Friday, March 30, 2012

The Avatar is Back!

I don't think it's hyperbole to call "Avatar: The Last Airbender" the best American cartoon of the last decade, which takes place in a full, rich multi-cultural fantasy universe. It's one of those rare shows that does everything right, that borrows from other cultures while being respectful to them, is careful to give balanced portrayals of a variety of diverse characters, and most importantly tells a great story very well. It hasn't been an easy ride for fans, who have had to suffer through Nickelodeon sidelining other animated projects to turn out a risible live-action adaptation, "The Last Airbender," which crashed and burned amid a storm of controversy two years ago. However, the creators of the original show have returned with a sequel series, "The Legend of Korra," which premieres on Nickelodeon next month. The first two episodes are already online.

In the "Avatar" universe, certain people have the ability to "bend" one of four elements, air, water, earth, or fire, depending on which of the four peoples that populate the series they come from. Only the Avatar, who is meant to bring balance and peace when the nations are in conflict, and act as a link to the supernatural world, has the ability to bend all four elements. The hero of the first series, the Avatar Aang, has died in the seventy-some years that have passed since "Avatar: The Last Airbender" ended, meaning his powers and responsibilities are passed on to a new Avatar, a girl from an Inuit-like waterbender tribe named Korra. That's not the only thing that has changed. At the end of the first series, we were just starting to see machinery and vehicles reminiscent of the beginnings of the industrial age. By Korra's time, technology has progressed to the point where there are rudimentary automobiles on the road. The majority of the action takes place in and around Republic City, reportedly modeled after Shanghai in the 1920s.

We first meet Korra (Janey Varney) as a precocious toddler, but she soon grows up into an enthusiastic, aggressive seventeen-year-old, busting to get away from the remote, icy tundra where she's been training. She has mastered three of the four elements. The last one is air, which she needs to learn from the stoic airbender Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), one of Aang's sons. However, Tenzin is an administrator of Republic City, which was meant to be a model city where all four nations could converge, but currently suffers from organized crime, systemic poverty, and a brewing social uprising led by non-benders who call themselves Equalists. He can't leave in a time of so much turmoil, so Korra takes the initiative to run away from home and follow Tenzin to the city. Soon she's making new friends, new enemies, and getting into all kinds of trouble.

Korra is quite a bit older than twelve-year-old Aang, and likewise the series feels a little more mature and adult from the outset. The show has plenty of younger characters in the mix, namely Tenzin's trio of airbending children, who provide good comic relief. However, there are also many more adults to contend with, and I expect the storylines are going to get darker a little quicker than they did in the first "Avatar" series. Everything will still be kid-friendly enough for the Nickelodeon crowd, but "Korra" is probably aiming to be more accessible to teenagers and adults too. Korra herself should be appealing to a wide range of viewers, as she's the kind of rebellious, exuberant, and frequently very funny young heroine we don't see enough of.

One thing I'm afraid I'm not sold on right now is the show's visuals. The action scenes look great and the major characters and environments are all beautifully designed, but when you get down to the minor characters, there's a really pronounced reliance on familiar, bland Japanese anime types. The show looks more like an anime than ever and less like a Western cartoon. I miss the first series' balance between the two styles. The music, however, has had a noticeable upgrade, reflecting the move away from older, more traditional forms.

"Korra" should be a great treat for existing "Avatar" fans, but I'm a little worried that younger newcomers will have difficulty following what's going on. In the first episode, there are many references to Aang and other characters from the first series, and a lot of potentially confusing terminology is tossed around. Still, I think Korra is a strong enough character to keep everyone's interest, and the exposition quickly gives way to breathless action scenes and interesting present day conflicts. And if new viewers do want to get all the back story, it's the perfect excuse to go and get acquainted with "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I Watched "Shoah"

How do you watch a nine-and-a-half hour documentary about the Holocaust? Not all at once. I watched an hour or two a day over a week or so. Some days it was a slog, and some days I felt like I could finish all the remaining hours at once, but I'm glad I didn't. Getting through such difficult subject matter required keeping a distance from what was happening onscreen.

There have been many documentaries about the Holocaust. The most famous is certainly Alain Resanis's "Night and Fog," a thirty-minute short released in 1955 that reveals some of the most graphic footage of what was found at the concentration camps. "Shoah" contains no such material. There is no imposed narrative or commentary. The film consists entirely of interviews with survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators in the 1970s, decades after the end of the war. Director and interviewer Claude Lanzmann often has to rely on interpreters, making the interviews very lengthy and slow, but the stories are strong and harrowing. He crosses continents to find his subjects, a barber in New York, Polish villagers still living near Treblinka, and reluctant ex-Nazis in Germany.

The total lack of historical footage and dramatizations are key to the film's impact. Lanzmann does include contemporary footage of the concentration camp sites and the railroads that carried the Jewish prisoners to their deaths. It's sobering to realize how quickly all traces of the horrors have been erased, with only a few memorials to acknowledge their existence. The camp at Chelmno, which is the focus of the early hours of "Shoah," is mostly empty green fields and patches of forest. An SS solider, with the help of a map, must fill in details of the notorious Treblinka for us from memory. It's all too apparent that the interview subjects have also grown old, and each first-hand account becomes all the more precious.

Contributing to the length of "Shoah" is Lanzmann's thoroughness. When examining the railway system that brought prisoners to the camps, he interviews surviving prisoners, railway workers, guards, and Polish villagers who saw the trains pass. Even the most incidental accounts turn out to be revealing. Did the Poles know what would happen to the Jews at their destination? Did people try to warn them, or was it considered too risky and futile? A German bureaucrat, responsible for keeping the system running, is happy to describe all the particulars of how the transports worked, but denies any knowledge of the exterminations.

I appreciated that "Shoah" spent much of its time on less dramatic, almost mundane stories. There are some highly emotional ones in the mix, especially toward the end. People break down recalling atrocities, and a few have to be coaxed by Lanzmann onscreen to continue. Yet others, particularly the bystanders, seem largely untouched by what they witnessed. One of the most affecting interviews is one of the final ones, where a resistance member recounts sneaking out of the Warsaw ghetto, and being stunned to discover that the rest of the city was still functioning normally, in stark contrast to the mass starvation and violent oppression of the Jewish population.

In this way, the film provides one of the clearest pictures of how the Holocaust was carried out, and the impact of the events on those who directly and indirectly involved. Perhaps the most fascinating part of "Shoah" is not the oral history itself, but how the interview subjects have chosen to deal with the past. Some ignore or try to forget what happened. Some recontextualize and try to place themselves in the best light. Almost all the bystanders and perpetrators agree that there was nothing they could have done to help matters individually. And then there are the few, chilling moments, where someone tries to rationalize what happened.

"Shoah" was released in 1985, forty years after the end of WWII. It has since been almost another thirty years, and even the youngest survivors of the Holocaust are now in their 70s and 80s. Most of the interview subjects have died, and the historical importance of the documentary becomes greater with each passing year. I greatly prefer Lanzmann's approach to the more direct, confrontational style of "Night and Fog," which was perhaps too self-aware of the importance and the immenseness of what it was showing the world. "Shoah" is far quieter, focusing on the individuals, on personal tragedies and remembrances.

But what it did that was so monumental, what I don't think any of the other Holocaust films have managed to do to this extent, was add to the historical record instead of simply revealing or revisiting it. "Shoah" was not an easy watch, but it was nine-and-a-half hours well spent.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How to Fix the MPAA Ratings System

I don't think as badly of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings as many others seem to. There is a real need for a ratings system, and I think that the service the MPAA provides to parents is important. They've made some rotten calls and have some troubling biases, but all in all I don't think their system is completely broken. However, it's gotten bad enough that too much of the movie business now revolves around gaming the system, and theaters and other exhibitors use the MPAA ratings to keep certain films from reaching wider audiences. See the recent "Bully" controversy. However, I do think that the ratings process could stand some major improvements, and I've listed a couple of ideas below.

More Information - On the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) website, there is an explanation of what each of the five ratings designates as far as content. They seem pretty cut and dried, listing out specific elements like drugs and nudity that are considered in deciding each rating. For specific films, you'll also see briefly stated reasons for why a film got a certain rating. "The Hunger Games," for instance, is rated PG-13 for "intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens." However, nowhere on the site does it specify exactly what the violent material or disturbing images are, nor are there any examples or guidelines to compare against. Now consider the the vastly more detailed breakdown of content in "The Hunger Games" provided by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which not only explains how the film fits a particular ratings classification, but also the process by which the filmmakers cut and edited the film to help it achieve that rating. More information means parents can make more informed decisions, and it also guards against certain abuses of the system that I'll discuss below.

More Transparency - The rating system's creator, Jack Valenti used to argue that the ratings examiners had to refrain from making value judgments about a particular film, and only stick to strictly evaluating the content. However, value judgments are an inevitable part of the process, which is why human beings do the rating instead of simply letting computer programs count the F-words. The MPAA doesn't have a set of public guidelines to help in their decisionmaking, like the BBFCA does, which means that their ratings tend to be much more inconsistent and vulnerable to influence and compromise. Filmmakers have long complained about the process of editing their films for certain ratings, where the cuts required by the MPAA are often a matter of imprecise guesswork. This is easily the most problematic part of the current process, where filmmakers are often forced to compromise their films based on undefined criteria and it is far too easy for the raters' personal biases to manifest. As a result, films are more likely to receive higher ratings based on sexual rather than violent content, and there appear to be special sensitivities about female sexuality and homosexual relationships. Not that the MPAA will ever admit it, of course.

