Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Next Movies Becoming TV Shows

It's pilot season in Hollywood, and we're about to get a new crop of television shows based on movies. This is a trend that has been around for decades, and has yielded plenty of classics. Some movie premises worked better as television shows, like "MASH" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." So I'm going to take a look at five of the movie-based series, currently in development, that may be coming soon to a small screen near you. I'm leaving out "Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D.," which is really a spin-off of the Marvel films, and will only be featuring one or two of the minor characters, existing very much on the sidelines of the ongoing movie franchise.

"Beverly Hills Cop" (CBS) - The 80s action comedy series is becoming an hour-long police procedural. Brandon T. Jackson of "Tropic Thunder" fame will star as Axel Foley's son Aaron, a young police officer following his dad's footsteps. "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan is on board as producer, and Barry Sonnenfeld is directing the pilot. No word yet on whether Axel himself will be stopping by the Beverley Hills Police Department to check up on his son. Interviews suggest that the tone of the show will stay light, but it won't be an out-and-out comedy. The original film series was heavily dependent on the charisma of Eddie Murphy, and new version without him might not work. However, between 80s nostalgia and the public's love of police procedurals, I can certainly see why the studios decided that a reboot deserved a shot.

"Bad Teacher" (CBS) - Remember the 2011 summer comedy starring Cameron Diaz? It did all right at the box office, but not well enough that anyone is clamoring for a sequel. However, CBS thought the premise has potential as a half-hour comedy, and is in the process of transmogrifying it into sitcom form. Ari Graynor will replace Cameron Diaz, and the new cast also includes David Alan Grier and Ryan Hansen. The raunch and the foul language of the movie is going to have to be toned way, way down for television audiences, to the point where I doubt the series will bear much resemblance to the film. Still, the concept of an immature, irresponsible female teacher looking for love should have plenty of legs. Television is generally friendlier to female-led comedies than the movies are, so the TV "Bad Teacher" may actually have a better shot there.

"About A Boy" (NBC) - A decade ago, "About a Boy" was a decent sized hit, but I have no idea what prompted writer-executive producer Jason Katims to decide that now was the time to revisit the property and convert it into half-hour sitcom form. Still, this is the guy who resurrected "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" as critically acclaimed television series, so I'm not inclined to question his instincts. FOX actually tried to turn "About a Boy" into a series way back in 2003 with a different creative team, but nothing came of it. This time, they’ve gotten as far as a pilot directed by John Favreau. No word on casting yet, but considering the scarcity of Hugh Grant over the past few years, and the rate that major movie stars have been doing television projects, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that he’d consider returning to the role.

"The Joneses" (Bravo) - This David Duchovny and Demi Moore indie was released in theaters in 2010, but hardly anyone saw it. That's a shame, because the idea at its core was a fascinating one. The main characters are employees of an advertising agency who are hired to live together as a fake family, push products to their neighbors, and encourage them to keep up with the Joneses (Get it?). Bravo has ordered a pilot as part of its first foray into scripted programming, after ABC took a shot at development. Considering how the movie ended, the television series will likely be a total reboot. Since so few people saw the original "Joneses," it should escape being called a retread. However, I'm not sure about Bravo's claim that it will speak "to the Bravo brand of great aspirational female-driven upscale worlds.” My irony alarm is going off.

"Zombieland" (Amazon) - And finally, Amazon is hot to catch up with Netflix in the production of its own content. It has ordered a half-hour comedy pilot based on 2009's "Zombieland." A sequel never quite came together though there was a lot of interest in one, and the possibility of a television adaptation has been lobbed around Hollywood for a while. Amazon finally took the initiative. The film's original writers have scripted the pilot, and three of the four leads have been recast so far. The zombie craze is still going strong this year, so I expect this one to have a high chance of success. On the other hand, Amazon's distribution system isn't quite where Netflix's is at the moment, and I'm not sure if they have the subscriber base to support a show like this. There are a lot of different factors that could affect this one, so stay tuned.

Happy watching!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"21 and Over" is Two Movies in One

The upcoming "21 and Over" is being advertised in the U.S. as a typical raunchy comedy, about a straight-arrow Chinese-American college student, Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), whose two best friends Casey (Skylar Astin) and Miller (Miles Teller) take him out for a wild night on the town to celebrate his 21st birthday. You wouldn't guess that the movie had been partially funded by a group of Chinese companies, or that "21 and Over" is going to be getting a coveted theatrical release in China. However, Chinese audiences are going to be getting a different version of the movie, where Jeff is now a Chinese foreign exchange student who comes to the U.S., falls in the with wrong crowd, and learns the dangers of Western excess and hedonism before going home to China a wiser man. Additional scenes were shot in the city of Linyi to create the Chinese bookend sequences.

I can't help finding the whole situation incredibly funny. I've been increasingly worried at the prospect of Chinese funding having a bad influence on American filmmakers, but in this case the compromise that has been worked out is ingenious. The Chinese and American versions of "21 and Over" will largely be the same, but framed in such a way to reflect both cultures, and each version can be taken as a commentary on the values and mores of the other version. So what started out as a frat-humor laugh-fest from the guys who brought you "The Hangover" has inadvertently turned into a two-way meta funhouse mirror of a project with all sorts of interesting new dimensions to ponder over. Of course, there's the significant possibility that both versions are going to be terrible, as these kinds of movies too often are, but "21 and Over" will still be one of the most interesting examples of what Chinese/American filmmaking partnerships have produced.

There have been multiple versions of the same film made for different audiences before - it's actually quite commonplace in China because of their tighter restrictions on content. Hong Kong films like "Infernal Affairs" often have had to shoot different endings, showing that the bad guy was punished in the end, in order to appease conservative mainland censors. Most Hollywood films are edited for content, sometimes severely. "Cloud Atlas" recently lost a third of its running time and an entirely storyline involving a homosexual romance. However, I don't think I've ever seen a situation where the different versions of a film were so diametrically opposed to each other as in "21 and Over." The American version celebrates exactly the same behavior that the Chinese version is condemning. You're meant to root for American Jeff to keep partying and hope that Chinese Jeff can escape further corruption as they go through the same situations.

The idea of Western filmmakers going along with the Chinese companies' demands for aggressively pro-China content and stern criticism of the west never sat well with me. In this case, however, the target of that stern criticism is just drunken frat boy antics, which seems like such a fundamentally silly idea that I find it difficult to take it seriously at all. I expect the Chinese version is going to end up looking like one of those cheesy old TV movie-of-the-week melodramas, that played on the fears of Middle America by demonizing recreational drugs and the Internet. The motives of the Chinese producers are so transparent and so ridiculous, it's easy to see why the "21 and Over" filmmakers had no qualms about taking the money. Even if there's not a single joke in the Chinese version, there's a good chance it's going to deliver some laughs

I expect that this won't be the last time we see something like this happening, as Hollywood becomes more and more comfortable working with the Chinese. Maybe next time this kind of multiple version movie will be conceived on purpose. An action movie with an American star and a Chinese star could be billed with either lead as the headliner, depending on which country the movie was playing in. Marketing narratives do often have an effect on the viewing experience. There also are some slightly scary implications to this as well, the way one piece of media is being manipulated to convey two entirely different messages. If they can do this with a harmless comedy, they might try the same tactics with something more serious later on.

But for now, it'll be interesting to see how the two versions perform and what the reaction to them will be. And I can already see one net positive here. We've got a rare mainstream release starring an Asian American actor, Justin Chon, currently best known for appearing in the "Twilight" movies. Making two versions of “21 and Over” for two different hemispheres wouldn’t be possible without him.

This a very weird and unexpected road to more onscreen diversity, but I’ll take it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Keep the VFX Artists Happy

Lots of discussion going on today about the VFX protest at the Oscars last night, and the ire that was raised when the "Life of Pi" winners were cut off, midway through their impassioned plea on behalf of the struggling industry. There have been some great pieces written about the sad state of affairs. I particularly liked the one from Drew McWeeney over at Hitfix, who points out that Hollywood has become increasingly dependent on visual effects over the past decade.

So I thought I'd do a little exercise to see exactly how much impact those effects artists are having. I went down the list of the highest grossing films of all time and took out all the ones that depended heavily on CGI and visual effects sequences. This included all the animated films, and a big chunk of the superhero and fantasy films. Anything with computer generated characters like "Lord of the Rings," "Avatar," and the "Harry Potter" movies were out. However I left action-adventure films that were largely built around stunts and more real-world thrills.

Many of these films still had a significant amount of effects work, but it was conceivable that you could make a similar modern James Bond without the CGI. Christopher Nolan's grittier, more realistic style also kept the latest Batman movies on the list. I went back and forth on "The Hunger Games," but decided that most of the CGI-heavy sequences could have been removed without affecting the movie much. But the "Twilight" movies? Those vampire and werewolf visuals were leaned on pretty heavily to make up for shortfalls in the writing. So out they go.

You would end up with a list of the highest grossing films of all time domestically that looked like this:

1. The Dark Knight
2. The Dark Knight Rises
3. The Hunger Games
4. The Passion of the Christ
5. Forrest Gump
6. Skyfall
7. The Sixth Sense
8. Home Alone
9. Meet the Fockers
10. The Hangover

"The Dark Knight" is currently the fourth highest grossing film in the U.S. at the time of writing, having grossed over half a billion dollars, about $200 million shy of "Avatar," which is on top with $760 million. "The Hangover" is all the way down at #59 with $277 million. Of the Top 100, 75% of the highest grossing films could not exist without the contributions of VFX artists. The ratio gets even worse if you look at worldwide numbers.

