Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cartoon Network Hates Me

This post has been a long time in coming. I've written before how it can be tough to be a television fan when you like niche media. Television programmers are merciless and will move lower rated performers all over the schedule with hardly any notice, air episodes of a serialized program out of order, and refuse to run promotions where anyone can see them. With "Community" coming back soon, and a bunch of cancellations recently announced, there's been a good amount of grumbling. "Ben & Kate," "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23," "Alphas," "Drop Dead Divas," and "Leverage" are recent casualties.

However, two cancellations that have caused the most outcry are Cartoon Network's "Young Justice" and "Green Lantern: The Animated Series," which we only know about because they didn't appear in the press release announcing the network's upcoming schedule. Both shows were part of the heavily hyped "DC Nation" programming block, which by all indications had good ratings, but perhaps weren't attracting the right demographics. The first sign that something was wrong was back in the fall. Both shows came back after a three month summer hiatus, but only aired two episodes before they were unceremoniously yanked from the schedule for another three months. There was lots of speculation as to what might be going on behind the scenes, but even people who worked on the shows didn't have any information. When it became apparent that the whole block was cancelled, fans gnashed their teeth, but the older ones weren't surprised. Cartoon Network is notorious for stunts like this.

The kids' channels get away with a lot more fiddling with their schedules because their young audiences are less likely to call them out on it. However, Cartoon Network's programs, particularly the action cartoons and the repurposed anime, always had a decent sized cult following among adults. This includes me. And over the years, I've seen the network do absolutely rotten things to those fans. Cancelling shows that ended on cliffhangers and sticking low performers in bad timeslots is just the tip of the iceberg. Cartoon Network has the frustrating habit of sitting on unaired episodes of a cancelled series for months. "Generator Rex," for instance, was an action show that lasted three seasons, and was pulled from the schedule in February of last year. Cartoon Network didn't air the last half of the season until the following December and January, and for most of the break it wasn't clear if the remaining episodes were going to air at all. This wouldn't have been so bad if "Generator Rex" was a comedy show like "Spongebob" or "Adventure Time" with interchangeable episodes, but "Rex" was a serialized adventure story with long plot arcs building up to a big series finale. Two episodes still got cut and remain MIA, probably destined for DVD premieres.

DC fans will remember similar shenanigans with the scheduling of "Justice League Unlimited," where the final episodes kept being pushed farther and farther back and eventually most frustrated fans were pirating broadcasts from the UK, where they premiered three months earlier than in the US. The same thing happened to the initial runs of "Sailor Moon," where delaying key episodes prompted many viewers to jump ship for local syndicated broadcasts. Note that these delays were not due to production issues - animation is a perilous and time-consuming process, so some delays are always expected - but fans knew the new episodes were ready because they were finding them elsewhere. Mostly Cartoon Network delays are just them finagling with the scheduling to boost ratings or stretching out the useful life of their content. Sure, all networks do this to some extent, but you can at least expect a regular network program to air twenty-some episodes a year, and they only vanish or get delayed if there's something goes seriously wrong. Moreover, these shifts are extremely well documented by the press. Nobody much cares about the cartoons except the poor schlubs who never gave up watching them, so the programming decisions are less rule-bound and much more opaque.

Then there's Cartoon Network's refusal to cancel anything. When asked why "Young Justice" and "Green Lantern" weren't on the new schedule, a Cartoon Network rep would only say that, '“Shows will run their courses, others will premiere – but we are not canceling anything, and those two series are still on our air.” Staffers who worked on the DC shows later confirmed that production had ended. The thing is that Cartoon Network never officially cancels anything. They just opt not to order more episodes. Thus, they evade ever handing down bad news, occasionally leaving shows in extended limbo and confusing their viewers. After years of dealing with the song-and-dance act, it's clear that a show is dead when they stop promoting it and when the key creative talent moves on to new projects. It's only recently that some creators have started making unofficial statements on Twitter or personal blogs, putting a halt to the speculation. Before this some unfortunate fans would hold out hope for a resurrection of their favorite show for years.

It's actually pretty rare that a cartoon show cancellation raises the amount of fuss I've been seeing around the internet for "Young Justice" and "Green Lantern," but they were pretty popular. This begs the question why would Cartoon Network cancel them at this point, after only two seasons apiece. I think the crux of the network's problems has always been that it's good at attracting older viewers, but is fundamentally a kids' network. Ratings for anyone over the age of eleven just don't count as highly, because it's not who their advertisers are interested in. I'm guessing that DC Nation just wasn't pulling the numbers with the 2-11 year olds that it needed to. I'm not kidding when I say that Cartoon Network hates me, and other grown-up fans like me, because if there are more of us watching a show than the kids they were trying to target, it means they screwed up.

Look at the new schedule, and it reflects Cartoon Network's embrace of it's biggest performers with the younger demographics - "Adventure Time" and "Regular Show." The new "Teen Titans"? Aimed much younger than either of the current DC shows. There's also a new "Batman" incarnation, because while the Caped Crusader has plenty of older fans, he's always done well with the kids too. It's always the shows that skew older that seem to cause the most trouble, but to Cartoon Network's credit, at least they're still making them occasionally. And it was their interest in the adult demographic that led to Adult Swim and the rise of more toons aimed at grown ups.

So in spite of everything, I'm glad they're still around, even if they do drive me crazy. Happy 20th Cartoon Network. And if you delay the next Fionna and Cake episode of "Adventure Time" again, there will be hell to pay.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A "Breaking Bad" Talk Show?

On Friday it was announced that AMC was considering the creation of a new after-show called "Talking Bad," to accompany the final eight episodes of "Breaking Bad" as they air this summer. It would be patterned after the "Talking Dead" show that currently runs with episodes of "The Walking Dead." Initially, I thought this was a nice idea. I haven't been watching "The Walking Dead" for a while, but I'd seen other shows with companion programs, like the "Doctor Who Confidential" production documentary series, which contained supplementary material and behind-the-scenes footage that were often a lot of fun. The BBC also did one for "Merlin" for a while. A similar "Breaking Bad" show sounded a little indulgent, but I thought it could be interesting.

Then I actually went and looked at the format of "Talking Dead," and it became obvious pretty quickly that it wasn't like "Doctor Who Confidential" at all. No, this was more like the companion shows that ran with "The Deadliest Catch" or "Project Runway," which are all about gushing reactions to the episode that we had just seen. These are shows devoted to aggrandizing the main program, extra marketing essentially. Sure, they would offer extra interviews with the creatives, and other content you'd expect to find in the DVD or Blu-Ray sets, but the "talk show" was the main component. In "Talking Dead," this consists of celebrity fans of the show coming in every week to gab with host Chris Hardwick. And because the show is produced by AMC itself, or course nobody gets to say much negative about "The Walking Dead," making it a hell of a lot less useful than even the most amateur "Walking Dead" review podcast.

After-shows have been around for a while now, mostly tied to reality shows like "Teen Mom," though the first one I remember getting any significant push was "Oprah After the Show," which aired on the Oxygen Network for a few years starting back in 2003. There's no mystery why the studios like them. They're extra content that can be produced on the cheap, often using leftover bits of footage and production detritus that would otherwise go to waste. They share the same DNA with reunion specials, recap programs, exit interviews, and other time-fillers. They're also not far off from plain old regular talk shows, where the guests are acknowledged to be making appearances in order to promote a new movie, television show, book, or album. However, tying this kind of talk show after-show to a fiction drama series is a relatively recent thing. Aside from a few series finale specials, I think "The Walking Dead" is the first to do this, and certainly the first to run this kind of show on a regular basis.

These after-shows are proliferating because they feed off the audience's desire for more information and discussion about their favorite programs. Rabid fans will obsess over promotional pictures, plot rumors, and pretty much any other tidbit of new information. There's already a lot of chatter about the imminent return of popular series like "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men," which recently started another round of publicity. I tend to stay away from these discussions because of concerns about overhype and the ever-present spoiler problem. Not surprisingly, one of the criticisms I've heard about "Talking Dead" is that it can sometimes get carried away teasing about spoilers for upcoming episodes. Some fans like this kind of thing, but I'm not one of them. I prefer sticking to more in-depth analysis and reviews, which I tend to get more out of, but which aren't a good fit for the format constraints of a show like "Talking Dead."

I'm not saying that these kinds of shows can't be done well and that they aren't entertaining. "Talking Dead" wouldn't have lasted more than a season if it weren't both. And it certainly wouldn't be expanding to an hour when "Walking Dead" returns next season. However, as far as I can tell there's just not enough real content being offered that would tempt me to seek out the proposed "Talking Bad," as much as I enjoy "Breaking Bad." The show already has an official "Insider Podcast" that is excellent, often featuring interviews with directors and other crew members. Last season, individual episodes of the show were discussed extensively on the Firewall & Iceberg and Slashfilm podcasts. The AV Club had reams of interviews and articles in addition to regular reviews. Why would I need a fluffy talk show that will spend the majority of its time on the opinions of celebrity fans when I already have access to all of this?

I don't think that "Talking Bad" will have much impact on "Breaking Bad" itself, so it's no skin off my back. However, I do find it disconcerting that AMC is essentially is using the same ratings grabbing gimmick that Bravo, Lifetime and MTV use with their reality programs.

But if it had been "Breaking Bad Confidential" - I would have watched that show.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Will Kimmel Win the Late Night Wars?

Warning: contains language.

I was rooting for Conan O'Brien. He was supposed to be the late night talk show host of my generation, the guy who had built a beloved late night show from the ground up and kept it going for sixteen years in the slot following Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" was the only one of these programs I watched regularly, the only one I sacrificed sleep for. Sure, Jon Stewart came along eventually and I always greatly respected Craig Ferguson's monologues, but Conan was my guy. And then of course, the "Tonight Show" transition fiasco happened and Conan ended up in the basic cable wastelands of TBS. The most promising of the younger late night comics was all but persona non grata, and prospects for the future looked grim.

