Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Is This the End of Facebook?

Video ads. They're inserting fifteen-second video ads into Facebook newsfeeds soon, a plan that is expected to cause such a backlash among the user base, that the implementation has been delayed twice already. Currently, the expected launch date is sometime in early fall. And yet, Facebook is moving forward with this idea, the latest of many recent attempts to monetize the social networking service. Apparently the money being offered by advertisers is just too good, and the pressure to generate more revenue from Facebook is just too great. Bloomberg reports they're charging $2.5 million per ad.

Facebook is already inundated in ads, particularly if you've impulsively been clicking those little "Like" widget buttons for various products and services. Some of those buttons automatically subscribe you to official feeds for those products and services that will send you ads and offers unsolicited. I've often looked at the little messages telling me that one of my girlfriends has "liked" a particular restaurant or book and wondered if they really meant to broadcast that "like" to every minor acquaintance on their friends list. There are already plenty of complaints about the volume on ads on Facebook, and nobody ever appreciates that they're all tailored especially for each particular user. Not a day goes by that I haven't heard more reminders about checking privacy settings or someone suggesting Adblock.

Of course, Facebook's continued existence depends on those who are tolerant enough of those ads not to automatically change their settings or seek work-arounds. I expect that number is likely going to shrink dramatically when the video ads start going, because video ads are about the most intrusive form of marketing there is. Video eats up bandwidth, it's much more difficult to ignore, and the targeting is much more obvious. The Facebook ads will play automatically, but without sound until the user clicks on them. They will also be limited to only three appearances a day for any user - at first. It's easy to imagine those numbers and the length of the ads creeping up over time, until we're looking at full television-length ads popping up right between cute pictures of our cousins' kids and our old college roommates' selfies.

Now I understand the ad revenue is vital long term to keep our favorite social media sites going. It's a hassle, but it may be necessary to keep these services afloat. However, I worry that this may be a step too far for Facebook. They've managed to keep from losing many user to competitors like Google Plus, but they aren't expanding at nearly the rate they used to and that botched IPO really hurt their standing. Moreover, the general consensus seems to be that Facebook is losing the interest of the users that it already has. Sure, some people consider it a necessity for social interaction, and it's certainly useful for keeping in contact with a large number of people, but I don't know many people who actively spend a lot of time on the site anymore. Blogging and Tweeting and Instagramming, sure, but updating Facebook? Is anyone really checking that feed more than twice a day?

I still maintain a Facebook page but I find that I'm not on the site very often. I log in there maybe once a week to respond to an alert that someone sent me a friend request, or to follow up on something that was posted to my wall. There was a brief fling with the Candy Crush Saga game a while ago, a fling that abruptly ended when I reached the end of the free levels and discovered that the option to bother three friends to keep playing didn't seem to be available to me, and I wasn't willing to pay actual money to continue. So that was that. I have a lot of friends and family who are fairly active on the site though, and there's nothing except very general information in my own profile, so I'm happy to keep it active and keep neglecting it.

Would I watch a video ad every time I visit to be able to maintain that Facebook profile, though? I'm not sure. I would for LinkedIn, and I would have in order to keep Google Reader, which I miss terribly, especially because I made the mistake of jumping to The Old Reader as a replacement, which collapsed in spectacular fashion a few days ago. Facebook, though, is not really a priority. Since I'm there so infrequently, I think the answer would be yes, ironically, because watching the ads would be rare enough for me that it wouldn't bother me much. For people use Facebook frequently, though, the answer may be very different. The worry is that the ad-averse are going to leave the site for some alternative, install filters, or reduce their activity until they become much more casual users like me.

I can just see the headlines now: "Video Killed the Internet Star."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Welcome Back to "The Dollhouse"

Growing up, all of us at some point felt like Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), the awkward seventh-grade heroine of Todd Solondz's pitch black teen comedy "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Dawn is adolescent misery personified, a constantly overlooked and unloved middle child with giant glasses, awful clothes, and a difficult personality. She has no discernible talents or good traits, and is just self-aware enough to realize it. Her mother (Angela Pietropinto) always sides with Dawn's spoiled younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina) against her. School is torture, where Dawn is bullied relentlessly, particularly by her classmate Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), and punished whenever she tries to stand up for herself.

If you've seen enough films about teenage losers, like "Napoleon Dynamite," you know that there's a formula for these stories. Ugly ducklings get makeovers and the bullied kids stand up to and defeat their tormentors. In the better ones, the oddballs learn to carve out a measure of happiness for themselves on their own terms, resolve some small conflicts, and learn a few life lessons that suggest a better future for them is possible. "Welcome to the Dollhouse" systematically subverts every single one of these tropes. Does Dawn's classmate and fellow oddball Lolita (Victoria Davis) look like a potential friend and ally? Nope. She's another bully who hates Dawn for taking up so much of Brandon's attention. Does Dawn's only real friend, a younger boy named Ralphy (Dimitri Iervolino), prove to be her salvation? Nope. Dawn torpedoes their relationship after a bad incident, and viciously rebuffs all attempts to make up. When misfortune befalls Missy, does Dawn save the day, prompting her family to learn to treat her better? Of course not. In fact, Solondz gleefully teases us with the possibility, and then pulls the rug out from under us immediately.

Dawn turns out to be a pretty terrible person herself, reflecting much of the abuse she's suffered, and does some pretty despicable things. However, I still rooted for her wholeheartedly. I love that she fights back with everything she's got, even when she's clearly in the wrong or being petty. I love that she doesn't let reality get in the way of her aspirations, even when those aspirations are depressingly low. Her older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) puts together a garage band and convinces a popular high schooler, Steve (Eric Mabius), to be the lead singer. Steve is clearly a lout, but Dawn falls for him, and this sparks a larger rebellion in her against the rest of the world. It's easy to dislike Dawn for specific wrongs, to point out that she's a hypocrite and brat, but it's impossible not to empathize with her when the injustices against her keep getting piled higher and higher.

Heather Matarazzo, despite her subsequent successful career, is never going to look like an attractive movie star, and that's a big part of why Dawn works. This is not a young actress who is trying to play someone plain and gawky. This is a plain and gawky young actress, and a very good one, who is using what she has to really give her performance some teeth. It almost hurts to look at her at first, because she's so genuine, exactly the kind of girl who would get picked on at school, who we instinctively want to turn away from for fear of being targeted too, by association. It took me a couple of scenes to appreciate how good Matarazzo's performance is, and how fearlessly she tackles Dawn's negative traits. Her seething, compounding dissatisfaction is palapable, and when she finally does lash out in various ways, it's very satisfying.

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" was not Todd Solondz's first feature film, but it was the first to show the sensibility that would come to define his work. There's the constant casual cruelty, the underdeveloped sexual crudeness, the repulsive yet sympathetic characters, and the inane facades of suburban normality. The humor is mean to the point that we know we should feel bad for laughing - at Ralphy getting his heart crushed, for instance - but it's very hard not to. What really struck me here was how well Solondz captured the emotional reality of Dawn's situation, the anger and resentment that are impossible to put a positive spin on. In his later films like "Happiness" and "Storytelling," he would push the envelope further, digging into the lives of miserable adults screwed up beyond repair.

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" and its heroine still retains a little hope, a possibility that Dawn will survive long enough to grow up and become part of the crummy world on her own terms, instead of always being its victim. There are small moments that hint at things the film doesn't say outright: that Dawn really does love Missy deep down, that Mark was once in Dawn's position, and that their father is not a healthy man. The sentiment is almost invisible, but there's still enough of it there that the film doesn't feel too hopelessly cynical and dark - and that's probably why it remains one of Solondz's most popular and resonant films.

Monday, July 29, 2013

They Shoot Pictures: Over 900

I didn't think it was possible at the time, but since my last post about my progress through the "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They" list of the Top 1000 films (henceforth to be referred to as the TSPDT), I've pushed my total up to over 900 films. Thanks to the yearly update of the list shaking up the standings, and services like Hulu Plus offering more obscure titles, I've pushed ahead to complete over 90% of the list. Instead of writing yet another post on what it took to get to this point, and why it's almost impossible for me to actually complete the list, I thought I'd get the point across by spotlighting the ten highest ranked films on the list that I haven't seen yet. These represent the most inaccessible of the inaccessible, and the most obscure of the obscure:

90. SÁTÁNTANGÓ (Béla Tarr / 1994) - Tarr's seven-hour black and white film is very high on my to-watch list, as I've admired his shorter, less demanding films. I actually have ready access to a DVD copy, but the problem is that I don't have the time to watch the film in one sitting, the way I keep hearing I'm supposed to. I expect I'm going to have to compromise eventually, because I just don't have the time to do extended screenings anymore.

115. HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA (Jean-Luc Godard / 1998) - A series of eight film essays running about four hours in total, begun by Godard in the late 80s and completed in 1998. I've had a lot of trouble with Godard films, but I expect this would be an easier watch for me since it involves a topic I actually have some interest in. The whole thing was released on Region 1 discs in 2011, finally, so it's just a matter of me working up the impetus to go and track down a copy.

201. TOUKI BOUKI (Djibril Diop Mambéty / 1973) - An early Senegalese film that had been down near the bottom of the list in previous years, but has become more of a priority now that it's moved so much higher in the standings. I've also seen it make appearances on a couple of other world cinema lists, and today it's considered one of the major works of African film - and of course I don't have nearly as much experience with African film as I should. Available on streaming and disc.

221. CITY OF SADNESS, A (Hou Hsiao-hsien / 1989) - Not especially hard to find, but I've been putting off watching more Hou Hsiao-hsien films because while they're lovely, they also tend to be slow-paced and introspective character pieces. Between him and Edward Yang, Taiwanese cinema feels like a brilliant slog through hours and hours of well-observed familial relationships. I'll get back around to this eventually, but as Hou is rarely in a hurry, neither am I.

