Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Barbarella" Psychedelia

Barbarella is a space adventuress in the distant future, played by a doe-eyed young Jane Fonda, who is sent off to find a mad scientist named Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea), inventor of a fearsome new weapon that may endanger Earth. After her shag-carpeted spaceship crashes on the planet Tau Ceti, she befriends the blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law) and another mad scientist, Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau, in a rare speaking role). Pygar accompanies her to the evil city of Sogos, which ruled over by a Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) who may be in cahoots with Durand Durand. Our heroine, despite her reputation for brilliance, isn't very good at taking care of herself, and so has a tendency to get kidnapped a lot and require rescuing. Oh, and she has sex a couple of times, though a few of those only involve engaging in various suggestive activities that are meant to stand in for sex - I think.

"Barbarella" is famous for being a naughty slice of 60s sci-fi erotica, directed by the notorious Roger Vadim and produced by Dino DeLaurentiis. It is a very European piece of work, and one gets the sense that it had to be. Hollywood at the time was simply too straight-laced to commit the amount of funds necessary to make the film look like a presentable piece of quasi-science fiction, while retaining the adult content. Forty-odd years later, the only thing that would raise any eyebrows is Barbarella's zero-G striptease during the opening credits. None of her trysts are explicit, and her encounter with an ominous sexual torture device may have once been thought of as outrageous, but it comes across as very silly now. With a few edits, the movie can easily play on broadcast television, where I vaguely remember seeing it when I was younger.

Despite its reputation, "Barbarella" is at least as much space adventure as erotica, and the film works best if you think of it as a knowing, sexed-up parody of the science fiction of that era. Well, an attempt at one anyway. The dialogue tries for wit and sophistication, but only rarely manages to be as smart as it wants to be. The instances of broader humor tends be more successful. There is a rudimentary plot as outlined above, but Barbarella mostly just meanders from one setting and set of characters to the next, until a deus ex machina or a sex scene sends her off to her next destination. Apparently in the future, you're repulsed by anyone you've just had sex with and must leave the vicinity immediately. There are some elements that have held up nicely, though. The production design is weirdly gorgeous, bizarre traps and devices are around every corner, and the psychedelic special effects are very eye-catching.

Also, several of the performances still work. Jane Fonda's Barbarella may not be a particularly effective heroine (she loses fights to a gang of children and a swarm of adorable parakeets), but she's extremely sympathetic and appealing. Barbarella is meant to be both a liberated sexual creature and yet also a naive innocent. Fonda manages to pull this off without too much self-contradiction, by making her something of a space-age Alice in a strange new Wonderland. Barbarella dutifully parrots enlightened Earth wisdoms, but finds the conventional rules don't apply on Tau Ceti. Clearly, she still has a lot to learn about the universe. You can also sense the potential for a more active, modern heroine beneath the surface, who might emerge if she got to use her fancy ray guns as often as she changes costumes.

And then there's John Phillip Law as the studly, angelic Pygar, whose impressive wingspan is one of the best effects in the film. He mostly serves as the film's damsel-in-distress, getting himself captured and rescued about as often as Barbarella does, and giving her someone to act protective towards. Occasionally he'll make such heady observations as, "An angel does not make love. An angel is love." That's about as good as the zingers in this movie get. I also liked Anita Pallenberg as the Great Tyrant, though she's not particularly threatening, and develops the amusing habit of calling Barabarella her "Pretty Pretty." I'd have rather seen a movie about her, to find out how she ended up in power in the first place, and untangle her relationship with the "mathmos," a substance of pure evil that bubbles beneath the city of Sogos. There are an awful lot of promising ideas in the story that don't get developed much.

I found "Barbarella" fascinating as a campy relic from the early days of the sexual revolution. It still retains a lot of entertainment value, but I think it's more interesting in the way that it reflects the era in which it was made. What would "Barbarella" look like today, as a modern woman? Could she reach her full potential and become both an erotic and dramatic heroine? Or even more? Several remakes have been in development for a while, and this is one of the few titles I think would actually would benefit from an update. Unfortunately, no one's had much luck getting the project made in Hollywood.

Maybe they ought to try Europe.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Miss Media Junkie vs. "Watchmen"

This isn't a review of Zach Snyder's "Watchmen" so much as a position piece, laying out the specific reasons why I didn't care for it much. I think enough time has passed that I can put this out there without getting myself into too much trouble with Snyder fans. Before I get started I want to emphasize that I don't think "Watchmen" was a bad film. It was ambitious, well-meaning, uncompromising, and there were several individual sequences that were excellent. The controversial altered ending didn't bother me. And yes, I have read the graphic novel by Alan Moore, multiple times. I love the book, which is one of the reasons why the film was such a disappointment. Some spoilers are ahead.

I could nitpick about casting choices and story decisions, but my beef really comes down to content. "Watchmen" was always for mature audiences. Characters engaged in brutal violence and had sexual encounters, but these elements were never gratuitous. Instead they served to humanize and demystify the superhero characters. Also, since the comics were composed of very stylized images, you could show more extreme images without being distasteful. In film, this is not the case. One of the biggest mistakes that Snyder made, the same mistake that many directors make, is that he felt the need to justify his R rating, and went completely overboard with the blood, guts and nudity. Film is a more a more visceral medium where everything tends to be heightened, so Snyder easily could have toned down the content in the comic without losing any of the impact of the story.

Instead, Snyder seemed to feel the need to highlight and point arrows at the worst instances of violence. He added shots of bones breaking and blood spurting in fight scenes. Dr. Manhattan makes his enemies explode into a pile of quivering red viscera instead of simply disintegrating. A particularly heinous addition came late in the film, where a simple murder during a jailbreak sequence became a far more splatteriffic dismemberment by chainsaw. I can understand including one or two instances of really extreme violence in the most intense sequences, but even the shock value wore off by the fourth or fifth time viewers were subjected to Snyder's brand of up-close, slow-motion carnage. Alan Moore strove to make the violence in "Watchmen" distasteful and abhorrent. Snyder milked it for all it was worth.

And then there's the sex and nudity, which was so distracting that some viewers couldn't get past it. I didn't have much a problem with the male full-frontal nudity, but Dr. Manhattan's genitalia seemed to be the most memorable part of the film according to a much of the reaction chatter. The sex scene between Night Owl and Silk Spectre was another matter. Filmed in slow motion and set to a cover of the severely overplayed Leonard Cohen song, "Hallelujah," it was the low point of the movie. I wish I could have pulled Snyder aside to explain to him the difference between a cinematic sex scene and soft-core pornography. The problem wasn't that we were seeing the characters mid-coitus, but again, it was the way the material was presented. The scene went on for too long and the tone was all wrong. Was it supposed to be campy? Was it supposed to be touching? Funny? Disturbing?

Is it any wonder then, that the adult content totally overshadowed the rest of the film? Zach Snyder's "Watchmen" got so many of the little details right. It recreated period settings and costumes and stayed as faithful as it could to the complex story. There is no question that Snyder is a fan of the material. But that said, I don't think he understood "Watchmen" or what needed to happen in order to bring it to a wider audience. The movie plays like a precocious twelve-year-old's reading of the book, that is too enamored with the novelty of the sex and violence. It's not enough that the adult content appears in the film, but Snyder wants to make sure that we notice and appreciate it. And that attitude, paradoxically, just made the everything feel more juvenile. Compare the treatment of the content in "Watchmen" to David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," which also had plenty of gore and nudity. Compare the maturity of the storytelling to "The Dark Knight," which gave us better portrayals of nihilism, anarchy, and the corruption of heroes, all with a PG-13 rating.

I wanted to like "Watchmen" very badly. I wanted to be able to share that story with friends and family who were unfamiliar with the title, and see the comic book genre reach a new high. Instead, I ended up loaning out my copy of the graphic novel and warning people away from the film, who I knew couldn't handled the amped-up content. Somehow "Watchmen" on screen was less accessible than "Watchmen" on the printed page, catering aggressively to the fanboy crowd and alienating everyone else.

And I think that's a shame. "Watchmen" had strong enough material that it could have been something more. So I can't see the movie as anything but a wasted opportunity.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hooray for Summer Television!

Ads for the seventh season of "Futurama" have started appearing ahead of my online streams of "The Daily Show" on the Comedy Central website. The highly anticipated fourth season of AMC's "Breaking Bad" is due a couple of weeks after that. "White Collar" and "Burn Notice" will be back on USA, "Louie" and the last season of "Rescue Me" will be on FX, and every Sookie Stackhouse fan will have their eyes glued to the new season of "True Blood" on HBO. As for me, I'm keen to see if the new "Torchwood" miniseries, which has hopped continents and landed on Starz, can possibly top the last one. Yes, all of our favorite summer television series are back, and there are a couple of interesting new ones premiering too, like "Alphas" on SyFy and "Wilfred" on FX. How on earth did we ever get along without them?

I still remember those boring media summers of yore when you simply did not get any decent new television content to watch between the May sweeps finales and the season premieres in September or October. You went to the movies because that was the only place to find anything worth watching. You joined the library summer reading program if you were a nerd like me. Occasionally a network might burn off the episodes of a canceled series, or air a show it had paid for but decided wasn't good enough for the regular season, but the only time I ever remember being excited for summer television programming as a kid was when the Summer Olympics rolled around. Summer was vacation season for everyone, even our favorite characters on the tube.

But not anymore. These days, summer television is no longer only for reruns and castoffs. Cable especially has embraced year-round programming schedules, because it isn't so beholden to the Nielsen ratings system, which is what the network schedules are built around. Why does all the good stuff air in November, February, and May? Because that's when viewing data is collected, which helps to set the the networks' future ad rates. Cable programming is less sensitive to ratings because it works on a different revenue model that is less viewer-dependent, so you're not ever likely to see a new series canceled after only two or three episodes because audiences don't take to immediately. Content can be more niche and feature riskier material. A season can run for only twelve or thirteen episodes, instead of the usual 22-26, and the breaks between seasons can be longer. Summer regular "Mad Men," for instance, had its fourth season finale back in October of 2010, and won't be back until 2012.