1. Skyfall
2. The Dark Knight Rises
3. The Dark Knight
4. The Da Vinci Code
5. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
6. The Hunger Games
7. Forrest Gump
8. The Sixth Sense
9. Fast Five
10. The Passion of the Christ

"Skyfall" is the seventh highest grossing film of all time and "The Passion of the Christ" is all the way down at #72. 82% of the Top 100 are heavily dependent on CGI. What's more, "Skyfall" has made $1.1 billion in global ticket sales, but that's less than half of the current leader, "Avatar," which generated a stunning $2.7 billion international box office. Hollywood has become increasingly reliant on the international box office to make up profits, and global audiences prefer action-adventure, fantasy, and animated films, which all need lots and lots of CGI.

For years we've been seeing the economics change and the value shift from stars and directors to brand names and ever-more impressive effects. It seems like the studios have been on a never-ending campaign to cut costs for years now, and animators and effects artists have never worked in a labor-friendly industry. I've heard a few horror stories first hand. I've got an animator in the family. And I've got friends in the industry, just trying to get by. However, it's getting to the point where the cutting may have gotten too deep and something is going to give.

Some morbid part of me wants to see what would happen if all the effects houses went on strike, and the studios were left scrambling with substandard artists and impossible deadlines that really were impossible this time. Would we see films with unfinished effects released to theaters? More delays? Part of me wonders if this is one of the contributing factors to all those films that got pushed back last year. Were post production woes responsible for the unprecedented amount of release date shuffling? Without VFX, would Hollywood pay attention to things like story and character for a change?

But that would be courting disaster. Hollywood makes all these effects-heavy films because they're popular and successful. Audiences love them, and taking them away would probably result in drastically lowered box offices revenues, meaning everyone would feel the hurt. No, it's in everyone's best interest if Hollywood makes nice with the VFX artists and they can figure some way to work things out. It's a complicated and messy situation, but one that's needed to be addressed for a long time.

Fingers crossed.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Quick Oscar Ceremony Review

It's well past the three hour mark of the 85th Academy Awards Ceremony, and host Seth McFarlane goes out on stage to grandly pronounce that the next presenter, Meryl Streep, needs no introduction - and then promptly leaves without another word. That pretty much encapsulates how McFarlane's whole stint as Oscar host went last night. Yes, it was a little ruder and cruder than the awards circuit was used to, but at the same time the humor was so clever and self-reflective in an entertaining way, you had to give him credit.

After years of mediocre hosts, this time the most unlikely choice turned out to be the right one. Seth McFarlane proved to be a great emcee, singing and dancing and calling himself out on his own bad jokes all night. He even interrupted his own monologue with a surprise appearance by William Shatner as Captain Kirk, who claimed he had come back from the future to save the Oscars from McFarlane's poor hosting. While I don't think every joke landed and there were a few in pretty poor taste, at least McFarland managed to keep things exciting, and he was a real asset every time he appeared. At least the really egregious material, like the "We Saw Your Boobs" song number, and the Kardashian burn were framed in such a way that it was clear McFarlane understood exactly what he was doing. And he was charming and engaging enough to get away with it. It wasn't all snark, though. McFarlane pulled off an extended "The Sound of Music" joke in his intro for Christopher Plummer that was oddly sweet.

This wasn't one of the longer ceremonies, but it was still a pretty hefty one. The theme of this year's awards was to salute movie music, so not only were three of the Best Song nominees performed, but we also got a medley of musical numbers from Oscar favorites of the last decade, plus Barbara Streisand singing "The Way We Were" as an extra tribute to Marvin Hamlisch after the In Memoriam segment. You could have also spent all evening playing Name That Tune with the various movie tunes that were played throughout the evening, like "Cinema Paradiso" for the Best Foreign Film category or the orchestra cutting off the poor VFX winners with the "Jaws" theme. And the In Memoriam was backed by John Barry's "Out of Africa" score. That was a nice touch, as we lost Barry last year, but his music was noticeably missing from the prior ceremony. Unfortunately, in a questionable first, the live orchestra was revealed to be playing from a different building up the street.

Speaking of the VFX winners, one of the biggest stories of the night was that there was hardly any mention of the more than 400 visual effects artists who were protesting at this year's Oscar ceremony. "Life of Pi" has made over half a million dollars at the box office, but the primary effects house responsible, Rhythm and Hues, has just declared bankruptcy in part due to the industry's cutthroat business practices. So when "Life of Pi" won Best Visual Effects and the team was cut off while trying to give their fellow artists a supportive shout-out, it became a pretty sinister moment. Hopefully it'll get the issue more coverage.

As for the awards themselves, the early win of Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor got my hopes up that there would be more surprises this year. Alas, that didn't happen. The rest of the expected actors won, and "Argo" took home Best Picture. However, there were a few upsets, the biggest being Ang Lee snagging Best Director for "Life of Pi." There was also a very unusual tie, in Best Sound Editing, between "Skyfall" and "Zero Dark Thirty." The awards were also spread out pretty evenly among the various big contenders, so there was at least a little suspense about who would go home with the Best Picture win.

In the end it was a night of many little disappointments and nice surprises. The much promoted tribute to 50 years of James Bond turned out to be just a clip montage followed by a performance of "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey. But then we got Seth McFarlane and Kristen Chenowith singing a biting tribute to the Oscar losers to close out the ceremony as the credits rolled. Best Animated Short and Feature got saddled with the worst presenters of the night, Melissa McCarthy and Paul Rudd. However, the hysterical segments with Mark Wahlberg and Ted later on in the evening restored the good name of animation.

And someone had Russell Crowe's microphone turned up a little too high, but Crowe was a acquitting himself pretty well in the vocal department last night. And Jennifer Lawrence beat out everyone who I'd have preferred to see win a Best Actress Oscar, but she gave one of the most level headed Oscar speeches I've ever heard out of an actress, and even told everyone to sit down, insisting they were only giving her a standing ovation because she'd tripped on the stairs. And it was nice to see Streisand and Bassey and Catherine Zeta Jones and Jennifer Hudson.

And the appearance of Michelle Obama was a very nice surprise.

So all in all, not the best Oscars, but far from the worst. Better than the last two years at least, I'd say. And I'd be happy to have Seth McFarlane back for another round in 2014.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Your February 2013 Follow-Up Post

And we're back with another semi-regular Miss Media Junkie Blog follow-up post, to provide you with updates on topics I've previously written about, but that I don't believe require an entire new post to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience.

Who Should Direct "Cinderella"? - Kenneth Branagh's name has come up as a likely contender for the director's chair. That's a perfectly good choice in light of Branagh's work on "Thor," but I have say it's still very strange to see Branagh helming such mainstream, commercial films. Then again, if "Cinderella" goes well, maybe he can convince Disney to pay for his next Shakespeare adaptation.

Goodbye to the Nostalgia Critic - Well that didn't last long. Doug Walker's new satirical web series "Demo Reel" premiered in October and lasted all of five episodes before Walker called it quits and decided to resurrect the Nostalgia Critic character and show. The rules have changed - no more date restrictions on what he'll review, and we only get a new episode every two weeks - but otherwise, he's back. One can argue about Walker's creative principles, but from a business standpoint this was probably the right decision. I meant to watch "Demo Reel" but I kept putting it off and putting it off. However, when I saw that the Nostalgia Critic was back, I didn't hesitate to click the link and watch the new episodes. The latest thrashing of Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" was most enjoyable.

The Sleepers of December and Dreamworks Animation Gets Ambitious - At the time of writing, "Life of Pi" has brought in $111 million in the US and over half a billion worldwide. That makes it the highest grossing of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. "Rise of the Guardians," unfortunately, barely inched over the $100 million mark in the US and even with the additional $200 million from overseas, it's probably going to lose money. Dreamworks Animation hasn't been doing too well in the past few months, delaying "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" from November, 2013 to next spring, and pulling Me and My Shadow" from their slate entirely. Next up for them is going to be "The Croods," which has been getting overshadowed by marketing for the "Monsters Inc" prequel that's not coming out until summer.

The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown - I haven't watched "House of Cards" yet since I've been so busy, but rest assured that you'll be getting a full report soon. The early word is that the series is a success for Netflix. Not only is it getting high marks from critics and viewers, but a survey of Netflix users appears to indicate that the availability of the show is helping to retain subscribers. But how long will that effect last? And without the traditional television ratings, can there be adequate comparison the performance of other shows? Currently there's no sign of one major indicator of success: a renewal. And I'm very interested in how the "House of Cards" will be treated at awards time.

About the New Fall TV Season - "666 Park Avenue"? Cancelled. "Last Resort"? Cancelled. "Elementary" and "Arrow" look like they're going to be around for the long term, and "Vegas" is still up in the air. It got a full season, but the ratings may not be good enough for a renewal. And "Revolution," inexplicably, has become a hit. On the comedy side, "Go On" and "The New Normal" on NBC both got full seasons, but only "Go On" is likely to be around next year. "The Mindy Project" has been getting better, both in content and ratings. And good grief, is "Beauty and the Beast" really still on the air?

The Unscheduled Contenders - You know, this is why I should refrain from trying to act like an entertainment reporter. A grand total of none of the movies that I talked about in that post ended up with a 2012 release date or were part of the awards conversation at all. Mike Newell's "Great Expectations" was released in the UK back in November to middling reviews, but there's no sign of an American release. The rest are all being released in 2013, though "Mr. Pip" doesn't have a date set yet, and "Imogene" has been retitled "Girl Most Likely."

Notes on the "Ninja Turtle" Situation - "Ninja Turtle" fans can't say they weren't warned. After the leaking of a lousy script, the project appeared to be quashed last year, but Michael Bay went and tweeted a few days ago that not only was the reboot still in the works, but that he planned to cast Megan Fox in it. The immediate assumption was that Fox was going to be playing April O'Neil, the plucky reporter that the Turtles were always saving from peril. Fans were not happy about this, and have been airing their grievances to the internet ever since.