279. OUT 1, NOLI ME TANGERE (Jacques Rivette / 1971) - An influential French film made up of eight episodes, playing with parallel narratives and other storytelling techniques. At over twelve hours in length, it is listed as the third-longest non-experimental films ever made. A shorter four-hour version, titled "Out 1, Spectre," is considered an entirely different work, which is understandable. I'd need to import this one to watch it, as there is no Region 1 release.

280. KINGS OF THE ROAD (Wim Wenders / 1976) - I still haven't seen this, have I? I keep thinking I've already watched this one, because I keep getting it mixed up with a Michaelangelo Antoniono film, "The Passenger," and I keep thinking the cover images of Hanns Zischler are Jack Nicholson. Anyway, it's not one of Wenders' more popular films and seems to be perpetually out of print in the English-speaking world. A shame, since it looks fascinating.

284. BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL (Glauber Rocha / 1964) - I've only seen one of Rocha's films so far, "Entranced Earth," because the provocative Brazilian director is almost unknown in the U.S., and his work can be tough to come by. So far, my efforts to find "Black God" and the other Glauber Rocha title further down on the list, "Antonio Das Mortes," haven't been fruitful, but I know they're both on disc and I'm sure they're bound to turn up somewhere eventually.

396. DEVIL, PROBABLY, THE (Robert Bresson / 1977) - I am not a fan of Robert Bresson, but his influence is undeniable. I've dutifully gone out and watched as many of his films as I could find, but there always seem to be one or two more titles cropping up on the list every year. This is the latest, a morality play involving religion, suicide and justice. Who knows? This might be the film of his that finally clues me in on why he's so admired, though I really doubt it.

406. BLISSFULLY YOURS (Apichatpong Weerasethakul / 2002) and 417. TROPICAL MALADY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul / 2004) - The Thai director Weerasethakul has quietly become one of the major auteurs of the past decade, and I'm sorry to say that I've only seen one of his films so far, "Uncle Boonmee," which I enjoyed very much. Both of the listed films won prizes at Cannes and are readily available on disc, so just need to make time for them.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Worst Screening Ever

The worst screening of a film I ever sat through was thirteen years ago in early 2000. I was attending a public university that shall remain nameless, but like many schools they had a second-run film screening program that played recent-but-not-too-recently-released movies in one of the lecture halls every weekend at discounted prices. One of the screenings was for "American Beauty," which I had already seen a few months earlier in theaters, and enjoyed. So, I happily went along to see it again with some friends, not suspecting that I was about to sit through one of the most uncomfortable screening experiences of my life. Mild spoilers ahead.

"American Beauty," which won the Best Picture Oscar in one of the best years of American filmmaking in ages, can be considered a very dark and twisted comedy about a family in crisis. However, it's treatment of difficult topics like child abuse, homosexuality, and death are fairly mature and serious. The first time I saw the film was at a local neighborhood theater, mostly surrounded by adult moviegoers, who were quiet but appreciative of the film. The university screening, packed with students, responded completely differently. They laughed constantly, like we were watching an Adam Sandler comedy. There were catcalls during the sequences where Kevin Spacey's suburban father in midlife crises mode fantasizes about one of his teenage daughter's attractive schoolmates. As we got further into the film, and the material got more dramatic and emotionally fraught, the responses were the same. They laughed at the scenes where Chris Cooper, playing a homophobic, abusive neighbor, thinks he sees his teenage son and Spacey's character in a compromising position. They laughed at the horrifying confrontations that followed.

I was mortified. I couldn't enjoy the film at all as I listened to that audience and the way they were responding. And afterwards, when we had left the screening, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Why had people laughed? Sure, there were parts of the movie that were funny and laughter was appropriate, but why did they keep laughing during the most dramatic, nail-biting moments? Did they not understand the story? Did they react with laughter because they didn't know how else to react to the dramatic scenes? If this had been my first screening of "American Beauty," it might have completely altered my opinion of the film, probably for the worse. My friends seemed far more blasé about the situation, though they agreed the raucous behavior was annoying. One of them suggested that it was because it was the weekend and people were out looking for a good time, and they would have acted exactly the same way at any movie. They had probably just come to "American Beauty" because of the cheap tickets. The idea that you went to a movie to goof off together instead of for the movie, was such an alien concept to me that I started wondering if maybe I was the crazy one.

After all, I didn't have much experience with the notorious jackassery of young adult moviegoers. I have loved movies for as long as I can remember, but trips to the theater were special. They were few and far between for most of my childhood, and when I was a teenager I had a tendency to go for the less popular, oddball, artsy films that people my age avoided. I dragged friends to see "Eyes Wide Shut" and "American Beauty," but to date I've never seen an "American Pie" movie. When people complained about rowdy teenagers spoiling screenings, I always pictured a row or two of rude brats who the ushers were too lazy to kick out. I'd never seen a whole crowd grabbed by this kind of mob mentality that somehow makes everything funnier and sillier and more mockable. It's still a phenomenon that I've only seen occur in crowds with a lot of teenagers or young adults. I learned quickly this is a great audience to see a comedy like "Borat" with, and awful for anything else.

That "American Beauty" screening was a fluke to an extent. I saw preview screenings of "Mulholland Dr." and "Requiem for a Dream" in that same lecture hall and the audiences behaved. However, those were screenings that people had to go through considerably more effort to access, and they were scheduled on weeknights, so there was a higher percentage of serious film lovers in attendance. I waited more than a year to go to another weekend screening, this time for "Amelie." It went perfectly well, though I couldn't help thinking that maybe it was because it was a French-language film. The average college-age American moviegoer doesn't like foreign films if they don't contain martial arts or gunplay.

I still can't help being wary of the mob, all these years later, which I've come to identify as the natural enemy of the pretentious cinema fan. I'm being unfair, I know, but to a movie fan, spoiling a cinematic experience is serious business, and disrespecting a great movie is unforgivable.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Some Box Office Math

There's a debate currently going on about the likelihood of "Pacific Rim" turning a profit. If you've just tuned in, the movie was dismissed as a flop two weeks ago when it opened in third place at the box office with $37 million. It dropped 57% to sixth place and $16 milion in its second weekend, signaling that it's a failure domestically. It's current domestic total is slightly north of $70 million, and it's probably not going to make $100 million in the final tally. But wait! "Pacific Rim" is doing much better internationally, having pulled in $110 million so far, good enough for first place in the international box office for this past weekend. It hasn't opened in some pretty big markets like China and Japan either, places that may more readily embrace the giant monster vs. giant robot subject matter. "Pacific Rim" has a current worldwide total box office of $183 million and growing.

But what does that mean? How do we calculate whether "Pacific Rim" can be counted as a success worthy of further sequels or not? What amount at the box office does it have to reach ultimately? Well, there doesn't seem to be a clear answer. There are several different ways of measuring whether of not a film is profitable, and the studios have the habit of spinning numbers in all sorts of funny ways. The most common will-it-make-a-profit rule that I've seen is that a movie needs to double its costs in order to turn a profit, because only half the revenue from domestic ticket sales goes back to the studio, as explained in this io9 article, How Much Money Does a Movie Need to Make to Be Profitable? which provided me with a lot good hard numbers to start playing with. Foreign theaters keep more of the revenue, and the studio gets around 40% before costs. We know from Hollywood Reporter that "Pacific Rim" cost $190 million to make, and $175 million to distribute and market globally. That puts the total cost at $335 million. Using io9's theater percentages, "Pacific Rim" has made back $35 million from domestic sales and $44 million from international, adding up to a decidedly unspectacular $79 million in revenues to be applied towards costs. Assuming that the domestic box office for "Pacific Rim" does top out at around $90 million, you'd need $725 million from the international box office to make up the difference, or $815 million worldwide.

However, that $815 million number is assuming the movie needs to turn a profit from box office alone, which is never the case. A large chunk of a film's revenue comes from pay-per-view, cable rights, broadcast rights, home media (DVD/Blu-ray and streaming), rentals, and more. When you see analysts predicting that a film is going to be profitable based on what's happening at the box office, they're factoring the revenue that's going to come later down the road. The general rule of thumb I've seen most box office analysts use is if a movie makes back its production budget domestically, it's safe to assume that it will eventually turn a profit after everything else is factored in. The problem is that "Pacific Rim" didn't make anywhere close to $190 million domestically, and most of the other numbers used in the calculations are pegged to domestic, rather than international or worldwide numbers. So again, the question comes down to how much do you need to make internationally to make up for that domestic shortfall?

I found an old Usenet post that says this rule generally assumes that domestic box office, international box office and all the other revenue streams combined, are treated as three sources of equal size, so that means if "Pacific Rim" only made $90 million domestically where it would need to make $190 million to be profitable, (resulting in $45 rather than $95 million in revenue going towards costs), the international box office would have to compensate by making in the neighborhood of $363 million ($95 + $50 million in revenue towards costs). Or it may be better to take the total cost of "Pacific Rim," $335 million, and divide it in three, so the movie would need $224 million in net revenue from the global box office ($112 domestic and $112 international), or $179 million internationally if it only got $45 million domestically. That would take an international box office of $447 million, and a global total of $537 million.

That's a big number, but not out of the question. I'm leaving a lot of things out of the math here, including the shrinking home media market, the unusually large marketing budget, gross profit participation, and a whole bunch of other costs, but I think this is a reasonable estimate of where "Pacific Rim" is financially at the moment, or at least my best guess as to how other people are calculating how it's doing.

