Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is This the End of Fanboy Cinema?

The Internet has been buzzing about the underperformance of "Sucker Punch" at the box office this weekend, which came in second to the second "Wimpy Kid" movie. Everyone seems intent on tearing director Zack Snyder apart for the film's content, but I have not yet see the movie, so any sort of dissection of its merits from me is going to have to wait. Instead, I'm going to go the more meta route today and look at what the poor performances of "Sucker Punch" and the recent alien buddy comedy "Paul" mean for the future of fanboy cinema.

Roughly six months ago, when the highly anticipated "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" took a dive, I posited that the broader mainstream culture wasn't yet receptive to the tastes of the video-game loving, anime-watching, twenty-something Comic-Con nerd crowd. There would be other chances in the future, though, for this kind of movie to connect. The studios were still gamely trying to court the fanboy audience, and there were several high profile projects still waiting on the horizon. But then "Tron Legacy" only did so-so, "The Green Hornet" did even worse, "Paul" barely registered on anyone's radar, and now "Sucker Punch" is being excoriated for the worst excesses associated with its target audience. Does this mean that the studios will stop making films aimed at fanboys?

I don't think so. Looking back over the recent films primarily targeted at the young male audience, there haven't been many real financial disasters. "Kick Ass" and "Tron" both made their budgets back. "The Green Hornet" was a bigger hit overseas, and "Paul" was made for so little money, it's already broken even. Only "Scott Pilgrim" and "Sucker Punch" can rightly be called bombs, and they both had comparatively modest budgets, so the losses weren't that steep. "Sucker Punch" only had a price tag of $82 million, though the shock-and-awe marketing price probably pushes that figure up some. Many similar effects-heavy action films have budgets well north of $100 million.

The real issue here is that there hasn't been a big blockbuster that's been primarily driven by the comic book crowd lately. Sure, "The Expendables" and the various superhero films appeal to the fanboy crowd and enjoy solid attendance by the young male quadrant, but a significant portion of their audiences are female, or older, or younger, or generally more mainstream. Everyone is excited for "The Dark Knight Rises," not just the fanboy crowd. What we haven't seen is film aimed solely at that specific fanboy demographic that has become a moneymaker on the same level as something like "Twilight," which also plays to a similar audience - teenage girls.

Four years ago, the surprise success of "300" sent everyone scrambling to find the next big comic book hit, but as time has worn on and those hits failed to materialize, the craze has just about run its course. Perhaps the fanboys are more discerning or more difficult to predict, but the message that is coming across loud and clear right now is that they are not as dependable as they were once perceived to be. If the fanboys can't be sold on something like "Sucker Punch," which is stuffed to the gills with everything that could possibly appeal to the young male psyche, then the studios have no financial interest in making more movies like it.

This is not the end of fanboy cinema, but I suspect that future efforts will be scaled back in size and scope. We're not going to see another risky "Watchmen" level production any time soon, and only rarely a "Sucker Punch" or a "Scott Pilgrim." Kiss those dreams of a big-budget R-rated "Preacher" goodbye. We'll also no longer see marketing campaigns that solely pander to fanboy sensibilities. I can't help wondering if "Scott Pilgrim" would have attracted a bigger audience if it had pushed its more tender romantic elements at female viewers, instead of spending all the ad money trying to razzle-dazzle the gamer crowd. Oh, and Zack Snyder will keep working, but he's not going to be given carte blanche with the "Superman" reboot. I doubt anyone would give him final cut over a shoe commercial for the foreseeable future.

But is this a bad thing? I liked "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and I appreciated the influx of original projects that the fanboy genre brought in, but it's been difficult to ignore some of the excesses. I have to say it's been nice to see the fanboy crowd's usual puffed-up sense of entitlement get deflated a bit lately. You can not argue that "Sucker Punch" has any kind of broad appeal when it enjoyed such a massive marketing blitz and still got KO'd by a no-frills kids' movie with a tiny $20 million budget. The truth is that fanboys are a niche audience, and the genre movies that they prize, full of sex and violence and mayhem, are niche films that should really be treated as such.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Swimming With Spoilers

It's been a couple of days since the blow-up over Hollywood's latest misadventures in casting, so I think it's safe to pick up where I left off at the end of the Katniss post. Why is all the additional media back-and-forth between creative minds and their audience a bad thing? One of the unintended consequences is that those potential audience members who may not be familiar with a property are getting way too much information about the upcoming film projects. As I was reading up on the arguments for why Jennifer Lawrence was or wasn't appropriate for the part of Katniss, many commentators, some professional, some not, launched into long, detailed descriptions of the character and revealed a lot about the particulars of "The Hunger Games" and its sequels that curious viewers shouldn't be privy to the this stage. The filmmakers inevitably got in on the act too. Even "Hunger Games" author Suzanne Collins, in a letter defending Jennifer Lawrence, included a reference to a particularly crucial character moment for Katniss that also happens to spoil a major plot point.

Sometimes the casting notices themselves are spoilers, and the discussion and conjecture surrounding them can be inescapable. I spent days trying to avoid the news of precisely who Joseph Gordon Levitt had signed on to play in the new "Batman" film, "The Dark Knight Rises." Don't worry, I won't give anything away here, but just making my usual rounds on entertainment news sites was like a game of cat-and-mouse. Headlines ranged from the straightforward (JGL Cast as Character X) to coy (Guess who JGL is Playing?) to teasing (JGL is Not Playing Rumored Characters Y or Z!) to the infuriating (JGL Playing Secret Alter Ego of Character X, Which is a Massive Spoiler to Anyone Who Doesn't Read DC Comics). To top it all off, a few days later word came down that maybe the initial reports had gotten it wrong and Gordon-Levitt was not playing Character X after all. Character X, by the way, is a very minor personage in the "Batman" universe, whose entire life history was nonetheless laid bare for us out by every commentator trying to find something new to say about the matter. It's enough to drive a fangirl around the bend.

I spent much of last summer trying to learn as little as possible about "Inception," and now over a year in advance of "The Dark Knight Rises," I find myself already dodging spoilers left and right. I feel for anyone unfamiliar with "Akira" trying to weigh in on the casting controversy, who has to brave constant references to the famous climax of the 1988 "Akira" anime, that really works much better if you don't know it's coming. Fortunately this kind of thing only tends to happen with the most massively popular genre titles that already have established fanbases behind them. To my knowledge nobody has spoiled anything about Tomas Alfredson's new film version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," due out in theaters in September, which happens to share some key cast members with "The Dark Knight Rises." "Tinker" being aimed at somewhat less excitable grown-ups, there hasn't been the glut of coverage that a "Batman" film garners for simply being a "Batman" film.

We'd all be better off with less information flying around, but at this point, I don't think there's anything that can stop the fans from speculating about who's getting cast as what, or the media from trying to capitalize on the speculation. But to their credit, Christopher Nolan and the others working on "The Dark Knight Rises" haven't been actively encouraging the guessing games, and the film's production doesn't appear to be affected by it. It's different with "The Hunger Games," which is in a much more vulnerable stage and risks more my engaging so directly with the fandom here. Though there are obvious benefits to getting feedback and opinions, ultimately the kind of back-and-forth we've been seeing lately is a distraction. Sometimes the fans are wrong and need to be ignored, not pandered to. I think there's some merit to the complaints about the "Hunger Games" casting process, and I'm as suspicious about whitewashing as anyone, but there's been nothing to warrant this kind of intense response. The studio's tactics to justify their decision leave me worried that they're already spending too much time trying to sell the picture instead of making it something worth watching.

Finally, by using the casting process to garner publicity in the first place in various news articles and interviews, I think the "Hunger Games" brought a lot of the controversy down upon itself. The studios don't do themselves any favors by encouraging the endless voracity of the entertainment news cycle like this. The spoiler gauntlet gets worse, potential flaws are magnified, and you only end up encouraging the naysayers if you give them too much attention and acknowledgment. Controversies could easily crop up over other creative decisions beyond casting. For instance, why was Gary Ross, a director best known for life-affirming feel-good movies like "Pleasantville" and "Seabiscuit" chosen to helm an action film about teenagers killing each other in a dystopian Battle Royale? Why was Steve Kloves, who scripted the "Harry Potter" movies, given the job of adapting the famously nihilistic "Akira"? Moreover, there is such a thing as over-exposure, and it happens a lot faster than it used to. "Hunger Games" is supposed to be a trilogy, and should be wary of wearing out its welcome too quickly.

As for me, of all the projects discussed, I find myself looking forward to is the one I know least about - "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Apparently Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and John Hurt are in it. That's all I need to know - and care to know.

Friday, March 25, 2011

In For a "Long Good Friday"

I get a real kick out of watching films that I was slightly too young to have seen when they premiered, especially when they feature prominent current actors in early performances. It's a little like paging through someone's yearbook, seeing what they looked like before you knew them. "The Long Good Friday," a British gangster film from the late 70s, is a good example. There's Helen Mirren, long before "Prime Suspect" or any of the Elizabeths, playing the steely gun moll Victoria. There's Pierce Brosnan, impossibly young in his first film, as an anonymous assassin. And finally there's Bob Hoskins in the role that launched him to fame, as the mobster kingpin Harold Shand. I first knew Hoskins in big-budget fare like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Hook," but I didn't see any of his British films until much, much later, and always had in image of him in my head as a slightly irascible, but intrinsically lovable everyman. After this movie, that is no longer the case.