6 More Upcoming Anime Adaptations to Worry About - I guess you could call this a non-update. I wrote this post sixteen months ago, and in that time none of the project mentioned has moved an inch. Even Starz's planned "Noir" series has been stalled for over a year. Fortunately "Akira" remains quite dead. I think it's safe to say that whatever interest Hollywood had in the anime audience has cooled enough that we don't really have to worry about any of them.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The New "Community" Status Quo

So it's been three weeks and three new episodes since "Community" finally returned to our screens, and I think that's enough to start drawing some conclusions. The show has lost its creator and primary creative force, Dan Harmon, and a good chunk of its writing staff. However, the replacement folks have elected not to overhaul the show, but pretend that nothing has changed. So far, they're doing a pretty good job of maintaining the style and the tone of the first three seasons of "Community," but there's clearly something different about season four. I don't think this is necessarily a bad difference, but there is a difference.

On the surface, things look the same. We've still got lots of in-jokes and meta humor. Last night's episode made ample use of "Inspector Spacetime," the "Doctor Who" spoof that Troy and Abed are fans of. Efforts have been made to preserve the character development. Britta's still the worst therapist in training ever, she and Troy have gotten together romantically, Pierce is still prone to bouts of evil behavior, and Jeff is working on being nicer, more altruistic Jeff. Shirley still never gets enough time or attention. However, there's something not quite right about Annie, and the Dean and Chang have only had minor appearances so far in spite of fairly hefty roles last season. And dare I even mention Starburns, Leonard, Magnitude, Vicky, Garrett, and Fat Neil? Where is everybody?

That said, the new episodes are fine. The premiere seemed a little frantic, pushing the zany, meta, reference humor a little too hard, but I really liked the Halloween episode, better than last year's, even. Last night's "Inspector Spacetime" convention episode had some weak spots, but it's not like "Community" didn't have its weaker episodes, especially back in the first season. I think the real difference is the change in attitude. When we left the show at the end of season three, it was going strong with a full head of steam. I didn't like the third season as much as the second. I thought that some of the developments were a little too unlikely, and some of the meta humor was getting self-indulgent. However, there was a boldness and a confidence about even the weakest half-hours such that I never questioned the commitment of the writers to their ideas. It's that confidence that helped them pull off some of the big highlights of that season, including the pillow and blanket fort war, and the video game episode.

The new episodes by contrast are tentative, made by people who are afraid of making a wrong move, of not giving the audience what they expect from "Community." The trouble with that attitude is that "Community" has built its reputation on giving the audience what it doesn't expect. The new episodes have made a good effort at providing the kind of crazy concepts that we've seen on the show in the past. However, the nerdy convention and the enrollment "Hunger Games" and the haunted house all feel kind of familiar, and they're clearly a step back from the more experimental, boundary-pushing stuff that was going on by the end of the third season. I often wanted "Community" to reign in the weirder shenanigans a bit and get back to community college life, but this feels like the show regressing rather than toning things down.

The other big issue is that the so much of "Community" is based on the character interactions and relationships that have been built up over the last three seasons, and suddenly some of those relationships aren’t quite where we left them. Annie was maturing nicely and seemed to have put her crush on Jeff behind her, and now she's indulging in secret fantasies about him. Meanwhile, Jeff's softening up a little too fast, and the Troy and Britta relationship seems to have skipped a few steps ahead. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing in the long run, but it's different, and it's going to take some adjusting to. Fortunately the Troy and Abed bromance still seems to be in good shape, and Jeff and Britta's banterful antagonism is right about where it should be. Given time, I'm sure I'll adjust to the rest.

But are we going to get that time? I'm certainly going to keep watching "Community," but in this form it's not quite as satisfying as it used to be, and the fanbase may get restless. The competition certainly isn't letting up either. Big Bang" isn't the most consistent show, but when it hits, like it did last night, it hits pretty hard. I've juggled these two sitcoms for years, trying to decide which to give priority to. "Community" usually came out on top, but after its recent setbacks, the race is getting much, much closer.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why Can't I Watch "Black Mirror"?

UK science-fiction fans have been buzzing about the second season of Charlie Brooker's anthology series "Black Mirror," which is very much like "The Twilight Zone" or "The Outer Limits," but pointedly looks at the potential consequences of recent advances in technology, like social media and Big Brother style surveillance. I stumbled across an episode of the first series about a year ago on Youtube, not realizing it was part of a television series. I was so impressed that I gave it a good review over here. And then I made a mental note to look out for the DVDs when they became available so I could rewatch it legally.

Well, a whole year later, after a thorough search, I've discovered that the first season of "Black Mirror" is still not available to American viewers in any way shape or form. None of the streaming sites have it. The DVDs listed for sale on Amazon are Region 2 only, with prominent warning notices that they will not play on a Region 1 DVD player. The show does not appear to have been licensed to any American network or website, though it's apparently been making the rounds in Europe. Robert Downey Jr. picked up the remake rights to the third episode, "The Entire History of You," the only sign that the Brits are aware the potential American audience exists. Of course it's very easy for any curious American viewer with an internet connection to get a hold of "Black Mirror" episodes through unofficial channels. A cursory glance at Youtube reveals that the one episode I found a year ago is still there. That’s a worrying sign.

It used to be that a movie or television show from a foreign country was entirely inaccessible until a domestic version was officially released. This didn't mean that foreign media didn't still get around, but it usually required a lot of effort. My relatives would trade VHS tapes of recorded Chinese soap operas and American cartoons back and forth across the Pacific. My college anime club had a collection of nth generation fansubs with amateur subtitles. Now, it's possible to find these shows online a few hours after they air in Taiwan or Japan, thanks to digital recording and broadband internet. And yet, media companies often persist in retaining the delays between release dates in one country versus release dates in another. I constantly run across complaints from Anglophiles in the US waiting for the new season of "Downton Abbey," or animation fans in the UK who can't understand why there was a three month gap between the American release of "Wreck-It Ralph" and the British one.

The usual reasons for the delays are familiar by this point. The studios and distributors want to tailor each release to specific countries, they want to capitalize on the show or film's successful performance elsewhere first, or they just don't have the resources to put everything out simultaneously. The extra time is needed to finalize deals, to create new campaigns, and to ensure the best possible positioning of the property to maximize viewership. Unfortunately, more often than not the reality is that if these delays are perceived as too long, tech-savvy viewers are going to bypass the official releases entirely in favor of piracy. That's why the delays are getting shorter for the most prominent titles, like blockbuster movies and popular television shows. Though they’ve been dragging their heels, the distribution companies are learning. A well-received, but obscure foreign prestige film might take over a year to show up in the US, if at all, but new "Doctor Who" episodes pop up on iTunes within days of airing in the UK.

I don't doubt that "Black Mirror" is going to find its way Stateside eventually, but right now it seems to have slipped through the cracks. The buzz around it is significant enough, with many geek media sites trumpeting its praises, that the demand for it is surely there. "Black Mirror" is quickly becoming one of those British television titles that people are recommending in the same breath as "Sherlock," "Luther," and "Misfits." The trouble is, "Sherlock" and "Luther" are on Netflix, "Misfits" is on Hulu, and you can find all of them on iTunes. Where is "Black Mirror"? It's absolutely dumbfounding that somebody hasn't picked up the license yet. Heck, I'm surprised Syfy hasn't cut a deal to air edited versions, the way they did with "Doctor Who" and "Merlin." This is the kind of content they usually eat up.

As for me, I guess I'm still going to stick it out, at least for a while longer. However, I am getting more and more frustrated. I don't think that a year is too long to wait, honestly. I've still got the latest seasons of "Dexter" and "Louie" and "American Horror Story" in the queue. "Game of Thrones" fans who don't have HBO had a ten month wait for the DVDs and Blu-Rays, but at least they knew in advance about it.

The last episode of the second series of "Black Mirror" airs Monday on Channel 4 in the UK, and who knows when anywhere else.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

This Week in Rumor Control

As if we didn't have enough Disney-related rumors going around, yesterday a Colombian radio personality claimed that PIXAR was going ahead with a fourth "Toy Story" movie, to be released in 2015, and had already gotten Tom Hanks and other stars to agree to reprise their roles. None of the usual media news sources backed them up, and frankly anybody who was remotely familiar with PIXAR recognized right away that this was probably not reliable information. There is an untitled PIXAR movie on the slate for November of 2015, and Tom Hanks has claimed that "Toy Story 4" is in development, but there have been just as many denials that PIXAR is going forward with another sequel. Now, it's not too unlikely that PIXAR is considering giving Woody and his friends another movie. A Halloween special featuring the characters is in the works, and several shorts have produced. I caught the one with Rex and the bath toys at a Disney store over the weekend. However, nothing is remotely official yet.

Of course, that didn't stop bloggers and smaller sites from spreading the rumor around, and getting the internet worked up into a frenzy. The discussion went from questioning the news sources to talking about potential ideas for a new sequel to complaining about how PIXAR had jumped the shark by indulging in this kind of sequelitis very quickly. By the time the inevitable denial articles came around from sites like IGN and Ain’t it Cool News, the "Toy Story 4" rumors had already been digested and debated and absorbed like it was a real piece of news. The same thing happened with the rumor that Harrison Ford was returning as Han Solo to the "Star Wars" franchise a few days ago. That one came from a more reputable source, a Fox News Latino correspondent, and was reported by many legitimate news outlets, but ultimately there was no concrete evidence that any of it was true, just like the rumors about the possible "Star Wars" spinoffs about Yoda and Boba Fett and the young Han Solo that were running wild last week.

Entertainment news runs by different rules than regular news. It's a gossip-based economy, where there are almost no bad consequences for making up completely false claims and spreading around bad information. Being first to break this kind of news is much more important than getting the details right. The studios allow them to proliferate because they're fairly harmless. Rumors can even help gauge the public's reaction to certain ideas and possibilities, which is why some suggested that the new "Toy Story 4" rumors might have been planted on purpose, to see how people would react. If this happened with hard news, there would be scandals and backlash and recriminations. Rumors related to the business side of Hollywood are treated much more carefully, because there are hard consequences to getting that kind of information wrong. However, conjecture about projects in development, or who might be attached to play which role, rarely has so much impact, so there's more permissiveness.