So don't celebrate yet, but don't count the movie out yet either.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The 2015 Showdown Looms

If you thought that this summer was crowded with expensive blockbuster movies, wait until you see what's coming up in 2015. I alluded to this a little in my previous posts on the upcoming movies I've been anticipating, but I don't think I got across the sheer number of major studio franchise films that are coming our way. Here's the current list of announced projects slated for 2015 release dates, with the most notable titles in bold:


Avatar 2
Independence Day 2
Finding Dory (Finding Nemo 2)
The Batman and Superman Movie (Let's count this as Man of Steel 2)
The Adventures of Tintin 2
The Avengers 2
Hotel Transylvania 2
Prometheus 2
Snow White and the Huntsman 2
Inferno (The Da Vinci Code 3)
Kung-Fu Panda 3
The Smurfs 3
Alvin & the Chipmunks 4
Mockingjay Part 2 (The Hunger Games 4)
Jurassic Park 4
Bourne 5
Mission: Impossible 5
Pirates of the Caribbean 5
Die Hard 6
Star Wars Episode 7
James Bond 24


Fantastic Four


The Penguins of Madagascar
Ant-Man (Marvel Universe film)


Assassin's Creed
Inside Out (new PIXAR film)

We're probably going to see some of these movies delayed or pushed back to 2016, which is normal. And many of these titles are going to be holiday or spring releases. However, we're still looking at a summer 2015 schedule that is going to be jammed with potentially massive films. 2013 is turning out to be a summer of what some have dubbed blockbuster fatigue, where audiences have been subjected to so many of these expensive event films week after week, they've had enough. As a result, we've had a string of expensive flops over the past few weeks. In 2015, we're inevitably going to see some big titles flop because there simply isn't going to be enough room for them all to grab the audience's interest long enough to make a profit. Scheduling is going to be a life-or-death matter, and notably we've got a lot of big titles like "Star Wars" and "Superman" still missing from the schedule, and a lot of prime real estate in May not staked out.

Some of the tried and true franchises that have hung in there for years and years, delivering profits, are going to find themselves going bust. I suspect that this may be the end of the line for such dependable moneymakers as "Bourne," "Pirates," and maybe even the old "Terminator" franchise. There are bound to be some dramatic head-to-heads. "Asassin's Creed" is currently positioned against an original PIXAR movie in June, for example, while the next "Bond Movie" is up against "Ant-Man" in November. Remember that with theater prices continuing to go up, there are fewer audience members to go around and people are getting picker about what they want to see. The studios are going to have to do a lot more work to convince us of the appeal of a fourth "Alvin & the Chipmunks" movie, or why we should take a chance on "Fantastic Four." Right now, there aren't that many movies I think are guaranteed to be hits. After "Dory," "Bond," "Star Wars," and "Avengers," it all gets iffy pretty quick.

While the studios are probably going to lose out from the increased competition, this will be good for theater owners who are likely to see more turnout overall thanks to the increase in big titles. Whether this is good for the consumers depends on what kind of a movie fan you are. If you're a fan of these big blockbuster films, particularly anything involving CGI cartoons or superheroes, you'll be spoiled for choice. If you're not, you may have fewer options because the big franchise movies have been crowding smaller films out of the theaters. Personally, I'd consider paying to watch about half of the films I listed in theaters just based on their pedigrees, but I'd only prioritize and make actual efforts to see five of them. Movie reviewers may see their influence grow too, as audience members become more cautious about which movies are worth investing their time and money in.

There have been some significant discussions about the possibility that 2015 may be the tipping point for the current blockbuster model of making studio movies. Steven Spielberg's predictions of more big blockbuster bombs potentially endangering the whole system seem likelier than ever, and 2015 looks like a potential powder keg from that perspective. Still, 2015 is still two years away, and a lot could change in that time. Maybe we'll see "Star Wars" or some of the other big contenders delayed. Maybe the global box office will grow big enough to sustain more of these big films.

Or maybe not. Looking over the list of 2015 hopefuls, I can't help already feeling exhausted. There are so many big movies crowded on that schedule, with so many big names and big characters, it's hard to think of any of them as a special event. The event films just look like the new normal.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why "The World's Finest"?

The biggest news out of Comic-Con this weekend is that Warner Bros. has opted not to go for a full "Justice League" movie in 2015. Instead, we're getting the movie team-up of Superman and Batman, a pairing that happened occasionally in the comics under the title "World's Finest." We don't have an official title yet, so I'll be using this one for the time being. Seeing Batman and Superman onscreen together in the same movie has been a common geek fantasy for a couple of decades now, and the inevitability of a "World's Finest" movie has been a long-running Hollywood in-joke. However, there have rightly been concerns about putting DC's two biggest heavy-hitters together.

What's the problem? For one thing, Superman and Batman have traditionally existed in very different cinema universes. Superman has always been a more romantic and idealistic figure who fought his opponents in broad daylight. Batman is a creature of the night, darker and grittier and more adult. Sure, they could both be goofy and silly, but there was still a wide gulf between the Metropolis created by Richard Donner for the most iconic Superman films and the stranger, more sinister Gotham City created by Tim Burton for Batman. It didn't help that Superman became something of an also-ran during the 90s and 2000s, and proved difficult to reinvent for more silver screen adventures. It's only now, after "Man of Steel" made decent bank by following the gritty reboot template set out by the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, that we've got both DC superheroes operating in something like the same universe and they've both proven to be bankable.

Why now? Well, that's no mystery. DC is still struggling with its film franchises, but it wants to put out something in 2015 to try and counter the runaway success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will be releasing both "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Ant-Man" that year. With "Man of Steel" as a solid, but not spectacular foothold, "World's Finest" makes more sense than a "Justice League" movie. You'd only have to introduce one new superhero, the new Batman, instead of a whole group of them. Batman is enough of a draw on his own that he should be more than enough to keep superhero fans occupied, speculating about casting and storylines and villains. There are rumors that a "Justice League" movie is still in the works, but a few more years down the road, after DC has had the chance to try out some other characters. Hollywood Reporter has suggested a Flash movie is in development for 2016. Alas, still no word on Wonder Woman.

Will a "World's Finest" movie be a success? I think that's reasonably likely. From a marketing standpoint, Superman teaming up with Batman certainly has all the makings of an event. The announcement at Comic-Con didn't announce a title or casting, but simply showed people a combination logo of the Batman and Superman symbols and the crowd went nuts. The concept should even be strong enough to overcome the divided reactions toward "Man of Steel." There are a lot of other factors that we don't know yet that are going to have some significant impact on the project. Who's going to play Batman is a big one. The release date is another. We do know that Zack Snyder is directing the film and David Goyer is writing it, the same pair that just did "Man of Steel." These are not the guys I'd want handling this movie if I had my way, but at least there will be a sense of continuity maintained.

But will it be any good? Maybe. There have been a lot of stories about Batman and Superman fighting each other or teaming up or both. There's no lack of material for the filmmakers to draw from. I think Zack Snyder can handle the fighting part, but I'm not sure about the team-up parts. A lot of the fun of these ensemble stories is all about the character interactions and the little absurdities. "Avengers" worked largely because of the involvement of Joss Whedon, who was good about injecting humor, keeping the mood light, and balancing the various characters against each other. Snyder and Goyer are operating in a much more serious and somber universe, which may ironically end up making the whole venture come across as a lot sillier and campier. Still, it's much to early to say anything yet.

If the movie were coming out in a normal year, I'd be much more confident about its chances. However, 2015 is going to be a monster year for blockbusters, and there's actually some danger of a movie featuring two of the most famous comic book characters who ever existed getting lost amid all the other massive tent pole films.

More on that tomorrow.

Friday, July 19, 2013

If I Were At Comic-Con

I know, I know - it's no use dwelling on would'ves and should'ves and could'ves. However, the timing and circumstances just haven't been right to get me back to San Diego Comic-Con, and considering how exponentially more difficult it has become to get tickets and arrange accommodations for the event, I don't think I'm going back any time soon.

Still, it's fun to fantasize about these things. I worked out a loose schedule of events for myself, as if I had gone to Comic-Con this weekend, and I thought I'd share it with you. First thing you'l notice is that I've purposefully avoided most of the big panels for movies and television shows. The reality is that most of these panels are going to find their way online, and most of the exclusive film clips and bits of marketing will emerge into the public's view all too soon. There were a couple of panels that I waited for hours to see live, and ended up with such poor seats that I would have been better off just waiting to watch them on Youtube. Second thing you'll notice is that the schedule is physically impossible to accomplish, because some of the panels are back to back and everything at Comic-Con has a line to get in. But this is my fantasy schedule, so we'll dispense with such inconvenient details.

So which panels caught my eye this year?

Thursday, July 18th

3:30PM - TV Guide Magazine Celebrates The X-Files' 20th Anniversary: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are going to be there, plus series creator Chris Carter, plus many of the writers including Vince Gilligan, the Morgan brothers, and James Wong. This has all the earmarks of a real event. More importantly, there's going to be a giant crowd of "X-files" fans in attendance, and as "The X-files" was one of my first major fandoms, it would be a chance to geek out among my own kind.

4:30PM - Geeks Get Published-and Paid!: This is relevant to my interests! I may not want to write books right now, but maybe someday in the future I might manage to cobble something together that people would actually pay to read. And the biggest hurdles are always how get published, find an agent, etc. This panel purports to have the answers, and is using geek authors as presenters.

7:15PM - A New Generation of Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation: As much as I love what these guys have produced and what they stand for, I've never been to a Spike and Mike screening before and I would gladly take the chance to remedy that. Alternately, the "Tournament of Nerds Show" running at the same time sounds fun.

8:30PM - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Sing-Along: I didn't even like "Dr. Horrible" all that much, but a sing-along screening sounds like a blast.