It makes sense for cable series to run new episodes during the summer, because that's when the network shows are on hiatus, and there's less competition for eyeballs. In fact some cable shows have been so successful that they've started siphoning significant viewership away from the broadcast networks. So now, in order to compete, all the non-cable networks have a show or three that comes back every summer, usually cheap reality programming like "Wipeout," "So You Think You Can Dance," and "Big Brother." These are also necessary because of the new prevalence of reality competition shows, which are not typically rerun because everyone already knows the results. Something has to take their slots on the schedule during the summer months. And every so often, one of those summers shows does so well, that it gets bumped up into the regular season. Few may remember, but ratings winners "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" both started out as limited summer series. In the hopes of finding their next big hit, the networks have taken to testing out a few unusual and daring series during the summer, and seeing what sticks. It may not be the greatest original programming, but it's a significant step up.

There's every reason to think we'll see the shift continue toward shorter seasons, looser schedules, and more interesting television premiering during the summer months. Viewership of the major networks has significantly decreased as television watching habits have changed. It's accepted wisdom that the better programs are mostly on cable due to fewer creative restraints and more ambitious programmers. We're also seeing new content distributors like DirecTV and Netflix starting to move in. A big test this summer will be the performance of "Damages," which DirecTV saved from cancellation and will broadcast exclusively on its 101 Network. We can expect that DirecTV will follow the cable model due to its subscription business models. Can it be long before the broadcast networks follow suit too, simply in order to stay relevant?

Insert "Must See TV" joke here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dazzled by "The Color of Pomegranates"

One of the key components to any film viewing experience is cultural context. I've had trouble with certain films before, like Bela Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies," because I felt that I didn't have enough background information to understand the meaning and significance of many of its elements. I couldn't identify the setting, the time period, or even a baseline of normal behavior for the characters. So I was wary of "The Color of Pomegranates," which I understood to be a symbolism-heavy look into the life of the 18th century Armenian mystic poet and musician, Sayat Nova. Again, my knowledge of the subject matter was non-existent. Was I doomed to another round of wrestling with impenetrable imagery and confounding scenarios? Yes, but in a good way.

The opening title cards inform the viewer that "The Color of Pomegranates" is a biopic of Sayat Nova, but one which strives to reflect his inner world. Thus, everything in the film is an abstraction, though it is structured by the universal arc of the human experience from infancy to old age, along with the occasional interstitial card to inform us when we are moving from one segment of Sayat Nova's life to the next. Otherwise, the film is a succession of images and tableaux, often very simple but exquisitely composed by Russian director Sergei Parajanov. Here, we see the poet as a boy, holding a seashell against his face. Then, workers lined up in a row, dyeing wool. The imagery is often unfamiliar and archaic, but there is a sense that Parajanov is introducing us to this world, rather than thrusting it upon us. In the earlier sequences, where Sayat Nova is a child, we see more universal symbols of home and family, and many of the tableaux are repeated with variations. A single actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, plays no less than six roles. This establishes an underlying sense of rhythm and order, perhaps to suggest the form of Sayat Nova's poetry and songs.

I couldn't stop marveling over the visuals, which present objects, people, and places from the life of the poet. There is often an extreme stylization and artificiality to the images, in the way things are posed and displayed for us in various configurations, but the subjects themselves never come across as anything less than genuine. Some segments almost feel like a catalog of items from the Armenian culture of the time, and the viewer is invited to marvel over them one by one. Specific places are represented more often than they are shown as full environments, sometimes by a facade or an arrangement of figures. Also, I've never seen color used the way it is here. Red and other colored objects appear repeatedly, and the colors feels like natural, inherent properties of every lamp and costume and setting we see. But through color, and through the organic pattern and rhythm of their recurrence, certain objects and images take on additional significance in the larger whole of each sequence. The effect is mesmerizing.

Obviously those who know more about the life of Sayat Nova, and who are more familiar with the workings of his world will get more out of the film. It was only after I'd finished my viewing and was reading up on the production that I started to connect certain images to the actual events from the life of the poet. That was the monastery where he spent his later years. There was the royal court where he gained and lost favor. Perhaps the woman we see again and again was his unattainable love. And yet, while watching the film I didn't feel like I was missing anything. The film was so impressionistic and dreamlike, and could be appreciated and interpreted in so many different ways, not being able to follow the intended narrative didn't have much negative impact. "The Color of Pomegranates" could have been about an entirely fictional character, and it still would have had much of the same effect.

It's difficult to compare "Pomegranates" to any other films that I'm familiar with, because of its level of abstraction and subject matter. There is barely any dialogue and nothing that could be called a performance from any of the actors. Perhaps this is why the film hardly seems like a film at all. It often feels much closer to traditional paintings and medieval artwork, with its use of static images and religious iconography. In any case, "The Color of Pomegranates" is a unique marvel, and well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No, I'm Not Going to Watch "Stargate"

Overzealous fans of any sort can tough to deal with, whether it's the sports enthusiasts or hardcore doll collectors. The ones that tend to give me most of a headache, however, are the science-fiction media fans. Now I love science-fiction. I've read Bradbury and Asimov and Ellison and LeGuin from an early age. And I love science-fiction media. However, this does not mean I'm going to automatically watch and become a fan of every single property that's out there.

Which brings me to "Stargate SG-1." Upon hearing that I was a fan of "Farscape," a friend insisted that I check out the "Stargate" television show because Ben Browder and Claudia Black both become regulars in the later seasons. I checked out a few Youtube clips and enjoyed them, but ultimately decided the show was not for me. This didn't go over well. How could I call myself a true science-fiction fan if I was ignoring one of the most popular science-fiction shows of the last decade, that spawned all these spinoffs and was a cornerstone of the Sci-Fi Channel's programming for so long?

It's not easy engaging with media fans who are deeply invested in a show that I'm apathetic about, because they obviously have strong feelings toward the material and I don't. My reasons for not wanting to watch "Stargate" are very simple. It doesn't look appealing to me. The production values look cheap, the show's alien has a big, distracting gold insignia pasted on his forehead to show he's an alien, and the rest of the cast is usually decked out in military fatigues. In fact, the military is so heavily involved in the premise, that Wikipedia actually lists this as "military science fiction." I like some entries to this genre, like "Space Above and Beyond," "Babylon 5," and the "Star Trek" shows, where we see future versions of the armed forces, but honestly the Robert Heinlein stuff never does much for me. And "Stargate" is centered around the contemporary military, which limits what they can really do with the whole concept.

I've also heard plenty of chatter about the show, enough to gather that the cast is pretty good but the episodes are repetitive and easily watched out of sequence. There's lots of action, but not much by way of interesting effects or novel science-fiction concepts. "Stargate" is often complimented as being accessible, meaning that a viewer with no prior knowledge of any characters or storylines could watch any random episode and not be lost. Frankly, this sounds like a nice way of saying that the show was not very ambitious. Don't get me wrong. Sometimes I like a good, cheesy action series. I wasted plenty of hours on "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Xena" in my time. They can be great entertainment. But I'm not interested in "Stargate." Sorry. No thank you. No offense. This is just not what I'm looking for right now.

I find myself getting so riled up because this isn't the first time I've run into this situation. Just because I call myself a science fiction fan, there's a presumption that I have to know and love all the big, popular recent shows like "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" and "Stargate" that I never really go into. Maybe it's a fan solidarity thing. Maybe it's the remnants of an older attitude toward science fiction fandom. I remember back in the 80s and 90s there were so few science fiction shows around on broadcast television, I watched a lot of really terrible ones because they were all I had access to. However, times have changed. There are plenty of genre shows all over the TV landscape now, and a lot of the previously cable-only offerings have made their way to DVD and online streaming. I have a lot to catch up on, and I'm well past the point of watching science-fiction shows just because they're science-fiction.

I want to emphasize again, I have no problem with viewers who like "Stargate." I don't think any less of them for championing the show. And I wouldn't mind if they didn't want anything to do with my favorites, like "Doctor Who" or "The X-Files." Not all science-fiction appeals to the same people, and we shouldn't all be lumped together, just because our favorite programs make appearances at the same conventions. There shouldn't still be this obligation to all watch the same couple of programs in order to count as a fan. I haven't seen "Stargate" and I'm not going to. At least, not until I've gotten through "Misfits," "Twin Peaks," "The Outer Limits," "Night Gallery," "Life on Mars," "Torchwood," "Fringe," "Blake's 7," "The Prisoner," "The Walking Dead," "Red Dwarf," "The Dead Zone," "The 4400," "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," and "Star Trek."

Uh, yeah. I've never seen the original "Star Trek" either.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Top Ten Guilty Pleasure Movies

And now for something completely frivolous. I've been watching and reviewing way too many glum movies lately, trying to sort through the last couple of prestige pictures from 2010 and making myself sit through a batch of Robert Bresson's ponderous religious films. So let's have some fun. Here are my top ten guilty pleasure movies, in no logical order. Logic has no place here.

"Muppet Treasure Island" - I love the Muppets. I love Tim Curry. So when you put them together for a goofy pirate musical, I cannot resist. "Muppet Treasure Island" feels like a "Muppet Show" sketch that has gone on too long, and there isn't nearly enough of Fozzie Bear or Miss Piggy. The topical jokes are bad, none of the new Muppets really work, and there's only a cursory attempt to establish that all-important friendship between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. But the songs are catchy, Gonzo and Rizzo keep the energy up, and the sight of a giant Muppet crowd scene is always a thing of joy.

"Legend" - Speaking of Tim Curry, he got to play the horned villain, Darkness, one of the most visually impressive fantasy monsters I've ever seen, in Ridley Scott's epic mess of a fairy tale. The movie is gorgeous, full of great imagery and atmosphere. But the plot? Not so good. Besides Curry, the performances aren't much to write home about either. Yes, a young Tom Cruise does play the hero, but all he does is bum around with a gang of little people for most of the movie. And yet, the fantasy-loving kid in me still goes all gooey at the sight of the unicorns. Does anyone know if the TV edit will ever hit DVD?

