Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disney Buys Lucasfilm?!

Huge news out of Hollywood today, something I don't think anybody saw coming. The Walt Disney Company is acquiring Lucasfilm Ltd for $4 billion, roughly the same amount they spent to acquire Marvel and its properties three years ago. The deal will include the rights to the "Star Wars" franchise, and Disney has wasted no time in announcing that they will be producing a new "Star Wars" trilogy, the first installment projected for release in 2015.

A couple of preliminary thoughts here. George Lucas has long been pointed to as an example of a filmmaking maverick. After the success of the original "Star Wars," he set up shop in Northern California, shunning the Hollywood establishment for decades. Though the "Star Wars" films were distributed through 20th Century Fox, he retained almost total control over his productions, including the all-important merchandising rights that made him a fortune from "Star Wars" toys and other products. He founded one of the most famous effects houses, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which is still a huge player in the effects industry, and recently resurrected its own animation division and made the Oscar-winning "Rango." ILM, along with gaming company LucasArts, and Skywalker Sound will be part of the acquisition. Lucas turning over his companies to one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world can be seen to represent a further consolidation of filmmaking resources, a trend that some may find troubling.

This falls right in line with Disney's recent strategy of acquiring major brands, including Marvel, PIXAR, and the Jim Henson Company. And I suppose it makes the most sense for Lucasfilm to have been sold to Disney over any of the other Hollywood behemoths, considering its existing ties to Disney and PIXAR. PIXAR originated as a Lucasfilm division before being spun out into a separate company, and Disney and Lucasfilm have partnered together before for "Star Tours" and "Captain EO" at the Disney theme parks. But after holding out for so long, why would George Lucas decide to sell now? Does this means he's quitting the film business? Maybe he's just saying goodbye to heading the corporate empire and going back to the little experimental films he made back at the beginning of his career. Maybe he got tired of starships and aliens, and figured Disney was in the best position to look out for the "Star Wars" franchise. Or maybe the money was just too good to pass up. We'll never know.

The new "Star Wars" trilogy in the works is a big announcement, one that I find myself inexplicably happy about even though we know absolutely nothing about it right now. I disliked the prequels, but I I still think the "Star Wars" universe has a lot of potential with the right talent involved. And after a twelve year break since "Revenge of the Sith," I think I'm ready for someone to take another shot. I liked the Extended Universe novels when I was in high school, but part of me is hoping for a really radical reinvention that will put some significant distance between the new "Star Wars" films and the older ones. I wouldn't even be opposed to a reboot at this point. However, the major caveat is that George Lucas may still be involved with the new movies creatively, and the greater the extent of his participation, the less interested I'll be.

I have to wonder how this is going to affect the current plans in place for the franchise that we already know about. Are we still getting more 3D conversions of the first six "Star Wars" films? What about that "Star Wars" universe live action television show? Are Marvel universe cross-overs a possibility now? I guess "Clone Wars" is moving to the Disney Channel if it continues. Also, is there a possibility of Disney doing anything with some of the other Lucasfilm properties like "Willow" and "Monkey Island"? Of course the other big Lucasfilm franchise is "Indiana Jones," but Paramount still has a piece of that one, which will probably complicate matters. Also, I don't think the fanboys have quite gotten over "Crystal Skull" yet. It may take a few more years.

And what about the existing films? I think Fox still controls the distribution rights for now, but if Disney is at the helm, does this mean an end to all the special and upgraded editions that have swapped out the old practical effects with CGI? Will we finally be getting decent releases of the original, unaltered films? Disney is pretty notorious about home media releases itself, with the Disney Vault and all. They've also edited some of their own films for content over the years, but never as drastically as George Lucas did.

So many questions and so many possibilities.

But first, to find the inevitable commemorative mash-up fanart. Vader Mickeys, here we come!
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Monday, October 29, 2012

Return to "Mockingbird Lane"

I feared the worst when I learned that NBC was rebooting "The Munsters," especially when I heard that the concept was to do a prequel series featuring Herman and Lily Munster's early days. Apparently I wasn't the only one with misgivings, because over the summer reports on Brian Fuller's pilot indicated that it was going the more traditional route and following the template of the original series, with Eddie and Marilyn appearing as part of the family. NBC decided not to pick up the show, but was stuck with an expensive pilot for "Mockingbird Lane" on their hands. So they decided to repackage the pilot as a Halloween special, which aired Friday night. And it wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected.

Directed by Bryan Singer, "Mockingbird Lane" looks a lot like Fuller's "Pushing Daisies," full of bright storybook visuals and old fashioned whimsy. The Munster family members no longer resemble the old Universal classic monsters. Instead, Herman is played by Jerry O'Connell, and has a couple of visible scars from where he was stitched together from different pieces, but otherwise looks like a perfectly ordinary man. His lovely wife Lily (Portia de Rossi) has no Bride-of-Frankenstein white streak in her hair, and their son Eddie (Mason Cook) only has werewolf features during the full moon. Marilyn (Charity Wakefield) looks exactly as she always has, but this time she doesn't stand out. Only Grandpa (Eddie Izzard), with his continental fashion sense, appears to have stepped out of another era. However, it's made perfectly clear that the Munster family is still very monstrous. Herman's heart, his only original part, literally breaks when he becomes too emotional. Lily appears in a cloud of swirling smoke and enjoys lounging on the ceiling. The move to the new house on Mockingbird Lane is prompted by an unfortunate incident where Eddie's werewolf side manifests for the first time during a Boy Scout camping trip.

Telling Eddie that he's a werewolf is the major dilemma of the first episode, illustrating how "Mockingbird Lane" swaps out 60s sitcom family dynamics with the considerably more complicated and self-aware ones of the present day. The Munsters understand that they're different, even if it's less apparent on the outside, and this is treated as something that they all struggle with to different degrees. The running joke about Marilyn being the oddball normal of the the clan is translated into simmering resentment between her and Grandpa, who disapproves of Marilyn's very existence. Izzard steals the show, as Grandpa wholeheartedly gives into his wild side, wasting no time in turning the neighbors into blood slaves with spiked cookies and playing mad scientist when Herman's heart goes bust. The horrors are more goofy than scary, but they have much more bite to them than in the old days. In spite of the cuddly family angle, I wonder if the show is a bit too macabre to be considered family friendly. There are some tonal issues that need ironing out, especially the humor, which is a little too light on the suburban satire and awfully glib with the one-liners.

I suspect that this is why NBC didn't pick up "Mockingbird Lane." The pilot is perfectly decent with some good ideas, but it has all the earmarks of a cult show. It's not easygoing enough for families, not sophisticated enough for grown-ups, and not ghoulish enough for horror fans. The original "Munsters" is hardly even shown in reruns anymore, so there's not much nostalgia to count on either. I suspect that the price tag also had something to do with it. One of the big selling points of "Mockingbird Lane" is its gorgeous production design, which incorporates lots of stylized visuals and special effects, which we know cost a fortune. But cut out those effects, and what's left? O'Connell and De Rossi are a little bland as Herman and Lily, without much chemistry between them. De Rossi in particular doesn't get to do much in the pilot, never given a chance to show off her formidable comedic skills. Charity Wakefield and Mason Cook are more solid as the kids, and Izzard is a lot of fun, but leaning on him too heavily would be disastrous.

There is a small chance that NBC will move forward with more episodes of "Mockingbird Lane," but I think the people in charge made the right call in turning the show down. The pilot made for some good season-appropriate spectacle, but I don't know if I'd want to tune in every week for something like this. The end product could have been a lot worse, though. We could have ended up with something like the 80s reboot, "The Munsters Today," or the 90s TV movie version. "Mockingbrid Lane" at least tried to do something original with the "Munsters" concept.
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Friday, October 26, 2012

Faking it With "Argo"

Thanks to Roger Ebert and the power of Hollywood hype, the current front runner for the 2012 Best Picture Oscar is Ben Affleck's "Argo." Not trusting that hype for a second, I had to go see and judge it for myself.

So how good is "Argo" exactly? Well, Affleck has managed to make a film about the Iran hostage crisis that acknowledges how complicated and ugly the situation was for all sides, but resolves in a fairly feel-good fashion. His focus is the true story of the Canadian Caper, where CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, went into Tehran to "exfiltrate" six U.S. Embassy workers who managed to escape detection by the Iranians, and were hiding out with Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Better yet, Mendez got them out by pretending that the seven Americans were a film crew, scouting locations for a fake science-fiction film called "Argo." So while Affleck does wrangle with Mideast tensions and politics at times, mostly this is a caper film with a prominent Hollywood angle, one that has clearly taken a lot of dramatic license with actual events. It's also a far more entertaining and self-assured piece of work than any of Affleck's previous films.

On a fundamental level "Argo" is very straightforward and predictable, hewing to Hollywood formula chills and thrills. It didn't surprise me that most of the really tense climax sequences and last minute complications turned out to be totally invented. Affleck has already taken some heat for downplaying the contributions of the Canadians, skipping over or simplifying major events, and leaving out several instrumental figures in order to emphasize the heroism of Mendez and his colleagues at the CIA. The portrayal of Iran and the Iranians would make my old freshman-year World Literature TA cry, with the amount of Orientalist stereotyping and old tricks like having your antagonists speak loudly and aggressively in a foreign language to up the tension. Even Mendez's complicated home life was fabricated. And do I even need to point out that Ben Affleck doesn't look remotely Latino enough to be playing a man named Antonio Mendez? Affleck does a decent job, but it's a glaring inconsistency.