More Diversity - There are no particular criteria to become a MPAA examiner, except that the anonymous members must be parents of non-adult children. This makes a good amount of sense, since the ratings are primarily meant for use by other parents, but movie ratings affect everyone, including adult theater patrons. I want the grown-ups to have a few examiners on our side, such as academics, journalists, and maybe a retired movie critic or two. Also, while I'm for every day people taking part in the process, professionals like child development experts and psychiatrists ought to be weighing in on what kids should and shouldn't be seeing. Also, the anonymity of MPAA members is clearly being used to hide glaring problems with the system. Kirby Dick's documentary about the MPAA ratings, This Film is Not Yet Rated, discovered that many of the raters and appeals board members had industry ties they wanted to hide, or didn't fit the few basic criteria to be raters. Compare this to the Australian Classification Board, appointed by the Australian government, that comes out and tells you exactly who all the Board members are.

More Ratings - I'd like to see the MPAA create additional ratings for the films currently categorized as PG-13 and R, which make up the vast majority of Hollywood's output today. This is the area where it's trickiest to make value judgments and where people are most likely to disagree about what it's all right for viewers between the ages of 13 and 17 to be watching. The MPAA does a better job now of specifying exactly what kind of problematic content is in a film, but their language is still too often obtuse and vague. Incorporating sub-ratings for types of content, such as violence, sex, and language, the way that the TV Parental Guidelines do, would be a lot simpler and more helpful. I'd also like to see the institution of a "PG-15" or "PG-16" rating, to address the problematic divide between a PG-13 and R. Right now it's often very difficult to tell where along the continuum between PG-13 and R certain films actually fall, and we could use another sign post.

And Fewer Ratings - A few years ago, Roger Ebert championed the idea of an "A" rating, for films with mature content, to replace the NC-17 which is commonly associated with pornography. I think I'd chuck out the whole category. The lack of thoughtful guidelines have contributed to the NC-17 rating becoming so toxic, hardly anyone even bothers to use it. Many theaters won't play unrated or NC-17 films, and newspapers won't run ads for them. So in 2011, as a result, over two hundred films were released in the US unrated and there was exactly one NC-17 release, Steve McQueen's "Shame." I think the MPAA style ratings system works fine for more mainstream, more populist films, but it's totally hopeless when it comes to more challenging, more boundary-pushing work that incorporates adult content. That's a limitation I wish the MPAA would acknowledge. They're equipped to make suggestions about what children should watch, and the R rating should be enough if the theaters bother to enforce the restrictions. Anything further gets into the business of evaluating material plainly meant for adult audiences, and the MPAA's track record has proven that they're terrible at it.

More Independence - Finally, there's the little matter of the fact that the MPAA is a trade association made up of six of the big Hollywood studios, and there is no question that studio films get more slack than foreign and independent films. The ratings system was initially instituted to avoid the threat of government oversight and censorship, but after years of local film boards disappearing and legal cases removing many restrictions on exhibition, it's really the studios themselves that are imposing the most constricting standards. While nobody wants the kind of government-run or government-affiliated ratings groups in other countries, most of those tend to be much more transparent and fair and predictable, even if their criteria are harsher. That's because they're primarily concerned with providing a service to moviegoers. The MPAA, with all their secrecy and opaqueness, often comes across as placing studio interests above their stated goal of providing information to the public. CARA and the ratings they provide would look far more legitimate and trustworthy if they put some distance between themselves and the studios.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Grown Up "Young Adult"

More than one movie critic has noted that the last ten to fifteen years of film comedies have centered around the exploration of the immature male psyche, the man-child characters embodied by Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and Adam Sandler. In 2011, women finally began to catch up, appearing in movies with loser heroines like "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher," and "Young Adult." The humor was crass and lewd, and the leading ladies, though usually extremely attractive, were otherwise a mess. "Young Adult," features the second collaboration of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who did "Juno" together, but the best thing about the movie, without a doubt, is the performance of Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary.

Mavis is a thirty-seven year old divorcee who ghostwrites a series of young adult novels. She drinks too much, watches too much reality television, and dresses like a college student cramming for finals. One day she receives a birth announcement from her ex-high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who have just had a new baby daughter. Mavis, whose happiest times were with Buddy, is spurred to reconnect. So she leaves the big city, in this case Minneapolis, for a trip back to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota. As she spends the next few days plotting how to win Buddy back, she finds an unusual ally in another old classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who was beneath her notice in high school, but now provides a welcome listening ear.

No doubt some viewers will enjoy watching Mavis out of schadenfreude. She was not only one of the popular girls in high school, but one of those totally self-centered, entitled, unpleasant mean girls with a poison tongue, who made school so hellish for many of those around her. Now she's a wreck, made all the more pitiful by the fact that she so stubbornly clings to the persona of the sarcastic, cooler-than-thou queen bee. Mavis isn't stupid and she isn't without redeeming qualities, but you get the sense that her bad behavior has been indulged and enabled for so long, her values are totally out of whack. In the hands of another actress, Mavis would probably be unbearable, but Charlize Theron is great at exhibiting the mannerisms of a spoiled seventeen year old trapped in a grown woman's body, without turning her into a caricature. She's self-conscious and oblivious at the same time, does a terrible job of hiding anything from anyone, and is at her funniest when she's sulking.

It's fun to watch Mavis make outrageous comments, take advantage of other people's hospitality, and roll her eyes whenever someone mentions how adorable the new baby is. However, there's always the uneasy feeling that she really shouldn't be getting away with as much as she seems to, and Cody's script makes that pay off in a big way. I thought that there were a couple of elements that were unnecessary, like Mavis narrating excerpts from her book-in-progress which are thinly disguised commentary on her own situation, but otherwise I really enjoyed the writing. The humor is sharp, well-observed, and often very, very mean. There's a sense that Cody is making fun of her own precocious teenage characters, transplanting a lot of the same qualities to a grown woman and showing us how bad the fit is.

I also enjoyed Matt Freehauf, the former nerd who didn't go out and conquer the world, but stayed a small town, garage-dwelling underachiever, wrapped up in his own hobbies and disappointments. I've always liked Patton Oswalt, who is not the kind of performer who fits into the mold of a conventional leading man, but is so good when he does get a decent, interesting part like this. I liked Matt more and more as the story went on, until I was looking forward to each subsequent appearance. Unlike the convenient love interests who always seem to pop up in these homecoming movies, Matt is a solid, relatable guy, who is immediately likable. Mavis becomes more sympathetic the more the two connect over bad memories and copious amounts of liquor.

However, I want to emphasize that "Young Adult" is in no way a typical romantic comedy. The movie is far too shrewd for that. While Cody and Reitman largely resist the urge to subvert or send up common romance cliches in an obvious manner, their characters insistently refuse to act against their own natures to satisfy any of the usual audience expectations. This may frustrate some, but I was very happy to have a movie about people behaving badly that neither excuses their actions nor tries to tack on some artificial redemption in the end. The Mavis Garys of the world are never so easy to get rid of, and if we're lucky, they'll be sharing the screen with their male counterparts in many more movies to come.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Murky, Maudlin, and "Missing"

After two episodes, ABC's new action series "Missing," starring Ashley Judd and Cliff Curtis, is getting on my nerves something awful. The story follows ex-CIA agent Becca Winstone (Judd) whose teenage son Michael (Nick Everstone) has been kidnapped, prompting her to go to Europe and become a one-woman army, bent on finding and recovering him. With extremely high production values, including a lot of on-location shooting in picturesque European cities, "Missing" often looks feature quality and has more fancy action sequences than similar network programs. It ought to be a great weekly dose of fun and excitement for action fans, right?

Oh, if only. I remember Ashley Judd from those serial killer movies she did with Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington back in the late 90s and early 2000s. She always played the young cop, very professional, very easy to relate to. I was expecting her to fill a similar role in "Missing," but instead Becca Winstone is one of the most ridiculous characters to appear in prime time in the last few years. The writers can't seem to decide if they want her to be a hardened CIA agent or a normal woman in extraordinary circumstances. In the second of the two episodes I watched, she negotiates a deal with a corrupt politician, scales the side of building, and subdues pursuers with some pretty nifty fighting moves. Twenty minutes later, after narrowly missing a chance to rescue her son, she's sitting on an airport tarmac, bawling her head off.

Over and over again, Becca insists that she's not an agent, but "a mother looking for her son." The show's production team seems to agree with her, frequently dressing Becca in baby pinks, and shooting her from unflattering angles to make her look more dowdy. The trouble is that Becca is most certainly not a normal soccer mom, and every time she stops to get misty-eyed and express her private anguish, often at the most inopportune moments, she tends to come off as incompetent. The blatant displays of naked emotion don't make her seem more motherly, but rather tend to undermine her toughness. At one point one of her few allies, Adriano (Giancarlo Rossi) tells her that she needs to stop thinking like a mother, relying on passion and instinct, and start thinking rationally again, like an agent.

And that's really with the problem with the show's conception of Becca as a mother. "Missing" has been compared, mostly negatively, with the Liam Neeson film "Taken," where he plays the same type of character - an ex- field agent of a government agency, who goes on a vigilante campaign through France to save his kidnapped teenage daughter. Neeson's character doesn't act remotely rationally through the entire movie. He's entirely driven by passion and emotion, breaking rules left and right, endangering innocents, and being incredibly reckless. His behavior is seen as extreme but ultimately helpful, because he'll cross boundaries that the police can't or won't. Becca Winstone's emotions are more often treated as a liability, because they're made to manifest in a more traditionally passive feminine fashion - waterworks and temporary paralysis. But for a professionally trained former CIA agent, how on earth do these reactions make sense?

