Thursday, November 29, 2012

The January-June Bizarro Oscars

I've never really understood the point of mid-year movie best-of lists, because we all know that a significant majority of quality films show up in the final three months of the year. However, I suppose they do help to spur awareness of smaller titles that were released earlier in the year, that are too often overlooked at awards time. But then, why release those lists at the beginning of July, in the middle of the blockbuster season, when the only thing anybody's interested in is counting up the returns at the summer box office? Nope. By my reckoning, a mid-year list makes the most sense closer to the end of it. I'm traditionally months and months late with all my other best-of lists anyway. So here are my picks for Academy Award nominees, based solely on films released during the first six months of 2012.

Best Picture

Damsels in Distress
The Deep Blue Sea
Moonrise Kingdom
Safety Not Guaranteed
Your Sister's Sister
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Magic Mike
Take This Waltz

This is still weighted heavily toward May and June releases because I disqualified all the titles that qualified for the previous year's Oscars. That means "Coriolanus," "We Need to Talk About Kevin," "Rampart," "The Kid With the Bike," and "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" have to sit this out, even though they didn't get proper releases until January and February. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Moonrise Kingdom" would be the favorites, simply based on the fact that they're the only films that still have awards buzz six months later. I expect "Moonrise Kingdom" would win based on the fact that it's more accessible. I feel this is a pretty good mix of innovative mainstream crowd-pleasers like "Chronicle," "Magic Mike," and "Ted," with auteur-driven projects like "Moonrise," "Beasts," and Whit Stilman's "Damsels in Distress," plus a couple of ensemble-driven pieces, "The Deep Blue Sea," "Take This Waltz," "Your Sister's Sister," and a scrappy underdog in "Safety Not Guaranteed." Other potential contenders I thought about were "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" and "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen."

Best Director

Whit Stillman - Damsels in Distress
Terence Davies - The Deep Blue Sea
Wes Anderson - Moonrise Kingdom
Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Steven Soderbergh - Magic Mike

This is really just whittling things down to reflect the most likely winners among the Best Picture contenders. Wes Anderson would take it, of course. These would also be the films I'd pick for any Best Writing category, which I decided to leave out of this post because I'm not keen on dealing with the complicated Adapted/Original distinctions.

Best Actor

Channing Tatum - Magic Mike
Denzel Washington - Safe House
Liam Neeson - The Grey
Aksel Hennie - Headhunters
Mark Wahlberg - Ted

This was the toughest category to come up with nominees for, because there was a serious dearth of good, male-driven dramas. I had to fudge things a little and categorize Denzel as a lead actor instead of supporting, and I nearly put Seann William Scott for "Goon" in here until I looked at the foreign options and remembered how much I liked Aksel Hennie. I think Liam Neeson would end up taking it because of the challenging nature of the role and the fact that he was the only thing in "The Grey" worth remembering.

Best Actress

Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea
Michelle Williams - Take This Waltz
Aubrey Plaza - Safety Not Guaranteed
Greta Gerwig - Damsels in Distress
Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild

A much stronger field to work with here. Emily Blunt would also be a strong possibility based on her work in "Your Sister's Sister" or "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen." Based on the ones I picked, I think Rachel Weisz would take the statuette easily as the driving force behind "The Deep Blue Sea," which was sadly overlooked during its brief run in March. I don't think she has enough buzz behind her to get the Oscar-watchers' attention this season. Quvenzhané Wallis delivered a real knockout child performance though, so I wouldn't count her out yet.

Best Supporting Actor

Tom Hiddleston - The Deep Blue Sea
Simon Russell Beale - The Deep Blue Sea
Amr Waked - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Michael Fassbender - Prometheus
Edward Norton - Moonrise Kingdom

Not sure how both Mark Duplass and Jake Johnson from "Safety Not Guaranteed" failed to make the grade, but there was a wealth of possible choices here. Also thought about Live Schreiber from "Goon," Dwight Henry from "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and Matthew McConaughey for "Magic Mike," but Fassbender's performance in "Prometheus" was so much better than the film it appeared in, I had to give him the nod. I don't have a favorite here, so let's call it a toss-up.

Best Supporting Actress

Rosemarie DeWitt - Your Sister's Sister
Judy Greer - Jeff Who Lives at Home
Mila Kunis - Ted
Sarah Silverman - Take This Waltz
Maggie Smith - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I wasn't too taken with "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," but the movie was so popular that Maggie Smith's appearance in this category would be inevitable. Briefly considered Eva Green from "Dark Shadows," Susan Sarandon from "Jeff, Who Lives a Home," and a few of the ladies from "Damsels in Distress," but this feels about right. I'd hand the statuette to the terribly overlooked Judy Greer, though I think Mila Kunis would be able to work up a lot of momentum behind her.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Uplifting "Life of Pi"

M. Night Shyalamalan almost directed "Life of Pi," the new film based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel. However, he bowed out due to creative differences, and the project was passed to Alfonso Cuarón, and then to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and finally to Ang Lee. The challenging material that attracted so many top tier directors simply proved too daunting for most of them, and it seems like a minor miracle that the film was made at all, and with the backing of a major studio no less.

"Life of Pi" charts the life and adventures of Piscine Molitor Patel, called Pi (Suraj Sharma). His family runs a zoo in Pondicherry, but decides to emigrate to Canada when Pi is a teenager. They buy passage aboard a freighter and bring the animals from the zoo with them. Only a few days into their journey, disaster strikes. The ship goes down in a violent storm, and Pi is left stranded in the middle of the ocean on a lifeboat with a few of the surviving animals, including a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The tale is told in flashback by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), living in Canada, to an unnamed writer (Rafe Spall), who was promised that the story would make him "believe in God."

Religion is a major component of "Life of Pi," particularly in the early scenes where Pi is a curious child, trying out different faiths. The film is neither didactic nor dogmatic, and promotes no specific religion. Instead, it addresses question of faith in an open and thoughtful manner, leaving the interpretation of certain events up to the individual viewer. "Life of Pi" is primarily meant to be spectacle and entertainment, so it remains fairly light on substance until the final act, when it reveals itself as an allegory for something a little deeper – but not too deep. It can be viewed purely as an adventure story about a young man braving unimaginable peril and overcoming incredible odds.

The film's biggest selling point is its visuals, which are absolutely gorgeous, featuring impossibly lovely panoramas of the ocean and marine life that must have been digitally altered, or perhaps created out of thin air, but it's hard to say what's digital and what isn't. The storm sequences in particular have a more visceral impact than we usually see in similar films. It's been widely reported that the tiger was often an entirely CGI creation, and never on the boat with a human actor. As for Suraj Sharma, he's a newcomer to acting and "Life of Pi" is his first film. Despite this, we see a believable relationship between the two characters unfold onscreen.

I expected the filmmakers would have to make some alterations to the original story in order to shorten the amount of time that Pi and Richard Parker spend drifting around in the Pacific Ocean. However, the battles between them are so well rendered, I would have been happy to see them drifting around for a good while longer. There are some nice set pieces to break up the longer stretches on the ocean though, including encounters with fluorescent jellyfish and a swarm of flying fish. There's also a hallucinatory sequence that takes the audience from the ocean surface to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Sharma was a wonderful find, giving an unselfconscious performance that carries most of the film. The part is intensely physical, as we see Pi subjected to the elements, fighting with various creatures, and struggling for survival over an extended period of time. However, his best scene is one of his last, where he simply sits and talks to the camera, telling a story in the oldest way. Similarly, Irrfan Khan brings a quiet intelligence to the older Pi, who is a more practiced storyteller with a good sense of humor.

Much of the heavy lifting is left to the director, however, and Ang Lee does not disappoint. His last effects-heavy film was the 2003 "Hulk," not his best work. In "Life of Pi" he's far more assured, the images simpler but bolder and more vibrant. He surely drew inspiration from the Indian settings in the first section of the film, particularly the rich color palette. Creating some of the more fantastic visuals must have been a massive technical challenge, but it all looks effortless on the screen.

I wish "Life of Pi" could have delved a little deeper into Pi's religious questions, because the treatment of faith and spirituality in the film feels awfully safe. Several of the darker episodes in Pi's journey have been omitted, or are referred to so obliquely that they're easy to miss. However, the film is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Martel's novel, especially when you consider that the author once called it unfilmable. Apparently, all it needed was the right director.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

More TV Shows I Should Be Watching

In the mad rush of the oncoming awards season, I've been neglecting the television world, as evidenced by the fact that I spent last night guiltily scanning through about two months worth of "60 Minutes" episodes that I'd missed, including the entire run-up to the recent election. Last year my "too much to watch" posts helped me do a lot of catching up. So here are a new batch of television shows that have been sitting on my "to watch" list for a little too long. Network television hasn't been too good to me lately, but the cable offerings seem endless.

"Key & Peele" - I knew the Comedy Central sketch comedy show was on to something big when clips of their sketches started being passed around, and I started hearing serious comparisons to "Chapelle's Show." Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are both mixed race comedians, and while their material explores a lot of racial issues, it's far from all they're capable of. The "Bullying" sketch is a good example of this, with its insightful deconstruction of a common trope. That said, I like their "Luther, Obama's Anger Translator" sketches the best.

"The Hour" - British period drama about the production of a newsmagazine show, starring Ben Wishaw, Ramola Garai, and Dominic West. It's often described as a counterpart to America's "Mad Men," since it takes place during the 1960s and covers some of the same thematic ground. However, what really caught my interest was that the primary subject matter, something that seems oddly old-fashioned these days: investigative reporting. Also, Peter Capaldi from "In the Loop" gets an arc in the new series, and he's worth seeing in anything.