"The Golden Child" - An Orientalist fantasy so out of whack with any version Asian culture I know, I feel a little reluctant to admit that I've even seen this one, let alone enjoyed it. Eddie Murphy, however, is worth every minute. He made "Golden Child" when he was at his comedic prime, and he's on fire in every single scene. Every time I see him go into the "my brother Numsy" speech in the Nepalese airport, I crack up. As an added bonus, Victor Wong and James Hong, the ubiquitous Chinese actors who made their careers playing so many wise and/or crazy old Asian men, both appear in this movie. Which brings us to...

"Big Trouble in Little China" - Why isn't the real San Francisco Chinatown this exciting? There is an awful lot of mystical mumbo jumbo dialogue here that makes no sense, and the script is a hopeless muddle, but how could you say no to those outrageous John Carpenter monsters? Or the crazy kung-fu street battles? Or the the fantastically goofy special effects? After all these years what I've really learned to appreciate about "Big Trouble" is the humor. Kurt Russell's Jack Burton never loses his cool, but he can take a pratfall with the best of them. And Victor Wong as Egg Shen gets all the best zingers.

"Robin Hood" - I'm talking about the animated Disney version from the 70s, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear. It is considered by many to be one of the worst Disney films, and I can't say disagree. If you're at all familiar with Disney animation, you'll spot bits of animation cribbed from several older films. They even recycle a couple of the same shots in different scenes, and it looks terrible. Yet my brother and I watched this movie endlessly when we were kids, especially after we figured out how to use the VCR. And I still catch myself humming Roger Miller's songs and mimicking Peter Ustinov's wimpy Prince John.

"Joe Versus the Volcano" - Joe, played by Tom Hanks, is told that he has a terminal illness. So he makes a deal to live out the rest of his days in luxury, provided that he hurl himself into a volcano on a certain date. On his subsequent voyage of discovery, Joe encounters three potential love interests who are all played by Meg Ryan. This doesn't really work. Neither do the tribe of island natives lead by Abe Vigoda, or the complete cop-out of the ending. However, I really enjoy the early scenes with Tom Hanks in existential crisis, especially a section of the film where he ends up adrift on the ocean.

"Twilight Zone: The Movie" - Four directors, four remakes of classic "Zones." No question, the John Landis segment is the weakest one. Moreover, the real-life tragedy that occurred during its filming casts a pall over the rest of the film that has never really gone away. George Miller's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and Joe Dante's "It's a Good Life" are both wonderfully freaky nightmare fuel. And I actually like Spielberg's "Kick the Can" better than the original, smarmy as it is. Has there ever been a more obvious Magic Negro character than the Scatman Crothers character here? Speaking of Spielberg...

"Hook" - This movie was inescapable during the 90s, billed as Steven Spielberg's return to the fantasy genre. There are some good things in it, namely the flashback sequences, Dustin Hoffman's Hook, Maggie Smith's Granny Wendy, and a John Williams score that is among his best. But then you have the Lost Boys, and the multiple cop-out endings, and that godawful Neverland set design. You want to know what aggressive whimsy looks like? This is it, and it's not pretty. Still, my brain easily skips over the worst parts, and the cheesiness has gotten more amusing with age. Just look at Rufio's hair and try not to laugh.

"Aeon Flux" - Yup, I'm that one fan of the original MTV cartoons who thought that Karyn Kusama's take on the character was actually kinda interesting. It bears almost no resemblance to the "Aeon" created by Peter Chung. Characters were drastically revamped and desexualized, and the dialogue is memorably awful. And for an action picture, there's not much action worth getting excited about. But the visual design of the film is so eye-catching, and there are all these cool little science-fiction concepts and ideas peppered throughout the film that show a lot of potential. Can we reboot and try again?

"Conan the Destroyer" - More humor and less gore meant that this was the "Conan" film that got the most play in my house as a kid. It's nowhere near as good as the original "Conan the Barbarian," but I still think the sequel has gotten a bad rap. This was a lighter, sillier movie by design, where Arnold revealed himself to be a natural comedian as he struggled with more dialogue and a smaller budget. I didn't mind the stunt casting of Wilt Chamberlain, because I had no idea who Wilt Chamberlain was. All I cared was that Grace Jones was cool, Mako was funny, and Conan fought a wizard! And a big monster!

I feel better now. Be on the lookout for my TV guilty pleasures sometime in the future.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Goodbye Oprah

Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show ends this week. The media has been full of stories detailing the guest lists for her final shows, cataloging the last grand gestures and charitable donations. It won't be the last we see of Oprah, of course. She has her own cable network, her own magazine, the book club, and we'll surely see her appear at various major media events in the years to come. She's such a cultural icon that even the irascible David Letterman and the anarchic "South Park" have paid their respects over the years. I haven't watched the show regularly in a very long time, not since her major competitor was "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," but even I can understand the significance of the end of "Oprah."

There are very few television shows that seek to impart their own particular worldview on the audience. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" is a good example, with Stewart providing a very clear point of view about current political and social issues. In the domestic and lifestyle arenas, however, no one is a match for Oprah Winfrey. Not even Martha Stewart, housekeeping guru, could ever hope to compete. Oprah is unique on the talk show circuit, in that she long ago moved beyond mundane household maintenance tips, and the contentious tabloid style of Ricki Lake and Phil Donahue. Instead, Oprah is known for inspirational and aspirational topics, sometimes tastefully highlighting particular social ills or the human side of recent tragedies. There is always plenty of fluff, though. You often see full episodes devoted to promoting new movies or books, and the yearly "My Favorite Things" show was an hour of thinly veiled product placement. Yet, everything always tied back in a certain globally conscious, philanthropic, feel-good vibe aimed at a largely female audience.

The rise of Oprah herself is an irresistible Horatio Alger story, of a poor young woman who suffered many disadvantages, but overcame them all to become a media and entrepreneurial superstar. Her show plays into this narrative by often chronicling her acts of charity and how she chooses to share her good fortune, namely the famous giveaways and wish granting shows that have garnered so much attention. The girls' school that she built in South Africa attracted strong press coverage, creating publicity both for the cause and for Oprah herself. There was even a short-lived ABC prime time show, called "Oprah's Big Give," that sought to turn other people into better philanthropists by providing contestants with funds to be given away. Not all of these projects and charitable contributions have worked out for the best, though, and some of the more elaborate giveaways have garnered criticism, like the infamous show where every member of the studio audience was given a new car.

It's often too easy to forget that Oprah and her show are products of an American media that has both its good and bad side. Oprah's generosity is coupled with her materialism. She promotes literacy and self-betterment, but only reflects very mainstream tastes and ideas. There's her great compassion for the less fortunate, but also her unwillingness to address the deeper issues at their root. She is almost never political, the great exception being her support of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy, for which she was criticized in some circles. She has also occasionally been taken advantage of by those who would target her audience, but who do not live up to her standards - James Frey, Jenny McCarthy, and the authors of the self-help book, "The Secret," to name a few. She is a humanitarian, but one whose primary job, we must always remember, is to be entertaining. Oprah may employ journalists, but she isn't one. She may interview important people, but she is not in the habit of asking difficult questions.

So Oprah Winfrey is really more of a cultural bellwether and occasional trendsetter than anything else, and that's certainly not a bad thing. Though her individual acts of philanthropy may sometimes fall flat, she has done a wonderful job of setting a good example for the American public. At her best, Oprah presents ideas of how to better live and contribute to society, shows us possibilities to stoke our ambitions, and gives us examples of extraordinary lives and personalities to take inspiration from. She's the ultimate self-help guru, covering a broad array of topics with the aid of many cohorts who have gone on to front their own programs, like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. Her sizable influence with a certain segment of the viewing public is well documented, and she has done her best to maintain that trust for twenty-five years. And though Oprah has never pushed very hard for social change, sometimes she nudged it along a bit, occasionally featuring guests with alternative lifestyles.

I don't know if there can ever be another Oprah. She was the first to bring down a lot of barriers and set many of the milestones for success. For that, she deserves all the recognition and kudos she's receiving. None of her contemporaries like Ellen Degeneres have the clout or the gravity to fill her shoes. Katie Couric is apparently going to take a shot at a daytime talk show for ABC in the near future. I wish her the best of luck. But am I going to miss Oprah? I don't know. Daytime television has been in an accelerating decline, and it feels like her show has just about run its course too. I'm glad that we had her on television, but the impact of her program has been dulled in recent years by all the other shows she's spawned and influenced. There are self-help, human interest, and philanthropy programs everywhere you look these days. And lately it feels like Oprah has been reduced to a series of stunts and events too keep the energy going in her final season.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Oprah Winfrey, but on the eve of her final shows, I'm mostly relieved for her that she finally gets to retire. After all those crazy finale episodes, and the press scrum, and the endless goodbyes, the poor woman must be exhausted.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Those Fantastic Women of "Farscape"

I'm still working my way through the last season of "Farscape" and should have a post with final thoughts on the series in the near future. But before that, I wanted to spotlight the female characters on the show, who have done a lot to help set "Farscape" apart from similar starship adventure shows. It seems appropriate to do this now, since one new female character, Jool (Tammy MacIntosh), is introduced in the beginning of the third season, and three more become recurring in the fourth season - Sikozu (Raelee Hill), Noranti (Melissa Jaffer), and Commandant Grayza (Rebecca Riggs). Along with series regulars Aeryn (Claudia Black), Chiana (Gigi Edgely), and Zhaan (Virginia Hey), "Farscape" has a remarkable track record for well rounded, interesting female characters who have a lot of agency and regularly get in on the action. Some spoilers ahead. Please watch your step.

You don't really appreciate how strong the women of "Farscape" are until you go back and look at the science-fiction shows of the 90s. The heroines could be dutiful career women like Captain Janeway of "Voyager," or sexy warrior babes like the ladies of "Cleopatra 2525," but they didn't have much depth and enjoyed little character development, even when they were the headliners of their shows. This was usually due to the nature of science-fiction programs, that often neglected character relationships in favor of more complex, high-minded plotting. Science-fiction series, especially space operas, had their roots in the boys' adventure stories and often featured military hierarchies that immediately required that personal relationships be pushed off to the side, into subplots and subtext. Romances were common, but always terribly chaste and easily put on hold during the big space battles. The real boundary-breaking genre heroines of that era, Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, came out of fantasy and horror respectively. And it took a while for this type female character to find her way into science-fiction.