It's extremely frustrating because there have been plenty of heroines on both the large and small screens who don't fall prey to this kind of stereotyping. Some of the most memorable female badasses have been mothers or driven by fierce maternal instincts. Sarah Conner of the "Terminator" franchise is the most obvious one, along with Ripley from "Alien," and The Bride from "Kill Bill." All had their moments of softness and vulnerability, but only when it was appropriate for them to do so. Becca Winstone, by contrast, seems to suffer some kind of emotional disorder where she can't keep her emotions in check at all. This might have been an interesting wrinkle if the show was willing to address the issue directly, but of course it doesn't.

Now there's plenty about "Missing" that I like. Cliff Curtis is a highlight as CIA agent Dax Miller, who is charged with finding Becca and sending her home. Giancarlo Rossi does the best he can with a very broadly drawn character. I also expect to see more of Sean Bean, who plays Becca's husband Paul, though his character was killed off in the opening minutes of the first episode. And as I've said, the production values of "Missing" are very high, and offer plenty of good eye candy. However, "Missing" is about Becca Winstone, who has the lion's share of the screen time. And she's so badly written, she doesn't come off as a genuine human being, making it difficult to be either impressed by her skills or moved by her plight.

This is not the way to do woman-friendly action, people.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Super Secret Disney Documentary

"The Sweatbox," is a documentary about making an animated film, that was completed roughly around 2001, premiered at a film festival, and had a limited run in exactly two theaters before it all but vanished off the face of the earth for over a decade. Nothing in the documentary is controversial or contentious. It's probably not even going to be particularly interesting except to a certain subset of film historians, animation lovers, and Disney geeks. However, it does capture a certain piece of Disney history the company is not keen on acknowledging: the troubled production of "Kingdom of the Sun."

The back story goes something like this. Back in 1997, Sting was approached about writing songs for a new South-America themed Disney animated musical, to be directed by "The Lion King's" Roger Allers. He agreed to do the project on the condition that his wife, filmmaker Trudie Styler, was allowed to document the process. Disney fans will know that "Kingdom of the Sun" was originally meant to be a sweeping epic patterned off "The Prince and the Pauper," but ultimately it reached theaters six months late, reworked as a zany buddy comedy, and renamed "The Emperor's New Groove." The six songs that Sting wrote were reduced to an abridged opening number and a song over the credits. The missing songs only remain on the film's soundtrack, as they were written for an entirely different movie than the one that was actually released.

Since Trudie Styler was given unprecedented access to the film's production, she wound up having a front row seat to all of the film's behind-the-scenes woes. There were delays in production. Early versions of the film didn't test well. A new director, Mark Dindal was brought onboard who often worked at cross purposes with Roger Allers. Finally, Allers quit and the entire film was drastically overhauled. "The Sweatbox," named after the pressure-filled screening room where the in-progress animated footage was reviewed, was completed shortly after "The Emperor's New Groove" was released in theaters. The documentary, which runs a pretty brief 84 minutes, is actually longer than the completed feature, which is an even briefer 77 minutes. Of course, Disney owned the rights to Styler's film and made sure that it was seen by only very limited audiences. It was never publicized, never released on home video, and never made available to the general public except in heavily edited form.

Until now. A few days ago, someone leaked a workprint of "The Sweatbox" to the internet, where it has been making the rounds on filesharing and video sharing sites. As a Disney fan, I'm ecstatic. I never expected the film to resurface, considering how notoriously uptight Disney is about its public image. It was only in 2010 that a mostly candid documentary about the beginning of the Disney animation Renaissance of the 90s, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" was put together by a few Disney veterans with the company's blessing. That documentary was about Disney's successes. "The Sweatbox," on the other hand, was made during that period when things at Disney Animation were really starting to go wrong. Disney fans disagree about when the Renaissance ended and the downward spiral began, but for me the turning point was the Disney films that were released right around the year 2000: the awful "Dinosaur," the uneven "Fantasia 2000," and "The Emperor's New Groove," which was, ironically, a perfectly good movie. After following the rumors of the film's endless troubles for years, I saw "The Emperor's New Groove" in theaters in December, 2000 to wind down after finals, and loved it.

The biggest irony about "The Sweatbox" is that it isn't the shocking expose that Disney seem to think it is. Rather, it's proof that sometimes the creative process is messy, very talented people can go off track, and making one of these films is not nearly as easy as the company like to pretend it is. Some want to bill "The Sweatbox" as the record of a catastrophe for the studio, but I think actually captured the creation of one of Disney's last successes in traditional animation. Though the original version of "Kingdom of the Sun" went down in flames and "The Emperor's New Groove" was considered a bust at the box office, the movie has actually gone on to be one of the most popular of the late-era animated Disney films. It even got its own direct-to-video sequel and a television spinoff. Hollywood has seen a lot of troubled productions and a lot of filmmaking disasters, and in the end "The Emperor's New Groove" actually came out okay, despite all the drama shown in the documentary. I feel badly for Roger Allers and Sting for all their wasted efforts and disappointments. Really, I do. But in the end, I think I'd much rather have the Tex Avery homage with llamas that Mark Dindal whipped up, instead of that big epic musical extravaganza.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notes on the "Ninja Turtle" Situation

It's hard to escape a sense of schadenfreude. Hey young male demographic, you've spent the last half decade paying to see Michael Bay trash the "Transformers" franchise into oblivion, turning those moronic movies into some of the biggest Hollywood moneymakers ever. And now that Bay thinks he can do no wrong, you get to watch him trash a franchise you guys actually care about!

Yes, Nickelodeon has acquired the rights to the "Ninja Turtles," and has decided to put Michael Bay in charge of rebooting it as a feature film. It's almost comical how badly he's getting off on the wrong foot here. The title of the franchise is "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." That's four things that are non-negotiable. And what does Bay want to do? Make the Ninja Turtles aliens. Aliens?! Sure, I guess it doesn't make that much difference if your anthropomorphic reptiles are from an alien race instead of the product of some laboratory's discarded mutagentic ooze. I've already seen some apologists posting up perfectly well-reasoned defenses of the alien angle as a legitimate artistic decision. Besides, why can't the Ninja Turtles be both mutants and aliens at the same time?

I'll tell you why. Because, they're the frickin' "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." I have no idea where the hell Michael Bay got this alien idea from. It adds a totally unnecessary level of complication to an origin story that every 80s and 90s kid knows by heart. Existing Turtles fans should be especially worried because this is really the first substantive thing that Michael Bay has said about the new reboot. Who knows what else he might be considering? April O'Neil is almost certainly going to get sexed up, because this is Michael Bay we're talking about. But what about Shredder and Splinter? If aliens are on the table, why not robots? Or zombies? Or robot zombies? Are the Ninja Turtles even going to be turtles by the time he's through with them? Oh, wait a minute. If they're aliens then technically they're not turtles anymore.

Michael Bay is no doubt confused about the amount of negativity he's getting right now. After all, he thoroughly mangled the Transformers universe and didn't get nearly this amount of heat for it, at least not so quickly. However, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is a much bigger and more well-known property than "Transformers." The first generation "Transformers" cartoon and toys were only around for about five years back in the 80s, and the subsequent reboots and reworkings have often been radically different. The Turtles however, had a Saturday morning cartoon that ran for ten straight seasons, from 1987 all the way until 1996. And concurrently, there were the three popular live action films of the early 90s. As the older sister of a younger brother who grew up during those years, the Turtles were inescapable. I still occasionally find myself humming "Turtle Power" from the first movie's soundtrack.

So I'm not the least bit surprised that they're still around. A second animated series ran for seven years through most of the 2000s, and a third is in development. There was a short-lived and much reviled live action series in the late 90s, but a 2007 CGI animated movie, "TMNT," did very well at the box office. And maybe that's the first mistake that Michael Bay made here. Why would you want to reimagine or reboot a franchise that for all intents and purposes is still going strong? And frankly, I don't see the "Ninja Turtles" story as being a very good basis for a blockbuster movie franchise like "Transformers" anyway. I have no beef with the Turtles, but they never worked that well in live action. I don't think modern kids are going to go for the old character suits, and if the Turtles are going to be CGI effects, maybe the whole film should just be animated.

Right now, though, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the online skirmishes between Michael Bay and the "Ninja Turtles" fandom. Some of the reactions so far have been very entertaining, and it's been nice to see some of the talent from the older Turtles media popping up to add their two cents. Personally, I don't think Michael Bay has ever had any business being anywhere near a kid-centric property, and hopefully this experience will convince him to steer clear in the future. Messing with people's childhood favorites is a dangerous business, especially a franchise that has as many fans as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Battle Royale" and "The Devils"

In the past week, two of the most controversial, and in some circles most beloved cult films, are finally getting legitimate home media releases on DVD and Blu-Ray. One is "Battle Royale," Kinji Fukasaku's bloody tale of a class of normal junior high students, who are obliged by society to participate in a yearly competition where they are shipped off to a remote island, and ordered to kill each other off, as only the final survivor gets to go home. Released in Japan back in 2000, the film was greeted in the US with varying levels of disapproval, particularly for its graphic violence mixed with the young age of the "Battle Royale" participants. Of course, twelve years later we're a few days away from the release of "The Hunger Games," which features a variation on the same idea: teenagers pitted against each other in government mandated killing games.