"The League" - Having become enamored with the mumblecore charms of Mark Duplass, and having noticed that his wife Katie Aselton and several of his other collaborators are in the cast of "The League" with him, I need to check this FX sitcom out. I'm five seasons behind and I have no interest in fantasy football, so this is probably a lost cause, but I want to at least give it a try. FX has several oddball, cult shows that have slowly sucked me in one by one, including "Louie" and "Archer." This might end up being the next one.

"The Newsroom" - New Aaron Sorkin show! With all-star cast full of actors I like! Pounce! Alas, this is an HBO production, which means a long, maddening waiting period for the DVD sets to arrive. I've been hearing mixed reactions for months, particularly on the subject of the romantic relations between the main characters played by Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. It wouldn't be an Aaron Sorkin show without some controversy, now would it? Along with "The Hour," it's also nice to see the heroic side of the news media again, even if it's only aspirational.

"Project Runway All Stars" - I was totally caught off guard by Lifetime immediately following up the last season of "Project Runway" with the second season of "All Stars," putting me several weeks behind at the time of writing. Yes, it's a guilty pleasure, but I can't resist. The catfighting, the creative madness, and those crazy, crazy clothes suck me in every time. And the best part about "All Stars" is that there's no "getting to know you phase" with the contestants. You can just dive right in - and this season has both Wendy Pepper and Ivy Higa! And Andre!

"30 for 30" - An ESPN documentary series on sports, marking the 30th anniversary of the network. As I've said before, I'm not usually one for sports, but you can't ignore the caliber of the directors who participated in this series: Barry Levinson, Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Alex Gibney, Steve James, John Singleton, Morgan Spurlock, and many more. The series started airing in 2009, and several of the installments have found their way to Netflix, so I'll probably start with those.

And "The Wire." I swear that I'll stop putting it off and watch the series in 2013. Wait. I got all the way through "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" this year. Why should I feel bad?

Also, I want to give a quick shout-out to the one television podcast that I've found this year to be indispensable: Firewall and Iceberg, where television critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg review and discuss the best and worst of TV. I originally wanted to write up a post on television podcasts to go with the one I wrote for movie podcasts, but I haven't found anything remotely in the same league as these guys, so that didn't happen. I feel a little bad about appending this recommendation to the end of a sort-of related post, but I also can't think aof anything more appropriate.

Happy watching!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Money Post

We're coming off the biggest Thanksgiving weekend box office of all time, thanks to the crowds who showed up for "Breaking Dawn: Part 2" and "Skyfall." However, what's really heartening is the success of two of the major awards season contenders, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." Both of them performed better than expected, bringing in over $30 million apiece. 2012 is proving to be a great year for quality movies, and I've been happily keeping tabs on how other potential Oscar nominees have been doing. Hits include "Moonrise Kingdom," "Argo," "Flight," "Magic Mike," and "End of Watch.

However, before we get carried away, it's important to remember that for every prestige picture that made money this year, we've had some pretty heartbreaking flops. "Cloud Atlas," directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, had an independently financed budget of over $100 million and barely made a quarter of that back domestically. "The Master," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, cost $35 million but has only made $15 million. If either gets any awards attention, those totals may go up, though it's far from certain. Say what you will about their relative merits, but these are clearly among the most ambitious and most original films of the year, and it would have been a real vote of confidence for this kind of daring material if they'd seen more support at the box office. Both were also examples of films made outside the Hollywood system, which is becoming increasingly difficult. In fact, every independent film these days seems to have a financing story as dramatic as the whatever we see on the screen.

"The Master" is an interesting case, as it's one of four major titles to have come from Megan Ellison's fledgling Annapurna Pictures, which is also behind John Hillcoat's "Lawless," Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly," and Katherine Bigelow's upcoming "Zero Dark Thirty." Annapurna was founded a few years ago in order to make the kind of auteur-driven, artistically uncompromising movies that the studios usually balk at. It's currently one of the last real independent film financiers left standing after several major labels folded in 2008. Ellison is the only reason why some of these films exist, and she's consistently produced quality pictures that get glowing reviews, but her returns have been only so-so. "Lawless" did decent business, and "Killing Them Softly" should turn a profit based on the numbers it's already done overseas, but the numbers have been very modest. On the other hand, Annapurna now holds the rights to "The Terminator" franchise, so they may not stay focused on grown-up art house fare for long. Part of me thinks it's a shame, but another part finds it all too understandable.

The financing model for "Cloud Atlas" was also unconventional. After being turned down by every major studio, and with domestic funds scarce, the filmmakers went international. Funds came from a patchwork of different investors from around the globe, including the German government, a Hong Kong distribution company, and individual financiers. As it's extremely unlikely that the film will ever make its money back, I doubt that we're going to see an independently funded film on this scale attempted again for a long, long time. There's something to be said for the fact that the project got off the ground and the movie did get made, proving that it could be done, but the daunting challenge is one I'm not sure many filmmakers will be eager to tackle. If the film had been a financial success, the viability of this approach would look a lot stronger right now. Instead, at the time of writing, "Cloud Atlas" looks like it's may end up being one of the biggest bombs of the year alongside "John Carter" and "Battleship."

It's good to remember the success stories of this year. Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum financed the $7 million budget of "Magic Mike" themselves, which went on to a domestic gross of $113 million. FOX risked over $100 million on Ang Lee and "Life of Pi," with no major stars, and it looks like it's going to reap major rewards. However, these are models that we're familiar with - studios risking big money and individuals risking smaller sums. A film like "Cloud Atlas" had a chance to really shake up the paradigm, and it didn't happen. Annapurna is still a story very much in progress and its business model is still in flux. However, it's been clear for some time now that it's getting harder and harder to raise the money to make the most creative and challenging American films. 2012 has been a banner year for them, but I can't help worrying about the future, and how much time our best filmmakers are going to have to spend wooing investors instead of actually making their films.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Braving "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

It took a long time for me to warm to the charms of "Beasts of the Southern Wild." First there was the shakeycam, with its vertiginous framing and low-tech aesthetics. Then there was the disjointed narrative, which seemed to keep skipping forward in time. Then there was the setting, an abjectly poor bayou community living south of the Louisiana levies on the fictional Isle de Charles Doucet, referred to by the residents as the Bathtub. And then there were our two primary characters, a little five-year-old African-American girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), living under the haphazard care of her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Mostly she fends for herself as best she can, cooking her own food, minding her assorted pets, and visiting the teacher Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana). She's the one who tells Hushpuppy about ruthless prehistoric creatures called Aurochs, who are being released from their frozen slumber by the melting icecaps.

Look one way at Hushpuppy's world, and it's all squalor and mud and terrible hygiene. Her rage-prone father doesn't seem quite right in the head, and it's not clear if he's taking care of her, or if she's taking care of him, though Hushpuppy is clearly a small child. She sets her house on fire early on in the film, when she's angry, and for a few minutes it's not clear whether she has more to fear from her father or from the flames. The whole community lives on the brink, even before their existence is threatened by storms and flooding. And yet, if you look at it another way, Hushpuppy's world is one of endless wonders, where the people live closer to nature and are closer in spirit to the beasts themselves. The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is as loving as it is fierce, and the fights they have teach Hushpuppy to be strong and self-sufficient. These are lessons that prove necessary to her survival in the Bathtub as the environment begins to change for the worse.

The story is told from Hushpuppy's POV, and has a strong magical realist quality. First time director Benh Zeitlin uses very rough, but evocative imagery, and intermixes events of the past and present, memory and fantasy. Hushpuppy imagines her mother is so beautiful, that water spontaneously boils when she enters a room. Blowing up a levy can somehow drain a flooded area. The Aurochs, who resemble giant boars with extra horns, are as big as elephants and trample everything in their path. Events don't happen in logical order, or follow the usual rules of causality, but the emotions that come with them are very real. Little Quvenzhané Wallis gives a remarkable performance as Hushpuppy, who is such a spark of willful liveliness, she easily carries the film through all its bizarre turns and dreamlike developments. Dwight Henry appalls, terrifies, invigorates, and then reveals his true nature, and will catch you off your guard each time. Neither of the leads are professional actors, and perhaps that's why they come across as so genuine to this particular place and time and culture.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" was made on a miniscule budget of less than $2 million, and considering the sophistication of some of the film's images that doesn't seem possible. There are multiple scenes of storms, of fantasy creatures, and of impossible landscapes. Zeitlin has such a distinct visual sensibility that it's difficult to compare his work to anything else. There have been many stream-of-consciousness films, and many films that have been told from the POV of a child in a difficult situation. However, none have featured a bold, distinctive worldview quite like Hushpuppy's. It's not simply her world that is special, but her understanding of her particular place in it. "Leolo" and Terry Gilliam's "Tideland" have some themes in common, but nothing quite like strangely joyous sense of pride and purpose that "Beasts" achieves in the end, when Hushpuppy figures out how everything fits together.

I reiterate that it took a while for the mood and the tone of the film to really gel for me. It wasn't until Hushpuppy left the Bathtub that I appreciated the wild beauty of the place, and understood why its residents would be so resistant to leaving. And it wasn't until Wink and Hushpuppy were truly facing separation that it became clear how necessary they were to each other. And it wasn't until the closing moments of the film and the very last shot that the themes of environmental destruction, displacement, and community ties really hit home.

