Sunday, March 31, 2013

More Bunnies, Less Crucifixions

Easter came around awfully quick this year, didn't it? I was all set to blog a new "Great Directors" post to tie in with the holiday, but I forgot that Easter came in March, and we've already had a post about Carl Theodore Dreyer. I still feel like saying a little on the subject of religion in films, since Easter is probably the most blatantly religious celebration that's still widely observed in the United States. Christmas has become an exercise in commercialism for the most part, but there's still quite a lot of spirituality attached to Easter – well, ignoring the elements that were lifted from the worship of pagan fertility goddess Eostre, like the bunnies and the eggs.

But on the subject of religion in film, in the mainstream we've seen a drastic reduction in religious themes of any sort being explored by our most prominent filmmakers. Go back to the early days of cinema, and there were many directors like Bergman, Dreyer, and Bresson, who wrestled with belief and faith onscreen. Hollywood used to love religious epics like "Ben-Hur," "Exodus," and "The Ten Commandments," and it was common to see nuns and priests and other religious figures at the center of Hollywood crowd-pleasers like "Boys Town," "Song of Bernadette," "A Nun's Story," and "Lilies of the Field," to name but a few.

In the modern day, you still occasionally get a "Machine Gun Preacher," and Tyler Perry's movies have always been Christian-friendly entertainment, but otherwise, the faith-based film has become a niche, and not a very well-regarded one. The public tends to associate films that explicitly talk about religion with the insipid, overly wholesome Christian church-approved entertainments aimed at kids, or message films that try to push a certain agenda. After a few notable scandals in the 80s and 90s, religion has become an extremely unpopular subject with serious filmmakers, because it is simply too controversial to deal with in an honest manner, with any artistic integrity. Remember all the fuss around Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ"?

Hollywood will still occasionally turn out a "Passion of the Christ" or a "Prince of Egypt" to try to cash in on the Christian audience, but it's not the audience it used to be. In the US, the church has become more and more unpopular over time, atheism is on the rise, and secularism is the norm. Sure, you still see priests and nuns and many faithful believers in the movies, but religion itself tends to be downplayed. Terence Malick's "Tree of Life," for instance, clearly featured Christian characters, and had heavy existential and philosophical themes, but you can't really categorize it as a religious film. Hollywood will take pains to avoid offending Christian moviegoers, toning content that is critical of the church in films like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" or "The Golden Compass," but there's no assumption, as there used to be, that Hollywood films are for a default Christian audience.

Look at the recent "Life of Pi," which was largely about the main character exploring and questioning the basis of his faith. The film did not take any particular stance on which religion was correct, showing the titular Pi trying out Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam in turn. Ultimately, the film's spirituality was handled in very broad, general terms, and is ultimately more of an allegory for faith than anything else. Or then you have "The Sessions," an independent comedy about a severely disabled man who is religious, and wrestles with the question of whether using the services of a sex surrogate would be considered a sin. The treatment of extramarital sex is very light and positive, and the religious dilemma is a minor obstacle in the grand scheme of things. However, the inclusion of the protagonist's religion and his consultations with a friendly priest are exceptional, not for how they are handled, but for being brought up at all.

The success of the History Channel's recent "Bible" series has lead to a minor rush for more Christian-themed projects in development, despite some controversy about some of the content, like the suspiciously familiar-looking depiction of Satan. I expect some of these projects will move forward, but many will run afoul of the same problems that all of the recent ones have – questions of accuracy, sensitivity toward other religions and cultures, suspicions regarding evangelical intentions, and finally the worry that the media n question could get hijacked into the culture wars. Religion is one of those topics that has become a major polarizing force, and it often seems like it's impossible to say anything substantive about Christianity or Islam without starting a fight.

It's a shame, because there's such a wealth of material involving religious themes, and some of the old epics really could use a fresh perspective. I've always enjoyed the Bible epics and the more thoughtful, existential films about crises of faith, even though I'm firmly atheist. I understand that religion is a big part of the human experiences, and our films ought to reflect that.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Brief Guide to the Great Directors as Actors

And now for your amusement and edification, I present a brief guide to famous directors appearing in the films of other famous directors. It's been an interesting tradition in films that goes back, a long, long way, and there have been some interesting encounters over the years between one great artist and another. I'm putting aside those accomplished directors who are primarily known as actors, including Mel Gibson, Dennis Hopper, and Charles Laughton.

Then we have Orson Welles (The Third Man, Jane Eyre), John Cassavetes (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary's Baby), Sydney Pollack (Eyes Wide Shut, Husbands and Wives), Clint Eastwood (The Dollars Trilogy), Lawrence Olivier (Rebecca, Marathon Man), and Vittorio de Sica (The Earrings of Madame De...), who were prolific actors both before and after they became directors. Their collaborations are fairly well known, and I don't think I need to put much emphasis on them here. And then there's Jean Renoir, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, R.W. Fassbinder, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and David Lynch, who often put themselves in their own projects, plus Alfred Hitchcock, who famously made a great game of it. For my purposes, let's set them aside too.

A borderline case that I include because it's one of the most celebrated is Erich von Stroheim, a director of such obscure early silent masterpieces as "Greed" and "The Wedding March." He took up acting after his directing career went bust, and is probably best remembered for playing Colonel Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion," and the sinister butler, Max, in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." Max, of course, was revealed to be a former silent film director, and brief clips of Von Stroheim's "Queen Kelly," starring "Sunset Boulevard" leading lady Gloria Swanson, were used to illuminate their past relationship and forgotten career successes. "Sunset Boulevard" also featured cameos from Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton.

Several other well-established, successful directors turned out to be very good actors once they took the plunge. John Huston began acting steadily in his later years, most famously appearing in Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" and Otto Preminger's "The Cardinal." Werner Herzog has popped up in some interesting places, including Harmony Korine's "Julien Donkey Boy" and just recently in Christopher McQuarrie's "Jack Reacher" as the villain. Ingmar Bergman recruited his idol, the silent film director Victor Sjostrom, to star in "Wild Strawberries," one of his very best films. And one of my absolute favorites in this category is Francois Truffaut, who made first contact in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Speaking of Truffaut, the French New Wave was at the center of a web of directors appearing in the films of their friends or devotees. Jean-Pierre Melville was very influential on the New Wave directors, and ended up in many of their films, including Jean Cocteaus' "Orpheus," Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless," and Eric Rohmer's "Le Signe du Lion," which also had cameos by Jean Luc Godard and Alan Resnais. Melville also appeared in Robert Bresson's "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne," and Louis Malle's "Zazie Dans le Métro" for good measure. Godard, paying homage to his major influences, put Fritz Lang in "Contempt," playing an aging, frustrated director. And he put Sam Fuller in "Pierrot le Fou" to explain what cinema was: "A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.”

The urge to pay homage has had mixed results. There have been some bizarre one-offs like Martin Scorsese playing Vincent Van Gogh in a segment of Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams" and Quentin Tarantino as a gunslinger in Takashi Miike's "Sukiyaki Western Django." Wim Wenders decided to cast directors in all the gangster roles in "The American Friend," based on one of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels, and recruited Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray for the job. Then there are the ones where it's not clear if the appearance is for an homage, or as a lark, or just for convenience's sale. I'm not sure what Federico Fellini is doing as the bum in Roberto Rossellini's "L'Amore." Or why John Waters shows up briefly as a club owner in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown." Did you even notice George Romero playing an FBI agent in "Silence of the Lambs"? The short, funny stuff, like the Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz cameos in John Landis's "The Blues Brothers," usually worked best.

Otto Preminger was an interesting case, as he initially intended to pursue acting, but proved to be a much better director, and so he accumulated very few screen credits. His most notable parts were as the German warden in Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17," and two episodes of the "Batman" TV show as Mr. Freeze. I feel like Spike Jonze ought to be in the same category. Though he was a director from the start, there was a period early on where he was doing a fair amount of acting work, in David Fincher's "The Game," and as one of the leads in David O'Russell's "Three Kings," which eventually petered out. And of course we we all remember Sofia Coppola in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part III." She quit acting after that, but it's worth noting that she did have a bit part as one of Queen Amidala's attendants in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

And finally, we close with a project that didn't quite make it, but that I think still deserves a place on this list. Orson Wells' unfinished "The Other Side of the Wind," intended to be an ambitious Hollywood satire, would have featured John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Claude Chabrol, and a very young Cameron Crowe.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Fandom Fringe

"Supernatural" is one of those genre shows that has been recommended to me a few times, because it's similar to other things I watch. I've seen a couple of episodes, but I wasn't impressed. I like plenty of the people who work on the show, particularly showrunner Ben Edlund, but I've decided it's just not for me. But maybe I would have been willing to give the show more of a chance if it weren't for the horrible, horrible reputation of the "Supernatural" fandom. I'm not talking about the randy fanfiction and the wonky photomanipulated fanart, which are pretty par for the course for most media fandoms these days. No, I'm talking about the stalkers and the inappropriate fan encounters and the disturbingly large group of deluded nutters who insist that some of the happily married actors are in sham relationships. I'm talking about the very real death threats. And within the fandom itself is a long history of vicious infighting, spectacular overreaction to perceived slights, and drama queens gone haywire. I'm surprised MTV hasn't built a reality show around these people yet.

Now I fully understand that 95% of the people who watch and enjoy "Supernatural" aren't involved in its fandom, and 95% of those who are involved don't act like this. There are plenty of self-aware, reasonable "Supernatural" fans who are just as horrified with the extreme behavior and entitlement of the fandom fringe as anyone watching from the outside. I was a part of various media fandoms for a long time, and I've had my experiences with the crazies. I think everyone has. They exist in pretty much every group built around a common interest, be it sports or politics or your religion of choice. The problem with the media fandom fringe is that the general fandom is pretty far out there on the continuum of acceptable activities already. There are still plenty of people who think the Comic-Con cosplayers are all freaks, and as much as I truly sympathize with the Bronies, I couldn't watch the trailer for their new documentary without getting a major dose of second-hand embarrassment. So the crazy tends to get magnified. And unfortunately for the sane "Supernantural" fans, they're inevitably going to be lumped together with the real nuts.

