Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ho Hum "Continuum"

It's frustrating when you have a show with all the right elements in place, except for one big, inescapable problem right at the center. The new Canadian science-fiction series “Continuum” is nothing groundbreaking, though its effects are a notch higher than what you usually see on television. Its premise is pure pulp – in a corporately controlled cyberpunk future, a group of terrorists are condemned to death but escape to the past, which is our present day. They accidentally bring a lone policewoman with them, Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols), who is intent on hunting down the convicts and returning to her own time. She quickly rounds up some allies, including a tech geek, Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen), who can appreciate all the spiffy advanced technology Kiera uses, and Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster), a police detective she cons into believing she’s a colleague from Portland.

So far so good, right? “Continuum” could be a lot of fun. It’s exactly the kind of high concept, techno-babble-heavy, cheesy sci-fi action show I loved watching as a teenager. However, that big problem I was talking about? It’s the lead actress, Rachel Nichols. She’s terrible. She has exactly two expressions, stoic and vulnerable, which is fine when she’s playing the one-woman army, but not fine when she has to interact with other characters. Kiera falls into the trap of being one of those morally upright, dedicated, professional women that we’re all supposed to admire for her skill and effectiveness, but who has no damn personality to speak of. She’s also a mother with a young son waiting for her in the future, which certainly gives her good motivation, but doesn’t automatically make her sympathetic or interesting. I tried to think of how Kiera might have come across differently if she were a male character, but I kept coming up with the same two descriptors – blank and humorless. A better actress could have made up for the deficiencies in writing, but I'm not optimistic in this case.

The plot has some interesting ideas, but I think the creators tipped their hands too quick, with all the harping on how the governments of the future are all controlled by corporations, and personal freedoms have been severely curtailed. It’s pretty much inevitable that at least some of the terrorists Kiera is chasing will turn out to have been the good guys all along, and Kiera will learn the error of her ways and switch sides after a lot of emotional turmoil about destroying a future she has a lot invested in. Or maybe not. The episode pointedly also offers up multiple theories of time travel, suggesting the possibility that Kiera’s intervention in the past may have created the future she came from. I don't think subtlety is going to be one of the show's big strengths.

What I did find impressive were the special effects, which feature lots of scenic CGI cityscapes, lots of augmented reality technology, and lots of little gadgets and crime-fighting apps that Kiera shows off over the course of the hour. Many of these are integrated into right into her uniform, which allow her to access funds from ATMs, to generate electric shocks, and analyze data with the results popping up on her sleeve instead of a computer screen. All fun stuff, all well-realized and integrated into the show. However, clothing and hairstyles don't appear to have changed much otherwise between 2012 and 2077, which dates it immediately. And considering how the show has been constructed, I don't see Kiera checking in too often with the future in the weeks to come. Well, a few glimpses of a certain mystery man played by William B. Davis aside.

Now "Continuum" and its leading lady have plenty of opportunity to improve. There have been some famously terrible pilots and even whole first seasons of genre shows like this, where it took a while for everyone to get their act together. While Nichols isn't inspiring much confidence right now, maybe some of the supporting cast will pick up the slack. The pilot didn't spend much time with the villains, if they are the villains, who could be the souce of more interesting material. I'm being harsher on "Continuum" than I probably should be because it does have a certain ambition about it and a certain potential that could yield some good television. For now I think I'd class it with shows like "The Cape" and "The Bionic Woman," that had good ideas but hit some major stumbling blocks in the execution.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Okay, Let's Talk About "Kevin"

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a psychological horror film about guilt, about a mother whose teenage son has done something horrible. We first meet Eva (Tilda Swinton), living alone as a pariah in her small town, barely scraping by doing menial office work, and living in constant fear of her hostile neighbors and the rest of the community. Many of them are angry with her, and perhaps they have good reason to be.

Through flashbacks, we learn about her son Kevin, played by a succession of babies, dark-haired, unsmiling little boys, and finally the coolly distant Ezra Miller as a teenager. We learn how Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) had very different parenting experiences with Kevin, who seemed like a perfectly normal child to Franklin, but was an unholy terror to Eva from the very beginning. As a baby, he would cry constantly, perhaps maliciously. As a toddler, he was sullen, unresponsive, and shunned Eva's attempts at affection. When he was older, there were power games and early signs of antisocial behavior. Was Kevin's abnormality due to Eva's harsh personality and early ambivalence towards motherhood? Or was there something more innately wrong with him? If so, where could the fault have come from, if not from Eva?

Directed by Lynne Ramsay, the film is a fever dream of painful memories that Eva sifts through in search of elusive answers, broken up by daily episodes of misery in the present day. The pace is often slow, and Eva's journey can be a bit meandering in the beginning, but it's all in service of a terrific build-up of tension that pays off with plenty of interest. By the time we find out exactly what Kevin did, the film is almost unbearably intense and emotionally harrowing. There are some particulars of the plot that are a little ridiculous if you think about them for very long, but Ramsay does a fine job of translating them cinematically, and making them work for the story on a thematic level. She also does a great things with the visuals, particularly the color red, which recurs throughout the film. Sometimes it appears in physical objects, and sometimes in abstract flashes, acting as a transitional element from past to present, from memory to reality and back again.

Then you have the performances. This is more exceptional work from Tilda Swinton, who plays Eva in two distinctly different states - first as the frustrated mother at war with a young son she is unable to connect with, and then as a haunted, guilt-ridden shadow of her formerly vibrant self. It's her work in the flashbacks that I found the most intriguing, because Swinton is so good at playing up the ambiguity of Eva's culpability. We're certainly sympathetic to her when Kevin behaves abominably, but there's a coldness to Eva that comes through at times, especially when she's trying to bargain and reason with a small child who is clearly not in a position to do either. I can't imagine the film without her at the center of it. John C. O'Reilly doesn't get much to do here except play another good-natured everyman, which he does here as well as he always does. Ezra Miller as teenage Kevin, however, was a good find. He manages to hold his ground with Swinton in several key scenes, and succeeds in making the audience question whether Kevin should really be considered the villain or the victim or both.

There has been no shortage of films about evil children over the years, but none as thoughtful or as effective as this one. The vital difference here is that the horror doesn't come from what Kevin does, or even from what he is, but from the possibility that the evil in him is a manifestation of some dark part of Eva. That's a far more awful thing to confront than demons or ghouls or a simple abomination of nature. Horror films - and for any parent, "Kevin" is definitely a horror film - rarely tap into these kinds of fears, probably because it requires navigating so much difficult emotional territory and asks so many uncomfortable questions. I don't think "We Need to Talk About Kevin" would have worked without Tilda Swinton's performance. And in other hands, it could have all gotten campy or trite very fast.

But between Swinton and Ramsay, "Kevin" is exceptional. It's easily the best horror film I've seen in ages, and one of the best films of last year, period.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The May Box Office Massacre

Summer of 2012 was supposed to restore the fortunes of Hollywood after in rough financial times, giving them a chance to recoup losses on several costly flops with some tried and tested franchises like "Batman," "The Avengers," and "Spider-man." The year so far had been very encouraging, with box office receipts up across the board through winter and early spring. March was especially bright spot with "The Hunger Games" and "The Lorax." Then came a sluggish April, down 48% from last year, and then May, where nearly every major release has underperformed. The one big exception of course is "The Avengers," which has dominated the scene so totally, that it accounts for fully half of the total box office receipts for the month so far.

There has been a lot of press about the astonishing performance of "Avengers," which has been climbing the all time box office charts and setting speed records left and right. It's currently at $523,563,000 domestic, and fourth on the highest grossing pictures list after "The Dark Knight," which it should surpass within a week or so. However, you probably haven't heard nearly as much about the disappointing returns of May's other major releases. Warner Brothers' "Dark Shadows," which opened on May 11th, has recouped $64 million domestic on a $150 million budget. Universal's "Battleship," which opened May 18th, has so far earned $47 million on a $200 million budget. And then there's this past weekend's "MIB3," which opened to a respectable $70 million, but it's rumored that the film cost Columbia over $300 million due to delays in production, and it's not expected to make all of that back domestically. When you factor in foreign numbers, all of these films will probably make enough to cover their production budgets, but by Hollywood accounting, that's not going to be enough to keep their respective studios from sustaining some major losses.

There's been the usual finger-pointing and blame-heaping. Skyrocketing budgets have taken a lot of heat, especially the expensive special effects for "Dark Shadows" and "Battlefield," two totally untested would-be franchises that were of limited appeal in hindsight. "MIB 3" has been called a runaway production, with lots of rumors in the air about mismanagement behind the scenes. The Wrap recently posited that the overwhelming success of "The Avengers" was crowding other films out of the marketplace. Instead of its success being a "rising tide" that "lifts all boats," as similar films had been historically, "Avengers" was stealing away potential audiences from its competitors. I have to wonder if the "rising tide" effect did occur, and whether the other films may have actually performed worse without the presence of "The Avengers." It's hard to see how "Avengers" and "Dark Shadows" have much of an audience in common, or how two weeks wouldn't have been enough time to turn the public's interest to another big event film, like "Battleship."

What I find the most troubling is that we only have two films in the entire month of May that are going to break $100 million at the box office, "Avengers" and "MIB 3." Last year we had five: "The Hangover Part II," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Thor," "Bridesmaids," and "Kung Fu Panda 2," which was considered a disappointment for only pulling in $165 million in total. 2010 had three: "Iron Man 2," "Shrek Forever After," and "Robin Hood," and none of the other major releases fell under $90 million. This year's misses are pretty abject failures by comparison, and suggest that Hollywood was really out of touch with the public on these projects. "Battleship" enjoyed a massive marketing campaign, but couldn't escape bad reviews and incredulous mockery over its board game origins. "Dark Shadows" was anticipated by some Johnny Depp and Tim Burton fans, myself included, but enjoyed a far more humble reception than its $150 million budget could justify.