I'm not convinced that this is one of the best films of the year, as some have claimed, but it is certainly one of the most original and most promising debuts for everyone involved. And it's far more than it appears to be at first glance.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lincoln, Lincoln, I've Been Thinkin'

What worried me, going into "Lincoln," was Steven Spielberg's last film, "War Horse." It was a beautiful film, made with great skill and technique, but also a terribly indulgent one. The sentiment and the pathos were laid on so thick, at times they seemed close to parody. So when I heard that Spielberg's next film was to be about Abraham Lincoln, one of the United States' most celebrated and venerated historical figures, I feared the worst. Lincoln is a practically mythical character in films, the great frontier folk hero of John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln," for instance. I imagined Spielberg's Lincoln would not be as ridiculous as the one who hunted vampires earlier this year, but perhaps no less larger-than-life or well-suited for storybooks.

It's so good to be wrong. "Lincoln" not only presents a very human, down-to-earth Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, but limits the scope of the story to focus on one particularly contentious event: the fight over the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which would prohibit slavery, in 1865. There are subplots involving Lincoln's relationships with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and grown son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wishes to join the army. However, it's the legislative process which dominates the film, and the efforts of Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), and his operatives lead by William Bilbo (James Spader), to round up the necessary votes to ensure the Amendment's passage.

The politics are complicated, the cast of characters is considerable, and the discourse is weighty and intelligent. It's to writer Tony Kushner's credit that the film is as tense and engaging as it is. Even without Daniel Day-Lewis, the film boasts an impressive cast of invaluable character actors. Hal Holbrook and Tommy Lee Jones appear as Lincoln's Republican allies, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Walton Goggins as Democratic representatives, Jackie Earle Haley as the Vice President of the Confederacy, and Jared Harris has a few small, but important scenes as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln is a major force in the narrative, but he's far from the only one, and the time and care is taken to show how multiple interests had to be balanced, and that hard compromises had to be made.

Spielberg does a fair bit of gilding of Lincoln's image, with a few postcard worthy hero shots and plenty of poetic monologues, and yet Honest Abe never seemed more human. Here he's graying significantly, spiritually exhausted from years of Civil War and his difficult relationship with his wife. There's a sense that Lincoln is already becoming a legend in his own time, but the president feels the weight of history in a different way, viewing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as a personal responsibility, but one he can only bend the rules so far to achieve. Daniel Day Lewis gives him the necessary gravity and authority, but also makes Lincoln a terribly likeable figure, prone to telling funny anecdotes and even an off-color joke or two. He allows younger, twelve-year-old son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) the run of the White House, occasionally joining in the fun. He converses with everyone, high or low, statesman or servant, with equal respect. Without question, it's one of the best performances of Day-Lewis's career.

Among the supporting roles, there are three I want to highlight. First there's Sally Field, who is a more steely, more intelligent Mary Todd Lincoln than any version I've seen before, making her mental and emotional troubles are all the more heartbreaking. Tommy Lee Jones is a delight as an irascible abolitionist firebrand, who is never short on insults. He and James Spader, as the unscrupulous Republican operative in charge of buying votes through backroom deals, bring a lot of humor and lightheartedness to the legislation scenes, ensuring that the democratic process is never dull.

With Spielberg comes the usual crew - Janusz Kamiński as cinematographer, Michael Kahn on editing, Rick Baker on production design, and John Williams providing the score. As we might expect, "Lincoln" is a film of rare beauty, but also a far harsher, more realistic film than "War Horse." The major events take place in the depths of winter, and Lincoln is often seen wrapped in blankets or tending to his fireplace. Civil War battlegrounds are rendered in all their bloody historical accuracy, and as Lincoln tours the carnage, we remember that Spielberg directed "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List."

Should "Lincoln" be counted among Spielberg's best? I'm inclined to say yes. I'm not sure the African American characters were all handled quite as well as they could have been, the ending goes a bit long, and I could have done with a bit less of the gilding. But all in all, "Lincoln" is entertaining enough for general audiences, smart enough for the historians, and patriotic enough for the true believers that it should satisfy just about everyone. It may not be the definitive film on the life of Abraham Lincoln, but it certainly lives up to the name.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Do You Mean, You're Retiring?

It's inevitable that our favorite directors get older, and many of them lose the verve and the creativity that they had in their younger years. However, I think there's this enduring romantic ideal of the auteur who refuses to quit. Think of John Huston directing "The Dead" from his oxygen tent, or Akira Kurosawa gradually losing his sight during the epic production of "Ran." Maybe that's why it's such a shock to hear about major directors like Quentin Tarantino announcing their intent to retire when their careers are still going strong and they're far from old and gray. Tarantino wants to stop after his tenth film. Steven Soderbergh suggested that he was going to bow out after his upcoming Liberace biopic, but later amended his comments to clarify he just wanted to take a break. Kevin Smith has more or less quit directing movies already, turning his attention to television projects and podcasts.

Directors quitting the movies is not unheard of, for a variety of reasons, though most don't go out when they're still on top. John Hughes famously left Hollywood to raise a family in relative obscurity, after his career waned in the 90s. George Lucas has expressed interest in returning to experimental films, now that he's sold Lucasfilm. Quentin Tarantino is fairly unique in predicting that his work would irrevocably decline after he makes his tenth feature. In a Larry King interview, Kevin Smith maintained that he always thought of directing like any other career, and "You do anything for almost twenty years [and then] it's time to move on to something else." Others have left over the years to write, to produce, and even to act. Some jump tracks and work in the theater or in television. Some will return to directing films after a break, but others never do. And then you have directors like Studio Ghibli's beloved Hayao Miyazaki who keep saying they'll quit, but never quite make it out the door for good.

Tarantino's comments in particular strike a nerve, because there are plenty of older directors who flourish in their later years. Woody Allen's hits don't land as often anymore, at the age of 76, but "Midnight in Paris" was worth waiting for. Martin Scorsese, at 70, continues to surprise with diverse offerings like "Hugo" and "Shutter Island." And the day that Steven Spielberg, now 65, stops making movies is a day I will mourn for the rest of my moviegoing life. Quentin Tarantino is currently 49, and if he keeps making movies at the same rate he has been so far, that would mean he'd retire some time in his late fifties. It's a frustrating prospect because directors of Tarantino's caliber and appeal are rare. There are not many guys with the artistic freedom to produce a controversial script like "Django Unchained" and get it made on the merits of their name alone. In a move landscape awash with franchises and brand names, the prospect of losing a voice like Tarantino's is a grim one.

There is something to be said for leaving them wanting more, and avoiding the downward spiral that has claimed some of Hollywood's greatest talents. While I don't agree with Tarantino that getting older necessarily means losing your edge, it happens enough that I understand the concern. Also, Tarantino is best known for violent, visceral films that push the envelope, with the exception of "Jackie Brown" perhaps, and those are the kinds of films it's harder for an older director to make an impact with. If he made domestic dramas like Ozu or historical epics like Spielberg, maybe he would think differently. Then again, many of Tarantino's professed idols, including Jean-Luc Godard and Roger Corman, are still going strong.

In a way, Kevin Smith's retirement bothers me more, because I'm not sure he ever hit his peak. It's an unpopular opinion, but I really enjoyed Kevin Smith's "Red State" and thought it had a great visual sense and showed a lot of potential that I hadn't seen from Smith before. His Askewniverse series was pretty much played out, and the raunchy comedies that followed were unsuccessful, but "Red State" suggested he could go off in another direction if he wanted. As much as I enjoy the "Fatman on Batman" podcast, I would much rather see him behind the camera again. Like Quentin Tarantino, he has a unique take on the world that I'm going to miss.

Oh well. If Smith and Tarantino are done with the movies, ultimately that’s their decision, and I can only hope that their creativity resurfaces in other forms in the years to come. And I’d hate to think of them continuing to soldier on if their hearts weren’t really in it anymore, and the kind of movies that would result from that. Both have already been tremendously successful and can leave Hollywood with few regrets.

But if they ever change their minds, in Hollywood it’s never too late for a comeback.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

About Those "Star Wars" Sequels

It's been a few weeks since the announcement that Disney had bought out George Lucas and was looking to revive the "Star Wars" franchise. Everyone has had a chance to weigh in, indulge in speculation, and now we're finally getting down to some cold, hard, reality checks. It's been a wild ride already, and from the developments so far, it's pretty clear what the existing fans want: nostalgia, and a fresh chance to forget about the prequels. There have been several headlines about old cast members of the original "Star Wars" trilogy being hounded about participating in the new movies. Most have voiced cautious interest, without promising anything of course.

The more film-literate have been more interested in the behind-the-scenes talent. It came out pretty early that Michael Arndt, writer of "Toy Story 3," "Little Miss Sunshine," and the next installment of the "Hunger Games," has been working on a story treatment for the next "Star Wars" trilogy since before the Lucasfilm deal was announced. Now the discussion is all about potential directors. There have been dozens of articles, professional and fan-penned, weighing the relative merits of everyone's favorites. And then the bigger names started publicly saying no to the directing job, before any offer was even made. Steven Spielberg said no. Quentin Tarantino said no. Zach Snyder said no. J.J. Abrams said no. Joss Whedon will be directing "Avengers 2," slated to come out in 2015 around the same time as "Episode VII," so he's out of contention. There was a persistent rumor that Brad Bird's secretive science-fiction feature, long in development, was actually the next "Star Wars" movie. That theory was shot down too. And just yesterday, Colin Trevorrow of "Safety Not Guaranteed," who had been hinting that he'd been attached to a major franchise, clarified that the franchise was not "Star Wars." These protestations may be misdirection, but probably not.