Harold Shand is a London mobster at the height of his criminal career, enjoying prosperity, power, and a certain status in his community. He wants to go straight as a legitimate businessman, and is trying to strike a deal with members of the American mafia to back a real estate development project. However, his plans are disrupted by a series of attacks targeted at his closest allies and operations. Many involve bombings, leading one nervous cop on Harold's payroll to suspect the IRA. Harold, however, has more immediate enemies in mind. He turns the London underground upside-down to find those responsible, all the while trying to maintain the illusion for the Americans and himself that everything is under control. But as Harold grows increasingly desperate, he lashes out at those closest to him, including longtime girlfriend Victoria, and his right-hand man Jeff (Derek Thompson).

"The Long Good Friday" is Bob Hoskins' show from start to finish. He gives a tour-de-force performance as Harold, a thuggish gangster who dreams of respectability, but is quick to resort to blunt violence, which proves to be his undoing. A lot of actors can summon brutal menace, and Hoskins brings a great physical element to the role, but few have the charisma and acting chops to really make you love them for their savagery. Harold Shand is a terrible man who does terrible things to everyone around him, but there's such humanity in him you have to sympathize with his plight regardless. In one of the most shocking scenes, he abruptly kills a man with a liquor bottle. But the act of violence is not nearly so affecting as the immediate look of pain and regret on Hoskins' face when he realizes what he's done, or the cold rage that descends on him in the wake of it.

Helen Mirren pairs up well with him as Victoria. Though their relationship is not the focus of the film, I found it one of the more interesting elements in the story. They behave like a married couple, though there is no indication that they are married, and several incidents show that Victoria is at least as important to Howard's criminal organization as any of his lieutenants. She enhances his facade as an intelligent, gracious hostess, but can be counted on to take care of coarser business in a pinch. When Harold erupts, she's the one who doesn't hesitate to confront him, to talk him down and keep him from self-destruction. Yet her formidable strength has its limits. I'm used to seeing wives and girlfriends in mobster movies relegated to domestic purgatory or addiction subplots, so Victoria was a treat.

My knowledge of British film still being woefully limited, director John Mackenzie is not someone I'm familiar with, but he does impressive work here. He gets a lot of exciting stuff to play with, like the bombings and the murders and various other action sequences. But what I really appreciated was how well he situates the story in London, many scenes shot on location and making use of local landmarks. He also gives Bob Hoskins plenty of room to really sell his performance, and deftly accentuates certain moments, perhaps most famously in the film's ending sequence where the frame of the film itself seems to close in on Harold. Barrie Keefe's script is a lot of fun, full of colorful lines that kept catching me off guard. Finally, mention must be made of the jazzy electronica score by Francis Monkman, that really gets the blood pumping and ready for mayhem.

As with many older films, I'm a little surprised that I had never heard of "The Long Good Friday" until now, and that it's not more well-known in the U.S. Any fan of "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" would love this, and Harold Shand is easily Bob Hoskins' most iconic character - well, that I've seen so far. So if you've a yen for mobster movies, seek out and enjoy. And I need to go poke around the rest of Hoskins' filmography and see who else turns up.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Breaking Up With the New York Times

According the the New York Times website, I've read nearly two hundred articles this month, far in excess of the twenty free ones that are allowed before readers will be asked to pay a subscription fee in order to access their online articles and other content. The paywall comes down on March 28th, and I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet. Do I limit my browsing to only reading one full article per weekday? Do I triangulate the content of the articles from blogger responses? Do I pony up and pay the subscription fee? This last one is unlikely because I don't feel I spend enough time on the site to justify the expense. Every time I pay for any sort of subscription service, I get the urge to overuse it to make sure I'm getting my money's worth. This is how I once ended up seeing sixty movies in a single month one summer, on the Blockbuster All-Access Pass. I have no urge to read the New York Times digital cover to cover every day, and I'm not keen on paying for the privilege to do so.

But here's what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to entertain the notion of piracy or finding ways around the paywall, such as by monkeying around with cookies or multiple accounts. If the New York Times wants to charge for previously free content, they're perfectly within their rights to do so. We've heard rumblings of potential financial issues off and on over the years, and I'd rather the Times survive in its current form behind a paywall than fall prey to cutbacks, or worse the clutches of Rupert Murdoch. Speaking of Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have already had paywalls up for some time now, and other major publications are thinking of following suit. The internet has not been kind to the publishing industry, replacing or rendering obsolete many of their former streams of revenue like classified ads. Many papers have folded or consolidated, and the remaining ones have shed jobs and cut back on coverage.

I feel mildly guilty every time I hear another newspaper is gone, or that reporters are juggling multiple beats, or that a local paper is going to have to do without its arts editor. I'm certainly one of those contributing to the problem, since I get the bulk of my news from the Internet and can't remember the last time I actually sat down with the print version of any newspaper or news magazine. As a kid, my parents got the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times every week, and we briefly had a subscription to TIME Magazine. Now I depend on news aggregators like Google News and read more commentary about certain items in the news than the actual news itself. I go to Craigslist for job listings, and the Weather Underground for the five-day forecast, and Moviefone for theater schedules. I know reporters are important, and that a free press provides an important checks against those with power. Professional journalists can't be replaced with amateur bloggers without the quality of our news coverage suffering. And the fact that a few companies own so many papers and other media outlets worries me.

So while it might be a mild hassle for me to remember not to click on the links to New York Times articles unless I want to use one of my twenty free articles per month to access it, in the end I don't mind. I can get along perfectly well without reading the New York Times regularly, but I think we would all be worse off in the long run if the New York Times didn't exist or was forced to compromise itself for financial reasons. The reason I started reading the Times in the first place was because I liked the fact that their writers would still occasionally use words that I had to look up in the dictionary - or rather, at Dictionary.com. I never want that to change. So I'll probably still look over their headlines to get a sense of the big stories of the day, and read a few articles when I'm looking for in-depth reporting on particular topics, but I'll probably start relying on other sources for my news. The BBC is always good for world affairs, I've been meaning to listen to more NPR, and I always go to the Los Angeles Times for local stories anyway.

It's never a nice feeling to be dumped, but I guess the relationship just wasn't working out. Money troubles are always the hardest to get over, and at the end of the day I guess my pagehits just couldn't make up for your deficit of ad revenue. Best of luck, New York Times. Maybe we'll get back together someday when I can afford you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Time to "Get Low"

I wanted to like "Get Low" more than it really deserved. It's a small film, full of older, very familiar actors who I have been watching for ages. It's also a period American film, and a comedy with next to no objectionable material, so I was biased in its favor from the start. You might wonder how first-time director Aaron Schneider ever got this film off the ground and managed to assemble a cast of this caliber, but the story provides such irresistible characters, it's no wonder the likes of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray got involved.

"Get Low" is set in the American Midwest sometime in the 1930s, when horse-drawn carriages were not yet an uncommon sight. After years of isolation in a small homestead in the woods, a hermit named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) comes to town one day, in search of a funeral. He's turned away by the reverend, but happens to catch the attention of Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), a young man who works for the local mortician, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). In spite of Felix's bad reputation and antagonistic demeanor, Frank decides that this is an opportunity his ailing business cannot afford to pass up. He and Buddy take on Felix as a customer, and discover that what he's really after is a funeral party that will take place while he is still alive, so that he can attend himself. And so follows Felix Bush's return to civilization as he prepares for the momentous event. While Frank mounts a campaign to entice everyone "with a story to tell" about Felix Bush to attend the funeral party, Felix reconnects with an old love, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), and struggles to exorcise the personal demons that drove him to shun human company in the first place.

The first half of "Get Low" really had me hooked, because the performances are excellent. Robert Duvall is note perfect as Felix, a plainspoken, no-nonsense old-timer who is as stubborn as his beloved mule. When we first see him in full beard, and wilderness trappings, Duvall is almost invisible in the character, but then the story rolls on, and he emerges, little by little. The process of his redemption and renewal is a joy to watch. However, Bill Murray nearly steals the show as Frank Quinn, a born opportunist and fast-talker who isn't quite as slick as he wants to be, and turns out to be a decent guy underneath. His frustrations and clashes with Felix produce some of the film's best moments. And it's always good to see Sissy Spacek, adorable as ever, who can still summon deep wells of hurt and regret at a moment's notice. Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs also show up for good turns in smaller roles, and Lucas Black holds his own against both Duvall and Murray in multiple scenes, despite portraying a fairly unremarkable character.

So it regrets me to inform you that the script has some substantial story problems and one almost fatal flaw, which is that it fails to stick the ending. The entire story builds up to the funeral, and summons up all this tension and suspense over what will be said there and the secrets that might be revealed. What we get is certainly a resolution, but not one that feels very satisfying, and it inevitably comes off as a letdown. The last fifteen minutes feel awfully rushed, and I have to wonder if the production ran out of time or money or some important bits got cut out for whatever reason. However, "Get Low" gets so many important things right. Schneider nails the tone, which is a little more sentimental and pastoral than the norm, without ever becoming maudlin. Likewise, the pacing is on the slow side, but it never feels like the movie isn't moving forward. The visuals, especially the shots of the woods, are very easy on the eyes. Finally the dialogue, written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, is wry and sharp and frequently very funny.

So there's a lot to like about "Get Low," and I'm grateful for any chance to see Duvall, Spacek, and Murray still doing good work as they get older. Such gentle, low-key comedies are a rarity these days, and this one left me with nothing but a sense of affection for everyone involved. Even with the flaws, I have to appreciate the effort it must have taken to mount this production. Here's hoping we see more like it in the future.

An Update from "Farscape"

I'm a little more than a season into "Farscape" now and the show has been steadily improving. Spoilers will be minimal, but I will be discussing cast changes and some of the character development, so be on guard. In my last post with my first impressions of the series, I noted that the characters came off as a little generic because we hadn't delved much into their pasts and nobody had the chance to grow or change yet. Now just about everyone has enjoyed some time in the spotlight individually, and we've gotten to know them better.

