Friday, July 29, 2011

Why "A Game of Thrones" Wins

I've never read any of George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy series. I had heard of the books before before, but frequently got them mixed up with Robert Jordan's "The Wheel of Time," and the old Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta animated film, "Fire and Ice." Also, I thought "A Song of Ice and Fire" was a much older series, and didn't realize the last few volumes are yet unwritten. So I was in the position of having no expectations when I went into the HBO adaptation, "A Game of Thrones," named after the first novel. Well, that's not true. I've seen a lot of fantasy miniseries, most of them produced by Robert Halmi Sr. or Jr. or both. Easily digestible, effects-driven spectacle is their forte, and I was expecting more of the same from "A Game of Thrones." Since it was HBO, I thought the writing might be more faithful than the norm (the Halmis are famously awful to their source material), and we were probably going to get a good amount of "True Blood" style sex and violence.

Ten episodes of "A Game of Thrones" later, watched with increasingly feverish excitement, I concede that I vastly underestimated HBO. They nailed everything that other adaptations almost never get right about high fantasy literature - the detailed worldbuilding, the epic scale and scope of the storytelling, and characters who function by the rules and ethics of their own universe instead of ours. It was a thrill to discover the creators hadn't compromised or dumbed down the material. Even though I had never read the books, I could tell how faithful the series was, simply from the number and variety of characters and how much depth and dimension they had all been given. There's a lot of exposition in the show, infusing the world of "A Game of Thrones" and its key players with a keen sense of history and place. Other adaptations rarely take the trouble to do this, which is why many onscreen fantasy worlds come across as so generic.

I suspect a lot of this has to do with the kind of story "A Song of Fire and Ice" is. I don't want to get into too much detail yet, because of the complexity of the character relationships, but what's immediately apparent about "A Game of Thrones" is that it has less to do with the magical creatures and wizards that people have come to expect from fantasy fiction, and more to do with power struggles, family ties, and various notions of duty, justice, and revenge. When I think of comparable shows to "A Game of Thrones," what immediately comes to mind is "I, Claudius," the BBC miniseries that followed the rise and fall of the four Roman emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, from Augustus to Nero. In George R. R. Martin's land of Westeros, largely modeled off of Medieval Britain, four different families clash over the seat of power, the Iron Throne - the Baratheons, the Lannisters, the Starks, and the Targaryens, with various other notables in the mix to keep things interesting. This gives it a lot in common with the historial fiction series that have been produced for premium cable lately, like "The Borgias," and "The Tudors," which cover similar ground.

Make no mistake that "A Game of Thrones" is fantasy, and includes the occasional dragon, witch, and messenger raven. However, it also has a very adult sensibility that I haven't seen in any piece of filmed fantasy media since the 80s. The bloodshed is brutal, and graphic sex scenes are plentiful, but few come off as gratuitous. Rather, the sexual encounters are vital in the development of several storylines, and are often used to complement character moments or exposition. As for the violence, you may never look at a jousting scene the same way again after you get an up-close look at the damage tourney participants sustain in episode four. Injury and death are frequent occurrences in Westeros, and rendered even more sobering when you consider how many of the players involved are children. Future seasons of "A Game of Thrones" will no doubt see these kids, deeply embroiled in bloody intrigues already, grow up to take over the battles of their parents. "Harry Potter" this is not.

I don't know that anyone else could have made this show but HBO. Who else could have foot the bill for the high production values and special effects, while retaining the adult nature of the books? Who else would have approached the material as something for mature grown-up viewers instead of the PG-13 action-loving crowd? "A Game of Thrones," is the best argument for taking the fantasy genre seriously that may have ever existed. HBO has gone and raised the bar for the fantasy television, even higher than "The Lord of the Rings" did for fantasy films.

There is not enough room in one post to get across everything I want to say about "A Game of Thrones," so this will do for an intro. More to come soon.
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Favorite Woody Allen Film

I planned to write this post after finishing my review of "Midnight in Paris," but I was struck with the sense that I might be too premature in picking a favorite. Had I experienced enough Woody Allen to really make that choice? Of the forty-odd films he's directed, I've seen about half. I'd covered almost all the older classics, and a good sampling of his more recent work, but I knew there were some key titles I still needed to make time for, like "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Mighty Aphrodite." Plus, I had skipped the majority of his output from the mid-90s through the early millennium - not his best years, according to most, but didn't I want to judge that for myself? Then again, did I want to subject myself to "Small Time Crooks" and "Curse of the Jade Scorpion"? No, not really.

So here we are, and I find myself championing one of Allen's early films, "Love and Death," the transitional title that took him from the freewheeling comedy of "Bananas" and "Sleeper" to his more serious examinations of relationships and romance in "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." "Love and Death" sits somewhere in the middle, both in theme and tone. It is a parody of the great Russian epics like "War and Peace" and "Crime and Punishment," with a dash of Ingmar Bergman's films for good measure. It is such a wonderfully weird picture, full of literary and film references that nobody gets anymore since we stopped paying attention to the Russians. I think that's why I like it so much. It's Woody Allen experimenting and being a geek over obscure subject matter close to his heart, taking the heaviest themes he can find in the most somber contexts imaginable, and using them as the basis for wacky farce and a few moments of insightful self-examination.

Like Allen's earlier comedies, "Love and Death" unfolds in a series of sketches. Woody Allen plays Boris the Russian peasant, who fights in the Napoleonic Wars, marries his reluctant cousin Sonja (who wonders if she could get away with rented children), and makes very bad choices that put him face-to-face with death several times. In his travels from his village to Moscow to Napoleon's chambers, he remains a neurotic coward, with his thick-framed 70s glasses forever perched on his face. Just as he was in the futurescape of "Sleeper," Woody Allen in 19th century Russia somehow becomes a more universal figure, a nervous bundle of shortcomings that serves as a pretty good representation of the psyche of the modern man if we're being honest with ourselves. Diane Keaton as Sonja is a fitting counterpart, who may not quite have the expectations of a modern woman, but certainly knows how to employ the circular and evasive reasoning of one, with perfect comic timing.

As much as I appreciate that Allen was becoming a more substantive filmmaker, it's still his comedic take on these subjects that makes the film such an enduring piece of work. He clearly adores Bergman, and there are references from "Persona" and "The Seventh Seal" all throughout "Love and Death," but in Allen's hands the Danse Macabre becomes joyous and freeing, and the most heartfelt monologues are peppered with choice zingers. Allen takes on the same themes and concepts as his idols, but finds all the humor and the absurdity in them along with the existentialism and transcendence. I suspect he couldn't help himself. He wasn't Ingmar Bergman, though he tried to be on occasion - see "Interiors" three years later - and that was his loss and our gain. I'll take Woody Allen's irreverent views on life and death over those of Bergman and the great Russian novelists any day.

"Love and Death" was the biggest movie that Woody Allen had done up until that point in his career in terms of scale, with the period sets, big battle scenes, and a production that took place mostly in Hungary. He would then retreat to New York for the next twenty years, which I always thought was a shame, because he shows some real deftness as a director with this material. I'm not saying he should have tackled a full-on adaptation of Tolstoy next, but the ease at which his comedic style translated to a Eastern European setting hinted at the potential for more ambitious projects in the same vein. This is one reason I'm so glad Allen has been bumming around in Europe again lately. His recent films set in Spain and France have been great, and I'm looking forward to "Bop Decameron," Allen's next picture, which will take place in Italy. Of course Italy was the home of Federico Fellini, another big influence.

Maybe we'll see Woody Allen's take on "8 & 1/2" next. Well why not? He's already done "War and Peace."

EDIT: Okay, obviously at the time of writing I hadn't seen "Stardust Memories." This has since been remedied.
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What I've Seen - Woody Allen

What's Up Tiger Lily? (1966)
Take the Money and Run (1969)
Bananas (1971)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex... (1972)
Sleeper (1973)
Love and Death (1975)
Annie Hall (1977)
Interiors (1978)
Manhattan (1979)
Stardust Memories (1980)
Zelig (1983)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Radio Days (1987)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Shadows and Fog (1991)
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Match Point (2005)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
To Rome With Love (2012)
Blue Jasmine (2013)
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Where Are the Successors of "Lord of the Rings"?

We're quickly coming up on the tenth anniversary of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. There have already been special theater screenings and the fancy new Blu-ray set hit shelves a few months ago. Many fans have been revisiting the films, and I expect I will too in a few months. I've been a fan of "Lord of the Rings" before I ever heard of Peter Jackson, and seeing those films live up to the potential of their material, and the way they impacted the entertainment landscape, was a great experience. However, as I look back over the fantasy films that came in the years after, that were directly influenced by the trilogy, I'm left wondering why the fantasy genre hasn't benefited more from the popularity of "Lord of the Rings."

In the immediate wake of Peter Jackson's success, the old school fantasy fans were buzzing over what major fantasy series would be next in line for an adaptation. Would Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné find his way to the screen at last? How about Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time"? I was privately gunning for the Prydain Chronicles and a planned "The Last Unicorn" film. Now that someone had managed to faithfully adapt "The Lord of the Rings," one of the touchstones of fantasy literature, anything seemed possible. Up until that point the fantasy genre had been characterized mainly by children's films and effects-driven B-movies, like the "Dungeons & Dragons" flick that came out a year before "Fellowship." Now, for the first time, fantasy films full of hobbits and wizards were garnering real critical acclaim and had a level of prestige unknown to previous efforts.

And then, well, nothing really changed. The success of "Lord of the Rings" did help inspire Disney to pounce on the Narnia books, and have "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" ready by Christmas, 2005, two years after "Return of the King." Ditto New Line's decision to adapt that heavily watered-down version of "The Golden Compass," which became such a notorious flop. But these and nearly all the other fantasy films that followed were aimed squarely at children, including the 2003 "Peter Pan," "Percy Jackson," "Inkheart," "The City of Ember," "The Spiderwick Chronicles," and "Eragon." Occasionally there was a "Stardust" for older viewers, but everything else seemed to be following the "Harry Potter" template, and it's clear that the success of that franchise really had more of an impact on the kind of fantasy films we saw in the 2010s.