However, there's no denying that Affleck made most of these changes to the film's advantage, deftly avoiding many of the pitfalls that usually come with this kind of material. At no point are the proceedings ever overly complicated or impenetrable, never resorting to talking heads or torrents of exposition. At the same time, he never lets it devolve into a typical action thriller either. Though incidents were manufactured, they maintain a strong sense of realism and plausibility. After a quick storyboard history lesson on the Iranian Revolution in the opening sequence, actual period newscasts and interviews help to establish how the Iran hostage crisis was playing out, and the response of the American public. He gets the feel of the era right, not just the little details in the art design, but the filmmaking itself. “Argo” often follows the lead of the great 70s political thrillers like "All the President's Men" and "Three Days of the Condor."

My favorite scenes, however, happen during the film's detour into Hollywood, portrayed as delightfully seedy and full of hacks. Mendez needs to create a fake movie and a fake production company to back it, so he goes to celebrated make-up artist Jack Chambers (John Goodman), who helps him to recruit producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) into the plot. Goodman and Arkin inject some wonderful humor and liveliness into the film as their characters help Mendez try to make "Argo," a blatant "Star-Wars" rip-off, look like a legitimate movie. Some of their antics border on farce, but then Mendez has to actually go to Iran and execute the mission, and this is where the movie turns into a real nail-biter, as thrilling and nerve-wracking as any action film this year. I could predict every beat, and every twist, but it was still completely absorbing.

Affleck's direction is superb, especially as he's building the suspense and intercutting between the different players. I love the little moments where the six Americans are simply waiting, trying to pass the time and bury their frustrations. On a cerebral level I knew some of the big dramatics were invented, and didn't find them terribly convincing, but I still got a rush watching them. Even better than the finale were the opening scenes that depicted the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, and the gradual escalation of the attack. There's very little onscreen violence in the rest of the film, but that opening helps keep the possibility of violence very real and immediate throughout.

Of all of Affleck's controversial choices, I think the most controversial may be who gets the final word as the end credits roll. From some grumbling I heard in my audience afterwards, the Iran Hostage Crisis is still a sore sport for a lot of people, but at least this may help them talk about it a little more easily. I was born right around when this took place, and I've rarely heard a thing about the event. In fact, "Argo" is the first time I've seen any kind of dramatization of the Iran hostage crisis, which many Americans seem to prefer to ignore and forget.

Is "Argo" a great film? I don't think so, because it so often chooses to be entertaining over being illuminating or profound. It's a good, solid thriller though, and braver in some ways than I was expecting.
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Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Alphas" Season Wrap-Up

Spoilers Ahead.

I was worried about the second season of "Alphas" after the series changed showrunners. The first season had built up to this wonderful game-changer finale, where Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) revealed the existence of Alphas to the world, and I wasn't sure where it would go from there. Would the show break from its superhero procedural formula, or find some way of hiding the existence of Alphas from the general public again to maintain the status quo? And what about the show's new Big Bad, Stanton Parish (John Pyper-Ferguson)? And the revelation that Dr. Rosen's daughter Dani (Kathleen Munroe) was also an Alpha - and on the wrong side?

Well, as I expected, the second season of "Alphas" took a step back. The existence of Alphas stayed public knowledge, and Dr. Rosen suffered some consequences for his actions, but all the regular characters wound up back together on the same team eventually, using their powers to fight the Alpha antagonist of the week. However, stopping Stanton Parrish became a bigger and bigger concern. Two newcomers were added to the regular cast: the team's new government liaison Nathan Clay (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), and a spunky blonde named Kat (Erin Way), a young woman who can quickly pick up any skill, but can't remember events further than a month back in time. The story also got more serialized, as Dani hooked up with Hicks (Warren Christie), and Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) got a new love interest in government analyst John Bennett (Steve Byers). Meanwhile, Gary (Ryan Cartwright) moved into the office to deal with some ongoing traumas, while Nina (Laura Mennell) had a massive relapse into bad behavior that kept her out of the action until nearly halfway through the season.

In short, while "Alphas" didn't break out of the constraints of its usual formula, it continued to do a good job with the character building and the more personal stories that made the first season so strong. The level of the writing did not drop off at all, and remained fairly ambitious. The status quo did change and arcs did progress, but in a slow and steady fashion. Dr. Rosen was at the center of most of the year's big events, and we saw him become more morally compromised and ethically fallible through his interactions with his daughter. Nina had a fantastic run of episodes where we learned about her troubled past, which also helped to downplay some of the more problematic aspects of her character. I wasn't thrilled with the romances, particularly Rachel's awkward courtship with John, but they didn't do anything to detract from everything else that was going on. Poor Bill (Malik Yoba) didn't get much attention this year except as Kat's mentor figure and sparring buddy. And I wanted more Gary, but then I always want more Gary. However, the important thing was that all these characters worked together as an ensemble, even improving a bit on last year.

And that's why the second season of "Alphas" worked while the second season of "Heroes" fell apart. Several new characters were introduced in this set of "Alphas" episodes, but they had very specific purposes, and the time was taken to properly integrate them into the show's existing dynamics. There was a big, complicated season-spanning story, but few wild stunts and major twists that would have detracted from the show's careful character-building. The pace moved along briskly, so issues were resolved and questions were answered on a regular basis, but there were never the abrupt course corrections that "Heroes" leaned on so heavily to keep its energy up. Instead, "Alphas" maintains this great balance between its heavier and lighter stories, going to some very dark places while being careful to maintain its adventurous, often playful atmosphere. I'm a sucker for good banter, and "Alphas" frequently delivers. I might not be especially fond of the direction the writers have decided to take with some characters like Hicks, but at least the execution's been solid, and it doesn't feel like those choices were made lightly.

I really appreciate that "Alphas" has been kept much more grounded in reality, careful to show that every amazing superpower comes with a down side. Those powers have gotten more outlandish over time, no longer purely extensions of real world phenomena, but they still have clear limitations. The government's oversight of the team is always a source of tensions, not as prominent as they were last season, but still simmering in the background and sure to be the source of more trouble in the future. Initially I was a little disappointed that the series hadn't delved too much into the public reaction to the existence of Alphas, which plays out offscreen during the break between seasons. However, they've left the door open to revisit the issue in the future too, and it's not like the characters weren't given enough to deal with.

"Alphas" has become one of the best action series on television, a little bit darker, a little bit smarter this time out, but still very, very easy watching. Some ideas and developments didn't work for me, but an awful lot of them did, and I can't wait to see where "Alphas" is going next season.
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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Nearing the End of "They Shoot Pictures"

I've been working through the They Shoot Pictures Don't They Top 1000 Films List, henceforth the TSPDT, for the last couple of years to better acquaint myself with world cinema classics. My total currently stands somewhere north of 800 films, heavily weighted toward the top of the list. I've discovered that this usually means I've seen at least half of the films on any similar sized best movie lists with 500-1000 entries, and usually 80-90% of the smaller lists of 100 entries or less. I've spent a lot of time this year hunting down obscurities like Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy and Roberto Rossellini's films with Ingrid Bergman. The highest ranked TSPDT film that I haven't seen is Jean Eustache's "The Mother and the Whore," at #191. It's a three-and-a-half hour French romantic drama starring Jean-Pierre Leaud. After that comes Béla Tarr's seven hour "Sátántangó" at #243. I'm not really in a hurry to tackle either, though there are still quite a few titles further down on the list that I'm curious about.

I've mentioned before that the point of using a list like this isn't to finish the list. Considering the continuous influx of new titles with each new yearly revision, that would be an exercise in futility. The point is to keep exposing myself to new films and directors, which TSPDT has been great for. I can't count the number of wonderful, obscure foreign films I've watched simply because the titles were on the list. In some cases, I've given directors I didn't initially care for, like Alain Renais, enough second chances for them to grow on me and became favorites. However, like all movie lists, TSPDT has its own biases and blind spots, which is why I've found myself going back to it less and less often in recent months. As I've worked my way down to the most obscure and most idiosyncratic entries, the more obvious it's become that their inclusion is often a matter of personal taste or quirks in tabulating the votes. So even as I get closer and closer to actually finished the list, the less interest I have in actually doing so.

Instead I've started looking at other sources for recommendations, including other movie lists. The various American Film Institute lists, for instance, deal only in mainstream American and British films, but they often take cultural impact into consideration, which some of the more pretentious resources don't. Award and festival winners have often been helpful, because they get around the tendency of listmakers to make sure that certain important auteurs are well-represented, which tends to mean they're over-represented. I like looking at older lists, because there's less consensus between them as to which classic films are the most important, whereas it's hard to find a modern list that doesn't namecheck "Citizen Kane," "Vertigo," and "The Rules of the Game." Also, after doing more reading on film history and film theory, I've decided there's really very little point to watching the oldest, pioneering silent films like "Birth of a Nation" or "Cabiria" if you're not adequately armed with all the context and analysis to understand why they were so pioneering in the first place. And vice versa, it's usually pretty dull reading about these films if you haven't had a chance to see them.

I'd like to go back and rewatch some of the titles I saw when I was just starting the TSPDT, because I didn't have nearly the experience or the background to really appreciate them. Maybe I'd like Truffaut's "400 Blows" better this time, having seen Jean-Pierre Leaud grow up through so many other films. However, the urge to keep expanding my breadth of knowledge keeps driving me to seek out new titles, and there's no end to them. As the old saying goes, the more you know, the more you realize that you don't know, and that's certainly true in this case. I'd say I'm more informed about film than the average film fan, but there always seems to be another major director I haven't heard of, or another movement in some far-flung corner of the globe I really should get to know. I love the process, but after 800 TSPDT films, I'm a little worn out mentally.