D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) and Zhaan (Virginia Hey) both have big personal demons to combat, Crichton (Ben Browder) is still too often the voice of reason, but he's proven wrong about as often as he's right, and Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) has softened up considerably since the earliest episodes. Rygel XVI (Jonathan Hardy) is still little more than comic relief, but he's good at it, and I've gotten so used to his presence that sometimes I don't even remember he's a puppet anymore. Even the "biomechanoid" ship, Moya, had her own major story arc that led up to a big cliffhanger at the end of the season. Ironically, the character who has gone through the most personal growth has been the villain, Crais (Lani Tupu). At the start of Season Two, he's no longer the big bad of "Farscape," having ceded the position to one of the two newcomers to the cast.

This would be Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), a twisted Skarran scientist working for the Peacekeepers who is studying wormhole technology, and wants to get his hands on Crichton in the hopes of digging useful information out of his head. Scorpius is a more straightforward villain than Crais was, with a ghoulish visage, a lot of black leather, and a few mad-scientist quirks. He's a lot more fun to watch too, and the show has already used his more over-the-top style of evil for comedic purposes. The other newcomer is Chiana (Gigi Edgley), a grey-skinned Nebari thief girl, who looks and acts like a refugee from an interstellar touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats." However, she has a very sharp, slightly caustic personality that is a lot of fun, and she makes a good addition to Moya's crew.

Chiana is also another of the "Farscape" characters who is very appealing to look at, with great makeup and costume design. By contrast there's been some noticeable cutting back with some of the other regulars. D'Argo's prosthetics have a more rigid, bronzed appearance now, and Zhaan has been in high-necked, long-sleeved robes constantly, no doubt to cut down on the amount of time both actors have to spend in the makeup chair. I don't find the cost-cutting measures to have much negative impact. In fact, I'm a little relieved that they're reigning in the scale of some of these stories. Many first season episodes got too ambitious with the fancy aliens, with very hit-or-miss results. In one episode with multiple Delvians, the race that Zhaan belongs to, all of the new characters looked significantly off. However, installments that only feature a single new creature or character tend to come off much better.

The rest of the production has been pretty consistent. I still think that the directors are too enamored with slow-motion shots, dutch angles, and other distracting camera tricks, but there's less of the wonky editing and awkward musical transitions that made the early episodes so frustrating. The cast has settled into their roles, and some of the performances, like Claudia Black's and Ben Browder's have steadily improved. Crichton still makes about one really groan-worthy pop culture reference per episode, but at least he's finally ditched his T-shirts and spacesuits for some more dignified Peacekeeper duds. And as predicted, the writing also improved as the stories got more serialized. The last five episodes of the first season is one big story that is better than anything else "Farscape" has done. But that said, the show's format is much closer to "Star Trek" than "Babylon 5," with very little overarching structure built into each season so far.

What I like best about "Farscape" right now is the ensemble. There's a nice sitcom regularity to Rygel's betrayals, D'Argo and Aeryn's bouts of aggression, Crichton being a know-it-all, Chiana being a sneak, and Zhaan playing den mother. It took a while for all the pieces to fall into place, but now that they have, "Farscape" is turning out to be a really fun character-driven action show. It feels like something I would have watched ten years ago on the weekend lineup of my old syndicated station, with "Xena: Warrior Princess" and the 90s "Outer Limits" reboot. I don't think it's up there with the greats of science fiction television yet, but it's still got a few seasons to go, and I'm looking forward to them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Americanizing "Akira"

You've probably heard by now that a new draft of the script for the American remake of "Akira" is circulating in Hollywood, and there's a shortlist of Caucasian actors up for the two leads, Kaneda and Tetsuo, who were originally Japanese teenagers, but are now almost certain to be transmogrified into twenty-something and thirty-something white guys. I wrote up my thoughts on the casting issues over a month ago, when James Franco was rumored to be up for one of the roles. And since I spent most of yesterday examining the Katniss casting controversy, I'm just about fed up with anyone working as a casting director in Hollywood right now.

So let's switch gears. If you have to Americanize "Akira" - an idea I'm not crazy about, but if you have to - what would be the best way to do it? How do you balance what the studio wants, which is a big, easy-to-sell, effects-driven action movie, with what the fans want, which is something more faithful to the original Katushiro Otomo manga and/or 1988 anime adaptation? First, it needs to be said that what Warner Brothers is really interested in exploiting here is not the complex, groundbreaking story of "Akira," but simply its recognizable title and notoriety. And so few people are really familiar with either version of the story, especially the younger audiences this film will probably be aimed at, it makes little difference to them if the American adaptation has anything to do with the original beyond a few superficial similarities.

In order to minimize the damage then, Warners should avoid attempting to court the original fans, and make no claims to faithfulness to Otomo's work. Frankly, experience has shown that they're not capable of delivering a faithful adaptation, and they would only invite backlash by making any half-hearted attempts to do so. "Akira" is a story of an anarchic motorcycle gang causing mayhem in a dystopian Neo-Tokyo, and Warners is clearly unwilling to feature either Asian actors or a Japanese setting. I highly doubt that they would be willing to depict the full extremes of the violence and gore that were present in the originals either, though the content is one of the reasons why "Akira" is so fondly remembered by my generation of anime fans - it was one of the few available animated films of the time that was unapologetically R-rated.

One alternative, that is probably the most likely approach, is to entirely transplant the story into an American context the way that "The Departed" adapted "Infernal Affairs," or conversely, the way "Throne of Blood" adapted "Macbeth." Simply take the concepts and ideas behind "Akira" and reinterpret them with American settings and characters. Early reviews of the script reveal that the action has already been moved from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. The only thing that would need to remain Japanese would be the title, for the sake of brand recognition. I'm honestly puzzled why the current Steve Kloves version of the script apparently keeps the original names of the protagonists, Kaneda and Tetsuo, which are obviously Japanese. If Warners seriously wants anyone on the announced shortlist to be involved without controversy, they're better off creating entirely original, Western characters.

Another possibility would be to create an original story set in the same universe as "Akira." That way, the filmmakers could use or reference some of the familiar events and characters while not being beholden to them. Instead of trying to reimagine Kaneda as a New Yorker twice his original age, simply tell a story of an entirely different biker gang from Neo-Manhattan, and maybe let Kaneda cameo as a survivor of the original film. That would preserve the fact that he's a Japanese icon, and avoid stepping on too many toes. They could even reuse the mysterious Akira as a macguffin in the story, and thus provide a reason for why the film is titled "Akira."

As I have said before, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of an Americanized "Akira" adaptation, but there are a whole lot of ways it can all go wrong, and I think Warner Brothers has already taken some serious missteps here. Fortunately, they're still early in the process, the script can be rewritten, and that shortlist of actors isn't set in stone. There's time to do some damage control and address these problems. Still, I'm continuously amazed at how shortsighted and tone-deaf the filmmakers have been. Are they completely cut off from the current culture? Do they think that the teenagers who have grown up with anime for the last fifteen years aren't going to notice the whitewashed Japanese characters?

I can't help feeling that we're in for another cinema trainwreck. Oh well. Maybe they'll only learn through failure.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Casting Katniss

I have some thoughts on the recent casting kerfuffle around Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of upcoming "Hunger Games" movie, based on the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins. Let me make it clear straight out that this is not another diatribe about Hollywood's rotten practice of whitewashing ethnic characters and racially biased casting practices. The questionable casting tactics employed by the producers of "The Hunger Games" has already been addressed by the Movieline blog and other critics who have more knowledge of the source material than I do. I haven't read the "Hunger Games" books, but they're essentially a tamer "Battle Royale" sexed up with more romance and teen angst, and aimed squarely at the same young adult audience that fueled the rise of "Twilight." Also, Katniss is apparently racially ambiguous, which makes the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, still enjoying the glow from her Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone," a far less egregious example of whitewashing than many other recent examples. Still, it's nice that observers are now actively asking why "ambiguous" automatically codes as "Caucasian" in casting breakdowns. Every little bit if awareness helps.

But what really interests me about the Katniss situation is what happened on March 17th when the choice of Lawrence was announced. "Hunger Games" isn't on everyone's radar yet. Some sites like Deadline and Aint it Cool News didn't even bother to post the news. However, Entertainment Weekly put up three articles in quick succession. One was the announcement, that was quickly flooded with unhappy "Hunger Games" fans who had a bone to pick with Jennifer Lawrence for being too old and physically well developed for the role, and definitely not racially ambiguous. The second article was an open talkback, asking for reactions to Lawrence being cast as Katniss. The third was an interview with director Gary Ross that addressed some of the most common concerns about Lawrence's ability to play the role. Ross emphasized that he had the blessing of "Hunger Games" author Suzanne Collins, and showered praise on Jennifer Lawrence. However, reactions to the article pointed out that Ross was perhaps too dismissive of concerns over Lawrence's age and race, and that some of the information about the casting criteria in the interview was contrary to what had been previously reported in other articles about the film.

Entertainment Weekly has since put up a brief partial interview with Jennifer Lawrence about her reaction to being cast as Katniss, and a letter from Suzanne Collins being explicitly supportive of the decision to cast Lawrence. Both articles seem to be targeted toward the potential audience of "The Hunger Games" and designed to quell the bad feelings that have surfaced as a result of the casting ruckus. Another tried to shift attention toward conjecture over who would play the male lead in the film. This is clearly not the first time that an upcoming production has used media puff pieces to engage in this kind of damage control. Over the weekend, the creators of the new "Wonder Woman" TV show were trying to counter criticisms of their heroine's campy new costume with positive notices from 70s Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. However, the speed and the responsiveness of both Entertainment Weekly and the creative talent behind "The Hunger Games" film is a little breathtaking. Not only did they deign to address the grumbling of the anonymous posters on the Internet, they did so immediately and with gusto.