I find this attitude a real a pain in the neck, personally. Sure, sometimes the rumors are fun on a slow news day, but they can also be such distracting, annoying, and kind of disheartening. I'm not going to put down anyone for getting excited over a possible "Toy Story 4," but this was such a bad rumor to begin with. A news item from Colombia based on the word of unnamed sources? Why would anyone believe this for a second? Why would countless bloggers and websites pass this around without waiting for any kind of confirmation? Is there any degree of skepticism at all in this process? Geographically I don't live too far from the PIXAR studios in Emeryville. I could know somebody who knows somebody who's working on the development of this new sequel. I could make up just about anything I want, let it loose on Twitter, and cause a media storm of similar proportions. I could say Brad Bird has been working on "The Incredibles 2" all this time, alongside "Tomorrowland," and offer no proof at all, and someone out there would believe me.

Let's just be clear that the preceding paragraph is a total hypothetical, before some data-scraper program gets too excited. Okay?

Sigh. I don't mean to get all worked up, but the rumor mill can be really frustrating sometimes. I particularly dislike that it tends to drown out smaller, but more concrete media news items that I find much more interesting. On the animation front, Dreamworks' "Peabody and Mr. Sherman" recently got pushed back to 2014, and "Me and My Shadow" was pulled from their slate, preceding a potential round of layoffs. And we just got a new batch of promotional material for "Ender's Game" - you know, that movie that Harrison Ford is actually appearing in this November. It's nothing as big or exciting as the recent rumors, but at least these stories are actually real.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Last Preliminary Oscar Thoughts

I've seen nearly all of this year's Oscar nominees. I'm missing most of the shorts, most of the documentaries, and most of the foreign films. However, I've actually seen just about all the movies in all the big categories this year, including every last Best Picture contender and all the acting performances. That's pretty big for me. Last year at this point in time I couldn't bring myself to plunk down the ticket money for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" or "War Horse" (a wise decision in retrospect), and I was missing a bunch of performances from smaller films like "My Week With Marilyn." This year, the extra voting time for Academy members meant more time to hunt down the titles already released on DVD, and I did pretty well seeking out the likeliest nominees earlier in the season.

So the Oscars are this Sunday. Who's going to win?

If you've been following the awards race, it hasn't been difficult to work out the major frontrunners: "Argo" for Best Picture, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, and Tommy Lee Jones for the acting awards, and since Ben Affleck wasn't nominated for Best Director, it'll probably be Steven Spielberg who ends up with the trophy. Upsets are certainly possible, as the expectation was that "Lincoln" was going to sweep everything a few weeks ago, but now "Argo" has worked up a head of steam from the various guild awards and may walk away with most of the gold. Are these the most deserving possible recipients of Academy Awards? Well, no. Probably not. A lot of my favorites from 2012 weren't even nominated, but that's not unusual in the least. Watching the Oscars and hoping for quality to win out over popularity is an exercise in futility and masochism.

So why follow the race at all? As a long-time Oscar watcher, for me it stopped really being about the movies a while ago. Now it's all about the game. It's about the timing and the volume of the controversy around "Zero Dark Thirty," positioned as a major early contender at the beginning of December. It's about comparing the acceptance speeches of Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain at the Golden Globes to see which of them was going to get a boost from her appearance. It's about the "Argo" backlash and anti-backlash. It's about the Roger Ebert factor. Remember, he picked "Argo" as the likely Best Picture way back last fall, when "The Master" was still in the race. It's about watching the studios rush to create narratives around their nominees, to build ad campaigns, and to come up with new ways of attracting attention. Some cineastes bemoan the politicking and the showboating of the Oscar race, but I think that if you're in the right mindset it can be a lot of fun.

It's important to remember that the Oscars, and all of these big, nationally televised media award ceremonies, are about marketing. It's about being able to label a movie an Oscar winner or Oscar nominee to drum up more hype and discussion about them, and drive up ticket sales, DVD rentals, and Blu-Ray purchases. The Oscars have been one big marketing gimmick since the very beginning, and Oscar night is the biggest ad of all, full of stunts and celebrities that make the event an enjoyable watch. Sure, there's no guarantee who will take home the statuettes every year, but it's understood that to participate in the Oscars is to participate in a pretty cynical popularity contest, with Academy members, who are all industry professionals, the final arbiters of who is deserving and who isn't. That means that we're always going to get very mainstream, very marketable choices, though occasionally there will be something like "The Artist" or "American Beauty" that will sneak through.

However, it's also important to realize that the Oscars are a necessary evil, especially if you enjoy these higher quality prestige pictures. Being able to sell a movie as an awards contender is an important consideration in getting some of these movies getting financed and produced. The Oscar bump, where films see an increase in box office sales after nominations are announced, is a very real thing. Maybe "Les Misérables" and "Django Unchained" would have been able to get off the ground without the help of awards buzz, but what about Ang Li's risky "Life of Pi"? Or "Zero Dark Thirty"? And though I'm little mystified by the amount of buzz around "Amour" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," I'm very happy that the awards race has brought more attention to both of them too.

It's no surprise that some filmmakers have denounced the whole affair, and there are regularly rebels who just won't play along. However, sometimes it's to the Academy's benefit to recognize those who want nothing to do with them, which is why Jean-Luc Godard got an honorary Oscar a few years back, and why Joaquin Phoenix got a Best Actor nomination this year in spite of ragging on the awards a few months ago. The Academy Awards does have to maintain some credibility to keep their reputation intact, and frankly leaving out Phoenix, who delivered one of the most talked-about performances this year, would have been a mark against them. Phoenix might even win, giving us another potential missing Brando moment.

So sometimes quality does trump popularity. And some of those Academy voters actually do take the task seriously. But how many, and to what degree? We'll have to wait until Oscar night to find out.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Notes From a Hulu/Criterion Weekend

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I've sworn off paying for Hulu Plus since last year, since they decided to redesign the site and broke nearly all the searching and sorting functionality for their Criterion Collection titles. The interface is still in a sorry state, but this weekend Hulu decided to promote the addition of a batch of new titles to their Criterion section by offering all of them for free for four days, from February 14th through the 17th. I figured that this was a good opportunity to play catch up with the new entries to the" They Shoot Pictures Don't They" Top 1000 list. So, over the course of four days I watched eight movies, one each from Francois Truffaut, Jacques Feyder, Mikio Naruse, Aki Kaurismäki, Roberto Rossellini, and Nagisa Ôshima, plus two from Pedro Costa.

The free Criterions were offered with commercials, unlike the ones on Hulu Plus which don't contain ad breaks. I was a little wary of trying to watch the films this way, particularly the Costa titles, which both ran nearly three hours. However, I didn't find the interruptions that disruptive. It was easy enough to tune out the commercials, especially since the ads tended to repeat constantly. The biggest problem was that sometimes the movie would fail to resume after the commercials ran. After some experimenting, reloading the page seemed to fix the issue most of the time, though it meant having to sit through the Criterion introductory idents and ads again every time. This was a problem on some films more than others, but there were none that I didn't have to reload at least once.

I also spent some time poking around on Hulu, testing alternate ways to browse their collection. Currently, the site's Criterion page is organized so that you have to scroll through graphics-heavy lists that only show you five entries at a time. This might have been fun for a casual watcher using a tablet or a smart phone, but not for me. On my aging laptop, I got through about 200 entries from the "Most Popular" list before giving up, deciding there had to be a better way to compare Hulu's advertised 800 Criterions against the list of new "They Shoot Pictures don't They" titles I was looking for. Searching by director yielded some decent results, but searching by titles was often troublesome because so many of the Criterion films are not English-language, and can have multiple title translations. I sorely missed the ability to filter by country and director, and to limit my search to the Criterion films.

To really make use of the Hulu collection, you really need to know what they already have available, which is more difficult than it sounds. There's been a lot of bad reporting that the entire Criterion Collection is available on Hulu, but this has never been the case. Criterion struck deals with many studios to release titles like "The Royal Tennenbaums" and "Chasing Amy" as Criterions, but these deals didn't include streaming rights. Only about half of the official collections is currently on Hulu. However, Criterion also offers other films through Hulu that were released in other collections, or that the company has the rights to, but never released on disc. As these are the films that are the most difficult to find, to the dedicated cinema nerd they're what Hulu's partnership with Criterion has proven the most useful for.

However, finding a complete list of what is actually available on Hulu was almost impossible. A few of the articles reporting on the free trial pointed toward third party sites tracking which movies were on the site, all the ones I checked had outdated information. A fan-generated list of 700 titles, updated a year ago, was the most comprehensive one I could find. Paging through a Criterion fan message board, where posters had listed titles from each update for the last year, gave me the rest. And it was a good thing I checked, because otherwise I wouldn't have known to look for "India: Matri Bhumi," Roberto Rossellini's little-seen documentary about life in India, or half a dozen more Yasujiro Ozu titles.

I'm very happy that Hulu is offering these movies, and I have no issue with the size or the variety of their current collection of Criterion titles. I absolutely think it's worth the money to have access to many of these hard-to-find movies. By my own calculations, I've only seen about a third of what they're currently offering. However, the Hulu interface is user-unfriendly to the point where it negatively impacts on the use of the site. I shouldn't have to resort to third party sites to tell me how many Ingmar Bergman titles Hulu has. Typing "Pedro Costa" into the search bar shouldn't immediately direct me to the Pedro Zamora biopic "Pedro."

Right now I have enough classic films from other sources available to me, that I don't feel like putting up with the hassle. So I'm still going to refrain from subscribing to Hulu Plus again until they get their act together.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"The Wire" Wrap-Up

When I first started watching "The Wire," it was with one question in mind. Is this really the best dramatic series that has ever been made, as claimed by so many of its fans? After sixty episodes, I'm inclined to say yes. And I'm also inclined to point out that the show is a total fluke that we may never see the likes of again.