At this point, there is no way I'm going to be able to keep up the pace that I used to on the TSPDT list. Many of the remaining films are difficult to access or multi-part, multi-hour endurance contests. I'd be very surprised if I make it to 900 films by this time next year. However, I think I'll get by fine without the list, as I've seen enough of its recommended foreign and independent and experimental films now that I think I'll be fine going off and exploring the classics on my own. As huge and intimidating as the TSPDT list is, in many ways it's just a starting point for the serious cineaste.
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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Big Goodbye For "Madagascar"

Dreamworks Animation's output is steadily improving, and there's no better evidence than the third "Madagascar" installment, "Europe's Most Wanted." The "Madagascar" franchise has always been a second-stringer, heavily reliant on its celebrity voices, and always a little cheaper and more rushed-looking looking than Dreamworks' bigger titles in recent years, "Kung Fu Panda" and "How to Train Your Dragon." This time out, however, the property has been given the royal treament. The visuals have undergone a massive improvement. There are new characters who are actually exciting and fun and well-conceived. And though I still think there are some pretty glaring issues in the writing, there is no doubt that "Madagascar 3" is all-around the most thoughtful and well-executed "Madagascar" movie, and the best overall by a wide margin.

For those of you unfamiliar with the "Madagascar" series, it's about four animals from the New York Central Park Zoo, Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), who are mistakenly shipped to Madagascar, and have to learn to survive in the wild, endure culture shock, and find their way home. In "Madagascar 2" the intrepid group got as far as the African continent. "Madagascar 3" lands them in Europe, where they attract the unwanted attention of a proper villain, Captain Chantal DuBois (Frances McDormand) of Animal Control, prompting Alex and his friends to hide out with a traveling circus. The circus is where we're introduced to newcomers Vitaly the Tiger (Bryan Cranston), Gia the Jaguar (Jessica Chastain), and Stefano the Sea Lion (Martin Short).

The trouble with the first two "Madagascar" movies was that they never really fleshed out their characters or did anything interesting with them. Instead there were minor pratfalls, low-level gags, and an ending with a big dance number set to an old pop song. The movies weren't bad, but they were predictable and a little lazy. Alex the Lion is more or less Ben Stiller acting like he would in a typical Ben Stiller comedy, while the other three dutifully recite their pop-culture references and one-liners, and play out minor subplots that don't have much to do with the bigger story. The new installment is immediately more ambitious, creating a bigger scope, giving the story more stakes, and the plot actually has real momentum. So suddenly everything is much more exciting and meaningful. There's still too much catch-phrase based dialogue, and a few characters who feel like afterthoughts, but the circus angle gives everybody more to do, and provides a back story for the new players that is compelling and fun.

The animators were clearly glad to see the series move out of the jungle, because they do not hesitate to go utterly bonkers with the colorful circus imagery, the European settings, and the new characters. They also let the visuals get much more abstract and cartoony, creating these fantastic action and performance sequences that don't look like anything we've ever seen in a "Madagascar" movie before - or any other Dreamworks movie for that matter. This is especially apparent with the nefarious Captain DuBois, who follows in the grand tradition of single-minded Looney Toons villains so intent on catching their prey, they won't let anything get in their way. I don't think Dreamworks has had a more memorable villain in any of their animated films, and I was sad that we didn't get more of her.

It's apparent that the filmmakers put some real effort and some real heart into this movie, which was great to see after two "Madagascar" installments that were mediocre at best. I am not prepared to say that "Madagascar 3" is on par with the best Dreamworks movies because they still had to work with the same four bland central characters and there were some bits of the "Madagascar" formula that they couldn't do away with entirely. The pop songs show up right on time. However, "Madagascar 3" is not only watchable for adults, it's actually pretty entertaining, and suggests good things ahead for Dreamworks. This could have so easily been another dull, rote, uninspired sequel like the latest "Ice Age," but it wasn't. Instead, it was one of the best surprises I had this year.

Though the story is open-ended enough that could be a fourth "Madagascar" movie, everything about "Madagascar 3" suggests it was conceived as a grand finale to the series. The penguin characters will be getting their own spin-off film in 2015, but thanks to Dreamworks' crowded schedule, the earliest we'd be getting a potential "Madagascar 4" would be in 2017. So this is the last that we'll be seeing of the main characters in theaters for a long time. But if they're gone for good, I'm glad they went out on such a high note.
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Monday, October 22, 2012

What Happened to "Alex Cross"?

James Patterson's "Alex Cross" detective novels looked like the perfect franchise for an up-and-coming African American star. Two of the books had already been adapted for film back in 1997 and 2001, where Morgan Freeman played Cross. Neither had particularly strong reviews, but they made decent returns, and proved that there was an audience for the material. When it was announced that there was a new "Alex Cross" film in production, to star "Luther" and "The Wire" star Idris Elba, I was thrilled. Elba's one of those actors that's been a familiar face for years, but hasn't really gotten his shot yet.

Then the next thing I heard, Elba was out, and Tyler Perry of the "Madea" movies was in. Then Matthew Fox was cast as the villain, and proceeded to put himself through one of those extreme body modification regimens to turn himself into a walking headline. Then Rachel Nichols was cast as the female lead, an actress who I previously noted is very lovely, but has all the depth and range of a tube sock. Perry, however, remained the major puzzler. He's primarily a comedic performer who has built a strong niche for himself making films starring African-Americans. However, he had never really broken into mainstream films, and his prior attempts at more dramatic material hadn't been very successful. He'd never had an action role like Alex Cross before, and from an artistic standpoint, casting him didn't make much sense.

From a financial standpoint, however, casting him made perfect sense. Tyler Perry is one of the rare African-American actors who has made himself into a viable brand. His audience may be small, but it's loyal, ensuring that Perry's films always make their money back at the box office in spite of unfriendly reviews. So casting Perry as Alex Cross should have brought his usual audience to the theaters, providing a boost to the box office returns, right? This past weekend "Alex Cross" opened to $11.2 million, one of the lowest openings for any Tyler Perry movie, and lower than either of the previous Alex Cross films that were made a decade earlier. According to the Boxofficemojo reports, Perry's usual audience did make up a large part of the film's audience, but the turnout was only about half of the numbers for his most recent "Madea" movies. More importantly, the general audiences that usually comes out for action films stayed away from "Alex Cross."

This is a prime example of monetary concerns trumping artistic ones, resulting in disaster. I have to wonder if the people who made the decision to cast Tyler Perry had ever seen a Tyle Perry movie. Because if Tyler Perry is a brand, it's one that appeals to an audience that is faith-based, skews female, and skews heavily African-American. This is not generally the audience that major action films are trying to target. I'm sure there's plenty cross-over between the two groups, and other comedic stars have certainly been able to make the leap to dramatic material before, but this may have been a leap too far and too quickly. Scanning over the reviews, which came back almost uniformly negative, “miscast" comes up a lot as a descriptor for Petty's performance. Bad reviews have never been a problem for Tyler Perry movies before, but then Perry's audience knows what to expect from his other films, which stick to a narrow category of broad comedy or uplifting melodrama. Nobody had any idea what Tyler Perry action film would look like. Apparently that includes the people responsible for this film.

I don't know if "Alex Cross" would have done any better with Idris Elba or a similar African-American actor in the lead, but the film would have probably avoided the mixed-messages that resulted from casting Tyler Perry. Much of the blame for the film's failure rests squarely on his shoulders, but I can't fault Perry for pursuing the role, for trying to do something different from his usual Madea shtick and expanding his horizons. I have to wonder how long Perry waited to get this opportunity, his first major film as an actor that he didn't write or direct himself. And I have to wonder how long he'll have to wait to get another chance, if he ever gets another one.

However, the fallout may be damaging beyond Perry's career. Right now I am also very worried that the failure of "Alex Cross" may lead the studio executives holding the purse strings to conclude that African-American leads are too risky, and avoid casting anyone but Will Smith and Denzel Washington in similar projects in the future. After all, if a consistent moneymaker like Tyler Perry couldn't make "Alex Cross" a hit, then someone like Anthony Mackie or Terrence Howard couldn't possibly do any better, could they? That kind of logic may seem laughable, but it's how Hollywood often works.
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Friday, October 19, 2012

Do I Want To Watch This?

Awards season is quickly approaching, and my 2012 "to watch" list is growing by the day as the potential contenders have started making cranking up their campaigns. Documentaries, for instance, rarely get much buzz until this time of year, and now I'm looking forward to tracking down titles like "The House I Live In" and "Searching for Sugar Man." However, every year there are at least a dozen films that are clearly jockeying to be contenders, but it's hard to tell if they're actually worth my time. These are the movies that I wouldn't be watching if they weren't in the awards conversation, and that tend to require a little more effort to find because they aren't high profile enough to pop up on an in-flight channel in three or four months. Last year, for instance, I was mildly curious about Angelina Jolie's "In the Land of Blood and Honey," which got decent reviews. However, I just wasn't all that interested in watching a melodramatic romance set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war, and there was no one raving about it or much discussion at all, really, so I skipped the film entirely. If time and resources weren't an issue I'd watch everything, but they always are.

So what's at the far end of the queue this year?

The Paperboy - Lee Daniels won raves for "Precious," and now he's followed it up with a Southern fried detective story, starring Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, and Nicole Kidman. You may know it as the film with the notorious urination scene I have not sought out the details of. What's interesting about this one is how divisive it has been among the major critics. Ordinarily that would be a huge plus, but "sleazy" and "trashy" keep coming up as descriptors in the negative reviews, which suggests that Daniels may have gone a little too far. Maybe I'll skip this for now and circle back after seeing how Daniels handles his upcoming prestige piece, "The Butler" next year.

Bully - Despite all the controversy and uproar over the film when it was released last spring, nobody has been talking much about "Bully" since. I've slowly been getting less enamored with the subgenre of very issue-centric, hand-wringing documentaries over the years, especially after the spate of films we had illustrating the ills of the American education system, so I'm not particularly keen on sitting through a documentary focused on this subject matter. I also have no reason to believe "Bully" is a very good film in the first place, since the reviews have been very mixed, and there's been a lot of criticism of the approach that the filmmakers took with their young subjects.

