Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's Awards Season! Yay?

As a movie fan, I am the opposite of a trend-setter. I'm never a proponent of the big, new something, because my tendency is always to gather more information about whatever I want to talk about, to research, to contextualize, and to analyze. I'm also a notorious completist. When it comes to "Best of" lists, I love making them, but I usually wait about ten months after everybody else's has gone public, and after I'm relatively sure I've seen everything I feel is relevant to making a decision. And I mean everything.

So I've been viewing the maneuverings of the various critic groups and awards organizations with some incredulity as they jostle to be the first to hand out honors to 2011 films. The Gotham Independent Film Awards announced a tie between "Beginners" and "The Tree of Life" for Best Feature on Monday. The New York Film Critics Circle went with the silent film, "The Artist." The Gotham Awards are only for indies, so their choices had limited impact, but there was some drama over the New York critics bumping their announcement date two weeks earlier than last year, when they crowned "The Social Network" on December 13th. This year they had to delay voting deadlines for a day to allow its members to screen David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," but some contenders didn't make the cutoff time. Stephen Daldry's star-studded "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," isn't expected to start making the rounds until Friday. Is being first really so much more important than these critics seeing all the films that they're supposed to be judging? Do they realize that it's still November?

The line of thinking goes a little something like this. Awards, or even the buzz for potential awards, mean attention and money for prestige pictures. The smaller groups that hand out their awards early can influence the long race that ultimately ends on Oscar night. So the first awards announcement, in this case made by the New York Film Critics Circle, is guaranteed more attention and importance than those of groups of relatively equal prestige, like the Los Angeles and Boston critics circles, who are handing out their awards later in December. Studios and distributors, happy for more chances to campaign for their pictures, have exacerbated the whole situation, turning many of the minor guild awards and the awards handed out by obscure organizations into major events. Look at the rise of the Golden Globes, which is handed out by the sketchy Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The kudomania has resulted in a gauntlet of awards and ceremonies and marketing that stretches from December through February. Some film organization, like AFI, have created their own awards just to be able to get in on the action.

So as all these awards keep jockeying for position, the scheduling has become a very important factor. The trend has been to push for earlier and earlier announcements, with everyone trying to get their oar in before a consensus of opinion solidifies, the winners start becoming predictable, and awards fatigue sets in. If the Oscars get moved up as some organizers have suggested, say to late January, then it'll cause even more chaos as everyone else scrambles to readjust their schedules. Voting deadlines for many kudos could be moved up even further, which means we'll be seeing more films getting left out of contention - in the short run, anyway. The practice of waiting until the tail-end of December to get many prestige films into theaters might reverse, if potential contenders can't make the deadlines for awards consideration. This might alleviate the pressure on critics and other voters who often have to resort to marathoning films. Of course, it could also result in more rushing on the filmmaking end, and compromised, weaker films.

I still daydream about being a professional movie critic for one of these big organizations sometimes, actually participating in the awards process and having access to all the newest, most anticipated films. On the other hand, I'm grateful that I don't have to watch them all in the same week. But I really appreciate these guys and what they do. A long awards season may become a slog, the most deserving films rarely win, and the politics can be infuriating, but this keeps the focus on the quality of films instead of the box office for a little while, and ensures that the smaller films with otherwise limited commercial prospects will find their way to you and me eventually. And that they'll make more next year.
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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Year in Jason Statham Movies

Jason Statham appeared in four movies this year, and since I'm in the odd position of having seen all of them within a reasonable amount of time, I thought I'd give you the rundown. Why Statham? Well, he's about the only pure genre action star we've got left, who is really in his prime. He's been working steadily for over a decade now, and has had starring roles in at least three ongoing franchises. Contrary to popular opinion, not all Jason Statham movies are the same, though Jason Statham always plays Jason Statham. Fortunately he's good at it, and his persona is versatile enough that directors don't have to stretch to build some interesting movies around him. Of his 2011 pictures, I don't have much to say about "Gnomeo and Juliet," where he voices the hostile Tybalt gnome. You can't really tell it's him anyway. The other three pictures, however, are undeniably Jason Statham pictures.

First up in January we got "The Mechanic," a remake of the Charles Bronson film. Statham plays assassin Arthur Bishop, who is training a protege while playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with his newest targets. Well, nothing too elaborate to require much thinking. In May came "Blitz," a British film that didn't get a theatrical release in the US. Statham plays the troubled detective to Aidan Gillen's anarchic cop killer. Though he's clearly a good guy for this outing, he has to be the problem cop, who has the bad habit of using excessive force when the bad guys clearly deserve it. And finally in September came "Killer Elite," where he plays a mercenary with a heart of gold, forced to do one last job. "Killer Elite" was probably a much more staid political thriller at one point, as it was based on a book about a real vigilante group within the British SAS. Clive Owen and Robert DeNiro have major supporting roles, which is probably why critics took "Killer Elite" more seriously than the average Jason Statham vehicle, and proceeded to trash it.

None of these films got particularly good critical notices or made much money at the box office, but then again, none of them cost much to make either. The most expensive flop was "Killer Elite," which is estimated to have cost around $70 million with all the globe-trotting and star salaries, but compare that to any of the CGI-heavy blockbusters that go down in flames every year, and the numbers don't hurt so much. And increasingly, this is what counts as a mid-range picture now, the smaller scale shoot-em-ups and R-rated actioners that attract a fairly niche crowd. This includes me, by the way. I thoroughly enjoyed all three of Statham's movies this year for being exactly what they were - noisy, flashy, slightly skeevy B-movies that give Jason Statham a chance to commit acts of stylized violence in an entertaining way. Are the plots stale? Yes. Are the characters two-dimensional? Of course. Do they fall flat on their faces whenever they try to get too ambitious? With the exception of Paddy Considine's excellent scenes in "Blitz," oh yeah.

Are there any trends in these films? Well, compared to Statham's more well-known pictures like the "Transporter" series and the cheerfully trashy "Crank," this year's batch of films are a little more grounded in reality. He's doing less martial arts in favor of gunfights and car chases. There's hardly any CGI in sight, and it's R ratings all around. "The Mechanic" gets a little campy at times with its over-the-top villains, but is never cartoonish. If you took a few of the wilder action sequences out of "Blitz" and "Killer Elite," you'd have a pair of fairly typical crime dramas about cops and crooks, soldiers and mercenaries. Statham has done several of these, including "The Bank Job," and the Guy Ritchie films that first brought him to prominence. While he's very good at being the larger-than-life action hero, it's his ability to play the more average joe roles that's probably going to ensure that he stays around for a long time, and will age better than the 80s supermen.

Jason Statham may not be on the A-list, but he's unquestionably a movie star, one of a dying breed who can still dependably open movies based on his name alone. Next year he has another four pictures scheduled to hit the screens, including "The Expendables 2." And from his slate of projects in development, it doesn't look like he'll be slowing down any time soon.
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Monday, November 28, 2011

Let's "Louie"

I just finished the first season of "Louie," the FX series written, directed, and starring the acerbic New York comedian Louis C.K. It's been a critical favorite and it's not hard to see why. The show is unique in a lot of ways. Louis C.K. is the sole writer and director, who was given complete creative control in exchange for a relatively miniscule production budget of $200,000 per episode. Each installment gives a glimpse into the life of a fictionalized version of Louis C.K., a recently divorced forty-two year-old father who shares custody of two little girls, eight and four, with an ex-wife who never appears onscreen. He's a successful comedian and a good father, but well past his prime. Ongoing problems include trying to re-enter the dating scene after over a decade of marriage, and reconciling himself with the realities of middle-age.

Episodes are made up of one or two free-form vignettes, mostly mundane, day-to-day activities, which are bookended by short segments of Louie's stand-up performances. Some of my favorites include an encounter with a donut shop bully, Louie's misguided attempts to woo a checkout girl, and a confrontation with a heckler. Plots are uncomplicated, sometimes almost a stream-of-consciousness ramble that can quickly lead in unexpected directions, much like Louie's comedic rants. At this point, I should warn anyone unfamiliar with Louis C.K. that his humor is loud, rude, bawdy, and can get offensive. He'll start a set talking about parenting troubles, and segue into prostitution jokes at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, he's also smart, insightful, and very, very funny. And once you get to know his screen persona, one suspects that he's actually a very decent human being.

Some similarities to "Seinfeld" should be acknowledged, but "Louie" presents a far starker reality than just about anything else I've seen in a half-hour comedy. It uses a very raw, heightened cinema verite style, that is heavy on the drab grays and browns. This doesn't even vary in Louie's flashbacks and dream sequences. But though the visuals are unpolished, they fit the tone of the show. Characters swear and talk frankly about their sex lives. Hot-button topics like drug use, homophobia, and religion come up now and then, and are handled with just as much reverence as Louie thinks they deserve, which in some cases isn't a whole lot. Louie himself is balding, out of shape, prone to myriad vices, and all too aware of his inadequacies. He puts himself on display for the audience with startling honesty, so while he isn't a particularly compelling figure, he's an awfully relatable one.

You don't realize how much rigid structure and formulaic padding there is in a regular sitcom until you see something like "Louie," which gets rid of all the extraneous business immediately. There are locations, but no sets. There are a few recurring characters, but you really couldn't really call them a cast. Some of these include Louie's brother Robbie (Robert Kelly), Pamela, a single mother who Louie pairs up with for playdates (Pamela Adlon), Louie's therapist (David Patrick Kelly), and Dr. Nick (Ricky Gervais), a crass MD who makes Dr. House look milquetoast. Louie's daughters are played by different young actresses from episode to episode. The only constant is the presence and personality of Louis C.K., driving stories that are fiercely personal, and feature a very subjective worldview.

