Saturday, June 30, 2012

Writing The Big One

This is going to be one of the more self-indulgent posts, as it deals with some of my personal experiences in media fandom, and I doubt it'll be all that interesting to anyone who isn't familiar with fanworks – that odd little niche of media fans that writes fanfiction and draws fanart and edits together video mash-ups and so forth. These are fun and – in my opinion – perfectly harmless activities that unfortunately exist in a rather gray area of intellectual property law, so I've avoided writing about them too often. And until now, I haven't said much about my own dabbling in fanworks. You see, up until about eighteen months ago, I wrote fanfiction. A lot of it.

Now I wasn't some starry-eyed wannabe writer who thought any of her stories were anything special, or would lead to becoming the next J.K. Rowling. I was writing mostly as a form of stress relief. My most prolific period was when I was in a serious rut, very bored, lonely, unfulfilled, and altogether unhappy. So I wrote crummy romance stories about characters in TV shows by the dozens, typing out wish-fulfillment scenarios and what-ifs. I write for a living, but nothing creative or fun. The fanfiction stories were a great outlet. They were mostly terrible, and I took great care in anonymizing every pseudonym they were posted under, but for a while it was fun to play author. There's an audience for everything out there, no matter how obscure. If you have even the slightest amount of competence and creativity, someone out there will read your stuff. I never became a BNF (big name fan), but I did attract a few regulars, and I liked being part of the wild, weird fanfiction community.

After a couple of years, though, I lost interest. My output dropped, my tolerance for the endless drama of fandom culture decreased, and I steadily turned my attention to other activities. Real life got better. I started writing this blog, which I found a more rewarding and versatile channel for my media interests. The real kicker though, was that I wrote The Big One, the fanfiction story that put me directly in the spotlight for the first time. I'm not going to identify the real title, because it's still online and I prefer, like George Costanza, to keep certain activities in different worlds, as far away from each other as possible. When I decided to drop fanfiction writing for good, I went ahead and deleted just about everything I had ever posted, over a hundred different stories posted over the course of about four years. I send saved copies to anyone who asks for them, but I wasn't comfortable leaving them online any longer. Except The Big One.

Despite being written for a very obscure old media fandom, The Big One has been read by hundreds of people. I've received dozens of comments and E-mails about it, almost all of them gushing and emotional. People have posted recommendations for it everywhere. They're still posting recommendations, over a year and a half since I first put it online. The latest one from a few weeks ago claimed that the story had changed her life. A link to it popped up in an online lesson plan from a private school last year. Someone turned it into an audio podfic, with permission. Readers told me they'd printed The Big One out and saved it. They told me they were truly touched and grateful that I had written it. They told me that it mattered.

And I said you're welcome and I was happy that they had liked it, but frankly the attention spooked me. I thought the story was pretty good and was gratified that people liked it, but I knew it was amateur work. I knew it wasn't nearly as good as the people putting it on a pedestal were saying that it was. Call me a cynic, but I know my own limitations. And being around that kind of praise and being subject to that kind of hype is a little dangerous. It's much too easy to fall for that kind of easy adoration, to take it too seriously. I wasn't interested in that, and I decided at that point that I'd gotten just about all I was ever going to get out of being in that corner of fandom. So I quit.

Looking back, it was the right thing to do. Toward the end of my fanfiction writing stint I was mostly writing out of habit. Once I stopped, I was never hit with the urge to go back to it. I took down all the other stories I had written and rarely hear a peep about them. I left The Big One up because I worried that taking away access might upset some people. Now, I'm not so sure. Fandom has a short memory, and there's always the next, nicely-formatted piece of melodramatic fannish indulgence for people to get worked up over. There's always the next newbie author looking for a creative outlet, willing to put in the time and effort.

I got a lot of good writing practice and good times from fanfiction, but in the end it wasn't something I was ever entirely comfortable with, and I knew when it was time to stop. I'm glad I got to go out on a high note, though, that I got a little taste of being internet famous. But honestly I think I'd rather be known for this blog than being the author of The Big One.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Decline of the "Star Wars" Parodies

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog, a little over two years ago, asked "Where did all the once ubiquitous 'Casablanca' parodies go?" And I concluded that the seminal 1942 film had hit its cultural expiration date sometime in the 80s, and not enough media consumers were familiar with it any longer for "Casablanca" parodies to have an audience. Time marches on, and popular culture marches with it. You're hot one day and forgotten the next. And that's all I could think about when I was watching Teddie Films' Gotye parody, titled "The 'Star Wars' That I Used to Know.” Despite the fact that the "Star Wars" franchise is still very much alive and well with the "Clone Wars" and the 3D re-releases, and parts of the fandom are still as rabid as ever, I can't help feeling that the beloved tradition of "Star Wars" parodies is starting to get a little long in the tooth.

Now I love these movies as much as anyone, and I've happily watched the evolution of the "Star Wars" parodies from "Spaceballs" and the "Saturday Night Live" spoofs all the way up to the recent "Robot Chicken" and "Family Guy" versions. And then there are the fan films, from "Hardware Wars" to "Chad Vader," that really exploded in the early 2000s when online video distribution took off and niche audiences had their day. And then there was the whole saga of "Fanboys," the endlessly delayed and reworked 2009 feature film about a group of high school friends who break into Skywalker Ranch to see "The Phantom Menace" early. "Star Wars" remains a huge cultural force, and the loving parodies it has generated over the years is a testament to its longevity and impact. However, when you look at some of the most recent ones coming out of fandom, there has been a noticeable shift.

As of this year, the original "Star Wars" is thirty-five years old. And at least as far back as 2006, in "Clerks II," "Star Wars" fans have been in a noteable funk. The original fanboys and fangirls are getting older and they've watched their beloved trilogy supplanted in the pop culture firmament by other franchises, like "Lord of the Rings," and perhaps compromised by the existence of the "Star Wars" prequels. There has been a strain of melancholia running through much of the fandom and its output as a result. "The 'Star Wars' That I Used to Know” is not just nostalgia for the days when being a "Star Wars" fan was simpler, but also an acknowledgement of the clear generational divide. Watching it, I tried to think of the last time I'd seen any "Star Wars" parody or homage that had really evoked the first 1977 movie, instead of sticking Darth Vader in a supermarket or trading on all the baggage of being in the "Star Wars" fandom. There are even a couple of fan films about the woes of making "Star Wars" fan films now.

And then I thought about the last time I saw a "Jaws" parody or a "Godfather" parody, or even a decent reference to "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." These are all movies that a lot of people remember and get nostalgic about, but the American culture is pretty much done with them. They're too iconic to be rebooted, nobody wants more sequels - witness the disgust at the existence of "Raging Bull II: Continuing the Story of Jake LaMotta" - and that's fine. The original "Star Wars," for all its popularity, is on the same track, and the ones who really love it recognize that. Sure, the franchise will probably be able to keep perpetuating itself for years with more spin-offs and tie-ins and merchandise, but the spark isn't there anymore. You don't see too many fan films about the prequels, and there's very little of the original trilogy left to talk about that a thousand other fans haven't covered over the past three decades. So lately there's been a lot of meta, and a lot of what should probably be called "expanded universe" material.

I take it as a sign that "Star Wars" is on its way out at last. I believe that it will always be a classic of American cinema, like "The Wizard of Oz," like "Gone With the Wind," but its time is passing quickly. Unless something really big happens in the next few years, like a full reboot of the movies or if that live action television series makes it to air, that's it for cultural relevancy, and all the parodies and homages and spoofs along with it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.

But we'll always have "George Lucas in Love."

Here's looking at you, kid.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Have We Hit Marketing Saturation Yet?

Well, somebody finally did it. An enterprising Spider-man fan named Louis Plamondon edited together all the footage from all the different trailers and commercials and other previews for "The Amazing Spider-man" into a 25-minute short version of the movie. This was to prove the point that marketing for blockbusters has gotten out of hand, and the studios are releasing way too much spoiler-laden footage in advance that ends up negatively impacting the actual experience of watching the film. I haven't seen the video myself, as Sony was quick to quash most of the copies online, and I actually would like to be able to watch "The Amazing Spider-man" with some of the mystery intact.

However, as reported by Variety, Plamodon's mini-epic contained about ten minutes of the finished film according to Sony (Note that only ten minutes or ten percent of the running time of a film, whichever is shorter, is the maximum allowed to be shown in a nontheatrical medium prior to the film’s theatrical release under Academy Award eligibility rules). The rest is a mix of unfinished scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, b-roll, repeated footage, and padding. Still, the fact that you could piece together a coherent narrative out of all the released clips is pretty telling. It's not just not the amount of footage that we're seeing, but so many of the best shots and sequences, repeated ad nauseum in so many different bits of promotional material. This is going to be a great discussion piece for copyright law classes for years, as the message of the video is inextricably tied to its length and the amount and variety of footage it contains.

Of course spoilerific trailers detailing exactly what happens in a movie have been around forever, and I understand why the marketers frequently want to oversell movies so zealously. I've mentioned before that my significant other responded very poorly to the first "Amazing Spider-Man" trailer from last year, but after seeing a couple of the subsequent ones and the commercials, he's slowly come around. A Spider-man reboot has been a very hard sell for many viewers, me included, who think that Sony should have waited a couple more years for the memory of the Sam Raimi "Spider-man" films with Toby Maguire to fade a little more. In such cases, showing off the good parts can make a difference in the mind of a doubtful moviegoer. However, when you've already been convinced to see a movie, and you're actually anticipating it, oversaturation can have very negative effects.

It was only after I saw "Prometheus" that I finally went and watched some of those later trailers. I'm glad I kept my distance, because they do show a little too much. A lot of the film's best shots and sequences work so much better if you don't have any foreknowledge of them, and I can see how some elements may have misled viewers to expect something different from what the movie actually delivered. Of course all advertisements deal in false hype to some extent, but "Prometheus" was one of those cases where I think they went too far. Some "Alien" fanboys got worked up into such a lather, and were then so disappointed when they got to the theaters, it "Prometheus" helped become one of the most divisive and polarizing films of the summer. Good grief, does anyone else remember when the "Alien" movies were just big dumb action/horror flicks?