Compliance - Based on actual events, "Compliance" dramatizes an incident where a young woman was detained and sexually abused by her superiors at a fast food restaurant on the orders of a prank caller posing as a policeman. I'm familiar with the story, having seen the various news reports and read the articles detailing what happened. So now do I want to watch an indie thriller based on this? The film has been very well received, and I can certainly believe that a good film could be made about the disturbing events, but I don't know if I'm comfortable seeing those events up close. I put those feelings aside for Michael Haneke and Gasper Noe, but should I for this one?

The Impossible - There's been some criticism of the new Juan Antonio Bayona film already for focusing on a Caucasian family's experience during the South Asian 2004 tsunami disaster. In fact, the cast list reveals a disturbing lack of Asian actors overall. That does raise my hackles a bit, but really, I have doubts about the film because the trailers make it look so trite and cliché. Separated family members struggling to reunite in against enormous odds? This is a live action Don Bluth film. Still, it does star Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, who I am generally willing to watch in anything. I think I'll stay on the fence about this one for a while longer.

Antiviral - And finally, something that isn't even remotely an awards contender. Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg, has directed his first film. It's about a subculture where fans willing to pay to be infected with illnesses harvested from their favorite stars. It's a horror film, specifically a body horror film, where alteration to the state of the human body is the source of the horror. It's a genre I don't usually enjoy outside of the work of, well, David Cronenberg. I've been reading the "Antiviral" festival reviews for months, but I can't tell what the gore to-psychological-horror ratio is, and if braving the cringe-inducing subject matter is going to leave me properly horrified or just grossed out.
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Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Moment of "Zen"

I've always liked UK actor Rufus Sewell, who has long been typecast as a villain in his film career, despite several excellent turns as a leading man. So it was nice to see him in the title role of the BBC detective show "Zen," which came and went fairly quickly back in January of 2011. Like the outwardly similar "Luther" and "Sherlock," its three episodes are feature-length, running about ninety minutes apiece. I'm afraid "Zen" doesn't match up to the highs of either of those shows, but then it's more consistent and succeeds in setting itself apart from other British crime dramas.

Aurelio Zen (Sewell), is a detective in Rome. Separated from his wife, he lives with his mother (Catherine Spaak), works too much, and contemplates a relationship with his boss's new assistant, the lovley Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino). Zen has a reputation for being both an outsider and a man of unusually strong morals, who does not engage in the sort of politicking and corruption that is endemic in his department, as exemplified by Zen's chief rival, Vincenzo Fabri (Ed Stoppard). However, he knows how to use the system of political favors and under-the-table dealings to his own advantage, including taking delicate assignments straight from a well-placed cabinet minister, Amadeo Colonna (Ben Miles). And like almost all hero detectives, Zen has a habit of bending the rules and ignoring direct orders when they would get in the way of seeing justice done.

I was not surprised at all to learn that the Aurelio Zen of Michael Dibdin's novels, which were the source material for "Zen," is introduced as being about a decade older than the one in the television series, is far more morally compromised, and is generally described as an anti-hero figure. The show abandons most of these shades of gray, giving us a version of the detective who is faced with few deep moral quandaries, and difficult decisions. Every episode seems to involve him putting his career on the line due to the shady machinations of higher authorities in the police force and the government, but Zen remains untouched by the corruption. Instead he's a terribly romantic ideal of a lone detective who values the truth over furthering his own interests, and despite the costs to his personal life, he bucks the system and always seems to come out on top in the end.

The series is set in Italy, and mostly populated by British actors without a trace of an Italian accent. The exception is Caterina Murino, playing Zen's primary love interest. Their hot-blooded, libido-driven romance sets the tone of the show, which is reminiscent of early James Bond as it plays up the intrigue and sexiness. Love affairs are open secrets, and practically every female character tries to seduce the reluctant Zen at some point. Throw in picturesque Italian locations and a dreamy, nostalgia-tinged score, and we're clearly dealing with a heavily exoticized version of Rome that doesn't really exist. Zen's cases all involve high-profile political victims in compromising situations, that require hushing up potential scandals, but there's no real social commentary or any sense that we're getting a candid look at Italian society. In fact, I spotted several things that an genuine Italian would probably cringe at.

But as an old fashioned detective fantasy, it's perfectly serviceable entertainment. The stories are nothing new or memorable, but the execution provides just enough kick to keep it interesting. The actors in particular are a major asset. Far from looking villainous, Rufus Sewell's Zen is immediately sympathetic and has an appealing underdog charm. Even when he's dressed to the nines, there' still something vaguely scruffy and down-to-earth about him. Caterina Murino gets a tricky character to play, so overtly sexual and sexualized that I wasn't sure if "Zen" took place in the past or if it was a matter of cultural differences, but she can certainly hold her own on the screen. And it took me a while to figure out where I had seen Ben Miles before, since his performance as Colonna is light years away from goofy Patrick from "Coupling" - in a good way.

"Zen" didn't last beyond its first season, but it makes for decent casual viewing, especially if you like crime procedurals. Even though I think the picture of the Italian police force it paints is highly suspect, it's nice seeing a depiction that doesn't incorporate any of the usual clichés and tries doing things a little differently. And I like to think that if the show had returned for more series, it might have gotten darker and more interesting the way that the original novels did. If you're impatiently awaiting the return of "Sherlock" and "Luther" like I am, "Zen" is no substitute, but it might help to tide you over.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Filling Out the BNAT 14 Application

I try not to use the survey form format for blog posts because I think it's pretty lazy, but there are cases where I think they can be interesting. Last year I filled out a horror survey from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, highlighting my own lack of knowledge about horror films and supernatural soap operas of the '60s, and that was fun and fairly informative. So this year, I thought I'd fill out the application to attend Ain't it Cool News and the Alamo Drafthouse's fourteenth annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon movie marathon, or BNAT 14. I can never justify going all the way out to Austin, TX to attend one of these things, but the movie geek part of me never fails to perk up when Harry Knowles starts talking the event up every year. And the applications that he comes up with are so entertaining, I thought I'd fill one out for hell of it, leaving out the questions that get too personal.

Here goes.

1. List your full name, then a comma, then the name of your inner cinematic hero or heroine.

Miss Media Junkie, and Jim Henson, for making the world a little bit better than it was when he got here.

8. The first thing that pops into my head when I think of the number 14 is the phrase, “The Lucky Number,” which of course is the theme of this year’s BUTT-NUMB-A-THON. The Lucky Number, of course refers to Bilbo Baggins – our future cinematic hero – and when I was a kid, 6 years old to be precise, I watched the TV broadcast premiere of THE HOBBIT as a Rankin Bass production. It became one of my favorite things ever. I even played it at BUTT-NUMB-A-THON 2 in the year 2000. When I read THE HOBBIT I still hear JOHN HUSTON’s voice when I ‘hear’ Gandalf in my mind. John Huston is also one of my all time favorite filmmakers. So… if you could watch ANY John Huston related film, what would it be and why?

I've seen ten of John Huston's films, which is enough to quality him for one of my "My Favorite Director-of-the-Month Movie" posts, but he's one of those filmmakers who was around for so long and who did so much quality work, his career seems to mirror the history of American movies, and it's hard for me to think of his films as John Huston films. There's no denying the importance of the most iconic ones, including "The Maltese Falcon" and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," but I guess my favorite Huston would have to be "African Queen," because I love Bogey and Kate Hepburn's performances so much. If you'd asked me the same question when I was eight, though, it would have been "Annie," of course. Nobody who was a little girl in the 80s didn't know "Annie." Then again, I really like picturing Huston as his character from the beautiful, little-seen children's film "Momo" - kindly old Professor Hora, keeper of Time, and knower of secrets.

9. In that HOBBIT, Richard Boone was the voice of Smaug The Magnificent. Richard Boone was a noted badass opposite John Wayne in a wonderful group of flicks. But perhaps he’s best known as Paladin on that awesome old show HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL. I love that scene in STAND BY ME when they all sing that song. Man I miss River Phoenix. His brother was amazing in THE MASTER by Paul Thomas Anderson. What’d you think about that film?

That was a long way to go to get to "The Master." I've typed up my initial reactions to the film over here.

11. What do you do? Your profession & your passion. Two wildly different things, but sometimes the yin to one another’s yang. Basically, what do you do for a living, and what do you live to do?

I work a regular office job during the day, doing complicated administrative things. It would be simpler to say I do paperwork for a living, which is nice because I'm a compulsive writer. Is writing my passion though? I don't know, but it's certainly the closest thing I have to one. If I had to give up watching all media tomorrow, I'd still write. I'd still be trying to figure things out by putting my own thoughts and reactions into words, and putting the words into sentences and paragraphs, and hoping they added up to some kind of sense. I'd still be trying capture my experiences in words, creating a backup for my own memories that I could access even if the old gray matter fails me. Occasionally I even dream in words, but that's a post for another day, I think.

13. Luck has always been a major factor in getting into Butt-Numb-A-Thon. So tell me punk, do you feel lucky? How so? How do you know you’re coming to this BUTT-NUMB-A-THON? This is also a Birthday celebration for me. What makes you so damn lucky?

It helps to be able to hold my liquor during poker games. Also, pretzels. The pretzels are key.

14. What movie have you watched most in your life and how does that somehow define you?

Almost certainly the animated Disney version of "Robin Hood" from the 70s, though "Dumbo" is probably a close runner up. "Robin Hood" is considered by some to be the worst of the Disney animated features, and I certainly understand why. I knew about all the repeated and borrowed animation even when I was a kid, but it never took away from the things I enjoyed about that film, including the wonderful character designs and comic sequences. I still laugh harder at the tournament brawl than I do at anything that Disney has made since. So I guess I learned at an early age that it's no good writing something off entirely for a couple of superficial flaws. Also, I was doomed to never outgrow cartoons.