And not everyone could make that work. The low budget, limited concept, and having so much of the production dependent on a single person could have lead to disaster with a less talented lead. However, Louis C.K. proves he's up to the task, and the show gets better episode after episode, especially as he gets more comfortable with the format and starts to experiment. One of the season's best gags, that happens roughly halfway through the season, involves a bleary Louie in a coffee shop after a night smoking marijuana. Everyone around him is speaking gibberish, he has to order his coffee by miming, and patrons crowd against him menacingly as he tries to stumble to the door. It was one of those wonderful, absurd moments that served as a good reminder that though "Louie" might look like a documentary, the stories are heavily stylized, and most of the characters are caricatures. They're just not caricatured in the way that you usually see on American television.

And that makes me think that after "Louie," which I don't want to end anytime soon, Louis C.K. has the potential to do a heluvah lot more.
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Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Trip to the Past With "Hugo"

I didn't see "Hugo" in 3D, though many of its proponents have been raving about how well the new Martin Scorsese family film is suited to the format. I think that the film looks perfectly fine in two dimensions, but I am a little curious about how it would look on the big IMAX screen, specifically the brief snippets of several pioneering silent films that Scorsese includes in "Hugo," most of which are over a hundred years old.

If you're a film geek like me, who dutifully watched Lumière, Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and the works of a certain French fantasist whose name gives away too much, you will love this film. Scorsese is an ardent film preservationist and historian, and there's no question why he was drawn to the story of Hugo Cabret, a boy trying to solve a big mystery that has much to do with the forgotten world of early cinema. Scorsese uses it as an opportunity to recreate and pay homage to this bygone era, and the parallels between the technical innovations of "Hugo" and the foundational cinema masterpieces that it resurrects are easy to see.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy who lives in the Paris train station in the 1920s. He watches over the station clocks, steals to keep himself fed, and is ever wary of the Station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman pinscher Maximilian. At the beginning of the film, Papa George (Ben Kingsley), an old man who runs a toy stall in the station, catches Hugo trying to steal a broken wind-up toy, and relieves him of a pocketful of gears and a notebook full of figures and calculations. The notebook belonged to Hugo's late father (Jude Law), and may hold the key to solving a mystery he left behind. Hugo is desperate to get it back, and enlists Papa George's goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), to help him.

Now "Hugo" is being sold as a children's film. But with its many dark moments, a two-hour running time, and several jaunts into obscure subject matter, it probably won't be tolerated by younger children. But older kids and adult viewers who don't know a thing about film history should enjoy the films as much as the cineastes. The pace has a tendency to meander, but there are plenty of chase sequences, comic characters, and moments of suspense and drama to keep the energy up. The mystery elements also unfold beautifully, better than any of the recent treasure hunt films like "The DaVinci Code" or "National Treasure."

And then there are the visuals. "Hugo" is full of interesting things to look at, from clockwork automatons and giant clock gears to a shimmering Paris skyline. There's probably more CGI, color correction, and other digital business going on in these frames than in any other Scorsese film, but he's a deft hand who understands how to use light and color better than most modern filmmakers. So "Hugo" has the visual brightness of most kids' films, but is also far richer in texture, and subtler in effect. Even in the most mundane moments, I found myself marveling over the various nooks and corners of the recreated train station, the lighting effects, and all the little period details.

I wish I could say the same of the dialogue. Large chunks of the movie are silent, including the opening sequences, but whenever Hugo does open his mouth, he's tepid and too on the nose. Asa Butterfield looks the part of Hugo, but his acting is only marginal, and he can't do a thing with the iffier lines Scorsese has him deliver. Chloe Moretz is much more natural as Isabelle, one of those bright-eyed youngsters who devours books and likes using big words, but she has some weaker moments as well. Thus the scenes focusing on the children alone tend to be more uneven than the rest of the film.

But the highlights more than make up for it. Though the first half of "Hugo" is charming and engaging, it's not until some of the big reveals and an unexpected plot twist take place, that the film really hits its stride. That's when Scorsese gets to talk about the art of filmmaking and the joy of being a lifelong movie watcher, and you can feel his passion and his giddy fanboy eagerness coming through the screen. And that's when "Hugo" becomes something truly special, a film with real purpose.

Scorsese bridges the gap between 19th and 21st century audiences, if only for a few moments. And it's magic. And I won't tell you how he did it, because it's the kind of magic trick you simply have to experience for yourself.
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Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's Time to Meet "The Muppets"

I really enjoyed the new "Muppet" movie. I laughed at the silly jokes, cheered on the return of familiar characters, and got misty eyed whenever the film took a minute to reflect on how long it had been since everyone had been together. I wonder how much of this was due to the fact that I am an old school Muppet fan, and this was an old school Muppet movie, built on a lot of nostalgia for the old Muppet shows and movies that most kids these days aren't familiar with. Can the Muppets be a success with a new generation? That seems to be the major theme of "The Muppets."

First off, we're introduced to three totally new characters, two humans and a puppet. The puppet is Walter (Peter Linz), a resident of Smalltown, USA. He's frustrated with life as a three-foot tall felt puppet, but has great moral support from his brother Gary (Jason Segel), and is a huge fan of the Muppets, who represent a world where Walter might belong. When Gary and his patient girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) decide to take a trip out to Los Angeles for their anniversary, Walter is invited along so he can see the Muppet Studios. Alas, the studio is boarded up, the Muppet performers have scattered, and Walter overhears oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plotting to take possession of the studio and tear it down so he can drill, baby, drill. So the trio decides to find Kermit, get the gang back together, and put on a big show to raise money and save the studio.

In other words, "The Muppets" is a great, big musical road movie that ends with a stage show extravaganza. And at the same time, much to the relief of everyone who still retains affection for the Muppets, writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have taken the characters back to basics. Instead of larger-than-life showbiz icons, the Muppets are just a bunch of dysfunctional friends, and several have fallen on hard times. It's genuinely touching to see them reunite and reconnect with each other again. Kermit questions early on whether it's worth it to even try and fight for the Muppet studios, and what he really means is whether it's worth it to try and reconcile with everyone that he's let drift away over the years, including Miss Piggy. I took their relationship as a running joke in the past, and this was the first time that I was genuinely touched to see Kermit and Piggy together, squabbling, nursing hurt feelings, and clearly still in love.

I had honestly forgotten how adult the Muppets could be. A lot of their humor is bad puns and bizarre anarchy, but they also know how to get in their more stinging zingers. Some were so smart and so quick, they caught me off guard. There's a lot of fourth-wall breaking, self-referential meta, and moments of pretty biting satire. For instance, once the gang is reunited, they go around pitching their telethon to various networks. An executive played by Rashida Jones shoots them down, pointing out that the entertainment world has changed, and the most popular program is a reality show called "Punch Teacher," which is exactly what it sounds like. The Muppets are out of date, in other words, and as the characters fight that notion in the movie, they're making their case to the audience too.

The new guys behind the scenes get all the important stuff right about the Muppets - the humor, the heart, and the philosophy too. Bret McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords" has my eternal gratitude for penning the songs. Even the celebrity cameos, a fixture of all Muppet media, come off pretty well. However, it's hard to overlook how rushed the film feels at times, and that those three new characters, Walter, Gary, and Mary, get really shortchanged . I don't find anything notable about Walter, a bland little guy whose only defining trait is really his inferiority complex, and that wears out quick. The humans and their romantic subplot are okay. Just okay. I always like Amy Adams, and she's wonderful here, but I don't think Jason Segel has any business appearing in a movie where he needs to sing and dance.

But in the end, my complaints are minor, and the movie did answer one question for me: it doesn't matter if the Muppets succeed in coming out of the mothballs and winning over the mainstream again. It was good enough that they tried, and that they gave the fans who loved the Muppets one more great show.
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Friday, November 25, 2011

My Second Annual Holiday Wishlist

Dear Hollywood,

This year for Christmas, I want:

For something better to fill the shoes of "Twilight." The franchise has proven that there is a big audience of romance-loving young women out there, and those who can win them over will reap the financial rewards. By my hope is that the studios that try to target this audience in the future won't just try to rehash "Twilight," but actively try to make better films and offer better choices to the young female demographic that has too often been ignored or underserved.

For the advertisers to wise up about online audiences. I know that the media infrastructure takes a long time to change, and the cultural transition is going to take a long time, but it still irks me that by watching shows and movies online, through streaming services or other legal methods, I'm not counted in the same way as someone who is still watching live television or going to the theater directly. What I spend on an iTunes download of an early VOD film isn't counted toward box office. If I watch a show only more than a day or two after its original airdate, I don't factor into most of the ratings advertisers pay attention to. This has got to change.

For Netflix and Redbox to win the content wars. It's been a rough year for both companies, and in many ways it was their own fault, including the boneheaded moves by Netflix in raising their prices and trying to split the company in two. However, a lot of grief was caused by content producers trying to wring more dollars out of their libraries, and making demands that are clearly out of touch with the way that consumers are using online services. Netflix may not be perfect, but from the point of view of the little guy, it's still the best deal out there by far. If Netflix gets taken out, and the studios decide to distribute their own content online separately, we can almost certainly expect higher prices and less convenience as a result.

For the incoming "Akira" adaptation to further the Racebending conversation. As you may have heard, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart are being courted to play the leads of a new American-made "Akira" film that looks to be desperately trying to mine the cultural cachet of property, but of course has no intention of even trying to examine the complex, challenging issues at the heart of the original story. And they've conveniently gotten rid of all the Japanese kids. It's too late to stop the film from happening in this late stage, so the best we can hope for is a good, hard crash-and-burn, providing yet another example for Hollywood on how not to adapt an anime property.

For nobody to spoil me for "The Dark Knight Rises" or "The Avengers." There are a couple of others that I'm worried about, but these two in particular are going to be real headaches. We're looking at what are doubtless going to be two if the biggest summer blockbusters of 2012, and months in advance there is already a steady stream of information about them trickling onto the Internet that is getting harder and harder to avoid. By the time July rolls around, I'm sure it's going to be absolutely impossible.