You could chalk it up to the entertainment media courting controversy and making mountains out of molehills, suddenly ready to declare any sort of mixed reaction to a casting decision newsworthy, where naysayers would have previously been happily ignored. Entertainment Weekly and many other entertainment news outlets have certainly been guilty of gossipmongering before, and trying to mine any kind of potential controversy for more copy and more content. But the Katniss casting issues don't feel manufactured, and the PR folks have been so swift about heading off any criticism, there's no doubt that they're taking the fan reactions very seriously. But why such defensiveness about the casting decision so quickly, with the film over a year away from release and not a frame shot yet? The LA Times and Wall Street Journal have both written articles on "The Hunger Games," taking note of the book series' unusually devoted fanbase and the potential of a film franchise to be a success at the box office. It's in the best interest of Lionsgate, which is footing the bill for the film, to quash any negative buzz from the start. There's a lot at stake, after all. Everyone involved with the film is hoping for the next "Twilight," and hoping to avoid being the next "Last Airbender."

And there's the elephant in the room. You may remember that fan reaction to the initial casting choices for "Airbender" was so toxic, bad buzz dogged the troubled film all the way up to its release a year and a half later. In that case, the initial furor was touched off by a casting announcement in - wouldn't you know it - Entertainment Weekly, which attracted hundreds of angry comments, fed into the broader Racebending casting controversy, and eventually led to hurried recasting of key roles in the film a few months later. Paramount was likely caught off guard and may have acted too slowly to save "Airbender" by ignoring or downplaying the initial complaints. Lionsgate's tactics with the "Hunger Games" casting announcement, on the other hand, reveal a far warier attitude toward the power of the internet. I expect that they prepared for any eruption of controversy well in advance, as the debates over who would play Katniss had been going on for well over a year and there were already some early criticisms of the wording of some of the casting notices. Instead of letting themselves be pummeled by the anonymous hordes, the film's PR used Entertainment Weekly to fire back and aggressively state in every article, over and over, that their decision was unbiased and the film is in good hands.

Whether that's the truth or not, of course, is an entirely different matter. But by engaging in the online discussion of the topic that would go on with or without them, Lionsgate created a much better chance for themselves to affect the public's perceptions about the decision, which I guess is the takeaway from all this. The studios are catching on and getting more serious about their marketing strategies online, even this far out in advance. I have some thoughts on how this could all end up backfiring on them, but that's a post for another day.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Glumming it With "Greenberg"

Roger Greenberg, the titular hero of Noah Baumbach's newest film, is one of the most unlikeable characters I've ever had the displeasure of watching in a movie. A graying, forty-year-old New Yorker who can't seem to let go of the 80s, who is automatically critical of everyone around him yet unable to take responsibility for anything, Greenberg frequently exasperates those closest to him. Perhaps we should make allowances based on the fact that he has just been released from a mental hospital, and is recuperating at his brother's home in Los Angeles while the family is away on vacation. Left to his own devices, he tries to reconnect with old friends Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Beller (Mark Duplass), who he wronged fifteen years ago. He also finds himself repeatedly calling up his brother's personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), one of the only people who he hasn't managed to make a bad impression on.

"Greenberg" is a decent character study of sad, lonely man forced to confront his own failings and failures, and the fact that he's getting older. However, it's not particularly engaging. Ben Stiller tries his best, but he tends to play variations on the same screen persona in all his films, and I was was never quite convinced that he was Roger Greenberg rather than simply an older, depressed Ben Stiller. Since Stiller is one of the poster-children of Gen-X, I suppose his presence lends some cultural cachet to the story, but that impact is limited. The character just isn't very well realized. We learn that Greenberg had some sort of mental breakdown, but there are few signs of this onscreen. Rather, he comes across as an immature poseur, who deals with social situations by trying to appear smarter, cooler, and more relevant than he is, and childishly lashes out whenever someone calls him on the act. He also has a lot affected quirks, like refusing to drive, writing self-righteous letters of complaint, and making dated pop-culture references, which are really unnecessary and at times counterproductive. It's only at the very end, when he is confronted with being on the wrong side of the generational divide, that we get any sense of the extent of Greenberg's damage.

Far more interesting is Greta Gerwig's performance as Florence, a young woman in her twenties who is not naive, but is perhaps too inexperienced to see past the facade that Greenberg maintains. Initially, she romanticizes his flaws. When he declares that his goal is to do "nothing," she cheers him on his new endeavor, not realizing that "nothing" is probably exactly what Greenberg has been doing for the last fifteen years. Gerwig lends a wonderful warmth and emotional transparency to character. You can almost tell exactly what she's thinking in many scenes, and how she thinks, which makes later revelations about Florence all the more surprising and effective. Like Greenberg she's also going through a rough period, but is much more resilient than he is, and better at hiding her personal problems. The film is as much hers as it is Greenberg's, fortunately, and Gerwig had me invested in the story long before Ben Stiller appears onscreen.

I've liked some of Noah Baumbach's other films with similar characters, especially "The Squid and the Whale," but I found "Greenberg" a much more difficult watch. A lot of it was predictable and tedious, and the character of Greenberg was grating to the point where it strained believability. The visual style is emphatically indie, but otherwise not very distinctive. The portrayal of this particular cultural subset of Angelenos felt right, though as with most films set in LA, I have to ask where all the minorities disappeared to. But to Baumbach's credit, there was good dialogue throughout that kept the movie going, and the ending was very strong. Also, I think "Greenberg" makes for a nice counterpoint to the nostalgia obsessed mainstream media that seems intent on resurrecting the 80s whether we like it or not. In fact, if I think of Roger Greenberg as the embodiment of the collective regressive impulses of the current batch of Hollywood studio executives, the film becomes far more interesting.

Ultimately, "Greenberg" was a good attempt by Ben Stiller to return to more serious material, which I appreciate, and I hope he keeps taking projects like this. And now I'm going to have to see that damn "Arthur" remake, because Greta Gerwig is playing the love interest (not that you cold tell from the misleading marketing), and she's certainly proved she's worth braving Russell Brand to see.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Where Did All the Stephen King Adaptations Go?

I'm currently reading "Just After Sunset," one of Stephen King's most recent collections of short stories. I went through a King phase in high school where I devoured a huge chunk of his literary output, and it's been nice reconnecting with the work of the beloved horror writer who once bore an uncanny resemblance to my dear Uncle Rudy. And then I came upon a disturbing realization. Aside from an announced adaptation of the famous "Dark Tower" saga, and a few low-budget direct-to-video features, there have been scarcely any television or film adaptations of Stephen King's work for the past several years.

Despite flirting with retirement a few times, King is still putting out plenty of material, but Hollywood hardly seems to be in any hurry to film any of it these days. The last theatrically released movies based on his work were "The Mist" and "1408," both from 2007, and both decent earners at the box office. Before that, you have to go all the way back to "Secret Window" from 2004. Television has been better to him. 2010 saw the premiere of the Syfy series "Haven" based on King's 2005 novel, "The Colorado Kid," which has since been renewed for a second season. Syfy also rebooted "Children of the Corn" for a made-for-TV movie in 2009. However, there have been none of the once ubiquitous Stephen King event miniseries since 2006, when the ABC adaptation of "Desperation" got creamed by "American Idol" and the TNT anthology "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" failed to gain much attention. A miniseries adaptation of "Under the Dome," King's 2009 bestseller, is supposed to be in development with Dreamworks, but there's no telling when we'll see it on television.

A few years without a major Stephen King project may seem trivial, but not if you remember the sheer volume of King adaptations and originals that came out during the late 80s and 90s. His work was the foundation of cinema classics as diverse as "The Shining," "Carrie," "Misery," "The Shawshank Redemption," and "Stand By Me." The horror film industry loved him, churning out schlock based on everything they could get the rights to, and plastering his name all over video boxes and posters, even if the movies had nothing to do with the stories they were supposedly based on. For a while in the 90s, there was a new Stephen King miniseries for sweeps every year, some based on his existing work and some that he wrote the teleplays for himself. King's name was so recognizable and his output was so prolific, everyone was adapting his stories, and people flocked to the see the results. Why they were popular was hardly a mystery. Even if they weren't very good, I remember loving "It" and "The Langoliers" and their ilk when I was younger, because they were chock-full of irresistible genre devices like killer clowns, psychic kids, and time travel. Stephen King was and still is one of the best modern fantasists we've got.

So why the dropoff in adaptations? It was probably due to a lot of things. Miniseries fell out of favor with the networks and have slowly disappeared over the last decade, edged out by cheaper reality television. Supernatural scares went out of vogue when torture porn horror films reared their ugly heads with "Saw" and "Hostel." Finally, there were several high profile flops, like 2001's "Hearts in Atlantis" and 2003's "Dreamcatcher" that signaled to many that Stephen King's name might no longer be bulletproof. And I think that toward the end, we just got too oversaturated with the crazy religious doomsayers and the terrorized small towns in Maine. Projects based on King's work are still being greenlit, but far fewer than in the past. Wikipedia tells me that there's also an "It" reboot and an adaptation of "The Talisman" forthcoming, and several other projects are stalled or on hold. It's unlikely that we're going to see any new Stephen King films before next year. And it's only now that I've noticed the absence of his work on the big screen, that I've realized I miss him.