And then of course, there's "The Dark Knight Rises" coming up. I have this growing dread that the film is not going to live up to these crazy expectations that some fans have for it, and the fallout is going to get ugly, maybe even worse than we saw for "Prometheus." "Dark Knight Rises" doesn't even need all the trailers and the marketing, which there's plenty of, in order to reach saturation levels. The fans are doing it by themselves. I've come across multiple articles making the case that one of the new characters is secretly Robin, even though director Christopher Nolan has stated repeatedly that Robin won't appear in his Batman universe. Like with "Prometheus," there are fans who are doggedly trying to piece all the details of the plot together from previews and interviews. Reams of analysis are being written about bits of footage totally without context. It's getting a little scary, to be honest.

It's nice to know that there are other fans out there who have had enough, who don't want to be inundated by all this information, and are getting fed up with the over-aggressive sales pitches and having to hide from marketing campaigns. The irony is that I love trailers. I thought the first "Prometheus" teaser was brilliant, but I didn't watch any of the others for fear of ruining the movie for myself. And I've been sitting through many previews lately with my eyes screwed shut, thinking back to the days when I used to look forward to the coming attractions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Long Game of "The Sopranos"

Spoilers ahead up through the end of Season Five of "The Sopranos." I'll primarily be talking about Seasons Four and Five here.

I can add two more episodes to the growing pile of "Sopranos" installments that I really enjoyed, and if you're familiar with the show, you can probably guess which ones they are: the finale of Season Four, "Whitecaps," and the second-to-last episode of Season Five, "Long Term Parking." That's the one where Carmela leaves Tony, and the one where Sil executes Adriana, respectively.

I finally feel like I'm on the same page with the show, after sixty-odd episodes. There are still certain characters and storylines that I find unbearably tedious, and the show is starting to feel a little repetitive, but the whole mood of "The Sopranos" has irrevocably shifted as we approach the final seasons. There's a much greater sense of disillusionment now. There's no longer any pretense that Tony Soprano is not a terrible person who corrupts or damages everyone in his life, even though he feels bad about it sometimes. Friendship and family ties matter to him, but he's had to face the fact that they only matter up to a point. And he's finally suffering some major consequences for his bad actions and bad choices.

The most obvious one is years of infidelity finally catching up with Tony. "Whitecaps" is one of the most impressive episodes of television I've ever seen, paying off four seasons worth of simmering marital tensions between Tony and Carmela. And it was worth all those seemingly pointless interludes with Tony and his girlfriends and the awkward flirtation between Carmela and Furio to have the explosive confrontations and violent arguments in "Whitecaps" where all of it comes out at last. I knew that the "Sopranos" was building up to some big climaxes, and playing the long game with various character arcs, but I never expected Tony and Carmela's marriage to collapse in such a spectacular fashion, triggering so much emotional upheaval.

Many shows would have let those tensions go on forever, or made the break-up the logical endpoint of a major ongoing storyline. While the Furio and Svetlana relationships were certainly developed in Season Four, they hadn't been very prominent. They were always being overshadowed by Tony's problems with Ralph Cifaretto and Pie-Oh-My, or Junior's RICO trial, or the HUD scheme, or the Esplanade. Those were storylines we expected to be the source of the all the fireworks, as external issues always had been in years past. In retrospect that it becomes obvious that Season Four's biggest casualty was going to be Tony and Carmela's marriage, and their romantic entanglements would provide the impetus for conflict. However, the Sopranos' home life was usually all about character-building and smaller personal storylines that didn't supply the same kind of action. This time the tables were turned, and I was so happy to be caught off guard. "Whitecaps" didn't just pay off Season Four, but every affair Tony had going back to Season One, and even before that, as Carmela points out. It was fantastic, the kind of slow build I've never seen another TV show pull off that well.

Things in the "Soprano" universe will pay off. That's one of the biggest things I appreciate about it. Not everything plays out how we expect, or will be wrapped up neatly, but things cannot stay buried or out of sight forever. Junior's lengthy house arrest seems to be accelerating his dementia. Spoiled, coddled AJ keeps creating bigger and bigger headaches for his parents. The show is full of characters like Richie Aprile and Tony Blundetto, who return from long stints in prison, bringing all their unfinished business with them. And even if you kill them, they leave wives and children behind who are bound to make trouble in the future. Ignoring or putting things off just make them worse. And so we come to poor Adriana, who has been unwillingly in bed with the Feds since early in Season Four, but was probably doomed a long time before that, as she ignored every warning and kept passing up every opportunity to leave Christopher and all the trouble that came with him.

Adriana's death was one I had spoiled for me long in advance, but I expected it to happen later in the series, possibly in conjunction with the other big one coming up in Season Six. Her meetings with the Feds had become so regular and so uneventful for such a long time, it was easy to forget what was at stake. Sure, things would probably end badly, and we could all predict it coming, but actually seeing Sil driving Adriana out into the woods, and seeing her panic and break down was one of the most traumatic, gripping moments of the entire series. I'm still a little stunned that they went through with killing her off. Of course Tony and Christopher and the rest will try to bury the truth next season the way they always do, but they won't be able to ignore Adriana the way they often have. It wouldn't surprise me if she ends up having more impact on them dead than she ever did alive.

"The Sopranos" has reached a very dark and uncompromising place, and I don't begrudge it all the time and effort it took to get there. I still don't like Tony Soprano, but then neither does anyone else in his little corner of the world, not really, and he's starting to realize that. Here's looking forward to a good finale. It took me a while, but I'm very anxious to find out what happens next.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Still Catching Up on 2011

If you missed "The Artist" in theaters, it's finally coming out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week, along with smaller art house titles like "Oranges and Sunshine" with Emily Watson, Belgian crime drama "Bullhead," and the Turkish murder mystery "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia." It's the same thing every year. While the majority of high-profile studio films reach home media within three to four months of their initial release in theaters, the independent and foreign titles can take much, much longer. I saw "The Artist" on the silver screen back in November, and it's taken seven months to reach DVD, where it's going to be sharing shelf space with fellow new releases "Mirror, Mirror," and "Wrath of the Titans," which just came out in March.

My Top Ten of 2011 list is still very much a work in progress as a result, and I figured that I should write out a list of the titles (mostly Academy Awards contenders and festival favorites) I'm still waiting for, and when I expect them to be available in the US over the next few months. I think people could use a reminder that some of these movies exist, and that somebody is still anticipating them. DVD release dates don't tend to be nailed down very far in advance, so some of these are only estimated ETAs. Also, I'm choosing the totally arbitrary cutoff date of October, because that's when I'll be writing my Top Ten list. There are plenty of good 2011 releases that won't be released by then, if at all. For instance, the 2010 Swedish comedy "Sound of Noise," about a gang of percussionists who stage illegal performances, is finally hitting Region 1 DVD this week, after a very limited US release by Magnolia Pictures.


The Kid With a Bike - The latest from France's Dardenne brothers. Grand Prix winner at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and Best Foreign Film nominee at the Golden Globes.

Margaret - The notoriously long-delayed Kenneth Lonergan drama. Several critics vocally championed "Margaret" during the last awards season, but it was almost impossible to see the film because it had almost no studio support and a practically nonexistent theatrical release. There were accusations that the distributors were trying to bury "Margaret." Then there were lawsuits. Some called it the best film of the decade. Many others disagreed.

The Turin Horse - The latest from Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, one of those uncompromising artistic minds that the most pretentious cinema nuts absolutely love and regular mortals find impenetrable. I'm somewhere between the two. This one is a bleak period drama about an incident with a horse that gave Friedrich Nietzsche a nervous breakdown, so I'm expecting something psychologically heavy and probably narratively incoherent. Well, it worked for "Werckmeister Harmonies."

Footnote - Israeli domestic drama and Best Foreign Film nominee at the Oscars. I try to watch all the nominees, even though I know there's always controversy over the biases and the best contenders not even being submitted. I don't see enough foreign films as it is, and this is my attempt to at least cover a bare minimum.


Kill List and Headhunters - A pair of crime films, one British and one Norwegian, that have gotten a huge amount of buzz from festivals and other special screenings. The genre fans get behind one or two of these every year. I don't know much about either of them, but prior experience suggests that I probably don't want to, so I can enjoy whatever surprises they have in store.

Juan of the Dead - A Cuban zombie film. Yes, that's right. A Cuban zombie film, one that gets into political and social satire, as all the greatest zombie films have. I first heard abut this one after the Toronto Film Festival last year, when AICN started championing it. Focus Features will be releasing "Juan" on DVD and VOD simultaneously, but it should already be available in the UK.

Monsieur Lazhar - One more for the Oscar nominee pile.

A Separation - And here at last is this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner, which was also a surprise nominee for Best Screenplay. The critical bona fides are endless. Roger Ebert and Joe Morgenstern both declared it the best film of 2011, and it took home the Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival. Iranian films and filmmakers have become more prominent lately, and I have been dying to get a look at "A Separation" for myself.


Polisse and The Intouchables - Here's where we start getting into technicalities. But these are 2012 releases, I hear you cry. Nope. I count release dates by the years that they were released in their home countries, which matters quite a bit to things like awards consideration and critical analysis. "Polisse" and "The Intouchables" were both released in France in 2011. "Polisse" nabbed the Jury Prize at Cannes and all the major critical discussion of it happened last year. "The Intouchables" only got as high profile a launch in the US as it did because the film was a monster hit in France in 2011.

Chico & Rita - "Chico & Rita" was one of the two foreign animated films that surprised industry watchers by landing nominations for Best Animated Fim at the 2011 Academy Awards. Before that, it was probably best known for popping up on UK critic Mark Kermode's list of the Top Five films of 2010, as the Spanish language "Chico" was released in the UK in November, 2010 several months before it premiered in Spain.

We Have a Pope - From Italy, Nanni Moretti's comedy-drama about a new Pope who suffers a breakdown and ends up in psychiatric treatment.