At this point I should talk about Becky, the "Supernatural" character who the writers added to the show as a commentary on their unusually avid fanbase. In the show, the main characters' adventures have been novelized in a popular book series, and Becky is their biggest fan. She runs an internet fan site, writes incestuous fanfiction of the two main characters, and is portrayed as an overzealous oddball. Compared to the portrayals of other fictional media fans we've seen in shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Community," she's much more extreme. She's not a bad person, but she can be trouble. "Supernatural" fans are generally split about the existence and treatment of Becky, but the meta commentary and light mockery that the show uses her for are fairly tame. Nonetheless, she's a good reflection of how the "Supernatural" creators view a particular section of their fandom. And thanks to her multiple appearances on the show, it's how much of their audience views that section of fandom too. And it's contributing to a pretty unflattering protrait of certain female internet-based media fans overall.

Of course this isn't fair, but it's important to remember that fandom isn't just the fans, but the interactions and the relationships of the fans as a group. As well meaning as all the participants may be, you can still end up with toxic fandoms that fight about everything, that make you choose sides in silly disputes, and that take themselves much, much too seriously. Especially online, normally socially unacceptable behavior is tolerated more, or can even be reinforced, so there's often a lack of awareness about crossing lines. Genre shows like "Supernatural" will attract a lot of kids and people who aren't very well socialized, who retreat into media as an escape. It's not rare at all to find that the fans who display the most extreme obsessive behavior do so as an expression of deeper personal problems. These are the people who tend to be the loudest and most visible in fandom conversations, who attract all the attention. These are the people who everyone in fandom knows, if only for their notoriety.

And that's how the fringe can take over, and normal, unassuming fans ends up on the sidelines, wondering if they really want to be associated with so much insanity. The fringe is not a new problem, of course. There have been extreme fans around for ages, inspiring restraining orders, sleepless nights, and Stephen King's "Misery." The dynamics of these big organized fandoms, however, and how they interact with that fringe, are still changing and evolving. And thanks to the internet, that process is a lot more visible. It's been fascinating to watch fandoms like "Harry Potter" self-police and oust troublemakers, and "My Little Pony" fight against being unfairly branded as a bunch of perverts and nogoodniks. As for "Supernatural," they remain the fandom that other fandoms point to as the worst case scenario, the cautionary tale of what happens if you get too carried away with being a fan.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What's a Chick Flick?

Everybody thinks they know what a "chick flick" is, but in practice it seems that nobody can agree on a standard definition. Does it mean a romantic comedy? Does it have to involve romance? Does it have to appeal to women or be told from their POV? Does it need a female lead? Do drag queens count? And is the term inherently a put-down or do we consider this a real genre?

Well, it depends. "Chick flick" is a term that refers to a group of movies in terms of their perceived audience rather than their content. It's predominantly used by men who apply it to films they think appeal strongly to women, often in a dismissive way, but not always. What's pretty consistent though, is that men use the term chick flick as a designation for movies that they don't consider to themselves to be part of the normal audience for. This is a highly subjective determination, so nobody agrees on exactly where the boundaries are. This doesn't mean that men and boys don't think it's acceptable to watch and enjoy some chick flicks. However, they recognize that there is a societal expectation, strongly backed up by the media, that certain stories and subject matter and content are not supposed to appeal to male audiences, so they are trained to be wary of them.

It's fascinating to look at what movies some people consider chick flicks, when you keep that in mind. For instance, "Hitch," "Crazy, Stupid, Love," and "500 Days of Summer" are commonly cited examples of guy-friendly chick flicks. Not surprising, since the stories are entirely male dominated and told from the male POV. They were marketed with male stars as headliners, and the vast majority of the screen time goes to male characters. So why are they considered chick flicks, while the similar Judd Apatow movies are not? I think most of it has to do with framing. The chick flicks are marketed as romances, all about relationships and emotional connections. Judd Apatow movies are sold as comedies first, and even if there's a lot of male-female interaction going on, the emphasis is on sex and raunch, even if the amount of touchy-feely scenes in "40 Year Old Virgin" and "Crazy, Stupid, Love" is about the same. The message is that romance is for women and sex is for men, but is there really such a big dividing line between them?

Then you've got the chick flicks without much romance, like "The Devil Wears Prada," "Bridesmaids," and "Pitch Perfect." These movies all the get the label for the simple fact that they star women. It has long been the assumption that men cannot and will not easily identify with female characters, unless they're in male-friendly scenarios like Jessica Chastain's character in "Zero Dark Thirty," or Jessica Lawrence in "The Hunger Games." And even then, having multiple female leads can tip the scales. So "girl power" movies like "Whip It" and "Bend in Like Beckham" are chick flicks, even though they're about sports. Want to tip the scales back the other way? Then you have to sex up the heroines, like Zac Snyder did with "Sucker Punch," to signal it's okay for the guys to take an interest. Unfortunately, filmmakers tend to go too far when they do this, which is why nobody has managed to get a female superhero movie right yet.

Do female audiences' opinions factor into determining if something is a chick flick or not? Absolutely. If female viewers display an outsized affection for a certain film, that's enough to make it a chick flick. Take "The Princess Bride," for example, which is a boys' adventure tale through and through, a bedtime story about pirates and duels being read by a grandfather to his grandson. But thanks to the "Princess" title and the adoration of female fans, it's considered a chick flick. Some guys define any movie that they only feel comfortable watching with female company as a chick flick, so it's really the perceived opinion of women and girls that is the most important as opposed to the actual opinion. i can't help but be reminded of a certain breed of grown-ups who will only watch cartoons if a kid is present, because they think it's not acceptable to watch them on their own, even if the cartoon wasn't intended for kids at all.

Chick flicks are a silly gender expectations construct, and there's no greater evidence of this that the fact that there's no male equivalent of the chick flick. Women and girls don't have any psychological barriers to watching male-centric and male-oriented films, aside from their own tastes. There are no movies that are considered off limits for the female half of the population, simply because guys like them in large numbers, or they ask them to identify with a male lead character. And if they dislike a film, they get to dislike them on their own merits. Yes, there are a lot of bad movies primarily aimed at women, but there are also a lot of bad movies primarily aimed at men, and if there seems to be outsized rancor towards "Twilight" and "Sex and the City," I suspect it's more about male viewers getting caught up in fulfilling social expectations than anything else.

And while the term "chick flick" is often used as a put-down, it's the guys who lose out, and who I end up feeling sorry for.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Let's Check in With "Archer"

So the newest season of FX's "Archer" has been rolling along nicely. The adults-only animated spy spoof is currently in its fourth season, and has picked up two new recurring characters. First there's Ron Cadillac (Ron Leibman), Malory's new husband, and Rodney (Andrew Donnelly), the ISIS armory's new clerk. Also, Ray is now a cyborg with robot legs, Cyril is dating Lana again, and Pam seems to be on the verge of becoming a new ISIS field agent. Barry and Katya have been making multiple appearances throughout this run of episodes, clearly being set up to for a big showdown a few episodes from now. And Sterling Archer? Though he occasionally shows tiny signs of growth, he's still the immature, emotionally stunted, spycraft savant man-child that we all know and love. And the show is full of just as much blood and guts and perversion and hilarity as ever.

However, the success of "Archer" has afforded it a few perks. The limited animation has been getting more animated, tackling more ambitious visuals, including several action scenes and better looking CGI vehicles. The guest star roster has also gotten more high-powered. Burt Reynolds famously stopped by last season, and this year an entire episode parodied reality television cooking shows with the help of Anthony Bourdain playing a pompous version of himself. For me, the biggest improvement is that at this point in the show's run, the shock value of the content has largely worn off, but the writers and the cast have become so comfortable in this universe that they can do more character-focused pieces and introduce characters that might not have worked in earlier seasons. Ron Cadillac is a good example, a charming older gent whose courtship of Malory happened off screen, and who has been played fairly straight so far. Cadillac displays no extreme behavior, and gives no reason for Archer to hate or suspect him, except we know that Archer's relationship with his mother has always been pretty warped, and Malory's love life has been colorful, to say the least. The old ultraviolence is still in play, but the writers don't need to go there as often.

I'm pretty settled on Pam and Cheryl being my favorite characters in the show, because the two of them are so horrible in such an entertaining way. Cheryl being a masochist and an airhead wouldn't fly anywhere else on television, but she's so cheerfully self-assured about it, and her inanity is taken to such wonderful extremes. It's one thing if the bimbo is just around to be saved by the show's heroes over and over again. It's quite another if her incompetence keeps making bad situations worse, and she just finds it hilarious. Pam is even more of a jerk because she's the smarter of the two, and she should know better, but on the other hand, everyone in ISIS is pretty awful in their own special way, so her apathy actually comes off as pretty reasonable most of the time. Also, I love that she's the biggest girl in the room, and she enjoys it. We've seen that Pam's very sexually active and more than capable of handling herself in a fight. Compared to these two, the rest of ISIS's roster of corporate drones can't compete.

I have to say that as far as late-night cartoon action spoofs go, I still prefer "Venture Bros.," which is finally returning to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in a few more weeks. "Venture" has a bigger universe, a more well-developed mythology, and more complex character relationships, so it tends to be more resonant underneath all the pop-culture references. "Archer," even though it can consistently get big laughs out of me, is much more shallow and disposable. It's still very committed to a very particular level of humor, and has only recently started poking around into deeper, more emotionally interesting places. The Lana/Archer/Ray love triangle has been heating up again, and Archer's had a few moments of real self-examination this year. Then again, getting in too deep could easily spoil that great satirical tone that "Archer" has developed, and it's still among the better comedies on television right now.