10:30AM - Writing for TV: From First Draft to Getting Staffed: I love behind the scenes stuff, and I love hearing how writers and artists work. And frankly, I will take any tips on writing that I can get. So this kind of panel has way more interest for me that the kind where the actors show up with preview clips. Alternates: "Inside The Big Bang Theory Writers' Room," and "The Art of the Cliffhanger."

12:15PM - Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World: Since places for meta discussion of fandom have been pretty scarce, this sounds like an opportunity for a good conversation.

3:00PM - U.S. Pop Culture Abroad: Among other things, they promise to address what makes an American property successful overseas, and that's a question that has a lot of different ramifications for all corners of media. The panelists here look especially promising, including people looking at the question from a business as well as a creative perspective.

4:00PM - ASIFA-Hollywood's State of the Industry: ASIFA is the International Animated Film Society, the non-profit group that puts on the Annies every year, runs outreach programs, and maintains its own archives. And they're always great for an insider's take on what's going on in animation. Alternate: "Motion Picture and Television Illustrators of the Art Directors Guild."

5:45PM - Making Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary: There are a lot of tempting things going on in the 5PM and 6PM hours, but Disney geek that I am, I cannot pass up an opportunity to see animators Andreas Deja and James Baxter and producer Don Hahn reminisce about one of my favorite Renaissance Disney films. Alternate: "International Association of Media Tie-in Writers: Scribe Awards," because tie-ins are fascinating and I think I've read the work of every author listed to appear.

7:45PM - Your Opinion Sucks! Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs. Fans: A movie critics' panel! Where I may have the chance to vent my spleen at Ben Lyons! Yes! Alternates: "Worst Cartoons Ever!" for the chance to meet animation historian Jerry Beck, and "Drew Struzan: The Man Behind the Poster." The magic words are "poster giveaway."


10:00AM - Comic-Con How-To: Writing Your Superhero Novel - I didn't realize there was such a thing as a superhero novel, outside of tie-ins, but now I'm curious to know more. And as previously established, I'll take any writing pointers I can get.

2:00PM - Art Lessons from Great Illustrators: Arthur Rackham: I love Arthur Rackham's work. I have a print of one of his watercolors hanging in my house right now, and this sounds like a great little art lecture to sit through.

3:15PM - Vertigo: The Sandman 25th Anniversary and Beyond! Neil Gaiman is always a great speaker to see and I'm a big "Sandman" fan. Gaiman and Vertigo have promised new "Sandman" content in the future, and I'd love to get an early peek. Alternate: Pinky and the Brain 20th Anniversary Voice Reunion, because I still spontaneously hum their theme song regularly.

4:30PM - Poppin' Some Tags: There are a couple of panels devoted to Hollywood costume designers, which makes sense considering the highly visible cosplay element at the con. This is the one that fits best into my schedule. Again, I have no experience with costuming, but I love hearing professional artists talking about their work. And the panel is moderated by Ron Perlman too.

6:00PM - Dissecting Brands: How Do You Know What Makes Batman Batman? Another panel that sounds like it could provide a potentially fascinating conversation, as branding has become a major part of how the industry functions. Notably, the a VP of IP Development from Hasbro is one of the four panelists. Alternates: Batman: The Animated Series Turns 21 and Financing Your Dream: Kickstarter Fundraising

7:30PM - Angry Asian Media Makers: I used to be a regular reader of the Angry Asian Guy blog, and still do my best to ceck in every now and again. So I feel it would be proper to show a little solidarity with my fellow Asian-American geeks. Alternate: ComiKev 2013: Kevin Smith Uses His Mouth on You in Hall H, because who doesn't love Kevin Smith in Comic-Con mode.


11:15AM - Breaking Bad: As we go into Sunday, the programming gets more kid-oriented, so the big panels start getting more attractive. "Breaking Bad" is the one big show that I've been looking forward to the most all year, and I'd love a preview.

12:30PM - BBC America's Doctor Who 50th Anniversary: This is the kind of panel that's sure to be so packed, I'd be better off watching at home. But then, I'd miss all the fans, and the "Doctor Who" fans are a legendary bunch that are best experienced in person. Plus, I'm honestly curious as to how they're going to spin Matt Smith's imminenet departure.

2:00PM - 25 Years of the Disney Afternoon: The Continuing Legacy: As a child of the 80s and 90s and a Disney fan, a "Disney Afternoon" panel is irresistable. The "Disney Afternoon" programming has become one of those obscure corners of Disneyana now, barely acknowledged by official channels. And that's probably why the panel is taking place at Comic-Con an not the D23 convention. Alternate: Community: Celebrating the Fans

3:00PM - History of Disney Pins: The Tradition of Disney Pin Trading and Collecting: Most of the toy and collectors' panels don't have much appeal to me, but I ran into some of these pin-trading guys during my last trip to Disneyland, and I am curious as to what the culture is all about.

4:00PM - Everything You Wanted to Know About Live Action Role Playing... But Were Too Embarrassed to Ask: I think that title is self-explanatory. And bonus points for the Woody Allen reference. Alternate: Full-Time Creative Work on a Part-Time Schedule


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Emmy Nominations 2013

I'm not usually one to delve into the particulars of the Emmy race, since I don't know the television landscape nearly as well as I know the movies. There's also an institutional inertia about the Emmys that results in the same crop of nominees year after year after year. The narrative can get a little tedious and maddening. However, television has been producing so much quality media in recent years and the whole industry has been changing rapidly. This year's crop of nominees, though they do contain a lot of familiar names and faces, are a good reflection of that.

The biggest story is the arrival of the Netflix series. After months of serious campaigning, they've netted themselves fourteen nominations: nine for "House of Cards" and three for "Arrested Development," plus one for the title sequence of "Hemlock Grove." They're not pulling in nearly the numbers of the network or cable channels, but they've definitely arrived as a contender. Whatever you want to say about Netflix as a viable alternative to tradition forms of television, the Emmys have taken the stand that they're willing to recognize good work no matter where it originates from. "House of Cards" is in the running for Outstanding Drama Series, and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are going to be making the Lead Actor and Lead Actress races more interesting. Also making their debut is The Sundance Channel, with ten nominations for their miniseries, "Top of the Lake" and "Restless."

Aside from "House of Cards," the Outstanding Drama Series list looks about the same. Over in Outstanding Comedy Series, "30 Rock" is the mostly likely winner since it's their last season, but it's nice to see "Louie" finally breaking into the category. The returning "Arrested Development," sadly, did not. The lead acting categories have some new faces. In addition to Spacey and Wright, we have Jeff Daniels for "The Newsroom," Vera Farmiga for "Bates Motel," "Connie Britton for "Nashvile," Kerry Washington for "Scandal," and Laura Dern for "Enlightened." And Jason Bateman was nominated for the second time for "Arrested Development" after a gap of eight years. Over in the supporting categories, new nominees include Jonathan Banks for "Breaking Bad," Bobby Cannavale for "Boardwalk Empire," Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin for "Homeland," Emilia Clarke for "Game of Thrones (Go Daenerys!), Anna Chlumsky and Tony Hale for "Veep," and Adam Driver for "Girls."

Miniseries are Movies are still one big unhappy consolidated mass for the time being, but the acting categories won't be next year, and some of the others may follow. As we've seen a resurgence in entries, there's been more competition for slots and there will be some un-merging going on soon. This year, the one to beat will be Steven Soderbergh's "Behind the Candelabra," which has landed Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in the Outstanding Lead Actor Category together (along with Al Pacino as Phil Spector) and brought renewed attention to television movies. "American Horror Story: Asylum" didn't get an Outstanding Miniseries/Movie nod, but it still racked up an impressive seventeen nominations, more than any other program this year. Also note that Laura Linney got her nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress of "The Big C: Hereafter," the truncated fourth season of the Showtime dramedy that was submitted as a mini-series.

So who got squeezed out? "Boardwalk Empire" seems to have been the biggest casualty, getting ten nominations, but mostly in technical categories. CBS's "The Good Wife" is also missing from the Outstanding Drama Series, and Julianna Marguilies from Outstanding Lead Actress. "The Newsroom" managed one acting nod, but little else. "Dexter" has been shut out completely. Jon Cryer won last year for "Two and a Half Men," and this year he hasn't even been nominated. Ditto past winner Melissa McCarthy for "Mike & Molly." Meanwhile, no love for newcomers "The Americans" or "Hannibal" despite all the good press. FX's "Justified," "Sons of Anarchy," and "The Walking Dead" are still on the outs. Still, it's hard to really call any of these snubs because the bar has been raised very quickly, and there are so many, many good shows in the running now.

Finally, because this is something I've been keeping track of for a while now, I'll note that this is an absolutely spectacular year for women directors - three nominations in Comedy (Lena Dunham, Gail Mancuso, Beth McCarthy-Miller), two in Drama (Michelle MacLaren, Leslie Linka-Glatter), and two in Movies/Miniseries (Allison Anders, Jane Campion).

The 2013 Primetime Emmy Awards Ceremony is scheduled for Sunday, September 22. I have no idea who is going to win anything, but I'm sure it'll still be a lot of fun, especially since Neil Patrick Harris will be back hosting the show. Speaking of which, where on earth did the Outstanding Performance in a Variety Show/Special go, I wonder?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

About That Sixth "Fast & Furious" Movie

The first thing that really struck me about the sixth "Fast & Furious" movie was the opening credits sequence. The way it played out, with the names of the cast members popping up over a montage of clips from the past five movies, it looked an awful lot like the opening credits of a television show - that is if most television shows still had proper opening credits. "Fast & Furious 6," or technically "Furious 6," is the first of the series to depend heavily on the franchise's mythology. The story has far more impact if you know about the events of some of the previous "Fast" films, specifically the third and fourth installments. That's not to say that you can't follow along perfectly well without having any knowledge of the earlier films, which I didn't, but there's a clear sense of a series mythology that has built up over the course of this very strange and interesting movie franchise.