And Still MIA

A Boy and His Samurai
Alois Nebel
Tatsumi (available in the UK)
This is Not a Film


Monday, June 25, 2012

An Acceptable Familiar "Marigold Hotel"

I'm of two different minds about "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." The social justice, anti-Orientalism, some-of-my-best-friends-are-South-Asian part of me wants to point out how shallow and exoticized the portrayal of India is, and how little the film really shows of the country. Aside from a few nods to modern industrialization, like call centers, this could easily be mistaken for the India of thirty or forty years ago. Every Indian character we meet fits a broad ethnic stereotype, particularly Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), the enthusiastic young manager of the dilapidated Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, who bills it as a luxury retirement home for Britain's elderly on a budget.

Sonny's efforts draw an initial batch of seven residents: Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), who put all their savings in their daughter's internet start-up, Evelyn (Judi Dench), recently widowed and looking for a new start, Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), both older singles looking to get back in the game, Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a retired judge who is the only one of them to have lived in India previously, and finally Muriel (Maggie Smith), who doesn't trust foreigners and only plans to stay long enough for her hip replacement surgery and recuperation. And with such a sterling collection of British actors as this, "Marigold Hotel" can't help but succeed in spite of itself.

Sure, there are problematic elements aplenty here, but they're in service of such a harmless, unassuming little fantasy story for viewers of a certain age, why belabor them? If the Indian characters are simplistic, the British ones certainly are too. After arriving in picturesque Jaipur and finding the accommodations are not as advertised, the new residents, with one exception, buckle down to make the best of things, and find their lives newly invigorated. The central contrivance of the story serves only to get these characters to India, and is practically forgotten once they get there. Each of the seven arrivals go off to play out their own little storylines, which occasionally intersect with each other. There's also one for Sonny and his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae), a love interest who does not have the approval of Sonny's mother (Lillete Dubey).

The individual stories are very small in scope, very modest and agreeable. Evelyn signs on at the local call center, her first job ever, and thrives there. Graham goes in search of a lost love. Douglas and Jean confront their marital troubles. Everyone steers well clear of any thorny social or cultural issues, except in the most benign ways. Muriel's racism must be cured, of course, so she becomes friendly with a servant girl from a low caste. The backgrounds of Sonny and Sunaina are never stated explicitly, but we can draw our own conclusions. There are references to more unpleasant truths, but we never see any of it up close. So we can comfortably put "Marigold Hotel" in the same category with other feel-good fantasy travelogues like "Eat, Pray, Love," and "My House in Umbria."

I think "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" only comes off as well as it does because of the talent involved, because it is Maggie Smith having that inevitable change of heart, and Judi Dench at the call center, and Bill Nighy exploring the city. Having all of these actors onscreen together is a treat, even if they don't get the chance to play off each other as much as I would've liked to see. Director John Madden, best known for his period pieces like "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Debt," avoids giving us either a picture book idealization of India, or the squalor of the opposite extreme. Madden's conception of Jaipur is a place that is always in motion, so we get lots of trips on buses and trains, and scenes at the hotel always seem to involve someone setting off or just getting back. It helps the pacing too, making the film feel more lively and exciting.

I liked "Marigold Hotel" for all the reasons I usually like these smaller British comedies - the dialogue, the humor, the performances, and the lighter touch with the sentimental bits. However, for all the wonderful actors who appear, it's a very slight movie, one that I really don't see having any reason to exist except that it gives the filmmakers an excuse to get this cast together and visit India. And that's perfectly fine, though I suspect that the behind-the-scenes stories from making "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" are probably much more interesting than the actual movie.

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Pariah" is a Gem

I watch a lot of foreign films, so believe me when I say that sometimes the most difficult films about other of cultures to penetrate can be the ones that are right next door. I found the first fifteen minutes of "Pariah" alienating and off-putting, as I watched 17-year-old African-American teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye), dressed like a boy and calling herself "Lee," visit a strip-club with her similarly outfitted friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Their rapid-fire slang was difficult to comprehend at first, and the raw sexuality on display was startling. And then Lee goes home, changing her clothes for more feminine items on the bus. Late for her curfew, she tries to sneak past a watchful mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), and teasing younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), and suddenly Lee wasn't so unfamiliar after all.

"Pariah" is a coming-of-age story about a young black woman coming to grips with her identity and sexuality. It is tempting to compare Lee to the title character of "Precious," another young black woman in turmoil, but they are very different characters with very different stories. Lee is a good student who has a gift for writing poetry, and a good future in her sights. She also has a stable family with two parents who care very much about her. They care so much that Lee meets with constant opposition when she tries to assert herself. Her father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a policeman, insists on addressing her as Alike, and stubbornly ignores the signs that she is different. Audrey, more fearful and more determined to save her daughter from herself, is willing to take more drastic measures. She buys Lee more form-fitting clothing, tries to keep her away from Laura's perceived bad influence, and pushes her to become friends with Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of a friend from church. Neither are willing to voice their suspicions about Lee out loud, and Lee prefers to placate them and live a double-life rather than confront the truth.

First time director Dee Rees treads a lot of familiar ground here, and the movie hits a lot of the usual cliches - writing as an important outlet, the parents who fit certain broad types, and a good amount of emotional bombast and moody lyricism. However, she does a great job of filing out her characters, and quietly introducing the audience to various aspects of the black lesbian culture, and how it fits in the larger context of the black youth culture. That was one of the most fascinating things about the film, the way that these girls take familiar aspects of black male masculinity and repurpose them to define themselves, adopting some of the styles and clothes and mannerisms. The girls' sexual experiences are candidly explored as well - Lee is a restless virgin at the beginning of the film - but not to the extent that the opening scenes would suggest. Those early club scenes and some silliness with a sex toy aside, far more is suggested than we actually see.

Rather, the film keeps coming back to the tensions within Lee's family, slowly letting the situation build. It's so good to see Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans, who have done mostly television work, get to sink their teeth into solid parts like this. Wayans especially is terrific as Audrey, the mother who is trying so hard to fix a problem she doesn't understand. I also liked Aasha Davis and Pernell Walker, and look forward to spotting them in future films. There's no question, though, that "Pariah" belongs to Adepero Oduye. She's wonderfully bright and sympathetic, bringing a cohesion to all of these different aspects of Lee, all her various relationships and struggles. When she falls in love, she lights up the screen. When her father tentatively tries to ask the right questions, you hold your breath as she struggles to speak her mind at last.

I'm afraid I don't have the background to talk about how "Pariah" works as gay narrative or an African-American narrative. GLBT cinema is still one of my blind spots. However, I found the central conflicts to be universal, and I think it will transcend whatever box people might try to place it in. It should work with any audience, anywhere. I really had no idea what to expect coming into this movie, no experience with the subject matter whatsoever. Maybe that's why I found "Pariah" to be such a great surprise. I hope more people find this film. We could use more like it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Prometheus" is Flawed, But Fun

There's a minor plot twist near the beginning of the third act of "Prometheus" that is executed so badly, and falls so flat, it elicited laughter in the theater when I saw it, and the movie never quite recovered. However, I don't think that moment would have come across quite so badly if the first half of the film hadn't been excellent, or if we we're coming down from the high of one of the most terrifying horror sequences in recent cinema memory. There's no denying that parts of "Prometheus" are badly written, and that for all the austere, hard science-fiction overtones in the first half, the whole thing turns out to be a funhouse horror movie in the end. And yet, the good parts are so fascinating, so memorable, and so much fun, I'm willing to forgive many of the film's sizable flaws.

"Prometheus," despite all of director Ridley Scott's coyness, is a prequel to the "Alien" series. It opens with a marble-skinned humanoid alien meeting a grisly end on a pristine young Earth, and this somehow triggers the beginning of life on the planet. So we're starting straight off with the assumption that aliens were responsible for the rise of the human race. A few million years later, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover proof of ancient civilizations having contact with visitors from the stars, stars that are in a specific enough configuration to identify. Cut to the spacecraft Prometheus, another few years later, arriving in the one particular spot in that star system which is capable of sustaining life. Shaw and Holloway are both onboard, along with a handful of other scientists, Captain Janek (Idris Elba), who is just there to drive the ship, Weyland Corporation representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), whose company is funding the trip, and an android named David (Michael Fassbender), who has no soul, but may have ulterior motives.

If you've seen many science-fiction horror films, you can probably guess a lot of the basic plot from there. Of course the naive scientists go poking around where they shouldn't, make stupid mistakes, and have the worst luck. Of course they unleash something horrible that turns their gee-whiz scientific mission into a howling bloodbath. After all the heady talk about finding the "Engineers" of humanity, it's clear that this is really a secondary concern ro delivering a good old-fashioned creature feature with a bevy of deadly CGI and latex alien critters menacing our intrepid explorers. That's all very entertaining. However, with the stunning production design that raided many of its concepts from H.R. Giger, a superb cast full of talented actors, and a couple of really interesting science-fiction concepts in the mix, "Prometheus" could have been so much more. And it's no wonder that some viewers have been frustrated with the film's clumsy handling of so many promising ideas and elements.

Take the character of Vickers, the hostile corporate ice queen who is set up as a primary antagonist. Charlize Theron does what she can, but Vickers is terribly conceived, with trite motivations, a big reveal about her past that is totally unnecessary, and lot of really awful dialogue. Everything about her is conveyed with no subtlety, no art, and in the end she's more of a plot device than a character. But on the other hand there's David the android, whose very existence brings up all sorts of interesting philosophical questions, and who is worked into the story with far more care and thoughtfulness. Michael Fassbender is given the space to construct an impressive performance, and as a result David is one of the clear highlights of "Prometheus."

There's a lot of this maddening inconsistency to the film, where they'll tackle the big science-fiction ideas but get the basic science wrong. Or they'll do all this wonderful worldbuilding that's never used to do more than play out the oldest monster movie cliches in the book. The plot takes so many hairpin turns, and there are so many dead ends, it feels like the script was cobbled together by cherry picking the good parts from several different treatments, but nobody wrote that last draft that would have made sure that everything fit together, and was paced right, so they wouldn't end up tripping over the vestiges of several totally underdeveloped storylines that should have been scrapped or reworked.