Where I think think the "Lord of the Rings" left its biggest impression was with the action-adventure epics like "300," "King Arthur," "Robin Hood," and "Troy," that came back in vogue with their scenes of massive warfare and carnage, echoing the Battle of Helm's Deep from "The Two Towers." A couple had fantasy elements like "Clash of the Titans" and "Prince of Persia," but you could tell that the studios where more comfortable sticking with what they knew, which was swords and sandals, medieval warfare, and the occasional mythological adventure. Again, these were films of much smaller ambition that were designed to be splashy action spectaculars. They were big only in the sense that they were very concerned with showing off fancy effects work that looked great on an IMAX screen. Few of them did anything remotely interesting with their source material.

And speaking of source material, I'm grateful that most of the recent fantasy adaptations have been either remakes or based on very recent books and games. The few times that filmmakers did use older sources, like the aforementioned "Golden Compass," it was rarely with a fraction of the care and consideration of their material as Jackson's crew showed with "The Lord of the Rings." After the Sci Fi Channel mangled Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books and Walden turned "The Dark is Rising" into the awful "The Seeker," I stopped hoping Hollywood would go anywhere near my favorites. If there was a moment where faithfulness to story and integrity of character were paramount, I think it's passed us by. You could make arguments for Narnia and Harry Potter, but in the ten years since "Lord of the Rings" arrived, we've really had no comparable fantasy films to follow.

Yet, I think attitudes have changed over the years. Fans expect more from adaptations of existing properties, and are quicker to hold filmmakers accountable for changes they don't like. And the studios can sometimes be convinced to take risks that they wouldn't have ten years ago. Okay, so Ron Howard's "The Dark Tower" project fell apart, but somehow PIXAR convinced Disney to let them make a live-action "John Carter" film. And the push for more effects-heavy blockbusters to take advantage of 3D and IMAX surcharges is keeping the theatrical pipeline full of titles like the "Conan the Barbarian" remake and "Immortals" - hardly awards fodder, but one of them might be someday. And in a really interesting twist, somehow the success of "Twilight" and "Alice and Wonderland" has spawned a slew of upcoming fairytale films.

So fantasy is alive and well at the multiplexes, and in a much better place than it was in the 90s. That's certainly something to celebrate. And better yet, genre works are starting to make inroads into other media as well. In the end, the most direct beneficiary of "Lord of the Rings," aside from those upcoming "Hobbit" movies, may be HBO's "A Game of Thrones," which I'll be talking about it at greater length in upcoming posts.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Musicals of René Clair

French director René Clair is best known for a trio of musicals he made in the early 1930s, at the beginning of the era of sound. As with too many directors, I didn't know what to expect when I resolved to watch them, only knowing that there had been some controversy over Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" reputedly having borrowed too heavily from a sequence in Clair's "À Nous la Liberté" ("Liberty for Us"). I don't have the greatest appreciation of the Hollywood musicals of the same era, like the "The Gold Diggers" and "42nd Street," which I always found too stagey for my taste. And the added language barrier made me even more apprehensive. What does a 1930s French musical even look like?

Well, I'm glad to report that the ones directed by René Clair are a delight. I started with "À Nous la Liberté," which follows the misadventures of two escaped prisoners, then moved on to "The Million," about a missing lottery ticket, and finished up with "Under the Roofs of Paris," a more winsome romance. I liked each one a little less as I went, but then I was working backwards in time, from Clair's most ambitious, stylized film to the simplest, most realistic one. All three films were made in the span of a little over two years, but it's amazing to see the technical and artistic strides the director made from one to the next. "Under the Roofs of Paris" was Clair's first sound film, and one of the first French sound films to gain international recognition. You can tell that the technology was rudimentary and the director, who was famous for harboring deep reservations about the use of sound, was still in the early stages of experimenting with music and aural effects.

"Under the Roofs" was pleasant, and featured some impressive feats like the opening and closing crane shots. But the other two films are on another level entirely. "À Nous la Liberté" and "The Million" are silent comedies at heart, full of great slapstick gags, visual humor, and outsized emotions that I rarely saw in Busby Berkeley musicals. I don't know that Clair rivals Chaplin or Keaton's best, but he's certainly an artist cut from the same cloth. There's plenty of music and singing in these films, but rarely are the songs staged as musical numbers. Rather, they're either incorporated into the action or used like occasional narration, making them less obtrusive. Clair also plays with the marriage of sound and image, irreverently juxtaposing mismatched elements to make it seem like a flower is warbling a tune to the main character, or the heroine's shoe is ringing like an alarm clock. Among the filmmakers of the time, I don't know that there was anyone else using sound in such interesting, playful ways in mainstream films.

There's also quite a bit of social commentary in Clair's work, giving his plots a little more heft and substance than the norm. "The Million" looks at the effect of money on a young man's reputation and regard in his community, poking fun at social conventions in between the chase sequences and comic misunderstandings. "À Nous la Liberté" is more pointed satire, with a wonderful Kafkaesque production design that equates the dreary drudgery of modern life with endless production lines and conveyor belts. The two screwball heroes don't have to just escape their prison workhouse, but a larger society that functions in much the same way. So they proceed to rebel against order with chaos, and against stuffy propriety with silliness and humor. And they sing a jaunty little tune as they go that is ridiculously catchy, and I can't help humming it to myself days later, even though I can't decipher any of the lyrics.

And I guess that's what it all comes down to. There's a universality about Clair's films, from the themes to the character archetypes to the humor and humanism. "The Million" and "À Nous la Liberté" still work on almost every single level, eighty years later. And Clair managed to do what Chaplin and Keaton never managed, which was to make that monumental transition to the talkies despite all his misgivings, and employ sound just as well as he employed visuals. Now I'm curious to see what his silent films were like, and what happened to his style later, when he decamped from France to Hollywood for a decade.

One of these days I really have have to get rid of all these idiot preconceptions about films I've never seen. But then again, I have so much fun being wrong.
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Monday, July 25, 2011

A Look at "Luther"

With my favorite police procedurals like "Law & Order: SVU" and "Criminal Minds" being in such a sorry state these days, I've started looking at other options. This weekend, I took in the first three episodes of the BBC's "Luther," which makes up a full half a season because that's how the Brits roll. It follows a fairly familiar template of cops versus the serial-killer-of-the-week, and doesn't do anything particularly new or different. However, the quality of the production and the talented actors involved make it worth giving a look.

The title character is Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, played by Idris Elba. Not having seen his work as Stringer Bell on "The Wire," this is my first experience with Elba outside of secondary and bit roles in action movies. As Luther, he is the main attraction and he gives viewers an interesting, complicated character to root for. Like so many other law enforcement heroes, Luther's defining characteristics are a driving passion for police work and a touch of moral ambiguity. He chafes at regulations and is on the receiving end of far too many stern talks from his supervisors, but of course is brilliant enough a detective to get away with more than he should. Luther has his demons, however, notably the pedophile murderer who winds up in a coma through Luther's inaction. Guilt and self-doubt over the incident result in a long leave from active duty and a separation from his wife Zoe (Indira Varma).

Elba plays Luther as a man in recovery, trying to ease back into his professional life and rebuild his private one. He brings a wonderful sense of unease, of being constantly on the verge of losing control. Other troubled television cops may have their outbursts and lose their tempers, but few couple such a wonderful veneer of ultra-capable confidence with so much roiling inner turmoil. When John Luther loses his cool, he doesn't just lash out. He explodes. Fortunately, he's surrounded by people trying their best not to let that happen, including Luther's best friend and fellow detective Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), and an eager younger partner, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown). The female members of the ensemble are especially strong, including Saskia Reeves as the no-nonsense Detective Superintendent Teller, and Indira Varma as Zoe, who is terribly sympathetic even as she keeps breaking Luther's heart.

And then there's Ruth Wilson, who plays the serial killer Alice Morgan (no relation to Dexter). I don't want to say too much about her, for fear of giving anything away, but she very nearly steals the whole show. Wilson is almost over the top as Alice, with her evil smiles and knowing glances, but she's so unapologetic and comfortable in her villainy as few depictions of female killers are. We know there's something terribly wrong with her each time she appears onscreen, but she's such a fascinating, unpredictable character, with her own peculiar charisma. She makes a great opponent for Luther, and their interactions are some of the best moments of the show.

With only six episodes in a season, the individual episodes of "Luther" are much better conceived and executed than most comparable American police procedurals. Each of the three installments I've seen so far have featured mostly solid writing with a lot of good character development and very little statistic-spouting expository patter or glib moralizing. Viewers hoping for something grittier and more realistic are going to be disappointed though. So far, "Luther" stays firmly within the bounds of television conventions for the genre, with the played-up interrogation scenes and the occasional action set-piece. The cinematography is slick, and the directors give viewers plenty of interesting environments and unconventional shots to admire. The tone may be on the subdued side, but there's no lack of excitement.

However, it's only in Luther's relationships with his wife and with other characters that we get into juicier material that's farther off the beaten path, and this is what I'm hoping for more of in the latter half of the season. Idris Elba is great, and I want to see him be able to do more with John Luther than what I've seen to date. While "Luther" is very good as a police show, I suspect it could be an even better as character drama. The writers have been very good about giving us story arcs with some interesting twists, but will they pay off in the end? Fortunately, the nice thing about these short British television seasons is that I'll be able to find out sooner rather than later.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Podcast Post

I have been listening to a lot of movie-related podcasts lately, so I thought they deserved their own post. Just about every movie site seems to have at least one up-and-coming podcast. After sampling several over the past few months, there are three that I find myself tuning in to every week, and I'd like to spotlight here.