Looking ahead to next year, the offerings look more solid. We'll have "Iron Man 3," another "Star Trek," another "Hangover," and another "Fast and Furious." Original projects like "The Identity Thief," "Leaf men," "The Lone Ranger," and "Pixels," also look a lot more promising than the likes of "Battleship." I'm sure that there are going to be more failures and disappointments ahead, but hopefully not on this level again. As we've seen in recent months, the studios are becoming more cost-conscious, cancelling or reworking many expensive projects. And we can all rest easy that Universal won't be making any more expensive movies based on board games for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Pretty Colors of "Daisies"

"Daisies" is a 1966 surrealist, avant-garde Czechoslovakian film. Now don't panic. Running a brief 74 minutes, "Daisies" is an invigorating, plot-free romp, following a pair of "spoiled" young women as they engage in escalating episodes of bad behavior. Perhaps the girls' adventures have political or sociological messages embedded in them, as the opening images of WWII bombings and industrial machinery seem to suggest. Perhaps, the film is to be interpreted as some kind of early feminist statement, as it was directed by a woman, Věra Chytilová, and features two primary female characters, Jarmila and Jezinka (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová), doing all kinds of socially unacceptable things. I'm afraid I simply don't have enough context to make those kinds of claims.

What I can say is that "Daisies" is a remarkable experimental narrative. Jarmila and Jezinka, one blonde and one brunette, are a carefree pair, more archetypes than proper characters. At the beginning of the film, while sunbathing together, they decide to be "spoiled," and proceed to spend the next hour acting like the most nightmarish pair of manic pixie dreamgirls ever filmed. Their antics range from childish, disruptive behavior in inappropriate settings, to taking blatant advantage of much older male suitors in a succession of dates, to a gloriously silly and horrifying climax where the girls destroy an extravagant banquet. Jarmila and Jezinka are a greedy and capricious pair, constantly gorging themselves with food, systematically destroying the apartment they share, and indulging whatever nonsensical ideas pop into their heads.

And yet they are such appealing comic figures, with their high energy and sweet faces. Made up to look like a pair of overgrown children, one always in pigtails and the other wearing a flower wreath, it's easy to dismiss their early escapades as harmless youthful frolic. We root for them when they maneuver their way out of the arms of a would-be sugar daddy through a slapstick routine with a train. On the one hand, they may be immoral and irresponsible, and on the other they may be innocents at play. One segment has the two girls taking turns rolling each other up in layers of blankets. In another they have fun with a pair of scissors, and playfully shear each other's limbs off like paper dolls, before their bodies are magically restored in the next sequence.

This is a surrealist film, remember, and neither the narrative nor the filmmaking follows any rational logic. Sometimes we see flashes of Stan Brakhage-like film collages of butterflies or trains or phone numbers. The cinematography will switch from black and white to color to a succession of different hued filters, seemingly at random. Occasionally, the film is sped up to emphasize the girls' hyperactivity. (Even without the film being sped up, the performances of Karbanová and Cerhová often border on the manic, and certain scenes must have been exhausting to shoot) . Typed up captions interject themselves to comment on the action, especially toward the end when the symbolism becomes more pointed. Through it all, Chytilová visuals are a constant delight, a riot of playful, topsy-turvy iconography drawn from the girls' lives of frivolity. There is a special emphasis on getting made up, changing clothes, flirting rituals, and other girlish amusements that have some sinister implications.

When the film was released, the Communist Czech authorities took affront to the depictions of the girls' excesses, including all the ruined food in the banquet scene, and banned it until 1975. The director argued that "Daisies" was meant to be critical of such behavior, and was not anti-Communist. Perhaps this was truly her intent, but "Daisies" seems to contain considerably broader messages than that. Through modern eyes, I can't help comparing Jarmila and Jezinka to similarly "spoiled" reality starlets, petted and indulged and encouraged to behave badly for the audience's enjoyment. And it's a good reminder of how youth and innocence are more fetishized and exploited by the media than ever. I've lost count of the number of teen idols and Disney Channel veterans we've seen self-destruct over the years in similar fashion.

Of course I may be completely off base here. I'm not very good with abstract and avant-garde cinema, since I'm never sure if I'm properly decoding the symbols being presented, or if a cigar is just a cigar. However, I enjoyed "Daisies" and I found it very engaging. It had me happily puzzling over its intentions and searching for potential meanings in a way that very few of these films have managed.

Friday, May 25, 2012

So Long Sweeps

There may be nothing more indicative of how widely my television viewing habits have diverged from the expected norm than my almost total lack of interest in the programming for this year's May sweeps period. May sweeps is the time of year for epoch-ending series finales, wild cliffhanger season finales for shows coming back next year, and the final results shows of spring reality series like "American Idol." All of this is done in the name of ending the television broadcast year with a bang, boosting ratings during the final period when audience levels are measured to help set future advertising rates. In years past, the first three weeks of May meant no reruns, huge plot advancements in continuing serials, guest stars, stunts, and more.

For me, sweeps were a signal to pay closer attention to the programs I was only watching casually, and even the ones that I wasn't. I used to tune in to the finales of popular shows that I wasn't a regular viewer of, like "Lost" and "24," just to see what all the fuss was about. And though I stopped watching "American Idol" after two seasons, I would tune in to the final results shows in later years, just to enjoy the spectacle. The highlight was always the big fuss that people made over the series finales of the long-running, consistent performers like "Seinfeld" or "Everybody Loves Raymond." I always appreciate a good clip show and seeing familiar actors take their final bows. And then, of course, cable cutting and the internet ruined everything.

This year marked the end of "Desperate Housewives" and "One Tree Hill," a pair of soaps I never watched, but also "House," which I was a regular viewer of for years. I'd still been watching off and on this season, but online, catching up on multiple episodes at once. Thanks to FOX's insistence on delaying episodes a full week after their broadcast dates before being released online, I still haven't seen the "House" series finale. And after reading the various reviews and recaps, I don't know if I want to. The preceding clip show sounds fun, but already knowing all the surprise appearances and final fates for all the characters, any curiosity I had about the finale has mostly been satisfied. If live television was the only way I could watch it, and if I didn't know the AV Club and Slate and a dozen other sites would have reviews up the following day, I probably would have tuned in. And if I'd been watching FOX regularly and caught one of their endless stream of promos for the finale, that certainly would have helped too. But I didn't. Instead, on Monday night I was finishing up the last few episodes of "Grimm" and still freaking out over Dan Harmon's firing.

I did make a point of watching the last three episodes of "Community," which I'm glad I did because they may end up being the de facto series finale. However, I missed the season cappers for "Glee" and "Big Bang Theory." I want to see them, particularly for Howard getting shot into space at last, but the urgency is gone. Because I'm not seriously invested in watching either show, and I didn't care enough to follow them week to week this year, it feels like a chore to go track down the online versions, just to get myself up to speed for next season. In my little cord-cutter media universe, there's no longer such a thing as casual viewing. I'm on a Hulu Plus subscription this month, and I have thirty Criterion titles queued up, after reviewing the entire available catalog, replacing my old hunt-and-peck browsing habits at the physical Blockbuster stores. With television shows, I find myself juggling a growing list of episodes I need to catch up on, and figuring out how to prioritize. I still watch "60 Minutes" every Sunday night through the CBS website and I watch Jon Stewart most weeknights, but for everything else it often comes down to what I'm in the mood for and how much hassle I'm willing to go through to watch something. CBS is doing itself no favors with its haphazard approach to releasing content online.

I did not watch the "American Idol" finale this year, which had the lowest ratings of any "American Idol" final over its entire ten-year run. I'm sure this was due to a variety of different factors, including waning audience interest and increased competition from similar talent programs. However, I wonder if it's not another indication that the whole culture is shifting. "American Idol" is such a prized property because it draws a lot of young viewers, but those are the viewers who are spending less and less time watching live television, and more and more online. I’m fully aware that cord-cutters like me, who get the majority of their television shows from the internet, are a rarity right now. But that may not be true for long.

This year’s sweeps barely registered for me this year. Some post mortems have noted that the actual content of many finales were fairly subdued compared to past seasons. We didn’t get as many big stunts or crazy cliffhangers. However, I think the effectiveness of sweeps itself was drastically reduced by my changed watching habits. If I marathon three or four episodes of a show instead of watching them live, their airdates become less important, less noteworthy. It’s harder to build them up into events. And so May sweeps look like they're quickly becoming just another month of television.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Trailers! Trailers! Early Contenders Edition

It's been a while since I've done a real trailer post, since most of the big ones in recent months have been for the summer blockbusters, and I've been avoiding those. A lot of marketers have proven that they're perfectly happy to ruin a movie experience in the process of selling it to you this year. However, this week has been all about Cannes, and studios have been previewing some of their more serious films, due in theaters later in the fall and winter, which could turn out to be awards contenders. The marketing in this area tends to exhibit more self-control, so I've taken in a few of the coming attractions. "The Hobbit" was already covered in a previous post, and alas, I have not seen that seven-minute preview of "Django Unchained" out there. Links lead to Trailer Addict and Youtube.

The Master - This is my favorite kind of trailer, something simple and direct that gives you actual substance, something to whet your appetite for what's to come. Without telling you what the film is about, the preview for "The Master" offers up a brief snippet of conversation between Joaquin Phoenix's character and someone who appears to be law enforcement, rife with tension and hidden implications. The minimal, but quietly ominous music sets the mood and the tone. Bad things are a afoot, and I can't wait to see what they are.

The Great Gatsby - This is pinging as more "Moulin Rouge!" than "Australia," though with Baz Luhrman involved, it was never going to be a sedate adaptation. The trailer's emphasis on visual spectacle (3D? Really?) means we don't get much of the actual performances that are going to make or break this. So far, Joel Edgerton is looking way too much like Richard Roxburgh's Evil Duke, Carey Mulligan makes an adorable flapper, and Leo hasn't got a thing on Robert Redford. But it's too early to draw any conclusions.