For the current rerelease trend to stop. I know that the studios have long used rereleases to help balance their books. However, lately I've been disheartened at the sheer number of older films, either in the process of being converted for 3D and IMAX screens or under consideration. Disney's done a few now like "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast, but how many people really want to sit through the three-hour "Titanic" in 3D? Or "The Phantom Menace"? I guess we'll find out next year.

For a fourth season of "Community" that won't be compromised by budget cuts or executive meddling. I don't mind so much if the series leaves us before its time, but I want it to go out on its own terms. Or to be picked up by a nice cable channel like Comedy Central.

For all the new films and television shows coming out this winter and next year to exceed my expectations, and for those that didn't to improve.

For Filmspotting to find a new co-host as cool as Matty "Ballgame" Robinson. We're all going to miss you.

And for another really kickass "Doctor Who" Christmas special, because you can't have too many of them.

Happy holidays!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A "Munsters" Reboot? Really?

Edgy. I hate the word edgy. When studio executives say they want something to be edgier, they mean they want to add more sex and violence to a property to help it appeal to twenty year-old men. There's nothing daring or innovative or new about that. And frankly, sex and violence don't go with a lot of things. Like "The Munsters," that wacky old black-and-white 60s sitcom about a family of horror movie monsters who have inexplicably taken up residence in suburbia. It was a fun show that I watched in reruns as a kid, but it's not a good candidate for a revival. Barely anyone remembers the Universal Studios monster characters that the Munsters reference, the silly premise and broad humor are much too innocent for a modern prime-time audience, yet to introduce more adult elements would wreak havoc on the charm of an old-fashioned nuclear family show that really was quite sweet and heartwarming once you got past the greasepaint.

And yet NBC has ordered a pilot for a "Munsters" revival, promising it will be darker and less campy than the original. The Hollywood Reporter article suggests that the series will focus on the early days of Herman and Lily Munster, and take an "edgier" approach to their interactions with the real world. Bryan Fuller of "Pushing Daisies" will be writing and producing, and I'd be lying if I said that I couldn't think of a few riffs on the material that might be interesting. The highly stylized world of "Pushing Daisies" and the old-fashioned relationship at that show's heart suggest that Fuller is the right man for the job. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that "The Munsters" is in serious danger of being warped into something that it wasn't meant to be.

There's no mystery why NBC wants to resurrect "The Munsters." Supernatural shows and films have been hot properties, and vampires and werewolves are back in full force, though in very different forms from the Draculas and Wolf Men that "The Munsters" spoofed. Both of the fairy-tale series that premiered this year, "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm," have been doing fairly well in the ratings, signaling that television audiences would be receptive to more genre fare. And it's safer to reboot existing properties that people are already familiar with, even though this year's "Charlie's Angels" and "Prime Suspect" both crashed and burned spectacularly. If it were up to me, I'd have gone for a reboot of "The Addams Family," which was considerably darker and creepier than "The Munsters," Cousin Itt not withstanding. Universal has rights to both series, and is prepping "Addams" for an animated film. You could make the Addamses plenty edgy just by emphasizing traits that were already there in the original. But an edgy Herman Munster? An edgy Lily and Grandpa? Makes my head hurt just to think about it.

Moreover, "The Munsters" already had their nostalgic moment back in the 80s. They've been brought back several times before, in a 1987 syndicated series, TV movies, and reunions. I haven't seen any of these, though I do remember thinking that Herman just didn't look right in the green makeup. The further modernization of the characters isn't going to be easy. The obvious way to update "The Munsters" is to update the monster movie references, but these days the vampires running around all look like Alexander Skarsgaard or Robert Pattinson, and the modern Frankenstein's monster doesn't look all that different from his creator. Keeping the characters' original appearances and comic mannerisms would play to nostalgia, but honestly how much of the "edgy" audience do you think even knows the original? I haven't seen any of the reruns around in at least twenty years.

I think the best case scenario would be if the rebooters just took the premise of a family of monsters trying to get along in the suburbs, and rebuilt everything from the ground up. Then they could really go to town and let Herman lose the bolts, reveal Marilyn is a witch, and have Grandpa played by a thirty-something, because vampires are immortal and don't age, remember? You'd probably end up with something that looks like "No Ordinary Family" with more fangs, but at least it would be an honest reworking of the show for a new audience. Though in that case, there's really no reason to call it "The Munsters," is there? Otherwise, NBC will be trying to make a couple of the nicest monsters you ever met from the 60s appeal to the "Twilight" crowd. And that makes no damn sense.

Is there such a thing as brand dissonance? Because I think I've found it.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Muppets, Muppets, Muppets

There's a new Muppet film on the horizon and I knew I had to write something to celebrate the return of one of the biggest media influences of my childhood, that I still hold synonymous with old-fashioned wonderment and innocence and charm. But what to write? What to say? How do I encapsulate my adoration of Jim Henson's creations in blog post form? Do I write up a list of my personal favorite Muppet moments? Favorite characters? Best songs and sketches? Or do I take a walk down memory lane, talking about personal experiences with "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" and the movies? While not the biggest Muppet fan you'll ever meet, I did manage to see the last two in theaters - "Muppet Treasure Island" and "Muppets in Space."

Well, let's start with the anxiety I felt about the new movie. It emerged a few weeks ago that Frank Oz, the original performer of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and many others, had decided not to take part in the new film. He had concerns over the script, written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, known for raunchier adult fare like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Fans were pointing out instances of cheap jokes and possible toilet humor in the trailers, which the Muppets simply don't do. I can understand the worry. Hollywood's track record with rebooting nostalgic properties from the 70s and 80s has been very hit-or-miss, especially when it comes to the ones aimed at kids. I've watched old favorites like "Yogi Bear," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "The Smurfs" transmogrified into wise-cracking CGI forms, for lazy movies with lazy humor designed to pander to modern kids. The thought of this happening to the Muppets is heartbreaking. But where in the cynical modern movie landscape would there be room for an earnest puppet frog whose big dream is singing and dancing and making people happy?

But apparently Segel and his friends did it. The reviews are coming in, and they're giving me plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Now the big question is whether audiences over Thanksgiving weekend will embrace the film, or pick alternatives like "Hugo," "Happy Feet 2," or the latest Adam Sandler movie. Making a good film isn't enough - people have to go out and see it. And there's a lot riding on this movie. There have been several attempts to bring back the Muppets, including a short-lived "Muppet Show" revival called "Muppets Tonight" in the 90s, and a couple of TV movies and stage performances. Disney acquired the characters outright in 2004, and the Muppets have been integrated into their theme parks, and still pop up occasionally in music videos and online spoofs. The Muppet cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody," for instance, is a thing of beauty. There haven't been any big projects for Kermit in the gang in some time, though, and "The Muppets" will be their biggest chance to prove that they're still a viable franchise, and not just nostalgic relics of the analog age.

And I want very badly for the Muppets to continue. They still embody much of the spirit and humanism of the gentler entertainment era that birthed them. They're also one of the last links to vaudeville and the age of the great song-and-dance performers. They're among the few characters who can be absurd and satirical without a hint of malice, sly and well-observed without losing any heart or smarts. They've brought out the silly side in everyone from Rudolf Nuryev to Alice Cooper. They can still land a chicken joke. And unlike Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, Kermit can go out into the real world, and interact with people in real time, just like he did in the 70s. And he's the same little green figure of hope and love and optimism that he's always been, even if it's Steve Whitmire playing the part instead of Jim Henson now.

I'm getting all mushy. I don't think there's any possible way that "The Muppets" is going to live up to the buzz I've been hearing, and I am trying to keep my own expectations within reasonable limits. But it's a losing battle because it's the Muppets. I wasn't that cognizant of the 80s while they were going on, so I've been largely immune to the recent nostalgia craze. But the Muppets are one of my touchstones, practically the only characters from my childhood that still exist in their original forms. And though it's probably too much to hope for, wouldn't it be great if a new generation could find them and share that magic too? Just learn to have fun singing and dancing and making people happy again?
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Monday, November 21, 2011

A Little Context

I don't write reviews for every single film I watch, though I think that might be something to try the next time I've got a good block of time to devote to such an experiment. Sometimes I just have nothing in particular to say about a film, nothing I think is worth adding to the conversation anyway. Other times, I realize I'm lacking in the context to evaluate a film as in-depth as I want to. Some need time to simmer, and I'll write up something months later. And I know I get intimidated by some material, which is a habit I really should try harder to break out of. The only films I try to put down thoughts about right away are recent releases, and those only make up a small percentage of what I see overall, especially during the months where I'm primarily using online streaming services or raiding the library.

The primary reason, though, is that I watch too many damn films. To give you an idea of just how much I'm watching compared to how many reviews I'm posting on this blog, here's my Netflix Instant Watch history for the month with some notes. As with all subscription services, I simply cannot have Instant Watch on all the time, because I tend to get carried away trying to watch everything. And that way lies madness and eyestrain:

- "The Pixar Story" (2007), "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story" (2010), and "Walt & El Grupo" (2009) - wrote up a post with capsule reviews for these three Disney documentaries over here

- "Pale Flower" (1964) - Yakuza film by Masahiro Shinoda. Criterion title.

- "Bob Le Flambeur" (1956) and Le Doulos (1962) - Violent, stylish French noir directed by Jean Pierre Melville.

- "Red State" (2011) - Review.

- "Santa Sangre" (1989) - My second Alejandro Jodorowsky film, which I liked much better than "El Topo."

- "The Red Chapel" (2009) - Review.

- "Troll Hunter" (2010) - Neat little Norwegian found-footage monster movie.

- "Shoeshine" (1946) - Italian neorealist classic by Vittorio De Sica. Real heartbreaker.

- "Ten" (2002) - My fourth Abbas Kiarostami film. Made such a good impression, I feel I need to go back and rewatch the one I didn't like now.

- "White Dog" (1982) - Sam Fuller's long-lost passion project, recently resurrected by Criterion.