Aeryn Sun is a great example. She is possibly my favorite "Farscape" character, because she gets to do so much. Aeryn is set up as the love interest of the hero John Crichton (Ben Browder) from early on. However, it's made clear from the outset that this is not her only function on the show. Far from it. Aeryn operates as a capable bruiser, and is always in the middle of the fights and action scenes. She gets a big personal arc, growing from a cold-hearted Peacekeeper soldier into a far more humane warrior, and several smaller ones involving her mother and the living ship, Talyn. To that end, she is frequently running around dealing with issues that have nothing to do with Crichton. Even when romance does blossom, it's not a narrative dead end for her, the way it often is with other science-fiction heroines. In fact, I think it actually helps her character. Crichton and Aeryn's relationship becomes so central to the plot by the third season, it puts a lot more importance on Aeryn's feelings and actions as a result. And when she goes missing for a few episodes at the beginning of the fourth season, she leaves an awful void.

And then you have Chiana, who is an unrepentant thief and nymphomaniac, but never loses our sympathies because she's so likable. And there's Zhaan, a dear, loving soul who seeks spiritual enlightenment but fears her murderous dark side. On another spaceship show they'd have relatively small roles, tailored to feature specific skills. However on Moya, there's no set formula to the adventures and no hierarchy in the crew, so they both handle a lot of different tasks depending on the situation. And since nobody is in charge, they get an equal say in all the big decisions and more opportunities to assert themselves. When Jool first shows up, there's no time for her to be the new girl, because Moya's in crisis again and it's do or die. She ends up the de facto ship's doctor for a while, because nobody else is better suited for the job. Jool is a whiner, but she carries her weight. There's a sense that in the "Farscape" universe, you have to be active and smart and adaptable or else you're not going to survive for very long.

Finally, there's the moral ambiguity. All the characters on Moya are outcasts, criminals, or people who are very, very lost. They're all out for their own interests in the beginning, and even when they start to trust each other, the hard edges never totally go away. Some characters like Stark (Paul Goddard) and Crais (Lani Tupu) are still vacillating between friend and foe. Right now it remains to be seen which side scheming Sikozu, the newest member of the crew, is going to end up on. That already makes her a lot more interesting to watch than Jool and the other newcomer Noranti, a daffy old medicine woman. And finally, the fourth season features a primary female villain, Commandant Grayza, who takes the alien seductress trope to a totally logical, and pretty terrifying extreme. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the current storyline plays out with this lot.

"Farscape" has a lot of weaknesses, but its characters are some of the most entertaining I've ever found in science-fiction. This goes for the male characters like Crichton, D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Rygel (Jonathan Hardy), Pilot (Lani Tupu), Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), and Stark as well as the female ones. It's just that great sci-fi heroines have been so rare, and "Farscape" has so many memorable women, they tend to stand out more. I've still got about twenty hours of the show left to watch and I already miss them.


Friday, May 20, 2011

An Elegy for "The Illusionist"

There's been some controversy around "The Illusionist," which is an animated film based on an unproduced script written by the late, great French comedic icon, Jacques Tati. Some of his heirs have been screaming bloody murder about underhanded tactics used to wrest the rights of the script away from the family, and about how the filmmakers have warped and tarnished Tati's legacy by misrepresenting his intentions. Thus "The Illusionist," according to them, is irrevocably tainted and must be condemned. I have no idea whether there is any merit to the claims or not, but I can say that the film does not deserve to be maligned in this fashion. Despite the use of the script, a recognizable caricature of Tati in the lead role, and many Tati-esque visual gags, this is not Tati's film at all. Jacques Tati would never be so broadly melodramatic or earnestly sentimental. He would have included more comedy, more satire, more mockery. This is an homage to Tati, and thus the great director's influence only goes so far. At its heart, the film is the work of animator Sylvain Chomet, and it's brilliant.

The story is set in the late 1950s, and follows a small-time illusionist, Tatischeff, who travels from town to town playing various engagements. He is a master of his craft, but magic acts are going out of style, and he plays to smaller and smaller audiences. By luck, he's invited to a remote island community that is somewhat behind the times, and enjoys a brief period of renewed success. This is where he meets Alice, a young girl who believes that Tatischeff's magic is real, and follows him when he leaves the island. Tatischeff is fond of the girl, though they don't speak the same language, and have some difficulties communicating. He takes her with him to Edinburgh, Scotland, and buys her gifts of clothes and shoes he can't really afford, while pretending that he's better off than he really is. He still regularly performs at a tiny venue, but is also forced to take on a series of menial jobs to supplement his income. Alice keeps house for him in their tiny hotel room, and becomes friendly with other performers who are their neighbors - a clown, a trio acrobats, and a ventriloquist. Sadly, their happiness can't last.

"The Illusionist" runs a brief eighty minutes, and contains very little dialogue of any importance, like all of Chomet's and Tati's films. Instead, the story makes full use of the animated medium in its storytelling, from the nostalgically rendered European landscapes, to the human characters who are all deftly caricatured to some degree, to a few of Tati's famous visual puns. Animation of this caliber is rare, and it's those subtle things like the way Alice takes her first steps in high heels or the way Tatischeff spars with his troublesome rabbit, that set Chomet apart from his contemporaries. The style of the production is reminiscent of Disney features of the 1960s, like "101 Dalmatians," where the color palettes were more muted and the animators' drawings were xeroxed directly on to the animation cels, so the lines had a rougher, more immediate quality. But those films never had nearly the delicacy of mood or the depth of emotion that "The Illusionist" presents. The story has many gentle laughs, but its tone is frequently melancholy and the ending may leave you in tears.

It would be so easy to dismiss this film as slight, as a gimmicky throwback to an older style of animated film, or a piece of ephemera riding the coattails of Tati's masterpieces. Instead, I thought of "Make Way for Tomorrow," and "Umberto D," and all those other classic films about older, struggling men and women, who discover that the times have passed them by and rendered them irrelevant. And though I hate it when reviews use this line, I can't imagine a cartoon that is more emphatically not for children. There's no objectionable content, but I doubt anyone under the age of twelve would be able to handle the slow pace and moody themes. But oh, what an extra dimension of poignancy Chomet acheives by using traditional animation, itself a struggling artform in the age of CGI, to illustrate the tale of a master showman who must come to terms with the fact that he no longer has an audience.

In the end Tatischeff the Illusionist is not Monsieur Hulot, Jacques Tati's hero and alter ego. Tatischeff is older, wiser, and a great deal more vulnerable. Sometimes he seems more like an aging Chaplin than Tati. Moreover, while Hulot fought the encroachment of the modern world, poked fun at it, and illuminated its most ridiculous contradictions for us, Tatischeff must ultimately concede defeat, and does so gracefully. And perhaps that's why he won me over so entirely, and why I don't think I've ever wished harder for a happy ending for any fictional character, though I knew his story had to conclude the way it did. I may adore Jacques Tati, but "The Illusionist" didn't disappoint me for not being a Tati film, as advertised. Instead, I'm glad that we have Sylvain Chomet, and got to meet his version of the Illusionist.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wrangling Release Dates

While summer movie season is in full swing, I've been looking ahead to the fall and winter. There are a lot of titles coming up that I've been anticipating. However, when I started checking the usual webpages with all the listings for upcoming movies, I noticed some omissions. Yes, there were "The Muppets," the new "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," and Martin Scorsese's "Hugo Cabret," set to premiere with November and December dates. Missing, however, were the spy thriller "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," and Sundance favorite "Margin Call," and Roman Polanski's "God of Carnage," which are all expected to show up in the fourth quarter of 2011, but haven't actually gotten confirmed dates yet. "The Iron Lady" with Meryl Streep is already riling up some controversy, but it isn't on any of the upcoming release calendars either.

After watching the studios fight over release dates for potential blockbusters years in advance, and raising eyebrows whenever they pushed a big title back a few weeks or edged them forward, I completely forgot that this isn't normal for a lot of films. Indies don't get picked up until they play the big festivals and can be gauged for their potential appeal to mass audiences. But for bigger titles too, release dates aren't scheduled very far in advance. Last year, "The Tourist" was primed as a big December release, but Sony didn't announce this until last August. And sometimes we'll get an out-of-the-blue late addition like the 3D "Glee" concert film that's premiering this August, but we didn't hear about until the beginning of May.

It all comes down to how the studios expect a movie to perform. A summer tentpole like "Thor" is expected to draw a mass audience, and thus designed to be distributed simultaneously with all sorts of merchandising and related promotions. A set release date makes it easier to orchestrate the marketing campaigns, get the film into more theaters, and coordinate all the related products to hit shelves at the right time. This is why a few weeks or months delay can make such a big difference, and there's increased pressure on films slotted on especially desired weekends, like holidays, to make their release dates. The box office numbers for "Thor" probably would have been smaller if it had come out in March or September, or if Chris Hemsworth's mug weren't plastered all over 7-11 Big Gulp cups and Dr Pepper cans.

And then on the other end of the spectrum are the niche audience pictures, the indie and art house films that only get limited releases, which means they don't play simultaneously in most theaters, but get booked for a week or two in major cities at various times. Right now "Everything Must Go," the new Will Ferrell dramedy, is playing in Austin, Texas, but not in my neck of the woods. My art house theater just got "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," which is not playing in the next town over. Some of these limited releases will pass many markets by completely, only accessible months or years later on DVD. I'm still waiting on several titles from last year, mostly foreign films.

It's the films that fall between the two extremes that are often the most interesting. Sometimes a film that starts in limited release will slowly build steam through word-of-mouth and expand to more and more theaters, becoming a sleeper hit. In this case, a wide release might not be announced until a film has already been technically out in theaters for several weeks. Smaller studio-produced pictures and promising acquisitions may not get a set release date until the executives get a look at the finished product and decide how it's likely to play, and where it belongs on their schedules. This is probably what's going on with "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which Universal Pictures signed on to distribute ages ago. If they like it, we'll see it primed for a December awards season push. If they don't, it might get dumped into January or later.

