans," you've got a pretty standard American superhero show. You could always see the creators holding back for the sake of their younger audiences, but its bigger storylines got pretty dark for its afternoon timeslots. Two years later, "Avatar" pushed itself farther and was much more ambitious, featuring complex characters and themes. It also upped the ante on its action scenes and deliberately drew from Eastern philosophy and culture for its story. Many viewers assumed the Nickelodeon show was dubbed anime. In part this is a reflection of trends in the larger media - the comic book and superhero genres getting grittier, cartoons being driven out of Saturday morning to cable - but anime has certainly played its part, since it was often in direct competition for the same audiences and gave kids different expectations for cartoon content.

I don't think you could have had a show like "Young Justice" or a "Generator Rex" ten years ago, where the young leads are in so much constant peril and getting knocked around like pinballs by the bad guys. Sure, there are always adults around keeping an eye on them, maintaining an illusion of security, but it's a far cry from something like "X-Men: Evolution," where an adult Wolverine or Storm took care of all the real fights, while the teenage characters only had minor tussles among themselves. We're getting to the point where I could see a "Bleach" or an "Inuyasha" coming out of American television - maybe in another ten years or so, when the kids who grew up on anime start running things. This is not to say that I think that anime-style extremes are where American cartoons should be headed. "Avatar" was kid-friendly, and a better show than 90% of the anime I could name. However, for those of us who want to see cartoons taken more seriously and live up to their unrealized potential, pushing at these boundaries never hurts.

"Young Justice" is a fun show, and I think it gets a lot of benefit out of incorporating some of these anime-inspired elements into the mix while retaining the classic western superhero themes. Superboy may act like a "Gundam" pilot, but his character arc should be chock full of good old-fashioned teambuidling and de-angsting. And good banter. Nobody does good banter like the Americans.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Meta on Fan Documentaries and "Star Wars Begins"

There are two kinds of media-fan documentaries. First you have the documentaries that are made about the fans themselves, such as "Trekkies," which explored the "Star Trek" subculture and "Ringers: Lord of the Fans," which charted the impact of the Peter Jackson "Lord of the Rings" trilogy on the established Tolkien fandom. And then there are the documentaries about media properties that have been mounted by the fans themselves, usually without the official involvement of whoever actually has the rights to the films or television shows being examined. I've run across several of these floating around the Internet, including fan-made documentaries about "Firefly," "Doctor Who," "Return to Oz," "Johnny Quest," and the "Karate Kid." The two different breeds of documentary frequently cross-breed, such as in the "Troll 2" magnum opus, "Best Worst Movie," or "The People vs. George Lucas," but I mostly want to talk about the latter variety - the documentaries made by amateurs.

One recent example is the fourteen-part "Star Wars Begins" that Cinematical's Erik Davis has been raving about. Its creator, Jambe Davdar, describes it as an "unofficial commentary to Star Wars," which incorporates footage from the original film trilogy with behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, deleted scenes, alternate takes, and bloopers. This is probably the most high-profile fan-made doc out there at the moment, and a unique case for a couple of reasons. Like all fan-made documentaries, "Star Wars Begins" is clearly a labor of love that was meant to fill an informational void left by the official production company. The difference here is that "Star Wars" has had several documentaries covering its creation already. You have Ken Burns' "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy," and the History Channel's "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed," each running at least ninety minutes apiece. I even remember "Star Wars" getting a good chunk of an episode of the PBS "American Cinema" installment that covered the "Film School Generation." How much of a void could there be left to fill? For a serious "Star Wars" obsessive, plenty I guess.

Another issue, related to the first, is potential legality problems. All fan-generated work falls into a gray area of intellectual property law, but most rights holders have no reason to go after fan-made-documentaries for obscurities like "Return to Oz," since the potential audience is tiny, the fan documentarians never make a cent, and the rights holders have little economic interest in creating their own documentaries. Also, in America at least, there are various exceptions to copyright for critique and informational uses that documentaries have a better case for than most. Most importantly, there's no real harm going on, so there's no reason to cry foul. "Star Wars" is a different matter. The Lucasfilm business empire clearly still has an economic interest in the kind of material covered by "Star Wars Begins," especially the footage that has never been officially released. As I mentioned in a previous "Star Wars" post, George Lucas and company still get a lot of mileage out of releasing bits and pieces from their archives, like the never-before-seen alternate opening for "Return of the Jedi," which will be included with the new "Star Wars" Blu-Rays. It could be argued that "Star Wars Begins" would lessen the value of some of this material by making a good chunk of it so freely available.