However, I did get a wonderful nostalgic vibe from the film, seeing the depiction of space exploration and all the technology of space vehicles and bubble-dome EVA suits. And it has been ages since I've seen such a classically visceral horror movie with really terrifying, really tactile monsters like the ones we get in "Prometheus." Ridley Scott proves he still knows how to scare the audience, and how to build truly eye-catching, unique science-fiction worlds. Noomi Rapace picks up the torch from Sigourney Weaver just fine, and there's some great supporting work from Fassbender, Idris Elba, Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, and even Charlize Theron at least gets a good entrance.

I think it helps that I went into "Prometheus" with very low expectations, after ducking all the arguments and controversy about it in the past few days. It's not a great film, but it has a few moments approaching greatness in it, and that for me was worth the price of admission. I'll take an interesting mess like this over another blandly pretty "Avatar" movie any day.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Who is Sam Worthington Again?

I’ve caught up on a couple of the smaller movies that came out earlier in the year - "Contraband" with Mark Wahlberg, "Safe House" with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, and finally "Man on a Ledge" with Sam Worthington in the lead role. All decent pictures, but nothing really special, nothing worth writing much about. And yet, "Man on a Ledge" left me thinking about Sam Worthington's career as a leading man. Here we have an actor who has starred in the highest grossing film of all time, "Avatar," and a couple of other major blockbusters, the "Clash of the Titans" remake and "Terminator: Salvation," but I don't think many people would recognize him on the street. I've confused Worthington for his fellow Australian actor Joel Edgerton a few times myself. And as I watched "Man on a Ledge," I kept thinking to myself that Edgerton was delivering a very solid, decent performance. Why hadn't I noticed him before?

With the rise of the CGI spectaculars, we have a new breed of leading man in Hollywood - the stand-in. These are the guys who fill a role, but don't make an impression, the guys who look great onscreen, but tend to blend in with all the color-corrected scenery. This is not to say that these actors aren't talented and hard-working, but their level of star-power is often hugely disproportionate to the movies appear in. These days there are still a handful of A-list movie stars that really bring value to the screen. Think of Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Angelina Jolie, Liam Neeson, and Tom Cruise – stars everyone knows and recognizes immediately. However, where the effects are the main attraction, you see studios increasingly turning to cheaper options like Josh Hartnett, Taylor Kitsch, Bradley Cooper, Karl Urban, Chris Evans, and of course Sam Worthington, who are a lot harder to keep straight.

People like to talk about the critic-proof film, the movie that is so slick and so well-packaged and marketed, it'll have a huge opening weekend no matter the actual quality. These kinds of movies are also frequently actor proof, meaning that as long as the leading man, or less commonly the leading lady, goes through the motions and delivers their lines with some competence, the movie works fine. However, when the performance of the actor is not an important part of a film's success, they either don't become associated with that success, as in the case with Sam Worthington, or sometimes their fame can quickly blow up bigger than their actual talent can sustain. Witness the career woes of Orlando Bloom, who shot to fame thanks to his appearances in "Lord of the Rings" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," a pair of the most successful blockbuster film trilogies ever made. After the failure of "Elizabethtown," his first major non-action film, Bloom has gone almost totally off the radar.

Then there's Daniel Radcliffe, taking it slow and sticking to smaller films for now, like "The Woman in Black." And Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who keep making indie films on the side that nobody's heard of. As the juggernauts of "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" start to fade, are the young stars they minted going to go on to successful acting careers, or are they going to disappear from the public consciousness along with the films? It's no secret that many big franchises are set up so that the actors become interchangeable. Toby Maguire can be supplanted by Andrew Garfield as the new Spider-man, and the Incredible Hulk can keep cycling through different actors without much fuss. Meanwhile, things do not look good for "Dumb and Dumber 2," a purely star-driven vehicle, since Jim Carrey reportedly quit the picture.

This brings us back to Sam Worthington, who despite his acting talent always comes off a little bland and a little forgettable. I suspect that this actually works in his favor. Worthington is associated with a couple of big hits, but then he’s not like Shia LaBeouf or the “Harry Potter” kids, who are so closely associated with one role or one persona. That makes it easier to slot him into a variety of different parts without carrying all the baggage of his previous work with him. He hasn’t gained much fame from being part of “Avatar” or the “Terminator” franchise, but the recent failure of “Wrath of the Titans” doesn’t seem to have hurt his reputation either. I don’t think Worthington is a movie star in the traditional sense - someone high profile and famous who movies are often created around. Rather, Sam Worthington is best known for movies that have no need of movie stars. He's a pretty good actor though, and I expect that he could still end up on the A-list one day - provided he take on some more interesting roles.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why I Don't Predict the Emmys

I am an Oscar devotee. I engage in all the mad speculation over potential nominees months before the ballots even go out. I do my best to watch every nominee that I can, or at least be in the know about all their facts and stats. I read over reams of analysis by more seasoned Oscar race prognosticators. And every year, without fail, the vast majority of my predictions are completely wrong. I still have a lot of fun, though.

With the Emmys, it's different. I watch the award ceremonies, and I enjoy them. However, I can't think of any year where I was significantly invested in who the winners and losers were. Right now we're in the middle of the nominating period for the 2012 Emmys. Nominees will be announced in July, and the Emmy telecast will broadcast in September. I certainly have my favorites, like "Community" and "Breaking Bad," who I'd love to see make appearances as nominees this year, but I'm not really paying attention to how the various races are shaping up. It's not that I don't value television as much as movies, or that the Emmy races can't be as exciting as the Oscar ones, but the Emmys are a lot tougher to get involved in for many reasons.

First, television requires a lot more investment to follow than movies, so I watch fewer of them to begin with, and I end up being completely clueless about the majority of the nominees when they're announced. A dozen movies would take me a week to burn through, but familiarizing myself with a dozen television shows would take months. I haven't seen many of the major critical favorites like "Modern Family," "Homeland," "Justified," "Downton Abbey," "Parks and Rec," and "Boardwalk Empire," not for the lack of interest, but because of the time commitment. Maybe I'll get around to them after I finish "The Sopranos." And "The Wire." And the original "Star Trek."

Then again, I usually end up missing a bunch of the Oscar nominees too, because of limited releases and other factors. I didn't see "War Horse" or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" until their DVD releases, and I'm not sorry I waited in either case. But then at least I had decent proxies by way of all the reviews and discussions about the films. There wasn't a film critic out there who wasn't writing "Memos to the Academy" or "If I Picked the Winners" pieces. Television critics are a much rarer breed, and I've only just started finding a couple of good writers who are actually knowledgeable about a broad spectrum of television shows, such that they can have similar conversations about the Emmys that the movie critics have about the Oscars. Again, there's the sheer volume of material is an issue. There are so many shows, most TV critics can only follow and write about a handful in any depth.

Even if you are watching all the right shows, you're not watching them the way that the actual Emmy voters are watching them. Mindful of the time it takes to evaluate all these different programs, submissions are made in the form six of episodes picked from the most recent season, and individual actors send in the ones that they feel best highlight their performances. These submission decisions aren't highly publicized, and if you're not a close industry watcher or an insider, then you wouldn't know which six episodes your favorite shows are actually being judged by, or which episode a performance is being judged by, which means it's harder to analyze them against each other in a way that's actually relevant to what's going on at the Emmys.

And in the end, a lot of it's just personal preference. The Primetime Emmy Awards aren't as exciting or have as much cultural cachet as the Oscars. I've never gone out of my way to watch a show simply because it won an Emmy. There are also a lot of entrenched biases in the organization, that means the more daring, more innovative cable shows often get passed up for more palatable network fare. "Louie" and "Community" have never even been nominated for Best Comedy. And then there are the multi-year winners, like "30 Rock" and "Mad Men" both taking home top awards four years in a row. If I really got into some of these races, results like this would be frustrating as hell.

So I only stay minimally involved, hoping Lena Dunham gets some sort of recognition for her work on "Girls," and that Giancarlo Esposito will be remembered in the Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category. And I can just sit back and watch the spectacle for the spectacle, and enjoy the luxury of not caring about the outcomes.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Reviewer Consensus Problem

The worried murmurs started last week. Did you see that PIXAR's "Brave" racked up three negative reviews out of eleven, bringing its early score down to 73%? As of this morning, it's at 71%, with six negative reviews and fifteen positive ones. The early reviews always tend to skew toward the positive because of marketing pressure, so this would seem to indicate that "Brave" may be in serious trouble with the critics. However, when you read the reviews, they run the gamut from raves to pans, with most falling somewhere in the middle. People are reacting to the film very differently, and there is no apparent consensus. And that's a problem.

One of the deep dark secrets of most movie goers is that we like consensus. We're easily swept up in hype, we like to be part of a mass experience, and we like our reviews and reviewers to be simple and declaratory. We like star ratings and letter grades and Rotten Tomatoes percentages. We want the critical establishment and their opinions to be monolithic, because then it's easier to process and react to them. Analysts and box office watchers who still occasionally believe that the reviews do matter, also find it easier to quantify their impact if they're uniform. The urge to conform can be strong. Witness the mockery and abuse heaped on the few reviewers who didn't like "The Avengers," and the few who defended "Sucker Punch." The trouble is that in most cases there isn't a consensus, and attempts to create the appearance of them can be seriously misleading.

Look at the reviews for "Madagascar 3," our reigning box office champ, currently sitting pretty with a 75% positive review score. Most of the reviews say more or less the same thing - it's a big improvement on the first two "Madagascar" films and exceeds expectations, resulting in positive marks. However, there's still a wide range of opinions about why the film deserved those marks. Some reviewers are adding points for improvement, while others aren't making comparisons to the previous films at all. Some are grading on a curve because the movie is aimed at kids, while others make no such allowances. There are commonalities that you can derive from looking at these reviews in aggregate, but the 75% figure only tells us that 3/4 of the reviewers came out it favor of the film overall. To get a better figure of how much the average reviewer actually enjoyed "Madagascar 3," it would be better to look at Metacritic, which assigns numerical values to each review and averages them to reach a final score, in this case a 59, indicating predominantly mixed reviews.