The We and the I - Michel Gondry returns to indies after his "Green Hornet" misadventures. There are apparently some fantasy elements that creep their way into the movie, but all the trailer shows is a multiracial cast of teenagers taking the bus home on the last day of school, and the various dramas and intrigues playing out among them. Early reports suggest that "The We and the I" may be a little too raw, with its non-professional actors and unconventional bent, but it's still nice to see Gondry striking out in new directions.

Hyde Park on Hudson - This could be mistaken as a sequel to "The King's Speech," as "Hyde Park" is chiefly concerned with a visit by King George VI and his wife Elizabeth to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Hyde Park estate in 1939, for hijinks and talk of war. The trailer is pure Oscar bait, and selling the film as more lighthearted and sentimental than it may actually be. But the glimpses of Bill Murray as FDR, Olivia Williams as Eleanor, and Laura Linney as family confidante Margaret Suckly, have sold me already.

Argo - This is Ben Affleck's most ambitious directing job yet, and so far so good. I wish he had cast someone else as the lead, as Affleck has proven to be a stronger director than he is a performer, but I won't begrudge him the chance to rehabilitate his leading man status. At least he's gotten himself out of Boston at last, and into the middle of a covert operation to help rescue six Americans during the Iran Hostage crisis. There's plenty of material here for a good caper film, but I'm a little worried about the more dramatic bits.

Cosmopolis - I wasn't sure what to make of David Cronenberg's last film, "A Dangerous Method," and so far I have no idea what's going on in "Cosmopolis." However, I think that whoever is in charge of marketing here may be getting a little carried away calling this "the first film about our new millennium.” That said, I like the science-fiction elements, I like the bizarreness, and Robert Pattinson is not giving me any reason to think he can't pull this off. And good grief, have you seen the rest of the cast for this thing?

Amour - This one probably won't make much impact Stateside, but cinephiles ignore Michael Haneke at their own peril. End of life narratives tend to very upsetting for me, and I expect Haneke's take is going to be even more so. But at the same time, there are few who makes films as powerful and terrifying as he does anymore. It's probably going to take me a while to work up to it, but "Amour" looks to be one of those films I simply have to see.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Highest Grossing Films I Haven't Seen

I'm stealing the idea for this post from Tim Brayton over at the excellent Antagony & Ecstasy. I've spent the last few years trying to fill in the holes in my film knowledge by tackling the classics, but largely ignoring the films that most people have actually seen, when you use box office earnings as a rough proxy for number of tickets sold. So where are the gaps in my knowledge of modern popular movies? Let's take a look at the ten highest grossing films I haven't watched, and find out.

For the purposes of this exercise, I'm leaving out "The Hunger Games," at #14 and "The Lorax," at #107, which were only released in March, and which I fully intend to see when they hit DVD in a few more months. Also, I'm consolidating some of the film series I haven't seen into single entries.

#19. The Passion of the Christ (2004) $370,782,930 - Even my mother ended up in a theater for this one, but "Passion of the Christ" had its big cultural moment and then disappeared very quickly, so i never got swept up in all the hype. However, this is one of the only modern religious films that managed to make any impact on the American culture, so I am a little curious about it. There's a good chance I'll see it some day.

#21. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) $352,390,543 - I sat through the first two "Transformers" films in a state of increasing boredom and discomfort, both times because someone else wanted to watch them. I've managed to escape any social pressure to see the third entry, which I hear is better than the remarkably awful "Revenge of the Fallen," but I have no desire to go and confirm this. I'm done with "Transformers" until the reboot.

#40, 41, 52, 129. The Twilight Saga (2008-present) $1,071,212,372 total - I went through my high school vampire phase with "Buffy" and Anne Rice, and probably would have liked the "Twilight" books and movies if I were younger. However, I've picked up enough about "Twilight" from the media to know I wouldn't enjoy it as a grown-up. I'm glad for the success of the series because of the new opportunities it has created, but the films are not for me.

#53. Meet the Fockers (2004) $279,261,160 - I haven't seen "Meet the Parents" either. Modern comedy has been one of my blind spots, because I simply don't find a lot of the recent ones funny, and never connected with the major stars. Ben Stiller is tolerable, which is more than I can say for many of his colleagues, but I only tend to see his movies by chance. "Meet the Parents" and its sequels passed me by completely.

#82. Cast Away (2000) $233,632,142 - Another movie that everyone seemed to get caught up in at a certain point in time, that I just missed. I remember Tom Hanks being up for an Oscar for this, and Wilson the volleyball is a permanent pop culture fixture, but I wasn't curious enough to seek out "Cast Away" and find out what all the fuss was about. Given a choice, though, I'd pick this movie to watch over everything else on the list.

#91, 99, 291. Alvin and the Chipmunks Series (2007-2011) $570,823,098 total - Animation has always been a weakness of mine, and my go-to for brainless filler. I've seen all the "Ice Age" and "Madagascar" movies. Where I draw the line, however, is the reboots of old toons like "Alvin and the Chipmunks." I grew up with the 2D originals and I just can't get my head around the weird-looking CGI versions today's kids are watching.

#110. Wedding Crashers (2005) $209,255,921 - I had to Google to figure out who had starred in "Wedding Crashers" alongside Owen Wilson - it was Vince Vaughn. I've missed several of the primary Frat Pack movies, including "Old School," "Dodgeball," and "Anchorman," and I'm not very interested in catching up. This is not the kind of humor I enjoy, and frankly it still kinda mystifies me that Vince Vaughn is considered a comedic actor.

#122. Pearl Harbor (2001) $198,542,554 - One of Michael Bay's last stabs at serious filmmaking, if I remember right. The trailer was very impressive, but from the lugubrious bits and pieces of the actual movie I've caught from cable broadcasts, I was right to skip it. The film was notoriously loose with the historical record, and boasts a three hour running time, and then there's the Ben Affleck-Kate Beckinsale-Josh Hartnett love triangle. Oof.

#144. What Women Want (2000) $182,811,707 - This is the second Mel Gibson movie to appear, though I think it's more telling that this is one of three films from the year 2000 on the list, a point in time where I simply wasn't paying much attention to current movies. I'm sure "What Women Want" is a perfectly fine romantic comedy. The previews look fun and there was a recent Chinese remake. I think I also had this confused with "Dr. T and the Women."

#146. The Perfect Storm (2000) $182,618,434 - George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg starred in this? Really? I remember "The Perfect Storm" being a big summer disaster movie that was being pushed on the strength of its special effects, but it didn't seem to have much else going for it. And looking back, it has left almost no cultural footprint, no lasting impression on the cinema landscape. I take that as a good reason to keep ignoring it.

And for fun, here are my results when you adjust for inflation.

#34. Love Story (1970) $554,385,300
#39. Cleopatra (1963) $532,093,000
#42. Airport (1970) $523,601,400
#44. The Robe (1953) $518,400,000
#50. The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) $496,941,200
#55. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) $475,200,000
#57. The Passion of the Christ (2004) $370,782,930
#81. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) $426,693,300
#91. Duel in the Sun (1946) $404,081,600
#110. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) $363,673,500


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Delays, Delays

One of the reasons it's so frustrating to follow movies sometimes is the sudden changes in scheduling. The character of a season can change in the blink of an eye. After lengthy speculation as to whether Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" would be completed in time for a 2012 release, a recent teaser trailer and a round of promotions at the Cannes Film Festival all but guarantee that it's going to be one of the major awards contenders this winter. Meanwhile, Alponso Cuaron's "Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock, had been slotted for a November 21, 2012 release date for months, but last week it was announced that it was being pushed back to 2013. There were test screenings for an incomplete version going on earlier in the spring, but it’s been suggested that the production has hit delays, and apparently the competitive holiday season means a shortage of 3D screens in November and December. So Warners is opting to delay the film.

Rumors abound, but it's impossible to tell what’s really going on. We don’t know if the movie tested well or not. We don't know if the move is meant to give Cuaron more time to finish his special effects, or because the studio doesn't think that it can compete with the likes of "Skyfall" and "The Hobbit," or if this is merely a tactical move so Warners isn't wrangling too many pictures in the same awards season – they’ll be juggling Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby,” and the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas,” along with “The Hobbit.” "Gravity" was one of my most anticipated films going into 2012, and I've been very conscientious about not reading any of the reactions from screenings and not buying into any conspiracy theories. And yet, I'm extremely curious as to what Warners' thinking is here. This isn't the only film that they've delayed this year. "Jack the Giant Killer" was originally scheduled for this June, but got pushed back to March, 2013. The stated reason for the delay was to finish up special effects and take advantage of "The Hobbit" to launch a marketing push. Most observers noted that March is becoming a more lucrative month for big budget releases, while much less competitive than the middle of summer, so "Jack" would probably fare better there.

That narrative doesn't quite work for "Gravity" though. If it's anywhere near as ambitious as the hype seems to indicate, shouldn't Warners want to take advantage of awards season? On the other hand, with so many awards inching their deadlines earlier and earlier, if the film is struggling with post-production and has to be rushed to make its November deadline, it might be worth it to wait until the next awards season in 2013. Warners got burned last year with "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" being left out of contention for several key awards due to late screenings. "Gravity" doesn't have a new release date yet, but where it ends up on the schedule will say a lot about how commercially viable Warners thinks it is. The later in the year it resurfaces, the better. Hopefully it won't be another case like "47 Ronin," Universal's samurai film with Keanu Reeves, which was also supposed to open on November 21, 2012. An expensive production with a first-time director, the project is reputedly a troubled one, and its new release date reflects this - February 8, 2013.