Three years later, Jay Leno and David Letterman haven't gotten any younger, and there are once again signs of potential transition. However, this time the old timers aren't getting replaced. They're getting a new challenger. After years of indecision, ABC finally shifted "Nightline" to the post-midnight timeslot, and moved "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" up to 11:35 PM, in direct competition with Leno and Letterman. "Kimmel" is celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, and is another late night show that started out at the bottom and gradually built up a strong following over time. Letterman and Leno still attract the lion's share of the audience, but Kimmel has been doing better and better numbers with the most prized demographic, the 18-49 year-olds.

Last night Kimmel topped all his competitors in a heavily promoted episode where Matt Damon took over the show, renamed it "Jimmy Kimmel Sucks," and spent the hour interviewing a passel of high profile celebrities. It was the latest chapter in the ongoing fake feud between the comic and the actor that began with the running joke of Kimmel ending episodes with "Our apologies to Matt Damon, we ran out of time." After Damon actually appeared on the show in 2006, matters escalated quickly. Prior to this, the high point of the feud had been the Emmy-winning "I'm Fucking Matt Damon" video, featuring Damon and Sarah Silverman, the retaliatory "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck" video, with Kimmel and Ben Affleck, and follow-ups where even Jennifer Garner got roped into the fun. I've never been a regular Kimmel viewer, but I know the videos. It seems like everybody does.

It's fascinating to look at how "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" has worked its way to this position over the years. I never thought much of Kimmel from his days on "The Man Show," and when ABC announced that they were putting him on late night, I expected he'd be about as successful as Carson Daly, which is to say, not very. However, "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" has been solid when I've watched the show, and ABC has done a great job of integrating it with its other programming. "Dancing With the Stars" contestants are expected to stop by after they've been voted off. They hosted a cast reunion and aired alternate endings after the series finale of "Lost." And then there are the Kimmel post-Oscar specials, which have all but replaced the Barbara Walters interviews. And Kimmel's recent appearances at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and as host of the last Emmy awards. While I still don't like him nearly as much as Conan or Stewart or some of the others, it's clear that Kimmel has grown into the role of host, and I can see the appeal.

It's far too early to say yet where Kimmel will end up in the pecking order in the long run, but his prospects are good. "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" was very competitive with Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson's shows in the post-midnight timeslot, and if those hosts end up succeeding Leno and Letterman, Kimmel has a significant head start building an audience at 11:35 PM. Of course, the networks could opt for different successors - Jon Stewart has been a favorite potential candidate for a long time. Arsenio Hall is coming back this year, perhaps to wreak unholy revenge upon David Letterman. Conan might muster up a turnaround and claw his way back into the conversation. And lest we forget, Chevy Chase is currently unemployed.

Unfortunately, age and technology have conspired to keep me on the sidelines. I've aged out of the late night audience, now valuing my sleep more than my need to be entertained during the midnight hour. I watch new episodes of "The Daily Show" the next morning, and the occasional clips of whatever made headlines on the other late night shows. So I watched the Matt Damon hosted episode of "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" online, around twelve hours after it actually aired. I don't think I've actually seen any late night talk show live since the Letterman-Oprah détente. And I know I'm not the only one, as there have been consistent reports that late night audiences are shrinking, as the competition grows and the internet has taken its bite.

Best of luck, Mr. Kimmel.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Worst Movie Month

There's some debate over which seasons is the best season for movies, but there's no question what the worst one is: January. Audiences are smaller, since the kids are back in school, money's always tighter after Christmas, and the weather refuses to cooperate, so it feels like the studios just stop trying. Oh sure, there's the spillover of all the prestige pictures from the end of December, and a lot of titles like "Zero Dark Thirty" don't get their full rollouts until they can take full advantage of the awards buzz. After the Academy Award nominations are announced, the big contenders can look forward to a bump in admissions. However, a contributing factor is that everything else being released into theaters is pretty dire. Once you clear away the prestige stuff, what you've mostly got are dregs and leftovers from last year. If a studio movie has a January release date, it's an admission that they don't have any faith in the movie's financial or critical prospects.

So this year we have "Gangster Squad," the unfortunate Warner Brothers film that bore the brunt of the knee-jerk backlash against cinematic violence after last year's Aurora theater shooting. In a controversy-heavy awards season, the film has successfully made some money while avoiding unwanted scrutiny. And then there's "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," the gory fantasy action movie that has been delayed and delayed by Paramount Pictures, and will finally open this weekend. And oh, here's Relativity's bizarre "Movie 43," which boasts a huge ensemble cast with many famous names, who have somehow been roped into what appears to be an exceptionally vulgar sketch comedy compilation. And we have the horror movie spoof "A Haunted House," that is more or less another installment of "Scary Movie," except that the Wayans brothers seem to be operating with even less supervision than usual. Is it any wonder that many critics have been quietly farming out reviews for these movies to lesser minions, or ignoring them completely in favor of Sundance coverage, Oscar coverage, and 2012 retrospectives?

Occasionally a hit will still land in January, and not everything should be written off automatically. Horror movies have done pretty good business during the month, like last year's "The Devil Inside," a found footage film that ended up grossing over $100 million in spite of wretched reviews. So this year, we have "Texas Chainsaw 3D" and "Mama" on the slate, which both pulled in good returns. More unusual movies can also grab some attention, like the bleak Liam Neeson vehicle "The Grey" last year. No doubt the studio executives took one look at that film's existential themes and contemplative, slow burn pacing, and predicted that mainstream audiences would hate it. However, the more discerning action connoisseurs liked it, the reviews were good, and it ended up grossing a respectable $50 million and quite a bit more on home media. Other smaller scale action films and thrillers like "Contraband," "Haywire," and the last "Underworld" installment have done okay here too.

This year, late winter seems to have become a new home to our aging population of hardcore action stars. Arnold Schwarzenegger just launched a comeback bid with "The Last Stand," Jason Statham's "Parker" comes at the end of the month, and Sylvester Stallone will return in "Bullet to the Head," just one day shy of January, on February 1st. It's a clear indication of their current position in the Hollywood pecking order. Together, these guys can swing an August release date with an "Expendables" movie, but separately they have to cool their heels with the likes of Leatherface. However, a release at this time of year means they enjoy less competition and might get to hang around in theaters a little longer than they might later on in the season. Weaker and less accessible films can sometimes get a boost this way. Nobody has very high expectations for these titles, so the pressure is largely off.

I've learned to appreciate January for giving us some breathing room in the schedule. After the holiday rush, and the awards conjecture, and the year-end recapping, and all the top ten lists, I'm worn out. I've still got a few current titles to seek out before the Oscars next month, but I've been taking advantage of the slim pickings to watch older films and catch up on some TV. The industry needs the break from the new release grind too. Studios are drawing up battle plans for the rest of the year, getting things sorted and scheduled. Marketing will soon be rolled out for the big spring and summer films, and some of the match-ups look like they're going to get pretty bloody. Everyone needs these few slower weeks to regroup and prepare.

So enjoy your January, movie fans. And be happy that the new release slates won't look this bad again until the last week of August.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"The Wire" Year Three

Minor spoilers ahead.

Each season of "The Wire" looks at the institutional dysfunctions of Baltimore from a different perspective. The first year we were introduced to the major players in the local drug trade and the police. The second year moved the action to the docks. Year three returns to the streets, reuniting the audience with all the major players from year one - Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Omar, Bubbles, and the rest. Officers McNulty and Greggs are hot on the trail once again, as part of Lieutenant Daniels' Major Crimes Unit. However, this time the show's sights are set considerably broader, and more time is devoted to characters higher up in the chain of command. Deputy Commissioner Rawls and Acting Commissioner Burrell are more prominent, and Major Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom), commander of the city's Western district, becomes one of the season's major characters. New faces include Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), an ambitious city councilman, Mayor Royce (Glynn Turman), and political consultant Theresa D'Agostino (Brandy Burre).

It took me a few episodes to catch on, but the system that the third season explores is the political infrastructure that encompasses the police, and how genuine attempts at reform are frustrated by various forces. The season starts with the destruction of the Towers, the apartment complexes that were major drug dealing sites during the first season. This reflects an increased pressure to reduce crime, coming from the politicians as they jockey for power. However, law enforcement is hampered by a lack of funds and the usual dysfunctions of the system. Major Colvin strikes upon the idea to push all the dealers into special zones where the drug trade will be ignored, thereby removing their presence from the rest of the Western district. The zones are set up in secret and nicknamed "Hamsterdam." They end up at the center of several of the season's major storylines, which range from Carcetti's efforts to get himself elected to higher office to Stringer Bell's attempts to become a legitimate businessman. Bell is hampered by his unfamiliarity with the ins and outs of real estate development, and the return of Avon Barksdale. The final major new character in the mix is Cutty Wise (Chad Coleman), a former major player in the drug trade who returns to the streets after a long stint in prison, facing an uncertain future.

More than either of the two previous seasons, year three of "The Wire" is an anthology of interconnected stories, examining the larger situation from several different angles. The members of the Major Crime Unit are still in the mix, but their investigation into the Barksdale operation feels more incidental this time, and there are other events going on that are of equal or greater importance. The broader scope and the departure from formula open up the show considerably. Compared to the second season, where each reappearance of one of the Barksdale gang members felt like a digression from the big case, the third season is better able to combine all these disparate personal stories into a single, satisfying whole. Season Three also sees the satisfying payoff of several story threads continued from the previous seasons (occasionally when you least expect them), and sets up a few more.