Filmspotting - One of the oldest film podcasts, having begun in 2005 as Cinecast. The current hosts are Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson, who are easily the most polished, most articulate film podcasters I've come across. Their wit is dry, their banter is intelligent, and their opinions are well-informed and reflect a great love of cinema past and present. On each show, they review one or two new releases, play Massacre Theater (acting out a scene and inviting listeners identify the film), offer profuse gratitude to donors and supporters, occasionally there is an interview, and then they review a classic title, and finish up with a Top 5 list.

The Filmspotting podcast is well-loved for focusing on the good stuff. The hosts approach films as art, and prefer to discuss the smaller, more prestigious releases, though they will share opinions on "Harry Potter" and the latest PIXAR movies as well. I find the show's archives to be a great resource, and I can not count the number of obscure classics and lesser-known filmmakers that I have learned about through them. As a pretentious movie nut, I find Filmspotting essential.

Also, this is one of the only film podcasts that has been picked up as a radio program. In Chicago, the reviewers' hometown, Filmspotting airs weekly on the local NPR affiliate, WBEZ. Filmspotting has also expanded into a series of film courses at the University of Chicago, taught by Robinson and Kempenaar.

A Couple of Cold Ones - The guys over at Spill.com are the polar opposites of the Filmspotting hosts, and I mean that in the best way. Their content is accessible, approachable, a lot of fun to listen to, and usually very R-rated. Spill is not for the easily offended, or those who do not appreciate the joys of a good "we were so drunk" story. There are several different podcasts hosted by the site, plus the animated movie reviews that Spill is best known for. My favorite is A Couple of Cold Ones, often abbreviated as ACOCO, which comes around every Monday.

Site creator Korey Coleman and Leon (not his real name) are the current hosts, who usually start off by spending about half an hour having a conversation that has nothing to do with anything movie-related. Then they count down the previous weekend's top five highest grossing films at the box office, and evaluate their performance. In the course of the discussion, they talk about the industry, they talk about trends that they like and dislike, and they talk about the filmmaking process and marketing and other ancillary business that often gets left out of the film reviews. Then they answer some questions from tweets and E-mails, and sign off.

I love hearing passionate fans talk about film, and though Korey and his pals sometimes go off on unrelated tangents you're not sure they'll ever come back from, they're always entertaining to listen to. And though what they choose to focus on is very different from the Filmspotting cineastes, I find them no less enthusiastic or insightful. Even when I wonder if they've had a few too many cold ones....

The Slash Filmcast - I only recently started listening to this one, and it's taken a while for it to grown on me. First off, I suspect hosts Dave Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley are much better print reviewers than they are in audio. They haven't been at this as long as some of the other podcasters out there, and it shows.

However, they consistently have good, comprehensive discussions about the films they review. I think a lot of this is due to the reviews being structured so that all of them start with spoiler-free analysis, followed by a clearly demarcated spoiler section. I've heard others try to split these discussions up, and it just never works as well. I find myself frequently waiting until after I've gotten back from the theater to listen to the Filmcast, in order to hear these guys really take apart and evaluate all the different pieces of a film, including the endings, which are often a rich source of debate.

The Slash Filmcast also frequently features great guests, including several appearances by beloved character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who spun off his own podcast from the show. I also like that the hosts will sometimes break from form and do installments on television series, like "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones," or highlight an interview with a particular director instead of a review. This podcast still seems to be evolving, and I'm interested to see where it goes.
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Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Top Ten TV Guilty Pleasures

I promised this list a while ago as a counterpart to my My Top Ten Guilty Pleasure Movies. Enjoy.

"Sesame Street" - As a kid, whenever I was home sick from school and still conscious, the television was usually turned to PBS so I could look in on "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." We used to live within range of three different PBS stations that showed everything at different times, so I could expect to spend at least two solid hours catching up with the Muppets and letting a few good old Joe Raposo songs make me feel better. I still can't help scanning the airwaves for "Sesame Street" if I happen to be home on a weekday morning.

"The View" - Yes, I'm one of those people. I originally started watching back when Lisa Ling was on the program out of Asian solidarity, but somewhere along the line I got attached to Joy Behar and Meredith Vieira, and I always enjoy Barbara Walters' visits whenever there's a notable guest. Yes, Elizabeth Hasselbeck makes me cringe, Sherri Shepherd is dead air, Rosie O'Donnell was a disaster, and I'm still not sure if Whoopi Goldberg is all there, but "The View" has somehow managed to stay relevant after all these years, and whenever I catch an episode, I feel a little more plugged into the present.

"I Love the..." - VH1's nostalgia programs can suck me in like nothing else. I've wasted whole weekends reliving the best and worst of 80s and 90s pop culture with various C-grade comedians providing tepid commentary. There's just something fascinating about barely remembered commercials and shows and other cultural artifacts. At least with other backward-looking specials like the AFI Movie countdown lists I can pretend there's something sort of educational or informative about them. With "I Love the 80s" and "I Love the 90s," I know it just amounts to collective navel gazing.

"The MTV Movie Awards" - I have a certain yen for award shows, but I really have no business watching the MTV Movie Awards ceremony. It's always terrible, a collection of vacuous promotions cobbled together into an awards-show format. Occasionally you might get a decent tribute or a few good parodies, but otherwise it's a strangely hypnotic train wreck. As actual awards, of course they have no integrity at all. You can't even call them populist anymore, as the "Twilight" franchise has swept the past three years, signaling that MTV has set its sights square on the adolescent female demographic.

"X TV" - I could fill an entire list with just the wretched anime I've watched over the years, but I think my favorite bad anime has to be the television series based on the CLAMP manga "X:1999." It collects two group of superpowered people together in Tokyo, and because destiny says so, they proceed to kill each other off in various inventive, over-the-top ways. Occasionally they pause to angst. There's also a movie version that's goes to even further extremes with big battle sequences, and manages to destroy most of Tokyo in the process. Yay carnage!

"Food Network Challenge" - Hey, a couple of cake decorators have been rounded up to make themed cakes based on PIXAR movies! Lets watch them run around in a panic to create these fantabulous confections, and maybe they'll drop them at the end when they have to move the cakes to the judging platform! I watch a lot of food-themed programming, and "Food Network Challenge" is definitely the most haphazard in every sense. If you've seen one you've seen them all, and with the recent shows the creators have fixed it so that hardly anything gets dropped anymore.

"E! True Hollywood Story" - Yep, sometimes I like the gossip shows too. However, I'm not particularly entertained by individual acts of celebrity debauchery unless they're on the level of a Charlie Sheen or a Mel Gibson. I prefer my dirt nicely aggregated into glossy, hour-long narratives, and if they can work in some nostalgia, all the better. What was really going on behind the scenes during "Growing Pains"? What has Lindsay Lohan been up to for the past year? I don't know why, but sometimes I just gotta know. Hollywood is a never-ending soap opera, and this is its Soap Opera Digest.

"Hoarders" - I gawk. I gape. I secretly feel better about myself and my Dad, who is something of a hoarder himself. The garage may be full of cardboard boxes, but at least he's not as bad as some of the miserable souls on this show. I'm slightly OCD about cleaning, and I always get an odd sort of rush seeing the homes of the hoarders transformed from nightmarish heaps of clutter into livable spaces again. The A&E show doesn't have the budget for the more dramatic, full-scale makeovers that "Oprah" and others have done with hoarders in the past, but they do enough to keep me tuned in.

"Dateline NBC" - Okay, once in a while "Dateline" will come through with some decent pieces, but let's be honest. It's one of the more salacious, dumbed down news magazine shows out there. It doesn't hold a candle to "60 Minutes" or "Frontline," or hell, even "20/20" most weeks. Much of its content revolves around true crime stories, and it's probably best known in recent years for "To Catch a Predator." But I have to say that "Dateline" is very good at what it does, and even as I'm rolling my eyes at the corny narration and musical stings, I still watch all the way to the end.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" - I didn't mean for this list to have so much reality television, but I guess it makes sense. I have way higher standards for fictional narratives than I do for documentary and news programs. "SVU" has been bad for a while now and it's been getting worse. Chris Meloni and B.D. Wong are not coming back, and Mariska Hargitay is on her way out too. I miss the early days of this show, when it skirted the edge of good taste, but could be powerful television. Now it's all guest stars and histrionics and trying to out-sleaze "CSI."

But then again, maybe the new cast could help turn things around. I guess I could give them a few episodes...
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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Dark Tower" Adaptation Kaput?

I wonder if I'm one of the only ones who is actually relieved that Universal decided not to go forward with the ambitious plans to adapt Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series. As announced last year, "Dark Tower" would have been told over the course of three feature films, with each film linked by a season of a "Dark Tower" television series. It would have been a bold, unconventional experiment, and I was initially very intrigued with the possibilities of using both film and television to tell a single ongoing story. The filmmakers had gotten as far as the casting stage, and Javier Bardem was in place to star as the hero Roland Deschain, before Universal decided that the project was too risky and the project collapsed.

Why am I relieved? The filmmakers behind "Dark Tower" were director Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman, and I remain unconvinced that these are the right people for this franchise. Both are Oscar winners for their work on "A Beautiful Mind," but their track record with genre films hasn't been so stellar. Howard was responsible for some solid fantasy films in the 80s, like "Willow" and "Splash," but over the last decade it's become clear that he's much better at more intimate prestige pieces like "Cinderella Man" and "Frost/Nixon." His recent fantasy films include the awful "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and the hamfisted "The Da Vinci Code," the latter written by Akiva Goldsman. I hear that Goldsman has been improving lately, with his work on "Fringe." But going by his recent credited films, including "I, Robot," and "I Am Legend," which were both watered down considerably from their original source material, I still have deep reservations about his ability to handle genre material. I'll grant that I did mildly enjoy the last collaboration between Howard and Goldsman, the "Da Vinci Code" sequel "Angels & Demons," but nothing in the film suggested that the two of them were ready to tackle something on the scale that they were proposing for "The Dark Tower."