FX has already renewed "Archer" for a fifth season, and its success has contributed to the continued expansion of late night animation offerings. FOX Network, which is in the same corporate family tree as FX, is about to launch a Saturday night expansion of its "Animation Domination" programming block to compete with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in July. These late-night cartoons for grown-ups are no longer a rarity, but they still don't get as much respect as they should. So it's nice to see "Archer" thriving and kicking ass in the ratings. I fully understand why some are still skeptical of these shows, but they can no longer be ignored, and they're not going away any time soon.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What Do You Want Out of a New "Star Wars" Movie?

Since there's a nice lull in the "Star Wars" rumor mill for the moment, I thought I'd take the chance to put down a few notes on what I'd like to see out of the new "Star Wars" movies. Most of these are very general, aspirational thoughts, really applicable to a lot of different franchises, but I get the sense that the "Star Wars" filmmakers and the fandom could both stand to be reminded of some of the basics, considering how nuts the rumor mill has been lately. So what do I really want out of new "Star Wars" movies?

Story vs. Mythology – One of the reasons I'm glad that J.J. Abrams is working on the new "Star Wars" films is that he blew up the planet Vulcan. He ignored decades of "Star Trek" canon and just blew it up, because it served the needs of the story that he wanted to tell. Despite most of the recent "Star Wars" rumors being about whether the older actors from the original series will return or not, I'm not too interested in seeing Han Solo and Princess Leia back on the big screen unless Abrams and writer Michael Ardnt figure out a way to use them right, for the purposes of telling me a new "Star Wars" story. Remember that in the prequels, we had the two beloved droids, R2-D2 and C3PO, running around as comic relief, and I can barely remember what they actually did in those movies. There were altogether too many call-backs and references in the prequels, and the new "Star Wars" trilogy would benefit from toning those elements down. Sure, there should be some "Star Wars" mythology in the mix in order to keep the series' continuity, but the story has to come first.

Character vs. Effects – This is a harder one, because the "Star Wars" movies are known for pushing the envelope on special effects, and its' the spectacle that is the biggest selling point of the franchise. The new movies are bound to introduce new alien races and robots and space vehicles and so on. However, it's very easy for the effects to become overwhelming. If the writing's not in place to sufficiently ground these elements, they become weightless and empty. This has been particularly true of all the CGI characters, who don't have a fraction of the charm that the old puppets and rubber mask aliens did. Now clearly, you can give a CGI character heart and soul, as Gollum and the PIXAR movies have made clear, but Lucasfilm seemed more interested in making their characters looked good as opposed to making good characters, and I hope they don't continue to make that mistake. Also, one of the things that made the original "Star Wars" so distinctive was that it was a more rough-and-tumble universe, where Tatooine was a backwater planetary system and the Millennium Falcon was a hunk of junk. Things shouldn't be looking so pretty anyway.

Old vs. New – This one ties into the "Story vs. Mythology" point. One thing that I can't fault the prequels for was choosing to appeal to a new generation of kids instead of the existing fanbase of "Star Wars" geeks. "Star Wars" was always kid-oriented, based off whiz-bang adventure serials of the 50s the way "Indiana Jones" was. Now that we're thirty years removed from the original films, this point is more important than ever. The new "Star Wars" films have to be made to appeal to modern kids or else the franchise itself just isn't going to last. Of course I'm hoping for a little nostalgia too, but I hope that Abrams and company keep some distance from the fans who want the new trilogy to be more like the old trilogy, lest they end up going too far in that direction. I'm very happy about the apparent involvement of Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote "The Empire Strikes Back," but there's nothing wrong with applying new cinematic developments to the "Star Wars" films as long as they do it right.

The Light vs. The Dark Side of the Force – Finally, one modern trend I hope the new movie avoids is getting too dark. Sure, "Star Wars" has its tragic saga of a divided family and an intergalactic war at its center, but it was never a bleak or cynical story the way that so many are now. Watching franchises like "Terminator" and "Batman" and the James Bond movies get grittier and colder and more merciless over time has been disheartening. At the same time, new franchises like "Transformers" are getting slicker and meaner than ever. I hope that "Star Wars" can hold on to a little idealism and a little magic when it returns to the silver screen.

Mostly, I hope the new movies will give me a reason to be a "Star Wars" fan again.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Uncrowding Thursday TV

A couple of years ago, I lamented the fact that every show I wanted to watch had been scheduled against each other on Monday nights. Why did the networks keep making me choose between "Chuck" and "Big Bang Theory" and "Heroes" and "The Sarah Conner Chronicles"? was Monday somehow designated as geeky TV show night? Since then, I've watched all the shows I regularly tune in for migrate over to Thursdays, where a similar programming logjam has resulted. At the 8PM hour, CBS's "Big Bang Theory" and NBC's "Community" have been going head to head for years. At 9PM, "Person of Interest" airs on CBS, "Go On" is on NBC, and Lifetime has some variant of "Project Runway" or another. Finally at 10PM, CBS has "Elementary," which my significant other has gotten me into. However, there are also new episodes of "Archer" on FX and the impending arrival of NBC's "Hannibal," the "Silence of the Lambs" prequel series. Yet somehow, in spite of all the overlapping, I'm still more or less caught up with everything on Thursdays.

All the NBC programming, "Big Bang Theory," "Elementary," and "Project Runway" put new episodes online the next day. I usually end up watching "Big Bang" and "Community" on Fridays, and everything else sometime over the weekend. I prefer using the respective networks' sites instead of going through Hulu, because Hulu's interface and ads are still terrible. This easy accessibility is the only reason I'm still watching "Elementary," which has slowly grown on me over the past few months. Otherwise, I'd have chosen to stick with "Go On," which has a much higher chance of cancellation. Ditto "Community," which is almost certainly in its final season considering the dismal state of its ratings. I honestly do like "The Big Bang Theory" about as much, but "Big Bang" is a monster hit that's going to run in syndication for years. i don't have to worry about losing track of it the way I do with "Community," which is far more of a cult show. It's only been recently that CBS has consistently put full episodes of "Big Bang" online, so I no longer have to choose between them.

The cable shows are harder to come by if you don't have cable, of course, but I marathoned all of "Archer" in a big catch-up session with a friend who had the iTunes Season Pass for it. Otherwise, I would have waited for this latest season to show up on Netflix with the older episodes. However, I find that I'm getting more comfortable with using Amazon and iTunes for some cable shows, including "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," which both have highly anticipated new seasons right around the corner. I’ll be paying for Season Passes again for both series so I can keep up week by week as they air. And paying $45 for the two cable shows I actually want to watch sure beats paying for five months of a cable subscription. There are a couple of other programs I've been considering adding to that list, like Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake" miniseries, and the next season of "American Horror Story," but I think I can wait for those to hit disc or the subscription services, which means the price comes down considerably.

Finally, the only show I'm still watching live as it airs, on a mostly regular basis, is "Person of Interest," because rights issues prevent CBS from providing streaming versions in a timely manner (or so they claim). It's often a hassle, so I've missed several installments this year. For instance, I'm not sure where Carter's new love interest came from, or when Clarke Peters from "The Wire" became the show's latest big bad. I wouldn't bother for most other programs, but I still like "Person of Interest" enough that I tune in when I can. And it helps that it's not one of those series with a heavy mythology that requires seeing every single installment. Besides, it'll be nice to have a couple of new-to-me episodes to discover when I inevitably watch the reruns in a couple of years.

And so my Thursday night lineup no longer feels so crowded, and I can make it last all week. I could even start watching "Glee" again if I wanted to, without angsting over the scheduling conflicts. The internet has rendered the broadcast schedule mostly moot for me. The only reason that I remember that most of these shows air on Thursdays is because I have to wait until then before I have new episodes waiting for me when I get home. This week is going to be a little light since March Madness pre-empted all the CBS procedurals. Maybe I'll go catch up on some on those midseason premieres I missed.

Happy watching.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Any Worthwhile New Streaming Services?

I was going to write up a review on Redbox Instant today, the new Verizon-backed streaming service that Redbox has launched to supplement its DVD kiosks. They've been offering free trials, and I'm currently taking a break from Netflix in my usual rotation. It's eight dollars a month for Redbox Instant, with the added bonus of four regular Redbox DVD rentals. Add another dollar to upgrade to Blu-rays. Unfortunately, I didn't get very far into the sign-up process. Redbox Instant is just out of beta and only offers 4,600 titles, most of the same Epix content that is already available on Amazon Prime and Netflix. After browsing their selections for about an hour, I couldn't find a single title that I was interested enough in to want to give up personal information for. In a couple more months, maybe, if the content has improved enough, I could test-drive the service then. I'm not dismissing Redbox Instant entirely - it's very early yet, and they can surely improve - but the service is not in the shape that it needs to be to compete as a streaming service right now.

Okay, so let's shelve Redbox Instant for the moment. This wasn't the only streaming content provider in the news. Today, it was announced that a service called M-Go had secured a distribution deal with Lionsgate to stream its content. They launched back in January after securing a bunch of other studio deals. I didn't get far with this one either. M-Go is a video-on-demand platform, not a subscription based service. That means you pay for each and every movie and show you watch individually. They offer movie rentals for $0.99 for the first 30 days, and then bump up the price later. Sure, they offer plenty of new releases, and will even direct you to other services if they don't offer the title that you're looking for. However, M-Go is clearly trying to push the studio-preferred model of content consumption, promoting digital locker services and its compatibility with the UltraViolet format for digital content. No wonder the studios were so quick to sign on to M-Go. I don't have much interest in another itunes/Amazon style digital retailer at the moment, so I'm giving them a pass as well. Maybe when December rolls around and I need to catch up on a lot of recent films in a hurry, that deal will be useful.