It helps that the players that "The Wire" chooses to focus its attention on here are extremely strong. Major Colvin is one of the show's most fascinating additions, an officer who clearly cares about his community and is is willing to take a major risk to effect a positive change. Unfortunately, he doesn't appreciate how much risk he's really taking on, or how his actions will be perceived and used by others. How his good intentions become twisted and turned against him is one of the show's most tragic stories. It's disappointing that Robert Wisdom hasn't been given a role as remotely interesting before or since. Then there's the significant time spent building up Carcetti and Cutty Wise, who are not especially important characters for most of the season, but provide invaluable insights and POVs. Of course, the show's regulars are still hard at work. Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, and Omar continue to impress.

The universe of "The Wire" is quickly becoming one of the richest, and most well-realized in all of television. The most exciting part is that there are still two years to go, and all this ground work has been laid for so many possible storylines in the future. "The Wire" could really go anywhere from here, returning to the examination of a smaller system like the Baltimore schools, which I know is coming up in Season Four, or pushing even bigger and more expansive.

I'm still not convinced at this point that "The Wire" is the greatest TV drama ever made, but by the time we're done, I can certainly see how it could be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Disney Drama at Sundance

It's amazing the sort of things you can find on the internet these days. So many media rarities and obscurities have found their way to Youtube and filesharing programs, sometimes it seems like everything makes its way out there eventually. However, there's one title that hasn't appeared yet, though I've been keeping an eye out for it. This is "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam," the famous underground anti-war short produced back in 1968. In the 90 second, black-and-white short, Mickey joins the army, gets shipped off to Vietnam, and is then immediately shot and dies. The End.

Now there are far more extreme, outrageous, and obscure pieces that have emerged from the ether, but this short presents a special case because of its subject matter. Disney is, after all, notorious for its protection of its intellectual property, often going to absurd lengths to enforce copyright and trademark restrictions, and Mickey is the company's most recognizable mascot. The company has literally gone and rewritten U.S. copyright law in order to keep the earliest Mickey Mouse shorts out of the public domain. A short like "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam" is clearly in the realm of parody, but what chance could the creators have had in court against Disney's armies of lawyers?

However, Disney is synonymous in the American culture with a particular brand of family-friendly consumerism that just demands commenting on. Its brand is so potent, so universally recognized, that the spoofs and the parodies are inevitable. And in the internet age it's harder and harder to police all the amateur videos and fanart mash-ups and memes. The number of content creators has shot up with the prevalence of cheaper filmmaking technology, and guerrilla filmmaking has become a feasible option for enterprising young directors working on a budget. And this brings us, inevitably to the point of this post, which is the improbable existence of "Escape From Tomorrow," a new unauthorized Disney-themed project perhaps destined to become the next "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam."

It seems like everyone on the internet is in an uproar over this movie. "Escape From Tomorrow," which screened at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, is the brainchild of first time filmmaker Randy Moore, who filmed it entirely on location at Walt Disney World in Florida without Disney's permission. This includes shots of characters, rides, and plenty of other Disneyana that seem certain to create legal hurdles for any would-be distributors. Then there's the very family-unfriendly plot, which concerns a father on vacation with his family, who learns that he has been fired from his job, becomes obsessed with two teenage French girls he meets in the park, and then experiences what has been described as a David Lynch-ian descent into madness with Disney iconography.

Most of the chatter so far has been about the extraordinary lengths Moore went to in order to create the film, but everyone's waiting to see how Disney is going to react. They have a variety of options. They could ask for an injunction to keep the film from being shown while they ready lawsuits for a long list of offenses. They could acquire the rights to the film themselves to keep the movie from being shown to the public. However, I'm not so sure that in this day and age they can keep "Escape From Tomorrow" from getting out eventually. When a film has this much attention, burying it becomes much more difficult. Disney may want to take the path of least resistance and demand a cut of the profits instead of pitting themselves against its release. A big fight is just going to raise the film's profile and add to the growing buzz.

On the other hand, the Disney brand could take a hit from simply being associated with the film. The biggest problem I see here is the subject matter of "Escaping Tomorrow," which shows a man at Disneyland engaging in very un-Disney behavior. I don't think that there's any likelihood of anyone being confused that Disney would have produced a movie like this themselves, but it still might leave a bad impression on potential them park-goers. The Disneyland experience is supposed to be about good wholesome family fun, and Disney has spent untold millions over the years promoting that image. "Escaping Tomorrow" amounts to an anti-commercial, suddenly associating "It's a Small World" with creepy stalking behavior and bad parenting.

And the last thing Disney wants is to encourage more of these guerrilla filmmakers running around on their property, potentially upsetting their paying guests. If Randy Moore sets a precedent with "Escaping Tomorrow," who knows what the next would-be auteur is going to try to achieve? Disney must be worried about how Moore managed to create an entire feature film under their noses using a few tiny cameras and a very discreet cast and crew. Then again, who doesn't bring cameras to Disney World?

I don't see how Disney can afford not to act, which means it's going to be a long while before you or I can see "Escape From Tomorrow" for ourselves – at least through legal means. The final wrinkle to consider here is that if "Escape" were an underground film, simply let loose on the internet, billed as somebody's avant garde home videos, this would be a very different situation. The fact that Randy Moore submitted it to Sundance as a legitimate film with real commercial prospects, suggests he was ready for a fight.

And oh what a fight it will be.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Digging Into "Zero Dark Thirty"

I have a few bones to pick with the marketing for "Zero Dark Thirty," which allows it to be easily confused for a typical Hollywood action spectacular, and muddles its intentions. For those who are going to see the film curious to learn how the CIA managed to track down Osama bin Laden, the answer is long and complicated, and requires facing some ugly realities about what the U.S. government was willing to do in order to win the war on terror. And it leaves the audience with far more questions to grapple with, and perhaps some may leave the theater regretting that they peeked behind the curtain.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is only very briefly an action film, during an intense climax sequence recreating the raid on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad. For the two preceding hours, it is the long, slow, harrowing story of a CIA operative code named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who spends long years gathering intelligence on Al Qaeda, chasing down potential leads on the location of Osama bin Laden. We first meet her as she is participating in her first interrogation and torture of a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), in an undisclosed CIA Black Site prison. Initially Maya is visibly shaken by the casual cruelty displayed by Dan (Jason Clarke), a more seasoned officer tasked with showing her the ropes. However, as time goes by, she becomes acclimated to using these tactics herself, and her obsession with tracking down bin Laden grows.

We never learn much about Maya, but it's suggested that there isn't much to learn. She has given her entire life to the job, and her few friends are co-workers like Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and Jack (Harold Perrineau), who she spends most of her time with. However, we do get to watch her develop from a dedicated agent into a full-blown crusader, pushing her superiors to give her more resources, to take greater risks. That Maya is generally soft-spoken and reserved just makes Jessica Chastain's performance all the more fascinating. However, I think Jason Clarke is probably going to benefit the most from his work here, as a terribly likable intelligence officer who is capable of doing awful, inhumane things to other human beings.

It's the torture scenes that have drawn the most attention and controversy, which is exactly why I think director Kathryn Bigelow included them. The scenes are not particularly gratuitous, but they are very uncomfortable to watch because Bigelow shows us everything, doesn't cut away, and doesn't try to sugarcoat or justify what's going on. There is a notable lack of commentary either for or against the use of torture that we see depicted, which some have taken as tacit approval. However, the rest of the film is just as cold and clinical and unrelenting, and it becomes clear that the film's messages are considerably subtler than its harsher critics are giving it credit for. It's easy to read in jingoism or nationalistic sentiments into some scenes, but then you notice how the camera frames the CIA agents during the interrogation scenes, and how it lingers on the faces of frightened children during the raid.

Kathryn Bigelow got a significant amount of flak for some of the inaccuracies in her last film, "The Hurt Locker," and in "Zero Dark Thirty" it sometimes feels like she's overcompensating. This is about the least glamorized, least sexed up war film I've seen. The cinematography is lovely, but starkly realistic, and even the Alexandre Desplat score is barely noticeable. Clearly some events and characters were invented or combined in order to facilitate the storytelling, but it's not so easy to see the seams. Even if some of the finer details aren't right, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal got the big point across. Osama bin laden was caught because of a decade of intelligence gathering, which is slow and tedious and grinding work. And so while there are plenty of exciting things that happen in the earlier parts of the film, including several terrorist attacks, the narrative stays right in that grind. Instead of trying to compare the film to "Argo" or "Act of Valor," I think it's much closer to David Fincher's labyrinthine "Zodiac."

It's important to remember, Kathryn Bigelow was working on putting together a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden before he was killed, and I suspect most of the major pieces of the story, as well as its most critical messages, were already in place when it suddenly became billed as the film about how we got Osama bin Laden. But that's not what "Zero Dark Thirty" is, ultimately. It's about how, for a decade, we didn't get bin Laden, and what our frustration and fear cost us. As exciting and intense as that final raid sequence is, it's only in the context of those first two hours – and a haunting, heartbreaking final shot – that it becomes truly great cinema.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Foreign Film Name Game

It's rough being a fan of foreign films. It's a very niche product, which often means that you have to pay a premium for access, having to wait longer for access, and having to worry about things like crummy translations and eye-rolling marketing tactics. Especially with the older films, sometimes it can be tough just identifying a movie as the one you're looking for. In fact, one of the most basic issues that I've run across lately, trying to watch and catalogue foreign films, is what to do about titles.

For instance, I just watched Edward Yang's "A Brighter Summer Day," a Chinese language film about life in post-War Taiwan. "A Brighter Summer Day" is the official English title. The original Chinese title is "Gǔ lǐng jiē shàonián shārén shìjiàn," which translates directly as "The Murder Incident of the Boy on Guling Street." In this case, the choice is pretty simple. All the major film databases including IMDB and Wikipedia use "A Brighter Summer Day" as the title. When the film has its long-awaited Criterion edition release, I can expect to search for it on Amazon under the title "A Brighter Summer Day."