- "The Hit" (1984) - An early Stephen Frears film with some of my favorite actors: John Hurt, Tim Roth, and Terence Stamp.

- "Shadows and Fog" (1991) - Woody Allen's ode to German expressionism. Not one of his better experiments.

- "Mafioso" (1962) - Great Italian black comedy about a reluctant assassin, directed by Alberto Lattuada. Another Criterion title.

- "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1971) - John Schlesinger domestic drama, his follow-up to "Midnight Cowboy."

- "Killer's Kiss" (1955) - The second feature film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Now I've seen all of his work but "Fear and Desire" and a few shorts.

- "Louisiana Story" (1948) - One of the later films of pioneering documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, best known for "Nanook of the North."

- "Detour" (1945) - A cheap B-movie noir with some great performances, now considered one of the must-sees of the genre.

- "Que Viva Mexico" (1931) - Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished epic film about Mexico, with accompanying introductory and explanatory segments shot in 1979.

- "Moonrise" (1948) - Borzage was known as a silent filmmaker, so maybe I shouldn't have seen one of his sound films first.

- "Sonatine" (1984) - Takeshi Kitano yakuza film. Revered in some circles, but I don't see what's so special about it.

- "Irma Vep" (1996) - Early film by French director Olivier Assayas, which follows the rocky production of a film-within-a-film, and has lots of references to many French classics I'm not familiar with. I'll try this one again after I finish "Les Vampires."

- "My Brilliant Career" (1979) - First feature of Australian director Gillian Armstrong, who I haven't had any experience with until now. Lovely work, but feels a little incomplete.

- "This Is England" (2006) - And this is the first Shane Meadows film I've seen. I now have yet another example to explain why Paul Haggis's "Crash" was so disappointing.

- "Xala" (1975) - Pretty sure this is my first Senegalese film, directed by Ousmane Sembène. Also need to remember to watch his more recent "Moolaadé."

- "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973) - I don't have a high opinion of Sam Peckinpah, and this one didn't help matters. But apparently the version on Netflix was a studio cut that the director and cast disowned, so I may have to go track down the longer one.

- "Topsy-Turvy" (1999) - Mike Leigh made a costume dramedy about Gilbert and Sullivan writing the "Mikado." And it's a thing of joy. My favorite film of the whole month by far.

- "Diary of a Lost Girl" (1929) - Beautiful G.W. Pabst silent melodrama starring Louise Brooks.

- "Sherman's March" (1986) - Real life example of a director, in this case Ross McElwee, being swallowed up by his own film. It starts out as a documentary about General Sherman, and quickly becomes something else entirely.

- "War and Peace" (1956) - A largely forgotten epic directed by silent film titan King Vidor, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda.

- "Hello, Dolly!" (1969) - Review.

- "Auntie Mame" (1958) - Worth seeing for Rosalind Russell's performance in the title role alone.

- "A Canterbury Tale" (1944) - Powell and Pressburger war film, very much a product of its time and its own particular cultural sensibilities.

- "The Secret of the Grain" (2007) - Recent winner of Best French Film at the Césars, follows the travails of a Tunisian immigrant family trying to open a couscous restaurant in France.

- The Belly of an Architect (1987), "Nightwatching" (2007) and "Rembrandt's J'accuse" (2008) - I admire Peter Greenaway, who creates visuals that put most other directors to shame, but he can get so lugubrious and pedantic, his films are often difficult to sit through.

- "The Spirit of St. Louis" (1957) - Written and directed by Billy Wilder, it's awfully keen on glorifying Lindbergh, and America by proxy, but who can say no with Jimmy Stewart in the lead?

- "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) - A pleasant Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, with a few fantasy flourishes. I think this is the only film I've seen Don Ameche star in aside from "Cocoon."

- "Eternity and a Day" (1998) and Landscape in the Mist (1988) - First films I've seen by the noted Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. I like his visuals and use of music, but his narratives are so obtuse, I'm not sure what to think of him yet.

- "The Lovers on the Bridge" (1991) - Troubled vagrants in a troubling relationship, brought to you by Leos Carax.

- "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" (1983) - Tries much, much too hard to be moving and meaningful, but once David Bowie's on screen, you're not paying attention to anything else.

- "The Official Story" (1985) - Oscar winning Argentine drama that's the perfect example of a film where you have to have some idea of the proper historical and political context to get the full effect of the story.

- "Scarlet Street" (1945) - American noir directed by Fritz Lang, with Edward G Robinson in the lead.

- "Bad Timing" (1980) - Nicholas Roeg psychodrama starring Art Garfunkel. Yes, that Art Garfunkel.

- The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) - Italian war film, the first work I've seen by the Taviani brothers.

- "Reversal of Fortune" (1990) - Barbet Schroeder's legal drama that netted Jeremy Irons a Best Actor Oscar.

- "Daddy Long Legs" (1955) - Late period Fred Astaire musical, co-starring Leslie Caron.

- "Inferno" (1980) - The sequel to Dario Argento's "Suspiria," and better in some ways.

- "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) - Hadn't seen the original, start to finish, before now.

- "The Name of the Rose" (1986) - Medieval murder mystery with Sean Connery, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

- "Gnomeo and Juliet" (2011) - Exactly what you'd expect, but at least it doesn't cut corners and has more spirit than some of the other animated films this year.

- "American: The Bill Hicks Story" (2011), "The Captains" (2011), and "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" (2011) - There are an awful lot of showbiz docs on Netflix, aren't there?

That's fifty-eight titles for the month for anyone keeping count. I agree, it's a bit much, though I've done bigger numbers than this before. And as you can see, there are a lot of older, foreign, and art films. I'm more reluctant to write about them, because I'm aware that I don't have nearly as much information and experience with them as I do with more recent, mainstream films. I watch the classics for my own edification, but in the analysis, I'm not sure half the time if I know what I'm talking about. It's that old conundrum, that the the more you learn, the more you realize that you don't know. I guess that's why I'm more comfortable with meta posts, or waiting until I've seen multiple films by one director, to get a better sense of their style and character, before making any comments. And more importantly, I don't want this to be a stuffy academic blog, or just a bland catalog of films that only a few fellow nerds will ever seek out. I pick and choose based on my own writing ability and, of course, what I think people would like to read.

But in any case, how on earth do people run out of things to watch on Netflix Instant Watch? The notion utterly baffles me.
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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Good Golly, Miz Dolly

I grew up loving musicals, but "Hello, Dolly!" was one I only knew for its signature song, immortalized by Louis Armstrong and Carol Channing. It wasn't until "WALL-E" incorporated a couple of clips that I was even aware that there was a film version, starring Barbara Streisand as her follow-up to "Funny Girl." Directed by Gene Kelly, it's an old-fashioned musical in every sense, but sadly it's not a very memorable one, and I'm not surprised it has been largely forgotten over the years.

The opening number introduces Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand), a New York widow who offers matchmaking and a variety of other useful services for reasonable fees. She's hired by the grumpy Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), who owns a prosperous Hay and Feed store out in Yonkers, to take his niece Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) to New York City, away from the attentions of the poor artist, Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune), who has won her heart. Horace intends to travel to the city separately, to court a hatmaker named Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). Dolly is certain that she'd make a much better spouse for Horace, and so starts putting her own plans in motion. Luckily the two clerks at the Hay and Feed store, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin), are yearning for a little adventure, and it doesn't take much for Dolly to convince them to sneak off to New York City, to romance Irene and her assistant, Minnie Fay (E. J. Peaker).

"Hello, Dolly!" does many things right, so it's hard to have any bad feelings toward the film. Barbara Streisand as Dolly is wonderful, though you do get the sense that the part was meant for an older actress. Streisand's comic timing and acting abilities prove invaluable, especially in her solos and asides, which reveal Dolly's warmth and sentiment beneath her slick exterior. Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin are also irresistible as a pair of overgrown, amusingly innocent clerks who vow not to go back to Yonkers until they've "kissed a girl." The extravagantly staged musical numbers are a treat to watch, especially the acrobatic waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, and the falling-in-love number that sets innumerable doting couples loose on Central Park. The whole tone of the film is pleasantly nostalgic, recreating the turn-of-the-century era in soft colors and bright lights.

And maybe that's why it feels so insubstantial. Two and a half hours and a massive budget were devoted to a fairly simple romantic farce, and though "Dolly" has its charms, it simply can't support the weight of all the spectacle. Few of the songs are memorable. The central romance doesn't work. Walter Matthau is a perfect grump, but not much of a singer and has no chemistry with Barbara Streisand whatsoever. His character is played so dour, with an entire number devoted to examining how little he thinks of women, the audience can't help but wonder why Dolly should want to marry him, even for his money. Times and values have changed, and it feels wrong that a liberated lady like Dolly Levi should consider the miserable Horace Vandergelder a prize simply because he's loaded. There's not much evidence to suggest she's especially fond of the old curmudgeon otherwise.

Some of the blame for this must go to the director. Gene Kelly is great at delivering his big showstoppers, but he sacrifices too much story and character, when there's not much of either to begin with. The second act is noticeably truncated, and some of the players like Ermengarde and Ambrose are so woefully underutilized, one wonders why they appear at all. Cornelius and Barnaby are a lot of fun, but so broadly comic they often feel like sidekicks upgraded to lead roles when other stars didn't show up. Another weak spot is the humor. During the big numbers, the visual gags and physical comedy come off very well. More dialogue-based attempts levity, however, tend to fall flat, like a running joke that involves Dolly having business cards ready for every conceivable kind of service. The film is not very adept at dialing down for the smaller moments when they become necessary.