You can see the studios' confidence in certain projects just looking at how they're treated. The upcoming "War Horse," a historical drama, may seem to be of limited appeal, but it's a Steven Spielberg film, so it'll certainly attract some interest. It's had a spot marked out on film calendars since last October. Similarly last December, the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" had a wide release from the start, while other awards contenders had limited releases first, just in case they didn't play as well as their distributors were hoping. This can be an important bit of risk management, because sometimes they don't. Remember the Ryan Reynolds film, "Buried"? It was originally intended to have a wide release, but its poor performance in limited screenings caused Lionsgate to panic and pull the plug at the last minute.

So, at the moment the winter film slate looks a little empty compared to the summer, but I guarantee you that it won't by October. Titles like "Black Swan" and "The King's Speech" weren't on anybody's radar before they took the fall film festivals by storm, and quickly became Oscar frontrunners. Who knows what we're going to get this year? The suspense and the opportunity for surprises adds a whole other dimension to the season. And frankly, the system helps the quality of the films. Not being release date dependent means the films haven't been rushed to the screen. The studios see finished movies before they buy and schedule them. Wouldn't it be great if they could do that with the summer movies too, instead of making up the slates based solely on brand names and star power?

Yeah, yeah. I can dream.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

But What About Arnold's Acting Career?

Things were going so well for Arnold Schwarzenegger. His term as California governor over, he was planning to return to acting and his most famous role as the Terminator. Megan Ellison just picked up the rights to the franchise, and there was the chance that Justin Lin would direct. But first, Arnold would appear in Brad Furman's new drama "Cry Macho." Boy, that title sounds appropriate for his situation right now, doesn't it?

The thing about Hollywood is that it is much more forgiving than politics. As a California Democrat, I feel a little annoyed that Schwarzenegger managed to keep his current scandal under wraps for over a decade, since there's every indication that it would have adversely affected his election chances in 2001. If I were Cruz Bustamante - well, I digress. Arnold's politcal career is probably over, but he isn't going to suffer as much fallout from his scandal in Hollywood as Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson did from theirs. The nature of his transgression is more embarrassing than anything else. Though we all sympathize with Maria Shriver, being a womanizer is not likely to have any negative affect on Arnold's working relationships or his image. If he were a romantic lead like Tom Cruise it might be one thing, but Arnold has always been a big action hero, and there's a certain amount of boys-will-be-boys slack that comes with that. I don't agree with it, mind you, but all that really matters for an actor in Hollywood is being able to attract an audience. Arnold hasn't done anything nearly heinous enough to compromise that.

On the other hand, what probably will affect Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to acting is his age. At 63, he's just not the classic muscle man he used to be. This isn't as much of a handicap as it might have been in the past, though. Liam Neeson is in his late fifties and still a credible action hero. Fellow 80s star Sylvester Stallone has been hanging in there too, playing older versions of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. The "Terminator" mythos doesn't really allow for much aging, unfortunately. Unless Schwarzenegger wants to go the "TRON" route and get a motion-capture doppelganger, he's not going to be believable as a killer android anymore. Some have speculated that he might be able to return to the franchise by playing whoever the original 800 Series Terminator was modeled after, but it just wouldn't be the same. And frankly, after "Salvation," I'm not so sure that even Arnold's return would be enough to salvage "Terminator."

My choice for a comeback role for Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been Conan the Barbarian, specifically an older Conan that would have featured in the ambitious, long-simmering "King Conan" project with John Milius. Unfortunately once Arnold became governor, plans for "King Conan," the "True Lies" sequel, and several others died in development hell. Now the "Conan" is getting rebooted with a new film this summer, starring Jason Momoa. In fact, most of Schwarzenegger's old blockbuster series have moved on without him. "Predators" hit the screens last summer with Adrien Brody. "Total Recall" is set to move ahead soon with Colin Farrell and Bryan Cranston. Apparently Arnold has been pitched a potential "Running Man" sequel, but that's really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Even the rumored "Twins" reunion sounds more dignified.

Besides, it's highly likely that Arnold doesn't want to be an action hero anymore. He did choose a smaller drama as his first starring project since "Terminator 3." I don't know how many dramatic roles are available for a man of his age, stature, and accent, but why not? Arnold has a lot of charm and charisma, and I'd rather see him in smaller character roles instead of trying to slog on as an action star past his prime. I spent a lot of "The Expendables" wincing during Sylvester Stallone's fight scenes, and not in a good way. People may not remember, but Arnold's career in genre films wasn't so hot by the time he ran for governor, after a string of progressively lousier vehicles like "End of Days," "The 6th Day," and "Collateral Damage." Sure, he can come back for another "Terminator" or two, but then what? It's good that he's trying to branch out.

Ultimately I think Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting career will be fine. Despite the scandal, he has plenty of good will and nostalgia on his side for a comeback. He can take a few years off to sort out his personal life or write his memoirs, and it won't affect his bankability. People like him and will continue to like him. I know this because I still retain a lot of fondness for him, even if I think he acted reprehensibly toward his wife, and even if I dislike his politics.

I mean, it's Arnold. Who wouldn't give the greatest movie star of every 80s and 90s kid's childhood another chance?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"The Voice" Liveblog

I've been meaning to check out NBC's "The Voice." So while I still have cable for a few more days, I might as well take advantage of it and do a quick liveblog.

10:00 PM - Ooh, recap. The TV Listings say this is "Battle Part 2," so there's obviously a "Part 1" that I've missed. Hey, it's Frenchie from that season of "American Idol" I think I watched.

:02 - At this point it's just a blur of coach and assistant names that I don't recognize.

:03 - Hi Cee Lo. On his team, we have Guillermo del Toro (Nakia) vs. a gigantamous walking Afro (Tje Austin), who will both be singing "Closer." A lovely lady named Monica assists - another recording star I don't know.

:07 - Battle Round time! Good grief, they're pacing around a pseudo wrestling ring. Calling the sing-off a "battle" is kind of silly, but having them in a ring together makes for a good visual.

:10 - The thing to remember about these singing shows is that you can't trust the audio because the recording conditions aren't great. Nakia sounded better in practice and Tje sounded better in the ring.

:11 - And they abruptly cut to commercial right before Cee Lo picks the winner. Naturally. So far I think the show is a lot less polished than "Idol," but that's no surprise considering how new "Voice" still is.

:14 - I think I've got the gist of the rules. You have the judges responsible for picking and mentoring contestants to do battle with each other in upcoming live performances. Right now it's the judges who are making elimination decisions, whittling down their teams.

:15 - Nakia wins. Bye Tje. I will miss your humorous hairdo.

:16 - Now it's Ellen v. Jared, who will be singing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Their mentor is Blake Shelton, a country star I don't have any familiarity with either. Reba McEntire shows up as his celeb assistant. Too bad all we get to hear of the coaching is a quick pep talk.

:23 - Oh lord. Two days after the upfront, they're already rolling out the "Playboy Club" promos.

:24 - Hang on, the contestant isn't Ellen. it's a duo called Elenowen, made up of a Josh and a Nicole. Gee, that's not intuitive. And they're terrible. Jared wins!

:29 - It took me this long to realize that the host is Carson Daly. I honestly have no personal beef with this man, but how many showbiz lives does he have? After "TRL" and "Last Call With Carson Daly" - waitaminute - "Last Call With Carson Daly" is still on the air? He survived the NBC late night wars and Conan didn't?!

Head. Desk.

:33 - Okay, now it's on to the Maroon 5 guy's team. Angela v. Javier, singing "Stand By Me." I can already tell Angela's going down. Was there an assistant there? Wikipedia says he's producer Adam Blackstone, but I think I missed him.

:38 - Yeah, Angela's one of those singers who has a lot of bad habits she's going to have to train herself out of. Use your diaphragm, woman! Breathe! Javier's a nice surprise though. Nice, smooth voice.

:40 - The other judges give opinions, but only the team leader makes the decision. So, for all intents and purposes their proffered opinions really just serve to remind us that they're there. Of course Javier wins.

:42 - Thank you for identifying yourself, Alison Haislip, backstage correspondent. Now please go away.

:43 - That "Kung Fu Panda 2" promo seems so sinister. Please don't suck. You're probably the only movie my mother will agree to see in a theater this summer.

:45 - Hi Christina Aguilera! You're awesome. She's getting a bald lady named Beverly and slightly portly fellow named Justin to sing "Baba O'Reilly." The assistant is one Sia Furler. Nope, don't know her either.

:50 - These coaching scenes are already getting repetitive, especially since we're only getting really awkward clips from each one.

:53 - Something about the back-from-commercial musical sting makes me think "Star Search." Or possibly "Magnum P.I." Hmmm.

:55 - I love this song. I wish they'd let them sing the whole thing. Beverly the bald lady looks so happy. And she wins!

:59 - The current format is fun, but I think it's a good thing that it changes for every stage of the competition. What I thought was most promising about "The Voice" from the outset was that the coaches had to choose contestants based on voice alone, literally without being able to see them.

These second round "battles" where they contestants share a performance also emphasize vocal talent and performance ability over image. What worries me is what will happen in the final rounds, the live shows, when the audience will get involved.

But so far, "The Voice" isn't bad. The contestants are better singers than "Idol" features, and the rougher spots will probably get smoothed out with time. I might tune back in for one of the live shows later, to see how things progress.

Good night!

Whatever Happened to Period Television?

It's upfront week, the time of year when the major television networks reveal their fall schedules for advertisers and we learn which of the new pilots will become series. It was ABC's turn today, and they confirmed that one of the titles that I had been rooting for, "Poe," is not getting picked up. "Poe" would have been a crime procedural set in the 1840s featuring Edgar Allen Poe as a sleuth. This continues a trend that I've always found a little baffling. In the last decade, American period shows have almost totally vanished from network television.