Maybe I'm being a pessimist here, and Howard and Goldsman were really the perfect writer-director team for this franchise. Many "Dark Tower" fans, excited at the prospect of the long-awaited adaptation, accepted that they were good enough. Both filmmakers are certainly successful and well-respected in Hollywood, and "The Dark Tower" stood a much better chance of actually being made with them involved than it would have with other names attached. And yet, I can't help thinking that a cinematic version of "The Dark Tower" could be so much more interesting if they gave it to someone like John Hillcoat or Frank Darabont, who has done some of the best Stephen King adaptations like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Mist." Why would you settle for a mediocre version now if there's the possibility of a better one later? Looking back over the production histories of some of the biggest, most successful film franchises, they're riddled with false starts and wrong turns. The Beatles almost made a musical adaptation of "Lord of the Rings." An 80s version of "Spider-Man" would have had Peter Parker turn into an eight-armed mutant.

With great films, it all depends on the right convergence of talent and financing, and timing is so important. With "The Dark Tower," the talent felt like a mismatch, and didn't seem to be on the same page with the studio. After earlier clashes over budgeting issues, it came out that Universal wanted no part in the three-films-and-two-TV-serials approach that Howard and Goldsman were proposing, but were only willing to commit to one film to start with. Considering how risk-averse and cost-conscious the studio has been lately - canceling Guillermo Del Toro's "At the Mountains of Madness," among other decisions - I don't think it came as a surprise to anyone that Universal would try to scale the project down. And though I admire Howard and producer Brian Grazer for sticking to their guns and trying to hammer out a deal for multiple pictures, I wonder about their approach. Why not just start out adapting "The Gunslinger," the first book in the series, see if the audience likes it, and go forward from there? From what I gather, "The Dark Tower" is episodic enough that this should be feasible. Sure, the cross-platforming is an interesting idea, but hardly a necessary one for success. Why not just do movies like "Lord of the Rings"? Or a series like "Game of Thrones"? In light of the risks of crossing the streams, I'd have applied the brakes too, and a lot earlier.

In the aftermath of the cancellation, Ron Howard has already been attached another project. He'll direct "Under the Banner of Heaven" for Waner Brothers, which will examine the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Akiva Goldsman still has "Fringe," and a development slate as long as my arm. Their version of "The Dark Tower" isn't totally dead yet, but it's unlikely the filmmakers will find anyone else ready to shoulder the cost of the project. Warner Brothers might bite, as they're looking for a franchise to fill in the void left by "Harry Potter," but that's purely speculation. Fans may have to wait a good while longer to see Roland Deschain on either the big or small screens.

But in the end, that may not be such a bad thing.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Did Someone Say Trailers?

We're smack dab in the middle of summer, and you know what that means. Holiday movie trailers! I know that there have been a lot of teasers for films coming out next year, like "John Carter," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man," and "The Avengers," and the upcoming Comic-Con is sure to unleash a few more, but let's take a look at this year's big titles first. As always, all links lead to Trailer Addict.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Oh look, Robert Downey Jr's other franchise is back for round two. Nothing too different here from round one, as the sequel's trailer follows almost identical humor and action beats as the original "Sherlock Holmes" trailer. However, this will mark the Hollywood debut of Noomi Rapace, star of the original "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and we get a few good glimpses of her here. Ironically, "Sherlock," will be going up against the American remake of "Dragon Tattoo" at the box office this Christmas.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Tom Cruise is still believable as a daredevil secret agent, but he's getting awfully long in the tooth. Thank goodness Jeremy Renner is along for this outing, and according to some reports will be taking over the reins of the franchise if this does well enough to warrant another sequel. This is also the first live-action film directed by Brad Bird, best known for animated wonders "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant." I'm very curious to see what he's going to do with "Mission: Impossible."

Arthur Christmas - Considering the audience reactions I've seen to this teaser, Aardman may be in trouble. We've seen the modernized Christmas elf schtick so often, from the "Santa Clause" movies, to "Prep and Landing," the concept feels old and played out. Also, the marketing folks made the mistake of not explaining who Arthur Christmas is, or at least getting us to wonder who he is. Still plenty of time to fix that though, and the next Aardman movie coming in spring, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," looks like a lot of fun.

War Horse - This is a terrible trailer, which is surprising considering that it's a Steven Spielberg film and presumably being positioned as Oscar bait. Who the hell cut this thing? Dump the awful, corny onscreen text, and it would have played ten times better. There's some beautiful cinematography on display, but everything else comes across as so generic and uninspired. The film itself may not be so bad. "War Horse" has a lot of prestige on its side, based on a beloved children's book and stage play that just trotted off with a cartload of statuettes at the Tonys this year.

Hugo - Here we have the movie formerly known as "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." I know they're trying to sell this one to kids and parents, but it worries me a little that I hardly see a sign of Martin Scorsese's hand as a director here. Instead, we have Sacha Baron Cohen playing a broad comic villain, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz being adorable scamps, and Jude Law settling into the character actor phase of his career. Toss in some shiny visuals, and I suppose that's enough for a kids' film. To the film's credit, those visuals do look pretty shiny.

The Adventures of Tintin - So many talented people are involved in "Tintin," but I can't get over the fact that this is being done in that creepy Robert Zemeckis motion-capture animation style that just about every other studio in town has given up on. Even Zemeckis himself has been shut down after "Mars Needs Moms." At the beginning of the year, it looked like Spielberg was going to have a great holiday season with two big releases. Now I'm not sure that either is going to connect with audiences.

The Iron Lady - Will Meryl Streep bag her seventeenth Oscar nomination for playing Margaret Thatcher? One line and about ten seconds of screen time is not enough to tell. I'm sure a full trailer will be out soon, but I wanted to include the teaser here because this will probably be one of those performances you're going to be hearing a lot about in the run-up to awards season.

Jack & Jill - I may be the only one who thinks this Adam Sandler comedy doesn't look so bad. Or maybe I've been subjected to so many of these mindless farces, I've just become immune. Sandler will cross-dress to play an obnoxious female version of himself, which at least gives the audience something new to gawk at. And look, Al Pacino is going to cameo - though I can't help wondering if what we saw of him in the trailer is actually the entirety of his appearance in the film. Yeah, I'm not the target audience for these films, and I've stopped trying to figure out why they're popular. Eh, live and let live.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - My favorite trailer of the year so far, for its simplicity and the paranoid mood it achieves. This is exactly what a trailer should be, a quick introduction that lays out the film's premise and the reasons why the audience should see it. In this case, we have a tense British spy thriller with a stellar cast, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and many more. I can't wait.
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Monday, July 18, 2011

Woody Allen Goes to Paris

You might hear Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" compared to "Manhattan," in that it's a love letter to an iconic city, or perhaps "Purple Rose of Cairo," for its high concept romantic comedy premise. But the important thing is that "Midnight in Paris" is pure Woody Allen, and moreover Allen at his most surefooted and delightful and crowd-pleasing.

Writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), trying to make the bumpy transition from Hollywood hack to serious novelist, visits Paris with his fianceé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy). A born romantic, Gil talks about moving to Paris and following in the footsteps of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who converged on the city with so many of Gil's other literary and artistic idols in the 1920s. Inez tells him sweetly that he's dreaming. During the trip, they run across Inez's old fling Paul Bates (Michael Sheen), an insufferable pseudo-intellectual and know-it-all. Inez insists on sightseeing with Paul and his wife, but Gil can't stand him, and isn't too keen on the uncomfortable dinners with Inez's dismissive parents either. So one night, having had a little too much to drink, Gil takes a midnight stroll around the city by himself, and has a series of surprising encounters.

Now this is where we get into spoiler territory, and where I urge you to stop reading now if you plan to see the film yourself. Because when the clock strikes twelve, "Midnight in Paris" reveals itself to be a fantasy film, with a lot of surprises that work best if you don't know they're coming. However, reviewing the film requires giving some of those away, just to be able to pass the kudos around. As you may have guessed, Gil is transported back to the Jazz Age, and spends the night hobnobbing with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), listening in on a performance by Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and sharing a drink with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Subsequent midnight trips take him to the salon of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), where he runs into Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and his lovely mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard) - who Gil falls head over heels for.

Some may balk at the thought of seeing a film that makes reference to so many half-forgotten luminaries, but the film isn't about them so much as it is about Gil's fanboy enthusiasm for a bygone age, and what happens to him as a result of his jaunts into the past. Picking up on the references is fun, but there were plenty that went over my head, which didn't affect my enjoyment of the picture at all. Allen portrays the characters that Gil meets in the 20s as a group of interesting, lively artists who are fascinating to watch on their own merits. Viewers who don't know Hemingway or the Fitzgeralds may come out of the film wanting to spend time with them, thanks to the stellar performances of Stoll, Hiddleston, and Pill. Corey Stoll as a bombastic young Hemingway is particularly magnetic.

And then there's Owen Wilson, who is certainly playing a Woody Allen leading man - the neurotic, romantic, overly talkative dreamer - and yet still manages to be the charming, everyman Owen Wilson we know from his mainstream comedies. And it's Wilson's comedic chops that go a long way toward making the premise work, from his stunned initial reactions to the 20s, to the never-ending reserve of enthusiasm each time he runs into a new icon, to the more farcical situations in the modern day. Rachel McAdams, I'm sorry to say, ends up with the thankless role of the shrewish fianceé who Gil should have parted ways with long ago, and doesn't get to exhibit many of her considerable charms. Marion Cotillard, on the other hand, is at her most endearing and sublime as the lovely muse with her own secret dreams.