Nostalgia is always a tricky card to play, and in the end "Hello, Dolly!" can't escape being a 1960s musical in love with the earliest days of the twentieth century, that fails to say anything particularly noteworthy about the era it celebrates or provide a story universal enough to hold the attention of modern audiences. Looking back, I realize that I frequently got "Dolly" confused with "Mame" and "Gypsy," two other musicals of the same era with big leading female roles, but far more heart and substance to them. "Dolly," gets an A for effort, but the film plays better as a fond old memory of a movie musical than the genuine article.
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Evil Queen Ascendant

Well, I caved. You all knew I would. I watched the trailers for the two Snow White-themed movies coming out next year, "Mirror, Mirror" and "Snow White and the Huntsman," and two things were immediately apparent. The first is that the two films are totally different, not going for remotely the same audiences, and the whole notion of a feud between them should be put to bed once and for all. The other is that both films have taken the same tactic of marketing their films based on their best assets - the actresses playing the Evil Queens. I take this as a very good thing.

First up in March will be "Mirror, Mirror," directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Lily Collins as Snow White and Julia Roberts as her royal evil stepmother. The tone of the trailer is light and humorous, and very heavy on the eye candy. "Alice in Wonderland" is pointedly namechecked at one point. Collins has very little to do or say in trailer. Instead, the vast majority of the time and attention goes to Julia Roberts, bringing on the camp with the help of Nathan Lane and Armie Hammer, playing the Prince. She's also shown in at least half a dozen different ornate costumes, gets all the best lines - relatively speaking - and looks like she's having a ball.

Then in June comes the much darker, grimmer "Snow White and the Huntsman," an action-adventure starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, and Charlize Theron as the icy evil queen. The trailer is told from the queen's point of view, full of shots of her being photogenically nasty, while the two leads run about in the woods, and barely get a word in edgewise. Now Stewart and Hemsworth, being the title characters, are probably going to get far more screentime in the actual film, but it's hard to imagine Theron will be less of a presence, especially after the trailer spent two minutes selling her evil queen as sex and violence incarnate.

Ever since these fairy tale film projects started being announced, I've anticipated this moment. I love villainesses, the raging, cackling, vamping, over-the-top, evil queens and witches who are a staple of fairy tales. But Hollywood is a man's world, and male superheroes fight male supervillains, or genderless aliens, or giant robots. Occasionally you get a sexy Bond girl who goes bad, or a secondary henchlady like Bellatrix Lestrange, but no one who's really built up as a credible threat. But an evil queen is a different matter. Then you can justify hiring an actress like Roberts or Theron, who have an Academy Award apiece, to come in and take command of the screen.

And what I'm really hoping for, which both trailers suggest might be there, is that these menacing ladies will be allowed to come off as well-rounded, interesting characters instead of just the same old tropes. We've had a great run of comic-book villains lately, including the Joker, Magneto, and Loki from "Thor." Next year, with Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts as the evil queens, and Anne Hathaway playing Catwoman, I'm hoping for a similar run of memorable villainesses too. In previous posts I've lamented the lack of female serial killers, but female villains in general could use a boost. After all, the villains always seem to have the most fun, don't they?

Hollywood has been getting better about pushing more big franchise films led by women. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" lands in December, and "The Hunger Games," "Brave," "Prometheus," and the Snow White films will take their chances next year. However, improving gender parity doesn't mean just giving over more lead roles to women, but making sure we get a better balance of males and females in all the other roles too. It's telling that the few female-led franchises we have now like "Twilight" and "Underworld" hardly feature female baddies at all. And as it's generally not considered good form to show James Bond or Batman being too mean to the fairer sex, even when they deserve it, there are few opportunities for villainesses to leave their marks.

I mean, who was the last really great movie villainess that you can think of? Gothel from "Tangled? The Other Mother from "Coraline"? Maybe Dolores Umbridge? It has been far too long since the Bride's hit-list from "Kill Bill." So, as someone who will always secretly root for the bad girls, the wicked women, and the evil, evil queens, I hope both "Mirror, Mirror" and "Snow White and the Huntsman" do well and Hollywood can be encouraged to create more parts in this vein. And maybe encourage some of our more seasoned actresses to come out and play them.

Okay, "Mirror, Mirror" looks pretty terrible, but this is the most interesting role Julia Roberts has had in ages.
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The End of Film

If you've been keeping up with Roger Ebert's Journal, you'll know that he's been chronicling the sudden death of film. No, not the motion picture industry, but the actual, literal celluloid filmstrips that have been projected onto movie screens for over a century. Theaters are increasingly turning to digital projection, and being hastened along by the studios because of the cheaper distribution costs that digital allows. The cost of filmmaking is dropping too, as film cameras give way to video. "Like Crazy," the indie romance currently playing across the street from me, was shot with a $1500 camera. As a result, the production of film and film cameras has quietly been halted by many manufacturers. They will still be available to the directors who prefer film, probably for a long while, but the move signals that the days of celluloid are numbered.

This spells the end of an era in film, literally the end of physical film itself. We all should have seen it coming, since cheap digital cameras upended consumer photography and home video. It was only a matter of time before the technology improved to the point where it would impact Hollywood as well. But unlike Ebert and others, I'm not all that sad to see film go. I understand the sentimental feelings people have toward the film canisters and physically spooling reels and the flicker of the old projectors. I've read up on many of the arguments about the relative quality of film and digital projection, and I fully understand that the studios and the theaters are settling for the most economical system rather than the one that delivers the best viewing experience to their audiences. And I share the worries that archivists have voiced about the relative fragility of digital files compared to hardy physical celluloid.

However, I guess that I've learned to view media format changes as something of an inevitability. Records gave way to cassette tapes, that gave way to CDs and then MP3s. Betamax gave way to VHS, that gave way to DVDs and BluRays, and digital files are already encroaching on them. And don't get me started on the endless updates of my video and audio codecs. Some changes have been for the better and some have been for the worse, but they keep coming, and to try and make a stand against them is an exercise in futility.

Moreover, the history of motion pictures has always been a history of technical innovations. It's been a while since we've had something as dramatic as the dawn of sound or color or widescreen, but that doesn't mean the drive to improve has ever gone away. Most innovations are minor enough, that only real film connoisseurs can tell the difference in quality. I doubt that your average moviegoer would even notice if their local theater switched from 35mm to video projection. Hollywood's recent 3D boom has gotten a lot of attention, but it's more of a gimmick than a real lasting change in the way we watch movies, and none of the modern systems have really improved all that much on the 3D technology that's been around since 50s. Some innovations have never caught on, or proved economically unfeasible after the initial shine wore off. As Ebert notes, the 70mm film is long gone, too expensive for penny-pinching studios, and promising projection systems like Maxivision have remained unexploited. Instead, Hollywood turned to IMAX, which they could more easily justify charging a premium for. So it goes.

And don't think that this is the end of it. There are other innovations coming down the pipeline that might make an even greater impact. Right now, Peter Jackson is shooting his new "Hobbit" movies at 48 frames-per-second (fps) instead of the standard 24 fps, which is supposed to result in smoother movement and more immersive visuals. James Cameron and others have been talking about going as high as 60 fps. If the higher frame rates catch on and become new standards, it'll change the fundamental nature of film watching and film production.

So yes, this is the end of film, but it's far from the end of movies. The shift to digital cinema projection has plenty of benefits, like the lowered costs, some improvements in quality, more flexibility in putting together ads and trailers, and of course, digital prints don't wear out at the rate celluloid prints do. Film had a great run that should never be forgotten, but it's natural for the times and technology to change, and the old to make way for the new. In another hundred years, who knows if films will still be projected at all, or just beamed straight into out heads?

Until then, happy watching.
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How Do We Save "Community"?

Since NBC announced its midseason schedule, which revealed that "Community" is being put on hiatus, I've been conflicted. One part of me is looking at the declining ratings, and sympathizing with the executives who are running out of rationales to keep the show on the schedule. "Community" is a great show and continues to be great, but it's also proven to be a niche program, like the beloved "Arrested Development." It probably wouldn't have lasted as long as it has on a network, if that network didn't happen to be NBC, which has been in dire straits for years. If "Community never comes back from its premature benching, and the rest of the season's episodes are burned off over the summer, that'll still be sixty-six episodes, which is nine more than "Arrested Development" managed. We should be grateful "Community" got this far, right?

And then of course, there's the louder, madder, fangirl part of me that's shouting, "Screw NBC! Six seasons and a movie!"

"Community" is my favorite television show currently airing, a font of unique, intelligent humor in an otherwise mundane network sitcom landscape, and I want it to continue. I understand the fix that NBC is in, but they could have done a lot more to help the show. It's currently in one of the toughest timeslots on the schedule, up against a much more accessible geek-themed sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," that is competing for the same audience. If NBC is trying to build a comedy block on Wednesdays, why not let "Community" lead off the night there, where it would be up against family sitcoms like "Modern Family" and the dwindling "Survivor"? Or Monday nights, which were once a nerd show haven?

But never mind what the network could have done. What can "Community" fans do right now to save the show?

First and foremost, help the network generate revenue from it. Buy past seasons of the show, acquire whatever merchandise exists, and keep watching the current season too, while encouraging others to do the same. The watching part is a little more complicated than it sounds, though. There are plenty of passionate "Community" fans out there, from the reactions I've been seeing around the web. The problem is that nobody seems to be watching the show live on Thursdays at 8PM, which are the ratings numbers that still count for the most. "Community" actually gets a significant bump once you factor in the DVR numbers, which signals that many people prefer to time-shift watching the show. More are also watching on Hulu or NBC.com. The audience that loves "Community" is young and web-savvy and doesn't play by the old rules. Traditional appeals to watch the show live just aren't going to work, because these viewing habits are already pretty deeply ingrained and hard to change. However, appeals to watch the show from legal sources might help. There are still way too many torrent fiends out there.