On the other hand, this bootleg archival footage has been around for decades, and any "Star Wars" fan worth their salt has seen it already. Lucasfilm is also much looser about fan-generated content than many others. They recognized a long time ago that unofficial, but loving fan films and spoofs like "George Lucas in Love," and "Thumb Wars" help to keep interest in "Star Wars" going. They even help to sponsor the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards every year now, though IP issues are probably a big reason why the Best Documentary category disappeared after the first year. "Star Wars Begins," which is a very complimentary, positive expression of one guy's passion for the "Star Wars" universe, is in the same spirit as other fan films. So, I expect Lucasfilm will happily ignore it as long as Davdar keeps emphasizing that the documentary is unofficial and doesn't give them a reason to ring up the lawyers.

After all, it wouldn't look very good for Lucasfilm to come down on someone for putting all this time and effort into such a geeky paean to the original "Star Wars." Frankly, I wish some of my favorite media fandoms could generate a documentary like this - or rather, generate the passionate, talented media fans that could generate a documentary like this.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The First Seven of "Farscape"

In the wake of finishing "Babylon Five," the obvious science-fiction series to move on to was "Farscape," which started in 1999, roughly four months after "Babylon" ended, and is another of those cult shows with a small, but very dedicated fanbase. I had more familiarity with "Farscape," starting out, than I had with "Babylon 5." I had seen an episode or two already, though totally out of context, and I even have a few fuzzy memories of the series finale. I already knew what the major romantic pairing was going to be, and noted the absence of at least two major characters in these early episodes. But first, lets get to the premise.

"Farscape" follows the adventures of Commander John Crichton (Ben Browder), an astronaut who accidentally slingshots his spaceship through a wormhole, and into an unknown patch of the universe that is teeming with alien life. He has the bad fortune of emerging in the middle of a battle between a group of escaping prisoners and their pursuers, a military force known as the Peacekeepers. The prisoners, aboard their living ship, Moya, take Crichton onboard hoping to pump him for information. They include D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), an aggressive orange Luxan, Zhaan (Virginia Hey), a mellow, blue-skinned priestess, Rygel XVI (Jonathan Hardy), a two-foot tall Hynerian monarch, and Moya's biologically bonded Pilot (Lani Tupu). They're soon joined by a pursuing Peacekeeper, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), one of the Sebacean race that happens to look identical to humans. She's bent on dragging all of them back to her Captain, Crais (Lani Tupu). Crichton doesn't have the opportunity to choose sides, because it turns out that the arrival of his ship through the wormhole caused the destruction of the Crais's brother's ship, and the Captain is out for revenge. And Aeryn is soon branded a traitor, leaving the ragtag group aboard the Moya stuck with each other as fellow fugitives.

The first thing that jumps out about "Farscape" is the quality of the effects. They are in a word, gorgeous. '"Farscape" was partly produced by the Jim Henson Company, which was responsible for the inclusion of two puppet characters, Rygel and Pilot, and the use of alien makeup with far more sophisticated prosthetics than had been seen in television up until that time. Zhaan and D'Argo, both awash in bright primary colors, are especially eye-catching next to the more muted "Star Trek" and "Stargate" style aliens. Pilot is also an impressive creation, with a giant mushroom cap head and multiple limbs, but Rygel is a Muppet of the old hand rod and wire variety, to his detriment. Though he has a CGI stand-in and spends a lot of time in a floating armchair, his interactions with the rest of the cast are often hampered. He's also not designed very well, his features too broad and cartoonish for the subtlety required of him. Finally, Moya's organic interiors are a nice break from the industrial set design of "Babylon Five," where even the nicest living quarters were predominantly concrete or beige. Here, you get more interesting shapes and a much warmer, rosier color palette.