15. Now, Act out your favorite scene from your favorite movie in some fashion? Interpret it to your life. Make it work. Interpretive dance adaptations welcomed. I’ve been performing for you all year long. It’s your turn. Submit as a youtube link. Special Bonus consideration for those that morph that scene into a favorite scene in your favorite terrible movie. (OPTIONAL: Pure Bonus Points)

It's a little confusing as to whether the last part of this question is a bonus, or if the whole thing is a bonus. No matter.

Open with mashed potato sculpture in the shape of Devil's Tower. Alien mothership, in the form of an oversized chocolate chip cookie approaches in slow motion, only to crash into the mashed potato Devil's Tower, squishing it irreparably. Pull camera back to reveal that this is only the opening salvo in a recreation of the food fight from "Hook." Chaos commences in normal speed. The end.

16. You have psychic powers. You can see into the future. What played at this BNAT and why did you just soil your seat?

Gee, those context clues wouldn't be hinting at a screening of the new "Hobbit" movie, would they? The one that I'd really love to get a peek at early would be Alphonso Cuaron's "Gravity," which was supposed to come out a couple of weeks from now at the end of November, but has since been pushed to a yet-to-de-decided date in 2013. There were test screenings of an unfinished version back in spring, so we know it's pretty far along by now, right?

17. Show me what sort of Film Geek you are. Take a photo that explains the film geek in you. Whatever that means.

I have in mind a pre-battle starting screen from one of those old Konami fighter games, with me and my mortal enemy shopped in wearing ninja outfits, ready to beat each other to a pulp. The names of the fighters would be altered to read KAEL and SARRIS. I may be a creature of the digital age, but I have no illusions that I'm not having all the same arguments and debates that far, far better film scholars and critics than I, were having generations ago.

18. Now make the face you’ll make on November 1st if you don’t get into BNAT14? Break my heart, make me afraid. Include that photo. This will be your Yearbook photo.

I would attempt to approximate my expression on the night that I saw a 1997 screening of "Star Wars: Special Edition" in a packed house, and right before the final trench run on the Death Star, the power went out in the whole block. That would have been in high school, so my old Yearbook photo would probably be appropriate.

19. How’s your year been? Is this the last BUTT-NUMB-A-THON? Are the Mayans right?

I've had a spectacular year. This is not the last Butt-Numb-a-Thon. I suspect the Mayans were right, but have probably been terribly misinterpreted.

21. Watch BLUE SUNSHINE and explain what it did to you.

Congratulations Harry. It's over halfway through October, and you got me to watch a proper horror movie this month (available over on Hulu, if you're curious). And it was a lot of fun. The intro segments are great. The first murder with Richard Crystal's character stuffing a woman into a fireplace was jarring and wonderfully unhinged. I was a little sad he was killed off so quickly, because I though his wild-eyed, circus-freak intensity made him easily the most memorable fright in the whole movie. A close second would be Ann Cooper as Wendy - again, wonderfully loony, but gone too soon. As what the movie did to me, well, it entertained me for an hour and a half, which is all I really wanted or expected it to do. A few thrills, a few laughs, and something to talk and write about. Can't ask for anything more.
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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Favorite Coens Brothers Movie

The filmography of Joel and Ethan Coen was one of the first I managed to finish, a journey I embarked on because of how much I enjoyed "Raising Arizona," one of their early comedies. Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter star as Hi and Ed McDunnough, an infertile couple who decide to start a family by kidnapping someone else's bundle of joy. From the first title cards accompanied by John R. Crowder's soulful yodeling, I knew I was going to love this movie. A common criticism when it was released was that "Raising Arizona" was a case of too much style over substance, with its finely-tuned wordplay, larger-than-life characters, and occasional bursts of cartoonish imagery. But good grief, what style. With the Coens, all the little references and all the colorful lines of dialogue are all part of a cohesive whole, a delightful, off-kilter vision of the American Midwest.

In many circles, the Coens are revered for their thoughtful crime dramas, but I always liked their comedies a little better, mostly because of the memorable characters who populate them. "Raising Arizona" features Nicholas Cage in one of his best roles as Hi, the reformed convenience store robber with perpetual bed-head, who possesses an inexplicably refined mastery of the English language. And there's his lovely bride Ed, short for Edwina, the no-nonsense policewoman with a fearsome maternal instinct. And then you have the escaped convicts played by John Goodman and William Forsythe. And a sinister bounty hunter who is introduced as the "Lone Biker of the Apocalypse." He sports a tattoo on his arm that reads "Mama Didn't Love Me," and is so despicably evil, flowers literally burst into flames as he rides by on his motorcycle. Oh yes, it's that kind of movie.

Mostly, I think it’s the baby that holds everything together. You come to realize fairly early on that even the most miserable miscreants have a soft spot for the little tyke, and all the chaos and confusion as the various characters jockey for his guardianship is out of love, really. Hi’s botched convenience store holdup is committed for the want of a package of Huggies. So, despite “Raising Arizona” being full of convicts and nefarious characters, violence and mayhem, it’s really a family movie at heart. That underlying sweetness does a good job of grounding all the onscreen silliness and the Coens' wild stylistic flourishes. It's a cliché to call a film a visual roller-coaster ride, but I think it's an apt descriptor when you get a look at the amazing "Evil Dead" style Steadicam shots, madcap fights, and a glorious chase sequence involving Hi, a pack of dogs, and the aforementioned Huggies.

"Raising Arizona" was only the Coens' second film, and a good snapshot of their developing filmmaking sensibilities. In their later comedies like "The Big Lebowski" and "Burn After Reading" the caricatures would get even wilder. However, I think "Raising Arizona" is the only film where they succeeded in creating such a unique and well-rounded comic universe that didn't feel quite like anything else. "Hudsucker Proxy" was a 30s screwball comedy and "The Big Lebowski" was Raymond Chandler set in the weirder corners of 1990s Los Angeles, but how do you classify "Raising Arizona"? It's sort of a Western, and it's sort of a Bonnie and Clyde story, but mostly it does its own thing. A few details date it as an 80s film, but otherwise there's a timeless feel to the Coens' version of Arizona. Watching it today, it appears that events take place in the recent past, but you couldn't say for sure which decade it's supposed to be.

Ultimately it's the little idiosyncratic details that make the movie for me, like the extremely minor, unnamed characters who get some of the best lines in a movie full of quotable dialogue, or the odd literary references to Faulkner and Steinbeck that keep popping up throughout. It also helps that this it's one of the more accessible Coens brothers' films because the themes are so universal, and they took the trouble to include a couple of really fantastic slapstick and action sequences. As much as I enjoy their headier recent comedies like "A Simple Man," the sight of hapless Hi McDunnough on the run from the law, with a panty on his head, clutching those Huggies for dear life, will always make me laugh much, much harder.

I understand why some people consider "Raising Arizona" to be one of the minor works in the Coens' filmography, but this was the one for me where every single thing, from the yodeling to the baby-centric sight gags hit the bull's-eye dead center. It worked for me in a way that few comedies ever have, and remains one of my absolute favorites. And it's the reason why I look forward to all the Coens' new movies, but I look forward to their comedies just a little bit more.
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What I've Seen - The Coen Brothers

Blood Simple (1984)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Miller's Crossing (1990)
Barton Fink (1991)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Fargo (1996)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Ladykillers (2004)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Burn After Reading (2008)
A Serious Man (2009)
True Grit (2010)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
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Monday, October 15, 2012

Filing Off the Serial Numbers

Last week there were some eyebrows raised at the announcement that Penguin Press was going to publish a popular fanfiction story, "Loving the Band," written about the UK boy band One Direction, by a sixteen-year-old named Emily Baker. It'll have to go through some revisions first, specifically scrubbing all references to One Direction or its band members, a practice known in fanfiction circles as "filing off the serial numbers." The most famous example of this is, E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey," which started off as "Twilight" fanfiction featuring Edward and Bella. There have been rumors of other deals in the works, so it seems like we have the beginnings of a trend here.

There have been varied reactions to this, some outraged, some despondent, but almost all negative. The biggest complaint has been that these publishers are just chasing after the next popular thing, looking for stories from the biggest, most hyped-up fandoms of the moment in the Young Adult sphere to exploit. They're not interested in promoting real talent, but the writers with the ability to attract a rabid audience of young women. Also, they're not asking the authors to write something new and original, but choosing to publish something that has already attracted attention and been well-received by the target readers, piggy-backing off the success of the source media itself. Would "Fifty Shades of Grey" have taken off if the original fanfiction story, "Master of the Universe," hadn't already been popular with the "Twilight" crowd? Would Penguin be interested in "Loving the Band" if that band wasn't One Direction? Sure they change the names of all the characters before going to press for legal reasons, but there's an understanding with the fans that nothing substantive is different. It's such a blatant cash-grab and such a terribly cynical one. What's really worrisome is how easily publishers could seize on this as a new model to churn out cheap new money-makers.

Many members of the fanfiction community aren't happy either, because the young writers getting all the attention don't write particularly good examples of fanfiction in the first place. Looking over the summary of "Love the Band," it breaks almost all the cardinal rules of good fanfiction. The main character is original, a "Mary Sue" self-insert who becomes the focal point of a love triangle with two members of the band. She exists primarily for wish fulfillment purposes. Being able to "file off the serial numbers" generally means that the author has written something either so generic or so far removed from their chosen fandom, the use of existing characters doesn't actually affect the story. The point of fanfiction is exploring the existing universe in a way that the canon work doesn't allow for. So if you've written a "Doctor Who" fanfiction where you could replace the time-traveling alien adventurer with someone from the cast of "Glee" without having to rework significant amounts of the plot, you're probably doing something wrong.