So who's left? The speculation has turned to directors like Jon Favreau of "Iron Man" and "Cowboys & Aliens," Matthew Vaughn of "Kick Ass" and "X-men: First Class," and Disney regulars Gore Verbinski and Joe Johnston. These are all very solid, respectable directors, but they're also clearly not the superstars that the fans had initially been daydreaming about. There are a couple of fans still holding out for the possibility of Christopher Nolan or Alfonso Cuaron or another bigger name, but they're not likely to go for the job, simply because Disney has a tight schedule to keep and a very corporate production process that probably won't allow for the kind of artistic freedom that these directors would want. Instead, the key word here to remember is franchise. Disney wants a certain kind of easy-to-market, easy-to-digest blockbuster, and it's going to go with someone who has a good track record of making those kinds of films. So, we'll probably end up with someone who helmed a few "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies or a Marvel film as opposed to a real auteur.

Further reigning in expectations have been the latest round of casting rumors. Now that we have Mark Hamill and the old guard safely squared away, there's been some early speculation about younger actors who might be involved in the new "Star Wars" movie. With the last "Twilight" film finished, somebody asked Robert Pattinson if he'd be interested in appearing in "Star Wars," and he said yes. Of course he said yes. No young actor in their right mind wouldn't say yes to a film as hotly anticipated as "Episode VII." The "Star Wars" fanboys reacted about as well as you'd expect to this. Then again, "Star Wars" fans should remember that the original trilogy was stacked with unknowns, while the prequels boasted Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, and Ewan McGregor. We all know how that turned out.

We're going to be swimming in "Star Wars" rumors for a long time. Having been through this game once already with the prequel trilogy, I think the older fans are being more cautious, but there's still a tendency to let expectations run a little crazy at this stage. So it's gratifying to see the brakes being applied so early. This means that we’re not going to end up with another "Phantom Menace" level disappointment. That’s not to say that Disney doesn’t run the risk of bungling the films, but at least we’ll be able to see it coming this time. No, the new "Star Wars" films are not going to be everything we want them to be. There will be people involved we don't like, and they won't be as good as they could have been if someone else had been in charge.

However, I'm sure they're also going to learn from George Lucas’s mistakes with the prequels, not to mention Disney's own mistakes trying to launch their last few action franchises, and give us something big and shiny and entertaining to see in 2015. And that's certainly still worth anticipating.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Checking in With Found Footage

At the beginning of the year, I noted that found footage films were getting more complex and starting to make their way into other genres besides horror. “Chronicle,” for example, was a refreshing take on the superhero film, and “Project X” was a raunchy teen comedy. Both did well in theaters and are expected to spawn sequels in the near future. Since then, there have been a couple of other interesting additions to the genre I thought deserved some discussion.

First, we have the critically acclaimed police drama “End of Watch,” which is partially found footage, comprised of material shot by the characters themselves supplemented by regular photography. Director David Ayer, best known for “Training Day,” uses the found footage to create a greater sense of verisimilitude as we follow the day-to-day lives of a pair of Los Angeles policemen. The film was originally conceived to be entirely found footage, and easily could have been done that way. The conceit made sense for the story, as the actions of the police are frequently recorded, and the technology has progressed to the point where it would be plausible for criminals and other participants to be taping themselves during the events we see depicted.

Another major director took the plunge with found footage in the eco-horror film, “The Bay.” Barry Levinson, veteran writer and director, frames the story as a Skype interview being conducted with the protagonist, one of the survivors of a recent disaster that decimated a small East Coast town. Footage of the Skype call is interspersed with video evidence from various sources that she has collected, which she often narrates for the audience. I thought “The Bay” had a lot of very strong ideas, but the actors were pretty poor and there was too much reliance on traditional horror movie gimmicks and scares. Apparently its distributor thought so too, and “The Bay” was stuck with a limited platform release and was mostly viewed through VOD services.

Found footage continues to flourish in this year’s horror films. “Paranormal Activity 4” and “REC 3” were the latest films in their respective series, both showing some signs of fatigue. “Chernobyl Diaries” scared up a decent profit during a crowded summer season. In the fall we had “V/H/S,” an anthology horror film where the various segments are presented as the contents of a stash of video tapes discovered in the film’s framing sequence. Then there was “Sinister,” which is similar to ‘The Ring” in that the main character literally finds the footage – a series of gruesome Super 8 home movies that show the POV of a disturbed serial killer.

What I like about this latest batch of found footage movies is that they have grown beyond the original concept of recovered footage from a single film camera, like we saw in “The Blair Witch Project.” Instead, the recovered footage often comes from a variety of sources, providing the opportunity for a larger scope and more complex storytelling. As the subject matter of these films has become more diverse, it also reflects the growing reality of a modern world where the cameras are everywhere, and all you need is a kid with a smartphone in the right place as the right time to place a camera on any scene.

What we haven’t seen much of yet is the exploration of how easy it is to edit and manipulate this kind of footage to create serious distortions of the truth. Thinking on the antics of James O’Keefe, I wonder if we might see a more critical crime or political thriller in the near future, contemplating the ability of film to mislead us. One of the reasons I think that found footage is so compelling is that we unconsciously react to the footage as being more real and believable than regular film productions, to the point where we ignore shoddy production values and bad acting. However, it also means we can be more easily fooled.

There’s been vocal consternation that the studios are stuck in a rut and only seem to want to finance either outrageously expensive CGI spectaculars or the microbudgeted found footage films. However, I think found footage does have a lot of potential as a genre that is being overlooked. Some of the most creative and interesting films in recent years have been very low-budget features, and the aesthetic of found footage and commercial video recording is becoming one of the defining ones of this era. Along with the mumblecore films, this is filmmaking getting back to basics, and that’s not a bad thing.

I hope we see more major directors trying out this genre, and finding more novel things to do with it. Found footage has proven itself surprisingly versatile, and this year has seen two major films, “Chronicle” and “End of Watch,” that have elevated it to new heights.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dreadful "Dark Shadows"

I don't particularly want to write this review, but since I committed to doing it in a Tim Burton post I wrote a few months ago, I feel that I have an obligation to fulfill. I only regret that I have posted this resulting screed so late, when most people curious about the film have probably already seen it.

"Dark Shadows," based on a '60s television soap of the same name, is about a vampire named Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). Originally a wealthy gentleman in the 1700s, Barnabas spurns the affections of the witch Angelique (Eva Green) for his true love Josette (Bella Heathcote). The vengeful Angelique kills Josette and turns Barnabas into a vampire, who is quickly trapped in a coffin and buried. Barnabas is not unearthed until the 1970s, and finds his descendants still living in Collinwood Manor. They're an odd bunch with a lot of secrets, and have lost nearly all their money and influence to the still young and vengeful Angelique, now a major business rival.

The cast of "Dark Shadows" is terribly impressive and includes Michelle Pfeiffer as Collins matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Jonny Lee Miller as her slimy brother Roger, Chloë Moretz as Elizabeth's hostile teenage daughter Carolyn, Gulliver McGrath as Roger's glum 10-year-old son David, Jackie Earl Haley as Collinwood's caretaker, and of course, Helena Bonham Carter as a live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman. Bella Heathcote also pops back into the picture to play Victoria Winters, David's mysterious new governess, who understandably attracts Barnabas's attentions. And what does director Tim Burton do with this varied and talented cast? Extremely little worth talking about.

"Dark Shadows" seems like it would be perfect material for a Tim Burton film, full of supernatural characters and soap opera kitsch. However, Burton chose to turn it into a pure comedy by making Barnabas a fish-out-of-water in the 1970s. I can find little fault with Johnny Depp's performance, a broadly foppish turn accentuated by elaborate makeup and clothing. The problem is that he's a very limited, one-note character stuck doing variations on the same goofy joke for the entire film. And it's the same joke he was doing as Edward Scissorhands back in 1991! Here's this oddly-dressed anachronistic horror movie character trying to get along in the modern day! Ain't that a gas? Well yes, briefly, but you can't build an entire movie on one joke. So "Dark Shadows" rolls out a tragic romance and a family-in-peril story to go with Depp's hijinks, and neither of them remotely work.

This is one of the worst written movies I've seen this year. There are potentially interesting characters who are never properly developed, story threads that go nowhere, random events that don't seem to connect to anything else in the movie, and too many of the major revelations are not set up properly at all. I was trying to give "Dark Shadows" the benefit of the doubt, but it just kept getting more ridiculous. I suspect that Burton was trying to parody the soap opera conventions of the original show, but he never managed to get the tone right, which was nowhere near as campy and satirical as it should have been. Instead, the movie comes off as very colorful and eccentric and typically Burtonesque, with no substance to speak of and no laughs to be found. It was too much "Alice in Wonderland," and not enough "Mars Attacks."

When the film does manage to get something right, it feels like a mistake. Eva Green is a bright spot as the craven Angelique, who at one point aggressively tries to seduce Barnabas in romp that destroys her office and sends the camera spinning. The scene is pretty amusing and a lot of fun visually, but it also makes it clear that Depp has far more chemistry with Green than he does with Heathcote in their tepid courtship scenes. Helena Bonham Carter's psychiatrist subplot turns out the same way, cut off just as things were getting interesting, in favor of something far duller.

The only thing particularly praiseworthy about the film is that it has some nice art direction and cinematography. It's not hard to see where the budget went, as the sets and costumes are gorgeous, playing with vintage styling and Gothic touches. However, the abuse of CGI visuals is becoming a common problem in Burton films, and this is no exception. Frankly, all the common criticisms that are usually lobbed against Tim Burton films are true of "Dark Shadows." It's indulgent. It's style-over-substance. It's weird for the sake of being weird.