Other former 2012 releases include the Brad Pitt zombie film "World War Z," which was scheduled for December, but pushed back to a comfortable June, 2013 berth, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle, "Bullet to the Head," which went from April, 2012, to February, 2013, and "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," which originally slated for March, 2012, but is now being dumped in January, 2013. The remake of "Gambit" with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz nearly ended up there too, but CBS Films had a change of heart and pulled it back to October 12, 2012. Now I want to emphasize that a release date really has nothing to do with the quality of a film, but rather its perceived commercial prospects, which have a major effect on marketing and distribution. Some of these moves signal serious problems, but others are simply a matter of the studios trying to balance out their release slates, or working out marketing strategies.

Consider the multiple delays of John Hillcoat's "Lawless," formerly known as "The Wettest County in the World." The Weinstein Company acquired it at Cannes a year ago, and was originally considering it for a 2011 awards season run, but they had a lot of major contenders already, so the film was moved to April, 2012. A few months ago, it was delayed again to August, purportedly to take advantage of any buzz for "Lawless" leading man Tom Hardy after "The Dark Knight Rises" bows in July, where Hardy plays the villain Bane. All the repositioning doesn’t appear to have hurt “Lawless,” a movie most average movie watchers never heard of before this week, but it’s still frustrating as hell for those of us who just want to see the damn thing already.

So it goes with “Gravity.” The movie is high profile enough that Warners won’t sit on it for too long, so it’s just a matter of waiting to see what tactic they want to use to sell it to us. Relying on awards buzz next year means waiting until after Labor Day. If they think it’s a blockbuster prospect, maybe June or July. If they don’t want to take a risk that big, but still think it could make some money on the strength of its concept and stars alone, maybe March or April.

Fortunately, there are a lot of other interesting movies coming out in 2012 to keep us distracted. And “Gravity” may end up being part of a very promising run of science fiction pictures in 2013 – Neil Blomkamps’ “Elysium,” Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion,” Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” and “Ender’s Game” among others. I fully expect that 2012 is still going to be a great movie year, in spite of my most anticipated film no longer being part of it. And it’s always nice to have a few more movies to look forward to for next year.

UPDATE: Deadline broke the news today that "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is being moved to March, 2013 too, a little more than a month before it was set to open on June 29, 2012. They want to covert it to 3D and avoid the potential summer crush, which is all well and good, but has there been another case where a studio has waited to pull a film this close to its intended release date? The trailers have been out for months already.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kevin Smith's New Show

So I'm browsing through Filmschoolrejects this morning, when the following headline catches my eye: Kevin Smith Turning Movie Website Comment Sections Into a Show. The article is talking about "Spoilers," the just announced Hulu exclusive series that Smith will be premiering later in the summer. After reading the associated Deadline and Wired articles, this is going to be a movie talk show of sorts, with major segments reviewing and discussing recent mainstream movies, and smaller bits for guest filmmakers and a Criterion corner - Hulu is hosting a good chunk of the Criterion Collection on its site, remember.

I wouldn't characterize "Spoilers" as a "comment section brought to life" though. For one thing, the show's contributors, a passel of fifty film geeks that Smith is in the process of rounding up, won't be anonymous. The anonymity is an important component of most online fandom interactions, as it frees people up to be more profane and non-PC and altogether more honest than they would be offline. Online discussion groups are varied in character from the low-brow, young male id driven Ain't it Cool News, to the more thoughtful crowd that frequents the AV Club. Suppressing participants' ruder impulses would affect one more than the other, but there would be a significant impact on both. Think of the recent spate of celebrities who have gotten themselves in trouble by shooting their mouths off on Twitter. Comments that wouldn't raise an eyebrow if they were coming from an account bearing an obvious pseudonym suddenly have a lot more weight when they're attributable to a real person.

And then you've got the in-jokes and the off-topic tangents and the memes and the grudges and the nutcases who keep popping up in discussion after discussion, all things that help the best forums and message boards and comment sections really develop into their own little communities. You'd get little to none of this community-building in a TV show or web series, which would be beholden to certain time constraints and format considerations. We might become familiar with some of the more prominent contributors, but it just wouldn't be the same. The only way you're getting a show that is a "comment section brought to life" is if you hire a couple of actors to do selected readings from a real one. And frankly, that would make for a pretty tedious series.

It looks like what Smith is really trying to do here is create a more populist version of a traditional review show, using a forum of fifty participants to interact with, instead of the more familiar two-man format, or a small panel of critics. Logistically, I'm not sure how this is all going to work. Are they going to let the roomful of opinionated film geeks just go at it by themselves free-form for a few hours, and then assemble the show from the most interesting arguments? Are they going to have Kevin Smith lead the thing like a class discussion? Are they going to spotlight a few movie geeks each week, or let a few of the loudest voices and strongest personalities dominate, as they always do in these situations? There are going to be a lot of bumps to work out, but the mass participation is an interesting idea and I'm curious to see how Smith and his collaborators are going to realize it. Sure sounds like it could be a lot of fun.

Kevin Smith also has a second season of his "Comic Book Men" unscripted show for AMC in the works, and together with "Spoilers" it looks like the director has found a good post-directing niche for himself on television/whatever the hell Hulu is. I'm generally not very keen on shows about fanboy culture, which can get indulgent and silly very quickly, but if they're going down that road, better that they have someone like Kevin Smith in charge, who at least knows what he's talking about. I'd rather he continue directing movies, especially as "Red State" showed that Smith is very capable working outside of his own little Askewniverse, but I it's nice to have him around in any capacity. As for "Spoilers," I doubt that it'll be a replacement for the sorely missed "At the Movies," but it could certainly help to start filling the void.

And Kevin Smith touting the Criterion Collection? Potentially discussing the merits of Godard and Truffaut? This I've got to see.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Well, There Goes the "Community"

Oh, the studios can be so unkind. Yesterday, about an hour after I posted my final thoughts on the third season of "Community," it was announced that Sony had removed series creator Dan Harmon from the showrunner position. He'll be replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port, who previously worked on "Happy Endings," "Aliens in America" and "Just Shoot Me." Harmon will be kept on in the limited capacity of executive consultant, a position which Harmon clarified this morning amounts to absolutely no creative control or input. This comes on the heels of the show's executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan signing with 20th Century Fox TV. To top it off Chris McKenna, who wrote some of the show's best episodes like "Paradigms of Human Memory" and "Remedial Chaos Theory," and vital directors Joe and Anthony Russo are also gone.

Moving "Community" to a Friday night, 8:30PM time slot following "Whitney" was bad enough, but at least I could see the logic. After three seasons and seventy-one episodes, it's clear that "Community" is a niche show, too smart and too unconventional to attract more than a small audience, but it's an audience that loves it. Harmon was rumored to be demanding, difficult to work with, and often just plain unpleasant, as the feud with Chevy Chase brought to light, but he fought for the show creatively. He's the one responsible for the consistently high level of quality and originality. Removing Harmon all but guarantees that "Community" will never be the same. We've seen it happen time and again, with shows like "The West Wing" and "Gilmore Girls." Once the original creators depart, sharks are jumped shortly thereafter.

However, this is exactly what Sony and NBC want. This is their last-ditch effort to help the low-rated "Community" shed some of its oddity and find a bigger audience. That's really the saddest part of all this. In order for "Community" to be a ratings success on network television, it has to become more palatable to the masses, which probably means being forced to compromise, to pander, and go for the easier jokes instead of the glorious heights of absurdity that it regularly reached. The only way to save "Community" may be to dumb it down, and that is simply too high a price to pay for six seasons and a movie. Personally, after seeing the third season end on such a high note, it might be best to just let "Community" end. "Arrested Development" had a similarly short-lived but celebrated run, and the show lives on undiminished as a cult favorite.

Moreover, I suspect that NBC's tactics are going to backfire. With the show stuck on Fridays and most potential viewers having made up their minds about it already, it's hard to figure how "Community" is going to pick up that broader mainstream audience. And there's the considerable risk that "Community's" hardcore group of fans, who would be willing to follow "Community" to Fridays, are going to be alienated by the changes. Remember, a lot of people who may not count in the ratings numbers are watching episodes online and buying the DVD sets.

It has been widely speculated that "Community" only got a fourth season so that enough episodes could be produced to sell the show in syndication. NBC could have just let the show continue with Harmon through a final half-season and seen it end on its own terms. They did that this season with the similarly low-rated fan favorite "Chuck." Right now I'm really ticked off that this possibility has been taken away from the fans of the show, who have supported and cheered on "Community" through tough times. It was such a relief to hear that NBC had renewed the show, but now it turns out the cake is a lie, and we've all been duped. Can you blame me for feeling bitter?

I've seen several reaction pieces already this morning, urging patience, trying to make the best of a bad situation. I'm sorry, but no matter how I look at this, we're getting a terrible deal. Nearly all the key behind-the-scenes creative talent is gone. The ambitious, metatextual, experimental, yes-you-can-do-that-on-television spirit of "Community" is going with them, because it's clear that this is not what NBC and Sony want. I wish the new guys luck, but whatever they come up with will be a different show, a placeholder, an understudy.

As far as I'm concerned right now, "Community" got three great seasons and ended before its time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Another Season of "Community"

NBC aired the last three "Community" episodes of the season last night. It was almost too much. First, there was the animated video game episode, one of the best straight parodies they've ever done. Then came the heist episode that paid off the Chang storyline with the doppelganger Dean. Finally, we had an episode that tied up a lot of loose ends, and could have served as a nice series finale if "Community" hadn't been picked up for a fourth season. All in all it was a great capper to a suspenseful year of ups and downs, highs and lows. We definitely need a post to wrap up the season.