Hollywood is so seemingly starved for new ideas these days, I find it strange that they've been ignoring one of the biggest, most consistent names in horror and urban fantasy. I'd rather watch an adaptation of any of the stories in "Just After Sunset," or one of his recent novels than another "Paranormal Activity" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" retread. Don't like his newer stuff? There's plenty of King's older stories that no one's tackled, and quite a few of the schlockier adaptations that could stand to be improved upon. I'd love to see "The Stand" with a decent budget. Or someone else's take on "Christine." If the studios are looking for big recognizable brand names to revive, they could do a lot worse than bringing Stephen King's work back into the spotlight.

As for me, I need to finish "Just After Sunset" and go hunt down a copy of "Full Dark, No Stars." I've remembered how much I love Stephen King's short stories, and I've fallen so far behind in my reading.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

TV Love is Warping Our Brains

You always hear bout how movies have supposedly warped young girls' perceptions of romance. All those romantic comedies and fairy tale films set them up to expect impossible happily-ever-after scenarios, and raises standards for potential mates so ridiculously high, they can never possibly be reached. I'm sure this is true for some unfortunate, starry-eyed kids, but I never really bought it. There are so many other messages about love and marriage embedded in our media, especially in TV. And we all watch a lot more television than movies. Portrayals and attitudes toward relationships can be entirely different depending on what you're watching. I've included some examples below.

Sitcom Love - There are several different kinds of sitcoms, but they can be easily separated into two categories: shows where the central couple is already married or in a long-term relationship, and shows following singles. In the former case, happily-ever-after means dealing with all the day-to-day aggravation of suburban life or coupledom, usually with the added complications of in-laws, wacky neighbors, cute kids, and colorful friends. Clashes with the significant other are rarely very serious, but they are constant. Expect an awkward dinner at least once a week. If you're still single, it will take two to five years of active pining for any serious attraction to be consummated, after which your life becomes very boring very quickly. All the excitement of sexual tension evaporates the second love is reciprocated, you see. On the other hand, being single provides opportunities for romantic experiences with a parade of attractive guest stars, who never stay longer than an episode and can be instantly forgotten once they're gone.

Soap Opera Love - In addition to the multi-year pining requirement, all sorts of other obstacles can crop up between potential lovers to keep them apart. Insane ex-lovers! Scheming relatives! Horrible secrets from the past! If a couple manages to get through the obstacle course and say "I do," their happily-ever-after tends to be short-lived. Someone will be kidnapped, or have to disappear because of mob ties, or one of them turns out to be a clone. It's all very exciting when it's going on, but it's also frustrating as hell. The more perfectly matched a couple is, the less likely it is we'll ever see them happy together for any meaningful period of time. If they're totally wrong for each other, however, fate and the writers will have them in bed together within an episode and a half, usually as part of a plan to wreck whatever storybook romance is in their closest proximity at the time. To raise the chances of success with the opposite sex on a soap, your best bet is a strong career in villainy.

Crime Drama Love - Most prime time dramas are really soaps, so I thought it best to single out the crime drama, which operates by a very different set of rules. This does not include such programs as "Castle" and "Bones," which have male/female pairings as their leads, obviously intended for future romantic entanglement. No, I'm talking about the cop shows and the investigation shows that are intent on showing audiences the seedier side. If you're a hero or a principal player, you're asexual. Love lives are kept almost entirely offscreen, unless somebody's significant other needs to be kidnapped or killed off for a season finale. If you're a suspect or a victim, your love life is a train wreck. Crime dramas are hotbeds for romance gone awry, or happily-ever-after endings that turned out horribly, horribly wrong. Falling in love leads to anguish and trauma and getting read your Miranda rights - if you haven't already been pushed out a window or shot in the head.

Reality TV Love - The newest television genre is also one of the most versatile. You have the dating shows, where the only way to find love is to put your potential paramours through a long series of contrived contests, usually determined by luck and a willingness to embarrass oneself. Winners get the headliner until the next season of the show rolls around, and castoffs often get a chance to be the prize themselves. You have the freak shows, with titles commonly prepended by the words "The Real Housewives of," which suggest that a spouse is of secondary importance to material possessions and well-honed catfighting skills. Occasionally you will have the gentler documentaries about love in adversity, following dwarf couples, couples who never heard of birth control, and couples flaunting bigamy laws - until they inevitably become shows about lawsuits and breakups and why it's a bad idea to expose your personal life to a media circus.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Easily the television show that had the most impact on me in my formative years. "Buffy" had a little of everything. Buffy and Angel got the storybook romance, very short-lived of course. Xander braved a rough, demon-infested dating scene before, before he finally found the right hellspawn to settle down with - and then chickened out in the end. Willow had an adorable high school fling with werewolf boy Oz, but realized she liked girls when she got to college. Spike and Drusilla proved that even the most stable, centuries-long relationship based on mutual bloodlust and evildoing couldn't stand up to infidelity. Spike and Buffy were so very wrong for each other, which is probably why they were so much fun to watch. But what I really loved about "Buffy" was that there was ultimately no perfect person for anyone. The characters changed, they grew up, got over crushes and breakups, and their relationships changed with them. Destiny usually didn't work out and there were never happy endings, but nobody ever gave up on love either.

So yes, most TV romances are terribly unrealistic and shouldn't be taken at face value. But there are a few shows that can be candid and have some good insights into relationships and still be entertaining. Our media may be rife with skewed depictions of love and marriage, but there's good in there along with the bad. And sometimes a little idealism can be helpful. I mean, if hopelessly shallow kids like Bella and Edward from "Twilight" can be happy together, maybe the rest of us can find somebody to love too.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Cyrus" is Nothing to Cringe At

"Cyrus" is one of the 2010 titles I had been dreading. I'm not a big fan of the Idiot Manchild genre of comedy, and "Cyrus" appeared to have all the earmarks of one. The title character, played by Jonah Hill, is a hefty young man in his twenties who has never left home and enjoys a too-close relationship with his single mother, Molly (Marissa Tomei). He serves as a primary adversary for John (John C. O'Reilly), a divorcee who is finally emerging from a long romantic rut and wants to pursue a relationship with Molly. At first John and Cyrus are perfectly civil with each other, but as John and Molly grow closer, Cyrus grows more hostile, the situation escalates, and finally all out war is declared. The plot may seem simple and familiar, but the execution is great.

The nice thing about "Cyrus" is that none of the characters are idiots. They all have their personality flaws, and display certain traits that point to some deeper personal issues, but nobody is especially dull or unreasonable. Rather, John, Molly, and Cyrus are all articulate, self-aware, and they communicate with each other very well. Neither are they cartoon caricatures, who will resort to violence at the drop of a hat or engage in over-the-top behavior simply for the sake of getting a laugh. This doesn't mean that there are no laughs in the movie. There are plenty. But "Cyrus" operates largely in the realm of low-key observational humor, eschewing crassness and humiliation tactics in favor of subtler stuff. When something more typically farcical does happen, there's a nice realism to the dialogue, the interactions and reactions, that set the movie apart. At the same time, the dramatic side of the story gets just as much care and attention. The film spends a significant amount of its running time setting up John and Molly's romance, and Cyrus doesn't even appear onscreen until at least twenty minutes in.

I was surprised how much I liked and became emotionally invested in all the characters. Hill and O'Reilly both give performances that can be seen as more sincere variations on their more oafish, shallow roles. When you take away the extremes usually found in a mainstream comedy, it's easier to see how sad and emotionally vulnerable these guys are. Cyrus is creepy, relying on deceit and passive-aggressive behavior to sabotage his mother's relationship. However, you understand why he is the way he is, and that he acts out of desperation, not any sort of innate meanness. John is actually more awkward than Cyrus, still clingy with his patient ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), and a bit of a social disaster at the start of the movie. We root for him to better himself and take the high road, because he comes across as a real person, rather than a walking source of pratfalls. Molly gets the least amount of development, which is an unfortunately necessity because of the way the plot works. However, she certainly isn't any less damaged or less interesting than the other two, and I wanted to see more of her.

This is my first encounter with the work of the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, who are among the founders of the low-budget "mumblecore" movement, and have become fixtures of the indie cinema circuit. I'm convinced of their talent as writers, but not as directors yet. Their style is starkly realistic, including many shots with handheld digital cameras. There are a few places where the camera movement is distracting, especially the quick-zooms on characters' faces. Apparently they toned down their usual mumblecore aesthetic for "Cyrus" to make it more palatable to mainstream audiences, but there's still a very unfiltered, stripped-down sensibility to the production that fits the scope of the story. They get the tone right, which is vital, and I was surprised at how naturally the emotional ending played out. There's no cynicism here, a rarity these days, which I appreciated very much.

It's hard to call "Cyrus" a great film, because it's such a small story of very limited scope and ambition. It's a very good one, no doubt, and gives me hope that perhaps the American dramedy is isn't limited to Judd Apatow's vulgarities, or the fanciful whims of Wes Anderson and his hipster brethren, or the defensive sarcasm of Noah Baumbach and Reitman the Younger. They're not in the same league yet, but I think I like where these Duplass guys are going, and I'll be on the lookout for their future films.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When a Delay Can Be a Good Thing

I've come to the point where I'm actually happy when certain ambitious movie and television projects, long-simmering in development hell, fail to go forward. Late yesterday, the news came in that the proposed CW "Sandman" television series and the planned "Yellow Submarine" motion-capture animated film have both been stymied. "Sandman," based on the Vertigo comic by Neil Gaiman, was being touted as a potential replacement for the CW network's long-running "Supernatural." Now it looks like a new "Wonder Woman" is the most likely contender. "Yellow Submarine" was supposed to be an animated musical based on Beatles songs, but since "Mars Needs Mom" became one of the biggest bombs of all time, Disney has passed on any more mo-cap animated features. These projects may still go forward at some point, but their chances don't look very good. I thought both looked problematic from the start, so I couldn't be more relieved about this turn of events.