Then again, I do see a positive side to this. I've remarked before that the first rule of fanfiction is that you don't make money off of fanfiction, but there has been a growing pressure to find some way of monetizing the huge, diverse, fanfiction universe. I think some of the old rules are starting to change. The danger of fanfiction being shut down for copyright violations isn't as great anymore, because it's become more visible and acceptable to the mainstream public over these last few years. Sure, it still gets no respect, but at least it's out in the open and people have a better idea of what it is and who's participating in it. That doesn't mean there isn't still some stigma, since fanfiction is in a legal gray area, there are no quality controls, and a lot of people simply don't understand the idea of writing for fun. However, if fanfiction is seen as a sort of training ground for burgeoning writers, and a potential source of new material to exploit, that gives the publishers a financial incentive to let the community exist on its own terms.

As for more trashy fanfiction being published as legitimate books, well, it honestly doesn't bother me much. I remember a lot of equally poor YA books when I was younger, the sort of trendy, weightless fluff designed to appeal to a certain kind of girl who wouldn't read anything else. Remember "Sweet Valley High"? Or if you liked the kinkier stuff, remember V.C. Andrews? And then of course there are the official tie-in novels written for much of the same media that the fanfiction is written for. Why shouldn't fanfiction share shelf space with the books that would technically be counted as fanfiction if the author hadn't been paid by the license holders?

I should note that there has been a small, but persistent group of "Twilight" fanfiction writers trying to follow in E.L. James' footsteps, self-publishing their "Twilight" fanfiction with the names swapped out, in hopes of attracting similar attention. They've been dismissed as craven opportunists by many in the fanfiction community, and I'm not inclined to disagree, but their emergence is indicative of changing attitudes. Fanfiction and pro-fiction are edging closer together. I can imagine some nightmare scenarios where the lawyers get involved, but if they can figure out how to coexist, it may be to the benefit of both sides.
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Saturday, October 13, 2012

The MoviePass Math

MoviePass, the new theater subscription plan, is being rolled out again, and this time with more concrete terms and conditions. Monthly subscription fees cost between $25-40 a year depending on where you live, but you're required to sign up for an entire year at a time. Unless you meet some narrow requirements, the cancellation fee is $20. Also, you can only watch a movie once, and only one movie a day. This also does not include IMAX or 3D presentations for now. However, the big plus is that the service should work with nearly all theaters because the MoviePass will use apps and prepaid debit cards, thus circumventing the need for specific chains to opt in.

Invites to the service are being passed around, and the buzz makes it seem like MoviePass might really get off the ground this time, so it's time for me to do the math again. I live in a major city with some very expensive theaters, so my subscription fee will almost certainly be at the high end at $40 a month, or $480 for a year. I've seen roughly 30 movies in the last year at an average of $8 a ticket, which comes out to $240. If a month of MoveiPass cost $20, it would clearly be a bargain for me. But at $40 a month, is it worth the extra $240 for me to see all the movies which I would normally rent on the big screen, right when they come out? Do I value the theatrical experience that much?

Now, it's tempting to want to look at that monthly fee and think that you'd only need to see five movies a month to break even, and I can certainly find five movies a month I think are worth seeing. Heck, there are at least five movies coming out in theaters this weekend alone that I intend to see eventually: "Argo" and "Seven Psychopaths," plus "Smashed," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "Middle of Nowhere" in limited release. Heck, even "Sinister" looks like a pretty good time. However, I wouldn't see every one of these in theaters even at a drastic discount, because it's not just the money but the time it takes to physically go to the theater that I have to take into account. I watch so many movies by rental in part because it's convenient and easy. You can do the laundry, eat dinner, and forgo respectable pants when you're watching a movie at home. The theater takes more of an effort.

I could easily see myself doing five to eight times a month, though. I'd just pick a weeknight and turn it into a regular part of my schedule, saving the bigger blockbusters for the weekends when I could watch them with other people. I can see some MoviePass users who like seeing movies as a social activity having some issues with coordinating viewings, but I've never minded going alone. One of the big pluses I can see if MoviePass catches on is an increase in casual viewing, countering the "event films only" mentality that's been causing so many headaches. It would definitely help smaller titles that more people tend to wait for the rental window to see. If you're paying a flat fee anyway, suddenly it's not such a big deal to try a potentially bad movie, and people might become bolder in their viewing choices.

Then again, what's wrong with waiting for rental? There aren't that many films I think I'd really benefit from seeing in theaters, especially since I've invested in a good home theater setup. Sure, I made a point of seeing "The Master" in theaters for the cinematography and a lot of the fun of "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" was the crowd, but I don't think any of the movies I listed coming out this week really need the big screen. So the biggest benefit of MoviePass for me would be keeping up with the new releases when they're actually new. I could write my reviews for most movies the weekend they actually come out. I could finally become a fully informed Oscar viewer.

Also, I can already see a way of gaming the system a little. If I only want MoviePass for the winter months when all the awards contenders are out, let's say November through January, then it's just $140 when you factor in the cancellation fee. I could easily find twenty or thirty films in that time frame, especially when you factor in all the limited releases. This would also bring down the per unit price to something I'd be more comfortable with. If I were to start MoviePass, I'd drop my paid streaming and DVD by mail services, but I'd still wind up paying significantly more for my screen entertainment, and I'd still end up renting titles I didn't hear about in time to see in theaters.

I am glad that MoviePass is getting a real shot at viability, but I'm not sure I can justify jumping in right away. If ticket prices keep going up the way they have been, though, I think anybody who loves movies should start doing the math.
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Friday, October 12, 2012

A "50 Shades" Rant

I've stayed quiet about the whole "50 Shades of Grey" phenomenon, because it's one of those pieces of pop culture, like the "Twilight" series, that holds very little interest for me. I don't begrudge those who enjoy E.L. James's books, but I'm clearly not the target audience, so I've kept my distance. Now, however, the likelihood of a film adaptation has reared its head. Universal Pictures and Focus Features landed the rights, and have hired Kelly Marcel, who wrote the upcoming "Saving Mr. Banks" to script it. And then there's been the obnoxious rumors going around about potential actors who could play the leads. Poor Emma Watson has been hounded by claims that she's in contention to play Ana Steele, despite having denied it in multiple interviews. So you'd think that with all the hype, we're looking at a guaranteed box office winner here, right?

"50 Shades of Grey" is notorious for being the book that suddenly clued in the mainstream public that it's okay for women to consume erotica, and not just any erotica but a trashy BDSM novel that originated as "Twilight" fanfiction. The assumption is that these readers will also turn out in record numbers to watch the movie version, right? Well, if the movie is going to be at all faithful to the nature and spirit of its source material, we're looking at an R-rated film about a BDSM relationship with a lot of sex scenes. Since major studios are involved, they'll probably be able to avoid an NC-17 rating. Even with an R rating though, a "50 Shades" movie is going to be a hard sell. The only film with comparable content I can think of is 2002's R-rated "Secretary," which made about $5 million domestically on the art house circuit, got some good reviews, and then vanished without a trace. Then there was "Eyes Wide Shut," the final Stanley Kubrick film, which Warner Brothers censored to obtain an R-rating, a move that caused considerable controversy. Thanks to all the attention, it made a respectable $55 million, which would be closer to $75 million today. However, the increased scrutiny prompted theater owners to enforce the R-rating, and "Eyes Wide Shut" remains the only film where I was ever carded when buying my tickets.

American moviegoers have always had serious issues with onscreen depictions of sex, and in some ways we've gotten more conservative in the past few decades. The suggestion of sex is one thing - a few nipples here and there are practically mandatory - but real, graphic sex is taboo no matter the quality of the work or the context. The press made a fuss over the success of this summer's "Magic Mike," but I found it surprisingly chaste for its subject matter. There were a few bare breasts, but no full frontal nudity, and all phalluses were covered or out of focus. Mainstream films love to sell themselves as titillating, but they rarely deal with sex itself in any meaningful way. 1995's notorious "Showgirls" is the closest anyone has come to a mainstream film with adults-only content in recent memory. It made a little over $20 million, which made it a box office bomb at the time, and has since become something of a cult film. And yet it remains the highest grossing NC-17 rated film in the U.S. after seventeen years. As a culture, we are a long, long way from the days when "Last Tango in Paris" could be both a major critical and commercial hit, in spite of an X rating and vigorous censorship challenges.

But "50 Shades of Grey" reflects a more liberated, curious audience, doesn't it? These women enjoy their naughty books and don't care who knows it, right? I wouldn't count on that. Dirty books where you have to imagine all the shocking bits are one thing, but it's quite another to see sadomasochistic sex acts depicted on the big screen. Women have always preferred written smut to video pornography, so I don't think there's going to be nearly the kind of crossover audience that the "Twilight" adaptations had. In addition, movies tend to be bigger attention grabbers, and the existence of a "50 Shades" film is going to bring the same kind of scrutiny and controversy that surrounded the book, but multiplied by several times. A big problem is that the book has been widely derided as exploitative trash, so unless the studios get some bigger, more prestigious names involved to inject some respectability into the project, they're going to be be trying to sell a movie with the same reputation. The stigma may be lessened somewhat by the perceived popularity of the series, but it's still going to be a factor, and I expect it is going to keep a good chunk of the potential audience away. And because major films with this kind of subject matter are so rare, I wouldn't be surprised if it gets the "Eyes Wide Shut" treatment, and theaters take extra precautions to keep curious kids out. That'll cut into ticket sales too.

A "50 Shades of Grey" movie could be a game changer. However, it could also just as easily be another train wreck in the same vein as "Showgirls." I have to admire Universal and Focus for having the guts to try and get this movie made, but boy do they have their work cut out for them. Movies for grown-ups, as more than one critic has noted, have been disappearing from the theaters, retreating to the art houses and VOD, where returns are far more modest. Anything R-rated is getting harder and harder to greenlight at the major studios. After all, it would be easier to just cut out the sex, make the characters into vampires, and sell "50 Shades" to the teenagers as a "Twilight" spinoff - which isn't that far from the truth anyway.
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Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Arrow" Sure is Green

Most of what I know about the DC superhero Green Arrow I know from the "Justice League" and "Young Justice" animated series, which is to say, not a whole lot. Green Arrow is really a rich industrialist named Oliver Queen who fights injustice with a bow and arrow, dresses in a green Robin Hood themed outfit, and has a kid sidekick named Speedy. He always seemed like a bit of a Batman knockoff, except with a sillier gimmick.