What else? How about Flixfling? They're a fairly under-the-radar little service that talks up its commitment to indie, classic, and obscure movie content. That sounded promising. They offer two different services, a subscription service called Basic, and an On-Demand service that offers access to "Premium" titles. The problem is that their content is pretty severely lacking too. At 6,500 titles they're nearly as bad as Redbox Instant, and their user interface really needs some work. According to their database, they only have fifty foreign language films available, though a cursory glance through the full listings reveals plenty more. Also, I couldn't find a single movie or television episode that wasn't a "Premium" title, including public domain classics like "Nosferatu" and "His Girl Friday," which can be found for free in plenty of places on the internet. Flixfling definitely puts an overwhelming emphasis on their On-Demand service, and that means I don't have any use for it. And frankly, all the effort they took to make it seem like they had a viable streaming service, but without really offering one, left a bad taste in my mouth.

Then there's Crackle, which is Sony Pictures' platform for streaming content using flash video. They just ask for optional registration, and there are no fees that I can find. The content's not much to write about, but there were a scattering of decent titles that came up immediately, and if it's a free service, I can hardly complain. Then I tried watching Joseph Losey's "Go-Between," and found myself doing battle with a flash player that refused to load the content. I updated the Adobe player and still nothing. Had the movie expired? Was it one of the titles that you needed to register with the site to access? Was it not playable in my region? Not having the time to investigate further, I had to leave it at that. We're just going to have to label this test as inconclusive for now.

Competition is a good thing, but these latest challengers to Netflix and Amazon Prime are really not providing much of it at the moment. If anything, they show the studios’ deep resistance to the subscription streaming model. M-Go and Flixfling are aggressively pushing video-on-demand, while Redbox Instant might have some potential, but it's hurting for content. After researching each one, I didn’t bother signing up for anything, which was disappointing.

Oh well. Guess I'll renew the Netflix subscription a little earlier than planned. And keep tabs on that HBO Go rumor.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Holy Motors" is a Trip

The only exposure I had to the work of French director Leos Carax was "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf," a screwed up little love story about a troubled couple living on the streets of Paris. It had a small budget and a gritty, unvarnished style I found appealing. Carax's latest film, "Holy Motors," is something completely different. It's a big film in every possible sense. In fact, it's one of those grand-scale, audacious filmmaking experiments that exists to deliberately and systematically break many of the usual rules of cinematic storytelling, and uses every filmmaking trick in the book to do it. The term "avant-garde" is an appropriate descriptor here, but unlike many similarly self-conscious, erudite art films, "Holy Motors" is pretty fun to watch too. I freely admit that half the time I had no idea what was going on, but I was still entertained by its constant barrage of wild visuals, energetic storytelling, and intriguing concepts.

The central character is a man identified as Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is driven around town in a white limousine by a chauffeur named Céline (Edith Scob). Oscar has many appointments to keep, constantly referring to a stack of file folders that detail what is required of him at each stop. We're never told exactly what his job is, but it involves using make-up, wigs, and wardrobe changes to assume a series of different roles. At one stop he puts on a motion-capture suit and plays out a love scene, to be converted into a digital performance. At another, he becomes the obscene, bizarre Merde, who Lavant introduced to the world in a previous Carax effort, "Tokyo!" At one of the last stops he runs across a woman played by Kylie Minogue, who he seems to recognize, and perhaps we're finally getting a little insight into who Monsieur Oscar is, and why he's carrying out all these strange assignments. But then the two break out into heartfelt song, like the leads of an old musical, and it seems that in all likelihood they're still playing out parts for someone else's benefit. But whose benefit? And why? What is going on?

Each stop on the trip results in another little vignette, many of them paying homage to other films. "Holy Motors" is full of references, most of them unfamiliar to me, though I did pick out the "Godzilla" music, and Edith Scob briefly reassuming her most celebrated film role, the masked, disfigured Christiane from the horror movie "Eyes Without a Face." Perhaps the whole story is about the act of making movies and delivering performances, and more broadly, the way people take on different roles for different occasions. But that's putting things much too simply. "Holy Motors" may also about voyeurism and identity and social expectations and how it's increasingly hard to say what is real and what is not. Carax gives us no baseline for reality in this universe, and keeps adding more and more elements of absurdity as the film goes on, forcing the audience to keep reevaluating their assumptions and expectations. It's a trick Luis Buñuel used to regularly pull off in his celebrated Surrealist films, like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," and I was delighted to see it resurrected so beautifully here.

It's extremely difficult to execute a film like "Holy Motors" well, because of all the ambiguity, and all these different levels of commentary and symbolism. The constant leaps from genre to genre, and mood to mood could have resulted in a tonal and narrative mess. However, the pace is quick, no segment goes on longer than it should, and Carax keeps finding ways to surprise. And so, an impromptu musical interlude involving a gang of accordion players doesn't feel out of place. Neither does a touching scene where Monsieur Oscar takes the role of a dying man, sharing his last moments with his loved ones. There are a few places where I felt scenes didn’t work, or I couldn't figure out what Carax was trying convey. The brief appearance by Eva Mendes, for instance, went a bit wrong. However, at no point did "Holy Motors" feel like it was going off the tracks, or that each element wasn't well-considered or without purpose. Many developments felt random and spontaneous, but upon closer inspection, they weren't.

Clearly this is not a film for everyone, but for those who can appreciate the joyful weirdness and anarchic nature of "Holy Motors," it is a fascinating piece of work. I don't think I was so engaged or bewildered by another movie from last year. Sometimes it's nice to get away from logic and rationality, and it’s good to remember that film is a medium that allows for that. I'm still puzzling out many pieces of "Holy Motors," but it's a state of confusion I can enjoy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Selling "Spring Breakers"

You've probably seen the ads for "Spring Breakers," featuring four teenage girls in colorful bikinis, including former Disney Channel moppets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. James Franco is on some of the posters, sporting sunglasses and dreadlocks, looking like he'll be providing the comic relief. The girls are posing and doing their best to look sexy, selling the idea that "Spring Breakers" is going to be another party movie like "Project X" or "21 & Over," where the young protagonists have fun behaving badly and getting into outrageous situations. Some of the marketing hints that the girls indulge in some criminal activity to fund their trip to Florida, giving the movie a little more edge. But surely, "Spring Breakers" would be like all the rest of these weightless, substance-free films that glorify being young and irresponsible, right? It's just more commercial fodder to reel in high school and college audiences, right?

It's easy to imagine Hollywood coming up with the kind of "Spring Breakers" movie that the trailers are selling, except that they didn't. The director and writer of "Spring Breakers" is Harmony Korine, the filmmaker behind such low-budget titles as "Gummo" and "Kids," whose work is a fixture of the American art house circuit. This is why a trailer for "Spring Breakers" premiered at Cannes, and the film had an early limited release in a few cities last week. "Spring Breakers" has also been getting mixed to positive reviews from critics, who are not treating it as disposable fluff, but the latest work from a major auteur. There's been praise in particular for the social criticism and satirical bent of "Spring Breakers" as it examines the hedonism of its young subjects, elements that are likely to go over the heads of many mainstream viewers. At first it might seem strange that Korine would pick this kind of subject matter, but most of his earlier films are also about kids behaving badly, dysfunctional communities, and the effects of warped or absent morality. The film's marketing campaign has been doing a good job of attracting attention from teenagers and young adults, but because of its art house bona fides, "Spring Breakers" has also been stirring interest among us old fogey pretentious cineastes who haven't taken a spring break in decades.

Of course as far as Hollywood is concerned, it's the kids who want to see "Spring Breakers" that matter most, which is why Korine is getting more attention this week than he has in years, on the verge of having a really substantial hit movie on his hands. By all accounts, "Spring Breakers" isn't your typical party film, but something darker and stickier that gets into the potential consequences of the partiers' behavior. Franco's character is actually a gangster named Alien, who gets the girls mixed up in some big trouble. Still, the content is reportedly racy enough that it should satisfy the moviegoers who just want to see the girls in bikinis. Honestly, I don't think the studios really care what the audiences think of the film as long as it gets them into the theaters. They regularly package some truly heinous dreck to sell to eager movie fans, especially around this time of the year. Why not do the same with an art film that would otherwise only attract a fraction of the viewers? It's hard to feel guilty about the misleading marketing in this case, when it's actually working in the favor of an interesting director and a decent film for once. Contrary to the rumors, Harmony Korine has not sold out, if the man who made "Trash Humpers" is even capable of such a thing. And the studios are doing exactly what we expect them to do - sell the movie in whatever way that it can.

It's going to be very interesting to see how the typical young adult crowd reacts to "Spring Breakers" this weekend. Will they feel that they go their money's worth? Are any of the film's satirical points going to penetrate? Are people just going to focus on the former Disney Channel stars in extremely sexualized roles? I've already heard several predictions that "Spring Breakers" is destined to become a cult film. But if it does become a hit, what then? Are we going to see other indie movies with similar pedigrees released in a similar fashion? Well A24, the distribution and finance company behind "Spring Breakers," is also handling Sofia Coppola's next movie, "The Bling Ring," which is also about a group of attractive young reprobates. From the teaser trailer they've released, it looks like they're using the same marketing tactics that they did with "Spring Breakers." There's lots of emphasis on the fun and the sex, and not so much on the actual plot of the film, based on the 2009 Hollywood Hills burglaries.

Boy, I hope they get away with this.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What Happened to Youtube?