There's hardly any point in describing the plot here. If you've seen any of the later "Fast" films, or even the trailers, you have a good idea of what's involved here. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew of talented auto enthusiasts are recruited by Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to take down a baddie played by Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) using tactics that require a lot of improbable car stunts. Toretto isn't particularly interested in who Shaw is or what he's been stealing, however, one member of Shaw's crew is identified as Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto's old girlfriend who was believed to have been killed a few movies earlier. Now she has amnesia, and has been manipulated into working for the wrong side. So Toretto assembles the rest of the cast from the previous movie: former policeman Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris Bridges), Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang), and Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot). Agent Hobbs also brings along Agent Riley Hicks (Gina Carano), so she can have a couple of hand-to-hand combat scenes with Letty that rival many of the flashier stunts in the movie.

It has been widely reported that the "Fast" franchise had successfully made the transition from a series about small scale street racing to large scale action spectacular, specifically a heist format for "Fast 5." The latest sequel dabbles in several different brands of action film, including a brief digression back into street racing. The supporting characters are sent off to infiltrate a prison, chase down suspects, and take care of other business, providing a nice variety in the type of fights and stunts we get to see. This all builds up to the predictably insane, massive-scale set pieces at the end. One involves a freeway chase and a tank, the other involves a cargo plane, and both are completely impossible by any sort of logical reasoning, but boy are they fun to watch. Whether or not the movie works for you depends entirely on how much suspension of disbelief you're willing to afford it. Even for a brainless action movie, the characters' motivations don't make any kind of sense, the plotting is remarkably shoddy, and after two movies I still don't know anything about Tyrese or Chris Bridges' characters except that they're black.

And yet, the action is exciting and well paced, the characters are likable and inoffensive, and there's a sense of real camaraderie among the good guys. The major throughline really is all about getting Letty back on the side of angels, cementing Toretto's repeated claims that the franchise is all about taking care of the family that he's built around himself. There aren't a lot of action franchises that are so thoughtfully grounded these days. I like that this series has such a multicultural cast, and the women actually get to participate in a fair bit of the action. You have to wait a while, but rest assured that Gina Carano is eventually allowed to do exactly what she does best - beat up everything onscreen. Even Toretto's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), who gets sidelined for most of the movie taking care of a new baby, ends up back behind the wheel of a screamin' fast car eventually.

It's not difficult at all to see why "Fast & Furious" has become such a monster franchise over the last few years. It has managed to establish itself as a dependable delivery system for all your action movie needs, and has a warm and fuzzy sitcom center that is a nice departure from all the grittier, sleazier, bloodier, more testosterone-driven films that tend to occupy this territory. Oh sure, there are a few shots of gyrating sexy ladies, but you get the sense they're only there for show. I do love cheesy television action caper shows, and it's hard not to think of "Fast & Furious" as sharing the same DNA. I guess I wouldn't mind sitting through a few more episodes. And I hear Jason Statham's guest-starring in the next one.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wait, the "Venture Bros" Season is Over Already?

This Sunday marks the fifth season finale of Adult Swim's "The Venture Bros." after a quick season comprised of only eight episodes. Well, and the Halloween special that aired last year and the premiere was an hour long, but still, it all went by awfully quick. Considering we had to wait well over two years for the show's return, it's hard not to want more. Just getting to spend more time with these characters these past few weeks has been great, and I didn't realize how much I'd missed them. I debated waiting until after the finale had aired to write this post, but there's been plenty going on this season to talk about. So spoilers ahead!

The major new character of this season (okay, technically introduced in the first season, but still) has been Augustus St. Could, the new arch-nemesis of Billy Quizboy. He's popped up in three episodes so far, and I'm not sold on him. He's an uber-fanboy, who has dedicated his life to proving his superiority over everyone else in the most odious and annoying fashion possible. He's got potential, and I trust Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer are going somewhere interesting with this guy, but I'd rather be spending more time with the Monarchs or Phantom Limb. Of course, this is how I felt about any number of "Venture" characters who I now consider indispensable, including Billy and Pete, Sgt. Hatred, and even Dermott's kinda growing on me. At this point I know better than to draw conclusions too quickly.

The screwed up Venture clan has been a little less screwed up this year, for the most part. Sure, Doc enlists an army of interns as cheap labor at Venture Industries at the start of the year, who all end up dead or horrible mutants, but he's treating his kids noticeably better. Hank and Dean are slowly but surely growing up. Hank had his rebellious phase earlier, and has now mellowed out into a more positive go-getter, while Dean has gone broody and cynical after losing Triana, but seems to be growing a spine too. Sgt Hatred's latest personal challenge is a set of gargantuan mammaries, thanks to a bad drug interaction, but otherwise his emotional problems have been kept in check. Meanwhile, Brock has been off fighting with the O.S.I., but is still a regular presence on the show, since he still crosses paths with the Ventures pretty often.

We still don't know who killed Henchman 21, we still don't know who the boys' mother is, and we still don't know why The Monarch hates Dr. Venture so much. But it doesn't matter. The current round of maneuverings between O.S.I. and the Guild and a new bunch of baddies called the Investors are only a distraction. The real meat of "The Venture Bros." has always been about the Ventures and their friends (and their enemies) dealing with the fact that they may technically be allowed to append "super" as a prefix to their job titles, but it doesn't mean that they're any good at what they've chosen to do, or that they'll ever live up to the ideals of heroism or villainy set by their predecessors, or that success at the game is going to solve any of their numerous personal problems. In the end, the best they can do is to just roll with the punches, like Henchman 24.

As always, I love the little details of the "Venture" universe. The insane themed characters. (Tank Top?) The digressions into ancient pop culture references (Teddy Ruxpin?!). The call backs and in-jokes that keep building and building over time. The utterly twisted logic that drives so many of the characters. The way they can take the shallowest concepts, and just keep mining more and more good material from them. I have no idea how Shore Leave is still as entertaining as he is, but he's carved out a nice little niche for himself as one of Brock's O.S.I. buddies and long ago transcended his one-note gay joke origins. The unexpected depth and complexity of this series still catches me off guard sometimes. It's one of the best written shows on television, animated or otherwise. And the animation? Consistently fantastic.

It looks like another two years at least until the next season of "Venture Bros.," which has already been promised by Cartoon Network and the creators. At this point the show has been running for ten years, and it's come a long way in that time. I'm sure they could go on indefinitely, but I'm getting to the point where I really want to see a conclusion. There's nothing specific that I'm hoping for, because this is a show that defies conventional plotting, but I'd just like to know that there will be a deliberate end point somewhere down the line. I've grown awfully attached to these characters over the years, and hope they get the chance to go out right.

In... a few more seasons? Pretty please?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Giant Robots Redeemed in "Pacific Rim"

"Pacific Rim" is the first film to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro since the "Hellboy" sequel back in 2008. It is one of his Hollywood films, meaning that it's intended to be a pure entertainment, with no deeper artistic ambitions other than to wow a summer audience. However, Del Toro is still Del Toro, and when he tackles the concept of giant monsters and giant robots causing giant destruction, he does it in a way that puts the efforts of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich to shame.

Based on the beloved Japanese giant monster "kaiju" movies like "Godzilla," and the giant robot and mecha genres that gave us "Gigantor" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion," "Pacific Rim" takes us to a world in the not-so-distant future when giant beasts are invading our world through a breach between dimensions at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In order to protect coastal cities from their rampaging, the world comes together and creates Jaegers, giant humanoid vehicles that must be operated by a pair of compatible pilots. These pilots have their minds linked to each other and the Jaeger through an interface called The Drift, causing them to share memories and synchronize their actions.

And if this all sounds like too much science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, rest assured that "Pacific Rim" boils down to a pretty simple redemption story. Our hero is a young man named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) pilot a Jaeger named Gipsy Danger under the command of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Yancy is killed during a battle and Raleigh disgraced. Five years later, Raleigh is a drifter working construction jobs when Pentecost finds him. Thanks to the kaiju threat worsening, and political support being withdrawn from the Jaeger programs, Pentecost is bringing together the few remaining Jaegers and pilots for last ditch effort to stop the kaiju. He brings Raleigh to pilot a rebuilt Gipsy Danger, and assigns an admiring young woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to help him find a new co-pilot. Not everyone is so welcoming. Fellow pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) is antagonistic towards Raleigh. And then there are the kaiju researchers, Geizler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorham), who may never stop bickering long enough to conduct any real research.

I'm sure there will be many people who won't be able to wrap their heads around "Pacific Rim." On the one hand, it's an incredibly simple and straightforward film, overstuffed with monster movie and "Top Gun" clichés. We have the hotshot pilot, the earnest rookie, the terse commander, an aggressive rival, a comic relief duo, and even a photogenic bulldog mascot for the Jaeger team. Though the "Pacific Rim" property is original, it's also extremely conventional genre entertainment. You can easily predict what's going to happen. The characters are fleshed out enough to get you to care about them, but don't have much depth. The comic relief characters, including a black market kaiju organ dealer named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), are so over-the-top, they could never be mistaken for anything else. Most importantly, the whole movie depends on the audience finding the Jaegers and kaiju fights cool to watch, and they simply won't appeal to everyone. We're a long way from the era of rubber suits, but there's still something fundamentally goofy about the whole concept which may spoil the effect for some viewers.