Maybe I've been watching so many raunchy, dull-witted, tasteless modern comedies lately, that such a simple, old-fashioned confection from Woody Allen comes off as a better film than it really is. Measuring "Midnight in Paris" up against the rest of his work, it's clear that certain elements are awfully reminiscent of his other, better pictures. But when you see that gorgeous opening montage of Paris city shots, set to period jazz music, you may never think of Paris without hearing a saxophone again, just as the Manhattan skyline conjures George Gershwin's piano. And that one perfect, absurd gag at the end of the film could have come straight out of "Sleeper" or "Annie Hall," but it doesn't make it any less funny, or deftly executed.

"Midnight in Paris" is familiar Woody Allen, but it's all the best bits, in just the right amounts. The dialogue is sharp and clever, but isn't too erudite. It's funny and occasionally silly, without becoming too irreverent. The romance is tender and heartfelt, but never gets maudlin. The tone is right, the atmosphere is rich, and every single glowing frame conveys how much Woody Allen loves the city of Paris. At one point in the movie, Gil asks a museum docent whether she thinks it's possible that a man can be in love with two women. Longtime Woody Allen fans, who know the director as the consummate New Yorker, may be tempted to ask a variation on the same question - can an artist like Allen be in love with two cities?

Oh yes.
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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Here's to "The King of Comedy"

I never could quite empathize Robert DeNiro's Jake LaMotta, and I don't feel I ever understood what was driving Travis Bickle. Rupert Pupkin, however, I understand. Pupkin, an autograph hound and wannabe comedian at the center of Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy," is immediately familiar. I know guys like that, the obsessives who are so fixated on one goal, and one particular path to that goal, they lose all reason and perspective. I've also known women like his cohort Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard, desperately in love with a man she doesn't know except from the television. Both characters are obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford, who is clearly meant to be Johnny Carson, but is played here by Jerry Lewis.

In the opening scenes you might think that Rupert Pupkin is simply an opportunist, who finagles his way into Langford's car in order to further his own career as a stand-up comic. He's charming and eloquent enough that you can believe he might have real prospects. After Pupkin departs, the scene cuts to a bar where Langford and Pupkin are having a drink together some years in the future. Just as we learn Pupkin's career is in ascendancy while Langford's is in decline, it's revealed that this meeting is taking place entirely in Pupkin's imagination. His fantasies are riddled throughout the film, and incorporated so well into the story that it sometimes takes a minute or two to figure out whether something really happening or only playing out in Pupkin's head. In a few key scenes the truth remains ambiguous, or perhaps the two versions of Pupkin's life have simply merged. However, when reality and fantasy diverge too much, you can feel Pupkin's building frustration and growing psychosis. The audience comes to realize that Pupkin is no simple schmoozer, no overeager nerd, no especially rude fan - but a dangerous madman. In another director's hands, this material could have come off very different, but Scorsese gives it a real physicality and menace.

And yet, you can't help but feel for Rupert Pupkin. Of Robert DeNiro characters, he is among the most earnest and sincere. It's not hard to see why the girl of his dreams, a local bartender named Rita (Diahne Abbott), still gives him the time of day even after being burned. As Pupkin, DeNiro hardly ever gets upset, never raises his voice (except to an offscreen mother), and is good at remaining calm even as those around him become increasingly outraged or emotional. He can talk his way into and out of many situations, simply by sticking to his own version of events, the reality he wants to be true. However, when push comes to shove, he is unable to take no for an answer. Despite what occurs at the end of "King of Comedy," Pupkin is not a particularly violent character, but we know the capability for violence is there, in every moment of nervousness and uncertainty. DeNiro manages to play it close and broad at the same time, because Pupkin is desperate to maintain a certain facade and a certain image - and he's a pretty good actor. You have to look close to get a glimpse of the real man beneath, who may not be who you're expecting. This may be my favorite of DeNiro's performances, for maintaining this juggling act so well.

The other big showstopper of "King of Comedy" is Jerry Lewis as a beloved celebrity suffering an excess of attention. Beset by crazed fans at every turn, paranoid, stressed, and miserable, Jerry Langford suffers every downside to fame, and is on a perfect slow burn through most of the movie. Lewis is almost as scary as DeNiro in some scenes, especially when he goes quiet and you realize Langford is coming to the end of his rope as quickly as Pupkin is. It must have been deeply disturbing for audiences in 1983 to see Jerry Lewis, famous funnyman, deliver such a cold and piercing dramatic performance. He's so good, you have to wonder at times if you're looking at the real Jerry Lewis, rather than a character who shares a similar name. Comedian Sandra Bernhard also does nothing remotely comedic with Masha, Pupkin's fellow Langford stalker and occasional ally. She doesn't have nearly as much time onscreen as her male co-stars, but boy does she throw herself into her role with vicious abandon. The film could have easily been centered around her instead of Pupkin.

Undeniably, the performances are the main event, but I love the look of "King of Comedy." It takes place in a world of 60s and 70s television kitsch, with the blocky set designs and slightly garish fashions, juxtaposed with the monochrome concrete and asphalt of New York. I've never seen anyone else use video and film stock together quite as well as Scorsese does here, highlighting the unreal, slightly warped quality of television images from the age before LCD screens and high definition. His transitions are just beautiful, taking us from fantasy to reality, from film to video, from a television set to a facsimile of a set to a fantasy of a set, and daring the viewer to figure out where the boundaries are. Any fans of "Shutter Island" who thought that film was a mind trip, it's nothing compared to what's going on here.

I'm surprised that "King of Comedy" did so poorly upon its initial release. Maybe it was too far ahead of its time, with its stark treatment of celebrity mania and the distorting powers of the media. Maybe unwary audience members who went to a Jerry Lewis film titled "The King of Comedy" were expecting some laughs which never came. Conversely, the advertising for the film makes it seem like more of a crime film than it is. In actuality, "King of Comedy" is a little thriller, a little satire, a lot of character study, and just brilliant all around. It's one of the best Scorsese films, and I think it's held up far better than many of his other, more famous pictures. Like Rupert Pupkin, it has been overlooked, but that doesn't mean it isn't worthy of the spotlight.
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What I've Seen - Martin Scorsese (1990)

Mean Streets (1973)
Alice doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
Taxi Driver (1976)
New York, New York (1977)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Raging Bull (1980)
The King of Comedy (1982)
After Hours (1985)
The color of Money (1986)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Goodfellas (1990)
The Age of Innocence (1993)
Casino (1995)
Gangs of New York (2002)
The Aviator (2004)
The Departed (2006)
Shutter Island (2010)
Hugo (2011)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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Friday, July 15, 2011

The End of "Harry Potter"

The adjective you may be hearing a lot in connection with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" is, finally. Finally, we have the great confrontation between young wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Finally, Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry becomes a battleground in the last stand between our heroes and Voldemort's hordes of Death Eaters. Finally, after a pair of slower movies, we have one that has lots and lots of action. And finally, after ten years and eight movies, some of the minor, but key players who have been with the series since the beginning, get their chance to shine at last. It's all extremely satisfying to watch, and you can't help but want more as the credits roll.

But first, when last we left Harry Potter in "Deathly Hallows, Part 1," Harry and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), were on a quest to find the horcruxes, vessels containing pieces of Voldemort's soul. Only after destroying all of them can Voldemort be killed, and there are four left unaccounted for at the start of the final film. A trip to the goblin bank of Gringotts to dispose of one horcrux provides the first big action setpieces, a series of fun, effects-driven sequences that could easily be the climax of any other "Potter" movie. But the real fireworks don't begin until the trio, plus recently rescued friend Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), secretly journey back to Hogwarts, now under the control of the turncoat Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

There is too much plot and too many characters to go into more detail, but keep an eye on Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters), Argus Filch (David Bradley), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Warwick Davis pulls double duty as two different characters, while Helena Bonham Carter gets to do a new take on Bellatrix Lestrange. We also have a pair of final additions to the cast - Kelly McDonald as a reluctant ghost and Ciaran Hinds as Aberforth, a bartender with many secrets. On top of this, add dozens of other appearances by famous names and familiar faces, some that go by so quick that fans will surely want to rewatch later to take account of them all. I'd mention some of my favorites, but that would be spoiling the fun.

I've already seen some complaints that not enough time was spent on that galaxy of minor characters, engaged in the giant Hogwarts battle that takes up two thirds of "Deathly Hallows, Part 2." There are scenes where the scope does feel narrow - at one point it seems like McGonagall, Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis), and Professor Slughorn (James Broadbent), are the only members of the staff left at the school. Some cameos later on disprove this, but blink and you miss them. Die-hard fans may feel shortchanged, seeing so little of some of their favorites from the previous installments, but the brevity is a matter of filmmaking necessity. To avoid a chaotic story with the audience's attention being constantly pulled in a dozen different directions, the director wisely chose a few prominent side characters to highlight, and snuck the rest into the corners wherever he could make them fit.

Take Mrs. Weasley for example. She has that one great scene in the book that everybody loves, but in order to include it at the end of the film, she had to be established earlier on as someone important, so less informed viewers would know to pay attention to her. This is why the film features so much more of her than Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams), who we only glimpse for a few seconds. As always, the film adaptation has to balance giving the fans all the geeky stuff that they love with maintaining the integrity and the coherence of the film's storytelling. Those who have only watched the films are also probably going to feel a little unsatisfied with some of the rushed, or at times practically nonexistent exposition. If you can figure out how Harry ended up with the Resurrection Stone without the help of the book, you're a far more perceptive viewer than I.