"Community" had some significant growing pains this year. It added Jim Rash's Dean Pelton to the cast, and was often in locations outside of Greendale, such as Troy and Abed's apartment. This meant there was less focus on classes and studying, and more on the characters' changing relationships. As a result, this was a terrible year for the guest stars, with the severe underuse of John Goodman and Michael K. Williams as potential antagonists. Among the regulars, we had mixed results. Annie moved in with Troy and Abed part-way through the season, which ruffled some feathers. There was the brief Troy and Abed split, which didn't yield nearly as much good material as I was hoping for. However, Troy and Britta's increasingly cuddly attraction to each other has been a great vein of humor all year. Meanwhile, Chang became a security guard at Greendale, amassed an army of preteens, and took over the school. It was a good move for him, as Chang always worked best in the role of unhinged authority figure. However, Pierce and Shirley didn't get much to do outside of squabbling over Shirley's sandwich shop, and Jeff has become much less apathetic to his friends' troubles since last year, but had a tendency progress or regress depending on what the plot needed from him. Also, no movement on the Jeff and Annie romance at all.

Of course, this was also the year of seven different timelines and the pillow fort v. the blanket fort saga. And the "Law & Order" episode. And the "Glee" episode. And fooseball. And Inspector Spacetime and Constable Reggie and the Blorgons (Can you believe "Inspector Spacetime" was only introduced in this season?). And "Kiss from a Rose" karaoke. And "Roxanne" karaoke. And a new television commercial for Greendale Community College. And the Air Conditioning Repair Annex. And the black and white Michael Jackson impersonators. And Cornelius Hawthorne and his ivory hairpiece. And another blatant Subway promotion. It was a year of more running gags and story devices, revisiting some concepts and ideas, but with new variations. Hence another documentary episode, but in the form of a behind the scenes "making of" chronicle. And another fake clip show couched in a therapy session with John Hodgman. The "normal" episodes were few and far between, but the normal episodes were getting odder and the odder, while the weird ones often had the best character development, such as the installment where Annie learns to use the Dreamatorium and navigate the inner workings of Abed's head.

Some of the more ambitious ideas didn't work. The Halloween episode had a lot of good gags, but it wasn't up to par. Chang's stint as a film noir detective early in the year had me worried that is character was going in the wrong direction, before he started recruiting minions. Also, while I appreciate that Dan Harmon and the writers were trying to add more thematically interesting material, particularly Abed's fear of change and Troy's continuing maturation putting them at odds, sometimes they were too on the nose about their intentions. Evil Abed was great for a gag, but his later appearances were really hitting us over the head with Abed's mental baggage. Ditto Britta's decision to declare herself a psychology major and using it as an excuse to play therapist with her friends. Britta was great this season, but she didn't need the extra schtick. Ditto some of the more outrageous plot developments like the Dean being replaced and the Greendale Seven being briefly expelled. The school kept getting farther and farther away from reality, so it was a relief that the finale was a fairly by-the-book collection of smaller, low-key stories, that reestablished the status quo after several weeks of escalating madness.

The third season of "Community" is probably my least favorite overall, but it has some of the best episodes in the show's run, and I admire that it was trying to improve on what it had done in the past, and to strike out in different directions. Ironically, I think it got a little too far from its roots while at the same time devoting so much more time and attention to the relationships at the heart of the show. Pierce and Shirley still need more to do, but I think that's a given at this point. However, this season did manage to establish is that "Community" is no longer Jeff Winger's show. He's now sharing the narrative pretty equally with Troy and Annie, and to a lesser extent Abed and Britta. And that's a good thing.

Here's hoping for a back nine order for Season Four, and that they'll cast someone awesome to play Jeff's dad.

'Til next season, fellow Greendale Human Beings.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Week of Westerns

Westerns have always been one of my blind spots. I've never liked them. When I was younger, when tales of cowboys and gunfighters were far more prevalent on television, they always seemed to blend together into one hazy morass of bland, old-fashioned folksiness, with a corny ballad or the "Bonanza" theme playing off in the distance somewhere. However, you're simply not going to get very far in American cinema without running into westerns. They are the quintessential American genre, for the simple reason that we had the American West, with all its deserts and canyons and Native Americans, which no other country with a film industry had access to. And westward expansion has long been an essential part of the American narrative.

Still, it took me a long time to start watching westerns, and when I finally did it was only with supreme reluctance. I went through most of John Ford's filmography with little interest, using his films as filler when I wasn't watching anything else. Sergio Leone's epics were more diverting, but didn't do much to penetrate my overall apathy. The later Clint Eastwood and Peckinpah films of the 70s always felt very subversive of genre ideas and ideals I wasn't sure I had the best grasp on in the first place. My favorite western for a long time was "High Noon," which is practically a filmed stage play, and hardly features any of the elements that make westerns distinctive. So, last week I decided to attack the genre again, head on. I marathoned several of the highest profile westerns that I hadn't seen yet, including Anthony Mann's "The Man from Laramie" (1955) and "Man of the West" (1958), John Ford's "Wagon Master" (1950), Budd Boetticher's "Ride Lonesome" (1959), and capped it off with Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country" (1962), one of his earliest films.

I think that covered a good range of styles and approaches that let me see some of the evolution of the genre through the 50s, when westerns were arguably at their peak popularity. Ford's "Wagon Master" was the oldest and most conventional of them, with the most straightforward, morally upright heroes. It's a film about communal struggle, bringing together a band of of various dissolute characters to journey together though challenging terrain. It's a classic pioneer story with all the romantic ideals and imagery and song of Ford's most nostalgic visions of the Old West. A few years later, came the advent of Cinemascope and other widescreen formats, which Westerns were extremely well suited for. I spent most of "The Man From Laramie" and "Man of the West" appreciating the structure and composition of the extra-wide, extra photogenic shots. Anthony Mann's films also had the benefit of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper as leading men, both turning in excellent late career performances. I'd seen them both in romantic comedies of the same period, which they were both clearly too old to be playing in any longer, but in the westerns they fit the scenery.

As the decade wore on, the stories got darker and the American West became harsher and more unfriendly. There were prominent female characters featured in all of these films, who were subjected to increasingly perilous and compromising situations, often by the men who they put their trust in. "Man of the West" has the lovely Julie London as a platonic love interest for Gary Cooper, but he fails to protect her from sexual assault, and another woman from senseless slaughter. "The Searchers," with all its interracial and psychosexual tensions, had come two years before in 1956. "Ride Lonesome" made it explicit in dialogue. The American West was a terrible place for a woman, where the threat of rape and ruin were ever-present. "Ride Lonesome's" heroine has to travel with a band of bounty hunters for protection, nearly gets traded off to an Indian for a horse, and finds herself in the middle of a revenge plot orchestrated by our hero.

But this is nothing compared to what happens to poor Elsa, played by Mariette Hartley, in "Ride the High Country." She runs away from a domineering father to marry a man of her choosing at a nearby mining camp. The fiancé turns out to be an abusive thug, with a pack of equally thuggish brothers intent on exploiting her. Peckinpah eschews the eye-pleasing landscapes of Ford and Mann for tighter, more immediate visuals, emphasizing violence and viscerality. The wedding scene, where every other woman present is a prostitute, stands as a firm rebuke to sanitized, idealized portrayals of frontier life in the past, with its Stetson-wearing white knights. When Elsa is rescued, it is by Joel McCrea's aging law man, well past his prime. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of these films starred Hollywood Golden Age stars nearing retirement, in increasingly cynical stories about a much more anarchic, amoral version of the West.

Protagonists were losing their moral uprightness. Their histories got more colorful, their motives more suspect, and those who were made in the mold of the traditional heroes found their effectiveness ebbing. "Ride Lonesome" features Randolph Scott as a bounty hunter anti-hero, who knowingly endangers the rest of his party in order to lure in Lee Van Cleef's nominal villain. Gary Cooper's reformed criminal sees his past catch up with him, and is drawn back into the cycle of violence and terror. Even Jimmy Stewart's Will Lockhart touches off the purging of a corrupted family largely by accident. You can see the seeds of more subversive westerns with even darker protagonists starting to germinate here, leaving the likes of Shane and "High Noon's" Marshal Will Kane firmly behind them.

After spending a week with some of the major westerns of the 50s, I'm still not much of a fan of the genre, but I'm satisfied. I can see the versatility of the Old West as a setting, and the various ways that different directors used its familiar conventions. It's a deadlier, meaner world in these films than I remember too, not one I think I'd ever feel particularly nostalgic about. Maybe that's why I was always so hostile to the schmaltzier TV westerns about the good old days - something about the approach always felt a little dishonest, a little more make-believe than reality. I got a little of that from John Ford, but not any of the other directors this week. Instead there was a lot of disillusionment, a lot of angst, a lot of discontent, and a few shootouts.

Not my idea of good times, but it did make for some good movies.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Miss Media Junkie v. Mondo

There are many reasons to root for the success of Mondo, a boutique arm of the Alamo Drafthouse that does all those limited edition posters that film fans have gone gaga over. They're drawing attention to the beleaguered art of movie posters and movie-themed art, even filling their own gallery space in Austin, Texas during the last SXSW festival. They only offer a limited number and selection of their wildly popular posters at any particular time, and gaining quite a reputation among movie fans. However, the cult of Mondo leaves me cold. There aren't many of their posters that I find appealing, though I think the artwork has improved drastically over time. The exclusivity of the posters drives the demand for them, moreso than their actual quality. From a business standpoint, I salute what Mondo is doing, but as someone who loves movie posters and movie-related art, I don't buy the hype.

I've tried to write this post a couple of times, and previously wasted a lot of column inches nitpicking individual posters. However, that's the wrong approach. My issues with the Mondo posters go a bit deeper than than. However, I want to make it clear from the outset that there are a lot of Mondo pieces that I like and would love to hang on my wall. The recent "Avengers" set, for instance, is so much better than the lackluster marketing images used by the official promotional campaign. In many cases, even if a poster is not to my taste, it's nice to see something new and different for old favorites like "Conan the Barbarian" or "Akira." And I'll admit that one of the biggest issues I have with Mondo, the incredible overvaluing of their products, is really not their fault. It's due to the vocal Mondo fandom, which is quick to sing the praises of just about anything the company puts out, and has been willing to raise a fuss over some pretty mediocre pieces of fanart.