On the other hand, it's hard to imagine anyone else handling this kind of material better. Del Toro's visuals are wonderfully tactile, and once again he's created this detailed, immersive world that it's a joy to get lost in. The first time we see Raleigh being suited up for a Jaeger battle, you get to appreciate just how much though and care went into the designs of the various Jaegers, their equipment, operating systems, and everything supporting them. The kaiju aren't given personalities, but they're still distinctive, and there's this fun culture that's developed around them in the film that we get to see bits and pieces of. The fights, even if you don't find them as fun and exhilarating as I did, are set up beautifully. Every single fight moves the story forward, there are big stakes, and every time a kaiju or a Jaeger goes down, there's a weight to it that is completely missing from any of the "Transformers" films. I love that Del Toro keeps finding different ways to remind you of just how huge his combatants are, and that he never loses track of the human element.

If it doesn't do well, I'm afraid that "Pacific Rim" may end up proving to Hollywood that the audience for mecha and other related stories is too small to support films of this size and scope. This is the closest we may get to a live-action "Gundam" or "Evangelion" for a long time. It's frustrating, because "Pacific Rim" has shown that it can be done, and that stories like this are a great fit for the big screen. The movie is far from perfect and probably far too indulgent for its own good, but it gets so many things we've never seen in a big blockbuster before, done so, so right.

Welcome back, Mr. Del Toro.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

From "Under the Dome"

I am three episodes into the CBS summer series "Under the Dome," based on the novel by Stephen King, and I think it's time I wrote down some first impressions. I've been watching via the Amazon Instant service, which releases the new episodes for streaming every Friday after they broadcast.

One day at the end of summer, a little town in Maine called Chester's Mill is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible barrier, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. After some time, the residents discover that the barrier is a dome of unknown origin. Among the stranded are Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike Vogel), an ex-military man who was passing through the area on sinister business, local reporter Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre), a teenager left home alone, "Scarecrow Joe" McAlister (Colin Ford), café owner Rose (Beth Broderick), radio station DJ Phil Bushey (Nicholas Strong), his engineer Dodee Weaver(Jolene Purdy), a disturbed young man, Junior (Alexander Koch), fixated on his childhood friend, the waitress Angie McAlister (Britt Robertson), and a lesbian couple, Carolyn (Aisha Hinds) and Alice, (Samantha Mathis) taking their troubled teenage daughter Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz) to a nearby reform school.

Finally, trying to keep the peace are Sheriff "Duke" Perkins (Jeff Fahey), Deputy Linda Esquivel (Natalie Martinez), and the lone remaining town councilman, "Big Jim" Rennie (Dean Norris). Duke and Big Jim, along with Reverend Lester Coggins (Ned Bellamy), are involved in a drug smuggling scheme and desperate to keep the truth buried. However, with the town in crisis because of the dome, and the residents being pushed toward extreme behavior, everyone's secrets are coming out and tensions continue to rise. After three episodes, these characters are all getting thoroughly tangled up in each other's lives and each other's lies. Violence has already reduced the recurring cast by a few members, and more are sure to follow in the weeks ahead. "Under the Dome" is yet another story about the secret dark underbelly of a small town being revealed by the supernatural, and the town is only getting smaller.

And so far, it's not bad. The show is well cast, and the scripting is decent. None of the performances stand out either as particularly good or bad, but the characters and their problems are interesting enough to hold my attention from week to week. The production values are great. Nothing about "Under the Dome" looks cheap or second rate. Though the special effects involving the dome are predictably limited to only a few instances per episode, they're a lot of fun. The dialogue is a little on the soapy side, and some characters go nuts a little too quickly for comfort, but not nearly as badly as I've seen other characters in Stephen King event miniseries fall to pieces in the past. I also appreciate that there's not too much emphasis on the supernatural elements yet. Doomsaying mystic characters are a regular fixture in King horror novels, but none have shown up yet. Instead, the show is keeping the focus on crisis management and deep dark secrets, only hinting at other forces at work. The residents of Chester's Mill and its visitors are doing a fine job of being their own worst enemies, and I hope it stays that way for the duration.

I haven't read the Stephen King book, but I know that there have been some complaints regarding the changes made to adapt it into a television series. New characters such as the lesbian couple and their daughter are a little too obvious, but they haven't been problematic so far. They actually help to keep the series feeling more modern, and not of a piece with the familiar Stephen King media of 80s and 90s. I'm more worried about how long CBS is going to try and keep "Under the Dome" going. Thirteen episodes have already been produced, but there are rumors that either the story has been changed enough that it will allow for additional seasons, or that they'll simply end with the story unresolved until the undetermined future. If the latter is true, there's a serious risk of the series wearing out its welcome, as I don't think this is a premise that can sustain multiple seasons. Thirteen episodes already feels a little long in the tooth.

So far, I think the show is worth keeping up with, as it's a well-made and entertaining mystery series. That's about all I want or expect from network summer programming. However, I can't help but be disappointed that this didn't ultimately end up on HBO or Showtime, as originally conceived, where I would know that it would reach a definitive ending within a finite number of episodes. Then again, CBS is doing a good job of maintaining a level of quality on par with cable, and I want to see how long they can keep that up.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Can You Reboot an Animated Film?

Animated films are back on top at the box office. "The Croods" and "Monsters University" have cracked the top ten for the year so far, and "Despicable Me 2" is expected to join them soon. Quite a few of this year's offerings are franchise films, proportionally more than you tend to see in most other genres. It's easy to see why. Animated films are among the most costly and risky to produce. Since franchises have become the norm, we've seen plenty of animated sequels, prequels, midquels, and spinoffs. However, I've noticed that one trick that animation studios can't seem to pull off is an "Amazing Spider-man" style reboot.

"Shrek," for instance, has been a solid performer for Dreamworks since the first film in 2001, spawning three sequels, a spin-off, a couple of television specials, related shorts, theme park attractions, a musical, and loads of merchandising and tie-ins. It bears a lot of the responsibility for what the current landscape of animated CGI films looks like. However, since "Shrek Forever After" in 2010, nobody has been talking about continuing the "Shrek" movies. A "Puss in Boots" sequel is still technically in development, but that seems increasingly unlikely as time goes on. Dreamworks has its schedule for animated films mapped out until the end of 2016, and there's no sign of anything Shrek-related. The franchise, by all indications, seems to have run its course for the time being. But in a couple of years, wouldn't it make sense from a business perspective to reboot "Shrek" from the beginning?

We know you can reboot animated characters, particularly the older ones. There's still a steady stream of family movies made to star CGI updates of characters who were introduced in 2D traditional animation. There's a "Smurfs" sequel coming this summer, and "Peabody and Mr. Sherman" will arrive in digital form next year. The old Disney and Warners stars like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have been brought back endless times in all kinds of different projects, to try and keep them in the public consciousness. Bugs and friends currently star in "The Looney Tunes Show," running on Cartoon Network since 2011. Mickey Mouse is appearing in a new series of shorts and a titular cartoon series this year, aimed at returning him to his old anarchic, slapstick roots. All these new versions have been accompanied by redesigns, reinterpretations, changes in medium, and changes in technology, but they're still unmistakably supposed to be the same characters we knew decades ago.

And yet, animated features have almost never been rebooted. Disney is pushing ahead on a live action "Cinderella" and its second live action "Jungle Book" rather than of going back to the literal drawing boards. There's no reason why they couldn't make animated reboots of their most famous movie properties to reflect more modern tastes. I'm sure many of them would be very successful. On the other hand, there's something timeless about animation that means these films have a remarkable longevity that the superhero movies and the horror movies don't. Old television shows and the old theatrical shorts are more inaccessible and tend to expire more quickly, but animated movies can stay in circulation indefinitely. Multiple generations grew up on the Disney classics and their images are still responsible for selling tons of merchandise each year. Today's kids may not watch the old "Smurfs" cartoons or Daffy Duck shorts, but they're still watching "Peter Pan" and "The Jungle Book." So I suspect that if Dreamworks ever made a new, rebooted "Shrek," starting all the way back at the start of his story, it would end up competing with the old one for people's attention.

Also, I don't think that reboots of animated characters work as well as live action ones fundamentally. Franchises have so much draw because they offer familiarity. If you go to a Superman movie, you know to expect a superhero who can fly and has super strength and disguises himself as an ordinary person. If you go to a Sherlock Holmes movie, you get a detective story set in Victorian London. The details can be different, and the actors involved can give their own takes on the main characters without feeling off. Also, I think we understand that actors age, so there's no way to make a new James Bond movie starring Sean Connery, or take more trips to Oz with Judy Garland.

However, there's something so iconic about an animated character, there's much less room in our minds to allow for major variations, and cartoon characters are effectively immortal. Talented artists can keep churning out "Simpsons" episodes for twenty-five years, never changing any of the designs. As long as the original versions of the characters remain successful and familiar and relevant to the younger generation, there's nothing to be gained by starting over from the beginning. "Alvin and the Chipmunks" may have been a hit with kids, but I think that's only because the franchise was all but dead by the time of the reboot. To us old school "Alvin" fans, the CGI chipmunks still look very odd.

I expect "Shrek" will return at some point in the future, once the memory of the current films has faded a bit and Dreamworks has figured out a way to bring him back in a different format. There are still plenty of non-film options - more spinoffs, television series, direct to video sequels, video games, crossover projects, web content, and more. 3D IMAX re-releases are also a very real possibility. Any new Shrek movie, however, is either going to be another sequel or prequel for the foreseeable future. If a reboot happens, it'll be far off in the future, when the current version of the grumpy green ogre has become a nostalgic relic. And that day may never come at all.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Notes on the Fairy Tale Trend

Three years ago, I wrote up this post, Nine Fairy Tale Films I Want to See, speculating that fairy tales might become the next big trend in Hollywood. That turned out to be true. The "edgy" Brett Ratner "Snow White" project that inspired the post went through several wild convolutions, and ended up at Disney as "Mirror, Mirror." Oh, the irony. Three of the other fairy tales I wanted to see movies for also did make it to the screen: "Hansel and Gretel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "The Snow Queen," which became "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," "Jack the Giant Slayer," and the upcoming "Frozen," which is the "Snow Queen" project that Disney had previously cancelled. Plus "Beauty and the Beast" and "Arabian Nights" projects are knocking around in development.