The major difference between the two, I think, is probably going to come down to the levels of satire and violence. When I first saw "Battle Royale," years ago when the movie was being passed around by college students and Asian video stores stocked bootleg copies of fansubbed Region 2 releases, I was suitably impressed with how bloody it was. However, I was also put off by the very adolescent level of the melodrama. Contrary to some assertions I've seen online, you don't need to mix "Battle Royale" with "Twilight" to get "The Hunger Games." "Battle Royale" was oozing with teenage angst and drama from the outset. Subsequent viewings underlined the jarring juxtaposition of the twisted violence and schoolyard clichés. As a result, sometimes the film came off as very dark comedy, bordering on camp. Suddenly childish grudges, social alienation, and all the usual problems that plague regular teenagers became matters of life and death when the kids were suddenly armed and dangerous.

I expect that "The Hunger Games" is going to steer well clear of poking fun at any social conventions, or any "Lord of the Flies" type ruminations on the dark side of human nature, preferring to elevate the teenage combatants like Katniss Everdeen as heroes, and placing the blame on more amorphous institutions like government and the media. In that sense, I doubt it's going to be nearly as effective or as interesting a piece of social commentary as "Battle Royale." Its director, Fukusaku, claimed that "Battle Royale" came about as a result of his own experiences during World War II as a fifteen-year-old, coming face to face with death and mayhem. And perhaps that's why the violence in "Battle Royale," while shocking, doesn't seem particularly exploitative or unnecessary. I have high hopes for "The Hunger Games," but I also hope people will be spurred by the comparisons to "Battle Royale" to take a look at how someone else tackled the same themes, in a more raw and unfiltered way.

Now, on to "The Devils." I haven't seen the full, unedited version of "The Devils." Most people haven't, since the 1971 film about a priest being tried for witchcraft in 17th century France has been heavily censored since its release, if not outright banned in many countries. The version being released this week by the British Film Institute in the UK is still missing several minutes of the most controversial scenes, but it's probably about as complete a version that we're ever going to see on home media. Like "Battle Royale," this is another film I saw years ago (on VHS!) when it was being passed around by my fellow junior cineastes as a piece of must-see extreme cinema. I saw Pasolini's notorious "Salo" around the same time, and I remember much preferring "The Devils" because it had such a wonderfully wicked sense of humor about it.

The story involves a sexually repressed and frustrated nun, Sister Jeanne played with teeth-gnashing panache by Vanessa Redgrave, who claims to be possessed by devils. She places the blame on the priest she secretly lusts after, Grandier, portrayed by Oliver Reed. Witch hunters and exorcists are brought in, and many of Sister Jeanne's fellow nuns in the Ursuline sisterhood are found to be similarly possessed. The women are prompted to engage in all kinds of blasphemous behavior by the unscrupulous inquisitors. One particular sequence of a statue of Jesus being desecrated during an orgy in a church has been called out for being especially heinous. Grandier, whose subsequent persecution is largely politically motivated, finds himself scapegoated for all the sacrilege, then subjected to graphic torture before being burned alive at the stake.

"The Devils" is a deeply cynical film about religion that calls out the church for hypocrisy and corruption. It's also incredibly exuberant and almost flamboyant in its venality. The orgy scenes have an almost Felliniesque circus attraction quality to them. There is copious footage of the nuns cavorting about without their habits, or any other clothing for that matter, that is oddly delightful in its total lack of boundaries. While all of this sexual content was not strictly necessary to the story, it's used extremely well, both to illustrate the heights of hysteria provoked by the church's lunatic inquisitors, and to contrast against the equally graphic physical violence meted out to Grandier in the second half of the film. Compared to other notorious X-rated films of the time like "Caligula," the content in "The Devils" comes across as far more meaningful and well-considered. There's a point to all the naked people and the sexual profligacy, and it's a strong one.

Forty years ago, it was Warner Brothers that backed and financed this film. The studio has since regretted their involvement and decided to sit on the rights and keep "The Devils" out of circulation. And so the film has been largely unseen through legitimate means until now. It still doesn't look like we'll be getting a home media release in the States anytime soon.

Oh well. I know a guy with some VHS tapes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is Betty Draper a Problem?

After some breakneck marathoning, I'm just about finished with the fourth season of "Mad Men," and I'm ready for the premiere on Sunday. I think I liked the fourth season better than most people did, especially the way various characters like Don and Pete developed over the course of the year. However, there's one character that has me worried, and before I elaborate, here I will warn of spoilers for all of "Mad Men" that has aired so far.

I'm worried about Betty Draper, who is now Mrs. Betty Francis after leaving Don and marrying Henry at the end of Season Three. I thought that Season Three was a great one for Betty, and the actress who portrays her, January Jones. Betty finally uncovered all of Don's secrets and lies, summoned up the courage to leave him for another man shortly after giving birth to a third child, and seemed to have a chance at something better. Oh, how quickly those hopes were dashed. Season Four is pretty light on Betty in general, but from what we do see of her, she's become meaner, bitchier, and almost outright villainous. Don and Betty's daughter Sally, played by Kiernan Shipka, comes into her own in Season Four. She gets at least as much screen time as Betty does, and more of the narrative emphasis as events are often shown from her viewpoint. In Sally's world, Betty is a major antagonist, a cold, self-centered mother who berates her children constantly, and does her best to ruin Sally's friendship with a neighbor boy, Glen.

For most of Season Four I was struggling to stay neutral between the two, to keep in mind that Betty had perfectly good reasons for not wanting her daughter around Glen. Also, she was struggling to make her new marriage work, caring for an infant, and having difficulty letting go of Don. We were seeing so much from Sally's subjective point of view without getting Betty's side of the story. There were a few moments, like her talks with the child psychiatrist, which seemed to indicate that she still had a lot of unresolved issues that we saw from the earlier seasons, and maybe they were getting worse. Her actions at the end of the season certainly make it clear that she didn't realize it would be so hard for her to transition between being Mrs. Draper and Mrs. Francis, and her children are suffering from the fallout. But have the show's creators gone too far? Have they demonized Betty past the point of no return? Her latest appearances have been so unpleasant, most of the show's fanbase seems to have fully turned against her.

All in all, it feels like one of "Mad Men's" major characters, who so much of the story has revolved around, has been downgraded to a supporting role. As much as I like Sally and the storylines she's been at the center of, I'm not keen on losing Betty, who has never been a particularly lovable character, but has always been a fascinating one. I don't want her to fade into the background or see her reduced to only being Sally's evil mother for the rest of the show's run. And if this is the end of the show's focus on Betty, what does her story add up to? A repressed housewife who struggles with her unhappiness manages to escape a bad marriage, but still can't face the personal failings that put her in that position in the first place. Not a horrible arc, but there is so much more the show could do with Betty.

My hope is that by she won't continue to stay stuck at this point, but either goes on to hit rock bottom and is finally forced to engage in some self-reflection to dig her way out, or that we'll see a more evenhanded portrayal of her, that adds more nuance to her current situation and relationships. I don't expect her to suddenly undergo some great metamorphosis and become another Peggy, but I do want that complicated, morally ambiguous Betty of the first few seasons back. Sally's growing pains provided a great counterpoint to Betty's inability to change, and the intrusion of Megan as a new mother figure next season is sure to increase the pressure even more.

I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but Betty is actually the character whose return I'm the most curious about, because I have no idea where her troubled story goes from here. The Sterling Cooper Draper Price employees will continue to struggle forward, Don will take a second shot at marriage, and probably repeat most of his mistakes from the first one. But Betty has already come to realize that swapping out husbands isn't making her any happier, and we know from experience that she's not shy about pulling the trigger when she makes a decision. So what is she going to do now? And if she goes down, who is she taking down with her?

Monday, March 19, 2012

The New Dominant Media

ABC's new Thursday night drama, "Missing," stars several familiar faces. There's Ashley Judd, playing the heroine with Sean Bean and Cliff Curtis in major supporting roles. All three are better known for their work in films, and ten years ago it would have been extremely unusual to see actors with their resumes appearing on prime time television for more than a special guest spot or two. But then, ten years ago movie studios were still making the kind of mid-range dramas that Ashley Judd used to headline, and there were still enough decent supporting roles to go around for character actors like Bean and Curtis.

As Hollywood has contracted in recent years, with financing becoming scarcer, and the studios making fewer and fewer films, mostly big tentpole blockbusters, the industry's talent has steadily headed for television. This is not the first time that this has happened. Television has traditionally moved into areas that the movies have left behind, absorbing newsreels, cartoons, and many different film genres and formats, along with all the talent that produced them. For film talent with flagging careers, television was long viewed as a fallback position, somewhere for the likes of Charlie Sheen or Rosie O'Donnell to remake themselves, or for Robert Downey Jr. to test the waters after his rehabilitation.

However, we've never seen so many people who have made their names in the movies migrating into television, especially in the pay-cable realm. Showtime is currently airing comedies and dramas headlined by William H. Macy, Jeremy Irons, Claire Danes, Don Cheadle, and Laura Linney. And it's not just the actors, but directors and writers and producers coming to television too. Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi are the minds behind "Boardwalk Empire." Frank Darabont, who directed "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," was the major creative force behind the first season of "The Walking Dead." It's no longer rare to see someone like J.J. Abrams juggling multiple television and film projects at once.