More time with the less vital characters would also have taken away from major players like Harry, Voldemort, and Snape, who have so much to do in this final chapter of the "Harry Potter" saga. This is where the film is at its best, showcasing strong performances and condensing several plot twists down to their most emotionally resonant essentials. One of the great joys of the film is that finally, finally, Alan Rickman gets to destroy Snape's aloof facade and let us see what that character is really made of. And Ralph Fiennes, who really does not get enough credit for playing Voldemort so evil he sometimes borders on hilarious, does some of his best work as the evil Dark Lord here. As for Daniel Radcliffe, who has to shout rousing speeches of encouragement, have reflective moments of self-doubt, and convince us that all this mystical mumbo-jumbo really does make sense, he's fantastic. I hope he goes on to a long post-"Potter" career.

Production values, as always for the recent "Harry Potter" films, are stellar. In this one, you lose a lot of the beautiful natural landscapes, but there's plenty of picturesque rubble and debris. The CGI effects and creatures have never looked better, particularly a dragon that Harry and the gang encounter early on in the Gringotts vaults. I only have one quibble with the visuals, which is that I could tell where some of the 3D effects were added, even though I didn't watch the film in 3D, which was a little distracting. On the aural side of things, though, Alexandre Desplat's score was appropriately epic. Between this and "Tree of Life," Desplat is having a great year.

The writing is the source of the film's biggest shortfalls, though it's hard to fault it too much. There are some awkward lines of dialogue, a few odd departures from the book (that fans are already raging over), and loose ends everywhere you look. Since the filmmakers decided several films ago to let the books explain away the trickier happenstances, like the previously mentioned bit with the Resurrection Stone, this was inevitable. The parts that they choose to focus on, however, are handled very well. Kloves and Yates manage to play some of the book's big moments better than J.K. Rowling did. It's easy to focus on what they left out, but once you realize how much they managed to pack into the film, and all the moments they managed to keep, it's damn impressive.

In the end, I'm glad to report that the "Harry Potter" cast and crew stuck the landing and the finale was worth the wait. A final round of applause, ladies and gentlemen. They've earned it.
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Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's In a Movie Title?

"The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick, won the 2008 Caldecott medal, a first for a novel-length children's book. It has been adapted into a big budget holiday film, directed by Martin Scorsese. Nobody has seen more than a few frames of it yet, as the marketing campaign hasn't started up yet. However, we do know that the title has been steadily shrinking since the project was announced. At first it was called "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the same as the book. For most of the last year it was known as "Hugo Cabret." Now just recently, it's been shortened again to "Hugo." It joins a slew of other titles that have been shrinking on theater marquees - "The Eagle of the Ninth" became "The Eagle," "The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever" became "The Muppets," and "The Fast and the Furious 5" ended up just "Fast Five." One of the most confounding changes has been PIXAR's recent decision to shorten "John Carter of Mars" to the considerably less intriguing "John Carter." So they're making a spinoff "ER" film about Noah Wyle's character, eh?

None of the original titles look especially unwieldy to the uncynical eye, but these days titling decisions are often in the hands of marketers trying to build a brand. Shorter and more reductive always trumps longer and more descriptive. Movie titles need to be memorable, but they're also expected to be immediately comprehensible, easy to translate for foreign markets, and free of any difficult words or unpopular concepts. More and more studio films have titles reminiscent of simplified sales pitches. This year saw "Prom," "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher," "Hobo With a Shotgun," "Cowboys & Aliens," and "Zookeeper." You know instantly what each of these movies is about just hearing the titles, which make them much easier to sell than "The King's Speech," "Black Swan," and "Inception." Can you believe Christopher Nolan got away with calling an action film "Inception"?

When titles don't conform to the existing marketing paradigm, there's a lot of pressure to change them. For instance, there is every indication that Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon" had a title the marketers weren't comfortable with. In many of the commercials and advertisements, they kept calling it "Dreamworks' Dragons," which tells you all the information they think the audience needs to know - it's a Dreamworks property and there are dragons in it. "Rapunzel" became "Tangled" because Disney wasn't about to admit they had made a movie about a fairy-tale princess in a hurry - princesses are très uncool to the young male demographic. I suspect that "Hugo" may have lost his last name for fear that children and some of their parents would have a hard time pronouncing "Cabret," and dismiss it as something foreign and icky.

Titles that have a better chance of staying intact are those that are already established brands that film marketers want to capitalize on. Hence, "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2." Sometimes the studios will retain familiar titles even when they don't make sense - last year's new "Karate Kid" movie was about Jaden Smith's character learning kung fu. And I guess "Rise of the Apes" just wasn't as obvious and awkward as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." "Hugo Cabret" may have won lots of kudos, but the book was not popular enough to retain the same title for the film. "John Carter," similarly, is based on a science fiction classic of a previous era that is virtually unknown to mainstream audiences today. The title of the source novel is actually "A Princess of Mars," but "princess" is a verboten concept (see "Tangled"), and so is Mars after the notable failure of Disney's "Mars Need's Moms."

The big budget films with the longest titles tend to be franchise sequels now, usually comprised of a main franchise title, a colon, and a secondary title (that is secretly the actual title of the movie). Examples from this year include "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules," "X-Men: First Class," "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1," "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked," "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," and the film that must have inspired several typographical and punctuation debates, "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol." Almost makes you wish for the days of numbered sequels again doesn't it? 2011 holds the record for the year with the most studio sequels, a whopping 27 films, so there won't be any deficit of these colon-ized titles any time soon. Heck, there are even a few gunners who aren't waiting for a sequel to break out the fancy punctuation, like "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Dylan Dog: Dead of Night."

Logically, I suppose this means the only way to use the original title of "Hugo" is by calling the movie "Hugo: The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Or if you want to get fancy, "Hugo: Cabret, The Invention Of." You know, maybe I should just go and read the book.
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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Quick Thoughts on "Alphas"

Syfy premiered a new original series on Moday night, "Alphas," the latest in a string of shows about people with comic-book superpowers. After the slow, sputtering demise of "Heroes," the ignominious splats of "The Cape" and "No Ordinary Family, and the non-start of "Wonder Woman," does "Alphas" hit the mark? Well, it's not off to a bad start.

The premise is "X-Men" lite, following a collection of average Americans with extraordinary abilities. There's Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), a former FBI agent with super strength, Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), who can make you do whatever she tells you to do, Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), a teenager who can see all electromagnetic frequencies in living color, and Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), who can sharpen each of her individual senses at the expense of the others. They're counseled and trained by Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn), a slightly scruffier take on Professor X, who has to check in occasionally with a G-man named Don (Callum Keith Rennie) for the team's crimefighting assignments. Technically Rosen and the Alphas are working for the government, but this is surely an arrangement of convenience, as Rosen repeatedly makes it known that he isn't happy about sending his charges into dangerous situations.

Does it seem like the cast is missing an angsty thirty-something white male that fits into the typical action star mold? Don't worry. They go and recruit one in the pilot. The Alphas are sent to find the killer of a government witness, and discover a sharpshooter named Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) was responsible, but has no memory of the event. It turns out that Hicks was being controlled by a villain with long range mind control powers. The rest of the episode is spent chasing the bad guy around town and getting Hicks situated as a member of the team. Oh yes, it turns out that he's an Alpha too, one with the potential to perform amazing physical feats. And it takes him no time at all to start making eyes at Nina, monopolizing the attention of Dr. Rosen, and making it clear that despite being the blandest character on the show so far, he's our hero and will be getting the most screen time. Oh joy.

Hicks aside, I like how the characters and premise have been set up so far. The Alphas work out of a converted bowling alley in a shopping center rather than some secret super-high-tech laboratory - which is probably more likely when you're government funded. Each of the Alphas have distinct personalities that hold interesting potential. Bill is the most experienced, but also an inconsiderate jerk at times, Gary has Asperger's syndrome - shorthand for being a lovable kook in TV-land, Nina's carefree glamor girl routine isn't fooling anyone, and Rachel is the sweetheart with a head full of science. They're all easy cliches to some extent, but you can seen the beginnings of more interesting team dynamics developing, which will be necessary considering the size of the cast. It could just as easily all go nowhere, especially if the more interesting characters get pushed off to the sidelines. The show's biggest asset right now is David Strathairn as Dr. Rosen, who lends enough just gravitas and credibility to his exposition to get us over many of the pilot's expository bumps.

And boy are there bumps. Instead of being mutants or being changed by some sort of supernatural event, the Alphas have powers which are billed as extensions of existing human abilities. This is where the writing gets very sloppy. Rachel is said to have abilities based on synesthesia, the neurological condition that causes sensory confusion so some people taste colors and smell numbers, but this has nothing to do with her powers. Hicks is supposed to have hyperkinesis, which isn't quite the right descriptor either. There are a couple of other gaps and mistakes like this that signal the writers haven't done their homework and probably haven't thought the show's mythology and mechanics all the way through. However, they're already dropping references to a "compound" where the less cooperative Alphas are sent, and an organization called Red Flag, which rhymes with Big Bad.

But what about the action and the special effects and the exciting stuff? All very good in the pilot. I especially liked the way we got to see how Gary's powers put him in his own little world of colorful lights and flashing video streams. The physical feats displayed by Bill and Hicks were more conventional, but a lot of fun to watch. None of the chase and fight scenes were particularly fancy, but they looked great for a TV budget. But again, the writing wasn't quite up to snuff. The plotting was awkward in many places, and someone decided to put fashion plate Nina in a chase on foot, which just looked ridiculous. And as with all pilots, there's no guarantee that this level of production quality is going to carry over to the rest of the series.

There's plenty of potential in "Alphas" though, and I think it's on firmer footing than either "The Cape" or "No Ordinary Family." Hopefully the creators will learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and give us what we want from this kind of show - more action and ensemble interaction, less angst and inscrutable, twisty plot stuff for now. I'm really hoping "Alphas" will turn out to be a lighter, episodic action show like "Leverage" or "Burn Notice," as opposed to a glummer, super-serious drama like "FlashForward." Oh, and since the villain didn't survive this episode, best rustle up a new bad guy quick.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Nuts, Netflix!