I wish I could say the writing was up to par, but it's not. At least, not yet. The characters that have been introduced are interesting, and have some facets that are worth exploring, but there hasn't been any real character development. Aeryn and D'Argo seem to be taking their first baby steps toward overcoming some personality flaws, but that's about it. Crichton, our everyman hero, is still settling into the "Farscape" universe and figuring out its mechanics. And this is where we hit the limitations of the show's premise. "Farscape," is far smaller in scope than "Babylon Five" or "Star Trek" right now, and the action is often tightly focused on Crichton. Seven episodes in, he's repeatedly established himself as the show's moral center and voice of reason, which is getting a little old. But far more bothersome is his habit of dropping pop culture references left and right, and laying down the sarcasm awfully thick. It's not easy to sympathize with him, and I can't wait for the series' other major villains to show up and knock him around a little, so we can see what he's really made of.

The rules of the "Farscape" universe also aren't very well established yet, which means its alien cultures and planet-of-the-week adventures tend to come off as pretty derivative. D'Argo is Klingon-ish, Zhaan is Jedi-esque, Aeryn might be a recovering Terminator, and John Crichton is the wisecracking Bruckheimer-disaster-movie hero of your choice. However, the humor is wackier than most, the tone is looser, and the whole style of the show feels open to more diverse possibilities. There have been signs that there's something bigger and more epic in the works. At this point the writers are still finding their feet - there have been multiple instances of weird pacing and clunky dialogue - but I can see "Farscape" getting better in a hurry once we break out of these episodic adventures and hit the serialized stories. On the other hand, two of the four creators of the show were responsible for a wretched mess of a science-fiction series called "seaQuest," which floundered for years in the 90s before finally being put out of its misery. "Farscape" was the show they followed it up with. We'll see if it turned out any better.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Super Bowl Unwatched

Event television can be a hard thing to avoid. I'd fallen into the habit of watching the Super Bowl every year, just because it felt expected. I'm not a football fan and I never watch regular season games. However, the American culture insists on making a big deal out of the event. My grocery store had displays for Super Bowl party paraphernalia at least as prominent as the ones for Valentine's Day. Restaurants and bars had their big screens on and their drink specials updated, hoping to attract customers. Traffic was awful at three in the afternoon on a Sunday, and promised to get worse that evening. Super Bowl ratings have just gotten bigger every year, and in the age of a thousand cable channels and ever-more-niche programming, that's a rare thing for advertisers.

Ah yes, the advertising. My excuse for watching past Super Bowls was for the commercials, which were more entertaining for me than the football. I have to say it was a neat trick, advertisers somehow turning beer and insurance advertisements into a reason to tune in, but as advertisements go the Super Bowl commercials have developed an aura of the exceptional around them. They have their own "Best of" specials. They're ranked and discussed around literal and metaphorical water coolers the next day. I've already found dozens of articles sorting out the winners and losers. In short, they're treated like real, legitimate content. People actually pay attention to these commercials, and their creators and the networks selling ad space all know it. This year, it cost almost three million dollars for a thirty second spot, so the ad firms are under tremendous pressure to show something memorable.

Thanks to Hulu and other advertisement aggregator websites that provide easy access to all of the commercials that aired, I don't need to sit through three plus hours of football in order to see them. And I can easily avoid the network spots, the news updates, the program bumpers, and those one or two commercials that always seem to be repeated multiple times throughout the game. Most of these sites even have popularity rankings, so I can avoid the lousier commercials or the ones with content I wanted to avoid. This year, the Groupon ads seemed to be the most universally reviled, so I skipped them without any trouble. The same went for the traditionally moronic Doritos and GoDaddy spots. On the other hand, the buzz was all about a Volkswagon commercial with a mini-Darth Vader. Cute, but not worth all the fuss. I liked both of the Coca Cola ads better, and I'll probably be seeing versions of them in theaters soon.

However, my primary interest is always the movie teasers, and this year there were plenty. Most like "Limitless," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Thor," "Rango," "Rio," and "Battle: Los Angeles" had slimmed down versions of the trailers that had already been released, though often with a few seconds of new footage. "Cowboys vs. Aliens" finally let us see what the alien ships looked like up close. There were only a few of the new movie spots that had new material really worth talking about. "Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon" rolled out the first real footage from the film, which looks exactly like the last two. "Captain America" and "Super 8" were more interesting. The former gave us a quick look at the creation and training of the superhero the taglines are calling First Avenger, and the latter definitely has an "E.T." vibe with the kids and the alien menace. Not a great bunch this year overall. Notably, "The Green Lantern" was missing from the lineup. What gives, Warners?