You always hear about the long, arduous process that some films have to endure to make it to the big screen. The trouble is, a long development period is no guarantee that the final product will be any good. Plans for an "I, Robot" movie had been knocking around Hollywood since at least the 70s, when studios were scrambling to find the next "Star Wars," and the film that was ultimately made in 2004 with Will Smith was based on a ten-year-old treatment. Last year's "The Tooth Fairy," started development in 1992, when it was originally intended to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Both movies are terrible, an absolute waste of all that time and effort. Sometime it seems to be pure dumb luck that a long-gestating project finds the right script, director, and stars at just the right time. Too often, it all goes wrong. I still wonder what "Watchman" would have looked like if Terry Gilliam had made it instead of Zack Snyder. Or if Martin Scorsese's "Alexander the Great" had gotten off the ground with Leonardo DiCaprio, instead of Oliver Stone's ill-fated "Alexander" with Colin Farrell.

Having been burned too many times, I've gotten much warier over the years whenever anyone starts talking up a project that is finally clawing its way out of development hell. Sure, I'd like to see a "Preacher" movie as much as anyone else, but do I want to see one helmed by the director of "I Am Number Four"? And yes, I'm a "Sandman" fan who has been following every rumor about a film or TV project since the 90s, but am I happy that Warners is trying to turn it into a teen-friendly hourlong for the CW network? No on both counts. Everybody daydreams about seeing their favorite properties brought to screen, but those dreams usually involve projects with faithful scripts, good talent onboard, and being targeted to the appropriate audiences. Last week, Guillermo Del Toro wasn't able to move forward with his long anticipated "The Mountains of Madness," because the studio balked at the R rating. I'm of the opinion that Del Toro was right not to compromise. If "Madness" couldn't be done the way he wanted, he was better off waiting for another chance.

There are benefits to waiting, after all. Sometimes you get a slow burner like "Tangled," which was the culmination of at least a decade of effort to bring "Rapunzel" to the big screen, and went through all sorts of different iterations. At one point it was supposed to feature mo-cap animation. At one point the two leads were supposed to be modern-day kids who were transmogrified into fairy-tale characters. Several of these early versions sound pretty weak, and the finished product clearly benefited from all the delays. CGI technology got better, the mainstream culture grew more receptive to animation, and the industry recovered from a very low point in 2004. If it had been made during that time, the movie would have been a disaster. Looking back at all the production delays and the creative clashing that was going on behind the scenes, it feels like a minor miracle that "Tangled" turned out to be a decent animated feature.

And I guess that sentiment plays into the easier acceptance of these delays and cancellations too. It takes so much time and effort to get anything greenlit these days, and there's so much riding on some of these big projects, sometimes you have to wonder why anyone would settle for mediocrity. I can think of a dozen major motion pictures from last year that should have been sent back for more script rewrites, or left in development for a few more years, or had completely inappropriate people attached. When a film is delayed, at least you have assurances that someone is keeping an eye on what's going on, instead of letting a production barrel out of control to meet a predetermined release date. Sometimes good art takes time. If it takes James Cameron another decade to finally make "Battle Angel Alita" or more "Avatar" sequels, fine. If Terrence Malick wants to futz with "The Tree of Life" for another year, great.

If it's for the good stuff, I never mind waiting. "Sandman" and "Yellow Submarine" are sure to surface again in other forms, and hopefully better ones.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Midlife Crisis in Celluloid Form

Everybody knows they're going to die, but not everybody understands what that means. You could have definitely counted me among the blissfully ignorant, until I saw Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," the movie Roger Ebert picked as the best film of the last decade. "Synecdoche" delivered unto me an existential kick in the head. I watched it on DVD, three times in a single evening because I became so engrossed, and I've never seen it again since. Looking back, I think it may have actually triggered something between a quarterlife and midlife crisis. What kind of movie could cause this kind of reaction? Read on.

"Synecdoche, New York" follows the life of a theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), from middle age up to the end of his life. He has a wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), who abruptly leaves him one day, taking their four-year-old daughter Olive with her to Berlin. His personal life in crisis, Caden throws himself into his artistic work. With the help of a MacArthur Fellowship, he prepares to mount a massive new theater production that examines the minutiae of his own life and failures, and is bent on replicating every detail of his existence in a gigantic warehouse. Caden develops feelings for Hazel (Samantha Morton), a ticket-taker at the local theater, but ends up remarried to his leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams). In no time, Caden finds himself facing a second marriage on the rocks, a daughter growing up into a stranger, and a play that is spiraling out of control and threatening to engulf his own reality.

Movies have been made about the end of life for as long as they've made movies, from Leo McCarey's "Make Way for Tomorrow," to Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" to Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." It's one of those subjects that almost every major artist tries to tackle at some point, and that impulse has produced some masterpieces. However, these films can be a difficult watch. Being confronted by your own mortality is never a comfortable experience, but it is often an illuminating one. "Synecdoche" is not only uncomfortable, it's vicious. Everything that possibly can go wrong in Caden's life does go wrong. Every one of his ambitions fails. Every personal relationship either becomes damaged beyond repair or cut short due to circumstances beyond his control. He wants desperately to do something artistically important, but only succeeds in trapping himself in a gigantic echo chamber of his own neuroses. In the end, Caden winds up miserable and alone, and it's almost unbearably sad to follow his decline.

And yet it's mesmerizing too. "Synecdoche, New York" was the directing debut of Charlie Kaufman, who penned "Being John Malkovitch," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." I've read that "Synecdoche" started out as Kaufman's take on a horror movie, which would feature all the things that he was truly afraid of - failure, loneliness, alienation, and death. This certainly feels like his most personal story and his most unfiltered vision, stuffed to the gills with all matter of complicated visual symbolism, narrative paradoxes, and shifting frames of reality. One of my favorite images is Hazel's house, which is always literally on fire whenever we see it. She buys it, knowing full well that it will kill her eventually, but isn't that true of so many things in our lives? Or there's the way that time works in the movie, where Caden is astonished to find his estranged four-year-old daughter is suddenly a nine-year-old, and then a teenager, though barely any time has passed in his own frame of reference. Probably the most iconic visuals involve the warehouse, where the recreations of Caden's life proliferate into a series of nested universes, each with their own Caden and doubles of everyone he knows. One of the reasons I watched "Synecdoche" three times in quick succession is because it's so densely packed with material, and there's so much to take apart and examine and interpret.

In the end, though, what really hit home for me were the film's most basic, cautionary messages. This is what could happen if you don't pay attention to your loved ones. This is what could happen if you get too wrapped up in your own, selfish head. Life is finite and goes by much faster than you think it will. There are mistakes that cannot be fixed, and absences that can never be made up for. You only get one chance at this so don't screw it up. I sat up half the night thinking about the closing monologue, and that final, devastating meeting between Caden and Olive. I still find it hard to believe that such an uncompromising, thematically heavy film was actually made, the way Hollywood is these days, and that such an amazing cast was assembled for it. Hoffman's perfect as the disintegrating Caden Cotard, Samantha Morton was never more dowdy or more lovable. And I haven't even mentioned Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan, who all do wonderful work.

"Synecdoche, New York" is not an especially entertaining film, is far from perfect, and often comes across as self-obsessed to the point of cannibalistic, but it is nothing less than masterpiece. I'm a little worried that Charlie Kaufman hasn't done anything since. If simply watching "Synecdoche" gave me an existential crisis, I can't imagine what writing and directing it must have done to Kaufman.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Defense of "Battle: Los Angeles"

I figured we had a couple of years before we were due for an "Independence Day" remake, but you know what? I don't mind. "Independence Day" was fun, dumb movie and "Battle: Los Angeles" is a fun, dumb movie, that the critics are savaging right now for not being more than what it is. Oh sure, "District 9" raised the bar for this kind of alien encounter story, and "Battle: Los Angeles" suffers by comparison on just about every level. However, there's no reason "Battle: Los Angeles" has to measure up to "District 9" when its ambitions are so much smaller. All it wants to be is a big, loud, entertaining summer action film, and that's exactly what it is - except, of course, this is the middle of March.

Story? Plot? There's not much of one to speak of. Alien invaders attack the earth, making landfall off the coasts of several major cities, including Los Angeles. Cue the panic and mayhem when they emerge from the waves and start shooting. "Battle: Los Angeles" follows one platoon of Marines as they set out to retrieve a group of trapped civilians before an impending airstrike levels Santa Monica. Characters? Your standard set of war movie types and tropes. The most prominent among them is Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), who is on the verge of retirement, and still haunted by his last mission, where he lost several of the men under his command.

And then there's Doc (Adetokumboh M'Cormack), an African-born doctor-in-training, Martinez (Ramón Rodríguez), straight out of officer's school on his first command, Lockett (Cory Hardrict), whose brother was one of those killed on Nantz's last mission, Lenihan (Noel Fisher), still wet behind the ears, Kerns (Jim Parrack), who has PTSD, Harris (Ne-Yo), who is getting married, and Stavro (Gino Anthony Pesi), a transplanted New Yorker. A late arrival is Sgt. Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), who fills the aggressive female soldier quota for the film, and also functions as a handy plot device. Is it an absolute certainty that most of these characters won't survive to see the third act? Yup.