Well no, this isn't quite true. AMC's "Mad Men" set in the 1960s, is no doubt responsible for this year's spate of new network dramas like "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," which are set in the same decade. And there are always one or two shows that take place in the more recent past that directly appeal to our nostalgia like "Happy Days," "The Wonder Years," and "That 70s Show." But you have to go to cable, and premium cable at that, in order to find shows set any farther in America's past, like "Boardwalk Empire," (1920s Prohibition) "Carnivale" (1930s Depression era), "Deadwood" (1870s Old West) and "The Pacific" (1940s WWII).

But it wasn't always like this, mostly because we used to have Westerns. Back in the 50s and 60s the networks couldn't seem to get enough of them. By the 90s we were down to the likes of "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman," "Christy," "the Adventures of Brisco County Jr," "The Young Riders," and endless "Bonanza" reruns, but they were there. And miniseries and made-for-television films were still plentiful, so you'd see the occasional "North and South," "Scarlett" and "Sarah, Plain and Tall." Nowadays, however, it often feels like American network television has completely cut ties with the past.

The obvious reason for the decline is that period programs tend to cost more than most, because they have to recreate bygone eras. And there's always the nagging feeling that shows set in the past would only appeal to older viewers because of the antiquated language and historical frames of reference. Not true of course, but that's the prevailing wisdom. Only cable networks seem to have the means and, well, the guts to take a risk on shows that take place beyond fifty years ago, which means that access to this kind of programming has become limited.

That's a shame, since the result is that there are various genres of television that the majority of American viewers just don't see any more. Along with Westerns, pioneer stories like "Little House on the Prairie" are gone. "Hogan's Heroes," "MASH," and most shows about the armed forces have disappeared as the major world wars have faded from the popular consciousness. And it worries me a little that many viewers under a certain age have never engaged with much media related to the Prohibition, the Civil War, or earlier. Our media is a reflection of our popular culture, after all, and the signs of increasing disconnect with our own history are hard to miss.

I think I notice this more than most because I still occasionally watch imported Chinese television on the foreign language channels, where period dramas and period action shows, often set several dynasties ago, are a staple. CCTV just remade "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" again, which takes place roughly in 150-250 A.D. Then there are the British, who keep turning out new versions of old-as-dirt stories like "Robin Hood" and "Merlin" that are very modernized, but still set firmly in the past. And "Doctor Who" tangles with a historical figure or two in every series. This creates a nice sense of cultural continuity I wish the American media had. If we were more engaged with our past, then maybe we could turn out something like the era-hopping "Blackadder" or those time travel serials that have the Chinese government so worked up.

Granted, the US only has 250 years of history, but I don't doubt there's plenty of material there worth mining. What really had me excited about "Poe" was that it was set in an era that is practically untouched by other media. Do you have any idea what was going on in this country during the pre-Civil War 1840s? I sure don't, but wouldn't it have been fun to find out? I guess I should take some comfort in the fact that the project got as far as it did. And even if period programming is disappearing from television, in film we still regularly see historical dramas and biopics. Heck, over the last year westerns came back in full force, and Hollywood is sending Abraham Lincoln off to do battle with vampires next summer.

Maybe this means period television will be back on the networks someday too. In the meantime, I guess I'll just have to keep waiting for those premium cable shows to hit DVD. And keep an eye out for a "Quantum Leap" reboot.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My Favorite Wong Kar-Wai Film

There are several things you can count on in a Wong Kar-Wai film. There will be difficult romantic relationships. The alienated male leads will spend a lot of time brooding and not quite connecting with their love interests. Women are lovely, mysterious, mercurial, and may vanish like a puff of smoke in the night. There will often be repeated visuals and music, and important plot points may happen entirely offscreen. In Wong's weaker films this can lead to meandering, repetitive narratives and frustrating, ambiguous endings. However this gives his best films, like "Chungking Express," a unique rhythm and lyricism that heightens the atmosphere of his troubled love stories.

"Chungking Express" is made up of two tales about young police officers recovering from recent breakups. In the first, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) resolves to wait a month for his girlfriend to come back to him. During this time, he has several encounters with a mystery woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), who might be in trouble with drug smugglers. In the second, Cop 633 (Tony Leung) attracts the attention of a girl named Faye (Faye Wong) who works the late shift at a snack bar. She gets ahold of the Dear John letter left by his flight attendant ex (Valerie Chow), along with a key to the cop's apartment. This lets her break in occasionally, to make some improvements to his living situation.

Love in "Chungking Express" is like a bad habit that's hard to shake, a nagging impulse that drives the characters to express their feelings in strange and indirect ways. Cop 233 buys and eats a can of pineapple with a May 1st expiration date every day for a month, a ritual act that might somehow prove his devotion to his absent girlfriend. Faye listens to the American oldie "California Dreamin'" on an eternal loop, until the song becomes emblematic of her growing obsession. Sadly, the object of her affection doesn't get the message, too busy holding imagnary conversations with his household objects. Wong Kar-Wai's visuals keep up the theme, creating patterns with variations on the same images and the same locations, over and over again.

Yet the film never feels overly structured and never loses a sense of spontaneity. It's bursting with color and energy, capturing the urban bustle of Chungking. Many of Wong's other films are dreamy and languorous, but this one never seems to slow down. The camera is frequently moving through the blur of the crowds, or following the cops as they chase down criminals, or keeping up with Faye on one of her cleaning sprees. The elusiveness of the woman in the blonde wig is due in part to the nature of the city, where one can be lost in an instant in the teeming mass of humanity. And when Cop 233 does approach her, it takes greetings in four different languages to find a common tongue. The characters are predominantly youthful and impulsive, who don't so much subvert romantic conventions as rewrite the rules and make up new ones to suit their own tastes. The original title of the film literally translates as "Chungking Jungle," reflecting the wildness of the characters' lives and emotions.

And then there's the cast, which features a lot of Hong Kong favorites. Nobody suffers through heartbreak like Tony Leung, Wong Kar-Wai's favorite leading man. And then there's the almost goofy charm of Takeshi Kaneshiro, in one of his earliest roles. However, I think it's Faye Wong who steals the picture, with her tomboyish looks and larcenous ways. Her character is the one I think of when someone brings up the manic pixie dreamgirl archetype, but Faye's kind of madness is appropriate for the odd relationship that develops between her and Cop 633. You get the feeling that Faye has to resort to such extremes as breaking into the poor man's apartment and replacing his towels, because he's so depressed he doesn't even notice at first. Would it be possible to attract him by any normal means?

I've seen nearly all of Wong Kar-Wai's films, and they all seem to revolve around unrequited love and longing. The sensuous "In the Mood for Love" is probably his masterpiece, but "Chungking Express" is the one I like the best because it's the most hopeful and funny. Sure, the relationships may not work out, but the characters are just beginning in life, and they're in a big, vibrant city where a new opportunity for happiness may be around the next corner. There's still plenty of time for them to grow and learn and experiment and fall in love again.

Or as the mystery woman tells Cop 233, "People change. A person may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow."

What I've Seen - Wong Kar-Wai

Days of Being Wild (1990)
Chungking Express (1994)
Ashes of Time Redux (1994)
Fallen Angels (1995)
Happy Together (1997)
As Tears Go By (1988)
In the Mood for Love (2000)
2046 (2004)
The Grandmaster (2013)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I Gotta Talk About "Wonder Woman"

Remember all that fuss about the new "Wonder Woman" television series, that was going to star Adrianne Palicki in the most uncomfortable-looking vinyl Wonder Woman costume ever? Well, a pilot was shot, but apparently NBC didn't like the results, so it's not going to become a series. This comes as something of a relief, since "Wonder Woman" was being helmed by David E. Kelley, best known for lawyer shows like "Harry's Law," "Ally McBeal," and "The Practice." Predictably the character would have been reimagined as a modern woman juggling a law career by day and the superhero gig by night. Yeah, it doesn't sound great to me either.

The failure of such a high-profile project has brought on a lot of speculation. Is this indicative of some bigger trends? Along with NBC's cancellation of "The Cape," does this mean that superhero shows are dead? ABC's "Bionic Woman" was a similar recent flop. Are the studios wary of female-led genre programs? Probably no on both counts. Comic books are still hot properties in Hollywood, and there are several superhero television projects in the works right now, including a new "Hulk," and adaptations of "Powers" and "Chew." There's a pilot for a revamped "Charlie's Angels" in circulation that is getting a lot of buzz, and as Deadline pointed out, this year we're getting a bumper crop of new series starring women. It's quite likely that "Wonder Woman" was just a bad pilot. These things happen.

And it wouldn't be the first time. There have been multiple attempts at new "Wonder Woman" television and film projects in the past, some involving big names, but none have gotten very far. The DC Comics character, also known as Princess Diana of Themiscyra, is fondly remembered from the 1970s television show and has a lot of cultural cachet for being the most famous female superhero, but she has been notoriously difficult to update. This isn't the first time that controversy has erupted over attempts to modernize her famous star-spangled costume. Last summer DC took some heat when they unveiled a new look for Wonder Woman that featured a jacket over the bustier and no boots. What is it about fans and Wonder Woman's boots?

But the outfit is really the least of her problems. Unlike her male counterparts in the DC universe, Wonder Woman has no well-known adversaries. The most prominent one is probably her mother Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, who she has a complicated relationship with. And then there's her origin story, which involves a secret island kingdom of Amazons where men are forbidden. And don't get me started on the magic lasso and the invisible jet. So much of Wonder Woman's mythos seems out of date, a collection of oddities that don't seem to fit together in any coherent fashion. She's a feminist icon, but in the post-Xena age, there are a lot of heroines who have done girl-power better. And I hate to say it, but the only really distinctive thing about her is that she's a woman in a really sexy costume, and I've always had a sneaking suspicion that she owes her status as one of the Big Three DC heavy-hitters almost totally to her gender.

This isn't to say that the character is hopeless and all future adaptations of "Wonder Woman" are doomed to failure. There have been a lot of different attempts to reboot and revitalize her in the comics lately. I figure one of them is bound to stick eventually. She's also been a constant presence in the animated DC universe, appearing in the various "Justice League" shows and movies. The 2009 direct-to-video "Wonder Woman" feature was very solid, especially in the way that it dealt with Diana's Amazonian heritage. Her messy background and the general public's unfamiliarity with the specifics of the character could actually be helpful. It's easier to give creators carte blanche to totally rewrite the Wonder Woman story if all people really remember is the costume.