I did catch a couple of minutes of the pre-game show, so I saw a few of these live. I also found Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler plugging their new romantic comedy, "Just Go With It," by horsing around with the football presenters. Note that this is the same film that shoehorned an obtrusive promo right in the middle of a Lakers-Celtics game last week, to the fury of basketball fans. It's probably a good thing that they decided to keep away from the actual game this time.

All in all, what I wanted to see of the Super Bowl only took me about half an hour of Internet browsing to see. It makes me wonder why I wasted all that that time and attention watching the actual games. But then, I missed the whole shared experience of seeing the live airings at the same time as everyone else in the country, and that's the real point of event television. The trouble is, the Super Bowl isn't really my event, not like the Oscars or the Olympics spectacles that I actually enjoy watching, so I don't get the benefit of the excitement. The commercials alone don't generate that for me. So from here on out, it looks like my Super Bowl Sundays - will just be Sundays.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Get Me Out of "Marienbad"!

As a pretentious film fan, I have met my match. "Last Year at Marienbad," the 1961 Alan Resnais French language film, is too pretentious, obscure, and obtuse for me. At only 94 minutes, I just couldn't take it. It's a Luis Bunuel film with no sense of humor. It's a Hitchcock thriller with no twist ending - no ending at all, in fact. It's a beautiful silent film with some long-winded moron yammering over it, who refuses to shut up and let me enjoy the cinematography. I haven't been this simultenously bored and enraged at a film since "Au Hasard Balthazar." There must be some particular, unknown quality of French cinema that provokes this kind of bafflement from me, because it keeps happening with far too much regularity.

Anyhoo, about "Last Year at Marienbad." How to describe this thing? It takes place in an elaborately furnished and decorated hotel, apparently at Marienbad, which Google tells me is located in the Czech Republic, in a region formerly known as Bohemia. There are three major characters, all unnamed. They are a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), a woman (Delphine Seyrig), and the woman's sinister male companion (Sacha Pitoeff). The man spends the entire movie trying to convince the woman that they met a year ago in the same hotel, made plans to run away together, and ultimately agreed to wait a year and meet again. The relationship between the man and the woman is never entirely clear. We also never learn who the male companion is to the woman. Her husband? Another lover?

The man's spoken narration is rambling and endless. He retells the events of his first meeting with the woman over and over, with different variations. The visuals obligingly follow suit. Now the woman is in a white, feathered nightgown in this scene. Now she's in a plain black one. Here, she's dead. No wait, the man has changed his mind and she's very much alive. It's dream logic in its purest form, with a narrative that blends flashbacks and fantasies together until it's impossible to figure out the true version of events - that is, if you can trust the claim that there was a true version of events to begin with. There have been other films, mostly experimental ones, that have told similar stories in a similar fashion, but none as maddeningly as this.

I like Alan Resnais' visuals, full of beautiful black-and-white tracking shots that wander through the impossible hotel. The opening shot starts on the ornately painted ceiling before sending the audience off into the labyrinthine world of long corridors and empty rooms that conform to no real-world architecture. There are shapes and patterns that recur, sometimes almost subconsciously, from scene to scene. The pyramid shape of the matchstick-counting game the man plays with the woman's companion is echoed by the artificially conical trees in the garden, and perhaps the triangular positioning of the three principals in certain scenes. And there's a wonderfully surreal, vertiginous quality to the transitions between one version of reality and the next. The way the camera swoops and drifts through the hotel is breathtaking.

It was the narration that killed it for me though. The narrator, the man, is not only talking over practically every scene, but insists on running through the same story over and over again, and a lot of it is pretty esoteric blather. In the opening sequence, we hear him in the middle of a long, detailed description of the hotel, which he repeats several times without pause. It was like being stuck at a dinner party with a droning guest who has far too much to say about the silverware, has forgetten his point, and so keeps starting all over from the beginning again. The visuals are so evocative by themselves, I hated the constant distraction of the man going on and on about statues and fountains and what he remembers or imagines the woman may have said to him a year ago. Ninety-odd minutes of this felt like an eternity.