I'm sure you've heard by now that Netflix is raising its rates, and has decided to charge separately for its DVD-by-mail and Instant Watch streaming services. The plan I'm currently using, the Instant Watch streaming plus one-DVD-by-mail at a time, will jump from $9.99 a month to $15.99 a month, a 60% increase. Each plan separately costs $7.99. For each extra DVD out at a time, add $3. For Blu-Ray, add $2. No bundling discounts. The new prices go into effect starting in September for existing customers, and immediately for new subscribers.

Neflix customers are not happy, and making sure that the company knows it, flooding the Netflix blog and Facebook pages, and writing angry screeds all over the Internet. I, on the other hand, after comparing my options, have to conclude that even with the extra six dollar charge, Netflix still offers a better deal than anything else I could name. I don't live close enough to a Blockbuster store to do one of their unlimited plans anymore. The Redbox kiosks don't have nearly good enough selection to keep a cineaste like me occupied - though I admit that they are getting better. Hulu, Amazon, and all the rest aren't nearly up to speed yet either. Netflix, for all the complaints about disappearing content, still has more than enough on their streaming service to keep my queue full, and a pretty good DVD selection. Others who want newer movies and TV shows faster, however, are less thrilled.

What worries me is the suddenness of the announcement and the high amount of the increase. Surely Netflix could have eased their customers into the higher prices by raising them at a slower rate? Or given the most affected customers a little leeway by knocking a dollar or two off the total price if they subscribe to both services? Or is Netflix hurting for cash to such an extent that they can't even allow that much? Sure, we know that Sony pulled its titles in a scuffle for higher licensing fees recently, and the Starz deal is supposed to be coming to an end soon, but are things really so bad at Netflix that they would risk alienating so many of its customers like this? Is the announcement a sign that the studios have finally managed to get under the company's skin? Did they make that Epix deal and those original content acquisitions without checking if they had enough in the bank to acutally pay for them? There's too much room for speculation here, so let's just deal with the immediate fallout.

I can deal with a $6 increase (there goes another matinee ticket) but many Netflix users can't and will have to choose between the DVD or streaming services. It'll be interesting to see which wins out. Up until now, the prevailing wisdom was that Netflix would be concentrating its efforts on the streaming service, since it's more profitable than DVD-by-mail, without the hassles of postage fees and physical media. However, if the DVD and streaming plans are being priced the same, it may indicate that there's more demand for the DVDs than previously believed. Or some have postulated that this is a tactic to get more of the DVD watchers to move to streaming only so they can phase out the DVD service quicker. I'm not sure I follow that logic, since I've seen so many complaints about the limited streaming selection. However, I definitely don't want that to see the DVD plans go away, at least not until they start doing a better job of digitizing the DVD extras.

If I had to choose, the streaming service would allow me to consume so many more films. With the DVDs-by-mail plan, I can average only seven or eight a month due to the constraints of the postal system. However, those seven or eight films are the ones that I specifically want to see, and therefore I value them more. In the battle of convenience versus selection, I'm afraid I have to go with selection. Costwise, however, the one-per-month DVD plan works out to about $1 per film, exactly the same as what Redbox and the Blockbuster kiosks are currently offering. If their selection gets better, I might not be inclined to wait for the postal service. Netflix is moving into some dangerous competitive territory here. If Redbox or Blockbuster start a streaming service, which they've been rumbling about for a while, the situation could really get interesting.

Until more details come out as to how Netflix came to this decision and we see how many subscribers actually drop Netflix service come September, I guess there's really nothing to do but wait and see what happens next. Enjoy the rage and the schadenfreude while they last, everyone. There's lots to go around.
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Monday, July 11, 2011

A Drive on "Mulholland"

I walked into a college preview screening of "Mulholland Drive" ten years ago, thinking I was going to see the new film from David Fincher, director of "Seven" and "Fight Club." I had no idea who David Lynch was, and my experience with experimental and surrealist cinema was practically nil, so I was totally unprepared for the movie I was about to watch. But maybe that was the best way to see it, starting out with no expectations and no preconceptions.

It's difficult to give a summary of the plot, because so much of "Mulholland Drive" depends on the structure of the narrative, and an event that happens halfway through the story that is both a major spoiler and possibly the entire point of the film. Let's just say that it begins with Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a small town girl from Middle America, who comes to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress. She meets an amnesiac beauty (Laura Elena Harring) who calls herself Rita and is on the run from forces unknown. Betty and Rita work together to piece together who Rita is and what happened to her. This get them mixed up in a series of events and encounters involving a troubled director (Justin Theroux), a Cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery), a pair of mobsters (Angelo Badalamenti and Dan Hedaya), a man who had a bad dream (Patrick Fischler), a psychic (Lee Grant), an actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George), and the terrifying creature behind the restaurant.

The first half of "Mulholland Drive," was based on a television pilot created by David Lynch, and you can see the beginnings of story arcs that would have been explored in the longer format of a full series - Betty's acting career, the movie being made by Justin Theroux's character, and the truth about Rita's identity and past. It bears similarities to Lynch's "Twin Peaks" series, where a central mystery serves as a jumping-off point to explore stories using a larger ensemble cast of peripherally connected characters. However, "Mulholland" is more sinister from the outset, taking place in a world of far more danger and deception than small town America - Hollywood. All throughout "Mulholland Drive," Lynch plays with the common tropes of Hollywood stories - the innocent blonde ingenue, the sultry brunette with a secret, the mobsters, the brilliant director in trouble, and more. In the first half Lynch sets them all up, and in the second, he utterly destroys them.

Minor spoilers ahead here, which can be avoided by skipping ahead to the next paragraph. I was taken aback by the shift in tone from the "Twin Peaks" television series to the "Twin Peaks" film, but Lynch pulls off a similar thru-the-looking-glass switch between the two halves of "Mulholland Drive," to magnificent effect. I think this is because the two sides of the narrative are so well balanced, the connections between them are tighter, and the differences made starker and more immediate. The story of Betty and Rita is is intially dreamlike and occasionally a little surreal, with its psychics and cowboys, and long stretches of time spent following other characters. But after the midpoint, the film becomes darker and more nightmarish, stripping away the facade of Hollywood glamour, and forcing us to look at the ugly reality beneath. Or perhaps Naomi Watts' character is finally awake, forced to confront broken dreams and hopeless aspirations. Or maybe it's something else entirely.

What remains so intriguing about "Mulholland Drive" is that it is open to so many interpretations. Objects and locations and characters are presented to us that have undeniable significance, but figuring out the connections and applying any sort of straightforward logic to the events portrayed is up to the viewer. Is the whole film an exercise in subverting form? Is it a metaphor for the creative process? A cautionary tale about the dangers of Hollywood? Lynch gives us just enough of these fragmentary plots and relationships, that the urge to piece them together and find meaning is irresistible. I haven't said much about the quality of the filmmaking yet, which is impeccable. Lynch's images are as strong and resonant as ever, and there were several moments that evoked a sheer animal terror that I've never been able to forget. He uses color and light brilliantly, creating variations on the same dream world that come across as totally different despite being physically identical. The sound design is also exceptional, enhancing every disturbing moment, every twinge of dissonance.

It's odd to think of "Mulholland Drive" as a horror film, but that's how I found myself responding to it ultimately. It's a cerebral puzzle on one level, but I don't think enough has been said about its visceral intensity or dramatic power. Lynch keeps the feeling of unease and anticipation running high, deploying plot turns and bizarre digressions with practiced ease. Even though I was unfamiliar with Lynch's work, on that first watch I always had something to hold on to, some path through the obscurity that I could follow. And then there's Naomi Watts, in one of her first major film roles, who is such a delight to watch as she reveals more and more dimensions of the complicated heroine. Harring does a good job, but you can't take your eyes off Watts. If there is a key to the film, surely it's her performance.

Is "Mulholland Drive" the best David Lynch film? Perhaps, but it's my favorite because it comes across as a culmination of everything he was trying to accomplish in the prior decade, or perhaps a commentary on it. There are so many shared themes and ideas with "Twin Peaks" and "Lost Highway" - duality, illusions, sexual frustration - all refined and distilled into a single, hallucinatory vision. It's tempting to think that Club Silencio may be another entryway to the Black Lodge, or that supernatural possession might play into things somehow.

Or maybe it was all just a dream.
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What I've Seen - David Lynch

Eraserhead (1977)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Dune (1984)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Twin Peaks: Fire walk With Me (1992)
Lost Highway (1997)
The Straight Story (1999)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Inland Empire (2006)
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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Is "Undefeated" a Documentary?

The new film about Sarah Palin, "Undefeated," was released a few days ago and is moving into wider release this weekend. I won't be making any efforts to see it, but I wondered what would happen if I did and tried to review it. How does one approach a movie like this? By all indications, "Undefeated" is really a campaign video in the guise of a documentary, even though Sarah Palin has yet to commit to actually running for any office that would require or justify campaigning. So should her movie be analyzed as a documentary or as a piece of propaganda? So many documentaries take positions these days, like the Michael Moore films, is there really any difference?

I guess the concern is that by calling "Undefeated" a documentary, this might give it some sort of undue legitimacy. The term is so broad, however, that it covers a wide array of non-fiction films. Traditionally this does include polemics and propaganda as well as more balanced, measured features. Leni Riefenstahl's notorious "Triumph of the Will" is a documentary - one that seeks to document the rise of the Nazi party from Hitler's point of view. And no, I'm not comparing Sarah Palin to the Nazis. It's just an example of commendable filmmaking coupled with clear political motives. I'm not familiar with the work of director Stephen Bannon, but there's no reason why "Undefeated" can't have serious artistic value in spite of its subject or intentions. On the other hand, dubbing a film a documentary doesn't automatically make it a good one, or a film with much credibility. The title alone is misleading as hell, assuming it's not meant to be ironic, which I doubt.