The sad thing is, I think Burton was trying to do something different and stretch himself. "Dark Shadows" is perhaps the closest thing he's done to a straight comedy in a long while, and the humor's a little more adult than we usually see from him. A few more tweaks and rewrites, and this could have been a very different and much more interesting film. In its current state, though, it's barely watchable and not worth defending.

Better luck next time, Tim Burton.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown

Yesterday, the trailer for the new Netflix exclusive series, “House of Cards” was released, featuring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as an ambitious politician and his wife, meddling in the affairs of a newly elected president and his administration.

Netflix has committed to two seasons of the show, based on a BBC miniseries. The first batch of episodes will premiere on February 1st, 2013. “House of Cards” is Netflix’s first major foray into original content, which may prove pivotal to the streaming service’s future. Netflix is one of the most popular online content providers, but Hollywood has been wary of doing business with it, for fear of undercutting their profits on other non-internet platforms. So, Netflix is investing in its own content. It outbid HBO and AMC for “House of Cards,” which boasts David Fincher as one of the creators, who will also be directing the pilot episode.

The ability of web-based content to rival television and movie content has been widely discussed, but nobody’s ever tried doing anything as ambitious as “House of Cards.” If this series takes off, it could be the beginning of web content becoming a serious cultural force, potentially upending all the existing content creation models. Skeptics point out that most of the web-based original content so far has only attracted very limited audiences, and are only financially viable if they’re made on shoestring budgets. However, none of the online services have the kind of distribution platform and massive existing subscriber base that Netflix has. They’re perhaps the only major streaming services with the resources and to try an experiment of this magnitude with a reasonable chance of success.

In my own circles, online distribution services like Netflix are already having an impact. Over the summer I was surprised to discover quite a few online conversations centering around smaller films like “Goon” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The participants weren’t the usual art house geeks, but casual viewers who had come across the titles on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and had enjoyed them enough to pass along recommendations. This was around the same that the press was full of doom and gloom about Netflix’s prospects because several of its content deals had expired, removing many of the most popular recent and mainstream titles from the available online catalog. I think many people underestimated the appeal of the independent and alternative titles that remained. When you take away the hype, the quality of the Hollywood and non-Hollywood titles is pretty comparable, and once viewers figured that out, Netflix’s content problems didn’t seem so bad after all.

One aspect of Netflix’s release plans for “House of Cards” I find especially fascinating is that multiple episodes will be released at once. This reflects the difference in the way that web content is consumed compared to televised content. The Netflix folks know that their subscribers like to marathon multiple episodes, and are offering the ability to do the same with their own original series immediately instead of parsing them out week by week. I’m not sure I understand the logic here if Netflix’s goal is attracting and keeping new subscribers, but maybe the promise of quicker gratification will be seen as a plus.

I should add the disclaimer here that I’m generally biased in Netflix’s favor. I want them to succeed and survive, even though I know that there are many problems with their current business model and there’s no guarantee that their original content plans are going to pay off for them. I have a friend working at Hulu right now who is absolutely certain that Netflix is on its way out, and she’s far more knowledgeable about the business side of these things than I am. However, I’m still optimistic that Netflix will figure out ways to keep its subscriber base happy even without the big studios, and their programming efforts could bring some real legitimacy and respectability to web-only content.

If they do fail, it’s still going to be a hell of a show in and of itself. I’ll be signing back up for my next round of Netflix in February, for a front row seat to all the fireworks. There have already been some rumblings from the television critics, trying to figure out how they’re going to review the new series in light of Netflix’s unorthodox release approach. “House of Cards” looks very promising from the talent involved, though, and I’m expecting good things from it. Also, there’s the upcoming return of “Arrested Development,” a resurrection I’m not sure would have happened without Netflix. If the whole scheme fails, at least we’ll have gotten some good content out of the experiment.

If these shows and the others are a success though, and do provide a significant financial boost to Netflix, things are going to get even more interesting.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"They Shoot Horses" Hits the Mark

I was not prepared for this one.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" begins with the image of a horse running through the open countryside. Unfortunately it has a broken leg, so in a shattering act of violence, a farmer shoots it with a rifle. We discover that this is a memory playing out in the mind of a young man named Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who on a whim walks into the La Monica Ballroom on the sunny Southern California coastline, just as they are beginning a marathon dance contest. The story takes place during the Great Depression, and there are no shortage of young people out of work, many of them with their sights set on Hollywood, who are lured in by the $1500 cash prize. Robert is paired up with a cynical hard-case named Gloria (Jane Fonda), after her original partner drops out. Other contestants include a pair of struggling actors, glamorous Alice (Susannah York) and her partner Joel (Robert Fields), penniless itinerant, James (Bruce Dern), and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), and a middle-aged sailor, Harry (Red Buttons), and his partner Shirley (Allyn Ann McLerie).

The rules of the contest are simple enough. Dancers get a ten minute break every two hours. All food and drink are provided, and doctors are on hand in the case of injury. The couple who can hold out the longest wins. Having a partner to hold you up means that sleep is possible, for brief periods. Losing a partner doesn't necessarily mean disqualification, if another single can be found within a certain time. The marathon is a grueling endurance contest, one that I initially assumed was only going to last a day or two at most. But then days turn into a week, and then two weeks. Contestants physically and mentally deteriorate, the ballroom dance floor becoming a morass of desperation and despair. The contest is designed to draw and entertain a paying crowd of spectators, so the MC, Rocky (Gig Young), is forever coming up with new stunts and spectacles to keep their attention. Especially cruel are the "Derby" events that force the couples to race around the ballroom, with the slowest ones eliminated. Behind the scenes, Rocky also manipulates the dancers to create more stress and tension.

So here is a movie about a dance marathon that becomes a metaphor for the human race itself, the futility and the inherent unfairness of it. Robert is our POV character, but the central figure is really Gloria, a fiercely stubborn and unfriendly, but admirable woman, who it's hard not to root for. It's the best role I've ever seen Jane Fonda play. While other characters suffer physical or mental declines, hers is spiritual. We watch her struggle against the system, represented by Rocky, trying to retain her personal dignity as the contest drags on and the demands grow more unreasonable. Her dilemma becomes an existential one, as she recognizes her place in the contest is no different from her place in the larger scheme. Michael Sarrazin has a far quieter, reactionary role, almost acting as a surrogate for the audience. However, when the spotlight does rest on him, he doesn't fail to seize it.

The supporting performances are fantastic, in a film that depends strongly on its ensemble. Gig Young's gregarious MC displays a practiced jollity that is in stark contrast with his sadistic actions. His barker catchphrase, "Yowza, yowza, yowza!" becomes more sinister every time we hear it. Susannah York is the pretty starlet who attracts Robert while sparking jealousy and disdain from Gloria. However, her vulnerabilities are all too clear and prove easily exploited. Bonnie Bedelia as pregnant Ruby doesn't get much to say, but her pale face and frightened eyes convey more than enough. And then there's beloved comedian Red Buttons as Harry, who has participated in several of these marathons, and seems to have a good bead on how to endure and survive them. It's delightful to watch him dance in the beginning, and then increasingly painful.

Director Sydney Pollack is merciless. The film is slow paced, but constantly moving like the tormented contestants on the ballroom floor. As the fatigue sets in, the cinematography becomes more and more disorienting and nightmarish. The jubilantly decorated ballroom is juxtaposed with haggard faces and stumbling, broken forms. Occasionally the pace will quicken rapidly with fast cuts and claustrophobic framing. There are intense and disturbing moments that are hard to watch, but the events play out in such a riveting fashion that you don't want to look away. In this fashion, the audience of the movie becomes complicit with the audience watching in the stands. Perhaps the most haunting shot is the final one, giving us a parting look at the ballroom from above, the voice of the MC still echoing through the cavernous space. Yowza, yowza, yowza.

I've seen many films about the dark side of human nature, but few as harrowing and memorable as this. What strikes me is that "They Shoot Horses" looks so innocent on the surface, with the fresh-faced young characters and the carnival atmosphere of the contest. The way it reveals its casual horror and brutality is chilling, so much so that the famously bleak ending feels like a relief when it finally arrives. And though the film was made over forty years ago, it hasn't lost an ounce of effectiveness, and feels more timely and relevant than ever. This should be a much more well-known classic than it is, and I hope more viewers discover it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Warning: Incoming Election Thoughts

I've made a point of not writing about politics in this blog, because it's a tricky subject, and requires a lot more delicacy and sensitivity than I tend to display. However, a presidential election comes but once every four years, and there's no question that it is a major media event, and so some commentary is justifiable. This particular cycle of campaigning and election follies is especially notable for being one of the roughest, meanest, dirtiest, and most disgustingly expensive ones in history. The role of the media has also been heavily discussed and dissected, particularly on the Republican side, in light of the election results. FOX News and other right-slanted news outlets predicted a Mitt Romney win. That obviously didn't happen, leaving them and their viewers to do some serious soul-searching.

I'll be the first to admit my view of the latest election is not especially well informed. I live in a solidly blue state and have shunned traditional forms of media for the past few months, so I've largely avoided any campaign ads. I was the target of a grand total of one "Get Out the Vote" phone call, about a local proposition. The only time I turned on the television was election night. I watched Brian Williams announce the returns for about an hour before they called the race in President Obama's favor, stayed up a little later to watch the speeches, and then went to bed. I followed the campaign through web and print news with some interest, though, and kept up with "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," where the election was a favorite subject. From my vantage point, the only period of time where there seemed to be any possibility that Romney would take the White House was after his performance in the first debate, but that momentum faded quickly. I've studied the American political systems and I know the stakes involved were high, but this presidential election was fairly predictable and I doubt the outcome was ever in much question.