I don't think that turning her into a lawyer was the best way to make her more relevant and appealing to modern audiences, but wouldn't she make a great private detective? Or a secret agent? Or one of those lone gunslinger types hunting down supernatural enemies? We know she's got a lot of those in the family. If Batman managed to turn away from camp, maybe it's time Wonder Woman got a little bit darker and more interesting too. And it's really in Warner Brothers' best interests to establish her presence in popular culture again, if they ever want to get a "Justice League" movie off the ground.

But yes, the new series struck out. Maybe it'll be retooled and another network will pick it up. Maybe somebody else will try again in a few years. But I have no doubts that this isn't the last we'll see of Wonder Woman. Despite all her problems, she's way too big and iconic a character to be shelved forever. And I for one still think she has a lot of potential.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Caught Up on "Merlin"

I have a lot of guilty pleasures when it comes to television, and one of them is the BBC series "Merlin." I know it's a kids' show patterned off of "Smallville," of all things, but it's a lot of fun. I caught up on the third series this week, which I think was its best series yet, so I want to put down some thoughts. Spoilers ahead.

"Merlin" is a prequel series of sorts to the famous King Arthur stories, that cheerfully rewrites the established character histories and timelines to suit its own ends. You have the young Merlin (Colin Morgan) working as a manservant to Prince Arthur (Bradley James) while honing his magic skills in secret with the help of an elderly guardian, Gaius (Richard Wilson). Merlin can't reveal his magic because of Arthur's sorcery-hating father, King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head), whose ward, the Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath), is also developing more sinister powers. We also see the beginnings of a relationship forming between Arthur and Guinevere (Angel Coulby), who is Morgana's maid in this version. Colorblind casting, a lot of appealing young leads, and a total lack of faithfulness to Arthurian legend kept the show interesting during the first two series. The production values of "Merlin" are decent, with a lot of CGI creatures and picturesque settings. Morgan and James have a great rapport as Merlin and Arthur, and their medieval buddy comedy antics got me through a lot of the more tedious, monster-of-the-week episodes.

However, none of the major storylines ever progressed beyond a certain point. Morgana's loyalties shifted as her powers grew, but she stopped short of becoming a real villain. Arthur and Gwen flirted, but never openly acknowledged their feelings for each other. As for Merlin, he managed to keep the secret of his powers from everybody important week after week, while constantly building up the big reveal that we know can't happen until the very end of the show. I always hated it when kids' shows hit the reset button at the end of each episode, so it never felt like there were real stakes to any of the adventures. "Merlin" does this a lot, presenting scenarios where Merlin is found out or Uther is incapacitated, only to finagle a way to get everyone back to square one again in the last ten minutes. They did permanently defeat a few recurring villains, like the sorceress Nimueh (Michelle Ryan), but the baddies just kept getting replaced.

In Series Three, however, we finally got payoff and moved closer to the endgame of "Merlin." Morgana not only fully came over to the dark side, but became the major antagonist of the series. Due to the influence of her evil half-sister Morgause (Emilia Fox), she got a lot campier too. Arthur built up his posse of future knights with the return of Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and the introduction of Gwaine (Eoin Macken) and Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun). The romance between Arthur and Guinevere still can't be acknowledged because of Uther, but at least it's no longer unrequited. More classic Arthurian iconography like the Round Table and the Sword in the Stone made their first appearances. For the bulk of Series Three it still felt like the characters were going through the motions, and there were some pretty egregious filler episodes, but by the finale it's clear that the format of the show is in for some changes when it comes back in the fall.

The nice thing about British television series is that they usually know when to stop. The premise of "Merlin" isn't open-ended the way something like "Doctor Who" is, so I don't see the show being dragged out for more than another year or two. Compared to "Smallville," which is finally ending this Friday after a ten-year run, the story has played out much better so far as a result. They've also been good about referencing later events in the source mythos without cannibalizing them, so I can see the potential for a sequel series set in the early years of Arthur's reign. But then, considering how dark and tragic the Arthurian legends get, that's probably not a good idea. The appeal of "Merlin" has a lot to do with the lightness of its tone and the kid-friendly nature of its adventures. And compared to other takes on the material, like John Boorman's bloody "Excalibur" and the sexed-up new Starz "Camelot" series, it's a lot more accessible.

Now off to catch up on "Futurama." Happy watching!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Bitter, Beautiful "Blue Valentine"

Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a working-class married couple with a very young daughter named Frankie (Faith Wladyka). The marriage is falling apart. Dean is a house painter, who drinks too much. Cindy works in pre-natal care, and is tired of being the responsible one in the family. The two of them argue constantly, and in the course of a bad weekend find themselves coming inevitably to the end of their relationship. The story is intercut with the relationship's beginning, the whirlwind romance that brought Dean and Cindy together, back when he was working as a mover, and she was still in college with a different boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel).

Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, "Blue Valentine" is one of the more intense dramas of last year. This is due in large part to the performances of the two leads, especially Michelle Williams. Though Gosling and Williams share the screen and the narrative about equally, she is the more prominent and active of the pair in the breakup segments, where her misery is palpable practically from the first moment we see her. There are few actresses who can summon such frustration and mental weariness as Williams, while hardly raising her voice. When civilities strain and the situation finally does erupt, the depths of her anguish are painful to witness. Physically, she changes less than Gosling between the two versions of her character, but the impact of the marriage on her emotional state is far more dramatic.

Gosling is no slouch either. Dean is the more complacent of the pair, but also more invested in the relationship than his wife. Gosling's best scenes are during the romance, where Dean woos Cindy with boyish charm, and conveys the touching extent of his affection and attachment to her. During the breakup, his performance becomes showier, playing up Dean's sorry state as a serial inebriate with a tendency to ramble. It's only in rare moments that his desperation to hold the family together fully comes through, but often enough to gain our sympathies. It would initially seem easy to place all the blame on Dean, the less responsible and successful one, but Cindy is the decision maker in both stories, and perhaps the one who should have known better from the start.

"Blue Valentine" is a small, low-budget film, and Cianfrance's directing style is distinctly indie. The frame wobbles, the lighting is often murky, and dialogue can be nearly inaudible. However, the editing is precise, and he certainly knows what to do with the camera. One shot in particular that stuck with me was the moment Dean first spies Cindy across the hallway of a nursing facility, that teases breaking the fourth wall. Cianfrance achieves a wonderful intimacy with the actors, catching small reactions in close ups and telling body language in wide shots. None of the scenes feel staged, and there's a refreshing lack of filters on the film's reality. Cindy and Dean have sex, in mostly innocuous, non-explicit scenes that nonetheless caused a lot of ruckus with the MPAA for including a brief depiction of cunnilingus. It's a moment of private, tender happiness, so utterly devoid of prurience that you have to wonder how the hell the MPAA could find it remotely dangerous or damaging to anyone.

The way the film is intercut between the end and the beginning of the relationship makes the story especially poignant, mirroring a joyful sexual encounter with a failed one, and one incidence of jealous violence with another in different circumstances. The newborn romance plays out like so many film romances do, with the couple reaching an emotional crescendo in the final reel that seems to signal they'll surely live happily ever after. But coupled with the certainty of their traumatic separation, even the happiest moments suddenly seem terribly ephemeral and fleeting. One tense scene involves Dean meeting Cindy's parents and discussing his background, revealing several troubling truths about himself for the first time. The audience already knows that though these problems seem so trivial at first, they will eventually come to define the relationship.

There's an irresistible urge to search for the portents of future unhappiness in Cindy and Dean's early days together, to try and puzzle out how two people who seem so incompatible in the present could have connected in the past. Some potential answers do emerge for those who are looking for them. But perhaps, this is simply a cautionary tale that warns that love, no matter how strong, can evaporate as quickly as it arrives. It's a sad story, yes, but an honest one that examines difficult material without flinching.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I Figured Out the Problem With Romantic Comedies

I had an epiphany.

So I was watching "Letters to Juliet" the other night (don't ask), and thought to myself, that was a pretty decent little romantic comedy. Well, except that it didn't really have any comedy in it. Still, it had all the earmarks of the typical American romantic comedy - a female lead, an implausible story with soap opera twists, the unrealistic depiction of new love in bloom, some snarky banter, and a happy ending. And then I thought to myself, that really doesn't seem to cover a lot. Ideally, romantic comedies should require only two things - that they be concerned with a romantic relationship, and that they be funny. But there are a lot of films out there that are funny and romantic, and yet aren't considered romantic comedies, and a bunch that don't but get lumped in with those films regardless.

What about Adam Sandler movies? Or Judd Apatow movies? Or that one where Ricky Gervais lied a lot? They're considered just plain comedies. "Date Night" was about a married couple's relationship - but no, that wasn't romantic enough because Tina Fey and Steve Carrell's characters were already married. How about "500 Days of Summer"? No happy ending, at least not a conventional one. The marketing campaign even took the position that it was not a "love story." "Take Me Home Tonight"? "Easy A"? All about love troubles, but they have to be called sex comedies because there weren't conventional romances in those either. Okay, how about animated films like "Tangled" and "Shrek Forever After"? There was lots of fluffy, love-dovey business in those. But they were made for kids. And animated! An animated film can't be a romantic comedy. What about the upcoming "Bad Teacher" with Cameron Diaz? That one stars a woman and the plot will revolve around her character's attempts to woo Justin Timberlake's. A friend of mine remarked that it couldn't be a rom-com because it looked too funny. Too funny?!