However, what to do about other movies where it's not clear which title is the correct one? Some foreign films don't have English translated titles, at least not ones that stuck. Federico Fellini's classic "La Strada" literally means "The Road," but everyone just calls it "La Strada." To call it "The Road" would invite confusion with at least half a dozen other films. The same is true for Fellini's "I Vitelloni," Edward Yang's "Yi Yi," and Michaelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura," and Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali." More recently, Michael Haneke's "Amour" was listed in a few places with the helpful alternate title "Love," when it was playing festivals earlier last year, but "Amour" is the title that stuck.

Then you have the titles that have been translated multiple ways. The Glauber Rocha film "Terra em Transe" proved difficult to track down until I realized that the translation of the title that I had, "Land in Anguish," isn't the commonly accepted one. I should have been looking for "Entranced Earth." Then there was Rocha's "O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro," which translates to "The Dragon of Evil Against the Warrior Saint," but in the United States, it was released under the name of its main character, "Antonio Das Mortes." Children's films are especially prone to creative retitling. The French animated film, "Le Roi et l'oiseau," literally "The King and the Bird," has been known by at least five other English titles alone.

Sometimes this problem also crops up for non-foreign films, which might be released under different titles in different markets. The most famous is probably the British Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger fantasy film "A Matter of Life and Death," which was released in the Unites States as "Stairway to Heaven," because the distributor didn't want the word "Death" in the title. The 1941 version of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" was originally released as "All That Money Can Buy," and has also been known as "Mr. Scratch," "Daniel and the Devil," and "Here Is a Man." There's a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted solely to cataloging media that have different titles in the US and UK.

Attempts at correcting mistranslations don't tend to go very well. Some film historians put of a fuss a few years back that "Ladri di biciclette" should not have been translated as "The Bicycle Thief," but as "Bicycle Thieves." There's continuing debate over which is the more appropriate title of the film, though both have become accepted. Then there's "The 400 Blows," which is a correct literal translation of "Les quatre cents coups," but misses the meaning of the French idiom, which is "to raise hell." Once a title has stuck, it tends to stay stuck, and it's only in the rare case of a really odd or inappropriate title – like "The Thief and the Cobbler" becoming "Arabian Knight" – that they might revert over time.

The long and the short of it is, there's no rhyme or reason to the name game. Trying to catalog films consistently based only on one approach or another is an exercise in futility. You simply have to accept that one film from a foreign director will have a translated title, and the next one may not, depending on the whims of the distributors, the marketers, and occasionally even the audiences. Fortunately we are living in the age of the internet, and alternate titles are simple to find. Also, films with multiple titles are usually listed with AKAs to make things easier on confused viewers.

In spite of all the remaining hassles, it's much easier to be a foreign film fan now than it has ever been, and I've been happy to take advantage of that.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Whatever Happened to the Films of 2009?

No, you read that right. In light of all the articles that have been circulating about the most anticipated films of 2013, I was going to spend today's post comparing my happy thoughts about my most highly anticipated films of 2012, written up a year ago, with how they actually turned out. And then I stumbled across a list I had written of my most anticipated films at the beginning of 2009, which presents me with a much more interesting opportunity. 2009 was only three years ago, and yet our memories of the movies that came out that year have receded fairly quickly. Most have already started appearing on cable television, and exited "New Release" status in our DVD and streaming queues. In some cases, people's attitudes towards certain films have shifted very quickly, and in interesting ways. Consider this a "where are they now" retrospective of sorts.

Avatar - The biggest film of 2009 in so many ways. It is still the highest grossing film of all time, still constantly referenced in all discussions of 3D presentations and new projection technology, and emblematic of a certain type of CGI-heavy event film that the studios are depending more and more heavily on. However, "Avatar" has faded from the public consciousness pretty quickly. It's apparent from the lack of a lasting fandom, minimal interest in the upcoming sequels, and a certain degree of derision in certain circles about its "Dances With Smurfs" storyline, that "Avatar" was just a passing fad. James Cameron disappeared back into the ether, perhaps for another decade, and poor leading man Sam Worthington still barely registers in the mainstream consciousness. However, the raised ticket prices and 3D conversions "Avatar" propelled remain with us.

Watchmen - Remember when this was the most anticipated film for every comic book fan, the movie that was supposed to usher in a new era of adult-oriented superhero films at last? Yeah, that didn't turn out so well. Director Zack Snyder won over some fans with his faithful visuals and willingness to embrace darker themes and adult content. However, just as many viewers were repulsed, confused, or just underwhelmed. "Watchmen" failed to cross over to general audiences, and its underperformance at the box office severely curtailed the studios' appetite for more R-rated comic book films. Zack Snyder would go on to make another costly fanboy-oriented bomb, "Sucker Punch," and was then recruited to helm the "Superman" reboot. Superhero films are still very popular, but Snyder will have to learn to love the PG-13 rating.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - It's amazing how fast the "Harry Potter" franchise is becoming part of the past. Currently "Twilight" clones dot the 2013 landscape, while the biggest remaining "Potter" contribution seems to be the higher and higher numbered sequels. "The Half-Blood Prince" was highly anticipated at the time because of a lengthy delay due to the writers' strike, and the beginning of the ramp-up to the series' end. However, reactions to the film were mixed, especially regarding its big reveal, which was handled with inexplicable clumsiness. Speeding along the series passage into oblivion was that these later installments became more and more kid-unfriendly, and harder to market to anyone but existing "Harry Potter" fans.

The Princess and the Frog - A real heartbreaker in more ways than one. This was supposed to be the big return of Disney to the traditionally animated musicals of the 1990s. It had an all star team of animators and a big marketing push behind it. Alas, the box office returns were only so-so. "Princess and the Frog" was much beloved by some audiences, but failed to connect more widely. It wouldn't be until 2010's CGI "Tangled," that Disney Animation would have a real hit on its hands again, and traditional animation has largely been abandoned as economically unfeasible. Nowadays, you'll still find the heroine Tiana on Disney Princess merchandise, and at the theme parks, but it feels like she doesn't get nearly as much love as she should.

Public Enemies - Remember when Michael Mann making a movie about gangster John Dillinger, starring Johnny Depp, sounded like a good idea? This remains one of the most inexplicable films of 2009, a sparse period drama with little exposition, shot on handheld digital camera. The style was so distracting and the narrative so inaccessible, it detracted from the good work being done by the strong cast. "Public Enemies" eventually turned a profit, but it was a major disappointment for those grown-up viewers who were hoping for something with a little more charm and substance in a fairly lackluster summer. Michael Mann hasn't directed another movie since, though he did contribute the pilot episode of the terribly unlucky HBO series "Luck."

Star Trek - Of course, 2009 did have its bright spots. One of the brightest was the resurrection of one of the most beloved science-fiction geek franchises, "Star Trek." J.J. Abrams assembled a perfect cast, took the Enterprise out of storage, shined up his lens flares, and sent us all on a rip-roaring space adventure. Sure, the plot was kind of flimsy and there was a notable lack of plausible science in the science-fiction, but the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot was exactly the kind of enjoyable romp that the series needed to get back on its feet. It proved popular with newbies and old school Trekkers alike. "Star Trek: Into Darkness" is one of the most highly anticipated 2013 summer films as a result.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Silver Linings" Has Some Shine

"Silver Linings Playbook" comes with an unfortunate amount of baggage. It's currently the subject of an overzealous Harvey Weinstein marketing campaign, and has been nominated for more Oscars than it probably should have been. I worry people are going to go into it expecting something more profound than the movie has to offer. At its core, "Silver Linings Playbook" is a perfectly solid, enjoyable romantic comedy, where the main characters happen to have some severe emotional and psychological issues to work out. There are some good performances to enjoy, and the script has fun knocking down the usual flimsy rom-com clichés.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, who we meet as he is being discharged from a mental health facility. He has bipolar disorder, and had to be institutionalized for eight months after a violent incident. Pat goes to live with his parents, Pat Sr. and Dolores (Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver), since his wife Nikki has left him, sold their house, and gotten a restraining order against him. Pat struggles in recovery, fixated on reuniting with Nikki and repairing his marriage. However, he also becomes involved with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed young dance enthusiast, who is working through her own assortment of emotional problems. Thanks to her influence and support, Pat is able to confront some of his demons.

Now I understand why people are rallying around the movie, because it does have some nice surprises and admirable impulses. I've complained before that our best directors should be stretching more and tackling material outside their comfort zones, and David O'Russell making any kind of romantic comedy certainly fits the bill. This is the sort of unconventional approach to conventional material that should be encouraged and rewarded. Also, Jennifer Lawrence does deliver a hell of a performance as the delightfully screwed-up Tiffany, and Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro commit to their roles in a way that we don't see too often from either of them. O'Russell may have a reputation for being difficult, but he sure provokes some good work out of his actors.

Romantic comedies have been in such a sorry state these past few years, it's become a rare pleasure to find one that is actually about believable relationships, and has well-rounded characters you can feel some sympathy for. That's why it's so tempting to want to overlook the film's flaws. First and foremost, the treatment of mental illness isn't the best, and I think it's fair to say that O'Russell fudged more than a few things for dramatic effect. Pat's bad episodes are marked by a lot of screaming and yelling and dysfunctional family fun that get the intensity of his emotional state across, but avoid any darker, cavernous depths. The raucous fight scenes often feel too close to O'Russell's previous film, "The Fighter," to be entirely a coincidence. However, you never feel for a moment that he's not taking these characters and their problems absolutely seriously.