Yes, the Mondo movie posters are fanart, which is fine. Fanart can be great stuff. However, fanart comes with certain problems. Your usual run-of-the-mill movie posters are designed to promote a film. Fanart is more concerned with celebrating films. Why is this distinction important? The Mondo style tends to use film iconography we're already familiar with, playing on our nostalgia and our recognition. The artists avoid referencing or creating variations on existing promotional images. A recent E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial poster, for instance, depicts a tiny silhouette of ET in the woods with a big spaceship behind him, very different from the images of E.T.'s hand reaching out to touch Elliott's or the flying bicycle across the moon that we all know. The problem is that the Mondo images often don't stand on their own. They're not nearly as universal or evocative as the best promotional art. You need to have some level of knowledge about what's being depicted for many Mondo poster images to resonate the way they're supposed to. If I didn't know anything about "E.T.," the Mondo poster looks like it might be for a horror movie.

And I'm sorry to say that most of the time there's no comparison to the originals. A Mondo poster for Terry Gilliam's Brazil, one of my favorite films, was released recently. It's a perfectly nice poster, but compared to the art that was actually used to promote "Brazil" - the winged man escaping a file cabinet, or the guy with the exploding head - it couldn't help but fall short. Most of the Mondo posters are created for films that have great, iconic promotional images associated with them already, so they feel redundant. Other times, when Mondo remixes or reframes the iconography, the posters end up feeling too gimmicky. These "Star Wars" posters are a prime example. Sure, the images are cleverly constructed and work nicely as meta-commentary, but are they actually good representations of the films? Would they be the first thing you'd go to in order to promote or sell them?

Now, official movie posters have their own problems, and sometimes the fan-made ones leave them in the dust. I like the idea of Mondo and I admire their entrepreneurial spirit and commitment. I love the fact that their posters are mostly hand-drawn or painted, instead of the photomanipulated crap that too many studios settle for. I love that people get genuinely excited about their work. But every time a new Mondo poster comes out, I click on the link to the image, and find myself disappointed more often than not. Occasionally something will take my breath away, like this Dracula poster, but I haven't found Mondo's work nearly consistent enough to live up to the brand's reputation.

But, as I said, they have been improving. In a couple years, who knows?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where's the Third "TRON"?

Disney's XD network has premiered the first episode of its striking new "TRON Uprising" cartoon online, leading many to wonder about Disney's plans for a third "TRON" movie. It's been about a year and a half since "TRON Legacy," the heavily hyped-up return to the TRON universe, which didn't make as big a splash as the company would have liked, but did drum up a decent profit. Compared to some of Disney's other attempts to start a new action franchise, such as "Prince of Persia" and "John Carter," the numbers for "TRON Legacy" look pretty good in retrospect.

There has been a lot of hinting about another sequel for a while now. "TRON Legacy" set up several possibilities for future storylines, including updates on a few characters like RAM and YORI, who didn't actually appear in the movie. A completed draft of a new script by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who wrote "Legacy," apparently exists, though we don't know much about it. Bruce Boxleitner, who plays the character of TRON himself, has suggested in interviews that a new "TRON" film is only waiting for director Jospeh Kosinski to finish with "Oblivion" for Universal. However, the longer the wait, the more momentum is lost for the potential franchise.

However, right now it's tough to get anything greenlit at Disney. The studio is going through some pretty severe managerial troubles, notably the recent ousting of Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross over the poor performance of "John Carter." Last summer, there was the long and torturous process of getting the Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp "Lone Ranger" off the ground, which was only achieved after some significant cost-cutting. Only proven franchise pictures like the "Pirates" sequels and Marvel superhero flicks are guaranteed Disney's attention right now. After the massive opening weekend for "The Avengers," Disney CEO Bob Iger was quick to confirm that an "Avengers 2" was in development.

"TRON," however, is still a risky universe to play in. "Legacy" did not receive great critical notices and only a middling response from audiences. It was clear that the picture had been rushed, that the special effects weren't as good as they could have been, and the script was pretty lacking in some important areas. Moreover, another "TRON" wouldn't come cheap. Sure, the $170 million price tag of "Legacy" looks pretty good next to the $200 million plus that was sunk into "John Carter," but that's still more expensive than "Captain America" or "Thor," or a whole "Muppets" trilogy. It's understandable that Disney is still on the fence.

Besides, I seriously have to question whether another "TRON" with this creative team is something we want. The prospect of "Legacy" was so tantalizing because it promised something exciting and different, but it didn't really deliver. Many fans were hoping for a look at an upgraded, modern-day "TRON" universe. Instead, we just got reinterpreted takes on the same old concepts from 1982, set to a killer Daft Punk soundtrack. There's the sense that the first-time director and the duo of television writers cutting their teeth on their first feature were too experienced for a project this size, but surely they'll do better the next time around, right?

I'm pretty doubtful, honestly. Kitsis and Horowitz really added nothing to the "TRON" universe, and the more I see of their television work, the more I think the next movie should be scripted by someone with stronger action chops and a more ambitious sense of scope. I'm honestly a little mystified that they haven't been replaced by now. Kosinski at least managed to come up with some interesting visuals, but unless he figures out how to do something more with them than what he showed us in "Legacy," maybe it's time to give someone else a shot in the director's chair too. Then again, I'm curious to see what he's going to do with "Oblivion," his sophomore effort.

Like most other fans, I want the "TRON" franchise to continue. I still think it has the potential for greatness, beyond what the original film accomplished, and it could make Disney plenty of box office bank too. However, looking at what another potential sequel has to work with, and who's involved, and the likelihood of more cost-cutting, more accelerated production schedules, and more managerial drama, it's hard to see how the next "TRON" wouldn't fall prey to the same problems that "Legacy" did if it were greenlit tomorrow.

So right now, I'm just going to enjoy the "TRON" cartoon and try not to get too caught up in any of this. If the new movie happens, it might be good and it might not be. If it doesn't maybe there will be other, better opportunities. As the Zen master says, "We'll see."

Monday, May 14, 2012

It's Upfront Week

It's upfront week, that time of year when the major broadcast television networks announce their schedules for the fall, and decide which shows are being renewed, which are being cancelled, and which new pilots are being picked up to be turned into series. They're called upfronts, because the the presentations are meant to coax advertisers into buying ad space up front, before the next television season begins in the fall. Most of the big announcement have already been made or leaked, though the networks follow a set order for official presentations: NBC announced their schedule yesterday, and it's FOX's turn today.

However, there are usually a couple of surprises every year. For instance, NBC has cancelled "Harry's Law," the David E. Kelley legal drama starring Kathy Bates, which was one of its better performing shows in spite of an older-skewing audience. Three of NBC's critically lauded, but poorly-performing comedies, "30 Rock," and "Community," are only getting half season orders of 13 episodes apiece. The long term prospects do not look good for "Community," which is being moved to Friday nights, where network shows are usually sent to expire, with "Whitney" as a lead-in. Then again, I don't know that it would fare any better staying on Thursdays, where "Glee" is being transplanted next year.

This is also when we hear about cast and format changes for existing shows. Renewals are often dependent on contracts being ironed out with all the talent involved in advance. So, upfronts are also when we learn the outcome of many people's negotiations, like three major cast members of "The Office" signing new deals to keep the show going, in spite of the fact that several others are leaving for their own projects. After a disappointing first season, the American "X-Factor" is bringing on Demi Lovato and Britney Spears as new judges. Meanwhile, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson are going to be guest-starring on "Glee" next year.

And just as we're saying goodbye to shows like "Desperate Housewives," "One Tree Hill," and "House," there are lots and lots of potential replacements in the pipeline. We have some interesting titles in the mix this year. NBC has "Revolution," a J.J. Abrams post-apocalyptic science fiction series, "1600 Penn," which will have Bill Pullman playing the president in a White House sitcom, and a Hannibal Lecter origin story. FOX has Mindy Kaling's "The Mindy Project," and ABC has the country music themed "Nashville" soap. The CW has "Sex and the City" prequel "The Carrie Diaries," and the DC superhero Green Arrow headlining "Arrow." CBS is going to try their own take on a modern Sherlock Holmes with "Elementary," starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Expect preview clips for most of these to be on the internet by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, formerly hot prospects like the "Hunger Games"-esque "The Selection," and the new "Munsters" series I was railing about a few months ago, have quietly been delayed or axed. And remember the dueling "Beauty and the Beast" shows? The CW one "Beauty," has been picked up, but rumor has it that the ABC version is kaput. We'll find out for sure tomorrow when ABC's schedule is announced. We can also say our final goodbyes to heaps of last year's ambitious newcomers like "Terra Nova," "The Playboy Club," "Pan Am," "A Gifted Man," "Unforgettable," "Charlie's Angels," "The River," "Awake," "Alcatraz," "The Finder, " "Ringer," "Prime Suspect," and "The Secret Circle." And say goodbye to "CSI: Miami" too, which has been cancelled after ten seasons.

What about the cable channels, you might ask? Being less advertiser dependent, they place less emphasis on these events, but have their own presentations that generally take place earlier in the spring. AMC, for instance, has already announced its new pilot pickups. However much the press lavishes attention on a small group of high profile cable shows, it's important to remember that the vast majority of audiences are still watching broadcast television, and what's getting airtime on ABC or CBS has a huge influence on everything else in the TV landscape.

It's several months before the premieres in the fall, but analyzing the preview that the upfronts afford us, you can already see the trends and tactics. NBC is trying a big overhaul, putting comedies on four different nights. FOX is standing firm, with the fewest new shows, preferring to retool what it already has. Over the next few days we'll see what CBS and ABC are up to, but it already looks like it's going to be another interesting season.