As with most elections, I find the media commentary is mostly distracting, rarely informative, and practically inescapable. I know elections have always been popularity contests, but I really hate the way that differences between the parties get magnified by the endless campaigning to the point where we all end up convinced that the other side is full of depraved vermin we don't want to share a country with. I don't remember there being this much vitriol on both sides in any previous election, and I'm pretty sure that the 24 hour news coverage and the internet have a lot to do with that. I admit, being an Obama supporter, there were times when I found myself swayed by the characterizations of Mitt Romney as an evil, heartless, crony-capitalist with designs on looting the US Treasury the way that Bain Capital had preyed on underperforming companies. And I found myself wanting to leap to Barack Obama's defense on policies I didn't know a damn thing about. By my own admission this is completely irrational behavior, and it always reminds me that even though I shun the pundits and the pollsters, they still have an awful lot of influence over my own views.

Governor Romney and President Obama aren't all that far apart in their political positions from what I can tell. However, the election turned them into the living embodiments of the best and worst of their respective parties. The fit wasn't so good for Mitt Romney, who many Republicans vocally disliked during the primary process for being fairly moderate, and having supported certain left-leaning positions in the past. I think what made Romney so unpalatable to so many voters was that while he didn't explicitly adopt some of the right-wing's more extreme positions, like the stances on women's health issues, he let himself appear more to the right than he actually was, and did a very poor job of distancing himself from the fringe. This meant that it was very easy to associate Romney with the "War on Women," the Tea Party extremists, and the 1%. Obama, on the other hand, came out for gay marriage, and stayed consistent on pretty much everything else. The Left has their own fringe, of course, but they weren't really part of the conversation this time out.

The election reflected the ongoing American culture war, and there was clearly a loser this time: FOX News. Their attempts to control the narrative were familiar, reliably coming up with a new scandal or scare-tactic every week. Some of them were sort of plausible, but others were so divorced from reality that FOX essentially had to make up data to sell them, and they went a little too far this time. FOX is great at appealing to the Republican base, but it comes at the expense of alienating everybody else in the country who doesn't subscribe to their worldview, and the election finally made it clear that they were outnumbered and unprepared to deal with it. I admit it was awfully cathartic to watch FOX's house of cards collapse along with Karl Rove's credibility when he tried to challenge the Ohio returns on election night with outdated information. On the other hand, I view the corresponding rise of MSNBC with wariness, because the last thing we need is a liberal version of FOX News sticking the progressives in their own bubble to repeat the cycle.

Mostly, though, I'm just glad for a brief respite before the madness all starts up again for 2016.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Multiverse Matters

The new James Bond film "Skyfall" has been very well received, and is cleaning up at box offices around the world. However, there's one particular breed of James Bond fan that hasn't been reacting well to the movie. These are the viewers with a certain amount of investment in the James Bond franchise, and who have a particular interest in the series' continuity. There's been a popular theory that all the Bond films could happen in the same universe if "James Bond" is a code name the way "007" is, and passes along to each new agent who comes along. This would mean that James Bond is not just one man, but several, which explains how six different actors could play the part across twenty-three movies over fifty years without contradictions. The 1967 "Casino Royale" spoof subscribed to this theory. Up until now, the series has been coy about confirming whether it's true or not, but "Skyfall" finally provided a definitive answer. If you want to avoid spoilers for the film, please skip the next paragraph.

We get confirmation that the real name of the secret agent played by Daniel Craig is actually James Bond, thanks to a couple of thoughtfully placed tombstones. However, the confounding continuity doesn't end there. "Skyfall," along with the 2006 "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace," have been reboot films, reinterpreting the classic franchise for the modern age. "Skyfall" in many ways works as a prequel to the older Bond stories, since it depicts his first meetings with familiar Bond characters like Q and Miss Moneypenny. However, there are also numerous indications that the current Bond may have had some of the past Bond's adventures, with the references to exploding pens, and the reappearance of the Aston Martin DB5 from "Goldfinger," with all its weaponry in good working order. We see the death of M, played by Judi Dench, the only member of the cast to have carried over from the Pierce Brosnan era. However, she's replaced by a male M, played by Ralph Fiennes, in a final scene that shows Bond receiving his orders in the office of the original M, played by Bernard Lee, from the 60s films. Clearly the references were fanservice for the benefit of longtime Bond fans, but it gave the more literal-minded ones a royal headache.

The answer to all the continuity issues is that the James Bond franchise is a multiverse, meaning the action takes place in multiple universes that feature different versions of the same character, but some things remain immutable like the iconic Aston Martin. This is how many of the big franchises have decided to operate nowadays. Perhaps the most prominent multiverse aside from Bond is currently the "Star Trek" universe. The 2009 "Star Trek" film reboot tells the audience outright that the adventures of the new crew of the Starship Enterprise happen in a different timeline from the original television series and its many, many sequels. They even get a nice sendoff from the original Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, who has briefly slipped into their universe. You can see the appeal of this approach. It allows the filmmakers to use all the old characters and concepts and removes all the potential continuity problems with the older material.

Multiverses are becoming much more common since franchise films have become so prominent over the last few years, and studio executives are leaning harder than ever on the ability to reboot popular characters. Comic book characters like the Punisher, the Incredible Hulk, and Spider-man have run through several onscreen versions apiece over the last few years. It doesn't matter that "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "X-Men: First Class" had contradictory scenes, since they probably weren't part of the same continuity. It's been announced that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to be playing Conan the Barbarian again, and the filmmakers will have the option of picking up where "Conan the Destroyer" left off, or starting over with a new stand-alone film. I'm pretty sure they'll be ignoring last year's less-than-stellar "Conan the Barbarian" reboot with Jason Momoa.

There's a big downside to multiverses, which is that they can be confusing and alienate segments of the potential audience. It's harder to get invested in the continuing adventures of the Incredible Hulk if the details of his Hulkhood and the actor playing him keep changing with every new movie. Keeping some continuity with older installments of a franchise may also be an indication of other problems. Multiverses often result when reboots are only half-hearted, made by filmmakers who are relying too much on nostalgia and are not bold enough to give us a totally new reinvention of a familiar story. There is a lot less room for creativity when a filmmaker is still beholden to the formula or the template of the original version. This is the biggest criticism I've seen of "Skyfall" in some discussions, especially among fans of the recent "Casino Royale." They argue that resurrecting so many elements of the old Bond mythology amounts to the franchise backsliding into tired old habits.

Film multiverses are a fairly recent phenomenon, really only made possible by lengthy series like the Bond films. It's become part of the Bond formula to reinvent itself every few years, a trick very few others have mastered. There are still many franchises like "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" where fans have too much invested in the original versions to accept reboots. So even though the promise of a new "Star Wars" movie on the horizon would be a perfect chance to start over, I think we're probably going to end up with some kind of sequel instead, because of the likelihood that filmgoers are not yet ready to accept a new Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. "Star Trek" was easier to let go of, since that film series had already transitioned once to the "Star Trek: the Next Generation" crew, and killed off William Shatner's Captain Kirk back in 1996.

I really liked what "Skyfall" did, putting bits and pieces of the franchise's past together in interesting combinations, and contributing a little of its own mythology to the mix. I don't think there's any other franchise that could get away with flaunting so much continuity so blatantly, multiverse theory or not. And yet it does work, so James Bond might as well enjoy it, especially on his birthday. After all, having survived six lead actors, eleven directors, the Cold War, and an epically awful Madonna title song, I think he's deserved it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Top Ten "Red Dwarf" Episodes

There's a good chance that I'm writing a pretty bad "Red Dwarf" Top Ten List, since it's been about a decade since I last saw any of the series, my memories of what events happened in which episode aren't the best, and I don't think I ever got past Series VII. However, Series VII seems to be the point where everything went downhill, so maybe I'm better off. And I want to do something to acknowledge that "Red Dwarf" recently finished its tenth series, its first real proper series since 1999. (Alas, it won't be available in the US until January.) I found the show airing on my local PBS station in the late 90s with the other British imports, and was briefly obsessed with it. "Red Dwarf" is a spaceship show that is as geeky as "Star Trek," but the science fiction concepts like time travel and genetic engineering and holograms are used for ridiculous comedic purposes, and our hero, Dave Lister (Craig Charles), is a common slob just trying to get by.

So here we go. Episodes are listed by airdate, and unranked.

The End - The first episode of the first series presents the show's premise. Dave Lister, the lowest-ranked crewmember of the mining ship Red Dwarf, is put in stasis during a radiation leak, and awakens millions of years later, possibly the last human being in the universe. The ship, still running thanks to the ship's computer, Holly (Norman Lovett), revives Lister's annoying bunkmate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie) in the form of a hologram to keep Lister company. Also, a life form evolved from Lister's cat, named Cat (Danny John-Jules), rounds out the cast.

Balance of Power - I always liked the earlier episodes, where Lister and Rimmer's clashing personalities are the main event, better than a lot of the sillier and crazier adventures that came later. "Balance of Power" hardly has anything to do with science-fiction at all, but it really gets across the extent of the Odd Couple relationship that the guys have. Rimmer keeps trying to order Lister around, since he's technically higher ranked in the crew, so Lister decides to take the exam for a position that would outrank Rimmer - the chef's exam.