I've grown to rely on Youtube, as I'm sure many people have. It's the first place I go to look for clips of half-forgotten movies, television shows, and commercials. The other day, after a couple of tries, I found the opening of CCTV's 1987 of "Dream of the Red Chamber" serial, one of the earliest pieces of media I can remember. However, the continued push to monetize Youtube has been making the site harder and harder to use.

A few weeks ago I noticed that many videos, especially older and less popular ones, weren't loading properly. The stream would stop after the first twenty seconds and then take a minute or two to resume. This happened repeatedly for a set of clips that were only a minute or two in length individually, effectively doubling the amount of time it took to watch them. Apparently this is a measure that was taken in order to reduce the load on Youtube's servers, which I understand the reasoning for, but why apply it to these shorter clips where loading the entire video wouldn't have that much impact? And since last year, users have been complaining that a video won't load completely if it's paused, so I had to wait out the buffering each time.

Then you have the ads. Youtube has been experimenting with banner, overlay, and in-video ads for a long time now, similar to the kind that you find on other video services like Hulu. I don't usually find them too much of a bother, but this morning I was looking up some old trailers, and discovered I had to watch a hefty two-minute ad before I could access a one-minute teaser trailer, lengthening that wait time to ridiculous extremes. And of course, the teaser is already an ad itself, for the movie it was made for. I understand that Youtube is a business that needs to make money to pay for the servers, and I'm willing to put up with some advertisements to an extent, but this was too much. And I'm certainly not the only one who feels this way.

There have been various programs and applications floating around for a while now that let you download and save videos from Youtube, but lately we've seen the rise of various browser extensions, tweaks, and add-ons designed to skip or block Youtube ads, to increase download speeds, and add more controls. Don't like the autoplay or the automatic annotations? There are scripts out there that can turn them off for you. Youtube Options and Youtube Center seem to be the most popular all-purpose Youtube tweakers at the moment. I haven't resorted to using any of these, but it's becoming more and more tempting as Youtube keeps adding hoops to jump through for access. And if there are more and more people like me, Youtube may be in trouble.

Youtube has been trying to shed its image as a free video portal for ages. They've been slowly adding more and more pay content, like the ability to rent streaming movies, and they'll be launching premium content soon in the spring. The trouble is that the majority of its users don't associate Youtube with pay content, the way they do with Hulu or Netflix. They associate it with amateur home movies and music video collections and endless user-submitted memes. They think of it as a free media resource that becomes less valuable the more restrictions are placed on content, and the more difficult its videos become to access. Users are far more resistant to the monetization of Youtube than they are with the sites that started out as pay sites, because they're used to being able to use the site in a certain way, and can become hostile and resentful if that option is taken away.

I sympathize with Youtube, because there's clearly a lot of potential for them to grow commercially. Youtube is the third highest ranked site on the internet in terms of traffic, and has become a part of the mainstream culture the way that few other sites have. Many people use it daily, myself included. However, there's a significant risk of Youtube alienating their user base if they push monetization too hard. Last year they ran more video ads than any other digital distribution service, but it's clear that fewer and fewer users have been willing to sit through them. The most popular browser extensions are all ad blockers and script tweakers that give users more control over what they see online.

Personally, I know Youtube isn't going to last in its current form if it doesn't make money, which is the biggest thing that's keeping me from trying to game the system myself. However, I can't help feeling frustrated every time Youtube makes me sit through an inane ad, or the videos won't load properly. Surely there are better alternatives than this?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Brave New "Utopia"

The similarities between the six-episode British thriller "Utopia" and the graphic novel "Watchmen" are numerous. Both involve massive conspiracies with powerful people behind the scenes trying to manipulate global events. Both involve a lot of graphic violence, so even though comic book imagery and several child characters are involved, they are absolutely not meant for the kids. And then there are the visuals, full of bright primary colors, with a special emphasis on bright yellow. "Watchmen," of course, had an expensive theatrical adaptation that pushed the boundaries regarding violence and sexuality in superhero films. "Utopia" does not have superheroes, but it accomplishes similar goals. And it's a hell of a lot better.

"Utopia" revolves around a graphic novel of the same name, which is the subject of all kinds of wild theories about it possibly predicting the future or being based on real, covered-up events. The manuscript for an unpublished second volume falls into the hands of a fan named Bejan (Mark Stobbart), who intends to share it with fellow regulars from a "Utopia" website, post-grad student Becky (Alexandra Roach), directionless IT worker Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), survivalist hacker Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), and Grant (Oliver Woollford), who has been passing himself off as a stock trader, but is actually an eleven year-old boy. However, a pair of remorseless killers, Arby (Neil Maskell) and Lee (Paul Ready), from a secret organization called The Network, are also looking for the manuscript. In the opening scene of the first episode, we watch them murder everyone in a comic book shop for information on its whereabouts. Finally, there's Michael Dugdale (Paul Higgins), a hapless civil servant that The Network is blackmailing to do some very, very bad things.

What immediately catches your attention about "Utopia" is how good it looks. The cinematography is gorgeous, and creates this wonderful feeling of artificiality and unease. Nearly every frame conveys the sense that there is something not quite right about this version of the UK, which is beautiful and brightly colored, but seems to be nearing the tipping point of something terrible. And at this point, I should warn again that this is a very violent program. People are killed cruelly and graphically, in significant numbers, and there's a squirm-inducing torture scene in the first episode. Horrible things are regularly threatened with an ease and nonchalance that is genuinely shocking. However, there's a certain honesty to the portrayal of violence here. It's all real-world horrors, not played up for the audience's visceral pleasure, always portrayed negatively, and always, always with terrible consequences. No slow-mo and no silly CGI blood spatter. Take that, Zack Snyder!

Okay, I'm being unfair, but I couldn't help thinking that a more stripped down style and a limited television series format like this would have suited Watchman" so much better. "Utopia" has the length to acquaint us with its large cast and set up a big, epic story. However, it still moves fast enough to resolve everything within six hours, and nearly every mystery or new development that is introduced in one episode is dealt with or at least expanded on in the next episode. So there's a mystery woman named Jessica Hyde (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) that the two killers are looking for? We meet her by the end of the first episode, learn her backstory in the second and third, and by the sixth her whole story arc pays off with a bang. And the big conspiracy that most television shows would drag out for multiple seasons? We get the big reveal in episode five, and it's a doozy. For those of you who love puzzle and mystery shows, "Utopia" is one of the most satisfying I've ever seen.

With the recent leaps that television has been making in quality and willingness to push boundaries, in many ways it's surpassing film as the best medium for comic book adaptations. "Utopia" wasn't based off of a real comic property, but it certainly understands their conventions, and tells a story similar to what we might expect from Grant Morrison or Alan Moore. Though "Utopia" has science-fiction elements, it's the social commentary that stands out. The show has subtle and not-so subtle messages about media manipulation, racial tensions, environmental crises, sources of global unrest, and the cost of doing the right thing. Of course, the story is fantastic and impossible, but it's built on an awful lot of real-world issues that people don't like to talk about. And that's what helps it to strike such a nerve.

Yet again, it's British television that is the source of one of the most exciting pieces of genre work I've seen in a long time. However, in this case I'm not surprised that "Utopia" hasn't reached the States yet, and probably won't for a long time. It's highly provocative stuff that really pushes a lot of buttons, and has the kind of content that many people can't handle. But if you think you can, I highly recommend seeking it out. There's been nothing else quite like it – at least, outside of the comics.

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Favorite Carl Theodor Dreyer Film

I'm always a little torn when a film novice mentions that they've watched and enjoyed "The Passion of Joan of Arc," Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent film based on the trial of the title character. On the one hand, it's wonderful that someone has taken the plunge and managed to connect with a silent. However, it's difficult to recommend other films to move on to from there, because "Joan" is so unlike any other silent film of that era. There are the stunning long close-ups, particularly of actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who appears without the thick makeup commonly worn by other silent actresses. There is the naturalism of the performances, eschewing the kind of exaggerated, pantomime-based acting that had been widely adopted. Elaborate sets were built, but Dreyer all but ignored them in favor of his actors' faces, shot with an almost shocking degree of realism. There was nothing else like "The Passion of Joan of Arc" made during the silent era, and precious little since then either.

Dreyer is as much an anomaly in film history as his film. He was a Danish director, not really part of any of the wider movements or schools of the time, though influenced by spending many years working in France's film industry. After the financial failure of "Joan" and "Vampyr," he wouldn't direct another film for over a decade, during which films transitioned to sound and WWII had started. Dreyer's style changed completely for his sound films, predominantly favoring long, static wide shots. Close-ups were rarer, and a greater sense of distance form the audience was maintained. However, the subject matter remained the same. Dreyer was a deeply religious artist, and all of his work is focused on spiritual and existential crises. Many of his later films can be characterized as morality plays, examining the nature of faith and doubt. Dreyer never achieved much commercial success because his films were so heavy and austere, but he was beloved and remembered by critics, and influenced many other directors, notably fellow Scandinavians Ingmar Bergman and Lars Von Trier.

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" remains the most accessible of Dreyer's films, because it was driven by stunning visuals instead of dialogue, and based on a well-remembered historical event. Transcripts of the actual trial and interrogations of Joan served as the basis of the script. The film is also notable for containing the sole cinematic lead performance of Renée Jeanne Falconetti (sometimes credited as Maria Falconetti). She was a respected French stage actress, and the story goes that Dreyer was so demanding of her, and made the filming experience so unpleasant, that Falconetti suffered a mental breakdown at the end of production, and declined ever appearing in a film again. As a result, Dreyer unfairly acquired a reputation for being a tyrant and a sadist. However, his film seemed to back up these claims, because there was never a more heartrending portrait of human suffering as Falconetti's Joan, subjected to countless inquisitions and torments before finally being executed in the final scenes. Often, her face is the only thing in the frame, and it is impossible to escape her haunting gaze.