Happy watching

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What Impresses About "Chronicle"

When young artists and filmmakers are first starting out, particularly those who want to work in special effects, you tend to get a few who will obsess about equipment and software packages, having gotten the idea that they need top-of-the-line tools to produce really impressive, feature quality work. And as we've seen proven time and time again, it's not the sophistication of the technology that matters, but how you use it. Take the case of "Chronicle," a science-fiction movie presented in the found footage style. It was made on a measly $15 million budget, stars no actors of note, and none of the movie's many, many special effects are particularly impressive by themselves. However, the way they're incorporated into the film, and the way they're used to further the storytelling helps to make "Chronicle" one of the most visually impressive science-fiction films I've seen in a while.

The premise is deceptively simple. Three Seattle area high school seniors, troubled Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and popular quarterback Steve (Michael B. Jordan), discover a hole in the ground in the nearby woods. They explore the cavernous interior, have an encounter with a mysterious pulsating object, and emerge with telekinetic powers, the ability to move things by will alone. At first they use the new abilities as you'd expect high school kids would, to pull harmless pranks and to one-up each other with various stunts. But as they find new ways to exploit their new powers and as they keep getting stronger, their behavior gets riskier. Andrew, our cameraman, is especially keen on finding ways to use his powers to help improve his miserable home and school life. He's bullied at school, his mother (Bo Petersen) is dying from cancer, and his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) takes out his frustrations on Andrew.

Found footage films have certain limitations, and one of "Chronicle's" best tricks is that Andrew learns how to use his telekinesis to operate his camera, so it can capture the action from all sorts of different angles and Andrew can frequently be in the frame. On one level, you know it's really just a separate camera operator, but in the context of the movie, the filmmakers create the wonderful image of Andrew's camera hovering beside him or above him, following wherever he goes like a faithful dog. You only see the visual effect of the levitating camera once or twice, but it's enough to impart the mental image of one existing in every subsequent scene. It's an extremely clever narrative trick, and gives you a good idea of the director Josh Trank' s inventiveness. He manages to pull off some huge, amazing set-pieces with very limited means. Some of the effects, particularly the CGI animation, is pretty rough, but it's used so well that the imperfections have negligible impact.

What impressed me more than the effects, though, was the script by Max Landis, based on a story by Landis and Trank. At first the main characters seem like such tropes - the bullied loser, the pseudo-intellectual, and the most popular kid in school. And then you get to see the relationships among them develop, and the way they behave and interact is often painfully genuine. It's easy to get invested in the boys' friendships. "Chronicle" is an action picture, but it's a character study first and foremost. At the risk of giving too much away, the film I think it's closest to spiritually is Brian DePalma's "Carrie," rather than the more superficially similar "Akira." The writing also does a great job of incorporating the found footage conceit. The camera is not only acknowledged in the film repeatedly, but becomes a point of contention in several scenes, and Andrew's insistence on bringing it everywhere is a signal of his mental distress.

"Chronicle" doesn't follow the strict rules of found footage, being stitched together from the product of several different cameras, including video from Matt's blogger love interest Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) and various surveillance cameras. To the filmmakers' credit, they're far more committed to the concept than most of traditional found footage films I've seen. When the continuous filming gets particularly far-fetched, they'll always have a moment or two to acknowledge or explain how we're seeing the shots that we're seeing. It keeps finding so many ways to circumvent or overcome the limitations, that on a technical level alone this is easily the best found footage film I've ever seen. Add the great use of effects, the surprisingly strong story, and a couple of solid performances, and "Chronicle" is a downright impressive movie, found footage or otherwise.

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Favorite Tim Burton Film

Writing about "Edward Scissorhands" for this blog was inevitable, as it was one of the movies that I became briefly, but overwhelmingly obsessed with as a teenager. I didn't see it in theaters in 1990, but several years later on television. It was not my first exposure to the work of Tim Burton, who I knew from "Beetlejuice" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas." I was familiar with his monochrome circus imagery and his pale, odd heroes who never slept well, judging from the dark circles under their eyes. Some of them had the excuse of being dead, but others were just different, which was arguably worse. So Burton was a favorite among artsy weirdos and alienated loser kids in the early 90s, when the term "emo" just referred to a music sub-genre, and anything with a whiff of the occult was still treated as something unseemly, practically unhygienic.

Over the years, Burton's work has become more conventional, though it had always been very commercial from the start - this was the man responsible for the 1989 "Batman," remember - and in recent years it's become fashionable to mock him as a sell-out regurgitator of his earlier, more beloved films. I don't think this is true. Burton just got older and found more success, so his perspective and outlook on the world changed. It happens to almost everyone. And It's harder to make films about the loneliness and alienation of adolescence, a major theme in most of his early work, the further and further away you are from the reality of it. "Edward Scissorhands" is one of those films that is best enjoyed when you are a teenager, a fable about horror movie monsters and suburban wonderlands that is much too obvious and hits a lot of wrong notes. But it is so earnestly, emotionally genuine, and hits most of the right ones too.

Maybe "Edward Scissorhands" would be better regarded if it was a straight comedy, like "Beetlejuice." It seems to start out this way, with an Avon lady named Peg (Diane Wiest), a resident of a pastel-hued, 60s-kitsch-slathered neighborhood paying a call to a huge Gothic castle that towers over the rest of this little universe on a gloom-enshrouded mountain peak. She finds a young man living there alone, who calls himself Edward, and has sharp shears in the place of hands. Edward, though he looks like an 80s slasher psycho, is an utterly guileless innocent. His "father," played in flashbacks by Vincent Price, is long dead. What can the warm-hearted Peg do, but bundle Edward into her car, and take him home with her? Soon Edward is using his unique talents to clip hedges, groom dogs, and trim hair for the neighborhood ladies, and seems well on his way to becoming a productive member of the community. And then he makes the mistake of falling for Peg's daughter Kim (Winona Ryder), who already has a thuggish boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall).

What strikes me now about "Edward Scissorhands" is how unreal it is on the surface level. The whole film feels constructed from disparate pieces. The neighborhood is a cartoon version of Burton's own childhood memories of the 60s, with the bizarre neighbors and the garish decor. And then you have Edward's home, which is straight out of the stately old black-and-white Hammer horror movies that Vincent Price used to headline. The narrative is equal parts "Frankenstein" and fairy-tale, except when Edward is making himself useful in the neighborhood, a string of macabre comic set pieces that I appreciate a little more each time I see them. The film hinges on Burton's visual sense, his ability to translate all these bizarre concepts and ideas into coherent film images, and then mix and juxtapose them for maximum impact. Now that I'm older it's clear that he was not only poking fun at the ticky-tacky sameness of suburbia, but the grandiosity of Gothic horror too. The opening title sequence gives us a look at the workings of a mechanical monstrosity of groaning iron gears - that makes dainty sugar cookies.

Now where I depart from most critics is the melodramatic parts of the film. Burton goes for tears and transcendence in the flashbacks with Vincent Price and the romantic moments, particularly the snow dance sequences. Many found these too maudlin and underdeveloped. I never bought into the romance myself, as Winona Ryder is really pretty terrible as Kim, not that she had much of a character to work with. The action climax in the last act, where "Edward Scissorhands" briefly turns into the horror movie it was doing such a good job of not being, feels out of place. Nonetheless, Burton's spectacular imagery wins the day in the end. I remember welling up during the last flashback sequence with the Inventor's last moments, and being absolutely transfixed by the final scenes of snowfall. With a big assist by one of Danny Elfman's most unsubtle, choral-heavy scores, that you can bet I know every note of after countless repetitions, the melodrama was the reason I loved the movie so unreservedly. How often do you see emotions that big on the screen anymore?

And then there was Johnny Depp. This was the first of his collaborations with Tim Burton, and the first movie role he got any serious attention for. Up until that point he had been a fairly successful TV teen idol, but clearly busting to do more. "Edward Scissorhands" proved he could be a star, that he had the acting chops to play wildly unconventional characters, long before he was Captain Jack Sparrow. Most of his performance as Edward is silent, and heavily reliant on physical comedy and pantomime. The visual design of the character is iconic, and perfectly realized, but it is impossible to think of Edward without the petrified, awkward stiffness, the childish eagerness to please, and the aching melancholy. That was all Depp. And it's what spurred my high school self to develop a monster crush on the actor, and watch everything in his filmography I could get my hands on. After the early exposure to Jim Jarmusch, Lasse Hallstom, and Terry Gilliam films, I regret nothing.

I think Tim Burton's best film to date is "Ed Wood," but I can't deny that "Edward Scissorhands" remains my favorite. It's more nostalgia than anything else, admittedly, but that was one of the first times I really got excited bout a film and everything associated with it. "Edward Scissorhands" helped make me the movie geek I am today. And it's why I still watch every Johnny Depp movie, and every Tim Burton movie - he's one of the few directors whose filmographies I've actually finished. You can expect a "Dark Shadows" review here eventually, good or bad.

Sometimes it's just nice feeling like a teenager again.

What I've Seen - Tim Burton

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Beetlejuice (1988)
Batman (1989)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Batman Returns (1992)
Ed Wood (1994)
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Big Fish (2003)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Corpse Bride (2005)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Dark Shadows (2012)
Frankenweenie (2012)
Big Eyes (2014)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Starting "The Sopranos"

After some considerable delay, I've started watching "The Sopranos," one of the key turn-of-the-century series that finally got everyone to start taking television seriously. This was the one that raised the bar, a show that could be called feature quality, but told stories in a way that only episodic television could. "The Sopranos" has become a cultural touchstone to such an extent, referenced and held up as a shining example of great television so often, I know my expectations are probably going to hamper my viewing experience, not to mention that I already know all about three of the series' major deaths and the final scene of the final episode that has been analyzed to death. I was never planning to watch the show until recently, so I never took precautions against spoilers. Now, I'm a little sorry I didn't.