I expect that a lot of the rancor directed at this film comes from the fact that a lot of the techniques used by director Jonathan Liebsman have been done before, and to much better effect. Good luck finding an original frame in the whole picture. The shaky-cam documentary style is pretty old-hat by this point, though the action isn't as difficult to follow as I've seen in similar films. Several segments appear to have been lifted from modern war movies like "Black Hawk Down" and "The Hurt Locker." Most of the visuals related to the aliens, especially the big command and control tower, are so similar to "District 9" that you have to wonder if "Battle Los Angeles" simply borrowed a few of their templates. We never really see much of the alien invaders, who are perpetually encased in battle suits, and really exist only as targets to be shot at.

However, the real Achilles heel of the whole venture is the script. The dialogue is absolutely awful. Multiple characters repeat the same line or tidbit of information several times. The moments of melodrama are so awkward and obvious, you'll find yourself mentally ticking off the common cliches as they come up. "It was only a dog"? Check. "That came out of nowhere"? Check. "I led us straight into that ambush"? Check. Going out in a blaze of glory? Check. The big, emotional, pre-battle speech? Check. That last one falls to Aaron Eckhart to deliver, and though Eckhart is a very good actor and was putting considerable effort into the performance, I had a hard time keeping a straight face. There's not a single thing in the film that isn't telegraphed far, far in advance, with the help of some incredibly corny orchestral music, and to call the story predictable would be a generous understatement.

And yet I liked "Battle: Los Angeles." I thought it was a lot of fun to watch, the over-the-top jingoism of the Marines was refreshingly earnest and positive, several of the action sequences were a blast (literally), and the film's intentions were always very straightforward. Here are the good Marines on one side, and here are the bad aliens on the other. Things go boom and the audience cheers. End of story. Would I have liked some more context and complexity in the plot, more character depth, and better lines for poor Aaron Eckhart and the rest of the cast (a notably multi-ethnic, well rounded one)? Of course I would. But did these flaws keep me from enjoying a solid, by-the-book genre exercise that was never meant to be more than a big, souped-up alien invasion B-movie? Nope.

This is not a great film in any sense, or even a very good one. But it's harmless. And it's so much better than some of the alternatives, like those creatively offensive "Transformer" movies. If all you're looking for is a good time out, I say turn off the brain for a while, see the film, and enjoy the carnage.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Existential Melancholy of "Never Let Me Go"

Viewers are better off not knowing many of the particulars of the the story in "Never Let Me Go," based on a much-lauded 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, but it is difficult to discuss the film without reference to some spoilers. I'll try to be as vague as I can, but for those of you seeking to avoid knowing too much, I'll give you the short version up front. "Never Let Me Go" is a heartbreaker, a slow, subtle, difficult parable about love and mortality in an unkind world. It will no doubt frustrate and bore some viewers as much as it will move others, but there's no question that it is a very good film and one that I've found hard to stop thinking about.

Still reading? Full speed and spoilers ahead.

"Never Let Me Go" begins at an English boarding school in the 70s called Hailsham, where we meet our three main characters, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, as children. The headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), tells her pupils very seriously that Hailsham students are special, and there are many sinister clues throughout the first segment of the film hinting at why. The children wear electronic monitoring wristbands, and their health is checked constantly. Outsiders keep their distance from the children, and a newly arrived young teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), seems disturbed by the gruesome stories and rumors that circulate around the school. Kathy, however, is occupied with a developing affection for Tommy, who is a little slower than many in their class, and has a tendency to get frustrated because he's not good at things like art and sports. At first Kathy's affections seem to be reciprocated, but then her best friend Ruth, more aggressive and assertive, decides she likes Tommy and the two pair off.

And this is the main concern of "Never Let Me Go," the relationships among these three characters. The revelation of why the children are special, and why they are treated differently is the stuff of a thousand trashy science-fiction novels. In a different film, and there have been several dealing with a similar premise, the plot would be all about the three characters trying to run away from their fates, trying to subvert a terrible and unfair society that has subjugated them. Kathy, Tommy, Ruth, and all the others like them, are constantly trying to find a way to delay the inevitable, but there's the sense that there is nowhere left for them to escape to, that the mechanism of their doom is simply too deeply entrenched and all-encompassing in their world to be defied. So the story is about trying to live and love in the bounds of severe restrictions and limitations. More than that, it's about the emotional reality of accepting a life where misery and loss are meted out too quickly, too often.

We follow the three children into young adulthood, when they leave Hailsham, and then to hospitals and "Care Centers" where they unexpectedly reunite about ten years later. In these latter segments Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) clash and reconcile and learn more hard truths about their world and their circumstances. The performances are excellent, especially Mulligan's as the grown-up Kathy. The trio seem to age decades in the blink of an eye, beyond even the ages that they're supposed to be portraying as they inch closer and closer to desperation. The adult actors are also much better than the child performers at conveying that there's something slightly off and unnatural about the characters, that perhaps their extreme naivete and difficulty with social interactions aren't simply products of their isolated upbringing. This is wisely left for viewers to ponder over on their own, along with many other subtle details that point to certain truths that are never directly acknowledged.

And so the film is moody, serious, and slow, evoking a plethora of deep, uncomfortable emotions. It requires no small amount of patience to fully examine and understand. No wonder, then, that "Never Let Me Go" ends up resembling another famous adaptation of an Ishiguro novel, "The Remains of the Day," more than any science-fiction antecedents. Genre fans hoping for a typical action picture here are sure to be disappointed, if not utterly depressed after a viewing. And yet, though "Never Let Me Go" is a sad story, the film isn't gloomy or especially dark. It occupies an alternate reality in more than one sense. Not only does it take place in a Britain that is the product of an alternate timeline, but the children are often seen inhabiting the places that the rest of society has left behind or discarded. Mark Romanek's visuals are delicate and carefully constructed, full of old and fading objects, buildings that have seen better days, and the constant presence of the natural world. There's a sense of nostalgia for another time, a gentler, kinder time that is slowly being eaten away by the ruthless future.

Some quick kudos to Alex Garland's screenplay, Rachel Portman's score, and Adam Kimmel's cinematography, especially for that last scene of Kathy at the field. Those last images that are going to stay with me for a very, very long time.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My Favorite Movie, Age 6 and Up

It's been getting much too grim and serious around here. So, for fun, here is a list of movies that I have claimed were my favorites, at various points in my development as a pretentious movie fan.

Age 6: "Dumbo" - I have watched "Dumbo" countless times, and it is imprinted upon my subconscious to such an extent that I really don't know how I would have turned out without it. I can trace so many things back to this movie - my love of stories about outcasts and loners, a fascination with the cool, brain-warping psychedelia of the Pink Elephants sequence, and of course the tearjerker "Baby Mine" number, which impressed upon me that it's perfectly okay to have moments in movies where you're supposed to feel sad. Looking back, "Dumbo" was a perfect kids' movie. It runs barely over an hour, the hero is a silent character who is universally relatable, and it summons up so many primal emotions about parents and separation. Oh, and of course "Dumbo" cemented my life-long love of cartoons. I'll never, ever be too old for them.

Age 12: "Beauty and the Beast" - The Disney Renaissance happened right around my preteen years, and living in Southern California, it was all Disney, Disney, Disney until well into high school. But then, everybody back in the early 90s was in love with these films, the way people love PIXAR films today. AMPAS gave "Beauty and the Beast" a Best Picture nomination in 1991, and many critics thought it had a serious shot at taking home the statuette. I think that might have been the first time I seriously followed the awards race. Twenty years later, upon subsequent rewatches, I'm always impressed at how unapologetically romantic the movie is, while modern animated spectaculars are more reluctant to get all touchy-feely. I don't think it matches up to the older Disney films anymore, but "Beauty and the Beast" was definitely the high point of the studio's comeback.

Age 15: "Edward Scissorhands" - Ah, Johnny Depp. We have a history, he and I, chronicled more fully in this blog post over here. I was never an alienated Goth, the audience "Scissorhands" is stereotypically linked to, but these were my artsy weirdo teenage years, and I had my share of angst. My brain full of wonky hormones, I declared dreck like "Newsies" and "Hook" my favorite films. And then came "Edward Scissorhands." Moody. Weird. Awesome. I didn't see "Scissorhands" in theaters, but only much, much later on television. I made a VHS copy that I played over and over again, not realizing that the broadcast version was edited, and missing key scenes. Today, there's a lot in the film I dislike. The satire of suburbia is too garish and mean, and Winona Ryder was terrible as the female lead. Depp's still great though. And Vincent Price. And all the Tim Burton-y visuals.

Age 17: "Amadeus" - This remains my mother's favorite. She's a classical music lover with a thing for stories about composers. I must have seen "Amadeus" a dozen times growing up, even though we didn't have a copy in the house until I bought my mother one. The soundtrack is incomparable. The performances are iconic. The production design is astonishing to look at. When people talked about epic films, this is the one that I always thought of, though the action rarely leaves Vienna. And in my head, it was a serious and important film. So at the age where I decided I wanted to be serious and important, I started telling people "Amadeus" was my favorite movie. I think it was really still "Edward Scissorhands" for a couple more years, but I liked "Amadeus" perfectly well too. F. Murray Abraham's Salieri is such a lovable misanthropic bastard, and one of my secret heroes.

Age 21: "Amelie" - Notice something about the previous entries? Aside from "Beauty and the Beast," none of these films were new releases by the time I saw them. My parents rarely went out to movies, so I rarely did either. That changed when I got to college and turned into a raging cinephile. I wanted to watch everything, all the stuff I'd been reading about and hearing people talk about for years. I saw new releases in theaters regularly, and was lucky enough to also go to several college preview screenings. One of these was for "Amelie," Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fantastic, loopy film about love and Paris. It was the right film at the right time, and I was swept up in hype and euphoria. I was topical! I was current! I was watching movies in French! I was pretentious and there was no turning back. I still enjoy "Amelie," and think it's the best thing that Jeunet ever did.