Media commentators have been watching the migration for a while now, musing that the new "golden age of television" might be indicative of television becoming the dominant artistic medium of the popular culture of the 21st century, as movies were for the 20th century, and literature and paintings were before that. I addressed this idea a while ago on this blog, remarking that I didn't see movies becoming less important or influential a medium. Rather, I thought the we were seeing just the latest round of skirmishes between television and the movies, a rivalry that has been going on since the dawn of television in the 50s. However, I'm starting to question my position.

The more I compare the content on television to the content of mainstream films, the more woefully limited the film world starts to look. Outside of the indies and foreign projects, movies these days are almost all aimed at the younger demographics, leaving older viewers woefully underserved. When television first appeared on the scene, film struggled to differentiate itself, not only by providing larger spectacles such as widescreen epics, but by tackling the kind of subject matter that you couldn't do on television. This was the era when the Hayes code was finally retired, and the movies could show sex, violence, and sensitive content to a much greater degree.

But now, television has all but caught up, and studio films have gotten progressively more risk averse and dumbed down. Sure, comedies are full of raunch and nudity you still couldn't show on television unedited, and horror went through its unpleasant "torture porn" phase, but I don't see anyone at the studios using that freedom to its full potential. Movie executives these days abhor message pictures, have largely stopped making war movies after a string of bombs, shy away from real controversy and topicality, and get more exasperated with their awards contenders each year for not drawing more crowds. Ambition is in short supply, resulting in more B-movies, cartoon features, and sequels.

This is not to say that good movies aren't being made, and that they're not being made with encouraging regularity, but the financial reality of the movie business has made it far more difficult for interesting filmmakers to operate within the confines of the Hollywood system. So most of the real auteurs work outside of Hollywood, with smaller budgets and few guarantees that their work will ever be seen by mainstream audiences. Studios are now either making huge, pricy action blockbusters or tiny, cheap genre flicks, and these are the movies that enjoy the overwhelming majority of press coverage, marketing muscle, and media attention for most of the year. There are outliers, like Tyler Perry's movies, but these are increasingly rare.

So who's left to make Todd Haynes' new version of "Mildred Pierce," and the adult fantasy epic "Game of Thrones," and the sultry 60s melodrama "Mad Men," and the cancer comedy "The Big C"? HBO, Showtime, Starz, AMC, and FX. Sure, there's plenty of genre schlock and reality shows around, but you can also find an amazing diversity of content being broadcast with no equivalent on studio slates. Television has quietly absorbed even more of their abandoned genres, including domestic dramas and women's stories, and is willing to spend money producing them. In the rare event that you do see a thoughtful, low-key drama on the big screen, it's usually a festival acquisition, playing a few art house screens in limited release.

It's also important to remember that this is actually a three-way fight now, with the fledgling Internet emerging as a major contender. Internet-based content models are still in their infancy, but their influence is already being felt. So many people are now consuming so much media from the internet, it is quickly supplanting both film and television as a common source. And just as television was bolstered in its early days by broadcasting old films, both television and film content are finding new lives through internet distribution. And if there's one telling sign that television content is considered on par with film content now, it's how they're treated on the web.

Netflix turned its sights from acquiring first run movies to bulking up their library with televised content, and will be launching its own web-based shows. Renting two episodes of "Breaking Bad" or "The Walking Dead" from Amazon or iTunes costs about as much as renting a feature film. Television and movies are being put head to head in direct competition on a new playing field. And I wouldn't be the least surprised, when the figures come in, if television content emerges as the ultimate winner.

Well, at least until the Internet gets its act together and clobbers them both.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Busting the Nostalgia Goggles

Back in the 90s, I was a real honest-to-goodness fan of "21 Jump Street," the cop show about baby-faced police officers going undercover in high schools as students. It was aimed squarely at kids and teenagers, and used to run with PSAs in its early seasons. The premise of the show was ridiculous, but it was well-intentioned, and managed to turn out a few good hours of television. So I was not happy to hear about Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill starring in a movie reboot of the show. I knew there was plenty in "21 Jump Street" for cynical modern comedians to mock, and the first trailer seemed to confirm my worst fears: the movie bears little resemblance to the television show, and everything is played for laughs.

Now, fast forward to this weekend, where the reviews for the "21 Jump Street" movie have come in overwhelmingly positive. I rewatched the trailers and I have to admit that if I ignore the "21 Jump Street" title attached, it looks like a perfectly harmless buddy-cop comedy like "The Other Guys" or "Cop Out." I'm still reluctant to watch the movie, since I don't like either of the leads and I've had trouble with similar films in the past, but I no longer feel bitter or angry that it exists. In fact, I'm a little sheepish at how fiercely protective I've been of the "21 Jump Street" television series. On the other hand, I'm also kind of peeved at Columbia Pictures for goading this response from me.

Why do studios reboot old properties into films that have almost nothing to do with the original properties? Because it's easier to sell something that already has name recognition. I doubt many people my age remember "21 Jump Street" as well as I do, but most had a general awareness of it, and I'd bet a good portion of the younger generation has at least heard of it, as the TV show that Johnny Depp used to be on, if nothing else. The reboot was aimed at those younger potential viewers, not at the older ones, and definitely not the small group of us old "Jump Street" fans who still might be carrying a torch for the show. Actually, the movie's whole take on the material pretty much depends on its audience not holding "Jump Street" in particularly high regard. It's not like they were reviving "The Muppets."

I knew this from the outset, but it was hard to get over the years of trying to defend the show, trying to explain to people that there were good episodes that could be taken seriously, and I wasn't just watching because of Johnny Depp and Dustin Nguyen – one of the very few characters on television at the time who could occasionally be mistaken for an Asian lead. The idea of having a whole new generation being prompted by filmmakers to treat the series as a joke severely rubbed me the wrong way. As a result, I wasn't inclined to be receptive to what they were actually aiming for, which was to do something fun and silly with an outdated property.

It clicked for me when I saw the "Dark Shadows" trailer that was released last week. There was "21 Jump Street" star Johnny Depp starring in a broadly comedic take on the 60s horror soap "Dark Shadows." I knew nothing about the show, and thought the trailer was fantastic. It reminded me of Tim Burton's early kookiness in movies like "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands," and it was clearly a passion project that wouldn't have gotten off the ground if Burton wasn't attached to it. At the same time, I understood why the existing fans of "Dark Shadows" were disappointed and reacting badly. Theirs was another small, obscure, barely remembered property, and now it was being revived as a parody of itself.

I can't think of too many of these genre-swaps from the television to the big screen that have been very successful. "Dragnet" was a good one, with the right talent involved. "The Brady Bunch" movie worked because the show was so well known and everyone was in on the joke. "The Green Hornet" had some decent moments of biting satire, but didn't go far enough. All in all, this breed of reboot is generally trickier to pull off than a more straightforward adaptation. They depend on familiarity, but reject nostalgia, which risks alienating the few remaining fans who are the most invested in the return of a particular property.

I think both the new "21 Jump Street" and "Dark Shadows" would have been perfectly fine as original projects. However, the association with former television shows is an easy hook, and makes the films easier to promote. So, fans who love the old series are better off ignoring the titles as a marketing gimmick. "21 Jump Street" should be "Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum Go Undercover in a High School, Kind of Like That Show 21 Jump Street." "Dark Shadows" should be "Tim Burton Presents Retro 70s Vampires Unleashed." Not as catchy, but that should clear up any misconceptions.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Put Down the Pitchforks for "Project X"

Have you heard about "Project X," the found footage movie about a trio of teenagers who throw a house party that goes out of control? With spring break in full swing in many parts of the country, reports have been popping up involving wild house parties where the participants are pointing to "Project X" as the inspiration for their revelry. There have been thousands of dollars in property damage and several arrests. A teenager was shot and killed in the aftermath of this one in Houston. In other words, there have been plenty of consequences for destructive partying that weren't part of the movie.

"Project X" was subject to a lot of vitriol upon its release in theaters a few weeks ago. Several critics predicted that copycat house parties were inevitable after the film glorified so much hedonism and excess. So it's no surprise that various parties in the media are now pointing fingers at the movie and its creators. And after years of watching these kinds of controversies crop up in the wake of other copycat crimes, I'm betting that not only will the creators of "Project X" suffer no adverse consequences for unleashing the film on impressionable young minds, but we're probably going to see a couple of sequels and imitators, their fortunes fueled by all the attention.

Someone will probably try and sue Warner Brothers, claiming that they're responsible for the damage caused by copycat partiers, but this never works. "Natural Born Killers" and other films and television shows have been dragged to court before, and the legal standard is pretty clear. As long as the media in question didn't directly incite its viewers to engage in bad behavior, they're protected by the First Amendment. Simply portraying an out-of-control house party as a fun experience isn't enough to hold Warners responsible for the actions of the kids who may have been inspired by "Project X." After all, just looking at a synopsis of the film shows that it's operating in the realm of fantasy. Cops don't intervene, parents behave irrationally, and the teenage party planners are held up as heroes where they probably would have spent the rest of their youths in juvenile detention if the movie were taking place in a normal universe. It's not, of course, because "Project X" is a movie. It's pure wish-fulfillment.