And then we've also had "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Tangled," "Beastly," "Red Riding Hood," "Hoodwinked Too," "Puss in Boots," and a couple of disturbing art house takes on "Sleeping Beauty." If you're feeling generous, you can add movies with related themes like "Oz the Great and Powerful" and "Hanna" to the pile. Disney has "Maleficent," "Cinderella," and "Into the Woods" pretty far along in the production pipeline at the moment. Also, it would be remiss not to mention "One Upon a Time" and "Grimm" on television, or that Warner Brothers is taking another stab turning "Fables" into a movie. Though there have been underperformers and outright failures, others have been substantial hits. It doesn't seem like we'll be seeing the end of the fairy tale trend at the movies any time soon. The question is, have these films been any good? Have they brought more creative and more diverse offerings to theaters, the way many of us were hoping for?

Yes and no. What you notice very quickly about most of these fairy tale films, is that they're either traditional family pictures like Disney's "Mirror, Mirror" and "Tangled," or they've been forced to conform to the template of your typical action movie. Hansel and Gretel were aged up into adults, given medieval weaponry, and let loose on witches and trolls in a gory, R-rated horrorshow. Snow White, as played by Kristin Stewart, faced a parade of monsters in a dark and gritty fantasyland. She also had to share billing with Chris Hemsworth's hunky Huntsman, who handled most of the combat. Sure, there are more prominent female characters in these fairy-tale movies than your average blockbuster, particularly in the villain department, but at the same time you see a strong desire to stay male-friendly. This means more male characters, less emphasis on romance, and a starker (and more boring) visual aesthetic. Even Disney, with their brightly colored musical Rapunzel story, was careful to feature the male hero in all the ads and changed the title to "Tangled."

It's interesting that only the little-seen "Red Riding Hood" and "Beastly" can really be considered part of the recent crop of "Twilight" influenced supernatural romances aimed at teenagers. You'd think there would be much more crossover, considering how many fairy-tales have young heroines and love connections at their center. This year we've had a flood of "Twilight" clones involving witches and werewolves and mystical creatures, but they're all very contemporary stories about modern day girls. Meanwhile, the fairy tale action moves are mostly done in period settings, their fantasy creatures and concepts exploited for spectacle. Compare this year's "Warm Bodies" and "Jack the Giant Slayer," both starring Nicholas Hoult. "Warm Bodies" had plenty of CGI zombies, but the driving force of the movie was the interspecies romance between Zombie!Nicholas Hoult and a cute blonde. "Jack the Giant Slayer," by comparison, did have a love story in it, but it was perfunctory stuff. Far more time was spent frantically running around fighting giants and foiling a dastardly plot to take over a kingdom. And Hoult was more fleshed out as a zombie than as Jack.

I see no reason not to feel optimistic about the future films, though. "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Hansel and Gretel" are both getting sequels, and we can expect more of Grimm's grimmest from them, but Disney's betting pretty heavily on the family-friendly approach. They have the bulk of the more visible and ambitious fairy-tale projects on the way. I doubt we'll see too many action scenes crammed into "Cinderella" or "Into the Woods" (not that they won't try), of course. Plus, there are others interesting projects in development that seem to be striking out in different, less obvious directions. If you've wondered where the revisionist and satirical takes on the fairy tale genre have been, producer Neal Moritz is working on a comedy version of "Sleeping Beauty." There's reportedly also feminist retelling in the works, with Hailee Steinfeld attached, that takes place entirely within her dream world.

In a couple of years, I suspect there are going to be a few more titles I can check off my list.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Have We Hit CGI Saturation?

"Pacific Rim" opens in a few days, and the Warners executives are in a bit of a panic. According to Variety, about a month ago early tracking showed that the film isn't generating the kind of interest they were hoping for. "Grown Ups 2," the Adam Sandler comedy, has been getting more buzz. So there has been a big marketing push for "Pacific Rim" in recent weeks, trying to turn the tide and avoid a costly flop. Specifically, they've released several commercials and trailers highlighting the more human side of the movie, avoiding the spectacle of the giant mecha fighting giant monsters, in favor of the humor and characters. Apparently, audiences hadn't been responding well to the earlier promos that solely focused on the towering CGI spectacle, similar to the imagery that made the "Transformers" movies into such huge hits.

This raises the question as to whether we're seeing the beginning of what I'm going to call CGI fatigue. CGI special effects have advanced to the point where we can do pretty much anything with them. In fantasy action movies like "Pacific Rim," "World War Z," and many other summer blockbusters, this has meant being able enlarge the scope of the action and destruction to previously unthinkable extremes. Superman can have a fight that levels a city. Brad Pitt isn't limited to fighting only a few dozen zombie extras, but thousands of them generated by sophisticated computer programs. The trouble is, some filmmakers have become overly reliant on the spectacle to sell the movie. "Pacific Rim" was supposed to be a draw because of its big giant CGI fight scenes, but the marketers soon discovered that the audience wasn't impressed.

I don't think the problem is that people are tired of CGI, exactly. Two of the biggest successes of this summer are CGI animated films "Despicable Me 2" and "Monsters University," and CGI-heavy superhero films like "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel" are still going strong. However, the CGI by itself is no longer enough to get the audience into theaters, especially after a summer that has been continuously bombarded by ever-greater amounts of digital carnage. It feels like every big action movie this summer has been trying to one-up the big battle sequence from "The Avengers," just piling on one gargantuan set piece after another at the expense of everything else. Audiences tend to get burned out on these types of action films by late summer, but we're still squarely in the middle of the season, with several more tentpoles to go. It could get really ugly if moviegoing audiences decide that they've had enough of the onslaught and they're done with the CGI spectaculars for the rest of July and August.

Honestly, I think we all knew this was coming. There's always going to be one fundamental problem with the business of spectacle: the novelty wears off. Time and again we've seen some new innovation come to film, be it sound or color or widescreen or 3D. People flock to see it, and quickly become acclimated to it. And then, unless you have filmmakers who do creative and interesting things with that innovation, it's just yesterday's gimmick. What we're looking at now is a public that has decided that CGI spectacle is no longer a novelty, no matter how big and how fancy it is. CGI has kept improving and improving over the last few decades to the point where it's hard to see how much better it could possibly get. The use of CGI so ingrained into modern filmmaking that it's in no danger of ever going out of style, but I'm guessing that we're getting to a point where quality is going to start counting for a little more, and the size of the explosions, a little less.

Fortunately Warner Brothers has some options in promoting "Pacific Rim" - it's been getting good reviews, director Guillermo Del Toro has a loyal fanbase, and several celebrities have come out of the woodwork to praise the film. However, it's clear to see where "Pacific Rim" also cut corners. There are no major stars in the movie, the generic title was somehow never changed to anything more exciting, and it's hard to escape the feeling that it has copied bits and pieces from so many other blockbusters that came before it. Or maybe it was just that the lousy early trailers were so hellbent on emphasizing those parts, trying to get us to associate the movie with previous hits.

Ultimately, I view this as a potential positive. Maybe it'll mean fewer ill-considered mediocrities like "Jack the Giant Slayer" and "Gulliver's Travels." Maybe it'll get Hollywood to spend less time bankrupting effects houses and more time on the scripts - or any time on the scripts at all. Maybe they'll realize there is a difference between a Michael Bay CGI spectacular and one directed by Ang Lee. Maybe they'll stop cutting all the trailers the same frickin' way. Sure, it's wishful thinking, but I'm clearly not the only one getting tired of the movies that are all flash and no bang.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Favorite Robert Altman Film

There's a strong urge, when I'm picking films for this series, to choose the movies that best embody the work of the director. So for Robert Altman, my first instinct was to feature something very Altman-like, something with a big cast, interlocking stories, lots of realistic overlapping dialogue, and genre subversion. "Nashville" was the obvious one, or perhaps "MASH" or "The Player." However, if I'm being honest with myself, my pick for my favorite Robert Altman film is one of the least Altman-like in his filmography: the obscure 1977 psychological drama "3 Women."

A shy young woman named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) comes to work at a small desert town's health spa and becomes friends with a co-worker, the much more outgoing and talkative Millie (Shelley Duvall). They decide to become roommates, and move into an apartment complex run by a former cowboy Edgar (Robert Fortier), and his pregnant wife Willie (Janice Rule). Willie is an odd figure, who keeps to herself and paints fantastic, unsettling murals. Pinky Rose and Millie settle in, but find living together is difficult. Tensions mount and their relationship deteriorates, until Pinky Rose does something drastic. Then a curious transformation occurs, one that reveals a strange connection between the two women.

"3 Women" has been compared to Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," for its existential themes and its two main characters who have a curious effect on each other's psyches. However, "3 Women" is far less experimental and more grounded in reality, with a straightforward narrative, conventional filmmaking techniques, and well fleshed-out characters. Spacek and Duvall are both excellent, and their performances drive the film. This was a year after "Carrie," and Spacek at first seems to be playing a similar character in Pinky Rose. She's timid and weak-willed, perhaps a version of Carrie White who got away from her mother and went out west, into the desert. And then, suddenly, without explanation, she is different. Is this due to Millie's influence? Is this due to her own actions, taken in response to their growing estrangement? The cause of the change is never explained, but the result is fascinating.