Then there are the various plot complications that didn't really work for me, like the set-up for the third act. As good as "Silver Linings Playbook" is about avoiding some of the typical rom-com pitfalls, it happily embraces plenty of other contrivances. And I mean really, really obvious use of formula that I was surprised O'Russell would resort to. Then there are the minor characters. You may have noticed Chris Tucker in the trailers as Danny, a friend of Pat's from the institution. He's moderately engaging in the few scenes he has, but O'Russell can't seem to work out what to do with him. Same thing goes with Ronnie Maxwell (John Ortiz) and his wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), who are introduced to help bring Pat and Tiffany together, and then have a sort-of peripheral, half-assed subplot that feels like a last minute afterthought.

None of these issues bothered me enough to affect my basic enjoyment of the film, and I do happily recommend it if you're in the mood for something romantic and heartfelt with some edge to it. However, sorting out my reactions after the movie, I concluded that there was nothing I really found noteworthy or special about it. Directors like Thomas McCarthy and Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne have all made far better films that cover similar territory. I can't really work up any sort of justification for "Silver Linings Playbook" being on the receiving end of a whopping eight Academy Award nominations. Best Film Editing? No. Best Supporting Actress? I like Jacki Weaver, but her role as the Solitano matriarch is slight at best. Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for David O'Russell? I think he's more deserving here than he was for "The Fighter," but it's still a real stretch.

I wish I'd seen "Silver Linings Playbook" earlier in the season, because as I careful as I was trying to be, I think the hype did effect the way I watched the film to some degree. Still, I truly did enjoy it, even if I can't root for it. And I'd love to see David O'Russell take another shot at a romantic comedy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Here Come the Koreans

Acclaimed foreign directors have always made thir way to Hollywood after their early successes, in order to try their hand at breaking into mainstream movies. 2013 will have no shortage of them, including "Dead Man Down," an action movie from Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish version of "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and the crime drama "Prisoners" from Denis Villeneuve, director of "Incendies." However, the biggest story this year may be a trio of well-regarded South Korean directors, who are all making their English language debuts in 2013.

First up we have "The Last Stand," the Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle opening this week. The director is Kim Ji-woon, best known for his genre films "A Tale of Two Sisters," "A Bittersweet Life," and "I Saw the Devil." Schwarzenegger plays a small town sheriff who ends up in the middle of a bad situation, resulting in your usual over-the-top action movie scenario. This seems appropriate for a director whose past efforts have frequently had lots and lots of highly stylized violence. There's nothing too fancy or ambitious going on here, but early reviews have been decent.

Then in March comes "Stoker," directed by Park Chan-Wook, one of the most celebrated South Korean directors in recent memory. His Vengeance Trilogy films have become cult favorites Stateside. An English language remake of the most famous of them, "Oldboy," is being prepared by Spike Lee for a fall release. "Stoker" has been described as a psychological thriller and family drama that will star Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska as a troubled mother and daughter pair. The plot has been kept pretty tightly under wraps, but screenwriter Wentworth Miller has insisted that it has nothing to do with vampires. However, with Park at the helm, expectations are high.

Finally there's "Snowpiercer," Bong Joon-ho's science fiction thriller that doesn't have a release date yet, but filming was finished as of last summer, and early marketing materials were being circulated by the Weinstein Company earlier this month. It's expected to debut some time in late 2013. Based on the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige," the film will be a dystopian action film about the remnants of humanity surviving aboard a perpetually running train. The star-studded cast will include Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt. Of the three South Korean directors , Bong Joon-ho has the shortest but most diverse resume, including memorable monster movie "The Host," and crime thrillers "Memories of Murder" and "Mother."

What I find the most encouraging, looking at these new films, is that they're all original stories. None of them is a reboot, remake, sequel, or even part of an existing franchise. Sure, "The Last Stand" is clearly the kind of by-the-book action film you'd expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to be appearing in, but that still gives Kim Ji-woon a lot of room to maneuver and distinguish himself. Meanwhile "Stoker," which will premiere at Sundance in a few weeks, looks reassuringly like a Park Chan-Wook film, and is even being marketed as a new movie "From the Director of 'Oldboy.'" There's not much information about "Snowpiercer" yet, but the very nature of the project, a Korean co-production, suggests Bong Joon-ho retained a good amount of creative control. Everybody's getting a real shot here at the big time here, and I'm highly anticipating the results.

Of course the success of Kim Ji-woon, Park Chan-Wook, and Bong Joon-ho is no sure thing. Foreign directors have a mixed record when it comes to transitioning to Hollywood-style films. They face language barriers, culture barriers, industry barriers, and all sorts of other filmmaking challenges. For every success story like "Life of Pi" director Ang Lee, we have a Wong Kar-Wai or a John Woo who just never got much traction with their English-language efforts. Wong and Woo went back to making films in China, with no real harm done. Then again, there are those directors who don't get over bad their experiences with Hollywood, like poor Michelangelo Antonioni, who never recovered from the disaster of "Zabriskie Point." And remember all those Japanese horror directors who washed out a few years back?

However, there's always the chance that the next foreign director who arrives on the scene could be the next Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder or Guillermo Del Toro, who all began their careers making foreign language films. American is an immigrant nation, and that certainly holds true for our film industry too. Without the regular influx of the Paul Verhoevens and Lasse Hallstroms and Alfonso Cuarons, American cinema would look very different. The Korean film industry has dependably produced some of the most exciting titles in recent years, so I'm glad to see some of its best and brightest making the trek to Hollywood to see how far their ambitions can take them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Cult" and Fandom

Of all the mid-season television offerings that are premiering over the next two months, there was one in particular that caught my eye. The CW will be premiering "Cult" on February 19th, a mystery drama about a series of disappearances that are tied to the fandom of a popular television show. Creator Rockne S. O'Bannon, veteran of many science-fiction programs, claims that he came up with idea while working on "Farscape," which had a healthy and boisterous fanbase back in the early 2000s. So far most of the press coverage has been focusing on the twists and turns of the development of "Cult," which was originally slated to air on the WB network before the merger, and resurrected six years later after some retooling.

At the center of "Cult" is a popular television crime series, also titled "Cult," which follows the efforts of a detective, Kelly Collins (Alona Tal), to take down a charismatic cult leader, Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper). The show has a fanatical following that searches for clues to its mysteries in a manner that recalls the devotees of "Lost" trying to make sense of those bizarre early seasons. One of these "Cult" fans is Nate Sefton (James Pizzinato), who becomes paranoid that someone is out to get him. After Nate disappears, his reporter brother Jeff (Matt Davis), recruits "Cult" production assistant Skye (Jessica Lucas) to help him investigate the extreme "Cult" fandom to find out what's going on. The show within a show promises meta in abundance, and plenty of opportunities to jab at show biz conventions.

By all indications, the portrayal of the fandom experience is not going to be too positive. That's fine, because fandom has its unsavory side like everything else, but my worry is that "Cult" is going to demonize obsessive fans in a way that's not really fair to them. I've been a participant in media fandoms for well over a decade now, and worked some minor events and autograph lines in my time. I've heard plenty of the horror stories and the seen some of the crazy stuff up close. You've got the usual stalkers and conspiracy theorists, especially in the fandoms with photogenic actors like "Supernatural" or "Twilight." Occasionally you've got the scammers who will exploit fan goodwill to make a profit. "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" had a couple of these when they were at their height. Fan conventions always seem to be a never-ending source of drama, frequently an excuse for reckless behavior. And then there are the seemingly normal folks who just lose their goddamned minds if you put them within a certain distance of their favorite star or creative genius.

Over the years there have been enough bad incidents and general negativity associated with crazy fans that they've given fandom a bad reputation. Individual fans may be singled out for praise if they draw nice fan art or manage to convert their porny fanfiction into a surprise bestseller, but fandom as a whole tends to be viewed with suspicion and wariness by Hollywood and by proxy, everybody else. While it's true that there are those fans that completely lose perspective and truly deserve to be called fanatics, by and large fandom is pretty harmless. It's just a bunch of bored nerds and geeks finding common ground through media. Not very sexy at all. Even when there is a fringe element, it's mostly composed of young, undersocialized kids with deeper problems fueling their bad behavior, and they usually come off as more pitiable than threatening. Next to rioting sports fans and religious zealots, there's no comparison. Of course, from the point of view of the objects of their devotion, media fans probably look much less benign.

The idea of "Cult," the show within a show, spawning a real cult is not such a silly idea in a world where Scientology exists, but it smacks of a certain degree of vanity. Has an television show really managed to fuel dangerous fanaticism? I can think of a few notable nutters who happened to be fans of certain shows or movies or video games, but nothing as organized or as dogmatic as what "Cult," the CW show, seems to be leaning towards. No, the grand conspiracies and puzzle games of a show like "Cult" have almost no basis in reality. They're just a new spin on the common procedural formula. And I expect that it's going to have its work cut out for it trying to attract a real audience, trying to sell a convoluted gimmick like this.

What I'm really interested in is what "Cult" will say about the love-hate relationship between creators and fans. Thanks to the internet and social media, the two sides are edging closer than ever before, with some notable instances of friction. So how much responsibility does the creator of "Cult" have if his work inspires so much fanaticism? How about the media in general? These are questions that I don't expect "Cult" will be in hurry to answer, but they're the ones I think will have to be answered eventually if "Cult" wants to honestly explore the phenomenon of media fandom. After all, what's a fandom without the object of its affections?

Monday, January 14, 2013

My Favorite Ingmar Bergman Film

I've watched a lot of Ingmar Bergman films, far more than enough to qualify his films for one of these posts, but I've been very hesitant to write about him. Bergman's films, especially his most celebrated works, are contemplative explorations of the human soul, incredibly personal pieces that are at the same time universal. His films commonly deal with death, madness, spirituality, and the nature of human existence. I think it would be inaccurate to describe them as dark, but instead that they carry a particularly strong weight and gravity and seriousness that is rare in cinema. So this is not a topic to be approached lightly. However, it's the dead of January, it's freezing outside, and it's a fitting time for introspection and existential thoughts. It's time to stop putting this off.