The only people to blame are the partiers themselves, who are trying to model their lives on dangerous fantasy. It's tempting to want to shift responsibility to a movie, especially one that's been getting called out for being a terrible influence and promoting the wrong values, but that's letting the kids who actually perpetrated the mayhem and destruction off the hook. Most of the people who watched "Project X" didn't go out and start trashing houses. Most of them probably understood that this kind of behavior tends to have extremely negative consequences. Were some viewers, namely adolescents, too young to make those kinds of value judgments? Maybe, but that begs the question what those kids were doing watching an R-rated movie loaded up with graphic nudity and violence. People did notice the R-rating and all the content warnings, right?

I also expect that "Project X" is going to be portrayed as being the cause of more hardcore partying, when it might really just be drawing attention to an already existing phenomenon. The movie was apparently inspired by the real life story of an Australian teenager whose party attracted over 500 strangers after he posted the details on a social media network, and things got out of control. Teenagers and young adults have be throwing raucous parties for ages without so much scrutiny over people's motives. Ask anyone who lives in a college town. I seriously wonder if the "Project X" controversy is just going to make law enforcement more paranoid. A recent write-up over on the Washington Post notes two recent incidents where the cops preemptively arrested party planners or shut down events before the partying ever got underway.

"Project X" fits nicely into the current cultural narrative of feckless young people indulging in alarming amounts of excess and risky behavior, so I'm not surprised that the media jumped on it with such gusto. And I'm sure there really are some young idiots out there who took one look at "Project X" and immediately wanted to recreate what they saw onscreen. However, a couple of sporadic incidents and a brand new buzzable, hash-tag-able label for extreme partying doesn't make a trend. And the media getting all worked up about the few kids who cited "Project X" as prime motivator isn't very convincing.

I may not be interested in watching "Project X" or other movies like it, but then I'm not keen on seeing them scapegoated for a small number of young reprobates' own worst impulses either.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

My Favorite Hayao Miyazaki Film

I really should have posted this little tribute last month, to coincide with the American release of the new Studio Ghibli film, "The Borrower Arrietty," also known as "The Secret World of Arrietty" or just "Arrietty" depending on which version you've got. Miyazaki was credited only as producer and co-writer, but his influence is all over the gorgeous visuals, and the lovely, pastoral atmosphere of the picture. I'd know his contributions anywhere. Of all the directors I've spotlighted in this blog so far, it's Miyazaki's work that I know the most thoroughly, from his contributions to early anime features like "Puss in Boots" and "Hols: Prince of the Sun," to his work in television with the first "Lupin III" series, "Anne of Green Gables," and "Future Boy Conan," and finally his own iconic films, starting with "The Castle of Cagliostro" in 1979.

Now, "Cagliostro" was an awfully good film already, a James Bond style caper with some great action setpieces, but Miyazaki kept improving his craft over the next twenty years with a run of incredibly influential, successful features that no one in animation has matched outside of early Disney and perhaps PIXAR. I struggled over which of his films to write about. My childhood favorite was "Kiki's Delivery Service," but his later, most mature features, "Princess Mononoke" and "Porco Rosso," are more challenging and daring. Then there's "Nausicaa" and "Totoro," the films he's best known for in his native Japan. But ultimately, I have to admit that the first movie I think of when it comes to Miyazaki is the one that he's received the most acclaim for, 2001's "Spirited Away."

Ten-year old Chihiro and her parents are moving to a new town, and stop over at what they think is an abandoned amusement park. In actuality, it's a resort town for the spirits, and Chihiro's parents greedily eat up food that wasn't meant for them, a transgression that gets the pair turned into pigs and traps Chihiro in the dangerous spirit world. Luckily, she gets some help from a mysterious boy named Haku, who helps her gain employment at the bathhouse run by Yubaba the witch. However, Chihiro's position is still precarious, and she has a lot to learn before she can save her parents and find her way back to the human world.

One of Miyazaki's great strengths has been his ability to create wondrous, enveloping fantasy environments, and the bathhouse for the spirits in "Spirited Away" is one of his best. It is an endlessly fascinating place, full of strange old gods and monsters from Japanese legend, every shot crammed full of gorgeous, ornate details, and all of them painstakingly hand-drawn and painted. There's an appealing incomprehensibility to the images at first, where it's difficult to say exactly what we're looking at from one minute to the next. However, the bathhouse does work by a certain complicated logic, which keeps the place from feeling like a collection of random elements thrown together. Everyone has a certain job or a role to fill, and once Chihiro figures out how things run and who she can trust, she begins to navigate the place more easily, as do we.

Chihiro is not a typical Miyazaki heroine, at least not at first. She's very much an average ten-year-old girl, not thrilled with the prospect of moving and having a good sulk when we first see her with her parents. She reacts to the strangeness of the spirit world as any girl might. She gets frightened and tries to run away at first. She stamps her feet when she's impatient. After too much excitement, she feels dizzy and faint. But once she starts to get the hang of things, she becomes as brave and resourceful as any young heroine you could wish for. In a movie full of shapeshifters and spirits, she's easily the best character of the lot, and probably one of the best, most well-rounded animated children to ever grace the screen.

Much of the fun of the film is the feeling of being swept away with Chihiro, brought to a totally alien place and culture that seems too big and too complex to ever fully understand. The spirits that inhabit the bathhouse can look like human beings or giant radish roots or overgrown ducklings, and several of them are disguised in other forms. Yubaba has a beloved baby boy the size of a sumo wrestler, and is aided by three creatures who can only be described as bouncing green heads. Despite a twisty plot, there's not much exposition for a viewer to rely on, no rules that are ever explicitly laid out for us. There are a plenty of hints and examples to help Chihiro think her way through various puzzles, but much of the time she's at the mercy of luck and circumstance. It makes her adventures all the more exciting.

Some have found similarities in the story to "Alice in Wonderland," but "Spirited Away" gives its heroine a very clear goal and real challenges to overcome, creating far more tension and suspense. However, the narrative is never straightforward, and Chihiro only manages to accomplish certain tasks in a roundabout way, often with digressions that don't really matter to the plot. And yet, it's some of these moments that are the movie's best. There is a sequence on a train that could have easily been excised from the story, and it takes some serious mental gymnastics to explain the presence of a train in this universe in the first place. Yet the sequence is so perfectly right, just where it is, giving us a few languid, meditative moments to pause and compare Chihiro's behavior near the end of her journey with the beginning, and to take stock of the odd little group of traveling companions she's collected - an accomplishment that proves extremely important.

When you compare Miyazaki's films to Western children's entertainment, they are considerably slower in pace but frequently more absorbing. One of the biggest criticisms I have of the Disney dub of "Spirited Away" is the way it adds extra explanations for things that really don't need explaining. Some of the film's mysteries simply don't have answers, and no one is expected to provide them. That's the strength of Miyazaki's work, his ability to present the strange and the fantastic in such a coherent, indelible fashion, that after a while you stop trying to figure out any kind of rationality behind them, but just accept and enjoy their enduring splendor.

What I've Seen - Miyazaki

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Castle in the Sky (1986)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Porco Rosso (1992)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Spirited Away (2001)
Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Ponyo (2008)
The Wind Rises (2013)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Death of Internet Authorship

Crediting seems so easy. You quote a few lines from a book, and drop a footnote to provide the name of the author and page numbers. You print a photo with an article, and you add a caption identifying the subject matter and the photographer/agency. In some places on the internet, among the most legitimate sources of media, content creators largely play by these rules. In others, crediting is purely optional. Non-professionals don't follow the old standards for attribution or never learned them. In the amateur realm, content is constantly appropriated, transformed, and presented to different audiences without so much as an acknowledgement of the original. Some don't even bother with the transformation part.

In some corners of the web, the problem has become endemic. One of my guilty pleasures is watching anime music videos, and every time I go looking for them on Youtube, I'll find uploaded copies with hundreds or thousands of hits, and no acknowledgement of who the original creator was. Many of the accompanying video descriptions don't bother to hide this, often stating they found the video somewhere else, thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with their friends. Of course, this has been going on long before Youtube. Back when the major source of anime music videos was file sharing sites, creator names easily got lost if they weren't included somewhere in the video itself. I've still got a couple sitting on my hard drive that I've never been able to link to a specific creator. Should I feel guilty about watching and enjoying them?

Once you start looking, the lack of crediting is everywhere. Publicity materials for movies and television shows get snapped up and manipulated to make icons and banners on social networking sites and forums. Cosplay photos are shared without identifying the person in costume, the photographer, or even the character being depicted. Viral videos and graphic memes are especially prone to taking on a life of their own. The Hitler meme videos, for instance, rarely credit "Downfall," the film from which the clip of Hitler ranting was taken. And I've never seen anyone credit YouTube user DReaperF4, who posted the first known version of the meme on the site back in 2006. Shouldn't he or she get credit for the idea? Then again, would the meme have become such an international hit if every creator of every successive variant was obligated to go back and figure out where the original came from in order to provide the credit?

There's plenty of push back against this kind of behavior. Fanworks communities, where most creators work under pseudonyms, frequently self-police the more obvious instances of plagiarism. Over on Reddit, a link sharing site, users are called out for reposting previously shared content, or making only minor changes to try and pass something off as original. However, there's a growing tendency to treat anything found on the internet as being part of the public commons, a great morass of no-strings-attached free content ready to be remixed, reworked, aggregated, or simply passed along to more and more content consumers. Or to put it more simply, users have bought into the idea that information wants to be free, which comes at the expense of anyone seeking to profit by that information, even when it comes to something as simple as asserting authorship. Even the most permissive licensing schemes I've found, like the ones championed by Creative Commons, at least require credit where credit is due. However, in the current internet culture, it doesn't seem possible to enforce even that much.