See what I'm getting at here? The term romantic comedy has had its meaning so warped over the years, that in the mainstream culture it only refers to one very specific kind of romantic comedy, the very mild, very safe, and very niche films made to only appeal to a certain demographic of wedding-obsessed women. At some point they got conflated with female-friendly feel-good films and lighter romantic dramas (see "Letters to Juliet"), resulting in this insane mindset that a romantic comedy can't be daring or innovative or too different from the accepted norm. And when we all complain about romantic comedies, we're actually talking about a very narrow category of films. From what I can tell, movies that have both romance and comedy have been proliferating nicely in recent years, and many are actually quite watchable. It's the ones starring Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez, and Katherine Heigl, and follow the same idiotic formula of tired farce and selfish self-absorption, the "rom-coms," that have hit the rocks. It's gotten to the point where I wince every time a good actress like Kristen Bell, Anne Hathaway, or Amy Adams gets roped into one of these. Even the most dependable vets of the genre like Meryl Streep and Drew Barrymore have been showing signs of increasing strain.

How did romantic comedies end up in such a sorry state? This used to be the genre of Hebpurn and Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. My guess is that it happened when the studios execs somehow got it into their heads that the term "romantic comedy" was a term that should only apply to films aimed at older women, and started marketing them as such. When was the last time you saw a romantic comedy presented as really sexy? Or edgy? Not lately, because that's not how these films are sold to that audience. And then Hollywood started making films to match those marketing tactics, so the whole thing turned into an ouroboros of self-affirming idiocy. The better actors all abandoned ship as a result, leaving us with leading ladies who couldn't sell a punchline to save their lives.

If a film like "Enchanted" or "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" does well with general audiences, then the assumption is that it's not a romantic comedy. It can't be, because the modern romantic comedy isn't designed for wider appeal. Men have been conditioned to wince at the mere mention of them. Other problematic presumptions feed into this, like the idea that romantic films with prominent female headliners can only appeal to women (unless they also feature male comedians to balance them out), and that the humor in a romantic film has to be very tame and predictable. Oh, every female lead has to be some variation of an insecure emotional basket-case in order to be sympathetic. I'm not saying that all the current "rom-com" romantic comedies are bad - sometimes the formula works with the right people involved - but the good ones are getting awfully rare.

So the whole romantic comedy situation really isn't as dire off as we've been lead to believe. A lot of the trouble is that the genre has been horribly misrepresented and its reputation had taken some bad hits. This summer we're getting "Bridesmaids," "Crazy Stupid Love," "Bad Teacher," "Larry Crowne," "Midnight in Paris," and a couple of others that are gaining buzz, but nobody is going to call any of them romantic comedies in a hurry, even though that's exactly what they are. That moniker is now reserved for the likes of "Something Borrowed," the universally panned Kate Hudson wedding film that came out last week.

Fellow movie-lovers, this stinks. The romantic comedy does not deserve this ignoble fate. It must be saved from permanent association with the pastel insipidity of wedding wars and matchmaking mishaps. So I'm taking the term back, for Ernst Lubitsch and Leo McCarey and William Wyler and George Cukor.

Down with the rom-coms. Long live the romantic comedy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who Watches Movies on Youtube?

Youtube announced yesterday that they were joining the online film rental business, essentially using the same model as Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. Newer films will be available to rent for $3.99 per film, with older titles costing a bit less. There will be an initial rollout of three thousand streaming films with more to follow. There's plenty of scoffing already from various corners, because like all the other recent newcomers in the rental market, they want to push the more expensive video-on-demand model, which hasn't made a dent in the success of Netflix and Redbox for anyone else. Still, this is not to say that this isn't a good move for Youtube.

You might ask who wants to watch a full length movie on Youtube? Well, I do occasionally. I watch public domain silent films from the 1910s and 1920s, I watch foreign obscurities that are nearly impossible to see through normal domestic channels, and I watch titles stuck in copyright or legal limbo, like Todd Haynes' "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" or the "recobbled" cut of Richard Williams' "The Thief and the Cobbler." And since I have terrible luck with damaged rental DVDs, I admit that I have gone to Youtube out of frustration to find the last two minutes Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," the final monologue of "Gaslight," and a few other missing endings via user uploaded clips. Have I mentioned I hate DVDs? Anyway, I primarily use Youtube for the same stuff that everyone else does - home videos of cute animals, fan-made mash-ups, music videos, and whatnot. But since the site has the capability for much better video quality than it used to, the prospect of regularly watching full-length feature films on Youtube doesn't strike me as particularly unfeasible.

Youtube also offers something that Amazon and Apple don't, and Facebook has the capability for but hasn't really explored yet - the social aspect. Yes, I'm talking about the user comments, the playlists, the channels, and the other site features that help to facilitate user interaction. I especially appreciate Youtube giving viewers space to share reactions to videos, even though it's extremely limited. Each comment on a video can only be roughly Twitter-length, and navigating existing comments is tough. Furthermore, 99% of the comments are repetitive, fragmentary, profane, and not worth reading, especially for the more popular, newer content. But having those reactions so close at hand creates a communal experience, however small, and for some material the Youtube comments can yield interesting stuff.

I stumbled across a clip of the "Mysterious Stranger" sequence from the 80s Claymation feature "The Adventures of Mark Twain" on Youtube a few years ago. It was mislabeled and the description was full of errors, but the video generated thousands of comments due to the disturbing nature of the content and the controversial treatment of religious themes. People wanted to know what it was and what it meant. A few actually managed to have coherent discussions about it despite the limitations of the commenting system. There's precious little online about "Mark Twain" around due to its age, so the Youtube comments from those who had seen and remembered the film became a handy source for information. I've also seen users, including original creators and production folks, comment on other obscure clips to provide trivia, credits, context, and links to related material.

Full length films are a different matter, but I think Youtube has much better existing architecture in place for social networking centered around videos than something like Facebook. Viewers are already used to gabbing about videos on the actual Youtube site. I for one like seeing other people's reactions to the media I enjoy, one of the reasons I enjoy reading reviews and analysis so much. Last year's "Inception" would have been a lot less fun without all the wacky theories and online arguments that it generated. For older films and shows, you don't have nearly as many spaces for interaction and commentary because the number of viewers is so much smaller, so this is where combining online video streams with social networking is especially helpful.

I don't see the video-on-demand model being particularly successful on Youtube since there are so many other outlets for online rentals, and it's going to take a lot of work to convince anyone to think of Youtube as a pay site. However, it's a good step toward getting more pay content on the site, and seeing how Youtube's existing features can be integrated with them. I'm not crazy about all the emphasis on newer films and shows, because I think Youtube is at its best as a platform for those out-of-left-field curiosities and ancient media ephemera that viewers will spontaneously rally around. Because it's not just the content that has brought Youtube success, but the viewers. Youtube isn't Youtube without, well, You.

Monday, May 9, 2011

My Missing "Tangled" Review

I knew I had this backed up somewhere. Pretend it's early January.

Disney's marketing campaign for "Tangled" has been so adamant that the film is not one of their typical "princess" films, that it came as a surprise to discover that was exactly what it was - an animated musical about a princess that follows the old Disney formula to the letter. You have the sheltered young girl yearning for for adventure, in this case Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), who has spent her whole life locked away in her famous tower. You have the witchy Gothel (Donna Murphy), who stole Rapunzel from her royal parents for her magical, youth-giving hair, and has become a manipulative surrogate mother. A thief named Flynn (Zachary Levi) breaks from formula slightly, as a dashing rogue who thinks Rapunzel's tower would make a great hiding spot while he's on the lam, but ends up getting more than he bargained for. And what Disney movie would be complete with out the cute animal sidekicks? Rapunzel has a pet chameleon, Pascal, and Flynn finds himself on the wrong side of an antagonistic horse named Maximus.

And the real surprise is that it works. All of it. "Tangled" does a great job of reminding us why the Disney formula was so successful and has endured for as long as it has. For the most part "Tangled" plays it straight, with very little cynical humor, no major stars lending their vocal talents, and not a pop culture reference in sight. And yet it doesn't feel out of date in the slightest. Instead, it's kind of a relief to find an animated film that knows how to get laughs with good characters, solid visual gags, and squash-and-stretch caricature. Even the songs are catchy, with the exception of a syrupy love ballad you'll hardly even notice, because it's paired with some absolutely jaw-dropping eye candy. The only major difference between "Tangled" and the Disney Renaissance films of the early 90s is the fact that "Tangled" is CGI animation, and some of the best I've ever seen. There's a wonderful painterly look to the backgrounds, and something about the floral motifs and the brightness of the colors that pings as ineffably Disney.

There was a lot of press about the studio making changes during production so the film would be more appealing to boys. The changes boil down to the character of Flynn, who narrates the film and shares the spotlight about equally with Rapunzel. He introduces a more worldly, cynical view on the fairy-tale romance, but not nearly to the degree of something like "Shrek." Eventually he has to soften up enough to become a romantic hero. Rapunzel herself is naive but no pushover, and a fun heroine to root for. Her yards and yards of golden hair are fully exploited for their comic potential, and her complicated relationship with Gothel introduces some real tensions of a kind we haven't seen in Disney films before. When Flynn convinces Rapunzel to leave the tower for a quick trip to the neighboring kingdom, she's estatic to be outside, but also wracked with guilt at the thought of deceiving her mother, resulting in severe teenage mood swings.

However, of all the characters, I think the villain of the piece is the most memorable. Gothel is a unique villain in the Disney universe, as there's evidence to suggest that she may really care about Rapunzel, and initially it's not clear how evil she really is. Gothel is bullying and critical, but in that way that mothers sometimes are as their children get older, and they become overprotective or scared of letting go. Donna Murphy, a Broadway vet, does a great job of playing up this ambiguity. Sure, she could be genuinely worried for Rapunzel when the girl sneaks off with a wanted thief, but then Gothel's the one who kidnapped her in the first place. Murphy also supplies Gothel with the sultry pipes for a showstopper of a villain song.

It's a relief to find that Disney resisted the temptation to turn out more CGI films following the Dreamworks model, like the disastrous "Chicken Little," and didn't recoil from fairy-tale romances after the underperformance of "The Princess and the Frog." There are some concession to a 21st century audience in "Tangled," in the form of more lively humor and action sequences, but they're done in very Disney style, and don't overwhelm the rest of the story. Instead, everything we loved and hated about the classic Disney films, from the Broadway-style musical numbers to the wide-eyed heroines to the heartfelt sentiment to the moments of heartbreak are all still here.

Thank goodness.