"Marienbad" has been treated as a puzzle film by some, and eagerly mined for hidden messages and symbolism. You could project whatever themes you like on the three characters, caught in a seemingly endless loop of meetings and confrontations and indecisions. I couldn't summon up the desire to even make a stab at my own interpretation. But I'll bet someone could make a really good remix video with the footage and the Eagles' "Hotel California."

I have to admit that "Last Year at Marienbad" is a very good film. It is a beautiful film. It is a unique film. It is a culturally and artistically important film. And I was bored out of my freaking mind.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Coupling" - Sex and Death, Minus the Death

The notoriety of "Coupling" reached me long before the show did, when NBC tried to launch an American version of the British sex comedy in 2003 to fill the gap left by "Friends" on its Thurdsay schedule. I didn't have any interest in it, and apparently neither did anyone else. The American "Coupling" only lasted four episodes. Too much sex, said some critics. Too much corporate meddling, said others. I never caught any of these episodes, so I can't provide an opinion on the fiasco. However, I'm steadily making my way through the original British version, and I can see why NBC made the attempt, even if it was probably doomed to failure from the start.

The show is about the romantic and sexual adventures of three men and three women, all in their late twenties and early thirties. First there's the show's central couple, Steve (Jack Davenport) and Susan (Sarah Alexander). Both have recently ended relationships with Jane (Gina Bellman) and Patrick (Ben Miles) respectively. Both of the exes are on the more sexually confident end of the scale. Balancing things out are Steve's best friend Jeff (Richard Coyle) and Susan's best friend Sally (Kate Isitt), who are more neurotic and self-conscious about sex. The first episode of the first series starts with Steve and Susan meeting, and the show proceeds to follow them through several stages of their relationship.

The DVD covers proclaim that "Coupling" is all about sex, but more that, it's about a certain attitude of openness and candor about sex. We never see anything onscreen that wouldn't pass muster on prime time American television, but the characters talk about sexual topics constantly, without hesitation. They talk about porn. They talk about impotence. They talk about accidental nudity etiquette. Sex isn't treated as taboo or romanticized all out of proportion, but rather as something matter-of-fact, just another part of everyday life that can cause all sorts of unique aggravations. There are certain topics that are handled more delicately than others, but there's never a sense that anyone's holding back.

Most of the action, that is to say the discussion of the action, takes place at a local bar. Usually at some point the male and female trios break off to hold their own chats, sometimes dissecting the same problems or events from different points of view. Series creator Stephen Moffat gets a lot of comedic mileage from the gender-balanced approach, exploring a full range of sexual insecurities and dilemmas. Sally obsesses about getting older and rounder with a saggy neck. Jeff finds it impossible to hold a conversation with a woman without blurting outrageous lies. Jane pretends to be bisexual and doesn't understand why this means gay men still doesn't want to sleep with her. Steve, when cornered, has a habit of going off on rants about minutiae like bathroom privacy and couch cushions. Susan slept with Australia. Patrick is a tripod.

My favorite character, who seems to be the most universally popular one, is Jeff. He's obsessed with women and sex and has a massive catalog of favorite fantasies and deviances in his head. He's the one who is always ready to offer advice about common pitfalls like The Sock Gap and the Giggle Loop. However, he's so nervous and ill at-ease with actual women, he is by far the least lucky in love of the group. Instead, Jeff has real knack for getting himself into ridiculous situations like going on a date where he has to pretend to only have one leg. His finest moment may have been an attempt to compliment a beautiful foreigner, which turns into an extended ramble on keeping women's ears in a bucket. Oh, Jeffrey.

All the performances are great, and the actors have great chemistry with each other, but the bulk of the credit for the show's success has to go to Stephen Moffat. His scripts are fantastic throughout, and once in a while he'll do something really ambitious like a split-screen episode, or a story told out of chronological order, or one memorable effort where a key scene is played out twice in different languages. As a result, he helps make a fairly small-scale comedy often feel like a much bigger one. And most impressively, I didn't find the show until this past December, and I couldn't tell that it was made ten years ago. Aside from the odd glimpse of an ancient Playstation, "Coupling" still feels contemporary.

Alas, British TV seasons are so short - only six to eight episodes apiece! And the show only ran four years! This means my fling with "Coupling" must be brief. I'd better enjoy it while it lasts.