Keeping "Community's" profile high will also help. I think the only reason the show's benching has been in the news at all is because angry reactions started trending on Twitter, and anything that trends on Twitter these days is hailed as newsworthy. Hollywood is youth-obsessed, remember, and Hollywood could stand to be reminded that however small the "Community" audience is, it's young, influential, and highly desirable. There's also been a lot of love from the critics, who regularly praise the show's high ambitions and flair for complexity. I'd suggest amping up the campaigning for Emmy awards, but that's too far off in the future to do much good now, and last year's net of zero nominations suggest that the Hollywood establishment doesn't get the high-minded humor anyway. But the more people discuss the show, the more "Community" memes seep into the culture, and the more outrage can be drummed up over the possible cancellation, the more newbies might be willing to give the show another look.

How about stunts like the campaign to save "Chuck" by buying Subway sandwiches to appeal directly to one of their major sponsors? Couldn't hurt, though NBC isn't seeing very good returns from its decision to keep "Chuck" around, which has been doing far worse in the ratings than "Community" this year and is not long for this world. Stunts would be good for getting attention, but most of these appeals have failed in the past. It would be fun to try and come up with a Save-the-Show campaign for "Community" that is as self-referential and meta as the show itself, just for kicks. I just don't think it would do much good.

However, letting "Community" slip away quietly in the night is not an acceptable option either. So keep yelling and screaming and making a fuss, fellow "Community" fans. In the end, NBC might not listen to us, but at least we can make them regret any unhappy outcome by never letting them hear the end of it.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sounds Like a Sinister Dalek Plot

So, the BBC has decided to move ahead with a feature film based on the "Doctor Who" television series, to be directed by "Harry Potter" regular, David Yates. According to this Variety article, the film will not follow the continuity of the current series, but strike out on its own. Some of the fans have not been taking this well, others are cautiously optimistic, and so on. You know how the song goes.

Now turning "Doctor Who" into a feature film has been done before. There were two theatrically released "Who" films made in the 60s starring Peter Cushing, which are not considered to be in continuity with the long-running television series. There was also a made-for-television movie with Paul McGann that the American FOX Network produced in the 90s, that is considered part of the series canon, in spite of some major plot inconsistencies. There have also been various spin-off media like audio plays and novels that have their own separate continuities. Fans of the series might fret that expanding the "Who" universe into films again might be some backdoor attempt by the BBC to put an end to their beloved series, which has been slipping in the ratings lately, but past features have had little impact on the televised "Doctor Who." And other franchises like "Star Trek" have pulled off juggling multiple series and movies before.

And if there's any science-fiction franchise that has the flexibility to accommodate couple of different concurrent versions at once, it's "Doctor Who." One of the reasons the show has endured for as long as it has is because the premise is so open-ended. You have an alien protagonist with the ability to "regenerate" into another form at the point of death, allowing many different actors to play the Doctor over the lengthy run of the television series. He flies around in a time-traveling spaceship having adventures, which can be set anywhere, and at any point in times. The Doctor's traveling companions regularly come and go, changing with the eras. So do his enemies, though the best ones like the Master and the iconic Daleks always seem to come back for more abuse.

A theatrical "Doctor Who" film, done with a bigger scope and budget than what the television show could ever hope to afford, could be a good thing for fans. There are parts of "Who" lore that the series has purposefully avoided - a proper origin story, for instance. When the Doctor first arrived on UK television screens in 1963, he was already an elderly gentleman with a granddaughter in tow. What were his early years like? What was going on in that war that the relaunched series made such a fuss over, but never showed us? Or a movie could take place further off in the Doctor's future. Or simply start over with the basic premise of an alien adventurer and his blue box, ignoring the decades of continuity offered by the show. Though if the continuity is ignored, there's a good chance that some eager fans will figure out a way to incorporate the separate universe anyway. Such is fandom.

You could even have two or more Doctors running around at once. In the show itself, the Doctor meets earlier incarnations of himself, usually any time "Who" has a major anniversary. In 1973, for the 10th anniversary, we had "The Three Doctors." In 1983 came "The Five Doctors." It's widely expected that the upcoming 50th anniversary will reunite whoever is still left standing and can be lured back into the studio. That's the kind of wonderfully weird, wild, boundary-side-stepping shenanigans that "Doctor Who" pulls off on a regular basis. Fans should really be used to this sort of thing by now. And they should also dust off those abandoned campaigns for various actors to play the Eleventh Doctor before Matt Smith was cast. There's a new position to fill.

Of course, the movie could be terrible. The wrong people might end up in charge, who will change everything they shouldn't or be too intimidated to change all the things that they need to, thus damaging the franchise. I doubt it though. "Doctor Who" has had its bad periods, and it's always bounced back from them. At worst, the film will be another failed experiment, like the 1996 made-for-television one. But you never know. A successful film might edge "Doctor Who" a little closer to immortality, allowing the character to join the ranks of British perennials like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

Speaking of which, is it really still another month and a half until the Christmas special?
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Monday, November 14, 2011

Feeling Too Old For the Movies?

"The Hunger Games" just came out with a new trailer, setting its existing fanbase buzzing. With any luck, we're looking at the next big popular movie franchise, aimed at teenagers and young adults. But how on earth is a thirty-something movie lover like myself supposed to approach it? It's no secret that the majority of the films churned out by Hollywood are aimed at the 13-to-25-year-old audience, which loves superheroes, gross-out comedies, vampires, and questionable pop music. If you were appalled that anyone could like the newest Adam Sandler movie, "Jack and Jill," it probably means that you weren't part of its target audience, which doesn't file its own tax returns yet.

Every movie fan has to face the fact that around the time they reach their late twenties, the movie studios aren't regularly targeting them anymore. Most big franchises actually play pretty well to grown-ups, featuring seasoned stars and lots of spectacle, even though the stories are usually dumbed down to be safe for twelve-year-olds. But then you start running across red-hot series like "Twilight," that the mainstream media glorifies, while also making it clear that anyone over twenty-five shouldn't really be watching it. At my age, eyebrows would be raised if I professed any fondness toward "Twilight" - one of my girlfriends likes the books, but also hastily adds that it's because they make her nostalgic for high school.

The problem for any media junkie is, of course, that "Twilight" and "Transformers" and its ilk are so emphatically part of the mainstream culture now, and once you lose connection with the mainstream, you're lost. You're an old fogey, a pretentious artsy fartsy elitist, and totally out of touch. This wasn't so much of a problem in the past, when Hollywood wasn't so doggedly youth-centric, but these days if you don't like CGI cartoons or Marvel superheroes, it's difficult to stay invested in what's going on at the multiplex. I've complained on this blog before that my parents love movies, but it's a constant struggle to find films that fit their sensibilities. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a comedy with no raunch or cursing in it these days?

But I digress. People approach aging out of the mainstream in different ways. Some embrace it, happy to be in a position where they can write off the worst of the idiot blockbusters as pabulum for undeveloped minds. Some refuse to acknowledge that films like "Twilight" or "Scott Pilgrim" were made for a different audience, and castigate them accordingly. Some try to tiptoe around the fact that they've fallen behind the curve, and do their best refocus their attention on the remaining films aimed at grown ups. And some of us, myself included, are lucky enough to not to really give a damn who a film was made for.

I ran across the aging-out problem very early, because I didn't give up cartoons when I was supposed to. I got used to seeing all the boy heroes and spunky adventure girls get younger and younger compared to me, and eventually I just accepted it as a normal part of the formula. It's the same with other kinds of movies I've supposedly gotten too old for. Tales of young love will almost always feature adolescents. Angry young men are rarely over thirty. Larger-than-life superheroes must always appeal to kids, and the dark, gritty, violent anti-heroes are for the rebellious youth. To cut ourselves off from all these stories would be an awful shame.

And once you start figuring out what the rules are, it's easier to get a handle on viewing these movies objectively, focusing on execution, on innovation, on the little generational quirks that make them different than what came before. It's easier to appreciate them for what they are, and what they're able to do within the limits that mainstream Hollywood demands. The best of these films can transcend the usual age boundaries entirely. "Harry Potter" is the prototypical teen adventure series, but it's so well done, nobody bats an eye if adults like it. Try to suggest a grown-up can't enjoy a PIXAR movie, and you'll be made to regret it quickly.

There is, however, absolutely no denying that adult fans aren't meant to enjoy films for children and teenagers the same way that children and teenagers do. Watching middle-aged women throw themselves at Robert Pattinson with the same gusto as their adolescent daughters is depressing. But that doesn't mean we aren't allowed to enjoy films made for younger people on our own terms. In the case of "The Hunger Games," I'm not too interested in the plot, that's shaping up to be a sanitized version of "Battle Royale." However, I do want to see if Jennifer Lawrence can carry an action film. And I'm dying to get a look at the new animated film based on the Dr. Seuss's "The Lorax," being produced by the people behind "Despicable Me." And good grief, have you seen the list of people who worked on "Tintin"?

On the other hand, it does bother me that films for grown-ups have gotten scarce enough that more and more people are noticing the drop-off in entertainment options once they hit a certain age. True, audiences do tend to shrink as they get older, money is tighter, and they stop going out so often. However, older audiences have proven time and time again to be an important and vital segment of the moviegoing population, and the studios ignore them at their own peril.

A huge part of the problem of aging out of the 13-to-25 audience, after all, is that it can be difficult to find a comparable adult-oriented media sphere to move on to from there - well, at the movie theaters anyway. Television is a different story, but that's a post for another time.
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Friday, November 11, 2011

A Python Top Ten

And now for something completely different.

I'm bored and I'm running dry on current stuff to write about. So here's a list of the Top 10 Greatest Contributions of Monty Python's Flying Circus to Western Civilization.

1. Terry Gilliam's Directing Career - Now, I respect the work of Terry Jones, who co-directed "Holy Grail" and fully directed "Life of Brian," which are two of the greatest comedy films ever made, but Gilliam is one of my favorite directors. If Gilliam hadn't decided to try his hand at directing Python's first feature, and really gotten into it, he never would have gone on to make "Time Bandits" and "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys," and all the rest. And that would have been a terrible loss to us all. Okay, well maybe not "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," or "Tideland," or "The Brothers Grimm," but definitely all the others.