The only thing the Rottentomatoes score tells us about "Brave" is that there will be no positive consensus on the film, as there have been for the past PIXAR films. And yet the rumors and whispers keep circulating, and I've started to see premature speculation about whether this could make a dent in the box office returns, and whether there might be something seriously amiss at PIXAR to result in two critical misses in a row. In some ways I think this kind of anti-hype is helpful in countering the ridiculously high expectations that some viewers place on the most anticipated new films like "Brave," "Prometheus," and "The Dark Knight Rises." On the other hand, jumping the gun with these kinds of conclusions should be discouraged. There's so much pressure in the entertainment press to be the first in time with analysis, there's been a growing tendency to slap a label on film's performance before it actually has a chance to perform.

I don't think there's too much danger of that happening to "Brave" because it's PIXAR, and their reputation is still very good with the family film-going set. True, this is technically a "princess" film with a female lead, making "Brave" a harder sell to little boys, but that didn't stop Disney's "Tangled." Also, animated family films are notoriously critic-proof. "Cars 2," in spite of all the negative press, still made a respectable $191 million domestically. Meanwhile, the very well received "Kung Fu Panda 2" underperformed with $165 million, and it's unclear whether we'll see that series continue. I have no idea whether the masses will embrace "Brave" or not.

However, right now the small collection of raves for "Brave" sound a lot more convincing to me than all the lukewarm praise for "Madagascar 3." I hope that the Rottentomatoes commenters trying to shout down the negative reviews on the site will get their heads around that idea. Consensus is often illusory, and not worth the trouble. Controversy is often more interesting, or at least more fun.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Here Comes Letterboxd

Filmschoolrejects was offering invitations to Letterboxd, the new movie watching social networking site for film fans. They were plugging it pretty enthusiastically, so I figured I'd give it a look, and asked for a beta invitation. I'm always looking for new movie sites to help me organize my film watching activity, since I'm one of those people who go through a ton of movies. Currently, I only keep a very informal film journal with basic identifying information for each film I watch, plus a line or two of notes. I don't keep track of the specific dates I watched anything, which turned out to be a bit of a problem when I started inputting my recent watch history into Letterboxd.

You can use the Letterboxd interface for several different things, but one of the major functions is creating a film diary. Fortunately, most of the movies I was watching were through Hulu, since I'm in the middle of another one of my Criterion Collection benders, so the Hulu service had kept track of all the movies I'd watched in the last month. Also, I use the movie checklist site Icheckmovies, which I update fairly regularly, so between those two sites and my own records I was able to work out the schedule of what which movies I'd watched on which days during the month of June. It was gratifying to note that the Letterboxd database recognized every single film I inputted, including several older French and Japanese films, even though I had to try alternate titles in a few cases.

I like the user interface, which represents individual movies using icons of their movie posters. This makes for nifty looking displays of lists, recently watched movies, and other data arrangements. However, I did run into a couple of cases with the older and upcoming films where posters were not available, leaving only a sad-looking transparent icon with the film's title as a placeholder. Also, for some lengthy lists, like when you're searching for films by director, it would help to have a more condensed list view available. Navigation isn't very intuitive and takes some effort to sort out. For instance, the top menu has a tab for "Films," which takes you into a list of new films to browse. To get to the films that you've told Letterboxd you've watched, you have to go to your own user menu and select the "Films" option listed there. Only then can you access your film diary and ratings from the next sub-menu that comes up on that page.

When you add a film that you've watched, a little window pops up giving you the option to note the date you watched it, whether you want to put it in your favorites list, what rating out of five stars it should get, what tags you'd like to create for it, and there's also some handy text space for a review or notes. It's all very thoughtfully conceived and easy to use, but after I pressed save and clicked away to another part of the site, it took me a very long time to figure out how to get back to that little window again. Click on a title in any of your lists or recently watched streams, and it takes you to the main information page for the film, not the page where you input data. Don't add a date, and a film won't show up on several of your "watched films" pages at all, until you go back and fix it.

Now Letterboxd is supposed to be a social network, and the site wants you to interact with the other users. They encourage you to "follow" other people, to "like" and comment on each others' reviews of movies, and to send out invitations to the site to your friends (I've still got all three of mine, if anyone would like them). However what the site is missing, which is also what I think other sites like Icheckmovies are sorely missing, are groups and forums. Yes, I know that forums are hard work because they need moderating and oversight, but I'm not seeing many spaces on Letterboxd for users to really get geeky with each other and have discussions about movies that would extend beyond one-on-one conversations. And that's the biggest thing I'd really like out of a new movie site right now, especially one that's billing itself as a social networking movie site.

Of course, the Letterboxd is still in beta so there's still plenty of time for some of these issues to be worked out. I think it could turn out to be pretty valuable tool for organizing your film watching experience, but as with all of these movie sites, your experience really all depends on how much effort you're willing to put into it. I'll keep up my new little film journal on the site for a while, and see what develops. But for now, I think Letterboxd is very much a work in progress.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

An Appropriately Untimely "Men in Black 3" Review

"Men is Black 3" is everything that you expect it to be. It's noisy, chaotic, filled with special effects, and the predictable plot has a lot of logic holes it. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as Agents J and K, the same characters we remember from the original 1997 "Men in Black," except without nearly the same amount of energy or verve. Jones in particular looks tired and uninvested in much of anything that's going on. There are a few new faces like Agent O (Emma Thompson), taking over leadership of the Men in Black's secret alien-policing organization from the recently departed Zed, and also a new alien villain, Boris "The Animal" (Jermaine Clements), but neither of them really get as much to do as they should.

But in the end, none of this matters. Even though "Men in Black 3" is a totally unnecessary sequel, doesn't have nearly the amount of pop and inventiveness of its predecessor, and takes forever to get going, it is a perfectly good piece of entertainment. It finds a way to do something novel with the "Men in Black" universe, and give its characters some new dimensions. Smith and Jones are fifteen years older and still playing the same old schtick, but the schtick still works, and we get some interesting variations on it. I pointed out Jones as one of the film's weak points, but he's hardly in the movie. When our villain Boris escapes from a secret alien prison on the moon, he finds a way to travel back in time to 1969, kills Agent K, who had originally apprehended him, causing the present day version to disappear. Agent J, the only one who remembers his partner, has to go back in time to stop Boris and put the world to rights.

Agent J partners up with the 1969 version of Agent K, forty years younger, and played by Josh Brolin doing an uncanny vocal impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones. He supplies everything that Jones doesn't, all the dry humor and straight-laced straight talk necessary to counter Smith's flippant cool. So Smith gets to play the fish out of water again in the 60s, which he does so well. And J and K get to connect as partners with a slightly different dynamic. The 1969 version of the Men in Black organization creates opportunities for all sorts of different takes on familiar concepts, including retro aliens and period-appropriate cameos. There's nothing really new going on here, but it's all pleasant and diverting enough. Also, there's one new supporting character in the mix, who proves to be the crux of the plot and the best damn thing about "Men in Black 3." This is Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a bright-eyed alien visitor who can see a plethora of possible future timelines. Sometimes all you need is one really good, original element to make a movie like this work, and here it's Stuhlbarg and Brolin's performances.

I think I’m inclined to give this one some leeway because the last "Men in Black" sequel was such a disaster. Most of that film's mistakes have been avoided here, thankfully. There are some cameos and direct callbacks, but they're worked in much more subtly. The story is also much better conceived, putting the state of the partnership between Agent J and Agent K directly at the center, and successfully mining some real drama and emotion out of it. There's a little flirting between K and O, but no real distracting romantic subplots. The writers have also quietly ignored or undone everything that happened in "Men in Black II," except for bringing Agent K out of retirement. And if you're worried about the lengthy gap between the sequels, I think that actually worked out in the new film's favor. There's a certain nostalgia to the series now, amplified by the time traveling and multiple references to the bygone American space race.

Looking for a summer blockbuster, you could certainly do worse than "Men in Black 3." There's no reason why the film should exist, but it does, and in a far better form than I think anyone was really expecting. There is a lot glaring problems, enough that I would strongly advise against the filmmakers trying to continue the "Men in Black" series in this format, because it feels like they only pulled this one off by the skin of their teeth. But they did pull it off. The special effects are shiny and bright, the story has just enough substance to make the outing feel worthwhile, and it's good to see Will Smith on screen again.

It really has been much too long.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Miss Media Junkie v. Adam Sandler

I do not bear any particular ill will towards Adam Sandler, but I refuse to watch Adam Sandler movies. I don't mean every single film that Sandler appears in, or even stars in, but rather anything he had a real creative hand in as writer or producer, which really puts the Adam Sandler in an Adam Sandler movie. He's not a bad actor at all, and I've liked him in other people's films. "Punch-Drunk Love" is my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson movie. He was fine in the misguided "Spanglish" and more than fine in "Reign Over Me." But when you're talking about Adam Sandler, you're generally talking about his comedies, like "Happy Gilmore," "Big Daddy," and the one that's opening today across the country, "That's My Boy." I think they're almost all terrible.

I don't dispute that Adam Sandler can be funny. I liked his run on "Saturday Night Live" when I was a teenager, but his manchild antics on the big screen can be unbearably dull. At first I was willing to give his film work the benefit of the doubt. When you're in high school, you inevitably watch whatever is popular at the moment. So I saw "The Wedding Singer," which was a nice, sweet little romantic comedy he did with Drew Barrymore back in 1998. It was his first real mainstream film, after "Happy Gilmore" and "Billy Madison," and he played a relatively normal, un-Sandler-like romantic lead. I enjoyed it, and I figured all the negative things I'd been hearing about the guy were probably overblown. Then I saw "The Waterboy," and thought it was boring. And I saw "Little Nicky," and thought it was worse. And I saw "Eight Crazy Nights," and while I was glad the "Iron Giant" animators were getting work, I thought the movie was pretty vile.