At the time of release the film was hailed as a masterpiece, but controversy was already swirling around "Joan" for its subject matter and its positioning of religious authorities as villains. The British banned it for its unflattering portrayal of English solders. The French government and the Catholic Church both made significant censorship cuts, without Dreyer's input. The original negative and a reconstructed second version with alternate footage were both lost in fires in subsequent years. Though widely recognized as a classic, it became very difficult to find the film, adding to its mystique. It was only in 1981, long after Dreyer's death, that a print of the original unedited version was found in the janitor's closet of a Norwegian mental hospital, and a full restoration was done. It's difficult to resist drawing parallels to the story of Joan herself.

Everything about "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is unlikely, from its director to its star to its miraculous recovery from obscurity. Perhaps that's why it remains such a unique experience that is so different from its contemporaries. After 85 years "Joan" still has so much emotional power, losing no impact with age. Perhaps this is because it came from a director who engaged with spirituality so wholeheartedly, and because it came from a era when the church was a far stronger force in the world, and the story resonated more deeply. Dreyer's film was released only eight years after Joan of Arc was declared a saint, and provides a good reminder of why she was elevated. And it's also a reminder of the power of film, silent or otherwise, to move and to transcend and to endure.
What I've Seen - Carl Theodor Dreyer

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Vampyr (1932)
Day of Wrath (1943)
Ordet (1955)
Gertrud (1964)


Thursday, March 14, 2013

How High Will "Veronica" Go?

Kickstarter has been a boon to the creators of short films, web series, documentaries, and other smaller scale film projects. The list of famous names successfully raising money via Kickstarter crowdsourcing keeps growing, and now includes Charlie Kaufman, David Fincher, Dan Harmon, Amanda Palmer, John Kricfalusi, Masaaki Yuasa, Bill Plympton, Phil Tippett and the guys behind "Cyanide and Happiness." However, funding a full-length commercial feature film hadn't been tried before, since the amounts of money involved were exponentially larger than what Kickstarter campaigns usually handled. The most high profile film projects, including the story reel for Fincher's "Goon" movie, only asked for a few hundred thousand dollars. A decent quality feature would require millions to produce. A few Kickstarter campaigns had raised millions, but only for technology and video game projects.

Enter "Veronica Mars." The high school mystery series ran for three seasons from 2004 to 2007, but was gone from television too soon, leaving unfinished business and a sizable fanbase hoping for some kind of follow-up project. As with fellow cult favorite "Arrested Development," rumors of a movie sequel circulated for years, but looked increasingly unlikely as the years went by. A small cult audience, no matter how fervent and devoted, is almost never enough for a studio to finance the resurrection of a beloved TV or movie property. But what if they weren't risking the studio's money? Yesterday, show creator Rob Thomas, with the full blessing of Warner Brothers, who owns the rights, started a Kickstarter campaign for the "Veronica Mars" movie. He asked for $2 million, the highest Kickstarter goal ever for a film project, to be raised in 30 days. The full amount was raised in less than twelve hours, and now the question is, how high will that total climb before the end of the 30 day campaign? At the time of writing, it's at a little over $3 million and climbing. And the buzz and the excitement around the campaign are so infections, I'm a little sorry I'm not more familiar with the show.

The unprecedented success of the "Veronica Mars" movie is leading to all kinds of speculation about other possible projects that Kickstarter could make happen. How about a second "Firefly" movie? How about another season of "Deadwood"? However, there are a lot of reasons to be cautious here. Keep in mind that "Veronica Mars" is in a very unusual position, where most of the creative talent involved is still available to do a follow-up project like this, the budget requirements are fairly low, and Warner Brothers is willing to play ball. A Kickstarter funded production is still very much uncharted territory, and a major studio being involved brings up some sticky legal and financial issues. Remember also that the biggest Kickstarter film projects to date, like Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa" and "Goon" haven't been delivered yet. Kickstarter has grown so fast in such a short amount of time based largely on potential as opposed to actual product. Kickstarter projects, like any other entrepreneurial ventures, go awry all the time. CNN recently found that 84% of the biggest funded projects didn't meet their delivery deadlines, with around 30% by more than six months. Then there have been the growing number of failed Kickstarter projects that where the entrepreneurs couldn't deliver at all, leaving backers feeling cheated and wary of making future contributions

The "Veronica Mars" movie is high profile enough and has so many established, experienced professionals in charge that I don't think it'll be one of the failures. There's a solid timeline in place for production, Warner Brothers has already promised to distribute the film, many of the key actors have already signed on, and the media coverage that's been generated by the campaign will help to ensure things run fairly smoothly. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't still a lot of risks. Production issues aside, the biggest one that most people aren't thinking about is, what if the "Veronica Mars" movie turns out to be bad movie? What if the fans don't like it or are disappointed with it? Fans may scoff, but remember what happened with that second "X-files" movie? Or "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"? Or "TRON: Legacy"? I'm sure the people working on those films had the best of intentions, but they ended up falling short of their fans' expectations, and those fandoms took some pretty hard blows.

However, there's no denying that crowdfunding movies and television shows has a lot of potential. Along with the recent investments by Netflix, Amazon, and others into web content, this marks the emergence of new sources of financing that weren't on anyone's radar a few years ago. Now thanks to them, "Arrested Development" is back. And "Veronica Mars" is back. And artists like Phil Tippett get to make their dream projects that no studio would have paid for in a million years, and do them on their own terms. Who knows who's going to be next in line?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New Disney Movies Based on the Old Disney Movies

Yesterday Disney announced that they are pursuing development of a live action "Beauty and the Beast," to go along with "Alice in Wonderland," "Mirror, Mirror," and the upcoming "Maleficent" and "Cinderella." The fairy tale trend may be on its last legs in the rest of Hollywood, but Disney being Disney, they've found some success with it. The huge opening for "Oz the Great and Powerful" shows that the classics can still be lucrative if handled properly. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Disney has been going through its back catalog of animated properties looking for more children's stories to reinvent, and not just to keep feeding the storylines on "Once Upon a Time."

So what's next in the pipeline? There are some interesting possibilities. Disney already went through a similar phase in the 90s that netted us live action "The Jungle Book" and "101 Dalmatians" movies. I think "Tangled" and "The Princess and the Frog" are probably too recent, and most of the ones with animal stars like "The Rescuers," "Dumbo," and "Lady and the Tramp" would be too difficult to translate. I've made a list of some possible remaining candidates below.

"Pinocchio" - Remember that cheery "Geppetto" TV movie musical that Disney made back in 2000 with Drew Carey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus? How about the Italian version with Roberto Benigni? No? We're seriously overdue for a new version of "Pinocchio," one that takes the character back to his darker roots. Guillermo Del Toro and the Jim Henson company were working on a stop-motion version which seems to be in limbo at the moment. If that one doesn't pan out, Disney might want to consider going the live action route and seeing if they can find a good angle on reinterpreting what is arguably the best animated film they ever made.

"The Little Mermaid" - There are a lot of technical challenges that would come with this one, which is why "The Little Mermaid" hasn't been adapted as often as most of the other stories on this list. Movies involving water tend to get very expensive in a hurry. However, considering how far CGI has advanced, I think a new live action adaptation is very possible and has lots of potential. Think about how gorgeous those ocean scenes were in "Life of Pi." Also, keep in mind that Disney already produced a perfectly charming mermaid movie back in the 80s with only old fashioned special effects - Ron Howard's "Splash."

"Aladdin" - The biggest problem with doing a live action "Aladdin" is Disney's own discouraging failure at adapting the similarly themed "Prince of Persia" franchise a few years ago. Add likely issues with cultural appropriation, Orientalism, and stereotyping on top of that, and "Aladdin" starts to look like a potential minefield. However, the "Arabian Nights" stories have remained very popular, and everyone knows the "Aladdin" story. If Disney can get a big headliner to play the Genie of the Lamp, and make some genuine attempts at cultural sensitivity, I think the magic carpets and caves of wonder should do the rest.

"The Sword in the Stone" - There have been quite a few attempts at tackling the King Arthur legends recently, but I'm surprised that nobody has thought to take another shot at adapting "The Sword in the Stone," the first volume of T.H. White's "The Once and Future King." Disney made a fun, if significantly edited animated version in 1963, with young Arthur being tutored by a scatterbrained Merlin. With its lighter comedic tone, lots of transformations, talking animals, and the iconic magicians' duel, the original may not have been meant for children, but it's got all the earmarks of good material for a family flick.

"Peter Pan" - Disney has been getting a lot of mileage out of its "Tinkerbell" series, and there are plans for a live action version in the works. If that goes well, it could lead into a new adaptation of "Peter Pan." It's been a decade since the last major adaptation, P.J. Hogan's sorely underseen 2003 version, so I think we're due for another one. There are several "Peter Pan" related projects in various stages of development around Hollywood right now, including a darker revisionist one and an origin story for Peter and the Lost Boys. I can't think of any reason why Disney shouldn't look into revisiting Neverland too.

"The Black Cauldron" - By far the most obscure feature on this list, but I figure that now that Disney's managed to revitalize the Oz franchise, maybe they'll think about trying the Prydain Chronicles again too. Lloyd Alexander's five-book fantasy series was the source material for the disastrous 1985 animated feature. It was too dark and scary for that era, much like the "Return to Oz" movie that came out the same year. However, the darker sword and sorcery storyline and the zombies might work better now, especially in a live-action film that won't be mistaken as being a typical Disney cartoon, and just for kids.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Well, I Wanted an "Oz" Franchise

"Oz, The Great and Powerful" is the first big hit of 2013, grossing over $80 million at the American box office over the weekend. Disney has indicated that they're working on sequel plans already, so it looks like we have a real Oz film franchise on our hands at last. On the other hand, as a fan of the Oz books and the earlier Oz films, this isn't quite what I had in mind. Up front, I want to be clear that I haven't seen the new movie yet, but I've been reading copious spoilers and taking notes. This is one of those cases where I don't think knowing how it ends is going to impact the viewing experience much, and I've got a lot of concerns to address. Minor spoilers ahead.