2. SPAM, SPAM, SPAM - I don't know how they got away with it, especially since Hormel proved litigious and grumpy enough to go after the Jim Henson Company for naming a Muppet character after the canned ham product, and E-mail spammers for linking them with electronic junk-mail. But the SPAM sketch endures, forever associating SPAM with mirth and overindulgence, and so ingrained into the public consciousness that Hormel had no choice but to capitulate, and offer up commemorative tins upon the release of "SPAMalot." After all, thanks to Python, they're the only canned ham product to appear in the title of a major Broadway musical.

3. The Spanish Inquistion - The dirty little secret of us doltish, uneducated masses is that very few people would even remember the Spanish Inquisition if it weren't for Monty Python. Seriously, how often does medieval religious history come up in every day conversation? And specifically the Spanish parts? But as far as I know, the Pythons are the only ones who have ever sent up one of the most heinous organizations of mass-murderers in history. Now the Spanish Inquisition will always be remembered as an incompetent lot of dullards in in funny outfits, and I take no small amout of pleasure in that.

4. This is a Late Parrot - My first exposure to the immortal Dead Parrot sketch wasn't the original. I actually ran across someone's homage/rip-off of it first, using a different dead animal and an entirely new list of euphemisms for its demise. And it was still hysterical. But nothing can compare to John Cleese's outrage and Michael Palin's evasion, as they spar over the state of the Norwegian Blue. The Dead Parrot sketch seems more timely and stinging than ever now, with so many major corporations and institutions out there pulling similar tricks on a daily basis to screw over customers and patrons. So thank you, John Cleese, for giving voice to our rage.

5. Eric Idle's Musical Career - In addition to writing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" and the "Galaxy Song," which are two of the catchiest tunes it's probably not polite to sing in public, Idle went on to turn "Holy Grail" in the Broadway musical "SPAMalot" and "Life of Brian" into the comic oratio "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)." Now say what you will about the quality of "SPAMalot," but it's a lot of fun, and at least it's success seems to have cut short Idle's rather terrifying and abominable acting career. If you've had to sit through "Casper" or "Dudley Do Right," you know what I mean.

6. Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink - It's funny how some of the most innocuous bits of Python ended up being some of the most memorable and influential. The Nudge Nudge Wink Wink sketch, with its silly innuendoes and its very un-Python punch line, has nonetheless entered the English lexicon. And that character that Eric Idle plays, that winking, leering, eyebrow-arching young mook, has been showing up in sex comedies ever since, usually to give bad advice to the leading man. Sadly, modern reincarnations always seem to leave out the best bit, where Mr. "Know-what-I-Mean" is revealed not to know anything about sex at all.

7. The Black Knight - "Holy Grail" is a goldmine of concentrated Python merriment, from the killer rabbit to the coconuts to the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. But if I had to vote for the best moment, it has to be the Black Knight, a foreboding warrior who seriously overestimates his own capabilities, but refuses to yield until he's chopped into pieces. Cleese claims he wanted to subvert the idea that never giving up would always lead to victory, which I respect and appreciate. But really, it's all about the glorious absurdity a horribly maimed knight shouting "It's only a flesh wound!" and threating to bite people's kneecaps off.

8. The Teachings of Brian - I'll let this one speak for itself:

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me, You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for your selves! You're all individuals!
The Crowd: (In unison) Yes! We're all individuals!
Brian: You're all different!
The Crowd: (In unison) Yes, we are all different!
Man in crowd: I'm not.
The Crowd: Shhhhh!

9. Gilliam v. ABC 538 F.2d 14 (2nd Cir. 1976) - After the "Python" programs were licensed to ABC in the 70s, who of course heavily edited them for public broadcast, the Pythons sued and won. The judge in the case declared that ABC's actions had caused to program to lose its "iconoclastic verve," and set the precedent for authors of a work the right to retain a degree of control over its presentation, and to not be associated with any unauthorized mangling of it. Of course, the studios and the broadcasters make artists sign away all these rights immediately these days, but it's nice to know that the principle is there.

10. The Fish Slapping Dance - It's my favorite sketch. I make no apologies.
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Update on "They Shoot Pictures"

Last summer, when I had gotten through about 500 titles from the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They" ("TSPDT") list of the 1000 Greatest Films, I wrote up this post to vent some of my frustrations. And now, a year later and with about a 150 more titles from the list checked off, I thought it was time to revisit that opinion.

My biggest beef with the list last year was finding so many mediocre films like Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits," Coppola's "The Godfather Part III" and Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," crowding out better, but lower profile films from lesser known directors. I think I've got a better understanding of why these titles were included. Let's take "The Godfather Part III" for example. The first two "Godfather" films are among the most revered films of all time. You could talk endlessly about them, but eventually the conversation would turn to the final, less well-regarded installment. If you really love "The Godfather," it's mandatory to have an opinion about "The Godfather Part III," whether good or bad. And that's the reason why a lot of titles are on the TSPDT list. I may not like "Juliet of the Spirits," but I can't argue that it's not a significant film, or an absolutely vital one to see if you want to talk about the career and development of Federico Fellini, one of the most important Italian directors.

The more films I see, the more important context becomes. After a while, simply reading Wikipedia entries and Criterion booklets wasn't enough, and I started picking up books about film history and film theory to help me piece together the bigger picture. Film history isn't all about successes and breakthroughs and moments of genius, but about the failures and the disappointments and the missed chances too. Thus "Heaven's Gate," which was not just a bomb, but a legendary bomb with consequences that went much further than anyone could have predicted at the time. TSPDT does a good job of reflecting this. In some cases I still think that the emphasis on particular directors gets a little out of hand - there's really no reason to include so many obscure Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau films - but I do appreciate that a director's failures can be at least as interesting as their successes, and provide just as much material for good discussion. There are a few entries that still confuse me, like "Starship Troopers," which I fail to see any cultural or artistic value in whatsoever, but I'm sure there's a good argument in support of it somewhere.

As I'm getting into the more obscure titles, the diversity of the TSPDT list gets more and more impressive. I've been watching films by Emir Kusturica, Gillian Armstrong, Ousmane Sembene, directors who are practically unknown outside of the very narrow contexts of Eastern European, Australian, and Senegalese film. A list of a thousand entries may seem extreme, but it ensures that once you get past the bigger, foundational classics, there's still room for cinema from smaller countries, documentaries, shorts, and other interesting corners of the film world that never get as much attention elsewhere. One of the most intriguing directors I've become familiar with thanks to TSPDT and the Criterion Collection is Stan Brakhage, an experimental filmmaker who creates these amazing video collages of abstract imagery.

I've also accepted the fact that I'm probably never going to finish the whole list, at least without expending much more effort than I think I'm willing to put into the venture. There are rarities like Andy Warhol's "Chelsea Girls," unavaliable except for rare museum screenings, out of print titles like Roberto Rossellini's "Stromboli," and films I just honestly have no interest in watching. Six hours of Jean-Luc Godard's pretentious rambling through "The History of Cinema" sounds incredibly unappealing, and I'd probably find excuses to put off watching it for as long as possible, though currently there's no commercial version available with English subtitles that I know of.

The TSPDT list has also gotten me watching all sort of other films that aren't on the list. I'm currently in the middle of hunting down everything that Peter Greenaway ever directed, after watching "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," the only Greenaway title on the current list at #855. Ditto animator Norm McLaren, whose work I stumbled across while searching for other shorts. And heck, I'll watch pretty much anything where Toshiro Mifune or Takashi Shimura appear, whether Akira Kurosawa is directing or not.

In short, I'm a happy cineaste, and still getting a lot out of They Shoot Pictures. It's certainly not a path to cinema enlightenment for everyone, and I've gotten frustrated at times, but it's working for me. I definitely feel like I'm getting more out of it now than I was a year ago, and I look forward to checking more titles off the list.

Happy watching.
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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Oscar Drama Comes Early This Year

I debated with myself whether I should wait and let the situation cool down a little before adding my two cents about Brett Ratner pulling out as the producer of the Oscars yesterday, and Eddie Murphy pulling out as host only a few hours ago. But, well, I doubt any opinions I have about the situation now are going to change in the next few days, and I might as well get what mileage I can out of the drama while it's still fresh and bloody.

I didn't find Ratner throwing around vulgar language and a gay slur particularly shocking. I mean, "gay" itself was an accepted epithet throughout most of 90s and 00s before the culture changed for the better, and internet message board shenanigans have inured me to pretty much all forms of harsh language and shock tactics. The term Ratner used seemed a little on the extreme side, but otherwise pretty much in keeping with the slick, hyper-masculine, homophobic, frat-boy culture that's always been endemic in certain parts of Hollywood. You know, the same mindset that lets Michael Bay make the world's sleaziest toy commercials and provided "Entourage" with seven seasons worth of material. I figured that after Ratner's immediate apology and the slap on the wrist that came from the Academy a few days ago, that would be the end of it.

And I'm kind of pleasantly surprised that it wasn't. Hollywood has a high tolerance for jackasses, but it's also extremely image-conscious. And the Oscars, which are nothing if not about maintaining an image, put Ratner in a higher profile role than he wasn't prepared to handle. Oscar hopefuls may thrive on controversy, but it's anathema to the actual establishment that runs the whole show. Even though Ratner's comments were made during his promotional appearances for "Tower Heist," and they reflected an attitude of thoughtless flippancy more than outright malice, his association with the Oscars put him in the spotlight. And the remarks were unacceptable to enough people that they had consequences this time. Casual homophobia is no longer a laughing matter to the mainstream, and Ratner's resignation can be seen as a barometer of the changing culture.

Now I don't have any particular beef with Brett Ratner. He's crass and he's graceless, but he's always seemed harmless enough. He's known for good-natured buddy comedies, cutesy Mariah Carey music videos, silly action films, and actually made a better Hannibal Lecter film than Ridley Scott did. He may well be a hack, as some have claimed, but he's not without talent. When it was announced that he would be producing the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony back in August, I thought it was a good move. Ratner may not be synonymous with the kind of films that the Oscars usually honor, but he'd surely be able to liven up the moribund Oscar telecast, which could use a good infusion of more populist razzle dazzle, especially after last year's disaster.