An interesting wrinkle is that there are two versions of "Undefeated" that will be making the rounds, according to the film's Wikipedia page - the original unedited version that contains clips of anti-Palin sentiments expressed by popular celebrities, and one cut for general release that removes them. Does this automatically make one version better than the other? If the whole point of the film is to celebrate and champion Sarah Palin, then you don't necessarily want to include negative viewpoints for fear of diluting the message. It may be a difficult concept to get one's head around, but most documentaries aren't about showing us the truth, but certain versions or facets of the truth being highlighted by the documentarian. Hopefully these might reflect or add up to the truth, but there are no guarantees. With most documentaries, multiple viewpoints are presented, in order to be more comprehensive and add context. A good propaganda film, however, lasers in on a single, monolithic version of events to support a didactic message.

There's nothing wrong with either approach. The dolphin hunting documentary "The Reef" won the Oscar for positioning an anti-hunting activist as its hero, and skimping on the cultural arguments advanced by those who made their livelihoods from dolphin hunting. Michael Moore won his statuette for his most balanced film, "Bowling for Columbine," that explored the American gun culture but didn't offer up any easy solutions to the problems he uncovered. In both cases, the films presented its subjects and ideas in creative and interesting ways, got viewers engaged, and facilitated discussion. Neither made any attempt to deny that they were pushing a particular position or approached their material with an existing bias. Documentaries built around social justice causes are becoming increasingly popular.

So if you end up watching "Undefeated," you'll be faced with all the usual questions - Do you agree with Sarah Palin's politics? Did she get a fair shake in the media? Does she deserve to be taken seriously? But you can also watch with a more critical eye and look a little deeper. How well are the arguments in the film's constructed? Are the claims rational and believable? Do you feel like you're seeing a fair assessment of the events that took place? How much is the director's ideology informing what you see and don't see? Has enough evidence been presented for the conclusions being drawn? Documentaries, more than any other kind of film, need to be engaged with and questioned, especially when they have an agenda or are trying to sell you something.

I used to have trouble cutting through that surface layer before I began watching documentary films regularly. But in the end it's just another kind of filmmaking, and all the usual criteria used to judge it apply - storytelling, pacing, direction, editing, cinematography, writing, and occasionally even performance. If there were no art, no narrative, and no editorial eye, well, we'd just be watching the news.
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Friday, July 8, 2011

Breaking in to "Breaking Bad"

So I've been watching AMC's "Breaking Bad" after hearing so many, many good things about it. I'm glad I waited to see the show until now, so I didn't have to wait for the breaks between seasons. Also, seeing multiple episodes in a short span helps bring out the longer character arcs that have developed over time. This is now easily my favorite television drama currently airing, with the caveat of course that I do not subscribe to premium cable and I still haven't watched any of AMC's "Mad Men." But it's hard to imagine that anything out there could top the tale of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an unassuming Albuquerque family man, chemistry teacher, and cancer patient who went out and did a bad, bad thing with the best of intentions. Spoilers ahead.

When you come right down to it, "Breaking Bad" is a morality play, one so well conceived and beautifully executed that it rarely seems like it has any such designs at all. It's also fine character drama, tightly focused on the Walt as he navigates his way through one crisis after another. Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, despite never having smoked in his life, Walt is desperate to find some way of escaping crushing new financial burdens and providing for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), after he's gone. He decides a good way to make some quick cash and put his dormant scientific prowess to work is to become a methamphetamine producer. By chance he finds a partner for his new venture, a former student named Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) who is a small time player in the local drug trade. Of course Walt and Jesse get in way over their heads.

The moment I keep coming back to with "Breaking Bad" is toward the end of the second season, when Walt and Jesse are stranded in the New Mexico desert with their broken-down Winnebago meth lab, trying to think up some way to restore the drained battery so they can drive home. The situation is full of humor and tension with Walt and Jesse at each other's throats, though they're both equally culpable for getting themselves into trouble. By this point they've become involved in kidnapping, theft, murder, narrowly avoided a bust by the DEA, and Walt is juggling endless lies to keep his family in the dark. Sometimes is seems like pure luck that they're both still alive. To say there have been unintended consequences to cooking meth is an understatement. Once Walt decides to "break bad," he finds it very difficult to stop. Every time he and Jesse think they've buried one problem for good, a worse one is waiting to fill the vacuum, one that needs Walt to compromise his morals a little more, and trade off another piece of his soul to stay above water.

I could point to so many things that make this show such a rare pleasure. There's a unique viscerality about it, from the glowing cinematography of the arid, sunburnt New Mexico setting, to the jarring instances of violence, to the cutting, pitch black humor. "Breaking Bad" exists in a far meaner, more anarchic universe than just about anything else on television, and yet you never saw a show more deeply concerned with family and values and loyalty. It constantly surprises and defies expectations on every level. I especially enjoy the occasional surreal touches like opening an episode with Mexican balladeers recapping the story so far. Central to everything are the performances of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Walt and Jesse. The whole cast is great, but these two are exceptional in the way they've created a pair of such wonderfully flawed, fallible human characters who seem destined to stumble their way through hell together.

The crux of it, I think, is that the show is unpredictable. Despite all the chemistry going on, there is no formula to "Breaking Bad." The status quo often changes from episode to episode, sending Walt careening through all manner of insane situations, moral dilemmas, and emotional turmoil. You never know what is going to happen to him next, be it a screwy meth dealer kidnapping him from his own driveway, or Walt's DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) suddenly getting too close to the truth. The show's writing is so good that it manages to sustain this level of rising uncertainty and madness for longer than I ever thought possible, transmogrifying Walt little by little from a milquetoast chemistry teacher into a monstrous drug lord. And there's always that looming question - exactly how bad is Walter White going to break? And who is he going to end up taking down with him?

"Breaking Bad" has me utterly bowled over. I haven't been so enamored of a show since the early seasons of "The X-Files" (where "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan got his start). I honestly have no idea where the series is going next, but I have sky high hopes for it. Heck, even if it crashes and burns this year, I'm not going to mind much because of the stellar seasons it's delivered so far.

I believe in TV again. Thank you "Breaking Bad."
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Thursday, July 7, 2011

New Movie Ads in Old TV Reruns?

Reddit users, according to this Slash Film article, noticed that ads for the new Kevin James Comedy "Zookeeper," and the Gwyneth Paltrow musical "Country Stong" had been digitally inserted into recently broadcast reruns for the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," that originally aired several years ago. The ads aren't particularly obtrusive, but once you notice them, it's hard not to be creeped out.

Remember Orwell's "1984"? Remember the hero Winston Smith, who had the job of literally rewriting history by replacing any scrap of contrary literature with a corrected version of events that conformed to the ruling party's needs of the moment? We've always been at war with Eastasia, not Eurasia. I'm not going to say we've entered the era of Big Brother here, but boy is this a step in the wrong direction. Revision of our entertainment via CGI has been done before - new and improved special effects for "Star Wars" and "Red Dwarf," the deletion of the World Trade Center towers from the New York skyline - but never with such blatant ulterior motives. Yes, those motives boil down to advertising for a couple of Sony movies, but the potential for so much worse is there.

I think what bothers me most is that the marketing people responsible for this opted to incorporate the advertising images into the environment of the show itself, mostly in backgrounds, in such a way that their presence is practically subliminal. The ads are so small, you can't read the text on them. They could have just as easily slapped a couple of bugs or one of those hellaciously annoying ad banners on the bottom of the screen. I expect this new tactic is intended to combat the audience's ingrained instinct to ignore more obvious ads. Maybe after sneaking the advertising images into the viewer's line of sight, when we see bigger versions of the same ones later, those images are supposed to ping as familiar somehow? Or be unconsciously associated with the adventures of a quintet of cute, relatable New Yorkers?

And what's next? Are we going to see advertisements popping up in other reruns too? Will they be updated for each subsequent broadcast to sell the next new movie or video game or website? And heck, why stop at the television shows? Studios could easily start altering the virtual landscape of old movies too, especially the ones that are already slathered in product placement. Why not have James Bond driving the newest Aston Martin in all the older Bond films? Why not fix it so that Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex in the City" is always magically using the most up-to-date Apple laptop, and always was? I mean, apparently we're supposed to believe that the advertising campaign for "Zookeeper" was under way back in 2007, when Kevin James was still the King of Queens, and hadn't yet inflicted "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" upon the world. It's not much more of a stretch.

The biggest fear is, of course, that an unscrupulous somebody might get the bright idea to apply this kind of technology to non-fiction programs, to news footage and other records that might be deemed problematic. They do this already in repressive countries, doctoring photos and editing video to suit their own ends. Even here in the U.S. we've come to expect a certain amount of alteration to the images we consume - blemishes vanish from cover models, and video is digitally processed to remove static and adjust lighting levels. However, reaching back into the past to adjust existing content is a new development, creating a challenge to our own memories. How can we trust the integrity of what we watch and hear if it's all subject to corporate revision?

And the more comfortable the media becomes with this kind of manipulation, the greater the danger that it'll be easier to cross lines that shouldn't be crossed in the future. Someday they may not employ these tactics just for the sake of marketing - not that marketing isn't bad enough. Someday it might not just be ad-free versions of popular sitcoms that disappear down the memory hole.

Maybe I've been reading too much science fiction and Kevin James isn't really the harbinger of our doom. But that said, any unexplained urge to watch "Zookeeper" should be held under the highest suspicion. If they're messing around with the integrity of the media fabric just for the advertisements for this thing, who knows what awful horrors the movie itself will contain?
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