L. Frank Baum's Oz books were fantasy stories written for children, and their main characters were children, usually girls like Dorothy and Ozma, but not exclusively. What Disney has done is to make an action-adventure film centered on a grown-up male protagonist, the Wonderful Wizard, played by James Franco. "Oz: The Great and Powerful" is positioned as a prequel to "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," detailing how the Wizard first came to Oz and became its ruler. Assuming Disney plans to continue in the same vein in future movies, this changes the dynamics of Oz stories considerably. An adult hero means an adult POV, different goals and a different approach to the fantasy world. You lose the child's-eye view, and a lot of the sense of danger and wonder that go with it. Many of the fantasy elements and characters originally created to appeal to children have to be adjusted for the sensibilities of adults. For instance, the Wizard gets a winged monkey sidekick in the new movie who is not scary at all. He can talk, and is voiced by Zach Braff. Meanwhile, Glinda and the other witches are set up as potential love interests for the Wizard as well as antagonists.

Looking ahead, even with the Wizard as the lead character, Disney wouldn't have to depart too far from the books for future installments. The plots are simple enough that you could substitute the Wizard without much trouble. As we all know, the Wizard was eventually revealed as a humbug and departed from Oz, ceding leadership to the Scarecrow. However, in the books he found his way back to the Emerald City eventually and decided to stay, becoming a recurring character for the rest of the series who often came along on various adventures. You could transplant many of these stories to the period of time when the Wizard ruled Oz.. Also, while there was no mention of Glinda and the Wizard being romantically involved, they were good friends, and it's not out of the question that a deeper relationship could have grown out of that.

However, the most famous Oz material would be off limits if Disney wanted to stick with prequels. Anything involving Dorothy or Ozma or the characters closely connected to them would require the ousting of the Wizard from power. That's a route I'm not sure Disney is too eager about taking, considering the intellectual property issues with MGM. Then again, since the Wizard's power is based on a lie, according to the usual rules of Disney movie morality he has to come clean eventually. Remaking "The Wizard of Oz" would almost certainly go badly, but I wonder if you couldn't do a sort of "Rosencranz and Guildenstern" version of it, showing what the Wizard was doing behind the scenes during Dorothy's famous adventure. The biggest danger with this approach is that the Wizard might end up usurping Dorothy's place as heroine of her story.

That brings us to the gender problem that "Oz, the Great and Powerful" has created. There's a good article over at Jezebel about why positioning the Wizard as the hero and co-opting what was originally a very female-centric series is highly problematic. There's also been significant criticism about the characterization of the witches, which according to many reviews leaves a lot to be desired. In a prequel situation I think there's some wiggle room, but the Wizard muscling in on Dorothy's turf is definitely not acceptable. At the same time, keep in mind that Disney won't want to decrease the role of James Franco in any way, since he's the big headliner of the new franchise, and the company has a strong interest in brands that would be accessible to teenage boys. The last thing they want is to position the new Oz movies as girls' entertainment. That reduces the chances of getting major female characters with real agency front and center.

However, you could probably sneak in a young heroine or two by just keeping Franco's face on the posters, the same way Disney did with Johnny Depp and "Alice and Wonderland." Going back to a potential "Wizard of Oz" related project, you can't have the Wizard secretly saving the day without marginalizing one of the iconic girl heroes of American literature. But an entirely separate Wizard-centric story that supplements what Dorothy is doing? That could work. Then the following sequel could do an adaptation of "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz," book four of the Oz series, where the Wizard and Dorothy appear as co-leads trying to get back to Oz, and you could delve into the rest of the series from there.

I've been waiting a long time for new Oz films, and I'm not too picky about what we end up with. But Disney has a chance to do something very special here, depending on where they decide to take the series. The Oz universe is a vast one, and I've only touched on a few possible options.

Hoping for the best.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A View on "The View"

"The View" is one of those shows that the internet loves to get snippy about. Oh, they're just a bunch of bickering old biddies who don't know anything. And someone will inevitably bring up Sherri Shepherd's anti-evolution stance, or Elizabeth Hasselbeck's right-wing leanings and lack of credentials, or Whoopi Goldberg's unfortunate defense of Roman Polanski, or anything involving Rosie O'Donnell. "The View" inevitably gets lumped in with the worst of daytime talk shows, and if you do find someone who admits to enjoying the program, it's usually with the caveat that "The View" was so much better when Meredith Viera was the moderator, or they wish Barbara Walters would be more involved. And now that a major source of that drama, Joy Behar is leaving "The View," and provocative Elizabeth Hasselbeck may be out the door next, the the major sentiment seems to be, good riddance. I don't think either of them or the show deserves that.

I haven't been a regular viewer of "The View" for several years now, but I always liked it, or at least appreciated its aims. Yes, Hasselbeck would get on my nerves because she and I have diametrically opposed views on social issues, and some of the discussion topics weren't addressed nearly as well as they could have been if more informed and more thoughtful panelists had been participating. However, "The View" is only occasionally a serious forum for serious issues. Mostly it's a typical chat show, meant to cater to a particular female demographic. However, it does successfully reflect how a broad range of political and social stances manage to coexist with each other in this country. And several headline-grabbing blow-ups over the years would attest to them often not coexisting very well. On the subject of gay marriage, for instance, the regular panelists are split right down the middle, with Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar on one side, and Sherri Shepherd and Elizabeth Hasselbeck on the other. Like it or not, this is fairly close to how the American public is actually split on the issue.

With the way the cable networks have declared sides ideologically, the American culture has polarized, and it's easy to draw lines and automatically discount the other side. That's something that you can't do on "The View." The current lineup has been in place since 2007, when Rosie O'Donnell had her spectacular flameout, and Whoopi Goldberg was recruited to fill her seat. This resulted in a terrific ongoing tension between the panelists on the left and the ones on the right ever since, who bring all their biases to the table and often struggle with reconciling their different worldviews. I'm sure that many audience members watch the show for this very reason, because it is one of the few places on television where you do get everybody on equal footing, and with five very outspoken women, nobody consistently dominates the conversation. More than that, "The View" provides a forum for women to discuss subjects that you don't normally get to hear anywhere else. I like that they talk about politics in particular, a subject that Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres have always been careful to avoid.

I think the show works because whatever you want to say about the panelists' more controversial opinions, it's clear that they're genuine. The discussions can become very personal and emotions can run high. And why shouldn't they? When tackling hot-button issues, personal experience often does play heavily into the controversy, and sometimes erudite conversation just isn't enough. It's easy to make fun of "The View" when the blow-ups happen, but once in a while it can really hit a nerve in a way that even the most serious news programs can't, because the hosts come across as such ordinary women, despite being famous, and their own experiences bring an invaluable context to their discussions. I like all of the current panelists, even Hasselbeck, because even if the whole room's against her she doesn't back down very easily, and there is a good chunk of America that thinks exactly the way she does. The show's been better for having her, and if she departs with Behar it will be a real loss.

Now where is "The View" going to go in the future? That's going to depend entirely on who they manage to recruit next. I can see the show devolving into the kind of fluff and triviality that they already depend on pretty heavily, like the reality show segments and the celebrity gossip. On the other hand, the pendulum could just as easily swing in the other direction. I think another comedienne should replace Behar. Or maybe they should aim a little younger and nab a twenty-something to start courting the "Girls" generation. "The View" has been on the air for over fifteen years now, and it's amassed so much cultural clout that no matter what the naysayers think, I don't see it going anywhere.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

More Podcast Recs

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, so I thought I'd pass along links to some of the movie-related and television-related ones that I've been enjoying. All of these are free through iTunes or the links below. Enjoy.

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith - The host is a giant fanboy and it took me a while to get used to his style, but he conducts great Q&As with working screenwriters. Most of the interviews are conducted in conjunction with screenings of the writers' new movies, so after Goldsmith’s done with his questions, there's often a little audience participation too, nicely edited so that there are none of the breaks or the awkward pauses that usually come with live Q&A sessions. I recommend waiting until after you've seen the specific movies being discussed prior to listening to the podcasts, because they focus on the writing process, and how scripts are developed, and what got cut and what got changed on the way to the big screen. This is the side of filmmaking I love I hearing about, and as far as I'm concerned the writers never get as much of the spotlight as they should. Some recent highlights include Joss Whedon on "The Avenger," David O. Russell on "Silver Linings Playbook," and Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee discussing "Wreck-it-Ralph."

SModcast - This pick requires a little filtering. "SModcast" is both the name of a podcast and also a collection of podcasts associated with writer and director Kevin Smith. He's got a bunch of different ones related to the entertainment world, including "Hollywood Babble-On," which is a pretty free-form weekly discussion about current movies and television, "Smoviemakers," where he interviews filmmakers, "Film School Fridays," where he throws down with film students, and the main "SModcast" occasionally has guests like "Looper" director Rian Johnson. Some of the smaller shows aren't updated all that often, or were just kind of abandoned by the wayside after a few installments. However, my favorite at the moment is still going strong, and that's "Fatman on Batman" which is exactly what it sounds like. Kevin Smith geeks out about the Batman universe every week, and the 1992 "Batman: The Animated Series" in particular. He's had one several key members of the cast and crew, including a fantastic two-parter with Mark Hamill. Smith certainly doesn't neglect the comics though. I'm saving the recent Grant Morrison appearance for a rainy day.