The new WB series immediately provides much more to chew on. This version of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) starts out as a feckless playboy who is shipwrecked on an island in the North China Sea for five years after a terrible accident kills his father (Jamey Sheridan) and the girl Ollie was seeing at the time, Sarah (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood). He returns home to a worried mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson), who has remarried to the shady-looking businessman Walter Steele (Colin Salmon). She immediately saddles Ollie with a new bodyguard, John Diggle (David Ramsey). Warmer welcomes come from the family maid, Raisa (Kathleen Gati), Ollie's teenage sister Thea (Willa Holland), and his best friend Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), who is eager to facilitate a return to a life of hedonism. Ollie has other plans. First, he seeks out Sarah's sister Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), a legal aid crusader and another of Ollie's former girlfriends. She sees that he's changed, but isn't ready to reconcile. Maybe she'd change her mind if she knew that five years on the island has given Oliver Queen a new goal in life - to bring down the corrupt ne'er-do-wells who control the city and may have caused his father's death. And boy does he have some interesting ideas about how to go about playing vigilante.

So instead of altruism and comic book capers, we've got a Green Arrow whose primary motivation is revenge. Plus, we have those five years on the island presenting a big series mystery, and some hints of brewing family drama. Established Green Arrow fans should take note that Ollie's little sister is nicknamed Speedy, and Laurel Lance is the alter ego of another DC superhero, Black Canary. I'm glad that she's in the show, but not so thrilled about the way she's been rewritten as an uptight, self-righteous lawyer type. Some of the other changes are more promising, like setting up Ollie's mother as a major Big Bad and the unexplored backstory with his father. "Arrow" has learned from the mistakes of other superhero themed shows and downplays the traditional comic book elements. We get a few quick training and fight scenes, nothing too out of the ordinary for a regular action show aside from the use of archery. The main feature of the crimefighting costume is a green hood instead of a feathered cap, and Ollie uses a few streaks of face paint instead of a mask. It doesn't look great, but at least it doesn't look silly or campy. I don't think anyone even says the name "Green Arrow" anywhere in the pilot.

It's not a bad approach to the material, but I'm not sure the about the execution. The acting is the biggest headache so far. Arnell's dialogue delivery is awfully stiff, and the minute I heard his voice-over supplying a few lines of exposition to set the scene, I knew we were in trouble. He's good looking and charismatic, but I do not buy that this guy is wrestling with any kind of inner demons, or that he's being driven by some kind of great moral cause all of a sudden. The other characters read as easy stereotypes so far. Slightly weaselly best friend. Social justice-minded love interest. Pretty younger sister surrounded by bad influences. Untrustworthy authority figures you just know are up to no good. The one character with any real ambiguity to him was the bodyguard, whose interactions with Ollie were the only source of comic relief in the whole hour. I know this is only the pilot and we're still dealing with introductions, but the core cast so far is exceptionally bland.

At least "Arrow" looks pretty good. The fight scenes are fun. We get several exciting flashbacks to the shipwreck and the picturesque island, with the promise of more to come. The Queen family's opulence is established without coming across like it's trying too hard. I like that they're not relying on too many visual gimmicks or gadgetry too, as the CGI isn't too bad, but not helping either. The premiere is fast-paced and manages to convey a lot of information very quickly, and it did manage to hold my interest. I'm not sure what's going to happen when it slows down, though, if the writing and the performances are going to improve enough to keep the show afloat.

Put this in the wait and see category.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Posts I Didn't Write Today

I've had a weird sort of existential day, so you're getting a weird sort of existential post as a result of writer's block and a slow news day. I decided to just catalog all the dead ends I hit today, or all the posts that didn't actually get written.

"Community" Delayed, Everybody Panic - By now you've probably heard that NBC is delaying the season premiere of "Community" from October 19th to the dreaded TBA. The Internet was full of wails and lamentations, and it seemed like everyone was lining up to lob insults at NBC's mother while also nursing the hope that this meant "Community" might be able to avoid the dreaded Friday night slot it is currently set to occupy. Having no more insight than anyone else on the situation, and having no desire to rehash all my grievances about NBC's treatment of the show or Dan Harmon again, I decided this was a non-starter. Oh, I'm as mad about the delay as anyone else, but it's kind of a familiar, oh-you-again, kind of mad. Venting more spleen at this point would just be repeating myself.

"Peanuts" at the Movies - I got a little farther brainstorming this one. Blue Sky Studios, best known for making the "Ice Age" movies, just announced that they had won the rights to make a new "Peanuts" animated feature, due in 2015. Charles Schulz's family will be heavily involved, but that hasn't quelled any of the apprehension over the prospect of CGI versions of the beloved "Peanuts" characters. There have been a lot of varied reactions to the news, but I had my own angle - I'd write about the four theatrically released animated "Peanuts" movies that CBS and Paramount made, starting with "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" in 1969. As an 80s kid I've seen all of them, and remember them very fondly. It would also be a chance to shine a spotlight on some older, weirder "Peanuts" media that has mostly been forgotten. However, it has been a very long time since I watched any of these, and my memories of them are a little hazy, especially of the third and fourth films. That meant the resulting post was probably going to end up being another nostalgia-heavy meandering down memory lane, and I just did one of those with the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" post! Next!

Ignoring the Director - I just listened to that free in-theater director's commentary that Rian Johnson released for "Looper," and I thought it was pretty lackluster. Lots of long pauses and Johnson's a mumbler. He's also one of those directors who is very focused on technical details, which is great if you're talking to film-savvy folks, and not so great when you're talking to a general audience. Meanwhile, the "Prometheus" DVD hit shelves yesterday with a bunch of extras and deleted scenes and it's reignited the whole controversy about how deep the film actually is and what director Ridley Scott intended to say. And those would have been my two big, timely examples as to why sometimes it's best to just ignore the director and take the film at face value. Didn't feel like I had enough to back up my conclusion though, and it felt like I was picking on the directors, which I didn't want to do. I think my real gripe with "Prometheus" is with the overzealous fans, who took one look at the little Easter Egg that referenced "Blade Runner" and concluded that this meant Ridley Scott intended for the "Alien" and "Blade Runner" universes to be connected. Instead of, you know, just a neat little in-joke.

Choose Your Own Hype - Staying with "Looper," I had the realization a few days ago that I hadn't seen a single trailer or commercial for the film, and had done my best to avoid all the traditional forms of hype, but I still went to see the movie in theaters. So how did that happen? And I would have cataloged all the different, less obvious forms of media promotion that people don't tend to think about, like all the pieces on time travel that bloggers wrote in anticipation for the film, and the whole debate over "Looper" swapping out Paris for Shanghai due to the influence of its Chinese distributor, and the erroneous report that "Looper" was the first film to debut with higher numbers in China than in the U.S. Even if these stories weren't directly about the film, or the making of the film, or interviewing the people associated with it, simply by discussing "Looper," the entertainment news was keeping it in the public eye. And even if I didn't choose to consume any media like podcasts or reviews related to "Looper," the fact that every single one of my weekly review shows was discussing "Looper" and I had to purposely avoid them still made an impression. Does it sound like I'm reaching? Yeah, I thought so too.

Notes on the Presidential Campaign - What? No. Just, no. We're not going there.

Tomorrow I'll write up a review on the "Arrow" premiere. And we'll get back to normal.
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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"Louie" Year Two

Yes, yes, I know that "Louie" just finished its third season, but this is not the kind of show that has a lot of continuity or a lot of particularly zeitgeisty moments, so I've been happy to just wait for the episodes to show up on Netflix and watch them at my own speed. However, considering the amount of hype over "Louie" really exploded during its second year, I was curious to get a look at these episodes and see what everyone was talking about.

Louis C.K is now forty-three, and his daughters Lily and Jane are nine and five. We see more of the kids this year, and accordingly the girls are now played by regular actresses, Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker. Pamela Adlon also has a bigger role, deliberately set up to be Louie's recurring love interest in an honest-to-goodness story arc. Otherwise, Louie's day-to-day life is pretty much the same. There's some acknowledgement that he's more famous now, and appears on television, but his luck with women is no better, parenting is still a struggle, and life is full of disappointments, supplying him with plenty of material for his foul-mouthed, painfully honest stand-up routines. I wonder if the production values have gotten better or if I'm just used to the style of the show now, but the second season didn't seem nearly as rough-hewn as the first. The editing is less jarring and the cinematography feels far more assured and deliberate.

I didn't think there was any kind of quantum leap in quality as for as the writing. You can definitely see it getting more ambitious though. There were fewer vignettes and more stories that took up the entire length of an episode, including the show's first hour-long episode "Duckling," where Louie goes to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. But as the stories got more focused and concept-driven, they also lost some of the free-form, rambling nature that I really enjoyed. I didn't see too many really surreal, out-of-left-field segments, with the exception of Louie witnessing the best and worst of humanity simultaneously in a subway station, and a bizarre nighttime odyssey through New Jersey. You can sense the show getting more serialized as it goes on, with episodes like "Niece," where Louie has to take care of sullen, thirteen-year-old Amy, in what feels like the beginning of a major storyline, though the kid disappears in the next episode.