I've been reading up on "The Wire" since I finished the series, and what strikes me about most of the coverage is how far under the radar it was for most of its run. It never won a single Emmy, and its only major nominations were for writing. Most of the cast is still working regularly, but there were no breakout stars. A possible exception is Idris Elba, and that was really only due to his follow-up roles in his native UK. The ratings were dismal throughout the entire run of "The Wire," even for a premium service like HBO. The critics always liked it, but nobody pays attention to TV critics, and probably never will. The only reason the fourth and fifth seasons exist at all is because the HBO executives liked the storylines enough to take a major risk on their success. That risk wouldn't pay off until years later, after the show became a cult hit.

And it has become a hit. References to "The Wire" have crept into the mainstream culture. Omar Little and Stringer Bell have quietly become minor icons. Audiences continue to hear about "The Wire" mostly through word-of-mouth and watch it through the DVD sets. All sixty episodes ran on BBC2 in the UK a few years ago, eventually attracting an audience several times the size of its original audience in the US, despite a smaller overall population. It actually became the source of some mild handwringing in 2009 by the British media, who held it up as a prime example of quality American drama, and wondered in multiple editorials why their television industry couldn't come up with anything in the same vein. Of course, "The Wire" could not have existed anywhere else but HBO, a premium subscription channel that has the luxury of not worrying too much about ratings and cost overruns. The serialized story, difficult material, and unusual level of realism - the major elements that "The Wire" has won so much praise for - would have made it a difficult sell even to basic cable audiences. It wouldn't have lasted beyond a season on the major broadcast networks, or even half a season the way things have been going lately.

HBO and other content producers are still responsible for plenty of innovative and socially relevant and challenging shows, but rarely do all of these qualities converge in a single program quite the same way as they did in "The Wire," and it was really the combination of all these factors that made the show one of the greats. "Game of Thrones" is a complicated serial told on a huge scale, and "Veep" has plenty of social critique, and "Girls" pushes lots of social boundaries, but only "The Wire" did all of these things at once. The impact of the series has also proven to be fairly limited. While "The Sopranos" created a genre of anti-hero centered dramas including "Breaking Bad" and "Boardwalk Empire," there hasn't been much eagerness to follow in the footsteps of "The Wire." We still see plenty of police and lawyer shows, but nobody is interested in looking at the bigger picture the way David Simon and crew did.

The potential for creating shows on the same level as "The Wire" is still there, which I find encouraging, but I don't see much desire to try. After all, even HBO has to pay attention to the bottom line. During the run of "The Wire," two other little watched, but much beloved series were cancelled before their time: "Deadwood" and "Carnivale." Meanwhile, David Simon's "Treme," considered the spiritual successor to "The Wire," will be ending this year after a truncated fourth season. While I enjoy "Game of Thrones," I worry that HBO and its imitators are going to look toward more genre shows in the future, leaving more interesting dramatic experiments on the shelf. "The Wire" proved that a show about difficult social issues with unusual characters could be compelling entertainment, but the longer it remains the only one of its kind, the more it becomes an exception to the rule.

I'm glad "The Wire" exists, that the right conditions were there and all the stars were aligned to allow for its creation. However, at the same time this looks like a once-in-a-generation media event that largely came about thanks to luck and good timing. Instead of comparing "The Wire" to "Oz" or "The Sopranos," the one piece of television I see the most similarities to is the 1977 "Roots" miniseries, which was also a total fluke, and never truly matched in its category by anything that followed.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Yes, Another "Die Hard" Movie

I'm one of the few people who seems to have liked the fourth "Die Hard" movie, the PG-13 actioner with Justin Long and the extended cameo by Kevin Smith. However, I respect the opinion that "Die Hard" should stick to R-rated territory, and its hard action, cheerfully profane roots. "A Good Day to Die Hard," will definitely be seen as a return to form by some longtime fans. Alas, its quality is so poor that I'm sorry to report that this is the worst of the "Die Hard" franchise, and not by a small margin either. That's not to say that the film isn't still a fun watch, but in a very B-movie, turn your brain all the way off, and leave your expectations at the door kind of way.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is still a working cop, but decides to take a vacation to Moscow in search of his missing son Jack (Jai Courtney), who he never had the best relationship with. Jack turns out to be working for the CIA, and in the middle of a mission to rescue a political prisoner, Komarov (Sebastian Kock), and keep him out of the clutches of a baddie named Alik (Radivoje Bukvic). The plot hardly matters much, a father-son bonding story interlaced with a mishmash of old spy game tropes including a couple of twists and misdirections that are telegraphed very far in advance. When Komarov's daughter Irina (Yuliya Snigir) shows up, she so looks the part of the femme fatale, you wonder why the filmmakers bothered to pretend for any length of time that she wasn't one. Rest assured that "A Good Day to Die Hard" has lots and lots of action scenes, including gunfights, car chases, and a big showdown involving a helicopter that takes place at Chernoble.

That showdown is very enjoyable, but getting there requires withstanding some pain. The first third of the movie is nearly unwatchable, thanks to the worst camera work I have ever seen in a mainstream film. This is full-on shakeycam hell, where the operators are deliberately jerking the camera around to add extraneous motion, panning and zooming constantly. Even in simple conversation scenes, they refuse to hold still, so the frame is frequently bobbing up and down, making it look like the characters are on a boat or a carnival ride. The first big car chase through Moscow appears to have some impressive stunts, but the cinematography, full of quick cuts and close-ups, renders it utterly nauseating to watch. The filmmakers clearly meant to ape the style of "Bourne" series, except without the technical chops or the editing knowhow to keep the action coherent.

Fortunately the shakeycam settles down after the first act, giving way to a pretty typical action movie. The script is dumb, but not egregiously so. The supporting characters run the gamut of Russian movie stereotypes, but it's nice to see Moscow portrayed as a modern cosmopolis and there's no sign of any of the old anti-Soviet sentiments we might have seen in an older picture. Jai Courtney is stuck in a thankless role, playing John McClane's bullheaded, hostile offspring, who never adequately explains why he's so ticked off at his old man. Courtney and Bruce Willis are strong enough actors that they manage to establish a decent rapport as the movie goes on, but they don't get much help from the tepid dialogue. The attempts at wisecracking are particularly lackluster.

The action is pretty good though, and the large scale carnage reminded me of all those cheesy old 80s action flicks with so many machine gun battles and explosions that the original "Die Hard" played a big part in popularizing. Compared to Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and the rest, I can still buy Bruce Willis as an action star, and he can still pull off some of these impossible stunts. I expect that the action is what most audience members are really coming to "A Good Day to Die Hard" to see, and on that score they won't be disappointed. On the other hand, this is a very poor "Die Hard" installment, lacking all but the most superficial hallmarks of the series. McClane's personality has been mellowed and softened to the point where he hardly seems like John McClane anymore.

Inevitably there will be a sixth "Die Hard" movie, possibly titled "Old Habits Die Hard," possibly involving John McClane as an irascible grandpa, showing yet another generation how to survive being blown up, shot in the non-vitals, thrown through windows, and being crashed into while operating a large motorized vehicle. All I can hope is that it will be directed and written by filmmakers who care a little more than the people who made this movie, who won't do the bare minimum and hope the fans' affection for the series can make up the difference.

And with a competent cinematographer.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Pain of "Amour"

The Oscars are fast approaching, and since I've covered just about all the major nominees, it's about time I wrote about "Amour." I saw the film at the end of last year, but was extremely hesitant to address it, because it's a difficult piece of work. All Michael Haneke films are, from what I've seen of them, and I still find it astonishing that the Academy would single out his newest film this year for honors. "Amour" simply does not fit the profile of your typical Oscar contender. It features a pair of older, celebrated French actors who Americans would not be particularly familiar with. The subject matter is certainly weighty and important, but the scale is small and the drama is intimate. There are no gimmick's like last year's "The Artist." There are no controversies, like those raised by "Zero Dark Thirty." And rarely do you see a film this raw and honest and bleak, with such limited commercial prospects, penetrate the defenses of the generally more conservative, more Hollywood-oriented, mainstream-oriented Academy electorate.

Then again, "Amour" is perhaps one of the most accessible Haneke films. The story is simple enough. It concerns an elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who are both in their eighties, and have enjoyed a long and happy relationship. One day Anne pauses a little too long in the kitchen, her movements arrested and her face going blank. Something has begun to go very wrong, and Georges is helpless to prevent Anne's slow, but certain decline. She suffers a stroke that leaves her bedridden and in need of constant care. She undergoes an operation that makes things worse. One of her last coherent requests to Georges is that she not be hospitalized, so Georges takes on the monumental task of caring for her needs at home, as best he can. Nurses and aides are retained, and then dismissed when Georges finds fault with their treatment of his wife. The couple's grown daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit and tries to intervene, but Georges is resolute. How it will all end is no mystery. The story is told in flashback after an opening scene where the police force their way into Georges and Anne's sealed-off apartment, to discover Anne's carefully laid out corpse.

When I first heard about "Amour," I was expecting something much grimmer and more disturbing. Michael Haneke is known for emotionally harrowing films that frequently employ shocking violence and reveal the darkest, most grotesque sides of human nature. In "Amour," there are no hidden monsters, no awful secrets to be brought to light. There is only a man who loves his wife, but who pays a heavy price for that love. Haneke confronts the audience with the reality that even the happiest relationships end in cold death, often demanding unbearable pain and suffering before the end. Perhaps that's why "Amour" comes across as one of the more humane Haneke's films. His characters are allowed a measure of peace, and perhaps even a little sentiment before the end, which make the harsher scenes go down quite a bit easier. Make no mistake that "Amour" presents an unflinching end-of-life narrative that many viewers will find difficult to watch, but it's not cruel, and it's not without mercy. Perhaps one of our most reliable modern provocateurs is softening a little with age.

The performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are remarkable here, creating an evolving onscreen relationship that feels very rich and genuine. Riva is particularly strong. Her character may not have much control over her situation, but displays a steely willfulness and defiance that keeps her very present in the narrative. As for Trintignant, his character's decline is in some ways more pronounced and devastating to watch than this wife's. In the often overlooked and sorely undervalued category of films starring elderly actors, these are rare, challenging roles. I'm not nearly familiar with the long careers of Riva and Trintignant as I should be, but I've seen them both in various French classics from the 60s and 70s, and it's gratifying to see them get the chance to continue to do good work.

Ultimately, though, I'm not sure what I think of "Amour." It's a brave, challenging work of art featuring great performances, and I'm very glad the Academy went for it instead of something easier and more familiar, like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." On the other hand, so much of the movie is about the immediate, visceral impact of experiencing the couple's end, and the story feels sorely lacking in the kind of context and depth that might have given it more lasting impact. Haneke is not a director in the habit of giving straightforward answers, but this time his oblique symbolism and ambiguous moments don't work as well as they have in the past, and I had no urge to try to unpack them. I came away neither shocked nor particularly moved, though I was impressed with the filmmaking and the approach to the subject matter.

"Amour" is a bold and impressive film, but I didn't get much out of it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cliffhanger Crisis

I was saving "The Hour" for a slower patch in my viewing schedule. It's one of those period British shows with short seasons and smart characters that I tend to like. Dominic West, Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai play the leads, and they're actors who have been great in everything else I've seen them in. The only trouble is that "The Hour" has just been cancelled after two seasons. And to make things even more infuriating, the second season reportedly ends on a cliffhanger that is never going to be resolved. Oh joy.

This is not a rare problem. Having been the fan of many short-lived genre shows in my time, I've had to put up with cliffhanger endings before. "Angel" ended with most of the cast about to go off into battle, and who knows if anyone survived? More recently, there's the possibility that "Alphas" killed off all but one major character in its last episode. And the new "V" left us on the verge of a full-blown alien invasion. There are also plenty of shows that never get around to addressing their central conflicts or wrapping up dangling questions before they had to say goodbye. I'm still nursing a minor grudge that "Eerie, Indiana," a short-lived supernatural mystery show I watched as a kid in the '90s, never explained the origins of the mysterious Dash X. What is an invested fan to do?

Well, we used to be totally out of luck, stuck simmering over the lack of resolution. Fanwork is a good source of unofficial endings, and there are plenty of fanfiction writers who actually a appreciate a good cliffhanger, because they create good jumping-off points for the future adventures of all your favorite characters. Recently, however, creators have been stepping up to provide a little resolution on their own. Joss Whedon continued "Angel" in a successful series of comics. Bryan Fuller is attempting to do the same with "Pushing Daisies," and has provided plenty of teases for possible continuations in other formats. The "Doctor Who" crew released storyboards for a scene that got cut out of an episode last season that would have wrapped up the story for a minor character many viewers were left wondering about. In a few cases, creators of cancelled shows like "Threshold," "Defying Gravity," and "John Doe" have popped up in interviews or extras to shed some light on future storylines or to spill major secrets.

Then again, there's something to be said about leaving them wanting more. I think people tend to overlook the value of a good mystery. For instance, "The Sopranos" ended with that famous cut to black, a deliberate choice made by the creator David Chase. Though initially reviled, it's become one of the most talked about, written about, and endlessly analyzed scenes in the entire show. Did Tony Soprano die in a hit? Was the cut to black a metaphor for something? What about the lack of end credits music? What was David Chase trying to say? It's interesting to look at some of the shows with major cliffhanger endings, thinking of them as true series finales. Suddenly the entire nature of "V" changes. Suddenly it's a tragedy, chronicling how the human race lost the planet to alien invaders. "Alphas" ends on the heroic sacrifice of nearly all our heroes.

Last minute rescues and improbable deus ex machina solutions are so ingrained in the minds of viewers, bad outcomes and tragedies in our favorite television shows can be difficult to accept. I wonder what the response would have been to the BBC series "Sherlock" ending after its second series, which came to a close with "The Reichenbach Fall," an episode with many allusions to the famous story where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off the literary Sherlock Holmes permanently. A third series is on its way to resolve the cliffhanger we were left with, but I think it would have been perfectly fine to let the series end right there, though maybe with a few revisions to remove the big, honking, obvious clues that something else was up. Oh sure, it'll be nice to get more "Sherlock," but there was a nice sense of finality about "The Reichenbach Fall," the kind that few shows ever get. I can't imagine any ending the show comes up with later will match up to it.

Movies suffer the same problem, of course, especially now that franchise pictures are getting more serialized. The sad fact is that more than a few of these big, gargantuan film series are just going to peter out eventually, ending on lesser adventures that fail to make good use of the existing source material. There's a reason why the most successful series tend to be limited ones, designed with an ending already in mind, give or take an extra "Harry Potter" or "Hunger Games" film. Production complications and different financial models mean that few television shows can be done this way, and you really learn to appreciate the ones that can manage strong exits. I'm really looking forward to the "Breaking Bad" finale. Fingers crossed.

Good endings are a rare commodity, and sometimes going out with a bang, with a big, infuriating cliffhanger, beats going out with a whimper. So the long and the short of it is, I think it's high time I watched "The Hour."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gee Whiz, "Les Miz"

I put off watching "Les Misérables" for as long as possible, because even though I generally like movie musicals, I've found most of the recent ones underwhelming. Filmmakers have the bad habit of choosing star power over the ability to actually sing, resulting in musically mediocre efforts like "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Sweeney Todd." I'm happy to report that Tom Hooper's version of "Les Misérables" does not have this problem, featuring Hugh Jackman, Broadway veteran, in the starring role of Jean Valjean, as well as several cast members from earlier stage productions. Unfortunately Hooper's intimate approach to the sweeping, epic material does not do the new film version any favors.

On paper it makes sense. "Les Misérables" is full of plaintive solos, sung by characters in isolated, existential misery. Valjean is a convicted thief in nineteenth century France, who elects to break parole and go on the run in order to start a new life. Despite being hunted by the ruthless police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean becomes a successful businessman and eventually mayor of his town. One of his factory workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is dismissed and left destitute when it is discovered she is hiding an illegitimate child. Believeing his failure to intercede wronged Fantine, Valjean takes responsibility for raising her daughter Cosette, (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as an adult). Still on the run from Javert years later, when Cosette has grown up, the pair find themselves caught up in the events of the 1832 June rebellion. Among the student revolutionaries is young Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls hopelessly in love with Cosette, and his friend and secret admirer, Éponine (Samantha Barks). And every single one of these characters gets plenty of chances to express their angst through song.

"Les Misérables" is absolutely packed with musical numbers, deviating only slightly from the hefty stage musical written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Minor revisions keep the film under three hours in length, but this means that it's constantly jumping from one famous song to the next, with hardly any pauses to process what's going on. There's hardly any chance for any extra context or exposition outside of what's provided in the lyrics. Fortunately the art direction makes up for a lot, recreating the poverty and despair of 19th century France that Victor Hugo's novel was written to address. The 1832 sequences with hordes of beggars on the streets and the erection of the student barricade are visually spectacular. Unfortunately, these moments are rare. Hooper shoots most of his actors in tight close-ups, utilizing a lot of hand-held camera work, and is fairly stingy about scenic vistas and even crowd shots. While "Les Misérables" is known for its solos, it's also known for the rousing anthems like "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "Master of the House," which rely on the ensemble, and those numbers simply don't work as well in this style.

The focus on realism and the rejection of theatricality results in a "Les Misérables" that feels grittier and starker, but also smaller and more closed-in than it should. One thing I noticed immediately was the more muted orchestrations of many songs, which puts more emphasis on the raw performances. The stronger singers like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway don't have any problems getting their emotions across, but then you have poor Russell Crowe as Javert, who completely fails to convey the intensity and obsessive nature of Inspector Javert. His big solo "Stars" is the low point of the movie. Then there's Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the comic baddies, the Thénardiers, who are never allowed to be as broad or as funny as we know that they can be, and vocally run into some trouble. This is almost certainly why Hooper chose to cast Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks over bigger names, because they deftly rise above the limitations of the stripped down, deglamorized production.

I hesitate to be too harsh with the director, because his instincts weren't bad. There is a very modern, very timely feel to this "Les Misérables," and it never feels like a stuffy costume drama or a glitzy, overproduced event film. However, the execution is so uneven, and there are so many ideas that just fall flat, I found it difficult to become immersed in the film. I liked most of the performances, especially Anne Hathaway’s broken Fantine, but I don't feel they were particularly well served. If you're a fan of the musical, as I am, I think it's worth a watch to enjoy some of these performances. However, the film does a pretty poor job of capturing what was so stirring about the stage version, and the Victor Hugo novel for that matter - the sheer immensity of its scope and the impact of its drama.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"The Wire" Year Five

Minor spoilers below.

The last season of "The Wire" is noticeably truncated, down to ten episodes instead of the usual twelve or thirteen. After such a showstopper of a fourth season, year five is also inevitably a step down from that former high. That's not to say that the season isn't still excellent, that the major storylines don't progress as they should, or that the show's creators don't continue to deliver great drama and great social commentary. Targeting the media, in the form of the Baltimore Sun newsroom, yielded some strong storylines that I wish would have played out even further. However, it's hard to ignore that the season's central crime story involves a gimmick similar to the creation of Hamsterdam in season three. In this instance, the Major Crimes Unit is unable to keep working the Marlo Stanfield case because of cutbacks on the police department. So Jimmy McNulty, having backslid into self-destructive behavior, cooks up a fake serial killer to get the money rolling again. Of course, the deception soon grows too big for him to handle, and threatens to spiral out of control.