Firewall and Iceberg – I've recommended this one before, but it was sort of tacked on to another post, and I really think these guys deserve all the kudos I can give them. Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg are two prominent television critics who host the best television podcast, bar none. These are the guys who know the industry inside out, who understand the inexplicable network decisionmaking, and who can juggle talking about multiple shows, old and new. They'll review each individual episode of the ones they consider the most important, like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Man," episode by episode, every week. Others only need to be checked in on from time to time. The lousy stuff gets a quick review, and only ever comes up again if there's been a major development. It's amazing the amount of ground these two can cover in a single show, and they don't even run that long. I tend to get more out of one of their ten or fifteen minute episode reviews than the podcasts that spend a whole hour on the same subject. And thanks to them, I know about pilot season, and about press tour, and exactly how “Community” is doing, because they’re just as obsessed about it as I am.

Kermode and Mayo's Film Review – Film critics Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo review films for BBC radio. They do more or less what every other movie review show does, offering their critiques on the new releases, related interviews, and some lively discussion about the recent entertainment news. This one stands out for the personalities and the professionalism. Mark Kermode's quite the character, and I suspect his personality may come across as grating to some, but I find him very informative and entertaining. And because it's the BBC, the show has the clout to get some big names to come by to promote their movies, though at the same time that means you get more actors and fewer directors and writers. It's also nice to hear the perspective of a couple of Brits who are working off of a difference release schedule and aren't as Hollywood oriented as most of the other shows I listen to. I've gotten some great recommendations for smaller films like "Perfect Sense" and “Chico and Rita,” that were higher profile in the UK than in the US, that I might have otherwise missed.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Forgotten Oz Masterpiece

"Return to Oz" was released in 1985 by the struggling Walt Disney Company, and was a notorious flop. Based on the second and third of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, it bore little resemblance to MGM's famous "Wizard of Oz" musical, and was so dark in tone that it alienated many potential viewers. Critics were mostly hostile, and "Return to Oz" won an ignominious place on Siskel and Ebert's list of the worst films of 1985. However, I grew up with the film through regular television broadcasts in the 90s, which for a time were at least as frequent as the ones for "Wizard of Oz," and it's one of my childhood favorites. And after nearly thirty years it still holds up remarkably well as a fantasy feature.

We meet Dorothy, who is about ten years old and played by Fairuza Balk. She suffers from insomnia after returning to Kansas from her adventures in Oz, and her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are worried by her tales of tin men and talking lions. She's sent to the sinister Doctor Worley (Nicol Williamson) to try a new cure for melancholia - electroshock therapy. However, before the treatments can take place, a mysterious girl (Emma Ridley) helps Dorothy to escape during a storm. They're separated and Dorothy is washed away in a river. She wakes up back in Oz, but not the peaceful, happy world she remembers, that was ruled by the Scarecrow. Instead, she finds that Oz has been conquered by the Nome King (Nicol Williamson), and its inhabitants turned to stone or otherwise enchanted. However, Dorothy finds new friends, including a talking hen, Billina (Denise Bryer), a mechanical soldier, Tik-Tok (Sean Barrett), and Jack Pumpkinhead (Brian Henson), who of course has a pumpkin for a head.

I can imagine fans of "Wizard of Oz" being dismayed by the scenes at the mental hospital, and becoming downright upset once Dorothy finally got to Oz, and it was not the Technicolor wonderland that they were expecting, but a ruined, crumbling place where creepy villains like the wheel-limbed Wheelers held sway. First time director Walter Murch, best known as the sound designer and sound editor of a slew of classics including "Apocalypse Now" and "The Godfather," struggled through an arduous production that coincided with changing leadership at Disney. He was committed to bringing a very personal, darker vision of Oz to the screen, an idea that was met with considerable skepticism when it became clear what the film was shaping up to be. He was even fired briefly, before George Lucas and other major directors interceded. Murch's approach was daring not only for departing almost entirely from the mainstream public's understanding of Oz, but for introducing a psychological complexity to the story in the way that he treated Dorothy's depression, and how he mirrored the characters from each world, including Dorothy and Ozma (Emma Ridley), one of the book series' most beloved characters.

You can see this particularly in Murch's approach to the villains, who are really effective, frightening nightmare creatures, but their power comes from the fact that they are grounded in potent real-world fears. We first meet the crooked Doctor Worley and his nurse, who are truly a threat to Dorothy's well-being in the Kansas scenes. In Oz, Worley becomes the Nome King, a creature of cold stone who gains life as others lose theirs. His cohort Mombi (Jean Marsh) is a vain, malevolent witch with interchangeable heads, and there is a particularly traumatic sequence where she chases Dorothy through her chambers while headless. However, I don't think either of them are so scary that they're inappropriate for children. I saw "Return to Oz" as a kid and enjoyed the frights immensely. And of course, generations of tots were similarly frightened by Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys. In my own experience, grown-ups seem to have more trouble with "Return to Oz" than kids.

And though it may lack in whimsy and delight, I always found the movie to be utterly gorgeous. The production design takes its cues directly from the delicate John R. Neill illustrations of the Oz books, and this version of Oz feels far more immersive and immediate. It's an older, richer, stranger Oz that yields its best wonders slowly. Visually, it reminds me of "Pan's Labyrinth," full of hidden perils and symbols of the unconscious. The courtyard of statues, Mombi's mirrored throne room, and the Nome King's underground domain stayed with me for years. The effects work is even better. Teams from Jim Henson operated Dorothy's companions, and Will Vinton Studios did Claymation sequences for the Nome King and his minions. And playing a significant role in establishing the mood is the haunting score by David Shire, that has themes for each major character, and features a series of magnificent violin solos.

Sadly, the negative initial reaction resulted in Walter Murch never directing another film. Producer Gary Kurtz all but quit Hollywood in its wake. The new Disney leadership tried to disown the movie, and "Return to Oz" didn't have any kind of home media release until the late 90s. These days it's very much a cult film, still polarizing in certain circles. I don't agree with those who claim it's so much more faithful to Baum's Oz books, because it wasn't. Baum's work was darker than MGM's "Wizard of Oz," but was a far gentler, more pastoral kind of fantasy than "Return to Oz." No, "Return to Oz" had its own vision and its own take on the land of Oz, one that deserves to be recognized on its own merits.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Movie Trendspotting 2013

The invasion of alien invasion movies has just about puttered out. Fairy tale movies have become passé overnight, since "Jack the Giant Slayer" underperformed at the box office. Zombies are still good performers, but the inundation of them is starting to get a little embarrassing. So what else has Hollywood got for us? Looking at the lists of upcoming releases, I've come up with some possible common themes that could turn into trends depending on the success of the movies they feature in.

Mecha - That's human-piloted, often humanoid, combat machines and giant robots, for those of you who don't spend much time in the anime world. Mecha have been a staple of science fiction stories for a long time, and the best remembered one in film is probably Ripley's badass exosuit from "Aliens." They were also recently used by the baddies for the climactic finale of "Avatar." However, in the animated world the mecha are far more massive and elaborate, and can effectively turn a single operator into an army, and an army into a much bigger army. We'll be seeing lots of this brand of mecha in action in Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" this summer, where the human race will use them to fight giant monsters. And on that note, giant monsters may also be staging a comeback. A new "Godzilla" is on the schedule for next year.

Westerns - We had a good run of modernized westerns like "Maverick," "The Legend of Zorro," and the ill-fated "Wild Wild West" in the 90s, then abruptly nothing. Recent flops like "Cowboys and Aliens" and "Jonah Hex" haven't been very encouraging for those who want to see a comeback of the genre, but then we had "True Grit" and "Django Unchained," which are a good reminder of how much fun westerns can be if they're handled with the right attitude. Traditionally this had been a very versatile and hardy genre, going all the way back to the earliest days of film. And even though they've been declared dead more times than I can count, the western has always popped back up again. Disney's going to make another attempt at launching the next big action franchise with "The Lone Ranger" this summer, and if they can pull this off, maybe cowboys and Indians will be the next pirates.

Silicon Valley - This spring we're getting "Jobs," a Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher. And then a few months later comes "The Internship," a comedy featuring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn getting internships at Google, which is notable for having been allowed to use actual Google facilities for the production. There have been plenty of films about tech start-ups and the internet revolution, notably "The Social Network," but it looks like Hollywood is starting to mine the real-world tech companies and their culture for material in a big way. No surprise, since Google and Apple and Microsoft and all the rest have become more and more influential in recent years and have had a huge impact on the popular culture. This can also be seen as the logical next phase for another trend we've been seeing in recent years - the rise of the geek hero.

Buddy Chick Flicks - We have established that a single actress no longer has enough marquee value to sell a major comedic film, so our rom-com queens have been increasingly lumped into big ensemble pictures, or double billed with a male co-stars of equal stature. One alternative I'm hoping gets more play is the buddy chick flick, which uses multiple headlining actresses, puts female friendship front and center instead of a romance, and emphasizes comedy. These can be way more guy-friendly than your standard rom-com, and tend to have better material too. So far it worked for "Bridesmaids," it worked for "Pitch Perfect," and if all goes well it'll work for "The Heat," which stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as a mismatched set of female cops who have to learn to work together to solve a big case.

90s Reboots - This is pretty much inevitable now that we're hitting the bottom of the barrel for 80s properties to remake. We're down to the likes of "Robocop" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," which both look like major disasters in the making. Meanwhile, the 90s kids are starting to reach that age where they're old enough to be nostalgic for the media of their youths. Television has already been there and done that. The CW's reboot of 90s staple "Beverly Hills, 90210" is already ending after a successful five season run. In the film world, I think the most likely property to start with is "Jurassic Park." The 3D conversion of the original 1993 film will be opening in a few weeks, and has been hotly anticipated by fans. A third "Jurassic Park" sequel has apparently garnered enough momentum to snag a 2014 release date, but I suspect it's really going to be a stealth reboot.