Parallel Universe - The finale of the second series sees the guys testing out a new engine that is supposed to get them back to Earth quicker, but instead transports the Red Dwarf to a parallel universe where they meet the female versions of the crew. Everyone ends up pairing off for a date night with the opposite-gender version of themselves, with surprising results. "Parallel Universe" is also the episode that featured the "Tongue Tied" music video, where Danny John-Jules gets to perform, with Barrie and Charles as his backup singers.

Backwards - Has my favorite opening sequence, where Cat and Lister discuss the relative merits of Wilma Flinstone and Betty Rubble. Then the gang discover a time hole that takes them to Earth, but a version of Earth where time is running backwards, so everything else is running backwards too. The beefed up special effects in this episode reflected a big upgrade in the show's production values. This was also the introduction of the android Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) as a regular member of the crew, after an earlier appearance in the second series.

Marooned - Lots of male bonding going on here, as Lister and Rimmer have to abandon ship together, and end up marooned on a freezing planet. As they argue over burning each other's most valued possessions to keep warm, they trade stories about their lives. "Marooned" was the last episode I remember where Lister and Rimmer just sit around and spend most of the episode talking to each other. Going forward, the show would get increasingly effects-heavy and the science-fiction concepts would get weirder and more elaborate.

The Last Day - Kryten's mandatory retirement date approaches, which means he's about to be shut down and replaced by a new model. But first, the guys decide to throw him a monster goodbye party, complete with boozing and presents. This is my favorite Kryten episode, with the drunken escapades, the introduction of the concept of Silicon Heaven ("where all the calculators go"), and the Marilyn Monroe-bot. And in the end Kryten gets some backbone and learns to stand up for himself, a nice step forward for the character.

Quarantine - I admit I like this one for its sheer silliness. Rimmer takes over the ship and sticks the rest of the crew in quarantine when they return from an expedition. It turns out that Rimmer is the one who's sick, having been infected by a virus that is slowly driving him insane. Eventually, he's running around the ship in a pink gingham dress, having conversations with a penguin hand puppet named Mr. Flibble, and intent on killing everyone. Actually, most of my favorite episodes from the later series involve some brand of Rimmer madness.

Back to Reality - It was all a dream! Well, to be more specific, this episode posits that "Red Dwarf" is a virtual reality game that our four primary cast members were playing, and they wake up in the real world as very different versions of themselves. Cat, for instance, is a nerd with big teeth named Duane Dibbley, and Rimmer's a homeless itinerant. Since the producers thought this would be the end of "Red Dwarf," they pulled out all the stops, and went big, creating what is probably the best episode of the whole series.

Rimmerworld - Imagine a world populated entirely by Arnold Rimmers, who not only all look like Rimmer, but have built up an entire society exalting the negative qualities that Rimmer stands for - chiefly cowardice, selfishness, and pomposity. Terraforming, cloning technology, and a little time-dilation are all roundly abused to create this little scenario, and the rest of the crew has to go and rescue the original Rimmer from the nightmare world of his own making. And if you think this must be the height of Rimmer's egomania, next we come to...

Blue - Rimmer was written out of the show in Series VII, but not before this final farewell to the character, which happened a couple of episodes after Rimmer actually left the ship. Lister, despite having hated Rimmer for so long, finds he misses him. So Kryten helpfully creates "The Rimmer Experience," a virtual reality theme park ride which takes guests into the terrifying depths of Rimmer's psyche. You could describe it as "It's a Small World" with Rimmers, and it proves a very effective cure for any lingering feelings Lister has towards the departed hologram.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Skyfall" Takes Bond Back to Basics

The James Bond franchise turns fifty this year, and with "Skyfall," the twenty-third Bond film, our intrepid secret agent hero appears to be in familiar territory. All the usual elements of the recent Bond films are here, from the opening chase scene to the kinetic fight sequences to the snazzy technological surveillance equipment giving us a play-by-play of all the action. However, one of the major themes of "Skyfall" is sussing out what really makes a James Bond film a James Bond film, what sets it apart from the "Bourne" and "Mission: Impossible" spy franchises, and why Bond is still relevant to the modern world.

Daniel Craig is back for the third time in the role of James Bond, whose fitness for duty and advancing age are questioned from all sides after a failed mission. However, the head of MI6, M (Judi Dench), faces a crisis over stolen sensitive information that may bring down MI6 itself, and she sends Bond back into the field along with a female partner, Eve (Naomie Harris), to track down those responsible. "Skyfall" also marks the return of the franchise's beloved gadget man Q (Ben Wishaw), younger and geekier, but still perpetually exasperated by 007's recklessness. Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney also appear in important roles, but providing the details would spoil some of the fun, I think, and I'll leave it to the viewer to discover how they're involved.

As with all Bond movies, there's the femme fatale, in this case the lovely Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe) who Bond encounters in Macao, and a new Bond villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a hacker and former intelligence agent with a serious grudge against MI6. As a sign of the times, Silva is eccentric, overly familiar, and the first male villain to engage in threatening, yet unmistakably flirtatious banter with Bond. Bardem is fantastic in the part, one of the major highlights of "Skyfall," as he treads the line between campy and menacing. This is the one of the only Bond villains I can remember with some actual psychological complexity, and who proves to be legitimately frightening.

As Bond and M revisit the past, the film returns to the franchise's roots. At one point our heroes are forced to fall back on more old-fashioned tactics, resulting in some of the most massive spectacle and the most intimate moments of drama any Bond film has ever presented. The latter scenes are more impressive and daring than the former. After all, we know that the Bond filmmakers rarely fail to deliver new pulse-pounding stunts and unique feats of vehicular destruction. However, did you ever think you'd ever see a James Bond film that actually deals with the fact that Bond had a childhood and a life before MI6? "Casino Royale" may have been the official reboot of the Bond series, but "Skyfall" goes farther in redefining the modern Bond as a character.

So it should be no surprise that this is Daniel Craig's best outing as James Bond. He spends much of the movie off-balance, recovering from a severe trauma and doing some serious soul-searching about his place in the MI6 organization. Bond has been called old and obsolete before in previous films, but the blows have more lasting impact this time, especially as his only defender, M, also finds her position in jeopardy. Judi Dench has brought so much to the Bond series in this role, and here she finally gets to dig a little deeper into the character, and reveal a little more substance.

I suspect that we have director Sam Mendes to thank for this more introspective take on James Bond. Mendes would seem to be an odd choice to direct a Bond film, but those familiar with his work will remember that he helmed the stunning "Road to Perdition," a period action film with similarly gorgeous, stylized visuals. After the busyness of so many recent spy thrillers, I liked Mendes uncluttered frames and how you can actually see what's going on during the fight scenes. As with all the Daniel Craig era Bond films, there's no shakeycam, limited CGI, and great use of the locations. "Skyfall" starts in Turkey, and then rushes off to Shanghai and Macau, sets a major chase sequence in the London Underground, and then heads to Scotland for the big finale.

What I think I appreciate the most about "Skyfall" is that while it follows the old formula, uses all the old characters, and should please any fan of the Bond series, it's also a film that takes significant risks and makes some real changes to James Bond as we know him. The franchise is never going to be quite the same again, and I think that's a good thing. Future Bond films may be familiar, but perhaps they will no longer be quite as predictable.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Disentangling "Cloud Atlas"

"Cloud Atlas," the ambitious new film directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, tells six very different stories in different genres, settings, and time periods that are connected to each other. Some share characters. Several are linked by one character in one story reading or watching parts of another, which influences their actions. They all share the same ensemble of actors, who play different parts in each piece. The stories can be broken down as follows:

1. In 1849, a young notary named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), helps an escaped slave Autua (David Gyasi), who has stowed away on the ship bringing Adam from the South Pacific home to San Francisco.

2. In 1936, a young composer, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), about his employment with an older composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent).

3. In 1973, reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) tries to uncover the truth about a newly opening nuclear power plant while being pursued by hit man Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving).

4. In 2012, elderly publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), is tricked into confinement at a nursing home by his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant), and joins forces with the other patients to escape.

5. In 2144, Sonmi 451 (Doona Bae), is a slave-like clone called a Fabricant, who is liberated from her servitude by a freedom fighter named Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess).

6. Finally, in 2312, in a post-apocalyptic era, Zachry (Tom Hanks), from the tribal Valleymen, meets Meronym (Halle Berry) , who comes from a more technologically advanced people, and is trying to contact the lost human colonies in space.

To summarize, we have a historical adventure, a brooding romantic memoir, a pulp mystery, a comic farce, a little cyberpunk action, and a headier science-fiction story. Some are stronger than others. All have some good moments, and some bad. I expect many viewers will enjoy two or three of the stories, but few will walk away completely satisfied with all six. The filmmakers make it difficult to engage with any of the individual stories since they tell them all at the same time, cross-cutting from one to another at an often alarming pace. Sometimes there will be parallels, in action scenes, in love scenes, and in moments of despair or dread, but it doesn't happen nearly as much as it should. More often than not the different narratives and tones and pacing end up clashing. Then again, some of the stories depend on the context provided by the others, and wouldn't be able to stand alone by themselves.

I have to commend Tykwer and the Wachowskis for attempting something this huge in scale and this conceptually daring. I've seen films use this kind of structure successfully before, notably Yoshihiro Nakamura's "Fish Story," which told three different stories that were revealed to be connected. However, "Fish Story" didn't make nearly as many demands on its audience. The "Cloud Atlas" stories are more complicated and involve more characters. In the Zachry story, for instance, the characters speak a pidgin form of English which requires some significant concentration to comprehend. The Frobisher story is primarily concerned with the art of musical composition, and the Sonmi 451 story has to introduce the concept of Fabricants. A viewer has a steep learning curve and ends up having to juggle the particulars of a half dozen different universes over the course of the movie's nearly three-hour running time.