But let's start at the beginning. "The Sopranos" is about an Italian mob boss named Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who is based out of New Jersey and forced to see a therapist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), after suffering anxiety attacks and blackouts. The trouble is his family, both the nuclear one and the larger organized crime family that he controls. Tony's wife Carmela (Edie Falco) is clashing with teenage daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). His mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) can no longer live unassisted, but has become so paranoid and contrarian, she won't come to a birthday party for Anthony Jr (Robert Iler) unescorted. Meanwhile Tony's nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and elderly Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) both jostle for power they feel entitled to. I remember the print ads from that first season of "The Sopranos," with both of Tony's families lined up on either side of him, with the tagline being some variant of "if one family doesn't kill him, the other one will."

Of course, it's the interplay of both sides that are going to keep Tony Soprano's life interesting. I expect that subsequent seasons are going to turn darker and more psychologically fraught, but right now I'm enjoying the relative lightness of the early episodes, where just as much time is spent in Dr. Melfi's office or with the Soprano kids as with Tony's inner circle of loyal lieutenants, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), and Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore). There's a tongue-in-cheek playfulness to Sil's "Godfather" impressions and Carmela bringing out the literal big guns to confront a possible home invader. These are characters who have seen all the gangster movies that everyone else has over the years, and are aware of its absurdities. Some have bought into the mythos, romanticized it, and enshrined it as an ideal. We hear constant complaints about the current state of organized crime in the post John Gotti age.

However, the focus of the series will be the development of Tony Soprano, who has long been cited as one of the most iconic and influential modern anti-heroes, a man of questionable morality clinging to outdated conceptions of masculinity and power. He is not comfortable talking about his feelings. He is not good in situations that don’t conform to his fairly narrow existing worldview. Tony claims his reputation as a mobster depends on him not appearing weak, and swears Carmela to secrecy about his therapy sessions, but the truth is that he’s embarrassed that he’s fallen victim to an ailment he views as undignified. His discomfort is very endearing. Of course, this is no lovable schlub on a CBS sitcom, but a man who has the means to deal out violence and death as he finds necessary. Tony is good-natured and easy to identify with, but there’s clearly another side to him that hasn’t come out yet.

I look forward to getting to know him and the rest of the “Sopranos” crew. I’m firmly on board with the story and the characters. However, more than a decade of increasing quality across a broad spectrum of television dramas means that the high production values of “The Sopranos” aren’t as impressive as they probably were back when the show premiered on HBO in 1999. Yes, it does hold up very well, probably better than a lot of movies from the same time period, but I can’t help noticing little things like the pedestrian opening sequence and the odd artificiality of Dr. Melfi’s office. The show’s aesthetic is a bit uneven at this point, but I’m assuming these minor bumps are going to be ironed out over time.

There’s no mystery why “The Sopranos” is so beloved, but after only a handful of episodes it’s far too early for me to say whether it’s really up there with the best television shows of all time. Still, I’m having fun picking out all the elements that it seems like every other crime series has copied or paid homage to, and I’m fairly sure many of my favorites like “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter” wouldn’t be here without “The Sopranos.” Things are looking good so far.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The New Missus of "Mad Men"

I figure if I did a "Game of Thrones" post for the midpoint of its current season, I should do one for "Mad Men" too, which has been on fire this year. Season Five has been all about Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), and she has been a valuable addition to the ensemble. Spoilers for all episodes that have been aired so far

"Mad Men" is now firmly in the midst of the tumultuous 60s, and this season we've finally started seeing the cultural changes start to affect the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Minority staffers Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) were welcomed with a lot of fanfare, before slowly fading into the background, but perhaps not for long. The character who has done the most to shake up the place, and the life of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), has been his second wife Megan, who he proposed to on the spur of the moment, back at the end of Season Four. Over the long break, it was hard to imagine that Don wouldn't regret his impetuous decision after reality sunk in. However, the reality has been complicated. There's a lot more to Megan than there appears to be at first glance, and Jessica Paré has had the opportunity to turn the character into a showcase for her own formidable talents. The internet couldn't stop talking about her rendition of "Zou Bisou Bisou" after the season premiere.

After the disintegration of Don's marriage to Betty (January Jones), he cycled through several potential replacements, and at first it seemed like Megan was not one of his better options. She was his secretary, a would-be actress, and the age difference, though not extreme, was notable. So it was a welcome surprise that Megan became a copywriter at Sterling Cooper, and that she showed that she was capable of operating on Don's level in the workplace. She wasn't a minimally involved trophy wife like Jane Sterling (Peyton List) or trapped in the domestic sphere like Betty, but far closer in temperament and ambition to our favorite working girl, Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), and got along with her too. This doesn't mean that Don and Megan's marriage has been perfect. There have been fights and spats since very early on, and sometimes Megan's independence has been the major irritant. However, Megan has been good for Don. This season we've seen him happier and more stable than he's even been. Megan knows all about Dick Whitman, and she doesn't care.

Of course, there's still that ever-present feeling that the walls are closing in, though Don hasn't been subject to the worst of it this season. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) has been suffering a much more visible downward spiral, and Peggy is showing increasing signs of strain. Don may be joining them in their existential misery soon. In last Sunday's episode, Megan revealed how tenuous Don's new happiness is, her decision to leave Sterling Cooper suddenly and profoundly disrupting both Don's work and home life. It's only in her absence that Don realizes that he's on the wrong side of a growing generation gap, and he's no longer at the height of his advertising powers. The fallout is likely to continue through the rest of the season, and I have to wonder if Don's second marriage is going to last through this year's finale.

Even if we don't see much of the newest Mrs. Draper past this point, she's contributed a hell of a lot dramatically, thematically, and entertainment-wise too. This season of "Mad Men" will almost certainly be a jumping-off point for Jessica Paré's career. She's outshone January Jones so thoroughly that Betty's minimal appearances this year have barely raised an eyebrow, though Megan enjoys the advantage of embodying all the transformative, vibrant, positives of 1960s youth culture that Don Draper keeps trying and failing to connect to. His brief happiness in the first half of this season may just end up making him more miserable in the end. The symbolism this season may be heavy-handed - the open elevator shafts, the life insurance policies, etc - but it's appropriate to the current storylines. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) on LSD was priceless.

I'd like more Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Sally (Kiernan Shipka), but I'm perfectly happy to see how the storyline with Megan plays out. She's been so good at teasing out new aspects of Don Draper, and provoking the rest of the characters, she was exactly the boost the show needed at this point in its run. Megan is one of the few examples of a New Girl that worked, and worked wonders.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Reality Check on Joss Whedon

Move over, John Favreau. Hold off, Christopher Nolan. It's Joss Whedon's turn to be King of Hollywood for a day. Whedon has just helmed the record-busting "The Avengers," what is sure to be one of the biggest summer blockbusters of all time. Now the writer/director of so many geek favorites should have the clout to pursue some of his own pet projects, right? Well, maybe and maybe not. Whedon fans breathlessly speculating about the prospects of a "Serenity 2" or a "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog: The Movie" should take a minute to remember that Whedon's track record at the box office hasn't been great. "Cabin in the Woods" has only made $38 million, enough to recoup its budget. "Serenity," however, the only other movie Whedon has directed, did not.

The runaway success of "The Avengers" is as much due to hype and branding and the momentum of the existing Marvel franchise as it's due to the actual quality of the picture. More than one review noted that the feature felt like filmmaking by committee, driven by corporate mandate more than personal artistic vision. Sure, Whedon's sensibilities turned out to be a perfect fit for the material, but all that means is that he's now made himself one of the go-to directors for superhero movies, like Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughan. He might have the chance to make some studio-funded personal projects, but they’ll come with a lot of strings. Whedon is nowhere near the level of a Tim Burton or a Steven Spielberg, who are proven box office draws, who can get big, expensive movies off the ground on the strength of their reputations alone. And I don't think he's up there with Favreau or Nolan yet either, who have managed to get the studios to foot the bill for some pretty risky non-franchise films, made between individual installments of the superhero series those directors have been the lynchpins of.

However, Joss Whedon's more personal projects aren't all that big and expensive. A few older scripting jobs aside, the films he's been associated with to date have all been pretty modest affairs, that don't come with the $150 million plus price tag of something like Christopher Nolan's "Inception" or Jon Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens." Whedon already has his next film wrapped up, a microbudget, black-and-white indie adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," featuring a gaggle of actors who have showed up in his previous projects, including Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, and Fran Kranz. It has no distributor at the moment, but I expect we’re going to see it premiere on pay-per-view or pre-theatrical VOD sometime in the fall. I don’t see why Disney or Marvel wouldn’t be willing to pay for a “Cabin in the Woods” sized project as part of a deal to get Whedon on board for an “Avengers 2.” However, the way that they’ve been shuffling directors around for their next round of superhero movies, I don’t think they’d pay for anything bigger.

Whedon could jump ship to other studios and franchises. If there’s anyone who should be in charge of rebooting “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it’s him. Or finally getting a “Wonder Woman” movie into theaters. Heck, I think Warner Brothers would let him mastermind a whole “Justice League” series of films if he wanted. That would be a lot of fun, but I like Joss Whedon better when he’s pursuing original projects, setting up those niche, cult-worthy properties like “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” that have won him so many fans. Whedon doesn’t have to stay in the filmmaking realm either. He could go back to television and try to launch another series. He could make web videos or write comic books for the rest of his days, satisfied that he’d reached the top of the pop culture mountain.

Right now Joss Whedon is mainstream, he’s a hitmaker, and everybody loves him. However, he’s got a ways to go before he can really be considered a major player in the film world. What his latest success gives him is an opportunity, one I hope he takes advantage of. Being the guy who pulled off “The Avengers” is all very well and good, but Joss Whedon being best known for making Joss Whedon movies would be the best outcome for him that I can think of. If he wants that, of course. One of the things I appreciate about Whedon has always been that he’s so versatile and he’s so comfortable in so many different arenas, I have no idea what he’s going to do next.