The reporters and editors of the Baltimore Sun are instrumental in the spreading of the fake story. Our major POV character here is Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) the city editor of the paper, dealing with a shrinking staff and limited resources. Young reporters Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy) and Alma Gutierrez (Michelle Paress) fight to land front page bylines while the management, led by Thomas Klebanow (David Constabile) and James Whiting (Sam Freed), are out of touch and too willing to let transgressions slide if it suits their interests. I expected the media storyline to be more sensationalist, but "The Wire" is more interested in establishing how the newsroom is plagued by the same problems that everyone else in the city is facing: not enough money, a leadership driven by greed and politics, and numerous systemic dysfunctions. Though I don't think that the media storyline turns out to be one of the better ones in the series, it's still a far more thoughtful portrayal of the media than I've seen in just about any other television show. You also get a sense that the show's writers are having more fun with this material, indulging in more florid language and literary allusions than usual.

However, it's the continuing storylines that I stayed more invested in, and found more rewarding. Bubbles, who I was worried would be heading for a bitter end after hitting rock bottom last season, manages to stay clean this season. His redemption is honestly a little hokier than I think was necessary, particularly his interactions with reporter Mike Fletcher (Brandon Young), but it provides a good antidote to the overwhelming cynicism that characterizes so much of the later seasons. Watching Michael and Dukie slip further into the grasp of the street is depressing, especially when it becomes clear what Michael's eventual profession is going to be. Marlo's gang has been a poor substitute for the Barksdale organization, but the show still gets me to feel for Marlo and Snoop in the end. And then there's Omar, who along with Bubbles has survived all the way to the fifth season, and feels like one of the characters who really embodies what the series is all about. Here's a hardened criminal with no remorse about what he does, yet who also operates by a code of deeply-held morals and displays great loyalty. And he's the one who ends up having a major hand in delivering justice, more so than most of the police.

The political storylines have been very solid since they were first introduced in the third season, and hit a new high point here. Carcetti's back and forth with the police department keeps him conflicted and frustrated enough to still be mildly sympathetic, even as he sells out his city more and more blatantly with each passing episode. We finally get to see the outcome of the ongoing Daniels storyline involving his potential ascension to Police Commissioner, which proves wholly satisfying to see play out. I wish I could say the same of the our protagonists in law enforcement, but the fake serial killer storyline never came off quite right. I could buy Hamsterdam as the experiment of a single misguided commander cashing in a lot of goodwill, or an unethical reporter blowing a smaller lie of McNulty's all out of proportion, but there were too many smart characters who got drawn into the mess, and kept it going, to sustain any believability. You had to essentially turn McNulty into a suicidal nutter and drag Lester Freamon down with him. Bunk, of all people, was left being the reasonable one!

But even if I wasn't thrilled with the bigger storylines of this season, it was still gratifying to be able to check in with familiar faces like Herc, Carver, Cutty, Randy, Beadie, Prez, and Colvin, if only for a minor scene here and there. I'm not clear on when the writers found out that the fifth season of "The Wire" would be the last, but they did manage to create a good sense of finality about the final episodes. At the same time, it's clear that the show could have gone on considerably longer.

I'll be back with wrap up thoughts on the series in a couple of days.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Favorite Alfred Hitchcock Film

Alfred Hitchcock has been seeing a mild resurgence of interest lately with the recent release of movies about the director, "Hitchcock" and "The Girl." I haven't seen either of them yet, but I knew that I had to get this post written before I saw either. I've read enough about both films to know that they both advance their own heavily biased views of the director, and I'm more easily influenced than I like to admit, so I figured I should get my own thoughts about old Hitch down in words first.

Alfred Hitchcock was a great director but an even better showman and marketer, which fueled his legend and won him lasting fame, such that he's probably still the most well-known and well-loved director of his time. Though he started out in the UK, I think of him as perhaps the greatest American director, because he embodies so much of the entrepreneurial spirit and the inherently populist attitude of Hollywood filmmaking. He was a creature of genre films, but elevated that genre to dizzying heights. He outlasted the dismissive critics, multiple career slumps, and cultural shifts by coming up with something new and daring to show us, again and again. He was a director of endless invention, and some claim that he created the first real slasher film, the legendary "Psycho." The first time I saw the full movie after hearing years of hype, I sat down almost determined not to be impressed. And then the amazing title sequence with Bernard Hermann's jolting strings began, and it was useless to resist.

"Psycho" is about a series of intersecting crimes. First, a woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a large sum of money from her employer and goes on the run. She stops at a motel run by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his sinister, unseen mother. And really, that's all the plot summary it needs, because the less you know about "Psycho," the better it plays. It's a film full of sudden turns and misdirection, constantly upending the viewer's expectations. Like so many of Hitchcock's other films, the story can be reduced to a series of basic gimmicks. In this case, we have the mystery of Norman Bates, and a few major narrative and POV shifts. However, the film is so cleverly constructed and well executed on a technical level, it is extremely effective at getting exactly the kind of response it wants: rapt attention, followed by screams.

Alas, the famous shower scene was ruined for me long before I saw "Psycho," after too many appearances in retrospectives and too many trips to Universal Studios. I knew from an early age that I was supposed to be shocked and scared by the sequence, but I always saw it apart from the rest of the film, so I never had the proper context to enjoy it as intended. Instead, I found myself much more engaged by the longer, steadier build-ups of tension. There was the initial robbery sequence. And Norman Bates tidying up the vacated motel room and almost overlooking the newspaper. And then there was my favorite shot, the very last of the film - not our final glimpse of Norman, but of Marion's car, being dredged slowly but inexorably up out of the muck to reveal the extent of our killer's crimes. I could feel the creeping dread in the pit of my stomach with every creak of the winch.

The effectiveness of "Psycho" as a thriller has faded a bit with time. It's no longer considered particularly racy or violent, and many of its innovations have become commonplace. Hitchcock killed off his biggest star halfway through the picture, a shock lessened by the fact that "Psycho" is practically the only thing that actress is remembered for . Then he got us to sympathize with the killer by showing the action from his POV. It was pretty daring in 1960, but these days there are whole television shows built around this conceit. The disturbing nature of Norman Bates has long been surpassed in both real life and in fiction. On the other hand, after over fifty years "Psycho" still works on a fundamental level. Norman and his mother are still creepy and fascinating. The viewer is encouraged to root for Marion to get away with her crime, and then encouraged to root just as hard for Norman.

Norman Bates remains a villain for the ages, perhaps the greatest representation of the irreparably damaged psychotic to ever find his way to the silver screen. He appeared in three largely forgotten sequels, and will be resurrected again this year for a television prequel series, "Bates Motel," starring Freddie Highmore as young Norman, and Vera Farmiga as his mother. But without Hitchcock providing his menace, it just won’t be the same.

What I've Seen - Hitchcock

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
Easy Virtue (1928)
Blackmail (1929)
The 39 Steps (1935)
Sabotage (1936)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Rebecca (1940)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Saboteur (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Lifeboat (1944)
Spellbound (1945)
Notorious (1946)
Rope (1948)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
The Wrong Man (1956)
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)
Marnie (1964)
Frenzy (1972)
Family Plot (1976)

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Jonathan Rhys Meyers Post

I admit it. Occasionally I use this blog to purge some of my pop culture and media demons, and so we had to get to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers eventually. You may have heard of the Irish actor, who has appeared in several well-regarded films like "Bend it Like Beckham" and "Match Point" over the last decade. He recently finished up his run on Showtime's "The Tudors," where he headlined as Henry the Eighth. However, Rhys-Meyers has always been one of those actors who seems to be perpetually on the verge of becoming a big star, but hasn't managed it yet. And from the years of 2001 to about 2006, he was my last major, inexplicable, totally irrational screen crush. He has appeared in thirty-four film roles to date. I've seen twenty-eight of them, including several extremely obscure independent foreign pictures, a few of which have technically never been released.

It was the damn "Gormenghast" miniseries that did it, a British fantasy with dark edges that was produced for the BBC in 2000. Rhys-Meyers played the lead, a conniving anti-hero named Steerpike. While Rhys-Meyers wasn't particularly good in the role, he was attractive, he was charismatic, he was clearly talented, and he had the most intriguing aura of potential around him. So I went and tracked down Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine," where he played the film's David Bowie-esque central figure, and seemed completely unflustered by multiple nude scenes, cross-dressing, and playing gay. Then Ang Lee's "Ride With the Devil," where he was a doomed Civil War-era bushwhacker, juggling a Southern accent and action scenes. I dragged my college roommate to see Julie Taymor's "Titus," where he was one of Tamora's feral sons, who meets a wonderfully grisly end. Every time he was far from great, but there was something fascinating about his presence, and I couldn't wait to see what he was going to do in the future. I totally bought into the "next big thing" narrative that was already being constructed around him.

Clearly, from the projects he appeared in, it wasn't just me. I didn't find it difficult to work through Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' filmography, since it contained the aforementioned films, plus titles from Neil Jordan, Mike Figgis, and Michael Radford. I got introduced to several major British auteurs thanks to him. The films weren't always very good, but they were interesting, artsier stuff that fit right in with my slapdash exploration of non-mainstream cinema at the time. So for the next couple of years I followed Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' career, watching him show up in bigger and bigger projects. He got good notices for Mike Hodge's "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" and "Bend it Like Beckham." He was part of the ensemble of Oliver Stone's notorious "Alexander." He landed the lead of Woody Allen's "Match Point," giving what I think was his best performance up to that point. And then he won a Golden Globe for playing Elvis Presley in a CBS miniseries. And he nabbed one of the smaller supporting roles in "Mission: Impossible III." Hollywood took notice then, right about the time I started losing interest.