Age 25: "The Princess Bride" - Here's where I started getting a little diplomatic. People don't want to know that your favorite movie is some foreign obscurity that they've never heard of or a downer indie from the last century. They want to know that you've got something in common with them, a cultural touchstone that you can both agree on. "The Princess Bride" is a fine and wonderful movie, and a great antidote for a bad mood. It's also the one that practically every woman of my generation acknowledges as worthy of adoration, along with "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost." With the men of a certain age, I'd talk up "The Blues Brothers," and "Fight Club," but "The Princess Bride" was also acceptable because of the fight scenes. Every guy secretly wants to be Inigo Montoya. In actuality, my favorite movie around this time was probably Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru." So, still pretentious, but I knew when to keep it to myself.

So what's my favorite movie now? I honestly have no idea. I like a lot of films an awful lot, new and old, foreign and domestic. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is high on the list. So are "Mon Oncle," "Brazil," "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "The Shining," "The Devil's Backbone," "My Fair Lady," "Spirited Away," "The Trial, the 1944 "Jane Eyre," Kurosawa's "Ran," and many, many more. What can I say? I'm fickle and I don't want to commit. There are too many great films to have just one favorite.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What the New Facebook Rental Service is Really All About

In early February, Netflix was sitting pretty, signing up plenty of new subscribers every day, raking in the revenue, and watching its stock prices go through the roof. It was the undisputed king of streaming media, with no real competitors in sight. Now, hardly a month later, it seems like everyone is muscling in on the online movie rental market, and investors are running scared. Netflix stock dropped nearly six percent yesterday, on the news that Facebook has launched a movie rental service, and inked a deal with Warner Brothers for their content. It joins Amazon Prime, Redbox, Hulu Plus, iTunes, Comcast XFINITY, Vudu, Best Buy CinemaNow, and Google TV, who are all ready to take a bite out of Netflix's bottom line. Full disclosure - I'm a Netflix shareholder and I do have a financial interest in what's going on here.

But that said, I have no idea how Facebook's proposed rental service really poses any threat to Netflix. Facebook rolled out "The Dark Knight" yesterday, available to rent at thirty Facebook credits, or $3. More Warner Brothers titles are sure to follow. However, renting digital copies of individual films is what Amazon and iTunes are already doing, and for essentially the same prices. And Warner Brothers keeping its content off of Netflix's streaming service is old news. The real question is whether other studios are going to follow suit, and whether this is the first step in Facebook launching a subscription-based service, which would be be more significant challenges to Netflix's business. The most immediate innovations Facebook offers are the ability to rent films using Facebook credits, and being able to "like" and "friend" a film, a move toward integrating the movie watching experience into the social networking experience.

However, the really interesting story here is not that Facebook is renting movies, but that Warner Brothers is continuing to do its best to undermine the new media consumption models that Netflix and Redbox have created. The big studios have not been happy with these two lately, blaming them for plummeting DVD sales and rental revenues. Earlier in the year, Warners got both companies to agree to a 28-delay after new Warner Brothers titles like "Harry Potter" and "Due Date" hit DVD before they could be offered rental. Netflix and Redbox have similar agreements with several other studios, like Sony and Twentieth Century Fox. These tactics don't seem to have helped DVD sales. However, what drives the studios particularly crazy is the pricing that Redbox and Netflix offer to their customers. Redbox rentals are $1 a night for most titles. Netflix's monthly plans start at $7.99 a month for its unlimited streaming-only service, and $9.99 if you'd also like to rent DVDs by-mail.

Netflix and Redbox prices are far too low, as for as the studios are concerned. Just look at what Warner Brothers is doing with the new Facebook rentals. Warners still thinks that $3 is a fair price to rent a digital copy of "The Dark Knight" for two nights, a film that is nearly three years old, and had its basic cable premiere on TNT a month ago. By this point, even brick-and-mortar video stores are renting it for a dollar a night. Warner Brothers receives $2.10 for every $3 digital rental of "The Dark Knight" on Facebook, according to the Wall Street Journal. They only get a fraction of that for a Redbox or Netflix rental, because the unit pricing is so much lower, though the volume of rentals is almost certainly be higher. I can see the price of Facebook rentals coming down to encourage first-time users, the way Hulu's subscription plan pricing did, but not by much and not for long.

Warners' real interest here is ensuring that viewers believe that $3 is what they should be paying to rent a movie, not $1 a night from Redbox and not the $.50 per film I average with Netflix ($1.25 if you only count the physical DVDs). I suspect that the goal is ultimately to get us to treat online digital streams of Warners' films like pay-per-view or cable video-on-demand (VOD) content, which is traditionally pricier than rentals. Will Warners and Facebook be successful? I have no idea. It's not in my best interests as a consumer if they do, but we're talking about gigantic media companies with armies of marketers and financiers behind them, billing this as the Next Big Thing. The fuss was loud enough to make Wall Street panic yesterday. And who knows? Maybe Facebook will do something brilliant and innovative with their new movie rental app. Maybe they'll join forces with one of the other rental services. Maybe they'll digitize the DVD extras. Maybe they'll offer exclusive content. I know better than to underestimate Facebook.

And yet I wonder why the inaugural Facebook rental title was "The Dark Knight" instead of last summer's Warner Brothers blockbuster, "Inception." It's already been on DVD for three months, and is enjoying some new buzz thanks to its recent Oscar wins. A copy of "Inception" is even a pre-loaded app on the new Android Galaxy 4G phone. Could Warners still be worried that digital rentals of the film might eat into their profits on those shrinking DVD sales? Let's see how far that attitude is going to get them in the online streaming business.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Once Upon a Time" + "Grimm" = "Fables"?

It's pilot season in Hollywood, and one of ABC's new hour-long offerings is "Once Upon a Time," which is all about "a woman with a troubled past who is drawn into a small town in Maine where the magic and mystery of Fairy Tales just may be real." "Lost" alums Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are producing, and the cast already includes Ginnifer Goodwin ("Big Love"), Lana Parrilla ("Miami Medical"), and Robert Carlyle, who I still think of as Gaz from "The Full Monty." They'll be playing characters based on Snow White, the Evil Queen, and Rumpelstiltskin respectively.

Fairy tales are a major trend in Hollywood this year, with projects based on "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Beauty and the Beast" in theaters this week, and new reinventions of "Hansel and Gretel," "Snow White," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and more on the way. "Once Upon a Time" isn't the only upcoming TV series based on fairy-tale folks in the modern world either. Over at NBC, writer-producers David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf are working on "Grimm," a "dark but fantastical cop drama about a world in which characters inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales exist." The pilot cast includes Silas Weir Mitchell ("My Name is Earl"), Bitsie Tulloch ("Lonelygirl15"), Russell Hornsby ("Lincoln Heights"), and David Giuntoli ("Privileged").

Comic book fans might be wondering, however, whatever became of another fairy-tale themed TV project that both NBC and ABC were involved in at various times, one that has similarities to the premises of both "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm." I"m talking about "Fables," which NBC had in development in 2005, and ABC greenlit for a pilot back in December of 2008. The Vertigo-published comic book series, written by Bill Willingham since its inception in 2002, is one of the most popular comics that is still currently ongoing. It just passed the one-hundred issue mark in December. I've read about half the series so far, up through the sixth trade paperback, and it's fun stuff. "Fables" follows a group of fairy-tale characters in the modern day, who are living in exile after having been forced from their homelands by a villain known as the Adversary. Snow White, the deputy mayor, and Bigby Wolf, a lawman with a past, are the primary figures responsible for keeping the peace in the community.

Let me make it clear that I'm not accusing ABC and NBC of any impropriety, even though "Fables" fans have been kvetching and pointing out similarities nonstop since the projects were announced. Both "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm" have premises that are generic enough that they aren't ringing any alarm bells, and "Fables" certainly wasn't the first to explore the idea of fairy-tale characters existing in the real world. I can even understand why both networks' attempts to turn the comic into a television series probably failed. "Fables" would be extremely costly to bring to the screen with any faithfulness. It's full of talking animals, fairy tale kingdoms, magical transformations, and epic battle sequences. It also features some pretty twisted takes on familiar characters like Prince Charming, Pinocchio, and Goldilocks.

And of course, the original fairy-tale characters are public domain while the "Fables" versions of them are not. "Fables" may be well loved in the comics community, but it's probably not well known enough by the general public to add much value to a television project on the basis of its name and reputation alone. It was clearly easier for ABC and NBC to start over from scratch and come up with their own properties, rooted more strongly in traditional TV genres. "Grimm" is pretty clearly a crime procedural and "Once Upon a Time" will probably be some kind of mystery drama. I expect that if the fairy-tale trend continues, "Fables" may get an adaptation yet, since its material is pretty strong and every comic-loving fanboy on the Internet keeps bringing the title up in every discussion of "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm."

If these two shows do well, it may actually spur more interest in "Fables." If they tank, it may signal to the networks that fairy-tale properties are a bad bet. So "Fables" fans shouldn't be too quick to badmouth them sight unseen. I love genre stuff, so I'll be checking out both shows regardless - assuming they make it past the pilot stage and actually go to series. And if anything too similar to "Fables" does pop up in their plots, like a gun-toting Goldilocks or a serial womanizer Prince Charming, then we can unleash the proverbial hounds. And any Big Bad Wolves in reserve too.