My favorite of Bergman's films is "Hour of the Wolf," which I recognize is not remotely his best. That distinction should probably go to the iconic "The Seventh Seal," or perhaps "Persona." However, "Hour of the Wolf" is the Bergman film I find I relate to the most strongly, and think about the most often. I can still easily picture the final shot of the film, the image of Liv Ullman's face peering out of the darkness, speaking her final monologue directly to the audience. She plays Alma, a woman whose husband Johan (Max von Sydow) has disappeared under strange circumstances. The film recounts the days leading up to this event through flashbacks. The couple live in a small, remote house near the woods, where Johan is recovering from some unspecified trauma. He is a chronic insomniac. In the daylight hours, he is repeatedly approached by various odd characters when he is alone, who he believes to be demonic creatures. Later on, Alma and Johan are invited to the household of a local Baron (Erland Josephson), where they witness strange occurrences. As Johan mentally deteriorates, his actions become more and more alarming.

The title, "Hour of the Wolf," refers to the long stretch between midnight and dawn when Johan claims that most babies are born and most deaths occur. It is a familiar time to an insomniac, where there is nothing in the darkness but yourself and the monsters of your own psyche. Because Alma loves her husband and stays up with him through these long nights of darkness, the film suggests that she is better able to appreciate and share in his horror. Eventually she becomes confused as to what is real and what is being imagined by Johan. The film takes no position one way or another as to whether Johan is hallucinating the images he sees, but the implications are quite clear. The demons he faces are personal ones, summoned from the darkness by inescapable forces to be his chief tormenters. They are a real danger to him, even if they are only imaginary, and perhaps they may become a danger to others too.

Like most of Bergman's films, "Hour of the Wolf" is composed of simple, stark images and has few major characters. Johan's monsters are ordinary humans shot in such a way that they appear strange and terrifying. It's amazing the kind of fright that can evoked by simply showing black-and-white images of people's faces, or hearing laughter where none should be. This is one of the few times Bergman presents such horrors so plainly to the audience, including the surreal castle sequences that seem like something out of a Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau film. Usually Bergman left such visual nightmares for the viewer to imagine, like the spider creature in "Through a Glass Darkly." However, these sequences are used to terrific effect, and seeing what Johan sees makes his madness more immersive and palpable. This is probably the closest thing Bergman ever made to make a true horror film.

In the end it's the performances that stick with me. Max von Sydow was a Bergman regular by this point, and well-practiced in conveying the desperate internal torment of his characters. Here, he's as captivating and sympathetic as ever. However it is Liv Ullman who proves to be the most a haunting presence. In only her third picture for Bergman, she plays the timid Alma as watchful observer, who becomes unsure of anything but her love for her husband, . As she confesses in the final frames that she fears following Johan into madness, her calm expression is somehow more terrifying than any of the monsters we saw before. It still lingers in my memory, and sums up my experience with the director.

Ingmar Bergman's films are about those thoughts that you have in the dead of night, when you can't sleep, and there's nothing to do but think. He is without a doubt one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, but one whose work I have learned to tread carefully around.
What I've Seen - Ingmar Bergman

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
The Magician (1958)
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Winter Light (1963)
The Silence (1963)
Persona (1966)
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Shame (1968)
The Passion of Anna (1969)
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Face to Face (1976)
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Fanny and Alexander (1982)


Sunday, January 13, 2013

2013 Golden Globes Live Blog! Part 2

6:27 PM - Best Actor in a TV Comedy. Don Cheadle wins for "House of Lies." That's an actual upset. Everybody drink!

6:33 PM - Stallone and Schwarzenegger present Best Foreign Film while ragging on each other's accents. Globe goes to "Amour," and here comes Michael Haneke. He is surprisingly adorable for being the guy who directed "Funny Games." Twice.

6:37 PM - That's a lovely tan, Lea Michele. Best Actress in a TV Series Drama goes to Claire Danes for "Homeland," as expected. Danes is very wired. Not implying anything by that.

6:44 PM - Sasha Baron Cohen comes out with a glass of wine and a loud voice to perform impromptu stand-up and present Best... Animated Feature Film? How was that remotely appropriate? Anyway, the winner is "Brave," and that lady going up on stage with director Mark Andrews is not Brenda Chapman... Wait, who is that?

6:48 PM - Liev Schreiber presents the clips for "Life of Pi." Seriously, are they just pulling names out of a box for some of these?

6:50 PM - I don't know what Jason Bateman and Aziz Ansari are doing, but I like it. Best Actress in a TV Comedy goes to - oh, Poehler had to get that visual gag in, of course - Lena Dunham in "Girls"! Go Lena!

6:58 PM - Here come the hosts to inject a little humor as we go into the third hour, drowning their losses to Lena Dunham in drink. Thanks for the pick-me-up, ladies.

6:59 PM - Robert Downey Jr. was the right guy to present the Cecil B. DeMille award to Jodie Foster. Not all of these jokes are landing, but he's keeping a straight face.

7:02 PM - Here's the Jodie Foster tribute. I always get a kick out of seeing the old clips from where she was a kid, though "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" is noticeably missing. Ah, that's why Mel's here - he and Foster are pals.

7:05 PM - Foster's speech is awesome. It's really apparent how long she's been around. The coming out fake-out was great. Wait, what did the audio cut for? Never mind, this is awesome. I'm glad I watched the ceremony to be able to see this.

7:17 PM - Ben Affleck wins the Best Director trophy, which just goes to show what a strange and unpredictable awards season this has been. He's not up for the Oscar, which means we still have no idea where that race is going. And good on him for the shout out to Tony Mendez.

7:20 PM - Sad that "Moonrise Kingdom" has almost become an afterthought at this point. Such a fun, weird little movie.

7:21 PM - NBC's late night line-up comes on stage to riff on themselves and present Best TV Comedy to - "Girls"! Another upset! DRINK!!

7:23 PM - Oh good, Dunham's not reading off notes this time. She could only get away with that once.

7:27 PM - What's one difference between the Oscars and the Globes? Movies don't get to buy commercial space, so that ad for "Zero Dark Thirty" wouldn't have aired at the Oscar telecast.

7:29 PM - Christian Bale and his rarely heard actual accent present the clips for "Silver Linings Playbook."

7:31 PM - Jennifer Garner goes up to present, and but first mentions a few names Affleck forgot in his speech. Cute. Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical goes to Hugh Jackman who does not look remotely like he has the flu.

7:34 PM - It's the 70th Golden Globes, a pretty significant milestone, but they're not calling attention to the fact at all. Is that allowed for an awards show? Then again, it is the Globes.

7:36 PM - Jeremy Renner is introduced as the star of "Hansel and Gretel." Ouch. And gets bleeped introducing the "Zero Dark Thirty" clips.

7:40 PM - Best Comedy or Musical goes to "Les Misérables." Anne Hathaway gets in some extra thank yous and then goes and cuddles with Amanda Seyfriend for the rest of the time they're on stage. In a normal year, I'd say "Silver Linings Playbook" is now out of the running, but Harvey Weinstein's got a few extra weeks to campaign. We'll see.

7:41 PM - Dodge has the best commercials of the night, and but if I see Sofia Vergara and her Diet Pepsi one more time...

7:46 PM - Yep. "Do No Harm" is "Jekyll."

7:47 PM - Best Actress in a Drama goes to Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty." Nice to see her supporting Katherine Bigelow.

7:50 PM - Some remarking on Meryl Streep's absence. She's out sick, so George Clooney presents the Best Actor trophy to Daniel Day-Lewis for "Lincoln."

7:58 PM - And the Best Drama Golden Globe goes to "Argo"! Nice to see Affleck and company getting some love - yes, Bryan Cranston was in that movie - but the Oscars are still wide open.

All in all, a good, brisk ceremony, and some categories turned up surprises, which always makes these affairs more exciting. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were great hosts, doing the best they could to break out of the constraints on the role in an entirely different way than Gervaise. The technical mishaps and the forgotten thank-yous made everybody seem more human, and I'd say the biggest winner in the room tonight was Jodie Foster.

Now let's all go drink a Diet Pepsi.

Good night!

2013 Golden Globes Live Blog! Part 1

4:52 PM - We're here once again for the Golden Globes, and three hours of drunken snark. Ricky Gervais has ceded MC duties to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and "Lincoln" and "Modern Family" are probably going to win everything. Let's get started!

4:59 PM - "Do No Harm" preview. Is NBC remaking "Jekyll"? I haven't been keeping up with the midseason stuff this year.

5:00 PM - It's on!

5:01 PM - Spotted Bill Murray. Is he prepping for a stealth Mark Twain bio?

5:03 PM - Tina Fey and Amy Poehler getting their digs in. Lovely slam at James Cameron there. And the HFPA. And James Franco. Ha!

5:05 PM - The ladies have this double act down to a science. Even Daniel Day Lewis is no match for them.

5:08 PM - Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture goes to Christoph Waltz for "Django Unchained." Yay!

5:11 PM - Not going to try to keep up with the presenters this year. There are way too many. Moving on, Best Supporting Actress in a TV Anything goes to - Maggie Smith in "Downton Abbey"! Sure, why not!

5:17 PM - Miss Golden Globes is a regular tradition, but this is the first I've seen of a Mr. Golden Globes. It's a nice gesture, I suppose. Always nice to see more gender parity, even if it's just handing out the trophies.

5:18 PM - Wait, Best Mini-Series or TV Movie already? Damn, I forgot how fact paced the Globes are compared to the Emmys. "Game Change" wins! Is this thing on DVD yet, HBO?