Then there's the gimmick with having the same cast for each story. You may have heard about the controversy about the "Cloud Atlas" actors playing different ethnicities and genders through the use of make-up. The effect is wildly uneven, with some of the transformations done so well that the actors are totally unrecognizable, but others are terrible. Easily the worst and the most distracting example is the Sonmi 451 story, where Jim Sturgess and several other Caucasian actors play Asian characters, but fail to resemble any actual Asian person who ever lived. Trying to make Doona Bae look like a Caucasian woman is a similarly doomed affair, rendering several important scenes almost laughable. You could argue over the merit of the directors' artistic intentions in choosing to do this, but the execution is simply not good enough to pass muster.

However, there are some wonderful moments that do make all the effort and the frustration worthwhile. Doona Bae singlehandedly saves the Sonmi 451 story with her performance. Ben Whishaw does the same for the Robert Frobisher one. Though there are some elements that don't work in the Zachry story, the worldbuilding is fantastic, and it ended up being the one I wished we could have seen a full feature for. "Cloud Atlas" relies far too much on gimmicks and narrative tricks, to the point where the basic storytelling suffers for it. And yet, there are sequences where everything clicks, and the pieces do add up to a greater whole. It's such an interesting puzzle of a picture, it's hard not to be drawn into the fun of figuring out how all of these myriad, wildly different stories and characters connect. It's a mess, but it's a fascinating mess, and even occasionally a very entertaining mess.

So with all those caveats in mind, I recommend it. If you have three hours to spare and want to give your brain a workout, give it a chance. There hasn't ever been a film quite like "Cloud Atlas," and I doubt we'll see another like it in a long, long time.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Favorite John Ford Movie

After a couple of frustrating weeks trying to get a hold of a copy of John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" to get myself prepped for Spielberg's new Lincoln biopic, I figured it was time to take a look at where I stood with the rest of Ford's massive, influential filmography. John Ford is without a doubt one of the most important American directors. His name is practically synonymous with American Westerns, and he directed some of the best, including classics like "The Searchers," "Stagecoach," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." However, my favorite of his films is a non-western that I saw way back in high school English class, his 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

This choice is greatly influenced by how much I enjoyed Steinbeck's novel, which resonated with me very strongly. "Grapes of Wrath" follows the Joads, a poor family of Oklahoma tenant farmers who are driven westward by drought and the Great Depression, to seek their fortune in California. Our primary protagonist is the Joads' adult son Tom (Henry Fonda), newly returned from a stint in prison, who becomes the moral center of the story as he fights to ensure his family's survival. His mother, Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), is also a major figure, a symbol of goodness and strength in trying times. Other members of the family include elderly Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) and Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), overly optimistic Pa Joad (Russell Simpson), Tom's younger sister Rosasharn (Dorris Bowdon) and her husband Connie (Eddie Quillan), brothers Noah (Frank Sully) and Al (O.Z. Whitehead), and the kids Ruthie (Shirley Mills) and Winfield (Darryl Hickman). Also invited along for the trip is a former preacher, Jim Casy (John Carradine), who becomes Tom Joad's friend and confidante.

The film version is noticeably more optimistic and positive than the book, removing many of the most tragic and critical events, and ending very differently. However, it's still a notably candid look at the plight of migrant workers and the effects of the Great Depression. The cinematography by Gregg Toland, most famous for the visuals of "Citizen Kane," is stark and realistic in its depiction of the migrants' poverty. It's one thing to read about the whole Joad family piled aboard a car that might fall to pieces at any moment, and something else entirely to see it on the screen in front of you. Ford and producer Darryl F. Zanuck were famously wary of the book's politics, but also genuinely concerned by the social crisis it depicted, and chose to emphasize the human side of the Joads' struggle rather than the depravity of the injustices they were subjected to. "The Grapes of Wrath" achieves a fable-like quality, as the Joads soldier on through episodes of disappointment and adversity, ultimately leading up to Tom Joad's decision to take a stand against the corrupt system. The film is not a faithful adaptation, but it was made in understanding of its own limitations, and highlights aspects of the story that the book did not, ultimately serving as a fine complement to Steinbeck's work.

Not enough can be said about the ensemble cast. This is the role I think many people still remember Henry Fonda for, especially the final monologue where he quietly states his new resolve. I've seen it countless times as part of various clip packages, and I never fail to marvel at how simple and how powerful it still is. Jane Darwell won the Oscar for playing Ma Joad, of course, a performance built on anxious glances, private moments of grief, and so much unspoken sacrifice. You forget, watching their performances, that "The Grapes of Wrath" was a Hollywood studio production, and that Fonda was well on his way to becoming a major star. The Joads are very idealized, but they succeed in reflecting the common man and perhaps a universal human spirit in a way that few other American films of the period did. It had recognizable Neorealist impulses, several years before that movement would come to prominence.

And there's no doubt whatsoever that it is a John Ford picture, with the Joads setting off westward on Route 66, toward an unknown future. The film is full of shots of the American West, the vastness and loneliness of it never more apparent. However, in most of Ford's other films, the pioneers and cowboys never quite made it all the way out west to the end of the frontier, and never had to confront what they found there. And I find it comforting that Ford's revised ending to "The Grapes of Wrath" simply has the characters pick up after their latest setback and keep going. Ford's films were never about the destination after all, but the possibility that a new frontier offered, and the enduring fortitude of the travelers who set out on the journey.

What I've Seen - John Ford

The Informer (1935)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Stagecoach (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
They Were Expendable (1945)
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Fort Apache (1948)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Wagon Master (1950)
The Quiet Man (1952)
The Sun Shines Bright (1953)
The Searchers (1956)
The Wings of Eagles (1957)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
7 Women (1966)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Best Moviegoing Month

I was looking through the currently slated titles for 2013, trying to get a sense of where next year’s big titles were going to fall. As usual there were a lot of big tentpole pictures in May and June, where the studios traditionally make the most money. March is getting ever more crowded, apparently the new spot where movies originally slated for the previous summer, like “Burt Wonderstone” and the “GI Joe” sequel are all getting pushed back to. However, when I counted up all the movies I was really anticipating, I was surprised to discover that November had more of them than any other month: “Ender’s Game,” the Dreamworks reboot of “Peabody and Mr. Sherman,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and Disney’s “Frozen.” And for you superhero fans, “Thor: The Dark World” has a spot staked out in November too, avoiding the crush of similar movies in the summer.

Now none of these films are prestige pictures, which is what I normally associate with the autumn and early winter months. Those titles don’t get scheduled this far in advance. Instead, all of the movies I’ve listed are traditional blockbuster fare – action movies and CGI animated films. Now the two potentially biggest franchise films next year are both scheduled for May, “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” I’m looking forward to both of them. However the thing about May films is that they’re expected to be so huge and do so much business, you only have about one major film a week. “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek” are currently the only films coming out on May 3rd and May 17th respectively, because anything opening against them is going to get creamed. This means fewer films premiering in the month overall. Compare that to the much more crowded and eclectic slates in June and July, where you have match-ups like “Kick Ass 2” opening against the latest Roland Emmerich film, “White House Down,” and “Despicable Me 2” opening against “The Lone Ranger.“

However, looking through the other summer offerings, I just couldn’t work up as much enthusiasm as I had for the November titles. There are plenty of potentially interesting movies there, but not much that made me think I would definitely buy a ticket for that one in advance. What was it about the movies in November that were so much more appealing? And then I thought about it, and I remembered back to when I was a kid, when the only day of the year I was guaranteed a trip to the movie theater was Thanksgiving. After dinner, my older cousins would always take all the kids out to the newest Disney movie like “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin.” The biggest movie weekend of November is the holiday where you’re with your family, and the movies need to be the type that could appeal to a very broad audience. They couldn’t just be for men or for kids, the way that most of the summer movies are, but all four quadrants of the moviegoing audience at the same time. It didn’t occur to me until now, but when you’re talking about big budget spectacle, this is the type I prefer.

The theory holds out when applied to this current November. I just saw Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” and the other wide releases I’m hotly anticipating this month include “Skyfall,” “Life of Pi,” "Flight," and “Lincoln.” I wouldn’t mind taking out the latest crop of younger cousins to Dreamworks’ “Rise of the Guardians” after Thanksgiving this year either. And in case you still think the roster seems a little light, remember that the last “Twilight” movie is expected to clean up at the box office on November 16th. It’s not a movie I’d characterize as appropriate family viewing, but the previous installment did massive business in the same week last year. And if you look ahead beyond 2013, both installments of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” are also scheduled for November in 2014 and 2015, Disney, Dreamworks, and Blue Sky have staked out November dates for an assortment of animated films, and Edgar Wright’s Marvel universe “Ant-Man” movie is tentatively expected to arrive in November, 2015. And don’t forget about future Bond films, which have been a staple of holiday viewing since Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role. The next installment is aiming for a late 2014 release date.

Clearly the appeal of November as a great movie month won't be true for everyone, and if you're a young male between the ages of 18 and 25, summer is definitely still your movie season. However, holiday slates are getting increasingly interesting as we see more major franchises start moving in on the territory. After “Twilight,” “Hunger Games,” and a couple of Marvel movies, who knows what might show up next?