And then came "Click" in 2006. I'd long since realized that Sandler was always playing variations on the same mean-spirited fratboy doofus in all his comedies, so I'd been quietly keeping my distance from them. "Click," however, was billed as a family film, as something for a broader audience. I figured it was safe to give it a try, a decision I would quickly regret. Sandler played the same unlikeable jerk that he always did, but this time as the patriarch of a picture perfect family that he has to learn to appreciate. Seeing Sandler's brand of ribald, juvenile humor shoehorned into a pretty standard feel-good fantasy redemption story was an agonizing experience. I'm still stunned that so many people thought that "Click" was one of the best Sandler comedies, and that they were genuinely touched by the saccharine, manipulative ending. It actually won the Best Comedy category at the People's Choice Awards that year.

But I couldn't stay mad at him, not after "Reign Over Me," where Sandler plays a heartbroken widower, devastated by the deaths of his loved ones after 9/11. It was a perfect antithesis and antidote to "Click," and it rekindled my hopes a bit. However, lately Sandler's mostly stuck to making Adam Sandler movies, with the exception of Judd Apatow's "Funny People, " In the las few years, we've seen Sandler star in and produce a string of ever more critically reviled comedies like "Grown Ups," "Just Go With It," and "Jack & Jill." I understand that a lot of people enjoy these movies, and Sandler makes them cheap enough that he'll be able to keep churning them out for years and years to come, but I just don't get the appeal. I've given his comedies plenty of chances and I still think there's a really talented comedian somewhere underneath all the brain-dead dickishness of his favorite screen persona, but I feel no guilt whatsoever about avoiding the typical Adam Sandler comedies.

This is not the only movie star I feel this way about. To add a little perspective, I find Adam Sandler to be a fair modern equivalent of Jerry Lewis, another beloved movie comic of the 50s and 60s, who I like best when he's not acting like the cartoonish spaz he's most famous for being onscreen. Lewis, like Sandler, divides people. Many find him supremely gifted and entertaining, most famously the Cahiers du Cinema gang. Others find him annoying and wish he would go away. I'm usually in the latter camp, but there have been a couple of big exceptions. So I've resolved to deal with Sandler the same way I deal with Lewis, which is to be selective. Every once in a while Sandler does make interesting movies, and if I ignore his more commercial, more popular stuff, I find I do like him very much, enough to call myself an Adam Sandler fan even.

A non-Adam Sandler movie Adam Sandler fan. A NASMASF, if you will. There must be more of us out there. Maybe we could start a club.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Runaway Production Watch

Remember how it took the new Gore Verbinski "Lone Ranger" so long to get a greenlight from Disney because of worries over how much the movie was going to cost? Well, according to The Hollywood Reporter, those fears turned out to be prescient. "The Lone Ranger" has gone over the agreed upon reduced budget, is weeks behind in filming, and has all the earmarks of a runaway production. Meanwhile, over at Paramount, the Brad Pitt zombie film "World War Z" is also in trouble. The film was delayed from December to next summer a while ago, but it only came out recently that "World War Z" will need weeks of reshoots and its whole third act rewritten. This is not expected to help its ballooning budget numbers either.

I've touched on this issue in a couple of other posts before, but never really addressed it head-on. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the big tentpole Hollywood movies of recent years have gotten crazy expensive as they've grown more reliant on costly CGI effects. Even when you adjust for inflation, recent Hollywood blockbusters dominate the lists of the most expensive films of all time, with the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" topping them all with an estimated budget of $300 million. The highest number anyone will confirm is the $258 million that "Spider-man 3" cost. Of course, most of these big blockbusters have made their money back. The last three "Pirates" movies are among the Top 20 highest worldwide grossing films of all time. Despite being disdained by the fanboys, "Spider-man 3" made over $330 million domestically, and nearly $900 million worldwide. The massive budgets look perfectly reasonable when the returns are equally as huge. Well, except when they're not.

Financial analysts have warned for years that box office receipts are not keeping up with Hollywood's blockbuster budgets. We're now seeing $200 million write-offs for costly flops like "John Carter" and "Battleship" as audience enthusiasm for these movies has waned. We may finally be seeing the upper limit of what the studios are willing to spend in pursuit of box office bonanzas as the size of these financial risks are finally catching up. We're a long way from the failure of a single one of these pictures potentially threatening the fortunes of a major studio, like "Cleopatra" famously gutted Twentieth Century Fox back in the 60s, but losses this size are nothing to sneeze at. "John Carter" led to the ousting of Disney Studio Chairman Rich Ross, and last years disastrous "Mars Needs Moms," which made less than $40 million worldwide on a $150 million budget, pretty much killed the feature animation operations of ImageMovers Digital.

Reading over the recent reports about "The Lone Ranger" and "World War Z," what strikes me is how small the margin of error is now for these massive productions. If there are any setbacks at all, like the weaponry being seized from "World War Z," or the weather delays on "Lone Ranger," the costs can add up very quickly. When I think of runaway productions, I tend to think of Francis Ford Coppola tromping about in the jungle, beset by all kinds of disasters, while trying to make Apocalypse Now." Or how Stanley Kubrick's demanding perfectionism dragged out principal photography on "The Shining" for over a year. But if you adjust for inflation, "Apocalypse Now" would have only cost $110 million," and "The Shining" only half that much today. For all the blame heaped on Andrew Stanton for letting costs balloon on "John Carter," nothing I've read suggests he was ever remotely as self-indulgent or out of control. But these days, with these kinds of movies, a few reshoots can break the bank, and there's no room for mistakes.

It makes me all the more appreciative of genre directors who do know how to handle big budgets, like Joss Whedon pulling off the monumental juggling act of "The Avengers," and Christopher Nolan somehow giving "Inception" a brain, along with all the pretty visuals. I don't think Coppola or Kubrick could operate under the same constraints, honestly. Some of our filmmaking luminaries like Spielberg and Scorsese have managed to adapt very well, though it's telling that Scorsese's celebrated "Hugo" ran far over budget, and was a pretty hefty loss for Paramount. And then there's James Cameron, who some say really started the whole ballooning budget mess, when "Titanic" ran up a $200 million bill in 1997, an unheard of sum at the time. Everyone expected it to bomb, but it ended up making $600 million domestically, breaking every box office record in the books, and prodding studios to start forking over ever-larger sums of cash for their blockbusters.

Now $200 million movies are commonplace, but the risks are still as huge as ever. By next summer, who knows how high the budgets for "The Lone Ranger" and "World War Z" will have climbed. And with all this financial pressure, and the directors more creatively constrained than ever, and the audience getting restless, I suspect that one way or another, we're going to see some great drama at the box office.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

They're Calling the Movie What?

Another day, another round of changing titles. Today, Cartoon Brew had images of a few advertisements from the The Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, including the next Blue Sky animated film, "Epic," which was previously known as "The Leaf Men." I think it's a downgrade, personally. "The Leaf Men" is nice and descriptive, very distinctive, and goes well with a story about tiny people. Plus, it's the name of the original William Joyce children's book this is based on, so there should be some value in the name recognition, right? "Epic," while nicely aspiration, unfortunately also sounds like someone in marketing trying to stack the deck in the film's favor. If the film is called "Epic," it must really be epic, right?

Now I'm fully aware that films that are in production and pre-production often run through a string of different titles on their way to the screen, but I can't help getting attached to many of the initial ones. Often, the only thing distinctive about a project in the early days, before there are stars or even a director attached, is the title. It can be hard to keep track of a film without that constant. For instance, it took me a while to realize the new Brad Pitt film that was getting good press out of Cannes, "Killing Them Softly," was "Cogan's Trade," announced as director Andrew Dominik's follow-up to "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," back in 2010. Also, apparently "Code Name: Geronimo" and the not yet officially titled "Zero Dark Thirty" are two different films about the Navy SEAL mission to kill Osama bin Laden that may be competing against each other this winter. For a while, I thought "Code Name: Geronimo" was just the latest title change for Kathryn Bigelow's version.

Cataloguing title changes has become a routine, as common as noting the schedule changes. This summer is full of films that were once known by other names. "That's My Boy," opening on Friday, was known for a long time as "I Hate You, Dad." PIXAR's "Brave" started out as "The Bear and the Bow." Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" was formerly "Nero Fiddled" and before that, "The Bop Decameron." As many predicted, "Neighborhood Watch" was shortened to "The Watch," due to concerns about negative associations with the Trayvon Martin case. Some changes are less dramatic, like "Outrun" becoming "Hit and Run," and "Welcome to People" becoming "People Like Us." Some are just kind of inexplicable, like "Great Hope Springs," the Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones comedy, now being billed as "Hope Springs." The "Great" part just had to go, huh?

Probably the most drastic name change I've seen lately was John Hillcoat's "The Wettest County in the World," a Prohibition-era Western, becoming "Lawless." What a generic, awful title. Marketing departments seem to consistently pick the most boring, most colorless names out of convenience. Sure, I understand wanting to make titles simple, so they're easier to translate for overseas markets, and to catch the attention of potential viewers quicker. But seriously, sometimes I think I could take all the movies in a particular genre, like the romantic comedies or the hard action films, swap them all around, and nobody would notice the difference.

This seems like a small thing to nitpick, but as we've seen this year, a title change can make a difference. Witness the continuing fallout of "John Carter," which everybody and their grandma thinks sounded much worse than the original "John Carter of Mars." I felt that "Knockout" was a far more appropriate title for Steven Soderberg's "Haywire," and might have helped it made a bigger impact. Then again, sometimes it doesn't matter what you call a film, like a certain summer blockbuster that was called "The Avengers," "Marvel's The Avengers" or "Avengers Assemble" depending on what part of the world you were in.

Historically, some of the really boneheaded title changes have been undone over time, or alternate titles have fallen out of use. No one calls Richard Williams' "The Thief and the Cobbler" "Arabian Knight," the name it was released under in the US. And I don't think I've ever heard anyone call the second "X-Men" film "X2: X-Men United." Not with a straight face, anyway. I'm already guessing "The Raid: Redemption" is going to lose that idiotic subtitle that the US distributors foisted on it a few months ago.