5:19 PM - It always takes me a minute to remember that Danny Strong from "Buffy" is a legitimate, award-winning writer now. Good luck with "Mockingjay"!

5:20 PM - Here comes Best Actress in a a Mini-Series or TV Movie. Stealth Poehler as fake nominee breaks up the monotony of the nominee scroll. Julianne Moore wins for playing Sarah Palin. Both "Game Change" winners have given shout outs to Tina Fey. Huzzah!

5:23 PM - Oh, we're still getting Best Picture clips trotted out by celebs who have barely anything to do with them again. We couldn't have rolled those clips from "Les Misérables" into a montage with the others? No? Oh, fine.

5:26 PM - You know NBC, that approach you're using for "Do No Harm" really didn't help "Awake" last year.

5:29 PM - President of the HFPA comes out to say a few words. Has this ever happened before? She's telling jokes and reasonably good ones.

5:30 PM - Oh dear. Rosario Dawson should have rethought that mint green number. "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" looks so much better in condensed form.

5:32 PM - Best Actor in a TV Series Drama time. Damian Lewis wins - No surprise because "Homeland" has been on a roll.

5:35 PM - And we're going straight into Best Drama, after some technical mix-up that leaves presenters Salma Hayek and Paul Rudd with a couple seconds of awkward silence. "Homeland" wins, as expected.

5:38 PM - The schmoozing going on during the commercial breaks looks so much more fun than the awards. There's Robert Downey Jr. macking on Mel Gibson. Wait, Mel Gibson? Was "Get the Gringo" up for something?

5:42 PM - Tony Mendez! The actual Tony Mendex from "Argo" gets brought out to present the clip for "Argo." And the mike's off. Aaargh. Mendez clearly isn't an actor, but he's a good sport.

5:44 PM - Jason Statham presents best Original Score, which I only mention because it's typically bizarre for the Globes. But on the other hand, I'm so glad the Globes nominated "Cloud Atlas" here, where the Oscars failed to, because it really deserved it. Mychael Danna wins for "Life of Pi."

5:47 PM - Best Original Song time. Not a bad approach here, just playing clips instead of full performances or omitting them completely. Globe goes to Adele for "Skyfall." And they had to cut to Emily Deschanel to cover up her silent expletive. Best, most genuine reaction of the night, though. I think she's got the Oscar locked.

5:54 PM - Best Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries. Not sure why they stuck this category here, instead of with the other TV Movie/Miniseries awards. And there's Tina Fey popping up as another fake nominee to keep us awake. Costner wins for "Hatfields and McCoys."

5:57 PM - Costner's still talking. I'm sure he means well, but he's still talking.

5:58 PM - Bill Clinton! They must have pulled some strings to get him here to present the "Lincoln" clip. Biggest indicator yet that "Lincoln" is in the lead to win big tonight.

6:00 PM - At last, the hosts reemerge to drop a Clinton one-liner and introduce the next presenters.

6:02 PM - Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig came prepared, pretending to be completely unprepared for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Best presenters of the night. Jennifer Lawrence wins for "Silver Linings Playbook." Killer acceptance speech, with possibly the greatest thank you to Harvey Weinstein ever.

6:12 PM - Good grief. I think I wore that dress Kristen Bell is wearing when I was six. Best Supporting Actor in a TV Anything goes to Ed Harris for "Game Change," which isn't here.

6:13 PM - Jamie Foxx presents the clips for "Django Unchained," which have a surprising deficit of Christoph Waltz in them.

6:15 PM - And worst presenters of the night... anyway, Best Supporting Actress goes to Anne Hathaway. And she's paying tribute to Sally Field. Awww.

6:21 PM - Target is selling fruit snacks the way they used to sell perfume in the 80s. With a hot lady and whispering.

6:23 PM - Best Screenplay time. Quentin Tarantino WINS!!

6:26 PM - Jeremy Irons presents the clips for "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen." Sure, why not.

Going to a second post. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Top Ten Episodes of "Cowboy Bebop"

2013 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the landmark anime series "Cowboy Bebop." I don't think it's the best anime series ever made, and perhaps it was never the most popular or influential, but it's the show that made a definite mark on the industry and the culture, particularly in the U.S., where it helped to popularize anime for the internet generation. I'm such an old school anime fan, I finished watching the series on rented VHS tapes back in the early 2000s, but I suspect most people came across "Bebop" on one of its late night airings on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block.

As always, picks are unranked but ordered by airdate, and I will totally cheat and count two-parters as single entries. There are moderate spoilers ahead:

Asteroid Blues – The show's first episode introduced bounty hunter "cowboys" Spike Spiegel and Jet Black of the beat up spaceship Bebop. There was already some controversy when it first aired in Japan, due to the violent content. However, it also quickly established the mood and tone of the show, which was very adult, very action-oriented, and very, very cool.

The Ballad of Fallen Angels – At its heart, "Cowboy Bebop" is noir, and this was the episode that would make that clear as it set up the series' biggest story arc: Spike Spiegel's past in organized crime and the lost love he gave up everything for. Most remember "Angels" for the tour de force action scenes, wonderful use of music, and the introduction of the series' central villain, Vicious.

Jamming With Edward – Many "Bebop" fans were skeptical about the final member of the Bebop crew who joins up in this episode, the hacker kid Radical Edward. Fortunately Ed is a feral little nutter who works by her own peculiar logic, and is neither too precious nor too strange. Instead, she lends a good amount of comic energy to the stories where she appears. And yes, Ed is a girl.

Toys in the Attic – Many "Bebop" episodes paid homage to different film genres. This was the show's spoof on "Alien," where an unknown creature stalks the crew aboard the Bebop. Lots of horror movie clichés get turned on their heads, and we're treated to the sight of Spike trying to light a cigarette with a flame thrower as he tries to steady is nerves before facing the monster.

Mushroom Samba – The one where Edward takes the lead for once, chasing down bounties on a desert planet that is one giant blaxploitation genre homage, while the rest of the crew gets high on mushrooms. This is one of the weirdest, most out of bounds, and most side-splittingly "Bebop" outings, a playful comic romp that thoroughly indulges the show's sillier side.

Speak Like a Child – I really admire "Bebop" for creating a leading lady like Faye Valentine with such a strong personality and equally formidable flaws, but it wasn't until they started delving into her past that I realized there was much more to her. Faye's tragic backstory would unfold over several episodes, but this was the gutpuncher, the one where we finally learned what was at stake.

Wild Horses – After the space shuttle Columbia disaster happened, this episode about Spike visiting an old spaceship mechanic friend, was pulled from the Adult Swim rotation for a while. Some of the scenes in the episode may still resemble actual events a little too closely for comfort, but I find the ending scenes more poignant than ever. And in its own way, it's a fitting tribute.

Pierrot Le Fou – Spike is targeted by an assassin with telekinetic powers, and spends most of this installment in a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase with his pursuer through a futuristic theme park. "Bebop" was highly regarded for its animation, particularly the action sequences, and "Pierrot le Fou" features some of the best. The assassin is also one of the series' most formidable and creepy antagonists.

Hard Luck Woman – I always liked the lead up to the show's finale a little better than the finale itself, because it's all about the show acknowledging change. Faye and Edward both look for answers about their pasts, answers that inevitably led them away from the Bebop. As much fun as they had playing bounty hunters, it couldn't go on forever, and sadly, neither could the show.

The Real Folk Blues – The ending two-parter has all the things you expect from a big finish, including lots of action, lots of emotion, and decisive conclusions to all the outstanding conflicts that the series had been building up over twenty-six episodes. But what makes this ending so memorable is that it wasn't afraid of finality, taking Spike Spiegel's story to the only place it could logically go. And sending him off with style.

See you Space Cowboy!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Behold! The Oscar Nominations!

First things first. The full list of nominees, for your perusal, is over here. I'm afraid that I still haven't seen a good chunk of the major contenders so I can't comment too much on how strong or weak I think the nominees are this year. However, I can talk about the politics a bit, and the state of the awards race.

There's probably only one question on every Oscar prognosticator's mind today, and that would be "Amour"? Specifically, how did a emotionally devastating French-language end of life narrative directed by one of Europe's most dedicated cinema sadists end up with five nominations, including "Best Picture"? There was some talk of it picking up acting awards, and Emmanuelle Riva did pop up in the Actress in a Leading Role category, but I don't know anyone that had this as a remotely likely Best Picture contender. If a movie about the travails of senior citizens was going to be in the running, the expectation was that the lighter and funnier "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" might have a shot. "Amour" also beat out "Moonrise Kingdom," which was building buzz for months, but in the end only came out with a Best Original screenplay nomination. Also absent is "The Master," not a big surprise honestly, since it wasn't nominated in most of the preliminary contests. I'm still puzzled at how weak the support has been though, considering how much the critics love this and how everyone was talking about it back in September.

The directing category brought even bigger surprises though. Usually this category mirrors the top contenders in the Best Picture category, but this time around I'm not so sure that's true. Theres' no Tom Hooper, to the relief of some, who didn't appreciate all the wide-angle close-ups in "Les Misérables." But there's also no Ben Affleck for "Argo" or Katherine Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty." Send a sympathy card to Quentin Tarantino, because he's not here either. Instead, we have the expected Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln" and Ang Lee for "Life of Pi," dark horse David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook," even darker horse Benh Zeitlin for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and dear god, never in a million years would I have predicted Michael Haneke for "Amour," in the running for a Best Director trophy. Where does this leave our Best Picture race? I have no idea. "Lincoln" is the most likely winner because it's the most conservative and popular choice, with the most nominations, but you can't ignore the groundswell of support for "Beasts" and "Amour" either. And I wouldn't count out "Les Misérables" or "Argo" or "Zero Dark Thirty" just yet, which secured plenty of other nominations to potentially offset a missing Best Director nod. Boy, this is going to be an interesting year.