Not that more serialization is a bad thing. We know Louie and his shtick pretty well now, and it's good to see the world around him start to cohere a little more. Pamela becomes a real, solid personality. The girls, though still very amorphous, are more familiar and distinct from each other. The stories feel more personal, and you can sense Louis C.K. digging a little deeper for material. I really liked the way he handled the guest spots, which reflect a realistic relationship with the showbiz world. An entire episode is devoted to Joan Rivers, who Louie solicits career advice from and holds up as an example of a great career comic. The New Jersey story ends with Louie calling up a henpecked Chris Rock at two in the morning for a ride home, who delivers the kind of disgusted lecture on responsibility that only a very old friend could. Finally there's the Dane Cook encounter, where he and Louie air their grievances about each other to each other, incorporating real-life tensions.

The highlight of the season would have to be "Duckling" though, for the sheer audacity of spending an hour with Louie in an active war zone millions of miles away from the show's usual Manhattan haunts. I found the set-ups with the stowaway duckling and the Afghan natives to be awfully contrived, but Louie's fumbling attempts to make nice with the Christian cheerleader and the performance scenes made a good counterbalance. This was a big episode that never got too self-important or let itself become a Very Special Episode, but it was still quietly profound in an unassuming way, and I thought the happy ending was earned. I hope "Louie" finds more reasons to venture out of New York in the future.

So did the second year of "Louie" match up to the hype? Mostly. It was bigger and more daring than the first year, but the initial shock of the no-budget aesthetics and the canny crudeness has faded away. The writing is still consistently strong, but it's easier to see some of the seams now, and familiarity is slowly but surely creeping in. Its highs were higher, but there were some lows too. "Louie" remains a unique show on television that reflects the intensely personal voice of a single creator, with the kind of creative freedom that others can only dream of. At its worst, it still beats out 90% of the comedy on television today.
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Monday, October 8, 2012

An Excuse to Write About "Star Trek: The Next Generation"!

It is the 25th anniversary of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," one of my favorite science-fiction series. I'm too young to have been around for the original from the 60s, and never got into the subsequent spin-offs, so for me, "Next Generation" is "Star Trek." I thought about doing a Top Ten list for this, but I thought I'd write up something a little more personal instead.

I started watching reruns of the early "Next Generation" seasons in syndication in the early 90s, right around when I started junior high. I was aware that there were new episodes airing in prime time, but I wasn't comfortable watching them when my parents were around. I remember one of my first encounters with the series was trying to get through the fifth season episode "Darmok" with my dad complaining about it in the background, and me protesting that I just wanted to see what this "Star Trek" thing was all about. I was impressed enough with that episode that I wanted to watch more, but I wasn't keen on debating my dad about it every week, who on reflection was always pretty hostile towards genre shows. Mom was less so, but still had a tendency to roll her eyes at anybody sporting too much latex. So I watched the reruns in the early evenings before they got home, and we were all happy.

Between "Star Trek" and reading paperback anthologies from the library, I turned into quite the little science-fiction geek for a while. Initially I think I liked science fiction because the people in the stories were smart. They were always scientists or explorers who had to explain complicated ideas, or reveal faulty assumptions, or solve mysteries that didn't involve heiresses killing each other over money. The "Twilight" Zone" was another early favorite, with all its wonderfully strange "what if" scenarios and symbolism-heavy morality tales. I loved following the twists and turns in the logic, seeing situations get turned on their heads by last minute reveals or shifts in POV. I was one of those kids who liked puzzles, and frequently science fiction stories had some of the best ones, because the answers could be purely theoretical concepts that only made sense according to the particular rules of its own universe. Admittedly, I was a weird kid.

So "Star Trek" appealed to me with its high concept ethical dilemmas and heady approach to encounters with the unknown. Some of these were just monsters-of-the week, but the key to defeating them was never something like "let's go get a bigger gun." The show was far more ambitious than that. Enemies could be reasoned and negotiated with. If violence was the answer, it was often used symbolically, to prove a larger point. I liked "Darmok" because the whole episode was built around two groups working out how to communicate with each other, after an alien race's system of language thwarts the capabilities of the Enterprise's usually trusty universal translators. There were a lot of bad episodes and a lot of nonsense technobabble, but when the show was at its best, it was challenging, quality television that really felt like it had something to say about the human condition.

I admit I was also enamored with some of the more typically flashy science-fiction elements too, like the holodecks, the transporters, and the replicators. "Next Generation" looks dated now, but you can still see the amount of effort and care that went into the design of the show. The graphic interfaces on the control panels, the Starfleet uniforms, and the spectacular model work that went into those flyby shots of the Enterprise have barely aged at all. Once you get past the shaky first season, the look of the series solidifies into something instantly recognizable. And then there's the score and the sound design - chirping communicators, thrumming warp drives, and even the particular sound of the Enterprise's doors opening and closing. Some found this vision of the future too utopian and unlikely, but it provided an important point of reference for all the spaceship adventure series that followed, and the success of "Next Generation" spawned quite a few.

Finally, the characters were never very deep, but they have become iconic. I don't think the show would have worked without Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, who made even the most ridiculous dialogue sound weighty and important. My favorite was Data the android though, a fascinating character who was the subject of some of the show's best hours. Geordi LaForge was LeVar Burton from "Reading Rainbow" of course, an association I could never quite put aside. Worf was the first Klingon in the "Star Trek" universe I was ever acquainted with, so I never viewed them as villains. I didn't really get the appeal of Riker or Troi, but grew to appreciate their actors. Wesley Crusher never bothered me much. All television kids were twerps back then, except Darlene from "Roseanne," and it was worth putting up with him to have level-headed Dr. Crusher manning sickbay. However, I think I'm one of the few who really didn't mind Dr. Pulaski's tenure that much.

I became an honest to goodness "Next Generation" fan. I read stacks of the tie-in novels, hunted down the official "Companion" books to help keep track of the episodes in the days before the internet, and when the movies came out, I made sure to see every last one, even though I waited for home video toward the end of their run. The infatuation didn't last long beyond junior high and the end of "Next Generation," because then there was "The X-Files" and "Star Wars" and all the FOX one-season wonders of the 90s. And my parents decided there were worse things I could be doing on Friday nights than staying in to watch geeky sci-fi shows.
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Sunday, October 7, 2012

And What Didn't Make the 2011 List

Every year when I write my Top Ten lists, I also write a companion piece to discuss some of the other major films that garnered attention from the critics and awards folks that year, to give some context to my own choices and to give a sense of where and how my opinions diverged. I will not be discussing films that appeared among my honorable mentions, such as "Drive" and "Melancholia," or films that were hyped up, but had little actual support that I could suss out, like "J. Edgar" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." This year several of the major favorites, including "Midnight in Paris," "The Artist," "The Tree of Life," and "The Descendants" did end up among my Top Ten, but there were several others that didn't even come close.

Let's start with Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," which I liked when I saw it in the theater, but grew less and less enchanted with the longer I thought about it. I loved everything involving Georges Melies, but the rest of the story is pretty labored, and it doesn't help that the dialogue for the kids frequently falls flat. The trouble with "Hugo" is that I didn't care about the kid. Asa Butterfield did a fine job overall, but there are a couple of scenes where he looks completely lost, and I don't think it was his fault. And as with "The Adventures of Tintin" there were a lot of overly-busy, complicated visuals that often got in the way of the immersiveness. I wish that Scorsese had spent less time on the spectacle and more on his storytelling.

There was nothing wrong at all with Spielberg's "War Horse," except that it was a film of the 1930s produced about eighty years after its time. It wasn't nearly as cloying as those early trailers made it out to be, but the sentiment was still laid on pretty thick. I think this might have worked better as a smaller, sparser film, instead of something so grand-scale. While "War Horse" was certainly impressive, it wasn't very entertaining, and this is the kind of feel-good fable that really should be more worried about being entertaining than being something epic. Now "The Help" had the opposite problem, in that it was very entertaining thanks to a bushel of great performances, for which it was rightly rewarded. Unfortunately, it was also a remarkably shallow film with a lot of problematic messages, and painted a picture of 1960s race relations that left me cringing.

Some films were simply not to my taste, like "Moneyball," the baseball film starring Brad Pitt. This was not your traditional sports movie, but really more a character piece about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beene, and frankly I found him to be a bore. It took me a while to work out that my mixed feelings on "Bridesmaids" did not mean there was anything wrong with my sense of humor. It's a decent comedy with some good impulses, and I understand why it was so popular and so widely embraced, but it is in no way a great film. And then there was David Fincher's adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," which was doomed from the start. I liked it fine, and I liked Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, but there was no way in hell it was ever going to get out from under the shadow of its popular Swedish predecessor, released barely two years earlier. It didn't help that while Fincher's version was slicker and more polished, it didn't really seem to get the point of the "Millennium" books.

Perhaps the most disappointing film of 2011 was "Martha Marcy May Marlene," which was a very promising debut feature from Sean Durkin, but made some choices that I found unsatisfying and, honestly much too easy. I walked away feeling a bit cheated. I had similar feelings towards "The Ides of March," which had so much potential with all the names involved, but tread an all-too familiar path. There's no shame in doing something safe when you do it well, but it's not going to get you top marks either. One of the lower profile, but highly praised titles that some of my favorite critics championed was Mike Mills' "Beginners," the one Christopher Plummer won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for. I did not connect with that film on any level, and found it pretty slight.

Finally, it was a pretty poor year for animated films, and the consensus was that the best of the lot was "Rango," Gore Verbinski's reptile western for ILM. I thought "Rango" was gorgeous, that it had great ambition, and managed to find a style and a look that was different from what everyone else was doing. It was a little sick and very weird, which I fully support. That said, the imposter story has been done to death, and "Rango" hardly offered much of a variation on it. Also, I wish studios would stop booking Johnny Depp for animated films, because he's not very well suited to the job. I ended up spending most of "Rango" wishing I were watching the live action reference footage that was shot featuring the primary actors.

All in all, 2011 was a perfectly good year for the movies. Some of the bigger, more anticipated titles crashed and burned on arrival, but there were plenty of gems if you were willing to go looking for them.
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