To be honest, I was more worried about Eddie Murphy. The Oscar host gig has long been a haven for comedians past their prime, such as Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Steve Martin. However, Murphy isn't just past his prime, he's known to an entire new generation as an abrasive talking donkey, and even that wore out its welcome ten years ago. Now as a child of the 80s, of course I know that Murphy is a comedy legend and should be treated as such. And after James Franco and Anne Hathaway bombed, I'm glad for any comedian to get the hosting job again. But I can't remember the last time I saw an Eddie Murphy performance where he wasn't phoning it in or trying much, much to hard to revive his 80s mojo without much success. Murphy as Oscar host could have been great, but I thought it was equally likely that it would have been cringeworthy.

So now it's about four months to the ceremony, and the Oscars have no host and its big name producer is out. Fortunately longtime awards show producer Don Mischer is still hanging in there, and with all the attention, there's a good chance that bigger names might get interested and offer to lend their services. I'd like to see a more current comedian like Tina Fey or Steve Carrell try the hosting gig. Maybe lure in a celeb producer with a more substantive resume. Losing Ratner and Murphy at this stage is inconvenient, but there's still plenty of time to regroup.

As far as I'm concerned, one good thing has already come out of this - we have a new F-word that people now understand is not to be used in polite conversation. And with any luck, all the remaining little homophobic asides and insinuations that are still far too common will be totally passe by February.
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Favorite Federico Fellini Film

One of the things I always appreciated about Fellini was his ability to stick his landings. Even if one of his films had me utterly lost and I couldn't follow what was going on, eventually Marcello Mastroianni would find himself on a beach in the early morning hours, for a moment of self-reflection after his wild adventures in "La Dolce Vita," or the white faces and the augustes would get together to put on one last glorious show in "The Clowns." As Fellini moved farther and farther away from his roots in Neo-realism, into his "Felliniesque" flights of fancy and experimentation, the harder it was for me to discern what he was trying to say, save for his endings, which always managed to leave me with something definitive. There have been Fellini films where all I've enjoyed were those endings, like "Juliet of the Spirits," his first color film. "Juliet," the final collaboration between Fellini and his wife, actress Giulietta Masina, was a particular disappointment, because their previous film together, "Nights of Cabiria," is my favorite.

"Cabiria" is the tale of a prostitute who works the streets of Rome, looking for love and happiness. At the beginning of the story she's dumped by her live-in lover, who pushes her into the lake and makes off with her purse. Stung, Cabiria declares she's done with men, and resolves to be independent. Played by Masina, Cabiria puts on a tough exterior, with a quick tongue and an indignant attitude, but she has a soft heart that lets her be taken advantage of, even when she should know better. Her tragic flaw and her saving grace is that she always has hope. Maybe this time things will turn out right. Maybe this man won't be a louse and a cheat like the others. Some have compared her to Chaplin's Little Tramp, a shabby figure in a funny outfit, eking out her survival in a world of poverty. Even in the worst situations, she resolutely keeps her chin up and dares you to look down on her. I liked Masina as Gelsomina, the little fool from "La Strada," but Cabiria is the best role she ever had, and she makes it hers completely.

The Rome of "Cabiria," which was shot in 1956, is a precursor to Fellini's more iconic vision found in "La Dolce Vita." Though largely recovered from WWII, we see poverty everywhere in the city. Wealth and luxury exist, as evidenced by Cabiria's run-in with a movie star, and the signs of social mobility around her, but they remain remote and out of reach. Fellini's style is still very Neo-realist here, emphasizing the gloom of darkened streets and rainy nights, where Cabiria stakes out her turf with a lonely umbrella. However his camera is starting to become more mobile, the settings a little more stylized. Cabiria's visit to a night club is a prelude to the wild revelries that would follow in "La Dolce Vita" and "8 & 1/2." Her visit with a hypnotist, of course, anticipates "Juliet of the Spirits."

Moreover, the film is not particularly concerned with condemning society for the plight of Cabiria. The sympathetic examination of the life of a prostitute is certainly in keeping with the aims of the Neo-realist movement, and Fellini includes satirical and critical segments among Cabiria's adventures, including some mild poking at religion and the upper classes. Yet Cabiria herself is such a strong, distinct character, her sorrows and joys come across as fiercely personal, and can be seen as largely the product of her own determined will and innate weaknesses. Society may be responsible for making a victim of Cabiria, but she'd never let society claim the credit.

And then we have the ending, which is about the most joyous and uplifting thing I've ever seen on film. I don't want to spoil it, but after many ups and downs, Cabiria finds herself a victim once again, and her boundless optimism dealt its harshest blow yet. Ten years prior, DeSica and Rossellini and perhaps the younger Fellini would have left her there, in her misery. But instead, we have a moment of hope. Not society, but perhaps we could say that humanity comes to Cabiria's rescue, revealing that her world is not entirely dark and cynical. "Cabiria" may have its moments of despair and desperation, but in the end it's nice to know that Fellini agrees with his heroine's outlook, and is willing to leave her with the hope of a happy ending, if not a happy ending itself.
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What I've Seen - Fellini

I Vitelloni (1953)
Il Bidone (1955)
La Strada (1954)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
La Dolce Vida (1960)
8 & 1/2 (1963)
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
Satyricon (1969)
Clowns (1970)
Roma (1972)
Amarcord (1973)
Casanova (1976)
And the Ship Sails On (1983)

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Monday, November 7, 2011

The "Harry Potter" Oscar Push

As it's November in Hollywood, and as this year's Oscar race is starting to take shape, the first "For Your Consideration" ads are starting to make the rounds. What surprised me is that I've been seeing a pretty heavy push for the "Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Part 2," the final "Harry Potter" film that was released this summer by Warner Brothers. And by surprising, I mean that my immediate, knee-jerk response was to dismiss the campaign as hopeless and the film as having next to no chance with Academy voters.

I understand why Warners is doing this. The "Potter" franchise has been one of its best performers over the last decade, and they want to send it off with a bang. And a boost in Oscar publicity would help spur DVD and Blu-ray sales, and all the usual ancillary merchandising. On the other hand, the "Potter" series is part of the fantasy genre, which the Academy traditionally shuns. It's also blatantly commercial in the way that most prestige films aren't - its entire existence is due to Warners wanting another summer tentpole for 2011, which lead them to split the final "Potter" installment into two. It also didn't do much new or innovative with effects or filmmaking technique, which tipped the scales for past genre nominees like "Avatar" and "District 9" in the past.

But then, I remembered "Return of the King," which was not only nominated for a raft of Academy Awards in 2004, but pulled off a sweep that year. It managed this in spite of being somewhat less well-received than the previous installments of "Lord of the Rings," weathering audience grumbles that the picture was too long and had too many endings. You're not going to find many people who pick "Return of the King" as their favorite of the trilogy. Most observers speculated that Academy voters were really rewarding all three films that night, as "The Lord of the Rings" was a watershed series, unmatched at that time in their scope, ambition, and critical and financial success. You could easily draw parallels with the "Harry Potter" series, which managed to maintain a wonderful consistency of quality through eight films. The "Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" film franchises even debuted the same year, with their first installments premiering barely a month apart in late 2001.

However, none of the previous "Potter" films has won a single Oscar, and has only collected nine nominations over seven films, mostly in technical categories. "Lord of the Rings" had already won six statuettes before the "Return of the King" sweep, and all three films were nominated for Best Picture. The Academy very well may want to recognize the "Potter" franchise in aggregate, but do the eight "Potter" films in aggregate match up to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy? I have my doubts, especially since there were some pretty mediocre "Potter" films, like "Chamber of Secrets" and "Goblet of Fire" that tend to drag down the others. Also, none of the individual films really pushed boundaries or set standards. The first "Harry Potter" actually had pretty poor CGI effects, even for the time it was made.

On the other hand, eight "Potter" films might match up to an "Avatar" or an "Inception." The Oscar race has changed in 2004 in some significant ways that need to be taken into account. Since the number of nomination slots for Best Picture nominees was doubled a few years ago, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" has a far better chance of getting a slot than it would have five years ago. Also, this year's crop of prestige films hasn't been very strong so far, with few clear contenders coming out of the fall film festivals. If there are enough disappointments in December, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" might have a shot. The Academy does like rewarding consistency, and there's not much out there more consistent than "Harry Potter." Also, it would give younger viewers something to be excited about, and the Academy's been chasing their eyeballs for years.

But I think the trouble is what other categories you could justify nominations for beyond the usual technical nods. "Deathly Hallows Part 2" was very well reviewed, with better notices than just about any other wide-release film this year. However, like "Return of the King," it's clearly not the best "Harry Potter" film. When you try to break down its accomplishments, none of the performances really stood out, the directing was only so-so, and the script has some weak spots. The "For Your Consideration" ads list Art Direction, Editing, and Cinematography as possibilities, along with the usual Sound and Visual Effects categories. However, I definitely don't see it picking up any bigger nominations, and without those, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" won't be much of a contender.

Of course, the hype may be a factor. Warners is putting a lot of dollars behind this, and the series is old enough that it might kick up some nostalgic sentiment, or parents and grandparents might be swayed by cajoling kids. The film's box office is certainly nothing to sneeze at. However, it's also important to remember that the "Return of the King" sweep was seen in many circles as rather embarrassing overkill. Even if it gets the nominations, fans shouldn't get their hopes up - "Deathly Hallows Part 2" likely won't win a thing. But nominations alone should be fine for Warners' purposes. It'll get "Potter" into the awards conversation, and bring plenty of attention with it.

Then maybe, finally, they can let the "Harry Potter" franchise go away for a little while. I don't know about you, but I'm just about Pottered out.
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