Turning to the acting categories, this is where "The Master" got its only nominations, for Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Phoenix and Adams were big question marks after they failed to secure SAG Awards nominations, as the SAG Awards are usually considered a strong predictor of the Oscars - but it looks like that wasn't true this year. The Best Actor nominations aside from Phoenix have been pretty much decided for a while now. I'm a little disappointed John Hawkes from "The Sessions" got squeezed out in the end, and I really have to see "Silver Linings Playbook" to figure out what the hell Bradley Cooper pulled off to put himself in this kind of company. Then again, he doesn't have a chance against Daniel Day Lewis, who is most likely going to win again. I'm glad the Best Actress category found room for both Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhané Wallis from "Beasts of the Southern Wild," though that meant Marion Cotillard for "Rust and Bone" and Rachel Weisz for "The Deep Blue Sea" were out. I'd happily swap out Naomi Watts for one of them. She was perfectly fine in "The Impossible," but not at the same level. Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty" and Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook" remain the frontrunners.

The Supporting categories can usually be counted on for some interesting, oddball nominations, but they're both pretty boring this year. Alan Arkin in "Argo" and Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook" in Best Supporting Actor both feel like unfortunate legacy picks, when there was a wealth of more interesting performances to choose from. I'm surprised only Christoph Waltz got recognized for "Django Unchained," when Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson were just as good. Maybe the Academy was a wary of nominating them for playing such vile and terrible villains. And maybe that's why Javier Bardem for "Skyfall" isn't here either. The lack of Matthew McConaughey, however, is deeply disappointing. In Best Supporting Actress, it's good to see Helen Hunt back, especially for a role in "The Sessions" that had so much onscreen nudity. Jacki Weaver's work in "Silver Linings Playbook" hasn't been getting much buzz at all, and I'm not sure what to make of her inclusion here over Ann Dowd for "Compliance" and Nicole Kidman for "The Paperboy." On the other hand, it's a relief to find that Maggie Smith for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" isn't here, which looked like it was going to be a real possibility a few weeks ago. My guess is that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Anne Hathaway will walk away with the statuettes.

The Best Writing nominees mirror the Best Picture nominees again, except subtract "Les Misérables," which pretty much transcribed the stage musical, and add "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Flight," which cements their positions as runner-ups for the bigger awards. The lack of "The Master" here suggests that Paul Thomas Anderson wasn't even close. Best Cinematography includes Seamus McGarvey for "Anna Karenina" and Roger Deakins for "Skyfall," which both made decent showings in the smaller categories. There's a good chance that Deakins could win this, because he's overdue for the honor, and the Academy is making a special effort to recognize the James Bond franchise this year. That wasn't quite enough to secure the acting nominations that some were predicting, though, so we'll have to wait and see. In Best Editing, "Les Misérables" is missing again, which is not a good sign, because the category is another key predictor of which movies have the most support. "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty" appear instead. These two pictures may not have the most nominations, but they have them where it counts.

In the Best Animated Feature category, it looks like this year's foreign import slot will go to "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" instead of something really obscure, like "The Rabbi's Cat." I'm okay with this, since "Pirates!" didn't get much attention Stateside and deserves the acclaim. That also puts three stop-motion features in the running, a nice little move of solidarity behind an animation sub-genre that Boxofficemojo pointed out didn't have a very good year financially. Among the Best Foreign Language Films, it's inevitable that "Amour" is going to win, since it got that Best Picture nod. I haven't seen most of the nominees here, but I am surprised that France's crowd-pleasing "The Intouchables" wasn't nominated after making the shortlist.

Now for some odds and ends. "Chasing Ice" didn't make it into the Best Documentary category, but got a Best Song nomination for "Before My Time." Eiko Ishioka, longtime collaborator of Tarsem Singh, posthumously received a nomination for Costumes in "Mirror, Mirror." She passed away last year of pancreatic cancer. The Best Art Design Category has been renamed Best Production Design, and Best Makeup is now Best Makeup and Hairstyling. One of the contenders in both categories is "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which only came up with three nominations this time around. The third was for Visual Effects, alongside "The Avengers" and "Prometheus." Meanwhile, Television's "The Simpsons" have their first Oscar nomination, for "Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare,'" which is up for Best Animated Short Film.

Films completely shut out include "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Promised Land," "Hyde Park on Hudson," "Arbitrage," "Looper," "Rust and Bone," and poor "Cloud Atlas," which I was hoping would at least get a Best Score nod.

Oh, and as a last note, Seth McFarlane is hosting the Oscar telecast this year, and the Academy managed to scrounge up a nomination for him too. He's up for the Best Song category, having written the lyrics to ""Everybody Needs A Best Friend" for "Ted."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Frankenweenie," "Paranorman," and "Hotel Transylvania"

Finally finished all three of last year's animated horror movies. When I saw Sony Animation's "Hotel Transylvania" back in October I didn't think I had enough material for a whole post, so I resolved to wait until I'd seen the other two, and thankfully I didn't have to wait very long. Laika's "Paranorman" and Disney's "Frankenweenie" didn't do very well in theaters, and have popped up inother places pretty quick. It's a shame, because both are pretty solid little flicks, and deserved more attention than they got.

Ranking these three, "Hotel Transylvania" ends up on the bottom. This is not to say that it's a bad film. I think it's actually the best thing that Adam Sandler and a gaggle of his usual collaborators have been associated with in ages. Sandler lends his voice to Count Dracula, who has secluded himself in a remote castle far away from humanity to raise his little girl, Mavis (Selena Gomez). The castle doubles as a hotel for his monster pals, a vacation spot where they can get away without worrying about torches and pitchforks. I wasn't thrilled with the amount of crude humor and tired Sandler schtick that made its way into the film, but at least it's very restrained. The SNL alum-heavy cast dialed back considerably to keep this kid-friendly. This is also easily the least scary movie of the bunch, and the Dracula, Mummy, Werewolf, and Frankenstein we meet are all firmly in the middle-aged family man stage of life.

The result is a sweet little parent and kid bonding story, dressed up in the morbidly fun trappings of an old Universal monster picture. If you're familiar with the old Rankin Bass stop motion movie "Mad Monster Party," this is more or less the same thing, but updated for modern kids, with a little more plot to go with it. The big selling point is really the comedy, though I don't think the cast deserves much of the credit here. "Hotel Transylvania" is loaded with inventive little visual gags, like shrunken head doorknockers and a skeleton mariachi band. There's always something interesting to look at, even if it's only in the corner of the frame. We can thank veteran TV animation director Genndy Tartakovsky for the strength of the visual design work, and for keeping the proceedings very light and fun and energetic. It's hard to believe that this is his first theatrical feature, considering how deft a hand he is with animation.

"Frankenweenie" is another Tim Burton passion project, and thankfully a far more well-realized one than last summer's "Dark Shadows." It's a remake of Burton's 1984 live-action short film of the same name, where a little boy named Victor (Charlie Tahan) is so upset by the death of his beloved dog Sparky, that he finds a way to raise him from the dead. Both versions of "Frankenweenie" are loving homages to old monster movies, chiefly James Whale's "Frankenstein." I was a little worried about the new animated movie being entirely in black and white, when it's already retro stop-motion, but what Burton accomplishes with the visuals and the mood is absolutely worth it. There is some downright gorgeous cinematography in this movie, summoning an appropriate atmosphere of creeping dread. Also, Burton never lets you forget for a second that the revived zombie dog, energetic and lovable as he seems, is still a decomposing corpse.

Unfortunately, I don't think there's quite enough story to support a whole movie. Burton got some parts right, building up the relationship between Victor and Sparky, and making Sparky a more sympathetic character. However, the expansion of the plot to include a controversial teacher, the machinations of Victor's science fair rival, and Victor's crush Elsa van Helsing, didn't do much for me. The windmill sequence at the end of the film feels tacked on, and it looks an awful lot like the one at the end of Burton's "Sleepy Hollow." Then again, there's an earlier sequence involving a gang of the neighborhood kids, their pets, and the misuse of science that is one of the most entertaining pieces of creative mayhem that I've seen in a while. "Frankenweenie" has some flaws, and I expect it's always going to be a hard sell to most audiences, but it's very successful at being what it wants to be, and affirms that Tim Burton has some creative spark in him yet.

Finally there's "Paranorman," which is also stop-motion animation and also contains homages to older horror movies, mostly of the B-movie variety. The story follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gloomy little boy who can see ghosts and other supernatural things that no one else can. This makes it hard for him to relate to his family and get along at school, where he's bullied for being different. I like how gently subversive the story is, the way that it takes common horror tropes and finds news twists on them that help to get its point across. Laika is an independent studio, and not afraid of going to places where the big studios won't go. So it's not afraid of tackling topics like bullying and prejudice, and yes, this is the movie where it turns out that one of the characters is gay. "Paranorman" has some story issues, and isn't quite as focused as it should be, but in the end it's a movie that has something to say and isn't afraid to say it.

I think one of the reasons "Paranorman" didn't do as well as it should have is that it's kind of funny looking, and I mean that in a good way. All the character designs are awkward and slightly grotesque, making Norman and his friends look very different from the cuddly heroes you see in most CGI kids' films these days. It takes a little whiel to get used to the style, but once you do, you really appreciate how well-done the animation is. The attention to detail in this movie is extraordinary. It's easy to get forget, in some of the more mundane environments like schools and bathrooms and neighborhood streets, that everything we see was specially constructed in miniature. However, that impeccable craftsmanship really comes to the fore when we come to the stunning, intense finale scenes, which have some of the best special effects work I've seen all year. Of these three movies, "Paranorman" is easily my favorite.

Looks like we're quickly filling up that deficit of animate Halloween movies. Here's hoping we get more like 'em.