I do concede that some of these title changes have been for the better, and they do keep me on my toes when I'm tracking various projects. However, I've come to the conclusion that there is really no discernable logic to the process. I don't know how some wonderfully florid titles like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" have survived, while others have not. I don't know why Americans should be more receptive to "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" than "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists," which is the original British title.

I just know that nothing's certain until I see the final theater listings. I don't like the title "Epic" at all, but maybe by next May, when it's due to be released, the movie will be called something else.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Top Ten Futurama Episodes

I had to double check and make sure that I hadn't written this list before, because I've been such a cheerleader for "Futurama," it feels like I should have properly geeked out over the individual episodes at some point before now. We're about two weeks away from the premiere of Season 7 on Comedy Central, so there's no better time to do this. So here's my Top Ten "Futurama" episodes. And to save you the suspense, "Jurassic Bark" is not on this list. It had the saddest ending of any cartoon I think I've ever seen, but I cannot remember a single damn thing about the rest of that episode.

10. "A Fishful of Dollars" - It was a close decision between this episode and "Insane in the Mainframe," but "Fishful" got more mileage out of a wonderfully absurd idea. Newly wealthy Fry goes on a spending spree to try and recapture some of his past, and buys the last existing can of anchovies. This draws the attention of Mom, of Mom's Old-Fashioned Robot Oil, in her first appearance. There are tons of great gags about 70s and 80s cultural detritus, Fry's stupidity, and the slapstick bumbling of Mom's sons. I also love the Zoidberg horror ending, which comes out of nowhere, and somehow totally works.

9. "The Farnsworth Parabox" - "Futurama" does multiple universe theory, creating doubles of the whole crew and expanding from there. The show had several episodes based around very heady science-fiction concepts, and not all of them came off very well. "Parabox" was great because it kept finding new variations on one simple idea: there's another universe in this box. The chase sequence through all the different boxes and all the different universes just piles on the visual gags, and we learn that two Zoidbergs may not be better than one, but they're certainly funnier together.

8. "Leela's Homeworld" - The truth about Leela's origins is revealed at last, one of those big mysteries that the creators took the time and care to set up over multiple seasons. Spoilers ahead. I enjoy all of Leela's subsequent interactions with her parents, especially in "Teenage Mutant Leela's Hurdles," but none of them are nearly as poignant or emotional as this episode, where we descend into the sewers for the first time, and learn that lonely Leela was never really alone. The story worked so well, "Lethal Inspection" with Hermes and Bender practically repeated it beat for beat in Season 6.

7. "War is the H-Word" - "Futurama" found ways to parody westerns, mob stories, sports stories, campus comedies, and more. However, I think that one of their best jaunts into any genre was when Fry and Bender unwittingly joined the army, and Leela followed incognito, just to prove a point. From Zapp Brannigan forced to question his sexuality, to the aliens being giant bouncy balls, to Bender being outfitted with a bomb that is triggered by the word "ass" (the word he uses most), the humor was inspired. They even had an Alan Alda robot with "irreverent" and "maudlin" settings!

6. "The Prisoner of Benda" - Yes, it's the body switching episode. It's not just that the characters switch bodies, but that this leads to situations like Amy overeating in Leela's body, Fry and Leela getting physical while they're in the Professor and Zoidberg's bodies, and Scruffy's sentient wash bucket trying to seduce him using Amy's body. It's one of the rare episodes that uses almost every single member of the cast perfectly. And of course, because this show is written by nerds, they came up with a mathematically sound equation to get everybody back into their proper bodies in the end.

5. "Godfellas" - "Futurama" is a show after my own heart when it does things like build an entire episode around Bender exploring existentialism and religion. Bender becomes the deity of a tiny race of people that colonize him while he's floating around in space, does a terrible job of it, and then meets someone who might be God. The conversations about destiny and free will are lighthearted, but sincere. Bender is at his most thoughtful and sympathetic. And for extra geekiness, the show parodies Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" in a very silly subplot.

4. "The Sting" - This one completely caught me off guard the first time I saw it. Spoilers ahead. Now I was pretty sure that Fry wasn't really dead, but everything happening in Leela's head - with a totally plausible explanation for it - hadn't crossed my mind. This is my favorite of the Fry and Leela romance episodes, because it puts them in a very different dynamic and situation than we normally see. This time it's Leela chasing Fry, realizing her feelings after it's too late, and maybe being eaten up by her own guilt and remorse. It's a big piece of their relationship that was missing until this episode.

3. "The Late Philip J. Fry" - Time travel stories are abundant in "Futurama," but this one tackles a more traditional conception of time travel, with a twist. The Professor's time machine can only go forward, setting up multiple opportunities to parody post-apocalypse scenarios, riff on "In the Year 2525," and illustrate Poincaré recurrence theorem - which is then immediately used to set up another joke. And then there are the poignant moments, which are even better. One of my favorite scenes in the whole series is Fry, the Professor, and Bender sharing beers and watching the end of the universe.

2. "Amazon Women in the Mood" - My vote for the most entertaining, most ridiculous, most hysterical episode of "Futurama" would have to be the one where Fry, Zapp Brannigan, and Kif are captured by giant Amazon women who intend to intimately "snu-snu" them into oblivion. All attempts to placate the Amazons are foiled by Zapp's boorish behavior, so it's up to Leela, Amy, and Bender to save the day. The Battle of the Sexes rages through many "Futurama" installments, but never again to these wonderful, sexually terrifying extremes. And it has Bea Arthur as the Femmeputer!

1. "Luck of the Fryrish" - Yeah, I'm a sucker for the mushy ones. Fry and Yancy's sibling rivalry hits close to home, and seeing it continue to drive Fry's actions in the future, and finally lead to a touching reconciliation across a gulf of a thousand years, is one of the most brilliant things that the show has ever done. This was the one that really set the standard for all the character episodes that came after, that would be the show's turning point into more melodramatic, more personal stories. Sure, Fry's an idiot, but in episodes like this, the show also treated him like a real human being with human frailties. And that's what made it so easy to care about him, and the rest of the Planet Express gang too.

Happy Watching!

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Mad Year of "Mad Men"

Spoilers for the whole fifth season ahead.

I watched "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men" more or less simultaneously this year, usually with a few days delay, but often literally one after another. And there was no better contrast between the relative merits of the two shows than the episodes that ran three weeks ago. "Game of Thrones" premiered "Blackwater," which gave us full scale, bloody warfare, dozens of onscreen deaths, and special effects galore. With a little more exposition, it could have passed for a decent fantasy feature film. "Thrones" fans were beside themselves with delight, and "Blackwater" became the talk of the internet for days afterward, held up as a new milestone in television spectacular, and many claimed it was well worth waiting through all the torpor and tedium of the second season, to see the event brought to screen.

I, however, preferred the episode of "Mad Men" that played the same night, "The Other Woman," which will be forever known as the episode where the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce prostituted their office manager, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), in order to land Jaguar as a client - and perhaps damned themselves in the process. The debate swirling around this turn of events was much more interesting than the reaction to "Blackwater." Were the actions of Joan, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) out of character? Was what Joan did necessarily a moral failing, or could it be rationalized for someone of her era, in her situation? And last week, the "Game of Thrones" season finale was completely overshadowed by Lane committing suicide in the office, confirming that all the signs of impending doom and death throughout the season were not red herrings after all.

The common complaint I hear about "Mad Men" is that it's boring, and that nothing happens. Rather, the real issue is that nothing big and exciting happens very often, and the show demands a certain amount of patience and engagement to reap its greater rewards. Plenty of things are developing and changing from episode to episode, but they aren't very obvious or overt. No one is going to come out and say that the big question of Season Five was how the marriage of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the lovely Megan Calvert (Jessica Pare) would develop, if he could embrace the second chance that this presents, or if he'd end up falling back into his old womanizing habits, back to the double life he lived in the earlier seasons. And no one is going to point out that despite Megan being so much stronger, more ambitious, and more modern than the troubled Betty (January Jones), perhaps her arc will be no different. The show trusts its audience to suss out these themes and ideas themselves, to catch the significant little nuances and details.

After the fireworks of the last two weeks, the finale was considerably more subdued, but no less dramatic. Business at the firm was better than ever, but perhaps too much had been sacrificed for it. Cracks in the foundation were showing, with Megan gone, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) gone, and Lane gone. Don and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), who should have been on top of the world, were deeply miserable. Pete, who many suspected would be dead by the end of the season, instead got into another fistfight over the damaged Beth (Alexis Bledel), after their tentative connection was literally erased. Slimy Pete, unlike Don, actually finds no solace in affairs and subterfuge, but he's being thrust into that world, inevitably. Don, meanwhile, suffers a toothache, sees visions of his dead brother, and compromises his ethics to help Megan out of a depressive funk. And maybe he hates her a little for it. Maybe enough to let himself stray again, into the arms of less complicated, less demanding company.

I enjoy the wonderful mood that "Mad Men" is creates, the stylish restlessness and dissatisfaction of all these privileged, unhappy people. Even in the sunniest, most humorous episodes, the show has a fearsome psychic undercurrent, a lurking menace. We got to see the show's dark side more up close and personal than ever this year, with Lane's death and the slow souring of Don and Megan's beautiful partnership. They all know that success requires sacrifice, but perhaps success is only a phantom, and perhaps success isn't the same as happiness. Only those characters on the periphery, like Megan's mother (Julia Ormond), and Lane's widow (Embeth Davidtz), dare to voice the truth aloud. Ambition is often a destructive force, and some people just aren't equipped to handle the consequences. And those who are, like Don, and like Pete, hate what they have to do to cope.

I guessed that Peggy was the one who might have been the one to suffer tragedy this year, after watching her and Don become supplanted by Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) as the creative star of the firm. Her departure from the firm was one of the great surprises of the season, and one of the biggest harbingers of potential doom. Peggy has always been one of the most sympathetic characters in the show, with an arc charting her gradual, generally positive ascent in the advertising world. Removing her from the picture means another major supporting, stabilizing force is gone. In the finale, Matt Weiner checked in with her, and signaled that Peggy's story isn't over yet. I'm grateful for that because I love the character and I want to see her next season.