Then again, think about what would happen if stricter regulations were put in place. Corporate interests have already severely warped U.S. copyright laws to keep content out of the public domain for far longer than the originators of copyright law ever intended. And they've been behind the draconian recent internet regulation bills that would make it impossible for the internet to function in its current form, where simply linking to someone's copyrighted content, even inadvertently, would be actionable. On the other hand, there's the other extreme. In China it's easier to find knockoffs than the genuine article when it comes to many products. The government recognizes intellectual property rights, but enforcement has always been lax. Ideas are assumed to belong to the public commons at the outset, for anyone to profit by. The public benefits, but it becomes difficult for legitimate creators to operate. Where's the happy medium between the two models here? Is one even possible?

You'll notice that I haven't used word piracy, because the issue here goes a lot deeper than simply copying or using someone else's work without permission. It's the whole approach to intellectual property that seems to be shifting, toward something more collectively owned and controlled, where the original author isn't just stripped of authority upon the publication of a work, but identity as well. In remix culture, he or she becomes the first of a series of authors, each making contributions or helping to disseminate a piece of media. Information becomes free, beyond any single person's influence, self-perpetuating.

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? I don't know, but it's happening.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In a "Perfect Sense"

A few weeks ago, I wrote up a review of "In Time," a science fiction action film that was more parable than speculative fiction, a film of interesting metaphors, put in service of a severely lacking story. With "Perfect Sense," we have a similar kind of science fiction tale. An epidemiologist, Susan (Eva Green), and a chef, Michael (Ewan McGregor), stumble through a tumultuous romance as the world is thrown into chaos by a series of plagues that rob people of their senses, one by one. The various symptoms of the plagues have no grounding in any kind of reality, and have clearly been scripted for the best dramatic effect, to serve various metaphorical and thematic purposes. And yet this time, despite the iffy premise that requires so much suspension of disbelief, the movie works.

We've seen so many, many onscreen apocalypses in recent years, it's always a nice surprise to see an original way to wipe out humanity. "Perfect Sense" does this by having its plagues systematically attacking the human senses. The first plague takes away people's ability to smell, and with it certain memories related to that particular sense. Susan tracks the outbreak while Michael has to adjust the menu at his restaurant to compensate. The two meet by chance and spend the night together. Neither seem quite sure about a future together, but the attraction is there, and Green and McGregor are lovely together onscreen. It's enough to form a foundation for their eventual relationship, and their lives give us a point of reference as things start to go really wrong in the world, until humanity appears to be on the brink of total disaster.

This is not a particularly complex story, but it is an ambitious, high concept one. How do you show a world without taste? Or the moment of extreme grief that signals the onset of the illness? How do people adjust their lives in order to go on? Director David Mackenzie does a fantastic job of introducing us to each new affliction, to each new variant of the symptoms and the way that the world reacts. I don't want to get into details for fear of spoiling anything, but I found myself marveling several times over how inventive the writing was. Most of the story takes place in Glasgow, where the film was shot, but the pandemic feels global in scope. Much of this is accomplished with small details, or by simply achieving a certain tone and mood, especially toward the end of the film. "Perfect Sense" manages to feel more properly apocalyptic than most big budget apocalypse films I could name.

Another vital piece is the love story. Neither of the characters hooked me immediately, I think because I'd seen Eva Green play a similar character a few too many times before. Here again, she's a desperately troubled woman with a very mercurial temperament. And Ewan McGregor is so low-key at first, he hardly even registers as the leading man. However, this is just the film taking its time. Soon enough both characters start peeling back their layers, and letting down their guard. McGregor and Green are both terrific actors, and complement each other nicely. The emotional core that their messy courtship provides the film is an invaluable, and the fact that it's rough and imperfect and frequently unhappy makes it feel all the more genuine. I can't think of the last time I saw a film with a story so well balanced between the romance and the action.

I don't expect that "Perfect Sense" will work so well for everyone. The metaphors have no subtlety whatsoever, and the emotional manipulation is fairly shameless. In spite of all the doom and gloom, the film's message is supposed to be quite a hopeful one, and it’s terribly heavy-handed. And I totally bought it, hook line, and sinker. I liked the difficult love story. I got caught up in the escalating madness of the plagues. And I found the final sequence of the film truly moving and affecting in a way that I haven't felt about any kind of genre film in ages. If you want a movie that deals in realistic pandemic scenarios, go sit down with Soderbergh's "Contagion." But if you're in the mood for a parable about love and loss and the end of the world, seek out "Perfect Sense." It's a very strange and imperfect film, but it also accomplishes something very rare – it evokes a real sense of human empathy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What's the Holdup on "Hop"?

So, I've been keeping an eye on the DVD release dates of the fourth quarter 2011 films, waiting impatiently to finally get my first look at "My Week With Marilyn" and "Young Adult." While looking over the schedule of upcoming releases, I spotted "Hop," last year's partially animated Easter Bunny movie, slated for a March 23rd release. Not being too keen on watching the film after the negative reviews came in, I'd lost track of it, but I knew it had been in theaters shortly before Easter in 2011. Had Universal really waited a whole year to put the movie out on home media just to be able to capitalize off the holiday again?

Yup. The studio followed the usual release window timeline for Region 2, and "Hop" was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in late August in places like the UK, but Universal opted to wait nearly twelve months to release it on any home media in the US. And they're not the only ones who are using this tactic. "Arthur Christmas," the Aardman animated film that played American theaters starting November 23, 2011, won't reach home media until November 20, 2012. Now I'm a little regretful that I didn't catch it in theaters while I had the chance. It makes sense that both movies, which are so closely linked to a particular holiday, should wait a few extra months to launch their marketing campaigns and maximize sales. After all, who would would want to watch an Easter Bunny movie in August? Or a Christmas movie in March or April?

Out of curiosity, I did a little checking on similar holiday films, including the 2009 version of "A Christmas Carol," "The Polar Express," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Four Christmases," the "Santa Clause" sequels, "Christmas With the Kranks," a couple of Halloween horror movies, the more recent "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve," and "Groundhog's Day." Almost all the Christmas movies that were timed to open in theaters at the start of one holiday season didn't reach home media until the next November or December. By contrast, all the horror movies like the "Saw" and "Paranormal Activity" installments released for Halloween hit store shelves by the following January. "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve," both released close to their respective holidays, were on DVD and Blu-ray a few months later in May. Ironically, the two most recent "Halloween" franchise movies were released in August. "Groundhog's Day" was in theaters slightly after the actual Groundhog's Day in 1993, and was released on home video six months later.

It's understandable why most of the non-Christmas movies don't opt to wait for their holiday to roll around again. Horror movies are effective all year round, as are the romantic comedies that just happen to take place on Valentine's and New Year's. Christmas movies, however, are generally all about Christmas, and the season only comes once a year. Moreover, Christmas movies and cartoons are a holiday tradition, an easy family activity to help fill the dull hours of interminable vacations and family reunions. Americans buy more Christmas themed movies than they do for any other holiday, and Hollywood obligingly produces plenty of them, hoping for more perennials like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street."

Easter isn't a big movie holiday, despite the yearly broadcasts of "The Ten Commandments." It's a far less commercialized and considerably more religious holiday, one that much of the rest of the world doesn't celebrate. However, there has been a long tradition of secular Easter cartoons and specials aimed at kids. "Hop," one of the few high profile Easter kids' movies, clearly made a play for seasonal relevance, and only time will tell if it manages to stick around in subsequent years or not. By all measures it doesn't seem to be a particularly good film, but there's not much else in the Easter movie category for it to compete with. On the other hand, placing itself in such a narrow niche might end up affecting its playability in the long run.

In the age of steadily shrinking release windows, it's interesting to find a category of movies that still follow a different model, and are immune to the pressures that have so drastically reshaped the rest of the home media landscape. I can't help wondering how these movies are going to be affected by further changes to existing distribution models, especially as consumers' memories get shorter and shorter. I admit I completely forgot about "Hop" until I spotted it on the March release schedule. I'm not really interested in it, but I would like to see "Arthur Christmas," after hearing some positive word-of-mouth over the holidays. But the question is, will I still want to by November? Or will I just watch the next Christmas themed movie that comes along?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tuned In To the "Dead Set"

It's hard to believe that there have been twelve seasons of the reality show, "Big Brother," with a thirteenth on the way in the US this summer. I watched the first season, way back in 2000, and didn't get much out of it. I understand that the UK version is more popular and has become a bigger part of the culture than it has in the US. And that's probably why one of the most interesting pieces of media to comment on reality show culture that has come out of British television centers around it – Charlie Booker's "Dead Set."

In 2008, shortly after the ninth series of "Big Brother" finished airing in the UK, "Dead Set" premiered on the same channel. It ran as a five episode miniseries, aired over five consecutive nights, chronicling what happens to a group of "Big Brother" contestants and various crew members when a zombie apocalypse breaks out. "Dead Set" extensively incorporates the "Big Brother" format, including the show's host, Davina McCall, playing herself, and former contestants making cameos. All the rest of the crew and the fictional season's "houseguests" are played by actors. We follow several characters, including Kelly (Jaime Winstone), a runner on the show, her boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed), an abrasive producer Patrick (Andy Nyman), and a full house of constantly quarreling contestants.