Duvall is easily Spacek's match, giving the best performance I've ever seen from her. Millie starts out the more aggressive and surefooted of the pair, who is more in control. However, once we get to know her better, Millie's outward facade is revealed to be all too fragile, and she's just as susceptible to whatever force is influencing Pinky Rose. Though less dramatic, the way she changes over the course of the film is no less impressive or unnerving. Spacek has generally been billed as having the supporting role, but I don't know how she and Duvall can be viewed as anything but co-leads. Their ever-changing connection to each other is central to the story, and it is impossible to think of one actress's performance without the context of the other's.

Altman places these two in an environment that is full of unseen primal forces and mysterious symbols. The story is reported to have come to Altman in a dream, and dreamlike imagery is everywhere. The desert town is stark and always feels empty. Willie's murals feature human figures with the heads of beasts. Colors and the presence of water are important, perhaps portentous. Sound is also vital. The score is lovely, and at times eerie. There's quite a bit of dialogue in the film, such as Millie's rambling chatter about fashion and cooking, but little of it carries any meaning. Rather, the strongest interactions between the characters tend to be the silent kind. And the key to the mystery of the story may be the one person who hardly says anything at all.

"3 Women" is dominated by women, so totally that it doesn't pass a reverse-Bechdel test. Edgar is the primary male member of the ensemble, but best described as a plot device who is barely distinguished at all. Then there's the scene where two men are heard talking indistinctly in the background, but if you listen closely, they're talking about someone's wife or girlfriend. It's not something you see done very often, and this heightens the otherworldly feel of the film. And it's easy to see why so many fans see hidden messages in the film, as it almost demands the viewer's interpretation. Is this some kind of feminist statement? A witchcraft metaphor? A political commentary?

Altman seemed to want to want to make every kind of movie possible, trying his hand at comedies, musicals, westerns, post-apocalyptic science fiction, detective noir, English murder mysteries, and political dramas. Still, "3 Women" stands out from the rest of his films, because it's hard to categorize. I suppose it's a Bergman homage, but Bergman never had a heroine who talked like Millie, and surely he never dreamed of a dusty desert town as beautiful and terrible as Robert Altman's.

What I've Seen - Robert Altman

MASH (1970)
Brewster McCloud (1970)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Images (1972)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
3 Women (1977)
Nashville (1975)
Popeye (1980)
The Player (1992)
Short Cuts (1993)
Gosford Park (2001)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)


Monday, July 8, 2013

Fearsome Fun With "Spring Breakers"

I often find myself on the wrong side of the cultural and generational divide, but even when I was in the right age bracket and social environment for the college ritual of spring break, I didn't understand it. Sure, a road trip with friends to the beach had some appeal, but doing so with the express intent to engage in mass boozing and partying and casual sex, the way the photogenic youngsters on MTV did? I didn't understand it. To me, an introverted geek, the mass media version of spring break always looked vaguely sinister and dangerous. You had all these young people trying so desperately to have fun by throwing caution to the wind, participating in a glorified bout of yearly mass hysteria. And everyone involved was quick to excuse any bad behavior by claiming that they were just being young and letting off steam.

Harmony Korine, who admits he never went on a proper spring break either, shares many of my sentiments. In "Spring Breakers," we're introduced to a quartet of college girls, Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and Cotty (Rachel Korine). The latter three are desperate to go to Florida for Spring Break, and Faith, our designated Good Girl, gets swept up in their plans. The film portrays them as sweetly childish and viciously amoral simultaneously. One moment they're the picture of girlish innocence, cavorting about in their pastel-colored bikinis, and the next they're screaming obscenities and brandishing firearms as they rob a diner to add to their spring break fund. When the girls do get to Florida, after various misadventures, they meet a local gangster named Alien (James Franco), who opens further avenues of indulgence and depravity to them.

At first "Spring Breakers" looks like it's going to be a cautionary tale, but it's considerable more interesting than that. The story is rudimentary and only minimally developed. Few attempts are made to give the girls distinct personalities, and Alien is only makes as strong an impression as he does thanks to the excellent work of an unrecognizable James Franco. Rather, the film is an exploration of moods and images and emotions in a very free-form fashion. Much of the narrative is dreamlike, with events shown out of sequence, occasional repeated shots, and unexplained leaps in time. Korine's characters initially do not seem to be real people, but constructs embodying all the different media conceptions of what it is to be young and cool and admirable. His images echo celebrity culture, reality show culture, the rampant sexualization of young women, and the glorification of crime. They get mixed together in bizarre, fascinating combinations, such as a scene of the girls dancing to a Britney Spears song, while masked and armed for an evening of crime.

I've only seen one of Korine's prior films, "Gummo," but it was enough to get across his penchant for the fringe. He takes long, hard, unflinching looks at the deviants and the freaks, not the sanitized Hollywood versions of them, but those who are uncomfortably, almost unfathomably out of step with the norm. However, there are no value judgments made one way or another about his subjects, and Korine uses the same approach with "Spring Breakers." His visions of the partying college students in their spring break revelries border on the nightmarish, but there's no sense of condemnation or moral outrage. Instead, the focus remains on the sheer strangeness of the events, on the impulses of the girls trying to contextualize their shallow fun as something deeper and more meaningful, or Alien's version of the American dream.

Notably, the girls and Alien do turn out to be regular, screwed-up human beings in the end, who we can sympathize with. It's not the characters who are strange and disturbing, but the unseen role models they are emulating and the cultural messages that they feverishly parrot. There are some striking moments when the affected facades of coolness drop for just a moment, and all the fear and the uncertainty become palpable. "Spring Breakers" is very cynical, but only up until a point. We see that there are consequences to pursuing the hedonism of spring break to its logical extreme. Characters make different choices and have arcs - they're small, but they're significant ones. These are anchors to reality that keep the film from feeling too satirical or distant or contrived.

"Spring Breakers" is clearly Korine's commentary on the state of the popular youth culture, from the involvement of the former Disney Channel tween starlets to the Skrillex and Britney Spears-heavy soundtrack, but it's harder to discern what he's trying to say. Perhaps the movie itself is the message, a feature that was marketed to the lowest common denominator in order to entice less discerning youngsters in search of cinematic lewdness into the theaters. Then it held up an art house funhouse mirror up to the audience and invited them to see themselves the way that people like me tend to see them.

I wonder how many appreciated the view.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Youtube Playlist

And now for something completely different.

For fun, I've put together a Youtube playlist of various television and movie (and related) clips. These are mostly just odds and ends that don't really have anything in common except that they all have a strong music element. Some are parts of ad campaigns, some are nostalgic oddities from my childhood, and some are unclassifiable ephemera that wouldn't be showing up on this blog except in a form like this. However, I find them all very entertaining, and worth pointing out for recommendation. Hopefully, you'll find something in the mix that tickles your fancy too.

Daicon 4 - In 1983, a group of young Japanese animators came together to create a special tribute video for a science fiction convention called Daicon. They'd done a more rudimentary short a few years earlier, called "Daicon 3," but nobody was expecting the massive leap in quality of "Daicon 4," still considered one of the most beloved touchstones of 80s anime fans and the otaku culture. And the animators who made it? They would go on to form Studio GAINAX, the creators of "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagaan."

You and Me - Alice Cooper singing a love ballad duet with a bird puppet, from his appearance on "The Muppet Show" back in 1978. It was part of a string of appearances that were aiming to put the controversial rocker in settings that were incongruous with his dark rocker persona. The clip omits the punchline of the scene, but I don't think it needs it.

Angle Dance - "Square One Television" was a late 80s PBS children's show designed to teach math concepts. Using a combination of comedy sketches and video segments, "Square One" patterned itself after MTV. They made several parody music videos like this one. "Angle Dance," however, from my own recollection, had by far the most nerdy math puns.

Blood on the Coal - As every "Spinal Tap" fan knows, the members of that beloved parody heavy metal band are played by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer. However, the trio also appear occasionally as an entirely different musical group, The Folksmen, who originated in a 1984 SNL sketch and went on to feature in 2003's folk music mockumentary, "A Mighty Wind." Here’s their appearance on "Mad TV" promoting the movie. As with their appearances as Spinal Tap, it's hard to tell that these guys aren't the real thing.

Paranoia Agent OP - Satoshi Kon's 2003 anime is still one of the trippiest things I've ever seen. This extends to the exhilaratingly weird and appropriate opening credits sequence.

Portrait d'Un Robot - An old "Sesame Street" film short, set to Janko Nilovic's "Portrait d'Un Robot," featuring old wind-up toys, (then) modern robots, space shuttles, and satellites.

I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me - From Brian DePalma's "Carrie," this is the happiest moment in a movie better remembered for its bloody horrors – Carrie's first dance at the prom. In addition to the technically impressive spinning shot, Sissy Spacek and William Katt are at their most lovable. The song playing is "I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me," sung by Katie Irving.

Discombobulate - A quick and charmingly unpolished music video put together for the soundtrack of the 2009 "Sherlock Holmes" movie. I love that we not only get to see composer Hans Zimmer at work, but many of the musicians behind the scenes who contributed to the score.

Le Café - A morbidly funny French animated short from Stephanie Marguerite & Emilie Tarascou about a man who has a little problem with drinking too much coffee. The song is by Oldelaf & Mr D.

Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? - Another little oddball bit of marketing material, a music video from the director and leads of "(500) Days of Summer," for a song written and sung by Zooey Deschanel as part of the "She & Him" indie duo. Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt keep popping up together in various little one-off projects like this, but "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here" is my favorite of their collaborations. I even like it better than "(500) Days of Summer."

Holy Motors Entracte - Accordion act breaks should happen more often in real life.

Take This Waltz Amusement Ride - Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" was one of the more overlooked films of 2012, probably because of its difficult subject matter. The film has a lot of flaws, but then it also has moments like this, where Michelle Willaims and Luke Kirby's characters go to an amusement park. This may be the best use of The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" ever.