The problem with a promising young actor embracing Hollywood is that Hollywood rarely offers the kind of challenging material that really makes the best use of their talents. After 2006, the films Jonathan Rhys-Meyers showed up in just kept getting worse and worse. There was the maudlin "August Rush," and the tone-deaf "Children of Huang Shi." By the time he showed up in Pierre Morel's "From Paris With Love," playing the straight man to John Travolta's loose cannon FBI agent, I'd given up. And then there was the Julianne Moore thriller "Shelter," which was so badly received, it was shelved for four years, and will finally be getting a limited release this spring under a new title, "6 Souls." Of course there was "The Tudors," but I stopped watching after the first season. I wasn't too taken with the show's sexed-up version of Henry the Eighth or Rhys-Meyers in the part. My infatuation with the actor wasn't really with the actor, you see. I never followed his appearances in the tabloids, his love life, or anything else about him in real life. My interest was in the actor I thought he was going to become. And when he didn't, that was the end of it.

I still like seeing Jonathan Rhys-Meyers onscreen. He's become a decent actor, and much, much improved over some of his earlier work. However, I'm not going to be rushing out to see him play the villain in "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" next summer. And the news that he's landed the lead in NBC's new "Dracula" series fills me with neither dread nor glee. I have no doubt that he'll make a very good vampire, but that alone isn't enough to sell me on the show anymore. I'll watch the first few episodes though, because I do think that the premise - and Rhys-Meyers - still do have a lot of potential.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Not Feeling the Romance

October is for horror movies. December is for family and holiday movies. Summer is for action blockbusters. And February... well February has become the default month for romantic movies, for no better reason than because the biggest commercial February holiday is Valentine's Day. And I guess that this is as good a time as any to check up on the state of what has become the least loved movie genre in recent years. At this point romances and romantic comedies are viewed with about as much enthusiasm as religious epics, social justice documentaries, and the lower forms of indie coming-of-age biopic.

We know there is an audience for romantic films, because most of them do make money, no matter how terrible they are. And they have been pretty terrible The studios keep churning them out month after month, using them to fill in the holes in their schedules and as occasional counter programming to big action blockbusters, but there's rarely much enthusiasm for them. Unlike superhero films and franchise spectaculars, nobody devotes columns or websites to romances. Nobody tracks their release dates or speculates about the possible pairings of directors and stars. No, romances have quietly slipped under the radar, existing for casual consumption mostly by young women. The only time they attract much of the spotlight is when the romance is combined with a more exciting genre, like the "Twilight" movies, or if it's the product of a recognized auteur, like "Silver Linings Playbook" or "Moonrise Kingdom."

Still, 2012 was pretty good for romance. We had more gender-balanced ensemble pieces like "The Five-Year Engagement" and "Think Like a Man," and fewer one-woman trainwrecks like "One for the Money." Romantic comedies built solely around a female star like Jennifer Lopez or Katherine Heigl seem to be on their way out, not because there aren't actresses who are capable of carrying these films, but because Hollywood had pretty much conceded that they don't know how to make or sell them anymore, and the next Julia Roberts has failed to appear. The more gender balanced or male-led romances have generally been better, including smaller projects like "Friends With Kids," "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Celeste and Jesse Forever," and "Hope Springs." On the other hand, the year's biggest romantic moneymaker was the deeply stupid melodrama "The Vow," which made $125 million at the box office a year ago, though "Silver Linings Playbook" might get close to that over the next few weeks.

Looking ahead to 2013, the trends are pretty clear. We're getting more "Twilight"-esque supernatural romances like "Warm Bodies" and "Beautiful Creatures" aimed at the teenagers. Ensemble romances like "The To-Do List" and "The Delivery Man" are all about sex and relationships, but downplay anything that looks more typically romantic while emphasizing the comedy. The inescapable Katherine Heigl will return in April's "The Big Wedding," but as a member of a large cast of far more talented actors. The Nicolas Sparks brand of tearjerker melodrama continues to be popular, so an adaptation of his "Safe Haven" will try to replicate the success of "The Vow" when it opens next Friday. Meanwhile, the reign of Tyler Perry continues unabated for African-American romantic comedies and dramas. The only thing that looks like a typical star-driven romantic vehicle is the Tina Fey and Paul Rudd romantic comedy "Admission," which has the added benefit of being written and directed by the well-regarded Paul Weitz.

Even though I grumble about female-led films being in short supply, I can't say I'm too upset about seeing fewer promising actresses like Amy Adams and Kristin Bell and Greta Gerwig being shoehorned into formulaic dreck like "Leap Year" and "When in Rome" and "Arthur." And the truth is that all of our movie stars across the board have been losing ground to CGI-heavy franchises over the last couple of years, and ensembles are more popular all around. And most romances fit that range of middle budgeted, character-driven films for older audiences that have been shrinking for years. It's no wonder that the better ones all seems to be smaller indie pictures these days. And yet, even though there are fewer and fewer films being billed as romances or romantic comedies, there are still plenty coming out next year that fit the category, like "The Great Gatsby." As much disdain as there is these days for love stories, you can't really get away from them.

In short, the romances aren't going anywhere, even though they're in a pretty sorry state right now. It's going to take some time and some serious reinvention and rebranding to get away from the awful rom-com chick flick reputation the genre has now, but I'm optimistic that it can be done, eventually. But right now, there just aren't enough people in high places who will take romances seriously, or are willing to commit the right talent to the right projects, or who appreciate the decades and decades of wonderful films that came out of this genre. And that's why we're still getting Nicholas Sparks movies and why Katherine Heigl still gets work.

And that's why for Valentine's Day, I'll be seeing the next "Die Hard" movie.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Onboard the Disney-Star Wars-Marvel Crazy Train

When J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of the next "Star Wars," there was a nice sense of relief. Finally the fanboys could stop speculating and we would get a break from some of the wilder "Star Wars" rumors that were circulating. But this week, Harry Knowles went and started up the rumors about a possible Yoda spin-off movie. We've known for a while that Disney was considering more stand-alone "Star Wars" films apart from the upcoming trilogy, but the newest round of conjecture got Disney CEO Bob Iger to confirm that there was active development going on, and that writers Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg were working on them. Today there were more rumors that stand-alone movies about Boba Fett and the young Han Solo were in the works, according to Entertainment Weekly.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, their cinematic universe is expanding at a furious rate. The post-"Avengers" "Phase Two" films are all pretty much locked. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are getting their new sequels, and "Guardians of the Galaxy" just landed a leading man. These will lead up to "Avengers 2" in 2015. Most of the current speculation and rumor mongering has been about "Phase Three," which currently has only one confirmed project: Edgar Wright's long-awaited "Ant-Man." "Doctor Strange" is a major candidate to get his own movie after that. This week, there's been a lot of buzz about the possibility of a new "Hulk" movie, possibly an adaptation of the beloved comics storyline "Planet Hulk." There's already a furious debate going on in various corners of the internet about potential directors.

Since the success of "The Avengers" and the conclusion of "Harry Potter," planning out these massive, multi-film series years and years in advance has become the new normal. Nobody's worried about that first 2015 "Star Wars" film being a flop, or the potential failure of an "Avengers 2," which might shutter all the follow-up films, because those properties are so well insulated by their brands. Barring monumental catastrophes, we're going to have at least eleven connected Marvel films by the time we're done with Phase Two in 2015, and potentially many, many more if Marvel can manage the tricky transitions to new characters and the inevitable replacement of aging actors. And if the "Star Wars" prequels have taught us anything, it's that fans will show up to any "Star Wars" movie, hoping it will live up to the originals, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. That should get Disney through at least three new "Star Wars" films, even if they turn out to be terrible. However, J.J. Abrams is not in the habit of making terrible films, so I think it's safe to push that number up to four or five.

And now the fan speculation is free to get weirder and wilder than it ever has before. For years, "Star Wars" fans have idolized the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a minor villain in the original trilogy. Now there's a pretty distinct possibility that the powers-that-be are considering giving him his own spin-off movie. Who could be next? Mace Windu? Jabba the Hut? Admiral Ackbar? And if the fairly obscure Marvel superhero Ant-Man can have his own feature, why not Luke Cage? Or Wasp? Or the Power Pack? The ideas that would have been dismissed as wild fantasizing a few years ago have all suddenly become much more plausible. It's really tempting to want to join in the fun and think about the possibilities of more daring storylines and crazy cross-overs. Why not Avengers vs. X-men? Or if Warners really gets desperate a few years down the line, why not Avengers vs. Justice League? You could do a whole trilogy on that one alone.

However, I'm trying my best not to get carried away. Even though it looks like the sky's the limit right now for these franchises, the risks are still considerable. For Marvel, the longer the series goes on, the more difficult it is for newcomers to find an entry point, and tackling the less popular, more fringe characters means the later films may grow increasingly niche. Also, with two Marvel films being released each year for the next three years, I worry that we're going to hit a saturation point eventually. With "Star Wars," it's even harder to predict what's going to happen. The earliest we'll see the next film is 2015, and how well it does is going to determine how risky the other films are going to get. It's not easy to get these big action franchises off the ground, and Disney has stumbled multiple times trying to launch new ones - most recently with "John Carter" - and ended up buying its way into "Star Wars" and the Marvel Universe.

There's no question that Disney has the ambition, but living up to those ambitions is another matter entirely. Right now, I'm more interested with what's going on with the films already pretty far along in the pipeline. Is swapping out Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston for the much less experienced Alan Taylor and the Russo brothers as directors going to hurt the next Thor and Captain America films? And how on earth are they going to pull off something as mad as "Guardians of the Galaxy"? As for "Star Wars," J.J. Abrams should do a competent job, though the idea of cross-contamination with the "Star Trek" universe is a concern. Take heed from one of the rare fans who enjoys both equally - these are universes you do not want colliding. And then there's Abrams' penchant for trying to do everything. The latest is that he's apparently been talking to Valve about a possible "Half-Life" or "Portal" movie on top of everything else.

Yeah, these franchises are going to be crazy enough enough without all the speculation. Hang on tight everybody.