"Dead Set" has one of those concepts that anyone could think up – zombies attack "Big Brother" – but the execution was surely much trickier. Like any good zombie media, it has to have a high degree of camp, but it also needs to develop a few strong, sympathetic characters for the audience to care about, in order to sell the thrills and the horror. The tone has to be light enough for the satire, but also heavy enough to feel like there are actual stakes to the story. "Dead Set" manages to balance all of these things. For the bulk of the time it it's a morbidly funny horror program that just happens to take place in and around the "Big Brother" set. It follows all the rules of a zombie movie, and would be a decent feature without the reality TV trappings. It's only toward the end, when all the storylines converge, that the group dynamics that are at the center of the reality show come into play, and the commentary and metaphor become more pointed. I didn't think it went quite as far as it could have with the satire, but taken as a whole, "Dead Set" is still much smarter than most recent zombie movies I could name.

The central irony is that we only see the reality behind the reality show through the intervention of the fantastic. Facing a real crisis, affected personas are dropped, profanities are plentiful, and the contestants get the chance to show what they're really made of. Or more often, to reveal the weaknesses inherent in their fame-seeking, self-centered personalities and the damage done by the poisonous, artificial game show atmosphere. "Dead Set" is rough on the houseguests, but it saves its worst barbs for Patrick, the obnoxious control-freak producer who reflexively insults everyone within earshot, and spends most of the story trapped in the show's green room with Pippa (Kathleen McDermott), the dimmest of the contestants.

The five episode length of "Dead Set" means the pace has to be brisk, and there is no shortage of blood and guts and gore. Every thirty minute episode features some kind of attack or escape, culminating in a massive action sequence in the last episode that is everything a horror fan could wish for. No slow-moving "The Walking Dead" style storylines here. And no squeamish heroines either. Kelly dispatches her first zombie with a pair of scissors right through the cranium, and subsequent kills get even more graphic. And yet, I think the usual audience for "Big Brother" would enjoy "Dead Set" just fine, assuming they're not too sensitive. There's still plenty of romance and gossip and backstabbing – just with real world, life-or-death consequences this time around.

Like it or not, reality television has become part of the culture, and while I'm not too thrilled with most of the reality shows themselves, I've enjoyed how they've been incorporated into or addressed by other media. "Slumdog Millionaire," and "Mon Meilleur Ami" wouldn't have been quite the same without "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." "Dead Set" wouldn't exist without "Big Brother," and so I'm actually glad I saw what little of the show I did, in order to be able to better enjoy Charlie Brooker's vicious pop culture parable all the more.

Friday, March 9, 2012

All the "John Carter" Drama

It's like watching a car crash in slow motion. Today is the release date of Disney's "John Carter," formerly known as "John Carter of Mars," which cost the studio $250 million by conservative estimates. It's directed by PIXAR alum Andrew Stanton, responsible for "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E." He shares writing credits with Mark Andrews, director of the upcoming "Brave," and Michael Chabon, who has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and whose last foray into screenwriting resulted in roughly a third of "Spider-man 2." The film is based on the popular "Barsoom" adventure series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs roughly a century ago, before he went on to "Tarzan" and "The Land That Time Forgot." And if the box office analysts and the word on the street is right, we may be looking at one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.

Now, it's on with the finger-pointing. The most obvious culprit here is the marketing, which insisted on a title change that nobody likes, cut trailers and ads that refused to provide any explanation for the confusing visuals, and pretty much did everything that they could to make the movie look as generic and unappealing as possible. The "John Carter" Superbowl ad, for instance, was an unmemorable bust. I shudder to think how "Avatar" would have been received if its ads had been handled by this bunch. Marketing president MT Carney, who was largely responsible for the campaign, was dropped-kicked back in January, but her replacement has hardly done any better in the interim. The best trailer I've seen so far has been a fan-made cut, that was being linked to by several movie sites a few weeks ago.

"John Carter" may not have many obvious selling points, but why have the ads been so timid about pushing its pedigree? Why not trumpet the fact that PIXAR talent was involved? There wasn't even a measly, "From the studio that brought you 'Pirates of the Caribbean,'" or "From the director of 'WALL-E'" anywhere. If a movie is going to fail, I wish the studios would let it fail on its own merits, especially when some of these hamfisted marketing campaigns make the pictures look so much worse than they really are. The campaign for "John Carter" is downright evasive, not satisfied with striking "of Mars" from the title, but giving no indication that the hero is a soldier from the Civil War era fighting Martians in a Jules Verne flavored universe.

Of course the marketing's not the only problem here. Many are blaming a runaway production. What was Disney thinking, industry watchers have asked. Why would they give a director new to live action such a huge budget, let him make a movie based on a practically unknown property, and then not cast a single bankable actor? Sure, the "Friday Night Lights" crowd knows who Taylor Kitsch is, but the show never exactly had the best ratings. On the other hand, I don't think it's hard to see why Disney was willing to give the PIXAR guys some free rein. PIXAR has had a great track record of hits so far, and if they could translate that success into live-action films, think of the possibilities. Some of their best films have had unorthodox stories - who would have greenlit "Ratatouille," "WALL-E," or "Up" based on the plots alone?

And Disney hasn't exactly been rewarded in the past for thinking small. They failed pretty miserably with their would-be action franchise, "Prince of Persia," which was hampered by penny-pinching and came across as a cut-rate production as a result. "TRON: Legacy," a more daring experiment, didn't break any records, but it was much better received, made its money back, and sequel plans have been rumored. And even after considerable wrangling over budget numbers, "The Lone Ranger" with Johnny Depp is still probably going to cost Disney as much as one of the expensive "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Speaking of "Pirates," wasn't that a ridiculous idea until it spawned a four movie franchise?

Right now it's hard to tell if the filmmakers succeeded here or not. Reviews are all over the board, with some lauding "John Carter" as a fun popcorn movie and others trashing it as an incoherent mess and a bore. Audiences will be the final arbiters, of course, and it's been proven time and time again that they don't listen to critics. "John Carter" still has a shot, depending on word of mouth, but it's going to be a real uphill battle.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Under "The Skin I Live In"

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is best known for making vibrant comedies and rich melodramas about complicated women and the men who love them. Over the course of his career, Almodóvar has certainly tackled his share of gender politics, twisted relationships, and mental instability, but I don't think anyone was expecting him to explore these themes by taking such a severe and unprecedented turn into genre territory the way that he does in his newest film, "The Skin I Live In."

In his best role in years, Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a celebrated surgeon, who has invented a new artificial skin that is resistant to burns. He runs his experiments in a small private clinic in Toledo, currently occupied by a single patient, Vera (Elena Anaya). She serves as his reluctant test subject, secreted from the rest of the world. Under the care of the housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), Vera's existence and relationship to Legard is a mystery. We don't know who she is, how she came to be at the clinic, and if her confinement is with her own consent or not. Information is revealed slowly, a piece at a time. We know that Legard had a beautiful wife, Gal, but something horrible happened to her. We know he also had a beautiful daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), but something horrible happened to her too. And to tell you much more than that would be spoiling things.

I think it's fair to call "The Skin I Live In" a horror movie, with its own mad scientist, its own monsters, and its own wonderfully pulpy moments of shock and revulsion and morbid curiosity. Surely the answer to the puzzle couldn't be what we think it is, could it? Surely Legard, who seems like a fairly reasonable man at the outset, wouldn't break so many taboos and cross so many ethical lines, would he? And at the same time, the movie fits right in Almodóvar's oeuvre, with its broken families, psychosexual and identity struggles, and lavish visuals. This is not an example of a director breaking from form, taking a jaunt into a different cinema universe to play with someone else's toys, but very much a natural extension of the ideas and concepts that Almodóvar has been exploring throughout his career.

I've always been drawn to cinema's few, rare female monsters, like the burn victim Cristiane from Georges Franju's "Eyes Without a Face," and Dren from "Splice," the child of a genetics experiment and two very imperfect parents. In almost all cases, aspects of their femininity become sources of horror. In "The Skin I Live In," this is no different. Vera, whose perfect skin is a product of science, is oppressed by her own body and all the accoutrements of womanhood to a certain extent. Almodóvar includes shot after shot of Elena Anaya's lovely figure in a black jumpsuit, attractive and sensual, yet also strange and alien. Men are inexorably drawn to Vera's beauty, which terrifies her until she comes to understand what a potent weapon her sexuality can be.

At first I was a little taken aback at how cold and clinical the film was toward its female characters. Then I realized it was reflecting the views of the male characters, constantly objectifying women's physical attributes and ignoring their individual personalities to the point where they view the female characters as interchangeable. Then you have the portrayal of of Vera, which I really can't get into without giving everything away. I'm sure Almodóvar's intentions were good, considering his treatment of similar themes in the past, but here he touches on some very delicate gender issues, and I couldn't shake the thought that Vera's story could really be taken the wrong way by certain people. At the same time, I was continually impressed by how bold and how startling the ideas were, and how well the director managed to navigate much of the tricky material.

Kudos must also go to the excellent cast, especially Elena Anaya in an extremely physically and psychologically demanding role. And it's so good to see Antonio Banderas in a part with some substance again after so many years of American kid's films. His Robert Legard is one of the creepier villains I've run across in a while, and I hope it leads to more interesting work. As for Pedro Almodóvar, I like that I have no idea what he's going to do next. I didn't know he had this movie in him, and it's such a delight to see him exploring new territory. Whatever he decides on, be it a return to his melodramas, or maybe conquering another genre like Westerns or film noir, I'll be watching.