However, I think it's telling that her absence was more significant than most of her screen time this year. It's time for Peggy to move on, and it's time for Don to deal with the void. Or fail to, if that's where his story is headed. I'm still not sure what Matt Weiner has in store for these characters in the last two seasons of "Mad Men." However, this year their world became a darker place, and a lot of birds are coming home to roost at last. And in the end, I'll take those gorgeous shots of Lane Pryce contemplating his death and watching the snow fall past the skyscraper windows over CGI explosions any day.

Friday, June 8, 2012

My Favorite William Wyler Film

It was a challenge to pick a director this month, because I kept coming up with choices I wasn't sure I'd seen quite enough from to say anything definitive about yet. And then there was William Wyler, who has made a lot of films I haven't seen, but going over his filmography, I was surprised at how much of his work that I was familiar with. I knew and loved many of his pictures, but I had never quite gotten my head around the fact that they had all been directed by the same person - "Wuthering Heights" with Lawrence Olivier, "The Heiress" with Olivia De Havilland, "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Ben-Hur," "Funny Girl," "The Children's Hour," "Mrs. Miniver," and my favorite, "Roman Holiday."

"Roman Holiday" is a fairy tale about a beautiful princess who runs away from her life of privilege. In some ways it is very modern and cynical. Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn), exhausted from a long tour of Europe, skips out on her entourage during their stop in Rome. An American reporter, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), recognizes Anne after she stumbles into his apartment. Hot for an exclusive, he and his photographer pal Irving (Eddie Albert) play tour guide for the incognito princess, taking her sightseeing all over Rome, while never letting on that they know who she is. Of course in some ways, "Roman Holiday" is very old fashioned, as the princess and the reporter fall in love, despite knowing they can never be together.

We have "Roman Holiday" to thank for the existence of a hundred inferior imitators, for setting the requirement that every American-made romantic comedy that takes place in Rome must have a scene with characters racing about the city on a scooter, just as "La Dolce Vita" popularized drunken dips in the Trevi Fountain. It's easy to forget the fun and spontaneity of that first scooter ride, though, the joy of playing hooky from responsible life for one, perfect day. Here we must mention blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, whose credit as the film's screenwriter was finally restored last year. Because once upon a time, those tired old plot devices about keeping up flimsy deceptions, and choosing between the money and the girl, were perfectly appropriate for the story being told. And the instant make-over of the leading lady with one simple haircut? I wonder if anyone but Audrey Hepburn could have pulled that off to such delightful effect.

Way back in 1953, this was America's first introduction to Audrey Hepburn. She was lovely and charming in the film, but over multiple viewings, I'm always a little startled by how wonderfully funny she is. The early slapstick scenes in Joe's apartment, her ability to banter and tease, and the pure silliness of her participation in the boat brawl prove her strong comedic skills. However, she always keeps that fairy-tale aura, and it's her glowing presence that makes "Roman Holiday" work so well as a modern-day fantasy. Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert are great to watch, especially the gag Peck pulls with the famous Mouth of Truth, but it's Hepburn's girlish wonderment and impetuousness that come across so strong, it's easy to get swept away with her on the adventure.

I'm supposed to be writing this entry for William Wyler, though, so let's talk about the production. Wyler fought to make the film on location in Rome. Then he went considerably over budget to give the film the impressive scope and the grandeur to capture the city's immensity, cementing it as a romantic European travel destination for decades to come. It's hard not to see "Roman Holiday" as a ramp-up to "Ben-Hur," a massive production that would go down in history as one of the most grandiose and expensive Hollywood pictures ever made. I certainly admire "Ben-Hur," but it's not an easy watch and often suffers under the weight of its own spectacle.

"Roman Holiday," by contrast, is a breeze of a picture, a film that hardly even feels like it's trying. There are nods to famous landmarks, but no didactic history lessons. The romance is tender and heart-rending, but plenty of room is reserved for the laughs. This was Wyler's first comedy in nearly twenty years, and it feels like the director having his own holiday with the lighter, feel-good material after a glut of melodramas and war pictures. And he brings to it all the same care and craftsmanship as he brought to his more serious, more "important" productions. So I can't think of another film more emblematic of Wyler's versatility and ambition.

You might guess that this is another nostalgia pick, but that's not the case here at all. Despite being a fan of Audrey Hepburn from an early age, I didn't see "Roman Holiday" until I was in college. By that point I had heard so much about the film, had grown up seeing clips and references and homages so many times, I was convinced I couldn't experience the movie with a clean slate. Surely, it could never live up to my expectations.

It ended up surpassing them completely.
What I've Seen - William Wyler

Dodsworth (1936)
Jezebel (1938)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
The Little Foxes (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Heiress (1949)
Roman Holiday (1953)
Ben-Hur (1959)
The Children's Hour (1961)
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Funny Girl (1968)


Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Frankenstein" Live, More or Less

I'd never been to one of those "one night only" Fathom Events screenings before, but when I heard that my local art house was going to show an encore of their live filming and transmission of the UK's National Theatre production of "Frankenstein," I was in. I had actually tried to get tickets last March, but they were sold out almost immediately for my area. This time, with expanded theaters and playdates, it was much easier to find an available screening. I couldn't do both nights, so I picked the version where Benedict Cumberbatch plays the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller plays Victor Frankenstein. That's two Sherlock Holmes for the price of one.

The pre-show material was mercifully limited. Instead of the usual "First Look" commercials package, we got sounds of a murmuring audience and the screen cycling through black-and-white stills from "Frankenstein" rehearsals. In the place of previews, however, there were a couple of schmaltzy ads for Broadway shows, a PSA for screening sponsor Aviva to push their charity work, and of course Fathom Events and the National Theater plugging similar events. Then there was another intro from a female presenter, and a short making-of segment that felt like I'd accidentally clicked into the DVD extras, before the main event got underway.

Now the conceit of the play being filmed live was something that sounded fine in theory, but I wasn't sure how it would actually come off in practice. It took me about fifteen minutes or so to adjust to the fact that I actually was watching a play and not a film in a movie theater setting. The the editing and pacing were entirely driven by what was happening on stage, but with the multiple cameras providing coverage and often jarring cutting between different shots, initially it felt like the action should have been moving along a little quicker. the fun of live theater is being there in the moment, but the filmed version was too obviously planned out to capture that spontaneity. I'd also have liked more wide shots to show off more of the impressive stagecraft on display, and less of the distracting overhead camera, which was slightly too far from the stage.

Once I got caught up in the play, most of these distractions faded into the background. Though the Creature and Victor Frankenstein are given equal billing, this is really the Creature's show. The first act of "Frankestein" deals entirely with the Creature's birth into the world and early education. Cumberbatch is phenomenal in the role, with one of the best introductions I've ever seen. He first emerges from a womblike structure a howling mass of newly conscious flesh, and then learns to use arms and legs, to crawl, to stand, to walk across an empty stage, all in the space of a few minutes. He writhes and spasms, but gradually gains control over his malformed, stitched-together body. We see his growing self-awareness, his struggle to learn, to live. Most importantly, we see signs of a keen intelligence in the swiftness of his improvement, missing from most filmed versions of "Frankenstein."

The play hews closely to the content of the Mary Shelley novel, if not its form. Instead of the nested flashbacks, the narrative is linear, following the Creature's point of view as he explores the world, and has his first unfortunate encounters with human society. Several minor characters are nicely fleshed out, including De Lacy, played by Karl Johnson, the old blind man who becomes the Creature's friend and tutor. Instead of merely taking instruction, the Creature debates with him after learning to speak, challenges him, and displays early signs of alienation and anger. Also greatly improved is the role of Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancée. She's played with considerable charm by Naomie Harris, one of several colorblind casting choices in the production, who we meet once the Creature arrives in Geneva to confront Frankenstein directly.

Now Victor Frankenstein has always been an arrogant, prideful encapsulation of everything scientific ethics review boards exist to prevent. Jonny Lee Miller nails that, but he also makes the man a little sympathetic, a tragic figure whose downfall is painful to watch. His scenes with the Cumberbatch are the heart of the story, and the two are much better matched than I was expecting. The play treats them as equals, really two sides of the same person, to underline the obvious subtext. Cumberbatch is the stronger actor here, and he's has the meatier role for the performance I saw, but Miller does his share of heavy lifting. By the climax, he's become the play's second protagonist, despite having less time onstage. His awkward affections for Elizabeth are convincing, as are his struggles to contain and mollify a ravenous scientific curiosity.

It makes me curious about Miller's take on the Creature, and how it might differ from Cumberbatch's performance, which was the clear highlight of "Frankenstein" for me. I've never seen anything else quite like this, where the actor is juggling impeded speech, sometimes shambling and sometimes frenetic movement (or both at once), and a massive amount of make-up and prosthetics, all in the name of making the Creature look properly inhuman. The physical stuff is damned impressive, but it pales in comparison to the way Cumberbatch gets across the Creature's moral and intellectual development, that fuels the inner torments of his existence that inevitably consume him. He seethes at the injustice of being abandoned and condemned to loneliness. He becomes cruel and vicious, and even something of a bitter wit, but there's never a doubt that he has the capacity for goodness.

The production by Danny Boyle is eye-catching. A star field of dangling incandescent light bulbs stand in for thunder, lighting, electrical activity, and perhaps other things. The rotating stage occasionally reveals hidden sets, and more complex structures build up over time, but early on there's a nice minimalism to the staging. Sun and moon are simple illuminated images, and a strip of turf and illusory flights of birds stand in for all of nature. It was difficult to get a sense of the space without actually being there, and I'm sure that some of the effect didn't come across as intended. For instance, a miniature locomotive traverses the stage at one point, but the cameras did a terrible job of conveying the size and the speed of the thing, which would have been easy to see if I were actually seated in the audience.

Ultimately, I don't think that the filmed transmission "Frankenstein" is a great substitute for the real live play. But given the extremely limited ability that most of us have to access these highly acclaimed productions, it's damn well good enough. And I have to say that it was nice to be in a screening situation where you know it's perfectly okay to clap at the end, as the theater was full of the sound of the National Theater audience cheering on the performers as the play ended. I cheered with them.